Since the beginning of the nineties, Sheep On Drugs have been delivering an incredible series of party tunes, although luck has not always been by their side, as you can read in this interview. But after eight years without new material, in 2019, they were back with a new singer, an inspired new record entitled Does Dark Matter and more energy than ever. We have talked with Lee Fraser who, together with his band Sheep On Drugs will play at DarkMad festival in Madrid, on the 15th and 16sth of October.
—In an interview you said that the name of the band was about making your own mind up of what you think about drugs. How has your opinion about the use of drugs changed over the years? It has been a recurrent subject in your music.
—Drugs have been a recurrent subject in my life, hence my music. I’ve never really had much of an opinion about other people’s drug use. As far as my own is concerned, I’ve decided everything is ok, in moderation (although the list of drugs I would take has shrunk over the years). In fact, I’m pretty healthy these days. I’ve changed from being a drug addict into being a responsible drug user.
—How were the beginnings of Sheep on Drugs? How did you meet Duncan X and started making music?
—I first met Duncan in 1988, when I moved into the same house as him in New Cross, London. I’d recently bought some electronic instruments having decided I didn’t want to work with other musicians anymore (they either didn’t turn up to rehearsal or were too drunk to play properly), as my experience working in bands hadn’t been great. Duncan wasn’t a musician, he looked quite good and had some good ideas generally. We were both into surreal weirdness and mind expansion. We were also into “acid house” but were disappointed there were no bands playing this new electronic music. So we decided to make our own and Sheep On Drugs was born.
—So, what were your influences back then? Mainly Acid?
—Acid house as far as using machines to make the music, but punk as far as attitude, rock for the guitars and tribal music for animal sounds and exoticism.
—And how was the English rave scene from the beginning of the nineties? I guess it must have been quite wild.
—It seemed quite tame to us at the time. Some of the music was good, but the people were all automatons on “E” (MDMA), worshiping the lasers. They were all doing the same thing, like sheep. That’s how we got the idea for the name.
—Do you think that the sense of transgression and at the same time fun that we can listen in some of your albums got lost in the electronic scene with the years? Now-a days everybody seems bloody serious.
—Indeed. Sheep On Drugs was, and is firmly “tongue in cheek.” The whole idea of rock and pop stars/idols is ridiculous. We are a parody of that ridiculousness.
—Why did you call your first album Greatest hits? Is it because you were putting there some of your singles or was it just for fun?
—By calling our debut album Greatest Hits, we’d get into the “Greatest Hit’s section in the record shop, we’d also be implying we were already successful. We hadn’t had any hits, but we thought all of our songs should be.
—What happened with your second album? There is a change of style, losing some of the urgency of your first material. Maybe the dub influences make it look like a comedown album when the first one is, instead, a party album.
—I don’t think there’s much dub on …On Drugs although it was the difficult second album. You have your whole life to write the first album and about 2 years to write the second. Unfortunately, Island Records wouldn’t let us use Gareth Jones to produce it even though he produced Greatest Hits.This would have helped with the ‘party album’ continuity.
Instead, while writing our second album we had zero guidance from Island Records. Left to our own devices, we came up with the concept of a concept album. We’d call it …On Drugs, so it was ‘Sheep On Drugs …On Drugs’ and we kept to the concept. It was also the experimental second album. Experimentation is what we did. Both chemically and music-wise, without any input from Island. By this point our once perfect dream had been shattered by working for a major label. One example (there were many) of a dream crusher was that the label was sending out plastic lamb chops with our promo records! How cheesy. How misguided. Not cheap either. We realised at that point that we were their puppets with no real control, not even how our money was spent. We hated that. Maybe some of our displeasure got recorded onto that album. I still think it’s good, though, underrated. There are some great tunes on it. ‘Slim Jim,’ ‘Slap Happy’ and ‘Slow Suicide’ are classics. We got a double page spread in Melody Maker with ‘Album Of The Week.’ So the party wasn’t quite over then. That ended once we got involved with Invisible Records.
—After that album you started q collaboration with Martin Atkins. How did you meet him? You worked with him in some of his projects: Pigface, Rx and The Damage Manual. Was it easy working with him?
—What had happened is that Polygram had bought Island Records. Any band that had any money owing (from advances) to the record company was dropped, which was quite a few bands. We’d just had a UK top 40 hit with ‘From A To H And Back Again,’ so it made no sense to let us go and wasn’t anything to do with us. We didn’t feel that we’d had all of our 15 minutes of fame, so we then formed the ‘Drug Squad’ label, to continue. After that we came across Martin Atkins. I think Duncan met him at some gig in London and he offered us a contract. Dodgy, of course, we signed. It was quite easy working with MA, as long as he likes your work and as long as you know he’s the boss. He always comes across as if he’s your friend, very convincingly, but he’s not.
—Now that you were talking about it, what happened with the Drug Squad label? You only released a couple of singles, right?
—We created our own label after our job on the major label came to an end. In hind sight, thinking Duncan and I could run a record label was fallacy. It was like bleeding money. We weren’t very good at it. We managed to release 2 E.P.’s Suck and Strapped for Cash. These 2 releases were combined to make Double Trouble, our first release on Invisible Records.
—Do you think being part of Invisible Records, in hindsight, was good for the band?
—Not good for the band as it was. It was working with Invisible Records that stopped Duncan from ever playing again. Martin Atkins and his office manager tried to blackmail Duncan into signing a new contract while we were on tour in 1998. Duncan didn’t sign (good man) and consequently didn’t get paid. Consequently he couldn’t pay his rent (which was a prerequisite for him doing the 6-week tour) He, along with his heavily pregnant wife were about to be made homeless, out on the streets. He never forgave Invisible Records for that.
—In One For The Money, there is a clear influence of Drum ’n’ bass. How did you get into that style? Are you still interested in the dnb scene?
—I was listening to DnB pirate radio back in the mid 90s and thought how psychedelic it is. It attracted me, so I started incorporating it into SOD’s sound for the album One For The Money. One of my personal favourite tracks on that album is our DnB cover of the Velvet Underground song “Waiting For The Man.”
—Continuing with Drum ’n’ bass, one of your side projects is called Bagman, and you released two albums Wrap and Trax — What can you please tell us about them?
—After Duncan left SOD, I didn’t think I could continue with the band, so I started Bagman. This was a solo DnB project. It was refreshing working alone without recording any vocals for a while. It only lasted for a couple of albums as I wanted to start up SOD again with another singer. I felt SOD had a name that I could maybe attract more fiscal renumeration from than Bagman, which was (and maybe still is) very underground. At that point I didn’t realise that soon, selling music wouldn’t make any money for anyone anymore.
—In 1997, the band released a remix album, entitled Never Mind The Methadone. In the album there is a remix by Teho Teardo, an Italian experimental musician: How did you get the idea of having him in the album?
—That came from Martin Atkins. No doubt Teho Teardo had done some work for him before this, so was roped in to do a remix of our track.
—In that album there is a song with Pigface, you were part of the band, right? How do you remember the experience?
—I was never officially part of Pigface although I did stand on a stage with them a couple of times. The track on the album was a cover of “Back In Black” by AC/DC. It was Martin Atkins idea that we should record it just before we went on tour. We recorded the music and singing, Martin got it mixed in his studio while we were on tour.
—Grace Jones did a cover of the band. Were you interested in her music? You met her, right?
—I love Grace Jones and was amazed she wanted to do a cover of “Track X,” which she retitled “Sex Drive.” I guess it helped us having been signed to Island Records by Chris Blackwell. My only disappointment was that Sly and Robbie didn’t play on her version. We did meet her. I got a call in the rehearsal studio in New Jersey. The tour manager passed me the phone and said it was Grace Jones! it was her alright. We chatted for a few minutes and arranged to meet up that night in her flat in Manhattan. I went there with Duncan and our soundman. We stayed there all night, had a great laugh and left the next morning to start our US tour.
—And the unavoidable question about Duncan. How is he doing? He retired to start working as a tattoo artist. Has any of your tattoos been done by him?
—Duncan’s doing OK, I see him most weeks. He’s a well-respected top tattooist these days. He did most of my tattoos.
—In Fuck, you became the main singer of the band. How did it feel in the concerts to be the main focus?
—The album is not called Fuck, that’s your filthy mind. It’s called F**K. It could be FUCK or FUNK or FORK…. As far as being the main focus, I realised what Duncan had to go through. It’s a lot harder job, being the front man, but I managed to get my head round it. I still do front some of the songs. It’s a great feeling, having the audience in the palm of your hand.
—Finally, you met Johnny in 2006. According to you, how has she contributed to the sound of the band?
—She’s got a lot of energy, she’s a good keyboardist and has a good voice. A female voice, something I can’t do. She’s also great lyricist.
—In Medication Time you have a song called War on Drugs, Curiously enough, I have been watching Narcos Mexico these days. What do you think of legalisation, do you think it could a solution or something negative?
—The “war on drugs” isn’t working but I don’t know if legalising drugs is the answer. Imagine legal branded heroin on supermarket shelves, being advertised on TV. There would be a lot of new addicts and lots of new overdoses and deaths. Maybe decriminalisation is the way to go?
—What did you do during the nine-year gap without releasing new material? I read that you were remixing other artists, can you please tell us more about this?
—Not quite 9 years, but definitely 8. We released Club Meds in 2011 then Does Dark Matter in 1019. To be honest I’d become disillusioned with the music industry. Ever since Napster started file sharing in 1998, the music industry has been shrinking. People, consequently, have started insisting on music being free. These days, the record industry supports a handful of acts, all of which are super commercial pop. People generally listen to music on Spotify these days, often on the free version. So where’s the money? How do the musicians get paid? Streaming royalties are so pitifully small, they’re a joke. That’s why vinyl and cassettes are making a comeback. Musicians can attach their free music to these formats and sell the physical object. It’s the only way musicians can make any money from music sales anymore. Otherwise as soon as digital music is released, it uploaded to You Tube and given away for free.
—How was recording Does Dark Matter after a few years without releasing new song?
—It was really inspiring and uplifting recording Does Dark Matter. I always enjoy being in the studio and can’t wait for them to open again. We have another album half finished, ready to record.
—I read on your Facebook page that the band is in the process of making a graphic novel about Sheep On Drugs. Can you please tell me more about it?
—I called it a “graphic novel,” but it will be more like an illustrated book of short stories. Stories from the Sheep On Drugs archives. I’ve started some of the illustrations and roughly written some of the stories. It will take a while to finish it, but I believe I can do it. Watch this space.
—What do you think of the English music industry at the moment?
—What English music industry? It’s so small now it only supports a handful of ultra commercial artists. None of which I like. There doesn’t seem to be much room/money in the music industry for left field acts anymore. That’s a real shame, I never really liked ultra-commercial pop and that’s all there appears to be. I’ve always preferred “underground,” “alternative” music. Unfortunately, the English music industry isn’t lucrative enough to fund such bands anymore. The “Indie” labels that used to sign these bands (like SOD), no longer exist.
—How have you been living through this pandemic? I guess you also had some gigs cancelled. At least you released a single, right?
—This pandemic is a nightmare. The sooner it’s over the better. We released a download single in the summer mainly to remind people we’re still here. We’ve also made a video for almost all the tracks on our latest album Does Dark Matter to keep people in mind of us until we can play again. We have one more to do, then we’ll have a video for every track on Does Dark Matter. All good promo, to help get gigs when they start again.
—What can we expect of Sheep on Drugs in the near future?
—We have a new album half finished. Hopefully that’ll be completed within the next year, once the studios re-open. There’s some great tunes on it. I can’t wait to start mixing it.
—What kind of show can we expect at DarkMad?
—A fantastic show. We are so desperate to be adored on stage again, we’ll guarantee it’s good. You won’t be disappointed.