Of Flowers & Fruity Englishmen: The Asphodells' Andrew Weatherall
, February 7th, 2013 05:03
With his new duo The Asphodells, Andrew Weatherall has created an album that's equal parts pastoral electronic pop and naughty indoor pursuits. He speaks to Luke Turner about fruity Englishmen and the importance of setting yourself high standards
Just up the road from Andrew Weatherall's studio, a new block of high-end flats bulges out over Old Street roundabout - "The Art Of Lateral Living", proclaim advertising hoardings for the marketing suite. It's the sort of nonsense that now blights the area, and a far cry from the chaos of Weatherall's HQ, where he sits rolling a joint amidst piles of books, musical gear, and a magazine with a horse on the front.
"What looks like a bloke sat in a big chair smoking dope, listening to records and reading books is actually very important research and development," Weatherall says, with a chortle. The DJ, remixer, musician and one half of new electronic group The Asphodells does a lot of chortling during the course of our interview. As well as discussing that new project, Weatherall talks about suits (he's previously described his aesthetic as "Edwardian road mender"), Throbbing Gristle, the books on East London Jewish history that a friendly cabbie keeps dropping off at his door, and why it's a shame there aren't any rude nutters in music any more... except perhaps Deadmau5, who we imagine sat mouthing off with a "conveyor belt of bugle" running from his ears to his nose.
Alongside his friend Timothy J. Fairplay, Weatherall has in The Asphodells created Ruled By Passion, Destroyed By Lust a record of very British electronic pop that makes sonic nods to both to our nation's penchant for naughty pursuits with willow and leather, and clean-limbed fun underneath the yews and oaks. There probably won't be many records this year that sound equally inspired by John Betjeman, the Radiophonic Workshop in leather, and spacey acid house.
So Andrew, why the Asphodells? Historically flowers have a lot of symbolism attached to them.
Andrew Weatherall: Flowery etiquette reached its peak in Victorian and Edwardian times, what you wore and where you wore it was very symbolic. The asphodel was a symbol of regret, and you gave it to someone because you regretted what they did to you, or vice-versa. Also going back to more classical literature, it's a harbinger of doom. It's got quite dark connotations. I only found that later when I researched it. I say researched, I mean 'Googled'. I'd love to say 'I was sitting in a leather Chesterfield in the British Library, reading a book on Greek Mythology and Classical Literature', but I was just checking there was no other band called The Asphodels. I put two 'll's in it so it gained a kind of 60s surf band vibe. So I have notebooks full of ideas, aphorisms and other people's one-liners and I wrote in there 'asphodells - flowers of regret".
How did the notebooks start to become the LP?
AW: There's never really any start to any project I do, because I never finish anything. We're continually working because I love the end result, but I love the process of making art in any form. You start making stuff, and think, 'that's a body of work developing here, and that's one there'. We must have had four or five tracks in one file and that's when you start honing the album. There's no Monday morning PowerPoint presentation: 'Right Timothy, today we are The Asphodells, our sound will be like this'. I got bogged down, I still had my Pox On The Pioneers head on and was thinking in song structures and middle eights and verses. We were doing these tracks and I was abandoning them because I couldn't get a song to work out. I think Tim was getting a bit bored and said, 'Look let's not worry about that, let's do tracks - we're trying to do tracks for the dancefloor at Love From Outer Space and you're trying to shoehorn a song in.' That was the turning point - stop thinking you're a great songwriter 'cos you're not. Fucking get on it, and do what you do. Stop getting worried 'cos you're not Nick Cave or Shane McGowan.
So how does it come out of the club?
AW: Because the motto of the club is Never Knowingly Exceeding 120bpm, there's a certain BPM from 105 to 110 that I really enjoy, it makes for a really sleazy, chuggy tempo. I write the basslines like I type, proper QWERTY keyboards [makes two finger stabbing gesture]. Sometimes we'll get a bassist in, but I've had musicians in here and you just want something really simple. I know they're probably getting annoyed because they're thinking 'I can play better than this', but if I wanted them to play a solo I'd go 'and solo'... but at the moment let's just play those two chords for 15 minutes.
Is it a rough and ready, amateurish approach?
AW: That's who I am. Strictly speaking an amateur is someone who doesn't get paid, I don't know if I can stretch that out... if you do something without payment, you do it for the love of it. I suppose I'm lucky because I've got that ethos and I get paid for it. If we were doing this interview in some plush studio or in my country retreat, I wouldn't be able to use that analogy, but because I'm in this slightly rough round the edges environment where we've been for 15 years and the rent is relatively cheap, and all the money I make goes into this studio, I feel like an amateur really.
Were you using all old gear?
AW: We were using a MacBook Pro for the sequencing, but even if 90% of your track is created in the computer and you take 10% out, a synth say, and you play it though an amp and record it with air around it so you get the room, you get space and airiness to the whole track.
It's interesting that you mention the sleazy sound of those BPMs. One of the thing I like about the record is the EBP feel and the pastoral - like five go kinky in the countryside.
AW: Hahahahaha. That's just me. I love the city and Soho and filth and sleaziness, but I love standing on a promontory gazing wistfully out to sea in a run-down seaside town in the middle of winter. I'm a very contrary person. That kind of dichotomy spills into every area of my life, and I'm just about getting to grips with the fact that that's a good thing. Sometimes you feel like a dilettante, or you can't focus when you think like that, but you saying that is a really nice compliment.
I think a lot of writers, artists and musicians are very contrary, they're always battling with something. There's a great writer called Robert Walser who I came to through Billy Childish, who ended up spending his last years in a mental institution. In his stories you can tell he could have quite an easy life, and take the easy route, but he's convinced himself that if you struggle and make life hard for yourself it's more satisfying. He didn't do any work when he was in the mental asylum, and someone said to him 'Why aren't you writing?' and he went 'I'm here to be mad, not to write'. There are times in my 'career' when I could have taken a slightly easier route and been much better off for it, but would I have been happy?
In the Simpsons, the Arnold Schwarzenegger actor character is making all these terrible films and an interviewer asks him 'How do you sleep at night?' and he replies 'On a big pile of money with two lovely ladies'. That's the struggle. Could I forget that compromise as I'm gazing out over my eight acre field in the country? I've convinced myself I wouldn't be, but secretly I would... which is why in 15 years you're going to be interviewing me in a secure institution. I'll be going 'I'm not here to make music, dear boy, I'm here to be mad'.
Speaking of duality, I was wondering whether the title of the LP is autobiographical, or could be seen as a state of the nation?
AW: I think it's the state of humanity. It's the human condition. We have this passion that's taken us from two blokes in eggboxes going 44 feet over the ground in 1903, to 60 years later men on the moon. That's the passion that drives humanity to all its great achievements. But when it tips over into lust it ends up with First World War, Second World War, any number of misuses of technology. The title is actually the tagline for an early 70s gay gladiator porn film. I love it when the pop aesthetic and trash aesthetic sums up the human condition and it doesn't mean to, but it does it much better than any number of simpering prog bands - naming no names - or when 60s trash novels say a lot more than the latest supposed thinker. Or if you're about to do a garage rock cover of 'Cast Iron Arm' by Peanuts Wilson, which is a great record all about jealousy and violence, a little opera in two-and-a-half minutes. Don't think about those bigger pretensions, get on with it and play the track.
What's the John Betjeman influence here?
AW: 'Late Flowering Lust' is a John Betjeman poem. There's a great Betjeman album called Late Flowering Love, and it's outrageous. There's a track on there called 'The Liquorice Fields Of Pontefract', which sounds like John Betjeman reading poetry over the Velvet Underground. The version of 'Late Flowering Love' sounds like the Bad Seeds playing with John Betjeman. It's about two old lovers meeting up, getting drunk and exploring their now-ageing bodies.
It was something Tim and I were listening to, and he said we should do a cover. I was encouraged to read by my parents from an early age, but my father was into Spike Milligan and Peter Cook and Monty Python, so I got this love of the English language, and obsessed with slightly changing words, swapping them around, spoonerisms, and people like Stanley Unwin, Ivor Cutler and Viv Stanshaw and their fruity tones. John Betjeman was another of those fruity Englishmen - I loved the rhyme and the sound of his voice. They were part of my early love of the English language, dialects and subversion of words.
Some of the titles feel slightly arcane, and the music is quite unplaceable between sleaze and pastoral... there's a feeling that this is very English, but it could be from any time - like how the Mallard locomotive still looks really modern.
AW: It's that timeless quality. What I've learned to do after 25 years is to channel the music I love... I happen to not like one particular thing, not just rockabilly or garage rock, so I'm filtering a lot of influences, but I'm trying to do approximations of those forms of music with the original kit. Then I think you'll place yourself out of time. A few reviews have said 'Oh, it's very retro', but I'm alright with that. Nothing dates quicker than a new sound. After 20, 25 years I've listened to more music, and know about how a studio works and how music works a bit better, so I can subconsciously channel music in an authentic way. That's what gives it what it's timeless quality. I think if you play the new record to people they'd be hard pressed to put a time on it. That's when I know I'm going to like a band, when I look at a picture of them and think, well, that could have been taken in 1969, 79, 89 or last week. It was difficult to think 'We're going to be really original' 10 or 20 years ago, but now when pretty much everything has been done you'll become original by default if you have that slightly amateur approach, and you do something for the love of it and do your approximation. In a nutshell, approximation over originality.