Independent label Cherry Red Records has just released a three-CD anthology of the work of Edward Ball.
The 61-track collection, which is called It’s Kinda Lonely Where I Am – Anthology 1977-2010, spans his entire career, from the teenage DIY punk and power pop of ‘O’Level and Teenage Filmstars through the indie-mod of The Times, to Ball’s Britpop years on Alan McGee’s Creation label, where he recorded with Ride’s Andy Bell, Nick Heyward (Haircut 100), Swedish female singer-songwriter, Idha, and members of The Boo Radleys.
Also included are tracks from his dance and world music-influenced project Love Corporation, whose tunes were remixed by Andy Weatherall, Danny Rampling and Monkey Mafia.
There are plenty of highlights, like The Times’ quirky and infectious 1981 debut single, Red With Purple Flashes – Ball says it was their attempt to write the “saddest, most melancholic, contemplative mod pop record ever” – the sad-eyed, European-flavoured, Tears On A Rainy Sunday, which sounds like The Style Council doing Kraftwerk, and their 1982 fan favourite, I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape, inspired by cult TV series The Prisoner, and featuring some great, groovy ’60s-style organ and soul guitar.
Then there’s the irresistible and upbeat folky-pop of 1996 solo near-hit, The Mill Hill Self Hate Club,the pastoral Nick Drake-isms of the compilation’s title track, It’s Kinda Lonely Where I Am, the bold and brassy Trailblaze, the Motown-inspired gem, Controversial Girlfriend, and the introspective and rootsy ballad Docklands Blues, written with Tim Buckley’s The River as a starting point, according to Ball.
There’s also a previously unreleased track included, Song To The Lighthouse, which is an outtake from Ball’s soundtrack to the 2010 Carol Morley film The Edge, starring Maxine Peake. It’s short and sweet – a stripped-down, acoustic folk tune.
Moving away from the trad singer-songwriter material, there’s the epic full 10:35 version of Love Corporation’s Give Me Some Love, with production by Andy Weatherall from 1991.
Listening to many of these songs, you can’t help but think that they should’ve been massive hits, rather than simply condemned to obscurity. It’s great that Cherry Red has pulled all of these tracks together, and presented them in an attractive triple-CD package – here’s hoping a new audience will stumble across this eclectic, colourful and inventive collection of songs by an unsung indie hero.
Ball has approved the box set and contributed some insightful sleeve notes in collaboration with MOJO and Record Collector writer, Lois Wilson.
‘Here’s hoping a new audience will stumble across this eclectic, colourful and inventive collection of songs by an unsung indie hero’
To celebrate the release of the anthology, I revisited an interview I did with Ball back in the autumn of 1996, ahead of a gig supporting The Lightning Seeds at Portsmouth Guildhall. His new album, Catholic Guilt, was due out the following year, on Creation.
The original version of this article was published in South Coast listings magazine, Splash! in October 1996.
“Don’t tell me you’re a Liverpool fan,” says Edward Ball. On the day that I’m interviewing the 36-year-old, bald tunesmith, he’s still reeling from his favourite football team Chelsea’s recent 5-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool.
“It’s part of being a Chelsea fan,” he says. “There was I thinking that this was the season things were going to change because of our star cast and then we get whacked by Liverpool…”
Anyone who’s suffering from the blues, for whatever reason, should give Ball’s last two singles, The Mill Hill Self Hate Club and Trailblaze, a listen. Despite their self-loathing lyrics, they are both killer pop tunes, described by Ball as “broad and brassy”.
The former has a great, wailing harmonica riff and horns, while the latter is based around a big, bold brass arrangement. Sadly, both missed out on entering the Top 40 – The Mill Hill Self Hate Club stalled at number 57, while Trailblaze fared worse, managing a chart position of 98.
‘The Beatles are like your first girlfriend. Every time you put them on, they make you feel happy’
He may not have hit the big time yet, but Ball owes a debt to classic, quality songwriting by the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. “The Beatles are like your first girlfriend,” he says. “Every time you put them on, they make you feel happy. They have great healing powers.”
Underneath Ball’s shiny pop veneer lurks a sad tale – a large amount of his songs have been inspired by one major breakup.
“They all stem from one particular relationship,” he says. “We all go through many different relationships, but I think we’re all answerable to one that grabs us by the throat. It was that one which I wrote nearly 50 songs about.”
So, does he have immense problems with relationships?
“I probably have no more problems than anyone else does. We’re all on the starting blocks and trying to make it to the other side with someone – it’s just that I look into relationships more. I don’t know what I expect from them,” he says.
‘We all go through many different relationships, but I think we’re all answerable to one that grabs us by the throat. It was that one which I wrote nearly 50 songs about’
Ball, who was born in 1959, has been involved in music since 1977 and he’s recorded with ‘O’ Level, The Television Personalities, Teenage Filmstars, The Times and dance act Love Corporation.
Currently he’s settled into a singer-songwriter role, drawing on his own personal experiences. “It’s a lot easier now,” he says. “I spent so much time writing about stuff and getting into everything from food to drugs. You can do all this experimenting and messing about, but then you find the real self, you write about it and everyone says, “Oh, I know what you mean.”
He composes a lot of his songs when he’s on the move. “Most of them are written in hotel rooms,” he says. “That’s where all the best songs come from – when you’re by yourself and in unfamiliar surroundings. It helps the cathartic side and brings out what needs to come out.”
Ball is scarily prolific – he never stops writing songs.
“I’m still writing one now,” he says. “I’ve got one in my head that I’m turning around and trying to make sense of. It’s called Controversial Girlfriend. I’ve got a guitar and an amp set up in my kitchen and I’ve been hammering away on it for the last couple of days.”
One of his recent inspirations was a train journey from Manchester to London. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was bloody early in the morning – about six o’clock. I set out from Manchester to London for an interview and when we came into Macclesfield the sun was coming up and it was utterly beautiful – a special moment. It was gorgeous. When you think of Macclesfield, you don’t expect that – you expect smog.”
‘The need to make records ends up being the worst addiction of all. It’s the one you don’t expect. They’re always the worst, aren’t they?’
After all these years, is he frustrated that he still hasn’t had a hit record? “No,” he says. “I’d be more frustrated if I couldn’t actually make music at all. The need to make records ends up being the worst addiction of all. It’s the one you don’t expect. They’re always the worst, aren’t they?”
He adds: “I’m not looking for acceptance. There are only two of three people’s opinions I care about.”
Perhaps he’ll finally break through into the mainstream with his next single, which is highly likely to be a tune called Love Is Blue.
He shrugs it off as “just one of those songs,”, adding: “Maybe it will be the next one that does it. But if it gets into the Top 40, we still won’t have world peace, will we?”
Edward Ball’s It’s Kinda Lonely Where I Am – Anthology 1977-2010 is out now on Cherry Red Records. You can order it here.
Love Is Blue didn’t get into the Top 40 – it peaked at number 59.
I first met singer/guitarist Andy Strickland in 1987, on the Isle of Wight, at his family home in Ryde, when I was 13.
My dad, show business journalist, John Hannam, was interviewing him for a local newspaper article about his jangly indie-pop band The Caretaker Race, who’d just released their debut single, Somewhere On Sea. Prior to that, he’d been in Creation Records act The Loft.
I’d tagged along, because, like my dad, I loved the song, but I was also keen to meet Andy – as well as being in a band, he was a music journalist, which was my dream job.
Now, on a late afternoon in July 2022 – 35 years after our first encounter – I’m interviewing Andy, and we’re somewhere on sea, in a Ryde hotel bar. But, rather than The Caretaker Race, who split in 1991, we’re actually here to talk about his latest project, playing guitar in Yeovil-based The Chesterfields – another indie-pop band who formed in the ‘80s, and who have just made a brand new album, New Modern Homes. Although this isn’t the first time Andy has been part of the group…
“I played with them a bit in the early days, after The Loft split,” he says, over a pint of Isle of Wight-brewed ale.
“I kind of knew them, because they’d come to a couple of gigs we’d done down in Bristol. I think they booked us for a gig, which was about a week after we’d split up. That was the first gig The Loft didn’t do – Simon [Barber – bass and vocals], who’s still in The Chesterfields, ran a little club in Sherborne, Dorset. It was by the railway station and was called The Electric Broom Cupboard.
“I’d also interviewed the band for Record Mirror. I’d started The Caretaker Race, but, in 1987, Simon rang me up and said, ‘This is a bit of a long shot, but we’ve just got rid of our guitarist – do you fancy standing in?’
‘We played on the second stage at Glastonbury in ’87. Halfway through the set, I realised my guitar lead wasn’t long enough – I’d never played on a stage that big’
“I didn’t know how it would work, as they were based a long way away from where I was, but then Simon said, ‘The first gig’s Glastonbury Festival and it’s in three weeks…’
“I said, ‘Oh – that’s interesting…’ He said the next night they were playing an Oxford ball with Desmond Dekker… so he kind of lured me in with the promise of decent gigs.”
And how were the shows? “They were great. We played on the second stage at Glastonbury in ’87. Halfway through the set, I realised my guitar lead wasn’t long enough – I’d never played on a stage that big. By the fourth song in, I was required to do some backing vocals and, as I marched to the microphone, I couldn’t get there – the roadie picked my amp up, charged towards me and plonked it down so I could do the final ‘bah-bah-bah’, or whatever it was.
“I did a little tour with them, but then they got Simon’s brother in, who was a really good guitar player. I didn’t play with them again until recent years.”
So, how did you end up rejoining The Chesterfields?
Andy Strickland: Simon, Helen [Stickland – guitar and vocals] and Rob [Parry – drums] were playing in bands around the West Country and they started doing a couple of Chesterfields songs, which went down really well. I saw them and said to Simon, ‘If there’s an appetite for it, you should do it’.
‘We played with The Primitives at The Knitting Factory, in Brooklyn, New York – it was sold out, it was hot and the crowd loved it. It was fantastic’
He was always reluctant to do it, because Davey [Dave Goldsworthy], the original singer and frontman, died in 2003 – he was killed in a hit and run. Simon didn’t want to do anything that might upset anyone, but, eventually, he asked the family and we did a little UK tour in 2019, which went really well.
Before that, in 2016, we got asked to go and play in New York, at the New York Pop Fest – that was brilliant. We played with The Primitives at The Knitting Factory, in Brooklyn – it was sold out, it was hot and the crowd loved it. It was fantastic. The crowd was a young one, which was really odd.
Chesterfield band member Helen’s surname is Stickland. That must be a bit confusing…
AS: Yes – it’s not a typo and we’re not related. Although her husband did used to live on the Isle of Wight, which is even more confusing.
So, now there’s a new Chesterfields album – New Modern Homes…
AS: After the 2019 tour, we thought there might be an appetite for a new record, and then while we were talking about it, lockdown happened, which gave us an opportunity to write some songs.
John Parish (PJ Harvey) co-produced it…
AS: Yes – he produced the first Chesterfields album, back in the day, and he also produced some of my early Caretaker Race records, so we all knew him. We talked about what we were going to do with this record – we knew we were going to record it in Somerset.
There’s a studio next to Wookey Hole called Axe and Trap, which is run by a great guy called Ben Turner. We started recording there last summer and John came down for a couple of days.
We were so relaxed and we thought we were doing demos, but John said they sounded great and that he would mix them at his place, with a few little overdubs. We went to John’s studio in Bristol in November last year. We were lucky to get a really good studio and great engineers. John had a two-week gap and we fitted into it.
The first single, Our Songbird Has Gone, came out on 7in vinyl…
AS: The first batch that went up on Bandcamp sold out in 10 hours.
‘Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens heard the song and got in touch. She said, ‘I love this! Who are you guys?’
Part of the lyrics feature a list of bands and acts that influenced The Chesterfields, including The Go-Betweens, The Smiths, The Fall, Orange Juice, The House of Love, Aztec Camera, Gang of Four…
AS: It’s an actual list – a few years after Davy died, his widow sent Simon some bits and pieces. One of the things she sent him was a little book that’s mentioned in the song. It had lyrics and drawings in it and a list of Davy’s favourite bands.
Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens heard the song and got in touch. She said, ‘I love this! Who are you guys?’ They were one of Davy’s absolute favourites. A few of the other bands who are mentioned in the song, like The Darling Buds and The June Brides, have also been in touch.
You’ve written three of the songs on the album:You’re Ace From Space, Mary’s Got A Gun and Postpone The Revolution. Were they all written for the new record?
AS: They were. I’m writing bits and pieces all the time, but I wanted to write some songs that would fit on a Chesterfields record. That was a good challenge and, to some extent, I think it’s worked. Certainly John thought they fitted well – he would’ve said if they didn’t. It also gave me a chance to sing. Helen also wrote a song, so there’s three different writers and singers on the album, which is quite unusual these days.
What inspired You’re Ace From Space?
AS: I think it came from craving some freedom during lockdown – imagine just being up there, in space, on your own for a bit. It was a bit of space – literally.
‘Postpone The Revolution is a song about young people not really giving a shit. Why aren’t they out there, getting rid of this Government?
Mary’s Got A Gun is a story song, about two characters – Mary and Vinny…
AS: Yeah – I just started playing the guitar riff one day and I came up with the idea of Mary having a gun and thought, ‘Why would she have a gun?’ So I came up with a story about her buying it, from a book dealer in Hay-on-Wye, and hooking up with this guy who had a van, and they’ve got a secret hiding place…
I’ve always wanted to go to Hay-on-Wye and visit the bookshops…
AS: I’ve never been, but now I know you can buy an illicit firearm there, I’m very keen to go…
What about Postpone The Revolution?
AS: It’s a song about young people not really giving a shit. Why aren’t they out there, getting rid of this Government? I occasionally say to my son, ‘When I was your age, I was marching for X, Y and Z…’
It’s another of your songs that mentions the sea. I was listening to The Caretaker Race album, Hangover Square, recently. That has quite a few songs on it that mention the sea and seaside towns. That record still stands up today…
AS: That’s very kind of you to say so. Stephen Street did it and we were a good band.
That album reminds me of The Smiths at times. I’ve Seen A Thing Or Two sounds like Back To The Old House – the guitar on it is very Johnny Marr… And so is the guitar on You Always Hurt (The One You Kick)…
AS: Yeah – that’s very Johnny Marr. Stephen Street didn’t say we’d gone too far… but he did play the album to Morrissey. The other guitarist in The Caretaker Race, Andy Deevey, used an Echoplex. I’ve Seen A Thing Or Two was written about a church in Ryde that you come past on the train. There’s a reverse echo on it – Stephen played it to Morrissey and he was like, ‘Oh, what’s that? How did you do that?’
I remember Stephen telling me that Morrissey was very much taken with Andy’s Echoplex. It sounds like a ghostly buzzsaw thing going on in the background.
Let’s go back to The Chesterfields. So, you’re pleased with the new album?
AS: Yeah – really pleased. It’s the first thing I’ve recorded for so many years, so to have three songs on it and for it to sound so good… There’s some lovely guitar playing on it – not just mine. Helen’s great – she plays very punk-rock, but writes these really beautiful little lines. It’s great fun playing with her.
One of my favourite songs on the album is Mr Wilson Goes To Norway...
AS: We’ve got a great video for it. Purely by coincidence, the lad called James [Harvey],who did the video for Our Songbird Has Gone, was going to Norway a few weeks later, so we got him to do some travelogue stuff for it, while we just larked around in a deserted high street in Sherborne, Dorset.
‘I’m thinking about doing a solo EP next year, but I need a kick up the arse…’
A couple of years ago, we had an idea about playing Indiefjord in Norway. Simon came up with that song and we said, ‘Well, if they’re not going to invite us to play after this video and this song, then we’re never going to get invited…’
Earlier you said that you write a lot of songs, so do you think you might put a solo record out?
AS: I think I will. I’m thinking about doing a solo EP next year. Given that there’s all this Chesterfields stuff going on and there’s also some Loft stuff coming out… I need a kick up the arse to make me finish stuff. I was watching Get Back – George Harrison is going on about how John and Paul are always telling him to finish stuff… I’m a bad finisher, unless I’ve got a deadline.
I’ve got lots of stuff. I pick up the guitar every day, play something and stick it on my phone. My partner gets a bit annoyed – especially if we’ve just gone to bed and I say, ‘Hang on – I’ll be back in five minutes…’ I’m just lying there and a middle eight pops into my head.
It’s everything, basically – all the singles, all the Creation stuff, all the Radio 1 Janice Long sessions, the Marc Riley and Gideon Coe sessions, the single that we put out on Static Caravan about 15 years ago and a whole live gig from The Living Room, back in the day.
I think it’s 30 tracks – on triple vinyl. When we heard it was going to be a triple, we said, ‘We can’t have that – we’re not Yes!’ But the guy who’s doing it, Ian [Allcock], who runs Optic Nerve, said, ‘Trust me – it will be great’. He managed to get all the stuff signed off by the BBC. It’s a mighty tome – on coloured vinyl with a booklet. It will be quite a package. You can preorder it now.
‘I did start writing a book. I’ve got the title. It’s called And Then I Punched Tom Jones’
Have you ever thought about writing a book on your time in the music industry, as a musician, but also a journalist?
AS: I did start writing one and I’ve got the title. It’s called And Then I Punched Tom Jones.
Did you punch him?
AS: I didn’t, actually, but I thought about it. I was interviewing him for about the third time. He’s one of those people who, when you turn the recorder on, they just talk and you barely have to ask them a question.
I was in a hotel suite – it was just me and him, and I started to lose concentration, because he was just talking, and talking and talking. My head started going and I was looking at him and I thought, ‘Tom Jones is sitting there, if I hit him now, really hard, he’ll probably go over the edge of that sofa’. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. My mind just started to wander.
A few years later, I was in the pub with a bunch of guys from Loaded magazine and I mentioned it. They said they’d had a similar thing – that it was quite common. I don’t know if it’s like a minor version of shooting John Lennon or something – having an impact on someone famous and leaving your imprint.
I don’t think I ever had it with anyone else – in my Record Mirror days, I sat down and interviewed some big stars.
‘The Loft were the first Creation band on TV. We did The Oxford Road Show with China Crisis, Ultravox, Thompson Twins and Bronski Beat’
Was being a music journalist and also in a band a help or a hindrance?
AS: I don’t think it was a help, particularly. When The Loft were taking off, we did get a bit of stick – some of the reviews said we were a band of journalists and people assumed we had some sort of inside track, but we didn’t. We didn’t have a manager, a roadie or a driver – it was just us four, plus our mate, Danny Kelly. We were the first Creation band on TV – The Oxford Road Show. We were Janice Long’s ‘band to watch’ and we were on with China Crisis, Ultravox and Thompson Twins and Bronski Beat.
You were the only act who didn’t have synths…
AS: Yeah – we were. When word got out that we were going to be on it, the manager of The June Brides, who had been on the cover of the NME, rang me up in my little studenty house and said, ‘I hear you’re going on the telly’. I said, ‘Yeah – it’s amazing.’ He said, ‘I’d love to get The June Brides on – who do I need to talk to?’ I said, ‘I dunno’. But he said, ‘Oh c’mon, Andy – we’re all in this together. Who did you tap up?’
I said, ‘They just rang us and asked if we could do it’. He couldn’t believe it could be that easy.
We were in the right place at the right time, and Janice loved the band. She was such a big deal and she was so lovely. She got overshadowed by John Peel, but she did huge amounts for so many bands – The Chesterfields did sessions for her. She wasn’t one of those DJs who just wanted to be famous – she was all about the music.
We talk to Say It With Garage Flowers favourite, Nev Cottee, about his new great album, Madrid, which, with its lush orchestration, cinematic atmosphere and groovy, psychedelic sounds, soaks up influences like ’60s Scott Walker, Ennio Morricone, Lee Hazlewood, Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg.
If that wasn’t enough, we also ask him if it’s true he’s relocating from Manchester to the Spanish city the record shares its name with, and get some top tips on where to get the best tapas, menú del día and olive oil.
Not only that, but he also kindly shares with us some cautionary advice on drinking wine in the afternoon…
It’s mid-October and Manchester-based singer-songwriter, Nev Cottee, is speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers from his allotment.
”It’s a glorious day – autumnal vibes,” he says. “It’s good to crack out the tweeds and the layers, isn’t it? A proper pair of shoes, socks… get the coat collection on the go after the summer – it’s a good time of year. Everything’s died off, so I’m just drinking a cup of tea and being English, in my allotment. Does it get any more English?”
Ironically though, we’re here to talk about all things Spanish – in particular, his superb new album, Madrid, but, rather fittingly, it does have some glorious autumnal vibes – largely thanks to its lush, Scott 4-like string arrangements and Cottee’s Lee Hazlewoodesque baritone croon.
‘It’s good to crack out the tweeds and the layers, isn’t it? A proper pair of shoes, socks… get the coat collection on the go after the summer’
More on that later, but before we get into the background on the record, we want to confirm if the rumours we’ve heard about him relocating from Manchester to Madrid are true…
“I’m trying, but Covid kind of got in the way – my girlfriend is in Madrid,” he explains. “The dream is to get over there. Madrid’s great, but I’m kind of over living in cities. I’m at that age where it’s too busy, there are too many people and it’s too noisy.
“I live in the centre of Manchester, but I’ve got a little sanctuary – my allotment. I don’t know how I’d balance that in Madrid.
“My girlfriend’s from Granada – a town called Jaén, which apparently has the best olive oil in Spain. That’s been confirmed by various Spanish people – there’s big competition there – but it’s supposed to be the best of the best. So, that’s where I want to go, and eat lots of food with lovely olive oil on it. Let’s see…. in the next couple of years…”
‘I’m kind of over living in cities. I’m at that age where it’s too busy, there are too many people and it’s too noisy’
Meanwhile, back to autumn 2022… Madrid, which is Cottee’s fifth album and out now on Wonderfulsound,could just be his best record yet.
Recorded at OO Studios in Spain and The Magic Lantern in Wales, it’s lush, dramatic and cinematic – first single, Renunciate, is haunted by the spectre of Leonard Cohen, Silver Screen and The Ring sound like long-lost Lee Hazlewood songs, Under The Skin is pure Scott 4, but with Bollywood strings, the instrumental title track is weird and groovy Serge Gainsbourg-style pysch-funk – think Histoire de Melody Nelson – whilst Johnny Ray is Ennio Morricone on horseback with Hazlewood, galloping off into the sunset, and A Million Years is upbeat orch-pop with a classic ’60s feel.
“This album kind of took care of itself. I had about three or four songs – the first single, Renunciate, and a few others, and I built on those themes to get a coherent album,” says Cottee. “I’m a bit of a one for trying to curate an album, so it’s a work that hangs together.”
When we last spoke, in 2020, for the vinyl release of your debut record, Stations, I asked you about your plans for the next album. You said you were working on a record with the working title of Solitary Singer and that you were listening to a lot of Scott Walker again.
You planned to go to Prague to record with an orchestra, to make a record that sounded like Scott 4, but you said that you’d also written another album – for a Lee Hazlewood alter ego.
You told me you wanted to write 10 songs that could stand up in the Hazlewood oeuvre. So, now you’ve got a new album out, Madrid, that sounds like Scott 4 and Hazlewood, as well as Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg, but it was recorded in OO Studios, in Spain, and The Magic Lantern, in Wales… How and why did the plans change?
Nev Cottee: I was hoping to get a live orchestra on it, but it was far too expensive – even in Prague. Someone said Prague is cheap, but it was still coming in at several thousand pounds, plus it was in Prague… It sounded interesting, but, in the end, I worked with the same producer, Mason Neely – we’ve done five albums now.
He scores all my songs – he’s classically-trained. He knows what he’s doing – unlike me. I provide melodies and hints and ideas. I send him stuff that’s on my phone – I hum along what I think the strings should do, and then he adapts it into actual real music.
He’s got a team of musicians – he did a couple of days down in Wales, at Magic Lantern, in Wales. He had a cellist and a viola player, and we got cracking with the strings.
There’s a definite Scott 4 feel to some of the songs…
NC: There are elements of Scott 4 – that’s always going to be the case with my albums (laughs).
I gave Mason references. For the song, Under The Skin, I wanted a repetitive string loop – real strings, but as if they were done on a machine. I was referencing The Flaming Lips and Scott 4 to get that weird, repetitive psych thing going on.
There’s a song called Angels of Ashes on Scott 4, which is phenomenal – it builds, but you don’t realise that you’re just listening to the same chord structure, again and again. It hits you about three minutes in – it’s amazing how he takes you on that journey. I started off with that in mind. I was attempting that, but it became something else.
The strings sound quite Bollywood…
NC: You’re right – it’s the repetition. We wanted a live take, but as if it was done on an edited repeat loop. It was an experiment. I wanted The Flaming Lips to do a remix of it. I did a bit of work with Nell Smith – she did an album of Nick Cave covers with them. She met Nick Cave and I think she’s going to do a song with him.
Under The Skin is a bit psych and a bit trippy. The lyrics go down that road – there’s a drug psychosis thing going on. A geezer who’s lost somewhere, losing his mind. Who knows?
Mason and I did some mad instrumentals too – we were just kicking some ideas around and jamming, with the idea of making some songs, but then decided they didn’t need vocals, as they were great instrumentals.
The instrumental title track is groovy, cinematic and psychedelic…
NC: Yeah – it’s straight out of the Serge Gainsbourg book. It’s very drum-heavy – Mason’s amazing on it. We said, ‘Don’t hold back on anything – if you can get a drum fill in anywhere, or a bass run, do it. Keep playing crazy stuff for as long as you can and see what comes out’. Nothing stays the same. There was going to be a vocal, but it was too mad to fit one on.
Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted this album to sound like?
NC: You’re always aiming for something, but then it just becomes its own thing. Once you’ve got two or three key tracks that defines the rest of the album – ‘Right, that’s got a single vibe, that’s a standout track, so let’s build all the others so it all fits together’…
My mate, Al, always tells me off when we’re in the pub, because he’s into albums that are really disparate and mad, like The White Album or 666 by Aphrodite’s Child – that’s his touchstone album. He says, ‘Just have loads of mad stuff and eventually it will sound good together’… I’m a bit of a one for trying to curate an album, so it’s a work that hangs together.
‘Mason Neely scores all my songs – he’s classically-trained. He knows what he’s doing – unlike me’
Maybe the ‘kitchen sink’ philosophy might be a good idea somewhere down the line – have some songs that have nothing in common and put them on an album… It would always have something in common because it would have my voice spread all over it – that’s the glue that ties it together.
This album kind of took care of itself. I had about three or four songs – the first single, Renunciate, and a few others, and I built on those themes to get a coherent album.
Have you renunciated anything recently?
NC:(laughs). No. I did a year of being a veggie but I like meat too much, and being in Spain, you’ve got not chance – you’re just going miss out on so much. If go out for menú del día [menu of the day], you get three courses and a bottle of red wine for about 10 euros. They introduced it to Madrid in the ’60s, for people who worked there but who didn’t have time to return home to make dinner.
The state, under Franco, implemented measures for certain cafés to sell menú del día. It’s good, cheap food – not amazing – but the standards are high in Spain because the produce is great.
The problem is that if you get a bottle of wine at one or two in the afternoon, you really do have to watch yourself… It’s dangerous out there! I don’t like drinking early, but, when you’re in Spain, there’s no other way. But then the Spanish stop, you see, but the English carry on…
‘Everyone wants to renunciate, but if you really want to do it, you’ve got to get to India, go halfway up the Himalayas, sit there in a loin cloth, do nothing and don’t eat – don’t even eat the snow’
The song, Renunciate, is very tongue-in-cheek. It’s about ideals. You always see these articles – on fitness and what to eat – the Sunday supplements are full of them. ‘Don’t eat that, do this, do that…’ The whole song’s an extreme version of all those ideas.
Everyone wants to renunciate, but if you really want to do it, you’ve got to get to India, go halfway up the Himalayas, sit there in a loin cloth, do nothing and don’t eat – don’t even eat the snow. They’re the renunciators – they’re the real deal.
We’re all sliding around at the other end of the scale: ‘I’m not going to smoke anymore – oh, I might have a cigarette’, or ‘I’m giving up drink for a month – oh, me mate’s going for a pint, sod it, I’ll go’….
I don’t think any of us have mastered the art of renunciation, if you want to do that, which I don’t think I do. When I was young, I had this idea that you would do that if you’d committed to being a yogi, but then you realise that life isn’t like that… Moderation is the key.
The song Johnny Ray sounds like it was influenced by Ennio Morricone…
NC: Yeah – that’s a song I’ve been playing live for quite a while. On some of Scott Walker’s albums, he has these beautiful ballads but he also throws in some songs in with that driving beat… I wanted to do that – it’s like Morricone too. Western and filmic. The lyrics are about an existential loner – that’s Johnny Ray, ‘God’s lonely man – a modern day Lone Ranger.’
‘God’s lonely man‘ is from Taxi Driver – Paul Schrader. Me and me mate always used to say it. It’s when you can’t get a girlfriend, you’re on your own and you’re drinking too much…
There are some Leonard Cohen influences on this record too…
I’m really into the late-period Leonard Cohen stuff – the three albums he did before he died. You Want It Darker is a masterpiece – absolutely wonderful. I was influenced by some of the instrumentation on that – a bit more stripped-down. It doesn’t have to be full-on drums and bass – you can use congas and percussive elements.
Two of my favourite songs on the album, Silver Screen and The Ring, both have a Hazlewood vibe…
NC: Hazlewood is always there. Silver Screen came out of a jam with Mason – heavy Serge bass. Those wacky and crazy songs he did – he used a lot of jazz musicians. Those pretty groovy drums and that deep, clicking bass.
I did my vocals with Martin Coogan. The song had a few lyrics – we sculpted this idea of a love of film and the silver screen. He said, ‘What you need to do is put some dialogue from a film on it’. At the time I was watching Albert Finney films – I went through his back catalogue and pretty much watched everything. I was on a Finney fest. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is his pinnacle.
You get certain songs where they just arrive, fully-formed, in about two minutes. The Ring wrote itself – the words just tumbled out. It was the easiest thing in the world and was inspired by those duets Hazlewood did with Nancy Sinatra.
I did try to get a female vocalist on it – I asked Tess Parks, but she was dead busy and we couldn’t get into the studio. It was done remotely, but we just didn’t nail it. Maybe we’ll sort it for the next record.
‘I’m really into the late-period Leonard Cohen stuff – the three albums he did before he died. You Want It Darker is a masterpiece – absolutely wonderful’
So, what about that Lee Hazlewood alter ego album you wanted to make? What’s the plan for it?
NC: It’s demoed and it’s a thing in itself. It really does push the Lee Hazlewood button. I’m hoping to do some recording with Shawn Lee, but he’s just broken his leg, falling down the stairs – I saw that on Instagram. None of us are getting any younger.
When he’s better, I’m going to try and do the Hazlewood album with him. There are lots of duets on it. The Ring turned out really well for this album. I might have another go at it with a female singer.
‘I was speaking to the label about doing a Best Of. I want to call it Nevolution – the Best Of Nev Cottee’
There’s supposed to be a bit of a dialogue in the song, so that will probably end up on the Hazlewood album, but as a different entity. I really want to nail that Hazlewood sound, which is no mean feat.
The way I see it, I’ve done five albums now – that’s the end of that phase. I was speaking to Miles [Copeland] at the label [Wonderfulsound] about doing a Best Of – I want to call it Nevolution – the Best Of Nev Cottee. That will put a full stop on that phase and then we’re away…
Me and Mason have done what we set out to do with the albums – I think they’ve got better and better as we’ve progressed. We’ve tried lots of different things – we’ve done everything – it’s time to move on and try a different producer.
‘I remember George Harrison saying that he’d never listened to Revolver. I was like, ‘Bollocks – you’ve listened to it!’ But he was there – he doesn’t need to listen to it, does he?’
I’m not going to use Mason on the Hazlewood album – I want to move in a different direction and try other things. The Hazlewood one’s amazing – I think the songs are really good, if I say so myself.
I love this album [Madrid], but you’re always excited about the next thing… I’m sure you’ve heard many musicians say that – you’ve written it, you’ve demoed it, then you’ve recorded it, mixed it, mastered it, listened to it… By the time it’s out, you’re onto the next thing and you’re excited by that. I always used to think musicians and bands were being stuck up… ‘Oh, no – we didn’t listen to the album…’ I kind of get it now, ‘cos they were there when it was recorded.
I remember George Harrison saying that he’d never listened to Revolver. I was like, ‘Bollocks – you’ve listened to it!’ But he was there – he doesn’t need to listen to it, does he?
When you listen back to an album, all you hear are the mistakes – what you should’ve done and different ideas…
On that note, how were the sessions for Madrid?
NC: It was the same drill – I’ve been working with Mason for a long time. I sent him the demos and he sent ideas back. I went down there for a few weeks, back and forth… Once you know each other it’s good – you’ve got that shorthand with how you work – it’s fast – and you’re not afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Let’s talk about some of the playing on the record…
NC: I play guitar on it – a bit of acoustic and electric – and I did some basic keyboard strings that Mason then turned into stuff, and also some bass. Mason’s a drum man and he does a lot of keys and samples. We used Rod Smith, who is an old friend of mine, on backing vocals. I was glad to get Caroline Sheehan on this album – she’s an amazing vocalist who’s based in Manchester. If you follow her on Instagram, [you’ll see] she’s the busiest woman in the world. Jimmy Hanley played mandolin and a bit of guitar. He’s in a great band from Manchester called Small Black Arrows.
I was trying to get Little Barrie on the album, but I couldn’t get hold of him. He’s big mates with Shawn Lee. I’d love him to do some nice guitar work on the Hazlewood stuff – some ’60s vibes. So, pencil that one in.
Any live shows planned?
NC: Early next year – hopefully a UK tour. Six or seven dates. The band are all really busy – they’re all young, dead energetic and in other bands. They’re doing too much. What’s wrong with them? They’ll realise soon enough…. I’m doing some album playbacks and I might do a few acoustic shows.
‘I was trying to get Little Barrie on the album, but I couldn’t get hold of him. I’d love him to do some nice guitar work on the next record – some ’60s vibes’
You’ve done Madrid. Where next? Can we expect any more geographically-themed albums? Are you going to travel around the globe, stopping off at cities for musical inspiration?
NC: [laughs]. I’ve love to do that. Imagine that – you just go to a country and call the album after wherever you are. That would be a good job. I’ve just been in Greece for three weeks. I was in Corfu and then I went island hopping. I did it years ago and it was a dream to go back. I went to Poros, Spetses and Hydra, which is where Leonard Cohen lived in the ’60s. I went to his house – I did a pilgrimage. It was amazing.
I’ve never been to Madrid. Any recommendations?
NC: It’s all about knowing which bars serve the best free tapas and the best menú del día. The areas you need to go to are La Latina, Lavapiés and Conde Duque, which is great. Start off in Conde Duque – there are loads of bars there and there’s always live music. You can’t really fail – just wander around. It’s trial and error. The Spanish have sussed the eating and drinking part of life out, as well as the sun positioning – they’ve got that down as well – but I’m not sure about the political side of things.
Madrid by Nev Cottee is out now on Wonderfulsound.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Foxton & Hastings is the name of an estate agent, but it’s actually the moniker for the side-project of Bruce Foxton, former bassist with The Jam and Stiff Little Fingers, and guitarist/vocalist Russell Hastings – both of whom can usually be found playing in mod revival band From the Jam.
This month (October 28), the duo release their third album, The Butterfly Effect – a solid and enjoyable collection of good, old-fashioned, ’60s-style guitar tunes with their roots in Revolver-era Beatles, The Small Faces, The Who, classic soul and, coughs, solo ‘90s Paul Weller.
This is the modern world, but Foxton & Hastings aren’t afraid to turn to the past for their musical influences. Listening to The Butterfly Effect is like digging into a great record collection that’s full of vintage pop, rock and soul – the same kind of music that influenced The Jam, and, subsequently, most of the Britpop scene that emerged a few decades later.
“We all know what ‘The Butterfly Effect’ [the phrase] means, but, in basic terms, when I was listening to George Harrison or Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, in 1969, as a four-year old kid – I was born in 1965 – I was inspired by George’s 12-string guitar playing… or by hearing Stevie Marriott,” says Hastings – him and Foxton are talking to us over Zoom in late September.
‘We didn’t have any perception of ‘This track’s got to sound like The Who’, or whatever – it’s just what came out of the bag’
“Bruce and I have always been inspired by stuff over the years that’s had a knock-on effect [further] down the line, without us knowing it. It’s not a conscious decision – you end up playing a song in a certain style, so, when you record it, you have no idea what it sounds like at all to other people… and then they make their comments about it. The album could’ve been called Influences, really.
“It’s funny when you hear people’s interpretations of the songs – it’s not meant to be disrespectful, but you think, ‘Wow – I wonder where they got that from?” says Hastings.
Adds Foxton: “We didn’t have any perception of ‘This track’s got to sound like The Who’, or whatever – it’s just what came out of the bag.”
Produced by Al Scott, at Brighton’s Metway studio, which is owned by folk-rockers The Levellers, The Butterfly Effect features Big Country drummer, Mark Brzezicki, and Andy Fairclough (From The Jam) on keys. It came about as a result of lockdown.
“You sit at home and there’s only so much TV you can watch,” says Hastings. “It wasn’t a definitive ‘Oh, let’s make an album’ – it started with, ‘Here’s a good little tune – how about this?’”
Adds Foxton: “We had some ideas and then we’d just work on them, but it was difficult to get a band together, because of Covid. Thank God for technology.”
“There was a good mood in the studio. We were just glad to be alive!”
The two musicians would send ideas to each other and then, over a year later, they finally got in a room to play as a band and work on the new songs.
“I remember it well – we all had Covid test kits, even the engineers, so we could get rid of our masks when we were in the studio,” says Hastings.
“Otherwise, we would’ve had muffled vocals,” jokes Foxton.
The Butterfly Effect is largely a positive and upbeat record: “We were just glad to be alive!” says Hastings. “There was a good mood in the studio. We’re pretty positive people.”
Talking about lockdown, he says: “When I look back at it, it seems so ridiculous – we couldn’t even go round each other’s houses and do what we are supposed to do.
“By the time we could physically all be in the same room, we had four of five great ideas. In our first three-day stint, we churned it out. It was a great experience to get into the studio and play.”
The album’s opener, Electronic Lover, is throbbing, bass-driven, heavy, psych-tinged, blues-rock, with backwards Rickenbacker, and first single, Lula, is infectious, ‘60s Californian-pop-meets-The-Beatles, with a superb sax solo by Tony ‘Rico’ Richardson (Bad Manners), that was apparently recorded in his wardrobe, as Covid prevented him coming to the studio.
Feet Off the Ground is a delicious helping of funky and psychedelic, late ‘70s soul-pop, with wah-wah guitar and some great Hammond organ – it could’ve easily come off Weller’s self-titled solo album, from 1992 – while The Fab Four are back on the jangly, harmony-drenched, mid- ‘60s sound of current single, She Said – even the title nods its mop top to a Beatles song.
There’s also a track called Rain, although, to be fair, it doesn’t sound like Lennon, Macca and co, it’s a moody, late-night, cinematic and Weller-like introspective ballad.
One of the standout moments is also a ballad – the reflective and nostalgic Too Old To Cry, Too Young To Die, with a pastoral feel and a stately string arrangement.
Circles and Two of Us are mighty, Who-like power pop – the latter also throws in some Small Faces ‘sha-la-la’ backing vocals – and Time On Your Side is pure, joyous ‘60s/’70s soul with horns that bring to mind Give Me Just A Little More Time by Chairmen of the Board.
There’s more brass on the anthemic closer, Anything You Want, which sounds like The Jam having a knees-up with The Small Faces and a Motown revue, but with George Martin on the control knobs, adding some far-out studio effects for the final section.
Feet Off The Ground and Walking With Me have a jazzy-soulful feel – they’re quite acid jazz and pastoral, and they remind me of early solo Paul Weller or The Style Council.
Russell Hastings: Right – that’s the end of the interview! [laughs] You’re right – they probably are. The instigator of all that stuff – Bruce and I often laugh about it – was Spirogyra, in the late ‘70s. Without trying to be too arty about it, they were just grooves that we sat on – we demoed them at Water Rat Studios [in Woking, Surrey].
I like it when someone says, ‘It sounds like that…’ – that’s fine by me. There was never any deliberate attempt to make the songs sound like anything.
On that note, Two of Us,does have a touch of The Who about it, and some Small Faces-style ‘sha-la-la’ backing vocals… It has a ‘60s and ‘70s mod/power-pop feel, so it’s apt that you recorded it in Brighton…
RH: Unashamedly – yes! It’s got Brighton written all over it – we came up with the riff at Bruce’s house and did a demo version on a phone, while we were playing it live. It has that Who-esque / Mooney style – it’s a homage to Brighton, which is a place that we hold close to our hearts for many reasons. That whole historic thing.
‘I recorded the vocals for Time On Your Side in the morning, and then I tested positive for Covid in the afternoon, so, if they say it’s bad for your voice, it’s rubbish – my vocals sound really strong on it’
Time On Your Side is very Motown, with brass from Nicky Madern, and some great Hammond organ by Andy Fairclough…
RH: Nicky Madern plays brass on one of Liam Gallagher’s albums, and Andy’s our live player – he’s done a sterling job on the whole album. I recorded the vocals for that song in a morning, and then I didn’t feel very well in the afternoon. I tested positive for Covid, so, if they say it’s bad for your voice, it’s rubbish – my vocals sound really strong on it.
I think there’s a Revolver-era Beatles feel to some of the tracks on the album…
RH: I’ll take that.
‘There are no dour or negative messages. I’m not clever enough to write like that’
The last song, Anything You Want, has a Revolver-like psychedelic ending and Motown-style brass – like Got To Get You Into My Life, and She Said has a similar title to a Beatles song from the same album…
RH: Yeah. It’s only now you’re mentioning it… it’s funny and it makes me smile. One day, in the studio, Bruce was already there and I walked in. It was a nice, sunny, early spring morning, back in March, and I’d been listening to Across The Universe. I grabbed a guitar, and said, ‘Hold on – I can’t stop!’ I’d had an idea… Across The Universe blows my mind – it’s simple and so good.
Too Old To Cry, Too Young To Die is one of the album’s more introspective moments – a big ballad with strings – but it’s still quite a positive song, isn’t it? There’s a line in the lyrics which says: ‘Things are getting much better…’
RH: Yeah – there are no dour or negative messages. I’m not clever enough to write like that, to be honest. You get some people who are like, ‘Oh, I wrote this when, blah-blah-blah….’ Oh, fuck off – you wrote it ‘cos it ‘cos it came out like that! Unless you’re some kind of ultra-genius, like Bowie – people like that. I’ll take it from them, but not anybody else. Some people can get far too up their own arses about it.
Collectively it’s about a load of great pop songs… You walk away and you think ‘This is a great tune…’ That’s what it’s about it, innit, Bruce?
The album almost sounds like a Best Of – it’s really varied…
RH: Yeah. I’m really excited for people to hear it. When you’ve reeled off those tracks… It’s been a while since I’ve heard it.
You’re always playing live, as From the Jam, but do you plan to play any of the songs from The Butterfly Effect in concert?
RH: We’re gonna do a couple – we’re always conscious never to bore the audience to death amongst a load of Jam songs! Possibly Lula and Feet Off The Ground, or She Said, which is a great, simple pop song, with a mandolin on it.
It’s 16/17 years since From the Jam formed, but, Bruce, it’s 48 years since you joined The Jam…
BF: Forty eight! Which band was that? [Everyone laughs.]
It was in 1974, which was the year I was born…
How does that feel? You’ve been in From the Jam longer than you were in The Jam…
BF: I was in Stiff Little Fingers longer than I was in The Jam. It seems like another life – it doesn’t feel real, to be honest with you.
‘It was a shame that Paul and I fell out in the first place. We’re good friends again now, thankfully. Life is short – it really is. You should cherish it’
I saw you play in the band One Hundred Men, in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. My dad took me, in the ’80s…
BF: Wow – that’s going back. It was cowboy boots then…
RH: That’s enough of that! Only cowboys should wear cowboy boots.
BF: I just wanted to keep playing – it’s what I do and what I love doing. I also played with The Rhythm Sisters during that period, before I joined Stiff Little Fingers.
[To Bruce]: It’s been well documented how you reconciled with Paul Weller more than 10 years ago – the death of your wife and his dad brought you closer together. How did that feel to renew your friendship? Was it good to let bygones be bygones?
BF: Totally – we’re too old for all that malarkey. Life is short – it really is. You should cherish it. It was a shame that we ever fell out in the first place. We’re good friends again now, thankfully.
After Covid stopped you touring, it must be good to be back on the road again with From the Jam. You’ve got gigs lined up for this year and next…
RH: It’s great – we’ve sort of forgotten about the pandemic. We’ve both had a few health scares this year, but we’ve got over that, which has put life into a little bit more perspective – what’s important and what’s not. What’s not important is sitting in traffic jams around the UK for days on end, to line the taxman’s pockets, so we’ve eased back a little bit as far as the workload’s confirmed. We were tending to say, ‘Yes, we’ll do that…’, and you end up chasing your own tail and you become ill.
We’re in good health now. I woke up this morning and thought,’Oh – the album comes out soon…’ I like to hear people’s opinions of it. To be honest, we’re doing this album because we liked the tunes that we came up with – we didn’t have any ulterior motives. We were free to say, ‘Fuck it – we’re going to write and whatever we want to do, we’re going to do it’. ‘If it sounds a bit country, great’ or, ‘If it’s got strings on it, great’. We weren’t afraid of anything.
‘We’ve both had a few health scares this year, which has put life into perspective – what’s important and what’s not. What’s not important is sitting in traffic jams around the UK for days on end, to line the taxman’s pockets’
Is it nice being able to do different stuff with Foxton & Hastings other than just being in From The Jam?
RH: Bruce was in The Jam, but I almost had to prove that I was a musician myself and not just a parrot-fashion one. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before. I don’t know where that came from, but it’s true. I wanted to say, ‘Go fuck yerself – I’ve cut my teeth and I can hold my own’.
The Butterfly Effect by Foxton & Hastings is released on October 28 (Townsend Music).
Depeche Mode’s 1990 studio album, Violator, was an important record for 15/16-year-old me. As I wrote in a guest article for website, Eight Albums, a while back: ‘I can remember being so excited ahead of its release. I’d loved the two singles that preceded it – the anthemic, bluesy stomp of Personal Jesus and the blissed-out, pulsing pop of Enjoy The Silence, so I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. I wasn’t disappointed.
‘I bought it the day it came out (March 19, 1990) – after school I walked to the local record shop to get it on tape and then listened to it on my Walkman on the bus home. I can still recall the effect hearing the opening, moody, techno-inspired synth line of the first song, the mysterious World In My Eyes, had on me.
‘I was in a short-lived band at high school – we were a trio and were called The Massive String Thing. I sang and my friends, Chris and Dave, played keyboards and drums, respectively. We only did two gigs – our first one was during a school lunch hour and we played three songs, opening with World In My Eyes. I wore a black denim jacket and did my best Dave Gahan impression.
‘I thought we were great, but looking back on it, I think most people who saw us would’ve rather enjoyed the silence.’
So, I decided to, *coughs*, ‘reach out’ to the authors and ask if I could talk to them about their publication, which is a great read – a brilliantly researched and well-written piece of work that goes to painstaking lengths to talk to so many people who were involved with Violator, including the engineers and studio mixer, the guest slide guitarist, the sleeve’s graphic designer, the album’s marketing and PR representative, and even two of the girls, an actress and a dancer, who featured in promotional videos for the record.
Not only that, but there are also personal stories from some of the band’s fans from all over the world, who share how much the album means to them.
In an exclusive interview, Kevin and David tell me how the book came together, share some of their insights on Violator, and also talk about the future of the band, following the recent death of keyboardist, Andy ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, and the announcement that surviving members, Dave Gahan (vocals) and Martin Gore (guitar / keys), will continue as a duo and release a new album, Memento Mori, in spring 2023, followed by a tour.
How did the idea for the book come about? Was it as a result of lockdown?
Kevin May: It was a little while before lockdown – it’s been a while in the making. In the age of streaming, I think it’s increasingly rare to listen to an album front to back – people pick up tracks on random playlists…
It just so happened that I was travelling home from a work event quite a few years ago and decided to put Violator on – it was the first time in a long while that I’d listened to the album. At the end of it, I thought; ‘It’s so terrific – such a wonderful album’.
I’d seen the DVD documentary that had been made about it, in 2000, which does a fairly decent job of going over some of the bits and pieces, but I thought that because the album defines an era for the band – and for others – that it was worth digging into it…
I had no concept at all about how to go about writing something more than an article, which is what I used to do for my day job – it needed to be much more than that – so I asked a few people, someone said they’d written a book and they knew a publisher who was great, and they introduced me…
It started from there and it took quite a long time for me to do the first run of interviews – I had to fit them around work, and I was an editor of a travel publication, so I was pretty busy.
Then, in early 2017, David entered the fray…
How did you guys meet?
KM: I don’t recall our first conversation. David – did I approach you about writing a contribution as a fan?
David McElroy: That’s right – I’ve run a blog for the last 10 years. In the last five or six years, it’s become Depeche Mode-focused. Kevin asked me to do one of the fan contributions for the book and then the Global Spirit tour kicked off – Depeche Mode did a BBC 6 Music show at The Barrowland in Glasgow.
I met Kevin at that gig. I’d always hoped I could see them at The Barrowland.
One of the things that impressed me most about the book was that you managed to track down and speak to a whole host of people who were involved with the making of, and the subsequent release and promotion, of Violator. You even spoke to a dancer from the Halo video… How did you go about finding everyone? Was it a challenge?
KM: When I did the first run of interviews, the vast majority of people were fairly easy to track down, either through social media or LinkedIn. There were a couple that were a bit trickier – Richard Smith, who worked for Area, which was the design agency. He’d never spoken to anyone about Violator – that was a real coup. I particularly enjoyed talking to him.
In some respects, Anton Corbijn is the creative mastermind behind Depeche Mode’s look from, 1987 onwards, with the videos and the sleeves, but Richard and Area were pivotal to it and become more influential as Anton gave them more freedom to do things.
‘The band take a very consistent line on requests – they don’t get involved with any biographers. That applies to current band members and also Alan Wilder’
For example, the cover of Personal Jesus was an Anton brain dump, but as the singles went on, he gave more control to Richard and Area – World In My Eyes was very much Richard’s work.
I didn’t know any of that and I don’t think many people do – he’s one of the unsung heroes… Rightly, so much of the credit goes to Anton, but Richard has done a lot of work and he was just a footnote: ‘Designed by Area’.
There are no new interviews with any of the band members in the book. Did you ask them to get involved and did they decline?
DM: The band take a very consistent line on any requests – they don’t get involved with any biographers. That applies to current band members and also Alan Wilder [who left Depeche Mode in 1995]. The management didn’t get involved, either – no one in the close circle. They politely said ‘no’.
‘You’d probably get more about the story of the making of the album from the people we’ve spoken to, rather than the band, who would just say, ‘I can’t remember what I was doing in Milan, in late 1989’
When we first gave our editor the book, he thought if Depeche Mode weren’t involved, how would it come across and how would the story be told? But he said he quickly forgot that the band weren’t involved with the book because of all the other people who contributed. His view was – and I think Kevin and I agreed with him – was that you’d probably get more about the story of the making of the album from the people we’ve spoken to, rather than the band, who would just say, ‘I can’t remember what I was doing in Milan, in late 1989’…
Drugs, probably, I’d imagine…
Flood, who produced the album, didn’t contribute to the book either, did he? Were there quite a few ones who got away?
KM: Certainly Flood was the one who got away. It was basically a timing thing – I approached him right at the beginning and his management company, 140dB, said it sounded like something he’d be interested in, however, at the time he was working on a PJ Harvey album, at Somerset House. After that, he took a break because it had been intense.
‘Flood famously doesn’t do many interviews, but everyone else who worked with him – all the engineers and François Kevorkian – did speak to us’
This dragged on for a couple of years and then they said it probably wasn’t going to happen – he was then working with Ed O’Brien [Radiohead]… Flood famously doesn’t do many interviews, but everyone else who worked with him – all the engineers and [studio mixer] François Kevorkian – did speak to us.
Getting the fans involved was a nice touch…
DM: Kevin had had this idea and I did a thing on my blog for the 30th anniversary of Violator, which was an article a day for the whole of March – it was the one of those ideas I had and then I realised I had to follow it through…
I got quite a few fans to contribute, so the articles they wrote for me feature in the book, because we felt they were a good fit. They’re not just saying ‘Violator is the greatest album I’ve ever heard and Depeche Mode are wonderful… ‘ It’s more about their story.
Which people were the most fun to chat to for the book, and, as fans, did you learn anything that really excited you?
KM: Richard Smith was probably the person I learned the most from and, in terms of fun, the experience of interviewing Steve Lyon [engineer] was great because I actually went to his recording studio, in West London – I’d never been to a proper one before and I was a little bit overawed by that experience. He’s just a generous and very funny bloke – he was great.
I met Bruce Kirkland, who was on the marketing and publicity side, in L.A. I happened to be there for a conference, so I asked him if he was around and I caught an Uber out to his office, which was in the hills, overlooking L.A. We spoke for a couple of hours. That was genuinely a really enjoyable period of doing the book – I was talking to people about something I love and am passionate about.
DM: The things I learned the most were from reading Kevin’s interviews. If you look at the book as two halves – Kevin had done all the work on the part up until the album is released, and, as a Depeche Mode fan who, perhaps, can be a bit boring about the band, I was reading things I’d never read before. I found that fascinating.
My interviews were more based on ideas I thought we could explore for the book – I chatted to Angela Shelton, who was the actress in the Clean video. I’ve seen that video a lot of times, so that was quite surreal.
Tracking down Nils Tuxen – the slide guitar player – was quite odd. I went through his Dutch fan club – and via his daughter. It was a brief interview, but it was quite fun and part of our attempt to delve into every corner of Violator.
‘Fletch was an integral part of the band. If he hadn’t have been there, I think the band would’ve finished long ago’
Sadly, while you were in the final stages of proofing the book, band member Andrew ‘Fletch’ Fletcher died. You’ve dedicated it to him, which was a really nice gesture…
DM: Fletch was an integral part of the band. If he hadn’t have been there, I think the band would’ve finished long ago. He was a constant presence in the studio and saying, ‘I don’t think this works, you should try this’. He was very involved in the direction he thought the band should go – ultimately, he was the biggest Depeche Mode fan there is and he knew what we kind of liked. If he hadn’t have been there, I think the band would’ve finished long ago. His role was a bit like Bill Berry’s in R.E.M. He was the kind of ‘pop ear’ – when Bill left, R.E.M went more in Michael Stipe’s direction.
And now, Depeche Mode’s remaining members, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore, have announced they’re continuing as a band and have a new album, Memento Mori, and a world tour planned for next year. How do you feel about that?
DM: It’s strange to see them without Fletch, and you can certainly tell that both Dave and Martin are feeling his absence, but I’m not surprised they are carrying on, especially when they said how far along the album was before Fletch died. I’m glad they’ve carried on and finished the project off. It’s a nice way to pay tribute to Fletch and will allow fans to meet up and remember him.
Let’s go back to Violator – it’s an album that took the band’s sound – and status – to a whole new level. On the record, Depeche Mode embraced blues, country, techno, house and disco. I can remember where I was when I first heard it – it was on March 19, 1990, which was the day it was released. I was coming up to my sixteenth birthday, and living on the Isle of Wight. I bought the album after school, on cassette, from a local record shop, and played it on my Walkman on the bus home.
‘I listened to Violator on repeat so much that the sticker on the side of the cassette came off’
From the synth intro of the first song, World In My Eyes, it blew me away. What are your memories of hearing Violator for the first time?
KM:I was at sixth form college, in Rochester, Kent, which is where I grew up. A friend of mine had a cassette version, we were walking to college one morning, he put his headphones on my head and said, ‘Listen to this’. That was the first song. By that time, we’d all heard Personal Jesus and Enjoy The Silence, but when I heard those first eight to 16 bars of World In My Eyes, I thought, ‘OK – this is really good’. By the end of the day, during breaks at college, I’d listened to the whole thing and when I got paid from my supermarket job later that week, I bought my own copy.
DM: I was 15 when it came out. Having fallen for Enjoy The Silence, which was the first time I properly got into Depeche Mode, I went to Woolworths, in Castle Douglas, in south west Scotland, where I’m from, and bought Violator on cassette. I took it home, and played it in my room. Like both of you, when World In My Eyes started, I thought, ‘This is something different’. I listened to the album on repeat so much that the sticker on the side of the cassette came off.
‘Depeche Mode have never received the critical acclaim they’re due. Violator is one of the most forward-thinking and innovative British albums ever released’
Violator is 32 years old and yet, if you listen to it now, it still sounds so fresh and modern. It was so ahead of its time, wasn’t it, but it doesn’t get talked about as one of the classic rock albums, does it? Why do you think that is?
DM: As far as I’m concerned, Depeche Mode have never received the critical acclaim they’re due – that’s across the piste from Speak and Spell  onwards. Yeah, they made a few mistakes in the early days, like doing some daft TV appearances, but their work has always been experimental. From Speak and Spell to Violator, they’ve always moved on and done different things – they didn’t stand still. Violator crystallised all the work they’d done up until that point,
You’re right – when you read those ‘Best 500 Albums of All Time’ it’s always there, at 300 or 350, but it’s one of the most forward-thinking and innovative British albums that’s ever been released. Just because it was released by a band who was on Noel Edmonds’s Swap Shop, playing synthesisers and wearing suits eight years before that, it doesn’t mean it should be any less credible.
‘There were quite a few tracks on Violator that were a lot rockier before the final versions.You wonder if it would’ve been more like Songs of Faith and Devotion if François Kevorkian hadn’t been the overall mixer on it’
For a band who were part of an early ’80s scene where all the other bands had fallen away, split up or were releasing increasingly dull things, Depeche Mode kept on moving forward and were big all over the world.
KM: There were quite a few tracks on Violator that were a lot rockier before the final versions – you had Martin’s demos, which Flood and Alan Wilder predominantly worked on, and then François Kevorkian came along and made them a little bit more electronic in parts. One of the stories that comes out in the book is that Halo was a lot rockier than the final version, because François did his thing on it. You wonder if Violator would’ve been more like Songs of Faith and Devotion if François hadn’t been the overall mixer on it.
Violator is very contemporary – you can put it on now and if you play it to someone who doesn’t know the history of the band, or music, I contend that they would struggle to name the year it was recorded. Thirty two years later, it’s a very difficult album to pin down in terms of the genres it covers and the year it was made. That’s what makes it a unique album – it’s timelessness.
What are your favourite songs from Violator?
DM: Enjoy The Silence – it’s a fairly obvious one, but it’s the song that started off the whole Depeche Mode thing for me and, ultimately, led to me sat here, chatting to you. There’s not a bad note on Violator…
KM: For me, it’s Halo and World In My Eyes. Contrary to Dave, I think there is one weak song – and we’ve discussed this before – and it’s Sweetest Perfection.
I like that song, but, for some reason, I guessed that was the one you were going to say… I don’t know why.
KM: It just never got me in the same way as it gets people like David, I suppose.
Is Violator your favourite Depeche Mode album?
DM: For me, it’s number one – it’s what started it all off for me. Black Celebration follows a close second – it’s a manifesto for Depeche Mode fans laid out over 12 songs. I also think Songs of Faithand Devotion is superb, and I love Ultra.
KM: My other favourite Depeche Mode albums are Songs of Faithand Devotion and Black Celebration – I like Some Great Reward too, and I like Exciter and Ultra. I think Exciter is a really interesting and important album for Depeche Mode – it was the first time in a few years that they’d gone into a studio, and the first time they were going to do a big album tour after Dave had been ill, and there was another new producer [Mark Bell]. Dave was chomping at the. bit to add some of his songs, but didn’t – he waited until Playing The Angel.
There was a lot going on at that time and they started to gain respect critically, asthere had been a changing of the guard among the music critics who’d slated them. Fifteen years later, some people were saying: ‘Depeche Mode are quite cool, actually’. That period interests me in, dare I say it, doing a sequel book, which David and I have yet to discuss.
Finally, I’m having a night in tonight, without my family, should I enjoy the silence, or should I lift up the receiver, reach out and touch faith?
KM: It depends who’s on the other end of the phone…
DM: Take a chance to enjoy the silence, but stick Violator on loud in the background.
This week, Strangeways, Here We Come, the fourth and final studio album by influential ‘80s Manchester indie-rock band The Smiths – Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite group of all time – celebrates its 35th birthday.
By the time the record was released, on September 28, 1987, the band had split up, following the departure of guitarist, Johnny Marr.
Many people – the group included – view Strangeways, Here We Come as the band’s masterpiece, although, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, (whisper it) we think The Queen Is Dead, which was released the year before, deserves that accolade. But that’s for another time and place…
There’s no doubt about it, though – Strangeways, Here We Come is one of the greatest rock records of all time. The Smiths’ most ambitious and experimental album, it takes in ghostly piano-led pop (A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours), synth brass-assisted glam (I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish), eerie psychedelic atmospherics (Death of a Disco Dancer), witty black comedy set to a lilting acoustic guitar line (Girlfriend In A Coma), epic, orchestral melodrama (Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me) and macabre rockabilly (Death At One’s Elbow).
To coincide with Strangeways, Here We Come’s (unhappy) birthday, Smiths drummer, Mike Joyce, generously agreed to raffle off his silver disc of the album to raise money for Back on Track, a Manchester charity that he is a patron of.
Back on Track works with adults to help manage problematic drug/alcohol use, enable a crime-free life, improve mental health and wellbeing, or find a stable home.
To be in with a chance of winning Mike’s special copy of the classic album, enter the raffle here and make a donation.
In another kind gesture, Mike agreed to give Say It With Garage Flowers an interview, in which he shares his memories of recording Strangeways, Here We Come, talks about the brilliance of The Smiths, recalls some of his collaborations after the breakup of the band, and fills us in on his latest musical project, Love Tempo.
“Strangeways… is a great-sounding album – it’s very different from anything we had heard before, but then again I could say that about just about every Smiths album or track,” he tells us. We completely agree with him.
So, let’s talk about Strangeways, Here We Come, which is celebrating its 35th birthday this month. It’s one of the greatest albums ever made…
Mike Joyce: Thank you.
You’re of the opinion it’s the best album The Smiths recorded – and you’re not the only member of the band to think that…
MJ: Collectively, it’s one of the very few things we all agree on nowadays [laughs]. From what I’ve heard, it seems to be everybody’s favourite. I can see why.
Why do you say that?
MJ: From a musician’s point of view and also what we’d experienced as a band prior to Strangeways… The first album came out, expectations were high, then there was a difficult second album, and a third album where we were retaining the same threads, so we didn’t alienate all the fans we had. We had some very successful albums for a genuinely independent band and we didn’t know Strangeways… was going to be our last album. Well, I didn’t!
I think Johnny might’ve had an idea…
MJ: I don’t know – he certainly didn’t let on if that was the case.
It’s subjective – you speak to some people and they say the first album blows everything out of the water and that it’s miles better than Strangeways…but it’s like ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ ‘Orange is great, but what about blue, or purple? ‘Purple is superb – I’d forgotten about that one…’ It’s just whatever tickles your fancy.
Strangeways… is a great-sounding album – it’s very different from anything we had heard before, but then again I could say that about just about every Smiths album or track.
‘We had some very successful albums for a genuinely independent band and we didn’t know Strangeways… was going to be our last album. Well, I didn’t!’
Have you listened to Strangeways... recently?
MJ: I did listen to it not long ago, because Tim Burgess did a listening party for it. But I hadn’t listened to it in its entirety probably since the day it came out.
When I mentioned that during the listening party, people were very shocked. Do authors sit down and read their books? I don’t know…
I had a CD jukebox that held 200-300 CDs – when I was filling it up, I said to Tina [Christina – wife]: ‘Shall I put a Smiths album in it, or is that a bit tight?’ She said: ‘No – put one in.’ So, I said: ‘Which one?’ And she said, ‘Your favourite.’ So, I did. When we were playing it, Last Night I Dreamt… came on – of course it would, out of the thousands of tracks that are on there – and someone heard it.
They found it so moving that I think they were quite shocked – they didn’t really know that much about The Smiths, apart from Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, This Charming Man and How Soon Is Now? When they heard Last Night I Dreamt… they said: ‘Wow – is that you?’ I said: ‘Yes – it’s little ole me…’ It’s a big departure from anything…
I think if you listen to The Queen Is Dead, you can hear the direction The Smiths where heading in, which would eventually lead to Strangeways, like using the Emulator synth strings on the arrangement for There Is A Light…
MJ: Yeah, yeah – and on I Know It’s Over.
But also on Strangeways… there’s rockabilly – Death At One’s Elbow – which is going back to some of The Smiths’ earlier stuff. And then there’s I Won’t Share You, which has a similar feel to Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.
Last Night I Dreamt… is my favourite song on Strangeways… and it’s one of my favourite Smiths songs.
MJ: It’s one of mine, too.
I love the arrangement – it’s like a pocket symphony. It reminds me of the Walker Brothers or a big ’50s orchestral ballad…
MJ: It’s not the kind of tune you jam out – it’s not just going with a riff and seeing what comes out of it, although we did do a bit of that. A lot of the time we ran through a lot in sound checks – we never sat down and said, ‘Right – let’s block book a rehearsal room or studio’. We just kind of jammed and blasted it out.
We had a great working relationship – we could empathise with whatever the other guy was playing.
‘During Strangeways, Johnny was set up in the control room with an Emulator and he just started playing these incredible string and piano parts. I was taken aback – I thought, ‘Hold on a minute – where did he learn to do that?’
We never felt like we were struggling to get things done, further things or finish things when Johnny had come up with a riff. Sometimes, Johnny would come in the room and start playing and me and Andy [Rourke – bassist] would just start playing the drums and bass for it – that’s just what it was like. We knew what we thought was right for it, and, invariably, it was. I suppose it doesn’t happen that often for bands and songs because you’re working on a lot.
In terms of the Emulator, and the way that Johnny was writing at the time, I can remember during Strangeways... [in the Wool Hall studio, near Bath, Somerset ], he was set up in the control room rather than the live room and he just started playing these incredible string and piano parts. I know he’d played those on tracks before, but I was taken aback – I thought, ‘Hold on a minute – where did he learn to do that?’
Watching Johnny writing those parts and working out where they would fit… People throw around the word ‘genius’… but he did that without sitting down or rehearsing with a string section. He’d never been classically trained.
He’s also a better piano player than Morrissey is on Death of a Disco Dancer…
MJ: Well, actually I really like that piano part…
It’s atonal and it suits the song…
MJ: It’s just odd, which kind of goes with the man.
When Strangeways… was released, The Smiths had disbanded, after Johnny left the group. Were you sad that you never got the chance to promote the album or play any songs from it live?
MJ: No – I pulled my sadness back a few notches. I was slightly miffed – the finished article sounded so great – but I was more shocked about the split than not being able to play the songs live. That usurped it. I don’t think we would’ve done a Strangeways… tour – we might’ve played a couple from it.
‘I really like Morrissey’s piano part on Death of a Disco Dancer. It’s just odd, which kind of goes with the man’
Last Night I Dreamt… would’ve been tricky to play live at the time, wouldn’t it? Although Johnny has played it at some of his solo gigs in the past few years…
MJ: Oh, has he? The vocals, the bass and the drums are pretty bog standard – well, not bog standard, I’m sure Morrissey would be delighted to hear me say that – but with the string parts, it would’ve been tough, and there’s some percussion on there. I wouldn’t have thought it would’ve been that difficult to emulate.
We never rehearsed those songs [from Strangeways…]. Death of a Disco Dancer was just a take that we thought sounded great – we were just jamming with a rough framework to work from. The only time when we had an issue technically [live] was with How Soon Is Now? and that was with this bit [he sings the slide guitar part]. We tried it with a trigger, but it didn’t work – sometimes it was not sensitive enough, or it was too sensitive…
So, with Strangeways.… turning 35, you’ve generously decided to raffle off your silver disc of the album to raise money for Manchester’s Back on Track charity, which you’re a patron of. How did you get involved with the organisation?
MJ: They asked me to be a patron – I had absolutely no idea what it entailed or about Back on Track, so I went to one of their open days, had a look round and listened to some of the testimonies of the people the charity had helped. It just seemed like such a wonderful place – helping people with rehabilitation from alcohol or drugs or anything that is stopping them being a part of society. It’s quite difficult for some people to come back into society, because all they’ve known are some frighteningly bad environments and they need to keep away from them.
‘The silver disc of Strangeways, Here We Come is precious to me, but I’ve got the memories of playing on the album and that’s more precious than anything’
Back on Track is a start for them and, apart from the obvious psychological and emotional battles, some of these people don’t have any qualifications – Back on Track can help with that and organise interviews for jobs that are available. To actually see and hear someone’s story when you’re sat face-to-face with them, and it sounded like it was all over for them, but, because of Back on Track it wasn’t… it was a no-brainer.
I thought that maybe I could organise some finances for Back on Track by raffling a disc. Everybody’s struggling at the moment and charities are no exception, especially post-Covid.
The [silver] disc of Strangeways… is precious to me, but I’ve got the memories of playing on the album and that’s more precious than anything. Getting the accolade and receiving something made of glass, metal and plastic is wonderful, but I still received it – even when it’s gone and it’s raised money for the charity – so I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’
I’m sure you’ve got a few other discs at home…
MJ: Yes, I have…
Thank God you didn’t choose to raffle off The Queen Is Dead. Timing is everything, isn’t it?
MJ: I don’t know if that would’ve been the best or the worst thing…
‘When I play with any artist, I really do have to find out about them – that’s why I’ve never done any session work. I want to know what their dreams and aspirations are, and what they hate and love’
You’d certainly have got some PR coverage out of it… Let’s talk about some of the other music you’ve been involved with after The Smiths. After they disbanded, you and Andy Rourke played with Sinead O’Connor. You’ve played with quite a few controversial singers, including John Lydon, in PIL, haven’t you?
MJ: I love it! When I play with any artist, I really do have to find out about them – that’s why I’ve never done any session work. I can’t go into an environment where it’s like, ‘Hi – this is Tony, this is Dave, this is Emma – off you go’. I don’t want to do that and I never will.
I have to understand a bit about these people – know them and feel them. I want to know what their dreams and aspirations are, and what they hate and love. I what to know everything about them because when I’m playing drums with these people, we’re having a conversation musically. I want to be able to give them what they want. We play a little bit – I know where their head’s at and what they want. By going and having a few beers with somebody, you can find out a lot about them, without asking them questions directly.
All the people that I’ve worked with are very interesting, intense and different. They’re very driven and some of them are very fragile – strong but not. They’re interesting characters and it’s fascinating, because I get to see everything – the audience, the singer, the band… I’m in a really privileged position, literally.
You played with P.P. Arnold, didn’t you?
MJ: Yeah – it was just a small kind of thing. I was working with a guy called Grant Ainsworth, who’s a fantastic keyboard player and a good mate of mine. We got in touch with her through our management at the time, but we didn’t really have the songs for her level of expertise. We did a couple of things – they were alright, they weren’t ‘chuck it in the bin’, but with her legacy, I felt someone like Mark Ronson should’ve stepped in there and done something superb with a full-on band. She was one of the Ikettes and she toured with The Rolling Stones – the stories that she had…
Have you read her book, Soul Survivor, which came out this year?
MJ: No – I didn’t even know she had one out. I’ll get hold of that. She used to talk to me about her and Jimi, who had a thing. I was like Jimi who? And she’d say, ‘Hendrix’…. and I’d say ‘Oh!’ And she’d talk about Brian being upset. And I’m like, ‘Brian? Brian Moore?’ And she’d say, ‘Brian Jones.’ It was unbelievable. She’s one of the loveliest people – inside and outside of music. That was a lovely little period of my life. We tried but we didn’t succeed, but I didn’t mind that – we didn’t have the right armoury for her, or to bring out the best in her. It was a great experience because she was such a sweetheart.
You and I have a mutual friend, singer-songwriter, Vinny Peculiar. You and Andy – and Craig Gannon, who was also in The Smiths – played with him, didn’t you? He’s such a great artist – his lyrics are wonderful.
MJ: Aren’t they just? That’s why I wanted to play with him. I heard his music and I thought ‘This is great’. I said to Andy, ‘Have a listen to this – these are good songs’. And they were – and they are. We had a good time playing with him for a few years, but I felt my time working with Vinny had come to an end – it had reached fruition. He’s a good friend – we went for a curry about a month ago. He’s a lovely guy.
Why did you and Andy work so well together as a rhythm section? What was the chemistry? Didn’t Morrissey, or was it Johnny, once say you could’ve played with Elvis you were that good?
MJ: I remember that quote. I’ve not revisited it since you’ve mentioned it – it was 25 years ago and it was Johnny. He said, ‘If Elvis had had me and Andy as a rhythm section, he would’ve been a bigger star’. It was tongue-in-cheek, obviously. I love Andy – we got very tight on tour and we were rooming together. The way that I played and the way that he played worked together and so did the parts we wrote.
Andy’s quite a busy bassist – he’s not a pedaller, he’s on the note. You can take his bassline away and it’s a song in itself. If I was a busy drummer, it would sound shit – there would be too much going on. I think that helped in the way that we played together – when I heard him playing those really busy basslines for the first time, I’d go very simple, which is what I do anyway. I like to play a rhythm rather than try and stamp my authority on the whole track – and that works. Our friendship was a massive part of it – we saw each other every single day for five years. It wasn’t just, ‘I’ll see you for rehearsals on Friday’.
Does it upset you when people say the legacy of The Smiths has been tarnished by some of the things that have happened since the band broke up?
I interviewed Johnny 20 years ago, when he’d launched The Healers, and he told me that other people – not just the band themselves – had tarnished the legacy of The Smiths, like Warner Bros, who messed up a Best Of compilation when it came to mastering it and doing the artwork and the credits, etc.
‘If somebody doesn’t want to listen to a Smiths record for whatever reason, then don’t listen to it – it’s okay, I don’t mind’
And then there was the court case, which you brought against Morrissey and Johnny, and, in more recent times, Morrissey has upset people with some of his controversial views, so some people have decided they can’t listen to The Smiths anymore. Do we have to separate the art from the artist?
MJ: I don’t find it upsetting. We’re talking about somebody that I don’t know. Just because someone has a different view to me… With social media at the moment, I feel like there’s a lot of ‘get the pitchforks out’ if someone says something very different from what you’ve said. Of course I care, but I don’t find it upsetting. If somebody doesn’t want to listen to a Smiths record for whatever reason, then don’t listen to it – it’s okay, I don’t mind.
‘I can isolate 1982-1987 really well – that’s where my dreams were made and everything shone for me. Nobody can ever take that away. Whatever happens afterwards – people whingeing about this, or what somebody said… I’m not really that bothered’
Going back to the other thing you said about Johnny, maybe I’m not as intense as he is about those kinds of things, to be brutally honest. I could say,’Yeah – it’s a travesty and they’ve not done this or that,’ but, do you know what? As far as I’m concerned, I can isolate 1982-1987 really well – that’s where my dreams were made and everything shone for me. In terms of my musical aspirations, I’d arrived at them and nobody can ever take that away. Whatever happens afterwards – people whingeing about this, or what somebody said… I’m not really that bothered.
So, what are you up to now, musically? Any new projects?
MJ: I do a bit of DJing – it’s a good night and I really enjoy the music.
What’s in your set?
MJ: It’s classic indie – Primal Scream, The Undertones, The Clash, Blondie. It’s the music that I like to listen to and have a dance to. It’s very simple – there are no curveballs in there. I enjoy doing that.
A few years ago, a friend of mine called Rick Hornby, whom I’ve known for 30-odd years, was living in London, doing some session work. He moved back to Cheadle Hulme [in Cheshire], which is about five or six miles away from where I live now. I’ve got a soundproof basement and I asked him if he’d fancy doing a bit of playing and he said he’d love to. So, he came down and we just played – there was no agenda. His guitar sound is superb and I was inspired by it. He was playing some really good parts, but I was more inspired by the sound – it’s a bit like the B-52’s. I’ve not heard a lot of guitarists play like that – it’s bordering on rockabilly, but a bit more modern.
‘Rick Hornby and I have started doing a bit of writing together and we’ve been to see an artist in Manchester – I can’t say who it is – but we’re going do to some recording with him in the States next year. He’s a guy from San Francisco and the band’s called Love Tempo’
We started doing a bit of writing together and we’ve been to see an artist in Manchester who he knows – I can’t say who it is – but we’re going do to some recording with him in the States next year and see what happens. He’s a guy from San Francisco and the band’s called Love Tempo. We’re going to throw it against the wall and see what sticks. I’m really excited about it. I didn’t think that I was going to do much more playing to be honest with you, because nothing had come along that made we go ‘wow’. This did.
I wasn’t that bothered if I didn’t get on a stage again, but, every time I go to a gig, I’m like, ‘God, I wish I could get up and play…’ but then that’s gone by the next day.
‘Fontaines D.C. have completely satiated my need to listen to new music. I’ve seen them live a few times over the last couple of years and each time they get better and better. They’re my new favourite group. I’ve not been as affected by seeing a band since I saw Buzzcocks when I was 14’
Do you listen to a lot of new music or go to many gigs?
MJ: I pick up bits and bobs. Until a couple of years ago, I was doing a radio show, and that dictated that I was keeping my ear to the ground and going to gigs a lot. I listen to 6 Music and have the radio on when I’m in the car, but it’s mainly Talk Sport.
Fontaines D.C. have completely satiated my need to listen to new music. I’ve seen them live a few times over the last couple of years and each time they get better and better. They’re my new favourite group. I’ve not been as affected by seeing a band since I saw Buzzcocks when I was 14.
You played with them too, didn’t you?
MJ:[Laughs]: Yes – I did.
Going back to The Smiths. How many times a week do people ask if you The Smiths will ever reform, do you get annoyed by it and what do you tell them?
MJ: Well, what day are we now? It’s Friday and you’re the first person this week. That’s not unusual. I don’t get asked very often, but, it’s usually in an interview situation, not when I’m putting my sourdough in my basket and it goes ‘beep beep’. I don’t get asked then.
In a working environment, like when I’m DJing, people ask me if there’s any chance of it happening. I think Johnny and Morrissey get asked a lot more than I do – probably ‘cos Johnny does a lot more interviews than I do. Andy probably gets asked the least because he doesn’t seem to be doing any live work at all.
‘If The Smiths reformed now and went and played, you wouldn’t be seeing The Smiths. I like the idea of us not reforming. And even if they did, they might do it, but minus me! I was surprised it didn’t happen earlier’
I don’t get pissed off by it – it’s a natural question and I probably would’ve asked it of a band if I’d seen one member… Actually, I wouldn’t! Every time I see Ian Brown, I don’t ask him ‘When are the Roses getting back together?’
I think it’s because The Smiths had a relatively short career – only five years. A lot of people, like me, got into them after they’d split up – they never got the chance to see the band play live.
MJ: I think you’re right. I’ll tell you what, if The Smiths reformed now and went and played, you wouldn’t be seeing The Smiths. I like the idea of us not reforming. And even if they did, they might do it, but minus me! I was surprised it didn’t happen earlier. There’s a reason why bands split up. They don’t say, ‘I’ll see you right – I’ve got your number and I’ll check in every couple of weeks to see how you’re doing’. It never happens – it’s a massive fucking breakup. It’s a divorce. People don’t ask you if you’re gonna get back with your ex-wife again! ‘It’s been 35 years, come on! You did love her…’
The idea of doing it? We’re all four very different people than we were when we were rehearsing in Crazy Face. It’s a lifetime that’s gone by.
I think there’s a quote that Morrissey said: ‘Why would I go on stage with people that I don’t even know?’ Well, that’s exactly how I feel. I don’t know Morrissey and Johnny – I know Andy, because I’ve seen him since The Smiths split and up to the present day, but I haven’t seen Morrissey or Johnny, or sat down or spoken to them for 30-odd years. Why would I want to do that?
The financial gain is something that everybody talks about – they say everybody’s got a price. Well, I don’t think so. It depends on how much you want the money, doesn’t it? Maybe you haven’t got a price and someone says: ‘We’ll give you £1oo,000,000 – each.’ And the answer is still ‘no.’ ‘We’ll give you £5oo,000,000’ – the answer is still ‘no.’ Maybe they’d then just leave them alone because it’s not going to happen. The rumours do come out – it seems to happen just before either a Morrissey or a Johnny tour. I don’t know [laughs]... It make sense – put it in the news…
There have been a lot of books published about the The Smiths, and Morrissey and Johnny have both written their autobiographies. Would you ever write one?
MJ: No. It’s funny – after an interview, usually, someone says to me, ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ I have thought about it and then I think about not writing a book. It’s as simple as that. I have no desire, but a lot of people want to hear what I’ve got to say. Maybe – it might happen, it might not happen… I just can’t be arsed. I know that’s not the most eloquent answer to your question.
There’s more to life than books you know…
MJ: But not much more.
To enter Mike Joyce’s charity raffle for Back on Track, please click here.
Back To Zero, the second album by London-based Brand New Zeros – singer-songwriter Ronan MacManus and lead guitarist Luke Dolan – is steeped in classic rock ‘n’ roll, New Wave, dirty blues and classy pop ballads.
The album came out in 2021, but some of the socio-political songs on the record are even more relevant now than they were written – especially in the light of the cost of living crisis the UK is facing and the strange times we’re living in, when hate seems to the dominant force and emotion, rather than values like love and compassion.
There are moments on Back To Zero that recall the crunching power-rock of The Who – This Love – the soulful sound of Paul Carrack-era Squeeze – Human Kindness, and, at times, like on the angry and acerbic racket of Money Goes To Money – a diatribe on the wealth divide in the UK – the frantic and urgent, Hammond-organ fuelled Can’t Do It, which tackles extreme anxiety, and the grunge-tinged, Angels With Guns – a stinging comment on US kids carrying out school shootings – you’ll be reminded of vintage Elvis Costello. So, it’s no surprise to find that Ronan is actually his younger brother – Elvis’s real name is Declan MacManus.
“Just so you know, I’m happy to talk about Dec,” says Ronan – he never calls him Elvis – sipping a non-alcoholic drink, outside the Mad Squirrel craft beer shop and bar, in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, on a hot July afternoon. More on that later, but, in the meantime, let’s get back to zero…
So, how did you and Luke first meet?
Ronan MacManus: I met Luke at his barber’s shop, which was in Watford – we had a mutual friend. He was in a duo before and that kind of fell apart, so he was looking for something else before.
I was in a band, The BibleCode Sundays, and I needed a side-project. I’d done solo stuff before – I’d released an album back in 2010 and I’d finished a record with my younger brother, Rory, called Elephant In The Room.
Luke and I met at the barber’s shop and we started to write after hours and it really clicked – for the first time, I wasn’t playing guitar. Luke took care of that I was taking care of the lyrics and melodies.
There’s some great guitar on the new record…
RM: Luke’s a real blues head – his dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James [in London] for years. He’d worked every night for six months, but, famously, took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played. It’s one of those great rock ‘n’ roll stories.
So, when you and Luke got together, things happened pretty quickly…
RM: Luke and I gelled – it was meant to be an acoustic duo at first, but we quickly realised it needed to be bigger than that, so I asked the bass player [Enda Mulloy] and the drummer [Carlton Hunt] from The BibleCode Sundays to come and join us. Carlton had played with Bad Manners and been in bands for years.
The four of us went to Ireland and recorded the first Brand New Zeros album, which was called Brand New Zeros. We recorded the whole of the album in three days – in-between drinking sessions. We arranged all the songs so we could play them drunk – there were no weird, fancy bits. We were emulating all the bands we listened to as kids, like grunge stuff, but we called it acoustic grunge.
Myself, Luke and Enda all had similar teenage musical upbringings – we all got into the grunge scene: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden…
Luke and I grew up in different parts of London – Harrow and Twickenham – and Enda had grown up in Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Carlton was a bit older than us, so he’d grown up on things like my brother’s music.
‘Luke’s dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James. He worked every night for six months, but took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played’
And now you have a second album out, Back To Zero, which, musically, is a step on from the first one…
RM: We started recording it at RYP, which is a studio in Rayners Lane [north west London], where [singer-songwriter] Alex Lipinski recorded his last album. Then [in 2017] our drummer, Carlton, died and everything was shelved. Fast forward to 2018/2019 and we started recording again.
This record has a bigger sound than the first one…
RM: The idea was that it was going to sound much more like a four-piece. One night, myself, Carlton and Luke met up in the studio – Enda couldn’t make it – and we did a song called This Love, which is on the record. The version you hear is the only time we ever played that song.
We jammed and recorded it, in the way that U2 used to do and probably still do – play some stuff together, record it and trawl back through it. There was the riff and then the drums came in. I came back in after being out of the room, and I started improvising lyrics – this thing happened.
After we’d listened to it, we thought ‘that’s done’. When Carlton died, we didn’t have any other way of recording it, so that’s how it ended up.
It’s got a dirty bluesy sound…
RM: Yeah – Luke came up with that riff. The song became the catalyst for the album.
So, after that you nailed that song, you carried on recording the rest of the tracks that ended up on the album?
RM: It was actually going to be a solo album – there was no band, but I got some friends to come to RYP to play bass, guitar and keys, with a new drummer, Joe.
We then went to another studio, with a producer called James Halliwell, who played keys with The Waterboys – I’d met him 20 years before, when he was Marti Pellow’s keyboard player. He has a studio in Richmond and we started to flesh things out – he played piano on Human Kindness.
‘Money Goes To Money was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that’
We then did some recording and mixing with James Knight at his studio – he pulled it all together and then, when it was finished, we heard it, we thought ‘this is the Brand New Zeros album that we started doing four years previously’. That’s when I decided I wanted it to be a Brand New Zeros album.
Hence the title, Back To Zero…
RM: Yeah – we’d come full circle.
Money Goes To Money is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? It’s an angry song about the wealth divide in the UK …
RM: It was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that.
I love the guitar solo…
RM: Luke played it – I wanted it to be almost like he was having an argument with himself. It was meant to be glitchy and come in and out.
He’s quite a chilled guy, but when we were recording it, I needed him to be angry, so I was shouting in his face, saying ‘C’mon! C’mon!’ I wanted the solo to be a bit like Radiohead – atonal and choppy at times.
It’s quite an angry album at times, isn’t it? When were all the songs written?
RM: They were written pre-lockdown – the album was finished and ready to go by the end of January 2020, but it didn’t make it out until 2021. I’d gone through some mental health issues and some of that is addressed on the record. Luke went through a breakup and there were some rocky patches.
Talking of angry songs, Can’t Do It is a real rocker, and it has some great Hammond organ on it…
RM: It was written about a time when I sat outside a gig and I just couldn’t open the door – my anxiety was so bad. It’s all about self-doubt and depression – mental health issues. It’s about hating yourself.
The album veers from heavy, angry songs to ballads. There are some complete mood changes, like on the slow song, Free As A Bird, which shares its name with a Beatles song…
RM: That’s about me after I’d given up drinking. It was written about a moment, when I was sober, I was looking out of the window at the garden and the sun was coming in – the clouds had cleared on some of the mental health issues I’d had. I felt happy for the first time and I wanted to capture it.
Let’s go back to ‘angry MacManus’ – Angels With Guns was written about shootings carried out by kids in US schools…
RM: Yeah – you’d always hear the parents say, ‘He was such a nice kid – we didn’t see it coming…’
You sound very like Elvis on it…
RM: The verses are very Costello.
Human Kindness is one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s a song about compassion and how we treat each other. I think you sound like Paul Carrack on it.
RM: I’ll take that.
You talked about being sober earlier. Cigarette, which has a Deep South, swamp-blues feel, deals with addiction – drugs and drink. It references cocaine in the lyrics…
RM: Yeah. I’ve been off the booze for over four years. I was trying to give up drink and a bit of drugs as well – I was never heavily into drugs, but I was led into them. I was trying to give up. I stopped drinking, but I was still going to pubs.
‘Being Elvis Costello’s brother has opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened – some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. I’ve embraced it more in recent years’
I had a friend and I could always tell when he was on coke, because his face always looked a certain way and he’d only ever smoke when he was on it. So, when I turned up, he’d be outside the pub with a cigarette and that look on his face. I needed to avoid him to try and keep myself on track. In my mind, I distilled it to just the light of his cigarette in his contorted face.
Finally, has being Elvis’s brother been a help or hindrance to your music career?
RM: A bit of both – it’s opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened, and some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. It’s interesting and I’ve embraced it more in recent years. He’s such an extraordinary artist – the musical experiences he had growing up, his record collection, his exposure to music and literature… I don’t think he’ll ever be repeated. His are big shoes to fill.
RM [laughs]:He’s been a big influence – most people don’t get to call up their heroes and ask them for advice.
Back To Zero by Brand New Zeros is out now on Fretsore Records – vinyl and digital.
Say It With Garage Flowers founder and editor, Sean Hannam, will be interviewing Ronan MacManus and Luke Dolan from Brand New Zeros live on stage, at Beverage Boutique, in Ruislip, West London, on the night of September 25, for the launch of Back To Zero on vinyl.
The duo will perform songs from the record on the night too and there will be a vinyl playback of some of the tracks.
“I’ve got pheasants following me around – they’re not pets, honestly,” says Matt ‘the Hat’ James, former Gene-drummer-turned-singer-songwriter, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers on the phone from his garden in the East Sussex countryside, shortly before the release of his debut solo album, Breaking The Fall.
Despite the local birdlife, he hasn’t turned into an eccentric rock star recluse, although after the demise of Gene and his next band, Palace Fires, several years ago, he did leave the music business to pursue a career as a wine merchant, but he’s recently been tempted back into it, and, in 2019, he started writing songs on his own for the first time and rekindled his passion. Three years later, the results are now out in the wider world.
“Having the record out there is the best feeling – I can’t stop looking at the vinyl,” he enthuses. “Musically, I think it’s strong enough to win over new fans.”
It’s hard to argue with him. Listening to Breaking The Fall, which is one of our favourite albums of the year so far, it’s clear that he’s got his mojo back.
Although it’s a debut record, it sounds like a best of collection – 10 memorable, varied and, at times, very personal and emotional, songs that embrace folk, country/ Americana, soul, indie-rock, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and ’60s pop.
‘Having the record out there is the best feeling – I can’t stop looking at the vinyl. Musically, I think it’s strong enough to win over new fans’
Occasionally it recalls Gene –the country-soul of A Simple Message and the anthemic ballad Different World – but most of the time, it’s the sound of someone experimenting with different styles and enjoying being in the studio again after a long time away.
“I’m sort of trying everything out – I have thrown it all in there. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction,” he says.
Stepping out from behind the drum kit to put himself in the spotlight for the first time, Matt has relied on some old friends to help him out.
Former Gene band mates Steve Mason (guitar) and Kevin Miles (bass) are along for the ride, as is keyboard player, Mick Talbot, (The Style Council, Dexys Midnight Runners), who played live with Gene and on radio sessions.
Production duties are taken care of by former Gene associate, Stephen Street, (The Smiths / Morrissey, Blur, The Cranberries) – sonically, the album is rich, colourful and diverse – and there’s some guitar work by James’s friend, Peredur ap Gwynedd (Perry for short), from electronic rockers Pendulum.
We got Matt to talk us through the writing and recording of Breaking The Fall, share some of his thoughts on the songs and let us know what it feels like to be back in the game…
I was expecting the album to open with a big song, but the first track, From Now On, is quite low-key, with a country/Americana feel. It’s stripped-back…
Matt James: I deliberately wanted that – it suits the nature of the lyrics, which are about coming home. It’s a little folky number and the song is a metaphor for me returning to do music. That’s a general theme on the album.
I didn’t want a big bang at the front – I wanted it to be like the Badly Drawn Boy album [The Hour of Bewilderbeast] with something little at the beginning, before one of the big tunes.
The song sounds like it has an accordion on it…
That’s Mick Talbot doing an accordion sound on the keyboard. He’s multi-talented and he’s good to hang out with – he’s so funny. He has a brilliant sense of humour and his stories are immense. He’s full of energy and the moment he plays, it lifts any room. It was quite a moment having Mick there, because I hadn’t really seen him since he played with Gene.
Champione was written about your dad…
MJ: Yeah – he was someone that I loved but he was plagued with problems, and it was quite difficult being his son. Throughout his whole life, he continued to go downhill, and he ended up getting quite desperate and being very needy of everyone else, without going into details.
‘I’m more likely to better communicate the things I want to talk about in my songs if they’re about highly personal subjects. That’s the great thing about writing – it’s a cathartic experience’
He was a difficult character – the song starts off being quite angry. I call him “champione of none” but I end up forgiving him. When someone has passed away you have the choice to remember the good stuff – if you want – but it’s tempered with the difficulties. I now think of him fondly most of the time, but I really wanted to get it out in this song.
I’m more likely to better communicate the things I want to talk about in my songs if they’re about highly personal subjects that are unique to me. That’s the great thing about writing – it’s a cathartic experience.
High Time is another autobiographical song. It’s about the serious road accident that your pre-Gene band, Spin, were involved with, back in 1991, and it also mentions the first time you met Martin Rossiter – who went on to front Gene – in the Underworld, in Camden…
MJ: Yes – that song and Champione were two hard ones to write. I’m quite glad I did it – I hadn’t done it before and I didn’t know how it would feel. I was determined to put some real emotions and some reality in them. On those particular songs on the LP, I think I’ve made that connection the best. There are touches of comedy in some of the lyrics.
High Time is dark and atmospheric…
MJ: It’s a difficult subject matter – I wanted a sombre, driving feel and I was thinking Johnny Cash. The song is about random events – good and bad. Things that you don’t have any control over, but they can completely change your life. It’s an interesting concept.
The title track is one of the darker and saddest songs on the record – a big, anthemic ballad. Why did you choose that one to name the album after?
MJ: It was mainly because of the lyric – me returning to music. I’ve never written songs completely on my before. I’m a pretty happy guy and I’ve got a good life… but I looked at myself and, under the exterior, I was really quite sad about never doing music again, because, if I’m honest, I think it’s probably what I’m best at.
People I knew were making a stand and doing their music, and I wasn’t doing anything, so I took a decision to reverse that. That’s what Breaking The Fall is about – it conjures up the sadness of it. I’m drawing under a line under it, but it’s a long journey back and I think I will improve a lot from here.
When did you first start writing songs on your own?
MJ: 2019. The first song I wrote was Snowy Peaks – it was a joyful one. I wrote the verse while I was on holiday and it was sort of a love song. I played it to Steve Mason and he said: ‘That’s really good, but you need another bit…’
That was the turning point. I wrote a lot of songs for the album. It was a bit like with Gene, when, for some albums, we would write 20 or 25 tracks. I remembered that you have to do that to have a strong record. After I finished the album, I had songs left over and I’ve written quite a few more.
The album is very varied in styles. Born To Rule has mariachi horns on it and a bit of a Spaghetti Western feel..
That’s me experimenting – I’m sort of trying everything out. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction.
I think the two songs that most remind me of Gene on the album are A Simple Message and Different World…
MJ: Yeah – I didn’t want to do too much like that. I was aware of it. I was channelling Gene with A Simple Message – I had that kind of guitar style…
It was also the first single you released from the album…
MJ: Kev said that song was his favourite – I knew it was a strong song. It’s definitely one of the best on the album.
On Different World, I was channelling Burt Bacharach and Dusty Springfield – that’s sort of where I was coming from. Whether I succeeded or not, I don’t know…
I can definitely hear that.
MJ: It also has a strong and simple lyric.
Sad, which has a soul feel, is one of my favourite songs on the record. It has Mick Talbot on keys, which gives it a slight Jam and Style Council vibe. The chorus is great…
MJ: My niece, Olivia, who is still at school, sings backing vocals on it. She stepped up… she loves musical theatre. She’d never been in a recording studio before and it was really good fun. She came up to London and it was a great day – she sang on two tracks, Sad and Snowy Peaks.
‘On Different World, I was channelling Burt Bacharach and Dusty Springfield – that’s where I was coming from. Whether I succeeded or not, I don’t know…’
The last song on the album, Fireships, starts off stripped-down, but it soon builds and turns into an epic…
MJ: It’s a song about a breakup – I’m wallowing in self pity. Many people will understand that. I really do like the end section – it’s probably my favourite bit of music on the album. I’m a real sucker for an anthemic song that builds.
It’s a nice way to close the album. The whole record feels like a complete piece of work – 10 songs, bang-bang-bang and no messing around. It works well on vinyl too – five songs on each side. Like the old days. I think too many acts make albums that are overlong. Ten or 12 songs, at a push, will do me just fine..
MJ: I agree – you don’t need to outstay your welcome. Put them on another album or an EP. I think 10 is about right. It felt good for this record. I don’t think I put even the best songs on there but it’s the 10 that worked at the time. I know I have some other really strong songs.
Let’s talk about recording the album. You made it at Stephen Street’s studio, in Latimer Road, West London, but do you also have a home studio?
MJ: I have my drum kit and guitars in my office, but the only thing I record on [at home] is my phone. I went to proper studios to record the drums – not at Streety’s because he doesn’t have a drum room.
Steve Mason and I tend to send things to each other via WhatsApp – he recently sent me an absolutely brilliant riff that’s really bluesy. I love it!
Steve, Kev and Mick all came to Streety’s studio in Latimer Road – Damon Albarn does his Gorillaz stuff there upstairs – we saw him around. He was nice. I haven’t been in that world for so long.
How did it feel being back in it?
MJ: It was really nice, but there were times when I felt a bit shy being back in a recording studio.
How was it working with Stephen Street?
MJ: He’s a real grafter – he puts a proper shift in and can put his hand to anything. He works his arse off until about six o’clock at night. I remembered that from when I worked with him in the Spin days – we were signed to his record label.
‘I’m basically a wine merchant who’s putting music out’
He took the demos for my album – he went through everything and picked what he wanted. Some we rerecorded completely. Streety produced the whole album, but it’s not a big-budget production – I couldn’t afford that.
Perry from Pendulum plays guitar on the record…
MJ: He’s a mate and is a super talent. For someone who is quite a metaller, he can play so much – he can shred it and go super-fast, but he was a session musician for many years, playing on so many different records, like Natalie Imbruglia.
The album’s available on vinyl and digital. Any plans for a CD version?
MJ: Not at the moment – I’m basically a wine merchant who’s putting music out. I don’t have any management, but everyone’s helped out and stepped up. I feel that it’s very early days.
I think the album will be a word of mouth record…
MJ: Musically it’s strong enough to win over new people. Some Gene fans will be supportive but they’re fans of Gene – they’re not fans of me. They might wish me well, but they like to hear Martin singing! [laughs].
I’ve got to find my audience – I’ve drawn a line in the sand and I’m making my way back. Every little thing that comes in just cheers me up. It’s not like I’ve just been signed by a major label and they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to do bloody well, mate, or you’re out on your own…’ It’s a nice feeling – let’s see where it goes.
Breaking The Fall is out now on vinyl and digital (Costermonger Records)
The last time Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Ocean Colour Scene, Specials and Paul Weller guitarist, Steve Cradock, it was during lockdown last year.
Used to being on the road, he’d kept himself busy during those weeks of confinement in 2020 and early 2021 by remixing and reissuing his second solo album, Peace City West, which came out last year, and working on a new instrumental record.
“Everyone has got their own stories about those strange couple of years – I had more time than I’ve ever had before. It was liberating in one way and it went on for so long it became like a dream state, didn’t it?” he says, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers from his home studio, Kundalini, in Devon. “We could still work on music, so it was really hopeful.”
The instrumental album he was crafting has just been released – it’s called A Soundtrack To An Imaginary Movie and it soaks up influences including jazz – Cradock was reading Ashley Khan’s book about John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme while he was making the record and he immersed himself in that classic album – as well as folk, Easy Listening, soundtracks and classical music, but, he says, “ultimately, I could play most of these tunes on an acoustic guitar or piano. I loved the melodies. The second side is quite piano-led.”
Guests on the record include Cradock’s wife, Sally, on gongs and Tibetan singing bowls, UB40’s Brian Travers (saxophone), Jess Cox (cello) the Stone Foundation’s Rob Newton (congas) and, from The Specials’ touring band, Nikolaj Larson (Hammond B-3 organ) and Tim Smart (trombone). Cradock’s son, Cassius, plays piano too.
“I went from listening to Radio 6 to Radio 3 – I was listening to a lot of classical music. That was around me all the time,” he says. “Some of the tracks on the album are indie-classical. Two pieces of music came together on the same day – it just sort of happened. I played the melodies on acoustic guitar and I thought, ‘There’s something there.’ ”
He adds: “I had a couple of tracks before that, including the one where Brian Travers plays saxophone [Sarcoline].”
Travers, who died last year, recorded the sax parts for Sarcoline 10 years ago, and Cradock had it as a demo.
‘Lockdown was liberating – it went on for so long it became like a dream state’
The track, which also features Hugo Levingston on flute, is haunting and moody – it sounds like the theme for a ‘70s TV show about a private detective who lives and works in a shadowy city and hangs out in a jazz club in his spare time.
“The idea was that it’s in a jazz club and you’re walking between each floor, which has different music or a different take on the same melody – that was the vibe. You hear an acoustic and flute version and then you walk into another room and you hear the same track playing, but with loads of reverb,” he explains.
So, has Cradock always harboured a desire to make music for films? “I’ve never thought about it – the album title was meant as a joke,” he says. “I’ve always worked on pieces of music… Back in the day, with Ocean Colour Scene, those became Hundred Mile High City, The Riverboat Song or You’ve Got It Bad.”
‘Dragon’s Blood is a bit strange. I played it to my dad and he said, ‘You’re taking that off, aren’t you?’
His wife, Sally, is on the eight-minute, meditative and minimalist mantra Dragon’s Blood – she is credited with playing Nibiru gongs and Tibetan singing bowls. “She’s a gong master and she’s into hypnotherapy,” says Cradock, adding: “A Love Supreme starts with a gong… I was having lots of gong baths and getting into it – the healing of the hurts.
“Dragon’s Blood is the first song on side two – it’s a bit of a strange one. I played it to my dad and he said, ‘You’re taking that off, aren’t you?’ I wanted to have different flavours on each side, so that’s what I thought should start side two because it’s been transcending me, without sounding up my own arse. It was an energy or a power. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but give it time and get into it – if it’s the right moment, I think it will really take you somewhere.”
‘I was having lots of gong baths and getting into it – the healing of the hurts…’
So, is he a spiritual person? “I wouldn’t know if I am or not. I think everything’s spiritual, so that would be a ‘yes’ probably.”
Some of the tracks on the album, like the opening composition, Lapis Lazuli, which has some beautiful cello on it, are quite melancholy and pastoral… “Yeah – it’s reflective,” says Cradock.
On the other hand, there’s Cochineal, which is groovy loungecore, with Hammond and congas – lift music goes vintage sci-fi. “When I first heard it, it reminded me of the Wurlitzer that I used to hear playing when I went ice skating,” he says.
The final track, Gunjo, has some Bacharach-style Easy Listening brass on it, courtesy of Tim Smart from The Specials. “I love the melody line, which I think is really memorable, and the way it has time signature changes – I don’t normally do that,” he says. “It goes from a 3/4 waltz to a 4/4 thing. It is a bit Bacharach, I suppose.”
‘I sent the record to Weller – he listened to it all the way through and said, ‘Wow – it’s a journey’ ‘
Does he think this album will surprise people, as it’s very different to his other solo work? “Yeah – that’s good, isn’t it? I sent the record to Weller – he listened to it all the way through and said, ‘Wow – it’s a journey’.”
So, we’ve got the soundtrack to an imaginary movie – now someone needs to make the film…
Back To Business is a new collection of groovy, hipshakin’, organ-heavy instrumentals by duo Bangs & Talbot – pioneering acid jazz DJ, musician and producer, Chris Bangs, and mod keyboard wizard and founding member of The Style Council, Mick Talbot.
The two of them have made their first album together in 20 years and it’s a scorcher – just the kind of soundtrack for a long, hot summer.
Talbot lays down some great Hammond, Wurlitzer and Rhodes piano, while bassist and drummer Bangs ensures the tracks always have a great groove – from the jazz club vibe of Sumthin’ Else to the Latino-soul-meets-West-Coast-Beach-Beat-sound of Surf ‘n’ Turf, and the explosive Kookie T, which, with its blaring brass and high-octane Hammond, sounds like the theme to a car chase scene from a Swinging Sixties action-thriller.
Marvin Gaye’s soul classic, How Sweet It Is, has been reinvented as a cool shuffle – Brand New Heavies’ guitarist Simon Bartholomew provides some tasty licks – while Stingray pays its respects to gospel and evokes the atmosphere of legendary California club P.J’s.
It’s Alright takes a trip to Detroit, with fuzz guitars, and the jazzy Leela’s Dance has more than a touch of Dave Brubeck’s TakeFive about it.
“A lot of our past stuff was influenced by the ‘70s, but Chris wanted to get back to some ‘60s stuff – good grooves that were danceable,” explains Talbot, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers.
“That’s the great thing about a lot of this album – it’s either head-nodding or dancey. It’s got a lot of different grooves, but most of them are quite immediate.”
He adds: “I’m not always sure what all the influences are because on a lot of the tracks Chris puts an infectious rhythm together – he likes playing bass and he also plays drums, guitar and keyboards.
“Sometimes he suggests stuff and asks me to adapt it – I’m not precious. He might do a slide on a keyboard on one of his demos, I’ll get the gist of what he wants me to do and redo it all, and then he’ll say, ‘I really miss my slide!’ So, I say, ‘Put it back then!’ [laughs].
‘Chris tries to paint a picture with sound – each track is a vignette of a movie’
“Chris does a lot of different things – he’ll give an arrangement to the horn players of him singing what he thinks they should play, so you get a funny demo with him singing, thinking he’s a saxophone.
“He tries to paint a picture with sound – each track is a vignette of a movie. It creates an atmosphere and conjures up an image, but, Chris is so poetic he wants to tell you what that image is.”
Did you make the record during lockdown?
Mick Talbot: Yeah – but there were various times when there was a little bit more freedom. We wanted to try and capture the atmosphere of half a dozen people playing in a room, but that wasn’t possible at the time. Chris and I were only in the same room on two occasions – the rest of it was all done [remotely] with musicians we know.
While we were locked down, I did a few remote sessions, but I always go to my friend Ernie McKone’s studio, in Muswell Hill, where a lot of my vintage gear is, like my old Hammond, Wurlitzer, Clavinet and Rhodes – he maintains them for me.
All those ancient things need care and attention – they get a bit sick if you take them on the road without souping them up – and he’s got the space for them. The colours on my palette are all there – the five or five principal sounds that I gravitate towards.
‘All my ancient gear needs care and attention – it gets a bit sick if you take it on the road without souping it up’
I did a remote session for a fella in New York – having been around for quite a while, it’s amazing to me to think I’ve just done something that’s on an album in New York and I didn’t have to go there…
The shenanigans people used to go through when they were doing an international project in the old days – they were scared of putting analogue tape through X-ray machines because you could wipe it quite easily. You couldn’t leave it in your hand luggage. Now I just do a session and, with a little ‘ping’, it’s gone thousands of miles and it’s on someone’s track.
How did you first get into playing keys? Are you self-taught?
MT: I’m a mixture of things. My nan was a piano player and she played by ear. I was quite enchanted by that and I asked her to try and show me some things, and she did, but she couldn’t really show me much because it was hard for her to explain the instinct – she just did it. It felt a bit mystical to me.
She told me there was a lady round the corner who taught piano, but I had the horrors about that because I wanted it to be like how my nan did it – like magic. She said, ‘If you’re keen, you don’t need to stick at it,’ but I did it for three years and it benefited me more than I thought.
Once I’d got the rudiments, and I got more of a personal taste for music, the fact that my teacher was principally a classical one, I wanted to try and apply that to the playing that was on the records I liked to buy. By the time I was about 12, I started trying to form school bands, so I stopped going to piano lessons and tried to develop what I’d learnt.
When you were growing up, were you listening to soul, jazz and funk? Have you always been into that?
MT: I liked all the English ’60s bands as well, but I guess they were R’n’B or soul-influenced. My mum was quite a fan of Motown, so, when I was really small, that was playing a lot.
My dad was more of a modern jazz fan, which I got to understand more as I grew older. He was good at sussing out records that would bring us together – he got me a Sly & The Family Stone album and said, ‘Some people think this bloke is jazz, some think he’s rock and some think he’s soul – they’re having trouble defining him, but I think he’s good and I think you might like him, but I don’t like all your music…’ We bonded over that.
When you and Paul Weller formed The Style Council, people had trouble labelling you too, didn’t they? You embraced so many influences: soul, pop, funk, rap, jazz, house music, European café culture, classical…
MT: We were only drawn to things that we actually liked – it wasn’t a calculated thing. We didn’t come into the studio one day and go, ‘We haven’t done anything that sounds like Kraftwerk yet.’
To me, it all seemed to make sense – the more you look into music and go a bit deeper… The European influences, for instance – elements of Debussy, Ravel or the Romantic Classicists – a lot of that music, in turn, influenced people like Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach and Thom Bell of the Philadelphia sound.
‘The Style Council were only drawn to things that we actually liked – it wasn’t calculated. We didn’t come into the studio one day and go, ‘We haven’t done anything that sounds like Kraftwerk yet’.
Prior to forming The Style Council, you were in mod revival band, The Merton Parkas. When you were growing up and listening to soul, was it then a natural step to becoming a mod? What attracted you to that scene?
MT: When I was really little, I can remember that I liked that look, and then, in London, in the mid-’70s, just prior to the punk thing, there was a real explosion of energy with Dr. Feelgood – they influenced a lot of the punk bands with their attitude and their look. I liked that on the sleeve of their first album [Down By The Jetty], it almost looked like they were from another time, like the mid-’60s.
Fast forward a couple of years and I saw The Jam just before they got signed to Polydor. I thought, ‘Hold on, this is a band for my generation’ – no pun intended – who were more of my age than Dr. Feelgood and they had some affinity with that ’60s mod thing and they were playing a few soul covers in their set.
I did see a lot of the early punk bands, but I thought their image was artificial on some levels – I knew a lot of weekend punks who dyed their hair green with food colouring and washed it out before they went to their respectable job. I thought it would be nice to be someone you could be all the time, and there’s no doubting that there’s a generation of bands who were so influenced by The Jam.
‘I saw The Jam just before they got signed to Polydor. I thought, ‘Hold on, this is a band for my generation’ – no pun intended’
Of the first five bands that surfaced with New Wave or punk, I felt The Jam were the most honest. A lot of them were trying to say it was Year Zero and that they weren’t influenced by anything, whereas The Jam weren’t shy about saying they were influenced by The Kinks, The Beatles or Wilson Pickett. It wasn’t like they’d just been dropped there by a spaceship in 1976.
‘I knew a lot of weekend punks who dyed their hair green with food colouring and washed it out before they went to their respectable job’
And I guessed you carried that approach through to The Style Council, as on the front cover of your second album, Our Favourite Shop, you had a store featuring memorabilia, books and records from some of your favourite writers and musical artists. You were literally wearing your influences on your sleeve…
MT: The visuals on that record had far-reaching consequences – people were trying to find copies of books that were out of print… I’ve met people who’ve said, ‘I think I’ve got three-quarters of what’s in that shop!’
The nice thing about that sleeve is that 90 percent of what was on it was mine and Paul’s and the rest of it was stuff that we wanted that we got our designer, Simon Halfon, to source. It wasn’t put together by a stylist – it came off our bookshelves or out of our lofts. It felt part of our makeup.
I always love reading about who or what influences the musical artists I’m into – it often sets me off listening to them and discovering new stuff…
MT: It’s the same with me. As a kid, I’d read about The Beatles and thought that maybe I should check out The Everly Brothers or Little Richard – whatever they were talking about. I liked The Rolling Stones as well and they helped me to find out about Howlin’ Wolf and Solomon Burke. It’s a nice process – I guess some bands are more open about that sort of thing.
Are you a record collector? How do you listen to music?
MT: I listen to it on any format because the moment you rely on streaming – I don’t want to get into the politics of that, but they don’t bloody pay you enough – there’s sometimes a grey area. Things are missing, like you particularly like a B-side of a 7in single, but it’s not on Spotify. Why haven’t they got the one I’m searching for? It’s an anomaly.
‘I’m not a music format snob, but I appreciate there’s something about magnetic, analogue tape and vinyl that is just warm and nice’
Wiggle Wiggle, the B-side of the Bangs & Talbot vinyl single, Sumthin’ Else, ison Spotify… What’s your hi-fi setup at home like? Is it a big system?
MT: No – just normal speakers. My brother-in-law found me an old Dansette – sometimes I like to stack up some singles on that. I don’t do it all the time, but it might be influenced by something, like finding a rare record in a little junk shop, and I think ‘I’ll definitely have to get that red plastic thing out again…’
I’m not a format snob, but I appreciate there’s something about magnetic, analogue tape and vinyl that is just warm and nice.
You’ve played with so many acts, including Dexys Midnight Runners, Galliano, Gene, Candi Staton, The Blow Monkeys, The Young Disciples, Monks Road Social, Wilko Johnson, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend… Any collaborations that stand out?
MT: It’s really hard to pick out one. It’s whatever I’m currently working on.
Different things have enchanted me for different reasons – there are people I’ve not recorded with, but I’ve worked with… I did Jools Holland’s Big Band for a while, when his brother, Chris, who plays Hammond, took a couple of years out. That gave me the opportunity to play with Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Edwyn Starr – all sorts of people. When you’re working with Jools, you’re never quite sure who you’re going to get. It’s quite spine-tingling when you’re playing with a legend.
It was a real thrill for me to work with Wilko Johnson – it was really mad, because I used to see him at Hammersmith Palais in 1976, and then I ended up working with him. He’s so influential.
Through working with him, I got to work with Roger Daltrey, and out of that I got to play with The Who very briefly. I filled in for a charity event – we did a medley. It was thrilling to be sat behind Pete Townshend while he was swinging around – that was a buzz.
‘I did Jools Holland’s Big Band for a while. That gave me the opportunity to play with Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Edwyn Starr – all sorts of people’
There was one week in 2018 when the second Wilko Johnson album I’d played on came out, as well albums by Roger Daltrey and Ray Davies that I was on. They were all recorded at different times, but it was like three buses turning up at once.
People say to me, ‘What are you up to? Are you still in the music game?’ ‘Well, this week, I’m up to quite a lot, but next week it will look like nothing’s happening…’
I’m really looking forward to the next Monks Road thing coming out, as it’s been put on hold for a while. We did the third album [Humanism] in Spain, but we ended up doing the new one in London, at RAK Studios, in one week. I love that studio – I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there a few times in the past couple of years and, for me, it’s second only to Abbey Road in terms of an old-school studio that still has every option available.
‘It was a real thrill for me to work with Wilko Johnson – it was mad, because I used to see him at Hammersmith Palais in 1976’
We have a mutual friend, Matt James, who was the drummer in Gene. You’ve played on his debut solo album, Breaking The Fall, which is released next month, haven’t you?
MT: Yeah – that was really nice. He had a few of the old Gene boys [Steve Mason – guitar, Kev Miles – bass) involved. It was great to catch up and play on it.
Matt always had that vocal thing going on – I can remember when I was playing live with Gene, they’d sometimes get Dodgy’s drummer [Mathew Priest] in, so Matt was featured more as a vocalist and a guitarist.
It’s great that it’s always been in him and that he’s got round to doing his own album. There’s one song that’s quite Northern Soul on it and a nice one where I played an accordion sound, with a rural or Cajun influence, or a bit like Ronnie Lane.
So, what’s next for you?
MT: I’m halfway through working on an album with an act called BirdSMITH – they used to be called First Congress. They’re the vehicle for a songwriter called Tom Van Can – he used to be a director of independent films. I first met him about 12 years ago, when I did some stuff for a soundtrack. He’s focused on music now. They had a single out called Kiss It Better – it got played on Radio 2 a bit.
I’ve not seen Candi Staton for a while – she’s coming over for a handful of festivals, so I’m going to play with her – and the next Monks Road Social album should be looming soon.
I’m also working on a second album for what I hope is an ongoing project with Chris Bangs, and there’s a Jam and Style Council exhibition on in Brighton [This Is The Modern World]. They’re showing the Style Council documentary [Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council] and I’ll be there for a couple of days, doing a Q and A.
Nicky Weller [Paul’s sister] is curating it and she tracked down one of our early video directors who had lots of outtakes – there’s all sorts of things. Her partner, Russell, has been editing stuff – he sent me a film of me playing with The Jam at The Rainbow, in 1979. I had no idea anyone was filming it.
Were you pleased with the documentary? I watched it earlier this year, on Sky Arts, and I thought it was brilliant.
MT: It was good – it was very hard to try and shove everything into one film, but they did a good job. It really reflected the personalities of a lot of people well.
Paul and I did a combined interview – the people who put the film together were hoping there might be a commercial DVD release, because they said they’re sitting on about half an hour of stuff from us that they couldn’t get in that’s really funny. It shone a light on some things, but it didn’t work in the film. I guess it’s all owned by Sky… it’s not my shout.
How was it talking about that time again? The film was pretty candid…
MT: Having to film it over a couple of days and dredge up seven years of your life was kind of exhausting… it was a bit of a blur.
A lot of it was shot at Paul’s studio – while I was down there, I played on three tracks for his album, On Sunset, which he was just finishing. I thought I played on two, but it turns out I’m on three. There was so much going on.
The Style Council got back together to play one song at the end of the film, It’s A Very Deep Sea. How was that? It’s a lovely performance…,
MT: I was really pleased it came together. I saw Paul play in London a few weeks ago and it’s in his set now – I don’t think he’s played it live for a very long time and it’s nice that’s put a new focus on it.
I had concerns about whether or not we should work up three or four songs, in case it didn’t click, as it had been so long, but Paul went, ‘No – just that one.’ He was very definite about it and he said, ‘If it works – it’s great, and, if it doesn’t, we don’t have to use it.’
I was really hoping it would work, but if hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, as nobody knew about it but us.
People might think we sweated over it for a long time – I listened to the song a lot at home – but, when we did it, we started playing it, Paul thought it was really good, his instinct kicked in, and he said, ‘Let’s take it now.’ We only played it through all the way once. It felt good – a real pure performance.
‘Having to film the Style Council documentary over a couple of days and dredge up seven years of your life was kind of exhausting… it was a bit of a blur’
Do you think the film has opened up the Style Council to a new audience? You were so ahead of your time and more groundbreaking than you’ve been given credit for…
MT: It can’t do any harm. I was at a family party the other Saturday and I was quite surprised at some of my wife’s younger cousins who were aware of us. I think a lot of that is down to the documentary.
Some of the political issues you were writing about back in the day are still relevant now, aren’t they?
MT: Some of Paul’s more pointed lyrics seem like they were written about today, but they’re from 35 years ago. It’s astonishing how little things change.
Back To Business by Bangs & Talbot is released on June 17 on Acid Jazz. It’s available on vinyl, CD, digital download and streaming platforms.