Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Interview: Dr Robert of the Blow Monkeys

Interview by Charlotte Lunt

Remembered for their 80s chart success with hits such as ‘Digging your scene’ and ‘It doesn’t have to be that way’, The Blow Monkeys have reformed after an eighteen year hiatus with a darkly powerful single ‘The Bullet Train’ out now, and imminent album ’Devil’s Tavern’ (currently available to pre-order through their web site).

Prior to their return to Stoke on Monday 1st September, some 20 years since their last appearance in the city, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to the band’s self-effacing frontman Dr Robert, about their music and return to the stage after such a long break.

Although he has dipped beneath the mainstream radar since the band split in 1990, Dr Robert has been far from taking things easy…

I’ve released eight solo albums over that time. Although a lot of them haven’t been high profile, it’s been important to me to put things out every couple of years for the hard-core people and occasionally it’s risen above the parapet. As well as doing bits of production for people like Beth Orton and playing bass for Paul Weller, I moved to Spain out of London. I’ve carried on making music all the way through, but not always at a high profile. It helps to keep a high profile but to make the music is the main thing and that’s what I do. You’ve got no control over how many people buy it or how many people get to listen to it, but for me it’s important to keep playing live and keep putting music out.

Obviously there were reasons for splitting up in 1990. Looking back, if you’d been asked if you thought the band would ever reform, what do you think you would have said?

No Chance. There was no nastiness; we all got on really well; there were no court cases or anything. We’d been together for 10 years at that point and we’d done 5 or 6 albums; it felt like the right time to branch out. Everybody was starting families and had their different interests. There was no animosity. We are like a family actually and when we got back together it was amazing. I wouldn’t have predicted it 18 years ago.

One review describes Devil’s Tavern as ‘melodic glam-jazz’. In your words, what can we expect from this new album?

I think it’s just Blow Monkey music; it really sounds like us. I wanted to make something that was just the four of us sitting in a room playing. In the 80s production values were different and I think it’s dated. The whole idea of getting back together was about making a new record; not just go out there and play all the old hits. It had to be some thing new. We all flew over to Spain and recorded in a friends studio. I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done to be honest.

I suppose I had a preconceived idea of what I was going to hear and what I heard wasn’t it. For me, that was very exciting and it shows the many aspects you draw on with regard to your musical style. There’s a striking diversity in the 4 tracks that I’ve heard on the media page. How important do you think it is for artists to embrace different styles in their work?

It’s not that calculated; it just tends to be where I’m at at the moment in terms of writing. I’m always composing really. I guess there’s a lot of influences plus the sort of things I’ve been listening to in my writing, but when we get together as a band it becomes something else; and that’s what I’ve enjoyed; being part of a band again really. When I’m doing solo stuff I get musicians in or friends and other people which is lovely, but being part of a band is a different vibe and you get a different spirit on the record. It’s nice being in a band again for a while, it feels good.

It’s clear that your passion is creating new music. Are you hoping to attract new fans with these releases?

Yes, I’d love to. I know that’s a hard one because you come with a bunch of preconceptions and I expect that we will get some flack because bands are re-forming - everyone’s doing it. But I think that once people have heard the record they’ll change their minds a bit. I’m not trying to blow our own trumpet, but it’s a good record and it’s quite hard to knock. If you make a good record then, if people get to hear it, new people will get into it as well. I’m hoping that that‘ll happen. If they get a chance to hear it then it won’t just be the old fans, hopefully we’ll pick up some new ones. I mean, my kids like it so that’s a good start.

Having not shied away from political comment and observation in your music, is this something you would advocate other musicians to do?

All I would say is that people who say music and politics don’t mix are talking out of their arse. If they want to do it, it’s fine. I always thought it was a great opportunity to sing about things. You can sing about anything. In the 80s especially I think it was more polarised; you were either for or against. It’s a lot more difficult now. If I were a young band looking to say something, I don’t think I would be aligning myself to a political party.

How do you feel about music being censored?

You can’t censor music; that’s ridiculous. They banned a couple of our records, but we weren’t exactly a threat to democracy.

Can you identify the influence that your music may have had on any current bands?

Not really. I think maybe occasionally; in the way we used to look and the humour we had in some of our videos. I see certain little bits and pieces sometimes. I’m sure there are, but it’s not obvious.

Who are you listening to at the moment?

There’s a young guy called Sub-stance who’s done a great remix of ‘Bullet Train’, and my daughter is a real indie kid; so I’m exposed to a lot of music through them. I’ve been on an archaeological dig musically for the last 18 years. I got into a load of old music and blues and went all the way back. I got into that American float music. I love all that stuff. There’s a world of music to discover and it’s not just about what’s out there this week. I think music at the moment is quite exciting. I like bands like MGMT. I quite like what they do and also the Klaxons. It’s quite different. Although they look terrible, they make great music. Some of them are getting a bit too close to New Romantic for me… I’m not having that (laughs).

What do you think of the mainstream media fixation with finding ‘new music’ and the effect this has on more established acts?

I think it’s good. I think it just makes it a more even playing field. The whole music industry is on the run anyway. We raised the money to make this album through the internet. It’s great because it means we didn’t have to go cap in hand to some major record company and that we had complete freedom to do what we wanted to (I mean, we always did anyway). It’s just nice. It’s like a little cottage industry and I like that. I think that music suits that more than the multi-national thing.

With Stoke being the second date of the tour, are there plans for a more extensive one later in the year?

Yes. This is like, let’s just get out there… and we wanted to play clubs again, not big academy gigs and all that stuff. We haven’t played for 18 years and I quite fancied just getting out and playing clubs just like it was when we started and I’m looking forward to that.

With such sincerity about his work, his band and their fans; and his enthusiasm surrounding the reforming of The Blow Monkeys, the date at The Sugarmill promises to be good one, not only for established fans, but also for those who are prepared to have their preconceptions challenged. It’s rare to have the opportunity to see such accomplished musicians in such an intimate venue, and if the few tracks I have heard from the album are anything to go by this is one night not to be missed.

The Blow Monkeys are at the Sugarmill, Hanley, Monday September 1st.

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