fentonsteve on interviewing A Certain Ratio
I was offered the chance to interview A Certain Ratio when I go to see them play in Nottingham next weekend. Trouble is, I’m not going to get there early enough to conduct an afternoon interview, and I want to catch support band Sink Ya Teeth. So, after racking my brain for questions (which, it turns out, is really quite hard), and crowd-sourcing a few more from the likes of DocVolume, we did it by email.
I played the inquisitive nerdy uber-fan. Guitarist Martin Moscrop (in the hat) and drummer Donald Johnson (in the middle) provided the answers.
Going back right to the start, what was working with Martin Hannett like? Hooky’s and Stephen Morris book suggests he was hard work. Did he make Donald do each drum part separately? Did he try to freeze you out of the control room during mixing? Did someone at the studio really zero the desk and ruin his mix of To Each?
Martin: Everything that needs to has been said about Martin Hannett’s working practices. He liked to instil an element of confusion into the young musicians he was working with and create an atmosphere of tension which, in my opinion, worked well.
When we recorded To Each in New Jersey the in house engineer Bruce used to get Martin wound up quite a lot and when we had finished recording the album Bruce zeroed the desk which is what you normally do before you start mixing. Martin was really pissed off about this because he had been working on all the sounds while recording and all his effects and other embellishments were lost. Personally I think Martin wanted to mix at Strawberry because he was comfortable in that studio, they had better gear and he liked working with Chris Nagle so he had told Tony Wilson he couldn’t mix it in New York and wanted to mix it at Strawberry. If he hadn’t have made that decision then ESG’s Moody EP would never have been recorded because they used the remaining days that were left for the mix to do that.
Do you regret that To Each was a Hannett production? Those early songs sound much better live, free of his trademark sound. Almost everything since has been self-produced and sounds more like you do live.
Martin: We never regret working with Martin and To Each is a great sounding album. Flight, which wasn’t on the album, is one of the best produced records of our career and there is a lot of Martin’s trade mark atmospherics in that production. The next album, Sextet, we produced ourselves and it is possibly our most popular album which just goes to prove you don’t always need to be experienced at production to get good results but you do need great ideas.
DONALD: I don’t regret Hannett’s production on any of our early works they were and still are ground breaking. I hated the fact that he had no respect for me as a musician, he was all about the studio process never once did he try to understand what I was doing in and around my performance.
The first five albums are all very different in sound and texture. Is that down to the writing process? Changes in lineup? Exposure to new influences when on tour? Different studios/new equipment?
Martin: ACR are all about moving forward and searching for new ideas. That is why we have been going for more than 40 years because we produce stuff that we like and have never tried to copy or repeat what we had done before. Possibly the reason why we were never commercially successful, because we don’t use our own clichés. New influences are very important and we constantly tried to find new music that we hadn’t heard before and this was pre internet so you had to search for it and buy it. New personnel also helps a lot and when Tilly joined the band her vocals helped our sound move in a different direction. Then when Pete and Simon left Andy Connell came more to the forefront with Force which was a change in direction once more for ACR.
Going to New York every year at the start of our career introduced us to a load of new music from seeing Puerto Ricans in Central Park playing percussion, Dave Valentine at The Mudd Club, James Brown, lots of Jazz, the birth of Hip Hop…. and the list goes on. We went to the Latin Percussion (LP) Factory in New Jersey and bought a load of percussion the first time we went to New York which changed our sound.
How does the ACR writing process work and how has it changed over time (if at all)?
Martin: We have so many different ways of formulating ideas and we still use all of them but things have changed quite a bit with digital editing where you can make things sound more polished which isn’t always good. The one thing that still produces the best tunes is when they come from a rhythm and we tend to be good at writing from a bass and drum grove. Jamming in the rehearsal room or studio, working on arrangements and then recording and overdubbing until it sounds like a record. We all write at home and come up with ideas and then bring them into the studio and work on making them sound like a band (ACR). Jez has a book full of lyrics so if we work on something instrumental together he tends to work on the vocal in the studio. We also have the other approach where the vocals and ideas are already 90% there before we go in the studio. This also works well and the different approaches turn out different types of tunes. The mixing process is also important and we like to start getting things sounding a bit wacky/trippy. We tend to over fill tunes with ideas and then strip them back down in the mixing process.
What was it like in those early days on the road? Any memorable gigs, good or bad? What are the differences in reception at gigs between then and now? I saw you in Wolverhampton 6 months ago, and I think you’re much better now than when I first saw you back in the 80s, even though the audience was bigger back then. Are the gigs today more fun to play?
Martin: We get better and better every gig and we are better now than we have ever been. Green Man and We out Here festivals were really good this year and it is always good to play to a new audience because we know our older fans will always be there but in order to grow our fan base we need to appeal to people who haven’t heard us before. It was good to see so many young people getting into us at Green man. Our 40th birthday festival at Yes in Manchester was really good this year where we had some very special guests helping us make it a memorable occasion. Of course there are also so many memorable gigs in the early days. Turin in Italy where there was a riot because we only played for 25 minutes and didn’t do an encore. The early gigs we did as a Factory package with Joy Division, Durutti Colum, Section 25 ….. Playing in New York in 1980, playing the Danceteria, Hacienda, Heaven, Scala Cinema, travelling round Europe …. We didn’t really appreciate our fans back then and didn’t care whether they liked us or not. We used to play new tunes that we were working on at gigs rather than fan favourites or our latest releases. That has all changed now and we want the audience to leave the venue feeling well and truly funked up.
How does it feel to be on Mute, and to have remastered your entire back catalogue? Were there any surprises? It must be good to have everything available again after years of licensing to various different labels. Will the remastered reissues be staying in print now, or were they a one-off pressing?
DONALD: Mute for me are the perfect partners they are always there for us. Never any pressure they been on board from the very beginning with all the releases etc. We are currently in the process of recording a new album which will be released on Mute in 2020.
Is there any chance of a second volume of ACR:BOX? There are loads of great but hard-to-find tracks that are still almost impossible to track down, like the Bootsy remix, the Frankie Knuckles remix of Backs To The Wall, loads of Rob’s Records era tracks, live stuff? Are there any interesting demos or out-takes? Sextet is one of the 3 or 4 post-punk albums I tell people to buy, I’d love to hear the demos! Even as just as downloads on Bandcamp or similar, I’m sure they’d find an audience.
Martin: No plan as yet but we may do an album of remixes but not necessarily a box set. I did transfer the monitor mixes of Sextet from analogue to digital but tbh it isn’t that much different to the final album. We want to move forward now and concentrate on new stuff.
Have you thought about a 40th anniversary live album? Live in America was released 34 years ago!
DONALD: We’ve been recording most of the gig throughout 2019 we did record our 2 night of sellout shows at YES:MCR where we played 3 different sets so watch this space.
Are you working on new material? If so, when might that see the light of day?
Martin: We have been working on new material for the last 12months and will be finishing a new album in March ready for release towards the end of 2020
Do you regret leaving Factory Records for A&M? Good Together didn’t get great press at the time, but I thought the Four for the Floor EP was one of the best things you ever did. Did you know when you wrote “The Big E” it was one of *the* greatest songs of your career and of the time? Was it annoying to see it stall at number 96?
Martin: We have no regrets and are happy with the way our career has gone. We learnt a lot being on A&M and it helped us build our own studio, buy mountain bikes to keep us fit and we produced two of our finest albums: ACR:MCR and Up in Downsville for A&M. Most of the tracks on Up in Downsville were recorded for A&M but they dropped us and we released them on Robs Records so we retained ownership of the recordings and charged A&M for using our own studio which isn’t a bad outcome.
Funnily enough we have Johnny Marr to thank for influencing the Big E because he is into open tuning and open chords on the guitar. He showed me some open tunings and bought a book with open tunings in it and that’s where the chords of the Big E originated from. The song contains one of Jez’s best vocals and with a bit of luck it could have been a radio hit but if it had would we still be making music now?
What was it like to see Swing Out Sister become Top Of The Pops regulars when your own album Force didn’t trouble the charts?
Martin: You can’t really compare us to SOS. We were never a TOTP band so that didn’t worry us. My Mum always said ‘When are you going to be on TOTP’? thinking that was the measure of whether you had made it or not. To her surprise I phoned her up one day and said ‘Guess what Mum, I’m going to be on TOTP” That appearance happened to be miming trumpet with SOS and my Mum was made up. I had finally made it miming a trumpet part I didn’t play on the record on TOTP.
How do you feel when the likes of LCD Soundsystem take your template and become more successful? Vindicated as an ‘elder statesmen’ influence, or slightly annoyed? Of all the bands you’ve met and played with over the years, who has surprised you the most (for better or worse)?
Martin: I love LCD Soundsystem and have seen them live many times, the best being their in store performance at Piccadilly Records in Manchester many years ago. They asked us to play their end of tour party in NYC in Dec 2017 but we couldn’t get our work permits in time.
It was great touring with Talking Heads in 1979 and they taught us a lot about how a good band works and the importance of being a tight outfit.
I’m coming to see you (supported by Sink Ya Teeth) in Nottingham with my 16-year-old daughter. How does it feel to be influencing a brand new generation of musicians? Will you keep doing gigs with Sink Ya Teeth? That’s the best combo deal around!
Martin: There have been a lots of people bringing their sons/daughters to our gigs recently which is really nice. The fact that they have been influenced by their parents record collection and good taste in music is good for us. I have just retired from my job at The Manchester College to concentrate on ACR and I had many students come up to me and say they really liked our music. The best one was a student who came up to me and said ‘My Grandad listens to your band’
It has been great doing gigs with both Sink Ya Teeth and our old friend Eric Random who also did our film we project at gigs. I saw Sink Ya Teeth supporting Chk Chk Chk in Manchester a few years ago and loved them straight away. We were so pleased when they agreed to share the stage with us on our tours in 2018 and 2019. I have just been to see Chk Chk Chk again tonight at the same venue.
An obvious one for last: what are your proudest moments and biggest regrets as a band?
DONALD: The first time we played Tier 3 in New York which the Beastie Boys mentioned in their last book which they cite as an influential gig for them.
Martin: Proudest moment – still going after over 40 years in music. Biggest regret – not keeping hold of all our old equipment which we have started to replace at extortionate prices.