All posts by The Mouth Magazine

MARTIN STEPHENSON

MARTIN STEPHENSON HAS JUST RELEASED A NEW ALBUM BY HIS BAND THE DAINTEES. CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR IS HIS FIRST ON VINYL SINCE THE EARLY 1990s, AND IN THIS NEW INTERVIEW WE DISCUSS THE RECORD – AND, AS EVER, MUCH MORE…


HOW ARE YOU DOING, MARTIN?
Yeah, I’m good. I just had a gig last night in Ullapool up on the West Coast, so I got home about 2 AM. Today’s my day off. Nowt much to do today, mate… so it’s a good day.

ARE YOU USUALLY AN EARLY RISER?
Yeah, I like to get on with stuff. I feel like you can get so much done before nine or ten o’clock, y’know. You can get a lot of your things done. I was watching this documentary about this SAS guy. He’d get up at four in the morning. Then at half seven he’d spend an hour with his baby daughter, and take her to school and all that. Then he’d go in his office and do his work, and then he’d be in the gym at about ten o’clock at night. Then he’d go back to bed. But he’d make sure he had about three hours in an evening just for his family. He’d set that aside. So he had his whole day planned out. That’s a bit regimented, mind…

THE TITLE TRACK OF THE LATEST ALBUM – CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR – IS SURF ROCK, AND IT’S NOT DISSIMILAR IN STYLE TO A FEW PIECES YOU’VE DONE OVER THE YEARS…
It’s interesting, really, when you look for an artist’s streak. You know how artists have little themes that run through their work? The surf instrumental is definitely one characteristic that The Daintees have had. The first one we ever had was called TREMELO  MEN and it was part of our repertoire from about 1979. The next one was probably about thirty years later, called JOHNNY RED. And then there was one called MAHINA, on the HAUNTED HIGHWAY album. So CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR was the fourth…

TO ME SURF ROCK IS A GREAT SOUND, AND IT’S A REALLY FREE FEELING… THERE’S AN INNOCENCE ATTACHED TO IT SOMEHOW – THAT MIGHT BE DUE TO ASSOCIATIONS WITH THE BEACH, YOUTH, FUN…
Yeah. Same to me – and it’s just a bit of musical fun as well, y’know? It’s for when I get sick of hearing my own gob going on about stuff… Let’s do an instrumental… Surf rock is just great to play. When we did CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR, I wrote it in about two minutes and recorded myself a little demo of it. I sent it down to our guitarist (who probably only listened to it once, ‘cos he’s so good he doesn’t have to study or anything like that). It’s better sometimes, that, actually. I try and stop the band rehearsing, because if you rehearse a lot you start thinking about music rather than playing music. So the band just had very basic sketches of the songs, and I put them in my mate’s studio – which is in this little garage in Darlington – and we went for the freshness. When you listen to track two – HONOUR ME – that was recorded straight after we’d recorded CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR… We did a couple of attempts at the opening track and then went “right, next song… boof” and just on like that, y’know? It was like the joiners coming in and putting the floors in and the window frames. Bang bang, done…

THAT SENSE OF FRESHNESS HAS ALWAYS BEEN WHAT YOU’VE AIMED TO CAPTURE… 

It is, aye. You’ve got to have the vision to know what you’re doing, and I’m really lucky ‘cos the players are very good. They’re intuitive, so I’m lucky to have them around. They’ve just got it, y’know what I mean? We went into that little garage in Darlington ‘cos if you put good people in a minimal situation they have to dig deep, and they’ll bring things out that they wouldn’t if they had a lot of time and all the luxuries. If they have luxury a band is probably going to be in the pool room playing pool or sitting about in the jaccuzzi talking about the album rather than doing the album…

I THINK THAT OTHER THAN THE SONGS, ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE YOUR MUSIC IS THE HONESTY OF IT… THE INDUSTRY AND THE BUSINESS SEEMS TO BE SO FAR FROM THE MUSIC ITSELF – AND EVEN WHEN YOU WERE SIGNED TO KITCHENWARE IT SEEMED ON THE WHOLE LIKE THE MUSIC WAS PURE…
Yeah. What used to drive me mad was people who felt like you had a hint of something but they were the ones who were able to develop it… So you’d go in the studio and record a demo, and because it had vulnerability and error (all the things I love that were in the Velvet Underground) your management or the record people would say “right, that’s a nice sketch – but now we’re gonna invest and put you in an expensive studio so you can do the proper version”… I would constantly be thinking “but you’ve already got the proper version”… Trust. They just didn’t trust us. So, they’d then spend even more money to try and get your ‘proper version’… and they’d put us in some ridiculous studio in America or something, with session musicians… and ultimately the finished thing would have no energy or it’d sound like everybody else. I mean, for LEFT US TO BURN we had Madonna’s keyboard player… He didn’t know what a pit was, y’know?! All he knew was his mullet and the fact he’d played with Madonna – but that means nowt to me, mate… So there was all that kind of insanity going on. I had to fight against everything down that line, and I felt like I had to do that all the time.

CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR IS SO FAR FROM THAT WAY OF THINKING…
It is, aye. It cost us more for the accommodation than it did for the recording, ha ha. I put the band up for three days in a nice hotel, ‘cos the guitarist and the drummer had travelled up from Hastings. Our bass player lives in Durham so he just commuted to work. I stayed in the hotel, too. It was only, like, sixty quid a night, I didn’t go over the top. But the accommodation bill was more expensive than the recording bill. The recording bill was, all together, probably about five hundred quid. I shipped the files up to Scotland and did a few little other bits on it – steel drums and things – and I mixed everything myself in Logic, and then mastered it myself for vinyl and for CD. So my overall budget for CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR turned out at probably only twelve hundred quid… And, to me CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR is a really well balanced and well arranged album and I think it sounds great.

THE FIRST ALBUM YOU APPROACHED IN THAT ‘SMALL’ WAY SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN HIGH BELLS RING THIN, WHICH CAME OUT IN LATE 1993. IT WAS A SORT OF BRIDGE BETWEEN THE DAINTEES ON KITCHENWARE AND YOUR SOLO STUFF… AT THE TIME IT FELT AS IF IT WAS SOMETHING DEFIANT, REALLY – IT’S COMPLETELY UNASHAMED TO BE THIS ‘MICRO’ SORT OF THING, A LO-FI / LOW-BUDGET THING… IT HAD THAT BEAUTIFUL DEMO ENERGY KITCHENWARE DIDN’T WANT…
Yeah, I think that’s insightful of you, really, ‘cos you’re very very close to how I felt about it with HIGH BELLS RING THIN… It came out after the four Daintees albums, but actually it was done before I went to Los Angeles and did SALUTATION ROAD (which was the third Daintees album, originally released in 1990)… When we were out there we had the Tower Of Power, for God’s sake, and we stayed in the Chateau Marmont and all that kind of thing… and we had this ridiculous budget for the album of about a hundred and thirty grand. Ridiculous! I was embarrassed by that, to be honest… In the interim, before we went over to LA to do SALUTATION ROAD, I’m recording HIGH BELLS RING THIN in a little local studio and feeling much more comfortable with what I was doing, and sure of what I was doing – so that was quite an important indicator to me.

… I REMEMBER FEELING A BIT SURPRISED BY HOW SPARSE IT WAS, AND HOW INTIMATE IT FELT… MUCH CLOSER TO THE ENERGY OF ONE OF YOUR SOLO GIGS THAN ANYTHING YOU’D PUT OUT BEFORE… IT SEEMED ALMOST LIKE A SECRET BOOTLEG OR SOMETHING – AND THERE WERE SOME REALLY CHARMING PIECES ON IT…
Yeah, HIGH BELLS RING THIN had a good energy – and I also think it showed my range as a songwriter. Things like DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE NIGHT… Not many people can write things like that and pull it off. I thought that was beautiful. I had Frankie Gibbon doing a bass voice, I had Gypsy Dave Smith whistling on it, and this genius guy called Round-Eyes Ray on chromatic harmonica… That recording, to me, to this day, is still one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with… But just because it was done at Lynx Studios, my management showed no interest in us going in there or what we were doing. But Prefab Sprout had been in there six months earlier and they’d done their PROTEST SONGS album. I feel that Kitchenware and my management deeply disrespected HIGH BELLS RING THIN…

THOSE RELATIONSHIPS WERE REALLY STARTING TO FRAY…
Oh aye… At that time I was hanging out with the Hot Licks Cookies, and I loved it. I used to get hassled because I’d played the Jumpin’ & Hot Club and the management would say to me “you can’t play there now, Martin. You’re too big for that”. And I’d be like “Fuck off. These are my mates. This is a roots club and I’m supporting Newcastle”… I became a patron of that club and I’d fund it a little bit, y’know, and my management really hated that – ‘cos they wanted me to grow and grow and grow out of reach or whatever. “You’re too big for town now”, y’know… That was a sign of a massive clash… Not long after SALUTATION ROAD I fought tooth-and-nail to bring Lenny Kaye to Newcastle as producer for the next record, THE BOY’S HEART, and to go in the complete opposite direction to SALUTATION ROAD. Some people do like SALUTATION ROAD, ‘cos of the brass and all that, but for me it’s something I could have done with Lindisfarne and saved about a hundred and twenty grand, ha ha…

INTERESTINGLY, DESPITE THE FACT THAT YOU’VE RELEASED ABOUT FIFTY ALBUMS IN THE TWENTY-FIVE OR SO YEARS SINCE YOU LEFT THE KITCHENWARE LABEL, CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR IS ACTUALLY THE FIRST ONE TO COME OUT ON VINYL SINCE THOSE DAYS… SO WHY NOW, AND WHY CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR IN PARTICULAR?
Well I don’t know about you, ‘cos you’re a funny bugger and you’ve probably been listening to vinyl all the way through the ’90s you, ha ha… But I just kind of went along with everybody else and did CDs or bought CDs and all that, but very very slowly I started having this awakening. I thought “ooooh”, so I got myself a little record player this year… Once you’ve done that then that’s it. You’re off. Like finding your own personal drug-dealer or something. And with CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR, a friend of mine said “why don’t you put this out on vinyl?”… So I looked at the budget and thought “fuck – it’s fourteen hundred quid to do two hundred and fifty copies”… But then I realised that if I can sell about fifty copies of the record in advance I’d probably be okay… My old manager would probably laugh now, ‘cos if I sell a hundred and fifty CDs I break even. But to me those hundred and fifty CDs, they’re like a hundred and fifty paintings, y’know? And as well as anything else you probably more or less know everybody you’ve passed a copy on to. It’s micro-cosmic, rather than ‘let’s take over the world’… My life’s very simple now, and I haven’t got all that other crap going on over my head. It’s a very small business, a micro-cosmic business. That’s how I do things.

THERE’S NO GETTING AWAY FROM THE FACT THAT A VINYL RECORD IS A MUCH MORE BEAUTIFUL ARTEFACT THAN ANY OTHER MUSIC CARRIER… I THINK THERE’S SOMETHING VERY SPECIAL ABOUT THE RITUAL OF PUTTING A RECORD ON… IT’S TACTILE, IT’S THE PERFECT SIZE, THE PERFECT FEEL, YOU CAN SEE THE ARTWORK, YOU CAN READ THE SLEEVE-NOTES… BUT ALSO THERE’S SOMETHING DEFINITE ABOUT A RECORD IN A WAY THAT THERE ISN’T ABOUT CDs OR STREAMING – THE MUSIC ITSELF IS ACTUALLY PHYSICALLY THERE, CUT INTO THE GROOVES…
Yeah. There’s that, definitely… And I love the ritual of it all, too. And, you know, somebody recently was telling me that when you’re listening to digital music, all these little bits of data are transmitting over the airwaves at you, and they’re going in your lugs, and what your brain has to do, basically, is work hard to compute all these numbers. So you’re computing it all, and you’re putting all of these tiny little bits of data back together again in your head… Apparently it’s much more work for a human to bring digital music in to the brain than it is if they listen to it on vinyl. So if you listen to vinyl records over a long period of time it’s actually a lot easier on your head than digital.

YEAH, THAT MAKES SENSE… DO YOU REMEMBER FEELING MUCH WHEN THE DEBUT SINGLE BY THE DAINTEES (ROLL ON SUMMERTIME, IN 1982) HAD BEEN PRESSED AND YOU FIRST GOT A COPY? 
Oh yeah, oh yeah… I remember clearly what happened. I had a friend who was in a band called Jazawacki. I used to hang around with some odd people when I was young – she was quite a character and she played saxophone and she was a feminist. She was probably a student, ‘cos you used to get a lot of students coming in from all over the country. Jazawacki were kind of like preliminaries of the Au Pairs and all those kind of bands. They were way ahead of their time… So, I remember we got the first single and I was just sitting looking at it, and it was like being handed a piece of cosmic material. It was such a thing. I was so naiive, and coming from a working class background I thought I’d probably never ever be able to make a single. There was this whole mystery about where they came from and how they were made and everything…  I remember going up to that lass in the pub and saying “here, I’ve made a single”. She completely rejected me… Looking back I think she was maybe just angry ‘cos her band hadn’t made a single and all that, but it really hurt me at the time. So my memory of the first single is kind of bittersweet. I remember the excitement but also the hurt…

… AND DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST RECORD YOU BOUGHT?
Aww, yeah, of course I do! I remember it very very clearly. I went with my Mum. She’d bought a radiogram, and she’d just bought MY SWEET LORD by George Harrison for herself. She absolutely loved George Harrison. She said “right then son, I’m taking you to town and I’m gonna buy you a record”, like… She took me looking in these lovely old fashioned shop windows in Newcastle… I loved Roy Wood, ‘cos he had all the make-up on and that, and she got me BALL PARK INCIDENT by Wizzard. So that was my first record, and getting it was a ritual that I shared with my Mum.

THERE’S A LOVELY SONG ON CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR CALLED MOTHER’S SON, WHICH SPEAKS ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MEN AND THEIR MOTHERS… I THINK IN THE PAST WE’VE SPOKEN ABOUT YOUR DAD AND HOW HE DID HIS BEST FOR YOU WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK THAT HE KNEW… BUT IT’S YOUR MUM WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU BEING OPEN-HEARTED AND GOOD-HEARTED…
Yes. My Dad was like me, a gobshite, very vocal – but really he was a very tender soul, y’know? Well, he liked a good box as well, mind. He’d never say no to a scrap, my Dad. He’d be in there. I wasn’t quite as tough as him. But my Mum was actually the toughest out of the two of them – my Mum had emotional intelligence. When you’re growing up it’s really good to have somebody around who’s like that. It can be a parental role or it can be somebody else in your life who can show you how to understand what’s actually important. I mean, I say to my daughters that winning at all costs is not the highest intelligence. The highest intelligence is probably kindness. The things that the Nazis and the fascists would think are weaknesses are all of the high intelligences… Kindness. Compassion. Respect. Grace. Consideration. Humility… All of the things, in fact, that make saints and angels – and they’re all things that you’d see in your average Mum.

YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU’RE A PARENT YOURSELF – YOU HAVE TWO DAUGHTERS, AND BOTH OF THEM HAVE NOW GROWN UP AND ARE OUT IN THE WORLD DOING THEIR OWN THINGS… WE’VE SPOKEN IN THE PAST ABOUT LIFE BEING A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN… AND YOU TAUGHT YOUR DAUGHTERS THE THINGS YOU JUST MENTIONED… BUT WHAT DID YOUR DAUGHTERS TEACH YOU? WHAT DID BECOMING A PARENT TEACH YOU?
My limitations, for one thing. Becoming a parent, having kids, it teaches you patience. I remember sitting with my oldest daughter when she was about two. I’d been up since about six o’clock in the morning, I’d fed her, and she was bumping around in this little wheely thing she was sitting in to keep her contained, ha ha. She slammed into the video player and the video came on. I’m, like, “that was just luck – you couldn’t have deliberately slammed over there and put the video on with your little contraption”. Then she wheeled away from it and did it again and just looked at me and laughed… I thought “Oh my God, she’s fuckin’ running rings round me already”! I can also remember trying to get a fish finger down myself, ‘cos I’d already fed her and all that and she was quiet so I thought I’d better get myself something to eat… and I remember the very second I was about to bite into this fish finger she went “raaaaarrrrrrr”… I said “Phoebe, you know your trouble? You’re bloody selfish, that’s your trouble”! But then I realised what I was saying. She’s a two year old kid! Of course she’s selfish! She’s only two years old! So, it’s stuff like that that it just absolutely relentlessly teaches you, y’know? It’s very hard and it’s really tiring being a parent when they’re still babies and they’re not sleeping and stuff like that. But then later on it’s… something else. I mean, I’ve done gigs with my one of my daughters. She plays bass in a little psychedelic band… One of my daughters went across to Spain to work… The thing about kids is they keep showing you things. You do get humble pie. It’s like they’re songs, in a way, your children. You think you know them and you think you might have been the biggest part of creating them – but there’s a bigger creator than you. You get the chance to be humbled, and you get the chance to share some joy and share a tear. It’s a wonderful wonderful thing…

FAIRLY RECENTLY THERE WAS A TV SHOW ABOUT BILLY CONNOLLY – A PROFILE, A SORT OF AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL THING – AND YOU FEATURED ON IT…
Yeah. It was an honour, that. He’s a great bloke, Billy, y’know? He’s number one. To me he’s just on another level. And I think that’s got a lot to do with his humanity and his grace and his kindness. I had absolutely no idea that Billy was even aware of who I was, to be honest – but he was! I got this lovely e-mail from a lassy (I think she was his producer for television) just saying that Billy really wanted to come up and see mes… I thought “Eh? Well I don’t owe him any money, what does he want to come and see me for?”, ha ha… I was deeply honoured that he wanted to come up. It’s really weird when you meet people like that ‘cos you feel like you’ve known them all your life. I mean, it’s Billy Connolly, y’know? We talked about that idea, and I said to him “It’s really weird, Billy, ‘cos when I saw you I just wanted to cuddle you”… He laughed, like… but he understands that. He knows all that sort of thing, and he’s a master of handling it actually. Billy Connolly understands human beings very very well. We had a four hour chat, and obviously he’s very funny as well…

… AND ALSO A MUSICIAN…
Yeah! He’s a musician too! It was great to talk to him about his music. We talked about Gerry Rafferty, and guitars and banjos and things. He really loves old time music so we talked about that a lot as well. I brought out this lovely guitar and so we were having a bit of a play. I wrote a little song for him and he liked that, too. What I found fascinating was that I brought some old pictures and I got them out. He loved looking at the old pictures of my Dad from the 1950s, from down the pit. Great photos of when my Dad and his mates were just young lads and they all had great haircuts and all that sort of thing. Billy really loved looking at those photos. And when we were sitting chatting I remember saying to him “howay, that’s four of my Kit-Kats you’ve had now, you, y’bugger” and making him laugh! Just stuff like that while we were together, laughing a lot. He had quite a young crew with him, and they were all lovely people as well. One of the lads had been all over America with him, he’s done all of Billy’s TV programmes I think. And the lot of us were just sat for a bit, having a cup of tea in my tiny little flat. We were talking about school, and being bullied, and we were laughing. Billy sat there and he listened to everybody else’s stories. He was just a lovely bloke, y’know? He wasn’t having to hold court or anything…

… I THINK THAT’S A FEELING PEOPLE WHO COME TO YOUR SHOWS GET… OBVIOUSLY PEOPLE ARE THERE TO HEAR YOU PLAY, BUT IT’S NOT A WORSHIP THING… IT’S A SHARING THING…
Yeah, it’s about sharing power. It’s not about taking power. I had a conversation with someone recently and we were talking about things, and asking why all the nasty people seem to be the ones who always get power. I think the answer is that nice people – the enlightened people – they don’t even seek power. It’s always the arsehole who pushes right to the front of the queue, isn’t it? The people who love you, they never try to take power over you. The people who love you, they accept you and they enhance you. There’s always been some lovely, wonderful, characters who contribute care and take care of others. Actually, all the people are in place, here, who could change the world – but they haven’t got the power. The only thing that’ll change that situation is mass enlightenment. Not politics. There’s not enough time for politics to sort its own arsehole out, never mind anybody else’s. That’s why I got into transmitting little… ‘love pockets’ called songs. I realised the futility of shouting when there’s nobody listening. You’ve just got to let go of all that and do your own little bit. And then, collectively, we’ll make a noise. It’s happening.

I REMEMBER WALKING YOU BACK TO YOUR CAR AFTER YOU’D PLAYED AT A FESTIVAL, SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS AGO, AND WE PASSED THE MAIN STAGE… BILLY BRAGG WAS ON… WE STOOD AND WATCHED FOR A BIT AND BILLY WAS TALKING TO THE CROWD, BEING AS POLITICAL AS YOU’D EXPECT HIM TO BE… YOU SAID “I RESPECT BILLY, BUT THIS IS A BIT TOO NUTS AND BOLTS FOR ME”… YOU MEANT IT WAS TOO SPECIFIC, TOO DIRECTLY POLITICAL…
Aye. It just seems a bit preachy to me, when it’s like that. But I do have a lot of respect for Billy Bragg. Funnily enough I was just watching him on the telly last night, and I absolutely loved it. I think it was a clip of him as a young man. He’s always been pure – and I do like that, and I do like him. What I love about him is that he’s untainted, in a way, and he’s always tried to be truthful about who he is. I loved the project he did with the Woody Guthrie songs…

… THE THREE MERMAID AVENUE ALBUMS…
Aye, MERMAID AVENUE… I loved that. I might think Billy can be a bit direct for my tastes when he’s going on about party politics, but I wouldn’t say he’s a person who’s ever upset me at all. He’s not a narcissistic energy by any means whatsoever. He’s great… I’m not so much a Duran Duran fan, if you know what I mean, ha ha…

… FUNNILY ENOUGH I’M NOT AVERSE TO THE FIRST COUPLE OF DURAN DURAN ALBUMS. I THINK THEY’RE GREAT RECORDS… I CAN UNDERSTAND WHY SOME PEOPLE THINK THEY’RE SHITE – SHOW OFFS, PLAYBOYS, THATCHERITES, BLAH BLAH… BUT I DON’T SEE THEM QUITE LIKE THAT… AS A REACTION TO THATCHER AND THE DISMAL STATE OF THINGS PUNK / NEW WAVE WENT OUT AND BANGED ITS HEAD AGAINST THE WALL AND RANTED – WHICH IS FINE… WHILE DURAN MIGHT HAVE FELT THE SAME BUT JUST BURIED THEIR HEADS IN THEIR JAMES BOND FILMS, LOCAL DISCOS AND COPIES OF RAZZLE – WHICH IS ALSO FINE, HA HA… 
Ha ha, well I can see your point, yeah. I totally understand what you’re saying there. They’re not my taste but I think you actually could be right. I mean, as a twenty two year old I wasn’t much fun to be around, to be honest. I was so serious, I took everything so seriously. I was narrow-minded, I was intense… When I look back I think I should have lightened up a little bit.

… DURAN DURAN WERE ESCAPIST FANTASY… BUT MAYBE THE PROBLEM IS THAT THEY BECAME WHAT THEY  FANTASISED ABOUT… IT WAS A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY… 
Yeah, maybe. You might be right. We can’t all react the same, I suppose. And everybody expresses something about the time that they’re in – and that’s whether they’re working in a factory or they’re a footballer or a dancer or… anything. We’re all saturated by energy. We’re all part of a bigger picture, like a sort of mosaic.

YOU SAY YOU WERE SERIOUS… HOW DID YOU ‘GET OVER YOURSELF’..?
Well, it was good for me to meet Roddy Frame out of Aztec Camera, actually… I remember sitting with Roddy once, just after RIP IT UP by Orange Juice had came out. I was saying I wasn’t sure about RIP IT UP and that I thought it was a bit gimmicky and Roddy just looked at me and said “What are you on about? It’s a great record, Martin”… and he was right. I thought about it and actually it is. It is a great record. At first I didn’t like the sax on it – but Edwyn was a little bit older than me and actually he had more vision than me. That’s the good thing about reaching middle-age, like you and me have. You can sit and talk about music, and the things that really annoy you in music – and you know it’s not really that important in the bigger picture…

… SO, KNOWING YOU, I FIGURE YOU’RE NOT JUST GOING TO BE SITTING BACK NOW THAT CHI CHI AND THE JAGUAR IS OUT IN THE WORLD… YOU’RE ALWAYS GIGGING AND, LIKE I SAID EARLIER, YOU’VE PUT OUT LOADS OF RECORDINGS OVER THE LAST TWENTY FIVE YEARS… SO I DON’T DOUBT THERE’LL BE MORE SOON…
Aye, well it’s just part of what you do. You put out things and they’re just these little statements of where you are at in that moment or something. I just got into the habit of writing songs and I’ve never stopped. I got into the habit of writing songs when I was learning to play the guitar. Coming out of punk I was a new wave guitarist and I was quite limited, ‘cos the whole thing of punk was to not get too ‘trained’… The idea was to resist theory and training and all that. But when I got to about eighteen or nineteen years old I felt that I really wanted to learn how to finger-pick a guitar. So I got a Spanish guitar book and did the exercises… I did that with folk, country blues, jazz… I became a jack of all things and master of none, but I did have a few things in my toolbox… I’d get to exercise ten in the books and think “Jesus, I need to put the kettle on here, this is getting difficult” – and then, as I was going to the kettle, that’s where the art would happen. The concept. The idea. And a little song like RAIN would come along and I’d be thinking “How the fuck did that just happen?”… People would say “oh it’s obvious you’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen” and yeah, of course I might have been listening to Leonard Cohen. Why would you not, y’know? But RAIN was just something that come through us and I didn’t get in the way. The only thing I got right was, I didn’t get in the way and I went with it. Although the songs sound easy, they’re not easy to write. I couldn’t write them if I didn’t channel. If I sat down like an architect and planned, I’d be a shite songwriter. The only thing that saves me is that I channel. I don’t get in the way… And so knowing that… that was something I just got into the habit of, and most of my songs came like that.

YOU WERE LABEL-MATES WITH ANOTHER GREAT NORTH-EAST SONGWRITER, PADDY McALOON… WE MENTIONED PREFAB SPROUT EARLIER…
Yeah, it was great meeting Paddy McAloon… He was the complete opposite to me in terms of songwriting. Paddy was a master craftsman, a brilliant craftsmen. Very very talented. I thought he was unique. I used to think he was a great guitarist, y’know? I loved his guitar playing. Then when I heard the song CRUEL it just pinned me to the wall. I just thought “wow”! I didn’t want to go away and write another CRUEL, ‘cos you couldn’t do that. He was really talented and his ideas were fantastic – but he didn’t channel, he was a craftsman… The great thing about Paddy was, we got to the same point. And I got to work with him, actually. He was a bloody nightmare…

… HE’S A SCIENTIST?
Oh aye, yeah. He is. I wanted to throttle the bugger… He was a complete perfectionist. You were doing a vocal for, like, eight hours or something. There’d be no life left in you. He had us doing the drums, once, at ten o’clock in the morning and we were still going for the drums at eleven o’clock at night, ha ha… He’s a lovely lad, I love Paddy. We were just totally different people, but we were trying to achieve the same thing, y’know?

I REALLY LOVE THE ALBUM I TRAWL THE MEGAHERTZ… IT WAS ORIGINALLY PADDY’S SOLO ALBUM IN THE EARLY 2000s BUT IT CAME OUT AGAIN THIS YEAR, AND ON VINYL THIS TIME, UNDER THE NAME PREFAB SPROUT… IT’S AN INTERESTING CONCEPT, ‘COS PADDY WAS RENDERED ALMOST BLIND FOR A WHILE AND FOUND COMFORT IN LISTENING TO THE RADIO – CHAT SHOWS, PHONE-INS, DOCUMENTARIES… HE RECORDED FRAGMENTS FROM THE SHOWS AND ADDED OTHER LINES FROM ELSEWHERE, TRANSCRIBED IT ALL AND MADE SOME SORT OF NON-SENSE / SENSE FROM THEM… AND THEN GOT A FEMALE NARRATOR TO RECITE THEM OVER THIS KIND OF MEANDERING AMBIENT CLASSICAL PIECE… SO THE ALBUM STARTS WITH THIS REALLY ATMOSPHERIC TWENTY-FIVE MINUTE THING THAT JUST SHIFTS THE AIR IN THE ROOM REALLY SUBTLY… IT’S WONDERFUL…
Aye. That’s great. Having the freedom to express yourself like that. I’m not surprised to hear he did that, to be honest with you, ‘cos Paddy’s got a hell of a head on his shoulders. He’s one of those people who will always come up with something interesting. Like Nick Cave. He’s the same. Whatever he does will be interesting at some level. They’re brilliant, these people who can do that. They’ve got something special and it’s great that on the whole they’ve been allowed to express themselves over a longer period of time. When that’s allowed you can watch them grow and develop, which is great. ‘Cos the other side of that is that it’s very tough to see talented people become owned by the industry. It puts a fear in there that you can see.

DID YOU FEEL THAT FEAR, WHEN THE INDUSTRY GOT HOLD OF YOU?
Yeah. I felt a lot of that when I was younger, yeah. I felt like the universe cut my crown chakra off. It just cut if off. It said “this is not your path” – and so I had to wake up to that dilemma and I had to stop going that way. I had to step into whatever winds I had to step into, and just be truthful. So I stepped into the loin cloth in 1992 and said “who’s with me?” – and there was just a fuckin’ tumbleweed, I’ll tell ya… So me and the tumbleweed and an old guitar, we hitched up to Scotland and I de-programmed…

… WHY SCOTLAND?
The reason I went to Scotland was my Dad. His family were all Scottish. Whenever we went on holiday we pointed the little Austin 1100 north. We always went north… And I was so frightened at that point, 1992. I didn’t know who to trust, I didn’t know who the hell I was, I didn’t know how to book a fuckin’ bus ticket, man… I was like THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH or something… So I just hitched up to Scotland, and I slept on my mate’s floor, and I just had to rebuild. Completely rebuild. And that’s what I did, over quite a long period of time. Rebuilt and learned. It’s all a learning process, anyway. But I had to work on stopping drinking, stopping smoking and stopping being an arsehole. I had to try and be an honest person and live a truthful life…

IN THOSE TWENTY SEVEN YEARS YOU’VE DONE THOUSANDS OF GIGS, BEEN OUT INTO HUNDREDS OF COMMUNITES AND MET THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE… SO YOU MUST HAVE A PRETTY UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE ON HOW THINGS ARE GOING, AND HOW PEOPLE ARE DEALING WITH IT…
It seeps into you, aye. People are your greatest teachers, y’know? I’m in service, me. I don’t see myself as this great messenger who’s there to bring… enlightenment or whatever. If I can play a little rag-time tune and somebody enjoys it, then that’s alright by me. I’m not the sort who’s desperate to get out there and tell people what the meaning of the third song on the fourth album is and blah… You have to let go of all that sort of thing – that’s just the whole thing. I know that people are good. Most people are good, 99% of people are good. I’ve played in loads of rough areas, rough parts of the country, with drunks shouting at me and someone trying to hit me, y’know? I’ve had a guy – a first generation bloody Oasis fan – grab my guitar with a mop head and stop the guitar from playing… and he tells me to put Oasis on. “Put Oasis on? I’m not a fuckin’ DJ, I’m playin’ the guitar, y’dick!” – so, ha ha, y’know… So I’ve met those sorts of people, definitely… But I’ve met lovely people who now aren’t alive anymore, and I’ve played people’s birthdays, and I’ve met their parents, and I’ve met their kids… The way I go, you just see so much humanity… I mean, Edwyn’s out on the road again too, now, y’know…

… EVERYBODY LOVES EDWYN… 
Yeah, man! Edwyn’s amazing. That guy has been teaching me since I was nineteen years old. He gave me hope to sing – when I first heard Edwyn warbling I thought “right, I’m having a go at this”… He was doing a Lou Reed, really. So I was doing an Edwyn doing a bad Lou Reed! So God knows how bad I was, really, ha ha… What I loved about Edwyn, actually, is that he had a really lovely sounding voice. He had a lovely sounding voice. And his art inspired. His left-field nature inspired me.

… THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS – THAT FILM ABOUT EDWYN COLLINS FROM A FEW YEARS BACK – WAS BRILLIANT… ONE OF THE THINGS ABOUT EDWYN IS THAT THE WAY HE AND HIS WIFE GRACE TACKLED RECOVERY FROM HIS MEDICAL ISSUES FEELS LIKE A TRUE LOVE STORY… AND IT FEELS LIKE A LESSON… AND IT FEELS LIKE A REAL INSPIRATION… BY OUR AGE YOU PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE SUSSED LIFE IS SHORT AND FRAGILE… SO WHO AMONGST US WOULDN’T WANT TO ENCOUNTER SOMEONE WITH THAT SORT OF TRIUMPHANT STORY?
You’re absolutely right, there. I remember going to see Roddy play in Newcastle in the early 1990s, and Edwyn was there on the tour. Obviously Roddy loves Edwyn and they go back to the Postcard years, so he was getting him up on stage for a couple of songs, but basically Edwyn was just there to get pissed on tour. I remember seeing him and thinking he was the bloody glass collector. He was walking round The Mayfair, out of his tits. He come up to us, and I thought he was going to take my glass so I raised my glass to pass to him, and he says “Oh it’s you!” – so we ended up talking. We were chatting about lo-fi recording and vintage gear and all that. We had a really nice chat and then we went backstage to see Roddy. I mean, Edwyn was absolutely out of his tits and he was great – but I do remember thinking “he wants to watch his health, this lad”, ‘cos you could see he was really going for it. Luckily he’s come out of the other end of that and, like you said, he’s an inspiration. A good example. He’s a really great example of the continuation of the creative spirit, and he’s also showed great personal strength and there’s also loads of love and family strength with his wife. So Edwyn’s actually been an amazing teacher, always…

… AND, THINKING ABOUT SOMETHING YOU SAID EARLIER, ABOUT BEING QUITE A SERIOUS YOUNG MAN… BY THE AGE OF FIFTY OR THEREABOUTS, HOPEFULLY A PERSON WOULD DEFINITELY HAVE REALISED THAT THEY SHOULD PROBABLY BE TAKING THEMSELVES NOT SO SERIOUSLY?
Absolutely, yeah… You’re right. You should, you should. The thing I love most about longevity is that you’re given the chance to laugh at yourself. You get older and you can just let go, and laugh at yourself. Funnily enough I saw Edwyn about two years ago on a plane. Living up here in Scotland you can fly from Inverness and get down to Luton, if you’re needing to get down south (for a London gig or something). I bought this guitar, a back-pack guitar. It’s a great little guitar, actually, and it’s a travel guitar. The neck comes off and folds down, and you pack it away and it just looks like a back-pack. It zips up like a back-pack, and you unzip around the top of the bag and the top flips off… and I had a pair of clean underpants on the top of this guitar, in the back-pack. I had the back-pack in the overhead locker, and I’m sitting in the extra leg-room seat – ‘cos I paid the extra tenner for the extra leg-room. Anyway, who gets on? Edwyn, in his duffel coat. I just laughed when I saw him – “you’ve still got that bloody duffel coat, man!” – ‘cos if you remember back to the early ’80s, him and Roddy always used to wear those duffel coats… And we were just laughing like two kids, straight away. He ended up sitting right opposite me, in the extra leg-room, across the aisle. We were just chatting away for the whole flight, and I think Grace was fed up ‘cos she was trying to get forty winks and we wouldn’t shut up, ha ha… We were just giggling and laughing. So I says “Hey Edwyn, look at this” and I pulled my back-pack down from the locker and unzipped it and lifted up the top… and there’s my underpants, like… “Things couldn’t be any worse could they, lad? This is my life now”… and so we were just laughing away, for all of the flight. It was just great to see him. I told him I loved him. If I’d met Edwyn when I was twenty I wouldn’t have been able to speak – I’d have been so in awe of him. I was really shy when I was young… but as you get older you ought to be able to laugh at the whole journey you’re on, really. And also you can see the beauty in things a lot more clearly than when you were young… And most of all you can not feel self-conscious, and so you can easily tell people that you love them and that you respect them…

… LIKE CHI CHI NAKAMURA, THE JAPANESE GUITARIST… 
Yeah. I’d become Facebook friends with Chi Chi, and I think she’s a great character. A lovely character, a special character. I think her husband’s also a guitarist, and she’s probably a mum or something too, y’know, as well as being an amazing musician in this band..? So I just wanted to pay tribute to her…

… NAMING THE ALBUM AFTER HER WAS A NICE THING TO DO…
Well, I just really like the idea of paying tribute to somebody who wouldn’t normally get it, or wouldn’t expect it… That’s why, when I play THE CANNONBALL RAG by Merle Travis, it’s always to say thanks and pay tribute to Abigail Ybarra. She was the lass who wound the pick-ups on all of the Fender guitars. She was like the Ivy Tilsley of the Mexican housewives who wound the pick-ups for the basic Ikea version of the guitar. ‘Cos that’s what Fender was – the Ikea guitar, the basic guitar. Leo Fender built them guitars for everybody. Mind you, if you’ve got a 1952 Telecaster it’s worth probably three hundred grand now… So Abigail Ybarra was the factory girl – a factory girl like my Mother. Abigail must have had really amazing hand / eye coordination to be able to wind all those pick-ups right from 1954 to about ten years ago, when she retired…

I FOUND SOME LIVE FOOTAGE ON YOUTUBE OF CHI CHI NAKAMURA’S BAND… THEY’RE REALLY GOOD…
Oh, they’re great, aren’t they? They all have bee-hives, the girls in the band. They look a bit like The Supremes did in 1963 on READY STEADY GO, y’know? And they all have Fender guitars, and they’re great players. I love the fact that one of the girls has a little Fender MusicMan (which was a great budget guitar Fender put out in the 1960s) and Chi Chi herself plays a Jaguar (and goes through a Fender twin or a Bassman or something).  They’re so good, Chi Chi’s band. I just love them and I feel inspired by the whole Japanese scene, really. Particularly after Pearl Harbour and all the rubbish that went down, there… ‘cos the cross cultural thing now, the Japanese have embraced things. There’s a punk scene in Japan. There’s a rockabilly scene… And I just think they’re all really really good at what they do. But the surf scene is great. They’ve just got their act together so well. Particularly Chi Chi’s band… And, as I say, I think Chi Chi’s an amazing woman and so I just wanted to pay a humble little tribute, there…

 

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For Martin’s tour dates (and ticket links) go here