“I’m not saying there were badminton courts there but there were washing lines!”
“I’m not saying there were badminton courts there but there were washing lines!”
The Paradiso is busy. It’s late afternoon and the venue is sorting out the last preparations for tonight’s main event. Ice Cube will be performing in the main hall later and there seems to be a couple of hundred people running back and forth and yet nobody seems to be actually doing anything. In reception, security guards, receptionists and other house staff just mingle about, wondering what to do with themselves. Then the door opens and in walks a slight frame of a man wearing cords, a stripey jumper and one of those modfather haircuts. He looks like a mature student and looks more out of place here than I do. That’s the very man I’m looking for, Mark Morriss, singer of The Bluetones.
Quick introductions are made and then we descend into the catacombs of the Paradiso backstage area, passing another couple of Bluetones on the way to the dressing room. The Bluetones have been given the smallest dressing room, right at the back of the winding corridors, not because they deserve such pitiful quarters, but because every other room downstairs is filled with the Ice Cube crew. I swear, I must have seen about 80 people downstairs, lounging around in different rooms looking bored out of their heads and, despite their being pieces of paper stuck to each door with the words ICE CUBE written on them, I never caught one glimpse of that guy from NWA and Barbershop.
Still, the Bluetones were never known for their showbiz lifestyle, (I’m not sure they’ve ever earned enough money to have one) but I had to giggle when I saw the guestlists. Ice Cube guestlist. 7 pages. 160 people. The Bluetones guest list? One. Me.
So, finally into the dressing room we sit down, take a load off, get ourselves a drink and get ready to talk. I’ve been looking forward to this.
IN: So Mark, last time I saw you guys play live was way back in Leeds, at the Town and Country Club.
MM: That’s going back a long time! That’s been knocked down a few years now.
IN: I know, it was on the Return to the Last Chance Saloon tour (2nd album) and then I came over here to Holland and I don’t think you’ve played over here since then.
MM: We have. We’ve played a couple of times here at the Melkweg. Not for a little while actually, three or four years.
IN: Oh, I can’t believe I missed that. I must have been away. I must say I was most impressed to see you guys announced for this evening, it got us here at Incendiary quite excited.
MM: They’re still going?
IN: Ah well we knew you’d never really been away. In fact, I think we were the only magazine in Holland to review Luxembourg.
MM: Oh really?
IN: Yeah and I’ve actually spent all day just listening through to all of your albums.
MM: Going on that journey.
IN: Yeah. I was wondering how you got to this stage because you’re now on the Cooking Vinyl label aren’t you?
IN: But wasn’t your last label, Superior Quality Recordings your own label?
MM: It was yeah, but basically that just folded. There was no money in it so we had to close it as a company and then we couldn’t really afford to make an album off our own backs. The budgets. Or it would have taken us a long time to kind of work up the budget, so we released an EP. That was something we could afford to do and it was cost effective because it was something we could sell at the gigs and give people something new and at least it gave us an outlet. Then Cooking Vinyl picked up on it and they weren’t aware that we weren’t signed to anybody and they showed an interest.
They seemed like really nice people so we kind of went with them.We looked at their roster and it contained a lot of bands and artists in a similar situation to us. Ones who have been on big labels and have come to the end of their relationship and are going into another phase of their career. Like Frank Black and people like that. They Might Be Giants, Echo and the Bunnymen, that sort of thing.
We just thought, “Well they seem to know what they’re doing and we know what we’re doing and this could be a very convenient marriage.”
IN: It does seem like a label that sign bands they really like and then let them get on with producing what they want. It’s not like every album that comes off Cooking Vinyl sounds the same, no matter who the artist, there’s a nice diversity there.
MM: Yeah they’re quite eclectic and that appealed to us as well.
IN: Did getting that deal kind of rekindle the fire in you guys a bit?
MM: Yeah it does. I mean, we hadn’t made an album since 2003 and it was getting to the stage where we were getting quite itchy about it. So then, you know, you’ve got a budget, you go off to some place and record an album for four or five weeks. It was very much like, the trumpets are calling, “Dur de der derrrrr!” “Come on lads! We’re back,” sort of thing. It was very motivating.
Because we’d had a couple of quite years it was nice to have the support of a label and quite reaffirming in a weird way.
IN: Did it allow you to concentrate your energy into being a band again as opposed to, with the label, trying to come up with ideas to keep the business side of things, to keep the label going?
MM: Well no because that’s what a manager’s supposed to do isn’t it? Just filter all of that sort of stuff. We’ve just parted company with our manager about five weeks ago because he wasn’t doing a very good job of all that. He’s left us in quite a bit of strife it seems, financially, because he’s been not doing his job. Or doing it without looking after anybody. He’s just pissed off with a load of our money.
So, that’s an interesting question because that’s something that I’ve just been faced with rather recently. In his absence I’ve been picking up the reins of management in as much as I’m the sort of one that everyone speaks to. I’m the one who coordinates between the record company and the tour agents and radio pluggers and publishers and the people who are doing our DVD. All these different facets and I’m suddenly having to deal with it. It’s kind of opened my eyes to, sort of, what our last manager wasn’t doing. We kind of took it for granted that somebody was doing their job but, you know, he wasn’t.
Having said that, the mood of the band has never been defeatist. When things kind of go wrong, it has this weird way of galvanizing us. So you know, when a record label comes in and says, “We need an album by the end of the summer,” we’re ready. It’s not a case of, “Oh shit! What do we do now?” We’re on the case. We’re ready. We’re always planning for it to happen and not planning it not to happen. Do you know what I mean? There’s no Plan B.
IN: You’ve always seemed like a pretty tight knit band anyway. For example, you’re still doing this after ten years and that’s a big milestone for most bands. It’s not like you’ve become part of the old establishment or anything, but for a band to stick together and not fall apart or lose a member in ten years, you have to give them some credit for being able to do that. It’s obvious to me that you guys must be really close. It still seems like there’s a bit of fight left in you as well.
MM: Yeah we still sound hungry. I don’t think there’s any credit in just being around. No one talks about the Rolling Stones being a valid creative unit anymore, they’re just a good old rock and roll band who tour the world and put on a big show. It’s not like there’s gonna be some kind of revolution on their new album and people will be going, “Oh fuck man, they’re back!”
I’d like to be more potent as we now go on. We wouldn’t just be here for the sake of just being here. We’re still together because we all believe that we’ve got a lot to offer, creatively and I think this record backs it up. I think it’s our best record to be honest. There’s a development with all of our albums but this one catches some of the innocence of the early days.
IN: Well I agree because I think the new album is definitely your most coherent from start to finish since Expecting To Fly. It really sounds like you guys are on fire again and lyrically it’s really strong as well.
MM: Yeah well I’ve been doing a lot more writing I suppose, lately. Just honing it a little bit more. I think I’ve got a little bit more respect for my craft than perhaps I did when I was younger. Not that that’s a slight on what I did in the past because I’ve always enjoyed writing. I do feel that I’m a very good lyricist. I mean, I’ve had off days with the odd song but I do rate myself.
IN: There’s always a good sense of structure in your songs. You’re one of the few bands, I think, that came out around that whole Britpop thing that I think you can really pick up the lyrics and just read them.
MM: Yeah there is that. The way I get through a song is to have a structure sorted. I find it very difficult to just put words on a piece of paper that don’t make any kind of sense or not give them any kind of real feeling.
Sorry, I was just disappearing up my own arsehole there. But I do enjoy writing lyrics. I enjoy the discipline of it.
IN: Well I can really feel that energy coming back in with this album. Did that come about from just having that much time off since the last one.
MM: Yeah it’s just being hungry again. We’ve been chomping at the bit for a long time. It’s the quickest we’ve recorded an album as well. We recorded it in four weeks which, for us, is very fast. It captured a real, I don’t know, we were all in a glorious frame of mind. We had this glorious summer, we were out in the country at this old chapel recording it. It was just, ideal for us really.
Very similar circumstances, actually, to how we recorded the first album and the third album. That sort of sense of, you’re in a very idyllic place and you’re trying to make poetry. Do you know what I mean? Which, for Luxembourg was a completely different affair. It was recorded close to all of our homes, in a tiny little shoebox of a studio in Putney. It felt like a 9-5 somedays. You know, because you get in. It would take a good hour and a half to get in somedays and you might not do anything that day. You, yourself, you might not be needed. But when you’re at a residential studio that’s not an issue.
You know, you can get up, go for a walk, go and play badminton or whatever, you know what I mean? I’m not saying there were badminton courts there but there were washing lines! You can still all be together, you can still all do something together but if it’s a small studio like the one in Putney, you can’t always go off to another room. Go and fuck around in another room and there was only a control room really and a kitchen. That’s why this time we really wanted to try and record the album in a kind of residential studio.
We went to the studio we recorded the new album in first when we recorded that EP and we just fell in love with the place. It was just perfect for us. It was just, splendid isolation. You don’t get a mobile phone signal down there so you don’t get people getting in touch with you unless you want them to.
IN: So you could just concentrate on the work a bit more?
MM: Yeah, we could just concentrate on the job in hand. Especially now as, you know, we’re all a bit mellower so the focus is much more on the work nowadays. Where before it was probably more about just having a good time.
IN: So I was wondering how you’ve found the response touring this new stuff. Tonight’s the last of your little European jaunt so how’s that been going.
MM: Yeah and we’re hoping to do another one next year. It’s been great. The songs all bleed together really nicely. It’s something that I’ve gotten really used to now, in presenting new songs to people. People’s reactions to them and your own reactions to them, when you see it. At first, you feel like they stick out too much and then after playing them a few times you realize that they don’t actually. When you’re playing it to people who haven’t heard the record or haven’t heard the songs then you start to hear it through their ears, sort of pick up on different things, you know?
IN: I think the strength of these new songs will help in that though, because they have that energy and life to them.
MM: Well hopefully we’re getting better at what we do. That’s what I was talking to you about earlier, we still feel like we’ve got left, creatively. Maybe not so much financially, in terms of popularity. It’s kind of like they’ve been going in different directions but creatively we feel like we’ve been getting more on top of what we do. At the same time, where you would think that that would send you down the same alleys again it doesn’t. It’s more about confidence and willingness to try ideas out and have them fail. I think we’re better judges of it now.
IN: I think you guy shave always done your own thing though, since day one. I remember before Expecting To Fly came out the NME and stuff were all over you. They went mad for your live gigs and really pushed you as this exciting, edgy pop rock band. They were raving about you and then the album came out and it was completely different to what people expecting it to be, which I really admired you for.
MM: Yeah people thought it would be quite punchy and poppy but it was more stripped down and direct. I guess it’s difficult for people who’ve not heard a lot of your stuff or only heard a few songs to really know what to expect when an album comes out. I suppose to expect it to be like the live thing is very natural I suppose but there’s always been a softer side to us. Certainly in regards to our musical tastes, which lean a lot towards country and even sort of, you know, bluesy rocky stuff. Not flipping Gary Moore and shit like that.
IN: Well even the title of the first album reflects that, in reference to the Buffalo Springfield song.
MM: I’ve always seen us as very much a sort of, like a British version of one of those psychedelic pop bands really. It’s a shame to me that the broadness of our influences or our sounds, if you like is not often commented on. It’s just the fact that we’re British and got guitars and I think that can put people off because they think they know what you sound like before they’ve even heard you.
IN: Well I look forward to seeing the show tonight.
MM: Well it’s been good so far, we’ve been playing really well. I hope you have a good time.
A couple of hours later and I wander into the Kleine Zaal after having just spent half an hour laughing my head off at Ice Cube’s show. Laughing in a good way, you must understand. There’s something incredibly childish but ridiculously entertaining about a hip-hop show. Maybe it’s just the sight and sound of 1000 people shouting “Fuck You Ice Cube” repeatedly for over ten minutes whilst waving their hands in the air. You know, like they just don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s very enjoyable while it lasts. Still, that’s not what I’m here for.
The Kleine Zaal soon fills up with a bunch of people in cord trousers and stripey t-shirts. In fact, this looks like a university reunion for the Clas of 95. Everyone’s in their early thirties, here to try and remember what is was like when they could get a double vodka for 50p and beer for a pound a pint at student nights. Yes, I would say that half the crowd are ex-pat Brits like myself and everyone seems fidgety with excitement.
The band are greeted by warm applause and then Mark steps up to the mic. “Its so nice for Ice Cube to agree to come and open up for us this evening,” says Mark with a grin, “It’s such an honour.” Within seconds, the whole crowd are cheered up and within minutes I’m grinning from ear to ear, singing along to every word and loving every minute of this show.
The fire is definitely burning bright in The Bluetones once again. If you take a trip through the Bluetones back catalogue, documented elsewhere on this site, you’ll discover that, apart from the odd song here and there, the quality of their songs has always been great. What’s remarkable about them is that they do seem to be getting better at what they do. It doesn’t matter if they’ve become less famous or if they aren’t selling as many records. Well it does, because their records are great and you owe it to yourself to familiarize yourself with them.
Tonight, as they belt out a string of hits, it feels great to remember how good they were back in the mid nineties but my favourite songs of the night are unexpected. I expected to love the early stuff, to fall in love with Bluetonic, Solomon Bites The Worm and Cut Some Rug all over again. If is still, as a dear Incendiary friend called it, a song from the Gods and Slight Return is still as catchy as you remember it to be, but they sound pale in copmparison to some of the later stuff. Home Fires Burning and Liquid Lips, from their 3rd and 4th albums respectively are fabulous and Never Going Nowhere is surely the greatest thing they’ve ever recorded. It certainly sounded incredible here and had me toe tapping and humming its infectious little melody for hours afterwards. As for the brand new stuff, they sound punchy, direct, in your face and absolutely brilliant, especially Head on a Spike. All in all I think it’s safe to say that, although they never really went away, The Bluetones are well and truly back. For that, we should be truly thankful.
Words: Damian Leslie