Bruno Wizard - The Homosexuals

Bruno Wizard - by Kitmonsters
The Rejects, 1976 - Archive Susana Vida
The Homosexuals - by Terry Tyldesley
The Rejects, The Roxy 1977 - Archive Susana Vida
The Homosexuals - by Terry Tyldesley
The Homosexuals - by Terry Tyldesley
Bruno Wizard at Pussy Riot Demo - by Elisabeth Rasmussen
Bruno Wizard - by Terry Tyldesley

Punk singer Bruno Wizard is an underground legend - frontman for The Homosexuals, and star of acclaimed film The Heart of Bruno Wizard which premiered at Cannes. He’s a DIY evangelist and performed at original punk club The Roxy in London. A much loved figure in the USA, more recently he’s been celebrated by Selfridges, gigs regularly in London’s coolest venues, and is releasing a vinyl retrospective later this year. We talked to him about songwriting, synaesthesia, reggae drumming and DIY culture from the punk era through to today.

The world of Bruno Wizard

The Rejects, The Roxy 1977 - Archive Susana Vida

Bruno is a gifted performer and raconteur, and sees himself as a writer first and foremost. We asked how he creates his songs, from when he had his first band The Rejects through to the present day version of The Homosexuals.

I’ve always had a very happy relationship with words, when I was a very small child words used to appear in the window of my imagination and say, ‘we’re your friends. If you make friends with us we’ll take you to places and show you magical things and we’ll never let you down’ so that’s the relationship I’ve had with words all the way through - first and foremost, I’m a writer.

If people see me onstage singing they think, oh great singer, performer, but really that’s me being a writer, just singing what I’ve written. I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write something for the band, because I’ve never needed a record deal, I’ve never wanted a record deal so I’ve never needed to sit down and write, oh I need an album for the band before I write my own songs, kind of thing so now, it’s just when I’m minded to write. I put myself in a certain frame of mind and then it just flows. Some ideas come out and I know that if I push them a bit I can get a finished song, others are what I call golden keys they’re like floating in space.

I know that if I work on that and then keep that golden key, at some point I can go back and use that golden key, like a key to a landscape. I can go there at my own leisure and go, well I think I’ll have this ruby to reflect the sound of the cymbals and I think I’ll have this jade, to give it a bit more colour for the bass drum. There are some golden keys that I’ve had for 30 years, some for 20, some for 5 minutes.

Synaesthesia - I hear the traffic lights changing

It’s no coincidence that Bruno talks so animatedly about colours and sounds and textures - he has synaesthesia and sees and hears the world differently from most other people.

People are really surprised when they find out that I don’t listen to music. Because I’ve got synaesthesia: I hear colours and I see sounds so when I’m in the mood and when I’m vibrating, I hear the traffic lights changing, I’ve got so much stimulation going on.

We are all synaesthetic as children, basically my brain is a box of illusions occasionally opened up by a fool. Everything outside of me, outside of my subjective perception, in the objective universe there’s no music, no rhythm, no melody, all there is is molecules vibrating at different frequencies.

And when those molecules vibrate in a certain frequency that goes into my ears, it sends a message to the brain and the brain then starts to make sense of it, the longterm memory, the short term memory, the part of the brain that registers colour, smell, taste, touch.

If you watch a baby, you can put a bit of cheese under one baby’s nose and the part of the brain that’s going to register food will light up, and another baby, the part of the brain that’s going to register colour will light up, another baby, the part that’s going to register numbers. So your cheese is my number seven. And it’s only through conditioning that we then start to build up the perception and constantly feature the world through the five basic senses.

Using guitar like a pen

Bruno plays instruments but they are tools for writing on, rather than something to fetishise.

I’ve only ever used guitar in the same way that I use a pen. I’d started writing on guitar in the 70s just when we were sitting around in rehearsals. Somebody would go off for a break, I’d pick up the guitar, fiddle around a little bit and just make interesting sounds.

I realised that I’d got to start teaching myself more and more guitar, but I never wanted to lose that naive attitude towards it. I didn’t want to go and get loads of guitar books, have lessons, learn the scales. Then about two years ago I said, do you know what? I know that I can work in a naive way with equipment, but let’s just pretend I’m a 14-year-old kid in 1964, I’m just seeing Jimi Hendrix, it’s changed my life so that’s what I want to do with my life, what am I going to do?

I went and I bought some guitar books and as I was reading through them I started to lose respect for practically every guitarist that I’d ever heard of. They’ve all read the same fucking books they’ve just done blues scales and stuff, where’s the individuality?

I realised how much that naive approach had saved me in terms of equipment. I’ve always used the same equipment: my mind, my spirit, my consciousness and my intuition, and everything else in the shared world, it’s just like a sound source. I know people that are top sound engineers and they can’t listen to anything unless the equipment is perfect - oh no it’s like a rat in my ears! And I’m like, what? And I hear this stuff on the shittiest equipment and I’m like, this is fucking brilliant! I’m interested in the original idea.

Jamming with Hawkwind

At shows, Bruno often heads for the drums and plays alongside his main drummer. He’s great at it, is he yearning to get behind the kit?

I’ve always loved drums. When I was little Graham on a council estate in the north of England, if I’m sitting there and it’s a black and white film on and it’s got Buddy Rich in it - I’m five years of age, I’m banging away on the armchair and then my mam says, ‘will you stop your crashing and banging?’ ‘It’s not crashing and banging, Mum, it’s drumming!’ I just had a natural aptitude for it.

Then when I first came to London in the late Sixties, I remember being in a squat in North London Polytechnic and the Pink Fairies and Hawkwind were there for three weeks and jammed. And I got up and I just sat down at the drums. I looked like a drummer but I was so fucking shy in those days and I had long hair so it really was like the original metal drummer, long hair dangling in the drums hiding my face. I think they most probably thought I was jazz, because I was completely out of time but I had the energy to just keep going and the balls to keep going.

Drums have always been my first instrument, but I’d never wanted to be in a band as the drummer, and I realised later why not: because I wanted to sing. That was going to be the spiritual thing for me, finding the voice, it’s the only instrument from this part of the body, so get out there and make yourself naked and tell people what’s in your heart.

The Rejects, 1976 - Archive Susana Vida

The illusion of space - the secret of real production

Bruno loves talking about drum production in the studio. At one point he would do night time recording sessions in a studio that The Police used during the day.

I used to go to Jamaican Blues parties and hearing dub and reggae from 68, 69 onwards - most white kids didn’t hear any kind of reggae until about 77 when Don Letts started playing at The Roxy, most people didn’t have a clue what was going on.

Then when Bob Marley did his punky reggae vibe it crossed over. But even then you had bands like The Clash trying to do their version of reggae, and putting the beats in all the wrong places but because of the dynamics of how you construct reggae and ska, it sounded good.

I started getting into studios and having a great time with The Police in 77, they had really great equipment there but their producer also had state of the art echo machines. I’d loved all the echo and the dub effects and Lee Scratch Perry, so I started to try and do recordings where the original thing that creates the echo, you then take out the original sound source and then go to the end of the echo, make the echo really really quiet, and then you use the echo from the original sound source as the new sound source, and that way you see the brain perceives sound on a two-dimensional plane which is the way we hear it coming out of the speakers in a stereo arc.

The brain perceives a quieter sound on the same plane that’s been behind a layer of sound, and I started to realise that from listening to reggae and being in this studio. And I realised, oh, it creates the illusion of space.

Now the one thing that fascinates me with reggae, with dub, was that even though it was on little four-track machines they got so much on there, so the notion of being able to create the illusion of space, that was the secret of real production.

I always like to find things that are real hooks, whether it’s melodies or rhythms, you know. And then whatever is the essence of it, throw it over the horizon, lay a minefield between the original sound source and the echo on the horizon and then see if people are straining to listen and going, what is that and then they go and they step on a mine but they say, now I’ve got to find this, then I know that I’ve got something, you know, when people are really hearing.

I don’t like to make it easy. Because it’s easy to make things pink and fluffy, and so much of today’s production is pink and fluffy, so get back to the actual drums. I was always adventurous - funny time signatures and seven four or eleven four and stuff like that, well that’s interesting, especially when you’re stoned as well.

At this point in the interview I must stress that I’ve been clean of everything since 87 but from 67 to 87 you imagine being stoned and listening to Big Youth and then having a drum kit there and all this echo and delay, and just getting lost in all of that world and then recording it.

Bruno Wizard at Pussy Riot Demo - by Elisabeth Rasmussen

There was no home entertainment system

We ask Bruno about his musical influences, and he paints an amazing portrait of how access to music has changed.

The first radio didn’t arrive in our street until 1955 when I was about five, in this council house. The first records didn’t arrive until I think the late 50s. So there was no home entertainment system.

In the council house because it was state of the art, there was a little box on the wall, where you could turn a knob, there were three different stations. And they were just all different versions of BBC Radio, which after the second war was was being decommissioned - during the war the BBC Radio was called the democratic signal.

I wrote a song in 1978 called Slogans for a Democratic Signal - you can hear it on Bandcamp. It’s all about that, the BBC as a conditioning tool. I remember having a little transistor radio and trying to tune in to Radio Luxembourg.

I found a book called The History Of The Blues by Paul Oliver. I went home and I read that, so at the age of 11, having an empathy with what was happening with the civil rights movement in North America, I was reading about these people that were making the original music that they couldn’t even play in America. In America they had kind of an apartheid situation.

So I’m listening to The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones’ first album, with brilliant 50s R&B like ‘Carol’ on there and ‘Can I Get A Witness’,’ Route 66’, ‘I’m A King Bee’, all of that stuff. And yet the original people that inspired that, couldn’t set up.

I went round all the second stores in Sunderland and just got like loads and loads of old blues and jazz stuff and started listening to that. But I remember that dichotomy of hearing the blues and then listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

I lived down in Canterbury in 1972, round the corner from Dave Sinclair who was in a band called Caravan, he played with Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayres. I saw Soft Machine, all those kind of people, and then in the 60s I went to all the festivals. I went to the Isle of Wight festival with Bob Dylan and The Who, I took my first acid half an hour before The Who came on, and blew my head off. I saw Taste with Rory Gallagher about 30 times, T-Rex, The Incredible String Band, Renaissance, Queen.

DIY spirit is very much alive

Then came the flashpoint of punk and Bruno started The Rejects and The Homosexuals in a newly-ignited music scene that’s documented in The Heart of Bruno Wizard film, directed by Elisabeth Rasmussen. He says he has always expressed himself through DIY, as he wasn’t prepared to sell his soul to the establishment. Are there similarities between punk in the 70s and today’s DIY culture?

The spirit is very much alive - in the punk thing, then in the rave scene, then in the current situation. There’s always going to be a small percentage of people that are what I call invisible saints. They’re naturally switched on to what’s right and wrong, and they have the gifts to articulate the dreams and aspirations of their generation through music, art, culture, film, drama, the way they bring their kids up or whatever.

I know kids that are doing it in America, 12-year-old kids, they think TV’s shit so they start running TV programmes, they start their own newspapers. There might only be three people tuning in but you know to them it’s like Fox News, it’s ABC. DIY is not accepting something that’s controlled by the establishment - the means of production, distribution and the media. In a sense this generation is naturally DIY.

They can make music, they’ve got the technology, they’ve got the kind of technology that previously you would have had to sell your soul to get into a studio, sell your soul to get the distribution rights. Sell your soul to be able to have your own movement. It’s there for kids. That’s the really exciting thing for me.

That’s why I’m excited about China, that’s why I’m excited about Shanghai. I understand they couldn’t give a fuck, if they want to come to London and play, but they’d love it if I went out there and jammed with them while they were all wearing their tartan skirts. And these are people who are children or younger brothers and sisters of the people who stood in Tiananmen Square and said no, fuck your tanks. That’s DIY to me. Standing in front of a tank and going, No.

The Homosexuals - by Terry Tyldesley

I’ve got a great live band together

Bruno’s plans for this year include more shows, collaborations and a vinyl retrospective release.

The current Homosexuals line up is drawn from musicians Ben Harris, Tom Oakes, John Mathews, Sir Alick & The Phraser, George Harassment, Susan Vida, Sir Christopher Gray, Joel Amey, James Belmont, Julien Bennet-Holmes, Jonathan Edelstein, A Hayman, Jim Welton, Hippie Alan.

I’ve got a great live band together in London, great live set, my band is still learning some songs that I wrote 30 years ago, 25 years ago. When we play the back catalogue it’s new for people, it’s like wow! A lot of the songs that I write fit nicely into that 21st Century Homosexuals brief but there’s other songs that I think will be great with somebody for electro, or for a noise band or spoken word or just complete improvs.

There’ll be some great gigs, there’ll be some stuff coming out. There’s the double vinyl album coming out later on this year in America on In the Red Records who first broke Black Lips and Jay Reatard. It’s an archive thing with amazing artwork and the story of The Homosexuals. And that will just bring the back catalogue up to date.