FORMED IN LONDON IN 1978, THE MONOCHROME SET’S LAYERED AVANT-GARDE ART-PUNK IMMEDIATELY SET THE BAND APART FROM ITS PEERS.
Debut HE’S FRANK was issued by Geoff Travis’s Rough Trade, followed by a string of leftfield releases including albums STRANGE BOUTIQUE, LOVE ZOMBIES and ELIGIBLE BACHELORS, plus singles 405 LINES, TEN DON’TS FOR HONEYMOONERS and 1983’s THE JET SET JUNTA (which features on the recent SCARED TO GET HAPPY box set).
In this remarkable interview with The Mouth Magazine, The Monochrome Set frontman Bid talks about the single, discusses a little of the band’s early years on Rough Trade and subsequent time on major labels, and explains the effects of the stroke he suffered in 2010.
SCARED TO GET HAPPY IS BEING ISSUED BY CHERRY RED RECORDS – AND THE MONOCHROME SET TRACK FEATURED ON IT ACTUALLY CAME OUT AS A SINGLE ON THE LABEL IN 1983. YOU ALSO PLAYED A ONE-OFF GIG AT CHERRY RED’S 30TH ANNIVERSARY PARTY, IN 2008… SO THERE’S A LONG ASSOCIATION THERE… BUT WHAT ARE YOUR PARTICULAR MEMORIES OF THAT SONG, THE MOTIVATION BEHIND IT?
The music to that was actually written in 1981, with lyrics by JD Haney – it was called HEAVEN CAN WAIT. I have a live recording of us playing it in Italy (I think) in mid-1981. After JD left, I re-wrote the lyrics as THE JET SET JUNTA. I have no idea as to my motivation ..! I usually have no control over what I write.
I’M INTERESTED TO HEAR YOU SAY THAT – WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY IT? DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T WRITE SONGS IN A TRADITIONAL WAY, OR THAT YOU ‘GO SOMEWHERE ELSE’, SOMEWHERE SUBCONSCIOUS ..?
Now this is a long story… But you asked, so I’ll tell it! You’ll have an editing job to do… Firstly, I didn’t say that I don’t write in a traditional way – in fact, I do. But like most artists, I’ve always felt that there was something else apart from my conscious that’s involved in the creation. For example, I’ve never know what the song EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS was about – I wrote it, but have never understood it. Most artists don’t like to discuss the creative process too much, lest the ‘something else’ (the inspirational moment) disappears and never returns. We know that it’s not ‘on tap’ – it comes and goes. I had a great insight into this as a result of my brain damage.
YOU HAD A STROKE, IN 2010…
I may write (or, rather, would like someone else to write) a book of some sort about this. At first, the brain damage I had wasn’t that apparent. There were couple of incidences, at the beginning of 2011, that occurred on stage. I completely ‘forgot’ songs, even though the lyrics were in front of me on a music stand. I had no understanding of the song, or how to play it. A few weeks later, I started to notice that when I got stressed, or tired, or had been talking for a while, my speech suffered by slurring. It was mild, but worrying. I was unsure if I was getting better or worse. However, these episodes were temporary – a rest from talking for anything from 15 minutes to an hour or so, and all was fine again. Then I started writing songs… and whatever problems I’d had before became multiplied hugely, and eventually coalesced into an understanding. I had already partly written some of the PLATINUM COILS songs over the previous six months…
… PLATINUM COILS BEING THE MONOCHROME SET ALBUM FROM 2012…
… but most were rather loosely sketched out. In the late spring of 2011 I got down to serious writing, and then experienced some bizarre episodes. Writing lyrics seemed to drain me terribly, in the same way as when I got stressed or tired – my speech slurred and I often had to stop talking. During the writing of a particular lyric, I felt tired and again had this temporary aphasia. Although I thought myself unable to continue, my hand continued to write a couple of lines. I looked at it as it was doing so, unable to comprehend what it was writing, and certain that I was not in control of the hand. Indeed, there were a couple of seconds – which I’ll never forget – when my hand and the pen obscured some of the words that were being written. I, or what I think of as I, did not write those words. It’s something else in my brain – a completely separate ‘entity’ which does the creating, and one which uses my eyes, uses my hand etc… and has the use of my lexicon when I don’t. It seems to me to be the ‘priority’ part (past the basic body functions) of my brain. The only communication I have with it is via what it does – so that I act as the artisan to the artist, from changing the odd word to ‘requesting’ an entire re-write. When I – that is my conscious self – attempt anything creative, even just to write one line, I usually fail. I have to wait for this creature to ‘return’ and finish anything incomplete… In conclusion, the lyrics to the song THE JET SET JUNTA were written very, very quickly – even if they do look very carefully crafted. I played only a minor part in the writing… I think that this is the way all art is created.
WHERE DOES IT FIGURE FOR THE MONOCHROME SET?
Well, it was just another song, really. I thought it was above average.
SOUNDS DESCRIBED IT AS “ALL HIPSTER TROUSERS AND CUT-OFF JUMPERS”…
It wasn’t part of any scene at the time ..!
BY THIS POINT GUITARIST LESTER SQUARE HAD LEFT THE BAND?
He’d ‘partially left’, to go to teachers’ training college. Andy, a drummer, and myself recorded the demo of it (which was later released as the single version), with myself on lead guitar. Lester came back to record the ELIGIBLE BACHELORS album, and the version on that (with the whistling start) is with him on lead. I may have got some of that wrong, though.
YOU’D ALREADY RELEASED PLENTY OF SINGLES PRIOR TO THE JET SET JUNTA, INCLUDING HIGHLY REGARDED DEBUT HE’S FRANK. WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF LEADING UP TO PUTTING OUT THAT FIRST RECORD?
I hope this doesn’t sound blasé, but it seemed natural and inevitable that we’d release a single. Every idiot was doing it.
HE’S FRANK WAS RELEASED ON ROUGH TRADE – HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
Geoff Travis came to see us at a gig and offered us a single deal on the spot.
THAT MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE SOMETHING – TO JUST GET OFFERED A DEAL LIKE THAT… WAS ROUGH TRADE AN EASY ORGANISATION TO WORK WITH?
Yes, it was good to get a deal with Rough Trade. I think we were pleased. Both Geoff and everyone at Rough Trade were very nice, easy to work with. They did help us an awful lot with the first US tour. We did, kind of, feel that we weren’t a part of the RT roster, though…
THE BAND THAT THE MONOCHROME SET GREW FROM WAS THE B-SIDES, WHICH FEATURED STUART GODDARD (aka ADAM ANT)… THERE SEEM TO BE QUITE A FEW CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THE MONOCHROME SET AND THE ANTS – LESTER BEING IN AN EARLY LINE-UP AND SO ON…
Yes, and Andy was in a band with Marco Pirroni many years later.
I WONDERED IF THERE WERE SONGS THE B-SIDES WORKED ON WHICH BECAME PART OF THE ANTS’ REPERTOIRE?
I can imagine that I may have rehearsed some. He did have a lot of songs, and not all of them went onto that first album (DIRK WEARS WHITE SOX). I didn’t know him well, but he was already quite a developed songwriter… I started to write seriously after The B-Sides split up.
THE MONOCHROME SET FORMED IN LONDON, IN 1978 – PRESUMABLY PUNK AND POST-PUNK WAS A MAJOR INFLUENCE. WERE THERE BANDS AROUND THAT YOU FELT A KINSHIP WITH?
Nothing contemporary was an influence on me. But, there was an overall atmosphere of writing shorter, sharper pop songs, and general youthful experimentation. I liked many of the other musicians, personally, but I didn’t feel a kinship with anyone. To a degree, we cut ourselves off and looked inward.
ALRIGHT, TRITE QUESTION THEN, PERHAPS – WHAT GOT YOU INTO MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE? WHAT INFLUENCED YOU TO START PLAYING?
I don’t know, really. I was just in school bands – or rather jam sessions – and at some point started to write songs. I kinda liked it, and shortly afterwards became hooked. Unbeknown to me, my brain had been taken over by an extra-terrestrial. I think what made me take it more seriously was when I heard The Velvet Underground – and heard that you could write good songs with just a couple of chords and not much technical ability.
AT AN ARTISTIC LEVEL THERE WAS SOMETHING MORE INTELLIGENT GOING ON WITH THE MONOCHROME SET THAN WITH YOUR AVERAGE BAND OF THAT ERA. EARLY PERFORMANCES WERE CHARACTERISED BY ATMOSPHERIC LIGHTING, STAGE SETS AND PROJECTIONS COURTESY OF FILMMAKER TONY POTTS. WAS ALL OF THIS A CONSCIOUS MOVE TO ‘HIDE’ THE BAND… TO PRESENT SOMETHING ‘GREATER THAN’ JUST MUSIC?
Tony Potts was a good friend, and felt like the fifth member of the band. It started out ad hoc, and then became tailored. He was living in the same squat as JD Haney, and was studying film at Chelsea School of Art. At some point in early 1979, it came about that he started to project some of his films onto us. We liked it, so he carried on. We made screens for the stage, and took these and the projectors with us, along with the other gear. Tony did an increasing amount work making the films and eventually made specific films for each screen, tailored for the live show. Overall, films seemed better than a standard light show.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MADE THE MONOCHROME SET RELATIVELY UNIQUE?
I find it difficult to answer that. Perhaps we were both very good and also not possible to categorise in style or time.
DO YOU FEEL PROUD OF WHAT YOU ACHIEVED?
I don’t know about proud… I only ever think about these things when someone asks me.
THE DIY ETHIC WAS A HUGE ENABLER FOR PUNK / INDIE – DID THAT FIGURE IN THE MONOCHROME SET KEEPING IT GOING?
In retrospect, it was a very protected environment.
Well, in theory, you can feel free to write what you want without commercial pressure: to be the band that the company signed… Being on a major company is an unpleasant experience.
STRANGE BOUTIQUE, THE DEBUT ALBUM, CAME OUT ON A SUBSIDIARY OF VIRGIN AND YOU LATER RECORDED FOR BLANCO Y NEGRO, A SUBSIDIARY OF WARNERS… YOUR TIME ON THOSE LABELS MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE DIFFERENT TO ROUGH TRADE? MORE MONEY? MORE PRESSURE, MORE INTERFERENCE?
These companies were like any large company, in that they had a high number of incompetent imbeciles in them. There is more money – but the whole thing is very short-term, unless you’re very successful commercially.
SO DID YOU HAVE EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCES IN THAT REGARD?
Well, yes… I am, however, still ‘in the biz’… So my lips are sealed.
WHAT DOES ‘INDEPENDENT’ MUSIC MEAN TO YOU THEN, BID – AS A CONCEPT, AND AS A GENRE?
‘Major’ is closer to the entertainment end of the industry, and ‘Indie’ is closer to the art end. In my opinion, ‘Indie’ is very definitely not a genre – it’s artistic freedom. Usually, as soon as anything becomes a genre, it dies. Artistically.
AS AN ARTISTIC STATEMENT? SURELY NOT? ISN’T IT AS RELEVANT – PART OF THE SAME CURVE…
I should rephrase that. I mean, in my opinion, it’s very rare that an artist will write ‘to a genre’ because he or she is inspired by that genre. Rather, it seems to me that they want to be part of that ‘group’. It is, thus, not true art, but fashion…
… AT A COMMERCIAL LEVEL PEOPLE NEED THINGS LABELLED AS THE ‘WAY IN’…
That’s very understandable and human, isn’t it? Labels, or descriptions, are something we all use for everything, including foodstuffs. But when the label is wrong one seeks to change it.
AS I MENTIONED EARLIER, YOU REFORMED IN 2008 FOR THAT ONE-OFF GIG…. WAS IT THE IMPETUS BEHIND THE FULL REFORMATION IN 2011?
Kind of, yes. We’d been thinking about it previously, and so we readily accepted the offer to play. However, when we rehearsed for that gig, X-Ray Spex were coincidentally rehearsing in an adjoining studio. It rather put me off. I was possibily too sensitive to the idea that our reforming would be seen as ‘cashing in’. Not that X-Ray Spex were doing that, necessarily. It just made me pause. In any case, my other band, Scarlet’s Well, was still going. The Monochrome Set actually did reform in 2010 – initially just for a Japanese tour – but my stroke forced me to choose one band. I felt that Scarlet’s Well had run its course, so was very happy to continue with The Monochrome Set.
AFTER ALL THOSE YEARS, WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF WRITING AND RECORDING AS THE MONOCHROME SET AGAIN LIKE? DID YOU FIND THAT YOU HAD TO APPROACH THINGS IN A DIFFERENT WAY?
Well, I just started writing, really. I didn’t initially mean for all the songs to be about my time in and around hospital. But that’s the way it turned out. We did a year or so of playing live, with the idea of rehearsing the songs once they’d been written, which is was happened. The approach wasn’t different, really.
IT MUST ACTUALLY BE QUITE DIFFICULT FOR ARTISTS TO DO WHAT YOU DID, THERE – FOR FEAR OF TARNISHING A MUCH-LOVED LEGACY…
It’s difficult for artists, yes. Not so difficult for talentless bastards.
THE PLATINUM COILS ALBUM WAS WELL RECEIVED – WHICH MUST HAVE BEEN PLEASING?
Yes, it was… But I do think there are many stylistic elements of ELIGIBLE BACHELORS in the album… so, it wasn’t such a ‘big ask’ of fans.
FINALLY, BID… WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE MONOCHROME SET?
All the songs for the next album have been written. We’ll record it this summer, for a release in early October. I hope.
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