Martin Gordon Interview, Part II
In the first part of my interview with Martin Gordon, the former leader of Jet and Radio Stars (and bass player for Sparks on their classic Kimono My House album), kindly went over some of his history and talked a bit about his new release (and first solo album), The Baboon In The Basement (if you want to buy it, go to martingordon.de ). In this second part of the interview, we talk more in depth about the record, which is a breath of fresh air during these often stale musical times. (And I elsewhere this month). And if you are familiar with his articulate and witty lyrics, then you won’t be surprised that Gordon comes off the same way in interviews. It was a true pleasure getting to sling some questions at someone whose music I’ve enjoyed for years.
MIKE: Fans of your earlier work, in particular Radio Stars, will be very pleased with this album. It sounds like where Radio Stars might have progressed had they carried on for a few more albums. Beyond the fact that a few songs were not too far removed from that time, what accounts for this? How did you avoid the urge a lot of veteran artists have to sound ‘contemporary’ or show some artistic side, that often should have remained hidden?
MARTIN: Something of a double-edged question, is it not? You mean how on earth do I so successfully manage to avoid sounding contemporary? And what, pray, means ‘veteran”? I can honestly claim to never have knowingly stuck my hand up a cow’s bottom in my life, unlike some I could name…
As a producer, however, you discover that invariably what works best is people doing what they are good at. Sometimes there are reasons for taking an alternative approach, but this Baboon wasn’t one of them. Hence the overall concept of sharp and snappy, and the roping in of other people to do things very well rather than my trying to do things as best I could. Technology of course plays a central role to the Baboon, but perhaps I shouldn’t go into that. Let’s merely say that I was striving for a ‘classic’ sound rather than a time-defined picture. Frankly I don’t think it sounds as though it comes from any other time than 2003…. but I would say that, wouldn’t I?
What I do well is write and direct pop songs, and given that most people’s attention span is short, the tunes should be short as well. There’s also something creative about putting up restrictions to what one can do and achieving ways to get around them. So, you know… it’s what I do. My symphonic tone poem about the bombing of Dresden arranged for three klaxons, two rubber chickens and a bicycle-wheel can wait.
In terms of revealing artistic bents that would better have remained straight, there was a brief moment (with the Mira project in 1995) when I let my instincts be swayed by my surroundings, and we delved into the area of ‘world-fusion’; however, my instincts are usually accurate, by my own standards at least, and economy is my instinctive thing, along with concept and content. Given that we WEREN’T Persian, though, there was no reason for Mira to go on like that. But I lived and learned.
MIKE: Your lyrics are as witty and observant as ever. Do the lyrics generally come first, or at least the concept, and trigger the music?
MARTIN: You are too kind, Mike (but what about trenchant?). Either way around will do, in terms of sequence – the strongest concepts produce the strongest words, but the idea is the thing. No sniffing around looking for words that fit, in this house – the idea appears, and the words follow, either concurrent or before or after the tune, but they do need their own little bit of inspiration to kick ’em off.
I find the ‘words first’ approach produces a more interesting end result, if only because words don’t automatically fall into even structures, whereas if one’s playing aimlessly around chords, symmetry tends to appear. Unless you are a Persian, of course.
Most people can (or I can, at any rate…) tell the difference between words that have been grafted onto a tune and words that have some separate inspiration. But there’s always something to write about, if you need to find a topic – as Frank Zappa said, the building block of the universe, given it’s ubiquitousness, is not carbon but stupidity, and that means an endless stream of topics just floating aimlessly around in the ether. What I do militate against, albeit in a very non-active way, is words written with no discernible thought behind them….but as this constitutes 90% of current pop music, it’s a bit of a lonely position to defend. Cheapest. most sphincter-shriveling, least inspired-ever couplet known to mankind? ‘Dressed up to the nines, at sixes and sevens with you’. I rest my case (again).
MIKE: Swede Pelle Almgren takes on the vocal chores on this album, and you seem extremely pleased both by the results and the working relationship. Do you see this as an ongoing collaboration, particularly since he is also a songwriter?
MARTIN: I like Swedes, they are very healthy. Also Brussels sprouts and cabbage, and carrots are very good for hearing in the dark, apparently. I have every intention of maintaining my intake of Swedes. Plus, as noted, collaborations are this year’s black, so count me in there as well, matey. Who knows, maybe the world won’t have to wait another thirty years (twenty-nine, I should say) for a follow-up.
[Martin took the opportunity to e-mail Pelle this question, and here’s how he responded]
PELLE: To me, working with Martin is a bit like being the guy who sings with Judas Priest now. You know, you are a fan and suddenly you’re working with somebody who’s work you’ve admired since you where a teenager. All my friends are really freaked out by the fact that it can happen – and so am I. It’s a funny old (net)world indeed. Never meet your heroes they say. Well, Martin turned out to be a true gentleman, very funny and easy to get along with. And he is one of pop’s most underrated song writers, in my book. So of course I’d like to continue to work with him in one way or another. Either we’ll write some more songs for other artists or I’ll be happy to sing on whatever he may release in the future. Or both.
MIKE: For quite a few years now you’ve been playing on a variety of world music projects. Has that had any effect on your pop writing – whether directly or indirectly? In particular, how connected and/or disparate is Indian or Turkish or other forms of world music from rock-and-roll based pop?
MARTIN: In a general sense, I have rediscovered the joys of working with performing musicians thanks to the world-music scenario, as technology tends to be rather absent when you’re sitting in a sandstorm in the Thar Desert in northern Pakistan. But my non-purist approach is to treat it all the same and certainly, comparing like with like, Indian pop, Indonesian pop, Chinese pop – it all has a comparable sensibility. I don’t necessarily mean cases where musicians are consciously adopting Western pop habits, but when considering indigenous, pre- or post-advent of technology popular music, you do find, by and large, that pop aesthetics are often comparable to their Western analogue. As Robert Fripp is fond of saying rather smugly, music may well be an international language, it just has a myriad local dialects. An example of this intercultural palaver is the Algerian Rachid Taha – have a listen to Rachid Taha Live for one of the most amazing rock’n’roll records ever…Steve [ex-Gong] Hillage (Taha’s producer and guitarist)…what a geezer etc. etc. But to be honest, I haven’t really tried to combine these local dialects (with the possible exception of the title track to the Baboon, which has a Turkish metre from time to time. Actually, my Turkish friends from the Sezen Aksu gang like this tune best of all, they told me).
It’s a boring old musicological saw to go on about, for example, the African origin of western pop, but there’s a good case to be made for it, that’s for sure. So there is, in any case, an inherent connection between East and West, New World and Old World, but sometimes inherent is enough, and we should draw the line there.
MIKE: On this album, you reunite with your old Jet drummer Chris Townson (also ex- John’s Children). I know you’ve played live with him in various Jet and John’s Children reunion gigs – what was it like working with him in the studio again?
MARTIN: I rediscovered the pleasures of working with Old Drummer Chris again in the reformed John’s Chickens project. And then the rather unlikely reformed Jet project, which made a brief tour around Europe playing a mixture of John’s Children, Jet and Radio Stars repertoire. We recorded it (‘Music For The Herd Of Herring’ on Radiant Future) and I thought the drumming was better than it ever was.
So when the time came for the Baboon, there as no question about who should sit on the drum stool…I couldn’t get him, so I asked Chris. I must say that it was great, working with Chris – we recorded in a studio on a boat moored near the Russian War Memorial Park in what used to be East Berlin. In the Jet days, the one thing that Chris used to hate more than anything else in the entire cosmos was learning parts. As you can imagine, this could sometime be a bit problematic. But now, with the advent of technology – I sent him a CD with the rough demos on, he listened over at home, we set up on the boat and he just played through every song twice, from beginning to end. Sometimes he got the parts perfect, other times what he did naturally was better (actually most of the time) and occasionally we went over a phrase here and there. Then I chopped all the bits together and bingo!
We later reflected on it, comparing the agony and torture that we both went through in the days of Jet with the achievement of completing (the recording, at any rate) an entire album in one day… well, it makes you think, honestly, it fair makes you think.
And, believe me, the with- and without-Chris versions of the Baboon makes me realise exactly what an enormous contribution the drumming makes to the whole thing. One correspondent noted that Chris’s drumming sounds like a refrigerator falling down a flight of stairs. But, as Chris noted in reply, that probably WAS a refrigerator. We have a musical, and personal connection, that has remained unharmed by the course of events.
MIKE: Where did you get guitarist Andy Reimer? His work throughout the album, particularly on the title cut is stellar.
MARTIN: I’m glad you noticed that, it is rather good, isn’t it? He’s a local boy, actually one of the few real born and bred Berliners that there are in Berlin, most of the residents coming from elsewhere (Pluto, I think). I saw him playing once in a bar, and he made some fantastic noises. We talked, and I later gave him a copy of “Turn It Over” and “Emergency” by the Tony Williams Lifetime, the last two Jeff Beck CDs and a bit of latter-day King Crimson, and we never looked back. I used him on some remixes I did for various obscure Turkish singers (Candan Ercetin, if you’re interested) and the first thing we recorded together for this *Baboon* was “Hit Him On The Head”. There was an idea to write some tunes together, which could have been interesting, but it was postponed by the unexpected arrival of his son Paul.
MIKE: What was the recording process like? On a few songs, it sounds like Reimer gets a few parts in. Was there initial recording and then a lot of embellishments and overdubs?
MARTIN: It changes really – mostly we did the basic parts and then I fiddled with them, and then we reconvened and filled in as necessary. I must say that, apart from working with singers, the thing I enjoy most is developing guitar parts, in conjunction with an able guitarist, of course. Chris Townson says that he hears an eerie echo of Davey O’List [Mike’s note: in addition to a brief hitch with Martin’s band Jet, O’List also had a very brief stint in Pink Floyd, while Syd Barrett was on the blink, a brief stint in The Nice, when they were P.P. Arnold’s backing band, a (you guessed it) brief hitch with Roxy Music, and various other stints and hitches…] in some of the parts but, as Andy hasn’t even got a fawn coloured suit covered with old baked bean stains, I think it’s just a sign of how close to the pavilion Chris is becoming – the stumps have been drawn and are physically being carried.
MIKE: “Only One Dream Per Person” is your vision of Heaven if it were run by Germans. It struck me that if I hadn’t read the press kit, I would have thought this were a vision of Heaven if it were run by a corporation. In your mind, would one be preferable to the other? For that matter, who should run Heaven?
MARTIN: If you see corporations as enormous, inflexible monoliths that militate against spontaneity and eccentricity in support of the perceived greater common good, there actually would be no difference between Heaven being run by the Germans or by Fat Cat Corp. Inc. Otherwise, dare I suggest that the English would make quite a good job of it? No, clearly not. OK, the Dutch. They seem to have a fairly good handle on how things work, on how to accommodate the individual within a set of regulations. I mean their policemen wear hairnets and smoke dope, for God’s sake.
MIKE: On “Terrible Mess (No-Good Shoebomber)”, you take on the Richard Reid story. Was it different writing a song that came from the headlines, so to speak, and is your perspective on the song any different in light of the continuing world events since 9/11? And did you know right away that the song would be from Reid’s perspective – it certainly is effective.
MARTIN: I always, in Radio Stars days, used to look to the tabloid headlines for inspiration – the Beast of Barnsley springs unbidden to mind. These tunes are sometimes as much about the medium as the message. But not here, clearly – it’s merely a cataloguing of incompetence, fortunately enough for those involved. I like the aural plane crash in the middle, winding up in a field of sheep. (Shouldn’t it be 11/9, anyway? Or am I just being parochial?).
MIKE: On “Green Finger”, a guy buys a girl a cheap ring, and the title explains what happens to her. Was this song inspired by something within your personal knowledge? Or have you avoided such romantic setbacks?
MARTIN: I have had a number of romantic setbacks in my time but not this particular one, I must say. I should point out that my setbacks are now resolved as I recently got married (for the first time). However, I can still use her for source material (“It’s Like It’s Like…”). I DO however have a fondness for verdigris and, with a spot of imagination, one could see that something like this easily COULD come about. In fact, we could run a competition, whereby anyone who HAS had this happen to them could win a free *Baboon* in return for their sending me the green digit in an envelope, so that I could just check that they weren’t trying to pull a fast one.
MIKE: “Let’s Make Money” could be the new American National Anthem – it’s certainly easier to sing than the one we have. It’s a song that may be appreciated by both socialists and capitalists, depending on their appreciation for irony and bass solos. While the song is light-hearted, does money lust bother you a great deal?
MARTIN: I think most people’s capacity for irony and simultaneous bass solos is probably quite low regardless of their political orientation, although we (well, I, at any rate) live in hope. If we’re focusing on the need to create money at the expense of content, unfortunately it’s the soundtrack to modern life, innit… I mean, boy bands, Irish dancing, white rappers……really, I ask you. I have neither a great lust for money nor a great amount of it. (Possibly there is a connection). I think, in art at any rate, slavish pursuit of money brings it’s own limitations along with it, but I have no direct experience of either. On another note, can I point out that the bassline is in fact “Colonel Bogey”, more or less…?
MIKE: This record is being released on different labels/distributors throughout the world – Eggtoss in Japan, Voiceprint in the U.K. and through Navarre.com in the U.S. What was it like having to hawk your wares to record labels?
MARTIN: Not as exhausting as you might imagine, as the whole project was really made at the instigation of Eggtoss Records of Japan. They, in their inscrutable brilliance, thought that it might be a good idea to make a MG solo record, so I owe it all to Kiyohiro Shiroya and Shigenori Kato, actually. My relationship with the Radiant Future label, distributed by Voiceprint, is such that they’re happy to go along with whatever I suggest, really…. they were happy with the live “Music for the Herd of Herring”, the two Jet re-releases, now this. And Navarre in the US are seemingly the distributors of Voiceprint, although this is not crystal clear to me at present. The situation is quite bearable. I’m currently looking for distribution in Tierre del Fuego and Patagonia, where there is apparently a Martin Gordon cargo cult devoted to worshiping reproductions of the seagull that appeared on the cover of the Holiday Album. Good for them, I say. One day I will return, bearing gifts of white goods and model aeroplanes.
MIKE: There are more albums coming out now than ever, by far. The marketplace is now a select number artists on major labels and countless artists recording for independent labels. Is this a good thing?
MARTIN: Musicologists (Allan Lomax, specifically) call this the grey-out/glitter-out scenario. Either the whole thing breaks up into a myriad tiny specific-interest groups, all differentiated (indie), or all movements gradually bleed into each other, producing a homogenous grey lumpen mass (corporate). It’s rather like what happens to your clothes in the washing machine. Which model is actually happening ar present is hard to decide. As a consumer, I prefer the idea of the former, and that’s where I fit in as a musician. If you want to find the music of, for example, Jack Bruce, who is untouchable for the majors, and a complete hero of mine – well, there’s Sanctuary Records looking after him for you. It’s great from the consumer’s perspective, probably not so great from the artist’s position in promo terms but unquestionably better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But, back to being a consumer, you can find what you want if you are prepared to look for it and, so long as enough people do, then there’s our business model. The question is merely do you go for the complete double cycle or the eco-friendly reduced speed spin?
MIKE: So what are your expectations for this record?
MARTIN: A good question… I have no idea really. I wasn’t really convinced that there would be any need for it at all, which is why I didn’t get around to making it for a number of years (the exact figure is referred to elsewhere). But there is, gratifyingly, much more interest than I thought possible. Now that I’ve taken the plunge and cleared the decks, perhaps there will be another Baboon around the corner. Certainly I feel that I want to use the skills Andy Reimer, Pelle Almgren and Chris Townson again before one or other of them departs the planet.
MIKE: What other projects do you have coming up?
MARTIN: I would very much like to tour the Baboon, which is in the hands of other people – if there are any promoters out there who have Baboon-shaped holes in their itineraries, they could do worse than to get in touch with me; a few ideas and proposals are floating around at present.
As a bassist, I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Sezen Aksu tour and the JC things, and I’m keen to play more, whether it’s Baboon-oriented or in some other constellation – I invite enquiries and suggestions! Otherwise Sezen is making a new recording, as and when she gets around to it, and I hope she’ll call me up to join the party. I shall carry on fiddling around and scribbling words down on grubby bits of paper. Plus, there is a plot afoot to make The Chris Townson Solo CD, about which more in due course. Maybe Electrolux will sponsor it. And then of course I may well feel like turning out Son of Baboon…