Another 15 minutes
Lee Fraser, sometimes known as Dead Lee or Lee the Bastard, discusses the return of Sheep on Drugs, his ongoing Bagman project and their tempestuous relationship with record labels.
Sheep on Drugs are back. The seminal underground electronic act of ten years ago has had a patchy history since the glory days of '15 minutes of fame'. While that track remains a classic and no Goth/industrial club worth its salt leaves it out, their subsequent material has failed to live up to its potential. But now, Lee Fraser and Duncan X are at the beginning of a renewed assault on the UK scene and Lee's convinced that this is the right time for Sheep on Drugs.
"Basically, the iron is hot, let's strike. We were ten years ahead of our time, so ten years on, now is the time to do it." This time around, they're doing it without a manager or a record label deal. Their experiences with record companies in the past has left them twice bitten and not so much shy as bruised but determined. A UK tour, an EP and, early next year, a new album, are all on the way and they're doing it all themselves.
"All the information will be on the website, people won't see much press or stuff like that because we're keeping it underground. We're not interested in record company hype and bollix, the main thing is to get the music to the kids and get paid for it, that's all I'm interested in."
Back in the early '90s, the sleazy down and dirty appeal of their singles and EPs, 'Catch 22/Drug Music', 'Motorbike/Mary Jane', 'Track X' and 'TV USA' attracted a wide variety of admirers, from people in the emergent dance scene to fans of industrial and EBM. This was solidified with the release of the ironically titled debut album "Greatest Hits" and the classic '15 minutes…' single.
"The first album was great, I think the mixing could have been better, but Gareth Jones came in, that was when we were on Rhythm King, and that was perfect. He was a brilliant producer for us at that point and we should have used him the next time, and got a different engineer."
The album garnered them much attention in the music press and a major label deal with Island, which should have led to bigger and better things. However, it all went wrong. They were dropped as a commercial failure, officially after the disappointingly patchy "On Drugs" album and the two singles from it failed to make an impact. As far as Lee's concerned, they never had a chance. They initially had Island mainman, Chris Blackwell, as their A&R man, and he had much more important things to do. Then they were handed over to Mark Moreau, the head of Island England, which didn't lead to any improvement.
"Great A&R men we've got, y'know - they don't fucking do anything for us. For the 'On Drugs' album, it was basically me and Duncan locked in a room, with no guidance about what direction we were to take it in, no producer. Markus Dravs, who did the production for that album, he's a brilliant artist in his own right, but he wasn't the producer we needed. He was just brought into the studio to mix, it wasn't like he was an active part of the team, so they fucked that up. So, no wonder the second album wasn't as commercial as they were expecting, because they didn't give us any guidance.
"We were experimenting, as you do, but also, even before we went into the studio to record that album, Polygram had already bought Island and we obviously hadn't recouped, they'd only just started with us. So, even before that album was recorded, I think it was already decided that, as soon as it was released, that was it. There was no promotion for that second album at all.
"That was the beginning of the end for that phase of Sheep on Drugs, we felt like we'd lost control of it. They were sending out promo packs - they actually sent plastic lamb-chops with one of our singles. How much did that cost us? They got it wrong, they totally got it wrong."
After being dropped, they tried unsuccessfully to rebuild their career independently, but the two low budget EPs they released on their own Drug Squad label, 'Suck' and 'Strapped for Cash', bombed and so, they packed up and moved to the States. They signed with Martin Atkins' Invisible Records, which was a move they came to regret.
"Things went from bad to worse. We had more artistic control, but no money, and we were suffering in America under the hands of Martin Atkins, and it just wasn't worth it, we stopped. The last gig we played was in the States in '96, we had become a parody of a parody. We were like a parody of a rock-pop band originally, that's why we looked the way we did. We were worn down so much really by Invisible Records, who, by being so cheap, drained us of all our life-force. You just wanna give up and that's what happened, we both thought 'fuck it, what's the point'. I thought Martin Atkins was dodgy, but I suddenly realised he was way more dodgy that I'd actually thought. So I just had to cut all ties with him, I'll never work with him again."
One of the things they now have to shake off is how they became so completely associated with the '90s industrial scene. It's a scene they never really fit into and the association has damaged their original cross-genre appeal.
"What Sheep on Drugs has in common with industrial music is electronics and guitars and vocals, but, really, it's dance music. That's record companies for you, so that's why we haven't got one at the moment and we're not going to get one 'till the right one comes. By the time the right one does come along, there'll be a wicked new album and we'll have done plenty of shows and the kids will love it. I'm not approaching anyone, they're gonna come to me and I'm gonna say I want another nought on it.
"It's great being self-sufficient, 'cos record companies do not know what to do. I've got enough experience of the music industry now to know how to do it myself, to get the right team around me and I can get it done. All it is is getting the music that the kids want, the right music to the right kids and most record companies don't know how to do it."
This latest phase of Sheep on Drugs is very obviously different and is not without controversy. In the years since they originally called the project a day, Duncan X has become a well-known tattooist in London, Lee calls him the first superstar tattooist, and can no longer commit to touring with the band. Lee's work as Bagman, a more club-oriented project, has obviously rubbed off on SoD and, this time around, their live shows are less performance-based and have more in common with dance acts. Their recent shows at Eurorock in Belgium and in London have divided the audience between those who want to see an old style SoD performance and who simply wanted to dance.
"The stuff I'm doing now, it's all based on the first album and the early singles. It's that electronic kind of vibe. We always believed we were ahead of our time and I think now is the right time, 'cause that early album sounds like stuff that's being done now. What I've done with the material from the first album is I've made it sound 2002. I did this deliberately, because I thought, if I go out and play the new stuff, people wanna recognise the songs, 'cos we haven't done it for ages. To play new stuff would alienate them; they wouldn't get it. But I didn't wanna play any more retro, Sheep on Drugs is a constantly evolving thing."
Duncan is still involved in the studio project and redone the vocals for the new versions. In fact, Lee says that there's more of Duncan in the music than ever and that he sounds better than he ever did, "he can actually sing now. The only difference is I don't have this guy smashing microphones, costing me money, you know."
It took Lee four months to put together the new material, working largely alone with his laptop, and he got through it, despite a moment of panic where he thought he wouldn't be finished until two weeks after he was due to perform. And, even if there has been a mixed reaction to Sheep on Drugs "live", the music itself has a strong potential to crossover like it did in the early days. Lee can safely put thoughts of a plumber's apprenticeship out of his mind. There's good news for those who didn't enjoy the Garage gig too, as Tarantella, the lead singer with Wasp Factory act Tarantella Serpentine, has been added to their line-up as a live vocalist.
Quite apart from SoD, Lee's solo Bagman project is also continuing, though it has been sidelined somewhat following the split with Invisible, who were originally going to release the second album. In fact, it was Invisible's failure to do anything with the first album that led to the split. "They sold, in like five years, or however long they've had it, 705 copies. It's a record company's job to sell records; I could sell 705 in that time, just going around the streets."
As a result of the split, while the second Bagman album is finished, Lee's waiting until the new Sheep on Drugs stuff is sorted to release it. He's currently thinking of releasing it on vinyl because it suits a club environment more than a live setting.
Beyond the immediate future, Lee doesn't have a particular plan. Asked if there's anyone he would like to work with, he admits there isn't really anyone, other than someone with lots of money who doesn't really play music but likes the idea of being in Sheep on Drugs.
"I mean it was great doing that song for Grace Jones ['Sex Drive'], you know, that was really good, and it would be nice to work with someone I respect. I'd certainly write a song with Grace Jones, no sweat about that, but I've got no aspirations. I'm not even thinking about that, you know, I'm just thinking about me and the laptop really, at the moment, but I can stop thinking about that, 'cos I've done it."
by Girl the Bourgeois Individualist.