SAM AND THE WOMP ARE NO.1
I log onto Facebook in the middle of a thunderstorm in a little bar in St.Girons, Ariege, South West France, and see Raz Olsher’s post on Facebook that Sam and the Womp is no.1 in the downloads chart.
Surely some mistake, I think.
I don’t even have time to begin to engage with this right now.
Like the cow in La Haine that crosses the street out of nowhere – ‘une vache!’ – and disappears again – a minor rural blip on the cardiovascular spectrogram of urban disenfranchisement – or like in Ethiopia when a man approaches you on a small suburban street naked, sober, clean, for no reason, and passes you, wanting nothing…. ‘what the hell was that’, you think, and carry on.
Click the like button, pay for your coffee, and go out into the post-tempestuous mountain freshness with thoughts of fresh baguette and soft and complicated cheese.
But back in the UK, holiday despondently over, there it is again…. that man @ Raz Olsher, bigging up @Sam and the Womp and their no.1 recorded in @fossil studios.
Can this be real? A quick glance at the UK top 40 singles chart and there it is, confirmed, Sam and the Womp, Bom Bom, straight in at number 1. Yes, the same chart. Ed Sheeran, Florence and the Machine, Skrillex, Redlight, Adele and a load of names I have never heard of and may never know, but Sam and the Womp, unmistakably, right there at the top.
First of all: WELL DONE! Their hard work, originality, talent and skill has totally paid off and I and Wormfood wish them every success.
Secondly: what the hell is going on???? Since when did ‘balkan dubstep raveout womp’ become no.1 chart material? I clearly know nothing about the music industry.
I’ve become accustomed to feeling like I operate in a world almost entirely different from and totally invisible to ‘the industry’. What goes on in this ‘grassroots’, ‘underground’ scene functions under the radar of the mainstream music industry.
I used to think the key to success was playing lots and lots of shows, gradually improving and building up a fanbase, until one day some Bertie Bigballs in a shiny suit and a card saying ‘A and R man’ signs you up for a 7 album deal and advances you more money than you’ve earned in every show you’ve ever played combined, just for starters. And if that doesn’t happen, well, you just haven’t played enough shows. Keep playing shows. Keep building your fanbase. Etc. And if it doesn’t happen in time, you or your band mates get too old and girlfriend pressures, wife pressures, children pressures, life pressures catch you up, well, you stop. Or at least you stop believing in the Bertie Bigballs pipe dream, snag yourself a comfortable teaching job, and accept that you will always play music because you have to, but you’ll need some other means of making a living, and you get realistic and take what you can.
But in the last year or two I’ve started to think that that’s not the route to mainstream ‘success’ at all. You don’t get snapped up by Bertie at grassroots shows no matter how hard you smash them and how much people enjoy your music, because Bertie doesn’t give a shit about grassroots shows and he’s not there. He’s snorting coke with other industry people at some industry facing event and the only place you might ever get ‘snapped up’ is at an industry showcase, which you’d never even think about attending because you don’t know those people and quite probably despise that world, or what you’ve seen of it. Perhaps even rightly. More likely even, the industry doesn’t ‘snap up’ up and coming acts; rather they create those acts themselves. They decide on the product, what they want it to look like, sound like and feel like, then they assemble the relevant product from the materials they have at hand. Which is whoever they happen to know. Which is most likely to be the sons, daughters, schoolfriends and cousins of other people in the music industry. They may not be the best singers or the most creative writers but they look right, have the right connections and are willing to be moulded in the way they need to be. Individual creativity and virtuosic brilliance doesn’t really come into it – not on the part of the ‘band’ anyway. The producers need to be extremely skilled within their chosen medium, and the designers, photographers, costume and media team absolutely on point, but the point is much more to create something within a current pop trend than to have space to snap up that wildly exciting band you see on a small festival stage at 4am, eyes sparkling, boots caked in mud.
Thus endeth, in simple form, my summary of the music industry and my understanding of it. From 1) keep playing shows and being good and rocking parties and you will eventually make it to 2) no matter how many of these types of shows you play, you won’t make it anywhere except those types of shows. To ‘make it’ in a bigger sense, a wider more mainstream and more industry sense, you need to know the right people and be built by the industry the entire way. And indeed perhaps be created by the industry from day one.
Hence why Sam and the Womp’s recent success is so exciting and such a vindication of the grassroots scene. I should know – I gave them their first gig, and I also named them!
It was September 2009 and I had just started programming for Hootananny Brixton. I had been helping book bands and DJs piecemeal, but this was my first full night there, and I had booked Nhasitafara (Linos and Gee’s explosive 10-piece mbira reggae outfit from Brighton) and Gentle Mystics alongside ‘Wormfood DJs’ (me, before the birth of Bobby Gandolf. In those days I used to DJ off itunes, we used to finish the live music at midnight and close at 4, and I remember being so drunk and also so lost in the world of potential music that after a series of requests for tunes I didn’t have, I got on the mic, announced that I was taking requests, plugged in my dongle, and played any tune people wanted if they gave me a quid so that I could buy it off the itunes music store. Fortunately itunes logs these things, and a quick look at the purchased list from that night includes: DJ Addiction – Bodyswerve; UB40 – One In Ten; DJ Fresh – Gold Dust; Luther Vandross – Never Too Much; Womack & Womack – Teardrops. In short, whatever the feral Brixton crowd wanted at that time. I subsequently learnt to mix and perfected my own blend of moombah and dancehall infused afro funky)
But I digress. The day before the show, Harky – Vahakn Matossian – creative extraordinary, synth player, artist, designer, responsible for the current Wormfood logo and most of our best flyers, and no one so svelte or cuddly in a lycra bearsuit (insert picture) – rang me up to tell me that the Gentle Mystics were not going to be able to play the show the next day. Apparently some of them were back at university, some were still on holiday, and they weren’t going to be making it. But his mate Sam Ritchie’s band Q-Dos were available and had some new material they wanted to try.
I had met Sam a few times at his house in Kentish Town where he lived with my friends Hagop (Harky’s brother) and Aaron (Horn… the man responsible for the Womp). We’d chilled a bit together and I’d heard he played the trumpet, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I checked out the Q-Dos myspace and felt the tunes had potential, but I have to say I wasn’t thrilled about the whole scenario – my first full night at Hootananny and fielding a potentially below-strength lineup was not a good look. Particularly as I had always had reservations about the Mystics and had only put them on at Harky’s insistence. That’s what you get for helping mates.
But anyway – ‘Q-Dos’ came down and totally smashed it. Bubu on drums, Bloem doing her weird Bjork-esque thing up front, Neil vibing on the sax with clear tone and beautiful style, Sam blowing and vibing and dancing, and Aaron bringing up the low end with thick bass frequencies. da, da, da, da, duhduhduh…Did they steal that lick from Justin Martin? Ah well anyway, never mind. Clearly they had potential. But that name… Q-Dos? Really? Qjump – the online train ticket booking website. Q-bert – the highly skilled but indescribably geeky turntablist. MS-Dos – the horribly clunky operating system for all PCs until they stole the Windows idea from Mac. Kudos – the Greek word meaning something like ‘props’ – instantly conjuring up images of sweaty adolescents in musty classrooms struggling with their translations of Homer and Thucydides when they ought to have been out fucking and fighting, instead wasting all that young blood on arcane letters and other peoples deeds. Not a strong name at all.
It was a few weeks later that I was round at Aaron’s again working on his mix of The Worm’s All You Fine Girls, which ended up being a fast, low slung, UK funky banger. Props for that one Aaron – or should I say ‘Q-Dos’. Work done, we were smoking the inevitable benevolent herbs in Aaron’s basement and I think I had to teach nearby the next day so ended up staying over. Sam came down and mentioned they were thinking about changing their name. A good idea, I said. Did I have any suggestions? Why not, simply, ‘Sam and the Womp’, I suggested. Partly I had been observing the trend for names involving something and the somethings. In the sixties and seventies everything was ‘The something’. The Eagles, The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, etc etc etc. But the last few years it had been all Reverend and the Makers, Noah and the Whale, Florence and the Machine, Lulu and the Lampshades, etc etc. It seemed to be a winning formula… and I guess I was right.
That said, the name was intended as bit of a piss-take. Mostly of these indie bands with self-conscious hair (boy-led) and uberprissy fake self-deprecating sense of their own superiority (girl-led) who I mostly despised and derided without seeing or hearing as trumped-up self obsessed ex public school dandies with very little feel for syncopation or cross-rhythms. I had always known I was being prejudiced and unfair but every attempt to listen to the music had only confirmed my suspicions so after a while I stopped trying, content enough in my own prejudice. It never hurt anyone.
The word Womp had been bandied around for a while, mostly by Sam and Aaron to describe the oscillating low end frequencies but also something more spiritual, less audible.. Part dubstep wobble, part 4-4 thump, wop, bump, wobble, blimp, wordlump, wop bump, a visceral comic-book exhortation of intensity.
Sam had also expressed his desire to have his own name in the title, which seemed a sensible choice. He correctly predicted that the line-up would be flexible, with a core of him, Bubu, Aaron and Bloem, but a rotating horn section depending on the show, with Neil, Jerome Harper (Brassroots), Paul Tkachenko, Mikey Badger, Raz Olsher and others all making occasional appearances.
Hence my suggestion: Sam and the Womp. It has Sam in the title, it’s in the popular accessible format, but it’s also so silly it might just work. The idea to me conjures up a tiny Sam Ritchie figure, hair blowing across his face, desperately trying to keep his hands steady and roll a joint in the shadow of a huge oscillating wall of Womp.
“mmm…. yeah maybe”, Sam said. But I’d heard that word used a lot in that house.
Over the next few years – the last few years – I booked them many, many times. For Valley of the Antics @ Secret Garden Party; for the Wormfood festival, for Passing Clouds, for Hootananny, for a few other festivals and bits and bobs. Rarely high budget shows… but then that’s the Grassroots music scene. They always smashed it and always enjoyed it, and I’m grateful to them for all the shows they’ve done and all the time we’ve shared. I’ve seen them flying and I’ve seen them holding on through gritted teeth, like that horribly painful show on Sunday night at Glastonbury 2011, 3am Club Dada, with poor quiet sound and Sam barely holding on, a pale and drawn wisp of his future self after the tragic death of his mother just a few days earlier. I’ve seen them with dancers and wompettes with big foam fingers, and I’ve seen them just themselves stumbling around festivals. But they have always been Sam and the Womp and always been unique. The usual tagline I’ve used for their Hootananny posters has been something like ‘balkan brass dubstep raveout’, which pretty much sums it up. It’s been a pleasure to watch their audiences and gig fees burgeon as they have grown in popularity and respect.
It must in truth be observed that there is a whole network of industry people in and around the band, centring on Sarm Studios, Perfect Songs and the vast interconnected web of labels, publishing companies and management circling around that, and in this sense this confirms theory (2) outlined above, although not invalidating (1). But it must equally be observed that although good connections have helped their music fall on the ears of some of the right people, the project was very much NOT industry led: they set it up themselves and grew it in their own way, making the music they wanted to make, with much joy and creativity and very little cynicism. And it must also be observed that, whatever the reasons in the heads of the industry people, it’s the public who have loved the music enough to buy it and send the song to number one. And to see them putting their pennies behind something so upbeat and original is extremely refreshing.
I’ll probably need to remove them from my roster as the real agents take over, and I doubt I will ever be able to book them for Wormfood again, which is a shame. But it’s so great to see an act we’ve worked with from the beginning do so well. So I say, wholeheartedly:
BIGUP SAM AND THE WOMP!