Mark Morriss solo singer, raconteur and once, future and - in a way - current, (we’ll get to that) singer of The Bluetones is pleasant company. We’re in London’s definitely swanky Soho House, home of poncey media types and beautiful young things. Neither of us particularly feel like we belong here, “I’m not a member or anything” he says, working class guilt flashing in his face for a second, “I did a gig for them a while back, so I can come in for a drink now and again.” I feel better for hearing it, because being of a similar background, I always feel like a bit of a phoney in these places too, like someones going to throw me out any minute.
Morriss has that as well, “I’ve got that syndrome where I think I’m a fraud and I’m going to get found out any second” he’ll tell me later. “Hang on, is that….” we both look round, “is that Katie Hopkins?” It isn’t thankfully, although it would have been funny if it was. The juxtaposition of Morriss, wryly funny, mild mannered, quick off the mark, nice, with the offensively-posh rent-a-troll would have been quite fun. He’s not a man who likes bullying of Hopkins’ sort, “I can’t bear the canonization of Gary Barlow. He’s just a bully,” he says for instance. “I find it really upsetting that someone who spent so long outside the industry and was ridiculed for a number of years, got a real kicking, and then he comes back and he’s the one doing the kicking. I’ve been kicked therefore I’ve earned the right to kick.”
But we’re not here to talk about hated psuedo-celebs, and we’re not here to talk about singers from bands that were big in the 90s. Well, alright, we are a bit. But that’s partly the point- there’s a lot more to Mark Morriss than “the bloke who sang ‘Slight Return’”, and though Barlow’s comrade Robbie Williams may have recently said pretty much just that, it’s an allegation that does both singer and former band a massive disservice. As a songwriter Morriss is up there with Paul Heaton, Gareth Paisey from Los Campesinos! and, on his best form, Morrissey as a chronicler of bittersweet wit, kitchen sink drama and high camp, all set to a beat you can dance too and a tune you can hum. His band made a string of faultless records throughout their 18 years on the job and though sales declined to the point they had to part ways in 2011, Morriss found ways to adapt. He tours constantly, playing one-man acoustic shows, as much improvised stand up as they are music, cheap to run and easy to put together. He’s collaborated with comedian and musician Matt Berry as The Swedish Twins, and has just released his second solo album under his own name, A Flash Of Darkness, funded by fans via the Kickstarter-style Pledge Music website. The record is Morriss all over, funny, warm, a little sad, a little sardonic, tunes you can hum and a beat you can tap, with more going on beneath the unassuming surface than you might think, all done with a little charm and a lot of style (sic). We settled in to discuss the solo life, the not-so-solo life and the curse of the “B-word”.
Let’s start by going back to the last Bluetones show… The tour finishes, you get home, and what happens next?
That was a very strange time, no-one knew what to do with themselves. There was a period of a couple of weeks, where I had my fortieth birthday, and I didn’t know what step I was going to make next, I wasn’t planning on recording another album. I was hoping I’d concentrate more on writing, and move in to that, with less of the performance side of things, and that never quite came off. Largely because I gave that Pledge music thing a whirl. I did kick around for a while not knowing what I was gonna do, feeling a little bit of a… not in the doldrums, I wasn’t down about it, just not knowing what move I was gonna make next. I thrust lots of irons into the fire, I was doing lots of writing and having lots of meetings with various publishers and it was terribly boring. It was very difficult to focus on it, this idea of writing songs for other people. All the time I was collecting together this portfolio of new songs, and then, about four or five months after the band split up, Pledge Music got in touch and I listened to what they had to say. It gave me something to focus my energy on rather than feel a bit aimless. That’s when I decided to give it a go. That went incredibly well- Far better than I could possibly have thought, it went blasting through its target in a few days, and went on to nearly double the target, and I didn’t even see it coming. I remember the morning the project went live thinking “this is it, this is make or break”, I could have looked at it after a couple of days and it could have said three percent and then I know I’m fucked. But fortunately that wasn’t the case. It gave me something to focus on, recording it, and all the things that go with the Pledge commitments.
What did you offer as incentives for the Pledgers?
I sold one of my old guitars, did personal video messages and that sort of things. I went round the country hosting a pop quiz in a few different venues, and that was brilliant fun, it’s wasn’t so much of a money spinner it has to be said, once you’ve factored in the travelling and the hotels. I didn’t do any of those living room concerts, or anything like that, I felt a bit awkward about blurring the lines. So when that was done and delivered I’ve got a finished album in my back pocket, and I own it, and I can license it to someone, and it’s hopefully for them an inviting prospect because it’s not going to cost them any money - it’s a finished album. Low and behold I got involved with Acid Jazz, largely due to the [former touring mate and comedian/musician] Matt Berry connection, he signed with them three or four years ago. I was more than impressed with the way they worked so hard on Matt’s record, and I thought “if I can get that kind of energy behind me I’ll be really happy”. And here we are.
Was it a conscious thing to do it DIY and steer clear of bigger labels? I know the Bluetones were treated pretty badly by Mercury towards the end of that deal.
Yer, A&M Records got bought and sold and we were inherited by a label that didn’t really want us. We did one album with them and then a greatest hits and that was it. But I think that’s quite a common story, it’s not something we look back on with any bitterness.
Did you avoid that type of label on purpose, or was it never on the table?
It was just never on the table. I would have listened to what anyone had to say, at the end of the day they all want to make money for themselves. Labels are labels. Acid Jazz is just a bit of a smaller one, and I thought there’s less lines of communication to be blurred, less people working in the office so you feel you know everyone at every level. It’s not “here’s the A&R department, here’s the press department”, you’ve only got to deal with two or three people anyway. I always hoped it would be Acid Jazz, but if Mercury had come in I’d have listened, it’s all different people anyway. And if this record tanks Acid Jazz are going to jettison me as quickly as anyone else would.
It’s interesting you don’t seem to have much confidence in your popularity, considering the last solo album was quite well received?
I never had confidence about those sort of things because they’re so out of your control. I’m not a very good salesman of myself, which is ridiculous because I’m managing myself and I’ve got to be sometimes, but I’ve not got a knack for doing that. It’s an inbuilt insecurity- I’ve got that syndrome where I think I’m a fraud and I’m going to get found out any second. It’s an inferiority complex. It’s always been there, but now it’s probably more pronounced because I’m on my own.
How has the way you write songs changed? Was this still a collaborative process?
There has to be collaboration. Unless you’re playing every single instrument yourself then it is a collaborative attempt, and I always think you’re going to get the best out of people if you allow them to express themselves as well, so you pick people who trust and whose ideas you’re going to be drawn to. And also people who aren’t going to get fucked off if you say no. I’m very lucky to work with Gordon [Mills] because he’s got so much talent and so little ego, it’s a dream for me, who’s probably the absolute opposite. You need someone else's opinion - does that sound too fast? Does that sound too slow? Is that the right key? You need someone to tell you “that sounds great, leave it” so you can move on. The musicians I got involved here, I just gave them a couple of words of direction and said “on you go”. I was able to direct a bit more. Where as with the Bluetones, we don’t want to step on each others toes too much. I had a hard enough time when I was doing vocal takes and people would come in and suggest things, and it was “let me fucking do it first! Then we’ll change it!” The same as it would have driven Adam mad if I’d have sat over his shoulder whilst he was doing overdubs. It’s only when you get asked. So it’s always a collaborative process, even when it’s just my name on the box.
How do you think your writing has changed? There seemed to be a change between the third and fourth Bluetones album, and another one now?
The way we wrote definitely changed after Science And Nature, for the purpose of Luxembourg because we wanted to make a New Wave, rock album. It’s an overlooked little gem that. We just had this ethos, “no acoustic instruments, electric guitars all the way through”. That’s when I started playing electric guitar on stage, I wanted to beef up the sound a little bit and mince around a bit less.
I always liked the mincing. You mince very well.
“Here lies Mark Morris, he minced with the best of them”.
In terms of the way you approached words and melodies, has that changed?
I’ve learned to take notes more. I keep a lot more notes now, because so many times I’m scratching around for an idea “what was it! I had it when I was in the bath!” You go into a sort of meditative state, you block everything else out and all that’s in your head is a melodic loop, and it suggests a mood to you, and then it sort of grows out of you. It’s difficult to explain, it’s like they’re out there in the air and you’ve just got to find them. It’s always a euphoric feeling when you find something that no-one else has done, and you can have ownership over it. It’s such a surreal process. I’m not the sort of person who’s able to sit down and write a song. I heard an interview with Paul Heaton today, and he’s the opposite - he books himself into a town where there’s nothing to do. That’s fascinating, I wish I could do that - I could compartmentalize my life much more easily. But if a song takes you you’ve just got to go with it. If I’m walking through Soho and something comes into my head I’ve got to sing it into my phone before I could get on with something else. I wish I could be more like Paul Heaton.
It’s an interesting comparison, because I’ve always bracketed you with someone like Paul Heaton as a songwriter, far more so than the Britpop contemporaries you get lumped in with
It’s strange. Throughout our career, the band and to an extent me on my own, there’s a thing that because of that Britpop tag people assume that’s what we are, without really listening that closely, or listening at all. People hear the name ‘The Bluetones’ and automatically think of a slew of other bands, “oh, they’re one of them.” I never thought we were. We never thought we were. I never thought we were laddy, or anthemic and air punchy like a lot of those other groups. I’m not being negative towards them, but we felt very much apart from them. It was very frustrating at the time, even on the way up when it was doing us favours, we weren’t that. We’re just a British Pop band, “Britpop” is something other. It was Loaded magazine and football shirts and girls, it was never really us. We were always a little more plaintive and a little more delicate sounding.
Every former “Britpop” musician I’ve interviewed says something similar- Martin Rossiter said the same thing, Gaz Coombes said the same thing…
I can understand why those two would say it. I always put Supergrass apart from everyone else as well. And Gene - they weren’t a Britpop band. Everyone got tarred with this brush, with your Casts and your Shed Sevens and your Northern Uproars. I’d have put us, and Gene and Supergrass apart from all that. It’s not as if we were all at one big party together. It’s not as if we were hanging out or swapping ideas, there was no cross pollination at all, there was just young men in guitar bands. Like everyone who wielded a guitar in 1978 was punk, wasn’t they?
The most annoying NME review of a Bluetones record I can remember reading was for Luxembourg which described you as “Cardigan wearing”, if you’re going to refer to any Bluetones album as cosy it wouldn’t be that one
I think that’s what I meant about people not really listening to us, they just see the name on the front and think “oh, this is the band with the duffel coats, I know what they are”.
Is that still a stigma you get?
I think it’s a trait in journalism, people review the artist and not the music. That’s always happened, hasn’t it? To a degree? Certain journalists write that way. The number of reviews I get even now that still say “ex Britpopper”, I’m just fucking numb to it now. There’s no point me getting annoyed, it would be foolish, running against a tidal wave of indifference. I can’t complain- I got invited on the Shed Seven tour, I didn’t have to do that, did I? But I thought fuck it, it’s a chance to play in front of a load of people. I knew it’d be a load of people going “it’s the Britpop bloke,” I just had to get a thick skin or not do the tour. I can’t have it both ways.
What was the tour like?
I had an absolute blast! A lot of that was connected to the fact I could see how much pleasure people were getting out of the night. It was good for me, I played a lot of the same venues we played with the Bluetones on the farewell tour, and I never thought I’d be back in those places playing to a full room. It was really wonderful.
You toured as a solo artist for years before the Bluetones split up- Did you always have it in mind that it would eventually be your full time thing?
I didn’t, to be honest. I thought it would stand me in good stead in the band. In the life of a band there’s a cycle of write-record-tour, write-record-tour, write-record-tour when you’re not touring you’re not even playing that much and you get rusty, then when you come back to the touring part of the cycle you’ve got to blow the cobwebs away, you have to re-learn to perform, and I found that very frustrating, it was two steps forward, one step back because you’re away from the stage. I wanted to keep performing, become a better performer, a better guitarist, more confident. That’s what I was thinking at the time- it was like evening classes, that would empower me and when I come back to the band I won’t be rusty. It took on a life of it’s own when I got asked, completely out of the blue, if I wanted to make a record [2008’s Memory Muscle] by a friend of mine who worked at Fruitcake records, he’d been harbouring the idea for quite a while, he said “it we gave you the budget to record an album, would you like to do a solo record?” and I’d have been stupid to say no. I’d not considered it, but now he’d made me think of it, it was something I’d really like to do. At first it was as “Filo Beddow”, but the record company wanted me to do it under my own name to maximise sales. Bloody idiots. There’ve been many times I wish I’d have stuck with the pseudonym, I’m not sure I like seeing my name written down, on a poster, or a t-shirt, I don’t think it looks as cool.
Do you enjoy the experience of the low key one-man shows?
Generally, yes I do. I’m only human so it being a solitary thing, sometimes I do find it a bit of a slog, but for that hour, or hour and a half, it sounds really naff, but I do feel so alive, when I’m up there and I’m doing it and it’s going well. It feels like it’s what I was put here for, and I feel transported in a weird way. Without wishing to sound to hippy dippy about it. Other times it’s awful. It’s very lonely, and it’s very unrewarding if you’ve got a shit audience, talking over you.
Do you gear the sets towards the hardcore Bluetones fans, or a more general audience that want the hits? Or a more general audience still that don’t really know you?
You just see where the wind blows you, and if you get blown of course you know it’s fine because you’ve got this one or that one coming up. I’m so exposed up there, I was in Aberdeen the other week and some geezer, so drunk, asked if I knew any Pink Floyd. I said “I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, it’s not the sort of thing I do,” he said “oh.. okay. How about ‘Green Onions’?” That’s my life now. I don’t mind that at all, I really like the breakdown of the distance between myself and the audience. Years ago the Bluetones did a tour supporting the Beautiful South, playing arenas, and it was one of the most unfulfilling live experiences I’ve ever had. Nothing to do with the Beautiful South, they were lovely and very accommodating, and their audiences were lovely as well, but we were just so far away from the crowd, and you’re in a spotlight so you can’t see anything. What I do now is the opposite of that, I chop and change the set as I go, I interact with people, I waffle on as much as I sing, it’s very rewarding doing it that way. I haven’t got anyone to say “keep up with the changes, this ones in B” to. Half my gig is spoken word anyway, and people say I’m funny, not that I believe them.
Do you get the irritating super-fan who wants to show off by requesting b-sides?
That happens a lot. I don’t mind that really. I don’t get annoyed, unless someones spoiling someone else’s enjoyment. If they’re being obscure I don’t mind, it’s one when they just go ‘Slight Return!’ for an hour.
Presumably you play that anyway?
It’s on holiday at the moment. I do it every now and again, I haven’t played it this year. I think I should stick in a couple of well known ones, so I stick in ‘Bluetonic’ and I stick in ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Marblehead Johnson’, and then I think “well they’ve had three hits, I can do what I like really”. An old Bluetones song will float into my head and I’ll think, “that was a really good song, that.” Something comes on my iPod and I’ll have forgotten we’ve done it, so I relearn it and it goes in the set. I enjoy playing them and I enjoy singing them, and if I don’t do them, who the bloody hell is going to?
It would be a shame to ignore twenty years of songwriting
Someone requested ‘Surrendered’ the other night, it’s been years since I’ve played that, but I gave it a go, and I think people appreciate it if you don’t get it right, it’s human. They appreciate you giving it a go. They can see the wheels turning in your head.
Going back to the record, you’ve picked a couple of cover versions- what made you choose those songs?
I did two covers on the last album so I wanted to make that a thing. I think it’s also quite telling how someone can interpret a song. I’m not putting myself on the same level, but people like Elvis, or people like Jeff Buckley, I’m not comparing myself to Jeff Buckley, that would be ridiculous, but there were songs on that record [Buckley’s classic Grace] I didn’t know were covers, ‘Lilac Wine’ for example, an old Elkie Brooks song. Even ‘Hallelujah’, you know the song but you it sounds like it’s never been done before when you hear his version. I wanted to do that, I wanted that thing where you don’t realise it’s a cover. With ‘Nightcall’, tat’s from the film Drive, I was just absolutely obsessed with it when it came out. It was the first time in years I’d go and see a film multiple times; I’d go and see it in the afternoon then again at the weekend. I’d take other people, and watch them and watch their reaction, and I became completely obsessed with the soundtrack. The original version of the song is so dark and stark and electronic, I wanted to do it my way which was to warm it up, give it that Fleetwood Mac feel. That was the notes on the studio wall- channel John McVie. I could hear it being like that. With ‘Pink Bullets’, that came about because I did some gigs with Matt Berry about four years ago, we toured as the Swedish Twins. We did some of his songs, some of my songs and some we’d written especially for the tour, one of them was in fact ‘A Flash of Darkness’, that would have been late 2010 so that song’s been knocking around for bloody ages. When we did the tour he said “do you know The Shins?” well of course I know The shins, “do you know this song ‘Pink Bullets’, you’d be able to do a great version, it would really suit your voice”. I listened and I wasn’t mad on it, but I thought I didn’t mind doing it. I just fell in love with the song over the process of working it out and learning it, and Matt just really enjoyed me singing it, and I got a buzz out of that. It crept from those shows into my solo shows, so it was a natural choice for me to record. It’s just a guitar and voice on the Shins album, but I wanted to rough it up, give it that bar room feel, have a sax on it. That’s Ben Castle, son of Roy. He’s got Jazz in his very blood. He’s played with Grace Jones.
Was there ever a temptation to go in a completely different direction to what you’ve done before?
You know what, the first couple of things I committed to tape were quite electronic and different sounding, that was ‘Space Cadet’ and ‘Different Again’, they were really cut up pieces, and I wanted them to sound quite Human League-y, they’ve since transformed into something else altogether. That’s always the challenge when you’re making a record that’s outside of your band, “what am I going to do different” and it’s not like I’ve changed that much, it’s not a complete reinvention of myself, it’s just a different framework for bouncing the ideas around. There’s no brilliant guitarist, there’s just me trying to get the sounds I like. At first there was, shall we say, a semiconscious effort to move into a different sound, something that I would never have done with the Bluetones but… that didn’t last very long. This record took such a long time that I was going through different stages, there was the acoustic thing, then the electronic thing, then the melancholic thing, depending on where my heart was.
If that’s the case, it hangs together very well, considering.
Thanks very much, I think that’s because of the way we recorded it, quite quickly, it catches an atmosphere, an energy that we managed to keep in the studio. The first two weeks of recording we had everything down, then it was five weeks of tinkering. That’s the fun part, then getting lots of saxaphone players and clarinet players to come down and do their thing. It’s nice the way this album was able to evolve in the studio, one could leave spaces on certain songs thinking “I don’t know what’s going to go there yet, but something will come”, like the clarinet piece on the last song, it was like “fucking hell, that’s what it’s been crying out for” but you didn’t know until you heard it. You can’t fuck about with a clarinet yourself.
You’re touring the album with the other members of the Bluetones as the backing band. That seems like quite an odd decision for your first record since splitting up the band?
I know, I know. It looks from the outside like a weird thing to do- “why are you branching out on your own and then going straight back to the Bluetones?” At the same time I fucking miss my mates. We all miss each other. Independently of each other they all said to me, “If you tour this record with a band then give us the nod, I can always get time out and I’d love to come away for a couple of weeks”. All the same thing in my ear, tapping me up, “if you’re looking for a bass player, bear me in mind, I’d love to get out the house”. So with that knowledge I put them all in one email and said “you’ve all said you want to do it, shall we just fucking do it?” We’ve talked about playing together again anyway, under a different name, maybe doing a couple of charity gigs, two or three hundred size venues, raise a couple of grand for charity, not advertise it as the Bluetones, just put the word out. “We’re not reforming, we’re just doing a gig”. We’re still going to do that, actually.
You didn’t do a contract like Motley Crue then?
What was their contract?
They’ve signed a contract saying they can never tour again in any form.
Have you read that book about them, The Dirt?
No but I’ve read Nikki Sixx’s The Heroin Diaries, which is incredible.
They’re complete maniacs, all four of them. When you read that book and you read about all the success they’re having, the shows they’re playing, the money they’re making, and then you hear the fucking records… they’re just fucking terrible. It’s not like Van Halen where you can go, “well, I see why people dig it, it’s not my cup of tea but…” Motley Crue are just awful, talentless. Bloody good read, though. You really do fly through it.
Presumably no such “never again” terms with The Bluetones then?
After the last ever gig we played, in Osaka, jesus wept it was really sad. During the very last song of the set I looked in the crowd and there was a few people in the front crying, and I looked round at Eds, and he was going, and I thought fuck, I’m gonna go here. We got through the song and back to the dressing room, and it was hugs and we were all heartbroken. A good twenty minutes of crying and cuddling, which is really weird for us, we’re not expressive people in that sense. But we didn’t end the band because we wanted to stop, we just didn’t want to drag the bands name through the mud. We were going in such ever decreasing circles that it was, let’s put this derby winner out to a nice field with some long grass, rather than send it to the glue factory.
Were you not tempted just to stop and leave it, without announcing anything, and leave the door open?
It sounds really venal, but it was money. We needed the money. We’d had such a bad year in 2010. If we’d have done one more tour and stopped it would have been another tour of average attendance and average publicity, so we said we’re ending and they all bloody come out of the woodwork. It was a lot mixed emotions, because it was like “where the fuck have you guys been for the last decade?” But we’d made out mind up. We miss each other though, we miss each other as friends, and we miss each other as trusted musicians. I can’t tell you how excited I am about rehearsing with these boys again, more than doing the gigs really, because it’s just non stop fun and none of us have really done that since. I’ve done it with other musicians but it’s not the same. For them it’s a win-win, because they’ve all got jobs and stuff now, so it’s like going on holiday. It’s like touring used to be. Going on holiday as opposed to going to work. Actually it was always like that for me, to be honest.
But these are very much Mark Morriss shows?
It’s not going to be a set of mixed songs at all, it’ll me all my songs. It’ll be great for them, because they’ve got new songs to play and learn, which is always exciting, and relearning old ones is always a pain in the arse. They’ll be a couple a songs at the end, but it’s all me! Me, me, me, me, me!
A Flash of Darkness is out now via Acid Jazz.