An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Politics and Pop music have always been strange bedfellows. From artists using the power of music to express their views or politicians crusading against music to advance their agendas, the two have been linked since the early days of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Through trial and error, artists have realized that the most effective way to get their message across was by singing from the head and heart and not by beating listeners over the head with repetitious sloganeering. From Folk to World Music to Pop, artists from all over the world have created elegant and beautiful music with thought-provoking lyrics. While not one of the most well-known, Latin Quarter remains one of the best and most passionate of all the politically-minded bands to emerge from the UK in the ‘80s. The band’s debut album, Modern Times, was released in the UK in 1985 and featured the hit single “Radio Africa.” Instead of filling the songs with political clichés, Latin Quarter approached each song from an emotional angle. It wasn’t always about how bad a government was – it was about how governments and policies affected people on a personal level. And because of that, Latin Quarter’s message really hit home!
With lyrics provided by non-performing member Mike Jones and music by guitarist and vocalist Steve Skaith, Latin Quarter released some of the most mesmerizing music of the ‘80s. Their first two albums, the aforementioned Modern Times and Mick & Caroline (both now reissued by Cherry Red) may have the slick ‘80s production, but the songs have held up over time. Experimenting with a myriad of musical styles, Skaith shared lead vocals with Carol Douet and keyboardist Yona Dunsford, making their albums sound like a collection of like-minded bands rather than a single musical unit. By the time Swimming Against The Stream was released in ’89, Douet was out and the band had settled into a more earthy, timeless sound. The next album, Nothing Like Velvet, was a collection of odds and ends and the band called it a day. Skaith and Jones and various members of the band resurfaced a few times in the ‘90s, but by the millennium, Skaith had formed the Steve Skaith Band and recorded a few albums, including Latin Quarter Revisited, which featured new arrangements of LQ favorites.
In 2012, five of the band’s original members – Skaith, Jones, Dunsford, Steve ‘Jaffa’ Jeffries (keyboards) and Greg Harewood (bass) – released the excellent reunion album Ocean Head, a pure and true return to form by the much-missed outfit. Two years on, they’ve just released Tilt, which exceeded all expectations and stands as their best album in 25 years. With drummer Martin Ditcham on board and a guest appearance from Chris Rea, Tilt is proof that Latin Quarter remain a truly vital and important band.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with Steve Skaith to discuss the new album and a bit of Latin Quarter history…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your album Tilt has just been released and you did a small tour in support of it. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction you’ve received to it so far?
STEVE SKAITH: I feel really good. The tour went better than we expected and we finished on a high in
Also the reviews have been generally positive. Because we are not really a
full-time project anymore (everyone has other commitments) it is difficult to
keep the momentum going but we’ll tick over and there will be another album at
least! I’ve already got four new songs so they have to go somewhere.
SPAZ: In my opinion, Tilt is the best album you’ve done since Swimming Against The Stream in ’89, which is saying a lot. What was the spark that ignited this new batch of songs?
STEVE: I’m not sure you can talk about a single spark, as the writing on the album is shared around this time. In fact, I only wrote five of the tunes, the others being shared between Jaffa, Yona and Greg. And they are not all new songs. “Marianne,” “One Stone, the Avalanche” and “The Big Fish” are all re-writes of songs from 20 years ago! What is true though is that we rehearsed the songs before recording them, much more than on Ocean Head for instance. The original arrangement of “Tilt” was nothing like what turns up on the record. At one stage we even tried “Take it to Miriam” as a country tune. Me and Martin, the drummer, loved it, but Yona said no.
SPAZ: Mike Jones is most certainly one of the best lyricists of this generation and your music perfectly captures the emotion behind those words. How does the songwriting process work with the two of you?
STEVE: Traditionally he writes a lyric, sends it to me, I come up with a tune, send it back and hey presto, usually we agree. We are hardly ever in the same room. This manner of working continues to this day, except now we do it a lot less (unfortunately). It works though both because we tend to have similar views on the world but also because the lyric will always have a built in mood, rhythm, dynamic that guides the composition. So even when I don’t always know exactly what is behind Mike’s writing of a particular song, it is already musical and I have to just connect to that.
SPAZ: Has there ever been a time where you created music that he felt didn’t fit the mood he was looking for?
STEVE: It has happened but only a few times, though if I am to let you into a secret, he doesn’t like what I have done with “Tilt,” the song. I am hoping that secretly he is coming round but maybe he’ll never admit it! I thought that I had played him a demo of the melody but he says not. So he only got to hear it when it was already recorded. But given the number of songs we have written together, this really is a rare case.
SPAZ: Both you and Yona sound better than ever vocally on Tilt. When you write the music, do you sometimes write specifically for Yona instead of yourself? Or do you go with what works best in the studio?
STEVE: When I am writing, I do think about the balance of the lead vocals and certainly had Yona in mind for “Marianne.” But I probably write better for myself than for anyone else, so we are making space for the other members of the band to write. That brings Yona in more. Live, we really do try and share the vocals as much as possible. I really like it this way now because I am not always the focus and on some of ‘her’ songs can really take a back seat.
SPAZ: The band’s sound is more acoustic-based, which is more similar to the work you’ve done since Swimming Against The Stream. Is this sonically where you feel the band really excels – creating music that is more organic, warm and emotional?
STEVE: I guess so. Certainly I am not keen on going back to the synth-based ‘80s (even though my memories are warm).
SPAZ: How did you get Chris Rea involved?
STEVE: Simple. Martin Ditcham, our drummer, is Chris’s drummer also and over a meal suggested it. Chris agreed immediately, much to our great pleasure.
SPAZ: At this point, are there any tracks on Tilt that stand out for you? I like the fact that you chose “Marianne” as the teaser for the album, but almost everything on Tilt is single-worthy. “Nico” is one. The title track is another. So many to choose from…
STEVE: Well, “Nico” will be the next single and it’s one of the most energetic things we’ve ever done. My favorite song when I was writing was “Tilt” but at the moment I’m not sure. In fact, like most writers (I think) my favorite song is the last one I wrote and in my case that’s a new one for the next album called “Dylan Thomas Was Right!”
SPAZ: This is the second album you’ve recorded since you reunited. What inspired the band to come back together?
STEVE: I suppose there’s time when things just seem right. I had been playing as the Steve Skaith Band for several years and after a while I wanted to be doing a different set of songs with different arrangements. I had worked with Steve Jeffries on the Latin Quarter Revisited album and so the next step seemed to be staring me in the face. I also knew that we could attract more people with
Quarter, especially if Yona was involved! And I was certainly
SPAZ: Going back to the beginning: How did you go about choosing the band name Latin Quarter?
STEVE: Latin Quarter was the part of
Paris (le Quartier Latin) where intellectuals,
writers and socialists would hang out in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was a hotbed of
artistic and political creativity.
SPAZ: Modern Times was an album that blew me away for many reasons. Lyrically, it opened my eyes because it dealt with politics on a more emotional and personal level. It was also an extremely varied album, musically. How do you feel about the album nearly 30 years later?
STEVE: It has very good memories for me obviously. Not just because of its success but because it reminds me of when I started to write, learn to play, record etc. It was an exciting time in my life, I had just moved to
London. Listening to it
now, I wish it had been recorded in the 60’s when there was less reverb! The
sound of the album is very ‘80s and that does seem to me a little dated. Even
the Joni Mitchell albums of that
time (Dog Eats Dog for instance) could do with a little less reverb
and fewer ‘80s synths. But it is unique. No one can equal Mike Jones of that
time for informed political songwriting.
Africa” was your
first real hit. What inspired that song?
STEVE: Simply the terrible news coming through all the time from
Africa and Mike Jones trying to put it in context and not
just relying on the idea of ‘poor Africans need charity’. Though to be honest
it was really Live Aid and that charity based movement that made the space for “Radio
Africa” to be heard and played on the radio.
SPAZ: “Truth About John” is very powerful. Do you remember the reaction you received to that song initially? Judging by recent YouTube videos, it’s still a part of your live set.
STEVE: I think it went down well though I have no specific memories of it live. I do remember though an Australian journalist telling Mike Jones that the line “He turns Imagine up loud/he knows that face and that cloud” was one of the most brilliant in pop history (or something like that.)
SPAZ: Mick And Caroline was your second album. Again, another great batch of songs and performances. Where did the album title come from?
STEVE: The idea was that it represented ‘everyman’, normal people in the street and their lives. Not sure it was a great title.
SPAZ: Did you and Mike come up with a new batch of songs for the album, or were some of these written at the same time as the first album?
STEVE: There was an overlap certainly. I don’t recall exactly but “Remember” and “Negotiating With a Loaded Gun” were definitely written and demoed before we recorded Modern Times. We actually didn’t play them to the record company for fear of confusing the song choices for Modern Times.
SPAZ: Like Modern Times, you were writing for THREE singers. Was it difficult to decide which songs you, Yona and Carol Douet would sing?
STEVE: I don’t remember it being difficult though the fact we had three singers meant that audiences had a problem getting a fix on the band. It was great musically but maybe not the best marketing strategy. Later on though, The Beautiful South got away with something like that.
SPAZ: What are your thoughts on Mick And Caroline all of these years later?
STEVE: To be honest, I really do not like it. I think the arrangements are messy and my singing far, far too overwrought and emotional. Not sure what I was thinking at the time, though on a couple of songs the record company and management ordered me back in the studio to put more passion in the vocals. So I blame them. Aagghh! The one track I do like though is “The Men Below.” That still works for me (Latin Quarter Revisited was partly inspired by me wanting to rectify a couple of things from Mick and Caroline).
SPAZ: Are you glad to see that Cherry Red has reissued both albums with bonus tracks? Are there any plans to reissue your third album, Swimming Against The Stream or the final release by the original band, Nothing Like Velvet?
STEVE: I have heard nothing of that and think in the present climate of plunging record sales it is unlikely.
SPAZ: Latin Quarter continued for two more albums (Long Pig and
before calling it quits. You released a few solo albums before the band got
back together. Had you been in contact
with the other members over the years? Bringing Rosa Home
STEVE: Yes, we have always remained friends and though we didn’t necessarily see much of each other, we were in touch.
SPAZ: How as it to work as a solo artist during this time? Did you miss the camaraderie of a larger unit like
STEVE: Well, I usually was playing with other musicians. I have only recently started playing completely solo. Playing with others is always great as I learn so much. But solo is something I am growing to like as it is so much simpler when it comes to organizing travel, sound checks, etc. The practical things. On the other hand, the fact that I’m not much of a guitarist (a strummer pure and simple) means I have to work hard to keep an entire set interesting.
Latin Quarter first got
back together to record Ocean Head,
was it easy to play with these great musicians again?
STEVE: I think it took us a little while to get used to each other and to trust that we were all going in the same direction. It was new in the sense that unlike before, we were doing it in a very part-time way – weeks if not months between rehearsals and recordings, so it took a while to get any real momentum. But we had stayed friends all the time so it wasn’t like playing with strangers
SPAZ: Ocean Head was a stunning, fresh and very relevant album. Did you start with a large cache of material and just whittle it down to those 11 tracks?
STEVE: No. That was the process on earlier albums, especially Swimming Against The Stream but with Ocean Head and Tilt, we basically recorded everything we had written. (We are not as productive as we used to be).
SPAZ: Is there a lot of recorded but unreleased
material in the vaults? If so, will they
ever see the light of day?
STEVE: No. A lot of unrecorded songs though, which I guess may never see the light of day.
SPAZ: What’s next for Steve Skaith and
STEVE: Not sure what will turn up but plans-wise… I am doing a solo tour next year, playing and perhaps talking about a lot of the earlier
songs. Then in 2016, we hope a new album and tours. Not much chance of that
being in the USA,
SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD, DVD and record players?
STEVE: Been listening to Oyster Band, John Grant (amazing lyrics), Joni Mitchell (of course), Johnny Clegg and Tom Russell (who I have only just discovered.)
Jaffa has recently turned me
onto Alt J, an incredible band from
Oh, and Randy Newman’s . Great album and reminds
me of our sojourn in LA when we made Swimming
Against The Stream. Land Of Dreams
Thanks to Steve Skaith
Special Thanks to Matthew Ingham