“We don’t live in a world where there’s one music industry anymore. I don’t know if we ever did, but it used to seem that there was one music industry that existed—like this great big river that would run forever forward, and the jobs of musicians when they were starting out was to somehow catch a ride on a boat on that river. The boat being the record label that would take you down through this industry. ‘These are the pipes, this is where they put your music, it goes to the store, the people buy it.’ We know that doesn’t exist now, so we’re looking at multiple ways you can get your music out and it can exist.”
Howie Payne at length about getting the bug to release new music, navigating the unknown in the music industry’s new world, the importance of the groove, the heavy sound of the Stands that never translated to record, and the fertile ground that Liverpool provides for young musicians. Oh, and also why you should always wear Adidas.
PS: So to start, I know that you were in L.A. recently. What brought you stateside? Was it work on new music?
Howie: I was doing all kinds of stuff, really. I was doing a bit of writing, and a little bit of recording, and I was visiting as well, because my brother lives out there now.
Yeah, Sean lives in L.A. now. He’s doing a bunch of writing and production-type stuff. And I’ve got a few old friends out there as well. I bumped into Chris [Cester], who used to be in Jet—he lives around the corner from me brother, so it’s like everyone who was on tour a few years ago now seems to live within a square mile of each other in L.A.
Probably a nice break from the British weather every now and again.
Yeah, but when I came back, I’d missed the summer they had here. They had 2 weeks of really hot weather that started the day after I left and ended the day before I got back. So literally everyone was baking out in the sun for 2 weeks. I can’t complain, because I was roasting off in L.A. It’s not been very summery at all here since. But I’m making a lot of music, so it’s good for that. If it’s too sunny and nice, you don’t wanna stay at home making music, you wanna go out, you know? [Laughter] So there’s a payoff.
I’ve been seeing the videos that were put up on YouTube lately like “The Brightest Star” and “Holding On.” Is that a look into what we’ll be getting from you soon?
Yeah, well they’re new songs—ish. I mean, “The Brightest Star” is a new song. The song that’s been out for a couple of years but I’ve never recorded it is called “Holding On.” Someone else covered it, so that’s already been a bit of a hit over here on an album—but not by me, ha. So yeah, that one might show up, but “The Brightest Star” is going to be on the next record proper. It takes a long time to make a record and put it out. When I did Bright Light Ballads, I thought I’d get it out a few weeks after I’d finished it, and it ended up taking about 12 months or something. I figure that I probably won’t put a record out until maybe spring of next year, 2017. There’ll be some music before it, though—I’ll probably put a couple of tracks up off it, probably in the fall. But in the meantime to bridge that gap, you kind of want to do something else. I’ve got the bug to do stuff at the minute. You know, I haven’t done anything for a bit. I’ve kind of got a big bunch of songs and I just want to put ‘em out.
You talked about how long it took to put out Bright Light Ballads. But you have all these means now by which you can put stuff out, whether it’s on YouTube, SoundCloud, whatever. Does that make the process easier for you or does it make it more drawn out and delayed?
That’s a good question. I think it’s a couple of things for me personally. Everybody’s kind of figuring out how to use these things to the best of their own creative advantage. I think it’s different strokes for different folks. Some people use it and it seems to make them incredibly prolific. You know, there’s hundreds of thousands of people who just put stuff up there, and for them it’s brilliant now, because they can speak to each other and make communities around the music. They can reach people—like someone in Hawaii who likes a song you put together in Liverpool. You put a tune up, and you might start to collaborate with someone who lives in Wisconsin or something through this platform. That’s a whole new world when you think about it.
But what I found—I put a few demos up there a couple of years ago. I thought, “Oh, I’ve got these demos, I’ll stick them up there and see if anyone likes them.” And they started to get reviewed and they started to get played on the radio. And they weren’t, you know—it wasn’t for that. It was like, “Oh, hang on a little bit. I didn’t really mean for that to happen. That’s not the proper version.” The danger is it sort of becomes the proper version, because the industry doesn’t recognize that that’s just a sketch, really. I mean it’s a compliment in a lot of ways that someone wants to write about your stuff—I appreciate that. But from a sort of creative perspective, you want to put drums on it, you know? [Laughter] I’m seeing it as two things now. We don’t live in a world where there’s one music industry anymore. I don’t know if we ever did, but it used to seem that there was one music industry that existed—like this great big river that would run forever forward, and the jobs of musicians when they were starting out was to somehow catch a ride on a boat on that river. The boat being the record label that would take you down through this industry. “These are the pipes, this is where they put your music, it goes to the store, the people buy it.” We know that doesn’t exist now, so we’re looking at multiple ways you can get your music out and it can exist. You’ve got to figure out how to use the digital and online platforms for yourself. I think the album’s dead. I don’t think it was meant to last in a specific way except as a piece of vinyl, and that’s a different thing. I like to own pieces of vinyl because I like that there’s music contained on something that I can hold. I have a physical connection with it. The sound quality appeals to me, and that it’s a collection of songs that seems just about right to listen to—35 or 42 minutes of music by one artist. There’s a pause where I can turn it over or contemplate whether I want to turn it over. It’s a great format, but I understand people who don’t care about that. When I was growing up, I didn’t care about albums. I cared about songs. I used to go me friend’s house and listen to albums, but I used to just make tapes of records and pass them round. I’d like three songs by the Easybeats, but I don’t think they ever even made an album. [Laughter] I never even considered it. I’m not a sentimentalist about the way it was or anything like that. I still think there’s a new place for the album, which is as an artifact you buy that’s got really nice artwork, or a book and lyrics. It’s a way that you can own the music and play it on your own hi-fi. So the things should coexist is the short answer. [Laughter]
As a songwriter, does it affect your practice at all? If you’re writing an album like All Years Leaving or Horse Fabulous and you go through that process of whittling down 30 songs to 10 for an album. Do you look at that like “This will be a nice coherent piece” or “This will be a nice artifact,” or if you’re putting up songs here and there on these various platforms, does it change your approach as a songwriter?
I don’t know. Part of that process I was talking about before is that you write a bunch of songs and then you build an album from those songs. I do think in terms of a collection of 35 minutes of music with six tracks or five tracks per side. But that’s just because that’s the way I listen to music—it’s something I can relate to. I’m under no illusion that that’s how it would appear on iTunes or on someone’s playlist, because you just hit shuffle and there you are. I don’t start the process by saying, “I’m gonna write 10 tracks and this is going to be one body of work.” It tends to be that I write a ton of tunes and then I listen to them and pick them out in a way that doesn’t sort of repeat the same style too many times. If there’s a waltz on it already, I don’t need another one. There might be another song that’s a killer that’s a waltz and it might not make it on, because it doesn’t flow right. But at some point in time, that other waltz could come out on its own. That’s a good thing.
I always wonder with the iTunes or streaming generation, if it’s resetting everything back to the 1950s where it’s not LP driven. It’s driven by singles, and people competing for the best song, you know, and will we get to a point where people figure out how to put together the proper digital or streaming album where it demands your attention for 45 minutes?
I think you’re right. It’s back to 1962 or whatever. There’s these huge megastars and then there are these other people who are playing the circuit. That’s the way it was then too. But I also think that what drove the album market wasn’t the industry. Sure, they seen it as a way to make more money at some point in time and allowed the Grateful Dead to do their own thing. [Laughter] But that’s not the reason they got into it. The album became—in my understanding at least—a supreme format because you had a collection of groups and songwriters who just wrote 45 minutes’ worth of music you couldn’t turn away from. If a band came out with something now of the caliber of a great album, like Dark Side of the Moon, or After the Gold Rush, or Revolver and put it on Spotify, I’ll tell you for nothing, I’m listening to the whole thing. I’m not skipping it. Where would you skip it? “Yellow Submarine” maybe, but other than that? [Laughter] You’re not turning “Eleanor Rigby” off if that comes on. Forget it, man. What made people want to listen is the fact that people made great records. There’s a counterargument that at the moment, no one’s trying to do that with the same kind of intent because the whole thing is so singular track driven. But there are a lot of people who are making bodies of work—Kendrick Lamar, people like that—that have got to be listened to. Serious stuff that you can dive into and lose yourself in it for a period of time, and come out a changed man. [Laughter]
Going back to what you were saying earlier about the music industry was for so long on that endless river, I wanted to talk to you about your time with the Stands—
That was a good link there. [Laughter]
Well you talked about catching that boat with a label, and you were on a bigger label with Echo, which ran into the problems that were affecting a lot of labels at the time. How did that affect where you were at the time? Had that situation not happened, do you think there might have been a third Stands album or did it feel like it had already run its course?
It’s hard to say, isn’t it? We were talking about ditching “the Stands” before Horse Fabulous came out. I remember having that conversation in L.A., because it just felt like we should do it under a different name. It may not have transformed into a solo thing under my own name. I think what may have more likely happened—I mean, you can’t tell, man—I could’ve seen it developing into a more legitimate group where people were contributing. Because the members that had come into the group at that point in time, like Stevie [Pilgrim], the drummer—he’s gone on to write a bunch of albums himself and put records out as a solo artist as well as being a great drummer who’s forged his own career. He’s now recognized as a songwriter in his own right. At that time, I don’t think he wasn’t really focused on that as much, so he didn’t really contribute his own songs to the Stands. On the first record, it might have been that I just didn’t open the door for that. But I think after we changed the lineup a little bit and some of the other guys had come in—Paul Molloy especially—he came in as a songwriter to play guitar for us. I could see that developing into something where we did start to collaborate on stuff that never came out. Maybe it would’ve gone that way. I don’t know.
What do you think working with Tom Rothrock on Horse Fabulous brought to the Stands?
There was a cohesive process. [Laughter] The first album was produced by accident, almost. Most of it was done as rough recordings before we’d signed a deal, in different people’s rooms. It ended up being mixed by a couple guys, but I think it was mixed by about six people before that. There was a real rush on the part of the label to get it out. That was part of the issue—and a lot of people go through that—but it was never really sort of finished in a way where we all felt it was completely nailed. With Horse Fabulous, there was more of a definite structure that meant that the record started and then got finished. But that’s the way it goes, man. Part of the philosophy with All Years Leaving was I wanted it to be a very honest snapshot of where the band was. “This is this band, this is what we do, this is a microphone in the room while we’re doing it, there’s no smoke and mirrors.” I’m not trying to be clever about it. It was just that’s what I was very much into at the time—records that were made like that—lots of creaky sounds and things that don’t quite work on it. Whereas I think by the time we got into Horse Fabulous, I wanted to make a different kind of record. I wanted to make something that was—I don’t know what the right word is, but—layered and sonically wide and full. Use orchestras and stuff like that. Tom definitely brought the kind of ability to harness that vision and to make it a very painless process. It was a good, fun record to make, that. We flew to L.A., we were there for 2 or 3 months or something, we had a great old time, and we came home, and there was a record. That was it, you know? He definitely brought an American-ness to it, I think. To the writing process as well. He didn’t get involved in talking to me about song structure, because those songs were pretty strong when we took them in. But there was one song that wasn’t finished, and he pushed me to finish it. I finished it in the studio as I was singing it. That was “Do it Like You Like,” which ended up being one of the strongest tunes on it. He brought that kind of stuff, but he also really brought that laid-back L.A. calm to it.
It sounds a bit more—paradoxically—a bit more relaxed, but also a bit more fun. It’s interesting that you say “Do it Like You Like” was being pushed to be finished, because that’s the one that stands out on that album as something that’s a bit different from the normal Stands aesthetic. You know, “We’re breaking out the electric guitars and really going for it on this one …”
Yeah, I think that was the biggest problem that the Stands had. In retrospect—and it’s the biggest thing people say to me—you know, live, we were a rock and roll band. We were a loud, kick-ass rock and roll band. We were more out there than most of the bands that who were around at the time. Someone sent me a film the other day of when we were supporting Jet—we were on tour with Jet, that’s the bracket they put us in—in Melbourne at the Forum with a half-hour set. Somehow, we’ve got a drum solo in there. Do you know what I’m saying? We’ve got a drum solo and two 10-minute songs that are just guitar jams. That’s pretty much what we were doing, ‘cos we were very very much into that sort of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young thing of dragging songs out with like big guitar things going on. That’s kind of what the band was, and we just never captured that on record. We had moments where it was definitely more finessed than that and gentler, maybe? But you know, songs like “The Way She Does”—they were big songs live. And on the record, it just doesn’t come across at all.
Is that something that affects you as a songwriter? So many people I’ve talked to have said, “Well, you have to be able to get your song across with an acoustic guitar.” Do you think that precludes you in any way from writing the big, loud, “Do it Like You Like”-type song? I mean, being that you were in the Big Kids, which was a pretty loud band, I would assume that that’s a pretty big part of your personality and songwriting makeup too.
What, being heavy?
Yeah, I mean moreso than anything else, really. Oddly. I mean I’ve got that melodic thing, you know, that Liverpool melodic thing that comes from the Irish or whatever it is. That vein of minor key runs rich in me family. All the bands I was in in the mid-to-late nineties or whatever, up until the Big Kids, were all really, really fuckin’ heavy bands, like. They were full on, you know—Blueseed and Telephone, and all them groups—because that’s what it was all about. It was about having a big amp and turning it right up, just going nuts, and big drums. So they were all sort of more garage-y, psych things. But I always ran parallel to the acoustic stuff I used to do, because that’s how you used to make some bread in Liverpool—if you could play acoustic nights. Going around with a group, it’s kind of hard to make money when you’re on the dole and you’re coming up. So you’ve gotta figure that out. The way to do it was you could go anywhere with an acoustic guitar and play these nights, so you had to have a body of work that would work that way. Liverpool has such a big tradition of sort of sitting ’round playing acoustic guitars, anyway. Everyone sort of wants to give you a tune or get a tune out of you. You’re encouraged to have a couple of tunes that you can play. But still, the two things can coexist. I think that’s what makes all the best bands—if you’ve got a bit of dynamism. And to be honest with you, that’s what I was saying about the Stands. The Stands had that, but it just never came across on the record. Even “Do it Like You Like” is probably nowhere near as heavy as it was in real life. Nowhere near, man.
You mention that acoustic guitar tradition in Liverpool—I was listening to a podcast with Clint Boon where he was talking about being on a festival with the Happy Mondays and La’s, and at one point he walked in on the La’s and everybody had an acoustic guitar. There was this huge strum-along going, and someone would call out a chord, and everyone would start playing along on that chord, or someone would call out a song, and everyone would just play along. He said it’s something about Liverpool that he’s never seen anywhere else. It’s like inborn there.
Yeah, I think that’s a really good sort of anecdote that sums it up. That’s what it’s like when you’re growing up there. Maybe it’s changed, I don’t know. I haven’t been there for a few years, you know, I live in London now. It’s all disco beats down here. [Laughter] There’s no acoustic guitars. But that was always my experience. There’s always someone with an acoustic guitar knockin’ about, after a club or whatever it is. That’s where you always end up, or in a rehearsal room. You always kind of break it down to that at some point in time because it is that thing where if it works that way, it’s gonna work any way. I read somewhere that’s how the Beatles did their songs. Like when they’d show George Martin their songs, Paul McCartney said in some interview that him and John Lennon would stand there with two acoustic guitars and both strum the song as hard as they could and sing the song to George Martin. That’s where they decided if it worked or not. That’s how they wrote them, and that’s how they sung them. Now, I’m sure they wrote some on the piano, but that sort of essence of it is still there. If it works, it’s gonna work, like. It doesn’t mean it will end up that way, but you can still hear it.
I think it’s also a testament to the talent that comes out of that city. I mean, look at the Big Kids. Edgar goes on to do his thing, you go on and find success with the Stands and solo, your brother goes on with the Zutons and Russell goes on with the Zutons and now he’s with Noel Gallagher. The talent that the rest of the country buys into, you know? “We gotta get this guy in our band.”
Oh yeah, the level of musicianship is off the charts. I think so, anyway. There’s some unbelievably good players up there. All the people you just mentioned, and then there’s guitar players like Bill Ryder-Jones and Lee Southall as well. There’s people up there who can just play the skin out of anything, you know? But I think that perpetuates that sort of standard, because that’s where you’ve gotta be—do you know what I mean? If you want to get along, you’ve gotta be good, because everyone else who’s around is good. You’ve gotta work hard to get good. But at the same time, you’re sitting with people who are good and they’ll show you stuff. So you learn—you learn from those people about where the beat sits and that sort of stuff. Which a lot of people don’t even put any time into, you know? Where the groove is and that. Which is really the important stuff.
And that’s what I was gonna ask you too—
What, where the groove is? [Laughter]
Well, that’s the million-dollar question. But no, what would you say is the lesson or the most important thing you carried forward from your formative time in Liverpool?
God, I don’t know. I just never thought of that. Always wear Adidas. [Laughter] Doesn’t matter what other brands are available.
I know bands that go down a retro route often face criticism, but it seems like some of the stuff you’ve done with the Stands or solo has kind of become more commonplace in recent years, whether it’s releasing things on vinyl or emulating that kind of Americana sound. Do you see that?
It’s turned out by chance—because I’d love to take credit for being in front of the pack—but with the Stands, we were so far behind the pack, we were actually in front. The pack was moving in a circle. So what came after us was exactly what we were harping on about. Some people admired us for it, some people absolutely crucified us for recording on analog equipment and releasing things on vinyl. To make what we would call an organic sound at the time and to represent the song. All that sort of stuff that people thought was “the Liverpool disease” is really what has been done by so many people now. Even the sort of instruments that we used.
When I did Bright Light Ballads—which went on to influence a lot of people, I’ve been told—it came up after as being the first sort of record like that that was around in England at the time. Not that I invented alternative country or anything [Laughter], but I remember we took it to radio, and they turned us down. They said, “We really love this record, we want to support it, but we just don’t think we can feature it on our show, because we’re a current music show and this has a banjo on it.” That’s it. That’s what they said. “This has got banjos and fiddles on it. We can’t play this.” So they were very nice about it, but that’s what they said. This was 2009 or whatever, and it’s like 6 months before Mumford & Sons come out. Everything’s got fiddles and banjos on it. That’s where we ended up. So it’s that thinking that was a very Liverpool thing to be into at the time—trying to get very organic, real sounds, like the records we were really digging at the time—those Gram Parsons records, stuff like that, very folky or Americana or whatever. Now it’s like those records have more relevance in some way—especially All Years Leaving. That was an echo of what was to come in a lot of ways.
***Howie Payne will embark on a UK tour in September. Tickets for the below dates can be secured here.
16 September: Headrow House, Leeds
17 September: Cluny 2, Newcastle
18 September: The Hug and Pint, Glasgow
20 September: The Bodega Social Club, Nottingham
21 September: Louisiana, Bristol
22 September: The Forge, London
Howie answers our Five Questions here.