Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Archive Interview - Kathryn Williams (interviewed May 2015)

There are few greater pleasures in life than sitting down with a cup of coffee (an Americano with milk if you’re offering) and having a chat with somebody who shares your interest in all things musical. And that, in a nutshell, is what I did with Kathryn Williams one morning last week.

I started by asking Kathryn (a Cappuccino, if you’re wondering) to explain the background to her new album Hypoxia, which started life as a commissioned work about Sylvia Plath’s legendary book, ‘The Bell Jar’.

“I got a call from New Writing North asking me if I wanted to write some songs for the anniversary of 50 years of ‘The Bell Jar’ and to perform the songs at Durham Book Festival, which I did, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I spoke to the record label, One little Indian and said could I turn that into my next record and they said that I could. So I spent a long time just working the rest of the songs while I was on tour doing the last album. I’d written five or six songs originally, then I did more and the whole record came around.”

I wondered whether all of the original songs made it onto the album.

“Yes, but I wrote three or four songs before I got good” At this point Kathryn laughs, as she continues to do at regular points throughout.  “They just said write anything about Sylvia Plath. They sent me all of the books, all of the biographies, spoken word CDs and it was really overwhelming.”

When I ask if Kathryn was faced with a strict deadline for completion of the project, she replies, “I was. I’m always kind of faced with a deadline. I don’t think I can work without that. I mean I’ve got three projects that I’ve been doing for the last three years that have had no deadline, and I think that unless someone gives me a deadline they’re never going to come to an end . The Durham Book Festival was right in the middle of my tour so I had to write on the road. On days off, like at the side of the A1 in a really scuzzy Travel lodge with only a Little Chef for company.”

I ask whether Kathryn normally has a nice, quiet relaxing place where she writes.

“Strangely ‘Cuckoo’ on this record and ‘Sequins’ which was on the last album were both written in Ed Harcourt’s bath. He wasn’t in the bath” she explains swiftly “He wasn’t even in the room. That’s become kind of a thing now; I’ve said to Ed for every album I do now I’ll have to write a song in his bath. I take a pen and paper with me everywhere. I mean it gets harder to write only when inspiration strikes because when you’ve got kids and job and tour and record, so it becomes, well, I make those times. It’s all about the process and loving the process and respecting the process, being delicate with it. Stephen King has got a book called ‘On Writing’, and it’s absolutely brilliant; it’s part memoir and it’s part talking about how to write and I’ve learnt so much from that book. He says get down to the slog of it, write, and always edit by 20%. It seems to work."

Then I comment that we’re very close to the album’s release date.

“I know, fucking hell!” she says, as if she doesn’t really want to be reminded of it. “Yeah, it’s nerve-wracking, but I used to be really disabled by my nerves, like 15 years ago for The Mercury, (The music prize, for which Kathryn’s album Little Black Numbers was nominated) I had stage fright. I had to sit down to perform because I would black out with nerves, I missed out doing loads of TV and interviews and stuff because I’d just be too scared and not turn up. It’s nothing like that now; I think the perspective of having kids and knowing that you’re not the be all and end all of everything, I’ve kind of got over myself.”

We discuss Kathryn’s ability to write songs that stir the emotions, and I wonder whether there are particular artists who have the same effect on her.

“Yeah, I absolutely love Ron Sexsmith and I think Steve Nieve has that kind of thing as well, that sort of vulnerability. Even the John Lennon and Yoko Ono album with the track ‘Mother’ on, which was a big reference for ‘Cuckoo’. Just to try and have that braveness to be vulnerable. I feel like that when I write lyrics as well, I used to always think it was a negativity to be raw….. I mean the Sylvia Plath thing is quite interesting because I’ve written character stories and character songs before, and I’ve written songs for other artists, for pop artists, but this is kind of a weird amalgamation of the two where I was writing delving through the characters of ‘The Bell Jar’ and the themes and get further into what it all meant and why she’d chosen these people and how it reflected back on her. She has an unblinking and muscular way of writing.”

Then we turn to the subject of the musicians that Kathryn likes to listen to and to work with.

“Well Chris Difford, he’s a dear friend of mine. When I write songs I’ll often send him something like this sort of recording (referring to the mp3 recorder with which I’m recording the interview). I did one the other day and realised that on the recording it had the washing machine on spin. And Neill MacColl, and Boo Hewerdine, and Michelle Stodart, and Steve Nieve, Georgia Ruth.  Ed Harcourt, he’s been a massive, massive support. He helped me with this record; he produced it with me, and let me write in his bath! I’m really lucky to have a real core of musicians and artists who I respect and they respect me and I can call up and say “I don’t know what I’m doing, will you help me?” It’s funny I don’t sell a lot of records, but I think that I do sell records to people that make music. Maybe I just say this to myself so that when I can’t pay the bills it feels better. I don’t have mass appeal but I often get championed by people that make music, like Guy Garvey, and that’s the kind of thing that keeps me going and makes me think that maybe I’m on the right lines. “

I ask whether Kathryn has a record collection.

“Yeah. I’ve got four big things of vinyl and then we’ve got two walls of CDs and then about 40 foot of floor space of CDs and we’ve still got tapes. I’ve got an iPod, but I haven’t really got down into all of that, I just like the physical things, I find it hard. I haven’t done Spotify either just because…” at this point Kathryn pauses as if reluctant to continue with this particular subject “I know that it’s a fantastic tool for the other person but it’s just something that I can’t swallow as an artist.”

When I confess to succumbing to Spotify recently, Kathryn asks me if it’s any good, and do I love it? At this point it’s my turn to pause. I explain that I do like it, in spite of my better instincts, further explaining that it allows me to discover previously unexplored musical avenues, prompting Kathryn to ask if I then go out and actually buy the music that I like. I tell her that I invariably do, but comment that, rather obviously, not everyone does.

“If it was used just like that it would be OK” Kathryn continues “I’ve got to just accept it and move on because it is the right thing in order to find new music. In some ways it would be more honest if it wasn’t paid for. It is difficult when people get into that mind-set that things are free, that music is a free commodity.”

“I do like the idea of something earning a wage almost for each time that it’s played. But you wouldn’t be able to get a day in a studio to record four songs for probably ten years earning on Spotify of all of my 12 albums, and when you put that in context it’s just crazy. There’s been this thing recently of a backlash against that, a “just get over it and move with the times” and I kind of feel like I’m torn between the two, because I know that Spotify is good and I know that I will go on it soon because there’s less and less avenues to get to good new music.”

“I like my iPod, but I don’t use it that much. I’ve started to do a thing where once I’ve dropped the kids off art school I come home and I have a coffee and I put on a vinyl album, and spend like half an hour or an hour with a coffee listening to an album. It’s just a slowing down. It’s like fast food, there’s nothing better than spending a couple of hours with friends on a good meal, that European way, and I don’t know how my music will fit into this fast paced world. But this is not a record that you can just switch on; you need to spend time with it, like sitting down with a book, giving yourself the respect to delve deeper.”

I tell Kathryn that I heard ‘Heart Shaped Stone’ recently when in a branch of a well-known coffee shop, and wonder if hearing her music while out and about still surprises her.

“Yeah, it’s fucking brilliant! I love that. It’s not like it happens all the time. I’ll get texts from someone saying “switch your radio on now!” and I’ll get the end of a song, it’s a fantastic feeling. 6Music’s been great like that.”

Then we briefly discuss Kathryn’s recent appearance as featured artist on Guy Garvey’s 6 Music show.

“Someone texted to tell me I was going to be on and I was doing the washing up. So I called the boys in and told them “Mum’s going to be on the radio” and then we had a dance around the kitchen to all the songs; it was really sweet. It’s a good feeling; I mean I’m not cool like that but it’s good, it’s what you want, you want people to hear it. The problem for me, and my career and my music is that people have an idea of what I do without ever hearing it. I’ve had people say to other friends “I want to go to that gig because she’s really folk isn’t she?” and I’m like “I’m not folk”. Only people who aren’t into folk call me folk and everyone in folk calls me pop so I don’t belong anywhere. But I like it if there’s a song on the radio because people are actually making an assumption based on fact. I have this, maybe it’s like an innocence, but I do think that maybe if people hear the music then they’ll like it, but it’s just trying to get music heard.”

Kathryn has a well-known history of covering songs imaginatively, and when I start to ask whether she has one lined up to play at her forthcoming gigs she quickly interrupts,

“I’ve got one!”

So I ask if it’s a secret and, while she’s good enough to share its identity with me, she would prefer it to remain a surprise, although she is happy to reveal that it’s a Neil Young song with lyrics that fit in sensitively with the new tracks from Hypoxia.

“It’s funny because when I did the covers album (Relations, released in 2004) I thought it would be a way to show people what my record collection is and who I loved, and it just didn’t work out that way at all. It was strange; the songs sort of choose you, in the same way that Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ chose me. When you do a cover version you’re stepping into something else and there’s certain ones that you know you can pull apart and re-interpret to better effect. I never want to do it when cover versions to me sound like a ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ version of the original and I’m never interested in doing that; I always want to bring something different to it. The ‘Dancing in the Dark’ one was great. I never have a big plan. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” 

I wonder if there are any songs that don’t make the cut.

"Yeah, tons and tons. I write all the time. The last retreat I did I wrote 11 songs, and some of them would be co-writes, and I’ve just come back from Sweden and I’ve written 13 songs with a guy called Peter Jöback and I started writing with another massive artist over there called Loreen and I do lots of co-writes with people like Josh Kumra. And then I’ve got about 70 or 80 songs recently that haven’t been recorded and I’m writing towards the next album already. I’ve been writing for Tim Lott, the writer, I’m writing a musical for him and writing a project at the moment for ‘Nobody knew she was there’ about women in history who were overlooked or overshadowed; that’s three quarters of the way done and that’s coming out next year. I’m in a band with Michelle Stodart and Georgia Ruth, we’re calling ourselves ‘Rum Tits’ but that’s not going to be the final name! I’m in a band with a bloke called Tobias Fröberg and Ed Harcourt called ‘Jumping Elephants’, so I’m writing songs all the time, that’s why the house is in such a bad state! “

I ask if any songs that were previously rejected are ever given a second chance.

“Yeah, sometimes the process isn’t based on a value judgement, it’s a context judgement. So with this album I’m not going to put in a song that I’ve got about flying a kite and freewheeling down a hill and having fun. I mean I do write some songs that are shit, but not a lot. I know that sounds like I think I’m brilliant and I don’t mean that. ‘Heart Shaped Stone’ for example, I wrote with Neill MacColl for the album Two and it hadn’t fitted on any album since and when it came to Crown Electric it was there, it fitted what we were trying to do with that record." 

Originally published by

Read more in 'Writing About Music' available on Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books,

or you can meander with me through 130 classic (and not so classic) albums of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in 'The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy of Cassettes', also available on Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Archive Interview - Steve Hackett (interviewed June 2015)

As you’ll almost certainly know by now, I’m not averse to a little bit of progressive rock. In fact, in the right mood I positively lap it up, with a particular regard for those two prog behemoths of the 1970s, Genesis and Yes. So it probably goes without saying that I positively jumped at the chance to interview Steve Hackett. I started by asking Steve about the writing process for his latest album, Wolflight, and whether he has a particular place where he likes to write.

“Well, funnily enough, I’ve just moved house. So once again I need to get myself into not just a different headspace but a different physical space, as you can imagine what it’s like when you’ve just moved. What I was doing before was I’d wake up with ideas at about five in the morning, which is the Wolflight itself, the hour before the dawn and much of the time I would work on paper because I find that lots of my ideas come in that form. Of course that’s not the only way I work, but I like to work with an instrument to discover new harmonies and chord relationships, but normally in a simple manner, on paper. Riffs kick in like that and lyrics come that way, but I find for orchestrating something I have to have an instrument there. Many years ago I managed to write on keyboard but that’s way back, that’s 40 years ago. I find guitar leads me to plenty of new places, especially with different tunings and I’m experimenting with that at the moment. Part of it was written in an open G minor tuning and an open G tuning as well, I found that very useful. But do you know that the writing process is one that’s so multifarious I can’t describe it. I find it’s generally good to have an idea of a story when doing the lyrics. I liked The Beatles best when they had some kind of story. It helps to focus the mind if I get an idea of the character of the song, something might be a character portrait that would influence in a certain way. I think The Beatles were masters at flashpoints in ordinary people’s lives and they made the ordinary extraordinary. I probably go for a bit more exotica than that, and I go for imagined situations at times. With the Wolflight song I was trying to imagine this ancestral procession right back to early man and reading about that, thinking about that, then encountering wolves myself and I could see how a relationship could be built up with early man.”

Steve then told me about the band he’d put together for the forthcoming tour.

“My regular band will be expanded by one other guy and that’s Roine Stolt, of The Flower Kings and Transatlantic, plus Nad Sylvan, so there’ll be two Swedish guys in the band. Mainly it’s going to be a rock band. I would like to look ahead to the point when I can play more ethnic instruments with the line-up, and I think that because I’m being required to do quite a lot of Genesis tunes, it’s in the contract I’ve got to do Genesis stuff” he chuckles at this point, “because it went so well a while back when for two or three years I did nothing but Genesis songs. The success of that has affected the way I’ll be presenting the new album.”

I asked Steve which musicians he particularly enjoys.

“I love Joe Bonamassa, I like him as a guitarist and we’ve met a couple of times. He’s done one of the Genesis tunes and funnily enough I met him with Chris Squire as Chris and I were working together doing one or two things and Chris is also on the album. He was the one who introduced me and Joe Bonamassa was playing a Yes tune so there was a connection. Although in the main it’s a blues approach, he reinvigorates the blues for me, and that’s not easy to do because there is a sense of, with blues, that you’ve heard it all, but I think he expands it a bit; there’s obviously the connection to Hendrix and Zeppelin and all the templates and the blueprints that have been before. I think that he does it with panache, so I do enjoy his playing. Funnily enough I’ve worked with a number of guitarists over the years that I think I was an influence on and I think have subsequently influenced me and one is Nuno Bettencourt who I worked with briefly in Japan; I worked with him along with Paul Gilbert, and they were both terrific. Also John Paul Jones, we were all working together doing a very Zeppeliny orientated set, but there were some Genesis things too.”

At this stage I asked Steve whether the BBC’s recent “Genesis: Together and Apart”, which brutally skimmed over his post-Genesis solo career, had brought him an increased following.

“Well I think I was marginalised in the edit!” He pauses for a moment, “I seem to remember that the BBC and particularly the director, John Edginton, came in for a lot of criticism from Mike Rutherford in particular, but the director, Paul, tweeted that Mike had asked for more Mike and The Mechanics and less of me. So you can draw your own conclusions from that!”

I remarked that many people had commented that they thought it was unfair that Steve’s solo material had been overlooked.

“‘Edited out’ I think is the word! But I think that, let’s put it this way, the cat is out of the bag  because the director has thought that, and it hasn’t worked, the usual blaming others has not worked. I basically gave that a lot of time; I did a lot of interview stuff to camera. I gave it hours of my time and you can see what came out in the end, so it wasn’t a great advert for me, but on the other hand I didn’t even get to say nice things about the band, which I did. I didn’t get the chance to praise Caesar, let alone assassinate him!”

Following Steve’s refreshing openness, I moved to safer ground by asking for suggestions of where a new Steve Hackett listener should start. Understandably, Steve said that he would point a new listener in the direction of Wolflight.

“I think that is a good place to start. I think that variety was the album’s calling card; all those extreme choices I’m proud to say have been vindicated because the album has taken off and it’s always nice to see your stuff in the charts. But if you’re a classical listener then I would say you might want to hear the tribute albums that I’ve done, six pieces of Bach or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream, original compositions and orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic. When I did Midsummer Night’s dream a number of years ago that started picking up a whole bunch of listeners who were listing to Classic FM and had no clue that I was a rock guitarist. Rock is only really part of it. Perhaps if you’re an actor you’re known as a character actor or you always play the villain or whatever. I think for musicians it’s perhaps the same; people think ‘oh, yes, he does prog rock’ so that means it’ll be difficult time signatures, lots of stabs, and all of that but I don’t think I’m really all about that. I don’t think that I’m typically progressive, other than lots of variety during the course of one song. With a lot of this I look to The Beatles, around about the time of The Magical Mystery Tour.”

I comment that no-one ever seemed to think of The Beatles as a prog band.

“No-one ever says that do they? The idea that occasional salvos of orchestra and shifting sands throughout the course of a song, and also the musical continuum that was part of Sergeant Pepper is now considered to be the mainstay of prog. And not only did The Beatles start that but they also are responsible for World Music as we know it, the idea of inviting in the rest of the world, mainly India in the Beatles case, but nonetheless, things were invited to the party that previously had been excluded; orchestral movements, the electronica and the ethnic instruments are what helped to broaden the appeal of The Beatles. I’ve always been aware since then, particularly from the 1980s onwards, that music really became narrower and people didn’t really come across like a Royal Variety Show, but nonetheless that’s where The Beatles pitched their tent, it was part George Formby and part Chuck Berry and somewhere between the two this sort of anglicised version of Rock and Roll was made possible; influenced of course by Dylan and Dylan’s stories about individuals. So if you were to ask me who I’m most influenced by I’d say The Beatles certainly and then every other guitarist on the planet, somewhere between Hendrix and Segovia, but beyond that, in terms of great songwriters, it’s Jimmy Webb who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Again I see that progressive link from MacArthur Park onwards. Progressive people love MacArthur Park, all the Genesis guys adored it and funnily enough I heard a version that Thijs van Leer of Focus did, just himself singing and piano, doing all the parts. It’s no accident I think that that song was all about the detail as much as anything else; interesting chord sequence, not just verse/chorus, but extra parts and an instrumental workout in the middle and you got the template straight away for masses of 70s genesis stuff.”

Originally published by

Read more in 'Writing About Music' available on Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books,

or you can meander with me through 130 classic (and not so classic) albums of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in 'The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy of Cassettes', also available on Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books

Monday, 4 July 2016

Archive interview - David Gedge of The Wedding Present (interviewed in October 2014)

Can you believe it’s been 20 years since the shiny guitar-driven nugget that is The Wedding Present’s Watusi landed with a crash into the drawers of our collective CD players? Two decades on it’s lost none of its considerable lustre and if you love it like I do, or even think you might, then you’re in luck because David Gedge and the gang have decided to tour the country playing the aforementioned album to eager crowds in its full 1994 entirety.

In anticipation of the band’s gig at The Cluny on 10 November we chatted to David about longevity, reissues, musical heroes and, of course, Watusi.

I started by asking David whether, given the impending Watusi tour and the reissue programme of Wedding Present albums, he had any inkling in the early days that he’d be an artist who enjoyed this kind of longevity

“It’s kind of a difficult question to answer because on the one hand no, I definitely didn’t, I never really planned more than the next 6 months so even when we started we never really had a long-term plan to do loads of tours and albums and carry on for thirty years, but at the same time, if I’m honest with you I’ve kind of always had nothing else that I wanted to do, kind of growing up from an early age I’ve always been obsessed with music and wanted to be in bands or be a DJ or something. I’m kind of driven to do this. It’s like any other thing, you can’t imagine yourself in 30 years, you just concentrate on what you’re doing at the time. I’ve always been obsessed with music and wanted to be in bands or be a DJ or something. I’m kind of driven to do this."

David explained that he’d recently given the album a run through at his ‘At the edge of the sea’ festival in Brighton, so I cheekily asked if he’d had to re-learn any of the tracks.

“Oh, Yeah,” (he chuckles) “I don’t really play my LPs. It’s kind of a weird thing, once you’ve done it you move on to the next thing. When we come to actually play something like this live we generally have to go back and try and work out what we did really, because it’s not written down or anything, there’s the odd note but it’s generally trying to piece it together from memory. It’s a funny thing to go back and re-analyze something from 20 years ago with a new line-up. It’s fascinating to be honest and it’s quite good fun.”

I ask David if he could see one artist play one of their albums live, who and what he would choose.

After a very deep breath, he responds “Blimey, there’s a question. While you’re asking I’ve already thought of three. One that would never happen now obviously is The Velvet Underground playing what’s actually a live album, The Velvet Underground 1969 Live, which is definitely my favourite live album of all time. I would definitely like to have seen that. Of studio albums I was definitely thinking of The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa or My Bloody Valentine playing Loveless.”

When I ask about influences, David goes on to tell me “In some ways I try not to be influenced, I never wanted to sound like any other artist. I don’t mind people who sound like other bands but I wanted The Wedding Present to have a unique sound really. Having said that, obviously everyone is influenced, so guitar bands from the ‘60s onwards really, starting with The Beatles, going through glam rock and punk and then I love The Velvet Underground and bands like that. The same as everyone else really, New Order, Pixies, Sonic Youth. I’d say my background is definitely guitar bands. And probably John Peel was my greatest influence, I used to listen to that programme all the time from being about 16 onwards all the way through school and university and being in a band myself. I think my main influence was the stuff that he used to play on the radio. Somebody said that we were very fortunate that John Peel liked the band and obviously I did feel very fortunate and I felt flattered, but at the same time I think it was a foregone conclusion because I knew we were going to be a John Peel band because of the fact that I absorbed all that stuff that he was giving me. That became The Wedding Present and we slotted in to that sort of band really. It would have been very disappointing had he not liked us.”

"I try not to be influenced, I never wanted to sound like any other artist. I don’t mind people who sound like other bands but I wanted The Wedding Present to have a unique sound."

When I turn thoughts back to the forthcoming Cluny gig, David explains that his only previous visit to the venue had been as a compere for a tour showcasing new bands. “I remember thinking at the time, great venue actually, nice kind of intimate size. It’s got the production values, a good PA and the lights, seemed like a really good place to play and at the same time it wasn’t too big. I’m really looking forward to playing there actually.”

Originally published by NE:MM (

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Album review - Great Raven - Magnetic Smoke

Daisy and Antronhy of Great Raven have become frustrated with songs that outstay their welcome. Across ten very brief tracks their album Magnetic Smoke seeks to document the summer solstice with a combination of sparingly used instruments, found sounds and genuinely unnerving vocal interludes.

In places it’s like Björk with fewer beats and more cowbells, a more nightmarish Laurie Anderson, or even the more experimental, ambient 1980s output of 1970s axe hero Bill Nelson. The pursuit of brevity serves the album well on most tracks, however others, like the sparse, double-bass driven ‘Yellow River Segue’ and the atmospheric, hypnotic ‘Dream Echo’ are much too good to be restricted to just a minute and a half. On the upside, the album’s 17-minute length means you can experience the whole thing all over again in virtually no time at all.

‘Cease & Desist’ has a moderately treated vocal, backed by a throb that almost becomes a heartbeat in places, and at its demise blends gloriously into the instrumental ‘Pipiano’ which, despite some competition, has become firmly lodged in my favourite track slot. ‘Pipiano’ and ‘Yellow River Segue’ flirt with the fringes of jazz, but never in such a way that they threaten to get into trouble. From ‘Pipiano’ onwards Magnetic Smoke doesn’t miss a beat, from the horror film undertones of ‘The Others’, to ‘Sea Sleep’, the closest Great Raven get to an actual ‘song’, and ‘Organ-I-Sing’ which appears to employ a small pipe organ to play a wordless, one-minute downbeat sea shanty to close the album in style.

Albums that defy easy characterisation often turn out to be the most interesting and enjoyable, and Magnetic Smoke manages comfortably to be both.

Available from 21st June 2016 at

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Archive Interview - Penetration (interviewed in August 2015, prior to the release of 'Resolution')

Last Sunday afternoon I had an interesting chat with a band about old music and new music. Nothing unusual in that, you might think. Except that the band in question were the legendary Penetration, the old music that we discussed was the shifting of tectonic plates that was punk rock and the new music that we chatted about was Penetration’s first new album in 36 years.

I started by asking the most obvious question of all. Why record and release a new album now?

Rob “On the last lot of gigs it became apparent that we were becoming almost our own tribute band. We’d been out doing shows now since 2002 and not done anything seriously in the studio; a couple of 7” singles came out but that was it. After the last lot of gigs we felt that to make ourselves a proper band that we’d make a record. It kind of brings you together really, it unites you as a team when you make a record in the studio. I knew that we’d make a good record as well because I had it in my head how I wanted it to be.
Neil “Was then album ready to go when you announced the Pledge campaign to record it?”

Rob (firmly) “No”  (they all laugh.)

Neil “Was it a leap of faith?”

Rob “It was, in a way. Pauline did some solo shows in Australia and when we came back we kind of made our minds up. The thing I liked about the Pledge campaign is that you give yourselves a deadline and if you don’t do that you would never get an album finished.”

Pauline “Once we pressed that button for the Pledge campaign at the end of January and the counter started going around like that (Pauline makes a clock hands gesture at this point) and it got to 100% quite quickly, I thought ‘Oh my God, shit’.  At that point all we had written was ‘Guilty’, we’d already done ‘The Feeling’, we’d already done ‘Sea Song’. ‘Two Places’ we’d had for quite a while but hadn’t really done anything with it and we had a few little ideas kicking about. The drummer that we had had left, so we were drummerless at that point as well. Rob had the idea of a team of people to put together, he’d already gone into asking John Maher, Fred (Purser), all of that.”

Rob “I knew exactly how we wanted it to be. I knew we wanted to work with Fred, we wanted it to be a Penetration album, we wanted to have that sound. So I sat down with Fred and we had a couple of nights talking and chatting about what the album would sound like and where we were going with it. I can hardly remember anything about recording the first album, or the second album to be honest with you, but he knew the whole process so we compared notes as to how we were going to do it.”

Pauline “It was an absolute team effort. At that point we had the basic chords for ‘Just Drifting’ but we had no lyrics. We had the basics of a song that became ‘Betrayed’. I always knew that we would come to a sticky point three quarters of the way through. John came down, he lives on the Isle of Lewis, maybe four consecutive weekends to do the drums.”

Paul “There wasn’t any panic though, I was really confident we could make a good album.”

Neil “Does it feel like a natural progression because it certainly sounds like one? It doesn’t feel like there’s a gap of 36 years.”

Steve “I’m interested in you saying that because it was always a big thing was that it was going to be ‘the next Penetration album’ .”

Pauline “We needed to retain the essence of what Penetration is. I stand back in the writing so that the guitarists or whoever can come up with the chords because that’s the way Penetration used to do it and then I shoehorn into that. You’ve got the two guitar thing going on, you’ve obviously got Rob who’s there from day one, you’ve got my voice from day one but you’ve also got a wealth of experience to draw from as well.”

Neil “I find this an interesting concept, bringing a wealth of experience to, what was on those early albums, as much about youthful exuberance as anything else.”

Pauline “Oh yes.”

Paul “I think experience can bring its own problems, because what you don’t want it to sound is contrived or planned with an eye on a certain area, but it was so natural the way that the album was made that very quickly that issue just disappeared.”

Pauline “And it unfolded as it wanted itself to. We just did whatever we thought was necessary and it didn’t matter if it fitted in that bag or that bag. We wanted to make an album, not a series of tracks, we wanted to make it a whole thing, a whole listening experience. Originally we wanted a lot of the tracks to run into each other because we didn’t want the scenario that you have these days where you have the download where you go ‘oh, I’ll have track two. I like track three’ where they never know the titles. We wanted it so that it should be listened to as a full album.”

Paul “I think that’s right, down to the fact that we thought of it as two sides as well. We were thinking of a vinyl album, the length of a vinyl album, well some of us were.”

Pauline “We wanted to make a proper album.”

Neil “If we can backtrack almost 40 years, is it true that you formed after seeing the Sex Pistols perform live?”

Pauline “I think we were already sort of formed before that, because we were practicing and we were doing complex stuff like ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘Pills’ by the New York Dolls and I think that was slightly before or around about the same time. But seeing the Sex Pistols you knew that something new was going on, you knew that that was the past and this is now. We probably started to form the band slightly before.”

Rob “Yeah, I think you’re right, although I wasn’t part of it then. I was the mate with the car.”

Neil “But it’s very obvious when listening to the original Penetration albums that you had influences that were earlier than that.”

Pauline “Oh, absolutely. I was going to see bands from the age of fourteen. I was very, very lucky.”

Neil “Where did you go to see them?”

Pauline “Mainly the City Hall, or The Mayfair or Middlesbrough Town Hall. I even travelled, I saw the New York Dolls at York University, Lou Reed at Crystal Palace Hall when I was about fifteen. I saw all the great bands that passed through, Bowie when the City Hall was three quarters full, Bowie at Sunderland Top Rank, Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel. I saw all of that early ‘70s stuff, and I mean all of it, anything that was worth seeing. Prior to the punk thing I saw Bruce Springsteen’s first gig in this country, prior to that you started to get the American stuff coming through, Patti Smith’s ‘Piss Factory’, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, those sort of independent releases, Ramones, Jonathan Richman. So that was prior to the Pistols really. I was very influenced by that New York, American scene prior to punk and I think what you got in this country was the attitude. It was like ‘we don’t give a fuck’, like ‘hey we’re young, this is our world, you lot have got it all wrong’. It just felt like something that we could claim. To me punk was about being inventive, following your own muse, doing something that was unique to you. So, yeah, I was really switched on and (to Rob) you were as well.”

Rob “Yes, from thirteen, fourteen, there was stuff we’d go to see. We’d go to the same gigs.”

Steve “I started going to gigs in the late ‘70s. I was going to gigs in Sunderland, I remember going to Sunderland Mayfair to see The Stranglers.”

Pauline “I was really lucky, I was fourteen and I had an older boyfriend who was four years older than me and he was really switched on. I was so lucky; I was young to be going out seeing all that stuff. I had very understanding parents, looking back.”

Neil “I feel that this album messes with my concept of what came next because it was always the Pauline Murray and The Invisible Girls album that came next for me, yet this new one seems to somehow fit in between.”

Rob (to Pauline) “You had that theory, didn’t you, that this is the missing link?”

Pauline “Well I actually think that. I think this album is the missing link between the third Penetration album and The Invisible Girls.”

Steve “It’s jumbled into one isn’t it? We set it up within the framework and idea of it being a Penetration album and tried to put the certain elements in place, but then all the stuff that you’ve done in the past gets thrown into the pot as well.”

Neil “So who do you find exciting musically now?

The response is a brief silence, then nervous laughter.

Pauline “Ha, a resounding silence.”

Paul “I don’t like a lot of contemporary stuff, but that said I do listen to a lot of radio 6. I hear it and there’ll be something that I’ll like. It’s almost like you know too much, like ‘well I know where that’s come from’ and for me I’d rather go back and listen to where it originated. Since Penetration split and since The Invisible Girls album we’ve had this thing called post-modernism and it’s changed everything.  And we’ve had technology and that’s changed everything. It’s a different listening experience, a whole different experience of how we take in popular culture now. I think it’s a more superficial activity, even for younger people, not just for us. I do think White Stripes made some brilliant music actually, but I don’t really go out and buy the records. It’s around and if I hear it I hear it.”

Pauline “There’s a lot of good original stuff around, there really is but it never gets out there, that’s the problem.”

Rob “There’s a lot of people from around the ‘80s that’s still making great music. Nick Cave is still making great albums, and Morrissey is still making great albums I think.”

Paul “That air of cynicism just used to go through pop music and those commercial areas but now that cynicism goes through the independent scene as well and the alternative scene, or the left-field scene and you just don’t feel there’s an air of authenticity. Look at Mumford and Sons, that hideous band, their latest album suddenly they’ve gone all electric. You know it’s a marketing issue; it’s not a creative issue. It’s like ‘well you know we’ve done that folk thing that people are starting to not really like as much, we’re a bit uncool, we’ll make the next one electric.’”

Rob “And get our hair cut!”

Paul “and you just think ‘oh, fuck off!’”

Pauline “I think people just aren’t turned on to music any more. They’ve become very distracted by what the mass people are interested in. Money, how big it is, if everybody wants to go to it, coffee table band music really. They’ve even turned on to Nick Cave now ‘oh yes, we’re going to see Nick Cave’”

Rob “Nick Cave at the Sage. Oh dear!”

Paul “The metropolitan media elite, they decide suddenly that someone like John Cooper Clarke is the nation’s favourite.  We knew that in 1977”

Rob “He’s doing nothing different to what he was doing back when there was only 200 people turning up to his gigs.”

Paul “It’s interesting because I think that people say that the music business is in trouble, and it is, but the media are more in control of the whole thing now, than they ever were when punk broke.”

Pauline “With the punk thing people took ownership of their own movement, but it was soon infiltrated and used by others.”

Rob “And there was great journalism as well.”

Pauline “You don’t really get writers like that any more, where people will analyse something. They cut and paste your press release now. You think ‘well could you not get your own angle on that, what’s the matter with you?’”

Paul “There were some writers at that time that tended to over-analyse and be pretentious but that was part of the fun of it, you could always pull them up if you thought they were going too far. Certainly that kind of analysis of music, there’s a lot of that disappeared now.”

Neil “When we lost John Peel, did we lose the last of the pioneering disc jockeys?”

Rob (as if to egg Paul on) “Go on.”

Paul “That fucker was well past his sell-by date! I think this thing about John Peel, he’s held up as some sort of hero and he wouldn’t have had a show without the music. He made a decision to start playing punk music when two months before he was playing Jethro Tull and Yes and things like that and it was really the bands that made the music.”

Neil “Was there a switch flipped that changed things from Pink Floyd to punk?”

Pauline “Oh, there was.”

Paul “There was a proper paradigm shift and that should never be forgotten. It happened within days.”

Pauline “I saw it happen before my eyes. For instance I went to see the Doctors of Madness at Middlesbrough Town Hall, and I’d been to see them quite a lot, they were a left-over from the Glam era which I loved and the Sex Pistols supported them and they made that band obsolete there and then. And that was it for that band. It was as quick as that, and a lot of those old bands were frightened by it because they knew their time was up.Young people were out there, making their mouths go and those people had had it good. Whoever hadn’t behaved themselves right were turfed out. Some people made it through, like Iggy Pop made it through, Bowie made it through, Lou Reed made it through, some people did make it through; Marc Bolan did to an extent. He embraced punk and they embraced him, but a lot of the excessive early ‘70s people were laid to waste overnight and it was definitely an immediate type of shift. You just turned your back on them, and I’d loved a lot of those bands.”

Paul “All those people who talk about when punk hit it was like they were out at sea and there was a fucking storm and the ones that knew how to sail, this is a terrible analogy isn’t it, that knew what they were doing, who were experienced and clever, they saw it out and they found calmer waters.”

Rob “A lot of people just went to ground didn’t they? Just disappeared off to Bermuda for five or six years.”

Paul “And I think history has proved that we were probably right as well.”

Pauline “Nobody can put their finger on it though. They try to analyse punk again and again. They’ve picked over it so much that there’s nothing left to analyse. But they still can’t get a handle on it.”

Rob “It was a point in time as well wasn’t it?”

Steve “I don’t think that our age can ever be recaptured though can it? The people who were being outraged were the ones who’d came through the war and were looking for an easier life and the youth were coming up and wanted to kick against this easy life that everybody had. The people in power and local politicians were people who’d been in the forces, so they were easily outraged by these kids who were bored and constrained. And you’ll never recapture that kind of outrage. There were questions in Parliament about punk rock. You’re never going to get that about any music culture again. That outrage can’t be replicated.”

Pauline “And the hippies were put in their place. All the sixties people who had pioneered for this and that had suddenly turned into the capitalists of the day.”

Paul “We had a tailor-made enemy with the hippies.”

Pauline “Never trust a hippy. Malcolm McLaren said that and no truer word was said. I will always use that as a yardstick. Never trust a hippy. I’ve found it to be very true on a lot of occasions.”

Neil “I’ve recently seen Penetration described as a ‘first wave’ punk band?”

Paul “There’s no argument that Penetration were a ‘First wave’ punk band. They played The Roxy, I think it’s very important that the single came out in 1977.”

Pauline “Musically everything comes from something else. The Pistols were very like ‘60s, Small Faces, traditional really.”

Steve “They were souped-up Mods really.”

Pauline “The music was pretty traditional when you think it was coming from something that already existed, as Jonathan Richman would have been coming from The Velvet Underground. Everything is connected; nothing is set on its own. What set The Pistols apart, because musically they were fairly conventional, was the lyrics and Johnny Rotten’s delivery of them.  And his look, his intensity.  I’d never heard anybody sing ‘God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being, she made you a moron.’ I had heard something like ‘Pretty Vacant’ previously in something like ‘Blank Generation’ but, lyrically some of the things that he was coming out with, he would have been hung, drawn and quartered in another century, uttering those words out into the open like that.”

Paul “But to them that was very natural, that wasn’t contrived either.”

Pauline “It takes a lot of courage to come out with those things when no-one’s ever said them before. I can’t think of anyone who’d said stuff like that about the establishment.”

Paul “I don’t think even they realised how inflammatory it was. I think they were just doing what they were doing; they were having fun. I think even they were taken aback.”

Pauline “What did they have to lose? What did any of us have to lose? We were all from working class backgrounds; what did any of us have to lose? Nothing really. We just saw it as a bit of fun at the time, a bit of a laugh. I didn’t think 36 years later we’d still be sat here talking about it.”

Neil “I know that you’ve played live gigs recently, but it must feel different playing to promote a new album.”

Pauline “Ooh, it’s going to be really different. We haven’t started bloody rehearsing yet and we’ve only got four weeks to go. And we have a drummer who’s in the Isle of Lewis, we can’t get him down here all the time. It’s going to be very different to the last time we went out.”

Steve “There’s a lot of tracks which were just worked out in the studio. We’ll have to re-work them out and see which tracks work best live.”

Neil “How much of the new album are you going to play live?”
Pauline “Quite a lot, I would say.”

Rob “We’ve sort of worked out a set list and it includes most of the new album.”

Neil “Was it important to you to have a ‘physical’ release?”

Rob “The record buying public is going back to physical purchases. This was mixed in a studio to be listened to on a hi-fi system.”

Neil “It’s true that most people now don’t listen to music on particularly good systems.”

Steve “They listen to it on shit! Most modern music sounds shit. Most modern music players sound shit. MP3s are shit, by their nature. It nearly all sounds shit and it’s on shit players everywhere you go.”

Paul “And we asked Vaughan Oliver to design the sleeve as well, because it’s a whole physical package and we wanted that quality and that kind of experience.”

Steve “It’s the people who wanted the physical package who enabled this album financially.”

Rob “The Pledge campaign didn’t have a ‘download only’ option, we made sure it didn’t. It was always going to available physically, on CD, or, if you buy the vinyl you get a download code. It was never intended to have just a download option.”

At this point I thank the group and wish them good luck with the album’s release.

Paul “We know it’s a great record so any criticism is like water off a duck’s back. You’re always going to get that. The most frustrating thing to me would be to be ignored. It’s better to be hated than ignored. I think that quiet confidence that we all had throughout it is key.”

Rob “And the live gigs are going to be more exciting for us because this adds an extra element playing brand new songs. It’s just going to add to the tension, to the excitement for us.”

Paul “We’re not idiots; we’ve all been to see bands where we’ve sat through the new stuff, just waiting for the classics. We know that, but we think that at least 50% of the set is going to be new stuff because we’re excited about playing it. That will come across. I think it will also help the old material as well. I’m just ready to start stuff now, my fingers are itching.”

Pauline “We want as many people to hear it as possible because it’s all done for the right reasons.”

Please don't forget that you can download and read 'The Great Cassette Experiment' and 'Writing About Music' from Amazon and Google Play Books. 

Archive Interview - Scorpio (interviewed April 2016)

The history of Scorpio, Mele Mel (only one ‘l’ in ‘Mele’ now, apparently), Grandmaster Flash and the rest of The Furious Five is a complicated one. In many ways it’s easier to just accept that the past is the past and glory in the news that there is a future for the hip-hop trailblazers. I chatted to Scorpio, an original member of The Furious Five recently and he started, as all interviews should but few do, with a full introduction;

“First I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Scorpio from the original rap group Grandmaster Flash, Furious Five and now me and my partner Mele Mel travel the world, we go out as Grandmaster’s Furious Five featuring Mele Mel and Scorpio. I want to start by saying ‘respect to the UK’. We love the UK. If I had to live any other place besides where I live it would definitely be the UK. We love coming over there. The tour’s gonna be incredible, we’re touring the whole countryside, up and down, with the original Sugarhill Gang, Wonder Mike and Master Gee and Hendogg, so we’re gonna have a great time. It’s the original essence of true hip-hop from our era and it’s gonna be nothing but a party all through the UK.”

I tell Scorpio that when I first heard ‘Wheels of Steel’, ‘The Message’, ‘White Lines’, ‘Scorpio’ and ‘Step Off’ it opened up a window onto a completely different world for me. We continue by discussing the legacy of hip-hop, and specifically Scorpio and Mele Mel’s part in making it the worldwide phenomenon that it is today.

“I think that the influence of hip-hop is even stronger today because it has so many social media outlets, it can spring across all borders, all barriers, all languages. We go to places all over the planet where people can barely speak our language but they can sing our songs, lyric for lyric. On the big picture, hip-hop, besides just being a great music and a great feeling, helps so much with racism, because us kids coming from The Bronx would’ve never interacted with different people but because of the love of the music we all have a common ground and once you stand on that common ground you really realise that you got more in common than you don’t. When we travel all over the world, most of the people that we play for are not the people of our colour, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s the unseen part of hip-hop that people never talk about. Everybody grow up with stereotypes ‘these people are like that’ or ‘those people are like this’ but when you meet on the common ground of music you see most of that stuff that they preach about other people being just a bunch of crap. We definitely see our influence everywhere we go. When I look at television, 70% of the commercials got hip-hop in it, rap in it. All of that is fruit from our original tree. When I drive my car, I stop at a light and look over at a person who doesn’t know me, but they’re playing hip-hop. If I go on vacation, if I go to any place on the planet I can see something of my work that we created in The Bronx and it’s all over the planet now. A lot of the time a lot of people say ‘You all should be rich; you should have what they have’. Of course, like anybody else we would love to have the economic gratification, but we are rich. What we did and what we brought to the planet you can’t really put a price tag on that. I know our worth, and you can’t even put a dollar on it. ”

The boys are touring to promote their new single, ‘Some Kind of Sorry’, so I ask Scorpio whether they have more new material.

“Oh yes, we gotta whole stack of new material just ready to go. We have a whole album ready to go, it’s already cut, it’s already mixed, it’s already mastered. Our first single is being released on May 27th, and we’re having our release party May 28th in Manchester and coming to Newcastle Riverside on June 5th. This tour is really all about the original Sugarhill Gang getting their name back and performing under that name but it’s also gonna incorporate our release for our record on that tour.”

At this point our conversation turns to the new stars of rap and hip-hop.

“With all due respect I really used to like Kanye’s earlier stuff, I think he was brilliant in the songs and the concepts. I really take my hat off to him because that was part of our original blueprint of hip-hop. And Kendrick is just bringing that pure-hip-hop back. When you look at him he ain’t walking around with no big chains, no big rings, no big nothing, it’s just pure hip-hop. He’s probably the closest reminder of when we first started. I know when he’s rapping, when he’s doing what he’s doing, it’s coming from a pure place, he ain’t trying to fluff it up with a whole bunch of other stuff around him, the biggest diamond, the biggest chains, it’s about his craft and I really respect him for that. He’s sticking to the original form more than anybody who’s out there.”

I ask Scorpio who influenced him and Mele Mel back in The Bronx.

“Our only influence, we would have to say, would be Kool Herc. He was a DJ outta The Bronx who actually came before us and he and his crew was the people that we used to look up to, go to their parties and check out what they was doing. It was because of him that made us want to do what we do. Just like we was the inspiration to a lot of other people, he was our inspiration, even though he didn’t like us!”

Then we discuss hip-hop’s earliest days.

“If you was ever to go and pull up old pictures of The Bronx it looked like a third world country. Most of the buildings was burnt out, a lot of gangs, dope deals, different things like that and out of that concrete grew a rose and that rose turned out to be hip-hop. We weren’t taking trips to Beverley Hills and having stuff to compare it to, that’s all we seen. Certain things that was on TV, certain lifestyles that was on TV that was like a fantasy, not reality. Because we was in that position and because we wasn’t privileged, because we didn’t have the luxury of going to fancy hockey games or things like that we had to make something with our time and that’s what hip-hop was. Like a rose from the concrete.”
“It was a whole movement, it was almost like a big circus where you have everything, you got the elephants, you got the tigers, you got people flipping and that was hip-hop. And it was in one place, The Bronx. For a spot like The Bronx to birth something that explosive is still incredible. You know you’ll always have a lot of people saying it came from this and that, and that they had this and they had that, but it truly, truly started in The Bronx. I have to say that, not because I’m a Bronx cat, but because that’s just a fact. Nobody else was playing hip-hop and nobody definitely wasn’t rhyming because Mele Mel and Kidd Creole was the ones to really start rhyming on beats.”

Finally, Scorpio signs off as politely as he started.

“I want to thank all our UK fans, we can’t wait, we gonna be over there May 26th, so look out, we gonna have a great time.”

Please don't forget that you can download and read 'The Great Cassette Experiment' and 'Writing About Music' from Amazon and Google Play Books.