Two Voices, One Story: Talking with Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, Part 2

First a brief note to explain the existence of this interview. In summer 2008, I was assigned by another publication to do an interview with Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric in advance of their show in Houston to promote their first album together. The interview was supposed to run in two parts on a blog the Friday before their show, but unfortunately, my editor was preoccupied with battening down the hatches for Hurricane Ike, and the articles never ran. It’s just as well, as the show was cancelled anyway, on account of nobody having any power (I saw them in Austin; it was a blast).

So the interview sat around collecting dust, which was a shame, because Amy and Eric spent an incredible amount of time talking to me and said some really interesting things. Eventually, I put it together for Jeremy at SCR, since I knew that he was a big Wreckless Eric fan. I’m very glad to share these pieces with you, because they really are some of my favorite interviews that I’ve done. Talking to Amy and Eric for an hour convinced me that they are just lovely people, and I was sorry to have taken up their time for stories that never ran. I hope you enjoy them.

September 2008
Wreckless Eric is famous for being part of the original roster of artists on British new wave label Stiff Records, along with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello; his first single for Stiff, “Whole Wide World,” remains his biggest hit. All that ended more than 25 years ago, and after a life-changing struggle with alcoholism, Eric began producing wry, experimental pop records at a slow but steady pace. A brief hiatus in the late ’90s produced his autobiography, A Dysfunctional Success, which was followed by the home-recorded, self-released album Bungalow Hi. Eric married American songwriter Amy Rigby in June, and their self-titled album together came out this month. He recently spoke with me from their home in rural France.

SCR: Could you talk about the differences between this album and Bungalow Hi?
Wreckless Eric: Thing is, when I made Bungalow Hi, I think that noone cared if I made another album or not, ever. So I just did what I wanted, and I rather enjoyed that. And then when we started making this album, you know, we have all the things that we do. I mean, Amy’s got this sort of country thing, and I’m sort of, I don’t know, I’ve got my electro thing… It was quite a learning thing. Because there’s a tendency to do what people expect you to do.

That doesn’t seem like something that has often driven you — doing what people expect.
No, that’s true. [laughs] I tend to be a bit wayward, I suppose. But with this record, I don’t know, I don’t think there was any more of a strict discipline applied to it because of working with someone else. In a way, I suppose we were a bit shy about it to start with. I’m thinking, “Ah, she might think this is crap, this is rubbish, she won’t think this is any good.” And she might have been thinking the same thing, that I might be thinking the same kind of things about what she came up with. But we worked our way through it all and reached a point where we were comfortable enough to do stuff. It’s very difficult. I mean, I always hated bands, because you know, you have to play them the new song, you’d have to sit there and play it to them, and they’d all sit there and listen, and then the bass player would go, “Yeh? Ugh.” [laughs] So it’s always a bit like that.

How did the experience of writing a book about your early career affect your songwriting?
Now that’s interesting. That’s actually a good question. Before I started writing my book, or when I was writing it, I had decided that I wasn’t going to write any songs, I was really not going to bother. I hadn’t actually decided that was it, definitively it, but I wasn’t really interested in writing songs. I felt that I was being constrained by rhymes and by meters and stuff, and I thought, “if I’ve got something to say, I can say it with prose.” And it felt almost like I’d grown up.

So I wrote the book. But as I was writing the book, I got so involved with words, and spewing out words, and writing about stuff, that I started to write lyrics again, as well. It was a side effect of writing a book. And that’s how I ended up doing the Bungalow Hi record. I said, “Oh, I don’t need rhymes and meters and stuff like that to express what I do.” But I think actually it was me excusing myself for being a bit blocked, having a kind of writer’s block of some sort.

But I did start writing songs again. I really don’t write many. I’m so conscious that it could just end up being exactly the same as everyone else’s songs. See, I get disheartened, mostly, because I start to question it. And if you want to get something done, you should never question it. If you want to climb a mountain, I suppose you’ve just got to climb it. If you start wondering if you can climb it, you might think that you can’t, and then you won’t. When I’m writing stuff, I suffer these crises. But Amy is able to sort of sit there and see it through.

I don’t know if these things are related, but you’ve had a number of periods in your career where you didn’t release an album for four, five, six, seven years. How did you support yourself during those periods?
Just going out and playing. Most of the time, I’d just go out and do some gigs, y’know. And people think it’s laziness, but a lot of it was lack of possibility to be able to do it. People think someone like me wouldn’t have trouble getting a record deal. It’s true, I wouldn’t have any trouble getting a record deal, but quite often with people you wouldn’t want to have a record deal with, with people who would want to make me do something that I really did not want to do. People who would compromise me in some way, make me compromise what I do.

So it was very hard, sometimes, to carry on with it. But I would always be out playing somewhere. The records always seemed to take years to make; some of them did, anyway. Some of them didn’t. But I’ve always kept going somehow.

You talk about not wanting to be compromised. That is something you mentioned as a source of conflict during your first go-round with Stiff Records.
Yeah, I mean, it started off great and deteriorated. And it deteriorated because… What I really needed was a good manager, and I never had one. I mean, I was always one of those people that was considered to be unmanageable. Which is probably right. So I’m not laying the blame anywhere else. I’m not going into self-flagellation, but I’m not sort of blaming the world. It’s just how it happened to be.

But I felt that as time went on and Stiff Records changed, Stiff Records didn’t really know what Stiff Records was anymore. And suddenly people that we thought we were laughing at were working for the company. And these people did not understand what I was, what I stood for, and what I was capable of, and what I was not capable of. And they would all have their go at making me into this and making me into that, and everyone would have a new idea.

By the time I left Stiff Records, I didn’t feel like I had much of an idea of who I was anymore. And I had to spend some time, not reinventing myself, but inventing myself, to get back to…I suppose I was reinventing myself, but as an older person. Because I had to almost go back to pre-Stiff days and see what it was that I was about. We used to play free jazz, at one time. And when I was with Ian Dury, he was well into all that. He was right into Roland Kirk and everything. And that was great, but then it was all suddenly constrained. It was like, “Well, what about this Roland Kirk fellow?” They’d say, “You can’t do that. It’s ridiculous. That’s not what the kids want to hear.”

I remember I wanted to record a version of a Syd Barrett song, a song called “Baby Lemonade.” And I remember Dave Robinson saying, “Is your mother still alive?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, we’ll sell one copy, then.” [laughs] I found it very difficult.

Do you feel that you were able to get back to what you believed after that time, and, looking back now, do you feel a sense of vindication at still being around, and still being able to make records — on Stiff Records, even?
Oh, yeah — I think it’s great! Originally the Stiff Records thing… A few years later, people got interested in it all again, and Jake Riviera, who was the founder of Stiff Records, who left quite early on — and it was because of him leaving, I think, that things went wrong with Stiff, because he was Stiff Records to me. He knew what was what.

But he got involved when they started re-releasing stuff; Rhino put out a box set, and he stepped in and made sure everyone got paid. And it was the first time I’d ever got paid. And I felt that it was all worth something, that there was some value in it. My previous experience was that I got treated like shit and not got paid. So I didn’t really place any value in it all.

But as time went on, and Stiff Records got sold, and it got bought up and everything, and they started to put stuff out — I don’t know, I felt more able to deal with the outside world, and to deal with people. And one day I did actually ring them up, and I said, “This is Eric, I suppose I’m the last person you want to speak to.” And they said, “No, no, not at all! What do you want? What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I’m just trying to get some help out here, and I’ve got some ideas.” And they said, “Well, come and see us! This is great!” And we got on.

And I thought, I am a human being. They’re human beings. It’s fine! And for myself, I’d come a long way with music. I have some idea what I’m capable of, and I know the things that I’m not good at, and I know where I can sort of improve things for myself. And I feel like I can express myself to some extent with music.

One of the things that people say about you sometimes is that you’re bitter, and you’ve repeatedly said that that’s not accurate. I wanted to ask you why you think you’re misinterpreted so often as being that way.
Well, there was a time when I was getting described, every time they mentioned me in the British press — to do with, y’know, I’d have a gig somewhere, and they’d put something in the guide, and they’d say, “Stiff Records’ loveable loser,” and stuff like that. And I’d think, “Fuck, I’m sick of this!” Y’know, I’ve spent most of my life without being on Stiff Records, and people would say, “Bet you’re bitter about it! Because you could have been really big, and they fucked you up!”, and all this kind of thing. And it got very tiresome. And so I would steadfastly refuse to be bitter.

But one day, I did come face to face with it, and it was like, “yeah, I’m fucking really pissed off about this.” Because I got fucked over. And I started… Because I faced it, I started to repair it, and think, “well, what do I need to do to make it right?” And I looked at Stiff Records, and y’know, they’ve got the back catalog, and they’re doing stuff with it, so why don’t I see them and see if we can actually do something about it together, because if I was to say, “well, I’ve got some sleeve notes for the re-release of my stuff,” it would make it a bit better, really. And so it was that kind of thing. I’ve probably answered the question already. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah, that was an excellent answer, and I have to say I’m sorry to have asked you so many questions about the old days, because I’m sure you’re tired of talking about that.
I don’t mind, actually. I don’t mind at all anymore. I’ve made my peace about it. I mean, I don’t want to trade on the past, but I’m certainly not going to deny my past.

What role do noise, sound effects, and distortion play in your music?
Well. You call it noise, sound effects, and distortion. I think they’re — I mean, noise is fundamental to it, really, to making pop records. That was what always appealed to me about them: they’re noisy. They grate slightly. That was why old people didn’t like them in those days — y’know, like the woman down the road when I was growing up, she said, “I don’t like those electronic guitars. They’re tinny.” And all this kind of thing. [laughs]

I love dissonance. I love discord and I love dissonance, and I love putting it against something sweet, as well. You get this mixture of… And sound effects — I mean, I went to art school when conceptual art was around and Andy Warhol was still in question. I feel that the sound effects and stuff like that, it’s something that I’ve always loved; it’s pop. Like all those serious people, like, y’know, my manager, the record company boss who was also my manager, managed Graham Parker and the Rumour, and he was like, “You can’t have echo on the vocals. You can’t use sound effects and things like that.” And I think, “Oh, fuck off.” [laughs]

There’s a song called “The Downside of Being a Fuck-Up.” Do you think of yourself that way, as a fuck-up?
Well, I’m a recovering fuck-up. Y’know, I’ve been sober for 23 years, and I’m quite together these days. And it’s been quite hard to turn into a fairly reasonable person. But I had to do that for myself, really, so that I could operate in society, live on this planet without going through hell.

But I see it in other people. Sometimes I can hardly bear to be around people who are going through the same problems that I’ve had in my life, because I can feel the pain too well. I can identify too well with it. And that song is really — it’s more me looking at other people. It’s hideous to be able to identify sometimes with how they are, when they’re so fucked up.

I suppose the opposite would be “The Upside of Being Marvelous.” It would be there’s an upside to being a fuck-up or something. But everything is down, it’s like a mouth that’s turned down at both sides. There is, if you like, “There’s a down that I go that’s further down than down,” and, y’know, “down amongst the wines and spirits.” I can go there. I don’t. I choose. I suppose, in a way, I found out how to not go there.

I think it’s great at the end of it; we just thought it was hilarious, we’re just piling all these vocals on. And Amy would say, “You can almost see them doing jazz hands.” [laughs]

Well, what did you think of the record?

I mean, I like it. I’m not sure what else to say about it at the moment; I’m kind of in interview mode instead of review mode right now. I think it’s interesting how your styles contrast — if you go back and listen to Amy’s records, and then to your records, they’re very different. Amy’s songs on this record are almost nothing like her solo stuff.
I’ve been living in fear of meeting fans of hers, and them just saying “You fucked it all up!” [laughs] I mean, she would come up with these harmonies, and I was never able to do that, or even know how to do that. I think it’s a good meeting, really.

Amy really seems to look at the album as having been an opportunity for her to grow as a musician. Did you have the same experience?
Well, you know, they’re always like that. I mean, my thing is like, “Hmph. OK, right, we need a piano. Get on the piano. Play the piano.”

And she’ll say, “Well, I’m not ready, I’ve been working on this, I just –” “Fuck it, just play it, we’ll record it. If it’s a good bit we’ll keep it, and we’ll build on that. We’ll listen to it and figure out what it is, but just play, we’ll record it.” And it’s like, “Don’t record it, because I’m not ready yet.” “Well, what does it matter if you’re not ready? Just — just keep recording stuff! And then delete it, if it ain’t any good. It just vanishes forever. It will not come back to haunt you.” And I’m very much like that. I think Amy’s got more like that, she’s much more kind of gung-ho about it than she maybe was when we started.

When you were making this record, was there any change in the process for you, or was it like you were indoctrinating Amy into the Wreckless Eric way?
I don’t think there is a process, or that there is a format to it. I think making records, recording, is real fun. You just don’t know how it’s going to come out. You can’t imagine, sometimes, and you just start up with it.

I’ve done some recording with other people. I’ve done some recording with Andrew Weatherall. That was great — I don’t think I even tuned up to do those recordings. They would have this piece of music, and they’d say, “Just play, we’ll record it.” And I don’t think they would even discuss it beforehand. Which is a fantastic thing, really. I don’t think I’ve found anything quite so extreme as that. And then they’d spend hours just cutting the best bits out of it. But you’d have to just be ready to go; as soon as they start playing, you know they’re recording it.

I’ve had all kinds of experiences recording stuff. There is no set process to it, except that I don’t think there’s any point to that terrible thing that bands did in the ’80s, where they would try and make the record cheaply, which meant that they would do it as quickly as possible. So they would practice it over and over, and then go and make the record in a day.

I hate “worthiness” — where people are doing it like, “Well, we’re musicians, and this is music,” and all that. It’s just a joke, really. The most unfortunate thing that ever happened to pop music is that it lasted. Which is great, but all the greatest things, they were never made to last.

When the Who did “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” they never thought that people would listen it now. When they recorded “Can’t Explain,” they didn’t think that they would be starting their shows with it 40 years later. But pop lasted. And that’s fine, but then you’ve got a generation who are making pop to last, because that’s what pop does. And it’s a ridiculous idea. Seems like a shame, really. Now people are thinking they’re [puts on a deep, pompous voice] “making something of lasting value. Something that’s going to stand in 30 years, stand the test of time. It will become like an old tie, or a favorite pair of shoes. It will turn into brogues.” Fuck it! It’s a sad business when something has to do that!

“Whole Wide World” was your first single and still your biggest hit. It’s about having to go around the whole wide world, to Tahiti or to the Caribbean, to find the love of your life. Do you find it ironic at all that after living that song so long you find Amy, who was from a different continent, in Hull, where you went to college?
No; this is really weird, right? I wrote the song in Hull and I first played it in the room where me and Amy first met. And I was there because the promoter asked me to DJ at a gig, because I was playing the next night up in Hull, and he said, “Would you like to play some records at an Amy Rigby show?” and I said, “Yeah, that’d be great, I’d love to see her.” And he said “She does ‘Whole Wide World,'” and I’m like, “Oh, well, I’d love to hear that!” Imagine it…y’know, it was in the room where I first played it. So that’s strange. And then I met Amy through “Whole Wide World.”

So, really, the song went around the world for you. You didn’t have to go anywhere.
Yeah, I suppose the song did the work, yeah. I never thought of that. [laughs] That’s quite nice, isn’t it, yeah?

I asked Amy about this — there’s a song on the new album called “First Mate Rigby,” and she said to ask you about the fact that you had a boat.
I used to have a boat, yes. I was planning to live on it — it never worked out, in the end. But Amy had heard this, and she used to send e-mails to me signed “First Mate Rigby.” Because, you see, she saw me as the captain of this vessel. [laughs]

But I did have a 35-foot Broads cruiser; it was built in 1950 or ’51, and it was built with stuff they had left over from the ’30s, in the shipyard, the boatyard. It was on a river in Norfolk, it was moored in Norfolk. But I had a lot of problems; I had to sell it. But it was gonna be my home, that was gonna be my permanent home.

Amy said that it was a very sad story about the boat.
It is really, yeah. [laughs] I’m afraid it is, it’s an awfully sad story. I got in with an unscrupulous, dishonest dock company. They took my boat out of the water for an inspection, and it needed some things, and you have to get them to do the work, it’s basically a bylaw around there — you can’t get anyone else to do the work, and there was some stuff that I couldn’t do.

Well, they took it out of the water and they knocked a hole in the bottom of it and refused to put it back in for rather a long time. They refused to repair the boat and put it back in the water. And then they kind of found some other things that were wrong with it that I wasn’t really sure were wrong with it, and they screwed up a couple of other things, and it was just getting crazy. And all the time, basically, I was homeless. So in the end, I sold the boat; I sold it to someone who actually did get it back in the water. And it’s sailing around somewhere on the Norfolk Broads now.

What was the name of the boat?
It was called the Desert Star.

Well, I hope that you get another boat someday.
What did someone say — “The happiest day of your life is the day that you buy a boat, and the other happiest day of your life is the day that you sell it.” [laughs] But I don’t know, maybe one day we’ll end up living on the boat, and Amy can be First Mate Rigby. We’ll see. END

Since this interview, Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby have released a new single, “Teflon Wok/Bobblehead Doll.” Check out the single or the full album on Stiff Records — go to amyrigby.com to find out how to order ’em both.

[Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby were supposed to perform Sunday, September 14 at the Mink, 3718 Main Street. (713)522-9985, themink.org. But then Houston got hit by a hurricane.]

Interview by . Interview posted Monday, March 8th, 2010. Filed under Features, Interviews.

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