By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
The "Tubthumping" single landed on a compilation album that passed through the hands of Lee Chestnut, a programming director at VH1. With its working-class chorus ("I get knocked down/But I get up again/You're never going to keep me down") and nifty trumpet riff, "Tubthumping" caught Chestnut's ear. He phoned the folks at Republic Records, who reportedly took one listen and immediately made Chumbawamba an offer. The band accepted and now records for Republic/ Universal. It's certainly not an indie label: It's affiliated with Universal movie studios.
"There was a time when Crass did sell a lot of records," Bruce recalls, perhaps a little wistfully, "and it seemed as though there was a possibility that an alternative society could exist, or an alternative means of distributing records and reaching people. But now the music industry has sucked all that in and it has adapted. So that way of working can't exist any more. I think what we're doing is accepting that now, in 1998, things are a lot different."
Bruce realizes that Chumbawamba has put itself in a tricky position: It's an anarchist group bankrolled by capitalists. "But if we didn't do that, nobody would know about us," he points out. "We're not ostriches with our heads in the sand who think we can effect change without reaching people. We realize that the most important thing is that we're obsessed by popular culture, so we want to be a part of popular culture. We want to influence it and have some effect on it. We don't want to be on the outside trying to get in. We want to be on the inside kicking outward."
Tubthumper offers twelve terrifically catchy pop tunes that take flying kicks at various targets such as slumlords ("Drip Drip Drip"), corrupt union leaders ("One by One"), and, appropriately enough, the vacuous nature of pop music ("Amnesia"). On "The Big Issue," the group addresses homelessness with the rousing refrain, "This is the girl who/Lost the house which/Paid to the man who/Put up the rent and/Threw out the girl to/Feather his own sweet home." For the most part Tubthumper sounds like the hook-heavy, sample-laden stuff that briefly whisked Jesus Jones and EMF to the top of the charts in the late 1980s.
In the apolitical 1990s, anarchy is pretty difficult to take with a straight face. The key to Chumbawamba's success is that the band is quite earnest about its political beliefs, but never serious. This is the band whose lead singer, Nobacon, once "assassinated" the Clash in midconcert with a paint-ball gun and who last year got himself arrested in Italy for walking the streets wearing a dress. During the band's recent American television appearances, members wore shirts emblazoned with self-critical messages such as "One-Hit Wonder," "Sold Out," and "Shift Units."
"We're just enjoying our fifteen minutes," says Bruce.
And the money? It's split evenly among band members and road crew. According to Bruce, some will go toward repaying old debts, some toward a financially secure future, some toward "unfashionable political groups who can't get money from anyone else." Some might be used to build a studio (though the group has yet to vote on it).
"People think, 'God, it must be great. You've had this success, and you've been playing small clubs and not selling that many records,'" muses Bruce. "But for us, we've had a great time anyway over the last sixteen years, regardless of this success. We've been able to survive as a band. So this is not something that we've been striving for. This is like a happy accident, really."
Chumbawamba performs at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1, at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-0922. Tickets cost $15.