<em>Dark</em>: A Conversation with Martyn Ware, Plus James The Giant's "Two Weeks On The Ocean" Exclusive and Capricorn Studios in Peril

"What I want to do is dark versions of previously happy pop songs," and he said, "You should call it," which I thought was a bit of a mouthful, so I thought I'd call it.
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Photo Credit: Larkin Small

According to James The Giant, "The song, 'Two Weeks on the Ocean,' was written two weeks after my brother, Julian Brennan, was killed in action in Afghanistan. The video started out as my father's project. A few months ago, he told me that he wanted to put together clips that he had of Julian and put them to 'Two Weeks on the Ocean.' When I decided to release the song, I asked him if he would be willing to work on the video. He compiled all the footage and photos and created the first edit of the video. I enlisted the help of photo/videographer Max Silverman to get the shots of me performing on Bernal Hill. Then together with a talented young editor name Julius Doogan from Brooklyn, the two videos were merged to create what you see here.

"Max shot the footage low contrast with the intent that it could be brightened up in post production. However, when I started to work on the cut, I decided the muted/blue feel created a perfect contrast between the sad 'now' of the song and the more colorful and happy 'past' of memory and dream."


A Conversation with Martyn Ware

Mike Ragogna: So let's talk about all things Martyn Ware, but especially about Music Of Quality And Distinction: Dark.

Martyn Ware: Yes!

MR: Martyn, this is the third volume of the series, but there's a theme, as usual. Can you go over what inspired some of these titles?

MW: Yeah, sure. The original idea was that I was trying to think of a theme for the album. The first volume was kind of a manifesto for electronic pop in 1981, the second one was kind of like electronic soul, I suppose. This third one... I was struggling for a while, that's why it took twenty years to think of a reason to do it apart from that I quite like doing it. Then one day, I was listening to "The Night" by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, believe it or not, and I thought, "God, this lyric is really weird." I started thinking, "What would it sound like if we took away the danceability of the backing track and replace it with something really quite strange and soundtrack-y, and I realized that it would force you to reinterpret the lyrics when you hear it. So this became the inspiration. It was this, together with the fact that I've been doing like ten years with my company Illustrious, ten years with kind of ambient electronic music with Vince Clarke. I was trying to incorporate that newfound knowledge into this as well. It was like a "eureka!" moment, really. I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool?" I started going through my record collection and kind of making a long list of songs that would be interesting to approach in that manner and I came up with about thirty. So as I was explaining to Glenn at the time, I said, "What I want to do is dark versions of previously happy pop songs," and he said, "You should call it Previously Happy Pop Songs," which I thought was a bit of a mouthful, so I thought I'd call it Dark.

MR: Nice. As you were reaching out to artists to record the lead vocals for some of these, were there any interesting reunions that occured?

MW: Well, I'd never actually recorded Boy George, he was on our label in the eighties, obviously, and we'd always been kind of friends. I'd actually recorded one of his songs for another artist called Hannah Jones, so I'd met him and worked with him in the studio, but I'd never actually recorded him as an artist. So that was a nice thing, to get together with him and work with him. Some of the people that turned me down, that might be interesting for you. For the third consecutive album, David Bowie, Kate Bush for the second consecutive album, and I asked Martin Fry to take part, and he suggested that we should do "Good Times," which I thought was a really nice idea, so I did a backing track version and I don't think he was keen on it. So we ended up not doing that, but we're still mates and everything. Apart from that, it's mainly friends, some new artists, and people I've produced previously. A mixture, really.

MR: It's also refreshing to see people like Kate Jackson alongside others.

MW: Yeah, well Kate is just tremendous. I think she's a real talent. Obviously, we have a Sheffield connection there. I first saw Kate performing when I was doing an Illustrious installation at the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2006 or 2007...I can't remember. They were playing at the opening event and I was really impressed with them, so when I go the chance to ask her to perform with us. I thought that was just great. Their version of "Picture This," I think, is absolutely incredible.

MR: I was going to ask you about that. You do a Blondie cover, you do a Kate Bush cover... For the most part, you have contemporaries of the time when you were in The Human League. How was it their redoing classics?

MW: It wasn't a deliberate thing. I'm quite agnostic about time. Really, it's about the quality of the work, and it just happened that I think the late seventies and early eighties was obviously a time when I was engaged in the creative part of writing, so I was examining the entire scene a lot more closely then. Also, I'm a big fan of Northern Soul, and some of these tracks are originally Northern Soul songs, so it wasn't really a deliberately nostalgia-based thing at all. I think there's a bigger selection of songs that I really like from the period that we're looking at. I think once you take songs away from their original context, in time, it's easier to interpret them. For instance, if I was going to do a reinterpretation of "Countdown" by Beyoncé, it might be more commercial, I suppose. I think it's a bit too fresh to reinterpret, know what I mean?

MR: Of course, especially when I hear your version of "It Was A Very Good Year."

MW: [laughs] Yeah, that's just a great song. To me, that's in the bag of "eternal and timeless." I think you could play that song on kazoo and that would still be a brilliant song.

MR: [laughs] I think the same fits for something like "The Look Of Love."

MW: Well, many people sang it, but my version was based on the mood of the Dusty Springfield version.

MR: What's great is that you didn't go for mainly hits, like "Every Time I See You I Go Wild" by Stevie Wonder.

MW: Yeah, but that is a fantastic song, I think! To be honest, I heard it first as a cover version by a guy called J. J. Barnes and it was a kind of Northern Soul classic in England. That was the one that became popular. But when I was rehearsing the whole thing, I looked at it and I didn't even know it was written by Stevie Wonder. I saw it was, and it's quite hard to find the original, but I finally found it. What an amazing song. The way he performs it is incredible. So yeah, I'm all for uncovering some hidden jems, really.

MR: Nuclear power and energy seems to be a topic of the era, I guess because of the incident in Japan and beyond. On that topic, you chose Kate Bush's "Breathing."

MW: Well, actually, that was Andy Bell who chose it. Most people chose from the long list, but when I explained the concept of the album to him, he came up with his own choice. So that was Andy who chose that, and then I went away and did the backing track.

MR: Were there tracks other than "Good Times" that didn't make it?

MW: Yes, all these may see the light of day one day, who knows? I started working on "The Night," as well, which never found a home. I also started on a version of "Night And Day," the Cole Porter tune.

MR: That could have been interesting.

MW: It was actually so strange, I couldn't find anybody to play or sing on it. I might do the vocals myself on some of these.

MR: I was just seconds away from asking "How come you didn't do the vocals on at least "The Night?"

MW: It's not really part of the B.E.F. thing, but I hate wasting stuff. Right from the start of The Human League, pretty much everything we've ever created has seen light of day in one way or another. It would be highly unusual for things to just get left on the shelf.

MR: Not to be rude, but are you going to take another ten years before the next volume comes out?

MW: God knows. I don't know. The next thing is that we're writing for Heaven 17 currently, so let's see how long that takes and how onerous the process is or not. It's a horrible thought, I know, because you just want to be doing things for creative reasons, but record sales are so low that it's hard to justify the amount of time you spend on things. This took two years on and off to put together in my own studio at no cost. Nobody got paid advances on the album, all of it was done for the love of the project, really, on the basis of the profit share backend. So the logistics on actually getting this album together was a lengthy business, and an upaid business. You can't just be not getting paid for it. It's also that while you're working on it, nobody else is paying you for anything either. Finally, I was in the situation where I had the financial freedom to do whatever I want at any time, so I'm knocking out a B.E.F. album every couple of years. But we're past the age now where record companies financially support the making of an album like this, particularly things that are a little bit riskier in a commercial sense.

MR: So true. Did any of the bands that you covered on this project inspire you when you were younger? I'm seeing things like ABBA's...

MW: Oh, I love ABBA! Them and The Bee Gees are the greatest songwriters of the seventies and eighties.

MR: Who else influenced you?

MW: What, in general? There are too many to name...where would it start? Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Kraftwerk; a lot of the German bands like Can and Amon Düül II and Faust and Neu!; New York bands like Suicide, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Iggy Pop; experimental music, Zemeckis...how far do you want to go?

MR: [laughs] I think we're good.

MW: There are literally thousands. I have such ridiculously eclectic tastes, it's always been a problem to explain to people the diversity of influences. It can and has throughout my career worked against the kind of grand concept of "Keep it simple" because what I do is not just one kind of genre, really.

MR: I think you and Thomas Dolby did a lot of pioneering with synthesizers and sounds, and definitely, a couple of the best of the era.

MW: Thank you, but it was easy to be a pioneer then, because nobody really had a chance to explore it properly. It's all very well looking at people like Kraftwerk, who, of course, we admired. But they were rich. They had access to personally modified Moog synthesizers and giant arrays of Moog modular synths and just a huge amount of resources that cost a lot of money. It's unimaginable to three poor kids growing up in Sheffield. It's only when the kind of diffusion range of synths started coming out--which was when Roland and Korg started bringing synths out--that it really became economically possible for your average Joe to really start experimenting with sound. The fact that we hadn't had any classical training in music, we didn't go to any kind of music college or tonemeister or whatever; we didn't come from that academic experimental field. We came from, "Hey, can we make the sound of a motorbike? Can we make the sound of a snare drum from scratch? Can we make the sound of a kick drum or a hi-hat? We don't just want to make something that sounds like an organ, we want to create a sound that's never been made before." Our first synth was a Roland System 100, which I'm looking at this very moment, and ironically enough now, I saw on eBay the other day for eight-thousand pounds. It didn't cost that much back in the day, but it cost enough that we had to buy it on hire purchase. So the proliferation of that and also with it being combined with the open-mindedness of the record companies in the post-punk period meant that the record companies were looking for things that didn't sound like anybody else, which is the opposite of today.

MR: "Which is the opposite of today," very nicely said. Tell us about your Sync Summit experience.

MW: [Laughs] Okay, I enjoyed it a great deal, actually! It's a bit of a dry subject. I know Mark Frieser who organized it, I know him pretty well. He's interviewed me before and he's quite a well-respected journalist. We get on really well, and who's not going to like being flown to New York and being put up in a hotel for four or five days? I was more than happy to do that, especially because my good friend Jake was there. We were good friends in the eighties and then kind of lost touch for a while. We were on the same management company in America, we were on the same label in Great Britain as well, Virgin. I spent five days with a very good old friend and reconnected and that's all fantastic. In fact, we're considering and discussing currently the idea of DEVO and Heaven 17 potentially doing some live work together, which is pretty exciting. I think it's a good fit because we're both kind of Iconoclastic...I suppose that's the best word for it. "Iconoclastic." I love that word.

MR: I love that word.

MW: Yeah, back in the day, especially, we were iconoclasts, and to a certain extent, we still are.

MR: By the way, it had to be very rewarding to finally have the debut for B.E.F. back in October.

MW: Oh, that was amazing, yeah! The way it evolved was we wanted to do a one-off show showing off the three-dimensional sound system that I worked on with my company Illustrious with Vince Clarke in The Roundhouse. It was always an ambition I've had. I don't know if you know the Roundhouse.

MR: Yes, I was there this past year.

MW: Well, it's round, and it's high, and it's perfect for three-dimensional sound, so we suggested that venue and then the promoters said, "You're working on this B.E.F. thing, why don't we do a weekend and make it kind of like a couple of shows?" We've got the same band, essentially, but B.E.F. night is with guest singers. It kind of economically made sense, so we did it. It was tremendous and very, very well received. We wanted to do it as a kind of pilot to see, frankly, the interest in, it because it's been a long time since the last one. That gave us the confidence to do another couple of shows to showcase this album and do one in London and one in Sheffield in October.

MR: How fondly do you look at an older project like Music For Stowaways these days?

MW: Oh, very fondly! I love it! It's interesting because in the wake of the split of The Human League, it was important to myself and Ian--and to Glenn actually, as a new member of the creative team--we wanted to, on one side, with MQD1, show the pop future, but on the other side, we still wanted to treat it as a kind of artistic project in much the same way as we did with The Human League when we released The Dignity Of Labour. We did it in six months, I think, Music Of Quality And Distinction, Music For Stowaways. We wanted to maintain that kind of artistic bravery. We didn't want people to think that because we started these new projects, B.E.F. and Heaven 17, that we were going to turn our back on that kind of artistic bravery that was embodied in the early Human League.

MR: And what are your thoughts on Human League these days?

MW: Well, I'm very proud of the first few Human League albums. I've been trying to persuade Phil--we're now on good terms--I've been trying to persuade Phil for the last five years that we should do at least one enormous showcase night in one evening with the original or at least similar slideshow that we used to do. He's not biting.

MR: [laughs] Maybe someday.

MW: Unfortunately, I think there's no role for the girls.

MR: Maybe it's all about timing.

MW: I would love to do it. It feels like unfinished business to me. We performed those a lot live back in the day, and then we stopped playing live with Heaven 17. So I think it would kind of put that part of my musical history to bed once and for all, so I think it would be nice to do.

MR: Human League within Heaven 17?

MW: We do actually perform some of the tracks from the first two Human League albums as part of the Heaven 17 show.

MR: Beautiful. What advice might you have for new artists?

MW: Okay...I'll tell you what I've got. Firstly, approach your work from an artistic viewpoint and derive enjoyment from that. If you approach it from a commercial viewpoint, it will almost certainly fail in the first instance. I suppose if you get into the field where you're a professional songwriter and you write songs for successful artists... But I'm talking about as a performer, if you write your own material. I've always found that if you approach things with an artistic heart without caring whether it sells or not, that's when the interesting stuff happens. You have to take it on the chin, some things. But really, when you hit the motherlode, that's going to put you above ninety-five percent of everybody else.

MR: What does the future hold for Martyn Ware and various projects for you?

MW: God, lots of stuff. Like I said, we're writing a new Heaven 17 album, we're going to be touring next year featuring some tracks from How Men Are--about half of How Men Are--and some from our new writing and our greatest hits. We hope to, next year, go to America as well, and we'd like to do some touring with Devo, maybe combined or maybe not, who knows; it's still in discussion. Of course, the B.E.F. concert's coming up in October. Away from that, with Illustrious, we're going to make some exciting work featuring three-dimensional urban interventions in new commercial and residential property developments and public spaces and world heritage sites. I can't go into detail at the moment because a lot of these are hush-hush, top secret, but it's some pretty exciting stuff. That has really been the creative and commercial thrust of my personal life in the last decade, so this isn't something esoteric although it may appear to be. It appears to be something there is a commercial demand for again based on following the gut feeling that this is the most creative thing you can do. It's like a kind of sonic architecture that I'm pursuing. That and I'm quite involved in various organizations, a lot being on behalf of artists' rights and copyrights, so I'm part of what they call the Featured Artists Coalition in Britain, trying to help in particular young artists figure out how the hell they're going to make money from this extremely enjoyable but sometimes difficult scene.

MR: That ties right into the advice for young artists. You're working behind the scenes for their cause.

MW: Well, I want to. I've earned my money from this business. I couldn't have asked for the timing of my career to be any better than it was. I'm eternally grateful that I grew up commercially and creatively in the 1980s where the music business was awash with money. I've got no complaints. I now have a fifteen-year old son and a seventeen-year-old daughter. Having children has really kind of brought to the front issues that, in particular, teenagers have with creativity and how they can express themselves and make a living out of it. I do quite a lot of lecturing on that, I do quite a lot of public speaking, primarily with a kind of futurology and educational agenda.

MR: Are your kids going to be a next generation, musical Wares?

MW: [laughs] A bit like the Partridge family. They're interested in it because I have a studio in my home and there have always been musicians coming through the house ever since they were tiny, really. But I don't want to push them in that direction from a profession point of view because I think they will derive more enjoyment from it if it's something they really love doing themselves. I think they will evolve and do what they do at their own speed. That's the important thing.

MR: All right, I think that's a nice place to put a cap on this. This has been great, Martyn. Thank you for your time.

MW: Thanks so much! Cheers!

1. Every Time I See You, I Go Wild!
2. Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?
3. Don't Want to Know
4. Picture This
5. Breathing
6. It Was a Very Good Year
7. I Wanna Be Your Dog
8. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
9. God Only Knows
10. Make Up
11. Just Walk in My Shoes
12. The Look of Love
13. Party Fears Two
14. Smalltown Boy
15. The Day Before You Came
16. Co-Pilot to Pilot

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne



Recorded at Capricorn Studios in Macon, GA, this is the latest take away video from T. Hardy Morris' Audition Tapes From Places In Peril series. The project was inspired by the Georgia Trust's annual "Places in Peril" list, which seeks to identify and preserve historic sites throughout the state of Georgia that are threatened by demolition or neglect. For the project, Morris and fimlaker/photographer Jason Thrasher have traveled to these different sites to film a live take away video for each song on his upcoming debut solo album Audition Tapes, out July 30th. In its heyday, Capricorn Studios played host to the sessions of many legendary musicians including The Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels band, Marshall Tucker band and many more. Now the recording studio, an important site in southern music history, sits empty and suffering from neglect.

T. Hardy Morris explains the mission as well. "To be honest," he says, "seeing Capricorn Studios on the Places in Peril list was a big catalyst to see this whole project through. Obviously most of the places on the list don't necessarily have a connection to music. So many classic songs and bands recorded down there in Macon, Ga., The Allman Brothers, Wet WIllie, Charlie Daniels just to name a few, and it's a helluva feeling just walking in the place. Oh to have been a fly on the wall in its heyday!"

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