The Soundshark Meets… Petrol Bastard

To be dubbed as the Tesco Value Prodigy is perhaps a moniker of dubious flattery, yet the fearsome duo of Jon Tetsuo and Ben Atomgrinder manage it with such reckless abandon, their near-decade of debauchery truly suits it. What began life as a scuzzy electro-punk sideshow, has quietly amassed quite the rabid cult following across the UK. In what serves as their return to the stage in pandemic-era Britain, the pair agree to sit and chat with me in the beer garden of The Holly Tree in Addlestone, hours before unleashing their outrageous performance on the locals. By their own admission, they have no idea where Addlestone even is, despite driving to the northern Surrey town, a stone’s throw away from London. Our conversation not only peers underneath the veneer of their raucous act, but arguably serves as their most honest interview to date.

So how was Petrol Bastard conceived? 

Ben: Well, we were both in separate bands around 2005, maybe 2006-ish, doing sort of similar music, but not quite like this. Just hard music. We met at a gig in Huddersfield, I think. 

Jon: Yeah, I think so. Ben was playing in a band called the Volatile Gentlemen, and I playing in a band called Taurus Tetsuo Prophecy. They were both electronic-based bands, a little bit punky, but we both realised we had a shared vision of how this should work, didn’t we? 

Ben: What we were doing was too fussy, wasn’t it? We both did a few gigs, disbanded, we didn’t really talk to each other for about six years, and then the Volatile Gentlemen reformed for a one off gig, and our singer just disappeared. We just couldn’t get hold of him. So I was like, ‘Shit, who do I know?’ and I thought, ‘Oh, Jon!’ and asked, ‘Oh, do you want to step in?’ In the end he couldn’t do it, but it kind of reminded us both that we existed, so after that gig we were both like, ‘Let’s do something!’ 

Jon: You asked me to audition for the Volatile Gentlemen, to replace him, and I said it wasn’t my thing, but let’s do something different. So we met in a pub in Huddersfield, we arranged to meet, we got fucking smashed, completely smashed, and we wrote a manifesto about how Petrol Bastard should work. 

Ben: The rules were: cowboy hats, always be smashed, simple songs with one line that you can repeat over and over again. 

Jon: The reason for that was so that the crowd could learn it really easily. 

Ben: Always write drunk, always play drunk, everything was drunk. Electronic backing tracks hard and fast, no instruments. Never take any equipment, always just on a laptop or a phone. 

Jon: No live instruments. 

Ben: So we could get as drunk as possible, and keep it stupid. That was it really. 

Jon: And we kind of stuck to that, apart from the drunk thing, everything else remains. 

Ben: We’ve strayed a little bit but the most successful stuff or the songs that’ve stuck are where we’ve followed that formula. We’ve been playing some of these songs for ten years. 

Jon: The ones that stick are the ones that have one line over and over and over again, like ‘Shit And Fire’ or ‘I Spent My Rent Money On Tentacle Porn.’ 

Ben: Some of those songs were literally written in half an hour, from start to finish, including the music. Like ‘There’s Been A Violent Assault On Priory Way,’ that took about half an hour total, to write and record. 

Jon: And the name Petrol Bastard was conceived through an idea I had for a book, which I did start writing, about a guy who had really bad road rage because his family were killed by a drink driver. Whenever anybody cut him up, he’d knock them off the road, drag them out of the car, and beat them to death, and his name was Petrol Bastard. I was like, ‘That’s too good a name, we need a band to call that!’ It just stuck right from the start. 

Ben: It doesn’t have any meaning within the band at all. It’s just a cool name. 

Jon: We’ve since realised that it stops us getting radio play. 

Ben: We can’t advertise on Facebook, so all of our likes are organic because we can’t pay money to boost any posts and we’re constantly being threatened with having the page taken down, so it’s really stupid actually. 

Jon: In hindsight, we’d have used a different name! 

Ben: We can’t play Glastonbury because we’ve got a swear word in the name, they have a policy about that. 

Jon: Otherwise we’d be on the Pyramid stage by now. [laughs] 

Both of you were musicians and producers before, during, and after Petrol Bastard, including during the temporary separation, what is it about Petrol Bastard that keeps you going, and has kept the project going for nearly a decade? 

Ben: We keep sort of straying away from it for a little bit, I do lots of other music, but I always keep coming back to Petrol Bastard as the main consistent project, because it’s just so much more fun. Some events I play are probably bigger with other projects but it’s just not as fun at all. It’s much less personal and this is the thing that’s always more fun. It’s consistently been really fun. Apart from a couple of blips where it’s not been, this is the one project with the most excitement behind it. People know the songs. There’s people who are actually into it. It was only meant to be a three month joke, wasn’t it really? 

Jon: Yeah, and in that time, you’ve done so many side projects, haven’t you? I’m more a put everything into one piece of work, or don’t do it, whereas you like to spread out a little bit, but you always come back to Petrol Bastard. And I think the other thing was when we tried to stop it is that we realised how big a part of our identities it was. It’s so good being able to go out there and gig, and people know your music. When we stopped doing it, suddenly it’s like, I’m just a fucking guy who does a desk job. Suddenly you kind of realise how mundane life is without it. So we had to go back to it. 

Ben: You find your friendship group, even though they’re acquaintances really, but still the people you’re talking to and interacting with goes from hundreds of people, to far less very quickly. 

Jon: Your world gets a lot smaller without it. 

Ben: You end up missing it a bit really. What I’m saying is, we need it for validation! [laughs] 

After your temporary split in 2017, you both arguably got into the best physical shapes of your lives. Was that necessary you feel in order for Petrol Bastard to continue afterwards? 

Ben: I think it was subconscious. We knew we would be back, but we wanted to be harder and faster, so we could not die doing it! 

Jon: It definitely wasn’t the reasons for it. I quit drinking and got fit six years ago. Ben started training for strongman competitions. 

Ben: At the time, I was done with Petrol Bastard, I was like, ‘I’m gonna do strongman.’ And I did for a few years, and it wouldn’t have worked doing both because the drinking wouldn’t have matched that lifestyle. But [doing strongman] has actually really helped. 

Jon: Especially this fucking tour. We’re doing a hardcore, 45 minute workout every single night and we wouldn’t have been able to do that five, six years ago. We would’ve been fucked! 

Ben: I think the show had its place as it was, but now it’s a lot better now [drinking every show] is over. It’s a lot more deliberate. It has its audience, the old stuff, when we’re very, very drunk, it’s funny, a bit, but it’s quite limited isn’t it? 

Jon: We played a gig in Glasgow, we wrote a song [Nobody Knows What Happened In Glasgow], and we don’t remember anything about the gig because we were so drunk. But I saw a video of us playing in Glasgow, and I was rolling around on the floor, screaming something like, ‘Let’s have a massive party, you’re all our friends forever…’ whatever that means. I watched the video and thought, ‘This is fucking horrible.’ 

Ben: For the first song, Jon just didn’t join in, he just stood there, looking at the floor, as if he wasn’t there. Just so drunk he didn’t know what was going on. Then he started singing the words for the first song in the middle of the second song, so it was completely out of time and dreadful. It was funny, but we realised that’s the most drunk we could be, when you can’t even stand up, and then it’s pointless. That’s the high watermark, and when you’ve done that, you’ve got to do something else now. It’s not funny for very long, is it? We’ve changed it up a lot. 

Jon: You’ll see it if you watch us now. It’s a very different show. 

Ben: We’re just not the sort of angry people we were. 

Jon: That’s the point, yeah, we’re not angry. 

Ben: And the edgy stuff gets really boring, I don’t think we are really into that, in the way we were any more. 

Jon: We’re trying to replace shock tactics with talent and boy band dance routines. 

Ben: Friendly and fun, with sex appeal. 

Jon: A different kind of anger! [laughs] 

There’s no secret of your pop performances in your shows, but what prompted you to hire a choreographer for this particular tour? 

Ben: We didn’t actually hire a choreographer. 

Jon: Ben choreographed all the dance moves really. 

Ben: We did a few commercial dance lessons, just to sort of see what you could do.  

Jon: To see what moves were available, if that makes sense. 

Ben: Believe it or not, though I’ve just stopped actually, I worked as a go-go dancer at a cabaret club in Manchester. I’ve kind of got three years of experience dancing on tables, but it’s not good, I was more a novelty performance. We did some commercial dance lessons just to get a flavour of what we could do that was easy, that we could perhaps take inspiration from. Then I put together based on that, a little routine, but we just wanted to sort of learn how we could use the space better. 

Jon: Yeah, because we live 150 miles apart, I went to my dance class, and I just said to them, ‘We’ve got an hour, can you just teach me five really good dance moves I can just bust out?’ I played them some Petrol Bastard music, and she just said, ‘Alright, cool, I can show you some stuff that fits.’ It was about 30 quid or something, money well spent, we came away thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got some ideas now.’  

You’ve showed off an instructional video for a dance routine people have requested to learn, does that particular routine have a name, or are you just leaving it open to fan interpretation? 

Ben: No, it doesn’t have a name. Call it what you will. Let us know if you any suggestions! 

So the moniker of this tour is ‘Make Music Rubbish Again.’ What are you anticipating from the audiences of the tour? Participation? Bewilderment? 

Ben: We want to destroy all live music, and replace it with just phones plugged into a backing track. As it should be. No, it’d be cool actually if people started doing this sort of band as well. It’s a bit lonely, there’s not many bands doing this sort of music with a sense of humour. There’s a lot of really gloomy, crybaby bands, and that’s fine, but we’d hope people would do this sort of thing as well if they’ve seen it. It’s easy to make really. 

Jon: It’s a bit of an accidental niche. We came up with the idea of using a backing track because we didn’t want to carry our Marshall cabs and drum kits around. It was all about making it easier for us to get drunk. We got an offer of playing a gig in Berlin, we got on a plane with an iPod, we landed in Berlin and played by just plugging the iPod in, that’s all we needed, and a couple of mics. The whole motivation was to do as little work as possible, and keep it as simple as possible. But it’s turned out to be a bit of a niche. So we’ve got Petrol Hoers, we’ve got bands we’re all friends with… 

Ben: Kurt Dirt and Hot Pink Sewage too. He’s obviously been going a really long time, it’s not because of us that he’s started, but we’re friends with him and we all play together now. 

Jon: He’s played some of the earlier dates on the tour, and he really fits in really well, same sense of humour. 

Ben: We’ve all sort of converged and we’ve sort of influenced each other. We saw some of his shows, and stole some of his ideas. We all have the common goal of just silly music. 

Jon: Nothing political. Nothing gloomy. No goth stuff. 

Ben: There’s self-depreciating humour, but it’s not depressing, it’s usually funny. 

Jon: It’s like League of Gentlemen: The Musical, if that makes sense. 

Would you say that’s what drives the band? 

Jon: I wouldn’t say that’s what drives the band. That’s what the band is. What drives it is what Ben said earlier about having a sense of purpose. Getting out there, and meeting people, and having fun, and making a bit of money out of it at the same time. It doesn’t cost us anything to do this. We’re very lucky as far as bands go, we at least break even financially. 

Ben: Our costs are very low. Either me or Jon write and produce all the music, Johnny Ultraviolence masters it for us. 

Jon: We do everything ourselves; we don’t have a manager or record label or anything like that. 

Ben: We buy merch, we have to travel and book hotels, and that’s usually it. Now we don’t drink, it’s really cheap as well, we won’t spend any money. 

Jon: So overall, this tour is like a free holiday. We’ll come away with some profit, but that’s not the reason for it. 

Ben: It’s a bonus if we cover it. It’s just fun to do it. The reason we do it is because it’s really fun. It’s hard work. 

Jon: But good memories. 

Ben: We did get a bit lazy with gigs. When we first started, we did any gig we could and then that’s when we made the most progress. Then we got really snobbish taking gigs, and now we’ve gone back to playing anything again. 

Is that how the opportunity to support The Cheeky Girls came about? 

Jon: That was just an offer, wasn’t it? It came to us as an offer. We were like, we can’t say no to that, so we did it. In a pub in Oldham, which was bizarre, and it was full of pervy old men. 

Ben: But going back to not feeling like we’re better than doing gigs. Now we’re trying to do all the gigs, and play in places we haven’t played before, and put effort in. It’s only by doing that that you hit a tipping point, and it starts to grow outside of direct effort we’re putting in, I think. We’re just starting to get the ball rolling again by doing this tour. This is a bit of a ‘feeling our way back into it’ tour so we can play all these venues, see where is good, and surprisingly, some of the places we thought wouldn’t be as good have been the best, and some of the places we thought would be the best, have been not as good. So we’re doing this to do this to feel our way around to see how to make it better next time we tour.

You’ve been topical at times and pushed a few buttons back in the earlier days of the band. Has there ever been a point where you feel you have crossed a line, been too offensive, or regretted anything you’ve done? 

Jon: We’ve looked back on our back catalogue and removed material, because we thought we were uncomfortable with what we wrote then. 

Ben: While we understood the intentions, if you don’t know us both personally, it’s easy to misunderstand what we say, and for the sake of a joke, it’s not worth having that stuff out there, in case it really does upset someone. 

Jon: We had certainly one big accusation about seven years ago, which kind of shook us a little bit. It just made us realise that, if people don’t know us, they might take things the wrong way. So we thought it’s not worth it and we went back and tidied up our back catalogue a little bit. 

Ben: We do want people to enjoy it, not be horrified by it. It’s not like we’re setting out to actually upset people. Our end goal is for people to enjoy it. 

Jon: And I think that probably comes across in the most recent music we’ve released. ‘Oi Lad’ is meant to be quite an uplifting track, and I think it is, and then we did ‘Do Your Press-Ups,’ I feel that’s telling you to get out and get healthy. We’ve changed from this angry stuff. 

Ben: Our outlook has changed. We’re happier people now. We’re not 24, we’re in our earlier 30s. 

Jon: We’re not bitter and drunk and edgy. 

Ben: We’re not interested in that, not interested in that at all any more, so I think that’s the direction we’re going in, making it much more positive. Chaos was the buzz word previously. 

Jon: You can see the difference with the people that are turning up to shows, we get quite a lot of younger people, and also people who look less alternative in their styles. 

Ben: Or a different kind of alternative perhaps? It’s not sort of angry motherfuckers, it’s sort of people who are maybe not mainstream but not in the same angry way, if that makes sense. 

There’s quite a lot songs written about Yorkshire in your back catalogue (Yorkshire Piss Bomb, One Night In Batley, If You Die In Batley, Do You Die In Real Life?), does that stem from a sense of Yorkshire pride or repulsion? 

Ben: You just write about what you know, don’t you? 

Jon: We’ve always just written about what we know, and we both grew up in West Yorkshire. 

Ben: I think a lot of the early music comes from the perspective, of maybe an angry Northern man who really doesn’t understand how the world’s changing around him. But it was always meant to be funny, kind of like Alan Partridge, trying to sort of navigate their way through the world changing. That’s not necessarily what we are, but that’s how we saw people behaving like around us. 

Jon: We’ve got certain things we like to hark back to, so talking about Batley is a recurring theme. We just find it funny to do that, to tie everything together. I think we’ve got about three songs about grandads? 

Ben: The Batley and grandads trilogy [laughs] But I think growing up in a Northern, working class town does give you a certain, strange outlook on life. It’s a very weird situation, I can remember growing up feeling very stifled within the culture around me, I don’t know if Jon did. 

Jon: That’s why I left. 

Ben: Yeah, same here. Everyone is very, very narrow-minded, so if you’re outside of that at all, it’s just outrageous beyond belief. Especially with music, people just liked a very narrow thing and anything outside of that was ‘SHIT!’ It makes you very resilient about what you like, because you just don’t care, at all, for approval. 

Would you consider 2006 a vintage year for music that you feel the need to tell people about it? 

Jon: Where did that even come from? 

Ben: No, I think 2006 was awful for music! I didn’t like the music around me that I was listening to… 

Jon: You must’ve been 16, 17 years old… 

Ben: Something like that. It came from when [The Volatile Gentlemen] did a gig with Jon’s old band, in 2006, and Jon just went ‘2006!’ and I had a video of it for some reason, I thought it was funny to keep saying it in 2007, and since then. 

Jon: Is that where it came from? I never knew that. 

Ben: It’s not really funny at all, it’s not clever, but it just stuck. 

So you asked fans to contribute two words to make up the lyrics of a song called Two Words, what would you say your favourite two words were from that particular song, to describe Petrol Bastard? 

Jon: There was ‘Northern monkeys’ wasn’t there? 

Ben: I can’t remember any of them. I remember the song, but I don’t remember the words, I haven’t heard it since it came out. 

Jon: There was something ‘cunts.’ 

Ben: Probably the ‘cunts’ one then.

[Editor’s note: I submitted ‘sweaty techno’ for Two Words, so I am also part of the syndicate that helped to write the lyrics.]

Do you really believe that Petrol Bastard are fucking shit? 

Ben: In some ways. 

Jon: I think actually [laughs] truly, no, not at all. Not at all. Yes, we were, when we wrote that song we were, we were terrible. But now, we’ve put a lot of work into it. Everything’s quite closely crafted, the live show is closely crafted, the stuff we release, still takes a lot of time, but we won’t release it until we’re happy with it. The ethos is, we want to be a band that we would like to see. 

Ben: Yeah, there’s a very fine line between being deliberately bad but enjoyable, and just bad and not enjoyable. I think some of the stuff is bad, but it’s obviously deliberate, it’s been engineered that way. It’s not because we’re not competent, it’s because we are deliberately doing it to make it uncomfortable for the audience. So I don’t think we’re actually shit, some of the stuff we do is shit, but it’s deliberate. It’s like that quote, ‘It costs a lot of money to look this trashy.’ 

Jon: We’re a pair of really badly ripped jeans. 

Ben: It costs the same to book us really. Just buy a pair of jeans. 

Your tour wraps up shortly, but what are your plans going into the new year and beyond? 

Jon: We have another tour in April, we’re just planning that now. We’re also talking about doing a short stint in Scotland, and Wales. 

Ben: There’s Hoersfest, I think on the 15th January in York, which is going to be a lot of bands like us, run by Petrol Hoers. 

Jon: We’ve also got some ideas for our next couple of EPs already, we’re probably going to do EPs rather than albums for a short while now, because we can get them out quicker. So they’re all ready, we’ve got ideas for those. Just to keep things moving. 

Ben: We’ve got locked in dates, maybe more to come, not quite as long as this 20 date one we’re doing, but it’s in a logical path around Britain. This was experimental, so we had to book what we could, but this next one is a lot more logical. We’ve got a better idea for next time. We don’t want to release loads of new music because we can’t put new stuff in the set too much, otherwise it’ll all be new and no one wants to hear all the new stuff. We’ll jumble things out, and change some of the bits in the set that aren’t music to keep it interesting, but we are keen to get writing new music.

Thank you gents, I appreciate the time to talk to me.

A thank you to both Jon and Ben, and to the Holly Tree for hosting the interview.

Petrol Bastard are out on tour in November, so keep an eye out for their remaining dates close to a venue near you. Their music and merchandise can all be found through their Bandcamp.

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