In December 2002 I was working for the BBC’s Top of The Pops website. Mostly I wrote silly pieces of content, like Top 5 Most Depressing Depeche Mode Lyrics, or the three news stories that the site used to publish every day.
But then I was asked if I’d like to do some interviews, and I jumped at the chance. My first interviewee was Robert Palmer. I knew who he was, of course, but I wasn’t a particular fan or an expert, so I was not only worried about stuffing up the interview technique, but also about being revealed as a know-nothing charlatan.
So I did my research. I spent a whole day tracking down and reading every single profile, article and interview I could find online and making lots of notes. I noticed one thing – the interviewers rarely asked him about music. Fashion, videos, the industry, his career, his private life – but rarely ever music. And the one or two times a musical question slipped through the net I thought I sensed flickers of interest from Palmer that the rest of the interviews lacked.
So I decided I would make music the focus of my interview. It felt like a gamble, but it seemed logical to me.
I presented myself at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone – a very upmarket hotel that was kind of intimidating to me.
Mr Palmer arrived with a spin of PR folks. I was his first interview in a day set aside solely for him to talk to the press. It was clearly going to be long day for him – he was professional but wary and, I sensed, kind of preemptively tired of answering the same question thirty times.
We went up to the room he had booked and I took out my minidisc player, with which I was going to record our conversation. He was intrigued by it, and took out his own, slightly higher end machine and enthused about the quality of sound it got, and for a few minutes we chatted about recording tech. He was enthusiastic and a bit of a geek, truth be told, and I could tell he’d rather talk about this stuff than go onto the interview, which would have been fine by me. But eventually he quelled his enthusiasm and braced himself for another round of questions about the Addicted To Love video.
So when I started to hit him questions about music, his eyes lit up, his enthusiasm returned and we ended up having a lively and really enjoyable chat.
When we reached our allotted time, the PR guys stepped in and Mr Palmer expressed regret, which seemed genuine, and said he could happily have kept talking much longer. He knew it was my first interview – I’d let it slip in our initial chat – and he complimented me on doing a good job. I walked out of there feeling pretty chuffed.
A journalist from a tabloid took my seat and I heard them chummily ask him if he’d slept with any of the girls from the Addicted To Love video as I walked out. I felt kind of sorry for him.
At the end of the day my boss took me aside and told me that Mr Palmer’s staff had phoned – he’d asked them to call and say how much he’d enjoyed our chat, to tell my boss what a good job he thought I’d done on my first interview, and to thank me for my hard work. It was far and away the most enjoyable interview he’d done all day, he said.
It was such an unnecessarily generous thing for him to do, I got quite choked up.
He died less than a year later, but I count myself lucky to have met him. He was a proper gentleman, whose eyes lit up whenever music was in the air.
Here’s the interview.
You’ve described your forthcoming album ‘Drive’ as a ‘Gutbuckety Swamp thing’. What does that mean?
Trying to describe something musical is like dancing to architecture, it’s really difficult. But in order to get the feeling across it’s a very raw, bluesy, funk record and I was drawn to it in a very different way. I had an invitation to contribute a track to a Robert Johnson tribute album, and it was the first time I’d done anything like that in my life. I was not brought up with the blues or anything like that, and I really, really enjoyed it. Then I did a project for Faye Dunaway, I did the soundtrack for a movie she did which was set in Mississipi and New Orleans in the ’40s and ’50s. So I did some research and that gave me more information so I thought I’d go in that direction. It was just a lot of factors that came together at once. And the players fell together too, miraculously, out of the sky. I cut it at home and it took on a life of its own, and when we’re done here I’m going back to the studio to do some more.
Why’s that? I read you saying that the album was finished.
It is but I was here with my son, who’s drumming with me now, and this guitarist I’m working with, who’s really something, and I came across a couple of songs and asked the record company if they’d foot the bill for some more. And they said ‘sure’, so I’m squeezing in three hour sessions every night and it’s working out marvellously because when I started I had 50 or so songs to pick from and I ended up saying ‘yes, that’s the lot’. But then I thought ‘oh, I wish I’d done that one!’ So the opportunity came up and I’m doing it because I wanted to be doing the opposite of scraping the barrel. I wondered how many unknown blues tunes I could find that had never been done, but in fact I found a bunch that haven’t. I picked them mostly for the lyric content and the vitality and syncopation of them. Just from the experience of starting out doing two it was a revelation, I’d never thought about it before. As usual with any act, your latest is your favourite and that’s the case for me. Consequently it’s great that it’s tied in with the package that’s all the hits [At His Very Best]. So here’s the story up to date, and here’s what’s coming next. It’s a great plan, to describe the fact that it’s an ongoing thing, it’s not just winding something up. It’s fine as long as there’s somewhere else to go.
You’ve had two compilations come out this year, ‘Best Of Both Worlds’ and ‘At His Very Best, and both feature tracks from ‘Drive’ at the end…
‘Best Of Both Worlds’? Oh, you mean the American double CD. That was a different thing. The major thing behind all of it is that Universal acquired Polygram who had acquired Island which meant that for the first time I had access to all of my material. For all the other things I had to get a license to put tracks like ‘Some Like It Hot’ by the Power Station, and it would take about six months for them to say ‘ok, you can use it’. This time I had carte blanche to pick everything. So the American side wanted to make a definitive anthology which is about 40 or so tracks and I love it, it’s a real good history. But the idea here was to focus more on the songs that had the biggest recognition factor for England because a lot of the songs on the other one were hits in America but not here.
I read that before you went on stage you used to drink and smoke to make your voice sound older…
Oh, that’s a load of rubbish. Rubbish! What happens often – although I’m not particularly a victim of this sort of thing – is that somebody will make a quote, or invent a remark and it gets printed, ends up on the ‘net and it becomes currency. And some of them are so bizarre! Some idiot got generic terms mixed up and wrote that I was ‘white-eyed soul’. Now what the hell does that make me, an albino!? And it got reprinted! Another dreadful one was the story that there was a whole women’s movement against the video for ‘Addicted To Love’. This was some woman in one obscure paper somewhere and it got picked up. Really everyone thought it was a glamorous joke, which is what it was, but that story stuck around. Part of the fun of doing this stuff is setting the record straight. So as for smoking and drinking to change my voice, that’s bizarre. In fact the truth is when I go on tour it’s salads and water in that I can’t sing on a full stomach, I’m too busy digesting. And then when you come off stage everything’s shut because it’s midnight, and I’m certainly not going to eat junk food. So it’s an enforced discipline. The pounds fall off, and then you come off the road and they pile back on! But I’m still wearing the same trousers I had ten years ago… although they’re snug.
So looking back on your career what work are you most proud of and what would you quietly sweep under the carpet if you could?
‘Vinegar Joe’ I would happily sweep under the carpet, but that was my apprenticeship and I didn’t feel comfortable with what it was. What am I most proud of… generally the overview of the catalogue that the new compilation represents. I just think it’s great to be able to fill a CD with songs that most people have heard and that have been in the Top 10. That’s great. Some people people put out Best Of Hits and there are two big songs on it and the rest, well… I don’t want to be bitchy about it.
So the body of work?
Yeah. It keeps me afloat, it gives me a perspective, it keeps me moving forward and I don’t like to repeat myself so it pushes my imagination.
Eric Thorngren once described you as ‘a musicologist above all’, so what are you listening to at the moment that’s turning you on? And what’s making your skin crawl?
Anything by Gonzalez Rubalcaba is unbelievable. I’ve been listening to the best of Django Reinhardt. There’s a new album by Terence Trent D’Arby, who now goes by the name of Sananda Maitreya, believe it or not, and it’s fantastic. A lot of it is too obscure to mention. You see, I get home and there’s packages asking ‘do you want to record this, do you want to produce that’ and I go through it all and I find these gems from someone’s demo in South Africa, or outtakes from somwhere, and I sometimes find wonderful stuff. To some extent it’s a drag because people come over to my house and I make compilations on mini-discs and I put it on and they say ‘what’s this, where did you get this?’. And it’s such a drag that they haven’t heard this great stuff so I’m writing lists down and it’s just because of my enthusiasm for listening to music from everywhere and not having any musical prejudices. Except I don’t like broadway show music, it’s too much posturing and not enough content. Generally, and especially in cities, there’s this homegenised force feeding of what is hip and then the kids take sides. Actually musicians are the worst – ‘I only listen to classical’ ‘Oh, well I only listen to heavy metal’. I don’t like that. I just absorb everything and if it’s good it’s good, if there’s a spirit to it and there’s something coming out of it and I’m entertained. Whereas if I find it merely a package I don’t know what it is they’re trying to sell me.
Tina Weymouth once said “If you think his records are experimental now, he’s been holding himself back”. Do you still have experimental albums in you fighting to get out, or are you conscious enough of an increasingly homogenised market to restrain your more extreme musical impulses?
I always restrain them. My experiments are pictures on the wall at home. My idea is to communicate and entertain with music and audio and some things will just be execises for me to find out how to do something. And then I use what I learn from it in a more accessible way, not to dilute what I’ve learned but to interpret it and make it my own. Such as singing clusters of seconds like the Ukrainian singers and their strange harmony values. So I experiment with it and then I’ll come to a bridge in a song and use what I’ve learned and it explodes. So it’s in the context of something rather than it being my learning how to do it. Because otherwise it’s just the same old same old…
Three verses with a chorus, in and out with a hook…
And that can be marvellous too. With the right melody juxtaposed there’s always something in there. But in order to give something a particular personality then you look for some fresh way to apporoach every bar in order to give it a uniqueness, not to go the normal route. For example I’m on a big campaign to ban thirds. The third note in a chord is what depicts whether it’s major or minor. Rhythm and Blues hardly ever uses it because it means that the melody is free to move between major and minor because you’re not clashing with the third being depicted one way or the other.
Of THAT video you said “I had very little to do with it, I just showed up and mouthed the words for 15 minutes”.
Now, that’s an iconic video, and it was recently imitated by Shania Twain. I wonder if it’s a milestone or a millstone?
Neither. I think that it’s glamorous and funny – funny ha ha, not funny peculiar. It obviously has a sensibility from the photographer who filmed it, who was a stills photographer for Vogue. But on the other hand I’m not going to attach inappropriate significance to it because at the time it meant nothing. It’s just happened to become an iconic look. There’s hardly anything I’ve ever done that’s made me cringe, I’ve got pretty good pitch for a start so I’m not known for hitting bum notes. I think things only go wrong when you don’t care enough and you let things get out of control and end up in a situation where you get egg on your face if you don’t go through with it, but it’s nothing to do with you. So you’ve got to be constantly wary of what’s going on. But then I think you get to a certain point where people get where you’re coming from and don’t lay stupid stuff on you, or if they do it goes straight by and you just go ‘Next!’
Related blog: A year later I interviewed Adam Duritz of Counting Crows