The club scene was in its heyday and Gene Loves Jezebel was one of its darlings. The band may have become quieter, but it certainly hasn't disappeared by any means. Michael Aston has kept his group alive, albeit more evolved and matured enough to tackle tougher subject than teen angst. Now you'll find comments and opinions on society, culture and world affairs, with a few touches of love, as in the effort "Exploding Girls." But to understand this growth, you need to start at the band's birth.
"We didn't intend to start a band," Aston begins. "We loved to perform, we had young arty friends and we hung out at the clubs and it was the post-punk era, basically anyone who could apply lipstick could form a band. We got pretty good at applying lipstick so we decided to go the whole hog. My brother was taking guitar and we would play it and mess around with it. I wouldn't call us musicians, we were far to young to be musicians. But we had guitars and we could basically tune them well enough. It was a gorgeous moment in time when you really look back at your life."
What's the story behind the name?
"That was pure accident," Aston admits. "We had just moved to London and we just made a demo and we were trying to get on this thing called the 'ICA Rock Week,' which is the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, which is a very hip event every year, they put the most interesting, radical, arty bands at the time on. And we tried to get on the show.
"We put a tape in and they accepted it and we were stunned, terrified, because we had never performed before and didn't have a clue about what we were doing," Aston continued. "And they said, 'What's the name of the band?' We had to come up with something really quick and Jay had a story idea which is kind of close.
"Some art student said to him, asked him his name, and he said, 'Jay' and they'd mistaken it for Jezebel. I don't believe that for one minute, but that's the story he put out there," Aston goes on. "And then he made up this bit about me being Gene after Gene Vincent after breaking a leg, well I did break my leg. But I let him go along with it and we needed a name. And we had the twin thing, so we thought that kind of identified that fact at least. It's kind of ironic that name because it couldn't be further from the truth."
I ask what it was like growing up as a twin.
"We had to share everything, that's part of our problem actually. When we got Christmas presents, a card would always be sent to both of us. But this time, we had a little tape recorder, a cruddy little tape recorder, I remember him letting Leonard Cohen's '(Hey) That's no Way to Say Goodbye,' which is basically two notes, I sang it and we were kind of astonished... to hear your own voice for the first time," Aston laughs. "So that was how I got started, my mum got us a tape recorder, not a guitar, the best move ever."
Michael continued singing, but not Jay, "For some reason I was nominated to sing, I have no idea why. Probably because I was too lazy to play a guitar, but now I play guitar."
The twins' lives continued to be entwined through their educational years.
"We used to go to the art colleges and the art center in Cardiff in Wales and we'd see performance art. We'd be hanging out with a lot of wannabes; would-bes, should-bes. We'd see the shows," Aston says. "Then we moved to London and we worked at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) and I'd see a lot of performance artists. I was just really up to the idea of expression, it didn't really have to be musical. I think we came far, at least I came from that direction far more of the idea of being on stage and doing something with that little space, no matter what. I just liked the idea of being in that space."
Aston shares some of his past with me.
"I was married when I was 17 and I worked in a steel mill for five years. I hated it, but I had to take care of my kids," Aston tells me. "My wife was the same age and she used to go to St. Martin's School of Art. So we moved to London and we lived there. We eventually split up because I was sowing my seeds.
"I always pursued my career there. Of course, all my friends at the time had gone to college, taken off and gone up to Warwick and up to London. So sometimes we'd come to these places and we'd still be hanging out," Aston continues. "Not like when I worked at the steel mill and suddenly had a hard hat on, covered in grime and singing Welsh tunes, 'Keep the Red Flag Flying' and stuff like that. I was still into the cross-dressing thing. I don't think they knew quite what to make of me. But I made good use of my time there. They had print machines and stuff like that and I would make flyers for the band. There were some good elements, I had a lot of good friends there."
I ask him about his hobbies and his life today.
"I like to paint, I like to read, I love the to mess around with the computer. I'm learning Linux and how to make a Web page. I work in the garden and bake bread. I try everything," Aston says. "I love to work with wood and build things. The best thing I did was I made a crib for my first child. My current wife and I have four children. We were broke then and I had to make a crib. I found these odd bits of material and all my children slept in it, we just got our youngest out of it. So that's very cool.
"You learn as you go along and it's so much fun learning about new materials, how to put things together," Aston explains about making the crib. "I sanded it and stained it. My wife went through the roof when she saw it, 'That's a piece of junk,' but actually it's quite handsome in its own way. I'm always doing something so every space is completely used."
Parting ways with a brother may seem traumatic, but in some ways, for Aston it was cathartic.
"I feel liberated. Working with him was a miserable experience," Aston says of Jay. "I mean it was a wonderful legacy, there were beautiful moments, but the conflicts were so intense. We came from such different directions. He would like to be T Rex, which is a beautiful thing, but very difficult for me. And with my interests and what I knew of the world and politics, history and art, then you've suddenly got to say, 'Hey baby, pretty baby I like you a lot.' It's like come on, get the fuck out of my face.
"It was good for a few years. Jay wanted to leave the band, it was just difficult and we went through a period in the band where it was miserable and pointless and I was so unhappy making music that I didn't believe in and then he left and we got back together," Aston goes on. "Things happened, evolved and I said, 'You know what? I formed this band, I founded the band, the manifest of this band belongs to me and what you're doing is just wrecking it and so I'm taking it back.' We fought and there were legal battles and here I am."
Aston and I talk about song writing.
"I work with sonics." Aston clarifies, "I usually get a group of people and I'll ask them for tapes or any base that day, it might be drum beats, just give them to me and I'll sit at home with 20, 30, 40, 50 pieces of things and I'll respond to them. I'm very much a reactionary kind of writer. I tried it the other way, sitting down scrawling out bits of poetry, but it doesn't really work. It makes it really hard."
He tells me that Steve Earl taught him about songwriting and how to tell a story as in country music.
"I think it's the best advice you could give to anyone, tell your own story," Aston adds.
I ask Aston, who currently lives in Southern California, to compare the music scenes of the United States with the United Kingdom.
"I was much happier when I lived in England," Aston states. "London seemed a lot more open and radical. Here seems very conservative and it seems formulatic and clinical and clean and protestant. The industry is very very conservative. America as a whole has struck me as that, I was really surprised, with the exception of the artists.
"We're not product and we're not industry, you begin with the art. They take five percent of a record you own, which you'll never own and you're working your arse off to sell a record for them. I just scratch my head, 'Well, what am I doing it for?' They pay me a couple grand a week, whatever it was at the time, they keep you happy, but you're not happy, you're just working for them," Aston continues. "And then deciding what singles you are and the tone of what should you wear or at least trying to influence you. I thought, 'What the hell are you doing?' They have no qualifications. I always bumped heads with those people. I probably made a lot of enemies, but to me the art is the most important aspect."
But Aston has a happier opinion of the Internet.
"I love it. It's fantastic," Aston says of
the Web. "You can find anything out, you can't
wait to come home and you can masturbate, it's
fantastic. People contact me who I lost contact
with 20 or 30 years ago and this is every other
day I get letters from people.
So what has kept Gene Loves Jezebel going despite the band's struggles and strife?
"It's my absolute desire to be creative and perform and not want to give up no matter what the circumstance," Aston replies. "I just really don't know how to stop. I just keep banging the door and banging and banging and banging. And that's just it. I will not accept anything else."
When we spoke, Aston had plans for making a video in the desert for "Exploding Girls." He was going to do it on his own too.
"I sound like a control freak, but I'm just so disappointed with some of the stuff that we did with film and I'm like, 'Do it yourself,'" Aston explains. "It could be a disaster."
If you listen to "Exploding Girls," you will note, that unlike the title appears to imply, the album pays homage to women.
"It kind of ended up that way," Aston says. "I came up with the title first and then I pushed beyond to thinking about the women in my life. My mom had a double stroke, my daughter had been really ill. I really started thinking about the impact of women, females, in my life, in every man's life really. We start crazy wars. And the events of the world."
Aston decided to write songs about women. One cut is about the bombing of Baghdad's effect on children and women. It angers Aston that people don't accept that it could be their mothers or daughters who could be burnt from head to toe- "For what?"
"I just wanted to bring humanity because there's definitely something about the mother, the nurturing mother and the universe. Females bring so much to that," Aston says adding that his wife was pleased with the effort.
The song "Exploding Women" is based on the famed Palestinian suicide bomber and asks why someone would want to give up her life for her people, "How incredible an act is that to actually want to give up your life for your people? Your final defense is yourself." Aston points out that instead of being in the army and bombing or firing and taking a chance, "It's a hell of a courageous acting knowing that you're going to your death."
He is extremely anti-war and anti-American involvement in other countries.
I wonder if "Exploding Girls" will stand the test of time and Aston responds that "Imagine" and a number of Bob Dylan songs have lasted so he feels it could too.
Our political discussion leads to discourse on how news can be censored.
"I read a lot of Internet stuff and I listen to KBFG in L.A. and they can really grind you down because you're so powerless and you suddenly realize that the world you live in is not nearly as free and not nearly as liberal as it should be," Aston comments. "America, for example, is a very frightening place, we are so controlled... the television, the newspaper. It's like if you speak up against it you're some kook, some communist."
I ask Aston for a parting thought and he responds, "I'm proud of the record, it's a great record. I hope people buy it so I have a chance to make records. I'm having a great time doing it."
Catch up with Gene Loves Jezebel at www.genelovesjezebel.com
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