Martin Rossiter Interview by Fergal Kinney
The return of ex-Gene frontman Martin Rossiter couldn’t be described as something expected to set the British music scene alight, and it was not without some small surprise that Rossiter’s solo record ‘The Defenestration of St. Martin’ proved to be one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2012. Whilst Gene were an articulate and sensitive indie pop act, it’s clear that Rossiter has matured into a very different beast altogether. Without any hyperbole it could be soberly uttered that Rossiter has spawned a record bettering anything currently released by his more successful former Britpop peers, and has achieved this through little more than a commitment to the craft of songwriting. Martin Rossiter took the time to speak to Louder Than War about the album which we ranked as the ninth best album of the last year.
Louder Than War: Were you apprehensive about putting an album out ten years after your last one and into an incredibly different climate?
Martin Rossiter: I wasn’t apprehensive at all to be honest; I think I would have been more apprehensive if I hadn’t done anything in those years. I’ve had these songs for quite a while and I’d been boring the friends and loved ones I have left for a long time saying I was going to make an album and do live gigs, I’d been saying it for about five years. So to make sure that the last three friends I had left didn’t desert me I finally had to make one. To be honest, I was aware that people didn’t buy records in the volume that they used to but what I was not aware of was actually quite how few records are actually sold now – albums anyway. That really surprised me. I don’t want to appear ungrateful to the people who bought the album, but I think after coming from a band that would sell 20 000 albums on our first day…
Louder Than War: Yeah, Gene sold over a million records so it must have felt very different – do you feel the album deserves better than the current music climate could offer?
Martin Rossiter: Oh well I always think that, but any artist who isn’t egotistical…isn’t good enough in my book. I read interviews voraciously and when an artist says they’ve made the best record in the world I love it, I think it’s a very good thing, someone committing something to vinyl that they think is the best record in the world. And that’s what I’ve done, I think I’ve made the best record in the world. Certainly for me, I love it dearly and I’d put it next to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. So yes, of course I’m disappointed, I think it’s a genuinely beautiful thing that people can fall in love with. But I’m also not stupid, and I know that it isn’t going to happen.
Louder Than War: You aren’t the only one who feels that way about the album, the album got a lot more praise than maybe some people were expecting, how did the critical response feel?
Martin Rossiter: Erm, it’s weird because there are two Martins. There’s the Martin who listens to the album when I’m sat at home or out, I mean I put it on all the time. I listen to my album more than anyone else’s over the last five years, so that’s the Martin who sees the album get nine out of ten reviews and wants to know where the missing mark is. The other, more vulnerable me, is of course delighted with the critical praise. According to some website it was the second best reviewed album of last year and we never, ever had that in Gene. We were media darlings for about forty-two minutes.
Louder Than War: You bypassed the traditional label route for the fan funded Pledge website, what attracted you to fan funded website and in retrospect how successful was it?
Martin Rossiter: Well I did that because nobody gave a shit about me and nobody wanted to sign me.
Louder Than War: Did you try taking it round labels?
Martin Rossiter: Yeah, the message was out there that I was making a record. But why would anyone want to sign a slightly overweight forty-two year old Welshmen who hasn’t made a record for ten years? It’s not the most romantic story…Martin Rossiter coming back and making a record isn’t the most attractive option. I understand why nobody wanted to sign me. But the reason we did it through Pledge was that we were running out of options. However, having said that, I’m glad it enabled me to make an album.
Louder Than War: A lot of people using Pledge found that – though it wasn’t their first option – they were very happy with it in the long run. Looking back, do you feel relatively happy with how they dealt with you and do you think there’s much future in that kind of model?
Martin Rossiter: I think there’s a future if you’ve got a fan base. I can’t understand how it’s going to work for young bands from Plymouth or Peterborough – or Peterhead come to that – who want to make a record but the only people who are willing to fund it are their nine fans. There’s a missing link.
Louder Than War: I think that already shows in the kind of artists who are using Pledge, not to put you in the same boat as Bruce Foxton…
Martin Rossiter: Exactly, it’s just for us old bastards! They dealt with me in a very fair and professional manner…which is rare.
Louder Than War: Pledge want artists to be quite interactive with fans, how did you deal with their requests and what they were looking for from you?
Martin Rossiter: Well that’s the thing. There are some artists on various fan funding sites who I think would bend over, grease up their arses and say “fist me” for fifty quid…which I wasn’t especially prepared to do.
Louder Than War: Sixty maybe…
Martin Rossiter: Ha, well, maybe a hundred. I tried to price everything fairly. If you read – which I really advise everybody to avoid – blogs or writing about the music industry there’s this thing called the ‘super fan’. This is the person who – according to marketers – are the people you can rinse thousands of pounds out of. Something I really didn’t want to do. I have some of those people who would buy anything, but I didn’t want to prey on that. I will defend until my dying day the pricing of everything on their. I could have made more money. I’m not very good at commerce, but if I’m going to be involved I wanted to do it in a way which nobody is going to carve ‘bastard’ on my gravestone about.
Louder Than War: Is it hard to be relatively ethical in the music industry?
Martin Rossiter: It is really difficult, and there’s inevitably going to be a degree of compromise. We were signed to Polydor, and when you’re one artist – and not their best selling artist – and you’re stamping your feet because they’re making Gene pillowcases with ‘Sleep Well Tonight’ on them…which happened…
Louder Than War: Really?!
Martin Rossiter: That really did happen. You just think, I don’t want to be part of this. But the other half of you really wants to make a record, for people to hear your songs. I’m an artist and I feel I’ve got something to say, but at the same time you’re looking over your shoulder and seeing flip flops with your name on them. It’s heartbreaking at best.
Louder Than War: It’s an incredibly strong and physically affecting record, and a lot of that is down to the sheer nakedness of the arrangement. What brought you to the decision to record it as just a piano and voice, was their not a temptation to ever mask it with a full band?
Martin Rossiter: Yeah but mask is the key word. I didn’t want to mask it. After Gene ended, a couple of years later I started writing songs. I’ve played the piano since I was a nipper, so I go to the piano and I write songs. What became very apparent very quickly was the fact that the piano was better for writing songs…in a band you can slap a bit of distortion on the guitar and hide things. But I couldn’t do that. I can play guitar a little bit, but I’m terrible, so I had to do it on the piano and I had to make it work. If I was to use a full band that would have made a worse record.
Louder Than War: There’s something of a self-discipline in making just a piano and voice record.
Martin Rossiter: Initially it was hard, but I was becoming a better songwriter. I feel now I can say that I’m a really talented songwriter, where I would have been a little embarrassed to say that ten years ago.
Louder Than War: At the end of ‘Let The Waves Carry You’ the band does come in, and that’s your band Call Me Jolene isn’t it?
Martin Rossiter: Yes it is. I didn’t want that, they just tied me up…
Louder Than War: Is that a hint of where it’s going to go next? Is it going to go anywhere next?
Martin Rossiter: I’ve got a few ideas of what’s going to happen next, we’ll see. I’ve just started writing. It was nothing more than just feeling a little bit mischievous. And why not? I can see the headline now, ‘Martin Rossiter in fun shocker’.
Louder Than War: The beginning of the album definitely couldn’t be labelled under ‘fun’…the candour of ‘Three Points on a Compass’ is incredibly powerful to the point of being a very difficult listen. How did it feel to purge those kind of emotions in a lyric, did you have any reservations about being so exposed?
Martin Rossiter: It’s a fair and valid question…a few reservations I suppose. There will be certain people who will hear it. But I can’t name anybody that is writing anything that frank right now. There are people out there who maybe I haven’t heard it, I’d like to be proved wrong.
Louder Than War: It’s a subject matter that you’d think would have been tackled more, it’s as if you were running towards a completely open goal…
Martin Rossiter: Yeah, I’m astonished, it’s quite clear to anybody who hears the song that I’ve not had a relationship of any note with my father and…other than ‘Father And Son’…what songs are there about men and their fathers? Especially men with bad fathers. What is rewarding is the number of men who have subsequently contacted me and said ‘Thank you’.
Louder Than War: Louder Than War: Has there been quite a lot of feedback about that song? It isn’t surprising that people would react that way.
Martin Rossiter: Yeah, I have no idea, it’s like finding the last great guitar riff a bit. To me it’s a very obvious lyric as well – “The only thing I got from you was my name”. I’m staggered that it hasn’t appeared to my knowledge in books or films or music because to me it’s the most…damning indictment you can give someone.
Louder Than War: The lyric I got the most out of on this album – which probably says more about me than anything – was the track ‘I Must Be Jesus’, where did that come from?
Martin Rossiter: Ha, well when I was a child I genuinely thought I was Jesus. It’s very autobiographical. But I also understood that, though that was a story that I wanted to tell, it had to be done with more than a little Monty Python.
Louder Than War: That’s exactly what I thought when listening to it, particularly with the choir…
Martin Rossiter: Well, I was brought up in Wales…it’s in me. I just thought, how do I write a song that says “Guess what people, I was a really fucked up kid who thought he was the son of God”? And the only way to do that is with a degree of humour. I hope that people understand that…self-mocking is the wrong word…but there’s a little bit of joy to it.
Louder Than War: How did the writing and recording process differ with this album to when working with Gene? I imagine there was a different level of pressure.
Martin Rossiter: Yeah I think there was less in a way. I enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have anybody to argue with. I don’t mean that in a negative way to anyone in Gene, it’s just there’s some self indulgence to this being my record. It’s my face on the front cover. It’s been ten years since the last Gene album, and yes I enjoyed it very much. The one thing I miss is the gang mentality of being in a band. Say you’ve done a great take or a fantastic show, you’ve got three other people that you can go into a room with and just tell each other how fantastic you think you are. There’s no sense of ego, a shared understanding that that’s allowed. You don’t have that with anybody. I haven’t got anyone who I can say “Did you hear the timbre of my voice then?” without quite rightly getting a kick in the groin. So I miss that. I’m considering hiring somebody to walk around with me and tell me I’m fantastic.
Louder Than War: Just a team of yes-men constantly.
Martin Rossiter: Exactly, like a depressing Puff Daddy.
Louder Than War: Due to reasons seemingly only chronological, and maybe geographical, Gene seem forever labelled as either a Britpop band or under the Morrissey banner…
Martin Rossiter: I’ve heard that myself, believe it or not. I think the Morrissey thing is quite interesting; it’s followed me around for nigh on twenty years. Occasionally people who’ve never heard my music and have no context will think “Oh that sounds like Morrissey”. In the same way that if you’re not familiar with the nuances you might think that Iron Maiden sounds like Metallica. I…I just don’t care anymore. I’ve got more important things to worry about.
Louder Than War: I don’t want to dwell on Morrissey but for someone who was quite supportive of Gene, putting you on his NME compilation, getting you on his Meltdown etc, you have been mildly critical of him lately…
Martin Rossiter: Well, I’m mildly critical of anybody who supports Nigel Farage. And I think he got off lightly. Morrissey’s made some great records and said some very stupid things. When you’ve got someone who makes Thatcher look moderate like David Cameron calling UKIP ‘closet racists’, and somebody comes along saying “Oh I quite like that, he seems to be talking sense” I’ll happily stand up and say that UKIP are a racist party and that anybody who shows any empathy for them is either deluded or racist. And I’ll stand by that, it just happens to be Morrissey who said it .Who I’ve been compared to a lot. *
Louder Than War: How do you feel Gene sit alongside everything that Britpop seemed to stand for, particularly with many of those bands now cashing it in on the reformation circuit…
Martin Rossiter: Well, I’m sure you’ve done your research and it’s something I’ve talked about quite a lot. The good thing is I don’t have any managers or people telling me I can’t say things anymore. With reformations, I think it’s anti-art. I love the art of pop music. It’s up to them but somebody needs to say stop, because what you’re doing is anti-art. And also, this idea of taking the dollar from anywhere that it will come. The Stone Roses are playing in Qatar ** – they are a deeply worrying regime where homosexuals are killed. There is a death penalty for homosexuality. I don’t want to sound holier than thou, but I just don’t think they should go there and play. It’s the same as when Queen went and played in Sun City. Just stop. You’re rich already, fuck off and stop.
Louder Than War: There are often a lot of the same points raised when bands play Israel.
Martin Rossiter: Yeah and to come up with a counter argument I suppose you do have to draw the line somewhere. I’ve spoke about this with friends of mine who are American, and they’ve said that you can say the same thing about the United States – a country that’s instigated several wars in recent times. But most people would draw the line at a country that makes homosexuality illegal.
Louder Than War: Finally, who would you like to defenestrate?
Martin Rossiter: (Laughs) oh! After myself? God, the list is so long, it would be easier to name people I wouldn’t like to. But for the sake of interview etiquette, give me a minute. (Takes a minute of silence). Who would I like to defenestrate? Oh yes. Tommy Robinson of the EDL.
Louder Than War: Oh good choice, you’ve done well there. He’s inside now isn’t he?
Martin Rossiter: Yes, and I hope he gets buggered!
* Morrissey said in Loaded magazine (January 2013) “I nearly voted for Ukip. I like Nigel Farage a great deal. His views are quite logical – especially where Europe is concerned, although it was plain daft of him to applaud the lavish expense of the royal wedding at a time when working-class England were told to cut back, shut-up and get stuffed.”
** The Stone Roses play the Media City Ampitheatre, Dubai on 21st February 2013
Interview by Fergal Kinney. You can read more from Fergal on LTW here.