While Martin Stephenson formed the first line-up of The Daintees as a young teen, busking by the age of 15 and plying his trade with guitar in hand for various bands in the North East over those formative years, he was a worldly-wise 25 by the time Newcastle-upon-Tyne independent label Kitchenware Records released acclaimed debut LP Boat to Bolivia in 1986.
Learning his trade as he went, developing his playing technique from a Spanish guitar book then doing the same to master jazz, blues, country, skiffle and reggae styles, Martin was soon marked out for his songcraft, voice and writing too. Signed to Kitchenware around the same time as Prefab Sprout and Hurrah!, with early Daintees tours supporting Aztec Camera, The Bluebells, John Martyn, and backing Roy Buchanan, critical acclaim followed that first long player, similar positive reviews ensuing for 1988’s Gladsome, Humour and Blue, the live shows always going down well, the band sharing bills with Hothouse Flowers and Janis Ian too.
By 1990 there was also the much-lauded Salutation Road, and then 1992’s The Boy’s Heart. And yet, Martin’s anti-material thinking sat uncomfortably with the mainstream record industry, soon shunning the populist route, ploughing a far more humble, low-key furrow, and happily so.
In time, sales dipped, but the acclaim continued, Martin gradually moving towards a mail-order cottage industry existence, continuing to record solo and as part of a group, remaining a draw on the live circuit, albeit more at home on ‘the B-roads of music, free from the shackles of expectation’.
In 2018, his profile increased again through appearing alongside Billy Connolly in a two-part biographical documentary about the Glaswegian actor/comic/musician. And over the years, Martin’s work increasingly drew on folk and traditional roots music, his live shows continuing to impress, characterised by entertaining tales between songs from a master guitarist, singer-songwriter and storyteller out to provide ‘folk and Americana with a dash of Northern flair’.
The Daintees returned to the studio in 2008 for the first time in 16 years, the resulting Western Eagle receiving glowing reviews, leading to subsequent albums California Star (2012), Haunted Highway (2015), Bayswater Road (2017) and Chi Chi And The Jaguar (2019), running alongside various solo and collaborative albums for the main-man.
Then there were the re-recorded, re-imagined 30th anniversary releases of classic early period Daintees albums, and new LP Howdy Honcho, Martin having long since relocated to the Scottish Highlands, where I tracked him down.
“I’m just working away, helping other people complete their projects. It’s nice just doing somebody else’s stuff.”
I can’t imagine you getting emotionally involved when you’re working on someone else’s record.
“Funny really, I still think like a table tennis player, where the first thing we were taught was to coach each other and encourage. When I went into the music business it was very competitive. It was quite shocking actually.”
I’m forever talking to people who broke through around the same era as you, at a time when there was big money record company backing and artists were forced to compete with each other, chasing chart positions and record sales.
“Absolutely, and I never felt comfortable with all that. Music was always the spiritual thing to me. You’ll find different coaches have a better perception of that. Industry is industry, and I’ve always had a fascination with factory workers. My mam was a factory girl, my Dad also worked in that environment, and I do enjoy producing things. But when it costs friendships I don’t think it’s worth it.”
When you mentioned your parents, was that back in County Durham?
“Yeah, my mum worked at a little electrical factory – she was one of those girls sitting on the production line. She had these wire-cutters and when I started maintaining my guitar, I got them off her and carried them for years.
“My Dad started down the pit and was an ambulance driver for a while, then got a job at Dunlop in the ‘70s. They had quite a community, including a little club with a bit of entertainment. I retired at table tennis at 15, but came out of retirement to play for Dunlop for a year. I was the skinny kid with the Adidas top and long hair up against 30-somethings.”
Could you have taken table tennis further as a career?
“I don’t think I could. I met my coach when I was 11 and he was 27, and his skill was working with rough kids – underprivileged or over-privileged, he had a real talent for bringing people together, giving them confidence. He was a great teacher, but I’d go over on a Sunday afternoon and we’d be listening to Santana and The Doors – this was around 1971 – and he was an amazing guy, like George Harrison but with a table tennis bat! But he taught me the beauty of losing.
“Even at that age it was like a Buddhist programme about the futility of competitiveness. It was almost like someone taking a detonator out of you, taking away the anger. I think he was a bit of an angel, that guy. I didn’t realise I’d been on a programme, so when I went into the music industry at 19 or 20, it was my second subject. I was a really open kind of person from another planet – it was an alien place for me.”
Home for Martin is Invergordon these days, in Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands.
“I came up here in the ‘90s, but I played Findhorn in 1988 – the hippie commune. I took my old tour manager with me – he was a Birmingham mafia, Hells Angels type, and it was the only time I saw him terrified! It’s a bit like The Prisoner. You know hippies, man, they’ve got long hair, but they break all the rules for themselves. There’s this military base next door – Kinloss Barracks – so it’s like Yin and Yang. But you meet some of the most spiritual people you’ll ever meet in the military, and vice versa in the commune.
“My Dad’s family were Scottish. When I was about 11, he said, ‘I’m going away for the weekend, I want you to come with us,’ and we went to Lennoxtown, quite a rough area. We had these two uncles who ran a pub but were teetotal. They were Celtic fans, and the day I got there they were burning a St Mirren scarf in the fire! They were mad, but they were quite big music fans. They had a piano, and I didn’t even know my Dad played piano until then – he became another person when he got up there. I was fascinated about Scotland. I always wanted to go there if we went on holiday.
“I also did this thing, ‘stepping into the loincloth’. I realised I was cocooned in the industry and the people around me – like my manager – the things other people wanted I realised I had to disconnect completely, spiritually. This was about giving everything away, probably inspired by my heroes being people like Peter Green – I was born to fail! – and Jonathan Richman.
“I had to let go of everything and disconnect from this cocoon of people around us. I mean, My VAT bills were thirty grand a year when I was 21! So I stepped into the loincloth, said, ‘Right, who’s with me?’ And it’s like having mumps or chickenpox – they give you a wide berth and the earth opens up! I had my wilderness years, trying to reconnect, carrying and stringing my own guitar, playing to five people, trying to make sense of why I’m here, starting right from the beginning, this time without the machine.”
I worked out the first time I saw Martin play live was at Glastonbury Festival in 1989.
“Ah, I’ve got fond memories of being with the Hothouse Flowers there. They were lovely people and I’d been in America for three months just before, working with them, travelling all over in a bus.”
I always had a soft spot for them, remembering them at Glastonbury that year and also seeing them play Sydney in February 1991 during my round the world backpacking travels. I also loved Liam O’Maonlai’s ALT side-project with Andy White and Tim Finn.
“Liam is such a lovely human being, and they were all very giving. They were in the industry, but they weren’t like that. And Liam’s attitude towards women … he never abused his position. He could have been an arsehole, but he wasn’t!”
You’ve probably met a few of those in your time.
“Oh, they were out there, you know. But I liked them lads. They didn’t have that agenda thing going on. You just want people to be genuine, don’t you.”
The next time I saw Martin live was at the Fleadh in Finsbury Park, North London, in 1992, part-way down the bill, with The Pogues – featuring Joe Strummer – headlining.
“Ah yeah, we liked going on first! That suited us, going on at seven then buggering off. Being on last is the worst part of the night!”
Martin’s own roots were in Washington, now classed as Tyne and Wear, but County Durham when he was born there, the ancestral home of the family of US founding father George Washington and the town where Bryan Ferry hailed from. Does Martin enjoy getting back to the North East?
“Oh, aye! You see, I was brought up in Brady Square, this tiny … oh, you’d have to be from there to understand. There was Old Washington and New Washington, where I lived. My Granda lived in Old Washington. The village was in the centre, and when I walked to school, where the Smithy Café was, I’d pass George Washington’s house on the right side, and Dame Margaret’s Hall, and on the left side I’d pass the Washington pit.
“Up until the lockdown I was doing a gig in the garden at Washington Old Hall, and we’d have around 200 people coming along, bringing a chair and sitting in the garden. Really lovely, seeing people I haven’t seen since I was seven or eight years old.
“There was a guy who’d chase me when I was a kid. Same age as me but massive – Lenny Ingram. About two years ago I wrote this little story about him. When I was about six or seven, I was on a swing on this field in front of my grandparents’ house, the houses circling this field, and in the middle was a park. But because I was at my Gran’s, I was out of my zone, about four miles from home. I didn’t know the kids. They were all Protestant, I was Catholic. Sometimes I’d be there when I was off school, but you had to watch your back.
“I was on the swing and happened to turn around when I heard this heavy breathing – Richie Beresford shooting across the grass trying to catch me. This big psychopath. I managed to get away, like deer on the Serengeti keeping an eye out for the lions. But one day I heard this noise, realised it was the Ingrams, and it was too late.
“They circled me, but I had the swing going really high, so they couldn’t stop me. I thought I’d keep the momentum going. Lenny was saying, ‘Are you out?’ – meaning I’ll have you out, I’ll fight you – but he had a speech impediment, so I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, mate’. He was getting angrier and angrier, this kid who was about 5 foot 11 when he was eight years old. So I wasn’t gonna stop!
“I jumped at the height of the swing, landed and just belted for my Nana’s, about 150 yards away, with the Ingrams – these brothers, Alan and Tosh – chasing us. I got under the hole under the fence where the dog used to get under, scraped all my back and ran past my Granda, standing on the step with his pipe, saying, ‘What’s going on here?’. I said, ‘The Ingrams are after me!’. So he chased them.
“I told this story, and it happened that Lenny was sleeping on the couch – he’d come home from work and was sprawled out, his wife sitting next to him with a laptop reading this story I wrote. She turned round, gave him a whack! He woke up, saying, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘Ya big bully, ya!’.
“Anyway, last time I played Washington Old Hall, he was in the audience, in the front row. I said, ‘Oh Lenny, sorry about that!’. And his wife was sat next to him and whacked him one! We became friends later on in life, but at that time you had to keep away from him!”
Have you still got family in that area?
“My daughters live in Tynemouth, and my sister’s moved down to Darlington. Both my Mum and Dad have passed. You lose touch with people, but Facebook’s great – kids I was in football teams with, I’m suddenly in touch with, where they might have moved to Durham or out of the village. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Have your daughters followed you into music, or did you put them off for life?
“I would have if I could, like! My youngest daughter is really musical, but she loves drama, she’s really into Spanish, has learned to speak it, and wants to go to Spain. But my older daughter, another lovely kid, is more leftfield indie. Last thing she wanted to hear when she was growing up was my records … which is a good thing!
“But she got into bluegrass, and next thing I know she’s doing Doc Watson rags and playing the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Deep River Blues’, and the Carter Family. We’ve got so much in common, yet we don’t really play together. She’s just done an album sleeve for us. She’s a good artist. They’re lovely people and as long as they’re happy I wouldn’t want them to go through what I went through.”
Your biography suggests ‘an eclectic range of musical styles from pop and folk through to bluegrass and punk’. That range has always been part of the story, as illustrated by the BBC Radio 1 session you did for Andy Kershaw in June ’86, 35 years and a few days ago …
“Bloody hell – ha!”
I listened back to that set before speaking to Martin, and it seemed to sum him up well. Here was a fella whose debut album’s title track was a reggae number, yet that session truly showcased the broad range of material – starting with the Mickey Dolenz-like ‘Louis’ …
“Ah, I used to write these songs for my friends. The Daintees was born out of … the first members were really Anthony Dunn, who was 18 probably, and his sister Claire, the singer, who was about 10 and the dominant in the band! She’d tell me my songs were shite and I’d need to brush my act up a bit, y’know. She’d say, ‘Nice titles, shame about the songs’ – at 10 years old! I used to really listen to her – she was so straight. She’s a grandmother now. She did backing vocals on ‘Coleen’ (from Boat to Bolivia) when she was a little older.”
Then there’s the Paul Simon-esque ‘Roll on Summertime’, while ‘Crocodile Cryer’ – the opening track on his debut album – has that ‘80s white soul feel, like someone paying their dues to Van Morrison …
“Oh well, I always would. I’m 59 now and I’m still paying them. He’s a beautiful talent.”
True. He’s been talking some rubbish this past year, mind. But musically, you can’t fault him.
“Well, he’s a grumpy old git, isn’t he! There’s a lot of Alf Garnett in him. But some of the things that man’s done … I love his limitations and his vulnerabilities as well. He just goes for it. Some of those vocals he did, like ‘Crazy Love’ – fantastic!”
And then there’s my personal favourite, the penultimate track on Boat to Bolivia, ‘Rain’. We could be talking about the son of Lee Hazlewood there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nancy Sinatra came in to sing a verse or two.
“Ha! It sounds mad, but I was a new wave guitarist by the time I was 15, and then I was in a couple of great bands. There was one, Strange Relations, where the singer was 21, into The Monochrome Set. He was cool, he was bisexual, and he developed his own photographs. I was his little sidekick guitarist, into the early Cure and anything really, but I had a great musical education and was into Captain Beefheart by the time I was 11.
“But when punk came along, I did what Joe Strummer did – I denounced the whole fucking lot and rebirthed, pretending I’d never listened to Steve Hillage. Ha!”
Were you watching North East punk bands like Penetration around then?
“Oh, I love Pauline (Murray), and she’s a good friend of mine. And Rob (Blamire). They’re very sweet people and they’ve done so much for others.”
They have a studio just down from the Byker Wall, haven’t they?
“That’s right – Polestar! I was there with Lenny Kaye when I brought him up to Newcastle to do my album in 1991. I’d first seen him in 1978, when I was 17. I went with a 14-year-old, Stephen Corrigan, and at the end of the night Lenny was on stage with guitar hanging down, Patty pretending she was taking heroin, Lenny throwing all these plectrums out, my mate going right down into the mosh-pit to get this plectrum for us. I still thank him to this day for this triangular Lenny Kaye plectrum I put in this little wooden box at home.
“Years later, when I was about 20, we’d stay at the Columbia Hotel in London, and there’s Lenny having his breakfast, me salivating, frightened to speak to him. I went home for a few days then came back, and he was still there! I brought his plectrum back, he was coming out one morning near Hyde Park – Lancastergate – and had these red flares on, still this New York cool, skinny kind of Tom Petty guy. I plucked the courage up, said, ‘Excuse me’. He had an early Walkman, pulled the headphones off, said, ‘Yeah, can I help you?’. I said, ‘Are you Lenny?’. ‘Yeah, man’. I said, ‘Lenny, I’ve got your plectrum!’. He just looked at me, thinking I was some fucking stalker!
“I never saw him for ages, but I was in Liverpool when we were doing the Boat to Bolivia album, and our producer, Gil Norton said, ‘We’re gonna have some dinner with James tonight’. They were working with Lenny, and we all sat in a curry house, a bit shy with each other, and Lenny kept looking across the table, thinking, ‘I’ve seen that kid before’. If he knew it was the kid who’s given him the plectrum, he’d have thought, ‘I’m getting outta here!’. But I plucked the courage up to ask him to produce my last album for the majors, The Boy’s Heart.”
That LP is the most recent The Daintees have re-recorded as part of a 30th anniversary of their first four albums project. Around that period, I told Martin, I saw the band – among their contemporaries – somewhere between The Bible, Deacon Blue and Prefab Sprout, but all these years on I realise now that The Bible’s Boo Hewerdine‘s career path has possibly been the closest to Martin’s, even if Boo is more about complementing his modest earnings through writing for others, notably Chris Difford and Eddi Reader.
“Yes, but I would say I trust the soul of that man more than the others. He’s a nicer lad for me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do a couple of gigs with Boo. He has a beautiful introverted energy, and that shows how great introverts can be as performers. You don’t have to be song or dance people. It’s all internalised, like the difference between the Queen and Princess Margaret … who would have been the worst fucking Queen ever!”
Not sure if Boo’s ever been compared to HRH the Queen, but he’s a bit of a gentle giant, and like Martin a great singer/songwriter, something they both always had in their armoury.
“We did (BBC) Sight and Sound in Concert together, recorded in London somewhere. A lovely hall somewhere, with a mobile recording unit. I remember thinking The Bible were a great band. They had this lovely vibe. They weren’t like anybody, and showcased the good, modest side of British music, without the competitiveness. I like that about Boo.”
Do you remain in touch with anyone from your Kitchenware days?
“Do you know what’s really funny? On Kitchenware, the council house bands were The Daintees and Hurrah!, and the middle class or aspiring middle-class bands were the Sprouts and The Kane Gang. All funny and eccentric, not bad people, but I was always quite close and became very close to Paul Handyside, the Hurrah! guitarist, in our 30s, helping each other a lot.
“Also his co-writer, (David) Taffy Hughes, was like the Will Sergeant of Hurrah!, into psychedelia and all that. I remember meeting Taffy when I’d moved to Scotland and was back down seeing my kids, and there’s Taffy walking along with a pram and this baby. He said, ‘Meet Rupert’. I said, ‘Cool’. Then, 17 years later, I’m doing this gig in Hartlepool and there’s this young bluegrass band on. I said to my friend, ‘That kid has got it – you can’t learn that’. He was charming but humble and funny. Like Edwyn (Collins, presumably) when he was young. And it turned out it was Rupert!
“Then, another four years later, my daughter’s in this psychedelic band, El Cid, a brilliant band, like the 13th Floor Elevators. Young kids will put together something fantastic, and old goats like me will try and manage them, but they’ll just go and do something else, with you saying, ‘You can’t – you’ve got the best band in the world!’. They were together about a year, I helped them with some LCR recordings, but then the singer buggered off. But Rupert was in the band with Phoebe, I took them on tour, and they played the City Hall, Newcastle, and to Liverpool to play that famous venue The Beatles played.”
Ah, The Cavern, which I see is on your next tour.
“Aye! And recently our guitarist Gary, a full-time teacher, said there’s three dates he can’t do, can we find someone to cover. So I phoned Rupert. He’s been brought up on Kitchenware, he’ll know all the songs. And it’s really nice that our younger generation are also musicians.”
On a similar note, listening back to Salutation Road this week, I hear so much more than I would have first time around, not least ‘In the Heat of the Night’, somewhere between Fairport Convention and someone more contemporary like Seth Lakeman, not least with the fiddle. Do you tend to get younger acts telling you how important you were to them?
“Every now and again. There’s a young kid who moved up here, Nicky Murray, who came up here when he was 17. He’d been in all the gangs in Glasgow, then became this phenomenal Thai boxer. I picked him up at the station, took him to this big mansion where there’s a guy called Chippy from a band called The Gurus, legendary up here. When I picked him up, he had a bandana on, and I’m like, ‘Oh, fucking hell, it’s Kris Kristofferson!’.
“He’s now 24 and after a really hard beginning he got through college, studied cello, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter … and not just a songwriter – more of a pollinator. He learns other people’s things as well, including all the songs of his elders up here. He can play ‘Rain’ better than I can. He’s different, you know. If anyone will carry your name on, it’s him. He remembers his elders where most kids his age are still up their own arseholes. They haven’t got that expanded consciousness. I’ve met one or two like that – you could have dropped them off at Laurel Canyon at the height of all that and they’d have fitted straight in.”
On a similar line, we mentioned Kitchenware, and there were several labels after that before you set up your own, Barbaraville Records. Is there a remit there of what you really want to do?
“Yeah, when I rebooted … One of my oldest friends lives next door, Jimmy – in fact, I can hear him tinkering with his car right now! – tour-managed Billy Bragg at one point, taking people around the Highlands. He’s retired now, and I’ve spent most of my musical life here now, and I’ve this little cottage – my rent’s £210 a month and I live really simply. It’s a kind of a studio in that I’ve a Mac computer and more technology than The Beatles had to make Sgt Pepper. I’ve a few decent mics.
“But I’ve been doing this a long time and what I really enjoy is finding artists who haven’t been supported. They haven’t had coaching, someone to say, ‘Hey, try this!’. There’s a local lad, Davy Cowan, who’s had to play a lot of harsh gigs to survive. He’s had to up the keys and push it. Before the lockdown I said, ‘You’re gonna have to stop doing these pub gigs. It’s killing you, man. You’ve got more class.’ I’ve produced a bit of music for him and you can see he needed that support, someone to tell him he’s special. I love doing things like that.”
Another of Barbaraville’s artists is Martin’s partner, Anna Lavigne, her Angels in Sandshoes well worth checking out. Think Marianne Faithfull with folk undertones creating a soundscape for a European road movie, the blend with Martin’s voice on several tracks a major draw, an array of musical styles explored. Originally from Sheffield, Anna was spotted with a drama group at The Crucible, ending up through a management company linked to Griff Rhys Jones performing with The Young Ones’ Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Nigel Planer, and the likes of Rowland Rivron and Tilda Swinton, in the early ‘80s Comic Strip days in London, before embarking on a very different path, touring internationally as a dancer with the revered Lindsay Kemp – a mentor to David Bowie and Kate Bush – after a successful audition in Barcelona, coming off the road when her sons were born and working as a voice artist and tour manager.
“Anna’s got this quality. She’s just got this attitude. When she works with you, you feel so supported. I love working with her. She doesn’t think she’s too good for anything. She’ll get the pizzas, next thing she’ll be the leading lady. She’s so cool, does my t-shirts, drives the car, doesn’t think she’s too good for anybody. And the people she knows is unbelievable.
“We bumped into each other five years ago by chance at a funeral. She was with her ex-husband, also a dancer for Lindsay. I was walking around the church playing songs at my friend’s mum’s funeral. I started singing to them, and at the end of the service we sat on a table together and talked and talked. We just connected. About three months later I went to Lossiemouth to play a gig and there she was, and straight away I couldn’t work this mic stand and she was over, fixing it!
“She thought she was done with relationships. So did I. We ended up friends and just slipped into being a couple. I also noticed she wrote lyrics and poetry. I’d get her to proof-read anything I was doing, and one day turned one of her poems into a song, ‘Paris in the Rain’, which she wrote for us when we were there.”
Bringing the story right up to date, Martin has recently released LP Howdy Honcho as a pre-order.
“I was looking for a title and decided to use my daughter Phoebe’s pieces of art, featuring this really shifty fiddler with a cowboy hat. It’s a hand-carved etching, beautiful. I thought, ‘Ah, yeah, that’s Howdy Honcho!”
That follows Pink Tank, a re-recording of 2004’s Airdrie.
“I was walking along the beach with Anna, saw a little plastic grey tank on a mound, washed up. I said I’m gonna paint that pink, call it Pink Tank, and it’s gonna be Airdrie re-recorded. Anything that’s good about me creatively comes from the collective consciousness. There’s no ownership in that perception. That’s where my high perception is. My master puppeteer is plumbed into that. It’s the puppet you’ve got to watch. That’s why I meditate and sometimes reflect before I make moves.”
Anna, along with Angie McLaughlin, provides backing vocals on new LP, Howdy Honcho, also featuring long-time associates Anth and Gaz Dunn, Chris Mordey, drummer Charlie Smith, and harmonica man Spider McKenzie, the latter with a song named in his honour. And for someone based so long in the Scottish Highlands, those North-East tones are as strong as ever, I suggested.
In fact, ‘Witches Ride’ would have made – with alternative lyrics – a perfect Likely Lads theme tune. If Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were to write a ‘where’s Terry Collier now’ one-off with James Bolam, maybe Whatever Happened to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, they need look no further.
“Ha! That’s funny. It’s actually about a supernatural experience at Tomar in Portugal.”
When I spoke to Martin, his first date back on the road was set for mid-July in Sheffield, a sell-out at the Dorothy Pax. That has since been moved back to late September though, and I recommend double-checking dates va the link at the foot of this feature following the Government decision regarding on-going pandemic restrictions.
There were 21 dates on the list I saw, including Leaf and The Cavern in Liverpool; The Half Moon, Putney and The 100 Club in London; and two nights not far off Martin’s old patch at the Old Cinema Launderette, Durham. And my excuse for getting in touch was his scheduled visit to The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on July 23rd, at time of going to press still happening.
“Ah, I love Preston. I used to do The Adelphi.”
Those shows go up to November 20th at the Sage, Gateshead, and I also see Martin’s down for Butlin’s Skegness and the Great British Folk Festival, alongside the likes of Kate Rusby, Lindisfarne, Steve Harley and Judie Tzuke.
“I think we do three gigs, then we go for our Ventolin inhalers, have a week off and do another three!”
You strike me as a fella who’d be lost without the joy of performing live. Has this last 18 months proved a major trial?
“It’s funny really. I’ve got used to it. My last gig was in March – almost a year and a half ago. It was weird at first, and I wasn’t going to do an online gig, but the spirit was so good, and the nice thing was, we started lighting a candle for everybody who was really struggling. We’ve got that working for others vibe, and once you step into that, you don’t wanna go back into being selfish. And through being that way somehow we’ve been blessed.
“I’ve been publicly funded for years now. I stepped into poverty to escape the trappings of short-sighted wank. Through doing that you start seeing the real thing. I feel I’ve learned to be a spiritual businessman. I’m the worst businessman – I give stuff away – but it comes back because of that.
“For Salutation Road the budget was £150,000 in 1990, mixed in LA, recorded in all the top studios, with Pete Anderson twenty grand before he got out of bed! We were all on 60 quid a week, and I’m thinking, ‘Who’s paying for this?’. I did one more album, modest compared to that, where the budget was 20 grand, Lenny Kaye got a Harley Davidson out of it but deserved it, a great man who did a great job, a decent hard-working person, us still on £60.
“I got out of the industry after that. I felt I was done. That was 1992. I didn’t think I’d make any more records but was probably addicted to the creative cycle, like an elephant goes on a journey feeding around the circumference of the wood. I kept manifesting one way or another through addictive behaviour and made this album, The Incredible Shrinking Band, where the budget was £9. I recorded it live, even took a phone call on the recording, then sold one copy at £10 so I made a pound!
“I looked at that, thought about Salutation Road … ‘I get this now. I have to make things really small’. So when I re-recorded the album … I’ve two types of budget; one where I’m really careful and mix at home, but sometimes I like to give people work so go in the studio, but the players are so sharp we’re in and out before the ink dries on the bill. I say to the engineer how much would they charge. If they say £250 a track, I’m putting the guitar in the case by the time he says ‘track’. ‘Right, we’ll just take the masters, thanks!’.
“There’s a really good engineer, Mark Lough in Stirling, I gave him Salutation Road, spent about£1,200 recording it in a really good studio. The recording bill was about £700, I paid the musicians the rest, gave it to Mark to mix and master, paid him £500. I’m not flush, but he deserved it. That’s a big budget album for me, as opposed to £150,000 in 1990. I put it out as a pre-order, sold 300 on vinyl and 300 CDs. That was it.
“I could proudly sit in front of Alan Sugar with that, or have coffee with Bob Dylan and say, ‘It makes sense, Bob!’. I don’t wanna sell any more. I’m done putting them in the envelopes by then. I’m a factory girl by nature but need a holiday before I do another. To me, that’s good practise. And now I realise The Daintees’ biggest power was good will – that was the currency we were carrying in the ‘80s on our little ship, and that’s why we didn’t fit in. We weren’t Prefab Sprout or The Kane Gang. We were more like a spiritual council house band. We shouldn’t have been there in the ‘80s.”
Going back to the stand-alone single later added to the re-released debut album of the same name, and that line, ‘You can’t catch a boat to Bolivia …’, did anyone ever try to prove you wrong, sending a postcard about their trip across Lake Titicaca?
“Oh, everybody! Back in the day, students would get you in a corner, say, ‘Hey, I studied this, and …’.
I often wondered if the likes of Aswad or Gregory Isaacs had covered that and had a hit, whether you’d have been made for life, financially.
“Yeah, that’s the real deal! That’s why I say to audiences, ‘Do you really want me to sing this song?’ and they’ll say, ‘Why not?’. I say, ‘Well, I sound like Julian Clary on a good day’. But that’s the beauty of a different perception. It’s not about being the best, it’s about love.”
While I’m there with flippant questions, I should ask how many hats there are in your wardrobe.
“I tell you what, I’ve got three or four trilby-like hats and a couple of caps, but I used to get them nicked – students would nick my bloody hats all the time. First thing I did in the morning when I was leaving town was find another in Oxfam. I remember taking Janis Ian to Oxfam in Liverpool. She was doing a soundcheck and I spotted Oxfam on the corner. It was around quarter to five and I was leaving. I heard this voice at the Royal Court. She said, ‘Where you going?’ over the microphone. The guy doing the sound looked really upset. I said, ‘Oxfam, around the corner. I’ll not be bothering with the soundcheck’. She said, ‘Wait for me!’. She put her guitar down, skipped down the side, and went to Oxfam. I said, ‘You’re a multi-millionaire, what are you doing here?’. She said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with hunting!’.
Martin has a big birthday coming in late July, his 60th. Will that change anything for him?
“Nah, it’s just a number. I feel sad there’s people leaving the earth, but there’s people coming in, and we’re lucky if we’ve got this far. You just gotta try and be healthy, respect the gift we’re given.
“I’m thankful to be 60. It’s been a canny journey. I’ve always loved older people and had loads of respect for my elders … and now I’m one of them! When you get to this age, I thought I’d have a white beard, be like Confucius, giving all my advice. But I still fucking know nothing!”
Martin Stephenson is set to play a solo show – pandemic restrictions dependent – at The Continental, Preston, on Friday, July 23rd. For more details of Martin’s solo and Daintees dates, Barbaraville Records’ releases and merchandise, head here.
Lovely article, really insightful and loads of things I didn’t know. Just one thing though, Boat To Bolivia wasn’t the title track of the album. It was released as a stand alone single afterwards, and only added to the album when it was re-released.
Ah, thanks Pete. I fell into the tiger trap there, didn’t I. Consider that amended. Top marks to you, and cheers for the positive words.