Mike Atkinson

Interview: John Grant

Posted in interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 2, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally ran in Metro and the Nottingham Post.

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)

See also: live review of John Grant at Nottingham Glee, September 8th 2011.

Interview: Beverley Knight

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on August 30, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

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!

Interview: Clem Burke, Blondie.

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 22, 2011

An edited version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

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.

Interview: Ronika

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 8, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

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.

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Interview: John Bradbury, The Specials

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 1, 2011


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.

Interview: Rick Wakeman

Posted in interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on June 10, 2011

(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)

Interview: Don Letts, Big Audio Dynamite

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 1, 2011

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. 

Interview: Damian O’Neill, The Undertones

Posted in interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 1, 2011

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.

Interview: JJ Burnel (The Stranglers)

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 4, 2011

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!

Interview: Don McCalman

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on March 3, 2011

(This feature originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.)

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.

Interview: Marina and the Diamonds

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 8, 2010

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

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.

Interview: Rumer

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 1, 2010

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

CLICK HERE for a subsequent interview with Rumer in November 2011.

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.

Nick Parkhouse: 101 Forgotten Pop Hits of the 1980s

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on September 1, 2010

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!

101 Forgotten Pop Hits of the 1980s, AuthorHouse, £9.99

Interview: Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys

Posted in features, interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 27, 2010

A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.

Neil Tennant is in need of some sea air. He and Chris Lowe have just arrived at Blackpool (“the huge convoy of trucks arrived separately; we rolled up on the train”), ahead of the first Pet Shop Boys show in Chris’s home town in almost twenty years. “We thought it was about time we played it”, he muses. “It’s nice to be here, actually. I like Blackpool.”

Having booked a hotel room on the sea front, Neil has just discovered that his windows cannot be opened without assistance. “I guess it’s slightly odd”, he mutters, as flunkies come and go and window-related negotiations progress, stalling our conversation and prompting courteous apologies from the ozone-starved pop survivor.

The Blackpool date comes midway through the latest leg of the Pet Shop Boys’ seemingly never-ending Pandemonium tour. This particular show has been on the road since June of last year, with a five month break between December and May. A souvenir live album was recorded before Christmas, and the CD has been on sale since February, and yet the show rolls on, evoking unlikely comparisons with the perpetually touring Bob Dylan.

“We actually finish the whole thing with the V Festival at the end of August”, Neil assures me, unaware of the dangerous precedent set by Oasis, whose headlining set at Weston Park last year turned out to be their final performance. But while the Gallagher brothers turned in a bored, lacklustre, last-legs set that shamed their legacy, there seems little danger that disaster will strike twice, especially given this show’s recent ecstatic reception on the festival circuit. “Pandemonium” might not be the first word that you would associate with a Pet Shop Boys concert, but it’s a state of mind which Tennant and Lowe are happy to encourage.

“We always say that a lot of the pandemonium tends to come from the audience”, says Neil. “Since we started at the end of May, we headlined the Primavera festival in Barcelona, then we did a show in a castle in Italy, then we did Glastonbury, and we’ve just come back from the Balaton festival in Hungary, and playing in Munich. And I really think that all of these shows have been the best shows of our lives. I don’t know why, but the experience has been incredible and the show is very tight now. I like to think it’s a very entertaining show. It’s not a bit like anyone else’s show.”

Tomorrow’s performance at Splendour in Woollaton Park – where Tennant and Lowe headline over Calvin Harris, The Noisettes, Athlete and viral YouTube sensations OK Go – will to all intents and purposes be the same visual and musical experience which they brought to Glastonbury four weeks ago. If you caught the set on BBC Three, where it was broadcast live in its entirety, then you’ll know what to expect.

The memory makes Tennant both beam and bristle. “Glastonbury was an amazing experience. We got between forty and fifty thousand people watching. Of course, the media traditionally emphasises rock bands – they’re regarded as more important – but in fact we got an amazing reaction.”

It has been ten years since the Boys last played Glastonbury. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking, because Glastonbury has become such a big deal. Because it’s televised, it’s almost treated like a sporting event by the media, and so there’s something very competitive about it. When we first did it in 2000, we were on the main stage between two rock bands: Ocean Colour Scene and Travis. So we were wondering whether it was going to be our audience. In fact, once we got going, the audience grew and grew, and afterwards everybody said it was a big success.”

“This time, we were headlining the Other Stage. We were wondering how big the crowd would be, because we knew that Muse were on the main stage. But actually, Glastonbury isn’t a rock festival – they call it a festival of contemporary arts – so we got a huge audience before we even started, and the reaction and the energy from the audience was really remarkable.”

For anyone who still nurses memories of those impassive, static television appearances which defined the duo’s image in the Eighties, Tennant’s newly energised, openly enthusiastic performing style – complete with actual smiling, actual waving, and actual invitations to sing along – may come as some surprise. And yet he denies that playing to a festival crowd has changed his approach to his stagecraft.

“No, the show is the show”, he insists. “Maybe if you saw the transmission from Glastonbury, we were very hyped up, in a way. Because it’s a big deal, and of course it’s live on the television. And it’s a different audience. At a concert, people have paid to see you specifically. But at a festival, people have paid for the experience of a festival. So you’re very much aware that while you’re on, there’s a range of other people they could go and see. From the stage, you can see the coming and going of the audience. And at these concerts recently, we haven’t seen a lot of going!”

Of course, having an elaborate and ever-changing stage set-up will always help maintain an audience’s attention – and in this area, the Pandemonium experience is unlikely to disappoint. As Neil explains, the show is a “theatrical, multi-media experience” which splits into four distinct parts. “It’s not a story, but it has a sort of narrative impetus, that takes you through to the end. It’s a very creative show, and people can’t quite believe that it’s based around 250 cardboard boxes.”

Early in the set, as the recent album track “Building A Wall” is performed, these white boxes start to stack up at the rear of the stage, in a manner which might evoke memories of a certain legendary Pink Floyd show. But later on, as the wall disintegrates and the boxes form looser, more disorganised shapes, you might be reminded of the Turner Prize-winning artist Rachel Whiteread, and her recent “giant sugar cube” installation at Tate Modern.

“I’ve never seen the Pink Floyd show”, says Neil. “It’s much more Rachel Whiteread, although I don’t think it’s inspired by her either. Sometimes we might be playing a small theatre in Milwaukee, and sometimes we’ll be headlining Glastonbury – so you want something that’s flexible. That was our original starting point.”

The show starts with a song which, despite topping the charts for three weeks in 1988, remains the least remembered of the Pet Shop Boys’ four Number One singles. For while most people will have no difficulty recalling West End Girls, It’s A Sin and Always On My Mind, they may well have forgotten about Heart. For many years, the track was omitted from the Boys’ live set. More recently, it has been welcomed back into their repertoire.

If Tennant had ever fallen out of love with Heart, he is not about to admit it now. “The audience normally sing along, so it’s not that forgotten. And it’s a lovely song. Every night that we sing it, I think what a clever song it is: the melody and the way it’s structured. It’s a very warm song, and that’s what I really like about it.”

As for Always On My Mind, the song’s seemingly warm and heartfelt sentiments are undercut by Tennant’s final line, delivered just as the track starts to fade. “Maybe I didn’t love you”, he sings once more – and this time there’s no qualification, just a brutal full stop.

“The song is sung from the point of view of a selfish and self-obsessed man, who is possibly incapable of love, and who is now drinking whiskey and feeling sorry for himself. It’s a completely tactless song. And I guess I never told you” – here, Neil places withering emphasis on the word “guess” – “or, you know, I guess I could have held you. So actually, “maybe I didn’t love you” is a completely logical conclusion. It was written originally as a country song, and it’s a very maudlin and in my opinion slightly cynical country song. I sang it on the record like that. At the same time, it’s a beautiful melody.”

Another unlikely cover is saved for the show’s climax: Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, mashed up with Tennant and Lowe’s 1988 hit Domino Dancing. But as unlikely as the song choice might seem, Neil has a full explanation for its inclusion.

“When we were working on the last album, that Coldplay record had just come out. In fact, we heard it from EMI even before it came out. Viva La Vida was a very unusual song for Coldplay. It bears no relationship to the rest of their catalogue. It’s what we call a “four on the floor” dance record – and it sounds like a Pet Shop Boys record. We suggested doing a remix for them, and I think they were quite into the idea.”

“I don’t know if you remember what happened with Viva La Vida, but it was the first record that the public ever made a Number One hit, without it actually being released as a single. So it was too late. But Chris and I always had this idea that we would like to record it, and turn it into the Pet Shop Boys record we always felt it could be.”

“Because we have the song Se A Vida É, we thought we’d go into Viva La Vida. We call it Se A Vida La Viva, so it’s a sort of Latin section of the show. Chris had the idea of putting the Domino Dancing riff over it, and it works really well. It’s a great audience sing along as well.”

“In fact”, he continues, warming to his theme, “we were in St Petersburg on the very first day of our tour – and of course, the song is all about “St Peter won’t call my name”. So we shot some film of me wandering around the statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg.” How very conceptual. How very Pet Shop Boys.

Although Domino Dancing’s comparatively low chart position effectively ended what Tennant has subsequently called the group’s “imperial phase”, what followed was not a dramatic fall from grace, but rather a graceful abdication of their position as the UK’s top pop act.

“You know that sort of thing is never going to last”, he explains. “So we just carried on following our instincts, and doing the kind of thing we wanted to do. In the Eighties, the Pet Shop Boys was a singles band. In the Nineties, the Pet Shop Boys became an albums band. In the following decade, the Pet Shop Boys became a touring band, as well as being a singles band and an albums band. We branched out into a variety of other projects, and we have evolved a combination of music and theatre in our performances, which I think has influenced a few people – but I also think it’s something that really only we do. Digital music frees you up for a lot of visuals, because we don’t have a drum riser on the stage, for instance. And so, twenty-five years after West End Girls, here we are. I think it’s a tribute to actually not being about fame, and not being about celebrity, but being about songwriting and creativity.”

Bonus content.

It sometimes feels as if you’re following a seamless master plan, which you’re executing with absolute certainty. I imagine you getting together for planning meetings once a year, and deciding on your theme word for the year – like “Yes” or “Fundamental”.

What’s great is that – as we have actually written this ballet now – after we do the V Festival in August, I don’t really know what we’re doing. There’s something quite liberating about that. We don’t really think more than a year ahead, to be honest.

I’d like to know more about this ballet.

It came about because a friend of ours is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet. He phoned me up one day, and said he’d been offered a solo slot at Sadlers Wells, as part of their summer season, and would we write something for him. He was actually thinking of a male Dance of the Seven Veils. And I said: well, I don’t know, I’m quite busy at the moment, but I’ll ask Chris. To be honest, I forgot all about it.

But by a weird coincidence, Chris phoned me up two days later and said that he’d been reading Hans Christian Andersen stories. There was this one called The Most Incredible Thing, and he thought it would make an amazing ballet. So we decided that because of the synchronicity of that, we should do this.

We met Sadlers Wells, who are an amazing organisation, and we’ve subsequently written this three-act ballet, which is a mixture of electronic music and a small chamber orchestra. It opens on March 20th next year at Sadlers Wells, and goes on, I believe, a ten week tour. It might even go to Nottingham!

We are on the map for this sort of thing.

I know you are! I think you’ve got a good theatre for dance. So hopefully it will come to Nottingham. It was very exciting. What we wanted was to update the idea of a Tchaikovsky ballet, but do it with modern electronic music.

Do you get any say over the staging, or is your contribution strictly musical?

Well, we’ve developed the story. It’s a four page story, although in fact there’s so much in that four pages, you could have made a ten hour ballet out of it. We’ve been involved with a playwright called Matthew Dunster, in developing the scenario to write the music to.

When it comes to the staging and the choreography, they do very kindly ask our opinion. But Chris and I think we should just let them get on with it, really. We don’t claim to know anything about ballet.

People have said, are you going to be in it? (laughs) Actually, there is a non-dancing role: the king. I keep hinting to people that maybe I could play it. But they haven’t taken up the hint. (laughs)

Interview: Peter Sarstedt

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 25, 2010

You’re playing Nottingham on the penultimate night of the Solid Silver ’60s Show, a 56-date tour which has been on the road since February. Are you a veteran of these kinds of packages?

I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran – but it’s nice to be asked, that’s the main thing. We’ve got The Troggs and the Swinging Blue Jeans as the bands, and four solo artists – Mike Pender, Dave Berry, Brian Poole and myself – all being backed by Vanity Fare. Normally, I play solo. But this time I was offered the band – so I thought, yeah, why not? And it’s working out very well.

These men are heroes of the revolution – but they’re heroes of a certain kind, because they’ve been around for a long, long time. So they’re extremely experienced. They know what’s happening. They’ve seen it all before, so they’re very slick. They’ve got their act down immaculately, and the audience are in for a bit of a treat.

How long do they give you to perform on stage?

Each of the solo artists gets fifteen minutes, so it’s about four songs. The man says that he doesn’t want a long show – but it will be a two hour show anyway, plus an interval.

The other acts were linked more to the beat group explosion, but you come from a slightly different tradition. So perhaps you’re there to add a bit of contrast to the line-up.

I like to think so. But I was available, because I don’t do a lot of work. Not as many gigs as the others, who work every night as far as I know. So I hold back a bit, and therefore I’m a little bit of a surprise.

When did you start making music?

My older brother [early 1960s pop star Eden Kane] brought home a guitar in the late Fifties, when he first started. It was around 1957 or 1958, and I’ve been doing it since then, in various disguises. I started off as Pete Lincoln and the Sundowners. I had a band, and we used to play local dance halls. In fact, we used to play for Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.

Did you then have a period when you were doing a lot of busking?

I was travelling around Europe, because if I was going to be a writer, then I needed some experience, and this seemed like a good way. I did a bit of busking, as a street musician. I tried that in Paris, and also in Copenhagen, where I met my other half.

Was it in Copenhagen that you wrote your best known song, Where Do You Go To My Lovely?

Yes – I had recently come from Paris, so I knew a bit about Paris. It was a good night, so after a party I settled down and I wrote the song. I used to write maybe eight songs a day, so this was one of them. She’s an invented character; a mysterious European character.

The references in the song describe a world which does seem rather glamorous and desirable.

It is, but there is a bit of sardonic humour in there: “Where you keep your Rolling Stones records…” Luckily I know Mick Jagger, otherwise I wouldn’t put that in! So it is kind of a satire.

There’s affection in there, but also some cruelty as well, so it’s a blend of different emotions.

Yes, it adds a twist to the tale: “I know where you go to, my lovely”. So he knows. He knows her very well. But it is an invention, of course.

Two or three years later, the song became a huge hit. Did that success give you a taste of the high life which you were describing in the song?

Well, I fought against it, because I wanted to get back to the music. I wanted to write, and I needed the space. But suddenly I was a hit, and it didn’t suit me entirely. It seemed a distraction from the real work. My older brother, who was ideal for this kind of world, would have been happy with the situation. Whereas with me, I don’t know.

As you had witnessed your brother’s earlier success as a pop star, perhaps that left you under no illusions as to what success could bring for you.

I had some illusions of grandeur! But it didn’t work out, because I wanted to emulate the writers of the time.

Who were your heroes?

It was Bob Dylan. I thought he was marvellous, and I still do. He’s a wonderful writer, and he’s unsurpassed. But I wanted some of the things which he had, which was peace and quiet.

You then turned your back on some of the offers that were made to you – such as a prime time TV variety show with Clodagh Rodgers, of all people.

I thought that I was being taken lightly, because I didn’t feel that I was [an] accurate [choice] in any way. Although at the time, fame was a different matter. It wasn’t so much that you could make a fortune out of fame. You had to work at it. And nowadays of course, you can make a fortune out of fame. There seems to be that encouragement.

So you turned your back on the trappings of stardom, and continued to ply your own course in your own way.

Yes, I live quietly now. But I don’t have a manager, and I don’t have an agent – which is difficult, if you haven’t got a publicist. Then you’re on your own.

But you’ve been putting out albums fairly steadily ever since.

Yes, I’ve been working away, of course. I’m a workaholic. I still write. I have a nice house; everything’s fine.

Interview: Rufus Wainwright.

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 9, 2010

(An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)


(Photo taken by soulrush)

Many of us were very saddened to hear of the recent loss of your mother, Kate McGarrigle.  In this sort of situation, does writing and performing music become more of a burden, or is it more of a release? 

It’s a double-edged sword.  Emotionally it’s quite taxing, and at some point I definitely need to do nothing for a while.  I don’t know if now is that time, because with mourning you sometimes feel like a shark who thinks that without swimming they’ll die.  So I have to keep going.  But on the other hand, nothing quite fits as well as death and music!  (Laughs)  It’s uncanny, the similar emotive power of both those worlds.  So it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. 

Somewhat inevitably, your audience are going to hear your new album (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu) with the knowledge of that loss in mind, so I guess that might colour their interpretation of the material.  To what extent is the album a response to, or a premonition of, those recent events? 

None of the songs were written or recorded after her death.  The whole process was right up to the end of her life, so it’s definitely a centrepiece to the project.  But on the other hand, it’s not technically about that.  So it makes for an emotional but surreal experience for the listener, because it’s like this elephant in the room.  It’s not really touched on that much, but it’s just so obvious.  It’s what dramatic situations are made of. 

There is a direct reference to your mother in the album’s final song Zebulon, which is also addressed to a former crush.  So there’s a mixture of past and present in there.  How do those themes link together?

Zebulon is about a vision that I was gifted with, while taking care of my mother in the hospital.  All of a sudden, these floods of memories from the past came back to me.  I was reminded of how innocent and idyllic my life was as a child, and how I’m very lucky to have had that.  But I’m also robbed of it at this point in my life, because things have gotten so dark.  So it’s a sort of bittersweet feeling, of having a beautiful childhood: you can lean on it, but also miss it terribly at the same time.

Zebulon is preceded by a song called Les Feux D‘Artifice T’Appellent (“The Fireworks Are Calling You”), which is taken from your recent opera Prima Donna.  What role does that song play?

 It’s the last aria of the opera.  The prima donna sings it to herself, while she watches the Bastille Day fireworks going on outside her window.  It’s a symbolic moment, as the fireworks really represent life itself.

 You’ve also set three Shakespeare sonnets to music.  What were your reasons for choosing this particular set of three? 

I’ve actually put ten of them down to music, for a play that I did with Robert Wilson in Berlin, based on the sonnets.  It’s still running at the Berliner Ensemble, which is where the Threepenny Opera was premiered, and where Bertolt Brecht was the director.  These specific three were ones that I enjoy performing alone with the piano.  The middle one, number 20, is my favourite of all the sonnets.  

That was a fascinating one to read.  I knew there were theories that some of the sonnets were addressed to a male lover, but I had no idea that any of them were so direct and unequivocal. 

It deals with all of those kinds of homoerotic feelings, that I think every man goes through. (Laughs) I actually don’t think that Shakespeare was gay, especially after reading the sonnets.  But I do think that he had a sort of homoerotic event occur in his life, that really took him off guard. 

In this sonnet, Shakespeare mentions that Mother Nature has given his object of desire one particular body part, which precludes him from going any further.  That’s not a very gay sentiment. 

Yeah, and he’s sort of dumbstruck by this event.  And I’ve done it many times!  (Laughs)  

Sonnet 10 sounds as if it’s addressed to a rather complex and conflicted character.  They’re “possessed with murderous hate”, but their presence is also “gracious and kind”. 

That’s a very important sonnet, because it’s the first sonnet where the poet admits his love directly to the subject.  I always equate it with a kind of blubbering, blundering, over the top professor, who loses his grip and spills his marbles for the young student (laughs), while trying desperately to keep it together.  It’s like The Blue Angel, that movie with Marlene Dietrich, where the professor ends up going to the dancehall every night, and falls in love at the ripe old age of 65 or something.  So it’s Reason being thwarted!

Your last three albums were lavishly arranged and orchestrated, but this one takes things right back to essentials: voice, piano and nothing else besides.  How did that simplicity of approach affect the recording process?   

It was much faster to record, but the mixing ended up being a lot trickier than we thought.  Pierre Marchand, who also mixed Poses, was somewhat surprised by how complex the relationship is between piano and voice – especially when you have a whole album of it.  You really have to bring out the subtleties and polish the product, so that it’s really brilliant.  So it was a very subtle process – but that being said, I’ve done this for years, and I was definitely ready to emote and deliver this type of product.  I have been locked behind my piano for eons, and I know what I’m doing. 

With every album, I try to accomplish some ulterior motive.  The Judy project (“Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”) was a period to really focus on my voice, the opera is dedicated to my classical aspirations, and so forth.  This album is really about cornering the piano, facing my ability as a pianist and as an arranger for that instrument, and fleshing out my legacy in that form.  

You’re playing the Royal Concert Hall later this month.  When you played there in 2005, the show ended with you and your band performing a striptease, after which you put on a silk sash which said “Miss Nottingham”.  Do you have any similar surprises in store this time round? 

The show that I’m bringing is twofold.  The first half is the new album, and it’s very austere and tragic.  I don’t want any applause between songs.  I want to perform it as a song cycle, so the audience can really get lost in the music.  But I will come back again in the second half and do the old favourites, and make every attempt to lighten the load!  (Laughs)  So, who knows what will happen?

Gavin Friday: ‘You can’t be what you were’

Posted in features, interviews, The Guardian by Mike A on April 1, 2010

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 26 March 2010)

How do you move on from being Dublin’s rock’n’roll Lucifer? By becoming U2’s ‘aesthetic midwife’, outdressing 50 Cent and roping in the Salvation Army for your latest album. Mike Atkinson meets Gavin Friday.

His public profile might be low – after all, it has been 15 years since his last album – but Gavin Friday is a remarkably well-connected man. In October 2009, four days ahead of his 50th birthday, he was the subject of a tribute concert staged in Carnegie Hall in New York, featuring an impressive array of friends, fans and collaborators. All four members of U2 performed in Friday’s honour, along with the likes of Lou Reed, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Shane MacGowan, Andrea Corr, Lady Gaga, Scarlett Johansson and Laurie Anderson. Joel Grey reprised his Oscar-winning role as the master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Patrick McCabe read from his novel Breakfast On Pluto. (In the 2005 film adaptation, Friday played glam-rocker Billy Hatchett.)

To the delight of his loyal fanbase, founder members of Friday’s first band, the Virgin Prunes, also reunited for a couple of songs. Before they took to the stage, Courtney Love paid fond and fervent tribute (“I wasn’t asked to do this show; I demanded to do this show”), citing the “swagger, charisma, shamanism and fury” of their early Dublin gigs. “I had never seen so much sex, snarl, poetry, evil, restraint, grace, filth, raw power and the very essence of rock and roll,” she testified, casting the Prunes as “Lucifer: arch and cunning to U2’s Gabriel: angelic and gorgeous. U2 gave me lashes of love and inspiration, and a few nights later the Virgin Prunes fucked – me – up.”

“It’s quite a mouthful,” says Friday, five months later. “It’s quite great, actually. She gave it to me framed. I have it over my toilet pot – fittingly.”

Love and Friday first met in 1997 at the Las Vegas opening of U2’s PopMart tour. Friday was there to advise his friends on staging and performance. He has been similarly employed on every U2 tour since The Joshua Tree, describing himself as their “aesthetic midwife”.

“I have a fond memory of sitting in one of the dressing rooms, talking about Ireland in the 80s, and her showing me as many of her shamrock tattoos as possible. We reminisced about the early days of punk: her from an American point of view, and me from Ireland and Britain. We got on very well. And then I didn’t see her for years.”

The pair met again in the early 2000s. “She was hanging out a lot with Winona Ryder. I think they were having a bit of a wild girl moment. I saw her perform in the Russian Tea Rooms in New York. It was some sort of strange benefit event. She was playing very improvised abstract stuff on guitar, and Winona was reading poetry. They’re really grandiose, beautiful, art deco, very wealthy rooms. And they were like two demons from hell, vomiting all over the china.”

At the Carnegie Hall show, Love and Friday duetted on a cover of Magazine’s The Light Pours Out of Me. The song was “very fitting for me and Courtney”, says Friday. “We didn’t shy away from the lyric at all. When we were rehearsing, this guttural energy just came up from the floorboards. It was electric and vibrant. It wasn’t like we were going through any motions.”

“It was the same when I did the Virgin Prunes songs,” he says. “I was able to dig deep in there and in some way become a young Gavin Friday again – for a moment.”

Did he feel Lucifer rising once more? “Well, it’s odd. You can’t be what you were. You can’t go back to what London was like in the early 80s. We’re going through a recession now, but the recession we had then, with the steel claw of Maggie Thatcher bashing anything that moved, was a very different environment. With revolutionary bands that were run by angst, or anger, or kicking against the so-called pricks, you can’t suddenly reinvent that. And the Virgin Prunes were not like a conventional rock’n’roll band. We were avant-garde, experimental, visual. It had as much to do with performance art as it did with rock’n’roll or punk.”

Having in effect disbanded the Prunes in 1986, Friday released his first solo album (Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves) three years later. Drawing on European influences such as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, it marked a complete break from his musical past. The Lydon-influenced wailing of the Prunes days was gone, as Friday discovered his lower register. “I’m a late developer, so maybe my balls dropped later. My tone got lower – and higher – as I got older.”

Two more albums followed, before a sequence of misfortunes – the termination of his contract with Island Records (“They basically turned into the Sugababes label”), the death of his father, the break-up of his marriage, a period of depression (“I went a bit arseways in my own life, didn’t know who I was”), major back surgery (“I couldn’t fucking do anything for about a year and a half”) – conspired to place Friday’s solo recording career on indefinite hiatus.

“And then you’re in your early 40s, and you’re going: ‘Who the fuck am I?’ And everything’s changing taste-wise: in some ways for the better, in most ways for the worse. And you’re going, ‘Wow, do I even fit in here? Or do I want to fit in here?'”

Although he never stopped stock-piling new songs, Friday turned his attention to other projects. “I ended up going underground, and learning more about film scores, and getting lost in that crazy world of Hollywood.” A string of commissions followed, including an unlikely collaboration with Quincy Jones and 50 Cent on the soundtrack for Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent’s movie vehicle.

“I got on really well with them, which is a strange thing. I have a fear of grown men in short trousers. And those hip-hop guys, they all have about 10 managers and 10 assistants, all with the BlackBerrys. And they all wear these ridiculously short trousers, even in the middle of winter. We met in Canada, and I wore a three-piece suit, a cravat, my hair tied back, and earrings. If you dress well, these guys will respect you. At that first meeting, my suit did all the talking.”

And what of Jones? “Quincy was quite brilliant. My dad had just died, and he was born on the very same day, in the very same year. My father had turned into a black emperor. Hey, you motherfucking crazy Friday! Taliban Friday! That’s what he was calling me. It was like: my dad’s not dead, he’s living in Quincy Jones again.”

For the album he is now in the middle of recording, Friday made a strategic decision to go it alone. “I could have called up Antony and said: ‘Will you do a song with me?’ I will always have certain names tagged on to me, simply because of my birthright.” (Friday and Bono famously grew up on the same Dublin street.) “But I didn’t want any of the ‘famous fuck’, as I call it. I don’t want any celebrity on my album.”

Hooking up with producer Ken Thomas and his son Jolyon, Friday recorded his new songs in the Yorkshire town of Castleford. “It’s a cross between the smell of stew and cigarettes,” he says. “The people are so beautiful and so down to earth. It felt like I was in Dublin in the 80s again. It looks like you’re in a scene from that Hovis ad – like a shrine to the past – but it was just devastated in the 80s by Thatcher.”

As evidence of this new-found fondness, the album features a guest appearance from a local Salvation Army band. Their presence reminded Friday of an old situationist stunt from the Virgin Prunes days. “When we were going up to northern England, we used to loop the theme of Coronation Street and play it for 45 minutes before we went on stage. The fucking audience were banging their heads against the wall. It was actually more hardcore than white noise. But you listen to the music and it has this maudlin depression and beauty at the same time.”

Covering the “usual” themes of “life, love and death”, and said to reference both his past problems and his efforts to overcome them, Friday’s new album could be his most personal, revealing collection to date. And yet he remains an intensely private man, who maintains a wary distance from “this whole Twitter/Facebook thing. I can’t run with it seriously. When I was a kid, I never had fucking penpals. ‘Hello. It’s raining in Ireland. How are you? I’m 18.’ For fuck’s sake!”

“I like mystique,” he concludes. “Why does everyone have to show their tits, so quickly? Mystique is much nicer. I’m not McDonald’s. I’m a Chablis, or a very fine red wine.”

Beverley Knight – Nottingham Tonic, Thursday March 25th (+ interview)

Posted in gigs, interviews, Nottingham Post, Tonic by Mike A on April 1, 2010

Gig review:

It’s not often that we’re offered the chance to experience one of Britain’s top soul performers in an “up close and personal” situation – so for those lucky listeners of Smooth FM who had won the chance to see Beverley Knight in the intimate surroundings of Tonic on Chapel Bar, this was a moment to savour.

Following a cheerful, likeable support set from Ben Montague, Dr. Beverley Knight MBE took to the small stage at the back of the venue: wreathed in smiles, and looking stunning in a black and silver mini-dress. For the first half of her thirty minute, six song set, she was accompanied on guitar by her long-time musical collaborator Paul Reid.

The two performers launched into a stripped down rendition of the current single Soul Survivor: a powerfully assertive personal anthem (“I’ve been there through every phase, seasons come and go but I remain”), which is performed on record as a duet with Chaka Khan. To Beverley’s delight, the fans at the front already knew every word. A couple of songs later, Shoulda Woulda Coulda – her best known hit –gave everyone else the chance to join in.

Switching to pre-recorded backing tracks for the second half, Beverley introduced a stunning version of Piece Of My Heart by explaining that Janis Joplin had “nicked the song from Erma Franklin, and now I’m nicking it from Janis Joplin”. The set concluded with Keep This Fire Burning, an uptempo track that got the smart, well-heeled crowd wiggling and shimmying.

She might be bracketed as a “soul diva”, but there was nothing diva-like about Beverley’s warm, friendly demeanour, and the easy rapport which she established with the audience. Vocally flawless and naturally soulful, with sixteen years’ experience in the music business behind her and doubtless many more to come, she remains what she always was: a “class act” indeed.

Pre-show Q&A:

You’re performing a secret initiation-only show tonight. How did the idea come about?

The radio station Smooth FM asked me if I would be involved in their little “secret squirrel” event, and I thought: oh, that’s lovely. They’ve been so supportive of me, and I thought that the least I could do was come up and have a little sing-song. To be perfectly honest, I love singing so much that if you give me a mike and a P.A., I’ll do it!

The first time I saw you perform was nine years ago, in Trafalgar Square. Your “warm-up guy” on stage that day was none other than Nelson Mandela. That must have been an emotional occasion.

Yes it was. We were celebrating seven years of the freedom of South Africa, and that was one of the most prestigious events that I could have been invited to. I remember the papers the next day were full of Mel B’s top falling down, and all kinds of frivolous stuff, but I was like: this is so prestigious, don’t make it about poor old Mel!

Did you get a chance to meet the great man himself?

I did – he came to my dressing room! OK, check it out: I’ve come off stage, and I’m going on and on about how this is the greatest honour ever bestowed to me. Then I got a knock on the door. It was some official saying “We’ve got the South African high commissioner here, and some other dignitaries who would like to say hello”. The high commissioner walks in – this lovely lady – and then in walks Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, and the actor Richard E. Grant. So I’m sitting there staring, and Nelson Mandela said “I really enjoyed your performance, and I hope I have the pleasure of hearing you again.” And I did sing for him again, at a private dinner event for his children’s foundation, thrown by Earl Spencer.

You’ll be performing a short UK tour next month, back once again at the larger venues. How will tonight’s show compare?

Tonight, it’s just me and my guitarist Paul. So it will be extremely intimate – right up close and personal. When people see me on a big stage, it’s lively, to say the least. It’s full on. So this will be very chilled, with a lot of banter – because I do like to chat!

Your new EP (Soul Survivor) comes with three additional live tracks. Is this the first time that you’ve released live material?

I’ve recorded live sessions before, but this is the first time I’ve released something from one of my live shows. The tracks were recorded in Sheffield, so that’s not so far from Nottingham!

The lead track is a duet with Chaka Khan. I know you go back a long way, so how did you first meet?

I went to see her at the Jazz Café in London, a number of years back. She noticed me in the crowd, and got me onto the stage to sing with her. That was the start of our friendship. We kept doing things on stage together, then she flew me to Montreux to do some singing at her show at the Jazz Festival. Then I had Soul Survivor all written, and I asked if she would duet it.

It’s a very appropriate track for the both of you. What does it take to be a “soul survivor” in this business?

Number One: you’ve got to love it. If you don’t love what you do, you will fall on your face in this industry – because it is tough. The thing that will galvanise you and propel you – even when you might be having a few problems with a song, or when the record label is at your throat – is the love of the music. That will keep you in the game. And beyond that, you’ve got to be prepared to work hard, because it won’t always come easy. Some things do, and you’re like: oh my God, this is so great! Other times, it’s like: I’ve got to fight for this one.

You’re much more independent now, as you’re recording for your own label. Does that bring additional pressures, or does it bring a new sense of freedom?

You know that quote from Spiderman? “With great freedom comes responsibility.” That couldn’t be truer! The freedom has been wonderful, but the responsibility has been things like looking at budgets and keeping them in check, and thinking: OK, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the single is the right single. All the kinds of things that I could blame the record label for are now on my head! But at the same time, I’m enjoying it.

After the tour has finished, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

Hopefully there will be the festivals, and once we move beyond that, the cycle will start again. So I’ll be back in the studio, thinking about the next record.

Have you done any writing for that yet?

Not yet, but I’ve got a lot of ideas. When I’m in the promotional phase, I find it difficult to write. When I’m in the touring phase, that’s when it’s easy. That’s when the ideas start flying around.

Interview: JJ Burnel, The Stranglers.

Posted in interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 26, 2010

(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.)

A Stranglers greatest hits collection (Decades Apart) is about to come out – well, maybe not a greatest hits collection, but a retrospective collection. What’s the story?

It’s not entirely a greatest hits collection. We aborted one about eighteen months ago, called 4240. That was going to be all 42 of our Top 40 hits, but this one’s more… I mean, we didn’t have hits in the Nineties! So it’s going to cover all the periods.

The track listing suggests a good even spread, covering the entirety of your career.

Yeah, it’s a bit scary. I think the title stretches the credibility to a certain extent, because it’s talking about five decades: the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Noughties and the Teens. But there are two new tracks as well, so it does bring us right up to date.

One of the new tracks, Retro Rockets, is also your new single. What’s the message of the song?

It’s a protest song. It’s a song about all the banal music, fronted by pretty – or what people consider to be pretty – front people. It’s about the state of music now.

Do you think we’re in a particularly parlous state? We’ve always had vapid, pretty people singing pop music.

Of course, and all hail the power of pop music. I’ve not a problem with that. But it’s just the mediocrity of it now. They talk about nothing. It’s cheesy, it’s dominated, and maybe that’s why there’s a reaction. People are going to gigs more these days then almost ever before – apart from the old pub rock scene, when people were actually going to bars and seeing bands all the time. A lot of people, including ourselves, did our apprenticeship there.

It does feel like we are living in a golden age for live music.

And thank God for that! Also, I get the impression that a lot of people are quite cynical about what’s made accessible to them, whether on TV or radio, and there’s a kind of a backlash. So you have people who want to see something actually real and live.

Absolutely – it’s the one musical experience that you can’t obtain digitally. And it’s the last place you can hear analogue sound.

And they don’t want it lip-synched, either.

Some of them try.

In China, lip-synching is illegal. And funnily enough, two famous Chinese pop stars were [recently] arrested for lip-synching at a gig! (Laughs)

I didn’t know the Chinese were so rockist. OK, so you’re having a bit of a dig at the new breed, and there are lines in the song such as “Where’s the melody? Where’s the identity?” Are we not veering dangerously close to Grumpy Old Man territory here?

Absolutely! And? You say it as if there’s something wrong there!

It was a charge that was levelled at your generation of bands, when you first broke through in the Seventies.

Well, we were grumpy teenagers – so I think we’re being true to ourselves. No, listen: there is some kind of seriousness behind it. If you think that every single human being is unique, and that the output from all those human beings often is not unique, there seems to be some kind of disparity there. All our fingerprints are unique. Our voices are unique. So why is the creative output from those unique individuals not always as unique as it could be?

There’s a pressure to adopt the formula that’s currently selling at the time.

It’s almost the tail wagging the dog, isn’t it? “Oh, I want to be famous, what shall I do? I shall do this thing that’s happening now.”

I’m aware that there is a bit of a Facebook campaign to get Retro Rockets into the charts. I’m reliably informed that to crack the Top 40 in the current climate, you need about 7,800 sales. Do you think that’s doable?

I’ve no fucking idea! (Laughter) But it is doable, yes.

You do have a particularly strong relationship with your fans, as far as I can tell. There does seem to be an unusually strong sense of community there. They even arrange coach trips…

They do, yeah. They do it amongst themselves. Because of the longevity of it, I’ve seen people become couples through meeting at Stranglers concerts. I can only say this. In the past, we’ve been demonised, and we’ve found ourselves ghettoised – so we’ve developed a sort of siege mentality. I think a lot of people who liked our music and identified with us felt strongly too. So they developed that same “us and them” attitude. So every time we have a small victory, they feel part of it. It is some kind of symbiotic relationship. But without the fans, we’re nothing. We’ve grown up together, and there are new people coming all the time. There are loads of teenagers checking us out now.

I suppose you get Stranglers families turning up. Families in black…

Yeah, I suspect you do. But also I think you get the fans you deserve. I like to think we have pretty intelligent fans. They’re smart, and they’re also quite hedonistic people. (Laughs) And why not, you know? They’re alive. Our fans are alive. And kicking.

At your shows, I guess you must attract two different groups: the nostalgia brigade who want to hear the old hits, and the diehard fan community who want to hear the other stuff. Is there a kind of juggling act, and does it vary from tour to tour as to how you balance it?

It does, of course. But as you get older, and as you accumulate more material, there’s even more of that – because we don’t always want to play the old stuff. Some songs, you get sick and tired of playing them. You’re just going through the motions. So you stop. We stopped playing Peaches for twelve years, because we’d had enough. Then we resurrected it, because suddenly we enjoyed playing it again and seeing the reaction on people’s faces. But the dog must always wag the tail. There’s nothing worse than going through the motions. You might as well be a karaoke band, or a covers band. That’s no good.

Looking through your touring schedule, I see you’re playing Hammersmith Apollo for the first time since 1983, as there was a bit of an incident there last time. What happened?

Oh, the guys in the monkey suits… um… (Long pause)

Why am I looking at this? I’m looking at a magazine called Attitude. It’s got Gareth Thomas on the front. (Pause – sound of pages being turned) Why is that in front of me here?

I wouldn’t have thought The Stranglers would be part of Attitude magazine’s remit.

I’ve never heard of it.

It’s a gay magazine.

It’s got a lot of… I can see that. Oh! Hmm. Anyway! Where were we?

I was plugging you for details on the 1983 Hammersmith Apollo incident.

Yeah, sorry! I got taken aback! The guys in the monkey suits were being a bit macho and turning their backs on us, and we’d had enough of that. The old-school bouncers weren’t very smart; they were just local thugs. So we had a set-to with them, during the first of our two nights there. As I recall, they had to draw the curtains. The audience were on one side, and we were on the stage with the management and a few heavy bouncers, and saying: listen, this is not the way we want to continue our concert, you’re being rude and aggressive to our fans, blah blah blah. So we carried on the show without the bouncers. Inevitably there were a few seats damaged. The next day, the management unilaterally cancelled the concert. And we weren’t booked again.

I guess people will have calmed down a bit since those days. But you were tagged at the time as having a sort of – how can I put it? – troublesome reputation. There were run-ins with journalists, and stuff like that. Was the reputation deserved?

No, not really. I think our reputation came before us, and some people reacted to that. So to be honest, we gave as good as we got. But if people were civil and nice to us, we were civil and nice back. We were quite defensive at one point, because we were selling more records than anyone, and we were getting slagged off by people saying we weren’t toeing the party line. We didn’t fit the punk orthodoxy and we had done it outside of the box, so the daggers were out for us. A lot of the so-called punk aristocracy were in cahoots with their media friends, and we didn’t have any media friends. And there was the fact that we had a keyboard player and we were – God forbid – using synthesisers, which was considered a new heresy.

Too many notes, you see.

Too many notes – and we were striving to play well, and to do arrangements, and we weren’t trying to be as loutish as possible. And we weren’t hiding our past. I didn’t hide the fact that I was educated, like some people. (Laughs)

There were quite a lot of ex-public school punks, as I remember.

There were. There were so many phoneys. Even someone as illustrious and as lovely as Joe Strummer slummed it a bit. He was an ex-public school boy whose Dad was a diplomat, and he was giving himself an accent. Shane MacGowan went to Westminster, for Christ’s sake. So they all hid that, and we said: no, we just want to improve our musicianship. We’re educated; we can talk about stuff, and not just slogans that have been fed to us.

People thought there was some kind of dichotomy between [what they saw as] pseudo-intellectualism, and being physical. Or violent, in my case. In some parts of the British media, you’re either intellectual or a thug. You can’t be physical and also strive for some kind of intellectual goal.

So we didn’t fit into any of those things, and we were still selling more than the others, and the accusation was: ah, they’ve sold out. Well, yeah – we were selling out everywhere we went! That upset a lot of people, so we started taking our revenge on journalists; those who we [had in our] black book. Le droit de réponse, you know?

Another charge has recently been laid at you. Apparently, you were directly responsible for turning a young Simon Cowell away from rock music. His girlfriend took him to a Stranglers gig, and he found the whole thing very distressing. Is that a heavy cross to bear?

It’s such a heavy cross to bear, but I shall bear it with equanimity. (Laughs) I think he’s got his facts slightly wrong, though. He was accusing me of spitting at his girlfriend, but I never, ever spat at anyone. I found that pretty cheap.

Initially, we had one song (School Mam) on our second album, No More Heroes – slightly based on the truth, actually – that was based on a schoolmistress who masturbates herself to death. In the process of this song, the singer – it was Hugh (Cornwell) at the time – would simulate masturbation on his neck, until he ejaculated by spitting.

Oh, so the spitting was artistically justified?

Completely! When we did that for the first time in 1976, at a club called Dingwalls, they had fifty-odd letters of complaint. So we were never booked there again. And that’s where we think that started. But I think at one point, the audience were spitting because they had read in the News of the World that that’s what you were supposed to do. So he’s probably got his facts wrong. But I don’t mind taking the blame.

Jet Black (drummer) is getting on a bit now (he turns 72 in August), so might this be your last big tour?

I hope not; I don’t see any reason. It might be the last one with Jet, but we’ve been saying that for years. I mean, he’s not with us all the time. We (recently) played in Greece, and that was without Jet. He wouldn’t have been able to take it. They smoke more than any other country in the world, I think. It’s incredible. It’s funny how quickly it looks shocking to us, in the space of two years since the smoking ban.

A lot of the shows that we’ve been doing for the last three or four years, we’ve done without Jet. But then he comes back and plays. He’s had some health problems. He was on life support only eighteen months ago. So any time he plays with us, it’s great. And when he doesn’t, his little Dauphin (Ian Barnard), who’s been with us for eight years, replaces him. But we’re definitely assuming that Jet’s playing with us on this tour.

Interview – Al Doyle, Hot Chip.

Posted in interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 12, 2010

A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.


(Photo by joshc)

Your new album (One Life Stand) feels notably different from your previous work. Do you see it in terms of a musical progression?

We can’t help but move forward in some ways, I suppose. As an album, it has its own identity, and it hangs together well. All those songs really belong to each other, if you know what I mean. We probably worked in a more concentrated way, and for a longer amount of time, on this record than we have on the previous two. They were sandwiched into the touring schedule, whereas last year we took a break from touring. So we had pretty much the whole year. We were busy doing lots of other things, but one of the things that we were concentrating on was recording this album. So we had eight weeks in the studio, and I think that comes through on the record. It feels as though it was made at a certain time.

So this was more studio-recorded, whereas your earlier stuff was more home-recorded?

Two songs on the record were still recorded in Joe (Goddard)’s bedroom, but the majority of the record is recorded in the studio that I run with Felix (Martin) in East London. It wasn’t really the five of us playing in a room so much, but it was definitely like setting up camp in a room and having all of our toys plugged in and ready to play with. We felt very comfortable there, basically. It was a nice way to make some music.

So it was over a concentrated period of time, where you weren’t doing anything else?

Yeah, but the songs were still written over quite a long period of time. It was about two years between the earliest one – which was probably Take It In or Alley Cats, which was actually played on the previous tour – to the newer ones like Keep Quiet, which was written in October last year. So they were written over a long period of time, but the recording process was quite concentrated.

Was there any prior discussion as to what direction you’d be taking?

Well, it wasn’t ever going to be like a strong concept record, or anything like that. We definitely had this idea of keeping the album quite concise, so we decided quite early on to have just ten songs on the record. And also to be a little bit less range-y in our musical mood. Made In The Dark [Hot Chip’s third album] is still a record that I really like, but I think it was quite confusing to some people. A third of it was slow-ish, introspective music, and then two-thirds of it was quite balls-out dance or rock music. So we decided to reduce those extremes.

You’ve reined in some of the more overt wackiness, I suppose.

Yeah. There are still some songs that have that kind of lightness of touch to them. A song like Brothers isn’t some sort of wacky comedy record, but it’s still got that kind of lightness. It’s probably the wrong word to use, but it does seem like a sort of music hall song.

We Have Love is also very stylistically diverse. You’ve got all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, but it still feels logical. It has quite an emotional vocal delivery, but you’ve also got these pitch-shifted chipmunk voices, and vocal cut-ups, and you’ve even thrown in an organ break for good measure. So there’s a sense that you’re still having fun experimenting, but in a very clear direction.

That was a funny one. That was actually the one I was trying to remember. There’s a kind of end-of-the-pier style organ in it, which was quite strange, and then the rest of the song is quite heavily influenced by current UK dance music, like this funky house movement that’s around at the moment. So there are these big bouncy basslines. Joe’s a big fan, so he was keen to reference a few of those things.

You’ve drafted in some guest drummers along the way. There’s a steel pan guy called Fimber Bravo, who crops up all the way through the album. How did that come about?

He’s somebody that we worked with before. He did the steel pans when we recorded a cover of Joy Division’s Transmission, about a year and a half ago. He’s actually one of the most in-demand steel players; he’s played with Brian Eno, and he’s been on the scene for many years. So we had him in for a couple of days, and we’ve ended up doing a little bit of production work with him on some of his own stuff as well.

And then we played with Charles Hayward, who is the drummer from a band called This Heat.

I’m amazed that anyone remembers This Heat; I’d not heard anything from them for years, so where did you dig him up from?

Alexis, how did you meet Charles?

Alexis Taylor: I went to watch him play once, and the gig was cancelled. He was standing outside the venue, saying that the gig had been cancelled, because the venue had been destroyed. And I just said, oh, I came to see your gig! (Laughter)

Alexis has actually been playing with him in his own side-project band, called About. He’s been to a couple of gigs since then, and we had a great day with him. The drum sessions were just one day with each drummer, so we had to really cram it in. He’s got an amazing kit that he’s built up over the years. It sounds very particular and he sets it up in his own particular way. He’s an amazing musician; he’s capable of doing extremely straight stuff, really powerfully played, but he’s also capable of doing incredibly rhythmically complex things.

And then the third person was Leo Taylor, [drummer from The Invisible], who played live with us for a whole year prior to working on this record, so we were very used to playing with him. Again, he’s a very technically proficient drummer.

Are any of them going to come out on tour with you?

Well, we’ve actually gone for a third option, which is a guy called Rob Smoughton. He’s actually the original drummer in Hot Chip, and he now has a solo project under the name Grosvenor which we’ve been championing for a good few years. We’ve asked him many times when we’ve gone on tour if he’ll drum with us, and he’s always not been available, but this time he is.

Have you played any of the new songs live yet?

The only one is Alley Cats. That’s actually changed quite radically from what it was – so no, we haven’t played any of the new songs. In fact, that’s the funny thing about the way that we go about recording. We couldn’t play any of the songs until (last month), because they weren’t recorded in that way, if you know what I mean. We’ve actually got to re-learn all of the songs. When they’re recorded, we’re recording track-by-track, and also a lot of the time we’ll be using instruments in the studio that you won’t necessarily want to take out on the road, like old analogue synths that aren’t very stable. And working out how to do all the percussion, and that kind of stuff live, is totally different.

So that could potentially take the songs in different directions?

Yeah, everything’s a little more stripped back and a little more raw and powerful, and I’ve had to learn how to play the steel pans.

I’m glad they’re getting an outing. That fits in well with your UK Funky influences, because there’s that kind of soca element to the percussion.

Yeah, definitely. They’re fun to play.

But you haven’t completely left behind references to Eighties synth-pop, either. During the first track, Thieves In The Night, I kept hearing a bit of the chord sequence of Visage’s Fade To Grey.

I think in retrospect, if you had to say something about the album, it is relatively Eighties; there’s a lot of arpeggiated synths.

I link that more with Nineties dance, actually.

Yeah, maybe, but maybe I’m thinking more of (Giorgio) Moroder, and Italo-Disco.

The Eighties revival never went away for the whole of the last decade, but it seemed to come to a head commercially last year. There was an awful lot of it about in terms of chart pop. Do you feel any sort of connection with what’s been going on there?

I think there’s a big difference between being influenced by bands that happen to be in the Eighties, and sort of “cod” Eighties, when you’re deliberately trying to label your sound in that way. There are bands we like that span the decades, like Joy Division and New Order, and then into Brian Eno and Talking Heads, that have always combined synthesisers with guitars. Or even something like Leonard Cohen, who uses a lot of synthesisers. An album like I’m Your Man is incredibly Eighties, but it’s also its own thing; you can’t reduce it to being that label, if you know what I mean. So we never felt as though we wanted to be some kind of retro band.

There’s an emotional warmth in there, which I think sets it apart, and I think that’s maybe the quality I’ve picked up on most. A lot of it is quite uplifting and positive and joyful, but it’s also quite plaintive and yearning at the same time.

There’s a stability that’s come from being married and having houses and families and that kind of thing, and being the age that we are – which is not tremendously old, but it’s still older than a lot of the young kids that are coming through. And so automatically we’re not going to be talking about going out and partying; it just wouldn’t make sense to do that. But at the same time, we’re still in the business of making pop music, so it’s got to feel like a bit of a party somehow.

Even before we’d written the record, Joe was saying that he would quite like to make an album of end of the night songs, which is quite a good way of thinking about it. Songs that aren’t necessarily quite as upfront as something like Ready For The Floor or Over And Over from the previous albums, but have that kind of euphoric sensation that you might get from finishing a big night.

The way that the tracks have been sequenced, that would certainly fit. The more euphoric, upbeat stuff tends to be more in the first half of the album. Then Slush is your big ballad, and then there’s a kind of a wind-down that goes from there. So you could put it on when your feet are still twitching a bit.

Well, that’s just the major label front-loading making it like that! (Laughs) But we wanted it to be that as well.