A Gateway to a Lifetime of Disappointment
CD / DL / Streaming
‘Indie’ Legend David Newton, formerly guitarist and songwriter with The Mighty Lemon Drops, relocated to Los Angeles in 1995. Over the last 25 years, after turning his garage into a recording studio he’s produced and engineered many bands.
Iain Key talks to David for Louder Than War as he releases his debut album.
The album moves at pace, from the opening In Love And War (a real stomper) to the closing Everything Is Just So (the most reminiscent of his former band but with a Phil Spector/Jesus And Mary Chain vibe). The man himself calls it “a modern contemporary take on the melodic uplifting side of the 80’s post-punk sound”, and I can’t argue with that.
Before I ask him ‘Why did it take so long?’ I want to set the scene…
Back in the mid 1980’s I’d just moved to Manchester from the West Midlands. As there was no internet or file sharing, my mate Danny, if he read or heard about something new would send a package in the post containing snippets from music press and a well worn C60 tape featuring a few highlights from John Peel or ‘Kid’ Jenson. I’d reciprocate, generally, with something from the North West
Following one of these packages, on one of my rare trips to Birmingham we headed to Tempest, then the record shop in the city. I had one aim, to get the 12” single of Like An Angel by Wolverhampton’s finest. Thankfully they’d just got another batch in stock and I was one of the 14,000 who helped make it a staple in the Indie Charts in 85/86.
The reason that The Mighty Lemon Drops meant so much was I’d been listening to the likes of The Jam, Style Council, Billy Bragg, The Smiths etc, all of which were perfectly credible. That song however really opened my ears to the Independent Scene, at a time when I first I started to going to gigs. Within a few months I went from watching Queen and Status Quo at Maine Road to watching The Wedding Present, Primitives and Soup Dragons at the intimate International One in Longsight, Manchester .
Frustratingly I never got to see The Mighty Lemon Drops perform live.
The first track I played when I got back into vinyl was Like An Angel. Despite all the crackles, pops and hiss, I turned up loud and it still had the dynamic blast of raw energy and impact that it did all those years ago.
LTW: How are you?
DN: All things considered – I’m doing well and hanging in!
LTW: Dave, why did it take so long?
DN: To do my own album? Ha – good question! I think because I’ve been spending so much time working on other people’s records!
LTW: The ‘new’ album is great, there are a couple of tracks which suggest you’re reminiscing, was that a starting point?
DN: Hmm, not really. The track My First Band is me looking back I guess, though that wasn’t the first song I wrote for the album. As much as I love living in the moment, I’m a bit of a sad old archivist and have loads of old pics and of course plenty of old records. Part of me will always live in the past haha.
LTW: Looking on YouTube recently I found a recording that you’d made as a 13 year old ‘covering’ the Rezillo’s. How did you first get into music?
DN: Blimey I can’t believe that you found that! I have always been into music since I was very young. Music was always in our house when I was growing up. My Dad was originally from Wales and was always singing along (badly) to things like the Treorchy Male Choir and I had an elder sister that was also into the pop tunes of the day. The first record I bought was T-Rex’s Solid Gold Easy Action at the end of 1972. From then I would buy on average one 7” per week with my pocket money. Everything from glam/glitter to Northern Soul to reggae. Then punk came around, hence my Rezillos cover (home recorded on my cheap Woolworth’s cassette recorder) that would have been oh 1978?
LTW: You are best known for The Mighty Lemon Drops but had been in bands before, what was it that clicked which hadn’t with Active Restraint or The Wild Flowers?
DN: My first band was a punk band at secondary school called The Lowest Class, 1978 (the song My First Band is about this). This morphed into another punk band Gang Warfare (groan!). Active Restraint began in 1981, had a couple of different line-ups and recorded one single in 1982. In 1983 I co-formed The Wild Flowers and released one album and two singles before I left at the end of 1984. We did ok, played a few dates with Simple Minds even. Fun times! At the beginning of 1985 I was still quite young (20) and started knocking around with Paul Marsh and Tony Linehan again and decided to form a band, but this time “get it right”. Funny looking back but it all happened really quickly for The Mighty Lemon Drops, in a matter of a couple of months as our first gig and recording session was in March 85.
LTW: What created such a scene in the Midlands in the early 80’s? (Yourselves, Mighty Mighty, Wonder Stuff etc)
DN: It wasn’t so much a “scene”, just a load of post-punk bands all formed around the same time. We weren’t really a Brum band, more Black Country, like Pop Will Eat Itself, though we did play in Brum a lot in the early days (like Dave Travis & Steve Coxon’s night The Click Club at Burberries). Also pretty much everyone in these Black Country bands were regulars at our local club JB’s in Dudley and that’s how we knew each other from going to gigs there from the late 70s/early 80s.
LTW: You were one of the bands at the forefront of the NME’s C86 movement. At the time were you happy to be lumped in with a number of other bands rather than perhaps judged on your own merits?
DN: We didn’t think too much about it at the time, we just thought it was another of those cassettes NME did, like C81. Had we known the longevity/significance of it, we would have submitted a better recording, maybe the 7” of Like An Angel or something. The track we gave them was basically a demo of a new song we’d just written, Happy Head.
LTW: I need to ask about the image and sound of The Mighty Lemon Drops. You had a had a definite Echo and The Bunnymen sound (which was a lot to do with your 12 string Vox Teardrop guitar/rhythm section) and a wicked leather jacket/indie/60s psych image. After Tony Linehan had left the dynamic the imaged seemed to change. Was it coincidental or did you want to move away from what’s you’d done up to that point with ‘Happy Head’ and ‘World Without End’?
DN: There was no big conscious decision, we just evolved basically. On a musical level, initially none of us were trained musicians or anything but we did become a bit more proficient as time progressed. The leather jacket thing was great at the beginning mind, we/I did want to stand out and look like we belonged in the same band – like The Beatles in Hamburg look!
LTW: Did Like An Angel being used on the soundtrack of the Netflix show Sex Education create a flurry of interest? I can imagine a load of teenagers asking Siri or Alexa to name that song… (I’ll be honest, I tweeted it out straight away and sent WhatsApps messages to a couple of friends)
DN: That was great, but funnily enough we actually got more attention when our Inside Out was used in the final kiss scene in the last episode of Gilmore Girls in 2007, that was great haha!
LTW: You toured the US heavily in the late 1980’s and were darlings of the College Circuit at a time the UK was experiencing ecstasy, rave culture and early days of the Manchester scene. Did you feel a bit out of step with what was happening culturally/musically at home? (Almost like Slade who went to break the States and arrived back in the UK at the height of punk)
DN: Ha interesting question. It was quite funny in some ways as we always did really well in Manchester 86-88, the likes of the Roses etc used to come to our shows. By that point we seemed to be doing better in the US over the UK, which was funny/ironic as some of the newer bands were doing something not a million miles away from what we had been doing… albeit with a baggy drumbeat haha.
LTW: In 1995 you relocated to LA… what attracted you?
DN: After Lemon Drops ended at the end of 1992, I played guitar, wrote and recorded with The Blue Aeorplanes. I was living in London by then and also had a band Starfish with Susie Hug of Katydids and Donald Ross Skinner from Julian Cope’s band. I was also working a day job at Record & Tape Exchange. My wife and I loved London but despite having jobs etc we found London to be just so expensive. She is originally from LA so in January 95 we decided to give it a go and we’ve been here ever since and we love it. We also have a little pad a couple hours away out in the desert near Joshua Tree, a place called Pioneertown, so it’s great to be able to get away.
LTW: Do / did you ever get homesick? (I note that there are several nods to your home town with the catalogue number, the record company and also the name of your publishing company!)
DN: Haha well spotted! There are a lot of things I miss about the UK but I love it here, though we do go back and visit, usually once a year, catch up with friends and family etc. It’s interesting but for our humble lifestyle we notice how much more expensive it is in the UK, especially London which we love, so it’s great to have a bit of both worlds.
LTW: When did you form C86 All Stars? Was this primarily an opportunity for a group of ex-pats playing the music they loved?
DN: Haha. That was a one-off for LA’s Club NME Christmas Party in 2005. It was a lot of fun, none of us took it too seriously, that was the idea. Funny, looking back at the clips, the ones with the most views are My Blood Valentine and Field Mice (I think because there is very little known footage of the Field Mice).
LTW: Do you consider yourself to be more of a producer/engineer now rather than a musician?
DN: Funny, I never really think about that. The production/engineering side is my day job these days. The newer musical projects I am involved in are more for enjoyment and fun rather than for “work” really.
LTW: You’ve been quite prolific in the number of bands you’ve worked with. Are there any you’d specifically recommend checking out?
DN: Oh man I have worked with so many now. I will say that I am fortunate in that I really like/enjoy everything that I work on. I have never advertised and I am not a commercial studio, I usually know who I am going to be working with beforehand, or it comes via friends/recommendations etc. I’m lucky in that way. It is also very rewarding when a project/artist that I have been working with gets attention/acclaim etc. I have had quite a few that started out in my little studio but get picked up, like The Little Ones, The Blood Arm, Henry Clay People, Happy Hollows, The Soft Pack etc.
LTW: The first couple of tracks, In Love And War and The Kids Are Not Alright, have an Ian Broudie/Lighting Seeds feel to them. Are you conscious of specific ‘influences’ when making music?
DN: Both of those are huge compliments, thank you, and you are not the first to mention them. I guess I am basically drawing from the same “area”. Melodic guitar driven pop songs, no wailing guitar solos or anything, stripped down, but direct. Same goes for Stephen Duffy, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, intelligent pop music basically.
LTW: My First Band features the album title in the lyrics, I’m thinking that this is a dry comment on where those early records which you loved have led you … do Americans understand irony?
DN: Haha! Many, MANY of my Brit friends often say that, that Americans don’t get “wind ups”, “irony”. It’s partly true. However, the opposite is often partly true too. Plus it’s interesting to see UK shows like The Office get picked up and remade in America and become hugely successful, especially The Thick Of It becoming the amazing and wildly popular Veep. Although I’m generally a positive person I think the self-effacing British side of me comes out in me choosing that as the title haha.
LTW: The Songs That Changed Our Lives features the unmistakable dead pan delivery of Art Brut’s Eddie Argos. How did you working together come about?
DN: I didn’t know Eddie when I first heard Formed A Band but thought it was amazing. The first time they played LA at local club Spaceland, I couldn’t make it but my wife went and came home “Oh my God you will LOVE this band”. Then coincidentally we got to know each other as he started dating one of my friends (Dyan from The Blood Arm). We had almost identical taste in music, humour, TV etc and we became fast friends. That led to me recording an album with the two of them as Everybody Was In The French Resistance…Now and I ended up joining the band for a month long UK/European tour in 2010.
So when I had the song TSTCOL, I asked Eddie if he would do the vocal, as it’s a list song of all our favourite songs. We tried to record it remotely as he now lives in Berlin but it didn’t come to fruition until lockdown. Turned out his upstairs neighbor Leo Kaage is Anton Newcombe’s (from Brian Jonestown Massacre) engineer and he brought his studio equipment home for lockdown. So one night Eddie popped upstairs and did the vocal, using Anton’s microphone haha. Once that song came together it was the inspiration for me to get off my arse and finally put my album together as I was so happy with how the song turned out.
LTW: The majority of the world is currently locked down. Are there any plans to perform live, even if just streaming?
DN: Obviously no plans at present. I’m lucky that now and again I get offered stuff. In fact the last show Thee Mighty Angels played was a couple years ago supporting Peter Murphy at legendary Joshua Tree desert venue Pappy & Harriet’s.
LTW: What next? Any plans for 2021?
DN: I already have a couple of songs that I’ve been tinkering around with. Now that I finally know how to release my music digitally (haha) it might not take as long this time for it to make its way into the world.