Magazine: interview with Howard Devoto about their brilliant new album
Magazine have a new album, ‘No Thyself’ due soon. It could be their best release yet. Breaking all the rules the band still confound expectations. John Robb spoke to frontman Howard Devoto about the album…
Reformations are all the rage.
The last week has been in meltdown because of the Stone Roses but perhaps one of the most successful ones was Magazine who regrouped a couple of years ago after a long time away.
Catching the renewed interest in the post punk period that they blueprinted and also sounding oddly modern because of a whole glut of bands who have robbed their sound blind Magazine still sounded futuristic.
Their comeback tour and gigs in Manchester were a triumph and the ever brilliantly, awkward figure of singer Howard Devoto was great to see. Howard who was not playing the conventional game still shone bright with his intellect sharpened and his wilful stage presence dictating new terms.
After a break of another year the band are back with a new album- their fifth, ‘No Thyslef’ which breaks all the rules by being a great piece of work. Sharply produced with a nod to all the ground breaking Magazine sounds of the past, the album is stuffed full of great songs with very clever lyrics that are as soul searching and questioning as you would expect from one of the great lyric writers of the punk rock period.
Howard Devoto was the word writer with the smarts who influenced singers like Morrissey. He re-wrote the rule book on lyrics and his words on the Buzzcocks debut ”ËSpiral Scratch’ EP are still some of the greatest written in that period. Little has changed over the years and his mixture of humour, dark soul searching and melancholic poetry still shine bright while the band provide a range of musical backdrops that are as strong as anything from their heydey.
”ËNo Thyself’ is a great work and is out soon and with an accompanying tour- which we urge you to go to. LTW! caught up with Howard Devoto to talk about the album”Â¦
Is recording a new album easy after 30 years?
”ËNo it isn’t (laughs) I mean as you probably know Barry (Adamson- cool as fuck Magazine bass player) quit the band last year because it was a lot to take on”Â¦’
Did he not like the direction the band was going in?
”ËWell it was specifically because he felt that he couldn’t take on the new material. We had not even talked about the album at that point. We had two or three new songs written to session up the live set and Barry was directing his first film at the same time. We waited for him to do his bass on the tracks and we waited an awful long time and then he quit!
It was frustrating at the time but it made me realise in a sense that he was right. It’s a lot of work to record an album. We haven’t all worked together for a long time. It tends to be a different way of working now with the use of digital technology.
Of course with Noko there was a new element in the context of Magazine as well and also working with Stan the new bass player was different.
We were not working on it as intensely as 30 years ago now, we had one or two new songs and then got down to the serious business and we spread it out over a year. Magazine is not the only thing that everyone does. Everyone works Magazine in with everything else they are doing. It’s a nice way of working, there’s a bit more time to do things. Before writing and then recording you have to make decisions early on and stick with them and that can add to the workload.
The short answer, though, is that it is a lot more work than it was 20 years ago!’
Being Magazine, one of the key post punk bands, do you still feel the need to move forward?
”ËIn ourselves we feel we need to have a musical identity. There is a benchmark, a certain style and sound that comes naturally to us. It’s that sense of identity, of where we should be or this is the kind of songs we should be writing- so yeah.
I think when you hear the album you will find it very recognisably the Magazine of the first three albums especially ”ËCorrect Use Of Soap’.
The forth Magazine album ”ËMagic, Murder And The Weather’ was a bit different. We ended up working with a different kind of guitarist on that one and to my mind it strayed a little bit in retrospect. As much as anything when you look back that’s the aberration in the catalogue. This album will show that ”ËMagic, Murder And The Weather’ was an interesting, if worthwhile, aberration that was to the side of things and after all this time this is Magazine again.’
After short break back you are on track!
Do you think that in some ways with solo/Luxuria stuff is part of this ongoing lineage.
”ËWell you sort of put everything you have done in the same bag and the stuff I have done from Buzzcocks, the album with Peter, Magazine, solo or with Luxuria and look at things the way people do or fans who are into your music. They do focus on a certain identity and so I kind of think of them as separate project areas, it blurs a little bit I suppose because of Noko being part of Magazine.’
Do you set the parameters in the songwriting in the band?
”ËThat’s an interesting one”Â¦ how the process started this time was that John, Dave and Noko sent me six tracks of which three ended up on the final album. When we started I didn’t know if it was going to be a Magazine song until I could make something of it.
There is a song on the album called ”ËPhysics’ and I’m interested to see how people will take to that song, to me- with that song- we have gone in a slightly different direction and away from the Magazine sound whereas on a song like ”ËHoly Dotage’ which is one of more up-tempo ones it’s more like classic Magazine.
This made me think that maybe on the forth album, things didn’t pan out maybe because our guitarist at the time, Robin Simon who was from Ultravox, who was stylistically great- he could do Jon Mcgeoch perfectly live but when it came to writing an album it just wasn’t happening. There are none of those issues with Noko. He is always writing music. He was a big Magazine fan as a kid and is always talking about the Magazine aesthetic.’
The songs seem to suggest a sense of growing older ”Â¦
(Laughs) ”ËAbsolutely! Yes”Â¦’
On ”ËHoly Dotage’, your lyrics play with things, with time and the ageing process maybe?
”ËWell yes, that’s the theme and there is a fair bit of it on there. The words to ”ËProgress’ are a very different kind of thing”Â¦’
What is ”ËProgess’ saying?
”ËThe title from book called ”ËStraw Dogs’ which is nothing to do with the film. It’s a philosophy book, hard to classify by John Gray and in it there was this phrase ”Ëthe worst thing about progress is that it is not an illusion, it is that it is endless’. It’s a very contrarian book. People make assumptions about progress and wave the word around liberally although a lot of stuff is not progress.’
The song, ”ËOf Course Howard (1979)’ is very intriguing.
”ËThat’s a different direction for us. It’s pretty much a spoken work piece. It’s got 1979 in the title because the lyrics derived from a booklet that came out in that year, called ”Ë30 Lyrics’. We just published privately. It was a black and white thing with my first 30 songs put together as a lyric book. I happened to be looking at it and was struck by the introduction, it starts, ”ËI demand special consideration as being the most human”Â¦’ (Laughs) and it kind of continues in that vein. I read it and thought, ”Ëhey lad, you were really going for it then!’
Do you look back and think ”Ëwho was that person?’
”ËI have changed as a private individual and as a person but you know the songs themselves- you can step right back into them. I myself, I have changed quite a bit and when I read the introduction I thought, ”ËWow I would really like to give a modern context to this with the music’ and Dave come up with the music on that one.’
Are you more at ease with yourself nowadays?
There was a scary intensity about you then.
”ËOh yes, much more! thank god! It would be inelegant to be as kind of as upset and as miserable I was back then! Who would want to go on like that? Besides when you get older you like to get lot of that stuff sorted out.’
Is ”ËBurden’ about the song writing, creative process?
(Laughs) Well kind of, the word burden is an old English word I think, maybe even French and it means chorus of the song or the refrain of the song. So the song is a play on words, sort of.
Is the lyric writing process different now or are the words always there waiting when you need them and switch the tap on?
I am always keeping things, notes and lines and stuff like that and it’s kind of waiting sat there and I will add a bit now and then and then it tends to be built on the music. So what I find is that if I’m in a more song writing mode and switch that on it’s more because I’m more receptive and I hear stuff that’s going to be useable in a song and that forms the basis of an idea for a song. I go through phrases when I don’t do very much sometimes it gets all my attention.’
Does the music suggest lyrical ideas to you?suggest shapes and melodies?
”ËEee, how you get into piece of music? that’s a curious one. I start looking at lyric ideas I have got and listen to the music again. Sometimes I play along with the music and I have got there to see what melodic ideas come to me. If the melodic ideas strike me early on that starts to narrow things down. I then make things fit, makes things work.
Are you till having debates in song like on the classic ”ËShot By Both Sides’, are you still trying to work something out in song?
”ËWell, (laughs) in a way I’m very often trying to work things out! I haven’t got everything sorted John!
Does the song have to have any meaning atall? I was referring to the opening album track, ”ËDo The Meaning’ which seems to question this whilst doing a nice twist on Roxy Music”Â¦
”Ë(Laughs) That stared with something I read. I was reading stuff about Linder, reading about her Tate Gallery show and someone was talking about her montages. There was this quote that I thought was Linder saying that she when started working on a montage it would then start to get a meaning and she would do the meaning and I thought ”ËOoh, that’s a striking phrase’ and then I looked more closely and I realised that it was something that Mr. Shelley had said. So that idea came from something that he had said and whether Linder had ever said something like that I don’t know now.’
Are you still in touch with Linder and Pete Shelley, you were the three key figures in the birth of Manchester punk and by extension the whole modern music scene in the city”Â¦
”ËWell yes Linder definitely but not so much with Peter. We tend to go by with long periods of time when we don’t talk. The last time I saw him was when they venerated us when university of Bolton- made us doctors, (laughs) It was first time I had been back. I have tendency, a very strong feeling for place- if I have lived somewhere I tend to go back there now and again and check it out. I have been back to Bolton a few times over years but never to the college or university and it’s changed hugely.’
Did you go the famous table where you and Pete Shelley read the Sex Pistols review in the NME that sparked everything off?
”ËThat was college refectory, that building is still there, cor blimey I’m sure it is, (laughs).’
They should put up a Punk rock blue plaque!
It was where there was a classic eureka moment
”ËIt certainly was but don’t lets revisit that now John”Â¦’
When I saw Magazine play last year I noticed there was still a bit of that Johnny Rotten vocal in there, it’s still in the DNA, like you are still down the early 1976 Sex Pistols gig with the tape recorder taping away inside your jacket”Â¦
”ËWell yes, you can’t leave it all behind, there was something I connected very strongly with in punk in many ways. I’ve moved on from that but it still remains a strand and there are elements of that still in me.’
Is the album title part of your ongoing debate
”ËWell not sure if it’s a debate, you can read it as straight forward word play on the idea of your mortality.’
The Artwork is a strange piece, pretty striking.
”ËThat’s the same artist we used for ”ËShot By Both Sides’. he died in the 20th century but most of his famous stuff was in the 19th century, the sleeve for Give Me Everything’ was another one of his sleeves . In sense he has been part of Magazine over the years and it seems right to use him again. It’s from a series of drawings he did which were kind of his take on Darwin’s ”ËOrigin Of Species’ and that made sense with the song ”ËPhysics’ where I was talking about evolution and the mains chorus talks about religion . It came from an interview I read with Bob Dylan where he was talking his album of Christmas carols which I must say I haven’t heard much of! In the middle of the interview Bob said that religion is not meant for everybody, which I thought was very striking. Now Bob is quite religious but I’m not atall. I just thought that’s interesting way of putting it, I thought I might use that and I did in ”ËPhysics’.
Are you interested in what your peers from the punk period are up to or are you detached from that period?
”ËOne keeps up something of interest but the truth is John is that I’m no interested in music now really. I’m not really interested in checking people out in that way. When I listen to something it’s likely to be something I definitely like, like Tom Verlaine- I still love his guitar playing but in truth and it’s nothing personal but for some reason I listen to very little music.’
It’s interesting that you can still create music and not listen to it.
”ËWell no, I don’t think you do. It’s also part of the one of playing such a different game now. So much was on the line back then that your very material existence depended on it when you were scraping an existence from music, scraping along month to month and going all out to try and make what you were doing a success and there was this kind of idea of keeping up with what everyone else was doing and what was the latest thing, what was the latest sound and all of that and you would keep modern as it were. It’s a very different perspective now. We got this identity and this sound and that’s what we work with. We will push it a little a bit like on ”ËDo The Meaning’ with the pizzicato string type sound on that. That’s a sound I don’t think we have used before We don’t feel the need to play the modernity game any more.’