Mark Morriss talks new beginings, Britpop and The Bluetones
In 1996, with Britpop at its peak, The Bluetones' debut album Expecting To Fly knocked Morning Glory off the top of the UK album chart and introduced a generation to the distinctive, dulcet tones of Mark Morriss.
In 2011, after six albums - including two top ten records and a handful of top forty singles - The Bluetones split, leaving Morriss to pursue the solo career he'd begun in 2008 with debut solo record Muscle Memory.
The result is A Flash Of Darkness, a spiky slice of melody-driven, minor-key guitar pop that began life as a Pledge Music project and is now doing a sterling job of kick-starting Morriss's post-Bluetones career.
We caught up with Mark to talk surviving Britpop, the demise of The Bluetones and the making of A Flash Of Darkness…
You originally used Pledge Music to fund A Flash Of Darkness - what made you go down that route?
"That's how it all originally got funded. That was about a year ago. It was always my intention to try and then license the record. Because once it's been sent out to the Pledgers, it's my record – I own it, so it was always my intention to license it here and overseas. This is kind of that coming to fruition."
Was that one of the main reasons to use Pledge Music, so that you had complete control?
"I think it was generally just being proactive. A lot of people wait around for something to fall in their lap – and I'm one of those people normally, it has to be said – but I just decided to get off my backside and make this record happen. It's not like I met with loads of record companies and was turned down, or sent demos out and no one was interested. I wasn't really interested in having a record label.
"At that part of the creative process, there's not really a lot that they can do. Doing this Pledge thing was very appealing to me. It gave me complete freedom with the budget. I could have a budget, and then I could delegate where the money was going to go rather than somebody else, and spend it more sensibly I think. Not all on flowers and chocolate."
How was the process of making the album? Did it come together quickly?
"The songs that are on it came together over a period of about a year or a year and a half. One or two numbers were half-written ideas from the days of The Bluetones, little riffs and licks and stuff that had been hanging around. Some of the songs I wrote in a kind of collaboration with [comedian and prog musican] Matt Berry. We didn't write together as it were, but we were writing songs for a project we were going to do together. The title track is one of those songs, and Space Cadet is one of those songs. Matt definitely contributed a couple of chord progressions here and there.
"I had a lot of songs knocking around, but when you're making a record you're trying to find songs that slot together like a jigsaw. You don't just write 11 songs and then they become the album. I think you get ideas together and then a cornerstone appears, a song that you really are quite proud of and that could be the beginning of side one, that sort of thing. So you get three or four cornerstone songs, and then the record starts to reveal itself to you. I know that sound terribly pretentious! It's difficult sometimes to explain the process, as it is quite abstract."
This is the first record you've made post-Bluetones. How did working alone affect the record? Did you know straight away how you wanted it to sound?
"Yes, I wanted to make it a bit brasher and a bit louder than the first record. I definitely set out to make Memory Muscle quite a folky, breezy, summery record, that was always the intention. With this, I wanted it to have a slightly rougher edge to it, slightly less polish, and I think we pulled it off."
Was there any particular reason that you wanted a rawer sound?
"I wanted to make a looser record. The first record was incredibly tight and sweet sounding, and it's deliberately pretty. I wanted to make this one slightly more scarred, beaten up."
Was that a reflection of how you were feelng at the time?
"Yes! No two ways about that! There was a lot of change happening in my life, and The Bluetones coming to an end was a part of that, and there was a lot of change going on in my personal life. I found myself in a very different place."
Where did you record the album?
"It at a place in Surrey with my friend Gordon Mills, the producer of this and the first album. In his sister's garden there was the shell of a recording studio which her ex-husband had started to build a few years ago. They divorced, and so there was this big shed with a live room and a control room. Gordon basically filled it up with all his recording equipment. We were doing three days a week, because of other responsibilities and other work commitments for both of us, and it took about four months doing it that way."
That can be a really productive way to approach recording, with time off to let the songs breath in between sessions…
"Absolutely. I'd never recorded an album this way before, slightly piecemeal. We'd always gone in and done a bit five-week session in a studio. The benefit to that is that you can really capture the moment and the energy and the focus of the band. But then the downside is that once you're out of the studio and the record is done and mastered, it's like 'oh s**t, I've changed my mind about a couple of things!'
"We were able to have a little bit more distance this time. Take a few days off, listen to what we'd done, think about what we were going to do next. The clock wasn't ticking. We weren't sitting there thinking 'we've got to have this finished'. We'd know when it was finished. There were a lot of detailed notes all over the studio walls, so it was like having a map of where the record was as far as recording goes. So I did enjoy that sense of space, very much."
How much did you play on this record?
"Quite a lot actually. Gordon played drums on every single song. I play the rhythm guitar on every song and lead on a couple, some keyboard. I played bass on all of it except two songs. Adam from The Bluetones played on a couple of songs, a solo here and an intro here. And the rest of it is me!"
It must feel good to have that feeling of ownership of the record?
"It's brilliant. For me, it's so much more enjoyable. Because being the singer in a band, most of the time in the studio you're not really involved, certainly not in a hands-on, practical recording sense. You might be sitting at the back contributing ideas, but you're not really mucking in.
"So you spend three quarters of the time hanging around. Whereas with this record I was heavily involved with every song from the outset. If I wasn't there in the studio with The Bluetones, it's not as if everything ground to a halt – far from it, they probably got more done! But with this record, if I wasn't there nothing could happen. It was a greater sense of responsibility, but one that I thrived on."
And what about taking this record on the road? Are you going to take out a band?
"I took a band out last year and we did a handful of gigs. Next month I'm taking a band out with me, yes. Some old pals are joining me."
How do you structure your set nowadays? Presumably fans still want to hear the old tunes?
"At the moment I'm doing acoustic shows, so I can chop and change the set at the drop of a hat and respond to what the audience are digging. I've also got quite an extensive back catalogue to choose from, and it would be pretty churlish of me to overlook that and not play any of them for some weird reason. They're my songs too! So I'd say the set is probably sixty per cent new stuff and forty per cent Bluetones songs. But when I go out with a band it won't be Bluetones songs, that's a different kettle of fish. It's a different group of musicians, so it would feel like a bad cover version."
How do you feel about still playing Bluetones songs?
"If I don't want to do it, I won't do it! But there's a lot of songs that I really like and am very proud of, so I'm quite happy to play them. I've got no problem with that. I'm not an artist who says 'no no no, this is what I'm doing now'. I do understand that people need to be kind of coaxed gently in. If you're going to bombard them with ten new songs and expect them to have as good a time as they possibly could, then I think you're mistaken. I think you've got to coax them in with something familiar and sugar-coated round the outside of it, and stick in a new song every now and then.
"Hopefully the new songs are the ones they'll go away talking about as they're fresher, there's something to talk about. All the conversations have already been had about the old ones, hopefully! I'm not uptight in anyway about that. I'm very lucky to have a bunch of songs that people are familiar with, and if they want to hear them, that's cool."
What's your perspective on the early days of The Bluetones now? You were right in the heart of Britpop – how do you feel looking back on all that?
"The industry has changed quite a lot in so many ways since those days. Most things I learned then would be irrelevant now. Looking back, a lot of it feels like it happened to someone else, which is strange. I think it was the nature of the times, they were pretty fast times and our feet didn't touch the ground for a couple of years back there. We were all quite young, and there's that sense when it's all happening that it's never going to end. And perhaps, I think you take things for granted a little bit. You take what a good position you're in for granted.
"I think if we had our time again we'd certainly work harder, we'd certainly spend more time in the studio than we did, and more productive time in the studio than we did. We'd get in the studio and it'd be party time! That's the truth, but that's what happens when you stick a load of 25 year olds together. 'There you go, there's a whole room of toys and some booze!'"
Did the way the industry changed and the way people consume music have a hand in the end of The Bluetones? What were the reasons for the split?
"We'd recorded our sixth album (2010's New Athens), and were as pleased with it as we could possibly be. We were about to be re-signed by Mercury Records and it was all looking very promising, and then at the eleventh hour they pulled out. I think we needed six signatories at the company to approve the deal and we only got five. Someone upstairs in finance said 'this isn't going to work,' and it really took the wind out of our sails. At the same time, our management company who we were with kind of gave up the ghost.
"The record kind of limped out with no reviews, no press. Nothing was put in place and it was very deflating. We just thought that as a band, we didn't want to be going round playing our greatest hits for twenty years. That's just reciting something again and again, it's like being in The Mousetrap for the rest of your life. It's a cushy number, but bloody soul destroying. With feeling that way, we just thought we'd knock it on the head and try something else.
"We didn't want to drag the band back through the toilet circuit after all we'd been through, it would have been a shame. So we decided to go out on a bit of a high and a lot of people came out to see us. And there were a lot of mixed feelings there as well – it was kind of like, 'where the f**k have you been for the last ten years!' At the end it was a strange one, because we'd done this final tour thinking that people might be loosing interest, and then all of a sudden everyone comes out saying 'you're the greatest, why are you splitting up?'"
How have you changed your outlook towards making music and getting it out after that?
"I think as a younger man your ambitions are that you want to be successful, and on this cover of this magazine, and doing this radio show, and these gigs, these festivals and all that. As you get older, I think you just want to do something that makes the time go pleasantly, which is doing something that you can really get passionate about and are about and enjoy, and if you're lucky enough make a living from doing it.
"The goalposts shift. Now I just want to get by doing what I do. I don't need to have all the spotlight on me or my project. I'm quite happy to have my little audience, where I can roll into town and there's enough people in each town to sustain me."
But you've been working on some other projects as well haven't you?
"That's true, I have. I did the David Walliams audio books, and it sounds like a little thing but it was such a buzz making that music. It's like going into a toyshop and just playing with the toys when you've got that sort of remit. 'Make anything you like Mark, that's going to be suitable for this children's book.' It's just such a great release to go into a studio with nothing and come out with these little bits of music. It's really good fun. David's writing new books and I've got the gig there if I want it."
Diversifying is the name of the game now.
"You said it. Fifteen years ago we would have made money from selling records, and now the records are the last thing you expect to make any money from, it's everything else. It's strange. For me, my tastes never changed. I still like to buy and own records. I'm not interested in a digital file on my computer, I want the thing on my shelf. But I think I'm in the minority there."
Or maybe not – vinyl sales are starting to pick up.
"That's true, I think that might be an indication of a groundswell against the whole downloads thing. Because it's making music invisible, literally and symbolically. Sitting there with your headphones on with something in your hands to accompany just makes so much sense."