Full Interview with Graham Parker


Full interview with Graham Parker (see introduction/overview).

Graham Parker: Helloooo, John, how are you doing? Graham here!

John Fuzek (Motif): Great, how are you?

GP: I’m alright, how is it there? Where are you, in Rhode Island?

JF: Yes I am, miserable Rhode Island, it’s been raining for like two weeks!

GP: I’m sorry to hear that!

JF: Are you in England?

GP: Yes, I am in London. I just went to see the David Hockney exhibition at the Tate which was absolutely faaaan-tastic!

JF: What part of London are you in?

GP: I am in an area called Maida Vale, “Little Venice” it’s known as because it’s got lots of beautiful canal walks … it’s North London … I could walk to Hyde Park, Regents Park is very near … I have been here since the late 70’s … this is my beat.

JF: So, I read that you used to empty pinball machines as a kid…

GP: Yeah, i was probably 18 and that’s just one of my many jobs. It’s probably the most idyllic job in the world … It was on the Island of Guernsey in the channel islands, a tiny part time job and I was also a baker there at an industrial bakery — laborer really. I did get bumped up to being a dough maker, and some days I would pick up extra work driving to obscure pubs around the island to collect the money … Now there’s a lot of jobs and we could be here all night!

JF: The reason i brought that job up is because i actually used to empty money from pinball machines, too.

GP: Aw, come on, really? Fantastic! Recently, I was in New Jersey in Asbury Park and I had my son with me and … we went to the Pinball Museum. I think it’s called the Silver Ball — look it up, I hope it’s still there. It’s incredible, believe me.

JF: Cool! How old is your son?

GP: Well, he’s 21 now, this was a couple of years ago, actually.

JF: So, i remember seeing you in the movie This is 40 by Judd Apatow. How was your experience with that?

GP: It was as exciting as when i first got a record deal in 1975. It was pretty much on the same level — me and The Rumour did six tours and the basis was that we had just gotten together again to do a new album. Being in a movie that went into the charts at number three on the first weekend in America and was around for ages was a really serious good bump.

It was an excellent experience and all of the actors and people that i worked with and hung out with are really serious working people. They were like me — they were about getting the job done and getting it done right. You tend to think of Hollywood people as swarming around and full of crap but that wasn’t my experience. All of these people were up before dawn most of the time and on the set until ten o’clock and everybody just gets on with it — that’s all it’s about. And Judd was fantastic … as a matter of fact, there’s a show on HBO now called “Crashing.” It’s written by Pete Holmes, a comedian, and it’s about a version of him as a comedian, and Judd asked me about any new songs that haven’t made it to the light of day. I sent him one on my iPhone — this is last September — and he loved it and asked me to record it. So that’s going to be on episode nine of the first season. Judd is a producer and directs some of the shows.

JF: How did that movie reflect your personal experiences? Things didn’t turn out that great with the record deal in the film.

GP: Well, it’s all about an Indie label trying to sign acts from the 70’s and 80’s, which is not an uncommon thing … and that’s a hard thing to make work especially when you overspend on your record company with giant neon signs that you put inside the record store and cost $30,000.00. It’s going to be tough, let’s put it that way. This is a niche. It’s likely that anyone from the 70’s and 80’s will be a niche sales wise, so I saw that potential and I thought, well I’m going to play a complete fucking loser here! It’s the only way to do it man. I played it to the hilt and it was a great deal of fun. It was a version of myself that was largely based on my dad, really, when I walk out and say, ‘I have a bit of a problem, I have a touch of gout,’ and look around the room, my dad would say that and my mom would say, ‘Tom, shut up, you haven’t got bloody gout!’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah a touch of gout.’ So I played it like my dad and it was great fun … really great fun.

JF: I read that you’re often compared to Elvis Costello but you came before Elvis Costello. How do you feel about that?

GP: It’s extremely annoying. I would rather that you compare me to fucking Whitesnake for God’s sake. it’s basically just annoying and lazy journalism — that’s all it has ever been. I mean I’ve met the guy twice … his first record deal was with a label called Stiff, which is a label I funded for my manager. But he’s an original and I am, up to a point. We all got it from other forms of music. And I made two albums before he had a record deal. I mean, if you listen to us back to back there’s a certain way that we deliver a song, but there are differences that don’t make this whole thing add up. It’s like — well, Springsteen came before me, definitely came before me, but the comparisons are very thin. The first record I heard by Bruce was the same record everybody heard — unless you were a critic and got free copies of his first two albums — and that album was, of course, Born To Run. That’s the first record I heard, and that’s the first record most people heard, and, in England especially, his first two albums were unknown — completely unknown. When I heard Born To Run I already had gotten my first record deal and had already written the songs that became Howling Wind, my first album. I heard Born To Run and my jaw dropped. My friend had it — I said, ‘What is this? To me it was like the Ronettes doing Rock and Roll in the subway. It’s a staggering record. But then listen to my first record, Howling Wind — these things are like chalk and cheese: They’re not very similar, apart from the fact that he delivers in a certain way that comes from a tradition … and I do as well. It’s a delivery thing. All these comparisons are tired and old. I would love to see a piece written that doesn’t have these things in them along with me. At the same time, I understand it. I mean, when someone asks me what an artist is like that they’ve never heard, I am probably going to pull out a name of an artist that is more popular and has sold more records and then they get some understanding … but it’s not what artists want.

JF: I was really asking you how you FELT about it. I really wasn’t comparing you.

GP: Yes, yes, but the comparisons don’t really help. It would be better it you just listened to me and forgot the other names. And you MAY see some similarities — absolutely fine. That’s anybody’s call. No problem.

JF: I saw that you worked with Jack Nitzche. I Know that Neil Young had worked with him. How was that?

GP: I vaguely knew his name from Harvest and a few other things. I didn’t know the full history. He was an arranger for Phil Spectre. He was a very clever guy — I think he wrote “Needles and Pins” by The Searchers. I used him because when I  was starting there wasn’t a thing called New Wave or Punk. There was the rumblings of something called Punk happening at CBGBs, and there were certain English critics who really wanted this concept to happen in England. But when I started, it wasn’t happening.

There were bands that got wind of it — you know, kids who were forming bands: The Sex Pistols, the Whatever, and The Stranglers were out the gate pretty quickly. To me they were more of a pop band in a way, with an English accent. This thing was coming on the horizon and suddenly my career in England in ’77, by the time I made my first album, Punk and New Wave were suddenly hitting the street and that’s a very different thing than being in the back pages of the music press where you don’t whether this thing will go. Anyway, I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I was wrong. The next thing you know, the Sex Pistols released their first album. That was in October ’77 and my third album was coming out about the same time, but I could see others getting slugged by this New Wave/Punk thing which was musically very different from me — but perhaps, as some people point out, not in attitude.

So I needed to get away from a horn section for one thing, which was leaving me with the press sounding like something from an ancient time, which is what I was trying to do in the first place. I was trying to reinvent soul and R&B anyway. That is what I was trying to do, with much cleverer lyrics, so i wanted a sound that was not what they had expected from me and The Rumour. Jack Nitzche had produced this song that was widely credited as one of the first New Wave sort of Punk tracks, a song called “Mr. Jim,” by Mink Deville, that was widely credited as a sort of New Wave record that made the charts in England.

I heard that and thought it was very modern sounding, very pop, and at the same time very irreverent and not English novelty pop, and for some reason I said to my manager to get Jack Nitzche. So Jack came to London and seemed to be completely out of his element and did not know what he was doing and thought that we were a Punk band. And after finally get some tracks on tape he realized it was a whole ‘nother level of musicality and not a Punk band, and started really digging it and we ended up doing Squeezing Out Sparks in eleven days, I think it was.

JF: Did you work with Nick Lowe at this time or after or before?

GP: Nick Lowe was in one of those failed pub rock groups … and my manager knew him because he managed the Brinsley Schwarz Band. These people could not get arrested in 1976, and my manager said, ‘Let’s get Nick as your producer.’ Well, I didn’t know who Nick Lowe was — I didn’t know nothing about anything. All i knew were pop hits, the Stones and Mowtown — I didn’t know these obscure London people, so I went along with it. He did the first album — we’re talking April 1976, released in England, and he also did the third album. So that’s my relationship with him. After my first album he went on to do Costello’s first album and others by him. Nick and I are still friends, we see each other now and again and whatever.

JF: I read that you wrote a book of short stories. Is that similar or a departure from your song writing? it’s called Carp Fishing on Valium?

GP: Yes, which was followed by a novel, The Other Life Of Brian. It took over my life in the 90’s for a few years … and basically I wrote a lot of short pieces that lasted for a page — vignettes — which, of course wasn’t going to be very satisfying to anybody really. So then I saw the potential of it and wrote the short stories, and I got a literary agent and sold it to St. Martins Press in America. It came out in paperback and hardcover around the year 2000, I think. Now it’s been released with extra stories and it’s on Kindle and on GrahamParker.net, my website.

It was a very important thing for me, but it’s hard to compare it with songwriting because you need to come up with some compelling melodic and chord structures, [while] with a story you need to keep your attention on it for twenty or thirty pages which is a very different arc of creativity. Certainly I loved doing it and I loved the process. It’s just a longer arc of work, really…

JF: What is your process for songwriting?

GP: I don’t really have one. It’s a continual — umm — much like a machine I’d like to stop but can’t quite. I mean, give me a break, shut up. It’s like hearing voices, so even when I’m making an album, sometimes the whole process, when i hear tracks coming together, I hear the rough mixes I get excited and start writing then for the next album. Then I usually calm down a bit and stop. I’m not in any hurry to get an album out every year — it’s been about a forty-two year career; I guess I have made 23 or 25 studio albums and as far as I am concerned the quality on every single one of them is very, very high. Obviously, some of them are better and more important than others in certain ways. I’ve never slacked it.

JF: Which one is your favorite album?

GP: There are a few of them, really. I’d say that Howling Wind, my first one, is irreplaceable, I meant there was nothing that good in 1976, nothing. And there’s not that much that good around now. And Squeezing Out Sparks is not one of my favorites, but i recognize the power of it. Struck By Lightning from 1991 is an excellent stone classic monster — brilliant. Deep Cut To Nowhere is another strong one. Both the two recent albums by The Rumour: Three Chords Good and Mystery Glue. Mystery Glue is up there with my best work. I know what I ‘ve done, and I know how good it is. There are lots of things I don’t want to listen to. It’s hard for me to listen to Howling Wind, because I hate the way I sang — I didn’t sing properly then. All I had was aggression, but somehow, eventually, I turned it into a voice and now I’m a singer. I have learned from singing live — singing live solo is the way to learn to sing. I do a bit of solo, but I’ve been doing the gigs with Brinsley Scwharz, The Rumour guitarist and now it’s duo work.The RI gig will be a duo — it’s an eight date tour in May.

JF: So you have been playing with him for 42 years?

GP: We have been playing since the Rumor and I made a couple of albums without him, or maybe just one, and then I brought him back in and we toured significantly and made albums  until … 1989. Then I kept playing the lead stuff myself, and then I thought, ‘I want my lead stuff to sound like me and not like somebody else,’ so I began playing all the guitar parts and often including bass as well. But with Brinsley it seemed to be a no-brainer to do a duo.

JF: Is it two acoustic guitars with harmonies?

GP: No, he plays electric. I play acoustic, so it’s basically a sort of soundscape from his delightful electric playing and it flows around my acoustic. He does some backing vocals — we all could do with some backing vocals, really — and I keep shouting out, ‘Backing vocal!’ He’s too interested in his guitar work, damn him. He’s quite a good guitarist.

JF: What can we expect at your concert at the Greenwich Odeum on May 4th?

GP: Well, i don’t want to give any set lists away yet because nothing is complete until we do some rehearsal. There’s plenty of 70’s stuff, because most of the fans, let’s face it … the stuff that hit them was when they were twenty years old. When you’re eighteen or something, you’re in a dorm — those are the letters that I get: “You saved my life,” in the dorm room in wherever it was. And those songs hold up totally, as if they were written yesterday, so there’s plenty of that. There’s one or two from the newer albums, and some 80’s stuff. I  work on a whim. And stuff that I know Brinsley sort of knows, because we played some before. So, most people will be happy … Well, there’s always the ones who cannot believe that you didn’t play a certain song, right? There always will be. But when you have hundreds of song — twenty five studio albums — I think I deserve a little bit of leeway to do what the hell I want, but at the same time, I understand pleasing people, and when you’ve got some of these older songs, they’re great to play.

JF: Do you have any songs that you really don’t like to play anymore?

GP: No, there’s nothing that I really don’t like, but there are some that I can’t play — I don’t — I try to fit them into a different space playing solo. People call out for these songs. I famously — famously, ha! in my circle of fame — did a version of “I Want You Back” by Michael Jackson, and people shout out for it solo. I mean, are you kidding me? Look at my guitar playing. I am not a virtuoso. I’m very good at certain things, especially rhythmic structures on acoustic guitar, but i’m not going to play the parts for “I Want You Back” and sing them. That takes a FULL band! Everybody’s playing different rhythms that counteract each other. There’s push/pulls. That’s not an easy song to play — you have to be good. You have to be as good as The Rumour to do that song very well — and they did it very well. So that’s the thing … certain songs of mine, if i dragged it down into a slower tempo with more space, it would drag the song down. And there are other ones like “New York Shuffle,” which is a super-hyper speed song when we did it live in the 70’s, and pretty damn fast on the record. Now I do it in a shuffle on acoustic and it totally works. It was like thrash R&B or something, and now it’s a shuffle, and it works beautifully with me and Brinsley.

JF: Do you enjoy doing the duo thing? More than a band or equal or is it an entirely different experience?

GP: It’s always a different experience. The band thing that we did, which is finished now, we did six tours. Six tours is probably one or two too many. I do not discount touring with bands, but I don’t do this to break even, or lose money. You know I’m a working musician and I want to make a living out of it even if it’s not a huge amount. With The Rumour I was either losing money or a few broke even. I think one tour out of the six made a bit of money, which I probably gave to The Rumour. Even people who sell a lot of records don’t do that, you know what I mean? You don’t keep doing that. I mean, we were getting paid well and playing big places, but unless you are playing arenas and stadiums and working it a lot — I’m a pragmatist, and solo, for me, is much more creative anyway, because I can do so much. And as you know from doing it, you can change a bridge or something and cut out a chorus that you don’t think is necessary. Or you can throw in a number that you haven’t played for a bit that you THINK you can remember … You can do that solo. You can’t do that with a band.

JF: There seems to be constant discussion about people who use cheat notes when they play music — whether it be a notebook, an iPad, or a teleprompter. How do you feel about something like that?

GP: I think it’s absolutely fine. I’ve been on stage many times and had a music stand with lyrics. I’ve written an awful lot of songs. People think that you wake up in the morning and remember all this stuff — you don’t! You just don’t. And sometimes, I’m doing a song that is one of those songs I cannot ever get straight in my head. My songs are complicated. They’re often very complicated themes. We’re not talking twelve bar blues here, where you repeat a phrase all the way through the song and add another line. — we’re talking complicated songs. Just listen to them, get into the stuff; it’s complicated! I think you can have whatever paperwork they need — I want them to get it pretty close. Working with The Rumour again, I might say, ‘Here’s a suggested set list,’ and they would look at the songs and say, ‘What the hell is that? Did we do that?’ They have no idea — musicians are musicians and have done hundreds of songs and people should get some understanding that we don’t wake up in the morning singing like birds or remembering all the lyrics to four hundred songs. We get up totally confused  like everybody else does…like which sock do i put on first? We’re just dumb people like everyone. This is work — being a musician is work. That’s all it is, and that’s all it will ever be. So sure, have your reminders or whatever you want, man.

That being said, this set that me and Brinsley will be doing will probably not have one single note on stage apart from a set list. But when I’m doing solo, I think, ‘Damn, I really want that song in because I didn’t do it a week ago or whenever I played the venue last time, so then I’ll bring prompts and have them on the side. I try to not put them in the sight line to block off people’s view, but it’s totally kosher to me.

JF: Someone wanted me to ask you about two songs of yours: “Black Honey” and “White Honey.” They were wondering if they were written at the same time.

GP: “White Honey” was actually written when — that’s on my first album — so that means I was probably writing that in ’75, I think. I’d already written most of the songs but I remember when I came up with that one, [I thought] ‘That’s a winner — that’s going to be on the first album,’ which it was. “Black Honey” was written after that for the second album. The second album followed the first by six months: Two albums in 1976. It was pretty soon after it but it was basically because it just popped into my head and I thought that’s either a pretty cool thing or a totally pretentious thing to have a song called “White Honey” on your very first album and a song called “Black Honey” on the second album. And so it happens the melody for “Black Honey” is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever written and will ever write. It’s a stunner melodically — just absolutely beautiful ,and it’s totally different from “White Honey,” which is a sort of funky kind of swing song, influenced by Busby Berkely movies than anything else

JF: Well, thanks for all of that. Anything you would like to add before we wrap up the conversation?

GP: Looking forward to the gig [at] the Odeum — a nice theatre. Really looking forward to it. If you are curious what we do, look it up on YouTube. I am sure you will find something badly recorded though there might be a few good things on there.

JF: Great, thanks!

GP: John, thanks for your time, take care, buddy!


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