Interview: Martin Gordon
Martin Gordon has had a long, illustrious career in rock and roll, stretching back to his contribution to Sparks’ finest moment, their 1974 album, Kimono My House. Since then, he has recorded and performed with the memorable “glam super group” Jet and its successor, Radio Stars; has done studio work for Blur and Kylie Minogue (among many illustrious others); and has released a string of wildly inventive solo albums, including his latest, Time Gentlemen Please. Mr. Gordon recently and kindly responded to a series of my insipid questions.
Time Gentlemen Please is billed as the fifth and final installment of the Mammal Trilogy. Does a continuation of the trilogy depend more on the future songs you’re inspired to write or whether humanity holds on long enough for you to write them?
Are you suggesting that there is a causal factor at work? That if I was to stop documenting human folly, it would suddenly cease to be? My life already, I should be so lucky. I think you overestimate the power of my observations. Did the trend for exploding clothing expire merely because I documented the sad tale of the No-Good Shoe Bomber (Richard Reid, for those who are snoozing at the back) on The Baboon in the Basement? No, it didn’t which is why his mantle has been assumed by the so-called Stained Underpants Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. You see? Now if only HE had bent his ear towards my dialectic, perhaps the world would be a safer place. Or perhaps not, but at least I would have sold one more copy of the album, and for this failure I will hold him eternally guilty. There is no limit to human folly.
Many of the songs on Time Gentlemen Please are “torn from today’s headlines.” Did the ludicrous stories you encountered in the news inspire the prevalent theme of human folly, or, did you have an eye out for material that would fit the theme?
Oooh, here we go again, what is it with you and human folly? I see my role merely as one who documents the events, who scribbles while the Last Days take shape around us/me. It is impossible to avoid moral tales of this nature; I don’t seek out the ephemeral, this is mainstream, this is real life (in so far as far as such a thing exists within the boundaries of popular culture). When these narratives emerge, I think that we should take note. And I do, on behalf of humanity. Well, some of them.
As far as my last album is concerned, themes that are touched upon include obesity, identity theft, religious fundamentalism, gender stereotyping, millenarianism, ethnocentricity, the cult of celebrity, popularism and cheap flights. As these universal problems currently beset the human condition (I use the term “human” lightly and inclusively, against my better judgment), they are hard to avoid, especially fat people.
One of our local newspapers carried the story of the death of a man named Stabby L. Stevens. Do you believe it would have been more or less ironic had he died of a knife wound?
Ah, poor old Stabby. As to whether it would have been more or less ironic according to his method of dispatch, I suggest that it depends almost entirely upon your purview. What about litotes? Perhaps, if he was stabbed, his death would have been not entirely un-ironic. Do you see what I mean? He has my sympathy, anyway. Unless he was a DJ, in which case he got everything that he deserved. Bastard.
In the Radiant Future Records’ press release for Time Gentlemen Please, it is suggested that purchasing the CD might help stave off the apocalypse. Should I be popping the champagne corks or putting my affairs in final order?
Personally I think you would be well advised to heat up the boiling oil and sharpen the axes, in order to stave off the proles who will shortly be invading your personal space. I’m afraid I can’t help you with an actual date for the apocalypse but I have it on good authority that you won’t be kept waiting too long. Time to make that big Excel file with all the relevant info in it, I fear …
You’ve released your music on major and indie labels, and via download. What are the merits and drawbacks (if any) of today’s music distribution systems for an artist like you?
I think there are two possible views. One is the so-called “Dylan Position,” referring to Bob’s quote that illegal downloading of music didn’t bother him in the slightest as most of today’s music is of no value whatsoever. While this is of course completely true, it doesn’t help much, does it? So to adopt this position would be something of a luxury.
For a nano-cult figure such as myself, the likelihood of a record store stocking my material on the off-chance of some socially inept Untermensch coming along and buying it is not great. Given that the mail-order CD solution is merely the last gasp of a dying business model, digital distribution is the only possible current solution for me. Although having said this, I should note that the best solution for me as a consumer is the CD because of the possibilities of the booklet. And that’s why all Radiant Future releases have extensive booklets with sleeve notes, lyrics and pix. As someone who remembers the 12” record cover with great affection, I do my best to provide this added value for my CD releases.
The drawback is that the actual pro-rata income from this source is so minuscule that you actually need to sell a much larger quantity via download than the corresponding amount of CD sales in order to keep the wolf from the door and stave off the creditors.
Other negatives of course include “The Death of the Album,” to quote any number of barely-literate musicians who never had a coherent or articulate thought in their entire lives. My output is certainly structured as discrete collections, and is not improved by listening to it outside the context in which it was created. But I would say that, wouldn’t I … No, there’s nothing else for it, I am going to become a sausage maker.
You profess to love sausages. To what extent is making your records like making sausage? Or is your recording process pleasurable and not at all like putting an animal’s internal parts through a meat grinder?
Oh, I can think of many occasions in various studios of the world where I positively yearned to be back on the factory floor feeding intestines into the grinder. No strife there, just tripe. Although tripe of course is not entirely unknown within the studio setting, obviously.
The actual amount of tripe in the studio environment, I have come to realize, is strictly domain-dependent. Working on my own has always been an entirely pleasurable process – no tripe because there’s no one to convince, you see? It’s when other people become involved that the tripeflow becomes a bit distorted.
The actual recording process of the Kimono/Sparks album was enjoyable because all the wrangling had previously taken place in rehearsal. The Jet album (where the various members of the band were removed from the recording process one by one until we ended up doing all the backing tracks with just bass and drums) was perhaps less enjoyable to make, as personal relationships were collapsing. Radio Stars was also something of a grind, to coin a phrase, due to various limitations of skill and imagination on the part of certain others, and indeed this has not changed up until the present time. So it’s a solo life for me, unless large amounts of money (or intestines) are involved.
Of course I would happily play on other people’s stuff, if it’s any good. There are some great writers out there. I am in correspondence, for example, with Kristian Hoffman – he wrote a quite brilliant tune called “God, If Any, Only Knows.” I’d be happy to throw him a bassline across the Atlantic.
Singer Pelle Almgren, who is phenomenal on the new album, noted in an interview that he doesn’t always understand the lyrics you write. Any lack of comprehension is not apparent in his delivery, so perhaps he was joking.
I think he was teasing. It is a Swedish custom, known as “tiiidjsiiing,” and involves burying obscure words in a tin, digging them up some months later when they are rotten, and then using then in public. His English is better than mine, with the exception of the word “gavotte,” which was unfamiliar to him. I have taken to using it at every opportunity in an attempt to reduce his confidence. But he has learned it now, unfortunately and anyway, it is of course French in origin. For those who are interested, it’s a folk dance seized upon by various Baroque composers. A gavotte is very similar to a rigaudon, but is somewhat more moderate in tempo.
Do you have any misgivings about not singing the songs yourself?
Well, I am a great believer in getting the right person to do the job, and in fact that was one reason for my relative lack of activity between the end of my “band period” and the 2000s, in that I just couldn’t find a good enough singer. There aren’t many about. So until I met Pelle (we fell madly in love on the Internet), I could see no other option open to me, as my own vocal skills are fairly limited. Pelle manages to sing the stuff exactly the way that I would, if I had his skill.
Some people find it rather odd. I was at a dinner party recently and someone complemented me on my voice. I pointed out that actually it was Pelle Almgren, and this person responded by saying “Well, why do you call the CDs by your own name, then?!?“ in a tone of hurt and irritation. I clipped her (for it was a her, of course) smartly around the ear and disengaged forthwith. If I had used the term “amanuensis,” I believe she would have called the police.
The Time Gentlemen Please demos offer appealing draft versions of the material. Did you ever consider recording it as a one-man band, Rundgren style?
Not really, otherwise it would sound like the demos. Thanks for noting that they have appeal, but I feel that my fan deserves more. There is also the matter of the added value that comes from the input of other musicians. Todd Rundgren’s latest (Arena), is an example – it’s an all-solo performance with programmed drums. No, no, no, Todd… But otherwise it’s very nice, of course.
But I like to think that this “alternative version” concept is an attractive one, especially where the end result is collaborative and overdubbed, as mine is. On the Time Gentlemen Please – Demos, you can hear the “unplugged” versions. It’s not exactly me sitting in my kitchen strumming an out-of-tune banjo, but you get the idea, I’m sure.
Speaking of Todd Rundgren, you’ve mentioned your admiration of his music. Are there other artists of his vintage and experience who you believe have also continually made music of comparable quality?
Well, I have racked my brains over this one. I might propose Jack Bruce, with the slight caveat that Mr Bruce lets the side down a bit from time to time by balancing his “art” work with “commerce.” This is clearly understandable but I feel that his artistic yardstick sometimes gets left at home when he gallivants off with his enormodrome blues-guitar-playing pals. His own solo stuff is an absolute treat, in particular when he strays from the expected, which is just about all of the time. I can recommend “Monkjack” as an example of his skill as a composer and singer. Interestingly, given that he’s a bassist, there is no bass playing on this record.
I suppose one could also include Kate Bush, but she’s hardly prolific. I’m sure I have missed others but no one else springs unbidden to mind.
Have you heard the Parenthetical Girls’ all-synth version of “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”? Sounds something like New Order fronted by an even-more-hysterical lead singer than the original. What made them think the song was worth recording without at least trying to emulate your defining bass part?
I have no idea. Are they really parenthetical? (Are they even girls?) That may well be one reason why they omitted the defining bass part. It’s not very girly, you see, nor is it parenthetical in the slightest. I took the trouble to listen to the Mole-version of the tune again, following your question. The major 7th in the bass before the chorus is rather brave, I think, and I recall now upon hearing it again that I was quite surprised when the singer recognized the addition (I hesitate to call it contribution) by doubling it vocally in the final bar.
After listening to that tune last night, I then stumbled across “Amateur Hour.” From this remove (i.e., 30 years) I have to note the enormous good will that was involved in the performance of the bass part, despite the circumstances (documented elsewhere, but in short I was not a happy Mole-follower at that point) in its recording. Apart from the fumble at 03:14, it’s still about as accurate and energetic as you could possibly hope for, particularly for someone who has just been informed that his playing doesn’t come up to snuff.
Your bass work with Sparks made great use of the distinctive sound of the Rickenbacker 4001. Do you have a favorite bass? Does the Ric get played much these days?
I am currently roundly ignored by the world’s media as a composer and lyricist, and therefore I am particularly interested in also being ignored as a bass player. My next outing will address that very issue – my bass playing. In fact my first solo release had a bass solo on it, my first and only, but I have been relatively self-effacing since then, bass-wise. This is because I am a cult, you see. At least this was the view of my ex-wife.
I am in fact tending more and more these days towards my old friend Chris Townson’s advice that “it’s your record and you can do whatever you like on it.” Thus the next album may well feature extended bass solos strung across historical recordings of Albanian orphans complaining about not being eligible for European Union Regional Funds. Sod ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
The Rick 4001s (there were a number of them, thanks to the disguised generosity of Island Records circa 1973) were disposed of later in the 70s, replaced initially by 4003s and then by a Fender Precision. This was ironic in that my replacement in Sparks by a more biddable performer was entirely predicated upon his willingness to use exactly such an instrument, namely the Precision. Naja, as the Germans say (they do like irony). Sometimes you just can’t win.
Since then, I have settled upon the five-string (Ibanez) bass. Well, it’s the bottom, you see, you just can’t get it any other way, can you? There’s nothing like a nice D on the B string, that’s what I say. Some may disagree, of course. And there is also the upright bass, a delight to which I have returned after a long time. I played upright bass for a few months in various jazz cellars in Hitchin before joining the Mole-band. T’is is a thing which is close to my heart, and I have embraced it (but not literally, of course) on the recent CD outing, which even features a tiny EUB solo. But really, why would your readers be interested in such things…
As an aside, may I note that my good friend the suicidal skydiving bassist Gareth Holder has acquired the world’s largest collection of Rickenbacker basses, and has in fact had to convert his back garden into some kind of storage facility for them. He has basses with up to 16 strings, I believe. Much good may it do him. I hope that when he finally breaks his neck, he will at least bequeath me one of these priceless objects. They are most certainly out of my price range, that’s for sure.
The Radiant Future site indicates you will be recording a “musical life of Sir Norman Wisdom.” What led you to this project and what can you tell us about it? Why do you suppose Wisdom was so popular/not banned in Albania?
I was approached by the Albanian Embassy and asked if I was familiar with the work of Sir Norman. I replied that of course I was but that I would naturally have to re-familiarise myself with certain aspects of Sir Norbert’s oeuvre. When I was in college, I was one of the leading experts upon his work, and many other leading Europeans, and so I was able to complete this lengthy and arduous task in only half an hour in an internet cafe using only one hand. I will scribble the first words that I think of on the back of a German beer mat and dress it up with some dreary old tosh about semiotics and post-post-modernism, and then I will lay these vocal samples over some old Terry Riley recordings from the 60s. Perhaps I might put a bit of Phillip Glass in there if I get really stuck, as there isn’t THAT much Terry Riley about. Then I will sit back and wait for the accolades and cash to roll in.
The appeal of Sir Nigel is universal. The demented and repulsive dictator Enver Hoxha convinced himself that the work of Sir Nadger was the only manifestation of degenerate Western culture to which his Albanian subjects should have access. The result was, as the world knows, that Wisdom became a popular celebrity in Albania. Let’s face it, all other forms of wisdom were in short supply — “take it where you can get it“ was the pragmatic motto of the fragrant Albanian peasant multitudes. The world held (and still does) both its breath and its nose.