“It had to happen.” That's how simple the metamorphosis of Working Men’s Club was for Syd Minsky-Sargeant, the 18-year-old mastermind of the British foursome. In no time, his group transformed from a post-punk band into an electronic machine inspired by house, techno and rave. Two band members had to give way to the change of course, but Minsky-Sargeant's vision was sacred. With a blistering debut full of industrial bangers, the stubborn and steadfast helmsman proves himself right.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Piran Aston
‘Trapped inside a town, inside my mind. Stuck with no ideas, I’m running out of time.’ These are the opening lines of 'Valleys', the gigantic opener of Working Men's Club's debut album. The song is reminiscent of New Order in the late eighties. Circa Technique, so to speak, but with a more youthful spirit. The song is a lament for the Calder Valley, an area in the north west of England described as a coffin in 'Valleys'. Syd Minsky-Sargeant grew up there, in the sleepy town of Todmorden. Boredom was the main source of inspiration for his music, the vehicle with which he has been trying to escape Todmorden bit by bit in recent years. Pre-pandemic, his approach worked quite well: Minsky-Sargeant started studying at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in nearby Manchester and founded Working Men's Club there, with guitarist Giulia Bonometti and drummer Jake Bogacki. In early 2019, the band marked their debut 'Bad Blood'. Along with bands like Squid, black midi and Black Country, New Road, they became part of a promising wave of post-punk bands that swept across Britain.
Now Minsky-Sargeant is trapped in Todmorden again. Of course he had imagined the weeks before the release of his debut album to be a bit different, but he doesn’t mind too much. He has already started album two and once again has time to discover music in a different way than watching shows from bands he doesn't really like on tour. “I feel privileged to have the talent and equipment to make music. I'm actually falling in love again with the place I used to want to leave. It feels as if the risk of contamination is smaller here than in the big city. There are fewer temptations to go out.”
Not that there's usually that much going on in Todmorden, mind you. But Minsky-Sargeant does speak highly of The Golden Lion, the pub he frequents. Or actually, ‘pub’ is too short-sighted. The Golden Lion is a real community hall, where concerts and club nights take place. Even before he was eighteen, Minsky-Sargeant regularly slipped in to see established DJs like Justin Robertson and Luke Unabomber at work. Working Men's Club played its first show at The Golden Lion: Minsky-Sargeant booked and promoted the performance itself. Owner Richard Walker aka Waka allowed him to use the small concert hall above the pub for free. “Even if we're in theaters of 600 or 1000 people, I'll still come back to Todmorden to play a show at The Golden Lion. Places like The Golden Lion are very important, especially in areas like the Calder Valley. It's not just pubs or stages: they're lifelines. Without such independent places, the community falls apart and new bands have no place to play. It's a tough time for places like that, so it's important for people to realize that. Nobody makes money at the 'bottom' of the music industry, while the 'top' cannot exist without it. But hardly any money flows back from top to bottom. Musicians should remember where they come from and support places like The Golden Lion however they can. You know what it is, people from London are talking more and more about the music being made here in the Calder Valley, but they don't give a shit if The Golden Lion has to close.”
Just to indicate: the North-South divide is still strongly present in England. Well, those guys from Squid are quite nice and their music is good, but otherwise Minsky-Sargeant shows no interest at all in the bands that hang out around the headquarters of label Speedy Wunderground and South London venue The Windmill. Ever since Working Men's Club has been mentioned in the same breath as the exponents of the metropolitan post-punk scene, the frontman has been doing his best to distance himself from that scene. After the release of 'Bad Blood', Working Men's Club seemed to be on the brink of a breakthrough. But in the run-up to a second single, the group underwent a real metamorphosis. Minsky-Sargeant signed with Heavenly Recordings and showed label boss Jeff Barrett some demos. From those demos, it appeared that the drum machine from 'Bad Blood' had only been a first glimpse of the more electronic course that Minsky-Sargeant had mapped out. When the raw, repetitive 'Teeth' - a bridge between 'Bad Blood' and the debut album - was released as the second single from Working Men's Club, things definitely changed. There was no turning back. Giulia Bonometti and Jake Bogacki also drew that conclusion: they couldn’t agree with their frontman's vision and packed their bags. The duo had already been supplemented with bassist Liam Ogburn and was eventually replaced by Mairead O'Connor from Fat White Family side project The Moonlandingz and Rob Graham from Drenge.
“It was a completely selfish undertaking,” Minsky-Sargeant recalls. “I knew we'd be stuck with the post-punk stamp if our second single was also a guitar song. It didn't do wonders for everyone, but I wouldn't back down. I was so fed up with everyone making post-punk all of a sudden. All those bands are just trying to imitate Gang Of Four and Talking Heads. I wanted to do something different, make dance music while keeping the guitars. If we hadn't taken that step and joined the status quo, I would never have forgiven myself. In the first place I make music for myself, d'you know what I mean? After all, it's my name on the cover, so as long as I'm not satisfied, the music isn't finished yet."
“If we stuck to the status quo, I would never have forgiven myself.”
It is not only the music of modern rock bands that bores Minsky-Sargeant, but the whole world around them as well. “I haven't gone to concerts for a while. I just wanted to wake up in the afternoon and then go to a party at 2 or 3 in the morning, not to a show that ends at 11 o'clock. I hope that we can play more often around that time when shows are possible again, that we can surround ourselves more with DJs and producers than with other bands. Our music has been remixed by the likes of Anthony Naples, Gabe Gurnsey and Graham Massey from 808 State, so we already know some people who normally play in big techno clubs. I think ultimately our show will also be more of a show than a concert. Kind of like the mega mix we made from the album. I don't talk between songs anyway, that has no added value as far as I'm concerned.”
Since their change of course, Working Men's Club are no longer mentioned in the same breath as Squid, black midi and Black Country, New Road. No, comparisons are more often made with acts from Manchester's rich musical past who also straddled the border between rock and electronica. Acts from the stable of the famous Factory Records, such as the aforementioned New Order, A Certain Ratio and Happy Mondays. The comparisons make sense, Minsky-Sargeant knows, although the resemblance is not based on his own fascination with the city. In fact, during his studies Minsky-Sargeant concluded that musically, Manchester is a rather dull city. “Nothing has changed there since the 1990s, people just want to imitate that period. Of course there are some interesting bands in Manchester, but they mainly come there from outside. Bands from Manchester itself are just trying to be Oasis. They are so proud of their history there that they all still want to look like Liam Gallagher.”
The fact that Working Men's Club's debut album has echoes of Manchester is no result of an obsession with the aforementioned acts. It is mainly because Misky-Sargeant is inspired by the music that also inspired New Order, A Certain Ratio and Happy Mondays. “Sure I like that music, but for me it started with the techno and house from Detroit and Chicago. And with Kraftwerk. I've been listening to their music for a long time, but I never thought of it as electronic music before. While it is so clear: certainly their later work, such as Tour de France, is just techno.”
Things finally make sense when Minsky-Sargeant sees Soulwax play at a festival a few years ago. He has no idea who or what the Belgian formation is, but a friend drags him to the Dewaele brothers’ show. “I was blown away. It was that tour where they played with three drummers, all playing the same beat at the exact same time. mental. And then those huge modular synthesizers, it sounded great. I was kind of off my head at the time, but it was hugely inspiring. That show really made me want to make electronic music.”
The playfulness of Sheffield
In everything Minsky-Sargeant does – be it guitar in hand or synthesizer at his fingertips – the teenager has a strong aversion from the usual. He doesn't want to be a rock band, but become a producer? He doesn't find that interesting either. “Recently someone asked me if I hadn't thought of going solo when the composition of the band changed. That seems so boring to me, standing there with some decks and a microphone. I think it's important that we're still a band, because that makes us different. Just as you must remember where you come from, you must also remember what you are.”
That love for the abnormal may explain why not London or Manchester, but the industrial Sheffield, is England’s most interesting city, according to Minsky-Sargeant. It is a city with a certain underdog position. A little strange, but nice. Minsky-Sargeant talks about The Human League, but especially praises Cabaret Voltaire. “I only discovered them after I finished the album. I thought that was very strange, because if there is one band we resemble, it is Cabaret Voltaire. But I just had never heard of them.”
"For me it has always remained a bit of a joke, because I actually started making dance music by accident."
On recommendation of Heavenly Recordings, Minsky-Sargeant teamed up with a producer from Sheffield in the run-up to Working Men's Club's debut album. His name is Ross Orton, his fingerprints can be found on M.I.A.'s Galang, Arctic Monkeys' AM and The Falls Your Future Our Clutter. Without Orton – with whom Minsky-Sargeant now forms the duo Minsky Rock – Working Men's Club would not have become what the group is today, the singer believes. “I watched what he did and then tried to imitate it at home. I actually saw him do things that I would never have thought of myself. Take 'A.A.A.A' for example, that entire song was made on one synthesizer. The bassline, the beat, everything. When you write a song like that, it gets you really excited, but it's often hard to maintain that energy when you're recording. Ross was the first to get me excited about music I had already written. For example, we completely reinvented ‘Angel’. We've been playing it live for a while, but added all kinds of layers in the studio that you might not even hear anymore. There are 15 guitar parts in that song, which is why it sounds so layered and grand. Then we threw a vocoder over it and combined the drum computer with real drums. Those are things Ross came up with. He changed my view of dance music. I feel like no one has ever understood me so well, and it feels great to be treated as an equal by someone like Ross, even though we're just kids."
The excitement that Minsky-Sargeant is talking about does indeed burst from the album. The songs all sound massive, but are also characterized by a certain playfulness and an indomitable urge to prove one’s worth. Listen to the thirteen-minute closing track 'Angel' and you'll find that Working Men's Club doesn't exactly know how to make dance music, and that that's exactly where the group's strength lies. “That's how it went with 'Teeth',” Minsky-Sargeant recalls. “I thought that number one big joke when I wrote it. The most ridiculous song ever. At the time I only had one drum machine and one synthesizer, I wrote half of the album there. Shit equipment. That beat – du du du, du du du du, DU – I thought it was the dumbest beat I'd ever heard. But then the label suddenly said: this is actually very good. For me it has always remained a bit of a joke, because I actually started making dance music by accident. It's only when someone says it's okay that you think, huh, really? That someone like Ross – who co-wrote an album like Galang – thinks I make good dance music still shocks me. I hope I can always keep that playfulness, because there are already so many people making dance music intentionally, and it often gets so serious.”
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.