The Wisdom of Pete – An Interview with Pete Astor

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Early in 2012 I had the double pleasure of not only reviewing Pete Astor’s then-recent record Songbox, but also conducting a lengthy interview via email. It’s all been in the vaults for a while, waiting to be brought out of the SEM archives. That wait is over – Dave Cantrell

STEREO EMBERS MAGAZINE – On “Tiny Town” off the new album Songbox, there’s this couplet – “Waiting at the bus stop with flames in my head / Dreams of forever every night in my bed” – that is as evocative of that sense of exuberant immortality of the teenager as I’ve ever heard. Setting aside for now the autobiographical elements – if any – on the new record, it did make me curious about your early life and I could find very little (born in Colchester in 1959 was about it). Did you come from a musical family? What led to music, to songwriting?

PETE ASTOR – Well, with that line I can trace it back to a particular time and place: namely, waiting to get back to St. John’s Estate, standing at the bus stop outside the Top Rank on Colchester High Street in 1973. While I was waiting, I remember ‘composing’ what was the first thing I ever remember writing, a ‘poem’ about something or other, I guess. This was a very significant moment for me, a bit like finding God, something that would give me a belief system that would last a lifetime.

What led to music and songwriting was this discovery of the Romantic sensibility; something that with its connections and sophistications was the thing that I, I think, on some level would get me out of my particular small town and back to London where I was born and originally brought up. And where the bohemian life was hopefully taking place and waiting for my arrival. This was achieved when I managed to get into University and read English and spend most of my time hanging out with the art students at Hornsey College of Art.

SEM – The Loft began in 1980, right in the heart of post-punk. I’ve read that you ‘grew up’ on The Fall, Scritti, Raincoats et al and that The Loft were “Television-inspired” yet your work with them, the Weather Prophets and much of your solo work since seems to hew more of a mid-to-late 60s pop vibe, somewhere on the pop/pop-sike/singer-songwriter spectrum, with touches of soul, of course, Curtis Mayfield inflections, wanting to sound like Frankie Lymon. Did punk, beyond its impetus, have much influence on you? More generally, and to the extent you’re able to pinpoint them, what has influenced your songwriting and sound and has it changed much since The Loft & WP days?

PA – Good point; and there is a reason, I think. My first music was very much based on the post-punk idea. I was part of a group called Damp Jungle, whose only release was on Fuck Off Tapes, a cassette only label from West London (its in Simon Reynolds’ history of post punk, Rip It Up and Start Again). The band sound like a kind of cross between Beat Happening and the Pop Group! There is a posited release on the Messthetics label, at some point in the (very) distant future. I also remember one notable show at our college in 1979, where, because of our obsession with Dub reggae, had a DJ and decks on stage with us. He would play obscure dub, put through some effects, and we would make sounds over the top! The lack of almost any applause whatsoever was something that even we, angry artsy post-punkers, never recovered from. So, as the 1980’s started, I became more obsessed with a kind of ‘classicist’ approach to music, listening to The Beatles and Beatles-inspired music. Remember, this was a lot odder taste to have then than now. Anyway, that became the blueprint for The Loft/Weather Prophets, etc. In terms of a post punk influence, where I think it really came to the fore was in the music I made in the ‘90’s with The Wisdom of Harry and Ellis Island Sound – I always remember saying in interviews at the time that I was always a massive fan of Can, et al but it had never really come out in my music and now it was…I hoped!

SEM – After the implosion – the word that always seems to get used – of The Loft, you were determined to find musicians to fill out the Weather Prophets that were unconnected to ‘the scene,’ which you felt had claimed a superiority by virtue of not being commercially successful (feel free to correct any of this). Can you speak a bit to that? Did it fulfill the function as you hoped and would you still opt for that or was there a bit of defiant youth idealsim involved?

PA – Hmmmm. That sounds like a little bit of ‘spin’ from me! It was true, but mainly, I wanted a band where I had more control over the direction. I think The Weather Prophets made some very good records and worked really well together but, in all honesty, I’d have to say that I wish I’d been strong enough to keep The Loft together, because there was a difficult but very creative chemistry there and I do regret the fact that we never got to make The Loft album, because, I think it might have been quite an important record. Perhaps I should write an imaginary 33 and a 1/3 about it!

SEM – Great idea! You could call it “The Great Loft Masterpiece,” maybe. On that note, though – The Loft played some gigs fairly recently (at least one of which was with the June Brides, if I’m not mistaken. And me 6000 miles away. Sigh) Was it all four of you, Andy, Bill, Dave and yourself? What was the set list like, all original Loft material, covers, anything new? Lastly, crucially, how did it go, how did it feel?

PA – Yes, it was all the original members. It was very heartwarming; a mixture of young fans and some people that saw us first time around. We’ve played a few times but are now taking a break. Yes, it’s very gratifying playing with bands like Veronica Falls, who have James in them who is my ex-student at Goldsmiths and one of my 20-year old’s  – Wes, from Let’s Wrestle’s – best friends. Feels very flattering that people care about what we do. It feels great. All basically old songs, although we do a version of a single which came out on Static Caravan called Model Village, which I wrote in response to having The Loft to write for again when we first got back together in 2005. I realize I had this very exciting set of musicians who would colour in what I do and I wanted to write a song that was worthy of their skills. The rest is the old stuff – can you imagine the deathly pall if we announced all new material. And they’d be right! It was a point in time, I’m very glad to have been a part of. Bill and Andy still have and play the same guitars, Bill even had the same lead. Authentic!

SEM – One of the aspects I most admire about your songwriting is how intuitive it feels. Your mention of the Can influence makes sense especially in view of the first Wisdom Of Harry LP Stars of Super 8, and of course the Ellis Island Sound material, albeit Can dialed down a bit, dreamier. And I don’t mean dreamy/ethereal a la Cocteau Twins but more in an imagistic sense. Those songs can feel both grounded and surreal at the same time, akin to the random generator quality of dreams. On those songs – let’s say “Hansa Toy Corporations” or “Valley Boys,” as examples – I feel I could almost swim in them and I’m always curious as to how these things get built. For you generally, do words come first? Image(s)? Soundscapes? And does how they come to you dictate how and where they end up (ie, this one’s more a pop song, therefore more suitable for a solo album, this one’s more an atmospheric piece, let’s bring that to EIS)?))

PA – Good point; yeah, actually, that’s exactly how it happened with the early days of EIS and tWoH – we’d make the track and then decide what name to release it under. In terms of making the tracks, I tend to write two main ways. Firstly, on the guitar with words from a notebook/ back of an envelope and secondly, on the sampler/ computer, starting with samples, beats, sounds. I don’t generally write a top line melody on to these things – I’d like to, but I’m not sure my voice sits well with linear, dreamy soundscapes. I’m better off droning away on C and Am in the style of Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed.

SEM – The Ellis Island Sound myspace page has this great description: “…they sounded like Nick Drake recorded by Conny Plank.” It seems EIS began in what might loosely (lazily?) be labeled the ‘folktronica’ era, Badly Drawn Boy, Four Tet etc, the sound defined by exactly what that sounds like, a folkish pop sound flavoured by electronics. But then in ’07 the album Good Seed came out, sporting a more analog-dependent sound – harmonium, melodica, violins, brass – though admittedly you did have head Hefner Darren Hayman handling all things electronic. Still, it seemed a bit of a tipping into the folkier side of the hybrid (as always, correct as needed). How did that evolution come about and what’s the status of Ellis Island Sound now?

PA – The folky EiS kind of evolved because we felt that we wanted to make a record that was more organic. We actually rented a converted chapel in the Waveney Valley in East Anglia and drove down all the tape recorders, ukeleles, harmoniums, etc., etc., and wrote and recorded the album in a couple of weeks one September in the early 2000’s . We also toured that stuff with a 15 piece band, which was pretty good, playing around the UK and festivals like The Green Man and the Big Chill. Now we’re going back to our electronic roots and have tracks on the Second Language Music & Migration II record (http://www.secondlanguagemusic.com/SL014.html), as well as the upcoming Olympic compilation ‘It’s the Taking Part That Counts’. (http://wiaiwya-itsthetakingpartthatcounts.blogspot.co.uk/)

We are now in the process of recording an album, which we’re looking forward to getting out at some point in the not-too-distant future.

SEM – OK, Creation, can’t get through an interview without at least one Creation question: In that delightful interview you did with Lawrence from Felt you use the phrase, in response to a question about the movie Upside Down, “what a bunch of fantastic idiots.” In similar fashion to Factory, Creation seemed fueled more by hubris, copious amounts of stimulants/inebriants and pure careening genius than by anything approaching business acumen, or at least early on. Is that a fair assessment, for one, and could you talk some of the pluses and minuses of having been part of that remarkable moment in British independent music culture?

PA – When you’re inside of something it always feels different. Not least the scene you’re in – I think I remember saying this in the interview – is much less exciting and authentic than ones you are outside of and far away from. The ‘story’ is always overlaid with daily banal troubles that a novelist would have cut out. Although, on that theme, I do remember being at one of the ‘legendary’ Creation parties at Westgate Street and a woman sitting down next to me and saying. ‘Who are you, then?’. Creation, like a lot of record companies, had various front pages of the NME framed and hung on the wall. I looked back and said ‘That’s me’ (I promise you I did not postion myself under it deliberately!), indicating the framed the front page. At this point, the picture fell off the wall. We laughed and conversation continued, to no conclusion I can remember. Anyway, on subsequent visits to the office I would always quietly look forlornly at my picture propped up behind the chair against the wall. It never went back up…This was the time (1990-ish) of big changes at the label and, of course, it was perfectly symblolic that that is what happened. If you were making the film, you couldn’t put that in because its just too neat. Fiction is so much more believable than truth!

SEM – On to Songbox, the new album. First off, beautiful record, beautifully packaged (I like the comparison you made, also in the Lawrence interview, of it being “almost like a gig – when it’s gone it’s gone.” The ephemerality of a physical object is a neat concept). Soundwise, the album has a pastoral feel to it, which couches quite effectively the overall thematic flavors: ruminative, reflective, the work of, let’s say, a seasoned observer. That sense is further enhanced by it being a predominantly acoustic album. Other than electric bass there’s very minimal electric guitar – only prominent, really, on “Dead Trumpets” – the sound instead augmented by flute, clarinet, bit of xylophone, handclaps et al. How much of all this was planned? Did you set out to produce a kind of meditative, life-essaying work (assuming you agree) or is your songwriting just naturally hewing in that direction now?

PA – God, yeah. ‘Life-essaying’ – scary and right. Don’t know if I said but I was actually going to call the album ‘Gold Watch’, as I felt I should really draw a line under making music. I think there has been so much documentation of things I had an involvement in the past, it makes one see things with a longer perspective. The tone of the record comes from a sense of trying to play to my strengths. Concentrate on getting the words right, colour in the tunes effectively and it will hopefully work. I’m actually having a burst of creative energy at the moment, so it’s probably good I didn’t retire myself back there!

SEM – Well, I’ll certainly second that. Long may you run, Pete. In terms of tune-coloring and word-choosing, Songbox is a decided triumph. Sonically and lyrically there’s a rich conciseness to it that would indicate that you hit your target. As it’s an album of stock-taking, a sort of emotion-tinged scrapbook, most of the songs have a more or less interpretable thread. But a couple are somewhat more elliptical. Though a favorite, “The Perfect Crime” is a bit mysterious, feels like some sort of dream cinema (with an implicit French pop soundtrack – your time in France sneaking in, perhaps), while “Tree Of Life” seems built on something close to zen koans. Not looking for full-out explanations, of course, just more a sense of where they came from. Both are quite intriguing.

PA – Well, “The Perfect Crime” is actually based on a true story: I was staying in a hotel in Germany and I came down for breakfast and they said that there would be none. I went out for a croissant and saw the old lady in her little office by the front door, dead. When I got back, my knowledge of German helped me considerably; I heard the police in the hallway discussing the fact that they estimated that the murder had taken place at around 1.30 AM. I had returned to the hotel the previous night, very much the worst for wear, at about this time. They then came over and asked me what time I returned and I thought for a second and said, ‘Um, 12.30’. This seemed to satisfy them and I was allowed leave and to get my plane home that afternoon. The thing is that I very, very rarely can’t remember what I have done while ‘in my cups’ – once or twice in my whole life, I’d say – but this night was one of them. On some level I thought it might have been me that committed the act: all the fucked up Oedipal stuff finally coming out. Anyway, I found out several months later that a long-term resident in the hotel had confessed. So I was in the clear.

“Tree of Birds” was inspired by seeing a big tree full of birds when I was on a cycle trip through the Fens; this was a space of time when a lot of the songs on the record were written and was a key time in my life, for reasons I don’t think I yet fully understand.

SEM – Closer “Mistress Of Song” deserves its own enquiry. In a way, it appears to be an end-of-the-road companion to “Tiny Town,” especially as it mentions the year 1974, the year the narrator first met the titular mistress and the year – or close to it – that you began writing songs. It’s so beautifully elegiac and powerfully brings to mind the poetic laments of Leonard Cohen. What’s inescapably curious is its description of the songwriter trapped in a relationship with the idea of song itself. Can you talk about that? The song clearly comes from a place of love but an exhausted, rueful love. It’s a gorgeous way to take the album out but confusing, given how it’s the coda to an album of uniformly vital songcraft, as consistent and strong as anything you’ve done.

PA – Well, as said, Songbox was going to be called ‘Gold Watch.’ I really felt like I had done more than enough music and it was time I stopped. “Mistress of Song” articulates that feeling. Music is not something that I necessarily have the most positive feelings about sometimes; it is often like a mistress, and not a very healthy one at that. It often seems to get me into trouble, it’s something that I’ve believed in but I’m not sure what good it’s ever really done me. But I can’t let it go. Bitch!

SEM– You’ve included a covers disc with the original box, the entire album in the same running order, each song a different artist. You’ve said that, in your view, some of them surpass the originals, and while I can’t quite go that far, many of the artists do end up owning their versions very convincingly. The Raincoats take on “Perfect Crime” is a prime example, reworked in their image, and “Dunce” as done by Pastourelle is simply a stunner, just to name two. How were the artists chosen? I’d say the only obvious pairing was Let’s Wrestle tackling “Tiny Town,” a gift from father to son and back again. Otherwise, was a group of artists, once selected, assigned particular tracks, or was it more first come, first choose?

PA – Um, really it was basically lots of my friends and acquaintances, who were willing to do a cover for the record. I’m very flattered at all the versions.

[read review of Songbox here]