In the hurriedly written and outrageously absurd 1916 Dada Manifesto, Hugo Ball posed the question, “Why can’t a tree be called Pulplusch?” Through simple inquiry, Ball perfectly encapsulated Dadaism’s non-conforming ethos of playfully ripping apart conventional norms and poking fun at what people considered to be correct. Comedy, political satire, and a gleeful use of gibberish was employed to make points and create art that both excited and baffled. In a similar vein, The Shakamoto Investigation’s music belongs to Dadaism’s same school of thought.
Hailing from the rolling hills and working-class towns of Yorkshire, the band’s world is orbited by a mishmash of erratic influences that range from the ‘scratchy-chicken grease guitar work of Minutemen’, to the oddball/outcast aesthetics of the Butthole Surfers. Somewhere in between those points of reference, however, is a subtle nod to the eccentric idiosyncrasies of gabber and donk, and combining all these ingredients with a liberal application of off-kilter song structures and all manner of unhinged sung-via-shouted vocals, the band’s debut album, Existential Bread, is certainly a journey into the surreal.
When the first International Dada Fair was held in 1920 at the Kunsthandlung Dr. Otto Burchard gallery in Berlin, the works both shocked and delighted the attendees, but it was the implementation of humour that really captured people’s imagination. Mirroring such an experience, Existential Bread’s foundation is built firmly upon the comedic. For instance, album highlight ‘Beheaded’ counteracts its gruesome theme of watching execution videos with an utterly absurd middle section that swerves from a rattling punk crusade to a country walking bass line motif, giving singer Ellis Smith a chance to proudly exclaim fondness for his bald head whilst other band members wail in the background about pickled onions.
During our interview, bass player Sam Horten candidly admits that the band are, “…kind of chaotic people”, and chaos certainly does run throughout everything ‘Shakamoto’, but it’s this exact state of absurdity that makes the music all the more endearing. In our current bellicose times, looking inwards can sometimes be a reductive process. Instead, better would it be to put on a band like The Shakamoto Investigation, a band who professes, “everybody is an apple”, who aren’t afraid to blur the lines of musical convention for the sake of a laugh, and whose existence proudly embodies the Dadaist motto, ‘TAKE DADA SERIOUSLY…it’s worth it!’
So, starting at the genesis of the band, you say you all met in 2017 and formed The Shakamoto Investigation as, “a bit of a pisstake to each other”. What were the events that brought the three of you together and made you decide that you wanted to start a band?
Sam Horton: So basically, me and Ellis (Smith, guitarist) were just doing nowt, just drinking loads every day. We were just proper losing our minds, so one day we were like, “we need to do something! We need to be cool and leave the house and not be a rat anymore.” We both love punk, and we always have done, so we thought, “fuck it!”, we’ll get this average drummer in (Jake Sainty) and make some tunes. (laughs)
Jake Sainty: So I was gigging with another band called Black Pudding, and both of you used to come see us play live, and basically they stole me from it. (laughs)
SH: Well, I remember it were like the time when that kind of Oh Sees noisy surf punk sound were coming about, and we went to watch Black Pudding at the Packhorse and it were like literally the only band I’d seen who sounded like this ‘new’ sound. I know it’s cheesy, but I thought they were mint and I were like, “I wanna knock about with that kid!” So basically, Shakamoto would never have been formed if it weren’t for Black Pudding, because me and Ellis used to stand at the front of their gigs and fucking love it!
So did you have any intention to grow the band past the initial ‘dicking-about’ stage under which it was formed?
JS: I would say at the start, no. I just wanted to hang around with Sam and Ellis, and the band was like an excuse. I was doing a music degree at the time, and I was just fed up with music, so the band became an excuse to mess about.
SH: There’s a venue in Leeds called the Brudenell Social Club, and it’s like this really trendy place, but it’s also like our church, you know? So we’d go to Brudenell and watch all these serious bands like METZ and Lightning Bolt play, but we’re just too daft. We just want to see some character and to have a laugh. We thought it would be the funniest thing in the world to get up on stage in Brude’ and get everyone to line dance as it was the most un-cool thing anyone could do. (laughs)
Did you manage to do that?
SH: We did! Honestly, we never really take ourselves too seriously. We enjoy making music and we enjoy each other’s company, and we just try and push that through into the music we make. When we recorded our first singles, we used to burn them onto blank discs and then put them in Greggs bags and sell them at shows. (laughs)
Yeah I’ve heard about that, your favourite packaging for merch is like pastry bags or something.
SH: Yeah, but a few people complained because there was only a meat option, so we had to start putting in an option of whether you were like vegan or vegetarian. (laughs)
Being named after a Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer sketch, it’s obvious that a degree of satire permeates much of what the band does. How do you think The Shakamoto Investigation’s songwriting is enhanced by including those elements of satire and comedy?
SH: I think it characterises the sound. When we go to gigs in Leeds, bands always have this type of seriousness when they get up on stage. You have a fag with them before they go on and then they get on stage and they’re a different person. We just want to be as senseless as possible and get up on stage and make a rattle and have a laugh.
That’s a really interesting point about wanting to counteract the seriousness that bands are projecting right now. Sometimes I think that by not taking yourself too seriously it makes you more accessible. There’s so many angry bands around at the moment trying to fight against the injustices in the world, and although they may have good intentions, sometimes it just kind of adds to the noise and negativity we’re all currently having to endure.
SH: Yeah it does, definitely.
So do you see The Shakamoto Investigation’s more comedic and satirical approach to music as an antidote to that negativity?
JS: Yeah I’d say so.
SH: You know in a time like this, we just think that people don’t want to listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and go inwards. Put some Shakamoto on and have a laugh!
JS: I think there’s far too many bands right now who run themselves as big socialist political bands, but they’re not.
SH: That’s it, it’s jumping on bandwagon innit. Even though it’s a good bandwagon to be on and the point needs sharing and stuff.
JS: You’ve got to act on it. You can’t just sing it in a song and expect to not do it yourself.
SH: I think one thing I liked was what Jello Biafra said back in the 80’s. He was talking about punk and he said something like, “punk is a philosophy”. And he’s right, it’s not about spiking your hair up green and wearing a GBH patch on your back. It’s about interacting everyday with things that come into your life. You don’t have to wear a leather jacket to be a punk. It’s a lifestyle.
JS: I was saying this yesterday. I was speaking to a friend about donk and gabber and that shit’s fucking punk as fuck man. That’s a load of poor working class folk listening to this mental donk music, and most people think it’s stupid, but its punk as fuck.
SH: Yeah, they’re not putting out press releases and saying “sign me” and stuff. They’re doing it because they fucking love it. They work on a building site Monday to Friday 9 to 5 and then on a weekend they’ll get a bag in with their mates and you’ll seem ’em spit bars. That for me is the fucking epitome of punk, not bands who wear tailored trousers and spend their mummy and daddy’s money. (laughs)
So on the flip side of you using comedy, do you think that by including humour in your songwriting it allows you to tackle more serious issues without causing you or your audience to fatigue?
JS: Yeah definitely. You can write about politics, but you can also take the piss out of it. Whatever way you swing, left or right, I think it’s fun to take the piss out of it.
SH: Going back to what Jake said about donk and gabber, that’s kind of like one of our biggest influences, because me and Ellis are from Barnsley, so we’ve just grown up on that “thump thump thump thump” sound. That song on our album ‘Loch Ness’, that’s like a piss-take on gabber, we just tried to make gabber-punk almost just by going, “gibber dibber, gibber dibber bah bah bah bah”, you know what I mean? (laughs)
Well that’s great that you’ve mentioned the album because Existential Bread clearly puts the bands personality on full display. When did the writing process for the record start, and what is the inspiration behind it?
SH: It started as soon as we formed in 2017, and I say there’s about 6 songs on the album that are from day one of us being a band.
JS: Genuinely, a lot of the songs on the album are just about things that make us laugh.
SH: It’s like the song ‘Rats’. Ellis had a dream that he were being terrorised by these rats, and we were like, “why don’t we write a song about it?” We thought it would be one of the funniest things ever if we could all stand on stage and scream for ages pointing like there were rats on the floor.
I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of surreal moments on the album. As Existential Bread is your debut, was there an attempt to really ramp up that hyperbolic aspect of the band when recording?
JS: I think it were an unconscious thing. If you listen to it, the album doesn’t flow. Every song is different to the other. It’s like the song ‘Existential Bread’. We just layered it and layered it and added loads of different instruments to it. We were obsessed with getting things like pots and pans on it and stuff – lots of different types of percussion, something really stupid.
What was the thinking behind naming the album Existential Bread? Do you think by titling it that you’re poking fun at, or at least trying to find some humour buried within, the angst of the time period we’re living in?
SH: Yeah, it’s just trying to find humour in the mundane.
What is Existential Bread? Can you define it?
JS: Mouldy bread? Fucking pumpkin seed bread, all that shite. (laughs)
SH: I don’t think there really is an explanation to it, you have to interpret it how you want.
I know you’ve recently helped put together two compilation records in support of The Old School House – a small music venue in Barnsley. Why don’t you tell me what the venue means to The Shakamoto Investigation, and how much of a role the venue has played in nurturing Barnsley’s local music scene?
SH: In Barnsley there’s not an O2 Academy on every street corner. The Old School House is the only venue available, so it’s a community place for bands. I’ve been to some of the best gigs I’ve ever been to there, and it were a space where you could go up as a young-un and just feel like, “yeah I can do that. I wanna do that!” It were a place that sparked that ignition.
So I had the idea to make a compilation record to raise a bit of money for the venue, but it weren’t really about raising money, it were about trying to get out that awareness to people ‘bout how much it means, not just to me, but to all these people who have donated a track for the album.
I think everything you’ve just said shows how essential it is to hold on and support local venues. What more do you think could be done to take care of them, and what do you think about the governmental support that has been given to the music sector during the pandemic?
JS: Just look at how much money the music industry brings in each year. What other industry brings in six billion but gives nothing back to people that work in it? It doesn’t make sense. Regarding venues, I think like your mid-sized venues are kind of safe because they’ve got some money, but places where you start out, they don’t have that.
SH: Yeah, it creates that division. How do you get to play at Brudenell? You start at Wolf Chambers – you start at these small venues. It’s like a ladder. You can’t just cut the bottom off and then have the top because all what you’d have left would be like the Royal Albert Hall. Small venues are essential.
So would you like to see other ‘save our venues’ initiatives across other cities and towns?
JS: I do, but I just don’t understand why we’re the ones who have to do it. We’re the ones who bring the money in and then we have to go back and raise money again. How does that make any sense? Where’s that six billion pounds going?
It’s going to those jobs in cyber.
JS: Exactly. (laughs)
Okay, so I’ve got a little tongue-in-cheek question for you now. As the pandemic continues to push on, what would The Shakamoto Investigation’s advice be to those who may actually be suffering from bouts of existential dread at this time?
SH: (laughs) Well, we could go all daft and say stupid stuff, but now’s not the time. I don’t know, just look after one another. Stay in touch with each other, don’t sit on your send, talk to people, listen to good music. Just look after yourself. God, I’m getting sentimental.
So in closing, what do you hope that people take away from listening to the new record?
JS: I want people to think it’s as funny as we think it is. It’s not a pristine, clean, over produced record. It’s a daft punk record, and I just want people to be like, “ah this is funny”, even if they never listen to it again.
Maybe the record has come out at the best time then, as it’s the pick-me-up that everyone needs?
SH: Maybe so, maybe so.
Words: Danny Brown | Photos: The Shakamoto Investigation
The Shakamoto Investigation’s debut album ‘Existential Bread’ is out now via Eeasy Records. Stream or purchase the album via their Bandcamp and listen to the new single ‘Half Time Draw’ in the link below.