Out of the rat trap
Thomas Cohen’s relationship with Peaches Geldof gets more press attention than his rather excellent band, but he’s confident that S.C.U.M. will rise above it all, he tells LAUREN MURPHY
HE’S THE 21-year-old frontman of a band called S.C.U.M. who bears a striking resemblance to a young Nick Cave, likes to dress in vintage 1940s clothes and is engaged to the (reformed) hellraising daughter of Bob Geldof.
According to the logic of rock star cliches, Thomas Cohen should be conducting this interview beneath a mound of groupies and cocaine. Instead, he’s taking a stroll in a London park with his newborn baby strapped to his chest in a sling, his fiancee (the aforementioned Peaches) at his side, and their golden retriever Parpy bounding off into the distance. What’s wrong with this picture? Isn’t there supposed to be some sense of discordance in this S.C.U.M.my man’s life?
Cohen may not act like your average irresponsible rock star – and the last few weeks may have seen him swapping nights out on the tear for night feeds with baby Astala – but he insists that his band, formed in London in 2008 with his childhood friend Bradley Baker, is just like any other young group of musically minded twentysomethings.
“We spend pretty much 80 per cent of our time together farting around. We’re definitely not sitting around discussing serious issues and reading Camus to each other. I think certain members have never even read a book, actually,” he laughs. “It’s always been really good fun.”
That may be so, but the genesis of S.C.U.M. certainly wasn’t borne from lighthearted banter. Named after the radical feminist manifesto written in 1967 by Valerie Solanas, who attempted to murder Andy Warhol, the band’s debut album Again Into Eyes was released last year on Mute Records to generally positive reviews – although it’s Cohen’s relationship with Geldof that has attracted more attention than his musical endeavours. So, let’s address the elephant in the room: isn’t it frustrating for your band to be defined by your personal relationships?
“I mean, everybody’s gotta put a tag on something – especially within the media or when someone’s writing about something. So I understand why they do it,” he says, politely refusing to succumb to another bout of journalistic poking on the topic. “I think being frustrated about it would just be a waste of my time.” What about his bandmates? Does being tagged as coat-tailriding scenesters bother them after four years of hard work? “Do they mind? I dunno. I mean, aren’t scenesters meant to be cool? And we’re not very cool . . .”
If that’s the case, the quintet do a mean line in studied nonchalance. Their moody, atmospheric art-rock treads a line somewhere between Depeche Mode, The Bad Seeds (Jim Sclavunos even had some preparatory involvement with the album) and Joy Division’s more melodic moments. Other more obvious parallels have been drawn with The Horrors – not least because S.C.U.M. bassist Huw Webb is brother of that band’s bassist, Rhys – but Cohen speaks more enthusiastically of his love of the 1970s New York scene than he does of contemporaries.
“If I could, I would have been in a band then, because it was just incredible,” he enthuses. “You would have been able to work with all these amazing people – like Talking Heads worked with Arthur Russell, Brian Eno, that sort of thing. That’s the music we love the most, but we’ve never wanted to be a retrogressive band, either. It’s just really really boring, I think, [to] pin yourself down and say ‘We’re a psychedelic Sixties band’ or whatever. It’s just really out of context with what’s happening now.”
S.C.U.M. are certainly all about the present, going as far as to capture various cities in sonic form on their SIGNALS series, recorded in various locations during their 2009 European tour. What sort of sonic angle would Dublin inspire?
“I’ve never actually been in Dublin – or Ireland – but what springs to mind when I think about Ireland and music is obviously Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine, so maybe it’d be really shoegazey. I never used to, but now I like U2. That’s quite a generalisation, isn’t it? Saying ‘I like U2’ . . . but The Joshua Tree is an amazing album.”
Other influences came from less obvious places – and no, not The Boomtown Rats. “I really like Serge Gainsbourg, and John Barry and Basil Kirchin as well – English composers who did a lot of soundtracks,” he nods. “We’re actually talking about that sort of thing for our second record; we want to do ‘soundtrack pop’. Something like 1970s film scores, but within a pop sensibility.”
Cohen’s love of soundtracks and film goes hand in hand with S.C.U.M.’s striking image. The band have worked with young British artists to create their record sleeves, their photoshoots are customarily elaborate affairs and their live show is built around atmospheric visuals.
“It’s something we’ve planned from the start,” he says. “I guess it’s kind of irritating, because the more you tour, playing night after night, it becomes more difficult to do. But when we create shows, it feels like an event. The visual side is really important, because we want the gig to be an experience for everyone there, rather than just being there and feeling detached from the people on stage – that was why we wanted to do something that had a visual dominance.”
Things have certainly changed since the first incarnation of S.C.U.M. in 2008, when the quintet regularly played dingy dives, dressed only in black and, by all accounts, took themselves very seriously indeed.
“Things have definitely changed,” Cohen laughs. “When you first start a band, you’re very naive about everything, and you’re willing to do pretty much anything. Which is good, but that doesn’t always end up in a well-written song, which is something we really care about. What else? Well, we’ve all got longer hair nowadays, too. Between the five of us, I think there’s about four or five extra inches of hair . . .”
More significantly than their follicle modifications, the band have caught the ear of some big players on the UK’s music scene. Portishead chose them to play at their ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror festival last year, while Brian Eno has similarly selected them for Punkt, the Norwegian festival he is curating this September. The producer is someone that Cohen admits that he’d love to work with – along with septugenarian Frenchman Jean-Claude Vannier – but no matter who’s on board for album number two, change abounds as freely in camp S.C.U.M. as it does in Cohen’s personal life. He admits that fatherhood will “probably mean that things won’t get as sad” when it comes to his nocturnal songwriting sessions, but either way, things are going to be different.
“We definitely feel that we did what we wanted to do with the first record, and we wanna move forward°, he declares. “It’s not gonna be a stagnant second record of b-sides that didn’t make the first one; we don’t find it hard to make music. There are five of us to generate new ideas and new sounds, so who knows what might happen?”
S.C.U.M. play The Workman’s Club in Dublin tomorrow