Often outrageous Smilex frontman Lee Christian tells Tim Hughes that he first got into a band to ‘put two fingers up’ and he isn’t going to let anyone else tell him what to do

DYNAMIC, theatrical, and occasionally shocking, Smilex have long been Oxford’s most creative live band.

A freewheeling force of rock, Lee Christian’s art-punk act have constantly challenged audiences with music which ranges from poetic to visceral. And with more than a decade beneath their belts, they are as remarkable for their longevity as for their energy.

On Saturday Lee, guitarist Tom Sharp, drummer Pat Holmberg, and bassist Liv Luce, return to their old stamping ground, The Jericho Tavern, to headline a gig as part of the ongoing Oxford City Festival. The show will see them celebrating the launch of their new album, La Petite Mort, and finds them at the very top of their game – having just completed a national tour which has taken them from the West Country to deepest Yorkshire. And, Lee explains, there is a more poignant reason for not missing the gig: “This is going to be our last show for up to six months,” he says.

The band go on hiatus while husband and wife Pat and Liv work a ski season. Lee is determined to throw everything into the night – just to get it out of his system. “They leave the day after the show, which focuses everything,” he says. “This is going to be the last time I get to do this for a while, so I have a lot of cathartic stuff I want to get out of me so that I’m not a pain to everyone who knows me. It’s either that or I’ll end up in a padded cell.”

Lee, who now spends much of his time in Bath (“not in the bath!” he laughs) admits the band have frequently divided opinion with their uncompromising, no-holds barred approach.

“Some people get us immediately and know what it takes to put on that kind of show, but it takes others a few times to get into the band,” he says.

While the band’s early gigs were memorable for Lee’s punchy performances, with him climbing speaker stacks, jumping, singing from the crowd and frequently getting hurt. They have also turned to fancy dress (Batman characters being a favourite) and pyrotechnics. But while Lee still rocks out in women’s clothing, full face make up, or a gas mask, those excesses are tempered with more introspective, brooding moments which underline their technical ability. That’s not to say, however, Smilex are no longer a force to be reckoned with.

“The main reason I do that is to keep people watching,” he says.

“The shows still retain energy and danger but there are a few more elements that put it in the realm of cool. We play a professional, entertaining show but have not flattened out too many of the sharp edges.

“We’ve always been a band who are a bit too much for the industry. The whole reason I got into a band was to put two fingers up, and I am not about to let someone else tell us what to do. I know what sort of band we have to be and we have grown and developed.

“I no longer end each gig dripping in blood or with some piece of my body broken. When we started we were like Mike Tyson but now we are like Muhammad Ali. We have matured but lost none of the original fire that made us good in the first place. I think we’ve turned into a really good rock band, and we are bringing more to the table with each batch of songs while retaining the things people liked to start with.”

Smilex take their name from the chemical used by Batman’s nemesis The Joker to kill people with a smile. “And that’s the effect we have on people!” laughs Lee, who is also frontman of the loose musical collective Prohibition Smokers Club.

“There is a punk element to our music. Some people think ‘punk’ means mohican hair styles and three chords, but with us it’s more about the punk ethic. We are like Led Zeppelin played at the speed of the Sex Pistols. “Really it’s all down to Nirvana,” he adds. “Kurt Cobain made people like me realise they could do it themselves, and I don’t think any of us would be in a band if not for him.”

La Petite Mort, the follow up to previous effort 7, has been mixed by Ace from Skunk Anansie and mastered by Pete Maher (U2, The Killers, Jack White, The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode).

“If people thought 7 was like a punch in the face, they’ll be really surprised by this,” he says. “It’s pretty expansive. Some of it is so close to the bone it makes you feel awkward, but there are also humongous stadium moments. The subject matter covers such issues as ambition, monogamy – or the lack of it – celebrity, nostalgia and the nature of evil itself. We are really happy with it. It’s the best thing we’ve committed to tape.”

So what can we expect from Saturday’s gig? “ Every gig is different. It’s all down to the room and the people,” he said, hinting that his trademark gas mask – a present from The Rock of Travolta’s Phil Honey, may also get an airing.

“People are sometimes freaked out but as long as it gets a good reaction we are happy. Sometimes you need to provoke people with something extraordinary. There are things that lift it to the next level.

“We like to give people value for money, which is is lacking elsewhere. But, more than anything, it is all about the music.”

  • Smilex play the Jericho Tavern on Saturday, with support from Osprey and the OX4 Allstars, The Relationships, The Other Dramas, Mark Cope and Art Theef. Tickets are £5 from wegottickets.com

Making some noice for the Oxford City Festival..

We are now four days into the biggest rock, pop and alternative musical extravaganza of the year – Oxford City Festival. And the verdict so far seems to be that it is a resounding success.

If you haven’t yet got involved, there are still four days to go with some fabulous local acts to soak up at venues ranging from The Head of the River and the James Street Tavern to the Marsh Harrier and The Corridor

Unmissable is tomorrow’s show by The Gees’s, Sinking Witches, Empty Vessels and Black Feathers at the Jericho Tavern, and sets by The Goggenheim, Knights of Mentis, Redox and The Great Big Bargain at the O2 Academy.
The star of the festival, Teesside expat Mark ‘Osprey’ O’Brien makes an appearance himself on Saturday, with a support slot for Smilex, see right, with his Ox4 Allstars. Also up are The Relationships, The Other Dramas, Art Theefe, Mark Cope – best known as a member of Britpop band Candyskins.