As fans of Shoegaze and 90’s British Rock / Alternative / Indie music know, Pete Fij is a founding member and lead singer of early 90’s Coventry, U.K. band Adorable, an important, underrated band signed to Creation Records and later, EMI, who released two albums Against Perfection (1993) and Fake (1994). In the early 2000’s days of the internet, fans traded information and sought out music and news to find that Pete Fij continued to make new music with Polak, who released two albums. For the past five years, Fij has been writing, releasing new music and performing as a duo with Terry Bickers (The House of Love, Levitation).
Fij and Bickers released Broken Heart Surgery, a solid collection of introspective, stripped down stunners, in 2014, and are currently working on a follow up album.
Pete Fij recently took time out to speak to Step On Magazine about life in the years in between the 90’s music scene and his creative work in and outside music since he left Coventry and moved to the seaside, including an entirely new, yet creatively rich time as a bookseller, which led to new friendships and sometimes odd interactions with fans along the way. One hopes for a new piece of literature someday out of the experience that might yet emerge from the archives and imagination of Fij, a true artist who can inflect the slightest observation with poetry. In the meantime, Fij breaks the taboo subject of life after/outside of music. The artist also shares some of his other creative work (which includes the band’s graphic design and video direction) and his personal film recommendations.
Fij and Bickers recently played at the inaugural Shiiine On Weekender music festival in Somerset, U.K. and can be found performing the occasional show as they work on album number 2.
Step On: How long after Adorable did it take for the buzz to die down and you could feel free to walk around without unwanted attention?
Pete Fij: To characterise the period after Adorable finished as having lots of attention would be wrong. Ultimately we split up because very few people could give a shit about us!
SO: Can you tell me about your bookstand? It was around for two decades if I’m not mistaken. How did running the stand come about happening?
PF: I became a bookseller almost by accident – books had always held an interest for me and as a teenager I had worked in a bookshop on Saturdays to help fuel my record collection, and part of my Film Degree was also in literature, but it had never been part of my plan to do anything with books. I moved from Coventry to Brighton about 3 months after Adorable had split, and it was massive change of environment. From a working class, very traditional industrial city in the centre of England with very little in the way of an arts culture, to a very bohemian, open and creative seaside town. In my first year in Brighton I was in a bit of a state of shock – the end of Adorable was a bit like a car crash – you could see the end coming in slow motion, but were just a passenger, and the next thing you know you are climbing out of the wreckage thinking “wow – what was that?” I was in a daze for best part of a year – exhausted and not quite sure what to do with my life, and trying to make sense of what had happened over the previous 3 years, and to complete this feeling of other worldliness I didn’t know a soul in my new town. As a release from this I spent my time driving around the local coastal towns in the area in my tiny 1960’s Fiat 500, buying old tv tie-in books like Starsky & Hutch, The Avengers, Man From Uncle and old paperbacks with great looking covers – at first for my own pleasure, but then I started thinking about maybe running a stall. After a while I started selling them down on the beach in Brighton, and slowly what started out as a side hobby for beer money turned into a business that evolved, supporting me and my family for the best part of twenty years. I met a lot of great people, most of whom didn’t know I had been in a band and I enjoyed the anonymity of it.
SO: Was the daze you felt after finishing Adorable also part relief? Was it freedom/survival of the car crash you saw coming or a painful disappointment and a slow heal?
PF: In some ways the immediate post-Adorable period was a relief in that the pressure was no longer on – it was no longer up to me to cajole unwilling members to rehearsal, or try to convince unconvinced record labels to support us, but it was a period where I was genuinely in a state of shock – trying to take stock of what had happened. The whole 2 and a half years we were signed had been a whirlwind, and I had never had a chance to stop and breathe. It was only much later that I realized that the whole Adorable period wasn’t really a very happy time for me – really full on and exciting, but not happy.
SO: Why move to Brighton? Did you have a connection with the town from your past or was it a decision to live somewhere new just to be away from it all?
PF: I went to Brighton because I always wanted to live by the sea. I had been down for a few weekends borrowing a friend’s flat and always felt free and excited by the town which was the polar opposite to Coventry. Post-Adorable I knew that my future didn’t lie in Coventry, and so made the decision to move away very quickly – it was time for a new chapter in my life, and so I moved within 3 months after Adorable split. I didn’t know a soul, which was weird, and slightly scary – it was just me and my girlfriend. The first year felt quite isolated – my girlfriend would go to work and I’d be alone in the flat thinking – I’m going to go into town and not meet one person that I know. I sat at home tinkering away programming pop tunes on a computer for a pop project that never quite saw the light of day.
SO: Did your experiences at the book stand ever fuel topics for music?
PF: I think the bookstall gave me a sense of perspective on life – my customers and fellow traders, many who became friends, were from a variety of different backgrounds and interests, and I enjoyed being away from the insularity of the music industry which can be quite self-absorbed and make you lose touch with reality. I used to find objects in the pages of the books I got – old letters, shopping lists, badly taken photos, post it notes and cards or other odd scraps of paper. I found these fragments of other people’s lives very poignant – like a tiny window into the private lives of strangers I would never know. I kept them and they formed the basis of a song I recorded with Terry called ‘Lost & Found’, inspired by the idea of a lost property office of bits of people’s lives. “We’re a diary full of lists, unopened birthday gifts, we’re the melodies of songs that you once sung. We are the hats and we are the coats, we’re the novel that you never wrote – we’re the lost, we’re the found.”
SO: Are there any interesting or funny stories that stand out during your time there?
PF: With the growth of the internet word got out that I had a stall on the beach and fans would sometimes come and find me – I was stalked by a Japanese fan who followed me and my girlfriend around for several days taking photos from afar but never actually came up to speak to me, which I found deeply uncomfortable – it was a tiny insight into what becoming famous might entail. I had to resort to ducking into multi-storey carparks and doubling back through stairwells like I was in a spy film to stop her from following me home.
On another occasion a German tourist came and bought The Hobbit by Tolkien from me and then returned an hour later “Excuse me – you are Piotr the singer from Adorable – no?” he said in a thick German accent. He then told me his favourite shows he had seen us at, and talked knowledgeably for some time about obscure Adorable recordings. After a while there was a lull in the conversation and he looked at my shoes covered in dust from the beach, and my cardboard boxes of books that were stacked up on the pebbles for people to rifle through and he turned to me and waving his hand at what he saw before him he said rather piteously “What has happened to you?”.
SO: Your recollection of the Japanese stalker and German “fan” are cringe worthy. It’s both fascinating and terrifying to me that some people can so easily blur the lines of admiration and respect for an artist into something disturbing or in the case of the German, utterly rude.
PF: As it so happens years later I would collaborate with the German ‘Hobbit’ buyer, although I didn’t realise it was him until later! (Listen to “A Hole In Her Heart” by Kratzke feat. Pete Fijalkowski HERE.) I think the moral of the story is that sometimes people find it hard to relate to musicians when they are no longer professional musicians. I find it interesting that there aren’t more discussions or articles about what musicians do after they finish being in a band. I think maybe that’s the mystique that the music press inadvertently creates. It doesn’t talk about life outside of music as if that is some sort of taboo. Because of this, some people genuinely think I made so much money from Adorable that I don’t have to work again, and they find it hard to process that I have a life outside of music. I also notice how little is ever mentioned about the financial process of being a musician. It’s as if the fiscal mechanics of making music shouldn’t be talked about because it sullies the art, but in some ways it’s very much part of the process. As an example, my current decision to work in a stripped down 2-piece with Terry Bickers is as much an artistic interest in minimizing as it is one that is influenced by the hard realities of our financial situation. If we had lots of money to spend would we get a full band together? Would we have a full orchestra? Perhaps, but we don’t have that money, so we work within the confines that we have which in turn influences the kind of music we make.
SO: How did you and Terry Bickers come to work together? Had you known one another long before the collaboration was formed?
Pete: Before I met Terry I had tried through our manager to get him to join Polak back in early 2000’s when my brother was thinking of hanging up his guitar, but Terry wasn’t really into the idea. I later met him a couple of times in passing but I only knew him to say hello to in the street. Fast forward 8 years and I had a chance to play a solo show in a church to finally air the songs that were the basis of ‘Broken Heart Surgery’ that I had already written and recorded. I decided to ask Terry, as the idea of playing with him was massively exciting. He played on 4 or 5 songs and the reaction was really good, so I asked him to join forces and perform on equal footing as a collaboration – we went back through the songs I had written and re-worked them. It was a slow process – it took some time for us to totally understand and get to know each other on a musical and personal level – and it took perhaps a couple of years before we were totally comfortable with each other in both spheres.
SO: Was there ever a time you felt you were done with music professionally?
PF: Yes – after Polak finished I considered jacking it all in. I recorded a solo album in 2004 (a version of ‘Broken Heart Surgery’) but didn’t send it to anyone or play it to anyone, and I wondered if that was a sign that I was secretly trying to tell myself to stop. I eventually gave the songs their first public airing in 2009 when I did some solo shows with Terry Bickers playing on a handful of the songs as a special guest.
SO: Was your original plan to get into a career in film and music happened along the way?
PF: I studied film at university, but it was a critical course, not a practical one. I spent 3 years watching and dissecting films. I liked the idea of making films, but quickly realised that the large scale collaborative process probably wasn’t for me, and quite quickly I got side-tracked by being in bands. I still harbour the desire to make films. I directed the Pete Fij / Terry Bickers videos thus far, and maybe one day I’ll get asked to do something for someone else. Film runs pretty much in parallel as a passion for me alongside music.
SO: Are there any filmmakers that you feel are under appreciated or have been missed entirely?
PF: Films that I think are little gems that aren’t more widely known might be:
- ‘La Antena’ – a truely incredible bit of film making that harks back to German Expressionism and Surrealism. Amazingly the director hasn’t made another film – everyone banged on about ‘the Artist’, but this is on another (more arty) level. Watch the trailer HERE.
- ‘Revanche’ from 2009 is like a Wim Wenders film, but with a plot! It’s very slow moving, but totally absorbing. Watch the trailer HERE.
- ‘Man Without a Past’ is quirky gem- Aki Kurismaki makes some lovely little films. Watch the trailer HERE.
- Although film historians rave about it, ‘A Man Escaped’ by Robert Bresson is a film that a lot of contemporary audiences don’t know about and is really compelling. Watch the trailer HERE.
- Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut ‘Trees Lounge’ is one that has escaped a lot of people. Watch the trailer HERE.
- Cercle Rouge is very cool French thriller from 1970 that a lot of people don’t know about – certainly an influence on the Coen Brothers. Watch the trailer HERE.
I could go on….Film pretty much level pegs in the passion stakes as music for me.
SO: As a photographer who learned on film, I feel the transition to digital has often been more bad than good. Although it has made the art form far more affordable and accessible, anyone with a few hundred dollars can buy a good camera, launch a website, and label themselves a professional photographer. As such, many feel they no longer need to pay for photography services.
In terms of artistic and professional credibility, do you see the same thing happening with motion pictures and music, or has digital enabled those with the desire to create to do so without breaking the bank? As an established professional musician, do the pros outweigh the cons?
PF: I understand your situation but I’m not sure I agree with you. I myself have been a victim of technology affecting my business. Kindle massively changed buying habits for books and I have pretty much hung up my book selling hat as a result, but can giving people wider access to means of producing art, whether it be still photography, making films, or being able to make music in your bedroom instead of having to go to expensive studio really be a bad thing? I think the larger, more tactile books will still have a place, but I think increasingly the paperback fiction format will die out.
Advancement of technology always means some casualties be they booksellers, or professional photographers, but you have to take the wider picture of what it gives society, especially if it gives us wider access to expression and art. Those things shouldn’t be elitist. Likewise, I think it’s fantastic that people can get their music up and that people have the means to record it to a high standard at relatively low cost, though again at the expense of those who have professional studios. There are now more great tracks that you can listen to than ever. The trouble is finding it amongst all that is out there, and also as an artist it is hard to get noticed amongst all the others shouting, so it’s a double edged sword.
We have more to compete against, but we are fortunate to have a small audience who will make time to listen to our music to start things off because of our previous careers, although our project doesn’t really sound like either Adorable, Polak, House of Love or Levitation! I hardly ever venture out these days, but the gigs I go to are all attended by people of a certain age. Bickers & Fij do have a few younger people, 30-somethings whippersnappers and the occasional teenage child of a fan as well, but can’t say that we are making serious inroads into a younger audience.
SO: What became of the Fiat? I feel nostalgic about the different cars I’ve owned. I identify them with a time and place of where I was, similar to how certain songs do that.
PF: I always loved old cars, although they are impractical as your only means of transport. The Fiat 500 was a lovely thing – small, compact and perfectly formed, though I spent a fair amount of time sitting by the side of roads waiting for the truck from the AA (Automobile Association rather than Alcoholics Anonymous) to come to tow me home! As a bookseller it was a woefully inadequate vehicle , but I loved it and gave it away to my brother who I knew would care for it – it was as heart-wrenching as letting a much loved pet
go, but I knew it was best for the Cinquecento. I got a small van in its place. Way less cool. You can see the old Fiat 500 on the back cover of the ‘Vendetta’ single.
With our very special thanks to Pete Fij.
Interview by Dave MacIntyre.
Pete Fij & Terry Bickers’ Bandcamp page, website, and Facebook page