I did an ickle fanzine interview with the wonderful Tjinder Singh, initially for the Park Hill Confidential fanzine we did for Tokyo. Unfortunately we got the copy slightly too late, but I reworked it a bit and sent it to those redoubtable socialists at the Morning Star. It’s in today’s edition – you’ve still got time to nip to your local corner shop to pick up a copy. Below is the un-edited, un-subbed version.
Cornershop aren’t like most other bands. If they were a farming vehicle, they’d be a combine harvester, albeit one built from scratch from a dizzying variety of other combine harvesters. Their career has taken in everything from punk to funk, from disco to dub, and to all sorts of musical destinations besides.
“Being not so easily pinned down has had its problems, but has made for a more interesting career,” says Tjinder Singh, Cornershop frontman for twenty years and more. “The word underrated always comes up. This would be a good thing but after so many years of it, its becoming hard to wear.”
Best known for their 1997 single, Brimful of Aisha, which reached number one thanks to a big-beat remix from Norman Cook, Cornershop’s career has been one of multiple critical, if not commercial, highs.
Eclectic, enduring classic When I Was Born For the 7th Time was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize; Handcream for a Generation fits in soul legends alongside 70s space rock, Clinton was a political disco side-project, and their gorgeous tracks with Punjabi-British singer Bubley Kaur were compiled into a stunning, if frustratingly overlooked LP. And that’s barely the half of it. If you’ve never listened beyond their breakthrough single, dive in: you’re in for a treat.
“Sounding different to most groups has its curse because a lack of pigeon hole has left it easy to overlook us. Then again our last three albums have done very well, and we are still getting new followers,” says Tjinder.
Their latest album is certainly interesting: Hold On It’s Easy is a new version of their own debut album, the riotous Hold On It Hurts, in lively, orchestrial style.
“There was also an element of humour about doing a very noisy Riot Grrrl album in an easy listening format. It came about because over the years we have got to know many a different musician, so it made the whole thing possible.”
Cornershop’s place in the Riot Grrrl hall of fame, despite being an all-male group at the time, gives a good indication of how central politics has been to the band. I hear from Tjinder shortly after the Conservative general election victory, which he predicts will be “another 5 years of tragic governance from the Tories.”
The band gained early notoriety for burning pictures of Morrissey, who was then flirting with far-right imagery, outside of EMI’s headquarters. The ideas and stances were always there – it just needed some degree of musical ability to back it up, as well as filtering the huge number of influences Tjinder and Ben Ayres, the group’s other mainstay, were attempting to channel.
“I was brought up with Indian music around me, folk and devotional in particular,” says Tjinder. “Then a lack of western vinyl in my parents’ Ferguson music cabinet started the need to map out my own music planet view.
“Collecting records then became a hobby, but linking that to how people who were trained in music were playing eventually led me and Ben to start playing and eventually recording, and luckily we couldn’t play a note so we ended up with a final layer of enthusiasm over [it all].”
As well as being musically joyous and adventurous, Cornershop’s lyrics have also been worthy of extended study – though, in some cases, a knowledge of Punjabi helps. By turns political, nostalgic, angry, and deeply surreal, words matter in the band’s self-contained universe. They think about these things, even if it takes you half a decade to figure it all out. If they tell you that disco is half way to discontent, my advice it to take it literally. And to count the letters.
“If one understood every line there would be no need to keep an extra ear out, how hollow life would be,” says Tjinder, when I ask about a line from Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III (the three good Rocky movies) that had continued to puzzle me. But no longer.
“The ‘I understand guns in the A&R office’ line came about in a conversation of how US hip hop stars use weaponry to help them in meetings. However, to the listener, does the line condone use of guns, or merely be of an understanding or observation that it goes on?”
“A song like Staging The Plaguing Of the Raised Platform, which was John Peel’s favourite Cornershop track, also brings about many questions of the listener, and sometimes those answers vary, or change over time.”
As I finish the interview, I cheekily ask Tjinder his favourite pub in rapidly gentrifying Stoke Newington, the north east London suburb where we both live or have lived.
“Best pub is The Shakespeare for me: still unchanged, good jukebox, allow dogs, and you never know who you will meet.”
If Cornershop were a pub, they’d be all that and more.