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Dunstan Bruce, a member of the eight-person anarchist collective and pop group Chumbawamba, is pressing the flesh with various music industry types at a sports bar in Milwaukee on a recent Thursday afternoon. Though Chumbawamba has been on a world tour since this past October, Bruce is still not quite used to these schmooze sessions.
"They're always a bit strange, doing meet-and-greets," Bruce admits, speaking by phone from a quiet corner of the bar. "It's like you're there as a special person, but you're just thinking, 'Well, I'm really normal.'"
In fact, Bruce is fairly unusual. For the past sixteen years, he and his bandmates have been fighting for left-wing causes, recording stridently political rock and roll songs, and living hand-to-mouth in their native England. But this past September the group's catchy, anthemic single "Tubthumping" (which means "ranting") began racing up the Billboard singles chart, eventually peaking at number six, about halfway between Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997" and Jewel's "Foolish Games." The album Tubthumper rose all the way to Billboard's number three. Almost overnight the members of Chumbawamba found themselves answering questions from Rolling Stone and USA Today, booking appearances on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and Letterman, and organizing a tour that will take them through England, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.
"Here, we come over and people are treating us like we're a new band," Bruce says of the United States. "It's like, 'Oh, you're not a new band, you've been going for sixteen years?' It's great. It makes it feel really fresh that you can come from somewhere and now you're trawling through your whole back catalogue. So it's new and interesting to people -- rather than in Britain, where everybody's totally fed up with Chumbawamba and thinks we should have died years ago."
But Chumbawamba has endured, which is more than can be said for most radical, idealistic, sociopolitical collectives. Bruce credits the band's survival to its democratic decision-making. Chumbawamba does not make a move unless agreed upon by all members: Bruce on percussion, Lou Watts on keyboards, Harry Harner on drums, Paul Greco on bass, Jude Abbott on trumpet, Danbert Nobacon on vocals/keyboards, Alice Nutter on vocals/percussion, and Boff on guitar. Despite being thrown into the fast-moving machinery of the mainstream music industry, the band continues to function as if it were a small government.
"We still spend hours and hours stuck in rooms having meetings," notes Bruce in his lilting, northern British accent. "We're just always emphasizing to management, agents, and record companies that things must be channeled through us. We've always worked in a defensive and collective way, and we don't want to lose that control."
Of all the highly political English punk bands born during the Thatcher 1980s, Chumbawamba is perhaps the only one left. It owes much of its politics and pranksterism to the seminal group Crass, which helped popularize punk rock as a viable platform for anarchist politics. Crass was nothing if not committed. Its core members -- who took absurd names such as Steve Ignorant and Joy de Vivre -- formed their own record label, lived communally, adhered to strict veganism, and managed to exist almost completely untouched by any vestige of capitalist society. Other like-minded bands of the period -- such as Poison Girls, Conflict, and Disorder -- typically released albums in sleeves that unfolded into broadsheets covered with the addresses of various political coalitions and detailed information about nuclear disarmament, the Falklands War, death squads in El Salvador, and the ecological impact of cattle farming.
At the time, the musical medium of choice was dissonant, primitive punk rock with vehemently antiestablishment lyrics. The band Flux of Pink Indians may have summed up the movement's bitter tone with its 1983 album The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks. But it soon became apparent to Chumbawamba that releasing noisy albums through small labels meant reaching only a small audience of already converted listeners.
"When we first started out, I think we believed that we could operate outside of capitalism," Bruce explains. "You could have this band that was a pure entity, that produced its own records, put out its own records, and sold a couple thousand copies. But it wasn't making a dent on anything."
Chumbawamba came to that realization slowly. In 1982 they -- basically a group of squatters in the working-class city of Leeds -- released their first demo tape, a chunk of noise that ended up on a compilation album put together by the Crass collective. Chumbawamba later formed its own record label, Agit-Prop. In 1986 the band released its debut album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, a response to the Live Aid concert. The group then bemoaned the general election of 1987 on Never Mind the Ballots ... Here's the Rest of Your Lives. In 1989 Chumbawamba radically departed from its punk roots with English Rebel Songs, a collection of fourteenth-century anti-tax songs sung a cappella.
One year later Chumbawamba released Slap!, which seemed directed at the faces of England's punk dogmatists. The album's lyrics were as venomous as ever, but the music was -- of all things -- bona fide dance pop, complete with keyboards and catchy hooks. In 1993 the band signed with One Little Indian, a label run by Derek Birkett, a one-time Crass collaborator, and put out two more albums. But when Chumbawamba recorded the radio-friendly songs that would eventually become Tubthumper, One Little Indian balked. Chumbawamba promptly left the label.
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.