Babyshambles and Stephen Street: In depth interview about new album
On the week that Babyshambles release their long awaited third record, Louder Than War sent Fergal Kinney to speak to guitarist Mik Whitnall, bassist Drew McConnell and the album’s legendary producer Stephen Street about the making of the record in Paris as well as the tumultuous years that led up to ‘Sequel to the Prequel’, a long awaited LP many critics are describing as Doherty’s real return to form.
“There’s a fine line between genius and madness” recites Stephen Street, jovially, “and I think sometimes Peter is way over that line but hopefully he always comes down on the right side of genius.” The release of new Babyshambles album ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ comes nearly a decade on from the implosion of the Libertines; and the question of whether Peter Doherty, now thirty-four, is a genius or a lost cause still appears unsettled. At the height of Doherty’s tabloid notoriety, Babyshambles’ 2005 debut ‘Down in Albion’ felt like the unedited yelps of someone falling for their own mythology, and though Babyshambles’ next effort ‘Shotter’s Nation’ did much to re-establish their place near the top of the tree, you could be forgiven for thinking Doherty’s creative output has long since been a factor in the narrative surrounding him. The middle-child of a Catholic military family turned indie icon turned one-man media moral panic, Doherty will regrettably forever struggle to be more defined by his music than by his drug addiction, so inevitably such hiatuses do little to alter such preconceptions. The six years since ‘Shotter’s Nation’ have seen hope for Doherty devotees (and there are still many) obscured by despair; between two separate incarcerations in Wormwood Scrubs, an eagerly anticipated Libertines reunion lasted little longer than Doherty’s tax bill demanded, whilst the tragic death of close friend Amy Winehouse served not only as a personal loss for Doherty but as a public reminder of the tragic chaos surrounding him. Though solo record ‘Grace/Wastelands’ gained critical respect, the same could not be said for his cinematic debut in ‘Confession of a Child of the Century’, and since his self-imposed Wildean exile to Paris in 2010 the scent has gone somewhat cold. The spectre of misfortune savaged not just Doherty but his Babyshambles bandmates; bassist Drew McConnell suffered a horrific bike injury that saw him facing a lifetime of paralysis, whilst guitarist Mik Whitnall, ten years Doherty’s senior, descended further into the very depths of drug addiction. It’s little wonder that when reports trickled through that Babyshambles had returned to the studio earlier this year, they were met with an element of surprise and mistrust. An astonishing recovery had seen Drew McConnell provided with the impetus to regroup Babyshambles, including a freshly positive and cleaned up Mik Whitnall. With new drummer Adam Falkner in tow, and the trusted hand of legendary Smiths and Blur producer Stephen Street at the mixing desk, what would become ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ was germinating in Doherty’s new home of Paris.
Mik: I kept saying to him ‘Look, are we going to fucking do this or what?’ and he kept saying “Yeah, I can’t believe you don’t think I want to do this’… It’s just one of them things. It’s been there waiting, we’ve been there waiting for him.
Stephen: We’d started on work for Pete’s next solo record back in October/November of last year, at that time Peter had already been working on some ideas with a younger producer…Peter was doing some stuff last year, tentatively working towards doing a solo record, then basically the management and EMI asked me to get involved on that project and try and bring it to fruition. So while we were doing that, I got Drew McConnell back in on bass as he did on the first solo record, and I think as Peter had been spending a lot of time in Paris he really enjoyed being in a studio with Drew again and kind of thought he wanted to do another Shambles album.
Mik: He kind of got his hand forced…he was getting bored of the solo stuff but when you’re in a band there’s a lot of politics and dealing with other people and he does just like doing stuff on his tod; he has this vision of just being able to wander around with a guitar on his shoulder and just play gigs but it doesn’t work like that, and it doesn’t pay the rent.
Stephen: We kind of put on hold the tracks that we were starting for the solo record, and kind of planned ahead to the early start of this year to start work on a new Shambles record. And the thing that really pushed that was when Drew went over to Paris and spent a lot of time working with Peter on new material.
Mik: (Drew)’s been essential to the album and it coming together, he had that bad accident and he’s not been even drinking or anything, just filling his time up with doing what he’s been doing. He got a laptop with some tunes on, went to Paris, found Peter and got him to do the vocals.
Drew: I basically spent quite a bit of time going back and forth to Paris and it was a three-pronged attack insofar as Pete had the embryonic parts for the songs, like Nothing Comes to Nothing, or Fireman. And then there were songs that I had written in the wake of my accident, I had spent a lot of time in Tenerife where I grew up, writing songs which originally took form as Helsinki songs and I was showing those to Peter and also I was getting him to play me what he had…and some of his ideas were tiny fragments of melodies or words or chords, a couple of chords here and there, I just set up my mic and recorded hours of stuff that just sounded like a stream of consciousness but I would then go home, take those pieces…’Picture Me in a Hospital’, the guitar part was just a guitar part that Pete had played and I kind of built up a song around it. I took a selection of what were in effect cornerstones, of melodic and lyrical genesis, from Peter and built songs around them. Then I’d go back and go “Ta-da! Look at this”. And a lot of the time he’d go “Wow that sounds great, that’s my song isn’t it?” and I’d say “Well, yeah, but now it sounds like this”.
Stephen: I think Drew’s just happy to be alive, when you consider what happened to him it’s quite shocking really and I think that did give him the drive to say he’s been given a second chance here, I’m sure Drew was thinking “I’m in a great band, I’m alive and I want to make a record”.
Drew: The fact that I was taking his ideas and making them snowball a bit really sort of made him spark up and get involved in the creative process; a few months of quite unbroken creative interplay started between us and we put a whole bunch of songs together. I remember him smiling and saying it was the birth of ‘McConnell/Doherty’. It was a fun, creative time, January to April last year.
Stephen: It was like the cavalry coming over the hill, it suddenly gave it this new injection of energy, all of the sudden this new bunch of songs coming through and that really got things going. EMI weren’t really sure what we had to work with and they were saying we should just go over there and do four songs, and I thought no, as long as I’ve got Peter in a studio in front of a microphone all plugged in ready to play I’m going to get as much done as I possibly can. My view was just give me the band, give me the studio, and I promise you I’ll get a record made.
An almost two year spell of writer’s block from Peter had finally subsided and the band found themselves armed with a backlog of older Babyshambles leftovers and new songs crafted by Doherty and McConnell. Unexpectedly at the end of 2012, EMI agreed to Doherty’s request that Babyshambles record in his new home of Paris, and in January the band and producer decamped to Question De Son studio, central Paris, to record. “The vibes were brilliant” explains Mik of the studio, “he (Peter) wasn’t expecting EMI to let him record over there, and because we’d all made the effort to go over there and it cost a lot of money, he knew that a lot of time and effort had gone in to get us over there”. Ten days of studio time would result in a nearly finished album – all but two of the tracks were as good as done – with nobody more surprised at the speed and quality of the work-rate than the band themselves. Described by Drew as “pretty much the fifth member” of Babyshambles, since being drafted in to produce ‘Shotter’s Nation’ Street has proved a constant benevolent influence over Doherty’s output. Though Street’s perfectionism and studio discipline initially provoked fractures within the band, with Mik complaining tellingly that recording with Street felt “a bit too much like going to work”, ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ marks Doherty’s third studio outing with Street. “Having him around means that there is a benchmark of quality that he just won’t go below. We know that when we make a record with him it’s going to be good” explains Drew, “and that’s a huge weight off your shoulders”. “Pete respects him basically” adds Mik, “if you put him in the studio and let him do what he wants to do ultimately he’s just going to think you’re a bit of a knob…unless you bollock him, he likes that, he likes when people give him boundaries. So Stephen gets results because of that.”
Stephen: I said to Peter halfway through the record “Pete, this is turning out to be a really good album you know, it’s up there with your best”, and he was like “Are you sure?”; he wasn’t totally sure himself.
Mik: Pete pulled it out the bag. He was quite impressive when we were recording, he surprised me a lot, I was impressed, he did so many takes and I don’t know how he did it because he never lost his voice.
Stephen: I work him, you know, if he does a few takes for me and I haven’t got what I want he goes “Ohh, Street, not again! You promised me it would be the one last time”
Drew: This time round there was lots of Peter wanting to re-do takes but Stephen really feeling we’d got it in the can and that it was more than good enough, when usually it’s the other way round. I remember thinking at the time that this is a perfect example of what kind of place we’re in now, where everyone’s got chomping at the bit to work and make a record.
Stephen: I’m familiar with Peter, the curveballs that one normally gets thrown by working with Peter I’ve learnt to live with, as it were. Occasionally I’d have to have a sit down and have a really good heart to heart, but apart from that we really got on great, a good team effort all around.
Drew: Shotter’s Nation was a bit more fragmented because Peter’s life was a lot crazier. He was living with Kate Moss in the Cotswolds and the record sessions were more sporadic…being in Paris had the effect of crystallising our studio time to a focused regime…we were all staying in the same hotel, we’d all have breakfast together, we were discussing the record even before we’d go to the studio, and we’d finish a session and go for a drink together, chat about the record more, make some decisions about the next day’s recording or how to schedule things.
Stephen: The problems are always the same old problems. Peter’s gone on record as saying this; it’s his addictions and his sleeping patterns. And when he’s in a bad way, he’s in a bad way, and you can’t really get anything out of him. It’s up to me as a producer, and I really do love and respect the guy dearly, I want to see him get well, that’s the reason why I’m still happy to work with him. I’m not a user myself but I think it’s kind of a fatherly thing, I want to see him get well and sort himself out, there are times when I’ll get angry with him and call him names and there are times when I’ll sit with him and try and clear the air.
Mik: We had ten days in the studio to record, and Peter had been out for two nights and he’d been awake so when he turned up he was fucked, he was shit, Stephen went a bit over the top actually saying “You’re treating me like a cunt” and they had a massive argument. I had a chat with Pete afterwards, he went off, got some sleep, and came back and after that everything was fine.
Drew: It was the mark of the constant professional, anything less wouldn’t have had the desired effect. Sometimes you need the metaphorical slap around the face…it was just an extreme example of that, a moment where there was only one way of dealing with Pete.
For the first time in years, this record sounds like Pete actually having fun – and not in a six-months-in-Wormwood-Scrubs way. Pulsating throughout the album – from the raucous amphetamine rush of ‘Fireman’ to the playful vaudeville of the title track – is a positivity previously unseen in Doherty’s work. Even the beautifully-realised and hauntingly Velvet Underground-esque ‘Penguins’ finds time to veer off into a garage rock stomp before crash landing back into melancholia. The emotional heart of the record, ‘Picture Me in a Hospital’(based on Drew McConnell’s 2010 accident and sounding so much like Too-Rye-Ay era Dexy’s that you half expect to see Doherty swapping his trilby for a beret and dusting off a pair of dungarees. Lyrically, ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ is in turns cathartic, candid, witty and indecipherable; Doherty’s natural talent for words allows him to be consistently engaging across lyrics that range from the standard Libertines-punk fare (‘Fireman’) to the more introspective and confessional (‘Fall From Grace’, ‘Picture Me in a Hospital).
Though the usual mumbles and yelps that prove the hallmarks of Doherty as a vocalist are still omnipresent, at times his voice soars like never before in this startlingly coherent record. Indeed, ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ is the first album Doherty has put his name to since the Libertines’ debut ‘Up the Bracket’ to feature entirely co-written songs, and this is entirely to its benefit. “I think that positivity really shows in the record” agrees Stephen Street, “there’s some dark moments in there don’t get me wrong – but it’s a lot more uplifting than their previous things.” As well as the blissfully Smithsy lead single ‘Nothing Comes to Nothing’, an early highlight on the album comes in the form of the anthemic ‘Farmer’s Daughter’, Mik Whitnall explains: “When you go into the studio there are some songs and you don’t think that much of them, then you record them and end up putting things on them and they come out and the song can be a lot worse than you think or a lot better, and that song it turned out to be one of the best”. If ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ sounds like a band with a renewed sense of energy and purpose, that’s because it is – the tragedies of the last few years seem to have given way to a swell of positivity within the band, with Mik Whitnall’s recovery from heroin addiction proving particular cause for optimism:
Mik: It was difficult for me to be around him (Peter) at first obviously but he’s really supportive of me not doing that anymore, most people would think it would be the opposite way round, but it’s not. He likes me doing well because it gives him hope that he will as well. I don’t see him doing…what he does…forever, to be honest with you. I always thought he’d pack it in one day. He’s definitely slowed down, he’s calmed down a lot, living in Paris is very different from living in London where he could get what he wanted any time…it’s a very different scene. That’s one of the reasons he’s there.
Drew: Working in Babyshambles now, we’re older now, we’re in our thirties, things are a bit more considered, we don’t feel like we’re outlaws anymore, we don’t feel like we’re fugitives… There was a lot of darkness surrounding the band, largely coming from outside the band in the form of police or the media or just the world at large loudly above our heads.
Mik: A lot of the people who used to hang around with him would only hang around with him for that purpose, in the past there was loads of people and it was like, the only reason they’re here is because they know they’ll get some free doo-dah basically…the only reason they hang around…but like I said, Pete’s attitudes towards that has changed. He’s not as free as he used to be with that stuff. Those people aren’t around him as much as they used to be.
Drew: I think Peter’s definitely…Peter’s just a force of nature. He’s a man of such extremes that it varies wildly whether he’s creative and positive or cathartic and destructive, but destructive energy, if you can throw a saddle on it, you can make some amazing things.
The affection with which Whitnall, McConnell and Street hold Doherty is startling, a real warmth and desire to see him do well permeates the way they talk about one of British music’s most engaging, albeit frustrating, artists. “I’ve worked with some great vocalists and great lyricists” explains Stephen Street, “and everyone mentions Morrissey when it comes to my past but I put Pete up there with him, I really do.” Not without some surprise from critics, ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ has already garnered consistent praise from the music press and there are already hopes within the band to get back in the studio. Mik, recounting a conversation with Peter, explains “I said to Peter that I’d been waiting for so long for things to get going and once they did we had all this promo stuff to do and Pete didn’t turn up to any of it. And I just thought, Oh God, here it goes again. But then with the rehearsals he was there, a lot of the time before me, and I said I was really pleased. I said that to be honest I was dreading it because I thought it would just be a massive stress, a big disappointment, and he said he had made a big effort and thanks for effort, and it’s not like I’m fucking not going to notice it, and he said that he’s trying to make all that – not turning up to gigs – part of the past. And after that first gig at Festival Republique Peter was really enthusiastic and kept saying “I can’t believe I’ve put this off for so long”. Genius or last in a long line of drug casualties; with ‘Sequel to the Prequel’ Doherty has, for the first time in years, crashed down on the right side of genius.
‘Sequel to the Prequel’ is out now on EMI Parlaphone and is available as a download, CD, deluxe edition 2CD and a limited edition LP+CD set on clear 180g heavyweight vinyl. A full tour begins September 4th in Glasgow, spanning the UK in September and October before heading to Europe later in the year and in early 2014.
All words and interviews by Fergal Kinney. More of Fergal’s writing on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.