Unhappy talk

ROCK Luke Haines is not your average pop star. Ryan Gilbey talks to the man who would break both his ankles rather than be 'too in tune with the music business'
"HE WON'T stand for any rock'n'roll rubbish. He has no ambition to sell a million records. He knows exactly what he's doing, which a lot of people don't. And he's not afraid to stick his head above the parapet."

Luke Haines is talking about Steve Albini, the maverick producer who worked on After Murder Park (Hut), the new album by Haines's band, the Auteurs. But he might as well have been describing himself. For the qualities that Haines admires in Albini are the same qualities that his own fans treasure in him: individuality, capriciousness, irreverence and an uncanny knack for rubbing people up the wrong way. A week after the Brixton riots, Haines reveals that the troubled district has recently been wallpapered with Auteurs posters depicting two lumpen body-bags beneath the spray- painted legend "Good Cop, Bad Cop".

Even without the new admirers this will win him amongst the officers of the Met, the list of people who wouldn't touch Haines with a bargepole is already as long as - well, a bargepole: Matt Johnson of The The, various ex-associates immortalised in song, a few former colleagues who turn as gnarled and nasty as a Haines lyric whenever his name crops up ("Give Luke my hate," hisses one). Elvis Costello might have had him in mind when he wrote, "You're nobody till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard."

Yet in person, Haines exudes a buoyancy which belies his reputation. The piercing stare and severe brow might suggest a crazed serial killer who's having a bad day. But when we meet, Haines has just spent the afternoon picking out a Christmas present for his father. How many serial killers do you know who will trudge around the West End to find their dad that special something?

"Yes, I'm always cast as the pissed-off granddad staring ruefully into his pint," he says, staring ruefully into his pint. "And I'm not. I like a good time. But I like it on my own terms."

That goes for everything. After Haines formed the Auteurs in 1992, following the dissolution of his former band, Servants ("Polite white boys not hitting their guitars very hard," he grimaces), it seemed as though the nation's ears belonged to him. A punchy debut album, New Wave, got his foot in the record collection of all those who had been waiting for pop music that could fuse the bite of early Costello with the poignancy of Leonard Cohen and the abrasiveness of The Fall. Almost all of the judges in the 1993 Mercury Music Prize approved: the album missed the award by a single vote.

If the Auteurs ever harboured a plan for world domination, it careered off the rails right after that. But you can tell by the way Haines proudly reels off his pathetic chart positions that this is a man who never dreamed of swapping hair-care tips with Rod Stewart on the slopes of St Moritz.

"When we started out, we were my dream band," he enthuses. "Dead ropey. Very confrontational. We were not entertainment. We were a garage band who should never have been let out of the garage." However, by the time they took to the road with their 1994 follow-up, the piercing-but-polished Now I'm a Cowboy, things had changed. "The last tour was weird," Haines recalls. "We were playing well, singing well. I was being reasonably nice to the audience." He shakes his head in shame. "We were not the band that I wanted us to be."

Somehow, the increasingly ill-tempered Auteurs struggled around America and most of Europe, until Haines had the bright idea of jumping off a wall in Spain, breaking both his ankles.

"We had become too in tune with the music business, which is why I ended that period. When I broke my ankles it felt like a symbolic act. It was an accident, but it could have been in some way deliberate. I couldn't walk for three months afterwards. I dropped out, and was only near becoming a person again at the start of last year."

Haines wrote most of After Murder Park during the time he spent entombed in the basement of his north London flat, lurching from room to room in a wheelchair. It shows. Darkness and rage permeate every corner of this claustrophobic work like mustard gas. Luckily enough, the album also happens to feature the finest things that Haines has ever written: raw, incisive songs whose combination of pained melodies and painful guitars makes your heart and your ears bleed. The arrangements are also the Auteurs' most adventurous yet, making poignant use of cello and French horn on the fragile "Unsolved Child Murder".

But pop songs aren't normally about child murders, unsolved or otherwise. They don't explore the mechanics of anarchy and terrorism, like Haines's moonlighting project Baader Meinhof. Nor does pop music generally concern itself with domestic violence ("Married to a Lazy Lover"), alcoholism ("Dead Sea Navigators") or light aircraft on fire ("Light Aircraft on Fire").

"No," he laughs, "but these are the things I'm interested in. Most of my songs are about revenge. I've always felt unsettled, even as a kid. That's weird, isn't it? I'm pretty much motivated by bile and revenge. And that driven force, that sense of never being content, is actually what makes me happy.

"You need conflict to thrive. The whole Britpop thing walks hand in hand with New Labour - the pathetic thing of wanting to please people. You shouldn't ever want to be liked. You shouldn't try and impress. Just have an opinion, stick your head out and be prepared to get a kick in the mouth."

Haines is currently recording a Baader Meinhof album which should see him get that all-important kick in the mouth. "It will be a collection of songs associated with European terrorism," he declares, deadpan. "That stuff's going to be big this year. Bands are going to be into Euro-terrorism, I can tell. It's on the cards. The NME thought the Baader Meinhof single was irresponsible and wouldn't review it initially. This moral high-ground is bizarre, and it makes bands scared of the press. I want to see bands battering journalists again, some real 'them and us' stuff. None of this 'all down the Good Mixer together'. Let's see the battle-lines drawn."

And if ever there was a musical manifesto for war, it's After Murder Park. "I don't think anyone else will have anything else out like it," he grins. "They probably won't have anything else out after it. Ever."

He leans back, entertained by the thought of a universe bereft of Britpop, and suddenly looks like the happiest man in the world.

! 'After Murder Park' is released on xx xxx.