Yup, it’s six-gun ‘n’ ten-gallon — from Odd bins — fun all the way. as THE AUTEURS release their second album, Now I’m A Cowboy. LUKE ‘Shane’ HAINES tells ANDREW MUELLER about his sneaking admiration for the aristocracy as he prepares to shoot it out with the upper middle classes.
LUKE HAINES doesn’t do mornings. Even at the best of times, he’s more likely to be voted President of Albania than Britain’s best-dressed young songwriter, and this is not the best of times.
This particular Friday has dawned especially hard, and Luke’s looking like someone’s set him on fire and beaten it out with a railway sleeper — even more than he usually does.
He gazes balefully into his third coffee and slowly contemplates the last question, the one about the Americana and the extraordinary class loathing that infest his band’s forthcoming second album, Now I’m A Cowboy, from the title downwards.
“I don’t think at all that it’s an attractive thing,” he begins, “but the reality of it is that everyone over there can at least touch that golden upper-class thing, and here you obviously never can. I think the thing in England is that people are obsessed with the working classes which, for me, is impossible to deal with. Everyone here is so entrenched in their own class. Music here always seems to be about young, angry, working class bands doing this sort of… shouty thing.” Haines is not known for shouting, but then it’s difficult with an apparently permanently curled top lip. The Auteurs’ fine 1993 debut album New Wave found Haines regarding the famous with a bilious sarcasm born of pure envy, channelling his contempt for his own obscurity into a deadpan tirade against the hollowness, futility and inherent delusion of fame.
A year later, the marvellous Now I’m A Cowboy — more cool, cold, Peter-Perrett-sings-The-Go-Betweens pop — seems to be doing the same for the rich and well-born; 11 tracks of Haines pissing in their pools, poisoning their Pekineses and running coins down the paintwork of their Bentleys, all the time wishing for a taste of the silver spoon himself.
“I think that’s probably very true, yes. There is a fair amount of class hatred on it. It’s odd. because it does have this American feel, but… sorry, it’s really difficult for me to be objective about it, because I haven’t listened to the thing for ages. But it does have this whole class hatred thing, yet with an American backdrop, which I realise doesn’t quite gel, but I like that.”
IN HIS book Fever Pitch, the surprisingly literate, self-confessed Home Counties bourgeois Arsenal fan Nick Hornby attempts to rationalise his attraction to the rough and tumble of Highbury’s North Bank.
“The white south of England middle class Englishman and woman is the most rootless creature on earth,” he argues. “We would rather belong to any other community in the world… we have nothing, or at least nothing we want. Hence the phenomenon of mock-belonging, whereby pasts and backgrounds are manufactured and massaged in order to provide some kind of acceptable cultural identity.”
Haines hasn’t read it, but he takes the point.
“My background is totally middle class,” he says, “it’s that completely blank thing. So I can’t have this hatred of the middle classes that the working classes can, because that’s what I am. I think my hatred is probably more of the upper middle class.
“I’ve found myself in situations with people where I’ve just had to leave the room because what they’ve said has wound me up so much. There’s that line in ‘The Upper Classes’ (the album’s centrepiece, a six-minute rant of distilled, savage resentment) that says there is nothing wrong with inherited wealth. I’ve got no f—ing problem with that at all, it’s just the stupid people who want to attain that.
“There’s this terrible, fraudulent thing about the upper middle class, this kind of, erm… Oddbins mentality. This pathetic need to imitate blue blood that you’ll just never have. You can always spot it a mile off.”
So, disgusted at his own participation in a social structure determined by accident of birth, Haines takes his bat, ball and guitar and flees across the Atlantic, at least for a couple of tours — “Always a total disaster from day one” — and a spot of fascinated voyeurism. Even against America’s nominally egalitarian backdrop, however, Now I’m A Cowboy reveals Haines to be an accomplished inverted snob.
The album finds Luke on the streets of Hollywood, mocking the mourners of an imaginary film star (‘Lenny Valentino’); hands in pockets in Greenwich Village, shaking a knowing head at trust-fund bohemians in designer berets (‘Chinese Bakery’, his best to date); and ringing in late from a hotel room in Baltimore, partially to admit his own starving artist pretensions, mostly to deride someone else’s (‘Underground Movies’).
Even a track like ‘New French Girlfriend’ (“Want a girl to hold my hand/When the plane lands”) sounds, in this context, like Luke daring to imagine himself as some sort of bloated, Rod Stewart-esque, exiled rock’n’roll elder statesman.
“Yeah, maybe,” he allows, building to one of his trademark, lofty soundbites. “I don’t know. That song, I think, is just really good poetry. When you look at it written down, it looks like a f—ing great poem, which is definitely more important than the song. I don’t know whether people can get into that or not, but it was more that, I think, than me imagining myself into that south of France lifestyle. It was just my idea of a slightly twisted pop song.”
That could have been more twisted still?
“Yeah,” he says. “It was supposed to be a kind of duet with Vanessa Paradis. She was up for it, apparently, but it all got a bit complicated. They wanted to do it on French television, with a French backing band and… I dunno, me hiding behind a speaker, or something. I think eventually her management decided it wasn’t the greatest career move for her. Shame.”
Isn’t ‘Chinese Bakery’ a bit rich coming from you, of all people? Having a dig at the self-consciously arty — the girl from uptown going downtown (“Because she’s a poet,” the song goes, with impeccable derision) — and all that.
“Yeah,” he admits. “It’s, erm… very Billy Joel, isn’t it? I don’t think that one really is sneering, I think that one’s quite light-hearted. I started off wanting to write a really vicious song about someone, but then… I just couldn’t be bothered, really.
“I didn’t want it to be another ‘Idiot Brother’ (a notorious cut from New Wave, a torrent of Dylanish invective dumped over a former music business associate), because I do get tired of writing stuff like that.
“And it is easy. It’s much harder to back off, rather than going flat out at something like that.”
But you acknowledge the contradiction.
“Oh, yeah. But I never get worried about whether I’m contradicting myself, because I think the best stuff is full of contradictions. So maybe a lot of crap comes out, but you hit a target sometimes.”
AND AGAIN and again on Now I’m A Cowboy, Luke’s tomatoes are bouncing off the pasty faces of the moneyed gentry, though he remains churned up by his incurable, inexplicable admiration for his alleged social superiors. On the elegant ‘Rich Man’s Toy’ he abases himself in the glitter of their gold — just as he once choked on his worship of the undeserving famous in ‘Valet Parking’.
“There is a certain amount of self-laceration to it,” he concedes, “as there has to be. I don’t think I could sing that stuff without demeaning myself in the process anyway. ‘Rich Man’s Toy’ was about a few things that happened to me around Christmas, and the song just became more violent as it went on.”
Luke won’t elaborate, but is clearly having difficulty coming to terms with whatever dealings with the aristocracy he’s had.
“I think it’s probably envy tinged with respect. It has to be that. And that’s a terrible thing to have to say. And I have to reconcile that, and I don’t really know how to do that. I don’t want to feel like this, but I do have a certain respect for all that, yes. And I know I can never match that. You can’t beat inherited wealth, because inherited wealth just runs and runs on its own. But I do have to try to reconcile that, and I think maybe that’s where these songs are coming from.”
Most people try to reconcile that by running from it though, rather than confronting it. Did you ever do that?
“Oh, yeah. I was always incredibly embarrassed about being middle class up until I was about 16. I wanted to be working class, or something, and be angry about all those things you’re supposed to be angry about. But it was only in my latter years at school, because I went to a comprehensive school that was quite working class, and I wasn’t. So I didn’t really feel like… like I belonged.”
And did you try to belong in the traditional downwardly mobile fashion, by dressing like a bag of shit and dropping your aitches?
“Naw. I’ve always dressed like a bag of shit and dropped my aitches.”
© Andrew Mueller, New Musical Express, 9 April 1994