David Balfe interview
19 May 03
Having read Julian Cope's hilarious autobiography Head-On and Repossessed - full of mad anecdotes and stinging criticism of those around him in the Teardrop Explodes - I wasn't sure what I'd find in David Balfe. Rose and Jill's anecdotes tesselated with Cope's tales of a commercially driven blunt man of the music business, with the emphasis on the business.
Balfe took me to a greasy-spoon caff in Luton and, while he clearly does think of music in commercial terms, it was obvious that there was more to it. He wouldn't just sign up to a band simply for the money, and he has tremendous clarity in his vision of what and why music works commercially, and he tells it exactly as he thinks it. The straighforward manner of his talking combines with the gentleness of his voice to put you at ease.
I also saw in him a degree of the feeling I got from Bill Drummond, a kind of modesty that's something like a spiritual acceptance. While both men are still active and alert, there was the tangible air of them having abandoned any axe to grind or point to prove; neither of them have a website to link to.
How did you first hear of Strawberry Switchblade?
It first began with Bill having heard something being done that came out of John Peel, I think. Bill got hold of a tape and brought it to me and we liked it. I think that was Trees And Flowers but I'm not absolutely sure.
They'd done two BBC radio sessions in the space of a fortnight in late 1982.
I dunno, was it that? It might've been that. We got in touch and we offered them a publishing deal. Bill and I had a publishing company, Zoo Music, that had been set up and we'd been doing Echo And The Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes with Warner Brothers music. So we did the publishing deal with them. I was at a little bit of a loose end, the Teardrops having just split up, and I suggested I manage them, and that all seemed to go very well and that's what we did.
Then we decided to put out... I'm just trying to get the order in my head... we put out a single, and the idea - as you still do these days - is to put out an indie single, get the ball rolling, get a bit of a vibe. Bill had got a job then working as an A&R man at Warner Brothers.
We put out the single. Did we put out an indie single or did Bill decide he'd sign them to Warners?
Trees And Flowers came out on 92 Happy Customers.
Oh! That was Will Sergeant's thing. That's right! I was big friends with most of Madness in those days, they were part of my social group in London, and we got the bass and drums from Madness, Woody and Mark, to play on it. We recorded it and we put it out and it got reaction, a good vibe, and then Bill signed them for a fairly reasonable deal - by no means a big deal - to Warners.
So the plan was always to move them on to a major label?
Yes, yes. Well we had no money.
What were your first impressions on meeting them?
They were a very diverse pair of girls; Rose was very hard, not nastily hard, but she had a very hard working class upbringing and was a tough cookie. And Jill was incredibly soft and quite fragile and had a very nice middle class upbringing. Rose, when we first met her, was living in this horrible horrible kind of estate made up of blocks of flats on the outskirts of Glasgow, most of the roads weren't built and it was as desolate as you can imagine any East European housing estate to be, and she'd already had a kid very young. But it all went together, this soft and fluffy side with the dark and edgy side which I liked the combination of. I liked it artistically and I thought it would be commercial. I thought the name perfectly embodied those aspects, in that Jill was the strawberry and Rose was the switchblade.
They also had this image which was very distinctive and very focussed, which I thought would work well and it did work well, but it also had the problem in that very quickly people could see... I mean, it was the classic one-hit wonder in that they had a light and frothy gimmick image, got attention initially but then it didn't look like it had any depth. And it didn't really.
So that was it really. Although Bill and I had managed the Bunnymen and the Teardrops together, with the Teardrops ending I was kind of low in self-confidence at that point and it just seemed to be a thing I liked a lot and could get on and do.
When you and Bill approached the band it appeared as if you were going to jointly manage them, but it turned out it was much more you than Bill. How swiftly did it become that way? How much of an interest did Bill retain?
When Bill and I approached them - as my memory has it, but who knows - we were just trying to sign their publishing, we had a company through Warner Music called Zoo Music. I think it was just me who wanted to manage them, cos Bill had got a job as an A&R man for WEA. Though I don't remember it, it is possible that we were going to manage them together, then Bill got the job and dropped out. Bill and I were officially joint publishers and he was the A&R man and I the manager. But because Bill and I had a close relationship we did a lot of things together, not defining the boundaries too strictly.
What was the working relationship like between Rose and Jill?
When you're new to a relationship people tend to club together. They were in the group, they knew each other, whereas I was this guy from the music business who'd been in bands that were successful and stuff. I think they were a bit intimidated by it. So they present a front to you, so you're never quite sure as the front evaporates over time and you start to see the way things are; is that the way things have always been or is it the way things have gone over recent times?
They worked very closely, it was a bit of a classic sort of Lennon and McCartney thing insofar as when they started I think they were very much excited by working together and fresh, and then as they progressed it became that it'd be one person's song or the other, I think. The initial songs were, as much as I could see, worked on together. And they were so friendly with each other, there was not a lot of differences you could generalise about. While Rose was far more the tougher character, they both kind of wanted to do what they did.
It took ages from signing them to putting the album out. In the meantime there was a band put together behind them.
We got a guy called Simon who went on to be slightly successful with - what were they called? - Working Week. He was a very capable musician. We got a drummer who went on to be successful with Fairground Attraction, and a bass player I can't even remember.
Robin Millar suggests Phil Moxon from Young Marble Giants.
That's right, that's right.
[Jill is now absolutely sure it was John Cook, who played bass with them live at that time, and says she's never heard of Phil Moxon. This has subsequently been confirmed by Cook himself.]
They were nice people and we went and did some recording. It was kind of the obvious thing to do, you had these nice acoustic songs and it was a very capable band, but the sound was just a bit too gentle, a bit too soft, a bit too wimpy. It didn't really HAVE anything, it didn't have any oomph to it. The girls were playing guitar live and stuff. It just wasn't working. We were coming up with recordings, we went to Robin Millar, but it was like everything was too wimpy; the girls didn't have the voice like Everything But The Girl and the songs weren't as sophisticated as that.
They played live a bit with the band didn't they?
Yeah. We did lots of shitty places all round the country, I remember going to Brighton, I remember going to Bath. When I say lots I don't mean tens but at least half a dozen to a dozen at a guess, but I'm totally guessing. The idea was build up a bit of a fanbase and a bit of awareness. Also the girls were still very young and they hadn't really got a lot of performing under their belts, they were still very shy onstage. Well, Jill more so. They could do with the experience to get a bit better as well as building up a bit of a following, get a few journalists down to check them out, just getting those little things that help.
But it costs a lot to put a band together, you've got the rehearsal time, paying the musicians, the transport for gigs, every gig costs money. I'd be driving them most of the time. It was a lot of hard work and we weren't really achieving much because it's always a bit chicken-and-egg; you put out a single to get a few gigs, you need another single to build on that.
Was there the inclination to put out another single in that year or so after Trees And Flowers?
There was, but we really felt that we had to put out something that we thought would do something. I mean, it's typical; most bands you're involved with you go through long periods with real difficulty trying to find a way it's going to work, this one was the same thing.
It just wasn't working, so I had the idea of doing something a bit more electronic with it, contrasting their gentle acousticness with something a bit more oomph. Basically we were looking for somebody who'd take the songs and really give them arrangements which would work, and we found David Motion. I can't remember how we found him, he'd obviously done something and been recommended by someone.
When we went to do it I can't remember whether both of them were into the idea of electronics. I always loved electronic music so I know I would have argued for it. I can't remember whether Rose and/or Jill would have argued for it, but generally you're bound to respond more to personalities. You get them in a room with someone and they get on with them and they start saying nice things about the music and they're up for giving it a try, and that's what I imagine would have happened with this.
When you heard what they'd been doing with David Motion what was your reaction? It was so very different from what they'd done before.
Again, I haven't got a great memory of it all, but my memory is that everybody - myself and Jill and Rose - were equally extremely excited in a positive way about it. It WAS different, but that wasn't a problem with me, I've always been into things radically changing as you work with them. And it suddenly made a lot more sense. It sounded commercial, the record company were excited about it and everyone felt strong.
Almost a part of the band was Rose's then-husband Drew, and Jill's then-boyfriend Peter. They'd all got the flats in Muswell Hill in this one block of flats and lived together, and they'd practically be at every meeting so it was a weird arrangement where the domestic was linked in with the professional. But I got on well with them, towards the end sometimes better with Drew and Peter than Rose and Jill.
I think Drew got a little keyboard, one of these TR808s and I started playing with them on some session we did and I think that might have been the thing that kicked off the electronic thing. What did Rose and Jill say about David Motion?
They both really emphasised how much they liked him and how easy it was working with him. They said they were shocked when they initially heard it and were quite sceptical, but they could veto things and voice their opinions. But still there's a clear feeling of it being a bit too brash and sequencery and a bit less human than they would have liked, and in retrospect they don't think it was the right way to have done the album. There's no guitars!
Well there are some guitars.
But they're very very buried.
Yeah. Both Jill and Rose played very very poorly, very basically, and what they did do a lot of the time was a bit lame when they did it. The problem is that all musicians imagine they way something COULD have been, because they way it could have been was never done or judged. Believe me, I thought that was a far better album than at times preceding it I was expecting the first Strawberry Switchblade album to be. Yeah it's got it's weaknesses, but name me an album that hasn't.
It's still not by any stretch a soulless fabricated pop album, it's not Westlife, there's a lot of darkness and weirdness on it, you can feel the dark underside musically as well as lyrically.
There's idiosyncrasy, Being Cold and songs like that. Often I'd go in there and say 'too strawberry and not enough switchblade', or vice versa. I always wanted it to be an edgy group. But groups are strange things, I've done it a zillion times and it's very hard to get something, everybody involved would always alter the balance slightly, and very often you'd say 'this is the stronger song even though I'd rather that song was the single because it's got a better balance and is more representative of what we want to do, but it's nowhere near as strong a single as this'. We'd end up with stuff that was to some degree... not a compromise, but a best choice at the time.
So I was pleased when we did that [the album], we had very high expectations. The single got to number five even though it took a long time. At that point we were all very excited and all thought everything was going totally fine.
You say their image may well be seen as a gimmick and be a bit of a blip; were you aware of that at the time?
Yeah! Oh totally! But then you never knew, nobody knew whether Elvis would have one hit and throwing his hips around would be a bit of gimmick and he'd be obviously a one-hit wonder. You could have said the same about the Beatles. You never know. You do a lot of thinking, you do a lot of theorising, you do a lot of guesswork, but it's all a big throw of the dice at the end of the day. But we had a top five single, and that was a real result. It took twelve weeks of going up the chart, and it went down two weeks on the way up!
It did have a tremendous promotional push behind it, with it being WEA's only glimmer of a big new hit in the new year, so they kept it running from November into January on its way up. Apparently there were even TV adverts for the single between Christmas and new year.
That's possible. It rings a vague bell now you say it, although I would never have mentioned it. We thought we had a good pop hit. But, you know, it ended up being what it ended up being. It was a great result - you don't get to number five just by putting TV ads out.
I often use it as an example to how much different the charts are now. Ninety-nine percent of singles these days have their highest position in week one. Musicians find it hard to believe when I say I was involved with a single that spent twelve weeks climbing up and two of those weeks it actually went down.