The 2020 self-titled debut album from Working Men’s Club won universal acclaim, but their follow-up, ‘Fear Fear’, is arguably even better – a glorious collision of “scuffed” electropop, clubby energy and outright bangers. Frontman Syd Minsky-Sargeant reveals its story
While we’re shopping at an artisan bakery in Todmorden, surrounded by the sweeping greenery of the West Yorkshire valleys, a thought occurs to me. Syd Minsky-Sargeant isn’t the rock ’n’ roll firestarter I thought he’d be. Sourdough doughnuts, cherry and chocolate brioche swirls, the sound of bleating sheep in a nearby field – it’s hardly Keith Moon detonating his drum kit or The Libertines on a 10am bender. And there I was, expecting a teenage tearaway, or at least a tearaway who’s just tipped into his 20s, as he releases the tricky follow-up to a critically lauded synthpop debut album.
Lockdown was well underway when his band, Working Men’s Club, launched their eponymous 2020 debut on a world in apocalypse mode. With the press hailing its sonic claustrophobia and destructive energy, lead singer Minsky-Sargeant was an instant star, a modern Mark E Smith glaring into the camera in his Adidas top, defiant in rock star shades, jeering shirtless into a microphone in the binary blaze of stage lights.
WMC had already gone through that essential cliche of rock biographies, the acrimonious split, driven by Minsky-Sargeant’s realisation that the jangly guitar groove of their debut single ‘Bad Blood’ was the past, and synths were the future. Exit, stage left, original members Jake Bogacki and Giulia Bonometti. With a new line-up featuring Liam Ogburn, Mairead O’Connor of The Moonlandingz and Drenge’s Rob Graham, that first album, although still guitar-driven, now presented the band as a synth-wielding paragon of energetic nu new wave.
Bakery visit done, with banana bread nestled into my bag for later, we wander to Minsky-Sargeant’s studio in glorious sunshine, sharing our Covid stories en route. We’ve both had the bug, we’re both triple-jabbed and we’re both grateful for coming out the other side. The fact we’re doing this interview face-to-face is a privilege not lost on us. When lockdown first hit, WMC were promoting a handful of singles, and Minsky-Sargeant initially saw it as no big deal, at least from a personal point of view.
“I thought it would be three weeks,” he says. “I didn’t mind it at first because I’d been touring constantly. And then I got quite neurotic. I got stuck in a habit of doing the same things, to the point where I got lazier and lazier. It was quite depressing after a while.”
Those groundhog days of lockdown informed the creation of WMC’s second album, ‘Fear Fear’. With the debut’s release pushed back to October 2020 due to the pandemic, and live touring confined to the two-dimensional world of online gigs (or, as he calls it, “livestream bollocks”), Minsky-Sargeant laid down demos for much of ‘Fear Fear’ before ‘Working Men’s Club’ had even hit the shelves.
“My main focus has always been writing the next thing before the previous one has come out,” he says. “And there wasn’t anything else to do other than make music.”
His deal with Heavenly Recordings had paired him with producer Ross Orton, whose previous noodlings include Add N To (X) and Arctic Monkeys. Armed with many more songs than they could fit on one long-player, Orton and Minsky-Sargeant embraced a routine, working on track one until it was finished, then track two, track three, and so on. Much more orderly than the instinctive splurge of the debut.
“We stopped at 10,” says Minsky-Sargeant. “That was the album – the body of work was complete. The quicker it’s made, the quicker it comes out.”
And what an album. Post-punk snarls, scuffed electropop, industrial snares and janky big-beat disco. It’s Joy Division boogying in The Chemical Brothers’ basement. In rock ’n’ roll shades. Some of it was a long time in gestation. Breezy pop chugger ‘Cut’ had been laid down as an instrumental for a year before Minsky-Sargeant added snappy vocals.
“You gotta give it, gotta take it / Gotta break it, gotta make it”.
‘Widow’, the first single, started as a guitar track but was led by Orton in a very Gary Numan-like direction.
“We built this big electronic section and added modular drums, but it no longer fitted with the guitars,”
admits Minsky-Sargeant. “So we took it back to Ross’ house and played all the guitar parts on synths instead. There’s, like, 15 synths on that track!”
He has played guitar since he was five years old (“Guitars are right good instruments”), but it’s synths that are driving WMC.
“The reason I gravitated towards synths is I could do anything with them,” he explains. “A synthesised sound can be anything. They all work with different filter chips, different components, and each has its own character like an old electric guitar.”
‘Fear Fear’ leans heavily on the vintage Roland SH-09, which he calls “a classic Sheffield weapon”. He also built his own modular gear, while Ross Orton constructed his Pearl Syncussion drum synth from a kit.
“The Syncussion was a big feature on all the electronic drum sounds,” says Minsky-Sargeant. “I wrote a lot on the Juno-106 too, but we replaced it with a Jupiter-6 in Ross’ studio because it’s a better synth.”
The debut album was a collective affair, but because the new long-player was born in the peculiar bubble of a pandemic, everything you hear on it is Minsky-Sargeant. The rest of the band – including Hannah Cobb on synth and guitar, replacing the now-departed Rob Graham – will come on board later for gigging duties. ‘Fear Fear’ is very much a Working Man’s Club of one, albeit with Orton as caretaker.
“For the second record, it was important to be more controlling, to feel that everything was on my terms prior to submitting to the label,” says Minsky-Sargeant. “During the pandemic, I could get on with stuff and not have any outside influence.”
Ah, the sticky subject of influences. WMC have been compared to New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division, The Fall, Echo & The Bunnymen, A Certain Ratio, My Bloody Valentine, The Wedding Present and even bands formed in Minsky-Sargeant’s lifetime such as Tame Impala and Sault. He’s dismissive of any comparisons because “it’s not like I’m on Spotify, picking songs to recreate then changing the melody a bit”.
Instead, he references the geography surrounding the studio we’re in. Todmorden’s converted mills, its shops in former weaving sheds, its bustling markets, fabulous bakeries – I really must eat that banana bread – and the looming Pennines.
“Other than there being a few new houses on the landscape, nothing’s really changed around here,” he muses. “I made these two records in Sheffield, around the same infrastructure as people like Stephen Mallinder or Ross, who worked in a steel factory after leaving school. All these people come from similar places, which is why maybe things resonate in a similar way. I mean, 30 or 40 years isn’t that much time.”
Key to the WMC sound is Minsky-Sargeant’s voice, which comes across as Mark E Smith fronting ‘Wipeout’-era Fluke while haunted by the ghost of Lo Fidelity Allstars. There we go again with the comparisons.
“I do distort my voice to try and make it as aggressive as possible,” he admits. “When things are very much electronic, it makes more sense to be atonal. It’s supposed to feel intense.”
With an aggressive vocal delivery come aggressive lyrics, and the new album is not short of “dark satire”, as Minsky-Sargeant calls it. Viz the poetic “A rustic storm beholds me as you quiver and conspire” on the opening track, ‘19’, or the Detroit house glide of ‘Ploys’ beginning with the brilliantly quilled, “Why would thy care / Thou must just be bluffing”. Forsooth!
The lyrics are also a paean to rambling desolation, in both subject matter and form. “Ya ya ya, blah blah blah,” sneers the title track, ‘Fear Fear’. The previously mentioned ‘Widow’ has the most entertaining wordage, its chorus expounding on what happens to someone’s sex life after losing their partner.
“Lust was easy until you died,” goes the song in irresistibly catchy fashion. “Now I fuck inside my head, but not outside.”
It was written when Minsky-Sargeant was around 16, so we can assume he didn’t have a tranche of deceased spouses from which to draw inspiration. I ask him for more context, but he won’t take the bait.
“I don’t want to go into specifics because it might devalue the song,” he says. “Everything doesn’t have to make sense, lyrically. I blur the lines with the melody and the rhythms.”
I tell him that pushing back against these sorts of questions is absolutely fine.
“Cheers – they’re really good questions,” he reassures me. I wonder if he can feel my oncoming sulk as I look down my lyric list…
So, who’s the actual woman dressed in black on ‘Heart Attack’?
“Doesn’t need to be one.”
“Keep trying. You’ve got eight more.”
There is a deeper meaning to the lyrics, though. My list – now greased with banana bread – is replete with piss, lust, death, rancidness, nightmares and loneliness. This is a guy who entered adulthood in a world of disease, protest, reactionary politics and police brutality. No wonder he’s frustrated.
“You’re fed all this jargon about everything being fucked and that we’ve fucked the planet up to an extent where there’s no going back,” he rages. “It’s all well and good telling us that, but what’s the solution? It’s as if the Black Lives Matter protests during Covid have sunk into the abyss. It was all very well posting a black square on your Instagram feed, but no one’s talking about it now in the same way.”
He sees Britain falling backwards as progressive politics are replaced with something darker. All those wider, existential fears added to the more personal worries of day-to-day life that concerned him on the first album. The fear-fear.
“It’s going to become harder for the younger generation, but people are becoming more intelligent, thanks to the internet,” he reasons. “When writing the lyrics, I was thinking about all those things going on in the world and what part I played – if any at all.”
‘Angel’, the final song on ‘Working Men’s Club’, terminated its colossal 12-minute wig-out with a glorious splash of drums and guitar. That’s what earned them the My Bloody Valentine comparison in one live review. ‘Fear Fear’ chooses a different ending. The appropriately named ‘The Last One’ finishes its minor-key grump with a rich swell of strings. Actual real strings.
“Getting into a more soundtrack world is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” says Minsky-Sargeant. “I’m definitely going to incorporate that in the future. It’s more mature, isn’t it? A bit grown-up.”
I tell him that’s what people do when they want their music to sound more sophisticated as their career progresses. They stick in strings. They also pepper a load of guest vocalists onto their songs, which I suggest he might do for album number three.
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” he replies enigmatically. Meaningful pause. “We’ll see.”
He’d probably opt for Stephen Mallinder who, in partnership with Benge, remixed Minsky-Sargeant’s vocals into a drunken kaleidoscope on WMC’s ‘John Cooper Clarke’ track last year.
“I’ve worked with Mal on a tune me and Ross did, so I really want to keep working with him,” he says. “I’m seeing him this week about a John Grant gig, so that’ll be nice. I’ve been meaning to go to Benge’s studio too, but I’ve been right busy.”
Busy with writing even more music. Busy with promotional obligations, including speaking to magazines (“It’s the admin part of the job, but I enjoy meeting people because of it. Silver lining.”). And busy planning to take an album on tour for the first time. There are gigs booked for Lisbon, London, Leipzig and Leeds. The ‘Fear Fear’ launch is at Salford’s legendary White Hotel, one day before Minsky-Sargeant’s 21st birthday.
His challenge now is pimping his closeted studio sessions so they’re suitable for a live arena. He’s already resolved ‘19’, ‘Widow’, ‘Ploys’ and ‘Money Is Mine’. And maybe also ‘The Last One’ – if he can work out how to present the strings.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “With the ability to play another album as well as the first record, hopefully it will carry more than it ever did live. It’ll be nice to get out of the valley for a while.”
I don’t know how long banana bread keeps, so I head home to the drizzled towers of Manchester. On the way, I decide that “tearaway” might be appropriate after all. Because with ‘Working Men’s Club’ and ‘Fear Fear’ as his teenage records, and goodness knows what else to come, I get the sense he’s ripping a path into the future.
Soundtracks? Guest vocals? We’ll see. Keep an eye out for Syd Minsky-Sargeant, the firestarter, the bakery shopper. That bread was delicious, by the way. “Right tasty”, as he might say… an apt description for the pulsating second album from Working Men’s Club. Dig in and feel the ‘Fear Fear’.
‘Fear Fear’ is out on Heavenly Recordings