The streets of Prague are walked freely these days, but Alice Nutter knows them from way back, before the stunning collapse of communism and the even stranger rise of her band, Chumbawamba.
It’s a cold, rainy night in the Czech Republic, and Nutter is killing time, wandering the cobblestones before she plays a sold-out show to 1,200 waiting fans. Chumbawamba divide their duties evenly, and Nutter – with her bright-blue hair and affable, bookish manner – serves as the group’s primary spokeswoman. When she reaches a gated passageway, she stops.
“We played a show down there once,” says Nutter, pointing into the dark. “Before the wall came down. It was this tiny squat, basically. And all these kids from Poland came on trains and buses from, like, 10 hours away. It was incredible. We had to play again the next night just so the people from Prague could see us.”
Nutter walks on, reminiscing about the days when her group’s records were available here only through a small underground network. Back then there was order to the universe. The Cold War was a constant, as was the fact that Chumbawamba would never be anything but an obscure eight-person collective of anarchists from Leeds, England. The emergence of the band’s Tubthumper – a Top 10 album featuring the sensation “Tubthumping” – was about as likely as jailed playwright Vaclav Havel being elected president of the then-Czechoslovakia.
Nutter takes a left and heads toward the club. It’s only 20 minutes before show time. She passes her band mate Dunstan Bruce at a pay phone, but the fans milling about in front of the venue take no notice. A lot might have changed since the upheavals of 1989; Chumbawamba might be the most unlikely success story of this or any year; but they still aren’t recognizable pop stars. Things haven’t gotten that weird.
PART I: THE SUBTLETY OF CHUMBA
“THIS SONG IS DEDICATED TO NOEL GALLAGHER and Prime Minister Tony Blair,” shouts Dunstan Bruce before the group’s second song. “They’re great friends. They drink champagne together.” He pauses to let the insult sink in, then adds, “This song is called ‘I Can’t Hear You ‘Cause Your Mouth’s Full of Shit.'”
And then music and lyrics collide at once. Bruce and fellow vocalist Danbert Nobacon lurch and rap at the front of the stage: “I can’t hear you ’cause your mouth’s full of shit/I can’t hear you ’cause your mouth’s full of shit/Do something about it/I can’t hear you ’cause your mouth’s full of shit.”
Suddenly the lilting voice of Lou Watts floats in: “If you think you’re God’s gift, you’re a liar,” she sings. “I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.”
And then Bruce and Nobacon get back to work.
“I can’t hear you ’cause your mouth’s full of shit/I can’t hear you…”
Even in English, the Czech crowd understands every word.
WITH SUCH UNPLEASANTNESS OUT OF THE WAY, the band members retreat backstage after the show, where they chat and lounge idly. They drink a whiskey drink, they drink a vodka drink, they drink a lager drink. Unfortunately, there is no cider available to round out the lyrical synchronicity.
All eight band members wear stark black shoes, black socks, black army pants, black sweaters. It’s as if they’re trying to blend into the cover of a Spinal Tap album. How much more black could they be wearing? The answer is none. None more black.
“You look all raggle-taggle if you don’t decide,” says Nutter of the dress code. “Imagine if the Black Panthers had worn woolly jumpers, all different colors.”
In truth, however, the members of Chumbawamba look less like a militant organization than like a group of philosophy grad students. They are in their early to mid-30s, extremely friendly, pale, studious and obviously in tight with the fringe elements of the world’s hairstylists. There is Nutter (vocals, percussion, blue hair), Nobacon (vocals, no hair), Bruce (vocals, percussion, bleached hair) and Watts (vocals, keyboards, spiky hair). And then there are the others: Boff (vocals, guitar, bleached hair), Harry Hamer (drums, leopard-patterned hair), Jude Abbott (vocals, trumpet, bleached hair) and, finally, Paul Greco, the bassist and owner of a hairdo somewhere in transition from Sid Vicious to Coolio, or vice versa.
They are an odd lot. Earlier in the day, at a photo shoot, they scowled at the camera in unison. The moment the photographer took a break, however, they began laughing and joking like the old friends they are. You can feign anger only for so long. “If you see us live, you know we have a sense of humor because we’re just not cool,” says Nutter. “We wear stupid costumes. It’s not dignified. It’s more Liza Minnelli than Verve.”
FOR SELF-PROCLAIMED ANARCHISTS, Chumbawamba are the most precisely organized, democratic group of people you could ever meet. Granted, they subscribe less to the idea of anarchism as chaos than to the definition of it as a fight to keep society from being corrupted by institutions of authority. They hate the police; they encourage fans to shoplift their albums from large retail chains; they’ve spent much of their career living off welfare in order to subvert the system.
In accordance with these principles, every single Chumbawamba decision, down to the color of socks worn onstage, is put to a vote; each member is assigned a musical and an administrative duty; and all money is distributed evenly, even among the band’s road crew.
“When we first started, we thought, ‘We’re an anarchist collective, therefore there will be eight people in the mixing room trying to mix an album,'” says Boff, who along with Hamer handles all mixing and most musical duties. “And you can’t. The bass goes up, so the snare drum has to come up, and then everything just gets louder.”
It is midafternoon in Budapest, Hungary. The band has traveled here from Prague, by way of a show for 8,000 fans in Katowice, Poland. Boff is sitting with Bruce and Hamer in a cavernous cafe, trying to explain the intricacies of the Chumba organization. Sometime during the drive from Poland to Hungary, his hair went from bleach-white to Kool-Aid red. He doesn’t mention what vote tally the new coif garnered.
“We had a meeting recently about this stuffed turkey,” says Boff, describing the group’s process.
Bruce interrupts. “Come on – it’s a puppet.”
“This Irish puppet turkey called Dustin the Turkey,” concedes Boff. “Apparently he was Ireland’s biggest-selling artist two years ago. This stuffed turkey – excuse me, puppet turkey.”
“Stop dissing the turkey,” yells Bruce. “You’re not taking the turkey seriously.”
“So, anyway,” continues Boff, “the turkey wants to do a version of ‘Tubthumping.’ But the turkey wants to change all the lyrics so it’s about mending the roads. And it became a thing where I was the baddie. Everybody else was falling over laughing and saying, ‘Give the turkey our song.’ But I said, ‘No, it’s not right.'”
“So,” I ask, “do you hate all turkeys or just this particular turkey?”
“No, I don’t hate the turkey,” shouts Boff. He leans back in his chair, dejected, as his friends laugh. “I like the turkey,” he says. “If the turkey wants a fresh song, we’ll write it one.”
THE E-CLUB IN BUDAPEST LIES ON THE EXTREME outer rim of the city, in a desolate, wooded area – an obvious outpost from the days when such venues were frowned upon. It’s bitter cold and pouring rain, and the 1,500-person-capacity club has been oversold, leaving hundreds of Hungarian teens huddled outside. Backstage, Paul Greco snatches them food from the dressing room and talks to security in the hopes of sneaking them in for free.
More than most groups, the members of Chumbawamba understand the need to band together. They’ve been together for 15 years, and for six of those in the ’80s they squatted in the house in Leeds that Nutter still calls home. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, and the group was forced to share everything: money, food, chores and, well, everything.
“Harry and Lou are a couple now,” says Nutter. “And Lou and Boff had a relationship for a few years. The rest of us shagged each other occasionally. But you get to a point where once you’ve done it, you’ve done it, and it’s almost out of the way. You don’t have to keep doing it.”
What they did keep doing was making music. Punk albums, singles, a collection of folky worker songs and, for the last few years, the dance-rock-rap collage that is the Chumban formula: funky drums, white-boy power rap, ethereal female vocals and the kind of shamelessly popey choruses that sound best when sung by about 25 people. Yet until Tubthumper, few people cared. (Chumbawamba have trumpet solos, for God’s sake.) The band’s indie label, One Little Indian, even rejected the latest record, advising Chumbawamba to go vote themselves a new sound. When the group stuck to its guns, the album was picked up by EMI in England and, finally, Universal in the U.S.
“For years you do something because you enjoy it, and you have to trust that people respect that,” says Hamer. “Whereas as soon as you get on Top of the Pops, suddenly it’s in a context that people can understand, and they respect you. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been having a really good time, earning a living for 10 years doing a job that you love.”
PART II: THE NUANCE OF WAMBA
“WE’RE AN ANTI-FASCIST BAND,” announces Boff to the Budapest crowd, “and this is an anti-fascist song.”
It’s the a cappella section of the Chumbawamba show – a moment no small number of Hungarians use to head to the bar – and the other band members exit the stage, leaving Boff, Watts and Abbott alone to sing “The Day the Nazi Died.” It is a song they wrote as a reaction to pro-fascist rallies after the death of Rudolf Hess.
They croon in high, up-with-people harmonies: “The world is riddled with maggots/The maggots are getting fat/They’re making a tasty meal of all the bosses and bureaucrats/They’re taking over boardrooms, and they’re fat and full of pride/And they all come out of the woodwork on the day the Nazi died/So if you meet with these historians/I’ll tell you what to say/Tell them that the Nazis never really went away/They’re out there burning houses down and peddling racist lies/And we’ll never rest a minute until every Nazi dies.”
WHEN CHUMBAWAMBA CLOSE THEIR Budapest set with “Tubthumping,” the place goes up for grabs. Beers fly, bodies mash together, and fists pump in unison. “I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.” It is a song best shouted, a chant about working-class British folk getting liquored up and shooting their mouths off. Only now it’s being sung by a bunch of working-class Hungarian kids happy to be booze-addled and screaming themselves.
All of Tubthumper is fueled by issues of class warfare, but it is “Tubthumping” that has connected, largely because it is a celebration. The members of Chumbawamba are working-class and proud.
“What I hated about Blur was the way the music press said it was social commentary about England in the ’90s,” says Nutter. “I just thought they were looking down on people. I hate the idea that Blur talk in really condescending tones or about people who play bingo and watch telly. Well, we play bingo and watch telly, and it doesn’t mean we’re stupid.”
And so they sing, as much for the simple reason that they can as to preach a message.
“It’d be pompous if we said, ‘You have to get the whole picture or we failed,'” says Nutter. “The way we exist isn’t to be a shining example for the world. All the 10-point plans in the world don’t change the fact that ultimately we do this because it makes us feel euphoric.”
DANBERT NOBACON IS IN GREAT spirits. It is breakfast time in Budapest, and he strolls around the hotel buffet dressed in black shoes, black tights, a black miniskirt and a black sweater.
In a few days he will be detained by police in Florence, Italy, for six hours, just for wearing this very get-up. At the moment, however, he is as happily oblivious as a man in a miniskirt can be. He is where he has been for years – firmly ensconced within the family Wamba.
“We’re going to be weird, freaky old people, I’m sure,” admits Boff of the group’s future. “We won’t look right. We’ll have odd socks on and weird trainers, bumping into people on the street and not caring. But I love people like that. I think it’s great.”
In the short term, the destination is clear: Vienna, Austria. Another chance to play, another chance to scream the chorus of the hit that, almost against anyone’s will, has insinuated itself into brains worldwide. The fact that Chumbawamba will probably end up being a one-hit wonder misses the point. The wonder is that they ever had a hit at all.