THE WOODENTOPS Interview
In 1982 Liverpool, post-punkers the Wild Swans split up. Departing from the group Les Pattinson formed Echo & The Bunnymen, Jem Kelly formed the Lotus Eaters and Rolo McGinty created the wonderfully hyper paced indie act Tthe Woodentops.
It seems odd that even with such great material, let alone lineage, that The Woodentops never managed to break through to the mainstream. By the mid 80’s the UK music press had hyped the band intensely, they had bagged a deal with the uber-hip Rough Trade label and toured with the likes of the Smiths and a revitalised and successful Julian Cope. It was looking like a no brainer that Rolo and The Woodentops would break through and become the next big thing.
Yet meteoric success never arrived. After the release of their second full length studio album ‘Woodenfoot Cops on the Highway’ in 1988, the record industry and label politics ground the band to a recorded music halt. Although the band continued to play live, they had by 1992 had gone on a permanent hiatus.
Today the band is working as a functioning unit, playing live and recording new music once more. With a London show on the horizon and with a newly released three CD compilation entitled ‘Before During After’ hitting the shelves, I had little choice but to hook up with Rolo and ask about the future of the band, with maybe a bit of the during and one big slice of before to enquire about as well.
WNW: How did you find being raised in South-East England? I know Maidstone well; it can be a beautiful yet hard place to live. Is that where you discovered music?
RM: Yeah I lived at a couple of addresses, Aylesford and West Malling, I spent my childhood in Maidstone. I lived in the Maidstone area until I was about nine, and then moved away to Grimsby and then I came back again. I used to go to Mote Park, and as a family we would go to this pub that had a really big Wurlitzer organ in it. I forget the name.
My grandparents lived literally opposite Aylesford station in one of those white houses, and my granddad worked at Reeds [paper mill - Ed] and so did my father as well. My first taste of music was those huge paper machines in Reeds. Yeah, that is probably where music started for me. I don’t know if you have ever been in a paper factory but those machines are absolutely massive.
WNW: I know it; I used to pilfer stuff from the back of the factory.
RM: Yeah, that would be behind the inking plant where they had all the magazines. Yeah, me too. The noise from those machines drove most of the males in my family deaf, so I avoided that and found another way in my life of going deaf.
I saw Motorhead at Maidstone Arts College; I saw Deaf School and Split Enz when they had their original dinosaur haircut kind of thing happening, and I had a friend at Maidstone Arts College who really wanted to study there. He wanted to do a music course and the college didn’t have a tutor for him, so he must have been the brain of Britain or something because they asked him who he would like them to contact for him, and he said yeah, Brian Eno and it happened. Brian Eno tutored him at Maidstone Art College. How about that?
WNW: Wow, one of my friends in Margate is being tutored at college by a guy who was in Wang Chung. It’s not really the same though. That’s Margate for you.
RM: Really? The concept that you can choose a tutor is pretty amazing. This was pre-punk, so, yeah, I am a bit of a Kent boy. Let’s put it that way.
WNW: You were part of post-punks the Wild Swans; at that point did you know that music was going to be a huge force in your life?
RM: To be honest I’ve been a blinkered horse since I was seventeen years of age. When you live in the country, you get quite a lot of solitude and you can get really fixated on something, and that’s what I was fixated on, music of all descriptions.
And when I was about four I was bought a little plastic record player with a plastic record on it, and the moment the needle went on the record and the music came out my parents told me that I just went wild, somersaulting and just acting completely mad around the room, I don’t know if that was the pivotal moment.
Maybe it was when we were in Grimsby and I was little. I used to sing for a choir in a church as part of my local school, and every kid that went in there got auditioned. I was successful and got drafted into the school choir. Now I am not actually religious at all, but the great thing about it was that we actually got paid for weddings and even more for funerals and we made albums and we toured. We went to Germany and when I was nine or something I spent a week in Reykjavik, so I probably got the bug there. I loved the atmosphere and the reverb in a church. That’s really important that. It’s a sort of trick that makes people feel that when they are in a church that they are a step closer to heaven but it’s just reverb, the natural reverb in the building. That’s quite a drug.
WNW: Have you guys ever played in a church?
RM: Err …No (Laughs).
WNW: I’ve seen a couple of gigs in churches, and it can turn an average band and more importantly an average singer into something quite majestic.
RM: Oh, I have no doubt that’s why Tangerine Dream did all that cathedral stuff.
WNW: To change track completely, how I discovered the Woodentops was from reading a book about the history of Rough Trade records. But it wasn’t clear how you and your band came to join the label.
RM: Well, we had done plenty on Food, which at the time was a really fledgling label, and our brand new manager had a part-time job at Rough Trade and that brought them closer to us. Obviously we were aware of Rough Trade, and a lot of music that they were releasing was of interest to me. I remember a lot of the music that they had in the basement was just great. They had their distribution side downstairs and it was really pivotal to everything, from pilfering down there I heard loads of things for the first time.
We did have some alternative labels at the time to choose from but Rough Trade was our personal favourite, plus we already had somebody kind of in there so it just made sense to sign to them. Also we really liked Geoff [Travis, Rough Trade’s founder-Ed] and pretty much everyone we met there. So with that and the carrot in front of the nose with what was going on downstairs with Rough Trade distribution, our goals were really simple at that time. It was never like we wanted to be hugely famous. It was more like “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get free records from downstairs?” (Laughs). Everyone was so friendly and you could just spend hours down there.
WNW: What was your impression of the label as the years went on with them?
RM: There were to different levels of it; we had some really good friends there, Peter Walmsley for example, he used to visit us when we were away. But there was stuff going on behind the scenes which I won’t go into, but at the time the record company had had a couple of hits with The Smiths and they wanted more. There was a belief in Rough Trade and the way in which they operated, but they couldn’t really carry on operating that way and continue with the hits. It was a very different musical climate then. You had to use all kinds of tricks of the trade to progress, and they were under all sorts of pressure to behave that way as well.
It was all pretty complicated stuff, but none of it matters now as it’s all gone. Now Rough Trade is still Rough Trade, but it’s a different thing to what it was. I could go into it in a lot more detail and I don’t want to bitch, but ‘Good Thing’ [Woodentops 1986 single - Ed] could have been in the top ten or possibly right at the top of the top ten hits and ‘Giant’ (Woodentops’ debut album – Ed) could have been a much bigger album, but mistakes were made and my team came across as having a kind of bullheadedness. When people are being bullheaded, they don’t listen when they are being told what they should do. A big opportunity was missed.
WNW: In the music press, you were lined up to be the next big thing.
RM: In a nutshell, the BBC were in love with us and gave us so much extra time on the radio at A-list status, but the records were not in the shops and so in that area that is where things went wrong. To pull a name out of the hat, I am sure if we had been with someone like A&M obviously those records would have been in the shops, but, you know, what the fuck does it matter now? The record has made some kind of history, and let’s not forget that when we first started doing this it wasn’t to be a top pop band. It was more or less the opposite of that in fact.
The funny thing is that there are only a certain amount of hours in the day and all of those hours were filled with activity. There was a hell of a lot of travelling which is great, and we couldn’t have been busier than we were. I mean my eyes were falling out of my head because we were so busy. To us it felt like we were like Elvis Presley anyway, but when we started the alternative charts were more interesting to us than the pop charts. We hated the pop charts.
In retrospect I behaved badly enough anyway, so if we really had been mega, mega, mega I don’t really think my ticker could have handled it, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it. Now I probably could, but it wouldn’t happen now and that’s okay. I am really at peace with everything.
WNW: Bringing things right up to date with the Woodentops , putting together the new compilation ‘Before During After’ seems almost comedic in its complexity. Did you enjoy getting stuck in with that?
RM: It’s been almost two decades since we’ve had anything in the racks of HMV that’s new and, yeah, I couldn’t help it, but I actually went into the shop and looked for myself, just to see if was true. It was just like going into a shop when we had ‘Plenty’ [The band’s first single from 1984 –Ed ] out. The feeling was the same.
WNW: I read that when you were putting together the compilation you had to bake the old Ampex tapes.
RM: They do. Every manufacturer has had to do it. That is how master tapes have appeared on the internet. They have slipped out of the back door because all these record companies have had to bulk transfer all of their media, and there is the occasional bad egg along the way who puts a little bit of cash in their back pocket and then slips stuff out. If you search correctly on the internet and you know how to find it, there is a big list of master tapes that you can get hold of and play around with yourself. It’s not quite such a mad thing to say that somebody stole our tapes because they could very well have done. Everything is available in this world and that includes being able to do your own remix of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but you can’t release it because you’ll go to jail.
WNW: It seems like much harder work to be in group these days than it was back then. Due to the internet. the whole industry has changed.
RM: It seems like a suicidal thing to say I want to be a musician or I want to be in a band these days. With Spotify you get zilch, with iTunes you get zilch and with YouTube you get zilch. But those facilities were not available before, and so today you can reach more people. More people can see and hear what you do, so there is an advantage to that. I’m a YouTube addict. I can catch up on things that I wanted to see, I’m always on it. I just love it. You can really see, feel and breathe stuff. Oddly I saw the new Ginger Baker movie yesterday, and there are clips of him flipping through YouTube. It’s crazy.
It is a shame that we can’t really make a living from it anymore. It’s harder to survive but you can’t fight progression. I don’t like the way that Apple seems to own everything, I disagree with that, but in all credit to them they were the first people to think of it. Well, actually, Napster had the business model that showed you how it could be done, but Apple seemed to take that idea and really run with it.
WNW: It was thanks to YouTube and iTunes that I first heard the music of the Woodentops. Those early singles just drew me in. They are such gems. Do you remember being in the studio recording them at all?
RM: Yes, there is not one recording that I don’t remember which is pretty remarkable because I was pretty baked most of the time. There is a lot of waiting around, you know. I think I probably heard every single track of every single thing that we ever recorded and if I wasn’t co-producing then I was working with the producers, so I was there all the time.
WNW: ‘Give It Time’ in particular from the ‘Giant’ LP is a real stand out track for me.
RM: That’s been a long-time favourite of ours too; we are still morphing that one today. We have a really beautiful section at the end of that one now where we use a lot of live loops that we made on the fly. It’s really beautiful and it has a new vocal that comes in over the top. That one is still evolving.
The actual recording of it was an absolute bitch; my bass player wasn’t allowed to play on it. I had to audition to play the bass or someone else was going to be brought in to do it. This was the sort of pressure you find yourself under when you are in the “hit machine”.
I had a real distaste for the Music Man bass guitar, I hated them and I had to audition on it and, yeah, I got it but it started painfully with that whole process.
I also remember Benny [Staples-Ed] playing the drums on it. What we did is we used the LinnDrumII to write the drums. So they would be written on that or whatever I had at the time, and then be played live and turned into a live beat, and then when we got back in the studio it would then be placed back into a programmed drum track. So then Benny would go back into the studio after that and play over it drum by drum, and I remember really well him playing the tom toms on that, and just really enjoying hearing it come to life.
I really love the LinnDrum, but to be honest with you I always preferred a live drum sound. The great thing about recording like that was that it meant that all the mics in the studio that were really shit hot could all be used on one drum. I remember what the kick drum looked like when it was alone, just sitting there in the studio with all these beautiful mics all around it like it was the president being interviewed. A lot of the ‘Giant’ album was really beautifully recorded.
In general if you go into the studio and play just how you are then it will probably be okay, but if you go into a studio and aim to play and sound better than you are then it gives you a target to achieve as a live musician. Benny was in no way bummed out to record like that; he was just like, “Yeah that sounds great.”
WNW: What about the artwork to the ‘Giant’ LP? For anybody into independent music in the mid-80s, it’s a rather iconic piece of work.
RM: Even now people are making posters out of it for us. For example, there is a new take on it for the upcoming Dingwalls show we have. It’s just a small element of that cover made into a poster. It’s fantastic. It was a 3 dimensional standing model originally that was then photographed, and it was that photograph that then became the cover. It was partly a wall and then all of those trees were made, then cut out to be standing. Oddly the Americans wouldn’t release that cover, so we drafted in Steven Appleby to do the American cover.
For the ‘Woodenfoot Cops on the Highway’ cover we took the contents of a local bike shop. We got a load of cog wheels, made the model and then shot the model, and then we took all the cog wheels back.
WNW: In the past you said that your recordings came out the way they did because the equipment you were using was all that you could afford at the time. If you did have the most up to date technology at the time. how different do you think your sound would have been?
RM: Er… ‘Woodenfoot Cops on the Highway’ (Laughs).
WNW: But even then, on that second album did you have what you wanted?
RM: Ah…That’s a good point. Yeah, I think we did for that one, but we did use a really cheap domestic system. We used the Atari system rather than say Fairlights. The idea with the Atari was really interesting to us. It was a revolution in music and production, and we were really pumped for that right when it first started. There was a really fast learning curve there with it because we had to have our shit together in the studio with that. Anyone that has ever dealt with that system knows that learning in the deep end is pretty tricky, but that’s what we did.
WNW: Did you feel like you were in a different band when you recorded the ‘Woodenfoot’ album?
RM: When we recorded ‘Woodenfoot Cops on the Highway’ we were a different band. We had toured constantly worldwide from ‘Giant’ up to that point. In fact the reason why ‘Live Hypnobeat Live’ (1987 live album – Ed) was released was because we didn’t have any time between the records to stop or even think about them. So recording that was a raging panic. We got back just before Christmas and I had until the 1st of March to write it. Obviously I did have a couple of ideas, but I just had to lock myself away in a rehearsal room and write it. Also I had to pass my driving test, plus I got punched in the face by a psycho in a petrol station in Parkway in Camden. After I’d written the music and passed my test, I had to get on a plane to Japan and I had to get on it with a really fat lip. It’s true.
WNW: Finally back in 2007 you were quoted as saying there would be some brand new music within the year, but here we are in 2013 still waiting. What’s going on with it?
RM: I have just got a new batch of mixes through today from Istanbul, but because I have taken the time to put this compilation out it’s actually put the new album back a little bit. I can say that it’s all recorded and it’s given us the chance to tweak the new songs a little bit more. Just stuff like maybe the vocal was a bit quiet on this one or that one, nothing major. It should be out at some point this year. We have got a couple of interested parties and we are yet to make that choice, but the thing is when we do make that choice the thing is finished and ready to go.
WNW: Thank you.
The Woodentops will be playing a one-off show at Dingwalls in London on the 23rd June. More information can be found here: http://www.dingwalls.com/listings/events/23-jun-13-the-woodentops-dingwalls
I originally conducted this interview for the great pennyblackmusic magazine.