Written by: Dave Cantrell
To commemorate the imminent return of Blue Orchids to the world of recorded sound – details within – we present not only an exclusive-to-Stereo Embers (and downloadable!) remix of 2003 Blue Orchids track “Weird World” by ultimate mixmaster Joe McKechnie (which, by the way, does not represent a ‘new Blue Orchids direction,’ just to be clear) but as well a brand new interview, incorporating some hidden Blue Orchids history, some insight as to his creative process, and the origins of the famous “Fall sound,” among much else (including the identity and purpose of the elusive Super Reals). As always, Mr. Bramah, in a Skype chat conducted the last Sunday in March, is open, keen, and personable.
SEM – I only have one Fall-centric question then we’ll move on if that’s OK.
MARTIN BRAMAH – Fine, yeah, no problems there.
SEM – I’ve always been curious about the personal history leading up to the Fall, how long it actually was from when you all started first hanging out together until you became the Fall and the first album came out, at which point, if memory serves, you were already gone from the band.
MB – Yeah, well, it was quite a few years. We were very close friends before there was a Fall. We discovered that we liked the same things at the same time. We must have been aware of each other around ’74, ’75, and we were all relatively inexperienced because we were all in our teens. Not sure when the name ‘the Fall’ came about but it was just as important to our relationship, to what we produced, as actually being in the Fall together those two years. And, y’know, it’s all documented, we all just sort of experimented with the same kind of drugs together, read the same books together, went to the same movies, checked out the same bands, it was a very intense period, yeah…what can I say? I was looking at a letter Tony Friel posted on line the other day that Mark had sent him around Christmas ’76, and at that time we were still referring to ourselves as the Outsiders, which was our previous name before we knew there were other bands with that name, so it was about that time we decided to change our name to the Fall, so it was 1977 before the Fall actually started, but we had a lot of the songs before we picked the name and we did our first gig in spring of ’77. What was all that like? It’s hard to say. It was a group of friends, and we kind of wanted to make a statement. We kind of wanted to make music because, well partly because we were big music fans but we were also very dissatisfied with new music and we thought we could do better, thought we could do something more interesting. So, in a way, we didn’t like a lot of music, we just liked a little bit of music (laughter).
SEM – It was a rather fallow time.
MB – Yeah, it seemed so. But then it always is a bit of a fallow field in the music business. There’s always quite a fallow field. There’s always a lot of crap being sold by the majors, there was then there is now.
SEM – Quite true, yeah.
MB – There are only a few people that make records that try to do something interesting and creative with music, they’re always in the minority.
SEM – Before this call I was just reading a post on Facebook by a fairly well-known Mancunian lamenting about having read a “Top 10 Bands You Should Know In Manchester” in the Guardian or somewhere and she hadn’t heard of any of them and so went out to check out a number of bands and was disappointed in every one of them. And of course beards got mentioned. I almost feel I should apologize for that ‘cause it feels like the Portland aesthetic is infecting other scenes around the world. So OK, skipping ahead, how quickly did the Blue Orchids come about before you decided to leave the Fall? Did you already have the idea in mind, some of the songs, sort of the concept of the band, or?
MB – I had some of the songs and, well, I left the Fall because the position had become unbearable. Mark E Smith was already becoming very domineering, very dictatorial, and just keeping us in the dark. I mean, he always treated us like, well, for the whole time I was in the Fall I felt I was being treated like a child. I mean it wasn’t all bad but we were treated like we were hired hands, so we sort of fell out and I thought ‘Well I’ll do my own thing.’ And it took a while, really. I left the Fall in April of ’79 and Blue Orchids didn’t do their first gig until the beginning of 1980. I was just, y’know, roaming around trying to get another band together. I was thinking up names, going through names, and Tony Wilson was very interested in what I was going to do next but I didn’t like the idea of Factory Records. I just didn’t like the name. I mean, y’know, I was trying to escape the factory (laughter). Factory fodder was what we considered in the school I went to, so ‘Factory Records’ I thought was industrial and I was a man with a guitar so we ended up with Rough Trade of course when we finally got the record deal. It just took a while to get the right people involved, bend it into some shape, get a body of work. I didn’t want to carry on doing what I was doing in the Fall, I wanted to do something different, y’know, so that took a while to focus into something that was different from the Fall…[and at this point Skype dropped the call. Several minutes later we’re connected up again and able to continue. The recording gets a bit blurry around here but it’s clear I’ve asked Martin about similarities and differences between the Fall and Blue Orchids]
MB – [Mark] had become very precious about the whole thing and I felt there was nowhere to move. His girlfriend had become our manager and we were just being herded around, so, I didn’t want to be treated like that, or talked to like that, so I walked. I was still feeling at, y’know, a creative peak, so the obvious thing was to keep things going and so that’s what the Blue Orchids became. So far as the similarities and differences, it’s kind of weirdly subjective and I don’t think it’s for me to say. A lot of the Fall’s music was written by me and obviously I was playing lead guitar as well, but in Blue Orchids if anything my lead guitar took a back seat because I’d become the lead singer too. That was one of the main differences. I was beginning to think of myself as a singer-songwriter rather than just ‘a’ guitarist. But, y’know, music has always meant a lot to me so I’m always thinking about lyrics, about words and music, and I pursue it at my own pace and in my own way because I find I can’t find a way to compromise myself and my ideas to fit in with the music industry over the years. I shy away from those situations. So, y’know, I make music on my own terms in my own way, and that’s where I am today.
SEM – I’d say it worked out for you.
MB – Yeah, creatively. I get to do exactly what I want. It’s the only way I can work, really. I cannot work at someone else’s direction on account of I couldn’t deal with those pressures and I sort of clam up, so, when I have something new I endeavor to get it into the public domain at my own pace, y’know, so I don’t release an album every year…I literally just finished, on Friday, mixing a new Blue Orchids album, so that’s kind of my big news at the moment.
SEM – Oh. I didn’t realize that. That’s wonderful news, actually.
MB – Yeah, that’s kind of why I wanted to do the interview. This is the first interview since I finished the mix.
SEM – Nice.
MB – Erm,, if I can just qualify the whole Joe McKechnie thing [regarding the mix]. It’s very much Joe McKechnie vs. Blue Orchids. He’s just taken my vocal track and struck out with it. It doesn’t represent any new direction for Blue Orchids or anything like that. I mean, obviously I’ve approved it, and I like it, but it’s certainly Joe’s thing, y’know?
SEM – Yeah, sure, I’ll make that very clear.
MB – Yeah, because at this point I wouldn’t want people to think ‘This is what the new Blue Orchids are like.’ It’s a dance track. There are no guitars on it. It’s definitely Joe’s thing. He’s taken a vocal from the Factory Star album, from the New Sacral release, he’s just taken the vocal into the studio and built a dance track around it. None of our musicians are on it, it’s just me singing. It’s good and I like it but it’s not the direction I’m moving in.
SEM – Right, definitely. So, I didn’t realize Blue Orchids had a new studio recording coming up. I mean, I know it’s been an active live band, but I seem to recall…[and then we lost the call again, which this time wasn’t due to Skype but rather a power outage on Mr Bramah’s end]
SEM – OK, picking up…so far as the new Blue Orchids album coming out, when’s that projected to be?
MB – Well at the moment it’s still in the pipeline because it’s going to be coming out on vinyl. Like I said I just finished a mix I’m happy with but, y’know, the back-up time to get vinyl turned around is getting bad, so there’s no release date yet. Few months, maybe. It’s still under wraps, really. The guy that’s funding it doesn’t want – he doesn’t mind me talking today about it with you, but – it won’t be on Occultation because Nick [Halliwell] is just too busy with other things now. So, yeah, can’t give you a release date yet.
SEM – Right, fair enough. And so far as vinyl turnaround don’t even get me started on that topic because of Record Store Day. It’s just become, unsurprisingly, this monster unto itself, it just..devours. Anyway, that’s another topic for another day. So, as far as that Blue Orchids album is concerned, though, it leads to one of my questions and that involves the status of Factory Star. I noticed on your facebook profile that it said something to the effect of ‘in the past, Factory Star,’ and I seem to recall Nick mentioning a while back about a new Factory Star album coming up.
MB – No, since Nick’s been very busy with his own work [The Granite Shore – ed.] and the Distractions and he’s not had a chance to stay in touch and anyway, Factory Star, I’ve kind of drawn a line under it. And so I’ve moved back into using the name Blue Orchids, because, well, there’s more interest, frankly. As a live act, we’re getting more work using that name again, and so I’ve been able to put together a new Blue Orchids album, which is now complete, as I say, so yeah, Factory Star’s something that I tried, it was about five years of life, but, y’know, it was a project and I’ve moved on from that. It didn’t seem to grab people’s attention, so…
SEM – Unfortunately, by my lights. Obviously, I liked it. But, y’know, if that was the only album Factory Star put out, well it’s nice to do your crowning achievement in one album. So, let’s talk about the Super Reals.
MB – Yeah, that’s kind of a side project. In a way that’s just something I’m giving away on social media as I’m trying new ideas. The Super Reals originally was the name given to the backing vocalists in the Blue Orchids. If you check out The Greatest Hit and other releases you’ll see them credited as backing vocalists. It tended to be anyone that was around and I’d just give ‘em that name. So it’s just a kind of back project in that I’m using the name Super Reals as I experiment with different recording techniques at home and trying out new technology. Just trying out new ideas and giving them away on social media, with no official releases, but I’ve worked some of those ideas into new Blue Orchids album but played by the band and developed lyrically. Because the Super Reals stuff is really just sort of sampled sounds and sampled snippets of lyric. After I decided not to do Factory Star and started going out live with this Blue Orchids, and I had this interest from this big Blue Orchids fan to fund this album, I did think it might be interesting to start another band (chuckles) and use the name Super Reals because I like the name but as it stands I’m just using it to post stuff on facebook and Twitter to get some feedback and then going along and developing them into fully-fledged songs. But I’m not going give those away on social media (laughs), they’ll be available to, y’know, buy.
SEM – So is the Blue Orchids, as it stands now, an established band, or is it you and whomever you choose to take out on the road or into the studio?
MB – Well, it’s me and whoever I choose to work with, really. Whatever name I’m using it’s my thing, but yeah, it’s not like the original members of Blue Orchids. I mean there never was – well actually there was an original band but it didn’t last very long, so it’s not original members or anything, it’s new people.
SEM – Do you plan on following the usual arc of putting the record out and touring it and like that?
MB – Well, y’know, yeah. The point of getting the band all organized is so I can organize the tour. The thing about the band up until last year is we just started gigging around like a lot of bands, just getting gigs where we could. I don’t want to just keep playing small clubs but here in the UK, well, it’s quite a small scene, y’know, but I want it to be more focused but anyway I can’t organize the tour until there’s new product out. Promoters want to see a new record otherwise they don’t want to book you. I’ve been focusing on getting the record together, getting the release date together then organizing the tour so yeah, I’ve been doing the usual thing in that sense. I’d love to come tour the States but, y’know, it’s expensive. It depends on what the interest is. I’ll say that the guy who’s funding it is American, so [the album’s] going to be more US-focused than UK-focused, so…there’s also talk of a vinyl release of The Greatest Hit on a New York label, that’s under wraps as well. The big issue there is that it would be the first time the Blue Orchids have actually had a release in America. It’s always been on import.
SEM – I’m well aware of that (laughing)
MB – So we’re focusing on doing something new in America which means we might come over and play. It’s all to be seen, yeah?
SEM – I understand it’s prohibitively expensive which is why we don’t see – especially here on the West Coast – we don’t see as many bands as we did ‘back in the day,’ Guess I could have moved to the East Coast but it never happened so oh well, this is where I live. Funny though, I’m a fairly big Nightingales fan and they put out a kind of facebook press release recently and down near the bottom it said “September: US West Coast tour” which naturally got me pretty excited so I contacted them right away saying ‘I’m sure you’ve already got Portland stitched up’ and they said ‘No, we don’t actually’ so it looks like I’m putting on their show here. So, y’know, I’m just putting that bug in your ear. That aside…I’m curious about your approach to songwriting, especially lyric writing. The lyrics of yours I’m most familiar with, of course, are those on Enter Castle Perilous after spending such intense time with it back when I reviewed it. There’s such a rich historicity to it as well as incorporating that blurrier edge between history and myth and the like. You must do a lot of reading.
MB – Yeah, that’s right. There are strong themes in my writing, especially now I’m older, more mature. Yeah, I do a lot of reading, I get a lot of my ideas from snippets of a book I’m reading. If there’s a line that fires my imagination I’ll write that down. I won’t write a song about the book, y’know, a line will make me go off on a tangent and I’ll start writing a song. I’ll start drawing different things together. Like say three different books on the occult might fire off one song once I draw those ideas together. But books do often influence my writing. Just initial lines that cause me to imagine something else. So far as the lyrics on Enter Castle Perilous this new Blue Orchids album is literally very similar. I mean, you could say it’s another Factory Star record in that it’s just the style I’m writing in during this moment in time. I even reference Enter Castle Perilous, there’s a song on the new album called “Road to Perilous” that references the Factory Star album because I want to draw those elements together. I want people to stop thinking about all these things as being different bands, they’re just vehicles for me. I mean I could call myself ‘Martin Bramah’ but I kind of prefer to have a band name, I think it’s more interesting. Seeing songwriters just use their own name, it’s a little bit..bland, so I don’t wanna just be ‘Martin Bramah, singer-songwriter.’ So I’m not using the name Factory Star anymore, I’m using Blue Orchids, or Super Reals, it doesn’t really matter to me, they’re just names to draw people to what I’m doing creatively. A rose by any other name and all, y’know. Still smells as sweet. So, lyrically, as I say I have “Road to Perilous” on the new Blue Orchids album so maybe people interested in Blue Orchids who don’t even know about Factory Star can make a connection across there, if they’re interested. So yeah those themes are still strong in my writing, the historical, the otherworldly, sci-fi references, possible occult references. I like to prick peoples’ imaginations, have them consider things they maybe haven’t considered, look at things in a different way. They’re just the things I like to ponder. It’s not like I have a set world view that I’m trying to sell. It’s just..I kind of like to consider different things every day. I like to digest a couple of conspiracy theories a day (chuckles) that don’t converge just to stretch my mind at what is possible. So all that stuff ends up in the songs but I’m not a preacher, I like to keep it kind of obscure and just kind of indicate something ‘over there.’ Am I making any sense?
SEM – Yes, you are. I’ve been waiting to say that I for one appreciate – and appreciated – the references on Enter Castle Perilous. Don’t know that you remember but I had to request the lyrics to that record because I couldn’t make them all out and there were names that I didn’t recognize. But for me, if I’m already interested in the context of whatever it is, a book or a Martin Bramah song it doesn’t matter, and I come across something that I don’t know that piques my interest, I’m grateful and I’ll go look it up and that adds to the experience. So..thank you is I guess what it comes down to.
MB – My pleasure, yeah. I think it’s like that old quote from Lou Reed about trying to bring the intelligence of the novel into the pop song.
SEM – Right.
MB – I remember reading that when I was still in my teens and I thought ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s about, that’s what we’re trying to do. Make pop music intelligent, give rock music something of the novel.’ You can’t, because obviously it’s like three minutes long and you can’t always make out the words, as you say. And that’s what I kind of realized. I’d listen to songs and you can’t make out what they’re saying, you listen to like T.Rex and it’s kind of nonsense lyrics anyway and you think they said one thing and they said something else, but what you thought they said fires your imagination anyway..
SEM – Exactly.
MB – And you realize that’s how people are hearing what you’re saying. They’re not always going to be able to tell what you’re saying, so you don’t want to necessarily make sense you just want to kind of suggest things, possibilities. [The lyrics] don’t have to make sense, they just kind of wash over you, they leave you with an impression of something, y’know. It’s nothing concrete, it’s just a feeling, an atmosphere, a mood.
SEM – You’re essentially describing the experience of absorbing art just generally, yeah?
MB – Yeah.
SEM – So when you read that quote of Lou Reed’s, did you run out and buy up all the Delmore Schwartz you could find?
MB – (pause) No…
SEM – (laughing)
MB – Not immediately. I know he was his teacher at college, and had inspired him and all but, y’know, over the years I’ve come to appreciate Lou Reed. I’ve been through phases of not listening then listening again, but I absolutely love him, all that bloody work he’s left behind, it’s amazing from start to finish. I love Lulu, which is not popular with a lot of people but I thought it was one of his best albums. But yeah, love Lou Reed but that was just a key phrase, investing the pop song with the intelligence of a novel, and he said it over and over again over the years in different ways.
At this point the conversation veered quickly through the idea that post-punk itself, though the label is perhaps as specious as any music label can be considered to be, nonetheless in its definition has a similar remit, in its case investing the energy unleashed by punk with the intelligence and diversity and adventurousness that come from a wildly wider perception and appreciation of both outside musical genres – funk, avant, etc – and just the world of the arts and art theory in general. I then made mention of how it’s both no secret and not very well known that it was Bramah that essentially created the architecture that has long now been known as ‘the Fall sound,’ having written much of the music for Live at the Witch Trials. At this he mentions how Craig Scanlon came ‘round his flat when he joined the Fall in Martin’s wake in order to learn all the bits and styles that have continued to shape that well-known sound for the last 35+ years, as did others after that. “I know what I did,” he says, and indeed don’t we all. “They did have to come to me to learn how to play the Fall style, the Fall sound.”
As it’s still Sunday morning to me and I’ve yet to have breakfast and Martin’s got a mackerel dinner waiting for him, we sign off and head for our separate tables at opposite ends of the day, and, as I fire up the kettle for my second cup of coffee, I can’t help but have echoes of the Fall and Factory Star and Blue Orchids bouncing around inside my head and then realize, hang on a minute, that’s not ‘the Fall sound,’ really, it’s the Bramah sound. Some epiphanies, I tell ya, they take forever.[original interview from 2011 here]