Interview by Malcolm Wilson for Rip It Up magazine (2002)

What’s it like where you are, as you write this? Just a bit of scene-setting for the article.

It’s 11pm, I’m sitting tapping on my laptop and watching X-Files…
It’s not the same without David Anchovy… :-(

It took years for White Town to be discovered… What were your aspirations for White Town during those years?

The same as they are now: I’d like to change the world!

Ideally, I’d like to see a world socialist government establish global peace and launch a moon/Mars colonisation program.

But….

Since that’s not gonna happen soon, I try and reach out and connect with people as much as possible. I think the best way I do this is via my music. Music is more emotional than prose, more revolutionary than poetry. I’m not saying I’ve got the answers, just a shitload of questions that I don’t hear other artists asking.

The EMI blip gave me access to a huge amount of people more than before, a dream for anyone making pop music. But now I’m back on indie labels with indie sales I think it’s important than ever to strive for that connection. That’s why I do so much stuff on my Bzangy site: I don’t get interviewed or featured in the mainstream corporate media so I have to do what I can myself.

That’s another reason I’m pleased to do this interview!

How did you get discovered? What happened?

‘Your Woman’ was originally released on US indie Parasol in July ’96. I played it when I was DJing and noitced that everyone loved it and started dancing. With encouragement from my then girlfriend (now wife!), I sent it off to a few radio stations.

Mark Radcliffe of BBC Radio One loved it and started playing it on his night-time show. The song was so popular that it migrated to daytime and then a bidding war started with the majors. By this time, I’d contacted Parasol and asked them if they could run with it but I don’t think they understood how big it was getting/couldn’t afford to press more so I signed to EMI. It was a difficult decision but I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get my music out to millions of people.

The rest, as they say, is history. Number one in eight countries, over 350,000 albums sold in North America alone…

All of which I’m proud of – I did that! From a little bedroom recording done on a cassette multitracker!

Most people clamour for fame & fortune. The “Popstars” bullshit subjects them to cueing for hours to sing “Westlife”. Did you ever see yourself as star material?

I hated my brief fame. We had TV vans camped outside my house, reporters hounded me… people i’d know for years started treating me differently. I honestly can’t understand why *anyone* would crave fame…

Plus, a 26 stone Indian geek is hardly prime pin-up material. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of bubblegum pop myself and I think there’s a place for pretty boys in bands for teenage girls to lust over. I just think that shouldn’t be the total focus of the music industry.

Anyway, I think I am a fucking star – I’m simply a funny-shaped star :-)

What does it feel like to be launched from obsurity to success so quickly?

The first commercial release I had was in 1983 so it wasn’t that quick…

When ‘Your Woman’ hit, I was 30 so I’d been a gigging, songwriting musician for 14 years… although the actual end part was quick, it took a long time getting there.

Was there a “eureka” moment with “Your Woman”. Did you write the song and think “holy shit….I have a hit here?”

Nope. I thought it was quite poppy but then I think that about most stuff I do. I actually thought it was a bit too art-wank since I was deliberately singing from more than one perspective, none of which were mine.

I remember being pleased cos it hurt to finish the lyrics, they were too close and painful to me. Which I take as a sign that I’ve done my job properly.

Once you’re in that environment, what are the people like? How did your relationships with people change?

A lot of people, especially musicians, befriended me to drop me like a hot rock as soon as I was no longer in the charts/signed. London truly is a cesspit, filled with people fighting to be king of the filth.

Thank god I didn’t move there…

With my close mates nothing changed. And it only strengthened my relationship with my grilfriend cos we went though so much bullshit together.

You don’t strike me as someone who settles for artistic compromise. Did the record Companies ever attempt to compromise your music? What is it like?

It’s like someone cutting up a loved one in front of you, all the time insisting they’ve got your best interests at heart.

They’re very devious nowadays. My contract had a clause in saying I had total control over all artistic aspects. They wanted a cover of naked robot women. I objected. They said *of course* you can have whatever cover you want – you’re the artist. But if you have that cover… well we might not release the single for, ooh, four months…

So, you basically do what they want or they fuck you up the ass. So you do what they want and then they fuck you up the ass anyway…

Your music is devoid of strict genre labels. Did the record companies find it hard to have an unboxable artist?

That’s implying some kind of musical knowledge! At none of the companies I met in the courting process did I meet *anyone* with a grasp of contemporary music. A&R people hadn’t even heard of Magnetic Fields for god’s sake and they already had albums out on Setanta.

Here’s a good example: a well-known major is now proudly selling surround/5.1 encoded audio discs. Hi Fi News revealed that they’re making these recordings by playing the old stereo masters through some nice speakers at Abbey Road and then recording the result with four mics! This is how dishonest record companies are, they really have nothing but contempt for the public.

What prompted the end of the EMI deal? How did you feel when it was all over?

I was signed in December ’96. By February ’97 I was sick of them. I’d just got a Playstation and a copy of Die Hard Trilogy (with the gun). I used to pretend the airport was EMI HQ, go inside and shoot the crap out of everyone…

I now believe that major labels can only work with people who care more about fame and money than the quality of the art they produce. They consistently hobble artists’ in the name of selling more units then are surprised when the fans don’t buy the lukewarm music this produces. So they then drop the artist.

Tell me a bit about the environment “Your Woman” as other earlier work was recorded in?

It was basically a 9′ square spare bedroom.

What equipment did you use for “Your Woman” and the “Women In Technology” album?

This is all detailed in the FAQ on the official White Town site.

You used some of the “Your Woman” money to build your own studio. Do you still promote a “warts and all” approach to your recording? Why?

I didn’t build one, for the last three years I owned an ex-commercial facility. I recently sold it cos I had to move back closer to my parents.

As for the warts and all: yep! I don’t believe that recordings should sound radically better than the artist, I think that’s dishonest. For example, I’m not a great singer but if I spent enough time tweaking my vocals, I could sound like one. But I don’t, what you hear is pretty much what I sing. On some songs you’re hearing the vocal as I improvised it (as in ‘Function Of The Orgasm’) so you may hear me stumble.

How have your opinions of the music industry changed from before “Your Woman” to after “Your Woman?”

I was always suspicious of majors but that was based on prejudice, I had no solid experience to back that up with. Now, having dealt with both Universal and EMI, I can say that I directly know that two major corporations are run by idiots who have no knowledge of music and little understanding even of basic bourgeois economics.

It’s the total contempt majors have for their artists that I find amazing. I had a report that some of my music was being used to advertise cigarettes in South America so I contacted MCA/Universal to get it stopped. They didn’t even bother to email me back, that’s how little they care. We, the artists, make the stuff they sell and they’re like ticks on our backs, sucking the life out of us.

You offer some pretty scathing views of A&R people on your website. What, if anything, prompted these views?

Real experiences with real A&R people. Most of the stuff isn’t made up, just slightly exaggerated. Really, the average musician has no idea how craven and devious A&Rs are.

What are some of the best things about being your own creative boss?

I do just what I want. If I want a fourteen minute track on my album, no-one’s gonna try and cut it to 3.30. If I want to write about subjects that are difficult, no-one’s gonna censor them.

It’s basic freedom of speech.

You must have other songs you feel proudly about. What are some of your favourites and why?

I like ‘Why I Hate Drugs’ off ‘Peek & Poke’ cos it sums up why I’m straight edge and how dull I find drug culture and the majority of people who immerse themselves in it. What I most hate is endless rock’n’roll anecdotes about ODs…. who gives a flying fuck!?

I like ‘Bewitched’ off the first album because it’s one of the happiest songs I’ve ever written and, as any writer will tell you, happy songs are a million times more difficult to write than sad songs.

I like ‘Undressed’ off ‘WIT’ because I managed to get my attitudes to sex and death pinned down very well there. The essential pointlessness of life, coupled to the fact that the only meaning there is is the one we construct. And therefore that sometimes, an afternoon spent in bed with someone can be the most important thing in the universe.

You’ve been to mega-stardom and back. Are you ever tempted to join the big game and just sell-out?

I will never sign to a major record label again. If, by some mega fluke, a record of mine looked like it might break big, I’d try and do it via an indie or somehow license it. I’m not having my music owned by those corporate cocksuckers again.

BTW, this isn’t to say I hate all major label music and bands. Everyone has to find their own way, it’s just that I don’t want to go that way myself. If a band likes being on a major and feels happy there, good luck to them.

Your songs contain real emotion ( a rare a beautiful thing)…Yet, the world is laden with Britneys, Christinas, Six & Hear’Say…What, in your opinion is going on?

There’s a place for constructed, machined pop. Hell, one of my favourite bands is the Monkees and, as they originally started, you couldn’t get more constructed than that (cept maybe the Archies!).

BUT…

The majors have given up on teenagers. They believe that teens are no longer into music, preferring PS2s/trainers. Therefore they target pre-teens and use their pester power to extract their parents’ money.

I’m not saying little kids have bad taste, they don’t. In fact, they’ve got the same melodic tastes I have: simple, snappy pop is what rules. But what pre-teens haven’t got is any real understanding or experience of adult emotion.

They sing along to love songs that feature lyrics that must be meaningless to them. And people write songs with lyrics deliberately shorn of adult emotion, adult ambiguity to fit this market. Pop becomes only about candy-coloured pre-teen pop.

All I’m saying is that this shouldn’t be all that pop music is, all that is allowed. Pop can do so much more!

There should be a place and the space for all pop.

You also talk a lot about schmindie…What’s going on in the “alternative” world?

Not much… the only place I can see any true punk/DIY ethic is in the post-hardcore scene and skapunk scenes. I’m not a huge fan of the music but at least the scenes still believe in cooperation and independence. “Indie” nowadays was been castrated, reduced to being a marketing term that means ‘major label white guitar band who feign misery and are aimed at students.’ The Americans are more honest about it and just call it college rock.

You are politically and socially intelligent and opinionated. What was it like to have the media and fans hanging on your words?

Hmmm… I don’t think they were. The best press stuff I did was with French pop journalists, people who knew about Francois Truffaut, Wilhelm Reich, Noam Chomsky and Marxism. Most of the other press stuff was ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ :-)

Tell me a bit about Bzangy Groink, what it comprises of, the level of distribution and how the Indie companies have helped you…

Bzangy Groink is my own label, distributed through Voiceprint. So far there’s only one release, my last album, but I’m soon releasing two singles by new young bands that are brilliant. The first band is Plans And Apologies and they’re kind of folk-emo, very catchy melodies coupled with very loud bits.

Rusk are melodic post-hardcore and their singer has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. He’s destined for stardom, I’m sure.

What is White Town doing now? It’s your self promotion moment!!!

I’m currenly working on songs for my fourth album… it’s a bit hectic cos I’m in a rental house so the studio situation isn’t ideal, plus I’m trying to get Bzangy Groink up and running again so that takes up a lot of my time. Too much stuff to do… too little time!

What are White Town’s goals for 2002-2003?

I’d like to release a new album. I’d also like to find a female backing vocalist but so far I’ve had no luck at all :-(

How do we get hold of your music in li’l old NZ?

It should be in normal shops. Failing that, I’m sure one of the Amazon webshops will have it, if you try the different countries.

If you could recommend one White Town album to take people beyond “Your Woman” what would it be and why?

That’d be ‘Peek & Poke’ cos it’s the latest one and I believe it’s more poppy and consistent than ‘Women In Technology.’ I had fun making it and I think you can tell with one minute tracks like ‘Bunny Boiler.’

What would you recommend for anybody making music in the bedroom about how to get exposure? How can they make it big and keep it together?

GET OUT OF THAT BEDROOM! Join up with others and create a strong local scene. If you can’t gig, DJ and if you can’t DJ, do a fanzine or put on gigs for other bands.

The most important thing is perseverance. I didn’t have a hit because I’m thin or beautiful or had major-label backing, I had a hit cos I never went away, no matter how many walls of apathy I came up against.

And finally….You worked for years, you made it big, the madness ended and here you are….What is it like from where you are now?

Calm. I like being 35, I like having a bit of money to spend on music and useless gadgets. The net is providing new ways to communicate and cooperate that just didn’t exist in the 80s.

There’s so much excellent new music around that I can’t afford to buy it all and I haven’t the time to review as much as I’d like. I can’t remember a better time to be a musician or to listen to music!

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Print
  • email

June 27, 2004. Interviews.