Following the release of their striking new album Child Of Dirt, we caught up with the UK’s own Shaven Primates, to talk everything from personal evolution to topical songwriting, David Bowie, band names, live shows, intentions and building an audience in the modern era. Here’s the conversation in full.
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Hi guys, thanks for the chat – and huge congrats on the release of this album. Just to set the scene, where are you based right now, and what have you been busy with since the launch of the album?
Thanks so much for having us! We’re all here in Oxford and around it. Mostly we’ve been running around, trying to find gigs in the middle of all this COVID malarkey, getting the message out there, promoting, but actually mainly moving onto new songs and ideas now we’re established and freshly “out”. It’s a funny old time to be doing all this, to say the least!
How did the band come to be – what inspired the name, and why the title Child Of Dirt for the debut project?
The name of the band is straight up a parody on the expectancy of “depilation”, let’s say, and other oddities that us, the human species, take for normal, and has become progressively more of an expectation of men and women to either be one way or another in terms of gender roles. I (Mark) love that the “youth of today” are breaking these expectations and pushing to do what they want regardless of this, but I think there is still some way to go.
I liked this album title for multiple reasons: because I lost my memory due to meningitis when I was 17, and I also learned recently that I’m autistic, so it helped explain a dark depth of my childhood. I was also exposed to pornography as a child, and went to Catholic school which was aggressive and emotionally turbulent. I felt ostracised there, both with the guilt of the material I saw and, due to the autism, I had difficulty listening and concentrating, treated as a “dope” and not fitting in.
I gave up on school and shut it all out. That was the thinking behind the title Child Of Dirt – an album about children going through things they shouldn’t be going through, connecting with the emotions of knowing that people survive on brushing issues under the carpet.
“That was the thinking behind Child Of Dirt – an album about children going through things they shouldn’t be going through, connecting with the emotions of knowing that people survive on brushing issues under the carpet.”
This work was set in motion six years back, prompted by the death of a legend. What was it about David Bowie, and his passing, that struck such a chord with you?
David, I think with many people, is all about that connection of existential pain and feeling alone in the world and yet telling us “you’re not alone” (Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide). He was a great father figure, and reached many people.
One anecdote is of a young boy in the 80s who was/is autistic (see Stardust & Snow) and showed him he can wear an invisible mask to protect himself. That is the kind of thing he would go out of his way to do, and became a moralistic idol to me. He embraced the outcast.
I also connected with his Ziggy years when I was 20 as I went out on a hedonistic, bacchanalian bender with drugs and sex. You’ll hear some of that in our song Outside.
His death, and the production of his final album, made me see that I can’t just wait around any more for the ideal situation. I have to just do it, get the templates down, don’t be critical of myself, make a song about what I’m thinking, and move on to the next one.
This death was actually the tail end of losing my other 2 biggest heroes, Rik Mayall and Robin Williams. There was something about those 3 where they had a deep understanding of the world. Something to aim for!
“Bowie’s death, and the production of his final album, made me see that I can’t just wait around any more for the ideal situation.”
Your personal story is one of notable pain and turmoil. What have been the most impactful aspects of your life in relation to your creativity; has there been an upside to the struggle, or is music simply now an escape from it all?
Just before I was in hospital in 1999, I was utterly lost in terms of all that was going on around me, but I had music to fall back on. I was, and am, an addict, and at that time I was dealing with being bullied as an outcast, feeling absolute self hate over my addiction and shame over my childhood, and wishing I could start again. I started on a song then to depict that dark world in a kind of “heaven and hell” and it was very much about escapism. That was all made on keys and an old AKAI S2000 sampler.
When I woke up in hospital, music and everything else was all absolutely disconnected and I didn’t have any outlet, no understanding of feelings, no sense of colour, smell, taste, nor being able to do basic things like hold pens or knives and forks. Music now is something quite different to me – I use it to express my immediate feelings, while this album was about letting go of past ones. I ended up “resurrecting” that song that I didn’t finish at 17, for Soft Reset.
What did it feel like to return to music after an immense twenty year hiatus, and how did it feel to share this project with the world – was there any trepidation?
Glad you asked that question – now, it feels like I have let go of a lot of self-criticism and fear. Those were the things that stopped me from writing – the imposter syndrome. Sharing it with the world has just been a kind of relief; a release even.
We’re really looking forward to writing together more new music about current events and feelings, and with no apologies, just speaking from our own hearts as a band.
Connecting with the band has been the biggest change, the most positive impact. We are a force to be reckoned with, together. We know we’re all necessary, we all matter. So writing all this and moving forward with getting these brilliant friends together has been the biggest reward. Sharing with the world and people enjoying it stands as a bonus.
What’s been the hardest part of rekindling your involvement in music?
Judgement, self-criticism, being too old, uncertainty… mainly those, working out how to let go of it needing any justification. But mainly learning to let go of ideas that seem good in that particular moment. I think with this album I’ve held onto too many ideas, as there was so much emotion attached to each and I had a clear picture of exactly what was portrayed in each. This is all pretty well displayed in our videos.
What’s the main difference you’ve noticed about the music industry now compared to way back when?
Oh, the whole social media thing, and getting ourselves out there! That seems to take a degree in PR and marketing these days. Back in the 90s it was just posters, venues, get your CDs and vinyls cut, but then again there really wasn’t much to tell you if you were doing okay outside of people turning up and cheering. It’s all stats these days. Reminds me of Stewart Lee: “Remember when you could hold things? When things were real?”
I think being polished takes precedence these days, and the normalising of autotune and perfect production, rather than reading between the lines and grasping the subject matter.
Why did you decide to weave in so much creative eclecticism for this album, is it intentional or simply that you write differently at any given time?
Oh! Well, good question! That is kind of my way, to just write differently depending on the picture being created. I was like that at 17, so I just thought “let’s resurrect that”, and I applied a sound and vision to each, creating a bulleted list of the 7 most significant traumas and recovery I had been through up to “3 piece suite”. I then fleshed out words and feelings about each, wrote some sounds, applied some words, made the demo tracks, then went out looking for a band to help me.
I met up with Neil, our keyboardist, first, who introduced me to Tom, our guitarist, and we found Jarod on Gumtree of all places, then finally Nick came along and we were set! There’s way more political detail that really nobody needs to hear – there’s a whole album there in itself!
“I learned that I should treat myself with the love I give to my own children, and that had to start with being there for a boy who was so lost.”
The closing song offers various nods to some classic hits of previous eras – how did you come to choose these, and why did you want to include reference to them?
Ah yes, the culmination of it – really glad you spotted that as nobody else seems to have, so far. I wanted it to be a tribute to my childhood, which included Queen and the death of Freddie, Kate Bush videos who I watched the videos of on repeat at 6 years old, plus that little Joy Division bit. That last one was pure coincidence, I only realised after but it had to stay – that’s what homage is all about.
I love the dark wave of the 80s, with The Cult, The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie, they all played a part, and that was all a bit of introspection of childhood and the escapism I had with that. I refer to “clutching onto my inner self, and he’s crying on the outside” – that’s about going through EMDR and being kind to my child self. I learned that I should treat myself with the love I give to my own children, and that had to start with being there for a boy who was so lost.
Is there a plan of action moving forwards as a band?
Right now, we’re not aiming for a concept, we’re just writing with a bias towards what’s real and what isn’t, and what really matters to us. We want to write more, enjoy the process, and be together as friends, mocking each other in that good way that bands do.
What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Learning to love myself, and knowing that if I don’t look after myself, I can’t look after the people around me. If I’m not at my best, then I can’t be my best. I could probably write a thesis on all that and how it’s helped me out of the hole of anxiety. Now all I want to do is help those in the same situations.
What’s something about you that fans might be surprised to hear?
I’m probably weirder in person than people pick up! I’m really quite closed inside, I don’t go out much, I really didn’t have many friends growing up, and I wanted to make up for that. I wear that weirdness with pride though! Forming the band, getting that connection, that has been everything to me.
Is there anything else we should know?
Watch out for our posters! We did a marketing campaign to get people to see the missing child poster from the cover, putting the posters out to Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol, Birmingham, London, Leeds, and Reading. They’re probably all gone now as that was back in November. That poster cover was all part of that, to hopefully reach out to others to read the message, but maybe it was all too cryptic or difficult; who knows!
Again, thanks so much for having us, and we love your work at Stickman. Keep doing what you’re doing!
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