Hot Press magazine: ‘I suppose a shag is out of the question?’
It certainly would, Joe. But you can have a toot on my megaphone if you like! Gavin Friday discusses the finer points of sexual politics not to mention the post-Freudian subtext to his stunning new meisterwork Shag Tobacco with Dr Joe Jackson. Our man in the white coat concluded: Gavin s time has come. But is the world finally read
Rock n roll has finally caught up with Gavin Friday. The same European tide which swept one of his original heroes, Scott Walker, back into the limelight, has similarly helped define a space in which Friday s concept art can breathe, alongside the boring morass of Anglo-American music we call rock these days.
With his latest album, Shag Tobacco, Gavin Friday has also delivered the best four-in-the-morning album this country has ever produced the musical equivalent of a world inhabited by the likes of Joyce, Beckett, Ballagh, Patrick McCabe, post-Achtung Baby U2 and their European soul-brothers, Bertholt Brecht/Kurt Weill, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel as they sit down to sip a cocktail in the late, lamented Mr Pussy s Cafe-de-luxe on Suffolk Street. (Jesus, that must be your longest sentence ever, Joe Ed.)
Not surprisingly, Gavin is buzzing. Largely because he now can say, as loudly as he likes, hey-assholes-I ve-been-walkin -this-path-ever-since-I-discovered-European-art-and-started-the-Virgin-Prunes-nearly-twenty-years-ago . But, partly, also, because he knows his time has come. But then a lot has changed in Gavin s life in the last three years since he released his last album, Adam N Eve with arch-collaborator Maurice Seezer. He s scored his first movie, In The Name Of The Father, gotten married and had a close encounter of the most chilling kind, with death. And that s just for starters. He also feels that pop music, in the broadest sense, has changed for the better, and that he has absorbed some of those changes.
Probably the biggest difference between this record and the last ones, is producer, Tim Simenon, from Bomb The Bass, Gavin explains. As a solo artist I tended to work so far with people who understood my reference points totally. Hal Wilner, who is an avant garde, jazz, New York downtown, a man who understands Kurt Weill, Brel. Flood he s 35, a contemporary of mine, raised on 70s and 80s music. Tim is different. He s only 27, 28 and comes from a totally different culture, having come through in the mid 80s, with rave, dance. And when we were working on In The Name Of The Father, he d say who the fuck is Kurt Weill, Gavin? or why do you listen to Brel, he s French?
With my first solo album, Each Man Kills, I had grabbed onto that Europeanism, like making surrogate godfathers of Brel and Brecht and mixing them with my punk influences. Adam N Eve, that was me spitting out against the Gavin s the missing link between Nick Cave, Thom Waits and Marc Almond idea. I was dead scared of that kind of artistic snobbery and said, with that album, hey, I actually like pop music which led to my delving into soundtracks and working with Naomi Campbell and getting a lot of grief for that! Now there s this album, which is different again.
The grief Gavin received as a result of producing Naomi s debut was based on the assumption that this in some way undermined his credibility .
That s absolute bollix, he asserts, angrily. If Andy Warhol was alive, he d be photographing that woman. She s what the 90s are all about. But the truth is she s also a friend and, as someone who was a megastar at the age of 15, a very intelligent businesswoman. Yet what I really love is the fact that she s a Brixton girl. She d ring up and say I m fuckin dyin for a pint and skull more pints than I d be able to handle, then sits on the street eating her fish n chips outside Burdocks. If that s not street cred , what is?
That said, her street cred didn t help the album rise above its status as, reportedly, the lowest selling album of all time. Gav!
But it s huge in Japan! he responds, laughing. Me and Tim did three songs with her and they then remixed them dreadfully with some beatmasters, though we d said don t do it with six different producers, don t rush it, wait until you re 27 and have given up modelling, then make an album . But, in terms of my input, I kicked all that shite about my losing credibility out the window.
Of much greater significance to Gavin was his first shot at working on a soundtrack. He did the Award Winning In The Name Of The Father with Jim Sheridan and the results were, at times, stunning.
We were working on that far more intensely than Bono and Siniad, he says. Bono was writing words with me, but was in the middle of that Zooropa hell; Siniad just came over and performed her song brilliantly, if I may say so. Yet I was ringmaster throughout it all because Jim Sheridan had told me what he needed in terms of the music for the film. He even said I haven t shot the opening scene yet, because I want you se to write the song first . Tim came in to mix and co-produce, which, as I say, was a real education.
The first thing me and Maurice did with the money we got from the movie was to build our own studio, which means, basically, that in the past year and a half we ve become more craftsmen in that we fashion the songs, and an album like this one long before we go to Island Records to tell them what we ve got. We also don t have that subliminal pressure artists have who don t sell a million records which is, time is money and the money is the record company s. Now, we have this glorious freedom because of that little shed in Dublin, and that s what comes across on this album.
Gavin is using this freedom to contribute to what amounts to a pet project: the Europeanisation of pop.
Europe is becoming European, musically, he says, gleefully. But then what is Americana these days? Nirvana, who are basically the Beatles, or the Monkees on heroin! In other words, we ve heard it all before. But, on the other hand, over the past two years you have Tricky, Bjvrk, Portishead, all of which are European, emerging. Two weeks ago I was at Bjvrk in the SFX and there she was in her red dress made of paper, singing about butterflies floating out of the universe! But what was beside her? An accordion player. And I m thinking, we ve got an accordion player . Then I see the horn player and hear the technology of beats and sequencers but when I close my eyes, I hear Edith Piaf on ecstasy! Her album has a beautiful love song, Possibly Maybe , in which she refers to mon petit vulcan, because she was into Spock when she was seven. And punk. that s not so far from what I ve always been doing in music, so she, to me, is a great symbol of the way music is changing.
Gavin becomes even more effusive on the subject of Scott Walker. Scott has made a 21st century record in Tilt. It s beautiful and even though he s getting hammered for it by certain critics, in ten years they ll see it was as ahead of its time as Climate Of Hunter was in 1984, he says.
And it s not jut the music. The sense of alienation on it is scary. That second track, Cockfighter , scares the fucking shite out of me. That and Bolivia 95 . It s Brecht and Beckett. And if you take away the beats from Portishead they could be Paris in the late 50s. Ask the Tindersticks if they ve ever heard of Bacharach and David, film noir, French classic films if they say no they are liars! Tricky, equally, are very cinematic, very European. All of which gives me great hope for music. In fact, I really believe that it is only by absorbing European influences that music can prepare itself for the 21st century.
But how does this relate to what Gavin Friday sees happening in Ireland?
From an Irish context, one of the most personal songs I ve ever written is on this album. You d really need a thesis on Fionan Hanvey, rather than Gavin Friday, to understand My Twentieth Century ! That s me, at 35, getting this ominous sense about the end of the century, while I sit there, pissed out of my head, in Mr Pussy s at four in the morning, getting all my ideas ready for when the century changes.
Everybody is talking about how Europeanised Dublin is, but I turned around in Mr Pussy s one night and saw that I was surrounded by Mr Pussy on stage, other transvestites, kids from raves, and heard Gainsbourgh on the CD, and thought: this is Dublin, this is Night-town . But it s also what it must have felt like to be alive in the 30s, to be Marlene Dietrich! I ve always had that fascination for culture between the wars and really do believe that Dublin, and indeed Ireland, has that same energy now, particularly in the wake of the ceasefire. That s the Irish context for this album.
Hence the prose poem by Patrick McCabe which is contained in the sleeve notes which accompany Shag Tobacco.
I d read The Butcher Boy before I met Patrick and went wow, this is really Ireland , he enthuses. And the real Ireland in the way the huge fucking cracks are showing in the Catholic Church, for example. Ten years ago I remember coming back to Dublin and ending The Virgin Prunes, after being disillusioned that divorce didn t get in and that the abortion referendum failed. But now our generation, from the 70s, has gone fuck that and is setting about changing things. Now we re going knock that statue down and the great thing is that the holy icons, the religious icons, are not just starting to have cracks, they are falling apart before our eyes! It s fucking great.
That said, surely the key question as we near the end of the century is: with what do we replace those religious icons? Or, as Bono suggested in relation to the themes explored on Zooropa, do we have to learn to live with the uncertainty, the sense of spiritual thirst?
That is the question, yeah, but you find the same desperation in other cultures, argues Gavin. Go to Los Angeles and you ll feel it. I certainly did. I met one guy, and when he sat down in a cafe I said they re very beautiful rings and he said they re not rings, I m into amputation. He had these two things like that woman wears in the movie The Piano. So I said, you mean you have your fingers surgically removed? and he said yeah . And that, to me, was such a potent symbol of how irreligious you can become, s if we ve gone back to Paganism. So, yeah, I have to ask myself, is this the future?
I look at what’s happening here in relation to the Catholic Church and child abuse and have to admit I don t know what we re going to replace religion with. But, Jesus Christ, all that castration of our sexuality has to stop, which is what the Catholic Church has, in effect, been doing for centuries. As to what I ll replace religion with, the truth is that I m still searching. I m still bewildered about what is the big I am , but I don t think it s Jesus Christ, that s for sure.
To me, music, painting, writing, performing has always been about trying to find out who the fuck you are, he adds. And you keep on going because that s what makes life exciting. But maybe living with the uncertainties is the only way. And that brings me back to Patrick McCabe, whose book The Butcher Boy really gives you a sense of all the worms eating away at the heart of Ireland. Then I met him and found that one of the bands that blew his fucking head away when he first came to Dublin, was The Virgin Prunes. He loved us and U2, said he thought thank God, we re coming out of the old Ireland . So, we ve started hanging out together and established this great rapport, even though we come from different worlds, in that he s from Clones and a few years older than me.
But, the real point is that we come from the same Ireland. So, when this album was finished I sent it to Patrick and said it s all about worms. Dublin now is the European night-town. How can we capture this, in that Joycean, surreal, four-in-the-morning sense? And, to me, he really did come up with this piece of writing that totally captures the feel of being pissed at that hour of the morning, leaving Mr Pussy s, going down to the Temple Bar area and being so drunk you fall into a pool of piss and start telling yourself, it s over, she s gone . But then, somehow, you make it home and wake up at seven the next morning and your loved one says where the fuck were you? He created that great scenario and we re now recording a spoken word album and working on a movie, songs, loads of stuff.
The title track of the album Shag Tobacco, is about that familiar late night feeling only with a difference. Gavin elaborates.
Shag Tobacco is probably the most heterosexual song I ve ever written, and the most honest statement in the aftermath of me getting married, Gavin says. It s a love song about coming home late, walking into that kitchen, sitting there having a c of tea, knowing that upstairs is the one I love. And it definitely is me trying to make ordinary things extraordinary, in the lyric. But though the lyrics are fairly straightforward, saying I m going to walk up those stairs into our bedroom, the music takes you on a different journey. That journey is Apocalypse Now: male sexuality is very predatory, so while I m serenading my loved one, the music is having intercourse. And you can feel that in the rhythms. There are a couple of climaxes there! And you do learn, as you get older, that you have to have two, or three orgasms to really satisfy a woman!
A man has to have two or three orgasms to satisfy a woman? Er, surely, she has to have that number of orgasms to be satisfied, Gav?
Oh God, no, I mean she does, of course, he says laughing. But the whole title has those connotations, in shag . I m not a spliff head, but the Dutch are saying Gavin, you re finally chilling out because they think I m saying we should stay in bed all day and smoke dope! To put it poetically, what I m talking about is a post-coital cigarette! And one of the great joys in life is staying in bed, ordering in a Chinese, having a bottle of wine and watching the telly that s chilling out, enjoying those kind of lost weekends, with a lover.
In the album s second track Gavin chills out in another sense, sitting in his bath listening to Caruso, a singer whose records he remembers hearing in his childhood. But why does he namecheck Alvin Stardust s song My Coo-Ca-Choo ? He was into all that moody stuff, with the gloves, hand movements, black leather, (sings) I want the girl, dancing in the red dress . At 12 I loved all that, he says. I ve no problem admitting that I bought Ziggy Stardust and Alvin Stardust! And, in this song, when I say take me back to 72, my coo-ca-choo it s about sexual innocence, those days of premature ejaculation, as in spunk-a-flow, to the joy of my first kiss. Remember when you d be at a dance and some girl d ask you to dance, because you were too shy, then you d get close to her and suddenly spunk-a-flow ! But the innocence was that you didn t even know what was happening that first time!
Gavin Friday also admits that post-showband culture probably also affected him as much as Brecht/Weill and Berlin cabaret did.
It s a subliminal thing, but when I go on tour I call the band Gavin Friday and the Bog No-No, which doesn t come from Brecht, it comes from Big Tom! he says, laughing. It s a parody, but as such I m also openly acknowledging that influence. And even though I adopted the Oscar Wilde persona in the Virgin Prunes, I also now realise I m more of a meat-and-potatoes man, more of a Brendan Behan, which is another part of my background that I tended to deny. And Caruso goes back to my childhood, when I heard his songs at home. And in this song I take the operatic nature of his style of singing, and life, and slide inside that to say I am as much Caruso, Fred Astaire and Alvin Stardust as I am Brecht and those other guys. It s Gavin with his tongue firmly in his cheek, sending up notions of culture, and aesthetic snobbery.
I ve grown more minimalist than ever, as I got older, he adds. I saw Nine Inch Nails in London just before I made this album and it was too much in-your-face. But then I am 35 and my anger is more understated now.