This is an unedited transcript of an interview Tim gave to journalist Mugram Thesic for the Bombay Arts Review shortly after completion of the Heligoland album.
He was in India following up an invitation to do a Bollywood soundtrack. My thanks to him for lending me the cassette.
M.T. Obviously we all know and love you for your work with Talk Talk, but the last album from them was, what….eight years ago? Why the big pause?
T F-G Well, I did actually make an EP (Creosote & Tar) in the interim, but that notwithstanding there were a lot of false starts with the album. I actually wrote an entire album before the EP…. that would be ‘94–‘95….and junked it. That’s why the EP has the catalogue number 002. 001 was in memory of the album that never was.
M.T. Obviously now I’m going to ask you why you junked it.
T F-G There were things about it I wasn’t happy with…. mostly to do with the recording of it. I still have a lot of time for the songs…and knowing me I’m sure I shall rehash them later on. (sound of beer-bottle being opened, muttered swearing)
M.T. But if Creosote & Tar was 1997…. 3 years is a lot of false starts… did you ever consider editing?…..
T F-G (testily) I think I rather meant that I came across some obstacles in the making of it. I originally conceived it to be drummed by the guy who drums for Jonathan Richman (Thomas Larkin), but we couldn’t tie up the schedules; he was always on the road with Jonathan. It took me ages to come up with a replacement – that was Jim White from ‘The Dirty Three’. He was very patient with me – I asked him to play really some shit things which weren’t in his normal area. Some tracks, for one reason and another, I preferred conceptually with drum-machine, and Jim got wiped on those. But on stuff like Shock Treatment, I thought he was just brilliant.
M.T. I’m sure we’d all agree with that, well done Jim! What else?
T F-G I wasn’t mentally prepared for some of the drums not working. I had to go and spend 4 months with a sampler and a bunch of vinyl to find some drum sounds to sequence. The drum sound library I had made in my previous house was all too massive and echoey. And I spent a long time getting the guitar sounds I had in my head. If you don’t get it right it can be disastrous. It’s a f***ing minefield. Every sound is potentially genre-defining…..I had a final date I had to finish by because I was moving house, and after that I was committed to starting a Catherine Wheel album…. as it was I mixed the whole album in two days, and an hour after I finished the last mix I stripped my studio down and boxed it up to go into storage.
M.T. Goodness! What else?
T F-G Nothing else
M.T. [ rustling of paper ] what… erm…why did you decide to use the instruments you did? Oboe, and …the other ones….
T F-G They were sounds that I thought would work in well with the whole. I played most of the parts on Variophon (primitive wind synth) first, and then transcibed for the appropriate instruments. Unfortunately, my sense of rhythm is rather idiosyncratic, and some of the parts were, quite frankly, unreadable. There was a certain amount of panic in the studio when it came to record them. Some bars were so intricate that they were six inches long. As a result, on some tracks I had to go back to my original rough cassettes of the parts and fly them in to the masters. That’s why some of the woodwind parts are so muffled-sounding and hissy. That’s not to say I think the parts complicated – most of them are very primitive. But the timing…..the timing’s quite tricky…
M.T One of the things that strikes the listener is that the sound is quite different to that of Talk Talk, less … warm-sounding …… thinner really…
T F-G Yes…. well, that was a conscious thing. I never imagined that expansive and expensive bottom-end with Heligoland. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid it, using for the most part thin and stringy bass sounds, with the bass not very loud in the mix by so -called normal standards. I put the bass at a volume I think it’s musical role demanded, judged by the same parameters as one would apply to any other instrument. Most engineers think of a bass’s relation to a track in sound terms rather than musical terms.
M.T. And drums….not very loud either…..
T F-G I don’t like loud drums as a general rule. Unless the guitars threaten to overwhelm them, a track always sounds too safe and in-control to me.
M.T. Can we talk about the vocals a bit? Did you ever do any singing before Heligoland….on any Talk Talk albums perhaps?
T F-G (laughs) …..no… I started after that …. it was just something I had to do – you can’t in all seriousness write a bunch of songs reflecting your world-view and get some other f**kwit to sing them, it would be a joke. Besides, I love singing; it’s the part of recording I enjoy the most. I was really pissed off when I came to do the vocals properly and found I preferred all the guide vocals. I was deprived of my favourite bit. Actually….. that’s not quite true…. I re-did about three. I also had to re-sing the tag to ‘Bluebird’, because although I had written the song some time previously, I couldn’t for the life of me come up with that one line of lyric. So I actually sang ‘..and we can raise a joyful song’ some 2 years after the rest of it.
M.T. So why do you want to do the music to an Indian film? It seems like an odd thing for an Englishman to want to do…….
T F-G Not for an odd Englishman it isn’t. I’ve always really admired Bollywood soundtracks – they know exactly what they want to do, exactly how they want to sound and exactly how they want to make you feel. They have an absolute confidence in the worth of their existence. A Bollywood soundtrack never lies awake at night worrying about infinity (both laugh rather more than necessary)…… I got taken down to that studio just off Belasis Road this morning … you know, just behind that shoe-shop…
M.T. Oh…. you mean Hitsound..
T F-G That’s the one. I don’t know how you get a whole string orchestra in it – I couldn’t believe the size of the place. I don’t mean to be rude, but I would have trouble recording a family of mice in there….
M.T. …That’s why we a did so much reverb to the soundtracks!
T F-G What, to make the mice sound as big as rats?……Whatever, it’s a massive challenge, even though I’ll be relying on a lot of help from other people. I think Indian film music is opening up in a very exciting way at the moment; with its assimilation of UK club beats.
M.T That’s really interesting, thank you….I think I’ve got enough now….
T F-G Can’t we keep going anyway? I might say something really interesting later on…..can we send out for some cigarettes?
M.T OK… yes…OK….(leaves the room momentarily: the only sound is of someone whistling ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ tunelessly between their teeth). So sorry…..OK……would you like to talk about your lyrics a bit?
T F-G Not really….Unfortunately it’s virtually impossible to explore lyrics without sounding like a total wanker, so I won’t if you don’t mind. I don’t think you would enjoy the songs any more if you knew what they were about.
M.T. (fumbling) What sort of thing do you listen to at home?
T F-G …..well not very much really. Serge Gainsbourg a bit I suppose……I like the ‘Primal Scream’ album….I mean…. the daytime radio in England is unlistenable; there are a couple of European alternative stations which you can get webcast, but in England where local calls aren’t free you can rack up a bit of a bill. Otherwise you have to spend your evenings listening to John Peel in the hope of latching on to something stimulating….
M.T. (excitedly) I met John Peel once, really I did! – I bumped into him as he was posting a letter at the post office in Great Park…Great Pork…
T F-G Great Portland Street.
M.T. Yes yes …exactly!………….sorry, carry on….
T F-G …and although I really like seeing bands live, you’re very limited out in the provinces. It’s the thing I miss most about London….Ultimately I’d have to say I’m just not really a fan of other people’s music much any more, probably because I don’t have access to the stuff that I might find diverting. It can’t bother me that much though, can it?…. or I would make more of an effort……
M.T. Do you listen to your own, then?
T F-G Actually I do, I listen to it quite a lot, if only to remind myself of its brilliance.
M.T. …and what’s your favourite track?…
T F-G Creosote & Tar – it’s easily the best song I’ve ever written or had a hand in writing. I wrote it really quickly, even by my own standards, and most of it was recorded in an afternoon in my bedroom. No chorus to speak of, 2 verses, really focused lyric. My only regret was that the original harmonica track was accidentally wiped and I had to redo it, but it was never as good. I was f***ing mortified at the time. I went pale and started trembling. Every idea is defined by the first time it’s realised, however crap. In all honesty, I shall probably never write another song that good. It was inspired by a band called Th’ Faith Healers, but owes a bit to ‘Badge’ by Cream, though I’m sure Eric wouldn’t thank me for name-checking him.
M.T. Were you a big fan of the guitar heroes of that era?
T F-G I probably was then, but not now, not remotely. I don’t enjoy that style of guitar-playing. It’s all a bit competent for me. Also, at the time, I was purely a keyboard player- I didn’t pick up a guitar until about 1990. Then I took a string off, and had to learn all over again…
M.T. Why was that?
T F-G I liked the sound of it better with 5 strings. You have access to a lot of different shapes you can’t get with 6. It’s easier to avoid historical guitar cliches. Also without a G string it’s easier to tune…..
M.T. I’m sure some readers would like you to talk a little about your time with Talk Talk.
T F-G ….. terrific……..
M.T. What are your over-riding memories of the sessions? And how do you feel about the albums now?
T F-G (pause) The sessions were very intense, but usually good-natured……. Mark and I generally agreed on musical issues. I understood the musical profile of the band and worked within it………… I can remember the sessions in some detail, even down to the choice of microphone…and how I felt doing particular overdubs….that’s probably because I always enjoyed playing a lot more than I enjoyed producing….As to the albums now.. well….I couldn’t listen to them all the way through so I couldn’t tell you. I like odd bits…..from ‘Laughing Stock’ mostly, less from ‘Spirit of Eden’. I thought…..that album was rather suffocated by it’s own tastefulness in parts. ‘Laughing Stock’ feels a bit less self-concious…..‘Colour of Spring’ I can’t listen to at all now….I occasionally use the first track to check out speakers in studios but that’s it. I heard some guy at the Notting Hill Carnival using it to set up his sound system as well…..it’s a very precise-sounding record….
M.T. So if you prefer the albums in reverse order, why didn’t you make another one? The chances are it would have been your favourite!
T F-G Yeah, well… by that logic you could go on making records until you died, each one more blindingly brilliant than the last. As it was, I had got all I wanted out of that particular stylistic furrow, and felt it was time to move on. Minimalism is a wonderful thing, but you can have too much of it.
M.T (laughs) That’s very funny, Tim!
T F-G Yes, isn’t it.
M.T Do you prefer working on your own then? I imagine it must be more fun collaborating, because you have a friend and comrade to help when it gets difficult.
T F-G ……mmmmmmm…..well……..yes…. but collaboration…has its own drawbacks. Sometimes you have an idea or an approach which you would follow instinctively on your own, but which needs justification to a collaborator, however much trust there is. There it gets tricky, because one is verbally trying to explain an abstract, which is strewn with pitfalls. Also of course, one has to accommodate the other person’s taste and opinions. Luckily , for the most part, Mark’s and mine co-incided.
M.T. What do you think of Mark’s solo album?
T F-G I’ve never heard it, I’m afraid.
M.T. REALLY??? That’s a bit strange…….why not?…..it’s very good you know……
T F-G I’m sure it is. It’s extremely unlikely that Mark would ever release anything that was crap. On the other hand, th..(at this point the I presume the cassette ran out unnoticed and was only turned over after some time)….what would be the point in eating two?
M.T. Yes, I know what you mean. Your lips go so numb. So….who are the musical giants of 20th century music for you? I know you were quite influenced by some areas of classical music.
T F-G Yes, but I’m fickle. I went through a phase of listening to a lot of what’s commonly known as the Second Viennese School – Schoenberg, Webern, also some Stravinsky. But they wrote some real shockers as well, you have to be selective. Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ still holds up for me, as do some of his piano pieces. Sibelius and Delius interested me for a while. Then I got on to post-war stuff – Boulez, Ligeti and John Cage. Varese never did anything for me – too much f***ing banging things. I’ve always hated orchestral percussion, gongs and the like. Then I abandoned all that and went back to renaissance polyphony, Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons and their contemporaries. That’s the only conventional classical music I would put on today, 4 or 5-part vocal music, som Ne of it surprisingly dissonant, and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. It has a very simple, direct, primitive effect on you. I advise anyone who wants a change from Green Day to try Tomas Luis de Victoria’s ‘Responsories for Tenebrae’. It’s an education.
M.T. ….and jazz?
T F-G I had outings with Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Mingus, and others, but I do have a basic argument with jazzers. Given that 98% of anything anyone plays is crap, what makes you think you can blow for 5 minutes, playing something in excess of 2000 notes, and hope for a round of applause at the end? The odds are stacked against you. I’m just not interested in mindless incontinent improvisation like that. And besides, a lot of jazz follows a really mundane kind of rondo form – theme, solo, theme, solo, theme, solo, the predictability is stultifying. You have to look to Ornette Coleman and a more free jazz approach to get away from it. Having said that, I am a fan of a lot of jazz drummers. I need a jazz/punk drummer for my next project. A Generation X waster with loose wrists. They’re not easy to find.
M.T. No indeed! Which brings us to…..
T F-G Well I’ve no time for the Beatles. Too much has been said about them already. And the Velvet f***ing Underground…….. there are three people who I think stand above the rest in terms of originality and creativity. Two would be Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan, the latter for obvious reasons, but Zappa is often criminally overlooked. Probably the reason I relate particularly to these two is because they are so cynical, which is an obvious necessity in a social commentator. It’s not often appreciated though, just how many albums Frank Zappa made, and OK, they weren’t all of equal quality, and some were downright bad, but f***, at least they were all different, and just massively creative: overflowing with ideas. He was working in an area all his own, because anybody else playing that technical stuff without his lack of pretension ended up sounding like a muso. The third would be Robert Wyatt, ex Soft Machine, who comes at life from a very different angle, but somehow gets to the same place. He’s probably very cynical, but chooses to concentrate on other things. A genius. I prefer his home recordings, for obvious reasons.
M.T. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what a muso is….
T F-G Oh…….It’s rather a subtle thing to define easily, but the best I could do off the top of my head is someone who indulges in technicality for it’s own sake.
M.T. What…..like……….er……Rick Wakeman…for example?
T F-G That’ll do.
M.T. OK OK..I see now….well, …all these people must have influenced you to some extent, but what about the people you’ve worked with apart from Talk Talk? How did your collaboration with Nick Cave come about, for example?
T F-G Well, I was approached to do a song for the 3rd Batman film (Batman Forever) and when I appraised them of my non-involvement with Talk Talk they said “well do one anyway with whoever you like”. Someone suggested Nick, and I could see the possibilities immediately – a sort of noir thing, but not to taken completely seriously. So we had a talk about it, he came up with a lyric angle and I wrote and recorded a demo of a backing track in my attic. We sent off the demo to America, not really expecting it to be what they had in mind, but they loved it. So we re-recorded some things in a London studio, but used most of the demo. We got session singers in to do the backgrounds, but they were so unbelievably shite we mixed in the ones I sang on the demo. The strings we kept. Amusingly though, in a rush of blood to the head, the director left all the songs off the film except for Seal’s, so the soundtrack album contained 10 songs, nine of which played no part in the film whatsoever.
M.T. Wasn’t hat a bit disappointing for you? After all that work…..
T F-G No, because the film was universally regarded as being crap. If I cared enough, I would probably consider it a lucky escape.
M.T. What about Nick?
T F-G What about him?
M.T. How do you think he felt about it?
T F-G I really couldn’t tell you, quite frankly
M.T. Well……How was your working relationship? Did you do anything else together?
T F-G We did a theme song for a low budget film whose name right now escapes me, but it was so poorly received they chopped it up and made it into a TV mini-series. I also did a string arrangement for that song he did with Kylie Minogue, which he very sensibly wiped.
M.T. After so many years wiping everyone else, it must have been an interesting experience being wiped yourself……
T F-G (dourly) Touché…..
M.T. Now…I must say….I’m very sorry….you’ve worked with quite a lot of bands that are just names to me….Catherine Wheel, Lush.
T F-G Well, Catherine Wheel I’ve known since 1991 when I did their first album. I’ve played on most of their others. Really under-rated songwriters, and very excellent people…..I first came across Lush when I was returning to the real world from the purdah of a Talk Talk album…..they were a big influence on me for a while… I kind of regret not have done more than one EP with them……
T F-G Camel????
Where the hell did you get that from?….
M.T. (doggedly) Chris De Burgh….
T F-G Chris de B…..???? Are you mad? Do I seriously look like someone who would work with Chris de Burgh??
M.T.(uncomfortably) Well….it says here……on my notes….
T F-G Well, your notes can f**k right off. What *%&@ wrote them anyway?
M.T.(humbly) sorry…my sources are usually so reliable……I take it this band the…the…Wombles?… is a mistake as well then? They do sound a bit unlikely……
T F-G (sounding wrong-footed) Look, I did them when I was house engineer at Wessex, you don’t get to choose who you work with you know …..and I did engineer the Dave Goodman version of Anarchy in the UK – that must count for something in my expiation…..What else have you got on that frightful piece of paper? No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know…..ask me a question about Ravi Shankar or something…….
M.T. (helpfully) Do you like Ravi Sha s music?
T F-G I don’t know enough about it to be able to comment. I expect I would…. …but I would probably like it more if he put his sitar through an amp….
M.T. And didn’t you spend some time in Africa?……
T F-G ….Yes I did, a year and a day to be exact. There were two sorts of music that I developed quite a feeling for – Algerian rai, and soukous, particularly that performed in Zaire. Soukous is just fantastic dance music, anyone with a fingernailful of rhythm would be compelled to respond to it. I caught it at it’s epicentre in La Cité – the most vibrant part of Kinshasa (the capital of Zaire). At night the place just throbs in such a way that the music becomes totally part of the fabric around you – it seems such total logic, such a total given that this music was brought into being by this environment, that it seems impossible that it could come from anywhere else………which is ironic, when you consider that a lot of it was actually made by exiled musicians in Paris. I’ve never had the opportunity to tap into the soukous scene there, so it might be the exception, but generally I find that music loses some of its potency if it’s taken out of its original geographic context, for precisely the above reason. I couldn’t imagine listening to soukous at home; it would be too bizarre………like looking at a Lucien Freud picture in a supermarket…………or reading Virginia Woolf underwater ….. Having said that, I did see a stunning set by Cheb Khaled at the Garage some time ago, so rai obviously managed to make the leap for me…..
M.T. Did you go there with some kind of musical pilgrimage in mind? Was it some kind of …..refreshment?……
T F-G Well, I suppose it was unintentionally. I’d just finished the first talk Talk album I was involved in (‘It‘s my Life’), and was just f***ed off with everything. I was originally just going to explore the Sahara on my own, but you figure that while you’re there, well – why not do Equatorial Africa, and oh look! there’s another desert down there – Botswana – got to do that one. Before I knew it I had planned a journey of 35000 miles, and was intent on becoming the first person to drive to Cape Town and back solo.
M.T. I could never do that! All that time and no-one to talk to……
T F-G It’s actually really easy being on your own in wild uninhabited places. There seems to be some primitive elemental force keeping you company. But it gets drowned out in big cities, and that’s where you feel most like you can’t handle the solitude. I remember I shed a tear on Christmas day in Northern Cameroun when I found some shrink-wrapped Edam cheese in a supermarket. Also you have access to major international airports, and it would be so easy to just…..you know…. .hop on….
M.T. Did you take any music with you?
T F-G Mmmm……Al Bowlly….
M.T. I’m afraid I don’t…..
T F-G He was a big band crooner from the Thirties. I’m quite a fan of that stuff – Sid Lipton, Lew Stone…..some of their arrangements were magnificent, and of course it had inbuilt lo-fi credentials. The sound was essentially a great big wodge of mid-range, like a giant ham sandwich flying out of your speakers towards your head. I like that.
M.T. ‘Arrangements’ seem to crop up in your conversation quite frequently. Why do you think they are so important to you?
T F-G Because, obviously, they have so much bearing on the presentation of the material. I think they’re far harder to get right than the material itself. Actually, as time goes on, I’ve become more of an anti-arranger – in the same way that I’ve become an anti-producer. I hate listening to a record and having to suffer the mental image of people huddled over boxes twiddling knobs, or agonising over whether this note should go here , there or nowhere. Somebody once commented, on hearing one of my mixes, that it sounded as if the band was being listened to through a rehearsal room door. It wasn’t meant to be a compliment, but I took it as one anyway. Actually though, I see the arrangement being the slave of a far greater God; that of form. This is the big question for me, and one that doesn’t get any easier to answer the more music you make. In fact in a lot of ways it gets harder, because you are constantly having to come up with forms th at feel fresh. So I doubt that I would ever start another album unless I had some of these issues nailed down. There are plenty of people out there expounding perfectly valid emotional diatribes in a worn-out language, but these days…..well, it’s not enough to just have something to say; you also have to have a way of saying it.
M.T. Do you think the converse is also true?
T. F-G To a lesser extent – I think it’s the job of the so-called avant-garde to make things which most people consider ugly, as a deliberate provoking device. These forms are then picked apart by other artists and mutated into something more generally palatable. Whether these new forms are arrived at mathematically or intuitively doesn’t really matter – if it moves the art on, it moves the art on.
M.T. So how do you see Heligoland developing? Is it not the case that with an approach that has a musical ideology attached to it, you can find yourself going down a dead-end street, at some point you have to say – I can’t go any further down this road: this seam is all worked out?
T F-G I wasn’t aware I had an ideology actually……I wouldn’t want you to think from what I’ve said that I do……Obviously you refine your ideas constantly, and the devices that work for you on one project may not appeal to you on the next…..so it’s a constant evolutionary process, yes……but not headed in a particular direction. I think I’m in quite an unusual position in that I’ve been around a while, but only been performing, for want of a better word, for a short time. In performing terms I feel about 18, but as a producer I feel quite…..gnarly. I think that leads to an interesting alignment of naivety and experience.
M.T. Is there anyone out there you’d particularly like to work with?
T F-G Yes, Kate Winslet.
M.T. Can we stop now? I’ve got a bit of a headache…..
T F-G So’ve I……..