London post-punks Family Fodder have been blazing trails with their eclectic racket for 37 years – and they’re not done yet. With a new album and two albums of solo instrumentals from frontman Alig Fodder on the horizon, Andrew Thomas delves into their strange history and even stranger songwriting – an influential mismatch sound that Alig says “messes with your head in a most peculiar way…”
From surreal pop and experimental tape loops to psychedelic dub and alien folk, the sound of Family Fodder has always been impossible to classify. Which is perhaps why, despite collectors’ continued fascination with the dustiest and most obscure corners of post-punk, the shape-shifting British group formed by Alig Fodder in 1979 has remained so far outside of the accepted canon.
Not that they haven’t made their influence felt in certain circles, however. They’ve been covered by Portland duo YACHT and referenced by LCD Soundsystem and LOAF, played on the radio by noted crate-digger Andrew Weatherall, mentioned in Simon Reynolds’ post-punk bible Rip It Up And Start Again, and recently featured (as People In Control) on Optimo’s essential Cease & Desist DIY! compilation alongside post-punk obscurities The Spunky Onions and Fatal Microbes. (They even once appeared on the Nurse With Wound list, though admittedly that honour has rarely led a band to fame and fortune.)
“Someone once said to me, “You’re punk hippies,” says Alig Fodder from his current home on the Greek island of Crete. “‘No we’re not,’ I replied. ‘We’re hippy punks.’” The band remain as tricky to classify as ever in their current phase, which began after a near 30-year absence (punctuated by 2000’s Water Shed) with their 2010 album Classical Music and 2013’s Variety, which came with suitably surreal sleeve notes by fan David Shrigley. But to understand why Family Fodder’s legacy has remained so enduring while staying so firmly off-the-radar, let’s go back to the beginning: London in 1979, and the fertile fallout from the punk explosion.
“What became Family Fodder was initially my solo project, but came out of a sprawling London collective,” recalls Alig, who was born John Pearce. “The first single, ‘Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)’, was a duo with me on keyboards and guitar and Rick Wilson – who was also a member of The Work alongside Tim Hodgkinson from Henry Cow – on drums and percussion. Then others started to join.” That single, wrote Simon Reynolds in 2006, was a “macabre yet chirpy ditty” sung by Alig Fodder “from the point of view of a man in a state of arrested petrifaction who wishes he could get over it and be dead.”
The 7” was produced by Charles Bullen of influential experimental troupe This Heat, a regular collaborator with Family Fodder. “Charles was a close personal friend of mine – you could even say my ‘mentor’ as an older, more experienced musician and he definitely turned me onto half the music I still listen to,” says Alig. The duo expanded into a collective when Alig (who played guitar, keyboards, bass, saxophone, vocals, percussion and anything else he could get his hands on) and Wilson were joined by French singer Dominique Levillain and a drifting collection of multi-instrumentalists from the capital’s post-punk scene. The early line-up included Martin Harrison (aka Martin Frederix), Felix Fiedorowicz, Mick Hobbs, and sleeve designer Ian Hill.
After their 1979 mini-album Sunday Girls (A Tribute to Blondie by Family Fodder and Friends), the band recorded their first full LP in 1980. Released on Alex Howe’s Fresh Records, Monkey Banana Kitchen was as wild and diverse as anything to emerge from the post-punk melting pot. “At the time we were listening to a vast, eclectic range of new wave, experimental, soul, jazz, world, reggae and classical music,” says Alig. “Felix played me John Cage and Harry Partch. Charles Bullen from This Heat introduced me to Steve Reich and African music, and then Laurie Anderson, Eno and Fripp were there in the background somehow. And then there was the music of our contemporaries.”
Of his post-punk peers, he cites This Heat as one of the most important influences, while “Young Marble Giants seemed to be in a similar direction, and Flying Lizards, The Pop Group, The Slits, The Homosexuals, Talking Heads and Blondie. At one time I felt connected to Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure, but they were part of a fashion movement – we were outside fashion,” he notes. “There was definitely a punk influence, a sartorial fuck-off attitude, but we never wore the same thing twice or settled into a uniform. Our clothes were very DIY, gender-bending and flamboyant. We went to parties wearing sacks with holes torn through for the heads and arms. And lots of make up, dangly earrings, and sparkly jewellery.” The mismatched troupe revelled in provoking a reaction. “I wore a dress, silver tights and two wigs, Martin had dreadlocks and wore a bin liner. Dominique had a baggy man’s suit, Felix was a lounge lizard in a smoking jacket and cigarette holder. Ian and Mick were just weird.”
The production of Monkey Banana Kitchen was credited to The People in Control, a group consisting of Family Fodder members Ian Hill, Rick Wilson, singer Judy Carter (also known as Judy Jude and Judy O’Keiffe, who appeared on Guy Cuevas’ mutant disco 12” ‘Ebony Games’) and Martin Frederix, who was also a member of cult On U Sound group London Underground. This spin-off, in collaboration with Charles Bullen and two Cameroonian percussionists, went on to release a 7” titled ‘When It’s War’ on Belgian label Crammed Discs, a haunting rumble which turned up as one of the highlights of Optimo’s Cease & Desist DIY! compilation.
‘Savoir Faire’, the lead single from the debut LP and one of Family Fodder’s best known tracks, was produced by Charles Bullen and David Cunningham from Flying Lizards under the moniker Executives for Executives. With its strangely disconnected chanteuse-style vocal from Levillain, many have pointed out a similarity with Stereolab, the band fronted by French singer Lætitia Sadier; the B-side, ‘Organ Grinder’, also sounds like it could have come from one of Stereolab’s mid-90s LPs. It’s a comparison Alig plays down, however. “You are not the first to mention this,” he says, “but I’ve never had any contact with Stereolab or read anything where they mention Family Fodder. I believe it’s more coincidence than anything else.”
Like many of their contemporaries, the group also had their ears tuned to dub. ‘Bass Adds Bass’ from Monkey Banana Kitchen was the first track on which they explored the studio techniques of their Jamaican heroes, and you can hear dub effects on many of their subsequent albums. “I like to think of it as psychedelic pop music with a marked dub influence,” suggests Alig.
For their second LP, 1981’s ScHiZoPhReNiA pArTy !, the collective reshaped itself with Graham Painting on bass, guitar and percussion, Bazz Smith on drums, percussion and voice, and Lynn Alice on vocals, while sleeve designer Ian Hill once again adding to the collective noise on keyboards and vocals. The opening track, ‘Dinosaur Sex’, with its immortal line, “Dinosaur sex, you make me feel like a Tyrannosaurus Rex”, became one of the group’s best-known tracks, its mix of serious experimentation and playful absurdity leading the NME to dub it a “post-punk classic”. Typically all over the place in musical terms, the LP ranged from the post-punk dub of ‘Silence’ to the leftfield pop of ‘Film Music’ to the frankly unclassifiable ‘Plant Life’, and its eclectic DIY spirit was matched by Ian Hill’s sleeve design, a grid of mysterious, washed-out images labelled with words like “DETACH”, “ACTION”, “DEFENCE”.
“The album covers had a kind of art school vibe, pre-postmodern of you like,” says Alig. ‘Transformation was the key. The artwork went through a series of operations, often involving the expensive and new colour Xerox available at the time. We actually spent all our busking earnings at the Xerox Copy Bureau in Holborn. Nearly all the band members were visual artists as well, so collage, mixed media and electric transformation was what was going on.”
After their 1983 LP All Styles, which featured bizarre cover versions of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’, ‘Mack The Knife’ and ‘Falling in Love Again’, the band retreated from the spotlight as fashions began to change. The diverse, mingling post-punk scene was drifting into separate tributaries. “There was a decade in the wilderness, from 1985 to 1995, when Family Fodder became deeply unfashionable,” says Alig. “Nobody would touch us – and it was impossible to get releases.” They weren’t heard of again for nearly 20 years, until Alig reformed the group with Levillain, Wilson and Martin Harrison to record 2000’s Watershed for the Dark Beloved Cloud label. Produced by Harrison, the LP was as vital and varied as their releases from the early ‘80s, while continuing to cross new musical borders; on ‘Whisper’, for instance, Alig adds an exotic twist to their detached dub with a swirling accordion which appears repeatedly in their later work.
In the past six years the group’s output has picked up speed once more, beginning with 2010’s Classical Music. Veering from the spectral psych of ‘Death And The Maiden’ to the West African pop of ‘Whatever Happened to David Ze’, a tribute to the Angolan singer assassinated in 1977 the LP found the group as brilliantly unclassifiable as ever. In his sleeve notes for Classical Music, Jonny Trunk, esteemed digger and founder of Trunk Records, went some way to explaining the group’s obscurity. “On the rare occasion I’ve had to describe Family Fodder I have not really been able to do so,” he mused. “Musically I’ve got no idea what they are up to, but what they manage to create is a strange, engaging sort of sound that messes with your head in a most peculiar way.”
Classical Music also featured Levillain’s daughter Darlini Sing-Kaul, of the group Farafi, on vocals. “[Darlini] has more musical education than her mum, who was an autodidact or non-musician at the beginning,” says Alig. “Darlini is developing her own powerful voice with us and the group Farafi, and also plays piano, guitar, kora and varied percussion. Dominique and Darlini have genetic features in common, but Darlini’s experience is rooted in live performance and excellent rhythmic precision.” Her voice can be heard best on the unsettling mutant folk of ‘Primeval Pony’, which Alig describes in the sleevenotes as a “deceptively simple contemporary nursing rhyme for Darlini’s deadpan vocal, electric piano and tape delay.”
Three years after Classical Music came Variety, with liner notes by British artist and surreal scribbler David Shrigley (“If I were to sum up the Family Fodder record,” he wrote, “I would say it is magnificent and magical and marvellous and majestic and mighty”) and Alig is currently working on yet another a new LP to follow two albums of solo instrumentals released under the name Senior Model this year.
Much like The Fall, another shape-shifting outfit who long outlasted the brief, bright fire of late ‘70s post-punk, Family Fodder’s still-expanding catalogue can be accessed from almost any point. And in their own way and with their own particular palette, they share that reliable sense of being “always different, always the same”, as John Peel famously said of Mark E. Smith’s band. Nearly 40 years after the release of their debut single, the surreal world of Family Fodder feels as mysterious and inviting as ever.
We asked Alig Fodder to pick the perfect beginner’s introduction to Family Fodder.
‘Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)’
“The very first Family Fodder single, it doesn’t sound like anything else before or since! The phone conversation on the fade out is a genuine hoax radio phone-in featuring myself and Larry Adler. The aim was to list as many stations on the Central Line before I got cut off. Mad as a box of frogs.”
(1980, from Monkey Banana Kitchen)
“Our cheerful ‘hit’ single with a nonsense French chorus. Produced by Charles Bullen of This Heat and David Cunningham of Flying Lizards under the name Executives for Executives, it was recorded on a 16-track mobile – very exotic for the day – at Cold Storage in Brixton. It was turned down twice by Rough Trade! And it’s spelled wrongly on iTunes, bless! Miss Information Rules!”
(1980, from Monkey Banana Kitchen)
“An obscure 24-track loop mix, this was like a blueprint for dance and techno remix styles 15 years before we all had computers. There were lyrical and compositional contributions from The People in Control (Ian Hill, Martin Frederix and Judy Carter) and The Work (Tim Hodgkinson from Henry Cow’s group with Rick Wilson, Mick Hobbs and Bill Gilonis). “Reasons in the monkey-house, with a banana, in the kitchen.””
“A strange, wistful but driving rock dub with that weird French pronunciation from Dominique. I originally wrote this song as a vehicle for post-punk funambulist Hermine Demoriane, but withdrew after she tortured the Everly Brothers on her version of their 1964 single ‘Torture’. Too many time changes! Bazz Smith recorded the drum track alone, so that nobody could say “the drummer’s made a mistake”!”
(1981, from ScHiZoPhReNiA pArTy !)
“‘Dinosaur Sex’ showcases the lyrical humour and improvisational strength of the Family Fodder touring band. Grahame Painting and Bazz Smith pin down a rock-solid free-form drive to the edge of chaos and back. My favourite part is the quasi-Gregorian chant: “And when it all returns to dust”.”
‘The Onliest Thing’
(2010, from Classical Music)
““When you’re lonely, I will hold you, cos you’re only a little baby…” Just the sweetest words, in my humble opinion. With vocals by me and Darlini, the song derives from an obscure invitation from Zac and the Parenthetical Girls to make a string-driven thing. Ponticello playing style on cello and double bass with electric oud, recorded in damp and beautiful Devon.”
‘Hippy Bus to Spain’
(2013, from Variety)
“Funny, nostalgic words about a totally imaginary voyage around Spain. Evil Family Fodder mastermind Alig manipulates the lovely Mae Karthauser with drugs and family threats to sing about stuff that never actually happened, years before she was born!”