Strong but not silent: Eddie Argos of Art Brut speaks up

Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos has a lot to say before his band takes its winning brand of brash, noisy nuggets to Tel Aviv on Friday.

By
April 1, 2010 03:05
The members of Art Brut (Courtesy).

art brut 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Call it an aberration – of the good kind. Even with the slew of high-profile international artists arriving on our shores over the next few months, we can’t often boast of hosting a young buzz band whose name is still on the rise.  

But with little fanfare and short notice, British art punk rockers Art Brut are invading Tel Aviv this weekend for a short burst of their winning brand of brash, articulate noisy nuggets. Tagged by the New Musical Express as part of the “art wave” scene including leading Brit rockers Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, Art Brut’s music has been described as brilliantly simple and cleverly stupid. That could be thanks to their charismatic vocalist, Eddie Argos, who brings outspoken star quality back to rock and roll.

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Part shouting, part speaking in eloquent flourishes and part just plain off-the-cuff, Argos onstage is like a combination of Morrissey, Johnny Rotten and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, with a little Freddie Mercury thrown in for good measure.

“I’m actually trying to sing,” Argos laughed when asked about his unique vocal stylings. “I was very hurt when I read someone describe it as spoken word vocals.”  

“I guess I’m trying to channel Jonathan Richman, but it’s coming out rather badly,” the 30-year-old Argos added, referring to one of his idols, the iconoclastic early 1970s new-wave loner. Besides sharing a similar vocal style, Argos and Richman also share a slightly skewed view of the world manifested not only in the lyrics but in unpredictable stage antics, which in Argos’s case have included playing a vacuum cleaner, skipping with his microphone wire, dancing with audience members, and stopping songs halfway through to tell the audience his thoughts on various topics.  

But it’s the muscular, angular music – think early Talking Heads on steroids – that has garnered the band an expanding cadre of fans over its three albums since 2005.

Consisting of Argos, Jasper Future and Ian Catskilkin on guitar, Freddy Feedback on bass, and Mikey B on drums, Art Brut was named after French painter Jean Debuffet’s definition of outsider art – art by marginalized segments of society like prisoners, loners, and the mentally ill, without thought to imitation or presentation.  

The band’s debut album, Bang Bang Rock & Roll, featured the song “Formed a Band,” a manifesto that hearkens back to the do-it-yourself days kids with questionable talent picking up instruments and making noise. It contains the bold declaration by Argos: “I wanna be the boy/The man that writes the song/That makes Israel and Palestine/Get along.” 

“Someone asked me if we’re going to play that song, and I said, ‘of course we are; why would we do a show in Israel and not play that?’” said Argos in an interview with The Jerusalem Post from his London home earlier this week, only an hour after arriving home from Los Angeles.  

“I wrote those lyrics to the song, and all the songs on that first album, really quickly, But I stand by it – I think it’s possible for artists to do great things and make changes in the world.”  

ENTERTAINING AS well as provocative, Argos and Art Brut have progressed from their spunky debut to 2007’s It’s Complicated and 2009’s masterful Art Brut vs. Satan, produced by Pixies legend Frank Black, who’s making his own debut in Israel in June.  

One of the first to issue a public endorsement of the band when he first heard them, Black took the no-fuss ethic he’s defined with his Frank Black and the Catholics albums into the studio with Art Brut in Oregon.  

“I normally don’t like recording, but it was fun recording with Frank. We did the whole album in about a week; It was like those Frank Black and the Catholic albums where everything was done in one take,” said Argos.  

“He’s very enthusiastic, and when Frank Black says how much he likes your song, you just go ‘wow.’ He created a great atmosphere, all of us in one room and just pressing Record. I thought I would be intimidated, but he was so nice. He brought out our creativity, and was really more like a  part of the band.” 

Among the gems on the album is the single “Alcoholics Unanimous,” including the Argos line, “There’s so many people I might have upset/I apologized to them all with the same group text” and “Slap Dash for No Cash,” with its dig at cookie-cutter music with the lyrics  “Why is everyone trying to sound like U2?/ Why would you want to?”  

Most of the lyrics are first-person accounts of some embarrassing details in life, and, asked whether it’s a purely literary device or based on some autobiographical content, Argos lets the cat out of the bag.

“The songs are mainly about me. There’s not always a happy ending,” he said.   

However, one song in which Argos sounds almost happy is the frantic “The Replacements,” an ode to the post-punk Minneapolis rockers led by Paul Westerberg. Argos stumbled upon the hugely influential but relatively unknown 1980s oeuvre of the Replacements in 2006, while Art Brut were on tour in the US with The Hold Steady, whose singer Craig Finn was also a huge Replacements fan. However, Argos found out about the band on his own – not through Finn – a cause of great amusement to him.  

“Craig and I spent a lot of time together and bonded over drinks many times. But it wasn’t because of him that I became a fan of one of his favorite bands, The Replacements. You would have thought, sitting there drinking together so often and getting to know each other, he would have said, ‘Eddie, you have to listen to this.’ But he didn’t, I had to discover them on my own,” said Argos.  

“Now that I’m a big fan, too, we can get drunk and he tells me about old shows he saw and plays me bootlegs he has.”

According to Argos, it’s the qualities he found in The Replacements’ music that he wishes listeners will hear in the songs of Art Brut.

“They’re so sincere, their hearts are on their sleeves, and they have great songs. There’s a genuine sincerity there and you get a sense of the kind of people they really are. I hope our music can do the same thing,” he said. 

Argos had taken on The Replacements baton, just like The Replacements had done two decades earlier when they wrote the song “Alex Chilton” in honor of the power pop pioneer. So there was some irony in the fact that last week, Argos was in Austin, Texas performing at the SXSW showcase with his side project Everybody Was In the French Resistance...NOW, when he received the news that Chilton had died.

“I was at a table with people and some guy came by and mentioned that Alex had died. He didn’t even know who he was, but everyone at the table went ashen. I was planning to see him at SXSW,” he said, referring to the anticipated show by the Box Tops and Big Star founder.  

It’s unclear whether some toddler will one day pick up a guitar and after listening to their music, sit down and write a song called “Art Brut,” but Argos has already had a German university devote a lecture series to his lyrics.  

“They called it ‘The Depressive Dandy,’” laughed Argos. “I would have liked to have sat in on that lecture to hear what they were saying.”

Art Brut performs on Friday night at the Barby club in Tel Aviv, www.barby.co.il.


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