Here’s where the story continues – tracking down Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake

Beach Boys: Teenage Fanclub, Here ... and now, on the North East Scottish coast

Beach Boys: Teenage Fanclub, Here … and now, on the North East Scottish coast

From the moment I first heard those searing guitars on debut single Everything Flows, I was sold on Teenage Fanclub. And although I find it difficult to comprehend this, it’s now been a quarter of a century since their first crossover success, the Bandwagonesque album.

By 1997 they had two more big-sellers behind them, their place at rock’n’roll’s top table secured by the Grand Prix and Songs from Northern Britain long players, again perfectly showcasing those close harmonies and irresistible hooks, the band having toured with Nirvana (and touted as Kurt Cobain’s favourite band), Radiohead and REM, and making five UK top-40 singles.

Fast forward a bit and – six years on from their rightly-acclaimed Shadows album – 10th long player Here is out in a fortnight, giving me the excuse to track down Ontario resident and TFC co-founder Norman Blake, who was enjoying a cuppa at his parents’ home in Glasgow before a long day of rehearsals in the old country.

“It involves a lot of songs we’ve completely forgotten how to play since we recorded them, and we haven’t done a proper tour for almost six years now. We recorded the initial backing tracks nearly three and a half years ago, so you really have to go back, take them apart, try and remember them. But it’s going well – we’ll get there!”

Slow going when you consider they released five albums in the first six years. Then again, this LP was recorded in Provence as well as band-mate Raymond McGinley’s base in Glasgow, then mixed in Hamburg and mastered in London.

“We like to make it all more of an adventure. Being in a different environment can be very inspiring. Raymond found this fantastic studio in the south of France with a really amazing EMI desk I believe the (Rolling) Stones recorded a couple of things on. It’s kind of sad that a lot of these big studios are fairly inexpensive now. There just isn’t the work. But that’s great for us – we get to work in amazing places.

“We came back to Glasgow almost two years ago and carried on, then almost a year ago were in Hamburg, mixing. It’s been ready almost a year but our US label, Merge, had to re-schedule a release. And after five years, what’s another year?”

And there was me thinking that was Ireland’s Eurovision success Johnny Logan. I decide to let this lie though, instead mentioning Norman’s transatlantic move to Canada, nearly seven years ago.

TFC announce artwork[1]“Modern technology keeps everyone in touch. That and cheap flights – that transatlantic flight is my commute to work! With the internet, communication’s easy. All we really have is a five-hour time difference.”

The tour’s North America leg in October starts in Toronto. Is that close to home?

“Yes, one hour west. I’m going to be able to enjoy having no jetlag, whereas the other guys will be a bit tired for the first couple of days.”

The new album will be available in Europe and North America on vinyl, digipak CD, digital download and even limited edition cassette.

“We’ve always had vinyl releases – even in the lean years when it seemed that format would disappear. But I too was really surprised – talking to the people who manufacture our records – that kids are buying cassettes again.”

Norman, aged 50 and with a daughter back home ‘coming up to 21’, remains a vinyl man though.

“Absolutely. Analog recordings are straight from master-tape to disc – everything else is pressed from there. It’s a better listen and a better experience really. You’ve got the 12” artwork, an inner sleeve with the lyrics … there’s really nothing like it. And the act of turning over to play the other size is a pleasurable experience.”

That’s true, and as it happens I can still recall my mate Alan playing me A Catholic Education all those years ago on vinyl. That takes me right back. And now, 26 years on, Here will be the third album on their own label, PeMa. I’m guessing there won’t ever be another big company like Columbia – where they were after Creation, making Howdy! in 2000 – behind TFC then.

tumblr_oa7gyiSpzz1ugjcsqo1_500“I wouldn’t imagine so. We’re at a stage now where although there’s a little more work on the administrative side, it’s better to be in control of the music we make. And there are now companies that can do the ‘fulfilment’ side of all that. In terms of advances, you have to pay it back anyway. We pay for the recordings ourselves. There’s a risk in that, but you’re in charge and no one’s saying, ’We love it, but there’s no single’!”

As it is, there is one anyway – the super-catchy single, I’m in Love. Do you think that first release off the album is pretty much indicative of what we’re about to get?

“I think so, although it takes some shifts. The first few songs are classic Teenage Fanclub, but then we put the brakes on a bit, get a little more exploratory. We’re always aware we’re making a Teenage Fanclub record, and as there are three of us writing it wouldn’t make sense if one of us started bringing techno songs to the studio. That’s not going to work in this context. In some ways that’s a strain, but I think there’s a certain sound Teenage Fanclub have that we want to retain.”

That said, there’s a track on the album, I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive (one of many highlights I’d add, after my first three listens to Here), which has been described by Norman as having elements of ‘kraut-folk-rock’.

“There is! It goes into this metronomic, long outro.”

The band’s previous platter, Shadows – itself following a five-year break – was seen by Uncut as ‘the sound of a great group ageing gracefully’. But aside from that and Here, which LP is Norman most proud of?

“I think for me personally it’s probably the Grand Prix album, because that’s when I met my wife. Also the Songs From Northern Britain record.”

It’s been 22 years since Norman met Krista – originally from Canada, hence his later move – while she was working at The Manor recording studio in Oxfordshire, the former home of a certain Richard Branson.

“Yes, she was the housekeeper there, at the studio where Tubular Bells was recorded.”

Teenage-Fanclub-BandwagonesqueIndeed. In fact, I still picture the original boss on the roof there, as he was at the beginning of a memorable 1980 BBC documentary about XTC recording Towers of London there, the owner at the time described by the narrator as ‘rock’n’roll’s merriest millionaire’.

“Well, my wife tells a great story from before I met her, about how she was walking in the gardens one day and saw this guy in a dark corner, having been told about this prowler, a local guy. She thought, ‘I bet I know who this is’, walked down, and it was Branson. He introduced himself and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind. I used to live here. I’m Richard.’ So they went up to the house for a cup of tea!”

Talking of name-dropping, the promo video for I’m in Love was recorded in and around Edwyn Collins’ studio in remote North East Scotland. It looks a nice part of the world too, and suitably remote. And it turns out that TFC have got to know the inspirational ex-Orange Juice frontman – who famously fought back from two cerebral haemorrhages and aphasia – well.

“Edwyn’s a good friend and an amazing guy. What happened to him, the way he dealt with that, and his recovery is absolutely inspirational.

“Edwyn and his wife Grace had a studio in London, but after a few years decided to return to Scotland, and the house where he lives was his grandfather’s. It’s in this sleepy little town, and it’s beautiful. And I think we were only the second band to record there, after Hooton Tennis Club. It’s a great spot.”

The afore-mentioned new single includes those revered TFC luscious harmonies, but with a smoother sound than the original fans might have expected if they’d lost touch with the band over recent years. Put it this way – if Norman’s opener on Shadows suggested Belle and Sebastian with edgy guitars, this LP’s first track brings to mind The Divine Comedy with six-string presence.

“Oh right! Okay. Well, that’s interesting, yeah!”

So are you mellowing as a band these days?

“I think we’ve always been fairly mellow. Satan – that’s about as thrash as we got!”

Oh yes, that gloriously-noisy 81-second track after sublime opener The Concept on Bandwagonesque.

Grand+Prix+PNG“It’s got so much energy and it’s down to the drummer to keep that going! No disrespect though – all our drummers have been fantastic – Francis (MacDonald), and before that Paul (Quinn) and Brendan (O’Hare).

“But we’ve always been honest, writing about what happens in our life. We’re never going to write a front-page headline and create a story around it.”

I tell Norman I can’t believe it’s 25 years since Bandwagonesque and another since their grungier debut, A Catholic Education, was first getting back-to-back plays in my car. Which of those did he think was closest to the record the band first wanted to make?

“It’s difficult, we were listening to all sorts then, and with the first album were big fans of Sonic Youth and also influenced by the (Rolling) Stones’ Exile on Main Street. But when we met Don Fleming, who produced Bandwagonesque, he remarked how everyone was doing that sort of grunge thing, and we should focus on our harmonies, as no one else did that. That was very influential in the direction of the band. And then of course we started listening to Alex Chilton and Big Star.”

They were also rediscovering The Beatles around then, with mentions too at that stage for the likes of Badfinger, The Beach Boys and The Byrds, the latter’s influence soon standing out, as it does to this day.

“Yeah, I think with those broad musical tastes all those things will be an influence. It also takes a bit of time to establish your own. Initially, you’re the sum of your influences. And if you’re lucky enough to be around for more than three albums, then you’re probably starting to define your own sound.”

Bandwagonesque, their debut for Alan McGee’s Creation label, was recorded at Amazon Studios, just outside Kirkby in Merseyside, in barely four weeks, yet went on to sell half a million copies. And soon after, that studio operation moved into central Liverpool and became Parr Street Studios, where there was another TFC link later on.

“We actually went to Parr Street when we were mixing extra tracks for the compilation album for our Creation/Sony deal, recording three songs there. That was a great experience too.

“With regard to Alan McGee, I don’t think we’d actually signed a contract with him by then, but he was paying for the studio. He was a great guy. Theoretically, we could have sold those tracks to the highest bidder. That was the amazing thing about Creation – Alan put his own money in, took risks.”

I heard that Mr McGee rates that album alongside Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless as Creation’s finest moments. Yet it appears TFC’s success wasn’t something he banked on when signing them.

51V55D6A1EL“That’s right. I’m sure he was pleasantly surprised when the record started to sell. But it was a great time to be around Creation, with so much happening.”

As tour manager Chas Banks put it on the sleevenotes to the 2002 Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds compilation, while the band has changed over the years, they always ‘held on tightly to their core understanding of just what Teenage Fanclub was and is about’. Is that about right?

“I think it is. Chas knows us better than most. But we’ve only gone from album to album, tour to tour. There’s never been a grand plan. We’ve been making it up as we’ve gone along for 27 years! If we ever got to the end of the recording process and said, ‘These aren’t very good’, difficult as that would be, I think we’d bin them.”

There’s also an element there of you impressing yourselves before looking to impress your public.

“Well, it’s not massively lucrative to be a musician these days. You have to really enjoy it and have to want to make albums. Also, it’s 10 albums now, so we’d hate our last album to be a turkey! And hopefully, we’ve maintained consistency.”

They certainly have, and as early as 1991 they were more or less in charge, co-producing their records. So I guess the way the music industry has gone these past 25 years has worked in their favour as true independent spirits.

“Yeah, and what’s amazing about music now is that anyone can make it. Most young people will have access to a computer and recording software. All you need is a microphone and instruments. The hardest thing is that there are so many people out there now, it’s difficult to be heard, and there’s no money in it, so labels are unwilling to put money forward for bands to tour. It’s much harder to establish yourself.”

Alan McGee also mentioned how in time – and pretty quickly – you proved you had three top songwriters. And as with the earlier albums, Here offers a ‘textbook representation of democracy in action’, with four tracks each from Norman, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley. That’s quite a rarity in itself, isn’t it?

“I think that’s been a strength for us. You’re not reliant on one person to write the material. We’re talking 10 albums, so around 120 songs upwards – a tall order. We’ve been lucky enough to share that burden. When we make an album we bring around six songs then try to whittle those down, focusing on around four. There’s definitely friendly competition too. When someone brings in a great song, you feel, ‘Wow, I’m really going to have to up my game!”

At this point I mention a recent Steve Lamacq BBC 6 Music radio interview with The Undertones, which suggested that – despite winning contributions from band members over the years – they still tended to look first to John O’Neill when it came to writing new material.

MI0000484359“Actually, I love The Undertones too. Absolutely brilliant, brilliant songs. I’ve met them a couple of times. That was a thrill, being such a big fan as a kid. They’re good guys and still out there too.”

Ah yes – a man after my own heart. Meanwhile, the latest TFC press release talks of an ‘almost telepathic musicianship’ between Norman, Gerard, Raymond and soundman David Henderson. Furthermore, drummer Francis MacDonald joined more than a decade ago, while keyboard player Dave McGowan has featured on two albums. So I’m guessing they’re a good fit too.

“Yeah, they are. I think that just happens over time. You find the musicians you enjoy working with, lock in, and stay together. We’ve been very lucky, although Dave’s with Belle and Sebastian too, so unable to rehearse this week – he’s off to the far north of Sweden. But he’s an amazing musician and it’s great to have him.”

Seeing as we’ve mentioned Belle and Sebastian there – and Norman is a good friend of Stuart Murdoch, for whom he passed over his duties as Rector of the University 0f Glasgow in 2001 – let’s talk a bit more about both bands’ home city and its music scene. Norman previously played with Soup Dragons front-man Sean Dickson and fellow Glaswegians BMX Bandits, and when Teenage Fanclub started out they were part of a scene of their own making, along with the likes of The Pastels, Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain. So was there a keen sense of competition among those outfits?

“I suppose there was. It was certainly inspirational. When we started there was a club called Splash One that Bobby Gillespie and some of his friends started. A lot of people met through that. I think they put on the first Sonic Youth show in Glasgow, and great bands like Wire and Felt. So you got to see these incredible bands and hear this amazing music. I think a lot of Glasgow musicians formed and focused around that scene.

“Also, certainly initially, record label people were deciding to stay put rather than go to London, which helped the Glasgow scene go from strength to strength. Many incredible bands have come from this city, and within 25 or so years it’s been seen globally as a music city.”

It certainly took a few years to get from Norman’s earlier band The Boy Hairdressers – described by Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels as an ‘idiosyncratic take on ‘60s baroque pop’ – to a Teenage Fanclub we would now recognise, and make proper headway. Was Gerard’s arrival the major catalyst?

“I think so. For the first record I think I wrote more or less all the songs, but very quickly everyone was contributing and part of the dynamic. There were no barriers to anyone writing, no captain. It wasn’t ever my band. It very quickly became our band.”

And do your Glaswegian roots keep you grounded about your worth as musicians and songwriters?

“I’m sure they probably do. I’m staying at my parents’ house at the moment, and my Mum’s not going to let me get too much up myself! We’re always kind of grounded here.”

TeenageFanclubShadowsThe feeling I get from past interviews and comments from those who have worked with Teenage Fanclub is of a hard-working, committed band, but also one involving a group of good blokes, and friendly with it. And the band’s back-catalogue, continuing success and Norman’s amiable and honest nature in this interview confirmed that notion for me.

There’s plenty of talent there too, and Grammy-winning producer David Bianco, again for the 2002 compilation sleevenotes, talked of a ‘helping hand guiding the sessions for Grand Prix’. Have there been moments over the past three decades where it’s come naturally and others where you really had to work at it?

“There are definitely periods when it’s more of a struggle to write songs, but if that happens we just take our time. We never make a record until we’re ready and everyone has songs. I don’t think we’ve ever felt under too much pressure, other than personally.”

I didn’t get to see Teenage Fanclub live until January ’92 at Southampton University, 50 miles down the road from my Guildford base at the time. And then there was another truly memorable outing at The Forum, London, in late ’93, in the period leading up to the release of Grand Prix. Was that whole period a bit of a blur to Norman? After all, big things were happening for him at the time.

“It kind of was. We did a lot of back-to-back tours in America, and all these amazing things like going to Japan and playing with Nirvana. It was very intense, but I wouldn’t change it – an amazing experience.”

All these years on, the band remain live favourites, as suggested by their September sell-outs in Bristol, Islington, Edinburgh and Manchester, with more shows already sold out for the following 17-date UK leg from mid-November (after their return from North America). But will Norman and his band-mates be re-decorating venue dressing rooms for old time’s sake, copying their unlikely anti-rock’n’roll antics from all those years ago?

“That was at the Riverside, Newcastle. I remember we were talking about how horrible the dressing room was, with all that graffiti on the wall, asking our manager to phone the promoter and see if he could buy some paint. We did it, but as it turned out we couldn’t sit in there because of the toxic fumes from the freshly-painted walls, so didn’t really get to enjoy those pristine dressing rooms.”

TFC announce artwork[1] The new Teenage Fanclub album, Here, is released on September 9 on the PeMa label via Republic Of Music.

The main UK tour runs from a November 15th opener at Inverness Ironworks through to a date in Dublin and two sell-outs in Glasgow in early December. For full details and much more on the band’s forthcoming antics, head to http://www.teenagefanclub.com/ or follow them via their Facebook and Twitter pages.

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Looking back with the ultimate R’n’B survivor – the Wilko Johnson interview

Survival Instinct: Wilko Johnson (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Survival Instinct: Wilko Johnson and his band (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

I reckon Wilko Johnson forgot I was calling. Either that or he was just wrapped up in the book he was reading, Thomas Middleton’s early 17th century play, The Revenger’s Tragedy, enjoying time to himself back at home in Southend before his next batch of live and studio commitments.

Anyone who’s seen either of the fantastic Julien Temple documentary films involving Wilko (2009’s Dr Feelgood biopic Oil City Confidential and last year’s The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson) will know he’s a keen star-gazer. And that’s putting it mildly. It wasn’t great weather in Lancashire, but I couldn’t assume it was the same in Essex. So what did he hope to see from his rooftop observatory that night?

“Not a lot actually – it’s raining!”

I let on that – although I loved the first film – it took me a while to get the courage to watch The Ecstasy. This riveting tale of his battle against cancer was perhaps too close to home for some of us, dealing with our own family health issues. It turned out to be amazing viewing though, every bit as compelling as Julien’s quirky take on Canvey Island’s favourite sons Dr Feelgood – the band in which Wilko made his name – and all the more emotional.

Wilko’s recent health battle has been well documented, the national and international media seemingly unable to get enough of it at times. But in case you missed it, this charismatic guitar hero – widowed in 2004 after his wife and childhood sweetheart Irene died of cancer – was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer and given a few months to live in early 2013. The dad-of-two managed to accept his fate with uplifting positivity from the start though, and then somehow defied the death sentence handed down to him.

wilko_johnson_film_webI heard that Wilko – born John Wilkinson in the summer of 1947 in Canvey Island – preferred to avoid watching himself on screen. So has he seen the film yet?

“I’ve seen it once. It’s really good. Julien makes really good films, doesn’t he?”

The references are sublime, not least the classic film clips Julien weaves in or recreates, such as Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish fantasy-drama The Seventh Seal – Wilko playing chess with the Grim Reaper – and Powell and Pressberger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life & Death, again perfect in the circumstances.

It’s now three and a half years since Wilko told the world about his cancer, and he talks in that film about his diagnosis leading to a sharpening of the senses, as if seeing things properly for the first time. Is he still in that euphoric state, or have things drifted since?

“As I get better and better I get more and more miserable, so I’m returning to my old self! In fact, that whole episode of being ill then going through the op and that, it’s all like a dream. Getting the diagnosis put me into this strange state … a rather nice state in many ways. But that is a result of knowing your life’s coming to an end.

“Now it’s not coming to an end …. well, it will eventually. That whole state of consciousness, when I think back now, is like, ‘Wow! That was weird!’”

It’s the ultimate trip, I suppose.

“Mmm.”

oil cityAfter the success of both films, I’m hoping there might be a third Johnson/Temple collaboration. But if so, on what subject?

“I really have no idea. I’m seeing Julien soon, but don’t think about anything like that anymore.  I just carry on, go along with the flow. I reckon he’s got some ideas though.”

When time’s against you, I’m guessing there’s a lot of reordering in your life. What were you happiest to drop from the daily grind to fit in what really matters?

“I didn’t really think about that. It just puts you in this strange place where you’re kind of isolated from the world. People often say cancer’s a very lonely thing, and it certainly is. You’re living in this state of mind which cuts you off from the world. You don’t drop things, but there are a lot of things you don’t care about anymore.”

On a more positive note, it at least pushed Wilko higher up the ‘to do‘ list for making a record with The Who frontman Roger Daltrey … with an amazing outcome on 2014’s Going Back Home.

“Yeah – that was a fantastic career move, wasn’t it? Doing the thing with Roger was just one example of all the strange things that took place that year. And that one worked out good!”

Wilko quotes some apt literary lines during The Ecstasy, including those from another 17th century source, John Donne’s No Man is an Island (‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’). Was there always a love of reading for this Essex lad who studied Anglo-Saxon and ancient Icelandic sagas at university in Newcastle-upon-Tyne? Was he encouraged to look at books at home?

“Maybe. I started reading very young. From the word go it’s something I’ve always done.”

Wilko-Johnson-and-Roger-DaltreyWilko taught English for a while after returning from overland travels to India, but soon the band he co-founded, Dr Feelgood, were taking off, securing their first record deal in 1974. Some four decades later, how was the experience of writing Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life (aided by music writer Zoe Howe, who has also written biographies of late Feelgoods frontman Lee Brilleaux, Stevie Nicks, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Slits and Florence + the Machine, and happens to be Wilko’s drummer Dylan Howe’s wife)?

“That was all a bit weird. I’d never written a book before. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was a bit freaky, and some of it was upsetting – looking back on the bad things. Writing about Dr Feelgood I mentioned how we had a big argument and broke up, and the publisher said I should say more. I said, ‘Well, it was a long time ago …’

“But for the first time I actually looked back and remembered the argument that broke the band up. And I thought, ‘Bloody hell – those b***ards! They done me wrong!’ I was right and they were wrong! That was unpleasant. I was really wronged. And after this bust-up they were saying in the papers it was my fault, blaming it all on me, just lying about me really. Well … f*** ‘em!”

That was in 1977, with a spell fronting the Solid Senders following, before he joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads, then went his own way again. And he’s led the Wilko Johnson Band for around 35 years now.

Back to the health story, and after his highly-emotional Spring 2013 farewell tour and swiftly-recorded album with Roger Daltrey, it turned out that Wilko didn’t have the more common adenocarcinoma of the pancreas after all, but a less virulent, more treatable form. And in late April 2014 he underwent a radical 11-hour operation to remove a mighty 3kg tumour, six months later memorably and rather miraculously announcing – while accepting Q magazine’s ‘icon award’ – that he was ‘cancer-free’.

dr_feelgood_-_1975_-_down_by_the_jettyHow are the energy levels right now, with quite a few shows lined up this summer?

“It’s really good actually, the gigs and everything. It’s going very well.”

My excuse for speaking to Wilko is his Great British R’n’B festival appearance in Colne, East Lancashire, on Sunday, August 28th. And R’nB is a genre he’ll forever be associated with, this artist who recently added his name to The First Time I Met the Blues, a Chess Masters compilation.

What came first for Wilko when it came to inspiration – hearing Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, or being turned on to The Rolling Stones, subsequently leading him to Muddy Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and all those innovators?

“I was a teenager, so you’re getting everything, aren’t you. I suppose the music I was into and what-not meant I was led into all that by The Stones chiefly. That’s how I found out about rhythm and blues. But it all seems fantastic when you’re a teenager.”

Funny you should say that. I was stopped in my tracks as a pre-teen by the music of punk and new wave bands like The Jam, The Stranglers, The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Undertones, who all acknowledged Dr Feelgood’s influence on them.

“Yeah, it all goes on like that.”

Wilko has his regular band with him at Colne, joining forces with revered Blockheads bass player Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe. There’s something about that three-piece set-up I find so powerful, I tell him. Perhaps it’s just difficult to hide – you have to give your all.

CS576138-01A-BIG“Yeah, it takes it right down to the bone. It’s great. Roger told me The Who went for that singer and three-piece line-up because of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. In the early days – as The High Numbers – they supported them and decided that was what they wanted to do. So the Pirates influenced The Who, who then influenced Dr Feelgood, and we influenced The Jam. You just pass it on and on!”

One of those Feelgood-influenced bands I mentioned were The Stranglers, and Wilko remains friends with their bass player, JJ Burnel, who said nice things about him in an interview with me a while ago (with a link here).

“Yeah, we were pretty good mates, and he moved into my flat.”

That was in West Hampstead, wasn’t it?

“Yeah, we had some good times back then.”

Thinking of Wilko as this Canvey boy when the Island was arguably looked down on, then as this clever working-class lad at a mostly middle-class grammar school, and so on, is it fair to say he was always a bit of an outsider?

“I don’t think so. I never felt that way. And when I’m on Canvey Island I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider!”

Of course, as a fellow left-hander I’ve been known to blame that on not properly learning guitar, when really it was down to a lack of dedication instead, concentrating on other things. Besides, there was Wilko, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and many more gifted left-handers showing me up on that front.

“Well, there you go!”

Live Wires: Dylan, Wilko and Norman give it some (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Live Wires: Dylan, Wilko and Norman give it some (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

I guess that if you really want to learn something, you’ll do it, right?

“Yeah. Looking back to learning the guitar, again I was a teenager and you happily sit there twanging away for hours and hours. I can’t imagine doing a thing like that now though.”

It struck me recently that your famous Fender Telecaster has been in the business even longer than you, pushing 50-plus years now. Do you know much about its first dozen years?

“I have two ‘62 Telecasters, one of which I bought new in about 1965, buying the other around the time Dr Feelgood started to become successful, as I didn’t want to take my old one on the road anymore. I painted that red and black. That was its beginning with me. Where or what it was before though, I do not know.”

I understand your brother, Malcolm, plays guitar too. Were those musical genes from the Wilkinson side or your Mum’s side?

“I don’t know. There was absolutely no music in our family that I know of. Nothing like that. I started playing rock’n’roll as a teenager, and Malcolm got a bit involved, then followed on to classical music. He’s very good. He plays the lute as well, and makes his living as a guitar teacher.”

Tunnel Vision: Norman, Wilko and Dylan, going underground (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Tunnel Vision: Norman, Wilko and Dylan, going underground (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Meanwhile, Wilko’s son Simon followed him into performing with his band, Eight Rounds Rapid.

“Oh yeah!”

How about your other son, Matthew – you didn’t put him off, did you?

“No! When he was about three years old – when the Feelgoods were really happening – he came to a few gigs, and like loads of kids he was fascinated by the drums. So for his third birthday or that Christmas I bought him a little drum kit. I showed it to him, and he just said, ‘Where’s me sticks?’ So yeah, he dabbled around with it as a kid.”

I won’t go into too much detail here, as it’s elsewhere on this blog in an earlier appreciation of all things Wilko following the initial news of his diagnosis (see the link at the end). But the first time I saw him live was something of a revelation. I knew of his Dr Feelgood past and all those records, but didn’t know too much about the band’s guitarist as a performer, so have clear memories of my first sight of him gliding across the stage – only seeing him from the waist up – at the Kennington Cricketers in early ‘86, and later at Putney Half Moon (in late ‘87). And in between those gigs I shelled out on live album Watch Out! too.

wilkowatchThat involved Norman as well, although it was Salvatore Ramundo on drums back then. Has Wilko kept in touch with the latter?

“He lives in Italy now. Funnily enough, I was just trying to call him earlier about something. So yes, we keep in touch.”

I know you never really liked the term ‘pub rock’, as Dr Feelgood were often described as prime exponents of, but we seem in danger of losing more and more of those treasured pub venues you once played in.

“Yeah, it kind of goes up and down, I suppose as the way music goes. When me and Norman started this band around the mid-‘80s, at that moment there were loads of good gigs in London and you could make a living just playing around there. Like you say – The Cricketers, the Half Moon, The Marquee, The Mean Fiddler, The Powerhaus. There were lots of gigs and lots of live music going down. Then it gradually changed with the dance thing, those live venues started going and the gigs went. What the scene is now, I do not know. I wonder what people are doing now!”

Those venues certainly had a great atmosphere, perfect for live music.

“Well yeah. It’s kind of the ideal situation for rock’n’roll, those kind of gigs. I think so.”

Three years ago Norman was emotional talking about Wilko’s health battle on stage at Preston’s 53 Degrees before the post-Dury Blockheads played Sweet Gene Vincent, which was also dedicated to their late lead singer and original drummer Charley Charles.

Norman and Wilko were together in the Blockheads for a short while, Wilko touring with the band, memorably introducing himself on 1980’s I Want To Be Straight and then featuring on the Laughter album. They later resumed a working relationship as part of Wilko’s band, and I put it to him that Norman always comes over as a decent bloke.

“Isn’t he just! Wow man! When Ian Dury asked me to join The Blockheads, I did it because I really wanted to play with that bass player! I didn’t know Norman then, but he was absolutely my favourite bass player. When I joined The Blockheads we became great mates.

Dr._Feelgood_-_Malpractice“He’s just so good at what he does, a really great guy. We’ve been great friends for all these years now.”

And now it appears that these two 60-somethings are kept young by 47-year-old Dylan Howe on the road. But with Wilko’s amazing recovery, is there a feeling that this has all turned him into something of a fraud?

“It was a bit weird. When I got cancer, I didn’t ask for any of that, but suddenly all these newspapers wanted to interview me and get me to talk about it. I suppose a lot of people don’t want to talk about those things, whereas I did. So you’re going through your deep thoughts on death and whatever. Then a year later you’re saying, ‘Well, actually …”

Let’s not count our blessings here, but you’re in danger at this rate of celebrating your 70th on the road next year. Is it still a case of ‘take each day as it comes’ after all you’ve endured?

“Ever since my recovery it’s all been a bonus really. So yeah, I just take things as they come.”

Do you keep in touch with Charlie Chan, the ‘frustrated photographer and itinerant cancer surgeon’ from Cheltenham who first suspected Wilko’s tumour might be operable after all, after a fateful evening taking photos at a gig?

“Oh, indeed! I last saw him a couple of weeks ago.”

Can you remember anything about the op? Were you up there on the ceiling looking down?

“No, but I did have that experience once in a dentist’s chair when I was a kid. But this was 11 or 12 hours, so to make you unconscious that long they’ve really got to dope you up.

Reflective Mode: Wilko Johnson (Photo copyright: Looking Back: Leif Laaksonen)

Reflective Mode: Wilko Johnson (Photo copyright: Looking Back: Leif Laaksonen)

“The day before the operation we went to Cambridge to stay in a hotel so we could get into the hospital first thing in the morning. I remember that but can’t remember going across to the hospital, being anaesthetised or anything else. It’s an absolute blank.”

You make a nice comment on the documentary about your debt to the medical staff that helped you pull through at Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

“Well, bloody hell – what can I say? Absolutely! It’s difficult for me to look on all the people at Addenbrooke’s – particularly Mr Huguet, the surgeon – as humans!

“When you’re in that situation and you see the work they do – what an institution the NHS is! And it’s terrifying the way they want to … well, these people!”

Away from the music, some people will know Wilko best for his role as mute executioner Ilyn Payne in 2011 and 2012 in hit American TV fantasy-drama Game of Thrones.

“Again, that was a surprise thing, the only bit of acting I’ve ever done. It was most enjoyable though. I took part in the first two series but then of course the cancer came along. My character’s not dead though. He lives on too! So they could possibly stick me in the next series. I hope they do. We shall see.”

Mute Warning: Wilko Johnson in Game of Thrones (Copyright: HBO)

Mute Warning: Wilko Johnson in Game of Thrones (Copyright: HBO)

You’re playing a few dates at present, and clearly loving that, but how about a new album?

“Well, I’m going for a meeting with the record company tomorrow, and we’re going to be talking about that, yeah!”

Finally, what advice might today’s Wilko offer to early ‘70s English tutor Mr Wilkinson, that might have saved him a bit of aggro in the following years?

“I tell you what, I think I’d probably just say, ‘Man, you ain’t so clever!’ But tomorrow’s me could probably come back tomorrow and tell me that too!”

Wilko Johnson’s band play the international stage at the Great British R&B Festival on Sunday, August 28th, with Willie and The Bandits and The Jive Aces also on the bill. The line-up for the event’s 27th year also includes Dave Edmunds, Nine Below Zero and Bernie Marsden’s Blues and Green project (Friday, August 26th);  Nikki Hill, Earl Thomas and James Hunter (Saturday, August 27th), then Jordan Patterson, Sari Schorr and the Devon Allman Band (Monday, August 29th). There’s also a British stage and a daytime acoustic stage, the event running through to 6.30pm on Monday, August 29, with several local venues involved. Full four-day tickets are £95, with individual day tickets £28 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for the international stage, or £20 for Monday afternoon. For more information, full line-ups, directions, and tickets, head here.

Celebration Time: Wilko and his band, coming to entertain you (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

Celebration Time: Wilko and his band, coming to entertain you (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

And for all the latest from Wilko, including a number of live dates between now and mid-October, check out his website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, for that April 2013 Wilko appreciation on this website, head here.

 

 

 

 

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About the Young Idea – talking about The Jam with Nicky Weller

Display Material: Inside the All Mod Cons area of the exhibition (Photo: About the Young Idea)

Display Material: Inside the All Mod Cons area of the exhibition (Photo: About the Young Idea)

From the moment you turn right at the desk inside the Cunard Building’s The Jam – About the Young Idea exhibition and head down a mock London Underground tunnel lined with promo posters publicising the original records, you’re in for a mighty slice of nostalgia.

At once, you’re Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, these historic Liverpool Pier Head rooms transformed into the capital at the start of a room-to-room ramble, one guiding you through the life of a band that came up through punk and helped kick-start a Mod revival, enjoying five years of major success before going out at the top in late 1982.

From memorabilia collages to the band’s stage gear (clothes and equipment), early hand-written lyrics to guitars (including Paul’s iconic pop-art Rickenbacker), press cuttings to live photos, and with vinyl, fashion and even pots of jam on sale for charity, it’s all there.

You also get a vivid picture of the band’s background and can take a peak through a window display recreating the Weller household in the ‘60s, and another of a mocked-up backstage area. And while the staff are there to ensure you don’t ride on any of the scooters on show, it’s very much interactive, with plenty to listen to and gaze upon in wonder.

I was no Mod, but loved The Jam from the moment I first heard them, this three-piece from a few miles up the road in my native Surrey having a similar effect on at least two generations then, and plenty since. And this winning collection – first housed at London’s Somerset House last year – charting the rise and influence of the band is for three months this summer (until late September) not far from my more recent doorstep in North-West England.

I loved every record Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Bucker made from 1977 onwards, immersing myself in their history and post-Jam careers. But you don’t have to be a big fan to appreciate this show.

City Gents: Paul, rick and Bruce picked out for The Jam's In the city exhibition area (Photo: About the Young Idea)

City Gents: Paul, Rick and Bruce picked out for the In the City area (Photo: About the Young Idea)

It’s every bit as much about the fashion, culture and politics of the era, taking you back to the band members’ ‘60s and early ‘70s roots, with plenty of unearthed, unseen content and exhibits from a group who became the voice of a generation. It’s not what you might expect either, evolving as it goes and evocative for anyone growing up in that era or who has since got the bug for live music and youth culture.

Each room at this grade-II listed building has a theme, whether it involves the formation of the band and the town they sprang from, each album they made, or the legacy they left. Meanwhile, giant screens, TVs and sound systems belt out Jam classics, promo videos, documentaries and films about the band and Britain at the time they reigned supreme. And in what’s thought to be a first, there’s also an interactive element, a free app allowing visitors to engage with the exhibits by scanning VCodes, saving five favourites to a mobile device for later.

Furthermore, my own pilgrimage – a lad with Woking roots despite a move to Lancashire in the ‘90s – was made all the more special by meeting Paul Weller’s sister Nicky in the café at the end of my visit. And the first thing I put to Nicky, staying in Liverpool throughout the run, was what a great event it was, and so much more than you might expect.

“Well, that’s what we wanted to achieve really.”

Woking Roots: Nicky and Paul Weller (Photo: About the Young Idea)

Woking Roots: Nicky and Paul Weller (Photo: About the Young Idea)

The sheer amount of items on display is staggering, I tell her. They can’t all be stored in the attic at Weller HQ between exhibitions, surely.

“No! They’ve been in a lock-up since we finished at Somerset House.”

I’m guessing a lot came from you and your Mum’s days helping with The Jam’s fan club.

“Definitely. It’s down to everyone getting stuck in, and along the way people have come to us and said, ‘Look, I’ve found this!’ That’s really nice, and we’re still adding things.”

Even while I was in, a few items were turning up in display cases.

“Every day something is added or comes in and we think, ‘We can’t miss that out!’ It’s nice to be able to do that – we couldn’t at Somerset House.”

I believe some came from Paul’s shed, and your Dad (legendary Jam manager John Weller) was a great collector too.

“Yep, and Mum’s the biggest magpie ever! She kept so much. And it’s great that they have all kept things really.”

I understand that a few of those items hadn’t been looked at since they were first packed away, such as some of the cine footage.

“We didn’t even know some of that existed. Some of the quarter-inch (cartridge tape), like finding Blueberry Rock (a 1973 Paul Weller song).”

It must have been quite emotional, not least with your Dad in mind (John Weller died in 2009, aged 77, having also managed his son in The Style Council and as a solo artist).

“Definitely, me and Mum were sat in the garage going through it all, and it was emotional. We hadn’t unpacked a lot of it since Dad died. It’s been quite therapeutic, I guess.”

It’s nice to see a fair bit about John, including a new documentary playing in a room dedicated to him. It can’t have been easy for you all in recent times. Was this a nice way to pay your own tribute?

“Yeah, such a little part of that story was at Somerset House last year, just due to the lack of space really. This time we wanted to make sure it was properly shown. So it’s much more of a tribute.”

Scooter Club: Going underground at the Liverpool exhibition (Photo: About the Young Idea)

Scooter Club: Going underground at the Liverpool exhibition (Photo: About the Young Idea)

A friend of mine from Woking who saw a lot of the early gigs – including some of those at Michael’s, Sheerwater Youth Club, the YMCA, Westfield Club, and the Liberal Club – said when I posted a photo from the exhibition on social media, ‘Johnny Weller, absolute legend, always very good to us back in the day’. And that’s something I’ve heard a few times.

“Yeah, a lot of people come up and say, ‘I met your Dad. He was really lovely and did this or that, gave us money, let kids in backstage, all that. That’s what he was like.”

Is that right that he was also the amateur boxer on the title credit sequence of Grandstand?

“Yes, he was. I’ve got copies of that. The BBC found it for us and put it on a DVD.”

I’m guessing there was a fair bit of foresight involved in keeping this collection together. I know there was never anything less than 100% belief from Paul and your Dad over finding fame, so perhaps that had an influence. Or were you just hoarders?

“I think we’re natural hoarders – all of us! I still am. My partner Russell is a record collector, and we collect posters and everything. I’m glad we do, but even now I can’t stop. I went to a Buzzcocks gig the other night up here the other night and saw a lovely limited edition Eric’s poster and had to have it. That never leaves you!”

Tunnel Vision: Down in the Tube Station at Pier Head (Photo: About the Young Idea)

Tunnel Vision: Down in the Tube Station at Pier Head (Photo: About the Young Idea)

Nicky lives in Maida Vale, London, these days, but plans to stick around in Liverpool throughout the exhibition.

“I’ve been up here since May. I love it. I’m going home tonight for a couple of days for a change of scenery though. Mum’s been telling me, ‘I haven’t seen you for weeks!’”

Among the most evocative displayed items are her brother’s school exercise book jottings and doodles, and it appears he already had the name for the band and the logo then, although The Jam turned out to be far cooler than the group he drew.

“Absolutely! I think that as well. But he obviously always had it in his head … the whole concept.”

From what I’ve heard from your team, and have now seen in person, you’re very much ‘hands on’ when it comes to this exhibition. There’s even talk of you running a vacuum around at closing time.

“Oh definitely. I do everything – the tills, the payroll, the cleaning … but that’s part of being the boss. You’ve got to get stuck in. How can I tell someone they’re not doing something right if I can’t do it myself?”

Are you still on £5 a week, like you were at the age of 14 looking after The Jam’s fan club?

“I’m on nothing a week at the moment, actually! We’ve had backing to do this exhibition from Liverpool City Council, so they have to be paid back first. So fingers crossed it makes a bit of profit – otherwise me, Russ (Reader) and Den (Davis) are going to be doing this for nothing. But we’re enjoying it anyway.”

Meeting Nicky: The blogger with Nicky Weller in the About the Young Idea cafe (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Meeting Nicky: The blogger with Nicky Weller in the exhibition’s cafe (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Thinking of those fan club days, they must have involved a lot of mail, judging by the band’s popularity.

“A hell of a lot of mail – crazy amounts! You sort of forget how big The Jam were really, and how quickly they became so popular. It wasn’t an overnight success either. They worked hard to get there, but it was quite amazing the extent of it.”

After trying to get a few words in with Dave Lees in the café and talking to the girls in the exhibit rooms, it’s clear that Nicky has a dedicated team around her.

“Yeah! You’re lucky you got some words in with Dave! He doesn’t stop – he’s our little mine of information!”

It’s not just about the obvious display items either, great as Paul’s guitars and all those photographs are. There are lots of surprises, and that’s for anyone with an interest in ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s music, fashion and culture.

“Definitely. Even if you weren’t that interested in The Jam, coming to this exhibition, there’s so much social history and a real picture of what was going on at the time. Tourists off the street have told us how great they thought it was and what a good afternoon they’ve spent. That’s what we want to encourage.

“We’ve even got Pokemon in here, for kids in with their Mums and Dads … whatever that means … it’s all bonkers to me!”

Managing Expectations: John Weller greets the visitors in his own special way (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Managing Expectations: John Weller greets the visitors in his own special way (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Has your brother been along yet?

“He hasn’t yet. He’s coming along at the end of August. He’s with his kids at the moment, enjoying his year off.”

How about Jam bassist (and past writewyattuk interviewee) Bruce Foxton (playing and recording these days with his From the Jam colleague Russell Hastings)?

“Bruce is coming on August 22 for a Q&A session and an acoustic event with Russ. So that’ll be good too.”

And the drummer, Rick Buckler (a fellow past writewyattuk interviewee)?

“Rick came on the opening night and to open the exhibition the next day, and hopefully he’ll come back to do an Q&A and sign his book (2015 Omnibus publication That’s Entertainment – My Life in The Jam, co-written with Ian Snowball).”

Location-wise, the Cunard Building, one of Liverpool’s ‘Three Graces’, is perfectly placed, close to the city and the Mersey waterfront. And when you’re done with the exhibits, you can always admire its part-Italian Renaissance, part-Greek Revival architecture.

Fashion Statement: Inside About the New Idea (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Fashion Statement: Inside About the New Idea (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

There are even ‘four lads who shook the world’ cast in bronze not far behind the building, newly donated to the city by the Cavern Club. So I can see why Liverpool was chosen.

“We looked at lots of places, including Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham. But when we came to Liverpool we had such a good response from the council. This wasn’t the original building we were going into, so it was all a bit of a rush in the end, but I’m glad we did choose the Cunard. Nothing like this has ever been done in this room, and with the musical history here – The Beatles, Merseybeat, Gerry & The Pacemakers, all those bands – it’s perfect. It’s like a Mecca for music. And if you’re coming here to see The Beatles, you’ve got to come and see The Jam too!”

Jam fans were famously loyal, and there were large number of fan club members in Liverpool, Manchester and throughout the North West.

“Yeah, huge! After London, Liverpool and Scotland, along with Newcastle, Manchester was probably our biggest fan-base.”

Did you ever get out on tour with the band?

“A little … but only through bunking off school! I was a kid, selling badges and so on. I wasn’t as involved though until around the time The Jam broke up, working at Solid Bond Studios for Paul.”

Jam Collage: Mementoes of the band in the exhibition's entrance hall (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Jam Collage: Memorabilia of the band in the exhibition’s entrance hall (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

I seem to recall from recollections of friends from Woking that Paul was a Beatles obsessive as a kid. Was that before your time?

“No, he’s only around four years older. I remember him having his Beatles records in his clothes drawers and his shirts in a little neat pile on the floor – that was his pride and joy.”

Do you ever go back to Woking, and what’s left of Stanley Road (the family home has long since been demolished)?

“I do, when I’m at home I make sure I’m down pretty much once a week to see Mum. She was up here for a week with me too, and really enjoyed it.”

I tell Nicky about my own close links to Woking, my great-grandparents moving to the town in the 1890s, a link that continued until my Nan passed away a century later, and with both my Dad and Grandad born and brought up in the same part of town. And then there’s my support of the town’s football team, Woking FC – whose clubhouse memorably features in The Style Council’s A Solid Bond in your Heart video – watching them home and away when I can, despite being based 230 miles away these days.

I get the feeling, I tell Nicky, that Paul never lost that affinity with his Woking roots either – not just via The Jam but also as a solo artist, for example the locations on the video to Uh Huh Oh Yeah.

Town Identity: The blogger, part of the exhibition reception committee (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Town Identity: The blogger, part of the exhibition reception committee (Photo: Richard Houghton)

Growing up, he probably just wanted to be out of there and up to London, but I have the impression he properly appreciates it all a bit more now.

“I think so. Obviously, Paul has his studio near there and whenever he feels like writing he’s there every week, doing something. Mum’s moved nearby as well, so it’s nice to pop by. And it’s so green, isn’t it? When you’re up in London all week it’s only about half an hour’s drive, but you’re back in the middle of the country again.”

Yep, Pretty Green you could say, So, where’s next for the exhibition? Might it be destined for a UK or world tour of its own?

“I’d like it go international. At the moment I can’t even get my head around it, but there are people asking us to move it abroad. We’ll see what happens.”

Among all the exhibits and memorabilia, have you a favourite item, or something most precious to you?

“I think it’s probably Paul’s school books. They’re brilliant. They were the best find really.”

Suits You: Redefining style at the About the Young Idea exhibition (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Suits You: Redefining style at the About the Young Idea exhibition (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

And what items receive the most mentions from visitors?

“I think it’s them, actually. Also the clothes – people really seem to love the way we’ve displayed them this time.

“And I just think there’s so much more to see. It’s a real insight into everything.”

This exhibition ends on September 25, but is changing as it goes. Any more surprises coming?

“All the rooms have different bits and pieces I can think of. Those who only came along on the opening might have missed at least one display. One guy who’s a military collector recreated the whole Setting Sons LP (inside) cover – from the army jacket right down to the little knick-knacks.

“I even had to get a roll of fake dirt to put in the bottom of the tray. He did something for Eton Rifles too. It’s amazing what people come up with. Someone came in the other day with a little Eric’s card, and I felt that had to go straight into that display. Yep, it’s ever evolving!”

Cunard Building: One of Liverpool's 'Three Graces', home to the About the Young Idea exhibition (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Cunard Building: One of Liverpool’s ‘Three Graces’, home to the About the Young Idea exhibition (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

The Jam – About the Young Idea is open daily from 10am until 6pm at the Cunard Building, Liverpool Pier Head, until September 25th, with tickets £9.50 at peak times and £5 off-peak and only a limited number sold each day. For further details – including information about a special literary event on September 3rd – head here.  

Meanwhile, there’s a whole lot of The Jam-related material on this website, not least interviews with Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, and plenty of reviews too. Just type The Jam, Bruce Foxton, Paul Weller and Rick Buckler into the search section and see what you can find. 

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On the write wavelength – the Jenn Ashworth interview

Rave Reviews: Author Jenn Ashcroft has earned plenty of critical acclaim over the last few years (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Rave Reviews: Author Jenn Ashworth (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Jenn Ashworth is part-way into a busy schedule of promotional visits, travelling to and from her North Lancashire base spreading the word about newly-published, critically-acclaimed novel Fell, a haunting, mysterious tale set on the edge of Morecambe Bay.

Born in 1982 in Preston, Lancashire, Jenn studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge, before a creative writing MA at the University of Manchester. Her first novel, 2009’s A Kind of Intimacy, won a 2010 Betty Trask Award, while 2011 follow-up Cold Light brought recognition for Jenn as one of the UK’s 12 best new novelists from the BBC’s Culture Show.

Her books have since been translated into French, Italian and German, and published in the USA, and her short stories, reviews and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Guardian. She also wrote the prize-winning blog, Every Day I Lie a Little.

Three years ago her Chorley-based third novel, The Friday Gospels, arguably shed light on her experiences growing up in the Mormon church (as was the case for fellow North-West based author Carys Bray’s 2014 debut novel A Song for Issy Bradley). And now the former prison librarian, who also lectures in creative writing at Lancaster University, is back in Chorley as a guest of independent bookshop ebb & flo, talking about Fell at the town’s central library.

And at a time when so many libraries are under threat of closure, Jenn’s more than happy to speak out in praise of these local centres of learning that played such a key part in her own life story.

“I hated high school, and many times when I was supposed to be there, I was actually in the Harris Library in Preston. I remember sitting there one weekday morning, leaning against a radiator reading Melvin Burgess’s The Baby and Fly Pie in one sitting.

“It was my safe and happy place – a good place to be alone, and read whatever I wanted. I was too young to know anything about book hype, the cannon or what books were suitable for a teenage girl of my class and background. So I read whatever I wanted. I cherish those memories, and later on became a librarian because I wanted to help facilitate that freedom for others.”

ebbandflow_logo_homeIt’s also nice to see independent booksellers like event promoter ebb & flo doing well in these times of austerity.

“Indie bookshops are incredibly important for readers and writers: I’ve been visiting a lot these past couple of weeks – from Plackitt and Booth, Lytham, to Broadhursts, Southport, and Pritchards, Crosby.

“Each one is different – each bookseller knows their own readers and gives something of themselves in selecting and promoting the books. They are labours of love. I love to visit them.”

Jenn was at Waterstone’s in Deansgate, Manchester, for her most recent Fell event. How did that go?

“It went really well – a lovely audience asked lots of interesting questions and were very patient with me turning up gibbering and slightly late after having my car rear-ended on the way.

“This is my fourth book so there were familiar faces, readers who have become friends over the years – as well as some who’d perhaps never heard of me or my work before. I think this is what bookshops do best: bringing readers together, facilitating interesting conversations.”

You’ve written very eloquently about your education, not least years of ‘school refusal’. Yet you passed your exams and went ‘up’ to Cambridge. Did you feel an outsider there, or did it help you seek out fellow creative minds on your wavelength?

“I was happy there. The workload was phenomenal but all those libraries … and that sense of dizzying freedom within the structure of a very broad and demanding course. There were some difficulties – I wasn’t by any means the only free-school-dinner kid there, but it felt like it a lot of the time, and Cambridge is an incredibly expensive place to live.

“I cleaned and worked in bars to help feed myself, which meant I wasn’t able to do lots of the other amazing things the city and university has on offer. That was difficult sometimes. But my overall memories are happy. I was surrounded by people as curious about reading and language as I was, pretty much for the first time – that experience outweighed all the other differences I noticed and experienced.”

Talking Books: Jenn Ashworth at the Writers’ Centre, Norwich (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Talking Books: Jenn Ashworth at the Writers’ Centre, Norwich (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Has your writing about your school days inspired others to relate their own similar experiences and traumas?

“The article I wrote for The Guardian about my experiences with high school had a huge response. Lots of teenagers and parents wrote to me about their own experiences and I was massively proud of being able to bring my own experience into the open, letting children who could not ‘do school’ know that there was no reason why they couldn’t go on and be successful.

“I certainly wouldn’t use the word trauma though – I was just a bad fit for the kind of education that was on offer.”

When you did your master of arts at Manchester Uni, did you already know where you were heading, career-wise?

“I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Doing an MA in creative writing isn’t the only or even the best way to make that happen for many writers, but it was formative for me – the very first time I’d shown my work to a group of strangers and heard what they thought of it. After you’d done that for a year, reviews hold no fear at all. It both toughened me and made me a more sensitive reader and writer, an experience I hope to give to my own MA students.”

How did your librarian spells at the Bodleian in Cambridge and a Lancashire prison compare?

“My work at the Bodleian was behind-the-scenes, checking in new acquisitions, rarely meeting readers. I enjoyed it, but it taught me that what I really wanted to do was be a public librarian and work directly with readers.

“The prison work I did, at HMP Garth, Leyland, remains one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, though sadly the worst paid. I worked with men on long sentences – some of whom only just learning to read, some of which studying OU courses. It was my job to support them all, and I hope I did.”

Write Advice: Jenn Ashworth at the Manchester Blog Awards in 2010 (Photo copyright: Tim Power)

Write Advice: Jenn Ashworth at the Manchester Blog Awards in 2010 (Photo copyright: Tim Power)

How do you fit family life around your writing (Jenn has two school-age children)?

“I work it out the same as most parents – I juggle. I think I have it easier than many working parents because my work is flexible, and I don’t need much special equipment to write – only a chair and a computer or notebook.”

Is yours a house creaking under bookshelves? Have you a study or writing shed where you work? Do you write in silence, or with music in the background?

“I keep most of my books in my office at Lancaster University – I don’t write there very much because it’s a busy department, but if inspiration strikes at work I’ll sneak off to my car or the library and get a few hundred words down when I can.

“Most of my writing takes place in bed, though that’s not too good for my back, so I’m hatching a plan for a garden office, hopefully containing a comfy day-bed and blanket, and will be the place where the next book is written.

“I don’t need silence to write. My family are almost always around. But I can’t listen to music and imagine at the same time.”

Is your lecturing post at Lancaster Uni a good way to keep in touch with emerging writers and channel creative energies?

“It’s important to me because teaching forces me to collect my thoughts around a particular topic and articulate them in ways I might never have before: it makes me decide what I think about things.

Debut Success: 2009's A Kind of Intimacy

Debut Success: 2009’s A Kind of Intimacy

“It also means I’m working with people struggling with the same things as I do – with confidence, with motivation, with a technical problem or with anxieties about literary worth and influence.

“It isn’t always easy to get the balance right and some weeks I get to the Friday and realise I’ve been helping everyone else with their writing but not spent enough time on my own, but I’m learning to manage that better.”

Your first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, won a Betty Trask Award. What did you do with the £1,500 prize money?

“I was writing full time and expecting a baby, and I think I spent a little bit on repairing my laptop and the rest on rent. It was a bit of a life-saver, that prize money. My landlord certainly appreciated it.”

What came first for you – finding an agent or a publisher? And have you stuck with the same representation?

“I’ve had my agent since the very beginning of my career and he nursed me through that first year when everyone was rejecting my first novel and it was finally published by a small publisher – Arcadia – who did an amazing job marketing it.

“I’m happy with Sceptre and hope to stay there for a long time, but it’s true that many authors change publishers a number of times during their career while staying with the same agent from the outset.”

After 2011’s Cold Light (partly written during Jenn’s HMP Garth lunch hours), you featured on the BBC’s Culture Show as one of the UK’s our 12 best new writers. Was that a big moment?

“It was a very, very strange moment. I don’t think many writers set pen to paper because they nurse an ambition of being on television! It really helped sales of the books, and I was glad for that. And when the fuss died down a bit I could return to my darkened room to toil away in the usual obscurity.”

Second Footing: 2011's Cold Light

Second Footing: 2011’s Cold Light

Was there a specific moment when you realised you’d truly made it?

“I think the moment when you see the book as an object – that by a magical process it gets taken from the hard-drive of your computer and turned into an actual thing with a cover and title page – is hard to beat. And it’s always been a moment of celebration when the author copies arrive in their box from my publisher.

“I’ve never seen anyone on a train reading my book – I think if that ever happened I’d be pretty excited about it. But I don’t think of those things as ‘making it’. I write, so I am a writer. Everything else is a bonus.”

Your novels have been translated into several languages and published stateside. Are those all slightly surreal moments for this Lancashire lass?

“I often wonder what people in Paris or Istanbul or Frankfurt or New York make of my very Northern, very domestic novels. But we all write from the place we start, don’t we?”

How much did your Mormon upbringing shape you, not least in questioning beliefs and faith and becoming a writer? How much of your upbringing was in The Friday Gospels or any other novel?

“I don’t write autobiographically. I’m a fiction writer. But of course my own perspectives and interests have been shaped by experiences. And I didn’t really need to do much research on British Mormon culture after having been brought up firmly embedded within it.

“I think I’ve always had a very curious and critical mind. That made it impossible for me to be a good Mormon girl, but it certainly helped me become a writer, and my interest in faith, family, awkwardness and odd characters is a gift that came from my childhood.”

Were books your way of escape? Were there a lot around the house? And do you remain an avid reader among all your other roles today?

“Books were my world: they weren’t only my safe place, they were the place, even in the most fantastic fiction, where I felt I was being told and shown truths no-one else would tell me. And I’m still an avid reader – a couple of hours a day if I can. More if I have the chance.”

Fell has earned rave reviews, not least from The Sunday Times and various online sites. You mention Grange-over-Sands’ former TB hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded First World War soldiers – building on the idea of recovering from illness. Are Morecambe Bay and Grange places you knew well from your earliest days?

“Yes – I remember going on days out when I was a child – walking around Grange-over-Sands, eating ice-creams by the duck pond. I didn’t know about the old lido until I was much older, but as soon as I heard about it I think I knew I was going to write about it. I’ve always loved the sea and seashores. They’re such strange places, aren’t they?”

The crumbling house and desolate coastline – its shifting sands and treacherous tides – are key to the novel too. Did you always have that specific area in mind?

“Yes, right from the beginning. It is a book about change, decay and transformation. There could be no other landscape in which to set it.”

There’s certainly a haunted feel to the area, whether we’re thinking ancient history or more recent events like the tragic drowning of the Chinese cockle-pickers. We also recently had a successful Gothic horror story set there, Preston author (a fellow former librarian) Andrew Michael Hurley winning the 2015 Costa first novel award for The Loney, an amazing success, not least considering its initial print run was just 300 copies.

“Andrew Hurley is an amazing writer – I remember when The Loney first came out, the wonderful Tartarus Press wanting to push the book into people’s hands.

Costa Success: Andrew Michael Hurley's The Loney

Costa Success: Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney

“Tartarus did what small presses are so brilliantly good at – taking a chance on a strange book by a new writer. The fact that it’s become so popular – and justifiably so – demonstrates how much we need our small presses.

“That’s where the innovation and risk taking in publishing is coming from. There is always hope, I think, for a writer to find their readers. We won’t all be bestsellers and not every book is going to make money. That’s fine. But writers can and should always hope they will find their readers.”

Bookmunch said of Fell it’s a ‘fascinating and original way to tell a story’, the idea of using spirits as narrators. Is that right that it took a few redrafts before switching from first-person narrative?

“I always knew the book would be narrated strangely – that it wouldn’t be the same as the other first person narratives I’d worked on before. I wanted to try something different, and the subject matter of the book demanded something different. But the idea of ghosts, and the first person plural omniscient – which is a mouthful! – came after a few trial-and-error drafts where I tried other ways of telling.”

Have you always enjoyed spooky stories and paranormal tales? What were the big literary influences on you in those formative years?

“I think one of the first stories I wrote was a ghost or zombie story. I’ve always had a taste for the weird and scary. One of my favourite writers is Shirley Jackson – she manages to combine the domestic and the strange, the uncanny and the everyday, in a way that I can only be envious of.”

At a time when the world seems obsessed by chasing Pokemons, you write a tale with a nod to the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Are you a big fan of Greek mythology?

“I am, yes. These are our oldest stories. There are good reasons why we’ve remembered them and reinterpreted them for so long, and it’s fitting that some of my work involved transforming an old story, one which itself was about transformation.”

Before A Kind of Intimacy there were two unpublished novels – the first written aged 17. Ever consider reworking it or getting it published as it is?

“Oh God, no!”

Mormon Mindset: 2013's The Friday Gospels

Mormon Mindset: 2013’s The Friday Gospels

Is that right that you lost your second novel when your computer was stolen?

“That was when I was living in Oxford. I was devastated, but consider it a stroke of luck now. It allowed me to abandon a project that wasn’t working – a huge plotless thing about a woman who made a hot air balloon in her garden shed – and start on A Kind of Intimacy.

“I probably would have been working on that novel now if a kind thief hadn’t taken it away from me!”

The Spectator called your writing ‘so sharp and vivid’, ‘meticulous and mournful at the same time’. Looking back at your first unpublished novel, how do you feel you’ve developed?

“I think – I hope – I’ve got much better. More subtle in exploring character, more precise in the way I evoke setting. I hope so. The way I use humour in my novels has become, I think, more careful, less cruel and more humane, without, I hope, losing its satirical edge.

“Then again, the writer should never have the last word on a book: that belongs to the reader.”

Does your writing day involve a lot of hard graft to get to the finished product?

“Yes. Lots and lots and lots of drafts, and thrown away pages, and entire rewrites from scratch. I used to think I would move away from that process and write fewer drafts, but I think that is just the kind of writer I am.

“It takes a long time but slowness isn’t a bad thing when it comes to writing. And when it is going well, it doesn’t feel like hard work, it feels like playing.”

You write novels, short stories, interactive fiction, reviews and features, you’re a freelance editor and writing mentor, you lecture on creative writing, you blog, and so much more. Does that leave enough hours for your leisure-time love of knitting and origami?

“Of course! All work and no play, etc. … It’s also very good for my brain to be creative without using language. I’m interested in patterns and repetition. I suppose that’s where origami, knitting and spirograph takes me.”

curious-tales-header-banner-e1417387602557You’re a co-founder of The Curious Tales Publishing Collective, and were also behind the Lancashire Writing Hub and The Writing Smithy literary consultancy. Tell me more.

“Curious Tales is a small collective aimed at working collaboratively on writing projects where the writers and artists involve oversee all aspects of the work – from writing and illustrating to marketing and publication.

“It’s an incredible amount of work, and not always easy – but it’s taught me a lot about collaboration and what a myth the lone solitary writer is: we always work in dialogue with other writers and artists, and with our readers.

“The Lancashire Writing Hub and The Writing Smithy were freelance projects that I don’t work on any more: I play to my strengths these days, which mainly lie in writing and teaching.”

On the WriteWords website in 2009 you wrote, ‘I don’t seem to be able to think unless I have a pen in my hand and I can’t ever see myself stopping’. Is that still the case?

“Yes. Writing and reading are how I meet and try to understand the world.”

You also class yourself as a ‘Twitter layabout’. Is procrastination and surfing social media an important part of your day?

“I love the way it connects writers and readers to each other – but all the bad things people say about social media are true too. I don’t sign in when I’m writing. I find it too distracting.”

Creative Breather: Jenn Ashworth (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Creative Breather: Jenn Ashworth (Photo copyright: Martin Figura)

Finally, what are you working on next?

“I’m writing a collaborative novella with Richard Hirst, another Curious Tales member I’ve written with before, and some personal essays.

“I have an idea for a new novel but I’m not ready to start yet. I need a breather!”

Jenn Ashworth’s ebb & flo bookshop author event/book signing is on Thursday, August 11 (6.45pm for a 7pm start) at Chorley Library, Union Street, Chorley. All her books will be on sale, with tickets £6 from ebb & flo, Gillibrand Street, Chorley (£4 redeemable against a  copy of Fell) and early booking recommended.

And for more information about Jenn, head to her website via this link and keep in touch via her Facebook and Twitter pages.  

 

 

 

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Matteo’s Modern world – in conversation with writer Matteo Sedazzari

Time Out: A Crafty Cigarette author Matteo Sedazzari on a fag break

Time Out: A Crafty Cigarette – Tales of a Teenage Mod author Matteo Sedazzari takes a fag break

Matteo Sedazzari was part-way through his latest social networking drive when we spoke, spreading the word about debut novel A Crafty Cigarette – Tales of a Teenage Mod while getting to grips with the ever-changing world of new media.

“I like learning new skills. You get people of our age who are very reactionary and don’t understand all that, but I love it. Once you do all that, you’re in control. No one’s mastered social media yet. If they tell you they have, they’re f***ing lying!”

It’s pretty clear within minutes of talking to Matteo that he’s somewhat driven, and he’s determined to get his work out to as wide an audience as possible – to an extent that many of his threads of conversation are half-finished, buzzing from one impassioned statement to another.

This interview also tends to flip between subjects, and I found myself moving chunks around in a bid to make things flow as seamlessly as possible. But first I’ll fill you in on A Crafty Cigarette, which has set Matteo on his way as a published author.

It’s the tale of a teenager coming of age in the late ’70s on South West London’s Surrey fringes, his journey into adulthood set to a soundtrack by The Jam, the band inspiring Matteo’s protagonist to embrace all things Mod, that revivalist spirit leading him to find his voice, a new confidence and a fresh outlook.

As someone just a year younger than the author (he’s 49) and brought up barely 15 miles from his old turf, I identify with many of the themes, not least a love of the music of local lads Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. And in his characters I recognise acquaintances from my own formative days. Much of that background applies to the author too, his flawed hero sharing his half-Italian roots and a mischievous nature that left him prone to trouble inside and outside school and a need to be accepted by teenage peers in a new neighbourhood.

It’s all told amid a flowing first-person narrative, the key character struggling to forge his identity, naivety apparent as we see him develop on the page, growing up by the chapter. That’s not an easy trick. Few authors manage it. I can only think of Roddy Doyle off the top of my head. Yet Matteo re-immerses himself in his teen world, and it works. The editor in me would challenge the punctuation and sentence structure, but once I got into his rhythm it made sense, the reader seeing the world through this lad’s eyes. It’s an easy read too. I polished it off in a few days, triggering my own memories from that era, albeit in my case without so much first-hand ‘naughtiness’ (Matteo’s word) or rebellion.

Others see elements of gonzo lit and pulp fiction, and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh called it ‘a great debut that deals with the joys and pains of growing up’, while iconic punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke’s foreword suggests, ‘It’s almost impossible to write the way you speak but Signor Sedazzari has that gift, and his chuckle-heavy account of his teenage escapades, obsessions, senseless capers of one kind or another and good-humoured keeping of the faith in the face of disappointment has film treatment written all over it’.

Layout 1A Crafty Cigarette saw the light of day less than a year ago, Matteo wasting no time in offering up interviews while taking complete ownership of the project. He’s already on his second edition, this fanzine writer turned author breaking free of his first publishing deal in a quest to cover every base. What’s more, he’s equally excited about his next novel, Tales of Oscar de Paul and other Adventures, anxious for it to be known he has much more up his sleeve than one ‘rites of passage’ story, proud as he is of his debut. Meanwhile, Matteo’s also looking to expand his Alan McGee-backed publishing wing, Zani (as he puts it, ‘online optimism for the new beat generation’).

“Zani is a labour of love, an online mag for which I’m always pushing for sponsorship. A Crafty Cigarette was originally published via Old Dog Books, but I then realised I could do this on my own, broke away, now aim to bring out more books my way, not just my own.”

Among those already lined up are his brother Paolo Sedazzari’s Made in Feltham and one by Zani contributor Dean Cavanagh, a writing partner of Irvine Welsh. Then there’s Oscar de Paul, set in West London, a short ride from his Walton-on-Thames roots. Do all his stories involve life experiences?

A Crafty Cigarette is semi-autobiographical, but I emphasise that ‘semi’ part. The structure of how the kid became a Mod is loosely based on me, with those involved based on real people. As for the adventures and kids having so much insight … no one was really that insightful, in my experience.

“Yet while I was writing A Crafty Cigarette, I was reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and was blown away by it. It was the literary equivalent of The Jam’s All Mod Cons as an album for me, and my first since Mario Puzo’s The Godfather that I read in one sitting.

“The way she writes, that darkness, in a humorous way. I like American writers and fast-paced pulp fiction with a good visual concept. I had a similar experience with an English writer (past writewyattuk interviewee) Martina Cole. I bought Dangerous Lady in a charity shop for 50p, and found it very raw, very American, how she writes. Her style is addictive, like Gillian Flynn’s. Then there are American pulp-fiction writer Joe R. Lansdale’s short stories – again, dark.

“When I started writing A Crafty Cigarette I immersed myself in so much, including Alan Bleasdale’s Scully, which he wrote in his early 30s (an initial 1978 BBC play gave rise to 1984’s Channel Four series). I absorbed that, found it really important. Then there’s Terry Taylor’s Baron’s Court, All Change (Beats Bums & Bohemians), about a kid working in a shop who discovers modern jazz in the late ‘50s, starts selling weed, just before the whole Mod epidemic came about. Another big influence. My brother said, ‘You’ve got to read this before you write your own’.

“I then read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer books, wanting to keep the element of youth in there and that whole summer feel. It’s the same with Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives, for that child-like feel. And I watched a lot of original Grange Hill, from the Tucker Jenkins years.”

Mod Royalty: Paul Weller gives his endorsement to A Crafty Cigarette (Photo: Matteo Sedazzari)

Mod Royalty: Paul Weller gives his endorsement to A Crafty Cigarette (Photo: Matteo Sedazzari)

At this point I mention a 1983 BBC series I felt fits in alongside those, Johnny Jarvis, and it’s another he’s keen to reference, pointing me towards a piece for Zani on that very subject last May (with a link here). He also mentions Harlan Ellison’s Memos From Purgatory (1961), an account of the author’s undercover experiences in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen gangland.

“And then there was the music – listening to The Jam and Secret Affair. With all that, my memory just triggered – this emotional recall. And once you get in that zone …”

I’m finding it hard to get a word in, but just scan through my notes, mentally ticking off questions as he brings them up. And he’s soon telling me more about his next book.

Oscar de Paul is set in the present, but with flashbacks back to the ‘60s. Oscar belongs to a gang called The Magnificent Six, a bunch of casuals, the coolest kids on the block. It’s a collection of short stories involving him, his friends and family. It’s not just about youth culture, but his uncle’s experiences with the police, a character trying to make it in an all-girl band in the ‘90s … each story linking back to Oscar. It’s set in Shepherd’s Bush, where my brother lived for many years. I got to know the area, could visualise it, have a feel for it.

“I didn’t want A Crafty Cigarette to be a manifesto for Mod, and didn’t want to make out that everything about it was great. There were lots of insecurities. It turned out more an homage to If. As a child and as a teenager I dreamed of the kids taking over the school, smashing it up. As for the title, I didn’t want to call it When You’re Young or The Kids Are Alright, referencing The Jam or The Who. If you’re a true Mod you’re going to have your own identity, and this is my brand, my product.

“I want to do A Crafty Cigarette part two, but first want Oscar de Paul out there, more adult in content, with proper punctuation and so on. Then people will realise I can change my style. For me it’s all about flow, entertaining people, painting a picture.”

I finally butt in, telling Matteo the first few questions I’d written had been jettisoned amid his rapid stream of consciousness. He’s certainly fired up about his work.

“Well, you’re easy to talk to! Think of it as a compliment. I’ve been interviewed by certain people who clearly haven’t read the book and ask the same old questions. It is getting a bit like a Ronnie Corbett sketch though – answering questions before you’ve asked them!

“I’ve been writing for many years through Zani, interviewing people like Alan McGee, Chas Smash (Madness), Clem Burke (Blondie), Bobby Womack, Shaun Ryder (Happy Mondays /Black Grape), Paul Weller, Rick Buckler … but when I started writing my first novel I felt this was what I was meant to do.”

Rick's Place: Matteo Sedazzari with Rick Buckler

Rick’s Place: Matteo with The Jam drummer Rick Buckler (Photo: Matteo Sedazzari)

Getting back to A Crafty Cigarette, without giving too much away, I guess things didn’t go a bit Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell’s character in the 1968 film of If) at your school. How was your experience of the education system?

“Bad. I had poor handwriting and spelling, so was dismissed as thick. But I f***ing knew I was clever and bright. I was up against it but also very inquisitive, forever asking teachers, ’Why?’ I found, like the kid in my book, school pigeon-holed you. Hand your homework in on time, nice and neat and tidy, and you’re an A-grade student. They were just preparing those kids for corporate culture. If a kid was a bit maverick, a bit different …

“I was fortunate I had such strong belief at an early age. I’m a late bloomer but always knew I could do it. When I left school I went to night-school and got three f***ing A-levels, went back to my year head and said, ‘Look at that! Remember me? CSE failure!’ I hated the teachers and lessons, but loved the pupils in my age group and loved being a Mod, winding up teachers. I didn’t bunk off. I had a laugh every day.”

There’s an element of fantasy in the book, but it’s the more reality-based passages where you’re strongest. For example, about an older brother introducing you to new experiences.

“My brother gave me two things – The Jam and a love of the Italian national team. By the time of the 1978 World Cup, discovering a love for Juventus the year before, I got into all that. I still get that tingle when the Azzurri come on and the national anthem plays. As for the Jam, I discovered them by accident. I knew of them, but didn’t know too much about them. Playing All Mod Cons for the first time was probably my most spiritual, pivotal moment when it comes to music.

“There were two sets of Jam fans – older ones, my brother’s age, four years older than me, and ‘Puppy’ Mods like us, still at school, asking for permission to go to gigs, having to go with an older person. Because you were with that older gang, you could have a fag. You wanted to look old. It was rebellion, like the more hedonistic things later on such as acid house and raving. But that wasn’t as intelligent as the Mod thing. It was more about living it up.”

You describe A Crafty Cigarette as an ‘insight into the passion of youth’. But for me it’s about finding a sense of identity too, and your Italian background was key. It’s a sweeping generalisation, but there’s a neat correlation with Mod – sharp dressing, scooters, so on.

“Being Italian in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you were a Wop, an ‘Itie’, had 13 reverse gears and one forward, gags about the Italian Book of Heroes … English kids in the ‘70s didn’t go to Italy on holiday, didn’t have pasta in their diet. My take is that people only started thinking this was cool through football and Italia ‘90, latching on to (Salvatore) Schillaci. Also, air-fares dropped, people got into inter-railing, and in time so did some of the kids who took the Mickey. I don’t remember Mods or kids my age saying, ‘F*** me, you’re lucky!’

“I had the perfect background for the Mod revival. My father’s from Milan, Mum’s from Essex – you couldn’t get a better combination for a pure Mod! I think I was introduced to style by my mother. There are pictures of me as a kid visiting my grandparents in Milan, and I wonder where the hell I got that cashmere overcoat from at six years old! My father moved to England in the ‘50s, but it was my mother who changed her identity rather than him. She came from Dagenham and didn’t want to end up just another working-class girl. She met my father, educated herself, learning Italian and all about Italian food and style.”

Poster boys: Matteo makes a point of Paul, Rick and Bruce's influence

Poster boys: Matteo makes a point of Paul, Rick and Bruce’s influence

At this point, Matteo veers off into memories of Italy and his ongoing love for the country.

“I lived in Sardinia for a while as a child and was in Cagliari the first and only time they won the League (1969/70). The first famous person I met – a true icon – was ‘Gigi’ Riva. That was one of my earliest memories, him coming to the main piazza. It was f***ing madness! I already understood that was something special.

“In my acid house phase I took a break from all that, got more into clubbing, but towards the end of the ’90s I returned and have every year since. I’m more an armchair Juventus fan these days – I’m no Ultra! But via the wonders of Facebook I’ve discovered two long-lost cousins there.

“Anyway, there were other influences. Through my brother I got into the Russian revolution, loving all that – like Citizen Smith! And I recall a TV adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby where the kids rebel against the teachers. I thought that was cool. Then I’d hear Paul Weller singing In the Crowd and Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, Billy Hunt … feeling, ‘I’ve no idea who this Paul, Bruce and Rick are, but they speak to me!”

Weller came over as an angry fella in those days.

“That intensity was a wonderful thing. I bumped into him last October near where we both live and he’s far more mellow these days. He was cool when I showed him my book. He’s evolved, we’ve all evolved. Looking back I think, ‘Oh my God, did I really do all that?’

The way he drifted towards internationalist leanings in The Style Council era fitted in with all that.

“Yes, and in a sense I got more in with the Casuals around then. I found them a little more upbeat. Weller embraced that whole soul scene, saw what was going on, the Wag Club and all that. That’s been overlooked. It wasn’t just one thing! It wasn’t all about Mod.”

You’re talking to someone who stayed clear of all those tribes, never one to follow the crowd.

“Exactly. There were things you felt you weren’t supposed to like. It was like keeping a dirty mag under your bed – you didn’t want other Mods to know you liked jazz-funk! Looking back, you shouldn’t have that at such an early age. It’s great to look smart and belong to a gang if you’re learning from each other, but if that gang’s restricting your own self-development, that’s wrong.”

Is that where you’re going with A Crafty Cigarette part two?

“Well, the way I saw Mod, or at least my experience, was that it was split into two parts – the first from 1979 to 1981, very childlike, very Charlie Brown (as in Peanuts), very comical, us all still at school. Then leaving school it got very violent, with skinheads and Casuals. We were no match for some of those kids. They had baseball bats and knives and would hurt us. People forget about that looking back on the Ben Sherman style and all that. It was war.

Double Act: Dean Cavanagh and Irvine Welsh give their endorsement to Matteo's debut novel

Double Act: Dean Cavanagh and Irvine Welsh give their endorsement to Matteo’s debut novel

“Now I get off a train in London and walk to Carnaby Street and Soho. I don’t do anything to intimidate kids and don’t look like a target. I can’t speak for today’s kids, but back then we got assaulted by some pub geezers, the police turning around, saying, ‘If I was out of uniform, I’d give you a hiding myself.”

Personally, I was too accepting of all that growing up, but I’m angrier now, more likely to speak out, particularly on political matters. Maybe it’s a Victor Meldrew thing.

“Actually, I’m going to do a piece on Victor Meldrew – such a cool character, and I’d rather be f***ing angry and stand up for my rights and have less friends if it means the people who stand by me are worth knowing. To try and fit in with all men, you’re taking the path to being a sociopath. And I’ve still got the angry in me.”

Matteo started his Positive Energy of Madness fanzine during the height of acid house, including in 1990 a first interview in two years with Paul Weller, between the disbandment of The Style Council and formation of The Paul Weller Movement.

“I always tend to get my best interviews by going beyond press officers. I got to know Paul through him buying my fanzine at Sign of the Times in Kensington Market, and Fiona Cartledge there sweet-talked him into doing an interview.”

Word has it that The Face invited Matteo into their office, trying to get the interview, unsuccessfully. And while Positive Energy of Madness folded in 1994, it re-emerged online in 2003, gradually giving rise to Zani. What did Matteo do for work then?

“I was in sales for many years, working from home, in business development. It was about building relationships, not fishing for information – getting to know what people want.”

As well as Alan McGee’s backing, Matteo has had positive feedback from some big names.

“I interviewed John Cooper Clarke and we got on well. I asked him to do a foreword and he read A Crafty Cigarette then a couple of months later called me, read it out. I recorded it, and was mesmerised! Now Irvine Welsh has got behind the new edition. Again, ‘Wow!’”

Foreword March: Matteo Sedazzari with John Cooper Clarke

Foreword March: Matteo Sedazzari with iconic performance poet John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke said it has ‘film treatment written all over it’. Any further word there?

“There are people interested. That’s all I’ll say at the moment … until that cheque’s signed, sealed, delivered into my bank account and cleared! Meanwhile, I believe in testing myself. I could have gone straight on to A Crafty Cigarette part two. Instead I’m putting my energies into Oscar de Paul, looking towards a wider market.

“I’m going to be facing a lot of rejections and disinterest, but as long as good reviews outweigh bad … All I care about is the control of my own destiny, welfare, happiness. All I know is destiny’s in my own hands. And you can’t get more Mod than that!”

13173907_10153737022824037_5766840180659962125_nTo check out Matteo’s publishing empire and online magazine try this web link, and for details of how to get hold of A Crafty Cigarette, head here. You can also keep in touch with all things Zani via his Facebook and Twitter pages.

There’s also a Kindle taster of A Crafty Cigarette here

 

 

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Restart on reel two – back in touch with Gary Numan

Electric Friend: Gary Numan, set for a UK return in September

Electric Friend: Gary Numan, set for a UK return in September, re-imagining three past works

Following the success of his 2013 album Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) and its accompanying two-year world tour, Gary Numan returns to the UK soon, for a live celebration of his breakthrough long players, Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon.

After a tentative toe in the water with 1978’s Tubeway Army, it was those records that spawned his biggest commercial hits, sit-up-and-take-notice moments like Replicas’ Down in the Park and Are Friends Electric? turning Numan into an apparent overnight success, before The Pleasure Principle‘s Cars cemented his place among other-worldly pop royalty. The 1980s were coming, and this Hammersmith-born innovator was already a few steps ahead.

He’s not been known to dwell on days gone by before, but this electronic and industrial music pioneer feels now’s an ideal time to revisit ‘the three albums that changed my life’. As he recently put it, ‘I very rarely look back at past glories but with these shows I intend to not only look back, but celebrate those early days. Without those songs and experiences I wouldn’t be here today’.

Based on the west coast of America for some time now, his influence has been recognised by a diverse array of names via collaborations, covers and samples – from Prince to Lady Gaga, Jack White to Kanye West, Beck to Queens Of The Stone Age, and Foo Fighters to Nine Inch Nails for starters – and this autumn he brings it all back home, for an 11-date itinerary. He’s not one for phone interviews, and unfortunately my budget doesn’t run to return flights to LA, but – as he did when we last caught up two years ago (with a link to that interview here) – Gary responded to my e-mailed questions with a high degree of honesty, for what turned out to be an extremely thorough and open one-to-one Q&A session, this 58-year-old iconic artist starting by describing his surroundings as he typed.

“I live in Los Angeles these days, so I’m sitting by a bay window in the house, looking out across the back terrace towards the swimming pool. It’s a lovely day, as always – blue skies, temps about 101 degrees today, so a bit hotter than usual. The house was built back in 1992 and made to look like an old English castle, with battlements, secret staircases, trapdoors, hidden compartments and a large 20’ bronze dragon in the front. The kids love it.”

Last time I saw Gary was at Preston’s 53 Degrees, two summers ago, for what proved an amazing live experience (with my review here). My ears were still ringing the next day and the venue foundations were shaking. What’s more, he seemed to be enjoying it as much as us. Not as if he was letting on, of course. I got the feeling he was far more at ease with it all than 35 years ago, with a true sense of pride in his past and present work.

“I’m very comfortable on stage now. I’ve been doing this for my entire adult life so it’s as natural now as eating dinner. I love touring, being able to travel the world, to play your songs to people that genuinely love them, to be with your closest friends, it’s just an amazing way to live life.”

Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) was nothing short of a triumph, and his powerful live set reflected that. Furthermore, he somewhat seamlessly incorporated the big numbers from the back-catalogue. Will there be a few extras from Splinter or his current ‘work in progress’ during this tour?

Stage Presence: Gary Numan at Preston's 53 Degrees in 2014 (Photo copyright: Iain Lynn)

Stage Presence: Gary Numan at Preston’s 53 Degrees in 2014 (Photo copyright: Iain Lynn)

“Not this one. I was very happy with Splinter, and the reaction to it was incredible, but this tour is entirely devoted to those early albums, so no sneaking in of recent songs. I do have ideas about gigging the new album in a series of little regional launch events next year, but I’ve yet to figure out if that’s a good idea or not. I still have quite a way to go yet to get that new album finished, so I’m getting ahead of myself a little.”

This September we have instead a show comprising material from ReplicasThe Pleasure Principle and Telekon (including my excuse for speaking to Gary, a Friday 16th date at the Liverpool Olympia, with more detail here). Has it surprised him, looking back, just how creatively productive he was back then?

“Not entirely. I have Asperger’s so have a natural leaning towards being obsessive. Back then being in a band, having a record deal, and especially working in electronic music, were all very new to me as I was about as obsessed as I’ve ever been. It was all very challenging, but very exciting. It filled my every waking moment and so I’m not surprised I was so prolific.

“The creativity side of it came about because everything was new. The sounds, the instruments, the freedom to do what you wanted. I didn’t feel bound by conventional song structure, or songwriting standards or practices, so I just went off and experimented with all of it.”

There must have been more lean spells over the last three and a half decades, but on the evidence of Splinter and the live shows that followed, he’s back on a creative high. Is the hunger still there to write and record most days?

“Not every day, but most days, yes. I have a family now, a wife, three young girls and life has different things to offer rather than being buried in a studio all day, but I still love it. I have found though that, over the years, the pressure and worries that come with writing each new album have steadily increased. I definitely find each one more difficult than the one before. Splinter flowed very well once I got stuck into it but it took a few years to really get to that point.

“But I’ve always said that writing is more of a need than anything. It’s the way I deal with life. I write it all down, shape it into music, and in so doing seem to ease out all the stresses and strains that affect us all as we live our lives – ironically by doing something I find very stressful, so it doesn’t entirely make sense!

“I don’t dream though, or I remember them very rarely, maybe two or three a year at the most, so I’ve often wondered if writing is how I put things in order, the way dreams are supposed to for most people.”

Gary Numan - Replicas Redux lgThere seems to be a bit of a trend from established acts to appeal to a nostalgia market and live off past glories. That doesn’t seem to be the Numan way though. I guess that after this tour he won’t be working on a similar tour format for the albums that followed, from 1981’s Dance onwards.

“It isn’t something that will become a regular part of what I do no. My interest is always in what I’m doing next, rather than what I’ve done before. I am obsessed about moving forward, not living on past glories. But I feel my previous reluctance to play much older stuff has often been seen by fans as arrogant selfishness and I regret that, so decided a while ago I would back off and be more agreeable about it.

“My relationship with fans is very important to me and so these tours of older material will feature again, now and then, in the future, for those fans that like to revisit that stuff. Nothing will change the fact though that the thing that gets me up in the morning, the thing that still excites me, is going in to the studio and writing new music, and then taking that on tour all over the world.

“These retro things can be fun, once in a while, but it’s absolutely not what I see my career settling into. This is fun for now, for a few weeks, or for a brief period between new albums, but I won’t touch it again for quite some time after this tour is over. The new album will be ready soon and all my interest and drive is leaning towards that.”

Revisiting those first three albums in preparation for this tour, was he surprised by any of the material? And has that given him a fresh perspective on the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Gary Numan, as opposed to now?

“I’m surprised at how little it’s dated. Quite proud of that actually. I’m surprised how unconventional so much of the songwriting was, how strange much of the song structures are. I didn’t realise quite how different it all was, and it must have seemed incredibly different back then. So I went into it as a duty to my long-suffering fan base, but I’m coming out of it very satisfied with what I did back then.

“I’ve spent so much of my career trying to distance myself from the past that it never occurred to me, until quite recently, that a lot of the stuff I did back then became influential for a good reason. I have a lot more pride in my history in 2016 than I ever had before. Doesn’t change the fact that I still want the new album to be the best thing I’ve ever done of course. History is history after all.”

There’s always been a strong sense of ‘soundtrack’ to Gary’s work, such as the way he devised short stories into songs early on. How does he feel he compares as a writer today, this contented family man in his late 50s, to this young bloke finding his feet at the time of Replicas and The Pleasure Principle?

GN Pleasure Principle sleeve“I think I’m better. I went through a bad period from the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s when I think my songwriting was nowhere near good enough, or creative enough. But with the Sacrifice album in’94 I got it all back together, and I’ve been steadily improving ever since. Most fans, and even more critics, put Splinter right up there with the three classic albums we’re playing on this tour. I didn’t think that would ever happen.

“A lot of reviews said Splinter was the best album I’ve ever made, so I’m just getting stronger if anything. But having a family brings more stress than a single man will ever comprehend, so it’s not surprising to me that my music just keeps on getting darker and heavier. I might be contented, but it’s a harder life than anything I ever had before.”

Will some of those songs he’s playing involve a few tweaks or rewrites? Taking for example his current take on Are Friends Electric? I loved the original, but his current live version seems even more claustrophobic, surging, and perhaps more what it was really about.

“Much of it is as it was on the original album, some of it is tweaked, but all of it has an added power that the technology back in the day just couldn’t get close to. It all sounds like a very powerful version of what people will already know. I intend to change the set around a lot as well, generally pulling six or seven songs from each album per night, but changing what those six or seven are as the tour progresses. So if you come to more than one night, you should hear quite a few different songs.”

What’s the set-up for this tour? Who’s joining him, and has he chosen any special guests?

“My long-serving band is still with me, I’m very glad to say. Richard Beasley on drums, Steve Harris on guitar, David Brooks on keyboards and Tim Muddiman on bass. Not sure about guests yet but it would nice to get Russell Bell and Chris Payne from the original band, who first toured these albums, to join us here and there. I think the fans would appreciate that.”

As home is California these days, might he be sneaking off to old haunts while he’s back over here, quietly reflecting on days gone by?

“I would like to and will try to, but touring is so full on, the days are so packed from beginning to end, it’s very hard to do. I do come back outside of tours to visit old friends and family so it’s easier then to revisit memories. I’m very happy in California but can’t deny I miss a lot of things about England.”

GN Telekon sleeveReading up on Gary’s Pledge Music campaign for the new album, he seems fired up by the challenge. Will he be itching to get back to the studio and on with all that while he’s out on the road?

“Absolutely. As I sit here today I’ve spent just 17 days at home in the last three months, so progress on the album has been almost non-existent for a while. It’s been incredibly frustrating and I’m desperate to get back in the studio and get on with it.”

It’s a brave move, involving your fans in an album project. For a guy who readily admits he’s pretty shy, it seems unlikely in some respect that he’s promising snippets of ‘work in progress’ along the way.

“That has been a lot harder to do than I expected. A feeling made worse at times by some of the reactions that come in after each update. I would never normally let anyone hear things until I was completely happy with them. But, with the Pledge campaign, I need to let people hear things long before they’re right, so that they can see how it evolved from the original, clumsy, flawed idea, into the thing that works. That means letting things go out that you know are wrong, that you know will never end up like that.

“With each one I take great pains to remind everyone that these are not finished ideas, these are the tiny seeds that the good things will hopefully grow from, and yet, every time you get people writing in with detailed critiques of what’s good and bad about them, some of it surprisingly insulting. It’s a little frustrating at times that some people are still not quite grasping what it’s about. These updates are not finished pieces of music, so it’s pointless to be praising or rubbishing them.

“The idea of the campaign is to open a window on the process, not just how a song develops from tiny seed to finished item, but everything – the sleeve, the lyric, the programming, all of it. And more than that, how I cope with it. The extreme ups and downs that I go through, the stresses and strains of trying to create something new, something better than the last album, widely regarded as the best I’ve ever made. I feel that pressure badly.

“I have really bad days where I’m in a pit of depression, nothing is working and you genuinely start to feel you’ve finally lost it. It’s a horrible thing to deal with, very frightening, and it happens many, many times with every album. I want people to see all of that. I want them to know what I go through to make these albums. Mostly though, I want their experience, when they listen to the finished album, to be enhanced because they do know the thought process behind every word, and they do know what I went through to make it. I hope it will bring us closer in a fan/artist way, and I hope it will bring them closer to the music.”

I’m guessing the independent approach of crowd-funding appeals to him. Are his days of working with the big corporations behind him?

Screen-Shot-2013-10-16-at-13.25.11“Correct, I’m not a big fan of the old way of doing things. Not just the big labels either, I had real problems with the big record store chains as well. I was glad to see them begin to fade away because in my experience trying to run my own small label, it was the record store chains that did the most damage. They abused their power by insisting on such outrageous deals that it became impossible to survive as a small independent label.

“But, there are so many things wrong with the way the big music labels, and most of the small ones to be honest, deal with their artists. I still get royalties for my back-catalogue from old, conventional record deals and it’s shocking how little filters back to the artist. But, arguably, the labels need to be that greedy to survive. It’s the entire old school business model that’s wrong and that’s why I love the way things are changing.

“There is so much doom-mongering about the state of the music business these days, falling sales, blah blah blah, but I genuinely see what’s going on now as something of a golden age. Everything is being rewritten, the way labels work, the need for labels at all is in question, the way managers’ commission, the industry standard of 20% for management will hopefully be a thing of the past soon.

“It’s all changing, swinging back towards those artists that are smart enough to stand up and resist the old ways and forge a new path. The tools are out there now that can make becoming truly independent a reality. Having said all that, Pledge for me is nothing to do with crowd-funding. I earn more than enough money and have my own studio, so funding is not a problem. For me Pledge is about creating a unique experience that will build stronger and closer ties to my fan-base.”

Is he set to work on the new album with producer Ade Fenton? The pair seem to rub off on each other very well.

“I don’t know to be honest. I’ve been doing everything on my own so far. I’ve produced most of my albums myself actually but the three I made with Ade were all brilliantly done. He’s extremely creative and works very hard. I haven’t made up my mind what to do with the next one yet but have a few meetings in the coming weeks so hope to have that side of things sorted out very soon.”

Last time we spoke, Gary let on how his wife Gemma – a former Numan fan club member, originally from Sidcup – and their girls love music around the house, while he’s happier leaving his at the studio door. What’s inspiring him to get back into that studio at the moment? Are the ideas coming thick and fast?

“I get inspired by so many things it doesn’t matter that I don’t listen to music that much. You actually hear music everywhere without needing to sit down and play your favourite albums. It’s on adverts, films, TV shows, trailers, it’s just everywhere. Plus, inspiration can come from more than just music. A conversation can give you an idea, an article you read, a photograph, a painting, a noise heard out in the street. Inspiration is absolutely everywhere.

“Life itself is the biggest source. The fears and worries, the joy (not that I use that one very much) all these things go in and create those little sparks that ignite your imagination.”

We Three: Gary Numan, his wife Gemma, and producer Ade Fenton (Photo: edfieldingphotography )

We Three: Gary Numan, his wife Gemma, and producer Ade Fenton (Photo: edfieldingphotography )

Touching on the wider America – and I would say the same’s happening here amid the EU referendum fiasco and so on – there seems to be something of a national identity crisis, scarily so in many respects, not least with support for more xenophobic political elements gaining ground. How does he see it all as a stranger in his own land (both in the UK and the US arguably)?

“It’s just awful – politicians latching on to the fears of people, turning that fear into hatred and resentment, just to win an argument, or to win votes. Tolerance and kindness is being swept under the carpet. Understanding and sympathy vanishing under the weight of xenophobic ignorance and self-serving greed. It’s deeply upsetting to see people you thought of as decent human beings begin to form opinions that are full of venom and bitterness.

“Politicians are encouraging people to start putting up walls, pointing accusing fingers at anyone not quite the same as them, blaming everybody else, anybody else, for the problems we all face. It seems as though, because of just a handful of forceful people around the world, civilization is suddenly sliding rapidly back into the dark ages. It’s shocking, and terrible. It’s hard to believe it can be happening.”

On the run-up to our interview, I was listening to Gary’s splendid recent collaboration with past writewyattuk interviewee John Foxx on Talk (Are You Listening To Me). He readily acknowledged the former Ultravox frontman as a big influence, and like him he’s still pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities. Any chance of further work together?

“No plans at the moment but I’m open to all things obviously. It was great to finally work on a track with John. He was such an important part of my early work in electronic music.”

Since 2014, Gary’s also worked with Protafield, VOWWS and Jean-Michel Jarre, on a video game, and so on. Are there other projects at the moment taking shape?

“I did a guest vocal on a Duke Spirit track recently for Record Store Day, I worked on a track by a band called Dusky which is coming out soon, a four-track EP with my friend Andy Gray which was part of the new Hunters TV show in the US and quite a few more that have slipped my memory at the moment. All I really want to be working on for the next few months is my own album. I need to get that finished.”

Gary wrote some moving words about his Mum’s recent passing. I guess that puts everything else – not least career and so on – into perspective. His parents were always there to encourage him, weren’t they?

Write Stuff: Gary's first autobiography. Part two could be with us next year.

Write Stuff: Gary’s first autobiography. Part two could be with us next year.

“Yes, they did everything they could to support me from the moment I first showed an interest in music, and continued to support me once it all became successful. My Dad managed me until 2009 so it was very much a family affair for a very long time. Losing my Mum in June was very hard and everything just stops for a while. I’ve hardly touched my social sites, done nothing on the album, no Pledge updates. I’m slowly beginning to get back into things now though.”

Gary gave me a glimpse into his family life in our last interview, not least telling me about his girls and how ‘to see them happy is the reason I get up in the morning’. So how’s home life right now? Is it a happening environment?

“I love it. It’s obviously not without its problems as each one of them tries to find their way as they grow, but I love everything about it. Gemma and I just passed our 24-year mark since we got together and have our 19-years married anniversary very soon. It’s still perfect, still very happy.

“I genuinely miss her when she goes to the shops so it’s just the same now as it was when we first got together. The children, who are 12, 10 and 9 at the moment, are all growing up to be lovely, creative little things. Everyone is healthy for the most part (Gemma has had a few issues and scares here and there but everything has worked out) so I’ve nothing to complain about whatsoever. The girls push the boundaries all the time of course, and life is not without a bit of shouting once in a while, but things are very happy.”

Finally, last time we spoke Gary told me he was making progress with the second part of his autobiography – following 1997’s Praying to the Aliens – and also a ‘high-fantasy epic’ he was working on. Any publication dates in the offing?

“Unfortunately not, but I’m still working slowly on both those projects. I would love to have the autobiography part two out towards the end of 2017 if possible, and the novel the year after. That would fit in very comfortably with the album and tours that are coming over the next two years.”

Pleasure Principal: Gary Numan is on his way

Pleasure Principal: Gary Numan is on his way back to us

Gary Numan’s UK tours starts on September 15 at The Foundry in Sheffield and ends on September 26th at Bexhill-on-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion, with dates in Liverpool, Coventry, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Glasgow, Nottingham, Oxford, Norwich, Portsmouth and Bristol en route. All tickets are available via this link or by calling 08444 771000. And for full details, ticket info, and all the latest from Gary Numan head to his official website, with a link here

You can also keep in touch via Gary’s official Facebook and Twitter pages, while fans might also want to check out a ’77/’81 memorabilia, press clippings, rare images, concert pics and memories Twitter link.

Meanwhile, to pre-order and be part of Gary’s creative journey towards his new album, check out his Pledge Music link

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An appointment with Dr Hook – the Dennis Locorriere interview

Medicine Showman: Dennis Locorriere, back out there playing the Dr Hook hits

Medicine Showman: Dennis Locorriere, back out there playing the Dr Hook hits

Dr. Hook were always something of a musical conundrum for me. Sharp, witty purveyors of great songs, but somewhat disregarded by the professors of cool on account of their more chart-friendly fodder.

As a kid turned on to punk and new wave, I steered clear of admitting interest in a band best known at the time for hits like Sexy Eyes and When You’re In Love with a Beautiful Woman. Yet I have good memories of my big sister playing the sublime Sylvia’s Mother on her dansette, and also of the regular airplay over the 1976 summer drought for A Little Bit More, followed that year by the poignant If Not You.

This was a band camped just the right side of middle of the road rock and country as far as these young ears were concerned, and perhaps there was always more to Dr Hook than met the eyepatch. There was the Hook of the heartfelt ballads but also another, far cheekier, more irreverent band, one enjoying the fruits of their success after all those years on the breadline putting out more edgy product.

Fact is that Dr Hook rode the international pop, rock and country charts for around 15 years, attaining more than 60 gold and platinum albums and gaining No. 1 chart status in more than 42 countries. What’s more, there was proof that the affection remained 30 years on, judging by the success of their 2014 retrospective double disc set, Timeless. And now, Dennis Locorriere, a founding member and the band’s distinctive lead vocalist and guitarist, is out on the road playing those hits again.

It was Dennis who put together Universal Music’s Timeless collection, selecting and sequencing 40 tracks from Hook’s extensive catalogue, writing its liner notes too. And while bandmate Ray Sawyer – with that highly-recognisable eyepatch (having lost an eye in a near-fatal roadcrash in 1967) and upturned cowboy hat – was key to the original Dr Hook image, it was the voice of Dennis that set them apart.

He certainly became the face of the latest compilation, undertaking a punishing press schedule of TV and radio in the UK. And after successful Timeless tours with his band in New Zealand and Australia in 2015, he’s bringing the show to these shores later this year. Furthermore, Dennis – resident here since around the time of the millennium – promises not only great music, but also the fun and humour synonymous with the band’s name.

When I caught up with the very entertaining Mr Locorriere on the phone at his place on the south coast, he was trying to get to grips with another lacking British summertime (clearly just before that late heatwave caught us all out). And it was soon pretty clear that this had all the hallmarks of a pretty much laidback chat, with absolutely no hint of any side or that I was addressing some kind of distant superstar.

“The sun’s out, but by the time I’m done talking to you it might not be! July’s been more like November. But hey look, if I was really a weather guy I’d probably not live in the UK. When I grew up in New York, seasons were like clockwork. You could set your watch by them. ’Hey, it’s Spring – before the catalogues come out, buy your corduroys’. I thought that was how things go. I’ve been here 15 years and there was a semblance of a summer for a while, but then it was like, ‘We’re going to scrap that’.”

First Footings: Dr Hook, the self-titled debut album from 1971

First Footings: Dr Hook’s self-titled 1971 debut album

It seems to be the time for me to be talking to treasured US imports, I tell this amiable 67-year-old, having also recently conversed with Geno Washington of the Ram Jam Band fame.

“Hey, with the year this has been for celebrities, I’m happy to be spoken to rather than about! I’m glad this is an interview and not an obituary. But do you know why it’s so shocking now? Stars used to be around until maybe they were 40 then they thought it was unbecoming and disappeared. You’d see a photograph of them shopping with sunglasses on when they were 60, then you’d hear they’d died.

“Now they dance right to the precipice – baby boomers like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, leaping off amplifiers. So when these guys go, we’re like, ‘What!’ It’s sad, but I chuckle a little when people in their 70s are dying, especially those who lived the way that they did! Rock’n’roll takes its toll.”

You’ve moved around a bit over the years, and were based in Nashville for a while, I understand.

“Yeah, maybe 20 years.”

But now you’re on the Sussex coast. So why the move over here?

“I like it here, and always liked it here. In the last decade or so it’s become a matter of the heart, and also for romantic reasons. But I’ve always liked the UK, because they’ve always liked me.

“Also, with America, after the farewell tour of 1985 I wrote songs and sang on other people’s albums but didn’t really pursue the road thing, because with Hook we did it 300 days a year for 15 years. That was the way you did it then, when people wanted to see you. We did a lot of that, but then I packed it in and my son, who was 15, came to live with me and my life became a little more about earthly concerns. But when you step back into it, you have to travel and do all those things again.”

He’s playing down the writing side there, Dennis having had his songs recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Crystal Gayle, Helen Reddy, Willie Nelson, Southside Johnny and Jerry Lee Lewis. There was a stint playing with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings too. Was that a good way to get back into it all?

“Well, the road is the road, and that’s why you have to love why you’re on the road. The rest of it is a crap shoot. What will I eat? When will I eat? Will there be time? What’s the hotel going to be like? Will there be traffic? Everything is a variable apart from the time you hit the stage every night, giving people what they came for.

“The day I don’t like the reason I’m on the road, then I’m just riding around on the motorways looking for bad tea! But when you walk out there and the show makes sense, people are happy and you feel like you did what you were supposed to do, the rest of the bother of the day melts away.”

Seconds Out: Note avoidance of any innuendo in caption for the band's 1972 follow-up album

Seconds Out: Note avoidance of any innuendo in caption for the band’s 1972 follow-up album

Does this New Jersey lad who teamed up with a bunch of lads from the Southern states ever get back to Union City? Do you still have friends and family there?

“I don’t. The last time I was there was around 20 years ago with my best friend, who lives in San Francisco. We grew up there and walked around and found it so different. The neighbourhood I came from burned down when I was in my 40s and was completely rebuilt. If you spun me around and pushed me there I wouldn’t have known where I was.

“To address the Bill Wyman question though, that was so amazing. I met Bill at a charity event we did for Jim Capaldi at The Roundhouse, where I was in this unbelievable band with all of Jim’s friends – from Paul Weller and Pete Townshend to Bill Wyman (also Joe Walsh, Steve Winwood and Yusuf Islam).

“As a child of the ‘60s, to see Bill, I was over the moon. Last time I’d seen him was on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid. I went up, in my exuberance, and said I’d love to sit in with his band sometime. A couple of months later his guitar player Terry Taylor came to me and asked if I still wanted to do that. I said, ‘Yeah’, expecting to show up at a venue and sit in, but they sent me a 30-city itinerary, so I realised I was in the band!

“On a simple level, being at the back of the coach and looking up front to see Bill Wyman up there was a full circle for me. I ain’t looking for much. People would be shocked how little I’ve ever really wanted. I didn’t do all this for celebrity and certainly not for money, because when you get it you just roll it back on to the table and gamble again. It’s these little full circle things that make it, and that’s one of the highlights of my life, even though it didn’t happen until I was 60.”

There were just under a decade of huge hits? Did that all become a little surreal? Was it an enjoyable ride, or did it put a strain on friendships.

“It didn’t put a strain on friendships. We actually fared well that way. We were friends and relied on each other a lot – like a pack of chimpanzees. The road if anything bonded us. We were all different kinds of people, but still had this common bond. It was like being in the Army. Doesn’t matter where you’re from originally when the tracer bullets go over your head. You’re all on the same team.

“It did get a little ‘Where are we now?’ But you only ever look at your success later in life. When you’re doing it, it’s like ‘That was cool’. When Sylvia’s Mother went to No.1 we kind of hugged each other, but then realised we had to do the same again. It wasn’t like we were going to dine out on that one record for the rest of our lives.

“Everything you accomplish puts the pressure on you to accomplish something else. We did have a good run, but once we got to a point where people were looking at us like ‘I remember you’ status, maybe we’d done it and it was time to do something else. I’d just turned 34 on the farewell tour and had been doing it since I was 19. And I think that’s a fair shot at it.”

The Dr Hook years only really accounted for 18 years though, while you’ve been a solo act for around 30 years.

“I was talking to someone last night about Paul McCartney. The Beatles had their success over seven years, while the band he’s got now has been together longer than that.”

Solo Days: Dennis Locorriere's most recent offering, from 2010

Solo Days: Dennis’s most recent offering, from 2010

Has your impressive solo material been relatively overlooked, do you think?

“In as much as when I was with Dr Hook I had Sony and EMI behind me, whereas my solo material came out on an independent label – sure. When I put out my solo albums and go to TV or radio everything’s really cool, but when I talk about Dr Hook it seems to make sense to everybody – it’s familiar and something they know.

“Let’s face it, my last solo album, Post Cool (2010) – I loved that album, and the fans I have are pleased with those records. I have fans that want to know what I’m doing now. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be killer sellers, but that they’ve always liked this guy and wonder what he’s doing now.

“It always perplexes me when people stop trusting you. They wanna talk about a record I put out in 1976 and still listen to. It makes me wonder, ‘Have you heard my new album? You’d like that.’

“But music has the power to be the soundtrack of people’s lives, and a Dr Hook album will remind someone of when they were 20, while Post Cool will remind someone of when they were 60. I’m lucky also because when I play the audience winds up being that generation but also their kids … and if the timing’s right, their kids’ kids. And I absolutely love that. For one thing it means your audience won’t suddenly all die one year! And it’s nice to know it has that longevity.”

I had a similar conversation a while back with one of your ‘70s singer-songwriting chart contemporaries, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and will ask you the same – do you tend to get a lot of people telling you they were the product of a romantic night with Dr Hook playing in the background?

“Well, I wonder how it worked so well for them and not me! But to broaden that, I get people walk up and say, ‘My Dad loves you. We’d go camping and sing Dr Hook songs on the journey’. They’d start talking to me as if they’ve known me forever.

“I have to tell you, I’m not a guy who tends to carry celebrity around on my shoulder. Sometimes I’ll be stopped on a street and asked, ‘Can we take a photo?’ And for a split-second, I think, ‘Why?’ but then say, ‘Okay’.

“I was in a teashop and this guy was looking at me in the queue, then came over and said, ‘Is it strange that you’re standing here and no one knows who you are?’ I said, ‘Well, first of all, you do!’ Secondly I wasn’t looking around to see if anyone had spotted me. I was just hoping the next three people in front of me didn’t order a Panini!

“My concerns are more ground-based. But if you’re eating or you’re busy, you can’t just dismiss that. I know how I would feel – as a massive Beatles fan – if I rushed up to Paul McCartney and said something and he shouted, ‘Security!’

Timeless Machine: 40 tracks from Dr Hook's extensive catalogue

Time Machine: 40 tracks from Hook’s back story

“You’ve got to take that into consideration. That’s a power you get handed. You could ruin that guy’s day. I talked to a guy for about 20 minutes the other day and he told me I made his whole summer. And I said, ‘Well, remember that tomorrow when it’s pissing (down).’”

So why did you feel – after all the solo years – that the time had finally come to reflect on the Dr Hook era, first in 2007, then with the Timeless collection and subsequent touring?

“I’ve touched on it every once in a while. It’s my history and my legacy. In the last dozen years I’ve done a lot of solo tours, just me and a guitar, this journeyman guy with 40 years’ worth of songs. And obviously some of that involved Hook stuff. But I was also singing people new songs, and when they liked them, I recorded them and put them out – that made me feel like a real artist.

“But what opened my eyes to the Hook thing – despite daily reminders of who I used to be! – was that in 2014 Universal acquired a lot of catalogues from EMI and now have all the Dr Hook stuff. They came to me and said they were told I was the guy to talk to. They wanted to put out a comprehensive set and wanted me to help. I jumped in and compiled a two-CD set, Timeless, the first containing most of the songs people know and the other the funny ones, rocky ones and more obscure ones.

“I did a lot of promo for that, including TV and a lot of radio, spoke to a lot of people, and it started to really click that this stuff meant a lot of people, hearing endless stories of how much that meant in their lives. I was going into TV stations and having girls coming out of the back offices to say hello. I’m 67 now and thought, ‘If you’re ever going to do this …’

“I can still sing and kind of look like an older version of the same guy, so when I walk out on stage people don’t say to each other, ‘Who the hell is this?’ I thought maybe this would be a good time.

“After all the promo, I went to Australia for a 26-date solo tour, having not been there for 15 years, then back to New Zealand and Australia last year promoting Timeless. That went really well. And this was for 40-year-old material!

“I’m not a big nostalgia guy. I respect my past and I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to end up singing Sylvia’s Mother in a chicken-in-a-basket place. I will fade away integrally, I hope. But if I didn’t do this, I’d always wonder if I should have.”

Time marches on, and Dr Hook lost drummer John Wolters (with the band from 1973 to 1985) in 1997, bass player Jance Garfat (1972 to 1985) in 2006, keyboard player and fellow founder member Billy Francis (1967 to 1985) in 2010, and guitarist Rod Smarr (1980 to 1985) in 2012. So is this the closest we’ll ever get to a reunion?

“Oh yeah. Four of the guys are gone, while Rik (Elswit, guitarist, 1972-85) lives out in California and has his own life. He’s in his 70s, teaches guitar and still plays in bands.

Postcool Customer: Dennis Locorriere, back out on the road

Postcool Customer: Dennis Locorriere, back out on the road

“Ray (Sawyer) is 80 and not in the best of health, I hear. We haven’t spoken in a long time. People think that means we’re enemies, but we weren’t the same people. He’s 13 years older and from Alabama, and when we came off the road he’d go fishing while I’d go to New York, visiting bookstores. It’s not unusual we have separate interests.

“For me, right now, I can’t bring back the band. But I was the singer and I’ve got a band that plays this stuff as it’s supposed to be played. It’s like a sense-memory. That’s dawned on me too – like smelling chicken soup and remembering your grandma’s house. You hear this music and it brings you to a place.

“We need to respect that and embrace that, playing this music like they remember it. I thought this would be a good time to do that, and the New Zealand shows confirmed that. And now I’m getting to do the Timeless tour I didn’t do in 2014.”

Much of the earlier Hook material came from the pen of the multi-talented Shel Silverstein, not least classics like Sylvia’s Mother, Carry me, Carrie and The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. In fact there’s some great footage out there of the band playing a couple of those songs in 1972 on Shel’s houseboat in Sausalito, California. Let’s just say it looks like they’re having a good time. Did Shel inspire you to write your own songs, to make your own way?

“I’d always written, however credible. But you could hardly turn down songs like Carry Me, Carrie and The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. I was a big Shel Silverstein fan before I’d ever met him, so knowing I was going to work with him just blew me away. I embraced that and embrace that to this day.

“The answer to your question though is almost the opposite of what you might expect. It probably kept me from writing, or at least kept me from presenting my material to the band. When you’ve got a genius like that then say, ‘Okay fellas, now I’d like us to gamble our lives and careers on this little ditty I’ve penned’!

“I always drew cartoons and wrote poetry too, and put out a book of those a few years ago and had a really nice response and good reviews. I was just putting them on my blog because I didn’t know what to do with them. Then a publishing house approached me and said. ‘We love this, would you like to put it out?’

“It dawned on me then that I was hiding my light under a bushel. I think part of me felt I was going to be seen as a Shel clone, although I don’t write like him or draw like him. But he inspired me to express myself always, and I never felt that singing one of his songs was a lack of self expression. He had this worldly material.

“I asked him in his later years (Shel died in 1999, aged 68), after doing a one-man play of his, ‘Man, why did you trust a kid with all these worldly songs?’ And he said, ‘Because I always felt you were an old soul’. I love that. And the body of work – Sylvia’s Mother, I Don’t Want to Be Alone Tonight … I mean, great! It’s no disgrace. Look at someone like Sinatra, who wrote nothing. Being an interpreter is valid.”

Taking your ‘old soul’ point, the band were introduced to the world as Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Tonic for the Soul on an early poster. That was a pretty perceptive description – or prescription – as band statements go.

See Shel: Dr Hook and the Medicine Show collaborator of note, Shel Silverstein

See Shel: The Medicine Show’s legendary collaborator, Shel Silverstein

“Yeah, that was on a poster we stuck in the window of a bar, because the guy there said we needed a name. It was hardly calculated, and certainly nothing I thought I’d still be talking about now!”

Harking back to those formative band days, your fellow founders previously played together as The Chocolate Papers. Did you ever get to see them live?

“No, that was something George (Cummings), Ray (Sawyer) and Billy (Francis) did as kids. You can go to websites where they call everybody who was in that band ‘former members of Dr Hook’. But that’s not true. If it was, what about my best friend who lives in San Francisco? Dr Hook didn’t start until Ray and George went up to Union City and met me, then said they knew a keyboard player and sent for Billy. When The Chocolate Papers was happening I was probably 14.”

I’m sure this can’t be an easy question, but which Dr Hook songs are you most proud of and look forward to playing most after all these years?

“It changes. As a singer and performer I like the story-songs. I have something more to sink my teeth into. Sing something like Lucy Jordan and you get involved. Sing something like Sexy Eyes, it’s a good radio record, sounds great and was a big hit, but it’s not quite the same literature.

“When I try to write I try to say something. When people say I’ve a lovely voice, I think, ‘Maybe I should say something with it’. Otherwise, I should have just learned to play saxophone!”

Let’s be honest, here – growing up, I wouldn’t have admitted my appreciation of your finer works, let alone the – shall we say – more orchestrated material like Sexy Eyes and Better Love Next Time. It took me a while to go back and realise just how good many of those songs were. Do you still encounter plenty of snobbery like that about the band’s output?

“People often say that’s where Dr Hook sold out, but for all the Carry Me, Carrie and Lucy Jordan type songs, if we hadn’t had that body of mainstream hits we’d be a footnote. And our families would have starved. We had to make a conscious effort. We were a bunch of hippies, but had families and were going bankrupt.

“Looking for radio material kept people coming to the shows. We still did our show, but I’d always say when Hook had another hit record our show would just get three minutes longer! Yet you hear all the time, ‘This is where Dr Hook got twee’ or ‘This is where they sold out’.”

Despite what I said about some of the later material, seeing you play those songs live today – having stripped away the more ‘80s production – certainly proves they’re great songs.

“That’s one of the things I love about the solo performances. It’s a man and a guitar. Even if you get Kiss and take away the blood and explosions, you get a guy singing you a song. So is it a good one?

Light Saver: Dennis Locorriere's 2000 album, Out of the Dark

Light Saver: Dennis’s 2000 LP, Out of the Dark

“If you’re going to be out there alone, you want songs you can practically recite. With the Hook thing now, it’s tougher with a band – it’s like travelling with a circus. But it makes my life easier in going out on stage armed with material I know they love. That was one of the reasons I stopped doing it – the atrophy. Why was I writing a new song when they had plenty they already liked?

“I didn’t want my past to shrivel me up and make me die. I wanted a little bit more …”

I know a song about that, but keep quiet, and Dennis carries on.

“It wasn’t an ego thing, but more, ‘Can I lift this weight and do this myself?’ Now I’ve done some acting, the poetry book, the solo stuff, played with Bill Wyman, and I’ve done a lot these past 25 years. So going out and doing the Dr Hook thing seems like a part of my life I’m re-investing in.

“It doesn’t feel like ‘You better do that, pal – it’s all you’ve got!’ Because then you wind up resenting your own success, when people come up and say, ‘Man, I remember you!’ Check your f***ing pulse! After a while it’s like going up to an older person and saying, ‘Wow, I bet you used to be gorgeous!’

“One of the most horrible ones I ever heard was, ‘You used to be the good looking one’.  Compared to what? What should I do? Stand around ugly people a lot, so I don’t lose that credit? Constantly I have to stand back and tell myself, ‘Okay, I know what they meant’.”

Is that something you bear in mind when you hire band members now – how good looking they’ll look up on the stage with you?

“No, but it’s hard not to avoid being the oldest! And the funniest thing is that I used to be the youngest, by 12 or 13 years. Now I’ve got guys in the band who are hot-shots and great players. My drummer was having a birthday and said, ‘Ah man, I’m going to be 47.’ I said, ‘Oh, shut up! If I was 47 I’d still have 20 years to play with!’

“Before you go, I’ll tell you this. When we recorded and started playing The Ballad of Lucy Jordan I was in my mid-20s, while Shel wrote that when he was probably pushing 40. So the line ’At the age of 37 …’ probably meant something to him. To me, at that age, I’d think, ‘Wow – 37!’ Now I think, ‘Shut up! You’re 37 and on the roof?’

“Your perspective changes. You mentioned If Not You, and a guy recently told me, ‘I love that song, and every time I have a new relationship I introduce that. Thanks for writing it’. I laughed and said, ‘Ah, but what if I wrote that for someone I didn’t really care for?’ That’s not the case, but where it comes from and where it lands is two different places!”

At this point, Dennis realises he’s gone off on one (and with good reason) and reins himself back in, closing our already over-running conversation (and I certainly wasn’t complaining) with a concluding line.

“Anyway, come see the show. I’d like you to know I don’t just talk a good game. It’ll be a great show.”

Guitar Man: Dennis Locorriere, prescribing to Dr Hook's back catalogue again

Guitar Man: Dennis Locorriere, prescribing to Dr Hook’s back catalogue again, and coming to a town near you

This feature was originally commissioned to promote Dr Hook starring Dennis Locorriere’s Timeless world tour visit to Preston Guild Hall on Friday, December 9 (7.30pm), with tickets £34/£31 via the box office (01772 80 44 44).

For the rest of the UK tour dates and all the latest from Dennis, head to his website, or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

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