Thursday, February 3, 2011

An EXCLUSIVE interview with RED BOX!


When Red Box released their first single, “Chenko”, on the esteemed Cherry Red Records label in 1983, it was obvious from the get-go that this was no ordinary Synth Pop or Indie band. It’s instantly hummable melody was not just a Pop hook, but a then-unheard of mix of classic ‘60s Folk Pop, ‘80s New Wave and World Music chants. It was, and remains, fresh and exciting.

Three years and a handful of singles later, Red Box released their highly anticipated debut album The Circle & The Square through WEA. Using “Chenko”’s formula as a starting point, the album was chock full of great tunes and a unique approach to music. Main songwriter and vocalist Simon Toulson-Clark and Julian Close had created an album unlike any of their contemporaries. It was as if Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush decided to stop creating pretentious records and actually have a little fun. While Red Box was a serious project, there was so much joy springing from the grooves that it was impossible to ignore. Even some 25 years later, the album remains a firm favorite with fans of ‘80s, Pop and multi-cultural music.

By 1990, Julian Close had departed and Simon remained the only full-time Red Box member listed when they released their sophomore album, Motive. Gone were many of the musical experiments of their debut, replaced with a more personal approach to the band’s sound. The mood of the album was not as jubilant as TC&TS, but the melodies and distinctive songwriting style and voice of Toulson-Clarke was pushed further up in the mix, creating an album with more emotional depth. With this laid back direction, there was freshness to the band’s sound. It had redrawn the Red Box map and sent the band towards new, uncharted territories.

After a very long 20 year wait, the band’s third album, Plenty, is finally here. With Toulson-Clarke still at the helm, the album has just been released by their original label, Cherry Red, and it is a wonder to behold. While very low-key compared to their previous two major label albums, Plenty is a shimmering and beautiful album that retains the distinct Red Box sound, but takes it in a new direction. Sounding even more personal and moving than Motive, Plenty is an album that will not disappoint fans already familiar with the band’s output. Tracks like “Stay”, “I’ve Been Thinking Of You”, “Say What’s In Your Head” and “Don’t Let Go” are just as grand as anything the band has released. The album is filled with intimate warmth that washes over the listener, revealing its many layers with repeated listenings. Plenty is certainly one of the finest albums of 2010 and a welcome addition to the band’s small but beloved catalog.

Spaz was able to catch up to Simon and discuss the new album as well as all aspects of their career to date…

SPAZ: It’s been 20 years since Motive. What have you been up to in the meantime?
SIMON TOULSON-CLARKE: In 1991 I came to the conclusion that our relationship with Warner Bros was unlikely to improve. We simply disagreed about direction. In my heart I felt it was better to live to fight another day rather than dumb it down: but I always felt we would make another record at some point, it seemed an unclosed chapter – musically, we were still rich with ideas. I didn’t imagine it would be 20 years later, but that’s how long it took to gain the experience and equipment to make an album in our own studio, with total creative independence. In the intervening years I produced and wrote songs for (and sometimes with) other artists, I learned to be a sound engineer, and how to build Red Box’s perfect studio! In the 80s Red Box was our family, an extended tribe of our own, and making music was our sole concern. Now we each have real families, and music works around those lives – it feels healthier and more real. It’s a lifestyle thing. It just takes a little longer…

SPAZ: When your debut album, The Circle & The Square, was released, it was a very creative and unique piece of work and much different to what was going on in the charts at the time. Did you see it that way at the time?
STC: Yes, we did. Before we made it, during its’ recording, and ever since, we just wanted TC&TS, and the band itself, to have a distinctive sound-of-its’-own. To be very committed in a given direction, to be our OWN world of pop. In sound and approach we ignored Time and Fashion. Being different is good! But it was a voyage of discovery for us. We were learning how to take our first steps. We had an 8-track at home , on the 19th floor of a tower block in Notting Hill, and prior to getting a record deal we had spent a couple of years experimenting with world sounds and the themes that grew in our heads and in the songs. It gave us a sense of scale and size beyond our four walls. Our songs stopped being ‘the view in’ and turned toward ‘the view OUT’. The band as Tribe made so much sense to me.

SPAZ: What was your musical upbringing like? You must have listened to many different types of music growing up!
STC: Hahaha, well spotted! My Dad is a huge classical music fan, opera too, and used to sing along, quite badly, when I was a boy. His father, my grandfather John Toulson-Clarke, was a conductor and clarinet player of some note in the North of England and one of the busiest arrangers in the country. So I heard a lot of Bach, Mozart and Puccini that’s for sure. Dad particularly liked to sing and point out to me the basslines of Elgar, and he remains a favorite composer of mine. Having a sister five years older was also a big factor. She was music crazy, in love with George Harrison before anyone else, met Jimi Hendrix and Jack Bruce and took me to see Free. When the first Led Zep album came out she said: “This changes everything”. When Atom Heart Mother was released, she tied me to a chair and sellotaped headphones to my head. I think I peed myself…
Point is, we had pop music via radio pretty much every waking hour. Went to sleep with Radio Caroline, woke up to Radio 1. Later, I sellotaped headphones to HER head for Electric Warrior, Ziggy Stardust and Dark Side Of The Moon. She didn’t pee, though.

SPAZ: While Red Box did have proper hit singles and made appearances on shows like TOTP, where you interested in a career as a POP star or did you view that as a by-product of creating your music?
STC: It’s a very visual art now, so it would be naïve to think the roles are unrelated. I enjoyed my time as a ‘pop star’, it was a fun trip. But where it started to be a problem even back in the 80s, was: how do you maintain such visibility AND have the time to instigate and create your own music, the best you can achieve? The answer lies in the proliferation of artists since then who have relatively little to do with the making or sound of their music, but are very effective visual advertisements. We can now connect more directly with our potential audience, and the visual aspect of presenting music has always interested us – so I think it is about balance, but the music comes first. Without that, stardom is just visibility.

SPAZ: In regards to your debut album, are you surprised that people still regard the album as a ‘classic’ album? It seems to have taken on a life of it’s own throughout the years….
STC: Yes, to make pop-music, especially in the 80s, was to view it as expendable. It was the decade of trivializing. But here we are, and the album is still important to some people. We really couldn’t ask for more than that!

SPAZ: How do you view the album after all these years?
STC: What I like about it now, is that it does seem to operate in a space of its’ own. We were fortunate that Warner Bros put us with David Motion as a producer. He was keen to help define this ‘tribe meets pop’. Together we devised our own totally un-synthetic palette that we would stick to like glue, and that was ours and ours alone. We were able to continue our experiments in the studio - fulfilling some of our wilder ambitions, like forming a choir of every friend who could (really) sing, multi-tracking them until we had several hundred voices singing a playground taunt. And recording drums and percussion in a large corrugated-iron teepee just to see…sounds like fun, and it was. But what we wanted was to make all the sounds we used bespoke to us, to have a kink. I think all that gave it character, a slightly off-kilter view. I’m proud of this, and because it is still played on the odd iPod!

SPAZ: The Red Box sound, which has changed and evolved, has always been based around excellent songwriting. When you write, do you already have a mindset on how to enhance the song through technology and production or has that always come during the recording process?
STC: With songwriting and arranging I find many ideas (and perhaps the best) come away from the studio. Walking is good, driving, or on a train. The best and most powerful bit of kit we have as songwriters is our imagination. My ability to ‘hear’ or ‘see’ an idea in my head far outweighs my inventiveness as a player with an instrument. It is this mental process combined with many hours of improvised creative jamming with 2, 3 or 4 of us swapping instruments in the studio, and stumbling toward something musical, something that excites us. So the answer is: a bit of both! (Probably should have just said that).

SPAZ: When Motive arrived in 1990, your musical partner, Julian Close had left the band. Was it an easy task carrying on the band with all the weight on your shoulders?
STC: I don’t think I felt that. Julian left the band after TC&TS because he had an opportunity to be either a producer (it didn’t work) or go into A&R (it worked spectacularly – he became head of A&R at EMI). He really acted as the perfect A&R man within the band by always being there, encouraging, helping and giving me excellent critical feedback on my songwriting. If Ju thought I was on to something, he would dance jerkily about, saying things like “That is solid gold bars, mate!” or “There’s a commotion in my underwear!”. If not, it was: “I’d lose that bit if I was you, old bean.” This relationship continues to this day. As I knew the next record would be me and whoever I collaborated with, there was a core of the same people in the band moving through to Motive – Chris Wyles, Neil Taylor, Sue Thomas and Jennie Tsao, so I didn’t feel isolated. I felt I had some good songs and I was lucky enough to team up with Alasdair Gavin who remains a contributor on the new album Plenty.

SPAZ: Motive stripped away some of the eclectic influences of your early work yet was a far more emotionally satisfying album. Did you consciously move away from your early sound or do you think you had matured as a writer and performer by that time?
STC: It is true that with TC&TS our record company didn’t share our passion for weaving world influences into pop music; they saw little commercial prospect in it and were not slow to tell us! When we had a couple of hits, I expected this problem to subside, but actually it just seemed to inflame it. They certainly felt I was being provocative in writing ‘For America’ in response to their request for a song that would appeal to the American market, and, given that Warner Bros. is a US label, defying them may not have been the best career move I ever made. I wanted to take Motive somewhere new and refreshing, away from contentious ground, and I also found my writing at that time was more introverted. It is a more personal view, and attempted to put into practice the manifesto offered up in TC&TS. So written on the move, and about change.

SPAZ: What are your thoughts on Motive, some 20 years later?
STC: Listening back, it seems that if TC&TS was saying: “This is what we ARE!” then Motive was asking “THIS is what we are?” There is a sense of restlessness about it, which may be apt given that its central theme is ‘moving on’; but this in fact mirrored my personal mood at the time, I think. Some part of me remained sore over the ‘world’ influences spat, and I embraced simpler arrangements and orchestral arrangements as I looked for ways to say it. Where it works, it works well, there is a small sense of longing there. For me the best tracks are ‘Moving’, ‘Hungry’, ‘Clapping Song’ and ‘New England.’ ‘Train’ still feels unfinished to me. I’d like to come back to that…

SPAZ: Plenty seems to have a similar feel to Motive (more emotion and feeling) yet is quite different as well. When you began to write the album, did you realize that it would be a Red Box release or were you thinking it would be for a solo album or new project?
STC: When we began this record, it was simply friends jamming together. But as it evolved and took form it was clear there were parallels with the earlier material. Rather than a collection of random songs, it felt very centered, committed to its’ path - and the people around it were focusing and solidifying, too. Once again, much of the time was spent in refining the songs, rather than recording them, and once again a good deal of experimentation went on in the early stages. It seemed to me that it was about us and our view as grown-ups now. It felt part of the same passion. There is a thread of melody and context, too.

SPAZ: When you record an album like Plenty, do you think of the tracks as individual songs or do you prefer to view all of them as pieces of one whole work?
STC: I see them as an era. They are individual ideas connected by time, but we drop a song if we write a better one. The way it works for us, I think we look for themes. And patterns do emerge. Then we push and heave and swear a lot, get all manly until, Kerchunk! it somehow slots into the whole, and you see the sense in it later. Most of our hardest decisions look bleedin’ obvious later.

SPAZ: How are you feeling about Plenty now that it’s ready for release?
STC: We are like proud Dads ushering our overly young ones in new uniforms through the school gates…a mixture of pride, fear and relief!

SPAZ: What’s next for Red Box?
STC: We plan to play live as much as possible this winter. For the last few months we’ve been playing in people’s living rooms and gardens – anyone that will have us, and this is something we’d like to develop. It’s intimate and fun. We plan a larger London show soon. At the moment we are rehearsing for a 50 minute live-to-air session for Radio Poland, which we will broadcast by ISDN from a studio in the Cotswolds in November. We are also planning a regional radio tour, so stay tuned… We are looking at some 3D projection ideas, and of course, we are imagining what our fourth album might be!

SPAZ: What is currently spinning in your CD player?
STC: Fyfe Dangerfield, Villagers, John Grant, Guillemots, Cat Stevens, Eminem…

Thanks to Simon Toulson-Clarke

Special thanks to Richard Martin and Dave Timperley

No comments: