LOVE ON YOUR SIDE
The enigmatic BILLY MACKENZIE doesn't sulk any more. Instead he enthuses about romances, the 'pop heart' and Bryan Ferry, and reckons The Associates may still blow your heads off. Interview by Steve Sutherland, Pictures by Tom Sheehan.
CLICK ... The tape whirrs imperceptibly... "Never regret anything you do because it's just another little Lego block."
But Billy, it's weird. Your past is our present. All that business with Warner Brothers not releasing your records and now what do we have "Waiting For The Loveboat". Years old. "Some people think, in my situation, I'd be crawling up walls but I'm only crawling up, oh, two days a week."
Another hour where my life collides with Billy Mackenzie's. Everytime is different. Unique. Billy's a talker. A magician with words. I love his rambling logic like I love his records. May I just mention genius and go with the flow.
When you hear "Loveboat" Billy, is it still you?
"Oh yes, because I think there's not much fluctuation in The Associates' quality standard. Time has no boundaries as far as The Associates' songs are concerned. They're no' really like fashion-shot songs, they're no' faddish."
Since you shouldered The Associates' public image, since Rankine walked, your approach has been noticeably simpler. "Those First Impressions" was positively direct.
"Yes, 'The Sulk' album (MM's album of the year for 1982, you may remember) was far too idealistic, but this album is the first Associates album that has anything to do with love or anything like that.
The album he's talking about is the long awaited "Perhaps", so called because "you could look upon every aspect of eating, breathing and sleeping as perhaps. You can't ever say anything's definite except physical pain and mental cruelty. Y'know, theories and relativities and dogmas might all just be a load of perhaps or maybe not or maybe ... d'you know what I mean?"
"Well, all The Associates albums were about disillusionment, which is attached to idealism, whereas this is more of a sort of L-O-V-E thing. I never knew what that emotion was like before. I'd never really been in that state."
"Perhaps" isn't out until October so we'll have to wait to find out if Billy's gone conventional. Somehow I doubt it, but it's strange that 99.9 per cent of all pop songs are about that fevered dream we call love.
"There's love songs and there's love songs. Like, this may sound really cruel and what happened to John Lennon was a really bad thing but, if I'd written the type of love songs he'd written... well, I wouldn't mind if Billy Mackenzie wasn't here anymore. My love songs are no' really love songs. The songs are ruled by the head more than the heart. I've got to the stage now where I really feel like an emotional expert, not an intelligent expert, but I've had the lifestyle from day one that would get me to a state where I know my own emotions and other people's emotions inside out and why they're doing it. I just know what's going on.
I can't imagine anyone else recording one of your songs, they're so idiosyncratic.
"They're just my observations along the way. Other people have similar emotional mishaps, but they always seem to be skimming the surface when I like to get right down to the juicy bones of it all. I've never really written about little spaceships and little starmen fantasy worlds. It's always been at the raw, total reality and it's been what's happened to me. That kinds puts people off in a way but, then again, if some people get strength out of it. I remember a couple of Psychedelic Furs singles when I was going through a couple of horrible weeks and they really uplifted me, so if The Associates are finding faults in the human mechanics and unfolding them, then I feel that's the purpose - unravelling the defects of human behaviour."
"Not really! Just telling the truth. Morrissey laces his writing with humour, but mine is even two or three stages removed from that type of writing.
It's interesting you mention him. He seems to be the only other person who's trying to make language work within pop, albeit academically, I. can imagine him tittering over his conceits painstakingly constructing them in an exercise book. Anyone else?
"Of course there's little bits of this and that and the next thing. Martin Ware and Heaven 17 are on the right musical trail, they've got their vision well under control and it just depends on whether their lives give them enough inspiration to come up with something that's nice and juicy. They have the pop heart and that's what we're talking about, the pop heart ...There's old Bunnyface, he's good at all that. He's the best and I really do like him. Then there's the Scars and Julie out of The Delmontes and The Fire Engines."
They're not doing much are they?
"Not at the moment but that's the way the musical speedway has taken them. It took them on a ride and then it fuckin' flung them off and now they've got all their priorities right, they'll be back up next year. Old Henderson from The Fire Engines is just brilliant - there's a lot of people around and it's still not a very mature ...well, music shouldn't be mature should it?"
"It's not gonna be so business orientated by the end of next year.
"There isn't gonna be any empires left because there isn' t even a fashionable world anymore. Everything's cancelled itself out. New Zealand isn't in the past now - it would be fashionable for fashionable people from London to go to New Zealand and defashionise themselves, d'you know what I mean? All these human things of keeping one abreast aren't there anymore because there's been a revolution right under everybody's noses. Style's a different thing. Style could be your own purity through music."
Are you playing to the gallery?
"Not at the moment. There's enough negative things around me to keep me on my toes and keep me real and keep things real for me."
What's Billy Mackenzie got to feel bad about?
"A hundred and one things. I've got a huge family and one side dislikes the other and then some friends don't like other friends and I'm always there in between everybody trying to patch everything up and then I neglect my own emotional needs. Success and money only bring other problems, although it's nice to have things like that. I've come to thinking, over the last three weeks, that I could honestly have given up everything to be happily married just a day over 16 and had kids and never had anything, just happiness wi' one person and work as maybe ... not exactly a bank manager or a tradesman but something relatively interesting, maybe laboratory research or a vet or something and I could have quite happily given this up because I think that's the only thing that works for people. I've come to that conclusion."
"Probably. I'm too far gone. The grass is always greener isn't it? Maybe that'll give me something to write about. Really I'm quite happy being me - all my sorrows have got to do with family and friends. They seem to bring me great delight and great despair all wrapped up in one minute."
The perfect description of an Associates song. "Loveboat" is far more sexual than "Sulk" though, far more explicit.
"That's right. The sexual thing was because around that time I was having a little something and it came out in the music."
My favourite line's "Tests proved negative/I was positively pleased". Dare I ask if it's autobiographical?
"Oh yeah, it's all about somebody maybe gonna have a kid."
It reverberates further.
"Yeah, it's your own personal interpretation and I'll tell you why it works in that way; because I would never ever, ever propagate anything that I think would damage young peoples' ways of thinking. I think the best thing they could do is fall in love wi' somebody and if it works forever then great and if it doesn't, well, try again. But I'd never say 'Billy Mackenzie says Relax' or anything that wasn't positive for health reasons. I don't want any young person to go through things by my influence - I think that's a really, really wicked, evil thing to do."
So you still believe in love?
"Totally. Even though I feel a bit ugh! saying that, it's the only thing that people really essentially want. The only thing left. If you told me I'd be in this state for the next 50 or 60 years so what did I want, The Associates to be Worldwide, hugely successful, ginormous supergroup or just to happily go around day to day eating Heinz vegetable soup and watching TV, I'd pick the Heinz syndrome because I'm quite happy in a state like that, that blissfulness.
"I think you start off quite naive and then that gets blasted out of you and the next thing is you're in a no-man's land and then the next thing is you're wise. You've got these three stages to pass through and I'm just coming out of the no-man's land."
I don't think people ever learn. They go on making mistakes, taking the plunge wilfully...
"Sometimes people like doing it for identities, it makes them feel good because they know that other people are talking about them. It gives them a sense of themselves through other people's eyes but I personally don't need that sort of thing."
Really? Your infamous antics have been construed as an obsessive need for attention. Does Billy Mackenzie need other people to exist, to bounce his personality off? Is Billy still there in a room on his own?
"For an average amount of time, yeah, because I like recharging my batteries. I feel as if I've got to be strong for not just me, but other people. When you're the eldest of a family of six and you've been brought up in a very turbulent way, it gets thrust upon you at a very early age and it's very hard to throw off. I'd really, honestly, like to say to everybody 'Look, piss off! I'm just gonna earn loads of money and feed my face and do everything that I want'. But I don't want that and the responsibility? ... Well, I'll just have to say 'Oh well, here we go again!'
"I've got a certain way of cracking up people. I'm an expert at it. See, at the core, I find that the people who crack up are usually really selfish and, not being particularly selfish myself, I wouldn't crack up for other people's sake, not mine.
This explains your heroic refusal to let Warners grind you down and break your will?
"I keep myself in there, hanging onto the rag. I hate fusspots."
"Impressions" wasn't nearly as successful as it might have bean. Did you mind?
"No, it didn't really bother me. I'd never use this normally, but I know it could have had a more Spectorish production and it could have been bigger, but it was done in bits and it shouldn't have been like that really. I think it's a really nice pop song though. 'Loveboat' is a pop song too in that it's related to 'Club Country' in certain aspects; it comes from a stable and they're, like, chunky... there's a sense of hilarity and fun in them - i.e.. they're very cute and caustic but, at the same time, you can get so much fun outta the music."
The emotions are all mixed up in your songs, some would say cruelly balanced. Do you ever experience total abandon, total hilarity without the sense of futility, the darker side?
"I don't know if you can separate all these things and isolate them into musical forms. I start laughing at people who do that. The way I look at Charlie Rich, y'know,'Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?' I find that really sad. Depressing tunes just remind me of the Addams Family. I can't separate emotions; I can see things from 10 angles, I can't isolate it. I would never write to a formula because I would have a bad self-image of myself and I'd find myself a bit of a creep."
So the criterion for The Associates' quality control is personal pride?
"For myself. Not for anybody else. Just for myself and even though I may be writing about sad things or whatever, there still always should be a certain amount of joy in the music so that it makes the feeling good. You can't plan it at all. You've got to let it take you, you can't take it.
"If I thought a certain part of me was dying lyrically - because you can just say so much then I would start doing what Sinatra does, just singing the damn songs. In actual fact, I'm getting groups of people throughout the world that I really like and appreciate and understand and I'm interested in them writing songs for me when that time comes. I'm no' bothered if I never write the damn song. That's why I have collaborators like Steve Reid - The Associates, for me, have always set about it to be like a sort of friendship society - tee hee."
The songs would have to be dead right though, Billy. I mean, most songwriters, if they're really trying to do something, make a big thing about trying to subvert or expose or exploit clichés, they're clever-clever. You're not. I can't ever remember you tackling a cliché, head-on or otherwise.
"Oh, I hate things like that, they really make me cringe. It's an hereditary aspect. I have an intuitive knowledge of Moorish and flamenco music because you know that there's a lot of gypsy in my family from my father back and then there's my mother's side, the Celtic thing, and then there's Spanish, Italian, Egyptian ... there might even be some black because it comes out in certain facial characteristics in some of my family. There's a Jew in there as well. We don't know where we come from and so really I feel as if I'm not isolated by being English or Italian, I'm really just a person that has a lot of different cultures. I can identify wi' blacks, even as far as dancing!"
This would account for why you've never made a fuss about breaking the rules like all the others do. You're not a participant in the innovator game or the revolutionary fantasy. You simply never acknowledged that rules exist.
"I find that kind of thing distasteful and awkward and I hate awkwardness whether it be an awkwardly designed office or anything, it sticks in my throat, y'know? I like things that are streamlined and work. Like I know I always go on about whippets and people think it's a wee fad wi' me but I've had whippets for 15 years. My friends, when we're together, talk, oh, about five per cent music and 95 per cent whippets. We go round each other's houses when there are pups, y'know, it's my great passion. See, whippets are streamlined and they work. I like Bryan Ferry, he's streamlined and he works. I like Bauhaus buildings, they're streamlined and they work."
That's odd. Your public persona's always been particularly mischievous and unruly.
"That's because my thing's activity. It might seem like that but it's only because I'm diving about all over the place. I like orderliness. I like the orderliness of brilliant cities like Paris or Rome. Not London. In the orderliness of Paris there's a caring thing been put in there so I suppose it comes down to caring.
"I went to Manchester recently. It was horrible. Those buildings - people living in monuments. The Northern working man in institutions. It's a very uncaring city. D'you know, I wouldn't care if I never come to England again. I went to Oxford yesterday and we walked in the fields and they were clay, all cracked, not aesthetically pleasing at all. Why settle for that when you've got the best? Jumping streams, that's bliss. Natural. That's religion. Nature, not people. See, I don't believe we're the ultimate intelligent beings on earth. Sometimes I'd rather be a horse, y'know?"
Will there ever be an ultimate Billy Mac song like, say, you can imagine an ultimate Boy George song? "Karma Chameleon" was probably his ultimate, his blueprint perfected - yours seem more evolutionary.
"In a way, because it's a natural thing for me. It's natural I'll breathe until I die so it's natural I'll sing until I die or I'll write songs until I die. It doesn't go across any grains there is no paranoia, there isn't even very much thought goes into it. I never tire of work really, unless there's something getting me down and as long as I feel it's uplifting people or it's still a good social service then I'll always try and keep that. That's what The Associates are meant to be about."
And as an entertainer?
"I get fed up with those TV cameras and video things and I just feel like sticking my twos up to them. No, that's horrible saying that but they just get on my nerves. I don't really want to do it a lot of the time - I hate set patterns like that. 'You've got to do this.' If anybody says I've got to do something it's like a red rag to a bull wi' me.
"Once this album's out, Warners are just gonna have to start getting used to the fact that certain things are gonna have to change. I'll just present myself the way I want to because I present myself perfectly but not to TVs and videos. I'd rather present myself without music, just playing football or showing people that I can't swim properly ... things like that. It's like you're always meant to put your best side forwards and anything that I'm meant to do that's right always turns out wrong ."
And live? I hear a rumour about Ronnie Scotts...
"I want to get another album done by the end of the year so that I have the right balance, all my favourites, ready. Before, it always made me feel awkward. Either it was too caustic or too flippant but now I feel I could be represented in a whole-hearted manner rather than me getting freaky about it and temperamental. I feel I could have the composure of Julio Iglesias."
CLICK...The tape's through and so's Billy. Until tomorrow.