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; continued
Jill said you did some tracks with Robin Millar. What was that?
ROSE: Yeah, he didn't like women.
Really? He produced Sade and things at the same time.
ROSE: I think it was Jolene we did with him, was it not?
No, wasn't that with Clive Langer?
ROSE: It was HIM that didn't like women. He didn't even talk to us. His engineer did most of the work, he just put his name on it. The engineer did most of the work, I can't remember his name. What tracks did we do with Robin Millar?
You recorded Secrets and...
ROSE: Oh yeah, Secrets and Lost In Space. We changed that to...I think it was called Lost In Space then, actually. Secrets and, it could have been Poor Hearts.
Yes, it was those two. [Robin Millar believes there was a third track, known as Lost In Space]
ROSE: I liked his studio actually. All the other studios were had green carpets and stuff, his had a really nice blue carpet!
Why didn't it work out with Robin Millar?
ROSE: I don't know what happened. We weren't continuing any further, that was quite near the end, we were recording new songs for the next album, doing demos for it and stuff like that.
The Robin Millar stuff? I thought it was before then. In Jill's memory you did two songs with him as a trial producer with a view to him doing the album, but it didn't go down well.
ROSE: Well it couldn't have been Poor Hearts then cos Poor Hearts was written much later.
[This appears to be incorrect: Poor Hearts was recorded for a Janice Long BBC session on 11 Feb 84, which is almost certainly earlier or contemporaneous with the Robin Millar sessions]
It's definitely Secrets and Poor Hearts.
ROSE: I liked working with Robin Millar, I think it was afterwards, I'm SURE it was afterwards.
Why would you re-record Secrets?
ROSE: It's all a jumble in my head. I've probably got the date on a tape somewhere. I actually quite liked working with Robin Millar, so that [not using him for any released material] would have been a record company decision. I liked those demos.
What was the working relationship like between Rose and Jill? How did the dynamics appear to you?
ROBIN MILLAR: I always thought of the two of them as separate. I thought of Rose definitely as the dominant one. But then there's always one in a band. It's not always the singer, but there is always one. Jill, I didn't really think of her as a fifty-fifty part of what was going on, I thought she was an adjunct, like a band member. Although I assumed they must have worked together developing the songs there was very little evidence of momentum from the band themselves, which is why I'm not surprised they would have tended to go with whatever producer they were working with's idea.
When I meet bands whose music I love and think is very essential, and I also think is challenging what is going on, I think I sometimes put a political spin on things and a resolve which perhaps isn't really there. It's something I bestow on artists I think. They were probably just a couple of ambitious young girls who wanted to get ahead by whatever means was going, and I was probably far too politically minded to imagine that from where they'd come from, what the tapes sounded like - it sounded like John Peel land, you know?
I think it's really interesting you say there was a lack of push from Rose and Jill, because they definitely were coming at it with artistic intent, they definitely were in it for the music, they'd come out of a strong punk then Postcard background. I wonder how much of it was them being daunted by working in proper studios with proper producers, which only a few months earlier would have been unimaginable to them.
ROBIN MILLAR: I would have thought it was unlikely that working with me posed a challenge to their musical ideas and direction. I'd believe it if they said so and then I'd say I'd done a bad job and that's quite possible, but all things being equal it would have just flowed naturally out of where they were at that moment, what else they liked. If I did impose a musician I'd have said, 'let me play you some other things they've done, what do you think of it, would you like to meet them?'. It would all have been very considerate.
I suspect they were already aboard the ever-quickening spiral they were put on by the record company, with more and more decisions being taken for them.
ROBIN MILLAR: What label were they on?
They were on Korova, Rob Dickins' imprint at WEA, so it was the full Warners machine that decided they were going to be the next big thing. They had stylists coming in with costumes for them, there was a lot of pushing ideas on them and it was all moving so quickly with a 'we know what we're talking about, trust us' attitude.
ROBIN MILLAR: I'm not surprised. I remember handing in the first Everything But The Girl album, Eden, to Rob Dickins. Eden went on to really do very well and become an international classic, really. He [Dickins] rang up and he said, and I quote, 'how come you do a great job for Sony on Sade and you do such a shit job for me?'. By 'a shit job' I think he meant not sounding eighties. Just got some musicians in and done some songs, there's people strumming guitars and playing organs, where's all the synths, where's all the special effects, the Dollar, the Trevor Horn, the ABC, the Simmons drums and glassy digital synthesisers? I'm not surprised at all, I'm not surprised at all.
Do you remember it being said that it wasn't going to go any further?
ROBIN MILLAR: No.
Was it going to be just do two songs and see how it went, or had there been any plans for anything further? Did it feel like you were gearing up to do an album?
ROBIN MILLAR: Yes. Yes.
At what point did they say no and back out of that?
ROBIN MILLAR: You know, it was happening to me all the time. Sometimes, like Fruits Of Passion, Strawberry Switchblade, it didn't get through the net. The business just said, 'no no no, we're totally into electro'.
Do you remember how the band felt at the time about it?
ROBIN MILLAR: No, because the wall went up. I assume whether out of disappointment, embarrassment or whatever it was, I simply never heard from anyone. And the next thing I heard they were in the studio with Dave Motion.
Do you remember when the sessions themselves were completed and you were listening back to final mixes, were people pleased?
ROBIN MILLAR: Well that's usual.
It was a fairly typical music biz scenario, really. There weren't any people in the control room going, 'well, it's not really what we want and have you ever considered doing it with electronic drums or going in a different direction?'. No, it was all, 'great great great, marvellous, this is brilliant'. And then silence. Then I heard they were in the studio with Dave Motion, the record came out, the record was a hit. There was nothing I could say about that at all, because that is the name of the game.
I'm also quite used to the business taking a dim view. I did two tracks with Sade which are on Diamond Life, and they were rejected by the record company who paid for them, and so was I; we were all dropped. It was Smooth Operator and Your Love Is King. It was four months later that another record label picked them up and said to Sade, 'you should work with this American producer'. If she hadn't said, 'if I can't work with Robin Millar I'm not going to work, I'm not going to sign to you,' I'd have lost that job as well.
Everything But The Girl [also produced by Millar], fortunately I had Geoff Travis who was resisting pressure from Warner Brothers who were distributing and marketing Blanco Y Negro Records, who wanted them to go poppier, and he said, 'no, I'm trying to build a serious career for a serious band'. So you had on the one hand people like him and on the other the RCAs and Sonys who just wanted to go with the flow.
It took ages from signing them to putting the album out. In the meantime there was a band put together behind them.
DAVID BALFE: 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.
DAVID BALFE: That's right, that's right.
[Not according to Jill, who is now absolutely sure it was John Cook. Subsequent correspondance with Cook has confirmed this]
DAVID BALFE: 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 did a couple of songs with Robin Millar and he was slated to do the album.
BILL DRUMMOND: I didn't like that. I'd forgotten about that. Have you heard those?
Yeah, they're really good.
BILL DRUMMOND: Are they?
Yeah. It's not as smooth as you'd expect for Robin Millar, there's quite an edge to it.
BILL DRUMMOND: Then I made a mistake. Because I do think on the whole that the album the songs didn't work out. The songs were too delicate, they weren't given enough space, the electro thing didn't have that lightness that, in my head, Vince Clarke had right at the beginning of Depeche Mode.
I really like some stuff that Robin Millar had done, so that'll be the reason why we'd work with him. Even though I'd completely forgotten about that.
With him having done Everything But The Girl and Sade and stuff, he's not coming from a rock angle, and it's important with Strawberry Switchblade that you don't put them in a rock environment.
BILL DRUMMOND: No, no.
ROBIN MILLAR: My job is to make sure that the setting for the songs and the people singing and playing them is the perfect setting to hold those songs up to the best possible light so they'll seem at their best and you'll get the most out of them. And from there I guess you have to try to dig deep to know what it is that you're trying to get out of them.
It's not beauty with Strawberry Switchblade, it's haunting beauty isn't it? It's not great harmonies, it's great requiem harmonies. There's a sense of inevitability, a sense of patient holy longing. Waiting for something but you're not sure what it is, and in the meantime you're not quite in the right place at the moment in this life, that there's something beyond that you're reaching out for. And at the same time, you're a young person trying to have fun, and it's very difficult.
That is exactly it.
ROBIN MILLAR: And so you've got to come up with a record that is like a bunch of young people trying to have fun, but with this sense of yearning and longing that we're not really in the right place, we're not settled. The politics around us, the people running the country, the way some of the other young people are into stuff that we're not into, gives you that sense of outsiderness and dislocation. But, you are a bunch of young people trying to have fun and so there is going to be an invective in your music that is going to be frisky and immediate, with nice little riffs and good little tunes. It's that behind the mask thing that, to me, is what's so marvellous.
What is so brilliant and fantastic about pop music - and I'm never ashamed to say I'm involved in pop music cos I AM - the great thing about pop music is that more than anything else I can think of, in three or four minutes you can create something that will mend a broken marriage, that will save a person from dying from a disease, that can make the leaders of a country think again about their foreign policy, that can lead a whole generation into realising that there's more to life than they thought and compromising is not what you do in your only opportunity on earth.
Films take two hours making heavy weather and are usually very shallow. We don't have 'Desert Island Films' still running after 55 years on Radio 4; we've got Desert Island Discs because it doesn't occur to people to think that a show where you take your eight favourite movies would actually catch the imagination of succeeding generations, but take your eight favourite four minute numbers and people get it immediately, they know exactly. And they can actually pick eight songs that will encapsulate their youth, their greatest loves, their greatest losses, their greatest hopes, their greatest fears, their greatest achievements all in one go. What an art and what a difficult skill to create all that in a three or four minute thing that, at the same time, you can just put it on turn it up and run around the house, go yaaaay and it just makes the day feel better.
It's a great thing, but it's got nothing to do with following the market and making records by numbers. Hearing those two tracks [recorded with Strawberry Switchblade] I was chuckling actually, because I could just imagine - I'll have to say imagine rather than remember - how those vocals came to go from where they started to where they ended up with me playing my whimsical, encouraging, exacting part in it. And I could just imagine how those little guitar riffs on Poor Hearts started as a sound more than anything else, or may have started as a riff and I might have said 'try that riff on this guitar, play it up the octave'. I was always trying to get people more definite with their ideas, I always thought two or three great ideas were worth a hundred iffy ideas. If this riff's worth having on this record, let's make it the riff of the record. It's not difficult, hearing those tracks, to imagine the process whereby it would have fallen into place with the group of people around.