No Thyself: Magazine’s Howard Devoto Interviewed

Nix Lowrey talks to Howard Devoto of Magazine about sex and personality management. Portrait: Graeme Oxby

Howard Devoto, quixotic wit and reluctant poppist, has often seemed too intellectually big for rock music’s slender-fit boots. And what’s more, we know he knows it, and has always known it. His deadpan, gin-dry humour, was evident from the start on songs such as the Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’ as well as later in the strange and macabre surrealism of Magazine’s ‘Permafrost’. Devoto has always displayed a lyrical and narrative turn of phrase which shouldn’t mesh seamlessly with the visceral embrace of post-punk’s short guitar stabs and angularity, but does. His voice long sat glove-snug within the sympathetic arrangements provided by some impressive collaborators over Magazine’s early and short career. These include long-standing co-writer Dave Formula, Barry Adamson (The Bad Seeds, Visage), the late John McGeoch (PiL, Siouxsie And The Banshees) and in its new incarnation Noko (The Cure, Apollo 440).

If there is one thing that can be said about Magazine’s material, it is that Devoto’s voluminous charisma is more than evenly matched by the presence of his counterparts. This fortuitous synthesis has created a wealth of work, including the albums Real Life and Secondhand Daylight and some of post-punk’s greatest pogo moments in ‘Shot By Both Sides’ and ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’, as well as the creepiest Ballard meets Lynch-ian lovesong not written by Nick Cave in ‘Permafrost’. Luckily for us, their new album No Thyself carries on this tradition.

Devoto has a reputation for wilfulness and irascibility, particularly in interview, and plenty of scribes in the past have found themselves scratching their heads, wondering what it was they said. However, since his emergence from Magazine’s near three-decade hibernation in 2009, Devoto shows both genuine enthusiasm and a welcome geniality, and here waxes affable upon the incendiary subjects of sex, band politics and religion.

Magazine, after being dormant for nearly three decades, performed a series of gigs in 2009. How did that lead to writing a new album?

Howard Devot: When we got together for the 2009 dates, the subject of new material was put to one side. I reckoned that it was fine to spend some initial time just revisiting the old songs. We did a couple of songs from the Magic, Murder and the Weather album, because we’ve never played any of that live before, and you know, we reckoned it was just enough to stick with the old stuff. But once we had gone through that first year, I wanted a bit of new material to freshen up the set, as it were, both for ourselves and the audience. Once we had agreed to do that, we got six tracks from Dave (Formula) and John (Doyle), and I guess that was an indication of where things were going to go, because, [laughs] really, I kind of feel like I’ve been suckered into doing an album, ultimately. They were preying on my weaknesses, you see. So, I mean that’s it, in a nutshell.

Did you, personally, have any reservations about working with Magazine again?

HD: In terms of doing new material?


H: As I say, I got suckered and I got sucked in, and I found I was beginning to enjoy it much more than some people might think proper. Partly, it was a case of ‘one thing leads to another’, as I said. The idea was initially two or three songs, and once we jumped that hurdle the record company said, ‘We could do an EP, what about doing four songs?’ So we said, ‘Ok, we’ll do four.’ Then somebody else came up with another bit of music and I liked the sound of that… As I say… it was one thing leading to another.

You weren’t able to use Barry Adamson for this album, what process did you go through to replace him?

HD: The songs were developed by the four of us; Dave, Noko, John and myself. In the initial stages Noko or Dave would provide a guide bass sufficient to allow the songs to develop. During the writing process Stan [Jon ‘Stan’ White, who first played live with Magazine on 30 June 2011 in Wolverhampton] was, how shall I say, a developing member of the band. So he’d come in at the end of the writing process and do his parts.

Did he develop his own basslines or was he following instructions/written material?

HD: It was a combination of all those things, or a blending of those things. He definitely took the bass parts – just guide parts initially – much further. He’s a fabulous bass player. He played on Dave’s solo album.

Is this a permanent new line up, or are you hoping to work with Barry again in the future?

HD: Well. Ah… Barry quit. He didn’t ask for a sabbatical, and Stan is now our bass player. Stan is now a member of Magazine.

What was the songwriting process? Did you write lyrics and offer them to the band or were you given some music to write lyrics to? What is your lyric-writing process these days?

HD: Not so different from how I’ve always worked: usually the music comes first, unless it’s something I start myself, and on this album only ‘Hello Mister Curtis’ was like that – I started that, musically. Otherwise, the music comes first, then we meet that up with notes and observations I’ve been making in a parallel universe, which is the universe of words.

You gave hints earlier in the year in your interview with Mojo magazine that the themes of this album would revolve around mortality and sex – do they?

HD: Mortality and sex. Well, certainly, yes. Hence, the album title. So, yes.

Are you still reluctant to speak plainly about the meaning of your lyrics, as you have been in the past? Or are you hoping your audience will want to understand your intentions?

HD: Words are there to try and make people prick up their ears, and agitate their hormones, and get them fretting or get a bit of electricity going. That’s not just the sound of the words, it comes from the meaning of course, the sea of meaning – or meanings.

That isn’t quite answering the question, though. Are you trying to communicate directly or do we need to make our own meanings?

HD: [Laughs] Well, I always used to like to say, ‘I like to try to make the songs mean as much as I can.’ I picked up on this phrase of Peter Shelley’s when reading about Linder (Sterling, former partner, friend and visual artist). Peter said this when talking about her montages, about the method of it. He basically said what I put in the chorus of ‘Do The Meaning’: ‘You assemble a picture and it gets a meaning, and then you do the meaning.’ That’s one reason I wanted to start the album with that song.

Does your interest in ‘meaning’ also apply to Magazine’s sleeve art and design? The cover art for No Thyself is creepily striking.

HD: We have used the work of Odilon Redon [French Symbolist] before. One of his pieces was on the sleeve of the ‘Shot By Both Sides’ single and another on the ‘Give Me Everything’ single which came out in 1978. So we have used his work in the past, there’s some continuity there.

What made you choose this particular image?

HD: The smile…

It seems a bit manic, as smiles go, really…

HD: [laughs] I think it’s a knowing smile… It’s from some illustrations he did related to Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, in the 19th century. In a little way, that linked in with the song ‘Physics’ for me.

You made some intriguingly polite observations about religion in that song – does it reflect your personal feelings about the matter? John Lydon has attributed some of his punk sensibilities, his anger, at least partially to his Catholic upbringing.

HD: The starting point of the song was actually something Bob Dylan said in an interview. He made an album of Christmas carols a year or two ago and he was speaking about that. He said this line in the middle of the interview, and it has become more or less the chorus of ‘Physics’: ‘Religion isn’t meant for everybody.’ Now, Bob is quite a religious guy so I read that in a certain way, but also it just struck me as an interesting thing for him to say. That, as a religious person, you could think that religion… isn’t meant for everybody. So that was where the lyric started.

I, myself, am probably more atheistic than I ever was. I was brought up Church of England so although my parents were regular church goers, it didn’t have that… edge… that a Catholic upbringing can have. I definitely don’t have any kind of ‘punk’ thing going on with religion. I’ve always been very interested in where the religious impulse comes from in humanity. As an atheist, I look at a lot of religious practice and just go, ‘Ooh where is all this coming from, all this weird stuff?’

In pondering mortality, do you feel you understand the human attraction to religion?

HD: Oh, partly. I tend to see a lot of it as bad science. Religion was and is about trying to control events and other people, and it formed on very unscientific premises: we want to make sure we have a good crop next year so we need to sacrifice two goats and a banana picker, or whatever.

Goodness! (laughs) How did you feel about the very strong positive reaction to the reformation of Magazine? Both in 2009 and now – were you surprised? Does it matter to you what fans think of Magazine?

HD: Yes, it surprised me; I was somewhat taken aback in 2009, very pleasantly so. And does it matter? Yeah, sure it matters, it matters like hell!

In writing No Thyself did you care what the fans might think of it, and did that contribute in any way to the final sound of the album?

H: (laughs) Well, you know, we went and reconfigured ourselves, and I’m talking in the first instance about Dave, John, Barry and I. Then we moved on from Barry with the new material, so essentially its Dave, John and I, and then Noko, who of course was a big Magazine fan as a lad. We have a lot of affection for the music we did in the past, and we figure that’s what people like about us, so we’re not going to be perverse and do a jazz album or some folk music. There was a sense of that ‘identity’ about what we wrote, but not in a restrictive way. I think ‘Physics’ is a song you wouldn’t have heard from the old Magazine, ‘Hello Mister Curtis’ is a bit of a different sound, and even something like ‘Of Course Howard’. That’s a spoken word piece, in a very different way from the spoken word piece we recorded in the past called ‘The Book’. So I think we’re going somewhere different, but within a recognisable aesthetic that we dig and we believe our fans do.

How do you think No Thyself fits with the older Magazine albums? Do you think it’s like any other particular album or do you see it as quite different?

H: I think Magic, Murder and the Weather, from the perspective of a 5 album canon we now have, is a bit of an aberration, so if I have to relate the new album to any other, I tend to relate it to The Correct Use of Soap. It’s not as heavy as Secondhand Daylight and it’s certainly not as… charmingly naive as Real Life.

Just one more question: how do you feel about performing these days? Do you enjoy being on stage as much as you enjoy being in the studio and creating? And do you feel that there’s a Howard Devoto persona that you adopt for stage use or even writing, and how does that relate to who you are on a normal day?

HD: Ha ha haha that’s a lot of questions!

I made it into three. [laughs]

HD: Performing live still comes third for me after writing and recording, but it’s not the same treadmill as it was when the band was still together. We’re not going to go out on long tours back to back, weeks and weeks of touring, so it’s a lot easier for me on that level. And not doing it as much and having had a long period when i wasn’t doing any performing… all of that kind of helps to renew my energy for the whole thing.

So when you go onstage is it you on stage or Howard Devoto? Does that persona split also make its way into the studio?

HD: Whenever I’m involved in music, I am Howard Devoto, that’s how it seems to me… Is Howard Devoto the entire me? No. There are other aspects to me. People often put it that when they’re performing, their public side is an aspect of themselves. I must say that having another name allows for a little bit more creative leeway, you don’t feel quite so tethered to your terrestrial self. Some people may argue that that sort of leeway is not necessarily a good thing… Anyway, I tolerate Howard Devoto and I try to give him a little encouragement from time to time

Do you ever feel yourself having some sort of internal dialogue with Howard Devoto?

HD:[laughs] Yeah I do have interior and exterior dialogues with him, but then also my private self talks to himself as well sometimes.

That sounds a little confusing!

HD: On the contrary it kind of helps us… me… sort things out, it clears the confusion.

Are you working full time on Magazine now, or are you still involved in other projects?

HD: I don’t have a day job any more, that finished a while ago but I don’t want a full-time music career either, and that’s been quite clear right from the beginning of this regeneration of the band. Everybody else has their own projects as well so I don’t think anybody else is looking for Magazine to take over their lives again as it did in the past.

Will you continue with Magazine after this album/tour?

HD: Ooh, I don’t know. It’s a year at a time for us, you know. It’s taken us the best bit of a year to write and record the album, so, we’re going to try and make the most of that and see where that takes us. They’re not exactly easy times economically at the moment. We know we’re a cult band, so it’s not necessarily going to be that easy, but one year at a time. I certainly hope it will go on.

No Thyself is out now

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