Peer Review: Jonathan Meades Interviews Saint Leonard. And Vice Versa

We left musician Saint Leonard and the polymath Jonathan Meades alone to answer the kind of questions they wish they were always asked

Music writers. Who needs ’em? We recently had the opportunity to get musician Saint Leonard and polymath Jonathan Meades together. We left the pair to have a conversation about both their individual practice and attitude to craft, without any interference from us.

Saint Leonard – known to the taxman and various family members as Kieran – is a musician, actor and author who currently resides in Berlin and has produced a new album with members of Fat White Family called The Golden Hour, "informed by travels to India, audiences with spiritual leaders and sartorial amphetamine-fuelled evenings living in hotel rooms in Berlin", due to be released soon.

Jonathan Meades is a documentarian, novelist, former restaurant critic, writer on place, postcard maker, artist and indoor cyclist, who lives in Marseilles. He recently completed a 1,000-page novel Empty Wigs and is now working on a follow up volume to his 2014 work of autobiography, An Encyclopaedia Of Myself and a series of short stories.

Jonathan Meades interviews Saint Leonard

The world is full of songs, from madrigals to Noel Coward, from Victorian Anglican hymns to the work of Ray Davies. Does this mass of music weigh on you? I used to think, ‘Why bother? There is already Borges, there is already Beckett.’ How do you overcome the feeling that you have a mighty pile to climb?

Saint Leonard: When I sit at the piano to write a song I am oft wracked by the omniscient presence of the greats. Dylan, Bowie, Lennon and McCartney, Nick Cave, Lana Del Rey, Miley Cyrus and Wu-Tang Clan to name but a few. They are all there congregant and seance-like breathing down my neck. When I first sing a new lyric I am brutally self-critical: does this even need to be sung or said? Is this adding anything to the mighty pile? Is this worthy of the gruelling aeolian ascent? Does this melody warrant quickening into existence? It is my belief that every new composition must earn, through originality, novelty and rigour, its place within the golden tower of song. It is this endless vertiginous challenge that drives me to keep writing songs, fumbling for the soft underbelly or reaching for the high window to sneak another one into the tower eternal.

Why rhyme? A late friend Duncan Brown was attached to a rhyming dictionary. It became a burden…

SL: I think rhyme is a vital part of the craft of songwriting. Rhymes are like linguistic locks; when well used they can capture and encapsulate the most ephemeral and transient of moods and emotions. They possess a supernatural force with their syzygetic capacity to line up extremely abstract images. Rhyme has a power to transcend time, there is indeed a rhyme in time. An ingenious rhyme has the power to elevate a mundane lyric, revealing some otherwise occluded dimension lurking beneath the surface. A true rhyme’s polyvalence both aurally and linguistically is undeniably very pleasing. On a more practical level they are an incredibly effective aide memoir to both the ecstatic bard and ardent listener.

From romantic era quartets to rock era quartets there has always been bass, drum, strings to be plucked. Can you compose without what are in effect props?

SL: You most certainly can. In fact very little of my new album has been composed with those traditional props, for example I have instead used ‘layered sound beds’. This is a process whereby I have taken field recordings and sonically treated them to draw out musical rhythms and tones over which I can overlay drum machines, synthesisers, bass drones etc. The last song on the album, a piece entitled ‘Marlon Brando’, is collaged from field recordings I took from the Berlin U-Bahn, Tempelhof’s abandoned airstrip, a couple of debauched parties I attended, a howling maelstrom that decimated Ramsgate seafront and a recording of me singing a capella in the Roman cemetery mausoleum Alyscamps in Arles – a place you recommended I visit, thank you.

The musicologist Hans Keller interviewing the fledgling Pink Floyd couldn’t get a satisfactory answer to his question, ‘Why so loud?’

SL: Volume is a perennially tricky issue in the recording and performance of music. All I can add to this ouroboros debate is, after making several albums and touring all over the world it’s taken me ten years to discover that if you want something to sound really very loud you have to record and play it really very, very quietly.

Do you regard art as therapy or making or both?

SL: Art is certainly therapy for me, in fact that’s really what inspired me to pick up a guitar and notebook in the first place. I find writing songs an effective way of understanding and processing my own feelings and thoughts. I can remember at around age 15 what a revelation it was to feel so wrought and angst ridden but then by this strange semi-mystical process of composition – simply by jotting down a few lyrics and finding some chords to go with them – I suddenly found that I knew exactly what was on my mind, or felt some relief or had new insight into a situation. It is intoxicating and highly addictive and I haven’t ever really stopped doing it since. In fact when I am going through a tricky circumstance or enjoying an ecstatic moment, I know that I will get to understand or enjoy it more deeply when I write about it or transubstantiate it into music. In alchemy I believe the term for this is ‘Solve et Coagula’. Much of my new album is about trying to digest and process the experiences of relocating to Berlin and all the vicissitudes and existential weirdnesses of my world therein. So, as an answer to your question, I lived an experience, therapised myself through the creative process and then made an album out of it.

Everyone has a book in them. Which surely prompts the question: does everyone have a rococo table in them?

SL: Undoubtedly.

You make the music and the music makes you?

SL: In a word, yes, but this is a treacherous, double-edged sword. I found after my first album came out and I moved to Los Angeles, that I was sort of living my life in accordance with the values and aesthetics I had explored in those songs, which of course became a burdensome charade and creatively stifling. I began to think I was ‘this’ kind of songwriter, or I ‘that’ kind of musician – to some extent playing up to the tropes and imagery in my own songs, playing a character that was in fact myself. Of course I realised I had to remedy such foolishness quickly, and immediately moved out of LA.

Is plagiarism borrowing, theft or to be avoided?

SL: It all depends on the intent behind the act. It is very easy to accidentally purloin a turn of phrase or musical theme completely unconsciously, thinking that you’ve just plucked it out of the inky aether, and then months down the line realise that it had bubbled up from a subconscious memory of someone else’s music and Shanghai’d itself into your song. This has happened to every songwriter I know, and I believe it is part of the innate intertextuality of the form. What was it that Joyce said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’? [James Joyce via the Book Of Ecclesiastes, Knowing Irony Ed.] There is also the conscious process whereby you choose to reference another piece of music or lyric in order to draw upon its power, to channel some of its mystique, but this is a risky business as it can easily be misinterpreted as outright theft if not signposted deftly. We also have the issue of sampling as is common practice in rap and house music, this is again a creative act of collaging in my opinion, and as long as all works are properly credited then it’s a legitimate artistic process. The outright theft of a piece of music is to be avoided at all costs, lest we invoke the fiery wrath of the nine muses.

Can music change the world? Ought it to try to? Or is just a minor improvement enough? Remembering that the path to minor improvements is full of pitfalls and traps, should you be engaged or an onlooker, or both?

SL: Yes, I think music can and does change the world, or at the very least it can be the hot rash that accompanies a sudden change. At certain moments, such as the advent of rock & roll – with Little Richard, Elvis, then The Beatles, Dylan and the Stones – the world definitely shifted on its axis, due to their expression of new social values, new freedoms and new existential challenges. I reckon this new music undoubtedly affected the collective unconscious on a global level. In our current super-saturated internet age I think music’s potency as a force for change has been sadly diminished, but not extinguished. As to whether music should try to change the world, I am uncertain. It should only do so as a side effect of its expressive ambitions, so as to avoid ideological possession or any air of worthy preachiness. Personally I definitely prefer to fall into the onlooker or small improvement camp, I am a tourist not a dictator.

Does art have any importance outside art (which is a repeat of the previous question)?

SL: Yes, and in many ways I think it has more importance outside of art then it does within art. The rarified and somewhat self-regarding art world can be profoundly asphyxiating to the actual ‘meaning’ or ‘potency’ of a piece in any art form. It is only when it is experienced outside of ‘the art’ (and that inherent network of criticism, reference and self-knowingness), that a work’s true meaning can flourish and its expressive magnitude be registered. Doesn’t truly great art always transcend the narrow precincts and avenues of its place of origin?

Is it just to resent the success of artists whom you regard as your inferiors? Whether or not

it is just, it is a fact of life – as the plethora of awards for everything demonstrates.

SL: This puts me in mind of Gore Vidal’s "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." I’ve never really paid much attention to awards in art. They just don’t mean very much to me; awards in general don’t really seem to make much sense. Surely, given the unassailable subjectivity of all art, an award for ‘The Best… whatever’ is rendered totally pointless? And I always just think, ‘Who says?’

Music can be about nothing. Should literature be akin and have nothing to say? Is it its job

just to be structure? The vessel is more important than what it holds?

SL: Often the best music is, on the face of it, about nothing. Brian Eno’s exquisite ambient records spring to mind. Music is such a supreme art form because of its latent capacity to ‘eff the ineffable’ of the human condition. It can reach the regions where other art forms simply cannot tread. In regard to literature I have certainly read many excellent and entertaining novels that are ostensibly saying nothing. I mean at the risk of trespassing on sacred ground and opening an almighty can of worms, just turn to Proust or Joyce – arguably their masterworks are all structure; all exquisitely shapely vessel with not that much importance placed on the actual content. On this note have you read James Clammer’s exquisite recent novel about an unravelling plumber called Insignificance?

Saint Leonard interviews Jonathan Meades

Jonathan, I know that in early life you studied drama at RADA but decided against the life path of a thespian. Is it true that at a later meeting with your old RADA headmaster (after you had become an established television personality) he remarked that he was expecting you might well blossom into a fine character actor but what he was not expecting was that the ‘character’ would in fact be ‘Jonathan Meades’. So is ‘Jonathan Meades’ really a character? Do you recognise a distinction between the Meades we know on screen and the true Meades within?


Jonathan Meades: I’m  not sure that I decided against "the life path of a thespian" or if the life path was so unaccommodating that the decision was made for me. The late Hugh Cruttwell, Principal of RADA, would have hated to be considered a headmaster. He said when I left that I would be a successful character actor… when I was middle aged. Which is not what you want to hear at the age of 22. That’s when I started writing more seriously than I had previously. Hugh recognised that ‘Jonathan Meades’ is not Jonathan Meades. The one in quotes is a very studied construct, a character if you like, but just as ‘true’ in some ways as the other. I probably couldn’t do it had I not had the training and discipline RADA gives you. It teaches technique rather than self-expression. Keeping still is very important. Doing nothing is very important. Being unreactive is very important. I do my utmost to prevent an audience knowing whether I am in earnest or am speaking in a spirit of irony. That goes for prose too. I am indifferent to audiences and readers. I don’t believe it’s an artist’s job to be concerned about how work is received.

You’ve made over 60 acclaimed and beloved documentaries; there are your thunderously stylistic novels, collected short stories, extensive journalism, abstract painting, experimental photography, and even a cookery book. You’ve recently completed a monolithic new novel, so where do you find your creative energies most readily channelled, what fires your Promethean-oxy-acetylene torch these days and which medium do you feel most accomplished or satiated by?


JM: You can only make films if someone is putting up the money. All writing takes is paper and pencil – often literally, as I write in notebooks and then rewrite on a computer. At the moment I’m writing very short stories that are technically and atmospherically different from Empty Wigs which is a thousand pages long, centrifugal and dismissive of the unities. I’m also doing a second volume of autobiography which, like its predecessor, is not about me save as an observer. And I toy with poetry in French… a private vice. I’m thinking of doing a book of photographs which shows a different Marseille to the city of journalistic cliché – drugs, gangs, drive-by shootings etc. In the arrondissement where we live life is bourgeois , pleasantly dull and generally peaceful. It’s also photogenic.

I recently visited you in Marseille at your quite staggeringly beautiful home in Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse. How has being an expatriate affected your work and creative outlook?


JM: Had I lived outside the UK when I was young, my work would no doubt have reflected that state. But I was already old when I moved to France. Having said which I am now capable of forgetting words and names in two languages. I also have French as well as British airhead celebs to be entirely ignorant about. France is not a monarchy. In theory anyone can get to the top. There is a much more tangible feeling of ‘we are all in this together’ than there is in Britain which is crippled by hierarchy and almost proud of its unfairness.

We’ve spoken about the long period of time you’ve spent working on your new novel Empty Wigs. I have a fascination with the daily habits of writers. What was your process like on this new book and are you a morning man or a late night scrivener? And while we are on the subject, what is Empty Wigs all about?

JM: I write from when I get up till lunchtime then again in the late afternoon till about 7 pm. Empty Wigs is a thousand page novel which describes in minute detail a thousand page novel called Empty Wigs which describes in minute detail a thousand page novel called Emp… It is a novel, literally – meaning it is, or it attempts to be, new. Most novels are far from novel.

A question I’ve always wanted to ask you but somehow never got around to: which of your films was the most rewarding to make, and which is your favourite, the one you feel definitively realised the artistic or investigative expression you were aiming for?

JM: Of the four on C20 dictators’ architecture I prefer Stalin and Mussolini. At least I think I do – I very seldom rewatch my stuff. The three films on France, some of Magnetic North, The Football Pools Towns, Isle Of Rust, Father To The Man, On The Brandwagon, The Case Of The Disappearing Architect. I really don’t know. On another day I’d choose a different bunch. I do however know for certain which were  failures. Remember The Future wasn’t a failure though I was assured that it would be. It was opposed in the BBC because in the mid 90s no one was, supposedly, interested in the Big Tech of the 60s. This proved to be entirely wrong. It anticipated the revived interest in brutalism by more than a decade. So when I came to make two films about brutalism in 2014 it might have seemed that I was getting on a bandwagon

I first got into you from watching your films obsessively on my tour bus or in the studio with my bandmates. You and I have collaborated on a song together and you reviewed my last album, but you maintain that you know nothing about music despite many of your films having wonderfully idiosyncratic soundtracks. How would you describe your relationship with music and what role does music play in your life and creative work?

JM: I don’t know enough about music to score my films. I make naive ignorant suggestions in the hope that someone can work out what I’m getting at. I like music to work against the tenor of a film, to collide with what is being shown. Bunuel played Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 over scenes of terrible rural poverty. As usual he was on the money. My personal taste is catholic. Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, his second piano quartet and the string pieces; Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies and many of the quartets not just the late five; Schubert’s last three quartets; early rock & roll – Warren Smith, Roy Orbison, the Stones. The closer we get to the present the more blurred the aural picture becomes. Still, I can pick out jewels from the sump.

What was the last thing you saw that you really loved – film, documentary, tv, play or painting?

JM: I’ve known Eugene Bernard’s ‘Les Disciples Pierre Et Jean’ for years yet every time I see it in the Musée d’Orsay or in some reproduction it moves me. So does ‘Sir Thomas Aston At The Deathbed Of His Wife’ by John Souch which I visit whenever I’m in Manchester. I have seen Jean-Pierre Melville’s films noirs time and again. I have no religion. These films ask questions that are the province of religion. You do not have to believe to be endlessly captivated.

Stanley Kubrick spent years researching and planning a film about the life of Napoleon but he could never get the script or the production to meet his infamously rigorous standards, eventually declaring that it simply could not be done. Has there been a project that you have tried or attempted to make but for some reason you’ve had to abandon? Is there a great lost Meades film?

JM: In the 90s I wrote four feature films. The one that got made, L’Atlantide, was sheer schlock but it bought me a house. The other three are much better and ready to go… but I can’t see it happening. Nor can I see myself doing any more TV. The budgets have become insultingly low – money has to be found for tabloid people like Gary Lineker and scores of narcissistic ‘reality’ morons. TV was once a serious medium. Then there is the matter of whether my health would stand up to it.

Marco Pierre White described you as ‘the best amateur chef in the world’, and I can attest that the meal you and your wife Colette, prepared for me recently, ‘roast duck a la pommes’ was one of the most enjoyable and autochthonous meals I’ve had for some time. What is a favourite go-to dish when you’ve got to rustle something up in the kitchen? And on that note what is your favourite gastronomic haunt in Marseille?

JM: I think it was confit de canard aux pommes that I cooked. Spaghettini with oil, pecorino romano and chilli is quick. So too is pasta with poudre de Poutargue. We go repeatedly to the same few restaurants: François Coquillages is an old favourite and À Moro is a new favourite.

What was the last book you read that really knocked your socks off?

JM: Owen Hatherley’s Modern Buildings In Britain: A Gazetteer is a labour of love. Peerless. A combination of vade mecum, scholarship, inspired discovery and often very funny bias. Mostly I re-read poetry: Hardy, Housman, Tennyson, Gunn. I’d add Hopkins but he will keep bringing God into everything.

Given Elon Musk’s rapidly developing ambitions for humans to be populating Mars soon, what is the first building you would suggest they construct there?

JM: A gibbet.

Having discussed your vast genre-bending oeuvre, what if anything does the word ‘legacy’ mean to you? 

JM: Luck – maybe deserved, maybe not. Anyway neither of will be around to find out.

Well, after that inquisition I feel like it’s high time for a little restorative lubrication. What can I get you Jonathan, a negroni or a martini?

JM: A negroni will do nicely, but then so would a gin martini, a Manhattan, or a double Boswell.

Saint Leonard’s new single ‘Threshold’ is out now. You can listen to it here

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