Interview with MARTIN CARR, No.1 musician and songwriter - Sep 14, 2009
“I learned that people like free things, but found I was accepting I would be giving away free records from then on. You fall into that frame of mind where you can't charge people for what you do, which is ridiculous, and dangerous … “
Although now often cited as one of the overlooked greats of 90s alternative rock, The Boo Radleys still managed to bag a UK No.1 album and a Top 10 single in pop classic ‘Wake Up Boo!’, a song so ubiquitous at the time that you’d be surprised to learn that it wasn’t the biggest hit of the year. The success led to the Boos being unjustly lumped in with the Britpop brigade when they shared more common ground with similarly wide-reaching peers like The Super Furry Animals - both being out on their own plain ploughing an ever imaginative and experimental furrow, albeit one rooted by an unerring knack for pop melodicism.
The writer responsible for ‘Wake Up Boo!’, and all their songs, was guitarist and singer Martin Carr who since the Boos’ demise has pursued a similarly inventive and captivating solo career under the name bravecaptain. Now stripped down to simply Martin Carr, the Cardiff-based singer-songwriter has released a new album on his own label that not only stakes his due claim as one Britain’s greatest contemporary songwriters, but as a wholly independent force.
In this interview with HitQuarters, Carr talks about his efforts in releasing his latest music free of music industry machinations, his unsuccessful experience with Bandstocks, the dangers of free music, and how ‘Wake Up Boo!’ is a career landmark that freed him from the 9 to 5 grind.
You once said you hoped the internet would soon offer a means of operating outside the traditional music industry. As your latest album ‘Ye Gods (and little fishes)’ is released on your own Sonny Boy Records imprint and distributed by an independent digital distributor, is this what you had in mind? If not, then what would the ideal situation be?
I think that this is the ideal solution for me. If I can get it to a point where I can release vinyl and CD as well as digital then it will be perfect. It would be good to hire somebody to do the admin as well - I can't fit any recording in at the minute because all my time is taken up with label stuff.
What does having your own label actually entail these days – is it just a name?
I guess it's what you want it to be. It starts as a name and the rest depends on one’s imagination. I have all kinds of ideas for the label now but a couple of months ago I had no interest in having a label at all outside of releasing 'Ye Gods'.
Why did you opt for the digital distributor State 51 and what is it they offer you?
State 51 approached me last year but I was distracted by the whole Bandstocks thing. They have a friendly and simple way of working. I'm very grateful to them.
Will the album be available as a physical release at some point, or are you already committed to a future of solely digital music?
I still buy most of my records on vinyl and digital but I realise that most people would like a CD so all three would be sweet.
When many fans buy something from an artist – be it an album, concert ticket, or piece of merchandise – they want to see as much of the proceeds going to them as possible. When someone buys a copy of your latest album how much will you benefit?
I get 80% of every record sold, which I still can't get my head around. Obviously I'm paying for the recording, the mastering, the sleeve and the marketing etc but If I can pay one with the other then I'm happy and if I make any more on top of that then, well, that's the dream right there is it not?
Ever since you stopped releasing music through the record company Wichita, you’ve been experimenting with alternatives, such as in issuing the album ‘Distractions’ as a free download, and by trying out the new Bandstocks business model. Firstly what did you learn from ‘Distractions’, and did you get a good response?
I got a great response and I learned that people like free things, but I also found that I was accepting the fact that I would be giving away free records from then on. You kind of fall into that frame of mind where you can't charge people for what you do, which is ridiculous, and dangerous.
When Wichita dropped me without warning and without explanation my confidence was almost destroyed. I gave away the album and stopped writing songs - it was over a year before I started again. I wasn't experimenting, I was giving up. Now I feel confident enough in myself and my music to charge for the records and still give the odd thing away.
With regards to Bandstocks, what attracted you to the concept in the first place and why did the relationship ultimately fail?
I was kind of talked into it. I knew deep down that I wouldn't be able to attract that kind of investment. We had a baby soon after it started so all my time was taken up with that. It needs a lot of work and commitment to try and find investors and I couldn't offer either. I still think it's a great way to operate.
Have you considered any of the other record company business models, such as slicethepie (read the HitQuarters interview with CEO here) and sellaband?
I wasn't interested in these models because with them anybody can put their band up. I wanted something that was A&R'd, I didn't want it to seem like I was doing it because I couldn't find a 'proper' record deal.
Do you agree with this idea of fans being in control of the music that is released?
I don't want anybody to be in control of the music I make. Music for me is ultimately a form of self-expression, I don't write for other people or for money, or at least that isn't at the root of what I do. Unfortunately I need money so I can look after my family and to make money you need to attract other people and that is where the ancient balancing act begins.
Is the new album therefore, in its direct, brassy, and accessible sound not heard since the Boo Radleys, a conscious attempt to reach out to a wider audience, or is it simply the music you feel happy playing at the moment?
It's simply where I was at that moment which was two years ago. I am slightly mystified why people have the impression that bravecaptain records are in any way inaccessible. I seem to have this reputation as dwelling in some kind of obtuse tune free wasteland when those records were as accessible as any Boo Radleys record - obviously discounting 'Wake Up Boo!'
One of the biggest differences is the production. I hired Charlie Francis to oversee this record and he's a pro. I don't mean that in any disparaging sense but I could never make a record that sounded like that. I don't have it in me.
Why did you choose him?
I worked with Charlie because I know him and he lives nearby. I got to know him many years ago because he had worked on the High Llamas 'Gideon Gaye' a record I fell in love with when it was released.
Yes, a brilliant album indeed … Why have you opted to release the new album under your own name for the first time? When bands plump for the eponymous album title, it’s usually because they want to reinvent themselves, wipe the slate clean, get back to basics etc … – do any of these things apply to you?
Clean slate yes. I've always tried to reinvent the noise I make, from 'Ichabod and I' onwards. After bravecaptain I tried to think of another band name but couldn't and somewhere along the line I realised that it would be much easier to garner attention if I were to labour under my own name. I do like band names though - my electronic band is called The Black Serpent Choir.
Maintaining a long career in the music industry seems to be harder than ever, is there anyone you look up to for inspiration, in the way they balance satisfying their own muse and their bank balance?
Well if we're talking about my peers then I guess Damon Albarn has done remarkably well even though I don't really like his music that much (I liked some Blur, usually the ballads) and he seems to do whatever he wants.
U2 have managed to survive for seventy years without actually making a record I would buy, but again at least they haven't stuck to the same thing for all that time. [Bob] Dylan and [Paul] McCartney have stuck to their guns and pulled through as well. It's hard to keep on being successful and at the same time keep it fresh and interesting. I think I score one out of two which ain't bad - at least I'm on the board.
What’s very evocative in your songwriting is how you reference not only other music but writers, actors, historical figures, artists etc - why do you like doing this and who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
I'm not sure why I like doing this. I think visually and I like the way that titles look written down, and I try not to use a song title that's been used before, if I can help it.
Songs for me are signposts that mark ones progress and including these influences in the titles show where I'm at and what I'm into at a certain point.
I'm still doing it, the Black Serpent Choir album has titles such as 'Hawksmoor' and 'Robert Hooke Blues' and the next one references Bunhill Fields and Bartholomew Fair reflecting my interest 17th and 18th century London and it's people.
At the minute I'm looking at a lot of paintings, although I don't dig too deep into why I like certain ones and dislike others, but I love Turner, Brueghel and Bacon, and Pieter de Hooch because his stuff is so informative. I also love things like 'The Rhinoceros' by Pietro Longhi simply because it's weird. I love taking photographs and I do a weekly illustration for The Times.
I'm really into trees as well this year - last year it was clouds. The days aren't long enough for me.
With songs like ‘Old Newstand at Hamilton Square’ and ‘New Brighton Promenade’ you’ve also been inspired by ‘place’ in your songwriting …
I love songs that mention places and I love to write songs that do the same. Any piece of art that evokes is working, I think music and art and writing have to come alive. You have to animate otherwise all you end up with is something lifeless. The Fleet Foxes album is a very good example of that, names and places that you can play with in your head as you listen.
Has your current residence of Cardiff proved as inspiring as your old haunts?
Cardiff has inspired a couple of songs; 'Toytown is a Drag' and 'Pontcanna Stone'. Not the happiest of songs, either of them.
Beside adding colour and an extra depth, it seems by adding an array of inspirations you’re encouraging your audience to think outside of the music box. Music too often seems to take inspiration solely from itself rather than art and culture as a whole.
Popular music does tend to be very self involved, I'm not trying to change that or anything but I do like to share the things that I like.
You say you illustrate for the Times and love taking photographs, so do you think it is healthy and valuable for artists to not just focus on music but express their artistic talents in variety of forms? The media often gets suspicious when musicians move into other art forms.
I think it's healthy for people in general to take an interest in as many things as possible. I don't think the people at The Times know that I make records and most people don't know that do illustrations for The Times. I do it because I like doing it but mainly because I need the money.
Are there any other areas you want to explore further in the future, or any that you are doing already?
I started to working on animated videos for my songs last year but then my son was born and that's one of the things I've had to let go but I'd love to go back to it later on.
Looking back over your career so far, which songs particularly stand out as being your durable ‘classics’, the ones you’re particularly proud of?
'Lazarus' because it's the first proper song I ever wrote, 'Reaching Out From Here', 'Wake Up Boo!', 'The Old Newsstand at Hamilton Square' - although the recorded version has nothing to do with the song I wrote, which is indicative of how much we had lost it at that point, mentally as well as creatively - 'Tell Her You Want Her', 'This Weight that You Have Found', 'Me and You Glue', 'April', 'Good Life' and 'Goldrush '49'.
An accusation of The Boo Radleys is how they ‘sold out’ with the classic pop hit ‘Wake Up Boo!’ (legendary maverick, grump and then Boo Radley label boss Alan McGee bizarrely described it as an ‘Atrocity Exhibition’), how do you respond to that?
Sold out what? I have never ascribed to that way of thinking. There are certain things I won't do but those are boundaries I have set myself. Some people believe in some kind of punk rock code but I don't understand it. I love pop music and I wanted to make a pop record so I did.
What do you think about when you hear that song now?
Usually it doesn't register at first if I hear it, it's so familiar, it's just there - like trees and October.
So the song and its success is something you’re proud of, and was it ultimately good for your career?
I am proud of that song, everything that happened around it was out of my hands so I can't take credit - or blame - for that. It has put a roof over my head and I don't have to go and sit at a desk in an office again so I'm very grateful for it every single day. That was my main ambition - maybe unknown to me to begin with - not having to do what I did before, and is the thing that I look at with the most pride.
Interview by Barry Wheels
Next week: Special feature on Denniz PoP, Cheiron and the quiet dominance of Swedes in popular music
Read On ...