The Zip Code John Martyn interview

Kevin Ring
Zip Code magazine #5


Back with a new album, THE APPRENTICE, and touring now to promote it is John Martyn. He's long been an admired and well respected musician on the British scene and he's the proud owner of a back catalogue of albums that are testament to his innovation, imagination and sheer popularity. From the release of his first album LONDON CONVERSATION way back in 1968 [actually 1967 ed.] to now, he's maintained a loyal following, who've witnessed his style changes over the years. For a long time he was associated with Island Records, now he's out on Permanent Records. Based back in Scotland, the new album shows he's no apprentice! ZIP CODE grabbed the chance to speak to a relaxed and affable John Martyn recently.

What is it like being based back in your homeland Scotland? What reasons made you move back there?
I moved back originally when my father was very ill. I'm the only son so I thought it was important for me to do so. And after that initial move I found I really liked and enjoyed being back home. It's quieter and more peaceful. I live a pretty rural existence here. It's very peaceful. I've never been a city or an urban person. I love Scotland, Robert Burns and the romance. Just like coming home. It's great.

LIVE ON LOVE, the first track on your new album THE APPRENTICE, it's a very optimistic, up record. Do you feel THAT good, that optimistic?
Yes, I think so. Like everyone else I get good and bad days from time to time but generally I feel OK.

The track on the new album INCOME TOWN, where was that recorded? Is that a live audience?
Of course it's a live audience! It's recorded at a club in Toronto in Canada called THE GREEN BANANA.1 It was a very good night, great audience. I'm very pleased with that track. I like it.

What sort of things inspired the actual track itself THE APPRENTICE from the new album?
It's a song about a man I met in a bar and he looked pretty ill. It was in Carlisle in the north. He was a very sick man. He worked at the nuclear plant at Sellafield and he had cancer, and he was convinced that working at Sellafield was causing his illness. I got into conversation with him in a bar there. He died. A terrible way to die. It took personal experience of something like that to make it hit home. Actually to be involved and know someone who was dying like that. These things have to be brought into the open.

Where was the new album recorded?
In Glasgow at the only real world class studio in Scotland. Good place.2

There are some beautiful strings and arrangements on the track PATTERNS IN THE RAIN. Tell us a little about that - why was it orchestrated so? It would probably go well on the continent.
Foster Paterson co-wrote the lyrics with me. I've worked with Foster for seven or eight years. When I've got someone else's framework to work with I've no hesitation about putting lots of production on it. We had so many false starts to the album, it's a little difficult to listen to it right now. I've stopped being autobiographical in my writing nowadays. Foster likes the track now, he wasn't too sure at first, now he likes it I think. I think it's good.

What do you think of this cult figure image you have?
(Laughs) No I don't care about it. It's fine. Any image, it doesn't bother me at all. Have I really got an image? Do I want to get rid of it? -No, why? It's no bother to me at all.

What sort of music do you listen to these days?
Lots of black soul music, newer stuff in the daytime. Bobby Brown, Alexander O'Neill, rap stuff I really like and I listen to that during the day. Bulgarian music I love and have done for twenty years or more. It was a big influence on me through Joe Boyd at Island. Great music. I enjoy some of the music around now, not the Jason Donovan poppy stuff but good dance music and also Miles Davis. Have you read his autobiography? Interesting man and musician.

Based back in Scotland, what do you think of the big interest in Scottish bands these days?
It's fully justified! It really is. It's a real sound, not manufactured. I'm from Glasgow, what do you expect me to say! I'm proud of my roots here. There's really good music here. I really like a band called The Blue Nile.

Any chance of getting together with them? It would be a neat collaboration.
It's an idea... Maybe I should contact them. I really like their music a lot.

Who would you say your big influences were and are?
In the beginning, right before I was playing, Pete Seeger. I liked his politics, that was important to me. The wonderful Davy Graham. Earl Klugh, do you know him? Black American player. Joe Zawinul from Weather Report. I love the tonality, his use of silence even. Fine players all.

You have an extensive tour on the go. Are you looking forward to that?
Oh yes, it's what I live for, it's great. Really looking forward to all that. It's what I enjoy most about music, the live dates.

With that the interview [was] over, John Martyn went back to contemplating the gently falling snow outside the windows of his Scottish home. Maybe thinking of the really extensive tour he's now just getting into. Catch him, he may be in your town now.

1 John has been referring to other Green Bananas on the BBC Live CD. It is rather unlikely that the performance actually took place before an audience. The apparent size of the audience is somewhat incongruous with the number of John's following.
2 Brian Young's Cava Sound studios.
The Zip Code magazine carried no streetdate but the interview must have taken place about March 1990 as The Apprentice was released, and it was on the streets before April 29. (The interview was published on page 23. Page 22 contained the Apprentice promo photo, while the tour dates were printed on page 24 (April 29th through May 28th). Page 38 carried a review. Original price was £ 1.00.

Editor Kevin Ring remembers the occasion:

"I've met John three times. Once in a bar at Warwick University in the 1980s. Talked with him for a brief time about John Stevens Away, just bumped into him by chance. Then I interviewed him just around the time his father died for my Zip Code magazine. It was difficult to get him talking to be honest. Then a third time at a club in Coventry, he was drinking whiskey from a bottle in his dressing room. He was making fun of my big ghetto blaster tape machine, he was nice enough and talked about Nick Drake and other things but it was sad to see him in a drunk state before a concert. But I have to say the concert sounded fine."