Klammer’s guitarist/producer STEVE WHITFIELD talks to Nick Awde
Alhambra Live Magazine #003
— Alhambra Live: the-alhambra-theatre/bats-in-the-attic
ALHAMBRA LIVE is one of the biggest grassroots music venues in the North West. Based in Morecambe on the sea Promenade, its adaptable spaces (and unique Lake District views) make it a vibrant hub for all-dayers and weekend festivals (Goth, Mod, Ska, Northern Soul…). It is also a hub and home for gothic music with Corrosion club night and the CorrosionFest & Bats in the Attic festivals. For more info, contact Fiona +44 (0)7771 200 873 / email@example.com
Nick Awde: Where did it all start?
Steve Whitfield: I started playing music in my late teens – I was probably about 17. You’ll meet a lot of people who started much earlier when they were at school playing recorder or acoustic guitar or whatever. I didn’t – I was playing football all the time! But then punk happened, and it switched a light on. I started to go to gigs and see bands that weren’t technically proficient but they were on stage playing songs that they’d written. That was a moment when I just thought, “wow yeah, that’d be great, maybe I could do that!”
Like a lot of people, I struggled about in bands for a long time and then I ended up jumping to the other side of the fence and working in recording studios. So from my early twenties I became an engineer and then a producer – which is still my job today – so I have been around musicians all the time since my late teens.
In 2013 I was working with a band in the studio that split up after that album, and the singer asked me if I would have a go at writing songs with him, because he wanted to keep doing some music. That was Poss [Klammer singer Paul Strickland] – and it wasn’t super serious at the beginning, we were just kind of writing songs for the fun of it. Then suddenly we realised that we had an album’s worth of songs that we quite liked. So I got a friend to come in and record drums on it, and then we had a finished album. We then thought, so we’ve got an album, what should we do now? Maybe we should play live.
So it was all completely back to front of how most bands get going, really: you normally get four or five people together in a room, thrash some songs out, play some gigs, and then record them, but we did that back to front.
Working in studio has really benefited me seeing some really great bands up close, how they operate, how they write, how they’ve recorded, how to do things – and sometimes how not to do things. I’ve kind of cherrypicked ideas off bands, like I wouldn’t do it that way, that’s a great way of doing it, maybe try that way, how to write, how to record, and also in the business sense of what to do and what not to.
The business side of it is still a bit of a mystery, and is really hard to deal with. One of the sad things about the industry being in decline is major labels not investing in underground guitar bands anymore. So more and more everyone has to do it themselves – and we’re no different. We’ve had to learn a lot of the business side of the industry of how to run a band. It’s never-ending really, still a big learning curve. I don’t particularly enjoy that side, but someone has to address it because it won’t happen by itself.
However, you’re in a location that’s helpful to be in, aren’t you?
We are. I’m based in Leeds and the rest of the band – singer Poss, bassist Mike Addy and drummer Bruno Almeida – are in other parts of West Yorkshire.
Rehearsal-wise we have our own rehearsal room in Huddersfield, just up on the Pennines. It’s great not having to set up every time, we can just walk in, plug in and play. It is cost efficient as long as you’re rehearsing at least once a week. So that’s a quite nice situation to be in.
I also have my own studio, I don’t really record other bands there because it’s in my house, but I do almost all my mixing here. When I’m working with other bands I book other commercial studios to record, then bring the files back and mix in them room here. With Klammer, pretty much everything except the drums is done here – we just hire a studio for a few days to record the drums for all the tracks.
How does the live side of the band fit into that then? I mean, you’re in a national epicentre for live music, on the other hand that doesn’t imply it’s going to happen necessarily in the way that you want it to…
I don’t think anything ever happens in the music industry the way you want or expect! You’re just pleased when the occasional thing happens in the way that you want it to happen. But yes, Leeds is a great music city, it’s one of the reasons I moved here, also because it’s so close to Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Bradford, York, Hull, not even too far from Newcastle and Middlesbrough.
So if you’re somewhere close to the M62 there’s a lot of towns and cities that are pretty close to play gigs in. We’ve played Scotland quite a few times and you then realise if you were travelling up from London that’s a bloody long drive, from Leeds it’s already four hours to Edinburgh. So we’re in the middle of it all, and it does make gigs up and down the country very accessible.
Since we’re talking about Leeds, we can quickly jump into the arena where the definition goth is attempted. What is goth?
I have no idea!
That’s definitely an answer.
Yeah that is definitely some kind of answer! It’s a big question. It’s a difficult question. What is goth? To a lot of different people, it’s a lot of different things – and it often depends on the era of goth that they grew up with, massively influences their definition.
Goth is a very ‘broad church’ of bands and styles. So you have bands like Alien Sex Fiend, All About Eve and the Cult and over the years they have all been called goth in the press – and how far apart are these three in sound and style?! It’s interesting that four of the biggest singers, who a lot of people think are goth, don’t actually think their bands are. I’ve been lucky to have worked with the Cure and the Mission in the studio and I know that neither Robert or Wayne think they’re goths. I’ve also read interviews where Andrew Eldritch and Siouxsie have said the same. Yet they are all style icons of gothic culture.
Great bands are great bands, I don’t really too get hung up on the terms/genres, but I’d say that goth is an offshoot of post-punk (which is an even broader church) and in the bigger picture, it’s rock with a dark edge. I don’t feel Klammer are goth, punk or rock, but strangely all three at the same time. I’d describe us as ‘dark angular rock’ but that’s not a very snappy title is it?
We’re definitely influenced by some goth music/bands and it’s definitely a part of us, but I’d say that we are probably more influenced by all the bands that came before. Bands like Joy Division, Bauhaus, the Cure and the Banshees. We’re more influenced by that period but I certainly got into other goth bands in the eighties. Early Sisters is still fantastic and The Mission too – I was lucky enough to be the engineer on The Mission’s Neverland and Blue albums and The Cure’s Wish album. I really enjoyed working with both bands.
I think for those of us who started earlier in the UK, there is also the inspiration of a defining DIY ethic that much of goth shares with punk and the early electronic bands.
Certainly. One of the advantages for us of not having everything available in those days is that you just had to stumble around and make your own thing and come up with your own ideas and your own way of playing. I’ve never had a lesson in how to play anything, I’m just self taught or learnt off other band members. When I was a synth player in my first band, I watched what the guitarist was doing and got him to show him to show me things. Then I was off, experimenting on guitar by myself.
If I was 18 today, I would probably go and do one of the music courses or degrees that are around. Although one of the things that worries me about them is that some of the courses/tutors just teach rules of “this is how we do it, which is how you’ll do it”. It shouldn’t be about that. In Leeds we have quite a big music college, that’s very famous for jazz, but I’m sure all the jazz greats would be turning in their graves because they didn’t learn by someone telling them this is the rule of this and this is the rule of that. They just learned how to play and then broke all the rules. I guess my favourite bands of the last 30–40 years have done the same in rock music.
Like you said, it’s the music business and there are no rules. I know or have interviewed a lot of British rock musicians who started in the sixties, seventies and eighties and a lot of them bring up the subject of the academies. They’re very scathing about being told the rules and having that capacity to break the rules taken from you. But today it’s so much harder to resist when you’re young and just starting out. But it’s the system we’ve got now, isn’t it?
That’s right. Those tutors will probably be great technical musicians, but you have to go in with the idea not to believe everything that they tell you, that it’s just one viewpoint. You’ve got to come up with your own way of playing, your own style, and not just a copy of what other people are doing or telling you to do.
Turning to the words part of the business, there’s a trademark dark side to Klammer’s music, how is that reflected in the lyrics?
That’s definitely down to Poss, the singer. I’m not really gifted that way at all. Many years ago after one of my bands split up I tried it. I’ve always found it easy to write music but this time I also tried writing the lyrics. Once I’d got ten songs finished, I looked at what I’d got and thought, yeah, lyric writing is not going to be for me…
Poss is always storing little phrases or little sentences and he has a bag full of scraps of paper. He’s one of those people that will wake up in the middle of the night and jot down a few lines. For the four albums, so far the music has always come first. Because I’ve got a studio, I tend to record quite polished demos of the songs. It’s not the traditional way of just sitting there with an acoustic guitar and jamming out some chords into a whole arrangement of a new song. I write, demo and arrange it all as I’m going, so by the time I’ve got the idea of a song it already has drums, bass and guitars on it.
That’s what I send to Poss, and then he writes the lyrics to that. He then comes over to my place and quite often by the time he’s got his lyrics and his melodies done it might end up being different to how I saw the song. [laughs] So many times we’ve swapped round what I thought was the verse and the chorus. So we shape it between us. Poss does a guide vocal, then it’s sent to the band and we thump it out in the rehearsal room to make it a bit more fully formed. I don’t really know much of his procedure of lyrics because he does it away from everybody. But I think pretty much the nub, the start of every song is different in terms of inspiration.
When do you decide it’s time for an album?
Once I’ve got enough ideas. I think the songs tell us it’s time. I remember working on the third album You Have Been Processed  while I was watching a lot of football over the summer, I think it would have been the Euros in 2016. I had a guitar on my lap, but just thrashing away on it as I was watching TV. If I came up with a riff or chord structure or bassline, at half time I’d rush up to my studio and put it on the computer. Once the football match had finished, I’d go back up and flesh it out – I probably got seven or eight songs just from doing that. Of course it takes quite a while to write, demo, rehearse, record and mix an albums worth of songs, at which point we usually seem to be a couple of years down the road from the last album.
After an album’s finished and done and released, it generally takes me a couple of months of not writing just to recharge my batteries. There’s no pressure from anyone for a deadline, though.
As you say, music is an unpredictable business, how is that affecting the relevance of albums nowadays?
Good question. I like the format of the album in the same way that I like the format of a film – with a film you’ve got a couple of hours of a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Like a lot of people, I like TV series but it puts me off at times that they can be never-ending – you’ve got to watch the next series and the next and the next – the story structure isn’t the same. I like an album that also has a beginning, middle and end, where 40 to 50 minutes later you know it’s done, using songs that have been written together within a fairly close time period – a snapshot of where you are and where the band are at that point in time.
Yeah, I like albums for that reason. A lot of people now don’t really get into albums and they’ll just cherrypick individual tracks. If they’re going to buy and download, it might not be the whole album, it might just be a couple of songs. But I think most musicians still like the format of writing a body of work in a certain time period, recording the songs and then arranging them in a certain order. For me, one of the hardest things in the whole process of recording an album is deciding on the running order. I’ll start with what I think should be the first song and what I think should be the last song, and then slowly fill the blanks in between. My favourite albums work all the way through because someone has spent time thinking about what order those songs should be in.
What relevance albums have today I’m not sure. Certainly as a business thing they are still useful because a lot of magazines and big webzines won’t review singles. It’s easier to make a splash and a bit of a noise business-wise if you have an album to offer. I hope albums keep going.
The Kaiser Chiefs, a famous Leeds band, released an album called The Future Is Medieval. They said to the audience here’s 20 tracks, choose ten, buy them and then arrange them in the order you want. It may have just been a sales gimmick, but I thought that it was quite sad they had so little faith in their own album.
Where does the name of the band come from?
As you may have gathered, we are very British, but we also wanted something European sounding. There’s a lot of American bands that I like but there’s not many American bands that I feel have influenced me – in general my influences are British or European. We were after something that sounded European and we quite liked the English word ‘Clamour’ as in noise but then we thought, well why don’t change the spelling to ‘Klammer’? What we didn’t realise at the time until a year later is that there is a German word with the same spelling and it means like ‘peg’ or ‘clamp’, so for some German people they find it bit unusual. [laughs]
Yeah it works for me, definitely European. So if we turn to Lockdown, how did you deal with it as a band? There’s a lot of people who were saying, oh it’s a terrible shock, we didn’t know that music is in such a precarious situation. But anyone with an atom of sense in the live performance industry knew it was precarious beforehand – and it was worsening before our very eyes by March 2020. Were you able to go to Plan B during Lockdown?
When Bojo said it might be 12 weeks, like the rest of the country we were horrified – oh my god, no rehearsals, no gigs for 12 weeks… and obviously at that point none of us knew that it was going to be so much much longer. How little did we know at that point! I was lucky to have the studio at home and I could write songs and obviously send them via the internet to Poss, Mike and Bruno. So we just continued writing. Some of the songs were already recorded so I started mixing where I could.
The last song that we wrote was ‘Alone’, the final song on the new album The Day Before Yesterday . I came up with the idea of the guitars and I just sent the guitars off to the other guys and they had to write their own parts at home during the first lockdown and record them the best way they could. The bass player has a studio as well so he was able to write and record the finished thing, the drummer had an electric drum kit so he could record his idea, and the singer had the basic stuff. So I could at least import all of that and arrange their input as a song. As soon as that first Lockdown was done, we all went to the studio and recorded the drums – my guitar parts and the bass were already finished. So that song was written under Lockdown and half recorded during Lockdown.
So yeah, like most people the Lockdowns were pretty bad, but at least we were doing something when we were moving forward. Obviously the gigs were a bit longer coming back and that has been tough. Poss got Covid before the jabs became available and ended up with Long Covid, so as we came out of that first Lockdown he wasn’t physically fit to rehearse for quite a while. The gigs coming out of this all have been slow obviously. Things are starting to pick up and we are starting to get quite a few dates for the second half of this year .
How important are festivals at this for the Gordian Knot-like Venn diagram that is goth?
Festivals are a lot of fun. You get to meet and see a load of other bands, the crowd get to see a variety of acts. Certainly in Europe there’s quite a few, which we haven’t broken into yet, like the amazing Castle Party Festival in Poland that’s literally in the setting of a castle’s grounds. Here we’ve got Whitby, which is pretty cool and we’ve played that, and there’s festivals like what Donna and Mike [of McGothfox Promotions] and Corrosion are doing in Morecambe with Bats in the Attic and Corrosion Fest.
Actually we should have played Corrosion Fest four months ago but unfortunately three of us got Covid. We had an album-release gig at the Brudenell in Leeds two weeks before coming to Morecambe in March, and then unfortunately we tested positive a couple of days before Corrosion Fest. So we had to pull out which was really annoying, but the great thing is that they’ve got Bats in the Attic in August. So… [laughs] Well let’s not tempt fate shall we, just in case Covid rears its head agin!
For rock in general I’d say there’s two types of festivals coming at us from different directions – the big ones that have been the answer to the destruction of the national live circuit by the government, local authorities and the record labels, and then the smaller grassroots festivals, which have been slowly linking up – or at least before Covid hit – as ‘stepping stones’ across the calendar where people can come and work out where new music’s going forward rather than step backwards into the greatest hits experience. It’s the grassroots festivals that hopefully will give a boost to our live grassroots venues. On the other hand, you’re in Leeds where it seems like you already have everything on your doorstep.
For me this all goes back to Leeds in the early eighties when there was a festival called Futurama and a lot of really great bands like the Joy Division, the Sisters and Echo and the Bunnymen played. So the idea of our grassroots festivals has been going a long time.
But the big festivals, it’s incredibly hard to get onto them now. We’ve tried and you just get ignored, you don’t even get a reply [laughs] – we’ve released four albums and tour around the country… The specialist festivals are more approachable, and at least you’re playing in front of an audience which is into your area of music. The big festivals have changed over the last 20-30 years and they’ve lost the message – people want to go and party with a bit of music in the background. You can see that in a lot of the medium-sized festivals too – people are there chatting and drinking in front of the bands, then the one hit song comes on, it’s up with the mobile phones, video it, and as soon as it’s finished they bugger off to the next stage.
The big festivals are terrific weekends away but increasingly it seems they get less about the music. For some people it has become more and more a rites of passage at a certain age, in terms of getting away, probably getting off your tree, having a great time. It’s less about the music than it used to be, and you can go to some of the big festivals like Glastonbury where you can have a fantastic time and not even see any music – there’s the circus tent, the comedy stages… whereas at the smaller, more niche festivals like Bats in the Attic and Corrosion Fest, I think it’s more about the music. Even Whitby seems more about dressing up nowadays.
Has Klammer been a fairly consistent line-up?
Well it’s a bit Spinal Tap, we’ve gone through a few drummers. [laughs] None have exploded on their drum stool, but yeah, we probably have had six. It’s not too bad on the recordings because the first two albums were the first drummer Dez Ford, and the second two albums are the current drummer Bruno Almeida. So the recordings haven’t chopped and changed too much. This current line-up has been together for six years and done two albums together. I would say this is the best line-up Klammer have had.
That Klammer has an approach to style and arrangement that really grabs in your recordings. Does that help focus what the band does on stage?
It helps having four albums on which I think there’s some good songs that we’ve written to choose from. I’ve always tried when I’m writing the music not to just do the same song 12 times over for the next album. There needs to be a balance of keeping a band sound but having enough variation of songs. At some gigs, you can see a band playing and after a couple of songs you think, oh they’re really good, and then after ten songs you’re bored because you realise they’re doing exactly the same thing in every song. So within the Klammer sound, we have quite a variety of songs to choose from and it’s easy to to arrange live sets that ebb and flow. Have down bits and heavy loud bits, so it takes you on a bit of a journey.
Like every band, we have our influences but I’d like to think that we have our own kind of territory, our own sound but we have a lot of variation within the Klammer sound.
Plans for the future from the vantage point of mid-2022?
We’ve already started writing the next bunch of songs even though the new album’s recently come out. So there’s that. But just to arrange more gigs. We’d love to try and arrange a tour around Britain again. We haven’t done that since we went out with Richie Ramone. That was fantastic doing two solid weeks, a gig every day. So yeah, just arrange more gigs.
— Bats in the Attic 2022 tickets: morecambe/the-alhambra-theatre/bats-in-the-attic
— McGothicfox Promotions Facebook: @McGothicfox
— Corrosion Facebook: @morecambegoths