Animals That Swim

SONGS ABOUT buying armfuls of Kit-Kat from the all-night garage; songs about lying drunk in the grass and seeing a face in the stars (“He’s here! King Beer!”); songs about bumping into Roy Orbison in the pub – who’s cursing the fact that he’d have been bigger than Elvis if he hadn’t been so ugly; songs about promising to buy your equally broke girlfriend this many dresses one day. It’s a rum old life, isn’t it? And if said existence rings a bell then Animals That Swim would like you to buy their records.

The South London five were formed in 1993 by brothers Hugh (guitarist, songs, some lyrics) and Hank Barker (vocals, most lyrics, drums), who, after various coming and goings have settled on eldest brother Al (keyboards), Tony Coote (bass) and Del Crabtree (trumpet). After an acclaimed clutch of singles and debut album Workshy, they entered an irksome business-generated hiatus, now they’re back, on even better form.

The first evidence was a single, ‘The Greenhouse’, the saga of an asthma sufferer being charged for seeking herbal relief. It runs thus: “Well, this was 1973 or so when the law hadn’t caught up with these things yet/At his allotment up North, the glasshouse was full of marijuana.”

Not aiming for daytime radio, then?
“Not with that one,” agrees Hugh. “It was part of a crass marketing plan anyway – we wanted to reintroduce ourselves after being away, to reach our old audience, and get a bit of attention, and sell lots with the next single. Whether it’ll work or not remains to be seen! Occasionally I think, I’ll write a pop song and see what happens…And it’s always fucking awful. You can only do what you do.”

That said, follow-up single ‘Faded Glamour’ is a relatively proper pop song, another of Hank’s through-a-beer-glass-darkly epistles. He delivers it as a sort of recitative – he actually delivers prose which Hugh chops up to fit verse and chorus. ATS songs often sound like short stories, which is odd because Hank – whose play Three Dolls Called Daisy ran in Greenwich for a month to good reviews, and whose lyrics have been published as poems in The New Statesman – reckons he can’t write stories.

“I’ve tried, and I’m crap. Anyway, they sound better put to music.”

Is there a common theme to ATS songs?
“Other people,” offers Hank. “Not that that’s really unusual, but a lot of songwriters write about themselves, don’t they? And all the time.”

“When they’re not stories about other people, the lyrics tend to be about fairly mundane, everyday things,” adds Hugh. “Stuff that’s going on around you, stories you’ve heard.”

“And as everyone knows,” concludes Hank, “the small, mundane details often reveal more.” Current master of the small, mundane detail, Jarvis Cocker gets the thumbs up from Hank, as does Randy Newman, master of the wry That’s a word that suits Animals That Swim.

“I’d go with that,” says Hugh. “Just don’t go for kooky”.

Their second album I Was The King, I Really Was The King has taken its name from a phrase once uttered by another champion of wryness, Orson Welles. “I think the phrase has some relevance to us,” Hank reflects. “It ties in with the idea of faded glamour…I just think it’s funny to pretend you’re talking about the past and you haven’t even had a past, really. Us? We’re just trying to enjoy what we’ve got now.”

© Martin AstonMOJO, July 1996

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