MINTY: OPEN WIDE | INTERVIEW FEATURE
The bizarro baby of late performance art legend Leigh Bowery, Minty’s avant-pop moves lit up the 90s music scene. Patrick Driscall was there, and with their sole album Open Wide reissued this week for Record Store Day, he rolled back the years by talking to the band’s Matthew Glamorre.
The band Minty strutted a spiky libertine pose, a sensational avant-garde vanguard leading their audience kicking and grooving towards the 21st century. Open Wide, their debut – and final – album from 1997, is being given a welcome rerelease on Sat 12 June for this year’s Record Store Day, over 25 years since the passing of Minty co-founder Leigh Bowery.
A performance artist, fashion designer and pop art icon who left a legacy in popular culture unlikely to be challenged, in the context of the underground club scene which he inhabited with gusto, Leigh Bowery is up there with Bowie. You could not miss him, nor the coterie he associated with; Bowery and crew brought a near-royal presence to clubland, and you knew it was a happening night when this entourage turned up.
Like some jagged-edged punk version of a 17th century fop, Bowery splattered outrageous fashion and playfulness across the dancefloor and art scene in a way unmatched since New York’s disco epicentre Studio 54. He was also a club promoter for legendary polysexual club, Taboo, and led an artistic, uncompromising assault on morality, values and the celebrity culture of the day.
The band Minty (Polari for a snooty attitude) was seeded in 1992 by Bowery and designer friend Richard Torry. After meeting and collaborating with charismatic musician Mathew Glamorre, then host of a club called Smashing!, they set up the group’s debut performance at Madame JoJo’s in Soho, a former punk venue turned transvestite club.
With the addition of Glamorre on keyboards, bassist Dannielle Minns, drummer Trevor Sharpe (also of cult art-rockers Miranda Sex Garden), Honolulu on sampling and, later on, Leigh’s wife Nicola Bowery, Minty’s audience were stunned with bizarre costume and raucous burlesque performance. The Sun described Minty as the “sickest band in the land” – something Leigh treasured.
Live set opener Useless Man would find Leigh in mask, wig and giant floral dress, belting out shocking lyrics to pounding beats. A quasi-parody of a notorious Pepsi commercial, it dug dirty into patriarchy and the advertising world and became a Marmite-spreading staple of indie/queer underground dancefloors. Their finale, meanwhile, would feature Leigh using his body and fabric, plumped as if pregnant; lumbering onto a table, he would open his legs and graphically ‘give birth’ to Nicola.
As Mathew Glamorre says now, Minty defiantly refused easy categorisation, and still do.
“It is difficult to align us with only one genre as within the band there are so many different influences. Originally it was just Leigh, Richard and myself, but when we expanded the live musicians we had some really diverse creative influences from metal, contemporary classical, dub and prog – mixed up with our natural love of electronic and disco music. It made for a rich pie! If anything you could think of us as an art-rock electro-thrash couture post-punk pop outfit!
“Over the years I have founded and promoted many nightclubs, and Richard Torry has pretty much always been my DJ. From glitch pop to symphonic, industrial hardcore to ambient poetry we’ve pretty much done the lot. Not because we don’t have a clear aesthetic, but because we are always searching for a sound that excites us at the time. Times change, and therefore the sounds that are meaningful to that time change with them.”
Minty’s planned two-week run at Soho’s Freedom Café drew the likes of Björk, Lucien Freud and Alexander McQueen on its opening night but closed thereafter, with the council citing indecency and nudity. With Leigh’s previous history of bumping and bouncing into people on Brixton dancefloors in his super-padded, paint-dripping glory, punters in the know kept a safe distance from his performances. Audiences might be exposed to unidentified bodily fluids, or the strings of sausages which Leigh would slash with scissors in the ‘birthing’ finale. He pierced the artworld air with powerful statements about shock, fear, infection, othering and compassion.
I recall New Year’s Eve 1994, and learning of Leigh Bowery’s sad death from AIDS-related meningitis at a chance meeting with Kinky Roland – music producer, founder of the Fetch label and, later, a Minty collaborator. We sat morosely drinking late night Soho coffee, aptly accompanied by a charming and humour-driven homeless man who insisted on presenting anyone who cared with a plate of shrivelled peas. He waxed lyrical about them and gave his own personal take on life. The occasion of John Lennon’s death never felt as weird as this; perhaps life really does imitate art sometimes.
Though work had by this point started on Minty’s album Open Wide, the band’s cult notoriety climbing, the passing of its conceptual aesthete stalled the album’s creation. Remaining band members valiantly continued live shows, even supporting Pulp on their Common People tour in late 1995.
“After Leigh died we were of course absolutely distraught, like losing any family member or loved one,” remembers Mathew Glamorre. “The grief was almost unbearable. However there is a period of grief where denial and anger are very raw. We used that energy to motivate us to finish the production of the album. The initial process occurred very much under my guidance and production, but the band came back together because we had promised Leigh that we would get it finished.”
The 15-song Open Wide, described by S-Express’ Mark Moore as a “new wave masterpiece – the long-lost conclusion of post-punk”, is complex, excitable and reverberates with raw art, experimentation, reflection, humour, agitprop and punkish theatricality in a way that only a bunch of artistic outsiders could successfully thrust at an eclectic audience. “Resistance has always played a fundamental part in our work and our expression as people and artists,” says Glamorre now. “The act of moving through life for us is the act of continually redefining oneself against the dominant narrative. That’s not just to be a contrarian, but in the tension between acceptable and unacceptable, we find the greatest inspiration.”
The fantastical video album accompanying Open Wide kicks off with Procession. A powerful film for a sweeping orchestral piece, it invites questions around facial recognition, the ‘masses’ and populism. Bleak at first, with imagery of marching, threatening totalitarianism as experimental sounds drift into data-gathering tech, it all morphs into an oblivious holdaying horde.
“Because I was making videos for an album that is being released 25 years after the original I spent a lot of time in reflection over the year of lockdown,” explains Glamorre. “I didn’t want to leave the project with a feeling of nostalgia so Procession was the last video piece that I made, with the help of Richard Torry. We discussed it a lot and wanted to reflect the ghost town that London had become – and also the growing global/personal threats and insecurities.
“Without wishing to sound hyperbolic, I fear that we have opened our eyes far too late and now the resistance I spoke of earlier is all we have to invest in. Business as usual for us!”
Other album tracks demand attention: from That’s Nice, all judgement, camel toe and boob tube pronouncement – “Wouldn’t want to be you!” to the beautiful Homage (Duet For Piano And Wineglass) to Plastic Bag, like an update of X-Ray Spex with full-on nilhilism. Nothing works a 60s-ish groove but questions what we give and take from each other. The two-aprt journey of Homme Aphrodite starts with a horror-movie magical Wurlitzer sound, then ascends into torchsong-style manic temptress vocals.
In response to my question about a favourite song, Glamorre says, “I can only speak for myself and Richard when I say Jeremy – for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the song that has the most complete musical atmosphere, a world in which we are settled and confident. The rest of the album is fighting to find a way forward after losing Leigh and a way to express a shattered identity.
“It is only at the end of the album, with Jeremy, that we find a moment of peace with that loss and for that reason its deep sadness and poignant sense of acquiescence gives it a special poetry and sound that we both love.”
Even a nostalgic, star-studded recollection of social whirls of yore has a contemporary angle, as the keyboardist recalls how Minty members would play parlour game Consequences.
“Back in the 80s and 90s everybody used to gather at Richard’s flat/studio in Old Compton Street, Soho. It was a real who’s-who at the time. Consequences was one of the games that we would play when new characters or notorious figures would roll up, as a way of breaking the ice and starting conversations. We played both picture and written Consequences with the likes of Derek Jarman, Francis Bacon, John Galliano and Boy George!
“When we started the band we found it an exciting way of coming up with song ideas and avenues to explore. Because all of us were still dressing up at the time, we did quite a lot of outfit Consequences, some of which we are going to show in a collection and make into t-shirts.”
Minty have rallied through lockdown, keeping the artistic ingenue very much alive and continuing their playful ambition. Nicola Bowery is currently a designer and performance artist; Richard Torry works as a multimedia artist and musician and has just had a retrospective show at Paris gallery Goswell Road.
“We have all individually and together been ambitious to realise individual and collective works,” Glamorre says. “Over the years it has become more challenging to raise funds as models of music sales have changed. However I think it’s a very exciting time now as both Richard and I are active within audio and visual creation and there’s never been a better time for audiovisual work. Moving forward, I am very excited by the NFT world and its potential to reward artists for new and independent work.”
Finally, then, a playful question. If all art movements and music genres were wrapped up as different types of chocolates and then boxed, which chocolate would be Glamorre’s first pick, which would he save for later and which would get left for his worst enemy?
“I think the first chocolate I would pick would have to be the baroque as everything goes back to Bach and you can’t beat a bite of Bach ! I’m also sure that it would be wrapped up in the wonderful rococo design. I will save the early electronic music scene for later with its grey and red wrapper, as the sounds, textures and sense of foreboding are something I savour.
“And for my worst enemy? Contemporary western pop music! Its soulless consumer degeneracy is enough to make anyone choke!”
words PATRICK DRISCALL