ARTICLES: Denim: Feeling Super-Ironic
We all know that we are facing an inundation of British music. We all know that it has been termed "Britpop", and we all know that such a term has become overused and perhaps even embarrassing. We all know that the humour, the style, the it's-just-music-la attitude and moreover, the *tunes* have made it the perfect antidote to the pained, angst-ridden American output of the early '90s, with its I'm-a-serious-artist-me decree printed on the lyric sheets. So why don't we all know Denim?
More than any other artist, Denim represent the humour in British music. Pulp and Supergrass have the video clips, the gregarious and wonderfully quotable frontmen, and the ability to produce the Song of the Summer tm; ad nauseum, but as far as humour goes, neither are a patch on Denim. Pulp and Supergrass are accomplished chart musicians who stray into "humour" territory, but Denim is a novelty band, and humour is its ultimate goal. And Denim, ladies and gentlemen, have scored.
Denim, as a group, is simply a man called Lawrence, who in 1989 left for New York after his underground art band, Felt (above), disbanded. Over the course of Felt's ten year career, they released ten wildly contrasting albums, generating mild public support and critical acclaim. Whilst on the other side of the Atlantic, Lawrence reportedly "ate junk food" and created Denim. Somehow, the two are probably interrelated. Of his new project, Lawrence stated: "I always look to the future, and my serious stuff was done in the '80s, and my novelty stuff will be done in the '90s." But just because it's funny, doesn't make it fun.
Denim's first album 'Back in Denim' took a very difficult two years to make, and Lawrence's latest offering 'Denim on Ice' clocked in at two and a half years, making the process for Lawrence "even more traumatic. And 'Back in Denim' was bad enough. It took so long to make because we were trying to create something very new, very different and trying to make it as pop-y as possible and that's quite difficult." Apparently so. Can we expect the next album in five years, Stone Roses-style? "Absolutely not. Never again. Next time it's gonna be very, very easy, because I've learnt exactly what I need to do now, so the next one I can put it into practice, and it should be simple... Ha!"
So what of 'Denim on Ice'? Eighteen tracks, that unlike 'Back in Denim', with its thematic consistency in documenting Lawrence's upbringing, do not stick to any particular theme, but as Lawrence told Select in April this year, "there's different sections of songs. There's a social-comment section which is, like, council-estate songs. There's four or five songs about a certain girl. Then there's a few novelty songs that aren't really about anything. There was meant to be a thread running through it all, but that proved to be a bit ambitious..." It is hard to tell from the album that it was such a traumatic experience to record, apart from the final track on which Lawrence intones (very helpfully for reviewers unable to articulate the album's confusing content themselves): "So let's recap, weigh up the merchandise / You've heard songs about pub rock, oral sex and junkies / And that's Denim / Denim on Ice / It's been a long, slow trawl, thank God it's over / I nearly went off my rocker once or twice..." When asked of his involvement in the recording process, Lawrence likens his position in the studio to that of a film director, continuing this comparison with the telling statement: "And this album was like Francis Ford Coppola making Apocalypse Now." But from the perspective of the listener, you'd be thinking more along the lines of the musical equivalent to, perhaps, Footloose. And believe me, this is not a bad thing.
Denim's humour, like so much of musical humour, and indeed British humour (let alone British musical humour), is based on irony. The aforementioned Pulp, Supergrass, Morrissey, The Pet Shop Boys, Sleeper, Blur, The Auteurs, The Divine Comedy et al, face the dreaded I-word in every interview and review, along with "knowing" and "tongue-in-cheek", and Denim are no exception in the clever-clever stakes. And although such irony may appear as bitter, pissed-off cynicism in conversation, lyrically, it leads to smirks all-round. Knowing smirks, at that.
Try: "Talent show in a village hall, look out here comes Cherry Red / They'll sign you up for fifty quid, you'll be making records in a shed" ('Jane Suck Died in 77'). And for some musical in-joking: "Now we've got Roogalator/Ducks Deluxe out treading the boards / And there's a South Bank special pencilled in for the autumn / And there's a rumour going round that The Rumour are about to reform / And there's pub rock over the ocean / Pub rock over the sea..." ('The Great Pub Rock Revival'). And how about some self-effacing irony: "I think I'll stay on these chords a little while longer babe / I think I kind of like the way that they flow / I don't think I'll deviate much from the melody line / I think I kind of like the way that it goes" ('Brumburger').
All delivered, with 1983-style production, synthesizer solos, references to Kim Wilde, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Spandau Ballet, The Hair Bear Bunch and crimping, and according to Lawrence, the borrowed "ambiance" of the likes of Ultravox and Ian Dury.
With such blatant reference points, Denim itself doesn't seem to stand up to Lawrence's "It's all been done before" argument, although the Man Himself believes that really, "Denim doesn't sound like anyone". It's true that in the context of the mid-90s, Denim are certainly different, and surely one of a few artists who actually pride themselves on their "novelty" status. Lawrence justifies such an admission as that he doesn't want anything "to do with serious rock 'n' roll, because people in the band will always let you down. They will purport to be something but then in the end you realise that they aren't. So I think I come out straight away and say we're a novelty band and it sets us apart from everyone else. If you're different then you have a reason for existing, cause who needs another rock 'n' roll band? Because now we have a whole electronic world at our fingertips and there's no need to play flute on a pop record anymore. We don't need it! We don't need any more trumpets. Denim is in the category of Novelty Rock. And at the moment we stand alone... but we could start a whole new movement!" Expect Denim at The Good Mixer any day now.
For now, Lawrence and Denim have just finished whinging their way around Britain performing their "beautiful novelty music" to the biggest venues in the country with Pulp, where according to Lawrence "they have a lot of young girls in the audience, a lot of 12 to 15 year olds, maybe even younger, and some people were even coming with their mum and dad, and they seemed to like it. I mean, by the end of the tour, they were singing along with 'Grandad's False Teeth'..." The song in question, it must be noted, is a tongue-in-(ahem)-cheek look at oral sex.
Is the world big enough to contain both a mega-Jarvis and a mega-Lawrence, both parading their singular brand of humour? At the moment the earth seems barely able to accommodate El Jarvo, let alone the gripes of Luke Haines-proportions that Lawrence wants to foist upon an unsuspecting world. But for once, Lawrence seems optimistic, "I think there's room for both of us" he laughs. "We're very different, y'know. Jarvis is a very outgoing, gregarious person and I'm kind of the opposite really, so I think I won't achieve the kind of success that he's achieved, but there's still room for a character like me I think (laughs). I hope so anyway!" And for now, all the world is rosy for Denim as they embark upon their first solo tour of England, leaving audiences throughout the land with knowing grins upon their faces. But does the prospect of taking Denim out on its own make Lawrence a little nervous? "(mock incredulity) Never. Pop music doesn't unnerve me."