Green

We’re very happy we can publish the director’s cut of the interview with Green by Simon Reynolds, published in a shorter version in the Guardian.

GREEN
by Simon Reynolds

“We went to Marylebone Registry Office, because that’s where McCartney got married,” recalls Green Gartside of his wedding a couple of months ago. “We chose the shortest service, just a couple of sentences, and we didn’t really tell anyone, so we had one witness each. But this pudding of a teenager, with two different speech impediments, officiated, and he read the standard script that goes ‘thank you all for coming, it means so much to Alice and Green that all their friends and family are here’. We couldn’t really stop him as he lisped his way through it! But, no, it was a very lovely thing. I think I might even have had a tear in my eye.”

White Bread, Black Beer – Green’s fabulous new album and his first release in seven years – is radiant with love and gratitude. The pioneer of the self-deconstructing love song that reveals amorous language to be a delirium of superstitious nonsense, the melodic genius who placed scare quotes inside “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” to indicate his “deeply mistrustful” feelings about L.O.V.E…. has found the One. Turns out she was there all along. “We’ve known each other twenty years, but we haven’t always been together through those twenty years,” says Green. “But… we’re together now.”

Green’s life these days may be all conjugal bliss, but White Bread is his most solitary record. Hitherto he’s always had collaborators and creative foils: bandmates Tom Morley and Nial Jinks in the original Scritti Politti, whose fractured postpunk was exhumed for last year’s Early compilation; David Gamson and Fred Maher with the hit machine Scritti of Cupid & Psyche 85; dancehall ragga stars Shabba Ranks and Sweetie Irie on the brace of 1990 singles that turned out to be Scritti’s last hits; and a raft of New York rap MCs on 1999’s not-quite-a-comeback Anomie & Bonhomie. But White Bread is just Green on his lonesome ownsome, a solo album in effect, even though he’s still trading under the Scritti Politti brand. He played every instrument, sang every note, and produced the whole thing in the downstairs backroom of his house in Hackney. In a weird way, it’s like a return to the do-it-yourself ethos of the early Scritti. Except that “the advent of affordable home-recording technology,” Green explains, “the fact that I can get a little 56 channel digital mixing desk in my tiny room,” meant that White Bread could sound as slick and phat as Cupid, which cost a fortune and took years to make.

White Bread is different in another respect–it’s the first album Green’s done where there’s no concept. By that, I mean a sonic concept (don’t worry, despite matrimony and contentment, Green’s intellect is intact, and philosophical namedrops, including a reference to Hegel’s Owl of Minerva, still pop up in his songs). Songs To Remember was conceived as “an extension and a perversion” of soul and lover’s rock; Cupid was a (hugely successful) attempt to penetrate the American radio mainstream with precision-tooled, state-of-art electrofunk; Anomie & Bonhomie was Green meets hip hop. But White Bread seamlessly weaves together elements of everything Green’s ever been into and revisits every stage of his nearly five decades-long journey through music. Childhood favess The Beatles are here there and everywhere on the record; T. Rex and the Plastic Ono Band meld on the deliciously stompy anti-Jesus ditty “After Six”; Green’s pre-punk passion for folk-rock and traditional English music is often audible in his guitar playing; and naturally there’s hip hop in the beats and R&B in the production’s dazzling gloss. “It’s far less self-policed in that way,” agrees Green, explaining that having a studio in his own house helped because “you can go in and do whatever you want, whenever you want.”

There’s a sense in which there’s always been a kind of war inside Green’s music – a conflict between, well, his musicality and his intellectual and political concerns, which were in a sense imposed upon the music. You could hear that struggle at its most ferocious in the DIY-era music – Green’s innate pop sensibility colliding with his ideologically-driven suspicion of beauty itself as somehow counter-revolutionary, bourgeois in its analgesic and soul-soothing effects. In a 1979 song like “Bibbly-O-Tek,” with its multi-tracked Greens singing different melodies simultaneously and its collapsing rhythms, his compulsion to tamper with conventional structures interfered with but didn’t wholly thwart a pure loveliness of melody and voice.

In those days, Scritti were the postpunk underground’s leading theorists of a wilfully fractured style of rock that Green dubbed “messthetics.” The group championed the DIY notion that “anyone can do it,” an egalitarian principle that incited all manner of slender talents to pick up instruments and put out 7” singles of barely-music. “On one of the early songs, “PAs”, I even sang ‘good tunes are no better than bad tunes’,” Green chuckles. “A devoted fan told me he had heard the line as ‘good shoes are no better than bad shoes,’ which led to him neglecting to buy any decent footwear for an unfeasibly long time! But it’s true, I was mistrustful of melody as representing something that we were against.” But tunefulness “always did sneak in,” and now, with White Bread, it’s as though Green has stripped away all the extraneous conceptualization, leaving just the pure gift for melody and harmony–something that really comes from the same place as a figure like Paul McCartney. Musical beauty is the mystery that we–meaning critics and musicians–talk around endlessly. And Green, a member of the Young Communist Party and an art school educated theory-fiend, was better at talking around the subject than almost anyone this side of Brian Eno.

White Bread is different to anything Green has done before in another way: it’s highly personal. Until now, his love songs have had an eerily depthless and depersonalized abstraction; they were about love rather than in love, treating it as a system of metaphysical language, Roland Barthes’ “lover’s discourse”. Hence “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”, with its urge to find “the strongest words in each belief/and find out what’s behind them”, or “The Word Girl,” an auto-critique that Green wrote when he realized how many songs he’d written featuring “girl”. But the language on White Bread has a new concrete-ness and specificity (plenty of visual images and place names) that suggests his writing now draws directly from real incidents and interactions in Green’s life. “I’ve always disliked confessional songwriting,” he says. “But I’ve allowed myself more space to move around in lyrically this album than I ever have before, including not feeling uncomfortable about making quite specific references to my… self.”

If Green’s yet to write a song entitled “Alys”, she’s in these songs. Take “Snow In Sun,” a shatteringly pretty tune redolent of “Ticket To Ride”, where the epiphany of seeing snowflakes falling on a sunny winter day makes Green ponder “how brave you are/and how come I have strayed so far/and why everything came apart. “That came from a train journey I took to Wimbledon to see my girlfriend’s–now wife’s–father, Chris Wilkinson, perform in a play,” he explains. It turns out that Green originally met his future bride through his friendship with Heaven 17– as teenagers the group had all been involved in a Sheffield youth theatre group called Meatwhistle run by Wilkinson and his wife.

“Snow In Sun” also contains the promise “you will never need to doubt me/there’ll be something good about me/soon.” As much as it’s the rhapsody of someone reborn through true love, White Bread is threaded with leitmotifs of shame and unworthiness, intimations of crisis and stagnation. It’s well known that Green spent most of the Nineties bunkered in a cottage in the village of Usk in Wales, tinkering with hip hop beats for a few hours a day but devoting most of his energy to drinking in local pubs. But there was a smaller lull in the years after Anomie (which underperformed in the pop marketplace), years similarly (mis)spent wandering the pubs of London. “There’s so many of them,” Green notes wryly. “Just got to tick them off.”

From its title down, White Bread, Black Beer is riddled with references to booze and, here and there, powders of various sorts. “Mrs Hughes” alludes to “small paper packages washed down with gin” and confesses “I’ve been a bad, bad man… done some very wicked things”. “Dr. Abernathy” acknowledges a weakness for excess: “I don’t quite see/the stop light, the turn right”. The first single off the album, “The Boom Boom Bap,” contains the line “I’ve got bellywash blood in my heart” –an oblique allusion, Green explains, to a genetic disposition towards hard drinking–but it’s mostly about being a junkie for hip hop. One verse consists entirely of the song titles from the first Run DMC album, while the title itself is named after hip hop’s bass-boom and syncopated breakbeats. According to Green, the song’s about the thin line “between being in love with something and being unhealthily addicted to it”. Most direct of all is “Last Time I Looked”, a brilliant slice of folk-rock secreted on the B-side of “The Boom Boom Bap”, perhaps because of the line where Green sings about how you’ll find him languishing “by the tree of cocaine, in a river of beer.” Less blatantly, the gorgeously eerie ballad “Petrococadollar” seems to be a snapshot of some kind of breakdown: “I tried having thoughts/But they don’t obey me”.

White Bread
’s odd blend of joy and despondency suggest that the album documents both Green’s (literally) wasted years and his rescue through the love of a good woman. Green, new to the album-as-autobiography game, prefers to describe it more abstractly, characterizing its themes as “addictions and utopias, longings and loss.” When I ask if he thinks he’s an addictive personality, he emits a strange stammering gurgle of discomfort, then admits “Yes, is the short answer”, before adding with slightly forced brightness, “But I’m perfectly well!”

Green’s clearly in no hurry to join today’s soul-baring gossip culture, where stars turn their deeply mundane sagas of dissolution and cleaning-up into elements of the sales campaign for their new product. Then again, some of the references on White Bread are bizarrely autobiographical. Take the song “Mrs Hughes.” It’s named after an old teacher of Green’s. “I was ready to leave school as part of a political statement about education or something, but she told me to stay and do my A-levels. But she didn’t say ‘you’ll do brilliantly’, she said ‘I’m sure you’ll do okay.’ Which stunned me, the idea that I would do only averagely. I didn’t like the sound of that!”

It’s a revealing anecdote. In the early part of his career, Green came across as super-confident in his own pop genius, but it was pretty clearly the brittle sort of self-belief that masks insecurity. The long exile in the Welsh countryside, and the shorter period of inactivity this decade, were partly responses to the blows to his confidence caused by the commercial shortfall of 1988’s Provision and 1999’s Anomie. “What will bring you to complete inertia is fear of the prospect that if you make a record, write a book, or do whatever, you’ll get shot down in flames,” Green admits. “As long as you do nothing, you’ll get neither praise nor condemnation.” He talks of having been able to sustain “a kind of limbo existence” (thanks to “having earned a few bob in the Eighties”) where he didn’t have “to risk how awful disapprobation might be. Generally, other people’s opinion of me has been an unhealthily large concern.” His struggle to resist this tendency to withdraw from the rough-and-tumble inspired one of the best tunes on the album, “Road To No Regret,” which he describes as “a stop-running-away kind of song, really.” Consulting a sheaf of lyrics he’s had printed out to help him get through live performances (which he recently resumed after a gap of 26 years and still finds nerve-wracking), Green reads the relevant lines: “just another drink, another cigarette/if you never play your cards you’ll never lose the bet.”

Flicking through the pages, Green also notes recurrent references to “absent fathers… the word ‘daddy’ or ‘father’ appears in about five or six songs.” His biological father departed the domestic scene early in Green’s childhood. “There’s obviously something going on there, but I’ve no idea what yet! But it wouldn’t, I guess be too difficult a conclusion to leap to that the approbation thing and the absent father is maybe… oh, I dunno, it’s too convenient a leap, maybe.“

Green claims “I’m not one for regrets” but that seems more like a wishful statement of how he’d like to be. In an interview we did in 2005, he talked about having “a terrible memory, because I’ve trained my memory to be ruthlessly poor. Cos I’m best served that way. All memories are bad, really. Memories of good things are bad, because they’ve gone, and memories of bad things are bad because they were bad things. I don’t like remembering anything, and I’ve become really good at that.” The final song on White Bread, “Robin Hood,” ends the album on a ringing note of be-here-now positivity, something achieved by jettisoning the past and the future, nostalgia and dreams of a brighter tomorrow. In one breath, Green declares “all prophecy will fail”, in the next he vows “I’ll never go back.” But he says this is not specifically about the slough of self-doubt and drowned sorrow that suspended his career and stalled his talent. “It’s that Bob Marley thing, remember? An NME journalist went on the road with Marley. They flew into Miami, checked their bags at the hotel and then went to the soundcheck. And afterwards the journalist said ‘Are we going back to the hotel now?’ and Marley said, ‘No, we’re going forward to the hotel.’ I always liked that.”

Simon Reynolds is the author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 (Faber & Faber). More information about the book, in which Scritti Politti is a pivotal and extensively discussed band, at the Rip It Up site, which also features a interview with Green Gartside around the Early anthology. The early Scritti Politti track “PAs” appears on Rip It Up compilation out now on V2.

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