I am Meat was formed by Jonas Golland and Kazuya Ohtani as part of their university project in 2011. David Gadsdon, who was moonlighting as a stand-up comedian at the time, was drafted in to front the band. While Golland and Ohtani composed the frenetic music, Gadsdon’s lyrics underpinned the songs by constructing elaborate narratives populated by abhorrent protagonists. On stage, the frontman would embody these characters by dressing up in various costumes and delivering the vocals in a confrontational style.
When Ohtani moved back to Japan, the band continued to operate, with Gardyloo Spew (SPeW) joining on alto saxophone and Cos Chapman (Rude Mechanicals, An Infernal Contraption) on bass. The shifting lineup saw the band move away from the theatrical cabaret that defined them in the beginning to the queasy jazz-punk outfit they later became. While Spew’s riffs gave the songs a new melodious edge, Chapman’s bass worked hard to ground Golland’s flitting drumming. Having no guitar opened up the mid-range and ensured that Gadsdon’s lyrics took centre stage.
The band finally disbanded in 2014, citing exhaustion as the principal cause for their demise. Luckily, their experiments in punk, jazz and cabaret were committed to tape. Six years later, I am Meat’s eponymous debut finally sees the light of day. Like their live shows, the album exudes a sense of paranoid urgency where the vocals, rhythm section and saxophone conspire to reflect our chaotic world. Ilia Rogatchevski caught up with the band to examine their motivations.
The band broke up back in 2014, why release the record now or even at all?
Jonas Golland: Better late than never seems a veritable excuse, but we feel the album is worth it. This was the release that captured most of the songs of the four members. It was also the highest quality and, in the early noughties, production values dwarfed the urgency. Recorded music is a wafer these days. One touch-up of vocals or saxophone levels leads to another, until our release show had no actual album. We hoped no one would notice.
David Gadsdon: With the rise of streaming, albums aren’t given as much prominence in the digital world as they once were. I longed for this to be the record it is, because, in my mind, this collection of songs shares similar thematic concerns. Most of them were played at our first gig and it felt like a betrayal to leave any of them behind. The bottom line is that it’s so good to finish something and set it free. It draws a line under what you’ve done and allows it to live a life of its own.
I am Meat started off as a trio called The Protagonists of David Gadsdon. Can you tell us more about the early days?
DG: I was doing a monthly stand up gig at the Boogaloo pub in north London in 2009. Jonas came to see me perform. I didn’t meet him until I was outside. He started saying my name over and over in order to memorise it. It was a disturbing encounter. From there I was invited to do some improv recordings with him, which I had never done before, to pieces of his pre-recorded music. They were much more comedy sketches and jazzy lyrics than songs, but the intention of making each a different character was still embedded in the concept of the band at that time.
Flash forward to 2011. Jonas had decided, based on our recording sessions, to put together a band as part of his dissertation at university. I was probably the natural choice to do it with, as was Kazuya Ohtani, who was living and studying with Jonas at the time. By this point the music started to edge towards spoken word songs with a cabaret influence to them, like Kurt Weill or The Dresden Dolls.
JG: As a trio we debuted at the Kings Head, Acton, to an unsuspecting student crowd from Tech Music Schools. The good response was played down by professor Simon Carter: “It’s a bit niche, innit?”
Who are these characters that you mention and how do they manifest themselves in the music?
DG: A mulch of people. Some of them are fictional like ‘The New Growth’, some are based on people I know. Others are takes on famous people, like Walter Sickert in ‘Mr. Nemo’. There’s a part of me in all the characters, although I draw a line with associating myself with the truly awful ones.
Some of your characters express chauvinistic tendencies. ‘Mr Nemo’ is certainly one. Having had a prolonged break between the writing and publication of these songs, how do you reflect on their content in 2020?
DG: I’m glad you’ve brought this up. It’s been on my mind a lot. Post #MeToo, there is a lot of focus on men doing grossly inappropriate, if not actually immoral, things. I can’t help but reframe the way I see the characters in that context. There is definitely a lot of toxic masculinity in some of them; Mr. Nemo is downright diabolical and I had to stop performing him live because I hated the character. My focus was to puff up the characters and then deconstruct their machismo.
The lyrical content of ‘Teenage Sluts’ suggests that the protagonist is male, but the song is written and sung by a woman. Is there more to this song than carnivalesque inversion of traditional gendered perspectives?
Gardyloo Spew: The perspective inversion came from an angered place somewhere in the depths of my mind. Some have interpreted the lyrics as an anti-feminist attack when in fact it is the complete opposite. At the time of writing, I had a friend who was a heavy porn abuser and this triggered me very strongly. The reaction I had had come from my own past experiences of being objectified and abused. I wanted to attempt to understand the state of mind of the abuser.
Corrupted states of mind seem to be one of the principal themes on this album. Do you still see the individual as inherently corruptible?
DG: I think the temptation of corruption is evident in everyone’s life. Being in certain positions makes you more prone to it. The rich and powerful are bound to fall prey to corruption more easily, because they are trying to protect the hierarchical systems that give them such exclusive privilege. The burden they place on the people beneath them creates an additional temptation to give in to whatever dubious ethical or moral failing they may feel seduced by. That does not mean you cannot fight against it.
I certainly wouldn’t say that we are in a better place now than when I wrote the songs. What with the increase in police brutality against black people, the trampling of queer rights and the inequalities between the genders, it seems we are in a much worse place than before. These systems can’t help but fail us, because one size does not fit all. The challenge of maintaining your individual integrity is as strong a fight as it’s ever been. But you can choose that path and you can decide to do the right thing.
Interview by Ilia Rogatchevski