Mike Atkinson

Interview: Barry Adamson

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 4, 2008

I read with some amazement that this will be your first ever solo tour. Why now, and why never before?

This is the question on everybody’s lips at the moment! That sentence has been taken a little bit too much to heart. I’ve always played live, but I’ve never done a consecutive string of dates. So I think that’s where the gasps of amazement are coming from, as if I’ve never left the house for thirty years. And sure, the last time I played Nottingham was at Rock City with the Bad Seeds, or maybe with Magazine, which is eons ago.

But the “why now” is a fair question – and it’s because the new album [Back to the Cat] just screams to be played live, that’s all. Funnily enough, I was able to play it live as a preview, right after it was written. It went down really well, which gave me an indication. So I thought: OK, let’s just do it. Let’s go out, night after night, and play it. And I think I’ve now got a sufficient body of work, as well.

Also, I wasn’t really a band. I was this guy who sat with a keyboard, twiddling away and making these scores, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking that out on the road. I’m not really a band now – but it sounds like it’s a band, and it’s presented in a band way.

So you don’t generally define as a band leader for most of the time?

I do now, and I feel like I can take that out.

Are these people that you’ve worked with many times before?

Yes, they’re regulars. They’re the same people that play on the new record, and on the other records.

So there will be quite a full line-up, I guess.

It’s funny, because people think there’s eighty people playing on each track, and there’s not really. There’s only four or five, or seven at most, and they’re the people that I’ll be bringing with me, so sonically it will be fine. People do seem to think that we’ll be coming on ten buses.

You do imagine an orchestra, somehow.

Yeah, but there’s not one there. That’s how it works today. A keyboard can sound like an orchestra, which it does on the record.

Tell me more about the Back to the Cat album. Are there particular unifying themes?

I guess there always is with me, because I’ve got that film head. I guess I work in the background. I run around from theme to theme, from the psychological set-up to the next beat of the movie, and I pull it together in that way.

But what’s interesting about this record is that there wasn’t a lot of pre-meditation. The first song that popped up was Walk On Fire. I thought: well, that’s pretty upbeat, even though it still has the same flavours of noir, and a dark leaning in some ways. It set me off, and then it was a bit like watching a garden flower, really. The songs sprang up one after the other, really quite quickly.

It’s funny, because I usually keep such a tight rein on the themes. I put it down to experience, and having a bit more confidence, just to let things happen.

It’s more stylistically diverse than I was expecting. I had a pre-conceived notion of your music as being very much down the John Barry and Leonard Bernstein route.

Yeah, I’ve always been linked to the Bernstein/Barry ends of film composition, but maybe there are newer elements that I’m adding.

The standard description which gets applied to you, over and over again, is that you compose soundtracks for imaginary movies. Is that the way that you approach the composition process? Does an imaginary movie spool in your head?

I think it does, actually. I’m writing from an idea, which is driven from character – but you do almost drift, from station to station. You go into each place, and inhabit each world on the record.

I think it was more applicable in the early days. The pieces were instrumental, and so they were like soundscapes, where you could apply your own imagery. In that sense, they were open. There wasn’t a narrative, and there wasn’t an idea that was verbalised. But I still think that that’s the thread of the record, yeah. I still think they have a sense of that.

A track that I visualised particularly strongly was your instrumental Flight. To me, it suggests men in trench coats and trilbies, running down dark alleyways at night, with police sirens whooping behind them and lights chasing them…

All that for a little cat, running down the alleyway! But I know what you mean, of course. It does hark back to that way of working. I actually find that track quite out there on its own. It’s not like anything I’ve done before, but at the same time you kind of know what it means. And it’s exactly the description you’ve made there – that’s what’s going on in it.

So basically, you’ll start from a narrative standpoint, as opposed to an emotional standpoint. You don’t really write about personal emotions, in terms of spilling your heart out and letting a particular personal situation inform a song.

Well, no. I’ve made mistakes in the past where I’ve attempted to do that, and I don’t think that’s good art. Well, I can’t do it, put it that way.

What I tend to do is use symbolism and metaphor, that drop quite definitely into the emotions. Then you can get a sense of where I’m coming from, and of the feelings which come behind that, which are in some ways therefore biographical.

So what I enjoy is mixing up those states, and moving from the head to the heart, if you like, and back again. Being abstract about that, and then covering that, and then mapping that, and then purposely not revealing that, and then revealing something when you think: well, that’s all obviously made up. It’s very much a filmic way.

Truffaut had this idea that you should write 25% of yourself, 25% from a friend, 25% from what you read in the newspaper, and 25% totally made up. That’s what makes up a narrative.

To what extent, if any, should the album be viewed as a quote-unquote “retro” project?

I think that would be a cheap shot. I think that would be a slightly cynical way of brushing off something, in order to get back to reading the News of the World.

But it has a retro-istic standpoint, and on purpose. Because, if you think about it, where we are now musically: there’s nothing going on. I don’t think anything’s really going forward. I think we’ve driven to the coast, and we’re looking to build a boat. So all I’m doing is saying: while we’re building the boat, just think this. This is what’s got us here anyway, so let’s go and build the boat. To be honest with you, that’s what my thinking is.

Mm, okay…

“Mm, grunted Mike!” (Laughs) No, go on!

Well, yeah, there is an undeniably retro feel – but to me, there’s an element which reminds me of the music that I grew up with in the Sixties, which is very formative music for me. There’s something very reassuring about some of the Bacharach/David elements, and so on.

That’s true, but there’s another thing going on there, Mike. Why? Why? Why is he doing a record like this? There’s something else going on there. You’re right: I’m taking comfort from that in some ways, but I’m also saying: this is where the buck has stopped. You know, if it was 1977, well, I wouldn’t be making that kind of record.

You’d have been tearing up the past?

Yeah, exactly. But I don’t see that happening now. And when it does happen, I’ll gracefully bow out, and do something else. But until then, I’ll create these worlds, and use the past to inform a future.

When you do see people attempting to tear up the past and start afresh, it all seems a little bit unconvincing to me. Maybe I’ve just been around too long, and I’m not taken in by it. Maybe we’ve reached a point where we can’t do it anymore.

I’m not convinced that you can ignore history, ever. In artwork, or in music, or whatever.

Finally, I have to commend you for playing on one of my absolute favourite singles of all time, which is Magazine’s A Song From Under the Floorboards. It came along at just the right time for me, especially with the way that it revels in self-abasement, in a way that I found very appealing at the time. I guess you must have been responsible for that lovely popping bassline, that goes all the way through it…

That’s true, yes. Well, you see, even then that was kind of new for me – a case of: oh let’s just try it and see what happens. It was taking an idea that I’d heard on a Sly Stone record, and then from something that was going on in a David Bowie record at the time. I was trying to fuse them together, and to make this thing that was bubbling underneath the surface – which was like the floorboards, from my end of the story.

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