Into Music: Interview with Phil “Swill” Odgers

Born in Oban, Phil “Swill” Odgers spent his early childhood in Scotland before moving down to the south east coast of England where he formed the punk band Catch 22 (who twice supported The Clash) with Paul Simmonds. A few years later they both moved to London and formed The Men They Couldn’t Hang with other like minded souls with Phil on co-vocalist and guitar duties and have pretty much been making their brand of folk/punk/rock ever since.

Lauded early on by John Peel, whom the band did 3 sessions for, their historic and politically charged songs saw them gain an instant following that has stayed with them and grown since their debut album Night Of A Thousand Candles was released in 1985. Phil has also released a clutch of albums with Liberty Cage, the Swaggerband and in his own name over the years. Into Music caught up with the singer/songwriter to get the lowdown on what he’s been up to during recent months, the band’s appeal and endurance, and looking forward to getting back out playing live again.

John: Lockdown has been a difficult time for all. How has it been for you, Phil, and have you learned any new skills or hobbies? 

Phil: I’ve had to adapt a lot and the main thing I’ve kinda got recently okay with is the technology side, doing a number of online concerts. Setting these up, making sure the sound is OK. I’ve not taken up any new hobbies particularly apart from learning the ukulele which I got just over a year ago as I fancied trying to write songs with it. I’ve ended up playing that a lot and is something I suppose I saw initially as a novelty instrument but the more I spent time on it the more I realised it’s actually a pretty beautiful instrument with great melodies on it.

I’ve also increased my reading, watching TV and films and that kind of thing and like many people, I had lots of plans to do things, like write, including a book I’ve been working on for over a year but I’ve just not had the time to finish that. I’ve done a lot of recording and a lot of collaboration work with people and about 3 or 4 different charity collaboration recordings. It’s been really busy, I just haven’t left the house much!

Your Facebook page states you are “currently on a sold out tour of your kitchen” and you’ve already done around 15 gigs from home to an online audience in recent months. What’s the background to that?

It came up early on and I did my first one around about April but people were doing them in March before then. I wasn’t sure at first because it is a strange thing if you’ve not done it before but I was asked to do something for an organisation called We Shall Overcome who support food banks in the main. So I did that and it went quite well although I did make a few mistakes, technical and in general which I learned from.

But once you start doing them, the thing I noticed more than anything, it’s not just doing a gig, you are taking part in an online community. I started getting messages from people, first of all The Men They Couldn’t Hang fans and people who come to my own solo gigs but more and more and very quickly, messages from all over the world. So people who couldn’t come to see the band due to where they live, such as Brazil, Africa and other places.

But also, people who just never go to gigs because they can’t for whatever reason, people who don’t get out their house much or are afraid to go to concerts. I also noticed, and it’s unlike a normal gig as you might get pissed off with people chatting, but everyone is in the same boat so it’s also a way for people to get together, chat and make friendships which are kept alive.

At first it felt like a necessity to do it but then I started to really enjoy the process and it’s an amazing buzz if you do them live. Doing a recording is different as if you get something wrong you can just re-do it but you also don’t get the immediate feedback you do on the live thing. It’s an amazing and incredible buzz doing a real live concert. The second before you start there is a real nervousness, is it going to work, is it going to sound OK, will I get it right? Afterwards I’ll have a couple of beers and read all the comments that were made. They’re great and I think as a result of the response by musicians and others to Covid, I don’t think performing online will stop when the Covid situation eventually stops. It’s relatively simple to make a home recording and to have a basic TV studio in your own home.

The other thing is I wasn’t going to charge for the concerts although people could on a voluntary basis if they wanted to. I thought it would be wrong to make them exclusive as people might not be able to afford it and some people might just want to browse so why should they want to pay for something they don’t know what it will be?

I was doing the concerts weekly at the beginning and during the week would be going through songs, deciding what to do, re-learning old songs and so on.

You had an online concert arranged with Paul Simmonds (from The Men They Couldn’t Hang) but it ended up being just you – what happened?

London had moved to tier 4 and Paul who lives in Brighton couldn’t travel as a result due to the restrictions so I did it on my own but hopefully we will do one in the future. It’s a real drag as twice now we’ve worked on a really different set including songs we’ve not done live for a very long time. We had a gig down on the south coast but that was pulled again because of Covid restrictions despite it being socially distanced.

What impact has Covid had on live plans? 

On one hand it’s been devastating for bands and the association to trade. Everyone thinks about the musicians but at least the musicians have opportunities to make money such as selling their records and doing online gigs. People like the crews, lighting, sound, transport and the venues, it’s absolutely devastating and horrendous.

This is the first time since I was 17 that I’ve not played a traditional, live concert. We have certain places we really like to go, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh and we love to play King Tuts and Oran Mor. We’re going to miss out on that for a whole year of people we catch up with where we go to play live. It’s all very strange.

The tour has been put back more than 12 months, with some postponed at least twice. We’ve had to put off some gigs in Germany and by the time they’re put back on, we won’t be in the EU anymore and we don’t know if we will be able to do those gigs.

Some venues have had to shut and it’s unclear if they will be able to open back up.

It’s awful. A lot of the smal/medium sized venues don’t make a lot of money and are not run by people who want to get rich, they’re run by people who love the music. Quite often, it’s the case that those venues are worth more as a piece of real estate and there’s always people who want to snap them up to develop. Once they’re boarded up, that’s it, they are gone, never to come back again. These venues are iconic, they’re cultural, they’re part of the local area.

What’s the live experience like playing Scotland, there seems a natural affinity between band and audience?

It’s not just going to Scotland as we would be travelling across Europe doing tours we get quite a large number of fans from Scotland who follow the band on tour. Ricky the bass player is from Kilbirnie and I was born in Oban so it’s maybe in the blood.

We’ve also played with other bands and when they finish, a few of them will just go back to the hotel, they won’t really hang at the bar. For us, it’s always been more than just a job, the social aspect is quite important to us.

Are there any plans for new music whether with The Men They Couldn’t Hang or in your own name?

From my own perspective I’ve got an album finished and ready to go although everything is taking longer due to Covid. The artist is currently working on the cover and I just need to finalise the track order I want, That should be out hopefully around February or March 2021.

I’ve also got a collaboration with the guy from Merry Hell, we’ve been recording an album together remotely, of stuff by Phil Ochs who was in Bob Dylan’s group of people. He was kind of overlooked in a way so we’ve done an album of his songs. He had issues but his songs are brilliant.

Paul (Simmonds) is writing an album with his partner Naomi but we are looking at doing another album together next year and possibly another The Men They Couldn’t Hang album too, there are a lot of ideas bubbling away.

What’s the secret of longevity and success of The Men They Couldn’t Hang?

Clean living and early nights!! I don’t know but sometimes I think if we had a big hit early on I think we wouldn’t be going any more. We’ve had a modicum of success which was enough to keep us going but we also get on pretty well. We’ve only had two changes in the line up which is remarkable for a band that’s been about that long.

We play some of the festivals, like Rebellion and some bands might only have one person from the original line up. From the social aspect, you’ll see us all together having a drink and hanging out after gigs, we don’t go our separate ways.

Saying that, it is hard travelling all that time for so long so you are bound to get on each others nerves occasionally.

John Peel was a big fan of the band, your cover of The Green Fields Of France made no.3 in his Festive Fifty, that must have been a thrill? 

As a kid, thinking of what I wanted to do which was music, the pinnacle of success was to get played on John Peel and if you did you’d think, “that’s it, you’ve made it”. So having John Peel champion the band was amazing.

It’s funny how it worked out, we signed up to Elvis Costello’s label Imp/Demon. We had a song, Walkin’ Talkin’ which was potentially going to be the single but it was Elvis’ idea to release Green Fields Of France as he felt it could be a hit. He recommended we do it as a single as we had it in our set. There’s hardly been a gig since when we’ve not played it and it’s an emotionally draining song to play.

John Peel was amazing to us and that’s what really helped launch us. We did 3 or 4 sessions on his show and it was just an amazing time, everything moved so quickly for us, it was just a pleasure.

The band have written about history and what is happening politically over the years (Ghost Of Cable Street, Shirt Of Blue, Sirens etc). Is that important to the band to comment upon what is going on?

I think it’s important that we use analogies of different points in history to show what is happening again. We meet a lot of people who had first heard us when they were young and they’ve got interested in a particular point or person because they heard about it in a song and often that might shape their political viewpoint or their outlook on the world. It’s not just on one song, we’ve heard that several times from different people across the world.

Our strong driving point is to be on the side of the underdog and see justice and fairness for everyone which is quite a difficult thing though it just seems to be getting worse and worse at the moment. It’s shocking to see what people are getting away with at the government.

We do feel the political landscape shapes our music and our thinking but at the same time we don’t want to be seen to be going on and lecture and be seen as a purely political band, that’s only one element.

It goes back to what we mentioned before about longevity, it’s the fact that we are all different characters in the band, we can look at the historical aspect but we can be not very serious at all and everything in between.

We’d often have quite drawn out and heated conversations but we’d get to pretty much the same point.

Thinking of your own musical journey, who are your influences that have stayed with you during that time?

I remember listening to John Peel and some of the bands he was playing. When I first heard the beginnings of the punk movement, that inspired me to go and play. I liked the attitude that you didn’t have to be a trained musician, you just needed to be able to go up on stage and have the nerve to do it.

Bands like The Clash really and truly inspired me and I still listen back to them. Ahead of one of my Sunday Sessions I was having a listen to The Clash, thinking about a song or two I could do of them and there is some bad stuff in there but also some brilliant stuff.

Further back, Woody Guthrie I liked lyrically. Hank Williams, I liked his style. Those guys were wild, crazy, country troubadours. Also, I missed out on some stuff I probably should have been into but I didn’t, so I’ve gone back a bit. Steve Earle is someone I’ve stuck with for a long time.

On your solo album Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down, you do a cover of The Shakin’ Pyramids – Sunset Of My Tears. How did that come about?

I was a big fan of rockabilly and still am. I was listening to a few rockabilly bands based in London or America but I remember hearing The Shakin’ Pyramids and that whole album, absolutely loved it! I think they were such an underrated band. I was quite flattered after I recorded it that one of the band got in touch with me to say they appreciated the version.

Thinking back to all the gigs you’ve attended as a fan, which one stands out the most as really memorable and why?

I went to see Christy Moore at the Hammersmith Odeon a long time ago. What was amazing about that was it was just him on stage and a guitarist and a full house, you could hear a pin drop in between songs.

Also, I saw some of the early Stiff gigs such as Wreckless Eric, who we played with later. The Adverts were really good although it was awful as it involved that whole spitting thing which was crazy.

Into Music would like to thank Phil for taking the time to do the interview.

To keep up to date with Phil, visit the social media links below and to order music and/or merchandise visit his Bandcamp page here . Similarly, to keep up to date with The Men They Couldn’t Hang visit the social media links below and to order music and/or merchandise visit their Bandcamp page here.

You can find out more about the anti-austerity and pro-community organisation We Shall Overcome here.

John Welsh
@welshjb

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