Claw Marks

Claw Marks started out in the Texan desert, as its members were looking for an escape route. Vocalist Jack Lantern and guitarists James Burgess and Tom Pitts were in Austin playing South by South West with different bands: Jack and Tom with Human Hair, and James with Boneyards. As they got lost walking down a highway, they realised they wanted to do something heavier, to make something more aggressive, that would channel the likes of Swans and The Birthday Party, whilst maintaining the pop sensibility that Human Hair had made their calling card. They wanted to prove that you could make records that sounded like The Jesus Lizard or The Pop Group, and still not take yourself too seriously. Claw Marks was born.

This was back in 2013, and for a long time, they existed primarily as a live outfit, playing raucous, riotous shows across their native London – including a memorable first gig at an abandoned pub, with a stage time of 3am. “It was my birthday, and intoxicants may have been involved,” explains Jack. “That show cemented us as a band, because we were playing in the confines of a place that was so similar to the spine of what we were trying to put across. The place was dilapidated, the walls were falling down, and when we started playing, the ceiling started shaking, and dust was raining down on us. And then somebody let off a fire extinguisher halfway through the set, and we were covered in dust and foam.”

The group – now fleshed out to a six-piece with Victor Jakeman on bass, Tom Pitt on drums and former sticksman Sev Black on keys – forged their thematic identity early on, between their chaotic stage presence and their very specific ideas about lyrical imagery. “It’s about putting weird images to song,” says Jack, who’s also writes poems and will put out his first book of them this year. “Usually, they’re a bit disgusting – an armpit full of lice, for example. Or a crab covering your arsehole and stopping anybody from trying to climb in there. We’ve got one song about evil, silent cops staring us down while rubbing their truncheons in their mouths. You know, that kind of thing.”

A debut record has taken five years to surface, even if some of the songs on it date all the way back to the early days. They kept returning to the tracks and to Sound Savers Studio in East London, where they were afforded time and space by co-owner Henry Withers, who used to play in Human Hair with Jack. Every time they went back, the songs evolved a little more, and with them, so did the Claw Marks sound. Quite how that would happen was never predictable; at one session, Victor turned up with a clarinet, and suddenly, ‘The Rain’ went from straightforward punk tune to densely-layered multi-instrumental odyssey.

“I’ve been telling people that the album aged like a fine wine, because it took so long to come together,” Jack explains in his inimitable style. “But actually, I’d liken it more now to a slab of rotten meat. We allowed it to fester, and every time we came back to it, there’d be more flies buzzing around it, and this new form of bacteria growing on the chords.”

Hee Hee is the lurid culmination of that strange fermentation period; an unapologetically noisy and nasty collection of punk rock curios that thematically range from the absurd (‘Swallow You’ is quite literally about a man walking down the street and eating everything in his path) to the political (‘Book of Vermin’ reflects on the increasing cost of living in London, which is now reaching the point where “not even the ghost of Leonard Cohen can get a house”). They wanted to sound like Swans but now agree that Tom Waits might be the best frame of reference, because the songs “have that thing where they’re fucked up, they’re off-kilter, and you can tell they were written after too much whiskey.” When it comes to comparing themselves to their heroes, though, Jack has to have the last word.

“I really liked Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, who was an underground guy and one of the first signings to Sub Pop. I loved all these stories and narratives he had, that he ended up putting to record on an album called Prison. He would open up for bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, and there was one show where he performed his entire set with a live rat in his mouth. Lyrically, that’s where I’m coming from – I am the rat in the mouth of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein.”

IMAGES: To download, click above. Press photo credit to Keira Cullinane.