'We’re all about albums, we’re all about catalogues, and we’re all about stories. It would make a wonderful Hollywood film. It makes for a real-life sort of group. No big mansions; it was made by a group who could’ve lived a lot better. We’ve been able to tell our story.'
In Conversation With... Tjinder Singh (Cornershop)
Tjinder Singh talks to us about his career; from racism as a child to Brexit, and how his music has reflected this amongst his own personal journey...
As a young Indian man, what was life like growing up in Wolverhampton?
It had its anguishes and stresses which is probably why I’m doing what I’m doing, actually. I didn’t listen to a lot of English music until I was 8. Punjabi type music, it was. You were at school with racism and my mother worked in a factory, and she would tell stories about what would have happened. It was definitely something that you just got on with and you had to live with it. Therefore, it was like being a third-citizen because you didn’t really think twice about it and got on with it. If you got into a scrape, you’d get out of it and carry on; there was nothing natural about it. It was considered normal to have that racism on your shoulders. For me, I played chess as a distraction when I was younger, moving on in the world and learning a bit more about music. We travelled a lot, so we listened to a lot of music. When I went from Wolverhampton to Preston, it was just as racist there. People got drunk and shouted at you while they followed you. If they caught you, they would kill you. It wasn’t very nice. A lot has changed since the 90s. It wasn’t very nice but it edged me to rally against it.
You talked about moving to Preston, where The General Havoc formed. How did that happen?
I think due to boredom. It was very cold and we never left the house. We liked music and that was one of the good things about Preston, there were a lot of pubs that were always playing music. You’d go and see gigs there. I think because we enjoyed music, me and Ben, we started doing it together. We lived in the same house and we did it to keep us warm and entertain us. We didn’t have any plans whatsoever; we couldn’t play instruments. We probably would have carried on like that until now. Somewhere along the line, we knew a local DJ who wanted to become our drummer. I also got my brother involved so there were more of us. Slowly, the group developed. I was unemployed at the time and when we got signed, I didn’t want to go back to unemployment.
The Fast Jaspal EP was very different to what you grew into with Cornershop. How did you develop your sound?
We started on cassettes and we loved that. We loved listening to them. That was the start of production in a way, but to do production in a studio cost money. I had to work for a year when I was working in Manchester so I had to earn a good wage. We then recorded Fast Jaspal which introduced us to West Orange in Preston, and luckily Charlie and Allan who are at the studio. We still work with them! Meeting them was a great stroke of luck because we get on with them and had access to London and Preston studios. We would do nothing but record. I think every stage that we did of recording was a big leap forward because it was all new to us and we were enthusiastic about it. After the first EP, I started doing the production myself and it was all learning, using your technology, and then samples came along. Everything kept augmenting all the time. I think somewhere along the line, things just started to click. I think some people would be embarrassed about that but it’s quite nice to get naturally better at something. I think it makes for a more interesting back-catalogue because if you came along and you were signed to a major label then you would have suddenly received great gear. It was nice to have the labels into you but you were just stuck sounding like everyone else as well. We thought we had the songs but not the ability to execute them. Money was definitely a factor. We just got signed and didn’t want to spend loads of money.
A big story back in the early 90s was with Melody Make, with you burning the picture of Morrissey outside the EMI offices. Was this for publicity or more just a genuine outcry, calling someone out for racism?
It was more than just for publicity, it was a lot of different things. It was the lyrics, the artwork, the flag, and people are being killed in the streets. As far as I saw, that’s dead meat. There was a music element to it as well, and an industry element. Obviously nowadays, thirty years on, people can point to things by looking at a badge and it wasn’t quite so convoluted. We did get a lot of shit for it. It wasn’t all just praise or anything like that, it was as much as a problem as it was getting us in the press. The press came later, we were doing gigs well before they took pictures of us.
Naming the band Cornershop, was it to reclaim the stereotypes for your community or more just tongue-in-cheek?
I wouldn’t say it was tongue-in-cheek, I’d say there’s more of an element of humor to it. We always liked comedians and we think whatever we’ve done had humour to it. There’s also the other side of the coin and if that’s what we need to help us chisel our way through to get people to listen to us then we will do it. In essence of the previous question, we had to navigate our way and part of that was definitely humor. We don’t mind that because we’ve always liked Northern comedians. Humour has always been a nice element to what we do as well.
Hold on It Hurts was politically charged. How important is the lyricism in an album to you, and the importance of people understanding the context?
Again, that’s another way of chiseling when people don’t understand what it is. I was slapped on the knuckle by someone the other day for thinking that we didn’t put lyrics on our albums. We want ambiguity because we want people to come to their own thought about what our songs are saying. The whole idea is some people will get it for the lyrics, some will get it for the chorus, some people might get it for anything. It’s best for people to come to their own conclusions about a song. Generally, we never had lyrics growing up, and in a way that’s a good thing, people will make their mind up about it. If people don’t understand the political content of it then what does it matter?
You have toured with massive people like Oasis, and you sang with David Byrne on his label, are there any tails on the tour bus from some of those experiences?
It got messy at times. I think the messiest was when we first started out. By the time we got into America, I stopped drinking for four years. We were smoking weed and it got a little bit messy. We didn’t do music for rock ’n’ roll, we did it because we didn’t like certain elements. Though we were doing tours that were big, we didn’t suddenly turn into a rock group because that’s not what we started out as. We didn’t allow drugs anywhere near us, we had to ask the live crew to leave. We made sure that we enjoyed ourselves but didn’t get too stupid. There was certainly scope to do that and to get lost in the situation.
We can’t ignore the hit album When I Was Born for the Seventh Time. Can you tell us about the recording experience, with the massive amount of collaboration on the album?
It started off very simple; just me and Ben in the studio in London. We were with a new person and he was very nice, his name was Philip Bagenal. He enjoyed recording with us, as did we. It’s really good, it really helped with the rest of the collaborations. The ideas and groups were getting bigger. We had arranged for the automator to do a mix for us. We asked him to come over again to do some production and, in the end, there was one production he did himself and two we already started. That made the album that much more varied. There was more money to do what we wanted to do. We were getting mixes done from the middle of it and going to the biggest office. There would be a standing ovation for our songs and we could see that everything was going right. Everyone wanted to work with us and it wasn’t a struggle. A lot of different people were into what we were doing. The album did very well in America. One of our songs didn’t have bass because I didn't want it to, and it was remixed by Radio One. My wife and I listened to it and just thought, This is going to be big! We knew that it was going to be big, but not that it was going to be a single. The labels and the promos made the song big; everyone was playing it. We all know the success that Brimful of Asha had.
The song is a tribute to Asha Bhosle, isn’t it?
It’s a tribute to her but also to music all in all. It was more of a gesture and I would’ve preferred it to be more of a tribute than a gesture. She is the most recorded artist and has a Guiness World Record for it.
What made you decide to make this tribute to her?
Cassette culture rather than vinyl culture, or even VHS. The early ages were consumed with Indie music up until the mid 90s. It’s the culture and the politics, which is what makes people ask why our name is Cornershop. When I was in my sabbatical role, I finished doing my degree in Organized Entertainment in the Student Union. I got loads of racist shit. I got elected and re-elected a new committee, and things changed. I stood down from the post without doing my second year. Racism was there in the streets of Wolverhampton and Preston, but also in highly educated places like a student union. I needed my music to be even more of a reflection to what was going on. There is politics in there about government warnings, French music, reggae music, Indian music – a lot of areas that were touched. That song that was pretty much a bearer for that, but what was also doing well was the album. When that single came out, it took a lot of shine from the album, unfortunately. Maybe if it wasn’t for it being two-edged, we wouldn’t be doing music now, but you can’t really think like that. No one’s given us anything, we’ve never been on a big tour with lots of other people. We had to work it from working hours to those arenas I talked about. We weren’t also just getting racism from white people, but black people too. When we first started, if Asian’s saw you with a guitar singing in English, that wasn’t accepted. It was new ground; it wasn’t something that someone had made a template for us. As sad and hard as that was, there were people that understood us and encouraged us, even when they were in different fields. We did have people supporting us and things can’t get better than that.
It’s great to look back and think We did reach number one with that hit. Back to the Students' Union, even though idiots had kept trying to question you, you still had gotten re-elected.
We got re-elected and changed the committee and it was the first female-Muslim president who now works for the BBC. It’s a privilege; it’s not a nice thing to do, but I proved a few people right and put things straight, just like our music. We’ve always had to start from square one, we’ve never had it easy, and when it comes to the last album... bloody hell. That’s going back in there after we were dead, basically, our careers had gone, we hadn’t put out anything.
Your latest album, England is a Garden, you had written over 40 songs and had to boil it down to 12.
Yeah, we did because of time and we weren’t looking to finish at all. It took a while to do all that. One of the things that we did with the music was taking out too many samples and we didn’t use too much technology. We wanted it to be sort of steam-rolling guitar, bass and drums – that sort of thing. We didn’t want to interrupt the flow, that was an absolute benefit in the 90s. We couldn’t give them any excuses not to listen and that’s how we did the order of the album. When people had started coming back to us, we were - and still are - shocked. So many people loved it: the artwork, the continuity, we couldn’t have asked for more.
You may think your career was becoming stagnated, but I’d say that you were very much enduring.
It’s quite weird. It was our last chance at doing anything. Even if we didn’t have another album after is, we have put together an interesting story. We had John Rogers who started with production and told us about the industry. We had John Savage who loved us, he encouraged us. We also had John Peel, three Johns pushing it for us. [Hanif] Kureishi and Savage were at the first Camden show that we did - I loved Kureishi’s book. I was reading about someone who was going into a group and conquering America, it’s what I was living within months of reading that book. I don’t know how I did it, I wasn’t following a template, it’s just how it was. Going back to the last album, if it is the last album, that’s fine by us, we kept the variety.
Do you think that there will be another album?
No, not at the moment because we run the label and have a lot of different jobs to do. We’re just doing the admin a lot. Getting records out there. As COVID started happening, we had the album ready and it was out. It’s quite easy to reorder as it’s manufactured in Germany. A lot of groups had to pull their albums completely. We’re still taking orders and posting out orders, and doing interviews. I’ve not done any songs for a while, actually. We don’t know, but hopefully, we will see. One of the things that was happening while we weren’t recording, bands that we liked in the past were coming out with shit albums. Daft Punk was the only compelling return of a band. We don’t want to come back with an album that’s only going to be listened to for 2 minutes. That’s the way the industry can manipulate you and you’ve got lots of stories to tell, before you know. We were independent and got rid of a lot of those shackles. It took a lot to get my brain cells recollected.
Do you think that becoming independent was the best move, away from record labels?
I think that both of them go hand-in-hand at being the best if you need ammunition out there. Once the ammunition is gone and all shots have been fired, groups can be palmed away and that’s what happened to us. The efforts that we put into the albums and making it as good as we thought it was weren’t reciprocated while with a label. The industry is what it is. With America, you need a bit of machinery. Ultimately, it’s great to do it yourself, but if a label will help you do it yourself, that’s even better. I think we’ve gone through the industry in every aspect and that’s what we set out to do; we wanted something to rally against. We thought it was the journalists but it was the industry. The MU are a bunch of fucking arseholes and that’s evidenced by their lack of response to Brexit and how technology has gone as well. If you can’t handle something for musicians when there’s something like Brexit at your door, you will not be able to put anything forward with something like COVID at your door. Don’t bother being a Union if you can’t handle that.
Now that we have left the EU are you feeling the effects already?
Well, I’ll say what I said from the start. They’ve been talking about the World Trade Organization not even existing in a few months. There’s the worry that Britain is going to become a tax-haven, which might be a good thing. I think it’s a very sad move that will change the country and already has. Who would want to go any closer to where America is, ever? Trump at the helm and that’s what Britain is doing after Brexit’s transition. The contract, the health service, selling the country off quite cheap. It’s going to be a devastating thing. COVID has shown how devastating it can be, before it came along, Britain’s hardly a great example of how it copes anyway. Within it, you’ve got the elements of what will happen when Brexit kicks in. You’ve got the lies, the programs they won’t let out due to lack of control of the people, journalists with arms held at their backs – it's nonsense. I don’t normally talk like that, not a Doc Martin boots sort of person, but how can a country be told that they’ve just gone over £30,000 in debt and you get told that over 50,000 people have died and no one gives a shit? Brexit has already happened and people don’t really give a shit like it’s a lovely Easter day – it's wrong. This shit is real and that’s what Brexit is to me. Death and clapping on Thursdays that it might go away. The figures are going up and no one’s giving a shit! How can a country that’s supposed to be serious have bad statistics because of a simulation of data over the weekend? Where does that come into it? Why can’t it have proper statistics in real-time for every day? It’s a simple thing, because they don’t want you to have that and people have allowed that.
Despite the state of the world, with your new uplifting album out, what do you want fans to take from it?
Well, what they’ve taken already is pretty good: relentless, the sound of summer, happy. One description was that it’s a Best of album of 12 songs that you’ve never heard, a pretty good description. The album has aligned people which we’re doing very well with. It’s been a successful release and alerted people to previous releases that we’ve done. Maybe that’s the best part of it: you’ve worked so hard and once you do something new, everything in the past starts aligning. We’re all about albums, we’re all about catalogues, and we’re all about stories. It would make a wonderful Hollywood film. It makes for a real-life sort of group, no big mansions, it was made by a group who could’ve lived a lot better. We’ve been able to tell our story.