I’m chatting to the animated and ever candid Inspirals’ bassist Martyn Walsh amid preparation for their upcoming ‘greatest hits’ tour to discuss their influence on the world of psychedelic Mancunian pop, the various musical projects since Inspirals disbanded and exactly why they’ve chosen to reform.
Although many bands with as characterful a history as the Inspiral Carpets are still overly obsessed with the way they’re perceived, either in the press or through their image, one thing that the Inspirals have never negotiated is an abjuration of their roots and Northern charm that gave them so much character in the first place. Ask Martyn what he thought of being labelled ‘sex-crazed teenage beer monsters’ upon their arrival into the mainstream and he’ll give you the frank answer, “Fuckin’ hell, yeah definitely! That’d look pretty good on me grave stone”, maintaining that it pretty much summed up their whole ideology at their inception.
It’s this humorous laddish attitude adapted to their unwavering work-hard approach that gave them the upper hand in the burgeoning Madchester climate, almost guaranteeing them a loyal fanbase mesmerised by their heady mix of charismatic pop tunes and indelible, though slightly enigmatic, star quality. And any frustrated fanatic of the band will be only too willing to attest to their enigmaticism, whether it’s their bizarre obsession with the bovine (their early records were even released on their own Cow Records imprint) or precisely where they got the name Inspiral Carpets in the first place. Even your intrepid interviewer was under the understanding they nicked it from a carpet warehouse just outside Manchester.
“Well that’s it”, laughs Martyn. “Nobody knows! We went to do a gig in Melbourne and apparently the lad who invented the name Inspiral Carpets was gonna come to the gig. We had fuckin’ years of ‘where’d you get your name from’ and there was the usual ones that it was a Greyhound that we once bought at a race and it was a constellation of stars that we fuckin’ bought and y’know, we just thought of any old fuckin’ nonsense. But, this lad apparently held the Holy Grail as in the reason why the band was called the Inspiral Carpets but when he turned up he was like some sort of bank clerk who didn’t have the fucking foggiest idea what he was talking about! So it’s always been a myth, an urban myth.”
So even you as a band don’t even know where the name came from?
“No, that’s it yeah.”
Ooookay. Martyn joined the Inspirals after becoming increasingly exasperated at his original band The Next Step’s lack of ambition and drive; qualities that Inspiral Carpets had in abundance. But his initial practise with them saw a possible over-eagerness to fit in with their er, distinctive image.
“It went really well but my fashion sense was a bit… I had a pink bass and I wore a bright yellow, fuckin fisherman’s jumper and red fuckin’ shoes. I was trying to out-psychedeliarise myself, if there is such a word. Eventually all that gear got thrown into the canal on Sackville Street where we had our office – it was like a ritual humiliation.”
After Martyn’s initiation original vocalist Steve Holt left and Tom Hingley took over to complete what many consider to be the proper Inspirals line-up. That is, not before auditioning their roadie at the time Noel Gallagher. “Well he wasn’t really a roadie. He was just one of those people who hangs around with you at gigs and tries to drink any beer that you’ve got. He auditioned yeah but, he failed because he couldn’t sing! (laughs)”
Did he ever play you any of his songs?
“No. He kept all that side of him… I mean, near the end like 90… I can’t remember when he actually stopped working for us but I know that he joined Liam’s band (then called The Rain) but he kept all that side of things quite quiet. I remember him doing some dreadful acid house sort of project with our monitor guy Mark which was fuckin’ awful but apart from that the actual music side of it, no, I never really um… it was quite a shock to me actually when I found out he liked The Beatles so much because he never really championed them as much as he now does.”
Now, you’re credited with being one of the bands that brought Madchester into the mainstream and when people think of that era the Inspirals, along with Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses immediately spring to mind. When would you say was Madchester’s heyday and what do you think characterised it?
“To me, and I know this is gonna sound a little bit exclusive but to me I actually thought what encapsulates the Madchester period was the Hacienda, 1987-88 before anything really came overground. You could go to the Hacienda however the fuckin ‘ell you wanted and you could hear brand new sort of Chicago House next to James Brown, next to The Smiths, next to New Order - it’d be called eclecticism now.
“There was a definite north/south divide there where it was almost, you know, like ‘you don’t like us, we don’t care’ sorta shit and we’ll just do whatever the fuckin’ ‘ell we want. And I think that was really the sort of undercurrent of it, that everybody was getting fed up that Manchester was making lots of good music but the whole infrastructure was in London and it was like ‘well lets do it ourselves’ typa thing. I think that’s where a lotta that attitude came from with Factory Records and us with Cow Records. It was almost that ‘fuck you then’ sort of attitude and that, to me, was what encapsulated it all. It was a real melting pot of everything, without sounding all 60s on it.
“And it was pretty much a fashion thing with the guys who were wearing the flares and all that. That was a thing that came right off the football terraces – it was like a kick-back from being a United fan – all the fuckin Chelsea and West Ham fans all used to be really really well-dressed and could afford all the really expensive sports gear and the United and City fans went the other way I think with all the flares and all that sorta shit. It was definitely a kick-back against all that. So it was a fashion thing and then the drugs came in and then the music and then design… to me that was what Madchester was all about, and about giving it a go.”
Indeed, the inspirational music that was coming out of Manchester was only one factor of what appeared to be a cultural renaissance for the city. Names tossed around to describe the proponents of Manchester’s fashion revolution were ‘Scallydelic’, ‘the Perry boy look’ and ‘the Baldrick look’, something Keyboardist Clint Boon was purported to reflect in an early edition of iD magazine.
“I think at the time when all that was happening nobody was really thinking fuckin ‘ell we’ve created scallydelia’ or whatever it was. It was more just getting on and doing it really. And in effect it does bring in that Northern working class sorta thing. There’s not an awful lot of opportunities so you either become a footballer, a fuckin’ boxer, a thief or now the other one is a musician, and whatever you have to do you have to work fuckin hard at it. And I think it’s that work ethic that got us through really.”
Although not overtly setting out to be an exclusive sub-culture it became a common mis-conception, exacerbated by the media's exploitation of something they had no real understanding of.
“By the time everyone got onto it there was stuff like ‘How To Speak Mancunian’ in the Daily Star and all that sorta shit. I think that’s where it ended and I think Manchester’s suffered a fuckin’ hangover ever since, where people have taken little bits of what they think is needed to become a professional Manc. And there’s not the drive there any more, I don’t really think, to get things to actually happen. I think people just think that swaggerin’ around and telling people to fuck off is enough now, and it never was!”
Although a handful of bands would be classed as true pioneers of Madchester’s musical reign it was Inspiral Carpets intense work hard ethic that ensured they had more than just one jewel in their crown. Dressed in baggy shell-suits and dubiously styled haircuts the fashion revolution in ‘Indie’ music started with them. And that included band shirts.
“Yeah, we’re very, very aware that we pretty much pioneered the fact that an ‘Indie’ band, for want of a better word, could actually have a T-Shirt, cos it was pretty much the realm only of heavy metal bands. I remember when we first started, the only band who had T-Shirts was fuckin’ Iron Maidon with tour dates on the back. When we did the ‘Cool As Fuck’ T-Shirt it was our way of saying that you can be a fan of a band and wear our T-Shirts without lookin’ a total dick, you know what I mean?
Where did the Cow obsession come from?
“I think it was totally just one of those dislocation things really, where we had slide shows and whatever when we played live and I think slides of cows showed up more than anything because it’s not really what you expect to see in a band playing music. And then there’s also the twisted sorta thing that it has absolutely fuck all to do with music! (laughs)”
Your cow backdrop was actually mentioned in the first ever review of the band in the Manchester Evening News, having had the reviewer completely baffled.
“I think also a lot of it comes from the fact some of the guys came from oop in t’hills getting on towards Oldham and it wasn’t exactly rare to see cows in the fucking field. And it was also a kind of adaptation, you know… (short pause) … I think people maybe looked way too deep into it (laughs)! Because it looked good at the time and we had lots of pictures it sort of carried on all the way through. I mean, it is bizarre when you’ve got like, a thousand people mooing just before you come onstage, you know what I mean? And I assure you it was mooing not booing.“
Musically, the Inspiral Carpets plyed a very distinct style, led in part by Clint Boon’s Farfisa organ (Martyn likens it to a “wheezing old war hero at times”) and moulded by the diverse range of influences brought to the table by each member of the group, from 60s psychedelia to eccentric punky dischordance along the lines of Big Black, to the more traditional R&B, though Martyn is quick to point out this means rhythm and blues, “not fuckin R Kelly.
“I think the common denominator was the pop really, and that’s where it all came together. To be dead honest, especially later on when problems started to arise, we started to polarise a little bit because people’s influences became slightly more defined and it was harder to hit upon the Inspiral’s sound in that way. I mean, that is the beauty of having 5 different songwriters but it’s also the downside. It’s like the band that concentrates on one songwriter – you do have a definite style but you fall into the trap of it becoming a bit predictable and boring. I think by the time we ended up not doing any more music it was pretty much a logical conclusion not to really.”
Do you think there was a correlation between the increasingly angsty and melancholic mood of the Inspirals' music and the attitude within the band that led to the split up?
“Probably yeah. I mean, a lot of different things happened. Strictly speaking we never really split up, we just sort of…”
“Yeah, yeah stopped playing. The main thing that attracted me to Inspirals, and when you’re going around the world, it is that gang mentality, where on a tour bus in America it’s almost like your own little fuckin’ world travellin’ around, where you make the rules. I think when people start having their own different outlooks on life, which is pretty general and quite understandable, that starts to tarnish that gang mentality. So yeah, I think we started to get a little introspective, I think we actually got very introspective on our second album which should’ve been our 6th or 7th really – I think we started doing it in reverse (laughs)”.
Do you think the reformation has brought back that gang mentality?
“Yeah but I don’t really see it as a reformation because I don’t really think we went away to a degree. It is a reminder to me, because of circumstances and situations we never really got a chance to go out and play what’s ended up being the set now, which pretty much is all the singles, and we never really got that opportunity until now to play it and remind people of what a fuckin’ good band we were, and are really.
“When we’ve been rehearsing it’s like ‘fuckin‘ ‘ell’! When you put all these songs back to back it’s a good catalogue of songs. Never mind a reminder to the public it’s almost like a reminder to ourselves I think as well!”
Indeed, singles like ‘This is How it Feels’ (which reached No.14 in 1990) and ‘I Want You’ are undoubted Inspirals classics, the latter involving a guest appearance from The Fall vocalist Mark E. Smith. A legend in his own right, Mark helped make the Inspiral’s appearance on Top of The Pops for the song during February ’94 one of the most memorable in the show’s history.
Martyn, tell me, was he pissed or what?
“Yes. And he very nearly wasn’t there as well. Doing Top of The Pops is a pretty fuckin draconian day; it’s almost like spending a day in fuckin Tenco. It’s like, rehearsals, run through, rehearsals… 6-10 of them in a day and they want you to pretty much do the same every single run through. It’s a fuckin’ grim fuckin’ place and you’re in the middle of a little shitty town; it’s not like you can just hang out in the middle of London.
“The way that it was recorded on ‘I Want You’ took a lot of fucking mixing and production because he seemed to be fantastically a bar behind everything else that was goin’ on in the track. So to try and re-create this fuckin’ madness was hard enough as it was. He was getting the director and producer really uptight because every single performance wasn’t the same and we did take a break and Mark in his usual way found a way of getting some beer or whatever and he was pretty pissed, so there was a little bit of a kafuffle goin’ on that some of the BBC were not very happy and it almost became sort of like a ‘Mark or us’ sorta thing. We went ‘well we’re not gonna do it if Mark’s not gonna be on it so you’re gonna have to fuckin’ sort it out’. It was a really, really good experience but a very strange few days being in his presence for such a long period of time!”
Like Tom Hingley’s solo project and the Clint Boon Experience Martyn has also formed his own band since the Inspiral’s hiatus. Called DC10 this is a band which, Martyn says, gives him a certain amount of control over the music, allowing him to explore a darker side to his songwriting. “The Inspirals were living proof at the time that democracy doesn’t work,” he says by way of explanation. It’s a relatively recent formation, assembling influences and techniques picked up after they disbanded.
“After Inspirals I got really into my dance music and went and stayed a long time in Berlin and did a lot of stuff with Paul Van Dyk and with the MFS label. I learnt a lot about production and computers; sequencing and sampling and all that. The ethics of the precision and tightness I’ve brought back in then with guitars and that to me is how I really wanted to go with DC10. It’s not Indie-dance by any stretch of the imagination but it’s just that energy and rawness of punk, for want of a better word, with the eye of it actually being made in the 21st century.”
However, after initial problems finding the right drummer Martyn now insists he’s had to avoid the traditional method of recruitment. “I think it’d be really, really difficult to find a band with the chemistry I’ve got with Inspirals. I’m thinking of introducing maybe some more high profile people into it to guest and things like that. The best people that can get DC10 out to as many people as possible is gonna be what DC10 is, be that with people singing or remixed. It’s quite a liquid form in that way.”
For now though, Martyn’s attention is turned to the Inspiral Carpets and their forthcoming UK tour in April, not to mention a 2CD / DVD box set being released to coincide with this jaunt. A hefty release featuring a CD of rarities and an album’s worth of unreleased material Martyn hopes this will finally settle the score.
“When the singles album came out in 1995 we didn’t get involved whatsoever because we were no longer on Mute and things were a bit raw at that time so I don’t think we were too bothered about co-operating on a release. I think it left a taste in people’s mouth, like the last thing that people saw was a CD that wasn’t really endorsed by the band. We wanted to set the record straight and put out a release that has got our full involvement.”
Finally, can you tell me the best and worst things about being in the Inspiral Carpets?
“Best, erm… fuckin’ ‘ell! Basically just goin’ round the world with your mates getting paid to just fuckin’ do what you enjoy doing. That was pretty good. And then the worst bit was, just… to be perfectly honest I don’t really think there was a bad bit about it really. In the cold light of day, and I don’t wanna sound all moralistic on it but I can’t really think of any fuckin’ better way of living your life than making music. I think sometimes the musicians that’re feeling sorry for themselves because they’ve been mis-quoted in the press or the single only got to No.17 in the charts or whatever, in this game it’s fuck all. I think probably the worst thing about it was being asked where did we get the fuckin’ name from! (laughs)”
Why don’t you just make something up and be done?
“That’s what we have been doing but that’s what I mean – people come back and say, ‘so anyway, about this constellation…’ Somebody was asking why we got back together and I said ‘oh, well we bought a constellation, like in 1990 and we called it ‘Inspiral Carpets’ and then just over Christmas the stars aligned and showed us right back to that constellation and that’s the reason we all got back together again.’ It was like the wise men following the stars sorta thing. And they didn’t even get that anyway, they thought it was a load of bollocks!!”
Inspiral Carpets play:
27 - Sheffield Octagon
28 - Bristol Academy
29 - Leeds University
30 - Birmingham Academy
1 - Glasgow Academy
3 - Manchester Academy
4 - London Shepherds Bush Empire
5 - Manchester Academy (SOLD OUT)