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
ROBIN MILLAR: It's important to ask the Strawberry Switchblades of the world 'what if?', what do they think may have happened. Not necessarily with my productions, could have been someone else's, but what would have happened if there had been no outsider coming in saying 'we're going to process your music in the following way', that it had all just grown out of them as central figures and they had become as big as the Smiths, which they could have done. How would they feel now? Better.
Do you think it would've been different if you'd stayed on a truly independent label?
ROSE: It wouldn't have gone quite so quickly, it wouldn't have been as rapid as it was. We may possibly have lasted longer, not split up quite so soon.
I imagine that would be the case anyway, because it [splitting up] was a lot to do with the pressures of the record company and them deciding who was going to do the next video when we were quite happy with who's doing the videos right now thankyou very much - it was decisions like that which would really really piss me off. It would be trade offs, 'OK you can do this if you agree to try this', and then they started trying to get us to change our image. We came as a package, we were already everything that we were when we came to the record company, why are you trying to change us into something from Dallas? We don't want to look like The Bangles, we want to look like Strawberry Switchblade; that is who we are.
The Bangles when they started out were actually a lot like you, a good band in part of a really good independent underground pop scene, writing their own songs and everything, and then they got a makeover from CBS and became MTV corporate froth.
ROSE: Exactly. And I was just totally opposed to that and didn't want to calm down the make-up.
Was it that direct, and that small details?
ROSE: Well, they were saying 'you should get into leather' and stuff like that, but I was wearing PVC anyway. But it was 'settle down a wee bit' so we could reach a wider audience. Cos, although we were doing pretty well and we were quite happy doing what we were doing, we weren't quite straight enough for a lot of people who were watching it. People would watch it cos it was interesting, it looked kind of cartoony and fun.
BILL DRUMMOND: Even though it has a dark underside, it's now perceived as mainstream pop. If they had been on a Glasgow indie record label and evolved like Belle And Sebastian or something like that, to live in Glasgow without having to move to London and all those things then a cult following could really have built up around them and what they do, and that would have been far healthier. If their careers could have EVOLVED, maybe not having a Since Yesterday top five record but they could have had a genuine evolution which didn't happen. And you can't realise it and go, 'shit, this is bad, let's go back to Glasgow and pretend we never had that hit single and try and start evolving again'.
Did it ever occur that it could have taken a different route, that it could have stayed as an indie thing or something? You've got Jill having the whole agoraphobia thing, psychological problems about pressure and having to do stuff against her will; you've got this dark intelligence to the music that's going to be largely negated by being in Look-In magazine a lot.
DAVID BALFE: The problem with being an indie thing is that it sounds good but the budgets you'd operate on within an indie framework wouldn't even be able to pay the band to play live with them. We would have had to go in and record stuff with just them doing it, and it would be so FEY. I mean, you should have heard a lot of the demos. The demos were quirky and interesting but very very fey, and I just think we could probably only have expected to sell 5,000 albums or something like that.
Some people DO do it with very quiet simple records, such as Cowboy Junkies.
DAVID BALFE: It's very hard for me to explain. I thought they were always a pop act. I thought they were an interesting pop act rather than a boring pop act. It had a darker side to it and that's what interested me - if they had come to me and they were called Strawberry I probably wouldn't have got involved. From the name, from the onset, it's what pulled me in. We made no big decision that it was all going to go pippetty-poppetty, we were just trying to make the songs sound good, and it would have not sounded good. They ended up sounding, for me, mediocre a lot of the time when they did them in a more than vaguely indie-ish way. They just ended up sounding... Cowboy Junkies are darker, a lot more darker.
A group that are living with their mums and dads and signing on the dole ARE a group and they can go out and do a gig if they can raise the money to hire a van, but these couldn't even do that. They could hardly do a gig, and the same goes for recording. So you have to start saying, 'if we're going to hire a load of stuff and try a load of gigs, what expectation have we of any income? Will we play for the big game of the pop thing where we can expect hundreds of thousands of pounds so you can risk £100,000 doing it, maybe a couple of hundred thousand'.
If you're thinking, 'we're just going to put it out on an indie level', I wouldn't invest £10,000 in that because I wouldn't be sure of getting it back. That means nobody can move to London, it means they can't hire a group, it means you can just about make the record and then how do you advertise it? It all becomes very difficult.
But 'what if?' is one of the big questions. I've NEVER felt... See, the problem is they didn't have the real musical ability. They had SOMETHING, but they weren't strong enough singers, strong enough performers, strong enough players to have really gone and done a Simon & Garfunkel type thing.
For me, the way their voices worked together is as magical as Simon & Garfunkel or anyone else you can name.
DAVID BALFE: But did you see them live?
DAVID BALFE: An awful lot of studio work goes into making it sound that good. We were very happy with David Motion for making it sound that good, and Robin Millar.
It's been really interesting listening to tapes of Jill's - there's early stuff where they're not doing the harmonies yet and Rose can't quite sing, but it's there on the BBC sessions, it's there on Trees And Flowers and on Go Away on the B-side. It's certainly not just a studio thing.
DAVID BALFE: I got the first band together and we got them out and it was all sounding nice but nothing special - if you were a fan you'd think it was alright, if you weren't a fan you'd think 'so what?'. I really don't think it would have succeeded to any extent.
What its merits are is always completely arguable. My job was always to say, 'THIS is worth something, if we do it like this it will succeed, if we do it like that it won't'. You never really know why you're making those calls or whether they're the right calls or whether you've buggered up the whole situation by doing those calls. It's perfectly possible that what you say is right, that they could have gone on to be the Velvet Underground and Nico and written Sunday Morning and dark indie stuff that - while never crossing over to the mainstream - was still so vital that it went on to be a big thing on a smaller level. But I just don't think they were that, you'd be surprised at how even moderate-selling moderately successful groups can be struggling to earn a living.
Anyway, that was the way I decided to push it, that's why they went the pop thing, really.
DAVID MOTION: How can you fight against such a commercial machine? The whole point is to sell records, that's what everybody wanted to do, but then it's at a cost. And that's the thing - how do you hang on to your integrity while going through that machine? A lot of people describe those kind of record companies, particularly in the 80s, as being like machines. Maybe it became a little more honest later in the 80s where people basically wanted hits and it was kinds of cool to be pop. It may not be seen as cool now, but it definitely was, all the left of centre bands and people involved in the record industry earlier suddenly thought, actually it's OK to go for a straight down the line commercial thing.
The only way I could imagine it having gone differently is if they hadn't signed with WEA but stayed with the indie thing. I'm surprised they didn't put stuff out on Postcard. That was their mates and it was there.
DAVID MOTION: If you look at Balfe and Drummond's credentials, they were from a left of centre background, an indie thing, and then they wanted to make money and sell a lot of records. Even people at Postcard. I did an album with Win, formerly of the Fire Engines and Postcard was involved with London. They all wanted to sell records.
It's always a problem in indie music, how do you find an audience and build an audience and be self-sustaining? Either you have to choose these channels which do function and do work but then there's the danger, as we've seen, that you can find the original motivation gets lost under the gloss.
One of the reasons I'm doing this website is to reclaim it from the image of mainstream pop. A lot of people I mention it to just remember Since Yesterday and think of it as disposable frothy pop. But then now there's some time since all the publicity overkill, and now people have come across Rose for her subsequent work and find Strawberry Switchblade as her backhistory people are seeing it as the unsettled bittersweet thing that it was always intended to be. I remember them at the time and I twigged there was more to them than Top of The Pops and mainstream popularity.
ROBIN MILLAR: They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or right place at the right time; I mean, maybe they'd have never had hits with me. They WOULDN'T have had hits with me because they were with Warners and that isn't what Warners do. I suppose I might have known that at the time if I'd been more experienced. But I still had a rose-tinted view that record company people were like us, and wanted the same things, and wanted to be friends first. The whole point of a life in music is that you can and should be able to have a great time, be with people you like, get on well, not have the usual crap you get from a 9 to 5.
I think it takes quite a while for it to sink in that a lot of people who work at record companies - the ones that stayed there rather than run in go 'oh my god' and run and hide - are as unlike you, maybe more unlike you, than the people you meet working down at the benefit office. I'm not sure why or when that happened, but it did happen in the eighties that you met less and less people in record companies who you felt were kindred spirits.
I'd come from France, I'd been in France for six and a half years, and the people I'd met at the record companies in France were like me. They were just music freaks, and they signed acts because they liked them, they released records because they liked them.
If the Smiths had been signed directly to Warners without Geoff in between, the Smiths wouldn't have been allowed to make records like they made, would they? Not in a million years! And when you actually listen to the work I was doing with Switchblade and then you listen to the Smiths and you think of the nature of the grip and the hold that the Smiths took in the hearts and minds of their fans; that's where I like my acts to go.
I like my musicians to come from the bedroom, from the rehearsal room, nothing to do with the industry at all. That thing that starts playing to fifty people which becomes a hundred people which becomes a thousand turned away at the door, then it catches on, then you put the records out, then the market finds itself and these people become important, seminal, influential, they become deeply satisfied as well as satisfying.
It may have ended up with Morrissey losing his perspective but he certainly wouldn't have wished for anything better or different in the type of success. And I think you can hear a direct link from the work I did with Strawberry Switchblade in 1984, and the [Fine Young] Cannibals and where the Smiths were.
It was a very strong direction. There was a very strong culture pushing through, just to have guitar bass and drums, great song ideas, a great sense of belonging to the people who were standing in the audience.
And yet still retaining that feeling of outsiderness from the masses.
ROBIN MILLAR: Yeah. I always have and still do feel completely outside that loop. I've been to the Brits once and I just walked around, acutely uncomfortable. I thought, this is MY business, what am I doing in MY business?
Most people deeply involved in MUSIC are outside The Music Industry. In the same way in literature, you can be Kurt Vonnegut or you can be Jackie Collins and you're in the same business but you've nothing to say to each other and only one of you is part of 'The Industry'. It's the people who don't get awards, who don't belong who make the interesting stuff. The best people on Top Of The Pops are the ones who look the most out of place. Seeing the Jam or the Mary Chain without choreographed moves but giving it tons was how you knew they were for real.
It's a really sad thing because Strawberry Switchblade were there with the talent and the desire, they were making music for all the reasons people should make music; cos they had something to say, they had this little protective gang of themselves that would bond themselves but also fortify the people who understood the music; they had this stuff they wanted to say that was just coming out of them, not for any fame or glory, and this knack for these great darkly beautiful pop songs and gorgeous gorgeous voices, and it was all taken from them - and what they could've done taken from all of us - by this corporate steamroller.
ROBIN MILLAR: And it's really really wrong-thinking to say that a group like that don't want to communicate with a large number of people and sell a lot of records - they do. It's just that they want to sell records to a completely different group of people. Record companies have got THEIR marketing strategies, THEIR radio stations that they've got in with, THEIR record shops they've got promotional understandings with, THEIR TV people; so the formats limit themselves by the marketing opportunities the record companies have in front of them. In other words, the records are market-driven.
It's the only way they can have any kind of predictive strategy, because the people that bands with integrity DO want to sell to, you can't make them buy records by glossy promotional techniques, they're not susceptible to marketing strategies. They can only build the promotional machinery to sell the worthless, unchallenging and dull records.
ROBIN MILLAR: Can I give you the best example that I can think of? This may sound like a really strange example, but the best example I can think of is the Ferrari motor car. The Ferrari comes directly out of an authentic passionate skill for developing the best racing car in the world. Not selling to supermodels or premiership footballers, just making the best motor car that they can. That's what they devoted all their passion to, and they started to win some races then people got to hear about them and love them. And everything that is beautifully crafted and efficient tends to have an aesthetic that matches it. A car that will do 200 miles an hour LOOKS like a car that will do 200 miles an hour, and it looks beautiful. Ferrari have never ever advertised their cars in their history, anywhere. There has never been a magazine ad, a cinema ad or a TV ad for a Ferrari car. And yet it's the most sought after glamorous vehicle in the world. It's because what has always driven it and what still drives it is completely and utterly authentic.
The Rolling Stones, even though they couldn't be less like Ferraris in appearance, are the equivalent. Right from the word go they had dedication, authenticity of purpose and the willingness to go and take it round the world over and over and over again. They will still now pack more football stadiums than any other band in the world because that authenticity still comes through. Forty years on and still, before every gig, there's a Moroccan marquee behind the stage where they've put the same Indian rug and the same lights, and for forty minutes Ronnie and Keith sit opposite each other on the rug just riffing, so that when they walk on and go '1 2 3 4' they've already nailed their groove. That's REAL, they don't do that for the money or the tinsel. They do it because it wouldn't occur to them not to do it.
That's the kind of success that I crave for my artists, and I have played no part in any other sort of success because I've never seen it last, I've never seen it give lasting value to the people in the middle of it.
BILL DRUMMOND: This is me being defensive in a way, but they really really wanted that. And yet again, it was more Rose. It's not that I'm blaming her, because to have pop success you have got to want it, and right then Rose really really wanted it. I don't know about now, maybe she's shifted her drive once she realised that it wasn't a possibility for her anymore, her whole thing's shifted to Psychic TV and that whole area of stuff.
If you had've kept with the indie thing would it have lasted longer, would there have been more to it?
JILL: Yeah, probably. Perhaps we'd have had to pull together a bit more. I dunno. I think in general there was quite a lot that was different about us. It worked because we were both there, it worked because we were US, and that just wasn't there any more once we'd come down to London and once we'd been interfered with by a big record company. Maybe had we stayed in Glasgow and just carried on... I think it would've fizzled out, I think we were too different. In the end I didn't feel any respect for her at all. It was very tricky to work with her. I think she felt very under pressure. She's the sort of person who if you said 'that looks great' or 'that sounds fantastic' would change it because she'd think you were lying to her; if you didn't like something she'd stick to it cos she'd think 'clearly you're trying to manipulate me', she was very paranoid.