Down from The Loft and virtually coming your way – the Pete Astor interview

Social Distance: Pete Astor exhibits pristine table manners ahead of his live from home webcasts (Photo: Jeff Pitcher)

Three weeks after our initial chat, my latest interviewee was updating me on recent developments while publicising two live shows direct from his place this weekend – in lieu of a cancelled tour – and organising online seminars and lectures for his university day job.

Lockdown or not, it seems that Pete Astor’s life remains hectic, striking a balance between family and home life, work, record promotions, and more besides.

When we first spoke on March 10th (and how long ago that seems now), he proved that blokes can multi-task if they put their minds to it, letting a random stranger into his flat as we got going, hoping they really did have a parcel for him to sign for while I teed up my questions.

I’m usually more prepared, but his schedule suggested – 23 hours 55 minutes before our agreed interview slot – we drag it all a day forward, the piece of paper with my questions on it as good as blank. We got by though, not least as I’d already managed a couple of spins of his cracking new solo LP and had plenty from his revered indie pop past to mull over.

You Made Me, out a few days before, is in effect a long-playing spin on a concept David Bowie and Bryan Ferry tried out in 1973 with respective classics Pin Ups and These Foolish Things, Pete compiling an album of other people’s songs that helped define his own career.

There were live dates to plug too, as a guest of both The Catenary Wires and The Nightingales, but you’ll guess what happened next – Pete, like all the others set to go on the road over March, April and at least a couple more months from here, seeing his plans pulled for now.

You can still grab the album though, via Faux-Lux/ Gare du Nord in LP, CD and digital download format, and he did manage a launch at Servant Jazz Quarters, Dalston, North London, backed by the record’s producer Ian Button (drums), Andy Lewis (Paul Weller, Spearmint, Soho Radio, bass), and an array of special guests performing their own covers that ‘made them’.

That was before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown kicked in and everything went a little ‘Ghost Town’, where ‘all the clubs are being closed down’. The first casualty was a March date in Hastings, followed by April visits to Rainham, Coventry, Bedford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hebden Bridge, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and a return to North London to play The Lexington, Islington (the scene of a 2015 triumph for a re-formed The Loft), and an early May show in Lewes.

Battle Front: Pete Astor, making final arrangements before a virtual trip to East Sussex to open his reimagined tour.

But he’s making up for that to some extent, organising exclusive ticket-only webcast shows for each venue, albeit as a virtual experience, the first coming from ‘Hastings’ at 9pm tomorrow (Friday, April 3rd) then ‘Rainham’ at the same time on Saturday, April 4th, in effect performing from his London home, rather apt considering that his first group was The Living Room, the band that moved up a floor and became indie darlings The Loft (both names in tribute to early-‘80s Rough Trade/Creation night-time hangouts presided over by Alan McGee).

While it’ll solely be social distancing champion Pete this time, the LP’s launch involved the likes of Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey (ex-Tallulah Gosh, now with Pete’s tour-mates The Catenary Wires, who impressed me supporting The Wedding Present on my Preston patch in 2017), Darren Hayman, Dave Tattersall (The Wave Pictures), Alison Cotton (The Left Outsides), David Westlake (The Servants), Luke Haines (Auteurs), Sean Read and Alan Tyler (The Rockingbirds), and Shanaz Dorsett (Benin City).

There was an early public airing of a couple of songs from the new record when Pete – accompanied by Neil Scott (aka Wilson N. Scott), Andy Lewis and Ian Button – did a session for Marc Riley on his BBC 6 Music radio show, playing an interpretation of Elvis Presley’s ‘Black Star’ and the only Astor original on the LP, ‘Chained to an Idiot (1974)’, wryly described by the man himself on air as being ‘a tribute to libido’. And those two were accompanied by his early ’90s composition, ‘Love, Full On’, a gorgeous ditty that sounds as if it’s stepped off a Robert Forster album.

Several of those already mentioned also feature on the LP, Pete joined by Dave Tattersall (electric and acoustic guitar), Andy Lewis (bass and synth), Ian Button (drums and percussion), and Neil Scott adding electric guitar on ‘Suffering Jukebox’, with Sean Read (also previously with The Pretenders) as well as Pam Berry (Black Tambourine, Withered Hand) and Nina Walsh (Woodleigh Research Facility, Fireflies) contributing extra vocals.

And from the pop mastery of 1980 opener, Generation X’s ‘Dancing with Myself’ onwards there are several surprises en route. After the afore-mentioned ‘Black Star’, for these ears carrying more a Bowie than a Presley feel, and ‘Chained to an Idiot (1974)’, with its Wreckless Eric meets Television feel and T-Rex-like guitar, we get respectful but inventive interpretations of Cat Power’s 2012 dance-crossover classic ‘Manhattan’ and Joe Strummer‘s Mescaleros-era wistful 1999 number ‘Nitcomb’ before the first side plays out with a take on Richard Thompson’s powerful 1991 biker drama, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, two minutes shorter but no less an epic tale.

From there, Pete turns to John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’, echo-filled and somewhere between Richard Hawley and Mark Knopfler, with Pete Frampton-like guitar late doors. Paul Westerberg’s ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ is next off the block, our man turning his hand to The Replacements, electric guitar flourishes replacing the original brass but the result no less top-down summertime driving material. And then we’re back in 21st-century territory, our man proving he remains on the pulsebeat, reimagining Villagers’ gorgeous ‘Courage’ – with almost ‘Is She Really Going Out with Him?’ backing – and the late David Berman’s Silver Jews’ final LP offering ‘Suffering Jukebox’, Neil Scott adding electric guitar flourishes. And that penultimate number sounds as much a Weather Prophets original as the finale, a reflective take on John Peel favourite Loudon Wainwright III’s 1985 ‘One Man Guy’, today’s subject taking full ownership of all 11 songs.

You Made Me marks – as Pete put it – ‘some of the way stations of a life in music, songs to make sense of time passing and what that passing time can mean’. And of the premise of the LP, he told Marc Riley during his radio session, ‘It’s just really good to revisit stuff you love, and maybe you learn something as well when you sing amazing songs’.

We talked a bit about that opportunity to pay his dues while he signed for his package, Pete giving me his full, undivided attention from there as I asked about some of those involved on the record, starting with Sean Read, who I saw last year with regular collaborator Edwyn Collins and his band.

“I produced the first Rockingbirds single and I’ve known Sean since they all lived on a squat on Camden Road. I’ve also known Andy (Lewis) on and off, from Blow Up (the club night with roots in Camden before heading to The Wag) and lots of things, but this is the first album where he’s played with me. Yeah, it’s all various, like a family tree with a lattice design, Sean also playing with Edwyn Collins, and so on. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the Creation family tree …”

Yes, that must take some designing. The same goes with your own lineage, via The Loft, The Weather Prophets and more stops en route.

“Exactly, and it’s all those kind of mad connections, as with Amelia and Rob, who also sang on the launch show. Then there’s Luke Haines, who I’ve known on and off forever, and Dave Tattersall, who’s on this album and (his band) The Wave Pictures played on my last album. I should probably do a really bad family tree of this record!”

With You Made Me something of a personal album through the influences it celebrates, how do you think you’ve changed as a person and a performer since those early days as The Living Room alongside Bill Prince, Andy Strickland and Dave Morgan?

“Well, that’s interesting, as I also re-released the Paradise album (under the name Pete Astor & The Holy Road), which I did in 1991, and I’m still friends with all the people involved. I mean, Neil (Scott) plays on the new album, and the original band played some shows to support that.

“I went up to see Neil a couple of weeks ago to rehearse for the (Marc) Riley session, as he’d never played before with Andy (Lewis) and Ian (Button). We did one of the songs we recorded for Riley, ‘Love, Full On’ (from the Paradise LP), and I was talking to this guy after, who was lovely, saying it was a great song and how it was one of those you have to be a bit older to write. I didn’t want to disavow him, but actually I wrote that 30 years ago!

“But I think when you get older you just calm down a bit. You’re slightly more diplomatic. I’m definitely more diplomatic than I was – that’s absolutely true. Luke (Haines) laughs about it, but various people who have played with him have said, ‘God, he seems such a nice guy, (but) I was terrified!”

Back to the new LP, and there are a wide range of artistes covered. But let’s start with track two, and Elvis Presley’s ‘Black Star’. What was the thinking about tackling that RCA rarity (re-recorded as ‘Flaming Star’ when the accompanying 1960 Western changed its name)?

“It was one of those things that came up when Bowie died, with his own ‘Black Star’, bringing that back to the fore in a way that was kind of elegiac and beautiful, thinking of that song again because of the Bowie connection, knowing that he was also born on the same day as Elvis, something that was probably on his (Bowie’s) mind in his final year. And for me it was good to rediscover the Elvis song.”

I’m guessing both artists had a big impact on you.

“Absolutely, although truthfully my favourite band when I was 12 or 13 was Slade, not Bowie! But I adored him and loved Hunky Dory, I bought that from a record shop and about a year later realised the lyric sheet was missing. I went back to the shop and told them, and they went round the shop and found it.”

That was Mann’s Music, still going strong after 160 years on High Street, Colchester, where Pete moved with his family after spending his early years in London, and of which he described as ‘one of those marvellous shops that sold the entire package – including the instruments and the stuff you made the music on, which made a weird kind of logical sense really’. Colchester was the hometown of broadcaster and indie champion Steve Lamacq, wasn’t it?

“Yeah, we were set to be going to see Colchester United together at some point. He’s a real football supporter and while I’m not, I have an affection for Colchester United … because of how rubbish they are!”

Hey, you’ll not only be upsetting Lammo there, but you’re talking to a Woking fan. What we’d give to be at the heady heights afforded the U’s.

“Well, I guess it’s not too dissimilar to the music world in that respect.”

Absolutely, particularly when there are fellow fans of my club for whom the dream would involve reaching the Premier League within 10 years. I’m not sure that would suit me. We can already bring in quality players and get sizeable crowds but don’t have to worry about snapping up tickets. Maybe the same applies with my favourite bands. I don’t tend to enjoy it as much when they get too big.

“Well, yeah, although I think in our minds, we are in the Premier League … although we clearly aren’t!”

You mentioned a mega-successful band that I retain a love for all these years on though, and getting interviews with Slade’s Don Powell, Dave Hill and Jim Lea proved such a blast for me. Do you still get your old Slade records out now and again?

“I still listen to them now and again. Jim Lea became a psychoanalyst, didn’t he? And he was, I guess, the person I visually looked up to when I was 12 or 13. He struck me as the cool one. Noddy was always a bit of a clown. That’s not criticising, but he didn’t have the vibe, whereas when you’re growing up you need role models, and Jim was super-cool. I was also a fan of (legendary NME/The Face writer/musician) Nick Kent, and they were probably peas in a pod really, the way they looked.”

We spoke of Slade’s flamboyance, and you open proceedings on this LP with Generation X’s ‘Dancing With Myself’, which I guess most of us thought was originally recorded by their frontman Billy Idol as a solo artist. I liked early Gen X but was put off somewhat by Billy’s posturing. But through your cover I’d say you’ve proved the worth of his songwriting with Tony James.

“Yeah, they were one of those bands … I hadn’t realised it was a Gen X B-side, I think … To tell you the truth, I didn’t realise that until I’d done that myself! It’s a beautiful song, and reminds me that many years ago The Weather Prophets did a show for our bass player Dave Goulding’s brother’s wedding – we’d never done anything like that before, and haven’t since! – and we did ‘I’m a Believer’ and ‘White Wedding’. And in the playing of it, I realised, ‘What an amazing song!’ It’s weirdly simple but a weirdly complex song, the same three chords all the way through but in a different order!”

Well, you’re making me re-evaluate him now. Perhaps I need to look back beyond the cartoon sneer and peroxide pantomime punk spikes.

“Absolutely. He was not cool. He was by then some sort of desperate ‘80s pop star, but it’s often good to rediscover people, and ‘Dancing with Myself’ is a beautiful, sad song. I love it.”

Talking of the ’80s, that was the decade where you ran from The Living Room to The Loft, then formed The Weather Prophets, and that’s where I came in, falling in love with the Mayflower LP, checking out your career progression before and since from there. I loved that first album, but I’ve struggled to find a CD version for a sensible price in recent years. And even when you put out the Blue Skies and Free-rides compilation, you chose different versions of songs from that record. Was that a conscious decision or to do with licensing?

“The honest answer is that you didn’t have a hope in hell of doing a song that was signed to Warner Brothers. It’s changed now, I think, but in those days, you would just go into a wormhole and could spend decades trying to get a yay or nay out of them. It was kind of pointless asking.

“But it’s nice revisiting songs anyway. It’s fun doing them slightly differently. And with ‘She Comes From the Rain’ I’m really fond of the version on there.”

I get that. But sometimes the versions you fall in love with first resonate more deeply.

“Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. I think that’s changing in music, such as the way Kanye West was still changing songs when it’s already out. Bob Dylan gets it quite right in that for him the recordings are often less important than the songs themselves. I quite enjoy how a song lives as a song, not just as a recording. When I play live now, I’ll mostly play new songs, but I’ll play old songs too and like to see how they evolve and how they work years later. I like the idea of a song existing separately from the recording of that song. And in the millennial history of music, we grew up in a time where we were in this really weird blip where recorded music was valuable … in a way it isn’t now and it wasn’t before.

“That thing about Robert Johnson giving away his songs for nothing was because he made a lot of money playing live. He wasn’t some guy that lived on a plantation. That was a sort of myth John Hammond put about. He was a touring musician and also played in Canada, and was smart enough during the Depression to do that when there was no money in recorded music. That’s why he gave them away – not because he was stupid or ignorant.”

That‘s where we are now, I guess. So many artists I appreciate these days know full well they’ll not get rich off recording albums, but they still do, because they want to put something out there and love what they’re doing. It’s a labour of love really.

“Oh, completely, and I’m very lucky I’ve got a job completely related to music. It’s something I love doing, teaching the creative practise of making music, and thinking about music. It’s a common thing for younger musicians that you have to have a portfolio-career now. The position I was in would give me a small but significant income, whereas now it gives me a small income. But luckily, because I’ve got a job, it’s brilliant, and it’s a job that supports the fact that I do this.

“It’s completely a labour of love, but when you get to a certain age you have this gift of knowing you’re not going to be on this planet for as long again as you’ve been on this planet, so every moment you get is a gift. You get to prioritise what actually matters, and for me being creative and making music is one of the most important things. I can’t recall who said it, but they described themselves as a ‘lifer’. I really like that. That’s what it feels like to me.”

Pete’s day-job these days is as a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster. But there must be times after lectures or seminars where students ask him what he actually did in music, I venture.

“Yeah, but it’s just a lovely thing and a real privilege to be able to engage with different generations. I think it does change how I see the world. You see the larger picture. Sometimes it feels like your world only involves your contemporaries. Whereas in my world there’s also those who are 30 years younger than me. That reminds me how old I am … but in a good way. And it reminds me how insignificant I am … in a good way. It gives you really good perspective, rather than being in a position where your world seems terribly important, because that’s the only world you know.”

I suppose social media opens you up to your past existence though – with people like me getting in touch, wanting to talk about a record made 30-plus years ago. It’s as if we’re still in a bubble, primarily equating you with that person who did ‘Naked as the Day You Were Born’ and so on. Whereas clearly a lot has happened in your life since.

“Yeah, but I suppose you establish yourself as a human in your early 20s. I’ve changed, but I haven’t changed that much. I’m pleased and proud of the fact that I can sing a song I wrote 30 years ago and I’m completely happy with it. It’s also nice to be a musician with a history which gives me reason to be trusted. You can’t buy that. You can only get that from doing this as long as I’ve done it and proving I’m not stupid enough to sell my soul.”

Astor Vista: Pete Astor, back with You Made Me, his ninth solo LP by this scribe’s reckoning (Photo: Jeff Pitcher)

Was there a career progression in getting to this point?

“It was more a lifestyle change around the age of 40. I hate it when people say, ‘I drifted into this’. I got some teaching work, thought it was interesting, did it, and it developed from there. I started teaching a songwriting course at Goldsmith’s (part of the University of London), which I really enjoyed, then started teaching at Westminster, where I am still, and it just kind of evolved.

“It was something I wanted to do, and I enjoyed doing. It felt the right thing to do and kind of fitted with my friends at art college when I was a teenage student – that world of artists who made stuff, even if they didn’t make a living out of it. I’m so lucky now that I’m in a position where I make stuff and get to give students perspective on that, facilitating them doing what they do.”

It’s 40 years since you co-formed The Living Room, the beginning of this story. How soon was it before you got to know Creation co-founder and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Alan McGee (who played bass in the initial Weather Prophets line-up), what were your first impressions, and do you think he’s changed much?

“I still talk to him. When we started playing at The Living Room, it was quite simply a taste thing. We read the NME every week, and I saw this tiny thing about this new Rough Trade Club at the Adams Arms.

“I’d already played (Rough Trade founder) Geoff Travis my music before that and he liked it, took me into his office, listening to the whole tape while I was sitting there. I knocked on the door at Blenheim Road and he let me in. It was bizarre. He listened to the whole thing, then said, ‘I like it. I like it quite a lot … not enough to put it out but come back here in a year’s time’.

“So we went down to this club, liked the vibe, and it might have been The Nightingales playing. It’s all very well documented. We went for the first few nights – me, Bill (Price) and Andy (Strickland) – and Alan (McGee) was at the door, so we just asked him if we could play. My main memory of that was that while I knew lots and lots of Scottish people, he tended to speak very fast, and after asking, I went back to Bill and Andy and said, ‘I think he said yes, but I didn’t quite understand what he said.’ So we didn’t know if we had a show or not!

“But it was just brilliant, (fellow Creation co-founder) Dick Green really liked us, it developed, then we rehearsed and played, ‘Why Does the Rain?’ in rehearsal, and I thought, ‘This is a good one,’ and we thought when we played that, he (Alan McGee) was gonna like it, say, ‘That’s the one!’ And sure enough, he did, saying, ‘I wanna do a single of that!’

Lofty Pretensions: Pete Astor with The Loft and friends at The Lexington, Islington, 2015 (Photo: Susanne Ballhausen)

“He was very smart, an incredibly quick learner, whereas a lot of people who had similar opportunities weren’t smart enough to ride it. What was really striking about McGee to me, was that while I was a Londoner and we all lived in London, (went to) art college and that, there was a world we came from – people living in squats in the ‘80s, kind of urban, cosmopolitan or metropolitan – and he came from outside all that – his parents did not live in Muswell Hill – but learned incredibly quickly, a testament to how incredibly smart and intelligent he is … although he plays that all down.”

Go on then, tell me what happened at Hammersmith Palais that led to the end of The Loft and led to you and Dave Morgan starting again, forming The Weather Prophets with Oisin Little (guitar) and Dave Greenwood Goulding (bass). And are you back on speaking terms now?

“Yes, we are. That was the foolishness of youth. That was me being a bit of a hothead, not communicating things properly and clearly for people, and it all exploding in the way that those things do.”

I’ve seen Andy Strickland a couple of times with a rebuilt version of WriteWyattUK favourites The Chesterfields in recent years but haven’t managed to ask him about all that. Was that friction just between you two?

“It was mainly me and him, but we’re really good friends now. I played at his 50th birthday, he played on some of my solo stuff, and I think one of my favourite live appearances these last few years was at The Lexington (in Islington, with a re-formed The Loft). It was lovely, so much fun. Actually, I remember Andy saying it was the first time he ever played drunk. I’m usually the one who turns up, goes, ‘How do I switch this on?’. I couldn’t care what amp I use, and don’t have a spare guitar. He’s always the guy with two spare guitars and has to have his own amp. But he was a bit sloshed when he went on and didn’t care too much what he was playing, and I think that relaxed him a lot. That was a great night.”

Time deserted us at this point, both of us called away to our next engagements. And while I had more to ask about some of the other songs covered on the new LP and those classic indie singles in his past, from ‘Why does the Rain?’ and ‘Up the Hill and Down the Slope’ to ‘Almost Prayed’, ‘She Comes From the Rain’ and beyond, it’s probably a good thing we stopped where we did … for now. Maybe next time, eh.

Side Order: Pete Astor looks to the future, 40 years after his first appearances in The Living Room (Photo: Jeff Pitcher)

For all the latest from Pete Astor and more about his online shows, You Made Me, and how to track down a copy, head to www.peteastor.com

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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