It is always wonderful when one of your childhood idols turns out to be a really cool person. Dick from the Subhumans is fucking cool. In person, he comes off as shy, a little self-conscious, and looks more like a wiry college professor with a cheap haircut than one of the seminal figures of the ’80s punk movement At several points during this interview, people who had met him from shows years before came up and said hi, and he’d interrupt himself to talk back to them. If he didn’t remember them, he never let on — in fact, he even blamed not remembering one girl’s name on having had too much to drink after a show.
If you don’t immediately know who the Subhumans are, this probably isn’t going to be too interesting to you. This is really more of a piece for all the old punk rockers out there who grew up with this stuff, back before CDs were readily available and record jackets came stuffed with huge posters and cool stickers for your skateboard or your locker at school. This is more of a history piece than anything else, even a reassurance that these guys are still kicking around and those of us who saw them play the first time around are not all over the hill — not just yet.
How did the Subhumans get started, and what brought you back together for the tour?
In the first place, I was in a band called Mental, and Bruce and previous drummer Andy were in a band called the Stupid Humans, and previous bassist Grant was in a band called Audio Torture, and all three bands were based around west Wilshire, which is just west of London, and basically, we met at an Angelic Upstarts gig. We all clicked beautifully from the start, and all our different bands got together to do some shows and stuff, and then Stupid Humans and the Mentals split up so Bruce and Andy and Grant and I got together to form the Subhumans. Bruce’s mom wanted us to call ourselves the Superhumans, but we thought that was a little too “metal” sounding. That was much too glorified a name for us. Like most punk bands names at the time, you had to be somewhat self-deprecating in order to be taken seriously.
So when was that — that was August 1980, then. About a year later, Trotsky replaced Andy on drums, and two years later Phil replaced Grant on bass, and we made a whole bunch of 72s, LPs, did 262 gigs, and then split up at the end of ’85. And then right around January 1998, Phil and Trotsky — meanwhile, me, Phil and Trotsky had been playing and touring as Citizen Fish for the past 9 years — and Trotsky said, “Why don’t we reform the Subhumans?” and I answered, “Well, partly because I’ve been going around saying it was never going to happen again,” to everybody who’d kept asking me the same question, and then I said, “Well, because Bruce would never be into it,” because he’d gone off and had kids, got married, and got a job, was running his own music shop and stuff like that.
But then Bruce was really into it, and we talked about it loads, and then we had a practice, and that sort of settled it — it was really fantastic, playing the old stuff. It still sounded good, we could still play it, and so we said, “Well, no one else can to do it, and if we don’t do it now, we’ll really regret not doing it, and if we don’t do it now it probably won’t be able to happen again.” So we did a mini-tour of England, nine gigs, sort of strategically placed across the UK over a few weekends in July, and then thought, let’s go to America, and play all over the place in four or five weeks. It’s really sort of a thank-you note to all the people who kept buying all the Subhumans stuff ever since we broke up, to all the people who keep sending in requests for CDs and LPs, all the people who have definitely never seen us before. So it was like, why not? I was actually the hardest person to convince that it was a good idea — the rest of the band… [breaks off and points behind me] Is that the youngest punk rocker in a leather jacket you’ve ever seen? [Behind us is a 6-year-old girl with a ponytail and leather miniskirt and jacket] This is truly an all-age crowd.
What do you think is the difference between the US punk scene and the UK scene?
There’s more people in the US into it, per city or school or whatever. There’s more people here in the US, of course, but just judging by the age group of the people coming to gigs now, I would say there’s a lot more young kids into it than the same proportion of young kids in the UK. They’re much more into that techno/rave thing in the UK right now, that club/electronic stuff that we all love to hate so much. Much more kids go to gigs here than in the UK — maybe that has something to do with there being so many people here, again, but I think proportionately, more kids go to gigs here than back home.
What do you think the big difference in the punk scene now is compared to what you were doing 18 years ago is?
It’s less violent. People don’t get banged up so much by the fact that other people in the scene look different to what they look like, which is good. It’s sort of matured in that way. There’s more straight-edge punks — there’s something that crept in, the whole straight-edge thing, whatever. That’s a bit curious. It seems a total waste of time to create a new label based on the fact that you don’t drink or smoke or wear leather or go on and on and on about it so much. It’s almost as if they’re saying that people don’t have the freedom to let other people do their own thing, like they’re saying, “We demand the freedom to do — or rather not to do — what we like.” And no one was saying that you had to drink or smoke in the first place. No one was forcing people to drink or smoke. And if they were, they were being assholes. Getting a whole movement out of one Minor Threat song seems a bit extraordinary, especially since the drinking laws here are so excessively harsh — you can’t drink outside most places in the States, you can’t drink until you’re 21, you can’t drink in your van, and what you do get to drink? The local beer is usually piss. It’s rebellion against not much. I’m not going to harp on about straight edge, even though I just did, but that’s just one of the difference in the way the scene is now — all the causes. But punk rock is a pretty much self-evolving, self-replicating type of music. Bands do come and go really quickly — bands, record labels, fanzines. The only major difference these days is that there is so much punk rock being carried by the major labels now. The bands didn’t sell out — the major labels just bought out the tiny ones.
What kind of music do you like to listen to yourself?
It’s such a huge mixture of stuff, there’s no one thing. Old punk records, reggae, dub — classical music when I’m in the car. No one in my house likes to listen to classical music, so the only time I get to play it loud is when I’m in my car — they don’t know what they’re missing. All the good bits of punk rock can be traced back to classical music. All the good bits of all modern music can be traced back to classical music. There’s a lot of wishy-washy classical crap that I can’t stand, but there’s some really fucking heavy bits that make you want to scream, drive faster, whatever. Die. I can’t stand opera, though. I can’t stand the singing in classical music. It drives me fucking insane.
If you took out a personal ad, what would it say?
Oh, great. I love questions that are hard to answer. Let’s see… this is it. Okay… You can tell I’ve been asked the other questions about a thousand times. I don’t even have to think about them anymore. Hmm… “Will swap one column of air for a space to put it in.”
Do you have any interest in acting, and what sort of role do you see yourself playing? Like, do you see yourself playing some sort of Jackie Chan action hero type character?
No, not really, not without having some major plastic surgery done first. [Holds up a really skinny arm to demonstrate.] I tried acting in school once, but I was too nervous and flubbed the one line they gave me — they didn’t give me any more because they thought I was crap. I suppose I wouldn’t mind doing it — hell, if I can remember words to songs I can remember lines — but I’m afraid I’d probably get carried away by whatever role I was playing and actually turn into that person, some sort of Jekyll and Hyde sort of thing. However, I refuse to wear contact lenses, so I’d probably get stuck with the geek role, not the strong man, probably the cranky/geeky/professor-type/idiot that gets robbed or beat up, so it’d be a minor part, if anything. I always get mistaken for a geek.
What do you like to do when no one else is watching?
[Laughs and blushes fiercely] Play the piano. Sing to myself. I love playing the piano, I’m always making things up on the piano at home — I always think, “I should tape this,” while I’m playing, and then I go and get the tape recorder and by the time I’m finished setting all the equipment set up, I’ve lost whatever I was working on. At the same time, if I know someone is listening to me playing, I lose all the spontaneity. Same with singing to myself. I’ll be walking down the street, singing away, and I see someone approaching me, the volume goes right down. When they get within hearing distance, I just stop. I can’t help it. Shit, man — if people walked around singing in the street, it’d be wonderful. Damn, that’s a serious answer. I masturbate and all that other stuff, too.