We phoned Some Bizarre Records and spoke to Toby of Test Dept who agreed to be interviewed face to face in a week or so. When the day arrived we set off to the Some Bizarre offices in St Anne’s Court, Soho. Upon our arrival we had a slight shock to say the least. We were told that Test Dept were no longer giving interviews – they would only complete written questionnaires. We explained we’d arranged this in advance with Toby.
Jane of Some Bizarre tried phoning Toby – no answer. Then Marc Almond appeared at the office and we were told to disappear for twenty minutes and go and get some coffee. Upon our return we couldn’t believe our luck – there was Toby ready and willing to do the interview.
Toby, Test Dept. This will be the last interview we’ll be doing for sometime because we’ve agreed we’re gonna hold a press silence from now on.
No Class: Why is that?
Toby: Because we’ve been totally misrepresented in most of the media.
NC: But the other bloke (from the band) we spoke to said you’d be doing written question and answer interviews.
T: Yeah, well maybe we’ll do it like that
NC: What difference does it make?
T: Just so we’re entirely in control of what we say and people aren’t gonna twist it and ask us pathetic stupid questions that just distract from what you’re trying to say. Like when you’re on Radio One and they ask you if you’re a fascist or not. We’re not and asking a question like that is making people think, putting the idea there. We’d never even thought about it and it’s not something that’s important to us. We’re not interested in being fascists or interested in any of those ideas. It’s crap as far as we’re concerned. It’s just a standard question. If you try and present something which is strong and they see it as a threat then they immediately have to try and put it into some kind of context which will make people see it as something bad from the very beginning and never recognise what possibly might be good.
NC: What exactly are you trying to achieve? That’s a vague question but if you could give us some idea…
T: That’s a difficult question. On the whole we’re trying to give people some kind of feeling of dignity and self respect in a country or a world where the state is increasingly powerful and the individual is losing control of his or herself more and more. The right of the individual are being questioned and limited and everything is being pushed out by the state to a mass audience of the lowest common denominator. The whole way the system works at the moment – you’re presented with certain values that you’re expected to uphold. You’re expected to have a job. You’re expected to conform to certain roles in society which are dictated by the press and the media.
NC: So what are you trying to do? Expose it, break it?
T: Expose it certainly and expose it to people that there are other things they don’t chose to focus attention on that are happening that do affect them. The whole way the miners strike was a totally one-sided point of view but people didn’t recognise that because they didn’t have access to information from the other side of the coin. There was no one being allowed to tout the miner’s point of view across clearly. Whenever you saw Arthur Scargill interviewed on the telly the interviewer’s manner with him was always very aggressive and attacking and trying to pin him down. But whenever it’s the Coal Board or someone who represents authority or what is expected then they would just ask him a question and let him talk and talk for as long as they wanted on a certain point and then at the end say “Thank you very much, now I’d like to ask you about…”.
NC: But when you go and see Test Dept. or when you listen to the records it’s not obvious those are your aims.
T: We’ve always been interested in the propaganda that elevated workers in Russia in the 50’s and before in the 30’s into being massive figures, massive heroes of the nation. We liked that kind of imagery and wanted to use that in a modern context.
NC: But when you go and see the performance…if you’d just walked through the door and you were on stage, you wouldn’t have a hope in hell…
T: What comes across to you when you see it? What impression?
NC: I’m not exactly sure. But what I’m saying is, I don’t think the theories are obvious. You’ve got these 6 blokes on stage banging out these really heavy rhythms…
T: No, they are not obvious I know.
NC: You’re misinterpreted as a result.
T: That’s inevitable isn’t it because anything that brings things into question is going to be misunderstood and so certain people are going to criticise and slag it off because they’re not exactly sure what it is saying to them. That is why people have said “Are you fascists?” because they see this incredibly strong force that’s being demonstrated as something that is aggressive and being directed against other people or strength over weakness. It’s not trying to be stronger over a weaker group of people, it’s just trying to give people strength for themselves and say we can do something as simple as this – hit pieces of metal – find these things for nothing – make a massive machine, something that is totally without personality that starts and is totally spontaneous…almost.
NC: I’m not slagging the group. I don’t think you’re fascists. What I’m saying is, if you listen to the group and don’t read anything about it, I don’t think you would know what you are about.
T: I think if you were to ask anybody that came to see us on that tour…
NC: But don’t you think that most people who saw you on the tour would have read something about you?
T: No they hadn’t. A lot of people came to see us on the tour because it was a miners benefit and for purely that reason we got a pure response from those people because they didn’t see it as a threat. It’s only the people in the media or involved in the business who see our stance as a threat because it questions the values and the ideas that have put them in their position in the first place. When you go out and play in Snowdon Colliery Welfare Club where people don’t know you from Adam and they just came in because it was a benefit for the miners, they recognised what we were doing. They saw the spirit behind what we were trying to do and it tallied with the same spirit that the South Wales striking miners felt. It was just like using what you’ve got to make as strong an idea as you possibly can.
NC: I understand it would be more immediate in the context of a miners benefit in a mining community.
T: Well, it would be just as relevant anywhere really. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make people see that it is just as relevant in a mining village as it is in Soho or in Deptford or anywhere else. That’s what’s been our struggle, behind the strike it’s been getting across the ideas and getting the information to people who are stuck in the cities: the young unemployed who have no affinity with the people on strike. It’s a different world to them, they couldn’t really give a fuck because they are not given any information and the connections aren’t made to make them recognise that it’s as much their fight as it is the miners. They’re taking on the whole system that put them on the dole in the first place. The trade union movement is also responsible because they not given the unemployed who’ve never worked, any belief that they are in a position to do anything about it. The myth is perpetuated that if you don’t have a job then you’re some kind of dropout. That kind of conservatism is still rampant in the trade union movement. That’s what one of the results of the strike is, it had that conservatism, especially in the mine workers union, cut away. Years of prejudice and suspicion have been thrown out the window because young unemployed people actually got together with people who have been working and trying to save their jobs and recognised that they are fighting the same battle as well.
NC: If we can go back to propaganda – are you influenced by Dadaist and Constructivist ideas?
T: No. People try and put this intellectual artistic label on us and say were pseudo art but it was just an interest in propaganda. It was strong and represented an idea that was clearly visible. Using that propaganda which was so direct and honest was instantly recognisable. What we’re now trying to do is get more involved in present day propaganda that is hidden behind all kinds of glosses and screens and little technical tricks to disguise things. Propaganda is just as much here today as it was then but in a much more disguised manner and it is important that we recognise that. The fact that before the strike started, people were buying The Sun everyday and believing it reflected a working class attitude and what the working class thought about the world. Over this past year they have had that opinion completely turned around. They have now seen that it just represents the owner of the newspapers and the governments view.
NC: What came first in Test Dept – the propaganda or the performance?
T: The performance came first as we were born out of nothing. We didn’t have any kind of equipment or musical ability although a couple of us had been in groups before. We hadn’t got any money to buy equipment so we found there were things in our area that were making really good sounds if you used them in the right way.
NC: That’s South East London, New Cross?
T: And Deptford and London Docklands.
NC: Some of the others have been in groups before – did it occur to combine traditional instruments with the non traditional?
T: We did! We used bass guitar very early on. But as we got more proficient and the films got stronger we found we were developing something that didn’t need conventional instruments. We didn’t want to be a group with normal instruments because you’re already limiting yourself. People say we limit ourselves by using unusual and found instruments but in reality it’s conventional instruments that are the limiting ones. As soon as you get a bass guitar in you’re a rock band and that’s all people are going to see you as. We don’t want to be in that position because then we’ll be put in a little pigeon hole and forgotten about.
NC: Is there any improvisation when you play live?
T: There is. Although each piece is very ordered to begin with and rehearsed in an ordered way. Everybody knows what supposed to happen in a song so there is room for improvisation within that order.
NC: Each song is played on certain types of equipment?
T: Yeah, and you can find those pieces of equipment anywhere.
NC: So can you play a track on any found object?
T: You need to have certain sounds, certain pitches and frequencies that come from certain things. We’ve just been to Germany and Yugoslavia so we had to find scrap out there. It was good in Berlin because it was part of a big festival so they had a truck we could use and we drove round gathering loads of really good stuff. We played in the States last year (1984) and did the same. It’s much more difficult to budget for a tour when you have to keep two days either side of each gig to spend time finding new equipment. But it did give it a lot more elegance especially going to the the States last year when we were very suspicious of how we would go down. The fact that in Los Angeles we had massive great oil drums with LA Oil Company right across them made it much more significant, I thought.
NC: How much equipment did you take with you?
T: Only the barest minimum. Only a box of our own hammers and sticks, chains, links and shackles. And all kinds of bits to hold things, support things and bolt them together.
NC: Do you take a drum kit?
T: We just hire a drum kit out there.
NC: Have you a garage in the UK to store the big pieces of metal that you transport to your gigs?
T: They’re in the back of the bus. We haven’t got anywhere else to store our stuff at the moment. It’s gear we’re collected over a long time.
NC: After the gigs in America you just dumped what you had collected?
Shoulder to Shoulder
NC: You were signed to Phonogram?
T: Yeah but not anymore!
NC: I know it’s cliched to ask but why did you sign Phonogram?
T: Because we didn’t have any money.
NC: But isn’t Phonogram a representation of what you’re against.
T: It is but at the same time we are working with a business. If we worked totally outside of it then we wouldn’t have the means to get across to people. We have to use the record company because they control all the methods of getting across to those people. They roll the machinery to do that. That’s why the record company is such a crock of shit. We’ve finished with Phonogram and all that kind of crap with major record companies. We’ve seen what it does and how it works and got it over and done with very quickly. I’m glad we’ve started to work again how we want to work and actually put out our own ideas even more into our music and make it that much stronger.
NC: Where does Some Bizarre come in?
T: We originally signed to Phonogram through Some Bizarre. Some Bizarre are our record company but Phonogram released our records and we were a Phonogram group. That’s how Some Bizarre work. It’s the same with Soft Cell, they were on Phonogram and Some Bizarre. They just licence to a major company.
NC: Compulsion – you’re first release (Phonogram) – was it all recorded live in Wapping?
T: Yeah. This mobile studio came up from somewhere.
NC: Are there any overdubs?
T: There are somethings recorded in the studio later. There’s some synth tracks the Cabs helped us with.
NC: How effective do you think you’re records have been?
T: All of them have worked in certain respects but haven’t worked in others. The box set (Second release on Phonogram) – Beating the Retreat – was a very glossy major record company presentation. We wanted to put something together that was more than just an album. We wanted something special for our first record. It was how our minds were working before we put it out, before Phonogram came along. We wanted the first album we did to be the same price as an ordinary album but the most exclusive looking product we could possibly give for the same price. That was the way it was always planned. Phonogram said ‘Yes fine we can do this. We’ll keep the costs down and it’ll retail for £4.50 dealer price”. Once it got into the record shops they just jumped it up to £7.99. We released then we should have had a little sticker on it…an error on our part.
NC: Was it only the fault of the record shops?
T: Oh totally! The dealer price to the shops from Phonogram was £4.50.
NC: Is there anything you could have done apart from the sticker?
T: You could refuse to stock them, but that’s cutting your nose off to spite your face. What’s happen to tour latest record now (Shoulder to Shoulder) – I went and bought a copy in Our Price in Wood Green yesterday and they are selling it for £4.49. What can you do when it says ‘Pay no more than £3.99’ on the sleeve? There’s an Our Price sticker with £4.49 covering it. So all you can do is say we’re not going to supply you. But we don’t want to do that because that’s limiting our chances. What we want to do with this record is get it into the charts as a mark and a way of indicating the amount of support that has been generated throughout this strike and the fact that the strike isn’t over by any means yet.
NC: How much money are the miners going to get out of Shoulder to Shoulder?
T: They should get £2 per album.
NC: What is Ministry of Power – the label which has released Shoulder to Shoulder?
T: That’s our own record label.
NC: But isn’t that through Some Bizarre as well?
T: It is through Some Bizarre. (Laughter ensues as record company intricacies become increasingly tangled). Some Bizarre are independent. They string up with any record company they want to – CBS for Psychic TV. Virgin for the Cabs. Shoulder to Shoulder is an independent release by Some Bizarre.
NC: Is there a spiritual side to Test Dept along with the political and physical?
T: Yes. It’s just a way of being. It’s all part of the same thing: Physical spiritual, political. It all comes out the idea of using something that was discarded, that we could get cheaply. Using things that were close to us and easily had. Making something out of nothing that was strong and gave other people the same feeling of strength. It’s grown in strength as time has gone on. It’s true to say we didn’t have the means when we started. But it happened so quick. It was such a sudden thing. We started end of 1981 beginning of 82. Members of Specimen saw us at our first gig and got us on to the Batcave album. From there we got write ups in the NME and the whole hype procedure began. We got more equipment and gradually we got better at playing with each other. We got better at making our own instruments. We don’t just find things now but work on the ones we’ve got and build new things. We’ve created a whole world for ourselves that is now completely outside of the music business. We deal with scrap metal merchants, talk to builders and engineers and discuss how to put up frames to hold half a hundred weight of steel. It’s so much more crossing over the limitations that are put on you if you’re in a rock ’n’ roll group. It does give you a kind of energy, a feeling that you are getting somewhere.
NC: Had you done anything like this before Test Dept?
T: No. I used to work for LAING putting up concrete on hangers for the American Airforce. I used to live near Upper Hayford Base and there was a big job on there concreting hangers, covering them with moulds and pouring concrete in the top and putting these massive eight ton doors on the front. It was good money no tax as I was still a student. It was totally just to get money. I wasn’t doing it because of a political belief in our glorious allies – to make their F-111 any safer. Smoked dope the whole time because it was such a big site and you could just disappear until the end of the day. Great fun.
NC: Do you use any stimulants within the band?
T: No, no. Not at all.
NC: Is this a band policy?
T: Yeah, you gotta be fit. Any kind of stimulant might make it easier that one time but it’s only going to make it that much harder next time.
NC: How do you feel after a performance?
T: Fucked, totally and utterly. It’s a brilliant release. When you’re actually doing it, it’s just murder, it’s painful, you’re just hanging on to the end of the set sometimes. So at the end it’s such a wonderful feeling. It’s the one time you can totally relax – immediately after finishing the set. That’s for about half an hour then you have to start putting the equipment away. That’s the one time you when sit down and close your eyes and wait for the joint to come round.