Promenading: Martin Duffy Interviewed

With his excellent album Assorted Promenades released on Tim Burgess' O Genesis label this year, JR Moores traces the journeys that led the Primal Scream keyboardist to arrive at this debut solo effort

Martin Duffy has been a staple part of the British indie rock scene since the mid-1980s. Best known as the keyboardist for the ever-mutating garage-rock/acid-house/cyber-punk/jazz-funk popular experimentalists Primal Scream, he has also played with Felt, The Charlatans and Tim Burgess’ solo group, as well as featuring on tracks by the likes of Oasis, Chemical Brothers and Beth Orton.

After thirty years in the business, he’s now taking his first tentative steps into the limelight with a new solo album, Assorted Promenades. Far from being a dreaded solo piano record, Duffy’s keyboard ruminations are bathed in a diverse miscellany of beguiling string sounds, elysian twinkles and serene wonkiness, at times recalling the music of Harold Budd, Hauschka, Haruka Nakamura and probably a load of other composers who don’t begin with ‘H’. The wonderful effect that Assorted Promenades had on me personally was physical debilitation (I had to lie down as I listened) while my brain went into overdrive, summoning up all manner of both hazy and vibrant imagined visuals to accompany this soundtrack-without-a-movie. At one point I scribbled down "Track 7, ‘Crux’: Like a robot Pinocchio coming to life and being simultaneously awed by the wonder of the world and pained by its incurable flaws." Whatever that means.

Eventually, I managed to peel myself off my duvet, pull myself together and speak to Martin about the project. Despite all the infamous tales from Primal Scream’s hedonistic heyday (among them, Duffy was once stabbed while on tour by a mystery attacker), in person, he comes across as a shy and modest character, explaining that he’d always been making solo music, but this year took the chance to put some of it out, after sending it to Burgess who’s released it through his O Genesis label. We started by discussing how the material came together.

So this stuff was recorded a while back and has been sitting around?

Martin Duffy: Some of it. On this album there’s a couple of tracks which are probably from around 1997… It’s quite good because it doesn’t sound like it’s all been recorded in the same place. It’s been recorded in sheds and rooms wherever I’ve lived over the years so some of them are quite up-to-date. Some go back probably sixteen or seventeen years. I had a lot of stuff to choose from so it was difficult getting it down to sixteen tracks. I managed to do it in the end.

Is it a lonely experience working without other people? Is it liberating?

MD: When you’re in a group, you’ve got different people, different sets of ears, you’ve got different opinions. When you record on your own, you’ve got the freedom to do what you want, you can let your mind go wild. But it’s good to have another set of ears so it is difficult [working solo] because you don’t know sometimes if you sound good or not. A lot of this stuff I hadn’t played to anyone. So only this year I played it to someone and got an order together and got it down to about twenty songs and then just decided to choose a certain order so I kept it to a certain theme. It’s impossible to be objective. Whereas when you’re in a group you can bounce ideas off each other. This doesn’t feel isolating at all, you’ve got a free range to do whatever you want, but sometimes I suppose you need someone to pull the reigns in. But there you go.

What effect are you aiming to have on the listener?

MD: I’ve really just done it for myself. It’s just a musical journey. It’s got different moods. The title, Assorted Promenades, means "various journeys". I put it together so that you don’t know what’s going to happen next in some ways. Certain sections you can put together, certain sections you can’t. So the track ‘Number Six’ I quite like because it’s quite traditional, quite Miss Marple. I put that in because you can try to be weird but I do like melody. Melody is quite important to me. Melody’s always been an important part of the music I make. It’s always healthy to experiment but melody, it’s almost the most advanced you can get, a melody. You can wrap things up in the latest technology but it does boil down to melody. I listen to a lot of avant-garde as well, but for me that’s advanced, a good melody. Because this [album] is instrumental, I’m not relying on a vocal or lyric so I’m relying on a palette, colours and… it’s quite impressionistic, I suppose, in ways.

As you say so yourself, it does feel like a soundtrack. Is this your sneaky bid for Hollywood?

MD: It’d be nice to do a soundtrack. Anything really. But it’s not a bid, no [laughs]. But who knows? I don’t know if I could handle Hollywood. Channe… no. I was going to say Channel 5. No. I wouldn’t go that far.

Some of the material sounded almost spiritual or meditative. You and the Scream have a funny relationship with religion, don’t you?

MD: Music is a very spiritual thing to people. Different music for different people, obviously. You’ve got your obvious gospel music but music is very spiritual to people. I think it’s one of the purest things people have got in this world. And you’ve got all your commercialised drivel but for some people that’s spiritual too. A couple of my tracks are quite minimalist. You’ve got your holy minimalists, like Arvo Pärt, and I do like those composers; just very simple minimalism which I suppose comes from the old religious music from medieval times that’s influenced people. I don’t go around listening to it all the time but I do like a bit of minimalism. But then I like a bit of maximalism as well. But, yeah, it’s a very spiritual thing. There are times when you’re not feeling good and music is the medicine.

I read one review of Assorted Promenades that said "tracks like ‘Section II’ sound… like an orchestra tuning up" and "many would argue this isn’t music".

MD: Oh really? Where was that? Who wrote that? Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Drone music, you could say, well they’re only playing one note and that’s the whole of drone music just completely put in its place. Obviously, people have to listen to and review records and how many records do they have to listen to a week? People have certain ideas. It’s great now with iTunes and Spotify and all that, people are just listening to any style of music, one particular track, it doesn’t matter now if it’s an old classical piece or an old soundtrack, they’re just listening to such varied styles all at once. In the old days, if you listened to someone like John Peel, he used to play African music and then industrial noise and then folk music or a gospel song, punk song, and it was great, it didn’t matter what style. People now are listening to music a lot more like that because people have their ‘shuffle’ so they aren’t just limiting themselves but sometimes people do get pestered or people get lazy and just go for one particular style, we all do it at times but I’m always looking for something completely different. And there’s so much stuff coming out and then you get a good idea and then a lot of people will follow it, but that’s always been there I suppose. But an orchestra tuning up? Urgh [laughs]. Could be worse. Again, [‘Section II’] is just an improvised piece but it lingers on particular notes and I won’t analyse it too much but, yeah, I’ll check that out later today.

What unusual instruments are you using on this record? There are some pretty weird sounds.

MD: Old plug-ins and old percussion bits. I’m keyboard-based. Obviously, I couldn’t get a real orchestra. So just strange percussion bits and with computers now it’s just great to be able to distort anything really so just messing around with effects. There wasn’t a particular three-legged trombone or anything I used. It was all done home studio. No samples in there. It was strange because some stuff I recorded in a shed in Chiswick and then it got broke into and they nicked stuff, then I had to go and locate [replacements] on tour, so I’ve done it on various computers over the years. Some computers stopped working or broke down so some of the songs are quite old-school kind of plug-ins from, I dunno, the early nineties? And I’ve put things through various effects boxes and stuff.

What’s Mr Burgess like as a label boss?

MD: He’s just very easy-going. I don’t even think he’s got an office so I haven’t seen him at work, but I just sent him the tracks and he said "brilliant" and that was it. We’ve known each other for years and it was really nice, he prompted me to put it out and he’s just let me do whatever I wanted to do, so he was just very easy and obviously he’s such a lover of music, he knows what he likes, and I’m just really glad it’s gone out on Tim’s label.

Sounds like the perfect label boss.

MD: Perfect, yeah! Perfect. Just really good, yeah. He’s just… he’s Tim Burgess!

When did he first hear the stuff?

MD: He rang me and said "send me some stuff", so I just got sixteen tracks together and sent them to him. That was about January or February. It’s taken up to now just to get everything mastered and remastered and get the flow done and that was it. I’ve played with Felt, The Charlatans, Primal Scream and I’ve been on various people’s session work and guested on people’s albums so I’m kind of used to it, but it’s quite strange to be putting out your own thing under your own name. It’s exciting really.

I heard that the album’s release was inspired by the two of you witnessing a car on fire.

MD: We’d done a gig and it was about three in the morning and this car had just set on fire at the side of the road. When we went past it we could feel the heat from the car. It must have just set fire literally a minute beforehand and Tim saw it as a sign. It was quite a sight really, and we were talking about John Foxx, because it’s a burning car, which is a great track, and then, yeah, Tim saw it as a sign. Then we went to the Holiday Inn.

Any plans to take your solo stuff on the road?

MD: I’d like to but it would be quite difficult to replicate it live. I’d have to have backing tracks. If it was just an album of piano pieces it would be easy to go out and do some little gigs somewhere, but because of the nature of some of the music it might be a bit problematic. But never say never.

And how about a second solo album?

MD: Well, I’ll just have to see. I’ve got a taste for it now. I’m making up for lost time. I’d love to but I don’t know what plans Tim’s got or anything. I’d really like to do it, yeah. I could bring it out straight away if I wanted, so it’s just choosing what mood to make the next one. I should’ve done it a long time ago. As I said, I don’t blow my own trumpet and I’m a bit shy, so I’m really glad Tim talked me into it.

But Primal Scream will be regrouping at some point?

MD: I’m hoping next year. Every summer for so many years now, the amount of festivals there are: this time last year we’d been doing all the summer festivals, then I think we did a load of English gigs and went all over Europe. It’s exhausting and it’s brilliant but it’s nice to have a summer where we weren’t just in and out of airports and doing festivals. It was quite good for us to just have a break from that. Hopefully next year we’ll be back where we left off.

It was very sad to hear the news about the death of Robert Young.

MD: Yeah, really, really sad. He’d moved back to Brighton and I’d started seeing bits of him. This was the start of the summer I’d started seeing him and then I got the news. I think it’s really shocked everyone, you know? He was just getting himself back and trying to write stuff, so it’s just sad that it was at a point when he was trying to start writing stuff again.

Is there any particular memory of him that stands out of how you might want to remember him?

MD: He was a very, very funny guy. There are too many memories in there but I suppose I’d look over on stage and he’d be there with his top off playing the guitar. You know, it was always good to see him there, like that. He had a big heart. There were too many really funny moments and I couldn’t really distil it into one particular moment, not off the cuff anyway.

I suppose you might not know this seeing as Primal Scream have been on a break, but how did the whole Scottish independence question go down in the famously Anglo-Scottish musical combo Primal Scream?

MD: I only spoke to Bobby [Gillespie] briefly about it and he didn’t really go into it. Then it had passed and gone. I think it was quite a complicated thing. I’m not sure exactly which direction they… I could say they’d probably be "yes" but I can’t speak for them. They’ve lived in London for years – like a lot of Scottish people they wouldn’t have got the vote, so it was complicated. We didn’t have a chance to go into it really at the time and the vote had been cast so then that was it. I live down in Brighton so I hadn’t seen that much of them leading up to it, I didn’t really get the lowdown on what they thought.

I read that Bobby had said something about it feeling too nationalistic and nationalism is too close to fascism so that made him uncomfortable.

MD: Yeah, well this is it, there’s a thin line, isn’t there? I think Irvine Welsh, he was saying "yes" and wrote a big piece about it and it was strange, I mean Irvine Welsh still goes to Scotland a lot but. You know, it’s personal, I suppose and I’m not… I’m from Birmingham! It don’t affect me!

You can join the Birmingham Independence Movement.

MD: That’s what I’m more interested in, yeah. Birmingham’s always kept itself to itself anyway, over the years. There’s this Manchester thing and this Liverpool thing and Birmingham’s always had the piss taken out of it, but now it’s half-almost trendy now. Peaky Blinders, you know? Even though they’ve filmed it in Liverpool, probably, or somewhere like that. Again, I can’t comment on Birmingham, I don’t live there, but it’s my home town. I go back to see my mum.

Assorted Promenades is out now via O Genesis

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