AM – Just looking around Leigh as an outsider, it always seems to have had a bit of an artistic vibe to it; do you get that?
PB – I’m torn on this idea; if you asked me where I would love to have lived it would probably be Greenwich Village but I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. You sometimes come from hick towns and you get the mavericks and the big fish in little pools but I’m not really sure that it matters at the end of the day. Obviously New York is a great residence simply because so many great writers came from there but if Lou Reed was born in Leigh-on-Sea what would he have written about?
AM – There’s no CBGBs here is there?
PB – Well there isn’t, but it would have been interesting, and vice versa; you get parochial writers who, well, what would they have done if they’d gone to town? I’m not sure it’s important; it’s certainly relevant, where you come from and where you write about. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite of something good. You can get blood out of a stone; you can, you’ve just got to try hard. Sometimes you’re swamped; now, having written from a local area that isn’t particularly bohemian, if I now went to New York, I’d probably overwrite everything and it would just be a mass of input and no way of filtering it. Which would be great; I’d love to do it if anyone’s got an apartment in New York.
AM – And that kind of leads in to “Dunfearing…”, which is the first part of a trilogy.
PB – I’m fond of these things; I get a lot of stick for it.
AM – It’s obvious that that there’s a tremendous sense of place in it. It’s a very West Country thing.
PB – The rest of the trilogy won’t be. You were probably the only person that picked up on the idea of approaching America as the only possible escape after the end of England; the only place you can go. That’s developing a little bit and the other two parts of the trilogy are written and I’m sorting out the third one but it’s more about how you escape the idea of getting old and the only way to do it is to reinvent a youth, which never really works and the idea of America is that it’s supposed to be the land of eternal youth no matter what age you go, so there’s a cynical angle to it as well but I hope that it’s more hope than cynicism: pragmatism.
AM – Do you think that the way the music business has gone over the last twenty years has allowed people like you to do what you want to do?
PB – No, I don’t. I actually think the music business is poorer for what’s happened to it. I would rather be struggling to sign to Warner Brothers, in a way. There’s a philosophy now that anyone can do anything they like, they can record it in their bedroom and make an album, which is fine, because the punk ethos is fine, but there is a difference. Yes, someone could thrash away at three chords and sing ‘I hate Margaret Thatcher’ and be played on John Peel; fabulous, but that was it. Now there seems to be a corporate mentality attached to do-it-yourself.
AM – It’s so difficult now, with music, to actually make any money.
PB – Which is essentially what you have to do. There were people around punk who never thought they’d make any money and a lot of them didn’t but they thought they’d got a chance of maybe an album and that’s it and they’re now working in IT or whatever and that’s what they wanted. The problem is, while you’ve got that ethos is that if people are taking it seriously, then they get lumped in with it and it’s ‘Oh, you’re still here, are you?’ and now it’s even worse because nothing’s taken seriously. To include lyrics with an album now is seen as pretentious.
AM – And yet, to me, “Dunfearing…” was actually a very nice packaging job, but we shouldn’t be talking about packaging, really.
PB – I would have agreed with you a while back, but now I go back to albums I’ve listened to and loved and I think these are beautiful things, regardless of the music, I would want this album; as a piece of art, as a whole.
AM – I’m accused of fetishing the whole thing; going for the vinyl and the nice gatefold sleeve…
PB – My mantra for that is accused by whom? I’m a great fan of the Oscar Wilde saying ‘The show was a success, the audience was a failure’; it depends who’s criticising.
AM – It’s a completely different listening experience now; I sometimes stick review copies on a little MP3 player and you have to pull this thing out of your pocket to check the track title.
PB – This is the first album I’ve done with a record company as opposed to putting it out on my own and Phil’s great (Phil Penman of Drumfire Records) but if you want tracks for radio, or the hit track (not the hit single, that never happens any more), I just think ‘I don’t want one’. That’s why I hate the download culture so much; ‘I’ve listened to this album twice, these two are obviously the best songs so therefore I’ll stick them next to my favourite Kylie song on my iPod’. Well, fuck that, what are you going to do with Lou Reed and “Berlin”; take a couple of tracks from that and stick it next to Miley Cyrus. Would we do it with art? ‘I think I like that third sunflower but I think it would look nice in the Velasquez, so I’ll shift it over and Photoshop it in to that’. There’d be outrage.
AM – I think Pink Floyd were entirely right…
PB – There has to be a first time for everything
AM – When they blocked the downloading of single tracks from “Dark Side of the Moon”.
PB – Funny you should say that, but it occurred to me the other day that if I blended my music in so that it tinkled out on one track and tinkled in on the next, nobody would be able to download it; don’t tempt me.
AM – I can’t do it, I can’t buy in to the download thing; I’d rather pay full whack…
PB – And be wrong. I’ve spent ten quid on an album and it’s been bullshit apart from the track I liked. That’s what you get; you can buy a sofa for four hundred quid and the leg falls off and that’s life, get used to it.
AM – So you’re going to be recording the second album in the trilogy soon.
PB – This year we’re doing the second. The third album is very ephemeral, but I want to get that done because I want to get on to the next phase. There’s a bunch of folkie songs that I’ve written and I want to get them out of the way, so I’ll do a double folkie album next year, but I might get two albums out before then. I’ll have to put out one on my own label because I don’t expect Drumfire to do it. It’s weird really; if Bob Dylan was still fabulously creative, I’d want an album from him every month. There’s an idea that you can only put an album out once every year or two years but The Fall make an album every twelve minutes; some of it’s all right, some of it’s not but I’d rather have that.
AM – That’s just reminded of someone that I know you admire, Jackie Leven, who would do exactly the same thing.
PB – That’s what I’m aiming for actually. Jackie recorded what he called his platinum albums for Cooking Vinyl. Someone would give me a tape from a live gig I did somewhere and I’d love to release that so and that’s why I kept my own label. I can put stuff out that’s not a big production number but it’s a bunch of songs that hang together well and say ‘Have a listen to this’ and Jackie did that really well. Other than that, I’ve got a good setup for recording that I use with a few people and Mark Elliott especially and it’s easy to do. We get the band together, rehearse it and record it. “Mercenary Thoughts of a Lush”; we went up to London and recorded the whole thing in two days. Bit of punk spirit and some people say it sounds like it but that’s what it needed to be with that bunch of songs. We could never have done that with “Dunfearing…”because it needed a bit of time but there should be room to do that.
Neil Young would be cruising about, just out for a drive and he’d drive down to New Orleans and hear a bit of music and end up writing ten songs and think ‘I need to record this’, so he’d phone up local musicians, get into the studio, record them and send them to his recording company and they’ll say ‘Well you only had an album out a month ago, you can’t do this’, and I’m with him, why not. If you love Neil Young, or whoever, and you hear that a month after you’ve paid out ten pounds for his new album, he’s got another one out, I think I’d find ten quid but apparently it’s an unwritten law that you can’t do this.
AM – What I find quite interesting is that more and more bands are rehearsing stuff, getting the songs right, going into the studio and recording as a band rather than doing separate tracks.
PB – I don’t exactly do that. I like the idea but I find it takes a lot more time because you have to do a lot more takes but certainly, with the next album, it’ll be a lot looser; it’s nothing like “Dunfearing..”. It loosely follows on from that album; the third of the trilogy ties it all together. The second one will be a bit ‘what’s this?’, but it’ll make sense with the third one. I’m already on to next year with the folkie album, trying to get into Pentangle now, God help me.
AM – That’s something to look forward to then.
PB – Well that’ll be a double album because there’s a lot of songs there. Just songs that I’ve written in a folkie/country style that don’t need a lot of embellishment so they’re easier to record. There’s a lot of them, so let’s stick them out on a double album, which no-one does any more; gatefold sleeve coming up here.
AM – I bought the Ben Watt album, “Hendra” on vinyl, a few weeks ago and that had a nice gatefold sleeve and lovely packaging.
PB – I had a drink with Ben Watt, once; a very polite drink.
AM – It’s a great album and it’s nice to hear that people are still making music in that way.
PB – Well, these Drumfire gigs I’ve been doing, I supported Clive Gregson and my first reaction was ‘Christ, he’s still going’ and Martin Stephenson played there as well (at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham) and I thought it was great because you don’t to discover that they’re dead or working in Macdonald’s or something; they’re still out there playing and that’s really reassuring. They must love it. They must love and hate it enough to carry on doing it. Any ordinary, sane person would just say ‘I’ve had my shot now’, but the rest of us drink ourselves to death and write songs.
AM – The first time I saw you play was supporting Dean Owens in Clerkenwell at Drumfire gig. I spoke to Dean and he wasn’t happy because the venue was half-empty because they hadn’t used the posters he’d sent to publicise it and that must be incredibly frustrating.
PB – This was the other myth about myth about punk, that you used to have all these gigs going on everywhere. If you had a punk band or a new wave band or a post-punk band, you could probably get a few people to turn up but if it was a solo, forget it, it would be the owner and his dog, and his dog will hate you.
Which brought us neatly back, almost full circle, to Phil’s punk beginnings and the end of the interview.
Phil Burdett’s album, “Dunfearing and the West Country High” was reviewed here earlier this year and ever since that time I’ve been waiting for the chance to sit down and have a chat with Phil about his music (and many other things). We finally managed to meet up in Leigh-on-Sea on typically miserable British Bank Holiday weekend and had a pretty expansive chat over a couple of beers. Now that’s the way to do an interview. We covered a lot of ground, so the interview is being published in parts over the next few days.
AM – So Phil, tell us a bit about how you got to be where you are now, musically and philosophically.
PB – I take it you don’t mean the bus route down here. That’s a very good opening question and I’ll do my best to answer it. Musically I would say it’s incremental; it started off with my brother when I was five years old with a guitar and my brother Mick used to have a record collection and he’d lend me his older albums and he was one of those part-time hippies in the late sixties. He went to the Isle of Wight Festival, credit for that, and he had loads and loads of folk music and blues music which was all I heard. Everyone at school was into glam rock and everything so I used to have endless school parties when I was older (obviously not when I was five; great progressive school that would have been). All I would listen to was John Fahey, John Renbourn and probably a bit of the West Coast Neil Young, Topanga County kind of people, James Taylor and those sort of things. And I thought great, this is what’s in the charts, this pop music, then I got school and it was Marc Bolan which was fabulous; I didn’t quite reject everything of my brother’s but I thought, this is what I’m meant to be listening to so I suppose in the early times it was a mixture of Marc Bolan and John Renbourn and then my brother expanded as well into other things like The Band and Van Morrison. Actually, I saw Van Morrison first, although he will tell you different, but I saw him on the Old Grey Whistle Test when he did the “Too Late to Stop Now” thing and they broadcast the whole thing live when they used to do those things, in those days, and I just thought it was music from another planet; I’d never heard anything like it. He had a string section, he had a horn section, he was doing soul music, he was doing blues music, he was doing folky stuff and I can remember a shift happened in my head and I thought ‘this is what I want to do’, and that’s when I wanted to write songs. Not so much to write songs, ‘but I want to make this noise, not to play “Caravan” or “Brown-Eyed Girl”; I want to make this noise with these people. I want to have a bunch of people like this behind me and I want to make this noise.’
AM – Was it the variety of instruments that drew you to it?
PB – It was and, in retrospect, I was quite pleased with that because it was just such an astonishing surprise sometimes you go along to a gig, and you know two numbers in what you’re going to get, whether you like it or not. I like the idea that suddenly you don’t know what’s going to happen next; this could be a folk song, he could pull an acoustic guitar out, he could pull a set of bagpipes out. It could be anything; it could be heavy metal and I loved the idea of that and people like Captain Beefheart. Frank Zappa took it to extremes but I used to love Zappa and probably all the people I’ve liked since that, I’ve liked because of that gig where you thought that anything was possible. You see it now and it flows and it seems like a very good and expansive band playing but at the time I thought that one minute it was classical music, the next minute it was folk music and that’s what I liked it was the variation that made it a whole; it hung together because of the variation. It was astonishing; I sat up after it and I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to everything but couldn’t do anything.
AM -- You mentioned a couple of the musical mavericks there; is there something in you that taps in to that?
PB – I think it all came from that Van Morrison show. Now, I slag off Van Morrison more than anyone does because I think he’s become an appalling thing, an appalling great lump of Irishman. I would rather go and see, and I don’t say this lightly, I would rather go and see a Van Morrison tribute band now than see Van Morrison because it’s the same thing essentially; I think he’s lost the plot or never had the plot and got lucky. His first four or five albums up to “Veedon Fleece” and a little bit beyond were fantastic but suddenly it all went very wrong. When he was inventive and varied, which was probably before I got in to the idea of lyrics, and that’s evolved more than the music side, he was just purely making music and making sounds for the joy of it; I think Van Morrison expresses that if I don’t care about lyrics, because he’s not the greatest lyricist in the world, it’s perfect. “Astral Weeks”, it’s errant nonsense a lot of it but you couldn’t change a word of it. What the fuck is “Veedon Fleece”? What is a Veedon Fleece? But you wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m not religious, I’m an atheist, but I believe that; I want to go and search for the Veedon Fleece when I’m hearing that, so it works. It was that combination of trust in him, you believed in what he did, and his voice, which was peerless at that time. I used to try to do the Van Morrison bit with a bit of Bob Dylan thrown in. My brother tried to get me into Bob Dylan more and I said that Van Morrison was the man, and then suddenly the thing that changed it was Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson. I heard The Band’s first album and, for no reason whatsoever, I just loved and then I realised that the reason I loved it was because of these words. It’s not the way they were being sung, although that was fabulous, it was these words and I didn’t know what they meant, but they sounded like they meant something and it was probably a combination of those things; Dylan, the Band and Van Morrison.
AM – I was going to come to this a bit later, but the first time I listened to “Dunfearing and the West Country High” I pulled the lyric booklet out and it was obvious that there were an awful lot of lyrics there.
PB – I get hell from record companies for that, especially from the people that type the lyrics out.
AM – But it was doing that and actually reading the lyrics that I realised you’re obviously a writer who is influenced by poetry as well.
PB – In a way, poetry came before lyrics because I used to like poetry before music. When I first heard music, the lyrics were part of the music, of the sound. They could have been singing anything and in some cases they were. People talk about Nick Drake, but I think Nick Drake’s a terrible lyricist. I’ll get crucified for this, but if his music and his sound wasn’t as good as it is, if musically he was someone like Donovan, then the lyrics aren’t that different; it becomes mystical because of the setting rather than the content.
AM – What struck me as well is that the lyrics on “Dunfearing…” actually repay careful listening.
PB – That’s what you want. That’s the reason I want to write short stories, I want to write books, I want to write everything, but I’m writing this music because it’s the only thing I can see, outside of opera, that’s taken seriously (not seriously enough, in my opinion) because it’s a combination of music and lyrics that would not work separately. I’m not a great lover of the idea that lyrics are poetry; I think lyrics are lyrics but they can be good lyrics. Poetry’s another thing; poetry should be able to stand alone. If you have as good a lyric as “Idiot Wind” and Bob Dylan wanted to do that as a poem, I think he would rewrite it, but he shouldn’t rewrite it; it’s got to complement the music.
AM – For the first time in years listening to a new album, I went into sixth form English Literature criticism mode.
PB – My album will be on the curriculum next year; I trust Gove.
AM – You’ve seen the review, it got that reaction because there was so much in there lyrically.
PB – Your review astonished me; my first reaction was that I thought it was a wind-up and that Phil Pavling (described in the sleevenotes as guru and benefactor) had written it or I thought I’d written it and forgotten and posted it to myself. You don’t get that often, you think ‘That’s nice, we’ll use that line for a plug or something’, but this was almost like you knew as much as I did about what was going on, which is very rare.
AM – That was just my natural reaction to the album, really. The other thing was that my wife, who wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to listen to it, being much more into disco, gave it a big thumbs up as well.
PB – My disco album will come a lot later.
And that’s end of part one, more to come very soon, when we get into punk, post-punk and post-post-punk, among other things.