Published on January 14th, 2020 | by Tom Mayne0
An interview with Extradition Order’s Alastair Harper
Extradition Order have consistently produced some of the most interesting, thought-provoking and idiosyncratic music within Antifolk UK. But, to say the least, times have been tough since the release of their last album, Kennedy, with the death in 2018 of bass player Nick Boardman, a founding member of the band and co-songwriter. January 2020 sees the release of the band’s fourth album, American Prometheus – about American theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer – which features Nick’s final recordings.
Tom Mayne loads up on the Guinness and meets up with founding member and singer Alastair Harper to talk about Order’s back catalogue, Nick’s passing, the new album and Noam Chomsky…
Tom Mayne: It’s interesting listening to your old stuff. Cronenberg’s Wife, The Awkward Silences and Extradition Order –we all seem to have gone from the ramshackle, punky early days to something quite sophisticated. Do you see it like that? That progression?
Alastair Harper: Me not playing a musical instrument in the band was one of the key bounces into sophistication. Though actually I always thought it was sophisticated. Your first record is just your first record – what you’ve come up with after playing gigs for years – so in my head that’s the garage rock record. The second one is almost the opera, the Benjamin Britten, John Adams vision. The third one is when it starts to become concept albums: Kennedy. I thought Kennedy was sort of electro, but everyone who hears them still says about all of them, “Oh, you guys sound like The Fall!”
Q: My favourite songs are, from the first album, ‘Marriage’, and ‘The Wheel’ …
A: ‘The Wheel’ is really pretentious – can you imagine writing something that pretentious! There’s a Pink Floyd-style guitar solo in it…
Q: From the second album, ‘Peter Grimes’.
A: That’s also pretentious, but good pretentious. Not afraid of dumb big ideas. Good strings on that one, which echo Peter Grimes, the Britten opera.
Q: Third album: ‘Killing Presidents’.
A: You’ve always like that one. Good lyrics on that. Psycho lyrics.
Q: So what’s the link between ‘Peter Grimes’ the song and the Britten opera Peter Grimes? What was it that attracted you to the opera?
A: It’s a rewrite, I suppose. There’s an amazing book called ‘The Rest is Noise’ by Alex Ross.
He basically tells the story of how popular music and compositional music changed. The parallel lines from compositional music to jazz and blues to rock and roll. So what’s the difference between John Cage and John Cale? It made me realise these guys are my team as well – misfits like Benjamin Britten.
My Peter Grimes, who is from the North West, works in a call centre, basically starts to wonder, why bother with society? Why bother with getting along with anyone when they’re no good anyway? You can bash their brains in if you fancy – what difference does it make?
Q: So why did you then choose to do an album about John F. Kennedy? What attracted you to him?
A: I always get obsessed with stuff and if it happens in the right moment it becomes a commitment. I just zoom in on things, and it changes every six months or so. At the moment I’ve been reading a lot about milk. It amazes me, the effort that goes into something that it so easily available. The amount of civilisation and society you need to be able to get a plastic bottle of milk in every corner shop. It blows my mind. Anyway, I’m not doing a concept album about milk… I was obsessed with Kennedy briefly, read lots of things. It was around the time we were writing [songs] and I was sick of – as I hope everyone is –semi-autobiographical songs, songs about the life being led by me and my friends. They are not dramatic lives, but Kennedy’s life I felt had a narrative that was really unique, so I told that story.
Q: I think you once said something to me – correct me if I’m wrong – that one of the things that interested you in Kennedy was that he was a flawed personality, a bad guy who did good things.
A: More interesting than that, I think. All the Kennedys, certainly Bobby and John, they got better with power. They became more benevolent with power, which is something the amazing biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro, says: power doesn’t corrupt, power reveals. The weird thing is the Kennedys were born with power: their dad was a movie mogul, who became the US ambassador to Britain.
Kennedy wasn’t meant to become Kennedy. It was meant to be his big brother, [Joe Jr], who was the one who was going to be the successful politician, but he died in the Second World War. Bobby was the runt, meanwhile. And they were kind of nasty guys in many ways, especially Bobby in the 50s. But the more power they got, the more experience they got, the more they chose to be good. And Bobby more than his big brother. He had the most interesting journey from basically a spoiled brat bully to one of the most compassionate politicians America has ever produced.
Q: I’ve got a Chomsky quote for you. The context of this is that he was being asked to justify his statement about how every post-war president could be charged with war crimes. He says about Kennedy: “Kennedy was one of the worst. Eisenhower […] who maybe killed 60,000 or 70,000 people in South Vietnam […] had instigated a response that Kennedy recognised couldn’t be controlled externally so he simply invaded. […] He authorised napalm, he began the use of chemical weaponry to destroy food crops. They began pogroms, which drove millions of people in[to] what amounted to concentration camps. In the case of Cuba – that was just a campaign of international terrorism, which almost led to the destruction of the world, the missile crisis.” Your comment?
A: I’d rather just make fun of Chomsky, but I think he has a point on the escalation of the Vietnam War… Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War captures a lot of this really well. [Kennedy] could have de-escalated it post-Eisenhower, but he did escalate it. It’s awkward for him – like when you start a new job and the last guy’s lame project is going on. You just sort of go along with stuff. You don’t want to be awkward. You’ve got a situation in Vietnam where there’s huge resentment of the French imperialism that grew in the 50s. Eisenhower gets the US involved but Kennedy doesn’t get them out. At least JFK didn’t know what a shit show he had locked his country into creating. LBJ has less excuse. He know it was not going to work, that it’s a disaster, that people are going to die needlessly, but he kept going with it. Kennedy didn’t know how bad it would be – he’s got that excuse. He didn’t know it was going to be a disaster. But LBJ did know it was a fucking shit show and he escalated it.
Luckily, I completely disagree with Chomsky on Cuba, because the Cuban Missile Crisis is the perfect story of a political moment that could have ended in absolute tragedy, but it was largely because of both Kennedy brothers working in that war room that they got the de-escalation. There was a moment where [JFK] got 2 telegrams from Cuba when they were exchanging messages. The first one says, “Yes, let’s all just fucking chill the fuck out ” – I’m paraphrasing slightly. And the second one is after Fidel had spoken to Russia, which was more like – “You’re a fucking dickhead, and I want to put your dick-like head in a blender and call it a protein shake.” And Kennedy himself made the decision to just ignore the second one, pretend that he never got it, and only respond to the first [telegram] that allowed the de-escalation. And that was a choice, a really practical moment – I don’t believe in the great men theory of history – but that is a moment practically where the guy who happens to be in charge makes a difference, by choosing to answer the first telegram and not the second telegram. And history goes a different way as a result.
[Chomsky’s] alright at language, but the idea of him as a historian is like saying a chimpanzee is a good sexual partner…
Q: The new album, your fourth. So why Oppenheimer?
A: As I say it’s just the random shutters – do you ever see the tube arrive and you wonder what the people will be like on the carriage you’re in? It’s like a roulette table slowing down. It’s a bit like that with the records. I just happened to have a period when I was really interested in the growth of theoretical physics over experimental physics, and that amazing period where mavericks and dreamers became essentially weapons. It is similar with Da Vinci where there’s a real blurred line with artists and engineers – the fact you can [get them to] make a good catapult as easily as putting together the Statue of David. I was just interested [in that] at the time when we needed to make another record, so again I found myself writing about a white American male, which both Kennedy and Oppenheimer are. But at least I tried to tell it broader, about people in their lives.
Q: The press release says that you were interested in the private life of Oppenheimer, not just the physics, the bomb. Tell me a story about Oppenheimer’s private life and how that transmuted into the songs.
A: He’s got three amazing women in his life. One was a slightly older woman who lived in New Mexico. That’s why the Manhattan Project ends up there, because he used to hang out with an older married woman there, who taught him to ride a horse and made him fall in love with the desert. She introduces him to poetry, teaches him to be a bit less of an awkward Manhattanite, as it were. And then he has his wife, Kitty Oppenheimer, who was married to someone else when he met her. He impregnated her, they got the divorce and marriage sorted out, I think, within 9 months. They were married by the time she gave birth.
And then, before her, he was dating a wonderful woman, Jean Tatlock, who was probably gay. She was a communist, the daughter of a literary professor at California University. They got together, he kept proposing, she kept turning him down, they drifted apart. He married Kitty, then they started an affair again when he was actually working on the Manhattan project, and as a result of being a Communist fucking the guy who was in charge of America’s biggest secret, Jean started being followed by the military police and being investigated about what this communist knew and didn’t know about the project that would make America the owner of all our lives.
Of course that affected her mental health. She always had bad mental health. She ended up killing herself in the middle of the development of the nuclear bomb. It’s so horrific if you’re just born in the wrong time. She just seemed like a fascinating charismatic, literate, gay woman who deserves her own story, and not just to be the mistress of a famous man, you know?
I think it is to Oppenheimer’s credit that he managed to attract such articulate, fascinating women. He was clearly attracted to intelligent women. He understood that sexual desire is linked to intelligence. It is less to his credit how miserable they all ended up because of meeting him.
Q: And tell me about the music of the fourth album, the northern soul influence. Have you always been a fan or did that happen organically?
A: Northern soul was just soul music that a bunch of Manc hipsters in the late 70s were like “You’ve not heard this one before?!” You know, just a bunch of Motown B-sides that needed a steady beat for the drugs and so led to dance music. It has a weird history with where we grew up in the North West, it’s good, surprising songs. Good inventive pop. The sound was something I got obsessed with – no one made Northern soul. They didn’t know they made these Northern soul classics – they thought they failed to make soul classics. They failed in 1970 to write a soul hit and never knew they’d written a dancefloor filler for Warrington in 1978. I love second chances you don’t see coming. And I love that sound. There’s no fussing in anoraks about the sound. It’s proud and it’s steady. It meets your eye and doesn’t flinch. Confident and in the light. Oppenheimer could be the same on his good days.
Q: How did you write the songs on this album? You told me that the Extradition Order way is quite collaborative between the band members. Can you explain a little?
A: I want them to think it is, yeah! As you know yourself – we’re not able to pay our workers. It’s a negative economy. They need to feel agency and commitment if they are going to produce their labour for us. So the trick for me is, I’ve written the lyrics and I know the melody. They can colour by numbers the rest. There’s no better team management skill than being the person who runs a band and wrote the songs, who tricks the band into thinking they all wrote it.
Q: Let’s talk about Nick… The last time I saw him play maybe his final gig was when you were supporting Jeff Lewis. That was an amazing gig.
A: Finally fucking tight and then the fucker goes and gets cancer!
Q: When was the moment when it changed from, “My friend’s sick and he’s going to recover,” to “My friend’s sick and he’s not going to make it”?
A: I’ve not thought through the timings, but I remember a couple of years ago, January/February 2017, in a band practice he was grumpy. “Can we just get on with it, Al?” I always bullied him and was rude to him in practice, we’ve had that dynamic since we were 9. But I just remember him being exhausted and couldn’t be arsed, and I thought that that was odd. And then he had a test, they found a tumour, they removed the tumour, all good, all clear. He shouldn’t have been given the all-clear, basically. Then they found another in his stomach and that was cut out. He very nearly died then because it grew very quickly…
Q: This was after the Jeff Lewis gig?
A: Around that time. I think that the lung operation, I might be wrong about this – this was before the Jeff Lewis gig, and then he got the all-clear and it was like we were back on the road, we’ll do this show, which must have been autumn 2017. Then after that show they found another and they cut it out. He wasn’t given the all-clear again but it looked promising, like it was just an after-effect.
I remember we had a ruinously drunken New Year’s Eve in the Cotswolds. We were drinking from the afternoon to midnight. These people we didn’t know had a house party and we didn’t leave. Just after midnight I realised they and their friends weren’t there and I found them all praying in a cloakroom. They even had a vicar in there with them. I remember Nick getting absolutely slaughtered and dragging him to bed. I had to physically drag him, he fought me for it.
But after this ruinous New Year, in late January  Nick found that he had tumours all over his body and that was the moment. I was like, “Ok, you can’t stop that.” He lasted another 7 months because this pill helped restrict the tumours growing.
Q: How did he react to it? Anger? Depression? Was there any coming to terms with it or not at all? What were his thoughts?
A: It was delusional hope for a long time. And then there was a sense – only in the last couple of weeks – of fucking fury.
Q: We were playing a gig at The Urban Bar.
A: And I was going to play it.
Q: It all happened that night?
A: He realised it was time to go to the hospice, he couldn’t manage in the flat. The hospice wouldn’t take him and I argued with them. They said, “No, we don’t take people this late on a Friday night. You can come on Monday.” I tried to explain that wasn’t an option.
An ambulance was coming, but if he went to the hospital he would never leave the hospital. He said to me quite frankly that he didn’t want to die in a hospital. He wanted to die in a hospice, which was more comfortable. The paramedics came, they were wonderful. This guy in a metal band and this woman from Australia who would swim London Fields lido every morning when it opened after she’d finished her shift. Funny what you remember. With the paramedics, and Nick’s wife, Salina, who was amazing under the circumstances, we made clear to the hospice that we were coming and they were going to drop off this man. If they were happy to let a man dying of cancer freeze to death in their carpark then that was their choice. So we just fucking went there and did it. So Nick and Salina and me went to the hospice that night – Friday night, maybe Saturday night, I can’t remember – in an ambulance passing through Shoreditch, Hackney, with everyone having their night out.
And we got him in and I thought I’d won the game – got him in the hospice. And I gave him a thumbs up. And he looked at me just like he was barely there and I realised I hadn’t won anything at all. I remember walking back, stopping in a pub near London Fields, which still triggers weird shit when I see it. Going there and drinking three beers in a row, as everyone was having some shitty indie night. And just looking at them with hatred. Someone came up to me and said, “You alright? Might never happen!” The desire to just stand up and smile and grin at them and choke them to death, you know? Choke them to death as middle brow indie music piped out their cheap speakers behind us. Anyway, I stayed up all night drinking.
Q: The 2015 song ‘Canoe’ seems to be a message to Nick either from you or the protagonist of the song. Tell me a little bit about that song.
A: Nick was going through some personal shit. One of his relatives wrote him a card that said “Love many, trust few, keep paddling your own canoe,” which I didn’t realise at the time is a very well-known saying. I thought it was just insane advice. It is about managing. About managing death. Weirdly after the funeral at the pub our friend Kate had written the words on a blackboard, I think without knowing that they were lyrics to the song.
Q: What did he bring to this album?
A: I was exaggerating earlier about how much control I have over the structure of the songs. I kind of know what I want, but they are good musicians. They have good ideas and they take it in different directions than I expected. I say that I want it to feel like freedom and liquorice. And Nick says that means it must be E minor. I talk in metaphors and he guided the band to what that madness meant and to make sure there was an actual structure there, so in a way I’m talking theory, he does the practice.
The nice thing is Anoushka, who now plays bass in the band, literally plays Nick’s bass in the band, has taken on a similar role. I can conceive of a whole soundscape that I want, and the individual members of the band come up with their part in that. It was Nick – and now it’s Anoushka – who makes that soundscape and that individual sound something that is a song.
Q: And having the two female vocals in the band brings in a whole new aspect.
A: It’s awesome. My vision is an Extradition Order record where I write everything but don’t do anything on it. I think American Prometheus is the first one where I don’t play a note, nothing musical from me on it. The goal is then [to have an album with] nothing vocally from me. Then I’m like a proper songwriter! I said about Anoushka, but Jes, as you know, is the most insanely inventive guitarist. Radhika just a furious, banging drummer. Rosie can actually sing. Matt has the right ear. They’re good – I’ve always been holding them back by making the songs have to be so difficult.
Q: Tell us about the album launch gig, Sunday 26 January at The Lexington. You’ve got the familiar Antifolkers of The Awkward Silences and David Cronenberg’s Wife. But also Ed Seed is playing. Who is he?
A: He’s a lovely lad. I’ve known him for years from when we used to play acoustic songs with Emmy the Great, that era. He’s played with pop stars like La Roux and Dua Lipa who is awesome. And now he’s in Stats and they’re doing pretty well. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a big fan – said they wrote the anthem of Fleabag. But I think the keyboardist is related to her. We could do with some of that shit. Why doesn’t Matt’s sister get off her arse and write a generation defining comedy drama?
Q: Apart from launching the album, what’s the gig in aid of?
A: Any profit goes to the hospice that looked after Nick. We’re going to do the [new] record in full. But I want to show a few new songs as well. I want to show we’re still moving. The next album is going to be about M.F.K. Fisher, the American food writer. The way she writes is so fucking hot! Songs about oysters and Nazis.
I’m glad it’s happening at the Lexington. The last time we took that stage was the last time Nick ever played, as you said earlier. I think that was the best gig. So we need to take that stage back for us.
So if you’re not at that gig you’re gonna miss what I would consider the greatest art of this far into the 21st century. I don’t know what you’ve got up your sleeve, Mayne, but in our sleeve is this intimate, sexual, scientific tapas bar of emotions and feelings that tell the story of all these amazing people going through amazingly traumatic things. Life and sex and discovery. It’s poptastic.
Extradition Order’s new single ‘Baby, What Have You Done for Me Lately?’ is available to download, or to listen to on Spotify. American Prometheus is out 20th February 2020 and can be pre-ordered here. Nick Boardman’s benefit gig will take place on Sunday 26 January 2020 at The Lexington. Tickets available here.