The label “cult hero” gets used a lot, but for Les “Fruitbat” Carter, it’s one that certainly applies. After a spell playing London pubs as a member of Jamie Wednesday, Les found fame as one half of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, a band loved and hated by the music press in equal measure. He became infamous for rugby tackling national treasure Phillip Scofield live on telly and for a time, was a regular face staring out from the pages of NME. After Carter USM split, he formed Abdoujaparov, an indie punk labour of love, which maintained his cult status. In September 2021, Les stopped by at Real Gone to talk about Abdoujaparov’s long overdue return, their new album, and more besides…
Hey Les… Thanks for joining us. As long time fans of your work, we’re thrilled you could make time for Real Gone.
It’s good to be here! I have been looking forward to chatting about the album ‘n’ stuff…
It’s a great record. Right from first listen, we were impressed by the range of styles on it. It seems so much more expansive – inventive, even – than past Abdoujaparov works.
I’m very glad that you like it. I always try to push things a little in both music and lyrics. When I’m writing, I am the person who I want to impress and entertain the most. I want to make the kind of album I would love to hear. With this new one, even after spending countless hours working on it, I can still put it on in the van and enjoy it.
It’s been seven years since the last Abdou album. Was there any particular reason why the band should reappear now?
I spent four and a half years touring and recording with Ferocious Dog as their guitarist. It pretty much took up most of my time and energy. The remaining energy was spent writing and playing with a side project Smokin’ Donuts. My usual five year cycle of writing for Abdou was put on hold.
At the end of 2019 I left Ferocious Dog (amicably, I must say) as I wanted to start working on an Abdou album. Then the pandemic happened and I suddenly had heaps of time on my hands. More importantly, I was ready to write again. I spent every day in my little box-room studio and the songs just flew out almost as if they had been there all the time just waiting in my jumbled brain.
Despite a huge chunk of ‘Race Home Grow Love’ being written during a global pandemic, it doesn’t seem obviously inspired by world events, unlike Jim Bob’s ‘Who Do We Hate Today’ which is very much a snapshot of the year. Was that a conscious decision?
I didn’t start the album with any theme to mind, but a few things from what was going on crept in. Usually the ideas for lyrics come from me singing nonsense along with the music until something catches. I usually write the first few lines of a verse then decide what the song will be about. It’s as much a voyage of discovery for me as it is with the listeners.
Have you heard Jim’s album?
I have…and I really love it. To me it feels like Jim is angry again and his best work comes when he is a bit cross about the world. The other thing that got me about Jim lately is that he is swearing a lot more than he used to. Conversely, I am swearing less, I believe, and that’s defo the case on the new songs. [laughs]
Abdou have never attracted the kind of rabid following that Carter enjoyed at their peak, but the fans seem keen. There are a few different ideas on the new record – how do you think those fans will react?
When I decided to form Abdou way back in 1998 I was still feeling bruised by the whole Carter adventure. It had been a rollercoaster and great fun, but my experiences with record companies and the music business in general made me feel like I didn’t want to be in a popular band again. I chose the name Abdoujaparov, as opposed to just going out as Fruitbat, to kind of sabotage any chance of success as I thought that no journalist of DJ would be able to remember it, or pronounce it. The people who have got into Abdou are very loyal and everything that we have released has sold really well in a non-chart threatening way. I have a feeling that the fans will really love this album. I do…
There’s a lot to love. ‘Save The World’ is a particular stand out with its new wave elements and very retro keyboard sound. Did you aim for that specifically, or did it happen organically?
I was listening to ‘Drums & Wires’ by XTC and wanted to have a song with a big 80’s style snare. I still write in the same way as I did when we were making Carter records and I have always loved using 80’s style synths on bass lines and pads, but I also wanted to write something about climate change, about Greta Thunberg and listening to women’s voices particularly. Other songs on the album cover break-ups; some nasty some just sad. Another is a lament about ultimately having to give up booze and bread coz my body can’t cope with it anymore. ‘Brixton Flippin’ Riots’ is about being a passive observer from the top deck of a London bus.
There are a few things on the album that might be surprising to fans on first listen. ‘Valentine’s Picnic’ almost sounds like a dark take on a Divine Comedy tune and ‘Bigger Better’ is quite grand, with a few very intricate acoustic moments. Were those different moods there instinctively, or were they later experiments?
I think some of the fiddly-diddly from being in Ferocious Dog has rubbed off on me. My next-door neighbour is an accordion and piano player which I think may have seeped through the walls and into that song. The idea for the song came from my brother who was planning a party for his 60th birthday. This year he is planning one much bigger and proper full-on [laughs]…‘Bigger Better’ just built from that initial bit of acoustic guitar which I had recorded on my phone after accidentally playing it when trying to write another song. I wanted to do something dramatic for the closer of the album.
There are almost folk and 70s prog flourishes in that acoustic bit. It probably wouldn’t be something that would’ve made it to a Carter LP back in the day…
Before punk happened, I was pretty much into prog and used to follow the Welsh band Man. I have always like the grandiose elements of prog…and show tunes. I think ‘Sky West And Crooked’ is a great example of that in the Carter catalogue.
There are familiar sounds too, of course. The noisier aspects of ‘Brixton Flippin’ Riots’ make the song feel more like a Carter throwback, as does the Brixton angle. That would make it more appealing to the casual listener, but it’s fair to say that the new record is about far more than recapturing old glories. You really sound like you’re reaching out and trying new things too.
I still like writing straight forward pop punk songs and they are the easiest to play too. When the first riots were happening, I was living in Streatham. I was visiting my mum and dad in Tulse Hill and my main recollection was of watching loads of the estate residents heading Brixton way with trolleys to do a bit of “shopping”. I was way too scared to go into town myself, so I did end up watching it on the telly and that’s stayed in my head. Although the riots were brewing for some time and the treatment of black youth by the police was appalling, the mainly white working class on my estate just saw it as an opportunity to get some new trainers…or maybe a telly.
You’ve got Charley Stone guesting on the new LP. She’s really busy! What’s she been like to work with?
Charley is amazing and she must be the busiest musician in the UK at the moment. I met her through playing bass with Keith TOTP And His Indie All-Star Backing Band. She played guitar on one of the songs or the last album. For this one I needed her voice and she did an amazing job.
Her harmony vocals on ‘You Don’t Have To Be Alone’ give everything a lift.
Agreed…they’re just perfect.
Is there anything on the album you’re especially proud of?
My favourite bit of the album is my guitar solo on ‘George’. It’s quite a simple one, but so pleasing to me. I’m really proud of the entire album, though, and feel really lucky to be working with such a talented bunch of musicians.
The whole record hangs together really well. Is there anything in there that you think will be an instant hit with the fans?
We have played some of the songs live already. ‘Tough Times’, ‘George’, ‘Save The World’, ‘Where Was Love’… They all went down really well. I’ll be really interested to hear which songs turn out to be the faves in the long term.
You mentioned spending four years working with Ferocious Dog. That’s a band that’ve passed a lot of people by…
My time with Ferocious Dog was pretty amazing. I got to play all of the gigs and festivals that I had been missing. There was no pressure, all I had to do was turn up and play guitar. Every other band I have been in I have been a main song writer and almost always ended up doing most of the admin, booking and finances. They are a great bunch of lads and I know they will go from strength to strength both in their music and their success.
Do you prefer playing live when you get to be part of an ensemble like that rather than being the main focus? Obviously, most of Carter USM’s touring years gave you no real comfort blanket beyond blinding the fans with a wall of white light…
I have been really lucky to have tried all variations. I really enjoy being a front-man, but also love being up there just playing guitar and jumping in for some backing vocals. I have also done quite a few solo acoustic shows, which at first scared the hell out of me. The first couple of times I did it I had to stop playing as I was shaking with fear.
We would’ve liked to have caught one of those…
I will be doing the occasional solo show, and also some with Richy Abdou as a duo, as his playing and backing vocals really make it quite special. I am also less nervous when Richy is with me on stage.
The last Abdou album appeared in 2014, the same year Carter played their two farewell shows. That was a hugely important time; you waved goodbye to your past (again) whilst looking to the future. Do you have any strong memories of what must’ve been a very emotional time?
The way we originally broke up in the late 90s was quite awful, with declining audiences and record sales. We were feeling like proper has-beens. Those reunion and farewell shows in were a perfect way to stop; we were back selling out the Brixton Academy, breaking bar records and selling more t-shirts that ever. Those gigs were amazing. The crowd was brilliant. I think nearly everyone in that hall knew every single word of the songs.
We weren’t at Brixton, sadly, but we made it to Shepherd’s Bush. We can confirm that even at the back of the downstairs area, there were mass singalongs and and really great feeling of unity.
It’s a wonderful feeling to have everyone sing along to songs you have written. I’m glad that it still happens at Jim Bob gigs. I do have some nice singalongs at Abdou gigs too.
Just before those final Carter shows, you and Jim were interviewed by Steve Lamacq on BBC Radio 6. You mentioned the Carter show in Tonbridge as being one the local fans always remember. Do you have any memories of that particular gig?
The most I remember of that gig was the time we spent setting up. It felt very relaxed and I got to chat with some of the Carter fans that had turned up early to try and sneak in for the soundcheck. The gig itself was really great. Every now and then you play a show that feels just perfect and I think that was one of them.
It proves that magic can happen even in the most unlikely of venues.
Yes it does. Every gig has the potential to be great, but sometimes the magic is just in the air.
Live shows have been coming back recently after a long period of social isolation. Things are still a little hit and miss, but do you expect to get out on the road in 2022?
I have dipped back in live shows this year, but i don’t think I’m ready for full-time touring just yet. Hopefully things will be better next year. Hopefully the world will be more normal…
We can hope. It still feels like a long road back to something resembling the old ways.
I have friends who are going straight back into full-on indoor gigs, but others are not planning to go to do any shows anytime soon. I am very sad that we have a lost some great venues due to the pandemic. There was a great one here in Folkestone that just couldn’t survive. The government could have helped so much more with the music industry… It will take quite some time for it to be properly up and running again I reckon.
Some small venues like the Ramsgate Music Hall have been really lucky, but this whole thing has changed the face of grass roots live music…possibly forever.
Obviously, there are a bunch of fans out there who are hoping for another Carter reuinion somewhere along the line, but as you’ve said, those 2014 farewell shows were the perfect way to bow out. You and Jim are looking to the future more than ever now, but what we’d like to know is…will the Jamie Wednesday material ever be reissued? The ‘Vote For Love’ 12” would make a brilliant Record Store Day release…
I’m pretty sure there are plans afoot to release Jamie Wednesday stuff. It might have been me that dropped the ball there…
Abdoujaparov’s new album ‘Race Home Grow Love’ is released on September 17th 2021. Physical copies are exclusive to www.carterusm.com
You can read Real Gone’s farewell note to Carter USM – including various memories of the Tonbridge and Shepherd’s Bush gigs – here.
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