Interview with Flawed Is Beautiful maker Adam Foley

Flawed Is Beautiful is a documentary which tells the story of a music scene that was tagged as ‘The New Wave of New Wave’. Although, perhaps more accurately, it is the tale of the two main bands in that scene, These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H. Having reviewed and loved the film (see our review here we were delighted when we got the chance to interview the man behind it, Adam Foley.

Before we discuss the film, tell us a bit about yourself?

I am darkening the doors of middle age, living in a village in Aylesbury Vale with my wife and two kids. I grew up in a market town in East Devon called Cullompton, about ten miles outside Exeter and lived there until 1996 when I was 18 – it’s where I had all my formative music experiences. The mid 90s were an incredibly exciting time to be alive and into music, it was transformative for me. I have a real problem with the word ‘Britpop’ because I think it’s become an easy way to reduce this amazingly fertile time for music into a genre of nondescript makeweight indie bands.  It was never a genre for me, more an era – me and my mates loved Underworld, Monkey Mafia, Tricky, Wu Tang and G Funk just as much as Pulp and Oasis and the Prodigy, especially the Prodigy. The idea that Tricky was making hip hop records up the road in Bristol was mind blowing. Every Monday I used to sneak out of school at lunchtime because some amazing new record had just come out that I just had to have. I still spend a lot of time chasing that feeling – I don’t think the era gets the recognition it deserves as one of the most creative in musical history. So, I guess that’s a big motivation behind a lot of the stuff I do.

 Had you always been a fan of These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H?

Oh God yes. Seeing those two bands was my Damascus moment. I was disillusioned with indie music at the time – I really struggled with grunge, having spent far too many hours desperately trying to make it all the way through dreary Smashing Pumpkins albums just because I thought I was supposed to like them. The clothes were wretched too, all these DM boots, baggy jumpers and army surplus parkas. I remember going to a Wonderstuff gig and seeing everyone wearing t-shirts that said ‘Idiot’ on them and thinking ‘hmmmm’. Then I came across S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men in Melody Maker and saw my future. Time to sharpen up. I fell in love before I had heard a single note. I couldn’t find ‘Speed King’ anywhere, but I got the S*M*A*S*H EP and Never Mind The Bollocks. I sold all my grunge and indie records, got a haircut, some Adidas tops, white jeans, an eyeliner pen and chelsea boots. I felt like I had finally found my own thing.

And the gigs, wow. It was like a bomb going off in your town. In the film, John Robb described the gigs as like ‘mini riots in the back rooms of pubs’. It was incendiary, total validation. And for the first time, people started dressing up for gigs. No more shuffling about apologetically. You didn’t have to pretend to be depressed. It was sexy. It gave you a swagger and a strut – that was liberating. It also really really pissed people off, which was even better.

If you met someone who dug those bands, you knew you had a lot in common. They came with a set of values, a style and a way of carrying yourself that just became your mindset. They were a badge that meant you stood apart. It was like a code – you either got it or you didn’t. One of the best things about making the film has been meeting so many people all round the country who had exactly the same experience – it’s like an invisible network.

 What made you decide to make the film? 

I had written a book called ‘Straight Outta Cullompton’ all about those experiences – in the course of writing it I had a phone call with Ed from S*M*A*S*H and a bit of a night out with Ju from These Animal Men. The moment I pressed ‘send’ on the final draft, I was already starting to think about the next thing. The natural next step seemed to be to write a biography of These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H but at the time the thought of writing another book made me feel physically sick, plus it felt like the bands demanded a more visual treatment. Their style and image was a huge part of their appeal. 

So I went to bed that night thinking ‘someone should make a film about those bands’. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought ‘I should make a film about those bands’. In the morning I got a piece of paper and wrote a map of every idea I had for it. The only problem was, as my wife pointed out, that I didn’t have a camera, had never used one, had never filmed anything, didn’t know how to edit and didn’t even have a computer capable of running an edit programme. So there was a bit of a ‘phoney war’ period while I pretended to think about how I might sort that stuff out, while actually just daydreaming.

How did you even get the project off the ground? What was the reaction of the band members when you first proposed the idea?

I sent two texts that morning, one to Ed and one to Julian. It said something like ‘I haven’t got a clue how to do this but I want to make a film about you’. Luckily, a few of TAM had read and liked the book, so they were very open to the idea. Ed was eerily quiet. I met up in a pub with Boag and Ju and pitched my idea over a load of beers. Boag just sat there with his head bowed, taking it in. I thought I had blown it up but then he looked up and said something like ‘yeah you get it’. A month later, he sent me a pack of DVDs with all this archive footage and I knew that I had something straight away. I took a day off work and used Windows Movie Maker to knock together a kind of video demo tape. It was just like this two minute strobe effect of some of the footage interspersed other stuff from the time, like images of the lottery, Noel Edmonds and Power Rangers, all welded to ‘Scream Silent’, the instrumental track off ‘Self Abused’. I wanted to make something which felt like the first time I came across the bands, this overwhelming surge of noise and iconography. Of course, I had absolutely had no idea what I was doing.

Boag and Ju were into it. About two weeks after I sent it out, my mobile went off at work – it was Ed. He said that S*M*A*S*H didn’t want to do the film but they saw the clip and it changed their mind. Suddenly it had all become very real and I needed to sort out all the practical problems fast.

What was the process in making the film?

There was a bit of sucking up to the bank to get the overdraft extended. Then I bought a camera, borrowed a sound recorder and got in the car at 5.30am the next morning to drive down to Brighton with my friend Simon where we filmed a four hour interview with Julian. It was joke really. He’d brought along lights – I had no idea you needed them. He had to show me how to use the camera! I didn’t have a clue. We did some filming on Brighton beach, I was trying to recreate a shot from 1994 and I was using a 99p tripod weighed down with Tesco bags full of pebbles from the beach. Julian later said to me ‘at that point I knew you were the guy for us!’

Ten minutes into the interview I knew that it was going to work out. There was clearly a great story to be told and Julian is a master storyteller – that first interview was the framework for the whole thing really, so it was a great first day. I drove home that night with absolute conviction that I was going to be able to make something of it.

 From that point, it was a question of winning everyone’s trust, then we’d sit somewhere comfortable, stick the camera on, try to forget about it and talk for hours and hours. It took a lot longer to get S*M*A*S*H into it. I spent a lot of time just hanging out with them and not filming – at gigs, at their rehearsal studio, working on Rob’s stall flogging a bit of denim….

 Once I did the interviews I would take them home, watch them and look for quotes, the kind of thing you would see in pull quotes in Melody Maker and then fit them into the narrative I had in my head. I knew the story I wanted to tell right from the start, so while we were talking I would be mentally arranging it into the chapters I had built on the edit software.

 My total incompetence did cost me dearly at times – I cocked up interviews with Dave Eringa, the Manics producer who also did High Society, and Derek Fudge, TAM’s sound engineer and early producer who went on to do the live sound for Coldplay and Paloma Faith, largely because I didn’t know what an ISO button did so the light was all screwed up. I have never been one to read the instructions!

 You have some really good ‘talking heads’ in the film e.g. John Robb, Simon Price, Matt Everitt and Paul Moody, how did you get them involved?

 I just asked nicely!! I spoke to Matt for ‘Straight Outta Cullompton’ and he was really helpful so it felt natural to get back in touch. Simon Price was one of the first interviews I did – there was no reason for him to do it, he very kindly gave up his time and had obviously done a lot of preparation, just a very nice guy. It really encouraged me to just ask for people’s help.

Going to Manchester to see John Robb and Ben Myers was one of the most inspiring afternoons of my life. John’s interview was like a force ten punk rock sermon, but a bastard to edit because he talks so fast it’s somehow like each word starts before the last one has finished. You just got the feeling that he is a guy who gets up every day and fills his day full of things he loves. The chat with Ben was eye opening – first of all because he is incredibly articulate and crafts these wonderful, life changing books, which you should all read by the way but secondly because he is part of that invisible network I talked about before. His experience of the bands completely mirrored mine and more than that, his writing career began because of the bands – his first printed work was in ‘Petal Buzz’ the S*M*A*S*H fanzine. I started to find that story recurring a lot – people who owed their careers in some way to the bands and wanted to repay the debt by talking about them on camera.

It’s slightly bittersweet that quite a few of those people got in touch after I had finished filming – Eddie Argos from Art Brut, Johnny from Menswear and Hamish McBain from NME/ Shortlist. I would love to have included them but it was too late.

 At the time, the press were keen to build the idea of the ‘New Wave of New Wave’ scene. However, it only seemed to consist of These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H, was there any more to it than that?

Oh definitely, and this is one of the main things people ask me about – why I didn’t include Compulsion, Blessed Ethel and Action Painting. The main reason is that S*M*A*S*H and TAM were so bound together, with their destinies so entwined – they were on the same label, their records were released within a week of each other – but it’s also the contrasts between the two bands that work as a narrative. The factors around the break up of S*M*A*S*H in 1995 were absolutely tragic, whereas it looked like TAM were going to have this second act. But as S*M*A*S*H disappear, These Animal Men suffer this lingering decline and death whereas S*M*A*S*H are ultimately saved by the deep friendship which is the first thing you hear about in the beginning of the film.

I felt that to introduce other bands into the middle of that story would be really jarring and wouldn’t do them justice. The guitarist from Compulsion went on to produce REM, U2 and One Direction! There must be a film in that alone. Ultimately the film is a love letter to two bands who changed mine and lots of other people’s lives and that’s the story I wanted to tell.

Having said that, I do think everyone should give ‘Mustard Gas’ by Action Painting a listen.

How do you think the music press treated the bands? Seeing the film, it seemed to be the classic, build them up just to knock them down.

The bands were from a different world to the music press – they weren’t part of the London scene and they were genuinely working class whereas most of the journalists were middle class Oxbridge graduates. Having said that, I think they used each other. The bands gave the papers controversy and great quotes and the press got them on to Top of the Pops. That was the deal. I do think that the music press was becoming increasingly powerful as the music industry began to feel the upswing of Britpop, and as a result moved on from the New Wave of New Wave bands quickly so they could try to exert that influence and power on a bigger scale.

Ultimately the job of the music press is to get music in front of people. If they decide not to buy it, then the world moves on. For whatever reason, people didn’t buy the records. If they had, any press backlash would have been irrelevant.

I am convinced, more than ever, that a lot of the music sounds even better now though, especially the ‘High Society’ album. The whole scene definitely deserves a reappraisal but the press backlash was so severe that a lot of people who actually remember the bands are still really angry about it. Some of the comments on the articles around the film and the Heaven gig were pretty venomous, which was perversely great to see. It’s great that there’s still that strength of feeling either way

Having seen the film, what feedback have you had from the band members?

It’s been great actually, which was a very pleasant surprise. My main goal was to try to communicate why so many people really care about the bands and why they were so important to people. A couple of people in the bands feel like the film vindicated their belief in their music which is a phenomenal thing to hear. Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a difficult watch for some of the guys as it deals with some uncomfortable areas of their lives but overall the reaction was unanimously great.

What about yourself, how pleased are you with it?

I have spent many hundreds of hours immersed in it, filming, editing and watching every second of the final film and the dozens of hours of cut stuff, so it is very hard to get anywhere close to an objective opinion. I have very much enjoyed the reaction from people who have seen it at the screenings – people tell me it’s good, but they would say that wouldn’t they? Mind you, I watched the Ramones ‘End of the Century’ documentary again recently and I did think that maybe ‘Flawed is Beautiful’ isn’t a million miles away.

With the benefit of hindsight is there anything you would do differently?

Ideally I would have liked to have included more contemporary footage to recreate the context the band’s were received in. I love what Julien Temple does in his films where he uses unrelated material from the same era to establish a sense of time and place. I wanted to do this whole section where I used scenes of Charlton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments’ overlaid with These Animal Men’s manifesto – you know, Charlton lugging around stone tablets saying ‘love’s good but not as good as a wank’, but I didn’t fancy a trip to court.

Other than that, no. I made the only film I could have made with what I had – no experience and no money. That feels like the right way to do a film about Smash and These Animal Men.

You’re funding the full release via the pledge scheme, can you explain how that works?

Yeah, so people pre-order the film at Pledge Music so we can get the money to pay for the rights. I need to pay Virgin Records for every song I have used, plus for all the archive footage and videos. The total bill is around thirty grand, and I have no funding so we need people to pay for it before we can package it up. I am not making a penny from this believe me! It’s a labour of love.

So far we have raised more than 40% of the money, but there is a long way to go. If we don’t hit the target, I can’t see another way of getting it out unfortunately. I think anyone with a passing interest in rock music would find it interesting so it would be a shame for it to end up sitting on a hard drive in my desk drawer.

Most importantly, what are the options for people who want to get the film and how can people support the project?

Well, you can buy the film as a single DVD for around twelve quid, and there is also a box set which has unreleased tracks from both bands including the basis of what would have been TAM’s next album as well as the long lost Smash EP ‘Rest of My Life’. The box set also has a book produced by Matt Hill who put together ‘Petal Buzz’, the S*M*A*S*H fanzine – with contributions from most of the band members. Pay a bit more and you get a signed box. A bit more than that and you can come to a special screening event where the bands will be there to hang out and play a few songs.

If you want to see the film we have to hit the target, so cough up!

We would certainly encourage you to follow Adam’s advice and make sure that you support the project. You don’t really need to be fan of the bands involved, any fan of music will enjoy it. It works not only as a guide to a scene that has come and gone, but also as a brilliant insight in to the world of music. The fact that the release of the film is dependent on the support of the public, means that it would be a tragedy if it did not raise enough funds for its release. As good as a recent release like ‘Amy’ may have been, it has nothing on this documentary. So make sure you support it now!!

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