Uncle Acid Speaks
In his first in-depth interview, the elusive British psych lord discusses Manson, Polanski, and the media.
When we pick up the phone to call Kevin Starrs, a.k.a. Uncle Acid, we’re not entirely sure what to expect. The reclusive leader of English doom dealers Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats spent the first three years of the band’s existence consciously avoiding interviews, publicity photographs, and anything else that might demystify the word-of-mouth legend surrounding the band’s killer 2011 album, Blood Lust. Packed with tales of murder and mayhem from an imagined celluloid hellscape, it captured perfectly the horror-exploitation flick feel its creator aspired to—complete with moaning psych riffs and infectious vocal melodies. “We’re pretty much a pop band with fuzzy guitars,” Starrs concedes. “I like the idea of having contrasts—mixing heavy riffs with light melodies and two-or three-part harmonies with really violent lyrics. We’re usually singing about death or murder, so if you’re not reading the lyrics it can be quite deceiving.”
With 2013’s Mind Control, Uncle Acid veered into the druggy death-cult disasters of the 1960s and 70s—the Kool-Aid suicides and mass-murder motherfuckery perpetrated by Jim Jones and Chuck Manson. By then, he and his Deadbeats had signed with English rock powerhouse Rise Above and did a handful of reluctant interviews. European festival appearances and a tour with Sabbath followed, but the ringleader’s true personality remained elusive. Until now.
Noisey: So do I call you Kevin, or Uncle Acid, or what?
Kevin Starrs (or maybe also Uncle Acid): [Laughs] Kevin’s fine, yeah.
You started Uncle Acid while you were unemployed. What kind of work were you doing before that?
I was just working in shops—anything really, nothing exciting. I never really had any career prospects or anything like that. It was looking a bit grim, really. There wasn’t a lot of work to be had, so I was just kind of bouncing from job to job.
Did the inspiration for Uncle Acid simply come from the fact that you had time on your hands?
[Laughs] Yeah, I had a lot of time. And I had all these songs, so I thought it would be a good idea to start recording them. At the time, MySpace was the thing so I put a couple of tracks up on there and people were freaking out about it and asking for an album. So I got a couple of friends together and decided to make the first album, which was Volume I. We didn’t really have any money, so we just pressed the amount we could afford—which I think was 30 copies on CD-R. And it took about six months to sell that many. We put the little money we got from that into better recording equipment so we could do Blood Lust.
The first two albums were recorded at your house, then?
At my house and at a friend’s garage, basically. There wasn’t really a budget. We mostly borrowed things.
What kind of bands did you play in before Uncle Acid?
To be honest, I’ve only been in a couple of bands, and I just sort of took a backseat and played guitar—which I was quite happy to do. I didn’t really feel like I had anything to give in terms of songwriting. The sort of music was just straight-up metal, like Venom meets Slayer or some shit like that. I enjoyed shredding on guitar or whatever—it was fun at the time—but eventually I thought it would be good to have my own band where I control the songwriting and the concept of the band rather than being the guy who stands at the back and does the solos.
Can you mention the names of those bands?
They were just local bands around Cambridge, where I live. No one would’ve heard of them. [Laughs] They weren’t terrible—they just never got far. We’d turn up once a week to rehearse and then play the occasional gig at a pub or whatever, but that was it.
So was Uncle Acid your first attempt at writing songs?
I’d written stuff before, but never really shared it with anyone. At some point, I thought it might be good to see what people thought of it. Using the whole anonymity thing with Uncle Acid was a way of me releasing stuff without getting any backlash or whatever. I could just sort of test the waters and see what people thought. If people hated it, no one would know it was me anyway.
You got the name Uncle Acid from a side band that Rusty Day from Cactus wanted to start. Did you ever intend for Uncle Acid to have a persona to go along with the name?
At first, that was kind of the idea. I went under the name Uncle Acid and the whole band was using pseudonyms. We intended to keep that sort of strange mystique, but as it’s gone on, I just thought it was a silly thing to keep up. So we look at the band as being Uncle Acid, and the Deadbeats are almost like the fans. Something like that.
You self-released Blood Lust initially—you made like 100 CD-Rs and thought that would be the end of it. But then Rise Above came along and put it out on vinyl. Is that the only reason you kept Uncle Acid going?
Well, the band really did fall apart when we made Blood Lust. At the end it was just me and the drummer and we were both sort of sick of it because we couldn’t find musicians and the album wasn’t really selling well. So we just thought, “Fuck it.” But once Rise Above released it on vinyl and went through a couple of pressings, the momentum started to build up and I thought it would be stupid to just give up. So I went back to the idea and got a new lineup together.
The concept behind Blood Lust was based on an idea you had for an unfinished horror-exploitation flick. Would you like to see that movie actually get made?
I would love that. That would be great. But I think the film industry is even worse than the music industry in terms of trying to break in and get money to finance things. But if anyone wanted to make it, it would have to be done right. It couldn’t be some digitally-shot garbage. It would have to look cool.
If you had your choice, who would you want to direct it?
I’d like to direct it! I’d just go nuts and get loads of investors to waste money on it. I’d make it crazy. That would be amazing.
You’ve said the themes for Uncle Acid songs will always be violence and death. What do you think is pulling you in that direction?
[Laughs] I’m not sure. It’s probably just the easiest thing for me to write about, for whatever reason. I do like that sort of darkness. Yeah… I don’t know. [Laughs] That’s a strange one.
Even after Rise Above reissued Blood Lust, there wasn’t much info available about you guys, and no photos whatsoever. Was that intentional, and why did it ultimately change?
I guess it was intentional. I didn’t really see the connection between what we look like and the music that we make. I didn’t see why every band should have a publicity picture to go with the music. To me, that just distracts from everything. So for the longest time we didn’t take any pictures or anything like that. But there’s only so far you can go with that attitude. Once you sign to a label, you need to make compromises and things like that. So we did a few publicity photos in order to spread the word about our music a bit better.
Has it been strange doing interviews?
[Laughs] Yeah, it has been. But we still don’t do a lot of interviews, and there’re still plenty of people who still won’t give us the time of day. So the transition hasn’t been too bad.
Did Lee Dorrian from Rise Above have to talk you into doing publicity photos?
[Laughs] Yeah, he did. But I understand the need for it. Obviously, Lee wants the album to sell well, and so do we. You can’t really go around not doing any press. I understand how the game works, and you gotta play the game sometimes. We just want to get our music across to as many people as possible.
They did not want to pose for this.
That certainly seems to be happening. You toured the UK with Black Sabbath, you played Maryland Deathfest back in May, and you’ll be coming back over for your first US tour in October. It seems like Uncle Acid went from zero miles an hour to a thousand miles an hour within six or eight months.
Yeah, I guess it probably seems that way. But we’ve been going since 2009 and we’ve had a lot of lineup changes and a lot of hours spent behind the scenes figuring out how to do arrangements for the live setting. We played live a couple of times in the very beginning of the band, and it just sounded terrible. Whereas most bands would just keep going and keep playing live, I thought it was best to step back, put together a really good lineup, figure out how to do arrangements properly, and practice vocal harmonies. So it probably seems to the outsider that we just sort of appeared, but there was a lot of work going on in the rehearsal rooms before we got the Sabbath tour.
How did you get the Sabbath tour, anyway?
Our booking agent submitted our album to their office. I think there were maybe seven or eight bands that also submitted their stuff. From what we heard, they listened to everything but when they got to ours they threw everything else in the garbage. So that’s pretty cool.
Did it take a while to adapt to the bigger stages and even bigger crowds?
It did take a while to get used to it, yeah. The second show we did with them was in a football stadium, and there was something like 30,000 people there. [Laughs] It was pretty crazy. But once the music starts and you focus on what you’re doing, you don’t really notice all the people. It’s quite bizarre.
Did you have many interactions with the Sabbath guys?
Yeah, we would pass each other in the corridor and they would come into our dressing room now and again to chit-chat. They’re really nice people, and their whole crew was really nice to us as well. We watched them soundcheck every day, and Iommi would be playing all these riffs from the first album that they never play live. It was incredible.
You guys pretty much have to headline now. Who else are you gonna open for that would be as cool as that?
[Laughs] Exactly, yeah. It’s all downhill from here, really.
You mentioned lineup changes earlier. How long have you been with the group of guys you’re playing with currently?
Let’s see… I think it’s been maybe a year and a half. It’s the guys who played on Mind Control, basically—except for the drummer.
Did the success of Blood Lust put pressure on you for Mind Control?
Yeah, there was some pressure because Blood Lust got so many great reviews and a lot of the fans wanted another Blood Lust—an album with the same themes and similar songs, that whole vibe. But I don’t really get into the whole review thing and I don’t really listen to what anybody thinks about my music. So instead of looking at it as pressure, we kind of thought, “What can we do to antagonize people?” I think we wanted to push some people away who expected the band to be something that it’s not. We were lumped in with all these “occult rock” bands that really don’t have anything to do with us. So we went from making an album with that Hammer Horror vibe, which was inspired by [the film] Witchfinder General and all that stuff, to Mind Control, which was more of a 60s Charles Manson, Jim Jones kind of thing. It wasn’t what people expected and I don’t think it was what some people particularly wanted, but it was exactly the right album to make to annoy people.
That’s what’s cool about it, though: It’s creepy and catchy, but in a different way than Blood Lust.
I think it really hasn’t been given enough of a chance, particularly in America. Whereas in Europe, I think more and more people are realizing that it’s a really good album because they’ve seen us perform some of the songs live. I think people tend to appreciate songs more when they see them live. And of course we’ve not really been out to tour America yet, so the American audience hasn’t really seen us perform this stuff yet. Hopefully when we go out there in the fall, people will be impressed.
Your first and only performance in the States so far was at Maryland Deathfest back in May. It was a weird setup in that you played outside in a parking lot, basically. What was that experience like for you?
Yeah. [Laughs] We really enjoyed it, but we were like the pop band of the festival. We were the lightest band by far. Everyone else was fuckin’ heavy. But a really big audience came to see us, and they were really supportive. The show wasn’t technically one of our best, but we enjoyed it.
Was that your first time over here, personally?
No. I used to live in the States, actually. But it was the first time for the rest of the guys and obviously the first time for the band as well.
Where did you live in the States?
I lived in New Hampshire and Texas in the late 80s and early 90s. My dad was in the military, so he was posted there. I spent a lot of my childhood in the States.
In Maryland, you guys were selling this t-shirt that had an illustration of Sharon Tate with her arms around Charles Manson, and both of them wrapped in an American flag. It was a metal fest, so most people were probably into it—but did you hear any complaints?
Yeah, I think there were maybe a couple of people who thought it was a bit tasteless. But at the end of the day, we sold out of all the shirts we had. This is what people like—it’s violence like you see on TV. That’s what people want. It’s just a reflection of society, I suppose.
What if you got an email from Roman Polanski saying he was really offended by this shirt you’d made of his dead wife embracing a man who is in prison for her murder?
I’d probably call him a pedophile and report him to the police. [Laughs] Here he is! No, but I realize it’s not a pleasant subject, the whole Sharon Tate thing. But… I don’t know, it’s interesting to me. It’s an interesting time in history. It’s bizarre the way that Manson is a scapegoat for the whole thing. Let’s destroy the hippies and all this liberal thinking and put it all on this one guy.
Somehow, he’s still the national bogeyman here—even though he’s been in prison for decades and he didn’t actually kill anyone.
Yeah, exactly! He’s referred to as a serial killer all the time, but I don’t know of many serial killers who didn’t kill anyone. That’s a strange one.
You covered Manson’s “Get On Home” for the flipside of the “Mind Crawler” single. Why that particular song?
It’s just one of my favorites. It’s quite catchy, and I thought it would be an easy one to do, really.
Has there been any talk of reissuing Volume I? I imagine not many people have heard it.
Yeah, it’s just down to finding the time because it needs a lot of work done to it. The sound isn’t really that great. It needs to be remixed and re-mastered, but at the moment we’re just swamped with paperwork because we don’t really have a manager at the moment and I’m doing everything myself. So there’s a lot to do before we get around to revisiting old material. And we’ve got another album that we’ve got to write as well.
How far along is the new one?
There’s maybe half a dozen songs written at this point, and the themes will be very different from the previous albums. I have a concept in my head, but I’m sure it’ll be completely different by the time I finish so I don’t want to say too much about it. But it involves a lot of violence and a lot of death.
J. Bennett has read too many books about Charles Manson
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