FROM CCTV to MTV: HARD-FI VISIT THE HOME OF THE HI-FI
"We've done all those things and yet we've never had an NME front cover," he complains, mentioning the New Musical Express, the UK's main arbiter of musical taste. "The NME's always cool with us but we were never one of those bands charming it with the press, so it always surprised people that we have been as successful as we are. We've bypassed those people and reached the real people out there."
Now the "real people out there" are international audiences, including those in Japan, as Hard-Fi's brand of ska and dub inflected rock skillfully breathes new life into the rock genre. Formed in 2002, in the cultural wasteland known as Staines, a drab suburb of London under the flight path of London’s main airport, the band are a reflection of their environment, post industrial Britain, a land of credit-fueled consumerism, debt, hedonism, increasingly limited opportunities, and drink-fueled hooliganism, in short a land of CCTV surveillance cameras, an image that the band so skillfully appropriated for their smash debut album Stars of CCTV.
"That's one of the things we've kind of found as we've been around the World lately, is that people don't actually know what CCTV is," Archer comments. While still a marginal phenomenon in low-crime-rate Japan, in the UK, CCTV is ubiquitous, existing both as a symbol of endemic crime and the detached authoritarian technocratic approach of government.
"I think for me, it's always been about saving money. It's cheaper to get someone to look at 20 screens in a room than it is to actually say, 'We're going to get enough policemen, we're going get them out of their fast cars, and we're going to get them to actually reintegrate with the community, to go out there are talk to people and have a relationship with them.' But that costs money and takes time and it's easier to put up cameras and then deal with it later. The UK's always been about saving money, kind of a cheap fix."
At times, Archer, whose first foray into rock with a band called Contempo ended in failure, must have thought that the only TV he would ever get on would be CCTV, inspiring him to write the sarcastic classic title track of the album, on which he sings, "We're the stars of CCTV/ making movies out on the street/ We're the stars of CCTV/ Can't you see the camera loves me?"
Using the grim reality of their lives as a source of inspiration, the four-piece band turned out a DIY mini album and video that got media attention, leading to intense A&R interest from record companies.
"We made this mini album that had six tracks, with no money or clout behind us at all, and it was getting on national radio," Archer remembers. "We made a video, and it was on MTV. So, literally, everyone in the UK was sort of falling over themselves. And we had some American labels ringing us up and it was mad. We did a gig just before we signed, and it was literally full of industry A&R people – in suits and that. And it was like 'fucking hell, this is mad.' Our mates couldn't get in because there was all these people in there."
The cause of the fuss was the band's outsider image – something that British record companies find hard to resist these days – combined with a real populist streak in their music, both in terms of music and lyrics. The use of dub, with its echo and low bass, enables Archer and his band mates – Ross Philips on guitar, Kai Stephens on bass, and Steve Kemp on drums – to achieve a full, bombastic sound; meanwhile drum and bass and ska influences give the music rhythmic power. While anthemic singles Hard to Beat and Living for the Weekend capture the spirit of British working class hedonism, songs like Cash Machine reflect the darker side of working class life.
"We were just writing songs about our own lives, and what we saw around us, what we saw in our friends lives, what we saw on the TV," Archer recalls. "For example, the song Middle Eastern Holiday was written back in the day when the Iraqi war had officially finished and six military policemen were murdered by a mob in Basra. People say, 'You know, that could be me, that could be my mate,' and it starts making you think in a different way. You stop seeing it in black and white and start thinking, 'What if I was out there?' I would be scared shitless. Both sides should be at home doing what you are doing – going out, washing your car."
This trip will be Hard-Fi’s second visit to Japan, following a couple of small promo appearances in November last year.
"It was like another world, but similar in many ways," Archer remembers. "A lot of people were saying that the crowds would be very polite and they'll clap between the songs, and we should be aware of that. But when we played Tokyo, the moment we hit the first chord, the place erupted, it went crazy."
Of course, such craziness in Japan is always very controlled and channeled in socially acceptable ways, so what does Archer think of a country that doesn't require the constant surveillance of CCTV?
"When we were there, we kind of noticed that everyone has a lot more respect for each other and so a lot of the situations don't arise. It's funny how one of the most technologically advanced nations on the planet doesn't need to rely on technology for keeping the streets safe or whatever."