Vic Godard & Subway Sect's new album is every bit as good as Lee McFadden says in his review. If there was any justice in the world, "We Come As Aliens" would be getting the sort of media attention currently going to the new Mark Ronson or Kings of Leon albums. I'd interviewed Vic last year for Mudkiss about the Subway Sect story. Since then, any time I saw Vic he was always really up about the new album & I could tell that getting it right meant a lot to him. So I was delighted when he agreed to come over for a talk about the recording & writing of the album, with a few digressions, of course. Vic turned up with some white-label vinyl copies of the album to try out & the new Sexual Objects album. All that remained was to put the kettle on & fire up the dictaphone....
DB: What about the name of the album?
VG: It’s similar to what happened at the gig where we supported Siouxsie and the Banshees, Jan or Feb 1980 – it was me, Rob Green, Paul Myers, Bob Ward and we had a Turkish keyboard player. We were doing up tempo Northern Soul stuff and it was a time when the Gothic thing was starting. It was really packed in the Music Machine, like 2000 people and everyone in the whole audience in black leather, black mascara, black hair and we had these silly stripey T-shirts and looked like the Beach Boys or something. So it was a similar thing to when we played at the Rebellion thing, they were virtually all similarly dressed and we came in like, these shorts, like we were schoolboys on an outing to Blackpool or something, in our shorts and sandals, and as we walked through you could see them thinking “Who are these? The caterers or something?!”
DB: Last time we were talking, about 18 months ago (Jan 09 actually), you were just starting to record the album...
VG: Yeah, we’d done four tracks initially, and then there was a big hiatus. After that we tried to learn the rest of the songs. That was when Gary [Ainge] did his back in. We did the first five with Gary and then we were doing gigs. We did Glasgow, Edinburgh and then Newcastle on the way back. That was Gary’s last gig, the Newcastle one. I don’t know whether it was the drumming or driving that finally did it for him.
DB: So have you taken longer on this album than you usually do?
VG: Oh yeah well, ‘cos we had to find a new drummer didn’t we, so that was quite a long time, because Gary had learnt, like, not all of the rest of the songs, but we’d been working with Gary on several of these other songs that we didn’t do as the first five, and we’d also worked on a few other songs that didn’t make it on the album. In fact I think there were over 20 songs that were rehearsed for the album. But a lot of the ones we rehearsed with Gary we never went on to do, so that was when I went and got Paul [Cook] in and that was when we started rehearsing……..well, first of all I made up a 4-track tape of about five songs and gave it to Paul, and said how about any of these? There was one he wasn’t mad on, so we dropped that and did four of them, and then I found that a couple of older songs on 4-track that I thought would be really good for Paul to drum on – when I heard my drum machine, I thought it sounded almost like Paul’s style, so I picked a couple of these. There was one song “Music of a Werewolf” that we practised, and I thought it sounded fantastic, but because we’d started practising along to the drum machine Paul said you might just as well use the machine on the track so that’s what we did. We still do it live, with Mark [Braby] doing the drums and it sounds totally different, doing it live.
DB: I really like the keyboards on a lot of the tracks. Is that something you’ve used before?
VG: That’s Kevin [Younger], he’s really good. The thing is Kev plays keyboards every gig, but on the album he’s got the real thing. When we do our gigs, Kev’s got my little keyboard thing – its not a toy but it’s not really professional standard! They wouldn’t allow it in the recording studio & I actually had a bit of an argument over that. I was insistent that we used my keyboard and said "Look, it’s what we use live, why do we have to change just because we’re doing an album?" I couldn’t see why. Now that I’ve heard the album, I understand. It’s the same reason that I use my guitar live but there’s no way I could use it on the album – I mean, if you wanted a sound like a really cheap sounding punk band from 1976, you’d use my keyboard and my guitar which would have been ideal for “1978 Now”, which is basically what we did, but this album isn’t really like that. The sounds on it are a bit better than punk, aren’t they? So for that you need real equipment – I still don’t know why technically my keyboard isn’t that, but they persuaded me, John and Kevin persuaded me that it would be really not do it justice to the songs – the other thing was my bass. My bass only cost £10 and that’s what we use live, but John’s got the proper version of it that costs like £600. We use that on the album and it makes a huge difference, and similarly John’s got one of those Chuck Berry Gibson big semi-acoustic guitars, and they’re worth a lot of money so I actually played that on the album. I started off using one of Kev’s guitars, but it sounded really manky – sometimes you want things to sound manky, but this album isn’t, it’s a bit better sound wise than that.
DB: OK – you probably won’t agree, but at times to me its got what Dylan called the “wild mercury sound”, that keyboards & guitars & words combination, like on “Highway 61”, where it all comes together…
VG: Really? That’s good, they were great sounds – not that we deliberately set out to do that – but I didn’t realise Kevin was actually good enough on piano. I didn’t know he played piano! I don’t think he knew he played piano! When we did “1978 Now” Leigh [Curtis] left, he didn’t want to leave us in the lurch, so he said, “Look, I’ve got to leave the group, but I’ve already sounded out someone to replace myself”. What happened was I’d told Leigh that to do the album, we’d need a keyboard player. He said “I can’t do it anymore, but I’ve got a mate – Kevin – who plays a bit of guitar, but he’s also really good on the organ. So when we got Kevin in we started using his keyboards, & I was always trying to get him to play piano, but he said he didn’t play or didn’t have one. He had one of these little things that was only an organ, so after a few gigs where he was playing organ and no piano, at rehearsals I brought my keyboard that’s got like millions of sounds on it, & said “Look, you can play piano” – I think it was “That Train”, we needed organ and piano, & he put in a really great performance, he did them nearly all in one evening – one track after another, switching between different organ and piano sounds. It was really quite stressful, cos he was the only one playing any instruments. Me & John & Mark were just watching him do his thing, really. He came in after work & had to get it done before his last train left from Loughborough Junction cos he had to get back to Chatham. So I had to quickly whisk him round the station just to get his last train - so he did everything he needed to, keyboard-wise, on that one night
DB: No, you don't want to get stranded at Loughborough Junction (laughter) - now, were all the songs written recently?
VG: No, "That Train" I've been doing for donkey's years, & "Ne'er - I did it once with the [Bitter] Springs, but then we just forgot about it. We did it at a gig up in Glasgow, & it caused a bit of resentment between me & the Springs for a while, cos what happened was really unfortunate. It was in the days when they were doing repair work on that line, the Western one? ... the one that goes to Glasgow. They'd had this horrendous journey - they'd left about 11 in the morning & they got to the station in Glasgow about nine at night. They had their guitars, Dan had his bass, & it was snowing. It was walking distance to the gig, so they had to run, cos we had to be on & there was a curfew [at the club]. So they ran into the venue about 9.25, quickly had a ten minute sit-down & a drink, & then it was straight onstage. Me & my manager at the time - James Dutton - & a mate of Bitter Springs who worked for British Airways, we all flew up. We all got up there, & it's like, "What happened to the others? They were meant to be here for the soundcheck." At one point the promoter came up to me & said, "Look, Vic, you're just gonna have to go on & do something."
I said, "I can't, they've got all the guitars & equipment."
So he said "You'll just have to do a verbal thing then, like take a q & a session"
So I was like, "Do what?!" I was really glad when they walked in...
DB: "Best Albums..." - is that a kind of statement of intent?
VG: That dates back from when I was with Wet Dog, we did that live a couple of times then, when Leigh (Curtis) was in the band & Trigger. It was just a title I had in mind for us - it was like a piss-take of the K-Tel things, "Best Album in the World Ever, Vols 1-99", type of idea. So that started off about eight years ago - 2002? - when I was doing that live for the first time. We never really had the right sound though. I knew I wanted it to be like a Northern Soul type of thing, & we just didn't have that sound at that time. It was only when we got Gary in on drums, with Mark [Braby] on bass & Kevin on the organ. But when I first started doing that I used to do it all on the keyboards, just as an instrumental, without any singing - not with Leigh & the Wet Dog lot. It was only when we'd learnt the music for it that we put Kevin on the keyboards & I switched over to singing it. We did quite a lot of work on it, Garry particularly with the drum rolls. I'd told him that I wanted the drum roll from a Kinks song - what is it? I've since found that its the same roll on Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little 16".. That must've been the one that Mick Avory used on the Kinks' record, "It's My Life, & I Do What I Want"...
DB: Er, wasn't that by the Animals?
VG: Oh, what's the one?! - "Tired of Waiting". It's on the break where the beat goes down ... so that's the roll. I said to Gary, "What I want you to do is - when I get to the point where I'm just about to sing the chorus on "Best Album", I want you to play the roll from "Tired of Waiting", & he just said, "No, it's impossible".
I said "What are you talking about?
He said, "Well, they're two totally different things - "Best Album" is quite a fast song, & "Tired of Waiting" is nowhere near that fast, & it can't be fitted in that gap."
So I said, "Well, what that means is we're playing the song too fast - it's one of those songs that needs to sound like you're doing it faster than you really are. Don't forget, Northern Soul is like a dance thing, so we're just playing it too fast. That's the same thing as when I was with Leigh & the Wet Dog lot. We were doing it too fast to dance to, so it never really sounded right until we slowed it down. Even when we got into the recording studio, Gary was still insisting that it as impossible to get that roll in - anyway, he did it, so it must've been possible! It's one of those things where you can hear it in your head, but it's really hard to communicate, even to a drummer, that it does fit in.But that's what doing an album is all about- you've got to get all the content that's in your brain into the members of the band's brains, exactly as you want it. Because if one person does it slightly different to the way you imagine it, it puts all the other three out all the way along, like a house of cards falling over. So there's a lot of that there with the album, a bit of discord where people are saying "No, that can't be played there," & I'm saying, "It's got to be played there, it's not like it can't be done. If it isn't played there we'll have to do a different song."
DB: The next four songs [Take Over, Back in the Community, Same Plan, If we'd've] are all dealing with pretty direct social & political issues...
VG: Yeah, that's the Post Office [laughs]
DB: ... so you're seeing these things all the time there?
VG: Yeah, Simon [Rivers] says that's his favourite bit of the album. It's not a good time at the Post Office. They're doing this thing they call "Collapsing the Rounds", which means if someone goes on leave, there's no-one to do their round, but the people next to him have to divide it up between them. I've been there since '86, so there's a lot of memories
DB: "Et Meme" - is that revisiting Francoise Hardy?
VG: Yeah, that's a live thing we've been doing for ages, & there's another song by Francoise Hardy that I've got on myspace, "La Maison Ou J'ai Grandi". We used to do that live with Trigger & Leigh & Sophie & Becca. We played it in Barcelona & it was the one that went down best of all the things we played.
DB: At a guess - is "Rhododendron Town" about Twickenham [leafy suburb where Vic does his post round]?
VG: Yeah, definitely. That's another assignment, just remembering how you wrote that on your round, ploughing through these rhododendrons in people's gardens [laughs]
DB: Yeah, we've got them down below too. They're like a symbol if you grew up round here...
You were talking about "That Train", how it's got a real live feel to it, kinda part soul or rockabilly, or like [60's r&b groups] the Pretty Things or Downliners Sect...
VG: It started out as a sort of gospel thing, really. I wrote it on the piano, without any drums, just as a simple gospel song, & then when I started doing it with Leigh & Trigger & that lot we added in the organ, harmonica & all the other elements, so it became like Lonnie Donegan doing a gospel-type thing. I still play Lonnie Donegan all the time on my Dad's stereogram. It's the perfect music to play on a stereogram - simple, the bass comes through really well. He did some great stuff, "Battle of New Orleans," "Tom Dooley," & all that. In fact, Dylan's first album really reminded me of the area that Lonnie Donegan was doing, but in a different way. I remember loving him even as a kid - "Cumberland Gap," what a guitar solo!
DB: "Ne'er" is another social/political thing, but "Out of Our Zone" seems like more of a personal lyric...
VG: Well, that's my Afghanistan number. It's like from the point of view of the officers who have to go telling the parents about theuir sons dying, then it comes in from his angle. Paul thinks there's not enough bass on it - we had a listen-through, & there werea few things he pointed out, & all of them were right, & we fixed them all. But on this one he said he can't hear his bass drum ... we did a version where we put the bass drum quite prominent, but it ruined the vocal for some reason. So I had to go with the version that had the really good vocal - I dunno, something about the bass drum interfered with my vocal, cos I'm singing it quite deep there compared to the other tracks. Maybe it's something to do with the resonances in my voice, the bass drum was blotting them out & it made the vocals sound really weedy. I think this is my favourite track - there's two really, this & "The Same Plan" - my little dig at my employers at the Post Office [laughs].
I really liked playing guitar on this album. Having one of those top-of-the-range guitars does make a lot of difference. I'm not saying I want to own one - if I had one, I'd be too precious with it at gigs. I'd be really paranoid - whereas I'd rather have a guitar that if I sling it about, it doesn't matter. Not that I do sling it about! I'm not really into ownership or high-value goods, that you'd really mind if it got smashed, that's my attitude.
Gary's drumming on this track ["Life in the Distance"] is absolutely phenomenal - it's probably what did his back in! The bass is good as well - I like the off-beat nature of it, the beat. Kev plays some fantastic organ & piano on this as well. It's my Ray Charles type vibe, really.
DB: The last track's "Music of a Werewolf"...
VG: That's like a 1990's song I wrote on a 4-track originally as a sort of response to "The Munsters". It started off as me trying to play the theme tune to "The Munsters" on a guitar. It's always been one of my favourites - [sings riff] - it's quite a tricky song. I think it was probably done by somebody quite famous, like the geezer who did the "Pink Panther" - not Mancini, but someone of that era [Jack Marshall, 1921-1973]. It's a really good tune, & so it was more like a '50's beat the way I did it on the 4-track. Just by total accident, when Gary did his back, & I was thinking of doing "Ne'er", Paul said, "The songs you want to do, just give me a cassette of them," so I thought, "I've got 'Ne'er', it's on my 4-track stuff from the mid-90's. So I went out in the garage , brought all my cassettes in, & went through 'em looking for that song. Went through loads of them, finally I saw the one that had "Ne'er" on it, & this was next to it, "Music of a Werewolf," & I thought, "This is fantastic, I've got to do that song." I dunno why I slowed it up - I think probably to get more words in. It's much faster on the 4-track, but I don't think I could have got all these words in at that speed, cos it's quite a wordy song...
DB: Yeah, I love the bit about [the painting] Gericault's "The Raft of the Medusa"...
VG: It was written in response to someone on the internet who asked, "How do you physically go about writing a song?" I said to him, "I don't really write the song - the words you obviously do, but really the actual tune & everything that goes with it just comes into my head at inopportune moments."
It's just if you happen to hold it in your head long enough to get it recorded, then it becomes a song, y'know? Nine-tenths of the time you don't , & that song doesn't happen, unless it resurfaces ten years later or some other time. So I was saying to him, "I'm not actually sitting down, saying 'Oh right, I'm going to Write a Song now',". What I am doing is getting all these songs coming into my head & recording them all, & then if there's an afternoon when I'm not doing anything, I'm sifting through 'em, & that's when I'm starting to write the words. But I've also got the same thing going on with words, in that if I get a snatch of words or an idea, that all goes into the pad. I've always got pen & paper with me all the time, so I don't ever lose any of those in the way that I do with the music.
DB: I noticed a few references to taking notes in the lyrics...
VG: Yeah, & the ghettoblaster - which Paul says belongs in a skip! I ended up when Paul came round to listen to the album - I've got a fault with my actual cd player, it's got a really horrible crackly noise - so we ended up going out & listening to it in the car, cos that's the only place we had a stereo that didn't have a horrible hissing noise.
The ghettoblaster, since I've had that, I've started taking songwriting a lot more seriously. Before that it was, "If i can be bothered to record something, I will"
DB: The "London Punk Tapes" exhibition you were involved with in Barcelona (at the Arts Santa Monica gallery on Las Ramblas) - is it still on? [see Vic's myspace for more info]
VG: Well, there's only another week left ... we're playing two gigs in Barcelona, & a place called Vic, a town 75km from Barcelona, it's meant to be really nice. But that exhibition was right on Las Ramblas, right in the thick of it. I just love it out there. I could easily stay there, I love all the buildings. I could wander through all those artchways forever. It just reminds me of a lot of things I read about Paris in the 1830's, & if you go to Barcelona it almost brings to life that Gothic look that you can imagine in Paris before they knocked it down.