A bit of a longer post to finish up the Felt section of this Q&A. Hope it’s not too tiring.
This is what led you to titles like Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty?
Lawrence: John Peel called it “the worst album title ever”. I thought, wow, he doesn’t like my stuff. It’s good in a way, because it meant I was doing something. I wanted him so much to like it, because I knew how important he was. But I felt the words were different to anyone. I wasn’t hiding, I was willing to stand up and be counted for it. I was proud of them.
I wasn’t copying my heroes, I was doing what I was told to do when I read their interviews, like: ‘absorb us, learn from us, and do something different.’ I wanted to add to that rich tapestry, and if you were going to copy someone, you’re never going to be counted, like the people you loved. I hate copying people. At school, I wouldn’t want to have the same shoes as everyone else.
Lawrence shows me an exercise book in which he has transcribed a sweet and clever poem about a tortoise that he wrote when he was a child. I say to him that he’s got very neat handwriting, to which he replies something like, “If you think this is neat, you should see my best…” As with the Scooby Doo play he wrote when he was 8, mentioned in Paul Kelly’s film, you get the impression Lawrence is still pleased with, or maybe even consoled by the idea of having been a promising child.
In this book is the first poem I ever wrote when I was 9. We never used it in the film.
What were your aspirations for Felt?
For me I wanted to be in a group that released lots of records and Cherry Red were able to provide that outlet for us. I felt like I signed to the A&R man, Mike Alway, a great A&R man. They were structured like a major, but came on a post-punk version of one, eclectic. We didn’t have meetings with the label. I did what I did in Birmingham, and sent it down to Mike, but I think he tired of it pretty quickly. We were left to float on our own, which was good, really.
This was quite esoteric music – how successful did you really think you’d be?
Every record we released I thought was going to be a hit – every album, Album Of The Year everywhere. Each single we released, I thought was going to be a hit. “Penelope Tree”, that’s a chart record, “Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow”…that came close. The original idea with that one was to get Ivor Raymonde to arrange it for us. We met him, he was doing a gig at the Hotel Metropole in Birmingham – we knew him because his son was Simon from the Cocteau Twins. We said, “Will your dad arrange us – can he make a hit for us?” Simon said he hadn’t worked with anyone for years, but he came out of retirement to do Felt.
We met him in a hotel, he had the arrangement that he’d worked out with him, everything – but Cherry Red wouldn’t pay for it. We thought that was a hit, but we didn’t get a chance to do it. The version that came out was a pale imitation. Each record was a hit to me, and each album would give us more and more credibility.
You did start to write less abstract, more personal stuff, though, didn’t you?
After a couple of albums of poetic kind of stuff, I wanted to develop and write more normal kind of songs. I was working at Birmingham Rep and I was a cellarman. That was my last job and when I was there I heard Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” on the radio, and I just went, “what is that song?” – I went out and got it, the B-side to “Lay Lady Lay”. This song, it changed the way I wrote songs. It opened the door I was able to go through. To write about girls, which I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it.
It’s such a concise song about an exact emotion, or experience. And that just opened the doors for me. The lyrics, the brevity. The construction of it – it had a middle eight. I thought, now I want to write middle eights. Before, I was like, “Joy Division don’t write middle eights; I don’t write middle eights.” And it’s the most beautiful middle eight I’ve ever heard. It was a lesson in song construction, and how to put a simple emotion in a beautiful setting. That took me on that path. I think I write three sorts of songs: an abstract song, a relationship song, and a topical song. But in Felt, after a couple of years I wanted to broaden out so a song could tell someone something aswell, to empathise. To say, gosh, I had the same with my girlfriend – to connect in the same way that banal pop record on Radio 1 used to as a kid. You’d see girls singing it in the playground, and you’d think, “Why are they singing that, it’s crap.”
When you get to Ignite The Seven Cannons I’ve got it, you’ve got songs like “Black Ship In The Harbour” and “I Don’t Know Which Way To Turn”…really normal titles for me. I thought, “I’ve done it.” It applies to everyone. I thought, I’m marrying the two strands together, and I can do both. It’s easy to write imagery. The hardest thing to write is something succinct thing about a relationship.
How far did you plan the arc of your career?
I said I wanted to do ten albums in ten years – I told Nick Gilbert, I told Maurice and I told Gary Ainge and none of them mentioned it ever again. When we formed the band, it wasn’t just a group, it was a grand gesture, there were so many other things it was going to be. Many ideals came with it, right down to small things like Maurice wasn’t allowed to use Sunburst plectrums, lots of things to do with clothes. There was a kind of rulebook that went with it…
Right up to the ten albums in ten years, whether we’re number one or not, we’ll split – and it’ll be better if we are number one, because then we’ll be the best group to ever come out of England. We talked about that for about half an hour, then they went down the pub and forgot all about it, because that’s the sort of people they were.
It wasn’t until the last year when I thought “It can happen”. It nearly didn’t because Alan McGee (at Creation records) wouldn’t put out the last album in 1989, he said, “I haven’t got any money until January”. It’s like: “Aren’t you listening to what I’m saying?” So I took it somewhere else.
And then you could split up?
We were doing it at the best time ever because the whole music thing had changed. It was the Stone Roses and the La’s. My God, that opened their eyes big time. I said to Gary, “Good job we are splitting up – we’d be finished”. Two brand new ways of doing independent music. We felt old fashioned for the first time ever. They looked so new, and I was wearing my Tom Verlaine shirts. I had a New York aesthetic and I felt old-fashioned for the first time. I saw the La’s and it was like, “This guy’s a genius…”
We said to Alan and whoever, “We’ve got to do a tour”, and after all them years, our agent managed only to get six dates. That’s how much interest there was. It was like “Thank God it’s over…” And I know, people will pick up on this in the future, but at the time people didn’t care. But I wasn’t bothered because I knew, this is one of the greatest stories in rock ‘n’ roll. They’ll know about it soon. It’s a brilliant story – but I knew we were dead in the water, but we’d done something so special – no band has ever existed for a decade.
How did you work on Felt’s music?
I would write all the songs and present them to the group – they’d come round one by one, Maurice first. I never told him anything – he’d put his stuff on top because he’s a genius. We’d sit there for hours working on one bit of guitar fill. When Martin joined, I’d have more of a vision: “I’ll have a solo there…”
I look at songs like graphs. It’s a shame we couldn’t continue that lineup (with Maurice and Martin). Me and Gary had the same taste, and we’d talk about these musicians who were quite brutal characters. I was drilling these people to do what I wanted. If we were driving somewhere, I’d be talking about the music I loved – a way of developing the music and trying to get the best out of everybody. Thing is, if you play with people with Maurice and Martin, not very much can go wrong.
I’m the director of the film – it’s all mapped out. That’s why I’ll say “Songs coloured in by…” Like the songs are pictures I’ve painted, but I’m not good enough to colour them in. And you don’t want to do everything yourself. There’s only a few good megalomaniacs who make records. You’ve got to share – music is about sharing, it’s about the interaction of people in the group. It’s not just about someone barking out orders.
How did an album like Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death happen?
What happened was, I amounted a lot of instrumentals. I thought, “Wow, gosh, this could be an album. (i)Forever Breathes(i) was written before (i)Snakes(i), but I had all these instrumentals, and I thought “That’s an album…” They’re all there, they’re ready. We could do them all in a few days on an 8 track, as I was sick of people putting reverb on my stuff. I don’t anyone in a career has done that.
Or Train Above The City, which you’re not even on…
The whole concept is mine, but I’m not good enough to play on it. I had all the titles, and I say, “This one I want to be like New York in the middle of the night…” I had it all mapped out, but I just wasn’t good enough. The album is all keyboard…and when you’re in there with Martin, I just couldn’t compete. I thought it would be a lovely thing if you had a record where the main guy in the band isn’t on the record. I was there, and I nearly took writing credits, but I thought that would be cruel. I’ve got to give them something. I can’t. It was a way to show people that it was a group, and that I wasn’t a megalomaniac.
There’s never going to be a Felt reunion?
It’s to do with sticking to your word, I want to be that person. I like to picture a kid who’s mad on my group, and I say I’m not going to reform it, and he tells his friends. Music’s serious – I want to be that person, that fans can say, you don’t have to worry about Lawrence, he’s not going to reform Felt. Most important, I’m an artist, I want to do new things. Painters don’t go back and paint their first painting again.
Is it about not letting them down, young people?
I love kids, young people who have ideals. Something happens when you get to a certain age, people get married, have kids, and move away from music, their whole artistic vision goes down the drain. I see it all the time, and it saddens me. It always happens, now it’s happening to my generation. I get it, it’s life changing, but they lose the naïve innocence, the seriousness of music – it doesn’t seem serious to them any more. I think I’m trying to prove you can get older and still have the same convictions you had when you were 15 or 16. Maybe that kid I’m talking about is me. I’m fascinated by it. You’ve only got responsibilities to yourself.