Truth isn’t a word usually associated with ORGAN FREEMAN. The four-piece are notoriously better known for their immature windups, pranks and hoaxes than their anarchic brand of pop music. In early September the band announced on their Facebook page that, in early November 2017, they would be embarking on a very real second tour of the Far East. No, not Hull. China. Chongqing to be exact, a major city in the South West of the country. The band invited Bido Lito! to their beloved Wirral to discuss the truth about their new tour.
Simon, one of the band’s two lead singers, greets me within the glass walls of Birkenhead Bus Station, our agreed meeting point. Not wearing the Guantanamo-style jumpsuit and trainers of his stage outfit today, he’s dressed surprisingly smartly in woollen trousers, a thick buttoned shirt and shoes. The keyhole glasses that he sellotapes to his head when performing are seemingly the only recurring fashion fixture between his on- and off-stage personas. Before I could ask where the rest of the band are, he guides me on to a 407 bus headed back to Liverpool and quietly indicates that I should pay the driver for two singles. Only considering the cheek of this after paying, I follow Simon upstairs to find the rest of the band sat at the front. As the bus departs, Luke – the Mortimer to Simon’s Reeves – is watching a video of a man playing the bass with Doritos, while drummers Lloyd and James peer over his shoulder.
“I suppose you’re wondering why we’ve brought you here,” Simon beams. I am wondering this. “We originally wanted to do the interview on the ferry but All We Are did that last month. So, we thought we’d do one better and take you under the Mersey. Subterranean! There’s something much more calming about the Birkenhead tunnel. It’s almost womb-like.” He leaves the statement to settle strangely as we pass through the toll gate and submerge into the unnaturally lit abyss.
The band was last interviewed by Bido Lito! back in 2012 where they told us that there would be an album on its way in time for the following year. Five years on, Lloyd suggests we’re still no closer to hearing it. “We’ve been in studios, self-recorded and recorded live. There’s tons of material no one will ever hear, but in an age where recording music is so easy, why not make better live shows?” It’s not that they don’t believe great things can come from recording, as Luke explains: “There are artists who command the studio like it’s their spaceship, and it would be a crime for them not to record, but we’d rather stay on our planet and marginalise the experience.” “You could say we ‘Martianalise’ it,” Simon adds.
After their most recent tour announcement, we could be forgiven for expecting another punchline to drop. Organ Freeman’s history of white lies and porky pies is a long one. You might remember, in 2014, when posters appeared around the city suggesting that Steve Albini’s super band, Shellac, were playing a special show at East Village Arts Club supported by none other than Organ Freeman. Initially Simon has some trouble remembering exactly what happened. “The fake posters? That wasn’t us, I’d love to know who’s responsible though.” I remind him that it was undoubtedly them who pulled the prank. (Shortly after the stunt they wore T-shirts at a gig emblazoned with the word ‘Shellac’.) “Right, yeh, fair enough. It was us.”
Did they feel any remorse for the people they wound up? Simon sighs. “Does it ever hurt people? I think people enjoy our hazy stunts. We didn’t really anticipate much of a reaction but the truth of it was we printed a hundred posters and only put up seven before it was announced on a music blog.”
Simon appreciates that the band have a reputation for being unbelievable: “One of the brilliant things about the age we live in is that there are so many ways to blur the lines of reality. It’s thrilling to fool people but there’s no way people would ever believe the things we say if we hadn’t gained such a reputation through being a real atypical band these last seven years.” Even with video evidence of the band bouncing around music halls and large festival stages, people still question if the first tour of China ever actually happened. “Why would you believe it?” Luke exclaims. “It’s probably one of the most unbelievable things we’ve done. But it’s true, it did happen and it’s happening again.” The whole band agree that people have every right not to believe them, Lloyd even confesses that they were due another prank before the tour came along, “The weirdest thing about playing China was that we cancelled a fake US tour to do it. We were all set to pretend we played several shows in America before we had the opportunity to really go East.”
No matter what you think of their pranking, the Organ Freeman live experience is a thing of wonder. Attacking their audiences with LED balloons, wildly unchoreographed dance moves and chantable lyricism is but half of their set. In between loading the next song on their ageing, floppy-disk-compatible sequencer (the instrument that plays their merry melodies), Simon and Luke share a comedy double act of disdain and scripted jokes that are as much a part of the set as the tunes. It was the translation of this to a Chinese audience that worried the hell out of Simon. “We normally play an extremely high energy, 40-minute show and ninety percent of it is me telling bad jokes and wasting time. I can’t speak Chinese, so rehearsing a one-hour straight show with limited talking was not something we were used to…” At this point our interview is interrupted by the bus emerging from the Queensway tunnel. It’s a bustling Saturday morning in Liverpool.
Before continuing with the interview, Simon heads downstairs to ask the driver if we can go around again. Luke resumes watching the Dorito video in the interim, and unbeknownst to Lloyd, James, who hasn’t said a thing throughout the interview, quickly hands me a folded bus ticket. The unwrapped paper has the word “HELP” scrawled on it hastily with red pen. Before I can find out if my leg’s being pulled, two thumbs up appear from the stairwell and steadily rise as Simon returns to the top deck. “Back we go!” He grins.
“In the end, the thing that translated well was the energy and physicality of our shows. They absolutely loved it. The first show we played was a huge outdoor stage and they put us on second to last in front of thousands. We were the only western band playing that night and from our opening song, Pop Goblin, the crowd went absolutely nuts.” The rest of their performances were just as successful, even headlining their own sold out solo show in an 800-capacity theatre.
As you can imagine no tour is without its hitches, and as we re-enter the safety blanket of the Queensway tunnel, Lloyd tells me one of the more memorable stories of the previous tour: “The day after we arrived, they were opening the festival with a huge ceremony. 10,000 students attended this huge event and they were cramming everyone into every space imaginable – but when we got there, they moved us right through to the front section which had all these reserved seats. I remember asking ‘Who are these reserved for?’ They replied, ‘Government and military.’ And us, obviously. Anyway, we were watching this show and my stomach started to feel really bad. I stuck it out for as long as I could but decided it was best to go back to the hotel room…” You can see where this is going. Lloyd’s complexion goes fully pink at the memory of pushing past hundreds of students and sprinting back to the hotel only to poo himself in a lift just short of his room. Stifling laughter, Luke remembers returning to the hotel later on. “I saw your undies drying out of the hotel window like a white flag, surrendering!”
As light at the Birkenhead end of the tunnel starts to appear, the band start to consider their future. They’re hoping to double their success in China, planning a few new original numbers and a Grease medley for the people of Chongqing. Past that, Simon would rather not guess. “We aim so very low but good things always seem to happen.” He closes his eyes in thought for a few seconds and the rest of the band look totally serene – perhaps it’s fatigue from a prolonged bus journey – or, maybe he’s right, there is something calming about this tunnel. It’s womb-like.
Organ Freeman tour China in early November.