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Morton Valence - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 26 / 6 / 2011

Morton Valence - Interview


Robert Hacker Jessett, the front man with urban country outfit Morton Valence, chats to John Clarkson about their second album, ‘Me and Home James’, which is a concept album about an illegal cab drive from South to North London

“I want people to get something from our lyrics,” says Robert “Hacker” Jessett. “We don’t mumble. Bands that do mumble usually mumble because they have absolutely nothing to say. We do have something to say though, although hopefully not in a preachy, political, dogmatic way. We are making observations about the world around us I guess.” The South London-based singer, songwriter and guitarist is talking to Pennyblackmusic about Morton Valence, the group which he formed some years ago with Irish dancer Anne Gilpin (vocals, keyboards), and their second album, ‘Me and Home James’, which came out in May. Morton Valence - which also consists of Colombian-born musicians Leo Fernandez (bass) and Alejo Palaez (keyboards, lap steel, electronica), and latest recruit Dagenham native Daryl Holley (drums) - are in the increasingly identikit “indie” music world complete one-offs. They describe themselves as an “urban country” outfit, because of their use of traditional country narratives and harmonies in their songs. Modern South London, however, provides the backdrop to their songs, and, while they do play occasional 1940’s and 1950’s-influenced country ballads, their music is a kaleidoscopic patchwork of genres that also weaves together blues, folk-influenced sounds, Latino jazz, punk and electronica. Their albums are – for need of a better phrase- concept records. Their 2009 debut album, ‘Bob and Veronica Ride Again’, told of the stumbling romance between depressed London slacker and atheist Bob and Christian runaway Veronica, and came accompanied with a 110 page novella. ‘Me and Home James’ is about a late night/early morning journey in a probably illegal mini cab from South to North London, and some of the characters the cab, and its unnamed narrator in its back seat, pass on the way. These include a dying East Ender in ‘The Death of a Cockney Amorist’; a frustrated 9 to 5-er saved from bitterness and disappointment by the sudden dawning of love in ‘These Were the Things I Was Thinking of When You Fell Out of the Sky’, and a one-time Hare Krishna who has abandoned his faith for a job in the civil service in ‘Bad Times for Hare Krishnas’. Morton Valence won the Fopp/PRSF Award in 2006 for best new band, and were briefly signed to an indie label, but since then have been content to release records on their own Bastard Recordings. What burns through, when talking to Robert Hacker Jessett, is how much he and his band revel in their outsider status. Morton Valence are one of the few bands at the moment that are taking risks. PB: In the book of ‘Bob and Veronica Ride Again’, which is set in the 1990s, Bob and Veronica go to a gig and see an early version of Morton Valence, which has two female keyboardists and does a cover of Cameo’s ‘Word Up’ in Cantonese. Have Morton Valence really been going that long, and did you really used to play ‘Word Up’ in Cantonese? RH: Morton Valence hasn’t been going that long, but I have personally been making music for all that time. The book of ‘Bob and Veronica Ride Again’ was originally just going to be some sleeve notes on the back cover of the album, but then it mutated into a 110 page novella (Laughs). It is at one level semi-autobiographical, but the good thing about doing anything fictitious is that you can edit and add and remove things at will, be they true or be they completely from the imagination. That did happen though. We had a Chinese girl in the band for a while and she couldn’t actually play anything, but she looked great and she was also a great character. She was like our Stu Sutcliffe or Sid Vicious. We didn’t have her in the band for her musical ability, but she definitely brought something to the band. We did get her to sing ‘Word Up’, and she did actually translate it into Cantonese or another Chinese dialect. We played it for a couple of weeks, but it never really went anywhere and so we pulled it from the set list. Gigi, who was the Chinese girl, eventually went back to Shanghai. PB: How long then has the current incarnation of yourself, Anne Gilpin, Leo Fernandez and Alejo Pelaez been going for? RH: Anne and I have been playing together for about ten years. We first met when I was doing music with a guy called Graham Cunnington, who was part of a legendary agitprop/industrial band called Test Department, for a contemporary dance show. Anne was one of the dancers and we hit it off, and started making music together and doing recordings. Originally Morton Valence was very electro. We worked with a guy called Chuck E Peru. That is what he called himself anyway, and he had an Akai MPC and Anne and I would front it. We had this kind of 80’s electro sound, which is very, very cool and very, very hip now, but when we were doing it absolutely nobody was doing it all. Every band was trying to be the Libertines at the time. The only reason we did it like that was because we couldn’t find a drummer. Then the synthesiser guy quit, and there was just me and Anne left - This must have been four or five years ago now - and eventually we got Leo and Alejo on board. We have probably had more drummers since then than Spinal Tap, although our current drummer Daryl Holley has been with us for about a year. Leo and Alejo bring a Latin sensibility, but not in a very overt way which I really like. If you listen to the title track on ‘Me and Home James’ you can really hear that influence, although it is not like we are doing the Salsa or anything like that. Anne and I are very much into country music, but we have come from this very leftfield electro background and with this strange sort of Latin influence from Leo and Alejo I believe that we have come up with something totally unique. In terms of creativity that is something that I am really proud of and which is a real positive, but in terms of moving forward in the record industry it is a real hindrance because I don’t think that originality gets you anywhere in the music industry. PB: London is the central character in ‘Me and Home James’ and its one continuous character. ‘Bob and Veronica Ride Again’ is also set there. Could you ever imagine not setting an album in London? RH: I guess I buy into the old cliché that you should write what you know, and that is what I know. I love New York and I love Berlin. They are both places which we have played in and that are fantastic cities, but at the end of the day what I understand and what I relate to is London where I have lived my whole life. It is obviously going to be much easier for me to write about London than either those cities or, again say, Birmingham or Alabama. PB: While the book was in fact written latterly, the ‘Bob and Veronica Ride Again’ album at one level and in the most basic of terms could be described as an adaptation of a novel. Do you see ‘Me and Home James’ as more a linked set of short stories? RH: Yeah, that is a good way of describing it I think. They are vignettes. In particular with the title track and ‘These Were the Things I Was Thinking of…’, I was trying to tap into a mood that is currently present in London, a late night blue collar rough-and-ready take on life in London. PB: In light of that was there really a taxi firm called Home James? RH: Yes, in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. It wasn’t only a taxi firm. It was also a Jamaican blues club, and I used to go down there about ten, fifteen years ago, and have a late night drink and maybe smoke a few strange substances while I was there, and then get a mini cab home. It was the perfect evening. A lot of the songs on ‘Me and Home James’ are lamenting a side of London that is passing on. These were places of great character that I quite liked and which are now gone. That beautiful record shop I used to go is now a Starbucks, and that pub that would have a lock in until five ‘o’ clock in the morning is now a block of flats, and that Jamaican cab office I used to go to for late night blues parties has just vanished off the face of the Earth. Everything has become a lot more sanitised. ‘The Death of the Cockney Amorist’, the first song on the album, represents that. It is about a side of London that is being pushed aside for something, which while at one level is safe, but is totally lacking any real character. I think that it goes right across our whole culture though, be it musical culture, film culture or even festivals. They have become so well organised that they have become divorced from the very thing that they were supposed to be about in the first place. I actually stole the Cockney Amorist from a John Betjeman poem, but he represents a part of society that is being shoved out. PB: Is the main character on ‘Bad Times for the Hare Krishnas’ another representation of that? RH: Yes, definitely. ‘Bad Times for the Hare Krishnas’ is saying that there is no space anymore for eccentrics. The character in that is looking back on things. This is somebody who in their youth was very idealistic and into radical ideas, but is now working for the Civil Service which is the very thing that he was initially rebelling against. It is a simple idea, but I think that usually the best ideas are the simple ones. PB: How many of your characters come from the imagination and how many of them are based on real people? RH: They are all based on real people. That is why I think that they are believable. It also makes them very easy to write about. It is that old cliché again about writing about what you know. The ex-radical that works for the Civil Service I know very well (Laughs), although I have disguised him a little and some of the other characters also. Some of the characters I would describe as being slightly autobiographical as well. PB: Love in many cases seems to be the saving grace of many of these characters, particularly on ‘These Were the Things I Was Thinking of...’ The girl in that is on the point of ending up not just really frustrated by life but also really embittered by it, and then suddenly this romance happens which takes her by complete surprise and basically saves her. RH: There is redemption in a lot of what I write about. The idea is that just at that point where she believes in nothing suddenly it happens. It is also at the point that she has stopped trying. Then suddenly love falls out of the sky and puts all that into perspective, and all the other rubbish that she is jabbering about in the song becomes an irrelevance. PB: Despite it being such a London album you have put an out of focus Confederate flag on the sleeve. Why did you do that? RH: There have been a few raised eyebrows about the cover, but it is most definitely not as has been suggested because we are in any way right wing. We are one of the few “indie” bands that are ethnically diverse. The idea of the cover and the blurred Confederate flag is that is kind of our take on the music that we grew up listening to. The reason why we went down that country path was because both Anne and I spent our childhood and teens listening to a lot of country music. Unfortunately my parents weren’t listening to ‘Heroes’ by Bowie when I was a kid (Laughs). It was Slim Whitman and Jim Reeves, and not even the cool country stuff like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. It was the very naff Nashville stuff, and I absolutely loathed it when I was kid because I was into punk. It had an effect though, and also on Anne who is originally from Belfast where country music is massive. It lingered there subconsciously. If you look at songs like ‘These Are the Things’ or ‘Bad Times for the Hare Krishnas’, they reference those old kind of Nashville songs in that they don’t mince their words and they put a strong emphasis on narrative. As there are so many diverse influences, and the backdrop is London, the context is, however, completely different. We came together from working with a guy who was in Test Department, and it doesn’t get much more leftfield than that to be honest with you. The idea of the Confederate flag is that it is referencing music from that part of the world (i.e. the U.S. Bible Belt), but as we have made it out of focus, it is also implying that we are doing something different with it that takes into account our other influences, and which is also hopefully original. PB: How did you record this album? How much of it was recorded at home and how much in a studio? RH: It is all about pre-production I guess. We did a lot of stuff at home in my living room and on my laptop. We had everything prepared, and then we went into the studio with Brian O’Shaughnessy, which was funded by the generosity of a guy from Canada called Ken Fahlman who runs a computer games business called ‘Hothead Games’, and who has stalwartly supported us through thick and thin. The music business is fucked, so we’ve gone back to old fashioned philanthropy. It works better for us. We do have fans that have been really supportive, and there are people in the media that have been really helpful, but in terms of labels, booking agents and other people like that we have had no support at all. It is probably the absolute opposite, and every encounter we have had with the industry has led to problems. I like working the way we do though. We are not chasing the dream. We don’t care. I have got a day job. Anne has a day job. Everybody has a day job. All those people that are chasing the big dream they last two, three years and then they’re normally gone. They do one album and they’re gone. We will be making albums in ten years’ time. As long as we’re still alive, Anne and I will still be making albums, with or without the industry. We really don’t give a damn. PB: You’re going to be doing some dates this year. Are you going to be doing a tour or one off dates? RH: One off dates. We were offered a few festivals, but we turned them down because it was a graveyard shift. We will definitely be doing, however, a couple of shows in London. There will hopefully be something in Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Brighton as well, but they are going to be weekend jaunts. We like to do our own nights and basically bring our own living room to the venue, and turn the club into Club Valence. You can’t really do that if you are the support band so we tend to prefer headline slots. If all we are going to be offered is the graveyard slots at festivals, then it is more hassle than it is worth. Camping in the middle of the field getting rained on also doesn’t really appeal to me (Laughs). PB: Are you working on a third album now? RH: Yes, it is called ‘Old Punks’. It is much more lo-fi than our other two albums, and we are recording it using a nylon string guitar. It is all going to be recorded in my living room because at the moment we can’t afford to go into a big studio. It is funny. I never try to consciously take things in one direction or another. It usually just happens by itself. The songs for the next album are again very story-based. We have got one song that is about ten minutes long and I am trying to edit it down and I can’t, but we’re really happy with it and the way it is going. We have got a country song called ‘A Table for One’, which is literally about a guy phoning up a restaurant and booking a table for one. It is all very obvious why he is booking the table for one and has got a very Nashville vibe to it. I would love to record an album in Nashville, but it is never going to happen so for the time being I am bringing Nashville to my living room (Laughs). PB: Thank you.

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