In Conversation: Cornershop

In Conversation: Cornershop

Nineties icons weigh-in on vinyl geekery, woke culture and the B-word...

"The government is walking on skulls," intones Tjinder Singh gravely over his pint from the quiet corner of a Stoke Newington boozer.

"It’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next year or so."

Well-known for their outspoken views on immigration and race in modern Britain, it’s hard to think of better ambassadors for togetherness and unity in this shellshocked post-Brexit climate than Tjinder’s band, Cornershop.

Ever since they were catapulted to international stardom with 1997 hit ‘Brimful of Asha’ – remixed by Norman Cook – Singh and best pal Ben Ayres have been diligently cranking out important, awkward, fiercely independent records for a discerning die-hard transatlantic fanbase.

With new LP ‘England Is A Garden’ out this week, their time has come around again. And, really, has there ever been more fertile soil for no-nonsense, barricade-storming immigrant-flavoured indie?

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Let’s start with the title – England Is A Garden. Bit of a swipe at Brexiteers, there?

Tjinder Singh: England maybe was a garden, once. There’s big changes going on. A re-wilding, perhaps. Re-wilding is all the rage at the moment, isn’t it?

Ben Ayres: It was even on The Archers.

So was Brexit inevitable, do you think?

TS: No, it’s a right-wing project, that’s all there is to say. Certain people – your Rees-Moggs, your Goves – just want to turn the soil over, as leverage for their own ambitions. People have already died because of Brexit. The Government is walking on skulls.

Phew. Has anybody actually died?

TS: Look at what’s happened already with Work and Pensions. What’s happening with Windrush. And what will happen with Coronavirus. Alright, maybe we’re okay at the moment. But being part of a smaller union will mean medicines take longer to go through trials. There will be fewer medicines. Things will get difficult. It will be interesting to see what happens.

What’s the British-Asian experience of Brexit? Wasn’t Brexit just about – to be deliberately glib – kicking out the Poles and Romanians?

TS: Loads of Asians voted for Brexit. Middle-class Asians. Members of my own family. I think they’re wrong. And I think there’s actually something very sinister about it. The first stage of Brexit is getting rid of the Europeans, because that’s easy. It’s paperwork. White people, asking white people to leave. After that, I think, certain people will look around. And they’ll start to see colours. The last election was not reassuring.

BA: Labour really fucked it up. They were like a little mouse in the corner on Brexit, they didn’t say anything.

So I won’t be hearing the ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant at a Cornershop show anytime soon?

TS: The man is weak piss. He should feel embarrassed, frankly.

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Immigration is, as ever, a theme on the record. ‘Everywhere That Wog Army Roam’ is a striking track – is using that word part of reclaiming it?

TS: We’ve used it a few times, we like using it. That can be a very positive thing. It has a history that shouldn’t go away… This track pushes buttons I think, but there’s a lot of melody there too.

Were most of the new tunes written post-Brexit?

BA: Some of them are ten years old. This album has been a very long time in the making.

TS: We like to record lots, then reduce it down. That takes time.

What’s your process in the studio these days?

BA: Normally we just hit upon a groove, Tjinder will have a lyric, and that’s it. We follow our hearts and feelings and intuition.

TS: Bit of a scoop for you mate, but we’re not conventional musicians. I know guys who can play music inside-out and back to front, but they’ll maybe write one song in 20 years. Whereas a the excitement, the wonder and sheer thrill a non-musician like me gets from hitting upon something cool – that’s the ultimate ammunition, I think.

BA: Put it this way – we’ve never knowingly played a major chord.

TS: Our sitar player told me we played one, once. I can’t remember where it was now.

BA: Major chords all the way, that’s why we sound so happy – in spite of everything else.

Do you listen to other acts to see what the competition is up to?

TS: There’s not much out there impressing me at the moment. The new Strokes single is shit. Like, unfathomably bad. So bad it’s unbelievable to me.

Yikes. What spurs you on these days?

BA: We’re vinyl lovers and music freaks. We care about things like flow, and what song is on the end of side A, or side B…

TS: …or side C, or side D for that matter.

BA: Commercially, nowadays, we’re only answerable to ourselves. We want to make the best records we can. It’s not about sales, it's about setting a high bar, and leaving a legacy.

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In terms of legacy, one track is going to dominate the conversation, like it or not – what’s your relationship with the, um ‘B’ song, these days?

TS: It’s a difficult relationship, it’s been wonderful to us… but it’s a double-edged sword… it’s made our lives a lot harder, by doing so well…

BA: We were in America at the time. And weirdly, for us, even though Brimful was a big hit, our albums actually did much better than Norman Cook’s remix.

TS: When DJs over there heard his sped-up version, they slowed it down. In order to sound closer to our original. Over there, people thought it sounded a bit daft.

BA: We were really into Norman Cook anyway, with his PizzaMan Stuff, so we thought it would be popular.

TS: The first time my wife and I heard it we know it would be a massive hit.

BA: The bigger honour, for us, was when John Peel picked our version as number one on his Festive 50 for 1997. We had the utmost respect for John Peel, he gave us our musical education growing up – so that really stood out.

One tune that really stands out, for me, on the new record is ‘One Uncareful Lady Owner’...

TS: I like that one too. It has a sense of humour about it. As soon as I had the title I knew we had something. Even though the title might piss people off a bit, because it’s a woman driver.

Where are you at with woke culture? Isn’t pissing people off for a laugh a bit verboten nowadays?

TS: The new wokeness… honestly, it’s like a language I don’t even know. We were part of the Riot Grrrl scene, which is as woke as you could get, back then… it was up-to-date, in terms of thinking on the sexes… BA: We’ve always been awake. What’s interesting, seeing it unfold, is how certain lessons appear to need re-learning by successive generations. A worrying amount has regressed since the Second World War, in terms of how much peace in Europe matters, for instance.

We’re all going to die. Oh well, your new vinyl looks pretty.

TS: We wanted to get back to the old way of enjoying albums, listening to every moment. Reading sleeve notes. Poring over a poster. There’s even a cassette version coming out.

BA: It’s about details, like, we’re using the same classic EMI font on the spine that the Beatles used to use.

You’ve been together bloody ages – is there an end in sight?

TS: We met at Poly in 1986. We got on musically, that was always the catalyst. We weren’t serious, but we gave it a go.

BA: We had mutual respect, similar political alignments. Sense of humour, too. And similar musical enthusiasms, obviously.

TS: Yes. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

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'England Is A Garden' is out on March 6th.

Words: Andy Hill
Photo Credit: Chris Almeida

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