Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before…

31 Oct

For those of us who are often stuck in an auditory-rut, still leaning on those nostalgic records of our youth; it might come as a welcome surprise to hear that two (yes, two) dogged Manchester bands will be resurrected from their colourful triumphs of the 80s and beyond.

The Stone Roses.
And The Smiths.

After a string of solo dates back in the summer, Morrissey is defiantly not going anywhere.
But for those who still prefer to spin the old Smiths vinyl over Mozza’s Glamourous Glue – there is, on the horizon, a light that never goes out.

Imagine if you will – that cover records do actually exist independently of the less-than-credible rap they have been granted, from incessant weddings, dodgy tribute bands and amateur musicians.
Suspend your imagination for a moment and think back to a band that has beyond recognition, affected you and inspired you – even if it was only to vow to learn a few chords on your guitar.

For me, it has always been the music of Tanya Donelly and her former bands Throwing Muses (with her sister Kristin Hersh) and Belly (remember Feed the Tree?) But whilst listening to Tanya’s 2006 album This Hungry Life, the track World on Fire makes reference to ‘I want in on Lucinda’s sweet old world’. This might not, at first, be anything to write about – who is Lucinda, anyway? But add the surname Williams, and the lyric starts to make more sense. It goes to show – as consumers, fans and followers of music – we are not the only ones who are influenced by lyrics and music that have existed before we did.

Cover records really shouldn’t be denigrated to their status reserved only for the tipsy-on-sherry aunts at the local town-hall shindig. On the contrary, as the forthcoming tribute record to The Smiths – due for release on December 13th, proves – covering a record is the ultimate way that one musician can show their respect for another musician.

Amongst the line-up of contributing musicians on the tribute record – Please, Please, Please: a Tribute to The Smiths – include Sixpence None The Richer, Trespassers William and the aforementioned Tanya Donelly (collaborating with Dylan in the Movies).
It’s clear that every carefully chosen artist on this record has their own reasons for taking part. I spoke to Ray and Renee of Elk City and David Gedge (The Wedding Present and Cinerama) to get their perspectives on the place of cover records in our lives today.

Ray and Renee of Elk City…

Who are/were the Smiths to you?
Renee: I was introduced to The Smiths by Ray and I loved them instantly. I was captivated by Morrissey’s melodies.
Ray: I regard The Smiths as one of the most important bands of the alt 80’s. Peers of The Cure and R.E.M, yet completely unique.

Where did their music fit into your lives?
Ray: I got into The Smiths in 1987, just after they had broken up. The first day I heard Strangeways, Here We Come I listened to it over and over again. Well into the night. They had a shimmering sound that had such a cool contrast to the sarcastic lyrics.

How did you come to the decision to cover I Know It’s Over?
Ray: It was the first song that came to my mind when I thought of Renee singing a Smiths song.
I knew she’d be able to channel the emotion.

Has your creative/recording process differed from when you recorded your cover of The Cure’s Close To Me?
Ray: We have a new bassist, Martin Olson, but our approach was similar.
Renee: It’s was similar for me too. I like to play with the song a bit and the entire band fleshes out a few different versions.

How would you describe the identity of the Smiths/Morrissey? Do you think their public image cohered with their more private personalities?
Renee: I’ve always loved the fact that The Smiths were such a romantic band in every way and dramatic in every way, even when their drama was comedic. I’d like to think their public and private personalities were in sync. That’s what I tell myself.

Do you think that musical identity is fixed, or fluid?
Ray: I think an artist who is unique will always bring their own “stamp” to everything they do.
Renee: I used to think musical identity was fluid, but now I think it’s fixed. (Ask me again in a short time and my answer may change again!)

How does your musical identity reflect other musical identities and how have you allowed intercultural influences, such as Morrissey/The Smiths, to affect you?
Renee: The music business has never influenced my identity because, but that’s just my personality. But I think, subconsciously, we’re all influenced by listening to other artists’ music. Of course, The Smiths have influenced me simply because I’ve always adored them. I also learned a valuable lesson from The Smiths: Drama works.

When performing a cover, do you get into a ‘role’ and recreate the original artists’ psyche/persona, or do you totally create from new and start from scratch?
Renee: I create from a new point and start from scratch.
Ray: The fun part is trying to embody the song and forget the original completely. It should feel like we wrote it.

Do you think there is a future for cover records or do you think the originals deserve to, and will remain popular with the record-buying public?
Renee: I so want originals to remain popular because Elk City mostly writes and records original music, but sometimes I do wonder if the public’s ear isn’t as open-minded to listening to new music as it used to be, mostly because we listen to and buy music differently today.
Ray: When a song is well written it can be performed in so many different ways. There is room for any and all.

I love your cover of R.E.M’s Everybody Hurts, but was this a tough one to crack?
Ray: Thanks! That one was mostly hard because we were wondering what Michael Stipe would think if he heard it. No thought was given to what the public would think.
Renee: It wasn’t a stretch for us to do Everybody Hurts. We made it our own in a very natural way.

Morrissey challenged gender stereotypes – do you think music should come before gender (as a means of definition) and do you think that society places too much emphasis on side-issues?
Renee: I think music and gender are interchangeable: Gender has always held music’s hand and music has always held gender’s hand. That said, I don’t think music or gender should come before one another. I think that whatever you put out there primarily, music or gender, it always morphs into its own statement and if it’s interpreted as gender-centric at one listen, it can be interpreted as something completely different after another listen. In that sense, I believe music and gender are fluid.

Who next might you want to cover?
Renee: I would love to cover a song by Billy Squire.
Ray: That’s a fun idea!

And, who would you like to cover an Elk City track?
Renee: I’d be honoured if R.E.M. or Sonic Youth covered an Elk City track. That would certainly be different, don’t you think?
Ray: Ooh…good answer. How about Portishead?

Why is it important for new artists to explore and produce their own interpretation of already-written tracks?
Renee: It’s important because it’s a way of introducing incredible music to a whole new audience who might have never explored that artist. I also believe that doing covers helps a band/artist broaden their horizons and learn new and different ways of song writing.

Who, on The Smiths tribute, are you most looking forward to hearing their finished cover?
Ray: We’re friends with the folks in Class Actress. I bet they’ll do something good.
Renee: I’m excited about hearing tracks by The Wedding Present and Tanya Donelly. (Wait, is she going to be on this one?) Yes, Tanya is! (Author).

Next up:  David Gedge of The Wedding Present and Cinerama…

Are you happy to appeal to a younger audience who won’t necessarily have followed your work in ‘real time’ but come to it further down the line?
David: Yes, of course! I’m happy to appeal to anyone…I actually think our music’s pretty timeless in that it’s not aimed at any particular demographic… it’s just the sound that comes out of The Wedding Present at any given time. I feel somewhat sorry for a new, young fan, though… the size of our back catalogue must appear quite daunting!

What was it that struck a chord with you in getting involved with American Laundromat Records?
David: They seem like decent, honest people who have started a record label for the right reasons. And they’re efficient at accounting and paying royalties, which always helps!

Why did you decide to cover Hand In Glove and London and was the decision an obvious one when allocating which track to The Wedding Present and which to Cinerama? Did one seem to click best?
David: Cinerama actually recorded London a few years ago and I can’t really remember the reason I chose that song in particular. I quite like the lyrics, I suppose… they’re a bit less pompous than much of Morrissey’s writing… Hand In Glove, on the other hand, being the first single by The Smiths, struck a chord with me at the time it came out because I felt it was something genuinely different to everything else around at that time, both musically and lyrically.

You covered High on the American Laundromat Records tribute album – Just Like Heaven. Would you say that the recording process and initially, the creative process, was a similar scenario when you covered a track by The Cure as when you covered The Smiths?
David: Pretty much, yes. You just kind of break down the song into its constituent parts… the melody, the rhythm, the tempo, etc. and then rebuild it in a way that appeals to you. It’s often quite an instructive process, because you’re analysing how other people write and arrange music.

Can you tell us a bit more about the recording? Do you take on facets of the band you are covering and perform ‘from their perspective’ or do you completely wipe the slate, start afresh and see where it takes you?
David: Definitely the latter! I cannot see the point in covering a band and then ending up sounding like them. In some ways it seems to work better when you’re working with the music of artists that you don’t feel particularly strongly about because that gives you more freedom to destroy their songs so that you can rebuild them.

Talking of covers, your impressive back-catalogue demonstrates that you are not shy of offering your own interpretation of originals. The Wedding Present have covered tracks by Elton John, Neil Young, David Bowie and Mud – amongst others. Why do you think that some people are of the ‘covers are lazy’ brigade and how would you challenge this narrow view?
David: If you’re doing it properly you’re certainly not being lazy! It’s actually quite difficult. I think the ‘lazy’ description only applies when you just learn someone else’s words and music and then play it without adding much of your own personality. I think we’ve only done that once, really, when we covered Cattle And Cane by The Go-betweens in 1992. I loved that song so much that I think I was too precious about it and we ended up doing a version that was pretty faithful to the original. I think, with hindsight, that was a mistake.

What are your thoughts on the ‘beauty contest’ attitude that still seems rife in today’s music business? Is it the image or the music that is being sold? Where do you see this going in the future, and for younger generations of music consumers?
David: Well, it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. I think musicians have always been conscious of their style… or studied ‘lack of style’. Ultimately, music isn’t just about what you hear on the artist’s recordings. It’s about how they look, what they say, what they do, the sleeve design, the videos… all these things contribute to the overall appeal of an ‘artist’. Coincidentally, Morrissey is actually a good example of that. He’s not really made any truly inspiring music for decades, now, but has amassed this hugely dedicated following who seem to worship him. I think that’s probably something to do with the fact that he’s a brilliant and controversial interviewee. All the provocative pronouncements about vegetarianism and East End gangsters and China and stuff… I think that’s possibly all part of a strategy to maintain his status as an icon, no matter how objectionable some people may find some of his comments.

Morrissey has a bit of a reputation for being ‘unconventional’ and having tried his hand at ‘socially acceptable’ jobs, he took to shutting himself away to concentrate on his writing. Do you think there is a pressure to conform to something that does not suit your inner drive?
David: There are always people… your parents, your teachers, the careers officer… who will try to persuade you to conform, yes, but they’re really only doing it for your own good. No parent wants to hear “Mum, thanks for all your support while I’ve been at school and university but now that I have my maths degree I’m going to forget all that, thank you very much, and try to become a rock star!”

Did you always stick to your guns and listen to yourself, or did it come at a cost?
David: I did, yes. I’ve always been very determined to do what I’m now doing. I’ve always been the idiot who’s up at the crack of dawn to collect a tour-bus or count t-shirts! And it certainly does come at a cost, yes. You can certainly see why people become unconventional, as you call it. The people who are successful at this are usually incredibly driven and I think they put their work before everything else… socialising, leisure time… even their families and relationships. So it can end up being a very lonely career choice…

Had you not taken the musical route, what do you think you might be doing with your life instead?
David: I really don’t know because I never had a Plan B… but I don’t think it would’ve been using the mathematics degree. I mean, I find maths… pure maths, in particular… an extraordinarily beautiful subject, but I think I would’ve rather tried to become a DJ… or write comic books or something!

Steve Albini worked with you on the 1990 Brassneck EP – and later, on your full-length album Seamonsters. What did this relationship teach you about your writing and recording processes and thresholds, capabilities and flexibilities?
David: The main thing I learnt from Albini was that The Wedding Present sounded at its best when we went back to basics and just recorded the band with great equipment playing live in a great sounding room with great sounding instruments. That kind of sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But you can get a bit lost in the recording process, sometimes. Steve said to me once: “Why do some bands take as much time on perfecting a snare drum sound as it did The Beatles to record an entire LP?”

It has been suggested that in the demise of The Smiths in 1987, The Wedding Present came along at just the right time, to fill the void that had been left behind. Do you feel that your audience is partly made up of Smiths stragglers, and if so, what does this mean to you?
David: I think it’s fair to say that we perhaps scooped a few Smiths fans… yes. I actually referred to that myself when I half-jokingly described The Wedding Present as The Smiths fans’ second favourite group! But it didn’t affect what we did as a band in any way… we always had our own vision and we were always determined to pursue it regardless of who our audience were. That’s still true today.

That aside, in what ways have you been influenced by the Smiths in your pre-The Wedding Present/Lost Pandas days – and throughout your career?
David: I think the main way in which I found The Smiths inspiring was in the manner in which they stood out from the crowd and had that unique style and sound. So they weren’t really musically influential, as such… I mean Morrissey and myself have totally different styles of lyric writing, for instance… and I was always slightly suspicious of Johnny Marr’s supposed hatred of punk rock [which I loved!]

John Peel was a huge supporter and advocate of The Wedding Present. How do you view the current radio broadcasting and presenter/artist relationships, situation?
David: Well, it’s changed quite dramatically, clearly. I think, on the one hand, it’s very enlightening and democratising to be able to listen to radio from all over the world and for listeners to be able to email the presenters… but at the same time I think John Peel was, is and will always be, irreplaceable. That being said, it’s interesting to note that Peel actually welcomed the new technology and often corresponded with his listeners by email.

Compared to the power of the Internet, social marketing and media such as Facebook and Twitter, do you think there is still a significant need for radio play and promotion?
David: I think the need has lessened, certainly. But I’m a big fan of radio so I hope it sticks around for a long time to come!

What are your thoughts on the whole cyber-society debate that we are living through?
David: It’s a complex debate because, of course, downloading files and tweeting is less human than buying a record in a shop and playing it to your friends or hearing someone discuss new music on the radio. But then the Internet is clearly extremely useful for discovering music. I love the way you can hear about a band and then sample their recordings a few seconds later on MySpace or something. I think that’s probably the future, isn’t it? Whether we like it or not! But I’d also say that this is all still a new technology. Who knows where it’ll take us in even the next ten years?

Who would you be most honoured to cover The Wedding Present or Cinerama?
David: Ha… I don’t know… The Pixies? Or maybe Jamie Cullen could do an interesting version of something…

So it seems, nostalgia doesn’t need to mean the end of innovation. The Smiths tribute record is testament to this and signals that it is only the beginning. Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before? Likely you have, but isn’t that the point?

Please, Please, Please: a Tribute to The Smiths will be released on American Laundromat Records on December 13th (USA). Check http://www.alr-music.com for more details.

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