Wet Wet Wet: On The Journey With Graeme Clark - Part 2
Following last week's Wet Wet Wet: Graeme Clark On The Journey - Part 1 Townsend Music proudly present the second and final instalment of our in-depth interview with the big-hearted bass player Graeme Clark. This week, we explore the place of 'real' instruments in pop music, fan engagement in 2021 and get the inside story on Graeme's infamous paisley bass guitar!
TM: Back in the late 80s, to a certain extent you were marketed as “the Boy Band that played their instruments" so this cross-pollination of commercial pop and ‘real’ music was always part of Wet Wet Wet right down to your debut album name.
Right - and there's always the danger of going too far the other way. In the studio, we use a programmer and it's fantastic; you get the guy in the room and they’re 17 years old and they’re making this colossal, unbelievable soundscape. But sometimes I do feel that that's shoehorned into a bunch of chords and I don't get it. It’s trying to make something for the radio and that was what we never did and we shouldn't really start doing that because we will lose that identity.
TM: There’s nothing that can date music more quickly than squeezing in the latest trendy production techniques. Fran from Travis said “Travis has never been fashionable. If you’re never fashionable, you can be timeless.”
I’ve got a lot of time for Fran, I love his songwriting. I never had the massive album they made (The Man Who) but I could sing every song. He’s a clever writer because the music draws you in and it goes into your head and sort of stays there. I’m always interested and intrigued by that because when we started we were 15 and 16 years old. We were playing in a band and the music that spoke to me was post-punk. It was this funny time for music; independent bands like Scritti Politti and The Mekons and all this music was coming at me and it was talking to me in a way that that nothing else was. We sort of went down our road by total misadventure because we basically couldn't play our instruments and we were trying to be creative and suddenly a guy like Marti (Pellow, former vocalist) is singing the songs and you’re like: “there's no way that we can emulate The Mekons anymore man”. You’re kids saying “let's try and be Magazine or New Order” and you get it totally wrong. But then you sort of end up with something. It's nothing that we thought it was trying to be but it's actually sounded okay and it got its own identity. It wasn't like a sudden thing of “let's be a commercial act”. To be honest, we were just trying a come up with a song that we all liked. And, if that was commercial, then so be it. For me, it made more sense because of my youth and ambition back then. Joe Strummer had said "we want to sell a million records” and I really jumped in that I thought, I want to do that as well! I want to sell a million records.
TM: And touch a million hearts! That’s the thing! It’s the connection: a connection with people. I didn't know that at the time. But of course, subsequently, when I do hear our songs on the radio, it still sounds alright to my ears. Whereas ‘Sweet Little Mystery’ is sort of time-stamped in 1987 - we can’t get away from that - things like ‘Angel Eyes’ and ‘Love Is All Around’ have lasted the test of time because they still sound quite vibrant today. They still have value to them. TM: Full disclosure: the first album I ever bought was Popped In Souled Out for my little red tape player. And I liked you guys because the kids at school liked Bros. My dad was a bass player and he told me that you guys were real musicians, so that was always part of it - he instilled in me that that was somehow more important than what Bros was doing. I then went on to like alternative rock stuff but that was my first album bought with my own money.
I agree with your dad by the way. I agree! <laughs>
That’s great because I'm the very same; we grew up with Slade and then you find that music's a big old world and so all the stuff that you got to first gets dropped because there’s all this much more serious music out there. But I do find that when Slade comes on the radio you think “no wonder I liked it when I was young" because 'Ma Mama Weer All Crazee Now' is a brilliant song.
TM: I could still hear any track off Popped In Souled Out or True Blue by Madonna and know all the words - even the deep cuts - whereas an album I’ve played to death this year, I wouldn’t know a single word.
I think your first initial music love is always like that. I loved The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie) - that was the one Neil and I connected over when I was eleven. And I gave him the cassette! There are always disputes but I say I gave him the cassette and he says he gave me the cassette and I say no you didnae! We like to lay claim - I liked this first. I still go back to Rise And Fall and Hunky Dory. I can still hear those records in our music in places. Those first records lay the groundwork and they’re still bleeding in.
TM: So - starting out as the pop guys that played their instruments - where do you see the role of instruments and playing instruments in pop music In 2021?
That's a very weighty question. I'll have to think about that!
TM: Well, you've talked about making music on apps - the excellent example of Billy Eilish. Would you agree with me that while may sound like she might have done it on GarageBand on a phone but she's brought a sense of vision and all these intangibles to it that makes the fact that it could have been done on a laptop irrelevant? Do her ideas supersede the fact that she’s not necessarily sat there playing a six-string bass?
Well, I really warmed to her when she was on The Brits. It was completely overwhelming for her and she seemed really emotional and I think that was because of the fact that she was playing music there. Suddenly it was like “oh my god, I’m not with my brother and I’m not on that iPad, I’m suddenly exported into this alien world that’s a whole different concept”. So that performance, for me, suddenly humanises her music and I was with her. She was nervous and it was a moving thing. And that’s music, that’s why I do this; music hits me in places I’m not expecting it to hit.
TM: It’s interesting that you bring up The Brits - it’s still appointment viewing as far as the culture but those kinds of water-cooler conversation TV moments are rare these days. We don't have as many ‘Love Is All Around’ on Top Of The Pops TV moments. People are streaming sub-genres of sub-genres. There’s perhaps less of that generational music that everybody's plugged into.
So where does music come in in people's lives? That's the real question
Music is fragmented in so many different ways but I think that there’s always going to be a cross-pollination. Daft Punk, with the Nile Rodgers track that was that a humongous hit ('Get Lucky'); that was Chic transported from the 70s. That was a nice surprise how huge that became because it was just so good. And maybe it’s the same with ‘Love Is All Around’. I heard people say: “It’s good, but four months at number one… it’s not that good man”. I agree with that. But I think music has suffered in an age of people not going to a record shop to buy the record. Your record collection is on your phone. What could be more handy? I’ve got a pile of CDs and albums over there locked away in a cupboard, so what are people going to do?! That’s where music is - it’s lost a bit of its value and in the last few years, people are asking where is it? Where is the value in music? And to me, lockdown and what we’ve been through has suddenly thrown the focus onto: “well, actually this is where music makes perfect sense because it takes us away from the bad things we're thinking about.”
There was that element when recording the album of thinking: “oh, I need to write songs about being locked down” but then you think “I cannae subject people to that after all we’ve been through!” So we just have one or two songs that reflected lockdown with a positive spin, like ‘Back To Memphis’.
We did a couple of songs that we didn’t use years ago and one was called ‘It’s All Gone Wrong'. Our manager came and said: “that’s really negative, we can’t put that out there." And I just thought "hang on a minute here", this is the Facebook mentality: "Look at my Facebook, I’m such an interesting person!" If everything’s positivity then where are the other nuances in life, man? We’ve tried to make the album as succinct and honest as we could because people relate to honesty. Four chords and the truth. For us it’s three chords man, four's one chord too many! It’s a great question because it really made me think and I like it when things make me think. And that's what we’re trying to do with the music - you’re not trying to tell people “this is what you should think”, you’re just trying to show them something and then they make up their own mind. That’s music for me!
TM: With the advent of the Internet age, one thing that has been different over the last decade is the engagement with fans. With the new album, you guys have been doing a Making Music campaign where you've been putting a lot of content on the store including footage from the studio talking about the making of the album. Everybody has the right to reply now. How have you found the process of more fan engagement and using technology to stay in touch with fans and have that dialogue with them? I love that, actually.... <thinks> Well, there’s good and bad. <laughs> It can get a bit out of kilter because when you hear a hundred positive things about your new single and the one you remember is the one that says “I think this is sh*t” and that does your nut in. You’re just trying to redress the balance all the time. A guy said to me: “look at your timeline. If it’s just saying that Scotland is going to get its independence’ you need to get some other people in there whose opinions you don’t like.” I really think that you have to do that. TM: Jeremy Corbyn was in by a landslide based on my Twitter! Well there you go then, man, we're all the same. It was a sports journalist that said to me that you need to follow people that you don't like, so you can get a fully rounded picture and not just one side of the argument. Otherwise, it’s just an echo chamber.
I really love the Making Music parts of the store. We’ve done some videos, we’re there playing music, we’re doing the sort of things that people don’t necessarily see. They see the shiny front end of it; “here’s the album!” They don’t see us saying “what rhymes with dinosaur, man?” So they get a glimpse of us scratching our heads and what it’s like in that environment. I love the fact that the fans come in on social media and tell us things, it’s very positive.
All this fan engagement is, for me, like an extension of the fan club we had back in the day. People would write to us and draw pictures of us. Funnily enough, my mother died a few years ago. She suffered from dementia and I went out and spent the last two or three years of her life with her. So I’m in my teenage bedroom and I’m reconnecting. My mum had kept a load of letters that had arrived way back in the day from people that still live within a two-mile radius of where I grew up. It was just so cathartic.
I found this letter: it was from a teenage girl saying “my friend really loves Graeme!" I took this letter and took a photo of it and put it on my Instagram and then I thought "Oh sh*t, man. What happens if they don’t like each other anymore? Have I done a bad thing here?!" But luckily, they hadn’t seen each other in 20 years and so this has connected them as well. Thank god it worked out OK! But this has always been there - I wrote to Scritti Pollitii when I was fifteen and said “you’ve done it yourselves, this DIY thing, how do you do it?” He wrote back to me! I’m sitting there at home and this letter came through telling us how to do the distribution and manufacturing and how much it’s going to cost. It was incredible, man.
Another thing I’ve not posted up yet is from the first time we were in Memphis around 1986. I would send postcards to my brother. He was the big influence on me and had the good paper round so had all these records and the gear - these 12-inch imports like 'King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown', heavy heavy dub. This was the late 70s and I’m absorbing this in Scotland and it sounds like it’s from outer space. Later I would send him postcards from Memphis. He told me he was cleaning his bookcase recently and took a book out and a postcard fell out. It was me from 1986 saying that it’s 100 degrees here in Memphis - it’s just this brilliant snapshot - and it struck me that we’ve just written a song about Memphis and this just completed the circle.
TM: That’s great to hear. Some artists struggle with the perceived intrusion of the social media thing. I guess it’s in keeping with your ethos of having one foot in current and one foot in the past.
You're right, man. Sometimes we can all get stuck in our ways. There’s this argument that we’re quite an old fashioned band - and there is an element of that to us - but I’m 56 years old! Maybe in my 20s and 30s I would have said “keep those people out of the studio, man” but I think about it and understand that when you see people react as they do, their world is rocked. To the point that you’re like “oh my god, we’ve really made their millennium man” to see how this stuff comes together and get a snapshot of that. And who doesn’t like making people feel better? By doing something small and inconsequential to me and that having an impact is an amazing thing. Which goes back to affecting people hearts - what a great place to tie it all up.
TM: Well let's tie it up with one final question. Do you still have the Paisley Warwick Do you used on Top of the Pops? It was quite the instrument! Oh, there’s a story behind that! I liked Warwick basses and I had this friend in Glasgow called Guy McLean. Around Great Western Rd there’s a big Indian community. I was into Prince - Paisley Park and all that - and inside this Indian Sari shop, I bought a bit of material that had paisley patterns on it. I gave it to this mate (Guy McLean) who, as his gig, used to paint the petrol tanks on motorbikes. People would give him a picture of a lion and if you wanted that on a motorbike, he was the man to do it, hand-painted. So I gave him this material and said “paint that on my bass, man”. And he made such an amazing job of it… it’s a real one-off and it suddenly has this story. Here you are asking about it, it must have made an impression as a striking thing - a work of art. He did such a good job that I went to the same sari shop and I got another one. There’s a pink one and a blue one. People that know the band refer them to specific names - that the ‘Love Is All Around’ bass.
There’s a bittersweetness to this because he was a troubled soul and he’s no longer with us. But his daughter is and his daughter got in contact with me recently and said “this was my dad’s work, can I get a photograph with that?” So we had her over at the gig and she’s there with the bass on - he lives on through that bass.
The Journey is available to pre-order now on the official Wet Wet Wet store. Everyone who pre-orders the new album will automatically receive access to exclusive Making Music content from Wet Wet Wet.