The Durutti Column > City Life interview

Penny Anderson interview with Vini Reilly and Bruce Mitchell from City Life magazine

Issue 119, March 8-23 1989

The Odd Couple

In a flat in Didsbury, Vini Reilly leaves the third message on Bruce Mitchell's answering machine. The other half of Durutti Column is not keen on interviews. Eventually he rings to announce his imminent arrival, and Vini crouches purposefully over my tape-recorder. His speech must finish before the reluctant interviewee arrives. "One thing you've got to know about Bruce," he confides, "is that first of all that he's a brilliant musician. People always look on him as a local Mancunian character - he's funny and entertaining - but he's actually one of the best drummers in the world. But Bruce cannot listen to himself, and if you want to tell him how good he is, he cannot listen to that either. He always wants to push me forward as the one who does the interviews." If that's the case, why is the album called Vini Reilly?" Because the record company have to flog it!" The problem is that Vini is known, outside Manchester, more for his work with famous people, such as Morrissey.

At this point the reluctant interviewee arrives, protesting lightheartedly that he has had his arm twisted to do this interview. Vini and myself try to explain that, as an integral part of the band, I wanted to speak with him, but he is still unenthusiastic. "The music speaks for itself," he offers as an excuse. Do you think interviews and reviews are a waste of time? "No, but I'm keeping the book rights. All the dirty bits will come out when I'm old and mad." Even Vini can't really understand why anyone would want to speak to him. "If I was a writer, if I was in your shoes, I wouldn't be interviewing me. I wouldn't interview musicians, except for Morrissey or someone who is actually interesting."

The all-consuming unwillingness to cooperate with the circus that has become the music business is the hallmark of this unlikely couple. This leaves Factory with the colossal task of packing and selling them, an impossible feat worsened by their inability to perform the usual tricks (world tours and appearances on kiddie pop slots) because Vini has been seriously ill for fourteen years. A Brazilian tour was rejected because of the ominous possibility that Vini might not return alive.

But someone is still willing to pay money for their music. The question is, who? Bruce agrees. "Our agent doesn't know who Durutti fans are, and he's the one that should! They seem to be everywhere." Even in America, apparently, all that's required is a tour poster and all the secret fans shuffle out; heartening, but surprising. Vini is equally amazed. "Every gig we do, after we've done a soundcheck and come back from the hotel, the first question I ask is 'Have we got an audience?"

Philistines dismiss Durutti Column as coffee-table music, being totally unaware of the experiments they have undertaken. Vini Reilly contains the most inspired and strangely enough, intrinsically non-derivative use of samplers, surely a contradiction in terms. They sample Tracy Chapman's voice, and use snatches of opera with more originality than Malcolm McLaren (sole previous exponent) could have paid for. Vini was unwilling to use a sampler but then used portions of opera (Joan Sutherland mostly) and made her voice his own instrument.

The working title for the album was The Durutti Column Sampler. But my surprise stems from the snobbery involved in music. For a sixteen-year-old rap fan to buy a classical record is to make a great statement about their aspirations. Bruce "would never trust anyone that is not a snob" and Vini recognises the problem of class and its limiting effect on culture. "A standard working-class house (compared with a middle-class house) doesn't have a bookcase with books by Graham Greene or Shaw, or opera or classical records. Middle-class houses do, you get used to them. That is the tragedy of class in our country."

Both Bruce and Vini seem amazed that anyone buys their music when they themselves would not. Why do Durutti Column still exist in that case? "I feel driven sometimes." Pointing to an entire shelf holding his own music, Vini continues: "See that. There isn't one single record there that I'm proud of. Every single piece is total crap. They're just appalling. Pathetic. They don't do what they set out to do." Bruce interrupts: "I just want to say that I'm proud of them for him!" The major clue to why they have continued for so long is the core of profound mutual admiration binding them.

Their devotees are not easy to identify; they certainly don't hold conventions. They definitely don't paint the name of the band on the back of their leather jackets. They probably don't even wear leather jackets. So who the hell are they? Vini: "I have a problem in understanding why anyone would buy a Durutti Column album. I know why I would buy a Smiths album, or a New Order album. But I haven't got the foggiest idea why anyone would buy a Durutti Column album. Not a clue." Perhaps it's a question of when, not why. Their music fits neatly into a certain mood. Bruce laughs. "You mean you're going to put the Durutti Column on just before you open up your wrists and sit in a warm bath?" Not exactly. Their music isn't depressing or, indeed, morbidly inspiring but some fans see subliminal messages where there are none.

Vini interrupts to show me a wad of handwritten letters. These are suicide notes sent to him. I am astounded. He doesn't show me the actual words, but they are an awe inspiring indication of the power in Vini Reilly's guitar. Unable to imagine taking music so seriously - however beautiful, whatever it means - I wonder what it is about Durutti Column that inspires this sort of communion. Both Bruce and Vini can understand the basic emotions that only music can express. "Rob Gray and his Little Big Band. All these arty farty people at the Green Room saw him. But all these different people: kids of four, middle-aged women, old men, cannot walk past the Green Room because they recognise that there's something powerful, strong and real there and that's what's hard to get across. "But to kill yourself for music...".

They come across as the archetypal, sensitive, white-knuckled artists. They exude art from every pore. The character of Durutti Column is at odds with that famous northern practicality. How do Factory cope with this? Vini describes Manchester's very own 'Acme Recording Company' as "terribly disorganised, a squabbling mess, but out of it all, Factory manages to be so interesting." Within Manchester, Factory could be seen as the 'establishment', in amongst the 'true' indie labels, like Playtime, Playhard and so on. Vini strongly disagrees. Bruce can see this.

"Yes, they are the establishment, by default. They are paternalistic in the same way as the Lancashire mill owners, who all cared for their staff in a paternalistic way but were all complete dictators." How do they treat you?" Put it this way, there is no other record company that would have let me make a record in 1979. Not one. Because I was suicidal, and I was seriously and dangerously ill. I was totally anti-social and a complete wreck. My band had disintegrated, and I had retreated. Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus made constant journeys to my house to persuade me to make a record. No other record company would have done that. It's laughable the way they've treated me." A very fortunate laugh.