Interview by Simon (DDD fanzine, July 1997)
Martyn Bates, who has just released a lovely solo album Imagination Feels Like Poison, formed with Peter Becker Eyeless In Gaza: creators of everything from beautiful tuneful pop to noise experiments … many solo projects too … just tons and tons of really good stuff … the man deserves massive recognition and worship … here’s a taped interview:
“Imagination Feels Like Poison” – do you ever feel that you’ve got too much imagination?
Martyn: Imagination Feels Like Poison is a hate song, plain and simple. It’s a song about defeat, it’s a song about a lack of imagination, or at best negative destructive imagination that provides no real answers. And although it’s sung in the first person, it’s not about me … well, not about me today anyway, today being Thursday July 3rd 1997 that is. Yes, you could say I’ve definitely got too much imagination. I can just see far too many consuming manifestations of will looking like death. Music and literature – more so music – are definitely a salvation and a way to survive – to survive it all … . This isn’t meant to sound so damned heavy … really … .
Are you a poet who just happens to set his poems to music, or are you primarily a musician who happens to write poetry?
Martyn: Music is the first thing – first. With Eyeless In Gaza there’s often been a lot of pieces where I’ve not used words because I think the voice in songs can communicate stuff that a lot of lyrics … that the world’s cleverest, most beautiful lyrics can’t put across. There’s something eloquent about the human voice in song that goes beyond words. I do love words – and the spoken word. I don’t mean personally – I don’t have a great facility for language, which is part of the reason why I’m fascinated by singing. I definitely enjoy crafting poems and written-word pieces. Often a song will start off with a poem, but it could conversely be the other way. There’s no formula for it and I tend to think the two disciplines blur.
In your early solo albums you went in a lot for fairly experimental music – are you still interested in noise/drones/etc.?
Martyn: Yes, definitely, but only as a setting for the song. I mean, sometimes we leave the song out of a piece, but it’s still songs primarily that I’m interested in … and when I say “songs” I mean melodies – vocal melodies – as well as a more formalised song. What we’re trying to do at the moment with Eyeless is, without making obvious overt statements, blend elements of folk music into what we do with our music. There’s always been elements of this in everything we’ve done, but it’s coming more to the surface with our last few albums, and I like this development. It feels good, it feels different – a direction on our own to strike out into, a strong direction […].
Eyeless In Gaza were always packed with great tunes – and still are. Does it ever upset you that you weren’t/aren’t huge?
Martyn: Eyeless had a hiatus for like … the first stage of Eyeless, if you want to call it that, finished in February 1987. Then we started working together again at the start of 1992 as Eyeless, so it was a good break there. It has bothered me in the past that we haven’t sort of achieved fame and recognition and all those other kind of things that one lusts after. But we never courted it, certainly not consistently, and whenever anything came up that started to look all sweet for us – we sort of shot ourselves in the foot. Our underlying reason for doing things is not those goals, although sure, making a living and doing all right out of what you love – that’s a simple base level of existence that anybody would hope for with their work, I should think – a bit of dignity. Personally, I’ve carried on professionally doing music. Pete Becker does other work to bring his money in. I couldn’t possibly do that. The difference between Peter and myself is that Peter thinks there are other things he wants to do outside of music. With me, you’re talking obsession, you know. This is what I do. And I’ve got so much stuff that I want to do yet. And I don’t care if there’s only three people out there listening – at the end of the day I’m still gonna do this. I mean to say, there is a definite audience for what I do. It’s small, chiefly because I refuse to [compromise the music] and in my long years of experience … I sound like Old Father Time … well, you know, Eyeless started in 1980 and that ostensibly is when my music career started. Down the years so many people [have tried to interfere] with the art – everyone else has got an idea and take on how you should do things, but it’s interesting to see that they’re not the ones who are actually [creating something]. So I’ve almost wilfully sought out alternative routes, just so I can do the music I want to do. I don’t feel bitter about it, though.
I guess WB Yeats is obviously one of your favourite poets. Any others?
Martyn: Yes, I like Yeats’ poetry. Definitely. I like all the ones of his that everyone else likes – The Wild Swans at Coole, Innisfree, and all the Crazy Jane ones and all that. But you know, my absolute favourite poets have to be: DH Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, really. I also adore the James Joyce Chamber Music collection … I don’t know if you know, because you’ve been saying that you don’t know what I’ve been up to recently, but I actually set all Joyce’s Chamber Music poems to music – it came out on Sub Rosa … . DH Lawrence is very underrated as a poet. He was very productive, very prodigious, and he seemed to cover so much material. It’s the spirituality I like really, and his warmth and depth of feeling. But there’s never a feeling that he was born yesterday – you always get the feeling that he knows about the extremes of human character. With Dylan Thomas, again, it’s the same reason – it’s his spirituality I like. And with both poets it’s the identification with nature and the way they see God in nature, and all those kinds of resonances – they’re the things I really like.
In the book that comes with the new album the poems are arranged chronologically, and they seem (to me) to get more cheerful as they go along – is that a fair observation?
Martyn: No, not really.
Oh, I thought they were showing that you were happier now … .
Martyn: What is happiness? I sometimes feel that happiness is a tentative thing. Everyone’s got their own definition of happiness. I don’t think that essentially my writing has changed. I still feel that I’m writing about the same themes, and I’m still reflecting back the same obsessions and concerns. Maybe the work has got less oblique, because I think I’m less afraid of letting people know what I think. I don’t know if that’s the right term – “letting people know what I think”. There was a time when I really felt that perhaps I shouldn’t personalise whatever it was I was trying to say in the lyrics and that I should put it in more general terms. I still love that kind of ambiguity. I’m not very analytical about what I’m doing. I’m the sort of person that when I’m in, I’m in … if I’m in a bad mood, that’s it. If I’m in a good mood then everything is endlessly wonderful. It’s just how I am. I have tried to regulate this, but it’s … you’ve just got to accept certain things about yourself and work with them and identify these things and think of them as strengths.
Okay. Here goes. Other musicians – who do you like and listen to?
Martyn: I like people like … I’m looking round the room now, seeing what I’ve got and what I’m really enjoying at the moment … I hate this bit, where people ask you who you identify with and all this … […] so, I’m not going to answer that question.
Any particular favourite Eyeless In Gaza songs? … I adore Evening Music … .
Martyn: Yes, I like that very much … .
… And I love Pearl and Pale too … .
Martyn: Pearl and Pale, that’s just one of those songs. Favourites, um … off ‘All Under the Leaves, the Leaves of Life’, which is an album you don’t know of, since it’s the latest Eyeless album, there’s a track on there called Monstrous Joy that I really, really strongly go for. I always used to tell people it was Back from the Rains, that particular track, but not so much now. From the first album, Knives Replace Air – something strange going on there, all those kind of psycho-sexual songs … bizarre [?]. Favourite would be Streets I Ran, which is another song you don’t know of – you’ll have to catch up, Simon!
The future – any chance you will ever give up the music and instead go in for poetry readings?
Martyn: I’ve got to tell you now: there is absolutely no chance of that whatsoever. I just don’t move in those circles. I don’t think you could make a living from that – not that that’s what it’s all about. No, I can’t see me ever giving up music. Somehow I’ll find a way to do it … even if I have to live off chef soups and water to do it!
Many thanks Martyn!