"Whistling While You Work" - Mike & The Mechanics in conversation at the V & A Hotel Manchester, Saturday March 9, 1996. Interview by Alan Hewitt. Photos by Jon 'Armando' Guntrip.
It was my great pleasure to finally have the opportunity to interview the band during their current UK tour where I caught up them at their hotel in Manchester. First of all, I asked Paul Carrack about his thoughts on the band and his solo career...
AH: First of all, Paul, how did you become involved with The Mechanics? I believe that you auditioned for Mike originally at the time of "Smallcreep's Day" as one of the singers for that...
PC: I didn't actually audition for that, no. I met Mike and we had a chat, I don't think I actually auditioned for it. I can't really remember now, it's along time ago but anyway... Is that the one which Noel McCalla did? Well, I don't know what happened there, Mike decided to use Noel who is a terrific singer.
I bumped into BA Robertson who asked me to sing on a demo for him, he tracked me down. I had never met him but he tracked me down to sing on a demo of a song he had written and I did that, and he mentioned that he was writing with Mike for a solo album he was doing and would I be interested in coming down? So BA drove me down there one day, I went in and on "Silent Running", they didn't even have any lyrics and I just sort of la la'd and made it up, and I guess that was the audition.
AH: How does working with The Mechanics compare with some of the other groups you have worked with?
PC: It's different. It's a nice professional level and there is no corner cutting or anything like that, and it is fairly comfortable in that respect. A lot of the other things have been a lot more "improvised" [laughter] but musically you try to bring whatever you can and help in any way. When I first got involved with it in the 1980's whenever that was... at the time most of the projects I was involved with were very low tech. People like Squeeze and Nick Lowe... Nick wouldn't even have a synthesiser in the studio, he hated them, and so this was the opposite end of the spectrum, especially the first couple of albums which were dead posh sounding. To me it's all music and it is all valid, really.
AH: When you actually come to doing the shows as opposed to doing the studio things, how do you decide who is going to sing which songs?
PC: Mike and Chris Neil decide that and they ask and we usually both have a blast through all of them. On the last album we both went down there at the demo stage and had a blast through it and then they would get an idea as to who would sing which tracks. It's not only to do with singing, it's also to do with the fact that we are two very different personalities.
AH: A lot of people have commented about your taking over the keyboard duties on stage from Adrian Lee. When you are writing for your own albums, what do you compose on, piano or guitar?
PC: Definitely a keyboard. I have always played a bit of guitar, not seriously in a professional capacity, and I have got a fairly good feel for it but I am no virtuoso but I use mostly keyboards for writing.
AH: Last year you were probably the first or one of the first Western rock bands to play in South Africa after the end of Apartheid, what did you feel about that?
PC: I don't know if we were the first but purely from a selfish basis, it was interesting to go there because it was a new place and they went completely mad and gave us a great reception which kind of set us up and gave us a bit of confidence at the beginning of the tour. We don't get to see much, honestly when we are down there, especially as we rehearsed when we got there, so we didn't get out and about. It still looks pretty grim actually, and we didn't venture far from the hotel because it looked pretty dodgy with the townships and everything, but at least they are trying and I really hope it works out for them.
AH: I saw you a couple of weeks ago at the Hop & Grape on your own solo show. How do you manage to balance the work between The Mechanics and your own solo career?
PC: Well, the fact is that last year was really busy and The Mechanics thing went far better than we thought it might, and I had already committed myself to my own album and so, fortunately, the way I decided to do it was just with a band without a long winded production process to just take the songs that I had written with the players and just go in and play. That was how I wanted to do it and that's quite quick to do that.
AH: Have you any plans for any further solo shows?
PC: Well, yeah. But I mean as soon as we finished the last tour they asked us to commit to this tour because they wanted to put tickets on sale early and I thought well... I owe it to myself to have a bit of time, but I didn't want to let everybody else in the set up down, and it was up to me and so I said "alright, I won't do it". And on the positive side, things are going great with this so... I have got another single coming out...
AH: Which one is it?
PC: It's going to be "How Long?". I am also doing stuff in between, in the little break that we have got and at the end I will probably be doing stuff as well.
AH: How many solo albums have you actually released, because some of them are only available here on imports?
PC: I think it is five but I count this one as being the first because it is always like the first anyway, starting from the beginning so...
AH: Which do you prefer, playing live or recording?
PC: I don't prefer either actually, they are both important aspects of what we do and the thing about the studio is that you are working all day at what you like to do and on the road there is a lot of travelling and that sort of thing, which is a bit boring, but the playing every night for the people, that is the other side of it, but they are both enjoyable...
Next it was the turn of Paul Young to be the one on the receiving end of a grilling by yours truly...
AH: Well, Paul same question for you... how did you become involved with The Mechanics?
PY: I got a 'phone call in about June 1985 from... I think it was Chris Neil... no, it was Keith Hopwood, who used to be in Herman's Hermits. He's a friend of mine, and he is also a friend of Chris Neil's, we all kind of know each other, and he said "Chris is looking for you and I don't know what he wants but is it OK if I give him your phone number?" and I said "Yeah, sure..." and then I got a call from Chris Neil and he said... "I'm doing a solo album for Mike Rutherford, do you want to come down and sing?". So I went down and the first track I tried was "All I Need Is A Miracle" and they seemed pretty pleased with it, and asked if it was cool for me to do a couple more and so I did and got a nice cheque, and then thought that was the end of it! [laughs].
Then I got a call about three months later saying that "Silent Running" and "All I Need Is A Miracle" had been top and number five respectively in America and we had another one on the boil, and did I want to go over there and tour with them. And I said "Yeah, I'm not doing anything at the moment" and we went over and became Mike & The Mechanics, the touring band with a nucleus, almost by default really, and that was eleven years ago and here we are still at it. No mean feat at all in this day and age! [laughs].
AH: How does working with Mike & The Mechanics compare with anybody else you have worked with?
PY: It's a lot more... what can I say? It's a lot more organised; more responsible. Most of the bands I have been in were just musicians who played and liked to have a bit of fun and we just go lucky like Sad Café and there was no big deal about it; we were just a good time rock band and we just got lucky and happened to have a couple of hit records, and then we got unlucky and went bankrupt and split up [laughs] and that's the way it goes. But this band is more organised and obviously the organisation of Mike Rutherford's management is highly efficient... but the guys get on great and we have all become really good friends and we really enjoy it when we get back together every couple of years. Because it's not like Take That, we are not living in each other's pockets twenty four hours a day. It's a serious band but you don't feel any kind of serious pressure and I don't know what it is, maybe Mike shields us from that but it is a great band to be in and every night we play and enjoy it, it's just fantastic and we love it, you know.
AH: I've followed this band and your previous band Sad Café, but what interests me about this band is that over the four albums you have got more involved in the creative side as well. What do you think you bring to the band yourself?
PY: Well... I don't know. I think Mike has me in the band because I am a show off on stage and a bit of a rabble rouser [laughs] because even though they are all really good musicians and successful at whatever they do, without me they wouldn't have that kind of thing going. So they have me as the wild man and Paul Carrack is the straight singer, we play off each other and it does seem to work. I never thought it would, but it does. Our success has proved me wrong and I still haven't been sacked so I must be doing something right! [laughs]
AH: I notice this time it seems to be a solely UK tour, are there any plans to take it any further afield?
PY: We have got a couple of dates in... I think Nurnburg and another German festival, Rock Am Ring in May, but Mike is playing it very close to his chest at the moment, although I am not sure if he knows what is going on really himself, but I could work three hundred nights a year it wouldn't bother me.
AH: We have just asked Paul Carrack as well, I saw a clip on TV of when you guys were in South Africa last year; how did it feel to be one of the first rock acts over there after the end of Apartheid?
PY: It was great but it was a very odd vibe. I found it sinister, that's how I would describe it but everyone was smiling but there was an undercurrent as if any minute there was going to be a really bloody civil war, and I don't think a lot of the guys out there have lost their attitudes, especially up north in Pretoria. But anyway, I was very pleased to be there when the rugby was on... they just booed us forever when we wore the rugby shirts but I think they were booing us because they liked us really. Rory Underwood came the night before last to Nottingham and wherever we play if any of the English lads, or Welsh or Irish lads are around they always come to see us. Even the West Samoans are pals of ours! We all like rugby, Paul likes football, I like cricket and football, Mike likes polo but we all have a broad interest in sport and we all really got into rugby last year and went to all the matches and sat surrounded by thousands of green shirts and there was one thin line of white shirts it was great!
AH: You mentioned Sad Café before, what actually happened to the band?
PY: We didn't pay our VAT or something and it just happened to be our most successful year and it was a lot of money...
AH: In between Sad Cafe and The Mechanics have you been involved with any other groups?
PY: Not really, because they kind of crossed over. While I was recording with Mike in 1985 we were planning on doing another album and tour and we made two subsequent albums, "The Politics Of Existing" and "Whatever It Takes", which are still available. I actually saw them in the Virgin Megastore in Nottingham the other day, and also BMG have stuck out a Best of Sad Café which I didn't know about until a fan brought a copy for me to sign the other day. It actually uses the track listing I suggested when I was trying to buy back the rights, anyway I will get PRS on it if it sells!
AH: I know that Paul Carrack has a solo career, are there any plans for a solo album from you?
PY: Yeah. I have built my own studio over the past few years but with this band we have been pretty much on the go for the past couple of years. However, in the last month between Christmas and coming away three weeks ago, I started to seriously put some stuff down and I am hoping when I get off this tour to finish those tracks and then go for a deal and then try and get something out by the autumn, I hope. Although what to call it is a problem, because of the confusion over the two Paul Youngs. I might call it a project by name or something like that featuring Paul Young of Mike & The Mechanics.
AH: Tonight it is your home crowd. How does it feel to play in front of them rather than say... the Liverpool Empire?
PY: It's more nerve wracking, ultimately more rewarding if you can come out to your home town and knock 'em out! All of the cynics who have been knocking you for years, and there are bound to be a couple out there tonight, and I am just going to get out there and strut my stuff and enjoy myself.
Next to appear was the chief Mechanic himself...
AH: Only a couple of questions this time really, Mike. First of all, why a Greatest Hits tour?
MR: Good question really.. it wasn't my idea. I think really the justification for it, with The Mechanics being a part-time thing, if we were a new band we wouldn't wait two or three years to do another album, and it has always been difficult to get a live following going. We rather lost it after "The Living Years" album, and it is not like the old days really, we played one night in Nottingham and sold it out and added another which is rather like what we did twenty years ago and it does work and I think it is nice too... a live following is built up by doing that; by doing a bit of groundwork, getting the word out that you are a good live band. And I think this sort of thing recaps the whole thing really. We got good reviews including one in "Q" magazine which was nice. When you pull all the good stuff together it is a very string body of work and it is surprising to people to see what the Mechanics have done.
AH: Is it solely a UK tour or do you have plans to take it any further?
MR: No, not really. I have never gone out on tour without a new album to play before and I wouldn't do it again. This is a one-off in a sense and enough is enough really, and it has been a great couple of years and it has established us again.
AH: I have asked the two Pauls this question, so it is only fair to ask you as well... How did it feel to play South Africa last year?
MR: I think there have been a couple of acts out there before us, including Phil, and it was a good vibe. The Mechanics are very popular down there and we did three or four nights in Johannesburg and a couple of others elsewhere and it kind of built up while we were there, really, and on the last night they were jumping.
AH: Dare I ask the other major question, to change tack slightly and talk about the "other " band. What are the plans for Genesis?
MR: There aren't really any plans at the moment. I am with The Mechanics until the summer and then we shall see.
AH: Is the first Box Set sill set for an autumn release?
MR: That is still going to happen, I actually saw Peter the other day and he is still looking at finishing stuff off but it is coming out in the autumn. We shall see how the rest of the year falls out and I am very pleased with the way things have turned out. After the third album I thought maybe we had lost it and it had run its course, but this album has come back with a strong feeling and the gigs have come as a surprise because people maybe see us as a part-time band and as studio guys who go in and produce an album, but playing live on stage making it all work is still enjoyable.
This tour there are a couple of songs we aren't doing because Paul Carrack started with a sore throat and his voice is still a bit rough, but we have hardly overdone it with the touring with The Mechanics. The last tour we had a lighting guy who had never done lighting before, and I really should have kicked him off but I thought The Mechanics are not about lights. Then Tony Banks came to see us with this stark white look and thought we had changed it all on purpose! This time we have got a good lighting guy and it does make all the difference.
Finally we get to percussion meister: Gary Wallis...
AH: Well, Gary how did you become involved with The Mechanics?
GW: There was a charity gig at Cowdray park and they were doing it and Tim (Renwick) was playing with Mike and they needed somebody to do it, and it was suggested that they give me a call because I do a lot of work with the Prince's Trust. I showed up and did the gig, met Mike and it was great, and a few weeks later Mike called me up and asked me to record the album - it's always quite simple like that, really.
AH: Who else have you worked with, apart from Pink Floyd and Mike & The Mechanics? Who have you enjoyed the most and the least, and why?
GW: I enjoy The Mechanics most out of all the bands I have worked for. Mike really is the gentleman of pop and we haven't got anything to prove. It's such a great band to be in and as you can see, everyone is totally relaxed, whereas in other bands it can be pretty tough; the artists themselves can be pretty uptight and that goes down the chain of command.
AH: Do you have any musical ambitions yourself? Most of the Mechanics have musical careers?
GW: I am not really a recording person; I do a lot of sessions but my ambition is to tread the other side of boards as a producer eventually. There will come a time when I won't want to be hitting things anymore! [laughs] and getting on and off buses everyday. I would still like to do it but not as a main source of work.
And there we end this interesting chat with Mike and the band, we hope that you enjoyed it. My thanks to the following people who helped to make the interview possible: Carol Willis, Tim Bricusse, Matthew Skelland; Jon Guntrip and of course; Mike and the band!