Official Secrets Act have been described as the “’The most lyrically erudite band I’ve heard in a long while…”, by none other than Steve Lamacq. They’re probably one of the most interesting bands around the indie-scene at this moment in time. And, of course, they will be headlining Rockbeatstone’s very own gig night, Backstreets, at the Windmill on Friday 8th February.
I caught up with them and asked them a few questions about music, life and Bruce Springsteen.
Firstly, I have to ask this, your name. Did you choose Official Secrets Act to make it difficult for people to find out about you via Google?
We didn’t think of this at the time, but there is loads of stuff off of Hansard if you search for us. This is a good thing. Hansard should be more widely read. We are the official band of the Parliamentary Reporters’ bible.
You originally cut your teeth in Leeds before heading down to London. How do you feel this helped you break into the London music scene? Did it provide you with the added ammunition to play this very competitive city?
Leeds was an amazing city to meet in, but we were not part of what was happening up there with the awesome dance to the radio, and had really stayed hidden away in Lawrence’s basement trying to figure out who we were. We loved Leeds and really enjoyed all the clubs and bands that were coming out, but we ourselves waited till coming down to London to really step out. Leeds was all ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and Futureheads 7”s which was amazing but eventually we had to move to London, it was a pull we couldn’t resist.
What are the differences between the two cities musically? Are people more receptive in London or Leeds?
It’s a real mix. People say London crowds are hard, but they love music down here. There were like 2000 people at LA2 to watch Vampire Weekend at 2am in the morning last Saturday so to say that they don’t go crazy for music is just not true. London is like Leeds, Huddersfield, Bradford, Halifax and Sheffield all pushed together, you can know one area but not another, and that’s good and bad. Also we have been so lucky to meet so many great people in London that have been helpful and kind about what we’re trying to do so that means I have a great fondness for it. But Leeds is part of us irrevocably. It shaped what we wanted to do and gave us a freedom and an excitement about music. And people really care about putting gigs on and supporting all comers whatever they are trying to do. I could talk about the North/South divide on so many levels for hours, but basically both cities are great for music, and I think Britain as a whole is really opening up its ears at the roots level of music again.
Lyrically, you seem a little bit more obscure than most bands. Is this a conscious effort on your behalf to make music which is different, or simply a natural thing for you?
I grew up listening to early REM records that were scattered around my dad’s record collection. And straight away I loved that they really cared about using words the right way. I also loved how they placed images in my head that were like little seeds I could hold close and find my own meanings to, and feel moved by. The amount of times I’ve paused my walkmen and thought to myself “Wow that is it, that’s completely it!!” then spent days clinging to that one idea or image is uncountable.
When I listen to Neutral Milk Hotel I sometimes lie away at night thinking over and over what is being said, and the melodies just won’t let me sleep, while on the other hand I love the way Rivers Cuomo can make you feel drunk and alive with his words but also keep that sentiment of loss and truth at the heart of what is being sung.
We all write lyrics differently within but I think we all challenge each other to write better and better lyrics. And I love the style that everyone writes in, it’s exciting to see where one of us will go next with his thoughts. It’s cool.
It’s not conscious to be obscure though, we want to connect with people, but then at the same time we don’t want to under estimate people’s ability to understand things and be moved in a way that isn’t necessarily being beaten over the head with a big stick that says “I’m happy, I’m sad, I lost the woman I loved, The archives from the last days of the USSR government are somehow a metaphor for the wasted days I spent with that girl I met one summer while I was waiting tables in Madrid. A whole lot of wasted words and personal history, eventually lost and crushed never to be got back again.”
Are you former history students? I only ask because you seem to reference many a historical battle, character in both your music and on your website… Please don’t take offence at that question! I’m a former history student myself!
I’m sure we’ve all studied history at some point in our lives I think??!?! It’s something that we enjoy looking into and playing with. There are so many things that are awe inspiring in Art History, Military History, Political History etc. And exploring them in your chosen art form, and twisting them and turning them into something new is a lot of fun, and an exciting thing for us to play with. I hope people enjoy it and can see what we’re trying to do with it. But I don’t think we look at things with sepia tinged glasses. Playing music in Britain at the moment is such an amazing thing, and we really want to work with new artists from all different places, but there is so much to be dug through and we do enjoy doing it.
You have recently been signed to Weekender records who will be releasing some of your singles. How did that come about and what will you be releasing? Have you an album in the pipeline?
We met them at In The City in Manchester, where we spent a rainy wet weekend hiding out in an abandoned frozen attic space in the centre of Deansgate and playing as many times as we could to dancers, writers, drunks and DJs. We also drunk so much liqour on the Sunday night at Mojo that we had to sign the Weekender deal in the blood from our eyes. We met so many great people that weekend and James was definitely one of them. Him and Andy also buy great pizza and it’s only cause we owe them a Hawaii’n stuffed crust that they are still agreeing to work with us. Also an independent label that has spent a lot of time putting out 7” vinyl by independently minded bands with loads of different sounds, is obviously one that cares about music and the way it reaches people and that is very important to us.
You’ve received a lot of mainstream press interest at the moment, from the Guardian to Time Out via the NME who said of your Koko gig that, “Tonight the foursome show that they have the pop-tential to be a seriously classic mainstream band”. How do you feel about all the attention and praise you’ve been receiving recently? Are you happy that people are finally taking an interest?
Everyone has been very kind about us so far and that’s been great. I’m sure we’ll get bad reviews as well, but that’s cool as well. Most importantly off the back of the coverage in Clash and Artrocker and NME we’re had loads of people hearing our songs and coming to see us and dancing and having fun and nothing makes us happier than that. Also you have to remember that all these words get written by people who have come to see us, and meeting people that love music and write about it day to day is great, cause we get to talk about music with them, and they’re always telling us about great bands and swapping advice on which records to buy.
You’ve played some quite big gigs recently at Islington Academy as part of Artrocker’s night and Club NME at Koko. How does it differ to playing the smaller London venues and nights? Is there a lot more pressure, or is it simply a case of getting up there and strutting your stuff?
We’ve really enjoyed the bigger stages as you can really push it out and give the tunes some space. Koko was definitely the most amazing gig so far and all bands love going there. The theatre space is just so beautiful. But we’ve played squat parties in Edinburgh with one speaker, two microphones, and 10 square feet of space and it was one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever played.
Alex had to shout out his love songs to the back of the room straight at the person they were written for using a loud hailer he found in the bathroom and there was so much pandemonium that the band on afterwards just split up rather than play cause it was to insane to go on. But if you’re getting to play Koko then a lot of people who aren’t aware of the underground party squat scene in Edinburgh can see you and that’s brilliant.
Now you’re a little more well know, do you find it easier to get people to listen and enjoy the shows? What is the worst experience you’ve had at a live gig?
I don’t know if we’re well known yet? But if that does start to happen then that’s brilliant. If people will listen to you then you can’t ask more really. And these big gigs, and people like Artrocker and NME having faith in us to play these gigs is brill. The bad experiences just go too deep to even contemplate, but we still tour Britain in the back of national express busses and after four hours sleep on a floor in Scarborough it’s all a cup of tea can do to keep you from collapsing in a heap of Iris Murdoch novels before Scotch Corner.
What up-and-coming acts have you played with that you have personally enjoyed?
Orphans and Vandals make me want to smoke crack and move to Paris in 1918. Siegfried Sassoon play the best game boy pop in the capital. Further afield, I’m in love with Black Kids and Vampire Weekend at the moment. And Itch always need to be mentioned. Their LP Well Well Well and Three Holes in the Ground is a couple of years old now but the best £5 a man will ever spend.
You are playing Rockbeatstone’s gig night Backstreets which I’m sure you will have realised is a tribute to the Boss (and not the Backstreet Boys as some people have mentioned). I saw a frankly ridiculous photo of you on the net from a few years back where you were wearing T-Shirts with “Born”, “to” and “Run” sketched on them. Are you big Boss fans? Is he a musical inspiration ? What other bands/acts inspire you?
Bruce is life. This cannot be overstated. Did you think it was a ridiculous photo? Oh! I loved those T-shirts. Other three words Bruce Songs: ‘She’s The One’, ‘My Father’s House’, ‘She’s The One’, ‘The Long Goodbye’
But we’re a four piece band now so we could have: ‘Born In The USA’, ‘Roll Of The Dice’, ‘My City Of Ruins’…my favourite Bruce songs are ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Brilliant Disguise’ so if you want to suggest this idea to Das Wanderlust or White Stripes then please do.
Bruce is a really true writer, and the most amazing performer. I could talk for ages about his work but it would be boring. Bright Eyes are another band I love. Weezer are just about perfect and R.E.M do the same things to me that Bruce does. Also bands around us that are doing things that are interesting and true. I also love William Boyd, Iris Murdoch, John Betjeman, The Lives of Others, Steve McQueen, The Beatles, The Modern Lovers.
Also things in the world that just seem strange and wrong are kind of inspirational in a strange way. Heat magazine, Big Brother, kids stabbing each other over where they are from, lonely people at Christmas. Also just things that happen to me, a smile on a tube line or a couple meeting underneath the clock at Waterloo station on a Friday night.
There is a chapter in Atonement that talks about walking through a country lane in the warm summer sun, on your way to a party in a crisp outfit, going to meet a woman you are in love with and feeling like you are bristling with the very excitement of the moment and the anticipation of what will come. All songs, happy or sad, should have a little bit of that feeling, wherever you find it, within them
What is the one song that you wish you could have written?
‘Thunder Road’. I think it does a bit of all I’ve just talked about!
What is your favourite Bob Dylan song? Do you even like Bob Dylan ?
Tom loves Bob Dylan. I would go for ‘Shelter From The Storm’, or ‘I Shall Be Released’, but The Band version, who I like more than Dylan. Interjection from Tom: Yes I love Bob Dylan. I especially admire his ability to mix obscure/mysterious lyrics with more explicit and transparent material. “Do I understand your question, man? Is it hopeless and forlorn? Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” There is a lifetime’s worth of suffering and compassion in those two lines alone.