Job title: Pop Star
Closing date: Never?
Gargantuan-but-ailing industry seeks a fresh face to wheedle money from pre-teens and housewives. Good knowledge of trite cliches will be useful, but a smouldering, yet vacuous, smile is paramount. As well as being able to sing like Ronan Keating or Celine Dion, you will be required to sacrifice your individuality to a cabal of record company stylists, producers and promoters.
This position offers scope for some post-rehab celebrity confessionals in the future.The ideal candidate will be tall, blonde and handsome with a lifetime’s experience of stage schools.
When I put the ad in the Guardian I had expected a few strange characters, but not this. Jamie Manners, the singer of The Vichy Government, enters my office. He is wearing a chiffon cravat, a purple tweed jacket and electric blue eye-shadow. His demeanour is sheepish, perhaps hung over; his left eyelid spasms intermittently. The job he has applied for – and it is a job these days with its academies and its talent shows – is that of Pop Star. I had heard his demo album and seen them live a couple of times, warming to them in spite of myself. After a while, the desire to find out more about the who, the why and the where led to this.
So, Mr. Manners, why are you here today?
“To pass the time, I suppose,” he says softly, his vowels distorted by his Northern Irish accent. “I don’t know. It’s flattering when people want to write about The Vichy Government and you have to sell yourself, I suppose.”
There’s a long pause. Like any astute interviewer with a fictional job on offer, I expect elaboration, confirmation and soul-selling. I get nothing.
“This is what happens to me in proper job interviews. I’ll answer the question as best I can and then stop, and there’ll be this long pause when I realise I’ve only given them a quarter of what they’re expecting and my head will be empty. That’s where it will all fall apart usually.”
What I meant by ‘why are you here’ is: why is it you here? How did you get to be who you are: the type of person who is in a band, being interviewed?
“I don’t really know who I am. I think there’s a discrepancy between the image people have and the reality . . . we all construct personas. I mean, I’m called Jamie Manners [his real name is James Mearns] because when I was 14 some of my friends had a detention in chemistry class and someone was giving fingers at the window. The kids inside said ‘look at those boys’ and then the caretaker came chasing after us. When he caught me, he asked my name. When I gave it he said: ‘Jamie Manners, I’m going to look you up in the register and make sure you get punished.’ From then on Jamie Manners was my Ace Rimmer.”
So is Jamie Manners an affected persona?
“It’s like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I started walking around Cambridge with a mini-skirt and make-up. I’d always been terrified, but I realised that people don’t give a shit. I thought it was fun, you get a few comments, but at least you’re inciting some reaction.”
Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
“I’d be unhappy if I was still working in the library,” he says after a long uncomfortable pause, his face contorting at the visions unleashed by the question.
I arch an eyebrow quizzically.
“It’s a bit of a safe option. I mean, the job I do, a monkey could do it. People say ‘you should write a novel’ and ‘it’s disgusting that you’re working in a library.’ But all those dark moments in my life knocked my confidence and prevented me from being a career person . . . I don’t like the idea that what you do is what you are. We’ve all got these double lives: I’m not sure what the people I know socially actually do, but I’m sure they are totally different in their working lives. I know I am. When you are out in the social scene you get to forge your own identity.”
Manners refrains from spouting the unflappable drivel expected in job interviews. His answers are considered and curt. The Vichy Government are similarly focused, restricting their music to a cheap, ancient casio keyoard and their lyrics to scabrous swipes at the world’s hypocrisy. At least, such is the typical first impression. Repeated listens reveal compelling pop music and lyrics of undeniable power. Take “How to Become a Cult Figure”:
So unrequited, humiliated, as you sup your whisky and nightmares.
The only company you can keep – 19th Century Russian writers.
After serving several centuries, ostracized, in inner city doldrums,
Lady Luck might just decide to end the endless purgatory.
If it’s a Faustian pact, no question: you’re there!
But sometimes Beelzebub is washing his hair.
What would you rather be, a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?
“I’d have to live in a big pond,” he says after another long pause. “I could live in Belfast and get people down to gigs and get lots of press, but I’d find it unsatisfying. I’d rather be a small but really eye-catching garish fish.”
Is there any chance of a Jamie Manners solo carer?
“I can’t imagine not doing music, not having gigs, not having something to look forward in your life because it does keep me going when I’m in the job. But I can’t play an instrument. I laughed when Rhodri called Andrew a deadweight; how many artists who write 100% of the music can you call a deadweight?”
Andrew Chilton is the other legislator in The Vichy Government, a stalwart of the Cambridge music scene, whose previous bands include fanzine favourites Alcopop. He plays and writes all their music on a simple keyboard and drum machine. Whereas the bands they have played with have vans filled with banks of synths, Chilton carries his keyboard around in a plastic bag.
What are your strengths as a band?
“I think it’s when we pull in separate directions. Andrew wants to be John Cale at the time of White Heat and I want to be Diana Ross on stage in Vegas singing ballads. He brings me back down to Earth. Andrew would cut his legs off rather than listen to Spandau Ballet. But then we met because we were the only people in Cambridge who listened to Scott Walker . . .”
And your weaknesses?
“The weaknesses are the strengths. I’d rather write my lyrics than have a beautiful voice. Musical ability is secondary.”
The songs seem to condense both of your personalities . . .
“The songs are little manifestoes. As a lyricist, I find myself not being able to talk about myself, just going” – his fingers form a pistol – “BANG protestants, BANG asylum seekers, BANG . . .”
This is true for their more incendiary satires, such as ‘Rivers of Your Blood’ with its lines: “Niggers have no place in this land,/ except for Sol Campbell he’s okay./Faggots have no place in this land,/Except for lesbians they’re okay.” But on the world-weary ‘Death on an Instalment Plan’ things are more personal:
Neon lights, robo grooves: this club’s great and you can afford a couple of drinks,
But then two become four become eight and you start to lose your grip,
Flailing around to the Associates as though you’re having an epileptic fit.
Some girl checking you out comes up to you and looks you in the eye:
“I know you: you’re that wanker out of Orlando.” [punch]
Spent all day in Boots to find out you don’t need mascara to have a black eye.
“I filter things, it’s transposing through imagery. Like ‘Oliver Cromwell in Weimar Berlin’, comes partly from the fact that my Uncles and Aunts are strict Methodists.”
You were talking recently about how that song almost became reality: you were with friends and they wanted to go to a sex club and you waited in McDonalds. Why didn’t you want to go in?
“Just the idea of the those places seems really disgusting. You have the objection that they are an objectification of women, but it was the girls who most wanted to go.”
I wonder why.
“Women want to eye up the competition, maybe they are more comfortable with all the emotions they feel, whereas men just cut them off.”
Was it a physical or intellectual reaction against going?
“I think it’s intellectual,” he says, then pauses. “Actually, I think it’s both. It turns my stomach. Like, if I had to see a prostitute . . .y’know how in those rites of passage films where you men are conscripted to join the army and the night before they go to war they see a prostitute and one of the breaks down in tears on the bed.”
And that’d be you?
Pause. “I’d just be waiting outside like on Saturday. It doesn’t fit in with what Jamie Manners is going to do, with who he is.”
So what/where would you rather be: Oliver Cromwell or Weimar Berlin?
Pause. “I’d probably have more fun in Weimar Berlin and be happier, but I’d be in the Cromwell camp. You are either at ease with the fact that you’re a sexual being or think that pleasure is a sin and hate the world and everything in it.”
Are you happy in your own body?
“I’m not one of these people who have had a massive trauma about it, y’know: ‘I’m a sandwich trapped in a woman’s body.'”
The conversation turns, as it will, to recent reading . . .
“There’s a line in Mark Simpson’s Saint Morrissey about how choosing Morrissey is like choosing the wrong football team. It makes no sense for me to care about football, cause all it does is break my heart. It’s exactly the same as being a battered wife, you always come back. Week in, week out, you get your emotions put through the mincer.”
Has Morrissey influenced how you live? You’re vegetarian, you’re not celibate as far as I know . . .
“I was meant to be.”
“I always liked the idea, but . . .” He sighs. ” . . . you meet human beings who you get on with. I always respect people who choose to be celibate because there’s a perception in this culture that you’re a failure if you’re not copulating with x,y, z. It’s that thing of rejecting the world before it can reject you. It’s a liberating feeling.”
But you live with the compromise?
“Sad, but true.”
Do you have any noble principles?
“I don’t subscribe to any sort of faith, I think Tottenham is the only one I have a canine loyalty. People might not think the Vichy Government are influenced by football from the music we play, but we really are. Having this massive cloud of suffering over our lives can’t help influencing what we do.”
You recently recorded the Art Brut Top of the Pops song, would you like to go on there?
“Oh yeah, fucking hell.”
But Top of the Pops has never been more irrelevant, isn’t it all just nostalgia?
“What can you do when you’ve invested all your energy and belief in pop music and you find that pop music is dead in the water, a relic that has all been done before? People are refusing to accept and putting up a fight. We’re mourning the fact that Top of the Pops is dead, that the singles chart is dead.”
This may be true, but long live The Vichy Government. Forthcoming debut single, ‘Rubbish’, is anything but rubbish, lamenting and satirising our “post-everything” culture. If you want music that challenges your assumptions, inspires the mind and makes you feel alive in the face of overwhelming indifference, The Vichy Government are the band to choose.
Jamie, you’ve got the job.