Monday 21 September 2015

“At last, someone who can write songs”: Martin Newell Interviewed

“If you can’t tempt a man with fame and money, what are you going to do with him? Ignore him, simply enough.” Martin Newell is explaining his situation over a cup of tea in his front room in Wivenhoe, England. With over 25 albums to his name, plus many more songs besides (think of him as the British Robert Pollard), as well as being England’s most published living poet, how come most people have never heard of him?

Martin Newell in Wivenhoe Woods. Photo by Andrew Partridge.

“I mean I love Paul McCartney to death, he’s such a charming man, isn’t he? He really is, he goes around being utterly charming to everyone. Oh right, he’s got all that money, hasn’t he? (laughs heartily) But you know, supposing you don’t want it? All that stuff. Cause I think fame is like a mask that you wear. And once you’ve got that mask on, you can’t take it off. Your dog dies or your missus gets cancer or your children go missing or something utterly appalling happens and it’s like it hasn’t happened to you, you haven’t even got that privacy. So that’s why I’m wary of fame and I’m glad that I didn’t take it. As I got older and it became within reach, I started to study fame in more detail and the kinds of things that happened to people that have got it. The money would sometimes be handy. But I haven’t died because I haven’t had a lot of money. I’ve always had a shilling or two around. I can’t understand how people want so much money all the time. What do you do if you’re Paul McCartney? He must do it because he really loves the music, otherwise there’s no reason for the man to get out of bed, is there? In fact, judging by some of the girlfriends we’ve seen him with, he’s every reason to stay in bed (laughs)

“The truth is, I have this body of work that I did. Some of which is quite enjoyable to listen to, still. And this latest lot is good too, actually.” We had been discussing The Cleaners From Venus’ Living With Victoria Grey album (a pop classic released on cassette in 1986 and vinyl and cd for the first time by Captured Tracks in 2014). “Living With Victoria Grey was a better record than Songs For A Fallow Land, I think. It was a bit of a ragbag but some of it was really nice to listen to. 1985 was a good year for me. The Miners’ Strike was over. Although it produced great music - lots of Under Wartime Conditions and Fallow Land came out of the Miners’ Strike - that had really hung over me, I knew guys who were in it.  But in 1985 I would have been writing a lot of Living With Victoria Grey. And at that time, Giles (Smith, who later became a journalist and penned the book Lost In Music about being a music obsessive and his time in the band) had just got involved and started breathing new life into the Cleaners. I was recording a song of his, ‘What’s Going On In Your Heart?’, and I just said ‘yeah, do you wanna join?’ I thought ‘at last, someone who can write songs’. I’m always doing things like that. The whole of the Cleaners is littered with me taking somebody on then finding out we’ve got different pop ambitions.

“Giles Smith is a very very good piano player with a huge pop sensibility and a lot of melody in him. He had genuinely good ideas. Especially when it came time for us to record ‘Illya Kuryakin Looked At Me’ for a record at a 24 track studio in Denmark Street. It’s a very breezy piano part, lovely. The record got good reviews in the music papers as well. One reviewer said that it was a great song but it collapsed every time it reached the chorus. And he was right. I should’ve worked harder on the chorus for that. I should’ve done something a bit more adventurous.

“By 1985 I just felt things had collapsed. I’d given up hope. I’d thought I was gonna be signed to Charisma Records, and this was gonna happen, or that was coming out. And it was all bullshit. And suddenly we get to the summer of 1985, and actually it was quite pleasant. It was a carefree time, really. There was nothing to worry about. Every so often I’d get to a point and think ‘I’ve had enough of the music industry now, why bother? We’re happy, let’s just make some music.’ We can always sell cassettes, it doesn’t matter. I’ll go and do some gardening or I’ll do some washing up. Let’s just do some stuff. I remember 1985 very fondly. I was perfectly happy. And then I came home from painting a house in Whitby in the North and there were 25 copies of Under Wartime Conditions waiting for me. An actual LP. And that lit the torch paper again. And review copies had got sent out to the English press, which I would never have done. I just thought, ‘No, let’s not bother with those fuckers’. A bunch of London bastards. They’d just talk about London. I’m not interested in them, I’m not sending them my records. And later on the mantra got to be ‘I’m not sending free copies of my records to people who can’t even write as well as I do. Let alone play as well as I do.’ There is a corner of arrogance in me but that is hard won, I learned how to write. And I look at people’s appalling writing and I just think ‘I’m not sending you a record to review’.

How do you feel your songwriting or way of working progressed from Blow Away Your Troubles to Victoria Grey?

MN: I was writing proper songs before I started writing Blow Away Your Troubles. There was the whole period of The Stray Trolleys. When I started doing Blow Away Your Troubles, I went to a different approach cause Lol (Eliot, drummer) wasn’t used to sitting down and writing a song, verse chorus. I had been writing verse chorus songs since I was 14. I knew what to do. But with the new wave and Lol’s generation of musicians, they didn’t necessarily do that. They got this kind of indie groove going, and then they built stuff around that and slung vocals on top of it. I thought it could be interesting so I worked like that for some time. And I was very surprised and sometimes delighted at the results I got. I was used to how The Beatles would write songs or anyone in the 60s. Which in itself stretched back to Tin Pan Alley – Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hammerstein… So I had to unlearn that and I started using a punk ethic – ‘oh that sounds alright, let’s leave that.’ But soon enough it crept back to writing songs again. I could not not do that. I’m a tidy sort of fellow in a way, I will make things into innate patterns. And I’m constantly having to unlearn those patterns because if it becomes too ordered, it can get boring. So when I write a song, very often I’ll go to something completely wrong. Like taking a familiar song and then playing the next chord sequence wrong to see where it goes. Something strange then happens, and very often it’s something very attractive.

Blow Away Your Troubles had lots of different stylistic ideas which led up to Midnight Cleaners, a pure Pop record.

MN: When Lol started taking more of an interest in going to see his girlfriend in Bath, I was left to my own devices and the songwriting started creeping back to pop songs again. And my obsession with the 60s. The 60s was then at that time twenty years away. Which to a man still in his late 20s, was very very interesting. I thought ‘what did they have? what did they have that we don’t have now?’ Cause I’m listening to people like Spandau Ballet and ABC and they’re not singing in nasally voices with twangy guitars. They’ve got this great big very important voice (mimics Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’) And he’s wearing a tablecloth and waving a cutlass about and I’m thinking ‘WOW! Am I getting something wrong here?’

Then you’ve got Martin Fry, who I believe was a very nice man, but again the big dramatic gesture. Big shoulders, big hair, big everything. He’s got the dinner suit on, a bird in an evening gown, dressed like Audrey Hepburn, gloves and pearls, swanning around in the background. (sings ‘When your world is full of strange arrangements’) You know my world is pretty full of strange arrangements. I remember when I was growing up we lived in this terraced street, me and my two brothers, and once a year we’d have to move out. My mum would take us off to the seaside for a couple of weeks and this woman from a couple of streets away used to come around and give me dad a bath. That was a pretty strange arrangement (laughs). But when you’re 22 and you’re working in an office in London and you’re going out, you’ve probably had a little of this or that and you’re thinking (coked up voice) ‘gosh, my world is full of strange arrangements’. No, you’ve just had a cocktail and a bit of cocaine and some girl said something cryptic to you, that’s all it is.

And then Billy Mackenzie, ‘Party Fears Two’. Takes it right to the other extreme where he’s almost having a nervous breakdown (imitates ‘I’ll smash another cup’) ‘This is the sensational voice of rock n roll’ and I said ‘no, it’s the sound of someone who needs medicating’.

For me, the two best bands of the 80s were The Smiths and XTC. If I had to do a desert island Sophie’s Choice of which would you rather have ‘The Smiths or XTC ?’, it’d be a very tough call. I didn’t like everything XTC did but where I liked them, I really liked them. Some of it was a bit noisy and overcomplex. Those oblique changes of Andy’s where you think ‘it’s gonna go there’ and it goes over there somewhere! Whereas I admired that, it didn’t always work. And I think they over-egged the pudding sometimes as well, which is probably what stopped them being The Beatles of the 80s. When XTC do pop music it is like bizarro-Beatles really, they get very close. But The Smiths! They were amazing. I really like The Queen Is Dead. And ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’is a great song. That’s nearly The Beatles, the changes in there. Only a Northerner could write a song like that. Something about those changes, something cold and frosty in the air about them.

With both bands, XTC and The Smiths, the one thing they really lacked, that would’ve made them absolutely five stars instead of four, is neither of them have a really top-notch singer. Morrissey just sounds silly sometimes. He’s great, he’s witty, and he’s a national treasure and all the rest of it, but he’s a kind of singing Alan Bennett (imitates). Andy’s voice also goes into a kind of caricature. I respectfully suffer from the same thing – rather overmannered, too recognizable vocals. I’ve since learned to sing.

How did you start working with Andy Partridge? (Partridge produced Newell’s first proper solo album, The Greatest Living Englishman)

MN: Kevin Crace, at Humbug Records, liked The Brotherhood Of Lizards, the project I did after The Cleaners, with Nel from New Model Army. At some point in 1992, Kevin rang me up and said ‘How would you feel about writing an album for me and I’ll put it out?’ And I said ‘Yeah’. He said ‘I’ve got someone in mind to produce it.’ ‘Yeah, who?’ And he said ‘Andy Partridge.’ I asked if he knew him. And Kevin said ‘not that well but I know how to get a hold of him’. And I said ‘well I’ve actually spoken to him before.’ Andy had bought my second book of poetry. In fact, we swapped. Someone had given him my first little poetry book,  I Hank Marvinned, and he thought that was great. One spring morning in 1992, round about the time my second book, Under Milk Float, came out, I got this phone call. ‘Hello, this is Andy Partridge’ and I knew it was him from the voice. He said ‘I’d like to get your second book’ and I said ‘right, I can send you one of those’. He asked, ‘do you like XTC?’ and I said ‘well, yes’ and he offered ‘we’ve got a new album, do you wanna do a swap?’ So he sent me Nonsuch.

I was turning out songs all the time. I wrote at a huge rate of knots. The only person I can think of who probably writes at the rate of knots that I do would be Elvis Costello. He can turn out songs. A lot of the songs I wrote then, looking at them now, could’ve benefited from a bit more work. I was actually ablaze with songwriting. Just writing and writing and writing. That’s all I did. I presented a lot of these songs to Andy Partridge when he came to do The Greatest Living Englishman. I sent him about twenty songs. But Andy Partridge is a creature very similar to me and he just said ‘well I reckon we got about half an album here’. And I had sent him twenty of what I considered to be my best songs! I was incredulous. I went out for a walk and brooded about that for a while and thought (jokingly malicious) ‘right, he wants some new ones, does he?’ So I wrote a whole load of new songs as well. And then to my surprise he said ‘we’ve got a whole album here, Martin, easy’. That’s why Greatest Living Englishman was good, it was condensed down, distilled. And of course it had Andy being very strict on production.

As a proper first solo album, I didn’t know where it was gonna lead. It became popular in America very quickly, we sold 11,000 copies in five or six weeks with no publicity. There was a bitchy remark in one of the English papers at one point, that I’d ‘unaccountably sold lots of records in America’. I think that was the feeling here. I never found out why, maybe I just didn’t play the game properly. I remember when Chery Red brought out The Wayward Genius Of Martin Newell and there was a review in either MOJO or Q which began ‘All things considered, this album is really not bad’. It was probably a good example of twenty years of my very best work and they’re saying ‘all things considered…’ Above all, it puzzled me, ‘all what things considered? what have I done to you?’ People talk about what pop songwriting should be and then they’re confronted with someone like me that can really write and it’s like they’ve held a Halloween party and a real monster has turned up. It discomforts them.

I just accept that when I’m gonna make a record, some of it’s gonna be good and some of it’s gonna be a bit strange. But with this one (Return To Bohemia), I’ve got a rock solid collection of songs. I think some people would like them, that’s all. They don’t do this to chair makers, do they? Mr. Chippendale didn’t get this kerfuffle, did he? They’d ask Mr. Chippendale ‘what are you doing?’ and he’d say ‘Making a chair. You sit on it. And they look quite nice as well.’ Right, I’ll go round Mr. Chippendale’s and get some chairs. You can’t do that with music. ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s Mr. Newell.’ ‘What does he do?’ ‘He writes and records songs. And the songs are a bit rough hewn at times but they’re always quite good and listenable and you can play them a few years later and they still sound ok.’ ‘Oh right, well I shan’t be listening to that then.’


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