Oranges ripened in the topical sun
the fruit of guitarmanship disclosed
Regular perusers of this publication will, of course, remember Edwyn Collins some are glittering July issue, which featured the handsome Scot's list of eight fave raves. Apart from the happily and entertainingly eclectic selection of music, something else caught my eye – Edwyn being quoted as saying, "I'm one of the best contemporary non-guitarists."
Mr Collins is (naturally) known for things other than appearing in these pages: over the last four years or so, he has been the guiding hand behind Scotland's finest pop group, Orange Juice. The original four-piece line-up of the band split asunder during the recording of what became the "Texas Fever" LP-ette, leaving Orange Juice with the nucleus of Edwyn himself and percussionist Zeke Manyika. Following their Spring tour (using session players and friends to augment the live sound), both have been concentrating on solo work, leaving Orange Juice in the background. Zeke has been recording and gigging with Doctor Love, while Edwyn has released version of the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" with Paul Quinn, ex of Bourgie Bourgie, on singing. But by the time you read this, that will all be history...
After "Pale Blue Eyes", Edwyn, what next?
"It's back to Orange Juice for a while, at least. I've just done a Skinner session for Saturday Live with Paul Quinn - three unrecorded songs, and a cover of that Mike Nesmith tune that Linda Rondstadt did, 'Different Drum'. Paul and I might do another together... I think Alan [Horne, of Postcard records infamy] would rather I wrote with Paul all the time. He has designs on me... on my 'talent', if I may be so conceited."
What particular talent do you feel you have?
I'm a jack of all trades, but master ot none in particular, singing, writing, or playing guitar. I like to think that each 'talent' can enhance the other. "On 'Pale Blue Eyes' I played all the instruments (except organ) and programmed the Linndrum. That song was recorded at home using a Revox and a Portastudio; we put a click-track down on the Portastudio, then took the tapes into a proper studio and transferred it to 24-track so we could use it properly."
Have you ever thought of yourself as a producer?
"Originally we intended producing ourselves, with assistance from Will Gosling, who's worked with all sorts of people like the Thompson Twins. He also engineered on 'Texas Fever'. We started, but it didn't work out for all the usual reasons of our not being able to see things objectively.
"One of the reasons we didn't want a 'name producer' is that we feel there's been so much emphasis on producers that a lot of groups have lost any identity of their own, and we felt we could do it ourselves more sympathetically."
Work is in progress on Orange Juice's new LP, which is scheduled for release in October. The working title is 'Linoleum 3' because it's the third album, and Edwyn likes the word.
"It's about half finished at the moment. We're getting Dennis Bovell in to produce the second half – we've worked with him before on the B-side of 'What Presence' and we got on really well. We asked Dennis because we thought he would augment what we were doing, rather than give us a Dennis Bovell sound."
Edwyn claims that Orange Juice is still very much a unit. Live, he and Zeke will continue using session persons, people like Johnny Britton who played on the last tour. In the studio Dennis and Edwyn will play all the guitars and keyboards, while Clare from Amazulu helps out on bass. The new single has yet to be decided upon; it was going to be "Salmon Fishin' In New York", but that was overwhelmingly rejected by the record company.
"Under the old deal, we had complete control over everything that was released. But we've just resigned with Polydor, a much more orthodox deal, which is probably the biggest single mistake Orange Juice have ever made.
"As happened with 'Bridge', if the company aren't enthused about a single, they won't put any effort behind promoting it. We made them release 'Bridge', and they did zero work on it. Now they have a say, we hope that won't happen... like I was really disappointed 'What Presence' wasn't more of a hit, as I think that's one of my favourite Orange Juice songs. That and 'Falling And Laughing'.
"It's only got two chords in the whole song – just E7 and A7. Actually, the last part of the song to come to me was the title, which makes the tune, I think."
How do you normally set about writing songs?
"There's no fixed approach. I use a little dictation machine to record any lyrical or melodic ideas I have. Maybe the tune comes first; maybe the lyric and melodic arrive at the same time. With the new songs – 'Lean Period', 'Salmon Fishing' – I thought of the title first, then the lyric. I'm willing to cannibalise old songs and ideas for new songs.
"Basically, I just like a good choon – fairly conventional melodies, verse/chorus/verse/chorus, and I like, if possible, to put in a middle eight which lyrically has some twist, or comments on the rest of the song. But lyrically they're not that orthodox."
Do you have a favourite writing instrument?
"I always write on guitar. I've got lots. I've this [the blue Jazzmaster, as featured in the nice photographs by Mr Sheehan] which dates from about 1962. I often use a Gretsch Black Hawk on stage; it's a model below the White Falcon, which it was discontinued in favour of. I foolishly had mine resprayed pink [a Pink Hawk? Surely not...]. But I think I'll get it sprayed black again. I used that on all the Postcard singles, that and a black Burns Nu-Sonic which I picked up for £40. The Gretsch cost me £115 from an old man in Glasgow, who put an ad in the Evening Times — it must be worth over £600 list price, a real bargain.
"I just had those two, till I got interested in Steve Cropper. If you listen to guitar music, you can hear people using Telecasters. So I needed to buy one. I got a blond one from about 1964. And I had an Epiphone Coronet from 1957 that I broke on stage – it just fell off its strap and the neck smashed. Oh, that was a beautiful guitar – sounded shit though. Here's a tip for all those readers out there: always buy a guitar on its looks, that's the first priority. If you get the looks, the sound will look after itself.
"I've got a Fender electric 12-string, the one with the head like a hockey stick. I had a Rickenbacker, but I sold it to Altered Images because I thought it was shit. Anyway, I was told the Byrds actually used Fender XIIs in the studio – but not the ones with the binding!"
But Edwyn, what about this non-guitarist claim of yours?
"Well, I've got another Jazzmaster that I've taken apart and haven't put back together yet (I think I'm going to sell it actually...). My guitars have to put up with a lot of abuse – not so much Pete Townshend, but when they belong to me they have to put up with being kicked along the floor and things. Sometimes, when you're on stage, it's good to take your guitar off, lay it on the stage – I have two pre-amps which I turn right up – then you just kick the strings like this [Edwyn stamped alarmingly hard on the floor] and it practically plays itself. My guitars have to be quite robust.
"At that sort of volume, you don't need to be technically proficient, like Jimi Hendrix... the thing is, it's total disrespect for the guitar, and you really ought to credit the guitar with coming up with some of the melodies itself... I mean, you can't do all the thinking!"
What about amplifiers and effects?
"On stage I have only those two MXR pre-amps. And I always use a Fender Vibrolux, occasionally with the vibrato on. They're really good, so I never use anything else, live or in the studio. Mind you, they do vary from amp to amp; I tried a mate's Vibrolux once and it was shitty.
"I try to get the appropriate sound for the song using just a combination of guitar and amp settings; I'm not sure if I like that harmonised guitar sound that all producers seem to use if the guitar's not distorted. It makes it bright, but not quite... what I like."
Will you admit to any influences on your playing?
"Lou Reed on the Velvet's 'Live 69' LP. That's my favourite Velvet Underground record – I've stolen lots of things from there, particularly for the first Orange Juice. Some of it almost seems to have a disco feel to it. I like Steve Cropper a lot, some of George Harrison's playing with the Beatles, and for rock, Ron Wood and Keith Richards. I can't think of any contemporary guitarist who's any good."
What about the Smiths and Johnny Marr?
"I prefer the Byrds."
Edwyn seems to have a reputation for outspokenness: on the day I interviewed him, 'Melody Maker' published an item by Bobby Bluebell, who suggested (rather unkindly I felt) that Edwyn should have his tongue cut out. When I showed him the piece, Mr Collins just laughed and shrugged, passing a comment on how he has taught them all they didn't know.
"I think the whole idea of high-profile pop stars is rubbish. I was ambitious for a while, just to see what it was like, the 'Top Of The Pops' bit and that... but I just wasn't excited by it, it seemed a facade with nothing behind it. And all the record company pressures increase as you get more successful, which makes it all worse.
"Hit singles are useful, obviously, as it keeps everyone happy, and enables you to carry on; but in the long-term, we don't really bother. We've always been more or less a rock band, apart from one horribly misguided period – "Rip It Up" – when we tried to cross into the mainstream. Although that was a success, there were too many incongruous elements – it was a bit directionless."
But what about all that anti-rock propaganda Orange Juice put about in their early days?
"That? That was done just to wind up the music papers."
Do you enjoy gigging, Edwyn?
"It varies. When you rehearse after a long lay-off, you enjoy all the songs; then you hit a bad patch where you often don't have the enthusiasm for the material to pull you through properly. But usually by the end of the tour you can play everything fairly well, even though you might be more excited by one song than another – you use those to improvise, fool about with – they're the extended versions.
"We always improvise/fool about. Not so much in London though, as we're self-conscious in London. That's more of a showcase. In the provinces and Scotland we've quite often made up entire songs from scratch. No, it's not good – if you'd heard them, you'd be sick! It's just a wee bit self-indulgent."
How much do you rehearse, then?
"Er... not very much. The recent tour was a success though, and that only had three days' rehearsal before we started. You can see the last gig of the tour – the Hammersmith Palais one – on TV in the Autumn, as it was videoed for a Mike Mansfield programme. The soundtrack's great, mainly because I redid most of the guitars, though the miming's good too."
Despite rumours of laziness on his part, I found Edwyn charming, enthusiastic, and almost lively (well, he was only two hours late for our meeting). The idea of his being a non-guitarist is severely shaken on the last LP, "Texas Fever", which I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone interested in music. Time for one last question: do you prefer live work or recording?
"We're very erratic live; sometimes we're great, sometimes we're just depressing. In general, since the split of the last line-up (which I think was for the best), it's been more enjoyable. There are fewer ego clashes. Of course, there's a lasting pleasure to be had from making records, particularly 'What Presence'. Live work is more transient, just a fleeting moment in one's career. But you do remember that elation and exhilaration you get from just coming off stage."
I agree, almost nothing can beat that feeling. "Well... there's always rumpy-pump with elephants."
Interview by Jon Lewin
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