The reunion of the Pack in England—U.K. punk legend Kirk Brandon’s earliest, angriest band—only happened a mere month ago, but Brandon apparently has quite the work ethic, because he’s now in the middle of a one month, 18-date tour on the United States and Canada, with a totally different band he fronts, Spear of Destiny.
Brandon fielded the Straight’s questions from the road, in between shows in Texas and Colorado. He’s en route to what will be his first time in Vancouver, to play the Astoria on March 3.
“John and Simon [Werner, John’s late brother and former guitarist for the Pack] used to talk about the place every now and then, so I am curious about it,” he tells the Straight. “It’ll be the first time there.”
Brandon says he’ll be playing “mostly” Spear of Destiny material, with “various songs from all periods, from the very first album in 1983,” up to the most recent, 2017’s Tontine. Brandon says he is proud to have made that album, “simply because of great songs on it”, and which will make up three-quarters of the Sunday evening set—a treat, because it’s a strong album (though I for one will shout one discrete request for “Legion” if Brandon solicits input).
For the purposes of this interview, it seemed prudent to go back to the very start, and to talk briefly about Theatre of Hate, as well—the band that Brandon fronted between the Pack and Spear of Destiny, which is also still an active concern.
AM: How did it feel playing Pack songs with John again? Anything that playing these early songs again jarred loose in your memory?
KB: For me, John's words summed it up: "Squaring the circle." It has been overdue some 40 years plus. Regrettably John’s brother Simon, the Pack lead guitarist, has passed on some years ago. After an absence of 40 years, the week he died, I was to have met him in the old town in Hastings. [In the U.K., that is!] It was arranged by my ex-girlfriend, who had met him. He wanted to meet and have a drink and laugh about the Pack days. I was really looking forward to seeing him. I was informed mid-week he had died. Some strange timing.
Playing with John was exactly the same as originally. John is a heart and soul player. An original. His bravery is unquestioned.
AM: Anything planned in the future?
KB: At this time, we are talking about doing another four shows later in the year, possibly in the U.K.
AM: Curious, given songs like “King of Kings” and a band named Spear of Destiny, do you think you have a deeper-than-usual antipathy for organized religion? Where does that antipathy come from?
KB: Looking back, I knew as a child that the programming was inherently wrong. A priest tried to get hold of me once, but even aged 10 I could sprint like the Devil for 40 yards. He failed. I have no time for organized religion. Historically it has been a merciless slaughterer of races, be it with the swords of the Spanish in South America, or whoever. For all its learning and education and teaching, it is cruelty itself. Men must free themselves from its shackles, lest endless repetition.
AM: You also seem to have a deeper-than-average knowledge of scripture for someone so hostile to religion—so did you have much of a religious upbringing? (Do you have any religious leanings now?)
KB: My mother was Irish so, you had it coming at you daily via the nuns teaching me and my sister. Religious leanings? No. The universe is my only belief. "They" believe it may have a centre, and may be moving/expanding. Good enough for me.
AM: Your newer material seems a little less hostile than those early Pack songs, was it interesting for you to "get behind" those songs again? Did you update or alter any of them for the recent shows? Did you dust off/rework any previously undocumented songs by the Pack?
KB: For two songs, the lyrics, bar the choruses, I reworked. If I could catch a line or phrase, I used it. I also found a set of chords which have never been used so, John and I might have a go at them. There are a handful more Pack songs but they will take a lot of looking at to be workable.
The places and feelings these songs took me to was bizarre, funny and poignant. All written within the two years after my mother died in a car crash. Not the best of days, perhaps. But there was fun too amongst the smashed-up buildings and squats of South London of the later end of the 1970s.
AM: John tells me you used to be quite provocative to your audience back in the day—insulting their politics and taunting them. That doesn't seem to fit with what I've seen of your recent footage. Did playing Pack songs bring that side of you back, at all? (Am I correct in thinking you're less angry than you once were?)
KB: I used to provoke the audiences. For a reaction. I don’t need to do that today. The music and lyrics say what it is, I think. Sometimes people shout things out, I sometimes respond. Angry? You never lose it. But today I see 180 as opposed to 30 degrees.
AM: You've become a much more technically adept singer since the Pack days (I love your early vocal style, but you seem much more in command of your instrument now.) Did you have to unlearn anything to sing the old songs “properly?”
KB: No. It’s all allowed to come back but I understand where it came from and the why. The world shifts ever so slightly but our perceptions can encompass a lot as to the whys.
The early vocal style was of its time. A time of angry young men. There was a whiff of revolution in the air in 1979 in England. The country was on its knees and Thatcher was "on the throne". Literally anything could have happened. So close...
AM: I always loved the name “Theatre of Hate”. Is that what you thought of punk as?
KB: Punk is whatever people say it is, for the reasons they say it is. It covered a lot of groundbreaking stuff, and not just music and fashion.
AM: There's a period with Theatre of Hate where you seemed to really try to embrace a more dance-club aesthetic—you can hear it even in a song like “Do You Believe in the Westworld”. I don't hear much of that on Tontine. What periods of your music are you most interested in, now?
KB: Dance music?!....The March of the machines...sometimes good, sometimes indifferent… but machines on the time-frame grid.....4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128... Right now, I’m writing for the Theatre of Hate album, a work in progress, yes.
AM: Coming round to Tontine—how did you come to write a song about MK ULTRA? Where did you hear about Operation Midnight Climax? (My esteemed colleague Adrian Mack, who knows quite a bit more about these matters than I do, was impressed.)
KB: I learned about that program from reading about the Vietnam War and all the mind control stuff the government got into there. From there I traced it back to 1953, when the program started. They had some very strange ideas about using speed and barbiturates at the same time. I guess they were just trying to blank out men’s minds and reprogram men. Some people swear Mark Chapman, Lennon’s killer, was one...there are a lot of theories and a lot of Jason Bourne-type killings unanswered around the world. National defense knows no boundaries.
AM: Anything else you want to say to Vancouver audiences, or about the upcoming show? Other plans for your time here, or for the tour?
KB: Just that it is a long time coming I know, and I look forward to playing what it is I do for the good citizens of Vancouver. Looking forward to seeing the city. And seeing John, of course.
Spear of Destiny plays the Astoria on Sunday (March 3). The band's 2019 tour page is here.