Despite making some of indie rock’s most influential records, the mononymous frontman of Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart is still very much unknown to the average person on the street. Even for fans, Lawrence is an enigma, navigating a strange parallel between lauded cult figure and non-celebrity. Lawrence’s air of mystique is at odds with an ambition to simply make music for the masses, the primary reason for Go-Kart Mozart’s existence.
Lawrence’s career is defined by three disparate periods: the esoteric dream-like post-punk of Felt, Denim’s irreverent glam-leanings, and now the frivolous, quick-witted pop of Go-Kart Mozart. Having fulfilled his plan of making ten singles and ten albums in ten years (1980 - 89), Felt went on to become one of the most significant bands of that era, particularly in terms of their influence on post-punk and indie. Ahead of their time, Felt were making a new kind of rock music that was effeminate and dream-like, and never without an underlying pop sensibility.
Despite being revered as one of the forerunners of English post-punk, Lawrence is of course well versed in the power of melody and pop: while the pop song is often derided as a lesser form of art; throwaway music parodying as something more substantial than it is, the ‘perfect’ pop song is not an easy ambition. Go-Kart Mozart’s latest record, 'Mini-Mart', however, gets extremely close.
Ahead of the release of 'Mini-Mart' and those long-awaited Felt reissues, I spoke to Lawrence about his feelings on Felt now, pop music, the music press, and The Fall.
NB: this interview took place the day before news broke of Mark E Smith’s death, so it’s coincidence that much of this interview focused on Mark and The Fall.
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I hear you’ve been quite busy in the studio lately, are you recording a new album already?
Yeah, we’ve been doing it for a while. It’s a mini-album after Mini-Mart. 'Mini-Mart' comes out on the 23rd February, but this is coming out in September and it will probably be the last Go-Kart Mozart record ever. The mini album we’re working on now is a continuation from Mini-Mart, so it’s part of the same process, it’s just the final bunch of songs.
I read somewhere that 'Mini-Mart' was intended for release in 2014 - why the long delay?
It took about three years to get the sleeves done. Everyone involved in the record has other jobs and were doing other stuff so they were essentially helping me as a favour.
The guy who did the sleeve has quite a busy day job - you know when you go in a hotel and there’s a magazine sitting on the chair that nobody reads? He does them. So I had to wait a long time just to finish it off because the sleeve was quite complicated to do.
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I’ll never do it again because it’s really hard to constantly ask people for favours.
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Consequently, it took ages for the record to be made. It shouldn’t have, it’s really because the whole project was done as a one-off, I can only do this once in my life; a person can only do this sort of project once because it’s when you pull in all the favours from everybody and you kind of do it all for nothing. I’ll never do it again because it’s really hard to constantly ask people for favours.
It was all because of one reason, really. I could’ve got a budget because we’ve got our own label - West Midlands - which goes through Cherry Red, so we could have asked them for money to make this record but I knew they wouldn’t give me very much, and I did not want to know how much I was worth. I just did not want to know how much I was worth at that particular time [laughs]. I had planned to get it all ready and then present it to them, so it’s kind of an odd project because I don’t think many people work in that way, really. You know, usually you get a budget and then you make your record.
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At least it’s not been rushed! You’ve spent a bit of time on it and must be really happy with it?
It was so difficult to make because of those circumstances, but it’s such an amazing album. We spent a lot of time making it - countless amounts of time in the studio, but it was all free, just because of the favours that were owed. A lot of it was done on the laptop and in a couple of bedrooms as well as proper studios, but altogether it would have cost a fortune, and the kind of money that I could never get from a record company, you know?
I’ve been listening to ‘Mini-Mart’ a lot lately and would say it’s the best Go-Kart Mozart album you’ve done. What’s the response been so far?
Thank you, I really appreciate that. I must admit, I’m in a really bad place because the very first review for it came out a few days ago.
I was devastated, because we put so much effort into this record. It wasn’t a simple task of just going into a studio for a couple of weeks and making a record, it consumed my life for a number of years, and then we get the first review and it’s about two inches high, and it’s just so demoralising. You put all this work into something and you always think it’s going to be this big record and then you get a tiny review.
I can imagine after all these years of doing it that must be extremely disappointing.
Definitely, it’s not the writing, it’s not anything to do with that. It’s the space that I was afforded. After everything we did, you just think oh, that’s my reward for all that effort I put in, all this effort I gave to my music and then I get this two-inch review. It’s so annoying, honestly.
When you make a record you want it to win the Mercury Prize; you want it to sell a million copies; you want it to springboard you on to national TV. You have all these high hopes for your record and then it comes out and you get a two-inch review!
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It does seem a lot harder these days, as a reviewer, too. It seems to me that the bigger magazines care more about the readers and what they want instead of the artists they write about.
One of my favourite bands - Field Music - got a whole page about their album which is out around the same time as ours. Every time they do anything they get masses or press, and I’m happy for them because I love that band, but I equally deserve a page if they get a page. If they’re afforded a page why do I get two-inches? It’s worth a page in Uncut, that’s all I can say! [laughs].
I don’t know what it is, because I live in London now, and the journalists and editors know how hard it was for me to make this record. They know the story behind it, and they know the situation in the music business and they know how hard it is for everybody. Just a little leg-up would be nice. I’m the only person doing what I’m doing, I’m not relying on nostalgia or going out as Felt, I’m not playing any Felt songs.
When Go-Kart Mozart play gigs it’s all new songs and as an artist I’m trying to look forward all of the time and not look back. Obviously, as I’m saying this, we’ve got a load of Felt reissues coming out but I never play old songs which is what everybody does. And you’d think I’d get just a little bit of respect for being probably the only person who’s doing that. Definitely.
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I’m the only person doing what I’m doing, I’m not relying on nostalgia...
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The only other person I can think of with a similar outlook is Mark E Smith - The Fall very rarely play old stuff, if at all. All their shows focus on the most recent record. It’s a very rare and commendable thing to not rely on nostalgia to please fans.
Yes, that’s exactly it. So you’re a Fall fan?
I am! They were probably the first group I got obsessively into. I’m guessing that you’re a fan, having supported them a few times?
I love them as well. My favourite people are people like Mark E Smith and Nick Cave. You know, individuals that try to do something really different all the time.
Our bass player wrote Mark E Smith a fan letter asking some questions about 'Dragnet' and sent it off with a demo to the address on the back of the record, and he actually wrote back. He used to answer fan-mail! At the bottom of the letter our bass player said we’d just started a band and we loved The Fall etc. He wrote back, answered the question and then asked if we wanted to support them on one of their dates.
So we went to do this gig and they went mad, they loved us. All of The Fall just rushed over to us and said “fucking hell, you’re amazing!” and we were just dumbfounded because we’d never played live and they were going “where the hell did you come from?!”
Then the manager of The Fall at the time - Kay - asked us to come and play with them, and we did quite a few dates with them. Our very first three gigs ever were with The Fall.
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We were just in love with him, we loved him: he looked incredible, sounded great...
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Do you still speak to Mark now?
Not now but we were together for as much as you could be with Mark Smith. I wouldn’t call them conversations, but we listened to him talk, and he was very fascinating and we got a very good insight into his character. We were just in love with him, we loved him: he looked incredible, sounded great, the gigs were amazing - they were the most forward-thinking band in the UK at the time.
I remember they played a song on this tour for the first time - ‘City Hobgoblins’ - I love that song! Me and the band were going “what is that song? It’s so brilliant!”. I think 'Grotesque' had just come out or was about to come out when we were playing with them - that was the album they were playing live, so we had a really good start as a live band.
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The funny thing is, if you put Felt and The Fall together you’d say, I bet Mark Smith doesn’t like that band, but he loved Felt, he absolutely loved us. He used to name drop us in interviews, he was a big Felt fan. I just felt very lucky because I wouldn’t have expected him to like us because we were very pretentious on purpose. I did it on purpose, I used it like a sword - I was way out there with these lyrics whereas he’d try and hide it.
And you wouldn’t think he’d like that kind of thing but when he told me about the bands he liked it was all stuff you wouldn’t expect him to like.
What else was he listening to around that time?
When we were playing with them he liked The Human League because something had happened at a gig where they’d all played, and there was a big load of trouble - some fight had broken out, and Phil Oakey stepped in to help. So Mark had this massive respect for Phil Oakey because he stepped in during this fracas that happened at a gig with The Fall and The Human League.
I always thought ‘Going To Spain’ was a bizarre cover to do. I tracked down the original album that came off, it’s called The Worst Songs In The World [laughs]. I reckon he bought that album, this novelty record, and just fell in love with it because there’s about four or five songs from this one album that they covered. It’s just this compilation album put together by Kenny Everett, with him on the cover dressed as a superhero, and you can just imagine Mark seeing it in a shop and thinking “I’m buying that, that’s the album for me!” [laughs].
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I wouldn’t have expected him to like us because we were very pretentious on purpose...
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Have you got the lyric books, by the way? I’ve got both of them, and it’s amazing when you read the lyrics, because I’ve spent years trying to decipher what they are. When you actually get the lyrics, they’re incredible. Songs like ‘Elastic Man’, for example, and ‘Jawbone and The Air Rifle’. They’re such a great songs but it’s hard to follow the lyrics just by listening so you really need to see them written down. My biggest regret is that he hasn’t done a proper lyric book, that’s what I’d love.
Yeah, me too! I’ve been after that orange lyric book for a while, but it’s always going for a silly price on eBay. It’s a lot like reading really witty, clever poetry isn’t it?
I found a few copies in a charity shop and I couldn’t believe it! I wish I’d got them all. But definitely, Fall lyrics are like a modern kind of poetry. If someone said what do you think the music business is lacking I’d say the Mark E Smith lyric book! Nick Cave’s got one now hasn’t he?
I love Nick Cave’s lyrics, too. He’s astonishing. He’s probably the only one who is consistent, for me. He’s the only person who still writes consistently great lyrics. He was big friends with Mark Smith. We did a gig with The Fall in London, and I was really hoping that I could get to speak to Mark - really hoping that we could have a good chat and hang out. But after The Fall played, Nick Cave turns up and they go off together, into the night. And I felt so left out - I thought, oh god, why didn’t they invite me? Where’ve they gone? [laughs].
You know when you’re looking at these two cool people and they just disappear? They walk off together and you just think, why am I never invited to that party? So it was one of those moments, but now I can look back on it with fondness.
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They walk off together and you just think, why am I never invited to that party?
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Speaking of books, is there anything you’re reading at the moment?
There’s a book out at the moment called Pretentiousness have you seen that? I think it’s stating the case for being pretentious. I haven’t read it yet but it’s by this great new publishing company called Fitzcarraldo who are doing the best books around at the moment. They just have books with a plain white cover, there’s no gloss on it. Like a Joy Division record, for example.
In fact, the cover of this book actually looks like a Joy Division record. It gives you hope when you find new businesses like this turning up.
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Going back to the Felt reissues, I’ve been waiting a long time for those. What made you finally decide to reissue them on vinyl?
Well the whole ten are coming out, but it would be too much to put ten albums out in one go. We’re doing it in two halves, so the first five are coming out now, and the other five are coming out in April or May.
All the records are being released properly for the first time since the 80s. It’s the first proper reissuing of the Felt catalogue. We had some out on CD in the 2000’s, but there was no campaign behind it and there was no remastering or anything. So this is the first proper delving into the archives sort of thing; it’s the only time we’re going to do it.
I know you spent a lot of time working on them, which gave you time to revisit the music you made as Felt. In retrospect what are your feelings on Felt now, nearly twenty years on?
I don’t know about other musicians, but I do listen to my own music. Not all of the time, but I didn’t put it away in boxes or anything. It wasn’t a shock when we started remastering them, because I’m aware of how great they are and of a few pitfalls as well. It was a great chance to put some of the things right that I’d had to live with for many years, wishing I could have done a couple of things differently. So this time I had a chance to actually put things right, but it’s not a whole cart-load of stuff, it’s only about two or three elements that were wrong.
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It was a great chance to put some of the things right that I’d had to live with for many years...
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For example, I got a chance to re-mix the vocals on fourth album ‘Ignite The Seven Cannons’. I was never happy with the mix that was done by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins. He kind of ruined some of my best songs, which I’m sure he’d agree with now he’s a lot more experienced! A
t the time, I wasn’t allowed in to the mix. I had to sign a contract agreeing to not attend the mixes, so if you listen to that fourth album you can tell that I’ve not got much to do with it because it had applied that Cocteau Twins sound to Felt. So I got a chance to revisit those vocal tracks and re-mix them how I would have at the time.
We have revisited a couple of things and made them a little bit better if we could. It’s nothing drastic, there’s nothing that fans will feel I’m taking liberties with history - nothing like that.
Why were you not allowed in to the mixing the first time round?
Robin just said he would only produce the record if he could mix it by himself without me being there, because he knew that I would try and impose my ideas on the record. He knew that, and he was right [laughs].
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Why did Felt choose to re-record the song ‘Fortune’ as the B-side to ‘Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow’ in 1984? It’s a brilliant version.
There were a few things that I think could have been better and one of them was the recording of that first album. We were very inexperienced at that time, and personally, we loved ‘Fortune’ and it was quite a cheeky thing to do because we’d already recorded and released it, but when we made the single we thought we’d have another go at recording it on the B-side because we didn’t capture what we wanted the first time around.
We also had a go at recording ‘Cathedral’ again because that was our big song, but when you listen to that first album you can’t really tell that it’s this big rock song because we didn't really capture it. So we tried again the following year after we recorded ‘Fortune’ but that didn’t go too well, it went really badly.
The ‘Fortune’ re-recording I think is very good, yeah. It’s a different kind of version but you can hear the song better I suppose. When you’re a musician you try and take any chance to make things better, and if I’d have had the chance I would have re-mixed that first album immediately.
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We really wanted to capture what we did in rehearsal...
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A couple of months after we’d recorded it I thought: it just isn’t right, I’m going to try and re-mix it. In those days you could hire the master tapes or you could buy them, and most people in the music business bought theirs, which sounds really sensible, but at that time Cherry Red hired the tapes, and when you hired the tapes the studio would simply go over them the following week with another band, and then the songs are gone forever, you can’t get them back.
So I phoned up the studio a couple of months after recording it and said I want to re-record these songs, it doesn’t sound right, and that’s when John Rivers said Cherry Red had only hired the tapes and he’d already recorded over them! I went mad; I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I didn’t know that kind of practice went on - I assumed that you bought your master tapes. So in this instance, I couldn’t do anything about the recordings on the first album, so what we tried to do was re-record a couple of the songs as B-sides.
I still love that first album as a whole; as a kind of experimental English album - from that post-punk period. It stands up really well as a period piece.
Yeah, it’s of its time but still sounds great now.
Yeah definitely, but as a songwriter, I’d have liked the production to have been more like what we did in the rehearsal room. We really wanted to capture what we did in rehearsal but the guy who produced it, John Rivers, made the drums really big - he just did a production job on it really, on our little songs.
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As Go-Kart Mozart you often deal with serious subjects using ‘happy’ music - for example ‘When You’re Depressed’ deals with depression but it’s quite upbeat. Do you think it’s important to make light of life’s hardships?
What I’m trying to do is approach serious subjects but get a mass of people to listen to them, that’s my intention. What people love is great tunes, melodies. So, even though the subjects are quite harsh and heavy, if you catch it in an upbeat, melodic, tuneful way then I think it’s easier for people to take in. Then they’ll listen to the tune and it’ll make them feel really good and then one day it’ll hit them - oh my word, that’s quite a heavy subject. Also, there’s a lot of people who don’t actually care about lyrics, so for them, you’ve got to have good tunes.
What I’m trying to do is appeal to a mass audience, and I know that might sound a bit crazy to some people, but what’s the point in sitting down and writing a song that you hope a 100 people will like? You just don’t do it. As a songwriter you want as many people as possible to like your music. So for me the hardest thing to do is write a catchy song, a catchy melody. It’s deceivingly difficult to do. Something like ‘When You’re Depressed’ may seem happy-go-lucky and frivolous but it’s very hard to write a song as catchy as that. If you add an element of subversion in there as well then you’ve got everything: great lyrics and a beautiful melody that people can sing along to.
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It’s the easiest thing in the world to make experimental music... but not everybody can write a great pop song.
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It would be so easy to do experimental music, for example. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make experimental music because you can just get a synthesizer and make stupid noises on it and anyone can do that, but not everybody can write a great pop song.
For me, as a listener, I look for songs like that but I don’t find them anywhere. Catchy melodies with really subversive lyrics - that’s what Mozart is about, really, that’s the essence of the band, to have strong, contentious lyrics with great melodies - it’s as simple as that. But within that simple idea you can’t actually go out to the shop and buy a record like that, it hardly exists. Back in the day, it was all about melody and lyrics, like in the days of the great American songwriters, and people like Noel Coward, I love that sort of music, and songs from musicals - they’re really hard to write.
On the last album a song called ‘A Ding Ding Ding Dong’ was my attempt at writing a song for a musical. I love all the songs from ‘Oliver’. The guy who wrote them - Lionel Bart - he’s one of my heroes who I look up to and I tried to write a song that could stand up next to his and could maybe go in to a musical of some kind. It’s one of the hardest things to do, because there’s a narrative in a musical that you have to follow from beginning to end so you have to keep the story going, while also maintaining a very catchy melody. It’s much harder to write a musical than it is to write a rock album.
Is Oliver your favourite musical then?
I’d say it is, yeah. How many great songs are on that album? He also wrote some other great plays as well that are amazing, he just didn’t stop writing great songs, this guy! He just couldn’t stop writing classic pop songs! These are the kind of people that I look up to, not some rock singer.
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That’s what I try to do, use strong melodies that people are going to hum while they’re going through their humdrum life.
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I generally don’t like musicals but my mum used to watch them a lot when I was a kid so you do end up with those songs becoming a huge part of your childhood.
Yeah that’s what happened to me, being a kid and hearing these records playing in the house, I really loved them. As I got older I realised trying to write a song like that is very difficult. You can fake trying to write a rock song very easily - there’s certain things you can to do concoct a rock song using a variety of cliches, but it’s very difficult to write songs that are for musicals and from Hollywood films. That’s what I try to do, use strong melodies that people are going to hum while they’re going through their humdrum life. That’s quite a good line actually, can you use that?
Haha, it is a great line, maybe you should use it in a song? Also, musicals are very good at getting stuck in your head!
Yes - that’s what I want to do, make songs that get stuck inside your head, and it drives people mad all day at work. That’s my ambition [laughs].
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People always thought we were a London band because we never played our hometown.
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Do you go back to Birmingham much?
I go to visit. I used to go back to go to this record shop, so once a year I would jump on a train, go to the record shop, and just come back to London. But I don’t go to hang out or anything, I don’t have any friends there. I don’t like the place at all - they’ve ripped the heart out of it. It’s a mess of different forms of architecture all squashed together. There are a couple of areas like Water Orton where I grew up which I think is beautiful. I love that area, I have a fondness for it, but as a whole I don’t like it and it never produces any good music, does it?
I suppose not much these days maybe. One of my favourite bands is from Birmingham but they’re not around any more.
What are they called?
Ah, yeah! Of course. Broadcast were like Felt - an anomaly, they didn’t seem to fit at all in the Birmingham landscape. But I liked Broadcast and they were similar to Felt in that we were both bands you wouldn’t expect to come from Birmingham. People always thought we were a London band because we never played our hometown.
Do you have any plans to take Go Kart Mozart on the road?
Yeah that’s the plan! I hope we come to Leeds, that’d be fantastic. We’re in rehearsal at the moment and have a great set and hopefully we’ll be touring for two years. We’re going to do a few secret gigs - warm-ups - and then we start in London on the 21st February.
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Go Kart Mozart's 'Mini-Mart' is out now.
Words: Hayley Scott
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