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Nick Sanderson: Singer with art rockers Earl Brutus

Wednesday 18 June 2008 00:00 BST

Nick Sanderson played in post-punk rock groups including The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Gun Club, World of Twist and Earl Brutus. Earl Brutus's chaotic live shows featured a bracing mix of glam-rock and synthesisers – plus wind machines wafting Brut aftershave over the audience and a line of seven big stage-prop plastic wreaths. They spelt two words: "FUCK OFF". To a degree, Earl Brutus were rock's answer to Jake and Dinos Chapman, treading a line with conceptual art that resonates even now: the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller is currently working on a project that juxtaposes Earl Brutus and the Industrial Revolution.

Earl Brutus literally gave Sanderson a voice. Previously, he'd been a drummer, first becoming a professional player in the early Eighties with the Sheffield post-punk group Clock DVA. Earlier, Iggy Pop had made a similar move from drums to vocals. The Detroit provocateur also foreshadowed Sanderson's mix of brutishness and strange sagacity.

When Earl Brutus formed in the early Nineties, Sanderson became a lyricist and singer after 10 years on the drum stool. More accurately, he was a mob orator in a band which bellowed terrace-style about the Royal Navy, railway engines and "hair design by Nicky Clarke". Most of all, Earl Brutus addressed the wonder and idiocy of our celebrity-obsessed, consumption-fixated society.

Sanderson's father held a senior position in what was then British Rail and the nascent musician attended boarding school in Bristol. After school, there was considerable time on the dole, but Sanderson didn't seriously consider any career beyond music. When he joined Clock DVA, the tour crew included the lighting engineer Jim Fry, the younger brother of Martin Fry of the Sheffield pop conceptualists ABC. Jim Fry became Sanderson's co-conspirator. In Earl Brutus, he became his co-vocalist, too.

Before and alongside Earl Brutus, Sanderson drummed for the punk-blues group The Gun Club. He also played for The Jesus and Mary Chain on their 1998 album Munki. The Gun Club had a lasting effect – earlier this year Sanderson married the band's Japanese bassist, Romi Mori. But Sanderson's place in these bands was as session musician.

With World of Twist, the Manchester-based group who, in spirit, attempted to restage Roxy Music's art-school pop under Blackpool illuminations, Sanderson was more central. However, when this group failed to make the predicted commercial breakthrough in the early Nineties, Sanderson was left to rethink things – alongside Jim Fry, who'd overseen the group's visuals. Earl Brutus was born.

The band's first single, "Life's Too Long", appeared in 1993 on Icerink, a label run by the indie-pop group Saint Etienne. The comedian Noel Fielding is a fan. Jay Jopling, art dealer for Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, was sometimes seen at shows. Earl Brutus did have some common ground with the conceptualised output of the Brit Art school. But they celebrated the poetry and desolation of contemporary life in a more demotic, populist style. Rather than the gallery, Earl Brutus's natural habitat was the rubbish-strewn rock festival – or, even more, the pub.

The band took their name from an imaginary alehouse and were once described by a journalist as "pub-talk made real". This was the essence of Earl Brutus – strange, impassioned snug-bar tirades set loose by alcohol, but this time preserved forever on record. "Our dream," Sanderson once told me, "is to record the perfect song to be played at chucking-out time. That's when music makes most sense."

The band eventually signed a substantial deal with the Island Records subsidiary Fruition. The two Earl Brutus albums, Your Majesty. . . We Are Here (1996) and Tonight You Are the Special One (1998) were praised by the press, but didn't trouble the charts. Yet, this "heroic failure" amounted to another facet of the band's celebration of British life. This and the band's relatively advanced years were condensed into one of several captivating slogans: "Pop Music is Wasted on the Young".

Eventually, following Earl Brutus's commercial failure, Sanderson was forced to get a job. As documented on the Earl Brutus song "Train Driver in Eyeliner", he became an engine driver on the Brighton to London line.

Earl Brutus made powerful future-glam art-pop. It was at once barbaric and poignant – and inseparable from its authors. Sanderson's interests were broad, including ornithology, Manchester United and British history. I remember him describing a birdwatching trip to see some hawfinches in Norfolk. He didn't find the birds, instead ending up drunk in the dark and falling down some coastal bluffs. His clothes torn, his face scratched, he knocked on the door of some remote cottage. Surprisingly perhaps, the stranger who answered let Sanderson in. The pair then spent the rest of the night in high-spirited revelry.

Roy Wilkinson

Nicholas Robert Sanderson, musician and train driver: born Sheffield, South Yorkshire 22 April 1961; married 2008 Romi Mori (one son); died London 8 June 2008.

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