Chumbawamba: They got knocked down...

But they got up again. Nineties anarcho-rockers Chumbawamba have reinvented themselves as a traditional folk band. Tim Cumming reports

It's been 10 years since Chumbawamba's Danbert Nobacon threw an ice bucket of water over John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, and they would probably be given a lap of honour now, but at the time Chumbawamba were the leftie gatecrashers ruining New Labour's post-electoral love-in with Britpop. Their label, EMI, issued an immediate apology, and Nobacon was collared by the cops, but the band remained unrepentant. "If John Prescott has the nerve to turn up at events like the Brit Awards in a vain attempt to make Labour seem cool and trendy, then he deserves all we can throw at him" read the band's statement of the following morning.

It's the kind of direct action that just doesn't get much leg room in pop these days. Yet the 1990s criterati heaped derision on Chumbawamba's agit-pop slapstick. There's a segment on the band's history-of DVD, "Well Done, Now Sod Off", where Nobacon reads out some of their worst press quotes. Caitlin Moran's "an awful, jumpy, shouty tragedy" more or less sums up the critical consensus on the anarchist punks who came together at a commune in Armley, Leeds in 1982.

The Chumbas, who tickled the top spot in 1997 with "Tubthumping", disbanded in 2004 and have since coalesced into an acoustic group comprising the trumpeter Jude Abbott, the guitarist Boff Whalley, the singer Lou Watts, and the group's one-time sound engineer Neil Ferguson. "We'd hit a point with the electric band where it wasn't financially viable," says Abbott, "and we were losing an audience rather than gaining or maintaining one, and we thought, 'We have to stop doing this now.'"

Watch the video for Chumbawamba's hit single 'Tubthumping'.

These days, Alice Nutter is a screenwriter for Jimmy McGovern's acclaimed drama series The Street; Dunstan Bruce has his own film production company; and Nobacon is living in Washington State and releasing solo work with The Pine Valley Cosmonauts. "They're happy with what's going on and the transition was about as painless as those things can be," says Abbott. "There's no mucky story, no musical differences. It got to a point where we just knew."

The band's first acoustic album came out in 2006, with live appearances that took away the mosh pit and megaphones and replaced them with accordions and acoustic guitars. "It gave us a more intimate relationship with our audience. We hadn't expected that. With the electric band, you had the spectacle of Danbert and Alice and Dunstan bounding on in costumes, and that does create a distance from the audience. Now it's a more cosy and intimate thing, talking to the audience and building up a rapport."

The band that stuck the boot in at the Brits are filed under folk these days, though it's not as wide a swerve from their jumpy, shouty origins in Eighties anarcho punk rock as you might think. In 1988, they released English Rebel Songs 1381-1984, which included the likes of "Cutty Wren", written during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and which describes the capture and killing of the wren – a symbol for the king.

Their Readymades album of 2002 also stitched samples from English folk (Jock Purdon, Dick Gaughan, Belle Stewart, Harry Cox) into their acoustic pop. It was an English response, of sorts, to Moby's sampling of early Americana on Play, and one that the late Martyn Bennett would work into his classic Grit album the following year. "That was our introduction to the difference between pop and folk," says Abbott. "Everyone in the folk world was like, 'If you want to use me on a record, that's great', rather than 'I'll see you in court'."

Now, after a quiet 2007, they're back with a beguilingly poppy folk album drenched in sweet, close-harmony singing and astute, witty lyrics that draw on everything from the Hollywood starlet Jayne Mansfield's 1957 visit to a Manchester prison ("A wave for the cameras/ All fur coat and no knickers/ Jayne Mansfield she came down/ To cheer up the town/ Lord Bono and his pals/ They were a bit too busy saving the world/ Well, you have to take your hat off to The Edge/ Those were the days, my friend/ We took the Stretford End/ Now it's a theatre of dreams") to the story of the Mexican revolutionary Wenseslao Moguel, who survived a firing squad, and the virtual, nameless creeps lurking behind the mask of Facebook. It has a sure sense of historical context few other bands can muster.

"We've always drawn on the past: we've got a sense of what's gone on before as well as what's going on now," says Abbott. "Like with English Rebel Songs, that was saying: 'Look, all these people in 1381 were singing about killing the king – it's been going on a long time.'"

The new album's title, The Boy Bands Have Won ("...and all the copyists and the tribute bands and the TV talent show producers have won/ If we allow our culture to be shaped by mimicry/ Whether from lack of ideas or from exaggerated respect..."), is a quote from the folk legend Martin Carthy, sampled for the album's opening track. "His quote was about folk music and traditionalists, and we've broadened it out. What he's saying about folk, we're saying about pop."

In keeping with the band's DIY ethic, The Boy Bands Have Won was recorded ad hoc over a 12-month period in their basement home studio. Guests range from long-time musical mates Oyster Band, providing rousing vocal harmonies on "From Hull to Hell" ("they were in Leeds doing a gig and we got them to nip over in the morning and bung a vocal down in the booth by the washing machine") and Roy Bailey on the stunning "Word Bomber". The opening lines, "Strap these words around your waist/ Open arms a last embrace", set out the stall of a song about the 7 July bomber Shehzad Tanweer, whom a friend of the band had known at school. It's a simple paean to jaw-jaw over war-war, but it's the vulnerability and humanity of Bailey's voice that stands out.

Through the album's 25 tracks – some of them clocking in at less than a minute – the band exhort, discuss, imagine, postulate and complain, in styles far removed from your earthy, rootsy, shanty-style folk. "We're almost pop to our very core – we can't do songs with 16 verses. Four is about our limit. The pop sensibility is always there."

Among the poppiest and catchiest of the songs is "Add Me", a deliciously caustic take on Facebook culture ("I hope my nude picture doesn't offend/ Would you like to add me as a friend?"). "Every time we perform it, the laughs of recognition run round the audience – it's like 'Yeah, there are these funny people out there'. The internet is full of weird people."

The Chumbas were always a political band, but pop and politics only ever seem to mix at very specific temperatures, and their new alignment to folk seems to make for a much tighter fit. "Folk in modern times has a lot more connection with radical politics than pop ever has," says Abbott. "It can be a fashionable thing in pop, but in folk music, it never went away. People sang political songs in folk clubs in the 1980s but that wasn't reflected in pop culture at the time. What I like is its immediacy. A lot of folk music is about writing a song on a Tuesday and standing up in a club on a Wednesday and singing it."

Politics and music have changed since the band released cassettes supporting the striking miners, but in many ways, their self-contained, communal, anarchistic ethos remains one of the few viable political antidotes to the trial-and-terror tub-thumping of Cameron and Brown. Are there any ideologies left to believe in today?

"Things are more fragmented now. There are fewer movements or ideologies to align yourself to, which makes it more DIY, which is no bad thing in a way. But big ideologies can be handy to bring people together. They serve a purpose at certain points. Like the anti-war demonstration in 2003. If you'd picked any other subject, there probably wouldn't be agreement on it, but sometimes something big can unite people more."

'The Boy Bands Have Won' is out now on No Masters