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The Professionals - Autumn 2021

The Professionals: Tom, Paul and Toshi
The Professionals: Tom, Paul and Toshi

Punk rock band The Professionals returned to active service in 2015 with Paul Cook and Tom Spencer leading the charge with the release of 2017’s stand out album What in The World. Now they are back with Toshi Ogawa (bass) to bring us their incredible new album SNAFU. With guests musicians Billy Duffy, Phil Collen, Jonny Weathers and Neil Ivison joining them along the way, The Professionals have created something very special indeed. We catch up with Paul and Tom at their studio in Shepherd’s Bush, and what a glorious studio it is too. With the racks and racks of vintage vinyl inviting us to thumb through them, it really is an Aladdin’s Cave and a music lover’s dream. Following their huge welcome we make ourselves comfortable, ready to hear how it all came together… 


Well of course, the first thing I want to talk about is the new album SNAFU, which for the uninformed means ‘situation normal – all fucked up’. Now reflecting on the fantastic album artwork which shows broken regal imagery presented in a stained-glass format, I feel this may be a fairly easy question to ask, but what or who were you thinking of when you decided on the title of this album?


Tom - Well it’s a mixture of us and the world really because the whole album has been made during lockdown, and leading up to lockdown was Brexit. And of course during lockdown the chaos within The Professionals losing a band member during the recording process, it was a working title. It’s an old army term which relates to old Spitfire pilots jumping into planes and flying on speed rather than musicians but I think it sums things up.

Paul - It’s perfect for the moment. It’s an old army term but we’re trying to revive it!

Well the title is working and I know it’s generating lots of conversation, because like you’ve just mentioned, lots of people haven’t heard of it before.

Paul - It’s perfect for what’s going on at the moment, especially in England with Covid, Brexit, the petrol crisis and stuff.

I think it’s really interesting that you mention the state of the country because when I heard the title SNAFU, it made me reflect on this, and of course this was something The Sex Pistols were rising up against back in the day. Do you think anything has really changed since 76?

Paul - Of course times have changed since then, we’ve moved on and there’s lots of stuff that’s got better. But at this point in time it just seems like we’re going back in time a little to the 70s and disruption when there was the winter of discontent, three day week and all that sort of thing. That’s what it reminds me of with the Covid lockdown.
Tom – Didn’t we enter the EU in the 70s? It just seems that the older you get the more you see the circles of history repeating themselves.
Paul - It has changed for the better in a lot of ways but at the moment there’s a strange feeling about a return to those days. Who knows, there might be strikes and we might be sitting around candle lights.
Tom – Fork handles! (The Two Ronnies Four Candles reference – Ed) (Laughs!)

Let’s talk about the new music and I’d like to start with the opening track. Easily Lead starts wonderfully with Paul leading the charge with a fantastic beat before the guitars kick in – and there are some incredibly cool guitar hooks here. It’s a wonderful track to open the record with. The title and the lyrics are really interesting: “With a gun to my head I’m so easily lead”. That contradictory line is very clever, and it suggests there may have been times where you’ve done things simply because you’ve been forced to. Was there anything in particular you were thinking about when you wrote that lyric?

Tom - The song is a little bit more complex than that. Me and Paul are easily lead personalities. We lead each other astray. He was famously led astray by Steve Jones before that. By the way, I made the stained glass cover, and it’s as the result of working with the stained glass I get lead poisoning occasionally. So the song has got an undertone of lead poisoning throughout. So a lot of the lyrics, once you know that, relate to lead poisoning which is an old-fashioned disease that modern doctors don’t know how to deal with.
Paul – Yeah, we like to be a bit ambiguous on the lyrics and not be too obvious about what we are saying and try and let people work it out for themselves and to think about it. So that’s kind of the general idea lyric wise.
Tom - Paul said that I wrote most of the lyrics but the truth is I can get up my own arse and that’s often where Paul comes in, so the lyrics are very cowritten in that sense.

The next song I would like to talk about is the lead track Spike Me Baby. Paul, this is a highly autobiographical track telling the story about the karma you received from helping yourself to your daughter Hollie’s herbally enhanced chocolates! Tell us more about this quite unexpected experience.

Paul - Yeah, you’ve got the gist of the story there! My daughter lives a couple of doors down from me and so whenever we run out of provisions, if she isn’t home I go in and raid her fridge. One particular day I just felt like some chocolate and she had these little chocolate balls in her fridge, and I thought “Oh, they’ll do!”. I was doing some work in there and I don’t even remember munching on them, and that evening I started feeling very strange. The worst thing about it was not knowing why I was feeling strange. I asked her as she didn’t have an answer, because she didn’t know they were there apparently. They were from a friend of a friend etc, and I was on the phone to Tom acting very strange and freaking out. I was getting very paranoid but at the end of the day I phoned Tom back and I was feeling quite good about it. I was listening to some music telling him that I’m alright now and I’m feeling great! I had been inadvertently spiked, but I didn’t know until a few days later when she was clearing out her fridge and she asked me “by the way, the other day when you are feeling strange, did you take any of these?”… and then the penny dropped! At least I knew why! The worst thing about it was not knowing why.

She wasn’t cross with you for nicking them was she, Paul?
Paul - No, I was cross with her though for not telling me they were in there!
Tom - That’s why we have her on backing vocals on the song, because she’s part of the story.

Well that’s something else I wanted to pick up on because Hollie does provide gorgeous backing vocals on this track. What does it mean to you to have your daughter included in the album and also how does Hollie feel about being the inspiration for this particular song ?

Paul - It was great to get her on there. As you probably know she is a musician in her own right and we’ve never worked together really. I’ve never played with her before but it was Tom’s idea really. He said it will be great to get her on there but we were so stuck for time. We managed to get her on there right at the death where we managed to get her to sing a line at the end of the song. Making the album has been a bit of a chore over the lockdown because we’ve not been able to get together. I think it was the last thing that we did on the album wasn’t it?
Tom – I was keen to get her on the video too, but that was complicated enough just to get the musicians there. It would have beee great for her to be there because she was part of the story. But from the outside, seeing Paul’s face listening to what came out the speakers was really nice.

Well let’s talk about the video to Spike Me Baby because it is absolutely fantastic. It was filmed at the Olympia building which proved to be a wonderful location and a backdrop for the track. It was an eerily empty venue. You didn’t break-in did you?

Tom – (Laughs!) No, but should have done, shouldn’t we! We got a weird opportunity from a guy called Mark Sloper who is a friend of Paul’s and he’s made the last two videos with us. Olympia is an exhibition Centre in London near Earls Court and they’re doing one of those developments on it. It’s getting a complete makeover. Apparently they are going to have a new Ronnie Scott’s in there. They turned it into a Victorian shell and we got a chance to go in there before all the building work. It was great just to be there let alone make a video. So we just jumped on it.
Paul - We just had a connection there and they were like “yeah, come down!”. I’m glad we’ve got that because it’s probably the last bit of filming they have in there before it’s redevelopment into offices and shops. If that’s for the better I don’t know. I think what’s great about it is that they are keeping the original structure which is a fantastic building, and it’s local to us as well and it’s part of our heritage. It was great filming there.
Tom – When we were filming there they had photos of the old development being displayed in Victorian times. It’s got a lot of history.

I think what’s really special about this video is that it brings out how much fun you as a band are having. Great music, swapping instruments… I just wanted to pick up a guitar and join in.
Tom - That’s a brilliant compliment! Thank you! The idea for swapping instruments was just because it’s daft and it’s how the chorus is emphasising the spike me, and how everything is gone a bit weird!

I think that element of fun and escapism is a wonderfully reflected throughout the whole of SNAFU. But as a band what was your vision for the album?
Tom - I think that’s hard to answer because of how we have had to make it. It took too long to make but not because of recording time but because of all the restrictions we’ve had to live with.
Paul – At one point we were feeling that happy vibe of doing it and in the end it became about finishing the fucker. Hopefully our natural personalities comes out in that. We were dying to get reactions like what you’ve just said. We weren’t sure where we were going musically, really. We were writing the songs and putting all these ideas together and we were going “Is this us? Does this sound like The Professionals? Are we doing this right? Are we doing that wrong ?” and in the end we just thought whatever comes out, let’s go with it. This is what we’re feeling at the moment and let’s just see where we go musically. We were a bit unsure of ourselves actually. We just went with it, I guess. That’s the best way to put it.

You are joined by guest guitarists Billy Duffy and Phil Collen for this album. Paul, you have of course worked with Phil before in Manraze, but how did these collaborations come about and how did they shape the overall sound of SNAFU?

Paul - Well it came about really easily. We got them to play on our last record What In The World because we were a guitarist short then as we are now, in this ever-changing lineup of The Professionals. For that record I just thought ‘You know what? We haven’t got a guitarist, I’m just going to phone up my friends, get the phone book out and see if they’re interested’ and they were. They were really up for it. We lost our guitarist Chris McCormack during lockdown for various reasons. A lot of it to do with lockdown actually. So we were guitarist short again so I did the same thing. We sent over the guitar tracks to them in LA, they put their contributions down, sent them back, we chopped and changed and cut and pasted what they’d done and it worked out great again. You’ve got to guess which guitarist is playing where because we haven’t labelled it on the album.

And I quite like the fact that you haven’t said on the album where guest contributions have been made. If fans want to analyse the album to find where the Billy and Phil nuances are then they can do so and it becomes a discussion point.

Tom – Yes! When they play solos they are very distinctive, both of them. But more importantly some of the ghost parts they play on the album are great. The Professionals by nature is a four piece band and I can play different styles of a guitar and do that but you really need other personalities on the tracks sometimes to do it. Me and Paul then have the power of edit. Sometimes we put the parts where they didn’t plan on playing them and that was part of our creative process.
Paul - We’ve also got another couple of guitarists on there, a local friend of ours, Jonny Weathers - he’s on a couple of tracks there - and Neil Ivison, and old friend of Tom’s, is on there as well.

We absolutely do need to pick up on the contributions from Jonny Weathers and Neil Ivison. Again, Paul, you’ve worked with Jonny before, the Sonic Assault EP being a personal favourite of mine. I also think Neil’s passion for the guitar is deep and unique, with his successes as a session musician, with his own band Stone Mountain Sinners and also the owner of his own guitar company. Two very gifted musicians, surely it must’ve felt a huge privilege to work with Johnny and Neil?

Tom – Neil’s guitars, right, i’ve always known that he’s a lovely bloke and he did guitar teching for a while which was wrong really, but because he was working with the band 1975 and touring the world but then he wanted to be back with his kids. So he started making guitars and they are stupidly good. He can’t make the them quick enough. He’s doubled the size of his workshop, he hasn’t taken on any more staff yet but he’s got so many back orders. If you ever get a chance to play one, take it. Because he is a musician they are ridiculously good. It’s so hard to get into them especially because they are based on Gibson-like shapes. It’s so hard to crack that world but he is very good at his job!
Paul - And Jonny Weathers. He comes from Hartlepool. Jonny just turned up and we started talking about guitar and how he teaches guitar, and I just suggested we get together. He wanted me to play drums on the Sonic Assault EP and that worked out great. We’ve ended up being good friends and collaborating and he’s a great guy. He’s got another album coming out soon actually that I played on. Toshi our bass player also played on it. We can’t forget Toshi! Jonny’s got Phil Collen on there as well and that just shows what a great guy Phil actually is. He plays for one of the biggest bands in the world, and Jonny was just sending stuff over, telling him how he was playing with Paul, and he put guitar on for him and sent it back. That’s how it should be, I think!

Let’s move onto The Professionals in a live setting. In August, you played 5 shows as part of the Pretty Vaccinated tour. How did it feel to be back on stage?

Tom - This was the first time we played since the initial lockdown and it was just great to play a festival and do some warmup shows. We put the jokey name on there and played some very little venues just to get back in. We chose the name because it reminded us of the early Pistols tour going to towns we don’t normally go to.

The great news is that The professionals are back playing 14 dates in October across the UK to support the new album. 14 dates in only 16 days. That’s quite an intense tour! How do you prepare for and survive a tour like this?

Tom – I’d rather not have any days off! When we have a day off we tend to get in trouble, get into mischief and go down the pub. At least you get a routine going. It’s great and a nice compact tour.
Paul - You’re right there because you look after yourself because you know you’ve got a gig the next day. We can get into trouble if we’ve got a couple of days off and we cango AWOL. It’s great that we keep working and we just need to keep Tom under control!
Tom - Or I’m easily lead! (Laughs!)

As our conversation draws to a close we reflect on what an incredible album SNAFU actually is. Just high energy punk rock with great vocals, infectious guitar hooks and a massive sense of fun.

To find out more head over to www.theprofessionalsband.com and in the meantime check out the video to Spike Me Baby below.