Lightyear Interview: “You’re Either There Or You’re Not”

An in-depth interview with Chas Palmer-Williams of 90’s ska-punk heroes, Lightyear.

Article by Sarah Williams. Photos by Piano Slug.

Lightyear are a band who need no introduction. They are infamous on the UK ska punk scene, known for their live antics (see: pantomime horses, morris dancing, gratuitous nudity), off-beat referential lyrics and multiple ‘last ever shows’. 2018 marks a huge milestone year in their career. Now permanently reformed, Lightyear are headlining Manchester Punk Festival plus Level Up festival and fitting in a handful of club shows, however their big news is that they’re crowdfunding to create a documentary telling the story of the UK 90’s punk scene.

This Music Doesn’t Belong To You aims to document the un-documented years when UK’s 2nd wave of punk exploded in the late 90s. As Lightyear put it, “It was a golden era of innocence, passion and debauchery,” which has so far gone unrecorded. At the time of writing, This Music Doesn’t Belong To You has just reached 100% funding, after a long pledge campaign. You can still visit Pledge Music to buy the film and assist with funding.

We had an in-depth conversation with singer Chas Palmer-Williams about the documentary, the development of the underground music scene and what we can expect in the future of Lightyear.

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Welcome back! What took you so long?

Life got in the way. We’ve all become (believe it or not) adult, with kids and stuff. We decided we really wanted to hang out again and make new music. We always felt like we had a third album in us; the second album wasn’t quite the end. We’re writing again and seeing how it comes out, and hopefully we’ll do another album. We’re back on it!

It’s great to hear you’re writing new music! Was it tempting just to turn up and play the hits?

For me personally there’s nothing worse than an old band who are just playing the old hits and not writing new music. If you play a song that you wrote when you were 18 about breaking up with someone and then you keep on playing it without writing anything new to put it into context, then it feels really weird. It’s almost like writing a book but you keep reading the first chapter and there’s no end chapter.

You’ve permanently reformed! ‘Permanent’ is a big word. Do you think you’ll still be playing together when you’re in a nursing home?

I don’t know if I want to be in a nursing home with Neil because he’s a weirdo.

I don’t want to be that band that just stands there blurting out the hits for the sake of doing it. I want to be able to jump around and mean what I say, express it and let loose. We’re pretty shit anyway, but when we get shitter we’d just knock it on the head, but we won’t make a big announcement.

Of course, you did make a big announcement back in the day.

When we were younger we were married to the band, it was everything. We were rehearsing 2-3 times a week, doing nearly 300 shows a year. It took priority over weddings and funerals – someone would die and we’d keep on touring. It was unquestionable dedication and then when that stopped it was this huge vacuum in my life. All of a sudden there was nothing. That totally span me out and I ended up living in a squat in Amsterdam; it went all mad for a while. The big statements and ultimatums all seem a bit dramatic now that we’re older.

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You are currently crowd-funding to make a documentary about the 90’s punk scene, called This Music Doesn’t Belong To You. Why did you decide to make the film?

This needs to be done. This story needs to be told. It was borne out of frustration, really. When anyone says to me that I can’t do something, I have to do it. I think somebody said, “You’re never going to be able to make that film,” so I have to do it now. It’s very childish but I literally can’t help it. It’s gotten me in loads of trouble over the years, but it also works for good.

I got a message off my mate in Canada who was involved in the Bristol scene. He said he’s so glad that we’re telling the story because they were some of the best times of his life, they forged who he is today. It’s messages like that which make me want to do it even if we don’t get the money.

The clock’s ticking on the crowd-funder. It’s horrible. You’re never sure if it will or won’t do it and you hate asking people to get involved. You’re constantly worrying about whether to pull it. It’s cool, it’s exciting, but it’s a bit stressful as well.

Some of the other member of Lightyear are now film makers – that must have helped getting work underway?

It’s weird because I would look at all of us and think ‘god, we’re useless at everything’. You could look at some of us and think ‘how do they even wake up and make toast in the morning?’ But at the same time, they have these amazing skills.

It’s really exciting because everyone involved in the team so far is also involved in the scene. They’re all working for free at the moment because we haven’t funded it. We are still deciding whether to steer it slightly and use someone as a protagonist who’s story we tell. Alternatively, we could let the documentary unfold naturally and let the story tell itself.

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Chas filming for This Music Doesn’t Belong To You.

What’s been the most eye-opening thing you’ve discovered while making the documentary?

I’ve learned I had a bit of rose-tinted glasses. It wasn’t all amazing. I remember eating out of bins. I remember asking Jake out of Capdown if I could eat his Chinese takeaway that he’d thrown away, out of the bin. It wasn’t all roses. Obviously the great shows made up for it.

What shocked me a little was in a couple of people’s interviews they said they had a different view of it, that they found the scene was quite elitist. If you weren’t in the right bands then it was difficult to get the shows… We want to show every side of the scene but that was never something I really experienced. We experienced negativity within the industry side, the politics of labels and things like that. We didn’t have issues with promoters.

Definitely now we all think back on it as an amazing time. Back then there were bands wearing the t-shirts of the bands that were coming through to play next week, that were on the same label, that were flyering for the next gig. It was the same people at the shows. It was a scene. If the NME had their finger on the pulse they would have been there. They would have coined a name for it. They would have taken credit for it.

I assume that there’s a lot of focus in the documentary on Household Name Records. What do you think made them so special?

It was amazing to see the Household Name logo on everybody’s backs. Everybody on Household Name was sound. Nobody would be racist. When we played with a few bands off other labels, they would say something and you’d be like, “Hang on. You what?!” Not often, but there was occasionally that casual racism which obviously isn’t acceptable at all. Whereas with Household Name everybody knew without saying that we were all anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-being a dick. That was nice. The whole time there was never any bullshit like that. Hitting on girls as well – bands on Household Name weren’t into any of that sleazy rock star shit. It just didn’t happen. Not once.

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You’re looking at what’s happening in the 90’s, which will no doubt draw comparison with the current scene. One of the big differences now is that there’s a reliance on online promotion and social media. Do you think that’s had a positive or detrimental effect on local music communities?

I personally think that it’s damaged it. It’s easy to think that I’m old and out of date, but I think people will probably look back and realise we’re in a cultural void. For example, if you look at the Reading and Leeds line-up now…. I’ve never seen such shit in my life. I decided that I’m not going to be old, I’m going to be open minded and listen to new music. I listened to 9 or 10 bands and it was all really shit autotuned crap-rap. Awful lyrics.

The thing with social media is that you can market to someone of a certain age and geographical area who’s into a certain band. It’s down to an art now, that they can flood these bands and the market with all this shit. Anything that’s decent doesn’t have a budget to compete with that.

Obviously online does really help DIY bands too. I sat down and listened to every band on the line-up of Manchester Punk Festival. I checked out Chewing On Tinfoil and thought they were great, then remembered I hadn’t heard Tellison in ages so I put that on. In minutes I’ve listened to all this music.

I saw a guy at the Great Escape Festival who was just tweeting photos of him watching bands, then walking off. He was like a stamp collector of bands. Social media is destroying people’s attention spans.

What I eventually want to do is put on a gig once every three months. There’s no social media, no one knows who’s playing, you’re not allowed camera phones. You just go to the gig, you pay the money and you go in. You could showcase some amazing bands but also get some really big artists to play the show. The thing is with that – you’re either there or you’re not. I feel like that’s how it was with the punk scene in the 90s. It’s an ambition to get that word of mouth thing going again.

If Lightyear have reformed permanently, does this mean Neil has given up his Thai scuba-diving dreams?

No, he’s not. That’s the mad thing, Neil is a dive instructor in Koh Tao in Thailand. He’s a crazy guy. He worked three jobs to save up money to buy a bar in South America, then went to South America, then ended up getting on a plane to Thailand and became a scuba diver. The way he learns things is so intense that whatever he tries he becomes really good at. That’s how he joined Lightyear – he just bought a trumpet out of the window of a shop and a week later he was gigging with us.

He lives in Thailand, which is why it’s so difficult for us to do many shows. It’s also expensive because we have to fly him in from Thailand every time. Me, Ben, Craig and Nels live in Derby, Bars is in London but he’s a sound engineer so he’s always on tour, Mark does lighting for loads of people like Lana Del Rey. He’s not played in years but just because we like him so much he’s not officially left the band, but we never see him.

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You once described a reformed tour as like ‘a week long stag do’. As you’re now permanently reforming are you not slightly concerned for your health?

To do the amount of shows that we used to is never going to happen now. I think it was that tour in 2012 where the bus picked us up at 6am… and said I was going to take it easy on that tour, but within half an hour I was bored, saying, “Shall we get the whiskey out?” And then it just carried on.

For me personally it’s not good for my mental health. I get quite bad social anxiety, although I didn’t really know what it was. On the end of the second album I did a long rant basically describing social anxiety, although I didn’t know what that was at the time, I’d never heard of it, whereas now it’s overused if anything.

Have you banned onstage nudity now you’re older and wiser?

If your son sees your old tackle flapping around on YouTube it’s potentially embarrassing for both of you, so there’s that. We’ve done everything so much and we’ve gone to such extremes that it’s kind of not funny any more? I’ve not done it in a long time, so if I decide I just want to do a naked gig I will. I don’t know if it might be seen as a little aggressive.

Do you think the environment has changed at gigs now, to the point where nudity is less acceptable?

That’s the feeling I get. I wouldn’t want some women to come to a show and think, look at that guy shouting on stage with his knob out. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

It might have been funny back in the day, but nowadays it might be viewed as a bit laddish?

Yeah, and that’s the exact opposite of us. That was never what we were doing. If anything it was about being liberated and not really giving shit, not really worrying what we looked like. I’d rather be naked on stage than have clothes on. I feel it’s way more honest. Here I am, there’s no image… I don’t think anyone can look cool naked.

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Can we expect any other shenanigans at MPF?

We do the Morris dancing and the horse just because of the stupidity of it. I like to think every show is different though, I hate scripted gigs. We were on tour with Vanilla Pod and a band from the States once – the American band were saying the exact same jokes on the stage every night, completely scripted. It was an act. Vanilla Pod were on before them, so Rob started saying their script. When their band came on (having not watched Vanilla Pod) they’d come on and say the same jokes! You could see people’s faces going, ‘what the fuck is going on?’.

For me I go to a show to think that this is the one moment, it’s not going to happen again like this. A one-off unique experience that by the laws of physics and time can never happen again. That’s why it’s so exciting and I think scripting that is conning people out of their money.

Will you be playing any new songs at MPF?

We’ve got 4-5 new songs at the moment, so we’ll put some of those in for sure. I’d like some antics as well, some ridiculousness. We tried to get a pig on tour last time. That didn’t work; we weren’t allowed to do that.

Animal welfare is extremely important to us, however we are concerned about the treatment of Bessie The Pantomime Horse. Is she well looked after between shows?

Unfortunately I think she’s gone to the glue factory. We got a bit pissed off with her at the last show in Brighton and we threw her into the sea.

You threw her in the sea?!

We’re going to have to try and find her next of kin and see if they want to come on tour with us.

The story behind the horse is the famous one, with Ice T. Have you heard that one?

That was years ago – remind me!

At Reading we took the horse into his dressing room and started walking around, and Ice T’s body guard turned around to use and said, “Ice T is not impressed,” and threw us out of the dressing room.

At Leeds we got back in the horse, went to his tour manager and said, “Is it okay if we go on stage with Ice T dressed in this pantomime horse outfit?” He radioed their front of house guy and they told us it was fine. “You what? Are you fucking crazy?”

So we got on stage with him dressed as the horse. I remember looking through the little hole and seeing the bass player double-take the horse. Ice T saw us and said, “Who the fuck are these guys? These guys are gonna go home in a bodybag.”

We got off stage and it all went mental. Me and Neil ran off and ran into Dizzee Rascal, who’d just pulled up in a Lexus in the middle of this field. We told him and said, “Ice T is about to kill us, can we hang out with you?” He was about to go on stage, so we wound up standing side of stage for his set where no one could get to us.

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What direction are you going with the new material?

We’re now doing one of the songs I wrote for my solo project with Lightyear. We changed the arrangement slightly. There’s some of it that sounds more like Jawbreaker with horns, which is random. Another song is surf-punk. We’ve always said ‘whatever comes out, comes out’. Don’t think about it too much.

It’s definitely different. It does seem a bit slower. I think live it’s going to be challenging for us. You can jump around and twat about to heavier stuff, but slower stuff is more complicated and you’re more exposed. It’s not really in our control, that’s the way I see it.

The last albums had a lot of cultural references in them. Can we expect a continuation of that in the new material, but relevant to our current culture?

Yeah, I think so. It’s just what comes out! I’ve got a bit of a weird brain, I’m dyslexic and I’m getting tested for ADHD. A lot of it is my brain shifting from one thought to another very quickly. The pop culture thing is something I can’t not do! I don’t do it consciously, and I don’t do it to deliberately give people something to hook on to. A lot of the time I don’t know what I’m writing about until I read it after.

There are some deliberate references. For example, the first line of any of the new songs we’ve written is an Alan Partridge quote. That was on purpose. He’s got a line: ‘straight away you’ve got ‘em by the jaffas’. I just though that’s the perfect beginning for the first line of the first song.

Are there any other bands you particularly want to catch at MPF?

I’ve got a list! The thing is, we’re only going to make the Friday, but at the moment I really want to see Waterweed, Chewing on Tinfoil, Darko, Egos At The Door, Goodbye Blue Monday, Happy Accidents, Svetlanas, Tellison, The Baby Seals, The Copyrights and The Stupids. I’m really looking forward to it – I’m going to really geek out and get as much live music in as I can.

What are your ambitions for the band, now that you’ve permanently reformed?

One of our big ambitions was to have our name on a poster with Propagandhi! They were one of the bands (along with Operation Ivy) who we all listened to as a band straight away. If you said to us when we were kids, “You will be playing a festival with Propagandhi and your name will be up there with them,” it would have been a huge thing.

We hope to get another album out. We had a running joke that we would never make it out of Derby, so our other big ambition is to tour Japan.

Thank you to Chas Palmer-Williams for taking the time to natter to us. We can’t wait to see Lightyear at MPF and Level Up.

Article by Sarah Williams. Photos by Piano Slug.

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