Monday, December 23, 2013

A Conversation with Simon from Quiet Marauder

His was one of the brains behind my album of the year, and yesterday, Quiet Marauder's Simon M. Read very kindly gave up an hour of his time for a chat with me. As you'd expect, we spent most of that hour talking about MEN - the 111-track leviathan that pipped Okkervil River to my personal top spot last week - but we also found time to discuss The Magnetic Fields, the tragic life of Leslie Grantham, and, ooh, just about everything in between.

Here's how it went...

"I haven't murdered anybody - I want to make that clear."

Hi Simon. Are you doing anything good for Christmas?
I'm going to be in Plymouth for Christmas, seeing my family.

Is Plymouth your hometown, then?
Yeah, it's where I'm from originally. I don't go back there very much, and when I do go back it's changed significantly; it's got these big new shopping malls now. We only had a Virgin Megastore there when I was growing up, and we've got all the shops now. It's kind of exciting. But I don't know anybody there - apart from my family, obviously - so it's a bit dull. I tend to go down there just for a few days.

Have Quiet Marauder ever played in Plymouth? The big hometown show?
No! I'd love to do that, but again, we don't really know anybody there, so it would just be my mum and dad coming to hear me swear at people. And that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

You could charter a minibus from Cardiff.
That would be really cool. Bring my new hometown down to my old hometown, and they could all meet.

Let's talk about MEN, then. At what point did you say, "We're gonna record 111 tracks, and it's gonna be all about the male brain", as opposed to just, "We're writing loads of songs"?
There was definitely a transition point, because we were just writing loads of songs to start with. I noticed quite early on, though, that they were largely about male identities - I think I was reacting to my own doubts about my own masculinity. And then Johnny [Day] came on board and starting writing his own songs, which boosted the number of songs we could do, although I sort of engineered him to write about men; when we were writing songs together, he'd be writing songs in a certain way and I'd say, "Let's change that lyric to be 'man' instead of 'person'" to make it more clear, more explicit.

The Album Wall's Album of 2013

We got to the point where we had about sixty-odd songs, and we started talking about a hundred-song album (just as a joke). But then we kept accelerating past a hundred - I think it got to, like, two hundred, and we were thinking, "Well, we should probably just put them all out."

So it wasn't a case of, "We want to release 111 songs, we now have to write that many"? You already had hundreds to begin with?
Yeah, exactly. Once we'd decided that we were gonna release a long album - this was about 60% of the way in, and most of those songs were the songs that ended up on MEN - there was that tipping point. We had the concept in place already because we thought we were a band about that, that's kind of what our interests were, but as it transpires we've got much broader stuff going on now, we're writing in very different ways.

But yeah, we decided and fixated on 100 as the number, and then we had these ideas about making the artwork a brain, of which we could allot percentages to the different aspects and themes. So 'Rejection' would be 12%, and then 'Sex' would be 26%, and so there'd be 26 songs about sex. But then I kind of thought that was getting too complex...

Only then?
Yeah, well, it was getting difficult because I had all the songs written with all of these themes and I was trying to put them all in a matrix...and when you need a matrix to make sense of your own album, it's probably gone too far. So I went for a much looser sort of approach in the end; all the themes are still there, but they're not really defined as such.

Well, you've written out all the keywords for each volume on the packaging, but there is a bit of overlap between them.
Exactly. And that was the difficulty, trying to work it out. Some songs could go in multiple places, and so it just became more about where it felt right to put it.

That was my next question - once you've got 111 songs that you want on your album, how on Earth do you put them in order?
I've heard people talking about the album, saying that they put it on shuffle, and I don't think that's a good approach because you're not going to understand what's going on; it may seem quite fun, but also really long and confusing (not that it's not really long and confusing anyway).

The idea is that there's a narrative going on. It's not something that actually happened to me, although a lot of it is drawn from my own realities. You start off fairly innocently with this man, doing his masculine banter and perving on people (as men do), but then that first volume is about that gradient whereby love can turn sort of nasty as it develops and runs its course. But on the way it can also be quite sweet in spite of being quite sinister, and I wanted to show all of that complexity. So that whole first volume is about love and rejection and that sort of stuff.

MEN, Volume 1: "Love and rejection and that sort of stuff"

And then the second volume...because of all that rejection, it makes the psyche reflect more on the past, and that leads to feelings of inadequacy because the past is normally better than what you're living right now. So that leads to desires for new stuff and novel things, but all of that doesn't work, and at the end, Life Is Shit.

Quiet Marauder - MEN - Volume 2 - Eggs!
MEN, Volume 2: "Feelings of inadequacy"

That then leads to a full-on crisis where you're initially latching onto aspects of popular culture, because that's what we stream ourselves through. And so you reach for male identities which appear to be stable or heroic...and after that doesn't work, because nothing really works, that's when drink and drugs get involved more palpably. And that's kind of it for volume three, although there's a brief obsession with animals which is just, y'know...

...a B plot?
I like the fact that there's this subtext of something else going on, but that was just because of the drugs, really.

Quiet Marauder - MEN - Volume 3 - Wake Up Bono
MEN, Volume 3: "Drink and drugs get involved more palpably"

And then the fourth volume is just meant to tie it all together and create the same sort of themes again, but in a condensed version, I guess, of the last three volumes. All culminating in some form of resolution, although it's a life-changing and life-ending kind of resolution.

Yeah, there are a few songs towards the end of the fourth one that seem to be about the end of the world and robots killing us all...
Yeah. Those songs particularly are metaphorical; the crisis has reached such a full stage that it feels like the end of the world is actually happening. And from my own experience of having sort of a mini-breakdown, that's how it feels, at points, during those really dark moments of your life. You don't know whether you're going to get through that thing.

Quiet Marauder - MEN - Volume 4 - A Certain Girl
MEN, Volume 4: "A life-changing and life-ending kind of resolution"

So it's quite serious. But I never like to write serious songs, so instead I just made it a conversation between an alien and a man. And it makes me laugh; I like how the guy sounds so pathetic. He's accepted his fate and he can't be bothered to do anything about it.

I promised myself that I wouldn't ask too many questions about specific songs, but the last one - Welcome Home, Quiet Marauder - comes straight after all this robot apocalypse stuff, and suddenly it feels a lot safer. It does sound like you're coming home.
Yeah. And it's weird because that was one of the first songs I wrote; I'd split up with somebody, having been with them for quite a long time, and you suddenly feel like you're unshackled from all of the expectations that were on you. And it felt like I had sort of come back to myself, somehow; I'd recently recovered from my mini-breakdown, as well, so I was feeling kind of reborn.

Still, the more I thought about the words in that song, and the simplicity of it all...there is this sense of resentment which goes on when you return to yourself. At some point, you left yourself, and so you kind of have to overcome that. It's a very simple song - most of it's just melody and ba-ba-bas - but it felt kind of euphoric, especially as we re-recorded it and especially when we play that one live. So yeah, it's just about that rejoining; I felt like my brains had been separated during my breakdown, like a veil had been put between the two sides, and unless that was ripped back out, I wouldn't conjoin myself again.

It struck me as quite a meta ending to the album - you've just spent the best part of five hours exploring all these weird themes, and then right at the end, you're making this return to reality.
Exactly, yeah. People asked me what the last song on the album would be, because when they found out that it was that length, they said, "Well, how are you going to finish that?" And even though I wrote it first, that song makes sense to me as a closer.

Let's talk about the guest musicians - there are quite a few. How did you choose them? wasn't really a choice, it was just mass contacting of everyone! There were some people who I wanted on it but didn't get; I approached, say, Sweet Baboo, and he was too busy (although he was still very kind about it). There were a couple of other people, too, who we tried to get hold of but who couldn't do it...I was trying to get Inc.A to play on one or two songs, but it was hard to get everyone together.

I was actively making choices for songs that I thought people would be useful on, or for people who I thought might benefit that song, and so I was always trying to pick the people who would work best. Hail! The Planes are a good example - I love their sound, and I knew that strings would be particularly helpful. Holly's a fantastic violinist as well as a singer, and so when I went 'round to her house, I know exactly which songs I wanted her on. She plays on The Game and This is Not a War; I wanted them to be big builders with lots of strings coming through them. The School, as well...there were only two or three songs that I thought would work for them, and Love (Twinned With Hate) is perfect for them because, well, it sounds kind of like them.

So these songs weren't written with their guest stars in mind - it was more that, once they had been written, you realised that those artists would sound good on those songs?
Yeah. I never wrote a song and thought, "Oh, I'll get somebody else to do that" - I didn't even think about that, really, until much later on. They were all written, initially, with me or Johnny singing on them. Johnny contributed loads of songs, but I kind of took charge of getting the guests on, so I made some choices...I got Jemma [Roper] to play on a couple of Johnny's songs, but I generally left his alone because I didn't feel comfortable...

...toying with his stuff?
 Yeah, although he did give me permission. But I think that Johnny's song work so well on their own...they're not like my songs, they're mini-operas with, like, four different parts to them. Whereas mine are just four chords repeated again and again.

You mentioned that people had been listening to it on shuffle, and you said that maybe wasn't the ideal way to listen to it, but at the same time, you don't recommend sitting down and listening to all four discs in one go...
No, that would be like torture, or some form of madness. how do you think it should be listened to?
I don't think it's a problem to listen to, say, one volume at a time, and then have a break before coming back to it. As you probably know, my favourite album ever is 69 Love Songs, and I didn't listen to that in one go, at least not the first time. I listened to the first volume, and loved it, and then I worked my way through the rest of it over time. And it was because the first volume was so good that I wanted to listen to the rest of it.

69 Love Songs - Magnetic Fields (2000)
69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields."My favourite album ever".

That was a time when I'd just gone to university, and I first had a desktop computer - I wasn't so overwhelmed by technology as I am now, with a phone that takes ten minutes to send a text. That was a simpler time, and I could spend that time listening, but I understand that, nowadays, people have to spend a little less time just listening to music. They do it in other ways.

I think it's a little box of stuff that you can dip into rather than forcing yourself to go all the way through it.

I listened to 69 Love Songs the same way as you did - first volume on one night, number two the following day - and that's how I listened to MEN as well. I think I spread it across a week.
Yeah, that makes sense to me.

And that's a good way to do it, because it does feel more like an epic journey that way, rather than just a way to kill some time.
I kind of think of it like a book - you wouldn't read a book in one go, you'd have to take a break. I used to go out with an author, and some of the techniques she used while writing her books - having it all mapped out on a board, for example - that's the kind of stuff I was doing to get everything in place. Moving themes around, moving songs around, to see how it all works. And MEN is like a story in itself; it's got a big concept underlying it, but broadly, it's just about someone going through a lot of problems.

Well, such is life.

Now, 69 Love Songs was once performed in London. They performed all of the first volume and half of volume two, and on the following night, they played the rest of volume two and all of volume three. I've heard rumours - I don't know how substantiated they are - that there are plans to play MEN, in its entirety, live...
Well, people keep talking about it and... [sighs wearily] ...I know that we can play a lot of the songs live, but some of them would be quite difficult. A song like I Need to Stop Thinking involves me doing about 16 different melodica lines, and I only have two melodicas. So we're gonna struggle with that.

You could hire fourteen other melodi...cists.
Yeah, it'd have to be something of that scale. I've probably get a reputation now for taking on projects of a massive scale, but this one seems like an organisational nightmare. The good thing about letting people guest on your album is that you can do it over a long period of time, but trying to get everybody in one place at the same time would be really hard.

Having said that, we could have a fair crack of the whip at it...It really depends on how next year goes. I'd love to do it, really, even if it's a case of having some of the songs played through a MacBook in a John-Mouse-doing-karaoke sort of thing. Macho Love, for instance, would be really hard - we'd have to get Macho Man Randy Savage back from the grave to come and do his guest vocals.

[examines piece of paper with questions written on it] Right, what I've written here is: "Were you concerned that, in an age where people and businesses can get in trouble for anything that's perceived as being even slightly sexist, that this album might cause a bit of controversy?"
Well, actually, I had this awful show in Penarth once. There weren't that many people there...Penarth's quite a middle-class place, or so I perceive it, I hope that doesn't offend anyone...

No, I'm sure that's pretty much spot-on.
Well, there was a fairly middle-aged lady there who watched me in horror and then told me how irresponsible I was being. I didn't enjoy the show anyway - I wasn't sure I was engaging people that night - but it did make me question that view of things. There are very sexist parts, and there's stuff about murdering women...only when you take that in the wider context of the songs and the album do you see that there's no intent behind that stuff. It's a a reflection of what I've seen other people doing, and not how I feel myself.

Most of the sexist stuff comes on either volume one or four, because that's where all the perviness and stuff comes out. My point is to show that what we perceive as being quite innocent - joking about a girl's arse, or something - isn't so different to chasing someone through a wood with the intent of raping her. There are obviously a lot of steps between those two things - it's kind of like evolution, and the fossils you'll find that evidence it. There are always gaps to be filled, but stalking and voyeurism can come from the same place as joking about how pretty someone is.

One of the things I mentioned in my blog about MEN is how each volume seems to start with a basic idea - like staring at a girl, or having some drinks down the pub - before taking it to its logical conclusion, so that you end up trying to murder that girl or experiencing some crazy, drug-fuelled nightmare.
I think men do live life in extremes - most of the men I know are either extremely happy or extremely sad at any given point in time. I don't know why that is, but women seem much more balanced most of the time. I can't understand this war between the genders, I just don't partake in it. Women - in spite of their reputation for being moody and stroppy - seem to be so much less stroppy than the men I encounter.

But I love that stroppiness, it's great. I'm stroppy too.

There are quite a few instruments on the album - there's a flute in places, and you've already mentioned the violin - but it always comes back to the melodica, which seems to be Quiet Marauder's signature instrument. Is there a reason why that plays such a large part in your music?
I don't know! Francesca [Dimech] got me that for my birthday two years ago...I used to just be a guitarist, really, with occasional forays into drums and hand percussion, but then she got me this melodica, so I started teaching myself how to play that.

And then I found this brilliant effect that makes it sound so haunting and ghostly, and I just loved it. I think I was quite proud of the fact that I could play another instrument, all of a sudden, so I just kept putting it on stuff. It changed the way I write songs; since I can't sing with a melodica tube in my mouth, the music started coming before the words, which was very unusual for me because I'm very word-centric.

I love the sound of it. I think it works really well with an acoustic guitar; you can do lots of undulating rhythms with it; and you can use vocal effects to make it go mental. Some of the stuff on MEN sounds like synths, but that's just a melodica.

Did you ever arrive at a point where you thought, "Fuck it, this is stupid, let's just throw it away and start again"?
No, I always felt like we had the core. I suppose the only moment where I felt like that was when I realised that the songs I'd recorded earliest weren't up to scratch (those recordings, anyway; I still wanted to keep the songs). So I had to re-record all of those, which was quite a daunting prospect - there were probably about forty-odd songs which I thought could sound a lot better.

And once you start doing that...I started out as a really bad producer, and as things progressed, I was getting better and better. So after I re-recorded the earliest ones, I started thinking that the ones in the middle didn't sound right, and this eventually to re-recording most of the songs on the album.

But I never felt like I should give up, I just felt like it needed constant tweaking. I wanted it to be lo-fi - that's kind of what I aspire to - but I wanted it to sound really good in its lo-fi-ness.

So are you 100% happy with the final cut?
No, never a hundred percent. I'm massively proud of it in ways that I never expected to be - hearing those songs being played on the radio still thrills me, and so do people's responses. But there are certain points where I hear a note out of place...there's a moment on volume one (I'm not going to name it or everyone will notice it) where I'm playing the melodica and quite audibly running out of breath, which causes me to kind of stumble over a note. And I could have redone that so easily, but I just couldn't be bothered at the time, so I left it.

From left: Francesca Dimech, Simon M. Read, Rowan Liggett (image from WalesOnline)

With that said, I don't think there's a track out of place on the album, and I think everything's exactly what I wanted it to be. I probably could have swapped some more songs around - I've got some other songs which are really great, and I look back at them and think, "Aw, that's really good actually", but I think they maybe didn't work with the album and there's a reason why I left them out.

Here's a big question, then: what is your favourite song on the whole album?
...It's odd, this one. They all contribute in some way, but for me, the beating heart of the album - and the one that makes me feel the saddest when I listen to it - is the one about Leslie Grantham.

Yes! I love that one!
Well that actually just came from somebody challenging me to write a song about Leslie Grantham being stuck in Fort Boyard. But then I thought about it, and how sad is that? That this great alpha male guy has just been locked up? And then there was all that stuff with the sex scandal...and it just seemed like such a tragic life, all of a sudden. And I used to laugh about Leslie Grantham, but now...

You've thought about it too hard.
Yeah. And to me, a lot of the themes are in that song: loneliness, the loss of friendship groups, and things like that. It's also got all this stuff about corporate team-building exercises and punitive measures...I don't know, there's a lot of stuff that ties off from there. As I say, it's like the heart of the album.

In the little movie that you made to go with the album - I'm taking it as a not-quite-accurate representation of how it actually was...
[mock seriously] How do you mean?

No, it's not entirely accurate. I wrote that, trying to make myself look like The Biggest Bastard in the World, and when I was looking back at it I thought, "Actually, this is quite close to what I'm like."

And I realise it more and more now. One of my good friends, Rowan, is in the band; previous to that, Johnny, Matt [Pasternakiewicz], Fran and I were all sweetness and light, all best buddies, but I don't think I'm like that to Rowan. And Rowan's noticed - he calls me out on it every time (which is good of him) and I tell him when he's being a knob (which he often is). It's kind of healthy, in a way, to have someone challenging you...the representation in the film is not that far from reality, although I do think I'm much, much nicer to them than that, and I hope they think so too.

Well, you've already mentioned that songwriting duties were kind of split between yourself and Johnny...and I find that interesting, because it seems like such an auteur-ish project, and I think it's very big of you to let someone else play such a major part in its realisation.
Yeah, and I wouldn't have done that if I didn't think he knew exactly what he was doing. Johnny is amazing - I remember seeing him play under the guise of Johnny Alchemist a long time ago, maybe five years back, and all of his songs then were about, like, Alison 'accidentally' falling down the stairs. So I knew that he had a dark songwriting mind, and I always wanted to work with him. I even recorded some of his songs back in those days.

Quiet Marauder in 2013 (Johnny front right)

So when Quiet Marauder began in earnest, I felt that if I wanted to play these songs live with somebody then Johnny would be perfect, and he would appreciate the songs. And then he said, "Oh, I've got these songs, we can play these too", and I listened to them and they just work, so well. He can write about anything and make it sound really, really authoritative when he's actually just repeating himself. He makes it sound so meaningful, and I felt like it was the only thing to do, because he got what I was trying to do.

I don't generally hand over duties like that unless I respect people. Ian's another person, and Matt as well, they both helped to write some parts of the album. Some of the lyrics for Wake Up Bono, for example.

Another thing you mention in the film is the Moustache song...and it amazes me that an album with 111 tracks can still have that one track that is mentioned in every review, and which becomes the albatross at live shows. Do you think of it that way, or was it just a joke for the film?
No, I love that song.  It was mainly a joke, because a lot of artists do have that view of their songs, where they'll refuse to play the big ones. I saw Babybird in The Globe a while ago, and he didn't play You're Gorgeous, and I was in two minds about it: I respect his decision not to do that, but at the same time...I'm not even a fan of that song, particularly, but what annoyed me was the way he was so aggressive about not playing it.

Above: a song you'll probably never hear live

So he made a big point of not playing it?
Exactly, and I think that if you don't want to do it, that's fine, but don't over-justify your decision. Anyway, I love all of the songs on MEN at the moment (although I'm sure there will come a point where they'll bore me), but that song is still one of my favourites. I'm so glad I wrote it, and that people still like it a year later, even though it took about eight seconds to write.

Above: a song you may well hear live, possibly while chewing through Burt Reynolds

And it's really good fun in the live shows, watching people chew through the masks. Especially when you get loads of people doing it.

How's the Guiness world record application going?
Ah, yes. It's hard to tell, because Guiness...I don't want to criticise them, but they're not the fastest-moving juggernaut in the world. We asked for one record but we were told that it was too vague - we were trying to generate our own record, basically, because there's not currently a monitored record for longest début album. And of course, 'longest debut album' could mean multiple things; that was their argument, and it's kind of true. So we've submitted 'Most Tracks on a Debut Album' and 'Longest Playing Time on a Debut Album', and I haven't heard back on those yet.

It was interesting, because I hadn't really thought about the world record at all until it was mentioned to me by somebody else. I wasn't that fussed about it. I just hope that it doesn't distract too much from the album; I'm doing it because it's a cool thing to do, not because I think it will make the album sell better.

That would be one of my concerns, I think, if I were in your shoes. People might say, "Oh, it's an album with 111 tracks! That's kooky!" without really paying any attention to what's contained within.
I know, and that is a worry for me. But it's inevitably going to be there, so I guess it's just about choosing not to over-emphasise that, and doing press to promote other aspects of the album instead. Hopefully, people will listen to it and hear that there's a lot of sociology and philosophical theory going on in there. It's not just about seeing how many songs we could throw out.

What's next, then? Are you looking to better MEN, or is that your magnum opus, do you think?
Nope, we're already working on the second album (albeit tentatively, because we've got quite a big idea for this one).

Another one?
Yeah, this one's going to be more story-driven than MEN in the sense that there's a discernible narrative involving named characters.

It's going to be about a floating stone that appears in the sky in a picnic and play area near Kent. It defies all current science, and a dog-walker finds it one morning, reports it to the police, and then the press all suddenly converge on this spot in Kent. And so it kind of becomes about science's slow decline as people begin to doubt it, and you begin to see new belief systems emerge which are sort of New Age in origin.

So it's kind of about the entwinement of those things, and especially about how people would react to a scientific phenomenon (or an anti-scientific phenomenon). The Kent tourist board put lots of signs up and sell loads of T-shirts, and everyone goes to look at it for a while because it's quite a beautiful thing - it's just there, and at night-time it emanates a sort of white light from its centre. Hippies go and dance to it, and families come to look at the floating stone, so it's a big tourist success for a few years.

But it's like a fad, and in spite of all this wonderful light, people forget about it once the press coverage has died down and time has passed. Only a few people are left watching it, about fifty years later.

So that's the story of it, and we're trying to condense that down into songs, although the aim is to have it come with an accompanying book, which will be written by an author friend of ours. And then there will be artwork and maybe a theatre piece.

And will it have fewer tracks?
Yeah, it's going to have less tracks. We're more focused, I think; I wanted MEN to be so long because men are so complex, they need that length. But if it's just a story about a stone somewhere in Kent, you've get your end point and your beginning point and you know (roughly) how you're going to get from one to the other. We just have to put the bits in the middle.

And of course, it will still be Quiet Marauder. There are loads of themes tied up in that story that are very important to me, so I want to do it right, but I also want it to be quite funny. I'm trying to make a serious point about something, but I don't want anyone to not enjoy the journey.

Okay - to what extent do you think that the songs and the lyrics on MEN reflect your own life? Because, if it's an accurate reflection of how you live, there's some pretty disturbing stuff on there.
There are two answers, really. I think they all do, at some point - even Johnny's songs - because as you said yourself, it's about taking things to extremes. So there's no song on there that I don't believe to be true about me...that doesn't mean that I've gone and perved on a woman for six months at my back window, but Accidental Voyeur is a good example, because that happened to me. I was sat on my bed, noodling on my guitar, and my window does back onto other people's windows and I did suddenly see a woman undressing.

At which point I stopped looking. But my brain doesn't allow things to just end like that - I started to feel guilty about it, and I imagined what it would be like if I hadn't stopped looking, and if I had become obsessed with her.

"My brain doesn't allow things to just end"

So it all comes from a truth, and then it's about how far your imagination can take that. That album's got me all over it; I even place myself in Johnny's songs to better understand them, and I feel like they speak for me as much as my songs do. I haven't murdered anybody - I want to make that clear - and I don't chase people through woods, and I haven't gone on massive drug binges either, really. Those things are obviously exaggerations, but literally everything has stemmed from something.

There's a song on the first volume, I think it's called I Promise I Will Not Murder You. I think it's one of Johnny's songs, and it's about a prostitute coming to his house, and there's a dead badger, and...
I'm pretty sure that didn't happen to Johnny.

Have you been to his house?
I have been to his house, and it was amazing. Johnny and Matt used to live together, when we first started the band, and the second fridge in their kitchen...I hadn't been in there for a while, and I opened it, and it looked like someone had been decapitated in that fridge. There was all this red on the walls...I mean, what the fuck's gone on in there? So I don't know, actually - Johnny could be capable of murdering people after all.

I don't think the events of that song really happened. It's kind of hard to tell with him, he's a bit of a dark soul.

This has just occurred to me now, but you talk about Quiet Marauder's songs being all about the two opposite sides of the you feel like that's reflected in you and Johnny as a songwriting team?
Maybe, yeah. I suppose it is, in a way, although if anything it's kind of like four brains working there. Johnny writes songs which can either be entirely ludicrous - Last of the Summer Wine is just nonsense, though I love it - or something like SOS or Caged, which are these really emotive, dark songs about someone going through bad times.

Actually, when Jemma guested on those songs...she heard them for the first time and went, "Is Johnny okay? It doesn't seem like he's healthy at all." But Johnny's brain seems to work like that in the sense that he's got two (at least two) characters that kind of come back and forth, one ludicrous and the other really stern and sombre. And I work in the same way; I can do quite serious, slow songs or I can do fairly fast, ridiculous songs. 

The idea of the brain being split in two is literally what happens to some people. I say I've got a 'top' brain, and my top brain tells me whether my 'real' brain is doing the right thing or not. I still think in those times, which makes me sound wildly schizophrenic, but yeah. If anything, I think we're just conflicted, fragmented multiple identities - both Johnny and myself, along with everyone else in the band - and that's why we like the songs, I suppose.

 Are there any songs on the album that you and Johnny wrote together - collaborative efforts?
There are a few songs on volume three - Wake Up BonoThe Tortoise is a Complete Cunt, the more nuts one like that - where we all got together, and...

...cut loose?
Yeah. The Tortoise one seems like a wild, odd thing to exist on the album, but I'm glad it's there.

It fits in with that little chunk of animal-related songs, though. You released an EP called The Killing Woods just before the album came out, and that EP is intact on the album, those four songs are all next to each other, in the same order. It feels like there are a few bits like that, as if the album is made up of lots of EPs.
That's kind of how I thought of it, yeah. For a while, we were debating the idea of having lots of separate releases, and there are pockets of the album which are just albums in their own right. We probably would have released them like that if someone had told us to, but the label wanted us to do it like this, and that's good.

But yeah, for a while we were thinking of having the 'Animals' EP, the 'Christmas' EP (which actually we decided to do separately anyway), and then there would be this whole album about love, and one about sex...and so there are lots of bits that, while they do fit the narrative of the album, could exist separately.

Well, even if you're not listening for a narrative stream throughout the album, there are parts where you'll spot the flow from one track to the next. People will surely notice the prime ministers bit - Prime Ministers (1952-Present), followed by a song called Cameron? - even if they're not listening too closely. The connection between those two is pretty plain to see.
I hope so, yeah. We wanted there to be a political bit.

That is sort of an anomaly, though, because it's suddenly very topical, and you're talking about political matters instead of the goings-on of your own head.
I know - it all comes from that sense of reflection. The guy's reflecting on his past, and then he goes through The Little Barricade (which is a transitional song) and it goes back to him being discontented with the world. Politically, there's absolutely no reason to feel contented at the moment, because everything is awful.

Life is shit.
I've lived for thirty-three years, and I've never seen people so arbitrarily intervening in everyone's lives. It's like, "What the fuck are you guys doing?" So saying that out loud had to be done, even if my criticism of Cameron is very oblique, so much so that people may think I was actually supporting him. I have to say, "Actually, it was sarcastic."

People thought that was a genuine statement of support for David Cameron?
I don't know. I'm talking about taking him to Mercury, but then I do say "these are my favourite policies" when I'm talking about killing the working class.

So if you took that at face value, I guess...

It's interesting, actually - you did one of your many album launch gigs with Andrew Paul Regan. And I've been listening to his Dinas Powys album...
It's really good, isn't it?

Yeah, I really like it. There's one song on there called Foreign Players, which I think is about a character who's a bit of a shut-in, and one of the lines is, "I've been trying to like football, but there's too many foreign players". And he mentioned on his blog that, if people take that at face value, he comes off as slightly racist, when really it's about how you should open yourself up to the world.
Yeah, and loads of songs on our album would be exactly the same - we've already spoken about the sexist stuff, and it's hard for people to disengage when you're just saying something at them. It's even worse when you're playing live, because you can't get the full context in; because I feel so confident playing the murder songs, I always tend to play them, and some people immediately feel isolated. I'm getting worse at my banter, as well, and I don't even try to explain any more. I just go, "This song is about murdering, deal with it."

How many of the 111 songs have been played live? You've already said that some of them probably couldn't be played live...
I was thinking about this the other day. I think we've played maybe 40 or 50 of them, so that's around half of them that we've done live (to varying degrees of success). The problem is that we're all such individual people, and we don't get together to practice as often as I'd like, so the ones we play a lot of the time are just the ones that we feel confident playing. We've tried to broaden that recently, and we can do pretty much anything in our six-piece shows, whereas if we haven't got the trumpet, we have to avoid some songs.

And if Johnny's there...he lives in London, so it's sometimes difficult for him to make it back, but if he's there then we can do all 50-odd songs that we've practised, which feels pretty empowering. It's great having him there, because it means that Wake Up Bono comes out and I love that song.

To come back to 69 Love Songs again...I think that what Stephin Merritt had in mind there was to create a kind of instant songbook, and it feels like that's what you've done with MEN. Neither you nor The Magnetic Fields were content to rest on your laurels, obviously, but you could have never written another song and still had enough material to last you the rest of your career.
Yeah, it does feel like a songbook to me - I've got them all in a folder on my computer, with all the lyrics and chords, and it feels like that should be somewhere else. People should be using it, because it's a massive resource!

I Don't Want to Get Over You from 69 Love Songs.

The great thing about The Magnetic Fields is that 69 Love Songs is such a long album, and such a beautiful album...that's what made me want to play guitar, and I learned to play guitar by playing along to Magnetic Fields songs. I've always had it in my brain that I wanted to give some sort of tribute to that album, because it was such a life-changing event for me.

Well, 69 Love Songs is an obvious predecessor to your album in terms of length, but are there  any particular songs that feel like a musical tribute to The Magnetic Fields?
Yeah, definitely. When I started doing the Quiet Marauder songs, I'd just split up with somebody, and I met a girl in Dempsey's, and she complimented my eyes...and it was all going very well. But I got up to go to the toilet, and when I came back she was kissing somebody else.

I went and bought a guitar the following day because I was feeling quite plush, and that's the guitar I still use now. That event was so inspiring to me; as I said, I'd just broken up with somebody, and to have the first flushes of love so immediately cut away from me...anyway, I ended up writing Clever Quote From Mark Twain, and I felt like I was using Magnetic Fields chord sequences there, and it has that sort of naive simplicity to it regarding love and stuff, the same way that a lot of their lyrics do. I tried to make it as Magnetic Fields-y as possible.

Their songs, I think, have a quite childlike view of the world and of how love should be, and that's kind of how I feel in the face of love, too.

Are there any plans to release the lyrics in any way, shape or form?
I was thinking of maybe putting something up on our site - again, they're all there, and I have them all on my computer, although they may have changed slightly as I was singing them.

I used to love reading people's lyrics and making sense of them, but ours...I don't know, sometimes they scan really well and sometimes they don't scan so well. But I still think it would be a worthwhile resource to have, the chords and the song lyrics. I'd quite like people to be playing our songs.

It'd be great to see them published, because I felt - especially when I was trying to write a blog post about MEN - a little frustrated at time. There are a few lines that I just struggle to pick out, you know?
In fairness to Bubblewrap...I was all for getting the lyrics printed out into a booklet, but Bubblewrap were already rubbing their foreheads at the prospect of releasing four CDs in one album, so it's fair enough that they didn't choose to put those in the packaging.

I remember seeing Richard Chitty's face when I said it. Chitty's very good when he gets disappointed, because he's not rude enough to say no, but just he looks so that was a real prize moment. I didn't really think he was ever going to say yes, but I can still picture him now.

Pulp and Jarvis Cocker used to list their lyrics in the inlay, but they included a note asking people to refrain from reading the lyrics while listening to the songs. I think they thought that it would take something out of the songs if you read the lyrics as you went.
Yeah, you want to listen to a song and have the lyrical surprises coming in. A lot of our songs are like stories, and so you don't want to give the story away. When you're telling stories through song - especially ones like Fresh Follicles and things like that, which are just really long stories set to music - you want to just enjoy that journey, I think.

N.B. This is not the album version of Fresh Follicles, but it's handy if you want to hear the story.

I love listening to that song because, while I obviously know what happens, I try to imagine somebody listening to it for the first time and thinking, "What the fuck's this about?" It's another odd song that doesn't really fit anywhere, but when I wrote it, I just thought, "I like this so much!"

That's not one that's actually based on something that happened to you?
No. That's another one of the extreme ones; it comes during a period of the album in which he's reflecting on his family and his life. And I've had an absolutely pristine family life - I've got no problems at all, it's been lovely - but I was trying to imagine why someone might be a bit fucked up, and I decided that it would normally be a family thing.

So I thought about situations where a family might be struggling, and that was what my brain gave me. "Oh, the kid can generate hair on his body with his own tongue."

You talk about the album as if there is one main character - a protagonist - all the way through...
Yeah, but it's not one main character for me. It's a male identity, and that is one thing to me, but it's not one person. Everyone has a male identity - even women, sometimes - and what I was trying to chart was the path of that thing over time.

Image from Cat On The Wall. Their Quiet Marauder feature is well worth reading too, if this one hasn't exhausted you.

I think that what happens in that album happens to everybody at some point in their lives. I'm sure of it. And if you parachute out of that concept and into people's lives while they're going through that...they'll be doing different stuff, but the causation will be the same, and so people will identify with each other at those points, I suppose.

So there's one thing moving through it all, but there are multiple people involved.

It's not all that boy from Fresh Follicles, then?
No, no, definitely not. And it's up to you whether or not you even believe that guy's story - he could just be talking to a girl and trying to impress her. He's saying all this stuff, but he could be delusional.

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