Filed under: Interview
What is it about Sheffield that always seems to breed artistic zaniness? Something in the air? Boredom? Whatever the answer, the self-proclaimed home of cutlery can boast a long heritage of oddball artists, from 70s post-punk cobbled keyboard experiment Cabaret Voltaire to the pioneering synth pop of Human League to the playful urban paranoia of Pulp. Joining this esteemed line is the Steel City’s hottest burst of innovation- duo Dave Johnson and Vanessa Robinson, better known as Grandadbob. Get over the inevitable comparisons with Daft Punk, Moloko and Portishead; Grandadbob have carved out their own deliciously eccentric niche of dancefloor electronica with their debut album “Waltzes for Weirdoes”. Released in Japan this September on Norman Cook’s Southern Fried label, this melting pot of tracks is a bold excursion into originality, bouncing Vanessa’s sultry, swinging vocals off Dave’s twisted, dark and dirty beats. Throw some essential top laughs into the mix, and you have one of the most creative, exciting and fun outfits to emerge from the UK in recent years. We caught up with them on their first time over here, supporting Fatboy Slim on his Japan tour, slightly dazed and bruised after a heaving set at Yellow, and just a day before shooting off to Taiwan.
Interview by Matt Cotterill
HigherFrequency (HRFQ) : Thanks a lot for last night, we had a great time!
Dave : It was great, it really was! I think that’s why we’re feeling a little bit rough today! We got sucked into the whole party atmosphere.
HRFQ : Yeah, we played it safe, we went home!
Vanessa : You were sensible!
HRFQ : You’ve had a busy schedule; you did Ageha, Yellow. How were the gigs?
Vanessa & Dave : Great! Amazing!
Vanessa : both were totally different.
Dave : last night [Yellow] was a lot clubbier, I think the crowd were really up for it; they were going mental!
Vanessa : [Laughs] Climbing up the walls!
HRFQ : Hanging off the ceiling?
Vanessa : Yeah!!
Dave : But obviously, the venue last night was a lot smaller, so you had that little sweatbox, whereas in Ageha it’s a bit more spread out, it’s bigger, but both were just amazing, absolutely fantastic.
HRFQ : How do they compare to gigs back home?
Dave : I think, if I’m really honest, gigs back home are always more difficult; UK gigs are kind of… the crowd are probably a little bit…[gestures like he’s sizing someone up]
Vanessa : Your home crowd’s always hardest, isn’t it.
Dave : They’re always hardest, I think. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, it’s a great laugh. But I also think back in England the facilities and the technical side of stuff can sometimes let you down a little bit. Over here, when we ask for what we need at the venues, it’s all there, whereas, you know, sometimes you’re setting up in England and you get, like, “…what mixer?” [laughs] So here, that helps from a performance side, because you’re not worrying about whether the monitors are going to work.
Vanessa : Part of that’s because we have been part of a big tour, so you have got that extra bit. I mean, quality speakers!
Dave : Yeah, it’s great for us to be able to play our stuff through something like that. When you know that out the front it’s like that, and people can hear it and appreciate it, it helps us to perform even more.
HRFQ : How about the Japanese audience?
Dave : I think they let go. I think sometimes in England, and again, without being disrespectful, people like to check out what everyone’s wearing a bit more, and maybe a bit more afraid to dance; a bit more self conscious, whereas here, although everyone looks fantastic, they’re still jumping up and down. It’s just two different cultures, so for us, we love doing gigs back home, but to get a different reaction from a different culture is just fantastic.
HRFQ : Did you play on that big stage at Ageha?
Dave & Vanessa : Oh yeah!! It was great!
Vanessa : It was so packed! Even people right at the back were going for it.
Dave : There’s this restaurant or bar, and I could even see people dancing with their food!! [laughs]
HRFQ : Compared to last night it was a bit different, a small stage and a huge pit!
Vanessa : Very different, [to Dave] you loved it didn’t you, last night?
Dave : Yeah!!
HRFQ : You seemed to be enjoying it a lot!
Vanessa : I kind of preferred Ageha because of the massive expanse, the podiums to stand on, all that kind of stuff.
Dave : I think they actually have live bands at Ageha, so, you’ve got that, and there’s a live system there, and that’s all catered for, whereas last night, it’s for DJs basically, so [to Vanessa] you stood on a box!
Vanessa : [laughs] It was brilliant though, the sound there was incredible!
HRFQ : OK, you’ve been asked this hundreds of times, but not in Japan. Who’s Grandadbob?
Vanessa : He’s my grandad!! He’s my big lovely grandad! We were stuck for a name.
Dave : We’d done some tracks and we’d burnt them onto a CD, and we went….oh god!… what are we going to call ourselves?! [laughter] We had to do something, so, for some reason, I don’t know why, but we just went…Grandadbob.
Vanessa : Do you remember Hi-De-Hi? [a 1980s television comedy in the UK]
HRFQ : I do, yeah.
Vanessa : He’s just like Ted Bovis! I don’t know how to explain that to Japanese readers, but he’s just this larger than life character, he’s never serious, he’s always messing about.
Dave : I think that some of the songs we’ve written do have seriousness, there are some serious issues there, but we also wanted a name that wasn’t going to be something like [puts on a Darth Vader voice] “Dark Force”, you know.
HRFQ : Well, Grandadbob- It is original, it’s eye-catching!
Dave : Yeah, and hopefully that gets across a bit of our personalities, I’m not saying we’re like, silly and stupid, but…
Vanessa : We are.
[Loads of laughter]
Dave : We are, all right! Just not taking it too seriously, but not trying to be wacky or daft either.
Vanessa : Names are so hard aren’t they?
Dave : We were having a talk about this the other day, if you actually think of bands’ names, people can take the mick out of them and say “that’s a crap name” or whatever, but as soon as they become a huge band, people forget how stupid the names are! Like, Wet Wet Wet, you know, any name like that. Super Furry Animals!
[yet more laughter!]
HRFQ : A little bit about how you guys initially hooked up?
Dave : I was working as a…
Vanessa : [singing quietly] …waitress in a cocktail bar.
Dave : [laughs] Oi, you’re meant to be poorly! I was working as a sound engineer in a studio in Sheffield, and basically the boss of the studio wanted to do a bit of writing with a female singer. I was already working on my own stuff at home. Ness had put an advert in a shop window, saying “female singer wants to work with musician”, he saw the advert and I was basically there to do a bit of sound engineering and production, writing a few beats and stuff. As soon as Ness came in and I heard her sing, I just fell in love with her voice, and I also wanted to work with a female singer, something I’d always wanted to do. The sessions with him just didn’t work out.
Vanessa : We didn’t click at all.
Dave : Yeah, so Ness and I had a quiet word with each other and said look, let’s quietly move away from this guy, but we’ll keep in touch. So basically I nicked her! [laughs]
HRFQ : How about Southern Fried, what’s the connection there?
Dave : That’s down to Sue, basically! She’s our publisher, and, we had a manager when we first started, who knew Sue, and Sue gave us a publishing deal for one single. Southern Fried and Asongs, Sue’s company, work in the same office, so Southern Fried started hearing some of the stuff that Sue was bringing down and liked it, then we did a single at Southern Fried, then they went, ok, let’s do an album.
Vanessa : They said, let’s basically take these guys on.
HRFQ : Can we talk about “Waltzes for Weirdoes”? Did you bring any specific concepts to the album?
Dave : It was a weird one, because, obviously it was the first album, but when we were writing we didn’t sit down and try and write an album, we were just writing tracks, tunes.
Vanessa : It just made us feel good, didn’t it?
HRFQ : There’s a real liveliness about it, it really seems like you had a great laugh.
Dave : Well that’s what it was, we were sat in a little bedroom, and we did it all there.
Vanessa : Yeah, and it was just like, you put that ‘bleep bleep’ there, it sounds great, and then the next day you’d go, I don’t want that on today, I’m gonna [gestures throwing something away].
Dave : Then, as Southern Fried decided we were gonna do an album, maybe we’d got about 7 or 8 tracks, and the rest of it was kind of, ok, let’s try and bring this round into an album that’s going to work. I think any band’s first album is always going to be a bit like that really. It’s just us getting together and that’s what came out.
Vanessa : It’s all the initial mix up.
HRFQ : There’s quite a variety of influences, and Vanessa, you used to sing in a swing band. Would you say the swing and jazz element was a main drive of the album?
Vanessa : It’s definitely in there, in the way that I sing, but I think it’s kind of hidden because the music side that Dave does is so twisted and crunchy. They shouldn’t really go together, but I think that’s why it works.
Dave : That’s what we like doing, trying to do kind of crusty and dirty sounds, but then try and make nice pretty vocals over the top.
Vanessa : The influences are so many, you don’t know where to start and stop really.
HRFQ : Can you talk a bit about the setup of your live performance?
Dave : I’ve got a Mac with all the tracks on, I’ve got, like, lots of knobs to twiddle! When we first started doing it live, we’d just keep changing it and honing it. We’ll change something and we can see a little reaction, and think, alright, people like that, so we’ll extend it and keep changing it and toning it. We’ve ended up toughening it up a little bit, extending the tracks; obviously Vanessa’s singing from beginning to end.
Vanessa : And earlier on you had a keyboard there and a keyboard there, and you did some singing on “City Approach”, but, to come over here and bring all that is just too much.
Dave : And it kind of works quite well, you know, it’s just nice and easy.
Vanessa : A lot more fun as well.
Dave : Obviously last night we managed to do it in a DJ-oriented kind of club, where we could just plonk it down, plug in and go really.
Vanessa : I mean there is a set, the tracks are laid down, but I still don’t know what you’re going to do most of the time!!
[loads of laughs]
Dave : I know! We’ve done it differently every night!
Vanessa : So I cocked up last night!!
Dave : Well, you were singing different stuff as well, so I was thinking, if you’re gonna do that, I’m gonna do that!
HRFQ : I love the website. That street, is it Sheffield?
Dave : Yes! Well, actually, I think it’s a combination of Sheffield and somewhere in London.
Vanessa : One of the shops is in London.
Dave : We actually went out and took loads of photos, but I think we were missing a newsagents, so the guy went out, and took a photo and built that into the street. The skip’s from Sheffield I think.
Vanessa : The fruit and veg shop’s Sheffield. The lamp post… most of it’s Sheffield. I know somebody down the line is probably going to go “Oh, that’s not a real street”, but we know it’s not!
HRFQ : And also the retro-chic feel to it all. How much of a hand did you have in the design?
Dave : Quite a lot actually.
Vanessa : We got on with the designers so well. they were excellent.
Dave : We gave a general brief of what we wanted, we didn’t want it to be really urban- I mean, just look at the name!- and then, we didn’t want it to be all kind of spacey and electronic looking, if that makes any sense, we wanted to give it an old, retro kind of feel. So they came up with lots of different ideas, different logos, and we went, let’s go down that route, and just expanded it really.
HRFQ : It fits the whole image; I mean, I feel like I almost know Grandadbob himself!
Dave & Vanessa : Yeah!!
HRFQ : Loves and hates?
Dave : I can say I love Japanese food, coz I had my first real experience of it last night. It was amazing! Hates?… err…
Vanessa : Tomatoes [laughs]
Dave : Tomatoes… Parmesan cheese… and unprovoked violence.
Vanessa : Hates? Err… onions! Love dogs, the countryside, cashew nuts, and I love my family; my friends and my family are the most important. But I’ve not got many hates, really.
HRFQ : You’ve got a hard schedule, you’re travelling tomorrow.
Dave : Yeah, we’re going to Taipei tomorrow.
Vanessa : Then back to Osaka, and then to Beijing,
Dave : And then to Asagiri festival!
HRFQ : Well, have a great time! We wish you all the best for the future, and hope Grandadbob goes onto even bigger things!
Dave & Vanessa : Thank you.
End of the interview
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