Tom Withers (Klute/The Stupids) Interview 

Two years before his death from heroin, I walked into my uncle’s room (I was ten years old at the time). He usually had his door locked but that day it was left ajar and I could hear this song pulsing from inside the bedroom. 

When I walked in he was lying in bed, mouth open and eyes staring at the ceiling while this song was throbbing in the background. I said hello and a few seconds later his bloodshot eyes rolled slowly over to me and he rasped out something back at me. It scared me at the time so I ran out crying, and my dad told me my uncle was just sick that day. I saw him a few hours later, and he was back to his mellow self and apologized for scaring me. 

Well, sure enough, two years later he overdosed and passed away. Sometimes when I visit my grandmother’s house, I sit on the couch by the stairs, and I can still hear this song growling from his now-empty room. Such a beautiful song, one of the strange but gentle gifts my uncle left me before he passed... before heroin used him up.”

— AliKarimi comment on Youtube posted on a 1972 live recording of 'Use me' by Bill Withers

Late last year, I came across two tracks by Klute (Tom Withers) that made me think that Drum and Bass (DnB); the genre of music I had previously not given much thought to might not be so mono-dimensional after all. (To be more accurate, a friend emailed them to me when trying to wake me up, sell the genre to me; it wasn't a random occurrence). These two Klute tracks 'We are all dying' and 'Come back to me' - released on Soul:/r in 2006. 

Even now, after having listened to this music countless times, it still strikes me as a remarkably fresh: at once a combination of precision-force, carried along by the beat, and lush sentiment; the same (uneasy) combination you might find in a track by Wire re-imagined for the new century - even though Colin Newman's delivery would forever remain flat, unemotional compared to the splintered, soulful female voices found in Klute's music. 

What immediately stands out is the way the music is constructed, just like a perfect three minute pop/punk song and this is what really interests me ; the organisational intelligence that betrays the composer's hybrid origins. 

'We are all dying' starts with a moody affect, rain-like prompting  connections with B&W film noir ...

and then the beat kicks in at around 20 seconds, one minute later it drops, with this burst of intensity as a listener you gain some kind of comfort, reinforced by the arrival of the vocals at two minutes and then, finally, three minutes after the original shift there is some kind of resolution. And that repetition of the single note, providing as it were some kind of spine, is a marker of real originality. 

'Come back to me' is even more dramatic in its structure, with the sudden fall at 1 min 20 ... 

where the music is pushed along by a driving force, after an opening where all the elements start at the same level. Any listener of pop/punk music automatically understands on a gut-level how this shift works, how here in this moment there is a universal logic that somehow makes sense. 

In the end, what I like best about 'Come back to me' is the way the beat is unstable, mercurial. Often DnB uses the beat in a lazy way, it seems to me, as an immediate way to provide intensity; here, Klute plays around with it - bringing it forward, or doubling it up; for it then at other times to recede, or even completely disappear. 

All this fits with the assessment of  the US DJ/producer, Mister Shifter who said that in Klute's music you find a 'signature blend of beauty, sadness, playfulness and euphoria'. Klute's music evokes a mix of emotional imprints that keep moving. 

Madeleine Byrne: 'The reason why I really liked this music was I could hear a construction behind it, not unlike a classic punk song, or even something from the 1950s. It reminded me of something like Julie London, or something where you can hear the orchestration, the different sections of the track ... 

Tom Withers (Klute): My formative years as a musician were based around what I heard from my two older sisters. I was around what was coming out from behind their bedroom doors, what they were playing in their bedrooms. One, or if not both of them, was into Burt Bacharach and quite orchestrated, hyper-songwriting based music ... 

MB: That's why I was thinking 'lounge music' and mentioned Julie London, it's the kind of artificial pop music aspect to it ... 

TW: I'm quite a big fan of orchestrated, symphonic music; I suppose what I ended up was liking a lot of what is called 'sunshine pop' - you know, the Beach Boys, very symphonic, hyper-layered, melancholic melodies and stuff like that. In that respect, in terms of how I approach making DnB it's very musician-based and that's kind of led me to having a space of my own really, as I've ended up with this almost idiosyncratic style, drawing on the ghost of these crazy influences and stuff, concentrating more on that than dance-floor symmetry; a lot of people sit down and study exact frequencies and the timing and the arrangements that will have impact on a dance-floor, whereas I've always been more inspired by the musicality of it and replicating what is going on inside my head. 

Something like 'We are all dying/Come back to me' I specifically remember it coming out of a quite heavy bout of listening to The Carpenters, rather than it being punk-rock inspired.' 

In a 2005 interview with the site Resident Adviser Withers talked about his album, No One’s Listening Anymore:  

'I think I just wanted to build on the last one,' Withers says. 'I can’t say that with any album I do specifically, ‘this is what I’ve wanted to do’, they’re just building on the one before. I think that’s the way No One’s Listening Anymore is certainly. I’ve done a lot more concentrating on songs this time, which is what I said last time, but I’ve even more done it this time. There’s a lot more singing and there’s a lot more song-based structures.'

Song-based structures. When I spoke with Withers he disagreed with the notion that his 'computer-based music' built on his experience as a drummer in the punk/hardcore group, The Stupids; or that he consciously drew on his knowledge of other forms of music as a professional musician. 

In August this year in an interview with Louder than War, John Maher, the original drummer with the Buzzcocks referred to his interest in Klute's music ....

“What else do you listen to for pleasure?

I don’t actively search out new music. I occasionally stumble across something I like on BBC Radio 6 or whatever station I can pick up when I’m on a long distance drive. In the workshop I stream D’n’B radio much of the time. I’m a big fan of Klute (Tom Withers). When I first started travelling between Manchester and the Isle of Harris, Klute provided the soundtrack for many long road trips. I have all sorts of good associations when I listen back to Casual Bodies and Fear of People. Tom used to be a drummer in a punk band. I’m sure that sense of rhythm is what gives his particular brand of drum and bass more depth than most. I’ve been following him since the late ‘90s. He’s never put a foot wrong. Being a fan, I wore my Commercial Suicide tee-shirt (Klute’s label), when Buzzcocks played at Manchester Apollo in 2012.”

— Nostalgia For An Age Yet To Come: ex-Buzzcocks current Penetration drummer John Maher interviewed by Ged Babey, 'Louder than War' August 2015

MB: I saw that the original drummer from the Buzzcocks, John Maher, said that he was a big fan of yours, you must have been pretty happy to have read that, yeah ?

TW: It was pretty bizarre. A few years ago somebody sent me a link to a video of the Buzzcocks playing and he said, 'Look at the drummer's T-shirt' and he was wearing a Commercial Suicide - Withers' record label - T-shirt and I just thought at the time, oh it'll be one of their new members, maybe a DnB fan, or whatever, I didn't really think too much about it. It never occurred to me that it was the original guy, I mean I've been listening to the Buzzcocks since I was about 10 or 12 years old. And Maher has always kind of stood out for me as quite a good drummer because he's got this quite sort of fast pace to his drumming, a lot of stuff happening in the hi-hats, I've always seen his playing as kind of a slapdash feeling. I was always conscious of the drumming in the Buzzcocks. I listened to the Buzzcocks quite a lot actually, so when a friend of mine sent me a link to that recent interview I was quite blown away that he specifically talked about me, cause you know I can reflect on that from my perspective when someone asks what I've been listening to and you know to pick something to talk about is something that means something, rather than just chucking out something, that's caught your attention in the last couple of weeks. It's very flattering; yeah, I was very pleased. 

MB: I loved the way he talked about your music providing the soundtrack for various (car) journeys in his life; the music obviously means quite a lot to  him ...

TW: Yeah, I have met people through the years that something I've done or written has helped them through something difficult, it's been there for the soundtrack for a big part of their life and it's a strange thing to relate to really because I'm completely removed from that situation. Because it's music that I've made - it's obviously a big part of my life, but for a completely different reason. It's amazing information, but I don't know what to do with it (laughs).

MB: He (John Maher) said that the fact that you are a drummer probably gives your DnB more 'depth' - what do you think about that; do you think your experience as a professional musician, as someone who has had the experience of playing live, do you think that affects the way you create DnB ? 

TW: (pauses) I think it possibly has to do with the individual style that I've got, that just might be who I am as a person; in the same respect that drumming and punk rock as got this, oh I don't know, it's a very uncomposed style. It almost feels that I'm conducting with drums, it's like I'm playing the drums as if I were playing guitar, if you can imagine how someone strums a guitar - you move along with the main tune and riff and rhythm - I think that it's partially do with drumming, but it might also have to do with my own personal style of music-making, because it's largely untaught. I had a few drum lessons from a punk rocker when I was about 12 years-old, but that was about it. Everything else I've just sort of picked up by myself, or off mates or whatever. 

It's always been centered around being intuitive and that's the way I relate to music with software, even though I often come up against brick walls with software because a lot of it is completely counter-intuitive. 

(..) It's very immediate playing drums, that's the way I enjoy music for things to be immediate, as opposed to painstaking, theoretical stuff, like Stockhausen or something like that would do my nut in basically even though some of it's quite nice to listen to. A lot of my work is non-theoretical a lot of the time. 

MB: You've just used the word 'intuitive' I'm wondering if you could explore that a bit more ...

TW: Intuitive, I think, is being able to do things without much conscious thought. You can pick up an instrument and you can do something with it; you might take a long time to master it, but you can pick up a drumstick and pretty much do something with it, but it's not always the same with software it can become a bit counter-intuitive in the respect that it becomes overladen with features and functions and stuff like that as opposed to something you pick up and immediately express yourself. 

MB: But can you think of some technology that is intuitive for you ? 

TW: Well, you can pick up a synthesiser keyboard that has lots of knobs and sliders on it, so you can immediately plug that in and start hitting the keys; turning knobs and making weird and crazy sounds and you can explore that without having to understand anything. I think a lot of software, like computers where they have virtual interpretations of so-called real instruments, it becomes quite menu-based so you've got to start delving in deeper and for me it immediately becomes counter-intuitive, very quickly subconsciously I feel quite blocked by it. That's what I mean by intuitive versus counter-intuitive. 

MB: I understand. In an interview you said that the two forms of music you do are quite separate, you said that when you came back to writing songs after a decade, I think it was, of working purely in DnB it felt quite strange because you'd become quite used to working alone with technology, is that something you really believe ? 

I mean, we've just been talking about the music being 'intuitive', but do you really believe that the two forms of music - the punk and the DnB - are quite separate for you ?

TW: (pauses) I don't know. That is something that I have experienced ... yeah, actually I think they are for me; just thinking about it, I need to write some songs for the band and I haven't and that's because I've been concentrating on computer-music at the moment, that might be for some other deeply complex personal reasons, I don't know, but yeah for me they are different things, really: computer-based, repetitive and essentially looped music and I think, you can view a lot of music as basically that you repeat lines of a verse and then you go into a chorus and then it's apparently quite symmetrical in the way it's arranged, but it's not really. I think when you're working on things on a computer, it's laid out in grids and things become basically mathematical, that's the way computers relate to things. In that respect, I do think they are quite different. 

MB: You know like you said before, ('We are all dying/'Come back to me') are like classic Burt Bacharach songs or any of those classics like 'Cry me a River' ...  So tell me a bit more about what your sisters were listening to and what era is was, the 80s, I guess.                              

TW: That would have been in 1980, that's when I started - that's when I became indentified with music. My parents encouraged us all to listen to music and encouraged my sisters to play various instruments, because I was the youngest and the only boy I was left to my own devices until the late 1970s when I started to want to play pots and pans and want to be like Ringo Starr. My ears really turned when I started hearing my sisters play punk and this would have probably been around 77, cause they went out and bought Never Mind the Bollocks and one track in particular 'No More Heroes' by the Stranglers that was life-changing for me. 

MB: Can you tell me why it was life-changing for you ? 

TW: I guess, I don't know (pauses) for me now that era Stranglers is just really rambunctious, I don't know there's something aggressively confronting about their sound. I just remember seeing them on the Top of the Pops, playing the song just the attitude and the little bit of danger behind them. Their bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel had an outstanding bass sound, just seeing him on the stage with his black leather jacket, sneering and stuff like that, it wasn't just this sort of plastic punk thing. It wasn't childish. There was something mature about it. They are one of my all-time favourites, a classic Stranglers line-up still deeply into it, even after all these years. 

So I got dragged through punk, but they were listening to all kinds of stuff - one sister was listening to Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, and my other sister was listening to disco and she was the one was listening to the Burt Bacharach; just all kinds of different stuff, whether it was Stevie Wonder, or 'easy listening'. Once I took off with punk rock in 1980, I didn't listen to anything else until about 1987, really when 87/88 when punk became completely redundant to me - over a period of six months - when bands like Sonic Youth started coming around, which has no appeal for me whatsoever. 

(With Sonic Youth) it was a strange introduction of retro-ism to something that I had always thought was forward-thinking, part of that was very focussed on American hardcore which is a suburban revolution really. It's quite a different rebellious base compared to English punk, which started as an arthouse movement and then moved into a street thing. Come 88 I started a mad journey of listening to all kinds of stuff, classic rock and terrible guitar virtuoso Heavy Metal. 

MB: I read somewhere that you were listening to Joe Satriani and I thought 'that's an admission' no?

TW: (laughs) Yes, it was one of those things that even if I dug out those records I wouldn't (laughs) don't know, saying that I still appreciate Van Halen and stuff like that, I don't know ... The first couple of Van Halen records are quite good really. 

MB: (trying to be nice) I mean yeah the sound is great, I can appreciate the way the albums are produced ...   

TW: Yeah, yeah. It's a different thing to Joe Satriani. Joe Satriani and Vinny Moore, Yngwie Malmsteen and stuff like that, well, it's hideous music, really, but then I was spat out the other side with the electronic, or rave music, by which time I wouldn't say left my sisters behind but I'd gotten into my own thing. 

“For me, I’ve always “been a punk”. It did indeed feel like a return to the music after a decade of total immersion into dance/rave music culture in the early 90’s. Punk attitude in its base form goes far beyond the template that’s generally set out for it: Leather jackets, distorted guitar, Sex Pistols, Maximum Rock ‘n Roll etc. Rave culture originally felt very punk in its wreckless freedom of expression and ultra DIY attitude. Apart from that, yes, I desire punk rock, it is my wife.”

— Tom Withers, 'Stupids Interview' Crossfire April 4 2014

MB: Tell me about Ipswich in the 70s and early 80s, what kind of place was it ?

TW: Ipswich was quite a good place in a funny way, it's a suburban town but it always had a vigorous music scene, back in the 60s, Brian Eno went to art college in Ipswich before he went off to bigger and greater things (...) During the late 70s it became quite an active punk scene, quite a big stop for touring bands; everyone from the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees - basically everyone - came through here, I think even the Sex Pistols were booked to play here, but that tour got cancelled. 

By the time I started socialising with people in the town in 80/81 there was quite a big punk scene here. The main band being the Addicts, they are probably bigger now than they ever were; quite a popular band, so eventually with the people around here I got a band together that ended up being the Stupids. 

MB: Could you describe the success (Tom Withers' band) the Stupids had now, looking back, the fact that you were on the cover of NME and Sounds, very big magazines; how would you describe the success of the Stupids at that time ?

TW: It was very strange, really, because to look back on it now it seems all kind of inconsequential and would be extremely easy to not notice really because it came down to a period of 9 to 12 months. We were basically a high school punk band, we were quite good at what we did, the first album in particular was really good and I think that at the time in the UK there was anything like that it was all quite ploddy, miserable what they call UK 82 punk rock, which is very politicised and miserable and then along we came, very young playing really fast. It felt like a bit of electricity for those who were into it. 

So very quickly John Peel got a hold of it and started playing it. In those days it was like your instant ticket to whatever, as soon as Peel played it it was a complete stamp of approval, it just meant that you're good (laughs). There is a real sense of trust about John Peel as he had very wild and eclectic tastes; he didn't play rubbish, he didn't play anything with any kind of agenda behind it, he didn't have an ego. He didn't decide I'm going to break these guys, I like these guys, they're great. 

TW: From that initial interest from John Peel, I think we did three or four (John Peel) sessions in the end from that we kind of got a record deal with a more progressive label, who employed a publicist. We were just these kids and had a meeting with this guy giving us ideas, the process of the next nine months it just seemed to snowball, it was nuts and completely without any hype, no engineering or anything. It was the right place at the right time, we were into skateboarding, genuinely at the same time that was blowing up to being a fashionable thing. 

Cause we were young we were getting interest from Smash Hits and the poppy side of things, so we had a centre-spread in Smash Hits and the next thing is a journalist saying, did you know Bowie is talking about you ? There's an interview with Bowie in Rolling Stone where he talks about us, what are your tips, David, well my son has told me about this band called the Stupids (laughs).

It turned into this crazy thing and I suppose because we were completely unenterprising or have no aspirations, we weren't anticipating this, it went as quickly as it came basically. There was no plan behind it; no operation behind it, as quickly as the press became interested as quickly they became disinterested. I think we were disinterested in it by late 88, I'd lost interest in punk rock so it came to it's own natural conclusion really. Funny old time. 

MB: You talk about it being punk music, but isn't it more power-pop Descendents, Californian type music ?

TW: With the Stupids, I'd say we were straight up hardcore, really. It's not as poppy as the Descendents, saying that the first Descendents album was very much a call to arms for me, it was one of the first punk records that genuinely spoke to me lyrically. I don't know if you know Milo goes to college but that song, 'I'm not a loser' that was the first time lyrics that actually applied to me rather than being some kind of abstract whatever. I didn't understand what 'God save the Queen' meant at the time when I was a kid; stuff like the Descendents really spoke to me, being middle-class and from suburbia. That was the real driving force, much more than the Sex Pistols or the Stranglers; it was much more of a driving force that propelled me to feel like I can do this, I've got something to say. 

MB: And it's a young guys's music too, I mean the Stranglers are fantastic but if you're fifteen years old, it's kind of distant, no ?

TW: Well, the Stranglers were college students, they are quite intellectual, so I didn't know who Leon Trotsky was, it sounded nice the way he sang it, but I had no idea who that was when I was 10 years old (laughs). It was very highbrow a lot of their lyrical stuff. I think the Stranglers were always quite grown-up, they were angry grown-ups really. 

MB: You've talked about punk as being 'your wife' in an interview and how you 'desire' it, is that a sentiment you still hold onto as punk being central to your sense of self as a musician/artist ?

TW: Definitely - as a human being, yeah; it taught me, or it resonates with me and my nature, questioning things, the sense that you can do what you want to do without permission or whatever. Saying that, punk as a movement now is in that sense quite redundant because like everything it has developed its predictable format and punk has become a label and a fashion. I guess it always was, but there was some kind of progression with it, an attitude of community behind it. Whereas I don't think, a lot of punk is related to from a retrospective angle. I think a lot of things are now. 

MB: I really liked your story of Ian MacKaye, from Fugazi/Minor Threat, going to a Stupids gig, where he was completely shocked by the audience's response - he was so shocked because the audience was so aggressive, was that true ?

TW: Yes, yeah that is true (laughs) yeah, Ian.

MB: He is very serious about that, he doesn't like that disrespect. I was wondering if that whole DC scene was an inspiration for you perhaps when you decided to set up your own record company, Commercial Suicide Records in 2001 were you inspired by example of Dischord ?

TW: Yeah, yeah massively. Dischord is really, I think it's probably more than any other label because, well, I think DC music in terms of American hardcore resonated with me more than any other scene. From very early on I developed a penpal friendship with people over there, who came over to visit around 1983/1984. I think in 1985 I went over to visit there during what they call Revolution Summer, I don't know if it was through exposure to it, or that they are one of the few labels that have maintained their position really and not got any smaller and just stuck what they believe in for no reason other than that's simply what they believe in, not because it's some sort of stance, or a political position, just that this is what they do, I believe in that, I don't believe Dischord was a business, it was a way to release music by people they like, or respect. That is the way I relate to things on my label, Commercial Suicide, it's not about being the biggest or the greatest, it's just a means to release my music and music by other people I like and respect.

In that respect, Ian MacKaye/Jeff Nelson it's quite admirable operation, really - never backing down from what they want and having never sold out. It's very inspirational in that respect, yeah. 

MB: Maybe just to finish, I thought we could talk about some more recent music- 'We are the ones' ... and I think it's on a compilation called 'Commercial Suicide is Painless' ...

TW: Yeah (laughs)

MB: When listening to that I wrote down a few words, or phrases one was 'controlled repetition' and 'pop elements' but it also had a real punk feel for me, just wondering if you could talk about that track for me a bit, please.       

TW: 'We are the ones' (pauses) you know that's a hard one for me to remember because it's one of the oldest tracks I did, and I've done four or five different versions of it (laughs) it's a kind of strange track that keeps recurring for one reason or another; I've done three versions of my own and then Ulterior Motive did a remix, so there are four different versions of it. 

The words, 'We are the ones' are words I spoke into a microphone, I think it had some kind of bearing on, I think it was somewhat space-oriented, rather than community-based DnB (laughs) I don't know it's come to represent something else with me (laughs). I think there's something in that track, there's always been something in it that has propelled me to do more with it - approach it from different angles, for absolutely no reason, I don't know why; it's just one of those tracks (laughs).

MB: The compilation itself is a range of different artists, are they contemporaries of yours, or ...

TW: Yeah, everything on Commercial Suicide is Painless came out on the label that year so it's literally a compendium of what came out in 2013, I always liked the title because it was the theme from M.A.S.H (laughs) but I don't think anyone caught that. 

MB: Your most recent release is 'Savage Circle' on Metalheadz is that correct ?

TW: Yes. 

MB: Talk to me a little about this record, what were you trying to do with this one ?

TW: (pauses) When I release things it's very difficult for me to form a realisation of what it is or why things happen because it's in some ways quite chaotic, because there are different people involved. Then it takes me a bit of time to stand back and work out the meaning, or the relevance of things; that certainly happens with a lot of lyrics for the Stupids as well, I come back a year after writing them and say, I had absolutely no idea that the song was actually about that or this. It's about gaining some perspective on something that was quite a subconscious process. 

'Savage Circle' it is what it is. For me, the track 'Just what you're feeling' I never quite understood why I called it that but it for me now is a complete standout track, and I've really fallen in love with that track because before it was that's okay, but now it's a real special one for me.

TW: It's an ep I'm really proud of. It's a little bit more abstract and layered than a lot of other DnB is at the moment and in the contemporary DnB scene I think that it is needed; it is slightly abstract style. 

MB: Just to finish, talk a bit more about what you mean by 'abstract' because I found it was an intense record and had a real punch to it, so when I hear the word abstract it sounds intellectual, what do you mean by abstract ?

TW: Well, it's (pauses) DnB is most of what is coming out, week in week out, is stripped back and clean and very focussed, just stripped back, whereas my stuff is (pauses) using an analogy of a painter that throws paint onto a canvas as compared to someone sitting there with a fine brush, painstakingly making sure that every single stroke is the correct one in the right place, in the right colour and stuff like that. 

To me, I've grown my imagined picture - out of layering different stuff so from that perspective I feel it's comparatively, within the realm of DnB, abstract. When you listen to things at different times you can hear different tones coming out in different places. This is what keeps me interested, the sonic complexity; but then someone else's experience might be - as you say - seeing it as quite punchy, or whatever. 

MB: If you're making an analogy to a painter, it's like a Jackson Pollock or something. It's got an intensity, but still a lot of depth and contrast. 

TW: Yeah, yeah, I guess. My sister is the artist, so I'm relating to it on that level as an outsider, but yeah I suppose having grown up around her and her art and the way she is with it, she always wants to explore different techniques, it's that kind of you know smudging and ending up with something beautiful. 

( MB: Was this the sister who was listening to Burt Bacharach, or listening to punk ?

TW: (pauses) This was the sister who was more Tangerine Dream-y, but went to art college with the Raincoats, so I suppose she was coming from a punk rock scene too).