Jowe Head interview, Café Oto, London, 7th December 2021

Text: Rokko / Photos: Jowe Head, Rokko


On 3rd and 4th December 2021, Jowe Head presented the sounds of his old band Swell Maps in London’s haven for experimental music, Café Oto. Two of the original Swell Maps – Nikki Sudden and his brother Epic Soundtrack – sadly passed away long ago, but Jowe Head keeps the spirit alive, not only for these two shows… He sits on a huge archive of Swell Maps recordings – parts of which he recently put out on the compilation “Mayday Signals” – highly recommended!

His book about his Swell Maps years from 1972-1980 is going to be published in February 2022, get it while you can:

And who knows, there might be a few book launches with more special music performances – keep your eyes peeled.

But for now, a little bit of history… and future plans:


Jowe Head in Café Oto, December 2021 © Rokko

Rokko: The very beginning of the Swell Maps wasn’t in London, not in Birmingham – but in the small suburban town Solihull. How would you describe the vibe back there in the early ’70s?

Jowe Head: [laughs] Oh God! An industrial town where they made cars, that was a very important part of the culture in Solihull. There is a lot of prosperity, it’s a bourgeois town – and nothing going on for young people. So, we had to make our own entertainment. Nikki and Epic, Richard [Scaldwell], John [Cockrill], and David [Barrington] – we were all big music fans, so we decided to make some music together. There were no local bands to enjoy.

That being said: Genesis P-Orridge was at the same Solihull school as Nikki and me. He was older and already did performances out in the streets. To scare people.

How were the roles of the different Swell Maps band members, with that delicate balance between sound experiments and catchy rock songs?

It’s very difficult to break that down. Nikki was into T-Rex and Rolling Stones – but he was also very receptive to some of the other ideas. So, if I came up with the idea of a more abstract piece or asked him if we could do an improvisation, he was very glad to be part of that.

Epic is more complicated because he first started to be into Alice Cooper, that was his first love. But then he got into progressive rock with me, we both liked Can, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, all this stuff. He had an interest in abstract sound, but also in balladry. I’d hear him on the piano in his family’s house, starting to make chords and piano tunes. He started doing these piano interludes between songs and it was only after we finished the band that he started concentrating on that.

At the beginning, Epic was also into experiments with vacuum cleaners, water pipes…

Yeah, that’s right, a lot of that was down to Epic.

And I was also influenced by our friend David, who is called Phones Sportsman. He is another interesting example, because on the one hand, he is into the work of Stockhausen and John Cage, but on the other hand he would invent these crazy, very catchy songs. It was all part of his character.

© Jowe Head

I read that David Barrington said that he was in the studio with the Swell Maps, but he was just too stoned to even partake in recording with you. Were the Swell Maps generally more of an excessive or a laid-back band?

Oh well, he sometimes joined us when he was a little bit stoned, but the rest of us, we were straight in the studio. Nothing. Coffee maybe, that’s all. No booze, no drugs. I’ve been asked this quite a few times, especially about our debut album “A Trip to Marineville”.

Yeah, that’s got quite an amphetamine-ridden feeling…

Well, we were young and excitable teenagers. We had a lot of energy. [pause] Yeah, that’s what I tell people. And not all of them believe me.

[laughs] Well…

All our ideas came tumbling out very quickly, in a rush, we were full of adrenaline. Each day was too short. And there was never enough tape.

Whose house is it, burning down on the cover of “A Trip to Marineville”?

Well, we stole that image from an advertising picture in a magazine. It was very small, originally, so we blew it up really big on an early photocopier and the colours are kind of distorted – but we liked it.

In my mind, it always looked a bit like the Godfrey family home in Solihull, where Epic and Nikki grew up [Nikki Sudden’s and Epic Soundtracks last name is Godfrey]. I’m sure they thought about this as well.

From an ad for, like, an insurance company?

Yeah, it was as a matter of fact an insurance company advert, that is true.

We used to steal images from a lot of places, we had no shame. We were into dada, surrealism, cutting-up stuff, collage making. Nothing’s sacred.

© Jowe Head

Way later, you were also part of the exhibition “Paintwork”, dedicated to The Fall.

Bert Holterdorf was the organizer of that. I did a cover version of some Fall song, I think it was “Choc-Stock”, and he said: “You’ve done something about The Fall, why don’t you join this?” So, I took over a painting to Berlin and met some people I had never met before. Jeffrey Lewis was there with his cartoons and a little film – brilliant!

Bert had a gallery in Berlin called Praxis Hagen and I did a solo exhibition there later on. That was of course Berlin before things changed “a bit”, and he couldn’t afford to keep the gallery going. Like London, the prices started going up.

Did the Swell Maps and The Fall ever cross paths?

I was asked to join The Fall. [laughs] I lived in Manchester between 1976 and 1979, I went to art school and there was a great scene back then, better than Birmingham. John McGeoch from Magazine was at the same college, as was Mick Hucknall from Simply Red. He had a great band at that time, Frantic Elevators.

Did Mark E. Smith ask you to join The Fall?

No, I was at a gig – can’t remember which one – and was introduced to The Fall’s manager, Kay Carroll, and she says: “Our bass player has just left, and our friend here tells me that you play the bass. What about it? Do you think you can help us?” I say: “Well, I’m in this band called Swell Maps.” And she probably said: “Oh, I’ve never heard of ‘em.” [laughs] We’d just released our first single.

It might have been a wise decision not to join them. [laughs]

Well, they got Marc Riley, I think they did ok.

And when did you go to London? That was after Nikki started selling souvenirs there, right?

Yeah, I remember this awful souvenir shop on Oxford Street. But he thought it was pretty cool, he just used to hang out there, maybe go to buy some clothes at Carnaby Street, and he had plenty of time in that souvenir shop to write songs. No commitment.

Even better was when he got a job after that at The Vintage Comic Shop, in Covent Garden. I used to visit him and hang out with him there, that was fun. He was massively into old comics and funny old books, so that was perfect for him, he was actually enthusiastic at this place – for good reason.

I moved to Stoke Newington [London] after Manchester to make it easier to work with the band, ‘cause, you know: I was in Manchester, Epic was in Portsmouth, Richard was in Bath, so we formed a diamond shape, it was a bit crazy.

How often did you rehearse?

We didn’t rehearse much, actually. And when we did, we got bored very quickly. We were pretty loose on stage, to be honest. We used to get together nearly every weekend, mainly hitchhiking. If we were recording, we’d all go back to the Midlands. And we were recording a lot. And if we weren’t recording, we were playing gigs. We all had double lives.

What was the other side of your double life?

Art college. Richard and Epic, they were both at art college as well. And this is why Nikki wrote that song “H.S. Art”, it starts the album “A Trip to Marineville”. I said to him: “That’s a strange title, what’s all that about?” He said: “Well, if you spell it backwards, what do you get?” And I thought about it: “T, R, A, S, H – trash!” And he said: “Yeah, trash. And that’s what I think about art. Art is trash!” [laughs]

© Jowe Head

Was Nikki the only one who wanted to continue the Swell Maps and make it a more rock’n’roll outfit, or was the end more complicated?

It was more complicated than that. He was very disappointed when we broke up on that tour through Italy, 1979, 1980, but… [pause] The cracks were obvious, and they were getting wider. He kind of ignored that, really. I wasn’t happy. Richard never liked playing live, he told us later. Epic was fairly easy-going, but had ambitions as well.

Me, Richard and Epic, we all wanted to try something a bit different. Swell Maps live in those days – it was just a bit… it lacked, for me, the adventure of the studio work, experimenting. It’s a shame we could not make the live experience of the concerts a bit more diverse, a bit more interesting.

So how was it for you recreating the Swell Maps shows last weekend?

Oh, that’s why I decided to develop this live experience at Café Oto in that way, to include all these different sounds, some of the experimentation, and I thought: “Maybe this is how we could have done it.”

But things were always constrained in those days by a lack of money, everything was rushed, we had no resources to be able to develop the live performances.

After the end of Swell Maps, how was the relationship with the rest of the gang? Especially with Nikki Sudden, who wanted to continue?

After we split up, we had to finish the second album, “Jane from Occupied Europe”. That was very difficult. We recorded loads of material, but we had to mix it, and had many arguments about what to put on the record, what to leave out, and how to edit it.

In the end, we arrived at a compromise we could all agree on. There are some things on it that I’m still unsure about, you know, but that’s the way it is. And some of what was left over now appears on “Mayday Signals”.

Are the Swell Maps tapes now at your place in London?

Yeah, the cassette archive, it’s just all these boxes, and they’re not very well labelled or archived, so it’s not easy going through them.

You would need another lockdown for that.

Yeah, that’s right. But it was good to collect all the visual material for the book as well, because it doesn’t last forever. And it is a miracle that some of this stuff survived. I had to scan it all, work a lot on enhancing and editing those images, you know, these hand typed lyrics on typewriters and lots of crossings out and corrections, old photos, I thought: “What’s the point of keeping this?!” Very small, and grey, going brown, torn sometimes. But I’d be very surprised to get a very good result out of scanning and enhancing some of this old stuff, old flyers, setlists,…

Steve Underwood, who is one of the publishers [and also founder of the label Harbinger Sound, releasing records by the likes of Sleaford Mods, Heavy Metal, The Pop Group, Smegma, Ramleh, Consumer Electronics,…], I showed him what I had, and his eyes lit up: “Wow, nobody’s ever seen this before! We gotta use all of it!”

I didn’t use all of it. But a lot.

It’s amazing you still have this stuff, that it didn’t get lost over the decades.

Yeah, I moved around a lot, squatting, being homeless sometimes, it is a miracle I was able to hang on to anything. Me and the others, we all had difficult times. Sometimes we dumped stuff at our parents’ houses, sometimes we’d have a few suitcases and dragged them around from place to place. And lots of stuff got lost, anyway. Some of it ended up in Berlin. Some of it got lost in Manchester, I guess.

Did Nikki’s stuff get lost completely?

[sighs] Well, that’s a problem in itself. Nikki recorded so much, constantly. I don’t want to go too far into this, but Nikki’s most recent ex-partner, err… I think she had a lot of material, and I’m not optimistic about having access to that. I have tried. But… I don’t want to make a big difficulty about it. It would be nice to sooner or later get access to some of that, that’s all I say.

Jowe Head celebrating the Swell Maps sessions at Café Oto
on 3rd December 2021 © Rokko

Did you stay in touch with the Swell Maps after you split?

Yeah, all of them! And I’m still in touch with Richard, he now restores antique racing cars in the Midlands, in an old farmhouse. John Cockrill was onstage on Friday. David, Phones Sportsman I still contact a lot, I still collaborate with him sometimes. He’s never played live in his life. That’s why he left the band, he says. He was on the first single and he was a guest on other records, but he was too scared of playing live, which is so weird, because when he’s in the studio, recording, he’s very excitable, and you can’t stop him. Have you ever heard his solo single? We recorded it in a Swell Map session. He went crazy, we couldn’t hold him back, shouting, improvising weird songs, picking things up and playing them, and throwing them down and playing more. It was a very strange experience, but Phones is a kind of genius, an eccentric fellow.

After the Swell Maps ended, did you collaborate with Nikki or Epic again?

Oh, Epic, yeah, in 1981, we… [laughs] we were living as neighbours. I don’t know how the hell it happened, but I was living in Stoke Newington after squatting a place, and I didn’t know what the other Swell Maps guys were doing, I wasn’t really interested, I must admit. But I noticed some people moving in on the other side of the road, directly opposite, and I thought: “I recognize those people!” It was Epic and Richard. Strange thing.

So, we gradually started seeing each other again. Epic and Richard were still close friends, and Richard wanted to make an album with Epic on drums, but Epic was busy with Red Krayola, and he was recording a single with Robert Wyatt singing. Richard was a bit pissed off, so he started recording the album on his own, in that house with our shared 4-track tape machine. We bought it off the studio when they upgraded to 8-track.

Red Krayola finished after a few months, and I started to hang out with Epic again. We decided to make an album together and listened to a lot of different stuff: African music, archive recordings from Native American tribes, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft,…

We still had that chemistry and started recording, finished two tracks for Rough Trade, they put it out on a single and it sounded great. But we ran out of money, Rough Trade didn’t want to help us, and we still had this idealistic idea to control our own material by paying for it and owning the tapes – that was very important, and what we also did with Swell Maps. It was all determination to stay independent.

Then we got distracted, Epic joined another band, so did I, and those recordings got put on the shelf. It’s a shame we never got to finish it when he was still alive – but I’m finishing it now. I found the tapes somewhere, had to take them to a laboratory to go into an oven to be baked. The problem with some old tapes is, they have, what is called, “sticky shed syndrome”. Where the coating of the tapes starts to come off – so it’s got to be baked in an oven, and then efficiently transferred to digital files afterwards. I got all that done and I’m halfway through finishing it off, because there is a lot of brilliant material. It just needs mixing and editing.

Who played what in the original recordings?

Epic played drums and a lot of piano, I played bass, some guitar, some vocals, blew a bit of sax.

What’s the name of this project?

Soundtracks & Head. And the album was called “Daga Daga Daga”.

It sounds strange, but that’s what I’ve heard when it comes to Epic’s death: “He died of a broken heart.”

[pause] Well, to be quite honest, I’d lost touch with Epic for a few years, so I didn’t see him so much later on. You know, his romantic life wasn’t always very happy and smooth, but same with me, so I quite sympathized with him sometimes. [pause] But that’s a very romantic notion, isn’t it? The cause of death was unknown – I’m told. That’s all I want to say about it, really. It’s very sad. Yeah, tragic.

Did Epic and Nikki have any other siblings?

No, it was just the two of them. And sadly, the two brothers died before their parents. That’s even more tragic.

Jowe Head at the Swell Maps sessions at Café Oto
on 4th December 2021 © Rokko

Coming back to your book, which is going to be published in February: The content is more or less the history of the Swell Maps, right?

Yeah, but I wanted to give a context for the book, so I went back to my childhood, meeting Nikki at school – because, from my perspective, that’s where the story begins. But I also wanted to focus on David and Epic and Richard, I thought it was interesting to try and explain our roots and where we came from and what it was like to live in that place. There are ridiculous non-musical adventures when we were teenagers, I put a lot of that kind of stuff in. Me and Nikki did a lot of weird things together.

When the Swell Maps disbanded, did you find the musical freedom you were looking for, or did you sometimes regret it?

I never regretted leaving Swell Maps, because I think it was the right time. It might have been worth considering that we took a holiday from it and came back to it – but, for three of us, we had no motivation to do that. And anyway, Swell Maps was just a part of this musical scene we had, which was maybe six or seven people – it was a pretty tight scene, a collective, and we all collaborated with each other in different combinations – and that’s how we started off. Throughout the early 1970s, two or three or four of us would meet up – whoever was available – and different kinds of duos or trios would have different kinds of characters and project titles. We were teenagers, and it was just that Swell Maps was the most evident, active part of that scene.

But there was more going on.

What are your other current musical projects?

I’ve got a few other projects, one of them is called Infernal Contraption, with Catherine Gerbrands; I work with a family of musicians called the Rude Mechanicals; I sometimes do solo work; I have composed and recorded a film soundtrack recently – my first film soundtrack!

Can you say anything about the film?

Yeah! Grant McPhee is a Scottish film director, and he’s best known for two music films: One is called “Big Gold Dream”, about the post-punk scene in Glasgow; and the second one is “Teenage Superstars”, which is about the generation of Scottish music after that, which has more to do with Creation Records and bands like Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits, Vaselines,…

I used to regularly travel to the USA as well to play with various people over there, but I haven’t been able to do that for a while. I’ve got a regular combo in New York, The Celestial Choir, featuring Brian Turner [formerly music director of radio WFMU] and some other friends.

And I’m also working on book number three, which is my musical life after Swell Maps.

Oh, and some people are asking me if I want to do a book about Television Personalities – we didn’t even mention them, did we?!

No, well, that sounds like a whole other story…!

© Jowe Head