Cornershop
Tjinder Singh looks back on 20 years of 'Brimful Of Asha'...

Cornershop’s ‘Brimful Of Asha’ is now 20 years young, but is still sounds as fresh as the first time we heard it.

A fantastic, repetitive, perfectly formed ear-worm of a tune, it’s both entirely of its time – a Big Beat surfing Fatboy Slim remix eventually took it to the upper echelons of the charts – and completely out of its time, sounding like very little else around, both then and now.

But then, Cornershop never really did blending in. A politicised Anglo-Asian group who fused noise pop with the emerging mosaic-like sample-delia of Beck, their catalogue (which is ongoing, by the way) builds into one of our most unique documents, something that is both deeply cherished and largely unheralded.

Speaking to founding member and vocalist Tjinder Singh, it’s clear that he still rankles at the thought of other, lesser bands being promoted above his own work. Clash mentions ‘When I Was Born For 7th Time’ at the start of our conversation, the album that birthed ‘Brimful Of Asha’ and something the NME derided as a ‘curio’ on a 6/10 review shortly after its release.

“There are a lot of revisionists that have slighted that album – very unfairly, I think. So it’s very nice to talk about the album. And also to talk about those revisionists,” he says. “That’s probably one of the only reasons that we’ve carried on – at the slower pace that we do nowadays – is to have a little bit of a say in what these idiots are talking about.”

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Some context. Cornershop were an Anglo-Asian band with outspoken political beliefs who walked out onstage after playing a full recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his epochal, incendiary poem Howl. Not a lot of bands did that then. Not a lot of bands do that now.

“I don’t think that the press were willing to accept an Anglo-Asian group doing what we were doing any further than what they did,” he insists. “And they tried to stop it and leave it at that. I don’t think they could take it, and I don’t think they’re willing to take it any more. There are no Asian bands doing anything any more. None. Zero.”

With their origin spread across Wolverhampton, Preston, and Leicester, Cornershop existed outwith London’s hype-fuelled bubble. Instead, they immersed themselves in a different sort of world, an underground scene that connected crate-diggers to Riot Grrrl activists – indeed, the band’s long-term home Wiiija was founded in Rough Trade (West) and they appeared on an early EP alongside Brighton’s sorely missed Huggy Bear.

“When we first started out we wrapped the sleeves ourselves,” Tjinder recalls. “It really was independent.”

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We were singing against Brexit before Brexit was there...

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“Politics is obviously a very big part of what we did,” he continued. “And maybe that made it a little less palatable as well. It wasn’t just that there were Asians in the group, it was that these Asians were wanting more, and demanding more, and were saying these things.”

“In the late 70s the punks got together with reggae people because they saw an element of the same platform - in terms of wanting to do things differently and being fed up of what was before them - and we feel that what we did with Riot Grrrl at that time was an element of the same thing, because we were very political.”

“Again, looking at politics, and looking back at those 20 years, we’re very happy that not only what we sang about was true for us at the time, it’s actually even more true now. I mean, as far as we’re concerned. We were singing against Brexit before Brexit was there, we were singing songs against Enoch Powell because we were brought up in Wolverhampton, the town of Enoch Powell.”

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If Britain wasn’t entirely sure what to do with Cornershop then America almost immediately embraced the group. Early success led to a deal with David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint, while Spin even made ‘When I Was Born For The 7th Time’ it’s Album Of The Year in 1998.

“I think we did get more recognition out-with the UK because we didn’t have the baggage that we did in England. In particular in America, where it was taken to people’s hearts very quickly,” he recalls. “Whereas in England we were written off after everything we ever did – including our first album!”

Remarkably, though, these obstacles simply drove Cornershop on. Incredibly independently-minded, the band’s connection to the States afforded them a glimpse of another universe, allowing them to introduce new techniques into their songwriting. Sessions for ‘When I Was Born For The 7th Time’ took place with Dan The Automator at the controls – then a rare sight for a British group, now less so – and garnered an atmosphere of freewheeling creativity.

“We certainly weren’t influenced by anyone,” he chuckles. “Not even the label knew what the output would be until they got it ready to be mastered. Or often after it was mastered. Again, the freedom to do what the hell we wanted to do was done. There was nothing but a very positive attitude.”

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In England we were written off after everything we ever did...

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Sessions even took the band to New York, where Tjinder Singh and founding Cornershop musician Ben Ayres met up with Allen Ginsberg for what would become one of the seminal poet and thinker’s final recorded performances.

The singer recalls: “Well, we walked from the label’s office to where Ginsberg lived, and his apartment was very modest. He was watching a Beatles thing on the TV – some talk on the Beatles. And he was frail. But we didn’t know he was ill. And we sat in his kitchen, we talked a lot, and then we got on with doing a few different renditions of songs – some with harmonium that he played, some with him singing.”

“Ginsberg was a very kind person, very open, I think he was very encouraging, and he was everything you would think he was because he was very political and he was still very much – for an older person – very much engaged with everything that was going on.”

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As it to underline the record’s breadth, Tjinder then visited India to focus on a few differing elements for his songwriting. “To take it a bit further I went to India in ‘96 and recorded a few different bits and pieces. Also, I wanted to marry the two – Western and Eastern – sides, rather than take it in any other direction, which I didn’t think it needed to go. That was quite good. And rather handy, as well.”

Listening to it now, ‘When I Was Born For The 7th Time’ remains an incredible, creative, and wonderfully difficult to place experience. It’s an album that continually pushes you back on your toes, producing the unexpected at extraordinary times. It’s a record that makes the most of its era – the production, the sheer independence – while cutting against the grain in almost every way.

It’s also home to one of the decade’s finest singles: ‘Brimful Of Asha’. “The actual writing of the song was done when I moved to London and was on the Holloway Road. And I was unemployed at the time, so I would walk from Holloway to Kentish Town and pop into places on the way and end up in the Dolly Fossett’s (a pub now known as the Camden’s Daughter, ale fans). And also sometimes go into the library – so I’d get as few ideas in the library, or work in the library.”

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I was unemployed at the time, so I would walk from Holloway to Kentish Town...

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Stepping outside the standard verse/chorus format, it’s a single that plays defiantly by its own rules. “We tend to just play songs for a long time rather than say: that’s three minutes and that’s enough. I think we carried it on for about half an hour at one point!”

“When it then came to a finished mix the engineer said ‘well, it’s wrong, it doesn’t have the verse/chorus thing, it changes, and it’s got this thing at the end...’ At the time I used to play bass, but I had moved on to guitar, so the original track doesn’t have any bass on at all. But we liked it as it was, so we put it out as it was.”

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A low-key hit on its original release - ‘Brimful...’ hit the Top 60, and soared to the top of John Peel’s Festive 50 that year – it took a re-spin from Fatboy Slim to turn the song into the universal experience it has now become.

Musing on the song’s success, Tjinder can’t hide his palpable joy. “There’s always someone playing it around the world, which is brilliant in one respect because if there’s one song that reflects record collecting and us at the time, the politics of the song, the talk about vinyl, the talk about different artists, different instrumentation… all of that is a great representation of what we were as a band. Luckily it’s in one fell swoop!”

“We’re so happy that the song has done well,” he says. “The B-side of that is that the album then got overshadowed. And that’s unfortunate. Having said that, just the other day someone said they had come out of listening to ‘Brimful...’ for 20 years and ventured into listening to the album and they thought it was very fresh. So that’s not a bad result after 20 years!”

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Luckily it’s in one fell swoop!

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It’s somewhat apt that Cornershop have been left in the background by their own success – after all, that’s what the song is about. ‘Asha’ is a reference to Asha Bhosle, an Indian singer who has recorded over 12,000 songs for countless Bollywood films, yet as she never appears on screen – the actresses normally lip sync – one of India’s most popular, most influential artists is granted a form of anonymity. Well, until Cornershop wrote a worldwide hit about her.

“She has actually heard it,” Tjinder reveals. “And she loved it. Her daughter had told her about it, so she did some investigations. She was very happy about it. And she liked the idea that she gets through customs a lot easier now… so everyone has benefited!”

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