Martin Gordon: Pop’s Agitator Comes Out of the Basement – Interview 8/13/2004

Martin Gordon is a gentleman and a scholar, and there are damn few of us left. A quick peek at his resume (Sparks, Jet, Radio Stars, John’s Children, Rolling Stones, Blur, Robert Palme, Boy George, George Michael, Tiger Lillies, ad infinitum) may lead one to label him “jack of all trades, master of none,” but because he seems to handle writing, playing, producing, and arranging with equal aplomb, “madly talented” (or just plain “mad”), “prime purveyor of pop pulchritude,” and “smart aleck” are closer to the mark.

The revelation that he arranged most of “Kimono My House” may have burst the bubble of many a Sparks fan, in the process earning him the sobriquet “Bleeding” on the group’s web page message board, but sometimes the truth hurts. Last year’s “The Baboon In The Basement,” far and away this scribe’s album of the millennium thus far, stopped short any cries of “Foul!”.

On the eve of the release of his second album in the past year, “The Joy Of More Hogwash,” Gordon was gracious enough to join us at the Bar from his home in Berlin for a series of questions which, if nothing else, lays bare my boggle-eyed admiration, even if it meant simultaneously juggling his infant son.

Clark Paull:  Welcome to the Bar, Martin, and thanks for joining us. After years spent behind the scenes as keyboardist, programmer, producer, co-writer, arranger and “washer-up” for the likes of Kylie Minogue, George Michael, Robert Palmer, Blur, and Boy George (amongst many others), the last 12 months have seen the release of two albums under the Martin Gordon brand. A case of growing weary of following the whims of others or a simple need to show off?

Martin Gordon:  Probably neither, more the availability (and willingness, of course) of those with sufficient skills to pull it off. In terms of voice, guitar and drums, I mean. But mostly voice, because that’s the thing upon which pop songs stand or fall, in my book. So full credit to Mr Smorgasbord himself, Pelle Almgren, for putting up with the enormous workload I have inflicted upon him, including recording a pile of songs that I finally threw out. I’ve kind of stopped working with other ‘pop’ musicians since moving to Germany, so maybe all my inclinations now are channelled through my own output. What’s great about it is that I am doing exactly what I want AND that people like it. Well, it would be quite pointless if they didn’t, I suppose… Which is most encouraging and prompted me to dive into the second album almost immediately. I was always weary of the whims of (most) others, of course, so nothing new there.

CP:  Who’s a bigger diva, Minogue, Michael, or The Boy?

MG:  The biggest diva of them all was the ghastly Jeremy Healy. Who’s that, you ask, and rightly… Of the above, though, they were all quite charming. George actually accused ME of being a diva when we were in Bombay. I had bought some splendid black velvet slippers with gold braid on them and it was the monsoon, pissing down for 24 hours a day. So when we went out, I put a plastic bag over each foot, to preserve my new footwear from the elements. He found this very odd behaviour, weirdly enough. Pots and kettles, I thought.

I didn’t do so much work with George Michael, just a keyboard session, and we both arrived wearing identical clothing, so that was a bit odd. But I told him that I was older than he was, so I had seniority. Chronologically, I mean.

Kylie – we did a few TV sessions, recreating backing tracks, and a TV concert somewhere in London’s Docklands. She was crawling around on top of my grand piano. Actually I had quite a view, I must say. She seized my hand and led me offstage. Alas, the story ends there.

CP:  “The Joy Of More Hogwash” almost sounds as if it could have been recorded during the same sessions that produced “The Baboon In The Basement.” Did any of the new songs exist in perhaps a larval stage back then (2003) or did you start over with a clean slate?

MG:  Nope, they’re all new ones. On the last record there were two or three which dated from a previous incarnation, but this time I wrote a pile of new stuff (and threw away about a third of it). I wanted the same approach and effect as Baboon, so if Hogwash sounds as though it’s related, then clearly I achieved it!

Now I that think of it, the words to part of the chorus of “Daddy Was A Dalek”… come from an S’Express song that I co-wrote. I tried to get a bit of wit into that production, to almost no avail, and so I’ve stolen my own couplet back again. (“I met a girl from Sirius B, she was seriously in love with me” can be found on Supersonic Lover, sung by young Sonique).

Otherwise – it’s all new schmutter, my son.

CP:  How much of your material is worked out ahead of time and how much is hashed out in the studio?

MG:  All of it is worked out ahead of time. The songs are all slaved over, and refined and polished until they are as I want them, and only then do we go to the next stage. It’s a different process for each of the players: Andy and I sit together and do the basic ‘donkey-work’ guitar parts and then see what develops from that. Solos we tend to leave till everything else is done. With the drums, Chris got a rough demo, which he played along with mentally. He came over to Berlin and we did the bass and drums together.

For vocals, I usually send Pelle some demos with me singing. When he recovers from the shocking experience of having to listen to my vocals, I go to Stockholm. Pelle and I work till we drop for about a week, during which time we get about half of the stuff recorded. Then I bring it home and edit it and he goes to bed for a month. Then we reconvene in Berlin and go through the same process for the other half, although with less drinking as we now realise that time is running out. This is how it’s been for the last two records – I’d like to work in a bit more live stuff band-wise on the next one…

Although Chris and I had a rare old time in the studio slamming bass and drums down on top of Andy and Pelle’s previous work. It’s as close as we have yet come to playing it live.

CP:  How did you come to record “Love Power” (from Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”) in the Berlin studio from which Josef Goebbels aired his quaint little messages of tolerance and goodwill?

MG:  I’ve wanted to do this tune for ages, and actually I suggested it when the rather feeble John’s Children album was mooted a couple of years ago. But the inert mass of non-creativity and lack of vision soon put a stop to anything happening there… But a good idea is a good idea, so I stored it away for future use. I understand the UK radio is leaping on this track. Heaven knows what people who don’t know the film will make of it. But it doesn’t matter.

The story with the studio is that it’s now the headquarters of the local Berlin TV/radio broadcaster. They have thirty-five studios equipped with ProTools (digital recording) and just one with an “old-fashioned” 2-inch tape machine. The engineer was told to “justify it’s existence or else it goes out of the window”. I came across this piece of info and suggested to him that I might be able to help him out by recording something suitable.

In fact, we did all the bass and drums for 17 songs in two days, recorded to tape and then transferred to (24 bit, for those who care) Pro Tools later. Which is why the drums sound so great (IMHO). Well, along with my mixing, of course…

There WAS a certain piquancy to it, to be recording Love Power in Berlin in THAT studio. We took photos as a memento, complete with black plastic combs, greasy forelocks and two leather greatcoats. I’m not sure what engineer Martin Seelig made of it, actually.

CP:  In a perfect world, you’d be producing the next Cheap Trick album. Any hidden messages to them in the song which bears their name on “Hogwash”?

MG:  Actually, it’s nothing to do with that lot, it’s dedicated to a bunch of Welsh sheep farmers. Apparently this group of agriculture students spent a traumatic night out on the Welsh Mumbles with only their sheep for company. Clearly it was a numinous moment for them all, and they formed a group to preserve the memory. I in turn wrote this song to preserve THEIR memory.

CP:  What sort of approach would you take if given the opportunity to twirl the knobs for them?

MG:  I don’t think Sheep Trick HAVE a record deal, currently. It’s a cruel world, sometimes. As for their almost-namesakes, I would polish it a bit more. I don’t mean polish in terms of sophistication but in terms of completion of material. Sometimes Cheap Trick are ALMOST great, and I would encourage them to go that extra step further to make it COMPLETELY great. This would be in the area of composition and arrangement, lyrics, choice of material, development, that kind of thing. Well, everything, actually.

I think that having a producer who’s also a writer and musician opens a variety of perspectives. Assuming it was the right guy, I mean. I like that story about Mutt Lange and Bryan Adams – Lange is a songwriter as well as a producer – evidently he said to our man Bryan, “Well, all the choruses that you’ve played me might make reasonable verses – throw all the rest away and let’s start again”. OK, this is a bit crypto-fascist but sometimes this kind of outside influence can have results… Actually it’s what a producer SHOULD do, I think. It’s not all about whether the groove comes from earlier last Wednesday or not.

When I was working with the (wonderful) Tiger Lillies, the Adrians Huge and Stout and I ended up composing an entire fish-rap for one tune. Oddly enough, this was the only one vetoed by (head honcho) Martyn Jacques and was never released. Was there a connection? My point here is that clearly one has to tread carefully. But this is one thing I know now, not least through my activities in so-called ‘world music’.

CP:  When listening to both “The Baboon” and “Hogwash,” it’s easy to forget that’s not you behind the mic, but Pelle Almgren. In order to head off a mutiny before it begins, explain how you managed to get Pelle, drummer Chris Townson, and guitarist Andy Reimer to buy into your somewhat, shall we say, off-kilter view of a world spiralling into the abyss and what each brings to the party?

MG:  They all bring enthusiasm and skill, to generalise. They are unique players – and when you’re interpreting someone else’s tunes, then there can be clashes of artistic vision. But not here, ‘cos it says “Artist: Martin Gordon” on the sleeve, so they have no collective legs upon which to stand.

They each have an integrity about what they do that makes them want to do the best job they can, which is also something to be prized. I’ve worked with a lot of people who make a point of being faceless, of doing only what’s necessary, and that’s not what would work here. It’s not what I want, actually. (Of course, there IS also a skill involved in shutting up when your opinion is not required, but I only learned that fairly late on, and I’m still not sure how much I value it).

Chris Townson, whose drumming was described as “the sound of a fridge falling down a flight of stairs” (to which he replied “No, actually that WAS a fridge falling down a flight of stairs”, as previously noted), brings his no-holds-barred, no looking-up approach, along with an enormous sense of relief that he doesn’t have to learn the songs in rehearsal, his main bugbear in Jet. Although, having said that, we ran through each song once or twice and then recorded each one twice, and actually there was very little to do in terms of editing, not even of the bits which don’t go boom tish boom tish in straight fours. So he clearly had learned it, even if he claims not.

Another enjoyable contrast to our band Jet is that when it came to recording bass and drums for Hogwash, there was a lot of guitar and vocal in our headphones to play to. In the ghastly story of Jet, we began every song with bass and drums alone, for some reason which is obscure. What a terrible idea… But there must have been a good reason, I’ve no doubt.

Being a non-singer (although I do a fine rant, as per one of the “Hogwash” tunes…), I am largely in the hands of the singer. So to speak, not literally, of course. Having suffered a number of singers who actually made my songs worse by singing them, it is a joy to find someone who has the opposite effect. Pelle brings his nadger-tastic vocals, expanded nether region and pop sensibility. I generally don’t have to give him any pointers at all, he just does it, I merely have to edit out the Swedish swearing from the end of every take when he decides he could do it again but better.

We met via email, when he announced himself as a fan of Jet. What’s that got to do with ME, I rather sharply responded, but it turned out he meant the original Jet, not those Johnny-come-lately Aussies. It also turned out he was a singer as well, and a song-writer… we had the same sensibilities, I discovered when I made a visit to Stockholm. We did some writing, one result of which was on “Baboon” and one on “Hogwash”. It all turned out very nicely.

Andy brings his willingness to explore other musical areas, being a man who swears allegiance to Defunkt and other purveyors of (ahem….) jazz-funk. I didn’t say that. Our common ground is Adrian Belew, Zappa, Jeff Beck and ringtones. And so we end up with my suggestions filtered through his sensibilities and we’re both happy. Well, I am, at any rate, and that’s what matters, let’s face it.

In terms of buying into the vision, though – drummers don’t listen to the words, says Chris, rather rudely, but he should know. Andy’s German, so the detail, the wit, shall we say, probably tend to escape him rather. As for Pelle, of course, I think we have the same weltanschauung, as the Germans so charmingly say. I just provide him with bottles of cheap liquor and he does the rest. He even buys his own fags.

CP:  Your creative output in the last year alone may lead the casual observer to conclude there is a bottomless pit of song ideas swirling around your cerebral cortex. Does songwriting come easy for you or does writer’s block occasionally rear its ugly head?

MG:  Well, I don’t get writer’s block, really. I mean I write when I want to write – there’s no point doing it when you’re doing the washing-up, for example, or when you don’t feel like it. But I’m constantly on the look-out for stupidity, my main theme song-wise, and I live in Berlin of course, so there’s an endless supply of source material right there outside my front door (or even inside it, at times), even if I’m NOT in the mood. I tend to jot things down when they occur to me – an idea, or a concept, a title.

Then when the time is right, I get the list out and see what leaps out at me. But I don’t sit down and search for ideas. For me, washing-up is a kind of pre-amble, so to speak. Even though I haven’t got the quill pen out to slaving away with sheets of crossed-out manuscript, I can still be working on something while scraping the pasta off the bottom of the saucepan. In manner of speaking. Or in fact in reality.

CP:  Did the critical hosannas for “Baboon” have any bearing on securing U.S. distribution (available August 3, 2004 via Navarre) for “Hogwash”?

MG:  Actually “Baboon” crept out in the US in November 2003. It was supposed to be available at the same time as the European release, but various cock-ups ensued. What, I hear you say in surprise – cock-ups? In the music biz?

CP:  Your first paying gig involved four-string duties for Sparks on what is arguably the apogee of the Mael brothers’ careers – the “Kimono My House” album. Although Ron and Russell are wont to ignore it, you also provided most of the arrangements for the album, only to be unceremoniously shown the door due to what you characterize as “obstreperousness.” What were the circumstances surrounding you joining the band, how much did you contribute in the studio, and what caused the wheels to come off?

MG:  They weren’t able to ignore it when they were asked to perform it at the Royal Festival Hall in London recently. Evidently there was some disquiet about it for the very reason that it IS the height of their achievements, according to most, and also some 30-years-old, and also possibly the one album where they had less than the total control to which they aspire.

I joined the band after answering an ad in a UK music paper, we rehearsed the songs, made the record, prepared for a tour and then I was sacked. I got involved with the musical preparations, and stuck ideas in as I tend\ to, but I don’t think I was terribly surprised about being offed. I WAS rather surprised when I realised that I’d been tricked into signing my royalties back to the record company in perpetuity. But life’s too short to go on about it Except when people ask me about it.

CP:  Was the Maels’ insistence that you use a Fender bass instead of a Rickenbacker strictly a power play on their part or is there some fundamental difference in sound those of us with tin ears are unaware of?

MG:  Oh, yes, the sound is entirely different. The Rick sounds like the low end of a piano, whereas the Precision is a kind of anonymous working man’s bass, not my cup of tea at all. “My” sound was the Rickenbacker, something that I developed over quite a while and was rather possessive of in the studio. And at live rehearsals as well, so when the Moles brought up the matter of a Precision bass, I was not a happy camper, and said so. I did allow myself a smirk when I read somewhere that, for the recent performance of Kimono My House in London, for which I was unavoidably detained at the hairdresser’s, the bassist played….. a Rickenbacker. Ho ho ho. Like that..

CP:  The next line item on your CV is Jet (not to be confused with current Aussie MTV darlings), glam merchants sent packing by record company suits due to your plan to record the group’s second album as one continuous track. Do we detect a pattern here of you not being able to play well with others?

MG:  No, that was a joke. In fact the record company were looking for an excuse to drop us anyway, and we were just having a bit of fun at the expense to the ‘producer’ that they decided would be able to ‘sort us out’. The actual band was quite a solid unit, as demonstrated by the fact that it was still going (albeit as Radio Stars) until the beginning of the 80s.

CP:  One of the first “punk” albums I ever bought was an obscure Dutch compilation entitled “Geef Voor (New Wave)” which included, among usual suspects like the Sex Pistols and Eddie & The Hot Rods, Radio Stars “Dirty Pictures.” Were the Radio Stars a conscious effort at alignment with the safety pin brigade or merely a misguided exercise in pigeonholing by your record company, the press, and a record-buying public consumed with all things loud and fast?

MG:  The latter, although we had no objections, of course. It was, in fact, Nothing To Do With Us, you might say. We were on a label that specialised in punk acts, and the singer was once in John’s Children, who had something of a proto-punk reputation. (Based on not being able to play very well, apparently…). So it was an easy step from there to bagging us in with the punks. Actually, I don’t think we cared very much, we were pleased that anybody would call us anything at all, after being rather ignored with Jet.

In fact, as noted, Radio Stars was in fact Jet without the keyboard player.

And that very tune you mention (“Dirty Pictures”) was recorded by Jet when the band still was called Jet. Oh, it’s all so confusing.

CP:  There appears to be no spectacular flameout or headline-worthy tales of dysfunction connected to the band’s dissolution. In the end, do you feel Radio Stars had run its course and was spinning its wheels?

MG:  Ah, here you are rather wrong. The group foundered due to ‘massive dental problems’, according to the newspapers at the time. This was MG-speak for the fact that the singer engineered my demise from my own band while I was in hospital having my wisdom teeth out. This person informed the management that he wanted to go on tour with a new bass player and that he would now be the song writer. Oh, and producer. To their, and his, discredit, they went along with it. In fact the group was just on the edge of becoming quite huge, and he wilfully botched it. I was quite pleased to find that they were immediately dropped by the record company, even though he continued to flog the by-now dying horse around the pubs and strip clubs of London for a few more years.

CP:  Describe the circumstances surrounding you sitting in with the Rolling Stones. Feel free to regale us with any ribald tales of debauchery.

MG:  I was living in Paris (that’s the capital of France), and the guitarist of the band I was currently producing had a contact in the Stones camp (I use the term with caution) who was able to procure certain items. We paid a visit to their studio and somehow passed through a series of ante chambers until we attained the inner sanctum of the studio itself. It sounds imperial, and indeed it was. The process took about an hour.

Anyway, we were welcomed, extraordinarily enough, and refreshed appropriately. At some point, it was announced that the bass player wouldn’t be coming. To general shouts of ‘Fuck!’, I decided that I would offer my services. Which I did.

Jagger took me on one side and showed me some chords and then we went into the enormous recording room, where the gear and a PA were set up as if it was a live show. And then we just played a whole raft of things, most of which I’ve forgotten but one of which I received on cassette from the engineer (who I thought was Andy Johns but who I recently discovered, via this URL, to be Chris Kimsey).

There was a retainer with a long silver salver, and it was his job to sit at a desk and chop up certain substances with a gold Amex card and then walk along the line of eager musos dishing it out. Then he’d go and chop some more, and go walkabout again, and so on and so forth.

Well, it was a long night. At some point Chris Kimsey said that Jagger wanted to have a word with me, but I was involved in something. Later I found Jagger reclining in the studio with some attendants. “You wanted to say something, someone said?”, I remarked in my most studiedly casual way but I had left it too late, the wonder snow had got him.

Then he asked me back the next day to have a listen to some guitar overdubs that were going on. Jagger, standing on my left, asked my opinion of what Ronnie Wood, standing on my right, had just done. Discretion was the better part of valour, I thought. But Ronnie Wood HAD been most complementary about the bass playing.

CP:  Do you remember the first record you bought?

MG:  I do, it was Living In The Past by Jethro Tull – a 45 – and Led Zeppelin II. As you see, this would make it about 1969 or 70, I was a late developer as far as popular culture went due to my rather Calvinistic parents. TV was banned in the family home, and as for pop music – the only way under the radar was to listen in bed late at night with one of those single earpiece jobbies. Radio Luxembourg was the purveyor of illicit pleasures… It wasn’t until much later that I discovered hard drugs and golf.

CP:  What was the first show you went to?

MG:  I used to keep a list, actually, when I was a teenager, and I regret that I lost it in the 70s. It was probably some band playing at my local youth club which weirdly, considering that the average age of the audience was 14, used to book people like Mott the Hoople (who were amazing, on a good day), the fledgling Genesis, Stray, Blodwyn Pig, Wild Turkey…. I was very big on anything connected to Jethro Tull, hence the last two. Or it could have been Third World War, a quite unbelievably aggressive outfit led by Chris (brother of Terry) Stamp. They had a song called “Ascension Day”, which may well make it into the Return of the Son of Baboon In The Basement. (“A Cockatoo Up The Colon”, to give it it’s working title…).

CP:  Who are some of your musical influences and/or heroes?

MG:  Let’s see – Jack Bruce; great writer, defiant of fashion, wonderful bassist; Todd (Rundgren), about whom enough said; lots of obscure people like Seventh Wave from the 70s (Old Dog Song. also enough said); I tend to like people who come from different musical areas to mine – Darryl Hall – what a singer, King Crimson and Adrian Belew, especially the mid-period Discipline time. But actually these are all heroes, rather than influences.

I’m not sure what my influences are, in that I’ve never actually heard something and then tried to make something similar, if it doesn’t sound too pompous to say that. The Bonzos, maybe? I do love Gilbert and Sullivan, even now – perhaps they fall into this category. And I suppose I should include Todd – Only One Dream from Baboon was my take on writing a ‘Todd-style’ tune.

CP:  Anything under the “hobbies/interests” section of your resume which may surprise people?

MG:  I’ve recently become fascinated by the Internet banking scam that has become very fashionable, and I spend hours writing back to these people under a variety of guises. Which sounds like a complete waste of time, and in fact was, until I realised that there was a song in it (“Head In A Coup”), and so I posted the entire correspondence I had with Mr Moose of Lagos on my website. This is how I spend my days when not scribbling on pieces of paper. Well, WAS how I spent my days, until the recent arrival of a first baby.

Otherwise Chris Townson and I share a love of big loud jets, which pissed the others off when John’s Children were playing in San Diego. Chris and I sat by the bay revelling in the noise while the singer was vainly trying to figure out how the trams worked so that he could scout around for underage briffit. A lack of solidarity, he complained. I also play Balinese and Javanese gamelan – fab stuff, great long structures of 64 bars or longer. And very witty. Or so I understand. OK, sometimes I don’t get the jokes.

CP:  Listening to anything good lately?

MG:  Lots of great stuff – Liar by Todd Rundgren, for example. A return to traditional values, albeit rather let down by his apparent fascination with UK dance music from the early ’90s. On some tunes, anyway. But some great songs and visions, and of course some peerless singing. I’m a bit put off by his proselytising and somewhat half-baked philosophies, though…. personally, if I want to address la condition humaine, I’d look somewhere else. And Jung wasn’t such a hotshot when it came to three minute-long pop songs either – so horses for courses, as we say in English.

Other great current things are Bobby Previte’s Latin For Travellers, a bunch of Aussies who make serious jazz noises with loud guitars and Hammond organ, always an irresistible combination. The one I’m currently listening to is “My Man In Sydney”. Plus “Hotel Vietnam”, by Blue Asia – something of a Vietnamese/Japanese hybrid, but not world music, more contemporary pop with instruments as well as technology.

Jeff Beck’s last three CDs, completely fab. He’s reinvented himself without losing anything at all. He sounds better than ever to me, and completely contemporary, which is a tough one to pull off. Now there’s someone I would LOVE to work with. Actually he played on a John’s Children record in the 60s (before my time, I should point out), but Chris Townson keeps quiet about it.

And I recently discovered System Of A Down in a local biker bar, don’t know what they were doing in there but it’s brilliant stuff – “Steal This Record”. Very funny – well, in parts – and fiercely well played. And Bill Laswell’s Santana remix “Panthalassia”. Mocked by lazy journalists and an absolute work of art.

CP:  You recently celebrated the birth of your first child (a son, Chesta). Do you feel the simple pleasures of handling fluids and solids from the North and South ends of a baby will temper your sarcasm, cynicism, or outlook on life?

MG:  Well, I’m controlling both ends as I write this, so clearly the answer is no. In fact I feel motivated to get on with it, not least in order to pay for the enormous Pampers bills. And so I am scribbling on odd bits of paper, as usual.

CP:  What does Martin Gordon do for an encore? Are there any plans to tour behind “Hogwash”? Surely we can’t expect your current level of prodigiousness to continue, can we?

MG:  Hmm, don’t see why not. The chaps want to tour, and I certainly have nothing against it, if there’s a suitable offer. WE did receive one offer to play at a festival in the US, and it transpired we had to pay our own airfares. Hmmm. Then there will be another collection of tunes to work on, over the next nine months, and perhaps a certain development of direction.

Actually, I conceived the Baboon and Hogwash as part of a trilogy. Rather like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but without the Persian carpets.

CP:  Since we’re in a Bar, what are you drinking?

MG:  Make mine a pint of London Pride – one of the best British ‘warm’ beers, and one that you cannot get anywhere outside London, let alone in Berlin. Here I have to make do with a lager device called Jever – it’s OK, actually, especially in multiples of four (see System Of A Down, above…).

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