Clapham Common, London, 1984
BEFORE DURING AFTER
‘Before During After’ marks the definitive Woodentops retrospective, including re-mastered versions of both studio albums, ‘Giant’ and ‘Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway’, as well as many previously unreleased recordings. Wherever possible the material has been re-mastered from the original tapes - which themselves had first to be lovingly restored by an oven baking process overseen by lead singer Rolo McGinty. With a sound propelled by jungle rumble tom toms, Latin cowbells, woodblock skulls, kicks and snares, The Woodentops hugely anticipated debut ‘Giant’ hit the indie charts No.2 spot upon its release in 1986, the adoption of ‘Why Why Why’ by Ibiza’s nascent Balearic scene unexpectedly and briefly putting the band at the vanguard of the 80s / 90s indie / dance crossover scene. What follows here is an exclusive interview with Rolo that shines a light onto the Woodentops world of the period 1982-92. 3
CONTENTS AN INTERVIEW WITH ROLO MCGINTY: - EARLY DAYS P.05 - ROUGH TRADE P.10 - GIANT (1986) P.13 - THE LIVE SHOW P.16
- THE EMERGENCE OF CLUB CULTURE
- WOODEN FOOT COPS ON THE HIGHWAY (1988) P.22
- TOURING AND AFTER
Before During After by The Woodentops is part of One Little Indian Records Totem Series. Totem Series is all about uncovering great lost classics, rarities and oddities from the archives of One Little Indian Records and its associated labels. For more in the series visit totemseries.co.uk.
: Indian.co.uk Published by One Little Indian Records
New York, 1986
AN INTERVIEW WITH ROLO MCGINTY HOW DID THE BAND MEET? I had an association with a band called The Jazz Butcher who were an indie band of the time and I knew the singer and his then girlfriend pretty well from when we all lived in Oxford. I was living in London, doing some work as a bass player with a few bands. I had written a few songs and needed a band to play them. To be honest with you, I didn’t have a huge amount of confidence in the songs to begin with and it didn’t seem right to be seeking proper musicians so I just went to friends who could play. Alice the keyboard player from the original Jazz Butchers had moved to London so she played keyboards and a friend of mine from Oxford Simon Mulby, who I’d know from school, played guitar. It took quite a long time to find the right drummer and bass player but that was 5
the core, the three of us. Then Simon decided to move to London as well and we all lived in Clapham, within walking distance of each other. We invited Paul Hookham from the rockabilly London scene to join on drums (’82-’85) and I gave a few bass players a hard time (being quite a good one myself in those days!). YOU WERE A BIG PART OF THE ART SCENE THAT WAS COMING OUT OF THE ARTIST PANNI BHARTI’S WAREHOUSE IN CLAPHAM IN THE EARLY 80S. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT? I had done some videos with Panni at a warehouse in Brixton which was where they did Iggy Pop’s ‘Dog Food’ video, The Pop Group were in there too I remember that day.. It was a bit of a mad house. Then a second mad house sprung up in Clapham Junction. Panni’s own building opened up. She let us use a spare room there as a rehearsal room. Someone else was fitting it up so I’d go in and help out with the soundproofing which ended up meaning that we could rehearse pretty much for free. We’d go in and rehearse all day, every day. The Woodentops started in that warehouse in Clapham Junction and rehearsed like it was a day job. WHAT ELSE WAS HAPPENING IN THE WAREHOUSE AT THE TIME? There was a cassette magazine called Touch which was an early 80s experimental art and cassette magazine that came in a package together. People doing stuff for that, there were artists who were from the community of album cover designers like Assorted Images dropping by. There was some recording happening in there too, although it wasn’t a recording studio as such, people would just assemble what they needed, turning up with tape recorders and stuff like that. Very much pre-computers, around the time of the Portastudio, there was big Tascam 4 or 8 track knocking around. Everything was really rough, analogue, and bulky. Also films, and soundtracks for films were being made there. You’d go in there one day and there’d be someone in a loin cloth lying down with lights shining on them and sand being poured on them through the light and being filmed in Super8. Also a lot of artwork was assembled and then photographed so you might go in there one day and there’d be a whole cardboard cut-out town and then the next day there’d be a Woodentops cover as a 6
Rehearsal room, London, 1984
model ready to be photographed. Stuff like that. “Could you guys hold a sec? I’m trying to record something upstairs!” You would hear that sometimes. It was always great to sit around in the yard there. Our music was the soundtrack of the whole building as we rehearsed non-stop. You couldn’t really escape it! Actually the other day Panni told me she was chuckling to herself recently when out of the blue she remembered the day we played ‘Why Why Why’ - all day. We stopped for lunch and to everyone’s horror launched back into it after we’d eaten! The room was semi-soundproofed so they couldn’t tell that actually we were learning to play the chorus and sing at the same time. All they heard was the bass and drums with a sort of cacophony on top. WHAT WAS INFLUENCING YOU AS A WRITER AND AS A COLLECTIVE AT THE TIME? 7
Music like Suicide, Yello and Kraftwerk, Can, James Brown, and - oh yes - Grace Jones! Actually, I would say that our original template, if there was one, was that we were trying to play electronic, syncopated, super tight music with junk store instruments, because that’s all we could afford. People have written about us and said “They took punk’s D.I.Y. ethic,” and that’s right, we did. We developed as musicians not because we could play scales and stuff like that, but because we obsessively worked in playing really in time so that our music would do it on the dance floor. We considered ourselves to be, in an old time way, a swing band - we were there to make people dance. So we’d just keep the songs going and going until the whole place was jumping. YOU DEVELOPED A CUSTOM DRUM KIT WHICH REALLY GAVE THE BAND A DISTINCTIVE SOUND. WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR THAT COME FROM? It came because I found a set of locust heads (skulls or temple blocks). They look like insect heads, you find them on really old-fashioned drum kits from the 30s and 40s - they make a ‘pop’ sound when you hit them. We had a set of three which we fitted on a stand and somehow, with those woodblocks on, the drum kit looked really different. Instead of a rock drum kit it had that sort of old time dance floor kit look to it. So we noticed that and worked on it some more. If you go to the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill they have a really old swing era drum kit and that was the direction we were headed in. It’s got all the percussion skulls and it’s just designed for the dance floor. So it grew and pads came in, we started picking up Mercedes Benz hub caps off the street, putting bugs on those so they could trigger samples and mic them up as well. So yeah, we always had a lot of energy about the drum kit. HOW DID YOUR FIRST SINGLE ‘PLENTY’ COME ABOUT? I was involved with bands from Liverpool way before The Woodentops. People used to look for musicians through ads in the Melody Maker and a lot of people met through that. It was the nearest you got to an online situation in those days, a real focus for musicians. So I went to a couple of auditions and one of them was for Teardrop Explodes. I actually very nearly got the job, however the result was that I became friendly with Julian Cope and Dave Balfe and slowly got sucked into the Liverpool scene. I joined The Wild Swans and we supported the Bunnymen and the Teardrops. 8
Zoo Music were the first people to put any money into my songs. They gave me a publishing deal, which gave me enough money to buy the equipment I needed to start the band properly. That’s when ‘Plenty’ came about, because Dave Balfe produced it himself and put it out on Food Records which was his new thing. AND MORRISSEY GAVE IT ‘SINGLE OF THE WEEK’ IN MELODY MAKER? Yes Morrissey gave it ‘Single of the Week’ and then shortly after that The Smiths came to see us play at Dingwalls and took us on tour. They threw us off about four dates into it though! WHY WAS THAT? We were trying to get to the next venue on time and we passed them on the motorway. They were all asleep but as we whizzed past them Jonny Marr looked up, saw us and we all kind of nodded and waved. Morrissey was a bit slower to lift his head and as he turned to look at us, we hit a bump in the road and swerved a little bit towards them. Not much, just a little bit. Morrissey got really scared and angry afterwards. He thought we were being irresponsible but we weren’t, we were just going past. When we got to the venue he was fuming and that was it, he threw us off the tour. The Smiths at that point seemed a little ploddy to me. They didn’t have the same sparkle that they’d had before but the audiences really loved it. It was amazing watching people mimicking Morrissey’s body movements. You could see shadows up in the balconies following his every move. It was great to see all of that and the guys in The Smiths were really cool so it was a shame that it happened. But at the same time, I think we were doing pretty well. We have an inbuilt desire to destroy any other band in a venue that we play with. We don’t always succeed but it is a sort of instinctive thing. We were pretty ropey back then but we did have something, something with energy about it. All of Morrissey’s gladioli would be all over the stage when we had finished playing. The crowd would just pelt us with his flowers and we would really rock the place so maybe we were annoying him a bit anyway. But nice of him to try and push us. The first person to stick his neck out in public and back us. 9
WHEN DID ROUGH TRADE APPROACH YOU? Our manager Seb was playing drums for Dexys Midnight Runners for a while. He was the guy on ‘Come On Eileen’ and all of that. We’d been friends for a long time. When he got the job in Dexys, I remember listening to the BBC ‘In Concert’ programme and there’s that bit when ‘Come On Eileen’ speeds up and then slows down. A big long drum roll that pulls the tempo back and then drops back into the chorus. Hearing Seb doing that was always a bit of blast. So anyway, I’d been playing him tapes and he’d actually borrowed a Portastudio from somebody for me to write stuff and when he was away, he would let me use his flat to write songs. He was really helping out. One day he met me on a park bench in Soho Square and said “Ok I’ve made a really big decision, I’m gonna quit Dexys and I’m gonna manage The Woodentops”. I mean, they were number 1 so it seemed like a really dumb thing to do! He got a part time job at Rough Trade answering phones and stuff. One day he got a call from the BBC who wanted to get a Smiths session and he had to tell them that The Smiths weren’t available at that time. They asked “Ok, what else have you got?” and he mentioned us and they agreed to try us out. So that’s how we came to do our first session for John Peel. He loved it, had us back again and gave us life long support right up until ’92. By that point we were putting out underground white labels for DJs to play of cluborientated stuff, which was very far removed from where we had started. Seb got us some label interest. We had a choice between Zarjazz, which was a label Madness were starting up through Virgin. There was someone else, A&M or something and there was Rough Trade. It was the band that really pushed for Rough Trade. I’d been down there a few times to see Seb and I liked the feel of the place. They had bands we were into, but more to the point we felt that Rough Trade was about something that we believed in too, so we took that route. COMING FROM REHEARSING IN A WAREHOUSE AND RECORDING WITH PORTASTUDIOS, IT MUST HAVE BEEN A BIG STEP UP ONCE YOU HAD SIGNED TO ROUGH TRADE. Absolutely. Suddenly we were working with people like Andy Partridge and John Leckie. You get a record deal and people like that get involved so it took us into a professional 10
spectrum where we were rehearsing, doing press or playing all the time. It was fantastic and we were getting paid, that was the most amazing thing. Seb, with his experience from Dexys and Secret Affair before that, wanted to make it a really fair structure, so we were getting a wage from the moment we signed to Rough Trade. WAS IT ALWAYS THE PLAN TO TRY AND MAKE IT AS A PROFESSIONAL BAND? No, not at all, but as soon as you get a manager who knows what he’s doing everything changes. He’s the man with the plan. He’s the 6th member of the band. All we wanted to do was go out and play, hopefully make it pay for itself and who knows where it could go. The thought that we would actually be an international band was something that felt unreal until we actually found ourselves being one. DID IT GIVE THE BAND A NEW FOUND CONFIDENCE? Yes. If Seb thought we sounded dope, we believed it. If he came into the dressing room looking depressed, we believed it. He was our quality monitor. Everything in our daily lifes was shattering the collective delusion and replacing it with the reality of full houses and top performances. Our knock knee’d doubts were being replaced by experiences like walking to the back of a hall on people’s hands, still chakking away on the guitar - as long as my specially extended lead would let me go! Tours of Germany, France and Belgium improved us no end. The madness was complete! WHAT SORT OF VENUES WERE YOU PLAYING BEFORE YOUR FIRST ALBUM ‘GIANT’ CAME OUT? Our first shows were playing galleries and parties - places like that in South London. That was pre-first single, pre-Rock Garden, pre-everything when we first dared to try and play in front of people. We tried busking also at one point. We were just trying things to sharpen ourselves I think. By the first single ‘Plenty’, we were playing support slots at the Covent Garden Rock Garden, Dingwalls, The Marquee Club and places like that and we were always the first band on. They’re now legendary clubs but at the time they weren’t. 11
They were the kind of places you went to see bands yourself. It was funny to see them in daylight and how disgusting they were with their squidgy carpets and all the rest of it. You’d get to The Marquee or Dingwalls for sound check and Lemmy would already be there playing the fruit machine. Pretty quickly we became a favourite support act and then other bands started taking us out on tour. Julian Cope took us out first and that was the first time we’d played in big venues. After that we went off with Everything But The Girl, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen. CAN YOU REMEMBER WHAT IT FELT LIKE WHEN YOU GOT YOUR FIRST INDIE CHART SUCCESS? ‘Plenty’ was the first time we saw ourselves in the charts. It was awesome but it was just more fuel to the fire of feeling that we actually had to be good. We thrived on it though. All bands have different reasons for doing what they do but our reason was always to make it better. Self destruction was kind of allowed up to a certain point but if it demeaned our performance and meant that people weren’t showing up or the performances were ropey or whatever…we didn’t want it to get like that. Later down the line you realize that if the band is irresponsible and out of control then that filters down to the crew and your entire organization just gets really shoddy. So we’d party hard but we always made sure we held it together somehow.
GIANT (1986) ROUGH TRADE
JUST BEFORE YOU STARTED RECORDING YOUR DEBUT ALBUM ‘GIANT’ YOU FOUND A NEW DRUMMER IN BENNY STAPLES. HOW DID THAT CHANGE THINGS? Our original drummer Paul Hookham who did those early singles had left because he wanted to be in a more political band. A few people like June Miles-Kingston from Everything But The Girl filled in for a while but we desperately needed a new drummer. I was phoning anyone I knew who played drums, but for a while we thought, “This is it, it’s actually over, already”. And then Juan Gelas, a French journalist friend of mine, said “I’ve got a really good mate, Benny, he’s from New Zealand and played in a really good ska/punk band over there, I think you should meet him.” I’ll never forget that day in our rehearsal room when he showed up and stood in the doorway doing this looking cool thing that he would do. June got up from behind the kit and said, “Well I suppose we’d better let Benny have a go, don’t you?” So Benny came in and the first thing he did was take the drum stool away and stood there: “Ready!” We played and everything about this guy was just completely explosive and because he was standing up he was sort of dancing as he was playing. So he got the job immediately. I was blown away. He and I became serious blood brothers, because my job as acoustic guitar was not really to play fancy chords and arpeggios, I just hit the thing in time. I was like the sequencer. So he and I were rhythmically completely locked. He totally loved the idea of the drum kit and what that was all about. He took it to the next dimension. 13
WITH A NEW MEMBER, YOU MUST HAVE HAD TO DO A LOT OF WORK TO MAKE THE 3 YEARS WORTH OF MATERIAL YOU HAD READY FOR THE ‘GIANT’ RECORDING SESSIONS? Yeah, absolutely. We just rehearsed and rehearsed with Benny. I don’t know how hard other bands rehearse, but The Woodentops, we just lived to rehearse. We rehearsed everyday. We’d go way over our rehearsal time. We’d turn the volume down so we wouldn’t bug other people in the warehouse and just play and play. We’re still like that now. WHAT INFLUENCED THE LYRICS ON THE ALBUM? Things like motivational messages, hopes…being dumped! People, personal observations, stories, dreams. Usually real stories I guess. About me or people I’d come across. WHAT ARE YOUR OVERRIDING MEMORIES OF RECORDING THE ALBUM? We all tried to do our utter best. There was a lot of battling with the producer, a lot of having to stick up for my musicians and everybody having to prove themselves in the studio. All the singles that we’d done up to that point were just us as we were, perhaps using a sequencer here and there but then eventually removing that just to keep us tight, just like a click track. But recording Giant was a different league. Bob Sargeant who produced it was generally brought in to produce top ten hits. That’s what he did. He had quite a team of people to pull from if we had trouble playing something, even though it was our album. I fought with him often. We had some nice times as well though. We had meals together afterwards and we would all relax. He would say, “You realise we are going to bitch every single day but let’s just say it’s in the name of making the project good. Let’s not be personal about it.” And we did bitch everyday. Sometimes it was really hard not to take it personally and say really horrible personal things to him. But then I was also really inspired by him at times. Honestly, if you don’t fight for your idea, the production team could just go right ahead and make your album for you! 14
We found out what it was like to come up against a hit machine and we wouldn’t really consider ourselves a hit type band. We would consider ourselves semi-pop but also semi-experimental. We were just into all of it. So it was a bit of a shock to go through the actual hit making process as it was in the 80s. All the instruments that we used are immediately getting replaced with something else, sometimes instruments that you can’t stand, being used on the album. We’d get told things like, “Don’t worry it will be right in the background of the mix”. Then you’re not allowed to go to the mix and it comes out really loud. IT WAS A POP RADIO MIX OF THE ALBUM THAT THE BAND WEREN’T PRESENT FOR, WERE YOU COMFORTABLE WITH THAT? HOW DID IT FEEL TO HEAR POP SONGS EMERGE FROM THE LIVE SOUND THAT YOU HAD DEVELOPED? You get two stages, you get the rough mixes, and then you get the final mixes. And the rough mixes were how it was as we saw it in the studio. It sounded banging. It was beautiful. I mean, I can’t tell you how great it sounded, so we couldn’t wait to hear the finished thing. We were allowed to go in for the mix every now and then when we were invited. To be quite honest with you, in the studio when you hear it on the big speakers it sounded fantastic, but when we got it home we realised that it had no bass on it. All that we were about, all of the rhythms, the syncopated afro beat bass lines, the hypnotic drums and everything, it just lacked bottom end. It was designed to cut through on the radio. The vocal was so loud in the mix. It was really funny. It sounded really slick. SO YOU DIDN’T FIGHT TO MAKE IT SOUND MORE LIKE THE LIVE BAND ON THE RECORDING? No - the thing is when you have someone who’s working really hard for you and your manager is really pleased with it, and is saying “Look come on, I know you want it to sound a bit more like your demos and more like your early stuff, but you have done that! This is really what we need to get the thing on the radio. We won’t have more sway with the label and unless we do these things. So, I beg you just to go with it. It’s fine. You’re just all a bit twitchy about it, you know? Chill out it’s gonna be fine”. He was right, because actually it did sound pretty bumping on the radio. People really liked it so we 15
kind of relaxed a bit. We went about performing the album faster and harder. HOW DID THE BAND GO ABOUT RECREATING THE ALBUM FOR A LIVE SITUATION? I remember really well when we worked with Andy Partridge really early on we were sitting around at the end of a session and he was talking about XTC and stuff. He said, “It was really funny with XTC because we’d go in and do an album and then we’d come out from doing the album and it would just be an absolute panic about how we were going to play it live, we’d have to learn our own album!”. We had our panic too but our solution was to buy a thing called an Emax, which was one of the first keyboard samplers. We sampled stuff off the tapes on to that and we used it in the live show. We rehearsed it over and over to get it as close as we could. IN THE LIVE SHOWS YOU PLAYED AROUND WITH THE STRUCTURES OF SONGS, EXTENDING AND REPEATING THEM IN AN APPROACH WHICH HAS MORE COMMON WITH DJING THAN TRADITIONAL INDIE BAND LIVE SETS. WHERE DID THIS APPROACH COME FROM? We didn’t know about DJs or people playing two decks and mixing tracks together at that point. That hadn’t really kicked in just yet, it was just sort of starting. We just didn’t want to get tired of playing the tracks the same every single night so we tried to make them interesting and sort of extend bits out especially if people were dancing, we’d let it go on. DID YOU DECIDE THIS LIVE IN THE MOMENT OR DID YOU DECIDE IT BEFOREHAND? I would decide it live in the moment. We would just hold it down and the band would wait and wait for me to give a vocal cue. Sometimes I’d never get round to giving the cue and it’d just go and go and go until it became something else. We loved to do that. We just really loved to improvise, that was something we were always about right from the word go. I think what we tried to do was not repeat a formula too much. It would just morph. We’d play some songs that people knew, then we’d let other songs morph. 16
3 day Giant residency at the ICA, London, 1986
We made a point of not rehearsing some songs too much just in case they got a bit stagnant. And if people were dancing and it was working we’d see no reason to change it. It was at the time when dance music DJs began taking the bits that they liked, that worked and repeated them. That’s exactly what we did. WHAT DID PANNI’S DESIGNS BRING TO THE LIVE SHOW? The live show was collaboration between Panni, us and our lighting crew - because we had a lighting crew by then. She made a load of backdrops; she had film which she was always topping up as we went along. We basically had a theatrical stage set, which went round the inside of the building. We took over the venue so that the audience was kind of entering our world. The Woodentops freaky grotto! We’d take you over and chew your brains up for the night and hopefully also romance you along the way and get you bopping. Once the place becomes a theatrical event it’s amazing how it inspires you to go more and more towards the creative edge. It was described as ‘The Woodentops: Aborigines on acid’. I was nicely divorced from reality in there. In the zone. HOW WAS THE SHOW RECEIVED AROUND THE WORLD GIVEN THAT YOU WERE PLAYING ALTERED, TURBO VERSIONS OF THE ALBUM TRACKS? DID IT SURPRISE PEOPLE DO YOU THINK? There was a reason for it being turbo. It felt good. It just didn’t feel like we were thinking about it; it was all so instinctive. The band feeding the audience, the audience feeding the band. DID YOU FEEL A RESPONSIBILITY TO BE GOOD EACH NIGHT WHEN YOU PLAYED? Yeah. Once the album was out we definitely felt a responsibility and we really got nervous. We were terrified before we went on stage. I couldn’t speak. I could hardly control what was coming out of my mouth because I was so nervous. Benny the drummer 18
sometimes puked up before we went on. But the more nervous we got, the more energy we would release. It was like you had to go through this dreadful nervous thing and do whatever you could to try and anaesthetise it but you couldn’t stop it. Then you’d get this kind of exorcism of it onstage and at the end of it you were human again. Once you got your breath back anyway! WHERE DID THE TOUR TAKE YOU? Europe, Japan, America. Suddenly we were going to countries where the name of our band sounded really cool: rolled off people’s tongues. It sounded really convincing with a German accent or with American and French people saying it. The funny thing is we called ourselves The Woodentops because, at the beginning, we thought we were crap. In The Woodentops TV programme the characters were all cardboard or balsa cut outs I think and really kind of awkward. We felt that we were a bit like that so it sort of worked. But the name meant quite a lot of interesting things in different places. For example it is a nickname for an acoustic guitar but also if you’re a Woodentop you’re an idiot. It also means policeman, so we’ve actually played places where all these local coppers have turned up and we’re playing to a wall of police. They quite enjoyed it actually. We believed it and we were 100% there on the stage. That album really did set us off, we were in the charts with it we were everywhere with it, I heard ‘Good Thing’ in Sainsburys and in taxis…We just got used to hearing it all the time. DJ ALFREDO, WHO IS WIDELY CONSIDERED AS THE FOUNDER OF THE BALEARIC BEAT SOUND, INTRODUCED THE SONG ‘WHY WHY WHY’ TO IBIZA’S BALEARIC SCENE AFTER SEEING THE WOODENTOPS PLAY ON THE COAST OF SPAIN IN THE MID-80S. WHEN DID YOU BECOME AWARE OF THE SCENE HAPPENING IN IBIZA? We weren’t initially aware of it. We began to notice the places we were playing in Spain were giant discos and people were on mescaline. We didn’t know about ecstasy then. 19
We never actually went to Ibiza, there was a club culture going on here. There was music being played in clubs where no bands were playing. There was a scene going on in Kings Cross with warehouses and disused buildings, there were clubs in LA, New York, San Francisco and Ibiza. A lot of music was pure electronic and there were busy dance floors. There was a lot of disco, funk, and a lot of different scenes with people dancing. It was sort of creeping in. It was a fuzzy era before modern dance music as we know it. So this young guy, Alfredo Fiorito, chose ‘Why Why Why’ as the track to play at the end of the night when he DJ’d in Ibiza. He just played the hell out of it. Others there joined in playing it. It should’ve been released as a single but I was up against the wall of the rock ‘n’ roll music business that didn’t understand what I was talking about. They didn’t understand these clubs. Places where people arrive at 11pm or midnight when the then current music biz went to bed! There was this sort of ‘freaks come out at night’ culture in the clubs which me and my friends were into. It was a great release compared to the rock ‘n’ roll venues where I’d get recognised and always be on my guard. I felt quite free in the clubs. They were playing the music we were listening to in the tour van in the venues. That’s what we danced to. There was a ‘four to the floor’ scene developing in Chicago so we’d go check that when we were there. The Go-Go scene too in Washington. It was at this point I received a call from Paul Oakenfold who had been trying to track us down. He told us that every night in Spain, ‘Why Why Why’ was being played at the end of every DJ’s set and up to 25,000 people a night would scream the words back. He said, ‘You have to come over and play’. At this point, our agency didn’t have any contacts out in Ibiza and Rough Trade were telling us not to get too excited and to keep focussing on writing new material. We were stuck in the middle. Our dance track was the rock ‘n’ roll moment of that dance scene in Ibiza! But we never got to go. PEOPLE LIKE PAUL OAKENFOLD, ANDREW WEATHERALL ET AL BROUGHT THE WHOLE BALEARIC SCENE BACK TO THE UK. DID YOU ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE ‘WHY WHY WHY’ AS THE LAST TRACK OF THE NIGHT? Never as the last track of the night, but once in the middle of the mix and it scared the shit out of me! It was Danny Rampling who played it at Shoom! in East London. There 20
was an expectation that he might play it, but it was just so raucous when it came on. It was a real mash of styles being played there at the time. Very eclectic. Very much Alfredo and Larry Levan’s influence. IT’S BEEN SAID THAT THE WOODENTOPS HELPED PAVE THE WAY FOR THE DANCE-INDIE CROSSOVER THAT WAS TO COME. DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT? It was an organic thing. We did do some remixes, but only so we had a different version of tracks done by people we liked. We did mixes for the club floor. I remember doing the Wag club in 1986, which was a small place for us at the time; it was a great venue on the London scene. That gig was quite pivotal. It was a really high-energy performance and there were different types of people there. It wasn’t just indie kids, there was a lot of the future influential people there that night, DJs to be, promoters to be, it was new and special. Ultra trendy! With us as the main attraction! After that, the people turning up to the shows were different. It would have been mosh pits at the front up until this point, very rough and violent. But now it had become a much groovier affair - arms in the air and people losing themselves in the music. We were invited by David Bowie to play at the ICA. It was a mass of seething, dancing people at the front. We were seeing such a difference and it was much stronger in the European scene. It was all slipping into the future without us really understanding what was going on. We just carried on as normal.
WOODEN FOOT COPS ON THE HIGHWAY (1988) ROUGH TRADE
HOW DID YOUR NEW FOUND ASSOCIATION WITH CLUB CULTURE AFFECT THE WRITING OF THE NEXT RECORD ‘WOODEN FOOT COPS ON THE HIGHWAY’? I wouldn’t say that much - it was just a little bit early. You see, the thing was ‘Why Why Why’ was supposed to have been on ‘Giant’ (1986) but we didn’t finish it in time so it instead appeared on the live album (‘Hypnobeat Live’, 1987). ‘Love Affair With Everyday Living’ also got played in the clubs, but not as much – ‘Why Why Why’ was the key one. So that live album was put out to fill the gap between ‘Giant’ and ‘Wooden Foot Cops’, as we didn’t have time to rehearse and record anything new. We had a US deal with Columbia through Rough Trade, and they wanted something that they could put out. So actually ‘Hypnobeat’ was more of an American release, even though it also got released over here too - and ‘Why Why Why’ was included on that. So it was pretty quick between the club thing happening and the next record. I would say that it didn’t really affect ‘Wooden Foot Cops’ that much, except that we were using the same kind of technology as the club records because that was what was newly available. So it was just a little bit too early in that ‘Why’s popularity lasted into the period of ‘Wooden Foot Cops’ coming out. The stuff we started doing after ‘Wooden Foot Cops’ was much more heavily influenced by what was happening. HOW DID THE WRITING PROCESS DIFFER FROM THAT OF GIANT? With ‘Giant’ we’d had these songs slowly coming into the set over two or three years, 22
but ‘Wooden Foot Cops’ was a really scary empty pallet. Very little time to develop. I moved into the rehearsal room in January (‘88) to start work and basically just wrote. We had the studio booked for March and also dates in Japan to fit in during that month. I panicked, going through bags of old lyrics for inspiration, but actually ended up using stuff that flowed out once I could get ‘in the zone’, getting the whole thing down on 8-track using Linn Drum and hand-played sequencing. IT SEEMS THAT, BECAUSE OF THE TIME FRAME, THERE WAS PRESSURE TO DELIVER A FOLLOW UP ALBUM FAIRLY QUICKLY? Costs - Scott Litt was of course expensive. He was REM’s guy and he had limited time to spend on the project. The studio isn’t cheap, all recording had to be done within I think it was a month or something. Then we had to go to New York to finish it. All booked! Our American label had invested and was keeping an eye on us, wanting to hear how it was going. Pure pressure. But Scott was ace. DID YOU HAVE A PLAN OF WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO ACHIEVE SONICALLY AND CREATIVELY? It was trying to take the ‘human-machine’ concept further; the human and the machine working together. We’d started it with ‘Giant’ – in fact we’d started it very much with ‘Well Well Well’ - but took it much further on ‘Wooden Foot Cops’. There were all sorts of interesting projects happening around the time – Yello, On-U-Sound, Tackhead. In the 80s music from all over the world – African music, reggae music – became very accessible in London, you’d get to see a lot of really interesting stuff and take it on board. What we were, I think, was a melting pot. Influences would come in but then they’d get spewed out differently. WHAT IMPACT DID TECHNOLOGY HAVE ON THE MAKING OF THE ALBUM? ‘Wooden Foot Cops’ was a living, breathing machine and the technology was interesting. If you had oodles of money you could have a Synclavier - which was a pretty testy bit of machinery anyway – or the Fairlight: thirty grand! You’d have to put your flat up for one 23
of those! But then Atari released the 1040st – a little PC that ran Midi and there were a few cranky sequencer packages around that you could use. At the time it was mind-blowing that you could do this. So we could really get the tightness that we were trying to achieve with the 1040. We could play organically over the sequences and swing within the rigidity of the Midi tempos. During recording I had two production units going – one in the main area of the Roundhouse (studio) and one in the playing room where I had an erratic little Yamaha sequencer. I was making the album at the same time as they were recording in the main room. It was just so quick to do these things! I could transfer the sequences from my little production unit into the Atari – all that was brand new. WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH SCOTT LITT LIKE? Brilliant. Scott was used to working with a lot of disco acts, Nile Rodgers’ acts, in NYC at The PowerStation and those guys really knew what they were doing but with us… He was impressed with the [demo] tapes that I’d done, but he wasn’t really mentally prepared for all the equipment breakdowns and head-scratching in the early stages of that studio session. Having said that, he was really fun to work with; he was a damn fine engineer and a real old school American gent. He was using all kinds of interesting recording techniques we hadn’t experienced before. He would lock himself away at the desk so he wouldn’t be disturbed, smoke coming out of his ears, doing EVERYTHING he possibly could to nail a track. Just doing as much work as he could in the couple of hours before we turned up. I’d get in early just to watch him at work. Amazing. I think he really enjoyed the session, he just suffered a bit worrying if he was going to be able to finish it in time. But we did and it was all fine. I went to America to do all the final dubs and mix it with him and it became a trans-Atlantic project to improve work that was done earlier – like for example drum sounds, swapping some snare sounds, etc. So it was much more electronic than ‘Giant’. On that record we put all the Linn Drum tracks down on tape and Benny went in and literally traced drum by drum everything we’d previously recorded with the Linn Drum. If it was ever so slightly out, the tape was stopped and re-wound until it was replayed exactly in, that was how we did it. That’s how we played twice as tight as we actually could. And I just knew with ‘Wooden Foot Cops’ - because we didn’t have time to rehearse to get it studio worthy - that we needed the technology to go in and fight through it and achieve super tightness.
THERE ARE A LOT OF COLLABORATIONS AND GUEST SPOTS ACROSS THE RECORD, CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THEM? There were some really beautiful moments – one that particularly stands out for me is recording one of the softer songs ‘Tuesday Wednesday’. Benny was up in the control room with a sampler with a water drop on it - ‘plop’! The whole concept of it was a song in a wet cave (laughs). In the playing room were Doug Wimbish and I’m thinking ‘I can’t believe I am playing with Doug Wimbish’ – one of the best bassists in the world. We played the song three times - live takes - with him not really knowing the song but just occasionally glancing up and looking at the time counter, and that’s how he knew when a change was coming up. He just heard it and played it. One of the most blinding and terrifying experiences ever – it just fell together. What Simon [Mawby] did on the track was also really moody and brilliant. Also Bernie Worrell - his fingers flying around his DX7 (on ‘What You Give Out’) - was astonishing. He’s genius. Gary Lucas – a really interesting musician, he was in Captain Beefheart, ‘Ice-Cream for Crow’ period, and we met because he worked at Columbia Records. We were introduced by Steve Ralbovsky who described him to me as Def Jam’s PR think tank. Gary became a good friend and later would introduce me to Arthur Russell and people around the NYC underground scene. I got to record with Arthur. Gary and I had met up and jammed a couple of times, so he was an obvious person to come and ask to do something. We hadn’t gone anywhere near Americana before; we’d never used Dobro guitars, so why not try it, you know? And I was a vampire for ideas at that point. So I invited him in to come and see what happened, and it was good. His parts are really prominent on a couple of the tracks, ‘Wheels Turning’ and ‘You Make Me Feel’. It’s a good balance on the record between Simon and Gary’s styles. DID I HEAR LEE ‘SCRATCH’ PERRY TURNED UP AT THE STUDIO ONE DAY? Yes! I’d not met Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry personally but working with Adrian Sherwood I obviously knew who he was and that there was a connection between us. He’d turned up at the wrong studio due to a bus strike – he was supposed to be going to Townhouse to 25
cut his record, but ended up at Roundhouse. He was standing in reception with broken mirrors attached to his chest and shoes. So I just approached him, saying I was a friend of Adrian’s and invited him into the studio. He came in, sat down and asked what we were working on. We played him some music and he got up and started getting animated – he’d hear a part and look at the needle on the mixing desk and point to the track telling Scott & I, “Ah, you don’t need that one”. “Um, ok” - so we pulled it out. And then he starts asking me if I have lyrics. So I pull out the lyrics and he suggests somebody go out and get a bottle of wine. So he has a glass of wine, rolls a joint and goes in and starts singing off my lyric sheet over the track! He was kind of doing this cut-up thing using part of my line and inserting bits of his own. So the album, in fact, got its title ‘Wooden Foot Cops On The Highway’ from his riffing. He spent a really entertaining day with us, and then decided to stay for the evening and we ended up writing a song together about the bus strike – he was later spotted on a float at Notting Hill Carnival, singing along to the backing track on a cassette! (laughs). WHAT HAPPENED TO THIS TRACK? There’s the rub! Because we’d been recording at the Roundhouse, Lee’s management thought that we were much bigger than in fact we were and consequently were asking Rough Trade for a lot of money to use it – along the lines of what he had just been paid for a remix for Terrence Trent D’Arby, who was huge at the time. Rough Trade’s budgets just didn’t stretch that far. You can hear the rough of what I took home from the studio at Woodentopsmusic.com where you can download an mp3 of it - but I can’t sell it. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE ALBUM ARTWORK? It’s a representation of the ‘human-machine’ idea. There was a bicycle shop on the other side of the road at Battersea Rise where Panni’s warehouse was. So Panni went in and borrowed a whole load of cog-wheels for gear-change, assembled them and photographed them. And then took them all back.
Wooden Foot Cops Tour, 1988
DID YOU GO THROUGH A SIMILAR PROCESS AS WITH ‘GIANT’ TO DEVELOP A LIVE SET FROM THE ALBUM? We had to really rehearse hard to learn it! The drum kit got bigger and there was more technology involved in it, more samples and we got a really wicked Casio sampler SZ1 sampler keyboard. We filled that out with sounds from the album so we could recreate those straight from the record. We didn’t use sequencing, we played it all live. It was always a ‘beat the album’ thing! I guess people were waiting for something new from us anyway, some of the songs had already made it onto the radio, people had heard a few of the tunes. We went to Japan and Germany and our live set really clicked through that tour. We played alot of festivals on that tour here and Europe. Glastonbury again, Hotpoint in Switzerland, Pink Pop... quite a few. The BBC recorded the time we played in ’87 which was a really stressful show! We had 2 new musicians at the time who were both on stage. So, knowing it was being recorded on a mobile studio and having to cue these session musicians at the same time as performing. It was really grounding and I couldn’t get my freak on. It was really hard to hear each other and the sound got lost. We’re really fortunate to have some good recordings out of it because I kind of felt this gig was going to be there to haunt me forever. Funny thing is it sounds tight and rehearsed on the actual recording! Phew. It was on the radio just the other day, the whole concert. WHAT WOULD A THIRD WOODENTOPS ALBUM HAVE SOUNDED LIKE? Science fiction rock ‘n’ roll. Incorporating proto 90’s rhythms into songs, and a touch of soul in the backing vocals. Moving on from the 80’s into the 90’s. Also a more funked up guitar with the usual mix of percussion. There are a few tracks not on the compilation that we play now, from that album. My usual musicians were not so available, Simon was doing some time with the House of Love so Skip Macdonald came and worked with me. He was such a buddy on that album. Also Les Lawrence from Bang the Party got involved; Benny was in there, Simon some. It was an obsession for 3 months. Rough trade went down, there were legal shenanigans, I couldn’t pay the wages so we all drifted into other things. We thought we’d get together again sometime soon. 28
We all did different things up to 2005. I learnt to DJ and snowboard, I did quite a lot of different things. Pluto, Dogs Deluxe, I also found different ways to use music making to earn money, to be experimental and be paid! Music for movies and TV. In 2005 somebody sent me a double CD of a staggering gig we did in ‘88 in Barcelona. I couldn’t remember much about it but the other guys remember it really well. It was a totally supercharged night. It was a brilliant performance, so many encores; it just got harder and harder and faster and faster. The guy who was playing music in between performances had recorded it through the mixing desk. I put that tape onto a CD and sent it to all the musicians and said, “We should be doing this”, and everyone said, “Yep”. When we all met up we had this hilarious moment where Benny arrived from NZ and we all stood in the same room together for the first time in years. The shock of it was over quickly. Everybody looked really well and no one seemed to have aged really. We just got straight into it, sounded great. Everyone had actually improved! WERE YOU THERE AT THE RECENT MASTERING SESSIONS FOR ‘GIANT’ AND ‘WOODEN FOOT COPS’? I was there at the mastering sessions, yes. I really enjoyed it. They got modernized, with facilities not available back then. Sonically it’s just a bit sharper on the high end but much more pumping down below. On ‘Giant’ I was finally able to pump the low end on it and get it closer to how we originally wanted it to be. WHAT ABOUT THE ADDITIONAL MATERIAL? DID YOU HAVE TO SEARCH AROUND TO GATHER IT ALL TOGETHER? We were able to restore a couple of things I thought were lost forever. I had a couple of real rarities that I had as a sort of worn out record or cassette tape that had never really been played since the reference tape was made. My manager Seb used to ask for reference tapes of everything and it always used to make me laugh because he never actually listened to them. Thank god he didn’t, because they were in really pristine condition. 29
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE WOODENTOPS CREATIVE OUTPUT WITH THE BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT? Really pleased, really proud. I think it sounds really English and unlike anyone else. We felt things coming that came later, so I think we were ahead of our time. But it’s a pain in the ass being early for the bus and it’s a pain in the ass being late for the bus. You want to be right there when the bus comes. Ha! WHAT IS YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT OF THE WOODENTOPS, WHETHER THAT BE A RECORD OR A MOMENT IN TIME AT A GIG? WHAT’S THE THING THAT MAKES YOU MOST PROUD OF EVERYTHING YOU’VE DONE? It’s not very controversial but I’ll tell you what it was. It was the second time we went to Japan. We took Panni and a small amount of stage set, as much as we could take in the plane. We did some venues in shopping centers, some clubs, then moved onto Kyoto. That night we played a really small club, and after everything had been put away we went to a tiny reggae club called the Rubadub club. They were playing Bob Marley and general commercial reggae, it was packed and everybody was going bananas. There weren’t really any coloured lights in there. It seemed as if someone was switching on and off a light bulb in time to the music. A Rasta hat was being passed around and if it was put on your head you danced crazy, then you took it off and put it on the next person’s head and they would dance crazy. It was very funny. There was no smell of weed in the air, you just didn’t see that there. There was something bizarre about the whole thing. In the next room there was a Caribbean bar where you could get Red Stripe and popcorn. I was sitting at the bar with Panni chatting and knocking back a couple of beers. I looked round and I saw my entire crew and musicians just dancing their asses off on the dance floor, smiling, happy, just having the greatest time. Panni asked me, “What are you doing? Are you crying?” I couldn’t stop it. Tears were just pouring out of eyes. For me that could have been it. We could have stopped there and that would have been fine. It was just a really emotional and proud moment, because we were all there together and it’d got that far, so much work. Everyone was having fun so far away from home. You walk on the streets there; you kind of get that feeling that your footsteps are on the other side of the planet to where you live. I think that was my proudest moment. 30
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