Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts has just released a new EP that’s themed around the concept of the Cold War. I spoke to him about why he prefers George Smiley to James Bond, prog rock opera and what goes on in The Bunker…
Let’s talk about your new EP – Cold Wars: Pt 1. Can you tell me about the background to it? Why the Cold War theme? What drew you to that subject matter?
Steve Roberts: I’ve always been intrigued by the Cold War. I was a strange kid, obsessing about such things. The idea of patriotism and nationalism meaning more than love or friendship, or even ‘the truth’, is something I don’t understand. This led me to writing character songs that dealt with a dilemma – betray your country, or betray the person you love. I’d also have to say “cheeky bastards” to anyone in authority who feels they deserve respect because they have power over you. The Soviets and, in particular the East German governments, were madly into the power of authority.
So, did you consciously set out to make a concept EP about the Cold War, or did you have a bunch of songs that all shared the same theme?
SR: I set out to make a concept album, but I became impatient at the amount of time it was taking. I’m no longer a full-time musician, so I decided to do it in two parts. My first thoughts were to do a protest album, but there have been some great ones recently – in particular Quiet Loner’s Greedy Magicians – so I decided instead to take a different look at how we are betrayed by our governments, who expect us to put our lives on the line at their say so. The Snowden revelations merely confirmed my view of our so-called democracies. I’m no fan of Stalinism, but it kind of kept the West relatively honest with its own citizens – that’s changing big style at the moment.
Your EP is very timely, as the BBC recently showed a TV series about the Cold War (Strange Days: Cold War Britain). Did you see it? What did you think of it?
SR: Yes – it spooked me out at first. Are ‘they’ inside my head? I’ve been disappointed by some shows – in particular the Strange Days series. I thought the presenter was an oaf and I believe they missed out on giving us a really fascinating insight into one of the craziest eras in the history of our mad world. I’m a massive fan of John Le Carré and I loved the interview he gave. Of course, having the original George Smiley back on the telly was an absolute joy. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of my favourite books and I loved the TV series. Give me Smiley over Bond. On Netflix I’ve been re-watching the Michael Caine Harry Palmer films and also Sean Connery in The Russia House. I also love that German film The Lives of Others. I played in old East Germany a few years ago and parts of it were strange – familiar, but bent out of shape.
Let’s talk about the songs on the EP, the songwriting process and the sounds… You started writing these songs in April of this year, on piano, didn’t you? How do you find it writing on piano, rather than guitar?
SR: For more than two years I’ve suffered from frozen shoulders – first the right one, then, as that one got better, the left one decided to get in on the act, but it was even more painful. I had therapy, but it became impossible to play the guitar for a few months – it was really depressing. We’d bought an old piano and I found my shoulder didn’t hurt too much when I was messing about on it. I got a chord book and started plonking away. What I’ve enjoyed is using different bass notes to the chord you’re playing – that’s probably the main way I got simple chords to sound a bit different.
I haven’t written a song on guitar in ages, but I do play it now, now that my shoulders are about 90 per cent recovered. What I’d really love to do is write songs on the piano like Randy Newman or Tom Waits, but that might be beyond me. I’m up for the challenge, though.
Can you tell me more about the songwriting and recording process for the EP? It was written and recorded in your studio – The Bunker – from April to October 2013. Are there any stories behind the songs? There are some gorgeous melodies on the record…
SR: Thank you. My first thing was to try and tone down the melodic content a bit – I tend to get a bit Rutles at times and go for the sing-a-long chorus. I’m envious of people who write melodies that weave into you, rather than just swat you on the back of the neck. I have a friend, Brian Chin, who lives in Brighton and he is the only person I’ve ever properly co-written with. I wanted to get him involved, as he is a fantastic musician and he will tell me if I’m being a bit cheesy – or not cheesy enough… Unfortunately, his timetable and mine weren’t compatible, but I tried to keep him in mind when I was editing myself.
Many of the songs started with a load of phrases I’d write down and Cold War trigger words like ‘faded giants’, ‘hawks’ and all that. I was thinking in terms of it being a book or a film – a story of two people who love each other, but circumstances force them to make difficult choices. I’d then bash away on the piano until I found something I liked. I’d record the piano on to my iPad to a metronome, and then transfer it to my computer and start building things up around it.
I’ve got a music shop and I would take instruments home with me and try them out – in particular a lovely Danelectro guitar, which some bugger then went and bought! I like to do my lead vocals in one take, rather than piece them together. So, if I got one I liked, I knew I was on my way. I then messed about programming drums, textures, a bit of Moog and all that, until I liked something. I enjoyed knowing it didn’t matter, as I was doing it all without anybody there to laugh at my bad attempts. Lyrically, Orwell was a big influence – particularly 1984: “Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me.”
Some of the tracks have synth-like effects on them. What was your aim or inspiration for the sound of the EP?
SR: The main sound of it is the Mellotron, which was basically the very first synthesiser. You can hear it on some of The Beatles’ later songs and on Bowie’s Space Oddity and things like that. I’d first used it on my first solo album on a song called The Sunny One . I didn’t have one for this EP, but a couple of months ago I bought a Mellotron app for my iPad that is just perfect. It’s got real flutes and strings, choirs and brass – it’s all wobbly and other-worldly. I went mad for it, as they used to say. It sounds like the Cold War era to me. Someone dubbed the songs ‘a Cold War prog opera’ when I played them live, which gave me another pointer – prog rock! More the Soft Machine playful side of things than Yes, I hasten to add…
The track Lucinda and Michael is your first instrumental. It’s a very haunting and cinematic piece. It reminded me of Bowie circa Low – very European/minimalist/Eno-esque. Would you ever consider composing a film soundtrack?
SR: I’ve always wanted to write an instrumental, but I never felt capable. But, because, in my head, these collections of songs were cinematic, I decided to have a go and on the first attempt I came up with Lucinda and Michael. It was brilliant that it just appeared. I’d love to do more.
You’re planning a second Cold Wars EP, aren’t you? When can we expect that to be released?
SR: I’m hoping it will be ready in the spring, I’ve written some of the songs, started a bit of recording and have ideas for others. I just hope they’ll come out well. I’m an instinctive musician, rather than a good one, and I tend to do bits and stick them all together. I’d love to play finger pick guitar and piano beautifully but, alas, I just tend to hit my instruments. I think the next one will have a ‘brighter’ sound, but I’m not sure what I mean by that.
You were in Liverpool band 16 Tambourines, who enjoyed some success in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Looking back on those days, do you still have some good memories? What was it like at the time? How do you feel about it now?
SR: I had a mixed time of it. We were a good little band and great things were expected of us. The NME were convinced we were chart-bound, but we were engulfed by the Madchester tide and were therefore cast aside, really. It was weird, because although it was great to be in ace studios and to be able to buy a new shirt, the record company seemed not to want you to be who it was that they’d signed. They would remix songs and book you gigs that didn’t make any sense and all that… Still, I have some wonderful memories of things I’d have never experienced if I’d just worked in an office. We had some brilliant gigs in Scotland that are burned into my memory. Being dropped was awful. I ended up on the dole, I lost my house and I was depressed for about 10 years…. But I think it was better to have done it than not, but who knows?
In 2008, incredibly, you wrote and recorded a song a week for a whole year (52 songs) and then posted them to your website…
SR: I was drunk on New Year’s Eve and my family were away. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and had a cold and a bottle of brandy. I wrote a song recorded it and posted it on my website. I awoke to see I’d said I’d do one every week. That was a big hangover…I managed to do it and was amazed with myself really. It was like a muscle was being exercised or something and it got quite easy for a few months. The hard bits were the last few months, as we were selling our house and moving. I was determined, though. Everywhere I went I was thinking about songs – scribbling notes and recording melodies or riffs. By the end, though, I was exhausted and very pleased when it was over. I’m not certain what the goal was, to be honest. I’d got drunk, made a promise on my website and just did it. I’m not sure how when I look back…
You took a break from music for a while, didn’t you? How does it feel to be back, writing and recording?
SR: I started playing with a band again a couple of years ago. It was going ok, but with my shoulder problems and the trouble you have running a band when everyone has kids and other responsibilities, it was difficult. Deciding just to write songs and worry about it all later was the best thing I could have done for my sanity. I record when I can and how I can and I love it. Now I know it’s only me who I can blame and I’m used to that! But I do miss playing with others and hopefully I’ll do that again.
So, what’s next for Steve Roberts?
SR: Part two of the Cold Wars EP is my immediate priority, but it’s also possible I’ll be re-recording lots of the 52 ‘song-a-week’ tracks, as they’ve never really been finished. I want to make more of them than I did. I’d like to play live more often and I’m trying to develop a solo ‘show’ of sorts, so it’s not just me playing a guitar in an average fashion. I’m not a good traveller, though, so maybe I’ll just do it from my front room and beam it to 25 people via the Internet.