It’s been a good year for Del Amitri fans. The Scottish alternative rock group played a series of highly anticipated reunion shows in support of expanded reissues of three of their finest albums from the ‘90s, Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted (with each album adding a second disc of bonus tracks).
Prior to that, frontman Justin Currie had spent a month in Austin, Texas, working with producer Mike McCarthy on songs that would eventually land on the solo album Lower Reaches, which was released first in the U.K. late last year before receiving a U.S. release in the early part of 2014. Surrounded by a band of seasoned musicians — including guitarist David Garza and members of Heartless Bastards, White Denim and Phosphorescent — Currie knocked out a satisfying set of songs, recording 15 tracks that had been carefully selected from an initial batch of 40.
He wrote the material prior to coming to Austin, renting a cottage where he completely unplugged from the distractions of modern technology, sequestering himself with only an acoustic guitar, piano and what he describes as a “ghetto blaster” (now, there’s a flashback) to record his song ideas.
As you’ll read in our conversation below, McCarthy took his producer title very seriously and put Currie through the paces to capture the songs that you’re now hearing on Lower Reaches, but it was a creative struggle that paid off handsomely.
Currie is on the road for a short run of U.S. tour dates, including a Cleveland date at the Music Box Supper Club, his first appearance in the Cleveland area in nearly 20 years. We caught up with him for a Skype conversation as he was getting ready to leave for the tour to talk about the new album, his songwriting process, Del Amitri and quite a few other subjects.
I don’t know if you know this, but it’s been close to 20 years since you’ve been to Cleveland. That’s pretty incredible.
Yeah, I’m aware it’s been a while. Probably the mid-’90s would be the last time that we were there, maybe.
Yep, I think it was in 1996 at the Odeon, perhaps.
Perhaps. That sounds about right.
Are you at home still?
Yeah, I just had a couple of gigs around Scotland the last couple of months and I’m just kind of getting ready to come over.
Besides the new album that came out earlier this year, which we’ll obviously talk about, what have you been up to the past few months while you’ve been home?
I mean, I’m always writing songs, but I haven’t really made my mind up what the hell I’m going to do next. I’ve done three solo records, I mean, I’ll do another solo record at some point, but I’m not sure if I’m going to do one next year — it’s kind of up in the air for me, really. I’m trying to think of something more interesting to do than just doing another solo record. [Laughs]
When it came to recording the new album, how did you end up recording it in Austin, Texas?
Well, because the first two solo records that I made, I produced them myself. By the time we got to the third one, my manager said, “Look, I think maybe you should get a producer” and he didn’t really have to talk me into it. I thought it was about time I got out of my comfort zone, basically. I had made a little list of producers in the previous four or five years, which was a grand total of three, because I’d only heard three records that I liked the sound of. [Laughs]
One of them, I couldn’t afford and another of them passed on it and then the other one was Mike McCarthy and he got back to us and said, “Yeah, I’m up for it — when do you want to start?” So we just told him how much money we had and it all came together very quickly. I had heard the solo record by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady and I really liked that and that was produced by Mike.
The previous two albums, had you recorded those at home?
Mainly. I’d done bits in a studio just around the corner from my house run by a guy named Mark Freegard who used to work with Del Amitri quite a lot in the ‘90s. The first album was nearly done all in the house. I’ve got quite a big room upstairs which I can use and record piano and drums there. The second one, The Great War, was probably mainly done in Mark’s studio, but I mean, it was all done within a few yards of my house. [Laughs]
It seems like these last couple of records especially, you’ve kind of moved back to a lot of stuff that’s more band-oriented in tone.
Yeah, that wasn’t particularly deliberate on Lower Reaches. [With] Lower Reaches, I just handed the whole project to Mike and he was very much the producer. So I didn’t have much of a hand in the arrangements of any of those things — he got the musicians and that’s what they played and I was perfectly happy with it, so I didn’t really get my hands that dirty in terms of changing what they did.
Whereas the album before, I’d sort of deliberately gone back to a band thing, because I didn’t want to do anything remotely like Del Amitri on the first solo record — I wanted to sort of draw a line in the sand and do something really different. But the second solo record, I thought “Well, I’ve done that now — I’ve moved away from the band thing, so it’s probably safe now to go back to it a little bit.” Lower Reaches was really all Mike’s thing. I gave him like 40 songs and he picked 15 and I just kind of did what I was told, which was extremely difficult at first, I have to say.
I was going to ask about that — after doing the first two on your own, essentially, what were the difficulties that you encountered working back in a producer situation? Certainly, it’s not the first time you’ve done it, but it’s probably the first time you’ve done it that you weren’t in a band situation.
Yeah, that was really different for me, because I didn’t have any allies. I was completely on my own and I was surrounded by Americans who were doing things their own way. You know, it worked, but it was hard for me to relinquish all of that control. I put up a bit of a fight the first couple of weeks and then I just gave up because I didn’t think there was any point in compromising what Mike was trying to do. So I just kept my mouth shut, basically.
It was hard work as well, you know, when you’re producing yourself, you can track a couple of vocals and then go and watch a film — especially if you’re working in your house. Whereas if you’re in a studio situation with musicians waiting around and a producer ready and waiting [that’s not really an option]. Also, Mike does lots of takes and I don’t — I mean, I did quite a lot of vocal takes, but I wouldn’t do like 40 vocal takes.
We were doing quite a lot — he was trying to cut a lot of stuff live and we did end up using quite a lot of the live vocals. That was hard work — that was like going back to being 18 or 19 again and working with your first producer. But it had to be done, because otherwise I would have made a very similar record to the first two.
If I’m understanding the process for this album correctly, did you go in with Mike and essentially cut the songs somewhat acoustically initially and then did he start to flesh those recordings out with additional musicians?
We spent the first week retooling the songs, going through the songs with a fine-toothed comb, taking things out that were redundant and he had me write a new verse on one song. So that was the first week. We recorded quite a lot of that stuff, but that wasn’t ever going to be the record — we just recorded that for reference. Then we brought the band in — all of them sort of knew each other — they were Austin musicians and they played on the Craig Finn record and they knew each other.
They’d had the demos and then he had me sit down at the piano or the guitar and sing them the version of the song that Mike and I had arrived at in the first week. Then they just played along, so they’d had a bit of prep with the demos and then I’d kind of communicate the songs to them. He was very insistent that I sang the songs live to them, which I think probably was a really good idea. So it was a bit like having your own band in sort of a microcosm, except that you had a producer earlier on in the process and then just the post-writing process.
Normally with Del Amitri, I would write a song and take it to the band and we might do a bit of nip and tuck there and we might cut a chorus out or we might add something in. So I did that with Mike and then I played the songs to the band and then they sort of banged them [out]. That’s pretty much how it worked.
“Every Song’s The Same” is one from this new album that I really like a lot. It seems like you’re someone who is pretty good at not letting a song overstay its welcome — it’s done when it’s done, even if it’s shorter, like that one is, clocking in at about two and a half minutes. How difficult is it for you to let go of a song and call it finished and resist whatever temptations might exist to tinker further, write more, etc.?
Once a song’s finished, I don’t find it particularly easy rewriting any of it. I would rather just abandon a song if it doesn’t work then try and rewrite it. For example, when Mike asked me to rewrite the last verse for “Every Song’s The Same,” that took me about two and a half weeks just to write three lines. I do find that quite difficult. When I walk away from the piano after spending a couple of days writing something, that’s it. it’s kind of written in stone for me.
As soon as I’ve demoed something, I feel like it now belongs in the sort of public domain so I don’t find that easy. Some people I know rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, people like Leonard Cohen will write 40 verses or something and hone it down. When I start writing a song, it tends to have an inherent length and form and it sort of tells you when it’s finished in a way.
I would think that would be hard. Because certainly if you’ve handed it to him, it probably feels pretty finished in your mind. I think probably you have to be able to see what they’re seeing that’s not finished about the song before you can really start to attack it again and even then it’s still difficult.
Yeah, as soon as I learn a song by heart and play it to somebody else, it’s finished. But the good thing about Mike, especially the first week that we were retooling the songs was that I kind of understood everything that he was saying to me. So even if it went against my instincts or wasn’t within my skillset to do what he was asking me to do, I still went ahead and did it. Because I actually understood where he was coming from. He had really gotten inside the songs.
Some producers will just sort of listen to the surface of a song and they’ll be looking for the hook or they’ll be looking for things that are just kind of catchy or shiny on the surface. He wasn’t about that at all — he was interested in things just being better and he was really obsessed with how things felt rather than anything else. That’s probably why I hired him. I’m not really good at how things feel at all. I tend to sort of write from the heart but then arrange everything with the head.
He was more into the record feeling good in that kind of physical way. That was quite new for me. So there was a lot of vocal takes that we ended up keeping that we argued and argued and argued over because for me, they just weren’t technically good enough. Eventually, he won a lot of those arguments, because I just thought “You know, I can’t keep being really uptight and holding onto the technical side — I’ve got to actually trust the producer when he says it feels good.”
Technically, there are a whole lot of things that I would have fixed, but actually, I think at the end of the day that Mike was right not fixing them and just letting things be. If it feels good, then it’s right. That’s a really different attitude to a lot of the way that other producers work. I was brought up with the really technical British production thing where like all of the drums have to be massively in time and the bass has got to be massively in time with the kick drum. All of the vocals have got to be pitched perfectly — I mean, I’ve spent months and months and months on those things in the past and you don’t necessarily end up making a better record — you end up making a record that’s technically pristine but some things can be sort of soul dead.
With this album, you definitely left room for things to breathe. It doesn’t seem like you guys deliberated things to death.
No, we didn’t do any overdubs either. There are very few overdubs. I mean, a lot of the guitar solos were done live as they went down. So yeah, there was very little time spent overdubbing. Honestly, it was maybe three days out of the month that we spent actually glueing overdubs on. Whereas in my career in studios, it’s all been about overdubs. You know, you track the drums, you replace the bass, you replace the guitars on the basic tracks and then you start overdubbing like fuck. You can end up with a very layered and interesting record, but you can also end up just strangling the songs.
Thinking about the three Del Amitri albums that were recently reissued, Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted, it doesn’t seem like you guys overdid it, but those records definitely sound like you spent the time that you spent making them.
Well, I mean that was the kind of university years — it was the university of rock. [Laughs] We were on a major label that gave us pretty much unlimited time and unlimited budgets and pretty decent recording studios with great engineers and great producers. That was just us learning how to making records. So for example, Waking Hours has got quite a lot of sort of ‘80s guitar effects going on — it’s got a lot of overdubs and it’s quite a shiny sort of pop record. By the time we got to Twisted, we were just about managing to make records that were two guitars, bass drums and organ cut live in the studio. Some Other Sucker’s Parade, the album after Twisted, that was all cut live in the studio. So we just learned as we went along and then we finally got to the point that we wanted to be at, which was being a rock band and cutting songs live in the studio. So yeah, it was a long process!
I was talking with my wife last night and she was working on a list of one-hit wonder bands that really weren’t one-hit wonder bands. I threw out Del Amitri and I said “You know, first of all, when ‘Roll To Me’ came out, for anybody who had been listening to the band, it wasn’t really the best representation of what the band was all about.” Also, for those of us who had been fans, we had heard a lot of Del Amitri songs before “Roll To Me.” I can remember when you guys were playing shows as that single was really starting to hit and suddenly you have people showing up at the shows wanting to hear “Roll To Me” and maybe they didn’t know anything else. I was curious to know, when the band went back to make Some Other Sucker’s Parade, what kind of position did that leave you in, making that next record?
Well, it was quite odd. Because “Roll To Me,” even though it was a really big radio hit, it didn’t really sell very many more records. The touring and doing a bit of television sold a few more albums — the radio hit was odd, because most people didn’t know who it was. They weren’t particularly aware that that song was by a Scottish band called Del Amitri. So we could have been playing in some nightclub down the road and people would be hearing that song on the radio and they wouldn’t put two and two together and come to see the show, so our audience didn’t really expand very much by virtue of being a Top 10 Billboard [charting band]. It was quite odd.
So by the time we came [back to make our next album], partly because A&M was a pretty decent label in those days, both in the U.K. and the U.S., amazingly, neither the U.S. label nor the British label put us under any pressure on the follow-up record to make another sort of “Roll To Me.” In fact, we were all quite convinced that the first single from Some Other Sucker’s Parade was going to get on the radio, even though it sounded nothing like “Roll To Me” and of course we were proved completely fucking wrong. [Laughs]
In a sense, in terms of American radio, we are a one-hit wonder band, because that was genuinely the big radio hit. The royalty statements that I still get are a testament to that fact. Being played on the radio doesn’t really make you that visible or famous. People can be familiar with a song but not really familiar with a band at all. So we always had an audience that knew the albums and then there was this kind of weird separate audience out there that we never really saw that would recognize that song on the radio. It was quite strange.
What that made me think of on the heels of that, was that with “Always The Last To Know” and “Kiss This Thing Goodbye,” in America, those did chart Top 40.
I hadn’t ever really thought about it, but on the surface, it seems like you had something that least charted on each one of those three records and I wondered if that kind of kept the record companies off your back a little bit from album to album.
I think in the U.S., [that helped] because we had a little bit luck at radio on various formats — I mean, the formats kept changing. And you know, we really worked it as well — we would come out for month-long promo tours and we were more than happy to do all of that work, because to be honest, it was just a good laugh. We kind of established a relationship with the regional radio promo guys that we’d go out there and do the dinners and the meet and greets and we’d do all of the radio shows and then go out at night and have a few beers and have a laugh.
I think that just kind of encouraged them to keep on it and [the label] kept spending money. They were spending money getting us over there and driving us around and getting us into those radio stations and all of that sort of stuff. We made a lot of money on those records, especially “Roll To Me,” [and] they made a ton of money, because they were getting played a lot on the radio. I’ve never felt particularly guilty about it, because we really worked our socks off and there was a point when we were on tour that we were doing I would say, between five and eight radio stations a day, singing a couple of songs at every one, maybe doing a bit of television in the big cities and then doing shows every night.
You know, I think that’s something you could only do in your twenties or early thirties. I could not do that now — I’d have a fucking nervous breakdown. But back then, it was good fun and even the CHR radio thing, which to us seemed like lunacy — we’d go and do these morning zoo-style shows that were just crazy. But even those things, we sort of enjoyed in quite a perverse way. Because we kind of knew that we were just like a rock band that went on the road and we knew that we didn’t really fit into that sort of light entertainment format.
But it was quite interesting seeing that side of the world — it was quite an eye-opener in a way seeing that really hard commercial side of the American music business. I found it all quite fascinating. I suppose if we had to do that for 10 years, I think eventually we would have said “Look, no, we’re not doing this.” But at that age and at that time, we put the work in and we had really good fun doing it. You know, it probably paid more dividends for us than it did for the record company. Because the record company, they didn’t sell millions of albums off the back of having those hits.
After the first self-titled album was released, the band later came to America and spent six weeks touring and it sounds like it was an important experience. Did the record deal with A&M come about as a result of that touring? How did that come about?
That was later on. We came back off that American tour, which was really just a last ditch attempt to be professional musicians. With a bit of charity from the audience, we just about got around the States and back again in one piece. But when we came off that trip, we were destitute — we had absolutely no money left in the bank and we all just went and got full time jobs for about a year. Then we managed to sign a publishing deal in the U.K. which gave us a bit of money to sort of start doing demos.
The material that we were touring in America in 1986, I would still say was sort of part of our “indie band” period in the ‘80s and then America did really change our outlook and it definitely changed the way that we wrote. Iain and I started writing songs separately rather than with the band. The songs that we were writing started to become much more mainstream and much more influenced by Americana, for lack of a better expression. Then suddenly, we made five or six demos that were quite obviously something that should have been on a major label, I think only because the music changed. It changed organically — we weren’t sort of chasing a marker — we just changed because America had been an enormous influence on us and the way we were writing changed. That just led us into a completely different world, really.
I’ve heard you talk about how listening to Tom Petty’s Pack Up The Plantation provided an important spark. What was it about that record for you that really inspired you?
Well, we were never a particularly good live band. I think we were a pretty bad live band until the mid-’80s and then going to America made a lot of difference with that. It happens with a lot of British bands, where going to America really forces you to get better, because the audiences are quite demanding and they tell you what they like and they tell you what they don’t like, which they don’t really do so much in the U.K.
So we came back from that and we thought, “You know, we can sort of play now.” You’ve got to have something to aim for, I think. The reason we really liked that record is because [it was] really great quality songwriting [from a] mainstream rock and roll band. They’re not showing off and being virtuoso musicians, they’re being something that’s just pretty solid and pretty unpretentious. We kind of thought, “Why can’t we do that?” You know, that’s a perfectly honorable thing to do something like that.
You don’t need to be subversive and underground and play in a sort of weird madcap way to be proud of what you’re doing. You can actually do things in the mainstream and do them well, which is kind of what Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were doing. So that became something that we kind of aimed for. I doubt we ever really got there — we probably went off on a slightly odd tangent. But it was just something that we thought it was an honorable record. It wasn’t uncool but it was mainstream.
Del Amitri was known for being a solid live band. So it’s interesting to hear that wasn’t always there. The first time I saw Del Amitri, that was something that was really a shock, hearing you sing those songs, it was like, “Holy shit, he can actually sing like that live!” Because as I think you know, there are singers out there that just aren’t great live singers. So sometimes it falls down right there, because they can’t reproduce it vocally live. You guys had the package.
Well, we’d been playing live since 1980 — I’d been playing with Del Amitri since 1980. So yeah, we’d done a lot of gigs. But it did take us a long time to get sort of even passably decent. [Laughs] Partly because I’m not a great bass player and playing bass and singing is quite difficult. We had a run of different drummers as well. It wasn’t really until I’d say the mid-’90s when we got a drummer that was really shit-hot and that really helped. That’s another thing — in the ‘80s, there were really very few decent drummers in the U.K. and sadly, very few in Scotland.
When we went to America, we were quite shocked that we’d go to a bar and you’d see a cover band and they’d have a great drummer. We always thought the reason for that is because a lot of American kids have got basements in their parents’ houses and they can set up a bloody drum kit and they can play. Whereas in Glasgow, for example, you can’t play a drum kit in Glasgow, because everybody lives in tenements and you’ve got neighbors above you and neighbors below you and you just can’t do it. So there are sort of simple practical reasons why there are lots of great drummers in America. All of those things, it took us long time to think [that] actually, we’re okay. In fact, I would say that we never really considered ourselves a particularly great band — we just did a lot of work and we got better.
For this upcoming solo tour, will it be just you acoustic or will you have somebody playing with you?
I’ve got a guitar player [Stuart Nisbet] that plays a bit of lap steel and a bit of electric guitar and sings backing vocals, so he comes on about a third of the way through and I play a wee bit of piano and guitar. I’ve done tours on my own and to be honest, I don’t really enjoy it. I find it really hard work and there’s kind of nowhere to go. Once you’ve strummed the guitar and plunked away on the piano for an hour, it’s like, you can’t really take it anywhere. And I’m not a great musician — I can’t play the guitar properly and I can’t play the piano particularly well, so it’s really good for me to have another musician along.
It’s great that you have The Mastersons opening on these tour dates. I think they’re a nice fit — and some people have asked me whether they would be backing you and I said that I didn’t think that was the case. But it is a nice match — it’s a good bill.
Yeah, we’ll try and do something together, but I haven’t actually thought of anything yet. But no, technically, they’re opening and then me and Stuart are coming on.
When you look at the three solo albums that you’ve done since Del Amitri, is there a certain line of progression that you can trace?
I don’t think there’s any progression. I think they’re all quite different. I mean, the first two kind of belong together in my mind, because they were done in Glasgow and similar kind of environments and a lot of the same musicians play on both records. Although the first solo record is much more of a solo record than the second two and I played most of the stuff on it myself, whereas the second album, The Great War, I played very little on it, actually. I didn’t play the bass on it and I didn’t play a lot of piano.
I think in the future, I might go back to that real solo sort of thing where it’s really just me with a couple of musicians. But yeah, I think of them all as being quite different. I kind of keep them in my mind visually, because the sleeves sort of represent what they are to me. So the first one’s quite brown and the second one’s quite blue and the last one’s sort of brown on blue. [Laughs]
Are there things that you’re still working to improve on as a songwriter?
I’m sure there are. Yeah, there’s a whole way of writing that I would like to get into that I haven’t been able to get into. I don’t know whether it’s honesty or the appearance of honesty. I was really impressed by that last Sun Kil Moon album which all sounds sort of seemingly autobiographical. I suppose it’s only a matter of whether it is or it isn’t, but it feels like it’s real and it’s like a sort of stream of consciousness and it feels conversational.
To do that within the structure of a song and still rhyme and still scan and still have a tune is quite remarkable, I think. I mean, I’d love to be able to do that. You know, you’re always trying to push….no matter how structured a song is and no matter how carefully put together it is, you’re really trying to achieve the appearance of an effortless conversation between you and the listener and that’s something that I’ve always found quite unattainable, but it’s something you definitely try and pursue, I think.
I think you’ve hit that honesty though. Certainly, if you hear a lyric like “Nobody’s helpless/ Although I’ve never felt this helpless before,” that’s something that everybody can identify with, because everybody’s felt that way.
Yeah, obviously you’re trying to sing from the personal and achieve the universal. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it at all, really. It’s just a fucking diary. Because songs are constructed — they don’t just happen spontaneously in the way that conversation happens spontaneously. But if you can make them sound conversational, that can be quite a good thing.
If you can sneak a fair amount of poetry into a song without it sounding like poetry, I think that’s also an achievement. So again, that’s something that I don’t think I’ve done very well and I’d like to try and get better. So yeah, I think that’s a good question, there are definitely things as a writer that I’m trying to improve on, yeah.
This album came out in the U.K. last year and it seems like almost immediately, the Del Amitri reunion tour dates were announced shortly after that. Was that something that was already in motion that you were aware of as you were making the album?
It was pretty much planned. Before the solo album came out, we knew that Del Amitri were going to do gigs at some point and we thought at the time that it was probably actually pretty good if the solo album came out in the autumn and then we did the Del Amitri gigs in the new year. That kind of made sense. The record company doing the solo record, they thought it wouldn’t do it any harm to have the Del Amitri stuff out there.
The band had good pockets of touring success here in the States, markets like Chicago and places like that. But from what I’ve heard you say, it seems like the idea of a U.S. tour with Del Amitri, even a really small one, seems unlikely. Is that really the case?
I mean, we just couldn’t possibly fund it. We couldn’t get the fees in the States to cover even doing one gig, let alone a run of gigs. It’s just so expensive to get bands over to the States now. I mean, just your visas alone. We did look at it and we just couldn’t [make it work] at all. In the ‘90s, our tours in the U.S. were all heavily underwritten and supported by the record company until I would say, around ‘96 or ‘97 [when] we managed to just about cover our costs.
By that point, we bought our own equipment in the U.S., which we would just put in the bays of the bus and we’d just honed everything down to a really small setup. But again, that was when we had records on the radio and all of that kind of stuff. Sadly, it’s not something that we can do as much as we’d love to.
I know there’s a double live album on the way. Was that show filmed as well?
Well, we did, yeah. We’re not going to release the film of it commercially — we didn’t film it for commercial reasons, we just filmed it as a kind of document. So we will throw up a few clips on Youtube, but the main thing is the live album. So there will be some video footage out there, but we’re not going to sell it.
When is that live album coming out?
Imminently. I believe it’s the next few weeks. I mean, I’ve very little to do with it, much to my shame. [Laughs] I’ve just let [guitarist] Iain [Harvie] look after it, which he’s done extremely capably. I think it’s the next few weeks from what I hear.
[A few days after this interview was completed, the band announced the live album’s release date officially. You can pre-order signed copies here.]
Do you guys feel like there’s unfinished business there? Would you want to do another Del Amitri record?
I would, but again, I just don’t think we could get funding to do it. We would need a bit of money to record the damn thing, just to rehearse it and record it, you know, pulling five people together, all of them in different cities and all of that sort of stuff. It’s just not really feasible. I mean, there’s a whole lot of stuff that we’ve written that’s sitting in the can [that has been] demoed, and some stuff that’s been mastered.
But we’re still really unsure what to do with all of that stuff. We’ll put the live album out and see what happens. But we live in such a strange time, where music is essentially free. I think eventually what may happen is we will just end up posting all of the stuff that’s there online for nothing. Because I don’t think there’s any value in it.
Have you ever thought about doing a Kickstarter or PledgeMusic campaign to accomplish something?
That’s not for me at all. I mean, I would rather make a record for no money than make records with money that comes from the audience, because audiences have expectations. The very fact the audience puts money upfront means that they like what you’ve done before. Which means that you’re kind of beholden to the audience to do again what you did before.
So I couldn’t take X amount of thousands of dollars from the audience and go and make a reggae album or Metal Machine Music or something — I just couldn’t do that. So I think that’s quite limiting, because you would feel an obligation to the audience to give them what they expected. You don’t have that with a record company. With a record company, you’re in partnership with a commercial organization that is trying to get you to achieve the maximum that you can achieve artistically with an eye on the commercial side.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a record company make arguments from a commercial perspective while the artist makes arguments from a creative perspective. I do think there’s slightly dodgy about an audience who have liked what you did before, giving you money and presumably expecting you to make more of the same. It’s just not the kind of model for me. I understand why people do it — I think if you’ve got a great idea and you’re really doing something from scratch, fine. But if you’ve already got an audience and you’re asking for money from that audience upfront, I think it’s a very limiting thing.
The reason I brought that up is because you mentioned what a weird place the industry is in and I think that part of that weird place is that bands and musicians and people are wrestling with the question, asking themselves, “Is it okay to run campaigns like that? Is it siphoning money out of our fans and is that right?” There seems to be two school of thoughts, and one is that side where they are questioning whether it’s right and then the other side, where it’s like, “Well, these are people that are fans of ours and they’re just pre-ordering our new record.” I’m generally okay with that second point, because if I’m a fan of the band and the artist and I’m going to buy their new record anyway, I’m okay with putting out the money upfront to do that. But I can totally understand your position and how that would put you in an odd place, creatively feeling like you would have to deliver something that falls in line with what they grew to love about you in the first place.
Yeah, I think that’s always going to be in the back of the creator’s mind, you know, the people that make the music. Also, it’s a strange model where people can’t get their money back if they don’t like the product. I think that’s quite odd. Whereas if you’ve got a record company there, the record company puts a single out to test the waters so that the fans can hear something new from that record and see whether they like it or not. I think paying upfront for something you haven’t heard yet is kind of dodgy. [Laughs]
I mean in a way, because what it is, it’s an investment that you don’t really get paid back on. If that record went onto generate lots and lots of publishing money by virtue of the fact that it got picked up by a big movie or it was played a lot on the radio, shouldn’t the fans get some of that money back? Because they’ve actually invested in the product in the first place. The whole thing seems a bit crazy. But of course, at the end of the day, it is always the audience that pays. So with the old model, the audience paid because CDs were very expensive and that was the only way you could access albums — you couldn’t really listen to albums on the radio, so you would have to go and buy a CD, which used to cost 20 bucks or whatever. So all of that money was swimming around in the recorded music industry, which then got invested in young artists. But the money was all coming directly from the fans and it’s still coming from the fans.
Because what’s happened is that because the money’s gone out of the recorded music industry and it’s gone into the live music industry, because that’s where all of the money is now and ticket prices have gone through the bloody roof. I mean, in this country, ticket prices are crazy. It’s the audience that pays, that’s where the money comes from. So you’re right, in a way, what’s the argument against fans of an artist paying the artist directly to make the record? Well, there isn’t an argument against that — it’s funny, you’re kind of cutting out the middleman. It’s just with the middleman, fans can pay and get their money back. They can take the record back to the shop and go, “Look, I don’t like this — this doesn’t sound like the last album!” [Laughs]
I don’t know, it’s really kind of crazy to me. I would feel a lot better about it if it was partly an investment and everybody got paid back with [a certain] percentage of whatever the sales are or the earlier you get in and the more you put up, the more you get out of it. That would be a much more interesting model, or say, I want to raise 10 thousand dollars to make an album, so whoever pledges the most amount of money in the quickest amount of time will get X percentage of the profits. I mean, that would make sense.
Earlier this year, you told me that there’s no existing recording of “Drowned On Dry Land.” I’m really surprised that Del Amitri didn’t record that one. I’ve got a somewhat rough recording of that song as it was performed on Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight and the band played it live at least a few times in that era while touring. I wondered what it was about that song, because obviously it seems like you were invested enough in that song that the public heard it live.
Well, we tried to arrange it with the band quite a lot and it just never worked. Partly, because it’s a bit long — it’s got six verses and the middle eight, which is a bit long and we could never find a style in which we could set it. We tried to kind of go down a Tom Waits avenue at one point, which just didn’t work. It’s just weird — it’s a very linear thing and it is just one of those things that it just works well at a quiet moment at a concert and it comes across well. It just always died a bit on tape whenever we tried to record it and arrange it. Some songs are just like that, they just come alive in a room in front of people and they just die on tape and there’s no real rhyme or reason for why that’s the case.
I know you also played “Medicine” in that same era before it made it to a record. Was that common for the band to air material that hadn’t been recorded like that?
If we were touring an album for long enough, we would start testing new material. I don’t think we would ever…we would rarely do more than two new things. That was a way of just getting stuff tight and arranged. I’ll tell you the funny thing about that was, on the second A&M album, Change Everything, there were four songs that we played quite a lot live in 1990 that ended up on Change Everything and they ended up being by far, the hardest things to record.
Because the newer songs, we were recording them to the tape machine, which is kind of what you want to do in the studio. Whereas, the ones that we played on the road, we just played them as we played them to an audience and they’re completely different things — the studio obviously is a different environment. So the performances were sort of too big and too slick and kind of weird. They ended up being much more problematic. We always thought, wouldn’t it be brilliant to actually write a whole record, tour the record before you actually record the damn thing and then go and record it live, but actually I’m not sure if that theory holds any water, because the studio is a completely different environment — it has completely different demands.