I first met former Fudge Tunnel guitarist and ring leader, Alex Newport, last summer when Pitchshifter were passing through town. [check out craig's exclusive interview with pitchshifter's js clayden] One time Earache label mates, and good friends all around, Alex had been living in Seattle for the past two years trying to scrape by as an engineer and producer. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when I met Alex that he was not at all the person one might have expected. Quiet, unassuming, polite...I found myself wondering if this was indeed the man responsible for Fudge Tunnel's wall of guitar and deprecating sense of humor. The band's confrontations with their audience at shows is well known, and I had a hard time imagining the Alex I had been introduced to stopping a show to mercilessly heckle an audience member.
Since meeting last July we've kept in touch off and on. Alex's ability at capturing heavy guitar sounds is well known, and he has spent the past few years recording and engineering bands like the Melvins, Hillbilly Devilspeak, godheadSilo, Pointy Birds, and Samiam, while avoiding playing with anyone himself. Having found the Seattle market too saturated with studios and engineers, he moved to San Francisco in late '98 with the hopes of opening a studio and finding more breathing room as an engineer (read: being able to make a livable wage). Alex's devotion to his craft is intense. He is a firm believer in the DIY ethic of the best way to learn is to teach yourself. A few good microphones, a tape machine, some experimentation, and a good library as a resource is all that's needed. I remember running into him last year as he was walking home, a bag filled with library books under one arm...a good thirty pounds of books by the looks of it. He's also a dedicated believer in analog recording technology, not convinced that the digital format is all that reliable of a recording medium. From the bands and the sounds he's been recording, this unwavering devotion is well placed.
I caught up with Alex in late March and we spent the evening discussing everything from the Nottingham Vice Squad, to playing in front of 120,000 with Nailbomb, to current recording projects, to the size of Henry Rollins' neck. Thankfully, no mention of holidays past came up during the conversation.
Alex: I don't have to lift my speaker cabinet up seven flights of stairs anymore. It was just something I really had an interest in. I started working on the Fudge Tunnel stuff, and then other bands started asking me to work with them. I can be musically creative--vicariously--by doing this, and I guess my somewhat "anal" personality is well suited to studio work.
How did you end up in Seattle, and why did you leave?
Alex: I actually have always wanted to live in San Francisco, but figured I wouldn't be able to afford it. I'd been to Seattle a few times and really liked it, so... I ended up there for two years, but I moved to San Francisco because I wanted to build a studio. Also, I like the music "scene" here more. Although there are a lot of good bands in Washington, I think a lot of them sound very alike. Here there is a lot more weirdness and experimentation. I didn't want to build a studio in Seattle because there is already a lot of studios around.
What do you mean by "weirdness?"
Alex: Seattle definitely still has a "sound," which is basically rock. San Francisco has a more "arty" sound that appeals to me. There's a lot of variety in the musical styles.
How is San Francisco treating you?
Alex: Pretty damn well. It's a pretty happening place, and I know a lot of people here, so I kind of walked into a little "family."
Have you been able to keep your head above water with just engineering then? How's work on the studio coming along?
Alex: I get by, although I'm always broke. The rent situation is bad, but I have quite a few projects coming up in the next few weeks so I will hopefully be able to eat. Little things like that. The real estate situation here is so bad that I'm having a really hard time finding somewhere for the studio. It's on hold at the moment, I guess.
You started the seminal noise band Fudge Tunnel when you were eighteen. Your first release, the Sex Mammoth EP, shot straight up the charts to become NME's Single of the Week. How did it feel to be on such a rocket ride at a young age and so early in the band's career?
Alex: I never took it very seriously. Although we appreciated the favorable reviews, we didn't really care either way if people liked the band or not. Initially, we saw our only purpose as pissing people off--which we did quite well. The whole thing was new and strange to us, as none of us had really been in bands before. But the UK music scene is ruled by the press--a lot more so than in the US--so we had Single of the Week, but we had sold maybe five or ten copies of the record!
Fudge Tunnel definitely had a way of getting underneath people's skin...including those of the police. In 1991 you released Hate Songs in E Minor, your debut on the Earache label. Initial copies of the release were confiscated by police because they featured a drawing of a decapitation. What's the story behind that?
Alex: One of the main reasons we signed to Earache was that they were supposedly branching out and signing a lot of different bands like Clutch, Godflesh, John Zorn, Pitchshifter. The whole artwork problem was John Zorn's fault, in a way.
What happened was that he had a particularly nasty photo he was using for his Painkiller CD, and instead of posting it like everyone else, he decided to fly to England with it. And you know what British customs people are like? They found the picture on him, confiscated it, and alerted the Nottingham Vice Squad, who then proceeded to "raid" the Earache offices, looking for anything "offensive." Guess whose debut LP artwork was sitting on the desk? They took all our artwork, which was really quite silly and not very offensive. Our LP was due out in three weeks from then, so we hastily threw on some live photos instead. A few months later, all the charges were dropped, we got our artwork back, but it was too late to release it. We ended up using it for T-shirts instead.
Any copies of the album out there at all with the original work?
Alex: No, it didn't even make it to the printers. On the inside of the In a Word CD there is the original artwork, as it would have been. It annoys me 'cos I think it would have looked really good. Oh well.
It was a ridiculous drawing of a stickman being decapitated, from a book called "How to Kill," by this ex-CIA agent called John Minnery. He was apparently fired from the CIA for being a little too trigger-happy, so now he makes a living writing these "killing manuals." The quotes on the inside of Hate Songs are from that book also.
With the release of the Teeth EP and your second album, Creep Diets, Fudge Tunnel's acrid and heavy sound started garnering comparisons to the rising "grunge" sound coming out of the Pacific Northwest. How did it feel to be compared to grunge at a time when Fudge Tunnel's sound predated it? How does it feel now after having lived in the Pacific Northwest?
Alex: The whole "grunge" association was hilarious to us. We actually met a lot of people who thought we were from Seattle. I get really annoyed by these types of tags. We obviously didn't fit with rock, not entirely with metal, or punk even. People can't handle that kind of ambiguity.
Yeah, they want everything prepackaged and orderly.
Alex: Yep. As far as the "Seattle scene" these days: Pearl Jam has a lot to answer for.
There is a quote on your webpage. I believe it's taken from a college reviewer writing about a Fudge Tunnel show. They wrote, "If you ever go see them live, no matter who they're opening for, do not attempt to make them get off the stage any sooner than they want to. Trust me, they're way better at heckling and utterly demeaning people than you are."
Was this indicative of the Fudge Tunnel live experience?
Alex: A lot of the time, yeah. A lot of people just didn't get what we were doing. We would get a real perverse sense of satisfaction if people hated us. At least we made them think or got a reaction. There's nothing worse than polite applause or to hear the show was "alright." I would rather people either loved it or hated it. Don't care which, but one or the other. We never had any interest in pandering to the crowd.
Actually, hecklers became something we looked forward to a lot. We would sometimes stop playing for quite a while in order to make some jock moron look like the piece of crap he was.
Did you find it hard to get bookings because of your reputation for having that kind of confrontational behavior?
Alex: No, not at all. I don't think we had too many problems, except for a few little misunderstandings here or there.