Interview with Lee Christian
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
Prince got me into being an avid fan of music and him certainly but I never thought I could anything like that. It was seeing bands my age in the local youth centre playing Nirvana songs like Breed that made me realise it might be something I could do. A band from the area called the Daisies (who signed to Parlophone Records around the same time as Supergrass did - who were my age) the singer/songwriter of whom got me involved and encouraged and taught guitar lessons at the the youth centre which spawned a couple of bands too. Including indie-grunge grrl band Frances Belle who featured in Mavis Bayton’s celebrated Women In Rock book and members went out with my band members including Terri Bonham who went on to manage Smilex and form Quickfix Recordings with me. It was a time for guitars and dressing down and going to and playing gigs in general. That wave of bands, on either side of the country in the early 90’s (whether it was Kurt recommending obscure stuff or the Britpop scene rising from Camden pubs) had a great hand in sending people into small venues to find their next pop thrill. This was a perfect time to believe in a solid career as a rebellious musician.
It’s hard to say but I had a tendency for petty crimes and lived/hung out in an area where way too many bright kids see their potential wasted in crime or at best some village life drudgery that would have been abhorrent to an ambitious, well travelled kid such as I was but possibly might look attractive in later life. Music definitely put me on a path to being less isolated, more confident in myself and kept me busy!
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I like to watch movies (my partner is a filmmaker and reviewer so we get through a lot) mainly as they (usually) will distract me from thinking about music stuff effectively enough that I get some/any breaks.
Both movie soundtracks and themes or even snippets of dialogue can inspire a whole song or idea or just be the springboard for a totally different theme and idea. I have a few examples but the songs aren’t out yet so they might be pointless… One has a musical cue from an underrated James Bond theme song, One has lyrics about love and (misplaced) good intentions & sacrifice inspired by The Fountain (by Darren Aronofsky) and over lockdown I revisited American Psycho and wrote no less than two songs off the back of that… one looking at that world both then and contemporaneously and one, perhaps alarmingly, introspective. The lyrics in The Prohibition Smokers’ Club song ‘Desert Music’ are inspired by the French 60’s experimental short film La Jetée whilst the synths on it are pure sci-fi soundtrack.
Otherwise, my day is filled with music dealing with a dozen artists on the label and a handful of my own projects and all that that involves plus mixing, Mastering, content creation/video editing and such too. I also like to listen to my now cd’s and records too so try to make special time for that in these busy times. I like to read comics and rock biographies and occasionally something more ‘grown up’ even!
How long has your band been around?
Smilex celebrate twenty years of being friends in a band this year but have been on hiatus for 7 years now. Anyone who knows the band will realise that is an important number in Smilex history/mythology.
I have been making solo records for about ten years now, usually every year if I can but not lately because of the time I’ve been putting into Quickfix Recordings and our burgeoning new roster! Soon!
Where are you based and how did that influence your music?
Oxford was where I cut my teeth and it was brilliant in a few ways: It had a competitive and thriving scene with bands every few feet so you had to be good and stand out. It had a sophisticated scene with Local Zine, Venues, Radio even TV coverage of it’s scene and a proven track record (Ride, Radiohead). It was also small enough that as infamous promoter Mac once said “it would take one sexually transmitted disease to take out the whole scene” - so networking a bit wasn’t terribly hard.
I am now based in Bath and a bit of a hermit which has meant that I make largely solo music, I guess!
How did you come up with the name of your band and what does it mean to you?
The band name Smilex was chosen in 1996 for a one-off show and to name my new batch of demos after a teen band of mine split up and while I studied studio stuff in Manchester. I still liked it when I put together a band (using those songs but that sounded nothing like the demos) and it seemed obscure and cool ad no one was as into comic books and superheroes and it was the chemical the joker uses to poison his victims with a smile on their contorted, dead faces, which had numerous poetic values to me.
Batman 89 is my favourite film, in which the chemical is used on people who suffer from vanity and avarice. It’s also offered up as a alternative generic Brand X (which I toyed with as a name briefly) in a particularly show stealing scene that aligns Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton’s stars perfectly. We would get called Smiley, the Smiles and a million other variations (and almost always the ‘x’ would be severed from the rest of the word). It would seem quite odd to some when we would do special occasion sets in full Batman Villain regalia but nowadays I could imagine that being a viable touring proposition easily.
The name of the band (called ‘Oxford’s One Band Riot’ by Oxford music bible Nightshift Magazine) was hard earned through hard gigging and means a lot to me and I’m incredibly proud of the music we’ve made and the explosive shows we have played. We could have got pretty big pretty quick in this era…
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
One time in Manchester where a drunk guy kept coming on the stage and trying to cover my mic to prove that I was lip synching - why anyone would lip-synch to an out of breath, out of tune tape I have no idea! I used to smash wine and beer glasses over my head randomly during the show sometimes but one night I got a thick German stein glass and it just repeated dug into my head meaning my brother was picking glass out of my head in the early hours after the gig - not quite an after party. Truck festival one year when everyone threw stuff at us and I egged them on and then another the next year when I jumped on them and they actually caught me and carried me all the way out of the barn stage area (only in the shire…) One time dressed as Batman villains in a pub that was crawling distance from my house for my birthday, drunk and on ecstasy (that Joker grin is really easy to do on ‘e’ !), with disco lights and strobes plus a dude with a can of nos (laughing gas) sold in the corner (it was banned in the uk the following Monday, strangely enough!). One time at The Half Moon in Putney, I wrapped gaffer tape around my eyes and jumped of the stage into an area I had just made sure was empty - except that, excited by my actions, a guy had moved forward and I landed jaw first, biting my tongue and spending the rest of the song flailing blindly and screaming with blood pouring to of my mouth! Oh and there was a time we were escorted of a local council’s outdoor event because of my antics. They did give me a radio mic though, so…. The list goes on… there was never a dull moment at Smilex gigs!
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
I am so lucky to, despite not being famous, have played so many great places from The Cavern, St George’s hall and The Liverpool Philharmonic and Legendary venues like the Garage (up & down), Bull & Gate, Rhythm Factory, Jericho Tavern and smaller Festivals Like Cornbury, Truckfest & Wychwood.
I used to love playing the zodiac/academy in Oxford and worked with great teams there to put on great gigs. Also Riverside Festival, a free weekender in Oxfordshire that had its embryonic start in our drummer’s garden. There’s a cool prophet and edited video on YouTube of Smilex headlining it and it includes stage design and explosives, which we spend hundreds of pounds on and played for free!
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
Many of my heroes are dead (Bowie, Prince, Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell, the list goes on sadly!) So I guess maybe the ones that are still alive like George Clinton, Living Colour, Outkast? More than that though possibly, I would like to reunite some obscure faves like Lapsus Linguae, The Mighty Saguaro, Rub Ultra, Queen Adreena, Naked Truth and Meanwhile, Back In Communist Russia…
At some point, when things become a bit more practical and affordable I would like to do a ‘Quickfest’ ideally with all of the label roster. Maybe for our 25th anniversary with the pandemic in the distance.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
Don’t worry about shit so much and try to enjoy every moment you can as it can go really fast. Go for what you know and love as takin git and trend riding only gets u so far. Don’t settle for less than best.
If you could go back in time and give yourselves advice, what would it be?
The time travel means I would just give them good bets, sound investments and yet-to-be hit songs!
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
Choose between my babies?! How could I? To be honest, I am always onto the next/new song so I usually revisit a record after a year or two break and be pleasantly surprised and embarrassed simultaneously. There’s a song called The Answer(s) that took a while to happen but seems to last well.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
In terms of Smilex I would like nothing more than to get on a stage and do anything my vocal chords will squeeze out from our catalogue but the song Rock’n’Roll Russian Roulette gets requested most. It’s a good one to do either fast or slow or half and half of each so it must just be a good song, I guess?
What is the creative process for the band, and what inspires you to write your music?
The process in Smilex can be different with either someone bringing an idea in or out of a jam… we just last month released a documentary of the band writing songs for our unreleased third album in Wales back in 2012… that’s if anyone is interested in watching a band on one knows write some songs no one has heard!
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
‘Fuck Corruption’, ‘Fuck Prejudice’, ‘Fuck The Man’, ‘Fuck Who You Want’ and ‘Fuck, We Are Fucked’.
Do you ever have disagreements in your band, and how do you get past them?
Oh no biggie, we tend to just take a 7 year hiatus, hahaha! Seriously though, we are a very familial band and miss each other at the moment so don’t argue. Even when we did, it was mainly in the heat of the moment and usually to find the common good. We all care about each other very deeply, ultimately and have known each other two decades and gone through such a lot as people over that long ass time.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
Smilex-wise, it seems unlikely we will play live soon but hopefully some recorded stuff will surface soon. There’s certainly plenty coming out this year in terms of Smilex nostalgia for those that are interested…
Quickfix has been so busy last year all I did was remix stuff for other bands on the label really, which was fun and a real departure but not as satisfying as releasing an album and I’ve been stockpiling hundreds of songs for a few years so you can expect a lot of that to come out, starting with an album ‘Pandemoria’s Box’ which is kind of an aural diary of the last couple of years… that should have single ‘The Social Distance’ preceding it really soon… there’s still tons of fantastic stuff on the Quickfix release slate so I can’t say when as I prioritise the other bands releases but it will be before the summer. The album might be on the other side of the summer as it’s proving a bugger to mix. Or maybe I am being too much of a perfectionist… it’s hard to tell at this stage to be honest. I also have loads of interesting stuff I WANT to do, it’s just a case of what time and resources will allow me to do really at this stage.