'What are this spring's colours?' asks ultra-fashionable Richard Walmsley
Talk Talk sing about life, love and The Colour of Spring. But they're terse and tetchy when they talk turkey.
Talk Talk are one of those bands. Yes that's right, one of those bands that send NME journalists away wondering what the hell they're going to write about, and why the hell the band wanted to do an interview in the first place.
A difficult band then. Not impossible mind. Compared to The Cocteau Twins for instance, they are amateurs at the game of baiting journalists — you just have to know a few tricks that's all.
Basically, Mark Hollis, Lee Harris and Paul Webb. They formed in 1981 and have released nine singles and two albums in this country (at the time of writing.) If their names have now become part of the household it's because of the success of the single Life's What You Make It off their newest album The Colour Of Spring.
Talk Talk have been described as a one man band, owing partly to the fact that Mark is a 'multi-instrumentalist' playing piano, keyboards and guitar, and also because he writes all the band's songs. It turns out that drummer Lee Harris and bass player Paul Webb are quite happy describing themselves simply as the rhythm section.
Listen to any one of Talk Talk's albums — The Party's Over, It's My Life or The Colour Of Spring — and I'm sure you'll agree, it's not Rock and Roll. Nevertheless, they know a few R'n R tricks: the slouch in the chair, feet on the table and the constant nervous sipping of cans of beer whilst being interviewed. It's in great contrast to their music, which is searing, soaring and sensitive almost to the point of neurosis.
They've also got opinions like stone walls...
"I prefer keyboard orientated instruments," begins Mark, launching into a pet subject. "But really the Piano is the end of the day for me. I don't think anything has come close to the piano in terms of its feel, or its sound, or its appearance."
...and memories like cotton wool...
"Apart from piano, I also play Hammond Organ, melodica, and this other thing which is not a sort of blowing thing, it's this sort of weird instrument. It's called a Variophon (reviewed in the Dec '82 issue of IM). You can get a few of them, and each one sounds different. It looks a bit like a melodica but it don't sound like a melodica; it sounds right weird."
An idea commonly held, is that somehow genius transcends mere technical details. The B Movie genius therefore affects a cheerful ignorance of the tools of his trade. Are Talk Talk consciously untechnical in their approach to music?
"I'm just untechnical, full stop," says Paul, the band's first and last words on the subject.
Mark Hollis's songwriting is not done on his own. He writes all the songs with Tim Friese-Greene, the producer who began working with the band on It's My Life, and who is now an integral member — as producer and co-songwriter — of Talk Talk.
What is it about him that appeals to Mark Hollis?
"He lends me a lot of money, basically."
"His only problem is that he's not very interesting to talk to — unlike us. He is, in fact, one of the most boring people I think I've ever met actually. He actually finds things like bus timetables a great source of conversation — which don't honestly interest me that much. I think I could honestly say without any fear of contradiction, he's the most boring person I've ever met. Except for a girl I once knew who worked in a light bulb factory."
Perhaps this is an attempt to wind up another politely smiling journalist?
"If you don't believe me I'll give you his phone number and you can talk to him for 10 minutes."
It would seem odd to have a songwriting partnership with someone you think is extremely boring.
"To talk to him he is frighteningly boring. But to work with in terms of writing he is less boring. I actually think that because of my natural flare... and charisma, he sort of tapers me out a bit. He understands more about technique than I do. I'm like the scummy part of the co-operation."
Not only are they distant towards the music press, but they further tempt fate by expressing an enthusiasm for, and an influence from, 'classical music'. Now that's what I call unhip.
Whilst Paul and Lee aren't actually that keen on it, Mark himself admires composers like Delius, Debussy, Berg and Shostakovich. He's not been to a music institution as such, but he has received piano lessons. The 'classical' influence, however, does not come through in a technical form — it is a purely spiritual influence.
It's My Life has enjoyed enormous success on the continent, and a fair amount of success in the States, so that for the first time Mark was able to use real string orchestras and real choirs for his large scale arrangements, instead of relying on synthesisers. One thing Mark certainly doesn't share with his classical idols is a tendency to use notation for his music... or does he?
"We sort of worked out the string arrangements between us. I didn't write them down. Perish the thought. I don't think music's about that."
So how on earth does he manage to get a 25-piece orchestra to play what he wants?
"I just sort of sing it to them; play it to them. It's nothing unusual, I mean lots of people have worked that way. Lots of people like... like..."
"Bach?" interjects Paul.
"The Sex Pistols."
As a matter of fact the arrangements for My Way were done by Simon Jeffes.
"...er, You got us there. Some of it is written down, and some of it is not written down. I work through someone else for that. My interest in classical music has nothing to do with all that. In fact the only thing I wrote down during the course of the album was something that went "Dear Timmy, I think you are the most boring person I've ever met in my life, Regards, Paddy Hopkirk." And the thing he wrote down when we were doing this orchestral stuff was "Get it right chums." But all the rest we just sung it to them. You see we all believe that spirit is the most important thing — more than technique; get a lot of gins down your neck and you can't go wrong. What about people like Delius? He never wrote things down..."
He did, and when he was no longer able to, he used an amanuensis called Eric Fenby.
"Did he? John Lee Hooker, he didn't write it down though?"
John Lee Hooker is a different kettle of fish.
"Oh, he's not though is he? Cause he's music; he lived music."
But Johnny Lee Hooker didn't have the same technical requirements for realising his music.
"But technique is not the important factor in music surely? So why should Hooker be different from Delius?"
Because he was dealing with an orchestra instead of a guitar.
"What if it was er... alright. I give up."
Mark's attitude to learning scales etc while learning the piano is less confused.
"I think it's like sculpture. All you need to make a sculptural work of art, is someone to say 'This is yer mallet, and this is yer tool'. In the same way with a teacher, I think all they really need to say is 'This is a piano, the black notes sound better than the white notes'. To me the most neglected thing that anyone's ever told me is that the black notes sound better than the white notes. I think that is much more important than learning scales."
Which of course doesn't help if you're a guitarist.
"But of course like I say; to me there is only one musical instrument apart from the voice of course, which is the piano. I think aside from that everything else is downhill. You get things like the Kurzweil which is supposed to have good piano sounds. It ain't a question of sound. It's a question of the way the notes feel. It's the fact that it's mechanical not electronic that's important about it."
"It's a fact that we have to use synthesisers for touring, but aside from that I absolutely hate the things.
They are an economic necessity, but aside from that I think they are disgusting things. The whole point about acoustic music, is that it concerns itself with feel, so it can never fail, because what music concerns itself with above everything is feel. I mean you can MIDI a fucking piano up now, but that's all a piece of shit innit? Because the moment you transfer from something mechanical to something electronic you no longer have the feel there."
Acoustic music and its virtues is one of Mark's other pet subjects. He's not even bothered by the modern trends towards sound 'perfection' through electronic means.
"Acoustic sounds aren't as bold as electronic sounds, but I don't think that matters. I think a lot of the sounds that we've got on this album are extremely pox. I think they sound very cheap, but I think they all have character and I think that's more important."
The only 'modern' technique they have tried is ambient miking.
"Well that's the B side of Life's What You Make It. That was just one mike up in the top of the room. It was just tambourine, drum, piano and organ."
"We also used that sort of thing for the next B side," adds Lee.
"That was just one mike over the drum kit and one for the piano; just two mikes."
So what kind of mike did they use.
"A big one with a big blob on it..."
Talk Talk were most adequately summed up as far as I was concerned by a photographer who had spent the best part of 20 minutes trying to stop Mark Hollis from ruining a pose by sticking his beer can in front of his face. When he heard their record on the radio he said, "I can't believe that there is actually any talent there."
Certainly it would be nice to say there wasn't. But it wouldn't be correct. Talk Talk sell albums by the shipload on the continent and their music bears little relationship to their boorish manners.
The fact is, Talk Talk are a remarkable example of the thin border-line between genius and sheer cretinism.
Interview by Richard Walmsley
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