Interview with Top Shelf Jazz

Foto: David Elliss

Today presents an interview with the band Top Shelf Jazz from the UK/London. This band is sure a special bunch of people.

We already talked about their newest EP „Gentlemen in Squalor“, here is the chance to get them to know a bit better.

If you want to read the german translation click here.

Enjoy the interview:

Firstly, would you like to present yourself in a few words to our readers to let them get a proper impression?

My name is Fred and I perform as the “morally impaired” stage character known as ‘Arthur Foxaque’ (this is a play on phonetics – I will leave it to your imagination…) and I front the band known, loved and hated as ‘Top Shelf Jazz’.  We play old style 30’s jazz, dancehall & swing music and use it like a mighty weapon of pleasure! The pre-war Harlem style of jazz was for drinkin’ and dancin’ – it was entertainment, purely and simply to bring about happiness in difficult times. And that is the spirit in which we play and perform! It isn’t just for listening to! Get up and get down in any way that you like!

What is special about your style of music and why do you call it “Filthy swing”?

We have a cabaret approach, and we love to sing about drink, drugs, money and sex, above all other things, as these are what we enjoy most! The style of music that we play was often associated with all things illicit before it became a mainstream genre by the early 1940’s in the USA (and made “clean”). So “Filthy Swing” is our way of saying to everyone that this is the jazz and swing as it was meant to be enjoyed!! Remember, sex is always more fun when it is forbidden… so don’t have sex! and 90 years ago, I don’t think it was even legal? Maybe not? But someone must have been doing it.

How come your band name is “Top Shelf Jazz”?

The phrase “top shelf” in the UK cultural context is a classic British double-entendre for the pornographic publications on sale in News Agents – they are always on the top shelf so that children could not reach them. And so, as young boys in Britain, from early puberty, we would be obsessed with the mysterious magazines that we were unable and prohibited to see!!! And that’s what our jazz is all about: the illicit, the prohibited, the taboo. Hidden pleasures that are suddenly and often graphically (in this day and age!) revealed in all their carnal splendors. Amusingly, though, in the USA “Top Shelf” means that it is of the highest level of quality! Ok. We will accept that. And in Australia, it means all the spirits and liquors along the top rack of a bar – that’s us too!! What implications does this phrase have in Deutschland? I hope it is naughty!

You all have some pretty unusual names. Did you choose band members according to the sound of their name?

The names have been chosen and sometimes evolve from a combination of personalities and the musical role they play in the band. Almost all the names have some sort of irreverent or ‘naughty’ reference in keeping with the British obsession with sexual euphemism. it is the typical English language habit of playing with words to give them a different meaning whilst maintaining a similar sound or spelling and vice versa. They are stage names and their roles are inhabited with whomever is available to fill the position from one week to the next – I have a rotating set of band members depending on religious observations, other commitments, illness or just too drunk, and in different parts of the country. I am from south Wales originally, and when I return there to play for the home crowd, I pick up my local musicians in Cardiff. For example, I work with four different drummers and they are always called “Capt. Hieronymus Rimschott (Royal Hungarian Navy)”. The trumpeter is always called “Harry the Horn”. If I had two or three trumpeters on stage (which has happened!), they will all be called “Harry the Horn” just to add to the fun and confusion!

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Most of your characters are pretty old since they were born even before my great grandmother (who is already dead 2 years now). How come you look that young? Can you tell us your secret of beauty?

The secret is the vast consumption of ‘Cheap Drink’ (who sponsored the “Fast & Louche” album)!! And the fact we are all living in an artificial cabaret dream!! Also, cigarettes and vigorous sex with enthusiastic young ladies and or other animals. We sometimes take drugs, but this is mainly because we need pain killers for the hangover.

Are you somehow inspired by other artists in style, music or drinking?

Certainly! I admire the great drinkers of the 20th Century: Richard Burton; Francis Bacon; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Marlene Dietrich was known to like the odd cocktail so I understand; Oliver Reed; Mahatma Ghandi and every last man jolly jack tar sailor who was ever tossed upon the seven seas – the list is endless. My musical inspiration comes directly from the 1930’s though, from Weimar Berlin cabaret & musicals, to Django Reinhardt in paris and Al Bowlly in London; to the hot American sound of jazz and early swing, namely the great showmen such as Cab Calloway; Fred Astaire movies; The Marx Brothers (who still make me cry with laughter!!); Billy Holiday; Fats Waller; Putney Dandridge. Many others. I have, obviously, been cursed by the absurdist influences of the Bonzo Dog band and the Monty Python team.  I love to dress in that old style too. However, I don’t really fit in with the retro crowd, strangely enough. I am somewhat of an individualist renegade: I don’t belong to any tribe.

Your newest EP “Gentlemen in Squalor” was released in 2011, which song is your personal favorite?

„Dr. Faustus” – it is a political diatribe as much a homage to Marlowe and Goethe’s works and the classic FW Murnau film (which is often overlooked in place of the iconic “Nosferatu” movie outside Germany).

Is there a deeper meaning behind your music video of the song “Gentlemen in Squalor”? Why do children play a special role?

Drunk people behave like petulant children, incapable of responsibility once they’ve had too much booze!! It is a deliberate reference to the Bugsy Malone film as well. The video Director, Alex Sufit (, came up with the idea and it fitted the ambiguous message we are sending out: we love to get drunk, but are we all just so awful when we are, no?!!! We defy good order, but we also know that we are idiots as well. Maybe I just don’t like British society in general with its destructive ignorance? Who knows…

Do you receive many hate mails or why is one song named this way (and why do you have to refer to it in your contacts and on your homepage)? Or do you actually hope to receive them?

We have received the odd genuine complaint from the less educated in society, but we don’t make any effort to respond to their ignorance. Most people write in with good humor and wit and it is all designed with participation in mind when we set up our hate-mail joke on stage for the audience to enjoy. Many people do not like what we do and think we are too offensive or that we are not playing jazz with enough historical “Purity”. The phrase ‘Fuck-off’ springs to mind here… haha!! I like to get rid of the intellectually weak before they bother to come to one of our hot live shows! The “Hate Mail” song was written with this in mind.

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On your homepage one can find many references – most of them are so to say not very friendly. Is this a motivation?

This is classic British humor and the intention is as I have illustrated above: If people are offended by any references on our website, then we have done our job and warned off anyone who wouldn’t like our live show either!

Does it make you happy to cause some uproar?

Absolutely! We love to stir the shit from time to time!! Party or go home, we say! Our show has an element of pantomime and we are not taking ourselves very seriously. Only the music is studied and slick (for the most part). If you cannot divide the audience and cause some to become upset, then you are probably avoiding more serious subjects and ideas and should take vodka as a sensible remedy and watch less TV.

However, I’ve got the slight impression, that you have a special relationship to Germany. This is founded on these small but clever observations: On your latest EP one can read the statement: “Achtung! You may hear some naughty words!” plus you are touring in this year is Germany/Berlin in August and one of your latest songs is called “Dr. Faustus”. What is your special connection to Germany or in other words: WHY?

CABARET! (And excellent beer). I am a natural “British Continental”, so to speak, and I try and learn languages as i go along during my participation in various street festivals in Europe. So I have picked up French and German and Polish and Italian along the way to greater and lesser extents. I even sing one song in Russian, although I have never been there (yet)! But in direct answer to your question, the german language and cultural references in the context of my art form is synonymous with the avante garde performance art and cabarets that came out of Germany during the troubled years of the Weimar Republic. This spirit remained untamed, despite the later oppression of the Nazis and the Soviets, and moved and survived in many forms re-emerging elsewhere in Europe and the USA – Beckmann, Brecht, Weil, Dietrich and others all escaped and with them, the flame of artistic expression survived. Inter-war Poland also had a similar art culture and sophisticated café music scene which still survives today, for example, especially in the dark theatre productions that still hold strong there and the same rings true in Hungary too, I believe. It is in this broader sense that you will observe references to German language and culture in the “Gentlemen in Squalor” EP specifically, but not, in general, exclusively to be noted in our artistic output. God! I talk shit, no? you can tell I went to art college!!! Haha!!

Do you like Goethe?

No more than Caspar David Friedrich. In regards to Goethe and Faustus, of course, I am more familiar with the English tradition through Christopher Marlowe. Naturally, I have never read any of their books. I just saw something on ‘You-Tube’ whilst I was stoned I think… or was it a film. Gosh… I haven’t the foggiest, my dear!!

Since we are talking about the topics of your songs: In your songs “Hang out the stars in Indiana” and in “Minnesota” you are singing about America. Do you already have performed there or do you plan to do it?

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We would love to play in the US and Canada, but we have not had the chance as of this moment! “Hang out the Stars in Indiana” is a song made famous by Al Bowlly at two different times!! The original recording when he was singing in the UK during the 1930’s and then the song also featured in the UK comedy film classic “Withnail & I…” released in 1987. A lot of people who were students (until maybe 10 years ago) saw this film and it is a cult classic if you are over the age of 30 in Britain! “Minnesota” was written by my Clarinetist who plays under the pseudonym “Baron von Blowpipe” and the words were added by his friend, Ray Thompson. We love playing it and everyone, without fail, always dances to it!! We have a general travel theme in our live show involving safari hats which we use in satirical reference to British colonialism and the dark side of its consequences. Certainly, in historical matters, we are not revivalists, nor do we look at the past with rose tinted spectacles – there was nothing particularly noble in the methods of European colonialism during the 1920’s, that is as much as is agreed! And the British establishment doesn’t have too much to shout about in that respect, notwithstanding some of the positive effects (of which there were few, in my opinion).

On your contact on your new EP you refer to offers of marriages: How many do you receive per week and most important, are they more frequent than hate mails?

We receive more hate mail than marriage offers, put it that way!! Haha!! However, we do get no end of propositions for dirty sex and free drink at live shows! Being clean living and morally upright citizens, we politely decline, of course.

What is your special interest in fine art auctions?

I used to be gigolo. It’s a great place to pick up wealthy women and get paid handsomely for my, erm…  ‘services’.

What are you doing, when you are not recording/performing music?

I am usually managing the band, or on a train going to gigs or coming back from gigs. Occasionally having sex, more often masrturbating to pornos. usually drinking. But most of all, I am always explaining to the tax man why I do not owe him as much money as he thinks I do! Sometimes I practice guitar playing, but that’s on special occasions such as birthdays or Easter etc

Do you think I’ve forgotten something important? Than say it now:

“Ich bin die fesche Lola!”.



The MP3 download of “Gentlemen in Squalor” is now available and we shall be in Berlin on 18th & 20th August and 5th September (see our website calendar for details). You might probably catch us busking on the footbridge between the Museum Insel   and Hackesche Markt. We will also be featuring in the “Balboa Castle Camp” in Schloss Beesenstadt, just south of Magdeburg, on 3rd Sept. and the Piano Bar in Stolberg, Aachen district, on 7th sept. finally, it is a worthy bet that you should find us drunk on the Polish border at Gorlitz, I imagine!! See you in the Cabaret Gutter!

And last but not least: An advice to our readers.

If you are utterly irresponsible, libidinous and alcoholic, then come to one of our shows!! But remember: it was your idea, not ours, so clear up your own drunken wreckage afterwards!!

Thank you for the interview.

A pleasure! Danke Shave!

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Ich bin Janina und komme aus Norddeutschland. Daher stammt wohl auch der Faible für düstere Musik (schlechtes Wetter und viel Wind ;)), die nicht ganz der Norm entspricht. Mit einem schrägen und rauen Sinn für Humor und einer großen Begeisterung für Steampunk und Mittelalter bin ich in diesem Blog für die Seitenblicke auf etwas ausgefallenere Projekte zuständig. (Janina bei Google+)

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