Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Roy, aka PJ Smith, isn’t your average spoken-word performer. A far cry from the self-importance sometimes associated with the medium, Smith is first and foremost a writer and storyteller whose lurid tales of petty theft, daddy issues, alcoholism and substance abuse are so darkly funny and evocative as to almost dance off the paper they’re written on.
Born and raised in Toxteth, Liverpool – where he lived on the same street for 25 years – Smith released his debut collection, Algorithm Party, to a rapturous response in 2020. Published by Rough Trade, the 500 copy print-run sold out in 40 minutes (a first, apparently).
It doesn’t take more than an hour to get through the entirety of Algorithm Party, but the stories inside make for such a visceral gut-punch that they’ll stay with you for much longer.
Moving snapshots of Liverpool life, they elevate mundane moments to dizzying new heights. There’s Emma Bridgewater crockery, Top of the Pops, bloody BHS and stag-do goers who wear distressed jeans and cheer when a glass smashes on a pub floor. There’s even a murder and blackmail involved.
That’s Algorithm Party all over: brimming with surprises and subtle vulnerability.
“We’re only just figuring out that our relationship with the place we grew up has set the tone for every other relationship we’ll ever have,” the 41-year-old writes in Dynamite & Feathers. “The returning smell of the empty streets is spellbindingly resonant. The last remnants of sanity are fascinatingly unbalanced, yet the only valuable truth is home.”
The publication of such a riotous debut came about as a result of Smith’s long-standing association with northern indie label Violette Records, who clocked his talent and convinced him to start doing live gigs. It turns out that hearing these stories straight from the horse’s mouth packs just as much power as reading them does, with Smith’s Scouse drawl booming at the climax of his sentences.
For all its vigour and energy, Algorithm Party is the product of a life lived on the fringes, made harder by Smith’s addiction to drugs and alcohol, which he miraculously survived, before having to face the real world and its consequences. A self-professed searcher and observer, he’s been sober since 2007, balancing his performances with full-time work at a post-rehab recovery living centre.
Hey PJ! Can you tell me a bit more about what it was like growing up in Toxteth and how that influenced your work?
Where I grew up, it was 99.9 per cent white and straight. Anyone different, they were suspected – I don’t know what of. Even the subcultures and stuff, everyone was the same, it was just tracksuits. Then as I got older, it was more expensive coats.
I wasn’t like that, and people couldn’t put the two things together. I grew up there, I sound like them, but I dressed a bit different. I was into different kinds of music and films. They’d take the piss out of me, in a friendly way: “You’re a bit mad, you. What you watching that for? What are you writing for?” I didn’t have an answer!
I suppose the life events that shaped me would be living in a street where there were a lot of broken homes. Dads not around. Kids living with their nans because their mums were on heroin. That type of stuff. But I loved it. You could look back now and ask: “Was it rough?” I’d say no. When you’re in something, you don’t realise. I thought it was fucking great.
Your dad left when you were pretty young. How did that affect you?
My mum and dad divorced when I was nine. It was like: “What’s wrong with me? How come my dad’s not at parents’ evening?” You can’t piece it together when you’re younger. Becoming a teenager was a bit odd. I was really, really shy and nervous.
Luckily I was good at football. Without football, God knows what would have become of me. I was able to blend in through that, it was my identity. I was good, I even signed for Everton. I talked about making it as a professional.
How old were you when you signed?
Fourteen. By the time I was nearly 16, I was done with it. I’d discovered alcohol, girls, cannabis. That was it. It was around that time as well, 1994, that I discovered music. It was all about the charts. On a Friday, my mate from school would stay over and my mum would get us a pizza. She’d let us have one bottle of Becks each. She thought she was being a progressive liberal mum but I ended up an alcoholic… I don’t know whether that’s linked!
I watched Oasis on The Word, it was their first ever TV appearance. Through that, I discovered more music and it became an obsession. Art and culture suddenly came into my life. I became a searcher and got lost in it all. I opted out of life a bit, really, left school early. I couldn’t hold a job down. I was drinking a lot at this point, taking a lot of drugs, thinking to myself: “I’ll stop when I’m 16.” Then 16 came and went. “I’ll stop when I’m 18. When I’m 20.” But it just wasn’t happening.
What were things like for you mentally at that point?
It got a bit dark. I was unable to form relationships with people, mainly because I disliked myself. I’d make a good first impression on people, especially if I’d had a couple of pints and a few lines. But I’d never be able to follow it up. I was disconnected from everything, clinging to this story of the kid whose dad left, woe is me. It didn’t save me at all and it was very selfish.
I started to then really panic about my life. You’re in your early twenties and you find out your mate’s getting married, settling down, and I never had anyone who modelled how to tell the truth and show your vulnerability. I’d say things like: “What you getting married for, you fucking dickhead?”
But all the time I was panicking, walking around, looking in someone’s house and thinking: “I’d love that.” People, kids, a dog, it’s warm. And where am I going now? Some fucking flat somewhere to sit with someone I don’t like.
You got sober in 2007. How did you get to that moment of finally letting your guard down? Because your writing is very vulnerable.
In 2005, I can’t remember what I’d done – some fuck-up, another one. I thought to myself: “I’ve got this plan. I’ll go to AA and everybody will finally leave me alone.” I never went to get sober, I just wanted to shut people up, but the bastards got me. I sat there and I heard this man, this big, big man, speak from his heart. I was in turmoil, because my heart was saying, “this is fucking great,” but my head was going: “Get out of here! It’s a cult!”
For the next two years, my drinking… Not that the amount got worse, but the effects got worse, and I started to seriously consider suicide. I was behaving weirdly, sleeping all day, only going out at night with my hood up.
But throughout those two years, I kept thinking about that meeting I went to. It slowly chipped away at me. I can’t remember anything [that guy] said, but I can remember how he made me feel. He made me feel like I could stop behaving like this. If these people can, what’s stopping me?
So it took me two years to stop pretending to be something I wasn’t – that I was hard. It took time, it wasn’t just one moment. I started to do basic things like telling the truth, and eventually I felt quite comfortable. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine living like that again.
My girlfriend, we’ve been together three years now and she’s like: “I can’t imagine you like that.” Fucking lucky you!
Was it those AA meetings that prompted you to pick up a pen?
That actually happened in rehab. One of the first exercises you do in there is writing your life story, important life events, so the group can get to know you. I hadn’t picked up a pen since school, my hand was hurting and everything. It took me about three or four tries. I kept scrunching the paper up and crying.
And when I [finally] did it, everyone stood up and cheered because it was such an ordeal.
The counsellor said to me: “You can write. Do you write?” I said no, but I’ve always wanted to. I just read fanzines and THE FACE. At this point, the honesty thing hadn’t clicked in yet. The next day, after looking through the local paper, I saw an advert for a Stags and Hens audition, which is a Willy Russell play.
I thought I could manipulate that counsellor by saying to him: “Can I go to that? It’ll feed me creatively!” Just lying to him. He fell for it. The next morning I was up at six, thinking about seeing a girl I hadn’t seen for months since I got sober. I got on the bus [but] my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do it.
I either had to go back and tell him the truth or fucking go to the audition.
So you went?
So I went. It was an open audition that required you to have a monologue prepared, and a CV. You had to go up X‑Factor style on the stage. At this point, I’m still quite shy and I can’t really speak in front of people. I joined a queue full of drama students: young, beautiful people. I’m just fucking stood there in a tracksuit and a fucking shaved head with no monologue prepared and no CV.
I started thinking about what I could do and I invented this character on the spot. I ran around to a betting shop and got a betting slip and wrote my “CV” out on it.
Before I know it, I’m on the same stage I’d seen Oasis and The Prodigy on as a kid. It was Willy Russell and a couple of local actors. I had a rucksack on and in my head I was thinking: “When you drop this rucksack, just go, do it.”
And I did. They were amazed and said they’d never seen anything like that. I felt like Spud off Trainspotting and I became so scared they were going to offer me the part. So I just said I didn’t want it.
Then Willy Russell said to me: “Whatever you do, just write.” Fucking Willy Russell! I said alright then, I will.
It took me until I was about 35 to do it properly. I then got involved with the record label and an audience, a stage, a microphone. It’s introduced me to some great people, made me think about life differently. It’s given me a new level of belonging. They’re just stories and I’m not mad serious about it. But I like it and other people seem to as well. So I keep going.
How did it feel when Algorithm Party sold out so quickly?
It was amazing to have people I respect, as well as people I don’t know, tell me: “This is great. This is a good collection of solid writing.” Lots of people have contacted me. I’d love to write for TV and I’ve actually started on a script.
Tell me more about Roy. Is he your alter ego?
Roy’s a mixture of me and the lads I grew up with, people I know. The turmoil of that gap between who they think they are and who they really are. Most people never get to bridge that gap and I feel lucky I did. I used to be penniless, hopeless, dying inside.
But if I could pull an outfit together, get an entrance fee to the pub and get a haircut, I could make them think I was alright. People know, they aren’t daft. I’ve asked them later on, after I’d sobered up, whether they had any idea. They didn’t know the specifics but they knew something wasn’t right with me.
Before, you’d wear [substance abuse] like a kind of badge of honour. When you’re a teenager, it’s all about being a bit mad, but it gets a bit embarrassing later on. As you’re becoming an adult. It gets frightening, waking up somewhere and having no recollection of anything past midday the day before.
As I got older, it got scarier and scarier. I was reading news reports to check if I’d done anything wrong, anything bad. My life feels good now because I’m doing the basics, telling the truth and taking part. I’m having a go, I’m saying yes to stuff. I’ve got to carry on doing that. From 26 to now 41, that’s what I’ve done.
How do you indulge now? What makes you happy?
Fucking hell. The simple things in life. I’ve got real moments of gratitude. Today, when I leave [London], I’m going to mooch about. I’ll have a coffee, treat myself. Before, I wouldn’t value myself or spend money on myself. I wasn’t worth it. Now, I’m gonna buy some records, a nice bit of cheese or something like that. It’ll probably cost me about 30 quid, but so what? What a fucking life!
And I love spending time with my girlfriend. She lives in a village in Yorkshire and I still live in Toxteth in Liverpool. I love that contrast and going out there.
What do you hope people get out of your work?
There’s hopefully enough in [Algorithm Party] for people to identify with, even if it’s something they might never say out loud. It’s only short, you can read it in an hour, but I’d like for people to not see that hour pass.
That’s what reading used to do for me. I read Trainspotting in two sittings when I was 14. I want to make people think about themselves.
Roy is performing at The Social in London tomorrow. Get your tickets here.