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An interview with Lupen Crook

Rob Harris caught up with Lupen Crook to discuss his past, the music industry, making the NME's cool list and the influence of religion.

Written by Rob Harris

LFW David Koma Maria del Carmen Smith
David Koma by Maria del Carmen Smith.

Last Monday’s shows opened with a double whammy from David Koma and Holly Fulton, salve for sale which I shall review in separate blogs.

LFW David Koma by Maria del Carmen Smith
David Koma by Maria del Carmen Smith.

We wrote about David Koma as far back as his longer named incarnation when he graduated from his Central Saint Martins BA way back in 2007. His rise in popularity since then has been unstoppable, sales information pills clothing many high profile celebrities including modern day sweetheart Cheryl Cole – in a heavily embellished dress for the X Factor. It was an instant talking point.

His modern take on glamour owes much to an eclectic life, equally split between three countries where David has spent appreciable amounts of time and of which this 24 year old regards himself as equal citizen. He was born and spent his early years in Georgia before moving to St Petersburg to study classical drawing (and which is where he presumably met his Russian wife). He then relocated again to the UK, where he studied at Saint Martins under the expert tutelage of Louise Wilson, who he idolises.

LFW David Koma by Maria del Carmen Smith
David Koma by Maria del Carmen Smith.

For S/S 2011 his collection was inspired by The Mariinsky Theatre of Saint Petersburg, and memories of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. A series of pleated skater dresses in sugary colours moved swiftly through abstract monochrome tailoring, shades of lemony yellow and onto gold party pieces, all accessorised by sky high platforms and big metal knuckledusters courtesy of a collaboration with Mawi.

David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory

In official parlance this translates pretty much thus: Ballet silhouettes were combined with the more graphic shapes of cubist artist Fernand Leger to explore contradictions of fragility with physical and emotional strength.

David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
One cleverly cut dress even had me fooled that a model’s waist could be smaller than seems physically possible: I did an instant double take when I looked back at this photo.

David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory

I loved this collection, so was a bit discombobulated when I discovered that David had used copious python skin in his show. Where does python come from? Were they caught in the wild or farmed? It’s not an industry I know much about, so when I ran into David at his New Gen stand I decided to give him a bit of a grilling.

David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory

A quick question turned into a half an hour chat during which David was utterly charming the entire time. He’s determinedly upbeat about life and feels blessed to do what he loves the most; his precocious rise surely the result of much hard work as well as obvious talent.

David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory

So, back to that python skin. It comes from an accredited factory farm – for pythons and crocodiles are farmed much as mink is. I feel quite uncomfortable about this – I am okay with the use of leather for outer clothing and shoes, safe in the knowledge that it is very much the waste product of a meat industry that is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Somerset House SS2011 David Koma
David Koma at Somerset House.

But I don’t buy into the idea that it’s ethically okay to farm animals purely to provide us with luxury goods – and no matter how accredited a farm might be on paper there are always going to be corners cut in reality on the factory floor. David’s take on it is that he is against fast consumerism, and therefore wants to create luxury garments that will be treasured for a long time. For this to be possible he wants to chose the best possible materials available – and if that means stripping a snake then so be it – that they will live on in a beautiful garment is enough for him. And he does not feel that fake fur or leather is a particularly ethical substitute, a fact with which I tend to agree. Another fair point he makes is that he would rather buy from a reputable farm than encourage any kind of black market. But this surely begs the question, how is a black market encouraged – except by the use of python leather in luxury must-have items? If you are able to remove questions of provenance from your mind all that gold python is very very beautiful.

David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
Knuckledusters from Mawi.

David also admitted that he is considering the use of fur in his next collection, but as we parted he said I had made him think a bit more about this. Whether my words have had any effect remains to be seen but I really appreciate that he didn’t balk under my questioning and seems genuinely to be interested in engaging in the origin of his materials: he’s a very talented and increasingly influential designer and I hope he’ll make educated decisions in the future. In the meantime enjoy our pictures… and forget about any real live snakes in cages if you can.

David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma SS2011 photo by Amelia Gregory
David Koma Gold Python on White By Fiona M Chapelle
David Koma “Gold Python on White” by Fiona M Chapelle.

Illustration by Gemma Randall

Christopher Shannon burst onto the catwalk in true and typical chavvy style to launch menswear day, information pills for me at least, and on Wednesday. His wasn’t the first show; we didn’t get tickets for Lou Dalton (a real shame, as I was really looking forward to that one) or Topman Design (meh). There’s a strange feeling in the air on LFW’s Wednesday – it’s eerily quiet, people are more relaxed and you could actually swing a cat around in the press room, should you desire, for the first time in five days.

Shannon showed alongside JW Anderson in the BFC space, but even with these two heavyweights of menswear design presenting back to back, the venue still wasn’t full. It’s a shame that there isn’t as much interest in menswear, but the editors had all shipped off to Milan, I guess…

Shannon was up first and his show featured some of my favourite guilty pleasure tracks – Blu Cantrell, for instance. Tune! This kind of music sits hand in hand with his unique blend of street-inspired sportswear and edgy, boyish tailoring. The first looks were all crisp white numbers, featuring engineered t-shirts with geometric holes, multi-pocketed shorts and bucket hats, followed by sweaters with mesh details. I like Shannon’s fancy-free approach to menswear – it’s for young, hip individuals who care about style but not about stuffy suits.

Progressing into outerwear, the collection bore sports-luxe jackets, more mesh, and shorter shorts. Shannon’s garish but great rucksacks, a long-term callabo with Eastpak, made an appearance in similar tones as last season – pale greys and baby blues.

Illustration by Gemma Randall

Further in, Shannon’s signature camo-graffiti prints showed up, bringing a welcomed burst of colour in the form of pale blues. I like this print A LOT – it works on padded puffas, shorts and even bucket hats (although I doubt I’ll be seen in the entire get up – the pattern is intense and it needs breaking up a little, I think).

His scally charm shone through on more printed numbers, where sections had been cut away, and the reappearing camo print. Panelled trousers, though, displayed the menswear designer’s continual progression – sand chinos displayed oblong sections in luscious pastel colours made the move from teenage fashion. Vibrant yellows hinted at that ballsy appeal many of us were looking for.

Faces were painted like colloquial masks, apparently inspired by longing for a holiday, but I’m going to ignore this literal influence — as much as it looked fun, it fought to distract from some pretty sophisticated tailoring. All in all, a toned-down collection compared to what we are used to. As the chavvy charmer continues to grow up, so will – I hope – his collections.

All photography by Matt Bramford

Illustrations by Jamie O’Callaghan

I’m a fan of small, symptoms independent festivals and I’d pick one over Glastonbury any day. I’m not sure I can include Southsea Fest in that grouping just yet, viagra approved because, viagra as one organiser said, “we’re not the Great Escape love”. I don’t think they’ll ever be able to rival the festival that’s just 50 miles along the coast, and that lack of ambition is just one of two things that holds the one-day festival back.

The other is the organisation. Mix ups over guestlists, disputes over whether or not I had a plus one and general waiting around meant that I missed the first band I wanted to catch, which was Revere. They played in the stunning Kings Theatre, and would probably have been my highlight of the day, if I’d been able to catch them.

Instead, I headed over to the Fat Fox to check out Real Fur but they were running late – over an hour late – although I was determined to not miss them. At this rate, I’d been at the festival for a couple of hours without hearing a single note of live music. When we finally watched Real Fur, it was definitely worth the wait. They’re a rock band that are so much more exciting live. ‘Pride’ was the standout track for me, but generally the feel of Real Fur is that they’re a jangly, dancy rock band with the odd harmony and, as much as I hate the phrase, a groovy vibe.

I caught Montage Populaire after and I really enjoyed their set. I had no idea they were one of the local bands booked, and spent hours trying to remember where I’ve seen them before. I failed, but I’ll definitely be checking them out in the future. They’re an art-rock band, and it’s easy to see why they’ve drawn comparisons with Los Campesinos and early Blur.

I watched a couple of local bands after that, before stumbling across the Ruskins doing a street gig to promote their set, which I went to. So did the majority of festival-goers judging by the size of the crowd. The lovely London lads managed a couple of songs in the street before some security guards made them stop, but inside Little Johnny Russells they managed half an hour of their ska-infused rock. It was refreshing to hear something that wasn’t indie or acoustic, as the lineup was pretty swamped with it.

The next venue was pretty hideous, but home to two of the most exciting bands on the bill. I got there in time for Let’s Buy Happiness; it’s always exciting to watch bands you know are destined for big things play such a tiny venue. The vocals are completely disarming, the music has this beautiful swaying rhythm and Let’s Buy Happiness produce the most charming pop songs that I’ve ever seen played in Portsmouth. They just got featured by the Guardian, so it won’t be long until the rest of the press begins to gush about them. They are truly spectacular.

Bright Light Bright Light played a set of electro-dance-pop that wasn’t too interesting, so I’ll skip over that bit. After came Islet, who I was crazy excited about catching. They don’t bother with the concept of a stage, preferring to swap instruments and drag them into the crowd. In fact, when one guy in the crowd reached out to touch a guitar, he was handed it. When he wasn’t sure what to do, the guitar was gently led back to the stage. Islet are pretty weird, but they’re unlike any other band I’ve seen.

When I listen I have this internal fight between feeling they’re some kind of Emporer’s New Clothes, art-school weirdness that people sway along to because they’re fashionable, and genuine love for their uniqueness. It’s tiring watching them jump around the stage, share instruments and howl, made all the stranger by the setting. They’re a band everyone should see, even if just for the spectacle of it.

The closing set came from King Charles, back at the Fat Fox. I’ve been listening to his music for a while, so to be able to watch him with a couple of hundred other people was the perfect way to end the day. The harmonies are even more heart-stoppingly beautiful, the guitar riffs that little bit more exciting and the drums that bit more frantic when played live and on a tiny stage. Easily the most captivating performer, King Charles literally didn’t put a foot wrong, performing every track note-perfect. He drew queues outside, the size of which I didn’t notice anywhere else, and showed every other band how it’s done.

If Southsea Fest had a little more ambition, if it could decide whether it’s a festival in Southsea or a festival with bands from Southsea, and if it could book the same quality of bands as this year, it could be popping up on many more radars at the end of next summer. All the elements of a successful festival are there, and hopefully the success of this event will encourage the organisers to step it up for next year.

Lupen Crook and the Murderbirds by Faye West.

As I approach the North London pub where I’ve agreed to meet Lupen Crook, visit I’m surprised to find that he’s already there, sitting quietly at a table outside. He greets me politely and offers to buy me a drink. Not quite what I was expecting from the self-confessed “unmanageable” Crook, but then the 28-year old singer-songwriter and artist is a slightly different proposition these days. Having spent a couple of years out in the cold after an acrimonious split with his record company, Crook has returned with easily his best work to date, entirely self funded and released on his own Beast Reality Records. And whereas he used to stalk the unlovely streets of the Medway Towns in Kent, Crook has now moved to London and developed a muscular sound to match.

Recorded with his band, the Murderbirds, Crook’s eagerly awaited third album, The Pros and Cons of Eating Out, is a vaudevillian trip through the dark recesses of his vision of the “Dysunited Kingdom”. But the melodrama of old has been replaced by real drama, and instead of lyrics about toilet abortions and shaken baby syndrome comes beautifully crafted wordplay, with beguiling references to Enoch Powell and Schrödinger’s Cat. From the Love Cats-esque Lest We Connect through the Russian Cossack stomp of How to Murder Birds to the sub-low synth powered Scissor Kick, the genre-confounding album is the band’s most fully realised and accessible work to date. But in case anyone’s thinking that Lupen Crook has gone all mature on us, one look at the harlot-embarrassing hand painted album cover should reassure fans that the band shows no signs of pandering to the mainstream just yet.

Over the summer you played to big crowds at the Latitude and Wireless festivals and your new album is more accessible than some of your past releases. Do you think the band has the potential to cross over to mass audiences?
There’s been no conscious effort to make our music more acceptable to people at all – in fact we’re celebrating the freedom to do exactly what we want more than ever. But we’re not shutting ourselves off to the possibility of reaching wider audiences. We’re more comfortable in our own skin now and stronger for it, and with that maybe comes a wider appreciation. I feel like people generally are treated like idiots – like they’re not intelligent enough or emotionally deep enough to be able to understand anything further than just really crap music. And I think, well, if you actually give people the chance, there’s a whole wealth of brilliant music that would actually make them feel a hell of a lot better about themselves and that they’d enjoy.

Having released your first two albums on the independent Tap n Tin Records, you’re now setting an example for how bands can function as the industry changes, by being completely self funded and releasing your new album on your own label, Beast Reality.
Back when we were recording our second album Iscariot the Ladder, I’d always had this idea of Beast Reality Records – it’s always the daydream that you can release off your own record label. After our contract ended we recorded this album and thought “Right, how are we going to release this?” We had interest from labels and we considered it, but, as everyone knows, the industry’s fucked at the moment and, no disrespect to any of the labels, when we actually got through the door and started talking with them, we thought, well what are we actually getting from a record company? We’d financed and produced the album ourselves, so all we’d be getting from them would be manufacture and distribution.

Lupen Crook by Faye West.

Do you feel like musicians are, in a sense, starting to get their revenge on the more exploitative elements of the industry?
The music industry’s being returned back to the people who are actually creating the music, and now it’s up to them how they want to do it. One of the good things about the self-release aspect is that it can keep up with the amount of material we want to release. Industry people have this thing of “you can’t release too much”, but the whole thing with Beast Reality will be to get material out as much as possible – I’d like to be looking at two to three EPs and an album a year.

In the early days you were courted by the NME and were in the NME Cool List in 2005, but this always seemed to be at odds with what you were about.
It completely threw me – it made me retreat hugely. For one thing, the song on that CD [First single Lucky 6 was included on a free CD with the NME] opened my music up to so many people. But I was a far more insecure person back then and I didn’t have my gang and my band around me. I’m never sure how much I suffered from all that – I think to a certain extent it was good, but on the other hand it was a bit of a diversion. But I’ve got no regrets, it was just something that happened and was, quite frankly, out of my control.

Your music is often described in the press as alt-folk, and you describe it as “fight folk”. What does the work “folk” mean to you in terms of music?
Folk means people – it’s peasant music. I don’t think folk music is anything to do with “the fox ran over the moon in the pale night sky” and all of that traditional stuff – I don’t really care about tradition. It’s storytelling – but then at the same time I think we’re a punk rock band really. I like fight folk because it’s got that storytelling aspect to it but also it’s sort of aggressive and I think that’s kind of who we are as individuals.

In recent times the Medway Towns have become known as a kind of hotbed of creative talent, and you’ve often been portrayed as being very much rooted in the area, in the same way that Billy Childish is. Why did you recently choose to move to London?
I’d been in Medway for too long and needed to get out. I feel there’s always the potential for something brilliant to happen there but everyone and everything, and this is why I love it, has turned really feral. To say there’s a scene there is bollocks but to say it’s got the potential for loads of great bands is definitely true. It comes in fits and bursts. There are occasions when everyone decides to get their shit together and not sit in their bedsits drinking and smoking, and when they do actually make the effort, it’s great – there’s something really thriving and exciting, but it never maintains itself because there isn’t really the opportunity for it to go anywhere outside of Medway. I moved to London because I’d walked down every alleyway, I’d drunk in every bar and I’d kind of done it all. Medway will trap you – it’s in a valley – but you can really lose yourself in London.

Your music has lots of references to Catholicism and religion – the song Scissor Kick from the new album talks about “a sprained cath-aholic”. In light of the controversy over the Pope’s recent visit to Britain, what does Catholicism mean to you and how does it feed into your music?
I was brought up with it and it’s in me. I’m very much a Catholic but I absolutely detest Catholicism quite frankly. I just think it’s really outdated and so irrelevant to anything. I think you should have faith – but faith in yourself, almost like individualism – you don’t need a God. I don’t reject everything to do with Catholicism, but I don’t see the point in an organised religion. There’s so many people of a certain generation who still sort of feel this guilt for certain things – I’m completely stricken with catholic guilt and it’s terrible.

Your music has always been hard to categorise and it’s sometimes difficult to detect your immediate influences. What bands or artists have had an influence on you musically?
Someone told me there’s a theory that the interests and experiences you have when you’re around eight years old go on to form the core of the person that you become. When I was eight I used to make little recordings, multi-tracking my Dad’s guitar and my Casio keyboard, and I started a band with the kids down the road, and in a weird way I haven’t actually progressed since I was eight years old – I’m doing the same thing, which actually makes me happy. At that age I was listening to AC/DC, Bon Scott era, and my school uniform, with the shorts, was the same as what Angus Young wore on stage. And Bon Scott was singing songs about sex and fighting and everything that my teachers and parents would detest, which is why my band was called Devil’s Disciples – completely like “I’m gonna piss you lot off”. Then when I was about nine my babysitter brought a compilation tape round with Carter USM on and I just fell in love with it. I think they influenced my lyrics quite a lot – Carter USM’s really down-to-earth wordplay with Bon Scott’s love of the three basics – sex, drugs and rock and roll.

You mention you’ve been playing in bands from a very early age. Has this always been what you’ve wanted to do?
It’s not even a case of that I wanted to do it from an early age – it’s what I decided to do. There’s only been one time in my life when I seriously considered giving up music and just leading a normal life. It was after I broke up my last band and I just packed it in and had a job delivering parcels in a van. I still used to bring my guitar with me in the van so I could play it when I was waiting for deliveries or whatever, and then one day my boss saw it and said, “What’s that?” He said “Look, you make your choice now. You can dick about on the guitar or you can be a parcel delivery man” and I just had this moment of clarity and quit. Then on my way home I got a phone call from my girlfriend saying that Tap n Tin Records wanted to sign me and that was that.

You’ve spoken in the past about having schizoaffective disorder, and last year you released The Curse of the Mirror Wicked EP to help publicise the YoungMinds mental health charity. Does this feed into your creativity?
It’s hard to tell. The way I’ve learnt to understand it, in a crude way, is that it’s somewhere between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I got told by a doctor when I was 19 that my obsession with music was actually making me more ill, and at certain moments in the past I’ve thought maybe they’re right, that it is a weird obsession. It’s kind of like a chicken and egg situation. But generally I think; I’ve made my bed and I’m lying in it. I have the occasional wonky period, but I feel lucky that I’m in a position where it’s kind of easier to live with than it might be for other people – because I don’t do a nine-to-five job and I get to write songs and paint pictures.

You make music, and also artwork, under the name Lupen Crook. Is this a character or is this really you?
I’ve always played around with names and I’ve always needed that. All my friends call me Mosh – that’s what I’ve been called since I was eight years old and I refused to be called anything other than that, even by teachers and my parents. I even called myself Jilted Jack Cann for a few years when I was in my last band, Bonzai Reservoir. Lupen Crook started off as a character idea, and now I kind of am that person. Names are almost nothing and everything, aren’t they? I’ve always liked the idea that you can set aside what you were before and, not invent a new persona, but find other perspectives within yourself to say “I’m not that person anymore, I’m this person now”, and that’s what I did with Lupen Crook.

“Right, home time”, says Crook, and with that, he disappears into the night. As I’m leaving, I’m struck by something he said: “I was a writer before I was a father and I was a writer before I was a husband. If I lost everything in the world, I’d still be a writer, because that’s the most important thing – to communicate, even if it’s just to myself.”

The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is released on October 4th on Beast Reality.


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