Click on the links for Part One, Part Two and Part Three of the interview. Is it fair to see the last three LPs of a piece? They seem to sit together as a sequence. Yeah I think what I found, funnily enough, is sometimes you get what you want when you stop trying to get it.
Click on the links for Part One, Part Two and Part Three of the interview.
Is it fair to see the last three LPs of a piece? They seem to sit together as a sequence.
Yeah I think what I found, funnily enough, is sometimes you get what you want when you stop trying to get it.
What I found with the last three records was my sort of imaginary band. It’s a lovely band because it’s not any band that could exist in real life on the road or anything like that. It’s a basic team, people come and go, but it’s only once every few years and I ask people to come in. There’s Annie Whitehead, Yaron Stavi on bass, Gilad [Atzmon], that’s the core. Then people like Phil Manzanera and Paul Weller do cameo roles – well a bit more than that really, and it’s so nice, a bit of a different context for them and I hope not too uncomfortable.
And extra guests come in, like on this one Orphy Robinson the vibes player, Monica Vasconcelos. This sort of imaginary little group are so warm and friendly feeling. They’re as much about how that little relationship has developed as anything else. It’s got a slightly – I don’t want to presume on their own preferences – but subjectively it’s a bit like a little musical family. Matching Mole was a bit, but it was so fraught trying to keep that going as an organisation, and I don’t have to do that with this one.
Do you have an aversion to rock guitarists?
I think I do, but I’ve worked with a lot now; Mike Oldfield and Dave Gilmour and Phil Manzanera, I love these people. I think what it is is I can’t really play guitar, I do a bit on this record and I have done in the past, but it’s like being a wino and not being a beer/pub person, because I associate English rock with the football, the beer and the pubs, it all goes together and I’m not a beer, pubs and football person.
The rock guitar thing to me, I’d already formed my tastes before that. I’d got so used to chords played on keyboards, so the dance pop music that I like would be Allen Toussaint, New Orleans, Lee Dorsey, Booker T, and the English soul bands like Georgie Fame and Zoot Money rather than the guitar thing.
I never really got the guitar thing, I can enjoy and appreciate the whole English rock tradition, and the Anglo-American one, and it’s swept the world as one of the most universally popular musics. But I seem to have formed my inclinations away from that, and i’m really grateful to the rock guitarists I know. They’ve been really helpful to me, Phil particularly, he’s been an absolute saint. But at the same time it’s not my instrument. On my solo records there are no guitars.
So how do you characterise these three records? “Shleep” is the return to the band?
Yeah they’re band records, they’re the records by some sort of imaginary band, and I try and give everyone a shot. For musical reasons, it’s an Ellington thing, everyone gets their moment. It’s not a philanthropic thing, it’s to do with giving life to the music if every character on the record has a moment that’s clearly theirs, it helps me listen to the whole thing. And the rest of it is variations of ‘bloke on his own with keyboards’, plus imaginary band. Sometimes it’s more ‘bloke on his own’, and sometimes it’s more like a band.
I think they [the last three LPs] have something in common; I’m a middle-aged bloke, a lot of blood’s flowed under the bridge now, and the other thing they have in common, and what’s helped me make them, was that Alfie really put the pots on when it came to helping me with words and stuff. I mean, she didn’t just write the words to “A Forest” on the last record, she also had the idea of the line that Brian Eno sings behind it and which she sings a bit. She wrote a tune, like the “Lullaloop”, so even the solo records are duet records in a way, me and Alfie. It’s whatever we can do together.
I like the different way we do words. The whole first third of the new record has none of my words on it. When the second section starts with my words you think, oh it’s him again.
There’s something incredibly English about your music even when you’re playing Italian or Spanish or Cuban songs.
I hadn’t really thought this through ‘til a while ago. I met Billy Bragg a few times ‘cos he came up here to record at a local studio. In fact I did a tiny harmony part on a record he’s got coming out, a really nice song, and then he came again to do a book reading from his book “A Progressive Patriot” in Lincoln, and me and Alfie and my son Sam and his wife went. It was very nice. And he was upset because his home patch, Barking, his working-class roots. . . I think a BNP councillor got in round here somewhere, funnily enough right near the hospital. If the Africans and Muslims left the place would collapse actually, Gawd, thank God they’re here. What an insult to them, I felt quite ashamed about that.
I am totally English, I’ve looked up my roots. On the Ellidge side, which is my dad, it’s Lancashire, and on my mother’s side the Wyatts were originally Staffordshire farmers. And on both sides there’s quite a lot of Welsh, which is ancient British if you like.
So here I am, I’m English. The music I listen to is continental, I was brought up on English children’s books, y’know Lewis Carroll and Hilaire Belloc. I love the lyrics of Noel Coward. In fact I even like – because of that wonderful film and because my brother’s an actor and used to do them a bit – I even like Gilbert and Sullivan. You cant get more English than that, as far as I can see.
But it also doesn’t get more English than Suggs and Ian Dury – there’s a whole Englishness, Billy Bragg indeed, which I’m very happy to be. The only time I feel the need to be defensively patriotic is in comparison with the United States, where people often say, ‘how come Blair fucked up so much in Iraq and Margaret Thatcher, by her own terms, didn’t fuck up in Argentina?’ Well it’s because Argentina had nothing to do with the fucking American army, that’s why.
I remember James Brown being asked if he resented the Beatles. He said ‘No, they introduced white America to our music, and that makes me feel patriotic.’ Northern soul? Good lads.
“Cuckooland” especially, seems quite rural, with things like “Tom Hay’s Fox”.
Yeah you’re right, it’s landscape. Also as a child I did listen to that small group of English folk songs that my dad used to play on the piano. My dad had a friend called James Reeves, and they were very much of the Vaughn Williams generation who were disinterring English folk song. Reeves was a poet and he used to put the dirty words back into the folk songs that the Victorians had expunged to make it parlour music.
I used to see Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears the tenor singer. He had a vibrato funnily enough, not unlike Coltrane doing ballads [imitates pears]. He really got to me. On “Rock Bottom”, it was being able to slow the vibrato down to that pace that really got to me. Plus some of the songs that my dad used to sing, probably the first song I ever sang was “Foggy Foggy Dew”, which is a much dirtier song than the Victorianised version.
But I realise now, this is the point I would make, to the BNP and people who go on about their culture being threatend by alien things; no-one has allowed and welcomed, as a xenophile, non-English cultures so wholeheartedly into their lives and into their brains and into their food more than I have. And yet I don’t feel the slightest bit compromised or diluted or melted as a human being. I’m as English as my Staffordshire great-grandparents.
As my Lancashire dad would say, ‘What the fuck are you all scared of?’ What kind of wimps are you that the man standing behind you in the checkout queue is wearing a turban, how does that threaten your identity, you twat? Get over it, for fuck’s sake, what are you on about? And further than that I’d say its amazing how people who come from other countries, you’ll find in two or three generations their children will become so English.
Have you heard or seen anyone more English in the way they talk and behave than Julian Joseph or Courtney Pine? I don’t think so. Two more polite English boys – the Mondesir brothers. And if you meet black French people, they’re so French.
I saw a young woman being interviewed by John Snow, she had a scarf round her face and he was saying, ‘I want you to take it off so I can see what you look like.’ And she was so polite and coy – I could see why he wanted to see her, she was obviously very good looking. She was probably thinking, ‘Actually John, it’d probably be a good idea if you had a scarf round your mouth,’ but she was too polite to say that. But the way she demured, her modesty, she was very educated, was in a way quintessentially what the paranoid nationalists think of as the English behaviour which we’ve lost. She was the quintessence of it.
So after all I’ve bombarded myself with and absorbed, happily, of enemy culture, alien culture, it’s left me just as English as the day I was born, and I don’t think anyone else is threatened, because no-one else has done less to protect his Englishness.
But on this new LP, in the last song of section two – you sing “You’ve planted an everlasting hatred in my heart.” It’s as if you don’t want to use English as a language any more. A sign of disgust.
That was a reference to when I started making singles with Rough Trade. I’d joined the Communist Party, and I didn’t like the way that the Anglo-American rock culture seemed to assume that it was universal, when in fact it was quite exclusive. So I was trying to sing songs from other places. But I think everybody knows that now. Most people know that there is a Baaba Maal, that there is bhangra. It’s not an issue.
Those words were written by Alfie, and it’s a kind of response to a slow burning thing where I try and contain myself, but where the exasperation does come out. It comes out not from wishing to disassociate myself from the actions of our governments, but from the moralising cant that goes with our global stand. If people said, ‘look our oil’s running out, we’d really like to have control of most of it, and we can, and voters will be pleased that we did, so that’s what we’re gonna do.’ You’d say well, fair enough . But they never say any of that and it just exasperates me.
Certainly we are at war now, two brutal wars, one either side of Asia. But the English-speaking people, if you include the United States and the Australians, they’re interesting because their whole culture is based on the obliteration of an existing culture, the most successful ethnic cleansing campaigns of all time, far more successful than Hitler – which was thank God a failure. No actually I retract that. Those six million Jews will always be missed.
Susan Sontag said, ‘People can moralise in politics, but in the end morals in politics is about empathising with the other,’ and instinctively, culturally, that’s what I’ve always done. It’s to do with a craving – it’s not so much a principled stance, it’s much more primitive and animal than that – it’s a craving for biodiversity, cultural biodiversity as much as anything else, and a fear of cultural incest.
But the point is that, during my lifetime, the English-speaking people have bombed about 25 countries. That’s to say once about every two years we have dropped bombs on a different country. and if you include Israel as part of ‘the team’, the destruction of Beirut.
Lincolnshire is bomber county, so I wanted to link the obvious innocent, heartfelt and well-meant patriotic fervour of the bomber pilots – of whom we’re terribly proud, quite rightly, since World War II, having their innocence and dedication abused time and time again. Harold Wilson very wisely, and we never really give him credit for it, kept us out of the Vietnam war, pissed the Americans off a lot and did himself a lot of damage, but he did it. And of course Blair should have done the same.
Criminals are criminals. Murder is a crime. Mass murder is a big crime. Get ‘em, put ‘em in prison, do what has to be done. But bombing and destroying cities is not the answer. If you’re saying they’re dictators, then they weren’t even chosen by the people, so why are you fucking punishing the people? You’re more justified in bombing a country where brutal leaders are elected, because you know half of the people actually voted for them.
Anyway, I was quite shocked when I read Alfie’s lyrics, ‘cos the word ‘hatred’ is a hard one to sing. So is the word ‘love’, with any sort of full human resonance. But she just was so shocked in direct response to a woman looking at bewilderment at her home in Beirut. I’m not a journalist who writes about daily events. Anything I do, the specific trigger has to have some long-term non-specific resonance, so it seemed to me legitimate that anyone who had been bombed like that might be feeling – including the people in the office blocks bombed by Al Qaeda – that they’re going to hate them for the rest of their lives. It’s not just a partisan song to me. Bear in mind that if you’re going to do that to people, unless you’re going to obliterate them, the idea that you can obliterate independent Arab cultures into oblivion of subservience is even less likely than the apartheid regime obliterating the various African groups in South Africa.
Historically, inevitably, people will grow up, take on some of the characteristics of the colonising force, and eventually assume their powers, because there’s more of them. This is what happens with empires, this is why they implode. What Israel has to hope is if the indigenous people reclaim their territory, their leader is a Mandela and not a Mugabe. But you do stuff like that and you are not winning hearts and minds, mate. What do you THINK you’re doing?
What’s frustrating is the worst things that are happening aren’t filmed – the daily humiliation of the Palestinians having their water supplies drained away for swimming pools. It’s a general world thing; the children and the families of your victims will rise up, and they won’t like you very much. And I wanted to disassociate myself entirely from the English-speaking trajectory abroad because I don’t think it’s going to change in my lifetime significantly. so I said OK. It’s a symbolic thing.
The middle of this record’s chunk is England, and it’s not all bad. I love the bit in the middle with Gilad and Orphy Robinson doing their little duet, there’s nice tunes and a good laugh, and the scepticism and grumbling. But at the end I think ‘oh fuck, I’m off,’ and the last chunk is all about different ways of getting away from the mainstream, whether it’s avant garde or singing in a foreign language or singing surrealist songs or whatever
What about “Beautiful Peace”? I can’t recall a song in your history quite like that, a
naked guitar song?
I think it’s simply because the tune, like “Beautiful War”, is based on a Brian Eno tune. He found a keyboard thing where it did a guitar thing, and it was basically that. And I’d tried to write words for him, for it, that were too me for him to sing. There’s always been this imaginary project, I always like doing stuff with Brian; we’re so different and what we do together is so different to what we do apart. It’s the singalongaBrian Eno song.
But it’s nothing like Eno, it’s like a folk song.
Well if you listen to the bare bones, believe me it’s an Wno song, and then Phil on guitar and I played a bit of guitar, and it didn’t seem to need anything else. It’s a sort of road song.
It’s an amble.
It’s an amble, and the thing about nomadic peoples’ songs is that they tend to play light instruments that they can carry. There’s not a lot of grand piano in gypsy music. You could sit by a roadside with a guitar and play that tune, it’s an open air in the countryside on the road in a small town sort of song.