"It's like someone's gone to your kitchen drawer, taken all your bills out and paid them for you," smiles Richard March. It's good to know that he can see the brighter side.
He's one of several supposedly doomed men in an apparently doomed place, yet the ambience is cheery. Two home-grown rock institutions have fallen on hard times. It's a drearily familiar scenario. The beloved Town & Country Club, soon to close unless the campaign to save it succeeds, is tonight home to Pop Will Eat Itself. Aptly so, because the Poppies, almost as beloved as the T&C, are now a band without a label.
They're not wallowing in the loss, however: according to them, they're victors in the divorce. It's five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, and instead of being gathered round the goggle-box waiting to see if Wolves have won, the Poppies are grouped around a table in the upstairs bar, discussing their current situation. The delicious aroma of on-tour catering wafts from behind them. In front, the not-so-delicious sound of Back To The Planet doing a soundcheck thunders through. On the table sit bottles of Becks and Corona, and, ironically, this might be the first time they can really afford them.
Despite Count Draculamont's optimistic indicators, there's still a recession raging and record companies are laying off staff at regular intervals the same as every other industry. Their `rationalisations' (i.e. pursuance of larger profits) mean that any band perceived as a loss-making venture will be dumped.
Don't tell us that it's our fault shrugs Mr Record Company. You need expensive new formats for playing music on even though you were perfectly happy with your record player There's nothing wrong with our endless repackaging of the work of reformed junkies who haven't made a good record since 1968. And the cover versions are selling very well, since you asked. It's the new bands' fault. They don't write good songs anymore. We've tried our best.
Do you have any idea how much money we invest in new bands? Why, we've spent a quarter of a million on Take That. And as for the kids' obsession with bleep music and Sonic 2, well, that's out of our hands. They just don't want to know about rock'n'roll anymore.
So say "hi" to the dole queue Pop Will Eat Itself, Julian Cope and the rest of yers. Signing on time is every other Wednesday morning at 10.40 prompt. We always thought you were a bunch of wasters. It was your funny hair that did it.
Except that it hasn't quite worked out like that. Unless Clint, Graham and co are trying a bit of shock horror dole queue fiddling, PWEI probably haven't been near the department of employment for years, and are unlikely to drop in soon either. Because, according to their irrepressibly smug selves, getting slung off the RCA label is not the disaster it might be perceived to be. They may just be putting a brave face on it, but the evidence is all in their favour.
"Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!" the start of what is likely to become a long plundering of their back catalogue by RCA, shot into the singles charts at Number Nine. Their tour, including this `prestigious` weekend at the T&C, has sold out, one of the few tours to do so in recent times (if you want to hear real sob stories, just talk to promoters at the moment) despite the fact that their previous jaunt was only last November. And, until RCA pulled the plug, they were starting to make sense to the Americans, a hitherto unexpected feat of persuasion. Pop Will Eat Itself are at the top of their career. It's a strange time to be an unsigned band, as the unsigned band are fully aware.
"We weren't worried that the gigs would do well," says Adam, the loudest Poppie. "The kids don't care that you haven't got a record deal."
"When a band gets dropped generally," reasons Clint, "they're dropped because nobody's interested and the record company ain't gonna fund 'em anymore. They generally split up at that point because they've been banging their heads against a brick wall and it's not happening. Our situation is bizarre. We're doing quite well but in the current economic situation nobody's making money. "I can understand RCA saying 'Well, they owe us shit-loadsa cash and we're probably never get gonna get it back'. The reason why they were never going to get the money back is because they were doing the bare minimum with us. Everybody knows that this is a business where you make money by spending money, flashing it around. If you're not prepared to do that, why sign a band in the first place?
"We're on the up. We've had one of our best years ever. Record companies, like every other company, are run by accountants. They balance the books, with very little interest in artistic development.
It's not a surprise that we've gone." "The crux of the matter," says Adam "is that RCA have been a poor company over the last four or five years and the powers that be at the top have sacked a lot of the people who originally signed us. Now there's hardly anybody at the company who was there when we signed, right down to the secretaries. The new people there aren't interested in us, which is fair enough. You don't have to like every band just because they're on your label. In those circumstances it's not gonna work for us to stay.'
The Poppies aren't kidding themselves. Clint agrees that no matter how exciting the band might be, neither he nor Graham have got a `radio-friendly` voice. They did Top of The Pops the week that `Get the Girl! hit the Top Ten, but their wildness probably terrified the WWF Superstars fans and the record predictably tumbled to 30 the following week.
But PWEI aren't about to crawl into a pit at the lack of radio interest and the absence of a universally-shaggable frontman. And they may be labelless at the moment, but there are signs that this will rapidly change. There were 12 different A&R men in attendance for the two T&C shows something which Graham calls "a major boost to your confidence". What's more the band are now, as Richard March's kitchen drawer simile makes clear, free of their debts to the company. That makes them ?1OO,OOO better off in theory, some pundits allege. But according to Clint, the bottom line is not their bank balance.
"We knew they weren't really into us," he asserts. "The classic example is when 'Karmadrome' came out. It went in at 17 in the charts. We had no radio play, and there wasn't much press coverage on it. It was just bought by our groundswell of fans. Take That, who are also on RCA, put out 'It Only Takes A Minute', and it went in at 16, one place above us. They'd been all over kids' shows and on the radio, which is their thing, fair enough. But RCA were completely made up that they were there, and nobody said a thing about going in one place behind them with f-ing nothing supporting us. "We're a pretty strong unit, with the fans, our management and crew. We just need the last piece of the jigsaw, which is someone that believes in you at the record company level. Which we have had at RCA, but they're all gone now."
No-one is safe from the axe, unless they're the regrettably indestructible Phil Collins. Before Christmas the music biz grapevine was twanging to the story that one of RCA's indie-oriented acts would be dropped in January, but the early betting favourites were The Wedding Present, not PWEI. The Weddoes have survived, but it's evidence that chart positions mean nothing if a band that has just had a dozen hits in a year are rumoured to have their heads on the block.
The Poppies, in their usual pioneering style, have been the first successful band of their generation to mosh over the record company precipice. They were the first band to stagger out of the so-called Stourbridge Scene, predating the Stuffies and Ned's, and were the first to shake off the `grebo' image. They waggled their black country butts to black music's beats before Madchester made it fashionable to do so. Graham abandoned his drum kit and the group embraced computer rhythms years before Carter came along. They recklessly tried to sell themselves to a new audience by supporting Public Enemy, which saw them bottled off stage and thrown off the tour. And now they're the first Stourbridge band to hit the scrapheap - albeit temporarily. If they weren't so pioneering, would they have had an easier ride?
"Are Pop Will Eat Itself seminal - discuss?" mocks Fuzz, who has been grinning madly at the tales of major label woe.
Graham demurs. "I can't really go along with all this pioneer shit really. It's embarrassing. I think we're probably more adventurous than the average... average white band."
"We only nicked it off someone else," suggests Adam.
"I think we got the stick for bands that came later and didn't get the stick," says Clint. "People said we shouldn't be trying to do dance music. Well, you don't hear that now, because we got it all!"
Look at Carter, I say. They've had all sorts of praise, while you've been slagged for doing much the same thing. Sad but true. "That's so sad," says Clint dryly. "Come and spend an hour with Pop Will Eat Itself: it'll depress the f- out of you. Tonight, you'll go home and hang yourself."
"My dog died three weeks ago," laments Graham. "He's buried in the garden. It's probably raining on him right now. Some big bird'll come and take a big bite out of him..."
You can take it as read that Pop Will Eat Itself bury depression with their dogs. Try to wind them up by asking if they feel like grand old men now that they've been the subject of a book (The Eight Legged Groove Machine Will Eat Itself, and they laugh and say, "We are grand old men."
Being in a band is like being a football manager. The second someone with more power than you tells you that you have their full confidence, you've had it.
"Public Enemy at Brixton was no joke," says Clint. "That's a classic case of what we're like. We thought that'd be a great move. Wrong."
"Public Enemy were like elder statesmen, even though they're younger than us," calculates Adam. "They said, 'Keep your chins up, guys, they're just ignorant,' when we got bottled off. They'd had much the same thing when they started, and Chuck D said, `You've just gotta keep ramming it down their throats'."
"He said that moments before we were chucked unceremoniously off the tour" Richard adds dryly.
Likewise, record companies wield the knife with kid gloves. "They give you a meeting beforehand," smirks Fuzz, "and say, 'Yeah, yeah, great, those are great ideas'. Then they ring your manager the next morning and tell him you're dropped. They keep you sweet while you're in the building in case you don't take it too well!"
"They use phrases like 'We don't think we can give the band what they deserve'," says Clint. "Or 'I don't want the boys to release a record that I'm not happy with'. Well, why isn't he making the records if he's not happy with what the artists are making?"
"We were the least surprised people when we were dropped because we knew it was coming," says Clint. "People are going well, they're in the charts, tour sold out, they've just toured Australia, toured Europe with EMF, done America with the Neds, everybody seems to like 'em... and you've dropped 'em. That adds up! Record companies spend years trying to get bands to the position we're in. RCA have still got the f-in' Silencers and they were there before we were! But there's no sour grapes, it's just a harsh fact of what we do. All bands slag off their record companies. It's just the way it is."
"We'll stand a better chance of making money from now on because we've just rid of a shit-load of debt." says Adam.
"At the end of the day," reckons Clint, "a record company is just finance for trying to do something. If you're a creative type of person, not having the finance will make it a lot more difficult for you to do something, but you'll find a way of doing it somehow. If you're more interested in being a showbiz personality it's time to go and get a proper job. They're only moneymen at the end of the day. We're just looking for someone else now to... underwrite our debt!"
"The only annoying thing was in America," says Adam, "because we had this tour with the Neds which was MTV-backed. The album (`The Looks Or The Lifestyle") was just beginning to do well and `Bulletproof`, the week we were dropped, had the highest-added number of plays to alternative radio and it probably hasn't been played since: The American company were really f-ed off about it."
"When we turned up-to do our Australian dates," says Graham, "we saw the lack of international communication within the company. They met us at the airport and didn't even know we'd been dropped."
There were other problems with the company. The riff to Bulletproof is played several times a day on MTV, as part of the company's trailers and yet, according to Graham, "the f-wits never thought to get behind it."
Record Companies are not always consistent, and they're certainly not always right. RCA America didn't want to put out Londonbeat's records and turned down 'Thinking About You'. Instead MCA America picked up the rights to it and the dreadful dirge went to Number One there. All a record company can do is act in what it perceives to be its best long-term financial interest. It's not necessarily the best thing for the sake of pop, but then again, the best pop doesn't always make money.
This weekend's gigs served as a kind of showcase for PWEI. A&R people turned up in force and the Poppies were keen to be seen.
"We want people to have the whole picture," says Clint. "We want them to understand the band rather than going, `Right, they got to number nine. Well, if they slightly change their sound we could really have something here."
"When we had a meeting with RCA the week we got dropped it was like that." shrugs Adam. "Cover versions were mentioned. Could we write a song like `Unbelievable`? One thing that was said at that final meeting was maybe we could write songs with EMF, or get them for us, 'cos they knew we were mates with them. Like, `Ian, we're a bit down on our luck, have you got any tunes lying around?`"
"Could we trim the instrumental passages in our numbers? That was another one," recalls Graham, incredulously.
"When we were on tour in Europe," foams Clint, "the new A&R man who we'd known about two minutes took it upon himself to remix `Get the Girl!` for the radio. He took away all the sample sounds and replaced them with normal keyboard programme sounds. It sounded likethe bedroom demo we'd done in the first place. F- off!"
"We said we wanted to do the next album with Adrian Sherwood and they said, 'How about Langer & Winstanley?`" Adam is clearly puzzled at the idea that Madness' producers might polish the pandemonium.
Talk of the time elapsed since 'The Poppies Say Grrr', their debut, was released reveals another Poppies pioneering error and introduces a little of the lewdness they're famed for. They could have sued Betty Boo, whose last album was `Grrr', if they'd have thought to copyright the word.
"We're trying to keep on good terms with her," smirks Graham. "You never know what the future holds. She might turn up backstage one night..."
Adam intervenes. "Calm down Gra," he sneers. "You could have settled out of court."
They say they're not 'sitting on anything' - "only this stool," - they chorus - in the event of an emergency. There are unissued PWEI tracks knocking around, but doubtless RCA are sifting through them. Their next recording project is a one-off in the company of good bloke/dour artist/'Get The Girl!' remixer Adrian Sherwood for the 'Gimme Shelter' charidee album.
"We're not like Black Francis who can write 99 songs on the bus on the way to a gig," says Clint. "With us it's more like one song every 99 days. But if a song's that good, it's worth waiting for," he adds, in a voice that suggests that even he isn't convinced.
"It's a great song," confirms Adam, even though it hasn't been written yet.
The beers run out and the stonky pong of grub becomes overwhelming. A few hours later The Poppies, not mindful of their dead record deal, their dead debts, or even the delectable body of Betty Boo, burst onto the stage to reaffirm that they are very much alive, even if they are in a doomed venue and work in a doomed medium. The A&R men, trapped in a dreadlocked sea of moshers, surrender as PWEI do the dance of the mad one more time just for the sheer joy of knowing that they're free again for a while. Outside, the touts can't get enough tickets to flog at ?30 a whack.
Washed up? The Poppies? Wise up, sucker. Their video game, Midlands Super Mario characters have never been more relevant than they are today. Pop really has eaten itself, and Pop Will Eat Itself are happy worms in its gut. PWEI's big adventure isn't over: bulletproof if not recession-proof, this is their day; this is their hour. If only the record companies and the radio saw it that way, nothing could stop them.