a story of psychedelia
"Paint Your Casio" – the latest blockbusting musical from the ranch house of Julian Cope. Jon Lewin asks about songs and sixties mania. The world keeps its mouth open.
"This new album is going to be called 'Fried', because that's what Dorian – my wife-to-be in September – thinks I've done to my brain."
Despite this gleefully given piece of information, I could ascertain no immediate signs of over-cooking in Julian Cope. He was a little pale perhaps, but then he had been ensconced in Spaceward Studios' darkly-tinted environment for the last three weeks recording for his new meisterwerke.
"I was really happy with the sound on the last album ('World Shut Your Mouth'), but this one's got a few longer tracks at six minutes or so, so it's a bit different – it's good, though," he grinned. "I'm happy with the new songs. Initially there were going to be 11 numbers on this album, but it's down to ten now, as one didn't seem to fit in with the feel of the others.
"Alway on every LP you get a few typical songs, like on this one there's 'Bill Drummond Says', which has the same GACD main chord sequence as 'Passionate Friend' and 'Greatness And Perfection Of Love'. It's the GEmCD of the 1980s, I reckon..."
When I asked Julian how he actually wrote his songs, he leapt to his feet and rushed off to fetch what he calls his "psychedelic Casio", the bizarrely decorated little MT40 you see in the photograph.
"Dorian, Joss (my brother) and I all painted it – it's really great; I do most of my writing on here."
With that, Julian turned the strangely coloured beastie on, and began playing a perfectly recognisable version of "Sunshine Playroom". "Some of the patterns in the rhythm-box are a bit cheesy, but most of them are OK."
Many of the presets on the little Casio sounded familiar to my ears: "Yeah, 'Head Hung Low' – the piano part – was recorded using this. You just plug into the 'phones socket and it sounds fine. Anyway, I'm not that bothered about noise on records, and neither is Steve, who's producing. As to writing, I just mess around with sounds, rhythms, until I come up with a tune and some chords or whatever. I write on the guitar too, sometimes. I've got this Gibson 335 12-string – no, I'd never heard of them either, its uncatalogued as well, that's the amazing thing. I got it in New York, in a place called Manny's on 48th Street.
"The old hippy who was running it kept saying, 'Yeah, man, we've done this and that, serviced it'; I said I wanted it because it was red – I think he thought he was selling it to a Philistine. It sounds great, truly phenomenal."
Julian started his playing career as a bassist, working with Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie, and Pete Burns, as one of the stars in the Liverpool firmament of the late 1970s. But on stage he has recently only been singing, leaving bass to another musician. I asked him if he felt himself to be more of a singer than a player.
"I really tend to think of myself as a songwriter. I'd like to be a better musician and singer, but I'm not... I like my songs, and I wouldn't want to change them."
Do you use any songwriting aids?
"Like a Portastudio, you mean? I tried using one – I've had one since 'Treason', as Warners gave me one as a present for giving them the publishing for that. I did 'Culture Bunker' that period of stuff, and in the end got quite good with it. But I'm just not really technically minded. What we do now is demo the songs in an 8-track in Tamworth, where I live. I usually get things to a demo stage, then leave them – that's as far as I want to get them. I don't want to progress, I don't want my music to progress. The opening song on the last album was a pre-Teardrops song, and there's a song on this album from November 1977. So from that point of view, I really want to keep simple – I love simple songs. C to F, that's what I use most of all nowadays. Most of my songs are in C because of the keyboard."
Julian stroked the Casio. "If there's going to be any black notes, it'll be B flat, because I'm very very aware of B flat."
All through our conversation, Julian had been toying with an old piece of gaffa tape; he now proceeded to unravel this, and tear it into strips with a manic gleam in his eye.
"Talking of songwriting techniques, 'Colly Cibber's Birthday' was recorded like this, using the Casio and its drum-machine."
The lengths of tape were duly stretched over the red-and-green keyboard holding down a three note drone over which Julian played the bass and piano part. "It's incredibly simple. The drone even carries on all the way through the choruses. I've got a huge old harmonium at home, and on that I just gaffa tape everything down, put the Vox Humana and the Tremulant on, pedal like mad, then strum away on the acoustic guitar like a maniac. That's really really good. Yeah, I like Nico," he laughed at my obvious question.
"In fact, I've been playing a lot of bass keys on this album, as I've just found one of those old Fender pianos like the Doors used – one of the small ones – I bought it for £85, and it's never been used. It's got all its numbers, everything, and the guarantee's still in it. It ran out in July 1971. I've used it a lot, and it sounds really good."
Julian's preoccupation with things 1960s was further emphasised when I asked him who else is playing with him on 'Fried'.
"I'm playing lead guitar, keyboards and bass; Johnno (Steve Johnson) is on guitar and bass, Steve Lovell is playing a bit of guitar, Chris Witton is on drums and we've got Donald Ross Skinner on slide guitar and weird stuff. He's only 18 and he's totally cool: he's changed his name from Donald Skinner because he's so into Glen Ross Campbell, who was the guitarist in the Misunderstood. He was a Teardrops fan and he was knocking on my door for six months before we let him in. Then I found out his heroes were Lee Underwood, who played with Tim Buckley and Glen Ross Campbell – and he was only 17 then. I'd like to use him on stage, but I think he'll be busy with his own band."
Following his informed and informative piece for the NME, it's fairly well known that Julian Cope is an almost fanatical devotee of psychedelic punk. It's an influence that shows in his attitude towards simple, direct songs and to live work.
"I just love taking songs apart live, doing really long versions. It's very easy to slip into being Jim Morrison on stage. Did you see the Bunnymen on the Tube – weren't they great? I just wish they were still that raw on record. And Tim Buckley too, all the time. But never Sky Saxon of the Seeds – I'd love to be, but I have to be honest with myself, and I just can't make it as Sky Saxon. Steve the producer wants to be Brian Wilson – he's been trying to gain weight ever since we started the album."
What sort of role does Steve play in assembling the record? "Well, he plays a little guitar, but as a producer he says 'no' occasionally, tells me when I'm talking shit. He's definitely producing – I'd never want to produce myself. He's willing to sit there for hours if the vocal's crap, and make you do it over and over. And he'll sit there after I've finished, while I'm watching TV, he'll be making sure all the sounds are OK. He gets involved, suggest things... I think he's a great producer.
"I'd wanted Tom Verlaine to produce 'Wilder', as I was a big Television fan, but I met him, had a meal with him, but he had no kind of intellectual thing going for anything, or if he did, he just wanted to deny all that. He'd lost that... light... so he didn't produce that LP. His lyrics are just shadows now of what they were, they used to be so pure and simple, like a soul song – really strong."
But Julian, what of your own words? Aren't they sometimes a little... er... obtuse? Inpenetrable perhaps?
"That's all part of approaching music intelligently; I write a lot of songs where I just presume people will know what I'm on about – I don't think you should talk down to people. I really like the metaphysical poets – their ideas and metaphors. 'Bouncing Babies' was a feeling I got from an Andrew Marvell poem – the image of Christ falling hundreds of miles out of the sky. But most of my songs are drawn from personal experience, except when they're analogous to some situation. Though it's most important of all that they sound good, like 'Mick Mack Mock' on the new album..."
He produced from his pocket the recording Walkman he uses for noting down ideas and played the demo of the song in question, the chorus of which went something like "mick-mack-mock-blurgalurgalurganzing zang". Rave on, John Donne.
"Most of the vocals on this record have been first or second take, so we're moving more quickly. I used to double-track all the vocals, but now we hardly do any – maybe one or two lines, and only tiny bits of harmonies. I stilt love harmonies, but I'm just using them less. Even so, I do play most of the stuff on the album, so it's still a slow process. But the studio's amazingly cheap – I think it's my favourite studio."
Aware that with a song like "Mick Mack Mock" I was listening to a total musical weird-out, I asked Julian if he still felt part of the ordinary music scene.
"In a way. What I'm doing is still very much pop music. But I know when we were selling records, I wasn't happy – I'm very happy now. It would still be satisfying just to have one or two people say 'this music's totally far out, we should be getting into it'. After all, the Velvet's first LP, the Barrett albums, they all got terrible reviews and hardly sold. But that doesn't mean Syd Barrett's not the most delicate, wonderful human being ever to exist. When I'm writing and recording, I'm really conscious of groups like the Seeds: one of the only things that keeps me going when the rest of the music scene's so shitty is that I can feel I'm recording things for posterity, so that in a few years time, someone might pick up one of my albums and go 'wow', like I do at the Seeds.
"Sometimes you feel justified in what you're doing through one or two people – what they get out of it. Like this guy in Dallas who got me to do an hour-long radio special, when the last LP wasn't even released in the States. Texas is brilliant, such a bizarre place, I'd love to make sense there."
Julian Cope is an obsessive fan. From his devotion to 1960s punk ("Sky Saxon from the Seeds actually rang me up from Hawaii – wow!"), to his five display cabinets full of tinplate cars and Dinky toys ("I've just bought the most amazing Austin A40 pedal car – it's 5'6" long, with leather seats and all the chromed parts, and the lights work..."), he imbues everything he touches with a particular mania, an enthusiasm which spills out of him and over his records. It is this innocent enchantment that makes both Julian and his music so endearing. Me? I was swayed.
Interview by Jon Lewin
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