Tuesday, 21 July 2020
Spygenius - The Ian Rushbury Interview
“It’s about stuff, isn’t it?” Spygenius get all metaphysical, in conversation with Ian Rushbury
Thanks to watching many hours of The Monkees TV show at a young and impressionable age, I believed for many years, that all pop groups lived together in their own big, dayglo houses. With crazy, pop art pictures on the wall, round TVs and those rather unsafe looking wicker chairs hanging from the ceiling in every room. I was crushed when I learned that most band members chose to live as far away from each other as was geographically possible and communicated exclusively via lawsuits.
After an hour in the company of SPYGENIUS however, it’s very easy to imagine all four members of that band living together in some pop art paradise. They’re currently basking in the warm glow of zillions of rave reviews for their latest album, “Man on the Sea”, which follows not quite hot on the heels of 2016’s excellent “Pacephale.”
Their new, double album is loaded with loveliness, but requires the listener to hold on tightly, as it whizzes through many chicanes from side one to side four. IDHAS caught them on a summer’s evening in early July 2020…
IDHAS: So “Man on the Sea” is a double record. That must mean it’s a concept album, right?
Peter Watts (PW): It’s a bit like “Sgt Pepper”, which wasn't really a concept album because they forgot about the concept after the first two songs and did whatever they liked.
Ruth Rogers (RR): I think of it as four very short albums that were never finished, put together to make a compilation.
PW: We pretended that the last one – “Pacephale” was a concept album. I don’t think “Man on the Sea” is a concept album, but I think it has a sense of thematic unity, if that's not too pretentious. There's a kind of theme that goes through it. You're going to ask me what it is now, and I'm not going to be able to tell you.
We started a monstrous set of recording sessions a while ago and the first stuff that we finished was “Pacephale.” Then the stuff that wasn't finished and some newer stuff grew into “Man of the Sea” so it’s almost like “Pacephale” Part II. Sometimes I can't remember what songs we did in what order…
Alan Cannings (AC): There are songs with a certain nautical theme to them.
PW: There is a nautical theme, but it’s sort of metaphorical. I guess the ocean is slightly redolent of the ensuing chaos of nonexistence and it’s something that I've used a lot in song writing over the years - nautical metaphors left, right and centre.
The album contains some songs which are quite recent compositions and some songs which are much older. It's interesting to draw them together, so from the listener’s point of view, the album is a work which comes out at one moment, but for us, it’s the product of a long history of song writing.
RR: It’s about stuff isn't it? (group laughs). Some of the stuff is old and some of the stuff is new. And some of it is about mortality. Actually, in some way, all of Peter’s songs are about mortality. He's a laugh a minute, honestly.
PW: It starts off with a track about kidding yourself and it ends with the music for the departure lounge for people flying off to the pearly gates. It spans that kind of territory.
RR: You're not making it sound like much fun.
IDHAS: Isn’t that a bit dark for a typical collection of pop tunes?
PW: The thing you do with song writing, is you take horrible things that torture you and turn them into jolly ditties that people can sing along to. You try and hide the real content in the lyrics. To the public, it’s a nice, singalong tune, but you’re venting your spleen and clearing your soul of all the horror that lies within.
AC: These songs are extremely catchy, but there is a dark element to them.
PW: And in one case, the word “arse” - that's in “Cafe Emory Hill.” We thought we'd sing “arse”, but sing it harmony - in a round, no less - in order to increase the use of the word “arse” in popular music.
IDHAS: Bands often use double albums as a punctuation point – “Tusk”, “Physical Graffiti”, “London Calling” all signified the end of one era and the start of a new one. Can you say the same for “Man of the Sea?”
RR: Yes, because Pete’s run out of songs.
PW: That's it, basically. What we've been doing since Spygenius got together in 2006 is writing new stuff and also working through my back catalogue. There are some songs left over, but they’re terrible. So, the next album is going to involve exclusively working with new material. It’s also going to be recorded slightly differently, because everything we've recorded up to now has been built up, piece by piece, in the studio.
Spygenius 6 will be much more about recording basic tracks live in a room. We did a few sessions a while ago for IDHAS. They were kind of an experiment, but they went alright, especially when you consider we were all very, very ill and streaming with colds. I had a really bad ear infection, too, but we got away with it. It’s kind of the end of an era and we’re not really sure what is going to happen next.
AC: I’ve written some songs, but I'm not going to play them to Pete.
PW: That makes it rather difficult to contribute them to the recording…
IDHAS: Because this album is so eclectic, did you ever consider keeping similar songs together and releasing them as “The Powerpop Album”, “The Nautical Album” etc?
RR: I've got an answer to that. I thought that doing a big double album was an awful idea! I thought we could eke these tracks out over a few years, but Pete really wanted to do the double.
Matt Byrne (MB): You think everything’s an awful idea. What made me laugh was when we’d finished “Pacephale”, we all thought, “how are we going to move forward?” “Where are we going to find the material?” Then all of a sudden, we're doing a double album!
PW: “Man of the Sea” was supposed to be released within a year of “Pacephale” coming out.
RR: A year was a little optimistic.
PW: We wanted to create something which had a kind of wholeness to it, even though it might take you in lots of different directions. The second Buffalo Springfield album had a huge impact on me. In terms of styles, it’s all over the place, but it all hangs together. A lot of that is down to the track sequencing which makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
RR: Sequencing “Man of the Sea” was a bit like inviting people to a wedding reception– “where are you going to put Uncle Bob and if you're inviting him, then you've got to invite such and such…”
IDHAS: Like “Pacephale”, “Man on the Sea” has some incredibly striking artwork – in the era of the download, you seem to be clinging to the album as an art object.
AC: Joe Champniss does a marvellous job on the artwork for us.
MB: I'm in awe of him. The detail in his stuff is incredible.
PW: Back in the eighties, I was in a band called The Murrumbidgee Wailers and we had 500 copies of a single, “Giving Way to Trains” pressed up. I don't know how, but twelve years ago, someone played a copy of this single to Joe Champniss and he really liked it.
A few years after that, he tweeted a part of the lyric of that song and Ruth happened to come across it. We got back to him saying "hello, that's us!" That song has just been released as part of the C88 compilation that Cherry Red has just put out.
MB: He did an animated video for a track called “Autoclave”, before we even knew him - it just turned up. We didn't know anything about Joe and we were pretty bowled over as you can expect.
PW: We started chatting to him and it seemed that we had a sort of alignment. We both have a mutual love of the Bonzo Dog Band, which was one of the things we bonded over.
RR: Joe is an artist and it works well when we give him free rein to do what he wants. We give him some ideas, but he's not directed to do things.
PW: I’d always liked the idea of working with someone visually. It was Joe who came up with the idea of our logo, a panda called Satchmo. He appears in the cartoon strip in the Big Stir ‘zine. I tried to convince Joe that he really wanted to make a full-length animated film about Spygenius. He wasn’t keen, because he clearly knew that it would be an enormous amount of work, which he'd have to do on his own. I didn't want to drop the idea as it sounded like fun.
We started speculating about who the characters might be in a similar way to Robert Crumb's “Fritz the Cat”, and one of the characters was Satchmo panda. The film idea was turned into a storybook, and Satchmo has been with us ever since.
RR: Joe’s also come up with some bizarre merchandise ideas. He made an image of me, looking like something from a James Bond film and I joked with him, saying he'd made my backside look too big, so he responded by changing the image to make my chest massive and giving me enormous, collagen lips.
He then put that image on a mini dress and made a mock-up of it, so now there's a website where you can buy this dress with a picture of me, looking like a cheap, 1960s prostitute all over it - just because he thinks it’s funny.
IDHAS: Alan and Matt – spill the beans: what’s it like working with a couple?
MB: It’s not like Spinal Tap. It's fine. (Aside) call me later when these two aren't around.
MB: It's OK, it works. It's handy really because when we have to make decisions, we only need to ask one of them.
AC: We do get the occasional sulky silence every now and then.
PW: We regard Matt and Alan as a couple – we’re like Abba.
MB: A pair of old married couples.
IDHAS: So, you agree on everything then?
RR: Not everything - I can't stand XTC.
AC: We still like her even though she doesn't like them.
RR: Pete put all their albums onto my iPod and I really tried to like them, but every album just sounded slightly worse than the one before it. It's the sound. The only thing I don’t like about XTC is the way they sound.
MB: They don't really move me, but I'm working on it. But that's what makes a band interesting. We all bring our own influences to the table and it changes what you are. If you're all into the same stuff, then what's the point?
IDHAS: Can you agree on who’s making good music in 2020?
PW: Blake Jones, Bobbleheads, Plasticsoul, Armoires, Amoeba Teen - basically everyone who’s on Big Stir.
AC: Nick Frater’s doing some great stuff and David Devant and his Spirit Wife are due a new album soon.
RR: I can't remember the last time I bought an album by a famous person, apart from Paul McCartney.
MB: I still like Muse - I like the bombasticness, but I've got a bit bored by them recently. Matt Bellamy is an unbelievable talent. I'm a massive Ben Folds Five fan - I love their first album. It's from 1995, so I guess it's not exactly current.
PW: All the music that we like, eventually appears on IDHAS, really. There's good music around, but I don't find the charts that interesting anymore.
And on that note, it was time for bed. I can’t confirm that all four members of Spygenius ran up four separate staircases which led to a single bedroom, sort of like the Beatles in “Help”, but I bet they did.
Then, they all read comics until 10 o’clock and then all went to sleep, like a slightly dysfunctional version of “The Waltons.” If the next record isn’t a bitchy, kiss ‘n’ tell magnum opus to rival “Rumours”, well, I’ll eat my hat.....and yours as well. Nighty night, boys and girls.
You can buy Man Of The Sea on Double Album or CD from their label Big Stir here. The Vinyl contains artwork of real beauty in a gatefold sleeve.
The Digital Download can be listened to and bought at Big Stir's Bandcamp site here. The band's back catalogue can be bought and listened to on their own bandcamp site here. You can find out more information on the band and their discography at Spygenius's Website here.