Stomp – Interview 2015

The international phenomenon that is Stomp has its roots in Brighton, which is where their HQ is still based. In Hove actually, in The Old Market, a grade II listed building built by Charles Busby and steeped in history. It's a building that was erected in 1828 for the purposes of providing a marketplace for the sale of meat, fish and vegetables, and supplied the residential development of Brunswick, then an independent enclave. Which seems apt, as Stomp themselves, and their overall production company Yes/No Productions, have carved out a hugely impressive performing arts and film company, that remains totally independent, and is still very much a part of the local fabric.


Now a fully operational arts venue, The Old Market (TOM) is where I met Luke Cresswell, who along with his long time creative, business and performing partner Steve McNicholas, created Stomp. From playing the sofa with wooden spoons in his parents home from the age of nine to performing at the Oscars and the London Olympics closing ceremony, Stomp has become a world-wide experience with four, sometimes five companies altogether, including permanent operations in New York and London. From busking on the streets of Brighton to 'stomping' on some of the biggest stages in the world, Stomp is a highly infectious physical and musical theatre show that is wordless, instead built on the idea of the international language of rhythm. Percussive rhythm. Using anything and everything from dustbins to brooms, and of course the human body itself, the show incorporates hefty doses of slapstick humour and dance choreography. Stomp is a thoughtful, joyful, comedic, riotous, and truly engaging show that has been seen by millions around the globe.

As well as Stomp, there's Pandemonium: The Lost & Found Orchestra, a more recent musical theatre venture that has also been performed around the globe, and which uses ordinary objects and bespoke creations in creating a symphonic work; a film production company that has released four IMAX films so far. And of course, there's the backstory to Stomp, that features Brighton legends Pookiesnackenburger, drumming with DJ Norman Cook and Beats International, and much else besides…

 

How did you end up here, in TOM?
"We used this place for rehearsing many-a-time. In fact, this building was the first place that me and Steve first met, when we were rehearsing back in the day, when it was an arts space. We also recorded here a lot before we bought the place; the sound in the room is fantastic, so we recorded our film scores there, with strings. And so when we were working on that we were told it was up for sale and there was talk of it becoming a church. There was talk of it becoming anything but a venue, and we just thought that was wrong. We thought it would be nice to keep it running as a venue, and that was the reason to buy it, to keep it running as a venue and as a space we could keep using.

"The first thing we did with the main hall was put the seats in, because it always felt like a school, like a gymnasium. So we put the seats in, which are electronic, so we can have 200 seats which can slide back, plus 100 seats on the floor. A lot of the money was spent on that. Now it's a really nice 300 seater or 500 standing venue."

Before they bought TOM, Yes/No Productions had been searching for a permanent home, and for a while it looked like the Astoria Theatre, on Gloucester Place, would be the one. Built in 1933 as a cinema, it became a bingo hall in 1978 before closing its doors in 1987. Criminally, the building has remained empty since then (bar an illegal rave I went to there one New Year's Eve…), changing ownership more than once, while the building continues to decay and become useless in it's present form… Yes/No bought the building in 2001 for just over £1m, with a view to opening it up again for performance.

"At that time we were very keen, and that was the same sort of thing as TOM; it was going under, to be converted into flats. So we bought it at a knock down price, which still wasn't cheap, but the idea again was to keep it as a venue, perhaps make it more of a theatrical venue. But it was ridiculously expensive. Basically, the council had let it completely rot from the inside out, so the only thing left was the facade, and it would have cost millions and millions. It was an impossible dream. A very frustrating dream because everyone kept saying, 'are you going to get this theatre done'? The council were useless; as soon as we bought it they started having a go at us for it falling down! 'You let it fall down'! 'Now that we've bought it, you're having a go at us!?' It'll become flats…

"It's a fantastic space, but there's all this asbestos as well. It's just flawed… the cheapest way to do it would be to knock the whole thing down, and keep the facade… Bottom line is that it'll become flats, maybe with something token for the arts. The Academy Group nearly bought it off us, but then they got the Hippodrome… It's difficult because what happened – and it happened here a little bit – is that when a venue isn't used for a long time the residents that move here forget it's a venue, and when you suddenly open it as a venue they all complain about noise… That was another problem with that space, literally behind it are houses."

 

 

Back to The Old Market, and despite the difficulties in making it work financially (a problem that bedevils almost all performing venues), it seems as if Luke and co are going to stick it out… "We never bought it for us, we've never even performed there. It was always to have as an environment, a space, but not a charity… not put any old tat on. The idea is to have some level of censorship, trying to put stuff on that we think is good. It needs some proper programming, and the people here have worked really hard at programming – good theatre, good music, good comedy… I like to think that if you come to see something here, someone has vetted it for you.

"There is sometimes – and as a Brightonian I am aware of and been guilty of this – lots of talk and less walk. If you talk to people about the venue they'll say 'that's fantastic!'; but will they actually come and see anything!? So, it's about getting people to not talk about something, and to support something by buying a ticket. There's a lot of: 'Oh, I love what you're doing, any chance of a free ticket'!? The best way to support a venue is to buy a reasonably priced ticket, to see some really good art. That's what I wish people would do," he laughs.

"I want the venue to keep going, I'm not sure how that will work in the future, whether it becomes a trust or a charity, but at the moment we are happy to try and keep it afloat. For a non-funded venue it's doing amazingly well. But it would be great to get a helping hand from someone…"

Luke Cresswell was born in 1960, here in Brighton. His older brother Addison was the Brighton Polytechnic (now Brighton University) Entertainments Officer in the late 70s and early 80s, before becoming a top comedy agent to the stars. And although his brother was responsible for organising shows for the likes of U2 and New Order's first ever show (post Ian Curtis and Joy Division), it was Luke who became obsessed with music, and percussion in particular.

"Yep, born and bred here, although I went to Falmer," he laughs. "I love Brighton, it's a great city to come back to. I'm very lucky; I travel and go to many places, but Brighton is always great to come back to. I think, if I just lived in Brighton I would end up moving because it can swallow you up a little bit. But it's a great place; there's an amazing amount of talented people here, especially for the arts."

Do you think its always been like that? "Yes, I do. It's just got bigger. Even when I grew up it was a time of The Piranhas and Nicky and The Dots, and The Chefs, new wave, and punk. The scene was great, the music phenomenal. I used to rehearse and play at The Vault (Queens Road), which is now the Brighthelm Centre. It was literally a vault, with coffins in there! That was early punk, where anything would happen. Brighton has always had that, from the 60s, the Dora Bryans of this world…"

How did you get into drumming? "I just drummed, got into it when I was nine. That was all I wanted to do. I left school at 15 and drummed. I didn't go back to school! When I was in my twenties I taught myself to read and got more interested in time signatures, notation and scoring. Just wanting to learn more and being slighting envious of those who knew more, and wanting to catch up. But I still have a kit, and love playing the drums. It was growing up as a kid watching Top of the Pops that got me. It was watching Slade, and Sweet, and Gary Glitter – for his sins. The Glitter Band had the two drummers, which was fantastic. And then punk exploded and it was a very exciting time. It was interesting – and I don't think this has happened since – but the idea that you didn't have to be a fantastic drummer or player; you could just play. And that meant all these amazing people suddenly became musicians, who hadn't dreamed of being a musician before, because the music allowed that to happen. Lyrics became different too, it wasn't just someone wanting to sing a ballad. It was also a turbulent political time, because of Thatcher, and the miner strikes… An interesting time."

 

 

What was your first band? "My first band was when I was at school, called The Plague. And then they became The Toniks, and then they became The Techniques. In those days, being in a band was like having a girlfriend, everyone swapped and changed…"

How did Pookiesnackenburger come about?

"Pookiesnackenburger was a weird thing. We had John (Helmer) from The Piranhas – they were like the top dog band in Brighton – and there was Nicky Dwyer (aka Nicky from Nicky and the Dots) and Paul Clark from The Dots, and I was a drummer and Steve was there too. Basically, in an evening in the pub we decided to do some busking the next day to make some money. And it was that classic thing where the hobby became more popular than the serous stuff we did. The serious stuff was put under the bush for a while. But it brought you into performance, which is what I enjoyed about it. It allowed, especially being the drummer, to be a performer. And that was life changing. In a normal band you sit on the drum kit at the back, get your head down and keep the beat. All of a sudden, you're on the street and performing, and you are as naked as everyone else. You had to stand up and be counted.

"We played around the North Laine, Gardner Street, under the pier, everywhere. Then we started doing Covent Garden. Back in the day you literally had to beg to do a spot there. Really beg. JJ Waller (now known primarily as a Brighton photographer) was one of the kings of Covent Garden at the time, doing his street act, and he allowed us to do a spot. And we were good. We brought loads of people to see us. Basically, you've got to stop people, and because we got a big crowd, other people said we could do a pitch, and we became regulars there for a good year, earned good money. If you're doing street performance it's about stopping people, grabbing and keeping hold of them, and then getting money off them. A great way to learn your trade; there is no hiding place…"

Formed in 1981 Pookiesnackenburger (or The Pooks, as they became known as) and named after a character on a compilation album of 1960s American radio recordings, they released a number of singles and albums that were a mixture of rhythm and blues and comedy, a couple of which were released on Stiff Records. They also had an eponymous 1985 Channel 4 television series… You can even find some of that online, their 'Hell Bent' episode being particularly remembered, a forerunner of This is Spinal Tap…

 

 

'Yeah…," laughs Luke at the memory. "It was never taken that seriously, and the albums were made because we were regulars at Edinburgh Festival. I always saw it as merchandise rather than a serious album. And it was the birth of Channel 4 – they were just starting – and they were desperate for stuff, so that is how the series got made… It was all good though. I was very young! I had a great time, but it was bizarre. You would be doing street performance in a band like that, then next thing you know we're doing a Red Wedge gig with Billy Bragg. It was at that funny time when people could mix and match. Alexei Sayle would be a stand up comedian and we would be up before him. Very eclectic. Again, I haven't seen that happening since; music, comedy and street performance mixed up."

But the itch to become serious musicians proved too strong, and in the mid-80s Steve and Luke formed Yes/No People.

"The thing with the Pooks was that it was more performance than music. Which was fantastic because that is how you learn about performance. But the music was definitely secondary to performance. After a while I wanted to get back to serious music. So, me and Steve left and formed Yes/No. Steve was the singer, guitarist, everything. He was actually part of Cliff Hanger Theatre group, along with Pete McCarthy and Tony Haas. He's a musician from an actor's point of view. I was brought up in bands and clubs; that's what makes it's an interesting combination. Pookies was really just a bunch of friends wanting to have a laugh. Hence the stupid name, because it was a throwaway thing.

"Again, with Yes/No it was an exciting time, because the jazz scene was kicking off in London, like the Jazz Warriors. We had a phenomenal band, people like Steve Williamson. All very young, having a great time, and we signed to London Records. Pete Tong was our A&R guy, and it all went Pete Tong!" he laughs. "It went horribly rock 'n' roll; differences in attitude, differences in taste, and it stalled as most bands do. A shame, because it had great potential, but as with most things record companies sign you up because they see a different potential than what you see.

 

 

"At the same time as doing Yes/No I was doing stuff with Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), and doing sessions. I was doing clubs with Norman; I'd be upside down, hung up, playing drums, stuck there for ages. He would play, I would play… we used to play The Zap, and the Escape which is now Audio. And I also did Beats International with Norman, and Dub Be Good To Me. That was a good thing, that song became number one, this huge thing. And I got it out of my system. It is what it is, and I don't want it anymore!"

While all this happening, and by a mixture of accident and design, the beginnings of Stomp were taking shape…

"We got stuck with London Records, they wouldn't let us (Yes/No People) go. At the same time we couldn't work, so Stomp, ironically, could do so, because there was no copyright infringement; it wasn't melody. That was one of the reasons why Stomp got going because London Records wouldn't let us write any music, or leave the label. We were stuck, but they couldn't stop us doing a drumming theatrical performance thing… In a way, it was their censorship that enabled Stomp to grow. We kept the name Yes/No productions, but I missed performance. Everything had become too serious, too pretentious. You know, even down to what clothes you are wearing… Stomp was what I had missed going back to Pooks. But I didn't want to parody something, I wanted to do something else… I've always said Stomp was a case of looking back at lots of things and saying: 'Well, if we did just this…. But, it was never a case of sitting sown and writing the show."

In 1986, at the tail end of Pookiesnackenburger, they were asked to choreograph an advert for Heinekin, which Luke duly put together… "It was while doing Pooks that the 'bins' piece came about for Heinekin. I had written a whole drum thing with dustbins which Pooks performed, just using dustbins as drums. It was me just getting into the idea of doing something that was just rhythmic. We would end the Pooks set with that. And then we got approached to do the Heinekin ad. We'd split up by then but got back together to do it. It was all plates still spanning, with me and Steve doing Yes/No… How Stomp finally came about was when Bette Midler's husband, Harry Kipper, saw the ad. That's his stage name," he laughs. "They had a programme called Mondo Beyondo, a public access programmme in America, which Bette Middler was hosting. It was a fantastic programme looking back on it. They did it as a showcase for what they thought was interesting in the world of performance art. We got invited to do it, and so we went to New York and that was the birth of Stomp. La La La Humansteps (Quebecois contemporary dance company) were on it, Bill Irwin was on it, the guys from Jam & The Groove, which was Mr Wiggle and all the hip hop dancers. All these went on to do really interesting and groundbreaking work. Whoever put it together had really good taste! Me and Steve went out and did it, loved it, and then started working on the idea that we should put something together and put it on stage, and do it at Edinburgh."

 

 

Another key stepping stone was when they produced a number of video shorts for the short-lived ITV children's show A Beetle Called Derek. "It was a children's programme that was mad enough to let us go and make our own shorts, to be inserted within the programme. There was one film where we were in a waiting room, fingers tapping on the table, a ticking clock, coughing and sniffing, developing all the time. If you're in the underground I love listening to shoes; hearing high heels walking at a faster pace for instance. There's a pace to life, even in conversation… some people speak faster than others, there's a pace to that. It's just exaggerations of that."

That same year, 1991, Stomp finally made it to the live stage, at that citadel of fringe theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe. Premiering at the Assembly Rooms, it became the Guardian's Critics Choice. And, it had a cast of just seven, several of whom remain with the company to this day. "We were on at midnight and we didn't get an audience. The only audience we got was the other shows, all the other performers. We weren't getting the public in and losing money. But, because of that we got invited to Australia, and that's where it really kicked off, at Adelaide Festival. It went completely crazy. Even though it didn't work in Edinburgh, I thought it was good. We had all the other acts, like Archaos (legendary French circus company) who would come and love it. We were getting good kudos and feedback back in the bar, but frustrating that we weren't getting an audience.

"Our workout was basically rehearsing for the show. We literally used to have a cigarette (mimics puffing a fag), put it out and go on stage. When we first put the show together we nearly died, because we hadn't run it as one. We'd do one bit, stop, have a cigarette, think about it. Then do the next bit. When we first did it without a break we nearly had a heart attack! We thought that was insane, hence we ended up putting some smaller pieces in just so that we could catch our breath."

How do you begin, how does an idea evolve? "The way I see it there are always two things going on; there's the sound of rhythm, how you hear something. But also how you see rhythm, how you look at something. Most of the choreography, it's not about how one moves the body, but how we move to a place. Someone may move from A to B, and move however they want to move, but the point is we'll get to this point at a certain time, and that becomes the rhythm, the rhythm that you see. I've always liked that, I've always found that fascinating. A routine can start from something visually. We could sit around and drum this table and it would be interesting for about five seconds. If the rhythm was interesting you might listen to it for longer. If we suddenly started spinning on the chairs, and moving the table, and getting movement then we might be more engaging still. If you add humour to that you get into another area… I suppose it is like using it like a language, but in two ways. Not just in audio, but in movement, so you can see it.

 

 

"A lot of the humour in Stomp has been based one the idea of oneupmanship, which is a British trait. There's that great sketch with Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese, where they each talk about looking down or looking up to one another. I think our society still has that, and a lot of the humour – you know, 'I've got something bigger than you, but my smaller is better' – if it isn't that then it's just Broadway 'yat-ta-da-da' show business, which does your head in. Trying to teach that edge, that culture, because it's very much a British thing, can take time. I imagine it would work well in India, because of the caste system, but it's harder in America because you don't have that class system."

Over the last 20 or so years, there has been no stopping Stomp, as it travels around the world, expanding into its current format of four, sometimes five groups, existing and touring at any one time, with the first American cast assembled in 1994. The show has received a multitude of awards, been featured in further TV commercials, such as the Coca Cola 'Ice-pick' advert, and in 1996 their 15 minute short film, Brooms, was nominated for an Academy Award, to which they were subsequently invited to perform at the awards ceremony. To this day, Stomp is consistently selling out theatres around the globe, although long gone are the days when Luke actually performs with Stomp. "I'm too old to perform with Stomp! Stomp was written 20 years ago as a younger person. I like the idea that Stomp isn't like The Rolling Stones in the sense that when you go and see them they look older and seem slower. Stomp still has that same freshness and vigour as it always had, because it's not based on any one person or people.

"The only place we haven't really conquered yet, he says with a glint (as we look at the map of the world in the Stomp office), is India. It's really just infrastructure. It will happen…"

More recently, Luke and Steve developed Pandemonium: The Lost & Found Orchestra, initially commissioned by Brighton Festival in 2006 for its 40th anniversary. The basic premise was to create an entire orchestra, replacing each section with invented instruments and found objects, and bringing together the elements of physical theatre and silent comedy from Stomp to an eclectic orchestral concert. "It was an area to experiment with melody. The idea was to try and do something that featured an eclectic orchestra made up of all these different sounds, and that could move. Could it become symphonic? That was the goal. It is performance based, but could you get it to such a point where you can forget you're playing drainpipes and stupid crap. Can you get it so good and get it to such a point that it becomes symphonic?

 

 

"It was fun bringing musicians into that world. They can be conservative – not conservative in their musicianship, some can be really avant grade and experimental – but to get them physically to perform. Once that door opens you have to calm them down!

Many of Brighton's finest have performed with Lost & Found including Nick Pynn, Tom Arnold, Charlotte Glasson, Tim Wade, Stephen Wrigley, Robert Heasman and Nuala Friedman, playing a bewildering array of 'lost and found' instruments. "Mike Roberts did most of the instruments, and it was done over a long period. Initially, we did loads of workshops, trying to find what worked. And if you found something that worked, could you replicate it? And, would it be strong enough to be used? It's such an expensive and labour intensive show though, so we have to put back it back in it's box. We did it it Paris last Christmas, and Cologne in the summer, just a week run."

Along with Stomp and The Lost & Found Orchestra, Luke, along with Steve, has developed his passion for film, and more recently combined that with his love of scuba diving Their first feature documentary was Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey, released in 2002. The film begins with members of Stomp pounding out a beat from the windows and fire escapes from several floors of a rundown New York apartment building and proceeds with brief segments depicting the various international troupes performing on their own turf. "That was a homage to the things that influenced Stomp. Someone approached us about doing an IMAX version of the show, which we didn't want to do. Cirque Soleil had just done an IMAX film… Stomp is a live show, if you want to see it, go and see it live. I didn't want to do a film version of the stage show. But doing a film about the influences of Stomp was something we did want to do. So, we literally looked at the map. Kodo (Taiko drumming from Japan) was something that influenced Stomp, that was a show we saw at Edinburgh festival. Then there was The Drummers of Burundi, who we saw in Covent Garden, and that's what influenced the bin routine; they were all carrying their drums, like dustmen. Fantastic. We also wanted to do flamenco, and the Gumboots of South Africa, just all these areas of influence. We also wanted to do the film without lyrics, without narration, just like a Stomp show. Let it speak for itself.

"We've done four IMAX films so far, the last one is under water. I'm a passionate scuba diver and it was something I got doing when we were touring. We've done, Wild Ocean, The Last Reef (about the disappearing Coral Reefs) and a film about the Great White Shark. We shoot them, edit them and do the score. Basically, it's natural history. The scores are recorded here, in TOM.

What projects are you currently working on? "We're working on a feature film at the moment. It's a narrative feature film using the language of Stomp, and set on location. It will almost be like going back to where we started with our little short films. Just pure music and rhythm.
"I'd also like to do something here (TOM) at some point, it would be silly not to! To have a theatre and never perform in it! It's a great space to try ideas out. And the acoustics are great. I've got to stop thinking of ideas that are so bloody big…

Jeff Hemmings

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