THE MONOCHROME SET have bafflingly evaded major success…
Yet the band’s influence on bands like The Smiths, Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian, Blur and The Strokes can be clearly felt. Phil Knoxville of Velvet Sheep sat down with Monochrome Set leader Bid to discuss their new album ‘Spaces Everywhere’.
VS: How did the new Monochrome Set album come about?
Bid: The Monochrome Set were on tour in Germany and these geezers came up to us and said “Do you want a record deal?” and we weren’t sure as we’d released the two previous ones on our own label. We chatted a bit and later the two of us [Bid and right-hand man Lester Square] thought “Oh my God, that’s Tapete records, the biggest record label in Germany!” so we sorted out a deal. We recorded it over the summer last year. Just after the recording our original lead guitarist Lester Square, who’s on the album, left the band, so we’re now going to be a four piece and I’ll be doing the guitar parts.
VS: Didn’t the Monochrome Set have a fifth member who was a film maker?
Bid: Yeah in 1978 there was a guy called Tony Potts who was living in the squat where we used to rehearse. He was at film school, a wannabe director, and he had loads and loads of projectors and films. He came to a rehearsal one day and stated projecting these films over us. We thought it was good and decided to keep it.
VS: Tell us a more about your squat days, to me it sounded a bit like The Young Ones…
Bid: [Laughs] Well I didn’t live in a squat but that’s kind of where we met, Lester and I. There was a street in Brixton where a couple of other bands used to rehearse, it was quite easy to start a band back then because of that.
It was the end of a band called the Art Attacks in late 77, and we got John Hayne, the drummer from that and he lived in a squat with Tony Potts and a guy who became my manager. I think a cartoonist called Edwin Powers lived there too. Nowadays he lives just up the road from me funny enough.
In those days you were paid to go to art college and you could live for free in a squat, that’s what caused punk basically. It was a load of people going to art college, who were paid to go there who didn’t really need to do any work until a couple of months before their exams [laughs].
VS: The new Monochrome Set album feels kind of ageless.
Bid: It’s an awful lot to do with the fact that we don’t take any notice of what goes on in the music business. We just write songs and make albums and it’s always been that case. Back in the days of ‘Strange Boutique’ we weren’t really interested in our contemporaries, we just made music the best we could. We weren’t really listening to what was going on at the time and that was bad for us commercially. There was such a strong move towards Duran Duran and the New Romantic kind of music and we were just out of step with that. The same goes for the late 80s and into the 90s. We didn’t deliberately try to get into step, we just didn’t take any notice at all. We don’t approach music as if it’s our financial career, we’re not trying to sell records to a particular perceived audience, we’re just making albums.
So how do you consume music these days, how do you listen to older music?
I’m on news groups and I just go to old MP3 groups and people upload these old things from vinyl and you get these really fantastic, weird but interesting things. Things that people are crowing about, having done some fantastic new things last year or whatever, I’m not as interested in that. I mean for an old person you look at Lady Gaga and you think “well I’ve seen all that before but done better” and the thing is I always want to go back to the source, I want to go back to the time when people were creating these things for the first time.
Is it frustrating for you as a musician to listen to artists who are quite derivative but at the same time are being applauded for doing something new?
Yeah but it’s always been the case in the arts that someone boils down a great idea down to one slim little thing and presents it as a commercial entity to the public.
It’s the same in books and films. There’s a whole load of people that read the Harry Potter stuff but never read Lord of The Rings and the Potter stuff wouldn’t exist without Lord of The Rings, so it’s just like a boiled down version of Lord of The Rings. I’m not suggesting that I’m into either of them but it’s that kind of thing, it’s taking something and making it palatable to idiots [Both laugh]. And that’s fair enough, that’s the way it happens.
The new Monochrome Set album displays the lost art of the intro, an opening riff that hooks you in immediately and I really loved that.
It’s making the most out of a song, it’s like not being able to stop yourself and it’s just fun to do the song you know? We’re chucking everything in.
I take it you’re never afraid of running out of ideas?
At the moment I just seem to have a free flow of writing, and part of that is to do with the fact that about five years ago, I had that aneurysm and a small part of my brain burnt out. It’s really complicated but it’s just made it easier to song write.
It’s just broken down certain barriers. I’ve got an awful lot to say about that and I’m thinking of writing a book about where the creative part of the brain is and things, because I kind of found it if you like. I’m now writing songs and the lyrics sound very well thought out and intellectual and witty but I’m just automatically writing them and my brain is kind of switched off and the thing inside me that is doing all the writing is just writing these lyrics, and I’m looking at them and I’m not really understanding what I’m writing.
But it’s coherent.
Yeah it’s coherent and I know all songs are written in that way, except when you go into a commercial studio. I’m not really doing it with my conscious self if you like, I know that sounds really weird. Since the stroke my conscious self has kind of become a bit weaker and therefore there’s less of a barrier to let the artistic side of me to come out and write.
The artist if you like relies on a primal part of the brain which is to do with the lateral creative thinking and it’s primal because you need this part of the brain to get yourself out of tricky situations.
And do you think the aneurysm has given you a direct link to that?
Well I’ve just seen it work now because of the aneurysm and because of neuroplasty, which is the brain rewiring itself to go round damaged parts. It’s become incredibly tiring to write things, the writing part keeps going but it reduces the effectiveness of my consciousness, so that I become aphasiastic – which means I lose the power of speech after I’ve written two or three songs and I can’t understand speech anymore but I’m still writing songs. So my hand is moving and whole songs are coming out but I don’t know what I’m writing, and when I saw that happening I realised that my consciousness has never written any of the songs.
The influence of the song on other artists are obvious, it could be said that if you were a litigious man you’d have your work cut out.
Yeah I know [Laughs]. Sometimes people say “Ah this band sounds like The Monochrome Set”, people say that and most of the time I can’t hear it, once or twice I really, really can hear it [laughs]. I’m not going to tell you who they are but I don’t really care, you know whatever, it doesn’t really make any difference to me.
Has anyone come up to you and said “Hands up, I think I’ve ripped your song off a little bit”
[Laughs] Yes! It’s an awful lot of bands that nobody would have ever heard of, only small bands and you know, the odd big band.
That’s why I’m interested in going to source songs, to source things when there wasn’t a genre, like starting with Leadbelly when before the blues came and he was still playing country folk and it started going into blues, it’s just that transition from one sort of genre into what would become another genre is really interesting to me. There’s so many creative things that happen in that period, before it becomes a boring Chicago blues or boring rock and roll, it’s a period of time when music can be so interesting, when people don’t know what they’re doing and I just kind of encourage song writers to investigate those periods.
To be boring must be horrendous.
Well we’ve had people walk out before [Laughs]! I don’t think people would say we’re boring but we’ve gone through periods where we haven’t made great albums and I think that’s absolutely fine. I think that’s what you get when we’ve gone in directions that people haven’t liked because they want us to be a certain thing but, you know, they can fuck off, if you don’t mind me saying so?
No I don’t [Both laugh].
The whole point of what we were, objectively what we were about is to be different. We were ourselves and I always thought that’s what the whole point of New Wave was, to come out and no longer be a genre, New Wave was kind of No Wave, to investigate new ways of doing things.
THE MONOCHROME SET’s new album ‘Spaces Everywhere’ is available on CD, LP (inc. CD) and download from Tapete Records and is available to buy now.