Thirty years in the business – the David Gedge interview

In Touch; The Wedding Present, 2014 (Photo: http://www.scopitones.co.uk/)

In Touch; The Wedding Present, 2014 (Photo: http://www.scopitones.co.uk/)

It’s never easy preparing to interview someone whose music has played such a big part of your life. It was a similar tale with my recent That Petrol Emotion three-parter. Sometimes you know too much and overlook the obvious questions.

By the time I felt I was ready for David Gedge, the inspiration and main-man behind The Wedding Present and Cinerama, I realised most of my questions were really just statements. There wasn’t a great deal he could get his teeth into.

I re-drafted a few times before heading across the Pennines for a pre-gig meet in West Yorkshire, and when I arrived it didn’t help that I couldn’t properly see my notes, the light poor to the side of the Hebden Bridge Trades Club dance-floor where David was set up.

Then there was an added dilemma, with support act The Treated set to sound-check. As it was we managed half an hour before we got to shouting at each other, and by then I was more or less done, albeit going round the houses with my quizzing.

Hopefully it works though, and David was – as I suspected – always forthcoming and never less than the true pro and top bloke he’s always appeared to be.

We met on a hot evening in late July, before the first of two consecutive Weddoes dates at the Trades Club, with The Boy Gedge (© John Peel) on a high after the previous evening at one of his favourite venues, Sheffield’s Leadmill.

It was his 18th show at the Leadmill, and this would be The Wedding Present’s first at the Trades Club in 20 years, which quickly took us on to the comprehensive gig list on David’s website, this blogger putting a spanner in the works by suggesting he’d missed at least one.

To The Bridge: The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, with on-loan Sam, left, joining David, centre, on guitar

To The Bridge: The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, with on-loan Sam, left, joining David, centre, on guitar

I was referring to a slight gap in the itinerary which should have included the Weddoes’ 1987 assault on Glastonbury. David wasn’t convinced I had the right year, but reached for his notebook all the same, and I’ve since noticed it’s now on the list.

That was one of four TWP gigs I saw that year – also including my first at Reading Majestic in late February and two more at the University of London Union, the second marking the launch of seminal debut LP George Best.

Great days, of course, and better described in an earlier appreciation of the band on this blog, with a link here.

Whether challenging David on his database was the best way to start this interview is debatable. He had after all described himself as ‘quite anal’ in respect of band stats. But once I got that out of the way I felt we could properly start, after a brief chat about those formative dates.

“I kept a lot of records from those early days, with scrapbooks of all the reviews, but didn’t really list all the concerts, so had to go back through old diaries. Sometimes I wrote in a venue we were offered but might not have played in the end.”

That took me on to what should have been my first TWP outing, at Fetcham Riverside Club in Surrey in July, 1986, the night we showed up to find a hand-written note from the band apologising that the venue had double-booked them, deciding to pull out accordingly.

“It wasn’t us – it was them! We turned up for the sound-check and they said, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Were there a few nights like that?

“No, that was the only one, thankfully.”

I’m sure it all must run together in the mind, though, keeping track of those gigs.

“It is quite hard to remember, but now I’m more meticulous.”

Is the Trades Club a venue you know well from over the years? It’s not too far from your old Leeds Uni patch, or even your youth in Middleton.

“I came to Hebden Bridge here loads of times as a kid too, but think the last time was when we last played the Trades Club. I used to cycle here from Manchester. A bit of a trek.”

Green Scene: David Gedge in action at Hebden Bridge Trades Club

Green Scene: David Gedge in action at Hebden Bridge Trades Club

You spent a fair bit of time in Yorkshire, so it must all be pretty familiar.

“I lived in student accommodation in Leeds while at university, and then bought a house in Otley.”

David’s become an adopted Southerner since, having lived away from the North for the last 10 years or so, the last couple of those in Brighton. Does he miss Yorkshire?

“I do. It’s a very beautiful part of the world and it’s nice to be in a place where people talk like me! There’s a cultural thing too – it feels like you’ve come home to a certain extent. All the same, I don’t miss the weather.”

I mention how it had proved a cracking summer, but to a bloke fresh from mixing tracks in southern Spain for a new Cinerama album and having visited America again this year, perhaps that didn’t wash.

So when’s that new Cinerama album out?

“To be honest, that’s not a priority because I’m busy doing quite a lot of other stuff, so it’s been more like a side-project that we fit in as and when we get the time.

“We did the recording in Los Angeles in January, yet last week was the first time our schedules allowed us a week to mix it.

“Now I’m looking at the mastering and the artwork, and imagining next Spring.”

You seem to be busy gearing up instead for the Edsel Records TWP reissues at the moment.

“That’s it, and there’s also another Cinerama album – a third compilation featuring various b-sides and so on, which has also been a long time in the pipeline.”

As someone earning less money now than all the time you’ve been making records, the initial response to news of the Edsel deluxe editions was ‘Not more Weddoes product I’ve got to buy!’ So you better give me the sales pitch and tell me what’s different this time.

Ultimate Product: The latest TWP re-packages are on their way

Ultimate Product: The latest TWP re-packages are on their way

“Well, they are pretty cheap! It’s the definitive Wedding Present product after all, with everything you can get your hands on – all the albums, extra tracks, John Peel and other radio sessions, all the videos and live tracks.

“For each release there’s three CDs and loads of sleeve notes.

“Actually, we first had a meeting about this over a year ago when Demon and Edsel Records pitched the idea to me.

“They were saying what a fantastic idea it was. But while they were all raving, I was just thinking, ‘This is so much work!’

“It sounds weird, but I’m the only one who can do it. Everyone else chips in and helps but sometimes people will get it wrong and I’ll step in and put them right, say ‘No, that track was not on that album’, and so on.

“Then I’m being asked, ‘David, have you got the master-tape for this Swedish radio session?’ So I’ll go to my storage unit, where I’ve got tons of boxes …”

I imagine you’re not too good at delegating.

“Well, as I say, I’m very meticulous, and there are so many times where you just say, ‘You can go and find it’, and they’ll come back with the wrong thing. So I’ll just do it myself. But it takes time.

“So I’ve got mixed feelings about it really, and it’s been quite stressful … but it’s going to be great!”

Present Arms: David and Katharine at the Trades Club

Present Arms: David and Katharine at the Trades Club

That took us on to Watusi, the subject of the band’s forthcoming 20th anniversary tour. In fact, I pointed out how I was listening to the album – one that met a mixed response from Weddoes fans, supposedly – while driving over the moors from Lancashire, and how it remains a bit of a favourite.

“Well, Watusi’s not actually been out before, as it got deleted fairly quickly first time around.

“It’s one of my favourite albums actually, but we left Island pretty soon afterwards, so they didn’t bother re-pressing it.”

Can you understand all this talk of that being your ‘Marmite’ album? I don’t get that – what’s not to love?

“Well, it did seem to alienate a lot of people …”

Maybe you were just ahead of your time in certain respects with that lo-fi Seattle underground sound.

“I just think a certain type of fan expects that high-velocity loud guitar, jangly, with Steve Albini distortion, and it’s obviously a long way from that.

“With some of the other albums they think. ‘I quite like that’, but with Watusi they just didn’t understand what we were doing, asking why there’s piano and acoustic guitars on it. I think really big fans like it, but …”

Is it just that you like Marmite, perhaps?

David laughs. “Yeah, I love Marmite!”

Either way, by the time of the Hebden Bridge gig, David was already filtering some of the songs from Watusi into his live set, in readiness for the autumn tour.

I go on to confess that I was singing along – way too loud – to Click Click on the way over.

“You see, I love that song! I’m not blowing my own trumpet but it’s a great idea to have that layered vocal. It just sounds great, and I get shivers down the spine when we do that.”

This whole LP anniversary malarkey has been going on a while, and it seems an age since the big countdown by the on-stage bunny for the George Best celebration gig, a big moment for me back in my days seeing you at the Hop & Grape in Manchester.

The Boy Gedge: Live in Hebden Bridge

The Boy Gedge: David Gedge, live in Hebden Bridge, flanked by Charles Layton and Katharine Wallinger

Now you’re up to Watusi. Is there a danger of you being all anniversary’d out?

“Yeah. To be honest, I’m thinking … if we’re doing Watusi this year, then we’ll do Saturnalia next, but I’m not really sure if I want to go on to that at this point.

“We don’t want to be known as this band that plays their old albums all the time, even though I do actually like the concept.

“Half of me wants to do it, the other half wants to get away from all that.”

Where do you draw the line? Besides, there’s another big anniversary coming up next year –it being 30 years since Go Out and Get ‘Em Boy started The Wedding Present recording story.

“True. The longer you go, the more anniversaries there will be. And someone asked the other day what we’re going to do with the Cinerama anniversaries!”

On the band’s second night at Hebden Bridge, they were set to play the automobile-themed Mini album in full, the six-track release between Watusi and Saturnalia.

Has David ever thought of expanding that album with a few more car-related songs? Perhaps you could call it Maxi.

David laughs at this, but clearly it’s not on the cards.

“I did think I was stretching it a little with that. They’re not really car songs anyway, to be fair.”

Bass Instinct: Katharine Wallinger in action at the Trades Club

Bass Instinct: Katharine Wallinger in action at the Trades Club

Its been another busy year for David, the Hebden Bridge gigs followed by appearances at Camp Bestival, his own curated festival in Brighton, At the Edge of the Sea, which started back in 2009, the re-release project, the Cinerama work, then November’s Watusi 20th anniversary tour, with plenty more live dates. All go, eh?

“There is a little time off though. Well, when I say time off, that’s when we’re actually writing new songs, hopefully.”

Is there plenty of new material in the offing?

“Yeah, loads, but again it’s just finding the time. This was supposed to be a quiet year! We knew about the reissues but I thought we’d do that and a few festivals, then write lots of songs. But those gaps soon filled up with the Cinerama work.

“I can’t really blame anyone but myself. But I want to get back to writing songs again now.”

You’ve never really stood still over the years – maybe that’s why you’ve survived while so many other mid-’80s contemporaries fell by the wayside.

For example, rather than write George Best part two back in 1988 you came up with Bizarro, then moved on again with Seamonsters.

Then there was the Ukrainian project, the Cinerama albums, the year of hit singles, Watusi, Mini, and so on – all the way through to Valentina and beyond.

We never really know what we’re going to get next, but normally end up loving it all the same. Not bad for a band whose songs supposedly ‘all sound the same’.

“I think some people appreciate it but at the same time you do lose fans, and there’s a certain section of the audience who don’t want to change.

download (15)“I’ve compared it in the past to breakfast cereals, how if you buy Kellogg’s Corn Flakes you don’t expect them to taste like Weetabix.

“Possibly, we’d have become more commercially successful had we established a certain formula, like Oasis or REM. You knew what you were getting with them.

“But in the Wedding Present, we’ve always deliberately set out to change what we do – hence Cinerama, The Ukrainians, and all that.

“And once you’ve done an album one way, my personal feeling is ‘what else can we do?’ rather than ‘let’s do that again!’”

Similarly, we quickly realised it wasn’t just a case of the Weddoes for the lads, and Cinerama for the couples. The lines were increasingly blurred.

Sometimes I get the feeling both sets of songs would cross over fairly easily. And by the time of the third and fourth Cinerama albums, those guitars had definitely encroached!

“Well, again it was like a natural progression really. I started Cinerama on my own really and was trying to get away from the guitar really.

“But then my chief co-writer Simon Cleave came in and was a guitar player, and we shared that love of the twangy guitar.

“So in time it became more like The Wedding Present. I didn’t really plan it like that, but these things happen sometimes.”

You’ve always struck me as fiercely independent, someone who knows what he wants and won’t settle for second-best.

Not a bad philosophy in what appears to have become an increasingly cut-throat business. Is that why you’re still out there?

“Well, there are two ways of doing it. You either play the game a little bit more, something that might lead to more commercial success, or you can just be a bit more immune to all that.

“Everyone’s got to find their own comfort level. I’m quite happy with the success I’ve had, given that I know I’ve not been forced into doing anything, and not ruled by business people asking me to change this and that.”

Valentina Days: From the left - Pepe le Moko, David Gedge, Charles Layton, Graeme Ramsay (Photo: http://www.scopitones.co.uk/)

Valentina Days: From the left – Pepe le Moko, David Gedge, Charles Layton, Graeme Ramsay (Photo: http://www.scopitones.co.uk/)

It soon became clear that this was your band, rather than a collective. Or at least that’s the perception.

“Well, you say that, but I don’t think it is really. I can see why people would think that, and I’m obviously the main songwriter and the person who gets interviewed, but it’s always been a bit more democratic than that.

“I’ve always said that the sound of The Wedding Present is the sound of the people in the band at that time. I think that’s one reason why we have changed over the albums, with totally different styles and influences.”

That said, it doesn’t seem to be a job for life, being in the Wedding Present … unless you’re David Gedge.

“Yeah … I suppose so. But that’s just the way it’s happened really.”

In Mark Hodkinson’s 1990 biography of the band, Thank Yer, Very Glad, there’s quite a bit about Shaun Charman’s sacking, the first of many departures over the years, and I guess perhaps the one that went down least well.

In fact, sometimes I get the feeling that you introducing a new band member on stage is part of your live set.

51a4-3u7paL._SY300_“It’s different every time really, because people come and go for different reasons. Some just decide they’ve had enough, some aren’t fitting in, some are missing being away from home, so it’s hard to generalise.

“With Shaun, it sounded like there was a lot of animosity but (a) we were a lot younger then, 20-somethings squabbling about stuff, and (b) Shaun’s one of my best friends now. He lives in Brighton, so of all the ex-band members he’s the one I see most of all.

“Sometimes it’s just not meant to be, and he would probably accept that now, even though he didn’t want to get kicked out of the band.”

‘You should always keep in touch with your friends’, as someone wise once said.

I haven’t got time to go through all those old members, but do you ever hear from fellow originals members Keith Gregory and Pete Solowka?

“Keith lives in Australia, so that makes it a bit difficult. But I don’t see any of them to be honest, apart from Shaun, but primarily because I’m not in the country much myself.

“Being in this career, if you like, it’s hard to maintain a social network, because you just don’t have the time.

“That’s one of the reasons people leave. At first they might think, ‘Great, I get to travel the world, play music and make records’. It’s exciting. But at the same time you can be away for nine months of the year.”

I was thinking back to those early days and your ‘Status Quo – 25 years in the business’ homage with Pete during Take Me, on the Bizarro tour. I hate to point it out, but you’re up to nearly 30 years in the business yourself now, aren’t you?

67254276-the-wedding-prese

Ukrainian Days: TWP’s Eastern European rebirth, with Peter Solowka a central figure

“Well, funny you should say that, because another band member – Darren Bugg – was at Sheffield last night, and he mentioned that.

“It was never a criticism of Status Quo though, but more of a celebration if it, albeit a jokey one. And now we’re in exactly the same position, the joke’s on me!”

A quick jot-up suggests 17 full members over the years plus the four of you currently involved. Then there’s Sally and the many others on the Cinerama side of the operation.

I always loved the ‘Bramley, Gateshead, Hassocks, Middleton’ logo in the early days. Ever wish you’d kept that up through all the line-ups? Maybe you could have created a graphic for the stage that flicks through all the permutations.

“That would be an interesting geographical tool … and a visual one.”

It would be very educational too. I could see people asking, ‘where the hell’s Hassocks?’

“It was interesting that some people actually thought we had offices in all those places! We’d have people getting in touch, saying, I’m actually quite close to your Hassocks office, and …”

All those line-up changes suggest this affable bloke we hear chatting between songs or to fans before and after gigs has a harder streak – are you a Gordon Ramsay character behind the scenes? Are you a secret tyrant?

torino-5227ab64e2d67“No.”

Are you still just a bit shy then?

“I think I’m that. I’m obviously the leader, but it’s definitely not a dictatorship, by any stretch of the imagination. And I’d be a bit stupid to try and insist on that.

“We definitely benefit from individuals coming in and changing the dynamics of the group, so I kind of thrive on that.

“I do feel like I’ve been in about six different bands over the years, and think that’s a good thing. I don’t want this to be The David Gedge Band.

“That was never my intention, even with Cinerama. That was obviously a solo project at first, and people said, ‘Just call it David Gedge’. But no, again I just wanted it to be a band and to have people involved, the way it went really.”

Have The Lost Pandas – the band featuring David and Keith that preceded the Weddoes – been found yet? I believe the other two members went to New York. Do you think there will be a time when you let the world hear those early recordings?

“I’ve not decided about that, because in some ways there’s a lot of interest from the fans. On the other hand, it’s not The Wedding Present.

“It’s me learning how to be in a band, really. I’m not sure the standard’s too great, but I think one day I should go back and get all the tapes out and see if there’s enough musical value in it.”

The story of The Lost Pandas is also covered in the comic David’s working on, another of his many side-lines. Is that the closest he’ll get to an autobiography?

“Well, that’s my plan, because I don’t really want to do an autobiography. To me, that seems a little bit pompous. Who wants to read about my life?

“At the same time, I’m a massive comic book fan and really enjoy that aspect. It’s not biographical so much as little stories covering the history, and just seems more appropriate to me for some reason.

“Don’t get me wrong, if some publisher offers me a million pounds, I’d probably write an autobiography! But I’m not planning to.”

First Footing: The debut release from The Wedding Present, from 1986

First Footing: The debut release from The Wedding Present, from 1986

It’s odd to think that your old friend and broadcasting hero John Peel would have been 75 at the end of August. In that Mark Hodkinson book you said you quite liked the idea of replacing him on the nation’s airwaves one day. There’s been a fair bit of DJ-ing for you since. Still fancy the job?

“I think I’d definitely be interested in doing that, but again it’s just time. There’s a radio station in Brighton where I’ve been told, ‘Anytime you want a show, come and do it down here, and we’ll sort it out.’”

There seem to be a lot more internet shows as well now, broadcasting from America or to America and the world over.

“Well that’s it, you can do a little radio show on a small station in Brighton and get thousands of listeners across the world, which in some ways I’d love to do.

“At the same time I know if I did do it, I’d want to do it really well, and an hour show would take at least a day a week to prepare, choose my music, make sure it works, and so on.

“That would just detract from all the other things I do. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, really. If I was three people I could do all these things, but it’s just kind of juggling stuff really.”

It’s now been almost 10 years since John’s passing, with quite a few commemorative gigs based around that in recent times. Then there are the C86 anniversary events and recent expanded CD reissue. There’s certainly a taste for indie nostalgia at present.

“I’ve never actually done any of those events. It’s always something where we’ve been invited to play but have always been unavailable because of other commitments.

“But the C86 project was an interesting celebration, not least as it was said it was marking a scene that wasn’t really a scene. I can see that in a way.”

69a7bf2e03ec4c9a46da06e9fcf3bca0Then there was the BBC Big Band Celebration project in 2001, and what with that, the annual At the Edge of the Sea festivals, the Scopitones label and other releases, the DJ-ing, the comic book biographies, and the two bands on the go, you remain a busy man. Does that just keep it all fresh for you?

“It’s not so much that as the fact that I just have all these ideas, and like to see them all to fruition!”

At this point the support band start sound-checking and we can hardly hear each other, but I just add one more question. On behalf of my friend Collette, an ex-Gedge gig regular along with her hubby Jon – a fellow frequent flyer in our Hop and Grape era – I ask David ‘whether he’s EVER been lucky in love’.

“Of course I have! It’s not all doom and gloom!”

I thought that might be the case, but suggested that if he’d poured all those positive moments into his songs The Wedding Present might have sounded more like The Lighthouse Family instead.

David laughs at this, albeit over the sound of The Treated bass player, Stephanie, testing her levels.

But who knows, maybe he’ll reflect on that, and the Weddoes will incorporate Lifted in their set pretty soon. I think Radio 2’s Ken Bruce might appreciate that. And who knows, maybe the subsequent airplay will open up a whole new market.

If you missed it first time around, there’s a review of The Wedding Present at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on this blog, with a link here

For more about the Edsel Records deluxe version repackaging of classic TWP material, and the very latest from the world of David Gedge, head to the Scopitones website here

Further details of the Watusi anniversary tour in November – preceded by a live Marc Riley session for BBC Radio 6 and including dates in England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium and France – can be found on the same website.

* With thanks to David Gedge for his time, Mal Campbell at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club, Mike Middleton for acting as my Happy Valley go-between, and Tee H for the Trades Club live pics. Much obliged.

 

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Beyond the fringe – the Roger McGuinn interview

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Guitar Hero: Roger McGuinn is all set for his latest UK tour

I feel those of us who spent our teenage years watching guitar bands owe something of a debt to Roger McGuinn.

My arrival on the London gig circuit properly came in the mid-’80s, amid a plethora (or a plectra, maybe?) of ‘jingle-jangle’ indie bands. Some stood the test of time, others soon foundered, but it was a healthy scene all the same.

There were a host of influences offered up, and alongside those frequent Velvet Underground mentions there was also a nod to The Byrds.

The Long Ryders were part of the stateside variation on the theme – on the so-called Paisley Underground scene – that caught my imagination, and pretty soon Sid Griffin’s band led me to investigate further the work of McGuinn’s outfit.

I already liked radio staple Mr Tambourine Man, but there were many more great songs I was soon switched on to.

The inspiration behind the band was even-name-checked in Orange Juice’s Consolation Prize, Edwyn Collins’ glorious take on unrequited love informing us:

“I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn’s, I was hoping to impress.

So frightfully camp, it made you laugh, tomorrow I’ll buy myself a dress (how ludicrous)”

6100XXBiqJLI soon shelled out for the 1985 CBS vinyl reissue of their 1967 11-track Greatest Hits, comprising some of the bigger numbers from those first four albums, and was hooked.

A 20-track Columbia CD compilation followed that into my collection in the early ’90s, culled from a new boxed set.

And in more recent times came the shabbily-packaged original album classics five-CD box featured material up to the country-tinged The Notorious Byrd Brothers.

From that you’ll gather I’m no completist, but this is still a band that mean a lot to me, from those glorious harmonies to the Rickenbacker sound that triumphantly announced the arrival of folk-rock.

And although I value Bob Dylan as a songwriter and have a great love for the albums he made when he went electric – notably 1965/66 offerings Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – The Byrds’ covers spoke more to me.

Now you know where I’m coming from I’ll carry on, and while – admittedly – I haven’t studied Roger’s solo output greatly, he remains something of a musical hero.

And I’m pleased to say he’s still hard at it all these years on, not least through his work with the Folk Den project these past 20 years, recording a different folk song each month.

Of course, he was plain Jim McGuinn before he was Roger, his adopted name coming out of a flirtation with Subud spiritualism.

Word has it that he changed his name in 1967 after Subud’s founder told him it would better ‘vibrate with the universe’.

Apparently, he was given an ‘R’ and asked to send back 10 names starting with that letter. A fascination with airplanes, gadgets and all things science fiction ensured his list included names like Rocket, Retro and Ramjet, but it was the term used during two-way radio conversations in aviation that won out. Roger that. By the late ’70s, Roger and his new wife Camilla had turned to Christianity, something that still looms large in his life. But the name stuck.

Sea Fare: Roger's 2011 collection of sea shanties, CCD, a further twist on his folk   appreciation

Sea Fare: Roger’s 2011 collection of sea shanties, CCD, a further twist on his folk appreciation

And this American guitar icon who fused folk and 1960s beat music with the help of his trusty 12-string is now back visiting the UK, giving me an excuse to catch up with him while publicising two North-West dates this November.

I was still on my holiday at the time of his press commitments, and accordingly had to make the call to his temporary London base from my big sister’s house down on the Surrey/Hants border. But it was worth the diversion.

As it turned out, the 72-year-old was not a big talker. At least it seemed that way. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable having someone talk so fervently about those mid-’60s glory days. It’s all a long time ago now, after all.

But while succinct and rarely opening the door to introspection, he was nothing short of polite, courteous, helpful and honest.

Chicago-born Roger – who along with Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, David Crosby and Chris Hillman helped open up a new world of musical possibilities with The Byrds – was no doubt a busy man when I caught up with him.

With just a short time-frame available, it proved something of a whistle-stop Q&A. But we covered a fair bit of ground, and a learned a little more along the way.

Roger6I started at the beginning, back to his Illinois roots, asking if writing – music and words – was always a passion, not least as his parents had journalism backgrounds.

Furthermore, to this day he contributes to literacy charities – something he clearly feels strongly about.

“Yes, I tour with the Rock Bottom Remainders sometimes, doing charity work for literacy. They’re award-winning authors who’ve always wanted to be in a rock band.

“They get their dream come true, and I get to play with them and hang out. And it’s a pleasure to be with them and be in their company – they’re all so bright and witty.”

Incidentally, it’s quite a line-up too, past and present members including Stephen King, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Matt Groening, Greg Iles and Maya Angelou, while fellow guests have included Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon.

So was that enjoyment of books and music around you while you grew up in Chicago?

“Yes, my parents were very much into that, and all their friends were in the arts and theatre. When I decided to become a professional musician they were all for it.”

I gather you heard Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel when it came out, and something clicked.

Heartbreak

Lightbulb Moment: Roger heard Elvis, and everything changed

“Exactly. I had a transistor radio – like the smart-phone of its day back in the ’50s – and heard Elvis come over on that. It was what made me want to play music.”

In fact, Elvis returned the compliment between songs on his NBC TV Comeback Special in 1968, talking about the modern bands he appreciated, name-checking ‘The Beatles and The Beards’. And who am I to correct The King?

Has Roger ever contemplated what he might done with his life if it wasn’t for your music?

“Well, I was interested in broadcasting, so I might have become a broadcaster or technician, something like that.”

Having grown up with country music and rock ‘n’roll, then discovering folk music, Roger perfected his guitar skills and played five-string banjo in the late ‘50s.

In fact, when one of his folk heroes passed away at the turn of the year, Roger remarked: “Pete Seeger was the person who inspired me to play five-string banjo, 12-string guitar and to achieve my life long dream of becoming a troubadour.

“It was his guitar and banjo style that I carried over into the instrumental sound of the Byrds.”

Roger – then known as Jim – made his name on the folk circuit and moved to California, where his big break soon followed.

The_Byrds-Mr_Tambourine_Man-Frontal

First Footing: The Byrds’ debut album

So was that West Coast move what you needed? It was certainly an exciting era. And was meeting fellow Byrd Gene Clark a big turning point?

“Yeah, it was serendipitous. I was living in Greenwich Village and working in the Brill Building, a studio musician at night. Once I got the gig in California, everything kind of fell together.”

It was work with singer, songwriter and actor Bobby Darin that opened that door, with Roger taken on as a writer alongside the likes of Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

Something of that story was told a while ago in a BBC 4 documentary, Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, concentrating on Carole King and James Taylor but also including contributions from Roger McGuinn and David Crosby.

As it was, Roger soon discovered the music of a certain Liverpool band – and applied this new spin on all he’d learned from the folk circuit, with the help of his fellow band-mates.

How important do you think it was that you had that ‘apprenticeship’, playing in bands and writing for people like Bobby Darin?

“The Brill Building was a great foundation, for having the discipline to know how to write songs properly.”

The_Byrds_LogoYou paid your dues too. It didn’t just happen overnight. Did that competitive atmosphere help you raise your game, creatively?

“I think so – there’s a saying that as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another, and that was definitely true in the Brill Building.”

It’s now 50 years since The Byrds formed. Are those early band days still fresh? Only the music certainly remains so.

“It is still fresh, and I have fond memories of getting The Byrds together. It was sort of organically grown, with Gene Clark and David Crosby then Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman joining.

“Then we got a record deal, and it was all sort of magical. We went from literally starving on the streets to number one in the charts.”

Before I called Roger, I was playing The Byrds’ She Don’t Care About Time, something written two years before I was born but a track that really resonates.

For me, it works in the same way that perhaps The Beatles’ Rain – released a year later – does. Both were mere b-sides, yet so evocative of that special mid-‘60s era. And I think Roger agrees.

“I always loved She Don’t Care About Time, I thought that was one of Gene’s best compositions. I have fond memories of recording it too – because George Harrison was in the studio when we put that together.”

Turn-Turn-TurnThat was new to me at the time, although when I looked back at the sleevenotes for second Byrds LP Turn! Turn! Turn! I saw that George Harrison and Paul McCartney’s visit to the recording studio was mentioned.

You have such a wealth of material you worked on over the years. Is there an album or track you’re most proud of?

“Well, I always liked Turn! Turn! Turn! I love the melody and it’s sort of a reassuring text.”

That was a Pete Seeger cover of course, The Byrds’ powerful version of his inspirational take on words from the Book of Ecclesiastes, serving as another nod to Roger’s religious beliefs.

The original band, after a few fall-outs over the years in between, put aside their differences to appear together at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for their induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 – what turned out o be their first outing as a five-piece in 18 years.

They performed Turn! Turn! Turn! then Mr Tambourine Man and I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better. But as it turned out, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke had both died by the time 1993 was out.

Does Roger see anything of fellow surviving band-mates David Crosby or Chris Hillman these days?

“No, but you’re calling on David’s 73rd birthday, and I plan to email him, wish him a happy birthday.”

the-byrds-fifth-dimensionThis coming UK tour includes dates in Liverpool and Manchester – my excuse for speaking to Roger – and I put it to him that he’d already hinted that North-West England’s musical legacy was important to his work.

“Absolutely, and the Mersey Beat prompted The Byrds to make Mr Tambourine Man what it was. Before that it was in folky two-four time – so we borrowed that beat!”

America may have shown the way as a nation with the Blues, Elvis and all that, but the UK then took the initiative on through bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Did that drive you on?

“Oh yeah! You could see the influences of Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers in The Beatles, and all kinds of influences. But they blended them together in such a unique way, and we just loved it.”

I always felt you made Bob Dylan’s songs sound even better – from Mr Tambourine Man through to My Back Pages. Are you proud of that legacy?

“Well, yeah. It was definitely a time to experiment, and mixing Bob Dylan’s lyrics with a rock’n’roll beat was a real pleasure to do.

“I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but it’s certainly different! It also made it more commercial, I guess.”

The_Byrds-Younger_Than_Yesterday-FrontalAre you still in touch with the former Robert Zimmerman?

“I haven’t seen Bob in a long time. He’s always on the road, and …”

Roger tails off at that point, and after a brief lull I move on to how I felt various indie guitar bands from the ’80s onwards still acknowledge a debt to him. So is it nice to still be properly appreciated?

“It’s a very nice feeling.”

Talent goes with hard work though, and I’m sure you spend a lot of unsocial hours perfecting your guitar craft. Do you still have to keep your hand in?

“I do. I practise an hour a day.”

The Byrds, by then with Gram Parsons on board, also opened the door to country rock and that whole new strain of alt country still with us today.

byrds“Yes, outlaw country came up after The Byrds and it was fun to do and be pioneers. When we did it, people didn’t really appreciate it, but years later it became very well appreciated.”

Moving on to today, you’ve been critical of downloads and contractual loopholes over royalties etc. Yet you’ve also embraced the internet through your Folk Den project and even blogging.

“I’ve always liked the internet, and I wasn’t really against downloads so much as the business of streaming, not paying people whose work was recorded prior to 1971. We came out against that.

“But I think the internet is wonderful and a levelling thing. It’s great for all kinds, and when I want to hear something I just go to YouTube – it’s always there.”

Can you properly switch off from music after all these years? And have these past seven decades flown?

treasuresfromthefolkden_1210hyp“I play music every day, and that’s a definite part of my life. As for being 72, that’s like being 17. It’s just an age. I don’t feel any different really.

“The thing about time is it progresses at a very steady rate. The earth revolves on its axis and goes around the sun, there’s the atomic clock and decay of the caesium atom.

“There’s a very specific science about it. It doesn’t go faster or slower, but our perception of time changes as we get older.

“I can go back 70 years in a flash, so it seems like those seven decades took a flash … but it’s an illusion.”

It seems that Roger really opens up on this theme, and I put it to him that he clearly remains spiritual in the way he looks at life. So how important is his Christian faith and the love of his wife – and fellow blogger – Camilla?

“Camilla and I read the bible every morning, and that’s a good foundation for the rest of the day.”

You have a healthy family life as well, don’t you?

“Oh yes. Camilla and I travel a lot together, but I’m in touch with my kids, and everything’s cool.”

Solo Debut: 1973's Roger McGuinn, post-Byrds

Solo Debut: 1973’s Roger McGuinn, post-Byrds

Does that reach to grand-children as well now?

“It does. I’ve got three grandchildren, aged 18, 14 and then seven.”

Any of those looking to follow in your footsteps as a musician?

“Well, they play music, yeah.”

It can’t be easy to get a set-list together these days, with such a vast back-catalogue. Is your Stories, Songs & Friends live format your way of addressing that?

“Yes. It’s kind of a one-man auto-biographical play. I do that in concert, although the set-list might vary.

“The formula is to feature some Byrds hits, songs from my solo career, and some of the Folk Den tunes as well.”

Is that what we can expect on this tour? I take it that you make the most of having that luxury of changing things as you go?

The Fringe: Roger's early look

The Fringe: Roger’s early look

“That’s exactly what I’ll be doing, although I can’t say what songs. I go by how the audience is reacting. For instance, if I do a country song and they really love it, I’ll do a couple more. If they don’t, I won’t. It’s variable.”

And I’m guessing that when you get all these interviews done, you’re looking forward to getting going and back out there again?

“Absolutely … chomping at the bit!”

Roger McGuinn’s latest UK tour starts with four dates in late September at Bristol St George’s Hall (25th), London Cadogan Hall (26th), Leeds City Varieties (28th) and Gateshead The Sage (29th).

He’s then back for eight more in early November at Milton Keynes The Stables (1st),  Birmingham Glee Club (2nd), Cardiff Glee Club (4th), Brighton St George’s Church (5th), Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (7th), Liverpool Capstone Theatre (8th), Nottingham Glee Club (10th) and Cheltenham Town Hall (11th).

All shows are on sale now through the venues or Ticketmaster (0844 847 1616).

* With thanks to Andy Kettle at CMP Entertainment

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Back to basics with UB40 – the Brian Travers interview

Present Army: And then there were six ... the current UB40 line-up

Present Army: And then there were six … the current UB40 line-up, further augmented by Martin Meredith, Tony Mullings and Laurence Parry

Picture the scene. It’s another hot, sunny afternoon and the back garden beckons. But it’s my turn to make tea. Oddly enough, I can’t cook without some good sounds for company, and today I’ve chosen an old favourite, in honour of the fella I’m interviewing the next day.

The man in question is Brian Travers, sax player and songwriter with UB40, and the album I have in mind – soon blasting out of my kitchen, with the back door wide open – is that band’s 1980 debut, Signing Off.

It’s so evocative, and all these years on has certainly stood the test of time. A good honest, homegrown reggae blend. And while I was still two months off reaching teen-dom when it came out, it’s appeal remains three and a half decades later.

And I’m pleased to report from that next day’s conversation that Brian still has youth on his side too, enjoying a new lease of life in the latest incarnation of this Birmingham outfit, having recently rediscovered the joy of the smaller gig – at least by UB40 mega-standards.

Following a sell-out UK spring tour, the band are embarking on a second leg later this year, and Brian is understandably keen to put to one side some of the murkier aspects of UB40’s public and often caustic fall-out, one that has led to an ongoing legal dispute with former vocalist and front-man Ali Campbell.

Ali quit in 2008 in order to pursue a solo career, and was replaced by brother Duncan Campbell, a brewing situation coming to a head when the original singer reunited with Mickey Virtue and Astro and looked to tour under the UB40 name.

But while clearly upset by the feud and unable to say much during those proceedings, Brian is more than happy to talk about the past, present and future of the band – 34 years after their first hit.

Eight Mates: The original UB40 line-up

Eight Mates: The original UB40 line-up

And with fellow founding members Jimmy Brown, Ali’s older brother Robin Campbell, Earl Falconer and Norman Hassan also still on board, he feels he’s still at the heart of it all.

I put it to Brian that few of us would have lasted quite so long living in the pockets of old school-mates. The fact that five of the original eight still play together is quite something.

“Well, not all of us made it, but funnily enough all the songwriters made it. We split everything though – you won’t see a credit other than ‘UB40’ on all our records.

“All those royalties were shared, and guys who never wrote a single note or word earned exactly the same.”

Do you foresee a time when you can pick up the phone to Ali, chat about the good days and start again?

“I’m not so sure really. We’ve just carried on what we’re doing amid some very underhand stuff.

“I forgive them though, if you’re asking me, in a hippy sense – yeah. As for trust and some of the terrible stuff that’s gone down …

“Good luck to them though – I wish them No.1s and so much success they won’t have time to think about us, and we can just get on with it. I’d love that.”

The issue at the heart of the dispute is brand ownership, not least with the departed trio announcing their intention to ‘reform’, record a new album and perform live under the old band-name, something the original five-piece see as an attempted ‘hijack’ of their 35-year career.

Meanwhile, Brian’s more than happy with how things are going on the recording and live front, not least as they’re playing smaller venues – re-discovering a little intimacy.

They played 14 sell-out gigs earlier this year, and have another 22 planned, and it’s proved to be something of an eye-opener.

“Yep, venues on the street, where you can get a cab from your house or a local bus to the gig, rather than have to drive to the outskirts of town to some arena then get a bus from the car park and get past 75 lines of security.

Storm Breakers: UB40 today

Storm Breakers: UB40 today – Norman Hassan, Earl Falconer, Jimmy Brown, Robin Campbell, Brian Travers and Duncan Campbell

“In towns, with a chip shop next door and a local bar, so you can have a beer before and after the gig. That for me is what I find exciting!

“We wouldn’t have got those gigs for the last 25 years. Promoters simply wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of filthy lucre, saying ‘I can sell 20,000 tickets rather than 2,000’.

“That forgot completely what it was really about, and we were trapped in that for many years. As a result a lot of little venues disappeared – lots of little clubs you could play.

“Now we’re on to the 02s and Academy venues – not the greatest places to work in, but better for the audiences I think.”

What’s more, Brian is proud of his recent creative output, not least latest LP Getting over the Storm – a reggae-tinged tribute to country music roots, its name no doubt a nod to those court battles.

After selling a phenomenal 70 million records, becoming one of the most commercially–successful reggae acts ever, which album or tracks are you most proud of from the last three and a half decades?

“Probably the latest stuff, because by the time you’ve recorded songs, smashed them to bits mixing them, rehearsing them into the ground and taking them out on the road, you’re ready to make a new record.

UB40Getting_Over_The_Storm“So I’m most proud of Getting over the Storm, and we’ve always had a soft spot for country.

“That’s not only from touring in the States, where the radio stations change as you head up the highway, genres change and you know you’re somewhere new. But reggae’s always had a tight relationship with country.”

I suppose you’re right, thinking of records in my older sister’s collection when I was growing up, like those covers by Ken Boothe and John Holt.

“Absolutely – they all covered proper country songs, a lot of Jim Reeves songs as well.

“I wrote five original songs for this album, which was a great experience – writing country songs, bringing them to the band and them changing them into reggae tunes.

“We all stretch out a bit and find ourselves a bit more. And as you can imagine, it’s impossible for us to grow up. There are guys in the band who still think they’re 14 and I’m 13!”

So is that the key to a long and successful career – being in UB40?

“Maybe. A couple of the guys have gone over the years, and Ali wanted to start a solo career, so he’s gone off and done that. Maybe he had to grow a bit.”

Brian says this without any malice, but then laughs when he realises how it came out. A cue for me to move on.

Does it surprise you when people like me talk about it being 34 years and counting?

“It surprises me how fast that time’s gone and how quick the time is that we have, all of us, and to do what we aim to do.

“But then, if I start thinking about it, we’ve done such a lot, so it makes sense.”

It’s a mighty back-catalogue too, with the first 12 albums – up to 1998 – going either silver, gold or platinum, and 34 top-40 hits in their first two decades. Of those, 15 made the top 10 and three got to number one. And that’s just in the UK.

Heading back to the beginning though, I tell Brian how I equate that debut album, Signing Off, with so many good memories. Does that LP reflect a happy time in your life?

“Absolutely! Everything was starting to go right for us. We’d left school and there was no work in Birmingham or anywhere from around 1976 onwards, so we were at the tail-end of all that. It was a nightmare.

Signing_Off“But it was a happy time for us, and we were travelling for the first time in our lives. We were all school-friends, and we’d never really been anywhere or done anything.

“These were the only songs we could play, all coming together by virtue of the fact that we’d all been in a room and that’s what we’d learned to play.”

Maybe that’s why it works, because it still sounds so fresh after all these years.

“I think you’ve got it there. We didn’t know the keys, what the right passing chords were, what a bridge was … there’s a lot to be said for knowing nothing about pop music!”

Thinking back – for a lad like me, born in the late ’60s – it was bands like UB40, The Beat, Madness and The Specials that opened up a love of ska, regaae, lovers rock and all that.

They also made me realise it could be home-grown, rather than just an overseas music from artists like Bob Marley and others from Jamaica. So how did this white boy from Birmingham get introduced to reggae?

“Good question! I’m 55 now, so have about 10 years on you, and in my early teens we’d already had the original Blue Beat thing going on. Not on the radio, but because we lived in a neighbourhood called Balsall Heath.

“We were right in the middle of Birmingham, by Moseley, with Handsworth over the other side of the city centre.

“It was a car city – with all those factories in Birmingham and a lot of West Indian people, so our youth club music was generally the records my mates had, their big brothers had brought over, or their Mums and Dads owned, or had sent over from Jamaica.

“We got the Blue Beat rock-steady thing, the original skinhead thing. It wasn’t fascist – it was about fashion and youth culture. We were part of that first wave.

“By the time The Specials – and those guys are my mates, I play in bands with most of them now – were doing that kind of punky, rock-steady Blue Beat thing, which everybody called ska, we were into reggae.

download (12)“We had Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, and thought we were a bit ahead of the curve.

“We weren’t in the black and white check outfits. We were just into youth culture and the clothes that were in fashion then.”

It’s fair to say bands like UB40 gave this lad from the South-East a positive understanding of how multi-culturalism was a positive thing, despite the general Thatcher era ‘I’m all right, Jack’ ethos. And the band were ambassadors for their home city’s diversity too.

“We were just teenagers and all a bit political, and had to be unless there was something wrong with us. We were all socialist.

“We thought we could change the world and put to right what was wrong. It was exciting, it was cool.

“I think it was more by luck that people caught on to what we were doing. We were only the same as every other kid at that time.

“It just so happened that we were in a pop group, talking to the NME and on the telly. We were probably among the more normal pop stars that had ever been out there.

“There were no aspirations for Ferraris and all that. We had more interest in girls!”

Well yeah, and in many respects you were the lads next door really.

“I suppose so, and now we’ve had a really long musical career. We were very proud of all that, and still are.

“I’m still living in Birmingham and still take part in the life of the city, playing in half a dozen bands here. Some of those can hardly play, being innocent, naive and groovy, but that’s nice too.”

Are you a gun for hire in that sense?

“I suppose in some ways, because I’m old … but I try not to be. And I try to let them find their feet. And let’s face it, there’s only 12 notes.”

That’s one thing that clearly comes over with Brian. He’s down-to earth to a point of being self-deprecating. And that’s a breath of fresh air.

When I say about his band being the boys next door though, I don’t reckon I would have got much sleep if UB40 really were my neighbours, what with all that stonking reggae bass.

“Well, we were the polite ones as well, to be honest. We weren’t bad lads, we were making music, we weren’t making hell for anyone.”

UB40_first_gigThinking back to those original jam sessions and that first-ever gig in King’s Heath …

“That’s right, in a place called the Hare and Hounds, which is my local pub now.”

Well, there you go. And I believe there’s a plaque outside now.

“There is, thanks to the Performing Rights Society, an initiative which recognises where bands first played. I imagine they’re still doing that, and I hope so.

“I think that could be encouraging for young musicians in that environment where we are now, and it’s the hardest business to get into.

“If you’re not prepared to be an X-Factor guinea pig, and get humiliated – and there’s no winners in all that, are there.

“It’s about encouraging kids to have belief in their own self-expression. It’s an odd time for music. I feel for young kids trying to get into it now.”

The days where the record company might have bank-rolled you, seem to have gone.

“You’re right. You have one chance. You have a hit with your first record, and you might not get a second chance.

“If Bob Marley had needed to have a hit with his first record, we would never have heard of him. He made four albums before he ever got on the radio.

“That was the power of Chris Blackwell and Island Records. There were great labels and great music men and great promoters helping make music, and it’s all going by the wayside now.

“I can see music becoming a kind of hobby, and the people who have hits have got to have dresses made of sausages.”

That stopped me in my tracks, until I realised Brian was talking about a certain controversial New Yorker born Stefani Germanotta. He hadn’t finished yet though.

“I’m not putting down Lady Gaga or anyone else. Music’s not about putting people down. It’s led by freedom of choice, and the most abstract of all the art forms.

“You can’t see it and you’ can’t touch it, but it touches us and can make us feel powerful, sad or sexy. But it seems you’ve got to make a dress made out of sausages now.”

Sax Appeal: Brian Travers   (Photo: Martin Porter)

Sax Appeal: Brian Travers, centre (Photo: Martin Porter)

Well put, Brian. So did you have a clear goal of what you wanted to achieve when you started out?

“Me and Earl (Falconer) lived in a bed-sit in Trafalgar Road in Moseley, and it had a cellar which you could get to from outside, full of leaves and rubbish.

“We claimed it as our rehearsal room and lived over the top. We wrote all over the walls, and because we were on the dole we were in there every day rehearsing.

“If we weren’t there on time you got in trouble from the rest of us, for not taking it seriously. And we figured we had more chance of having a hit record than a proper job.

“Many years after we moved out, ITV’s World in Action made a programme about us and asked if we could get back in this cellar.

“We went down and got it all opened up, where it was boarded up. We’d written on the walls, practising our autographs, and had written this list of goals – to have a hit record, go on Top of the Pops, go on The Johnny Carson Show, which I guess was seen as the biggest show in the world at that point, and play Madison Square Gardens.

“When we went back, we’d done all that. I think they were our impossible dreams, things that were never likely to happen. As it turned out, we only really needed to have a hit record, and the rest fell into place.

“Now all those things are done, we really couldn’t care about having a hit record, going on a TV show or playing an ‘enormodome’ where you’re 47ft away from the audience and can’t see the whites of their eyes.

“That’s why when we come back this October and November we’re playing what I call real venues, for a couple of thousand people at most.”

Ever calculated just how many gigs you might have played over the years?

“I don’t know, but it’s more than The Rolling Stones, because I remember Bill Wyman being a bit anal about all that. When they’d played 2,000 or so gigs, some fans of our band who collect such facts calculated our own rolling figure.

“We’ve never stopped playing, and we’ve always seen it as an enormous privilege to play a gig. People get baby-sitters before they get tickets, buy them for birthday presents or spend their wages to come to see you.

“It’s such a great thing to be part of, and music never hurt anyone. If you don’t like it, turn it off. It’s really that simple.”

Roxy Brass: Andy Mackay

Roxy Brass: Andy Mackay

When I think of my love of the humble sax, there might be a little nod to Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay and the E-Street Band’s Clarence Clemons ….

“Well, of course. Hey listen – you’re talking to a guy who plays in a Roxy Music covers band for the soul purpose of playing Andy Mackay licks!”

Well, there you go! But what I was going to say was that it’s yourself, The Beat’s Saxa and Madness’ Lee Thompson I think of first. So who were Brian’s sax heroes (and now I already know Andy Mackay’s one!)?

“Well … I had pretensions of being a jazz player, listening to the likes of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, because I thought that’s what you were supposed to say …”

Sonny Rollins would probably sit comfortably on that list too?

“Oh yeah … Sonny’s great! But I like melodies and tunes you can whistle in your head. Bebop’s great … but it’s not something you can sing down the pub!”

Did you pick up any other instrument before the saxophone?

“No. Saxophone was my first instrument. We never had classes. We picked instruments before we formed the band, believe it or not.

“It was a great luxury of course, and it took us a year to get the instruments together.

“These days I play a bit of guitar and piano for composing, but only for chords and stuff. I can’t really express myself on anything else but a saxophone.”

Did you hear a certain Blue Beat track or single and think, ‘That’s what I want to play!’?

tommy mccook - real cool (1966 -67).......)“A million of them! I used to love Earl Bostik and Tommy McCook, the old reggae guys. But I only know their names now, because they weren’t on those white label pre-releases. No names were on them.

“Also, I always liked the idea of an instrument which didn’t need any electricity! You just take it out of the box and it works!”

Talking of electricity, ever think you could have stuck it out as an electrician, after your early days as an electical apprentice?

“Not in a million years. I wasn’t made for that kind of toil and hardship. The building site is a brutal environment. If you showed a millionth of an ounce of sensitivity, you were fucked!”

So where is home these days? Do you spend much time back among the old haunts around Birmingham?

“We lived in the countryside for many years, mostly to protect our kids. It can’t be easy to be the kids of people you see on Top of the Pops.

“They’d often get told, ‘It’s alright for you, your Dad’s a millionaire!’ It was unfair on them, so we moved out to the country.

“But now the chickens have come home to roost. We live back in the city, and we’re happier.”

What age are your children now?

“They’re in their 30s. We were Dads in our teens, like a lot of inner city kids. Not because of some kind of deprivation, but if you’re living in a little two-up two-down with six of you there, move out and are left to your own devices, you soon become Mummies and Daddies.”

There have been money issues in recent years, bankruptcy proceedings and all that, but that’s not why you keep playing live and bringing out new material, is it?

Live Renaissance: UB40 in concert, with Duncan Campbell out front (Photo: Martin Porter)

Live Renaissance: UB40 in concert, with Duncan and Robin Campbell out front (Photo: Martin Porter)

“I’ll be honest with you – we all made millions of pounds, and did incredibly well for ourselves.

“But it seems to be a tradition in the music business – you never get ripped off when you’re a kid, because you haven’t made any money. But when you get to our level where you’re earning money all around the world …

“That happened to us. I lost my house, a 10 million quid house in the country. Maybe it’s just karma and the way it should be. But it wasn’t easy.”

In a perverse way, do you think all the court battles (and I realise there’s not a lot you can say about all that) have brought the rest of you closer?

“I suppose it has in a way. It’s made us look a little closer to evaluate what it is that we do.”

On a more positive front, you’ve generally had a good reaction to Getting Over the Storm.

“We have, and I couldn’t be happier. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”

Will you be playing quite a few of the new songs on this leg of the tour, or is it a greatest hits package?

“Maybe three or four from the latest album, but we’ve had around 40 top-20 hits. If we just played them we could be on stage three hours!

“We’ll be playing new stuff, old stuff, stuff people aren’t expecting, keeping it a little eclectic, trying to take people as far as we think they can go.

“We have a lot of unspoken stuff on stage, because we’ve been together for so long. We use our ears when we’re playing – listening for each other.”

You must be very tight on stage after all these years.

“Oh God, yeah. Devastatingly handsome as well. Put that in your article. Lock up your daughters – put that in too. We’re musical geniuses, basically. That’s what we are!”

For ticket details for the autumn leg of the UB40 tour, and all the latest from the band, head here

UB40 logoWith thanks to Dave Clarke of Planet Earth Publicity for helping me get in touch with Brian and talking over some of the legal issues. 

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post. For the online version of that, head here.

 

 

 

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A whole lot of Everlasting Yeah! The Raymond Gorman interview – part three

OK, so it’s time for the last instalment of this blog’s epic Raymond Gorman interview, in which The Everlasting Yeah guitarist, vocalist and co-writer talks about new album Anima Rising, the Wavewalkers era and full story since That Petrol Emotion’s initial split, TPE’s reunion, the joy of communal singing, and his Derry musical roots.

Oh, and if you’ve just walked into this room, you might first want to sneak back down the corridor and look at part one and part two. Right, that’s the housekeeping down, now fasten your seatbelts and we’ll be away again …

Uh Huh: From the left, Damian O'Neill, Brendan Kelly and Raymond Gorman get down to partially-obscured Ciaran McLaughlin's beat

Uh Huh: From the left, Damian O’Neill, Brendan Kelly and Raymond Gorman get down to partially-obscured Ciaran McLaughlin’s beat (Photo: Lucia Hrda/ http://www.luciahrda.com)

As I’ve mentioned before, it was only early days with The Everlasting Yeah’s debut album when I first interviewed Raymond, and I’ve still only heard a few minutes here and there. But so far … so good! There’s a little more about that at the foot of this piece, and I’ll start this final section of our three-part feature by putting to the man himself that I can imagine plenty of long drives ahead listening to Anima Rising.

As well as that good old-fashioned guitar rock and joyous waves of vocals, it seems perfect soundtrack material, even if they do stray over the three-minute pop mark now and again.

“Well, when we were first told the timing of the songs we were really shocked, because I thought it was about half that! But there’s no fat on there.

“We’re so self-critical, so if anything seems to be going on someone will say ‘Cut that bit out’ and there will be endless to-ings and fro’ings about it.

“There’s one song, The Grind, which was a jam that came out of something else. I kept playing and everybody kept following me, then I just started singing.

“We didn’t even think anything of it. In fact, the night we did it the first time we were in this horrible rehearsal room that we hated, and we weren’t in the best of moods.

“When we first listened back we couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking my guitar sounded shit at the time. It was a Tuesday night and we just wanted to get home.

Latest Flame: Elvis has a hunk of love for Anima Rising, apparently

Latest Flame: Elvis has a hunk of love for Anima Rising, apparently

“Yet it was just magical. I’ll put that version up eventually, so everyone can hear it. The more we played, we came up with this other section. It really flowed together so well and everyone was getting really excited.

“So getting back to your question ….”

(which out of interest I’d forgotten by that point!)

“… the reason why we never really had those longer songs with the Petrols was because there was more tension there.

“When you’re not thinking about stuff, that’s when you start pushing the boat out a bit more. And there’s no pressure this time to have a hit single.

“In fact, I think we’ll probably get something a bit more commercial because of that. And we don’t write difficult music.”

So who’s penning the new material?

“We all work on stuff and everybody’s going to get credited, but it’s mainly me and Ciaran. I had around 25 songs, and so did he, so between us we had loads of material.

“When we started this band Ciaran said we’ve got to start from scratch again, because some of those songs are quite old. He said it has to be about now.

“I was tearing my hair out about that, having thought we’d have this treasure trove and not have to worry about all that. But he was absolutely right. It was the right aesthetic.”

So there’s nothing surviving from the Petrols’ unrecorded catalogue?

“Correct. I have to say as well that I wrote my best-ever Petrols song after the band broke up, Radio Free Derry. I have a very rough demo of that on myspace. It’s very lo-fi, but you’ll get it.

I’ve got all these songs. I might even have to put out a solo album. I don’t want them to lie around too long.”

2ylahogThat brings me on to my next question, having missed the Wavewalkers project first time around. So Raymond, you better fill me in on the gap after TPE’s split in 1994.

“Well, first me and Ciaran worked a three-month contract for the dole office, some ridiculously mundane role supposed to take that long, but didn’t! The money was atrocious, but it was just something to do.

“I then ended up going to work for my best friend’s wife, who had a radio PR company, working on these snappy slogans. I was quite good at it but after six months in an office environment I found it quite poisonous. There was a lot of office politics.

“So in December ’94, Damian said ‘what about getting a band together?’ He said I should be writing again, and inspired me to start doing that.

“We started doing stuff with samples, and I found it very liberating. We did this spoken word thing, White Trash Saturday Night, with a Sun Ra sample. People either love it or hate it.

Guitar Hero: Damian O'Neill at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Guitar Hero: Damian O’Neill at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

“That was ’95, and we also got Brendan back into the fold. He was at a bit of a loose end, travelling between France and here.

“I really wanted Ciaran involved, but he was adamant he wouldn’t. He was playing with this jazz band for a while.

“I think he took the split harder than anyone else – the fact that we were still doing great stuff but less and less people were interested.

“But the three of us got together and were using a drum machine, then a guy called Kevin Sharkey, also from Derry and a bit younger than us, joined us.”

Sharkey? Surely you’ll never get anywhere with a band with a guy called Sharkey involved. I didn’t bother putting this to Raymond though.

“The first Wavewalkers gig was in Paris, playing to 500 people, in this beautiful theatre, and I thought ‘this is it!’

“But it turned out that we only did six gigs. Nude Records were very interested, but then everything went ‘tits up’.

“I think the record company was having problems, and so was Damian, who was going through a divorce at the time. It was all so difficult.

“I was the only one actually working, for a few days a week for BT. The rest of the time I was in the band – all my spare time. I’d just got married, but had a very understanding wife.

“I got a bit burned out by it, and we weren’t really sure which direction to go. We were getting more dance-oriented. It wasn’t really us. I wanted to just record again.

Low Down: Damian and Brendan in action at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Low Down: Damian, Brendan and Ciaran in action at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

“We did a single and it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t going to get everyone’s attention. We stalled on putting it out, then never did.

“We did that one gig in France then a couple here, supporting Arthur Lee and Love, but didn’t have our own sound man, and while on stage the sound was great our friends were saying it was shite. Maybe it was sabotage.

“We also played a couple of times in Ireland, which was good, but it was difficult communicating with Damian at the time. He was trying to get himself sorted.

“I just felt I was putting all this work in but nobody was taking it too seriously. Ciaran was saying ‘keep going’ – he thought it was great, and thought we were expecting too much too soon.”

Time marched on, and still it wasn’t properly coming together, by all accounts, and a further hiatus followed. And it appeared that it was Ciaran’s solo work that inspired the next incarnation of the band.

“When it all fell apart I didn’t really do anything for about a year and a half and hardly even picked up a guitar. I got really into football again, going to lots of (Manchester) United away games.

Mic'd Up: Ciaran McLaughlin at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Mic’d Up: Ciaran McLaughlin at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

“At that point, Ciaran had started doing a few acoustic things, and one night I saw him play this place The Blue Posts, just off Oxford Street, and it was just fantastic.

“He played about 10 songs, and every one of them was great. It was another lightbulb moment for me!

“Ciaran really inspired me to write again. Just naturally, we gravitated to work together again, and we would go to these acoustic gigs.

“That’s okay when you’re 22, but when you’re working all day then come out, play songs and find people aren’t really listening, with everyone talking, it’s a bit disheartening.

“But we ended up doing a run of solo acoustic gigs at the Blue Posts, off Oxford St in London, playing solo and some songs together, including a Ramones medley.

“I’ve a nice recording actually, which again could see the light of day at some stage. It was very low-key but friends would come along and it was great fun.

“I was just happy to keep doing it, and the fact that it was every two weeks or so would force me to write so I always had new material.

“But it was just the same people coming all the time, and Ciaran started getting disillusioned. He wanted to move on to the next level, but we weren’t really sure how or what to do.”  

That was around the year 2000, the same year that Raymond was involved with Damian O’Neill’s curious A Quiet Revolution experimental album. Anyway, on with the tale.

“The following year we got together for a gig to mark my 40th, in this pub in Brixton, and I asked if they’d back me on my new songs.

“We also got these other guys I knew to do some covers, and in the second half it was the four of us back together for the first time, doing a few of my new songs and a different version of Abandon, which is now out there on YouTube.

“That was great, and again I was fired up, thinking ‘we’re back!’ Don’t ask me why, but it all kind of fell apart again then, and we never really got it together.

“We talked about it every other six months or so, but it never happened. My daughter was born in 2002, Brendan had two girls, Damian had a child as well, so everyone had a family, and I was working as well.”

That wasn’t the end of the TPE tale though, in fact it was the point when a certain Seattle singer returned to the fore.

Fond Farewell: That Petrol Emotion say goodbye. From the left, Raymond Gorman, Steve Mack, Ciaran McLaughlin, Brendan Kelly, Damian O'Neill

Fond Farewell: That Petrol Emotion say goodbye. From the left, Raymond Gorman, Steve Mack, Ciaran McLaughlin, Brendan Kelly, Damian O’Neill (Photo: Dave Walsh)

“Steve Mack came back on the scene in around 2006 or so and wanted us to reform for South by Southwest in Texas, but a couple of people stalled and said they’d think about it and the moment passed.

“Then everyone decided that they wanted to do it after all. Steve got excited, came over from America and we decided let’s see how it goes – do some gigs!

“We went over for South by South-West in 2008, and that was fantastic, playing this little liberal enclave in Austin, Texas in the middle of this redneck state.

“It was magical for me – just to get away and play again and see all these other bands.”

So that That Petrol Emotion reunion was largely driven by Steve?

“Definitely. The years before I wouldn’t really have been too interested, but that year I’d been thinking very fondly about the band again.

“As it was, if we’d reformed a few years before it might have been different, but by the time we did it was just like ‘oh God, here’s another band reforming’.

“Steve seemed to be up for it, but then his wife became pregnant and he didn’t really want to travel.

“It was understandable, but it was him that got everyone up for it in the first place!

“That’s why the rest of us kept going really, because we really enjoyed it, and all the reformation gigs were brilliant except for the last one, in New York.”

Ray's Return: The Everlasting Yeah's Raymond Gorman at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Ray’s Return: The Everlasting Yeah’s Raymond Gorman at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)

It appeared that that the New York episode finished off the band as a five-piece, as Raymond explained.

 “The next day we were set to have a meeting about what we were going to do next, but Steve had just heard about the pregnancy. He had a champagne breakfast and was somewhat overly refreshed, shall we say.

“That same day I was reading a newspaper in Brooklyn and read that a girl I knew from back in London who moved out to be a DJ had been killed in an accident in Williamsburg. She was only in her early 30s.

“It was just one of those days, and I remember I’d never seen rain like it. The sky was completely black all day.

“I was disappointed with the way things ended, and just thought next time I won’t be listening quite so intently when there’s talk of any reunion.”

Raymond later recalled the final part of the between-bands jigsaw connecting the Petrols, Wavewalkers and The Everlasting Yeah. And again it seems like fate played a heavy part.

“In 2010, after Steve had departed, when the four of us were working on new material, Ciaran put his back out. He couldn’t play anything for another 10 months, which was again incredibly frustrating.”

It seems like for one reason or other perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be until now – be that down to fate or whatever you’d choose to call it.

“Absolutely, I think so, and I am very fatalistic. That’s why I think the time is right now.

“When we did our first gig at The Roundhouse we were a little apprehensive, as this was the first proper London show. We’d obviously done all the preparation, but I was very nervous, the most nervous I’d been for a very long time.

“Then we walked on stage and there was just such a great reception we got. It was so warm-hearted, and something really special.

“I’ll remember it until the day I die. It lifted us up, and immediately gave us confidence, even though people didn’t really know the songs.

“It was a fantastic feeling, you know, and we really want to keep that going. There was a great communal atmosphere as well.

“We always had a real rapport with our audience, but even more so now, and I think people can sing along more with these songs as well.” 

Bass Instinct: Brendan Kelly at the Dirty Water (Kate Greaves)

Bass Instinct: Brendan Kelly at the Dirty Water (Kate Greaves)

So this time it’s just yourself, Ciaran, Damian and Brendan. What if someone did come along to add vocals at a later stage?

“If someone was to come in now, they’d have to be really great and we’d really have to like them. It’s the dynamic of the four of us. I kind of like it as it is.

“It’s a bit like with Bernard from New Order – he’s not a brilliant singer, but he’s got soul. It’s the same with us. You can pick holes but …

“Sometimes you hear your voice on tape and you’re not sure, but you just have to get used to that. It’s about personality.

“And the songs are really good and strong, so I don’t have to be a brilliant singer to pull it off.”

It’s about harmonies too, I venture. Going right through – from The Undertones to That Petrol Emotion and now again with The Everlasting Yeah, those complementary voices have always shone.

“Yeah, we’ve got that harmony thing, for sure! And on a couple of slow songs I’ve got a rehearsal tape of our singing, and I have to say, it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Dare I add – here he goes again, I can hear you say – that it was a similar story with Eleven, with the booming baritone of US front-man David Drumgold backed by those characteristic harmonies from Mickey Bradley and Damian O’Neill.

“Well, those backing vocals were important in The Undertones and they were important in the Petrols, and are perhaps even more important now everyone’s chipping in!

“It’s just kind of … I don’t know, a choirboy thing perhaps. Old punk choirboys, you know!”

Everlasting Appeal: Damian, Brendan and Ciaran at the Dirty Water (Kate Greaves)

Everlasting Appeal: Damian, Brendan and Ciaran at the Dirty Water (Kate Greaves)

I can feel Raymond going off subject again, but (not least as a former chorister myself) it’s all part of the story …

“Me and Damian were in the choir at school, and were both in the orchestra as well. We played clarinet, but I hardly remember it. It was only for about a year. If you put one in my hand now, I wouldn’t have a clue.

“This was all part of our musical training all the same. I was classically trained originally as well, playing piano. But my teacher was epileptic and fell over me one day when I was playing. I thought he was dead. I ran away and wouldn’t go back.

“My parents gave me such a hard time when I left the piano. I remember asking for a guitar about a year later and getting told ‘no’ for that very reason.

“Damian was lucky – when he wanted to play, John helped pay for his first axe!”

Again, Raymond veers wildly off at that point, and we tackle Irish heritage, Neil and Tim Finn and much more before we’re on to how he finally got his guitar.

“I don’t remember much music before 1970, when I was nine, although I do remember The Beatles and being confused by them having two singers.

Beatles_-_She_Loves_You“The first song I really remember hearing was She Loves You. I remember that very vividly. It just sounded very exciting.

“But we didn’t get a record player until 1972, and it was mostly me who bought all the records.

“My mum used to do the Kay’s catalogue and that’s how I got my first guitar and amplifier. It was a hundred quid for this really crap electric guitar.

“I had a paper round, but it was 100 weeks at £1 a week for a six watt amp and this horrible guitar called a Satellite.

“Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but I play it now and wonder how I ever learned to play.”

Thankfully he did though, and to great effect, not just through his playing and song-writing but also the inspirational air he seems to add to the proceedings, one that has helped those gifted musicians around him produce the goods over the years.

Having heard a bit more of the background story I now feel I understand more about That Petrol Emotion from start to finish. And now I’m equally fired up about their natural successors, The Everlasting Yeah.

Take for instance the snippets I’ve heard, starting with The Grind, with those glorious harmonies and raunchy guitars, Ramones-esque rocker All Around the World, and the Beach Boys meets Super Furry Animals wistful splendour of Everything is Beautiful.

1467246_338630006279108_205534109_nThen there’s truly super-catchy part-contagious band anthem A Little Bit of Uh-Huh …,  the Stones-like New Beat on Shakin’ Street - something Bobby Gillespie will be pissed off isn’t in his own set – and fellow (to appropriate a fitting Undertones phrase) rocking humdinger Takin’ That Damn Train, plus the guitar and falsetto funk of Whatever Happened To

To find out more about The Everlasting Yeah and the PledgeMusic campaign, click right here. And who knows, maybe you’ll feel the need to make a pledge there and then to help ensure the release of Anima Rising.

* With big thanks over these three instalments to Raymond Gorman, and also to those whose photos I borrowed, not least Kate Greaves, Lucia Hrda, Simon Bradley and Dave Walsh.

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Genius moves and sonic grooves – the Raymond Gorman interview, part two

Yeah Yeah: From the left, Brendan Kelly, Ciaran McLaughlin  and Raymond Gorman get down and get with it at the Dirty Water Club.

Yeah Yeah: From the left, Brendan Kelly, Ciaran McLaughlin and Raymond Gorman get down and get with it at the Dirty Water Club (Photo: Kate Greaves).

In which the blogger delves further into his recorded exchanges with Raymond Gorman, the former That Petrol Emotion guitarist, backing vocalist and songwriter about to release debut album Anima Rising with The Everlasting Yeah, a happening new combo comprising four-fifths of that final TPE line-up.

You possibly got here after tackling yesterday’s part one epic. If not, perhaps try that first, with a link here. Either way, here’s part two for your reading pleasure.

Where were we when we were so rudely interrupted? Ah, I remember. We’d just got on to talk of front-man Steve Mack’s energy levels at the That Petrol Emotion reunion gigs in 2009. And that brings me nicely on to another singer with plenty of fire about him, a certain Paul McLoone, giving me my next question to Raymond Gorman in this mighty – even if I say so myself – three-part interview.

Getting back on track, Raymond, do you ever see The Undertones now, with Paul McLoone fronting them?

“I went to see them the first time they reformed, at the Mean Fiddler …”

So I recall. That was the last time I nodded at you – I might even have been brazen enough to said hello, actually!

“When they came on it felt a bit weird, not being up there on stage with John and Damian. But when they started Teenage Kicks the hairs on the back of my neck all stood up. It was just like the first time I ever heard them play it.

“It took me back to this little horrible place they used to play in Derry, the Casbah, this little Portacabin.

First Footing: The Undertones - the debut LP

First Footing: The Undertones – the debut LP

“I looked really young back then, so could never get in and had to wait outside, with my friend inside. But because it was a cabin you could hear perfectly outside. I probably had a better sound out there.

“The first time I ever saw them was at The Rock Club, one of the sleaziest places I’ve ever been. This was the late ’70s, and prostitutes and openly gay people used to hang out there too. It felt like real forbidden fruit. As a 16-year-old sat there having a drink I felt like I was breaking all the rules!

“The Undertones came on, and they were just amazing. They were so loud as well. I always felt their sound got tamed too quickly. The early Undertones were much more like the Petrols, with rough edges that later got smoothed out.”

That must all seem a long time ago now. Besides, you’ve been here in London for the best part of your life now.

“It’ll be 30 years this October.”

Could you ever see yourself moving back?

“At the minute I just couldn’t. I could maybe live back in Derry a couple of months at a time, but not full-time. When I go back it’s all too small. I visit my sister and walk over the bridge and around the town and after about an hour I find there’s nothing to do.

“With my parents getting older, I would love to be going back more often, and it’s a question of money. But not to live. Even when I got my degree I couldn’t find a job there, and I’ve never been able to. And yet all those summers I went to France I got work.

“The year my daughter was born, 2002, I was struggling to get work in London, and Malcolm (Eden), the lead singer of McCarthy, who lives in France, offered a chance to go and teach out there if I wanted it.

“When I first came over here, I had a real chip on my shoulder about being Irish, but this country has given me a home and a living over the last 30 years, and I’m very grateful for that.”

There was a nice quote in a recent interview from you from The Quietus, where you said ‘TPE was like the Undertones after discovering drugs, literature and politics, with a lot more girls in the audience dancing’.

“Yeah – the perfect description. Even Damian agreed with me on that one!”

That+Petrol+Emotion+-+Genius+Move+-+12-+RECORD-MAXI+SINGLE-455318That said, I wonder if England was ready for you. I took on board all you were saying about rubber bullets, civil rights, discrimination and so on, but wonder if it was that outspoken approach that ensured you didn’t get as big as – for example – Blur.

“I think it definitely was. When we thought about it after, we wondered if we should have shut our mouth until we were in a stronger position. It was a bad time to be saying anything. People just weren’t listening. And because we were speaking out against all that, we were automatically tarred with the same brush as the extremist republicans, although we went out of our way to distance ourselves from all that.

“Ciaran said to me recently we were right about everything, and we were. But people don’t want to keep hearing how bad things are, and we were a bit guilty of that.

“And we slept in a bit. I was usually the one who kept up with everything, but when I got sick I was out of whack for a few months, and it was around then that all that acid house stuff started – and it was at the end of the road where I lived in around 1988!

 “It was between Borough and London Bridge, in Tooley Street – that’s where all the clubs were and also the Stone Roses were coming through. If we hadn’t been quite as pre-occupied with our own troubles we’d have caught that vibe.

 “We didn’t have to pretend we were Curtis Mayfield’s backing band, because we were white kids, but the Stone Roses when they came along were such a breath of fresh air. I think Ciaran to this day is very jealous and thought they stole our thunder, and maybe they did. But I think they deserved it.

“People were fed up, but you don’t need to be told everything’s shit! We weren’t doing that with our music, but …”

You made some good points through your soundbites, but perhaps there wasn’t the appetite. We just wanted shut of a Tory Government.

“Maybe. The media certainly never engaged with us. I remember Ciaran and I did an interview with an NME guy, a South African guy – one we’d never heard about before or after – who knew nothing about us and hadn’t heard more than three of our songs from Babble.

 “I remember getting a bit angry and after a few drinks all that resentment came out. And it doesn’t look good when it’s written down in print.”

Was there also a danger that these London journalists were being told all about the Troubles by an American ex-pat – Steve Mack, knowledgeable as he was?

This Guitar: Raymond spells it out with his trusty  six-string

This Guitar: Raymond spells it out with his trusty six-string

“Well, Steve had to get hold of the facts himself and did a lot of reading and became very knowledgeable about it all, so probably knew more than they did. I also think Steve tried to lighten things. If it was coming across from a fella from Derry, it might have been even heavier!

“We were very much a united front, and while Steve could talk a lot of shite, it was kind of refreshing! And you need a break from all the politics sometimes.” 

When I caught up with Raymond, his new band The Everlasting Yeah – also featuring fellow ex-TPE personnel Brendan Kelly (bass), Ciaran McLaughlin (drums) and Damian O’Neill (guitar) – had recorded six songs for their debut album, at that point unnamed. In fact, they were just ahead of another four days in the studio, then set to mix everything.

There will be more about that PledgeMusic campaign in part three of this interview, although I’ve added a link right at the end if you bear with me. But at that stage they weren’t even sure if they going down that ‘pledge’ line, wondering how easy it might be to reach their release target.

“Our problem seems to be that while we’ve got quite a large fan-base, they don’t seem to know much about what we’re up to. They didn’t even seem to know That Petrol Emotion had reformed last time around.

“Admittedly, there wasn’t too much in the way of press, but we had a bit in Mojo and would have thought they might have seen that. Our promoters at the time didn’t appear to do any work whatsoever when we did that tour, so it was all down to social media. 

“But if Manic Pop Thrill sold about 30,000 copies, that’s about our constituency – our level of interest. If we could get that amount of people to pledge I could probably leave my job. It’s just reaching that figure. At present I’m only reaching about 1,000 people.”

Incidentally, that day-job is as a translator, with Raymond working for a friend for the last six years or so.

Star Date: The front cover of this blogger's Captain Log issue three (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Star Date: The front cover of this blogger’s Captain Log issue three (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Anyway, as you’ll recall from part one, we were discussing my 1988 interview with Damian’s brother John O’Neill, one of my songwriting and guitar heroes, and now got on to how I’d called it More Songs about Factories and Girls, as there were so many JJ songs seeming to touch upon the factory theme at that time.

“Funnily enough, we had a song called Blatant Factory around that time too.”

Indeed, and John mentioned that. So did that ever see the light of day?

“I don’t think so, but I have it on a tape somewhere. I actually liked the song.”

So did he, I recall.

“Course he did! I don’t think Ciaran and Steve did though, and I can see why. It was kind of … he was trying to write a lot of songs like that. That was part of the problem. We’d be talking in interviews about our influences and all these left-field artists, and then he’d go and right these bloody Al Stewart ballads, you know!

“I was starting to get a bit fed up, and I know Ciaran was too. I think that’s why he wrote Creeping to the Cross. We were talking about artists like Foetus, yet didn’t have any songs like that.

“It was the same for me, writing For What It’s Worth, my go at doing something a bit like Sonic Youth. Me and Ciaran were taking on board all the things John was saying but didn’t appear to be influencing his own songs!

“But although we didn’t do Blatant Factory, he stuck some of the words into something that went on Millennium.”

That+Petrol+Emotion+-+Cellophane+-+5-+CD+SINGLE-163890Raymond’s referring to that album’s sublime opener Sooner or Later – part of a superb introductory salvo of JJ songs that also included Cellophane. But while I stand by the strength of those compositions, Raymond clearly still has a couple of issues here.

“When John got home he sent us a home demo of six songs, but on a point of principle – even if they had been brilliant – we wouldn’t have done them! At the time I thought that was the final insult.

“He wrote me a very apologetic letter years later though, and came to see me. That really cleared the air, but we were never going to be as close again.

“It’s a shame, because when I first came over to England, me and him were really tight. That said, it’s always very nice when we do see each other today, although it’s not very often. There’s no hard feelings, and he remained a big fan of TPE ’til the end.”

And from my point of view, he’ll always be a hero.

“True, although I think the last great song he wrote was Cellophane. I think having me and Ciaran around helped him up his game a bit at the time.”

That was where our first conversation ended, with this blogger having to run off to an appointment at his daughters’ high school. But we re-convened a few nights later, just after Raymond’s own 12-year-old lass had been put to bed. So after a brief chat about the joys of parenthood, poorly-paid jobs and the dreaded property ladder, we got back on to the Petrols.

By that point, Raymond had read my ’88 interview with John, declaring his quotes ‘very pessimistic’. I’ve since re-read it and don’t think they were. Again, I’d prefer the ‘under-stated’ label. It might have been difficult for Raymond to gee himself up in John’s company at that stage, but I’d say that was part of his charm. He’s not convinced though.

“I remember John having a bet with me once about V2, our second single, saying it would only sell about 2,000 copies. I remember thinking, ‘Great! Who am I in a band with here?’

“Damian’s a lot more out-going, and very friendly, but has that pessimistic streak as well. I’ll get very enthusiastic about how I feel, and Ciaran will as well. But then Damian will say, ‘Yeah, but what about this?’

“Sometimes you really have to raise your expectations, otherwise it can be a fait accompli.”

I suggest that maybe you need that dynamic sometimes – someone there to keep it real.

“Yeah, but the whole point of this band is about taking everybody out of their comfort zone!”

Early Days: That Petrol  Emotion, with Raymond in the centre

Early Days: That Petrol Emotion, with Raymond in the centre

Back in that ’88 interview I’d mentioned how the Petrols – in Raymond’s absence at that stage – were doing an encore with support band Hugo Largo, covering Can epic Mother Sky.

“Yeah, I was quite jealous of that really. I would have loved to have done that and indeed did so a year later on in New York, but there’s no recording of it. And Hahn from Hugo Largo ended up playing electric violin on Chemicrazy.”

Indeed – ‘extreme noise terror violin’ according to the sleeve-notes. And you were going a bit Can-like at that stage, with longer songs like the sublime Under the Sky.

Under the Sky was one of the few songs I really liked on that album. It was just done live, basically, other than a background crowd sample recorded at a cafe.

 “I also think that was perhaps the best guitar playing I’ve done on a record. Ciaran wrote the first half, and I wrote the second, and you can tell when it speeds up.”

I also love Steve’s voice on that track, something that continued across the next two albums as well.

“Yeah. I think it really suited him.”

That+Petrol+Emotion+-+Chemicrazy+-+LP+RECORD-253338I explain at that point how while I never lost faith in TPE, I’d move slightly away from the band, my own personal circumstances changing. That Final Flame era passed me by in a sense, but I can listen to it all with fresh ears now, and can definitely say Chemicrazy and Fireproof were great albums.

“I think we got better and better. Maybe the production could have been better by the end. We had one go to do it and kind of blew it. When we were still on Virgin, maybe we just took too much time doing over-dubs and all that. 

“It was all a bit too polite, but we salvaged about six of those songs and re-did the others. The second time it worked much better and we captured the energy on songs like Catch a Fire.” 

You mention Virgin, and there were earlier issues voiced, like the level of support over Cellophane. Had you reached a stage where you were pissed off with what you were getting from them?

“My experience with Virgin was always very good. The only error they made was to give us too much rope to hang ourselves with!

“With Millennium we had this studio with a swimming pool, and it was the kind of place where if you were younger you could let off steam. I think we’d have been better with more Spartan surroundings – rough and ready, so you just got it done as quick as possible.”

Which brings me nicely on to that in-house spirit – something I can hear from the early demos of the new project.

“I think with the Everlasting Yeah the energy we have is even more than on Manic Pop Thrill. We’ve really managed to capture it. It’s astounding.

“In the first three days we went into the studio everybody was like ready to explode, with a real willingness to get it right. We were enjoying ourselves too, and all these things coalesced.”

10356271_443905479084893_7042240423428139554_n (1)At the time we spoke, I’d only heard A Little Bit of Uh Huh A Whole Lot of Oh Yeah, That Damn Train, and Hurricane Nation, but each showed a band with energy-a-plenty. That said, there were some very long tracks there. Was this how things were initially with the Petrols?

“Not really. It was only at the very end that the Petrols started to stretch out. Even then, Damian would be moaning – ha ha!

“There were a couple of long versions of the song Chemicrazy. We recorded that three times, and I still can’t quite understand why we didn’t put it on the original record. I suppose we liked that idea at the time – a title song being left off an album. It had become something of a tradition – like Elvis Costello did with Almost Blue.

As it was, a superb six and three-quarter minute version of Chemicrazy appears on the Final Flame live album, one that truly captures the band’s late might.

And while I’m on the subject of that live offering, I’m pleased to say John O’Neill put in a guest appearance for those last live shows, as caught on record. But back to the point …

There are those trademark Sympathy for the Devil type backing vocals with The Everlasting Yeah too, taking me back to The Undertones and early days of TPE. ‘Communal singing’, is that how you put it?

“Well, if there’s anyone who sings more than anyone else, it’s probably me. But that’s just the way it’s happened. Everyone’s singing, and I really want that to happen, really get into it and get more into it.

“Brendan’s a good singer, as is Damian. It can only get better. In the Petrols, I don’t think I was ever given a proper go at it. With Steve, it’s almost like he willed himself to be good.”

Big Influence: Tom Verlaine made a big impression on Raymond

Big Influence: Tom Verlaine made a big impression on Raymond

I also feel there’s a bit of Television in there as well, although perhaps that’s the case with most guitar bands worth their salt.

“Well, every band with me in it’s going to have some of that! I think it’s my playing rather than Damian’s. There’s a good fit between our styles. Mine’s more an angular Television thing, quite melodic, whereas his is more a smooth style. Sometimes he can play things with a real economy of notes as well.

“The two of us really play well together. I played well with John as well. The thing about the two of us was that our sounds were quite similar, a kind of spiky Telecaster sound, so nobody really knew sometimes who played what.

“It’s a bit like Brian Jones and Keith Richards, something much more defined when Mick Taylor came into the Stones. I think Damian has a lot of Mick Taylor in his playing. He’s a big Stones fan. There’s some Johnny Thunders and maybe a bit of Paul Kossoff there as well.”  

At this mention of Free, I suggest Raymond’s a bit of a hippy on the quiet. And with that, he’s off again.

“You know, I’ve been investigating Free recently. I only really knew the singles before, but I’ve been listening to some of their ballads, and they’re more like a soul band.

“There’s very little going on in their songs, but it pays. The drumming’s great, playing behind the beat, while the bass is very funky and melodic, and Paul Kossoff always plays the right thing. It’s really good.”

I suggest that sometimes you need to re-evaluate, get past the pre-conceptions or hype. I mention how that was the case with me and Van Morrison – admitting it took me a while to realise he was a soul singer.

Van Pursuit: Rumour has it that Belfast legend Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is still lodged in the Gorman glovebox

Van Pursuit: Rumour has it that Belfast legend Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is still lodged in the Gorman glovebox

“Aye. He’s a genius! I grew up listening to him, but when I went to college in ’79 I tended to dismiss Van Morrison as a hippy because I was in a punk mode.

“Yet when I went to university two of my flatmates had all his stuff and there was this song of his, Gypsy on St Dominic’s Preview. That was the one for me – like a lightning rod from God! I ended up going back and buying everything! 

“I used to change my music in the car quite regularly, but remember once having a cassette with Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece on it. I think I listened to that for six months. Nothing else matched up to it.”

Which brings me neatly back to The Everlasting Yeah, and how from what I’d heard at the time, we may well have a perfect album to get down to in the car, and maybe one you’d be happy to carry around with you for the next six months.

But for more of that, and the third and final part of this interview, check out this blog again tomorrow, when Raymond and myself get on to the recording process, his account of the missing years between the initial split of That Petrol Emotion and the emergence of the new band – via Wavewalkers and the TPE reunion gigs – plus the first public appearance of  The Everlasting Yeah and the joy of communal singing.

download (7)Then there’s a little about those delightful Derry harmonies, Raymond’s first Kay’s catalogue guitar, and much more besides. And while you’re waiting for all that, you might want to check out The Everlasting Yeah’s PledgeMusic campaign – with a link here.     

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Such a good thing we do – in conversation with The Everlasting Yeah’s Raymond Gorman, part one

Rising Rapidly: The Everlasting Yeah, from the left, Damian O'Neill, Brendan Kelly, Ciaran McLaughlin, Raymond Gorman

Rising Rapidly: The Everlasting Yeah, from the left, Damian O’Neill, Brendan Kelly, Ciaran McLaughlin, Raymond Gorman (Photo: Simon Bradley)

A few weeks back, this blogger got in touch with Raymond Gorman and tackled the London-based guitarist on his That Petrol Emotion days and their latest incarnation, The Everlasting Yeah.

It would serve two purposes – so I could wax lyrical about a band that proved a major inspiration in my teenage years and beyond, and also help spread the word about an exciting new venture to help ensure it sees the light of day.

What followed went on to take up more than two hours of digi voice recorder memory, involved two long conversations between Lancashire and London, and took an age to transcribe between paying jobs.

But it was well worth the effort, even when I realised I had to add a lot of back story to fill in the gaps, turning it into an epic read I felt would be best split into three – the first section of which hopefully you’re about to start reading now.

What’s more, it gave me a chance to set down something of the inside story of an outfit that deserve their place in any hall of fame as well as the genesis of an emerging band with similar in-built spirit, comprising four-fifths of that final TPE line-up, while plugging their highly-anticipated first album, Anima Rising. But first …

I feel I should start this feature with a bit of a historic pre-amble, first turning the clock back to June 1985.

As I wrote in my fanzine of the time, Captains Log, it was one night that month in Kings Cross that I ‘found life after The Undertones’, having travelled up from Guildford to see a new band featuring my Northern Irish song-writing heroes John and Damian O’Neill.

That night proved a seminal moment for this starry-eyed 17-year-old, and if anything That Petrol Emotion were even better when I caught them upstairs at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm soon after, caught in awe just behind a front row linking arms to try and keep the rest of us off a stage barely 12 inches high.

manicpopthrillA few TPE gigs later, on St Valentine’s Night, 1986, having by then snapped up their first two singles, Keen and V2, and devoured two John Peel radio sessions,  I was at the Hammersmith Clarendon for their last date before they headed to South Wales to record debut LP, Manic Pop Thrill.

By then we’d sought out a fair few off-the-beaten-track venues across London and felt we knew American vocalist Steve Mack, guitarist Raymond Gorman and drummer Ciaran McLaughlin almost as well as we did the O’Neill brothers.

Again quoting Captains Log, I added: “The rest should be history, but we’ll never forget the early days’. It’s fair to say I’d become somewhat obsessed.

I’ve hinted at some of this in previous pieces, not least my recent Jo Bartlett feature, her first band Go! Service having supported TPE at the Enterprise and hosted the band the first time I caught them outside London, with The Mighty Lemon Drops in November ’85 at Camberley’s Agincourt.

There had also been my brother’s drunken conversation with Andy Kershaw at the Pindar, up there in our own peculiar folklore with the night our Al turned from the bar and spilled beer on Feargal Sharkey’s suit at the Marquee a year before, while watching Damian’s pre-TPE band Eleven. In fact, I seem to recall Feargal wearing that same whistle on Top of the Pops while performing Listen To Your Father with Madness soon after. Heady days.

From Bay 63, Tufnell Park’s Boston Arms and Camden’s Electric Ballroom to Kennington’s Cricketers and Finsbury Park’s Sir George Robey, we were there. It was a special time, and we’d pogo dementedly to The Deadbeat, V2, It’s A Good Thing, Fleshprint, Can’t Stop, Lifeblood and Tightlipped, then flip out to Cheapskate and inspired covers like Pere Ubu’s Non-Alignment Pact and Captain Beefheart’s Zig-Zag Wanderer.

When Manic Pop Thrill came out, this A-level student lived and breathed the album, and while we felt at the time it never quite captured the essence of those early gigs, in retrospect it wasn’t too far off at all.

I’ve tackled my love for The Undertones elsewhere on this blog, so will leave that to one side for the most part this time, instead quickly trying to summarise the story from there. And I mentioned Eleven before, and think they’re part of this wider tale, so I’ll briefly relay how I twice caught Damian and fellow ex-Undertone Mickey Bradley plus US pair David Drumgold and Fred Ravel at the Marquee in the summer of ‘84.

I was 15 then, and it was just a year after I witnessed The Undertones’ last UK gig at Selhurst Park. They also did a mighty Peel session before giving up the ghost. At least I thought it was. As it turned out Mickey went back home to study then became a Radio Foyle DJ, not far from where his old band-mate John O’Neill – who had already brought so many fantastic songs into my life – was supposedly sticking tails on to sweet mice. John later said: “It was only when I got back there that I really grasped how grim it was and how I just had to get away.”

As it turned out John met up with old friends Mickey Rooney and Raymond Gorman, and they pooled their record collections and started the legendary Left Banke Club. John and Raymond (they were using the gaelicised form of their names, but I’ll stick with these versions, if that’s okay) began writing songs, and with a girl singer and a drum machine they played a couple of local gigs. Ciaran McLaughlin, fresh from college, then took over on drums (history doesn’t relate how the drum machine reacted), and in September 1984 the band relocated to London.

High Octane: That Petrol Emotion, the first London line-up, from the left,  Ciaran McLaughlin, John O'Neill, Steve Mack, Damian O'Neill, Raymond Gorman

High Octane: That Petrol Emotion, the early London line-up, from the left, Ciaran McLaughlin, John O’Neill, Steve Mack, Damian O’Neill, Raymond Gorman

Within a couple of months Damian joined on bass, having turned down a chance to join Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and after a little more experimentation they recruited vocalist Steve Mack, at the time set on earning enough to get home to Seattle.

The name they chose told you much about the band, and was described by John as indicative of the ‘frustration you feel when you’re living there (Derry), an anger and frustration about the whole thing’. And while The Undertones tended to steer away or at least tackle more subtly the politics of their homeland, this band were more likely to take on the issues at full throttle.

It wasn’t party-political, but more a willingness to spread the word about day-to-day struggles against discrimination and second-class citizenship, trying to explain – if not condone – what might have driven the extremists to take up arms. If anything, their own world view was socialist, an idealist vision of uniting warring communities behind a common goal of self-governance.

Whether the London-based music press and everyone else was ready for that message was another matter, but this was a band with plenty of passion and lots to say, and it came over in the music. And what a live band they were too. One NME journalist described how the guitarists ‘crouched like road-sweepers’ mid-song, and I could see that. They were a sight to see and hear.

That Petrol Emotion - Natural Kind Of Joy EPYet, among the more abrasive and impassioned songs or more off-the-wall moments, there were unadulterated love songs like A Natural Kind of Joy. These were my people, and made up for the fact that I only got to see The Undertones live a handful of times.

That first album went on to sell 30,000 copies, with the band increasingly eager to push further. Steve Mack said: “We’re very ambitious. We want to see the world. We want to play, play, play – we’re not content living on £10 a week and eating chips.’

The beginning of that dream came as these former Pink Label artists – whose former stable-mates included good friends The June Brides, McCarthy and The Wolfhounds – signed to Polydor. Some of the songs on resultant second LP Babble slipped slightly below the bar, but maybe I was just feeling aggrieved that I had to share my band with a growing audience – those earlier gigs giving way to bigger ones like those at the Town & Country Club and Kilburn National.

On the other hand, stand-out tracks like that pop exclamation mark Big Decision or the surging Swamp and Creeping to the Cross ensured appearances on The Tube, and I followed them to Glastonbury ’87 too. They still hadn’t reached the Top of the Pops studio, but success appeared to be around the corner, and that year we were left disappointed by at least one wasted journey, with a ‘sold out’ sign outside the Mean Fiddler.

For all those face-to-face encounters though, we had some peculiar notion that these lads wouldn’t want to talk to us, and kept our distance if we saw them in a bar before. We didn’t want to learn they were arseholes. We’d occasionally nod, but it never came to much more. However, I finally broke away from all that and shared a few words with John as he walked around Glasto with his young child. As I should have expected, he was nothing less than friendly and engaging.

MI0002088846Furthermore, I interviewed the man himself at Guildford Civic Hall in 1988 during the tour for the End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues album, for a feature that appeared in the third issue of my fanzine, Captains Log.

As it turned out, that was John’s penultimate gig with the band before returning home, and while a little tired, pensive and under-stated, he couldn’t have been more helpful. I’d properly met one of my heroes, and while sad at him leaving, I could at least understand his reasons.

What I didn’t pick up on at the time was a major sub-text. I’d stumbled across the band at a far from happy time. And judging by Raymond’s spin on it all, John’s decision to quit – or at least the timing – went down pretty badly within the Petrols camp.

Despite all those underlying problems, I still think Millennium was a cracking album, one that certainly stands the test of time. There was plenty of maturity in those compositions, and the strength of the song-writing is plain to see. It wasn’t just the John O’Neill show either, with Raymond notably chipping in, Ciaran having truly arrived on that front, and Steve and Damian also commendably credited.

The band re-grouped from there, Damian taking on John’s guitar role while John Marchini was drafted in on bass, before Brendan Kelly took his place for the last album. Those final two albums were splendid affairs too, albeit with the last released on their own label after Virgin dropped them.

In fact, the quality of the music was strong right up to the end, the standard continuing to soar. And if anything Steve’s voice was better than ever before. There are some truly searing moments on there.

That+Petrol+Emotion+-+Fireproof+-+LP+RECORD-504035Yet the appetite didn’t seem to be there outside the camp. The indie market had moved on, and for whatever reason TPE didn’t seem to be in vogue in an era in which the music media seemed obsessed with everything Britpop instead.

Theirs just wasn’t the right vibe for the times, and again luck seemed to be against a band somewhat ahead of their time.

They folded amicably in 1994, after emotional Clapham and Dublin send-offs, fittingly captured on the live splendour of Final Flame, the band seemingly deciding they could no longer afford to take a chance in such a fickle industry.

I still had great affection for them and each album stands up to this day, but I’d moved on in my own life, and my London days were behind me. And while I love the later albums as much as the earlier ones these days, those early gigs remain among my most revered.

I got a sense of all that again with the first Undertones reunion gigs in 2000, particularly at the Mean Fiddler the night before the Fleadh – seeing four of my schoolboy heroes together again, including in their set a wealth of songs I’d only truly experienced on record before.

In the meantime, John had been busy back in Derry with Rare and various community projects, but I missed out big chunks of the other members of the band’s story back in London. Until now.

And where better to start than where I finally caught up with Raymond one weekday morning, strolling around the London borough of … erm, Borough trying to find a quiet place to talk, the area where the TPE story on this side of the Irish Sea properly started.

The reception on Raymond’s mobile phone drifted in and out somewhat, and by his own later admission the fact that he’d had two big cups of coffee that morning made it hard work getting the conversation all down. Add to that the fact that after two decades living in the capital, he still has a pretty strong Slash City accent. But those are just excuses, and this is largely how it all unfolded (with Raymond’s responses in bold) …

“I’ve been walking for a bit trying to find somewhere, and I seem to have come across our old stomping ground of 20 years ago, in Borough.

“I lived here for 21 years and it was our band headquarters as well. I remember doing a photo session where I am now.”

You weren’t wearing that infamous John Francome-style jockey jersey I remember from live shows and press shots, were you?

“My girlfriend at the time bought me that and it was pure silk – it cost a fortune! It was one of those things that when you see it in the flesh it looks different to when you see a photograph of it.

“It didn’t photograph well at all. It looks like a jumper, but was actually a really light shirt. Someone was saying you really have to watch what you wear when you’re in a band, because it might just haunt you for the rest of your life.

Stable Mate: Pete Wylie's ribbing of Raymond was sinful at times

Stable Mate: Pete Wylie’s ribbing of Raymond was sinful at times

“Pete Wylie took the piss out of me mercilessly, and used to call me a jump jockey. Around that time we shared the same manager, and he was always hanging around backstage. When we played Liverpool he was there as well.

“He was great fun. I was drinking quite a lot around then, so although I’ve had all these nights with him I just remember laughing my head off but nothing about what actually happened. I’ve got a few stories like that, unfortunately!”

Raymond and I were on nodding terms back in those early days, but I don’t think we ever really came and said hello. There was this fear that your heroes might not turn out how you expected, and that included Damian and John. I wish I had now.

“Well, I think you should have, because the O’Neill brothers were always very approachable. I never really had that problem, having known them so long.”

In fact, Raymond was at school with Damian, and their paths crossed regularly in short trousers.

“There’s a picture somewhere and me and Damian on our first communion day. We were at primary school together for the first four years, this fantastic mixed boys and girls primary school.

“We then got put into different all-boys schools and we really suffered. That first school was kind of special and really encouraged creativity. I loved music and loved everything about going to school back then.

“When I went to this new all-boys school I found it very tough, got bullied on the first day, and it took me a while to acclimatise. But we always talk about this idyllic time we had before.”

Close Ties: Damian O'Neill's friendship with Raymond goes way back

Close Ties: Damian O’Neill’s friendship with Raymond goes way back

But Raymond’s friendship with Damian survived, and they kept in touch in later years too, when The Undertones were enjoying success.

“They’d be off to do their thing before coming home again, and Damian was always very frustrated, and realised they should all be living in London really, taking advantage of being in a band.

“But the rest of them were such home-birds, and he couldn’t persuade them. I’d see quite a lot of them around the pubs, and whenever I talked to Damian he was always telling me great stories about their adventures. He really fired up my imagination.

“I’d been travelling as well, and couldn’t wait to get out of Derry. I’d been to France and he was keen to hear about my adventures too.

“Back home if you told people about going away they’d think you were getting a bit uppity and above your station and try and cut you down to size. But that wasn’t the case with the O’Neills. In fact, all The Undertones were refreshingly down to earth.”

That seems to sum up the boys-next-door appeal of The Undertones and why I could equate with them more than Stiff Little Fingers, who seemed more ‘in your face’ than the more subtle approach of The Undertones. Unlikely as it might seem to some, I got the feeling these five lads might as easily have lived on my council estate in rural Surrey.

“Well, for a start, Stiff Little Fingers had their lyrics written by a journalist, Gordon Ogilvie, and he trotted out every cliché under the sun in Barbed Wire Love and stuff like that.

Derry Finery: The Undertones, first time around (Photo courtesy of BBC)

Derry Finery: The Undertones, first time around (Photo courtesy of BBC)

“And I think if The Undertones had talked about politics to the level of That Petrol Emotion, people would have just told them to shut up.

“We needed a release at that time, and wanted to forget about all that shite. If you see any photos of Derry around that time it looks like Warsaw in 1946. I am shocked now, looking back.

“At the time I’d walk through the Bogside to go to school. It was so dangerous. I remember walking to school one day and a policeman had been killed, yet I walked right past, thinking he probably deserved it. That’s so cold-hearted! But that was the environment at the time.”

I guess you created a bit of a shell around you to deal with all those horrors.

“Our school was just overlooking the Bogside, and there was a primary school below it. One time the IRA put a bomb in the grounds of the primary school and it went off, a 200lb bomb, and I was in a classroom 300 yards away.

“It was the most massive explosion I’d ever heard. We were around 12 or 13 and all going crazy, yet the teacher just turned around and said, ‘shut up, calm down, it’s only a bomb”. The caretaker of the school was killed in that explosion.

“If that was to happen now, people would be getting therapy for years after. So I think all of us have got psychic scars, and I know I couldn’t wait to get out.

“I still have a lot of love for the place, but think the problems are still there. Everybody pretends everything’s better, but the things that are wrong keep bubbling up again.

“There are two sets of extreme views and no middle ground at all anymore. I’ve no time for any of the politicians there.

557589_10151295517547308_1310266587_n“I was watching Good Vibrations the other day, and there’s a brilliant sequence where you see all these explosions and stuff that was going on at the time. I just started crying, thinking about how all those people died for absolutely nothing.

If you’d said that to me at the time I would have disagreed, but when you look back with the benefit of age, wisdom and hindsight, it was such a waste … and it’s still going on.”

Moving forward to your arrival in London, do you remember the Pindar of Wakefield gig in Kings Cross, in what was my first TPE live experience?

“I do, and it was actually a very good venue.”

I got dewy-eyed mentioning the gigs that followed then, not least the Enterprise, Kennington Cricketers and The Clarendon in Hammersmith, before the band recorded Manic Pop Thrill.

“I think we played The Clarendon a few times. It was a bit more of a goth crowd there. We did get that kind of crowd for a while, not least because Steve’s voice on those first two singles was quite deep and seemed to suit that sound. Some of that crowd stayed on for Manic Pop Thrill, but not so many.”

I’m not sure if Manic Pop Thrill ever really reached the height of that live era for us – but maybe it wasn’t too far off.

“The thing about Manic Pop Thrill is that it’s never been remastered, and I’m sure it could sound a lot better. I remember being disappointed by the vinyl version, with quite a significant loss between the master tape and the vinyl.

“There was a CD version a year or so later and I was speaking to Damian about that the other day, saying we should have held back a few of those songs, because at the time of Babble we didn’t really have that many.

images (2)“I find Babble quite hard work. There’s a couple of songs there I’m ashamed of now, that just shouldn’t be there. They’re not good enough. But we didn’t have anything else. We had two or three of the most well-known songs we ever had, but there’s some stinkers on there too. I can’t understand why some people love Babble so much.    

“I couldn’t listen to Millennium for quite a long time, but when I could I thought it had better songs on it, even though the making of that album was completely disastrous. It’s a miracle it even sounds as good as it does.”

That gets us on to the touchy subject of the recording of End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, a period in which John threw a spanner into the works, announcing he was leaving, with Raymond – already in something of a state after a long spell of party excess – taking it all very badly and ending up hospitalised.

“The engineer was caught in the middle of all the stuff that was going on, and told me he used to go in each morning and would just do some kind of primal scream at the roof, to try and get rid of some of the tension.

“There was so much tension, you could cut it with a knife. We were staying in this fancy residential place, while John was holed up with his wife and his child. We only saw him when he came in to do his parts. It was a strange time, and lasted for ages.

“It became very toxic, and that happened on tour as well. We should never have let that happen. But we were young, and we didn’t really talk among ourselves. We do now and wonder how we let that happen.

“It took me years to forgive John for telling us he was leaving when he did. He could have waited until we had everything recorded, and then told us. I don’t know why he did it like that. It killed the vibe and made it very uncomfortable for everybody.”   

Just John: The blogger's   interview with John O'Neill in his Captains Log days (Photo copyright: Malcolm Wyatt)

Just John: The blogger’s interview with JJ O’Neill in Captains Log (Photo copyright: Malcolm Wyatt)

At this point I recall my interview with John at October 1988 at Guildford Civic, and how the circumstances all make a bit more sense now in retrospect. At the time the official line was that Raymond had a really bad bug, so John Marchini – set to replace John O’Neill at the end of the tour – came in a few weeks earlier than expected, with a few swapped roles within the band accordingly.

The former Undertone was expecting his second child at that time and was set for his final gig the next night, at Cardiff, with gigs ahead of that planned for mainland Europe, Russia, then America.

“Well, we had to cancel a lot of that. I was supposed to go to New York to do some press and was looking forward to it, but then couldn’t go, so I was gutted. But I needed the rest. I was in a very bad way. 

“I was gone by then. I was in a really bad state. I remember Ciaran was really frightened. He could see I was going down very quickly. I’d been medicating for some time, but was very fragile.” 

So this ‘bug’ was drugs, booze, and a bit of everything, was it?

“Yeah it was. I’d been feeling it for a long time, and it just kind of caught up with me. I was very emotionally fragile and really worried about what was going to happen, thinking we were going to break up, instead of thinking about it positively.

“By that time, Ciaran was really coming into his own as a song-writer, and I was as well, so I should have been pretty positive, thinking we wouldn’t miss John. But because we weren’t talking I wasn’t aware of how anyone felt about anything. Classic sort of men stuff, you know.”

You shouldn’t have been too worried. That was, after all, the album when we realised Ciaran could write great songs too.

“Yeah, and it made me up my game too. I wrote a few songs for the first album but then got a little complacent. I should maybe have had a couple more credits on Babble, ones I didn’t contest, but I don’t think that was anyone‘s fault.

download (9) “When they were set to re-release Babble, I was on the phone to John about Big Decision, saying I should get some kind of credit on that this time and he agreed. But it never happened as it was just an iTunes-only release.”

Despite having heard all that and seeing Raymond’s point of view entirely, I can still understand John’s thinking – he wanted to get home and do the best for his family. He wasn’t enjoying it and just wanted out.

“Well yeah, but it was him who wanted us to come to London in the first place. So I just thought it was really weird that he lasted about two years before deciding he wanted to go home again.

“I hadn’t wanted to come over in the first place. It’s funny how your life pans out though. I had a great girlfriend in Derry and was really happy there and thought we should at least try and record something there before coming to England. But he was adamant we needed to go over and was probably right actually.

“That decision chanced my life forever. I hated it that first year. It was pretty miserable. We had no money and we didn’t know anybody. And before playing with John I was in another band and DJ-ing, having one of the best years in my life.”

Was that the Left Banke era?

“Yeah. that was responsible for kicking John up the backside and getting him back into song-writing. He was really adamant he wasn’t going to do anything to do with music. I had bags of enthusiasm and energy and was gee-ing him up, not necessarily to start a band, but getting him back into music.

“Those days were fantastic. There were maybe only 50 people who ever went. We kept the prices really low and were told we needed to charge more and encourage more people to come. But we didn’t want that.

“These were people who didn’t really have a lot. But talk to those who were there and they talk about it like it was a religious experience! It was amazing and I even wrote a manifesto for it!

“Can you believe that? It was basically slagging off all these horrible DJs of the time with their fake American accents, playing shite music. I mean bloody hell – a manifesto for a disco? That’s a bit intense, you know!

“We would meet up on a Tuesday night and come up with a set-list of what we were going to play – the three of us, including my friend Mickey Rooney – all taking turns to play some tunes.

“Sometimes I would do the lights as well. We’d go out and have a dance ourselves too. It was just such a brilliant time, and so creative.”

download (10)You had a good time before that with Bam Bam and The Calling too.

“Well, that was my first band, I was about 22, just out of university. I’d always wanted to be in a band, but it had never really happened until then. I think I under-estimated my abilities. It was brilliant when I look back now. We were really fresh, and didn’t really sound like anyone else.

“After I left their sound changed, with one less percussionist and the guitar not so loud. We were more like Echo and the Bunnymen or Adam and The Ants. The guitar was much heavier, with me being a loud bastard!

“It was more poppy after I left, more like REM. That came to the fore with the two singles. But with the first, they used all our equipment, and John produced it as well, so there was a bit of a Petrols vibe about it.”

And I believe Bam Bam had a song around that time called That Petrol Emotion.

“We did. They had it when I joined, but never did it. I changed the whole feel of it. I was into John McGeoch at the time and added a really heavy reverby sound.

“John O’Neill obviously saw all this. I was seeing plenty of him as a friend, and we were listening to records all the time. Our focus was all music. It was a great time. We had no responsibilities, no kids, everyone just enjoying themselves.”

Petrols Days: Well, you didn't think I could resist a shot of Raymond's jump-jockey top, did you?

Petrols Days: Well, you didn’t think I could resist a shot of Raymond’s jump-jockey top, did you?

Getting a brief word in, I asked if Raymond ever came to England before his move, aiming to ask if he ever saw Eleven. But I only got as far as asking the first part.

“I only came through London once, on the way back from France. I was a real Francophile and was very snobby about England. I had no time for the place.

“I was the same with America, funnily enough. Everybody at our college said about going to America, but I was going to France, working there, going over for three months with £40 and coming back with £40. I was smitten with the place.” 

Undeterred, I tried again. Did he ever see Eleven play?

“John and I had just started playing together at that point, and to be honest when we heard their John Peel session we were deeply unimpressed, thinking they’d got it completely wrong!”

I finally got to my point, how Eleven did a song called Love’s a Perpetual Emotion, and how I always wondered if it was that track – rather than the Bam Bam song – that inspired the name – a mis-heard lyric and in-joke that sowed the seed.

Raymond laughs at that, but insists that wasn’t the case.

“No, for the record it was definitely from a Bam Bam song. We tried all these different names. I can’t remember them all now.”

Before you relocated to London, I believe That Petrol Emotion had a girl singer.

“That first singer was actually my girlfriend in Derry. She looked great. She was great looking and really lovely … but she couldn’t sing. But John was convinced at the time she was the next Debbie Harry!

“I remember doing A Natural Kind of Joy with her, but she could never quite come in at the right place. I think maybe I put her under pressure a bit as well.

“After that it was me singing for a while, and then we did a gig over here at the Fire Station, where the Jesus and Mary Chain had their riot.

“We did one there and one in Derry that Christmas with me as the singer, and then we did one at the Mean Fiddler, where Damian sang a couple of songs that I couldn’t sing while playing guitar.

Scream Art: That Petrol Emotion's first single, Keen

Scream Art: That Petrol Emotion’s first single, Keen

“I remember playing with the June Brides and Jon Hunter said, ‘You’ve got too many songs! We were playing for about 50 minutes, everything we had, and it all lacked cohesion – there was too much for people to take in the first time.

“Around that time Steve came in. He was John’s choice, whereas at the time I felt we should have held on. But it was taking time finding somebody. Every last one was absolutely useless!

“I remember one Scottish guy, dressed head to toe in leather. He had a copy of the Melody Maker and the NME, which he then put down on the floor, as if to say, ‘Here I am, I look good, and I’ve got all the music press’. Yet he couldn’t sing to save his life. I couldn’t quite work out why he’d bothered!

“Perhaps a lot of those who might have been up for the job might have lacked the confidence, but all those turning up hadn’t got a clue.

“And to be honest, I think it took Steve about a year to come good.”

Up Front: Steve Mack

Up Front: Steve Mack

Well, from the first moment we saw you, we were amazed … and Steve did seem to be the perfect front-man.

“I think he definitely became that. When we reformed, we had a gig at Hop Farm where we were on at midday, and I’ve never seen anyone work quite so hard to get the audience going.

“We were in our late 40s by then, yet his energy levels were phenomenal.”

I’ll wrap it up there for now. With part two of this three-parter following tomorrow, starting with Raymond on The Undertones reformation, his memories of that seminal band’s Casbah days, his relocation to London, TPE’s political stance, and the PledgeMusic campaign for The Everlasting Yeah debut LP Anima Rising.

1467246_338630006279108_205534109_nIn the meantime, to find out more about the new album and how you can play your part in ensuring its release, check out this link.

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Hunger for the big time – the alt-J interview

Alt-J - New 1There’s a real buzz about alt-J at present, with a band that met barely seven years ago set to release their second album, after major success with their debut.

But keyboard player/vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton seems fairly level-headed about the experience.

Despite a Mercury Prize win in 2012, alt-J remain fairly unrecognisable to the general public. That said, more of us have heard them than we might realise.

In fact, two of their songs will be familiar to anyone who’s switched on BBC 2 this past year or so, and as well as being used for the channel’s idents, there have been several plays on TV series, films and commercials.

If word hasn’t reached you yet, it will soon, and there are plenty out there in the know, judging by the fact that they recently sold all 10,000 tickets for September 24’s London’s Alexandra Palace appearance in just 10 minutes.

Furthermore, debut LP An Awesome Wave was BBC Radio 6’s album of the year in 2012, with tracks like Breezeblocks, Fitzpleasure and Tessellate – the latter also covered by Ellie Goulding – widely aired.

A tour with Wild Beasts and several festivals helped increase their profile, that success not just confined to this nation, with major interest across Europe, America and Australia.

A momentous year ended with UK and US headline tours, the international dates continuing in 2013.

And while this year opened with guitar/bass player Gwil Sainsbury leaving, the remaining trio quickly adapted, with their second album set to follow next month.

Now, the band – formed at Leeds University in 2007 – are set to push on again, the release of This Is All Yours tied in with an eight-date UK tour – including two nights at Manchester Apollo – then 21 shows in North America.

Mercury Win: alt-J, then a four-piece, after success with debut album An Awesome Wave

Mercury Win: alt-J, then a four-piece, after success with debut album An Awesome Wave

The Mercury Prize is sometimes perceived as an albatross, with much-vaunted acts seemingly stalling after trumpeted arrivals, as discussed on these very pages recently with another winner, Damon Gough, of Badly Drawn boy fame.

But Gus – joined in alt-J by Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals) and Thom Green (drums) – doesn’t see it like that.

“I think it’s too early to tell. Lots of successful bands won it, such as Arctic Monkeys. And I know it was just a really nice thing to happen for us. We’re not too concerned about how it affects our career. It was more something that we were really excited about at the time.”

But it’s the new album that’s on his mind at present, with the band eager to get out there and showcase it live.

“We just can’t wait for it to be out now, having finished it at the end of May. It feels like a long time ago, especially as we haven’t been out on tour in the meantime.”

Is the first single from the LP, Hunger of the Pines, a good example of what’s we’re in for?

“I don’t think it sounds like much else on the album, but it’s a good indication of the fact that we’ve matured as a band.

“Maybe our third album will sound more like that. But we thought it had to be the first thing we put out, because it was so new to us.

“We wanted something that would make people sit up and pay attention – making a statement about coming back with a new album.”

Video Still: From the Hunger of the Pines promo

Video Still: From the Hunger of the Pines promo

I have to ask – not least as my eldest daughter is something of an obsessive in that respect – is there a Hunger Games link to the single, what with the title, accompanying video with the arrow attack and the lyric. Might you be featured on either of the coming two films?

“Interesting! I hadn’t really thought about that. I haven’t actually read or watched any Hunger Games books or films, other than a couple of trailers. I think it might more be a coincidence.

“We just like that kind of imagery, of death and violence mixed with a romantic idea of it. It’s more half a metaphor for whatever you want and half the literal idea of some guy being shot with loads of arrows!”

Is there a theme running through the album? There seem to be three songs about the Japanese city of Nara for example.

“That’s more a triptych of songs – Arrival in Nara, Nara and Leaving Nara. We were going to put them back-to-back, but the last piece sounded more of a reprise, one which worked nicely at the end.

“There’s not an intentional theme, but the strongest idea is of journeying to far-away lands, invented places or real places like Nara.

“I suppose it’s about travel and being in unfamiliar spaces, but I think we only realised that once we’d finished the album.”

cover_largeThere’s a more rootsy feel on another track already getting airplay, Left Hand Free, like Alabama Shakes meets Beck. Is that more indicative of where you’re at?

“Again, I don’t think that’s a song that sounds very much like the rest of the album. It was a song we wrote very quickly, just having fun.

“None of us expected to write a song like that. The fact it didn’t sound like us didn’t worry us though. We knew it was a good song, one we wanted our fans to hear.

“We quite like to mess around with people’s perceptions and expectations!

“But it’s funny that the album doesn’t sound much like the only songs most people have heard.”

I find you hard to categorise, which might not be a bad thing. You’ve been labelled experimental, electronic or art rock, even folk-infected dub-pop. Fair descriptions?

“We don’t really like any of those. Someone recently called us post-hip-hop, which we all quite liked – like hop-hop without the rapping!

“In an age in which we have an ease in finding new bands, you don’t have to convince people to buy an album without having heard it all.

“You can listen to a whole album on Spotify or wherever before making your mind up.

“The need to put bands in pigeon-holes has diminished, as you no longer have to go into a record shop and go through the indie section or whatever to find new music.”

Perhaps it’s just us writers that struggle to categorise you …

“I think it might be, yeah.”

Mercury Past: Gomez

Mercury Past: Gomez

The closest band I can equate you to is Southport’s Gomez. Were they an influence?

“I can honestly say they weren’t, and I’m pretty sure that’s the case with Thom and Joe too. But we’ve heard that before, so that’s interesting. Maybe I should check them out.

“Am I right in thinking they won the Mercury Prize too?”

They did, in 1999 with debut Bring It On, something I’d forgotten until Gus mentioned it.

So which influences did you share when you started the band at Leeds University?

“It’s been said many times, but I think Radiohead are probably one of the only bands all three of us really like.

Major Influence: Radiohead

Major Influence: Radiohead

“They’re a band whose career we watched very closely. If we emulate anybody’s career path, it would probably be Radiohead.”

You seem ideally suited for extra exposure through incidental music and film and TV soundtracks, not least the BBC 2 link – to the point where there will be many people out there saying ‘Ah, did they do that?’

“Yes! We were on the BBC 2 ident a whole year, and although I was on tour much of that time, when I came home, I put on the telly and heard our music.

“I reckon everyone in the country must have heard our music by now – yet the man in the street and so many people still haven’t heard of us!”

Are you still amazed by the public reaction to An Awesome Wave? I believe it’s sold a million copies and been streamed 200 million times on Spotify alone.

“It’s kind of mental really, with an incredible reaction. On one hand we’re kind of amazed, on the other we think, ‘well, we did work pretty hard’.

“We’re just very grateful, and hope people like our new album too.”

download (6)Not a bad result for a bunch of lads who only met while at university seven years ago.

“I know …. exactly!”

I understand your sound’s largely attributable to your days living in student halls.

“Definitely, it was partly down to the fact that we couldn’t make too much noise and partly down to the restrictions in place because of the instruments we had.

“Joe didn’t have an electric guitar, just an acoustic that belonged to his dad, while I had some basic secondary school keyboard, and Tom couldn’t use a full drum kit because of the noise.

“So we developed this quiet, intricate sound where you had to strain to not miss anything. We were musically whispering, so to speak.

“Now we like to make more noise with some of our songs, but I think that approach to song-writing will always be with us.”

After uni came a move to Cambridge, closer to Gus’ family base in Ely, with a spell on the dole while honing the alt-J sound.

“I went to sixth form in Cambridge and knew it pretty well. We wanted to be nearer to London, because by that stage we had a manager, a booking agent and a lawyer all based there, and had to go down quite a lot.

“Leeds was a long way off, not least when we couldn’t afford a train so had to get a coach.

“We thought about Brighton, but picked Cambridge because we perceived it as somewhere which didn’t really have much of a music scene.

“We also thought it would be good for us to get our heads down and work hard. And it proved to be a really good place to be for that year.”

Four Play: The original alt-J line-up

Four Play: The original alt-J line-up

It certainly did, leading in time to a deal with Infectious Records, and that major breakthrough.

Now they’re a three-piece, following Gwil’s departure. What was the story there?

“Gwil wasn’t very happy with the lifestyle of being in a band. He didn’t really like going on tour and didn’t particularly enjoy being part of the music industry.

“He was quite cynical about everything – fair enough, but I think sometimes you just have to suspend that cynicism, be more diplomatic.

“You also want to keep your fans happy by giving them what they want. If that involves big shows, so be it.

“It wasn’t that much of a surprise really. We knew he felt like that for a while. But we didn’t really find it a hard transition into a three-piece.

“Our roles in the bands aren’t too strictly defined. It wasn’t like a string quartet losing a cellist. We found we could cover all the bases just through the three of us.”

I take it you salvaged your friendship accordingly?

“Absolutely. If he’d stayed in the band things would have deteriorated, but luckily he left at a point where we were all still really good friends.

“In fact, we all saw him last week. We hung out, and it was nice.”

Alt-J - New 2Are you disappointed you’re only doing eight UK dates next month?

“It’s a bit of a shame we’re not doing more, but we don’t really have any say, unfortunately. Unless we throw our toys out of the pram and insist on more!

“We’re just one puppet on the string, and it all has to be choreographed. But there will definitely be a more extensive tour next year.”

I guess that added to the buzz about you, as seen with the Alexandra Palace sell-out. Did that seem unreal to you?

“It did really. I was really pleased, not least as it’s our first London headline show in a year and a half and we hadn’t put any UK tickets on sale in that time.

“It was gratifying to know we still had eager fans waiting to buy tickets the minute they were announced.”

Is there a big secret to building that profile and fan-base? Not many bands can do that.

“If there is, I don’t think we know it! I don’t know how it’s happened, but we’re extremely grateful.

“When we knew the ‘Ally Pally’ tickets were going on sale I was waiting to be told it wasn’t going well and we might have to scale back, do Brixton Academy again instead.”

Alt-J - New 3A big North American tour follows, and you’ve already got in a lot of world travel. It’s a good way to see the world.

“It is, although it’s a funny way to see the world. You go to some places and don’t really see a thing other than the dressing room, the stage and a hotel.

“But we tend to do a lot of exploring and touristy stuff when we want to – getting days off built in when we want them.

“It’s amazing really, I’ve been to almost all the states in America. And I must admit I probably never would have gone to Australia if I hadn’t gone there on tour, yet now I’ve been a few times and love it.”

For tour details of alt-J, release dates and their forthcoming tour, head here

 

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