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Working Men's Club's Syd Minksy Sergeant has found his voice

13 July 2022, 08:50

When I meet Working Men’s Club curious frontman Syd Minksy-Sargeant in a London bar, he's at the tail end of a drawn out day full of promo for his band’s eagerly anticipated second full length album Fear Fear.

As I wait for him to wrap up a shoot with his fellow bandmates, I’m made aware by a stranger at the bar that Stone Club is happening soon in the downstairs venue. Stone Club is a niche collective of stone enthusiasts who pride themselves on recreating prehistory. It’s essentially a glorified spoken word evening set amongst a backdrop of curious psychedelic projections of nature, ambient electronica, and field recordings, but the sentiment of encouraging individuals to think about places in new ways, and connecting to nature and a simpler way of life through community and conversation, aligns with the fibers of Fear Fear’s being in a way that can only be described as serendipitous.

Since signing to Heavenly Recordings in 2020 after playing a gig in Manchester (less than an hour’s drive from Minksy-Sargeant’s hometown of Todmorden), everything Working Men’s Club have released on that label has been in the COVID era, which includes their critically acclaimed debut eponymous album. Working Mens Club is an idiosyncratic concoction of techno and house, imbued with guitars and plastered with Minksy-Sargeant’s demanding and droll lyricism and vocal delivery. It echoes the spirit of effortlessly cool UK bands of ‘80s new wave, and although they were sloppily thrown in amongst all the other post-punk labelled artists in Britain, Working Men’s Club were and still are nothing of the sort; instead completely their own creation.

With that said, it’s important to note that Working Men’s Club is not a pandemic project. Minksy-Sargeant formed the band as part of a trio when he was 16, whilst “fucking around at collage” with no interest in further education. He used the advantages of surplus time you’re afforded as a teenager to make music, and now, several line-up changes and a global pandemic later, he’s 20 years old, which is hard to believe given how wise and self assured he seems. Today Minksy-Sargeant spearheads Working Men’s Club as his own vessel for music, with the help of friend, collaborator and producer Ross Orten guiding the way. He still doesn’t view the band as a solo project.

“It’s hard to pinpoint that first year of Working Men’s Club because it was a bit all over the place” he tells me, also stating that he views Working Men’s Club and Fear Fear as “fairly adolescent albums”. “I was trying to make sense of a lot of things going on in my life,” he says, “and I still am.”

Both albums document Minksy-Sargeant’s life between the ages of 16 and 19. “With that first record and everything that went on around the band and that time, it was behind the scenes very difficult, and [I’ve] moved on from that [and am] trying to put that behind me now. I think a lot of the time with the press, it was a vice for me to say what I wanted to say, like therapy,” he explains.

“When someone asks you a question, you're free to talk about whatever you want [and] it might be a slagging off match. I'm not asking for redemption, and I don’t regret what I said. At the end of the day, what it boils down to is the tunes, and I spend most of my time making music and that's what I've always done and only wish to do. When I say [anything else] comes secondary, it's not that I don't care about it, it's nothing that I ever envisaged happening,” he diligently adds. “I’m glad I've not lied within the tunes I’ve written. I think everything's a fairly honest personal perspective of how I felt considering certain circumstances, and I’ve managed to put that into words and it's been fairly self-soothing to be able to do that.”

What he’s referring to is a myriad of press around the debut album that painted Minksy-Sargeant as a mouthy teenager whose intimidating stage presence mirrored that off stage. Sitting as he is now, a warm, friendly and inoffensive, barely legal adult drinking a non-alcoholic beer in the corner of a pub, the label he was painted with seems ignorant and albeit a bit saddening in hindsight. The word misunderstood comes to mind, but feels patronizing.

“I probably was hostile someways” he says with conviction. “I don’t like conflicts. Maybe people felt I was hostile because I was going against the status quo of what everyone was into and talking about. People are scared of not conforming to what's fed to you by mainstream media or whoever you choose to listen to. I wasn't bothered by any of that because I didn't feel a part of it.”

Working Men’s Club released their debut single “Bad Blood” in 2019, just as sprechgesang [a German word referring to speaking instead of singing in music] fuelled post-punk was on the brink of breaking into the – albeit indie – mainstream consciousness. “I was very vocal that I didn't want to be pigeonholed, [and] where we are now in 2022, it's still going on.” he says.

“There was a lot of repressed anger and it came out that way, but I don't think it's a crime to slag a few bands off. At the end of the day, I think the main undertone [is that] I don’t wish for my music to be one thing. People are entitled to say what they think and say what they want, but the most important thing for me is that I'm 20 now, I still don't know who I am, I never wish to. The thing that’s fundamental to this project is that it doesn’t sound the same as the last thing that’s been created. We put “X” out between these two albums because it was a complete piss take. The lyrics don’t make sense, it was all about nothing, it was supposed to be stupid, and for people to like it because it was stupid. I find it easier to express myself through song than through an interview, so that was taking the piss out of everyone without everyone knowing, and that's why I like working with Ross as well. It’s satire, we do have a proper laugh, and a lot of the time people take themselves too seriously. I’m not interested in being some loud mouth person, I’ll express my opinion, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. I appreciate you’ve got to sell a story and tell it in some way [and] I don’t resent anyone for painting a picture of me. If it’s in quotation marks it’s probably because I said it.”

"I’m not interested in being some loud mouth person. I’ll express my opinion, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinions."

If his debut is fuelled by repressed anger then Fear Fear is unmistakable in the emotions it exudes. With tracking finishing around his twentieth birthday last year, Fear Fear is an abrasive and intense record that is confused and still a bit pissed off, but also hopeful and curious, taking electronics further into the dance and left-field spheres. It’s lyrically brilliant too, with Minksy-Sargeant’s sometimes satirical and sometimes vulnerable words-like-bullets on form as ever.

The droning techno of opener “19” is foreboding and indisputable, originally part of a more conceptual project that Minksy-Sargeant took from a different album that he says will probably bleed into Working Men’s Club’s next full length. Lead synth-pop single “Widow”, with its ingenious lyric “Lust was easy until you died / Now I fuck inside my head but not outside”, was a first album demo that stuck around because Orten expressed his love for it. A further testament to Minsky-Sargeant's endless work output, he even suggested to Heavenly Records about doing a double album. “Everyone thought I was mad,” he says to me with a wry smile, “It was a mature thing to impose…”

Is it too mature though? Speaking with the frontman, you forget he was only born two decades ago. He goes on seemingly indefinite but fundamentally intelligent tangents about various aspects of life and the world we live in – substantially lofty topics that see him stare off into space as his stream of consciousness rolls on – and always comes back to look you dead in the eye to finish the point with a profound articulation. He calls them blackholes, and even if they are, they feel like evidence of the mind of a genius.

With his virtuosity came 15 demos that would be the foundations of Fear Fear, and Minsky-Sargeant submitted the tracks to Heavenly by the time the first album came out. He says the demos were much darker than the final recordings, in particular with the glitchy and sludgy ​​”Money Is Mine” where he sings in contrasting low and high pitched vocals “Suicide is yours when the money is mine”.

“It’s a guitar song that was completely reproduced with synths, and it merges far more into this record with the themes of what's been talked about and the moment of time in which it was written, and what was going on in the world.” he explains. “Lyrically and musically, a lot of those themes coincide with life. In a way it tells the story of what was going on in a lot of people's lives, like losing loved ones and not being able to attend funerals, and grieving without any one around you, and then coming out of that period almost past that point where you can still come out and grieve people. [You] just have to pick yourself back up and get back to it. I wouldn’t say it’s a lockdown record, but there’s a lot of themes that were enhanced by what was going on, and make more sense now than they would have made prior to that.”

Minsky-Sargeant believes that the pandemic brought to the surface things that people had always been bothered about, but had never spoken about in a universal way. He speaks of those that experienced lockdowns in cities with barely any green spaces, not being able to go out freely 24/7 and reap all benefits of city living, which contrasted majorly with his own experience. “I was very privileged because I live somewhere fairly rural, and I could go out and go on a walk and live fairly much the same as prior to lockdown, with the exception of going out playing gigs or going for a drink…”

He expands: “The thing I noticed was how luscious, green and healthy everything looked. No planes in the air and it just seemed like nature was reclaiming itself. I thought that was a really beautiful thing. Humans think they’re so omnipotent, like ‘this is our world, we own everything and we can just shit all over every feeling and use it to our advantage’. The dark, deep and satirical thing was that the actual planet was going ‘fuck you, you’ve been mistreating us for too long now’. Since the start of the industrial revolution, we’ve galvanized and destroyed the planet. That's what ‘19’ is about – the sea reclaiming the tide and taking itself back from being destroyed.”

Raised by a fairly liberal family of conscientious objectors on his political mother’s side and Jewish family on his Dad’s side, Minsky-Sargeant's diverse background can partly explain his perceptive and expansive worldview which even people twice his age don’t have. He discusses a plethora of themes with me which feed back into the narrative of Fear Fear; socio-political thought making its way into the mainstream media in a way it hasn’t before, people questioning the way that they behaved in day to day lives, feeling powerless and uneducated on the inexplicable negativity in world today that’s reported by the media, and as a young person not knowing what to do about it because you’re seen as uneducated to a point of not being taken seriously.

Fear Fear is a juxtaposition between real life and the digital life that came about because of lockdown. Minsky-Sargeant explains: “People’s social life progressed from being sat here in a pub, getting some form of serotonin rush from being with someone, to that becoming synthesized in a Zoom meeting. The fact that everyone was talking to their phones believing that someone was there with them and if they ran out of charge they were gone…that’s the darker elements of [the album] for me.

“Also the speed of how fast 21st century life is now,” he continues, “Everyone is overworked and there’s not enough work-life balance, and because of that a lot of people suffer. It’s kind of like the American dream but on steroids, and it's become this world phenomenon that the harder you work, the more money you’ll earn and the bigger you’ll become. It’s a capitalist infrastructure that’s taken over, and I think that was proven wrong with lockdown [but] we’re just seeping back into it which is strange.”

The album’s title track was inspired by the assimilation of the tangible to the virtual, with emotions buffering over an unreliable internet connection. On the track he drawls “Your kisses buffer as bye awaits'', against a backdrop of Avant-garde, steel cold laser synths. Speaking about the track further he says, “[People’s] physical and sexual relationships went completely out the window for six months because they’re living in different houses. Relationships were in tatters because of lockdown…I think it fucked a lot of people up in a lot of different ways.”

"When it comes down to being genuine, I’m just being honest. I’m not pretending and I’m not trying to be successful. I’m not trying to fit in, I’ve tried fitting in and it doesn’t work, especially when it comes to art."

For Minksy-Sargeant, producing the album was a peculiar experience. “A lot of it felt like bedroom production,” he explains. “The weirdest thing for me was seeing the background of [Ross Orten’s] room behind him and only seeing it through Zoom, and then that first initial gap in between lockdowns, going to his house in Sheffield and being in the background that I've been looking into for three months prior to that. It was like some weird paradox,” he laughs.

When regulations changed to allow people to travel to work, the two were able to do so at Orten’s studio located in a rough area in Sheffield that was being monitored by police on the lookout for lockdown rulebreakers. One evening the police stopped the two as they were on their way home after a session. “It was an interesting time to be making an album, and did almost feel a bit criminal” he wonders.

“[I felt] privileged to be able to have access to a recording studio…but it was particularly strange because the subjects that inspired certain viewpoints were still going on. It was quite an emotive period of time, especially by the time it came to winter it wasn't particularly nice. I couldn’t really listen to this album that much after finishing it. I find it really intense to listen to as a record.”

It might be intense, but Working Men’s Club has afforded Minksy-Sargeant a platform in which his musical possibilities are endless. He likes the fact electronic music has allowed him to be more creatively experimental, using the knowledge he has of guitar and applying it to electronic equipment. With production and sound design at the core of the genre, he also mentions he wants to get into soundtracking eventually.

“You have the ability to make one person sound like a band, and you can do anything with a synthetiser because it’s what you want it to be,” he says. “It’s such a wide berth…I’m more inspired by instruments around me as opposed to records, that's why I enjoy making music more than listening to music a lot of the time. I spend all my money on instruments and audio equipment rather than vinyl.” He pauses for a moment before adding: “There’s a big technical element to Working Men’s Club that people don’t necessarily see. There’s no photos of us making records. Recently people want to sound shit, they want their records to sound shit.”

I ask him if he thinks people think he’s pretentious? “I don’t care,” he says without hesitation. “When it comes down to being genuine, I’m just being honest. I’m not pretending and I’m not trying to be successful. I’m not trying to fit in, I’ve tried fitting in and it doesn’t work, especially when it comes to art. Isn’t the point of art to come across as pretentious, because that’s what art is at the end of the day, there's an element of pretension in there.

“I've tried to avoid getting sucked into [that] and when I do I just get really depressed and I know it’s not right anyway,” he continues. “From the outside in, surely the reason you're listening to music is because you like music, and if you don't like it you skip it or you snap the record or you sell it. I don’t think it should be a talking point. With the social media generation, to sell a record it has to be presented in a certain way and it's all about the image and the social media content. For me it was never about that. The reason I like making music is because I like making music. I don't speak on stage. We don't say anything. I feel like everything I want to say is already written down at that moment in time.”

“For me I have a really small circle of people I hang out with. I don’t really hang out with other bands – it’s not because I don’t want to, it's because that’s life. There’s a lot of repressed emotion that comes out in music sometimes, and sometimes it's intense and overbearing, or it comes out in an interview and it can come across a certain way. [Something] that's given me a different outlook in the way I perceive other people's music and other people's opinion, is the fact that deep down there is something that spurred that person to that thing or to behave in that way or to be that person…music will always be an expression of whatever I want, because I can bury it with words, I can make it not make sense, I can use words that don’t make sense in conjunction with the other words, but I know what it means... Or maybe I don’t.”

Fear Fear is out on 15 July via Heavenly Recordings
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