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Monday, July 18, 2011

2010 interview

Here's the entire original Steve Perrin interview that took place early last year for the nascent Distractions website.  This was still sometime before it was decided to resurrect the core of the group, never mind record a second album.

It’s well documented that you met Mike at college, Pip (Nicholls) joined after missing out with the Buzzcocks and Adrian (Wright) and Alex (Sidebottom) joined via an NME advert. When and why did Lawrence (Tickle) and Tony (Trappe) leave in the early days?
SP: Lawrence was there in the very early days before we ever played a gig. He was a really good guitarist but was obsessed with the Rolling Stones so probably left because we didn’t sound like the Rolling Stones. Tony played the first few gigs with us, including one supporting Buzzcocks at Rafters where he turned up wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. At the time I saw this as the last straw. Now I think it was a move of pure genius.

How did you tend to work on songs? Were they presented to the group fully-formed or did they tend to evolve from words with chords into something more complete? Also, did you generally start with a tune and then write lyrics to it, begin with the words and then set them to music, or did the two generally evolve together?
Song writing tended to be individual but song choice and arrangements were pretty democratic. The writers would circulate tapes of themselves bashing something out on an acoustic guitar and if everybody liked something it would get done, if somebody disliked something it wouldn't. From that point on we’d work stuff up and any ideas were welcome. The distinctive drum pattern on “(Stuck in a) Fantasy”, for example, was something that Alex came up with.

One thing I find interesting is that, although songs are credited to various different band members, there’s very definitely a "Distractions aesthetic” which runs through pretty much all of them, particularly a certain lyrical approach, a down-to-earth approach to songwriting of a kind later developed by certain other Mancunians, with wit and pathos. At least three of you must’ve contributed lyrics, so how do you explain this wonderful consistency? Was it conscious to any degree? A happy accident? Or perhaps shared experience?
My guess would be shared experience. The lyricists were all working class males of a certain age from the North West of England who had had little socio-geographical movement so we had rather a lot in common. It is vital, however, to consider Mike’s role in this. As the singer he had to be comfortable with what he was singing so, occasionally, Adrian or myself would come up with a lyric which didn’t fit and the song would not get done. I mean, I love that Antony and the Johnsons song “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” but I doubt that I would have been able to get Mike to sing that.

Similarly, was there any conscious decision to write love songs that had a little grit in their oysters?
I think that was conscious, yes, but probably also due to our shared vision of life at the time.

What was the Manchester scene like in the late '70s, early '80s? Any memories of the pubs, clubs and venues around the town before in the years before The Smiths and “Madchester” arrived?
It was a really vibrant live scene. Most people will probably disagree with me but I think most of the bands were better live than on record. My favourite place was The Ranch on Dale Street which was an offshoot of Foo Foo’s Palace, owned by Frank “Foo Foo” Lamar, Manchester’s answer to Danny La Rue. It was amazing. No stage, no PA system and no door policy so you could get in dressed in whatever took your fancy. Kevin Cummins’ photos from the Ranch really capture that period and would be worth a book on their own.

Mike Finney, Electric Ballroom, 26th October 1979 (supporting Joy Division and ACR).

Did you ever see yourselves as punks? The thing that first grabbed my attention when I heard the TJM EP was that it was the first new record I’d heard that didn’t have that wall of distorted guitars from the Ramones’ first LP, via the Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks, etc. It made it sound pretty radical to my youthful ears. Everything else coming out around that time (and for a while afterwards) was either the kind of stuff that was later dubbed "post-punk" or else rama-lama cartoon punk thrash. Go on, tell me it was a sheer accident, one day the batteries in your distortion pedal ran out mid-song and you thought “that’s it! That’s the sound!”
Well, before punk got codified it was a fairly open concept. The initial New York bands were all quite different and that was initially the case in Manchester too. In terms of the look, people were mostly wearing stuff they found in secondhand shops or made themselves. As for the guitar sound, that was deliberate. I wanted to sound like a cross between Hank Marvin and Steve Cropper. Big “rock” sounds have never interested me. I don’t have a big “rock” personality.

Similarly, what you were doing at the time, referencing all the drama of 60s pop, was pretty radical at the time, it was supposed to be "Year Zero”, we weren’t supposed to admit that we even liked any records made before late 1976 (with a few exceptions such as The Stooges, Velvets, etc.). The Distractions always sounded thrillingly modern to my ears, but punk audiences could be very intolerant of anything that wasn't Sham 69 - did you ever encounter any hostility?
Again, in the early days people were pretty open minded so a show with us, Joy Division, The Fall, Exodus (a reggae band) and John Cooper Clarke seemed to make sense. That mostly stayed the case in places like Manchester, Liverpool and London but, elsewhere, “punk” got codified pretty quickly and, yes, we did encounter some hostility. I seem to remember some pretty hairy gigs in remote parts of Scotland.

You weren’t a fan of touring, but what were your most memorable gigs? You supported some famous names at the time, A Certain Radio, The Fall, Buzzcocks, Joy Division...
Maybe the Nashville in London supporting Joy Division when they were at the height of their powers. Most people would probably disagree with me but I don’t think any of their records captured how intense they could be live. Other than that, supporting Adam and the Ants was always interesting.

A couple of noted names were involved in the sleeve design of some of The Distractions’ records. What was it like working with Peter Saville (Time Goes By So Slow and Nobody’s Perfect) and Kevin Cummins (Nobody’s Perfect and And Then There’s...)?
We knew Peter from the early days at Factory but he pretty much worked on his own. I don’t remember being consulted at all on the Time Goes By So Slow sleeve, although I really liked it. The Nobody’s Perfect sleeve we had a little more say in. It originated from a photo session Kevin had done for Record Mirror where I was standing in front of a billboard with photos of the rest of the band on it. Peter took that and changed it around a little. There’s a really nice detail in that you can see the reflection of the model’s face in the glass of Adrian’s portrait. I believe the model was Peter’s partner at the time though I could be wrong.

The famous Leigh Festival had a formidable line-up, what was it like?
Sparsely attended. I suspect that it was one of Tony Wilson’s great conceptual ideas to put it on in a place exactly equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool. The problem was that Leigh was practically impossible to reach by public transport so the darlings of the music press ended up playing to each other, a few journalists and three members of the Greater Manchester Police Drug Squad, all of whom were dressed like Starsky.

How did the move from TJM to Factory come about, on the back of You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That or through gigs?
SP: Tony Wilson rang me at work and said Paul Morley was going to make You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That single of the week in the NME and did we want to do the next single on Factory. We did.

Did you meet Tony Wilson often?
SP: Yes, and my mum used to enjoy talking to him on the phone when he rang up. Tony was a brilliant and frustrating character, the nearest Manchester will ever get to Andy Warhol as a conceptual thinker. The difference was that, unlike Warhol, he talked all the time. And he just did not care. The cowboy boots would have been one thing but wandering about with saddle bags over his shoulder was taking it to another level.

How did Island see you? Was there any pressure to come up with an “image”? To write certain kinds of songs? In other words, as Tony Wilson is said to have put it, "to play the game”?
To be fair to them, they pretty much let us get on with it. The press really liked us so there was no pressure to develop an image or to write in a certain way. The only area where they did step in was in the choice of singles. They wanted to put “Boys Cry” out and I really objected to that as I didn’t want the band to be known for a cover version. Funnily enough, I heard it on the radio a few years ago and thought they were probably right but at the time I sulked.

The Distractions, 1994-95.  Steve Perrin, Kevin Durkin, Bernard Van Den Berg, Mike Finney.

We’ve loved listening to the [then] unreleased 1995 demos. What made you briefly reform The Distractions after so long?
I’d been living in Italy for a while and had just moved back to Manchester. Mike suggested that we do some stuff and I said OK as long as we did new material. The idea of being an oldies act has always horrified me.

You mention a few gigs in Manchester and Liverpool in 1995, where were these and how were they?
The gigs were good. We sounded a lot better than in the early days, partly due to the fact that technology had moved on and we could actually hear each other. It also helped that there was a considerably better chance of everybody on stage being sober. There was an issue, however, in terms of context. In the '70s we emerged from our audience. In the '90s it was very difficult to say who our audience might be.

You’ve said in previous interviews that you were influenced by the Velvet Underground, Beatles, Bowie and Roxy Music. While the 1995 demos are unmistakably The Distractions, were you further influenced by any scene or band in the 14 years that had elapsed since the group split up?
Influences are always hard to spot. In a way you get influenced by everything and nothing. I mean, two of my favourite bands are The Cramps and Mazzy Star but we don’t sound anything like either of them. Similarly, there was a period (and I’m talking about something between two and five years here, I can’t really remember) where I refused to listen to anything other than Scott Walker and Miles Davis but I don’t really see that coming through. I admire Stephin Merritt and Jarvis Cocker as song writers so maybe there’s something there but, basically, if Mike and I start playing together, for better or for worse, it sounds like The Distractions.

Given the famous names who’ve commented favourably on The Distractions over the years, how frustrating was it that sales didn’t match the critical acclaim poured upon you around the time of Time Goes By So Slow and Nobody’s Perfect?
At the time it was very frustrating given the fact that good reviews have no nutritional value so you can’t eat them. Luckily I’ve found other things to eat since.

What music do you find yourselves listening to these days?
It goes through stages. I’m very fond of French and Italian pop music from the 1960s and '70s but sometimes I’ll go through long phases of listening to Western or Eastern classical music or jazz. What I’ve heard of the new Magnetic Fields album sounds good and I think Timbaland’s a really interesting producer though he may have passed his best now. This could go on and on so I’ll stop.


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