The Culture Is Ordinary Interview: Billy Lunn

EDITION: Bad New Times.

Jude Wanga discusses class, growing up in Hertfordshire, Petrarch, breaking America, Britney and more with the lead singer of the Subways.

Billy Lunn is not your average musician, or your average front man. Lunn embraces literature, his background, his wife, his family and his class consciousness. He also embraces music, as he records his new Subways album.

He is, by his own admission, happy to talk and express himself. These qualities are not always encouraged when musicians face an interview. His enthusiasm for each question is full of joy and optimism while acknowledging the state we find ourselves in. He palpably, earnestly cares in a way that many people do not or can not.

The Subways formed in 2002, before the Iraq War, austerity, Brexit and coronavirus, and before addiction and recovery. I asked Billy about his background, where he came from, and how he came to be a musician, to study at Cambridge as a mature student, and how he experienced the last two decades in the industry.

JWWhat was the song that made you realise you wanted to be a musician?

BLI’ll go back even further, to the time when I realised exactly what music was, because all the stuff that came afterwards is a mere footnote. I remember hearing Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”, and, from that point onwards, everything I felt and thought seemed like it was enhanced, somehow. It’s like that song, and the performances making it up, taught me how to feel. What it was to love. To pine. And then to communicate those sensations.

Of course, underlying this mode of communication, the Motown love song, was a language of the oppressed. Smokey, his friends, and family, indeed all those who participated in the Hitsville movement, were facing everyday oppressions that their most ardent fans would probably never even understand.

The astounding music that emanated from that tiny studio in Detroit consequently became a timely reminder that we are all human, and the corollary is that a single injustice imposed on any of us is unacceptable.

The message I personally heard was, ‘you like our records? Great, then fight for us.’ I’ve been trying to do that ever since.

Then, when I heard the intro drums to ‘Supersonic’ by Oasis, then the guitar line, and then Liam singing “I need to be myself, I can’t be no-one else”, I knew that this was how I wanted to express myself. That’s why being onstage and performing is so essential to my being, now. It’s the mode of communication that finally makes me feel like I’m being understood – or, if not that, at least expressing the tangle of thoughts and emotions closest to the point of their origins. And Smokey Robinson is the reason for everything beautiful in my life.

JWYou’re from Welwyn Garden City, a not entirely real commuter town on the outskirts of London. Do you think that changed how you both received and interacted with music, and also why is Hertfordshire so terrible?

BLHertfordshire is so terrible because it contains, by-and-large, those who claim to ‘hate’ urban spaces, but who absolutely love exploiting them during the brief moments they experience it on daily outings. The ‘realness’ of urban spaces frightens them, but their natural environment, a confluence of the urban and the rural, is, in essence, a conglomeration of nothing. Without the capitalist dream of the town centre, a totem around which our life circulates, we’re left to curtain-twitching and a Thatcherite suspicion of all outside the bounds of our own line of sight. It’s a hub of working-class residents who are absolutely assured in their non-working-class status, and vote against their own interests as they mock and scorn their own.

I grew up on a council estate where those on benefits, without any sense of irony, derided others on benefits because they were on benefits. Existence here is Sisyphean and contradictory, and my pledge to get the hell out of it was probably what fuelled my precocious tenacity to start the band and begin gigging in London (a refuge for my spirited soul) like there was no tomorrow. But I’m also deeply thankful for Hertfordshire life, because without it I’m not even sure I’d be in a band.

JWWhat are the new obstacles and would they have stopped you?

BLWhen we first started rehearsing together in my state comp’s music block, we had musical instruments at our disposal, as well as the space in which to express those early, formative ideas. Then, later on, we had The Square in Harlow, Essex, a youth centre which devoted itself not just to putting on gigs of all genres and for all demographics, but also to being open during the daytime for any person of any age to swing by and use its facilities – to chat with and take advice from its devoted and tireless personnel. Not having those means would have been devastating for us.

How would we have started, unless one of us had rich and famous parents? But that’s exactly how it is now. After a decade of cuts to funding for schools, and after seeing the demolition of venues such as The Square almost wholesale across the country, growing up under a Conservative government would have destroyed the opportunities necessary to pursue a career in the arts. And that’s what young artists are facing now. Increasing poverty means that devoting one’s time and passion to artistic endeavours is nothing but a wistful dream – a privilege that few can aspire to. Which is why the upper classes are taking over the arts. We council-housed, state-schooled ones must instead be mere tools of capitalist utility.

JWCharlotte famously got a lot of sexist comments her way. Today, you actively champion and promote female led bands and artists, especially in rock. Were you always attuned to sexism or was having a front row seat to the barriers Charlotte was facing a moment of awakening shall we say, for you in terms of just how permeating patriarchy can be?

BLThe normative expectations of what society demands from people, and what it imposes on people, have always been uppermost in my mind. When I was in school, it was ‘why are those kids who are lucky enough to have nice clothes picking on the kid who’s unlucky enough, through absolutely no fault of his own, to have shabby clothes?’ The exploitation of that class-based hierarchy felt perverse and sadistic. Likewise, when the media were shaming Charlotte, say, for the register of her voice, I found it enraging, because my register wasn’t being referred to, and nor were our contemporaries, who were practically all-male. Let’s face it, they hate that she’s a woman. And she was always much more sexualised than Josh or myself. And I’m clearly the sexiest of the three.

In one very early NME live review of ours, a pseudonymous writer hinted at the fact that Charlotte’s simply performing onstage made him want to get his dick out. She was nineteen-years-old at the time. What I find really sad is that, years later, I confronted the writer (their identity was revealed to me at the time of the piece’s publication, in confidence, and with a very high degree of certainty) on Twitter, and they came as close as their dignity would allow to admitting it, and they showed some remorse. But then a quite high-profile feminist journalist stepped in to defend him, showing no real concern for the content of the piece, which was written whilst she was at the magazine, and blaming me for having the temerity to call it out.

For some, misogynistic behaviour is only worthy of condemnation if it happens against those with whom they share some allegiance. And when one of their own partakes in it, the silence can be hurtful and deafening, and the sense of marginalisation is only made the more profoundly lonely. That’s why, when my wife, the incredible Rowena Alice, decided to devote two hours of her week to championing new releases from women in music, and their valid stories, I made sure I was going to do all I could to give it the amplification it deserves. On her show, Riot Diet Show on Boogaloo Radio, only music made by acts featuring at least one woman (including women of colour, trans, and non-binary) is played. And I am 100% there for that.

JWAs a band you managed to do what many British acts fail to do, crack America. You even booked an appearance on The OC, a piece of Zeitgeist television that will probably be spoken of for decades for how it changed teen TV. What was it like achieving success in a market that tended to be hostile to British music, and most importantly, what was it like hanging out with the Great Eyebrows himself, Peter Gallagher?

BLIt’s quite funny, just how much we’ve managed to achieve outside the boundaries of our own nation without any of that prestige actually coming back to our own shores. When we appeared on The OC, it was part of this surreal whirlwind that involved us getting on planes as nobodies and at the other side being told how ‘cool’ we were, when we felt so much the opposite. I was still wearing the t-shirt and jeans I wore to work when a lot of our fellow musicians were donning really swanky suits and blazers.

I’ve felt an imposter on the ‘scene’ since day one. But the fact that we were on The OC means that we can just keep going back to America whenever there’s enough money in the band account to afford the flights. That’s the same for the continent. We spend most of our time abroad playing to crazy crowds, and then I go back to my two-bed in Herts, and my neighbours are like, ‘what’ve you been up to? Haven’t seen you for a few months!’

And must now reveal that I’ve never seen eyebrows quite like Peter Gallagher’s since that day. Rachel Bilson was an angel. She spent all day with us on set. She kept remarking about how cool it was that we weren’t holing ourselves up in the dressing room all day like the other bands had. I remember replying, ‘after this, I’m going back to my parents’ council estate. I’m milking this as much as my brain will allow!’

JWYou’ve been recording new songs whilst on lockdown, what’s that been like?

BLIt’s been a mixture of invigorating and anxiety-inducing. I’m a depressive, first off, so I find most situations overwhelming, and like wading through treacle. But navigating my way through this current circumstance has been… interesting. Nonetheless, always on my mind is the fact that I’m very privileged to have the sanctuary of my recording studio, let alone a house and food and supplies available, and a fiercely intelligent wife and two very cuddly rescue dogs to share my time with and be there for.

JWYou got nodules, tissue masses which grow on the vocal chords, at one point. Were you scared you’d never be able to sing again? How did you retrain your voice?

BLI had polyps [larger tissue masses than nodules], unfortunately, which can only be removed through laser surgery. God. That was horrible. Yeah, the surgeon said that if the recovery didn’t go as planned, I could forget being able to sing again—and maybe even being able to talk again. Ugh.

I had to refrain from talking for a month, and from singing for three months. After a gradual reintroduction to singing over a few months, I was shoved onto a plane to LA to begin recording our second album – with the world-famous producer Butch Vig. All the pent-up frustration from the previous months came out in that album. It’s the one I’m most proud of. Hearing the tracks back sometimes crushes my heart to pieces.

JWYou’re in a band with your brother Josh. Who is the best brother and how has your relationship as siblings changed from also being in a band together?

BLJosh is definitely the better brother. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his doctor says he shouldn’t even be leaving the house, let alone putting himself on a drum stool in front of thousands of people at a time and performing under such strains. He’s remarkable if only for his sense of proportion and determination. He’s doing the show, even if the idea makes him want to be sick.

Okay, so he’s had the biggest blowouts out of all of us, getting us kicked off of TRL in New York City, for example, but then he’s also been the one to sit me down and clear my mind when I’m been suffering a panic attack and crumbling on the floor of the dressing room in Potsdam in tears, telling me that he loves me and that it’s all going to be okay.

It used to be that being brothers in a band was the worst idea. Now I can’t see how this band ever would’ve stayed together if we weren’t brothers. I’m the elder of us two, but he’s undoubtedly the wisest. But we both came to the conclusion that there comes a point when you realise that making music is more important than getting one over on your sibling. I’m looking at you, Gallaghers.

JWWas there a time you felt like walking away from music?

BLEvery day whilst at Cambridge. It’s overwhelming, immersing yourself completely in a subject, surrounded every single day during term-time by people who are just as passionate about exploring the nuances of their subject as you are yours. It takes you over. And you either crumble or you relish it. I was adamant I was to do the latter. There were times when I’d forgotten completely that I was ever in a band. And I suppose that was part of the point of being there. Of sinking amidst a student body, of being just another person again, not a dude in a rock band. And there were times when I felt like walking away from music maybe during the worst days of my addiction—but, during that period, I was purposefully diving into the abyss. Seeking a means of self-destruction. I was walking away from life altogether. Music, oddly, somehow got me through it.

JWDo you think the music industry has gotten better at dealing with addiction in artists or do you think the very nature of the business aspect combined with an allure to the arts for those who live on the edges of social acceptance means addiction will always have a part to play in the industry. Do you think, at times, the industry even encourages it, specifically in rock and punk music?

BLFor a while, the industry definitely fed itself upon the romanticisation of the addiction and mental health troubles of certain artists. From the depths of my own addictions, I managed to write a song called ‘Popdeath’, which spoke of how repulsive I found the media portrayal of Amy Winehouse’s decline and allegedly ‘unavoidable’ fate of an early demise. The media were the ones who fostered such a circumstance! Their features implicitly beheld her as an eventual successor to the 27 Club throne. It was too lucrative a practice to avoid indulging – at least if you had no sense of shame or morals. Appalling. It’s been nice to see that that’s waned considerably since the mid-00s.

In fact, the emergence of women in music over the last ten years, particularly women of colour and LGBTQ+ in rock, grime, and electro, let alone pop music, has been the catalyst for such change. Their stories, given voice by the courage and bravery they’ve possessed merely in the act of being in such an oppressively conservative culture as that in which we find ourselves now, have done so much to deconstruct the romantic reduction of rock star mythology. They’ve reassembled it in as many shapes as their experiences and imaginations can conjure. And God bless them for it.

JWYou speak candidly about your experience with addiction, which some tend to shy away from. Was this a conscious choice?

BLIt’s largely unconscious. I’ve always been the loquacious type, but I had to stem that flow from early on, because my desire to just talk on and on was ridiculed. After Cambridge, after sitting through 90-minute solo supervisions winding my way through the complexities of literary theory, and after sitting in common rooms until the early hours debating the corollaries of the most obscure bullshit, I now unashamedly waffle to my heart’s content. And people can either stay and talk with me or go. That’s their choice.

I’ve also always been more inclined to be honest about my thoughts and feelings than not. Some have kindly described it as me wearing my heart on my sleeve, others have not-so-kindly described it as me being a pretentious arse. I’m quite sure both are true. A part of that honesty also means talking about my mental health issues and my addiction.

I don’t like mythical, Byronic heroes. Especially in rock music. I’d much rather Kurt Cobain be alive and well, writing country albums on a 12-string.

That’s why, when I see musicians trying to foster this myth that their mental health or their addictions are some romantic quality that inhabits and lifts their music, I attempt to dismantle it, because it’s a dangerous and cruel fabrication. There is nothing romantic about it. It’s sad, it’s painful, it’s cold, it’s dark. And I’d much rather be happy than sat at the station staring at the train tracks wondering what to do next. Life is too precious.

JWWhat attracted you to literature?

BLThe idea that I could be whoever I wanted to be away from the rigid constraints of familial and societal expectations—if only briefly. I never knew it then, but I’ve always been bisexual. I was bullied in school for supposedly being gay. And in an all-boys school, which made it so much worse. All that performative masculinity. For four whole years (from Year 8) I was mocked and belittled. And my family have always been quite violent, and proud of it. I never wanted to hurt a fly. I still sometimes spend a good twenty minutes trying to save flies that get swept up in the water in my shower. But I was belittled for that kind of loving spirit. ‘Ah, Billy, he’ll never be strong like the rest of us, bless him’.

After years of therapy I finally came to terms with the fact that the infinite love that’s bound up in my unwillingness to hurt anyone like I was myself hurt by others is actually a beautiful kind of strength. And I refuse point blank to stand for any mockery or derision of that. Literature has always been that place I go to where I can explore the good away from a society that is, frankly, hell-bent on causing and perpetuating the misery of others.

JWYou went back to university to study literature. What spurred that decision?

BLIn my more noble moments, I like to think I set life goals for myself and no-one else. But, deep down, I think I like to make implicit gains on the privately-educated, middle-class journalists who’ve been really sniffy about my nice little working-class punk rock band. So, when I was in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, I set myself the target (as well of producing the band’s next album) of getting into Cambridge, which would, by extension, make me a better writer than a lot of the Oxbridge rejects who’d derided me in the past.

Alongside this, I obviously genuinely love literature. I love what the process of reading and writing does to the consciousness. The confluence of being aware of the author writing at a particular point in time somewhere in the past, of being aware and following the course of the narrative, and also being aware of your own participation in the creation of the story in your head. I like these things all going on at once.

Likewise, whilst I was writing and recording our fourth album, I took an Access to HE course at my local college. I got 100% top grades. Then, when we started touring, I took distance-learning A-Levels. Whilst the rest of the band and crew were boozing it up, I was burrowed away somewhere with a mountain of books and a notepad at my side. We once took a night train from Moscow and St Petersburg, and I never slept, because I was revising for upcoming exams. Eventually I applied to five unis – four London unis, and then Cambridge – and received Unconditional Offers from all. I told Charlotte and Josh that we’d be taking three years away from rocking out, and that was that. Luckily, they were understandably desperate to have three full years away from me. They relished the blissful peace that ensued.

Whilst at Cambridge, I simultaneously built my own studio and wrote and demoed a whole album, which we’re in the process of recording proper now. Those three years were magical. Sometimes the bitterness I reserve for the privately-educated middle-class can yield extraordinary results, so I always keep a store of it ready to go, just in case.

JWBooks, like music, have an ability to imprint themselves on you. Is there a book you always carry with you and why?

BLA small selection of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, translated by Mark Musa. It’s small enough to fit in my back pocket, if needs be. Like Smokey, Francesco has a propensity for pining. And I love that joyful pain. Bittersweetness. Bask me in it.

JWDid you feel out of place studying at Cambridge? What are the class issues you encountered whilst there?

BLI opted for a mature college, Wolfson, which was inherently more multicultural, multilingual, and inter-class. It was the first Oxbridge college to admit women and people of colour, of all classes, as well eradicating the high table at formals. So, on the daily, I was in good company. But, being a working-class socialist with a North-London accent, I did find myself a touch out of place when it came to cross-college seminars. Especially if you’re sat next to master posh from Trinity.

But Cambridge is notably the more liberal of the Oxbridge pair, and the inclination to chastise Tory policy was all I heard during my time there. Thankfully. I have a tough time convincing people that the Cambridge student body is actually pretty right-on when it comes to the pursuit for equality, especially with regard to key issues such as decolonisation of the curriculum, but that tough time is well-earned. The upper echelons of the ‘institution’ of Cambridge have some way to go. I’m looking at you, Trinity and Christ’s.

JWYou’re obviously left wing, but how does that translate into your music/lyrics? Do you keep your politics out of your art or are your politics defined by your art?

BLI used to keep the two very distinctly separate. My mum, who’s always been a powerful matriarchal figure in my life, reminded me that Elvis never involved politics in his music, so why should I. But, more and more, as the times went on, and things began to look more desperate, I began to feel that such a separation was facilitated by my privilege; I’m a white male rock musician who could happily ignore the everyday oppression others face whilst I waltz through and enjoy the benefits my ‘career’ affords me.

To counter this suspicion, before I started my first term at Cambridge, I met up with Billy Bragg for a coffee. I’d contacted him to see if I could pick his brains about fusing my music and my concerns over social inequality. After coffees, and talking the ins-and-outs of music, Smokey (“Tracks of My Tears” is his favourite song too), football, and politics in general, we were stood at the top of the stairs of the British Library and he grabbed me by the shoulder and said something to the effect of: ‘the music and the melodies will always be there, but it’s how you choose to use those hooks that really matters. And Elvis, after he recorded “In The Ghetto”, he always regretted not using the voice he had more often beforehand to speak about the really important issues of the time. Don’t feel that same regret too late.’ That was it. I made a conscious decision to be more political in my music, not just around it.

JWYou’ve often spoken of your love of Britney, do you think the music industry is as snobby as it was when you were breaking through?

BLIt’s defo got more acceptable to speak about your love for someone like Britney without any semblance of irony. Like, Charlotte and I would always sneakily listen to Kylie backstage before gigs and at festivals – and this was during the ‘rock revolution’ heyday, around 2005—because we just knew that some New York dickheads in sunglasses and leather jackets outside our door were going to look down their noses at us.

But I feel like, lately, everybody’s embraced a more postmodern appreciation for things. We actively and openly embrace the contradictory, the conflicting, the atypical. There’s nothing parochial about our playlists anymore. We’re happily mixing in New Orleans blues and jazz from the early twentieth century with seventies prog and punk, eighties synth-pop, and mid-nineties blockbuster hits—unironically. But I also think that that’s a reflection of the socio-political fabric of now. People are sticking up for themselves more, as they become consciously aware of their position within the social intersection of privilege. What else do we have to lose? If you enjoy it, relish it. But no Phil Collins. Not even ironically. Not even Satan would approve.

JWHas your wife, Rowena, changed how you approach music at all, whether it be songwriting, producing or just interacting with music? Has she changed you as a person? What qualities of hers have you tried to replicate within yourself and your musical output?

BLAch, there’s just too much. Without Rowena, I would still be wallowing in my shame and self-loathing, sunk in oblivion. Well, I still do wallow, but then I’ve been equipped, thanks to Row, with the coping mechanisms that most benefit me, letting go of the ones that destroy me. Without her, I wouldn’t have known I’m a depressive, an addict, the victim of traumatic violence—and, even now, I’m aware of how much it should never have been her role in our relationship to ‘fix me’. But that’s why I spend every day making sure that she’s given the tools and opportunities to reach the zenith of what’s possible for her to achieve. I spend my days knocking down the barriers that have been erected to block strong and intelligent women like herself from threatening the established patriarchal structure.

Also, I can’t stress enough how being a co-host on her radio show has obliterated the fencing of my very limited scope of the musical spectrum. This new album The Subways are about to release would be a stagnant mess of cliché and power chords were it not for the force that is Rowena Alice. Thank you to Rowena, and all the women in music to whom my eyes and ears have been opened. Let it be known that I’ll spend my days championing those who would be where I am now were it not for the quotidian oppressions they suffer.

JWDo you think music can still be a great motivator for class consciousness?

BLMusic can still be anything, regardless of where society goes. It’s intrinsically a part of us all, since our first moments dancing round the campfire praying to the gods for rain. It’ll be here until our very last breath – and, who knows, maybe it’s the lyrics of a generations-old folk song that’s the last utterance hanging on our lips. And music has to do its part. Or, more importantly, we musicians have to do our part. It’s our obligation to tell the truth. Even when we’re trying to make booties shake on a Friday night.

JWDo you think the internet supporting more niche interests and forms of music mean it is harder for music to be a motivator for class consciousness?

BLI think music is having to fight to make itself more apparent and relevant full stop – but, yeah, it’s definitely got its work cut out when dealing with class consciousness. But then that might have something to do with the gnomic nature of its form. Managing the balance between message and movements is, and sort of always has been, the key. What can a song say in the given time, and how can it say it.

JWWhen do you plan on writing a second successful single?

BLNever. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in this life, it’s that, if you can get by on being moderately successful from one single piece of effort, and without any further effort thereafter, absolutely take it. And it’s with an outwardly solemn and yet inwardly gleeful countenance that I announce to the world that I shan’t be making any further efforts in this regard. You’ll just have to keep enjoying 2005’s singular success. Sorry.

But seriously, I’m currently writing and recording The Subways’ new album, and it’s going to shake some proper booty.