The Cover Story

Bob Vylan: “The music industry is the wild west… it’s a dangerous place with dangerous people”

Kicking against racism, police brutality and an outdated music business, Bob Vylan are making a vital, visceral noise, and they're doing it their own way. Meet the most exciting and important punk band in the UK...

Bob Vylan: “The music industry is the wild west… it’s a dangerous place with dangerous people”
Ian Winwood
Esmé Surfleet

Wembley Arena. Friday, November 26. 7pm. At a concert headlined by The Offspring, the ordinarily unenviable task of heating up a gathering crowd from the foot of a three band bill falls to the English duo Bob Vylan. Patrolling the stage, their singer introduces himself to the room. “My name is Bobby Vylan,” he says. He introduces the group’s other member, too, a drummer, confusingly named Bobbie Vylan. Between a flurry of songs that speak of racist murderers, systemic discrimination, English identity, Martin Luther King, poverty, the London underground and God knows what else, the personable and provocative frontman, with a knowing and evident glee, seizes the electrified fence that stands on the border between what is, and what isn’t, permissible at an arena rock show. “This country,” he declares, “is in need of a good fucking spanking.” Someone should “kill the Queen”. The police are “pigs”.

Front of house, the cheers are tinged with nervousness. Down at the barrier, a heckler takes offence. Perhaps unwilling to express publicly what is really bothering him, from the banks of a seated section an older man rages at the performers for the sin of not using live guitars.

“We want to bring an element of politics, discussions around racism, and inequality of any kind, into the mainstream sphere,” the frontman tells Kerrang! (from this point on, so we don’t drive ourselves mad, the two music makers will be referred to as ‘the singer’ and ‘the drummer’). “It would be so cool to hear something on radio – and by this I mean daytime radio – that makes you think, ‘Okay, this is actually saying something.’ Because even the biggest bands at the moment that are saying something, they’re on specialist shows and specialist stations. And that’s great because it’s still [on] the airwaves for people to catch, but it’d be great to just have something different – I won’t say better – out there for people to hear.”

If the true purpose of political music is to say things that comfortable people don’t want to hear – and to a large degree, it certainly is – Bob Vylan are hitting the mark every time. The highest compliment that can be paid to the group’s music is that it possesses the power to put at least some of its listeners ill at ease. 'Neighbours called me n*****, told me to go back to my own country,' they sing on We Live Here. 'White folks love quoting Martin Luther [King]… but don’t forget, white folks still killed him,' are just two of the lines from the recently released Pretty Songs. For generations of listeners too young to remember punk rock in its original form – Johnny Rotten announcing 'I am an antichrist', a band called Millions Of Dead Cops – Bob Vylan are here to revivify, and to relitigate, the movement’s mission statement of shock and awe.

“It’s that thing of not caring [about what people think], to a degree,” says the drummer. “The ends justify the means. Whoever feels insulted about what we’ve said, well it’s got to be done because we’ve got to have [them] understand this thing we’re saying that they might not want us to say.”

Kerrang! meets Bob Vylan five days before the group make a few enemies, and a number of new friends, at Wembley. Seated on a crimson sofa at a corner table of the Everyman café in London’s King's Cross – an oat milk decaf latte for the singer, an espresso with a splash of water for the drummer – it’s obvious from the start that our encounter will be different from the norm. Routine enquiries that normally serve as warm-up exercises for interviewees (When and where did the pair meet? For how long have they known each other?) yield a barren harvest. “We’ve just kind of always known each other,” says the singer. Yeah, but from where? “That’s the thing, though,” he says. “We don’t really talk about that side of the band.”

This is most unusual.

“There are just some things that we don’t…”

“Put out,” says the drummer.

“Yeah,” says the singer, “put out. We don’t talk about [it]. We just don’t… We’ll let you know when there’s something we don’t feel comfortable with.”

So here’s what we do know about Bob Vylan. As well as supporting The Offspring, in November the group undertook a short tour as special guests to Biffy Clyro, of whom mainman Simon Neil is a fan. Their softly-spoken drummer lives in East London, while the singer – a man who chooses his words with the kind of care one might exercise when buying a house – rests his head in the north of the city. In April, they will release The Price Of Life, their third album. Such is their unbiddable certainty that, without being asked, both musicians – Bobby also plays guitar and produces their recorded output – reveal something that almost no other emerging group would ever say, certainly not to a journalist, and possibly not even to themselves. Bob Vylan is not the most important thing in its members lives. It’s in the top five, sure, but it ain’t number one.

“We both had, like, a decent amount of life before this got to this point anyway,” says the drummer. “It’s all about [being] who you are outside of all of this. We really were complete people outside of this. It’s not the core of our being. It’s become a part of us, but it’s not everything. And I think we also understand that we’ve come into this with open eyes. We understand that this may not be forever. I’d love it if it was, but it might not be.”

"The artists went broke during the pandemic but the record companies and streaming services were fine”

Hear Bobby Vylan explain the benefits of owning their own music

The key to blowing open the doors on Kerrang!’s initially stilted exchange with Bob Vylan comes in appreciating the degree to which they differ from almost every other young act on the scene. The fact that the pair are never less than polite throughout the course of an 80-minute exchange doesn’t mean they are flattered at being placed on our cover. As is their right, they appear unconcerned whether or not their interviewer likes them or their music. This being said, when the point arrives at which the pair infer that the topics about which they do wish to speak are being listened to – and, perhaps, hopefully, even understood – the three of us find our groove. From this point on, the discourse is a dream.

Even so, it can be bracing stuff. Expounding on the advocacy of direct action in a track such as Pretty Songs – 'I’m not a pacifist, I’m smashing fists at every single racist prick I meet' – the singer says, “you can be told [to represent] non-violence, non-violence, non-violence. Violence is not the answer, but if non-violent leaders and non-violent protestors are still being shot, in this day and age, then, speaking for myself, where I come from, I’m not meeting non-violence with non-violence. I’ve just never seen that work out, ever. I don’t see how you can have a country that has promoted nothing but violence to get what it wants, since the birth of the country, tell you that violence is not the answer. Violence is most certainly the answer when you’re being violently restrained or violently oppressed. Violence is the only response to violence.”

In lesser hands, this kind of eye-catching rhetoric might not withstand the scrutiny of a gentle breeze. But once again, with Bob Vylan, things seem different. No matter how incendiary, the group’s outlook is fortified by a depth of knowledge that only the uncharitable would attempt to deny. 'Let’s go dig up Maggie’s grave and ask her where the milk went,' they sing on Wicked & Wild, the first song proper from The Price Of Life. The line is a reference to the then Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher’s decision to withdraw free milk from primary school children half a century ago. It’s the kind of detail that goes far beyond calling Boris Johnson a shambles, say, or Jacob Rees Mogg a toff. It’s book smarts, is what it is. If the group are abreast of such an obscure event, it stands to reason they know about plenty of other things, too.

“We have reading lists on the physical packaging of the albums,” says the singer. “We try and include resources that have helped us. We write little stories or whatever in the liner notes. We offer insights into certain things. It’s more than music, right?”

It certainly seems to be. Four years ago, Bob Vylan began their operation by opening a bank account into which they deposited a couple of hundred quid. From the start, with vanishingly rare exceptions, they refused to accept gigs at which they would lose money. With the singer and drummer meeting the costs of living by working day and night jobs, funds from live appearances and sales of merchandise were taken to the bank. This ongoing appetite for self-sufficiency makes them one of the few bands to appear on the cover of Kerrang! who don’t have a manager. At least in the conventional sense, Bob Vylan don’t have a record deal either. Rather than seeking a contract with an established company, they founded their own label, Ghost Theatre, that allows them – like Metallica and the Foo Fighters – the structural freedom to operate however, and whenever, they please.

“That, I think, changes people’s perception of where they put their money,” says the singer. “I won’t say a name – but there are certain bands out there who are maybe speaking for socialism or anti-capitalism, whatever it might be, but you buy that record and that £10 or £12 goes to the record label. Right? With us, if you buy the record, the money that you spend goes to the band… It goes to the people who made it. I would prefer to give my money to the source who created this thing than give it to somebody who just owns the thing.”

"I would prefer to give my money to the source who created this thing than give it to somebody who just owns the thing”

Listen to Bobby Vylan explain the importance of putting money back into band's pockets

In operating in this manner, Bob Vylan have managed to dodge one of the music industry’s most galling grifts. Almost without exception, by signing to established record labels bands surrender the copyright to their own material (for 70 years). They may have written the songs, and paid for them to be recorded, but they do not own them. This imbalance of power weakens musicians to a point that can sometimes look like servitude. They tell themselves they don’t have a proper job, and learn to be grateful for things that are rightly their due. The two Londoners, though, are having none of this. “The music industry is the wild west,” says the singer. “It’s a dangerous place with dangerous people, right?” Indeed it is. Even though Bob Vylan have recently welcomed a publicist and a booking agent into their self-built cottage industry, the vigilance remains. This is their house. They own it.

“[During the pandemic] the artists went broke but the record companies and streaming services were fine,” says the singer. “They made it through to the other side. But we own our music and we sell it directly. So we were fortunate enough that we didn’t go broke. It was a hard year, just like it was for everybody else, but I think that really is what this band is about. Doing things differently because we’re doing them the way we as the artists want to do them. And not doing them the way we feel we have to do them.”

From top to bottom, Bob Vylan appear to be examining everything, flipping it upside down, and turning it around in a search for hidden dangers. In a fleeting but resonantly evocative moment on Take That, from The Price Of Life, they speak of a society that is 'killing off kids with two pound chicken and chips'. Knowing of what he writes, the singer goes onto say that he was 'raised off that but I gave it back – why? – because the body gets sick of that shit, get rid of that shit, wreaks havoc on the heart and liver, and we can’t fight if we’re fighting our ticker'. Once upon a time punk rock was often associated with songs such as Chinese Rocks, Dee Dee Ramone’s (predictably thrilling) paean to dangerously potent heroin. Now, without missing a beat or losing an edge, a young band from London has found the vocabulary required to sing about the virtues of eating a healthy diet. Beat that for progress.

It’s as if the pair have studied a map marked with things that might slow them down, or trip them up, or cause them harm; and, learning from the costly mistakes of others, have used it to plot a safer course to wherever it is they’d like to go. (“Maybe we’ll open up a soup kitchen or something,” says the singer. “Who knows what we might end up doing.”) Whether at home and out on the road – a working environment in which intoxicants are easier to come by than food, healthy or otherwise – the pair abstain from drugs and alcohol. Four decades after Ian MacKaye, from Minor Threat and then Fugazi, sang about being straight-edge – a valiant attempt at providing an alternative commentary to punk’s innumerable songs and stories of routine ruination - here, as elsewhere, Bob Vylan remain wide awake to a perilous past and their own future.

“Having so much life outside of this, and understanding that people are tripping over this stuff all the time, drugs and drink is what knocks people over so much,” says the drummer. “It’s an obstacle people don’t overcome, so why not just not have it there? And also, you’re saving money, it’s better for you, [and] you remember your fucking choices. It’s a no-brainer after that. Why would you do that? Every time you make those kind of decisions [to abstain], it’s one less thing that can become a disruptive force in a band. Especially in this scene. I’ve seen too many people just get way too caught up in doing too much of this stuff. I’ve seen people struggle to try and recover. It seems that, for what it is, it’s just not worth it.”

It’s not worth it because, more than merely earning their burgeoning success, Bob Vylan have built the very infrastructure upon which it grows. Everything here is on their terms. Given this, it stands to reason that, should they come, they will also own their failures, too. As if with this in mind, onstage at Wembley Arena, the singer trips himself up only once. After inviting the crowd to complete the punk aphorism “the only good pig…”, a lone voice from the crowd shouts, “is a dead pig”. Hearing this, the frontman amplifies the words for the benefit of the people at the back. “I’m not saying it,” he says, “I’m just repeating it.” Really, though, if you’re planning to go this far out on a limb, if you’re determined the push this hard against the boundaries, you should at least own it.

After all, up to and including the means of production, they own everything else. In the years since its inception, box office punk rock has evolved into a commercial phenomenon that owes more to polite social democracy than anything from its radical past. With an element of grime [music] and vignettes from the recognisably English inner city, the singer and drummer have created a sound that is fresh and fierce. Along with this, they’ve also embraced, and advanced, the movement’s faded vocabulary of danger, provocation and unease. Like Jello Biafra, from Dead Kennedys, standing for the mayoralty of San Francisco in 1979, or Chumbawamba upending a champagne bucket over the deputy Prime Minister in 1998, Bob Vylan are up for the fight.

“Some of the things we say, in the music, are glimpses into private conversations,” says the singer. “We make political music because we’re leaving the door ajar on a private conversation that we’re having. And you’re overhearing bits and pieces that a lot of people have in private but do not come out and say on record. Right? That is, for me, the political side of this band.

“It is,” he says, once more speaking in perfect sentences, “about showing people things they might not otherwise see.”

Bob Vylan's new album The Price Of Life is released April 22 via Ghost Theatre. They will tour the UK in May 2022 – get your tickets now.

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