This interview with John Butler is taken from issue 22 of the fanzine Lights Go Out and took place in the summer of 2013.
Back in the 90’s I discovered a band called Diesel Park West. With some inspiringly written songs, melodies and huge tunes, I know I discovered them late but set about picking up their back catalogue, which luckily at the time was just a couple of albums and a load of singles, which all still sit very nicely in my record collection (yes, vinyl!). One of the things that I pride myself on here at Lights Go Out is that maybe we don’t feature all the “cool” new bands on the scene, I like the fact that if a band is great and deserves recognition then they should be in here. Having listened to Diesel Park West for some 20 years now to get the chance to fire some questions over at John Butler from the band is a pretty big deal for me. And I am really chuffed to be able to have DPW in the pages of Lights Go Out. Over the years they have put some seriously impressive albums, some stupidly catchy songs and are one of those bands who sadly still remain on my bucket list of ones to see live. I would urge people to check Diesel Park West out for sure and without any more of my waffling, I give you John Butler…
Hi John, thanks ever so much for taking time to chat with us, it is very much appreciated. Let’s get straight into, your latest E.P. called “You, You, You & You” came out in May of this year, can you tell us a little about it please?
Hi Paul …yes it’s a forerunner of what eventually will be an album ready for 2014. The lead track , Someday Back Together, is the cut we will put on the album whilst the other four tracks are different versions . Someday Back Together is basically the band playing live together in one take which is how we want the next album to sound. Nothing against doing it the long way but sometimes whacking it down can be best.
Having been a band for over thirty years now, did you feel when the band started you’d have a career this long?
Thing is it doesn’t feel like a career but more like a warped vocation. It’s a really hedonistic thing being in any band I imagine, but this one is something else. We often get asked just what it is at the heart of the band when really it’s like a self-preserving creature which is able to bend and even submerge for long periods without food or water or even air only to then resurface and freak people out! At the beginning we just wanted to get some gigs then some more then bigger stuff and so on. We were a pretty big drink and drug band early on that’s for sure. Unfashionable drugs at the time too. It always seemed laughable to us how the Stone Roses and the whole Manc scene made a big deal out of the same shit we had been doing for years.
Can you remember what that first rehearsal was like back at the start?
The first thing we played together was the Stones song Salt Of The Earth off their Beggars Banquet album. It was in a rehearsal room which used to be a Victorian waiting room for the Great Central Railway. We sounded natural together it was as if we had been playing together for years. Very loud too but clear as a bell!
How did it feel when you signed to Food Records in the late 80’s?
We got the call from them in April 1987. They had freaked out at the demos we had sent (which eventually came out on the King Of Ghosts album) and so they should have because they were great demos. We had been passed on by a few labels earlier but Food were quite hip at the time or at least seemed to be. They were getting a lot of press for the few acts they already had and even some daytime airplay on Radio One for one of their acts called The Voice Of The Beehive remember them? They gave us £3000 advance and we thought we were rich! We bought a couple of amps and some leather jackets which was sort of a retrogressive step, the first of many under the Food regime, because we had started to wear really great looking suede coats which nobody else was doing at the time. We should have stuck to that look because leather makes everyone look fake hard or German or something! Of course Food also made us change our name from The Filberts to Diesel Park West. We loved being The Filberts but DPW did sound good. Crazyhead’s manager came up with it. It’s a name which people remember and one which we have gradually redefined over time because back then it maybe seemed a little brutal.
Back in those days the Food Records roster was much smaller and of course you famously covered Jesus Jones debut single “Info Freako” on the Food Christmas EP. How did you come to choose that particular track?
Well we thought we would show Mike Edwards how to do it properly. And we did.
And what did you think of Crazyhead’s version of “Like Princes Do”?
Yeah rockin bunch of post punk punks that they were they had a good go at it. We always loved the Heads and thought they got a rough deal after we got signed or rather after we got Food signed to the might of EMI.
It seemed that a lot of focus got placed on the commercial success of Blur at Food Records. Did you feel that Food paid less attention to Diesel Park West?
Damon Albarn introduced himself to me saying “Hi really great to meet you”, and then holding out his hand said “Food Records” so I said “hello Food Records” I thought he had changed his name by deed poll. They were recording their debut at Maison Rouge in Chelsea at the same time as we were mixing some of the Decency album having just come back from Brussells where we had recorded it. It was like some new recruit meeting a battle hardened veteran. Eventually though Blur did “become” Food Records with their big one Parklife. One thing that impressed us about them was the fact that they only used about six channels on the SSL desk whereas they could have used sixty odd. We used to see quite a lot of them and hung out getting pissed and stoned together in America. At that time they were struggling really to break through. It was that dog track bullshit marketing idea that did it for them eventually and of course Boys and Girls which everyone claims to hate but is a massively commercial single and deserved to take them to where they got. Dave Rowntree is a good bloke as they all are really. We call Coxon Harry Potter.
The thing I recall about then was that you had some really nice vinyl come out for singles like “Fall To Love” and “Boy On Top Of The News”, 10” singles, gatefolds, prints. Was vinyl quite an important deal for you and were you involved in the release process at all?
Well Rick didnt even want Shakespeare Alabama to come out on CD, that’s how purist he was then! At one point it was selling 30,000 copies a day ha ha. No we didn’t really have much to do with release dates thinking that “they” knew best and anyway we were busy gigging and filming and travelling all that rocklife trip. To be honest I think we may have felt that all that stuff sort of cluttered the releases up and only later did we realise it all means such a lot to people who are into the band. To this day I have never heard Shakespeare Alabama on vinyl but I am reliably informed it sounds really fantastic. Maybe Rick was right!
Are you vinyl collectors at all and do any of you own a complete back catalogue of Diesel Park West material?
Not collectors as such but we do all have copies of everything we have ever put out yes. I mean, its eight albums and loads of singles by now so yeah you want to at least have a physical object of all that work.
I’d read that David Balfe of Food Records insisted you changed the band name to Diesel Park West, is this actually the case?
It was a trick he used for all his signings. It gave him psyche control. I think that was his real plan although he claims it was for commercial purposes . The thing with him is that while he may have the venal instincts of a predator he doesn’t have hardly any insight into what is gonna be happening later and certainly not a clue about music’s past. Of course his job was to sell us to the present so that’s understandable but he doesn’t have a sense of rock n roll continuity and that’s a shame. He probably only signed us in the first place because there were elements to our sound which may have reminded him of the dreadful U2 and one of their albums was a global smasheroo at the time so mentally it was a clone job for him. That of course was a disaster for us because we were essentially a 60s hippie west coast influenced dope band!
Is “Thought For Food” named in reference to your time on Food Records?
Yes it sure is. The tracks on that , well most of them, would all be known to the Food duo but they couldn’t have cared less by then. If they had kept us on we would have broken with The Corporate Waltz. The Cats Still Scratching would have been the first breakthrough single and then off we would have gone with at least three more hits from CW. Actually “Cat” remains the only ever DPW track to be playlisted on national radio but by then we were off Food-EMI and little Demon were unable to market properly.
You’ve changed labels a few times, and had a couple of years break in the 90’s, what made you decide to form the band again and start releasing new music
No that’s not true there has never been a break in the band. We have always done some gigs or released an album every year since our inception back in 1987. At various times each member has tried to escape from the band, including me, but has always been seduced back into it. The seducer is the sound of the music. When we plug in and go “straaaang laaang a lang “ on the guitars and that sounds kicks in its irresistible. That’s what does it.
Did the release of “Left Hand Band” help to re-establish the band? And did you get much or any say about this release and what tracks would be included?
It got fantastic reviews that compliation. Even journos that had previously taken the piss realised what an unusual and valuable band we really were underneath all that EMI hype. The track choices are all EMI era songs obviously so it’s not really a best off because there is nothing from The Corporate Waltz , Freakgene , Hip Replacement (underrated album that one) Blood And Grace or Do Come In Excuse The Mess. One day, when we are done, there will be a Best Of that takes from all the albums. That will be a fantastic bunch.
It’s been cited that The Byrds were a huge influence on your sound, is that how you see it? And what other artists have given you inspiration?
Sure the Byrds were for me more important than the Beatles. Yeah I know nothing would have happened without The Fabs but those yanks took it all somewhere else. Beautiful mystical and commercial all at the same time. That’s one hell of thing to pull off for any band. Personally I think David Crosby is the last word in rhythm guitar playing! Moby Grape are another big influence.
What has been the hardest thing about being a musician for you?
Trying to be a human being at the same time. Still not certain I have managed that one although I am still having a good go.
Is there any particular song in your back catalogue you can look back on as your proudest moment?
Above These Things . I remember when we recorded that song thinking “eye eye this is the first time its sounded great” The track only came out as a b-side (a Food master move that!) and also on that early comp album Flipped in 1990 but even now it sends the shivers. Rick got caught being all emotional listening to it not that long ago.
Do you feel that the music industry as a whole is struggling what with downloads being so popular?
No not anymore . The industry is almost at that point where its got its grip back. Download is just another adjustment for them and they are about there with it. The music business, to a man, is one hundred per cent ran by people who really want to be onstage. All the execs all the managers and agents the roadies the merchandise guys journos (especially them) fucking DJs you name it everybody wants to be a performing flea but some mugs actually ARE! Our albums are all available now via our site. Easy innit?
What are your feelings towards the whole downloading generation?
Its gonna be interesting when the generation that is used to downloading for free is asked to pay the BBC licence . The BBC is the reason so much music that gets through is so mediocre and a lot of great culture enhancing great stuff doesn’t. There again that’s their agenda isn’t it.
Do you feel that there is still the requirement to have a physical product released?
Yes I think so. A lot of people need to be able to hold the vessel of music in their hands and read shit about the artists or the recording etc. It is important but it’s also a devalued item too because everybody in the world is now making an album. Or so it seems. Endless CD launches which are really CDr launches.
It’s obviously vitally important for bands to have an online presence these days. Do you find that this is an important tool to you as a band?
Diesel Park West has certainly benefitted from the whole online revolution yes. Its hard to see how anyone would know what we are up to without it because we don’t exactly get loads of press coverage. That’s not in itself a bad thing because the opposite can be really negative. We do however feel that a proper insightful account of the band by the intelligent press is long overdue. Lay to rest all that early anthemic bollocks brought about largely through the short sightedness of Food I am afraid.
I’ve never actually managed to see Diesel Park West play live, despite being a fan for over 20 odd years. Have you got any upcoming dates at all during the rest of 2013?
Dates come and go keep checking is all I can tell you.
It’s also been 20 years since “Diesel Park West vs. The Corporate Waltz”. Any plans to play this album in full at all?
We love that album and yes that would be a great idea if we could get it together. We always do something from it when we play live.
What advice would you give to bands out there?
Don’t be democratic until the fourth album.
And finally what does the future hold for Diesel Park West…
…a hit single at last.