Jowe Head Swell Maps & Beyond
Jowe Head has continued to push the creative envelope to the very limits of its conception since joining Swell Maps in the late 70s. He & his cohorts have subsequently been blamed for the whole shebang/movement we lovingly refer to as DIY/Lo-Fi.
In these fickle times of fad & fair, it’s an honour to welcome a man of substance to the pages of tMx. Ladies & Gentlemen, without further ado, we give you: Jowe Head.
trakMARX - Tell us about Jowe Head before 1976.
Jowe - I am Jowe Head, christened Stephen Bird, from Dorridge! Before 1976, I was a music fan and keen art student. I liked listening to Can, Van der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, The Temptations and David Bowie. I liked the artwork of Tom Phillips and Max Ernst.
trakMARX - Tell us all about Solihull, Harbury, Leamington Spa & how you became a Swell Map.
Jowe -I later started making up tunes and trying to learn guitar in a variety of groups around Solihull, usually involving any combination of Nikki Sudden, his brother Epic Soundtracks, David Barrington (a.k.a. Phones Sportsman), Richard Scaldwell, and John Cockerill. John was awesome, cos he could actually play rather well! Our “scene” evolved into Swell Maps - all six of us played on various records, but Phones and John didn’t play live. I also played in a group with Epic and a guy called Ken Spiers - who later called himself Spizz - we met him again on the Rough Trade label in London, as friendly rivals! Birmingham was the nearest city, but we eventually started recording in WMRS in Leamington ‘cos it wasn’t far, and it was cheap and cheerful with an engineer who let us experiment.
trakMARX - The name 'Swell Maps' allegedly comes from the charts surfers use to plot their activities. Were there many good waves in the West Midlands during the mid to late 70s?
Jowe - Actually it wasn’t taken from surfing talk at all, but that’s a fascinating accidental tangent! It was from dialogue in a puppet show on UK tv called “Stingray”. You can hear the piece of dialogue on the start of our “Marineville” album which gives it away! Maybe the scriptwriter was a surfer, and this was an in-joke; who knows? Note the title of my track on that album called “Loin Of The Surf”, which is a co-incidence!
trakMARX - How did Swell Maps get involved with Rough Trade records?
Jowe - Rough Trade offered to distribute our DIY single “Read About Seymour”. This was a modest success, and they offered to release our next releases as a partnership with our Rather label.
trakMARX - Did Swell Maps invent the DIY/Indie/LoFi ethic unwittingly or knowingly?
Jowe - We didn’t actually invent the DIY punk scene, because The Buzzcocks released “Spiral Scratch” before that. They had management though, so I don’t think that they really count! Also, Television Personalities and the Desperate Bicycles were getting their own labels together at the same time. We all became aware of each other, and supported each others efforts - it was a shared sense of pride and pioneering spirit!
trakMARX - Apart from Marc Bolan, what other sounds informed that early Maps sound?
Jowe - Bolan was a big influence on Nikki, and we did “Almost Grown” by Chuck Berry a few times. I remember I encouraged us to play “Why Are We Sleeping” and “We Did It Again” by Soft Machine, and I remember us playing some Captain Beefheart tunes one time. We listened to Faust, and Epic was a huge fan of Can - you can hear this in the drumming sometimes. As for Phones - well, he loved Roxy Music and the dada poetry of Kurt Schwitters!
trakMARX - What was is like being championed by Paul Morely?
Jowe - Getting a review at all was awesome! Having people at NME and Sounds write about us was a real thrill, and I nearly passed out when I heard us on the radio for the first time! John Peel was a great champion for our efforts at the start. He will be greatly missed. I heard that he’d died last week.
trakMARX - Was his subsequent ZZT label a source for inspiration or hilarity?
Jowe - I do remember that this kind of gothic urban angst and alienation was the kind of thing that we mocked in the likes of Gary Newman, but ZZT was later.
trakMARX - What were the best bits of being a Swell Map?
Jowe - The best Maps experiences included the thrill of feeling empowered by our realisation that we could seize the means of production without needing a deal from a conventional record company or management. Also, we had a hell of a lot of fun together! We used to laugh so much it hurt sometimes.
trakMARX - What were the worst bits?
Jowe -The worst bits were the mess of breaking up - it was sad but inevitable. Nikki resented the break-up but we were getting sick of each other. We had been very close, having grown up together, but we were growing apart. To quote Kevin Ayres:
“It begins with a blessing but ends with a curse, making life better while making it worse... why are we sleeping?”
We had to finish work on “Occupied Europe” album as well, which was the focus of disputes and bad feeling. Luckily the performances were all complete - all we had to do was mix and edit it together, but even that needed a lot of “discussion” and “debate”.
trakMARX - The HMS Swell Map sank on choppy seas following an Italian tour in 1980. Too much parmesan? A dispute over black pepper coverage? A breadstick incident? What rendered the group terminal?
Jowe - The reasons are too varied to go into fully but I was still unwell after being beaten up by skin-heads - I shouldn’t have toured really. I also felt that the band was becoming too loud and lacking any subtlety when we played live. We were at that time four assertive people with expanding horizons who were unwilling to compromise with each other as much as before. Also it was our first proper tour, and we discovered how obnoxious we all were!
trakMARX - You eventually went on to play bass for TV Personalities. How did that work out?
Jowe - At the first TVPs show in London, Daniel ran out of the building, and the other two asked for help! Me, Epic and Nikki helped out. We sometimes played “Part Time Punks” or “14th Floor” anyway! We were friends and supporters. Later in 1983, Mark Flunder left and they asked me to play the bass. I was delighted! Epic was jealous! He wanted to play drums, but Jeff Bloom had already joined. We went straight on to a German tour, which was very exciting; we went around on trains, carting a Farfisa organ with us! I cut my forefinger open on the very first night, which was very stupid; luckily it didn’t get infected, which was remarkable, considering some of the doss-houses we stayed in. Anyway, I stayed in the band as it gradually changed for ten years in all. Jeff left after nine years, and we went to Japan again and USA again with Lenny on drums; Matthew from Heavenly also played drums with us before he died, bless him.
trakMARX - A brief solo outing in the mid 80s saw you release a trio of LPs & a handfull of 45s. Tell us a bit about solo Jowe Head.
Jowe - I started solo recording ‘cos I had difficulty finding suitable people to play with, and I found that I enjoyed the autonomy of overdubbing it all myself, despite my shortcomings as a performer! It was a voyage of self-discovery which I hoped to share with listeners, if there were any. I started by re-recording “Cake Shop Girl”, because the Maps version was not exactly what I had in mind. I made it faster and more like twisted bubble-gum pop; the rest of “Pincer Movement” was intended to be an antidote to that, a reflection of the title, which is supposed to express a double-pronged experience. I started using collaged noise experiments, like the field recordings of the train plus found tapes like the horror film-scores and dialogue from street rubbish found in Soho. I went on to record other pieces at home for “Strawberry Deutschmark” and tart them up in a studio. The tracks which made up “Unhinged” were all originated in the studio, but I tried to make this more conventional, using a batch of specially written songs, but it’s still pretty crazy, despite my best efforts to be relatively straight! I used programmed rhythms for the first time out of interest and necessity, and I’ve done more since then, based on home recordings again. Some other tracks were recorded with members of a fine band called SPIT LIKE PAINT. One of these was a cover of a song by The Fall, which recently came out on a project called “Perverted By Mark E Smith”. Another 2 (“Merman Blues”, “Baby Bounce”) came out on a single as a collaboration with Scots band called The No-Men, who dubbed a few extra details on to the songs and released them on their own Topplers label in the summer this year.
trakMARX - Do you still see anything of Johnny Rivers or any of the Leam Spa old guard?
Jowe -Alas, I do not visit the Midlands any more, since my mother moved away. I have not used John’s studio for a long time - probably since I helped The Pastels with a few songs there.
trakMARX - Tragedy has seemingly dogged the members of Swell Maps since the group's demise. These past few years can't have been easy for you?
Jowe - Epic’s death was a tragedy which hit us very hard; sadly, I had lost contact with the man, and did not know his whereabouts in his last years. I heard complementary reports of his solo shows in New York City, and then I was told that he was refused re-entry when he went back to play there and felt great sympathy. I wanted to see him play; I was intrigued - what ever did he sound like on his own? I have been catching up on his solo career since then, unfortunately in a posthumous manner.
trakMARX - What does the future hold for Jowe Head?
Jowe - I am recording and playing gigs with my ace new band called ANGEL RACING FOOD. We made a single with Little Teddy label in Munich, and have recorded 6 new songs. I have written nearly all of the songs, but the other 4 players are very imaginative arrangers. It’s great to record everything live in the studio when possible - you cannot beat that wild feeling!
trakMARX - And finally . . . what does it feel like to have been a Swell Map from this end of the ship?
Jowe - Working with the Maps fellows was a very hard act to follow; it set, for me, a standard of collaboration, energy and musical inspiration which I try to keep rising up to. We also had great fun at the time which I remember fondly. Also, down the years we seem to have attracted an interesting sort of reputation which continues to make waves - I saw a cartoon character from Gorillaz on TV last year wearing a Swell Maps T-shirt! We also got used on a car advert which blew my mind. Now that was REALLY weird!
Jean Encoule tMx 17 10.04