Cornershop interview: Singh when you're winning

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I AM STANDING outside the Tube station waiting for one of pop's forgotten men. Embarrassingly, I have already approached two likely suspects and been met with blank looks and, in one case, a flurry of sign langauge. As the appointed hour comes and goes, I lose all confidence in my ability to remember what Tjinder Singh looks like and start collaring white faces. Well, it's been a long time.

Seven years, to be precise. It was way back in 2002 ,that Singh stuck a "Back in 10 mins" sign in the Cornershop window. If his band was a real shop, how could it possibly survive? I am imagining it alongside assorted comedy emporia – the one holding the last remaining copy of JR Hartley's Fly Fishing, the best place to buy fork handles, the Stella Street grocer's with a zonked-out Keef Richards behind the till – when finally he shows.

Remember Cornershop? "Brimful of Asha on the 45…" Terrific tune, bonkers words, amazing that it got to No 1 – and what a public service they performed, booting Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On off the top spot. They were a welcome blast of tambura and sitar in the midst of Britpop's ultra-white guitar overkill and Singh today doesn't look any different: still handsome, still flashing a conspiratorial smile. On their comeback album, Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast, the band still sound great, too. But where's he been?

"Long story," he says, leading the way to a pub in Islington, where we're joined by bandmate Ben Ayres. "After the last album (2002's Handcream For A Generation] I was totally spent. We put everything into that record and the reviews were fantastic, but the label (Beggars Banquet] did a bad job promoting it. They disagreed, obviously, and in the end they asked us to leave.

"So we went and made a rock film. Not your usual Channel 4 puff, shot in some rockbrokerbelt mansion in Bucks, and paid for by the band – more of a documentary that tried to be a candid look at the industry. It's finished, but we're not sure it'll ever see the light of day. It doesn't really follow the rules and in that way I suppose it's very Cornershop. You could call it our lost album.

"It's almost a historical document already. John Peel, who we interviewed while he was on air over a glass of red, has passed away, and lots of the weird and wonderful clubs and mags we feature have closed down. We think the film qualifies for a grant from English Heritage.

"But seriously, the record industry is like the mortgage industry. I don't know why no one, in discussing how f***ed up mortgages are, the way they lock you in and are often impossible to honour, hasn't made the comparison with record contracts, which have been screwing over bands for decades." Consider the comparison well and truly made now.

But while their film may be a fine thing – similar to another lost project, a reggae album – we should focus on Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast, a conventional release from a defiantly unconventional band. It's fully stocked with familiar Cornershop wares, not least Singh's elusive lyrics. One minute the theme appears to be the Southall race riots, the next Singh is uttering the classic line: "I'm Phil Fearon and you are Galaxy". War gets mentioned – in typical Singh fashion, it "ain't nothin' but technical plip-plop" – but when I press him further on the subject, he prefers to enthuse about the clarinet accompaniment: "Very Mr Ben, wouldn't you say?" For Singh and Ayres, fatherly duties these past seven years have been welcome interruptions to the hurly-burly of pop.

The pair met at Preston Poly over a shared passion for 19th century socialist William Morris. Early gigs were shambolic and their debut release was on curry-coloured vinyl – but the Fatboy Slim remix of Brimful Of Asha with its references to Bollywood, the Narmada Dam and T Rex won them the approbation of George Clooney, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. The celebrity fans may have gone, but Cornershop have re-opened for business by remembering Morris' DIY philosophy and releasing the new album by themselves. Now, more than seven years ago, pop needs the band's cussed, contrary, wilful ways.

Although Singh admits there were low points when he thought he was going mad and even his wife stopped listening to Cornershop, he isn't as bitter as a lemon about the band's time in the wilderness. "Seven is a good number for us," he says, "because in India it means completeness." And when he slags off Simon Cowell and Kasabian (the self-mythologising goons hail from Leicester, like him) it's always with that smile.

And who knows, maybe their return will give encouragement to another advocate of 19th century socialism, one who's struggling to get his message across. "I like Gordon Brown," says Singh. "He's had to deal with a lot of shit, not all of it of his own making. Yes he's an awkward chap, but then so am I."

Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast (Ample Play) is released tomorrow

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