Anti-folk band David Cronenberg’s Wife explore paedophilia on their latest album
Initially it appeared to be just cunning promotional puffery. “Lyrically, not for the squeamish,” warned the introductory email about Don’t Wait to be Hunted to Hide, the third album by the band David Cronenberg’s Wife. “If this is you” – the squeamish – “then you will probably want to skip track eight.”
All splendidly intriguing, but it soon transpired that this was far from regular spin. In fact, actually appointing publicity staff had proven a problem for the London-based outfit: their preferred radio pluggers, for example, steered well clear.
“They wouldn’t touch it, and they named that song as the reason,” explains lyricist and singer Tom Mayne, referring to that eighth track, For Laura Kinsgman. “I didn’t really have any problem playing it [live] at first: ‘it’s a song I’ve written, it’s a character.’ But since then, and the recent goings-on, it’s become a little bit harder.”
By ‘goings-on’ he’s referring to the Jimmy Savile allegations and ongoing investigation, which have given the album an unforeseen appositeness, particularly For Laura Kingsman. A jaunty melody and that innocent-sounding title mask the song’s true nature; it’s a traditional ballad, in a sense, but sung by a grown man about an underage schoolgirl. Their relationship develops, becomes candidly sexual, but the protagonist experiences none of the repercussions or remorse one might expect. Indeed, he gets to justify his behaviour in a latter verse, stressing that “I was the weak one and she the strong/I don’t even think I was her first.”
Mayne admits that he was “playing with the first person” in both the song’s title and tone, blurring the boundaries between autobiographical ballads and the character studies that have already afforded his band a certain infamy. David Cronenberg’s Wife are an anti-folk act with a willfully anti-fame ethos, peppering their albums with undesirable characters, who Mayne inhabits with unnerving realism.
“If you were doing it in an objective way, maybe in the third person, it’s obvious that these things are horrific and no one should do them,” he says. “But it becomes boring if you do it that way. It’s much more interesting to do a song where you almost try to sympathise with these characters, think what they’re trying to think. Sometimes you can see how they’d try to justify their own actions. Sometimes, maybe they’d bring up a good point.”
Mayne concedes that For Laura Kingsman is the band’s most contentious song to date, and yet its protagonist is far from the album’s most contemptuous figure. The Pied Piper of Maidenhead concerns a sexual predator who targets drunken teenagers, sticking to over-16s “unless they’re really hot.” And Spiked is told from the perspective of a serial date-rapist, a tragic but deeply unsympathetic character who regrets then rationalizes his sedative-fuelled activities (“she suffered one night, I suffered my whole fucking life.”)
So creepy are Mayne’s characterisations that calling him to discuss them is slightly unnerving, but thankfully the sinister vocal style he adopts on record is far from his regular manner. The son of a Nabakov-endorsing English teacher, he actively sought this unique musical niche, taking lyrical inspiration from the chilling news stories that “hadn’t really been dealt with” by his musical peers.
“We don’t go out intentionally to shock, that becomes a bit facile. But certainly all the art and films and music that I’ve been influenced by and enjoy listening to and watching have had that kind of subversive element. In fact [legendary horror director] David Cronenberg himself said that all art should be subversive and go against the status quo. I’ve brought that aspect to the songwriting I think.”
The new record certainly stimulates discussion, about laws, morals and artistic methods. For Laura Kinsgman is particularly shocking due to its romantic, sometimes even humorous air (they share a Sherbet Dib Dab), while in the more predatory songs “it comes across, the horror of the situation.” So should Mayne have passed harsher judgement on Kingsman’s suitor? While clearly no apologist for this “sad, lonely guy”, he points out that such a consensual relationship would be legal in other European nations. “We use ‘paedophile’ very liberally now,” he says, “but I think we have to morally draw a line.”
We compare some wildly varying recent cases, how the frequently wicked and the temporarily weak are often publicly tarred with a similarly sweeping brush. “We’re just talking about very important degrees here,” he concludes, and insists that his song “is not condoning anything, it’s just saying that if we’re living in a world with morality we’ve got to differentiate between the really evil people and those that are doing something possibly bad but in a more ambiguous situation.”
I ponder what would happen if For Laura Kingsman were to gain wider exposure, via radio or otherwise. Songs are invariably assumed to be autobiographical – “more so than a film, there’s more identification with singers than directors,” Mayne suggests – so might he regret making it so believable?
“You don’t want people to really think that’s what’s gone on,” he says. “But for me, in the songwriting, anything goes.”Tagged in: David Cronenberg’s Wife, Don’t Wait to be Hunted to Hide, For Laura Kinsgman, Jimmy Savile, paedophilia, Tom Mayne
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