Emptifish, Pompey’s lords of misrule return

Emptifish at Castle Road on Record Store Day 2016. Pic by Paul Windsor
Emptifish at Castle Road on Record Store Day 2016. Pic by Paul Windsor
Have your say

‘How do you get your name on a roundabout? I’d love that – people saying: “Turn left at ‘Fish.” And then when we die, we can have our ashes spread there.’

Welcome to the world of Emptifish, the band from Pompey that woulda, coulda, shoulda... but never quite did.

And that’s George Hart, aka Georgie Wipeout, singer and guitarist, speaking.
The fabled ’80s rockabilly-surf-trash-rockers have invited WOW247 to one of their Saturday morning rehearsals at a not-so-secret location (the Old Blacksmiths Studio).

The four-piece, made up of George, guitarist Ian Parmiter (aka Ian Sonic) and drummer Damian O’Malley (aka Damian O’Delic), plus new recruit Craig Boyd are busy tightening things up, as they prepare to lay down their unique noise at some shows this summer.

But with their last-gang-in-town mentality still intact, there’s nothing they love more than to wind each other up, run off on tangents, recall in-jokes and reminisce about old shows.

On Record Store Day in April, the group returned to live action in Castle Road, Southsea for the first time since a reunion show a decade ago.

People want us to play and if there’s a chance for us to play, we’ll usually be up for it

George Hart

George recalls the mood in April: ‘I was excited, I was just itching to get up there, but then I saw Craig, and Craig does millions of gigs, and he was looking a bit antsy, but it was a little bit anxious for all of us.’

Ian adds: ‘I wouldn’t say I was nervous – in every photo before during and after I was laughing and smiling, but I didn’t know how my illness was going to react.

‘During the first song my hand was shaking uncontrollably.’

Ian has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s – but has refused to let the disease hamper him.

‘I didn’t think about Ian,’ admits George. ‘I wasn’t worried. I was getting this certain vibe the minute the song started, and I knew we were going to be all right.’

But the reason for this resurrection is the release of the band’s first ever album. Even though they released several singles during their original run from ’83 to ’87 they split before getting to release an album.

However, thanks to super-fan Tony Rollinson tracking down those old singles and some long-thought-lost studio sessions, they now have an album, 6.57, The Best of Emptifish out there.

During that initial run, Emptifish were tipped as ones to watch, but when their gigs became infamous for attracting violence, they were banned from playing and things soon fell apart.

‘That was our problem,’ says Ian, ‘the crowds built very rapidly. We were doing gigs at venues for 200 and 700 people were turning up, that creates a problem in itself.

‘Our popularity destroyed us in one way. With the right management we could have done anything.’

But George interjects: ‘You get a mix of everyone, The more people you attract, there’s always a percentage of idiots, so the more you attract, the more there’s going to be of those idiots.’

They were also masters of hype: ‘They say don’t believe the hype,’ says Ian. ‘But I’m good at inventing a lot of hype. and people believe it - 75 per cent of everything I say is either true or wrong.’

However, with the new album coming together, more gigs were soon on the cards.

Ian: ‘I didn’t think I would ever play again after last time, and that was 10 years ago.

‘We wouldn’t be doing this without Tony.’

And George laughs: ‘He must have a really boring family life, because he’s so energetic with us. He makes a great husband for the band.’

And they’re thrilled with the way the album has turned out – from classic singles such as Surfboard to Girl With the Beautiful Hair and naturally 6.57 – You Know You Want It.

‘The stuff that’s turning up - there were songs we’d forgotten about because they’d merged into other songs. We wrote hundreds of songs,’ explains George.

‘Our first set of songs were really moody

‘Doom Lady - songs like that - really dark. That was really our Hammer-style side of things. Like the Gun Club and The Cramps. We didn’t want to be just rockabilly - we had that but we also had that early Beatles, 60s beat trashy, like early punk thing as well. And Damian’s psychedelic thing came in

Ian expands: ‘At the time punk was all of our influences, but it was played out. And ’60s punk was what we played – it was going backwards, but that’s the basics of punk rock.

‘They were trying to copy The Stones and The Kinks, and we’re trying to copy them copying the stones and the kinks.

Damian doesn’t speak often – trying to get a word in edgeways between George and Ian is tough, but when he does, he nails the point: ‘The real deal is the rawness and the energy of it.’

They also claim to have lost dozens, nay hundreds of songs. ‘A lot of songs only got played once, some not even that,’ says George. 

‘But are they lost if you can remember them?’

Can you remember how to play them, then?

‘Erm, no, but I think they’re there somewhere! I think someone will turn up with something six months down the line and we’ll have a follow-up album, or a recording of a live gig somewhere.’

Since word got out about the impending album, a lot of the old fans – known as ‘Agents’ – have come crawling out of the woodwork, and interest in the initial limited edition run of the vinyl, with a rather lovely booklet full of old photos and flyers, has been high. There has been a piece on the band in Mojo magazine and a camera crew has been following them around for a documentary.

Has the level of interest surprised the band?

George: ‘I’ve always been confident, and if I was around, I’d like us, but it’s nice that other people think that too.

‘I’ve always thought that the sound was great, the music was great, and everything was great - the community was great.’

A key part of the band’s early appeal was their razor-sharp image.

‘I’m the Gok Wan,’ says George with a throaty chuckle. ‘We haven’t got any action figures - hopefully they’re to come, but Ian’s my 6ft action figure, so I say: ‘What would I dress Ian in?”

‘He made one decision years ago, and that was to put us in John-Paul Gaultier-style stripey tops, and he bought them from Debenhams women’s department, I was size 12, he was a size 10. But it looked really good.’

Ian: ’we’ve always looked like a band.’

They even all shared a house, ‘like The Monkees.’

George continues: ‘The bands that I loved, like The Straycats, I loved their image, like The Cramps, I loved what they’re wearing.

‘If I see a band now, I get really cross if they haven’t got an image, If I think they sound really great and I turn round and they look like they’ve just come off the street on their skateboards - the visuals, it’s so important.’

But despite the importance they placed on look - it wasn’t high fashion they were after.

‘All of our stuff was from junk shops and second hand shops - you wouldn’t pay more than 50p for a jacket, that was a bit posh. And Ian used to get the maddest 60s polyester shirts. If there was any dirt on it, it would fall off, and if they went near a flame they’d go up in a second, but they were the best shirts, they never got a crease,’ George gets nostalgic as he recalls some of their outfits, ‘they had these fantastic, nasty little patterns.’

‘Do you remember wearing a rubber jacket?’ cuts in Ian. ‘By the end of the night, everyone could smell it, it was like petrol.’

As well as the guys’ look, they were experts in spreading the word about the band, guerilla-style. 

George: ‘Ian was always making things – he was so artistic. The first Emptifish badges were potato prints. he was always doing it DIY, that’s what punk was.’

Damian adds with a laugh: ‘Someone put on Facebook recently, are Emptifish named after that graffiti from the ’80s?”

Ian: ‘I used to varnish the door or wall, put the poster up and then varnish over them, so you couldn’t get them off – some of them lasted for 25 years.

George: ’There was one in Somers Town, I took my daughter to see it, she wasn’t born then, but I took her to see it in the alleyway down by The Vines , this was before we got back together last time. It’s gone now though.’

When the end came, it was down to the live ban – how frustrating was that for them?

‘It’s like a sex ban,’ says George. ‘You wouldn’t be happy would you? You like having sex, we like playing live, that was our sex and it was suddenly taken away from us.’ Warming to his theme, he’s off: ‘It’s like you can’t have your favourite sex, your best, sex, the sex you like the most. What would you do?

‘Frustration wasn’t the word. Do you find another option - do I do a course, do I get an education?

‘But it wasn’t fair.

‘It wasn’t our fault that the people who came to watch were the ones causing trouble.’

Ian: ‘We tried playing under different names, but we told everyone so we had the same problem.’

Mock-ruefully George adds: ‘I thought one day we’d have a Christmas song and never have to work again.’

After the split, the members went their separate ways and in some cases, didn’t talk for years at a time.

George explains what happened to him: ‘When my daughter was born, I thought I’ve got to get out of Portsmouth.

‘When I heard Ian was ill (with Parkinson’s) I thought he can’t be ill, but when I’ve analysed it later, I think it’s because I didn’t want to see him, I didn’t want to see him not well – not the Ian I know.

‘But when I saw him again a couple of Christmases ago, I thought he’s the same, he’s just as filthy as usual, he’s still as funny as usual, he’s still got that same grin.’

Ian: ‘Luckily it’s not something that affects your brain as such.’

George fires straight back: ‘Are you sure?’
‘They were hoping that I’d get better,’ Ian deadpans,’ but I’m just the same as I was.’

Of course since their original split, the band have lost one of their number, bassist Ricky Hayes died of cancer in 2010.

Damian: ‘We lost our brother Ricky Sonic, and it did seem impossible at that point (to play again) but in some way it’s a tribute to him as well. We’re not sort of backwards thinking people.’

Ian: ‘We did say we wouldn’t play without Ricky.
‘We decided we wouldn’t replace him as such, that’s why Craig is playing guitar.’

Have the band thought about their future beyond the next couple of gigs?

George: ‘Tomorrow we could get hit by lightning. We enjoy it, we’re loving doing it.

‘Craig’s enjoying doing it and that’s helping us. People want us to play and if there’s a chance for us to play, we’ll usually be up for it.’

The only potential sticking point is Ian’s health, but they’re pragmatic in true Emptifish fashion.

‘I realise my playing’s not so good,’ Ian says, ‘but I can make a good noise. Sort of directing electricity to the punters.’

As George says of Ian: ‘He’s a bit like a Rolls Royce – as they get older you’ve got to spend a bit more on the servicing.’

Ian, who runs his namesake antiques store in Albert Road, chips in: ‘The trouble is I don’t stop, I’m on the go 20 hours a day almost.’

‘Even for anyone without any problems,’ explains George, ‘they’d be on the floor, but he’s still going. Maybe there’s something’s burning in him.’

As Ian says: ‘I’m trying to live my life while I’m alive, while I can walk and talk I’m going to do as much as I can.’

George cuts in: ‘These are good lyrics! Are you getting this down? When he says something like that, it makes us enjoy every second all the more.’

‘I realise my playing’s not so good,’ says Ian, ‘but I can make a good noise. It’s sort of directing electricity to the punters.’

Then Damian hits the nail on the head one last time: ‘It was always on the verge of falling apart, and that’s what made it exciting. As the drummer I always had to keep from losing the plot and that made it exciting. It’s always been like that.’

Emptifish play at The Edge of The Wedge tonight, but the gig is sold out.

They will also be playing at Victorious over the August bank holiday weekend.

The album, including the vinyl, CD, MP3 download code and booklet, is available from Pie & Vinyl, Dress Code, Sweet Memories and Southsea Gallery for £16.57.