Interview – Lach: founder of Antifolk movement

Lach by Perry JonssonFounder of the Antifolk movement in New York, musician and poet Lach has seen performers including Lady Gaga and Beck early in their careers. He is set to return to Derby and play one of his favourite venues in the UK – the Hairy Dog – at the end of January and ahead of the date Storge editor Sarah Lay caught up with him about his music, the Antifolk movement, and his return to our city.

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Lach is somewhat of a music legend – founder of the Antifolk movement in New York which influenced bands and artists including Beck, The Moldy Peaches, and Laura Marling; a musician; a poet. And next week he is returning to play at one of his favourite UK venues, the Hairy Dog in Derby, as part of a tour with Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors. He’s had a long creative career but his love and involvement with music goes far beyond his work, “I’ve always been in music. It’s like being born into an ocean, you don’t think about swimming, you’ve just always swam. I didn’t realise until not too long ago, that most other people don’t have music in their head’s all of the time like I do. It’s like I was born with a radio in my brain. I couldn’t understand iPods. Why would anyone need to pump music into their ears when it’s already there?

“The music I listened to growing up was whatever my mind was playing until I started classical piano at age five. Then I could start making the music outside of my head. Other than that my parents would put on jazz albums or on the way to and from piano lessons I’d sometimes hear pop music on the car radio.

“But it wasn’t until The Sex Pistols that I woke up to the visceral feel of rock music and then the Clash showed me how important words were to good songwriting. I was writing poems and playing music but now this new art form that combined the two into something greater just swept me away. After that I went backwards and learned about The Beatles, Dylan, Ochs, Guthrie and that was it. Songwriting became my full focus.”

Arriving in New York in the early ’80s he headed to Folk City, still taking its sound and its earnestness from singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s and not quite the right musical home for Lach who’s own sound mixed his punk influences in. “I had no challenge as a songwriter on the staid West Village so-called ‘folk’ scene that was left behind went Dylan went electric and years later had to deal with me!

“So I moved to the East Village and started up the Antifolk scene with my fellow misfits like Cindy Lee Berryhill, Kirk Kelly, Billy Nova, Roger Manning and the like. These Antifolk cats could write!

“And it challenged me, kept me on my toes. And it was a real, heart and bone community. Babies were born, people died. It wasn’t a fly-by-night clique, it was a calling that people felt that they were alone in hearing, and then they’d stumble upon us and realize that, no, they weren’t alone, in fact, they were quite special.”

Some of those drawn to the scene included those who went on to have mainstream commercial success, “Lady Gaga was Stefani Germanotta when she played for a while on the Monday night open stage I ran called The Antihoot at The Sidewalk Cafe in NYC where I booked the nights. She had long, straight, brunette hair and was playing piano and singing Adult Contemporary songs that I couldn’t care less about. She had a coterie of friends who would bug me to give her a gig and I told them she just wasn’t right for the Antifolk scene and should try the more commercial West Village clubs like The Bitter End. There’s more to that story but it can wait for another time.

Beck came to the scene when I was running a joint called The Chameleon club. He was a little lost and basically doing Leadbelly songs and other covers. He was very sweet and was asking me how he could move up to a full gig and I told him he needed to write his own songs, his own voice. He hung out and picked up the Antifolk ethos, took it back to California and then the next thing we knew Loser exploded and there was no turning back. I love the guy and think he’s incredibly talented and deserving of his success.”

It’s been ten years since Lach said farewell to the Antihoot, although the open mic night at the Sidewalk Cafe, New York continues, his progress as a musician, poet, comedian and writer has far from slowed, “Songs were my laser-focus for many years. Any creative impulse had to emerge as a song. Sure, I was writing poetry as well but always with an eye for how it might become a lyric.

“I was doing comedy without realizing it as the host of The Antihoot, it took other people associated with The Edinburgh Fringe to encourage me to develop that into a Fringe show and that then became my comedy series, The Lach Chronicles, on BBC Radio 4. It became a Top Pick in every paper and was extended to three seasons! Suddenly, people are seeing me as a comic and so I added stand-up to the things I was involved with.

“Then, about a year or two ago an interviewer asked me a similar question as yours, ‘Lach, you’re a poet, a songwriter, comedian, cartoonist, but which one do you consider yourself as?’ And the music in my head stopped for a moment and instead an inner voice said, “I’m a writer!”, ever since that moment, that’s the umbrella term I use for most of the work I do. And it’s worked, I’ve written two novels since then!”

His creative path has led him back to his current tour alongside Chris Barron, best known as frontman of The Spin Doctors but also a prolific and creative songwriter and performer. This isn’t the first time they have toured together but Lach can’t say when their friendship began, “You know, on the last tour an interviewer asked us separately how we met and we both replied, without knowledge of the other’s response, ‘I’ve no memory of how we first met, you’ll have to ask him!’ And it’s true. We were both part of a very exciting, East Village music scene and eventually it just seemed like we both knew each other. But it really came together after Chris lost his voice and started hanging at The Antihoot where he eventually found it and started singing again.

“Once I was living in the UK and touring here regularly I pitched the idea of doing a solo acoustic tour together and we had so much fun we’re now on our third run. The dude is truly a brilliant songwriter. He sold 10 million records with The Spin Doctors and so everyone knows him by his hits like Two Princes and Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong. But he’s a journeyman artist and his new solo album, Angels And One-Armed Jugglers is on a score of 2017 top ten album lists for good reason.”

Their tour begins in Derby, at the Hairy Dog. It’s venue Lach has played many times and which he recently named as one of his top 10 favourite UK venues in a piece for Louder Than War. He puts its appeal down to one thing, “Phil Burgess and the scene he works so hard to keep going. He’s the gentleman that books the shows. He’s a righteous lover of true music as well as a talented artist and musician in his own right. My first gig or two there I was still an unknown artist in Derby but Phil treated me well and kept booking me and the crowds got bigger and bigger. It’s that kind of long-term vision that makes a scene happen. Now my gigs there are like family affairs with the family getting really huge!

“But one man can’t do it alone. People need to realize that they’ve been robbed of something extremely precious by the modern age and that’s the basic human need to gather around the campfire and tell stories and sing songs and, if one chooses, explore a few altered states together! Rock n Roll isn’t about staring at a little screen (that, incidentally, is only there to sell things to you and to sell you to things). No, Rock is about getting out of your flat, out to the club, meeting new folks and having an ecstatic experience together!

“Phil’s doing a great job but the people of Derby need to do their part as well. And guess what, their part is really easy. Just buy the ticket and show up. Good times are ahead!”

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Lach plays the Hairy Dog on Wednesday 31 January with Chris Barron (Spin Doctors) and Panama Scots. Tickets are £7 in advance and available now from Gigantic – details on Facebook here.

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