mums' the word

by Stephen Dark


(Note: original copyright 1989 by the Sonic Options Network, Inc. All Rights Reserved. All wrongs reversed. Reproduced here without no permission.)

What makes the Chrysanthemums One of England's Best Kept Secrets?

Waiting in a slight downpour for one half of the bedsit surrealist pop band, the Chrysanthemums, to make an appearance, co-founder Alan Jenkins - who also leads the Deep Freeze Mice and runs the Cordelia label - attempts to make small talk. "We did our first live gig recently in my home town, Leicester," he says, wincing through his Lennonesque gold=rimmed glasses. "There were 25 people, young hippies sitting cross=legged on the floor"

Despite this apparent lack of interest in the band presumably the result of a nonexistent commercial profile - the Chrysanthemums rank as one of the most vital bands on the outskirts of the independent UK music scene. Jangly, guitar-led pop melodies, with occasional bursts of snappy horns, introduce songs rudely interrupted by sound effects and bizarre snippets of dialogue. Typically English stormtroopers of the pop canon, the Chrysanthemums raid pop's history with indiscretion, creating often-bruising, minute-plus exercises in jigsaw pop, where not all the pieces of the aural puzzle are deliberately missing.

It is an isolated stand that both Jenkins and his late-arriving cohort, Terry Burrows - a.k.a. Yukio Yung - acknowledge. They aren't self-proclaimed genuises wandering unrecognized in the wilderness, but rather see themselves as musical entrepreneurs uninterested in penetrating the higher echelons of any acceptable music scene." Burrows and Jenkins, who both have other bands, launched the two-year-old Chrysanthemums with their first album Is That a Fish On Your Shoulder Or Are You Just Pleased To See Me? shortly after their collaboration began. Beside the highly flippant sleeve notes, the LP contained a most complex, inscrutable and evolved form of pop music. Recently, the prolific Chrysanthemums released their most ambitious record, the double album Little Flecks of Foam Around Barking. They claim, with due modesty, that it has certain parallels with the Beatles' White Album ; whatever the overtly pretentious (or tongue-in-cheek) influences, Little Flecks marks a new stage of development for a band dismissive of its undeservedly horizontal profile.

Jenkins has singlemindedly pursued music since he left college in 1979. His band the Deep Freeze Mice, currently celebrating their tenth anniversary with a yet-to-be-released live set from a 1985 series of gigs in Switzerland, "are less active than they used to be," admits Jenkins. The Mice - primarily Jenkins' vehicle in terms of writing, lead vocals and guitar work - have put out nine albums. These run from the very primitive Mole Embalming in 1979 (Jenkins put out 250 copies at a cost of 400 pounds) to last year's War, Famine, Death, Pestilence and Miss Timberlake (yes, Jenkins seems to have an aversion to short titles.)

As Jenkins' interest in the Mice seemed to run dry, he met Terry Burrows through a music magazine, Contact , exchanging material from their respective labels (Jenkins' Cordelia operation, which puts out the Obscure Independents Classic series, has been running for five years). Jenkins, writing to Burrows, whose other bands include the Jung Analysts and Push Button Pleasure, made a simple offer: "Why don't we form a band and conquer the world?" Burrows was amenable to the proposition, and splitting the band's duties, took on lead vocals and keyboards, with Jenkins on lead guitar, and Vladimir Zajkowiecz on bass (his other band, the Loch Ness Monster, is also on Cordelia).

The combination of Jenkins and Burrows, who share songwriting duties for the 'Mums, is an intriguing one. Jenkins emerges almost inarticulate at times during the interview. He comes across as perhaps a mature student who might spend his time chewing over the Communist Manifesto . Burrows, a former business analyst for the huge electronics retail group Dixons, is less tongue-tied. He used his day job to finance numerous labels and several bands, as well as building a studio in his second bedroom in a London flat. "I don loads of different musical disguises," he says, and his work bears him out - moving from ambient, semi-classical sounds to experiments with severely snipped pieces of pop music.

Both seem to agree on their primary influences. "The whole pop genre," nods Burrows. But Jenkins adds, "A lot of late '60s psychedelic stuff, like the Electric Prunes, early '7Os Soft Machine, and Syd Barrett." The conversation moves on to a review of Little Flecks in OPTION which commented that the sound was thin. Not only do they agree, but they see the observation as an apt reflection of a sound they aim for. "There is a concise attempt to get a certain kind of sound," says Burrows. "Like the late '60s early psychedelic stuff of Status Quo. 'Pictures of Matchstick Men' is a good example." Working on a shoestring budget, the economics of which inevitably affect the quality of sound to some extent, Burrows produces the Chrysanthemums in his own bedroom-cum-studio. He calls it "production by committee." ("He produces, then there's a committee," retorts Jenkins.)

The key interest for both is the driving dynamism of exploring the malleability of the pop song, often within the most ridiculous definitions. The ridiculous is something they both seize on as a key ingredient. "We egg each other on to do something ridiculous, to 'surrealize,"' says Burrows. Jenkins adds, "Next year we are going to release the most stupid concept ever related to a piece of vinyl."

Citing obvious precedents such as Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and the Bonzo Dog Band, they see unlimited potential for pushing pop music as far down the trail of absurdity as they can. "Why shouldn't a joke be serious art?" asks Burrows, shifting into a quixotic mood. He commences talking about the Spanish film director Luis Bunuel, and how his classic film The Exterminating Angel had an impact on the Jung Analysts' album The Wishing Balloon . "TV ads, [Soviet director Andrei] Tarkovsky, they are other influences," he says. Burrows starts working on a line of thought with deadpan desperation. "There's this idea of poetic correspondence. Communicating through a series of emotions, through visual images. No narrative running through them," he offers, perhaps as an interpretation of intellectual practices. Continuing the Jenkins admits, "I just sit in front and steal lines."

But Jenkins' most singular surreal nature of his lyrics. Much of this can be traced through the work he did on the Deep Freeze Mice albums. "Chocolate Bar From Hell," on the last Mice LP is a piquant example: "The nearest the Mars bar got to a healthy ingredient/ was when the Animal Liberation Front poisoned it/ One could imagine how Cadburys might be inspired by this/ and bring about some radical permanent policy changes/ Cadburys could put some action back in the confectionary trade/ by introducing the Chocolate Bar From Hell!"

"A lot of the lyrics," says Jenkins. "are rubbish. But that shouldn't stop people putting their own interpretation on them." Burrows continues, "Alan has a knack of putting very serious ideas behind things that seem ridiculous, like 'Chocolate Bar.'"

At times, it seems Jenkins will go out of his way to find conventions to avoid. "Length of songs is important," he notes. "The area between three to six minutes is the one to miss. Pop songs are about being as concise as possible. One and a half minutes is usually my goal."

Delighting in the absurd appears to go beyond lyrics for this pair. It includes a degree of deliberate self-mystification surrounding the band. This takes the form of attributing instrumental credits on sleeve notes to such non-existent luminaries as the Acton Horns or the Actonian Schonberg Quintet, when in fact the source is horn or violin samples created by Burrows. Or when Jenkins' friend Geraldine Minou-Sullivan is credited as the group's drummer, though the Chrysanthemums actually use a drum machine. The outside sleeve of Little Flecks is covered with hieroglyphics from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Inside, the liner notes "surrealize" stories based around the song titles, as if written on high quality acid. The band's ultimate smirk was the cover of their The XXXX Sessions EP , a witty spoof of the Peel Sessions series with hundreds of phony band names (as well as a few real ones) filling the big frame in the middle.

Perhaps these two share some indescribable yearning to be transported back to Nirvana and clapped-out sixties hippiedom. Either way, the end result is to wonder just how far Jenkins and Burrows will go in tweaking pop conventions. They are shortly to release a 7", Chrysanthemums Live at the London Palladium , with Burrows adding polite applause and trying to make a set sound live in his studio.

Such an attitude is arguably internalized within the Chrysanthemums' music and its two lead protagonists. Amidst the lyrical and melodic detail with which they carefully decorate their music, they pursue the shock effect, from the disturbing cut from a guitar solo in full gear, to the explosive sound of a flood of water, all within the confines of often pretty, fractured pop melodies.

"Commerciality is a heavy drum sound," Jenkins, who's making a go of his Cordelia label. Its catalogue includes the prodigious output of R. Stevie Moore, the son of Nashville session bassist Bob Moore. The younger Moore, who lives in New Jersey, cut a duet with Jim Reeves when he was seven. He later dumperd the commercial environment to become "the ultimate home recordist," putting out some 400 cassettes. There is no real quality control, according to Burrows, but Moore demonstrates a clear if eclectic appreciation of pop music not dissimilar to the Chrysanthemums' attitude; in fact, Moore has put in the odd guest appearance on various Chrysanthemums recordings.

If the bands efforts are "an act of provocation," as Burrows and Jenkins seem to imply, then their attempt to gain attention has, as yet gone largely unnoticed. But the Chrysanthemums' concern with the quality of ideas in their music goes hand in hand with the constant redefinition of the boundaries of their own form of eclectic pop. Their music is constantly cutting up, juxtaposing, and teasing out the often hysterical contradictions and ideas within their lyrics and melodies. This makes the work rich in detail, and worth the attention of much wider audiences than the current brand-familiar collection of fans who follow the band's work.

But relying on brand loyalty for their cottage industry approach to music has its inevitable drawbacks. "Our stuff is substantially ignored," says Jenkins. He notes a near nonexistent critical reaction to Little Flecks , outside of reviews in OPTION and the German rock magazine Spex . Germany is the Deep Freeze Mice's best market, Jenkins says. But Burrows shows little interest in the band breaking through to the UK indie scene. "It tends to react against itself," he muses, "reacting against things that are already there."