D2D Interview: Pat Fish
For many of us John Peel fans, The Jazz Butcher was a band that your friend put on in the car while driving; usually as part of a clever mix tape with other buzz worthy songs. It was the type of music that made you stop, focus, snicker at the humor in the lyrics, then casually ask: "Who's this? It's really good." The Jazz Butcher is the group you've maybe never heard of that every one of your favorite rock stars sites as a major influence on their formative years. R.E.M., Tom Waits, you name 'em: they're all big fans of Pat Fish and his buddy Max Eider, the duo that makes up the core of the Jazz Butcher and has for many a year. The spunky, free-flowing, often-hilarious rants from Pat are enough to make any lover of wit an instant fan. It's not uncommon to hear him mellowly sing something like, "This is party time, and it's better than a cold bath with someone that you don't like," or "Caroline Wheeler's birthday present was made entirely from the skins of dead Jim Morrisons: that's why it smelled so bad." The zaniness of the songs is a pure representation of the creative spontaneity that made the 1980s such an incredible time for music. As someone else whose formative years were shaped watching Ferris Bueller and listening to the selective soundtrack of John Hughes, I'm a big admirer of the genre and specifically of Pat's work.
As an Oxford graduate with a philosophy degree, Pat's almost too witty for my simple questions about booze. I knew it would be hilarious and entertaining to hear Pat talk candidly about almost anything, but considering a number of The Jazz Butcher's lyrics reference drinking (heavily), I also knew he'd have a lot to say about the subject. Still going strong in the UK, I called Pat this past week right at pilsner time to have a chat about all things alcohol, as well as a few stories from the road. He didn't disappoint.
In our conversation we talk international drinking competitions, the effectiveness of taxing liquor in Scandanavia, and the time that he and Alex Chilton went on an all-night spree through New Orleans. You can read the interview below.
David Driscoll: David J was gracious enough to be the intermediary between us and, speaking of him, he has a rather cryptic line in his book about a certain bus trip that was taken by him and the rest of The Jazz Butcher band through Europe during the mid-80s. He said his tolerance for drinking went way up after that journey.
Pat: I can't imagine that would be true.
What can you tell me about your time together on that ride?
This was at the end of 1984 and what you have to understand about the trip was—for everyone in the group except David—it was the first time they'd ever played outside of England. So there we are, steaming into countries that I personally hadn't visited thus far; Holland and Germany. I knew nothing of these places at all. We got there and we were at a stage in what we jokingly call our "career" where we were being treated to hospitality at our English gigs. We very quickly discovered, however, that what we had experienced so far didn't even register on the scale of German hospitality. Obviously, being as it was our first time out there and that the Germans had been extremely nice to us, we went about our work with enthusiasm. Let's say that.
What is that like, living the schedule of the traveling musician? Playing a show, drinking all night, getting up, drinking some more? Do you need to prepare for it?
The only way to really prepare for it is to have done it, I think. Unless you go out and make all those first tour mistakes then you'll never learn.
What are the mistakes that people generally make?
Well, they neglect to remember that when one drinks liquor, one is in a small way poisoning one's self. If one goes at it with too much enthusiasm and too much free vodka, over too many weeks—night, by night, by night—one will make one's self unwell. And quite possibly a bit paranoid!
What was it like for you when you first went out as a band? Did you have people wanting to buy you drinks after the show, or wanting to hang out?
Initially there weren't too many people trying to be our friends. On the very first trip to Germany I do remember trying to have my supper while an enthusiastic new admirer—male—was kneeling on the restaurant floor at my feet. That was a little tiresome. I said to my manager, "Can we lose this idiot?" He looked at me and said, "I'm having my dinner." And I said, "Yeah, me too. That's the point!" Actually, on that first trip in 1984—apart from a run-in I had with a bottle of Cointreau on the ferry to Holland, which resulted in my entering Holland completely unaware of that fact—we were fairly restrained. In later years we got better at it.
Drinking plays a big part in your songwriting. It's clear when listening to The Jazz Butcher that you haven't had to get off the wagon. You still like to drink.
The last record we made I said, "They're never going to stop me!"
Do you see yourself as a professional drinker who happens to play music, or a professional musician who happens to drink?
I think of myself as a songwriter/musician who enjoys a drink. I drink every day. At my age—I'm in my mid-50s—I've heard enough stories about hardened drinkers who stopped drinking and went into a sort of shock heart attack and died. I would fear to go a day without any beer at all. I'd be frightened.
What are your favorites?
My staple—which I take in large quantities every single day—would be pilsner. Ideally, actual geographically pilsner beer from the Czech Republic. Generally, I'll enjoy pilsner every evening, but every now and again one does make forays into the darker woods. When we were lads on the road we used to order up or be given loads and loads of quality vodka. But that sort of spirits drinking I'm just not up for anymore. I'm more of an occasional tippler when it come that stuff, but I do get sudden enthusiasms for obscure liqueurs from time to time. I used to drive the landlord of my local bar absolutely mad by insisting that he order them in.
I think the more you enjoy drinking, the more curious you eventually get. You hear about something new, you want to try it. That's the nature of drinking for those who really like doing it.
I seem to have been familiar with various types of liquor from time immemorial. Oddly enough, on that first trip to Hamburg we did have a run in with something that none of us had ever encountered before, and that for the next eighteen months I personally believed to be a Hamburg specialty: Pineau des Charentes, but they just called it Pineau. Eventually I would make it down to the Charentes area by Bordeaux to see where they make it, but because we had only ever encountered it in this bar I labored under the misapprehension that Pineau was a Hamburger thing. This bartender would pour us these little shot glasses and that's the only real new spirit I can remember being introduced to in adult life. That, and Becherovka.
So you enjoy the herbal liqueurs, too? The digestivos?
Yeah, I'm a bit of an after dinner drinker. Of course it's Champagne eyes and lemonade pockets, but one doesn't typically have a bottle of Green Chartreuse lying around the kitchen. But sometimes we'll push the boat out and get some Cointreau, or some Port at least. Do you know of a ridiculous little liqueur from somewhere near Naples called Strega?
We had a big phase with that. I made the big mistake of introducing my ex-girlfriend to it. She conceived such an enthusiasm for it that was allied only by her inability to handle drinking it (laughs). Lovely woman. Very amicable. But, oh that Strega. She got into that full force. It's a bit like Becherovka; they both, in my personal cosmology, fall under the term "poisoned gin".
(laughs) HA! Right, it's basically the same idea, but with sugar.
I'm also very fond of the obscure German Kümmel.
All of these drinks are making a big comeback right now; the amari and herbal liqueurs. Cocktail culture is gobbling them up.
Last time I was in Dortmund—about two years ago—I went to a bar where they were handing out free glasses of Kümmel, in these beautiful, 18th century-like tiny glasses. And they were coming around for nothing.
That's a style of drinking that has never really caught on in the U.S.—the whole German thing of mixing beer with various shots of schnapps or digestive liqueurs. It seemed like it might make a run here in the Bay Area with the whole shot and a beer culture—replacing the whiskey for Fernet Branca—but that was more about getting fucked up, than adding to the enjoyment of the experience. I think it was more like a dare, rather than something most folks wanted to do. When I lived in Germany it wasn't something competitive. We would mix and match for hours.
Right, every now and again the barman just comes around with a little free round of something. It's very festive. I'm not really a British style of drinker. I do not believe the purpose of drinking is to get drunk. I see getting drunk as an annoying side effect.
I've never heard someone put it like that, but I completely agree (laughs). It's like when I'm full, but I want to keep eating.
Do you know what I mean? It's like, "Oh bollocks, now I can't drink anymore!"
That happened to me yesterday. I drank a whole bunch of wine and had reached my limit, but there was still an hour left in the movie I was watching. I was really annoyed because that meant I couldn't continue to drink for the rest of the film.
It's a tricky thing sometimes. I think it's the culture of people who don't drink, isn't it? They think that the purpose of drinking is to get drunk. And I think some of it comes from Scandinavia, where they put a heavier tax on alcohol. If you ever visit the town of Lübeck on the Baltic Coast of Germany on a summer's afternoon, you'll find yourself stepping over the bodies of Swedish tourists who got on the boat over and had a run-in with German liquor prices. By the time they hit Germany itself they're unable to fucking walk. Of course they go home, they have the mother of all hangovers, they feel dirty and guilty and grimy, as one does after such an experience, and they conclude, "Ja, drinking is bad." So they stick another ten pounds on the price of a fucking pint, which only makes them go crazier the next time they step on the ferry.
Yeah, raising prices on alcohol doesn't discourage drinking, in my opinion. You can ask the NFL about that here in America. People just get shit-housed in the parking lot before the game instead of paying for expensive beer in the stadium.
It's a fucking nightmare! And it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. To me, that's what drives all this anti-drinking culture. They don't even say the words "have a drink," they say "use alcohol". You know? In that whiney little voice they use to see if you've understood the very basic concept they're trying to get across. "Have you been using alcohol?" O these people! I will outlive them, I swear! (laughs)
Part of the reason I wanted to start this interview series was to help counteract extremes like this. Not so much the folks on the temperance side trying to curb drinking, but rather the extremes on the opposite view that try to take all the fun out of drinking by stressing too much appreciation. They're just as fanatical about not getting drunk, or drinking because it's fun to drink. To them it's all about flavor. You need to sip everything slowly all the time. That's not to say that I don't enjoy the flavor of alcohol, but let's not put on airs here. It seems more like they're trying to separate themselves from "common" drinkers and that's quite annoying to me. So if you and I are saying that drinking isn't about getting drunk, and it's not just about flavor, then what are we saying?
I am positively simple-minded about this. To me, the origins of drinking lie in quenching the thirst. This is why I'm such a pilsner fanatic. I seem to be a man who is simply cursed with a serious thirst. Both of my parents were that way. They came from an age that is represented in shows like Mad Men. "It's quarter past eleven? Let's have a gin and tonic in the office." They lived in that world. That's how business was done in London in the 50s and 60s. Today, the way they raised me would be described as child abuse. Someone today would probably shout, "They're feeding that child wine!" I was being given wine with dinner at the age of six. Once I left school all hell broke loose. I'd show up back home at about quarter to twelve in the morning and my mother would be there waiting for me, asking "gin and tonic?" It wasn't unpleasant for me. I knew it wasn't normal because my mates would come over and say, "Is it always like this?" But I was raised to have a high tolerance and it's possible I've got the genetic thirst. Some might frown on the way I was raised, but I'm 57 today and I'm not dead yet.
My parents were always drinkers, too. Maybe not quite as proficient, but there was always a supply in the house. There are extremes in the way that people feel about alcohol and I fall somewhere into the middle. For example, I don't necessarily drink a lot of vodka, but I hate the people who shit on it simply because they claim it doesn't have any flavor. That just makes me want to roll my eyes and go drink with someone else who doesn't have all these silly hang-ups.
Well that's where they reveal they've just got their snobbery going and aren't really talking sense. Of course vodka has flavor. I can bore you for hours about the subject of vodka.
We drank it in the 80s chiefly because we could—as a band we were getting riders—and we drank it in part because we were little lefties. We thought vodka was cool, and whiskey wasn't.
It's amazing how that's flipped around since then!
But it's a good functional liquor. You can drink it straight or mix it with anything and no one's really against it, so it's good for groups. Touring around Germany, one had the option of getting one's hands on some really good vodka; the Duty Frees, and whatnot. We were exposed to a lot of good quality vodka in a very short amount of time. I'd say there was a big difference in flavor between the good and the bad.
What would you say if you were condescended to in a bar when you ordered a vodka drink, though? That's kind of what's happened in California over the last few years.
It is a bit like the comedian going into the bar, ordering a pint, and not getting any further. I'm very fond of Stolichnaya—it was a big part of my youth. For just regular guzzling vodka we would generally stick with Soviet produce, but I grew very fond of Polish vodkas as well—Wyborowa, particularly. We were once in New Hampshire, in 1986 would you believe, and we found the Wyborowa Black. The motto for New Hampshire is "Live Free or Die", you know, and they've got this massive liquor store right on the freeway with cheap prices, and as you drive on they've got this big billboard that says, "If you see someone drinking and driving call 1-800-HERO!!" We were in this store, however, and it tickled us to death because it resembled nothing more than the stores you would see on the motorway in East Germany. When you had to go to Berlin—it was an enclave, cut off, and you had to drive through East Germany—for a gig there you had to get visa-ed up, enter, and then drive on this special motorway.
I've heard stories about that, yes.
On the East German leg through Communist World, they had these service stations called Intershop (says with heavy accent). And Intershop was the love of our lives! Not only were we helping to maintain the class struggle, but they were selling Scotch whisky cheaper than anywhere in Scotland, and Marlboro cigarettes for cheaper than you could find them in Virginia. It was a hard currency grab. As long as you paid in Western currency they would sell it to you cheap. So when we saw the shop in New Hampshire we said, "Wow! This is great! They have them in America, too!" So I bought a bottle of this other Polish vodka and brought it back—because I thought it had this beautiful little box—and when I got home I pulled the bottle out and looked at the little tag around the neck. On there was a little message that said, "Thank you America for the potato." (says in Polish accent). I thought that was really sweet. Max and I ended up drinking the bottle of Wyborowa Black on the balcony of our hotel in Toronto and it was great.
You guys just sipped it straight?
Yeah, I've always drunk my vodka straight.
So you appreciate the different flavors, textures, and nuances of vodka?
Yeah, you get up the Baltic way—you see it with Absolut—and the vodka's really syrupy and rich. It's not sweet, but there's a definitely difference in what people call mouthfeel. In our local Ukrainian club they have a Ukrainian cherry-flavored vodka that is absolutely delicious. You cannot have one glass. In fact, you cannot stop at all. But the hangover this bastard produces—you can feel the gravel in your stomach. I dare say the cherries were grown next to Chernobyl.
You mentioned drinking vodka with Max Eider, your partner in The Jazz Butcher. Who are some other folks you ran into on the road that were as up for the challenge as you?
Occasionally, we'd have international drink-offs against the local staff or tour managers in the various countries we travelled to. We once beat France in Marseille 4-0.
But we got killed by Hungary. We got absolutely shafted by Hungary (laughs).
What was the drink of choice for that particular challenge?
Stoli. Their representative and ours—which was me—had a liter bottle of Stoil each. It was just brutal. There was no sophistication about this. I went into the dressing room after we had done the gig. I must have had about a third of the bottle in one go. I put it down, looking at this Hungarian tour manager—who was probably only about 24—and I said, "There you go, son." But I was completely out of my league. He picked up his own bottle of Stoli and did the whole thing without stopping. An entire liter.
Jesus, that's like something out of a movie!
Our lot, they're all ferocious drinkers, but we were out of our league in Hungary. Other bands who like a drink? There was a terrible cultural collision—the ripples of which are still being felt around the world—when we met Camper Van Beethoven in Cleveland many years ago. Ultimate drunkeness. Ultimate "you're bloody family!" (says in loud slurring voice) "I bloody love you! Arghhh…" Absolutely flapping mental. We got on really well and we knew we would. We liked their music, they liked ours, and so when we met we knew it was going to be a party. My memories from then are like badly-taken 1970s Instamatic photographs.
And those experiences build comradery. That's how you bond, right? You meet up after the show and you make friends over a drink.
I've accidentally joined a large number of bands that way! (laughs) Musicians, where do they work? They work in bars. They get there hours before the fans do, and what do they do? They hang around. It's inevitable that most musicians like a drink. It just passes the time.
Have you ever had to go on the road with people who don't drink or have cleaned up?
I've had run-ins with people like that, but I have a personal philosophy that has been in place since I reached the age of forty, and it's a very simple question: why work with people you don't like? You could like someone, but if they got on one of those "put that cigarette out" tips, you would have to behead them! (laughs) I'm largely an ethical person simply for pragmatic reasons. It's like the advice that Alfred Hitchcock gave the Hollywooders when they assembled to hear him give a speech once. He told them a story about being caught by a policeman on someone else's bike when he was seven. He told a lengthy story and at the end of it, he said (doing Hitchcock impersonation): "So this is my advice to you. Stay out of prison."
That's good advice!
So I followed that advice, and I know that if you always tell the truth you don't have to remember anything. And the other one I follow, of course: why work with people you don't like? With the first lineup of The Jazz Butcher we just went out and we didn't expect to ever be so popular. We hadn't really made any ground rules and we didn't really have any experience. But once the second lineup came together, we didn't all know each other that well, so we built rules for touring together. It was called the Rennes Accord because we came up with it in a pub in Rennes. We had to put some thought into it.
So you had to think about drinking a lot when dealing with others. I think about drinking all the time and the hang-ups people have concerning it. I think about why we drink, and funny stories that happen when we do. Happiness. Jokes. Or in your case, you write clever songs.
Right! Well if you don't enjoy it, you really should find something else to be doing, shouldn't you? If you're playing tennis and you hate playing tennis, then you should put that racquet down and play something else. It all seems very simple to me.
Who's someone you haven't had a drink with that you might want to have one with?
Wow. To some extent I've already had the experience. In 1992, when we drove the bus to New Orleans, Alex Chilton was down there to bury his brother. Our tour manager had had a few recent encounters with him and said, "Alex is coming to the show tonight, but don't buy him any beers because he's off the booze." So we did the show, and afterward Alex shows up in the dressing room and helps himself to a beer. We leave the dressing room and he takes us out to some bars, and then some clubs, and then some more bars, and we get home at like seven o'clock in the morning. For the most part he was just Gentleman Jim, drinking his beer, showing us the town. No problems. So I get to bed at stupid o'clock, wake up in the afternoon, grab a bite to eat, and I'm walking back to the hotel feeling like death. You know that thing that happens when you walk past the local bar, and your mate's in there, and he sees you, bangs on the window, and kind of beckons you in?
So it's 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon and Alex fucking Chilton is sitting in a pub in New Orleans, banging on the window, and beckoning me in. Well, of course, there's only one rational response to something like that.
You go in.
So we embarked on round two. I'm sure there are an awful lot of talented people that I'd love to sit down and have a drink with, but, to be fair, a 48-hour New Orleans drinking binge with Alex Chilton? I'll understand if I don't get anything more than that.
That sounds amazing. A lot of guys I work with are Big Star fans. They'd love to hear that story.
We ended up in a transvestite Cowboy bar. Who would have thought that such a place even existed?