MAYA

MAYA is an arts & culture magazine for creative, independent women.

The pUKEs: Ukulele Punks Spreading the DIY Message

A chat with The pUKEs, from guerrilla gigging to ukulele workshops.

workshop

Clara Wiseman, cross-legged on the ground, encircled by aspiring punk rockers at The pUKEs’ first workshop in Battersea Park

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Battersea Park, and a circle of (mostly) children are staring intently at the ukuleles in their hands, getting to grips with some basic punk rock chords. While they don’t quite master ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ during the 45-minute workshop, they do manage some decent strumming, following instructions to “join in one by one, then drop out one by one”.

The instruction comes from Clara Wiseman, 40, one of the founders of a punk ukulele group known as The pUKEs. They started in January 2011 at their local pub, and have been spreading smiles (and maybe a little chaos) up and down the country since then with their quirky arrangements of everyone’s favourite punk tracks. Their version of the Ramones’ ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ is always a crowd favourite, with the plucky ukulele sound proving itself to be more than equal to the task.

“Here’s 3 chords…now form a band”

In fact, the pUKEs are so convinced of the general awesomeness of all things uke, they’ve started up their own ukulele workshops – based on the DIY ethos of “here’s 3 chords…now form a band” – to get everyone plucking along. And they’ve done it with funding secured from the Arts Council – no small accomplishment at a time when a lot of funding to the arts has been cut. Today is their first workshop, and Clara is looking a little stunned.

Probably because, as she says afterwards: “We weren’t expecting so many small children, probably we should have done, so we kind of improvised a bit, but we really enjoyed it and the kids were brilliant…I think the youngest was about five, but that’s the beauty of the ukulele, you can make quite a nice sound on it without having to be an amazing musician. It’s quite instant, it’s not that difficult to make it sound nice.” Another pUKE, Debs, adds: “They were brilliant. They sat still, they held the ukuleles properly, we didn’t have anyone dropping anything or running off and throwing them down in disgust, so yeah, it was pretty good.”

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Clara, left, holding her daughter Betsy, and pUKE Andrea

There are indeed a lot of children about, because a mini music festival, organised by the Music 4 Children charity, is underway in the park. It’s called Hueyfest, to celebrate the birth of the organiser’s son, Huey. The pUKEs are due to perform later, but in the meantime, a handful of them (not all, there are 20 after all) have settled on a relatively quiet patch of grass to talk about things happening on planet pUKE.

Sometimes you have to just go for it

When asked about how they managed to secure Arts Council funding, Clara says: “We just applied…I think because we were genuinely passionate about what we wanted to do, I think that came through in the application. Sometimes people spot a pot of money and build a project just to get the money, but we had our project and thought how can we fund it? So we did it the right way around and I think they appreciated that.” Debs adds: “Sometimes you just have to take the bull by the horns and just go for it, and we did, and we were successful.”

Hueyfest gig

Gig at Hueyfest. Looks like they have a new fan

The pUKEs may be a lot of fun (“Too Drunk to Pluck” t-shirt, anyone? How about a pie in the face?), but they are also serious about spreading their DIY punk ukulele message around. They’ve recently produced a fanzine, also funded by the Arts Council, which was a “lifelong ambition” for Clara. The three-tone black/white/pink zine contains useful instructions on “How to Form a Band” (“don’t be a nob”, for example), easy-to-follow ukulele chord graphics, tuning instructions, plus interviews with other ukulele punks such as Paul Davies, AKA The UkePunk, and Gus & Fin. “It was a team effort”, says pUKE member Esme. “We all did the design and the artwork and the words. Pukes collective!”

Numbers peaked at 23

Speaking of collectives, they’ve had to put a halt on the addition of any more members after it “peaked at 23”, says Debs. “It’s not open to [all]. It was, that’s how we set it up, on a sort of open invitation, but we’ve dropped now to 20, and it can’t be an open door now unfortunately.” Dropping to 20 still presents logistical problems, as Clara explains: “It was just getting too unmanageable to have any more people because we’d all learned the set and it wasn’t really appropriate for beginners to join, and also the logistics of just getting to gigs…it’s quite a challenge with 20 of us, and to take on any more it would probably become impossible.”

Launch

EP launch party at Dublin Castle

A new EP

Their numbers make for a lively stage presence, such as at the sold-out launch party for their new EP, held at the Dublin Castle on 24 May. At least 14 on stage (I counted a few times) and another few in front because of a lack of space, one of the tracks, appropriately enough, was ‘No Room’ by Demob. “That was rocking”, says Clara. Indeed it was, with bodies slamming together in front and beer flying everywhere, it was a truly splendid effort.

launch

Another launch party shot

Apart from their own versions of classic punk tracks, they’ve also written a couple of original songs, one of which is on the EP. It’s an upbeat track called ‘Will I Learn’, and the lyrics contain the questions any regular pub goer might ask after finding her or himself out for yet another night, such as: “Was it only last weekend I said I’d never drink again?”

launch

Last one. It was a rocking night

The other track is called ‘453’, which was written by pUKE Cil, and is about “a bus that goes through New Cross and Elephant and Castle and whatnot, so it’s about all the characters and things you see on this bus”, says Esme. They have to get to all their gigs on public transport. Clara says: “We can’t quite afford our own tour bus yet. We tend to leave ukuleles on buses and tubes, at the bar…”

This doesn’t mean that they’ll be ditching the covers. Clara says: “I think the covers are always going to be an important bit of the set. That’s kind of what we’re about. We don’t just copy a song, we play our own quirky arrangement of it, and I think that will always be an important part of what we do. Though we love to write songs as well, so a bit of both.”

Rebellion antics

The EP release at the Dublin Castle was through Damaged Goods Records, which signed them after seeing the group play at Rebellion (punk and alternative) festival in Blackpool last year. Clara says: “Ian [Ian Damaged] from Damaged Goods caught our set at Rebellion, and rumor has it that he’d had a couple of drinks, and came running after us after, saying: ‘Do you fancy making a record with us?’ And we were like, trying to play it cool but we were like ‘YES!’ As soon as he turned around the corner we were jumping up and down going ‘Whooh!'”

The pUKEs at Rebellion last year

Guerrilla gigging

They played the Bizarre Bazaar stage at Rebellion last year, and will be on the same stage this year as well as doing a ukulele workshop. But the first time they played, in 2011, they weren’t even on the bill. In a brilliantly plucky move, they decided to sneak on and just try anyway. Clara says:

“We’d only been going a few months so we weren’t quite ready to ask for an official slot, but thought it would be fun to do a guerrilla style gig in the t-shirt hall. We started to set up, but got told off by Paul who manages the merch stuff – he was having none of it! So we went outside on the street. We attracted quite a crowd and it was a lot of fun. A few non-pukes joined in on their ukes too. We had another go later on when the bands had finished but we were a little worse for wear by then. Still fun though! The following year I sent the promoters the pic of the crowd and managed to get us a proper slot on the Bizarre Bazaar stage.”

Rebellion crowd

Guerilla gigging at Rebellion 2011. Picture courtesy of The pUKEs.

And Chas & Dave…

The pUKEs have played with quite a lot of well-known bands, including UK Subs, Vice Squad and Bad Manners. But this year, says Debs, her highlight will be “playing with Chas & Dave at Rebellion!”

“Absolutely!” laughs Esme, “Chas & Dave!”

So, with all these activities and gigs you’re doing, are you actually making any money?

When the laughter finally dies down, Clara says, tongue-in-cheek: “No, we’re rich in experience.” And Debs adds: “We spend the money on getting to gigs, recording, beer, we haven’t all got a holiday home in Málaga or anything. Holiday in Blackpool, pUKEs caravan in Blackpool, that’s what we’re aspiring to.”

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Hueyfest gig.

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Words and pictures, except the Rebellion picture, by Jane Playdon

Videos from The pUKEs

 

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One comment on “The pUKEs: Ukulele Punks Spreading the DIY Message

  1. austin
    July 12, 2013

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