I'll confess: these aren't butterflies in my belly, they're B52 bombers. I'm nervous as hell when the evening's interviewee arrives at the table occupied by myself and a few friends. He leans in - "Anyone want a drink?" - and swaggers forth to the bar. Yep, swaggers. Like a rocker should; a punk rocker, even. Only, haven't we - the collective DiS identity - always thought of Steve Lamacq as Mr Indie?
The man himself clearly doesn't, at least not exclusively: he's the brains behind the twice-monthly Punk Rock Karaoke club night (website), held every first and third Saturday of the month at Upstairs At The Garage, London. It's been running for just over 18 months. The summary: show up, get bladdered, sing a punk rock classic while being backed by a proper band. Think The Sex Pistols, Green Day, Blondie, The Buzzcocks; think the bands that soundtrack your standard punkin' club night on the ales. Only this time, you're selecting the songs, not some faceless DJ.
Settling around a table in a relatively quiet central London boozer (me: Guinness; him: cider, of course), just the two of us, the tape recorder's clicked into position. Questions are unfolded. Bombers unload their cargo into guts-a-twitchin' and it's game on...
Right, let's start with the reason we're here: Punk Rock Karaoke. Explain...
It's the first and third Saturday of the month. Some nights are better than others. Until we got some flyers done about a month ago, it was just word of mouth really. We've got people that come on a regular basis, but now it's time to let people know that it's actually there, if they want to go along to see it. We'd like more different people to come along, because mostly the people that come have a really good time, so I hope that a few more people will want to try it out. It's quite important for me, y'know, on various levels: obviously it makes fuck all in the way of money because we do it in a very small venue. We could take it up a size, probably... we could make a bigger deal out of it. People have said it'd be ideal for a place the size of Death Disco, or whatever it's called, but that really wasn't the point. The point was that these people can come along and have a really good night and be able to get up on stage, so an audience of 150 is about right if you're gonna do two sets. Also, I don't think you get scared in front of that few people, unless it's Reading festival, which we're doing (note writer's inability to get piece done on time. Sorry). If you're drunk enough to get up on stage at Reading, with thousands of people there, then you've got the bottle to do it and you probably won't care. But I've always liked the atmosphere of the smaller gigs, anyway, so it works. It's a natural size.
And when did you get the initial idea for it?
There were two things, really. Years ago I was in New York, and I saw an advert for a venue that was called Arlene's Grocery, and it said, Monday: Punk Metal Karaoke. I was fascinated with this, and I missed it because I had to fly home on the Saturday night, but it stuck in the back of my head. Then, a couple of years ago, I was going to a seminar in Sweden - in Stockholm - that was funded by the British Council. It was called Access All Areas, and I had to interview Malcolm McLaren, so I was reading up on him and I came across this quote where he said that Britain was like a karaoke nation. So, if he's talking about us being a karaoke nation, then I thought that maybe... well, it just reminded me of this idea. And then I happened to bump into this mate of mine and we thought we'd give it a go: take what's been done in America and give it a slightly English spin. With the live band, it enables people to get up and relieve all the frustrations of many years having never been in a band.
So do you ever have a go yourself?
No, no... to be honest I really try not to. I've almost been persuaded a few times. The band soundcheck by themselves. I can do a reasonable version of 'Another Girl, Another Planet' and, of course, I can do 'Babylon's Burning'. For the older people I think it's because they've had too much experience of singing to a hairbrush, and for the younger people it's just sing-alongs, really, 'cause that's how it's set up. But then again, as well as having the live band, we've also got a guy called Ian from Damaged Goods who DJs, and he's great. If you know the songs originally then it's great to hear them again, and we get quite a few people who don't know the songs coming up and asking. It's like, "This is Killjoy, and they later turned into Dexy's Midnight Runners, and you can get this song here..." Also, everyone above the age of, say, 16, seems to have absorbed the lyrics to 'Teenage Kicks'. Everyone knows the lyrics. I mean, look at the new wave catalogue: how many of these songs have been brought to life again, through commercials or something? Some people will know a song from a Sky TV advert... it seeps into our culture. Take 'One Way Or Another' by Blondie: it's the girl's song of choice, we have to do it every gig, and it'll be one of the first three songs to be signed up.
So I guess you can guarantee certain songs every night?
Yeah... The Sex Pistols go in and out of fashion. 'God Save The Queen' gets requested fewer times than 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go?'. That, or 'I Fought The Law'. We'll take requests... that's the thing: we'll move the set around. What works as a live song might not actually work that well (as karaoke). We're going to revamp the website in the autumn, so there'll be a place where people can make suggestions. At the moment the band knows over 40 songs, and that's a punk catalogue of around 20 tracks with some new wave songs and then things like 'Last Night' by The Strokes. They also do a punk version of 'These Boots Are Made For Walking', which is very popular.
Can you envisage a time when the club's so big that an actual singer from one of the bands you cover will come in and perform their own song?
I think that'd be quite funny. I mean, I keep goading Tom Robinson, who works at 6Music, to come down, as we'll learn ‘2 4 6 8 Motorway' if he comes down to sing it. What we'd really like to do at some point is a big show... a charity event. We'd invite down all these magazines and labels, and the more competitive it got the more chance there'd be of them bringing in a ringer. Imagine someone like Universal entering, and they're on the phone to Fergal Sharkey saying, "Any chance of coming down and doing 'Teenage Kicks' for us?"
I'm sure I'm not alone amongst people of my age range - say, 20 to 30 - in thinking of you more as an indie specialist, rather than someone absorbed by punk. I guess this club argues otherwise...?
To be honest, it's one of these things where you get a reputation for what you do on the radio, but a lot of DJs have passions that lie outside of what they play when they're on air. Punk, really, changed my life. When I was five years old I wanted to be a DJ, but when I was 12 years old, things had gone terribly wrong. If you look at the charts in 1976 it's absolutely appalling: it's The Wurzels and Chicago. I was looking for something to identify myself with, and I was obsessed with Marvel comics at the time, so I was, "I want to be a comic artist." Actually, I wanted to do anything to get out of the tiny little village I was living in about 12 miles outside of Colchester - a one bus in, one bus out a week place. So I spent hours in my bedroom, trying to create stuff, and I had the radio on. All of a sudden, all this great music was coming out, even in the chart shows. I remember seeing The Stranglers on a Saturday morning television programme, and I was too young to go to the gigs but the music had a real impact. So I went out and bought 'Babylon's Burning' by The Ruts and 'Sound Of The Suburbs' by The Members... when ’If The Kids Are United' by Sham 69 came out, that was an astonishing record for the time. I just followed it through, and I suppose from there I became obsessed with the next wave of punk - especially American punk - like The Descendents and Black Flag and Minor Threat... a lot of that stuff, like SST records. In the old days we'd put compilation tapes together, and I got one that had 'Punch Drunk' by Hüsker Dü and '1945' by Social Distortion and all those sort of things on it. This is how, in the end, we - the Evening Session - were the first people to get on board with Green Day. When I phoned Warners and said I'd liked the first two albums, they said "Are they signed to us?" Even now, there's stuff that I quite like, but I do find that the punk rock of today is very stale. Anti-Flag are a favourite, because they remind me of my era, really.
But you must still get exposed to a lot of new music, and a lot of punk music?
No, not really... I don't get sent an awful lot of stuff. You have to go and find the stuff you like these days. Like, I've stopped reading through every column of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll to find whatever the next big thing is, but I know Good Charlotte, and I know they're not punk rock. There's a world far below that.
We talk more - how can you not in such company? - but it's mainly fanboy chatter and talk of the freedom Lamacq's allowed on both his 6Music show and his once-a-week slot on Radio 1. Even though the answers have been uttered a hundred times before, they sounds as fresh as the morning's dew when coming from the man himself, sat right in front of you. He still actively buys records when the opportunity arises, so I recommend he checks out Wives; whether he did or didn't, I don't know (although only a fool wouldn't). Drinks are downed and the taxi takes us to The Garage, just below the venue for Punk Rock Karaoke, where we take in a band on the up-and-up. One of them - the bassist maybe? - wears a Hot Snakes T-shirt: he's won my support already. Then it's to the pub for those aforementioned companions and I, but the next of a series of gigs for Steve, who slowly makes his way home via toilet dive and grand theatre, absorbing what he can and ignoring what he must.
I'll confess: I expected a down-to-earth interviewee, and one that could recount a hundred tales of Band X and Band Y when they were but wee, but I really didn't expect the passion within to be burning so brightly still. Even after being subjected to so much shit, Lamacq's enthusiasm for New Blood is absolutely apparent. Why not see for yourself - you've got not one but two opportunities per month, no less.