Flies on You

by Greg Prato

"DIY" and "post-punk" were phrases that seemed to gain their highest amount of popularity during the 1980s. But over the years, there have been artists that have returned to and embraced both, such as the Leeds, UK-based two-man band, Flies on You.

Comprised of Doug Aikman and Andy Watkins, Flies on You issued their debut full-length, Nothing to Write Home About, in 2012, and have issued several low-budget yet charming videos for their singles "Josephine," "Dead Pop Stars," "Slashing It Down," and "Spain." And at the time of this interview, work had begun on a follow-up to their debut.

Both Aikman and Watkins discussed their songwriting influences, the meanings behind their songs, their thoughts on the aforementioned terms DIY and post-punk, and their rather intriguing band name.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start by discussing the debut album, Nothing to Write Home About.

Doug Aikman: We never really set about recording a debut album. It began with a few songs that Andy had music done to and I put some lyrics to them. And it was some time, really, going about it that way that we realized that we were developing enough material for an album. But it certainly wasn't what we had in mind to begin with. Not what I had in mind, anyway.

But once it became apparent that we actually were getting enough for, say 25 or 30 minutes worth of music, it became a bit more real. I know that I didn't know how to go about it, but Andy had some ideas about how we might be able to make this into a whole album and make it publicly available, and so we did.

As for memories about writing and recording it, my main memories, and it's not so very long ago now, but my main memories about it, the snatching time to do it, it's very different to the way that I've been in bands in the past where you sort of rehearse weekly and grind things and jam and it wasn't like that at all. So it was a bit of a revelation to me that an album could be recorded by me ringing Andy up or messaging him and saying, "I've got an hour off, can I pop around?" or literally going round on my lunch break to record a vocal track. Or saying, "The rest of the family's gone to bed, I'll come round." And that was it. That was how we recorded it. And it just seemed such a different kind of world, really.

Andrew Watkins: Doug and myself have been talking about doing a band for a few years. The initial idea was that we both have a love of punk and we thought, wouldn't it be great, we could have a punk band that did three minute songs, lots of them, and have an album out that basically wasn't very expensive. If it was really cheap and accessible like the albums that we used to know when we were younger, like Pillows & Prayers on Cherry Red and other albums that only used to cost a pound. We're very much influenced by the "do it yourself" philosophy. You don't need a big record company; you don't need all this stuff to make an album.

Both Doug and me have been in bands before. Doug was in a band called Nerve Rack and I was in several bands in the '80s that were well known. We both had a chance and we wanted to do this. But we never did anything about it. In the meantime, I had already done a solo album in 2006 on the PC. And then when I swapped over to the Mac, I started using Logic. And I started creating lots of bits of music, just really getting to grips with how everything worked.

I sent a couple of bits to Doug and one of them was a very fast - I think it was almost like a 30-second punk number, just to say that we could do this sort of stuff. And he heard it and he went, "I've got an idea for that already." And he came up with the idea for a lyric for it, which is called "You're Shite (And You Know You Are)." So that really was the first one that was done. That was our first real test track, if you like, on the album.

Songfacts: Who are some of the band's songwriting influences?

Doug: Flies on You, we've used the term "post-punk" in our promo blurb. I sometimes regret that, because, see, it does lead to misconceptions. Personally, I'd gladly describe us as punk if that wouldn't lead to even more alienating and harmful misconceptions. Because the modern world's perception of punk is somewhat different and at odds to my own.

So what do I mean by post-punk? Me and Andy both used to be punks and we kind of used that as a springboard for our musical ideas. So even though our music isn't straight ahead punk rock, it is nonetheless heavily underpinned by years and years of listening to and playing in punk and post-punk bands. And most of my favorite post-punk bands of that era back then - Killing Joke, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Public Image Ltd, Bauhaus, Magazine. To me, they were punk bands, really, to all intents and purposes.

One of the problems with the term post-punk, particularly nowadays, is the first name everybody thinks about is Joy Division. And don't get me wrong. I quite liked Joy Division in my youth, enough to buy their albums and I used to listen to Still, the double album, after getting it for Christmas in 1981. But I can't say they were ever amongst my favorite so that I've ever been influenced by them. I've never been carried away with them, always thought they were a bit overrated and overhyped, and the hyperbole continues to this day. They've been mythologized. You're almost not allowed to speak ill of them. Maybe if I'd seen them live in the flesh I'd feel different. But I really haven't got any time for the Joy Division mythology overkill. It's really tedious.

Of the post-punk bands mentioned, it's been suggested that Wire and Magazine must be an influence, and I say, well, yes and no. I think if we have a similarity with early Wire, it's more in our approach than in our sound or our lyrics. By and large, we're happy with short, sharp songs and lyrics that don't always make immediate sense. We have an idea, we discuss it, develop it, put it to the test. We take the view that if we've made the point after two minutes, why go on any longer? Next idea.

You could just as easily make a similar comparison with the Minutemen, who used a similar modus operandi to begin with. And I like and respect both of those bands immensely. But I wouldn't really say they were influences on us. I don't think we really sound like them at any point. But they were definitely precedents. But there must be many others, mind you.

As for my favourite song-writers, lyricists... who influences me? ... Let's see. Morrissey, Luke Haines (The Auteurs /Black Box Recorder / solo), Julian Cope, Polly Harvey, Amanda Palmer, Nick Cave maybe. But whether these are influences, I mean, lyrical influences, they're even more difficult to pin down than musical influences for me. My tendency when it comes to lyrics is to jot down odd thoughts or conceive of some fairly strange premise for a song. And I'm influenced by things people say or do or things or people that I see in the streets, stuff I noticed in the papers or on Internet forums. Sort of triggers for unstoppable trains of thought.

So ultimately, I really am just being myself and expressing the bewildering mess of flotsam and jetsam that clog up my troubled mind. So if the outcome is some combination of entertaining, puzzling, insightful, grimly discomforting, or laugh out loud funny, then I'm all right with that. I'm not sure anyone in particular influences that process.
But for the sake of naming some names, I mean, there must be some lyricists whom I not only admire but whose turn of phrase and delivery I have mimicked at some point consciously or otherwise. And in that case I'll suggest the following: Morrissey, Jello Biafra, Nick Blinko of Rudimentary Peni, Andrew Falkous, (McClusky, Future of the Left), Chumbawamba? I don't know, I'm kind of guessing now. I mean, I enjoy word play and I'm just as likely to have been influenced by Ogden Nash.

Andy's just pointed out to me that my lyrics are more than grimly discomforting. That they're surreal and positively distressing. And that's something that I hadn't really considered. Because, yeah, I just articulate the thoughts, as I said earlier on, the thoughts and odd things that come into my head. And when I write them down or sing them or whatever, I don't really understand them as surreal at all. There's no conscious attempt to be like that. But I suppose that the listener might be listening to the odd content of my thoughts and think, "What the hell?" I can only apologize for that.

Andrew: Songwriters... I mean, I have my favorite bands, which again goes back to '78 to '83 '84. So you've got Morrissey, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, who weren't massive in the UK, Dickies, Damned, Kinks, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Randy Newman, X. But the songwriters themselves, I mean, Randy Newman is an absolute genius songwriter. No doubt about it. So is Harry Nilsson, Paul Simon. They're almost like my American songbook. I know it's not the American songbook, but they're like my American songbook.

But my favorite songwriter I think genuinely, of all time, is Ray Davies form the Kinks. I think the Kinks, very British, obviously. But he invented a whole tone of voice and style. He did create something that hadn't been done in songwriting before. I think he brought a sentiment of narrative that hadn't been seen.

But the Kinks really do bring home nitty gritty, they're sort of proto- punk in a way. They talk about really ordinary things that hadn't been spoken about before, and that's what punk sort of was about. We're talking about living in a tower block or living in a council estate or living out on the streets, whatever. And the Kinks were sort of doing that, as well. He's like a camera on society. He really liked looking at microcosms of how people are.

Songfacts: What do you recall about the songwriting of some of Flies on You's songs?

Doug: I'm going to start with "Josephine." Let me tell you about "Josephine." The Josephine referred to in the lyric is the lover of French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Or it would be if either he or she appeared in the song, which they don't, really. Famously, Napoleon's alleged to have said one night to her, when she was in an amorous mood but his mind was on other things (in his best French accent), "Not tonight, Josephine." And the song features a fantasy scenario of myself engaging in a spot of sadomasochism whilst wearing French battle dress, imploring my partner to go easy on me. "Not too tight, Josephine."

When I originally wrote "Josephine," I was composing songs by myself using a drum machine, so when I had to give that track a name using a minimum number of characters, I chose "Josephine." It was written a few years ago and it's kind of hard to reconcile what it might have originally meant with what it might mean now, if anything. But I'll try to explain.

At the time I had a sort of protest song mode, which a hangover from a decade or so of involvement with punk rock and alt rock indie noise underpinned by punk rock values. So at that time my song was out to make a point about something or another. But it's not so much the case nowadays.

So with "Josephine," when I wrote those lyrics, there certainly was a point I was making, however obtusely, and originally there was a chorus, which might have illustrated the point more explicitly. But when I decided to exhume "Josephine" for Flies on You, I decided the chorus had to go, because I sort of found it a bit jarring by now.

Anyway, I'll try to explain where it's coming from. Some people wrestle with fantasies and desires, their secret lives, their shameful thoughts. They project their confusion and self loathing onto others whose lifestyles they disapprove of, describing them as diseased and amoral perverts and meting derision, abuse, and violence upon them.

I once had a work colleague who was really quite the handsome Jack the Lad figure, straight as a die, got laid regularly, no doubt about it. Let's call him Steve. Steve was convinced that I must be bisexual. Why? Because we had a gay colleague, a coworker, called Mike, whom I didn't hate and mistrust. Why would I? He was a decent bloke. Anyway, once in our lunch break, in front of other colleagues, Steven jokingly confessed to a lurid fantasy he'd had which involved me shagging some bloke or another, which I found amusing in a way, but also kind of puzzling. Personally, I have very little interest in other people's sex lives, hetero, homo, bi, whatever, as long as it's between consenting adults and no one's harmed, who cares? And I find that kind of obsessive interest in sex lives and sexual orientation kind of bizarre, even if it is impressively commonplace. Anyway, I digress a bit.

Some people suppress their wildest desires; profess to hate the very thing they want. It can end badly, personal tragedy, a pillar of the community found dead wearing a nappy with an orange in his mouth, that sort of thing.

Steve was just a heterosexual idiot. In some way, "Josephine" was triggered by this lunch break conversation. But it wasn't really about him or his ridiculous point of view. People, I've noticed, tend to home in on the line in the song, "You wouldn't want a holiday in my head." Understandably, because we turned it into a chorus and a hook line. And so they assume the song's about my mental health. But it's not. The more relevant line in terms of understanding this song is probably, "I wouldn't want one in yours, either. I couldn't suffer the smell of your breath, let alone to taste your saliva." My mental health may not ideal, but it's mine and it's my own business, as is my sexual orientation. And I'd much sooner have my relatively disinterested perspective on a person's sexuality than be a poisonous, bilious homophobe with all the screwed up self-loathing that that must entail.

Andrew: I remember "Shipmanesque" being a particularly interesting one, because all the music's done on a Mac Pro. I remember musically I was shoving basses and guitars through amps, miking them up. And "Shipmanesque" is the only track on the album that's actually done miking up amps. Every other track is done straight into the computer; effects and things were added afterwards. So the only one that's got any form of a traditional style of recording in it is "Shipmanesque." So that's one that points out to me.

Doug: "Shipmanesque" was one of the first songs that me and Andy did together. He sent me this almost fully formed piece of music and I happen to have written the lyrics to "Shipmanesque" a year or so beforehand. And I was really delighted when I found that they matched so well. But to explain it, I would need to tell you first off about Dr. Harold Shipman, one of the UK's most notorious serial killers. He was a very quiet man who was a doctor in his local community, well trusted, well liked, a very experienced doctor. Nobody knows how many people he gently bumped off before finally being revealed as a serial killer. Because of his role he'd been administrating medications to older people and basically seeing them off over a period of years. And it's been noted that he might have killed up to 200 people. This was over the '80s, '90s, I think, a long period of time he was committing these crimes. So he's quite a well known figure over here. I don't know how famous he is worldwide.

Anyway, one morning I was doing something very banal, very routine, returning from dropping one of my children off at school, walking on the road, and I saw a fellow coming towards me. And my jaw nearly dropped as I saw him. And I thought, "Mate, you look positively Shipmanesque." Meaning he bears a very strong resemblance to Dr. Harold Shipman. And I was quite aghast, really. Because if you bear any physical resemblance to Dr. Shipman, you would change your appearance, you would have a shave or whatever to try and avoid looking quite so similar to him.

Anyway, as I carried on my walk home, the phrase, "Positively Shipmanesque" was bouncing around in my head. And I just liked the sound of it. And I thought, "I'm going to have to write something positively Shipmanesque." So I did. But the lyric actually is not about Dr. Harold Shipman. And it's not about the fellow that I saw in the street. If it's about anything, it's alluding to somebody who has a lot of good will… well, I suppose it's about gullibility, really. It's about us being taken in by the quiet insincerity of charisma and a pool of good will. And that could apply to lots of different scenarios, really.

Anyway, say no more about that. When I explained to Andy the background to "Shipmanesque," as I've just explained just now, he said, "Oh, that fellow's a neighbor of ours." What I didn't realize at the time was that when I saw him I was literally only about 50 yards away from Andy's house. But at that time we weren't in a band together and there was no reason for me to think any of this was at all irrelevant. But it all seemed very "small world" to me, anyway.

Andrew:
The other one is "Slashing it Down." I was so impressed when I got that guitar sound. I mean, for me to be impressed is pretty big. But I was impressed by that guitar sound. And first of all, I thought, It sounds like the Pixies. And some other people picked up on the Pixies, as well. "Debaser," in particular. And when you listen to it, it doesn't sound anything like it. But it's got that vibe and the swing to sound like that.

I was really impressed when that sound came through the speakers. I was like, "Wow, that's a cool sound." And it's only two notes. Anyone can play that song. It's two notes. And it sounds like that. It's a bugger trying to do it live. We've tried it and it's been hard. We've needed two guitars. That's only on guitar creating that sound. And it sounds amazing. Trying to get that live has been a nightmare so far.

Doug: The thing about "Slashing It Down" is that it's not a hard hitting, angry diatribe; it's just the sound of ordinary person shaking his head in disbelief. It's also awash with unpleasant metaphorical references to urine, which I won't go into here.

Songfacts: What's the future regarding DIY? What are the challenges?

Andrew: I don't think there are any challenges. I think what I've noticed recently is there seem to be a lot of bands similar to ourselves, like the Staggs, who certainly in our area, sort of up north in England, doing a similar sort of work. And they're older people, as well, they're not youngsters. They're people of our age who want to do this sort of stuff. And that seems to be growing.

Bands like the Savages are bringing DIY up a bit more. Not necessarily DIY, but the post-punk scene a bit more up. I think it's a really, really overlooked area. I don't think youngsters personally today are even interested in it. But it's the sort of thing I hope we'll have a resurgence. There's certainly more bands looking to that sort of area. And I think films like Control and 24 Hour Party People, where they show the Manchester scene and things like that, I think in the future; those sort of films will influence a younger generation. I hope so.

But the DIY post-punk thing, I mean, really, it's not a challenge. None of it's really a challenge. Because who gives a toss about DIY post-punk? I mean, it is what it is. The punk ethic is you do it and then you move on. It's not really there to last forever and ever, even though I keep on harking back to a time of 1978 to '84 '84. There are a lot of people our age that still like that period and era of music, and I think that's the same for a lot of people. It's like people going back and harking back to rockabilly or rock & roll. The challenge is who cares? It's punk.

Doug: It's a good question. It's a difficult one to answer in any detail at all. To me, the challenges are just being heard in a world full of noise. And if you are heard, anybody caring. You can't afford to get too precious about it, really. You've just got to do it because you enjoy it, put it out there, and hope that people will like it. But the media being what it is at the moment, it's easier to get music out there, but there's just so much of it amongst all the other stuff that's clamoring for people's attention. So that's the challenge. We haven't got a manager, we haven't got a record label, we haven't got any promotional machine behind us. It's just us. So we do what we can and we rely on friends who are happy to help spread the word.

It's all DIY. We do it ourselves and hope some people will be interested in it. I've never been punk enough to be acceptable to the "hardcore" punks, but always been too punk to be acceptable to the more mainstream crowd. So it was a problem in the last band I was in. We kicked ass, but did we look punk? Did we have a Mohican? Did we have jackets with names on? No, we didn't.

Now I look even less punk than I did then, you know. But it shouldn't be what you look like. But it is a problem. People have a perception about what they think punk means, what they think post-punk means. So not looking the part, I suppose that's a challenge. But I'm not grumbling about it. Maybe a bit.

Songfacts: And the last question is... what's up with the band's name?

Andrew: Well, the name is interesting. We did come up with loads of names, and I'm sure Doug's going to probably answer most of this. But we did come up with a lot of names. But Flies on You was one of those words where it's like it's an expression. Again, it plays to our sense of weirdness. It doesn't really mean anything, but it sounds a bit sinister and a bit weird and a bit odd. And that's pretty much what we are, I think. And Flies on You, is it a sentence? Is it an accusation? Is it a question? Flies on You. You don't even know if it's good or bad, do you?

Doug: I think Andy talked about it about the band name. But again, I'm going to resort to the conversation that we had. I've still got the e mail conversation that we had on the 23rd of October 2011. You know, naturally, like any band, we've tossed around quite a lot of potential names of varying degrees of hilarity and ridiculousness and what have you. And some of which I still quite like. But they weren't quite right.

Anyway, our conversation on the 23rd of October 2011, I think by the looks of it I've interrupted Andy in the middle of something that he was saying, and said, "Okay. Well, I have here what I think is a much better name. Flies on You. It's a reversal of the phrase, 'No flies on you.' I like it. It's short, snappy, kind of punkish. Flies, eww. But not obviously so. Come to think of it, it also rhymes with eyes on you. Johnny Thunder's track ["Can't Keep my Eyes on You"]. It's vaguely insulting, but only if you think about it hard enough. Easy to spell. Invites gratuitous imagery. It's got minimal Google hits, just the one. It's a winner!"

Andy eventually replies, "Yeah, that's special, I really like that. Let's sleep on it and come back to it. But it's by far the best yet in my eyes. Good call."

Following day, 24th of October, "Flies on You," it's me. "It's passed the sleep on it test for me. Further advantages: It's tidy enough to fit on a button badge. Yes, if we're doing everything else, we have to do button badges. It's symmetrical. Flies, five letters, on you, five letters. Despite being a nuisance, flies are quite the beautiful ugly paradox combo when viewed close up, the blue green reflectiveness of the body, thorax, abdomen, the gossamer veined wings, incredible eyes, et cetera. You know what I'm driving at. A t shirt can cope with a great big fly on it, Warhol style, and the words 'Flies on You.' You're probably a handy enough photographer yourself and I'm almost aghast now at what Grebo can do. I think between us we could have the most artistical beautiful T-shirt with a dirty great fly on it, don't you?"

And that gives you some insight into the kind of minds that were at work that came up with the name Flies on You. How's that?

Andrew: That's cool.

More news on the new album:
Churl, ephemeral, asunder, acumen, ghastly, ineffectual, appendage, palpitating, hedgehogs. None of these are words commonly encountered in the lyrics of pop. They're also pretty scarce in the world of punk rock, but can all be found amongst the lyrics of the 15 songs on Flies On You's new album, Etcetera, due for release this summer.

"I haven't swallowed a dictionary," explains Doug, "and nor have I benefited from an expensive private education. I was educated in a bog-standard state school. I just have a keen interest in words. My mum nurtured it in me from an early age...brought me up on Dr Seuss.

"While the lyrics of the new album continue to reflect the fun I like to have with language, they are also permeated by a grim, pessimistic and despairing demeanor reflecting my state of mind over the last couple of years. There are laughs to be had, and some surprisingly nifty tunes, but they come at a price.

"Don't let that put you off. The way I see it is: if I'm going to be a miserable swine, I might as well be entertaining about it.

"Music-wise, the album is much sturdier and more cohesive than Nothing to Write Home About; a definite step forward in the quality of the songs and the production. Our fondness for Killing Joke and The Psychedelic Furs threatens to usurp the previous albums Stranglers and Wire influences. There are twists and turns, surprises round each corner. We're very happy with it."

April 1, 2014. Get more at fliesonyou.co.uk.
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