From Eden With Love: Everything But The Girl Interviewed
, June 19th, 2012 08:08
Ian Wade sits down with Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt to discuss the new Everything But The Girl reissues, and why they don't need to do a reunion
Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt met each other quite accidentally at Hull University 30 years ago, while both were already making indie waves with their first albums (Tracey as part of Marine Girls - incidentally one of Kurt Cobain's favourite bands - and Ben solo, collaborating with Robert Wyatt and the like) on legendary indie Cherry Red.
They became Everything But The Girl, naming themselves after a motto on Turner's furniture shop in Hull (don't look for it - it's not there anymore) and combining their array of distinctly non-rock influences to create their debut album Eden. They pretty much evolved their sound each album onwards until 1999's Temperamental, and stopped being Everything But The Girl in 2000 so that Tracey could bring up the couple's children. That said she occasionally stepped back in the public eye, releasing three solo albums and Ben ventured further into the world of dance by becoming a label owner of the imprint Buzzin' Fly (and more recently Strange Feeling). This led on to his Sunday sessions for Lazy Dog, and currently he hosts a 6music show.
Far from being ‘that nice couple who did those acoustic covers and then went dance', the public perception is just the tip of the iceberg, with Ben & Tracey having worked with Paul Weller, Massive Attack, Deep Dish, Spring Heel Jack, Stan Getz, Joe Sample and Michael Brecker and producers such as Todd Terry and Tommy LiPuma. There is definitely a lot more to them than meets the eye. They've had their high points ('Missing' selling three million copies, being asked daft questions in Smash Hits) and their low points (Ben's 1992 battle with the rare Churg-Strauss Syndrome, being mistaken for Matt Bianco in Florence), but through all that, they built an enviable catalogue, and remained anti-rockist throughout.
I meet Ben & Tracey at Buzzin' Fly's HQ up in Camden, where they are playing a game of Beat The Intro to some of their old vinyl. Ben sleeves back up a Carmel album, tidies it away and makes some tea while I enquire about Tracey's forthcoming Christmas album - which she has to deliver by July 4, to meet a very unseasonal deadline if it's going to get out in time. And then there's also a book she's been writing due to hit the shops in 2013 called Bedsit Disco Queen - How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Pop Star. Ostensibly I'm here to discuss the reissues of their first four albums - Eden, Love Not Money, Baby The Stars Shine Bright and Idlewild - but also their career in general.
These reissues have popped up on release schedules a few times, what finally made you get round to revisiting them again?
Tracey Thorn: It wasn't particularly our instigation which got them released. We were always slightly worried that Warners would do this without telling us - suddenly repackage a load of old stuff and we'd see it in the shop, but actually the guy who did it - Val Jennings at Edsel - they have this kind of deal with Warners where they license old albums and do the reissues and repackaging. He got in touch with us personally and said, "Would you be interested in doing the early albums and actually working with us to come up with extra tracks?" So in a way it's actually quite a relief to think that we could be involved and have a say in what went on and what didn't go on. From that point on, it became a bit more appealing.
I would imagine it gives you chance to make more of a Directors Cut. A lot of reissues chuck a load of old shit onto the release, but here you can see there's been actual care taken.
TT: Ben especially took a lot of care with them and listened to loads and loads of stuff. What we didn't want to do was put out EVERYTHING. We thought that you could do the completist thing where you find every little piece of recorded music and put it all out, but we wanted to hang on to some kind of quality control. There were tracks we listened to that were maybe demos of complete songs or half-recorded things that didn't make it to the album. In all honesty, with most of them, you could tell why they didn't make it and we just thought, "Well, if this wasn't good enough in the original time, then it's still not good enough now," so some things came out the box, and some went back in.
I don't suppose you've had the need to listen to all your stuff that regularly.
TT: You just don't. I mean you dip back in and out of things for research purposes or if someone mentions something, but after a while it's as though you've almost got an image of what those records sound like in your head, and sometimes it's not even completely accurate. You remember a mixture of what people said about the album, how they'd been received, how they've gone down in comparison to other records you've made. Then they're set in stone in your head. So when you do go back to them and listen to them you think, "Oh, actually it's a bit more like this than I thought," and there's a kind of element of surprise involved.
That's what I found. Definitely in the four reissues, there are different things going on in each one. Do you see these four albums as the definitive first phase?
[Ben joins us with tea]
TT: Yes I think they are a bit. [To Ben] Don't you? No?
Ben Watt: I don't think they were ever made with that in mind.
TT: We've talked before of how Idlewild is this point at which things start to pivot a bit, and move into the period where we went off a little bit in different directions. We both feel that the period after Idlewild, we slightly lost our way, [laughing] and didn't… what's the phrase…
[Both]...do ourselves justice.
TT: To put it nicely.
With Eden, there was this nice combination of both your solo works. Were you still writing individually with a view to a group album?
TT: Yes, totally. Eden came along when we were halfway through writing our solo albums and we just thought, 'If we bung these together now, we've got an album already. So, I think sounds coherent but it does have that quality of two people coming from a very distinctive place and putting it together. That's what gives it a certain quirkiness, I think.
Carmel and Working Week were both happening in London, and even Sade when she first came out was linked to this scene. Were you aware of that stuff going on?
TT: Yeah, we were still in Hull when we recorded that, but we were coming down to London to record and Robin Millar was producing our album and the Sade album at the same time. They were in the other studio.
BW: Quite often we would be doing sessions at the same time. We'd be downstairs in one studio and Sade would be upstairs in the other and Robin would be nipping between both of them.
Especially having to wait almost a year for Eden to be released and then seeing all these people come up in the meantime. That must have been annoying.
BW: I don't…
TT: It was frustrating…
BW: …it was a bit I suppose.
TT: …it was, and the worst thing about it was the fact that we changed a bit in that year between recording and releasing it, as you tend to do at that stage. We'd written some new songs by then, we'd moved on a bit, so we were in a position of releasing an album that represented where we'd been a year before.
BW: And we'd done Night & Day in 1982 or something, so I think Eden felt like the final statement on that sort-of sound and then it didn't come out till '84. Actually I just noticed that that Carmel album didn't come out until 1987…
TT: Wow, so she was still plugging away.
BW: … plugging away doing it.
I just remember More More More and Bad Day and they were 83/84.
TT: It's true, I think you're right, by the time we'd got to Eden, we'd almost felt that the whole sort of jazz thing, and it being a novel idea, was kind of coming to an end. So then having to wait ANOTHER year, it almost made us feel like we'd only just cottoned on to this thing, and actually we'd almost been right at the beginning of it.
BW: ...and The Style Council were jumping all over it
But that must have helped you when Paul Weller had you guest on Café Bleu?
BW: I think to a certain extent it did. I think people thought it was quite an odd relationship in a way. It was very odd for us. We were up in Hull when the phone rang, and I was in a student house, and the guy downstairs said 'Ben, there's a call for you.' I said, 'Who is it?' He said, 'It's Paul Weller.' He'd just split up The Jam and there he was ringing us up to see if he could do some work with us. I thought it was someone having a joke really.
I like the story about the artwork [The original album artwork was designed by Jane Fox from the Marine Girls. It was delivered as a three-dimensional collage of hand-drawn art and torn paper. The label didn't know what to do with it.]
TT: Well we were still thinking in an indie way. When we made Eden, it was going to come out on Cherry Red and so we still thought it would be an indie record, and in the interim, we swapped to Blanco y Negro, which was still sort of an indie but going through a major, so then we found ourselves then having to deal with people at a major label. We just had all sorts of expectations, that we hadn't encountered before, so it made it look like we were being very argumentative and uncompromising all the time, but we were just being confronted with things we'd never been asked to compromise on before. I think it was an awkward time. You have to learn those lessons gradually.
There's quite a few bands of that period…
…especially with Warners…
TT: Yeah. [laughs]
…and, well, say no more. It did seem the eighties were quite a battle?
TT: I do think Warners had very set ideas during that period of what pop music was and what the rules were. We often say if we'd been around in a different decade, I think we'd have had a much easier time of it. There were battles we had to fight that nowadays groups just don't have to fight, it's just not considered an issue anymore.
But each of these albums sold around 500,000 copies. Artists would have to go through all sorts of hoops to even approach that sort of amount today.
TT: It's true. In that sense it was an easier time. You could still do things your own way and have very healthy sales, so from the record company's point of view, and to their credit, they did often give us freedom because we were selling a decent amount of records, but it just seems in retrospect that a lot of things were a battle that perhaps needn't have been. Nowadays things are just taken for granted - how you do the sleeve, what single you chose…
BW: Our modus operandi has always been understatement and that just doesn't really work in pop, and what Warners - we always say Warners but it was basically Rob Dickins - his big thing was to pinpoint the one thing that was most commercial about what we were doing and then amplify that at the expense of everything else. He was not that interested in the whole concept of the band I don't think. I think he couldn't understand why Tracey didn't want to be Sade, why she was more interested in what Morrissey was doing, and that always perplexed him. That was the battle we always came up against.
Moving onto Love Not Money, I thought that was clearly more of a band effort, and sounds more jangly and has more in common with stuff like The Smiths and Lloyd Cole & The Commotions. Was that as a result of playing with a fuller band live?
BW: It was partly the experience of going out and realising that were no longer playing in front of a couple of hundred people in a club where you could afford to do a few acoustic numbers. We were suddenly playing in university unions for 1500 to rowdy crowds and it was just hard to get yourself heard. I think it was a combination of just the sheer practicalities of needing to be louder and to start playing electric guitars and trying to work out where to go next. You're right, guitar-based pop was the sound that seemed to be the route to take, and we just did our version of it I suppose.
Because of your need to evolve, did you ever say, "Right, this album is going to sound like this, and that one is going to be big band based'?
TT: Because we were never a ‘band' as such, we didn't have a kind of sound. I think if we'd had two or three other members then there would have been a more definable sound. You play together and rehearse together and you write your songs together maybe, but it was always just the two of us. In a way there's a conceptual element to us as a band, with us deciding what it's going to be on this record and putting together a band according to what the plan was. So sometimes it was more theoretical where we'd think, 'Right, let's make this one as a reaction to what we've just done. We're not going to be this little acoustic thing now, we're going to be a band.'
So when the Love Not Money fans came along to the gigs for the next album, they must have thought, 'Where are the guitars?'
TT: Possibly. I think with that record we had a different band - we didn't have Neil [Wilkinson] and June [Miles-Kingston] any more, we had Cara [Tivey] and Rob [Peters], so yes it would've been a different sounding band.
BW: I don't think our audience changed that much.
TT: No, perhaps not at that period. I think it was more gradual.
I suppose the fans were following you and growing with you at the same time.
TT: I think - and this was to do with being young - we took that for granted a bit, and again with hindsight you look back think, 'God, that was a bit of gamble you might have lost everyone." But I think when you're young you just think, 'YEAH WE'VE GOT THIS GREAT IDEA AND OF COURSE EVERYONE ELSE IS GOING TO LIKE IT.' You know? It's just like a gang mentality.
BW: I'm sure we weren't that different from our audience either. The difficulty we found navigating the eighties having grown up through post-punk was, I'm sure, something that was felt by our audience and I'm sure they responded to our changes of direction and attempt to chart a path through it. They were sympathetic to where we were. I don't think they had any better ideas than we had. [Both laugh]
TT: WHAT THE HELL ARE WE DOING?
That was the beauty of post-punk, I think it opened up a lot of people's minds. More of an openness to experimentation and to look to other things.
BW: Well anti-rockism, that was the big clarion call at the NME for a while. You'd never get it now. Pete Wylie coined the phrase Anti Rock and that's what it was all about. Trashing all those stereotypes from the sixties and the seventies and you were allowed to experiment with anything whether it was Burundi drumming or ska or jazz or Krautrock or any of that kind of stuff.
TT: Anything that wasn't rock.
BW: It was all percolating through, and it was the days where Bobby Womack would be on the cover of the NME. We were bounced off the front on one issue by Chaka Khan! I do think it was a far broader church in terms of taste. But what we've seen since Britpop is indie rock going mainstream and sort-of staying there and it's just this broad delta of music spreading from Snow Patrol outwards.
TW: It's much more samey, it's true
With Baby The Stars Shine Bright, and the more classic song set-up, was that a conceptual idea before or did the songwriting dictate that mood?
TT: I think it was again a part of that being ‘not rock', and I was looking for singing icons that were not from the rock canon. I was looking to Dusty Springfield and trying to think of those people who had a way of being quite demonstrative, slightly dramatic singers but not in a rock context.
BW: We were very aware that the pop sound with new studio technologies and producers like Trevor Horn, there was a really big bombastic sound in the charts, with snare drums becoming enormous with these big gated reverbs and even soul records that were coming in from America, they had a huge sound to them. I don't think we had a desire at that time to take on any of the synthetics of that kind of music, so we thought 'Right, if people want a loud sound, let's make it in another way', and I think that's why we turned to sixties orchestral where we could make a big ‘wall of sound' here, but with different instruments. That was one of the musical driving forces behind it.
TW: I think the songs were written with that in mind. It wasn't that we'd written songs and thought, 'How should arrange them?' because things like Come On Home and Cross My Heart are songs that were written to be done in that way.
There are some amazing songs on there. One thing that has surprised me that - apart from occasional bludgeoning of 'Missing' on The Voice - is that hasn't been more covers of your work. I'm sure you wouldn't be averse to someone like Adele or Jessie Ware asking to cover something like 'Come On Home'.
TT: Yeah. I'd love it. I do think it's a shame. We've nagged our publishers over the years saying, 'Isn't it worth sending some of these songs out?' I don't know. I think perhaps people don't dig deep enough when they're looking for covers, so you get the same things covered over and over again and there are ‘go-to' songwriters that people choose. We've slipped through the net a bit I think, and it's a shame. I think there's a lot of songs out there. Come on guys. [laughs]
Revisiting Idlewild with the demos you can feel an R&B element, was that another conceptual move or just you two with a drum machine?
TT: [To Ben] You went and bought your drum machine, didn't you
BW: 'Ben's drum machine.' [laughs]
TT: And that put the drummer out of work. In a way, the record is a little bit ‘cut down the middle'. There is a sense of there being two things going on which we tried to bolt together, and that was a little bit of me writing songs on an acoustic guitar and at that time I was in quite an introspective mood and was writing these lyrics about childhood and family and sort-of ‘women-centric' lyrics.
BW: And I was in the other room listening to Jam & Lewis. [laughs]
TT: And between us we tried to glue it all together to make a record and sometimes I think we either should have made two albums quite quickly, making my acoustic album with all my lyrics on and then we should have made a Jam & Lewis type record or we should have just made one or the other. In their moments both of those sides of that record are good, but there was always a danger as well that we didn't let either side of the arrangement go all the way, because we were aware that it had to fit on an album with all these other songs as well. The ones that are Jam & Lewis-y are only a BIT Jam & Lewis-y. Maybe they would have been great if they had been TOTALLY Jam & Lewis-y and we'd just gone the whole hog. But in a way maybe that's what we tried to go and do with Language Of Life. There was a sense where we thought we hadn't done those songs justice.
BW: but then we tried to do Jam & Lewis but with a real band, which was a BAD idea. [both laugh]
TT: OH THE MISTAKES!
BW: I know. I'm just surprised we're still here!
Although with Idlewild, and you had the one-off single of 'I Don't Want To Talk About It', and then that was added to the start of the album when it became a hit - that must have been annoying.
TT: Yes. [Laughs]
And then a lot of people came along thinking you were that nice couple that did the acoustic covers, but there was a lot more to you than meets the eye.
TT: Yep, obviously the trouble with having a hit with something like a cover of a ballad, you attract a whole new set of listeners, which is great, but on the other hand they start to pigeonhole you a little bit, and there was a period around that time where for a few years after where we did pick up an audience that began to get older and expect certain things from us. Again, if you'd followed us from the beginning you'd be aware that there'd always been other little sides to us, that sometimes could be a bit frustrating. It's not like we've ever been a rock band or anything. Obviously we've never been that! But I always felt that there'd been undercurrents of other things - darker things in our lyrics, political stances and things like that. It's frustrating if all those things get ironed out and then all you're left with is this surface.
I guess there's a danger that some artists at that point can go into auto-pilot, once you get to a certain point, and a certain level of audience
TT: I think in our defence, we were always trying to avoid the auto-pilot, It sometimes sends us off in funny directions. The record we made after Idlewild was The Language Of Life where we went off to America and did this very kind of ‘produced' slightly slick, kind of semi-jazzy, sophisticated record. Again it was a definite attempt to try and do something that had a character to it, but in retrospect when we were asked why we had taken that direction, we couldn't entirely say why…
BW: I think, when all bands start, when you're on your first album you have the benefit of hoovering up people who genuinely come across the music and really like it, but also those sort of ‘floating voters' who just like pop music when they're young. And I think that when you get to your fourth album, those floating voters have dissipated and you're left with a core audience, and at that point you've really got to get your act together and move on to something else to keep afloat, or you'll just shrink with your core audience, to the point where you're just doing little sit down gigs at Bloomsbury Theatre for the rest of your life. So I think you have to start taking a few risks and sometimes they don't pay off.
TT: Hmmm, that's a fair point, it was a gamble wasn't it?
BW: It was a big gamble. I remember at one point we were going to stay in London and make the fifth album with Dave Bascombe producing, who'd just remixed These Early Days, and he'd had a lot of success with 'Mary's Prayer' with Danny Wilson. And everyone thought, 'Oh he might work with Ben & Tracey. Let's maybe put them in the studio with him.' And we were like, 'I don't know if I want to go down that path, It seems a bit… nothing. Let's just have a go, we'll go to America and try and make a record." I think we got a bit drowned really by the whole experience, didn't we?
Would you want to do the same reissue treatment to that next batch of albums?
BW: Not if we can help it!
TT: [To Ben] Well would you want to if they said? I mean it's not our choice, it's up to them if they want to. Do you want to?
BW: I don't know.
TW: It would be interesting to see what sort of extra stuff there would be if you started digging around in the boxes.
BW: We'd probably come up with a one-sided seven inch.
Listening through your catalogue, from Eden to Walking Wounded and Temperamental, you can hear that the evolution was quite natural, and if you know all the albums, that it is an entirely natural progression.
TT: I agree. I think it's completely coherent that you can go from that record to that record.
BW: I personally feel that there's a lot of music journalism that is dominated by genre, because you need a language in which to write, but actually the things that strike people about music, are very hard to write about, and its sonic connections, it's a sense of harmony that I think we all have even if we don't know how to express it - it's something musical, it's synapse connections in our brain and I think in the same way that Miles Davis can play in a 1940s quintet, move into the cool school of the sixties, move into In A Silent Way and free jazz and out the other end playing Tutu and doing Scritti Politti songs, somehow throughout all that he has a unique identifiable sound and his sense of harmony is very consistent. So it's not such a leap between those phases of his career, and similarly, it's very much true with us, and I think Tracey's voice is very much a unique signature sound. I think the mood and the sense of harmony on all our records is not very different, and you sort of feel comfortable. Even if on paper, the instrumentation looks different. What with drum & bass and drum machines, acoustic guitars and congas… you know, on paper it looks ‘wrong'. People think it's a betrayal of authenticity if you do something different.
With your career I'd suggest there's been three stages. These first four albums act as stage one, then there were the next few albums up to Amplified Heart and your work with Massive Attack, and then stage three was a sort of rebirth with 'Missing' being such a massive hit. Did that freak you out how big that was?
TT: Yes, I think it probably did. It's hard to remember exactly what it felt like now. It just picked up a sort-of momentum of its own and I think we, as much as anyone else, just got caught up in it. It did have that feeling of something was out of our control. Also it happened after the event in a way, because the single and the album had been out, we'd done the promotion for it and had remixes that had done fairly well. The record was over and done with, but then the Todd Terry remix came along and did its thing, so we weren't even looking. Then it just gathered up more and more steam. It was like getting on a fast-moving vehicle.
And that was 15 years into your career, it could have knocked you sideways if you'd had success on that scale immediately.
BW: The great pleasure I derive from it now is that it was genuinely a hit through independent means, even though it was technically a hit on a major label because the budget had been pulled, and Warners had started to look the other way and these white labels were out in the clubs and it was just genuinely working on the dancefloor. I remember speaking to DJs such as Spoony who can remember being out in Ayia Napa and Ibiza in the mid-nineties, and it was just a sea of progressive house, and then suddenly a DJ would drop 'Missing' in the middle and it REALLY stuck out, like an absolute glimmering bauble. It had a melancholic mood to it, and he said it was one of those records that the whole dancefloor responded to, and I think we were very lucky that it came at just the right point, it bubbled up organically by word of mouth and DJs and became a real sort of ‘people's hit', which is very rewarding for people from an indie background.
It's the classic ‘crying on the dancefloor' template.
TT: Totally. That's why it felt comfortable to us. Some people asked us, 'Ooh does it feel weird having a dance hit because you're not a dance band,' but then the song we're singing over the top of it is exactly the kind of song I've always sung.
BW: People would say to us, 'Didn't you always hate disco?' things like that.
TW: [Laughing) Yeah, exactly.
I take it you're no closer to wanting to do anything together again, as the 'brand'?
TT: No, we're not. Although I am making this Christmas record, and Ben is playing on it, so for those who enjoying hearing us play together, there is that. We've said that it's not an Everything But The Girl record. It hasn't been a joint collaboration of us getting together and choosing songs. It's been very much me, as I had the idea and chose the songs and just asked Ben to play on it. But, you know - we are still working together and making music. It's not like we can't work with each other anymore. We're of the opinion that to actually get together and make a band record feels like a bit of a big deal, and that can be quite daunting when you're musicians. I think we'd have to approach it in a sort-of non-committal, "We're not really doing it" kind of way. [Laughs]
Looking back over the 30 years, you must be chuffed with your body of work
TT: I am. I'm also amazed we're still doing things here now. The thing I'm probably most proud of in a way is that the records we made that long ago are still here, being rereleased and people are still liking them, and also the stuff we do now - the stuff that Ben does on the label here or my solo records, and again people are still getting into them. It feels like the old stuff hasn't died and we're still allowed to carry on now and have a creative life
BW: If we're grateful for one thing, it's that we have made enough money over that course of time, that we're in a comfortable enough position to carry on doing the projects we want to do. We're not in a position where we HAVE to do the reunion tour because we're all skint and there were five of us or something. Okay we've never been the biggest band of all time, but we've done enough and now we can follow our own projects even if they're not the most commercial ones going, and that's a pleasure actually. I feel closer to the artist I was when I was 19 now then I have done in other stages of my career. Even at the peak of the Walking Wounded tour, and we were in Australia and we'd done a fourth night in Sydney and the next night we were playing in front of 5,000 people, and I was thinking, 'There's only so much of this I can take. It's starting to get a little impersonal now." For some artists that's just the springboard to stadiums and world domination and this hot-air balloon that gets lifted into the air and then kept there with more hot air for the next ten years, but my instinct was to bring the balloon down and let the air out. Tracey wanted to have kids and I thought, 'Actually I'd like to do something a bit smaller again' and so found that in Lazy Dog and DJing and the label. Perhaps we were not the people cut out to be superstars.
Eden, Love Not Money, Baby The Stars Shine Bright and Idlewild are all available now on Edsel