Bob Vylan: “Resistance is expected when you’re talking about the things we talk about”
The punk-grime duo on regretting heckling Sadiq Khan at the BandLab NME Awards 2022, their explosive new album ‘The Price of Life’ and why they fear for their safety. By Ali Shutler
Main image credit: Eva Pentel for NME at the BandLab NME Awards 2022
“Let’s get this on record,” starts Bobby Vylan with a sense of urgency. “In 2020, there was a year of protests around police abuse, racism and inequality. We, Bob Vylan, released an album [‘We Live Here’] that dealt with that political and social climate. That’s a finger on the pulse.”
Two years later, the grime-punk duo are back with ‘Bob Vylan Presents: The Price Of Life’, a concept album about money, tackling the economy’s impact on your family, your community and you as an individual. “Look at the news. This is the most important and relevant record to be released this year,” Bobby continues, joking that it must look like they are pulling the strings as a cost of living crisis grips the UK. His bandmate Bobbie Vylan adds that “people need this album”.
Continuing their mission, ‘The Price Of Life’ is the spiritual successor to ‘We Live Here’, a record once deemed “too extreme” for release, but there’s more to Bob Vylan’s second album than repeated fury.
“It’s a lot more fun, for a start,” explains Bobby. Tracks like ‘Turn Off The Radio’ and ‘Bait The Bear’ knowingly hit back at their critics while the record expands the duo’s punk/grime sound to include ’90s hip-hop, grunge, dance and reggae. “It wears its influences on its sleeve.”
According to Bobby, ‘We Live Here’ was a “very heavy album, full of personal stories. I was working out a lot of things and the subjects I was speaking about obviously weren’t the easiest to relive.” It meant the record needed to have an urgency and intensity. “After such a serious album, though, it was important to show other sides to the band because we are more than that,” explains Bobbie, neither one of them wanting to be boxed in as just the grime/punk duo constantly screaming about social issues.
That’s not to say ‘The Price Of Life’ is any less vulnerable or hard-hitting. Sure, there are bolshie calls to “eat the rich”, “wage war against the state” and pull down statues of Churchill, but ‘Wicked & Bad’ draws carefully constructed lines between the political landscape of the country, and how it affects people on the ground. Elsewhere ‘Big Man’ is a “very personal song that talks about this pursuit of money through means that aren’t necessarily productive. I’m talking to my younger self on that track,” says Bobby. “But I hope people who are in a similar position know that that doesn’t have to be your whole life.
“These are all true stories,” he continues before describing the process of writing these songs as “therapy through art. I feel very emotional when I listen back to this record because it’s been rough and it just seems to be getting rougher. With this album, we just wanted to detail that.”
Bob Vylan originally released ‘We Live Here’ exclusively through Bandcamp and as a physical record as a way to put “value on the Black experience and our Black lives.” Not only is ‘The Price Of Life’ available on streaming, but written on the back of the vinyl is the message: “If you can’t afford this product, feel free to steal it.”
“We really mean it,” says Bobby, proudly holding up the sleeve. Not that the band advocates stealing, of course: “We just want as many people as possible to hear this record. It’s not about lining our pockets, it’s about offering something to people that we think has a level of importance to it. I mean, why are people having to choose between heating and eating? Why the fuck are we living like this? It’s impossible for people to hear this album and not resonate with something.”
Despite the personal nature of their lyrics, Bob Vylan don’t talk about their lives outside the band. We don’t know their ages, when they formed or where they grew up. “That stuff is of very little importance,” says Bobby Vylan, which probably isn’t his real name. “It just distracts from the message and what we’re attempting to do.” It also gives them a degree of privacy. “Artists are expected to give part of themselves up, which doesn’t seem fair. We want to start as we mean to go on,” explains Bobbie.
“Is there work Sadiq should be doing? Yes. Is he the biggest crook in government? Not even close” – Bobby Vylan
Does that degree of separation also give them the confidence to call their listeners to “Burn Britannia” (‘Take That’) or to talk about rushing 10 Downing Street (‘Wicked & Bad’)? “Not at all,” Bobbie continues. “I say those sort of things in my everyday life anyway.”
That said, Bob Vylan have found themselves regretting one or two jokes they’ve made. At the Bandlab NME Awards earlier this year (which took place on the second day of widespread Tube strikes across the capital), they called on Sadiq Khan to “sort them trains out. You have to keep this city moving bro, because people need to get to work. Come on, we’ve gotta do better.” Those comments found their way onto The Daily Mail alongside the headline “Grime stars turn on Sadiq Khan”.
Today Bobby says he has no interest in tearing Sadiq down. “Is there work he should be doing? Yes. Is he the biggest crook in government? Not even close. Do I think he genuinely cares about this city? Absolutely. I’ve been chatting shit with my friends my whole life and nobody cared what I had to say. Now, it might end up in a rag that I despise. Luckily Sadiq seemed cool about it and it’s probably not the worst fucking thing someone has said about him.”
It’s proof that the band’s platform is continuing to grow, helped in part by supporting The Offspring and Biffy Clyro on their recent UK headline tours. “Every time we stepped out onto a bigger stage, it felt like a better fit. It’s a huge deal to be touring with artists we’ve loved for so long but playing on those stages just felt right,” explains Bobbie. “I’ve spent the last 15 years being told to do something else. Anything else. That success is validating.”
“We’ve always been confident,” adds Bobby before suggesting that if, when they started out, you told the band they’d be playing Wembley Arena with The Offspring – as they did last year – their response wouldn’t have been disbelief but impatience. A case of when, not if.
“We bet the house and the car on our live performance. As amazing as Biffy Clryo and The Offspring are, we never felt the need to step our game up,” he explains. “We acted like it was our show. And that’s what we’re here to do – challenge everyone.”
And they do so with gleeful abandon. From their lyrics to their live show, they’re direct to the point of confrontation. As Bobby sings on ‘Pretty Songs’: “No liberal lefty cunt is gonna tell me punching Nazis ain’t the way”. As the shows get bigger, are the pair ever worried that their outspoken nature will hold them back?
“Our outspokenness? I worry that it might end up with someone trying to kill me” – Bobby Vylan
Bobby pauses for a second. “I worry that it might end up with someone trying to kill me.” He’s deadly serious. “That’s not from having an exaggerated sense of self-importance but there have been times where I’ve seen someone in the audience fuming, especially on support tours or at festivals where people aren’t there to see us, or perhaps don’t know what we’re about.” He says on both tours with Biffy Clyro and Offspring, there were instances where “one fan perhaps had too much to drink and thought we were too Black for their liking. It can get ugly.”
“A level of resistance is expected when you’re talking about the things we talk about,” adds Bobbie.
But still the band refuses to tone things down. Bobbie says that “the moment you stop saying the things you feel need to be said, there’s no point carrying on.” His bandmate smiles. “There’s enough bands half-arsing it already. The world doesn’t need another.”