As the frontman of influential English anarcho-punk band Subhumans and punk/ska groups Citizen Fish and Culture Shock, Dick Lucas expounds against war, corruption, corporate greed, and systematic cultural oppression. Subhumans formed in Southwest England in 1980 and experimented with rock tempos, blues melodies and instrumentation not usually heard in traditional punk. Splitting in 1985, they entertained several brief reunions until reforming more permanently in 1998 with an extensive tour of the UK and U.S., and continue to perform regularly. Rotating among an incestuous mix of musical projects, Lucas has remained steadily active with Citizen Fish—which shares several Subhumans members—since 1990, and recently regrouped with Culture Shock, a short-lived band formed just after the initial Subs split (featuring several members who went on to form Citizen Fish). Subhumans plays Thurs., Oct. 29, and Fri., Oct. 30, at Los Globos with Blazing Eye, Generacion Suicida and more. Lucas spoke by phone just before performing a recent show in New York with interviewer Linda A. Rapka.
I was your pen pal when I was 12.
In the early 1990s, soon after I discovered punk and the Subhumans, I sent you a letter in the mail and you actually responded.
Wow. I think twice in my life … before email, it was only twice in my life when I had no letters left to reply to.
Do you still write back to fans?
Yeah, you know—I try to. Of course now it’s all by email.
At the first Subhumans show I went to, someone threw a shoe at your head, a crowd of people jumped onstage and unplugged your equipment, and we were all pepper-sprayed.
I remember one massive show we did in San Bernardino in 1998.
That’s the one.
That’s right—a shoe did hit me in the head. It was the most ridiculous show we ever did. The place was the size of an airplane hangar. It was just stupid. We were just so minimalized by the whole event. We were on a massive stage standing as close as possible to each other just to remind ourselves of what we actually were: a punk rock band. There were two to three fights breaking out every five minutes off in the distance. The power went out and the crowd started chanting ‘bullshit,’ and the security guard came out with his batons and pistols and whatever else was wrapped around his waist looking at me saying I had to tell all the people to get off stage. There were about 200 people on the stage who wouldn’t move at all—they were just shaking my hand saying, ‘Hey, Dick, great to meet you! Will you take a picture?’ Luckily the sound came back on and we were able to keep on playing.
You’ll be returning to California for several shows this month, with two shows here in Los Angeles.
This time we’re playing Los Globos. We played there before a year or two ago, and it was fantastic. There were more people onstage than anything—it was almost ridiculous. But it was wonderful because everyone was so enthusiastic and into it. The close contact of that show is what it’s about.
The L.A. shows are just in time for Halloween. Any surprises planned?
No, we English don’t do anything as keenly or manically as Americans do. We are usually over here and avoid the weird masks and chucking of pumpkins at each other. It’s a bit silly really. It’s almost just another Christmas—an excuse to sell plastic stuff to people and make a profit off what was originally a spiritual moment historically.
I think people enjoy Halloween because they can escape their reality, if just for a day.
It’s a shame we live in a society where we have to escape our own reality to be happy.
Your lyrics raise a lot of political and social issues, from war and corporate greed to systematic cultural oppression. What is the most significant issue facing the world today that you feel most compelled to create a conversation about?
The biggest in the world today is what will happen if we continue the way we’re treating the planet. Estimates I’ve read about say we’ve got about 85 years before the food runs out. That and pollution, the ice caps melting… the environment, in one word. I think personally feeding the food we grow to animals who consume such a vast amount of these resources—and then eating the animals—is a dumb way to go about it. We should leave the animals out of the chain altogether and go vegetarian. Not necessarily for moral reasons but out of necessity—it’s better for the planet. Underlying—or overlying—our problems is that people’s greed goes before need, perpetuated by the banks, governments and the whole corporate way of dealing with everything that the 1% use to keep us tied down by economic chains.
These problems have persisted for a long time. Too long. Is there hope?
There’s got to be hope. Without hope, that’s it—game over, everyone goes back to being selfish and debased and not doing anything nice to anybody else. It would become every man for himself, and there are too many people doing that already. Hope has to spring eternal. It’s when enough people come to realize that their lifestyle is supporting the status quo, and the status quo is not supporting their lives on the planet. People changing their own personal behavior, en masse, makes a lot of difference.
I’ve always been curious about the inspiration behind recording your friend Steve Hamilton’s song—and a personal favorite of mine—‘Susan.’ A dark piano ballad of sorts. It’s quite an unexpected departure from the traditional punk oeuvre.
Steve, a local friend in England, wasn’t in a band and asked, ‘Can you do something with this?’ And I thought, ‘This is quite good.’ I used to like messing around on piano so I sat down and worked out how it could fit to a piano tune. It was recorded on [guitarist] Bruce’s grandmother’s piano onto an old-fashioned tape recorder, the kind where you press play and record—clunk!—with a cassette tape. I played through the song with the lyrics in front of me a few times, with the lead break in the middle just made up every time. Then we got to the studio and Bruce recorded bass and some clicking noises for some reason. There was no sort of ‘It’s not punk enough!’ or whatever—we just did it. There’s a guy Shannon in Ventura who has learned it on keyboard, and we had him on stage in California to perform it live with us the last couple of years. We’ll see if maybe we can perform it again at Los Globos. Although that might bring the crowd down a bit.
You should have performed it in San Bernardino.
That might have have started a riot.
The last Subhumans studio album, Internal Riot, was released in 2007. Are there plans for a new record?
Our drummer Trotsky lives in Germany and it’s very difficult to get the time to get together and practice. If we all get together over four days, the new songs need to be played a lot. Internal Riot took a few years to get all the songs written. It’s on the list of things to do. High up there. We’ve got a few new songs but nothing is ready quite yet. There’s another dysfunctional thing going on in that our original bassist Phil is learning ‘The Knowledge’ to become a cab driver in London. It’s an immense task that takes three years of learning and passing a series upon series of tests. He’s approaching the end of it but luckily we have a chap called Jay who’s able to play gigs while Phil’s busy expanding his brain cells. It’s a fact that cab drivers’ brains actually increase in size physically. The dendrons and neurons actually grow in order to have the capacity to hold all the new knowledge.
Does this make you want to become a cabby?
It doesn’t necessarily make you smarter—it just makes your brain larger.
Your other group Citizen Fish remains active—you just released a new album. And Culture Shock also has some tour dates coming up soon. How do you juggle all these projects?
By sort of working out a few months in advance what everyone’s doing with childcare and part-time jobs, and which band’s free when. It gets a bit tricky with kids and when time is taken up by serious regular-money jobs like teaching music or whatever. Being in a band is neither predictable nor reliable. At least not these bands, anyway! It’s remarkable these bands can function at all considering we’re approaching 45 or 50, but it’s fun trying. It’s what we do really. The new Culture Shock record is coming out in July. The idea is that we will come over to the States and tour to back it up. In the 80s we only went three years or so and only toured in Europe. That’s a big missing link because we never came over to the U.S. in the first place. We’ve been able to capture attention spans with Citizen Fish and Subhumans because we tour here so often. It’s a new exciting adventure.
What inspired a new Culture Shock record after all this time?
Sadly, our guitarist Nigel died in 1993. Since then we were always saying we’d never find anyone to replace Nige; we kept his memory sacrosanct. Over the last 20 years people kept asking Citizen Fish to play Culture Shock songs, so it sort of melted the ice. Me and Jasper, who’s been with Citizen Fish and Culture Shock since the beginning, said, ‘Could we do this?’ Alex, who plays trumpet with Citizen Fish, is a talented multi-instrumentalist who can memorize and pick up tunes out of thin air, and we thought maybe he’s up for this. And Bill, the old drummer, was more or less standing by the phone for this to happen, so it all came together. We did a tour of the U.K. and it worked out quite well.
It sounds like you enjoy keeping busy.
It’s good to be busy. You need free time in order to create the stuff with which to keep busy. For us, without new songs there’s nothing for a band to keep touring with, and if you haven’t got free time you can’t create new material. It’s a lot to do with just turning off the laptop and phone—not watching telly which I don’t do much of anyway—and setting up a few hours before going to sleep and just having a go at it. It’s the enjoyment in doing it, really.
You also paint. How did you get into visual art?
I bought some cheap acrylic paints when we did a gig in Poland in the 90s that cost the equivalent of £2, and I went home and messed about with them. I didn’t do much for a few years, then started having another go at it in the 2000s. I knocked out about 200 paintings in about two years. I paint 10 a year now instead of 100. More thought and skill go into them now. I quite enjoy it.
Is there anywhere we can see your paintings? Are any for sale?
Yes, and yes. There’s a website, madasabrush.org, on which me and my partner Michelle have put up quite a bit. They’re all quite old but through that I’ve sold about 10 paintings.
Do you display your artwork in your home?
Every available space is covered in paintings. My garage has about 100 tacked up. The other year there were all these wasps in front of the paintings, and I had to hire someone to spray and get rid of them. We couldn’t figure out where they were all coming from. I’d been keeping the paintings back-to-back in plastic bags to avoid water damage, and the wasps had gone in between them, eating their way through the plastic and the canvases. We found a whole wasp nest nestled in between two paintings. They had made a giant hole right through the middle of the two paintings.
You could have made that into its own unique piece. Wasp art.
Right—what you could do is varnish it to make it a work of art in itself. But wasp nests are made with amazingly complex filaments, and you touch them and they fall apart. I should have thought of it more. I could start a wasp farm inside my paintings. How big is the wasp market?
If there is a wasp market, it’s probably here in the U.S.
Probably in L.A. There’s probably a wasp club going on right now.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming U.S. presidential election? What would you do if you lived here?
That’s the best answer I could have hoped for.
Politics are run by trillions of dollars. Money runs the entire political system in America. I’m still trying to catch up with what that Bernie chap is saying, but he seems to be on the left side of politics and up for social reconstruction instead of screwing people over, which is breath of fresh air—but it may be made up, who knows? Donald Trump is worse than a joke because he’s being taken seriously by people. He must bring out in people the sort of nasty caveman, guttural, selfish instincts they dare not say in public, but on telly with Trump saying them they think it’s OK to say yes to his reactionary racist homophobic misogynistic bullshit. Trump being on TV is just a sign of the times, and it’s awful. He’s a Republican. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. If he could see Trump now he would be turning in his grave.
This is exactly why we need music and art to inspire the type of alternative thinking needed in the world.
Right. If I put what I wrote in my lyrics into a book I could sell maybe fifty copies. But more people will be interested if it’s set to a good tune. Music also brings people together in social gatherings like gigs and shows. You can’t get that on the Internet.