Meet: Charley Keigher of King of the Slums

Barbarous English fayre: King of the Slums' Clarissa Trees (violinist) and vocalist and lyricist Charley Keigher.

KING OF THE SLUMS came snarling out of inner-city Manchester in 1986, full of condensed vignettes of raw city living, distorted violins and a deep, dark vision.

They released a series of EPs and albums such as “Bombs Away On Harpurhey”, the Vicious British Boyfriend EP and “Once A Prefect”, telling of undocumented moments and lives in a variety of narrative voices, for labels including Dave Haslam’s Play Hard, Midnight Music and Cherry Red, before vanishing on the back of one last baleful, brilliant, dubby and loosely baggy single, “Joy” in 1991.

In 2009, an album, The Orphaned Files emerged, jointly credited to King of the Slums and Slum Cathedral User, before the Lancashire mists closed again. 

Since 2017 however, King of the Slums have been back and regularly releasing new documents of a world sharply observed by lyricist and founder member Charley Keigher: that year’s Manco Diablo was followed a year on by Artgod Dogs; last year brought the superb Peak Human Experience EP. 2020 has brought a remastered, collected résumé of songs from the band’s most recent chapter, entitled My Favourite Trainers.

Being longtime fans here at Backseat Mafia, this recent collection gave us pause to catch up with the guiding spirit and raw, precise penman of the band, Charley Keigher.

BACKSEAT MAFIA: Hiya Charley. What are your earliest experiences of music? What musical diet did you grow up on?

Charley Keigher: Irish music was big when I was growing up, so I always loved that. I was also into Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and very early Roxy Music. Most of all, Motown … so varied kinda influences.

Any false starts in music, early garage outfits or the like? 

I moved to London in my late teens to start a band with a mate who had moved down there; couldn’t play anything, but I couldn’t not go for it either. It lasted about a year, kinda like The Jam. I decided it weren’t for me, went back to Manchester, got a flat in Hulme.

It was quite bohemian in Hulme at that time, the flats were mainly empty but for arty types and some left-wing revolutionaries… There were a few other bands in the flats. The Russell Club, (the PSV), was a stone’s throw. This was the first incarnation of KOTS.  

How did you form?

The flat in Hulme became full of all sorts of people. Arty folk, deserted soldiers, smackheads. Eventually, I think, a bass player from Stretford arrived with one of my mates, he looked cool; stank a bit, but he had a bass. We started making some noise. That went on for a while … me and stinky boy didn’t think we were going anywhere but we were getting a little better playing together.

There was no TV in the flat; sometimes I would stay up all night listening to Radio 3. One day I decided I wanted a classical violin to get involved. It was a mad thought, but I thought it may be a strange outcome musically if I involved a classical instrument. I asked all my mates did they know anyone? Alas they didn’t mix in such cultures, but then one mad evening a punk mohican, called The Ozzo, he stank too, came in the flat with this very prim-looking, very shy girl called Sarah, who played the violin. How these people knew each other was a mystery, but that was it.  

An early flexi, and you’re taking steps into being a recorded band. Was that through fanzine culture?

There were a few flexis; I wish I had em, alas not. I think it was through a fanzine.

With the crescent architecture, the bonefires [the area’s very leftfield Guy Fawkes’ Night celebrations], the PSV, Hulme had a real left-of-centre cultural vibe. How was Hulme then?

Hulme was interesting at that time; a bit scary now and then. We had a number of robberies to deal with, which stopped the band’s progress due to no equipment.

We were quite private, but I believe we lived next door to [Manchester poet and musician, and composer of “It’s A Fine Day“] Ed Barton, and I believe Mark E Smith was [seen] mooching about the crescent decks on occasion.

I never really paid much attention to other Manchester bands; I was in a world of my own . We had Mike Joyce, the Smiths’ drummer, in the flat a few times; The Smiths were getting very big. Should have asked him for a few gigs.

We did our first gig ever round this time at The Cyprus Tavern on Princess Street, Manchester. We didn’t play again live for over a year; it was a traumatic experience. There was no stage, so we got a load of bread crates from Greggs’ back door and took all the doors off in the flat and laid them on top. It wasn’t steady. The drummer fell off stage and my bottle went and some twat nicked my only guitar pedal. The bass player left the band and Sarah went back to her parents. I spent the next two months trying to put the doors back on door frames and they never really worked after that. Joinery and me are best kept apart.   

Then comes Play Hard, [Hacienda DJ and music author] Dave Haslam and [later, Happy Mondays manager] Nathan McGough’s label. How was that?

Dave Haslam was the one who got us going; we were very impatient, but if it wasn’t for him we would have withered away. Play Hard was good; they were good people. BBC Radio Manchester played [King of the Slums’ first vinyl release] “Spider Psychiatry” a week or so before we met Dave Haslam. That was very brave of them to play it, it is a tough listen.

Dave was a big dance DJ at the Hacienda; what he seen in us is beyond me. But thanks mate. 

Then, after two singles and the compilation, England’s Finest Hopes, comes a move to Midnight Music. How did you find that label? It certainly had an interesting roster at this point in its existence: The Popguns, McCarthy, The Wolfhounds. Did you have much of a relationship with any of the other bands?

Midnight Music was OK at first, but we fell out. We had a manager by this time, so think he got us on the label, not sure. I think we met The Wolfhounds once; we didn’t really meet anyone else. We were gigging a lot (ish) at this time.

Dandelions, the album you released on Midnight Music was a very fine album, on which I find a really sharp lyricism, with this line back past the Industrial Revolution in terms of language. There’s tracks like “Ardent Swains”, “Venerate Me Utterly”; you have a take on language that only Mark E Smith was anywhere in the zone with in terms of British bands. What is it about this language for you, that you love? Any favourite writers you draw upon?

I was only guiding the music by this time, not playing the guitar, which was a mistake, so writing words was my job. I like messing about with words and sentiments. I do respect people who make an effort with their lyrics. I like Tom Waits’ weirder tunes; MES [had] written some killer lines, [there’s] no one like him. Inflammable Material by Stiff Little Fingers: probably the tightest album of lyrics ever. 

There was some interesting cover art for your singles at this point. First, the spare functionalism of “Once A Prefect”; then the neon graffiti for It’s Dead Smart, Bear Wiv Me, the reissue of the compilation … were you pleased with the imagery?

I Think I was drawing the artwork on those. I think some of em were OK. 

I think I just missed you at this point at the Duchess of York in Leeds at about this point.

We played there once and we had to come off stage after one song because the place went mental, was a bit scary. We went back on, played a bit slower and calmed it all down, haha.

And then, after Blowzy Weirdos for Cherry Red, you vanish until 2009, with the jointly billed Slum Cathedral User album, The Orphaned Files. Did you feel there was more to be said?

There was always more to be said. We split cos we were skint, we fell out with record companies; [we] were going to be going to America to play live with, I believe, The Psychedelic Furs plus other bands, but it all ended in tears and arguments.

It became a really good time to take a long break and start going out. I spent the next number of years going to clubs in the north-west of England, listening to piano dance tunes, taking amphetamine and saying, “You’re too old for this, mate”. 

And the past few years, you’re releasing regularly again: a brace of very fine LPs and a 12″ ….

Thank you. Yeah, we start mixing the new album in a few weeks; got two more albums written during lockdown. Just hope we can get it all recorded. 

Manchester has changed so much over the years of the band’s existence. I remember the grand bit of baroque architecture by Piccadilly, now a Malmaison, was a dolls’ hospital. How do you find the brash city of the Deansgate towers and tram networks against the crescents and Shambles Square, all the old abandoned cobbled streets where the Arena is now …?

I recall the doll’s hospital; thought it was a good name for a band. I think Manchester architecture was evocative; I still like it now. It’s different, but it’s still Manchester. It’s cleaner and sharper, but still full of Mancs. Posh understated shop fronts with pretentious fonts, there still gonna be a Salfordian accent cursing on the corner. 

Best and most surreal experiences of being in KOTS?

Finding out that Ed Sheeran and Adele are huge fans of the band. 

And what are your post-Covid plans?

Finishing and releasing all we have written.

Charley, thank you for your time.

King of the Slums’ recent compilation My Favourite Trainers is available now at King of the Slum’s Bandcamp page, as are the Manco Diablo and Artgod Dogs CDs, and the Peak Human Experience EP 12″.

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