LESSONS LEARNED FROM ROCKING 1991-2013
Talking Shop with CORNERSHOP’s TJINDER SINGH
By Tyler Malone
The band Cornershop was formed over two decades ago, back in 1991, before the music industry meltdown, before the creation of autotune, before Kurt Cobain shot himself, before the Clinton years. A lot has changed in the music world and the world at large since singer-songwriter Tjinder Singh came together with his brother Avtar Singh and his friends David Chambers and Ben Ayres to make some music.
Though Cornershop has never achieved the success that many (myself included) think they deserve, they have succeeded in putting out a continuous stream of critically-acclaimed albums. Though their 1997 single “Brimful of Asha” likely remains their most well-known tune, their music since that breakthrough single has only become more interesting, more intelligent, and more infectious. I spoke with Tjinder Singh about the band’s evolution and the changes in the music industry since their inception.
TM: Cornershop has been a band for 22 years. Could you tell me a little bit about how you guys got your start back in 1991?
Tjinder Singh: We got onto Wiiija Records immediately after playing our first ever southern gig at The Square in Harlow. I had just stopped a hard year of good old racist intimidation, Tory aggression and physical abuse on the Student Union in Preston–we were political before that, but that year cemented it, with half brick.
The group was me, Benedict, my brother Avtar, and local deejay David Chambers. Looking back on it, it was a ferocious time, we did what we wanted musically and generally, with the support of Rough Trade Shop, Gary Walker, John Robb, and Marcus Parnell, who was our manager but took more drugs than us. In fact, we didn’t take drugs, except alcohol.
We were the only all male group in the riot grrl scene, which suited us in terms of politics and attitude to music. As our releases developed, I knew there was a chance to either move on or go back to the dole, or even worse to work again, so we really worked non-stop. We had to work hard for everything at every step of those longs years, so for us it’s all been a sense of pride.
TM: “Brimful of Asha” obviously took the world by storm in the late 90s, but a lot of listeners didn’t pick up on how political the song was. And, even more so, many don’t realize just how political of a band you’ve been over the years. (It seems hard to me to miss it something like “Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform,” and yet some people do.) Do you consider yourself a political band? How much does politics determine what it is that you do both musically and lyrically?
TS: I don’t think it is just the politics people do not get, for instance the technocrisy of the 45 RPM vinyl etc., but that’s fine, I think songs should be whatever people make of them, and as the years go by people have learned what the song is about for themselves. “Staging…” has lyrics about the consequences of world events going wrong, & therefore a need not to allow those that have a platform to get away with things, but to see what they say and reject it if need be.
We are a political band, from our name to our perseverance to our latest interview, which to us is just caring about not being like many other bands, and using bad double negatives to keep people on guard. If you were born a Wog in Wolverhampton during the “We’re with Enoch” years or the March on Washington in ’63 then I’m sure there are even more bands you wouldn’t want to be like.
TM: I always loved When I Was Born for the 7th Time, of course, but for me, what really turned me on to you guys, and what I’ll never get over, is the brilliance of the woefully underrated Handcream for a Generation. I think it’s one of the best albums of the first decade of this millennium. It’s now been over a decade since that album came out, but I think the sound and the lyrics and the politics–everything about it–still feel entirely relevant, maybe even more so now. What did/does that album mean to you?
TJ: First of all, I must thank you for the best album of first decade line, we have waited a while for that. We worked so hard on it as we knew we had to make it better than When I Was Born…, or we would be demoted again. It was very enjoyable with songs like “Heavy Soup,” “Wogs Will Walk,” and “Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III.” We knew we were heading somewhere different again with “Spectral Mornings,” “People Power,” and “Staging The Plaguing of The Raised Platform.” Then “The London Radar,” very pleased. We were demoted anyway.
TM: Then there was a seven year gap between Handcream… and its follow-up Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast. It was an odd time to be without a witty and political band such as yourselves because there was so much going on in the world. What I’m trying to say is that, over in America, we missed you in our depressing Bush years. Ha! What were you guys up to in that interim?
TS: Well, you certainly know how to make an old Indian heart weep. After the Handcream… album, I was wiped out. We got chucked off the label for not being happy with how the label handled us, or lack of handling us. When you write songs like “Lessons Learned…” it is only right that you believe in them, so it was right for us to be asked to walk. I walked into having a couple of kids and home cooking. I did a film about independent music making in the radar of London, and started work with Bubbley Kaur. We decided to set our own Ample Play label up in 2009 and released Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast, to wait another few years for people get it.
TM: Your most recent album Urban Turban, which came out last year, began as a project called The Singhles Club. What made you decide to take those six songs from that project and expand it into a full-fledged album?
TS: To put the tracks out as singles was the first step, but great reaction to them made us feel they were not as disparate as we thought and they worked well together. As they were mastered at different times we didn’t realize how well they worked together until they were all released. Augmenting to these six was just a matter of extending the process. It was refreshing to take this different approach and get lots of support for it.
TM: You have such phenomenal titles for songs and albums, so I’m curious what you think makes a great song title?
TS: It is mainly a feeling that it’s appropriate. Titles are the windows of the skull and we have been very lucky to have people get into us because of such window dressing, which going back to your first question, is another reason why we have been able to keep trucking.
TM: What have been the biggest changes for you in making music in the last two decades?
TS: The biggest change has been the lack of politics in the industry–it has slowly been surgically removed. In the past it was a case of opportunity knocks, now it is a straight case of let’s knock up some opportunity.
TM: What are your thoughts on the music that dominates radio these days and the common criticisms that because of things like autotune it all sounds the same?
TS: My thoughts are that if people should want to meet in a car park so be it, but I’m not too concerned for that sentiment or sediment.
Regarding autotune: it has been used as a good but has been mainly used to knock up that opportunity, many have followed that when they may have given more of thine selves if they had done something different, but difference is politics and politics is thought. However, not only autotune software but all software is the same the world over, so it is so easy not to be different.
TM: Who are some of your contemporaries, bands or solo artists, that keep you excited about current music?
TS: Not many other than on our label. Courtney Barnett is about it. Her world is bigger than a car park.
TM: Lou Reed died in late October, and soonafter you released a Lou Reed / Velvet Underground “Velvet in Furs” playlist through Rocksucker. What did Lou Reed mean to you?
TS: Lou as a person was a complete bastard of the first grade. I had the misfortune to be introduced to him. In fact, Maureen Tucker is Tea Party, and even Sterling Morrison has had bad press for his views. In their songs they seem to have had a different political view which is why I dig the songs but not the people, except John Cale, who seems to have been what we would hope of the others.
TM: I won’t ask you any more about influences. I read an interview where you spoke of your sound and said, “Everyone’s trying to describe it, but we’re doing everything but describe it.” I like that, especially in a time where it seems like everyone is trying to define their sound, where you have social networking sites where bands list out who they sound like and who their influences are. Do you think there’s something to be said for just letting the music speak for itself?
TS: I do if you’re The Velvet Underground.
TM: Are you guys working on a new album? What’s next for Cornershop?
TS: We have a few albums out on the label next year then we will hopefully get back to recording.
Tjinder Singh is the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the band Cornershop.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Alison Wonderland
Design by Marie Havens
Tjinder Singh, Photography by Alison Wonderland