An Interview with Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks

Buzzcocks are playing one of two US shows tonight at Slim's and legendary Steve Diggle graciously took some time to speak with our very own Paul Caparotta earlier this week as he was preparing for tonight's sold out show.

SFBAC: Ok. I was thinking recently about how consistently amazing the Buzzcocks are. I was listening to All Set and then I put on Flat Pack Philosophy and then I put on Love Bites. And I was thinking that each of these albums span well over 30 years but they all sound incredible. Is there any real secret to the Buzzcocks’ sound?

Steve: Well, ultimately it’s the interaction, mainly, between me and Pete. I mean we've had a couple of different drummers on those sessions from the early year albums. But it’s that chemistry of the song, it’s that kind of thing. The two guitars sort of tie together and kind of make a third, and it’s also who we are as people.

That’s human condition thing that people kind of relate to with the Buzzcocks. Also if you want to add to that, we do write great memorable tunes.. But I’m glad you mentioned those albums. Those are the later ones that, in America our first album, Singles Going Steady, but that was like five years after our singles.

SFBAC: That’s exactly what I was thinking. Singles Going Steady.

Steve: But those later ones are just as important.  Because sometimes you get lazy journalists asking about our old fucking hits, you know? That’s all understood but given a band that’s been around for the time that we have, we've still been consistent that’s the thing. People get locked into some sort of time. We’re still fucking doing what we did then. It’s the world that’s changed, it’s the world that’s fucking wrong, not the Buzzcocks.

SFBAC: That’s awesome. It’s funny because I was listening to All Set and it feels just as vital to me as Singles Going Steady. I used to work at a record label at Berkeley in California and we released the first ever 180 gram version of a Singles GoingSteady, really high quality vinyl. It’s funny because vinyl is starting to make a little bit of a comeback again, it’s starting to gain traction. Do you think that’s a fad or do you think people are really starting to go back to the roots and see the importance of picking up some of the greatest work out there on vinyl.

Steve: Yeah I think that many of us, for our generation, including yourself. The sound quality, the whole sonic sound, the bass and top end is always better on vinyl. By the time it gets from a CD you've lost half the fucking top and bottom end. By the time you get a download there’s almost nothing left, you know. So you know in terms of overall experience you physically have to pick the thing up and put it on a record player, not just press a button.

SFBAC: Exactly.

Steve: When things are easy in life you never appreciate them. That’s what I know right now. Music should never be free like that, you know.

SFBAC: No, I hear you definitely.

Steve: Fuck, somebody is just going to download me one day for free.

SFBAC: Yes, I know. Technology is weird.

Steve: Anything you get for free is worth fuck all. Even a fuck!

SFBAC: That’s awesome.

Steve: Like you say, there is a vinyl revival and a concert revival.

SFBAC: Well speaking of a concert revival--we’re really lucky that you guys are playing two shows in California, one obviously in the Bay Area. How did San Francisco get lucky enough to get onto the most recent tour list?

Steve: I mean, do you know what San Francisco has always been good for punk music? It’s always been open to it. I remember right from the early days, New York, San Francisco, everywhere else in the States has been good for us as well. LA has always been great for that, very open to the punk music, the vibe of it, the whole thing about it. So we did this punk-fest, was it last year or the year before? But we’re doing it again and it’s a great moment. It just kind of works there you know.

SFBAC: Yes, you’re right I definitely hear you. The Bay Area…

Steve: It’s all about New York and LA in terms of what goes down, really. We've toured the whole fucking country of America many times and everybody has kind of cool in their towns; but then it’s like London and Manchester in England, it’s LA and New York. But LA is switched onto it all, and that’s what’s great about it. It’s always great to play LA.

SFBAC: No I definitely agree with you. The Bay Area definitely has a big punk history. You've got the Avengers, Dead Kennedys--so it completely makes sense for you guys to be coming back to an area that really appreciates your music.

I was thinking a little bit about the way you've approached some of your songs over time. I was listening to a version of "Love Is Lies" from a couple of years ago and it sounds even deeper, even more meaningful you singing it now as opposed to off of Love Bites. Do you find that you connect with your music differently as time goes on?

Steve: Yeah, I kind of finding now over the last few years, I’m older, I've got more experience of how to deal with these songs and it’s like--that’s what I was looking for in the beginning; that’s what I didn't do then. It’s kind of like, you are at your time and you’re kind of still searching really.

To be honest I was watching Let It Be and I was listening to Paul McCartney going ‘oooo’ and all that. But now I see it more, you know when you’re finding your voice sometimes. I think it’s more meaningful now. More deeper like you say, I want to get into that song.

At the time it was kind of like a song but then you realize--it’s your life, it’s other people’s lives, it’s like a world you want to bring people into. Especially when you’re doing that love thing, you know?

SFBAC: I hear you.

Steve: With that particular song, which was weird, was like the album is called Love Bites and Pete was singing about his love relationships. I wanted to sing the anti-love song if you like. Like “I don’t give a fuck if anybody loves me.” Not those kind of problems; it was like: This is fucking bullshit--love is lies, you know? And that’s why I had those lines, “love is lies, love is lies, love is everything that’s nice.” It’s like, all those cheesy things they tell you about love, and then when you come to fucking dealing with it it’s a different ball game isn't it?

But I wanted a lovely tune with it as well, that’s the juxtapose thing with it--quite often with Buzzcocks. That’s what was interesting to me, I’m making this lovely melody, the twist of darkness in a light way.

SFBAC: That’s exactly what I've always liked about the Buzzcocks. I feel like so much of the music is subversive in that sense. It’s really catchy, infectious music but at the same time it has this edge to it, almost like a darkness, that’s intentional I’m assuming.

Steve: It’s that one thing that we all do in life. We sang about the human condition, what we’re kind of going through. It wasn't all about us. It’s kind of like one minute you’re in the light and then you’re in the darkness, and then you’re back in the light again--within a day, or a moment.

It’s great you mentioned "Love is Lies" really. So many people love that song and it’s kind of not known as a general Buzzcocks song because of the punky things. But that was a moment when I felt we’d got to take it somewhere else.

SFBAC: I definitely hear you.

Steve: And that was very important. You know it says that, ‘it’s in my head, now it’s all gone’ In that song. Even if you’re with someone, even if you get married, suddenly it can not be there as well.

SFBAC: Exactly, that’s great.

Steve: With a little twist to it.

It’s not my little twist—it’s life! I’m just compelled to write that, I don’t have a choice. All my songs are kind of like that really, dig deeper and deeper into these things that we can relate to you know. We’re still rocking out to this stuff, people get angry, people get sad, but it’s very important to try and make that connection with people. These songs, particularly my songs, it’s not about being loved and adored. It’s about: Look are we in these kind of places. Hopefully that connects with people.

SFBAC: Well, speaking about connecting with people, with The Way you guys took a real different approach to making your music available to fans. Obviously you've altered the creative process, you've got your supporters directly involved with making the new album. What made you decide to go in a different direction for that?

Steve: On The Flat Pack we took all the ingredients of the past and put it together in the modern sense at that time.--at the moment of recording it. With this one it was like, that’s the Buzzcocks at this time. But also we had some lovely versions of that and then we remastered it and roughed it up a bit and made it more sound like live.

One of my favorites on there is "Third Dimensionthe way we play makes it sound like some kind of, almost dance groove with some heavy guitars. When people see the Buzzcocks, they see us live and that’s what they get off on. And some of these in the music world now, the fucking music business is fucking dead so let’s make these live.

So that’s where we’re trying to come from in this album—let’s make it like when they see us. Not like a live album, but the live experience is forever and we’re trying to make a mix of production, but let’s keep it live as well. It sounded great as a smooth recording--but hold on a minute, maybe we've got to fuck it up a little bit. Because live is not as smooth, you know what I mean?

When you've got bullshit like Coldplay on the other end of the scale, you've got to go the other way--we were a fucking rock and roll band.

SFBAC: It’s interesting you talked about that live experience and capturing that energy; I feel like so many different types of artists out there, whether it’s punk rock or whether it’s even more basic, alternative rock, they’re just so influenced by the Buzzcocks’ sound. I interviewed Matthew Sweet last year and he was telling me how important the Buzzcocks were to him; I look on so many of these artists out there which either directly or indirectly are indebted to your sound. Why do you think so many musicians can pick on that Buzzcocks’ sound and get inspired by it?

Steve: I think because we stayed true to what we’re doing and what it is. We’re not trying to make hits or be successful. And here’s the thing you fall into: You sign the record deal and then you think you make a hit that somebody might like. But this is what we are. We started in a garage, we still fucking make great tunes and we’re still doing that. Now we know how to write a song--we could have bigger hits. We can write better fucking tunes than Beyonce, you know what I mean? If we got a fucking drum machine and a synth it’d be easy, you know what I mean?

But the thing is, we've still got the guitars and it’s so great that we have so many bands opening up for us and people you meet that go ‘man, you guys, you play the guitars, you do it real.’ That’s what’s inspiring to us; to know that when we’re fucking dead and gone then there’s bands picking up on that.

The story is--it’s all about the kid with the guitar, way back to Chuck Berry and Little Richard with the piano. There was no fucking 80s bullshit there. Little Richard on the piano, little Richard Lane, fucking can’t beat it! So it kind of comes from that, from Elvis. But you get something from those records; you get a massive thing like fucking Shakespeare. Chuck Berry is fucking Shakespeare. Those people are fucking Shakespeare, they’re Steinbeck--the business!

And every time you put those records on it never changes. It’s like, ‘well, you've seen a Mark Rothko painting, you've seen everything,’

SFBAC: You’re talking about Rothko and Shakespeare--these things that are very classic. I listened to A Different Kind of Tension and to me it still feels like this amazing, technicolor swirling gem of an album. The songs are all so different but at the same time it’s quintessentially Buzzcocks. It’s one of those great great albums I go back to all the time; you were saying, at the end of the day something has to be live for it to be really meaningful, and that’s an album that has all sorts of interesting sonic flourishes. But when you listen to you guys playing it live it just sounds so incredible and raw. Can you tell me a little bit about "Mad Mad Judy" and some of the creative process that went into developing that album?

Steve: Well that particular album, we’d had a lot of hits over here in England. We’d had the interesting things and then it got a bit heavy. "Mad Mad Judy" was for me, like let’s just go back to the rawness then. Because some of the hits, in our terms, became a bit polished. I say polished, and I was like, let’s rough it up again. It’s all about looking for the life on it, to be live. And "Mad Mad Judywas just a simplicity thing. That simplicity of going OK, we've got these tunes about falling in love and all that fucking stuff. Let’s get back to what we really fucking do.

We started getting a few pop hits and it’s like, ‘this band ain't just a pop band--when you see us live it fucking rocks.’ A friend of ours, Jon Savage, said, ‘I saw the Stooges and then two days later I saw you in New York,’ this was a couple of years back now. ‘Fucking hell I saw the Buzzcocks and it blew the fucking Stooges away.’ That was a great compliment for me.

We love the fucking Stooges. We love that stuff—we love Iggy, the Ramones, we love it all. We ain't no fucking Coldplay, that’s bullshit. “I've got married and two kids and happy, why should I fucking be?” What the fucks that about? I never got in to it. That was antithesis. But also it’s the craft, the work, and the intellectuality so I bring that to the people as well. I talk about James Joyce and Dostoyevsky in interviews and people are like, some kid picked some book up. When I bought a fucking album, I bought a fucking book as well. You see, we ain't complete fucking idiots here. That’s how you can change the fucking world. At least make people cool, you know?

SFBAC: That’s the difference between learning and education--between and having an interest in actually exploring history and exploring learning--between following some sort of machine into what’s expected of you. And that’s the beauty of the Buzzcocks’ sound--it’s always been, to say it again, the subversive sound, when you really listen to it, that comes into it’s own for you. We were talking about Different Kind of Tension and some of the love songs but then you got "Hollow Inside," "I Don’t Know What to do With My Life"--all these songs had this weird kind of tension, for want of a better word. 

Steve: It’s all about being a alive. The importance of being intellectual, checking out the surroundings and making your life fucking better. That’s really down to it. How we can make our lives, through all this fucking bullshit, better. It’s so fucking important because so many people are sleepwalkers. Everybody is brow beaten and brainwashed. And you just think, if you've got a chance you've got to fucking say something. You've got to do something. Even Elvis didn't like to be fucking loved, you know what I mean?

SFBAC: No, what do you mean by that?

Steve: Everybody adores Elvis. I love Elvis, but it just fucked him up. Unfortunately he wasn't as articulate as the Buzzcocks, that’s the problem. If I’d have said, ‘come on Elvis you’re going to sit around with me and write a fucking song.’

SFBAC:  What do you think? Do you think Elvis would have?

Steve: Just when I’d met Andrew Loog Oldham, I can remember saying, ‘you've got to write your own fucking song now.’ It’s important that. You say you do America’s Got Talent like we do Britain’s Got Talent, they haven’t got no consciousness man of what they’re fucking singing.

SFBAC:  I like that, the difference between consciousness and talent, that’s cool, you’re right. There’s lots of people who might be experts in terms of how to produce an album, but in terms of actually having the talent behind it.

Steve: We got it over here, they all sound like Whitney Houston or fucking somebody else. Whitney Houston has a great voice but who the fucking hell are you and when you’re telling me you just want to be Whitney Houston, you know what I mean? The process is getting fucking lost in this whole fucking world, of fucking cash. Music should be played in supermarkets. Someone has got to make a stand, we tried to make a fucking stand all our lives.

SFBAC: It feels now that music is just so fragmented that there are all these little sub-genres going on and there aren't too many really important artists that can make a stand across the entire musical spectrum right now. I wonder if we’ll be seeing anything like that in the future.

Steve: I hope so because we had the rock and roll days, we had Haight & Ashbury which is amazing now fucking hippies and psychedelic people and then the fucking MC5 came along and then the punk came along. At least we knew where we stood from all of that, people learnt something from every year of that. Every year you should be learning something, you learn something from fucking World War I and World War II. As bad as it was, there’s a lot of education there, a lot of things to think about.

But now, like you say nobody wants to think about anything except for looking at their fucking phone and sending pictures of themselves, or their dinner, or their fucking dog. What the fuck? Where’s the rock and roll audience? Here’s the fucking CD I've downloaded for free, here’s my fucking cat, and here’s my fucking horrible husband. Who gives a fuck about any of that, what happened to your fucking soul? We’re fucking losing what this fucking medium is about.

SFBAC:  It’s good that we still have you guys out there keeping it real.

Steve: We ain't going to be here forever but you've got to believe in what you’re doing. There’s a lot of kids out there now, due to fucking iPhones, robbing everybody. There’s a lot of kids out there who could be making fucking great music but they’re all there making it and the finances are killing them because they just want to sign up all that fucking bullshit.

Multi-million dollar record companies like Sony, they won’t fucking sign some kid down the road. You want to walk and talk, you want to take your merchandise off you, they want to tell you you can’t sing fuck in a song. It’s the new fucking war.

SFBAC: It is the new war, for sure.

Well that’s ultimately about what Punk Rock is about, it’s about breaking things down so you can create something new and that’s why the Buzzcocks are so eternal because you guys boil it down to essential truths and kind of put a mirror up in front of people and that’s one of the things we always appreciate.

Steve: Well absolutely, I mean the litmus test underneath it is, OK we've been around the block a few times. People know our stuff and we just played in Spain in Barcelona two thirds of the audience are kids picking up on this and going, ‘we've never seen anything like this.’ I’m talking about 14 year old kids. And that’s kind of a great thing really. Whatever it means to me, well there are still people out there. All this demographic bullshit, record companies sit down and say nobody will be fucking into this, that and the other and so they pour all their money into all these fucking boring fucking old MTV style fucking old people. That’s all wrong.

It’s not good for your fucking mind, your health or your fucking soul. We’re all eating organic food now, we need organic music.

You put a band in a fucking studio. You put fucking bullshit in there it don’t go anywhere. It gives cancer.

SFBAC: Well San Francisco is definitely very much about being organic and about being real so I think you guys are going to kill it.

Steve: Thanks so much man, I mean, when we’re on that stage the important thing is, you can do anything you want. You can believe in whatever you want to believe in and don’t let that be taken away from you by the fucking world. And that’s what’s happening, George Orwell 1984, it’s all fuck isn't it. Record shops are closing. The greatest thing I heard in Seattle, I read in the newspaper, they sell more cassettes in a week than they did in fucking CDs and albums.

SFBAC: Well you know what maybe it’s a good thing that people have to look to find real music just like punk--it took a while for it to get traction and become something that was this force. Maybe it’s time that people actually have to go and search for good music, and in that sense it’s cyclical and it will eventually get more traction over time--people have to work for it.

Steve: Absolutely, music, what we’re talking about of that caliber is almost becoming like a secret society. You turn the TV on and you see fucking people on there and they spend a big budget on a video but it means fuck all. As Bruce said, '57 channels and nothing on.' And the fucking music, I met 'the Boss' a few times and he fucking knows...

SFBAC: Bruce Springsteen is absolutely punk rock.

Steve: Little Steven is fantastic, I love the guy. But he fucking knows but you get the vibe from him, you don’t get it from these fucking conveyor belt people. They come and go, they come and go and you can tap your foot as much as you want to a tune but if there’s no resonance, no fucking life changing experience from these fucking things. You download the next one and tap your foot to that and it means fuck all.

Like McDonald's, it’s the same fucking burger every time you go in there. It’s the same fucking drum loop, it’s the same fucking take me higher or take me lower or something. We used to have words, we used to have feelings.

SFBAC: Well that’s what makes live music all the more important, you can’t deny it. It’s a visceral force that’s in your face, it’s going to be different every time, like you said, it’s not going to be homogenized, some bullshit. And that’s why we’re really going to be psyched to see you live because every time I’m here and the Buzzcocks come out you’re going to expect something different.

Steve: When you listen to the album The Way, the new one. We've got a song called "Virtually Real" the next song is my song called "The Third Dimension." So you've got the song "Virtually Real" and then something that means something in The Third Dimension. So when we were putting the album together we put those back to back because you've kind of got the virtual reality world and then I’m singing the more earthy third dimension. Let’s meet in the third dimension rather than on Facebook.

SFBAC: We’re really looking forward to hearing a bunch of songs from The Way live. It’s definitely going to be cool to see the album come to life.

Steve: Yes, that’ll be good. In the real dimension. We’re pretty pleased with the album. I mean, I tried to make that groove, "The Third Dimension," get a little bit of groove, a little bit darker and then there’s the regular tune and backing vocals.

I think this album is pretty good in it’s way, going back to the light and the dark, you've got lighter moments but there’s darker moments like the Tension album. Sometimes people think, you guys write the pop songs. No, if you go back and look at the other alias as well. So I think that album has got a lot of that in, contrast. It’s a bit heavy as well.

I know Dave Grohl's a big Buzzcocks fan, he’ll fucking love it. He’ll have to learn some from this album.

SFBAC: Steve this is fantastic, we’re really excited to have you come into the Bay Area and we’re seeing the Buzzcocks live, it’s going to be a really new experience for everyone so thanks a ton!

Steve: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure. Hope it’s not been deep and too down but I've got to say things how they are these days.

SFBAC: No, it’s about the truth.

Steve: It’s so important to pass things on, I think in America there’s kids there and it’s losing it’s way a little bit. I know there’s kids out there not getting a break. I try and do everything I can with local bands where I live.

You've got to blow them fucking record companies checkbooks and give these guys a break. That’s what we've got to fucking do. Their eyes are too much on the fucking money and not the art, everybody knows that. 

SFBAC: At the end of the day, as much as all this technology is enabling it’s really just a matter of being able to pick up a guitar, get some drums, work on the piano, and just make some good tunes. Hopefully people are going to realize that all you really need to do is get out there and do it.

Steve: Do you know what, I think they’re realizing it now, guitar hero thing. For 100 fucking dollars you can get a copy guitar, no fucking plastic fucking guitar hero shit. It’s like what the fuck? Get of the stage. Fucking hell!

Well when we get over there, when we get to the Bay, then we’re doing the Ink & Iron Festival and I’m going to be in the Troubadour on Sunday night. Because I thought I want to go back to the roots where a lot of these stories, I just want to be in the room. Many years ago I went there when Elvis played, I don’t give a fuck who’s playing I just want to breath the fucking air in the room where Elvis played and the Troubadour.

SFBAC: You know in San Francisco you guys are playing at Slim’s and that place has a lot of history to it, a lot of really great bands have gotten their start there.

Steve: Slim’s is a great place, we did a great gig there if you remember a couple of years back. Recently a couple of massive big gigs at a couple of festivals but going back to Slim’s, that’s a great place to see the Buzzcocks. It’s a room, and you just can’t buy that fucking cheap. It’s the fucking business. So we’re looking forward to it, we’re well looking forward to it.

SFBAC: Steve, you've been real generous with your time. I seriously appreciate it.

Steve: Thank you so much. I've got a bunch of other ones to do but thanks for the great questions and also, you’re one of the guys who've asked about the later albums.

SFBAC:  I appreciate everything in the catalog.

Steve: Too many people buy the singles Going Steady, yes that’s great. That’s understood. But the other fucking stuff, it’s just as good.

SFBAC: No way, Flat Pack any day of the week. I love that album. I listen to All Set, it’s part of this larger thing but at the same time too it’s always these individual evolutions. So I’m totally psyched to see you guys live.

Steve: Thanks man, it’s just great that you’re in tune with it. I’m in a meeting with a guy who’s talking about a documentary about the Buzzcocks and we were going through the later things we were doing. You kind of get known for one thing in those early albums, which have been great albums, but the other fucking stuff is good as well. A lot of people like "Between Heaven and Hell" on Flat Pack.

To me "Big Brother Wheels," that’s kind of chilled. At the time, I thought, fuck, you've got to sing about the big brother fucking wheels. That was a George Orwell type of thing. And Ed loved that as well. But Ed is a big fan, I've known him for years when he was a doorman. Me and Ed when we get talking about politics you don’t want to be in the room. 

SFBAC:  I don’t know, I’d want to be in the room.

Steve: It’s the politics of rock and roll.

SFBAC:  And the human condition, like you were saying.

Steve: Massively, that is really what it’s all about. That’s the whole reason I go into anything, does anybody feel the same as yourself? Does anybody fucking feel these fucking things and you realize everybody does round the fucking world. And we can connect on that. And if we can’t win it on the fucking level of controlling our lives, we can win it on the fucking self control, the personal politics of who we are. That’s, in other words called your own fucking sanity.

But true rock and roll will make it. All those corporate fucking dudes, I meet them and they love their music. You’re a banker? So fucking what? Even they don’t like being a fucking banker and they've got the wreckage. And that’s what’s important. We were the outlaws, we were on the outside. We didn't go the bank route, but if we can make your fucking day while you’re fucking making those millions for some other fucking idiot company. They fucking know as well, that’s all we've got in the end. The fucking bible, anything else. The whole fucking truth.

I ain't too religious, let’s not get into that. The best fucking moral code is rock and roll.

SFBAC:  I’m definitely going to use that, the best moral code is rock and roll.

Steve: Absolutely, there’s no other fucking one. All the other ones are fucking made by other fucking people. But rock and roll is made by the fucking people. That’s the only thing you've fucking got really. OK, I think I've got another one calling in a little bit but it’s been an absolute pleasure and come and say hello back stage maybe.

SFBAC: I definitely will. Thanks a ton Steve, you’re going to tear it up in San Francisco and we’re going to see you real soon.

Steve: I love the ‘Frisco, I love it. I've been to all the whore houses there. I’ll just tell you this, we went around, a lot of fucking strip joints there. And the next day we were in LA and we did the Steve Jones Show and he said to me… I said we’d have a heavy night. And he said live on the air, ‘where've you been?’ And I mentioned a few places and he said, ‘oh I've been to all those.’

SFBAC: Sounds like you’re going to have just as good a time in California as we’re going to have watching you.

Steve: Absolutely. Ok then, thanks so much.

SFBAC: You got it Steve, take it easy bud.

Steve: Absolute pleasure.

SFBAC: Cheers.

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