For a band who were supposed to only be getting back together for a one-off gig to promote the release of their Best Of album, this fish, if you’ll pardon the expression, has proved to have legs...
Emptifish, Portsmouth’s finest proponents of garage-surf-punk, reunited last year to mark the release of the album which rounded up some of the band’s recordings from the 1980s.
But since then they have found themselves in demand, playing acclaimed sets at Victorious and Southsea festivals and joining The Damned as support on the veteran punks’ 40th anniversary tour.
‘I honestly thought, let’s see if we can do a gig to help release the album and that was it,’ says frontman George ‘Wipeout’ Hart.
The band had last played together for a reunion show in 2006. But since then bassist Ricky Hayes had died of cancer in 2010, and more recently guitarist Ian ‘Lord Sonic’ Parmiter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
‘I went to see Ian the first time and he hadn’t picked up a guitar for God knows how many years and it was hard,’ says George. ‘I’m not the best guitarist in the world, but we were playing along and it wasn’t right – it was like a bad pair of shoes and really trying to make them fit, but it wasn’t right.
‘He was really struggling and I thought I’d made a mistake. Then his wife put a video up about two weeks later of him playing (Emptifish track) 395 BBK on his tod. He couldn’t sing it properly, but he could play it properly. His muscle memory or something was working really well and it’s become his medication. Now he’s exploded into this lunatic that’s fighting a terrible illness and inspiring people. That’s why I wrote Sonic’s Got A Raygun, it was the sound of his guitar as soon as he started playing again.
‘That’s how we end every gig now, with that song and him on a plinth – stupid lights, feedback, people crying. You know, the usual thing,’ he deadpans.
That song has become the title track of a new EP, which is released a week today on Detour Records. The run is limited to just 300 copies on pink vinyl, many of which have already been snapped up in advance orders.
George says he had an inkling early on in the reunion that there could be something more to it.
‘I think it was about the third rehearsal, I said I’d written a couple of songs, and straight away the old magic was there – if I played something, gave them the idea or hummed the tune, (new guitarist) Craig or Ian would go: “Yeah, let’s do this”, and I’d go write the lyrics.
‘So we went to the studio – we couldn’t believe it was called Fish Island. The engineer had worked for Toerag studios, where guys like Jack White and Billy Childish went, so he knew exactly what sound we wanted and basically recorded it live.
‘We probably did the whole EP in about two hours on the first morning, but we wanted to make it last a couple of days and hang out and have some fun.
‘I wanted it released in bubblegum pink because one of my favourite records as a kid was 40 Greatest by Elvis and that was in bubblegum pink, so it was my childhood thing, and everyone’s got back into vinyl, so this was my chance to do that.’
As well as selling out their own shows in Portsmouth, joining The Damned on tour has been a major highlight for the band, rounded out by drummer Damian ‘O’Delic’ O’Malley and newest recruit, superfan Tony Rollinson on bass.
‘I was contacted on the Saturday before the Cardiff gig – we had about 24 hours to decide, asking if we’d do it.
‘I said yes, and then phoned round to check that everyone was available. We got everyone in on time and then it was straight to Cardiff - it was 1,500 people, all sold out, it was a great gig.
‘(The Damned’s bassist) Captain Sensible said he’d checked us out online and he thought we were surftastic or something like that and he wanted us because we’re a bit different to the usual support bands. And then instead of it being just the one gig, we did four or five with them, which was good.’
Among those shows was a hometown gig at The Pyramids.
‘That was the best one because it was at home. The crowd was great, and I think that was the only one where we got drunk on the Damned’s rum afterwards,’ he laughs.
‘By the time they got to Smash It Up, I was half-cut. It was a really good celebration.
‘Obviously I loved The Damned beforehand, but having got to know them as people they’ve gone up in my estimation. I think they’ve improved with age. They’ve got friendlier and stupider, which is a good thing in my book.’
Unfortunately, Ian has had to miss a couple of shows recently because of a reaction to his medication.
One of those shows was when the band took over The Coastguard Studio in Southsea for the night, which had been Ian’s idea. The band played two sets surrounded by artwork and memorabilia, and there was even a raffle including a date with George as one of the prizes.
‘Ian had organised everything – we were straight in, chucked all these pictures up, set it all up and everyone came steaming in, it was mental.
‘It was so hot, like The Cavern. We did a quick set, and it felt a bit weird without Ian there, we got through that, and the go-go dancers were there. One of them put her heel through Sonic’s podiums, but he’ll be so chuffed – if you’ve got a podium, like everyone should, and you can say it got damaged when a go-go dancer put her heel through it, well, that’s the best, isn’t it?
‘I think it’s the best injury a podium can get.’
Since reforming, the band have been followed by filmmakers who are putting together a documentary on them. The night at the Coastguard was a fundraiser for the project and featured a first look at what they had come up with so far.
‘The nine minutes they showed of the documentary I was really impressed with. They’ve got 30 hours of footage, but they just put this together as a teaser so they can take it out to people.
‘Everyone was clapping and cheering, but it was done really well, it was very funny – it was like Benefits Britain or something.’
The documentary is no simple look back at the band’s past either.
‘It’s looking at now, and if there’s anything forward, well.... It’s not a retrospective, and if we’re still alive for it, that’s quite handy,’ George laughs. ‘It’s showing me when I first tried to get Ian to pick up a guitar, and I thought the end of it would be when we got to a first gig, if there was one, which was Record Store Day in Castle Road – that was a raucous mish-mash on the back of a truck, and then it goes on from there.’
And the prize date?
‘I sold myself for the night for the band. I think she was pleased with how it went - she didn’t ask for her raffle ticket money back anyway.’
With the new EP out next week, the band refuse to rest on their laurels – George is already keen to lay down some more tracks.
‘I’ve written a few more, but we’ll have to see what happens. I’ve written some with Craig, Ian’s written this really Beatles-y one, I’ve written a ‘60s Cliff/Elvis film song that’s absolutely brilliant, well, of course it’s brilliant.
‘We could go in the studios tomorrow or next week or the minute Ian’s back – there’s quite a lot to do.’
George is bullish too that Ian will soon be rejoining his bandmates on live duties.
‘I’ve got no doubts whatsoever that when he’s back where he should be he’ll be rejoining us.’
One Saturday, January 14 the band play a Basins Presents... night at The Wedgewood Rooms in Southsea with Oh! Gunquit and The Glorias, and on the 28th, they’re back at The Wedge for The Icebreaker Festival.
‘We’ll get these two out of the way and have Ian assessed by some mad scientist, like Dr Frankenstein, then take it from there.’