In the late 70s and early 80s, British five-piece Spandau Ballet helped drive the short-lived but influential New Romantic movement, which was strongly identified with London nightclub the Blitz. A kid who hadn’t absorbed punk’s antipathy to Ziggy Stardust-style glitz and androgyny could find them flourishing among the fashion-focused crowd at the Blitz, where Spandau Ballet played chilly, melodic postpunk inspired by Kraftwerk and Frank Sinatra. In 1983 young folks who’d never set foot in the club flocked to the band thanks to the international success of the gossamer, R&B-influenced ballad “True,” the title track of their third album.
Spandau Ballet’s peak lasted only a few years, though; conflict wracked the group in the late 80s, and they broke up in 1990. Alas, the tension didn’t dissolve with the band—as the 90s wore on, singer Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble, and guitarist-saxophonist Steve Norman unsuccessfully sued guitarist and chief songwriter Gary Kemp over royalties. But Kemp eventually patched things up with his old bandmates, and in 2009 they reunited for a UK tour. Spandau Ballet returned to the States in early 2014 to play South by Southwest, where the band documentary Soul Boys of the Western World had its world premiere—the film gets a U.S. release at the end of this month, and the accompanying soundtrack compilation features dozens of Spandau Ballet tracks, plus music from contemporaries such as Ultravox, the Human League, Soft Cell, and Duran Duran. The band are on their first proper U.S. tour in more than 25 years to support Soul Boys, and they play at the House of Blues this weekend.
For this week’s Artist on Artist, Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp (Gary’s brother) talked to Jes Skolnik of spooky Chicago postpunk band Split Feet, who’s working on a book about synth pop. Skolnik contributes occasionally to Pitchfork and serves on the board of local nonprofit Pure Joy, which plans to create an inclusive, all-ages arts space that’s LGBT safe and wheelchair accessible. Split Feet released their debut full-length, Shame Parade, on D.C. label Accidental Guest in February. —Leor Galil
Martin Kemp: I was listening to your stuff online earlier. It’s really nice—I love it!
Jes Skolnik: Oh, that’s great! Thank you.
It sounds quite White Stripes. Jack White in there, a little bit.
Yeah, there’s definitely a little bit of that. I’m excited that you like it! I’ve definitely been a fan of his for a long time.
There’s some kind of punk in there, isn’t it?
We all come from punk, for sure. I know you’ve got your roots in that as well—way, way back.
That’s right. Punk changed it for everyone—before punk, it was progressive rock, where you had to be a really great musician to be in a band. But punk came along and made it easy. You didn’t have to be the best musician—which is why Spandau [Ballet] started, in a way. When I was a kid, I was able to see the Clash, Generation X with Billy Idol . . . . Punk showed that you could be a kind of star and not have to be a great musician. As long as you had charisma, you could still be a star.
Right. And as long as you had the energy, and as long as you loved music in that way that you were driven to create.
Absolutely. Punk, for musicians—for all bands that are around today—it’s just so important. It was kind of like the world changing. Imagine what it was like before that, when it was progressive rock. When it was artists like Steve Howe in Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer with Brain Salad Surgery, everything was so difficult to learn how to play. When punk came around, it just made it all so nice and easy.
There’s this huge bar to entry when the music that you’re playing is incredibly technical, and then when you strip it down to its roots, you find your love for it and your energy—that power. You’re absolutely right; it’s catalyzed every person making rock and pop right now.
It affects everyone. Same with my band—when we started, we came out of a reaction against punk. Punk was always about “destroy” and “no future” and wearing black and zips and leather. Everything was like the world was coming to an end with punk. Punk was never meant to play arenas. It was always designed to stay in small clubs like the Roxy. I think what happened when Spandau came along—you react against the last thing, don’t you? So Spandau was always about “the future is bright.” Everybody was starting to wear colors, and everybody wanted to be a hero instead of an antihero. Which is kind of what the New Romantics were all about.
I was born in 1979, so I started listening to music—my parents were musicians—right when you guys were on the ascent. That was the first music I heard and loved as a kid. It really pushed me forward, and it’s something that has always been in the back of my head. So it’s exciting to talk to you and to hear that you guys are coming back after such a long time. I know that your re-formation has been a really positive thing. Are you excited to come to the U.S. again? I know you guys haven’t been here in a really long time.
I’ve been there—I lived in Los Angeles for three years in the early 90s. And I love the States. But the band hasn’t played in the States for maybe 25 years. So we’re all looking forward to doing it. You have to remember—I say 25 years, but the band weren’t together for 20 years. We broke up. We were never going to speak to each other again—it was one of those. I think it’s the same with all bands that are really successful. There’s always something. Usually it’s either publishing or girls. I don’t think we were any different from anyone else.
You know what it’s like being a musician. When you’re a little kid and you first dream of being in a band—and it is a dream—that’s what you want. You never dream about making a video, or what producer you’ll use. It’s always about playing live. That’s where your heart is, isn’t it? The happiest I ever am is when I’m onstage.
It’s the same for me.
We’re absolutely looking forward to coming over; it’s going to be great.
I’m excited for you. I was thinking about how important your music and the music of your peers was to me as a kid, and I think you’re going to find a lot of folks who are around my age, who never got a chance to see you, who are going to be really excited about that. Because it was music that meant so much to us as kids.
Are you going to come to the show?
Yeah, I’d love to!
Come to the show, and come say hi afterwards.
It’ll be really fun. Are you guys writing new stuff or working on new stuff?
Yeah, we just had a greatest-hits album out through Europe called The Story. And we’ve just recorded three new songs. We used Trevor Horn. You know Trevor Horn? He produced Grace Jones and Yes—an incredible producer. So we’ve got three new tracks coming out. But when we get to the end of the world tour, which I think takes us down to about September or October, we’ll take a couple of months off and hopefully get back into the studio and start working on a brand-new album.
We got back together in 2009, and we just did a tour. These are the first real recordings that we’ve done for a long time. What we did this time—because this is the first thing we did, really, for about five years, six years—we felt we’d be better off making a film about ourselves and about the history of the band, which is called Soul Boys of the Western World. It’s been a huge hit in Britain, and it’s starting to come out in Europe. It’s got a deal in America. I don’t think albums have the same weight that they used to have. You know, when bands used to make an album like a piece of theater—it used to start at the beginning, and it used to drop in the middle, and you used to get a crescendo at the end. Now it’s not even that. It’s about putting your best three tracks first so they can sell on iTunes. Track one, two, and three. It’s so different. What we thought was, let’s spend the time that we have making the movie. At the end of the year we’ll hopefully go back in the studio and make an album.
The way that we listen to albums has changed so much—which brings me to another thing that I wanted to touch on. You guys were at the forefront of a movement that was using new technology to make music in the late 70s and early 80s, and that technology has leapt forward. Do you find yourself using new technology? What kind of new technology do you like?
What are we listening to at the moment? What music am I listening to? I love the White Stripes. I love 70s rock; I always have. But there’s certain things from today that I love. I love Ed Sheeran; I think he’s fantastic. I love Jack White. It’s really varied, and I think that’s one of the nicest things—you must know as well, being in a band—what being in a band does for you is open your ears up to everything, so you can appreciate a lot more things. You don’t get trapped in one style of music. You can appreciate what people are doing, whether or not it’s jazz—Jamie Cullum—or heavy metal.
One of my favorite things to do when I watch bands, no matter what style of music it is, is to watch the band members interact with each other. As a musician, it’s one of the most beautiful things.
It’s kind of like what I was saying about how the album doesn’t mean as much as it used to in the 70s. But the thing that iTunes has done for kids is that it’s opened music up, so you don’t have to spend all your money on one album and listen to four good songs and eight really bad ones. I think it’s a really good thing, but it’s also made the album—the show of the album, the piece of theater that used to be in those 12 songs—kind of redundant.
It’s definitely opened things up for musical omnivores. I feel that way too. There’s no genre I immediately dismiss out of hand.
Are you on tour at the moment? Have you got shows coming up?
We’ve got a tour hopefully in the spring. We’re planning to do the east coast of the U.S. We’re just a teeny band, but we’ll get our van together and go for it.
I’ll stay in touch. I’ll follow you on Twitter and check out where you are.
Yeah! And hopefully I’ll get to see you when you’re here. We’ll have our record out by then, so I can bring you a copy.
Oh, absolutely do that! And listen, come to the show and enjoy it. Talk to the guy who sorted the interview out and tell him to get you on the guest list! v