Interview: Paul Draper (Mansun)
Ahead of the release of his first solo EP Louder Than War editor Sarah Lay talks to former Mansun frontman Paul Draper about getting back into music, Mansun’s enduring fan base and working with The Anchoress.
It’s been over a decade since Mansun called it a day, during the recording of their fourth album. Appearing during the throes of Britpop and being lumped in with the movement almost purely on the basis that they played guitars the band’s recorded output was far more conceptual and subtly intelligent than much of the musical pack around them.
You’d hardly know the years have passed if you stop by the Mansun fan community. One of the strongest in the internet age, fans still share their memories of the band and engage in long discussions over the minutae of the band’s back catalogue. Such is the strength of the community that they successfully petitioned Parlophone to release the unfinished fourth album (2004’s Kleptomania) and when Draper said in 2013 that he may release his solo material if people were interested, it was a fan-led Facebook campaign that showed him overwhelming levels of support.
I ask him how important that long and ongoing support from fans has been in him releasing this debut EP.
“Crucial; I wouldn’t have released anything if I didn’t think anybody would listen, there would be no incentive to put tracks on a website with no audience. There has to be a relevancy to music, you have to say something within it, at least that’s how I view it. Everything has a reason, or an element of art in it, even if it’s commercial like say Taxloss or Electric Man; there has to be a reason.
“It was the persistence of fans keeping the memory of Mansun alive that ultimately convinced me to put something out, to overcome the barriers and self doubt and just do it.
“Before the first track of the EP was played on radio I was a bit pensive how people would receive a new track from me, or if people would even remember me, however the reactions been great and its just a first step towards releasing music in the future.
“I’ve really enjoyed my stint working behind the scenes over the previous years, but this new challenge is enjoyable too so far.
“There’s a lot of people I’ve met and spoke to who tell me Mansun was an important part of their lives and it meant something to them, people remember that. We always made an effort to reach out to the audience.
“There’s a truth in the cliches of suffering for your art, but my long rollercoster journey has led me here so I’m adopting a positive attitude to releasing this music. I was an angry young man in the classic sense but to be productive now I have to be positive, and it’s a change in mental attitude that helped me get back up to speed producing myself.
“I would not have put myself back in the frame of mind to be releasing my own music if the fans hadn’t kept the memory of the band alive.”
That long rollercoaster journey has taken in time pulling together unreleased Mansun material and producing or writing for other artists, as well as working on his solo material.
Paul talks about the years since Mansun split: “The first three or four years after the band were spent writing and producing with other artists, putting together the unreleased Mansun material for release and tentatively biginning work on a solo album for Parlophone, which never really got off the ground.
“I then had the opportunity to set up my own studio in London which I jumped at and loved my time doing that, unfortunately the building was bought and turned into flats. After completing production of The Anchoress’ album the opportunity came along to release my own music so I’ve taken that instead of producing a record for another artist.
“To me its been a natural progression of my life, but time certainly has passed me by whilst I’ve been busy doing other things. I meant to take 12 months out, it became 12 years. However there were one or two late nights in the pub – I have to say that consumed a bit of time, some great friends met, but that was more to become a normal person after eight years on a tour bus and in the bubble of a touring rock band. It was decompressing from a period of madness.”
We talk about the creation of the EP, of working with The Anchoress (Paul co-produced her debut album, Confessions of a Romance Novelist, released in February this year) and finding his feet with his own music again.
Paul reflects on making EP One: “The EP was a lot of graft, a lot of fun, a lot of focus and getting perspective. I scrapped the melodies on The Silence Is Deafening and started again as I wasn’t happy with it and Feeling My Heart Run Slow was extensively re-recorded after I played it to fans at the Mansun Convention.
“With some tracks you look for a direction, a tempo, a spark but with these EP tracks, as they’re the first I’ve done, they’re some of the most natural – what I call inspiration songs – I’ve ever done. I’ve used all the bits and bobs of instruments I’ve had around and incorporated my love of synths into my alternative rock roots, and what’s popped out is pretty natural, but I feel its been crafted well into a concise sound that’s somewhere between alternative rock and electronic, I have no idea how people will percieve it but I’ve gone where it felt most natural to go without any consideration of fashion.”
I ask him how working on his solo material differs from working with other artists.
“From my work with other artists as a writer or producer it’s not that different to be honest except I have to front it and be the singer. I always procrastinate and do the vocals last; I always say that it would be amazing to live in an instrumental world.
“When you are in the studio as a writer, producer, artist, musician, singer, engineer, you are part of a team, like gears on a bike where you shift between the skill sets of the people involved. My skill set is being broadly interested in all the elememnts of making records as it was my earliest passion and one I’ve pursued all my life and can’t imagine ever not doing that. The people in my life also have that passion, we’ve gravitated to each other, we discuss the installation of audio interfaces and vocal comping and theorise motown recording processes and The Beatles drum mic set up. You can’t fake it up or do it as a job, it has to be a passion.
“But I simply have to be accessible as a person as I have commitments to a record company and the people who have invested their faith in me and the musicians I work with. I’m working with the same team I have been working with for a few years now and I’m genuinely lucky or blessed or something to have met such a talented bunch of people who are genuinely good people too, and we all like working together.”
This passion for the science as much as the art of making music spills over as we return to talking, more in-depth now, about this first set of solo songs, EP One.
“There are three brand new songs on the EP and I have given the vocal track from Feeling My Heart Run Slow to my favourite band of the moment, The Twilight Sad, who have done a remix, or more like a re-imagining of the track for the EP. It’s a great, dark industrial sound and I can’t wait for people to hear it.
“The three new songs each have moments I like in them, on Feeling My Heart Run Slow Jon Barnett, drummer in our musical collective, plays outstanding drums which is so complex on verse two of the track any drummer will appreciate his skills on the kit. His groove is solid and we have such a close musical understanding our pre-recording dicussions are in a form of musical shorthand that only me and Jon understand, we rarely finish an explination, just nod, wink, a yep and a no, a quick play through and were up to shape.
“Stax the bass player in the band and I have a different working relationship, because we work chordally I give Stax a very loose framework and he creates his art inside of that, firstly nailing the basics then gradually moving away from the basics of the chords of the song to express himself in rhythm, metre and notes. He has his thing, he’s what I describe as being in the pocket, he has the ’70s in his fingers; all the best bass players do.
“Catherine AD (The Anchoress) contributed beautiful Prophet 6 synth to The Silence Is Deafening whilst I play 12 string guitar with Jon and Stax anchoring us as the rhythm section.
“My absolute favourite element of the EP is the contribution of six times Grammy-nominated Steven Wilson, a great bloke and he orchestrated great parts of No Ideas, a track off the EP, and together we’ve written and crafted this track together which has, I hope, a chunk of my dark sense of humour.
“But my love of music stretches back a long long way and isnt to do with being a frontman or pop star or whatever it’s known as, it’s to do with recording sound.”
Having touched on his creative relationship with Catherine AD I ask whether working with her on The Anchoress’ album helped his own songwriting, recording and producing process.
“Hugely, The Anchoress record is a record that exists in the modern world with modern production values and can sit alongside today’s music scene and have a relevancy, however, at its core are a group of great musicians, playing live in a room and being captured by the recording process.
“Although not a rock record in the RAWK sense, Catherine played the piano so hard on What Goes Around she fractured her wrist whist recording it and was in a sling for months, it re-instillled in me the commitment and belief you have to put into your music for it to cut through in what is the most demanding of commercial art forms. Working on The Anchoress reinforced in me the absolute commitment an artist like Catherine has to her cause, to what she has to say in her music.
“My true love is working in recording studios so I’ve morphed and adapted to producing in the modern era, I learnt so much making The Anchoress record, and in Catherine have found someone who writes on piano and that has opened up new dimensions in chords and harmony for me. Our working partnership will continue going forward, we have a great pool of musicians in our working orbit.”
An album has been long-awaited by the fans and in autumn that long player will finally be released, although exact dates are yet to be confirmed. I ask Paul about his plans for the future and whether he’ll continue to put out solo material.
“I am working on new songs and tracks all the time, there’s a lot of things on the go at the moment. I am working on a second EP which is one of my favourite ways of presenting music, less pressured than an album but still substantial.
“The album is due, but Im not involved in the exact dates and things like that, I didnt even know when the first track was being launched for the EP, I just got a call from my manager saying its on Tuesday, and I felt a bit ‘here we go again’ but I’m settling in now and want to do the best I can for the people who have put faith in me doing this. I’ve signed for more than one album so it feels like winding a spring where we are becomeing more productive all the time in the studio. Then I’ll have moments of what I refer to as ‘inspiration writing’ where I’ll clear the decks and just hammer stuff out on a guitar or piano or Rhodes and invariably something pops out.
“Sometimes I’ll pick a direction or theme and pursue that so I’m continuing to amass stuff all the time as I’ve committed to release a certain amount over the coming few years. It’s certainly a challenge but one I’m enjoying at present; to try and create something that has a relevance in the modern musical landscape.
“I’ve always tried to do something different from my natural songwriting place which is Naked Twister, You Who Do You Hate, Comes As No Surprise, Keep Tellin Myself, that type of stuff, and branch out into other areas and styles. At the moment I’m exploring my love of synthesisers which is sparking off a lot of ideas in the studio, you can really hear that on the EP.
“We havent taken a day off really while we’ve been launching this EP, I’m just letting it happen in the background and I’m hoping I can keep doing that; get in the studio as much as possible and get as much out of myself as I can.
“I’m genuinely lucky to have met the collection of musicians I work with, you can catch them on tour with The Anchoress this year as they’re touring round the UK, we all support each other in our pursuit of our passion, we’re a good team.”
EP One is released on 10 June on Kscope records and you can pre-order on CD or white vinyl now.
Interview by Sarah Lay. Sarah is editor of Louder Than War and you can find her on Twitter or more from her in her author archive. She provides LTW’s pick of the week on Pete Darrington’s The Rumble – tune in for two hours of underground music every Tuesday from 8pm on Radio Andra.