Robin Millar interview

16 Feb 03

As with Bill Drummond, finding Robin Millar was pure chance. At a party full of music media people in January 2003, I arrived not really knowing anyone. I see the host, the only person there I know properly. Being the host he's flitting around a lot, introducing people to each other. 'Ah,' he says on seeing me, 'I'd like you to meet someone - this is Robin Millar'.

'Whaoh!,' I say, 'you produced the first sessions for the Strawberry Switchblade album! I'm about to illegally upload them onto the internet!'.

'Good,' he replies, 'I'll illegally download them cos I don't have copies any more'.

A brilliant man, he talks extensively not only in great anecdotes, but with a real passion for music itself, for integrity and purpose instead of commerce.

Whilst he is only a bit-player in the Strawberry Switchblade story, his understanding of what was great about the band and his presence of mind in discussing music and creativity make him a compelling interviewee.

How did you hear of Strawberry Switchblade and get involved with them?

I knew you were going to ask me that! Are you going to tell me or am I going to tell you?

I suspected that your memory mightn't be clear, it was only a couple of sessions in the middle of 1984, which was a very busy year for you.

1984 was an absolutely extraordinary year for me. Strawberry Switchblade was one of two or three things that I really had a lot of faith in. Them, and another Scottish band called Fruits Of Passion, who had quite a lot of similarity really [with Strawberry Switchblade].

That twelve month period, apart from Fruits Of Passion and Switchblade, for me was Weekend and then Working Week - mixtures of jazz, African influences, good playing, interesting innovative ideas; Everything But The Girl who'd come out of the Marine Girls thing and then Tracey's own stuff, and they were formulating this bizarre, BIZARRE hybrid of jazz and at the same time still influenced by people like the Buzzcocks; the end of The Beat and the beginnings of Fine Young Cannibals that I was involved in; and then if you want to go on to a different tip, Sade.

All of these things were basically musician led, band led, flying in the face of programming everything up.

I'm always excited by what I consider to be generic movements which are appearing spontaneously, genuinely from the musicians themselves, whether it's in the bedroom or the rehearsal room. You do tend to find a flavour in a particular town or country in a particular year.

The Postcard Records thing had appealed to me because of its organicness, its awkwardness, the fact that it didn't seem to be directly coming from anything that was happening elsewhere, it wasn't being borrowed, you know? It was almost like the result of a REJECTION of what was going on, and that's always been what has appealed to me about that. People who'd organised themselves into some kind of art form that they felt was singular, original, not borrowed from what was going on.

I don't remember how I...YES I DO! I'll tell you how I met Strawberry Switchblade. It was Geoff Travis, who had had the Raincoats signed up to his label [Rough Trade], or if he hadn't had them he'd wanted to sign them. The extraordinary thing about Geoff - through whom I met Everything But The Girl and Young Marble Giants and Weekend - he was a man after my own heart in that he just wanted to put people he believed in with other people he believed in who had different skills. He neither knew nor cared whether he would have a financial interest in the results, he was much more interested in DRIVING MUSIC ON, and he was much more interested in driving through those people who did not seem to wish to commit to the most commercial scene that was going on.

He played me some Raincoats tracks and said, 'the girl who sang and wrote most of this stuff is now in a new band called Strawberry Switchblade and I think they're great'. And so it was directly because of Geoff Travis. I don't remember how the meeting was organised.

That's odd, I've talked to Rose and Jill and the name The Raincoats hasn't come up at all. Are you sure it's the same thing? Rose was in a band called The Poems who were very different, a punk band.

I may be misplacing the name. What he may have done was played me two or three things. As I said, my memory is very sketchy about this.

Sure, I'm asking you about a couple of quick sessions twenty years ago!

He used to come to me with anything interesting that he found because he thought I was interesting. You may be quite right. Remember, being blind you get insulated against trying to be too in-full. I always joke with bands I do a whole album with that by the time we've finished mixing the album, by then I actually know the names of two or three songs. I just refer to them by a phrase or something. So it's quite possible, nay probable, that it was just on a tape which said 'Raincoats' on it.

They'd had one indie single out at that point, which was recorded with live musicians. Geoff Travis would certainly have spotted that.

He definitely would have effected the meeting.

What were they like to work with?

The thing that I remember about Rose was her sort of twitchy-witchy vibe, her black shawly, white-faced, dark, very... what would you call it? UNDERGROUND in a way, very alternative but very serious, very deep thinker. Old but young. Very young, but very old in a witchy way. I don't mean that in a bad way, but kind of sussed. Jill was very ingenuous and very nice. Being the harmonist and everything, she was very applied. Rose was the pure essence of it, and I thought Jill was necessary for the application of it into some sort of format. I'm not sure that Rose could have done it on her own.

I can arrange and I can write anything people want me to write, but all the ideas pretty well have to come out of the band, out of the artist. I will egg on and coax and try to put them in touch with things in themselves like saying, 'if there was to be other instrumentation on this song, what are the things that have inspired you recently? what are the sounds?'. If they had musicians who they knew and were part of the plot, I would be reluctant to pass over those musicians, I would tend to try to work with them, even painstakingly if necessary.

Most of these musicians were young, and one thing I liked about them was they hadn't been in and around studios all their lives. Sometimes it was quite painstaking because I am quite... I've never really believed in this particular English... DISEASE, I'd call it, that attitude has to be translated by awkwardness, by a sense of incompetence. Naturalistic yes, but I never really saw why something had to be badly played badly sung and badly mixed to sound real and sound true. So I would take the musicians as I found them, take the line up of the band as they saw it and kind of beat them into shape if you like, but the same shape, just playing well, well recorded; a little bit of thought into 'do you really need that bit OVER that bit cos it gets in the way and makes a mess and you actually don't get the beauty in each bit - if that's a beautiful bit let's hear it'.

It's a really notable thing that on your version of Secrets, unlike the earlier BBC version and the later David Motion version, there's a breakdown part where the voices come through.

And that is partly to do with this very kind of churchy thing which Rose sort of gave off, this very black candle holiness sort of thing, and I LOVED their two voices together. I thought well, if you hear them together at some point in the song then you've found the centre of what they are, really. That's the centre of what they are and everything else can radiate out from there.

The sessions were quick, they didn't take long.

That's interesting because they must've taken some putting together cos there was only the two of them and the other musicians had to be found. One of them was a guy out of Working Week, Simon Booth, and a bassist and drummer had to be found. Was it your idea they used them?

If you remind me who the musicians were I could tell you.

There was Simon Booth, and Roy Dodds on drums.

He would've been from Weekend, I worked with him then.

So it sounds like your suggestions for the other guys.

Yeah. Do you remember who played bass?

No idea, no-one seems to remember.

I think it was Phil Moxon, who was from Young Marble Giants.

[Jill is now absolutely sure it was John Cook, who played bass with them live at that time, and says she's never heard of Phil Moxon. Subsequent correspondance with Cook himself confirms it was him.]

They would have had gaps and I would have found people. Like-minded people by the sound of it, cos all the people we mentioned are from interesting, organic music.

It's also an important thing that, although they'd come out of a punk background and retained the ethic, it was really important with what those songs were that they didn't have musicians that rocked.

I came out of the punk ethic as well. Punk was what saved me from getting completely hacked off with the music business in the mid 70s. Thank god I was living in France and New Wave hit France quite early, really - 75, 76 - and that was the first music I ever produced. I played in a punk band for three years, I produced punk for three or four years and I finished the 70s playing guitar with Nico from the Velvet Underground for a year and a half. I came back to England fresh out of that, it was with Nico's band that I came back to London and thought, 'actually it's quite nice here, I think I'll stay here for a while'.

It was straight from there to Young Marble Giants, straight from there to Weekend, straight into Everything But The Girl, Sade, [Fine Young] Cannibals. Not a sequencer in sight, funnily enough. Although in some of the very early second half of the 70s French stuff that I was doing reminded me more of the David Motion stuff. So I think there was a 'been there, done that' really, and when it started coming into the UK consciousness it just sounded like a group of people had decided to stick Kraftwerk backings on to songs. Which is fine, I liked some of it, but wasn't interested in doing it, which is why I was flabbergasted when I heard what Strawberry Switchblade became. I didn't disapprove or anything, because I couldn't do that, I couldn't make records like that.

I take it very much as I find it, it's very organic. As I said, I'm always trying to get the ideas out of the people. Sometimes perhaps that's wrong, perhaps they want you to sit down and just tell them 'you should do this, you should do that'. I think it's a completely different sort of production, that David Motion-Trevor Horn 'these are the records I make and will fit your style into them'. Whatever else the versions of Poor Hearts and Secrets that I did with them is, it flowed out of them. And then I suppose what happened was they must have taken those tracks to the powers that be, and the powers that be must've said they're not trendy enough, they're not where this record label sees its marketing opportunities - 'do you want to meet this young guy, we've just had a hit with him with something else'.

Do you remember it being said that it wasn't going to go any further?


Was it going to be just do two songs and see how it went, or had there been any plans for anything further? Did it feel like you were gearing up to do an album?

Yes. Yes.

At what point did they say no and back out of that?

You know, it was happening to me all the time. Sometimes, like Fruits Of Passion, Strawberry Switchblade, it didn't get through the net. The business just said, 'no no no, we're totally into electro'.

Do you remember how the band felt at the time about it?

No, because the wall went up. I assume whether out of disappointment, embarrassment or whatever it was, I simply never heard from anyone. And the next thing I heard they were in the studio with Dave Motion.