Poems In People: An Interview With Richard Hawley

With his first three solo albums due for reissue, Richard Hawley talks them over with Julian Marszalek in an in-depth interview taking in pop music, his hometown of Sheffield and why mortality's never far from his mind

There’s a mild sense of panic coming down the telephone line from Sheffield. It’s not because this is Richard Hawley’s first interview in almost a year; it’s down to a moment of domestic drama.

"Sorry," he apologises midway through our conversation. "We’re looking after the fucking neighbour’s dog and apparently it’s gone missing. My wife’s in the back garden panicking. There goes rock & roll! This interview’s been interrupted by a fucking dog! That’s the story of my life, mate!"

Hawley’s being disingenuous. The story of his life has been far more interesting than that. He first broke through to the public consciousness with Longpigs in the 1990s who released two albums, The Sun Is Often Out and Mobile Home, before splitting at the turn of the century. Briefly joining Pulp as a touring guitarist as well as working as a session guitarist – that’s his guitar solo you can hear on All Saints’ cover of ‘Under The Bridge’ – Hawley has also collaborated with a wide range of artists including Arctic Monkeys, Elbow and Shirley Bassey among others. But it’s for his solo work that Hawley’s best known. Over the course of 13 years and seven albums, the musician’s talents have grown with each release and with them he has gained a maturity that at once sounds both comfortable and re-assuring. It’s as if he’s with you every step of your life and holding a mirror up to it.

While we’re still waiting for the follow-up to 2012’s psychedelic howl of rage that was Standing At The Sky’s Edge, his former label, Setanta, have just re-mastered and re-released his first three solo albums – Richard Hawley, Late Night Final and Lowedges. Listening back to these early releases is to be reminded of Hawley’s talent as a singer, songwriter and guitarist whose sensitivity and empathy as an observer of the human condition marks him down as a unique and singular talent.

There’s a strange comfort to be had listening to Hawley chuff on several cigarettes and slurp tea throughout the course of the interview; the lack of airs and graces about him serve to reinforce the humanity that runs through his music and his openness and humour make our hour together seem like five minutes.

Your first three albums are being re-released. With the benefit of hindsight, how do you view those records?

Richard Hawley: I think with anybody’s early stuff you can batter it and take things apart. I mean, it’s like a lot of those early rock & roll records. You read interviews with the guys who did them and they always say, "I wish I could’ve done that, and the guitars are out of tune and the vocals are out of time and we were in a rush" and I think that was kind of why they were great. With those early records, partly to do with the fact that I was really obsessed with things like Chess Records, Sun Records, the Bihari brothers and those records of that time were all done in the blink of an eye and it was about capturing a moment, and there was a degree of musical alchemy in all that. But Leonard Chess and Sam Phillips and all those people, they were businessmen at the end of the day and they wanted to create hits and not works of art. But over time, something that by its nature is disposable, actually takes on a greater weight and that’s the story of their stuff.

But the story of mine is, well, because I’d been through the 80s and the 90s and that way of recording where it was all about recording the fucking hi-hats first and taking things apart to such a point where it was almost like where someone does a post-mortem on a corpse if you were looking for the soul. You’d take it all to pieces and figure out how the human body works and the soul of the body and all that. Music is a bit like that. You can analyse it to death but doing those early records I was trying to get back to a way of being creative with recording rather than taking this dogmatic approach to it; the kind that modern music had taken on. And it still has this approach. Bands still record like that and I loathe it. It’s really horrible.

I don’t think I got it right every time but I think that some of the moments on those early records I got really right. I got what I wanted to achieve and whether other people like them or not isn’t why you should make music. It was to try and find something in the song. And also, with those early records, there was no money. The first one was a mini-album and when Setanta added all those extra tracks and B-sides, it altered the flow. There’s a track on it called ‘Troublesome Waters’ which is a cover of a Howard Seratt song – he only ever recorded two songs for Sun Records and my dad introduced me to that song when I was a boy – and it’s the only time me and my dad featured together on a published recording. He plays rhythm guitar. It means a lot to me because my dad didn’t last long after that – another two or three years and he were gone. And he was really chuffed because he hadn’t had anything released since the fucking 60s.

I played 90% of the stuff on the mini-album and then as those three records progressed you can see the band thing taking over more and more. By the time you get to Lowedges there’s less of me playing everything and there’s more of the guys and I guess that’s kind of a trust thing on my part where I was, "Alright, I’ll let you play". I was determined for it to be in a specific way – very ragged-arsed and not to be really polished and produced.

Those first records are quite experimental really. Those albums are, I have to admit now to the guys who played with me, as about as Cool Hand Luke as you can get because I bullshitted my way through all that. I remember going for Late Night Final and all I’d got was the riff to ‘Baby, You’re My Light’. I said to the guys, "Yeah, I’ve got loads of songs!" but I just made them up on the spot. One great example is ‘The Nights Are Cold’. I just sat there making it up and Andy the drummer said, "Look, we’ve got a gig tonight. Are we doing this or what?" – and we did it all in one take.

They were quite a leap from Longpigs, weren’t they? How did you get there?

RH: Well, it had been running parallel in my head, I guess. I always wrote songs since childhood. As a kid I was sat up in bed one night playing my guitar and my dad came in and he said, "What the fuck are you still doing awake? It’s way past bedtime" and I said, "I’ve got this song and I don’t know whose it is" and he said, "Play it me" and I played it him and he says, "It’s yours – now go to fucking bed." And he turned the light off and I lay in bed thinking, What does he mean – it’s yours? And the concept that you could actually make something up of your own was quite a big one then.

I’m a guitar player. No, I’m a songwriter. No, I don’t know which one I am. I guess I’m a jack of all trades. That songwriting thing was running parallel. I guess that under the guise of being a guitarist in a band I could quietly hone all that without much pressure and working with songwriters like Crispin [Hunt] from Longpigs and Jarvis [Cocker], my writing skills weren’t all that necessary. They were doing quite well without me, thank you very much! It just didn’t seem to be something that was needed and I was never really very good about bleating on about being a songwriter. I just kept it quiet, I suppose, and the fact that I could sing as well. It was the right time to do it.

Looking at the covers of the first two albums and considering the titles of Light Night Final and Lowedges – it seems like you were seeking the comfort of home. Was that the case?

RH: Doesn’t everybody? Well, I’d come off the back of a lot of touring and I suppose that when it came to writing songs of my own that it just felt weird me trying to be somebody else. The whole point of a band is to get from somewhere to somewhere else. I’d done all that. As Quentin Crisp so elegantly said, "No matter where you go, there you are." I saw him play at the Library Theatre and he’s one of the funniest people I’ve seen in my life. He was amazing. He walked on stage and said, "Right, you lot. You’re going to hear some straight talking from a bent speaker."

I find the covers particularly interesting. One has you outside a bingo hall and the other has you outside a greasy spoon. Did you see those covers as a celebration of working class culture or mourning for a time that’s passed?

RH: Hmm… that’s kind of where you’d be if you were trying to do it now; we’re talking nearly 15 years ago. At that time, the cover of the first one was basically anti-glamour. The Pulp thing was very much pink feather boas and glamour which was great and brilliant. That was about trying to find glamour among all the shit. I loved all that. Without thinking about it too much, I just didn’t want some big, flash London photo shoot. I’d seen a few of my contemporaries at the time go solo and they spectacularly Stukka dive-bombed into obscurity because they’d tried to do this airbrushed glamour thing and that was really repellent to me. I wanted it to be warts and all, really.

As for the first album, my manager said, "Who do you want to do the photo shoot with?" and I said, "I don’t care but I’m going to Cleethorpes." And he said, "Why?" and I said, "Because it’s the starting point."

I just wanted to go to the seaside. Looking back, I could try to psychoanalyse myself but I can’t be arsed with all that shit. I knew there was bingo hall there. When I was a kid, my dad was on tour a lot and my mother was tearing her hair out bringing up three kids, and my grandmother, Audrey Tindall, she used to take me to Cleethorpes and we’d stay in a guesthouse or a caravan. To me, in my mind, it seemed really natural. This bingo hall, where she’d go with all her mates with a bottle of water that was actually neat gin and where I’d be left outside with the ubiquitous bottle of pop and a packet of crisps, was still there. I stood there and lit a fag and the photographer took this snap.

But I think you’re right. It probably was something to do with home. I knew all that was going long before it went, and we tried to capture it as it was. I guess no one was interested in that stuff at the time. When it came to naming the albums, I didn’t want to map the whole of Sheffield out but it just seemed to be things that meant something to me. The thing about colloquialisms is that I’ve often found it odd that if you write about things that are local to you and that you know, there becomes a transference and these things become universal. I don’t know what it’s like to live in L.A.; I don’t even know what it’s like to live in fucking Blackpool but I know what it’s like to live here in Sheffield and therefore it seems perfectly logical to write about it.

So were you keeping the flame burning of what once was with the albums titles?

RH: Hmm… I only think about these things in interviews! It’s not like I sit around with my thumb up my arse for hours and hours thinking about it! You know, as for the deeper meaning of stuff, I don’t want to get caught up in all that bollocks.

You’ve worked with a huge variety of artists over the years including Arctic Monkeys, Duane Eddy, Robbie Williams among many others. What, to your mind, makes for a good collaborator? What do you look for?

RH: The idea of it is the first thing. I’ve been lucky that the phone rang. I’ve never chased anything apart from this dog that’s just escaped from our garden. People have always asked me to do it, which is quite remarkable. You know, from Paul Weller to Lisa Marie Presley to Shirley Bassey and whatnot, I’ve always been asked to do things. Don’t ask me why, for fuck’s sake! I really don’t know the answer to that but long may it continue!

I like working with other people because you can get too absorbed in your own little bubble. You get to share ideas and because I’ve worked with loads of people over the years it just seems to be natural really.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s some of the things that I’ve been asked to do when I’ve said "no". Sometimes it doesn’t feel right. If it don’t feel right then don’t do it, you know? It’s like golf or incest; that’s never going to feel right. Me standing on the terraces of Sheffield United is never going to feel right. I’d probably add clog dancing to that. Or sat in house on a boiling hot sunny day with curtains closed watching cricket. Stuff like that is never going to feel right.

I won’t say who I’ve turned down because I’m too much of a gentleman. That’s why I’ve had such a long career. I’ve only ever fallen out with two people. One of them is dead and the other one fucking will be when I see him!

The notion of artists making music beyond their 30s was once a laughable idea and the 80s was a very unforgiving decade for a lot of the musicians who started in the 60s. How is it that artists such as yourself are still making good music this far down the line?

RH: What immediately springs to mind are two kinds of scenarios. If you cast your mind back to those artists in the 80s, the mistake that they made was to try and squeeze themselves into a frighteningly tight pair of spandex where it’s obvious they’re mutton dressed as lamb. It’s terrible, that; it’s without any dignity. That’s one side to it. I would never do that. The horror of me in lycra is beyond comprehension, it really is.

Secondly, I think a lot of us older gents and ladies who are still making music after a certain point in time, curiously, I think, is actually a legacy of punk. Even though that was youth-centric and blasting all that other stuff away, I think that by the time you’re in your mid-20s, back then, it was over. The cardigan, pipe and slippers would automatically descend like Wallace & Gromit and then it was over. But coming from punk meant that growing older, if you do it with a certain amount of dignity, was kind of alright. I find myself in a curious position because I am aware of how odd it is being 47 and still being creative. But I don’t really see why I can’t be as long as I’m not putting people off their dinner.

In all seriousness, and I do mean this, I’ve only ever wanted to make music that’s soulful, that has some depth and heart in it.

Is mortality something that plays on your mind and does it impact on your music in any way?

RH: Have a listen to it. It’s on my mind every fucking day. Life and death are on everybody’s mind, I would’ve thought. You only have to turn on the telly to see how quickly you can go from one state to another. The seriousness and gravitas of that inevitability does tend to darken one’s evening in the bingo occasionally. I find myself quite lucky to still be here because there were many occasions when that was not looking good. Having escaped all that, I’m just happy being creative rather than thinking about all the other shite. What else would I do? It’s too fucking late for me now to be using those D-grade O-levels. They’ve gathered quite a lot of dust over the years. I’ve only ever worked once. I spent nine weeks over Christmas working in HMV and that’s the only time my P45 has been used in anger. Mind you, I’ve been threatened with it being issued a few times…

I do view it as a badge of honour that I keep going. It’s like Paul Weller says to me, "Fuckin’ ‘ell, Rich, don’t get impressed with all this awards shit. If you hang about long enough, mate, they’ll give you an award."

What does Sheffield give you that other locations don’t?

RH: You could call me a stick in the mud but I feel really rooted and connected to it. I don’t really want to know why but it just feels right. It’s not like, "Ooh, I don’t want to leave here", and in all honesty I couldn’t wait to get away. I’ve circumnavigated the globe at least 15 times in my life and I probably will do again when I do another record and other projects. I’ve travelled widely and I’ve seen a shitload of the world but I do like to come back. I am a bit of wildcat and I do like to piss up lamp posts and walk on roofs at midnight and stuff like that but I’m also happy to watch shit telly with the missus and the kids. I think having both is fairly healthy.

How much of a romantic are you?

RH: I do see poems in people, really. I notice things that most people might miss. I’m not saying that I’m better than other people, it’s just that I’ve got a slightly skewed view of things. I’m being evasive here and I don’t mean to be; I’m hopeless – I’m terminally ill! They’ve given me six months! Am I glass half full kind of guy? Not if you go to the pubs that I do. They get filled up very regularly.

My partner is from Sheffield and she reckons that people from Sheffield are South Yorkshire’s answer to the Scousers. She says there’s a certain romantic and nostalgic worldview that the two cities share. What’s your take on that?

RH: I love Scousers but I could never eat a whole one! I’ve got a lot of friends in Liverpool and they’re very progressive thinkers as well. My granddad did say that I was as soft as a bag of tits. There is a definite friendliness and openness in this city.

Another friend from Sheffield thinks that the reason the 2011 riots didn’t hit Sheffield was because of the city’s strong socialist tradition. Is that accurate?

RH: When I saw what was happening I was 90% certain that it wouldn’t happen in Sheffield. I wouldn’t say 100% because we’ve got fuckwits here the same as everywhere. It is because of that, I think, and I was proud of the fact that we didn’t smash it all up. We could talk about that level of rioting all day but the root cause of that is frustration. We’ve got that here; we’ve got as many social problems as anywhere else. There was a gathering here but from what I was told it was more of a protest rather than smashing everything up. But I’d go with that, to be honest.

Do you think deputy prime minister and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg will be chased out of Sheffield next year? I heard a story that he’s already sold up.

RH: Let’s hope so. I think he must be brought in and out of the city in an armoured car; he’s loathed. But he must be because – not that he would – but I can’t imagine him walking around Next or Waitrose without getting bricked. Because he betrayed not only the students; he’s made people feel really ashamed of him.

I’d rather eat my own shit than vote Tory or Liberal and I’ve struggled with Labour to be honest. Most of us are not alone in thinking that. It’s like, who the fuck do we vote for? With that kind of dilemma it’s a classic scenario for letting in some chinless fuckwit like Farage [pronounced "farridge"]. I mean, where the fuck does that come from? He’s there slagging foreigners off and he calls himself Farage [pronounced in a Gallic accent]? He’s the classic Hyacinth Bucket, isn’t he? You know what I mean? A fucking Little Englander that’s socially inept who can’t fucking accept who is – slagging foreigners off while calling himself Farage. What a complete and utter total cunt. He drives me fucking mad.

U2 have given away their new album and at a stroke have done their bit to devalue music. Has pop, in its widest sense, finished as a cultural force and now become little more than light entertainment or does it still have something to offer?

RH: Well, in terms of record sales and having the same kind of cultural impact that The Sex Pistols or [Pulps’] ‘Common People’ had – and that had a huge impact – I think it’s become harder. I don’t know whether it’s because everything’s become kind of diluted a lot. The impact of things is diluted rather than concentrated because of the internet and by media over-exposure and that’s a component of it, I think. If you’re prepared to just give it away I can’t see the point of making it in the first place. That’s weird, that, really.

I make music and I make it primarily because I think it needs to be made by me. I know that the gang of people around me is into it. I started off playing working men’s clubs to about 20 people who were vaguely interested and it looks like I’m heading back there! No, I don’t think I’m part of that [giving music away] and there are quite a few artists that aren’t a part of that. The reason that the music is made in the first place isn’t to have your boat race on the cover of every fucking magazine. Music in itself, you know, that it’s an accompaniment to your life – it soundtracks your life – and there’s some music that’s made that’s so important to human beings that it goes back to that soulful thing. It’s something you need. It’s like oxygen, almost.

There’s some music that’s made that’s like the plastic skin off a fucking bacon wrapper and once that packaging is opened then the music is rendered meaningless. I think there’s too much of that and people confuse music with entertainment. It’s an easy target but your X Factor and stuff like that hasn’t got anything to do with music. It’s entertainment; it’s like The Generation Game to me. It’s something that the mums and the dads and the grannies and the kids can all sit on the sofa and watch it safely together and that’s not the function of what music’s supposed to be.

The two are separate issues to me and I think that music as a powerful, cultural force has changed; there’s no doubt about that. But people’s need to hear something with emotional authority and strength hasn’t changed since caveman times. I think there are certain things that are necessary for us to function as human beings and hearing our emotions organised in a certain way and reflected back at us is very important. It’s the same as theatre and stuff like that.

Pop music – popular music – has changed massively. Pop isn’t what a 47-year-old bloke should be doing anyway and I’m not. But, you know, going back to the matter in hand, vinyl sales are up and that’s a good thing. Jeanette Lee from Rough Trade was telling me the other night that their vinyl sales are going up and have done for years. People prefer the artifact and there are a number of people who aren’t stupid. They’ve figured out that buying an mp3 is like buying a bucket of steam. You can’t give it away, you can’t swap it, you can’t loan it to somebody and all you can do is keep it or delete it.

What was the last thing you learned?

RH: It was this morning: how much hair does a human being grow in year? I tried to work it out by how many times I go to the barber’s and the answer is approximately six inches a year. Obviously there are mitigating factors to go with that like age and possible illness and stuff like that but yeah, it’s about six inches a year and that was the last thing I learned at about 9 o’clock this morning.

Richard Hawley, Late Night Final and Lowedges will be re-released on October 27 via Setanta Records; head here to pre-order

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