Co-founder of The Moonlandingz, Eccentronic Research Council and International Teachers Of Pop, Sheffield’s prolific producer and “cultural agitator” Adrian Flanagan is back with a new album under his latest alias, Acid Klaus

In one of his excellent Reith Lectures, Turner Prize-winning “transvestite potter” Grayson Perry introduced us to the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. Conceived by the Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, it states that creative artists leaving art school head off on one of around 30 career paths, not unlike the similar amount of routes available from Helsinki’s central bus station.

Too many, having received a less than enthusiastic reception – a bad review or a rude rejection – get off after a handful of stops, retrace their steps or hire a taxi and head back to the bus station to choose another route, only to repeat the whole process time and time again. But the real secret of success is simple. As Perry puts it, “Stay on the effing bus!”.

A young Adrian Flanagan – aka Acid Klaus – was given a version of the very same advice by the late Fall frontman Mark E Smith. Growing up in the Prestwich area of Salford in the early 1980s proved to be incredibly fortuitous for the teenage Flanagan, who was already dipping his toe into the world of experimental electronic pop music as a guitarist and synth player. Among his neighbours and “people you would see around” were not only Smith, but John Cooper Clarke and Nico.

One day, round at Mark E Smith’s house, he launched into a diatribe against some hyped act on the radio, insisting that he deserved the publicity they were getting. Smith retorted that although Flanagan certainly hadn’t put in the hours to deserve it yet, there was a simple solution at hand.

“Just keep doing it.”

Since then, that’s pretty much what Flanagan has done. He even joined The Fall for a brief stint in the late 1990s.

“You stick with me. You’re not like the other lot – they’re musicians, you’re an artist,” Smith told him at the time.

“Very flattering,” says Flanagan, although he was well aware of Smith’s infamous “divide and rule” approach to the band.

Flanagan moved east across the Pennines to Sheffield just before the turn of the millennium, initially to escape the legions of Oasis impersonators, only to discover on his first trip to a rehearsal studio that the situation was no better in the Steel City.

“When I first came here, it was full of depressed disco dancers with nowhere to go and nothing to do,” he laughs. “It was really fucking grim. But I guess it’s that age-old thing – when it’s pissing down all the time and it’s miserable out, people tend to make music or create in some way.”

As well as doing a lot of acid (“It made everything more beautiful and wonky”), Flanagan started forging alliances and building a dazzling array of different projects, most of which continue to this day. He hooked up with Dean Honer (I Monster/The All Seeing I) and they formed The Eccentronic Research Council with Maxine Peake, after bumping into her in a rehearsal room.

Since then, he has been associated with a panoply of different musical adventures, from the relatively obscure Two Inch Mouth and The Chanteuse And The Crippled Claw, to borderline household names like The Moonlandingz and International Teachers Of Pop. Working alone, Flanagan says, holds no appeal whatsoever – it’s all about collaboration.

Which might seem odd, given that I’m meeting him on his home turf in Sheffield, to discuss what is essentially his debut solo album – ‘Step On My Travelator: The Imagined Career Trajectory Of Superstar DJ & Dance Pop Producer Melvin Harris’ – under yet another alias, Acid Klaus.

Wearing his trademark bucket hat and raincoat, it’s not difficult to spot him at the train station. He’s not unlike the character in the video for the album’s first single, ‘Party Sized Away Day’, who’s seen striding purposefully through the mustard-painted walkways of the sprawling Hyde Park estate that towers above the central part of the city. Although he snorts with derision at the suggestion he has an instantly recognisable image.

“Image? What, a bloke in a hat?”

A brisk walk through the city centre leads us past the now boarded-up Boardwalk – the venue where Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys once worked as a barman and which, in its previous incarnation as the Black Swan (or the Mucky Duck, if you prefer the locals’ nickname), hosted the first-ever concert by The Clash. Luckily, our ultimate destination remains very much open for business. The Shakespeare offers a friendly welcome, homemade sausage rolls and decently-priced craft beer.

“More folk up from London to talk to me,” smiles Flanagan to the woman behind the bar, raising his eyebrows in mock nonchalance as we head outside to the beer garden.

As time passes, and pints are slowly but surely sunk, Flanagan proves to be candid company. He’s ultra-confident and ready with a comeback when having his leg pulled.

But he’s also self-critical, playing down his talent and bemoaning the huge administrative effort that being in charge of a band – let alone several – can be. With live music being the surest route to some kind of financial recompense for all this toil these days, he admits Covid and lockdown took a serious toll.

A nationwide tour for International Teachers Of Pop, Flanagan and Honer’s disco-ish electropop project, was planned for 2020 to capitalise on their critically lauded second album ‘Pop Gossip’, but ended up being postponed three times.

Similarly, The Moonlandingz – which saw the pair hooking up with Fat White Family’s Lias Kaci Saoudi and Saul Adamczewski, and Mairead O’Connor of Working Men’s Club – had to call a halt to a snowballing live career that had already seen them clocking up something in the region of 70 gigs in a relatively short period of time. But in the complex, contradictory world of the man beneath the bucket hat, it was a blessing in disguise.

By this point, Flanagan had very much followed Mark E Smith’s advice and kept doing what he’d been doing for years. Yet the ongoing strain of this, coupled with his beloved grandmother’s lengthy illness and eventual death knocked him for six, and he started behaving badly towards his closest friends and audiences.

“I just wanted someone to punch me in the face, to distract me from the pain I was feeling inside,” he reflects.

But then the pandemic brought everything to a halt.

“In many ways, lockdown saved me,” he admits.

It offered him a chance to grieve for his grandmother properly, de-stress and – even if it meant financial hardship – stop all his organising. Naturally, he turned back to the studio and started creating.

“What else could I do?” he asks.

Flanagan laughs at the deliberately lengthy title of ‘Step On My Travelator: The Imagined Career Trajectory Of Superstar DJ & Dance Pop Producer Melvin Harris’.

“I like long titles because it’s funny, the thought of people going into a record shop and having to ask for all that,” he grins.

Although Flanagan couldn’t get into the studio to work with others in person, he was at least able to reach out to singers he could potentially collaborate with.

“Maria Uzor was the first person I approached, even before I’d considered doing an album,” he recalls. “I was a fan of her band Sink Ya Teeth and loved a track she did with my friends A Certain Ratio, so it was nice that she agreed to do some tracks with me. She’s got a real cool futuristic ESG-doing-minimal-electronica vibe, which I love.”

‘Party Sized Away Day’, which effectively opens the album after the ‘Step On My Travelator’ intro, is an infectious fusion of electro, house and Uzor’s distinctively soulful vocal, with a vocoded Flanagan paying tribute to Cybotron’s groundbreaking 1983 cut, ‘Clear’. Exactly the kind of dancefloor hypnotism that typified the classic early output from the once Sheffield-based Warp label. Was there a reference to the city’s electronic lineage in the record’s soundscape?

“Not specifically Sheffield, but I wanted a nod to a timeline of electronic music to run through the album,” he says, before setting off on a roll call of other influences. “Juan Atkins is a major dude, and the genes of artists like A Guy Called Gerald, Throbbing Gristle, Patrick Cowley, The KLF, Add N To (X), Bruce Haack and Delia Derbyshire are all over it. All the pioneers with ASBOs of the past 50 years of electronic music – they’re my people!”

With producer Ross Orton – who so brilliantly twiddled the knobs on Working Men’s Club’s recent album – also lending a hand on ‘Party Sized Away Day’, a concept started to form in Flanagan’s head. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the meltdown he’d suffered not long before, he began to construct a meditation on fame and success as seen through the eyes of imaginary superstar DJ, Melvin Harris.

“Once you’ve got a concept, the whole thing becomes a lot easier,” he reasons. “I thought back to my own early years as a politically engaged teen, jumping on coaches with mates to random fields in north Wales or some empty warehouse in Lancashire at the weekend, with the DJs having guest singers doing live PAs over some electronic beat thing.

“A mate suggested Cat Rin – she’s a new Welsh language artist based in south London, and I was knocked out by her solo stuff. I got the track title, ‘Bethlehem Or Bust’, from a newspaper article I saw at Tel Aviv airport just before the first lockdown. Politically, it resonated with me, so I asked Catrin to write something in Welsh about the English going into her country – stealing their land, decimating their language, history and culture – but all sung in Welsh.

“I love the idea of stupid English people going, ‘This is a reet banger’, while someone’s singing in a language you don’t understand about how much they hate what your countrymen have been doing to them for centuries! It’s got a bit of an Add N To (X) feel, too.”

‘Blow Your Speakers’ features Bianca Eddleston (aka Soft Focus), who Flanagan found via Instagram when International Teachers Of Pop were looking for artists to support them on tour.

“Musically and vocally, her stuff has a real classic 70s pop vibe, mixed in with early ‘Jellybean’-produced Madonna,” says Flanagan. “So when I’d written this tune that is meant to be Melvin’s big crossover hit, it was a no-brainer to collaborate with Bianca on it. I love pop music, me!”

Then things start to get a little darker. ‘Crashing Cars In Ibiza’, voiced by Maria Uzor, finds Melvin as a sought-after DJ indulging in the nightlife culture of Ibiza.

“The title made me think of Bez, you know, crashing cars in Jamaica,” laughs Flanagan. “He embodies someone who has really given himself up to the night so we don’t have to.”

‘Bad Club Bad Drugs Bad People’ continues the shadowy tone, as our hero begins to encounter a gangland tsar character – a sinister yet dapper gentleman who runs the clubs and the flow of drugs, and who likes hanging out with celebrity DJs, musicians and supermodels.

“You meet these types of people a lot when you’re on the road,” says Flanagan. “Flash, generous with cash but not to be fucked with – my kind of people! [laughs] Musically, I went a bit Throbbing Gristle on this one. It had to be hard and nightmarish.”

Vocals on ‘Elevate’ are provided by Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who previously directed some of The Moonlandingz’ videos over in Sheffield. Flanagan had also stayed at her New York home when he and Dean Honer mixed The Moonlandingz album over there with her partner, Sean Lennon. Lieselot Elzinga of Amsterdam-based Baby’s Berserk, meanwhile, guests on ‘The Three Rooms Of Nightclub Marilyn’, effectively a long dark night of the soul for our hero.

“It’s the central piece, where Melvin’s having some kind of no-sleep, jet-lagged, drug psychosis episode,” Flanagan expounds. “He’s walking around a club after DJing there, and in every room he’s hearing a different version of his own song. That’s why it starts with the party version of the track, goes into the hip hop room and finishes in the dub/chill-out room.”

Flanagan fires up the vocoder again for ‘I Used To Be A DJ In A Club (But Now I’m Just A DJ In My Bedroom)’, a cheeky dig at all those DJs and musicians subsidising their loss of income during lockdown with YouTube gigs. Hannah Hu lends what he describes as a “genuine British Karen Carpenter-esque tone” to ‘My Hats On Fire’, which marks the DJ’s final retreat from the superstar life, with an almost country-ish ballad shaped by Richard Hawley’s lap steel guitar.

Finally, ‘Step On My Travelator’ ends with Maxine Peake reading ‘Eulogy To A Quiet Life’, a moving narrative piece penned by Flanagan about how Melvin is reconciled to a calmer existence. For Melvin – in this case, anyway – read Flanagan.

“When I put this all together, I truly was thinking of jacking it all in,” he admits.

Despite his apparent weariness with certain aspects of the industry, Adrian Flanagan is not exiting the bus quite yet. A slowdown of sorts is on the cards, but then so is a new Eccentronic Research Council album about Nine O’Clock Service – the alternative Sheffield Christian collective of the late 80s, dubbed the “acid house church” by the tabloids.

“I’ve always got four or five projects on the go,” he laughs. “People can’t keep up. But where does a madman put all that madness when he has nowhere to offload it creatively? It doesn’t bear thinking about, really!”

‘Step On My Travelator: The Imagined Career Trajectory Of Superstar DJ & Dance Pop Producer Melvin Harris’ is out on Zen FC

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