The The Interview

Last year, The The’s ‘Soul Mining’ was reissued to mark its 3oth anniversary. It was remastered by Matt Johnson himself and much to my surprise the great man was up for a doing a few interviews, his first in seven years. It’s one of the longest interviews I’ve ever done, the first half at his East London base, the second half on the phone a couple of days later. Four hours in total. The final piece appeared on the cover of Electronic Sound issue 7. This is an unpublished early version that was edited down for publication.


“I just thought, you know what? This game is rigged. I actually don’t want to play anymore,” says Matt Johnson, making himself comfortable on a battered old leather sofa in his East London HQ. “I did a show for David Bowie’s Meltdown in 2002 and then I put all my gear in storage, locked it up and walked away. I didn’t give it a second thought. I was just fed up with it all.”

Since he retired from the music industry, Matt Johnson hasn’t done much press. In fact, up until now, he’s given precisely one interview – a freewheeling conversation about politics for Dutch magazine ‘200%’ in 2007. It’s been a while since he’s had a chat…

“You are perpetually in debt, still on the terrible deals you signed when you were a teenager,” he continues. “My situation is not unusual, this is the standard. You are perpetually in debt, and when you are eventually out of contract you don’t have the clout to get your catalogue back, and that’s what was upsetting me. Walking away from that wasn’t hard.”

So what’s brought him back to the music industry fray? His 1983 long-player ‘Soul Mining’ and in particular the newly minted 30th anniversary deluxe vinyl boxset. And yes, 1983 + 30 = 2013, but a year late is small beer when the result is lovingly remastered, beautifully repackaged and features an extra disco of rarities.

You can take the man out the music industry…

Matt Johnson’s parents ran pubs. They took on their first, The Two Puddings in Stratford, in the Sixties and retired from the trade some 40 years later. The Puddings was East London’s premier music venue, Matt’s Uncle Kenny being the area’s top music promoter. The sounds coming up through the floorboards into the flat above the boozer were those of The Kinks, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Howlin’ Wolf…

Too young to see the shows, Matt and older brother Andrew weren’t too young to sneak a go on the musical instruments when the pub was closed. They also relished the visit of the man who replaced the records in the pub’s jukebox as he would hand over piles of worn out old singles to the boys.

Young Matthew formed his first band, aged 11, featuring his mate Nick on cardboard box drums, and himself twanging a tissue box wrapped in elastic bands. Gradually improving gear – a proper drum kit, a Bontempi organ, a battered acoustic guitar – and the Deep Purple and David Bowie cover versions began to appear, shows were staged in parents’ garages, the crisps and orange juice flowing.

Matt hated school, and by his own admission was a terrible truant. His prospects weren’t helped when he failed all his exams.

“Because they were in the pub trade, my parents wanted me to be a caterer,” he sighs, “’You’ve got no qualifications, what do you want to do?’ I was like caterer? Fuck. That.”

Maybe, he thought, he could do something in music. His big brother lent him the cash to buy Tony Hatch’s ‘So You Want To Be In The Music Business’, which had pages of addresses in the back – recording studios, record companies, publishing houses… the by-now 15-year-old Matt Johnson wrote to them all.

Mostly, it was the standard thanks, we’ll put your name on file. But De Wolfe, a recording studio based on Wardour Street in London’s glittering West End, wrote back inviting him for an interview.

Turning up for his first day at De Wolfe on 4 July 1977, Matt began learning a trade. Everything from how to wind cables properly to how to work magic armed with little more than a reel-to-reel tape machine, a Chinagraph pencil and a razorblade.

“I got £18 a week,” he recalls. “£10 a week on travel, a fiver to my mum, three quid for me. Not a lot of money even in those days, but you were allowed to do your own stuff out of hours. That was one of the perks. And you were learning a lot.”

The first fruit of De Wolfe downtime was a demo tape called ‘See Without Being Seen’, featuring songs such as ‘Spaceship In My Garden’ and ‘Insect Children’, the titles purloined from quirky US sci-fi comics.

“We were living in a pub in Loughton,” explains Matt. “I had a studio in the cellar with a little tape recorder and a few effects pedals. I would be working at De Wolfe, bring the tapes back home to do the overdubs, then back to De Wolfe and so on.”

Bearing in mind what else might have been stored in the pub cellar, for the sake of argument we’ll call this The Dunhill and Fosters period.

“It was terrible really,” admits Matt. “Me and Andy, we just drank all the profits.”

So while Matt was active studio-wise, his thoughts turned to putting together a live band. Another advantage to working at De Wolfe was that it happened to be next door to the Marquee Club, a famous back street haven for fans of the esoteric.

“I was a bit young for punk,” he says, “I found it a bit boring and derivative, but what I did like was the stuff coming out of the New York – Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Pere Ubu from Cleveland…”

Many of who passed across the stage at the famous venue and what with Matt working next door, he was often stuck to the venue’s sticky floor soaking it all up, imagining himself up there one day.

He did what most people around that time did when they wanted to start a band – put an ad in the back of Melody Maker… which attracted a bunch of jazz musos and assorted freaks. An ad in the less popular NME classifieds proved more fruitful, hooking him up with keyboarder Keith Laws, a Professor at Herefordshire University these days.

It’s a common thread for those earliest The The line-ups – bass player Tom Johnston, a cartoonist for The Evening Standard, drummer Peter Ashworth, a successful professional photographer… Following a debut live appearance in May 1979, Matt went through a dozen or so members.

“I don’t consider myself a great musician,” he explains. “I’m a songwriter who uses an instrument to write songs, but those guys weren’t songwriters or musicians, they were great guys who liked music, who liked the idea of being in a band.”

A second demo album, 1979’s ‘Spirits’ proved to the catalyst for change. Matt realised he was not only writing all the songs, but he was playing everything too. A new plan was afoot.

“I was up at the offices of independent labels all the time,” he explains. “Cherry Red, Rough Trade, 4AD, I just used to hang around. They were all really nice to me, they’d sit and listen to the tapes and give me feedback.”

Ivo at 4AD was the first to blink, and The The’s debut single, ‘Controversial Subject’, appeared on the label in August 1980. Produced by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, a further session fell flat and Ivo suggested that perhaps Matt should produce himself, do his own stuff, under his own name.

The result was ‘Burning Blue Soul’, an angst-fuelled, art packed racket of an album. Full of tape loops, early electronic experiments, heavily effected guitar riffola and distorted vocals. Think Joy Division, but not quite as cheerful.

Thing is, sit it alongside ‘Soul Mining’ and there’s a devil at the crossroads at work, right? The records are light years apart, but there’s a missing link, an unreleased album that bridges the gap between the two.

A conscious decision had been made to focus on writing more song-based material and Matt was already working on The The’s debut album, ‘The Pornography Of Despair’. He wasn’t shy when it came to demos and there was one track in particular that stood out. Well, to most people anyway.

“There was one guy at Sony,” says Matt. “I went to play him a demo and he just sat there, stone faced, turned it off halfway through, said ‘This isn’t very good is it’ and threw me out of the office.”

The track was ‘Cold Spell Ahead’ with a bright tsktsktsk drum machine, simple almost lazy chord progression and an unmistakable lyric.

“I’ve got you under my skin where the rain can’t get in/But if the sweat pours out/Just shout/I’ll try to swim and haul you out.”

In September 1981, with his solo album about to hit the shops via 4AD, The The’s ‘Cold Spell Ahead’ was released on Some Bizarre whose label boss Stevo was really giving it the big ‘un.

“He kept saying we can get you a major label deal,” says Matt. “I had no money, there was no money from anywhere, I was on the dole living in a bedsit in Highbury, getting frustrated, working away…”

But Stevo had a plan. Having landed Soft Cell as Number One recording artists, he had a good deal of new-found clout, and with it he talked London Records into funding studio time for Matt, a deal sealed by nothing more than a handshake.

Time was booked in New York with producer Mike Thorn – who, again thanks to his work with Soft Cell, was hot property. The plan was to re-record ‘Cold Spell Ahead’ the resulting version becoming ‘Uncertain Smile’. Matt had been chipping away since he was 11 and now, aged 20, here was a major label taking him seriously. He was on his way. What could possibly go wrong?

“The session went really, really well,” he recalls. “Because Stevo had managed to get the whole thing paid for without signing any contracts, he took the track around to everyone else. Fuck the handshake.”

It was a brassy move and could have easily backfired. But in the dog eat dog music industry his skulduggery actually paid off with CBS’ larger than life big chief Maurice Oberstein inking a deal for The The perched astride a lion statue in Trafalgar Square. At 3am.

“And I wasn’t even there,” laughs Matt. “I don’t know why I wasn’t there, I think Stevo probably wanted all the publicity for himself. Or I was too embarrassed to go…”

In the autumn of 1982, Matt returned to New York to work with Mike Thorn again, this time on a new track, ‘Perfect’. But things were a bit different this time round.

“From being on the dole with no money to suddenly…” says Matt, trailing off at mention of the reported £80,000 advance. “And then I hooked up with a young lady in a rough part of town.”

Less than 24 hours after arriving in New York, Matt had disappeared into the arse end of the Lower East side, an area known as Alphabet City, so called because it covers Avenues A, B, C and D. At the time the area was a mix of Puerto Ricans and African American families with a slow drip of artists and musicians, B-Boys and graffiti artists arriving thanks to the low rents associated with such salubrious surroundings.

“It was very rough,” he recalls, “very on edge, but when you’re young you are much more fearless, it makes you feel alive.”

Until you chug down a fat one rolled with pure ultra-strong Hawaiian grass.

“I was used to the weak stuff we smoked at De Wolfe,” says Matt. “But this… I had a three-day bad trip, it was awful. I told Stevo I couldn’t go into the studio like this so he said ‘Try some of this’ and gave me a couple of ecstasy tablets.”

Some Bizarre and Soft Cell in particular were into ecstasy way before the Hacienda scene turned gurning on the happy pill into a mass market pastime.

“There was a lady who used to come over, Cindy Ecstasy, a friend of Soft Cell’s,” says Matt. “It was a private little thing, only a couple of dozen of us who knew about it so we were doing it long before everyone else.”

That said, if you’re off your gourd on grass, ecstasy probably isn’t the ideal solution. Propped up by Quaaludes in a final attempt to straighten him out, it was pretty clear the session was going nowhere.

“I was literally bumping around the studio, out of my head, didn’t know what I was doing,” admits Matt. “Then for some reason, in this weird state of mind, me and Stevo smashed up our hotel rooms and decided to rent a car… ‘Where’s the roughest place we can go. Detroit! I was in such a frazzled state, full of testosterone and drugs. It was very, very intense.”

Arriving back in London with little to show beyond a whacking great hotel bill, it was decided to bin both New York sessions, hire a different producer and start all over again. Bear in mind that ‘Soul Mining’ was released in October 1983. A generous 10 months away and Matt has pretty much nothing to put on an album.

“After New York, the label were like, ‘Right, what do you have?’” he says. “I’d got ‘Pornography of Despair’, but it was quite raw… ‘Can you re-record these in line with what you did to ‘Cold Spell Ahead’?’”

Most of the tracks have since turned up as B-sides – ‘Three Orange Kisses…’, ‘Mental Healing Process’, ‘Nature of Virtue’, ‘Waiting For The Upturn’…

“The reworkings lost the magic of the originals, which were raw, edgy and experimental,” he says, “The new versions were neither here nor there, they no longer experimental, but they weren’t commercial either.”

The label had put Matt in the studio on his own, producing himself, and it clearly wasn’t working. A decision was made to bring in a co-producer, settling on Paul Hardiman, an engineer who’d previously worked with Mike Thorne as was ready to make the step up. Next job was to find a studio.

“We looked at some studios and came across John Foxx’s place,” says Matt. “We both just loved The Garden. Even though it was a basement it had a fantastic atmosphere.”

They block booked the studio and in early 1983 Matt setting about writing a bunch of new songs, demoing them on a new-fangled Fostek four-track portastudio. They already had ‘Uncertain Smile’ and ‘Perfect’ albeit not recorded to their liking, add to that ‘The Sinking Feeling’ which was the only other cut to survive the ‘Pornography Of Despair’ cull. That left Matt to write five brand-new songs.

“’This Is The Day’, ‘The Sinking Feeling’ and ‘Soul Mining’ were song based,” he explains, “but ‘Waiting For Tomorrow’ and ‘Giant’ were a different process. I would record 10 minutes and it would be the same thing all the way through, all played by hand because there were no sequencers, so the 24-track was layered with these different parts and the arrangement was created by using the mute buttons on the mixing desk.”

What sets the album apart, lending an almost timeless quality, is the choice of rich instrumentation. Xylophone, harmonica, accordion and piano all pop up at various points, all have a warm, rich quality to them.

“What makes the album quite unusual is the instrumentation changes from track to track,” he says. “With regular bands the instrumentation is quite standard from song to song. I didn’t have that restriction and wanted to make use of that freedom.”

At the time there was a lot of new kit starting to appear. John Foxx, unsurprisingly, was at the forefront and kept his pride and joy, a Juno 60, under lock and key at the studio issuing Matt with strict instructions that it was out of bounds. Like a red rag to a bull,

In the spring of 1983, Matt Johnson undertook a project that would shape the new album in fresh ways. Looking back, it was a gathering of the troops before recording started in earnest. At the time, it was a young lad having a laugh with his mates.

Every Thursday night for a month, ‘Rock And Roll With The The’ took to the stage at The Marquee, the sticky floored venue Matt had pretty much lived in during his time at De Wolfe.

Enlisting a dozen or so musicians, The The became a supergroup for one month only. The cast was impressive – Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Malinder, Edwyn Collins and Zeke Manyika from Orange Juice, electronic music pioneer Thomas Leer, Jim ‘Foetus’ Thurwell, Simon Fischer Turner… they were split into two bands, mellow and aggressive, with a further solo set from Matt and a grand finale featuring a dozen guitars chiming out an E chord, the musicians all dressed in black complete with balaclavas.

One night, some bright spark in the audience took it upon themselves to attack the band during the finale.

“They started throwing all these bottles and glasses at the stage,” says Matt. “A big fight kicked off, the band disappeared pretty quickly apart from three of us, fighting and punching with the audience. See if you can guess…”

Jim Thurwell is a shoe-in.

“It was Jim…”

Thomas Leer? Zeke? No, wait… Marc Almond! Handy with his fists then?

“I’ll tell you what,” marvels Matt, “Marc has got quite a temper and he will not stand for any nonsense, he stands his ground. He took his guitar off and swung it, hit someone, but we got the wrong people. He was so apologetic after.”

From that experience, Matt figured out who would best suit the songs he was currently working on. Thomas Leer and Jim Thirwell (credited as Frank Want) made significant contributions as did session bass player Camille Hinds, but they were all eclipsed by one guest in particular.

The new version of ‘Uncertain Smile’, its third incarnation, is a total triumph, not just on the album but of the last 30 years.

“Earlier versions of Uncertain Smile had a saxophone solo, but The Garden had a wonderful live room, with beautiful Yamaha C3 baby grand, which I still own. We just thought the track needs something on this wonderful long outro, what are we going to get on it? The piano seemed the obvious choice.”

But who to get to play it? How about Jools Holland, who at the time was better known for presenting TV show The Tube than his abilities on the ivories.

“I didn’t know him, and don’t think Paul Hardiman knew him,” says Matt. “It might have been my A&R lady who suggested him. It was an inspired suggestion. It was a hot day and although he turned up on his motorbike in full leathers, he was as cool as a cucumber, very down to earth, no airs or graces. He sat down, put the headphones on, ‘Could I have a run-through please’. We gave him the run-through and even before he was all the way through he said, ‘Okay got it. Ready’.”

It was laid down in one take apart from a drop-in towards the end, “to fix a couple of dodgy notes” says Matt. “We went to dinner with him after. Embarrassing really, we invited him out, it was only to a café round the corner, but I didn’t have any money so he ended up buying his own dinner.”

‘Soul Mining’ is a rite of passage record about that seemingly helpless slab of life at the backend of teenage. The bit where everything seems to be against you, the whole lot just going belly up. Love and lust and loss, a healthy dose of self-doubt and plenty of self-loathing. But it’s also a record that offers hope, often dashed admittedly, but hope none the less.

“It is quite a personal album,” confirms Johnson. “In a way it was written for people to listen to in their bedrooms, someone once said it was a record for small rooms, but big imaginations.”

The album was released in October 1983 and was widely praised by the music press. The warm, rich quality of traditional instruments – xylophone, harmonica, accordion, piano – sat against a wash of new electronic sounds was quite unusual at that time.

“With regular bands the instrumentation is quite standard from song to song,” he says. “I didn’t have that restriction and wanted to make use of that freedom.”

A few of the tracks were lengthy, not in a prog rock way, but in a dancefloor way with locked down grooves, extended run outs and repetitive melodies. ‘Giant’, the album’s closer that clocked in a little short of 10 minutes, led the way featuring Orange Juice’s sticksman Zeke Manyika and a drumming bonanza that flew in the face of the rest of the album and went all heavy African rhythms.

“All the drums are live,” explains Matt. “Although there is a synthetic element because we ran the sounds in to a Simmonds kit, then we re-recorded some of that and blended it in, but it is all live drums, real live drums, with Zeke, me and Paul Hardiman overdubbing ourselves multiple times to build up this massive wall of chanting.”

It’s quite a way to finish the record. Which bring us to ‘Perfect’. Despite best efforts, and having two bites at it, neither version worked well enough for it to make the final cut… on the UK version at least.

“I didn’t even find out until I went to America,” exclaims Johnson, the fact some “idiot A&R man” tacked ‘Perfect’ on the end of the US version three decades ago clearly still rankles. “I was in the CBS offices and I remember picking up the album and… there’s eight tracks on this. What the fuck is this? ‘Well so and so thinks it would help’… Well it’s not so and so’s fucking album, it’s my album. It took until 2002 to get ‘Perfect’ taken off, by which point American fans are going, ‘What the fuck? “Perfect” is missing, this is not the proper album’.”

The extra tracks collection in the boxset includes both the New York version with New York Dolls’ singer David Johansen on harmonica, and the London version which replaces Johansen with the trumpet of the late great jazz session musician Harry Beckett.

“When I compare them, they have a very different feel,” explains Johnson. “I prefer the New York version, the one with the harmonica, it’s got a skip in its beat. I was never that happy with the London version, it just didn’t feel right, so neither of them ended up on the album.”

Which leaves us with ‘This Is The Day’, perhaps The The’s most enduring song for many reasons.

“Ultimately,” says Matt, “I am an optimistic person. I have faith in the human spirit, but I do tend to write about mixed feelings, the darker elements of human nature, but ’This Is The Day’ is an optimistic song, a positive song.”

Relentlessly positive some would say. It’s a song that over the years, has taken on a life all of its own. It’s got people through exams, weddings, funerals…

“That is the most wonderful payback you can have,” says Matt. “You put a lot of work into creating these little songs, and the fact they go out there, into other people’s lives and get them through difficult times, it’s a fantastic feeling and that, for me, is the real reward of being a songwriter.”

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