Approaching the 30th anniversary of The Wedding Present’s third album, Seamonsters, Jon Kean had the joy of fanboying his all-time favourite jangler, David Gedge, via Skype.
Happily sliding down the time tunnel (reminiscent of the opening sequence of Jamie and the Magic Torch) they spoke about that Albini-powered juggernaut and its 2021 iteration, which will be played via a live stream at the end of this month and then toured in actual venues in front of actual Wedding Present devotees in the autumn. There’s even a little Wedding Present exclusive buried deep within what follows. Sit tight. We might never have this chance again…
LTW – What do you remember about contemplating album three, after Bizarro?
DG – I suppose the main thing for us was that we wanted to move on. We did Bizarro, which in my mind was a better version of George Best. There was a change in the sound, but not drastically. We definitely wanted to go somewhere else with the next record, as bands often do. There was a change in the way we wrote and arranged songs. George Best and Bizarro are basically 100 miles per hour, very fast, jangly guitar. There was space there for slower songs and more dynamic arrangements.
Was it easy to find a different sound?
I can’t remember it being that hard, to be honest. I think it’s always been a part of the nature of this group to do that, really, to go off on tangents. A lot of bands have made eight albums and they all sound the same to me. And there are a lot of people that don’t want you to change.
One curious thing about Seamonsters was that it didn’t do that well at the time. People call it this ‘influential’ record or ‘iconic’, but at the time the fans didn’t really like it: it only sold half as many copies as Bizarro. I remember in the NME, even, there was quite a caustic review.
Naughty Steve Lamacq…
It was quite a change, though. Like eating Cornflakes every week and then you suddenly get a box of Cornflakes and they taste like Weetabix.
Weetabix made of concrete in this case, as well. That initial reaction to the album was curious. When I first heard it, I remember thinking, “Bloody hell, this is different.” It was coming through my mate’s extremely good stereo and I recall having the overwhelming sense of being driven back against the nearest wall. I had Seamonsters on at home earlier today. Dalliance was playing and I really needed to nip to the toilet. I was so aware of how much I could still literally feel the drums when I’d left the room, despite the fact that they were having to travel across one room, down a corridor and through two walls and a door.
The drums do sound amazing on that record, I have to say. That’s Steve Albini’s forte. It was one of his selling points in a way, that he could get such brilliant drum sounds.
We can’t talk Seamonsters without talking about Steve Albini. What made you want to work with him?
A combination of two things. One is that we had done our first two albums with the same producer, called Chris Allison. And I think that those albums are perfectly fine. They both worked out very well, but I was always a little bit disappointed with them. The reason I say that is because they never really sounded like what the band sounded like in my head, or how we sounded live. On George Best and Bizarro we sounded flatter somehow, less dynamic.
At the same time, I came across Surfer Rosa by the Pixies, produced by Steve Albini, which I thought was an absolutely breathtaking record. Obviously, the Pixies are a great band and that’s full of amazing songs, but the sound on that record is brilliant. It sounded natural on the one hand, but at the same time a bit weird and other-worldly. I felt that if Albini was available, we should try him.
So we did a couple of releases with him, Brassneck and the Three Songs EP, and it worked out well. Straightaway, we heard that sound – more three-dimensional, more colour to it. I’m not saying that he was the magic answer to the question; maybe the band had evolved as well. But he was certainly the right person for Seamonsters at that time.
And had he heard of you?
Good question! I don’t know. We were on RCA at the time and when we first thought of using Albini, we thought they were going to say no, that they would try to direct us towards more big-name, commercially successful producers, but to their credit, they said yes. They flew him over to see us play a gig in Manchester. He probably did know of us, because he was very clued up on a lot of obscure bands.
Was him coming to see you play kind of like a job interview for you?
I suppose you’ve got to have some kind of understanding, some kind of common ground, so I guess it was in a way.
You as much as said that Albini wasn’t a commercially big producer, but RCA were a more commercial label. Were you trying to make it as much of a non-big-label record as you could?
We never planned it, really. I’ve always said that planning’s for architects. One of the beauties of my job is that I can do anything I want and take things in any direction. As long as I’m happy with it and the band’s happy with it, that’s the bottom line.
We were very fortunate at RCA, because we were signed by an A&R person called Korda Marshall, who had been very successful with The Eurythmics, who were making millions of pounds for RCA. So, when he signed this oddball band from Leeds called The Wedding Present, who wanted all this creative control, I think RCA said, “OK, Korda – you’ve been successful with these other acts, so we’ll give you the freedom with this one.” We had all the freedom we’d had before RCA, but we now had this budget. We could record with whoever we wanted, where we wanted: more freedom in a way, because we had no financial worries.
Korda went on to be head of A&R and while he was in place, we had this golden lifestyle. When he left the company, in 1992 I think it was, that’s when we got dropped! They’d had enough of The Wedding Present and all their schemes, and we signed with Island. I think that even he expected us to make two or three alternative records and then go more mainstream, like REM or someone like that. Obviously, it didn’t happen that way. We were very lucky to have met Korda, basically.
One more Albini question – he always plays down his influence on other people’s albums, but looking back, what do you consider his major contribution to be?
His major skill is of a really brilliant recording engineer first and foremost. He was inspired by The Beatles and George Martin and how they would go into the studio and record an album in a weekend because it was just live. He knew which microphone to use, where to place it (it’s all boring stuff really), how the room sounds, where you’d put the drum kit, where you’d put the bass. He had an engineer’s ear. But then he took us back to where we’d started – on our own label when we made George Best.
On RCA we could take as much time as we wanted – half a day to get a snare drum sounding right. With Bizarro, we did all the drums first, then we put the bass on, then the guitar, then the vocal. We could control how everything was sounding and make it all sound perfect, but does that lose the ambience that you get when you’ve just got musicians playing together in a room? Albini’s of the mindset that you tune up, make sure your instruments sound great and then he’ll press record.
It’s like a live concert and it’s how we did it before we had the money. He reminded me that for a band like us, we do it better that way and I’ve always done it like that since then. We’re not a studio band; we’re a live band.
And Seamonsters only took ten days?
Pretty much, yes. Bizarro took six weeks. Half a day to get the instruments set up and then we just played the songs. I did the vocals as an overdub, but Albini wanted me to do those live too. I drew the line on that one, so I could focus on playing the guitar. The mixing was really quick too, because he does half of the mixing while recording, seeing it as a live take. He’d move faders during the song. If you did a different take, it would be a different mix.
We had told him that we recorded the last album in six weeks and he said that The Beatles recorded albums in a weekend. So we told him that weren’t the Beatles, and we had a compromise where we booked two weeks. He said that it’d be done way before that, and it was. I just hung out in Minneapolis for a few days.
You’d had a stable line-up across the recording of Bizarro and Seamonsters, but change soon after?
Pretty stable, yes. Peter, the guitarist, left after that album. Again, that was partly because we were looking to move into a different place as a band. But we’ve had plenty of line-up changes over the years!
You’re not quite The Blue Aeroplanes in terms of the lengthy list of former members, but you’re getting there. Was it tricky to record Seamonsters as one combination and then tour it as another?
Not at all. The person who replaced Peter, Paul Dorrington, was someone we already knew. He slotted in immediately. Line-up changes always make the songs sound a little bit different. We’ve noticed that with rehearsing the songs for the Seamonsters live stream that’s going out at the end of this month. People have different ways of playing, different instruments, maybe a different pedal. I like that in a way, because things are always being reinvented in a small way. By and large, we set out to recreate the original, but at times I’ll hear something and find it really interesting because I’ve never heard it like that before. It’s still alive and still evolving, even though it’s thirty years old.
Certain songs can span thirty years, too, with an idea that I had when the band first began, coupled with an idea I had yesterday. I get my book and I look at the lines and the words and the stories that I’ve got on a subject. It takes me ages; I take a long time over lyrics. I think that’s one reason why we haven’t been as prolific as some other bands. It can take me days to write a lyric. I know it’s stupid. It’s pop music – who cares, really. I am very meticulous with my storytelling, though.
And what’s it like playing Seamonsters in 2021 – playing a record from your fourth decade in your seventh decade?
It’s interesting, because as I said you do reinvent things and reimagine things with different people, but at the same time, it’s still me and I’ve been there since the first single back in 1985. So for me, it’s like looking back in an old diary, thinking, “Oh yeah, I remember writing this thirty years ago, about that particular story and that person.” Obviously, it brings back memories that I’d forgotten about.
Is Seamonsters any more knackering than the other albums to play?
No. I think the hardest one to play is Bizarro, especially with Take Me on it.
The first gig I ever went to was The Wedding Present, supported by The Lavender Faction at Liverpool University in 1990. Being young and gung-ho, I wanted to be up at the front as much as possible, but I also wanted to drink as much beer as possible. Schoolboy error. By the time Take Me started, I knew I’d have to abandon my crowd position and empty my bladder in the appropriate place. I legged it when the guitar break started, and when I got back, you were still playing that song, with the guitar down by your feet.
George Best has its tiring moments too, but it’s probably one of those two albums that’s hardest to play. After that, there was a bit more light and shade, a bit more drama. George Best was just case of ‘let’s get all these songs and play them as fast as we can.’ And then on George Best 30, we played them even faster!
That must be pure excitement, the sheer glee of being The Wedding Present, surely? Your album titles haven’t tended to link up with their song titles. To that extent, I’ve never worked where the title for Seamonsters came from. What was the origin of that one?
It’s going to sound a bit weird, this. It’s actually from a book I had when I was a kid. I was a big fan of Jules Verne, things like Journey To The Centre of the Earth, Around The World In Eighty Days and especially 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. I had a particular version of that book with a cover with a big, green, scaly sea monster coming out of the waves. I’ve never told anybody this; you’ve got an exclusive here! That image, I can picture it now, has stuck with me. At the time, we were looking for a title that reflected the sound, and that became it.
As you describe it, I’m already hearing the sound of the opening rumblings of Dalliance, as if something is emerging from the depths.
Something dark, monstrous and partly hidden by the waves. Under the surface is something David Lynchian. It seemed to fit, so I just wrote ‘Seamonsters’ down in my book of vague ideas for titles. A lot of the other album titles have some more solid fact behind them, like the name of a comic or a footballer, but that’s probably the most vague of our titles.
Sticking with naming, what about the one-word song titles. If you add up the ten words of the song titles on Seamonsters, that’s only one more than the nine in You Should Always Keep In Touch With Your Friends. What motivated that change?
I think it was partly a reaction to what had come before, with titles like the one you mentioned, or What Did Your Last Servant Die Of? I wanted to get away from that and do something different again, lyrically as well as musically. It happened that I had a few songs with one word for the title, so when I realised, I thought I’d turn it into a theme. Visually it looked cool and they were also micro-snippets, giving a really brief sense of what the song was about, rather than explaining what the whole song’s about. With some of my newest songs, I’ve gone back to really long titles, so I don’t quite know how that’s evolved…
The album is not all heft, with some moments that are quiet or feel really light, like the beautiful guitar line that cuts in on Rotterdam, but for an album that is undoubtedly very noisy, Seamonsters ends quietly. Was that a deliberate decision?
I think it was only a conscious decision in the sense that we all felt that Octopussy should be the final track. It’s such an epic song, a long song and in how it slowly dies away, it just felt right for the end of the record. On Bizarro, we had an ending with Take Me, then an extra song on the end, Be Honest, that almost doesn’t feel like part of the record, same with You Can’t Moan, Can You? on George Best. So you got this big ending, then something quiet. With Octopussy, we felt like you got both a big ending and then a quiet outro in the one song.
The 30th Anniversary release of Seamonsters has evidence on it that you’ve always had an eye for a good cover version, with the Lou Reed and Steve Harley numbers. What draws you to cover versions?
I’m a big fan of pop music. I grew up listening to Radio 1 and listening to my parents’ 7” singles. I’ve always immersed myself, to the point of obsession, in pop music. And then there was John Peel, obviously. It’s interesting to do a cover, because it develops your own skill in a way, working out how other people write songs. You can often then reapply that back to yourself.
I remember doing a cover of Sophie Ellis Bextor’s Groovejet for a Peel Session with Cinerama. The way we did it was slow and dark, and it worked so well that we used that template to write Interstate 5. So that’s a prime example of looking at how someone else had written, added to that ourselves and then thought, “This sounds good, let’s write a song like this.”
You’ve got to be careful sometimes if you’re not adding much to the original song, because if you’re just sounding like the original, what’s the point? You’ve got to pick something where you can add things, or take things away. We did The Go-Betweens’ Cattle and Cane on Hit Parade and we didn’t really add much to that, but I just love the song so much that I wanted to do it.
Is there a song that you’ve wanted to cover, but you’ve held back for any reason?
A song I’d love to do is the Sandie Shaw song There’s Always Something There To Remind Me. I’m determined to do it one day. I don’t know why it always comes up when we talk about covers. Maybe the pandemic will inspire me to do it eventually.
Finally, you’d done albums before Seamonsters and you’ve done albums since, but how do you feel that Seamonsters sits within your body of work now?
I love it. It’s a great album, I think. I always enjoy… actually I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoy’ playing it, because it’s quite an emotional record. Last time we did it live – 2012 we did a Seamonsters tour – it felt weird talking between the songs. We decided that tour, that when we did that segment of the set, there should be no ‘witty banter’ in between songs. There’s a mood to that record, which George Best and Bizarro didn’t have. I think Going, Going has a certain mood to it, Take Fountain too.
Some records are simply a collection of songs that the band has recorded in that era, but some feel like a complete project. Seamonsters holds together. It sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s almost one piece of music in ten parts. And I usually hate it when musicians start talking like that, but that’s how I feel about it. And I wish the vocals could have been a little bit louder in places.
Vocals are definitely further down in the mix. It tends to be drum first, then the other sounds gradually come next.
That’s Albini. He’s known for the drum sounds, obviously. He’s really interested in drums and then it goes down on a scale and when you get to the vocals, he’s not that bothered about them. I’ve recorded with him many times over the years and I love him and the way he works, but there have been times where I’ve turned the mic up, done a run-through and he’s said, “OK, great. Next song!” and I’d tell him it was just a run-through and he’d say, “No. Sounded great to me.”
Normally you’d do at least three takes and pick the best one, but he’d be ready to move on and I’d be thinking that I hadn’t put anything into what I’d done because I didn’t think it was a take, just me warming up. A lot of producers will see the vocals as the main thing, whereas he sees the vocals as just another instrument, which I probably agree with, to be honest.
You can turn your own vocals up as high as you like on the Seamonsters live stream at the end of the month.
The re-release of the album, by some quirk of fate, is thirty years to the day from when the original album was released. That’s the Friday (28th). And we’re doing the live stream on the Saturday (29th) from a historic venue in Brighton. It’s a church called St. Bartholomew’s. We went down there the other day to have a look. It’s the tallest parish church in Europe and it looks like a cathedral inside, so we think that’s going to be an interesting and dramatic place to play.
You can buy a ticket for the Seamonsters live stream on Saturday 29th May here.
Featured image of David Gedge by Jessica McMillan
David Gedge is on Twitter.