2018 – Hee Hee LP (PNKSLM049) – Listen/buy
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Claw Marks were born out of the Texan desert as its members were looking for an escape route from several bilge-water shows so went to get lost. Guitarists James Burgess; Thomas Sadler and drummer Tom Pitts were in Austin at SXSW with different bands. After rambling down a dusty highway, passing car-flung detritus and dried husks of roadkill, they realised they wanted to do something heavier, more fun and weirder than many of the straight-laced bands they’d seen at the festival. They wanted to prove that you could still write songs that sounded like The Jesus Lizard or The Pop Group, and not take yourself too seriously.
This was back in 2013, and for a long time, they existed primarily as a live outfit, playing raucous shows across their native London - including a memorable first gig at an abandoned pub with a stage time of 3am. "It was my birthday, and several types of intoxicant were involved," explains James. "That show cemented us as a band. We were playing in the confines of a place that was so similar to the sound we were trying to grasp. The place was dilapidated, the walls were crumbling with every step. When we started playing, the ceiling started shaking, dust rained down on us. When somebody let off a fire extinguisher halfway through our set, everything was covered in white dust and froth - they looked like corpses at a foam party.”
The group - now fleshed out to a six-piece with Victor Jakeman (Insecure Men) on bass, Tom Pitts (Rolo Tomassi) on drums and former sticksman Sev Black (ex-Fat White Family) on keys - forged their identity early on, between their chaotic stage presence and their very specific ideas about lyrical imagery. “There are so many songs in the same rutting stable about falling in and out of love.” says Jack, a writer with a book out later this year. “For the most part, these songs are boring. There is so much strangeness that seethes just beneath the surface - literally with fatbergs in sewers and figuratively within the depraved madhouses of our own heads. Why not speak of that?”
The debut record has taken five years to surface, even if some of the songs date back to the early days. They let the songs ruminate at their recording space, Sound Savers Studio in East London, where they were afforded time and space by co-owner Henry Withers, who used to play in Human Hair with Jack. Every time they went back, the songs changed, and with them, so did the Claw Marks sound. Quite how that would happen was never predictable. At one session, Victor appeared with a clarinet, and suddenly, ‘The Rain’ went from straightforward punk tune to densely-layered multi-instrumental odyssey.
“I’ve been telling people that the album aged like a fine wine, because it took so long to come together,” Jack explains in his inimitable style. “But now, I'd liken it more to a slab of rotten meat. We covered it with cheesecloth and allowed it to fester. Every time we came back to it, there'd be more flies buzzing around the thing, and new rude lifeforms grew on the songs."
Hee Hee is the lurid culmination of that strange fermentation. Consider it an unapologetically noisy and caustic collection of curios that thematically range from the absurd (‘Swallow You’ is quite literally about a figure walking down the street and inhaling everything in their path) to the political (‘Book of Vermin’ reflects on the increasing cost of city living, which has reached the point where “not even the ghost of Leonard Cohen can get a room”). While Swans may have been an early point of reference, Tom Waits’s Real Gone record might be the better association. Thomas Sadler says, “The songs have that thing where they’re off-kilter, maddened, sodden in whiskey.” When it comes to comparing themselves to their heroes, though, Jack has to have the last word.
“We’re kin with Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, one of the early signings to Sub Pop. I loved the stories and narratives he’d put to song. They were fantastical like Lautreamont’s Maldoror or Vasko Popa’s creations. He’d open up for bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, and there was one show where he performed his entire set with a live rat in his mouth. That’s where we’re coming from - we’d like to be the rat in the mouth of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein.”