DISUNITED KINGDOM // ANTON NEWCOMBE MEETS BARRY BURNS
It’s like the opening scene in a movie – a grainy early Fassbinder maybe, or monochrome Petit. Up into the light from the U-bahn at Rathaus Neukölln, at the end of subway journey turned around on itself by a misread map at Hermann Platz. They take a moment to orient themselves – Anton Newcombe, intense leader of cultish psych-rock band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, beside the thuggish bulk of local lebenskünstler C.C. O’Hanlon – on a crowded sidewalk that could just as well be in Istanbul as Berlin: lots of noise and whiffs of patchouli, spiced meat and citrus. They start walking north-west on Karl Marx Strasse, past doner joints and dodgy electronics stores spruiking secondhand cell-phones and pre-paid SIMs from companies nobody’s heard of.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” C.C. mutters. Old and misanthropic, he doesn’t get out much.
They’re not tourists. They’ve come across town to meet Barry Burns, Scottish bassist and keyboardist of post-rock band Mogwai and occasional collaborator of Arab Strap, at Das Gift, a neighbourhood bar he owns with his with his wife, Rachel. During spring, the sub-Boadicea, Anglo-Saxon bitch-queen, Theresa May, signed off on Article 50, setting the dis-United Kingdom on a course to exit Europe in the next two years. Anton wanted to find out how Barry, an old friend, was dealing with it.
Cut to an interior: dark timber walls, scarred table, a dim tungsten table lamp. Barry nursing a warm beer, Anton a ginger ale. C.C.’s battered iPhone between them, recording the conversation.
Anton. Brexit. They pushed the button with Article 50 and it started out really weird with Britain saying they were willing to replay the Falklands War with Spain over Gibraltar. And Gibraltar, like Scotland,voted not to leave Europe, so what I’m curious about is; has the spectre of this process put a cloud over your existence here in Berlin?
Barry. Oh yeah. It’s put a massive degree of uncertainty around it. We still don’t know what they’re doing. But we’re going for German citizenship. I want my daughter, I want my wife and I want for me to have EU citizenship. A. So you’re just going to ride it out. B. I hope so. But these people don’t know what they’re doing. There’s no plan.
A. I have my suspicions about this stuff.
B. What do you think?
A. [Jean-Claude] Juncker, and all these guys,were talking about funding a European army and Britain didn’t want to foot any part of the bill for it because they’ve already got a missile shield in the UK and they’re already in lock-step with the US. You have to remember that all through the 60s and the 70s, the UK was still mortgaged to the hilt for the cost of World War II.
B. I wonder if that’ll ever come to light. That’ll be interesting.
A. Anyway… before the Brexit referendum, you had the Scottish referendum, and if Scotland had left the union and started that process, well it was never about Scotland leaving the EU… B. No, it was actually about the opposite of that. The Scots were promised they would remain part of the EU. Promised it.
A. Then the next level of that is that, in the Brexit referendum, 60 percent or whatever – the majority of Scots – voted to stay. Obviously, you feel the same way.
B. Yeah. But it’s hard to square that as well. Like, why did so many people vote the other way…?
A. People are afraid.
B. Yeah, but also if it does go to another referendum, will they… well, who knows?
A. I think a lot of people wanted to make a point. But the Man doesn’t leave this stuff up to the whims of the mob. If there was a possibility the Scots were going to be independent, then they would have rigged the election. But then they kicked Labour to the curb, the Tories as well, and they didn’t want to support the SNP agenda but they ended up supporting it 100 per cent.
B. Yeah, it’s just so weird it has so many seats on the councils now…
A. The weird thing is, the powers that be in the UK are never going to say how much oil there is in the ground in Scotland…
B. Well, they say it’s running out all the time…
A. Doesn’t matter. When you have oil it’s part of your national strategic reserve. And, of course, the minute you say we don’t have much anymore, the price goes up.
B. And you show your hand.
A. Yeah, so they’re never going to say that.
B. It’s been a litany of lies we’ve been given since the Scottish referendum. It turns out, even with the Trump thing as well, it turns out you can lie to people and they cannae give a fuck. You can just say anything you want now and you’re not held accountable.
A. It’s like in the UK, people have this serious beef about the shortcomings of the BBC and the national TV licence but if they had any clue what Murdoch’s going to do, if he’s given the chance… Trump is a kind of legacy of that, where there’s all these people and all these lies, and for instance, they’re told they’ve taken down the Union Jack in Birmingham because there’s only 4% of the population who are white people and they believe because it’s on Fox News and that’s what the Brits are going to get, the second this guy gets a chance.
B. It’s the fucking opposite of what’s meant to happen. Even with this stuff about the two years of negotiations for Brexit, but negotiators have already said there’s just no way you’re gonna do that – seven years, maybe. How’re you going to do it in two years, when we don’t even have the actual negotiators in place yet?
A. And the British are going, “Well, we want this, that, and the other,” and the EU is sort of like, “Yeah, sure.” [both laugh] The EU’s like “No. Actually, you’ve gotta pay this amount of money you’re obligated to and you’re not in a position to bargain.” It’s going to be a ‘conscious uncoupling’. [more laughter] Like Gwyneth fucking Paltrow.
B. That was the most spew-some thing I’ve ever heard…
A. [impersonating Gwyneth Paltrow] We want to remain best mates.[more laughter] And there’s other issues like, the British moved the UK border to France. What a nightmare that’s going to come down to, right? I guess it’s going back to Kent, now. Nightmare.
B. “We’ll fight them from the beaches…” The whole thing is grotesque.
A. So, setting up your business here in Berlin, this bar, was it difficult? You know? The bureaucracy…
B. No. Not really. To do a place like this in Glasgow, it would have been prohibitively expensive, unless I’d have been a rich kid, which I’m not. Or we would have had to have so many investors; I’d end up with nothing. To do it here – I think we bought this place for like €2,000, with all the stuff in it, but in Scotland, the license alone would’ve cost us thousands. I’ve got a mate who owns a bar in New York and he’s getting out of it. I mean you can’t make money and you can’t have fun, and we wanted this place to be fun. And you can’t do that in Scotland… I don’t know. It’s funny because there’s another thing with the Scottish government and as much as I kind of like what they’re doing, they’re pursuing this Scandinavian model, which means alcohol is going to be so expensive, it’s going to be difficult to own a pub. I’ve got friends in Scotland who’ve just had to close down their pub because they can’t afford the rent…
A. I heard that, technically, Shetland can be bought back for some crazy, piddly little amount. The King of Denmark or Norway pawned the islands.
B. Yeah, probably. Or won ‘em on a raffle ticket.
A. He was like, give me 700,000 or whatever and take the islands. But I want to be able to buy ‘em back in the future.
B. I know there’s people who want to be part of Norway…
A. The oil…
B. Yeah, but they don’t feel particularly Scottish. Orkney kinda does but Shetland not so much…
A. What about you? What do you feel?
B. I’ve never in my life felt British, and it’s not because my parents were very anti- English or anything like that – I’ve never been anti-English, I’ve never been anti anything, but I’ve just never felt part of Britain.
A. Why is that?
B. Because I think all this ‘Scottish cringe’ – I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but it’s like, maybe in the ‘80s, or before, when you had a Scottish accent on television it was like… [makes a face like there’s a bad smell] but that all went away later.
A. Then came straight back again when Susan Boyle became famous. [laughter] I was just curious because I have Korean friends and I have Japanese friends and I ask my Japanese friends, “Why don’t you guys like Koreans?” and I would, like, just drill them, “But why don’t you like Koreans? You eat their food. You want to fuck their women. Why don’t you like Koreans?” And I finally got them to say, “Because they don’t like me.”
B. Oh. Right. OK. A. So I thought you might say, “Because they don’t like me.”
B. No, no. It’s not. I’ve never felt that. It’s just that it feels like it’s a different country. And it feels like it’s going in a different direction. And it feels like there’s no representation. There’s nothing. It doesn’t matter what we vote in Scotland. They abandoned Scotland and fucked it over under the Tories. People will remember that.
A. I think they should.