This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
Here in Nottingham, Katty Heath is best known as the singer with Spotlight Kid: a gloriously noisy alternative rock band, once described in this paper as “sounding like twenty thousand bees trapped in a wind tunnel”. But over in The Netherlands, where she has been living since 2011, Katty is more likely to be recognised a contestant on The Voice Of Holland, the TV talent show which spawned last year’s The Voice on BBC1.
Swapping the grime of the indie circuit for the glamour of the television studio, Katty’s transformation couldn’t have been more complete – but as she now reveals, her journey was a largely dispiriting and disillusioning experience.
“I was never a big fan of those shows in the first place”, she explains, talking to EG from her houseboat in central Amsterdam. “So I was going a little bit against my morals, I guess. But I felt that if I was going to have a permanent life here, I really want to have a music career here. So I thought, well, this could be a fast track way of making some connections in the industry.”
Persuaded to give the show a try, Katty applied online, and was invited in for a couple of selection rounds. These proved successful, as did the first two televised rounds: the “blind audition”, where the show’s judges cannot see the contestants, and the “battle round”, where each singer goes head-to-head with a rival. Katty sailed through them all, landing herself a place on the first of the live shows.
At this point, the eager contestant felt what little control she had over the process slipping away. Rejecting all her song proposals – Fleetwood Mac, Portishead, Nina Simone, Kate Bush – as “too unusual, not commercial enough, or too obvious”, the show’s producers insisted that she tackled Katy Perry’s Firework instead.
“Oh my God, I hate that song! And as the build-up came, it was very intensive. You’re in every day from nine in the morning until ten at night. It’s very tiring, so you’re not really in a fit state to sing to your biggest audience in your life.”
Swamped by a noisy arrangement, complete with mid-song pyrotechnics – the very opposite of what she had wanted – Katty did her best, but the voting went against her, and she failed to qualify for the next round.
A pre-recorded version of the track was immediately placed on iTunes, but “we never see a cent of that.” In fact, none of the contestants are paid to be on the show. “The only thing we received from it was a phone, because it was sponsored by Samsung.”
“When you’re in the show, you’re like: this is amazing, I’m loving the fame! And then as soon as you’re out of it, you’re like: Oh my God, it’s just a money-making machine, and we are pawns in it.”
“The first week after, I was just in a big hole of despair. You’re just dropped into nothingness. There’s no kind of follow-up, to see if you’re OK. From beginning to end, it’s six months, and you can’t really commit to anything else in your life. So I was sort of broken: financially, emotionally and psychologically.”
Tied by a year-long contract, which forbids her from releasing any other material until the end of March, Katty found herself in limbo, unable to capitalise from any immediate post-show opportunities. More humiliatingly still, she was even turned away from the doors of the studio, when attempting to watch one of the later live shows.
“Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t have done it”, she reflects. “But I still think it was a valuable lesson, and a learning experience.”
When asked what advice she would give to anyone contemplating a similar move, Katty pauses before answering.
“Don’t expect to get paid. Don’t expect it to be the be-all and end-all. Just see it as an experience, rather than a solution. See it for what it is: entertainment, a TV show, and very quickly you’re going to be yesterday’s news. Take from it what you can, but don’t be deluded into thinking it’s about you. Because it’s not. It’s about viewing figures, and the company making money out of you.”
The most intrusive part of the whole process for Katty was having her past scrutinised. “We all had to have an interview with a private investigator, who had already investigated us,” she says. “That’s to protect the company, because if people come forward with stories about you, they want to be prepared.”
She adds, laughing: “So of course they were with me for a long time, because I’ve had a right shady past!”
Spotlight Kid’s single Budge Up is out on Monday.
This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
They might describe their music as “claustrophobic, pounding and paranoid”, but in the flesh, I Am Lono are an affably untroubled pair of souls – or so it would seem on the surface, at any rate.
According to Matthew Cooper, who sings and plays the keyboards, the claustrophobia is a by-product of the duo’s creative environment. “We write all the music in the basement, and it is very claustrophobic. There are no windows. The dehumidifier is the only bit of moisture that we get close to.”
Guitarist and co-composer David Startin agrees. “Every time we write anything, we have these speakers that really enclose us. It’s a very direct way of writing, so we’ve always got that element.”
“I think we’re both very sensitive people”, adds Matthew. “It’s difficult not to be paranoid.”
The pair met through sharing music and books, and their mutual admiration for the crazed “gonzo journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson gave them their name. In his early Eighties memoir, The Curse Of Lono, Thompson finds himself in Hawaii, attempting to cover a marathon. A fishing trip ensues, and Thompson lands a huge marlin, which he clubs to death. Believing himself to be a reincarnation of Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility and music, he screams “I am Lono!” as he slaughters the fish, before going into hiding from angry islanders.
There’s another cultural reference in I Am Lono’s debut single, which will be launched at the Rescue Rooms on Tuesday. Lead track Leland is inspired by a character in David Lynch’s early Nineties drama Twin Peaks. Possessed by a demonic spirit, Leland Palmer, the small town’s seemingly mild-mannered attorney, is eventually revealed as the murderer of his daughter Laura, solving the central mystery of the show’s first season.
With that in mind, the song’s chorus – “Oh Leland, I want your love” – makes for a disturbing tribute, but as Matthew explains, “It has a sort of tension to it, that I liked. There is the ambiguity of the name, as it’s not definitely a male name, but also there’s ambiguity with Leland as a character. In a way, the song is a cry for innocence.”
It’s also a prime example of David and Matthew’s love of soundtrack music. John Carpenter is another inspirational figure – “Escape From New York is one of the best soundtracks ever”, says David – and before the band formed in early 2011, Matthew mainly worked on soundtracks for independent film makers.
Visuals are an important component of their approach; Matthew does all the artwork, and the pair are “very much in control of what we want visually”. At the launch, visuals will be provided by a member of the Kneel Before Zod video club, who regularly screen “old B-movies and slasher movies”. The intention is for these to be mixed with live visuals on the night.
As a further inducement, advance ticket purchasers will be able to exchange their stubs for a free copy of the vinyl single. This pairs Leland – their most “four-to-the-floor” and dance-derived composition to date, with a “1978 New York” feel to it – with the thrashier, more guitar-driven In Silence, which David describes as having “a Pixies-esque early Nineties kind of feel; that kind of sonic power that pushes out.”
A digital release is also planned, although David and Matthew are less enthused about the format. “With downloads, it does feel more like a rental – a partial ownership of music”, says Matthew. As for making their music available on Spotify, he is decidedly lukewarm. “One million hits, and you can’t even buy a pizza.”
Support on the night will be provided by another electronic duo, the gloriously splenetic Sleaford Mods, whose acerbic social commentary stands in contrast to I Am Lono’s more enigmatic approach. “We’ve not got a song that will bring down the government”, says David. “Not yet”, he adds. Well, you never know.
An edited version of this feature was originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Amongst the three members of Kagoule, there’s little discernible love for the garment which gave them their name. “We own probably none”, says singer and guitarist Cai Burns. “There’s at least three in my house”, admits bassist Lucy Hatter. “We just said it as a joke”, explains drummer Lawrence English, “but then we thought it might be alright.”
If you hear a band name often enough, it takes on its own meaning. Think of The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the band’s key influences, and gourd-related violence will rarely spring to mind. Likewise, it’s unlikely that you’ll link Kagoule with lightweight, foldable anoraks for too long. And besides, they’ve customised the name with a kooky K. Like Kriss Kross, or Kool and the Gang.
That’s pretty much where the kookiness ends, though. Despite their youth – they’re all seventeen, and in their final year at college – Kagoule are a remarkably level-headed bunch, with a clear-sighted dedication to their craft. Of the three, Lawrence is perhaps the most assertive, business-like one. Lucy tends to express the firmest opinions, while Cai has a thoughtful, dreamy reticence that marks him out as the main songwriter and front man.
The band formed two years ago. Lawrence knew Cai from school, Cai and Lucy were already a couple, and Lucy was friends with Lawrence’s sister, “so it all linked in quite nicely”. After serving the usual apprenticeship at “dodgy Maze nights”, the big break arrived in December 2011, when they were asked to open for Dog Is Dead on the main stage of Rock City. “It was the first proper gig”, reckons Lucy. “The first gig that wasn’t awful”, adds Lawrence.
The set was a triumph, opening the door to a host of new opportunities. “It made things more professional”, says Cai. “It made us feel like an actual band, and it got us into contact with a lot of people.” The band gigged regularly throughout 2012, appearing at festivals such as Dot To Dot, Y-Not and Branch Out. Denizen Recordings took them under their wing, giving them access to experienced management and state-of-the-art recording facilities. And now there’s a single, their first physical release, which will be launched at The Chameleon on Saturday night.
The tracks in question – Monarchy and Mudhole – are two of Cai’s earliest compositions, “so it seemed right to release them first”. Monarchy was written when he was just fourteen. It’s drawn from personal experience, but he declines to explain further, as “it can ruin it for some people”. Mudhole “is some fiction – I like to make up stories.” “It’s easier than writing a book”, says Lucy.
Musically, the band are inspired by the alt-rock of the early-to-mid Nineties: the Pumpkins, Nirvana, Fugazi, and Cai’s favourites, Unwound. “It’s so much better than what’s out now”, Lucy asserts. “It’s the most recent good music, I’d say.” “We didn’t really go for a Nineties sound”, says Cai. “We got compared to those kinds of bands, then we started listening to that music. After that, we realised that’s the music that we all really like.”
Once their studies are completed, the trio intends to take a year out, before thinking about university. “We’re not going to miss that opportunity”, says Lucy. An album is in the pipeline, and most of the tracks are already written. At the end of the month, they’ll be embarking on a mini-tour with label mates Kappa Gamma, with dates in Leicester, Leeds and Manchester.
Time for one final question. If Kagoule were given the opportunity to soundtrack a TV ad, what product would they choose to endorse? Pampers, says Lawrence, quick as a flash. Guns, says Lucy, without even a hint of a smile. Cai considers this longer and harder than the others, before opting for talcum powder. Nobody even thinks about lightweight, foldable anoraks.
An edited version of this interview was originally published in LeftLion magazine.
How did the idea for Invisible Orchestra get off the ground?
It’s been a culmination of things, over the years. Playing with lots of different people, meeting lots of different musicians. Everybody’s been in their own bands, wanting to get a bigger project together. And it’s also having a lot of music written that doesn’t actually suit the band I’m in [Royal Gala], and that would suit a much larger band. Then I met Martin, who plays the double bass, and we went on a tour together in Holland. I thought I’d really like to be in a band with Martin. And I just kinda got obsessed with it. It kept building and building. I know loads of brass players, and I’d probably got twenty people in the band by the time I booked the first gig, at the Arts Theatre. People were saying: I think it’s a bit short notice, I don’t think we’ve got enough time.
How far in advance did you book the gig?
I’d got about three and a half months, and we’d got about fifteen minutes of music together. So by having a date booked, it became a thing. I wanted a theatre, because I wanted to put on a proper event: a show, rather than a gig.
I saw a few people in the audience who were clearly Arts Theatre regulars. They looked a bit shell-shocked, that their Am Dram venue was turning into this maelstrom of excess.
(Laughs) Yeah, everybody was wasted and dancing off tables and chairs in the aisles – they were literally dancing in the aisles. The girl behind the bar was crying her eyes out, because she’d got three hundred people in front of her, all wanting a drink, and she was the only bar staff on. The theatre had a massive shock. I was telling them all along that it would be busy; it wasn’t going to be like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
How did you go about matching your tunes to the singers?
I didn’t approach some of the singers until we’d got the tunes done. I try not to have anything to do with the lyrics. That comes from the singers. What I do is to instigate things generally. I don’t write everybody’s parts, although I’ll remember everybody’s parts, even if they forget them. I’ll perhaps write a loose rhythm, ideas for percussion, the main brass line. Then they’ll get together and write around the idea that I’ve got. With some other people, I will write their complete lines. I might suggest something to Martin on the double bass, but he’s experienced enough just to know what it needs straight away. With Percy Dread, who’s been doing roots reggae for forty years, I asked him to do it, and he came along with a reggae tune. He’s been playing music for longer than I’ve been born, but I was getting him into the idea of doing a completely different style, but still in his own voice.
It was a very dramatic and unexpected start to your set. I was expecting Jools Holland-style good times from start to finish, but then Percy came on like this prophet of apocalyptic doom!
Percy’s a great guy, and he’s doing another song with us, for the next show. A lot of people are guests, but Percy’s like a proper member of the orchestra. At the rehearsal studio, the gates are locked and people have to ring me from outside, then I’ll go and fetch them. But somehow, once we start playing a song at rehearsals, Percy will just turn up, every time. He’ll walk straight in and start singing. I don’t know how he does it!
It must have been a huge departure for another of your singers, Ed Bannard from Hhymn. It would have taken him well outside his comfort zone.
I’ve known Ed since I was about 19. I knew him when he was in Skinny Sumo, and we’ve always been around each other. I wasn’t quite sure if he’d do it, but I think he enjoyed it in the end. For that particular song, I wrote all the music, and then Ed came in. To be honest, it took him about two rehearsals, and then he kind of nailed it.
Does everyone in the band come from Nottingham?
We’ve recruited a few people from further afield, but most people come from in and around Nottingham. Justin, the Hammond player, tours with Bad Manners quite a bit. He’s got a Grammy. He’s also played for Lee “Scratch” Perry. So, including all the vocalists, there were twenty-eight of us last time around.
Was it a logistical nightmare, getting all these people in the same room at specific times?
It was, but then it wasn’t so bad for the gig, because we knew that we’d be loading at 12, and we were paying the theatre from 12. We’d not finished some of the tunes on the day of the show. The percussion section sorted out some of Hannah Heartshape’s tune while we were sound checking. We only had about an hour with Natalie Duncan. She came to sound check, and we had a bit of a chat. So before the gig, we were as excited as anybody else to see how it sounded.
How did it feel when you were actually up on the stage?
It felt fucking great, to be honest with you. Everybody was hugging each other afterwards. It was a really, really fantastic feeling. Everybody put in such a lot of hard work, sacrificing their time. A lot of people had cancelled gigs to come. After the show, I said that we should take a break for a month or so. That lasted about a week. Then people were asking: when are we rehearsing again? So we organised the next practice a bit earlier than we intended – and everybody turned up!
What’s the plan for 2013?
I’ve just booked a show at Nottingham Contemporary on Easter Sunday, March 31st. We’ve got the whole of downstairs: The Space, and also the café bar. The line-up starts off with a barbershop quartet, then we’ve got Rollo Markee and the Tailshakers , a swing-blues band who I went on tour with. There’s also DJ Switch, who’s been three times the world DMC champion. He’s also the only DJ ever to play at The Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall. It’ll be like a family thing; we all know each other. We’ve had a lot of support from the Contemporary, and from Ste Allan of Dealmaker. So it will be a lot easier than last time, when we had no funding, no backing, a shell-shocked venue…
We’re also trying to confirm a show at The Scala in London at the moment, and there are a few more London shows in the pipeline as well. We’ve got a booking agent who has been looking for suitable festivals – and for realistic festivals, as this is not the sort of thing that we can go on tour with, unless there’s a lot of help and a lot of forward planning. There’s also a new Royal Gala album, which is coming out pretty soon; all the tracks have been recorded. And Invisible Orchestra have recorded five tracks at Paper Stone, who backed us without hearing us. They just trusted us.
How does this project differ from what you do in Royal Gala?
You get to work with a lot more different people. I’ve been working with Royal Gala for six years. Stylistically, they’ve become a lot more electronic, and a lot more dancey, which was our original plan anyway: to be a dance act.
Perhaps Royal Gala are more groove-based, whereas Invisible Orchestra are more song-based.
I suppose so. We are writing songs, that’s true. And we can go slow in the orchestra as well. Royal Gala are usually on late at a festival, with everybody off their heads, all dancing. We tried putting in a slow tune, and people just stopped dancing.
So the orchestra gives you a chance to explore a different range of emotions.
Yes, a complete range. Within your hour of set, you can have a whole show of emotions. We have been exploring that a lot more for the next gig. I want to work with more vocalists, and I’ve been talking to a few people. There will also be more people in the band; I’ve increased the strings, and there’s a sousaphone player and a really amazing trumpet player. I think there are seventeen in the brass section now.
Do people get you confused with The Hidden Orchestra, who are a completely different act?
Well, there’s fucking thirty-two of us now, so if they want to meet us outside in the car park, we’ll kick the fuck out of them!
What was the first pop song that you fell in love with, and how did it make you feel?
Take On Me by A-Ha. It made me feel five octaves higher, and then I turned into a very handsome pencil-drawn animated version of myself.
What was your first public performance?
Tap dancing while dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle when I was about eight. I think I peaked early.
2011 seemed to go rather well for you. What were the highlights?
I gave birth to two EPs, and hand-made some videos for my tracks which involved robot conventions and interrogating synthesisers. I played my first headline show in Stealth, and then later in the year I went to New York to play CMJ, and to Madrid for two weeks as a participant of the Red Bull Music Academy.
What did you get up to in New York? Did it live up to expectations?
My expectations of being in New York were being in a high speed car chase in a yellow cab, which didn’t happen. But I did play two shows at a venue called Webster Hall, which used to be owned by Al Capone and has had everyone from Frank Sinatra to Blondie playing there, which was dead cool. I also laughed my head off on the subway going to Coney Island while reading my copy of LeftLion which I’d taken with me.
Tell us about meeting Bootsy Collins and Nile Rodgers. How did that come about?
That was at the Red Bull Music Academy. Every day we had lectures from our musical heroes and we were unbelievably spoilt: Nile Rodgers, Bootsy Collins, Trevor Horn, RZA, Tony Visconti, Mannie Fresh and Peaches, to name a few. I learnt so much and they were all really lovely people who blew my mind.
In his recently published autobiography, Nile Rodgers explains that all his songs have “Deep Hidden Meanings”. Give us an example of a “Deep Hidden Meaning” in one of your songs.
Well, deep hidden meanings should remain a mystery. But go on, then; Only Only is about how to programme your relationship to last the test of time. Forget Yourself is about trying to overcome yourself in whatever negative way it may emerge.
When you’re working on a new song, what element emerges first: the words, the melody or the groove?
It’s normally either the melody or the groove; the lyrics are the last thing that falls into place for me. After the music is done, then I’m ready to go shopping for words. Or, more often, shoplifting for words.
What songs are on the next EP? Will there be remixes?
There’s Automatic, which is a summer jam with a Tom Tom Club vibe, and Turn It Out, which is dark Italo disco but with lyrics like Craig David. There will be remixes, but I’m not yet sure who from. I might remix it myself, like on my first EP. I like remixing. I recently remixed my living room and moved all the furniture around.
You used to be a sound engineer in Junktion 7. What are your memories of working there?
Constantly trying to wade through a sea of goths and metallers to try and get to the stage, or doing the sound for some of the awesome bands that played there, like Swound or The Smears, or just hanging out with the lovely people that worked there. A lot of the music at Junktion 7 wasn’t really my cup of tea: during one sound check I told one of the metal bands I liked jazz, and in the middle of their set they just stopped and played a jazz guitar solo just for me. The audience were very confused – as was I – but it was lovely. I do like a lot of guitar music, though; I have a varied musical diet.
We also know you like to do a bit of DJing. What are the records that never leave your box?
I’m very fond of playing Stacey Q’s Two of Hearts at the moment, and also Jellybean Benitez’sWho Found Who.
Do you ever play your own records when you’re DJing? Or does that feel a bit weird?
Yeah, I often slip one of my tunes in, then mime along and forget the words. It feels weird. I might blush.
Nottingham’s music scene is in a remarkably healthy state these days. How has that happened?
If we plot on a graph the amount of people making ace music on the X-axis, and then all the ace promoters, podcasts, DJs and press on the Y-axis, we can see Nottingham music accelerating at an alarming rate. Lots of talent and a supportive loving musical community I think is the key.
Who’s making the most exciting music in Nottingham right now?
Wow, there’s so many, so let’s break it down into boys versus girls. On the boys’ team, we have Swimming, Petebox, Joe Buhdha, Kirk Spencer, Neon Jung, 8mm Orchestra, Ben Fawce, Dog Is Dead, Rob Green, Juga-naut, Jake Bugg and We Show Up On Radar. On the girls’ team there’s Nina Smith, Harleighblu, Natalie Duncan, Marita, Fists and Royal Gala. Okay, so the last two aren’t all girls, but I still want them on our team…
We know you love the eighties, but what music from the nineties is closest to your heart?
Oh wow, so much, ‘cos I grew up in the nineties. So everything from The Prodigy, Deee-Lite, Saint Etienne, Baby D, Black Box, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Photek, Paradox, Goldie, Wu-Tang, The Pharcyde, Beastie Boys, Carl Craig, Chemical Brothers, Ninja Tune, Mo-Wax, Acid Jazz, Talking Loud, lots of house, techno and jungle.
Some numpty at the NME said they wanted you to be more like Katy Perry, but I suspect you might have more fitting role models, musical or otherwise. Who might they be?
Katy Perry is obviously my main musical influence, but other than her I’d probably pick Prince, Sly Stone, Bowie, David Byrne, Nile Rodgers, Kool Keith and Madonna.
You’re renowned for being a bit of a herbal tea girl. When was the last time you had an alcoholic drink, and what made you stop?
The last time I had an alcoholic drink was when I was thirteen. I don’t drink because I follow a religion called the Baha’i Faith which teaches the unity and oneness of mankind. But yeah, booze and drugs are out as the Baha’i writings encourage staying in a conscious state of mind.
But we all have our vices. What’s yours?
What’s the plan for 2012? And will there be more gigging than there was in 2011? We’d like some more gigging, please.
2012 is looking pretty rammed already. Automatic is coming out in March, with the album to follow later in the year. I’ve also got some big collaborations coming out very soon, which I’m mega-excited about. Yeah, there will definitely be more gigging in 2012. In March I’m playing the Bodega, plus some other shows around the country, then some festivals in the summer to be announced.
Let’s talk fashion. What are Ronika’s super-hot styling tips for Spring 2012? And what looks should we avoid?
My style tips for spring are vintage sportswear and lots of hairspray. Full body armour should be avoided in spring/summer – it’s too warm.
Style is nothing without substance, of course, so let’s end this interview with some words of profundity and wisdom. What’s the best piece of advice that you can give to your fellow travellers on life’s great highway?
If I may quote the great twentieth century thinker J. Springer; “Take care of yourselves (deliberate pause) aaand each other.”
Ronika will be playing Nottingham Bodega on Friday 23 March.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
You’ve just got back from the States. Has your body clock re-adjusted to UK time?
Yes – although having said that, I was up until four o’clock in the morning. I went for a little stroll at one o’clock in the morning, and found a local restaurant with the lights on. The restaurant owner and the chef were having a glass of red wine, so I joined them for a couple, and picked up on the local gossip.
You’re now preparing for the new tour. Will there be much in the way of new material?
There aren’t any new original songs, because they’re still sketches, but I’ve got an interesting new choice of covers.
You put a shout-out on Facebook for suggested covers. Have your followers given you any useful leads?
They got me looking behind my shoulder, thinking: are this lot in my house? A lot of their suggestions are songs that I love a lot. I could really talk all night with these people.
You use Facebook differently from a lot of people in your position, in that you’ll express what you’re genuinely feeling, rather than just using it as a PR tool. You sometimes post to it when you’re feeling completely sick to the back teeth of everything. Then your fans will rally round.
Yeah, like “I can’t find my bra – where is it?” Or “Oh my God, look at all this laundry!” I really enjoy it, because it’s absolute direct contact. They can talk to me, and I’ll respond. I would say that my Facebook meltdowns are now legendary. (Bursts out laughing) The record company are like: what’s she doing? They all follow me on Facebook as well.
That wasn’t anything to do with the fact that you were ill for a bit, was it?
I was ill. It was a big year, and everything went off really quickly, like a runaway train which took me with it. It was going at a hundred miles an hour. And it was great, but the thing about these big long schedules is this: it doesn’t take account of the fact that you’re human.
So if I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel well, and I’ve got to sing for Her Majesty The Queen, I can’t cancel. Or if my boyfriend’s dumped me and I’ve got to go onto Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, then I’ve got to do it. It doesn’t take into account your emotional state – or your tearful state, in fact – you have to fulfil your commitments, in any mood, and be as professional as possible.
What happened to me is that it just built up, and built up, and built up. I was struggling at adjusting to being in the media: being examined, being judged. As human beings, that what we’re all afraid of, aren’t we? Everyone pointing and staring.
Don’t you adopt the classic tactic of just not reading stuff about yourself?
No, I read everything. But I do stick up for myself, when people have been mean on blogs. I’ll go on and say “Oi! That’s really mean! What, all you grown men are going to start picking on little girls?” Ultimately, I’m a human being with an internet connection. I can see what they are saying, and I can go on there and say: what the fuck do you think you are doing?
I know some people will say that’s really stupid. I think I’m the opposite of what people say I should be. They’ll say: don’t get involved, don’t read anything. But if there are ten grown men tearing me to shreds, I’m going to go in there and make them feel bad about it. But that’s very rare. Most people are very nice.
Does touring change your relationship with your songs? If you’re having to perform them over and over again, you must have to enter into some sort of long-term committed relationship with them.
I’ve been in that relationship with them for a long time. As a singer, you commit to every single song, and you have to live the song when you’re performing it, like you were when you first wrote it.
As time passes and as you change, sometimes the emotional connection to the sentiment can get faint. But that’s when you bring in your meditative processes. You just have to go into that space, and almost method-act your own self. Recapture those emotions, find that part of yourself, and deliver it with all the passion that you can find.
When we spoke last year, before the album was released, you said there were angels in all of your songs. So I’ve been looking at your lyrics, and I’ve been searching for the angels.
The angels are on Come To Me High, for example. I was sitting in my room and thinking: I’m so depressed; what would happen if a chorus of angels were to burst into my room, and talk to me? When you’re depressed, it’s very hard to get out of that space. You have to shift that space by wanting to get out of it – by wanting that shift of consciousness.
And in Thankful, there’s a whole “forest of angels”.
Interestingly, I used to have no idea what it was. Then I realised that my mother was buried in a woodland burial, where you don’t have graves. You have all these different trees, with these little plaques, with people’s names on. And it is literally a forest of angels. I found it the most startling example of channelling. A lot of the most inspired lyrics and melodies were coming from beyond me, and I’m as puzzled as anyone until afterwards.
Before I go on stage, I imagine a circle of angels. I say a prayer, and I call on them. I summon them.
If the person you are now could send a message to the person who spoke to me last year, just before it all kicked off, what message would she convey?
Apart from a lot of practical things, I would say: this will pass. There was a feeling of anxiety around performing live. I got very frightened of big crowds, and I got stage fright. I’ve got much better since then. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’ve overcome that – with the help of my band, and with doctors, and with friends. I’m starting to really enjoy it now.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
I looked up your dialling code, so I know I’m calling you at home in Southend. What sort of place have you got? Is it a rock star mansion?
In my more imaginative moments, yes. It’s in a fairly normal street, but my house is the one with battlements. I defy the world from here. Actually, they’re a bit of a con. My house has got a flat roof, where I’ve got my telescope and my observatory. It looks like a little fortress. But if you go up on the roof, you’ll find that actually the battlements are only six inches high.
They’re not really going to repel the continental invaders, then?
Not really. I couldn’t practically pour boiling oil down on them. But I could put up a bit of a show.
Are there any rock star trappings inside? Are you the sort of person that puts framed gold discs on the walls?
Well, one thing that I’ve always thought was really horrible and vulgar – he says, like the fox with the sour grapes – was those bloody gold discs. Would I put them on my wall? No. I gave them away. Some people really dig ‘em, but in fact they’re rubbish – he said, with all the venom of somebody who hasn’t sold a record for about five hundred years. (Laughs)
Does living alone suit you well?
Actually, it does. Sometimes I sit here, and I go “Oh man, I’m so lonely in my fortress here!” But on the other hand, I can do whatever I like. If I want to shoot all the light bulbs out with my air pistol, I can do it. And nobody’s going to tell me off.
Yeah, but no one’s going to sweep the mess up for you, either.
Yes, and the house does turn into a slum, on a regular basis. I’ve kind of reverted to studenthood. But you can’t do anything about it. You think: hang on, this was all tidy a little while ago. And now it’s covered in fast food containers, old newspapers, and things that are probably best not investigated.
Generally, I stay indoors. People are always telling me off, because it’s gloomy here, in my castle. You can’t even draw the curtains. They’re actually nailed across the window. So I’m in this gloom; I kind of creep about. Upstairs, where my bed is, I’ve got this huge television. I connect it up to my laptop, with my astronomy program, and it becomes the window of my spaceship.
There was a supernova the other week; did you catch sight of it?
I’m afraid not. I caught sight of nothing, because it’s been so cloudy. Although actually, I thought I was being clever, because I recently acquired a solar telescope. So I can look at the sun.
I thought that was the one thing you should never do…
Oh yes. We must tell the public, and have a little announcement in a special box: never, never, never look at the sun through a telescope. This thing I have is a special one. If you look through it, you can’t see anything; it’s black. But when you point it at the sun, you can see the sun. It’s pretty good, except the sun is obscured by clouds, just as well as the stars. So I haven’t been doing a lot of astronomy this week.
Have you ever moved away from Essex, or have you been a lifelong resident?
I was born on Canvey Island, I grew up on Canvey Island, then I went to university at Newcastle for three years. Then after some wandering about, we came back to Canvey Island: me and the missus. Then the next thing I know, I made some money from doing rock and roll. So she buys a house up in Southend, within spitting distance of Canvey Island – which is probably the best distance. So I’ve stayed in Essex, but I do like Essex. It’s rather flat.
Flat lands scare me. I want to have a few hills around.
Well, there you go; you’re from up the bumpy bit. I get among hills, and I feel a bit overpowered. I like to see a big sky, a big horizon. Preferably with oil refineries. Then I feel comfortable.
Julian Temple’s documentary film (Oil City Confidential) about your former band Dr Feelgood was very well received. How closely were you involved with the making of it?
When I was told that Julian Temple wanted to make this film, my first reaction was surprise. Dr Feelgood largely existed before the days of video cameras, and there wasn’t a lot of footage of us. And Lee Brilleaux is dead. So how can you do it?
Man, what a guy! The first thing he wants is to film at the oil depot on Canvey Island, in the night time. He was going to project movies of Dr Feelgood onto the side of these big oil tanks, and interview us. What an experience! If you grow up on Canvey Island, you’re always aware of the oil works, but you never go there. So to go in there was a kick. To go in there in the night time, and then to stand there with these great big films being projected, of me and Lee Brilleaux from 35 years ago, was absolutely surreal. I could have stood there all night.
So I thought, well, this guy’s good. Julian gets you to say all sorts of things. I don’t know how he does it. He sort of insinuates himself into the conversation, and I find myself revealing all sorts.
Anyway, the film took some time to make, but I was never involved in the making of it, and I didn’t see any of it, even when it was completed. They gave me a DVD, which I didn’t watch.
So you don’t like looking at footage of yourself?
No. Or reading, or listening to records. The thing is: if you’ve made a record, or done a show, it’s done. There’s nothing you can do about it. So I just like to leave it there, for the universe to either ignore or applaud. I don’t wanna know.
Anyway, when the film was premiered – as we say in the business – in the National Film Theatre in London, of course I had to go and watch it then. You drink champagne, and you take your place. So I’m watching it through my fingers. I was sitting next to my son, and there’s all this stuff from before he was born. And it was the first time I’d ever actually seen Dr Feelgood. And I’m looking, and I’m thinking: pretty good! And I’m digging my boy in the ribs. I’m going: go on, get a load of that. I think it’s an excellent film. I’m very, very chuffed with what he’s done.
Has the film led to renewed interest in your work?
Certainly it was one of Julian Temple’s motivations. He felt that Dr Feelgood had been rather airbrushed out of history, and he wanted to reassert them. So, for instance, I’m finding a lot of younger people are coming to see the gigs now. And I go down Tesco’s, and people are going “Look, there’s Wilko Johnson! Can I take a picture of you with my telephone?” There was one young lad, a shelf stacker. He says “Oh wow, man!”, and he’s shouting out across the store, “Get me a felt tip! I want to get an autograph!” So I creep into Tesco’s now.
I always thought that Dr Feelgood’s legacy had been a bit overlooked, especially in terms of how it helped to inspire the British punk movement. Everyone will talk about Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls, but people never used to talk about the Feelgoods. Did the British punk forefathers acknowledge your influence?
Well, they did. I’d started to hear about these bands, and then it wasn’t long after that that Dr Feelgood exploded – or imploded, or whatever it did – and I was out of the band. And I was thinking, oh man, I wonder what all these new bands think about me? Do they relegate me to the dinosaurs that they are attacking?
But then I started to meet people. I shared a flat with Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers. Then I was walking in Oxford Street just after the bust-up had become public, in the rain, with my little boy on my shoulders. Suddenly, Joe Strummer comes running up. He goes to me, “You don’t know who I am.” I says, “Yes, I know who you are; I’ve seen you in the papers, man.” He says, “Well, what’s going to happen, what are you doing?” I says, “I don’t know.”
And so I got to meet him, and also the Pistols, and all these people, and I found out that actually, they all rather dug Dr Feelgood. The year before they’d all got going was the year that we were playing in London a lot, and I think most of them had seen us. I think what the punks took from Dr Feelgood was the energy.
In fact, with this flat I had, I used to have half of them sleeping on my floor. I’d get up in the morning, and I’d be tripping over Billy Idol. So I think it’s fair to say that we were quite a big influence on that whole thing.
You were back in touch with The Stranglers earlier this year, as you supported them on tour. How did that go?
It was great, because I’m old friends with Jean-Jacques. Last year, Oil City Confidential won the Mojo award, for being a brilliant film. I went with Julian to receive this accolade, and Jean-Jacques was presenting it. We hadn’t seen each other for about twenty years, so everyone was slobbering over each other. Shortly after that, he invited us to support them, and we were saying, why haven’t we done this before?
The shows went great; they were all sold out, and I think we put on a very enjoyable show. The Stranglers! DUR DUR DUR… (sings the riff from Peaches)
People normally describe your music as rhythm and blues, but today’s R&B stands for something very different. Do the Beyonces of this world have any right to call themselves R&B?
Actually yes, they do. R&B was really an American term for black music. It bounced over to England, with the Rolling Stones and all that, and that’s what we’re doing: it’s rhythm and blues. I started realising a long time ago that this term was a bit nebulous. What do I call my music? I call it beat music. I’m a beatster.
How musically open-minded are you? Is blues your first and foremost love, or do your listening habits range far and wide?
I’m no different from most old folks. I know nothing about anything that’s happened in the last twenty-five years. And being a rhythm and blues person, when I was a teenager: what a snob! It’s got to come from Chicago, or it’s no good. It’s like: how many rhythm and blues fans does it take to change a light bulb? It’s ten: one to change the light bulb, and nine to say it ain’t as good as the original. That would sum me up, in a way. I’m probably still a bit of a snob.
I think we’re all welded to the music of the time we were growing up.
Yes, and you can’t do anything about it. Every now and then, I might see or hear somebody that’s new to me, and it brings you up with a start. But generally speaking, I think you stick in your comfort zone, don’t you? Three chords and twelve bars does it for me.
What is it about the blues that has led to this lifetime love affair with the genre?
I don’t know. Like most Sixties people, I first started hearing it because of the Rolling Stones. When the Stones came out, it was just so exciting. At school, we all started growing our hair long. And then you think: what is this music that they’re playing? Then you start checking it out, and you start to hear the music from Chicago: Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, right through to Bo Diddley. It was just so powerful, and it made the kind of pop music that I’d heard before seem a bit trivial. I remember thinking: wow, this is the thing for me. And that was it. It knocked me out then, and it still does now. I’ll put on some Howling Wolf, and it will give me a tingle.
Like most old folks, I got into my own kind of bubble back then, and I still exist in it. For pure kicks, I’m going to play a record from a long time ago. It’s wrong of me, probably, but I don’t go searching out the latest sensation. But I’m sure they’re very splendid. Good luck to them!
You went through a bit of a hippy phase in your younger days. You did the Katmandu trail, for instance. Do you retain any residual hippy values?
I can still do a full Lotus, actually. I’m sitting on the carpet. Ooh… aah… yes, that’s it! Silly old fool.
That was a good scene. Oh man, I’ve got some beautiful memories of Afghanistan: the country, and the people there. And it’s just been so tragic, to see the way that country has been brutalised. Those people are really friendly, and they dig you, and I think it’s going to be a long time before an Englishman can go to Afghanistan and get a friendly reception. It’s a tragedy.
I guess you’re getting to that stage when people start calling you “one of the great survivors”. What would the Wilko Johnson of his twenties have made of the Wilko Johnson in his sixties? Would he be surprised at how things had turned out?
Absolutely. I’m playing in this local band for a couple of years, and then it starts happening. And of course you think: wow, this is great. I was twenty-five or something, and I’m thinking: yeah, this will be good for four or five years. I’ll have a good time, make a lot of money. If somebody had said to you: actually, you’re going to be doing it when you’re sixty-four, you would have laughed in their face.
But then again, if somebody said: one day, Bob Dylan’s going to be seventy… that still doesn’t sound right to me.
See also: my Dr Feelgood feature for The Guardian, January 2010.
Your current main place of residence is in Sweden, is that right?
Not really; I just stay in Gothenburg for a while, and I stay in Berlin, and I stay in London. So it’s either of those three places. I don’t have a place of my own. I just stay with friends.
What’s the Swedish connection? How did you fetch up in Gothenburg?
I made a bunch of friends when I went up there, and I started learning the language. I went up there to start working on a different project with Andreas Kleerup, and now I’ve started to develop some roots there. It’s just been in the last year and a half. I’ve met a bunch of amazing people, and they’ve taken me under their wing a little bit, because they can see that I’m excited about learning Swedish. Most of them are musicians, so we have that connection as well.
The Swedish music that I’m most familiar with is a certain kind of quite witty electronic pop music. Is that indicative of something that you’ve got up your sleeve?
Yeah, that’s part of what I really love. There are a lot of great bands in Gothenburg: Little Dragon come from there, and Jose Gonzalez lives there. There’s a band called Pacific!, and there are just endless amounts of good music. And of course I was always a big Abba fan when I was growing up.
There’s no imperative for you to learn Swedish, as many of them seem to speak better English than we do. So is that just a part of your general inclination towards modern languages?
For me, it’s about having a deeper connection. You can only get so far if you choose only to speak English. If you really want to get to know them, you have to learn the language. There’s a lot of stuff that they can’t explain to you, unless you speak their language.
I would imagine that your efforts would be greatly appreciated, because it must be quite unusual that anyone would care to do that.
From what I can tell, what happens a lot is that men come from all over the world and meet the love of their life there. Then they move there, because their wife or girlfriend is Swedish. So you have all these Brits and Americans and Australians, and people from all over the place, who come there because of some beautiful Swedish girl. I’ve met a lot of those guys, and they’ve all gone through the process of learning Swedish. It’s necessary, to get to know who they really are. I feel like if you don’t learn Swedish, then you’re always standing on the outside a little bit. And I want to get in there. All the way in there!
My Swedish vocabulary runs to two words. I know that love is “älskar”, and I know that the word for gay is “bog”.
That’s funny; I haven’t even come across that word yet.
I remember there was a shop in Stockholm where you could buy a T-shirt with BOG on the front, which if you were in Sweden meant that you were declaring the fact that you were gay. But if you wore it in the UK, it would be declaring the fact that you were a toilet.
That’s hilarious. I think maybe I’ve been told that fact before, but I didn’t do any further research. It’s funny; sexuality hasn’t really been a part of my experience over there yet.
Well, it’s a very integrated society anyway, isn’t it?
Yeah, and I haven’t really talked about that area of my life.
How many different tongues have you now acquired?
Well, I continue to deepen my knowledge of German, Russian and Spanish, and I work on my French when I’m in France. I have good friends there, who know what level I’m at. French is one of the languages that I’m least proficient in. I know a lot of French, but it’s a matter of living there and speaking it on a daily basis, to get to a level where I would be able to communicate, and do interviews, and stuff like that.
I’ve been working on Dutch and Swedish. I’m really, really into Dutch. In fact, it’s sort of my favourite right now. But I’ve worked on my Swedish a lot more, because I’ve been spending a lot more time there. I’ve made huge progress with my Swedish, and I need to keep that going. I see Dutch and Swedish as hobbies that I want to spend the rest of my life just doing for fun, and getting as far as I can.
I’ve learnt German and French, and I used to have a bit of Russian which has gone now, but I found that a switch would flick in the brain: from “native language” to “foreign language”, whichever that might be at the time. So if I was in Germany and I suddenly had to speak French, I’d almost find myself trying to translate from German, which was impossible.
Well, I lived in Germany for six years, and that became a second native tongue for me. You had to pass a proficiency exam to study in a German university, and I studied Russian for six years in German – so that really rounded my German into perfection. It wasn’t until I went to Ukraine and Russia that my Russian really took off. And when I went back to Germany, after having those experiences, then I was really flying with the Russian as well.
As far as going from foreign language to foreign language, the only problem I have is between Spanish and Russian. They seem to be the two that I mix up. It’s not that they clash; it’s the opposite. They flow together, and they seem to fit together in a weird way. It’s the way they sound: the rolled “R”, and stuff like that.
It’s very strange, because I never mix up German and Russian, and I don’t mix up French and Russian, or German and French. But I buy my books in all sorts of different directions. I have a Swedish grammar written in Russian, and I have a Russian-Dutch dictionary, and I have Russian-French, and I have Swedish-German. It’s just a great way to keep all of your other languages fresh, while you’re learning the new one. If you read about Swedish grammar in Russian, you learn more about Russian.
Each language has a different way of looking at grammar, because of the way their specific grammar functions. So you learn all sorts of different ways of approaching it, and it gives you a lot more tools. It’s really fascinating. It’s really just a blast for me, and I absolutely adore it.
There was a period after The Czars broke up, when you were making a living as a Russian interpreter. Was that a period where all musical activity ceased?
Yeah, I just didn’t have time for it, and I wasn’t seeking out musicians in New York. I worked at a really high class New York restaurant called Gramercy Tavern, and that took up about 90% of my energy, because that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I guess you have to maintain “world’s best” standard at all times?
Yes, and I’m really grateful to them in a lot of ways, because you really do receive an education. In a lot of countries, you go to school to become a professional waiter. You learn about food, and you learn about wine. You can spend the rest of your life learning about those subjects, especially wine. People who are actual sommeliers are few and far between.
So it was that level of knowledge about food and wine, and especially cheese. Cheese is an important thing in a lot of places these days. We had a cheese board with twenty different cheeses, and that would change quite often. So we were constantly taking classes on how cheese is made, and where it comes from. You would study cheeses from France, and then you would study cheeses from Germany, and cheeses from the States. And we had classes on Madeira, Calvados, Armagnac, Cognac, Champagne…
Normally, if a musician says “I was waiting tables”, it’s indicative of economic hardship – of doing a service level job in order to get by – but for you it was quite the opposite, as this was a proper professional environment.
It was – but I did do ten years of that other waiting. The whole time I was in my band The Czars, I was working in this Italian restaurant. I worked in the same place for ten years, when I wasn’t out touring. Then when I moved to New York, I stumbled upon an advert on Craigslist, for this place called Gramercy Tavern. And I thought, well, I’ll just try that out. And my friends were like, do you have any idea what that is? And I said, no. And they said, that’s one of the top places in town.
So I went in there, and basically they’re looking for people that they want to be a part of their organisation. They’re not too terribly concerned with how much knowledge you have in those areas. They want to know if you are the type of person that they want to impart that knowledge to.
So there are more general personal qualities, like whether you’re the sort of person who can establish a rapport with the diners, in that way that you get in those high class joints.
Exactly, yes. And they wanted people who were self-aware. That’s what their big deal was. They wanted people who could communicate well. It’s very difficult to get fired from a place like that, because they’re not easily intimidated by any sort of fuck-up that you can come up with. They want to have people there for as long as possible.
So you’re not living with the threat of instant dismissal for a single fuck-up? Because on reality cooking shows, you see scenes in kitchens where you get the feeling that people live under that kind of pressure.
Yeah, but it took me months to realise that I wasn’t on the line. The first night I was on the floor, I was in the main dining room. It’s sort of hushed in there, but it’s extremely high volume. You’re doing maybe eight tables of people and you have up to seven courses per table, and that’s all going at an extremely fast pace. It’s not as slow as you would think it is. And then I spilled an entire silver pot of coffee, on a white cloth in the middle of the dining room. It went all down the front of the cloth, and there was just this collective gasp.
But the test of a great restaurant isn’t so much the mistake, as how you recover from the mistake.
Exactly, and that’s an art form in itself. (Laughs)
Maybe I’m romanticising it, but that sounds like a blissful existence. Was it a wrench to leave?
Well, like I said, that job was the most difficult thing I ever did. At the end of every night, you were completely exhausted, and your brain was mush. There was a sense of pride in what you were doing, but it was a really high pressure environment, and a lot was expected of you. But I met people there who I’ll probably be in touch with for the rest of my life.
I was glad to get out of there, because I found there was too much pressure. The fact that I don’t drink any more made it difficult for me to achieve the level of knowledge that one needs to achieve in the world of spirits and wines.
Once I’d finished the schooling that I was doing for Russian, I went to Texas to start my album, then I came back to New York and I decided to work only at the hospital, doing Russian medical interpreting. But I just didn’t have any energy for music at that time.
Was there a kind of flashpoint, where you knew you had to switch your priorities?
It was a decision that took me a long time, because the Russian thing was really fascinating. It had the potential to be extremely fulfilling, and I was starting to really get into it. But I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity that Midlake were offering me. They were offering me an entire community to feel comfortable in. It wasn’t that they wanted to mould me; they wanted simply to offer themselves as tools, for me to achieve my vision.
I suppose you’re swapping a very structured, even regimented existence – and also quite a secure existence – for stepping back out into the unknown, and being much more the master of your own destiny. That must have been a strange and radical switch to make.
Well, it was. I was building something in New York, and I had started to put roots down, and I had gotten past the most difficult part. The first three years are the most difficult part in New York. It’s extremely hard to get to know people there at the beginning. And to get into a restaurant like the one I got into, and to get into that world: you could pretty much go to any other city and say “I worked at this restaurant”, and immediately have a job in that industry, because of the reputation that place has. And then the language thing: I had medical insurance for the first time in years, and it was a huge decision to leave all that security and leave my apartment, and depend on other people again, and live with other people, and not have my own space.
So it was a communal existence when you were working with Midlake?
Yeah, I lived with a couple of them. I went back and forth a little bit. That’s not easy. Living with other people is really difficult, the older you get – especially if you want to be invited back. You have to be cognisant of lots of different things: about the way things are done, and about how to respect other people’s space.
And you were living with people who were representing your songwriting vision. The songs you wrote for Queen Of Denmark dig pretty deeply into your own personal emotional experiences, so you’re laying yourself bare in front of these people, who are supporting you in that process. That must be a very strange situation to be in.
The basis for that was that they really loved who I was as a person. They loved the whole package. They didn’t just respect me as a musician; they were fascinated by me as a person. So I felt very safe in revealing myself to them, because I didn’t feel judged in any way. I didn’t feel like anybody was looking at me with a critical eye. They thought what I had to say was great, and they felt like I had a voice that people hadn’t heard before, and that people should hear. They all come from very different backgrounds to me in some ways, and very similar backgrounds in other ways. They really did an amazing thing for me. It can’t be stressed enough.
Are any members of Midlake accompanying you on this tour that’s coming up?
No, but we are playing a big show together at the Royal Festival Hall [on Wednesday September 7]. That will be like wrapping up the Queen Of Denmark chapter, and moving on to the next chapter. We’re going to be doing the entire album, except for one song: Leopard And Lamb. I’ve never done that one. I want to do it, but I’m not sure how to do it yet. So that’s going to be a really special night.
As for the provincial UK dates, are you going to be completely solo for those?
No, that will be me and one other guy. We switch off on synth and piano, and he brings backing vocals with me. I think it’s a very full experience. It’s the best way to see the songs on the album done.
Is there a psychological price to pay for having to drag these songs around with you on tour, long after you wrote them, and long after you’ve had the experiences which created them? It’s almost like dragging round emotional baggage. Does this trap you in those experiences, without being able to move on?
I think the jury’s still out on that. I find it really fulfilling, but I’ve definitely had that thought a million times. In other artists’ lives, you see these drastic changes, which people say they don’t understand. And that is the result of what you’re talking about. Yes, there is a high price to pay for dragging those things around.
As for the relationship that caused me to write many of those songs, it probably was much more difficult for me to let go of that person, because I was reliving a lot of the feelings that I had for that person on stage every night.
I think about the next record, and what I want to talk about, and what I don’t want to talk about. I’ve thought about being on stage with Allen Toussaint the other night at Bush Hall; he accompanied me on Chicken Bones, and it was an absolutely amazing, transcendent experience. There were three of us on stage: James Dean Bradfield from Manic Street Preachers, Allen Toussaint and myself. We each played six songs, but we went in a circle, so it lasted for about two hours.
And to have Allen Toussaint across from me, playing things like Let’s Make A Better World, Yes We Can Can and Southern Nights, which is a song I grew up listening to… I’m sure there’s going to be a time when it’s going to be too difficult and too heavy for me to constantly sing about the difficult stuff in the world. At some point, in order to move on from certain things, you have to move to different subjects. But I feel very comfortable in that world. I think that’s probably a big part of my problem in my personal life, because I feel comfortable in that warm blanket of awkwardness and pain.
There’s an interesting paradox. You’re expressing these emotions lyrically, but the musical style on Queen Of Denmark is actually very pleasant on the ears, with those references to Seventies soft-rock. So if you’re just listening to it as music, without focussing on the lyrics, it’s quite reassuring and uplifting – like a warm blanket.
That’s the effect that the music had on me, when I was growing up in the Seventies. I love that type of music, and I will always love the David Lynch aesthetic. But you also have to be really careful in what you choose to drag around with yourself. It can really drag you down, if you don’t have perspective. The way that you can continue to do what you want to do is to have perspective.
As an artist, the difficult thing is getting perspective, because you inhabit these places very deeply. These things that you talk about, and these things that you express on stage: you must inhabit them, in order to bring them across in an honest way.
So maybe you need a couple of show closers, which are all about redemption and resolution, with a kind of beatific view on the world…?
What you’re talking about is interesting, because the feeling that a lot of people get when they listen to Queen Of Denmark is that redemption is built into the songs. You don’t come out of that record thinking “I want to commit suicide”. It’s more of an uplifting experience than a negative one – because of the way the music is, the way it’s structured, the humour of the record. Otherwise it would be too much.
On the next record, I’m going to be dealing with some really heavy subject matter as well, and once again it’s about striking that balance. It’s about finding the humour and bringing everyday life into it. That’s another thing that I like about Queen Of Denmark: in order to give an honest picture of the human experience, when you deal with these heavy subjects, you have to bring in everyday life. Because that’s how we actually experience it.
So you have details like the old sweet shop, and the chicken bones…
Yes, and Sigourney Weaver too. You’re drawing from your personal loves. So you’ve just finished watching Alien for the twelfth time, and you absolutely love that movie. And you’re thinking about these other things, and it’s like: Jeez, I feel just like that fucking lady from Alien, you know? It’s that scene where she has to shoot all these aliens, and you can see her rolling her eyes: “Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t believe how ridiculous this is!” And yeah, it’s stuff that everybody can relate to.
Queen Of Denmark has had a lot of critical success. Has that had a positive impact upon your creative process, or does it create new pressures?
Definitely both. Sitting there with Allen Toussaint the other night was a big deal for me, because he was very complimentary about my song structure and my melodies. When we went back on stage, he said, “We should go out there and do more of his songs; they’re so beautiful.” That can’t do anything but give you confidence. And what Mojo has done has thrust me into another world, where I definitely feel like I can call myself a musician and a songwriter. That was something that I didn’t have before.
At the same time, when Queen Of Denmark came out, nobody expected anything from me. So it was much easier for me to do that record. Now, of course, there are expectations and people are very, very attached to that record.
But I’ve started introducing new music into the set. You’re going to hear a new song, and it’s another one that I feel really proud of. It’s dark subject matter, but it tells the story of how difficult it is to communicate with another human in a loving relationship at times. And the extreme emotion, and the vicissitudes – the ups and downs – of fear, joy, hatred and being hurt, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to somebody else, and taking the risk – because that’s what you do as an artist too. You do it every night when you get up on stage.
That’s why I think the touring process is so difficult. In order for you to connect with people, you have to stay in this space where you are vulnerable. You have to constantly go back and forth while you’re on the road. You’re putting up walls and you’re putting on your shield of armour, to protect yourself from all the bullshit; just the logistics of what it takes to tour. And then there’s being in your creative space and actually reaching out to people, listening to what they have to say, actually connecting with them, and forging those relationships on stage. I mean, it is mentally fucking exhausting.
When you finish a show, what sort of emotional state are you in? Do you just want to go away and find some quiet time?
Sometimes I just want to break down and cry, and sob for an hour. And most of the time, I feel elated; I feel euphoric. A lot of times, I go out and talk to people afterwards, and that takes a good hour and a half to two hours. If you go out there and make yourself available, then you have to do it. And “doing it” means listening to what people have to say to you.
And that might be all to do with their own reactions to the songs you’ve sung, and how they relate to their own lives. So they might be sharing quite detailed personal stuff with you – and that’s on top of having done a show where you’ve expressed your own stuff.
Exactly. And it’s really, really heavy duty. Then also you get a lot of people who are drunk, and who want to say, “Oh, that new song was really shit”. Or, “I thought those first three songs ended way too harshly.” And you just want to say, “Who gives a fuck what you think?” It would never occur to me to walk up to somebody and tell them those things, and to express my dislike for somebody’s art to their face.
That’s the culture we’re in. Social media encourages that. You get the chance to be rude to people in public life.
Yeah, you have to take the good with the bad. But for me personally, it’s something that I don’t understand. I usually walk up to an artist when I want to tell them how much I appreciate them, and that is what the majority of people do.
But those people are not usually coming up to you and telling you that they don’t like a song in order to hurt you. They’re doing it for different reasons. They’re usually doing it because they want to enter into a dialogue with you. They really respect you, and they feel like it’s OK, since they love you so much already. So you’re called upon to have a lot of understanding, and to try and see it from a different perspective – because at first glance it can be, “Well, what the fuck are you telling me this for?”
When people say “I’m really looking forward to your next album, but that new song really sucks”, I’m like: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be looking forward to the new album then, because that’s going to be on it!” (Laughs)
When I saw the track listing for your new album (Soul UK), I thought “we have to talk”. You have covered a lot of my all-time favourite British soul tracks, so I must commend you for your impeccable taste.
Thank you! Honestly, this record is an absolute labour of love. I’ve always banged on about how British soul doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and people always say that about me: “you don’t get the respect you deserve.” But you have to honour the people who put it in the spotlight in the first place.
Some of the blame lies with British soul fans, who could be quite snobby: if it comes from the US, it must be authentic, and if it comes from the UK, it’s just an imitation.
Completely right. That attitude has infiltrated the minds of a lot of people who are outside of the soul fraternity, and that’s a dreadful shame, because we know that’s not true. That’s why I made this record: to say “come on guys, celebrate your own”, and to reintroduce the songs to a wider audience, who will hopefully not see the difference between the continents.
You must have started with a massive shortlist of possible tracks. How did you go about whittling them down?
It was a massive list; I’ve got Soul UK Volumes 2, 3 and 4 here! I started by thinking: right, which songs can I tell you a tale about? Is there someone who I connected with over the years – someone who I went on to work with, or became mates with? And of course, with these guys being British, I pretty much had a story or a connection with everybody on these songs.
So you’ve met most of the people who recorded these songs in the first place?
I’ve met absolutely all of them. Some very briefly, like George Michael at a Terrence Higgins Trust fundraising event, and some are actual proper mates, like Jaki Graham.
I like what you’ve done with Jamiroquai’s debut single, When You Gonna Learn, because you’ve taken the track in quite a different direction.
I’ve sung with Jamiroquai on stage, but people have forgotten that Jay isn’t only famous for racing cars, and going out with models, and having punch-ups. He’s well known because he’s sold thirty million albums and made some great British soul/funk records. The original track is very much of its time, so I thought: let’s slow it down so that we can get the lyrics, because the lyrics are so pertinent; they were twenty years ahead of their time with that one.
The production on some of the Eighties tracks might sound a bit dated to modern ears, but you’ve produced an album which has its own particular stamp on it, with a production that hangs together all the way through.
It needed to be a cohesive record. With a lot of albums I’ve heard, where people have covered other people’s material, they take the guts out of the song and it becomes some kind of boring, bland old thing. I think: why have you done this? I can’t see the connection. I didn’t want to make a “covers album”. I wanted to make an album which was a concept of something which I feel desperately passionate about.
Just from reading the track listing, I sense you were one of these people who were always going down to the record shops and keeping tabs on everything that was coming out. Were you that kind of diehard soul girl?
My music tastes are really eclectic, but I’m soul at heart. I was a bit like a DJ in a way, with anything that came out: what is it, who is it, who’s released it, who’s the A&R? So I was one of those people who you’d find on a Saturday, when I was doing my degree, down at Cheltenham town hall, digging through the crates and finding these soul gems.
There’s an interesting mix between tracks Soul II Soul’s Fairplay, which was a drop-dead cool club cut at the time, and the poppier end of the spectrum, such as Jaki Graham and Roachford. So you’re reclaiming that side of things as well.
I wanted people to understand the diversity of what we were doing in Britain. I didn’t want it to be one of those intellectual [adopts ponderous, po-faced voice] “Yeah, this is one of these musical albums which chronicles 1974 from March to May.” That’s not the kind of tribalist, elitist thing that I wanted to do. I wanted everybody to come to the party. So Lewis Taylor is on there; you and I might know who he is, but other people would be like, who? Even some soul fans don’t know who he is.
I’m very pleased with your selection from Loose Ends. Everyone knows and loves Hanging On A String, but I was really pleased you went for Don’t Be A Fool.
And ditto Fairplay. The reason I went for Fairplay and Don’t Be A Fool is: what the hell am I going to bring to Hanging On A String? That song is not only iconic; it’s sacrosanct in my world. Even the way it starts, with the little electric toms, and the way it comes in, and Carl Macintosh’s little guitar licks, all of it – that’s what I want to hear, when I hear Hanging On A String. It’s not just the melody; it really is the production. It’s the same with Keep On Moving, and it’s the same with Back To Life. It’s not about taking the song out of the production and updating it, because part of it is the production. I’m not touching those songs. They are the Holy Grail.
One of the earliest tracks on the album is Freeez’s Southern Freeez (from 1981), which is a pretty sophisticated track for a young girl to be into.
I think it’s because I grew up with music in my system. Growing up with gospel, I didn’t grow up with straight up and down pop. That came when I started to nick the radio out of Mum and Dad’s room. I was growing up with sophisticated chord changes, which I completely understood because they were a part and parcel of my DNA anyway. I didn’t appreciate that they were sophisticated until I tried to replicate them on piano. So for me, Southern Freeez was just a song which I appreciate now has loads of changes, chord progressions and movements – but as a kid, it was just something which I totally understood and loved.
You’ve also covered a track by George Michael, who isn’t a name that you would directly associate with the British soul movement. Did you know right from the start that you were going to take One More Try in a Southern soul/gospel direction?
When I first heard One More Try as a kid, my first comment to my sister was “this sounds like church”. It had the chord progressions of a proper, old school, Charles Wesley hymn. Then when I did my version, I said to my sister “do you get what I mean now?”
You’ll be getting married next year. Is that all planned out, and what sort of music have you got lined up?
We’re trying to get married out of the country, maybe in Italy. That’s where we first went away together, so I thought it would be romantic! I’m going to beg my band to do the honours. It’s going to be old school soul with a little bit of funky house, because some of my singers have had funky house records in the charts in their own right. My best mate is DJ-ing, and he knows the kind of stuff I like. I don’t even have to tell him what to play; he just knows.
Do you know what your first dance is going to be?
We know, but we’ve got to keep it a secret. It’s an absolute classic from the Eighties. We’re not doing a slowie. We want to throw some shapes. We want to shake our butts! Once I do the business and get married, we’ll have a chat again, and you’ll be like: oh my God!
Blondie are having a good day. It’s Debbie Harry’s 66th birthday – yes, you read that right – and the band have just got back to the hotel, after a day of recording at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios. “It was really exciting – we had a really good time”, says drummer Clem Burke, who is no stranger to the studios himself.
“I did a record there with Mark Owen from Take That”, he explains, as I try to mask my surprise. “When Take That broke up, Mark did a solo record, and I was part of his band. And last year, all our road crew wanted to get a tour of Abbey Road – so, I rang up and we went over. Especially coming from the States, it’s great to go into that studio. It’s not something that you do every day.”
Although Blondie’s latest album – Panic Of Girls, their third since the band reformed in 1996 – is now available for purchase in the usual formats, it actually made its UK debut on the magazine racks a month earlier.
“Future Publications, who do Classic Rock, came to us with the idea of doing a complete Blondie magazine. It’s something that the fans have been waiting for, for a long time. There are lots of new photos, there’s archival stuff, and you get the record. It’s a different way of getting our music out there. It’s not necessarily new media, but it worked. We’re very happy with it, and we had a good time putting it together. “
In musical terms, the new album – or the new record, as Clem prefers to call it (“by definition, it’s a record of a performance”) – doesn’t deviate too far from the classic, if eclectic, Blondie template. Front-loaded with an opening salvo of gutsy, uptempo power-pop numbers, including the recent single Mother, the album begins to stretch out stylistically from the fourth track, before winding down towards a more sedate conclusion, in what used to be known as “Side Two”.
“There are some really catchy pop songs on there”, says Clem, “and there are also more left-of-centre things. Debbie’s singing in Spanish, she’s singing in French, and this is the first time that we’ve recorded way more material than we needed to. We recorded about thirty songs. Some of them will probably see the light of day later on.”
It has been eight years since the last record, but the band weren’t about to be rushed. “We completed the album more than a year ago, but we had a problem finding a proper way to release it. We wanted to do something special. Then when the fan pack came up, it seemed like a good way to launch it.”
Up until now, with just one exception – the glossy Autoamerican, which was recorded in Los Angeles in 1980 – all Blondie’s albums have been made in central Manhattan. For Panic Of Girls, the band shifted upstate to Woodstock, but the untypically rural location has had no discernible impact on their characteristically urban sound. Perhaps more surprisingly, the departure of keyboardist Jimmy Destri, who had been with the band since their very earliest days, has been seamlessly absorbed – even though this reduces the core of Blondie to just three founder members: Debbie, Clem, 56, and guitarist Chris Stein, 61.
“It’s definitely affected the dynamic”, Clem admits, while carefully sidestepping any discussion of the precise circumstances of Destri’s departure.
“I particularly miss Jimmy’s input with the writing. I don’t really know what happened with Jimmy. I thought he was going to participate in this record, in some way, shape or form, but at the end of the day he didn’t.”
On stage and in the studio, the founding trio are joined by three newer recruits – although bassist Leigh Foxx, who has been with the band since 1996, has become a familiar face to most fans. Guitarist Tommy Kessler joined last year, while Destri’s replacement on keyboards, Matt Katz-Bohen, picks up three co-songwriting credits on the new album.
Blondie have always been fond of adding covers to their original compositions, and Panic Of Girls sports a couple of unlikely additions, both rendered in a light reggae style. At Chris Stein’s suggestion, the band has tackled Sunday Smile, an album cut by Zach Condon’s critically acclaimed indie-folk outfit, Beirut. A couple of tracks earlier, Sophia George’s glorious Girlie Girlie – a UK top ten hit from 1985 – is given the full “Tide Is High” treatment, giving Debbie the chance to dabble with cheeky excursions into patois. As for the live set list, recent Blondie covers have ranged from a surprisingly successful reworking of Taio Cruz’s Break Your Heart, to a spirited thrash through The Damned’s New Rose.
The inclusion of New Rose – the first ever British punk single – is a direct reminder that, for all their later mainstream pop success, Blondie’s roots lie in the punk rock scene of mid-Seventies New York City, when they were one of a gang of bands who hung out at the tiny, grubby CBGB’s club in downtown Manhattan. The scene emerged as a reaction to the perceived excesses of the superstar rock elite that went before it, and it noisily espoused a defiantly grassroots, anti-star ethos. So when pop stardom happened for Blondie, did this cause any anguished ideological soul-searching?
“Well, we always wanted to be popular”, says Clem. “We always wanted to be on the radio. Of the music that we were influenced by, a lot of it was not considered to be cool – whether it be bubblegum music, or disco music. But people forget how subversive disco music was, when it first began. It was an underground phenomenon, in the gay clubs of New York. It was just as subversive as so-called punk rock.”
“I don’t think anybody considered themselves to be punks until the genre phrase was coined. Of course, there was punk rock in the Sixties: American garage bands like The Seeds or The Standells. But really, CBGB’s was all about a bunch of beatniks; musicians who were just trying to think outside the box a little bit.”
“We never wanted to be an underground band”, he continues, warming to his theme. “CBGB’s was like a workshop, where we were able to make our mistakes in public, influenced by bands like Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads, who were there at the same time. They actually contributed to the sound of the band, and vice versa. I think all those bands fed off each other.”
“To me, punk rock is a specific kind of music, with very loud guitars and Iggy and the Stooges influences. We loved all that, but that was only one facet of what Blondie was. We never really had a problem with the success. I think a few people were a little overawed by the success, and I also think the fact that Debbie was a woman kind of made it a little different for the guys in the band. “
“I think if she had been a man – if she was, say, Mick Jagger instead of Debbie Harry – it would have reflected differently upon the other guys in the band. But because she was such a gorgeous, beautiful, charismatic woman, it made for people going: oh, she’s the star, she’s the band. And she’d be the first person to say that was never really the case.”
One of Blondie’s great achievements was that their pop success was created and maintained largely on their own terms. Compared to most of today’s pop acts, they were given a remarkable amount of creative freedom. Nevertheless, their relationship with the music industry wasn’t entirely free from conflict. Clem remembers one moment in particular.
“The Autoamerican record had Rapture and The Tide Is High on it – but when we delivered it to the record company, the first thing they said was that there were no hits on the record. Most people didn’t know what rap music was, and things like doing reggae covers didn’t really line up with most people at record companies.”
“I think it’s to our credit that we pushed along the evolution of what pop music was. But we were never dictated to, and we never had stylists – although we had producers, and we worked hand in hand with people like Mike Chapman and Richard Gottehrer. But we actually did it on our own terms. Debbie certainly did whatever she wanted to do, as we all did. It wasn’t really pre-planned.”
Blondie might have embraced their success, but their commercial highpoint wasn’t necessarily the happiest period for the band members in personal terms.
“Well, it was a whirlwind – and it has been well documented that certain people were on too many drugs, and things like that. For me, the whole Blondie experience has been bittersweet in a lot of ways. From 1980 to 1982, which was a real height of success, when Rapture was a big hit around the world, we never really performed live, which I definitely regret not doing.”
In that case, were Blondie tiring of life at the top? Was there a feeling that they needed to step off the treadmill?
“Personally, no. Everybody dealt with success in their own way. Obviously I wasn’t in the limelight as much as Debbie was. It wasn’t planned as well as it could have been: when to take breaks and when to work, and things like that. But I’m a rock and roll fan and I love performing. We all do. If we didn’t now, we wouldn’t be doing it to the extent that we do it. But back then, it was a little different.”
Blondie Mark Two has now been together for considerably longer than Blondie Mark One, so why has Blondie Mark Two lasted so long? According to Clem, “it’s a different kind of success”, fuelled by the rise of new media in general, and YouTube in particular.
“YouTube gives us a longevity that’s unbelievable. You’d do some TV show in Berlin in 1978, and you never expected that you’d ever see it again. Now that everything’s on YouTube, younger audiences can go back and research a band, and see what we were about in our heyday. We had a very high profile back then, with video and things like that, and we did a lot of television. So that enables us to continue. I think that’s one aspect of the success that we have today. And, you know, we’re enjoying it! As a musician, you’re always learning. We’re all interested in the creative process, and that helps us to continue.”
Four years from now, the seemingly ageless Debbie Harry will reach her seventieth birthday. Does this impending “senior citizen” status put a time limit on Blondie, or will the band carry on rocking into their dotage?
“It’s not going to stop right now”, affirms Clem. “We’re already planning another record, and we’re not going to stop any time soon. But inevitably, we will stop before we drop.”
On the evidence of last Sunday’s rapturously received performance at London’s Lovebox festival (a greatest hits set, with two new songs and a riotous cover of an Eighties rap-rock classic), Blondie are in no imminent danger of either stopping, or dropping.
As a journalist, I want to know all about you – but as a listener, I quite like knowing nothing about you at all. So I’m a little reluctant to puncture your mystique.
(Laughs) There’s nothing to know! Mystique is good, but I’m not intentionally trying to hide myself.
Fair enough – but on your last.fm profile you describe yourself as a desolate planet, covered in desert and rock. What’s all that about?
Oh, sorry – I found that on Wikipedia. It’s a description of a planet from Star Wars called Ronika, so I decided to go with that as my biog.
You’ve disillusioned me already. It’s a copy-and-paste job from Wikipedia? I thought you’d invented a whole mythology about yourself.
Well, no. I Googled “Ronika” and found that there was actually a planet called Ronika in Star Wars. With killer wasps. And a hot surface. So I thought: yeah, that’s good.
So were your parents Star Wars fans? Does that have anything to do with the way you were named?
(Laughs) They’re not Star Wars fans. They’re Coronation Street fans. No, my name is Veronica and I shortened it to Ronika.
OK. So how long have you been making music, and how did you get started?
I’ve been making music since I was a teenager. I started writing tunes on the acoustic guitar, inspired by people like Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. I started getting into producing and making beats shortly afterwards. That was inspired by electro, old school hip hop, and people like Tiga, The Hacker and Daft Punk. Then I started building my own tracks.
The influences that come across most clearly to me are taken from early Eighties New York dance music: post-disco, but pre-house. Do you have a particular attraction to that period?
Yeah, I’m very much inspired by that kind of sound: Chaka Khan, The Sequence, with some early Madonna in there. Forget Yourself (on the new EP) came about from me and Joe Buhdha listening to stuff like Tom Tom Club, ESG and Blondie, where late disco met new-wave.
To what extent is what you’re doing a retro homage to that period, and to what extent are you trying to forge something completely new?
Hopefully it’s a mix of both. Everybody has musical inspirations and references which they bring into their music, and mine happens to be that kind of era – but hopefully I’m adding something to it.
Are you one of those people who thinks that music was better in the old days, or are we living in a golden age for music right now?
I think both, actually. There’s plenty of good stuff out there, and lots of people are making interesting stuff, but I do obviously have a sweet spot for the old days. When I was making the tunes, I was thinking: this is very different to what is out there. But I didn’t especially make them to get played on the radio.
What have you made of the critical reaction to the new EP (Forget Yourself/Wiyoo)?
It’s been amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. I’m just really glad that everybody is loving the tracks. That’s the main thing; I just wanted people to hear them.
When you read people writing stuff about you, do you think: yeah, they’ve got me right?
Absolutely, and I think that’s what has amazed me the most. With all the stuff that I’ve read, people have totally got me right, and they’ve totally understood where I’m coming from with my influences.
You put out two tracks last year, and you’ve put out two tracks this year. That’s a fairly slow trickle of music. How long are we going to have to wait to hear any more material?
I’ve been finishing recording my album; we’re mixing it at the moment. And the next EP is coming out in September, so you don’t have to wait too long. It will be on Record Shop, which is my own label.
Have you been fending off advances from larger labels?
There has been interest, so we’ll see. But for the next release, I’m going to stay indie and put it out myself.
In terms of live performances, do you have it in mind to be gigging more regularly?
I’d like to be doing more gigs. I’ve been busy in the studio up until now. But with the coming of the next EP, I’ll be doing more gigs. Splendour last year was brilliant; I opened the main stage. I also enjoy playing Lee Rosy’s Tea Shop; I did my first EP launch there.
Morrissey once said that his ideal audience would consist of skinheads wearing nail varnish. Who would be in your ideal audience?
Robots. All robots.
Are you a full time creative person, or do you have a day job?
I do work, but it’s not a soul-crushing day job. I work producing music with young people who have been kicked out of school. They generally like dubstep, so I make that kind of stuff with them.
It’s been said for years that Nottingham has underperformed in terms of producing artists that get outside recognition, but I get the sensation that this is beginning to change. What’s your take on it?
Well, Dog Is Dead are doing really well, and Swimming are on the verge of breaking through. Then you’ve got more established acts like Late Of The Pier and Lone, who are already doing well. So I think we might be moving to a better time. Then there’s Spotlight Kid – I’ve seen them and they’re brilliant – and Liam Bailey has just played Glastonbury. Then of course there are lots of people who have got masses of talent and who are coming up, like Nina Smith, Harleighblu, Marita Metelia and Natalie Duncan. But if you’re from Nottingham, you have to push a lot harder than if you’re from London, to make things work.
So, is Ronika here to save pop?
(Laughs) I don’t know about saving pop, but I do love pop music. To me, Eighties Madonna is perfect pop music, and that’s my inspiration.
Just don’t go changing into Noughties Madonna.
No, I’ll leave the leotards.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
You’ll be playing some fairly large venues on your second reunion tour, which starts in October. How do they compare to the venues you were playing the first time round?
These venues weren’t available in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We’ve got the chance to play to more people, but putting less strain on the vocalists – rather than doing four or five nights on the trot, like we did in Brixton on the first tour in 2009. It’s a pretty demanding set, and Terry Hall’s voice has improved in my opinion, but it can take its toll. So the bigger venues ain’t a bad idea.
Do you lose something when you scale the show up?
We’ve got such a phenomenal, passionate fanbase, that it translates perfectly. We’ve done lots of festivals over the past couple of years, but if you really want to see The Specials, then I like to think the indoor venues are the best. Football stadiums, stuff like that: they’re not really us.
I’ll tell you what I genuinely miss. In the old days, we used to have our stage invasions. We never really had a barrier between us and the fans – and I don’t just mean a physical barrier. We belong to our fans, and they feel very much a part of what we do. So I miss stage invasions. But they’re totally not on anymore. You can’t do it because of the health and safety factor. And there are good reasons for it.
I saw you play the Sports Hall at Nottingham University in 1980. There was a massive stage invasion, and you carried on playing well beyond the official encore time. They even turned the house lights up. But you carried on playing for about another half an hour. It was as if the band and the audience were locked into a battle: who was going to drop from exhaustion first?
We used to do about six encores. So roughly another quarter of the set used to take place as encores. But how can you possibly leave a crowd like that? The toughest thing is to stop playing, I find. OK, we’re a bit older – but we haven’t lost any energy. To be honest, I think the audience might even get tired before we do, these days.
There was a knife-edge atmosphere to that 1980 gig. A lot of people were having a lot of fun, but there was also an air of suppressed violence. You felt that the whole thing could have tipped over at any minute, either within the audience or within the band. Was that typical?
In a lot of cases, it was. We had a bit of a reputation amongst one or two of the extreme parties in this country; the National Front was one of them. They basically used to follow us about. Dealing with these people was one of Terry’s fortes. He was able to deal with it, and Neville (Staple) as well. You’d start off by feeling that sort of vibe, then towards the end of the night, they’d have been frozen out of the building. So at the end of the night, it was a beautiful feeling. But yes, there was a tension. We were targeted by these extremists, and they wanted to disrupt.
Nowadays, our audience has mellowed in a lot of respects. What really hit me on the first tour was the passion. You had these massive guys coming up, virtually with tears in their eyes, going “I’ve waited 27 years for this!”
I’ll give you an example. My wife is diminutive; she’s about five foot tall. She was down in the audience at Brixton, dancing away, and there were about half a dozen of these huge skinhead guys – lovely guys – who all linked arms and formed a circle round her, so she could dance. The camaraderie was fantastic.
When you decide to go to one of these shows, you’re motivated to a large extent by nostalgia. But then the show puts you back in touch with the person you once were. You’re reliving the emotions, and you realise that you’re still, in some ways, the same person. That can be quite emotionally overwhelming.
It’s good though, isn’t it? I get that feeling when I’m on stage. The weird thing is – and I hate to say this – but I’m a bit of a fan of the band, in a way. My son films some of the shows, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I look at them. There’s still something very special about the band, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Ghost Town was at Number One exactly thirty years ago. What do you remember about recording it?
It was recorded up in the Midlands, in Leamington. It was towards the end of things for The Specials. We were overworked and stressed, and I think you can almost feel that in the track. Well, I can; perhaps the listener can’t. But I knew that things were getting close to the end in the recording stages of Ghost Town. There was a strained atmosphere. But then again, there was a strained atmosphere in a lot of the work we did, because we were striving to do our best. After Ghost Town, Jerry Dammers and I carried on with The Special AKA, and some of the rest of the guys decided that it was time to move on.
Ghost Town getting to Number One wasn’t like most pop singles getting to Number One, because it accidentally soundtracked the inner city riots of the summer of 1981. Did that change the way you felt about it being top of the charts? Or were you all still going “Wa-hey, we made it, we’re top of the world”?
I wasn’t overly impressed by it being Number One. But I’ll tell you another track that I felt great about being on: Nelson Mandela. The fact that Nelson Mandela got anywhere was a tribute to the track, but at the same time there was the importance of it heightening awareness of the problem. I dunno; Ghost Town was a good bit of reportage, about what was going on around the inner cities…
…but Nelson Mandela actually changed things, whereas Ghost Town reflected things?
That’s a good way of putting it. I think that heightening awareness does change things, and lyrics in popular music don’t do that too often. So we felt that it was important, more than we felt that it should be top of the pops. But we’re in the thirtieth anniversary of Ghost Town this year, and nothing’s bloody changed out there, as far as I’m concerned.
This time, hopefully, we’re making a bit more of Ghost Town in the live performance. I can’t go into too much detail, but we are celebrating, if that’s the right word, the fact that it’s gone through thirty years. We’ve got something in mind, in production terms, which will be really nice to hear and see. But I can’t tell you what, because it would just let the cat out of the bag.
Is this a purely gigging project now, or has there been any talk of you getting back in the studio?
A few of us have talked about it. If the truth be known, I don’t see any harm in a project coming out of this. I wouldn’t like to say we’d ever try to produce stuff like the original Specials material. I don’t think we can do that anymore. But we’ve got one big asset, and that is our sound – and that’s not going to stop, let’s put it that way. We did a thing with MIA recently, on Jools Holland. It gave (some of) us a chance to stretch our legs a bit, with our rhythm sound. So we might be carrying a bit of a project on, but we’re not sure yet. Let’s get this tour out of the way first.
And in terms of the gigs, is this it? Or are you going to take a leaf out of Madness’s book and go on and on?
You never know what’s round the corner, but I don’t think we’ll be touring like this again. This will probably be the last tour we do. I think it’s pretty obvious why. However, there are some younger people out there, who perhaps could do with a band like The Specials occasionally. So if we’re called upon, who knows? I mean, we can still do it. There’s a few years left in the old dogs.
(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.)
I’m calling you at your office, which is near your home in Norfolk. What sort of place have you got?
We’re in a village, just on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. My missus and I – and this is what happens to old rockers – we love gardens. When we bought the house, it was just grass and gravel. So in the past six years, we’ve put in roughly four thousand plants. We reckon we’ve got about another two years to go, and then it’s tinkering time. It’s a lot of fun, to watch something happen. My missus is much better at it than me.
I’d imagine that someone of your background would have a castle, at the very least. Are there any turrets on your property?
Oh, crikey. Well, the first divorce put paid to the turrets, the second one put paid to the moat, and the third one put paid to the castle. Rachel and I have got a little old mill house – and a windmill, would you believe. Without the sails; they went in 1953. It’s not a huge mansion, but it’s a very nice house. There’s only the pair of us – the kids have all grown up and long since gone – so what do you want to rattle round in a great big place for? Ian Lavender found it for us; he played Pike in Dad’s Army. He lives just down the road.
You’ll be coming to see us next Thursday at Nottingham Playhouse. What sort of show can we expect?
I don’t do tours any more. I do one-offs. I’ve got a long list of music that I can do: stuff of my own, and stuff of other people’s that I’ve worked on, and a few things that people wouldn’t expect me to play. And because I’ve done Grumpy Old Men and things like that, there are an awful lot of ridiculous stories that go in between. So it’s almost half stand-up, half music.
When you’re on your own, you’ve got a lot more freedom. But if you’re doing night after night after night, it does get into a bit of a routine. You start playing all the same pieces; you tell the stories exactly the same. Whereas if you spread them out over the year, you’ve forgotten the ones you did the last time. You’ll throw in stories that you wouldn’t have thrown in normally, and throw in a different piece of music. I started doing that about three years ago, and I found that it just worked so well, because every night it’s almost like an opening night.
What sort of audiences do you get these days?
It’s changed a lot. The music people obviously still come, from the Yes days and so on, and there’s a whole batch of people who started coming from Countdown. I hosted an alternative comedy show called Live At Jongleurs on ITV for eight years, so a lot of students started coming; admittedly that was in the Eighties, so now they’ve grown up a bit. Then you get the generation who liked Grumpy Old Men, and now I do a spot on Watchdog every week, so you start getting a real eclectic mix of people. A lot of people come along with their kids, who are learning to play; I often think they bring ‘em along to put ‘em off . And in some cases I’ve had four generations of family, which has been quite amazing.
You’ve had a strange journey, from symphonic prog-rock keyboard player to TV pundit and professional grump. How did the TV work come about?
It started properly when Danny Baker had a Saturday night chat show. I was only meant to do a minute, but Danny knew a lot of my silly stories, so he said “just go for it”. I ended up doing ten minutes. The following Monday, my agent thought it was Christmas. We were getting offered everything. I’ve got a lot to thank Danny Baker for.
I suppose I’m quite lucky, because when you get older – I’m 62 now – you get to a stage where the media go: oh sod it, he ain’t gonna go away, let him do what he wants. For a long period of time, you’re expected to do what you’re known for doing. But when you get to a certain age, they leave you alone.
So I have a really nice time. I’ve got a radio production company, and I get a fair amount of mainstream television, which is great. I still do the great big shows – in fact I’m off to South America later in the year with the band and orchestra, to do the big orchestral prog-rock shows, which we do in big stadiums out there. I still do the band shows occasionally, mainly at festivals. I’ve got the one man show, I do the “Grumpy Old Rock Star” books every eighteen months, and I still do my recordings as well.
So every day is different in some way, and that’s really, really nice. I’m not sure I’d be very good at routines. But I’m always up at a quarter to six at the latest, and I’m rarely in bed before midnight. It’s the old expression: there’s not enough hours in the day.
On the musical front, you recently did an album and a tour with Jon Anderson. Is anything else planned between the two of you?
We’re off to do the same show in America, in late October and early November. Jon lives there, and we’ll do about twenty shows. While we’re over there, Jon and I will meet up with [former Yes guitarist] Trevor Rabin, and that will be the next project: Jon, Trevor and myself. We’ll do that next year, and hopefully some shows will come out of that.
Jon and I are of a similar ilk. We don’t like to stand still, do what comes easily, and live in the past. For us, the past creates the present and the present creates the future. We hate managers, and so we don’t have any. We decide what’s best for the music and what’s best for us, and then we bring somebody in to look after it. Too many bands today seem to work for the management. When we bring management in to do things for us, they work for us – not the other way round.
In terms of the group dynamic within Yes, I’d have expected you and Jon to be poles apart. He’s the other-worldly dreamer, and you’re the more earthbound soul. Is it a case of opposites attracting?
Exactly. Jon is one of my dearest friends, and we do have certain things in common. We both love football, and we both obviously love music. I understand Jon, and Jon understands me. And I think that’s the secret. We are both heading for the same thing.
To give a bad analogy: if we’re both starting off at London and we’re going to Tokyo, there’s two ways you can go. You can either go via Anchorage, or you can go via Moscow. So there’s one stage, even if you’re heading to the same place, where you couldn’t be further apart. As long as you’re heading for the same destination, it really doesn’t matter how you get there.
When you say that you understand Jon, does that extend to the lyric sheets of the classic Yes albums?
Um… (pause) some of them. I’ve talked to Jon a lot about them. Jon is a wordsmith, and to some extent they stand on their own, as a sort of surrealistic poetry. They do have very strong meanings for Jon, in every respect. But they can have different meanings for other people, and that’s not a problem at all. As Jon always says: as long as people get their own meaning from it. On The Living Tree, the album that Jon and I just did, I think he hit the sort of form lyrically that he had back in the Seventies. I thought it was tremendous. I always get excited waiting for Jon’s lyrics, and it was the same thing with Strawbs, waiting for Dave Cousins.
I find it weird that Jon’s place in Yes has been taken by the former lead singer with a tribute band. There have been some strange episodes, but this is up there with the strangest of them.
When Jon was very ill, five or six years ago, the right plan would have been to wait until Jon was fit again, in two or three years’ time. But for reasons known only to themselves, three of the guys said: no, we’re going to go out. Personally, I think you can’t have Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant, and you can’t have The Who without Roger Daltrey, so how the hell can you have Yes without Jon Anderson? But they decided that they could.
I don’t have anything to do with it. As far as the classic line-up is concerned, that will never see the light of day again. Yes was always a special band, and now it has turned into a gigging band. It’s trotting around, playing as many shows as humanly possible, and it’s just a great shame.
Is there a sense in which you still feel like a member of the band, even if you’re not officially part of it?
It’s like saying: does Bobby Charlton still feel part of Manchester United, even though he doesn’t play? Of course you are. But as regards what’s been going on for the past five years, this doesn’t have anything to do with me at all. I’ve changed clubs, as they say.
I don’t know whether Yes were ever considered as part of the counter-culture, but you’re certainly not part of the counter-culture now. You’re doing mainstream shows on BBC1.
Ah, but that happens to a lot of people. It’s like all the alternative comics, that I used to introduce when I did Live At Jongleurs. They’re all mainstream now. It’s what happens. Underground music in the Sixties eventually came overground, with people like Marc Bolan and T. Rex, and it became establishment.
I guess that every stream has got to join the big river…
All that “mainstream” really means is that enough people like it to bring it to the surface. And that’s happened to so many alternative comics, who are now as straight as the people that they tried to be against in the early days. Which is lovely, you know? That’s what happens. And it will always happen. It will never change.
So if the Rick Wakeman of 1973 could see the Rick Wakeman of 2011, what would he make of him?
He’d be very happy he was still alive! (Laughs)
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
Why have Big Audio Dynamite decided to reform in 2011?
From my part, it was a toss-up: do I reform BAD with Mick Jones, or do I get a Harley-Davidson? I figured the band was a safer option. But on a more serious note, Mick had his appetite whetted by going out on tour with Gorillaz. It was very much Damon Albarn’s show, but I think Mick got the taste for running his own show again. And we re-released the first album last year, in a deluxe edition, so we had to go back and listen to our old tracks. I thought: oh God, do we have to? But I was pleasantly surprised, because they didn’t sound like yesterday, or even today. It still sounds like it could be tomorrow.
You were quite prescient in what you did in the Eighties, and ahead of the game in a lot of ways.
Now that everyone’s looking backwards, time has caught up with us. It seems like a lot of the elements that BAD were messing with back in the day have proven to be the ones that have lasted – whether it be Jamaican bass lines, or hip hop beats, or the bits of toasting, the sampled dialogue, the rock and roll guitar. They’re still the things that excite all the guys in the band today.
Whose idea was it to do the reunion?
I’m not on Facebook, but I heard there was some sort of BAD appreciation society, and there was a rumour going around that we were reforming. Coupled with Mick going back out on the road, that put the vibe in the air. Then quite recently, we went to the christening of the bass player Leo’s first son, and the band were all together. What’s interesting about BAD is that we all live in the same area, and we’re all still mates.
So there was no horrible acrimony when you all went your separate ways?
No, and that’s one of the most beautiful parts about it. We all really know each other, for better or for worse. We know exactly what we are. So we’ve gone straight back into being creative. There hasn’t been like a six week period where we have to work out who everybody is. Over the last twenty-five years, we’ve seen each other on a weekly or monthly basis. I almost took that for granted, and we just realised it the other day. That makes it special, and makes it different from other people getting together. That and the fact that nobody’s offered us a lot of money for it! But it’s more about the will of the people!
In terms of your contribution to the band, you seem to be credited with “vocals and sound effects. Does that pretty much cover it?
I’m standing in our studio at the moment. We’ve got our lyrics pinned up around the studio – because we’d forgotten them, predictably. And I’m shocked – because, yeah, I famously was not a musician and am still not a musician, but back in the day, initially I did the whole sampling thing because I had to justify my space. And then that wasn’t really enough, so I started to have a go at writing lyrics with Mick. If you look at the credits, a lot of them are Letts/Jones compositions. But BAD was like The Magnificent Seven: every man was an expert in his field. It was a sum total of the elements that made BAD have its own distinctive identity. I don’t even like talking about myself in the equation, because that starts to separate the roles.
In terms of those samples, and the way you used old movie dialogue and so on, the copyright laws hadn’t really been established in those days. Did you get clearance for them, or did you just nick them and nobody cared?
Listen, thanks for bringing that up! Back in those days, we were the first people to do all that stuff. Other people had dabbled before, like Eno and David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. But I think we were the first people to do it commercially and have a hit commercially. And it was all so new, that no one knew what the hell was going on. Consequently, we got away with it. You couldn’t do that now, and you couldn’t do it long after we did it. Check De La Soul, for instance.
I want to be very clear about this: there’s no BAD song that is built on somebody else’s sample or dialogue. It was only ever a bit of salt and pepper to the main meal. So nobody was going to hit us up like Keith Richards and The Verve. That was never gonna happen.
It’s entirely spoken word, isn’t it? There’s nothing else beyond that.
There are sounds and odd little loops, but it’s not like Puff Daddy using a chunk of Led Zeppelin. If you take that out, there’s nothing left. With BAD, you could almost play the songs acoustically. That was our acid test. Mick’s a songsmith, and we’re all particularly honoured to work with the dude. Hey, this is the guy who did The Clash with Joe Strummer. And he can pen a song. He’s not standing here, luckily!
Your biggest singles came from the first album, but your biggest album was actually the second one, No. 10 Upping Street. That’s where Joe Strummer briefly got involved. He co-wrote some of the songs, but he never actually joined the band Was that possibility ever discussed?
Hmm, I can’t deny that outright. When we started, Joe did try and ask Mick to re-join The Clash, but Mick was too happy with what was going on in Big Audio Dynamite. Obviously, I was there when all that Upping Street stuff was going on, and it was a beautiful thing to see them creatively falling in love again. We invited Joe to come down and say hello, and the next thing we knew, he’d taken over. That’s a testament to Joe’s energy. It’s not like he wanted to do that; he just couldn’t help it. That’s what Joe was like. It was a great thing to be involved in. I don’t know about sales and things like that – because let’s be honest, we were more cred than bread.
There’s one track on that album called Ticket, which sounds like it might be a Don Letts vocal. Was that one of yours?
Yeah, thanks for mentioning that! You’re writing lyrics, and obviously some things are great and other things are not so great, and Mick gave me what I call the “Ringo song”. No disrespect to Mr Starr! I always remember saying to Mick “If it’s so bloody good, then how come you ain’t singing that one?” That’s all I remember!
By drawing on early hip hop influences, were BAD conscious at the time of trying to do something brand new? Was that part of your mission?
It was never about being brand new. It was about formulating a sound that we heard all around us. We were never trying to be futuristic, or cleverer than anyone else. We tried to create a hybrid sound from all the elements that turned us on. And we used elements of the media, because that’s what the sampling was, to make a fuller sound. That sounds very pretentious, but when you strip it down, that’s what it was about.
And then Mick already had an involvement with New York hip hop culture, stretching back to Clash days.
Mick had already started dabbling with that in the Clash, as anybody who knows their shit will know.
I’ve got particular fondness for your first single, The Bottom Line, because – by pure chance – I was there in Trafalgar Square when you shot the video. I was dancing in the audience. But I’ve gone through that video on freeze-frame off your official website, and you’ve left me on the cutting room floor.
Oh, I’m sorry about that. Oy, it must have been your dancing!
I think we were trying too hard to get noticed by the camera; there were too many hands in the air. Do you have any memories of that shoot?
It was a very embarrassing moment, because we’d gone there to do that video, and there was something going on. Some kind of bloody protest. I really didn’t pay any attention as to what it was, because you get fixated on the scene in front of you. Somebody came up and said “Do you mind not making so much noise, we’re trying to get our point across”. And I’m like: “Bugger off, we’re making a video here!” Then I look at the sign that he’s holding up, and it says “Free Nelson Mandela”. And I thought: oh my God…
There was an anti-apartheid march earlier that day; my sister had been on it. And we chuckled, because when you were trying to get us motivated for the shoot, you said “Come on everyone, we want to make it feel like something’s actually happening in London today!” And we were thinking: “Tsk, pop stars, eh? There was an anti-apartheid march here an hour earlier…”
I didn’t realise! All I saw was people getting in the way of our shoot.
When you perform the songs on the forthcoming tour, are you going to stick closely to the original arrangements, or are you going to be updating them in any way?
I think they’ll be updated by the nature of the fact that we’ve grown up now. We’re obviously not eighteen year-olds, running around on steroids or MacDonalds or whatever it was. By the nature of who we are, I hope the tunes will have matured, as we have. But if we could do what we did back then, we’d be doing really well – because they inherently still sound fresh.
Are you looking at extending BAD’s life beyond the tour, for example by recording by new material, or is this just a one-off project?
I think we’re very carefully taking one step at a time. Just dipping our little toes in the water and seeing how it goes. We wouldn’t want to be uncool and overstay our welcome.
Seeing as Mick’s in the band, are you just going to be sticking to BAD material only, or will you seize the opportunity to add a couple of Clash tunes to the set list?
Never did, never will, and never had to! And that’s out of total respect for The Clash.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Post.
I’m calling you in London; is that your place of residence these days?
I’ve been in London for years. The rest of the band are still in Ireland. The singer Paul lives in Dublin, but the others are still in Derry, our home town. I’m the black sheep of the family! I left in the early Eighties, and somehow never returned. I’ve got a family here. But maybe someday I’ll be back…
How much of your time these days is involved with being an Undertone?
I’d say half the time, at the moment. We’re working on new material for a new record. I’ve been working on songs that my brother John sends me, so the last couple of weeks have been quite intense. But normally, we don’t play that often. It’s not like we’re doing a full time career anymore, so we just play when we feel like it. But we’ve been quite busy over the last couple of years with live shows. Last year we went to Japan, and we did a load of festivals. Summer’s always the busiest time for us, with festivals and stuff. They’re just starting to come in now. There’s a weirdly titled one coming up in May/June; it’s called the Bearded Theory festival.
That’s near here, at Kedleston Hall. I think they take the bearded thing quite literally. There is something about the wearing of beards which is intrinsic to the festival. So just be ready for a sea of beards. Not all of which might be real.
I tried to grow a beard last year, for about two weeks. It was a pretty pathetic attempt. It was getting so itchy that I shaved it off. But I might try and grow it back for this one. (Laughs)
It doesn’t seem right, having an Undertone with a beard.
It doesn’t seem right at all.
You’ll be playing your 1979 debut album in full on the next tour, so – because geeks like me need to know – will you be playing the original fourteen track version which came out in the May, or the expanded version that came out five months later, with a couple of singles (Teenage Kicks and Get Over You) added?
We’ll play the original LP in its original song sequence; I think that’s important. But with True Confessions: on the LP, it’s a different version. I always thought that was a bit of a mistake. We did it on a whim at the time, and I kind of wish we didn’t now. So we’ll do True Confessions with the original Good Vibrations version – the better version, basically. And then after Casbah Rock, we’ll probably do Teenage Kicks and Get Over You.
When the LP originally came out, Sire Records really wanted us to put Teenage Kicks and Get Over You on it. But we insisted, and we got our way somehow. We just said: no way. A lot of bands at the time, like Buzzcocks, used to put their singles out separately. It was just really good value for money, basically.
And then the record company won you over six months later.
Yeah, and by the second LP we hadn’t enough new songs anyway! So we had to! Although actually, You’ve Got My Number isn’t on Hypnotised either.
Some of the band were reportedly quite reluctant to record Teenage Kicks in the first place. Which camp were you in?
I was in the pro camp!
Well, your brother did write it.
Yeah, my brother John wrote the song. We all kinda liked it, and there was never any doubt about recording it, but I think some people in the band didn’t think it was good enough for the first EP on Good Vibrations, believe it or not. Can you believe that? I don’t remember there being any real arguments about it – and I forget who – but all I can say is that it wasn’t me! (Laughs)
Was it one of your very earliest songs?
I was looking this up the other day. This is how anorak I am: I used to make a list of when we wrote what songs. I think it was written in June 1977. It was a fruitful month for John, because he also wrote Get Over You in the same month. So, two great singles in a month; not bad.
As for the legendary moment when John Peel played your first EP, were you listening to him that night?
Oh, of course! We’d got wind. In fact, a friend of the band has a cassette copy of that announcement. The famous thing is that he said “It’s so good that I’ve got to play that again”. And he played it twice, which he’d never done before.
Then he made a whole speech later in the week, saying that you guys were the reason he did his entire show. It was very impassioned; it was quite a moment.
Wow. I’d love to hear that again, actually. But we were definitely listening, I remember that. And we couldn’t believe it; we were whooping with delight when he played it for the second time. We were like: frigging hell, this is incredible! We just couldn’t believe it. Because we were massive John Peel fans, and we used to listen religiously to him. You had to, to hear new stuff. He was the man.
The band had been together since 1975, so you would have formed before punk as we know it came along. Did the Pistols and the Ramones cause you to change direction?
We were going that way anyway, because the covers we were doing were very R&B. We loved early 60s R&B, like the early Stones. Actually, I love later Stones as well, but the earlier stuff was easier to play. So we could do Round And Around and Little Red Rooster, and Van Morrison’s Them, that kind of stuff. I think we tried a few Cream songs, but that was beyond us! (Laughs) Eric Clapton could play too fast.
We loved Doctor Feelgood, who came along in 75 with Down By The Jetty. Just seeing them on TV was amazing. Especially Wilko, and the way he dressed. So that influenced us, and I have to give credit to Eddie and the Hot Rods as well. The Live At The Marquee EP came out in summer 76, which we loved, and we actually used to do a bit of “Get out of Denver, baby”. After that, we basically speeded up the covers that we were doing, to make it more like that. And then by late 76, we heard Anarchy In The UK and The Damned’s first single. Then the whole game changed again, because they were even younger. So we automatically identified with that.
Did you feel part of a local scene, or were you the only ones in Derry doing this kind of thing?
We were out on a limb. You know that song by The Saints, (I’m) Stranded? We felt like that. We felt stranded in Derry. There was a bit of a scene in Belfast, but there was nothing going on where we lived. And we were getting a lot of crap and abuse on the street for doing the music that we did. We got to be known for doing kinda strange music, and for the way we dressed. We wouldn’t dress the way that punks dressed in London, but just wearing straight jeans could get your head kicked in. And having short hair. And Feargal, being the singer and being an extrovert, got abuse in the street. But even if he wasn’t in a band, he probably would have anyway. Were singled out a lot, just for being punk rockers. On the back of the Teenage Kicks EP, there’s a photo: “The Undertones Are Shit”. That’s genuine. That’s the kind of feeling we got from people. They hated us! (Laughs)
Did it help you that Stiff Little Fingers had broken through a few months earlier?
They opened the doors a bit, I suppose. John Peel played them, and we were very jealous. We weren’t big fans, to be honest – but because John Peel was playing them, it made us more determined. It raised the game.
Did you ever feel tempted to go along with the prevalent feeling at the time, which was to write political message songs?
No, we wanted to escape from the Troubles. We didn’t want to wallow in it. I don’t like dissing Stiff Little Fingers anymore, because some of it’s good, but we just thought what they were doing was a bit corny.
I sometimes thought there was something a bit calculated about it. They got someone else to write their lyrics, didn’t they?
Yeah, that was another thing as well. They had their manager, who was English, to write the lyrics. It was a bit contrived.
That’s not really very punk rock.
No, it’s not. We loved Fifties and Sixties rock and roll, and girl groups like The Shirelles, and then of course the New York Dolls and MC5. We wanted to write about love and girls, not about bombs and bullets.
I guess you’ve gone back to that debut album recently, preparing for the tour. Are there songs on there which you’ve not played for, that you’re looking forward to exhuming?
We’ve probably done most of them over the years, because the first LP is almost like a greatest hits. But there is Casbah Rock – I don’t know if we’ve ever done that since.
It’s such a short track, as well.
There are a few extra verses which never made it on the record. On the LP, it’s just a cassette demo recording that we did, a year previously. I think it was my idea to stick that on at the end, as a little snippet.
Wasn’t that the name of the club where you had an early residency?
The Casbah was our Cavern, basically. It was where we learned our chops. It was a bit of a den of iniquity, to be honest. It used to be a pub, and then it was bombed and they replaced it with a Portakabin. A lot of rock bands played there, doing Thin Lizzy covers and whatever. So we kinda went in there with a snotty attitude: we were going to play some decent music. But we loved it, because that was where we built up our crowd.
What do you remember about the sessions for recording the album?
Because we had played those songs for about a year, we could knock them off really quick. Roger Bechirian was the producer, and it was great working with him. He did a really good job; I was a bit scared that he’d soften it a bit, and lose the edge.
I think the production has a real sparkle to it.
It’s very poppy as well, which is great. We did Get Over You with Roger before the album, and I was a bit disappointed with that, because it was a bit too polished. But he stepped back a bit, and let us just be ourselves on the LP.
It was done at Eden Studios in Acton. We over to London in January 79, and I think we were there for about four weeks. So it wasn’t that quick really, when I think about it. Probably two weeks recording and two weeks mixing. We rented out some little place, just off Paddington. The first time you’re ever in London, your eyes are wide open. It was a great atmosphere, and the camaraderie was great. It was probably the best time, you know? The best time in the band.
You split in 83, after eight years together. Then you reformed in 99, with Paul McLoone singing instead of Feargal Sharkey. This line-up has actually been together longer than the original line-up, so why has it lasted so long?
I think it’s because there’s no pressure now. We’re not signed to a record company, so we can do it at our own leisurely pace. And we don’t play every week, which keeps it fresh.
Why did the original version fold? Were there internal tensions, or was it because of chart positions?
Yeah, chart positions. The third and fourth LPs were selling less and less. We were playing to half-empty halls. Like most bands, it was just demoralising. You think: why bother? The fun had gone out of it. And you’ve got to remember, this was 82, 83. It was all synthesisers and New Romantics. So we were definitely passé by then.
Will you be starting your set with the debut album?
I think we will, but it will probably only last about twenty minutes! (Laughs) Then we’ll do Get Over You, Teenage Kicks, and maybe a few B-sides. And then of course we’ll do the other songs from Hypnotised, and we do new songs as well. We’ve recorded two LPs with this line-up. A lot of the music press don’t take the new Undertones seriously, because it’s not Feargal. So they won’t listen; they won’t give it a chance. Which is a real shame, because I like to think we’re still coming up with really good songs.
I haven’t seen you on stage since you famously played the first ever night at Rock City, in late 1980.
I still remember that really well. Orange Juice supported us – what a great band they were, as well. Oh, it was a brilliant night! A fantastic night! That’s a great venue.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
I was whiling away the time before the interview looking up your dialling code, and you appear to be in Frome in Somerset. What are you doing there?
Well spotted. We’re at Chateau Stranglers, the Stranglers headquarters, which includes our management’s office, workshops, a recording studio, a rehearsal studio, and a bit of accommodation. And Tucker’s Grave, a cider house about a quarter of a mile down the lane. Two albums ago, on Norfolk Coast, we actually did a song called Tucker’s Grave, because it was a source of great inspiration. You don’t need more than two pints before you are… well, you know, it’s cider-delic.
When we last spoke, about twelve months ago, Decades Apart was just about to come out, and you were just about to do your previous UK tour. What sort of year did 2010 turn out to be for The Stranglers?
It was very good for The Stranglers. We played Glastonbury for the first time ever, after having been banished for thirty-odd years.
What was the cause of the banishment?
Thirty years ago, when we were asked to headline it, it was associated with CND, which it no longer is. And at the time, I’d done my economics and other studies, and unlike most of my peers and my generation of students, I was quite suspicious of CND. I had a few reasons to think that unilateralism didn’t make sense. No one seemed to think beyond that. They just thought: yes, look, we don’t want them, ban the bomb. And I was thinking to myself: but hold on, we get rid of our bomb and they still keep theirs? That’s what unilateralism was about. The Russians would keep their nuclear deterrents, but we would get rid of ours. It didn’t make sense to me. And everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. And of course, it wasn’t as if we were supportive of nuclear bombs or nuclear anything.
So you stopped short of saying that they were wonderful devices?
Yeah, we weren’t saying that at all, but there was this bandwagon. There are mass hysterias every now and then in this country. The Diana thing was another great example of that. But at the time, I was convinced that there was something dodgy about it. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and they released lots of information, which had been hitherto kept secret, it transpired that all the unilateralist peace movements in the west had been financed by Moscow. And I instinctively knew it. Michael Eavis held that against us for a while, until last year. And it was great, a perfect day, the best weather they’ve had at Glastonbury for years. It convinced me that in fact, God is a Stranglers fan.
I’ve never been to Glastonbury myself, but I have a number of friends who went, some considerably my junior, and they were talking about it as one of the highlights.
Which was a result I think, because we’re not necessarily of the generation of most of the punters there. We had 85,000 people, and we were given a good slot. We were given nearly an hour, which is quite a lot for one of these. We were mid-afternoon, we had 85,000 people, and they did not move. It was pretty amazing to see so many young people mouthing our lyrics, which warmed the cockles of my heart.
I feel compelled to ask you about the performance clip I saw on YouTube from over the summer, involving some loose dentures. What went on there, then?
(Laughs) It was a horrible, horrible night. We were in the wilds of Hereford, and it was just awful. It was drenched, it was waterlogged, it was muddy, and then the keyboards packed up. But we had a good time anyway. We thought: right, we’ll have a few more glasses of wine on stage, and just get into it. Some bloke jumped up over the barrier, onto the stage, and started jumping up and down. And suddenly these teeth – these gnashers – bounced out of his face, and landed right by my very muddy DMs. I looked at him, and he started to gurn at me. So I just pushed them over to him. He blew off some mud, and stuck them back in. And of course it just killed us.
I think it’s wonderful that toothlessness doesn’t dent his commitment to the cause.
Absolutely, but it made me fantasise: at least I could get a gum job, as opposed to a blow job! I’ve added it to the boxes I have to tick off before I die.
This time last year, I was talking to you about Retro Rockets, and I was teasing you about it being your “grumpy old man” single, complaining about how the charts aren’t the same any more. But I was looking at some statistics today, and it would appear that it was rather a prescient warning. In the UK Top 50 singles charts, as of this week, the highest placed rock song is only at Number 42. And if you look at the 100 best selling singles in the UK during 2008, 27 were rock – whereas in 2010, there were only three. And the biggest selling rock single in the UK last year was Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, which is nearly thirty years old. So there is almost no representation of guitar-based rock music within mainstream pop any more.
I think that worldwide, fortunately, it’s different. But at the moment, it’s just pappy poo stuff, which appears to twelve year-olds.
Does it matter, though?
No, the charts don’t matter any more. Which is a shame, because I’m from a generation who grew up thinking it did matter.
And rock survives in other ways.
Yes, it survives live, it survives in album sales, and it has spread worldwide. But in the UK, you’re right. It’s disappeared. But then, who wants twelve year olds to come to your gigs?
Well, I stood next to a twelve year-old – actually, he was probably even younger than that, maybe nine or ten – at your Rock City gig last year.
Yeah, at the gigs we’re getting loads of younger people, teenagers and stuff, and that’s great.
It was quite a sight, actually. He really did know every word, and his face was kind of screwed up in concentration.
Oh, that’s cool. And they’re free thinkers.
Barely a week goes past without more bad news for the music industry. Do these kinds of pressures impact in any way on your band, or have you reached a stage where you’re kind of impervious to it all?
I think it’s a shame, but then we’re rueing or regretting something which is from a previous time. So, now is now. But it doesn’t impact so much on The Stranglers. I think the music industry committed a collective suicide when it started jumping on bandwagons and not nurturing talent. It got taken over by accountants, who only thought short-term. So instead of nurturing talent over two or three albums, if they didn’t recoup their investment within six months, you were out on your ear. And there’s also their complete inability to understand the digital revolution. So they kind of brought it upon themselves.
And it doesn’t impact upon your creative process either. Is there new material in the pipeline?
There is, actually. We’re going to play some of it live. People in the past would have said: ooh no, you’re going to get bootlegs. So fucking what, you know? In fact, we can afford the luxury of doing what we did with our first two albums. With any young band, you play your own original material, and by the time you get the chance to record it, it’s honed. You know how it works, and where it works.
And your fan base might already be familiar with it. The songs may almost be like old friends.
Absolutely. But after that, you get on this treadmill. You record it first, and then you play it live, which is arse about face really.
What are the new songs like, and what sort of areas are you touching on?
One’s wistful; the middle eight is about a guy who has been to Iraq, and who was thinking he was going to be accepted as a rock and roll hero, a star, in his Humvee. And it turns out no one likes him. It’s about the wistfulness of preferring to be on a desert island with the one you love, and rubbing out a footprint in the sand before the one you love sees it. Another one starts off with the line: “Once there were giants, walking amongst us; now I have to deal with little men with little hearts”. And there’s a metal-ish type tango which we’re working on. There aren’t enough of them. You can’t get enough.
How do you work out the set list? Is it a democratic process, in terms of adding songs and booting old ones out?
Yeah, and in fact we’re actually going to play old songs which we’ve never played live before.
Can you give me an example?
No, certainly not. That would spoil it.
You’ve got Wilko Johnson supporting you. When did you first meet?
He’s my old flatmate. I was sharing a flat with him in 1977. I saw the Feelgoods in 1975 or 1976 with Hugh [Cornwell], and we were gobsmacked.
Did you see Julian Temple’s film [Oil City Confidential] about Wilko and Dr Feelgood?
Absolutely. In fact, I gave Julian and Wilko the Mojo awards. I was asked to give them the awards for the movie.
You took to the stage at Rock City early last year, at about 7:30, whereas most bands at Rock City come on at around nine.
I think they’d got a curfew, because they’d got a club thing afterwards.
The interesting thing was that nobody was caught out. You have such a strong community amongst your fans, that the word just sort of spread – which I found completely remarkable.
We’ve always seen it as a form of communion. I think you get the fans that you deserve. So they’re free-thinking, pretty bright – I like to think of them as that – and they have dispensed with the prejudices which have been demonstrated against us, and they make their own bloody minds up.
Do they ever voice criticisms, and are the criticisms heard?
Absolutely, yeah – which is quite interesting to deal with.
Well, it’s more trustworthy than slavish adulation.
That’s the kind of people I prefer. Sometimes they get pissed off with us, and tell us in no uncertain terms, which I think is good. It’s healthy.
Their loyalty and their continuing interest must help to protect you against the trap which has hit so many bands who came up at the same time as you, in that you’ve never had that slide into becoming a pure nostalgia act.
No, that wouldn’t excite me in any way – even in the erectile sense. That’s not what we’re about. But I’m not ashamed of our heritage, if you want to call it that.
You’re calling it the Black And Blue tour. Your band’s association with the colour black is the stuff of legend, but you’re now adding a new shade to your palette. Where has the blue come from?
Well, we nearly called it Black And Blues, because of Wilko. But it’s going to be a dominant colour, and also a play on ideas, and what we’ve had to get through, to be here.
As in: it’s been a bruising experience?
Yeah, quite a lot!
Don McCalman worked through the dark ages of Nottingham nightlife; a time when door staff were bouncers, a lobbing down a flight of stairs was an acceptable way to deal with an errant customer and the profession was completely unregulated. Then he wrote a book about it…
How long have you been working the doors?
I started over 40 years ago. I’ve worked the Royal Hotel for 27 years, and I used to have 16 doormen on there, because of all the restaurants. I used to run the George Hotel, the Mint Bar, the Ossington in Newark, the Daisy Club and lots more, all over Nottingham. At the Palais, I’ve seen blokes being chucked down the stairs. We were bouncers then. But if you were in a situation where it got out of control and someone was going to hit you with a bottle, then you had to take it further.
How often have you felt in serious danger?
Many times: it’s a dangerous job. I’ve had my son working for me and I was glad when he packed up. The trouble is we’re now getting knives and guns. If you get someone on drugs and he says to you that he’s got a gun, you have to take it seriously.
How do you deal with that fear?
It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m not frightened of anything. When you’re on the door, you can’t back off – if you do, you’d be known as a coward and nobody would work with you. If you’re going to get a beating, you’re going to have to take it. For example, when I was a young man I was doing The Rose on Parliament Street and this guy hit his girlfriend. He was with a load of lads and I got them all out and made sure the girl was all right. She phoned her father and he came down and thanked me. Then when I walked out later, someone hit me from behind. They found me on the dustbin in the morning.
Do you have to consciously keep your emotions under control?
Oh yeah, you have to. One minute it’s “Oh, please mate, please let me in, honest, I’ll behave” and next thing you’re a bastard. They’ll do everything to get inside you. Spitting in your face, calling you a nonce and all that. They want to get a rise out of you. But you never lose your temper. They go across the road, and they stand there abusing you for a while, and then they go.
Does anybody ever come back and apologise?
Yeah, lots of times. Nice lads will come back the next week. “Mate, I’m ever so sorry for what I did last week, for swearing at you and all that.” Then they’ll say, can I come in tonight? “Yeah, all right, you can come in.” Or sometimes I’ll say, “No, but thanks for apologising and come back to see me next week.”
So has Nottingham become more dangerous over the years?
It’s mixed. It’s got dangerous from the point of weapons. I think that most of the trouble is to do with “you’re on my patch.” I know people who live in St Ann’s, where I was born, who won’t go in one area because they’re frightened. And because the other bloke’s got a knife, they feel safer with a knife. I’ve been at bars where I’ve seen the jackets sticking up – so you know they’ve got the knife, at the back, in their trousers. Everybody drinks too much now – they don’t know what they’re doing, then they wonder what they’ve done the next day.
Is boozing more of a problem now?
Some people just go out to get drunk and cause trouble and some of the girls get absolutely legless. I’ve gone up Parliament Street and you can see them, she doesn’t know she’s having sex, she doesn’t know anything about it. A girl said to me one night, “I’m gonna slit you and pull your liver out.” I had another woman try to get a bottle to hit me. So I had to get her arm and say to her “If you do any more, or if you try and kick me again, I’m going to throw you down the stairs.” Sometimes you have to use that sort of attitude to people. You can’t just say to them, now be a good girl and pat them on the head. Because they won’t take that – they’ll have a go at you.
If you were able to pass any new legislation to make Nottingham city centre a safer place to be at night, what would you do?
I’d cut down closing times to how they were before. I think two o’clock in the morning is ample. I would never have increased the drinking time. If you leave the pub at eleven, it still gives you three hours to drink.
Do you get noticed when you’re not on the job?
I was once in Walkabout, and there were about eight lads with baseball hats. I could remember chucking them out of the Royal. One of them came over and said “Do you remember us? Do you want to come outside now?” Then suddenly, all the bouncers were around them and they went “Have you got a problem, Don? So I say to these lads, “Have we got a problem?” They went, but in a different circumstance, they’d have followed me.
Your autobiography The Bouncer came out last year. How did it come about?
When I first wrote it, I never thought of selling it. It was just for my family. But people took an interest and I was told to ring this guy called John Parker in London. I sent it down to him and he re-wrote it. He likened it to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
The book is even prefaced with; ‘Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not’.
I’ve done quite a lot in my life. But being a doorman has cost me.
In what way?
Being who I am, everywhere I go now, I’m on my own. Everybody knows me as dressed in black, and you get this reputation. When I was a young man, I used to love it, but now it gets very lonely. People can think all sorts – they make you like you’re a gangster and you’re not. I wouldn’t have been the vice-chairman of the Door Watch Committee, for one and I’m well known to the police, as I always did a good job.
You write about being severely bullied as a child. How did that affect you?
When I was a lad, I was really bullied. I was claustrophobic and frightened of going outside. Then when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I saw the guy that used to beat me on Porchester Road. All this hate came inside me and I went and knocked seven bells out of him. Once I did that, I changed from being timid to not being frightened. It was already there, but I was too scared to use it. Then I changed and I was always gang leader. With my mates, I was always the top man. I had jet black hair and there were all the ladies, of which I had a hell of a lot. But I can always remember my wife saying to me: one day, you’re going to end up on your own. And she was dead right.
What are you up to you today?
Well, I’m doing something good today. I’m going for a fitting at Dolce e Gabanna, so it’s really not that bad! I rarely go to parties, but I’m in town for two day doing fashion week, and there’s Naomi Campbell’s party tonight. That’s about the only glamorous thing in this business! (Laughs)
You’ve just returned from the States. Was that your first major tour over there?
Yeah, and it was absolutely amazing. America’s bizarre as a country, and the pop culture is bizarre and weird. So for me, as an artist who draws her inspiration from observing it, it was so fascinating.
You’ve spoken before about feeling emotionally drawn to the US in your writing. There’s that famous line from Hollywood: “I’m obsessed with the mess that’s America”. Where did that feeling of connection come from?
I’m not sure whether other people of my generation feel the same, or whether it’s just something personal to me, but when I was growing up, success as an artist meant being on MTV – and those things were very iconic and imprinted on my brain as a child. So maybe I related it to success. And for me, I will not have made it until I’ve won something like the VMA awards, because that for me equals success.
So it’s important for you to win over an American audience.
Yeah, and it’s not just because of this old myth of “if you make it in America, you can make it everywhere”. It’s not strictly true. However, I think there’s something really bleak about America. And that relates to middle America, and to the people who live there – just normal, everyday people. I don’t care about the celebrity side of it. I care about normal people and the public. I grew up in much the same way, in a little village in Wales, from quite a humble background. So that’s what I think of when I go there and play to people.
You must have had certain preconceptions of American life. How did they measure up against the reality?
When I first started going there, I felt very cold towards it. That’s how you feel when an illusion is exposed as an illusion. It’s like biting into a cake that has no flavour. I don’t mean that in a bad way – that was just in the beginning. And now people are so warm. It’s not just a naïvely happy thing – they’re like that because they’re very hopeful people. And I don’t think we should be so cynical about that. The country has gone through a hard time, and it’s not the people’s fault. It’s the government, and the system that’s in place there, and the media that’s in place there, that’s the ruin of the country.
Do you now have an opportunity to infiltrate that media yourself, and to get some different messages out there?
Absolutely. I think that’s why I have found a strange fan base there, even though I’m not pop enough to be on the radio. It’s because I’m very honest, and I think my lyrics relate to big things in people’s lives: their dreams, their aspirations and how they feel about themselves. So I don’t want to portray things like: OK, I’m in a club with loads of guys around me, and I’ve got loads of money. Because that’s not true! (Laughs)
No, I think we’ve got enough of that. You’re not after Ke$ha’s market. Could you ever imagine yourself moving to the US?
Oh, absolutely. As a young person, I haven’t got the responsibilities of children and husbands and all that kind of thing. I really want to move to New York next year, maybe for a year, a year and a half. Then I’ll come back to London, because I do love the UK.
The video for your new single (Shampain) is a strong contrast from your previous video (Oh No). In Oh No you were the aggressor, but in Shampain you’re almost the victim. Was this an attempt to show a different side?
Yeah, definitely. Because I’ve only done one album, I suppose people only have that snapshot of me: as a success-hungry, questioning person who wasn’t very happy. (Laughs) And that is very true, but it’s quite hard sometimes when you’re quite a hungry person and people think that you’re like that all the time. But obviously those songs come from somewhere. So with Shampain, it made sense to do a darker, heavier video.
The song is about vices, and about being a very split personality. It’s the fine line between feeling absolutely incredible when you’re hammered, and then suddenly something going wrong and everything going to hell and you want to die. (Giggles)
The title reads as “sham pain” – but lyrically, you’re describing a very real pain. So what’s going on there?
(Laughs) Well, I always want to make things more interesting! And I actually hate champagne. If I had put “Champagne” as the title, perhaps people would have thought it was some typical club song.
The video was shot in Southwark Park, in London, from 4pm until 7am. It was the coldest video I’ve ever done in my life. I was absolutely freezing.
It’s an uptempo track, but you have also performed it as stripped down ballad. Was it originally written as an uptempo song?
It’s one of the few that were. Most of my songs start as ballads – Hollywood was a ballad – I’ll do them on piano. But Shampain was actually studio written.
Do you like playing around with differing interpretations of your songs?
It’s really important to me. In the pop world, I don’t think people don’t expect to see a real musician. And with people like Elly [Jackson, aka La Roux] and Florence, and Lady Gaga as well, they all have great voices, and I love that. Because you really have to stand up as an artist live, to be a long term act. In America, it’s quite unheard of. Not that they don’t have great singers, but pure pop is very Autotuned.
Somehow, if you put the same song through different interpretations, it highlights the strength of the song. It makes people listen to the song in a fresh way.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And for me as a songwriter as well, that’s a test – that I’ve written a song that could be timeless, if you take it out of the studio and strip it of the production and play it on your own.
It must have been a mad, busy year for you. How are your energy levels holding up?
Usually, I’m like “Yeeeeeah, I’m FINE! I can go on for nine more years!” But today, I feel absolutely knackered. It’s probably the jetlag from L.A. But generally I’m happy. I’m gearing up for the autumn tour, and I feel great.
When you do get downtime – assuming you get any at all – do you find it easy to relax, or do you tend to crash and burn?
I don’t know what I tend to do, because it rarely happens. So if I do, I actually just take sleeping pills, because I can’t sleep very well either. I’m quite an anxious sleeper.
Oh my goodness, you want to watch that. (Laughter)
So I’m not sure – I just try and chill out, I suppose. I stay at home usually, and I write.
Do you still have the time and space to work on new material?
Yeah, I do. I’m inspired every day, even if it’s just writing lyrics. It’s like a muscle. If you don’t use it, then the next time you go back and try, you tend to be cranky. So I try. But I don’t think you should force yourself to be creative, especially when you’re pretty stressed. The key is calm, and then you can do it.
Are any new lyrical themes emerging?
Yeah – death, usually! But it’s going well! (Laughs)
Oh well, that’s what success does to you, then. It makes you morbid.
Yeah, it does!
It has been a year of great change, of course. Your whole professional career has stepped up several notches. Were you prepared for that change, and has it matched your expectations?
Oh, absolutely. Yes, yes and yes. I’m someone who over-thinks everything, and I’ve over-thought my career since I planned it ten years ago. So nothing has felt strange. Also, I have quite a wry outlook on things. Even though on the first album I was talking about success – what it means, and that I want it, and that I’m ambitious – I’m very aware of what this entails, and I don’t lie to myself. So I don’t really feel like things have changed. I just expect more of myself.
Some people find it a disillusioning process, but it sounds like you didn’t have too many illusions to begin with.
No, I didn’t. I wanted to be worked, and I want to feel like I’ve earned this. Some people come into this expecting the soft beauty and glamour of it. I think there are loads of people who really struggle – but the work horses don’t. And they usually last.
Is there necessarily more of a distance between you and your fans now – or your “diamonds” as you call them – or do you consciously try to bridge that distance?
I still comment on Facebook, and I tweet them sometimes. I have several fans from the beginning who I’m in very regular contact with, and have been for four years. So it might not be as publicised, as in everyone knowing about it, but I have really close contact with people. And it’s on a very genuine level.
I don’t say “diamonds” to be cute. I created Marina and the Diamonds because I felt very excluded, and I never want to make anybody feel like that. I want to make people very welcome.
There’s a kind of hierarchical nature in this industry, which is encouraged. I hate it. I think it’s bullshit. So I’ll meet people after every single gig, on every single tour.
Following a well-received appearance on last week’s Later, which drew praise from Sandie Shaw and John Prescott alike, 31-year old Rumer has quickly become one of the most hotly tipped new acts of the autumn. Ahead of next month’s Nottingham show, supporting Jools Holland at the Royal Concert Hall, she spoke to Mike Atkinson.
Your performance on Later seems to have created quite a buzz. Sandie Shaw even singled you out for praise on the show.
I know! She is one of my favourite Bacharach singers. I know there are so many, but she’s a gorgeous singer.
Did you get to meet her?
I didn’t actually, no. I think people’s schedules are so intense that they just disappear. But I think I went to the bar where all the punters go; I don’t think it was for the proper famous people.
Was that your first TV performance?
(Long pause) Do you know what, that probably was! I’ve done live radio, which is actually a good rehearsal for TV. When that little light goes on, you think: oh my God, I’m live! If you’ve done that a few times, it does prepare you.
Just after the show, I went onto Twitter and searched on your name, just to see what people were saying about your performance. Then I spotted a tweet from John Prescott, of all people. The next thing I know, he’s written an article for The Guardian, praising you to the heavens. I think you’ve inspired him to take up music journalism.
He’s after your job! It was a very good piece – very interesting. It’s quite funny, isn’t it, how you can just be watching telly of an evening, and then tweet something, and then the next minute you’re a music journalist. He was on Twitter, and the music editor of The Guardian said: “Prezza, I can make you the next Lester Bangs. What do you reckon, 400 words?” And Prezza went: “OK, I’ll have a go.”
The buzz is spreading. I checked Amazon the next day, and your album was in their Top 10. It’s not even out until November, so that must be a bit frustrating.
I know; it was one below Seal. And Seal’s been on the telly, and in the magazines, and doing a proper promo. And I haven’t done anything! I know the record company are going to spend money, but they haven’t started yet.
Are you prepared for all this excitement?
No, I’m not thin enough yet! I need six more months. I need to run around and lose a few more pounds. Apart from that, I am ready! (Laughs)
You’ve been working for this moment for a very long time. I gather that for a lot of that time, it was like bashing your head against a wall, and not getting very far, and having to do loads of service-level jobs. That must be a huge test of an artist’s commitment. How did you maintain your resolve?
It got to the point where I was getting quite Zen. I just thought: it doesn’t matter what you do. I quite enjoyed cleaning, and I’d do it again. If ever it all dissolved, and I ended up cleaning toilets again, I think I could be Zen about it. Because I don’t think your value is what you do. I think we all play an equal role in life, and I don’t think it matters what we do for our jobs.
How did things start coming together? Was there a particular turning point?
When I met (producer) Steve Brown, that was when I had a chance. He was a very successful man; a rich, benevolent man. Not in the music industry; he does TV and comedy and stuff like that. But because he’d started off in bands, before he went pro, he related to me. He never had a shot at it, and so he gave me a chance. He had the money, and he just put everything on his pad.
He was a self-made man: a working class guy, taught himself how to read music, how to arrange, worked his way up, was a grafter, and gradually became very successful. And he was just thinking that it was time to give something back.
So when you started collaborating with him, did that steer you in a particular musical direction? Did it focus you towards these lushly orchestrated love ballads?
I think I always wanted them to be like that. I’d written them like that, but I could never realise them like that. My love of music came from movie musicals and old-fashioned songwriters like Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, all those lovely old-fashioned American writers. The music always wanted to be like that. It always wanted to be grand and lush.
Had you heard the arrangements in your head?
Yeah, I did. But I never dreamed that they would be like that. The only way was to do harmonies: just going “ba-ba-ba” and “la-la-la” and pretending. I couldn’t have the trumpets, the orchestra, the brass – so I would do all these little harmonies.
Along the way, had you dabbled in working in other genres?
I was in a band for a little while, called La Honda. I wouldn’t say it was indie, but it was a four-part harmony, rock and roll / country group. It was melodic, but it had a kind of soft-rock vibe to it. I’ve also put vocals on downbeat dance tracks.
There’s not some dance white label lying around in a warehouse somewhere?
Oh yeah. There’s a definitely a white label.
Long Long Day is a cover of Paul Simon, but are the other songs on your album all your own compositions?
Long Long Day isn’t on the album. There are ten songs that are my songs, and the other one is a cover by Bread: the theme from Goodbye Girl. It was the record company’s call. I think the MD’s children liked it!
To what extent are your songs autobiographical?
Oh, I think they all are. Sometimes fiction tells a story better than the truth. So a lot of them are stories, but they’re stories that are embedded in the truth. [The new single] Aretha, for example, is a story, but there are loads of true elements in it. And I think it tells a lot of people’s stories.
I find Slow quite an intriguing song. If you’re not giving it your full attention, you might think it was just a sweet song about being in love – but then you focus in, and discover something of a twist in its tail. By the end you’re thinking: oh hang on, it’s changed, he doesn’t want this.
(Laughs) Well, they never do! And this is the thing. It’s not that he doesn’t want it, it’s just that men tend to will you not to screw it up. In the beginning of relationship, they desperately want the female not to overdo it, you know? In a way, they’re willing you not to push it. Like saying “I love you” too quickly, or stuff like that.
It’s interesting what you’ve done with the chorus. I think you described it as being like a Greek chorus. I was confused at first. I was thinking: who is this “they”?
They’re the angels. The Greek chorus was the PR company’s words, but actually I believe in angels. I completely, 100%, believe in angels. And angels are in all my songs. You can hear them; you’ll hear the “they” in all the songs. Their voices are all there. And you think: where are they coming from? And they’re not coming from me. They’re angels. I know this sounds a bit funny! (Laughs)
No, it sounds really intriguing. It makes me want to get hold of the album. Now, shall we grasp the Karen Carpenter nettle? Because the Karen Carpenter comparisons are being thrown around like mad at the moment. I think it’s because you’re at that stage where people are throwing around comparisons in order to get a handle on your sound. Does it bug you a bit, having everyone going on about Karen Carpenter?
No, I think it’s nice that people are thinking of her. I’m happy to be a reminder, if you like. I’m a Carpenters fan. So if it helps people to remember to put their Carpenters CD on, and to think about Karen and how wonderful she was, and how tragic it was, I think that’s good.
I’ve not heard you performing any uptempo numbers. Does that ever happen?
Well, I did a charity gig recently for Pakistan, when I did Jambalaya (On The Bayou). But the flavour of the album is very moody, emotional and ethereal.
So it would break the spell if you suddenly went: come on everybody, get up on your feet?
Well, it’s a bit like a Leonard Cohen concert. I don’t think I’d expect him to suddenly start leaping up and down. There was a review in The Guardian, saying that I could have been a bit more upbeat. Fair enough, but it depends what you go out on a night for. There’s plenty of music that’s uptempo.
If you were forced to perform an uptempo song on stage, or else face unspeakably dire consequences, what song might you pick?
I’d probably pick Upside Down by Diana Ross, or Wedding Bell Blues by the Fifth Dimension. I love upbeat music, and my concert is not upbeat – but it is uplifting. It’s a different kind of experience. It’s a more cerebral experience – like theatre or poetry.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.
If someone asked you to name ten pop hits of 1980s, straight off the top of your head, you might list the biggest songs of that decade: Tainted Love, Don’t You Want Me, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Karma Chameleon, Relax, maybe something by Madonna or Michael Jackson. But how quickly would you recall Martika’s Toy Soldiers, or Brother Beyond’s The Hardest I Try, or Climie Fisher’s Love Changes Everything? All were major hits in their day, but you’ll rarely hear them on the radio, or on the playlists of Eighties retro nights.
Frustrated by this narrowing of the Eighties pop canon, Nottingham writer Nick Parkhouse is now seeking to restore the reputations of some of these less remembered hits, as documented in his new book 101 Forgotten Pop Hits of the 1980s.
What inspired you to put this book together in the first place?
I was out in London with a fellow who I’d never met. We ended up in a pub, and we were chatting about pop music in general. We got onto the Eighties, I’d had a few drinks, and I was eulogising. He called me “the Louis Theroux of Eighties pop” and said “You should write a book about this”.
So I started doing a bit of research. A friend and I came up with a list of songs, but then it wasn’t really getting very far. I’d done a couple of chapters and it was all a bit “what does Wikipedia say” and “what can I find out on the artists’ websites”. It was a bit dull.
I was researching a chapter, and I came upon an e-mail address for Nathan Moore, the lead singer of Brother Beyond. I thought “OK, nothing ventured”, so I pressed the link. Within a couple of hours, I got an e-mail back, saying: brilliant, happy to help, here’s my phone number. I spoke to him a few days later, and he gave me loads of great stories.
So I thought: OK, we’re a 101th of the way there. I got a bit of momentum going, and I just started pinging e-mails to people, left right and centre. I could almost count on one hand the people who said no, but maybe three or four people got slightly haughty.
There were a couple of, as Buzzcocks would say, “very much still in the music industry today” replies. Then I got two or three e-mails back from people getting very stroppy, saying “Our song’s not forgotten! It gets lots of airplay, so we don’t want to participate in this.”
I might press you to name a name.
I tell you what – I am going to name a name, because they were really rude in their e-mail: The Bangles. And Shakin’ Stevens, of all people. I thought he would be nice! You’d think he would be a gent, but he was very dismissive.
You call the book 101 Forgotten Pop Hits of the 1980s, but the term “forgotten” is a relative concept. How would you define it?
There are two criteria, really. There’s the forgotten-ness, and there’s the pop-ness. The pop-ness was quite shamelessly arbitrary, as to what constituted a pop record and what didn’t. I tried to exclude anything that was pop-rock – that Huey Lewis type thing – and anything that was pop-dance, and anything that was pop-novelty, like Star Trekkin’ and Russ Abbott’s Atmosphere. They are quite good pop records, but they’re just a little bit too kitsch.
When we were initially writing the list, the big one that we had trouble with was Dennis Waterman’s I Could Be So Good For You. We really couldn’t decide whether that was pop, or whether it was not.
As for “forgotten”: when I’ve done bits of radio in the past, I love playing a record where people will go “oh, I haven’t heard this for ages”. But there’s a fine line between that and playing a record that people have absolutely no recollection of whatsoever. So it’s trying to walk that tightrope between stuff that if you give people a nudge, they’ll think “ah yeah, I think I vaguely remember that”, but not something that got to Number 38 in 1981 for a week. There are only a couple of records which never made the Top Ten, and I think there are eight Number Ones, so it’s not totally obscure.
You say that you’ve been to a lot of Eighties nights, where what constitutes an Eighties hit has been narrowed down to a tiny playlist, to the exclusion of everything else.
You’ll hear, for example, Relax. You won’t ever hear Welcome To The Pleasuredome, or Rage Hard. You’ll hear Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, but you won’t hear Freedom or The Edge Of Heaven. It doesn’t take much to play a different record by a great artist, but people don’t.
If anything, your list is slightly weighted towards hits from the second half of the decade. With the cycle of revivalism, things go through a period of being completely uncool and “why did we ever like that?” Then they get revered again as classics. The first half of the Eighties, I would say, is now home and dry. You had all the pop revivalists of last year referencing synthpop, so anything from Blondie to Frankie Goes To Hollywood is now OK. Anything beyond that is still regarded as being beyond the pale. So I was quite interested that you are describing a world where there is no shame in liking Climie Fisher, or Living In A Box, or Johnny Hates Jazz. Is there a part of you that wants to rep for that period in pop?
I got my first cassette player around 1984. At the age of eleven or twelve, when you start going out to Woolworths and buying stuff, that was around 1986. Had I come up with a list of 101 of my favourite records, the vast majority would have been from that second half. So I did find myself changing the list, to try and weight it backwards.
But I think you’re right: the revivalist stuff that has been on the telly is all early Eighties. It’s Human League and Heaven 17 and Boy George, that sort of thing. With Stock Aitken Waterman, I’m still not sure. The early Eighties are probably over-represented at an Eighties night. You probably hear a lot more Frankie and Wham! than you do Rick Astley.
Everyone from Lady GaGa to Friendly Fires, they all name-check the early Eighties. The late Eighties still seems a bit naff. I don’t think there’s anybody out saying “oh yeah, we’re influenced by Danny Wilson and Johnny Hates Jazz”.
Is it to do with the claims that the artists made for their own music? The early Eighties lot will go: “This is Art. I just happen to be using pop music as my medium at the moment. I am deeply serious about what I do.” They all had manifestos, and they had a complete look and a complete image. You can’t really say the same for Climie Fisher and Living In A Box. They didn’t make any grand claims. There was no Climie Fisher manifesto. It’s tougher for people to get nostalgic about, because you haven’t got that hook.
If you said “Nik Kershaw” to somebody, they’ll maybe name you a song, but they’ll talk about his hair, and his fingerless gloves, and his snood, and his daft videos. But if you say “Living In A Box”, you couldn’t pick them out at an identity parade. You might remember the song, but that was the beginning and the end of it. And I think that’s a real shame. The records are as good, but perhaps they don’t have that kind of peripheral influence.
Do you like every record in the book?
Broadly, yes. The whole thing is supposed to be quite passionate, quite sympathetic and affectionate, and I would have found it difficult to include a record that I didn’t really like. There are some that I don’t really care for; Physical by Olivia Newton John is probably my least favourite.
Of all the people you interviewed, who was the best value?
As strange it sounds, I owe quite a bit to the guys from Johnny Hates Jazz. They were some of the first people that I interviewed, when they were playing the Here And Now arena tour. They got us backstage in Nottingham and in Birmingham, so I got to meet some of the other people that were touring with them, like Paul Young and Bananarama.
From a personal point of view, it was interviewing Pal from a-ha about the Bond theme that they did for The Living Daylights. The whole idea of chatting to one of a-ha about James Bond: there was just something a little bit magical about that.
Did you learn any surprising facts along the way?
It sounds terribly macabre, but it was learning how quite a lot of these people are dead. I kept coming across people to interview, like Laura Branigan and the London Boys, and doing a bit of research, and finding out that they were dead.
The other interesting thing that I learned is that the six degrees of separation in Eighties pop music is much lower than you think it is. Everybody seems to know almost everybody. I interviewed Nick Beggs out of Kajagoogoo, and he said “I can help you with this, who else have you got?” I reeled off a few names and he said “Well, I play keyboards for Kim Wilde’s live shows, so here’s her manager’s phone number. Get cracking and tell him that Nick sent you. Oh, and I do work with Howard Jones, here’s his manager’s number.” So it’s a much smaller society than I had ever envisaged.
With Edelweiss, I was really struggling. They basically had the one record. They came and went, so I couldn’t really find anything out. I eventually found the name of the bloke behind Edelweiss: this Austrian fellow called Walter Wezowa. I rang him one day, and it turns out that he wrote the Intel “bong”, which is played once in the world every five seconds or something ludicrous like that.
His royalty cheques must be enormous.
They must be immense. For five notes? It’s mad! And then there was Glenn Medeiros: how lost in showbiz must he have been, at the point where he called his kids Chord and Lyric?
Did you manage to unearth much in the way of local connections?
Just one: Su Pollard. She was kept off Number One by Billy Ocean’s When The Going Gets Tough – which is a great record, to be fair. Su Pollard was fantastic, actually. I ended up having to write to her, in the old fashioned way, because there was no e-mail on her website. She left an answer phone message which I’ve kept to this day, which sounds like her auditioning to do the Tannoy at Maplins. It goes on for hours, God love her.
I eventually did a phone interview with her. The nicest woman in the world, but you do end up with the phone sort of… over here. I invited her to the launch, because I thought: she’s local, she might come. Then I was out one morning and my wife got her for about half an hour, going “I’m sorry I can’t come, I’m in Spain for my sister’s birthday, I’d love to come, if it had been another day”, and so on. She has been a very staunch supporter, our Su. I won’t hear a bad word.
But you did unearth one other Nottingham connection, I think.
Oh, Spagna. The video was filmed at Ritzy’s.
That shocked me. We never knew!
I think it was filmed partly in Belvoir Castle, and the rest of it is in Ritzy’s in Nottingham. I’ve absolutely no idea why. It had already been a huge hit in Europe, so why they had to make another video for the UK market, I’m not really sure.
She did supply what I think might be the best quote in the entire book.
It was from Smash Hits magazine. They used to say that she had a “fright wig”, with her huge blonde hair. And she said, “Ees not fright wig. Ees real hair.” Still very much working in the industry today! She’s gone back to “Ivana Spagna” now.
That’s much more classy. If you had to consign all but one of these forgotten pop hits to The Dumper in perpetuity, which one would you keep?
If it was for the human race, I’d keep Gold by Spandau Ballet. Gold doesn’t really count, because it’s the least forgotten. But I love Spandau Ballet, and I’ve been very lucky to meet Tony Hadley a couple of times, so I thought I’d better put one in. And it is one of the greatest records ever, isn’t it? But for me personally, I’d probably keep Climie Fisher’s Love Changes Everything.
I have gone back to this record several times, having read your glowing endorsement in the book (“quite simply the finest pop record of the 1980s”), and I just keep hearing a rather anonymous pop record that sounds a bit like Rod Stewart. So please, make the case.
There was a story that it was written for Rod Stewart. Simon Climie had written other stuff for him, and when Rod turned it down, he decided to sing it in a sort of Rod Stewart fashion. Apparently this is nonsense. It was intended for Robert Palmer, and he passed it over, so they decided to record it themselves.
I just think there’s something a little bit magic. The sound of it is maybe a little bit dated, and it is slightly mid-paced. It isn’t a ballad, and you couldn’t really play it at a disco.
It’s a drivetime record, I’d say. You’re on the way home, your tapping your finger on the dashboard, the sun’s out, and all’s right with the world.
I don’t think it’s got the greatest vocal in the world, and I think that he is better as a songwriter than as an artist. Had he handed that record to somebody who was a big star at the time, maybe it would have been a gigantic hit. But it got to Number Two, so it didn’t do badly.
Were you firmly a pop kid? You weren’t going off and scouring the indie charts or the dance charts?
No – I fell out of love with music a little bit when the pop of the late Eighties was replaced by the Manchester thing. Stock Aitken Waterman disappeared, and then along came the Happy Mondays and The Farm and the Stone Roses, which I absolutely hated. All of it. The early Nineties was a real nadir, because there was no decent music.
So there would be no mileage for you in doing 101 forgotten pop hits of the Nineties?
I thought about that, but it’s more difficult to define what was pop in the Nineties. Do you include Oasis? Britpop: is that pop? Maybe pop was that horrible Outhere Brothers shouty sort of thing. In the late Nineties, you could make some mileage, because you’ve got the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls and quite a lot of what you could call pop.
The other thing with the Nineties, because of the way that charts evolved, is that you’d probably end up including a strange amount of Number One records. They came in for a week, and then they disappeared. But it’s whether I care enough about the Nineties, which I’m not sure I do!