When Tinseltown Meets the Boogiedown: An Interview with Green Gartside of
Green Strohmeyer-Gartside begins our conversation by declaring, “I never look at anything from the past and I never listen to anything from the past.” By “the past,” the silken-throated lead singer for the long-dormant Scritti Politti refers to a vibrant period in the mid-Eighties when his band ruled among a huge influx of post-new wave keyboard-driven dance music. That was a very long time ago.
Green Gartside, 42, has been hiding for the better part of a decade, since he lost faith in the music industry shortly after the release of Scritti Politti’s third album, Provision , in 1988, and retreated to a cottage in his home country of Wales. While Gartside’s voice remains virtually unchanged since he sang about praying like Aretha Franklin on the massive hit, “Wood Beez,” the man sitting across from me is a different Green. Gone are the waves of blonde hair from what he jokingly refers to as his “Lady Diana Period.” He now sports his light brown hair in a spiky do, accessorized by a small silver stud below his lip which pierces a modest goatee, while shades camouflage his large blue eyes. Maybe he’s still not ready to reveal himself completely, but one thing is certain: the music of Scritti Politti is back with a vengeance. After nearly ten years of self-imposed exile, Gartside will celebrate the year 2000 with the release of Anomie & Bonhomie , the first new Scritti Politti album in eleven years.
Already poised to become one of this year’s most important records, Anomie & Bonhomie resurrects the classic pop sound of Scritti’s best-loved songs, while stepping into the parade and marching along with the wildly popular sound of hip-hop. For Anomie & Bonhomie , Gartside assembled an all-star line up of hip-hop artists and rock musicians to create an exciting, contemporary sound. Featured vocalists on the album include Mos’ Def and Lee Majors, along with Me’Shell Ndegeocello, who adds her sultry, Grace Jones-esque vocals and plays some funky bass. Wendy Melvoin (Prince, Wendy & Lisa) and Allen Cato (son of Sly Stone’s original guitarist) contributed their talents on guitar. Former Scritti Politti keyboard player, David Gamson, produced the record.
Long time fans will recognize Gartside’s creative approach as no mere attempt to jump on a fast-moving bandwagon. Take a look back to Scritti’s break-through album, 1985’s Cupid & Psyche . Loaded with keyboard-heavy dancefloor pop, Cupid & Psyche was still a light year ahead of its time. Gartside experimented with a wide range of beats, incorporated Jamaican dancehall flavors into the mix and even brought in London DJ, Ranking Ann, for vocals on the club hit “Flesh & Blood.” In retrospect, Gartside was dabbling in hip-hop ten years before we had a name for it. Still, he denies being any kind of pop-hybridizing pioneer. “That’d probably be an arrogant and mistaken thing to think,” he says, perhaps over-analyzing the question. “That’s too teleological, that’s too much like there’s a plan. It’s really nothing like that; it’s just a question of wanting to entertain yourself by coming up with something novel. It’d be boring if I didn’t do that. It’s a way of expressing my liking for certain things. It’s not a crusade. I just like pop music and I consider hip-hop [to be] pop music. I made this [record] two years ago, so I don’t know what to expect. Maybe it’s more timely [now] than it was two years ago.
Timeliness, I suspect, will be evident in the playing. Anomie & Bonhomie marks the triumphant resurfacing of an artist who’s been gone too long.
This is the first Scritti Politti record in eleven years. Aside from the fact that your voice is instantly recognizable and that the name Scritti Politti has a good degree of recognition, did you consider recording this project under another name?
Briefly, I think I did. But then I didn’t think that there was anything especially to be gained by doing that, nor did I think there was very much to be lost. So much time had elapsed that it wasn’t really worth worrying about one way or the other. It would have been silly to dream up a new name for band that didn’t exist. In as much as I was working with David Gamson again, Scritti’s whoever’s aboard for this voyage. It’s a nice thing to hide behind.
How did you choose the title for this record?
Anomie’s a word that crops up a lot in the kind of retched post-modern yuck kind of writing, critical theory and stuff. There’s a lot of anomie about, pertaining to individuals and broader groups. In a way, I like the fact that it’s another one of those words without an English equivalent, nor is there one for Bonhomie, really. [I’m] interested in language and ideas of untranslatability, incomensurability, all of these things. Also, the sense that the sadness and badness and decline that might be evoked by anomie — which is a loss of…something — and the sense of convivial well-being that’s implied by bonhomie, I like the tension between the two [words]. I think I was staying in a hotel here [in New York City] and I was reading one of these books that I don’t really understand about theory and language. The word anomie was in it. Then I think I read a restaurant review in The New York Times in which the word bonhomie appeared minutes later. I figured it was a sign [laughs].
With such a great mix of styles on the record, how do you take the white soul/keyboard-driven dance pop of Cupid & Psyche -era Scritti and successfully infuse it with rap and hip-hop in a way that it comes off as so totally credible? In other words, how do you go about getting the two worlds to collide…or not collide?
I think it is a kind of collision really. It’s like a train wreck. Occasionally people say “It’s just great how you make something coherent and whole…” and even the dreaded ‘organic’ word is mentioned. It isn’t that. It’s this idea bashed up against that idea and it’s this thrown in with that. I guess the simple logistics of it are that you just phone people up and say, “would you like to come to the studio and listen to something? And, if you like it, do you want to get involved?” Or in the case of Me’Shell, you go to dinner and talk about what you like, and you play some demos. But you just ask people along, and they either want to do it or they don’t. I don’t think anyone’s ever actually declined.
Do these artists know your previous work?
I never ask. Some do, some don’t, some make a point of telling you. Maybe after you finish working, they’ll say, “by the way, I do know your stuff.” But it doesn’t seem to be a relevant question really. You play them the track, you hope that the head-nod factor kicks in as they’re listening. You talk about what the song’s about… “It’s a sort of limp assault on the ideology of late Capitalism. What do you think, Mos’ Def, do you want to rhyme about that?’ And he’s like, “Sure.” I’m serious.
Is this attempt to find a common ground between yourself and these urban artists what you tackle in a song like “Tinseltown to the Boogiedown”?
I don’t know, that’s a very good question. I guess my first [thought] would be that that’s a spatial metaphor and I don’t like spatial metaphors [laughs]. But there is no ground; we’re all in three dimensions of this [gestures broadly in to the air] does that make sense? By the same token, there isn’t a ground that divides us. Let’s take an analogy from quantum physics instead [laughs]. I’m worried about the whole common ground thing but…do you want to know what the song’s about?
[Laughs]. It’s about work and leisure in — did I mention death in that song? I probably should have — work, leisure, sex, and death in America at the end of this century. I can’t even remember what the words are, to be honest. It’s a really lame lyric from my point of view. It’s a bloody good question, though. I like the “ground” thing.
Regarding the opening track, “Um,” is this song meant to kick everything off with a kind of confessional? Like a clean slate?
I’ve got to think what it’s about…
Well it seems like you’re saying “This is where I’ve been and this is what I’m all about right now.”
Maybe, yeah. There’s part of [the song] that’s a criticism of a relationship and there’s part of it that’s — I should know these lyrics but I can’t remember them.
“I wrote you a letter and I told you you were dead.”
And you give yourself a name check.
Oh yeah, “Green can’t come to the phone right now.” I thought that was funny. Just give me two seconds ’cause I’m going to come up with something interesting.
OK, formulate your answer.
[After a 30 second pause] It’s interesting, it’s coming back to me now. There’s references like “I took a blade to the Vale of Galen.” The Vale of Galen’s part of the brain. Actually, my best friend’s baby son had a blade taken to his Vale of Galen, while I was writing it, he had a brain tumor. That leads me into another interesting area….I…what did I do?
“I cut out baby, I shut down.”
Oh yeah, I guess a lot of it is about that checking-out thing I did. Um, you’re right. That’s exactly what the song’s about. It’s oddly autobiographical with allusions to other concerns along the way.
How did you feel when Miles Davis covered your song, “Perfect Way”?
Ah, kind of freaked out, surprised. He rang me at home in London first and wanted me, us, to do some music for him. At that time I said to him, “I’m writing this ballad, do you want to come and play on it?” So he came and played on “Oh Patti,” which was a thing I wrote. That was nice, because he came on his own to the studio. I was expecting him to come with all these people, but it was just David (Gamson) and I and Miles, and he seemed shy and worked quite hard on the song. I saw him subsequently a couple of times, and spoke to him on the phone quite often. He wanted [me to write] a song, but around that time, that’s when my profound disillusionment with the business of making music set in. So I didn’t do it, I didn’t want to do it, and then he died. But it was a great privilege to meet him
“Brushed with Oil/Dusted with Powder,” the track that ends the record, is a beautiful song and really very emotionally powerful, but also very visual.
That’s true, that’s right. That’s unusual for me. I like that one too.
It’s like a little movie, about a crime or a visit to a crime scene. How was that song inspired and written?
I can remember writing it in LA in a hotel, on a guitar borrowed from Peter Asher, a guy who manages James Taylor and Joni Mitchell….
I know who he is. His sister was engaged to Paul McCartney.
Yeah. And I can’t remember if it was Joni’s guitar or James’s guitar. But I was in the Mondrian hotel and I just saw it all. It’s very unlikely for me to go about writing a song that way, but there was the whole thing. I really had a sense of the possibility of this crime being committed. It’s a sort of morality thing, about just how fragile and provisional my morality is, I suppose.
Are you meant to be singing it from the perspective of being a suspect?
I guess. [Quoting lyrics] “The officer asked, how did it start?” And, I don’t know…
“I wish I knew…”
Oh yeah, “I wish I knew.” [Laughs]. It’s funny, it’s very real for me, that song, but very difficult to…[explain]. It’s graphic, I watch it, too. I see it.
It also seems to be the most straightforward pop song on the record. That and “The First Goodbye.”
Yeah, that’s a straight-up exercise in balladry which, also unusually for me, has a sort of narrative feel. I don’t really like autobiographical or confessional songs, but that is one that’s very specifically about a real place and a real person, a real thing. It [came from] the instinct to write a song that really was about something, as opposed to one that talks about “The Vale of Galen,” which people will never know what you’re on about. The next thing you know, there it is; a mixture of the formal exercise in writing a ballad — ’cause I like ballads, and they’re difficult things to write — and writing something very personal and …specific.
How did David Gamson come to produce this record?
Gamson and I, we knew each other for years. Then we didn’t speak for years and years, because I disappeared back to Wales and he was off in LA. Then I wanted to make the record and I did these demos and I thought, “who could produce this?” I just couldn’t think of anyone whose ears I could trust. I’d never worked with anybody else. I thought, “I trust his ears, he can at least tell me if it’s out of tune.” I wrote to him and said I’d like to make a record, would he be interested, and he flew over to London. I played him some stuff and we decided to work together again. I say in all honesty that if this record achieves nothing other than having reestablished my friendship with him, then it would have been worth making it.
Looking at the record as a whole work, it reminds me of maybe an early Michael Jackson record, like Off The Wall or Thriller , but more experimental. What are your thoughts on that?
He was undeniably a big influence on me at some point, but I couldn’t make any claims for any connection other than he blew my mind really, Michael Jackson, way back when. But I always liked records that mixed stuff up, that’s kind of where I came from. I don’t know if it’s more of an English thing? There was certainly a sort of English eclecticism wasn’t there, or hasn’t there been? People who came out of art schools…
Maybe a band like Queen.
Yeah. I think a workable, but essentially mistaken, distinction would be that in England and the UK, it’s interesting, you have almost dilettante-ish dabblers in various things. Whereas, in America you have fantastic professionals and practitioners, do you know what I mean? Once you’ve played with Americans you’ll never go back. People here can play. In England, they can’t play but they have ideas. What is it they say, “Loud, confident, and wrong”? Who said that?
I think you just did. How did you decide on this “No Keyboards” policy?
It was from Gamson taking forever with his bloody keyboards, again. [Laughs] No, [it was] partly because the music that I was listening to in the preceding years was either hip hop or American guitar-y stuff, and keyboards don’t figure, really. In hip hop, it’s either straight-up beats, basses, and samples — you don’t have keyboard players in hip hop, or at least not in good hip hop — and you don’t have keyboard players in good rock bands of the moment, in my opinion. Plus, if you keep that whole bag of little keyboard-y worms out of the way, then you’ve got guitars, basses and drums. Basically, if you have a limited palette, that helps to unify disparate ideas and influences. [When] it’s the same four or five people in a room, with the different ideas, that’s a way to pull them all together. If you let keyboards in…they just have no place. They knew they weren’t wanted. We had a little thing on the studio door — like those “Naught Smoking” things? — the round thing with the line through it, and a little keyboard. Well we didn’t really, but we should have.
Green Gartside lives in London.