Agent Philby & The Funtans – Half Simpletons, Two Thirds Gods

Agent Philby & The Funtans

If Flight Of The Conchords are correctly described as New Zealand’s fourth most popular ‘guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo’, then Agent Philby & The Funtans are surely the south west of England’s premier ‘dysfunctional pop-rock-indie-seasick-alien-disco-blues’ band.

Like many bands, they have an interesting and at times convoluted history, with tales of previous outfits, an original drummer who’s now a surgeon, the loss of a core member over the decision to focus on original material, a disputed infant school connection, and a succession of past keyboard players called Jon.

‘We couldn’t find anyone else called Jon who played keyboards,’ says singer Phil, ‘so we’ve been without keys ever since.’

The current line-up has been stable for about 5 years, and includes an artist, a social worker, a GP, a teacher, an NHS Manager and a former UK breakdancing champion. It consists of: Phil Kelley (vocals and melodic), Jim Cumpson (vocals and harmonica), James Nunn (vocals and guitar), Annie Coppola (violin), Charles Plummer (bass) and Darren Stradling (drums).

It is this line-up that recorded the ‘&’ EP and, most recently, the band’s debut album ‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’.

If bassist Charles just about manages to remember the line-up, he finds my question about the band’s style and influences even more challenging: ‘That’s a really tricky one,’ he says, ‘because there’s Jim with his love of American blues and soul, there’s Philby with his modernist interest in very current stuff and very eclectic taste which he always references in his songs, and there’s Annie’s classical background. Then James is into The Smiths, and I’m into the Clash, XTC, and those sorts of influences. Darren is the Topper Headon of the band, in that he knows every style. He’s a really good drummer, a rock drummer at heart, and he holds everything together. And then there are things we all love, like Tom Waits, who I think gets channeled a lot in our stuff, in different ways.’

It all makes for an interesting melting pot. How would I describe them? Well, musically and lyrically Agent Philby & The Funtans are an astonishingly unique amalgam of diverse and educated influences, characters and experiences. They are sophisticated nutty boys (and girl), capable not only of mixing styles but of blending serious reflections on life with quirky and sometimes quite dark humour. With the Funtans, to use the affectionate shortening of the name by which they’re more commonly known, anything is possible and little is as it seems.

Take their name, for example – a conjunction of the way guitarist James saved singer Phil’s number in his phone (after a chance encounter at a party to which James wasn’t invited), and the definition of the term ‘funtan’ offered by Viz character Roger Melly (I’ll leave that to your imagination for now). And then compare these laddish affectations with the origins of the album title – Gustav Mahler’s description of Anton Bruckner, on hearing Bruckner’s Mass No.2 in E Minor, as ‘half simpleton, half god’.  ‘Bruckner was a simple, uncomplicated soul occasionally touched by genius,’ explains James. ‘We really liked this,’ says Charles, ‘but there was disagreement about lifting it wholesale, so we made it not add up.’

Clearly, to crib a line from Bob Dylan’s latest work of genius, the Funtans contain multitudes – multitudes that merit further exploration and a bit of unpacking. In keeping with the times, their debut album has just been released on Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp and a range of other online platforms, so what better way to explore than via a track by track run through of the unusually diverse set of simple, and not so simple, songs that have been subjected to the Funtan treatment, or ‘funtanned’, if you will.

‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’

The Funtans - Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God album coverRecorded and mixed by Chris Turtell over three weekends at Plum Towers, the album boasts 10 tracks, 4 of which were released on the ‘&’ EP (which I reviewed at the time for Über Röck)  but which appear here in slightly remixed forms.

Charles and I discuss the diversity of the material, and I note that some of it, and particularly his own songs, remind me of bands like The Housemartins and the Beautiful South, who feed you sugar-coated pop music that, lyrically, is quite acerbic.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I agree with that. There’s that Tom Waits quotation: ‘I like beautiful melodies, telling me terrible things.’ I think that kind of sums up our approach.’

‘Concrete’

Opener ‘Concrete’ was one of the first songs the Funtans wrote together, building on Phil’s idea and lyrics. Lyrically it attempts to capture what Phil calls ‘a generalised, ambivalent malaise, the stifling relentlessness of white-collar working life and the redemptive effect of love.’

‘I write musically basic songs to explore things that bother me,’ says Phil, ‘and the Funtans turn that into something vaguely listenable.’

‘James often adds a lot of the musicality,’ says Charles, ‘putting in a middle eight, an intro and a breakdown and in this case the wild guitar thing at the end. Rhythmically, ‘Concrete’ just came out as this kind of skippy thing.’

When I reviewed the EP I said it was ‘paradoxically light and fleet of foot, conveying, as it does, something of a quaint Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vibe, with rather fetching violin and split gender vocals (female voice courtesy of Becky Cumpson), and a rousing finale that is again reminiscent of Cool Cymru’s finest.’  I see no reason to revise that description, though Phil notes the coda’s ‘transcendent and climactic’ reinforcement of the redemptive themes of the song’s final verse.

‘Reg’

‘Reg’ is the first of Jim’s songs, and blends a heavy guitar riff (and some great soloing) with a ska rhythm à la Fun Boy Three.

Jim says: ‘It was written a few years ago when I was reminiscing about school days with friends. Reg was an old Polish barber who turned half of his shop into a sweet shop. He not only sold very dodgy sweets but he also sold the local school kids cider in old yogurt pots for 2p, 3p or 5p. He wore thick glasses and had snuff stains all up his sleeve. He was a character and we would always give him a wave when we went past.’

I mention that the two tracks on the album with the heaviest guitar riffs both take the same unexpected rhythmic turns, and that the conjunction of heavy rock guitar and ska rhythms is quite unusual.

‘Yeah it is,’ says Charles, and I think it’s because we’re quite conscious of not wanting to have songs that just carry on in the same way. There’s got to be light and shade. It’s something we’ve learned as we’ve evolved, that we’re not really a rock band and so we try to build contrast, light and shade, into every song.’

‘Dogs/Bones’

‘Dogs/Bones’ is perhaps the first track on the album where you get that sugar-coated pop thing really happening, though even the band’s sweetest and poppier-sounding songs sometimes build to an unexpectedly raucous or cacophonous climax.

The Funtans rehearsing‘‘Dogs/Bones’ is probably my favourite track on the album,’ says Charles. ‘I think it’s just beautiful and it’s got so many contrasting bits in it. It’s got lovely melodies and it’s also got the vocal breakdown bit which was my fucking idea [an ‘accepted and well known’ fact, apparently, and not the controversial claim the expletive might have one suspect – Ed]. It was chugging along at the same pitch and tempo and I thought let’s have a vocal breakdown with intertwining vocal/choral bits. I wanted it to be bigger than it is, but we didn’t have much time and Pippa Weaver came in and just did this beautiful vocal’.

Lyrically, the terms ‘sweet’ and ‘beautiful’ probably don’t apply. It’s described by its writer, James, as being ‘a song of reckless perfidiousness, the subsequent disappointment and the diminishing returns of libidinous conquest’. It is described by Charles as ‘pure filth’.

‘Velodrome’

‘Velodrome’ is classy, meaningful pop and one of my own favourites on the album. Another reference point, for those who may not yet know the song, is the Difford and Tilbrook type feel to the melodies.

Charles is pleased with the comparison, though again, there is serious lyrical intent behind the catchy and accessible tune:

‘I wrote this as a commentary on the rise of anti-semitism on the Left, having Jewish family, and becoming aware that those who you thought would defend and protect you can’t be relied upon. Relatives warned to always keep a bag packed in case you had to make a quick escape. This nightmare came closer to reality when Jeremy Corbyn nearly became PM.  The song examines ‘the horseshoe effect’, when you go so far to the Left, you nearly join up with the Right, and they end up being indistinguishable. Losing friends who couldn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it, or indulged in casual anti-semitism themselves, is the hardest part. The title is an oblique reference to the Nazis holding rallies in the Berlin Velodrome, and there’s another reference to ‘peddling for our lives’.’

‘Musically, the chords are simple, but Annie’s violin – especially the solo verse/chorus section at the end, gives it a musicality that I never dreamed of. It’s a dark topic but my dark topics always get turned into three-minute pop songs once they get the Funtan treatment. By this point it had become a bit of a band joke that this happens, and hence the pseudo-Beach Boys type outro. We’re playing it, and they’re looking at me with my very cross face just laughing their heads off.’

‘The News Where You Are’

‘The News Where You Are’ is an intense, heart-rending, countrified track that wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s ‘Self-Portrait’ album. Once again, the pathos of the violin adds so much, and it’s another of those tracks which builds to a wall-of-sound like ending.

The Funtans - Phil singingIt’s one of Phil’s songs, which he describes as ‘a song about not facing up to your responsibility, hiding behind various fronts and excuses, and not having the courage to speak authentically with your own voice before finally mustering the necessary strength to do the right thing.’

‘Musically, it’s really, really simple,’ says Charles, ‘so we have to work with light and shade again, and having a big build-up that just falls away at the end has become a bit of a feature of the way we do things. I think Annie’s classical background has brought that in, the dynamics. Music’s not just about notes, pitch and rhythm; it’s also about ‘piano’ and ‘forte’.’

Lyrically, it’s peppered with references to a range of other songs and influences, including Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Ricky Nelson, Bob Dylan (again), Country Joe & the Fish, and even Rebel MC – hours of reference-spotting fun for all the family.

‘Haircut For Texas’

‘Haircut For Texas’ undoubtedly is my favourite Funtans track. When I reviewed the EP, I said it ‘oscillates confidently between the artistic fineries of Dylan and Waits’ as it ‘broods along in edgy and convincing fashion.’

I mention to Charles that it was the first time I heard a really strong Tom Waits influence on their music. ‘Well, it comes from Jim’s American roots sensibilities,’ he says, ‘and his vocal style is not dissimilar. He has that growl. And the subject matter is also something that could be off ‘Swordfish Trombones’’.

Jim explains: ‘Haircut For Texas’ was actually written in Texas. I was driving across the USA on a road trip in 2014 with some friends and spent quite a few days criss-crossing the State. The background to the song is that of a Mexican farmer making his way in Texas and coming across gunslingers terrorising local towns. When said gunslingers killed the townsfolk they would dress them up in their open coffins – with new haircuts and ‘limes on their eyes’ – and parade them in town as a warning to others. The music was a collaboration with James.’

‘I always argue that we should start with it when we play live,’ says Charles. ‘Just hit them with it. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant song. And the way it just kind of waltzes along. I love it. Love it!’

‘Life Of Crime’

‘Life Of Crime’ is another of Charles’s songs: ‘Lyrically, it was inspired by a care-leaver I worked with as a social worker. I made many trips to various Young Offender Institutions around the country to see him before he eventually ‘settled down’. He told me the incredible story of how his dad – a career house burglar – would take him and his younger brother house-breaking at night from the age of six, because they were small enough to be passed through open windows.’

The Funtans - Darren‘Musically, this was one of my first songs written with The Funtans – hence the slightly unevolved post-punk vibe. It was a musically raw, three chord sequence and it was James who had the ideas to develop it. During the recording, we researched weird offences for Jim’s voiceover bits, like ‘Operating on a cow while intoxicated’ and ‘Entering Parliament in a suit of armour’.’

Personally, I love the dirty, heavy riff and frantic rock of this track and the lapses into the ska rhythms of the chorus. It’s also proved to be the perfect jogging track! (Which probably tells you more than you need to know about the way I run.)

‘42’

I must confess, ‘42’ always stops me in my tracks, and I don’t really know what to make of it. I love the bass intro and the violin but overall find it both compelling and unsettling. It’s one of Phil’s songs and it has the most incredibly personal and intimate lyric. You can hear the emotion in his vocal delivery. You can’t hear it and not react. You can’t just let it wash over you. You have to form some kind of relationship with it.

Charles, however, is in no doubt. ‘It’s my second favourite track on the album,’ he says. ‘It had a difficult musical birth until Darren and I found the rhythm, and the bass line that repeats like a train on the tracks. I think this song is carried by the violin. I think it’s so beautiful. It’s probably one of the sparsest songs on the album, and I really like that. It moves me to tears.’

‘I wrote ‘42’ in 2014,’ says Phil, ‘as I was going through a horrible redundancy-cum-sacking at work, 42 being the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’s absurd answer to the ultimate question of ‘life, the universe and everything’, and the age I was when I wrote it. It originally emerged from an attempt to play Bowie’s ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’, hence the lyrical nod to ‘time smoking’, but I couldn’t work out the right chords. It originally had the same 3/4 rhythm, but in rehearsal Charles and Darren spontaneously hit a different 4/4 time and that stuck.’

In keeping with Phil’s general songwriting style, there are a wealth of allusions to other lyrical influences, including a reference to metaphysical poet John Donne.

I comment that when you start unravelling the Funtans songs, it’s often pretty cerebral stuff.

‘Yes,’ says Charles, ‘it is cerebral. I think that because we’re the age we are, and because we’re reasonably educated, that’s just what comes out. We joke about being a mid-life crisis sort of band, and I think that’s who we appeal to, if we appeal to anyone other than ourselves! [Laughs]  There’s lots of stuff in our songs about how our lives have turned out, and kids, and I think that’s alright. Why does rock music always have to be angry? I mean, there is a lot of anger in there, but why does it always have to be about the anger of youth? It’s ours too.’

‘The varied frames of reference in the songs, from real life, from literature and from the last 40 or 50 years of popular culture, are inevitable,’ says James, ‘if you throw together curious, reasonably well-educated people with, between them, a very broad experience of life. As with everyone, there’s personal triumph and tragedy along with the inevitable accumulation of interests and knowledge. Because of the stage of life we’re all at, it’s not surprising that our songs take on subjects like the long haul of relationships, parenthood, lost youth, love and the ghosts of our pasts.’

I remember once reading a description of heavy rock as being ‘music made by middle-aged men for young boys’ and joke, somewhat mischievously, that in contrast the Funtans are essentially (with apologies to Annie) middle-aged men making music for middle-aged men.

‘Yeah, though I wouldn’t say just men,’ says Charles earnestly but to much laughter. ‘Lyrically, I think our music would appeal to all people who get the references and understand them.’

‘The King Of Nothing’

‘The King Of Nothing’ is the last of Charles’s songs, and, perhaps, the exemplar par excellence of that poppy but acerbic Housemartins vibe – it’s jaunty ‘dysfunctional pop’!

Charles - bass player with the Funtans‘It’s a celebration of mediocrity,’ says Charles, ‘a celebration of comfortable underachievement, you know, I’m not going to set the world alight but I’ve done alright. That’s where it’s coming from. But unlike, James, Phil, or Jim I can’t quite break out of the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus structure in my songwriting.  This is fatal!  James and Phil contributed the ‘Hey, Hey’ interludes, and the guitar solo that sounds disturbingly like the theme from Rainbow, the children’s TV programme – and when the backing vocals were added – whadaya know – we had turned my high-minded Dylan-esque paeon to mediocrity into another pop tune.’

I’m intrigued by this recurring theme in Charles’s songwriting. He knows when he’s been funtanned! I ask him whether he ever puts his foot down.

Charles - bass player with the Funtans‘Yes,’ he says, ‘We don’t play ‘King Of Nothing’ live. Hardly ever. Cos ‘you’ve ruined my song; I’m not playing that anymore’. [Laughs.] It’s become a joke. Most people I speak to who’ve listened to the album think it’s the best track on there, because it’s got that pop appeal and I think it stands out like a sore thumb from the rest. It’s a good song. It’s just not where I wanted it to go. I look upon it like an errant child. You know, didn’t quite turn out how I expected: ‘That’s not how I brought you up!’’

I mention a comment of Jim’s, that his role in the band is ‘to bring the deep dark sounds on the harmonica that can take any happy jolly song to the darkest of places,’ and suggest to Charles that he should write with Jim more.

‘Yes, I should,’ he says, ‘but, you know, we have done a Christmas version of ‘King of Nothing’ with different lyrics, and I think it could be a massive Christmas hit!’ This is probably utter fantasy but we could have a massive Christmas hit with that and then retire. [Laughs].  Hmm … but then I’d have to disown it. I’d have to sell it to someone else. Someone else could record it. I don’t want to be remembered for ‘King of Nothing’.’ [Laughs.]

‘I’m Off’

Album closer ‘I’m Off’ was one of the quartet on the EP, and it’s one of James’s songs.

‘‘I’m Off’ was a tune that I made up and played to the kids and used to make up stupid words about our family to make them laugh,’ says James. ‘Later I wrote the lyrics because I was missing London and, well, missing being younger. It comes across as a rejection of the city in favour of clean green country life, but the opposite is true. The final lyric about finding ‘somewhere that’s good to bury a dream/because I can’t remember what it was and the air here is so clean’ is supposed to be spat out in self-disgust. The refrain, ‘you know what I mean’ is something my oldest friend and I used to say to each other at school when we couldn’t say what we really thought. It was Jim who came up with the simple accompaniment on the harmonica in the chorus, and that’s what he and Annie build on throughout the song. Also this is my favourite bit of Darren’s drumming. The fill before the third verse is sick.’

James’s lyrics, though grounded in existential dilemmas, often tickle me, and I point out to Charles that James has a 100% track record on the album of including the word ‘whore’ in his songs.

‘So he has,’ says Charles, ‘that hadn’t occurred to me. He just writes filth anyway. It’s all smut, his songs. It’s shocking’.

Which brings us back nicely to the part Viz-inspired band name (in the fine ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ tradition) and Roger Melly (‘The man on the telly’)’s definition of ‘funtan’ as: ‘a short-lived healthy glow in the face of a gentleman following a spot of self-discipline’.

I tell Charles that I put a ‘now playing’ post on Facebook recently with a picture of the Funtans album cover. One long-time friend, John, a guitarist, responded: ‘What a great album title!’ Another friend, Joe, a drummer who used to play in a band with John and who has subsequently become a vicar, commented: ‘And what a great band name!’

How familiar Joe the Vicar is with Viz, I’m not sure! However, I do know that he is still smarting from the rejection of his suggestion that his and John’s band should be called ‘Cliff Rescue and the Helicopters’. It was the 1980s, and we all wore CND badges and worried endlessly about nuclear war. It wasn’t what the band were looking for. In the end they called themselves Four Minute Warning.

Charles grimaces at the ‘Cliff Rescue’ suggestion. ‘I’m getting a wedding band sort of vibe there. That’s what I worry about with our name. It gets shortened to The Funtans, which is okay, but I’m not sure it’s in keeping with what we’re really about.’ [Laughs]

Funtans on stage

‘The Joy Of Six’

For The Funtans, as everyone else, the pandemic lockdown has meant virtually zero live music and, with people preoccupied with other matters, less space for creativity. ‘But before that happened we’d been working on lots of new songs,’ says Charles. ‘We’ve got a long list and we’ve been talking recently about booking a weekend, recording four songs and eventually working things up into another album.’

‘There’s ‘Homebird’,’ he says, ‘which is a very early Funtans song which we did record for the album but weren’t happy with. Then we’ve got four of James’s songs, five counting ‘Homebird’, two of mine, two of Phil’s and one of Jim’s. And then there’s one Darren has written about a bingo caller.’

It’s drummer Darren, indeed, who was the former UK breakdancing champion with ‘The Fresh Rock Crew’. He was also a holiday camp worker in his youth, and his song ‘Shake Your Balls Up, Dougie’ is about a bingo caller who Darren frequently had to sober up or cover for.

‘The Fall did a song about a bingo caller, ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’,’ says Charles, ‘so it’s a theme, it’s an acceptable subject.’ [Laughs] Darren’s song is actually number 2 on our list of songs to record, after ‘Homebird’.’

I ask if the songs are stylistically similar to those on the first album.

‘Yes, I’d say so,’ says Charles. ‘Obviously I don’t know how it’s going to sound when we do it, but I think lyrically, structurally, musically, it’s all coming from the same place. You know, no one’s got into synth pop or anything. Our recording plans are currently vague, though, due to ‘the rule of six’ and the new lockdown restrictions.  In fact ‘The Joy of Six’ is the working title for the album.’

The working title? I ask, amused but a bit surprised.

‘Well, admittedly it’s a very recent development,’ says Charles, ‘the law only came in yesterday!’

The Funtans performing

Agent Philby And The Funtans: ‘Half Simpleton, Two Thirds God’ is now available on a wide range of online platforms, including Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp.

‘It’s even available in Russia,’ Charles tells me. ‘It’s freely available in the former Soviet Union, which is very exciting’.

For more information on the Funtans, go to: http://www.funtans.co.uk or check their Facebook page.

Many thanks to Charles, Phil, James, Jim, Anne and Darren.

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