Published on January 26th, 2016 | by Stevie Lennox0
Interview: Steven Agnew – Punk Principles & Policies (Part 1)
This two part interview gets into the bones of how and why someone who grew up in a predominantly working class Protestant background, who associated and lived primarily around those of an anarchist persuasion with a grassroots ethos, came around to getting involved with the slimiest business around: Big NI politics. We’ll follow through, in The Thick of It fashion, to the absurd complexity inherent within any political structure, and how it’s navigated by someone who actively tries to get things done outside of tribal politics – the extent of which is felt far beyond simply Green vs. Orange. Where the Green Party in the UK and Ireland has often been criticised for being blindly idealistic in looking too far in the future, there’s a sense of a grounded, co-operative pragmatism, based on the actions of NI greens, and in particular its leader, Steven Agnew. Where leftist politics are actually moderate in Stormont’s political climate.
My interest in Steven Agnew was piqued after a show in Enniskillen with my old band, PigsAsPeople, where a grizzled sound man told me we sounded like The Killing Spree – about whom I had only heard spoken in hushed tones of reverence by the veterans. I went on to find a raw, dissonant, Slint & Drive Like Jehu-influenced brand of post-hardcore noise rock on a long-neglected Myspace, eventually ordering a copy of their 7” single from Italy. When I went to investigate their past, I found the name Steven Agnew listed amongst their ranks on Wikipedia, and thought “Steven Agnew? The hirstute Green Party guy? Do we have a bona fide symbol of punk authenticity right here in the political equivalent of the Mos Eisley Spaceport? Someone who doesn’t exist effectively as a single-issue party based on the Irish Question?”
Superlatives, of course, but having explained this story to an amused Steven Agnew, we met for a chat in the winding secondary school corridors of Stormont, in the Green Party office – which is paradoxically situated beside UKIP HQ [“Ah yes, the misfortunes of life in this building”]. Words by Stevie Lennox
Hi Steven. How did you wind up on Wikipedia as a member of The Killing Spree?
It’s a common misconception, but the background to it was that at one point it did say – and I checked after you were in touch – that I was a member of the band. It was kind of funny, and I checked with the guys in the band, who I’ve been friends with for years, and I said “Don’t worry, I’ll get it changed”, but they just told me to leave it up there because they were quite amused by it. I was kindly referred to as the Fourth Killing Spree and, being kinda good friends with them, I was kind of the talentless one in my group of friends.
I wasn’t at every gig, but certainly most. I described myself as a groupie, but ‘The Fourth Killing Spree’ was much more complimentary. I never amend my own Wiki – because that’s for other people – but it got up there was when I first stood in 2009 for the European elections. I did an interview for the community organisation WIMPS, and one of the questions they asked me was if I could tell them something interesting about myself. Obviously no-one finds anything about themselves interesting, so I just told them about the Green Party, which wasn’t that interesting. I went home and told my partner about it, and she said, “You didn’t tell them that you sang onstage with bands? You didn’t mention that you’ve been in two films?!”
So then I got a call from Gareth Gordon at the BBC and he said “I’ve read your biog, and no offence, it’s not very interesting. Tell me something interesting about yourself”. Having just had that conversation, I mentioned having been onstage, so he did report that I had sang onstage with the Killing Spree, which then became Chinese whispers, and by the time it got to Wiki: “He was a member of the Killing Spree.”
Two films? What did you appear in?
Michael from the Killing Spree has directed a number of films now, but they were his first two feature films – I Wanted To Talk To You Last Night and Endless Life – I was one of the main characters in the first, and the second was after I’d been elected. It was in the summer at least around campaign time so I was busy and had a smaller role in it, but I was quite surprised by how much I was featured when I watched it back. Neither made a great impact, but his most successful film was a documentary short, but again, it was just something I did with friends.
I remember Michael saying low budget film is anything under £20,000, but I think he spent £500 and the rest was beg, borrow and steal with us all doing it for free, but it was a great experience to be a part of in both cases. I’m not a film expert in terms of production, but in terms of content, I’d stand over both.
One story from Documenta’s Joe Greene actually mentions you being onstage with a Stooges tribute act at one point – how did that come about?
I actually thought he was going to mention the time he was on stage with the Stooges with no clothes on. It was at Electric Picnic, possibly, so Joe ended up onstage, stripped and hugged Iggy, which I’m sure Iggy was delighted about.
But yeah, there was a cover band called The Raw Powers, and they were doing Search and Destroy, and it was my friend Deadmeat’s birthday, and when it came on, he pointed at the microphone, urging me to go for it. It was always one of my favourite songs, so I blasted that out. I’ve been onstage a number of times kind of singing, but that’s the one I’m most proud of. It’s a song I know inside out, it wasn’t just putting it down to the crowd, not having rehearsed or not knowing the song, which was the case with the Killing Spree. I knew the songs pretty well but if you’ve heard their music, it’s not… ‘normal timings’.
Anything preceding the likes of ASIWYFA appears to be forgotten at this point, to some degree, so what was it like back before that fertile time for NI music?
And So I Watch You were around just as I was starting to dip out of the music scene. I moved to Bangor and had children and a political career around the same time, which pretty much killed my gig-going days I was certainly aware of them and connected to them in some way. I was in at the tail end of Giros, and there and the Front Page were sort of the two main punk venues.
When Giros went, there was a void for a period, and I remember people were going to Giros for years telling them “You’ve got to set something else up”. I think it was the age of the building or whatever, and they said, “No, did you miss the point? D.I.Y. – do it yourself. The mantle has been passed – it’s for your generation”. There was never one big replacement for Giro’s, just a couple of different things. There was Ordinary Days, It was more using existing venues and wasn’t really a replacement or any Warzone Centre. The current Warzone Centre started up as I was leaving Belfast, but Ordinary Days were putting on gigs. I think Pete Jez was running gigs separately – he had his own small record label and was putting on gigs – and a guy called Phil.
You kind of had a bit of a breakup, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because you had more diversity. So it was different venues, and you never got a venue that was as good or as bad as Giros, depending on what way you look at it. It was all bars that were putting on gigs in terms of the venue, which is never an ideal setup. There might be a post in the middle of the stage or whatever, or just poor sound, but some of the best gigs I’ve ever been to took place in those bars.
You got a real diversity after a while, and a really good crossover, because Ordinary Days would’ve been seen as the more indie scene, and Phil and Pete, and a guy called Bernard Keenan were putting on hardcore and punk stuff, but you got a lot of crossover. The lines became blurred and people who had the D.I.Y. ethos at their core, rather than a particular music genre, putting on gigs together. And being friends together, sharing houses together, and being in bands together. And you had LatexSpiderMonkey, for example, come onto the scene and they were like a bunch of 18 year olds, mad.
What’s your persuasion in terms of music taste?
I suppose I always was at one extreme. It was either loud, angry and screamy or it was singer-songwritery. I was an extremist in that sense, with nothing in between. I probably have a lot more middle ground music now, although I listen to very little that’s new now, because, y’know, life.
But in terms of top 5 artists, still, my favourite band are Murder City Devils, and one of the few bands I love that I still haven’t seen life. They cancelled a gig in Belfast that my mate Pete Jez put on. The keyboardist broke their wrist or something, and they only really play now west coast America. I have been tempted, but have never quite done it. I mentioned the Stooges, Bonnie Prince Billy in terms of more low key stuff…Elliott Smith would be among my favourites. It’s the raw emotion of either side that really does it.
One of my favourite albums, and I’ve seen it performed live, is Slint’s Spiderland. Shellac would be another one, who I’ve seen a load of times. It’s very hard to get a good Shellac gig. Great band on record, but live they often disappoint. I did see them at All Tomorrow’s Parties, and it was a “Finally, that’s what Shellac are supposed to sound like.” I’ve been told it really depends on whatever amps they use, the venue, and the gear they’re travelling with.
I think the most recent thing I got into was Dan Sartain. I think it was his third album – the first one is hard to get hold of, recorded on a couple of tapes in his room – but Dan Sartain vs the Serpentines. It’s a great album for dancing around your kitchen with your 2 year old in your arms. I still love that same stuff. One of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, up there with that Slint gig and some of the Shellac gigs, was Yo La Tengo live. I went to Primavera Sound two years in a row, and back in 2006 I would’ve argued that Yo La Tengo were one of the most overrated bands in the scene, and then I saw them live. Me and a friend, Sean, neither of us were huge fans so we sat back, stayed way off the stage to watch, and we just hugged at the end, it was one of those experiences.
Another thing was Open House, which now runs out of Bangor, but Kieran who runs the events, put on Bonnie Prince Billy in Bangor Abbey, and I’ve seen him a few times, but to see him stripped down in that church was a really special gig experience. Funny, my partner said “Why can’t we just invite him for dinner? You’re the guy who organises them” But I’d be one of those idiots who’s starstruck, and I try not to be that person, but you know…
Basil McCrea held a rave in one wing of Stormont, and XSLF – a band comprising former members of Stiff Little Fingers – played Stormont’s main hall, which was organised by Claire Bailey in an Alternative Miss Ulster while Basil judged the Miss Ulster contest upstairs.
So at what point did you become involved with politics as a by-product of your involvement in the local music scene?
The aspect of it I was part of with was tied up with was Giro’s. There was a lot of politics floating around it, though I wouldn’t have known it as politics. A lot of the people involved were anarchists, so arguably it was anti-politics as well, but it was actually listening to Jello Biafra’s spoken word album Become the Media, where he talked about his involvement with the Green Party in the US, which made me wonder if we had a Green Party. I was definitely socially conscious and had strong views; I would always kind of say I was into international development, human rights and animal rights, but not politics because I didn’t associate those things with politics at that time in Northern Ireland.
But then there was a peace march against the Iraq War in Belfast, and John Barry – who’s now one of our councillors and a professor at Queen’s – had a big Green Party banner, and, having heard Jello Biafra just talk about the Green Party, I thought I should talk to this guy. Now, John Barry, if you ask any student – unless they ended up in the DUP – what they think of John Barry, and the phrase they’ll always come out with is: “John Barry is a legend.” and this does seem to be passed down through generations. And it’s always specifically “John Barry’s a legend”, never “he’s great, really good guy” or any of that stuff, just “John Barry is a legend.” And he is, he absolutely inspired me, so I campaigned for him at that stage. I was never quite convinced by anarchism, but I was hanging around a lot of anarchists, so it was a big step joining a political party, but campaigning for John himself wasn’t a step at all. Once you meet him, you just couldn’t not be sold by him, so I campaigned for him in North Down and eventually joined the party.
How did you manage to connect your anarchist principles to the political policies?
For me it was fundamentally bringing decision-making at the lowest effective level, which is a lot about what anarchism is about – community decision-making rather than hierarchy and political structures. So it’s not to say the two are the same – they’re mutually exclusive; Green Party is politics and you know, you can’t be an anarchist and support the Green Party; you can’t be in the Green Party & support anarchism.
But there is the whole “Hands in the power of the many rather than the few”, and a lot of overlap. I think, for me, ultimately, I was somebody who had a lot of strong ideas and was looking for the best way I could take them forward, and it turned out politics was what I was good at. So while I wasn’t a great organiser of community events while a lot of people I knew organised gigs or were in bands – and I was around that scene and happy to be a part of it – but I was a spectator. I believed in D.I.Y., and politics was something I could actively be involved in and could do, and over time, turned out was quite good at in terms of, you know, I got elected.
The European elections in 2009 trebled the party’s vote, and that was the moment for me, when I went from being a political activist to seeking to be a politician – because I stood reluctantly in 2009. I very much would have preferred at that point that John Barry stood, but for personal reasons he wasn’t able to stand in that election. That was true of a couple of other people I would have deemed at that time to be more able; and again, this is why people say John Barry is a legend – he was the person lined to continue on after Brian Wilson, our first MLA, but after the European election it was he who came to me and said “You’re the next candidate for North Down.” For the good of the party, he put the party before his own ego and said “You’re the one who can keep the seat.” And backed me to the hilt, and that’s why I think it’s the type of thing he does that people have a lot of respect for.
Do you ever feel you’re at odds with certain parts of Stormont for your past?
I was just reading today that Sammy Wilson described me in the House of Commons as “The wee green man”, and Lady Sylvia Hermon stepping up and said “I think you mean The Honourable Member for North Down”, but no, I’ve had the hippie thing in the past. It’s not so bad now that:
1. I’m more established as a politician
2. I got my hair cut.
I remember one of the Young Greens saying to me, an 18 year old at the time he said it, wearing a Motörhead t-shirt, and had long hair and a beard. He said: “Steven, you have to either shave the beard or get the hair cut. You can’t have both.” He’s since been Caroline Lucas’ campaign manager and got her elected by an 8000 majority, so the boy done good, but he got that one wrong. I got elected with long hair and a beard, despite being told by numerous people “I would vote for you if you got your hair cut.”
The getting the hair cut, of course – as Jim Allister and John McAllister have joked in the chamber about me ‘losing my radical edge’ – but I maintain I got my hair cut for one reason and one reason alone: I left it before it left me. Two separate people described me as looking like Bill Bailey, so that for me was the time to go. It’s fine if you’re a comedian, but not so when you’re a politician.
On the note of TUV’s Jim Allister – he’s a bit of an interesting character, and you have to work alongside him in the Naughty Corner. It paints a fairly humourous image, but how do you reconcile your vast political differences to work together against the rest?
He’s a very able man, and despite at times him appearing very angry, he does have a great turn of phrase and a great wit about him. I obviously fundamentally disagree with him on his attitude to climate change, to homosexuality & the LGBT community in general, and there’s so much more we fundamentally disagree on. But where we do work collaboratively is holding the DUP and Sinn Fein particularly, to account, and he is very good at that. He gets into petty stuff at times, certainly sectarian in my view, which is not constructive in terms of always harking back to the past. And Green politics would be very forward-thinking – his party, even the name ‘Traditional Unionist Voice’ is often backwards-looking.
It’s often said Northern Ireland walks into the future, looking backwards, and I think he’s symptomatic of that. But I think there’s a mutual respect in terms of ability there. We both get frustrated by MLAs who read a speech and who, when you ask to give way – because it’s supposed to be a debating chamber – either won’t give way or can’t, and are unable to respond to what you ask, or give way and completely ignore your comments because they have to go back to their written speech, which has been prepared for them. Both Jim & I prepare our own speeches. You can disagree someone but respect their ability. I respect his point of view up to a point. Recently he’s started saying that climate change is cyclical, as if the world’s greatest scientists haven’t thought of that. Some of those arguments are less credible, but I’m sure I make a few arguments sometimes that he would find equally infuriating.
Disclaimer: above photo pre-losing “radical edge”.