Monday 28 May 2018

Oli Spleen

copyright Iona Dee Photography
Some months after the hardback edition of David Bowie Made Me Gay hit the shelves, I was contacted by a singer from Brighton. I had been unaware of the work of Oli Spleen (a.k.a. Oliver Speer) up until that point, a fact that pains me; had I known of Oli’s body of work I would definitely have wanted to include him in the book. I now, thanks to the man’s generosity, am the proud owner of copies of almost all of his physical releases.

Artist, performer, songwriter and charismatic frontman, Oli Spleen has been making music for two decades now, as a solo artist and in bands including The Flesh Happening, Spleen and Pink Narcissus. You’d probably class most of his discography as Queercore: it’s an uncompromising style of music whose brutality makes it nigh on impossible to get radio play, but it’s one that is honest, intelligent and playful. Always a contrarian he is currently working on a new album, to be called Gaslight Illuminations, which will be more at home with fans of Marc Almond, Bertolt Brecht, Scott Walker and Jacques Brel.

Oli’s first release (as Oliva Spleen) was the track Formaldehyde, Thalidomide, Hermaphrodite, from the 1999 spoken word collection Saltpetre 1. That was followed by a brace of cuts on the 2001 compilation Drowning By The Sea, and a further track on the various artists collection Trains Across the Sea the same year. “While I would write poems and songs as a child and teen it was a near death brush with AIDS on the millennium that drove me to feel compelled to express my pain and frustration through music,” he explains.

The first incarnation of The Flesh Happening formed in the summer of 2003, around the same time that Oli launched his first novel, Depravikazi. “My idea was to create a band that combined all the in-your-face confrontational energy of punk with the performance and theatrics of glam as well as taking influence from performance artists such as Leigh Bowery,” he says. With a repertoire that included songs with titles such as Anal Joy, Shit on Me and Hitler and Jesus, and a propensity to strip that would have embarrassed the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Flesh Happening were never going to find mainstream success, something Oli himself realised after meeting a PR specialist. “The first thing she said to me was ‘the most important thing is to be yourself,’ and then, when I mentioned I was gay, she said, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should be gay’!” The band split up in the summer of 2008 after issuing a CD EP and the 7” single Kamikaze/Waste. Several of the songs written by The Flesh Happening were later re-recorded by Oli for his 2008 album Spleen & The Flesh Machine.

Soon after the band split, Oli met guitarist Paddy Longlegs, and a new group, Pink Narcissus, was born. “The Flesh Happening had mostly explicitly queer subject matter: with Pink Narcissus I made the decision to write songs that weren’t specific to gender or sexuality. This decision was as much a response to my sexuality and gender identity as the songs with queer specific subject matter were,” Oli says.

copyright Iona Dee Photography
Named after the 1971 American arthouse drama concerning the erotic fantasies of a gay male prostitute, the duo added bass player Cod Riverson and drummer Cookie Allen, evolving a sound that drew heavily on influences from David Bowie, Jane’s Addiction, Iggy and the Stooges and the like. Pink Narcissus demonstrated a much more mature, accessible, sound, evident over three mini album/EP releases, Pink Narcissus, Block Your Ears Shield Your Eyes and Blood on the Page. The band, which now includes guitarist Lilith Ghost, issued its most recent album, the seven track, digital only collection Pig Miracle Day, on 6 October 2017, four years to the day that the title came to Oli in a dream. Alongside his work with the band, Oli has continued to work on solo projects, including the 2013 album Fag Machine – which saw him embracing electronica - and, more recently, an atmospheric cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.

Oli’s sexuality is central to his work. “I don’t think I would be making music at all if I wasn’t queer,” he tells me. “If I were straight I wouldn’t have had to question my existence so fundamentally or gone through everything that lead me toward music in the first place. I’d imagine I would have had a far more conventional path. While I tend to identify more with women I don’t have a problem with the fact that I am perceived as male. It was my friend, trans activist Fox Fisher who first made me aware that non-binary was even a thing. Whilst the definition fits how I perceive myself I don’t enforce non-binary pronouns, it is simply how I feel inside.

“I have felt far more welcomed and understood by the trans community than I ever did in the more mainstream gay scene. Last year Pink Narcissus got to perform Brighton’s Trans Pride but the regular Brighton Pride has shown no interest in what I do whatsoever and doesn’t seem to support and nurture local live music at all.” It was this lack of acceptance that led him and a friend to launch Fag Machine, an LGBTQ club night in Brighton, showcasing acts that fall outside of the mainstream, or that have been marginalised by the commercialisation of the city’s gay scene. “The trans community seem to intrinsically understand the importance of giving a platform to authentic local talent: Fag Machine was a big hit with that crowd.”

Identifying as non-binary, or gender neutral, growing up in Hastings, on the south coast of England, his earliest musical influences were a little unusual. “The first record I owned was the album for Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock, my favourite TV show as a child,” he says. “Fraggles were an underground species of colourful bohemian Muppets who had a deep connection to music. In those formative years Fraggles were my friends, culture, and religion. All I wanted to be when I grew up was a Fraggle.

“Then when I was thirteen Nirvana broke big and I discovered Jane’s Addiction, a band that resonated with me as I felt they had Fraggle-like sensibilities. Both of these bands opened the doors for me to discover other music, from Leadbelly to Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Bowie, Iggy, The Velvet Underground and many more.

Through Bowie I discovered Jacques Brel and the French ‘chanson’ song writing tradition, with its deeply poetic lyricism. Later Leonard Cohen also deeply appealed to me for his lyrical ability as did Nina Simone for her raw intensity as a performer. Bands from X-Ray Spex to Can to The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band also went into the mix of influences that shaped The Flesh Happening.”

He was often beaten up for being ‘different’, as he explained on his own blog: “As a child at school under Thatcher’s Section 28 [the hateful, anti-gay legislation which came in to law 30 years ago this week], I was always told that homosexuality was ‘unnatural’. Subsequently I thought that there must be something terribly wrong with me.

“I was spat at daily throughout secondary school and as a teen I was repeatedly beaten up on Hastings’ streets. Looking androgynous as I did back then it wasn’t safe to go out at night, if I wasn’t attacked by gangs of youths I would often be stopped and searched by police who bizarrely thought I was trying to solicit clients as a male prostitute whilst wearing a dress. Throughout those years I was deeply unhappy and repeated attempted suicide.”

Luckily those years are long behind him, and his next album promises to show listeners another side of the multi-faceted artist. “It's going to be very different… but I think it's the album I always wanted to make,” Oli says of Gaslight Illuminations, which he is recording with current collaborator Mishkin Fitzgerald, of Brighton-based indie rock band Birdeatsbaby. “The title references a theme that runs through many of the tracks. My ex was addicted to crystal meth and would do that gaslighting thing where he would accuse me of things (which he himself was doing) and make me question my own sanity. The ‘Illuminations’ part is inspired by cabalistic notions of light and dark, how the darkness of the themes within the songs is turned into the light of inspiration in the form of the songs themselves.” The album will be available soon on both vinyl and CD.

Here's the video for Time, from Pig Miracle Day. You can listen to the whole album, or, better still, pay for a copy, at 

And here is Tranquillised Lives, from Oli’s solo album Fag Machine, available to download at

You can see more of Oli's videos at

Photos of Oli by Iona Dee. Copyright Iona Dee Photography 
All rights reserved: used by permission.

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