Ruts D.C – Segs interview – Rebellion
In the build up to Rebellion festival from 1-4 August, where 70s/80s punk icons Ruts D.C will play expectedly memorable acoustic AND full band sets, I chatted with Ruts bassist turned lead singer John ‘Segs’ Jennings, to discuss 40 years of ‘The Crack’, the weight an artist’s voice holds, new labels, and what it is that makes Rebellion festival so great.
Returning in the age of the reunion/anniversary for long loved bands and artists from a time gone by, The Ruts/newly named Ruts D.C have joined an array of ‘punk’ bands that have decided to jump back in, yet have opted to offer new music as opposed to relying on nostalgia alone to explore new territory. “A lot of people come to see us and say it’s great to see you because you keep writing new songs. As they say ‘nostalgia’s not what it used to be’, but I will make an effort to walk from one end of the festival to the other to go and see some of my mates, the likes of The Damned, Angelic Upstarts, UK Subs, but you do tend to bump into them really. It’s more of when you’re at the bar you might tell a couple of stories “do you remember when 40 years ago” and they’re funny stories so that’s nice, but generally it’s more like “fuck me I’m glad you’re still alive!” because we’ve lost two of our members and people have gone along the way.”
As well as their knack of still releasing new tunes and keeping things as fresh as possible, 2019 ultimately became the year of the 40th anniversary of ‘The Crack’ album. Many a favourite within the punk community, the 1979 release was remembered in the form of a UK tour in which the album was played in full. But what was it like to revisit this album and its songs so long after its release?
“We played it in full from start to finish, but we did about a 1 and a half hour show and the albums only I think, 38 minutes long, so we did some of our newer stuff and some stuff that wasn’t on that album like ‘West One’, ‘Rude Boys’, we did a dubbed version of ‘Jah War’, we got on for a few encores so it was a really good show. It was very weird (playing it live again) because by higher natural selection, when we first came back, obviously people wanted the hits, so we basically said let’s just do the ones that we really like playing. A lot of the ones off ‘The Crack’ got left by the way side. Songs like ‘Criminal Mind’ which I didn’t really wanna do, ‘Human Punk’ that I didn’t think we really could do because it was very much Malcolm Owen’s song, but of course we had to do it for ‘The Crack’ so we did it, and once we started playing them, we listened to all the albums, listened to all the live versions. It’s amazing you think you know the songs then 40 years on you’re playing them maybe a little bit lazier, and sometimes maybe too hard, so it’s really strange to revisit. But we did it and I think we did it well, and now some of them have gone back into our set. ‘You’re Just A…’ is back in because we really enjoyed playing it but we didn’t play it for years. ‘Savage Circle’ sometimes but we didn’t play it at the last gigs, and ‘Human Punk’ we have as an encore. There was talk of doing a Rebellion ‘The Crack’ played in its entirety for those that didn’t see it but I don’t really wanna do that, I think we’ll just play the key songs.”
In recent years Ruts D.C have built up a close relationship with Rebellion Festival, with them appearing several times at the festival, in both acoustic and full band form. “They came to us and said “how much do you want” and we didn’t have any manager or any agent so we just came up with a figure and it wasn’t that high, and they just said “Okay” so we were like “Oh Shit!”. We’d heard that some bands had been given a ridiculous amount for reforming, and we weren’t reforming we were just going out and doing some reggae stuff, but it went down well, and since then it’s developed into a whole thing. With rebellion, of course I meet people I’ve not seen for years, but now it’s more like you go back to your family and say hello to everybody and everybody’s pleased to see you. It’s just a very good vibe there. It went from something where I wasn’t too sure about playing a ‘punk festival’ to now we go and do it and show what punk can be. There’s loads of people that come from all over the world, and there’s always 4 or 5 great bands you can see, including for myself. It’s always packed out, well organised, it’s great really. I’m looking forward to it!”
“I hate seeing bands and its like ‘oh here we go, same old stuff'”
One thing about the festival that’s held the interest of bands over the years is the freedom they provide for them to keep things fresh and branch out, the ‘acoustic stage’ being one of these means. “Rebellion came to us about the acoustic stuff, ‘cause they have the acoustic stage, and we only really do it at Rebellion once a year then maybe one other somewhere else. One year we did a cover of ‘Suffragette City’ and we’d only ever played it twice and we just did it cos it came out great, and people were like “fuck me, in the middle of an hour set they’re doing ‘Suffragette City’ why would they do that!?”, but we just did it because we thought “why not?”, just take people by surprise, cos I hate seeing bands and it’s like “oh here we go, same old stuff”. I would hate to think we’re going up there (Rebellion) as a nostalgic thing, every year we go to try and show people that you can still write new songs, and that’s why I’m a bit dubious to do ‘The Crack’ at Rebellion but we’ll see what the feeling is out there and if people really want that we’ll do a bit of that.”
One huge change in the output of new music for the band has come in the formation of their own label ‘Sosumi’, which has allowed them to have full control over the product they put out. With that in mind, what’s it like to take up the role of both performer and label in releasing your own music, and does it allow an outlet to nurture through the next generation of bands?
“It’s getting them to listen (laughs). We went back and got our own label ‘Sosumi’ and we do that, and I’ll tell you what, I always thought I’d been ripped off but when you get your own label you start to realise how much work you have to put in, and getting wiser and older you realise how much the record label did do. One of the missions for bands if they’re up and coming and they haven’t got a deal yet I always say to them “look you can have the benefit of any knowledge that I’ve got of what things to avoid and don’t just fall for the hype”, and when I say it’s hard to get them to listen of course when you’re in a band and you’re just about to sign it’s very difficult to tell everyone (in the band) “look don’t sign this deal” cos you just want to get there. I always say to people because we’ve done it all, we’ve crowdfunded, had our own label, and if you want to email me for any advice then do it, and some do and some don’t, and that’s cool. As far as nurturing them through the best thing to say is just keep at it y’know? I think they’re very important, without new bands, what the fuck is it? I hate it when a load of old bands get together, including ourselves, and pat each other on the back and say “we’ve done it for 40 years” cos you can see a load of old bands and think “what are you doing” (laughs). I hope we’re not like that, we’re certainly not doing it for the money, we’re doing it cos we feel it’s right. I think that’s the same with writing the new stuff, if you think it should be out there, then it should be out there.”
“It’s not all about money it’s about surviving”
In the technological age, it’s easy to forget that a lot of bands that reaped the benefits of physical music in the late 20th century, now fall hugely short in physical music sales now compared to 30 years ago. Streaming platforms offer miniscule royalty amounts in which a song could have a million streams and receive as little as £4,000 in return. But could there be a silver lining to the streaming cloud?
“When all that started I kind of embraced it, people were moaning, the old dinosaurs y’know, and I said “look whatever you say, this is the new way forward, you ain’t gonna be able to make CDs and sell them in the same way anymore it just doesn’t work”. What I’ve found with things like Spotify are that people discover you and the positive is that you might discover it, then you’ll come and see the band, and then you might buy a T shirt and that’s how we survive. Everyone wants a good band to see, or a few hopefully, and they want to go out and have a good time and if they like you and support you then they will buy the vinyl and they will buy the T shirt. It’s not all about money, it’s about surviving, so I kind of embrace the free downloads and streaming. I can sit there whilst I get covered from my feet to my head in the sands of time, or I can embrace it and think “yeah we’re going to put this out”. It’s more of a promo thing now than anything else, and quite frankly back in the day when you used to make those singles and sell loads of them, you never used to see any of the money anyway! So it’s the same old story really, and bands have to be aware that that’s the way it is, there’s not going to be any supergroups like the Rolling Stones anymore. You guys have got a whole thing out there, you’ve got the internet, YouTube, you can really find anything, whereas for us it’d be a case of “have you heard this” and it’d be a vinyl record, which is a fantastic way of learning music. Even 10 years ago, people would come up to you and say “Do you like Iggy Pop? Here’s a hard drive with 25 albums of Iggy Pop” and it’s just too much. You can’t really beat a DJ or your friend playing you a great tune, if someone plays you Nirvana and you haven’t heard it you’re gonna go “Fuck that’s great!”.
Vinyl sales are supposedly on the rise though, leading to a sense of uncertainty surrounding musical output. Most bands are offering vinyl as an option and paying a lot more attention to it than they might have done 5-10 years ago. With their new label ‘Sosumi’ being the sole means of releasing music for the band, how does the enigma of physical vs digital sales affect the structure of the label?
“We always do vinyl, we did the live album on vinyl, the last album we did on double vinyl, and it sounded amazing. I think mostly you sell it to people who’ve heard you on Spotify and have seen you at a gig and thought “well I want that, and I want the vinyl” cos it’s back to the nice piece of artwork, the sleeve notes. They want the art of physical and they want the artefacts. I wouldn’t say you’re going to buy a house on the proceeds (laughs) but it’s just about art now. One thing that pisses me off, Spotify sonically sounds pretty good, but you can’t beat (vinyl). I’ve still got a pair of old JBL speakers, and a big amp, because I like to listen to good sounding music. And I think you spend a lot of money on making music for it to end up on some cheap headphones.”
“You’ve got a responsibility to try and find answers for yourself”
Lyrically, The Ruts were very much known as being one of the political/social groups along with many others in the 70s/80s, detailing the injustices against minorities by the metropolitan police amongst other topics. Some would say societally, the UK is in a similar position as it was during that time, however it would seem to the naked eye that there is substantially less being said about it in music in as consistent of a manner. Recently, it has been said by a certain sour personality in the British media that artists should stay in their lanes when it comes to discussing politics or social issues in their music. Is this the case and should artists feel a responsibility to discuss social injustices in their music if they have the platform to do so?
“That’s an ongoing question. From my point of view I feel that I have a responsibility through lyrics to point out the injustices only because we came out of ‘punk’, but I don’t think that all bands have the responsibility, I wouldn’t even say that all punk bands have the responsibility. But I would say that if you feel it, and you feel that injustice, don’t be scared to sing it. As much as anybody else I don’t want to hear it all the time, especially when it’s written really badly (laughs). It’s very easy to write a punk song about Piers Morgan, but who wants to hear it, I don’t. I’m quite outspoken on how I feel what’s going on in the world, but I don’t really wanna point (the finger), again you can write a song about Trump or Boris Johnson, or Piers Morgan, but that’s not what really needs to be done, we want answers, you’ve got a responsibility to try and find answers for yourself, then if you can put it into a song and you can turn people on with that then great, but I don’t particularly like it when there’s just a group of people shouting and pointing the finger thinking they’re changing the world because that’s not always (the case). This year’s gonna be even more special I think because of what’s going on in the world, and the way it’s going over here, moving more to the right with more idiots in power, we were going through that in 1978/79 and we thought that we were fighting against that. We come across as political but we’re actually just a part of the whole movement that was going on. It was a great vibe and I really do feel that right now we need some kind of movement to wake people up cos everyone’s just falling asleep and going along with the same old crap.”
As previously mentioned, Ruts D.C unlike many bands of their era in the present day, have put a huge focus on consistently writing and releasing new music. 2016’s ‘Music Must Destroy’ is the latest release by the band since their reform in 2007, a period which also saw Segs and Dave Ruffy rebrand to ‘Ruts D.C’. What does the future hold for new music, and is there anything in the works that we should expect to see in the near future?
“We did the album ‘Music Must Destroy’ and there’s 2 or 3 songs that didn’t make it to the album, not because they weren’t any good, but basically because we didn’t have time to finish them. We also said maybe that’s it, we aren’t going to write anymore, but then you start rehearsing, then you start jamming, and that’s how we’ve always written. And I’ve got some songs at home, so when we’re all together it all sort of comes together, you get bored playing all the same stuff all the time. Of course you listen to newer bands and newer stuff as well and you get inspired, and you think blimey I should be doing something like that! (laughs).”
Since the acoustic shows have come into fruition consistently in the past few years, and the reception has been so positive, have there been any thoughts towards putting together an acoustic album?
“People have asked for it, we just haven’t got it together yet. There’s a bit of feeling out there that it shouldn’t be done acoustically, but I think that if people come to see the gigs then they’ll really like it. I think that it’s an option, but it still costs a bit to manufacture, and you’ve got to make sure you can sell a couple of hundred, cos that’s what you’re talking about now, but we would really like to do it. We’re really more into livestreaming. We did one in the 40th anniversary of the Ruts in this little Irish pub near our rehearsal room and it ended up reaching like 80,000, then 100,000 people. It doesn’t mean they’re all gonna buy tickets or your records, but if music is just about getting it out there, then that’s a great way to do it.”
Tickets are still available for Rebellion festival on 1-4 August where you can catch Ruts D.C as well as an array of your favourite punk bands from both past and present. Check out the line-up and day/weekend tickets at the link below: