Bill Drummond interview

26 April 03

Whilst there has been a large degree of research in getting the stuff for this site, finding interviewees Robin Millar and Bill Drummond it was pure luck. I was on a bus in Manchester when I saw a flyposter saying 'NOTICE Bill Drummond will be perfoming How To Be An Artist at the Cornerhouse' and ticket details.

The 'performance' was a rant among an exhibition he's created. Tickets sold out swiftly and I didn't get one. Despite spending years out of the limelight between projects, Drummond still garners massive interest whenever he does something new.

As my friend Mahalia said, if you saw an article asking artists 'what music will be like in 30 years time' or just 'favourite records of this year', Drummond is one respondant you'd have to read. He's one of those figures like Brian Eno or Peter Gabriel who, whatever you think of their music, can be relied upon to think differently and interestingly, even when they're well wide of the mark.

I turned up at the Cornerhouse a couple of hours before his performance and blagged my way in. Bill had no idea I was coming, and so he'd had no chance to dredge his memory or get any answers ready. He was more than ready to give his time, and was really engaged.

Often portrayed as an egotist and self-publicist, he struck me as quite the opposite. Whilst he has an enormous commitment and strident belief in his work, in the man himself I found an approachability and a modesty that must be rare indeed among people who've sold so many records.

Unique among the interviewees, he would answer a point, then consider, realise he'd said enough and ask for a next question; clearly a man with a large experience of music and interviews, and whose ego is not flattered by the attention of someone asking their opinion.

How did you first hear of Strawberry Switchblade?

I knew that was going to be your first question. While you were putting the tape in I was thinking, 'fuck, when did I first hear of Strawberry Switchblade?'. I think - and I may be wrong - that Dave Balfe, my partner in different things, may have heard a session.

The BBC Peel and Jensen sessions?

I think it was the Jensen session. Dave Balfe told me about that and maybe he'd got a tape of it, a tape that included Trees And Flowers. [Jill's tape says Trees And Flowers was on the Peel session]. I remember as soon as I heard that song I thought it was fantastic. Absolutely genius song.

So the two of us went up to Glasgow to meet up with them and I think they had an American woman as a manger at the beginning. I think there was some problems there, but I didn't enter into finding out the detail.

On meeting them, the fact that they had got the whole fuckin look together, the whole package, in that sense added to it. Not just from a cynical commercial point of view, but they just knew what they were about, they were expressing themselves on a lot of different levels other than just writing lyrics and tunes. It was working in a lot of different ways and obviously it was working in a way that could reach out there.

And that look had a genuine artistic depth but also at the same time you knew it could work in a then-Smash Hits way as well. They were the genuine thing, they were real genuine artists.

That said, initially Dave Balfe, I think he put a band together round them, an acoustic band with Simon Booth who was the guitarist who then went on and did Working Week. And that didn't really work I don't think, particularly. Their talent was a very delicate talent and could easily be broken with what was around them, and I think on the whole that a traditional putting them on a tour playing small rock clubs around the country just didn't work. It was too fragile, their thing. Their voices are very fragile voices. There's been bands before that have had that problem, there'll always be bands that have that problem, you put them into a thing where you've got a drum kit and a guitarist going through an amplifier and it just starts....

I think the record that Dave and I produced, Trees And Flowers, - and I don't often say this about records I've been involved in making - but I still think it's a fantastic record. And I think we were able to capture that fragility on that first single. There's a friend of ours who played cor anglais, Kate St John, and that really worked well.

Roddy Frame's guitar works really well to get that blend of richness and fragility.

I can't remember him being on there! I'm not denying it. I can't remember him being in the studio.

How did it get so many notable musicians on it?

The rhythm section from Madness were friends. Roddy was a sort of friend at the time, and I guess he was a friend of theirs [Rose and Jill], but I knew him anyway. The thing is I can't remember him playing on it!

I'm really really genuinely a hundred percent proud of that record. Then the trouble started, I guess.

Did the 92 Happy Customers label exist outside of that single?

92 Happy Customers was Will Sergeant's label. Dave Balfe and I had stopped doing Zoo Records and I was working with the Bunnymen at the time and Will and I are mates. So we said, 'do you mind if we put a record out on your label, we'll actually pay for the stuff,' and he was really into the record anyway so he was up for it.

The catalogue number is HAPS 001 which implies a first release.

He'd done an album on it already of his own stuff [Themes For Grind, released March 1982], and I think the plan was he was going to do more things. I actually think there was some stuff of his that he was recording about that period that's just coming out now, in the next month or so, but it won't be coming out on 92 Happy Customers I don't think. It's also a brilliant name for a record label I thought.

For a small label it's fantastic. Was the plan to keep Strawberry Switchblade putting stuff out in an indie way or was the plan always to move them on to a major after an indie single?

I think Dave would have been keen to get them on to a major. Rose would have been keen on it.

I had got myself into a position where I had to get some money, so I'd taken on a position as an A&R consultant at WEA records. They actually got signed to WEA records before I got there, but when I got the A&R consultancy position they said, 'you know these people Bill, you look after them within the record company'.

The stuff came out on Korova, which was Rob Dickins' imprint wasn't it?

It was Rob Dickins' imprint when he was the boss of Warner Brothers Music, but then he became the boss of WEA records. Rob and I were friends at the time and when we made the deal that I'd become an A&R consultant it sort of became my imprint, sort of, for as long as I was there.

Was there any effective difference between being on Korova and WEA, or was it just a different logo on a WEA record?

It was just WEA. I just had an office at WEA which I went into sometimes cos the phones were free instead of using it at home, cos the taxis were free.

I knew from the outset that in the fullness of time - and that time wasn't going to last very long before it was full - that them being on a major label of any sort would break the back of them. Not only the music was fragile but everything about it. The demands that were made - and they were nowhere near as heavy as I guess they must be now - on an act to go out, do things, make records in a way that's supposed to be for the market place.

As much as I like the idea of electropop I'm not sure it was right for the album. What was the album called, by the way?

Just 'Strawberry Switchblade'.

That's why I can't remember it! I really really like early 80s electropop. Vince Clarke period Depeche Mode for me is the best, when it gets heavier and [throws a sledgehammer-wielding pose] wallop, I don't like it. So I could see that that very light synthpop stuff could really work for Strawberry Switchblade as much as acoustics and stand-up bass.

They did start it with live musicians, they did a couple of songs with Robin Millar and he was slated to do the album.

I didn't like that. I'd forgotten about that. Have you heard those?

Yeah, they're really good.

Are they?

Yeah. It's not as smooth as you'd expect for Robin Millar, there's quite an edge to it.

Then I made a mistake. Because I do think on the whole that the album the songs didn't work out. The songs were too delicate, they weren't given enough space, the electro thing didn't have that lightness that, in my head, Vince Clarke had right at the beginning of Depeche Mode.

I really like some stuff that Robin Millar had done, so that'll be the reason why we'd work with him. Even though I'd completely forgotten about that.

With him having done Everything But The Girl and Sade and stuff, he's not coming from a rock angle, and it's important with Strawberry Switchblade that you don't put them in a rock environment.

No, no.

Even though it seems I'm giving these negatives about the album, I also think the Since Yesterday single, it WORKED. And maybe there's a couple of other ones that did work, when it was very sparse electro and stuff.

There's a lot of weird sounds on there that give it a darkness, it's not just straightforward push-button electropop on there.

Maybe I should go an listen to it again. With Since Yesterday, I remember when I first heard it I didn't think 'that's a hit single', but it was fantastic as a pop record.