By Ryan Pike
Since the advent of Top 40 radio, the term “one-hit wonder” has been bandied about. The term refers to the seemingly neverending stream of bands that produce one popular song then disappear from the face of the Earth. Chumbawumba bucks this trend. The Leeds-based group became exceptionally popular in 1997 when their single, “Tubthumping,” soared to number six on the North American charts. The song became an anthem, particularly for its chantable refrain, “I get knocked down! But I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!” When the fanfare died down, Chumbawumba returned to England and continued to produce politically-minded music. Despite a decade’s worth of new songs, fans still demand they play their hit.
“We were [in Guelph] about three days ago and it was a real shock,” notes vocalist/guitarist Boff Whalley. “Nobody had done that in about two years.”
“It wasn’t people doing it ironically, either,” says vocalist/trumpet player Jude Abbot. “We don’t do it as part of our acoustic set. People think that’s a big deal because you’re not doing it, but actually it just doesn’t fit with what we’re doing.”
Chumbawumba is in the midst of a tour through Canada on a series of festival stops. The group is appreciative of open-minded festival audiences, especially considering they may only be familiar with a handful of the acts playing at the event.
“It’s interesting with these festivals,” says Abbot. “The impression I have is that when people come to the workshops, sometimes they don’t know a lot about a band so they’re really quite open to them. It’s not like going and playing in a club where people have an expectation. They don’t see things and since they’re at a festival, they don’t necessarily know what they’re going to get.”
Chumbawumba’s recent array of acoustic folk songs is a far cry from their big hit, but also highlights how different the group is from the ordinary. From their humble beginnings squatting in a Victorian house in Leeds to their politically-anarchistic lyrics, Chumbawumba has never been an ordinary band. Their longtime revenue-sharing agreement, which sees every band and crew member get the same cut of the payout, is another example.
“It started from this simple agreement right in the beginning,” says Whalley. “It’s really hard to define whether somebody’s worth more than somebody else. When we first started, there were only two people who could drive, so they’d do all the driving. And I thought, yeah, okay, I’ve spent loads of time writing this song, but why should the song have my name on it when the person who does all the driving gets no credit? And so we just agreed right at the beginning that everyone should get an equal share of everything, just to make things simple. It extended to people that worked with us. It’s just respecting the fact that manual labour shouldn’t be less valued than artists who can play.”
Ten years removed from their time in the chart-topping spotlight, Chumbawumba remains an enduring part of England’s music community. Despite the financial benefits of “Tubthumping,” the group looks back more fondly on other parts of their career.
“We sold a ridiculous amount of records,” recalls Whalley. “And made tons and tons of money and had a laugh with it, but it’s certainly not the period of Chumbawumba that I look back on most fondly and say ‘That’s the part that was successful.’”
The members of Chumbawumba are celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary throughout this year. After that many years and the release of a wide array of albums, the group defines success in their own way.
“I suppose success for us is thinking ‘I’m really lucky, because I’m at work,’” shares Abbot. “I’m never not aware of how lucky I am, that this is the life I get to lead. I don’t have to get up at six o’clock every morning and do a shit job I hate.”
“If someone said to you, ‘You’ve got eight hours to stand on this stage and play your guitar and sing, or you can have eight hours digging that hole there,’ of course you’ll go for the guitar and stage everytime,” says Whalley. “That’s what our life’s like. Whatever we do is preferable to whatever else we’ve always done.”