Louder Than War recently met up with Steve Cradock (of Ocean Colour Scene) to talk about his new, solo album, Travel Wild-Travel Free (which can be streamed in full and bought here), how he recorded it and where to get a good pint and curry in Birmingham.
Words are powerful things. In the right hands they can lift a crowd, forge alliances, bring down governments and inspire poets, playwrights and musicians. They can make you smile or frown, laugh or cry. Emptily declaimed out loud they can come across as nothing, but spoken softly to a love they can mean everything.
Words should require thought because they carry meaning. The weight of words lay heavy on our souls. All too often it is too easy to sit at a keyboard without thought and put to the sword in minutes the work an artist has slaved and agonised over for months and even years. Dismissed, pilloried, ignored or even hated. Just like that. Just because you can.
For those one time Brit-pop Balladeers Ocean Colour Scene and Birmingham’s finest it seems to have been a recurring theme. Another album greeted with another scathing review. Toe the party line and give them a bashing. Well not here. In the relaxed confines of a West London Hotel I sat down with guitar maestro, all round top Mod geezer and fellow Brummie, Steve Cradock, to talk about his new album Travel Wild – Travel Free, working with wife Sally and where’s the best place to get a curry in Birmingham.
Louder Than War: Tell me where you recorded the album and how long did it take?
Steve Craddock: It was recorded at Deep Litter Studios. I go camping with the family in a place called East Prawle on the southern tip of Devon and I got to know the family of this guy called Fred Ansell and he had a little studio, but it’s not a little studio it’s a great fucking barn. They live on a farm you see and its right by the lighthouse. It’s an incredible place. I got to know them quite well and I said I’ve got loads of equipment in a lock up in Birmingham, can I store it all in your place and you’re free to use it.. That’s how I got into knowing Freddie and the Ansells & Deep Litter.
So we did it all then and it took…Peace City West I did in a month. It was January the first I started on it and it was fucking freezing. There was heating but it was just freezing. I was doing sessions from 8 in the morning to Midnight/2/3 o’clock, sometimes 4 o’clock and it was just…it took the bollocks out of me to be honest. This one I made sure I would do 2 or 3 songs
Peace City West feels like a City record whereas Travel Wild – Travel Free feels like a Country thing.
When I did Peace City West I kidded myself that it was…I mean, the drums sound fuckin’ horrible on it I think, apart from the first track. But I kept kidding myself that I was making a Lo-Fi record.
Travel Wild – Travel Free, it’s hard to put a time on it really. I think writing-wise it took me, I think I was writing for about a year. I still find it hard writing. It’s not every day cause I’m always busy, on the road or something. I guess I wasn’t trying to do it every day and push it because of the experience with Peace City West. I would go and do 3 songs at a time at Deep Litter and then work on it for 2 days. Not get too stressed with it and then bring it home, spend time working on the lyrics or arrangements. So, what I’m trying to say is, it took about a year to do it.
Yeah, it was great and laid back. I played most of it myself this time. Tony plays on 2 or 3 tunes and Freddie plays drums on one. I went down with the kids (Sonny & Cassius). It was great weather and it was just really enjoyable.
Were there any specific influences?
No, I wasn’t listening to any particular music either. It was just, once I had a rough idea of what the song was I’d go in there and…stuff like Anyway the Wind Blows, I kept trying to write a second and third verse and it never sort of said anything. So I thought I’d leave it as a chant, just keep repeating that line and it kind of had more power. So then I started de-constructing the way I saw a pop song I suppose and thought…fuck it you know…keep the chant bits in, add bits of music for music’s sake…there’s nothing wrong with that.
Outside of that I tried to do two twin guitars that sounded maybe a bit Revolvery cause I like the idea of it. Then I got me phone app with all me apps on (makes weird sound) put some of those on, put some Stylophone on for a couple of tracks. Put a flute down obviously cause Mellotron’s a staple part, maybe a bit too much actually. Alto harps as well.
So how does a melody come to you?
I’ve been singing to the sea, cause I live in Torquay. I’ve been shouting sea shantys at the sea until something came up. I go to sleep and dream songs and ideas but that’s normally after the original idea’s risen. But on this album most of the songs, I would take the acoustic down to the beach on me own, two beer, two spliff and just spend two or three hours shouting at the sea. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
Is there a different approach to song-writing when it comes to a solo record rather than with Ocean Colour Scene?
Yeah, it’s totally different. With Ocean Colour Scene, most of the time Simon will have the songs and we just kind of make music over the top of it. On the solo stuff every part of it is down to my imagination and I’m kind of enjoying it. I only started a few years back and each album I’ve really got something from. It’s not a big deal but it buzzes me.
Travel Wild – Travel Free feels like a consolidation of your song-writing ability. It feels very, relaxed and effortless.
I think after Peace City West it sounds like a good album I think…sonically. Proper ay kid!
How much input does Sally (Steve’s wife) have?
I don’t know what to say really. She kind of plans everything. She was the one who booked me into the studio for a month for Peace City West. A month solidly! You’ve gotta be kidding I said, I’ve only got seven songs! So she kind of does that sort of stuff.
But with this record it was quite nice, because I’ve been on about it for ages, it’s quite nice to hide behind a girl singer. I wanted to do half and half with this album but that never worked out either. I thought it’d be quite nice to have Sal sing half the vocals and me to do the other half. But it didn’t quite happen.
Because Sal’s worked in the industry for years, she used to be OCS’ record plugger, so she’s well versed in what a good song is to radio. It’s nice to be in a band with a girl even though she’s my wife like. That is what I enjoy about it. I think people act differently, the dynamics are different, that’s what I appreciate Sally being around for and hopefully I can write more songs that she can sing. That’s what I’d like to do.
Were there any themes you wanted to explore?
No, because I don’t have important messages in my songs lyrically, which I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. People say you should be using the words for important things. I’ve tried it a couple of times and I find it a bit too heart-wrenching. I buzz off melody. If the melody flows and the phonetics of the voice sound right that’s where my head is at with song-writing especially with this record.
A good example is The Magic Hour. I really feel the weight in the verses and it’s really a great release in the choruses. It’s a bit of a thing to say but when the chorus kicks off it makes me feel euphoric. I remember the night I wrote it – I felt that feeling…wow that’s what vocal melodies and chords can do if you manage to capture the right one.
Because you played the majority of the instruments does it make it a more personal record?
Yeah and I find it a really interesting challenge because I don’t really like the idea of using flash musicians or session musicians. I thought I don’t want to make a muso album. I was very paranoid about that. So I thought what I would do, it would be more honest if I were to play everything and then it is what it is. I try my hardest to play as good as I can.
Your children play on the record, is it something they’re into?
They’re there with me most of the time when I’m recording which I’m sure is a major pain in their arse. I was getting some stuff together for some of the tracks and you can hear the kids squabbling on some of the vocal takes. Sometimes you can hear them playing instruments in the background. I think there’s one vocal where you can hear Cassius playing Xylophone in the background. He’s a flute player, a flautist and he was playing a melody off one of the records just by ear and I was just like whoa. So we got him into the studio, recorded him, he’s only 9 but he was quite professional about it. He did about ten takes of it and then Sonny my daughter, she said she found the lyrics but I think she wrote the lyrics herself to a poem that appears on the title track.
Do you go back to Birmingham much?
Well, me Dad lives in Leicester now so I don’t really, no and Simon lives in Stratford upon Avon. I’ve still got a house in Birmingham though, that I rent out. I still like it all. I don’t dislike anything about it. Cause it’s home and I know it well.
OK, so you’re going out in Kings Heath / Moseley, which pub do you choose? Hare & Hounds, The Bulls Head, The Cross, The Prince of Wales or The Fighting Cocks?
Well, The Fighting Cocks was the first place I played with Simon Fowler. But probably The Hare & Hounds. Although we used to go to the Jug of Ale in Moseley.
Where’s the best place for a curry in Birmingham?
Maharajah on Hurst Street. Geoff Hurst Street! Also, there’s an amazing curry house in Bearwood, take your own beer and the family Naans!
At this point it was time for me to catch a train back to Birmingham. As I sit on the tube going over the interview I’m left with this wonderful impression of a family man, an extremely talented musician and an honest Mod to the core.
As the train rattles on from station to station my mind begins to wander. Imagine if you will the embattled troubadour, with guitar in hand, negotiating the rocky outcrop that lies at the water’s edge. Two beers, two smokes and a handful of melodies tossing in his head like the blue/grey waves before him.
He strikes a chord and then another. The chant begins in earnest as the surf crashes once more on the southern tip of the shore. I am the sea, I am the sea. The power of the sea at odds with the power of words. Words of love and words of peace. A call to arms, a song of the soul and an ache of the heart. He bows his head in respect of the waves, wipes the spray from his face and calls again…
Stream and buy Steve’s new album, Travel Wild-Travel Free, here.
Steve’s about to go on tour playing the following dates:
- SAT – Oct 26, 2013 The Wardrobe Leeds
- MON – Oct 28, 2013 East Village Arts Club Liverpool
- TUE – Oct 29, 2013 Cluny Newcastle
- WED – Oct 30, 2013 Oran Mor Glasgow
- FRI – Nov 01, 2013 Library, The Institute Birmingham
- FRI – Nov 01, 2013 Blues Fest, Elgar Rooms, Albert Hall London (Afternoon)
- SAT – Nov 02, 2013 Leadmill Sheffield
- MON – Nov 04, 2013 The Borderline London
- TUE – Nov 05, 2013 Komedia Brighton
- WED – Nov 06, 2013 Deaf Institute Manchester Cancelled!
- THU – Nov 07, 2013 Bodega Nottingham
- FRI – Nov 08, 2013 Thekla Bristol
All words by Martin Copland-Gray. More writing by Martin on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.