Interview with the Malthusian Trap @ The Bread & Roses, Plymouth

Walking in to a bar and asking three strangers “are you guys a band?” is possibly one of the less cool things I have done in my life but it panned out nicely. The three be-bearded gents were a band and the band in question are Plymouth’s The Malthusian Trap – although I was taking a punt as the general clientele of the Bread & Roses look like the green room for the BBC area at Glastonbury. Doug, Rob and Damon are the three men that make up the Malthusian Trap and after being charged five pounds (FIVE) for a beer we retired to the courtyard so that we could hear ourselves thinking and hear each other talking. The result of that thinking and talking can be found below.
The Malthusian Trap - no puppets

Huddled around a small, low table with me are Doug (Bassist and Programmer) and Rob (Guitarist) while self-confessed ‘frontman’ Damon prowls the small space like a man born to the role. One thing that is instantly noticeable is that these three men speak the same language with three distinct accents; Mancunian, Midlands and Plymouthian. So, naturally, my first question is why or how have these three ended up in Plymouth music together and shaking up the scene with said music. “Well, it was just uni I suppose, I did plan to leave but it’s like a pleasant purgatory isn’t it?”, is the opening salvo from Doug, the resident Midlander.

“I was born here so I’m double shafted”, offers Rob before Damon chimes in with “I like it here, it’s alright. It’s a world of opportunity for everything other than music, it’s just hard to do music here. I’m originally from Stockport which is effectively in the shadows Manchester which is easier and has more opportunities but it’s also a bigger pond with bigger fish which makes it harder. We gig all over the place so we’re not hindered by the fact that there’s not much going on in Plymouth. It can be frustrating though, like we played London last week but instead of staying over and all the typical rock’n’roll dangers or pitfalls that involves we decided to drive up and back in one day with a gig in the middle. That’s nearly 500 miles in a day. It’s not easy”.

Aside from the location issue then, how difficult is it for the band to generate an audience, whether that be physical or virtual. “Anyone who claps is a bonus”, chips in Doug and then explains more seriously, “we struggle with not having friends here. That’s your normal starting point and we used to do that with my mate DJing, we all used to pile down. We can command a bigger crowd almost anywhere else but we’re in Plymouth for a reason, we like it here, we’re settled here and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the UK but we do hit problems when we turn up without a drummer so we just get pigeon holed as something different. When we play in London, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds we’re not seen as different, we’re not the only band without a drummer. The style down here tends to be for over stimulated music and that’s not us. I want some dirt, y’know?”

The Malthusian Trap - better than Steps
Damon steps in to qualify that last comment, “We do have a reputation for being a bit ‘up ourselves’ but we do like other bands down here and we do respect other musicians but on the whole it’s just harder down here cos the scene is dead fragmented. There’s the metallers, the Oasis mod kids, the big acoustic coastal scene and then there’s just us…..there”. “Or” says Doug “our music’s just shit and everyone hates it”. This pretty much sums up the Malthusian Trap; they take their music seriously as an art form but they don’t themselves too seriously and that’s a refreshing mix these days. “It’s lucky we’ve moved around and played in different places because if we’d just played in Plymouth I genuinely would have thought our music was crap! Everywhere else people clap and dance and enjoy it but the lack of venues down here means it’s hard to get much diversity going in the scene. We had that one guy at the uni that time but he was lashed. Like proper hammered”.

And then Damon comes out with the kind of response a Footballer would give that tells you everything and nothing at the same time so I need to be careful to quote accurately; “We’re in a really good space at the minute, we’re just concentrating on what we’re doing, where we wanna go to and just trying to put everything on the table so that we know when we get to wherever we’re at that we’ve given it the best chance to do what we want to do with it”. It’s a bit rambling but this says everything you need to know about the band’s drive and musical ambition rather than personal ambition.

The trouble with ambition is that you have to back it up with some actions so the natural question is to ask what the band have lined up for 2017….and beyond. Damon’s got this one, “we have got loads going on but some of it isn’t quite there yet, if you know what I mean. We’re booked on for five dates in Germany, 3 in April and 2 in Autumn. We’re playing London again in February at the Amersham Arms and we’ve been offered a venue in Manchester for later on in the year as well as something in Birmingham. There’s a new music video, festivals and all sorts but we’re getting offered stuff that we’re not able to do which is frustrating. We’re also writing new material too but I don’t think we’ll be recording anything until the end of the year. This year is all about gigs but because we’re big headed and we think we’re great, we’re trying to amass enough footage to put together a documentary…..but that’s all dependent on the story and whether there is a story other than three reprobates trying to make it. Maybe that’s the story!”, the three amigos collapse in laughter again – ambition but humility in evidence again.

The Malthusian Trap - Techno-colour
So, the ambition is there, the plan of action is there but is there an audience for what they’re doing?
Surely, in a university city, there is a captive audience? Damon’s on form again, “I don’t think the students are arsed. All they want is for Mark Wright to come down and chuck alcopops at them, don’t they? The thing is, I used to be a DJ and there is a decent subculture of DJs and House music but I don’t think anyone’s that bothered about bands. It’s a national thing as well, lots of venues are shutting and I do think we’re in the darkest of days in terms of being in a band. Like, in the early 90s there were people in bands who admitted they were absolutely terrible but they got signed to an independent label, toured Europe, spent their advance and they were happy as pigs in shit. But now everything is dead calculated and in a box. You’ve got to do one thing with your social media and another thing with your video, manufacturing your sound and your image just to get to where you want to go. I keep looking at these new bands that are making it and I just can’t see it. This music wouldn’t even touch the radio when we were kids so I think it’s going to eat itself to a point. Vinyl’s come back in because people want something substantial and organic, people are shying away from shit and showing an interest in real, proper music again but whether it happens in time for us is anyone’s guess”.

This whole conversation is being played out to a soundtrack of muffled organ playing and the occasional stream of piss being dispensed in the men’s toilets which we are sat outside. It’s not glamorous but these guys are not doing this for the glamour. We talk more about the death of politically charged protest music – Doug “I think it died in the 90s. That whole Britpop thing was contrived, they put a label on it as it was happening rather than after the event” – social media – Damon “we’ve only got about 320 followers but some bands have amassed 20,000 followers and still nobody goes to their gigs” – and the disconnect between people and music – Damon “people have forgotten how to interact with music”.

Importantly though, we get to the point that sparks a fire in Damon’s belly – the idea that music is becoming the preserve of the rich. “Now, we can talk about this. It happens all the time. When we were playing in London a friend of mine came to see us who used to be in a band that nearly got signed but they basically ran out of two things; energy and money. All the arts seem to be taken over by people who have parents who are able to support their quest to be an actor or a musician or whatever which is fine but the biggest problem we have isn’t our geography, it’s the resources available to us. You need to pay for PR, we have to buy tickets off promoters to sell for our gigs and it’s all driven by money. The situation with Slaves getting that PRS grant money when they’re already signed and established is genuinely disgusting”. Doug agrees “loads of these artists say nothing to me and to loads of people. You’ve got a good voice? So fucking what? Loads of people have terrible voices but they’ve got something to say and that’s important, y’know?”

The Malthusian Trap - Arty types
We discuss the issue of cover bands versus originals but this raises an ugly issue from the band’s recent past that spiralled way out of control and proportion so it’s probably best not to fan those particular flames. It occurs to me that we haven’t talked much about the band’s music so we open the floor for a bit of chat about influences, musical or otherwise. When offered the chance to go first with a rare foray in to the conversation Rob assumes this is because his tastes are considered to be worst, “I’m your classic Britpop fan. It started with the Beatles and the Kinks then I became a massive Oasis fan and that’s what got me in to guitar playing. Ocean Colour Scene are my favourite band of all time but since I’ve been in this band I don’t listen to music anymore; it does my head in to listen to anyone else”.

Doug’s up next, “It was my parents’ record collection that kicked me off really; Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and loads of shit as well but then when Acid House came along I just thought ‘what the fuck is that?’ but I loved it. Then I went back to the Stone Roses and I got it but I hadn’t got it before”. For Damon it’s more straightforward, “I don’t really like music to be honest. My dad used to go to the Hacienda so I heard all of that, I love Manchester music (apart from Morrissey), I got in to Grime and Garage when I used to DJ so my ears are still tuned towards more urban sounds than anything else. We’re quite politically minded too which has an impact on the music as well as art, TV and, well, our lives”. Doug agrees but also doesn’t, “Art and music go hand in hand and art is shit at the moment. In the 90s the art was good and there was good music and the artists and musicians all hung out together but then money got involved with art and it all went wrong”.

At this point our sanctuary is invaded by a man who heard Damon’s voice from his position at the urinal and wanted to catch up with the charismatic singer. Then there was a girl who wanted to get a gig because we were talking about music and then the band needed a round and some pork scratchings. All of this kind of brought the interview to a natural end but I got what I came for – the reputation of the Malthusian Trap is of a band ready for a verbal scrap and looking for trouble. While some of that is true, these three gents are also extremely talented, highly motivated, impressively ambitious and focused on honing their art regardless of whether fame, fortune and a bevy of half-naked lovers come their way. I can dig that, you’ve gotta dig that too, right?

Live Dates:

25th February – The Amersham Arms, London