MOUTHY ISSUE TWO
interview by Ian C Stewart
Is there anything you're feeling particularly mouthy about at the moment?
Just mention the initials GWB, and you won’t be able to stop me.
What musicians have inspired you?
In no particular order, Brian Wilson, Glenn Gould, Duke Ellington, Ravel, Poulenc, Carole King …and the Zombies. What a mix. Glenn Gould for his approach to the recording process, and how he redefined the relationship between artist and listener. The others for their contribution to my spiritual well-being. They all have/had in common an ear for innovative harmonies and a very strong sense of structure, which I like to think are my two fortes. As long as I can remember, those qualities have always been the ones which attracted me, whatever the genre may be, and which I have recognized - intuitively at first - in too many artists to mention. I suppose I’ve also been a lounge freak from a very early age. I remember being totally transported by Martin Denny’s version of “Quiet Village” when I was four or five years old; it was used as the theme music to a French wildlife program, and one of the happiest moments of life was when I finally identified what this eerie piece of music actually was - thanks to a tape sent to me by a Japanese fan.
What made you decide to start making music of your own?
A need rather than an impulse. I cannot dissociate the process of playing from the process of composing, have never been able to do so. The minute I bought my first guitar (a Fender bass), I knew exactly what I wanted to use it for. When I was a child, I used to spend long car journeys imagining music of my own, and would harass my older friends - who could read music - to transcribe the lines I could hear in my head. I have never made music for any purpose other than satisfying a selfish need; not to express myself, but to express what is in me, and which is insisting to go out. The rest, success, etc. pleasant as it may be, is an appendage, nothing else.
How do your songs come to be?
Tune first. Sometimes a line. A song can take months or years to mature. The actual process I could not and would not want to explain; then comes the craft - the tweaking of a note, a chord substitution, the scoring and so on. But even at that stage, the old inspiration is the alpha and omega of the writing. Which is why I am not so hot at writing to order, a quality I wish I possessed.
How was it working with Dave Gregory?
I met Gregsy during the recording of Martin Newell’s Off-White Album, which I produced, way back in 1995 I think. I’d loved his playing for a long time, being an XTC fanatic ever since Drums And Wires. As anyone who’s met him will confirm, Dave’s a gent, as well as an exceptional musician. He has contributed some wonderful guitar work to every album I have made since, and I hope that this will continue until age finally catches up with us. Age, and the only end of age, like Philip Larkin said.
How is the current label situation working out?
Reasonably well. I hold the copyright to all my post-Cherry Red recordings (I’m an old hand, you see), and license them to whomever will give them a decent home. At the moment, this means XIIIbis Records, a French independent label of some distinction, which has the advantage of being distributed in most European countries, UK included. What pisses me off is my situation in the US - potentially my biggest market, judging by the traffic on my website, and a couple of tours I did there; I’m still without a label there. Help!
Will there be a DVD of your stuff?
Nope. Out of my financial reach, and distracting anyway. Images impoverish music, unless you’re writing a soundtrack. Make up your own images, you lazy sods!
What's the strangest recording session you've been part of?
There have been quite a few, but the Off-White sessions stand out. We were working with no assurance that any money would be forthcoming to pay the studios - and we were all broke at the time. The cash was finally delivered on a railway platform in Kent. Where it came from I do not, repeat, do not want to know. The thing was a hoot anyway, thanks to Martin’s fabulous songs, and to some funny tricks we used, such as recording in the middle of the forest on a portable DAT machine - lovely sound, very unusual. I’m told REM’s Murmur was partly done that way.
Have you been on tour recently?
No. A combination of poor health, too much work, and a lack of suitable venues and tour managers explains this. My experience of touring is limited, and not altogether pleasant. I much prefer the environment of the studio. Why people think live music is more honest beats me. It is if anything more artificial, because of the need for projection. Too often, you don’t play, you play-act. I have been conscious of that ever since my first tour (Japan, 1987). It can be magic, yes, and I love singing in front of an audience, but the frustrations that go with the whole circus, and the appalling conditions in which we have to work most of the time make it an unappetising proposition most of the time.
Where are your biggest markets?
The US of A, Japan, France, Spain and Scandinavia, in that order.
What's the biggest audience you've played to?
About 2,000 people, at the Limelight, in London, in ’86 I think. I hated it.
What's your favorite place to play live?
As a venue, I loved the Fez, in NYC. Comfortable, spacious, beautifully situated. We also played in a lovely baroque theatre in Troyes; but the venue that sticks in my mind was a barge moored off Notre-Dame in Paris, where I performed with Danny Manners and Stuart Moxham of the Young Marble Giants. Probably the best gig we ever did, in terms of response of the audience.
Go on, give us an amusing pop-music anecdote. Please?
In pop music, amusing means “horrendous.” The most horrendous night of my career took place during a Cleaners From Venus tour (Martin Newell again), We were playing in an East German town whose name I want to forget. The “organizers” were a bunch of right-on bastards who’d a) forgotten to promote the gig (audience of SIX) and b) salted away our sponsorship money. At 4am, our tour manager, a simpering little creep, broke down in tears and left us - Martin and I - to sort out the shit. The other musicians in the band were livid - the whole tour was at stake. Without that money, we were well and truly fucked. So we went to the residence of the venue’s owner - a flat in a Stalinian high-rise estate - 4:30am, with our driver. Woke the bastard up, who refused to open. Threatened to break his door with an axe. At which point we were handed the cash. It was appalling, and affected us a bit. We were crap, actually. We played Berlin, at the Insel; should have been fab, was not: Martin managed to sing a whole song a semi-tone above the actual key. Martin, a great poet, promised me he would turn out a novel out of this tour (this was one episode out of many, many others). I do wish he did it, I really do.
Do you have obsessive fans?
I have a few, yes. I’d worry if it were not the case. They’re not a pain. They’re charming, and I love them.
What do you think about the current state of music - is it better or worse now (or the same)?
Now than when? There is no current state of music; there is a current state of the industry, which impacts on the quality of what people can hear. There is no doubt in my mind, but how could there be? , that the process of concentration which has taken place over the past twenty years has had a disastrous effect; concentration of labels, distribution networks, record shops, venue operators, everything. Shifting units has become the sole objective of record labels, indies included. Where are the Tony Wilsons and Mike Always of today? Nowhere to be seen. This has led to a homogenization of the product, and to the sidelining of potential new talents. The obligation of linking audio with video content has also placed many bands in an impossible financial situation. More generally, it also seems to me, old bugger that I am, that I am a dinosaur, inasmuch I still place a higher value on craftsmanship and actual songwriting than on anything else. There are exceptions, of course: Eggstone - fresh, inventive, daring. Calexico - real craftsmen, superbly hybrid. The High Llamas. Anything Bertrand Burgalat has a hand in. I loved the New Radicals - but what is Gregg Alexander up to these days?
How has the internet affected you?
Enormously. I spend a minimum of five-six hours on it every day (the beauty of broadband). My website has also generated not just traffic, but also deals, if you can believe it, and enabled me to get in touch with quite a few musicians I might well work with over the coming months.
Are there any music people you'd like to collaborate with?
I’m very lucky inasmuch I have worked and am working with most of the people I wanted to work with in the first instance. But if there was one band I had to single out, it would be Eggstone, with whom I feel extraordinary empathy.
What's next for you, musically speaking?
First, the release of my new album, My Favourite Part Of You. Then the completion of its follow-up. All the tunes are in place - more or less, and I have a pretty good idea of where and how I want to record it, provided the funds are available. I also wish to push my collaboration with novelist Jonathan Coe further. I keep pestering him about a superb script he’s written a few years ago, which could be turned into a sensational musical, nothing less. A couple of bands - one French, one American - have requested my services as a producer; time, or lack of time, will decide for me.
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