In a post-apocalyptic hellscape where everyone lives isolated in walled cities, the population has had their memories wiped clean. Instead of personal experience, they subsist on the information being force fed to them via glowing "propaganda screens." It's like Escape From New York meets Night of the Living Dead — only instead of human flesh, the zombies are addicted to smartphones. Sound familiar?
This is the concept behind Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats' fifth album, Wasteland. A futuristic journey through detachment, paranoia and technocracy, it's an apt analogy for our own time. It's also the U.K. psych lords' most melodic and infectious record yet. "It was a strange album, and it took a lot of out of me for whatever reason," says guitarist, vocalist and all-around mastermind Kevin Starrs. "As soon as I finished, I vomited everywhere. I actually threw up. But I'll take that as a good sign, I guess."
Starrs has just returned from holiday in Amsterdam, where he partook in the local amenities and enjoyed some unplugged time. At 32, he remembers — and prefers — the pre-internet era. "The internet is great for things like research, but I feel bad for a lot of the younger people coming up," he says. "This is all they know."
I IMAGINE THE WASTELAND CONCEPT CAME FROM SIMPLY LOOKING AROUND AND SEEING EVERYONE GLUED TO THEIR SMARTPHONES. WAS THAT THE INITIAL SPARK?
KEVIN STARRS Yeah, that kick started the idea. But also, when we were touring the last album — particularly toward the end — I was getting really annoyed by people staring at their phones. They'd be watching us through their screens. It just didn't make any sense to me. You can't make a connection to anyone when there's a screen between you and them. As a musician, you feed off the energy the audience gives you, and vice versa — that's what makes a really good show. But it's difficult to do that when people are just looking at you through a screen. While we were playing, I'd walk over and stare at people and they wouldn't even realize. They were completely dead behind the eyes.
It wasn't like that every night. Some nights, it was the exact opposite and people were going crazy. It's just when that happens, it can get frustrating when you've been on tour for six weeks, you're trying to put on a good show, and you're up against a brick wall sometimes.
SOME ARTISTS HAVE INSTITUTED A "NO CELL PHONE" POLICY AT THEIR SHOWS, WITH VARYING DEGREES OF SUCCESS. HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THAT, OR IS THAT A BIT TOO AUTHORITARIAN?
[Laughs] I'd like to do something like that, but some people feel so entitled they're like, "Well, I paid for a ticket so I can do what I want." I understand that, but it when it starts affecting the people around you, other members of the audience … I remember there was one guy, he had a camera attached to a selfie stick and he was getting in people's way while he was filming the show. I mean, you're at a rock & roll show. Just come and enjoy it. Not everything has to be documented. But whatever. It's one of those things you just have to accept, I suppose. But that was the catalyst for thinking about the Wasteland environment. On the album we take it to an extreme because it's post-apocalyptic as well. It's inspired by some of today's events, but it's gone way off into the deep end.
I'M ASSUMING YOU HAVE A SMARTPHONE OF YOUR OWN.
Yeah. [Laughs] But when I go to shows, I don't film stuff. People who take pictures, I've got no problem with that. It's when they film the entire show. And it's not just the smartphone thing. People are turning up with full-on digital SLR cameras, a full pro rig almost. It's nuts.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR OWN SMARTPHONE? DO YOU TRY TO LIMIT YOUR TIME ON IT?
I just use it for emails and band stuff. I try not to get involved with social media. I use it to promote the band, but I try to avoid the rest.
IN THE DESCRIPTION OF THE WASTELAND STORYLINE THAT WAS SENT TO JOURNALISTS, THERE'S MENTION OF "PROGRAM DISKS" THAT REPLACE THE MEMORIES PEOPLE HAVE LOST AND ALLOW THEM TO THINK FOR THEMSELVES AFTER ALL THEIR EXPOSURE TO THE "PROPAGANDA SCREENS." WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE REAL-LIFE ANTIDOTE TO THE TYRANNY OF THE SMARTPHONE?
[Laughs] I don't know. A lot of people are just too far into it now. They've become slaves to it. They've willingly given up their information. I think if you can switch off from it, you'll be fine. But most people just can't. They're obsessed with the whole online whatever. For me, if I go to a show and hear good harmonies, that kind of takes me away from modern life. If you hear something really inspiring, it can make you float away into your own mind. But a lot of people aren't willing to just watch or listen to shows. They wanna update their timelines or whatever it is.
IT REALLY IS A MASSIVE AND UNPRECEDENTED CHANGE IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR, DON'T YOU THINK?
Yeah, and everybody is sort of like guinea pigs. There's been no testing or anything like that. People have just been let loose with all this technology and a lot of people can't handle it, really.
WASTELAND ISN'T THE ONLY UNCLE ACID ALBUM THAT DEALS WITH MANIPULATION. IT'S A THEME THAT RUNS THROUGH PRETTY MUCH ALL OF YOUR RECORDS. WHY DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DRAWN TO THAT CONCEPT?
I'm not sure, really. [Uncle Acid's 2011 album] Blood Lust was inspired by [the film] Witchfinder General, and Matthew Hopkins was a real person and a master manipulator. Same with Mind Control — we had the cult thing going on. Again, the manipulation element is there. I think when you're writing about evil topics, manipulation is a recurring theme.
MEANWHILE, ENTIRE POPULATIONS ARE BEING MANIPULATED ON A DAILY BASIS BY PROPAGANDA AND FAKE NEWS …
It's hard to know what's true and what's not anymore. Everything's been distorted and turned upside down. You can fall for anything and you don't even realize it. It's like the Wild West. You've always got to do a bit of research. If you step back a bit, you can see the propaganda. In this country, we've got the whole Brexit thing happening, and it's ridiculous. People aren't that stupid, you think, but then they just buy into what they're being told. They don't even question what's going on.
THERE'S AN INTERESTING PARALLEL BETWEEN THE DIVISIVENESS OF BREXIT IN THE U.K. AND WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP HERE IN THE STATES. BOTH SIDES ARE SO BUSY BEING ANGRY AT EACH OTHER THAT THEY DON'T RECOGNIZE THE DIVIDE-AND-CONQUER STRATEGY THAT'S AT WORK.
Yep, and if people could realize that, it wouldn't happen. If they just worked together, they'd be stronger and they could defeat the politicians who are manipulating them. It's misplaced anger, you know? They should be looking upwards at the people in charge rather than whomever they think is below them, like immigrants or whatever. Some of the things you read are just crazy. People are uninformed. But you're right; it's divide-and-conquer. And there's a bit of that going on with this album.
UNCLE ACID ISN'T A POLITICAL BAND, BUT THERE'S DEFINITELY A POLITICAL UNDERCURRENT ON WASTELAND, DON'T YOU THINK?
I suppose there is, but even with [Uncle Acid's 2015 album] The Night Creeper there was a little bit of an anti-establishment sort of thing. Part of the story on that album was that the character of the Night Creeper was a policeman, so the press and police and establishment came together to protect one of their own. As I was writing that, there were a couple of stories that came out over here in the U.K. that actually related to that theme — basically establishment cover-ups. The album wasn't overtly political — none of our stuff really is — but it can relate to things that have happened, even if it's fiction.
MUSICALLY, THE OPENING RIFF OF WASTELAND'S LEAD SINGLE, "SHOCKWAVE CITY," REMINDS ME OF "HOCUS POCUS" BY THE LONG-RUNNING DUTCH ROCK BAND FOCUS. WAS THAT THE INSPIRATION?
No, it's more of a Kiss kind of thing for me. It's an Ace Frehley thing. But Focus is great.
IN THE PAST, YOU'VE RELEASED THE LEAD SINGLES FROM YOUR ALBUMS AS SEVEN-INCHES WITH A BONUS TRACK ON THE B-SIDE — LIKE IRON MAIDEN AND CHARLES MANSON COVERS. ARE THERE ANY PLANS TO DO THAT WITH "SHOCKWAVE CITY"?
I don't think so, no. I'm not sure if we'll release a single. We might do something for the U.K. tour we're doing with Blood Ceremony next year, but at the minute there's nothing planned as far as singles. I had a couple of ideas for some strange covers, but we'll see how that goes.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MATERIAL LEFTOVER FROM THE WASTELAND SESSIONS?
We did record a couple of extra tracks that didn't quite fit onto the album. But they're really good songs so I want to keep them for something else and not just waste them on a B-side.
GOING BACK TO "SHOCKWAVE CITY," I SEE YOU DIRECTED THE VIDEO. DO YOU DO ALL OF THE UNCLE ACID VIDEOS?
I do most of them, yeah. We've had a couple of other directors and people working on them, but for the most part it's me that does it.
WHAT'S YOUR PROCESS FOR COLLECTING ALL THAT OLD FOOTAGE YOU USE? IT MUST TAKE AGES JUST TO FIND IT ALL.
Yeah, it's quite a slow process. For "Shockwave City," I just went on to the Internet Archive site, where they've got a lot of old educational videos and propaganda videos that are all public domain. So I just went through all that stuff and found bits that sort of related to the concept of the album. We were actually gonna do something with animation, but we didn't have time in the end.
I LIKE THAT YOU'VE KEPT A CONSISTENT CUT-UP STYLE FOR THE VIDEOS ACROSS ALL THE ALBUMS.
I think it works well for us, yeah. A lot of people complain, "Why don't you film something?" But we don't have the budget for that. If I wanted to film something, it'd be on actual 16mm film with proper cameras. I'm not gonna do it on an iPhone. It wouldn't fit our style. So if we were going to do something like that, it would take so much money and so much time that it wouldn't even be worth it. It's not like there are TV channels that show videos anymore. It'd just be on YouTube, which is terrible quality. But people don't seem to understand that.
YOU MENTIONED THAT BLOOD LUST WAS INSPIRED BY WITCHFINDER GENERAL, AND YOU'VE SAID IN THE PAST THAT THE NIGHT CREEPER WAS INSPIRED BY FILM NOIR FROM THE FORTIES AND FIFTIES. DID ANY PARTICULAR FILMS INSPIRE WASTELAND?
Not really. I had ideas of Escape From New York, that sort of vibe — the walled city kind of thing. But most of it was imaginary stuff, really.
YOU INTENTIONALLY PUT MORE EMPHASIS ON MELODY WITH THIS RECORD. WHY DID YOU WANT TO GO FURTHER IN THAT DIRECTION?
To me, melody and harmony bring people together. There isn't a lot of that in pop music anymore. If you turn on pop radio these days, you get a really monotone vocal delivery and hardly any melody. It's all about the beat and the production. It's the total opposite of what pop music should be, really. If you can't even get melody in pop music these days, where are you gonna find it? Somebody has to do it, so I just thought I'd ramp it up and go crazy on the melodies and harmonies. It'll piss a lot of people off, I'm sure, but I think a lot of people will quite like it.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, THE PHOTO ON YOUR SKYPE PROFILE IS OF BLACKIE LAWLESS FROM W.A.S.P. WHEN DID YOU GET INTO W.A.S.P., AND WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT THEM?
I think I was probably 14. My friend had two older brothers who were metalheads in their 20s. They loved W.A.S.P., Priest, Maiden — all the classics. I remember one day he came in with a W.A.S.P. CD — I think it was The Headless Children — and said, "You've gotta listen to this!" I looked at the back and saw this ridiculous picture of Blackie, so I didn't even bother listening to it because I thought, "This looks terrible." The next day he asked if I listened to it, and when I said I hadn't, he was like, "No, you've got to!" So that night I finally listened to it and it fucking blew me away. I needed more W.A.S.P immediately. Since then, they've been one of my top three favorite bands.
It's music that appeals directly to my taste. It's heavy; it can be dark; it's very melodic — there're harmonies all over the place. You could say Uncle Acid is like a W.A.S.P. tribute act in some ways.