Tim Pope interview

22 Jun 06


Tim Pope directed the first three of Strawberry Switchblade's promo videos (Since Yesterday, Let Her Go and Who Knows What Love Is?).

Having particularly fond memories of working with them and an enduring respect for their artistic intent, he was more than happy to do an interview. Getting round to it was another matter. Having recently re-entered the fray as a video director, he's found himself very much in demand. First it was Darkness videos that scuppered our appointment. Then we only just made the second attempt; he was off to Paris the next morning to talk to the Scissor Sisters about working with them, so we only just had our hasty chat in a Kings Road sandwich bar.

Easy, open, and still seeing himself very much as someone outside the commercial side of creativity, he's a lively and engaging conversationalist.


Where did you first come across Strawberry Switchblade?

As usual, I think I got a call. I was hip in those days, the early 80s, and I think I got a call from the record company. I wasn't particularly known for dealing with - quote - 'women'. Whenever you make videos for - quote - 'women', as actually I recently did with KT Tunstall, so many people try and get involved with a video for a woman.

Maybe the girls came to me or maybe it was Dave Balfe or somebody, but I remember meeting them and liking them a lot. Same as you, I thought there was something quite sinister and dark underneath the apparent fluffiness, there was something that drew me to it. They were just one band in amongst loads I worked with at that point.

My birthday's in February and Jill's is around then as well and we once shared a birthday party together. It was brilliant, all these bands from the 80s came to it, it was such a great night. I've still got the invitation somewhere, I'll probably put it on my website. I remember dancing with her, it was brilliant.

Did they have ideas for the videos already or did you cook stuff up together?

Remember we're talking about something that was twenty years ago! But I seem to remember that I just instantly liked them, I liked their image. As always, I'll meet someone, spend a lot of time talking to them, listening to them, seeing what I see about them, listening to the music, listening to everything. I must have based it a little bit on them, that video [Since Yesterday], because of all that dotty kind of stuff, stuff like that, but I don't specifically remember.

I'm just curious about how much input they had to any of them. You said they didn't have that much with Since Yesterday.

It's hard to say. I always say that I'm like this bespoke tailor. I'll make a suit to fit someone perfectly and that will involve me spending time with them, talking with them, looking at where I think their career is, really just evaluating everything and trying to put it together. I allow people as much into that process as they want to be, or as little as they want to be.

I've just made this video for this guy called Jim [surname unclear] and he didn't want any input into it. I made a video that was very much true to his music, very much fitted in, and if he didn't want to interact too much on it that was great. He loved the video. I reflect what people are.

Jill had an art school background, she'd worked - and indeed still works - in visual arts, so I wondered if she'd had any strong or definite input.

I don't remember specifically but I remember I liked them a lot and I would've sat down and spent a lot of time and talked to them.

They remember being extremely proud that it was an animator from Magic Roundabout who was involved in doing the stop-frame stuff.

Was it? Rory. I don't remember that, but it probably is true. He was an absolute nutter. It was a guy called Rory. I think to be honest he was a real pervert and really enjoyed these young girls. I have a funny feeling that's what was really going off with him. He did a bunch of stuff with me at the time, he did some Cure videos with me and some adverts as well.

How was the video received by the record company?

Well the record company - this was happening to me with every band I was working with at that stage - were trying to separate me from the band. It used to happen with every band, it happened with The Cure. Everyone was trying to separate me and I said well fine, go and get someone else to do it, that's fine by me. There was nothing I could do. I thought the way I thought and I could only do it that way.

It's interesting the labels always wanted to separate me from the bands cos I was a similar age to them and made these daft videos, I wasn't prepared to take no prisoners with anything I did. I was quite strong about their views.

The record company, specifically this guy called Rob Dickins who managed the label, very specifically wanted them to be marketed like they 'should' be marketed, in inverted commas. He wanted them to be marketed like little girls, if you like. I thought there was something much darker, much more interesting. And they felt very strongly, I remember this, they felt really strongly that they shouldn't be marketed that way. They wanted THEMSELVES to be in the video, they wanted their personalities to be in it. And I think they were.

All of this is evidenced by the fact that when they did make their fourth video, which was, erů

Jolene

Jolene! They were put in cages and stuff like that, and I don't think that was good. I think they were better than that. There was something about their music that had a David Lynchy kind of quality that I liked, something kind of dark, lurking in the shadows with their music.

Certainly with the Let Her Go video, that seems shiner, more colourful and mainstream.

Yeah.

Was that record company pressure to make it more like that?

Probably me. I think the first one [Since Yesterday] is the best video, definitely. I think the next ones are OK, they sort of have a magical quality which I think are nice. I was still inexperienced in those days as well, I was still very much learning, and unfortunately learned sometimes at other peoples' expenses!

I think it's quite quirky that one still [Let Her Go]. Funnily enough I hadn't seen it for years and then maybe I saw it on your site, I hadn't seen it for about 25 years or something and I suddenly saw it and I thought it was pretty shit actually to be honest, but I could see what I was trying to do. It had a sort of dreamlike thing. There's that bit where Jill leans over where she's a bit sort of mad which I liked.

For Who Knows What Love Is there's all the outdoor sequences. Is that consciously trying to make it different from the first two?

No, I would never work that way. I thought the song had a very dreamy sort of sappy quality. There was something very sexy about the two of them as well, and I used trees and things like that, and there's this overt sort of sexual almost lesbian thing that happened in that, in a very dark and bizarre way. There's this idea of Rose stalking Jill and all that kind of stuff, and coming between that big tree, I thought that was a real old chuckler.

It was just me having a bit of a chuckle to be honest. We just ran around with a 16mm camera. There was a cameraman I had met in that period who was an art student or something and I liked the way his stuff looked. We just thought we'll fuck off to this forest and shoot all this dark stuff.

The light was brilliant that day, it was really magical. I remember the rushes of that were really magical and quite dark.

Where was it shot?

I have no idea. I wouldn't even be able to begin to tell you. Somewhere in England.

Jill remembers it being Sussexy maybe, but no idea.

It's a lovely place though and I'd love to go back there.

How do you think your videos stand up in retrospect?

I like the first one [Since Yesterday], that's the only one I really like to be honest. The others don't do it, but then I don't think the songs are as strong. Whereas Since Yesterday is a quintessential piece of pop to me, it's quite succinct and to the point. It really encapsulates what they are, which is extreme light and extreme dark, and somehow or other I think that video has that quality within it, there's something odd and bizarre about that video.

At that period I was really into David Lynch movies and that kind of stuff and there's something like Angelo Badalamenti who always writes the music for David Lynch stuff, and there's something like fluffy clouds on the top but underneath it you know there's something VERY dark. That's what I like about their music and Since Yesterday did that, I don't think the others encapsulated that idea as well.

Moving on to Jolene, Rose remembers talking up some ideas for a video with you.

And they were fantastic. And I don't remember the ideas at all now! Bear in mind it was twenty years ago. But I remember whatever way we were going was fantastic. And that's when this guy Rob Dickins stepped in and said, 'we want videos where they look sexy, obviously sexy'. If putting them in cages is 'sexy'.

The record company push to commercialise them, do you remember where their management stood on that? What Balfe and Drummond had to say about what Rob Dickins wanted to do?

I think everyone's balls were a little bit snipped after things didn't work out as strongly as they wanted them to, d'you know what I mean? I seem to remember everyone having to concede slightly. Everyone had been great bangers of drums after Since Yesterday but the drum sounded less resonantly later on, shall we say. That's all I seem to remember. Again, it's hard to remember.

But they went off and did that thing which was fascinating, and I didn't even know about that side of them, the KL whatsitcalled, the band they hadů

The KLF

Yeah, which I loved. They were always arty, they were always subversive people, so they were a very good match for the girls. But they must've caved at a given point cos they stopped working with me. I'm fine working with someone else, but I don't think you need to do a video where you're hung up in cages, do you? I saw them afterwards and they were in tears about it.

I'll tell you a story. I was on this video panel about four or five years ago and Rob Dickins was there. I was on the panel with him and Baby Spice or somebody. I tackled him about it - we had a laugh about it, it was like twenty years on - but we came to real fisticuffs about it at the time cos they thought I was wrong. Also the girls' leverage was not that strong, they weren't having international hits. It wasn't like with The Cure, where people tried to separate me there the band could fight back a little. I think by the time it had got to that point in their career they couldn't particularly fight.

Yeah, Let Her Go and Who Knows What Love Is had both flopped completely, so Jolene was a kind of last ditch 'when desperate do a cover' thing.

But I liked it, I loved the song, I thought it was great. Did you not like it?

I think the idea's good, but it was done badly. It's not dated very well. It's dated, the 80s electro thing, although Larry Adler's harmonica is killer on it.

Was it Larry Adler? D'you know I recorded with him once. Me and my mate recorded this song called With You and one Saturday or Sunday I went into a recording studio with the two of them. We just went in for a total laugh and fucked around and recorded this thing. God knows where it is, I've no idea where it is, I haven't heard it since then, but somewhere it exists.

The initial idea had been to do a more kind of I Feel Love sort of backing and instead it's got a bouncy hopalong as a nod to the country provenance that kills it stone dead.

Didn't it do pretty well in Japan?

Yes.

It was obvious that they had that kind of thing, almost like The Cure, that sort of floppy doll kind of effect, if you like.

I'm surprised The Cure had so little support with being on Fiction with Chris Parry, I got the impression it was a small label run by someone who respected them.

It was Chris Parry who used to sit me down with The Cure and say, 'I've had a couple of meetings with MTV and they want you to cut the videos this quickly'. I said, 'well fuck off and get someone else then'. And in the instance of Strawberry Switchblade they did. Rob wanted something to make them look sexy, and clearly his idea of sex was putting women in cages.

Can you give me the specifics of Rob Dickins' response when you talked a couple of years ago?

We laughed.

Did he concede at all that he was wrong?

I don't think he bothered. Rob Dickins was the kind of guy who was into a band that would sell eight million records. It was that kind of label and I'm not sure they were the right label for a band like that. The girls by nature of what they were, they were subversive people, I think Rose more than Jill, they knew the nature of what they were subverting. I think it was the wrong label for them. I never used to do work for that label.

I don't think Rob Dickins gave tuppence about them to be honest. We laughed, but the last time I'd seen him, twenty years before, we'd come almost to fisticuffs and I probably called him a cunt, as I remember.