Sunday, 23 August 2009

INTERVIEW: Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn


an interview with
BEN WATT & TRACEY THORN
(collectively EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL)

They’re now known as the Dance Duo responsible for
‘Walking Wounded’, ‘Amplified Heart’, and beyond, plus
high-profile Club anthems and cross-overs with the likes
of Massive Attack, Todd Terry, and Deep Dish...
But when I met Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn they were
impoverished students making acoustic music
on the outer limits of Indie Folk…



Midway, the gas fire gutters and dips low.

“Have you got a ten-pence, Trace?”

Trace hasn’t. So I dig deep.

“This is dreadful. Every time someone comes to interview us we wind up getting ten pence’s off them!”

This exchange occurs in a dishevelled ground-floor flat in the unfashionable end of Hull’s bedsitter-land. The bell-push tag reads ‘BEN WATT & TRACEY THORN’, it’s in newsprint lettering cut out of some article about them. Hopefully the anonymous journalist responsible got HIS ten pence on expenses! Ben and Tracey, a warm and unassuming couple, have such sexual chemistry that between them they’ve got a virtual domination of the British Indie chart. They carve out a quarter of the tracks on Cherry Red’s ‘Pillows & Prayers’ sampler album, and at one time hogged the top three places on the album lists above the heavyweight likes of Sex Gang Children, Box, and Danse Society. Some future Pete Frame ‘Family Tree’ researcher will go cross-eyed attempting to unravel their various mob-handed vinyl identities, line-up permutations, and inter-relationships. He might start with Tracey’s hits as one-third of the Marine Girls (“Beach Party”, “Lazy Ways”), her solo ‘A Distant Shore’ (Cherry Red Records, 1982) album, through to Everything But The Girl’s haunting “Night and Day” single. Then he might begin another life-line down through the “Summer into Winter” EP – Watt and Robert Wyatt, Ben’s solo ‘North Marine Drive’ (Cherry Red, 1983) album, to neatly intersect back at the EBTG’s “English Rose” contribution to the ‘Racket Packet’ tape-compilation. I am, in fact, interviewing five chart acts simultaneously!

Yet in this era of strict tribal denomination, their plaintive, reflective, acoustic sound seems almost the antithesis of what’s decreed hip. It doesn’t fit preconceptions. Those conditioned to think in terms of consumer groups and marketing zones might wonder who buys their records anyway?

“We were thinking about that last night,” muses Ben, deep in an armchair, in brown hat and black denim. He sits forward, nudges the trilby to a more bizarre angle with the heel of his hand. “Tracey gets fan letters, and I get the odd one. It just seems that people who buy our records buy the same sort of records we do. Things like Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Young Marble Giants. But we get people writing saying they like Joy Division and Cure too. Also, it’s sad to say this, but I think people just see us as the ‘next new thing’ in the Pop Press.”

“It’s infuriating when the press keep dragging Folk in” agrees Tracey. “You only have to pick up an acoustic guitar and to the press you’re Folk. Basically I’m Folk only ‘cos I can’t play! I get very few letters from people who actually think of me as an ‘Old Folkie’, although I DID get ONE from an American hippie this week. He said ‘I can sin-cerely say that I rilly re-late to your music’.” Her mid-Western accent is impeccable. So far, so convincing. But their image-less image still sits at odds with the rest of the trend-riddled scene. They seem so normal, they don’t even have this week’s hair-style!

“I don’t know, what IS this weeks Indie hair-style?”

“How about this?” says Ben, whipping off his trilby like a punch-line, and ruffling a spikey jet-black barnet…

--- 0 ---

An obvious place to start, in hunting an explanation to the acoustic revival is to search up roots through their choice of non-original material. Why does Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” turn up on Ben’s solo LP ‘North Marine Drive’? To those weaned on the seventies generation of Rock surely he’s an embarrassingly burnt-out relic?

“Dylan was the first Punk Rocker,” announces Tracey. “His early LP’s are just incredible. Not musically Punk, but just their whole attitude.”

“He was brilliant then – around 1961-‘64. There’s that mixture on the ‘Freewheelin’’ LP of really funny, witty, ironies; and a lot of love songs; then some serious stuff like “Masters of War”. Sure, a lot of records from the late sixties and seventies were a load of crap. I only chose “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” (from Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’) ‘cos it’s a good song. It wasn’t meant to say ‘I’m into Dylan in ‘74, or whatever’…”

“I was brought up thinking Dylan was just an old hippie” expands Tracey from beneath her exploding shock of black hair. “In 1976 you weren’t allowed to mention his name. It’s only over the last year or two I’ve been able to take the man seriously. You’re brought up in a tradition of what is acceptable – and Dylan wasn’t. So I had to find out for myself that he’d done things that were valid. Like John Lennon – to my age group he was just a hippie. Then you go back and discover he was at the fore-front of some of the most exciting stuff ever.”

Again Ben retrieves the narrative. “When you’re young and the only music you know is post-1977, and you see pictures of John Lennon walking into a white mansion covered in black fur and a big floppy hat, you think ‘WHAT’S GOING ON?’ But if you actually go back and LISTEN. Some of that first Plastic Ono Band LP is vicious.”

There are other covers – Tracey does Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale”, and Everything But The Girl do Getz/Gilberto’s “Girl from Ipanema” as well as Cole Porter’s ‘Great American Songbook’ “Night and Day” from 1932, a song more usually associated with Frank Sinatra, but also done by U2 and…er, Ringo Starr. The problem, to Ben, is that “when you choose to cover a song everybody wants to relate you to wherever that song came from. But we’ve picked songs from so many different periods we’ve tried to escape that.”

To present a moving target? “We’re just picking good songs. We chose “Night and Day” but it could easily have been something else. With that record we weren’t trying to recreate the forties. When it was released it got caught up in the ‘New Jazz Scene’ by default, everybody thought we were, like, the new Cocktail Set, which was a load of crap.”

Instead, Tracey suggests, their method is “like Matilde Santing, the Dutch Jazz Singer. She’s just brought out an LP which is all cover versions, she does a Beach Boys song, then some old jazz standard, then an Isley Brothers thing. It doesn’t matter where they’re from – she’s just picking good songs…”

--- 0 ---

In an atmosphere where Hull University is being Government penalised for accepting too many students, Ben and Tracey are taking Drama and Eng. Lit. courses between their vinyl commitments. The impedimentia of both trades stack the half-lit room, guitar cases, a book of John Donne poems, records (the Gist, Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ EP, the Jam), posters and kitsch. Above the guttering fire there’s a carefully assembled montage of photos and clippings; the back-view nude Siouxie in Gestapo hat, sea-side Holiday-makers, a promo. Leaflet for the Centre 42 Big Band (led by Ben’s Dad!), various monochrome snaps of Ben and Tracey, individually and collectively, in various locations. Inevitably you think of the albums and the references within…

A line occurs on ‘North Marine Drive’ where though parted, ‘your record’s the only one I play’, then, on ‘A Distant Shore’ Tracey wonders about the things ‘that made you write those songs’. Do they write songs for each other? Ben acts cagey. “In the actual line you quote it was just ‘a record’ that was given to me. It doesn’t mean somebody’s personal record that they’d recorded themselves. People have said in reviews ‘this song is about Tracey Thorn’, but…”

“…but people just want scandal, gossip,” cuts in Tracey lasciviously. “When I brought out my album no-one had any idea who it was about. Since then we’ve done EBTG gigs, and people start thinking ‘Ah-ha – there must be something happening here!’ And if they can get a bit of scandal into their review more people will want to read it. That’s what people are interested in.” She laughs. Sings an accapella chorus of ‘Is she really going out with him?’

The most recent Everything But The Girl dates were at Ronnie Scott’s legendary Soho Jazz Dive, sharing a bill with Weekend. With searingly accurate wit they dedicated a version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Harder They Come” to a certain Paul Weller, who’d come along to renew an earlier association. “We played with Paul Weller at the ICA” explains Ben. “That was just something that cropped up. Something we wanted to do on the spur of the moment, so we did it.” There was some talk of Weller producing future EBTYG sessions, but inevitably the press inflated the tenuous link out of all proportion. “People were going along to Marine Girls gigs expecting Weller to come on stage. It was absolutely unbelievable.”

“And I still get letters from people saying ‘come and do a gig at this little Club in Nottingham… and, by the way, bring Paul Weller with you!’ As though I carry him round in my pocket all the time.”

We start talking, instead, around their own compositions, and things start to go a little silly around the edges. About accusations of over-sensitivity, of ‘drippy love songs’, Tracey – “That makes me angry. People accept those things from me because it’s alright, girls can cry. Girls are supposed to write about love because they don’t know about anything else”. Ben – “That’s an area where I’ve suffered, being labelled as the new wimp-Rock and stuff. My voice isn’t particularly soulful or black-orientated. It’s very English. But that’s just the way I sing. The voice I have goes in the particular tradition of singer/songwriter. I attempt to get away from that tradition as far as possible, although obviously – playing just on your own – it’s very difficult. Basically, I’d like to think that we are trying to make records that move away from trends. Hopefully make LP’s that last, and that people will listen to in ten, twenty years time. Perhaps that’s a bit ambitious but I think the ‘great song’ is timeless. Look at “Night and Day” for example.”

“Look at “Anarchy In The UK” for example” sabotages Tracey.

Ignoring distractions Ben extends the theme by referring back to media hipness decrees. “What tends to happen is that you get all these bands walking down the same street – then every now and then someone will dash off down some interesting alley, and trendy papers send out their journalists and herd them back to the correct path. They say ‘No, you gotta go down this road here’, because this is the ‘Folk Road’, or this is the ‘New Jazz Road’. When perhaps we’re just trying to do things we want to do rather than what people are telling us to do.”

Laudable sentiments. Although it’s true that Ben Watt has yet to write his own “Night And Day” – or indeed, his own “Anarchy In The UK” – his recent songs, like “Long Arcade” and “The Big Divide”, which he premiered at a London University concert with Pale Fountains, show a considerable evolution. And the growing power that gradually reveals itself on repeated plays of ‘North Marine Drive’ suggests that the Press has been unfairly harsh on his work, and unfairly premature in dismissing him. The best, just conceivably, has yet to come. But in the meantime, glancing back at the holiday shots on the chimney-breast, thinking of the black ‘n’ white photos of Bridlington harbour, the deck-chairs and the sand on the album sleeves, why the lyrical pre-occupation with Marine phenomena?

Ben shrugs. “We’re just totally obsessed with the sea. It just happens to be a particularly strong…”

“…perversion with us all” laughs Tracey.

“It’s a really good image to choose. It’s just a powerful image for a lot of things.”
But it’s used as a recurrent motif, and not in any of the usual poetic analogies for, say, timelessness, oceanic sexual oneness, crashing orgasmic waves, murky hidden depths, etc. Tracey tackles that. “If you pick an image and have it running through a book, or an LP, then that’s just the way it is. It’s structural as much as anything. To criticise its presence is largely irrelevant. Obviously though, we can’t go on with it. I’ve recently been writing songs, coming up with lines about the sea, and thinking – ‘NO, NOT THAT AGAIN!!!”

Finally, is there any deliberate titular cross-over between the Marine Girls and North Marine Drive? Ben. “No. It’s just coincidence.”

Tracey. “It just so happens I thought of the name ‘Marine Drive’.” She dissolves in laughter.
I leave, ten pence poorer, but an amusing and enjoyable interview richer, which seems like a reasonable exchange.

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