Chumbawamba have always been risk takers and mavericks; loving pop music and hating cultural conservatism. In the era of Popstars and Pop Idol and "we met at stage school" bands singing cover versions of anodyne retro ballads, Chumbawamba stick out like eight sore thumbs. Formed in the '80s, Chumbawamba were always willfully anarchic, with an ethos that punk rock is an attitude rather than a style of music. Chumbawamba's albums have spanned everything from sweet barbed pop, to acappella harmonies, to break beats and big choruses punctuated by Memphis horn sections. Their latest release, READYMADES, is a sonic departure for the band with its break beats layered with atmospheric folk samples by the likes of Kate Rusby, a young folk singer from Barnsley, England, who was up for last year's Mercury Award. The big shouty choruses have been replaced by plaintive melodies and four-part harmonies. Although inhabiting a different soundscape, Chumbawamba are still a band who are much more interested in the world outside themselves than they are in making records about personal angst: "There are enough great records around about falling in and out of love," said vocalist Dunstan Bruce "We don't need to make another one."
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Still a collective, the band put their longevity down to a willingness to change, everybody having a say and an equal share in the band's fortunes, thick skins and a sense of humour. "Minds are like parachutes... " said Bruce "Useless unless they're open. We've always encouraged each other to embrace change and not stay in ghettos, whether they be artistic or political. Working collectively takes up a lot more time than one person having a massive tantrum and getting his/her own way but it's a lot better for the soul and it cuts down on the resentment factor."
Throughout their long and chequered career. Chumbawamba have inspired such glowing headlines as the English national newspaper, the Sun's "Heartless Bastards!" and managed to have two albums removed from the shelves of major record chains on the grounds that a sleeve depicting a newborn baby was 'pornographic' (ANARCHY) and the band were inciting shoplifting (TUBTHUMPER).
Chumbawamba were well used to controversy by the time they finished their 9th album TUBTHUMPER in 1997, and the band were also used to surviving the vagaries of the music industry, so when their label One Little Indian refused to put the album out on the grounds "that it wouldn't sell", Chumbawamba set out to find another label for the finished album. EMI released the album in Europe and Asia and Republic/Universal put it out in the North America. The album went on to sell 5 million copies worldwide. Accusations of "sell out" from longtime fans, faded away as the band continued to function as a collective, and to use their new found access to the media to push campaigns, and their financial success to fund the emerging anti-globalization movement. "When we signed to EMI and Universal, there was a mass chorus of 'hypocrites!'" said Bruce, "the lead mostly by people who weren't part of the movement and defined politics as some vague thing that we vote for and governments do. The name calling didn't really affect us, we knew that time would tell and the people we worked with in the movement knew us well enough to give us the benefit of doubt."
Chumbawamba's next album WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) captured the zeitgeist and was a barbed swipe at the business and celebrity culture which puts the drive for profit before human life, replacing news and real information with yet another picture of any and every wasted female celebrity badly in need of three square meals a day. It was all a bit too much for EMI who'd hoped for a 'Bob The Builder' novelty record [the #1 UK single, Christmas 2000, from a children's television show]." Chumbawamba and EMI parted company. "We knew we hadn't made a 'commercial' record," said Bruce "But we had made a record which was fired and passionate and would stand the test of time."
Last year Chumbawamba completed the film "Well Done, Now Sod Off!" with Director Ben Unwin. The film was a potted history of Chumbawamba, which premiered at the Leeds Film Festival . "Well Done, Now Sod Off!" supplies answers to why Chumbawamba are so loved and loathed. Unusual for a band documentary, it contains footage of their critics as well as fans. Throughout "Well Done, Now Sod Off!" Chumbawamba break the unwritten rule that rebellion in the pop world is limited to misbehaving while under the influence. "I suppose we are hedonists," said Bruce. "We like to party but we generally clean up our own vomit." Chumbawamba have never smashed up a hotel or dressing room but they did refuse to join in the campaign of misinformation distributed by the UK government about Leah Betts' death from the drug Ecstacy. The band produced posters similar to the government's, which replaced the word "Sorted" with "Distorted." And they have soaked England's Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in retaliation for New Labour's refusal to support the striking Liverpool Dockers.
Chumbawamba's approach to supplying music for advertising also departs from the standard rock n' roll approach. When offered ads the band contact anti-capitalist groups in the country where the ad will be screened and ask them if they want to use the proceeds, if the group says "Yes," the band accept the ad. "It seemed madness to turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars when groups are struggling to raise hundreds," said Bruce. Pontiac is presently using "Pass It Along" from WYSIWYG in an ad campaign in the US. Because of Chumbawamba songs, Ford and Renault have financed anti-capitalist groups in South Africa, Italy, Brazil and India. General Electric recently offered Chumbawamba $750,000 to use the mega-hit "Tubthumping" on an ad for an x-ray machine. But since General Electric manufacture engines for military planes the band refused the ad. As Dunstan Bruce put it: "We have to deal with each one of these ads as they come along, but we simply couldn't find a reason big enough to excuse the fact that GE's engines were flying over Afghanistan dropping bombs and incinerating civilians."
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