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Tim Burgess On Loving Lawrence & Felt, "Birmingham's Best Band"
Wyndham Wallace , July 18th, 2011 12:07

Inspired by a road trip to Germany in Wyndham Wallace's truck of records, Tim Burgess discusses his love of Lawrence and "Birmingham’s best band ever…" with our driving scribe

It's around midday when I pull the truck into the Eurotunnel Terminal in Folkestone. We've got a long drive ahead, with a load of furniture and my entire pre-2004 record collection slowing down a vehicle that at best can manage 60 mph. Tim Burgess has hitched a lift with me as he wants to see his friend Kurt Wagner play a gig with Cortney Tidwell in Essen. He's leaning against the window, chewing gum. Next to him sits one of my best friends from Berlin, Christian. It is, I realise, a thoroughly surreal sight: there's the singer of a band who I too used to dance to back when I was a student – "That's what they always say," he smiles ruefully. "They used to dance to it..." – chatting away merrily in the front of a six metre long truck with a friend he met for the first time only two hours and a half ago.

In fact, now I think about it, I also only met him for the first time two and a half hours ago after picking him up from Brixton Tube Station. He tells me later that's not true, that we've met very briefly once before in 1999, and I concede he might be right. But to all intents and purposes I'm driving for the best part of a day in a giant but cramped furniture truck with a renowned musician who helped soundtrack my youth. Not only that, but also a fruit-munching, gum-chewing, coffee-loving musician, it turns out, capable of telling stories about crazy times with members of The Rolling Stones without sounding one bit like the namedropper I recognise in myself. I am, to be honest, mildly starstruck, and also rather impressed that he's decided that this is the way he wants to travel to see his friend Kurt perform.

It's time for Felt's Robin Guthrie-produced Ignite The Seven Cannons. Christian, it turns out, is not familiar with them, and we explain that they were the project of a man called Lawrence who released ten albums and ten singles in ten years through the 1980s. He's an eccentric character, to say the least, we say, and amongst the odder things he's done is record an album under the Felt moniker without contributing to it in any way asides from naming songs. His surname? He doesn't have one. That's part of the mystery, simple though it might be. Probably he's just called something really ordinary. Smith, we suggest. No, not Smith. Something weirder. What about that woman in Cracker, I suggest: Penhaligon. Laurence Penhaligon. No? No. What about Pembleton? Lawrence Pembleton? Yeah. Lawrence Pembleton. That's what he must have been called. That would be perfect. We name the truck in his honour.

We skip forward to their biggest indie hit, 1985's 'Primitive Painters' with Liz Frazer on backing vocals. I announce that it's my favourite of all Felt's songs, and suddenly Tim starts to talk animatedly about the band. It makes perfect sense when I think about it: Martin Duffy of Primal Scream had joined The Charlatans for a short while after co-founder Rob Collins had passed away in 1996, and Duffy had previously played in Felt for the second half of the 80s.

It felt, albeit briefly, very odd to be talking about a band who, to me at least, were not only a cult band's cult band, but one whom I had rarely thought about for years. I'm a fan, but I'm not a connoisseur. Tim proved to be something of an aficionado, however, even able to tell stories about meeting the elusive Lawrence himself. We decided that we'd pursue the subject over email and share it with The Quietus…

I remember being a little surprised to discover that you are a big fan of Felt, and it provoked an immediate sense of community thanks to our common bond as one of a small circle of fans. Do you feel like you're part of an elite group privy to the secret of their music?

Tim Burgess: Really? Yes! I have been a fan for many years. I guess I do feel like an elite group privy to the secret.

Do you feel an artistic obligation to share that secret?

TB: But of course, absolutely!! It is an obligation to spread the word whenever the opportunity arises.

Have you ever bonded with others closely over the band? Friends, musicians?

TB: Actually, Sarah from St. Etienne is a big fan. I believe she used to follow them up and down the country. I think she might've actually even gone out with Lawrence. The song 'She Lives By The Castle' from Poem Of The River is written about her, that's for sure. Martin Kelly from Heavenly Recordings and Heavenly Films is a fan of Lawrence, as is Bobby Gillespie. Paul Kelly, Martin's brother, is also making a film about Lawrence, which will be premiered in October.

How did you first stumble upon Felt? Can you remember the first time you heard them?

TB: The first time I heard Felt was at the Rock Garden in Northwich. The local DJ played 'Primitive Painters' early in his set. I flipped. There have been very few times I have gone up to a DJ to ask what the hell they were spinning. I once asked asked Alex Paterson what he was playing in 1990 in London. It was 'Loaded' by Primal Scream. I just want to get across how big a moment it was for me when I heard 'Primitive Painters'. To this day it remains in my All Time Top 10.

What was it that drew you to the band's music to begin with: its mystery, its sound, Lawrence's personality, or what…?

TB: I think it was the music, obviously, that drew me in, but I became intrigued more and more by Lawrence and his aesthetic: 10 singles, 10 albums, 10 years and so on. I was attracted to the mystery, and it was the first time I really became aware of the power of mystery in groups. I loved the artwork and the titles: album titles and song titles.

When we listened to Ignite The Seven Cannons, which is the only album with both Maurice Deebank and Martin Duffy playing, we shared a moment where we acknowledged together the similarity in vocal style between Lawrence and Tom Verlaine. In fact, listening to more of his stuff since I got home to Berlin, I think Felt seem to owe a considerable debt to him, both for Lawrence's vocal delivery and for the interplay between him and Deebank, reflecting Richard Lloyd and Verlaine's musical relationship. Were you a fan of Television and Tom Verlaine? Were you already aware of the musical connection between Felt and Television when we met?

TB: No, I am not a Television fan. I have tried to be. Maybe subconsciously through Lawrence. Also, I wasn't very aware of the connection. Which is a beautiful thing. I was aware that Felt got the name from a Television song, and I remember he mentions Verlaine in 'Mobile Shack' (one of my favourite Felt songs), but never meticulously followed it through, perhaps like I did with R.E.M's debt to The Byrds. I maintain that Felt are by far the best band to ever come out of Birmingham. I also maintain that Felt are better than Television.

The odd thing about Felt is that Lawrence seemed to know exactly what he wanted, but he didn't spend a lot of time looking for appropriate people to provide him with it. Early member Nick Gilbert started out as a drummer but was moved to bass, and according to an interview Nick did, Maurice Deebank was only asked to join because he lived in Water Orton and played guitar. Do you think the tension between what Lawrence wanted and what he was able to achieve played a role in making the band sound so unusual?

TB: I think Lawrence almost sees himself as a failure in many ways because I think he really wanted to be more famous. Actually I know he did. Anyway! He is an enigma. Definitely not a failure. And infamous.

Do you think that Felt owed a significant debt to the punk movement, even if it's not stylistically evident? Lawrence seems to have ploughed his own furrow irrelevant of what was expected of him, and Felt's music is also very much unique – it may betray debts to the likes of Television and the Velvet Underground, but it's very much its own animal. Uncompromising at the very least, one would say…

TB: Yes I definitely do. Listen to the lyrics in 'Budgie Jacket' and 'Mobile Shack'. If not indebted to punk, definitely written for the detached and for the outsider. Musically there could have been no Felt without Punk. Felt's music is minimal, pretty three chord pop that sounds like it was recorded in a garage in Moseley (which it probably actually was.)

Why do you think that Felt never reached the audience that critics anticipated?

TB: I am really not sure because to me, age 18, they were well famous. When we met, which I have to say in the whole scheme of things was very briefly, The Charlatans were quite big. We'd just had a number 1 with our fourth album. He loved the fact that I was doing well. I was famous in his eyes and he was really excited to meet me. And excited for me. He was really a very cool guy, just like I would've hoped.

Some have suggested that Felt represent the birth of the 'indie' sound, or that they at least attended the birth. How true do you think that is? Do they represent archetypal 'indie' music to you in any way?

TB: Yes! I think they do. Their music, no matter when it was recorded, always reminds me of'86. But it has lasted quite well, especially Poem of the River and Me And A Monkey On The Moon.

Deebank's guitar lines often remind me of Johnny Marr's, while Lawrence's literate lyrics can't help but remind one of Morrissey, if through virtue of the fact that they are not only erudite but very British too. Do you think The Smiths are a helpful comparison, or do the similarities end there?

TB: I think The Smiths would be a helpful comparison in so much as both bands are about as proudly English eccentric as you can get. A Smiths comparison would be helpful on, say, a track like 'Fortune'.

Lawrence has often used the reissue of albums as a chance to change things about them, removing tracks beloved of fans from CDs – such as 'Crucifix Heaven' from The Strange Idols Pattern, apparently because it was written by Maurice Deebank - or even altering the tracklisting of the Creation Records comp, Bubblegum Perfume. How do you feel about artists who exercise historical revision of sorts on their records so that they are no longer accurate representations of a time, whether through re-recording, altering tracklistings etc?

TB: It's probably wrong. But with Lawrence it just seems right.

Lawrence's behaviour seems to be somewhat in the realms of the compulsive, with a drummer kicked out of the band for having curly hair and other personal traits, perhaps legendary, such as his refusal to move out of first gear while driving to a show and – something which arguably makes him the anti-Morrissey – his refusal to eat anything except meat. Were you familiar with such stories? Do you remember any particular ones?

TB: I knew he hated cheese and loved Lena Zavaroni. Maybe the meat had something to do with Atkins Diet, or perhaps he was just being flippant and anti Morrissey. He was obsessed with the idea of being really thin, and of Lena Zavaroni being so dedicated to her vision of vanity.

While we were driving to Germany together, you said that you – or perhaps it was Martin Duffy – had been to his house, and Lawrence wouldn't allow anyone to use the toilets. Could you elaborate? Were there any other notable eccentricities you can share?

TB: Oh, it's common knowledge that he was obsessed with cleanliness and antiseptic. He doesn't like anything: I can still remember him saying in a soft Brummie accent, "I dunno… I Just don't loike iiiit". He will let you in his house but he won't let you use the toilet! My grandmother was a bit like that too, so I just thought nothing of it.

Were you at, or at least aware of, the show where he took acid and, after one song, asked the audience to get their money back and go home? It was, apparently, an audience largely made up of A&Rs…

TB: I heard that story… I love it!

Do you think Lawrence cultivates an image as an eccentric, or is he real?

TB: It is both cultivated and real. The lines are blurred. Lawrence, I believe, always wanted to be a heroin addict because he considered himself a dabbler by nature, and that wasn't obsessive enough so he had to become full blown addict. And also it would be glamorous and iconic, like a real rock star.

I remember walking down Parkway in Camden. I was walking on the street and he pulled me onto the curb and actually shouted at me. "A rock star can not be killed by a black cab or a mini cab." I was just drunk, but it stuck with me. Being killed by a cab would just not be good enough for me or for Lawrence… in his eyes of course . He was also fascinated by bulimics and anorexics. Bizarrely, I might add, none of this scared me or upset me at the time. It just seemed very him, very witty. He is in his own world, and it is safe there. He was incredibly open, insightful and articulate. As you can imagine just by reading his lyrics and looking at his artwork.

Felt made, it has to be said, a fairly small impact upon the world in general, and yet musicians often cite them as a significant influence. What do you think it is about Felt that makes them such a musician's band?

TB: Martin Duffy is a genius, actually the only musical genius I have ever met – listen to side two of The Pictorial Jackson Review – so that would be part of the reason they would be considered a musician's band. Me and Kevin Shields sat up all night once with open mouths praising his natural ability. Lawrence obsessed, but with humour. His obsessions and bizarreness were a hilarious take on an outsider's point of view. Even though they were possibly taking over his life. I can hear Lawrence's humour in Jarvis Cocker more than any other performer. From all I hear from people who know him, he is pretty happy.

Are there aspects of Felt's career that you wish you had done similarly? And are there lessons you learned from the band that you put into effect with, for instance, The Charlatans?

TB: Aesthetically, our first three 12" sleeves, and all our early photographs, were all about keeping the mystery. I borrowed the song 'Ballad Of The Band' twice for The Charlatans. By title, a track on our seventh album, Wonderland, and I pretty much stole the chord sequence and melody – oooops!!! – for a song called 'White Shirt' on our debut album. The bass line and guitar intro to 'Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow' I have used a few times. I have borrowed the foundations of the song 'Free' - from Me And A Monkey On The Moon – as many times as I have delved into Exile On Main Street.

Do you think that there are two distinct Felt eras, the Maurice Deebank era, predominantly guitar-led, and the Martin Duffy era, far more focussed on keyboards? Or do you tend to separate their career into the Cherry Red years and the Creation years? Which do you prefer? Or do they blur into one simply through Lawrence's commanding presence?

TB: I tend to think of Felt as Lawrence and Duffy, which is a shame, I suppose, especially when you consider the immaculate work by Maurice on, say, the LPs Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty ('Evergreen Dazed', 'Fortune', 'I Worship The Sun') and Ignite The Seven Cannons ('Thel Day The Rain Came Down', 'Primitive Painters' - with Robin Guthrie producing it was a shimmering guitar dream). 'Mexican Bandits' from The Splendour Of Fear is absolutely magnificent. I love the way Lawrence approved of instrumentals when the majority of Felt fans were drawn to his lyrics, voice and being. It is significant, though, that the first album on Creation had Duffy on the front cover. Perhaps a statement? For sure it was. It takes a genius to recognise genius.

Which would be your favourite Felt song? Why? What does it represent to you, and does it have any special memories?

TB: Either 'Primitive Painters', because it was such a monumental moment, 'I Can't Make Love To You Anymore', for its brutal honesty, or 'I Didn't Mean To Hurt You'.

What would be your favourite Felt album? What does it represent to you, and does it have any special memories?

Poem Of The River. No! My fave album is Me And Monkey On The Moon. It took me the longest to get into, but as an album it just has stayed with me. 'I Can't Make Love To You Anymore', 'Mobile Shack', 'Down An August Path' and 'Cartoon Sky' take on an almost country, Gram Parsons influence. 'New Day Dawning' could be their soul/Stax masterpiece, and 'Free' is pure gospel Aretha.

What record would you wipe from their discography? What are its weaknesses?

TB: No, I don't think there are any weaknesses! At worst you could say "Huh! Another Felt album", but to me they are all gold and all very different.

If you had to persuade someone to join the cult of Lawrence, how would you summarise its benefits? And what would you play them to convince them?

TB: Probably, erm, Absolute Classic Masterpieces. I dunno. I think… Poem Of The River. Or The Splendour of Fear.

I find that, despite certain lines leaping out at me, and the obvious fact that Lawrence is more capable of writing a lyric than, say, Liam Gallagher, I listen to Felt for their music rather than their words. Would you say the same? Have Lawrence's lyrics had a significant impact upon you? If so, which are your favourite?

TB: All of Lawrence's lyrics have accompanied me, especially 'Space Blues: "You're all washed up, you're pretty cool", "You're my man 'cos you don't give a damn". "Outsider Suss" is all I can say about 'Space Blues'.

TB: 'Mobile Shack': "Working in a shop is a dead end job / I left after eight weeks, it was just as well / 'Cos coming up behind me… was the New York City New Wave, Verlaine hell". Absolute fan letter to music. Acknowledging, giving you the hope to say, "fuck you" to a dead end job…

TB: I have used both the above in my songs and obviously my whole outlook. I am not saying Lawrence taught me… I am just saying I recognised what he was saying and agreed with him.

Lawrence was responsible for all Felt artwork under the moniker Shanghai Packaging Company. Did you ever think of using him for artwork on your own releases?

TB: Maybe in the future. I heard that Lawrence really loved The Chavs, my solo 'supergroup' featuring Martin Duffy and Carlos Barat.

If you had only an hour to live and were given the chance to play one Felt record in any location of your choosing, with the companion of your choosing, what would it be, where, and with whom?

TB: Well, that's a funny question, and pretty much unanswerable. But here goes. I think it would be with Martin Duffy. Train Above The City. Somewhere in the Isle Of Wight, probably at William Treend's house, and we would be meditating. It's a Lawrence vocal-free album, which makes it weirder, but it's a beautiful record, and I am sure Lawrence was around to witness the magic and name the songs.

And what would you do once the record was over…?

TB: Die of course!!!!! "Killed by Felt, Not by Cab."

A compilation taken from Felt's Creation Records years, Bubblegum Perfume, has just been reissued by Cherry Red. Details of Tim Burgess' new record label, O Genesis Recordings, can be found here.