Written by: Alex Green
In 1987, I heard the news that Max Eider, the guitarist for my beloved heroes The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy had left the band.
Today this kind of information can be sought out instantaneously, but back then if you wanted to find stuff out, you had to dig.
I had it pretty easy because as Music Director of my high school radio station KVHS, I was in touch with indie record company folks on a daily basis, so news like Jonathan Segal leaving Camper Van Beethoven or the release of the Smiths bootleg Better Live Than Dead came generously to me on a regular basis through several different subterranean streams.
I was a massive JBC fan. I owned singles and albums and E.P.s and from the album sleeves to the lyrics to every note they played, I studied the band with ardent devotion. Their songs were warm, funny and heartbreaking and they revealed a strange and slanted world of dead movie stars, girls who kept goldfish, regular English-speaking gentlemen on holidays, love kittens, human jungles and the boast that outer space is “just fantastic.” It was frenetic (“Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present”) but it could also be emotionally devastating (“Angels”) and from breezy acoustic wonders (“Falling In Love”) to swinging rockers (“Rain”) the JBC could do no wrong by me.
With his winning deadpan and whip smart sense of humor, singer Pat Fish had charisma to burn, and Max Eider was his perfect foil, as secret of a weapon as they come. In addition to his brilliant guitar figures and charming background vocals, on each album Eider would pitch in a few tracks here and there of his own. To name a few, there’s the dreamy “The New World,” the symmetrical bop of “Who Loves You Now?” and “Drink” a spare ode to bar life where he declares, “Hope I never get dry before I get old.” Eider and Fish were the ideal team and when news came that their musical partnership had run its course, I was devastated.
And I was lost.
Because there was no Internet to scour, I was left to fend for myself and I didn’t do well: nobody I knew in the music business had any idea what had become of Eider. The Butcher subsequently released Fishcotheque, and it was a great album, but without Max or news of his musical whereabouts, it was hard for me to enjoy it completely.
One Spring day in 1987, a promo copy of Max Eider’s debut solo album The Best Kisser In The World arrived at the radio station straight from Big Time Records and I cut the rest of school, went home immediately and listened to it. From the sweeping pop beauty of “My Other Life” and “Rosemary” to the acoustic shuffle “Sensitive Touch,” to the wrenching ballad “It Has To Be You,” The Best Kisser In The World was a quiet and astonishingly gorgeous album. The severed musical alliance of the JBC, heartbreaking as it was, had yielded two separate camps and since they both sounded great, I could live with that.
By 1992, however, I was getting worried. Three years had passed and aside from his appearance on David J.’s wonderful trio of solo albums (Songs From Another Season, Urban Urbane, Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh) Max Eider had all but dropped out of sight. The Butcher was cranking out excellent albums like Big Planet, Scary Planet, Cult of the Basement and Condition Blue, but where was Max Eider?
I wouldn’t find out for nine more years.
In 2001, Max Eider quietly released Hotel Figueroa on the Vinyl Japan label; rich and rhythmic, it was the perfect follow-up to The Best Kisser In The World. Rich and rhythmic, Hotel Figueroa was a meditative, quietly stunning blend of jazzy ballads (“The Long Night”), slow motion rags (“Lazy Bones”) and sneaky rhythms (“Sweet End”).
It was totally worth the wait. Hard to stay mad at the guy.
Six short years later, the release of Back In The Bedroom finds Eider completing a musical triptych. Recorded in the musician’s bedroom of his London home, the album is loaded with Eider’s effortless gliding cadences. There’s the gently swaying opener “I Want,” the prowling jazz of “Secret Life” and the rolling, graceful pop of “Love’s Blind,” but those don’t even scratch the surface of how deep this album goes. Fueled by Eider’s decidedly brilliant guitar work coupled with his euphonious and warm delivery, Back In The Bedroom is an eleven-song collection of sheer sonic elegance. Pulling out songs as highlights is a necessary, albeit academic exercise, but allow me to continue in this adorational indulgence: “Sweet Nothing” comes with an understated, but undulating rhythm punctuated by a sublime saxophone; “Stupid Heart” is a sweeping wonder and “Kings And Queens” is a silky number about keeping our dreams company in spite of the realities and consequences of normal life.
As a songwriter, Eider is sophisticated and intellectual, but he’s able to keep his themes and subjects quite singular and it’s this level of focus that makes his work so appealing. Not only that, he manages in his musical phrasing a vocal precision that imbues every number with a poetic poignancy. But Eider’s greatest strength may very well be his sense of proportion–a balance between the song, the song’s instrumental composition, lyrical intent and performer’s presence. I know that I didn’t just unearth a never before considered trinity of sonic ingredients, but it’s that last component that can either commandeer the ship anywhere it wants, or sink the bastard to the murky depths of nowhere. And while music critics are quick to talk about composition and lyrical intent, presence has been getting the short shrift for a long time even though it’s of absolute importance. Max Eider is one of the rare musicians working today (Justin Currie, Joe Henry and Mark Knopfler also come to mind) who has a preternatural sense of how to present a pop song—how to measure it, how to embody it, how to live inside of it. Perhaps Orlando Gibbons described it best way back in 1612’s The First Set Of Gibbons when he wrote: “It is proportion that beautifies every thing, this whole Universe consists of it, and Musicke is measured by it.”
And that, my friends, is why Max Eider’s songs are so—I want to say beautiful, but that falls far short of what I mean—vital. He accomplishes in his music what Rilke referred to as “the breathing of statues.”
Listen closely and you’ll see what I mean; listen closely and you’ll hear those stone giants exhale across the garden.
We sat down with Max for a chat and the first thing we asked was where he’d vanished to in 1987.
“One particular night in L.A. involving Joe Strummer and industrial quantities of tequila sticks in the mind,” he answered…
Stereo Embers: What is your earliest memory of playing guitar?
Max Eider: My earliest musical memory is of trying to pick out Beatles tunes on the piano when I was very young—about 6 or 7. I was a big fan. But I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 15. I formed a band with some friends and then we argued for weeks about who’d play what. I wanted to be the drummer, but I ended up on guitar. I borrowed a warped old acoustic from my sister’s boyfriend and cut my fingers to shreds trying to learn chords from a book. This was well before punk, and we were mainly listening to progressive rock—Caravan, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, that sort of thing—so the result, as you can imagine, was hideous. I suppose we hoped we’d look cool and impress girls. The reverse happened. However, for some reason, I persevered.
SE: What were the bands like that you were in early on?
ME: Well, they were pisspoor, of course. Initially we wanted to sound something like Ummagumma-period Pink Floyd. But luckily our bassist’s older brother, John Silver (more about John later), strongly advised us to stop arsing around and learn how to play a few Chuck Berry numbers. No better place to start. However, around that time we also started dabbling with LSD and spending long periods listening awestruck to Gong records, so we soon reverted to feeble attempts at prog/psychedelic rock. Still, at least by then we knew how to play a 12-bar.
At university there was a series of groups, of which the best by some distance was a band called the Sonic Tonix, formed by the aforementioned John Silver, with Owen Jones, who later joined the Jazz Butcher, on drums. By that time Punk had arrived and most of us were deeply embarrassed about a large section of our record collections. John was writing some good, quirky, spiky stuff, and Pat Fish and I were drafted in on vocals and guitar respectively. I replaced the original guitar player, Simon Mawby (later of The Woodentops). Pat and I had previously been in another band called The Institution, which had Rolo—who went on to form The Woodentops—on bass. I still know all these people.
Pat and I were both writing the occasional song at this time, but nothing either of us would care to remember. As a guitar player too, I had yet to find my way. However, at one point quite early on, one of the most accomplished musicians knocking around at the time came up to me after a gig and told me that I was the best amateur guitarist he’d ever heard. I was amazed, and I knew it was a misjudgment, but all the same I’d fooled him, and the compliment probably made me take my playing a bit more seriously.
SE: When you say that it made you take your playing more seriously, how did that change the way you approached the instrument?
ME: Well, I suppose I devoted more time to the tedious business of developing a bit of technique, as well as trying to work out how other players did what they did and learning a bit of theory.
Se: Do you recall your first meeting with Pat Fish? Was there an instant synergy between you guys?
ME: I don’t remember exactly how we first met, but we had mutual friends and we were both playing in bands so it was bound to happen. Small pond. We got on well from the start. He was charismatic, charming and very sharp. And we had some of the same enthusiasms: for the Velvets, Eno and Television, for example, and we both still liked some of that hippy shit – Kevin Ayers was and still is a particular favourite for us both, for example. Plus we were both quite keen on getting soused to the gills.
SE: One thing I always liked about the JBC was the way Pat would refer to you in songs—those “take a look at Max” moments were so cool because no one else was doing that. Were those references spontaneous?
ME: Yes, originally at least. It was important for Pat that songs and shows weren’t the same night after night, and he’s good at improvising chat and even lyrics. He was always making me laugh at a crucial moment, either with some unexpected variation, or with an aside on mike or in my ear. There was a lot of laughter on stage in the early JBC—and in the re-formed version, come to that.
SE: So after you left the JBC in 1987 where in the devil did you disappear to?
ME: In fact I played on three David J records in all: Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh, Songs From Another Season, and Urban Urbane. And we toured the U.S. twice. This was a lot of fun after all the grief of the JBC split and the bankruptcy of the label who put out my first solo album. One particular night in L.A. involving Joe Strummer and industrial quantities of tequila sticks in the mind. In the late 80’s and early 90’s I wrote some songs, and I did a couple of demos, and I did a show or two in London and Hamburg. But really as a solo artist I couldn’t get arrested, and having spent a few years banging my head against a brick wall, I just thought: OK, on the whole it’s been a blast, but I guess it’s time to move on.
Where did I disappear to? Well, apart from a brief sojourn in the wilds of Gloucestershire, working on what I thought would be the follow-up to The Best Kisser, I was in London, living, loving, working, drinking, doing the odd gig or session for friends, writing the occasional song, spending long periods curled up in the fetal position—you know, doing what people do.
SE: You had tracks appear on several of the JBC albums (“Drink” or “Who Loves You Now?”)—by the time The Best Kisser In The World was released in 1987, had the notion of a solo album been germinating in you for a long time? In other words, did you have a satchel of songs that had long before been filled to the brim?
ME: I probably had about half of that album written before I left the JBC, and the idea of making a solo album must have occurred to me. I had written those songs, and I wanted to write more, but the JBC was essentially Pat’s vehicle, and I knew Pat was too gifted and prolific for the JBC to allow me the songwriting space I increasingly wanted. And to some extent we were moving in different directions: I wanted to write tunes, and he, at that point at least, was more interested in the sound, and in making a harder noise.
Having said that, the split, when it came, was more about personal tensions. I thought he was becoming paranoid, borderline psychotic. It was only later that I realized that he probably, and with some justification, thought the same about me. We were drinking far too much, spending too much time with our heads up our own backsides, on the road, in the studio, back on the road. It’s a familiar story.
The break was traumatic, for me at least, but I think it was the best thing for both of us. The Best Kisser disappeared more or less without trace, but at least I’d made the damn thing. And my leaving gave Pat something of a fresh start. Certainly he went on to do some of his best stuff without me—if I’m honest, the very best: Cult of the Basement and Condition Blue in particular are stunning albums.
SE: Can you describe the recording process for Back In The Bedroom— how did it differ from the recording you’ve done in the past?
ME: The whole thing was recorded and mixed on a Mac in my home studio, over a period of two years or more. We’d used a computer for the drum tracks on the re-formed Jazz Butcher album, Rotten Soul, but apart from that all the recording I’ve been involved in was done in a traditional way, in a studio, with ‘live’ backing tracks. That wasn’t feasible in this case, so before I even started I had to spend ages getting to grips with the software and learning some engineering skills.
I really didn’t want to make an album that sounded like someone sitting in front of a computer, but I did a couple of trials, and the results were encouraging, so I set about it. It’s a slow and painstaking business, but in a way working like this suits me, so even if I had an unlimited budget, I’d probably do something similar next time—though I might go into a decent studio with a good drummer to get the basic backing tracks. And I probably wouldn’t record the saxophone at home, for the sake of the neighbours.
SE: Do you find the home recording process more liberating than how it was done in the past? Is this a more intimate way of going about things?
ME: It gives you the time to explore different ideas: to get things wrong and to get things right. And it gives you the chance to try arrangements and instrumentation that were traditionally only possible on a very large budget. And yes, in a way it is more intimate. Of my three solo albums, the new one is definitely the closest to the sound that I had in my head.
The disadvantages are that, however good the software—and these days it is very good—recording and mixing music is an art in itself, and takes a lot of learning; there’s no one to tell you when you’re disappearing up your own fundament; no one to say ‘For chrissake Max, that’s good enough’, or ‘Sorry, mate, but you really should do that again’, or ‘Do you really think that’s wise?’; no one to bounce ideas off or provide ideas; no one to have a laugh with or shout at. There isn’t the excitement and atmosphere of a fixed period in a studio, when you go in with nothing down and know you have to come out two weeks later or whatever with an album. I’m not complaining: if modern computer-based recording technology weren’t available, I wouldn’t have a new album, and there wouldn’t be any more in the future, and then where would we all be?
SE: Is it odd to belt out a song across the hall from where you sleep or eat breakfast?
ME: Yes—my studio really is in the bedroom, though there’s a partition. Poor Tama. I got used to it, but I’m not sure she ever did.
SE: The sequencing on Back In The Bedroom is just perfect and that it starts with “I Want” and ends with “Kings and Queens” seems, from a thematic perspective, a genius move. What, if you can reveal, is the strategy here?
ME: It all just seemed to slot together more or less of its own accord. Of course, these days a lot of people have ‘shuffle’ switched on permanently, but what can you do? I should point out, in case anyone is considering actually buying the album, that “Kings and Queens” is an extra track on the CD. The download version ends with “It’s Come To This”—which is where, originally, I had intended the album to end. “Kings and Queens” just popped out as I was beginning to do the mixing and demanded inclusion.
SE: One of the themes that seems to keep rearing its head is longing and more than a touch of regret. The narrators of “My Dreams” and “Dirty Old Man” seem wistful as much as anything else—was this what you were after? And more importantly, what are we to do with regret in the real world? Should have called her back, should have gone to New Zealand, should have studied for that last exam….
ME: There’s longing, certainly, and sadness, but regret is not what I had in mind. In “Dirty Old Man”, “every dog among you had his day.” And the narrator of “My Dreams” has left his regret behind, or thinks he has. It’s just that however wise and avuncular you may think you have become, most of us, men and women, are still prey to longing and desire—and inappropriate lust, to call a spade a spade—that we can’t control. Or is it just me? Of course, you can and usually should refrain from acting on such feelings. Also there’s the question of whether or not you really want to be rid of them, and this is one source of the sadness. Because unless you’re really capable of spending the rest of your life sitting serenely under a fig tree, you’re stuck with it, boyo.
I should also say, in case this all sounds plain pitiful, that yearnings and desires of this sort are clearly comic as well as pathetic, and both of these songs are supposed to be funny as well as sad. In the case of “My Dreams,” I heard that phrase “I hope all your dreams come true” somewhere, and I thought: my god, what a thing to wish on someone. And I suddenly felt a country ballad coming on.
SE: The notion of one’s dreams coming true does seem like a peculiar kind of curse—it seems like without a struggle tedium must inevitably come in. I realize this isn’t much of a question, but an observational response to what you said about “My Dreams”—reminds me of when Robyn Hitchcock told me he thought hell would be far more interesting than heaven. Do you agree?
ME: The company would certainly be more interesting. It’s the old paradox of Paradise Lost: who’s more interesting/sympathetic, God or Satan? No contest. Incidentally, I wasn’t thinking that boredom would be the problem if someone’s dreams came true, but chaos—in other words it would be much more like most people’s idea of hell than heaven.
SE: I always go back to The Graduate—you got the girl, you defeated the system, you’re on your way. But she’s technically married, you’re on a bus going who knows where and…well, chaos ensues. That look on Hoffman’s face registers sheer happiness and then deep uneasiness. And it stays that way.
ME: Plus you’d been shagging her mother for ages, and maybe, just maybe, she might resent that in the years to come. It’s a fantastic moment isn’t it? You get your Hollywood happy ending, and then, as you say, just with that look everything is undermined and opened up. Brilliant.
SE: And what of regret?
ME: Regret: well, personally, I regret a good deal. Begging the pardon of Edith Piaf and whoever wrote that song, if you regret nothing, you’re probably either an idiot or a psychopath. But unless it can lead to a positive change in behaviour, regret is a pointless and destructive emotion and should be stifled at birth—which I suppose is what that Piaf song is really about.
SE: From a lyrical perspective, do you find yourself returning to similar themes?
ME: To some extent, yes, though of course the perspective changes. On first impression a lot of my lyrics probably seem to deal with the most hackneyed pop themes—love and heartbreak—and to be very personal. And some of them do/are, of course: if you’re going through a barren period, the thing most likely to move you to write a song is having your damn heart broken. A couple of the tracks I contributed to the Jazz Butcher album Rotten Soul fall into this category. For a while I didn’t seem to be able to write a lyric at all unless at some point it went “baby, baby, baby.” And there are quite a few songs from other periods about relationships that are over, but they’re not all my relationships, thank god, and in most cases it’s not the heartache that interests me, but what happens after that. “Other Kinds of Love” (Hotel Fig) is an earlier example of this, and on the new album “Closing Time,” “Stupid Heart,” and “It’s Come To This.”
I suppose one of my main preoccupations is how much time we all spend wanting things—and people—we don’t/can’t have; wanting to be something we’re not; wanting to get somewhere else; wanting more, different, or better. This is not a recipe for happiness and peace of mind, obviously. But it is a recipe for just about everything else humans are capable of. Hardly an original insight, but there you are. Quite a few of the songs touch on this in some way or other.Self-absorption and communication failure also crop up repeatedly. No idea why, doctor. What else? Well, there are a couple of drinking songs, and three that deal with death-wish or suicide—but in an uplifting kind of way, you understand.
To be honest I’ve never really given this much thought before and there’s a danger of making it all seem more considered and coherent than it really is. When I’m writing, I’ll write about anything I think I can get a song out of, and I’d guess it’s the same for pretty much everyone else. Sometimes the spark may just be a person you notice in the street, or something you read, or some trivial incident or remark or thought that stuck in the memory or you put in a notebook. And in many cases, once is definitely enough. You don’t want to write more than one song about the death of your mother, for instance. Or at least I don’t.
SE: “Stupid Heart” is a song that seems to insist that we make the same mistakes in love and that we refuse to see the truth even when we know the truth. In other words, the heart does what it wants even when it knows it’s entering choppy, inadvisable waters. And yet we still go there!
ME: Over the years I have been amazed at my own and others’ failure to learn from experience. Actually, as you suggest, it’s not so much that you don’t learn, it’s just very hard to apply the relevant lesson when it counts. But it does get a bit easier as you get older: the heart probably doesn’t get much less stupid, but you’re less inclined to let it make a complete dick of you yet again. So, on a personal note, although it may not always sound like it from the songs, I am in fact in a stable and happy relationship and have been for many years.
As I see it, “Stupid Heart” is essentially about accepting that the heart can be perverse and idiotic without giving up on it altogether, without becoming hardened or bitter. OK, so you can’t have what you wanted—why not try to love your stupid/crooked neighbour with your stupid/crooked heart instead? (Incidentally I’d better admit here that I nicked this line from Auden.)
SE: “It’s Come To This” brings to mind similar issues— saw it coming, refused to move—reminds me of Pat’s “You can see the cars, you just can’t get out of their way….” What did you have in mind here from a lyrical standpoint?
ME: Yeah that’s a good line of Pat’s isn’t it? The original idea for this song came from a chance meeting with someone I hadn’t seen for maybe 15 years. I noticed him across the room in a pub—unmistakably him—and I was sure he’d spotted me as well, and I thought about going over, but then I thought: what’s the point, for the sake of a few minutes’ awkward smalltalk and an exchange of phone numbers that neither of us would ever call? And he’d clearly reached the same conclusion, because when I looked up a few minutes later, he’d gone. And I thought: it’s come to this. Sad but not sad. The incident stayed with me for some reason, but when I came to write the song, ‘he’ became ‘she’, and the friendship became a love affair. It just worked better that way. Yes, the fact that both crossed the road knowing the high risk of being run over became a important element in the song, as well as the fact that, at the time, you can’t act on basis that it will probably will “come to this.” Or that. But always, of course, the other.
SE: What challenges continue to present themselves for you when it comes to songwriting? Have you found that it comes easier than it did, say, twenty years ago?
ME: It does come more easily now, and that’s because I always used to start with the music, but now, more often than not, I start with the words—or at least with some sort of idea for a lyric, however slight. Once I’ve got that, I usually find the music more or less writes itself. If you do it the other way around you tend to end up with tapes/discs full of musical ideas that never become songs. Or at least I do. Challenges? I just want to do it while I can. My greatest regret, as far as music is concerned, is that I will never know what the album I was planning to make after The Best Kisser would have sounded like, or the album(s) I might have made in the 90’s. I don’t plan to feel the same way about the next decade. But I’m not exactly prolific, so don’t hold your breath.
SE: You’ve now completed a solo album triptych—and it’s a lovely body of work. What are you future plans in terms of recording a 4th (and #’s 5-15)?
ME: Over the past year or more I’ve been getting ideas I wanted to pursue that didn’t really fit the mood of this album. The next one will be darker, god help me, and probably more of a piece thematically. It will be done in more or less the same way as I’ve done this one.
SE: On the subject of the musicians that appear on Back In The Bedroom— I notice that June Miles-Kingston and Marc Hadley, who were both on Best Kisser reappear. They sound lovely, by the way! How did getting them back on board come about?
ME: June’s been on board pretty much throughout. I met her originally through Simon Mawby of the Woodentops, and he’d met her when the Wooodentops did some dates with Everything But The Girl, who she was with at the time. June wasn’t on Hotel Fig, but only because that was recorded in LA and she couldn’t make it to the sessions. June’s a wonderful singer (and drummer)— her career speaks for itself—and despite the fact that she has so much more natural talent in the vocal department than I do, our voices seem to complement each other. I hadn’t been in touch with Marc for years, but a couple of tracks were crying out for a bit of saxophone, and it seemed appropriate to ask him. I had no idea where he was but I Googled him and tracked him down via some jazz club in Cornwall he’d been gigging at recently. Another lifer.
SE: What’s your plan in terms of live gigs? Have you assembled a band and if so, will it consist of the players on the album? Do you enjoy playing live?
ME: I have no plans to play live. I might make some if I got a bit of a bite on the album and I thought I could fill a room or two. Gigs presenting my solo stuff have been few and far between. If there’s no regular band, it’s a hell of a lot of work to put one together for a single evening, and it doesn’t end up sounding that good, because a band only really gels after it’s been gigging regularly for a while. Probably the most successful shows I did playing my solo stuff were a few dates supporting the JBC in Japan—just me and a guitar, with Owen Jones on accordion on a couple of numbers. In the very early Jazz Butcher days, playing live was a joy, though touring got a bit grim later on. I enjoyed the David J tours, and when Pat and I got back together again towards the end of the 90’s, that was a blast as well, because all the pressure had gone. We were all getting on very well and the band —Pat and I, and Owen on drums, and Steve Valentine on bass—was razor-sharp: much better than we’d been the first time around. Not surprising I suppose. But despite this, as time went on and the novelty of the reunion wore off, the audiences got smaller and smaller. Pat will turn up in a country pub on a Sunday night and play to two men and a dog if someone asks him to, and I admire him for it. As far as he’s concerned, it’s what he does, so he does it. But I started to find it all a bit disheartening. I don’t feel the same drive to play live that I still feel to write and record. But I wouldn’t rule anything out.
SE: Can you talk about the album art? That rendering of you by Dave Coverly is terrific. How did that come about?
ME: I’ve known Dave for years: he was a JBC fan, and also a fan of The Best Kisser, and we became friends. I love his work. He did a caricature of me for Hotel Fig, and when he offered his services again for the new album, I jumped at the chance. The designer Mau Carey also made a big contribution to the artwork.
SE: A quick question about recurring iconography—Coverly’s rendering of the bedroom shows a copy of Hotel and a painting of Best Kisser on the wall—am I nuts or is that correct?
ME: Do I have to choose one or the other? You’re right anyway. The painting was a painting (by an artist friend called Melanie Toney) before it was an album cover, and it is hung on the wall of my studio. I asked Dave to put in a reference to Hotel Fig as well, because despite the fact that the three albums span almost exactly 20 years, and are certainly not ‘concept’ albums, let alone a concept triple album, I had a sense that Back in the Bedroom was in a way, as you suggested, the final part of a trilogy—kind of rounding off unfinished business. The Best Kisser painting, of two fish in the sea nose to nose (do fish have noses?), but one in a bowl, would work as a cover for any of the three albums. Incidentally the painting is supposed to act as a kind of ironic comment on the title ‘The Best Kisser in the World’, though at the time it’s true that I was happy to try to demonstrate my claim with suitable applicants.
SE: The guitar is so little discussed among my friends—when I was 12 we used to talk about Randy Rhodes and Eddie Van Halen but when I discovered punk and post-punk and new wave and indie rock, I found that very few people talk about individual players and their separate skills.
ME: Absolutely: it’s one of the most enduring legacies of the punk era that, except in jazz and some sorts of heavy rock, most people aren’t much interested in individual musicians, and a lot of musicians feel almost as if they’re doing something wrong if anyone notices that they’re very skilled, or their playing really stands out.
SE: What guitarists do you admire that are currently out there still playing? I’ve never played, but my favorite guitarists are yourself, Knopfler and Roddy Frame, Edwyn Collins. Any thoughts on those fellows?
ME: I’m flattered to be included in the list you give. Quite recently I saw two of my all-time favourites, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, in the re-formed Television, but I was a little disappointed. In 1977 Marquee Moon went completely against the grain by featuring a lot of intricate guitar work, but what made it so special was that there wasn’t a single superfluous note. The guitars weren’t tacked on, they were as crucial to the songs as the vocal line. But at the show I saw, there was a good deal of aimless noodling. Maybe there always was, live. I admire players with a distinctive style and sound, but you can take individuality too far. For example, I’m a huge fan of Carlos Alomar, whose rhythm guitar defined the sound of that wonderful mid-period Bowie, from Young Americans through Station to Station, Low and Lodger all the way up to Scary Monsters. But Robert Fripp’s mannered pyrotechnics on a couple of the same albums now irritate the hell out of me.
I mentioned Kevin Ayers earlier, and two of his guitar players made a big impression when I was at my most impressionable: Ollie Halsall (now dead, sadly) and, more improbably perhaps, Mike Oldfield. In fact, hearing Oldfield’s solo on the title track of Whatevershebringswesing was a pivotal moment for me. It’s long but it’s gorgeous: simple, clean, melodic, and beautifully crafted. It sounds easy to play but it isn’t. Annoyingly, Oldfield was only 17 when the album was recorded. I thought to myself: yes, I’ve seen the bleeding light, this is the way, sod all that rock/blues pentatonic posturing, get melodic, Eider, play tunes. Of course, I was completely stoned at the time.
As you can see, I have my finger very much on the pulse.
SE: How many guitars do you own and what, if pressed, is your favorite?
ME: I’ve never been a collector and I currently have only three guitars, all of which are old friends. There’s the first half-decent instrument I ever owned—a Japanese classical guitar; there’s the first decent electric guitar I ever owned—a Yamaha; and there’s a vintage Gretsch Double Anniversary semi-acoustic, which I bought with my first decent royalty cheque. That Gretsch has been everywhere with me and there can’t have been many days in the last 25 years when I haven’t played it at some point. If I woke to find the building on fire, I’d grab my Gretsch before my trousers.
SE: What is your proudest professional moment?
ME: Wow, that’s a tricky one. D’you know I really think it was probably listening the mastered white label of Back in the Bedroom. I know artists always say they think their latest album is the best—you have to think that at the time—but I really believe this one is my best. And it had been such a monumental effort, such a long labour of love. The studio playback of the final mix of A Scandal in Bohemia, all those years ago, was also a special moment. I was thinking: hey, wait a minute, we’re really on to something here.
SE: In your estimation what are the five most perfect songs ever written?
ME: Oh god—I’ll have to do this straight of the top of my head. Ask again tomorrow (no, actually, don’t) and you’ll get a different five.
“Night and Day” (Cole Porter)
“Someone To Watch Over Me” (George and Ira Gershwin)
“If You See Her, Say Hello” (His Bobness)
“God Only Knows” (Brian Wilson)
“Love’s In Need of Love Today” (Stevie Wonder)
SE: Your music has taken you all over the world—you must have an endless satchel of stories to tell. What was the most bizarre predicament you found yourself in?
ME: To give you some idea of how rich a seam you are inviting me to mine, I will simply describe the last gig I did with Pat, in summer 2006. We’ve always enjoyed doing private functions for fans—weddings and so on—and this one was a big birthday bash, at an isolated house in the middle of a forest in Yorkshire. There were three brothers, and they all loved the Jazz Butcher. The trouble was, it wasn’t their party; it was a party they were throwing for their father’s 60th birthday. So although the family treated us as honoured guests, the assembled company mainly consisted of their father’s friends and business associates, including the local Member of Parliament, none of whom of course had any knowledge of—or interest in—the JBC. We asked what time they’d like us to play and they gave us a copy of the order of events. We were on between the falconry display and the hog roast.
SE: Was a career in rock and roll always your goal or did you secretly foster plans to write books or teach university or run for office and rule the world?
ME: I’ve never really wanted to do anything else, but I couldn’t strictly speaking be said to have had a career in rock and roll either. I was briefly a teacher, though at a tutorial college not at a university, and for the last 15 years or so I’ve made a living on and off as a freelance writer and editor. As far as I can remember, at no point, even at my most paranoid and psychotic, have I wanted to run for office and rule the world.
SE: And lastly, if you had to choose a line from a poem or a song that best sums up the way you feel about the world, what might that be?
ME: This is from a novel, Beckett’s Molloy, but it kind of hits the spot: “And as for myself, that unfailing pastime, I must say it was far now from my thoughts. But there were moments when it did not seem so far from me, when I seemed to be drawing towards it as the sands towards the wave, when it crests and whitens, though I must say this image hardly fitted my situation, which was rather that of the turd waiting for the flush.”