Complete Strawberry Switchblade interview by subject
Jill Bryson interviewed 9 June 01
Rose McDowall interviewed 29 Jan 02
Bill Drummond interviewed 26 April 03
David Balfe interviewed 19 May 03
David Motion interviewed 2 Aug 02 & 15 April 03
Robin Millar interviewed 16 Feb 03
Tim Pope interviewed 22 June 06
Recording the album: the Robin Millar sessions
JILL: We did some recording with that band with Robin somebody who used to produce Sade...
JILL: Yeah, a really nice guy, he had studios up in Willesden somewhere and we recorded with him and I enjoyed it, but...
Was this after the album?
JILL: No, this was before the album, he was going to produce the album. But it ended up none of us were sure, us, the record company; it had come out quite mellow, and with the band it just didn't work with the songs which were three chord wonders. It was missing the point. There was one we did with Robin Millar, Secrets I think it was, he did a really nice version of it, did a fantastic vocal thing layering up vocals, really ethereal, really beautiful and choral sounding. Just lovely.
ROBIN MILLAR: And that is partly to do with this very kind of churchy thing which Rose sort of gave off, this very black candle holiness sort of thing, and I LOVED their two voices together. I thought well, if you hear them together at some point in the song then you've found the centre of what they are, really. That's the centre of what they are and everything else can radiate out from there.
JILL: I thought it was really exciting to do this in this big studio.
How far did the sessions get?
JILL: I think we did two songs. [Jill has a tape of Poor Hearts and Secrets. Robin Millar believes there was a third track, known as Lost In Space. Rose also mentions this track, and implies it later had a name-change]
ROBIN MILLAR: 1984 was an absolutely extraordinary year for me. Strawberry Switchblade was one of two or three things that I really had a lot of faith in. Them, and another Scottish band called Fruits Of Passion, who had quite a lot of similarity really [with Strawberry Switchblade].
I don't remember how I...YES I DO! I'll tell you how I met Strawberry Switchblade. It was Geoff Travis, who had had the Raincoats signed up to his label [Rough Trade], or if he hadn't had them he'd wanted to sign them. The extraordinary thing about Geoff - through whom I met Everything But The Girl and Young Marble Giants and Weekend - he was a man after my own heart in that he just wanted to put people he believed in with other people he believed in who had different skills. He neither knew nor cared whether he would have a financial interest in the results, he was much more interested in DRIVING MUSIC ON, and he was much more interested in driving through those people who did not seem to wish to commit to the most commercial scene that was going on. He definitely would have effected the meeting.
What were they like to work with?
ROBIN MILLAR: The thing that I remember about Rose was her sort of twitchy-witchy vibe, her black shawly, white-faced, dark, very... what would you call it? UNDERGROUND in a way, very alternative but very serious, very deep thinker. Old but young. Very young, but very old in a witchy way. I don't mean that in a bad way, but kind of sussed. Jill was very ingenuous and very nice. Being the harmonist and everything, she was very applied. Rose was the pure essence of it, and I thought Jill was necessary for the application of it into some sort of format. I'm not sure that Rose could have done it on her own.
I can arrange and I can write anything people want me to write, but all the ideas pretty well have to come out of the band, out of the artist. I will egg on and coax and try to put them in touch with things in themselves like saying, 'if there was to be other instrumentation on this song, what are the things that have inspired you recently? what are the sounds?'. If they had musicians who they knew and were part of the plot, I would be reluctant to pass over those musicians, I would tend to try to work with them, even painstakingly if necessary.
The sessions were quick, they didn't take long.
That's interesting because they must've taken some putting together cos there was only the two of them and the other musicians had to be found. One of them was a guy out of Working Week, Simon Booth, and a bassist and drummer had to be found. Was it your idea they used them?
ROBIN MILLAR: If you remind me who the musicians were I could tell you.
There was Simon Booth, and Roy Dodds on drums.
ROBIN MILLAR: He would've been from Weekend, I worked with him then.
So it sounds like your suggestions for the other guys.
ROBIN MILLAR: Yeah. Do you remember who played bass?
No idea, no-one seems to remember.
ROBIN MILLAR: I think it was Phil Moxon, who was from Young Marble Giants.
[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. Subsequent correspondance with Cook himself has confirmed it was him]
They would have had gaps and I would have found people. Like-minded people by the sound of it, cos all the people we mentioned are from interesting, organic music.
I've got some feeling that there was a sense of unease, a sense of awkwardness somewhere in those sessions, but Rose in particular was slightly unfathomable. And, as I say, maybe what I didn't know about Rose was that she was more of a commercial go-getter.
I think she's going to love what you said about 'black candle holiness', she'll adore that. She always had a lot of psychic and magical inclinations, and she's still very much a pagan spirit.
ROBIN MILLAR: That's what I meant by witchy, I don't mean witchy as an insult.
You can tell with Rose there's a lot inside her. Regarding the idea of 'commercial go-getter', she's a very very driven woman, but a commercial go-getter is not what she is.
ROBIN MILLAR: I have to say that even from that scruffy old cassette I think those tracks are no particular credit for me, except for not destroying it, if you know what I mean. I'm terribly concerned not to destroy things when I make peoples record with them. Maybe it doesn't make them commercial enough sometimes. But I hear that and I can picture her and I can picture Jill, and I think they're TRUE, they're true statements of where they were at the time and that had they been exposed to the public and had the public liked them I think they would have been quite happy to carry on doing more and develop it, unless they'd fallen out for other reasons.
I get that sense of the spirituality, I can hear all that, I can hear the Hammer horror scenes on the hill at night time with the black crosses, I can hear it in there. There's something about that jagged Rickenbacker guitar thing which reminds me of big old ceremonial sword axe type things. I can't explain what I mean but it does evoke the macabre slightly to me.
Also, it's timeless. There's something about that Shakin All Over drums thing that gives you a sense of 'have we been here before? Has this music existed before?' Is this strangely evocative of all sorts of things like Johnny Remember Me?
The fact that I exaggeratedly put Jill's harmonies into a different and a longer reverb from Rose's. I don't know if you noticed that, but it's not just two voices with the same effects on them. You definitely get the feeling that the other one is just behind and some sort of echo. The face behind the shoulder, as it were; looking over the shoulder but unseen by the singer somehow. Some essence of the singer's facing front and behind her is another version of herself, the harmony is another version of herself, slightly different but unseen by her. She seems focussed and intent on singing what's going on in front. You don't get any sense of them being face to face, or even side by side.
You have to say that if that's the way I set them, that's the way I saw them. There's no doubt about that. If that's the way I set them, which I definitely did on those tracks, I definitely must have seen them not as standing side by side, but as Rose standing in the front and Jill slightly behind, slightly to the side, looking in the same direction but mostly unseen.
The musicians you pulled in from Weekend and wherever to work with Strawberry Switchblade, do you know how much time they would have had to put it all together?
ROBIN MILLAR: We'd have done it in the studio. We wouldn't have rehearsed it. If you noticed, the drum parts are very similar to the demos they'd been making. Bass wasn't a problem. I would have weeded out and sorted out the vocals. And I would have encouraged the guitar ideas to emerge, the guitar themes.
Did the band themselves have very clear ideas about the songs?
ROBIN MILLAR: No, not particularly. That's why I'm not particularly surprised they were able to go with David Motion and let him see what he could do.
What I do is to fill in the blanks; I try to get people to come up with ideas and I'll fill in the blanks where they've got them. They were quite inexperienced and they'd just have got a guitarist and a bass player and a drummer to do their radio sessions and probably simply accepted the fact that, 'oh that's how the drums go'. But I like that you see, I like things that already come with a direction. Once again, it might be a failing with me, I don't immediately just deconstruct what I hear and reconstruct it from the middle outwards, which is what I suspect a Trevor Horn or a David Motion will do. I don't really get inspired to do that, I have to have something to hang my hat on and it would've been those BBC recordings. I'd have put it on, turned it up, gone into the next room so that I didn't hear the detail, just the big noise that the track was making. It would've been the vocals and those basic drum patterns and some kind of guitarry thing going on. So, true to what we had, really. And obviously, you could just tell, the ability and the tone and the understanding to do fabulous things with the vocals. Not as fabulous as David did, but it was a different context.
I take it very much as I find it, it's very organic. As I said, I'm always trying to get the ideas out of the people. Sometimes perhaps that's wrong, perhaps they want you to sit down and just tell them 'you should do this, you should do that'. I think it's a completely different sort of production, that David Motion-Trevor Horn 'these are the records I make and will fit your style into them'. Whatever else the versions of Poor Hearts and Secrets that I did with them is, it flowed out of THEM. And then I suppose what happened was they must have taken those tracks to the powers that be, and the powers that be must've said they're not trendy enough, they're not where this record label sees its marketing opportunities - 'do you want to meet this young guy, we've just had a hit with him with something else'.
You'd done two songs, one of which is really good, and yet you gave up?
JILL: Well I really liked it but the record company didn't. They thought it should be more poppy, and we did too. We did some with a girl called Nicky Holland as well. The girl who played oboe on Trees And Flowers came in and played piano. She's a classically trained pianist, there was a band called the Ravishing Beauties, she used to be in them, they were classical musicians, middle-class southern English girls. Really sweet, really nice girls. So three of them, Kate St John, Virginia Astley and Nicky Holland who were all in this band. And the record company wanted to see how we'd get on with her. I can't remember who was playing with us, I think that was the band as well. But that didn't work out.