I’ve been asked by Drowned In Sound to write a 1,000 word feature on what Rough Trade Records means to me. I find myself unable to do this. How could I hope to condense into 1,000 words an appreciation of a label that has been at the core of my taste and musical understanding since I started listening to music? Ask me to wrestle the stars instead: that would be equally as impossible. Instead, I thought I’d re-exhume the first interview I conducted – as a naïve, socially inept, 19-year-old, shortly to drop out of studying maths at Goldsmiths’s College, and already considerably in debt, having spent my entire year’s grant on records in a two-week period in February 1980.
The interview was never printed. I had no idea how to string a sentence together, and furthermore didn’t start writing for anyone until I met Alan McGee a couple of years later, and he told me it didn’t matter that I couldn’t ‘write’. The interview languished for years in my cassette collection (the other side was a recording of a conversation with the Head of Rachel McMillan Hall threatening to take me to court over unpaid bills and wanton vandalism) until shortly after we began Plan B Magazine; and I thought it’d be fun to actually have a listen.
This then is the transcript of the first interview I ever conducted, with added commentary. (A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in Plan B #10.)
There was a darkness surrounding Young Marble Giants. It was strange how something so frail, so fragile and solemn, so commonplace could give off such an aura of bleakness. You could almost hear the emptying pits of Wales’ mining villages as Alison sang about a girl painting her nails on ‘Eating Noddemix’ or denied all charges of being neurotic on ‘Music For Evenings’. It wasn’t a claustrophobic darkness like Joy Division engendered, however. There’s too much beauty shining through – like a lighthouse beam in a storm, Alison’s voice was there to guide us home. And when it wasn’t (as on the instrumental ‘The Taxi’) there was an upbeat Casio keyboard, a burst of static radio.
I rapidly became besotted with this most unassuming of bands. I was privileged enough to see all six or seven of their six or seven London dates – including one which clashed with The Slits. I must have been besotted. On stage, the trio were even more unsettling and beautiful. Alison wore white. The band stood in shadows, with the barest of instrumentation around them. Phil and Stuart were lanky, and how I envied them standing next to someone who could sing with such clarity of tone. Always, the drum machine would start up, and then would come a song…perhaps the single ‘Final Day’ with its brief burst of longing, perhaps ‘Nostalgia’ – certainly the best song Young Marble Giants never recorded. Sure, I would be down the front, cheering. I’d even be dancing, to the barest of dance patterns.
Indeed, I was so besotted I phoned up Rough Trade and, claiming to be from a fanzine, got to interview the band alongside The Face (oddly – but perhaps that was Rough Trade policy back then), with my mate Mark from college taking photos on his Kodak. I wasn’t writing for anyone. I didn’t even know how to write. I just wanted to meet the band.
Are you surprised at how your album is selling? I went to see you at the Deptford Albany Empire and I thought, “Great! A band I can latch on to, a really small band, who I can go and see” and then you produce an album that goes in at Number Three in the Sounds independents chart. It got really good reviews, didn’t it?
Stuart: Yeah it did. It still is getting them, actually. We’re waiting for the backlash.
Do you know how many it sold?
Stuart: I’m not sure, last time I heard it was around 7,000. But it cost quite a lot to make, although we tried to keep it as cheap as possible. I think it cost over £5,000.
You did it in quite a short amount of time, didn’t you?
Stuart: Yeah, we did it in five days. We did some of the final mixes in about 10 to 15 minutes, and all the mixes in one day.
Did you experiment with other sounds before this?
Stuart: We used to have four members and a synthesiser. The guy who had the synthesiser also had the drum machine and all the recording equipment that we made our cassette with. And when he left, we lost all that so we were left with just a guitar and a speaker.
The Face: Why did he leave?
Stuart: He half left and was half kicked out. He’s our cousin, actually. When Rough Trade asked us to do an LP, he had to make a decision. He chose the steady job.
What do you think of Rough Trade? You’re quite different to many of the bands on the label.
Stuart: We couldn’t understand why Geoff [Travis, label boss] wanted us to be on Rough Trade.
Presumably it’s because it’s just different noise. I play the album to people a lot and they say, “Oh, that’s different”. Not, “Oh, that’s good”, or “Oh, that’s bad”.
The Face: That’s the thing about Rough Trade. They’re always looking for something different, whereas the majors want the next Beat or the next Specials, or whatever’s in.
(Me): I’ve been told you’ve had a fair amount of daytime Radio One airplay.
Stuart: Well, it’s quite commercial, I suppose. Anything melodic is commercial. It’s the whole business of writing short songs and being non-boring. All those songs you’re meant to think ‘Oh!’ straight away.
Live, you do end songs rather suddenly!
Stuart: The reason for that is that all the drum machine backing tracks are taken from a home-recorded reel in mono, which we use live. It’s a very tatty tape. It’s already been chewed up in the studio to make it sound reasonable. And it’s a bit boring if the drum machine is clanking away afterwards and having fade-outs all the time. So we just chop them off.
There’s a photo of me taken that day, with shoulder-length hair, badges covering both wide lapels on my jacket, standing outside Rough Trade record store, holding up an autographed Young Marble Giants single. It was only one of two records I ever got signed (PragVEC was the other: although Babes In Toyland, Bettie Serveert and Sleater-Kinney have all sent me autographed records). I can’t recall what anyone was wearing or said outside the actual interview. Probably no one said anything. I was painfully shy. The band was even shyer. None of Young Marble Giants cared for the trappings of the music industry. They existed for a brief moment in time – one album, two singles, a handful of shows – and split: Alison to form Weekend, a nouveau cool jazz band with a killer voice (hers). She later created one of the finest covers ever, Devine and Statton’s 1989 version of New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’. Phil and Stuart immediately resurfaced as The Gist – who were fine, but took the Young Marble Giants blueprint without its singer. Stuart subsequently worked as a film animator, notably on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and also co-produced an excellent Beat Happening album.
Alison and her then-boyfriend Phil didn’t enjoy being on stage. Their stage presence was less than zero: Al Larsen’s description of Olympia band The Go Team as “Four people fighting for the back of the stage” supremely applies here, except you couldn’t ever imagine Young Marble Giants being so dynamic as to even mock-fight.
What are your influences?
Stuart: Early Roxy Music, Devo, Ultravox, The Residents, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones…everything really.
Do you all like experimental music?
Stuart: Yes, except Phil doesn’t like some of the things that I like. I like reggae. Our favourite band at the moment is Reptile Ranch from Cardiff. They’ve got their own EP out, on Z Block. They’ve got them in Rough Trade [shop] actually.
The Face: Tell me a bit about your background.
Stuart: Phil and Alison had this idea to form a particular kind of group and I had the same idea independently. So we got together around about November 1978.
The Face: What were you doing before that?
Stuart: We’d all been in a couple of bands. We never did any gigs, though. It was just playing in bedroom type things.
Alison: We were born in Wales.
Stuart: But in Cardiff…it’s not very Cymru Welsh, just Welsh. It’s quite industrial. There are docks and stuff, with fewer sheep than anywhere else in Wales.
How long have you been singing?
Alison: About three years. I was in a band with Phil and Stuart before, but that wasn’t me singing, it was Stuart. I’m 26.
What were the basic ideas that brought you together?
Stuart: Not wanting to ever have to play covers at gigs, wanting to write some exciting music, finding everything so shit boring…just being hardly able to think about anything. Personally, I was pissed off at a succession of shitty jobs and being on the dole. It seemed like I’d got into a corner, so I decided I would make a living out of music.
Rough Trade picked up on you almost accidentally, didn’t they?
Alison: We had two tracks on the Z Block compilation of Cardiff bands, Is The War Over? One of the groups took the album to Rough Trade to sell. Rough Trade heard our tracks and got in touch.
Phil: Before that, we’d been going for about a year and were rather disillusioned.
The Face: What were you going to do then?
Stuart: I was going to move to Berlin. It was a really bad time. We gave ourselves three months and decided we’d do all the things like make a demo and send it out – just as we decided to do that, Rough Trade came along.
Were you surprised?
Alison: Yeah, very.
Stuart: We were totally unknown, so we thought that maybe they’d say, “Oh, we’ll press your single”. But Geoff said, “We like those tracks so much you can do anything you like”. It was very euphoric. In 24 hours we were back in Cardiff and thought, “Shit, that must’ve been a dream!”
So you decided to bring out an album first?
Stuart: Yeah, we had a heated discussion about it after Geoff left us and decided it was a good idea because we were totally unknown. And we thought, well we’ve got enough material to do it and it just seems stronger. I can’t understand why people make such a big deal about a single. It’s just one song. And then we wanted to do a single afterwards, because we thought, “Well, no one’s going to pay £4 for an album from an unknown Welsh band”. As it turns out, people have been buying the album anyway.
Your album sounds like a collection of singles because they’re all short tracks.
Stuart: They’re short because that’s a bit of a naive way of not being boring, I suppose. Quite a lot of them we don’t have any chorus, we just play a riff the whole way through. When Phil and I write music, he’s just playing one riff and I’m just playing one riff, and we think they’re very good riffs so we want people to hear them, rather than having mass violins obscuring everything. It like taking the best riffs you’ve ever heard and playing four notes and saying, “Look at the relationship between these four notes, it’s really good”.
I notice you double-tracked your voice on the single [‘Final Day’]. Is that an attempt to branch out?
Alison: Yeah, it was just experimenting. Originally we did one take and then I decided to try again. When we played the two voices back together we liked it, so we kept it.
The Face: Would you have liked more time in the studio?
Stuart: In retrospect, yeah, now if we do anything else we’ll take about four times as long. This stuff we’ve just done we took a whole day, no, two days, to do one track. We must’ve mixed it about 15 times. But it’s worth it. I use drums now as well.
So who writes the lyrics?
Stuart: Well, I do. Some of them are me looking at my general feelings about girlfriends and other ones are kinda more like words for the sake of it. They’re a bit like poetry in a way that you use words because you like the sound of them. It doesn’t have to necessarily be narrative. It’s like using the voice as an instrument so the words aren’t particularly important.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of how incredible, how influential Young Marble Giants are. Or maybe you’re not. Time passes, and I start to feel incredibly old. Did Young Marble Giants influence anyone? I wish. It’s been 28 years since Colossal Youth, and whereas The Smiths and New Order and The Cure and the mother-fucking Gang Of Four still get name-checked because they influenced a ton of journeyman critics, it seems that gentler bands from the time like Young Marble Giants and Marine Girls and Kleenex and The Raincoats only get a mention if someone’s attempting to show how hip they are to Nirvana’s oeuvre. Yawn.
Partly because they existed for such a brief moment, and partly because Colossal Youth still sounds separate to everything that preceded and followed it, Young Marble Giants remain closest to my idea of perfection in music.
Not that it’s a competition.
Are you worried by audience reaction at your shows? I think you’ve got an edge live that you haven’t on the album, but no one I’ve spoken to agrees.
Stuart: It’s probably fear!
How many gigs have you done in London?
Alison: Four so far. Apart from that we’ve just played [four times] in Cardiff.
Are there many places to play there?
Stuart: Not really. Not for us. There’s still the same amount of places for mainstream rock bands but we tend to empty those pubs – or we did. It’s amazing, because we come up to London and get a queue of people before we’ve even set up.
The press and radio picked up on you quite quickly, didn’t they?
Stuart: Yeah. That’s another thing about Rough Trade. You’ve got a certain amount of critical credit. Journalists are a bit wary of slagging off a Rough Trade product because it is hip.
People are writing and talking about you. Will it continue?
Alison: It would be nice if it does, but if it doesn’t there’s no point worrying about it.
Stuart: We’re also branching out a bit. I’ve also got a band called The Gist, which is basically me and Phil. We’ve already recorded about five tracks. We’ve got a separate deal with Rough Trade.
Why do you perform live? Do you enjoy it? Promotion? Because you think it’s the thing to do?
Stuart: It’s a little bit of both promotion and enjoyment – and also for the experience. We don’t expect this band to last forever, so it’s nice to have played in London and it will be nice to play in Europe as well. Someone said they didn’t need to see us more than once – but that’s fair enough [laughter].
Is it worrying?
Stuart: Well, no. There are quite a lot of people around [laughter]. Ultimately, the music is the most important thing. If we never did any gigs then it’d be terrible.
Phil: I don’t like gigs.
You’d rather just record?
Phil: We did worry about whether it will all die off. Maybe we’ll stop when we get really fed up doing the set.
Stuart: …and we’ll take some time off and buy a car from Scotland, a black transit, and come back with a triple album…!
All photos by Mark Ellis