“Searise & sunmonsters” - an alcohically inspired interview with Ant about his latest album - Private Parts & Pieces VIII: New England. (originally published in #4 of The Pavilion).
INT: So here we are in this august pizza emporium chatting to the Dalai Lama about Private Parts & Pieces VIII: New England. So, Anthony, your latest waxing, New England escaped from the asylum last August. Please tell us a little bit about it. Why another generic album?
AP: At the time Virgin were releasing the back catalogue on CD, the last group of albums we released were Private Parts & Pieces V- VII and it seemed a good idea to coincide with that the release of some new material in a similar genre. I was always keen if possible to keep the Private Parts & Pieces series going because that was the forum, if you like, for simple acoustic pieces, the kind of material you wouldn’t consider putting on another kind of album. It wouldn’t fit with a fully arranged song or a fully arranged instrumental piece.
I suppose in one sense, it’s mood music, since the advent of library music it denigrates it a bit. I think the essential difference is that it is almost Chamber pieces really - very intimate, very direct pieces that you can definitely get away with playing just an instrument. That was always the difficult thing with the last Private Parts album - whether to add other instruments and how many? I mean, how far do you go before you break the bounds and get into this other realm and appear to fall between two stools? I felt that we were wandering into slightly different territory with Sunrise & Seamonsters and I initially just wanted to do that with just guitar, sax and percussion because it was absolutely clear before we started overdubbing. I thought this is slightly dangerous; is this a Private Parts & Pieces album or Is this trying to turn into a The Geese & The Ghost?
INT: It is one of the things that made it such a surprising album, the fact that there were, if you like, a few pieces that weren’t in the traditional Private Parts & Pieces mould. They were slightly more adventurous…
AP: Also the big difference this time was that I was paid a small advance to do it and therefore I could justify, in the financial scheme of things I had to adhere to, I could justify spending X amount of time specifically writing new material. That was during the early days of the Virgin contract, so I was determined to try and produce something that was wholly new and good and not dredge bits up off the shelf. So I used Private Parts & Pieces I as the model partly because of the good review in Q and, thinking back, of course, PP & P I was in fact the best pieces I had recorded taken from probably seven or eight years. It was stupid to set them up as a standard in a way because it was perhaps one or two very inspired pieces per year over the preceding eight or nine years and here I was in a six week to two month writing period trying to take them on and thinking to myself: “Come on, you’ve got to come up with a better twelve string piece than that, or piano piece than that…” I put myself in a way under a lot of pressure trying to come up with definitive pieces in a lot of different areas - piano, the kind of intimate song, six string pieces; the classical piece; the piece using electric guitar - it was a big mistake in a way.
I think I was in a way a little bit compositionally starved , having been doing TV stuff as well, so I really went off at the deep end and wrote an enormous amount of stuff. I’m not terribly decisive at the best of time and because it was the first album I had recorded within the Virgin contract - Slow Dance came before - I just felt that everything had to be definitive. So I tried to hedge my bets and found myself writing two or three twelve string pieces and recording them and seeing which one worked out best. Multiply that by the different styles that I work in and I came up with far too much music and I over practised and messed up my right wrist.
INT: Not only is it more rounded as an album, but it is also a wider variety of styles. Was that deliberate? Did you want to give more of a showcase for your talents and the music that you write rather than just stick in the comfortable mould?
AP: Yes. I wanted to try and do all sorts of different things, all sorts of different styles, and I was able to spend more time on it therefore it was bound to me more diverse because of the opportunity I was afforded with it compared to some of the previous albums. I am not knocking the previous albums, but there’s no doubt that if you have a whole album of twelve string guitar however good it sounds, after a while the sound begins to lack variety, and there were very limited resources available in the middle period Private Parts & Pieces albums - again, not taking anything away from them, they were either very small scale or they were not compositionally rounded to any great degree.
Private Parts & Pieces VII in a way has always amazed me by having such good reviews because it really was a collection of pieces that weren’t recorded at the same time although I worked very hard to try and make it seem like a homogenous whole. It has always been one of the curiosities that in America they seemed to prefer PP & P VII to Slow Dance. Slow Dance was, whatever its faults (there are none in my opinion - AH) and its episodic nature, a far more rounded composition and as an album as a whole, a far greater amount of development. It was ironic that one of the American commentators said it was like library music and in fact PP & P VII was FULL of library music! (laughs). It’s really one of the great ironies.
INT: The thing hat some people have asked is where did you get the ideas for some of the pieces, in particular for me personally, the second song: Unheard Cry, what is the story behind that one?
AP: In the relatively early days of AIDS, probably in the mid ‘80’s, I remember seeing this photograph of an Italian child that was born with AIDS and there was an article on how this child was locked up and never saw the daylight. I suppose in a way, we have become used to it now. At that stage it was such a horrendous idea, and the look on this child’s face was just SO sad and it has just become one of those images that just stays with you.
INT: What motivated you for some of the other pieces…
AP: To be honest, most of the material was written at the time. I had a specific writing period which was wonderful. I started in Devon and in the end, I think I used nothing from my time in Devon. There were some big long six string pieces which maybe will come to light later. They didn’t get ditched because they weren’t good enough, they partly got ditched because they weren’t quite developed and also it was the most technical of the guitar pieces. By far and away the most interesting and technical piano pieces didn’t get used either, because as I have told you, I wrote too much and I had trouble with my wrist. I had to be terribly careful with my practice.
The piano piece was much more complicated for me, it was rather a technical tour de force, and so I had to let that one go. If it was a question of selection, I would go for the other three pieces in terms of style and dispense with this rambling monster. The technical side did have a strong influence. Most of the material was written at the time, but that song you mentioned was from 1987. Sunrise & Seamonsters was a piece that I had with Martin (Robertson) which I had been writing over the years. We had done TV stuff together, mainly he would just come over with a clarinet and sax and we would just jam; we had quite a few different pieces.
INT: Tell us a bit about the other musicians on the album…
AP: Joshi as I call him (Joji Hirota), I first worked with him on Rule Britannia and he was one of the in-house composers or players down at a particular studio and I had been doing this TV series. It was quite a mixture of traditional but also slightly sort of slightly sardonically twisted music. There was this kind of military section that was quite pompous and they suggested getting Joshi in. He was absolutely fantastic, although we had a lot of communication problems but it was kind of the way he played, and the way he narrowed his eyes. Over the years he has played on all sorts of different albums. I am terribly fond of him, he’s a lovely bloke - a very good player. We did a whole library album together last year but prior to that I used to get him in for odd things whenever it seemed to be suitable.
On Pieces Of Eight it wasn’t obvious to me at all, what to do with that, and I played it to Roger Patterson who is musically very sound, and it was by no means obvious to him either. I just had this hunch that maybe some low sounding percussion drumming through it might work. Joshi came over, and I played it to him. The rhythm is a bit complicated at times but he had it and it worked pretty well actually. I use him whenever I can because he is marvellous and such fun to work with and also I can teach him English words like “nincompoop”, “oaf” or “buffoon”. I have also taught him to say “that’s great” in various accents (laughs).
Simon Morris, the cellist, I met through a mutual friend of ours called John Gough. Simon and I met quite a few times socially and he would come over and experiment by trying some double-tracked cello and cello quartets, I liked him very much and always tried to use him - I did write that piece for him. Inevitably there were things that didn’t work and he made some very useful suggestions. It really was lovely to have a twelve string guitar with a melancholy cello solo on top as opposed to a sample. It was super to be able to work with a proper player.
And then there was Paul Clarvis on percussion, also very good. He was Martin’s friend. He played on Sunrise & Seamonsters. Paul tended to do more rhythmic stuff and Joshi tended to do the effects; cymbals and so on. Paul is a jazz drummer as well; a very serious musician.
And then that only leaves Sir Ralph….(Ant is of course referring to the legendary Sir Ralph Bernascone without whom no AP album is complete - AH)
INT: He doesn’t appear musically but he did discover the sea monster and that is deserving of credit alone…
AP: the thing is he is so much in demand, so eclectic that I can’t always get him for a humdrum album of mine. I have found over the years that even when he is not available, there is something about his personality. It looms so large over proceedings, he always gives me an idea; a germ seed that seems to spark off something.
INT: One thing that I’ve noticed, is that it is the first album in the series you have done on sixteen track with all the new gear in the studio. This must have had an effect on what you intended to do on it and what you were able to do technically?
AP: It meant that I was able to be incredibly indecisive and take about nine tracks of each solo and choose form nine. That’s why it took about a year and a half! In the main, its good but the truth of it is that the more tracks you have, the more indecisive you can become. In my work with the eight track Brennell I never used to double track for twelve string or tape other tracks. I had to decide which the right one was and on Pieces of Eight there were lots and lots of different tracks, three or four different solos. There was originally going to be quite a lot of synth stuff but it didn’t seem to work. Maybe I felt that it was too close to library music. The first piece: Aubade was using computer as well. In fact, Bill Brink wrote asking “how do you get that effect? Is it just incredible guitar picking or what?” and there’s no guitar on it at all! It was all synth. One thing I suppose is that it was very much using modern technology.
INT: If I Could Tell You sounds to m incredibly like some of the film music from Bladerunner. Was the idea still there that any of this music might end up as a showcase for film makers?
AP: No, it wasn’t. With Slow Dance it was. That piece - a lot of people don’t like it because they think it sounds too American and this was always going to be the case if you work with anybody else. Traditionally the Private Parts & Pieces albums have been all me and once you write with anybody else and give them any space at all they are going to “bend” your style in a way. There will be different elements coming in which some people may not like. With that piece, Martin titled it because it meant something personal to him and that was one of many that we wrote. It used electric guitar through an effect through the same effect that I used at the very end of Finger Painting, a reverb effect where you tune it towards all sorts of notes and when you play a chord you get lots of C’s and G’s. Obviously his style is slightly American and sax tends to be in a slightly different area. My music has tended to be English, more classical or pastoral, whatever you want to call it, and the presence of sax tends to make things a bit looser and a bit more American, perhaps more bluesy or jazzy. So that was always finally going to be very experimental and some people may have been offended because it was a departure from the norm - it is difficult for me to judge whether it really works or not.
INT: Why did you call the album New England?
AP: I wanted to call it Pieces Of Eight!
INT: We all did!
AP: For many years I had had no record company input and I had been able to do exactly what I wanted with record titles and it hadn’t got me very far, so, at the time - this is ironic now that the Virgin deal has lapsed - but it was nice to actually have some record company input. If you are going to have a certain amount of record company Input and financial backing and actual encouragement, then you can’t have everything your own way. You have to draw a line as to how far you compromise. I thought that Pieces Of Eight was good but I also realised that there was a certain homespun quality about many of the Private Parts albums and that might have put a record company off from giving it a push into the broader marketplace - not more commercial, but just tailoring things slightly without making things too homespun and too in-jokey,
I was therefore very happy to listen. So when Declan (Colgan, head of Virgin Venture) had reservations about that, I thought fine, if he feels he can’t sell it, what’s the point of me digging my heels in? And I was very grateful to Declan because I actually failed to come up with firm titles - I had a great long list of potential titles. When I talked to Peter Cross about doing a cover, we tried to go back to the first Private Parts album and talked about trying to reintroduce the character from that album because I always loved that guy with the kit bag. And I left it pretty vague because I didn’t want to tie Peter down with this idea but he had to do the cover before the music, In the past he had always had the music first and this time round some of the pieces weren’t finished. I didn’t know what was going to be on it and I had to give him just a few rough titles. He homed in on the American War of Independence and he had read quite a lot about it, so at some stage during those conversations, New England came up. It was not my idea for the title , it was Declan’s and in fact quite a few of the track titles were his too. Such as Unheard Cry. The first piece I didn’t know what to call it and I just had this very strong image of dawn and Ravel in Daphnis et Chloe had done the definitive world/nature waking up in all kind s of orchestral colours. I just had this mental picture of drawing the curtains on this sunlit world. That sound on top is slightly influenced by Ravel and it is a bit of a cliché of those rock concept albums that begin with this great waking up piece, so that was difficult.
INT: The challenge with this album is so many of the pieces have very strong individual characters - they stand up individually and they also mesh as parts of the suite for which they were actually written, and it is the fact that the album, as a whole, has a coherent feel to it that makes it almost unlike any of its predecessors…
AP: It’s in between the two, isn’t it? I must have confused you when I played you that fully arranged rock piece (NB: Ant is referring here to an as yet unreleased track which is in the mould of Anthem 1984) . We haven’t talked about that aspect of things because there was double the amount of material just that was actually recorded let alone what was discarded before I even began recording.
INT: You said that there was about eighty five minutes of recorded music and the album is about sixty three minutes long.
AP: It was well over, probably nearer a hundred actually. Again, it was down to Declan. He was the guy who I felt was most crucial, he was the one who was going to push it.
INT: One of the things he did was to get a good running order, and I imagine that is probably one of the hardest things to do on an album like this one?
AP: Very. He was very good on that because he brought forward the song to number three and that was altered from later an I resisted that but it seems to have worked. He felt that that piece, the fully arranged one that is more in the genre of Anthem 1984, its that kind of heavy rock driving drums plus slow grandiose moving chords and a lot of people don’t like that track at all and other people loved it. It tends to divide people quite strongly, its not one that people are iffy about. Declan just didn’t like it and Roger Patterson loved it, he just loved that sort of chord sequence just rolling over and over again and building up. Also of course, the Virgin publishing guys - this is one of the great ironies now - that they were very keen on this album and they were to have come down three or four weeks later and they would have done something and got behind it. They were very keen on it and the fates were cruel there, they were much crueller to those guys because they lost their jobs.
INT: It is almost as if with this album you have reached a point in your career where you want to say - “this album is a statement of all the various elements that make up Anthony Phillips as a musician”. It has bits of everything on it, and Searise and Sunmonsters shows the side of you…
AP: Searise and Sunmonsters? (Laughs).
INT: (Realising my mistake) It’s good stuff, this beer!
AP: (Still laughing): That has got to be the title of this interview!
INT: (In serious mode again): You have captured all of the elements that make up your music on one album…
AP: Well, that’s what I tried to do and as I’ve already said, because I tried to take on P P & P I and so some of those pieces were ten years old, on this one some of the pieces were going to be good rather than incredible.
And there you have this extensive look back at the series. Once again, thanks to Ant for giving up so much of his time to talk about the albums and to Messrs Gozzard and Charlett for the cuttings and other bits and pieces and to Ted Sayers Bill Brink, Jonathan Dann and Carol Willis for their photographic expertise.