KEXP Exclusive Interview | Peter Perrett
Back in 1989, The Replacements covered the song “Another Girl Another Planet,” originally by late ’70s UK power-punk band The Only Ones, and it never would’ve happened if not for their former manager Peter Jesperson, who put the song on a mix tape for the tour van. Jesperson will be familiar to KEXP listeners — most recently, the co-founder of Twin/Tone Records was part of our Feelin’ Minnesota day (interview here), and last year, he was part of our book release eventfor Trouble Boys: the True Story of The Replacements. DJ Kevin Cole asked Jesperson to chat with Peter Perrett, former frontman for The Only Ones, who is releasing his first new music in over 20 years, the solo album How The West Was Won, out June 30th via Domino Records. Tune in to The Afternoon Show on KEXP with DJ Kevin Cole all week long as he spotlights tracks from the new album, weeks before it’s even in stores.
Peter Perrett possesses one of the most distinctive voices in rock n’ roll. Some would call it an acquired taste. Me? I loved it instantly, hearing it for the first time in 1976 on the top side of the debut single by new British band, The Only Ones. The song was called “Lovers Of Today.”
I was managing a record store in Minneapolis. We had a broad inventory of music but our specialty was imports and the glut of new domestic independent labels of the day. It was a time when I could order one of pretty much every 7-inch our distributors offered. It was always exciting to get the shipments in and have a stack of brand new 45s to audition. The auditioning became a ritual. If we liked what we heard, we ordered a quantity. If we didn‘t, we priced them cheap and put them out in a one-of-a-kind bin (which our collector-minded customers devoured). That fateful day when we dropped the needle on “Lovers”, a super-hooky guitar riff came blasting out of the speakers and we immediately went on High Alert. Then, we heard that voice.
The Only Ones took our town by storm. A singular band with extraordinary songs and exceptional musicianship. Singer/guitarist Peter Perrett. Lead guitarist John Perry. Bassist/backing vocalist Alan Mair. And the mighty Mike Kellie on drums. The fare they traded in was decidedly dark stuff but there was a majesty to it that was positively exhilarating. For a while there, everyone I knew thought they were the best band in the world. Their self-titled first album arrived in 1978 and the lead single from it — “Another Girl Another Planet” — was to become their signature song. An adrenaline rush of a rock song if I ever heard one. And, dare I say, one of the single best rock n’ roll songs ever recorded.
When the band came to the states for the first time in 1979, they were booked for two nights at THE underground nightspot in Minneapolis — The Longhorn. My girlfriend and I couldn’t wait so, a few days before, we took a train down to Chicago to catch a two-night stand in a basement club called Mother’s. They exceeded our expectations — they were even better live than on record. The anticipation in our hometown was already running high but, after we returned with reports on the band’s astonishing live prowess, things reached fever pitch. 250 people came to see the band the first night. They were so great, nearly everyone came back the 2nd night. The people that were there still talk about those shows 38-years later.
Sadly, the Only Ones broke up in 1980 after three brilliant albums that still sound as good today as they did then. For all intents and purposes, Peter Perrett became a recluse, disappearing into a haze of drugs, only coming up for air briefly in 1996 with a group called The One. While not reaching the lofty heights of the Only Ones, the recordings they made (one EP and one album) are a fine addition to the Perrett canon.
Fast-forward to 2017 and, miraculously, Peter Perrett is back with an album entitled How The West Was Won that is so strong I can barely believe my ears. It feels unhurried, effortless and confident. The songs are solid and smart, full of wry observations on the human condition and brimming over with Peter’s mordant sense of humor. Cause for celebration, indeed!
I spoke with Peter about How The West Was Won by phone from his home in London on June 6th.
Peter Jesperson: Let’s start with the new album. You have been outspoken about being drug-free for the first time in many years. Did you clean up and then decide to make a new album… or did you want to clean up in order to make a new album?
Peter Perrett: There was no grand plan behind it. It was a case of the survival instinct kicking in at the very last minute — to sort of prevent physical extinction basically. And making the album was a fortuitous consequence of it. I found myself in a place where I was wanting and able to make music again. But the initial drive behind it was to prevent (laughs) imminent extinction of the species.
Was the process of writing and recording again therapeutic?
Yeah. Music is the best therapy. When you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands, when you were previously occupied in other ways… something that is that pleasurable to do, it’s the best therapy of all. Music is used as therapy in lots of different human conditions. And for me personally, it was my salvation. My ability to make music and to actually be in a position (to) make an album and get it out to people was even more inspiration. Because you have to feel music. If you don’t feel it, then what’s the point? Substance addiction tends to numb all feeling. To me it was either one or the other. I couldn’t see the point of listening to music even, let alone playing it when I was otherwise occupied.
I’m struck by how the album sounds perfectly in line with your previous work. It’s like you didn’t miss a beat. After such a lengthy break from music, did it feel like writing the songs was a continuation of what you’ve always done or did it feel new somehow, writing while clean? And was it hard for you to write clean?
It was both. Obviously, it was a continuation of my previous work because it’s me writing the stuff and there is a link, but it felt completely new because it was hard to remember two or three lifetimes ago, and it feels like I’m doing it for the first time. When I did it before, it was literally another world. I feel like a newborn baby, which sometimes you do when you come out of decades of internal exploration. So yeah, it’s both. A continuation, obviously because it’s me writing the songs and I’m still me. But it feels like doing it for the first time. And being one of the unclean was a full-time occupation. It’s the complete opposite. It was the only way I was ever going to write again, by getting clean because you have to. To me, music has always been about passion and fun. And I think other distractions inhibit your ability to enjoy things to the fullest. It wasn’t hard to write clean. I never did write when I had a serious addiction. That’s the whole point of why I haven’t done anything for such a long time. In the mid ’90s, I was briefly productive for a couple of years when I did the album, Woke Up Sticky but, apart from that, it’s been a very long time.
Since you bring that up, maybe we can jump to a couple of questions I had about The One. Looking back, those recordings are really good but the new ones are significantly stronger. Why didn’t The One last longer?
Because I’d made plans throughout the ’80s which never came to fruition. Procrastination sort-of put me off from completing those plans. At the beginning of the ’90s, I got to a place where I thought I could complete them. But my window of opportunity was too brief. When I started to record the album, I was really focused, but it took a while to do it because the producer was going to America to do other stuff. And, by the time it finished, I was less focused and then retreated back into the haze that I was prone to inhabit. Because I was less focused, I think, some people say it was over-produced. But I think I just put too much stuff on it. There were some great songs on it (but) the album could have been better. We were good live, but it was too brief of an experiment to fulfill its potential. I mean, there were a couple of TV appearances where we played Woke Up Sticky in France and England that I’m really proud of, you know. But I think now, there’s more weight to the new album because I think it’s the best I can do and that makes me feel much more content.
How did you decide on the band you’ve got now, with your two sons in it?
There was no decision to be made. I was a big fan of their playing before they agreed to be a part of the project. And referring back to how The One got together — having children is a much more organic process than holding auditions. And I think that benefits the album as well. I don’t wanna put down what I did in the ‘90s at all. It’s what I did. But I do feel I’m in a much better place now.
Are your boys and their band mates still calling themselves Love Minus Zero or Strange Fruit?
It was called Strange Fruit for a while. They didn’t like that name. It’s hard to find one (a band name) that’s unique. Every name has been thought of. If you think of a great name these days, there’s always some band — that’s got like five fans in Australia or something — that’s thought of the name before you. So, they haven’t got a name at the moment. But they still do great music by themselves.
[ed. note: The band on Peter’s new album is his son Jamie on guitars, keyboards, backing vocals and percussion; second son Peter Jr. on bass and backing vocals; Jake Woodward on drums; Jenny Maxwell on electric viola, violin and backing vocals; and Lauren Moon on backing vocals on one song, “Take Me Home” (PP: “They all started playing music together and were a ready-made band for me.”); guest keyboardist, Jon Carin, was recommended by producer, Chris Kimsey, to play the string synth and piano on “Take Me Home.” Jon’s day job is playing with Pink Floyd & David Gilmour.]
At times, the band seems to naturally resemble The Only Ones. Did you do anything specifically to try NOT to sound like The Only Ones or was that not a concern?
Obviously, there’s a resemblance. There’s certain things in common — my voice, my lyrics, my songs. It’d be a surprise if the album didn’t resemble The Only Ones, right? The only times I’ve been concerned with not sounding like anybody was in the ’70s, I was concerned not to sound like my musical heroes. In the ’90s, I was probably subconsciously concerned about not sounding like The Only Ones. This time my only concern was to make a great album and I didn’t really care about whether I sounded like The Only Ones or if I sounded like any of my original heroes from the mid-’60s.
I wanted the vocals mixed up loud. Which was quite different — they’re much louder than on The Only Ones albums. I wanted them dry and naked, without lots of reverb. I wanted them to be really up front. And (I wanted) relatively sparse arrangements. When I listen back to the old Only Ones stuff, I particularly like the John Peel sessions. The main reason is because it was recorded on 8-track, it’s basically live renditions of the songs. I think there was a temptation when I was young, because you’ve got 24 tracks, ‘Oh let’s use ‘em all up, try out lots of different ideas.’ And I wanted this album to be… basically, all of the tracks are just played live with a minimum of overdubs. And “How The West Was Won,” “Something In My Brain,” “Take Me Home,” they’ve got the original guide vocal takes on them. I didn’t even bother doing another vocal because they… just felt right. My only concern was to make a great album, where the vocals and the lyrics are the main feature. I mean, I like powerful instrumental bits, you know there’s “Living In My Head,” which has got an extended instrumental, but I wanted the songs to come across… and the emotion in the songs.
Do you think Jamie has some John Perry in his style?
I think Jamie sounds like Jamie, right? But it probably does have a bit of John in him because when he was 13 or 14, John gave him some guitar lessons. So, I think if you have guitar lessons from somebody at that young an age then something will resonate in your future style development. I think Jamie’s quite unique, but I think’s there’s probably bits of John that you can hear as well.
Were all ten of the songs on the album written recently?
Out of the ten songs, seven of them were started after the summer of 2015. The other three were finished off in that period, works in progress that were finally structured and arranged properly.
So, there’s nothing older than summer of 2015?
Three of the songs had different previous incarnations but they weren’t in their present form. And some of the songs were totally written in that year. “How The West Was Won,” I recorded it a week after I wrote it because I wanted to capture it fresh. And “Something In My Brain” was written the week before we did our last session. And on both of those, I thought it was important to capture when they were fresh because they were like talking blues songs that you needed the freshness of the delivery because it’s more about the delivery than any tune.
Can you describe the dynamic of working with the band, especially in terms of working with your sons?
The dynamic was perfect because all ideas and opinions were welcomed. I’d listen to anything they have to say. But then, I had the final say on everything — which is one of the benefits of being the patriarchal figure (laughs). And the person whose name it’s going out under. I have final say.
I’m struck by how great the record sounds and I think Chris Kimsey was an inspired choice of producer. How did he enter the picture?
My manager knew Chris and he suggested him. I’d never met Chris before. I’m very tentative about new people I meet… but, the more I worked with him, it became obvious he was the perfect person because he wasn’t a producer that inflicted his ideas on you. He let us do what we wanted to do. But every suggestion of his that we did use really improved the songs. I think that’s the best thing you can expect from a producer. You can ruin an album by a producer who’s too overbearing and inflicts their signature sound on whoever they’re producing. But Chris wasn’t like that. He quickly understood the dynamic of the band and let us try things out that he thought were crazy but later thought, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ And he suggested things like… you know, he joined forces with Jamie and insisted on backing vocals for a couple of choruses. I’m very much of the opinion that if you put on backing vocals and a tambourine it says, ‘Here’s the chorus,’ and I don’t like doing things that obvious. But it did actually improve the songs and it was good having a different perspective in the studio. Sometimes he was the referee between me and Jamie (laughs), so he was very useful.
I’ve got Chris’s name on dozens of records in my collection, everyone from The Chieftans to Ten Years After or The Rolling Stones but he also worked a lot with a band from Minneapolis that I signed to a record deal many years ago called Soul Asylum. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them.
Oh yeah, I remember them. They had a big hit single, didn’t they?
Yeah, they had a couple hits, the biggest one was “Runaway Train.”
And also, looking back through Chris’s discography — a massively impressive resume there — I noticed that he had done a Spooky Tooth album. During the period you were putting this new album together, Mike Kellie (drummer of Spooky Tooth and later The Only Ones) passed away. Did Chris have any…
No, he passed away afterwards because we finished recording in August of 2016. Kellie passed away January of 2017. So, when Chris was talking about Kellie, it was all about what a great drummer he was. We weren’t talking ‘death’ about Kellie because he was still around. You know, he was the last person I expected to not be around. Chris worked with him on the Spooky Tooth and Peter Frampton albums, yeah, he’d worked with him a few different times on different stuff. Most of Chris’s stories, his funny stories, were about working with Mick and Keith, which were quite hilarious. Also, some pretty scary stories about working with Peter Tosh in Jamaica, which was quite a hairy experience for him. But, no, I mean most of the stuff we talked about Kellie was what an amazing drummer he was, which was the overwhelming impression he left. At Kellie’s funeral Stevie Winwood sang “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” on mandolin, it was quite moving. Kellie came from that era. That’s why he was such a part of my musical education because he’d been through it all before. I was learning on the job and Kellie had done it all. He was a rock.
I remember my time with him so fondly, when we first met you guys (in 1979) in Chicago and then Minneapolis. He was such a gentleman.
Yeah, that’s what people remember about him — he was a real gentleman, his manners were impeccable. Don’t think I ever heard him swear. He’d always sort of tuck under his breath when I’d use the C-word or anything like that, he was quite funny.
How was the album recorded? Did you do long sessions that went into the wee hours? Did you record all at once or over a period of months?
They were all basically 12-hour sessions. We started at 11 AM and we finished at 11 PM. If it was necessary, like (when) we were getting right at the very end, then we’d go on for an (extra) hour or two if there was something that had to be done. We never did more than three days in a row because I figured I needed… after three days of 12 hours a day I deserved some time in bed.
The first song that we recorded was in November 2015, “An Epic Story.” And then my manager’s plan was to use that. We recorded another couple of songs with it which we left off the album. They were like country songs… or country-feel type songs. When I first started writing again in the summer of 2015, the first song I wrote was a real country song. I could write ten country songs a day, do you know what I mean? They’re the easiest things to do (laughs). But I didn’t want to put them on the album. Because Chris was producing he chose the first three songs we recorded so, “Epic Story” he chose and then these two country songs. My manager wanted to get a record deal with that.
I’d had contact with Laurence Bell, who’s the owner of Domino Records, before. We did some gigs… the start of the process, the four gigs we did in the summer of 2015, and Laurence had come to (one of them). And then he texted me really complimentary messages — “So great hearing a collection of amazing songs,” talking about my old songs. But there were a couple of new songs that I’d written when I was rehearsing to do the gigs. And so, I suggested to my manager that if he wanted to get a record deal with the recordings to approach Laurence. The basics were agreed to really quickly. And then we had to wait four months for the lawyers to do their thing, which lawyers do, that’s the way they make their money (laughs), they argue about the fine details for months. So, knew I was going to be doing an album for Domino in December of 2015. But by March 2016 I got impatient waiting for the lawyers to finish, come to the final contract. And so, I went into Konk Studios. The engineer at Konk, Josh Green, is a friend of Jamie’s and the kids had recorded there before and… it felt like home. So, I booked two days in there because I’d just written “How The West Was Won.” We went into Konk and recorded six backing tracks, which included “How The West Was Won,” “Living In My Head” and “Take Me Home.”
I signed with Domino in April and got the first available time. Ray (Davies, of The Kinks, owner of Konk) was doing an album at the same time so there wasn’t that much time available. I think we had 12 days overall in July and August to finish off the three backing tracks and record the others that went on the album. So, it was all done between November 2015 and August 2016 but probably about 18 or 19 days altogether.
I was just thinking about Ray this morning because I was listening to The One album and one of the tracks I especially liked was your version of (the Kinks song) “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” Was Ray around at all while you were making the record?
Yeah, I bumped into him. He came in a couple of times, to the control room while I was in the live room recording. He may have come in to say hello to Chris, because I think they knew each other from the old days. But then when I was out in the refectory, eating, his secretary introduced me to him. He seemed like a really sweet guy. You hear all these crazy stories about him but he just seemed like a really quiet, sweet guy. I said to him that Kinda Kinks (The Kinks’ 2nd album) was, when I was 12, the first album I bought that I actually liked (laughs). The first album I bought was the first Rolling Stones album and the only track on it I liked was “Tell Me.” And then, the next two albums I bought were Kinda Kinks and Five Live Yardbirds, which I bought because of the singles, not knowing that Five Live Yardbirds meant a really shoddy live recording. So, yeah, Kinda Kinkswas the first album that I bought that I actually quite liked. He (Ray) didn’t seem phased or impressed by that (laughs).
You already told us how the deal with Domino came about. I’m curious, how involved in the recording were they?
(laughs) I tried to get their opinion, but Laurence just wanted to keep me happy. He came to the studio once, just popped his head in for like half an hour just to say ‘Hello’ right at the end of the recording process. But we were totally left to our own devices. I think Laurence felt that recording music was my forte. Selling, marketing the music, the album cover, and the presentation — stuff like that — that’s when Domino got involved. But up until finishing the album and handing it in, he wouldn’t even make comments about it, he didn’t want to influence me. And that’s why Domino is the perfect record label for me, because it does feel like a family. At this stage of my life, I’m big on family values. It feels like a secure environment, which is where I need to be right now.
When I heard that you signed to Domino, I jumped for joy. It meant this album is going to get a fair shot, it’s going to be heard.
The great thing about them is you get a feeling they actually care about music. Whereas the major labels, they’re like bank managers. They’re not interested in the music at all. They just want to look at spreadsheets and work out if there’s money to be made. Domino cares about… the music for music’s sake. You get that feeling throughout the company. Especially in this day and age, where it’s not quite the same as it was in the ’70s. There were much more ‘music first’ people. As my manager says, ‘It used to be the Music Business, now it’s the Music Business’ (we both laugh). That’s why people respect Domino. Something to be treasured in these days of corporate rock.
“How The West Was Won” is a provocative and humorous diatribe against America that is timely and spot-on. I’ve known you for a long time and never felt you were anti-America. How did this song come about? What is it that inspired you to write a song like this at this point in time?
Well, I’m certainly not anti-America. Like a lot of people, I’m concerned about what some of its leaders have done in the name of America. The song came about as a stream of consciousness talking blues. It’s meant to be humorous. When you first met me, the reason I was apolitical is because I thought all the battles had been won. The Americans had gotten out of Vietnam. We were from the generation that felt could change the world by going on the streets and manning the barricades. It felt like there was hope for the future. There were still bad things going on in the world, obviously. But, at present — like the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times” — these times, especially for the younger generation, feel like they’re devoid of hope. As far as ‘provocative,’ if it can provoke thoughts, if people ask questions like “How? Why? Have I been told the truth?,” then that’s a bonus. It’s not a political song in the sense that I want to ram my opinions down people’s throats. Especially in a musical context because I don’t like upsetting people. And you can’t change people’s minds. The best music should move you intellectually and emotionally and if it can make you laugh, then that’s all I’m aiming to do. I thought I’d get the politics out of the way early on the album. That’s why it’s the introductory song. But it’s tongue in cheek. There’s nobody that I want to point a finger at. There’s good in everybody. It’s just opening people’s eyes. And if you can open people’s eyes with some humor, then, like I said, that’s a bonus. I’m not trying to change the world with songs. I don’t think it can be done. It’s too far gone for that to happen.
The line at the beginning mentions downloading “Tor.” Is that a reference to the controversial software (that enables anonymous internet communication)?
Yeah, a browser or whatever. It gives you access to the top web. And it must be pretty dark because they gave (the creator) Russ Ulbricht life without parole.
Did you have to consult with a bank of lawyers to be sure that calling Kim Kardashian a “bum” wasn’t going to get you sued? I laughed out loud when I heard it for the first time:
“just like everybody else
I’m in love with Kim Kardashian
she’s taken over from J-Lo
as my number one
even though I know
she’s just a bum
in another time line
I would’ve stared at her all day long
without ever wanting to see her from the front
God knows I love America”
Well, you know, part of the attraction of writing that line is that I’m aware of the different meanings that word has on different sides of the Atlantic. I like lyrics that are ambiguous. Humor has always been a big part of my writing and it made me laugh when I wrote it as well.
“Living In My Head” is the only song on the album you didn’t write by yourself. Jamie, co-wrote this long, guitar-heavy track. How did the collaboration work? Have you two written together before?
We’ve never written (together) before and we weren’t planning on writing together. Jamie was just doodling on his guitar while he was looking at the computer screen and he started playing the introductory riff… and then the B minor with the drone going to the A… and as soon as he started playing it a melody came into my head straight-away and very quickly it became the song “Living In My Head.” And so I had to credit him because the song would not have existed if he hadn’t started playing that riff. And like you say, it’s very guitar-heavy. When it came to recording it… that was one of the songs we did before signing to Domino in March 2016. Out of the six songs we did, three of them were eight minute jams and “Living In My Head” was a six and a half minute jam, because basically I wanted to do those type of songs before I had to get more structured. That was the one time I had to pull rank on Jamie because basically it was played live, the only overdub was electric viola-violin because it really needed it, it’s a drone sound… and the way the violin and guitar work together is incredible. But because it was live it was just one take and, like most guitarists, Jamie said, “Let me do that one again, I can do it easy…” And I just wouldn’t let him do another one. Because once you do, you have to start making decisions. To me it just sounded perfect the way it was. I couldn’t see the point of even trying to do another take. It’s basically just one take all the way through. I think the guitar on that is amazing. And it’s the last track on Side One like (Only Ones’ songs) “The Beast” or “The Big Sleep,” you know, tracks with extended instrumental bits. I thought, “I’m not gonna have that many extended instrumental bits on the album because I want it to mainly be about my songwriting, voice and lyrics.” But because I’ve always been a fan of musical improvisation, it was the perfect track to put on the end of Side One.
Jumping to “Sweet Endeavor” — one of the two or three lines that jump out at me the most on the album is on this song, “The future is already dead and gone.” That is one heavy lyric. I don’t really have a question but it hit me hard.
Well, especially when you’ve got kids, it makes it more poignant. If it was just me I wouldn’t be that worried. I mean obviously worried on a humane level. But those are stream of consciousness lyrics as well, that was one that just came out.
“C Voyeurger” is another gorgeous love song and perhaps the most tender vocal on the album. What’s the story behind this one? And do you pronounce it “see voyager”?
Yeah, “see voyager.” The title’s a bit of a misnomer because for ages… I started writing it in the middle of the ’90s… and it was always known as “the one in C” because it was in the key of C so it’s a cobbling together of different ideas as far as the title goes. That’s another one that had a previous incarnation. The reason I didn’t record it before was because it was never right. And then when the Only Ones reformed in 2007 it was one of the songs we played live. But it just never felt right. I finally managed to arrange a musical landscape that complimented a vocal that needed to be tender and fragile because the subject matter was about mortality and it demanded that environment. Before, in its previous incarnation, it was more of a mid-tempo rock song. I don’t think the depth of the lyrics had space to breathe. I was pleased I finally found something really delicate in which I could put across what I was trying to say.
But why the spelling?
That’s like… you know… explaining lyrics is a law of diminishing returns.
(laughing) I’m not asking you to explain the lyrics, just curious about the spelling.
(laughing) Well, there’s a word within a word. But I’m not going to explain what context that is in. I always remember when I was really young, reading an interview with Bob Dylan where a journalist said “What’s this song about?” Dylan said, “It’s about 4 minutes.” That struck a chord with me. And all my life I thought – never explain lyrics because you’re trying to write lyrics that are multi-dimensional, that have got many interpretations, because that’s part of what makes lyrics great. And then this thing of ‘hard to say no’, wanting to please people, I find myself almost tempted to explain the lyrics and it’s something I’ve got to stop myself from doing because I always regret it if I do.
“Something In My Brain” has one of the most interesting lyrics on the album – poignant and funny. Love the drumming and it rocks, I’ll bet this one is terrific live. It’s one of my favorites on the album:
“Just like the experiment with the rat
he could choose food
or he could choose crack
well the rat he starved to death
but I didn’t die
at least not yet
I’m still just about capable of one last defiant breath”
What makes it really special is that we borrowed a 1962 Gibson with P-90 pickups. I think that helps it really, as they say, “Rock.” It makes it even more powerful than it would have been if we’d carried on using Fenders. He used the Gibson in places on other songs, like on the chorus of “Sweet Endeavor,” but this was the only track where he just used the Gibson all the way through. Chris was in the live room while Jamie was getting his sound and Chris said, ‘That’s just over the top, that’s just too… you can’t do that.’ And Jamie said “Well, just go in the control room and see what it sounds like with the track.” And once he went into the control room it was like, ‘Perfect!’ Because it gives it dynamics. With all the songs, when (just) the verses and the vocals are there, it’s quite sort of empty so when this really heavy guitar comes in, it just gives it a dynamic that is perfect and, like you said… gallows humor is my specialty, it’s one of my strengths. We’d already got to the point in making the album where Chris was saying, ‘No more new songs, we’ve already got enough.’ That was the last song that we recorded. When he heard it he said, ‘OK, we’ll include this one.’ So, it’s got a special place in my heart as well.
And the last song, “Take Me Home” — I’m a big fan of closing songs that are meant to be closing songs. Did you write this one specifically to end the album? I find the words puzzling. Where did this one come from?
(laughs) You think of me as being greater… I wish I could say I was that clever and premeditated but I just write songs. And then I chose ten out of the 16 and tried to put them in an order that felt like it was an emotional journey. And I was mucking about with different orders. I think my manager suggested, ‘That sounds like a closer.’ And, as soon as I put it at the end of the sequence of songs, it was THE perfect last song, as perfect as I could’ve dreamed of. Just everything about it. It’s slightly anthemic, it’s sort of got a melancholy feel to it.
What I really like about the album is that it feels like a journey all the way through. With the first Only Ones’ album, I was very pigheaded about not wanting to make music too easy listening so I purposely (put) a slow song, then a really fast song, then a slow song, because I wanted to constantly make people uncomfortable and to not be able to listen to it as background music. And I don’t think that made for too easy a journey. I was more about shaking people out of their lethargy rather than making something an emotional journey all the way through. But I think I got the right order for this one. I think I chose the ten best songs to make an album. There are other songs I can’t wait to record but, for this album, I’m really happy with the finished product.
I had two other questions about this song but if I’m asking you to explain something you don’t want to, no worries. But I have to say that another really startling line is in this song – “I wish I could die in a hail of bullets sometime”:
“like brother and sister in the war
sharing their rations trying to survive
I wish I could die in a hail of bullets some time
but all I can do is sing and play on the front line”
I’ll give you a clue to the second verse, I won’t tell you what it’s about for me personally. I wrote it after watching the documentary The Siege Of Leningrad and, was it Shostakovich whose symphony (the hostages performed)? Yeah. So that’s a clue… after watching that, I wrote the second verse. Though the 2nd verse means something different to me. But it is related to that documentary and Shostakovich because his symphony, they were using it… they weren’t soldiers that could fight but they could use music as a means of defiance.
Well, that wraps up the song part of it. I have a few more questions if you don’t mind me continuing a bit.
That’s ok, yeah.
“An Epic Story,” the first of a couple of beautiful love songs on the album, which you’ve mentioned in interviews are about your now 48-year-long marriage to Zena. You two are both romantic and business partners. How have you managed to make it work for so long?
I think it takes special people to stay together for incredibly long periods of time. The binding glue in a long-term relationship is the truth. I think honesty and trust are the most important things. And being best friends. The first couple of decades, infatuation and sex can sustain you but, for longevity, being best friends to the point where you become — as Kurt Vonnegut called it ‘The Nation Of Two’ — that’s the best way to describe me and Zena, we’re our own little ‘Nation Of Two.’
“Hard To Say No” — You sing this one in a harder, determined voice. Any reason this one feels a little different from the others?
I didn’t think it was any different from the others. Trying to think… maybe I’m singing it with a more determined voice because I feel the subject matter is my main weakness. When I was young, I was only interested in pleasing myself. Now that I’m interacting with the human race again I find I’m often tempted to please strangers and I feel that’s always good for me. Yeah, so maybe there’s like an edge to the voice because I feel that it’s my one Achilles’ Heel. But it’s only you saying that, that you think it’s different. It’s not something I was aware of.
The one thing that is different — it’s the first time I’ve ever written a song complete with backing vocals. Normally I write the main vocal and then if there’s backing vocals to be added, it gets added somewhere between rehearsals and overdub stage of a song. But when I wrote the song, the backing vocals were an intrinsic part of the melody immediately and that’s the only time I’ve ever done that. And after writing them, listening back, it reminds me a bit of The Shangri-Las.
That’s interesting because I thought the next song, “Troika” has a ’60s girl-group kind of feel. With a lyric about a romantic triumvirate, at first it seemed humorous but it’s actually quite straight forward and touching. Any thoughts on how this song came to you?
I mentioned earlier there were three songs that had origins in previous incarnations. This song (originally intended to be a duet), the first verse was written in 1985. I’d just come out of rehab and stayed clean for three weeks or a month. The second verse and bridge were written in the early ’90s when I was briefly productive. And then the second half of the song was written and structured and arranged during the recording of the (new) album. So, it basically took me 31 years to write the song. Which, for me, is par for the course really. I’m not the most focused for long periods of time. It was like intermittent snatches. When it came to doing the album, I remembered the song and thought, “It’s quite a good song, I’ll have to finish it off. I’m not proud of the fact that it took me 31 years but I think I got it right in the end, do you know what I mean? If I’d recorded it ten years ago, 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same and it wouldn’t have been as good. The three songs that had their origins in earlier times, I think have become better songs by me waiting to do them properly.
Also, I hear echoes of “Kid” by the Pretenders in the guitar lines. Was that intentional?
(laughs) There’s a story to that. When I had The One in the early ’90s, the first gig I did was in London in 1994. Jamie was there and he remembered, after the gig, Chrissie Hynde came backstage and I was talking to her and told her about a duet that I was writing. So, when it came to recording “Troika,” he sort of referenced James Honeymoon-Scott’s guitar style on purpose, as an in-joke but also as an homage to a great guitarist.
I like the song not being a duet now because with me First Person, Second Person, and Third Person have always been interchangeable in my lyrics, even within the same song, and I like it just with me singing the whole song. But, yeah, I think you noticing slight similarities… there’s just one part of it that is similar but the rest has got that James Honeymoon-Scott style, which I think really fits the song.
What are your live plans? Are you planning on coming to the states?
Live plans at the moment are in a very formative stage. So far, we’ve just booked a handful of gigs in England at the end of October, beginning of November. I’d love to come to the states but it depends on opportunity and viability. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get into so it might be out of my hands. Also, it costs 20 times as much for an English musician to visit America as it does for an American musician to come and play in England, so that’s the viability side of it. I’m desperate to come. The last gig I did in the states I think was summer of 1980, playing with Johnny (Thunders) at Max’s or… I don’t know if there was an Only Ones gig after that or if that was the last gig. I’d really like to make it back to the states… but it’s not up to me. Here’s hoping.
How did you first start playing and what made you want to do it? Was there a band or a song… what made you pick up a guitar?
I got a guitar for a present on my 17th birthday. I mean, previously, me producing music, it depends on what you call music. In ’66 and ’67 I was playing around with a tape recorder and I was banging things, including piano keys, and then playing the tape backwards. And as a 14-year-old I thought that sounded really weird and it gave me a lot of pleasure. I enjoyed making sounds. I dunno if you’d call it music, although later when I discovered Schoenberg and people like that, Stockhausen… maybe some people would call it music. But it was just me making a noise. And then I got a guitar on my 17th birthday and that’s when I started writing songs. But music had always been… the power of sound was my escape in my early teens.
The real changing point was when I heard Dylan when I was 13 in ’65 and I discovered the power of lyrics in combination with sound. The other big influence was hearing The Velvet Underground when I was 15 in 1967. What I liked about them was that Lou Reed sounded a bit like Bob Dylan. And, although Bob Dylan was the master, Lou Reed was a pretty good apprentice, in my 15 year-old viewpoint. The only other thing that was an influence was early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and the psychedelic sound. When I was 15 I saw them a few times and that was the best thing I’d experienced live. I didn’t manage to see Dylan when he came over. And The Velvet Underground never toured England. So yeah, my best musical live experiences were Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd.
So, they were great live?
Well, it was just an experience. For a 15-year-old it was an assault on the senses. It was a long time before I took any recreational drugs at all and just the light show and the weird sound and the smells, it left a mark.
But Bob Dylan was THE person because he was the first person I heard that had that conversational vocal delivery where you knew the lyrics were more important than the tune. And that transcended everything I’d heard before. That was when music became not just an escape but a way of life. And as soon as I got a guitar I just started writing. I always wrote sort of Sixth Form poetry. I wrote words because words always came into my head from an early age. But once I learned how to play a few chords then they soon became transformed into songs.
Do you remember in either case — Dylan or Velvet Underground — what the first song was that caught your ear?
The first song I ever heard of Dylan… I was at a friend’s house and he had an older sister and I heard “To Ramona.” And I thought, “I’ve never heard a voice like that.” But I didn’t have the record to play over and over. Then I heard “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on Pirate Radio and I thought, “I like what he’s saying,” the rebelliousness of it. Because I was a rebel from about the age of nine so I associated with the ideas that he was proposing. But the changing point was when I heard “Like A Rolling Stone.” That, just the whole thing, the sound, the vocal delivery. The intensity in the vocal delivery was like… that was the turning point.
With the Velvet Underground, someone, an older kid at school, he was quite rich. He used to buy every psychedelic or… every record that came out basically. And he bought the (first) Velvet Underground, didn’t like it and said, “You have this, I’m sure you’ll like it, you like Bob Dylan.” “Heroin” was the first track… I didn’t even think about the subject matter, I didn’t know what it was really. I thought it was something that was dark and forbidden… but it was just the sound, it just sounded really dark and dangerous. And with the added bonus that he had a similar vocal delivery to Bob Dylan. They’re worlds apart but, compared to everyone else that was singing, they were in their own little universe. So yeah, those are the things I remember.
Then, something else that you said just a few minutes ago, you mentioned Kurt Vonnegut. Are you a bookish person?
No, I’m the least bookish person you know. I haven’t read a book since, like 1980. So that would’ve been, what was it, Breakfast Of Champions? That was the last Kurt Vonnegut book (that I read). My kids have tried to tempt me. Jamie bought me Chronicles … or no, Peter bought me Chronicles for one Christmas, you know, the Bob Dylan thing (autobiography). And it was really well written but I thought it was just a bit too egotistical. It was like he really loved himself a lot, that’s the way it came across. Even though it was well written and easy to read, I didn’t finish it.
And then for another Christmas Jamie bought me the (Tony) Benn diaries. Tony Benn was a socialist politician and these diaries were so optimistic, because he basically believed in the good of humanity and believed that the good would come through and they’d eventually see that socialism is the only answer. And it just made me so sad. (laughs) Even though Tony Benn’s a hero of mine I couldn’t finish that either. So, I’m not a bookish person at all. I just happened to — when I was like, I can’t remember, 20 or whatever — read a Kurt Vonnegut book and became enthralled with him. He just made me laugh. And like I said, laughter and humor have always been a big part of the way I look at things. He just made me laugh in a way that I enjoyed so I read everything that he wrote up until 1980. But I stopped reading. And I stopped reading because I just stopped doing anything. I just didn’t really have any interest in communicating at all on any level with anybody. Also, I told myself that, if I read books, I might be influenced by them and I wanted every idea I had to be an original idea. And if it happens to coincide with something somebody said before, then that’s not my fault. A good ‘out’ for being lazy.
As you say about Vonnegut, the humor is one element but his poignancy — I had to write this down when you mentioned it earlier — “The Nation Of Two.” That’s a pretty profound phrase.
Laughter is important but it’s got to move you in other ways as well. The good stuff hits you on different levels. And he ticks all the boxes for me. But that’s just my personal taste. He’s one of my literary heroes… not that I have many (laughs).
The last influences question. Are there any new groups or artists that are grabbing your ear these days?
I’m not the best person for discovering new stuff, unless it’s put on a plate in front of me by my children. The last person they played for me that I liked was Courtney Barnett. Australian singer. Jamie and Jenny just fell in love with her and played it for me and I thought, “Wow!” The first thing I liked is that she sounds really Australian. She’s got a broad Australian accent which I thought was really cute and attractive. And she writes amusing lyrics, which is always gonna get me. They’re amusing but clever as well. I saw her live last summer in London and I didn’t like the fact that the bass drum was louder in the mix than the vocals. That’s one criticism… I like the title of the album — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit — and that sums up a large majority of my life. And also, on the double EP, “Avant Gardner” is one of my favorite tracks. I don’t think everything she does is genius but she’s done a handful of songs that are the best recent things I’ve heard. But there could easily be loads of great stuff I haven’t heard. I’m not very good at surfing YouTube or the Internet to find stuff.
This is a little uncanny because when I asked you about new artists, Courtney Barnett is the one I was wondering if you’d heard. I love her, too. One of the lines that hit me the hardest is in the song “Pedestrian At Best,” when she sings, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.”
“Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you / Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey.” Yeah, there’s some good lines…
Talk about influences, if you look back at footage of her playing live a couple of years before her profile went up, you can tell that she was a big Nirvana fan. Or, if she wasn’t a big Nirvana fan as a kid then she was uncannily… you know, she plays the guitar left-handed, there’s definitely references. And like I said, the only criticism — I’d like to hear her vocals a bit higher in the mix because I think she’s got a great voice and her lyrics deserve to be heard. And some of them get buried a bit. But she’s powerful, she definitely rocks. Unfortunately (at the show), I was in the front and I was quite safe until everybody started jumping up and down and pogoing and then it was like, “What am I doing here? (laughs) I’m 65. I should not be here, risking my life.
When you look back at the Only Ones, what were the high points, what are you most proud of?
The high points for me were the gigs. I didn’t think people would be listening to our music in 40-years. I only thought of… the moment. And, for me, we did some amazing gigs. Especially like in ’79 and ’80. I think we were better live than we were on record. And the one regret I have is that there’s not more footage of us from that time. There’s some of us doing live TV things but it’s not the same as an actual gig where you’ve got an audience going crazy. It was before phone cameras and low-light video recorders. People did want to film us but we wouldn’t allow them to use the lights that they needed. I’ve got some footage on VHS and you can see that we’re on stage but it’s very dark. I might try and … do something to it digitally to make it a bit brighter but… yeah, the highlight for me was the gigs because that was the thing I thought was the most important… when you actually played to your audience. Now I know that, for posterity’s sake, your recordings are what you leave behind after you’re gone. And that’s what people are going to listen to. But we did some amazing gigs… and it wasn’t like an act, we were different every night.
I’m still a fan of the Only Ones recordings, I just love the albums but when I first saw you, first in Chicago and then Minneapolis, you were a formidable live band. In a recent interview you said that, when the band first got together, you rehearsed relentlessly for months.
Yeah, we put in the groundwork. It was mainly to teach me how to be a professional musician. I just did things by instinct and feel. Kellie was a great drummer. He always said feel was more important than technique. But, if you’re playing together in an ensemble situation, you’ve got to do it the same way each time in order for people to be able to follow you. For instance, “Lovers Of Today,” it’s got some bars of 3/4 and some bars of 2/4 and I used to vary where, sometimes I’d do it as a bar of 2/4 and sometimes… know what I mean? So, I had to learn all that stuff. It took like four months of rehearsing eight hours a day, five days a week, just so I could function on stage. (laughs) But that time was time well spent, which not many young groups get a chance to do now… unless they’ve got rich parents that can afford to buy all the instruments and pay for their studio. But for struggling young musicians, the only ones that find it easy are the ones that press a button to make the music and rap or do whatever they do over the top of it. Poor kids can do that and make music. But, if you’re playing sort of old school instruments then it’s harder for kids. Back in the 70s, especially in England, you got the benefits. It was easier to survive. There were free places to live called ‘squats.’ You know, there were all sorts of things our generation had, it’s harder for the young musicians now. The Only Ones were really fortunate to have existed in the time frame that they existed in. Obviously, it’s sad it was so short lived but I think we shone brightly while we existed.
There was something really uncommon about the four of you playing together and I’m wondering if, during those early days while you were spending all that time rehearsing — was there a moment where you suddenly realized that you had something that was really uncommon?
From the time I was nine I thought, “I’m different from everyone else”… and I felt disconnected from the world. I always felt that there was something… that I was special in some way, hence when I dreamt the name it was ‘The Only Ones’. I just felt that we had to be different from everything else. And, luckily, at the time we came together, it was easy to be different from everybody else because all the other new bands were people like me — just starting to learn how to play. There were lots of good people that came on the scene that turned into great bands. Like, The Clash became a great band. Lots of people became great bands but, at the beginning, there weren’t that many that had lead guitar breaks, especially a 32-bar intro to the song, and things like that. So, it was very easy to stand out. Number one on the agenda was to be different from everybody else. That was THE most important thing. Which is why I wanted to be as different from my heroes as possible back then. So, it did feel like we were unique. Now, looking back on it, there’s been a lot of music that’s been done since then that’s been similar… but, at that moment in time, we felt like we were different from everybody else. Because Kellie was in the band, there was a connection to what had come before. But because of my sort of chaotic approach to stuff, it had a relevance to what was going on at the time as well. I think the combination made us stand out. I think that’s why the people that saw us back then still remember us fondly.
And, finally (!), the very last question — we love Johnny Thunders. What was it like to work with him on the So Alone album?
Working with Johnny was fun. That was the predominant feeling. He was unique and he was fun to be with. And you couldn’t take anything too seriously because of who Johnny was. So, it was very loose and light-hearted making the album. That was part of Johnny’s charm, the looseness. I was close to him. He came and introduced himself to me in January of ’77 at a gig, after I came off stage. And, apart from The Only Ones, he was probably the only male friend I had. I was more interested in spending my time with females. But Johnny had a certain beguiling personality that sucked you into his little world. I only did like… I think we recorded six tracks. “So Alone,” the title track wasn’t on the original album, which pissed me off because that was my favorite song. I mean, obviously, I like “Memory” and “Ask Me No Questions,” but “So Alone,” I liked it because it was so slow. And one of the things he said to me before making the album was he felt like he had the freedom to play really slow songs. Because before, in The Heartbreakers, it was very much like the punk thing and doing what (was) current. I think it was his signature album. He did some of his best work on that album. I’m proud to be a part of it.
I wish I’d been there to support him throughout the ’80s but… the ’80s weren’t a good time for me. I wasn’t that healthy. I’ve spoken to people since who said that, during the ’80s, Johnny was telling them he was really worried about me. And they thought, “Fucking hell, if Johnny’s worried him, he must be in a bad state!” (laughs) I’ve always got real fond memories of him because… he had that… almost sort of sheepish smile where you just wanted to look after him… he was just so… like, a bit vulnerable. When I first met him, I thought he was really talented and yet he’s not doing himself justice… no way I’m gonna let myself get fucked up like Johnny… and that just goes to show how much I know (laughs).