VENINI the interview
BorrowOrRob webzine, summer 1999

"We've got these postcards in the new single that ask the fans, 'What's your favourite fruit, and why?'." Nick, the bass player and manager of Venini's record label reveals with an air of conspiracy. "We've got lots of merchandise ideas and eventually want to find a way to send the fruit to them."

The three matching be-suited figures look casually at the replies they have received so far. One of them is Russell Senior, the once Pulp violinist with the legendary stare and a fetish for sunglasses. He now seems to have taken the role as the guru of the band, songwriter, guitarist, producer and general Director of Art. Robert, the drummer, says nothing for the next 40 minutes. The fourth male member, Danny, the keyboard player who runs Liverpool's sixties nightclub, Liquidation, is absent. This adds even more allure to the claims that he is the "fanny magnet" of the ensemble. A lone female, Debbie, sits looking effortlessly stylish on the fur couch. As an ex-model, lyricist and the frontwoman of the band, she is to become the object d'art of the male contingency of the Venini fanbase.

They sit in a room adjacent to their rehearsal studio that is decorated to suit the members' acquired tastes; a corner of sixties minimalism, with a bit of glam and just a drop of kitsch. The location is part of a warehouse that seems otherwise devoted to metal-works and joinery in Sheffield. "Have you seen this, someone's put 'Banana: because it reminds me of someone'!" Nick laughs loudly and the others join in. Russell gives a slight smile. They find this smutty humour stranger than the fact they actually asked the question. And, after a short period of time in their company, you realise that they are right. Welcome to the Venini mindset. Believe me: it will all make perfect sense with time. And a lot of effort on your part.

Venini make a striking first impression because to them, first impressions are important. They want you to be able to look at them and know exactly what they are about. This is why the location is so important. If this was London you could mistake them for being fashion-conscious upstarts. But in the industrial North, how they look is a badge. A sign that they belong to an eclectic group of people; the gorgeous ones who stand at the back of Suede gigs, the skinny-boys in suits and eyeliner in the mod clubs, those with the expertly home-dyed hair and the forehead-skimming fringes. And if you still don't know the type of people being addressed, then you will never quite get Venini. "I quite like Marilyn Manson since he went all Glam," Nick reflects. "Some Mods seemed to have got into him recently... that's our new movement, Mod-Goth. We are all Moths."

If the truth be known, Venini are possibly the most post-modern band yet. After releasing only one single - Mon Camion - that reached 20 in the indie chart, and supporting Rialto on a few dates last year, they realize that music alone isn't enough; people want a whole package deal. Their very specific audience wants to feel that they are part of a gang in a time when the rest of society feels so alienating. Debbie continues, "We want to appeal to people who are scared to get dressed up to go to concerts because they're going to get beaten up on the way there - lads wearing eyeliner and that - so that they can do it and come and see us. Hopefully then they would have found a band that they can relate to."

Venini offer a shelter to all those who thought that Gay Dad would be their new musical messiah, only to realise they were more preoccupied with the New Musical Express. But to Venini, the audience plays an integral role. "They have always influenced me," reflects Russell, "with the fruits for example and what clothes they are wearing."

Ah, those fruit again. And more importantly another theme that dominates the Venini bubble: style. They may offer a social club for the outcasts of life, but there is a very strict dress code that goes beyond no jeans or trainers. "In the music scene at the moment the bands that are taken seriously are the ones that aren't that conscious about their image," the effortlessly sleek Debbie states, "but you can make good music and you can look good as well."

Russell, who incidentally is wearing a suit so well pressed you could cut your finger on it, takes up this point. "We've got some hardline approaches to things. In the style and presentation, what proportions of colour are used and the spacing between letters follow a certain rigour that we decided upon in advance. We are, if I can use the word without bad connotations, style fascists."

If any other band talked in this way they could be immediately dismissed as needing more matter and less art, labelled as pretentious and sold to Japan at a discount price. But there is nothing fake about Venini, they are genuinely moved by aesthetics. It is visible in every part of their persona, and by osmosis it seeps into their music. "Personalities make music. Musical ability wasn't part of the equation when making up this band," Russell agrees. He looks to early Roxy Music as a template to the kind of success Venini want to achieve: "At the same time as being totally advant garde they were also totally pop.

"I hate the idea of having to choose whether you are indie and obscure but have credibility, or you are cheesy and pop with none. The real fun, the real art, is to be both at once. When you do that it's very easy to trip up and look stupid and you give a lot of ammunition to those who wish to rip you down in flames.

"If you're standing up there very stridently as Debbie does, people can rip you to shreds. But I like that, I like the boldness. That speaks directly through to members of the public. And that means more to me than getting in the NME."

It is clear that here we see the business side to Venini. Their well thought out ideas on how things will be done show just how serious these people are. Nick, who runs their own record label, Bikini, says that making the decision not to sell their souls to the majors was not a soft option. "I wouldn't recommend anyone to do it. It is a massive learning curve. More downs than ups. The day to day running and meeting deadlines, chasing everybody up..." Russell continues, "It's like being a small corner shop and you're competing with Sainsbury's. You have to pay more because you're small, and it tends to make everything more expensive. You can press up 5 or 7 hundred copies and do the 'sell them to your mates' thing or you can also do the 'we signed to a major record label' thing.

"What is hard to do is try and sell a few thousand records on your own label and try to get across from just your mates and people in like-minded bands in bed-sits. When you do that you come to a glass ceiling. Steve Lamacq will play people who do their own 7" single in a brown paper bag, but if you try to do it semi-properly it's not so easy."

It is only now that the whole issue of Venini's music comes up for discussion. And it does make you question just how far up on the scale of importance the actual music rates. Their debut album is currently in mixing, and the previews of the material at Glastonbury seem to point at a continuing French theme. "That's just my attempt at attracting French men!" comments Debbie of her multi-lingual singing. So has this proved successful? "No we haven't had one! I don't speak French; I get people to translate it for me. There's also Russian as well."

However, the first single, Mon Camion, seems to suffer somewhat from... er... "Yes, the production is terrible!" a guilty Russell winces. "But the song still has a certain winsome charm. When we did it I had 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' at the side and I wanted it to be bigger than that, and it was. Then it all went wrong somewhere! I don't know what the hell happened, some of the EQ fell off and it ended up lighter than air like a fluffy marshmallow. And the other track, St Tropez, is alright," he rightly defends.

It is this honesty that prevents the band from becoming caricatures of themselves. They are too self-aware to become victims of their own hype, and so they avoid it altogether. "Well we had the chance of having a video on Jo Whiley, but we weren't ready. I don't want to be on the cover of NME before we've got 10 fans," Russell contemplates, "I think that hype is good and I think it's fun, I enjoy that anticipation. But it's not right for us. We're cool and cool is important to us."

For this reason the band are choosy about whom they will tour with. This may seem ridiculous for such a new band, but as always they are right, "We've got to find the right band to tour with," Nick demands. "I mean imagine if we supported the Stereophonics... Gordon Bennett, could you see us playing to their fans!"

Venini are looking to do a support tour in September, "But we are willing to play any cool clubs," Russell adds. So, what would constitute a cool club? "A place that will allow us to come in the day and decorate it, bring our trunk of stuff and make an atmosphere, a party.

"We try and enclose the place so that you are either through the curtains or stand at the back and just listen. And it's all colour co-ordinated."

By being so selective of whom Venini want to make up their audience, it would be easy to suggest that they will never have a wide enough appeal to survive. However, as Debbie reveals, the response the band received in Glastonbury hardly a decadent Venini setting was promising, "A lot of people seemed to be getting into it. We thought everybody would be sat down and that there wouldn't be many as it was in the morning. There was more than were watching Gay Dad at the end of the evening."

And Russell should know how an outsider band could become tabloid fodder from his Pulp days. This year Venini played Glastonbury. "There was us playing bottom of the list in the new tent and Jarvis singing karoake in another." A wry observation from Russell who is still friends with his former associate. It's only a few years ago that he was part of the now-legendary Pulp headlining set. Now there seems the distinct feeling that Russell has to pay his dues all over again but there appears to be little regret and interested anticipation. Indeed, Venini itself seems to be a reaction to when Pulp wandered from their original blueprint and Russell left. "Not a response, no, but I have drawn on that. Now it can be faster because I know to avoid wallowing about wondering about a mistake for six months. Now I just do it for two days. That experience is useful but it is not the same kind of band." This is a fair point. Whereas Pulp glamorised the seediness of gutter-level life, Venini take you as far away from the bedsit as you can get in three minutes of pop, to a totally distant Rivera.

They don't just want to sell you records, but offer you a timeshare option in France, or indeed Russia. They know the kind of people they want to attract, and merely provide the backing track for the chosen few, as Russell says, "You make a party, supply the food and drink and let people have what fun they will have. I like that because you're putting people in a situation were they will just express themselves and something will happen." This, ladies and gentlemen, is not merely about music; that is just a by-product. This is a lifestyle. And therein lies the real art.

(c) BorrowOrRob Ltd 1999, 2000