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Edwyn Collins

Edwyn Collins

Article from Making Music, October 1987


He's been away, but now he's back! back! back! Edwyn Collins has a new record deal, a new band, and a chat with Jon Lewin.

Telling you Edwyn Collins is a nice bloke isn't going to make you go out and buy his records. Maybe you'd be better persuaded if I said he's one of the best writers of pop songs this decade.

And influential, too. Without those early Orange Juice singles on Postcard, few of today's 'shambling' bands would exist. Edwyn's way with a soulful chord progression and a scruffy rhythm guitar has captured the imagination of a whole slew of new bands, most of whom also aspire to a similar unselfconscious attitude towards lyrics.

So if he's brilliant, where has he been the last two years? Orange Juice officially broke up in April '85, and since then, all we've seen of Edwyn has been a couple of showcase gigs.

THE STORY



When Orange Juice split, our hero left Polydor Records. A brief Caribbean holiday with manager/companion, Grace, and then the hunt for another record deal was on. In the interim, Edwyn was living (quite happily) on sources of income from Orange Juice days — royalties and publishing. It was these contacts that initiated the first move, via Edwyn's old publishing deal with Zomba.

"Round about the end of '85, they put me into Battery Studios to do some demos," Edwyn said. "This was great as I got an opportunity to work with some 'technology'. In Orange Juice, practically all we did was put up an ambient mike and record the group; we had a very Luddite approach to recording. I had a bit of an attitude towards technology — I might have been a little earthbound, thinking that the roots approach was the only approach, scoffing at all the groups like Depeche Mode I used to call 'metal mickey music for morons'. Sampling keyboards are just a really convenient way of getting natural sounds. Now I feel, as the old Yamaha ad said, "you're only limited by your imagination."

It was an introduction to Pete Q Harris, in-house engineer at Battery, that broke down Edwyn's resistance to hi-tech. "I was a bit trepidatious at first, but when he showed me round the Fairlight III, I thought it was fantastic. I didn't realise the potential for plunder."

Edwyn translated his portastudio demoes onto the Fairlight Page R. "I was surprised at how quickly that came together — that's something perhaps that inspires a performance — if you get the bass and drums down, you just want to get your guitar out, you've no time to get bored with the song. I sat with my guitar and told the programmer what to do as he put in the bassline."

Four songs were demoed at Battery, and Grace took these around the record companies. Numerous business lunches later, Edwyn was better fed but no better off — apart from a Teac 8-track. "Chrysalis, they're insane. They just gave me £2000 to buy a 388, that 8-track with its own desk. This was to do demoes and the contract was that if they didn't like the demoes, I got to keep the machine. They didn't like them. I was learning how to use the 388 at the time, which might explain it, as I'm not the world's best home recordist."

Two showcase gigs over the Summer of 86 kept the record companies on the boil, but no-one seemed willing to take the plunge. Then in the Autumn, fate at last turned its attention to our hero, in the unlikely environment of Willesden Lane, London NW10, as he sat alone in his car. "We'd had an argument, and Grace had stormed off to a pub. I saw this pair climbing up the hill towards me, and they knocked on the window of the car — it turned out it was Robin and Liz, The Cocteau Twins. Through them, we met Alan McGee of Creation records..."

"Basher'McGee," Grace interjects, "Edwyn calls him."

"...who decided we should put out a solo single. And Robin decided he would produce it."

The song was intended as a one-off on a Warner Brothers' subsidiary, but WEA boss Rob Dickens was so impressed with Edwyn's new material that Mr Collins soon found himself signed up for an album. Paper was inked in July this year and Edwyn Collins' first solo single, 'Don't Shilly Shally', produced by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, was released by the end of the month.



"A lot of songwriters don't take lyrics very seriously, judging from the charts."


THE SONG



Edwyn wrote 'Don't Shilly Shally', his first solo single, just after the demise of Orange Juice, using his 1965 Telecaster, a Drumatix and a TEAC 244 portastudio. "I had this relentless driving rhythm all the way through, with the bass drum on the first three beats and the snare on the last.

"The whole idea of it came with the phrase 'don't shilly shally', which is fairly flippant and irreverent — like a lot of early R&R. I wanted to have an eloquent verse, then the chorus more just for the sound of it, like "awopbopaloobop", just nonsense lyrics. Also it's kind of nostalgic, the sort of phrase you don't hear too often in England, though you do in Scotland.

"There were two guitar riffs: the slightly African country & western one that opens the record was the first, then a descending riff that people have told me is redolent of Wings' 'Listen To What The Man Said'. I myself thought it sounded like Creedence...

"The phrase "don't shilly shally" dictated in my head the way the music sounded. The words came quickly. I can sit down with and acoustic sometimes and get quite passable flow of consciousness lyrics straight off. Often it's nonsense, but if I'm doing a spot of songwriting, I might just go through improvising.

"I wanted to write an optimistic song, an incitement to get up and start working again — I suppose it's pertinent to my situation at the time, but that's not something to get too self-conscious about.

"A lot of songwriters don't take lyrics very seriously, judging from the charts. I'm not being precious, but I'd feel I was selling myself and my audience short if I felt a lyric was perfunctory or crap. I don't have the best voice in the world, but I've got to be able to sing with some conviction, and to do that, I've got to believe in it.

"When I was an art student, I was always encouraged to be observant, and just look at things. When you're a songwriter, or a writer, or a poet, you should do the same, but listen for things, unusual phrases. One of the things that Grace and I enjoy doing is eavesdropping, listening to people that you wouldn't normally mix with. TV is a good source of phrases, and so are eccentrics.

"Once I've got a chord structure I like, I'll run through a song several times and just keep on going through a set of lyrics, picking the best, trying to come up with more inspired things each time, building it up like a jigsaw.

"Before I got the 8-track, I worked with two notepads. One was filled with ideas for sounds or records that I think might lend themselves to a wee bit of bastardisation, and the other would be full of snatches of lyrics. Most all of these lyrics get used in one form or other, as I don't let anything go into my book unless I think it's really good. The third thing I used was a dictation machine. I'd just sing or play guitar and sing the song into that, and that would be the basic song.

"When I got the 388, I thought I'd try a more modern approach, putting down a guitar part, then working another one round that. You get a more contemporary sound from riff-based songs, but the traditional verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure suffers — the song loses in expense of the riff, but the riff and the groove might be good. There seems to be lots of groove, sound-based songs in the charts, and very few good songs."

THE REST



'Don't Shilly Shally' was finally recorded in Robin Guthrie's exclusive Acton studio complex, over a period of roughly a week. "Robin and I played everything, partly to keep the cost down, and partly because I was so familiar with the song. And I wanted the opportunity to record a record on my own, just to see how I could cope without a group, just for experience."

But now there's a new group: Edwyn is playing with bassist Denis 'Blackbeard' Bovell, guitarist Steve Skinner from late period Orange Juice, session keyboard player Alex Gray, and drummer Dave Ruffy, formerly of The Ruts, The Waterboys, and Aztec Camera. This lot are currently in the studio, working on a new song called 'My Beloved Girl'. But what's changed since the last time Mr Collins took a shot at the pop bullseye?

"I've heard it said the music's a lot harder than Orange Juice. The commitment is there, and obviously there's a lot more impetus and enthusiasm, as it's a new project, and new material."

And his new-found attitude to hi-tech hardware? "Up until now, the problem was that all the technology has been in the hands of the only people who can afford it, and mostly they were the same techno bores who were making that terrible seventies music. So lots of indie records sound tinny in comparison," Edwyn explained. "But players of the expensive stuff are usually so unimaginably..."

"That's as maybe," concluded Grace, "but you can't knock success." She paused. "Well, perhaps you can..."


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Guitar Times Table

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Can You Deal With A Disaster?


Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Oct 1987

Interview by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> Guitar Times Table

Next article in this issue:

> Can You Deal With A Disaster...


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