Recorded in the studios of community radio station 2XX-FM, Canberra.
Thanks as always to these three venerable institutions for the very fine work they do in supporting folk and independent music in Australia.
In March 2014, Billy Bragg will be touring Australia with band on his ‘Tooth and Nail’ tour, part of a worldwide expo of his latest studio album. Last year, I interviewed Billy as he made a whirlwind promotional tour to Australia. We revisited some old themes and looked forward to this year’s tour.
[For the time poor, the full audio file of this interview (including outtakes featuring gratuitous underwear references) is at: Timber and Steel.]
Having interviewed Billy a year and four days previously, I started by asking him what the last 369 days had comprised.
Billy Bragg: Basically I’m in what we call an album year. Actually, it’s more than a year; it’s a ‘cycle’, which kicks off by putting out a brand new record.
And it’s a big deal because you’ve got to keep focus on gigs and promotion – that’s why I’m in Australia really, to be part of the promotion for ‘Tooth and Nail’, speaking at ‘Big Sound’, doing a few in-stores and a show.
It kind of takes over everything, you know? I’ve had a few emails from people saying, “I haven’t heard from you for ages”.
It’s basically because I’ve been out on the road. I did a seven week bus tour in the United States of America with my band. I’ve been doing the summer festivals – every weekend I’m in some far flung European field somewhere, playing my songs.
And Part Two has just commenced with this trip to Australia. And I’ll be doing a proper Australia tour and a trip to New Zealand in March.
Bill Quinn: Do you ever do that thing in the morning or possibly the early afternoon where you wake up and have bets on exactly where you are?
BB: No, but I did say to the radio guy down at Brisbane this morning that I’m really pleased to be in Melbourne. That didn’t go down very well!
BQ: Speaking of Australia and speaking of your American tour, it would be remiss of me not to mention Kim Churchill. How did he go as your support?
BB: Really well. Really good. Really lived up to our expectations, Kim. And he’s going to come over and do those [late 2013] European and UK dates with me. So that should be a lot of fun.
BQ: Excellent. Now, given your background and who Billy Bragg is, I figure when you’re on tour you must have people coming up in every city and every town with their social justice issues and things going on in the political environment there.
BB: Well, basically what I do in order to facilitate that is that after a show, I can spend at least as long again at the T-shirt stall, signing people’s CDs, t-shirts, getting a photograph with them.
And you find that in that context, people just want to talk about the gig and themselves and when they last saw you and that sort of thing. But often you find local activists come along and talk to you about what’s going on in a certain place or, “I see you’re going to somewhere tomorrow; you know what’s going on there?”
I find I get a lot of feedback; it’s a really important part of what I do. I was just saying to someone here this morning in Brisbane, when we played at QPAC last year, I actually was at the t-shirts for longer than I was on stage. They kept the bar open in the theatre.
In fact at the very end of the evening, the people who I had signed stuff for at the beginning of the session had gone home, paid the baby-sitter, got their vinyl albums and one of them had driven back.
I said, “I’ve done you already, mate!” He said, “Oh yeah, I popped home.”
Oh God! This can go on and on.
So, you obviously pick stuff up off the social media as well but talking to people after the show, that’s where I find out how the show’s going, whether it made sense to people, what’s happening, where to see the footy tomorrow and that sort of thing.
BQ: For this little surgical strike out to Australia, you did have a look at what was happening in the country, maybe last Saturday, and I saw you made that reference to our  federal election as being something like a meal.
What do you make of it now that the waiters have packed everything up?
Is it the dog’s breakfast that you expected?
BB: The real relief was that when these dates were put in, the election was expected to be next weekend. So I would have been here in the last week of campaigning. Which would have been… really… exciting…
However, I was in the air when you made your decision as a nation.
And yeah, I think it’s not an uncommon response among the electorate at the moment. The fact that we ended up with a coalition government last time, which is unprecedented in peace time in the UK. Which does suggest that the narrow options that people have from the two main parties is not really exciting voters.
And if you look at the way voting went in the Senate, picking it up from newspapers here, I think people are not really feeling completely at home with the offer that’s being put forward by the coalition and the ALP.
The ALP with their in-fighting, which is never popular. In our country we have the same thing: when governments or parties are perceived to be at each other’s throats, they’re always punished by the electorate for that sort of thing.
And having said that, it’s not as if Tony Abbott is a widely popular person. His numbers don’t seem to be high in the way that, say, Tony Blair was consistently more popular than his party at the polls.
Although Abbott may have won the election, I don’t think he’s got a rousing mandate to give Australia on a plate to the mining industry.
BQ: It’s going to be an interesting next three years. I had a thought this morning that since you’ve done that song, “(The Scousers) Never Buy The Sun”*, I think the lefties of Australia might be commissioning you to do a local version along the lines of, “Australians never buy The Telegraph or the Herald Sun and so on and so forth.
[* There’s a free download available at that thar link!]
BB: And just work your way through the Murdoch stable, yeah.
One of the interesting things for me was arriving yesterday in all the wake from the election, because obviously it takes a couple of days the way your electoral system works for the results to filter through. So reading the papers yesterday, getting a bit of an idea, somewhere in the middle of it all reading the editor of The Telegraph say, well, you know, people understood those headlines were opinion, not news.
I don’t think that’s true. I think people expect opinion to be in the newspaper but they expect headlines to be on the front page.
I believe people are moving away from newspapers as it is, but to pin your fortunes to one particular party and one particular idea, I think it does narrow down your readership somewhat.
BQ: Murdoch has endeared himself to Australians no end today; he’s come out today and said that basically all public servants are ‘phoney welfare recipients’.
BB: Yep. I saw him tweeting that as well. And he mentioned ‘benefit scroungers’ as well. It’s an unbelievable world view. In our country, the economy has ground to a halt because people aren’t being paid proper wages. Unemployment is falling because so many people are in part-time jobs, so the unemployment numbers are down, but there’s a rise in the phenomenon we call ‘under-employment’.
BQ: A very fine Australian singer-songwriter by the name of Heath Cullen (who I could really recommend you check out) came on Facebook the other night and just wrote, “Wearing badges is not enough in days like these”, a line from your song.
I then thought of a different version this morning which is: “Posting memes and liking Facebook pages is not enough in days like these.”
BB: Amen to that, Bill!
I think one of the problems with the Internet is there’s an awful lot of cynicism out there. I don’t know if you’ve been following the stuff on Twitter in the UK, the woman who was campaigning to put a woman’s face on the banknotes – Caroline Criado-Perez was campaigning to get at least one woman on the banknotes.
They were getting rid of Florence Nightingale and replacing her with Winston Churchill, so she campaigned and she won, and just got a torrent of not just abuse, but rape threats, bomb threats, “I’m gonna come ‘round your house and do terrible things to you”.
Just for that. It’s all that cynicism out there on the Internet; it’s so easy to do that.
The only real antidote to that is activism. Be active. If you can engage, if you can take part in the debates and get on with it then that start to chip away at that cynicism. I guess that’s the underlying message of what you say: wearing badges or liking Facebook is not enough. You’ve got to engage.
You have to have that [a dialogue]. You have to engage with your enemies in reasoned debate. The idea that freedom of speech gives you the right to cuss people out – it doesn’t. You’ve got a right to express your opinion. If you can’t do that without being abusive, then I’m going to block you, basically.
But if you are going to be reasonable, I’ll have a debate with you. Obviously with 140 characters no one can say they’ve won a debate in those terms! But I will engage at least.
BQ: Now. The ‘Tooth and Nail’ tour in March. By that time you will have been on the road with it for about 12 months, won’t you?
BB: Yeah, from the time we started the American tour. So we should know by then how to play the bloomin’ songs! But I’ve got a lovely little band. They’re all English guys now, and they play the new album beautifully and they take old Billy Bragg songs and kind of put them through that matrix. Like ‘Valentine’s Day Is Over’, ‘Ideology’.
And it’s been working really well. I still do a couple of little solo songs in the middle. I’m really pleased with the band and we’re looking forward to bringing them over to Australia. I got so much support on the tour in four or five cities. I’m really looking forward to coming over.
BQ: I’m looking forward to it intensely because I’ve seen you play five times from 1987 to 2012 and it’s always been Billy Bragg plus guitar and that’s it, so I’m looking forward to the band.
BB: Well, I hopefully it’ll make sense, Bill! You’ve got me worried now.
But not as worried as I’ve just seen under the table here and I’ve left a pair of pants and a pair of socks out of the wash. That’s one day closer to my next wash! I’ve got to plan this out better. I’ve been trying to get the spin dry on between interviews. Shame on me!
BQ: I’m glad to know that between activism and love songs that you’re keeping your smalls clean as well!
BB: It’s absolutely crucial! It makes me the Billy Bragg I am! Clean pants and socks every day.
BQ: Tickets on sale [now], and we look forward to seeing Billy Bragg in March 2014 for the ‘Tooth and Nail’ tour. Thanks very much for joining us, Billy.
BB: My pleasure. Nice to speak to you, Bill, as always.
Billy Bragg kicks off his Australian tour in Perth on 9 March and is in New Zealand from 23 March, Details at: http://billybragg.co.uk/gigs/gigs.php