It’s not about sitting in your slippers – An interview with Conflict’s Colin Jerwood

‘Bands had said to the organisers that our presence made them feel uncomfortable and I thought that was brilliant – that’s exactly what it’s about’ – Niall McGuirk spoke with Colin Jerwood of Conflict ahead of their first ever gig in Dublin next Saturday. I have been racking my brains since deciding to do this interview with Colin from Conflict as to when I first came across the Anarcho-punk activists. Was it as a 14 year old when my brother brought home their first single “The House That Man Built”? It was always great when my bros would come home from their weekly trip to Golden Discs on Liffey Street or Advance in Stephens Green or Freebird or Base X. They had the bus trip home to go through the vinyl and the gatefold sleeves. I then had the opportunity to feed off their vinyl when they left the house that evening.

We had many conversations about bands of the day culminating in so many lists that if they were all written down there would be tomes available. Crass were never far from the list and hovering close by was Conflict. They fitted the mood of the day, anger, desolation, violence. This was Ireland before any Celtic Tiger’s venom took over from a band based in Tory-run Britain attempting to put down protest as a legitimate act.

Because of that I wanted to find out what life was like for a young Colin Jerwood, what gave him the anger and the wish to express his views.

I was brought up in Coldharbour Estate, kind of a rough skinhead estate, I was kind of the odd one out. I didn’t fit in at school at all, I was writing down crazy notes and I kept a lot of those. When I got out of school and started following bands, following the Clash and Crass. I decided to do my own thing and ended up using some of those notes and realised that people agreed with some of it which I found really strange at the time. Most of the early days were spent following bands, I got to know the Clash really well as people from following their tours about.

How did music enter your life?
I first got given a copy of the Sex Pistols SPUNK bootleg tape by an incredibly posh girl. In London back then it was all the realy posh people that were into punk. I’d never heard anything like it to be honest.

How did politics enter your life?
I was obviously like anybody else, went to see the Pistols twice never saw anything like it, all chaos. The politics entered it when I started to see the Clash more, went to the early rock against racism gigs. In my eyes Joe Strummers lyrics opened a lot of doors for me and made me realise what was what. They were a bit more of a thinking mans band than the Pistols. I kind of got into that a lot, the whole belief of it all – more than just being a punk rocker which is what I turned to from school from not fitting in. From then on I watched that deteriorate and went to see Crass. I saw them both turning on each other which was hard for me as I knew them both really well. I’d say the Clash was the inspiration and led me in the right path and crass inspired me to believe that I could do something for myself.

These words are very interesting to me. The Clash, for me, are the band that kick started everything. It was a different era and if I was writing the script I would have them down as releasing their own records, putting on their own gigs, leading the way. Fugazi stepped into that mantle, but it was interesting to hear Colin pour praise on the Clash. If I had more time we could have spoken about my dog called Strummer and how these 4 men playing music had such a profound effect. Instead we moved on to another group that left a huge mark on music and the way it operates: Crass.

How did Crass enter your life?
A mate of mine said to come see Crass and when I first saw them I though what is this? I then kind of got into them but at first I thought this is just rubbish. I didn’t like them at all and then got the idea behind what was going on. I got to know them and we used to follow them around with Stig from Icons Of Filth and Ian from Southern Death Cult. That grew from there and the idea of doing Conflict came along. It was just going to be a passing thing, just gonna do it for the crack really.

At what stage did you go you know what I’m gonna stand up on stage and sing these crazy notes out?
I’d seen lots of bands and always thought i’d like to do something like that but never actually believed that you could. I think when we just did the really early gigs in local pubs and we did one support with Crass. We never took it that seriously. Then Steve (Ignorant, singer in Crass) arranged to do the single on Crass (the aforementioned The House That Man Built, released June 1982) and it went mental from there. It shifted a ridiculous amount and we found ourselves in a weird positon. Last chat I had with Steve was over a piece in his book. It was very weird at the time but seems to have all sorted itself out. Steve was the one I really got on with – some of the others perhaps thought i was a little too “brutal”. When I put vivisectionist adresses on things we used to row about that and say that was wrong. We had a row about Orkeny Seal hunters and they said there’s no ther way to earn a living up there and I said ‘well move’. I was always fierce on that subject.

I remember going to gigs in Dublin in the early to mid 80’s and then getting involved in organising them. There was always an edge, an undercurrent of violence. It was something you could generally avoid being involved in but not avoid seeing. Many of Paranoid Visions gigs were filled with violence, whether that was on the dancefloor or on stage or outside – it was always ready to rear its head. First time I saw the Visions in what was then the Ivy Rooms (now Fibber Magees) I was rooted to the back wall watching with a mixture of fear and excitment. These folks are crazy on stage, everyone is crazy in the audience but somehow we all belong. Outside the venue there was someone going round on a bike with a baseball bat in hand. It was terrifying but adrenaline fuelled. Another example was when Conflict were billed to play in the TV Club in Dublin, a punk event not too dissimilar to what is due in the Button Factory next week. It was pre mobile phones and internet so people travelled to the gig only to find out on the night that Conflict were a no-show. There was no internet forums to fuel rumurs, there was no direct contact with Conflict to find out the truth so word of mouth was they hadn’t bothered to show up:

First I heard of that gig was when Pete from PV’s told me. I saw something on a punk forum about Conflict not showing up and he stuck up for us. I thanked him, I had no idea that the gig existed. We did pull out of a lot of gigs but it was either to save venues we were due to play in as we knew what was going to happen with the police, or the promoters got hold of us at the last minute and said we are getting so much police activity we don’t want to do it. There was also quite a lot who used to jump on the bandwagon and put our name down – I suppose cause it was selling. With us if you travel lots of distance to see us, which people do, then they get pissed off if we don’t play. I understand it totally.

The Conflict gig that night ended up in a near riot. Paranoid Visions, Defoetus Attitude, Golden Horde all got to play but violence put an end to My Bloody Valentine’s set. Not for the first time a gig was abandoned due to trouble. With that picture of Dublin I asked about Conflicts early gigs

Early gigs were all quite rough. Although we had lots of things to say they were punk gigs for punk gigs sake. There was lots of trouble. Even when we went to do the first Crass gig we had a huge skinhead following from London which we didn’t want but they were down to see their mates bands. We kind of got isolated a little but but then we found our feet after a little while doing our own thing, We played with Crass only once I think and then broke away doing our own gigs. Luckily enough after that first single apart from it all coming a bit too quickly it all kind of fell into place. Right place at the right time. It always seemed like there was violence, at Crass gigs there was a time it was just one big battle with the right wing. We adopted ourselves to look after them because they wouldn’t. We made a pest of ourselves to be totally honest with you. That went on for a good year – right and left wing groups wanted to stop Crass playing and due to the nature of the places they were playing in, commmunity halls and stuff with no security it was always a potential for danger which is always what punk was about in a kind of way as it can get too safe – some of the festivals now are not a threat anymore.

Punk gigs back then seemed to be different. Many took place in unestablished venues. Many things happened at them that would be wiped out at conventional gigs. Punks were doing things for themselves. I asked Colin does he think punk is still a form of rebellion or is that rebellion one that can be and is now commodified:

To be honest the reason why I wanted to do it again is I was getting disappointed with what I was seeing. I hadn’t done it for a long time and we decided to do the Rebellion gig last August which is not my cup of tea at all but I know we would cause an impact there. We really ruffled a lot of feathers – we are now banned for life from it and that’s good. What was pleasing for me is that bands had said to the organisers that our presence made them feel uncomfortable and I thought that was brilliant – that’s exactly what it’s about. You never know what’s gonna happen with Conflict. I don’t like security entering the pit pulling people by the hair and I’ll always do something about it – it’s the way I am they didn’t like that. They seemed to think it shouldn’t be challenged and there was few skirmishes with me and security. After that it got worse, I had 2 black eyes. Next day I said to Daz (Russell promoter of Rebellion festival) and he said there was no problem at all. I was in there for a couple of hours over lunchtime and then got escorted out by 2 police officers.
Do you still feel part of a movement?
“I’ve always felt a bit isolated but wanted to be. I’ve got involved in other things. One of the things was Animal Liberation Front. ALF have to be so much more careful after the big arrests came. Things still happen. There is a group called the A-Team that go around trying to break up dog fighting groups – it’s not so much the bigger vivisection establishments now because they are untouchable because of the money. I was involved in little bits of Class War but mainly on issues like the miners strike and the poll tax but not as part of the organisation. As far as gigs goes I’ve always seen gigs as gig no matter what they are but it was quite welcoming to see the way our gigs showed out with mass policemen and stuff like that. It obviously did something. This time round I really don’t know, I’m only really testing the ground out to be honest.

When Conflict started in 1981 the tories were in power in the UK, that went on then new labour and it’s now back to tories via coalition. Can any faith be put in ballot box?
Not really no. Very little has changed here, its just wrapped up differently. We’ve always got a lot of stick cos we don’t join in with left wing groups. I’ve always seen it as one big bundle to be honest, watching the two sides fight i think its divide and rule in a funny type of way.
For 2013 your lyrics are as strong as ever, sentiment as hard and angry, is there any fear of softening as the years go by? You have had some health issues too?
My stomach lining split. I developed 2 hernias and had to have a gauze put in right across the bottom above my groin. Also I’ve got severe neck problem, two of the bones in my neck have eroded and it touches a nerve which affected the left arm. Doing that much to it makes it it tingle. To have that operation they have to go through the throat and they say you’re never the same again so I’m not going to have it done. Obviously the more you do the quicker you wear it out and a Conflict set does wear it. Because of my personal injuries and operations that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make sure that 1) it was still do-able and 2) without losing the way I’ve always done it.
Do you still feel you can?
At rebellion I didn’t think I could. By the end of that gig we had split up. The band are much more professional then me. They are good musicians and stuff and i think where i felt so crap for so long and got on a stage that big again and the adulation just overpowered me a little bit. It was too much, I spent more time chatting to the audience than doing the set which pissed the band off, and the incindents and stuff like that. People were saying on site that I was too old and even the band were saying “Can you do this after the operation?” and I said “I can, I just lost the plot up there.” So we did 2 small gigs in England just to prove I could and they have got good reviews. Don’t get me wrong, towards the end i was saying of course I can. I wouldn’t do it if i couldn’t but after rebellion i was doubting it myself a little bit.

I never go through the motions but I made a deliberate point of not losing it too much at Bristol and Manchester. Winter of Discontent was a cross between rebellion and the other 2 gigs.

To me punk rock is more than just music. For a soundbite you can say it’s a way of life. But that way of life is one that has a postive effect on the world around us. Be that using a credit union rather than a bank, be it using local businesses rather than multinationals, be it getting people organised in their workforce. It’s about being involved in community activites. That can be a music community, a work community or indeed the community you live in. It’s about participation and not just consumption. Doing some research for this interview I came across the Eltham Park project. This to me is as exciting as any record a band can bring out. Let Colin speak for himself on this:

A little while ago I took over some disused buildings in the park. First of all turned one of them into a little tea hut and then one into a community room. I do a lot of charity work for local organisations, not with any funding. Looking at the bigger picture and world change and stuff like that it finally began to sink in that if I do a little bit in my own area then perhaps people will think, oh you can do that – rather than trying too big. It’s a project where we raise funds, we have bought a minibus where we bring families out and stuff like that. We buy football goals for people who can’t get funded and they come use it all free. It just helps people. We bring food to people just out of this area who are really poor. It’s just kind of setting up a little bit of independence. It’s great because it grows. So many people turn around and say I can’t believe you’ve did this on your own. It didn’t cost much money just effort. The building had been empty for 20 years so I contacted the council who said they weren’t leased so I put a proposal together saying we will do them up, create a business and pay you a rent for it and they went for it.

That can be an inspiration to people.
That was something I knew I could achieve without looking at the bigger picture. Just speaking to people.

Back as a teenager in the mid 80’s it was amazing getting a Crass, or Conflict or a Flux single and reading about vivisection. It had a huge influence and was instrumental in shaping peoples lives. I asked Colin was he aware of this:

A lot of people have said that. I’m transferrig stuff from VHS to show at the Button Factory. I think it’s easy for us to think we’ve said that done that but there still a lot of people who haven’t seen what goes on. Crass agreed with the ALF but didn’t like it because it was an organisation. I felt so strongly about it.
Conflicts last record was 2003 – There’s no power without control LP and the Carlo Guiliani 7′ What made you want to go play and gig again?
I have an album 3/4’s done with the people I’m with now. Half way through writing this I had to get the operations so it kind of fell apart, I had a comeback gig planned for the hunt sabs in London but it got cancelled as my injury hadn’t healed and then I thought about it as we had a lot of peple getting interested in Conflict again. Before I was thinking well there’s so many people doing it better than us now are we needed at all. I thought we could do a silly little safe London gig which will be all our own people so we threw ourselves into rebellion again.
How did the Dublin gig come about?
Because we’ve done Rebellion, 2 small ones and the london one was kind of safe for us so this will be the first big gig. There was talk of doing belfast this time but i thought it’s better to stick with one for the moment. I’m quite knackered after a gig for a few days. What I didn’t want to do was take on Belfast the next day and after 20 years they get some wanked out shell. Timo has been going on for a while about coming over. We’ve only ever played once in Ireland. It’s not a snobbery kind of thing, but it’s the first time for us going there so I want it to be good for people. Spike played in the venue with Steve Ignorant and it’s a good venue.

It’s interesting that this gig will be more than the usual fare. There will be stalls for different Animal Rights organisations and for Radioactive, how did this come about?
At first the venue didn’t like the idea of stalls and I said it’s what makes it an event. It’s always worked with our London events. I thought the ticket price was expensive but I’m told it’s not. I don’t know anymore. I contacted some people I saw on Facebook and said do you wanna do this. And there’s a few more joining now.
A Conflict gig is almost challenging in a way
I think that’s what works really. Once I heard bands were uncomfortable that was an achievement. It’s not about sitting in your slippers. I don’t want to be part of the entertainment business.

u:mack Present
Plus special guests
Paranoid Visions
Lost Cherrees
Destroy DC
Grand Collapse
Droppin Bombs
2:30pm, Saturday May 11th

Tickets are on sale now priced €20 from & Sound Cellar.

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