Sapphire interview: Keele University

Rob O'Dempsey
Musin' Music Magazine #2

[The interview took place at Keele University]

R. The new album marks your return to Island Records, uses Linn Drums and you credit it thanks to Robert Palmer - but he doesn't play on it.
JM: He does actually - he can be heard playing here and there - there's the odd bit of scant guitar and chinks and whimpers and whines. I sort of fell out with the guy who was originally rooted to produce it and there was such a bad atmosphere for a little while. Had it not been for Mr. Palmer's steadying influence, I think we'd have packed up and gone home. So what happened was that Robert really stepped into the producer's chair at very short notice, thereby saving us a great deal of embarrassment.

R. When was it actually recorded?
JM: The rhythm tracks were done in February 1984 and the vocals went on in April/ May.

R. This is the first time you're using Linn Drums - why are you using them?
JM: The Linn drum - we just thought it would be easier to. Everybody uses them now anyway - the alternative was to ask Sly and Robbie if they would do the rhythm tracks. And yer man - if you ask him to play the drums, he'd say "I'd rather programme them please". It saves an awful lot of time, especially for recording - once you've programmed the drums you don't have to do another take because the drummer makes a mistake. It's all there on digital memory.

R. They seem to work well on the album.
JM: Yeah - it's all right so long as the programmes are good.

R. On the new record you sing a Judy Garland song!
JM: It was actually written by Messrs. Leidler and Mitchell or some name like that ... It was written long before the Wizard of Oz, I discovered in my research.

R. What lead you to record that?
JM: Pure devilment!

R. ... and release it as a single?
JM: That wasn't my idea.

R. It follows in the tradition of things like Singing In The Rain, but it's odd finding it second song on the album - normally you're used to them at the end of a side...
JM: I didn't have much to do with the running order, in fact I had nothing to do with the running order. It was a long and a difficult album to make, so once I had said 'hello' to the mixes and 'goodbye' to the performances, I just sort of stopped and went and parked myself in Scotland and left Island to get on with it, which I think is probably the best way for them.

R. The Fisherman's Dream is an unusual song for you - using a Gospel choir.
JM: Johnny's first hymn. You should have heard the one with the Scottish National Choir on it ... that was really dreadful. All these wonderful ladies with an average age of about 50, all called Maisie and Meg and stuff, with blue rinses, ten of them in the studio...

R. You actually recorded it?
JM: Absolutely did, it sounded awful. It was terrible because we had the track on and it sounded great and they were absolutely 'perfect' and then, as soon as they opened their mouths, I went 'Aargh... I've made a mistake, I don't want these people on my record.' They were so nice too, it was dreadful not to end up including them. They're on one of the tracks, Climb The Walls, that was as funky as they got. They were wonderful, they got so excited by it as well.. 'It's so wonderful to play with these modern musicians!' Great. Puffs of talcum powder everywhere.

R. You've re-signed to Island Records - is that a permanent move?
JM: I would hope so, yes. I like it very much there.

R. You're always thought of as one of the original Island artists.
JM: I was. I was the first white lad on the label.

R. What about the new tour?
JM: It's not a very big one. What happened was, because there was a delay in the album, a lot of the album artwork got lost and messed about with. We weren't happy with the first three shots at it, so it all had to be put back and done at very short notice. We've had to do it in two halves - we're going to do half [of it] now - and half of it in February. We did have a warm up gig at a friend's club in Southend, but it burned down. So we had to hunt around for somewhere to actually get on the stage and practice. We've never played public before.

R. Who's in the group at the moment?
JM: There is no group! That's the group there - that's Fos Paterson - he is the group.

R. I thought you were going out with two keyboard players?
JM: We were actually going to think about it with two, but we thought it would be a bit messy. It's difficult to get two keyboards to play - unless you have an enormous bank. It's an idea that I'll still pursue, but I think it's less messy with just one.

R. The last time you were around here was about two years ago, and you had a full five piece band. Have you [gone] tired of that outfit?
JM: I'm very tired of it, and my bank manager's even more so. It just cost a fortune to run. We were selling gigs out and losing money on them. I sold out Hammersmith Odeon and walked away losing £ 60, which is crazy because we had 300 people standing. It's just nonsense. Financially, it's a dreadful mistake for a man like me. So much so that I was doing a lot of solo work last year, which I enjoyed. I was solo at Glastonbury.

R. You did a tour in between where you did some solo and some with the band. Was that to satisfy both audiences?
JM: It was an attempt at that. I think the whole sort of thing about 'both audiences' is a bit of a blind alley now.

R. At the last Victoria Hall gig up here, there was a new generation of headbangers at the front and ...
JM: ...acoustic chaps at the back. I think they've all forgotten it now and decided to let me get on with it. I don't think the two audiences thing actually applies any more.

R. What about Philentropy, that sort of appeared in the middle?
JM: That was an attempt to recoup some of the losses. I was out of contract briefly. I had some tapes of a Brighton Dome gig and a Bristol gig and I just thought I'd make a live album out of it, and it was nice to have a record of the band. I don't think I'll actually play with that band again, but it was nice to have a record thereof.

R. It just seemed to appear in the middle of nowhere - there wasn't any publicity.
JM: Well if you do things independently - unless you have a vast amount of money - I mean you'd need about £ 50-60.000 to promote an album really in the style which major companies are accustomed..

R. So that was your own label - 'Body Swerve'?
JM: Yeah.

R. The last live album you put out was Live at Leeds, of which you did a limited edition.
JM: That went out through Island.

R. Didn't you originally sell that from your own home?
JM: I did. Wonderful it was!

R. Are there any plans to re-release that?
JM: Island gave me an undertaking when I did it, that they wouldn't re-release it. They still have the licence for it - but they said they wouldn't do it for ten years, which is almost up now.

R. There's a rumour that there's a triple compilation coming out. Have you heard of this?
JM: No. I have not heard of this. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it is true. I keep hearing all sorts of things babbled. I hear Kossoff's name babbled occasionally.

R. There's also a rumour of a live album of you and Kossoff. Are there some recordings of you and Kossoff live together?
JM: There is some stuff of me and him live, yeah. It will be in the Island vaults I'm sure.

R. Might it ever surface?
JM: You'll have to wait 'til I'm dead before they do that. I remember actually rejecting the stuff - because it was a weird band at the best of times. I only really put Kossoff in to help him get back on the stage, because he wasn't too confident.

R. That's when you were playing with Danny Thompson and John Stevens.
JM: Yeah, it was a weird band because upright bass and very heavy Les Paul very distorted, is a strange combination. It didn't actually work that well for me. He only used to come on for the encores.

R. What about your acoustic playing? Are you doing any at the moment?
JM: Odd acoustic playing? No I don't play much. I play it for my own amusement at parties.

R. Are you writing material yourself on it?
JM: No I don't play it much. I've got one with me. What do you want to hear? Peggy Sue?!?

R. Last year at Leeds Folk Festival you did an acoustic set in the middle of your set. That went down very well.
JM: Yes. I've got a bit disenchanted with it. I spent such a long time playing it, almost exclusively that ... I don't know. There's a certain lack of interest. I think the electric guitar for the moment is more interesting to me.

R. Are you still coming up with lots of weird tunings?
JM: I've settled down, I use a fiddle tuning now, almost exclusively.

R. Do you want to give any secrets away?
JM: Yes. It's DADGB..., no it's not, it's CGC... D... no it's DGCCFC - for anyone who's vaguely musical, you tune it in fifths, as a violin, instead of in thirds, like a guitar.

R. So you're leaving all that behind now?
JM: I wouldn't say I'd never play acoustic again, I'll probably take to it in later life ... after the holocaust when you can't get any electricity, and your telecaster is absolutely no use to you - you'll be driven to catgut and boxwood.

R. You had a definite 'wooden' style around the early 70's. Bless the Weather, Solid Air find then electronics came in more with Inside Out, which was a very imaginative experimental album - way ahead of its time.
JM: It would be difficult to make a jump like that now, without getting involved completely in synthesizers - which is something I'm trying to do, but I need a few more bits and bobs for my computer before I can get on to that.

R. In those days you used to produce the sound of a whole band on your own.
JM: I can still do that - I did it at Glastonbury. I can still thrash it out you know.

R. But that was more the 'old style' as opposed to the new. I think there were only a couple of new songs in the set. It was the sort of style you'd formulated by about 1975...
JM: That's right.

R. You've left your echoplex behind, haven't you?
JM: Sadly, yes. I made a half hearted attempt to bring it with me, such is my affection for the dear old creature. It has a warmth, you know, which you don't get with digitals.

R. That's what you're using now, everything is digital, isn't it?
JM: Yes, all digital stuff.

R. What sort of makes?
JM: It's a Korq DDS 3000.

R. And you have a pedal board to go with it.
JM: That's a Pearl pedal board which is just very standard, ordinary stuff... fuzz, phaser, phlangler.

R. It nearly gets the sound of the echoplex... like at Glastonbury...
JM: I was using it at Glastonbury strangely enough... but I was using the echoplex as well as the Korq... It has a wonderful memory. It's just not as warm, it's the sound that's not as warm, it's the difference between a valve amp and a transistor amp... It's just not as warm as the echoplex, nothing quite is. Also they've got a wonderful idea with a moveable tape head, so you can get certain effects you can't get on the DDS. It's a fine machine, the echoplex, I wish somebody would redesign it, just take the basic idea and redesign it, because it's a very good idea. I like it.

R. The only time you said you used it to its full extent was on Live at Leeds - is that where you used the playback and then double tracked on top, That was the only number...
JM: For the double tracking... that's it.

R. It's very effective.
JM: It's good fun. There's no playback at all on the DDS.

R. What else have you been doing in the last two years?
JM: This whole year's been taken up with the album and 1983 was taken up with disentangling myself from a management who used to indulge in what can only be called 'sharp practice'. I didn't like them and I found it very difficult to dislodge myself from them, they were in the true nature of parasites... They had to be gorged before they fell off. That took a great deal of time, there were injunctions on me, I couldn't work and that sort of stuff, it was a bit of a pain...

R. What are your next plans?
JM: I'm going to Abu Dhabi and I hope to meet a rich prince that likes guitar players. We're doing ten days in Abu, spending the New Year working for Scots people, so that's going to be wonderful. Then we come back and we do a whole lot more work here and more work in Europe and then we go to Australia and then I hope to America.

R. When was the last time you were there?
JM: Early 1983. The gigs were great but they were all 800 miles apart. I hated the management by that time - I never wanted to go in the first place - two of the most miserable weeks of my life. Really foul! The gigs as I say were wonderful, but the travel was just grossly uncomfortable. At some of the gigs we were so tired nobody can remember the second half.

R. When you were there before, touring solo, was it less of a problem then?
JM: It was lovely then. Things were organised very well. It was the difference between having good management and bad management, and my last bunch weren't so much managers as asset-strippers. The thing was just to work you into the ground and get as much money out of you as possible. I wasn't very keen on them.

R. It was easier when you were doing places like Kenny's Castaways in New York?
JM: No. I didn't like Kenny. Kenny turned out to be a crook as well - there's a lot of love lost between Kenny and I, because the one and only time I ever worked for him, I did the gig on the understanding that he wasn't going to charge at the door and I found him charging five bucks at the door. I was furious ... really hated it. I played the Bottom Line this time. It was very good. I enjoyed that.

R. You did tour supporting Eric Clapton as well. Did you enjoy that?
JM: Didn't. No. It was a very difficult job that.

R. Because of the huge auditoriums?
JM: Because he runs such a tight ship, you'd always have to go on at half past seven, at which point there would be about four or five thousand people in the hall, and another 19.000 outside, and they'd all be coming in and getting their chairs and eating their pop corn, looking at this lonely little person playing acoustic guitar in the middle of ... I didn't like it very much. I got paid very well for it. The only good thing about it was, it was only a half hour set, so it wasn't too humiliating. Apart from four or five gigs which were very good. I mean I did about 30 and about 25 of them, if they'd been my own gigs, I'd have probably topped myself after the second one. I got used to it after three or four days. It was definitely Christians to the lions; my seed fell on stony ground! The year before I went out with Clapton, I had done about two club tours and that was great, but that again was solo.

R. Before that you supported Traffic.
JM: That was great, that was the first time I ever went, it was great fun.

R. People often ask why you only select certain songs to play at gigs and leave out others. Songs like Just Now, you never play live.
JM: Why don't I play Just Now any more... To be honest I don't identify with it any more. There's no point in singing about matters that don't concern you. I just don't feel that way. The sentiments of the song are lost to me. So it would be hypocritical of me to sing it really. That's all it comes down to. There are other songs that I don't sing, which I still have an affection for... I tended to be more flexible when I was solo. The only thing about working with other musicians is, you can only teach them a certain number of songs, unless they actually live with you. With the five piece band we had a repertoire of about 40 or 50 pieces and we'd swop them around a bit, but we tended to do very long sets. In the end we were doing three-and-a-half hour sets! So that gives you some idea of how many songs we had together. It's a lot easier to practice on your own and to bring stuff up to a professional standard, whereas if you have the band and just to learn 5 tunes to everyone's satisfaction, is say 3 days' work to get it right. So if you were to please everybody by expanding the repertoire to that extent, you'd just have to put in such a lot of work. For a month's tour you'd probably have to do four months rehearsal.

R. Before, when you played with Danny Thomson, you could just get up and respond to each other...
JM: That's right... respond... like: what do you fancy playing. Yes, one longs for that sort of freedom in some ways. I've learnt much more about music through playing with other people. That's what I find interesting.

R. Was it easy working witit John Stevens as well?
JM: Very.

R. He's quite intuitive.
JM: He's a good lad. Very good musician, mad as a snake of course.

R. Do you ever see yourselves working together again?
JM: Oh yeah. I'll always work with John.

R. Do you see Danny Thompson at all?
JM: Danny doesn't blow much these days. I think he has restricted himself to the folk genre... I was always more interested in Danny's jazz side than anything else. I was very interested in his jazz playing. He had a great trio once with John McLaughlin and Duffy Power, a little harmonica player. Danny's confined himself to the folk thing. I'd like to do one gig with him at the Festival Hall or something - have a silly reunion. But you'd have to get someone really stupid like Melanie on it, who could you get - Peter Sarstead!

This was the cover story of Musin' Music Magazine #2; the original (stencilled) copies cost 40p. In the same issue there was a short review of Sapphire.
The magazine's editor was Rob O'Dempsey from Stafford.