On the eve of the release of their latest critically acclaimed double album Square Moon (which you can stream at the end of this feature), The Crimea announced that they were splitting and would play one last gig at Camden’s Jazz Cafe on July 30th...
First with The Crocketts and then with The Crimea, singer/songwriter/shuddering rapscallion Davey MacManus had spent nearly twenty years at the lower end of the indie rock scene, stunning spectators with his intense performances, wooing famous admirers such as John Peel and Kelly Jones and releasing delightful compositions of scruffily twinkling gorgeousness like ‘Lottery Winners on Acid’. Despite cultivating a modest but fiercely loyal following, MacManus’ many talents never reaped the greater recognition and riches they deserved.
Having called time on the band, MacManus now intends to devote his energies to setting up a children’s home in Diepsloot, South Africa. If only Bono had the same hands-on commitment to poverty aid then we wouldn’t have to endure any more of his earnest MOR ear-sugar and schmoozing sanctimonious halo-seeking. Instead, we’re stuck with Bono’s beshaded piousness and we lose Davey to a higher purpose. That’s the way the rock scene cookie crumbles. We caught up with MacManus shortly after The Crimea’s final performance to ask about the past, the future, and NOT what his influences are...
DiS: Both The Crocketts and The Crimea had an awful lot going for them, not least a frontman with a weathered, yearning voice, intriguing, empathy-arousing lyrics, and the ability to completely hold audiences’ attention with his (your) shaking, possessed, passionate live performances. The Crocketts secured some pretty massive support slots (e.g. Stereophonics at Morfa Stadium). The Crimea were championed by John Peel, Secrets of the Witching Hour was apparently downloaded over 100,000 times, and Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol helped fund Square Moon. How on Earth did the cultish devotion you secured in your small-but-loyal fanbase and enthusiastic celebrity patrons never mutate into greater commercial success?
Davey MacManus: Hi there, wow, I’m not sure, hell of a question. I think there was always some kinda fear from the labels (Virgin and later Warner Bros) that I was a bit maverick, a bit too out there to justify spending millions on marketing or videos or whatever. They made me fix my teeth and tried to polish me but I was never going to be Chris Martin. Our biggest battle over the years was actually with Radio and specifically Radio 1. We would get Xfm A-list every time and lots of Radio 1 specialist play but without being on the Radio 1 playlist it was very difficult for bands to chart in the days before internet, hence I threatened to go on hunger strike outside Radio 1 at the time of ‘1939 Returning’ [Crocketts single, released in 2000]. Sometimes I’m happier to have the cultish devotion and know that we mean so much to so few, rather than have a more kinda fake pop following who just like us because we are cool, rather than because they are fat and ugly and our music makes them feel like they are actually human.
Square Moon initially had a quiet self-release back in 2011. Why has it taken this long to gain wider distribution?
It took so long to come to fruition because I was studying a nursing degree, and we wanted to wait until I’d finished this before we released it, so I would have time to promote it.
It seems impossible to unearth any reviews of Square Moon that aren’t glowing with praise and full with remorse for The Crimea’s disbandment. Are you surprised by the positive reactions to the record?
I am, yes. We have always had good press and reviews (thank the lord), but the reviews for Square Moon are just off the scale. I can listen to it now with pride, rather than hearing every minor transgression and wishing I’d changed that lyric or mixed something different or the myriad of things I hear wrong.
Have the positive reviews made you question your decision to break up The Crimea?
No, once my mind was made up there was no going back. I’m just really glad Square Moon got a proper release on the mighty Alcopop and Lazy Acre and that it has a chance to be heard. I am happy when I read those reviews but they don’t affect me the same way as they would have done if I was 19 years old, when it would literally have blown my mind. I don’t have an ego to be massaged, I’m just ecstatic that we signed a new deal at the age of 36 with a cool label, and that we are releasing a monster double album as our last release instead of some shitty ‘Best Of’.
On account of being in the grim North, I failed to attend the final Crimea concert on July 30th. How was it? What was the atmosphere like and how did you feel? Did you cry? Will you miss live performances with the band?
The gig was just incredible, full stop. Fans had travelled from all over the world to be there at the last show. They sang every word and stayed completely silent in the quiet songs. Yes, I was crying, balling my eyes out, I just couldn’t help it. Tara Blaise our female singer has such a beautiful voice and every time she piped up I started leaking. It was really hard to choose the setlist, to reflect 11 years of The Crimea. Live performance is my life blood, I have missed it terribly over the last four years while I’ve been doing my nurse training and I know I’m going to miss it in the future.
Why are The Crimea not embarking on a more extensive Meat Loaf-style FINAL EVER TOUR EVER for your regional fans?
I am going to Africa to open this children’s home. I’m not tired of making music but I am tired of being in a band and being asked in interviews what my influences are. I don’t know what my fucking influences are.
The unsung hero of The Crocketts and The Crimea is Owen Hopkin who drummed in both groups. Other than laying down the beats, what did Owen bring to your creative and professional pursuits and how do you feel about the end of this impressively long (near two decade) musical and personal partnership?
Owen is a legend, my best and oldest friend. We first started playing together in 1995 and we have fought and crawled and screamed and climbed through 18 years of being nearly famous. Owen is the most charming, kindest, gentlest tough guy in the history of the world.
If you could send a message back to your younger self, what advice would Davey MacManus of 2013 give to the “Davey Crockett” of circa 1996?
Stay away from drugs, women, and major labels.
What were the highlights of your musical career?
My first ever tour, aged 19, with The Pogues. Touring the USA so many times - especially the Billy Corgan tour. Top of the Pops. LA2 with the Crocketts. Reading Festival through the years. China. Writing ‘Lottery Winners on Acid’ whilst on the run from the law in Australia over the millennium. Getting in the Top 40. John Peel saying he could listen to our music forever and ever. Being paid to be a rock star, never worrying about money or food or nothing, basically.
How would you like The Crocketts and The Crimea to be remembered?
As bands that truly enter your soul and make you look differently at the world, kind of like the first time you take magic mushrooms. Our music is meant to champion the unwanted, the forgotten, the strangers in a crowd, the lost souls, weirdoes and Frankensteins. I became worried when we split, that people will consider us selfish, that the tattoos of our lyrics and my face will get covered up by dolphins, but from the reactions of the fans I can now see that (touch wood) we will live on in their memories. Our music has always strived to be individual, not part of a genre or fashion, and I hope it can remain so and that one day I might receive the Mercury Music Prize posthumously.
The news that you’d become a nurse clashed somewhat with my memories of your more manic live shows. I imagined the frail, ill and injured being baffled by a wiry lunatic dangling from the ceiling muttering love-struck poetry to himself and occasionally roaring “LUCIFER!” or “I DON’T FUCKING THINK SOOOOO!” How did this character end up working as a nurse? Was this an ambition you had considered for a long time or was it more impulsive than that?
It was really weird, once I was working in recovery (bringing people round after an operation), I took the tubes out of this guy’s throat, and brought him round off the anaesthetic, and the first thing he said when he woke up was “Oh my God, its Davey MacManus!” Yesterday in work I had to arrange for this woman’s two children to be taken into care. She was very sick and she'd left them at home in her caravan. She put a gypsy curse on me. I have had to learn to be a completely different person. I have to speak quietly, to calm the fuck down and not be manic, to be methodical and careful, and most of all professional. Before I became a nurse, I’d never cooked for myself, or ironed my own clothes, or travelled on the tube, or paid a bill. Suddenly I had to grow up and get real, after 18 years of being treated like a king.
Founding an orphanage in poverty-stricken Diepsloot has to be the most noble reason for a band split ever and certainly puts the usual “musical differences” and “to pursue solo projects” into perspective. What attracted you to the plan of founding an orphanage in Diepsloot? Why Diepsloot?
I had no choice. I’d twice worked at large HIV orphanages in Africa before, but they were pretty well organised and relatively safe places. In Diepsloot I was nursing at a centre for abused and sexually abused orphans, homeless, HIV and TB kids. It was chaos. The police wouldn’t come there. There are 300,000 people living in a slum/shantytown which you can circumnavigate in 30 minutes walking. They are all illegal immigrants so they can’t enter any government systems. I was being woken up at 4am in my shack by a ten year old girl, 4 months pregnant, never been to school, used as a house slave and child prostitute by wayward guardians, beaten and burned with melting plastic. On that last night she woke me up at 4am, her hands were tied, her mouth was gaffered up, she was drunk and she’d just been raped. So since I've come back I’ve been really sad and basically I don’t have a choice but to go back and start a children’s home. Diepsloot was chosen by default because it is so dangerous and it really needs a children’s home.
Louis Theroux dubbed Diepsloot “the most dangerous place in the world”? Is this an accurate description? How bad are things out there? Are you going to be ok?
It is incredibly dangerous. The police don’t go in there. You can hire a gun for 100 Rand for the night. I’ve seen five people get killed by mob justice for stealing things (one guy stole some taps, another a mobile phone). The community gets together and kills thieves by stoning them and burning a tire wrapped around their body. It was frightening, especially because they were usually just kids getting killed.
I was in danger because I was working with sexually and physically abused kids, and coming into daily contact with their abusers, who felt threatened by me because they knew I knew their secrets.
Will you be taking your guitar with you to South Africa? Is Square Moon the last we will hear from you musically?
Yes, I will be taking my guitar. Last year I brought enough drums for 30 kids to have a drum circle, five guitars, 250 harmonicas, and a little pedal organ. It lasted four months and then after Christmas it was all stolen, so I’m just going to have to do it all again.
Finally, can you still remember the words to classic Crocketts b-side ‘Frog on a Stick’?
He was a nice little guy, With big blue eyes, All squashed flat on the roadside, He was a modern day, gun toting, whiskey drinking, cigar smoking:::: FROG ON A STICK!