Sunday 20 December 2009

Martin Gordon: The 'Time Gentlemen Please' Inteview - Part 1

It's that time of year again, when I start looking at the silly amount of CD's I've purchased in the last 12 months, and try to weigh up my favourites. It's been a pretty good year all-in-all, but just about my favourite release of the year has to be Martin Gordon's Time Gentlemen Please.... Throughout the 'naughties', Martin has been working on his 'Mammals' trilogy (his take on mankind in the 21st Century), and Time Gentlemen Please, is the 5th and final part (!).

I've been a fan for many years, and all of the previous 4 albums are real gems that still get regular airings at Piley Towers... surely Martin couldn't match them again this time around... I was right, he couldn't... he actually topped them!! The final part of the jigsaw is without doubt the best of the five.

I asked Martin if he would share some of his thoughts on this album that has given me such pleasure this year, and he kindly agreed. The conversation was rather organic, and we ended up with quite an extensive interview. So below is part one, where we discuss the latest album and his views on the now complete trilogy as a whole....

When we spoke before I remember you saying that you literally write dozens of songs for each album, then whittle them down. How many were originally in contention for Part 5 of the ‘Mammal’ trilogy Time Gentlemen Please, and how do you go about eliminating songs?

I make them fight each other to the death. The losers are taken outside and shot in the back of the neck with a small-bore pistol, and are buried beneath the latrines, which are then demolished and concreted over. Larch trees are planted upon the spot and a Latvian farmer and his family installed, who will swear that they have been there for the last fifteen years if asked.

Oh, I see, you mean the songs. Well, I had about twenty-six, if I recall. As I begin work, some tunes start to sound weaker compared to others, and some I just fall out of love with. So they are discarded in a variety of circumstances – some in rage when returning from a night out, others with regret after weeks of work. Some are discarded right at the last minute, as on this album.

‘Adios Libido’, for example, not only had all the vocals and an amusing guitar solo but also a full brass section. But NO! I said - not good enough! and into the digital bin it went. I am nothing if not ruthless. The spoof Carlos Santana guitar solo presented all the Carlos clich├ęs simultaneously in the space of four bars, to resounding effect, but it was mercilessly chopped. All that remains of it is the ‘Adios!’ of the hidden track, when all the dust has died down. Not much to show for weeks of work, you may say, but art must triumph over mediocrity.

How long did it take to write this album, where did you record it, and how long did it take to record?

I took about a year to create the material, including being sidetracked by extra-curricular judicial affairs, and then I decided that I had critical mass enough to begin recording. That was about September 2008 and it went on until about Feb 2009, so that’s (counts on fingers) six months, on and off. First of all I made some demos, then I sent them to the various contributors and then I began recording. Vocals were done in Stockholm, with a second round in Berlin, and everything else was done in various studios here in Berlin.

I also used a brass section for the first time, which involved having to write all the brass parts out, including transpositions. That was rather nerve-wracking, but I checked them beforehand with someone who knows about that kind of stuff, and he OK’d them, and in fact they were spot on. Brass players can turn nasty, I understand, if the parts aren’t correctly written, but in the case of the Polkaholix guys, they were (east German) pussycats. There was flute as well, but everybody knows that flute players are all gaylords, so I didn’t worry about that one.

The full story is documented here, with pictures. So in total, I think about eighteen months.
What happens to all the songs that don’t make it onto an album? Are they just deemed ‘not right’ for this particular project and go back in the archives for possible use somewhere down the line, or are they permanently struck off?

They are permanently banished, never to reappear. I’m quite prolific, so I don’t need to hoard material for a rainy day, I’ll just write some more if I need it. The exception was with the ‘How Am I Doing So Far’ compilation, where I included a couple of outtakes. There must be about 15 tunes with vocals that will never see the light of day, thanks to this ludicrous and ergonomically unsound policy.
Are there any songs that you originally wrote for one album that ended up being on another?
No, all the collections take shape more or less around the same period of time, and I think that also gives the thing some continuity and coherence. But I’m quite tempted by the idea of collecting for example all the silly/music hall tunes together. But you can do that yourself, of course, on yer mp3 player, so why would I do that?

How long does it take you to write a song? Are you one of those people who can get an idea then have the whole thing finished in a few hours, or to you nurture and hone it for weeks on end?

Christ, most of the music I hear today sounds as if it’s been finished in a couple of hours. Or even minutes, while the so-called ‘composer’ was doing something much more interesting and worthwhile, like washing his or her hair, or shopping. Why do people imagine that the first idea they have is the best one? It isn’t, it’s the first one.

So mine are often lovingly polished for weeks, sometimes months. A half-diminished passing chord here, some assonance there, and an extra half bar slipped in round the back. Polishing is the right metaphor – it’s as though all possible chords are out there in the ether, and it’s just a matter of eliminating the ones that you don’t want. Or I, in this case.

I see absolutely no merit in creating something and leaving it unfinished. Would you buy a car that was designed by someone who didn’t have time to think about putting in steering wheel? Or a karaoke machine from someone who omitted to get the little red ball to bounce up and down in time to your ghastly singing? Exactly.
For this album you’ve taken the decision to also release a limited edition CD containing all the demos of the tracks. That’s an interesting idea, what made you decide to do that this time around? Is there potential for retrospective releases of demos for the previous albums too??

As you note, the demos are available as a kind of boutique, director’s cut, coffee-table limited edition for those who really want to poke about behind the scenes. It occurred to me that I would be very interested in hearing the ur-versions of tunes by my favourite composers who worked with bands to realise their ideas. So not Todd Rundgren necessarily, but Cheap Trick definitely, by way of example. Have you ever heard the Beatles rehearsing ‘Octopuses’ Garden’, for example? It’s fascinating, both as a historical artefact and as a snapshot of the process. Plus hearing the original idea and then comparing it to the finished thing is always a fascinating exercise, especially when there is a change of vocalist en route – I’m singing, if that’s the correct expression, all the demos, whereas Pelle does the job on the finished thing.

So I created the demo version CD as a kind of handcrafted individual item limited to 100 copies, which comes complete with the (signed) chord charts. Erk alors. There are less than 10 left, and then there will be no more. There are original demos of all the previous parts of the Trilogy, since you ask, but I think I will probably leave that to the good taste/motivation of my descendants to excruciate over. So far, so good. Enough, my life already.
And how do you go about writing a song in the first place? Yours are so infectious I’m guessing it must be the tune that comes first followed by the words?

In fact it’s exactly the opposite, they are driven by the words, which always are complete before I get to the tunes. So having scribbled, I sit down with the piano and off we go to the next stage. If you have the words to hand, then it’s more like the process of ‘setting’, and if you have the advantage of having written the words yourself, you can always reshape them if necessary. But it almost never is.
What instrument(s) do you use to help you compose a new song?

I tried composing on the kazoo once, but kept having to stop in order to blow my nose, so piano it is.
A poignant moment recording your first solo album without your good friend and band member Chris Townson. It must have felt very odd not having him around?

Yeah, it was a bit. Chris had been on all the Mammal things up to that point, and it was a bit thoughtless of him to die just when I wanted to get into another recording. Completely buggered my schedule up. I’ve a good mind to organise a party of obese Americans to go down to his bench in the South Downs and sit on him, in pique. That would show him.

But as events turned out, Radio Stars had just reconvened for a UK gig with (drummer) Steve Budney, and he and I came back to Berlin and spent two days in a boat, thrashing through everything. Quite stress-free, and I’m very happy with how it came out.

With Chris, I would never have to explain how anything should go, drum-wise, as we both knew it would have been pointless trying to plan anything and anyway the way it came out spontaneously was usually the most convincing way to do it. He would intuitively know what was the right thing to do. Steve did his homework, however, and with a few pointers in the studio, we got it down. I’m sure Chris would approve. Steve says that he overused one particular fill, but as nobody listens to the drums anyway, I think we can let it go. Chris gave some feedback to Steve about his (Steve’s) interpretation of Chris’ drum part on a live version of ‘The Joy of More Hogwash’, so there was some communication there, at any rate.

Chris also did the album artwork for the previous 4 albums. Who did you get to do the new album cover and what input did you have??

Well, Chris and I used to have long, enjoyable discussions over covers – whether lobsters actually had shoulders, what kind of spliff God would smoke, whether the Hog would look nice in a turban with a Danish bacon logo on it… (he did, very. Wanna see him?)

This time I had the notion of a clock counting down to the witching hour of midnight, at which point we will all revert to slimy amoebas. I sent a sketch, slightly adapted for the bipedal mammal species, to a chap called Jon Price, recommended by the record company, and the result was very nice, and quite different to the previous parts. Jon did some nice layouts for the insides, as well. Martin Cox kindly provided most of the pix.
Overall, what are your thoughts on this album, and how does it compare to the previous 4?

Well, I think it’s the best one. It’s more rigidly selected, it’s got brass and ukulele on it, and it begins with a T. I still play it, and my small boy sings ‘Chav’ whenever he can, so these must be indications of an achievement of some sort.

Looking back on the ‘trilogy’ as a whole, is there anything you’d like to change in hindsight?

Only that I should have made the title of the third part (‘God’s on His Lunchbreak, Please Call Back’) begin with a T, like all the rest. This was an enormous oversight on my part, and I can only apologise for my complete lack of insight.

Other than that, I can now see that there are perhaps three or four songs, over the whole cycle, which shouldn’t have been there, for one reason or another. But I’m not going to name them, of course.

What’s your favourite track from all 5 albums (or a top 3 if choosing one is too hard!)

Marvellous question, and I will go for the get-out version and choose three. ‘Best’ is, of course, a moveable feast – it’s a compromise between composition and performance, I reckon. Sometimes there might be a great performance of a less than great composition, and vice-versa. So, considering that material which falls into the centre of the bell-curve:

1 21st Century Blues – fabulous vocal performance, marvellous solos, change of colour for the coda.

2 Love Power – a very funny song from the Mel Brooks film the Producers, which we made our own. And again, it’s the combination of vocal and guitar performance which makes it, for me. Big it up for Andy Reimer!

3 It’s Like It’s Like… From the first album, and a spookily stream-of-consciousness vocal performance which makes the song better than it is, if you see what I mean. That Pelle Almgren. If you are selling an apartment, he will come round and sing about it to potential customers, if I understand the process correctly.

The sleeve notes provide more than a hint that this is the final part of the trilogy. Is that definite? Is Time Gentlemen Please really ringing the last bell??! What’s next for Martin Gordon? Something else with this band or a complete change?
I am going to become a dentist. There are many opportunities in Berlin for enthusiastic dentists, and I already have bought a white coat and a long rubber thing with which I will be able to look into people’s ears.

Oh. Maybe ENT, then, rather than restrict myself to the dental aspect alone. But oral hygiene is so important, don’t you agree? No nasty snaggle-toothed, shady-looking criminal types with hooked noses, just a world of gleaming-chopped, symmetrical beauty – this is my goal. At least in the foreseeable future. I may change my mind later on, I suppose, when the white coat becomes spattered with blood and plaque and…

I think I am going off the idea already… Perhaps Albanian Radio will commission me to compose a musical about Sir Norman Wisdom. Well, you never know, I hear this kind of thing is all the rage in some quarters.

So… there is the Radio Stars gig at the 100 Club in London on January the 22nd. That should occupy me for a moment or two. We will insert a few Mammalian tunes into the proceedings, skills and motivation permitting. We performed Terrible Mess last time out, and never was a tune more aptly named. Or what about jazz, now there’s a thing, with an unplugged trio and brass section…. (drones on, fades out…..zzzzzz).

So there you have it! Don't miss Part Two of this interview, where Martin gives us an insight into each and every track from Time Gentlemen Please.


The Official Martin Gordon website

Martin Gordon on MySpace

Buy Martin Gordon CDs at Amazon!

My previous interview with Martin Gordon (which covers his varied and eventful career from Sparks, Jet, Radio Stars, Rolling Stones, Blue Meanies etc etc right up to his solo work) can be found here and here



Mondo said...

Great stuff P. Time Gentlemen Please is in my top 5 albums of the year - along with The Damned, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Big Boss Man and possibly Royksopp..

Interesting to see Martin works almost libretto style with lyrics written first..

lil said...

Fantastic interview Piley!
(So glad I came to visit)
Martin Gordon is such an interesting guy; just love his clever lyrics…
Ps Really looking forward to part 2

Kolley Kibber said...

I'd never heard of this bloke (oh dear) but had a listen on the back of that piece and he's good, isn't he? The Sparks influence struck me immediately. I'll probably treat myself to that album now. Cheers, P!

Piley said...

Cheers Mondo - I knew you'd love that album!! it's genius isn't it? Glad you liked the interview too... 2nd part will be up later in the week.

Hi Lil - thanks for stopping by! Really pleased you liked the interview... Part 2 will have a sample track from the album too, so do please pop back. (there's also a track from this album on our 4th podcast 'animals').

ISBW - thanks for your comments.. I can't recommend it enough! It's one of those little gems that never gets the publicity it deserves. Works on so many levels too. Intelligent, funny, and insanely catchy! I hope you like it, let me know eh?

marmiteboy said...

Excellent Mr P. It is rare to find someone who is willing to give such a good interview. Marting sounds a right laugh and someone who is really passionate about what he does.

I don't know much about his stuff but I think I'll be checking him out for sure.

E F RICE said...

Very interesting interview, I have checked some of the sounds and I think I may have to invest soon. Certainly starting to grow on me. Take it a couple of tracks may feature on your 2009 compilation ?

Piley said...

thanks Marmite - Pleased you enjoyed it - don't miss part 2 coming any day now!! I also hope you give some of his stuff a go... Hidden treasure, the lot of it!

EF - Great stuff, thanks! This album is right up at the top for me this year, so may well feature in my 2009 run down yes! You'll have to wait and see...


Istvanski said...

Can't say I've heard of this chap before but he seems worthy of some investigation after this insightful interview, nice one.
Will get around to downloading Xmas pud-rophenia soon. Love the artwork for that!
Merry Xmas to ya!

Piley said...

right-o Axe, will give it a go!

Thanks Ist - I hope you enjoy discovering the wacky world of Martin Gordon!!

PS - check out my previous interview with him if you want to find out just how varies a career he's had in the last 30+ years... you may remember his incarnation with the 70's punk band The Radio Stars??


Martin said...

As you know, I was tempted enough to invest in a copy of the 'Demos' cd, and I'm glad. Always been a sucker for that sort of thing. I'd have to say that the discovery of Martin Gordon has been one of the highlights of this year.

Piley said...

Hi Martin - yes I remember you told me that you splashed out on the limited Demos CD... glad it turned out to be a wise investment!

Martin Gordon... the gift that just keeps on giving!