I SORT OF WANT TO PUNCH Eddie Argos. For a man named after a catalog store from our home country, his insistence that the group's songs aren't ironic is... well, it's frustrating. "They're true stories," he says. "I think the songs are quite sincere."
This is the tension that runs through all of Art Brut's work. You can loathe them for being so emotionally conflicted, or give up on being pissed off and dance like a maniac. Or both: My favorite song is "Fight!" with its lyrics "Come on, come on, let's have a fight," proving there's a twisted emotional release in being English, after all. As long as the word "release" is placed in air quotes.
The band just performed at London's Brixton Academy with the Pixies, which is about as big as it gets in England without playing Wembley Stadium dressed like Freddie Mercury. They also flew to Salem, Oregon, last year to record their latest album, Art Brut vs. Satan, with the Pixies' Frank Black. "He's such a nice, friendly, enthusiastic man," Argos says of Black. "Although it was a bit weird for everyone in Salem to see five drunk British people walking around."
I do worry that success will ruin Art Brut, because my favorite songs are about when they're failing at things. For example, what's the song "Rusted Guns of Milan" about? "It's about my cock," says Argos—as in, his erectile dysfunction. But the song itself also represents artistic failure of a broader kind, he explains. "I was writing an entire concept album about the Gatti gang, they were these Italian terrorists, but they weren't very good at being terrorists," Argos continues. "They tried to rob a bank, but their guns were all rusted up."
Infuriatingly, I suspect even this story could be made up—the only references to the Gatti gang online link back to Art Brut. And there's precedent: Argos (for the sake of translation, imagine he's called "Eddie L.L.Bean") used to read to his little sister from the Argos catalog, he says. Then he made up a character called Eddie to keep her entertained, and took the name for himself when he started going out in Bournemouth. "For years people thought that was actually my real name," he says. "So I changed it."
So he's an art-punk trickster. Take my reaction when I first heard "Emily Kane"—a song about still being in love with a girl Argos dated when he was 15. "I hope this song finds you fame," he sings. "I want school kids on buses singing your name."
Funny as that sounds, Argos says my unbelieving reaction is typical of the cynical English. "Whereas in America, people say, 'You really loved her. That's really sweet,'" he muses. "I like it better—because Emily Kane is actually a real girl I'm still in love with."
I would bet five pounds she doesn't even exist. But whether Argos is being sincere, or he's simply so cynical about life he's come full circle and is intent on goading us, it's infectious. We all want to believe in the healing power of simple things like "DC comics and chocolate milkshake," and on the other hand we all need a sense of humor to avoid brutal realities like alcoholism, erectile dysfunction, and death.
"There's so many people I might have upset, I apologized to them all with the same group text," he sings, recounting hangover guilt. Seriously. No, no. Joke.