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Oli Spleen

Oli Spleen – photo by Lee London

Oli Spleen on Brighton, Hastings and surviving AIDS with poetry and cabaret

Hastings poet Oli Spleen, a vocalist and poet influenced by the chanson scene talks about his work and latest projects with Jude Montague in advance of his gig at The Pig on 6 April

Who is Oli Spleen? It’s an intriguing name. I never met anybody called Spleen before!

I first used the surname Spleen in 1994 when I was a teen. I had dropped out of school at the first opportunity aged sixteen and started at Hastings College. That year I had an exhibition of masturbation paintings in a little clothes shop in the Old Town a few doors down from my dad’s picture framing shop in the High Street. As his shop was named “John Speer The Old Town Picure Framer”. I guessed that he wouldn’t want his customers knowing his son painted giant pictures of ejaculating penises, so I changed my surname to Spleen and it stuck. I then released a few poetry booklets under that name before the millennium but didn’t really start in music until the launch of my debut novel Depravikazi in Brighton in the summer of 2003 when my first band The Flesh Happening was formed. I had been hospitalised with AIDS related complications in the summer of 2000 which became a source of great inspiration and this brush with death was the catalyst that lead to writing my book and started in music.

Your life has been complex and full of moods and places with a special relationship with Brighton and Hastings – can you tell me about how you feel about these two towns?

Back in 2001 when I was in recovery from my hospitalisation, I was desperate to get out of Hastings but I didn’t want to return to London where I had done my BA as that city made me depressed and the air wasn’t good for my lungs as I still had ongoing complications related to having suffered from tuberculosis. Brighton felt like a good compromise as it was more of a city than Hastings with a more diverse culture but back then it wasn’t as developed and densely populated and the sea air kept things fresh. It felt like the ideal compromise between Hastings and London and I soon settled in, using the computer at an HIV drop-in centre to write my book. I later formed my first, second and third main bands there; The Flesh Happening, Pink Narcissus and Spleen. While I was in The Flesh Happening I also frequently returned to the Old Town where my father still lived and formed an offshoot art performance band called Le Pétomane with local artists, Rebecca Marshall, Liz Finch, Nichola Bruce, Linda King and Ben from The Flesh Happening who I still write and perform with today.

Back in the nineties we would rarely venture past The Pig In Paradise on a night out as St Leonards was a wasteland of crumbling abandoned buildings and drug addicts. But in 2022 when I was catsitting in the area the artist Mark Walter invited me to a pub known locally as The Doom, and I met the gorgeous Merlin Pendragon and quickly fell in love with St Leonards-on-Sea like never before.

Whereas in the eighties The Old Town was the place to be with a thriving artistic community now St Leonards-on-Sea had taken its place and only in the last ten or so years or so has it become the centre of culture that it is now. Conversely Brighton has become overpopulated and expensive and I no longer feel the affinity to the city that I once had.

Oli Spleen

Oli Spleen – photo by Lee London

Tell me about your work as a performer with music. I believe the ‘chanson’ is a particular influence on you and that you are an admirer of the French cabaret chanson songwriter and composer Barbara (I am too). Can you tell me what it is you respond to in her work?

Artists who sing from a place of deep and genuine suffering are a great comfort and catharsis to me as it strikes a deep chord with my own experiences, even if I’m not fluent in the language in which they sing. It’s not something that you encounter so much in British and American songwriting but Barbara has it in spades. I was privileged to have translated and sung a version of her classic L’Aigle Noir on my 2021 EP The Eagle & The Dove. I have also performed and recorded songs by Jaques Brel. The French chanson songwriting tradition goes to places that most English songwriters fear to tread. Weimar Cabaret is another influence on my recent solo work as is klezmer and Eastern European music. I’m no shoegazer and I like to put the audience through an experience when I perform.

You have a background in running very interesting and much loved cabaret / night club events – can you tell me a bit about it?

In 2013 after returning from Paris where I had been collaborating with producer Francois Carle, I released my debut solo album Fag Machine, followed by a club night of the same name that ran on Brighton’s gay scene for close to three years. It was the first to showcase live, original music from the LGBT+ community on a weekly basis and I ran it with my friend Sam Culpeck as a response to the very mainstream commodification of gay culture that was prevalent everywhere else.

I had previously said that we didn’t venture into St Leonards-on-Sea to socialise in the nineties but there was one exception. On a Sunday a bar called Mister Cherries had an all day happy hour where pints were one pound and drugs could be bought and were openly consumed. There I met the poet and songwriter-musician Salena Godden in the summer of 1995 and we became fast friends and have been close ever since. We have written forewords to each others books, performed a great many shows together and featured in the ‘how we met’ section of Gay Times. We are currently embarking on a musical project together with local musician Wolfgang Dubieniec. Salena had two new books coming out in May, a poetry collection called With Love Grief & Fury and her brilliant childhood memoir Springfield Road.

What struggles have you overcome to be here today?

The big one was my near death AIDS experience of 2000 but a decade ago I was struggling to free myself from a toxic relationship with a meth addict. This inspired many of the themes within my second solo album, 2019’s Gaslight Illuminations. I have also wrestled with substance abuse myself throughout the years but I’m currently in a better place than I can remember.

Tell me about your work at the moment. What issues are you dealing with and where are you going or do you hope to go?

Having largely abandoned visual art for writing and music close to twenty years ago I’m currently struggling to re-engage with the medium again for a second exhibition with artists Mark and Wolfgang. I have also put together a new band with Ben Sumner from The Flesh Happening and Andy from The Barbarian Horde. We’ve just completed a brand new song which we hope to debut at our show at The Pig on April 6th.

Oli Spleen

Oli Spleen – photo by Iona Dee


The two old ladies

Who came to sit at the other end of our table

Recoiled in disgust when I kissed my boyfriend

“Do you mind” – one said

“I’m sorry” – I replied

“We were just kissing each other goodbye,

I won’t be seeing him for a while”

“Can’t you get a room!?” she continued…

“We don’t know what it might lead to!”

Her friend then piped in with…

“It’s just a sign of respect!”


So not to kiss my boyfriend is a sign of respect

To you

As if you would have known I was respecting you

By not kissing my boyfriend

Had we not kissed

And respect for what?

For your generation

For Margaret Thatcher

For Section 28

A law she brought in which denied any discussion

About the existence of people like us

That was implemented when I was ten years old

And lasted throughout my schooldays

Where I was disrespected

Spat at

Beaten up

Called faggot, poofter, queer

And pushed toward suicide

Silenced by law

With no one to turn to for help

When I tied a noose around my thirteen-year-old neck

And fell

Hoping to end this suffering

Only to find that my feet just touched the ground

Respect has to be earned

And I owe you nothing

The healing that I feel

In expressing affection

Toward the person I love

In public, without fear

Is the greatest comfort to that inner child

Who wanted to die

Because no one allowed him a voice

So fuck you

And your respect

For now I have self-respect


And love

Not only for the man whose lips met mine

Under your judgmental glare

But also for that disrespected thirteen-year-old

With no hope

And a noose around his neck

– Oli Spleen, Horse & Groom, 2023.


Oli Spleen & The Barbarian Horde

Saturday 6 April, 8pm (doors 7.30pm)

The Pig, 37 White Rock, Hastings TN34 1 JL

Afterparty with DJ Alfie Mason from 11pm

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Posted 14:43 Monday, Mar 25, 2024 In: Music & Sound

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