Steve Underwood: Bus Driver Turned Sleaford Mods Manager

Interview: Paul Klotschkow
Illustrations: Raph Achache
Wednesday 28 March 2018
reading time: min, words

Steve Underwood is the now former Nottingham City Transport bus driver who runs Harbinger Sound, a record label at the forefront of UK’s underground and DIY scene, putting out a diverse and sometimes challenging selection of artists that have span punk, noise, experimental and avant-garde. It was a chance meeting with Jason Williamson that would see the label have a top twenty album with Sleaford Mods and Steve becoming the band’s manager...


How did Harbinger Sound start?
The first record was 1992. I’ve been involved in gigs since 1982, helping out, organising stuff, normally with other people. Then I hit a point where, like most record collectors, where you know what, let’s put one out myself. Then there is the whole learning curve of errors and bullshit. You never stop learning.

I guess one of the first things to learn is actually how to get a record made...
I have always been involved in the DIY and punk circuit. You pick up information, you look at the back of a record sleeve and it will say where it was pressed. The more you do the more you find out. I still use a complete diverse range of plants and printers. I don’t have a set ‘go to’ man for every project, it is whatever suits the particular project.

What sort of gigs were you putting on?
Noise, punk, avant-garde, experimental. I hate the term ‘with an edge’, but something that wasn’t generic. I have always avoided generic rock bands.

What was the first release on Harbinger Sound?
It was a Japanese artist called Kohei Gomi, he operated under the name Pain Jerk, which was a tribute to Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. He was someone I had been in touch with a couple of years prior. I had been buying a lot of cassettes in 1990. I had a fax machine, I thought I was so advanced. You would wake up in the morning and there would be paper strewn all over. I was in to a lot of Japanese post-punk, like The Mirrors, and he would get me these records and I would send him records, back before the prices of records got stupid.

A lot of stuff on Harbinger Sound is music that exists on the periphery of the underground…
Definitely. I think that there are two or three phases of the label. The first period is very much electronic, noise, avant-garde, experimental. Then I had a period at the start of 2000s where it was directionless; I loved that stuff though as I had always been in to punk. Then Sleaford Mods. What I got off that, not financially but in terms of energy, enabled me to start putting out bands that I am really in to, which is where I am now. It is a new lease of life. I drove Nottingham City Transport busses for fifteen years and that bank rolled label. Putting something out to a small group of people, I did okay, but there was no challenge to it any more, it was boring, it was repetitive. Doing gigs, you knew who the thirty people would be that turned up, it was predictable, and hence, comfortable - I don’t really like that concept. I have always had this thing where I don’t like music to be a cult thing, I think it should be for everybody; it doesn’t matter what it sounds like, it should be available to people. I still refuse to do a twentieth anniversary festival or pat myself on my head like most labels would have done by now. “I’ve been running a label for six months, lets put a festival on…”

You won’t be booking Rock City for Consumer Electronics then?
Oddly enough we are doing a couple of Sleaford Mods shows at the Roundhouse and the main support act on one of the nights will be Consumer Electronics. It will end in a riot, I know it will.

How did you meet Jason Williamson?
I was always the quiet partner in [Nottingham-based promoters] Rammel Club, as I would often be on tour. Whenever I had a band I would give Pieter [co-promoter in Rammel Club] a call to arrange a Nottingham show. I had John Wiese [American musician] staying with me and asked Pieter to sort out a gig with a couple of support bands. He said I’ve got this guy sofa surfing at my place he needs a gig. It turns out that this guy was Jason and he had just come up from London and he was at a loose end. I was like sure, give him a gig, twenty five quid or whatever he wants. I remember being sat in the corner of The Chameleon talking to somebody and hearing Jason doing his thing. I could pick out bits of lyrics from Wire or Conflict, back when he was sample heavy. I got obsessed with it for a couple of months. I was involved in an accident and lying up in bed with my computer playing these old Sleaford things. I loved it because it was full of all of these Nottingham references like the Orange Tree or Kool Kat. I loved the energy of that anger. I got talking to Jason at another gig and it went from there.

Maybe about a year and a half later Rammel Club had the idea of doing this three-day festival of bands and artists at The Chameleon. I wanted Pieter to get Jason to play on the Saturday night. That was the first gig that he did with Andrew [Fearn]. I remember Andrew turning up and he had this Run DMC t-shirt, a massive gold chain and cap on his head. I remember Pieter saying to him that he had broken every rule of the Rammel Club dress code. Andrew didn’t give a shit, he totally loved it. I think Jason gave him instructions not to smile while they played. Andrew obviously couldn’t help himself he was loving it that much. That was a fantastic show.

How did you end up signing Sleaford Mods to Harbinger Sound?
I was talking to Jason about doing a seven inch, but there was all this stuff off a previous CD-R, Wank, which was the first stuff Andrew and Jason had done together. I thought that there were too many good tracks, so fuck it, let’s do an album. We got it [Austerity Dogs] pressed to 300 copies originally. We did the ‘Made in Nottingham’ tagline on the back cover. It was a bit of a joke as we didn’t anticipate selling beyond the NG post code. The album was ready for when Sleafords supported I Am Lono upstairs at Rescue Rooms at their EP launch night, but we turned up with this brand new album. We then realised that the reach of Sleafords had this massive ripple effect.

I remember when Norman Records made Austerity Dogs their album of the year and thinking it was a bit strange as to me Sleaford Mods were always a very Nottingham band, a sort of unknown quantity. When was the moment you realised Sleaford Mods were no longer an underground concern?
At the time I was selling my stuff through Norman Records. I said to them that I had this record that they will probably hate. The tagline of the original promotion was a rip-off of Whitehouse. They had the tagline ‘Extreme electronic music: Please acquire with due caution’. We had: ‘This is not electronic music: acquire with caution’. Norman’s took two or three on sale or return. I stuck them in a box with some other stuff expecting nothing. Two days later they said it was great, had been playing the record to death in the office, and took another five, then another ten, and this went on for two months, taking stupid amounts. Then a couple of months later, luckily I had made 500 copies of the sleeve so I had 200 sleeves left, I pressed another 200 albums up and gave them all to Norman. They made it album of the year and it escalated through that.

In the meantime I was kind of playing the game, making sure that copies got to people who would praise it or review it. I got a copy to Kim Gordon and she Tweeted about it. Jason is a great social media player as well. We were trying to keep gigs to the more experimental end of things, because I always thought that the audiences there are more critical and harder to please. What I loved about Sleafords is that it has the ability to split a room down the middle, half loved it, half hated it. Jason, even before Andrew was involved, would support anybody and blag on to any bill. You could see the division in the room. If you take fifty percent of that audience and fifty percent of that audience that is a big audience.

Has the support network that is needed around Sleaford Mods them grown to accommodate their growing profile or is it still just three three of you?
We have our own sound guy now, he is the chief engineer at the 100 Club in London. He is from a noise and experimental background, so it fits perfectly. We still pretty much have the same network, still the four of us if you count the sound guy. We don’t need a big entourage. We can still travel around in a Nissan Micra like we used to. We don’t even have a lighting rig, we’ve got nothing. We carry our own microphone stands, which is a bit of a ballache. We went to do Wembley Stadium with the Stone Roses. Andrew was making his own way there. When we pulled up the only thing I had in my bag was the microphone stand. The base was in my ruck sack and I have this old poster tube with the stand in it, it’s a hydraulic one so it compacts down. There were about five or six Wembley crew on hand, but it was like, “alright lads, I’ve got this”. They thought it was hysterical.

It’s pleasing that the band’s set-up hasn’t changed much from The Chameleon through to now playing Wembley Stadium…
It is exactly the same. I don’t think there is any need for it to change. Andrew is on a role at the moment, I think he is giving Sleafords a new lease, and Jason is obsessed with it.

I noticed on the last album the sounds were more fuller…
For the last two albums we have been using Matt Colton, an engineer from London, he does a lot of electronic stuff, Depeche Mode, Radiohead, Bjork, Gary Numan, but his forte is beats and electronica. He was perfect for what Andrew produces. I got hold of Matt through Consumer Electronics and he cleared his diary for the day; I think he was doing a Bjork album, and he said he would work on Key Markets for the fun of it. Those earlier albums were all produced by Andrew in his old flat in the Arboretum and Andrew was always against beefing the sound up, he wanted to keep it lo-fi or as minimal as possible. But when people are playing Sleafords records in bar or club environments the sound just drops, we saw it a couple of times in live situations as well. At these big festival and these massive bands and Sleafords’ sound would just dip. You are playing to 5000 people it has got to be competitive, otherwise it is like, “what are these guys doing farting around on stage?”

How surprised were you when Key Markets went Top 20?
Actually, it went in at number 9 for two days, though it settled at 11 between Lionel Richie and Taylor Swift. I bank rolled the first two albums myself through driving a bus. By the time of Key Markets we knew it was going to be a big seller and our distributer Cargo agreed to finance and press everything. When the first charts came around I was in hysterics, you had Harbinger Sound wedged between Tamla Motown and Universal.

It is an incredible achievement for a DIY label…
Exactly. If I can do it anyone can do it. There is no black art to it. People just need that music putting out there. A cliche, but if it has got legs it is going to walk.

How long were you a bus driver for?
Thirteen or fourteen years. I did all of the routes. I was a spare driver for Nottingham City Transport. It was a job I enjoyed as it allowed me the freedom to do other stuff. I was in Schiphol Amsterdam Airport one day and I was supposed to be taking the number 36 from outside Central Library that afternoon. I rang up, “I’ve got a bit of a problem, lads”, “not a problem, come in tomorrow”. I would do the school runs that no one else would do, I would do the last bus at night, I didn’t care. I would do fourteen hour days as along as I could do what I wanted to do. There were days when I would be doing Sleafords gigs and we would drive back to Nottingham overnight. I would be getting in at two or three in the morning and then have to be up at half-past four to drive a bus. I would be pretty fucked sometimes, but I could do it. It was a good company to work for and I enjoyed it.

In the end I was becoming tired and stressed and I didn’t have the time to focus on Sleafords if I was doing NCT all of the time. I finally quit the day before the Rescue Rooms with Kagoule supporting; Jason quit two months before when we did two shows at the 100 Club, which was end of 2014. It made more sense for Jason to quit his job, but I just couldn’t trust those two to sort out the business side of things, they just want to have a good time. Sleafords was getting bigger and you hit a point in your life where you think that if you don’t do it now am I going to sit back and think ‘what if’. I don’t need flash clothes or a car, if it fails I can go back and drive a delivery van, it’s no big shakes.

What’s the feeling like when you have booked a huge iconic venue such as the Roundhouse and it sells out?
It has got to the point where to be honest, and this will sound really stupid, the novelty of it has worn off. Jason still gives it his all, Andrew still loves it, but you get used to being at that level. The first couple of gigs it was “fucking hell somebody is taking the piss here”. It is kind of normal now. We are playing the Royal Concert Hall this year, Grey Hairs are supporting. We aren’t going to do a UK tour this year as we thought it was getting a bit Groundhog Day every October and November. We are doing Scotland and Ireland as two massive separate tours. We will come back and do England in March next year with the new album. We have the film coming out on DVD and I am putting out a compilation of outtakes, stuff like Jobseeker, with Matt Colton mastering so it has got a bigger sound.

Will those very early pre-Andrew Sleaford Mods albums ever be re-released?
Clearing the samples would be a major problem for somebody, I haven’t got enough time to be doing that. Early Sleafords stuff is not even a band, it’s a sort of prototype to what Sleafords is now. It is two different bands as far as I am concerned. There is a bit of interest in it, but we had some CDs of the early stuff selling them on tour and they hardly move. People want the combination of Andrew’s music and Jason’s words.

You borrowed an NCT bus for the Tied Up In Nottz video…
I was actually working the 45 route on that day, a Sunday morning. I agreed to meet Andrew, Jason and Parf' [Simon Parfrement, director] down at Victoria Centre as I drove in to town. I pulled around the corner and dropped everyone off, they went upstairs and prepared themselves. I did the route back up to the Turning Circle [the last stop on the route in Gedling]. There was a ten minute layover at the Turning Circle and if you watch the video you can see people playing Sunday morning football in the background. Then I drove the bus back in town, got to Victoria Centre and they jumped off. Job done. One million YouTube hits later. If NCT had ever found out I would have got sacked, but fortunately I left before they could do that. The funny thing is is when you watch the video you can see people drinking on the bus on a Sunday morning, and they were actually on the bus, they weren’t plants. I was actually pissed off because after I had dropped them off there as this local character waiting around the corner and I thought that it would have been perfect to have had him in the video. If you watch the Bunch Of Kunst film you can see some of the outtakes.

What is next for Harbinger Sound?
My big thing at the moment is a band from Blackpool called The Ceramic Hobs, They’ve been around since 1985 and are infamous for being part of the Mad Pride movement - rights for mental health patients to be able to choose their own treatment. They officially split up a year and a half ago. It is a compilation of all their best stuff; it’s like a UK version of Butthole Surfers. There is a Consumer Electronics seven inch coming out. An album by a band from Sheffield called Nachthexen. I hate the term Riot Grrrl, but they take that attitude. They supported Sleaford Mods on the last tour and I loved the idea that you had these women in there late twenties / thirties screaming at this bunch of middle aged blokes, who for the larger part didn’t get it, which is pretty shameful. I find a lot of the women who came to those shows thought it was great. They are not musically efficient, they’re basic but it works. So many women were bowled over by the fact that they went out in front of 5000 blokes. We wanted to deliberately piss-off that lad element that Sleafords attracts, because for myself personally I hate that. When we did that last Rock City gig there were people in the audience singing ‘You Reds, You Reds’. Where the fuck did that come from? Nobody involved gives a fuck about football. Why on earth would you come to a Sleafords gig and start singing ‘You Reds’? Some people just don’t get it and I think that the bigger and band gets the bigger that part of the audience gets. We always try and put on bands that are a bit divisive or not what you would expect. Just anything that is not indie. We always try and support Nottingham bands when we can. We had Cappo out with us on one tour. Endless Grinning Skulls at Spanky’s. I would love to get Grey Hairs out on tour with us.

You are also an avid record collector…
There are about 13,000 albums and twelve inches. 10,000 seven inches. A lot of CDs. Shitloads of books, magazines, fanzines, posters, memorabilia. It is all pretty much ’77 - ’85 punk, post-punk, hardcore. It is international - I’ve got boxes of Italian punk singles, Danish punk singles, Japanese post-punk. I don’t live in the past and one of the good things about Sleafords is that it has got me interested in current bands. Three years ago I started working with a lot of newer bands. It is easy for someone when they get older to not care about what is happening now. If you had asked me five years ago to see a new band, ‘I can’t be arsed I’m off to Wetherspoons’. But you know what, now I’m going to do it. I would like to find some new bands in Nottingham but I am hardly here long enough.

Harbinger Sound website

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