The BritPop Legend Talks Pulp, Passion, Politics and the Arctic Monkeys.
I’ll admit, the headline and subhead are a bit sensationalistic — my crass but well-intentioned invitation for the music fan who has never heard of Richard Hawley to enter his fascinating musical universe. Sure, I could just preach to the converted: British ex-pats and stateside music lovers who read the NME as much as the NYT. They are already well versed in Hawley’s rich solo catalogue; from the Mercury Prize nominated Cole’s Corner to the lush, orchestral albums Lady’s Bridge and Truelove’s Gutter.
Chances are, even if you can’t place the name, your path and Richard Hawley’s have likely crossed before. He toured the US with This is Hardcore-era Pulp and played on their final album, We Love Life. He fronted the Arctic Monkeys for a one-off single (“You and I”) credited to the Death Ramps. He’s played with legendary artists from yesteryear (Tony Christie, Duane Eddy, Nancy Sinatra, Shirley Bassey) and yesterday (Jarvis Cocker, Frank Black). He toured with Echo & The Bunnymen and opened for U2 and Radiohead all across America.
When Richard dialed me up from his Sheffield home one early evening at the end of July, he never once let on that he had recently broken his leg, nor that it stopped him from headlining a series of triumphant dates in the UK. Elbow frontman Guy Garvey wheeled Richard on stage where he performed songs from Standing at the Sky’s Edge, his highest charting album to date and a dramatic shift in his sound.
The hour that followed felt less like an interview and more like two strangers who met in a pub and shot the shit about a myriad of topics over a few pints.
Are you calling from Sheffield or London? I assumed you’d be caught up in Olympic fever tonight.
I’m at home in Sheffield. It’s really hot, so I’m having a lazy day playing the guitar. I don’t spend too much time in London if I can help it. I like the sports side of it, but not all the bullshit that goes along with it. I go to a lot of football games. My local team has the buildup to the game with the guys dressed up in the costumes and people doing all the stupid dances, but I typically wait until the second before the whistle blows before going in. I watch the game and then I leave.
I read your interview in The Guardian where they call Standing at the Sky’s Edge your “angry album.” I was expecting the record to be political but instead found it rich with interesting character studies.
Those words were part of a longer sentence that that got misquoted. They said to me, “would you say that this is your angry record — or your angriest record” — and I said, “well yes, compared to the rest of the records that I’ve made.” I was making reference more to the guitars more than anything. But there is a political dynamic to the album. I don’t want to stand on a soapbox wanking about politics, I’d be happy to do it, but I’m not very eloquent with it. But a lot of the songs are responses to political situations.
“Standing at the Sky’s Edge” is a response to what our government’s been doing to the country — it’s really negative. From my early years until later on when Thatcher was voted out, I saw the effects from start to finish those policies had on my community. Sheffield is a steel town. My father was a steel worker. The song is literally saying we are standing on the edge and we’ve got to determine which side we are taking. We can stand on the side of poverty reinforcement or build the society we can be proud of and want to live in. Do we strip everything back and let the bankers get their bonuses while putting our kids in prison for stealing trainers and cell phones? It’s a confusing time we live in.
I think you hit upon a universal theme. In America, criminal bankers are protected under the right wing. In Russia, Pussy Riot is thrown in jail.
Today, there’s the head of Barclay’s Bank who resigned for basically fixing the borrowing and lending rates — it’s a criminal offense but he resigns from his position with a nine million pound payoff. That kind of obscenity upsets me and a lot of people I know; there is no way I could not react to it with this record. In England, there aren’t many artists who are talking about it — even in interviews — they’re all shitting themselves and are really scared.
Let’s walk through the new album. “Standing at the Sky’s Edge” is a beautiful metaphor, but is Sky’s Edge also a real place in Sheffield?
I used to play there as a child; it’s not too far away. It overlooks the train station. When you stand there, you see the main view of the center of Sheffield. It’s a very ancient place. The Romans settled there because the plateau is a 360-degree defendable position. Today, it’s a bad area, lots of gang problems. But the metaphor, as we discussed, is what side of the line we want to stand on and the world we want to build.Joseph was a good man though he killed his wife… Mary was a troubled girl she stole to eat. She had to sell her body to put shoes on her feet… Jacob was misguided he carried a blade. So much fear in the city it carried him away… They were standing at the sky’s edge And out there who knows what they’re thinking They were sliding down the razors edge And watched their lives slowly sinking - lyrics from Standing at the Sky’s Edge
It sounds like the three characters we meet in the song have been pushed to the limit.
I knew them. Joe was an Ethiopian immigrant and a friend of my father. Mary was an Irish prostitute and Jacob was a Sheffield lad who got involved in knife crime. In Sheffield, we made hunting knives, kitchen knives, forks and cutlery for centuries. We never had a knife problem and now we have a huge one. The thing that causes anyone to carry a weapon is fear and that says something about our society.
In the wake of the Aurora shooting in Colorado, everyone’s talking about gun violence. But the point you make shows that even if guns are taken off the streets, the disenfranchised will still take up arms somehow.
You can buy a dangerous, really scary hunting knife in any outdoor store. Why would anyone do something harmful with it? It boils down to what’s going through your mind. Millions of people in America carry guns without harming anyone. We’ve got to work more on what we teach rather than what we carry.
The three themes that cross paths throughout the album are love, death and the deep woods. Did your daily walks with your dog inspire the songs on the album?
Sheffield is a grimy, post-industrial town; but part of it has been gentrified. The mothers and fathers who built the city were very wise. They knew workforce, including my father, would be accumulated around the mills and need recreation, so huge amounts of parkland were donated. Sheffield enjoys a 100% greenbelt; anyone can walk the perimeter of the city without ever seeing a house. I walk there a lot with my collie, he needs the exercise and it keeps me sane.
I don’t set out of the house saying, “today I’m going to write a song,” it just sort of happens. I have a full house, with my kids and their friends — which is great — but I need that time to just sort of zone in on my musical emotions happy, sad, whatever. You can just lock into it out there – its not rocket science. When you put one foot in front of the other for several miles, your mind flips – the creative side of the brain kicks in – where you start thinking about harmonies, melodies and chord progression.
The woods take on a dark metaphorical theme in your songs – from “The Wood Colliers Grave” to “Down in the Woods.” It reminds me of the TV series Twin Peaks.
That’s the one with the woman carrying the log? I was on tour while that was on, I saw a couple of episodes. David Lynch, right?
Deep in forest of Twin Peaks lies The Black Lodge, the halfway point or gateway between life and death. I felt a sort of similar chill while listening to these songs.
The Wood Colliers Grave is an actual place. My friend Julian, JP Bean, who wrote the book “The Sheffield Gang Wars” is an old friend of the family and a historian in his mid-60s. I am interested in world history, particularly the history of Sheffield. I find things out and he’ll find things out and well go out for a beer and talk about stuff.
He told me about this place, called The Wood Collier’s Grave in Ecclesall Woods. He said you’ll never find it but at least you can try. He told me about all these Neolithic cup and ring stones, they’re sort of like Stone Age graffiti. I was fascinated by this. They’re really well hidden and I found them all — it took me three years. It was covered in ivy when I found it. I told Julian and we found some people to clear it all out.
Back in the 1800’s, there was a guy called George Yardley, and you can look up all this shit on the Internet – he was a charcoal burner. They were very solitary people who lived alone in the woods. He burned to death in his shack and his local friends paid for these monument stones. He was obviously well liked. The song is basically pure fantasy – I imagined he fell in love, similar to the way I have. It’s also about seeing your own death and dealing with it.When it’s my time to leave this place Plant many a tree deep around my grave… But will the green wood bring her back? She took my heart and broke my past - lyrics from The Wood Collier’s Grave
Another big, epic song kicks off the new album, “She Brings The Sunlight.” It’s a very hot song, one that I would take over 50 Shades of Grey any day…And as my love, slowly undresses She brings a need in me to caress her Oh and her eyes, they hypnotise me The feel of her skin now there beside me She brings the sunlight, she makes the world right - lyrics from She Brings The Sunlight
Was there a real life object of your affection in this song?
Of course. My wife. We’ve been together for of 22 years. Still to this day, every time she walks in the room I want to applaud. Her humanity and her humor keep me going. The song is more about all lovers really. Love is like a spell, you can’t think about it too much, you have to catch it on the blind side.
When my children were little and playing in their own magical world, if they knew that I was watching, their game would change. It would be like they were performing. It’s a bit like that with love. If you’re conscious of it, the spell is broken.
Let’s talk about bringing the guitars in. This album is sort of the Britpop equivalent of when Bob Dylan plugged in for the first time; except you brought in a full wall of guitars. Did the lyrics dictate that or did you are you looking to add stacks of Marshall amps to your stage show?
It’s not as much about the live show — it’s about replacing the drama. It would be easy to get an orchestra and record the songs that way. But I was thinking about the fundamental things happening around me in my life — and around us socially — and the greatest and most soulful weapon in my armory was my guitar. I have the most connection with it, since childhood, it’s been passed along for four generations. I figured it was time to take the sheath off the Howitzer.
Your fans from your days in the Longpigs and Pulp were probably eager to hear some loud electric guitars again.
The weird thing is, since the album came out, the audiences have gotten considerably younger. Older fans still come too, but I don’t like the polarization of age groups. When I was a kid, babies, toddlers, kids, teenagers and right up to old folks used to spend time together. Everyone running around together at the social club. These days, you don’t get that at all. It was how we learned and grew, how the baton was passed on, it was a connection between the ages.
You’ve spoken about the importance of your dad taking you record shopping — have you taken your kids to the record stores yet?
Oh yeah. My youngest puts on records when he wants to. There’s something about putting a needle on the record, putting them away and looking after them. His friends come around and see the turntable and go, “what the hell is that?” They stand for hours looking at it. Because they never encountered something that creates music and moves, something that is mechanical and uses speakers. The iPod is a very isolating way to listen to music.
My daughter is working at the Cambridge Folk Festival and is working at the local vinyl store – so I’m pretty pissed off that I didn’t get to go.
It’s cool that there are still vinyl stores in Sheffield because they are disappearing everywhere.
The last time I went to the States, I nearly wept. The stores I used to go to in Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago and Seattle are gone. I was really upset about it. Same with England.
I took part in a film over here called The Last Shop Standing – all about the record stores in Britain. Lots of people are participating: Billy Bragg, Johnny Marr, Paul Weller, it’s a very interesting social documentary.
You can see Richard’s interview here:
Here’s the full trailer for the must-see documentary:
There was a documentary called Made in Sheffield about the first wave of bands that came from the city. What was it like to when you saw everyone from ABC to Def Leppard to Cabaret Voltaire getting signed?
Well, I don’t remember much because I was a kid. I knew Richard Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire – I still do – he lived on the next street from me. Musically, I was aware of what was going on — the Sheffield scene was early to mid-’80s — many of them left Sheffield to make it. I see Philip Oakey of Human League virtually every day while walking my dogs; he has a Weimaraner.
We were both born in 1967, but I recall hearing stories of you and Jarvis Cocker playing gigs in the early ’80s. Just how young were you when you started gigging?
Jarvis and I met when I was 15. I invited him to my 16th birthday party. He came over from City Road all the way to where I lived. I lived in the rough part of town. We had a party in the cellar in one of those houses where you could access the cellar from the outside. My parents locked the house and went to the pub; so we partied in the cellar but couldn’t trash the house.
When he invited you to join the band, was that before they recorded This is Hardcore or did you make the Hardcore tour?
No, just for the tour. That year I had been out on the road so much with the Longpigs.
Did you make the US part of the tour? I saw Pulp at Metro in Chicago.
Yes – I was on that leg of the tour.
So our paths did cross at that point.
That would have been ’98 or ’99.
My British friends could just not believe they were seeing Pulp in a room the size of Metro. It was an incredible show.
Yeah, I was there, I did every single concert from December 97 when Jarvis called me — I remember it was December 18th, 1997, it was the day after I got back from touring the US with the Longpigs and I was fried. Here’s Jarvis wanting me to go back out. We didn’t start rehearsing until March or April and then we were out on tour for fucking years and years. I was only supposed to do with nine months with them and wound up doing six or seven years.
Did you play on Pulp’s final album?
I played on We Love Life. I don’t remember how many tracks. I did all my stuff with (producer) Scott Walker. Jarvis was there when I recorded my stuff – they did all their stuff live together and then I added my stuff to that. Apart from that, it’s a little bit vague.
After Pulp went on hiatus, Jarvis Cocker released his first new project under the name Relaxed Muscle. It was a dark, strange, oddly danceable art project.
I think the Relaxed Muscle record may have been the first full-length of yours that I owned.
That’s a myth as well. I only played on four or five tracks. That album was all Jarvis and his friend Jason Buckle. It was recorded in Jarvis’s basement in London.
Much later on, Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker reunited for this stellar TV performance:
When the Arctic Monkeys won the Mercury Prize for their debut album, frontman Alex Turner said, “Someone call 999, (fellow nominee) Richard Howley’s been robbed.”
You also did two tracks with the Arctic Monkeys. Did you meet at the Mercury Awards or did you know each other before that?
Oh no, we knew each other years before that. I knew Alex when he used to serve beer at the Boardwalk pub in Sheffield. He saw the rockabilly band I played in for years called the Feral Cats, he liked it and we started chatting. He was really young. The Arctic Monkeys’ first outfit, I don’t recall what they were called, they rehearsed at Yellow Arch, the studio where I record. I remember thinking, “oh they’re OK.” And then when the Arctic Monkeys first started, I heard their third rehearsal in the studio. Sheffield’s not the place where when you hear something you say, “I really like you” — they think you’re fucking weird. Its politely standoffish. But he was at Jon McClure’s (of Reverend & The Makers) house, stoned out of his mind. Jon put on my album, Lowedges, and Alex really liked it. In fact, I think he stole it. His manager, Jeff, was in a band my manager used to manage years ago. They got talking, met in a pub. a lot of drinks were involved, and we wound up with a record.
Will you bring the tour for this record to the US?
I’d go over there in a shot, I’m just not sure if you want it. A lot of American folks are getting in touch on the forum and I have a lot of old friends in America so I am at least due for a social visit.
I produced Duane Eddy’s album Road Trip, so I want to come out to Nashville to spend some time with him. I know we’re going to Australia, they really want us to tour there. But nobody has asked us to tour the US, which is a shame. Life is short, I don’t want to go anywhere unless I’m welcome. I’m always up for new places and to meet new friends. I haven’t got time to dick around, not driving around in a little tour bus playing to three people. No disrespect in any shape or form, but the idea of breaking America is a strange concept for me.
I like to meet people and play. So the answer is yes, I’d love to tour America. I’ve toured so much, I’ve likely seen more of America than most Americans – the only states I’ve never visited are Alaska and Hawaii. I’ve played at least three towns in every other state several times. From the tour bus, I see America as truckers see it – it’s an interesting side of the country you don’t see every day — it’s quite funky, but I quite like it.
It will be interesting to see how America turns out with our elections.
Romney is over here now.
You can keep him.
[Laughs] I hope those fuckers don’t get in. At least France has the sense to elect a socialist candidate.
We need to think about humanity’s progress and moving society forward, whatever your politics. Protecting wankers is part of the history of the West. For hundreds of years, all he wars we’ve fought, all the people we’ve conquered, all progress has been in the name of commerce. Our entire history is founded on slavery and tobacco. It’s amazing there’s any humanity left in us.
Now more than ever, we need to decide what kind of world we want to live in — our kids and their kids too. That’s why I support AVAAZ and 38 degrees – it’s an online petition where you can make a difference.
In other interviews, Richard explained how these online petitions actually dictate subjects that are brought up in Parliament.
We’ve seen this shit before and I know what’s coming and its not good. I wish I had better messages and words – but if you look what’s going on, the apex of what’s coming, they’re creating a world that they belong to and we don’t.
You can’t push 99% of the populace that far without something breaking.
That’s what happened here with the riots. You lower people’s horizons so far and it breaks. If you push people who can’t afford to eat so far, they will just take it. These international corporations don’t mind advertising to us — creating things we neither have nor need. We have to object to it and say “we don’t want to eat your crappy burger or go to your crappy mall.”
They create these ghettos; it’s spreading like ink in water. In my country, there are a million children who are starving to death; it’s fucked up and needs to be dealt with. On the record, I am trying to deal with that in a more humane and emotional level. A lot of it is about making sense of death instead of just running and crying — and trying to work out where we all go when we die. I don’t know if I’ve come up with any answers, I just hope it makes people feel a whole lot better when they hear it that’s all – it’s a positive thing.
My condolences on the loss of your father – did his passing make you think about your own mortality?
Those songs are more about the recent passing of my friend Tim; he was younger than me, a childhood friend, so it was a shock. My dad was an old guy who chose his path and I’ve made sense with that now. He was a wild motherfucker. He lived a pretty good life in his eyes. He went out, played rock and roll, had an interesting life and all things come to an end — it’s the natural order of things. I miss him. I wish he was still with me. I miss his laugh more than anything. But when Tim passed away, I was could not make sense of it. I was – what? That is not right.
We have to work out where we all go and stop looking into religious texts or looking into the sky for the answers. I think we should start by looking into each other eyes we’ll find a lot more answers.
Your new music is so powerful. The soaring guitars elevate the dark themes, making them uplifting.
That’s what I wanted to do. They’re heavy questions. I wanted the answers to have a positive resolve instead of being an massive bummer (laughs).
To end on a light note, you’re also a radio presenter with Richard Hawley’s Rockabilly Radio – was that a one-off thing or was it continuing?
They’ve asked me to do it again, the fools (laughs). If I have time I will. I am an amateur. I’m not any good at it. I’m an enthusiast. I think it’s a positive thing, an enthusiast hosting the show rather than some flashy, shiny tooth asshole.
I saw you and Jools Holland performing a song together. You could have a second career doing Rockabilly.
That’s where I started, that was from my dad. Thing thing I did with Jools, “I Dig Myself a Hole.”
Well, thank you for taking the time to share so much with us today. I wish you the best with everything that you’re up to.
Well thank you. You never know, maybe someday we might be able to have a beer and share the same air together.
And with that, Richard Hawley returned to his evening. Until the stars align and we’re at the same pub, I have the music and a deep back catalog to explore — and I hope you’re inspired to investigate it as well.
Richard Hawley is an artist to watch this fall. According to NME, he is a favorite to earn a second Mercury Prize nomination on September 12. Later this fall, he will be teaming with the BBC Philharmonic for a special concert.