“A Title Sparks Would Have Used” By Spencer McGarry Season
“To The Liars Take Me” By By Spencer McGarry Season
When it comes to action “Episode 1″ certainly doesn’t disappoint, however in terms of coherent narrative, the experience is a huge let down. The maxim “less is more” is not something that seems to have occurred to the people behind this affair, the sheer volume of special effects on display becomes a little tiresome after a while. In fact Episode 1 has given rise to a new medical condition , “CGI fatigue”, whereby, what would be ordinarily jawdroppingly mind blowing, merely leaves the viewer yawning whilst pondering the effectiveness of the local Council’s recycling policy. This obviously lessens the impact of the innumerable light saber battles and the impressive pod race which clearly has echoes of the chariot race in Ben Hur, there’s a …………Hang about …Oh dear ….sorry wrong review….. I’ll start again…
There is a story floating around Cardiff that Andy Partridge of XTC walked into a local record shop and demanded to hear the new song by Spencer McGarry, upon listening to the song Mr Partridge simply said “ I don’t remember recording that” and promptly left the shop. Urban myth? Perhaps, Spencer McGarry’s debut album “Episode 1” draws on many influences, 60’s mod/Motown pop late 70’s new wave, and early 80’s white-boy funk. Also apparent is the influence of The Kinks, Smokey Robinson, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello and of course the quirky pop sensibility of the afore mentioned XTC . Spencer McGarry Season is a solo project which aims to record and perform 6 albums with 6 different themes, Episode 1 being erm well, the first episode in this ambitious project (I wonder what the other five will be called?) The idea came about when Spencer’s previous band The Room Orchestra split leaving Spencer with over 60 songs with no real style or focus and more importantly, no band! He began compartmentalising these songs into six rough styles, deciding to release them in an episodic format, whilst at the same time writing more songs in their respective idioms to help realise this vision. (Have you noticed people never really have ideas anymore it’s always a “vision”, in the same way that people don’t have experiences they have “journeys”). “Episode 1” has no underlying theme, but contains 40 minutes packed full of joyful, intelligent music that will energise you and restore your faith in literate pop. Spencer dropped in for a chat about his pop “vision”, his “journey” as we “stir fried a few ideas in the pop –wok”
VP: So in essence Spencer Mc Garry Season is a solo project, which aims to produce six different albums with six different themes? The first of these “Episode 1” is out in Feb 2009 (?) What gave you that idea…? Do you have all six albums written?
SMc: In a previous band I had split the writing with another person, consequently I became frustrated at not doing more of my songs- this led to more songs arriving in my brain and before I knew it there was a traffic jam situation with all these songs piled up and no way to record them. One of my biggest failures as a songwriter, is not having a distinct style so the songs tend to be influenced by whatever music I’m listening to. If I’ve just been watching a cowboy film then I’ll probably write something on slide guitar or if I’m watching a Disney film I’ll get out the sentimental strings. Shortly before the other band split I wrote down all these songs and there were around 40-50 which could be compartmentalised into 6 rough themes- basic rock, orchestral pop etc, some of them were complete songs, others were an idea or fragment which is often all one needs then you can just return to them as they are needed. I was thinking that if Sufjan Stevens is aiming for 52 (is that right?) then 6 is easy…almost too easy
I’d say the first three albums are finished although as more time elapses I’m changing them all the time and including new songs, especially as I get into recording the next one in January, which has changed a bit in the last 6 months as I put together the track listing. I also found that I was thinking about all the different albums all the time, constantly arranging them and thinking about production and so I’ve had to stop and just take it an album at a time to avoid going crazy; this is the main essence behind the whole project, how do I arrange and present quite allot of disparate ideas without coming across as quirky or wacky? The only way, was to methodically compartmentalise them into themes and deal with them one at a time.
VP: What have been your own musical inspirations? Do you prefer one genre above any other or is it just a case of your open to anything? Will we for example here Spencer going hip-hop by “episode six” ;)
SMc: I do listen to different sorts of music but I’d say my de-fault setting is 60/70’s rock, that’s my comfort music, I always chastise myself if I listen to too much of it though but I can’t help it, it’s the music I was brought up on. I think I have quite mainstream tastes especially when it comes to this music. The artists that taught me how to write would be (in order) Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and Brian Wilson, they are all mainstream, giants. I always go back to them, but I’ve also learned allot from James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Kraftwerk, Steve Reich, Quincy Jones amongst others. These are all western artists though and there is a whole planet left unexplored musically in short I feel like I don’t listen to enough of a variety of music.
I don’t think we’ll see a hip hop album but we’re definitely going to do an R’n’B one be that older R’n’B/Motown that influenced the mods, through to David Bowie’s plastic soul period up to NERD, Timbaland, Rich Harrison produced classics. I do find there’s allot to listen to in modern R’n’B, it’s much more inventive and risk taking that modern guitar music, when I first heard ‘Get Right’ by Ms Lopez I was blown away (and I will use that phrase), the same for Crazy in Love, these songs to me are just as good as the songs that appeared at the height of motown- I mean not all of them, but I think we are in a golden age of R’n’B again. The important thing about all these albums to remember is that it’s still going to be me performing songs in different styles through my filter, so hopefully it won’t sound like I’m pastiching genre’s, rather it’ll sound like me doing a new album.
VP: You’ve got some interesting titles on the album “the Unfilmable Life and life Of Terry Gilliam”, “A Title Sparks Would Have Used” and “When Stupids Come To Town”. Where do you draw your ideas from?
SMc: I can’t stand boring song titles. You’ve got a situation where you’ve spent days/weeks/months on a song, got the money and band together to rehearse and pay to record it- spent hours painstakingly putting it all together, producing, mixing it paying for it to be mastered, thinking about the artwork, possibly arranging a photoshoot or an image for the cover…AND you go and spoilt it all by calling it ‘lights’
The following should never be used as song titles ever again:-
‘lights’ ‘hurt’ ‘torn’ ‘one’
Why would you want to give your song (which you’ve given birth to as a mother would her child), a really terrible, unappealing name? Any time I see a song with the kind of unimaginative titular moniker above I just switch off and deservedly so, with that kind of ronseal approach applied to the title, how can the listener expect to be entertained by it’s contents. I wouldn’t go and see a film if it were called ‘broken’, I just know it’ll be “one woman’s struggle to find her identity, in a tissue of deceit…with a dog?” Leonardo’s Decaprio’s new film is titled “Body of Lies”, that’s another one I won’t be seeing, there’s an unknown rule in Hollywood that states that there must be a film released annually called “Body of Lies” sometimes it’s erotic, sometimes it’s a courtroom drama- but a film with that title must by law be released per annum, or all hell will break loose.
The song titles all come from the lyrics usually except the Sparks one which came from the title. I know that my titles can draw a rise in certain quarters but I’d rather have an interesting title than one that just sums up the song in one word. “This one’s called ‘ America ’, what’s it about? It’s about America ”. David Bowie’s got the best song title, it’s actually better than the song “Always Crashing in the Same Car” no song could live up to that title, it’s amazing and straight away I want to listen to the song. As for the ideas I think it’s important to generally keep an open mind and always be on the lookout for song material, I don’t generally write love songs as I feel I have nothing to add to the cannon, so my songs tend to be about things that warrant my attention, things that appear in the news or things I feel I can take a viewpoint on that will allow me to write a lyric. Also as soon as one becomes open to the subjective nature of a narrative, one finds a whole DNA pool full of evolutionary developments that a song could develop into. Ron Mael is particularly deft at this. Take for example tying ones shoes. A song could be about:-
The difficulty of doing so (from the perspective of a child or perhaps more sinisterly, an adult) One could compose a poem/sonnet about the grace and ease in which the laces sit and ‘hug’ each other like lovers.
One could write form the view point of the perhaps malevolent, thwarting designers who have made a shoe no one can tie up, and the consequences involved (probably minimal)
A love song form the point of view of laces (who of course are sentient) and either in love with themselves (a little bit of a masturbatory angle here) or their wearer and despair at the existential angst of one day being thrown away.
While the above are not revelatory and (more importantly) not really good ideas for songs, it may go some way to answering the question of where ideas come from. A big eye opener for me are also the films of Charlie Kaufman who really leads the field in what you can do with a narrative.
VP: Has 2008 generally been taken up with recording the album? What sort of a year has it been and what else have you been up to?
SMc: Yes we finished it around April/May, got it mastered but didn’t like it so got it re-mastered somewhere else- in a sense the album may as well be called Episode 1 re-mastered. It just saves us the Led Zepplin hassle of re-mastering it next Christmas ready for the re-release market- we’ll just release it again and call it re-released-remasters.
Other than that, we’ve been doing gigs and radio sessions- most notably for Marc Riley on Radio 6. We had a free download only single in September and did some more gigs around that, but really it’s been taken up with making sure the album was ready, in that it both sounded and looked good. Because we’re on a small label we run ourselves, everything just takes that much longer especially where money becomes a factor and so something that I would have liked released much earlier in the year has to wait until finances are available. This can take time. There’s also been a bit of bad luck with festivals and support slots that didn’t happen- but that’s just what happens with bands. The rest of the year will be taken up with planning a little tour from Jan till March, orchestrating the next album (we start recording in January) and writing a piece of music for Swansea’s museum as part of a project whereby Welsh musicians are linked with a museum and write a song/sound-scapes based on an installation or exhibit.
VP: What’s happening musically in Cardiff at the moment? Do you feel there’s a scene going on there at the moment? Any bands you’d recommend?
SMc: I don’t know about scenes but there are always good bands. Off the top of my head there’s
-Threatmantics (signed with Domino)- noisy, yet folky attack of bedraggled fun
The 2 other bands on Businessman Records- I’m sorry for mentioning them I know they’re on my label, but there’s a reason for that-
-Gindrinker- the Fall, Datblygu, spoken word over avant noise
-Sweet Baboo- Superior folk with foreboding lyrics- his album just out ‘The Mighty Baboo’ is genuinely one of my favourites of the year- equally heartbreaking and hilarious.
Truckers of Husk (My king Fu)- Battles esque instrumental, occasionally vocal group who can do dance as well as thoughtful pieces- big potential.
Liz Hunt is something of a one woman music central- not only does she put on excellent gigs with interesting and big artists form outside the city such as Daniel Johnston, Apples in Stereo, Jeffery Lewis, she also find time to help out other bands either thorough support slots. Or helping them get gigs further a-field, in addition she finds time to front The School (Elephant records), which channel the best in 60’s girl group sounds, Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura etc
VP: What was the first album you remember buying?
SMc: I think it was BAD. I was quite a Michael Jackson fan and was really excited when I brought it- in its huge vinyl glory, I studied the pictures and lyrics and read and re-read all the (ludicrously extensive) credits, which were after every song. Then I’d listen to it endlessly- I’d even dream about it. I’ve always been one for devouring albums completely which explains why I’m a slow record buyer, I can’t really move on to another album until I’ve understood and dissected most of the one I’m on at the moment. I must have listened to BAD for years I think. I still go back to it now, I think Quincy Jones’ production is really something else, I like the way he treats each verse/section of the song as if it has it’s own potential, as if it is the chorus itself- adding extra instrumentation, dynamics etc. I think my favourite song was Speed Demon- just for that run on the bass. Michael Jackson looked, sounded, danced and spoke like no one else and in his film he could change into a spaceship to attack Joe Pesci- job done.
VP: And what’s the most recent one you’ve purchased?
SMc: The Weeks that’s Was’ eponymous debut. An offshoot of the group Field Music (along with School of Language who’s album came out earlier this year), interesting orchestration, the feeling that the album is a work to listen to all the way through rather than a disparate collection of songs (although one is not better than the other- it’s just been a while since I’ve heard an album which demands the whole attention), some beautiful melodies (Airport Line, Come home), great drum sounds, all in all a good record. As a band, Field Music are the one modern band, besides Girls Aloud that we all agree on and it’d be interesting to see them reform and do at least one more record, given their experience of working on separate projects.
SMc: What was the last song you heard that made you want to take a hammer to the radio?What’s that one by Pink? Na na na na na na na na na na na na na- inane as it is dangerous- if I could drive, I imagine trying to turn that off in a panic and killing a family of 4- it’s a lesser know fact (I have family in the police service) that most traffic accidents are caused by terrible music.
VP: Illegal downloading? Is it as bad as people like Fergal Sharkey say? What’s your view on the whole debate over digital music etc?
SMc: Not sure, I didn’t mind in the slightest when Radiohead asked people to name a price and found it amusing when the major labels and pundits panicked. It ended up giving them months of publicity and without all the cuts that chains and labels take, I can’t imagine they made too much of a loss. Bands only get something like 60p per album anyway don’t they? If people paid an average of a pound or under I can’t see what difference it would have made, they also managed to do the impossible- making money from piracy. That may be the future.
As for illegal downloading I say him without sin cast the first lawsuit. It’s not that different to taping an album for your friends- I suppose it’s more readily accessible and instantly available (are they the same thing?) but in essence, the ethos is not that different. For about 20 years new albums have cost something like £15 on CD and if you consider the amount of filler material that’s on most of them, particularly Hip hop albums, I think the industry has had it far too good for far too long and lots of people have made lots of money. Most albums I think just aren’t worth buying and there may be nothing wrong in trying a few songs before one decides to invest in an album. It may also bring more people to live gigs and in the end result in more sales. People love to own the actual official copy of most things it would seem. So the plus side is that people get to hear of new music and maybe consider buying the whole album.
The downside would be the effect it may have on smaller independent labels/bands. With our album I aim to make enough from sales to break even on production costs; and maybe have some left over to pay for a few recording sessions towards the next one. If no one buys the album and just downloads it then I will find it harder to make the next one and if you multiply that globally it may mean the end of recording studios and perhaps even labels. I’m not sure what that would entail, would we then all become bedroom producers/labels?
Most people seem to agree that the old models of music consumption are changing (although wasn’t that supposed to happen with punk and the cassette?)- I don’t really know if it’s a good or bad thing, I suppose anything that introduces people to a potentially global wide spectrum of music while taking power away from those that control what music we should listen to or fond acceptable, is a good thing. However I do think art is worth investing in and paying for and without funding from recorded sales, artists may possibly have to get funding from the government- a situation which potentially could result in a very conservative musical climate, or from the public- which could be as adventurous as the BBC has been for television broadcasting or could result in art made by internet forums and committees. It’s a huge question and one I am not really qualified to answer, hence the few random observations above.
VP: Finally, Xmas is nearly upon us, what five things would you like to find in your stocking this year?
SMc: Ah great an easy one, I’m overqualified for this
“I Cheeta” the supposed ghost written autobiography of a retired Hollywood chimp, who’s been in the business since the 1930’s Tarzan films.
An electronic drum kit- I used to be a drummer and I’ve gone back to it recently- I am sluggish however
History of Survivor Series WWE DVD boxset- Sport as it should be- unabashed quality entertainment
Charlie Gillett’s recent world music compilation double album
Sparks- Back catalogue
“Leader Of The Chain Gang” Live By Spencer McGarry Season