Late in 2011, I interviewed Lawrence of Felt/Denim/Go-Kart Mozart for a retrospective piece in Uncut, which ran in the January out December issue. Lawrence is a great conversationalist and an interesting sort of person to hang around with for an afternoon, so he generated quite a lot of material, not all of which was within the remit of, or could be accommodated in that published piece.
This, then, is a bit more of an informal take on things, which has a bit more incidental detail about my meeting with Lawrence, and features his responses to my questions at rather greater length. I’ll put this up as several posts: an introduction and stuff on what Go-Kart Mozart are doing now, a couple of bits on Felt and a last bit on Denim. There’s a Felt Q&A at Rough Trade East in London tonight, so it seems timely to do this right now.
The very beautiful new Felt photo book (with text by Lawrence) is available from www.firstthirdbooks.com
When Lawrence answers his intercom, he tells me that rather than letting me in to come up to his flat, he will come down to meet me.
“We’ll go and get a cup of tea and take it back,” he says as he strides into a nearby café. Lawrence orders a large tea, into which he places several sugars. “I haven’t got a kettle,” he explains. “First I didn’t have one because I was poor but now I don’t want one. My friends, it drives them mad, they say ‘I’ll buy you one, Lawrence.’ But I say, ‘No, don’t!’ Because then you drink tea all day and all night, whether you want it or not, don’t you?”
But what about in the summer?
“In the summer, I just don’t have any cereal,” he says.
Up in Lawrence’s flat, which is in pretty much the same work-in-progress condition as we see it in Paul Kelly’s great Lawrence Of Belgravia documentary film, he tells me that he’s been having problems with getting people in to decorate for him. One decorator painted the walls in his lounge, but fell out with him when Lawrence noticed that she hadn’t painted between the pipes that feed the radiators. He explains that this would drive him mad, as he lives at floor level (his TV’s on the floor; he doesn’t have a computer because of the cables they can entail, which would be in his eyeline) and complained.
“She called me a snivelling little cunt,” he recalls, evenly. “A big butch lesbian. Then she got her stuff and stormed out.”
Lawrence’s flat is a strange mixture of very neat (interesting objects are displayed prominently; his records are all in proper boxes; his collection of music papers are meticulously sorted) and jarringly untidy (he has newspapers taped over the windows; his balcony is ankle deep in cigarette butts), but it’s a comfortable and pleasant place to spend time. He puts an LP of Del Shannon playing in the UK at a working men’s club on the turntable, has a last cigarette, and then we start the interview. Lawrence sits in front of me on a stool, paying extremely close attention to what I’m saying. He even makes notes – for my benefit.
What’s the idea behind the new Go-Kart Mozart album, On The Hotdog Streets?
Lawrence: I wanted to do a grand Go-Kart Mozart album. I used to say we were the first B-side band, and what I meant by that was after the trials and tribulations of Denim, which was big budgets, big studios, tough going, I wanted to do something that was carefree. When you go into a studio to do B-sides, you let yourself go, and you come up with great results usually – people love B-sides. So it was a B-side band, but after two albums of doing it like that and recording in people’s bedrooms, which I hate, I thought I can’t do this again – I must show that Go-Kart Mozart is a legitimate operation.
I hate this lo-fi recording at home in your bedroom. It’s just wrong, for me. I want to be in a big studio in a big city. When I made that last one, most of it in a bedroom, I was demoralised.
I sold myself short, if I’m honest: there wasn’t really a grand plan for Go-Kart Mozart but I thought in the beginning I’ll do three albums and see what happens. So I thought if this is the last flourish of Go-Kart Mozart, then I’m gonna go out on a great big one, show this is a band worth following, and worth putting on the back of your jacket. It took a long time to put together – I was calling in favours again, but grander favours. I was in studios…it’s horrible, asking for favours. I’m never doing it again, but I wanted to say this band is worth something. So I put together all my best songs together, put them in the dustpan, and we did the lot of them. There’s 30 tracks. What’s happening is, 17 are coming out in On The Hot Dog Streets, to be followed by Mozart’s Mini-mart, a 10” LP – it’s like a cut-price version.
Maybe you don’t fancy spending your money on the full thing, if you’re a young kid, then maybe you can say “Maybe I’ll have a go on that.” I’m a marketer, definitely. It’s like if you walked into a supermarket and there’s only Go-Kart Mozart products in it, and you’re trying them out. When you see the sleeve you’ll know.
Hot Dog Streets I call the big album, it’s rock songs. The other one is like electronic pop songs. For this there’s no protesting – I’m trying to appeal to everybody, lyrics that are acceptable to everybody, there’s lots of girl songs on there. But having said that, they’re not the standard girl songs, so I’ve tripped myself up on that one. There are love songs, but they’re not tender love songs. People should be able to get into them. It’s about living today – the hotdog streets, it’s every street in Britain, about life today: relationships, a tough world. It’s not like a Play For Today or anything. There’s no concept, but the songs are still relevant.
But you also do jokes?
On The Hotdog Streets… It’s the end of Go-Kart Mozart, in a way, unless we get in the charts – I’m not a mug. But if it does what my records usually do, I think we’ll wind it up. I think I’ve invented this thing called Novelty Rock – like bands of the future will say, “We play Novelty Rock”. This is Novelty Rock, but it’s serious Novelty Rock. The Mini Mart will come out, and it’ll have the funny stuff…Well, not funny – it’s not The Goodies or anything. But there’s such a thing as serious novelty. It’s tip-top recording, it sounds very expensive. I was trying to do it on no budget but make it sound expensive. It’s the last days of Novelty Rock.
So how does novelty rock work?
It’s a novelty song with a serious theme – that could be a love song, a serious affair. It’s like, “Why bother following someone like Tom Verlaine? You put all that effort into it and they just end up like everyone else. It’s a drag. You may as well like a one-off novelty record. The trouble with a novelty record is that the lyrics are no good. They aren’t serious enough – I wanted to combine the two. An example would be “Drinking Um Bongo” which is about Rwanda, but in the form of a novelty song – it hits you on the head in the second verse. It’s to try and give the genre some depth, so it can be exploited by future generations.
We’ll do anything to promote this record, hopefully for a year. If people are not ready for it, I’m not an idiot, I’ll put it to bed for a bit, wait for them to catch up. I did that with Felt. I am patient, but I don’t want to do that again, go on and on and on, waiting for people to catch up. Put it in the drawer and come back to it later. I’m itching to do something else – I’ve done this Novelty Rock. Like if I did it next year, I think people would be sick of it. If I was a fan of me, I’d say, “Don’t do that, Lawrence.”
What will your next record be?
The next album that I’ve written is a singer-songwriter album. It’s not James Taylor or anything – but I love that genre. I love the simplicity of it. The artist, and their songs. It’s introspective and maudlin. I’m years ahead of myself.
When I get to a certain amount of songs I go, “That’s an album”. Some people have great songs that they never put out. There’s no songs “In the can” as they say – I use them all. I start thinking “That’s the first track…” It’s all plotted. When you realise you’re on to something like Novelty Rock, you start tailoring things for that – it was like I was in the Brill Building.
I don’t have any dips in quality, but Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen have these periods where they’re just no good. I guess in my career people will say “He had these terrible days with Go-Kart Mozart, but now he’s back with a singer-songwriter album…”