Sometime between late 1984 and early 1985, drummer Wilf Plum was at a Three Johns gig in Edinburgh with his bandmate in the noisy post-punk band Ink of Infidels, George Baxter. There, Baxter introduced Plum to Andy Moor, whose band was looking for a drummer. Plum went along to their practice room and met Kathy Hulme and Ruth Robinson, whose brother Plum already knew well. He also already knew Colin McLean slightly from the anti-nuclear movement, though he was not aware that he was also a musician. Moor and McLean met when McLean was DJing at a Scottish Campaign to Remove the Atomic Menace (SCRAM) benefit; Moor demanded to know more about the unbelievable music he was playing. Singer and trumpeter Marion Coutts connected with them while attending art school.
“Oddly enough, I had been making a poster for a Miner’s Strike benefit gig with Ink of Infidels and Rip, Strip and Fuck It, and the third band were taking ages to decide on a name, and I kept on at George (who knew them) to get them to hurry up and choose something so that I could finish the poster,” Plum recalls. “It turned out to be the band I had just joined, which ended up being called Volunteer Slavery, after the [Rahsaan] Roland Kirk song.”
Volunteer Slavery was a punk-funk sextet specializing in simple free jazz and weird noise, with an emphasis on improvisation and thudding rhythms. In the late summer of 1986, it re-emerged as a new four-piece, Dog Faced Hermans. Moor and McLean alternated on bass and guitar until deciding it was best with McLean on bass and additional percussion and Moor on guitar, with occasional viola, and other odds and ends, such as the “hippo tube,” a 1.5-meter long cardboard tube for holding rolls of paper. They weren’t sure what to do about a vocalist until Coutts decided she would like to alternate between trumpeting and singing while adding auxiliary percussion. It worked out very well when they tried it; Coutts penned all of the lyrics to their original compositions. Plum kept mainly to the drum kit, but also brought in the occasional saxophone, guitar, and metallic noise.
The scene in which they emerged was a scene of outsiders with a common audience plus shared performance and rehearsal spaces, but no dominating or prescriptive style or sound. While Edinburgh had a more experimental edge than Glasgow and was an epicenter of the early ‘80s post-punk period, the Hermans had more close kinships with bands like Big Flame, Bogshed, and the Membranes nationally than bands locally. Artists in this scene were connected more by a shared DIY philosophy, an approach that was not career-focused or profit-oriented, and a resistance to easily defined or categorized sounds.
From the initial spark of punk energy in the UK, there grew an incredible culture of independent labels and fanzines, which worked collaboratively to create a network for hosting performances, providing shelter for traveling bands, and collecting phone numbers. Its equivalent scene was the contemporaneous hardcore and post-hardcore scene in the U.S. On both sides of the Atlantic, these musical cultures flourished as responses to the increasing conservatism in government, under Reaganism on one side and Thatcherism on the other. In the UK, however, this was all significantly bolstered by the presence of John Peel, who seemed to play every type of music imaginable for two hours most nights of the week. This both fed the development of truly novel directions in sound for aspiring musicians who listened, and contained the very real possibility that if you and your friends went in on a run of 45s and sent him one, he might really dig it—playing it on his show, garnering press, and perhaps even inviting you to do a Peel Session.
The foundation for the music the Hermans would make was primarily set by Moor and McLean’s shared love of James Brown, free jazz, no wave, reggae, and world music. When Moor expressed interest in McLean’s records, McLean lent him somewhere between 60 and a 100 LPs to take home over the summer, even though they had just met. This stack included the landmark no wave compilation No New York and Ornette Coleman, as well as releases from UK independent label Ron Johnson Records. While they greatly enjoyed going to Queen’s Hall to see Art Ensemble of Chicago and Don Cherry, they never felt ambitious or tried to play like jazz musicians—they taught themselves as they went along, and their influences filtered in. Sonic Youth inspired them to put drumsticks in their guitars, for example. McLean taught himself bass mostly by playing along with Birthday Party, Joy Division, and dub reggae records. Like many other bands of the scene they existed within, they were obsessed with utilizing treble to make guitars sound as nasty, scratchy, and sharp as possible, especially Telecasters.
Moor was very interested in ethnomusicology and spent a lot of time in the university library listening to traditional folk music from all over the world until he dropped out of his social anthropology program when his interest in studying this music was not taken seriously. Coutts had not had a lot of access to less conventional sounds growing up on hymns and being trained as a trumpet player in the Salvation Army band, so she brought a unique and authentic connection to more folky and traditional music. Plum had been splitting his time between post-punk and dub reggae bands and took influences from Motown drummers; he admits there may even be lingering prog references in there as well. However, a major critical factor in their style and sound was the urgency of the political situation in Scotland at the time—Plum says it was tough not to be impacted by it.
For the Hermans, making art was inherently political because, as an artist, you are constantly faced with political decisions about how you create, disseminate, publicize, and fund your craft. “The band never had a leader, and we tried to operate it in the way we thought it should be done,” Plum explains. “So, when we toured with another band, we took turns to open and close the show so that everyone had the chance to play to a half-empty room, but then have time for a beer afterward, or play last to a bigger crowd, and then have to pack up and leave five minutes after the last note. It wasn’t always possible, but we managed to do it that way most of the time and band decisions were arrived at after much discussion. We also played a lot of benefit shows for various political causes.”
Following a tour of Holland with The Ex in 1989, in which the two bands became quite close, Dog Faced Hermans went on hiatus while Coutts went to Poland to further her art career, and Moor went to Amsterdam to become a member of his favorite band, the Ex. (He remains active in the group to this day.) When the band regrouped in 1990, they made Amsterdam the new home base of the band, becoming a part of the squat scene, which has led to both The Ex and Dog Faced Hermans being labeled anarcho-punk bands.
“The thing was, there was a thread of anarchism running through both DFH and The Ex, and we both had punk elements in the music,” Plum explains. “Given that many folks seem to prefer a simple label, then indeed we were tagged as ‘anarcho-punk.’ It doesn’t really tell much of the story, but simple labels rarely do. We did a tour of Germany with Chumbawamba in 1991, and they were always being asked why an anarchist band would be playing dance music and not hardcore punk.”
When they arrived in Amsterdam, the squat scene was large and very active. “But it wasn’t just about having a cheap place to live; it was also the base for a whole counter-culture,” Plum says. “You had bars, cafés, concert spaces, and restaurants in squats, but also printing presses, recording studios, screen printing shops, etc. And our involvement in it was also not only to have a cheap place to live but also the political side of trying to do things cooperatively and not increasing oppression. Not always easy, but we tried and sometimes succeeded. The DIY ethic and having our independence as artists and human beings was a part of our specific political vision.”
Since they would no longer be able to live on the dole in Amsterdam as they had been in Scotland, this move necessitated that the band become their full-time activity, playing and touring more while also becoming increasingly focused on creating new material. For the Hermans, who’d grown accustomed to the penury of the UK scene, Amsterdam was a refreshing change of pace: the gigs paid well and drew enthusiastic crowds (the British underground was very well-received there), with the close-knit squat scene providing additional community support. Through focusing intensely on their sound and relentless touring, they developed a whole new circuit of interest in their work in the United States. In the Hermans’s compositional mindset, each show was a dress rehearsal; they recorded all of their albums after honing that batch of songs on tour to figure out the most powerful and effective way to play it. While they eventually came around to enjoying the studio process more, they always felt most comfortable as a live band and still consider it the true Dog Faced Hermans experience.
Here are seven releases documenting the sonic trajectory of Dog Faced Hermans, most of which have been graciously remastered by Moor and McLean for a new generation of listeners, all of which are out of print in their original versions.
Immediately following their first gigs as Dog Faced Hermans—which happened to all be in England—the band went into a recording studio called Makka in Cambridge. Recording here enabled them to keep costs down, as it was run by some friends of Plum’s, and the whole set was laid down with Davy Graham at the controls. Listening back to the recordings in Edinburgh, they decided that even though most of it was pretty rough and not so well arranged (having been recorded after only three live performances), there were three tracks they felt they could put onto a 45. “We borrowed 500 quid from Thom Dibdin, a friend who had originally offered to loan the money to the Ink of Infidels to put out a single,” Plum says. “Alas, the Infidels fell to bits, but when we asked Thom a few months later if he was interested in another band, fortunately, he was. We fixed up a distribution deal with Sandy McLean of Fast Forward, and off we went with the Demon Radge label.”
They had 1000 sleeves printed on A3 card via a contact at art school, and then cut and glued them all by hand. According to Moor, they didn’t know what they were doing in the studio, “but luckily Davy did.” He adds they “jumped through the ceiling with excitement when John Peel played it on the BBC” and offered them a session not long after. The Peel session was produced by Dale Griffin, erstwhile drummer of Mott the Hoople, who was very grumpy and seemed like he would “prefer to spend his afternoon mowing the lawn than recording an inexperienced band,” Plum recounts. They again had difficulty capturing their sound on tape and had to change some song titles due to censorship, but this led to them getting reviewed in NME. Plum and Coutts did all the artwork for their albums from the very beginning, with Coutts making the sleeves and Plum creating the labels.
As the band was gradually becoming a bit better known later in 1987, they had an offer from music journalist and musician Everett True and his pal Jamie Sellers to put out a Dog Faced Hermans LP on Calculus Records. This was recorded at Wilf’s Planet in Edinburgh by John Vick (Fini Tribe). The studio was in the same part of town where they lived, making it very easy on everyone, and it was recorded quickly over two or three days. By now, they had a better idea of how to record things, but Moor feels they still went over the top on the reverb in some places and were still figuring many things out. “The Rain It Raineth” is an acoustic number Moor and Coutts made with buses going by, recorded outside the studio on Broughton Street. “Originally, the record was going to be called ‘Humans Fly, But They Can’t Be Civil,’ which I thought was a great title—another cracker from Marion—but the others felt it was too long, so it was truncated,” Plum says.
This record worked to establish them on the UK circuit with support from the Edinburgh Musicians’s Collective. Thanks to the contacts of John Robb of the Membranes, it was also released a bit later in Germany with singles added to make it a proper full length on Philip Boa’s Constrictor label as Menschen Fliegen. Though this was literally just a German translation of the title intended in good spirit, the Germans did not appreciate the gesture for whatever reason, and the opportunity to add an additional color to the art on this go resulted in a mix of red and black ink that rendered the whole batch a rather unattractive shade of brown.
The next LP, Everyday Timebomb, was recorded at Chamber Studio in Edinburgh with Jamie Watson and was released on Robb’s Vinyl Drip label. Through relentless touring, their musicianship had become truly exceptional. The music had evolved beyond being driven by (mostly fast) on- or off-beats, and they had started to expand ever wider for inspiration. This album features a version of the old American folk song “John Henry” with Neil MacArthur from Swamptrash on fiddle. It also included photography by Coutts, Moor, and guitarist Maya “Kebab” McNicoll of the Scottish avant-hardcore collective Archbishop Kebab. By capturing their sound more effectively in the studio, the Hermans began to hit their stride as a unit with this album.
Recorded with producer Dolf Planteijdt at Koienverhuurbedrijf—a studio housed in a giant squat on the city’s outskirts that was subsequently evicted, partly demolished, and re-squatted to become an even bigger village of caravan tents—Mental Blocks For All Ages marks the first Hermans album made in Amsterdam. Planteijdt recorded many of The Ex’s records, and Moor feels that he gave this album “a very warm, clear, and natural sound, which really sounds like us,” something he acknowledges is not an easy task.
They had taken a year off from the band, resulting in greater depth and variety when they began composing songs again. Experimenting more with different rhythms and time signatures on this release, Plum even brought in a double bass drum pedal on a few tunes—a technique he never replicated again due to the resultant clutter it produced on the low end.
This was also the last time they collectively mixed a record, as it had become a case of too many cooks, resulting in an album that McLean, in particular, felt had turned out quite “patchy.” Going forward, Moor and McLean were responsible for the mixing. McLean has since re-mastered Mental Blocks For All Ages for its American re-release; he’s much, much happier with this iteration.
The Hermans just released another track, “New Year,” which was recorded during these sessions but only appeared prior to this on a benefit compilation in 1993.
The band recorded Hum of Life in January 1993, returning to Chamber Studios in Edinburgh with Jamie Watson at the controls. “Jan 9” boasts a drumbeat derived from the paradiddle Kat Ex played on The Ex’s classic “Meanwhile at McDonna’s” and a guitar line inspired by Public Enemy, while “How We Connect” contains a midsection recalling African pop music. “White Indians” was a studio piece that they never really attempted to play live, relying on slowing the tape down in the studio to give it a much better groove. Moor had started to use his electric viola as well as playing guitar. This album also includes two fantastic covers showcasing their wide range of influences: “Love Split With Blood” by NYC no wavers 8 Eyed Spy and “Peace Warriors” by Ornette Coleman. “Hear the Dogs” functions just as well as a band theme song as the anthem against austerity measures it seems intended to be.
After deciding in February 1994 to stop the band, Dog Faced Hermans still wanted to release a live album they had been planning and make one final statement in the studio. As the U.S. label they’d been working with, Project A Bomb, was suffering from the collapse of their manufacturing and distribution deal, they had to seek out another. They decided to reach out to Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles, who—to the band’s surprise—were into it. Short of watching the live performances available online, McLean insists these live recordings “capture the essence of the band way better than any of the studio recordings—we were always much more in our element on stage than in the studio.”
These four-track recordings capture the Hermans’s first U.S. tour in the spring of 1993, along with a few European gigs from the same time. When they were recording their set at CBGBs, no one informed them of a policy that artists had to pay the venue $25 to either record their own set or surrender their tapes. It was a harsh policy, not to mention an easily missable one: printed on a tiny piece of paper well above eye level, surrounded by larger flyers and paper scraps. Indeed, no one at CBGBs mentioned it to the band when their sound engineer, Gert-Jan, ran a pair of house cables from the front-of-house board to the four-track. Since they had already been paid and transferred the tape out of the recorder, they refused, and after a long, tense, silent standoff, CBGBs banned them from future performances due to noncompliance. The irony of the whole situation—how Hermans’s willingness to stand up to the greedy and exploitative music business had landed them in exile from punk’s most iconic venue—was certainly not lost on the Hermans, who had a good laugh over it.
Bump and Swing and Those Deep Buds are the last two releases McLean and Moor have yet to remaster. Moor managed to dig up the original four-track cassettes, so they can remix this album from scratch when the time comes. McLean says he’s looking forward to reworking this live album; both will be arriving on Bandcamp as soon as the work is complete.
For their final studio album, the Hermans went to Suite 16 in Rochdale, which had previously been the legendary Cargo Studios—the main indie studio during the original post-punk period in the UK, from 1978 until they closed in 1984. They recorded Those Deep Buds with Guy Fixsen engineering. Plum ended up sleeping on the studio floor next to his drums for two weeks because he “couldn’t be arsed to go all the way back to John Robb’s to sleep, and then have to drive back to the studio every morning.” The music was still interesting and challenging to play, and the band were happy with Fixsen’s recordings, which Moor and McLean assisted him with mixing. Plum attempted to mix one song (“H Tribe”) with Fixsen, which Moor and McLean had given up on, but it still didn’t turn out as well as Plum had hoped. “I just couldn’t get the Bollywood drum sound I wanted out of my drumming,” he explains.
“Keep Your Laws/Off My Body” is probably the most simultaneously beautiful and menacing song composed about bodily autonomy and, rather unfortunately, remains as powerful and relevant as ever. The Hermans recorded an alternate version of “Calley” at a studio in Groningen, the only time they used a drum machine, so Plum played hi-hat and percussive guitar. It subsequently appeared on a benefit compilation for sexual assault victims of the Yugoslav Wars.