Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Indietracks interview #10: The Monochrome Set

Interview by Stuart Huggett

The recent reformation of The Monochrome Set, around the nucleus of frontman Bid, guitarist Lester Square and bassist Andy Warren, has opened a third chapter in the group’s brilliant on-off career.

Emerging from London’s post punk, art school scenes, The Monochrome Set’s first phase (1978 – 1985) began with a run of classic singles on Rough Trade. The group honed their signature sound of witty, intelligent lyrics and clean guitarpop over a series of smart albums (notably 1982’s ‘Eligible Bachelors’) for a variety of labels, calling things to a halt following an unsuccessful, but musically rich, stint on Warner Bros.

By the time The Monochrome Set reformed for their second phase (1989 – 1998), their influence had been felt not only at home (The Smiths were clearly indebted) but internationally too, particularly in Japan. After a prolific, diverse run of albums, mostly for long term supporters Cherry Red (try 1993’s sparkling ‘Charade’ for starters), the group split amicably once again, with Bid soon forming Scarlet’s Well.

Bid suffered a stroke in 2010, his recovery shaping the creation of The Monochrome Set’s vibrant new album ‘Platinum Coils’. He spoke openly to us about how this experience has affected his health and his songwriting, and the advantages of being a self-sufficient group.

Hi Bid, what’s it like touring with The Monochrome Set again?

It’s been really, really good. I’m physically collapsing after our UK and German tour, but I’ve got a couple of weeks free before we go to Belfast (12 May), so that’s nice. It’s probably been the most amount of gigs we’ve done in 25 years. It was all by train, so we were doing quite well actually.

That’s an unusual way to tour.

Well, we get our backline supplied by either the club or the support bands. With Scarlet’s Well we could travel by train for several hours, walk out of it and still feel fresh, in comparison to a van. The German tour started in Cologne and ended in Aachen, which is right next to the Dutch border, so we just did the Eurostar and train around Germany.

How were the British gigs?

There were a lot of places that either sold out or nearly sold out, like Edinburgh or Brighton. We didn’t expect more than 80 or 100 people in Brighton. We just didn’t expect it to sell out at all, because we were vaguely basing it on a long time ago. I mean, some places which were very good in the 80s, like Bristol or Sheffield, were again good, then some places like Edinburgh and Brighton, which were rubbish 20 years ago, were packed out. So it was very odd. Times change, you know. In the early part of the 2000s it was still not good to play in this country, but in the last five to eight years there’s an awful lot of small gigs and festivals which have sprung up around the UK. It’s really revived, I think, and it’s just been really, really nice.

What are your current audiences like?

It’s a mix, I mean, we do some towns and it’s all old people, but in some places like Manchester there’s an awful lot of young people in the audience, and that’s good. Although a lot of our fans are old - we have to have large size t-shirts, and they can’t always guarantee they’ll come to gigs because they’re in hospital, you see. Which is true, they’re dragging themselves to gigs in their wheelchairs.

What made you decide to reform The Monochrome Set?

In round about spring 2010 I’d just finished the last Scarlet’s Well album (‘Society Of Figurines’). We’d already booked some dates for that, and then our old friend from Japan contacted me out of the blue to say would we like to do a short Monochrome Set tour there. We had been considering reforming, and it’s quite possible that towards the end of 2010 we’d have actually done it anyway. So we said yes, and my feeling was I’ll do that, see how it goes and in the meantime I’ll continue with Scarlet’s Well. Then I had a stroke, and in hospital I thought, well I can’t have two bands, we’ll just do The Monochrome Set from now on. It seemed a natural end to Scarlet’s Well after, what, eight albums. So that’s what we did. I had six months to recuperate, then I threw my lot in with The Monochrome Set.

What had Lester and Andy been doing in the meantime?

Andy was in the Would-Be-Goods, and Lester, well, nothing really. He was working with some amateur bands, but not really doing anything. He’s still a teacher: he’s head of the art department at a public girls’ school, which is where some of the singers for Scarlet’s Well came from. That’s why we’ve done so many gigs in April, because it’s the school holidays.

Have some of Scarlet’s Well joined you in The Monochrome Set?

That’s right, yeah. We have two drummers at the moment, and we alternate between them. It’s either Steve (Brummel) or Jen (Denitto), and Helena (Johansson) on viola and mandolin.

When did you start writing ‘Platinum Coils’?

I’d already started writing songs, virtually as soon as I was out of hospital. I didn’t stop myself, so it ended up almost like a musical about being in hospital, and the recovery a few months after that. I’ve actually got to do a post on The Monochrome Set forum, explaining some of the songs. ‘Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome’ is about the operation and the stroke, and ‘Les Cowboys’ is about people bombing up and down the hospital corridors in wheelchairs. So a large part of it is set in hospital, and therefore it is more autobiographical and less observational of other people or society or whatever.

When you were in the hospital, did you think the experience would feed into your songwriting?

Not at all! I was rather aghast when I started writing about it. I thought, oh no, this is a bit weird – I’ll do one song. It sort of sounded ok, and I thought, well that’s fair enough. I never really interfere. I don’t step in and say, we’re not going to write about this. It sounds a bit of a strange thing, but because I got some brain damage, and it’s to do with my language centre, I subsequently learnt things about my own songwriting. When I get very tired, I start slurring my speech, and also tottering slightly, and I think it’s permanent. Not just slurry, but also mentally slurry. I slightly lose control of language. There is one song about it, called ‘They Call Me Silence’. I was doing some fairly intensive finishing up of writing that I’d started during the summer of last year, and I was kind of running into difficulties. After a few hours, I would lose the power of speech and also lose the power of words completely, so that in my head there were no words at all. I knew what everything was, but I couldn’t put a name to them and I couldn’t connect them to my library of knowledge. So I felt “dumb like an animal”, which is one of the lines in that song. But when I started thinking of the music to the songs and picked up the guitar, and picked up the pen, I would just start writing again, even though I didn’t know what I was writing. It took control of my hands. Every artist knows that it’s something within them – I don’t know, subconscious or something else – but they think it’s an integral part of themselves that creates the art. But I sort of saw what appeared to be a different identity doing the writing, which wasn’t affected at all by my own speech problems. It was accessing my body, if you like, and accessing my library of words, and not being affected at all by any of the damage.

It’s sort of similar to Glen Campbell, who’s got Alzheimer’s. He can’t speak and he can’t do this, but put him on a guitar and he’ll just sing merrily away. But it’s not just that, this creature – this identity – is not just singing things that are already known, it was creating new things. It’s almost like a late 19th century ghost story by Guy de Maupassant. It’s like being taken over by something. It’s a bit bizarre, because people ask me sometimes, what does this lyric mean? And I say, I don’t know. It’s the same thing with (early single) ‘Eine Symphonie Des Grauens’, which I wrote back in ’78, and I still don’t know what the song’s about. I’ve never analysed it, I never felt that I wrote it. Now I know that I didn’t, because I’ve actually seen it happen. There’s something else inside you that’s doing it. You feel like you’re the head nurse in a lunatic asylum, that you’re not an integral creature but that you’re schizophrenic. But that sort of schizophrenia is held in check by the power of your conscious personality. The funny thing is, it’s making it easier to write, and easier to perform. On stage, when I feel myself tiring, I just step back and let this other thing perform. And I perform better, I sing better, and also I can write better - I just pick up the guitar and there it is. Actors and any live performer will know that the worst thing that can ever happen is you become conscious on stage. That’s when you forget your lines. You suddenly think, what the fuck am I doing?

How do you feel the album fits musically with your other work?

Stylistically, the early Scarlet’s Well albums were very different from The Monochrome Set, whereas the latter albums with the Scarlet’s Well live band had already started sounding more Monochrome Set, at least the songs I sung. So ‘Platinum Coils’ is a mix, an extrapolation say, from the third Monochrome Set album ‘Eligible Bachelors’ and the latter Scarlet’s Well albums really.

Why did you choose to release it yourselves?

It’s because we’ve got the money now. We were thinking during the course of the year, what shall we do? But then the money started flying in because of the live gigs, and we thought, sod that, let’s do it ourselves. I mean, it cost, whatever, ten thousand to record the whole thing and put it into production, but we made that last year from fees and we just put it into the album. Everything has changed in the music business now, you don’t need to be distributed, you just sell online. And a large part of the sales come from live gigs, which they didn’t 30 years ago. Main bands wouldn’t take along CDs and stuff, it was only support bands who would have to do things like that. The only place we really need to have contact with is Japan, just because of the mechanical and language difficulties. Japanese people’s mobile phones are a completely different technology, they work on completely different wavebands, and they have a difficulty in ordering online outside of Japan. We have to have a connection, so we have sold some stuff to our old friend Vinyl Japan in Tokyo. We’re going to do some distribution, including America, just ‘cos it helps us in getting gigs and a bit of press, but we simply don’t need it otherwise. We’re selling all over the world from our little shop, and of course we make loads more money.

The main thing is, we’re going to keep the silver mirror packaging of ‘Platinum Coils’ for as long as we’re alive, which wouldn’t happen with another record company. They wouldn’t even have paid for that. We’ll keep it in production and available, which nobody else does. With ‘The Lost Weekend’ album, they (Warner Bros.) were irritated that it only sold whatever-it-was thousands back in ‘85, and they deleted it within six months. They were just too big a company. Those companies have millions of releases to deal with and they’re just not going to bother with something that doesn’t sell millions too. So it wasn’t available for ten years (until Cherry Red reissued it), and that’s something we don’t want to ever happen again. We want it to be available all the time, and we want it to be in the proper packaging. There’s a few albums on Cherry Red which are still unavailable, because they’re selling sale or return around the world and they don’t want to repress. Actually the most sales we’ve had from them are albums that we’ve bought from them to sell in our shop, so we’re hoping that they repress in the next year or two. And it’s only in the past five or more years that the first two albums (‘Strange Boutique’ and ‘Love Zombies’, both 1980) haven’t been available. If it had been in our domain, they would never have been released as a double album (Virgin compiled both records on one CD). But they’ve been licensed by a company in California (Runt subsidiary Water Records), and they’re going to re-release them as separate albums in May. It’s working out really well.

What else do The Monochrome Set have planned?

I’m a little bit burnt out. I haven’t had a break since January last year, because I’m managing the band as well, and now I’m the record company. We’ve got to do Spain, France, Scandinavia, USA, possibly Canada, Japan. We’ve got to fit in all those things. I’m trying not to pick up a particular 12-string guitar, because as soon as I pick it up I’m gonna start writing songs. I think we’ll probably look to recording the new album in the summer of 2013, so I have to start vaguely writing this summer. I’ve no idea what I’m going to do yet, no idea at all. So I’m going to take a couple of weeks off, and do little bits and not really try and tire myself out.

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