Andrew Weatherall’s going backwards.
Sat in his ever-dark basement London studio, he reveals that his debut album, some twenty years behind schedule, was actually produced in reverse as if it was a remix. The main guest vocalist is, in fact, the singer who Weatherall transformed nearly two decades ago into the ultimate acid house muse: Bobby Gillespie.
Weatherall, whose debut album has been lodged in the Clash collective consciousness for a week now, dutifully explains: “Bobby came down just to sort of hang out like he does sometimes, and he heard the track and his words were, “Oh, I’ll do the Mick Jones,” a kind of Clash backing vocal part, which he did very well.”
‘A Pox On The Pioneers’ is a ten-track album riddled with Weatherall’s observations and erudite learning delivered quaintly alongside his understated failings and the lessons gleaned. And, as he chirps between puffs on his ubiquitous spliff, it’s also a concept album: “The theme of the album is heroic failure. In rock ‘n’ roll and art, we love our artists to have suffered, because the more the suffering the better medicine for us when we read it and the more inspiring it is.” This belief was galvanised over an evening in Glasgow when Billy Childish, out on the sauce with our forty-five-year-old protagonist, revealed that he was more the type of man whose philosophy was to climb up Everest without shoes or oxygen tanks, since the vagaries of modern equipment would be cheating.
A chain reaction developed. “So, I started to get interested in polar expeditions that went horribly wrong, all hideously under-equipped,” Weatherall confesses. “I just thought I’m getting the same thing from that, I’m getting the same medicine – not getting off, but I’m gaining strength from other people’s failings; I’m being impressed by their striving against the odds the same way that I do from reading about suicides in rock ‘n’ roll. I just thought I’ll put myself in the place of people that are about to commit suicide, or are the last man left of an arctic expedition, and it does come with a cost; it’s like the explorer is saying, ‘A curse on the people has led me to this point’, you know? ‘It’s pioneers that came before me, that I’ve followed for their idea of life and how to operate, and it’s led me to be marooned on an iceberg with everybody dying around me, so fuck them!’
“It’s better to have failed on your own terms
that to have succeeded on somebody else’s.”
This reinterpretation of heroism, this insight into the terror stricken side of selflessness is expected from this musician, a figure who’s refused to sell out through every age of dance music. He now jokingly sets out his stall with it, and it’s full of colourful tales. His narratives takes us through the likes of lying angels slamming against the ground as they fall, or the disco singed ‘walk of shame’ home after a three-day bender. Then there’s the family of suicidal trapeze artists who cant admit defeat, or a young lady called Miss Rule who paid him his highest compliment ever by saying her older brother’s Weatherall mix-tapes corrupted her into becoming a glamour model.
The music itself is an effacing mix of Weatherall’s genealogy. He describes it as similar to the music he was making as Sabres Of Paradise in the ’90s, yet now he “knows how to actually produce music properly”. Humility swoons. Andrew was a young punk with a penchant for rockabilly quickly seduced by acid house around 1987. He then in turn became the modest master of this infectious and fast expanding hinterland from which he navigated an underground yet international role as THE DJ to invest, digest and explosively play almost any genre of dance music in the seediest of venues whilst many of his peers crumpled as their integrity was plundered. His self-wrought music is a demure mongrel of all these enduring lives and eras to forge something distinct and powerful. For better or for worse, for richer, or (likely always) poorer, his deliberately understated career’s always been on his terms.
“I just think it’s better to have failed on your own terms than to have succeeded on somebody else’s. It may be using a flowery way to excuse my shortcomings, to liken myself to someone going up Everest without the proper equipment when really all I’ve done is not done things properly. Again, it’s that thing of create your own system or be a slave to another man’s, William Blake I kind of paraphrase, I don’t know the exact quote, but that’s the gist. I interviewed Throbbing Gristle and they said, ‘If you do something that you believe in, the worst that can happen is people say, ‘I don’t like it’, but if you do something that you’ve compromised and people say they don’t like it, it’s a kind of double hit.’ That really stuck with me and it’s seen me through many times of doubt.”
So, what have been this man’s heroic failures? Well, professionally you could probably count them on the fingers of one boxing glove. But personally he’s taken his lifestyle to the extreme heights akin to Everest and discovered the levels at which one can fall. “The songs on this album are deeply personal; they’re about my character but they’re more story songs, they’re not as obvious. The songs on ‘Wrong Meeting’ (his last album as Two Lone Swordsmen) were really obvious. That’s the difficult thing though, out of all this resentment and hurt and bitterness and foolishness have come some really nice wistful songs. I thought ‘Let’s try and do that, let’s try and be beautiful and wistful in not such an obvious way really, in a ‘me bird’s just packed me’ sort of way.’”
Weatherall’s themes and lyrics are dark, yet in an English way. Brought up through his father’s love for The Ladykillers, Spike Milligan and Monty Python, he’s been left with a black humour that looks over its shoulder to the past as much as to laugh at the devil following. When asked if he regards himself as nostalgic, he almost falls over his knackered old couch, laughingly casting a look down himself to highlight his Hessian slacks, trouser braces, worker’s shirt, black flat cap and huge handlebar moustache. He looks, fittingly for his theme, like he’s just climbed out of his Spitfire in 1918.
This takes us neatly into his next anecdote. Asked about the meaning of standout track ‘Let’s Do The 7 Again’, his answer is as antiquated as his choice of facial appendage.
“Again, it’s about heroic failure. Basically there was a famous circus act in the ’30s and ’40s called The Flying Wallendas, they were a total family act, and old man Wallenda decided to do what had never been done before: a seven-person human pyramid across a tightrope without a safety net. They toured it, did it a couple of times, and there’s a famous film, they only show it so far, but they did it in a circus tent and they fell. I can’t find footage of the actual fall, they freeze it as they start falling in the air, and I think one or two of them were killed, one of them ended up in a wheelchair, it basically decimated the family. But then the next two generations got together and decided they’d do it AGAIN just to prove they wouldn’t be beaten. ‘We’ll do it again!’ And they did it.”
Principals reign. The real reason why this album hasn’t been made at any of the other junctures across his career is that Weatherall stoutly refused to take any credit for anyone else’s work, as he reveals: “There’s a lot of DJs who have forged solo careers and left a trail of resentful engineers in their wake. There’s quite a few of them, I won’t go into names, and some of the stories may not be true, but I didn’t want to be one of those DJs that left a wake of disgruntled backroom boys.”
“I’ve been good at realising when the door of
dignity is about to shut and lock me in.”
In the theme of flawed heroes, Clash asks if our protagonist feels like he’s still exploring the outer limits of music. An expectant anecdote follows whereby he’s recently discovered that ‘Sloop John B’ – the Beach Boys tune – was actually an old bohemian calypso song. Obviously. Let’s change tack then.
Asked about his scaling of hedonistic heights and getting wasted, an occupational hazard for a globetrotting DJ, we find that he prays to a more abstract god. “I have gone mad over the years, but I’m always good at heeding warnings; whether they’re metaphorical or people physically warning me, I’m always good at taking signals. I’m not a great believer in the cosmic or a message from God, but I take the hint. The classic one was I was in the Milk Bar and I’d just bought a gram of gak [cocaine], and I opened it up in the DJ booth, and as I opened it up the fan swung round and blew the entire lot away! The guy I bought it off was standing next to me, so I could’ve quite easily said, ‘Oh, give us another one’, but I just thought, ‘No, I’m gonna take that, it’s not a message from God; it’s nothing cosmic, but I’m gonna take that as a warning’. I’ve also been good at realising when the door of dignity is about to shut and lock me in.”
Such instinct has helped keep Weatherall’s cantankerous vessel well away from the rocks that blight many a music career, and we pray he continues on this tack and well away from jibes during his retroactive jaunt into the future. Discussing the twin influences of progressive music and life experiences leads to an examination of reflections, and what it’s like to mine thirty years of music and life for creative purposes.
“I like nostalgia aesthetically, but not as a human condition,” he rounds off. “It’s very debilitating as you look into the past with your rose-tinted specs on. I think wistfulness rather than nostalgia works best. I’ve got rose-tinted specs but one of the lenses has fallen out, so I suppose I’ve got a rose-tinted monocle.”
How very fitting for this wonky wayfarer whose charts are as unexpected as they are often undiscovered.
Words by Matthew Bennett
‘A Pox On The Pioneers’ is released on Rotters Golf Club on 21st
Big Chill Festival 2010