Interview – Wonk Unit

Self-styled “21st Century Punks” Wonk Unit return to the line-up of Rebellion Festival this year, which takes place in Blackpool on 3 – 6 August. We had a chat with front man Alex Brindle-Johnson about the festival, the DIY scene and snagged exclusive news about a new release.

By Jane Howkins

Are you looking forward to Rebellion Festival?
Yep, I love Rebellion!

You’ve played before, haven’t you?
I’ve been there in some shape or form for the last four years.

You played last year, right?
Yeah, Wonk have played for the last two years, and the two years before that I played with a band called 5 Shitty Fingers, a side project of Duncan from Snuff.

We’ve never been before, but the line-up looks pretty good this year! What’s the vibe like? What sort of stuff goes on compared to other festivals?
Well, it’s funny. Before I had ever been to Rebellion, I imagined it to be a horrible, drunken, beer fest full of horrible old punks, and I imagined the vibe would just be horrible, but it’s the complete opposite of that. The first year I went it was lovely. It’s got a real family vibe to it, zero trouble. It’s a really lovely vibe. It’s the complete opposite of what you would imagine.

Do you get much chance to see any of the other bands, then?
last year I saw two bands that I’ve always wanted to see: The Descendents, and Flag. I’ve literally been waiting 30 years to see them so that was brilliant. I’m usually stuck behind my merch hawking my wares, but it was nice to see those two bands.

Is there anyone this year you’re looking forward to seeing?
Teenage Bottlerocket, they’re over from the States and they’re old friends, so that will be fun. Erm, obviously Slaves, who are our best buddies.

Yeah, I’ve seen them before, they’re very good!
They’re headlining the Friday night, and were on just before them. We’ve done a lot of touring with them though, so that’ll be a really superb couple of hours. We’re both in the Empress Ballroom and it’s a really good vibe, so it’ll be great.

So, you have your own festival as well, called Wonk Fest.
Wonk Fest! Yes!

That’s fairly soon, isn’t it?
Yeah it’s the first of July, so Saturday week.

What can you tell us about that then?
Well, basically, Wonk Fest is the best! We’re a touring band, and we’ve never stopped touring, and so for Wonk Fest, we look at all of the bands that are emerging across the UK, across Europe, even the States, and we tend to get to them first. Wonk Unit are basically like an A & R [artists and repertoire] man, so we get to see all the emerging new talent, and when I see emerging new talent I go: ‘you’re brilliant, and I’m gonna nurture you!” So, we take them on tour and we push them out there onto a platform. We actually did that with Slaves originally, and Slaves were one of those bands we saw, and Slaves were at some of the earlier Wonk Fests, and we took them out on tour with us.

They’re massive now, aren’t they!
Pretty much, yeah. They’re one of the biggest bands out at the moment right now. They’re huge. So, basically, we tour, and any bands that I see that blow me away, I ask to come down and play Wonk Fest. Our family, the Wonk family, the fanbase, are a really open and unpretentious group of people, and they trust me to deliver the ultimate punk line-up at Wonk Unit, and it’s not necessarily the bands that the magazines or pushing or the PR pushes, they’re just generally really good bands who tend to be running their local scenes. Wonk is definitely about the DIY scene, and the underground thing. All of the bands that play Wonk Fest generally run the punk rock underground in their cities. But, come to Wonk Fest, we have two stages. It’s at the Dome and the Boston Music Room in London’s Tufnell Park. It’s a 12-hour gig. We run it from midday. There’s no overlap – so we have a band on upstairs, then one on downstairs. We have free food all day, we encourage everyone to bring a tray of food for the world’s greatest buffet. We also have a BBQ running in the courtyard which is free as well, and every year we collect for local food banks. This year, we’re specifically collecting tampons, sanitary towels, nappies, and general women’s products.

Well I’ve been looking at the line-up actually, and you’ve got quite a few bands that are kind of folk punk, you’ve got Matilda’s Scoundrels and Captain Hotknives playing.
Yeah, Captain Hotknives, I think that man has so much soul that he’s a complete genius. For me, I recognise genius in that man, so I’m giving him a nice big slot on the main stage. Wonk Fest is about entertaining people, and that’s why he’s there. He’s awesome.

Do you have any other gigs lined up apart from the festivals you’re doing?
Well, Wonk never really stop touring, and directly after Wonk Fest we go out to mainland Europe, so we’re doing three weeks of festivals all around Europe – Germany, Croatia, Serbia, Czech Republic – all of Europe, and most of that’s with an Australian band called Clowns. After touring with them, we’re gonna come back. We’re doing Boomtown, Rebellion, various other festivals, and then we’ve got a UK tour in November, Europe… we never stop touring. Since March 2014, we’ve basically been continuously touring.

Wow that’s a long time! We’re based in York, do you ever play up in these parts? Would you ever consider doing more gigs up here?
Yeah, we played York for the first time at an all dayer [at the Fulford Arms]. It was great.

We’ve got a really great, underground punk scene here, so you should come again!
I actually saw you play in March on the TNS Record tour, on St Patrick’s Day in Nottingham.
Ooh, that was great!

How was that, touring with the other bands on the label?
Well, I love TNS Records, they were the first label to ever approach us, and since we released Nervous Racehorse with them, it’s great to have a bit of support. The TNS family are very similar to Wonk Unit doing London. They nurture bands, and there’s a very similar ethos, which I love and support. We’re all close, the whole DIY scene, across all the cities – not just Manchester. Everyone’s just really close.

So, the last album you released was Mr Splashy, which was last year. Have you been working on anything new?
Yes, I never stop writing. I’ve always been writing, I’ve never stopped writing and recording.

Do you have anything ready for release this year?

We loosely spoke about a new record, one of the labels I work with I spoke to yesterday, and they were thinking about possibly bringing out a 2018 release. That’s an exclusive for you!

Great, I’ll look forward to that then!
I’m going to have to finish up now unfortunately. Is there anything else you would like to say?

Love yourselves, and your neighbours! That’s about it really! Look after your friends.

Wonk Fest takes place in Tufnell Park, London on Saturday 1 July 2017 and Rebellion Festival takes place in the Winter Gardens, Blackpool on 3 – 6 August 2017.