Specs, Drugs & Rock & Roll: True Stories Of Morcheeba
, October 18th, 2013 06:21
Wyndham Wallace speaks to Ross Godfrey of Morcheeba about their rock & roll past and their new album Head Up High - streaming here in full
“When I was a kid,” Ross Godfrey says, leaning in over a pint of Spanish lager in an empty South London pub, “I used to listen to my Dad’s Jimi Hendrix records, and I’d look at weird pictures of him and think, ‘He looks awful’. They’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s because he used to do so many drugs, but that’s why his music was so good.’ This is when I was about 12. I was like, ‘Right, I need to find some LSD to do, because it makes you a better musician!’ I honestly thought it was like a vitamin that helped your mind grow, and if I ever got it, it would be beneficial for me as a person and my spiritual development. I felt that way until I was in my 20s and pretty much had an endless supply of it. At which point I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t good for me!’”
The guitarist and songwriter emits a boyish snigger that crinkles the eyes behind his spectacles. He’s unusually levelheaded, the kind of musician whose enthusiasm remains genuine and modest. Meeting him at his home before the interview, a John Lee Hooker poster hangs next to another of Dinosaur Jr. on his kitchen wall, while a signed Ry Cooder print hangs in his studio. His gold discs are instead in his toilet.
“No one ever told us that it was bad to do that kind of stuff!” he continues, still grinning. “I always thought that rock & roll was a good thing, really. I knew there was a chance that you could choke on your own vomit and die, but I’d pretty much convinced myself that wasn’t going to happen to me!”
He takes a sip of beer and sits back in his chair again, a green combat jacket bunching up over his shoulders. “I remember once,” he continues, “our tour manager couldn’t do a gig, and so he got a deputy in, and it was a guy who normally tour managed Primal Scream. Cut to after the show: we’re in the dressing room, and we have to carry him back to the bus. Literally: back to the bus. We’re like, ‘We’ve just broken Primal Scream’s tour manager! What the fuck’s going on? I thought they were pretty rock & roll!’”
There’s another of his trademark chuckles.
“And it wasn’t that crazy a night!”
It’s not far off two decades since Morcheeba were formed after Ross and his hip hop loving older brother Paul – responsible for the band’s production and lyrics – found themselves dumbfounded hearing Skye Edwards sing at a party. They released their debut album, Who Can You Trust? in 1996, and, though they were initially acclaimed as a trip hop band – they displayed a fondness for blunted hip hop beats and soulful vocals compared at the time to Portishead’s Dummy, released a little over 18 months earlier – Morcheeba always had something that separated them from their contemporaries. Their global success with 1998’s second album Big Calm, however – and their subsequent ubiquitous exposure with 2000’s poppier Fragments Of Freedom – soon provoked sneering from critics. Though the public nonetheless continued to lap up their albums, a snobbish taste-maker elite had largely turned its back on them by the time of 2002’s Charango, despite the apparently conflicting, but intriguing, presence within its grooves of Slick Rick, Outsidaz’ Pace Won and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.
By then, people thought they knew everything they needed to know about Morcheeba. But the truth is that most of us don’t know much about Morcheeba at all. If they were ever on the radars of people like Quietus readers – and, for a while, they were, whether or not we care to admit it – we lost track of them a while ago. That singer Skye Edwards left their ranks in 2004 went largely unnoticed, and that the two Godfrey brothers went on to tread somewhat more adventurous, leftfield musical territory with 2008’s Dive Deep – which was peppered with unexpected guest vocalists – was of little interest. Furthermore, Edwards’ return in 2010 for Blood Like Lemonade, which recalled the darker sounds of their earlier days, hardly brought out the bunting. Indeed, news of their eighth album, Head Up High, may well have passed you by altogether.
But maybe the fact that White Denim’s James Petralli is involved with three tracks will pique your interest, as might the fact that it was influenced by brother Paul’s recent work with heavily sampled library musician Janko Nilovic (whose material was recently reissued by Light In The Attic). Perhaps you’ll be drawn in by the presence of Ana Tijoux, whose voice was used to such great effect in Breaking Bad, or Jurassic 5's Chali 2Na, or even the outré, almost literally ‘cooking’ rhymes of Rizzle Kicks’ Jordan and Harley: “MDMA is quite the marination/ It’s like Hollandaise but quite a vacation”.
God forbid, of course, that you actually admit that lead single ‘Gimme Your Love’ is a gorgeous slice of textured, bass heavy, timeless pop. What would your friends think, after all? But maybe you’ll simply find yourself significantly more fascinated when you find out that, not only did Iggy Pop himself play their records on his tour bus to calm down after shows, Morcheeba are more rock & roll than you ever imagined. Maybe more rock & roll than you’d ever dare be.
“It’s deceptive,” Ross explains, “because the band is considered quite mellow, and that’s almost worse: we’d be at a festival and come off stage and be much more outrageous than the rock & roll bands that are exhausted by the time their set is over. I remember waking up in my mid 20s in a house in Wandsworth, having been out all night high on coke and magic mushrooms and drunk out of my mind. I thought, ‘I’m not partying hard enough! I’ve got to try harder! When I look back later in life I’m going to be disappointed that I didn’t do this with more gusto!’ I made a conscious effort to go for it more. I’m glad that I did. It was so over the top it’s funny.”
Ross and his brother Paul, who grew up in Kent amid a music loving family, were educated in the ways of rock & roll from an early age. “They’d sit us down when we were five or six,” Ross reminisces of his parents and uncles, “and we’d watch Woodstock, or we’d go through their record collections, and we’d listen to all these crazy old records from the ‘60s and stuff. I remember my brother pretty much stole my Mum’s record collection, which consisted mainly of Rolling Stones 7”s. He used to play that all the time! To death! That was when he was about eight or nine years old!”
As they grew up, he and his brother developed their interests in different musical genres, but it was more a tactical than aesthetic decision. “We set out as explorers that would find out different things, and would then come back and meet up and talk about it. I’d love listening to all the records that he’d buy, but I wouldn’t collect hip hop records, and he wouldn’t collect 60s acid rock records. We lived in the same house. There was no point in us both having copies of Electric Ladyland.”
It was hip hop that really fired their imaginations, Ross says. “It was like a whole culture: there was art, there was breakdancing, there was fashion. When we started, hip hop was still cool. The Wu Tang were still making great records, and it hadn’t been ruined by Puff Daddy.”
Morcheeba’s hip hop influences were clear right from the start. Though the classic debut single ‘Trigger Hippie’ was also awash in Ross’ slide guitar, and Who Can You Trust? as a whole found him leaning on the psychedelic sounds of his parents’ record collection, it was his brother’s beats that grabbed people’s attention most easily, and their lethargic pace is easily explained.
“I’ve got quite a slow heart rate,” Ross reveals, cleaning his glasses carefully as he speaks, “and used to smoke a lot of dope and play everything quite slowly. Most of the early recordings were made at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning after we’d been out all night, and we’d go back to the studio and start overdubbing on the beat that we’d made earlier. In general they’d be like one take wonders that we’d keep, and normally it was only one take because we could only concentrate that long! But even when we made our first record, which is considered the most trip hop and electronic, we were sitting at home listening to Mona Bone Jakon by Cat Stevens.”
Faced with this calming, lugubrious music, critics were split down the middle. While Melody Maker loved them, Ross points out, the NME hated them. Some embraced them for taking trip hop in new, unexpected directions thanks to their country, folk and blues influences, and even David Byrne called them up to ask if they’d produce his next record. Others felt, as Alexis Petridis was moved to write a few years later in The Guardian, that they “had missed an already overloaded boat.” The band themselves were unconcerned, for one especially good reason: their next record was already in the can, and they knew it was a winner.
“Big Calm is a strange thing,” Ross admits, anonymous to the pub’s only other customer on a table nearby. “It’s our most successful record ever, and people like it the most, but in reality Paul and I sat down with half a speed pill and a bottle of vodka and pretty much wrote it in one night! I’m not joking! We woke up the next morning, heads on the desk: ‘Right, what have we got then?’ And we listened to it, and there was just classic song after classic song! We never tried to do that again, and I don’t know why. But we gave it all to Skye and said, ‘Can you make this sound a lot sweeter?’ We were very aware that we were going to be so busy that we wouldn’t have time to make the ‘difficult second record’, so we thought we’d make it before the first record came out.”
Big Calm wasn’t an immediate hit. In fact it barely scraped the Top Twenty, and only its fourth single, ‘Part Of The Process’, squeezed into the Top Forty at all. But, over time, the album became ubiquitous, both within the UK and abroad. It was particularly distinguished by the gentle vibes of ‘The Sea’, the kind of narcotic soul that even Black Keys’ drummer, Patrick Carney, included on a compilation designed to court his girlfriend, or so he once confided to Ross during a tour they shared in Australia. But, as its success spread, so some began to tire of it.
“People started accusing of us of being coffee table” Ross explains, “and I remember thinking at the time, ‘That’s not very nice, although I do like to sit down and have a cup of tea and a spliff and listen to music!’ On the album cover, there was a picture of a beautiful girl sitting down in front of a coffee table, listening to a record, so we couldn’t argue! But it had the connotation that we were a bit bland, and I think a lot of the journalists that were tastemakers, always looking for the next cool thing, dismissed us a bit because we made music that was pleasant to listen to. It never really got your pulse racing.”
Nonetheless, Big Calm was a multi-million, global bestseller, and its success led to some extraordinary experiences. Ross – with his eye on debauchery – made the most of them. In particular, he recalls a weekend in the summer of 2000, when the band played a triumphant show at Glastonbury on the Jazz World Stage.
“It was live on the BBC,” he looks back mischievously, “and it was my birthday. I had a ton of magic mushrooms all along my pedal board that a hippy friend had given me, and I ate one between each song. And we must have played about ten or twelve songs, and you’re supposed to have two or three, so by the end of it I was absolutely tripping my balls off! And my Mum is at home watching me eating mushrooms live on BBC Television, and there’s 40,000 people staring at me and singing along to the songs. And I quite enjoyed it, as if this was the moment I’d been training for!
“But it didn’t stop there,” he continues, “because we immediately left the stage and got in a tour bus and drove to Heathrow Airport, where we had to fly to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl. I walked down the stairs of the tour bus and banged my head on the ceiling where the stairs go up the bus, and I thought I’d given myself concussion. I couldn’t tell, because I was so tripping. When we arrived at Heathrow Airport, I explained this to the check in staff, because I had to be honest, and they upgraded me to Business Class. So I was hallucinating, drinking champagne, all the way to Los Angeles, having just played Glastonbury live on TV! I got to the Hollywood Bowl, and I was still pretty out of it, and we went on stage, and the entire E Street band was in the box in front of where I was playing. I was a huge Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fan, and it totally freaked me out. I was the most paranoid person ever. I think that was the weirdest weekend of my life.”
Ross concedes he understands how some people reached the conclusion that Morcheeba were insipid. “We didn’t really make music that was far out on a limb in any experimental way”, he says, and acknowledges that over-familiarity – brought on by heavy licensing of their music to TV, film and advertising – bred contempt. “It’s hard to ride that wave,” he argues. “You want to be successful, and at the same time you don’t want to overdo it. But the people that run your record label obviously want you to sell as many records as possible, so they’re not going to argue with it.”
Additionally, they left their trip hop sound even further behind with their third record, Fragments Of Freedom. If Big Calm had seen them bringing in more diverse influences – reggae, soundtrack, electronica, easy listening – their turn of the century album embraced pop full on in an attempt to put their slower, darker material behind them.
“I specifically remember being in the studio playing Paul something,” Ross confesses, “and him shouting at me, saying, ‘Play something fucking happy and fast!’ The trouble was, we’d been doing world tours and playing hour and a half long concerts of really slow material, and it was like, “For God’s sake! We’ve got to play something that’s a bit more uptempo because I’m falling asleep on the stage!’”
He breaks off, laughing at the admission that, by then, they might even have been boring themselves. Their response was, most notably, ‘Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day’, a song that they weren’t even sure whether to pursue when Ross first offered it to his brother “because it was so cheesy. We did it anyway, and it was a huge hit worldwide. But I think that really turned the UK off us, because we’d possibly pushed it too far. All the cool people turned their backs on us, and the new fans that we found weren’t necessarily fans that you’d “covet” in this country. So Charango was us trying to appease the people that we’d pissed off on the third album.”
Though there were some who recognised their fourth record as a brave and often artistically invigorating release, the band lost some of their early fans and, by this stage, they’d gone too far down the road of mainstream success to convince the more sceptical. It was a shame: despite a couple of missteps – most notably Slick Rick’s advice on ‘Women Lose Weight' – Charango’s Southern American influences added a welcome tropical atmosphere, and the two collaborations with Kurt Wagner were especially enjoyable. He provided the lyrics to the erotically charged ‘Undress Me Now’ – “Imagine our skin joined at the hip/ Joined from within” – and also to ‘What New York Couples Fight About’, upon which he additionally duetted with Edwards. People, though, had already made up their minds.
“I remember going to All Tomorrow’s Parties – which I do quite often, because when it was in Camber it was quite close to where I grew up – and I went to see Lambchop,” Ross laughs. “Somebody shouted out to Kurt, ‘Why the fuck are you working with Morcheeba?’ and he said over the mike, ‘Because they’re lovely people.’ I also remember going into Rough Trade, the one in Neals Yard, and there was a white label of ‘What New York Couples Fight About’ with a note on it saying, ‘I know this is Morcheeba, but it’s actually quite good and you might like it!’ It was apologising for the fact it was a Morcheeba record!”
By this stage, the band had run themselves ragged anyway. “When we did Big Calm,” Ross says, shaking his head, “we did a four or five month tour of America that I can’t actually remember anything about. At all! Pretty much nothing! Whenever we got to the end of the tour, they’d book us another tour, and it was like 200 Motels, this crazy Groundhog Day loop.”
“It’s about what we call being match fit,” he states matter-of-factly, when asked how they survived. “Once you’ve got tolerance, you can do whatever you want. It’s like having a muscle that you need to train: the drug muscle!”
“We were in Copenhagen once,” he says, looking back at another adventure, “and we’d been to Christiana and bought a couple of packets of magic mushrooms. Paul and I were pretty much convinced that the guys there had said one gram is enough for one person for a decent trip, and we got two bags. So we’re like, ‘OK, let’s put those both in the kettle and hold the boil button down, and drink the cups of tea just before we go on stage tonight.’
“We made two mistakes,” he groans, shaking his head at the memory. “The first was that there was about three grams in the bag. So in effect we’d done six grams of these strange mushrooms! The other was that, as soon as we’d finished the cup of tea, the tour manager walks in and says stage time has gone back an hour. We’d thought, ‘By the time we come up properly, it’ll be the encore.’ But we had to wait while we were slowly coming up on one of the heaviest trips I’ve ever done in my life! I had my eyes shut most of the time, and there were these amazing lights flashing in time to the music in different colours, and I thought I was hallucinating! But when I opened my eyes I realised that was the light show. And Paul, whose job is to make psychedelic noises at the back, was just absolutely flabbergasted by anything that came out of his monitor.”
By 2004, it all proved too much. The elder Godfrey brother had already dropped out of much of the touring, and finally the three of them – Skye, Ross and Paul – decided they needed to make some changes: Skye Edwards left the band, though it wasn’t an unfriendly parting, Ross insists, and instead a simple necessity. “We just felt like we couldn’t breathe,” he says diplomatically. “I’d been in the band and on the road since I was 18, so to have any kind of break from that was just amazing.”
After three years, the brothers returned with a new vocalist, Daisy Martey, who’d formerly been part of Noonday Underground, a band formed by Paul Weller collaborator Simon Dine. But, though she provided vocals for 2005’s The Antidote, the partnership ended acrimoniously. It’s a period that is gently glossed over – Ross refers to the relationship merely as “awful” – in favour of what followed, 2008’s Dive Deep. On this, the brothers operated more as producers, employing a variety of vocalists, most notably veteran English singer songwriter Judie Tzuke, Norway’s Thomas Dybdahl and French singer Amanda Zamolo. (Ross has since settled down with Zamolo in London to raise a family after moving back from Los Angeles, where he lived for a while.) Though the band’s profile had lessened in the UK, the band continued to thrive elsewhere, to many people’s surprise, not least the Godfreys themselves.
“I was actually amazed about how successful we were in the intervening time,” Ross smiles. “We were still selling hundreds of thousands of records. At one point we did a world tour where I was the only remaining member of Morcheeba on the road, and I couldn’t believe I was getting away with that!”
A chance meeting with Skye Edwards, however, provided the inevitable Spinal Tap style reunion. 2010’s Blood Like Lemonade may not have flown out of British stores, but it did well enough elsewhere – especially France – to encourage label [PIAS] to pick up the option for their latest, Head Up High, which Ross describes as “a Morcheeba record with gusto. It’s a lot more up-tempo, to the point where it’s not even just above 100bpm. It’s 150bpm! And normally we wouldn’t even break 70bpm! So that’s pretty fast for us.”
Head Up High is an album that will endear itself, despite its sometimes less gentle pace, to those fond of Morcheeba’s early work, as its first single, ‘Gimme Your Love’, ought to testify. It also continues a now established tradition, in that it finds them endorsed by an unlikely group of contemporary musicians: the aforementioned Chali 2Na, Rizzle Kicks and Ana Tijoux, as well as New Kingdom’s Nature Boy Jim Kelly. Of all the guests, however, perhaps the most unlikely – but most enjoyable – is White Denim’s James Petralli. He sings his own lyrics on three tracks: ‘Call it Love’ admittedly strays little from the familiar Morcheeba template, but ‘I’ll Fall Apart’ and closing track ‘Finally Found You’ are as sensitive as anything the band have done. In fact, for those who strayed from the Morcheeba path, Head Up High is generally a rather lovely reminder that they’re still here, doing their thing, and doing it rather well. It is, one could say, the record they should have made after Big Calm: smart, sassy, fun but far from shallow.
“We were never going to be a one hit wonder, basically,” Ross looks back sagely, adding, “because we didn’t have any hits! But people don’t think that you’re cool decade on decade, anyway. I think if you’ve made eight records over twenty years, you can’t be on the money all the time. I see our career now in fast-forward. It’s like if you went into a second hand record shop and got into a band retrospectively, then you’d think, ‘Oh this is an interesting career. They made this record, and then they made this record, and that’s completely different.’ But if you live through it, it can be annoying and disappointing. For the two years after Neil Young had released Trans, you’re like, ‘Why’s he started using Vocoders all the time?’ If you’re a Neil Young fan, I would imagine that period was very frustrating, but in retrospect that’s a really fun Neil Young record.”
“We’ve obviously gone a long way past when we first played Glastonbury,” Ross accepts calmly, “and were the hip new thing to see. It’s a horrible feeling when that changes, but at the same time it’s a bit of a relief, because you can get on with the rest of your life, and the rest of the music. I remember meeting the lead singer of Wheatus at some point in the late 90s or early 2000s at a festival in Scandinavia. We’d played, and they came on to complete silence and non-reaction until they played ‘I’m Just A Teenage Dirtbag’, at which point everybody went mental. Afterwards I was talking to him, and he said, ‘How long have you been in the music business? Does it get any better?’ I said, ‘No, not really. It’s just hard work and you’ve got to be really into it.’ He just looked at me as if he was going to give up. I felt sorry for him, because he had such a huge international hit that it pretty much ruined any opportunity he had to express himself as an artist. I remember thinking, ‘God, thank God we didn’t have a huge hit!’"
There’s a certain contentment that some musicians get to enjoy after they’ve been working a while, whether or not they’ve maintained the level of success that they tasted at the heights of their careers. It’s the result of knowing that there’s every chance they may be able to continue doing what they do, at a comfortable level, for the rest of their professional lives. Proving themselves is no longer their main motivation, and taking advantage of opportunities before it’s too late is not as crucial as it once was. For Morcheeba, that state of mild bliss now seems within their grasp. Apocryphal stories like Jah Wobble’s, of his announcement to passengers on the tube train he was driving – “I used to be somebody, I repeat, I used to be somebody” – no longer haunt them. For Ross Godfrey, at the age of 37, this means the opportunity to settle down, to enjoy making the music that he’s always made, and to recall what a wild but unforgettable time he’s had, if only he could remember it.
“It seems like I was pretty much pushing it to the edge for a very long time,” he says, perhaps stating the obvious by this stage. “Luckily I’m still alive. I remember on my 28th birthday, because 27 is the year you’re supposed to die, feeling mildly disappointed that I’d not done so, that I wasn’t rock & roll enough! ‘Oh, shit! I’m still here!’ But maybe 20 years is enough of adolescence.”
It’s not enough of Morcheeba, however. Head Up High is the evidence. Maybe, like Morcheeba themselves, it’s not quite what you think it is. Perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. But, whatever anyone believes, this band isn’t going away.
“I don’t think you could stop us,” Ross points out. “Even if we lost our record deal and our management and everything, we’d carry on playing and eventually land back on our feet again. We’re quite self-destructive at times, but, even if we ruined everything, I’m sure that it would come good at some point anyway. A bad review isn’t going to destroy this band. But we will if we feel like it…!”
Head Up High is released by [PIAS] Recordings on 14th October, 2013