Here’s my interview with Martin Newell…
What do you know about the greatest living Englishman, Martin Newell? If your answer is nothing, or not much, then you need to put that right pronto. There’s never been a better time.
Soft Bodies Records have recently released the utterly splendid “Return to Bohemia“, which is the new Cleaners From Venus (aka Martin Newell) album.
Captured Tracks have recently released Volume 3 of their extensive Cleaners From Venus reissues.
And, on top of that, Martin Newell has also launched Mule TV, a new YouTube channel, in which he goes in search of a perfect pop song for the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest. Mule TV is a series of short, very entertaining videos that feature a host of diverse characters, all of whom look suspiciously like a certain Mr Newell.
Once you’ve embraced that little lot, there are books, poems, a website, and an enormous discography to explore. In summary, the man’s a national treasure, and our man nigeyb recently caught up with him…
Hello Martin. You were ill in 2013. How are you doing now?
In most ways, I’m better than I was. The eyesight in one eye is still dodgy, but the surgeons saved the sight and we’re still working on it.
The collapse, a non epileptic brain seizure briefly killed me, I’m told, last May. It was a one-off we think… an electrical fault caused by temporary potassium deficiency, general exhaustion, lack of sleep and a bit of a drinking… quite a lot actually.
I listened to what the neurologist said… “More sleep and less wine… try to remember that you’re sixty now and not thirty..”
I said, “Okay Mr Shiraz.”
There was a pause.
“That’s Mr Sharif.” he said quietly.
So, that’s one death, two eye operations, then my mum died, a week after I got out of hospital. I got on with my album and tried not to take it all personally.
Congratulations on “Return to Bohemia”, the latest Cleaners From Venus album. It’s another wonderful collection that harks back to the golden age of classic pop. Even by your own high standards, this album seems to exude quality. What were your aims at the outset? How pleased are you with it? Where does it fit with your other work?
I do have this ability to bury myself in music and writing when things are going badly. I wanted to write a cheerful album. After the brain seizure, last summer, all my senses were heightened… for a while this was quite intense. In case it was the last thing which I ever did, I thought that I’d better concentrate. I think it’s as good an album as ever I’ve made. It’s kind of ‘everything I’ve learned about pop so far; distilled into 12 songs. I do feel absolutely at the top of my game at the moment. I seem to have recaptured all my old DIY recording enthusiasm.
Tell us about your splendid new Mule TV YouTube project, including more about your quest to find an appropriate song for Eurovision 2015.
This is at least half-serious. Whether I’ll get to enter the competition or not, I have doubts. The BBC, for the past few years choose our songs by a mysterious process called “internal selection.” Since I have one or two friends in high places, I asked a few questions yet have still not found out what ‘internal selection’ involves or who does it. I do know, however, that it’s very difficult to find out how to enter a song. For the past few years too, the public are not consulted or asked to vote upon the matter. The result? A number of absolute three-legged donkeys. This country is capable of writing the best songs in the world. Why are the “Auntie Knows Best” BBC hunched over the entry process? Is it, as some think, that if we actually won, we’d then have to pay to host it? I really do think it’s very strange. And I’m going to sit there on Mule TV mercilessly lampooning them, until I flush them from their cover. Oh and it is terrific fun, too!
You seem to be having a ball on Mule TV, in addition to creating some marvellous comic characters. How much are you enjoying it? Where have the characters emerged from? How many are alter-egos?
The characters on Mule are probably all aspects of me to some degree. Mossy the ’80s miserablist singer is of course quite obvious. I believe that The Smiths and XTC between them just about covered the job in the ’80s that the Beatles did in the ’60s. I loved the Smiths.
What does Eurovision mean to you? Why has the UK fared so badly over the years?
I think of the Eurovision as this warm cuddly thing. It’s a shining example of a genuine entente cordiale — one which businessmen, politicians and sports majordomos can only bullshit about. Here is a chance for people of many nations and cultures to share each other’s music, humour and quirks. It’s been a bit hi-jacked by gender politics at present, but there are worse things to be hijacked by. I don’t wish to enter it as a performer, but I’d love to enter a song for it to represent my country, because I’m good at writing songs and I think that I may be able to write something which everyone would love. I’d like to see the contest redefined as a genuine song contest… not merely as a bit of high-camp. I know it’s fun… but I have to ask, “Where are the songs?”
The UK has fared badly, partly because of the Beeb’s arrogance and stupidity and partly because the whole art of songwriting is being buried under hyperbole and technology. Nobody wants to admit that we no longer produce songs of the quality and standard raised during the mid 20th century.
I notice your bicycle features from time to time on Mule TV, and in a recent episode you appeared to be watching the Tour de France when it visited Essex. What does cycling mean to you?
After a guitar, I think a bicycle is my favourite shape. I have never driven. For a while last year, the doctors told me not to cycle for a few weeks, while my operation scars formed. When I finally got back on the bike in late September, I was full of joy, like a pit pony let out into the meadows after a long winter.
I recently read (and loved) your 2001 memoir “This Little Ziggy” that covered your eventful life from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. You have published other books (poetry, newspaper columns, Wivenhoe). I read elsewhere you were planning another memoir, is that still the case? When might we be able to read it? What are you writing about at the moment?
There are odd chapters and essays of my life after Ziggy all over the place. I think one memoir is enough for now. Ziggy was very raw and very honest. A little too much information perhaps and that wasn’t even the whole story. At present I write a 900 word feature each week for the East Anglian Daily Times about some aspect of my life or other and I write poems every week for the arts section of the Sunday Express. I’ve written a chapter for someone’s else’s book recently about the psycho-geography of East Anglia. I’m more absorbed in music and Mule TV right now.
Because I generally won’t deal with literary agents or London publishers (I’m sure the feeling is mutual) I don’t get hassled to write coffee-table garbage or pointless stuff for In-Flight mags or Waitrose Weekend… which is what lit agents make you do… so I only ever do the work which I like… I wait for someone to ask me to do stuff. If I like the idea I do it. So far as I’m concerned, if I have enough of everything: food in the cupboard, money for some wine, and work to do in the morning, then that’s enough. Why go rubbing shoulders with international twats and corpulent piggies? Anyway, my passport’s expired and I may not renew it.
Captured tracks, the Brooklyn-based independent record label, have – over the last few years – lovingly reissued three box sets of your back catalogue. Given that many of the original releases were DIY efforts, done independently, some cassette-only, and which presumably felt quite ephemeral even at the time, how does it feel to see all this work being reissued? Will there be any more reissues?
I think nearly all the Cap Tracks releases were DIY things. I should feel somehow artistically vindicated that all these things have been so popular 30 years after I did them.
But hardly any were heard at the time by anyone who might have influenced their fate. I was after all, trying to set up an alternative to the music biz. Those things which were heard by music biz people… their attitude was nearly always “This needs a big studio and producer.” My own reaction to this, even in the face of being offered money was usually a two word answer rhyming with ‘truck’ and ‘cough’. On the few occasions I gave them a chance, tracks were usually ruined… or promises turned out to be lies. I eventually realised that I was dealing with people who didn’t know as much as I did. But to be fair I am an awkward and slightly damaged bastard and I do think that I know best. I’m not at war with them anymore, I just realise that my music has about as much in common with the music industry as say a French ballerina does with a small light engineering firm in the West Midlands.
Here’s some quick fire questions…
What’s your favourite track, or album, to…
“Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango
…feel nostalgic to?
“On a Saturday” by Keith West
“Kentucky Avenue” by Tom Waits
“But Beautiful” by Stan Getz (with Kenny Barron /live at Umbrian Jazz festival)
…ponder life’s complexities?
“Esprit D Armenie” by Jordi Savall
Which artist, or artists, you respect or admire?
Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Keef
Things that make life worth living?
Music, books, and German wine
If you couldn’t live in Wivenhoe (God forbid) where would you choose to live?
“Return to Bohemia” by Cleaners From Venus is out now.
nigeyb is, amongst other things, a chameleon, a Corinthian, a cyclist, a writer, a photographer, a DJ, an aspiring good egg, a slow lane dweller, a musical evangelist, an introvert, a dancer, and a wine enthusiast.