Interview with Martyn Bates
(Les Inrockuptibles, number 14, 1988)
We were waiting for a tortured Martyn Bates, and we saw a strong minstrel, just escaped from the EIG storm, taking a new step with wooden banging guitars and head in the clouds
MB: I have a rather folk background. When I was a kid, I loved English folk music, people like Martin Cathy, Uncle East. Then as a teen I threw that all away, under the influence of my friends, then punk days came and I was truly excited. It freed me from my complexes, my limits, from what I was able to sing and play … it was nice, that was what every young musician expected, afterwards, I have listened to a lot of other music since.
Do you feel close to people like Robert Wyatt?
Definitively, yes. I have always appreciated this kind of “art experimental musician”. I like the brainy side of music, in the same time I have listened to what is called free music, because it was against the rules of the seventies. You know what was music before punk, strict musical frames and an Eric Clapton technique. Be the best, music is not that way same as the technological over flood you see today. Music is what you do with what you have
How did you create Eyeless in Gaza?
In fact I found myself with Peter Becker as a duet by accident … as soon as I began to work with him I found there was something special, the need to work as a small unit, in February 1980. We had been part of the second punk wave, when music became diverse and more experimental … “The blueprint of punk”. Like many at the time we made it to see how it will change, we found our goal six years later, I recognize six years is the ideal duration for a group, we gave EIG a natural conclusion, there was no dramatic break. I believe I can go on exploring some Eyeless musical aspects but without Peter.
EIG first albums seemed nearly live, was it to keep the energy?
In a live album, everything is in one take and that was what was happening to us, we ran to the studio after work and spent an hour finding the good sound, we played and listened “could we put another little overdub here, yes, maybe, no.” The first three albums were made that way, it was a sort of very quick job, but I like the spontaneous and fresh feeling they gave, I still like to work that way today, take my guitar and play when all the elements are set up. I always thought that the first is the best, if it doesn’t work, forget about it.
On the first two EIG albums you were playing with words, their sound, then your lyrics became more direct but less strange?
I have no afterthought about my work. I like to let the feeling come without trying to analyse it. I was playing with words, syntax, for example, I was only singing the middle of every sentence … when I listen to it now, I think it is rather good but I can’t remember what I thought then … believe me, I can’t remember what I was saying, what did these specific situations mean, now I am in a warmer feeling with words but I still play with words and their meaning because I am struck by their ambiguity. I like the idea that the listener is participating. Even when some people despise this attitude, I think this is the way to present things. I don’t like everything to be settled down, I realize it is horrible. I like to be the one who decides of what I say, of what is to be communicated.
EIG comes from the Aldous Huxley book?
Yes, and it is related with the biblical myth … I feel attracted by religion. I feel that people don’t pay enough attention to the spiritual side of their life, it is a very interesting side of the human psychism and it fascinates me, I couldn’t despise someone for religious reasons, when it becomes a problem, it is because people have lost their critical good sense “you are wrong, I am right”; I come from a Methodist family, and like everybody I throw religion out when I was a teen, but deep inside me I have kept my education.
But why have you chosen this name?
Well, for the sound of it … I was reading the Huxley’s book when I met Pete. We wrote songs and everything gathered well … Yes it was perfect, it sounded perfectly nice.The references about your writing are rare, but Nick Drake and Tim Buckley are often named?
I don’t know, it’s like taking a musical bath … I don’t know what to say, they capture me, they are dead for ever, I can’t leave them away and I can’t keep them away from me, I can’t explain what made them so magic, what makes me drift in their universe and join them. I don’t want to understand, I know it was what I wanted to do.
They are fashion today, does it sound ironic?
Yes, I am sure you can hear these references on the second album, in ‘Every Which Way’ for example. It’s strange to realize that people are listening to this kind of music again … there are two curious attitudes today: the thrill for acid house and the revival for kind and soft things, it’s funny how these two trends are surfacing … it’s one reacts against the one before.
And if you had to find yourself a musical family?
No … I think that if my music is not that well known and popular, it’s because it’s hard to make any links, on this new album, you can find songs that belong to categories, but first of all, I’m human and music helps me to express my feelings.
What about medieval influences?
Well, I don’t know … . Maybe in ‘Rust Red September’, you can find Celtic reminiscences, for the moment I am deep into mid sixties things like Freid Neil or Dino Valenti who made this wonderful album with a twelve strings guitar through echo, it’s very obscure. And I truly love English folk music.
Do you think that the folk revival is a good opportunity for you?
I’m not sure, you really can feel this revival, but I’m not sure it will help me, I can’t identify myself with these “surviving people with guitar”. I like the idea, but I don’t belong. As a listener, I appreciate music that moves me, like The Cocteau Twins, I always like parts of their albums, and all these groups of SST (?) with all these different elements inside, jazz, poetry, hardcore. You don’t understand where it comes from and what to expect. If the main reason to make music is to earn a lot of money, isn’t it – I would say I have failed. I can be cynical, but believe me I would love to make a lot of money … .
What are your links with the English rock business?
I am better known in Europe, because I feel there is no place for my music in England, the typical reaction in Britain is “Yes, Martyn, I like this and that in your music” or “I like this, why are you not taking this and put it in a little box and put a hat on top of it.”
You have worked recently with El records artists?
Yes, a moment ago, when we stopped EIG I wanted to try and meet with other people after these six years with Pete. I have a project with Louis Philippe, an English folk songs album and Philippe made all the vocal arrangements. It’s very beautiful, you will have to wait some time before it’s finished; I met Philippe when The King of Luxembourg toured, we were ten musicians in the group and I played guitar and sang background vocals. It was a funny way to make things easy and play different music. By the way, I have been in a Derek Jarman film where I played a sort of funny Sergeant Pepper saying, “Hello, darling, it’s me!” With the King of Luxembourg, I also improvised music around a theme for another Jarman film. It was very nice, we had a lot of fun.
You have always been interested in film scores?
Yes, it’s like exploring a new musical area, with Pete, we made ‘Pale Hands I Loved so Well’ and it was fun, very instinctive, we improvised: you do that [Martyn knocks on his mug with his spoon] and from the other side of the room there is a mike taping the vibrations, it’s fun, no, you should never say fun because this word is overwasted by TV and papers – “fun” or funny, never say it, but I can’t use any other word … .
How do you explain that your latest EIG album and your solo record which were both more pop oriented, are commercial failures?
I like pop, pop music is a part of me, really ‘Sun Bursts In’ from 1983 was me … . I have always made very poppy songs, in ‘The Return of the Quiet’ there were three songs made that way (‘Sad Song of Almost’, ‘The Return of the Quiet’ and ‘The Look of Love’), but because of lack of studio time, I haven’t achieved them as much as I wanted. And as for ‘Back from the Rains’, I sincerely believe it was the best from what EIG did, the title song is among my favourites, the one I prefer among those I have written, it could have been worth a single, “single” … I’m not the type to be in the “single market”, … my tries, our tries … Ships in the night.
Would you like to work with John Rivers as a producer again?
Not for the moment, but I keep him in my mind for the future, I work now with Paul Sampson, it’s strange because I have known him for years, when he was beginning to work with The Primitives and he was supposed to be a “hit producer”. He kept telling me “come Martyn, come into the studio through the back door and I will make you a hit song for nothing.” I like the relationship we have developed, I am very easy with him and this is important. There are many delicate things in what I make today and the recording conditions must be very good, but there is a contradiction – I play alone on stage, but I need to have someone with me in the studio.
EIG had a strong identity?
Yes, on ‘Photographs as Memories’ it’s Pete’s photograph as a little boy with his mother, on ‘Caught in flux’ too, on ‘Pale Hands I Loved so Well’ it’s Pete’s parents, on the ‘Welcome Now’ single it’s Pete’s mother … all these photos were shot by Pete’s father a long time ago.
And most of them are related to water, where does it come from?
It’s a very beautiful image, we spoke a lot about nature, and it fitted well … . As for music, there is an idea of growing and drowning, we wanted to express ourselves with organic elements (another good word “organic” … ).
Do you think that, speaking about nature is the best way to sing about love?
I’m not sure I sing a lot about love, it’s like in my latest album, there are a lot of inner dialogs that you can relate to LOVE, which is not a bad thing – 90 per cent of literature is about love, love is an obsession for everybody … on the other hand, I think you have to fight to argue, I don’t believe this record is a soft one, people listen to it and found it charming and very calm, but deep inside, the lyrics are dealing with inner conflicts.
Were you so sad, so disillusioned, that you had such a pessimistic vision of life and wrote so desperate songs than the ones of early EIG?
I don’t think I am sad, I think that when you come to writing, you express yourself through a personal system, let’s say cathartic … it’s like when Nick Cave was singing “Well I kicked my girlfriend”, I mean, it’s OK, but I’m sure Nick is a very nice guy … .
You only express one side of yourself in your music?
No, absolutely not, I think that through my “career” you can see other sides of me, I have written pop songs with full of hope words … on one side I am happy, a happy married man with a charming house and so on … and on the other hand there is the other me that you can see through my songs, but I’m not the tearful person you imagine … .
But you have this sad timbre voice, as if it was a biological present
Oh, thank you, I don’t know what to answer, it’s like when we were talking about Tim Buckley … there must be something that drives me to express myself the way you feel it, but you must read between the lines. I do not even understand most of what I write, I don’t want to say it is mystical, but there is something happening when I take my guitar, when I begin to. … When I take my guitar, I want to be transported and share with people; it’s the highest a musician can do.
Many of your songs are shouts, shouts of pain, and shouts of rebellion?
Yes, that is how it happens … I must express myself on painful topics … [long silence]. There is something in me I am capable to share with others … . Well … I suppose you should be a psychiatrist and examine me so I can express it … .
Are there melancholic traces from when you were young?
Yes, you could refer back to it, the young boy I was couldn’t fit in the school standards. I think that if you could come up with school, you will be able to cope with everything, because school is a real jungle, I was the kind of dreamy schoolboy staring at the window, even when the teachers were telling interesting and fascinating things, I couldn’t listen because I was scared … it’s strange. When I think back, it’s true that I’ve only been happy when I was around 20 21, at the moment we began EIG … but don’t think I had a sordid life in a torn family …
Memories is an obsession for you, don’t you want to face it?
It’s true … [silence]. The idea of memories is a poetic image I work with. Let me tell you how I work. WelI, I am here, I have got a melody and then, everything comes automatically, I can look at an image and begin to work. But everything starts with the melody, the rest comes afterwards, everything turns around an inner dialog, every time. All along your life, you can remember of “steps” you think about. No one decides for you what you do, all you can do is to arrange yourself and think of “what I would love to do, what I would hate to do …”, but life changes, I’m aware of this, and I mostly write upon good and evil, the idea of evil being not necessarily the same for everyone.
Even if your texts are not, let’s say poetry, I think you have this attitude of magnifying memories, a little like the French poets from the nineteen-century?
No, I really don’t think so, my favourite poet is Dylan Thomas, there is something I love in D H Lawrence, and I have read these kinds of writers a lot. I like Kerouac too, but I don’t really know much about the symbolists and the French poets.
Speaking of symbolism, all your lyrics are about love, the feeling of impossible or destroyed love, even the record title ‘Love Smashed on a Rock’ is about love?
It’s obvious that emotionally, (even if my marriage is as happy as can be) I can feel that tomorrow can be different, it’s true that in my words there is this feeling about loss, but it’s hard for me to think over it, I shouldn’t say that, but I cannot understand it intellectually when I write words, there is no second thought about them, if the lyrics are bad, they end in the dustbin. I work automatically, my words of course, it’s me, I write inside my emotional field but afterwards, it’s hard for me to identify myself with what I have written, I only know that I wanted to write that, sing this and I know that when I sing it I will give life to it, touch people … . I know that if I write [singing] “life is perfect, everything is nice” it won’t fit, it won’t be strong … .
You never had any commercial success, are you bitter or disappointed?
I am not bitter at all, when I began my musical career, I only wanted to express myself and I was not looking for success. I simply wanted to live as a musician and there is no way I could be bitter upon the way things happened in my musical career. I have a voice, a guitar, a stage, I can’t be bitter, it would be a loss of emotion. I’m not even sure I could have afforded being eventually successful … .
Is it hard to play the pop musician role?
Yes, especially, when it is stupid, I don’t go at parties, in the fashionable concerts, I’m not parading … which is not the best way to gain people’s respect in this industry, but I’m not this type of rock and roll animal.