Recently The Professionals released their newest studio album, "SNAFU," their first since 2017's "What In the World." In this interview for XS Noize, Dan Volohov sits down with Paul Cook and Tom Spencer of The Professionals to discuss writing "SNAFU," associations with The Sex Pistols, the collaborative aspect of the songwriting, harmony within the band, and storytelling.
Paul, at the beginning of the current reincarnation of the band, I noticed that it's a new band you put together. At the same time, you also had Steve Jones contributing to creating "What In The World." What did Steve bring, being one of the founders of the band?
Paul: Steve brings just a great spirit to The Professionals and songwriting. Also, he makes fantastic guitar sounds. As you know, we formed The Professionals after The Sex Pistols split. It was a continuation, but more with our personality involved, that was mine and Steve's, rather than The Pistols. These were our personalities alongside Ray McVeigh and Paul Myers. We took it into a more punky-poppy field, I think.
Steve has done vocals as well. We brought a lot to it with this great guitar and these personalities. So getting Steve to play on "What In The World" was like a transition. Hanging over to do the album, "What In The World." We kind of moved on. We changed guitarists a couple of times. I think The Professionals are evolving all the time, which is excellent. I don't mind losing the guitarists because we have many friends who can jump in and play for us.
Tom: We mustn't lose the drummer!
Paul: Yeah! And Tom has done a great job, stepping in on vocals and guitar, replacing Steve Jones. I know people are still going around: "Oh, where is Steve Jones?! He's not there; he's not there…." But we made a great album—"What In The World"—which I think is better than the original stuff. We got the new album coming out, which is different again. And, as I say, we're ever-evolving Professionals.
When you got together, were there just talks about playing and touring, or did you still have some ideas for recording a record?
Tom: It was a slow thing. First of all, it was just to do the gigs, and suddenly we found out Steve wasn't going to come. Then we realized, "This is good enough to make an album!" So then, when Steve played on the first album— it was good to me! It was like a baton was passed to me - it was a nice changeover. On this album, he said he'd play on it. But then, with COVID, he couldn't go in the studio in L.A., and perhaps we should see how we are without him this time.
Commenting on that era, you mentioned that you felt it was temporary. When did everything evolve?
Paul: As Tom said, initially, we just got together for fun to do some gigs. I said, "Tom, you could step in to do some gigs!" That was great. And we thought, "Let's try and write some songs!" Tom and I got together, and we started writing songs, and we thought, "Yeah! This is good! We sound good again!" We're going to write some good songs to put out on "What In The World." And we thought, "This is good! Let's move this forward and see where we could go with it!" And we ended up making "What In The World," which turned out to be an excellent album and surprised us as well. We didn't realize how good it was.
Tom: I think sometimes it's nice just to go and be organic. You're just not contrived. You just play, and if it feels good—you continue. That's perhaps what we did, and then, the next thing you know, you're halfway through an album. And you go, "Oh, no! We're going to finish this!" And subsequently, now, we wanted to continue some more. So it's time to make another album. That's why we have "SNAFU."
I think it's interesting that each of you has these two perspectives. For you, Paul, it's, of course, the continuation of a project you'd been in since the beginning. And for you, Tom, just like for the other colleagues, it was just something new to do. How did this combination affect the creative part?
Tom: I guess it affects us both from the opposite side. Perhaps with Paul, it's my energy and enthusiasm because I'm excited to play with a Sex Pistol. And for him, it's some of the guys who like to play if Steve is tired or unavailable. I don't know! Maybe I rebooted the energy. He's a good drummer too.
Paul: Yeah! Tom brought a lot of enthusiasm to the table and songwriting as well. We clicked. Which, I think, was the main ingredient that we connected. Personality-wise and writing-wise. We were bouncing ideas off of each other, and we're not too precious, either. We can tell each other when it's working or when that's not working. We take it on board, and we move forward. It works. We manage to write songs together somehow. They come out in the mix. And it's a great thing to happen!
What makes this difference with SNAFU?
Paul: I think what happened with this one we wrote and recorded it during the lockdown, the way we'd done it was very disjointed. Sometimes, it was a challenge because we couldn't get together. We'd done a bit of recording, and we left them for a month, and we had to dwell on that. Then we had to write some new stuff, and we weren't sure where we were going with it musically at that time. And in the end, we just thought, "You know? Just fuck it! Let's just go where it takes us! Let's just go with it and not worry about it too much!" We've got songs on there, like "Easily Lead," the first track, which was one of the last ones we got together. That's got three songs that didn't work that we put together. We just slotted bits of them and got a song out of it. We were jumbling stuff like that and sent it over to L.A. to Billy and Phil to put some guitars on. Then we had all these guitars on. We had to chop and change them here and there. It was kind of like that. It was more of a mix and match album!
Tom: Yeah, without a doubt, lockdown and COVID had affected this album. If we were just making the next album the same way as our last one, your question would have more validity in terms of how we approached it. We approached it in the only way we could. Our permanent guitarist has a daughter. She's not doing very well, so he couldn't ever be in the studio with us because of COVID. So that immediately made a difference because you couldn't try things out with everyone there. So we had to improvise.
Paul: Yeah. It's a lot more improvised! I guess it's the word with this one. And just going with our gut feeling and not being too precious about that. When Chris McCormack joined the band. He was in the band 3 Colors Red a long time ago, and he was having problems over COVID and some issues over that. We amicably split company. So we had another vacancy again.
Tom: It's good with Paul Because he has a very cool address book. So he phones up Billy Duffy or Phil Collen. We're very fortunate to get these other personalities on it. Steve said he would play on the album. But he couldn't leave his house again, because of COVID…COVID! COVID! COVID!
Paul: COVID! Brexit! COVID! Brexit!
Tom: This is crazy! But hopefully, we're happy with the result of it. Hopefully, people will like it because it's what we have to offer for now.
It's interesting that you also got Billy Duffy and Phil Collen to collaborate on these songs this time around. They both featured on your previous record. What brought you to work with these fantastic guitarists once again?
Paul: Just like I said, there was a vacancy. Because we parted ways with Chris, our guitarist, and Tom doesn't want to play all the guitar on the album. He likes different personalities coming in. And we were stuck a little bit again. I'd just done what I'd done for the first time—I phoned them up and said, "Could you help us once again putting some guitar on ?" We got another guy, a friend, a local guy called Jonny Weathers. I partially played with him before on his solo stuff; he's a local guy and a great guitarist. He played some guitar on it. So another person we got was Tom's friend Neil Ivison. And yeah, that's how it worked! There was a vacancy again, and I just got the phone book out and phoned people up.
I was thinking about the words to describe the record. The only things that came to me were emotions—excitement, joy, a lot of energy you'd put into these songs. Clichés are cliches, but when you set up to write a record, are there any elements you specifically want to include?
Paul: First of all, writing-wise, we kind of have a formula. We like big choruses. We try to do songs a little bit different. There are lots of elements in our songs. We just don't wanna write three chords. Three-five chords. Something like that: "Oh, let's try to put a different chord in there!" Just re-work this chord structure without being too clever and do something different. So it's getting the balance right. I think we got that song-wise again. We don't try to get into this songwriting formula-tested-cliché versus-chorus-chorus-middle part. We try to mix it all up a little bit. But still, keep it within the bounds of a good song.
Tom: My favourite songs of The Professionals from the original album are the ones I've got NO IDEA what they were about, like, "Kick Down The Doors," "1,2,3." I sing them live, and I still don't know what they were about! Sometimes, I write a song, and it's maybe too obvious what it's about, and then Paul comes in and makes it ambiguous. He could have real meaning, but it's hard to guess. So it just sounds like nice words, and underneath there's some cleverness.
Paul: I don't want to be too obvious with the songs and the lyrics. I like people to try to work it out themselves, what they are about, where they're going, etc.
There are quite a few songs on the record that are different from anything you've done before. Like "M'Ashes." Sort of bluesy, with romantic-pop-tonalities. How did this one come about?
Paul: Oh, the lyrics are a very interesting subject. Interestingly, you say that. We got no feedback and weren't sure where we're going with this album, musically. It's very interesting. Some other people we'd spoken with said it's different.
Tom: Paul phoned me up before the lockdown; he went to L.A. to see Steve. And he mentioned to me that he's taking Steve Jones' mother's ashes back to him. Because they had fallen out and he hadn't come to the funeral in England. And I thought it was such a lovely story of two friends. One of which takes a mother on the aeroplane back to her son. The song is called "M'Ashes"—her name was Mary. So Mary's Ashes—M'Ashes. So here we have a lyrical story. The first verse is Paul. The second verse is Steve, and the third verse is from the ashes. When we wanted to put it to music, you say "bluesy" and "rock-n-roll", but like Lonely Boy and things like that, they're all based on three-cordy things. And you try to make something different. But that's my favourite kind of music, the bluesy side, and hopefully, there's some punk spirit and not too bluesy.
Paul: Yeah. I like what you did in this one. We just got a different chord there. Remember?
Paul: Just a little change with a weird chord here and there. Just to make it slightly different but sounding alright. Still, quite clever, maybe.
Tom: Yeah. And you're right. The melody is very rock-n-roll. It's very simple. Whenever you come up with the melody of such style, it's so hard not to take something from another song from before. But hopefully, not an obvious one. There's nothing worse than finishing a song and hearing somebody say: "A.H., THAT ONE IS JUST LIKE THAT ONE!" Of course, it can happen. But with two writers, it's much less likely. One of them would take the other one's melody and put it somewhere they didn't expect. Hopefully!
You know, there are cases when artists choose a song like this one to finish the record. And I guess it's kind of a nice tool to operate with. Within SNAFU, you decided to put "M'Ashes" in the middle, which is a kind of interesting choice, don't you think?
Paul: I don't know. It's pretty tricky with the running order. We fret about everything. Every little word. Every little song. We drive ourselves crazy.
Tom: Which keys they're in, which tempo they're in.
Tom: Also, if we're doing it live, I can see it being a brilliant song to finish the set. See you later and come on with the fast one afterwards. But Paul is right. Because of our demographic, the age group who buy our records vinyl is trendy. We have to not just think of C.D.s. We have to think of two sides, and I love old albums: first and second sides.
Tom mentioned that you love playing these Steve Jones type of riffs in one of your interviews. And one of the things I like about SNAFU is that you can easily reach the same degree of intensity with different songs. Whether it's something like "Spike Me Baby" or "Heartburn." How do you manage to cope with this task?
Tom: Thank you. That's great! If we achieve that—that's fantastic! At times in the studio, you have your doubts. Because you can overload a track and Steve Jones often used to put on many guitars to make a big sound on a record. But if you do that too much, you can lose character. So it's a juggling thing if we achieve it—good!
Paul: When Tom is singing, as you said in terms of the balance and how far we're pushing it emotionally… I'm in the studio listening all the time. And sometimes, he's pushing it too much. I have another pair of ears. Just bring it down or take it up with more energy there. We're just listening to each other, and that's how we work - we bounce off of each other. And take each other's advice on the whole album and songwriting structure.
Tom: I guess we're producing as we go. So Paul is constantly producing me as a guitarist. When he's doing that, I think.
Paul: Vocals too.
Tom: Yeah. But he has a significant opinion on guitars. I don't play a Les Paul that much, which is Steve Jones' guitar sound. But he managed to phone up a friend and get a Les Paul so that we could put some of that as well. We worked on things, so we're always looking to get a good sound with rock-n-roll.
Paul: Yeah. We rely on each other, really, for that.
A lot of the songs lyrically reflect a particular aspect of being human. Your previous record was called "What In The World," so there were some questions you wanted to answer.
Tom: I guess we still have the same questions. I suppose in lockdown; everyone questioned everything. Everybody had time to reflect on the house you live in, the person you live with. Everybody had time to reflect. So there certainly was no resolution to it. You must be laughing now, looking at England. We're so fucked up now. COVID. No petrol. In England, it feels like that—like we are the laughingstock of the world. The political decisions are so bad.
Paul: Yeah. That's what SNAFU means. It's an old acronym from the army. And it stands for "Situation Normal, All Fucked Up." When they used that: "What's going on ?" "SNAFU." And that's how we are at the moment. I guess it's quite reflective on this album, a little bit. The same is with "What In The World," when we're going, "What in the world, what the fuck in the world?" And four years, it doesn't seem better. That's where we are songwriting-wise.
Tom: But we're trying not to be depressed about it as well. We are trying to ask questions but also trying to write through them. We don't write miserable songs. We want to be upbeat about these questions. And just go, "What the fuck ?!" And we continue doing this.
Paul: We're not pretending that we got the answers. It's just a reflection of what's going on in the world around us. Personally, basically.
Paul, you'd always said that what is considered punk-rock had lost its meaning for you. At the same time, now you release a song titled "Punk-Rock And A Hard Place" What did you want to say with this particular song?
Paul: Tom wrote the lyrics, which is quite a personal thing to him. But I like the title. It kind of reflects where I am now. I'm always stuck between punk-rock and a hard place. Because sometimes people won't let me go from that past life, from punk-rock. People always want to talk about The Pistols. And I'm stuck in this place in a time warp sometimes. I have to explain to people coming up and asking, "And what have you done since The Pistols?" I've played with so many people over the years and The Professionals. I prefer talking about The Professionals now rather than The Pistols. It was such a long time ago. I guess the title reflects where I am—stuck in a hard place. But Tom wrote the lyrics.
Tom: We had contact through the telephone and the computer because of the lockdown. But every morning at 4 am, I'd be awake, and I would text Paul, and he gets back to me: "Yeah, I'm awake!" Sometimes, we send each other emojis with eyes. We are all awake. So it's a little bit about insomnia as well. I was thinking about these problems and keeping awake.
How do you approach writing lyrics when you're working together like that?
Tom: I do a lot of lyrical work. Then Paul, as my editor, comes in, simplifies and says, "Not that one! Not that one!" and suggests a line. I tend to provide the initial thing. Not always the original idea. But the original chunk of lyrics.
Paul: Tom is the storyteller. And he likes to get very into writing. Sometimes, he's got too much to say. And I say, "We have to edit it down!" which is a great place to be in rather than not having anything to say. So we work it out and bounce off each other all the time.
Tom: And hopefully, that gets into the simplicity of "Kick Down The Doors" or "1,2,3." Even if it has a more obvious meaning, hopefully, it's left in that people are asking questions way.
I think all artists have this trap. In these cases, is there any trick that helps you look at the situation from a different angle?
Paul: You always want to provide some escapism. And I think, within the fact that you brought up some songs, three songs with some questions. On this album, these aren't particularly questions. It's more of escapism. With "Elegant Art of Falling Apart," underneath that song, for instance, it's about the corruption of the art industry when art galleries are selling shit. And if there are enough people, this is good! They buy it! So, underneath, it's not just the question. There's a subject matter, too.
After you got together and recorded the debut Professionals album, you got into a legal dispute. So, all the material was re-recorded for the record. And later on, you released that original L.P. When you listen to these songs now, the difference is quite significant. Especially with those like "Little Boys In Blue." What affected these changes?
Paul: Basically, what happened as far as I can remember. I have to think about this now. As you said, we recorded the original songs, and we got a new producer in. We thought, "Listen, this is gonna sound too different if we'd go and do a bunch of new songs." Once we sorted out the legal situation with the original songs, we put them on the shelf and re-recorded all the songs for a new album—"I Didn't See It Coming." Which, unfortunately, wasn't produced very well, and a lot of people prefer the original recordings. I think I do, sound-wise. The recording on "I Didn't See It Coming" is not that good at all. The original recording sounds better. I wish we could have finished them! Steve's guitar—that's what I like there. Whereas "I Didn't See It Coming" was all over the place. Plus, the fact that Steve was fucked up at that time when we recorded "I Didn't See It Coming." He wasn't around; he had a well-documented drug problem, which added to the issues.
Tom: I have a question. Was Ray McVeigh in the lineup on the first recording or not?
Tom: The first one was with a different lineup.
Paul: The first one was just Steve and me on the original recordings. With some guy just helping us out on bass. The second time we got the band together. I think it was better with Steve and me working together. We should have taken more control on "I Didn't See It Coming." Like Tom and me right now. It's just us two. Let's not forget Toshi. But me and Tom take control now over the recording, the writing, production. So we keep our hands-on, which is the main difference between what you're talking about—just two different types of recording.
What do you two feel about working as a two-members-only in a creative unit?
Paul: It works better for us, which was one of the problems with the old guitarist. We tried to incorporate the band situation. And we soon realized it wasn't working. So for us, it works better.
Tom: It's like a saying: "There are too many cooks." Not Paul Cook but too many cooks. Because Chris is an excellent guitarist. Very opinionated. He took control, and that's ok in his band. But he joined our band. And we don't have egos, but we didn't want to break the formula. Because we were very happy with "What In The World." And I think this album is better because it's just us two.
Paul: I think it's better! It's great when everyone can contribute, and everyone is getting on, but that very rarely happens in a band.
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