Interview by Jason Gross, Part 2
After begging/pleading/cajoling with singer/songwriter Sue Gogan for about three years to get the story of her band Prag Vec, one of the most unusual post punk bands on the late 70's/early 80's scene in the UK, it took a whirlwind 3 weeks to finish up the interview with all of the interest generated over the previous article about the band (thank you PSF readers!). So for the 2nd/last part of the tale, we look at the individual songs/recordings, line-up changes, end of the band and Sue's post-PV career. Most importantly, Sue shares some news about the re-emergence of PV material that she's working on now.
(Thanks also to Sue for providing some unpublished photos of the band below)
PSF: The Bits EP- did you think that was well recorded and represented the band well at the time?
SG: Yes... and no. We recorded at Rockstar Studios. John Springate was the engineer. There were some negatives as far as I was concerned. I had difficulty getting the right sound for my voice – especially on "Wolf." The engineer put some distortion on it and I double tracked the vocal instead of using an ADT – automatic double tracking – and inconsistencies were left in to deliberately reveal the process, but it was not what I had been originally aiming for. Other than that I had no other way to describe the sound I was after. I felt a bit elbowed out of the way of the desk. Most engineers I encountered at that time had never worked with a woman vocalist before so maybe it is not surprising that I was not satisfied. We were concerned that the songs were all very different – we did not seem to have a coherent style. But that was just the way they came out, so we resigned ourselves to that fact. We were in no danger of accusations of being formulaic.
PSF: What do you remember about or would like to say about the individual songs? Do you remember how any of them were written? "Existential," "Bits," "Wolf," "Cigarettes."
SG: David (Boyd) came up with the bass line on "Existential." We used to rehearse in the downstairs room of the terraced house where John and I lived. Our neighbours weren't too happy, but that aside, many of the early songs were either written or developed fooling around of an evening in that room. I came across a picture recently of Lena Horne standing under a streetlight like a Paris prossie. I had spent a few months in France and learnt some French. I was not fluent by any stretch of the imagination. My friend Steve Montgomery was heading off to Los Angeles, he was finishing up at Rough Trade. We had been good pals. I was going to miss him. He managed pragVEC briefly – "Existential" was an expression of heartfelt loss. The U.S. also represented the ultimate in the capitalist enterprise, its perpetuation and imminent degradation. John gave me a few lines also that I translated. 'La moustache bourgeoise capitaliste' was a send up of the language in some Maoist literature that talked about the running dogs of capitalism and other such colourful imagery.
"Bits" was an expression of my deranged identity... Sexual orientation, the notion of sanity in times of conflict... I was having huge difficulty reconciling who I was, what I was doing... life was so all over the place... I had very little support apart from the people in the band. Being Irish in London was quite difficult as times. I had a friend who had been self-harming and I was at a loss as to how to communicate my feelings about this. Also, one of the problems of being a performer is the gulf that develops between you as a performer and the audience. I suppose I was trying to cross that chasm and be human. Music can be very glib and polished and make people feel alienated and awe struck. I wanted to burst that bubble I guess. It has a bit of a reggae feel about it also. We were living in Ladbroke Grove and surrounded by Jamaican music a lot of the time, as well as playing gigs with various reggae and dub bands.
I am torn between contemporary language and understanding of diversity and trying to remember how it was back then. I was in my early 20's. Forty years later, I can say that the song was about my diverse identities, that I was not crazy at all. The notion that we can be just one person, with one identity was reflective of the understanding at that time, or at least my understanding. Whereas now, having studied law for 8 years, and focusing in particular on aspects of feminism and sexual violence, the idea of a multiplicity of identities is more the norm. I did not want fame at any price. I wanted to peel back the layers and say if you cannot handle who I am then commercial viability is not on my agenda.
"Wolf" happened very quickly. I wrote the lyrics while the other three were jamming. That was it. It is about the difference between well-meaning law and order types and well-meaning rebels. I suppose it boils down to: does the end justify the means... or it's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. Who are the real heroes? Sometimes they are the people who sacrifice too much... and get eaten alive by the voracious appetites of a greedy and all-consuming society that cares very little for justice, fairness and respect.
"Cigarettes"... classic (John) Studholme guitar. John put a lot of work into his guitar sound. He had a Gibson SG special, cherry colour. He stripped it down, painted it yellow, changed the machine heads and put on a different pick up. The leftover machine heads and pickup I put on the Hofner Galaxy that I played on "You're the Gun." John also had a few pedals that he mounted together and linked them up. He was handy with a soldering iron. The lyrics were about the ladies in the Shepherds Bush telephone exchange staff canteen where I worked washing dishes - two older women in particular who were real salt of the earth west Londoners. They loved their fags (cigarettes).
John and I had an ongoing discussion about work and art. What is the role of art? Does it lose its validity and relevance if artists do not work in the real world – do the 9 to 5? If you want to relate to your audience, do you need to be living the same or similar lives. We both liked Andy Warhol. It was a significant moment, one of great amusement, when we found out that we had both read his book From A to B and Back Again and loved it. Warhol's art shows that there is relevance, inspiration, and beauty in the everyday things. We were claiming that ground and acknowledging the conflict. Is it more 'political' to do that with your life... to give poetic expression to the daily grind – or to play ‘message' music? By coincidence, I was watching Jean Cocteau's La Belle et Le Bęte the other night. This film was the first major film made in France after World War 2. Jean Paul Sartre, according to Cocteau's diary, criticised Cocteau for not being more political in the film, and Cocteau's response was that he was being himself, which, he believed was a more political act.
PSF: Did the release of the EP change anything for the band (recognition, notoriety)?
SG: There were reviews and interviews in the music press. We got gigs. We sold out of the first pressing of 2,000 and did a second pressing of another 2,000 that sold out as well. We had not expected to be noticed so early on but the music press were covering our gigs practically from the get go. We were pleasantly surprised. We did another Peel session, we did 3 in all, and met with a couple of major labels – we had meetings with record executives who maybe had difficulty putting a tag on us. John and I were songwriters but were not the best at selling ourselves.
Sue and John Studholme pose on a balcony, photo by Ruby Ray
PSF: What the "Expert" single from 1979- did you see it as a big change for the band? If so, how? How did the song come about?
SG: Yes, it was a change for us. We had been fooling about with pentatonic scales. John had quite a Chinese look about him. He was a Celt, he looked like one and he was proud of his Celtic heritage. The attempts I was making at grace notes is a technique used in sean nós (pronounced 'shan nose,' it means old style) singing in Ireland, I don't think I did a great job in emulating that technique. It was a deliberate attempt to use a folk idiom though. Interestingly... the pentatonic scale is used less in Irish Traditional music than we assumed. In fact, Irish trad music such as the early Irish harp music, which was outlawed by the Anglo Norman invaders, was much more likely to use modal scales. But we were on a learning curve then, and using poetic licence...
John and I both had a bit of a liking for the Chinese style of dress, their daily attire was so simple, and the same; it seemed an enviable approach to getting dressed every day, no matter what the circumstances of your day, no matter whether you were labouring or working in a library. Your clothes would not change depending on whom you were meeting or what you were doing. Also, there was some discussion at the time about weekend punks... people who combed down their spiky hairdos on a Monday morning, and gelled them up again on Friday evening. There seemed to be a certain integrity about a person who adopted an individual, particular style of dress and maintained that regardless. It certainly made life more colourful if someone went to their day job dressed in a pink mohair jumper and bondage or checked trews, rather than donning a suit from Marks and Spencer... should clothes be about self-expression or a uniform that conforms to a norm or an expectation.
I gave a copy of the lyrics to my Dad. He gave a copy to Ulick O'Connor, a friend of his and literary critic, who told him that I had a turn of phrase that was one in a million. My father was always on at me to write more poetry, particularly after this. He used to write poetry and his father was a poet... The lyrics were written by both John and me. We often wrote in a very symbiotic manner. I might come up with an idea, he would expand on it, and I would improvise on it, then he would edit it. We spent so much time together and developed an intimacy in our language the way that couples do. Then he would come up with a riff or chord pattern and I would come up with a melody. I also felt that words had their own music inherent in them... that I may have been writing poems, but they were lyrics, words intended for songs. I think that that applies to all poetry; they are unfinished songs so to speak. I imagine there may be many poets who disagree with that position, but that is how I felt then and I have not changed my view on this. I have just finished reading E.L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley and exactly that sentiment is expressed by one of the characters! I am on a synchronous roll here!
We had a new manager, Mike Collins. He had been managing Wire, which was a good recommendation and we hoped that he would be as able in looking after our affairs. At Mike's suggestion, we asked Bob Sargeant to produce the next single. Bob had produced our Peel sessions. We used a different studio, Camden Soundsuite and a different engineer, Alvin Clarke. John had a bit of fun doing guitar overdubs, and we aimed for a less lo-tech finish. There are handclaps and a cabasa – they were Bob's idea. We were definitely aiming for something more mainstream. I think it is fair to say that everyone wanted daytime airplay.
Jean Karakos and Gilbert Castro of the Celluloid label were approaching various bands either on Rough Trade or associated to Rough Trade with a view to licensing records that had already been released. Celluloid put out a 12" with the six tracks from the two 7" records we had released on Spec Records. Under the terms of the agreement distribution was restricted to territories outside England, Scotland and Wales. It was not strictly adhered to as things transpired, and imports found their way back into the UK... we should have known.
Nick Cash, photo by Graham Smith
PSF: The No Cowboys compilation came out around 1980 with the band contributing 3 songs. Was the band heavily involved in the whole album or just the 3 songs? Did you see these new songs as another big change? (they seem a little calmer, straightforward in places)
SG: In December 1979, we went to Paris to do three or four nights at Gibus. The gig had been organised by Caracos. I was in touch with Nick recently and he said that the thing he remembers about Gibus was ‘the weird eclectic audience total mixture of people like playing in the sticks somewhere and the whole village turns up.' John was unwell on that trip, we were under a lot of strain, and it was this which precipitated the end of the band. Nick left and did some work with The Lines; their 1983 album, Hull Down has just recently been released on Acute Records. He also worked with Fad Gadget for a while. These days, he is working with the Members and they have recently re-released One Law on vinyl and CD. In March 1980, Dave decided to move on. They were not involved with the release of the album at all, as I remember.
John and I had been doing some work with Keith Allen. He is a Welsh actor and stand-up comedian. He had been opening for us at some of our gigs, and I had produced the Atoms single. Keith introduced us to an Australian, Jim Thirlwell. He played a Korg, and because we had already acquired two synths, this was right up our street. Suresh Singh was a London- Punjabi drummer with a great dub feel. He played several kinds of percussion instruments as well as a standard kit... a mariwbo and a bicycle wheel. Suresh, John, Jim and I put a new set together. As pragVEC, we had agreed that the name would only apply the first line up, so we called the second line up the Spec Records house band.
Keith James, who was in a band called the Distributors, played with John and Gary Hill on the Major Eddie track, "My Name's Eddie" and also with John on the Couch Potatoes track, "Men's Casual Wear 1962." Those two tracks were recorded in our flat on Gary's Revox I think.
The pragVEC songs had already been recorded in 1979. We went back to Easystreet recording studios with John Glyn on saxophone and recorded "Your your lay lay." This was a re-working of "Stay" that we had done for a Peel session. We went into Rockstar Studios with a PA system and recorded "You're the Gun," "Happey Valley," "Nervous," "Uh Oh Erotic," "By the Sea" and "Welcom'." We were aiming for an approach that was lo-tech, live, first takes, and only doing overdubs where necessary, like the piano on "Nervous."
We had had more time to think about things. We were doing no gigs, just rehearsals prior to the recording. John was getting more actively involved with the song writing. Previously, he would come up with chords and contribute a chorus perhaps to a lyric that I had written, or focus on the editing and arrangements but now we started to develop synth based structures, particularly "Happey Valley" and "You're the Gun." We continued to collaborate but the dynamic had changed. There was still a back and forth process between us but this time, it was me fooling around with the Wasp synthesiser and John adapting some of the settings to new arrangements. "You're the Gun" was a re-working of a song that we had written in our very first set. We had performed it live as "Gun" but I don't think it figured much until it re-emerged in a new format.
We had given up our day jobs to allow for the touring with pragVEC and after the demise of that line up, we found ourselves with no band and no work. The up-side of this was that it gave us more time for developing a new sound. We had moved from our little terraced house to a 15th floor apartment where the environment was less conducive to singing and song writing. I wrote fewer lyrics and concentrated more on the synthesiser.
Nick Cash and John Studholme, photo by Graham Smith
PSF: Was the line-up still evolving after that?
SG: We played one gig in the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Suresh. Cabaret Voltaire were also on the bill. Jim had left after the recording of the songs. Suresh left to work with his brother Naresh after the ICA. We had been practicing in a rehearsal room in the Barbican that had been sourced by Suresh. I was playing some bass guitar, and John played guitar. When Suresh left, Jeremy Harrington, formerly of the Monochrome Set started playing with us, we hung out together for several months, and John from the Monochrome Set joined us on drums for a short while. Richard Dudanski had been playing with PiL, and he sat in with us on one occasion. We sounded very PiL-like that day. John had a guitar technique very similar to Keith Levine. We were keen for Richard to join us but I think he was committed to working with The Raincoats at that stage.
John and I then got together with Deirdre Creed. She was a bass player from Dublin. She had played with the Boy Scouts, a Dublin punk band... there was a healthy punk scene going on in Ireland: the Radiators From Space, The Virgin Prunes, the Golden Horde and Fatima Mansions/Microdisney from Cork and Stiff Little Fingers and the Undertones from the North, amongst others. We were putting a coherent set together and solicited the services of Andy Treitinger, a sax player. We played a few low-key gigs, and recorded some new songs. In August 1982 we did the Notting Hill Carnival with a friend of Andy's, Daniel, on drums. John and I had also been to Sheffield to record with Cabaret Voltaire, and came out of that session with a song.
PSF: What led to the band dissolving?
SG: John and I played with a variety of musicians from 1978 to 1983. In 1983, we started working with a new manager, Terry Rogers, and discussed doing some gigs in Germany, Holland and Italy, but nothing came of it. We carried on playing together as long as we were living together but once our affair was over, that was the end of the band and our musical collaboration. John gave me a cassette with some guitar riffs for me to work on but my heart was not in it. We did try to pick up the pieces after we had separated and played a couple of times with Sara Lee from the Gang of Four/B-52's, but the magic had gone. We went our separate ways after that.
PSF: What were you doing after PragVec?
SG: I started hanging out with the Pogues and the Men They Couldn't Hang – I shared their love of country music and rockabilly. Spider and Shane made me very conscious of how little I knew about Irish music and culture. I did some work with a sax player called Clare Hirst and guitarist Kevin Armstrong. In May 1985, we played one gig, which was good, but then in July my son was born and Clare and Kevin did Live Aid with David Bowie. I lost touch with Ben, my son's father, my Mum had passed away in January of that year, and my Dad that November. It was a time of many changes. John started his own family and really, there was no turning back. Years previously, John had had a prescient dream of us being surrounded by children. Yep!
I moved back to Ireland then and was keen to learn more about Irish Traditional Music and Irish culture. I had been away a long time, apart from occasional trips home for Christmas and one gig that we did in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin with Simon Walker, one time drummer from the Golden Horde. The gig was organised by Kieran Owens, the Prunes' manager, who was a friend of Claude Bessy's (Slash co-founder). Claude and Kieran had put together the line up for a gig we did in August 1979 with Delta 5, The Virgin Prunes and Essential Logic.
I thought perhaps things might pick up for me in Dublin, and played bass briefly with the Harvest Ministers, and then a country band headed up by a singer called Laura Caffrey. I recorded some songs with Dublin musicians, Hank Williams covers, and one original, "Let it Lie" featuring uileann piper Ronan Browne. I decided then to go to college, study law, and make a living that way to support my son, doing that through music was not a viable option.
John and I kept in touch over the years, but only very sporadically. I went over to London a few times for work and holidays, and it was on one of those visits that he gave me a copy of the 'pragVEC's House of Stuff' compilation. It is a selection of recordings from ‘78 to '83 and includes some of the later unreleased material. When Nick wrote to me in 1999 asking me to liaise with John over re-releasing pragVEC material, we agreed on a track listing and he gave me carte blanche. It has taken me sometime to eventually get around to doing this but I am now currently re-mastering this collection. I don't have the original masters, but have decided to make these songs available as is, for now. It would be good to get a hold of the original masters and re-mix the lot and have some fun with them, but that is a project for another day.
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