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Heaven 17 - Interview

  by Nigel Carr

published: 19 / 6 / 2015

Heaven 17 - Interview


Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory talks to Nigel Carr about his latest project, touring David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold the World with original drummer Woody Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti and its accompanying live album

Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory is touring with ex-Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey's Holy Holy to perform a series of dates showcasing Bowie's 1971 album 'The Man Who Sold the World'. The tour kicked off on the 12th of June at the Isle of Wight Festival, and if the few dates they did at the end of last year are anything to go by it is sure to be an unmissable spectacle. The band features Bowie producer Tony Visconti and Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson's daughter Lisa, with his sister Maggi and niece Hannah on backing vocals. Pennyblackmusic caught up with Glenn during his family holiday on the North coast of Cornwall. PB: I saw some online videos of the Shepherd's Bush Empire gig from last year and there were four guitarists on stage. It was like a big revue! GG: I don't think it's quite as chaotic as it was last year. We kicked off at The Garage, which is a small venue in London with maybe a capacity of 400, and I swear there were 1500 in there, and 400 of them were on stage! It's a little more honed this time. PB: Why do you think that Tony Visconti chose this album to tour as opposed to some of the better known and more successful Bowie albums? GG: I think one of the reasons is that it had never been played live before in its entirety. They recorded 'The Man Who Sold the World' '(MWSTW'), and I think Bowie got married to Angie just after that so they were a bit caught up in it, and didn't tour the album. Then very quickly they wrote 'Ziggy Stardust' and toured it, and they did play quite a few of the tunes from this but they never played the whole album from start to finish. For me, I think that is really why they wanted to do it because it had never been done. Whereas if they had chosen another album then it's all pretty much been done and then they would really be kind of rehashing it, whereas this really was a first, you know? PB: I get that, because you going on as Ziggy, that's really not going to work as it was already heavily toured. Doing 'Hunky Dory', 'Ziggy' or 'Aladdin Sane' - Bowie was much more in character and maybe that would be much harder to pull off? GG: Having said that, we do do songs from those other albums. After 'MWSTW' we do another 13 or 14 songs from other albums including 'Aladdin Sane' so you do get some of those, just the odd ones from the other albums. One of the ones I love doing: we do 'Rock and Roll Suicide'. I love singing that! PB: What's it like singing Bowie's songs? Your voice isn't that dissimilar, you have that deep intonation he has. GG: Yeah, exactly, it's funny, when I was asked to do it, learning the songs and singing them and people were asking if I was going to (sings Anthony Newley-style Bowie), and what are you going to wear? And I was, "No I'm not"; in fact Woody (Woody Woodmansey), sent me an email pretty early on welcoming me on board and he said "Look Glenn, make it your own man – we're not expecting any kind of Bowie, just do it how you want to do it," - and I really took that on board and I was really happy that they'd done that and it made it clear to me that they weren't after a 'Stars In Their Eyes' performance. It was genuinely an interpretation of the tracks and it gave me a freedom I wasn't sure I'd got until I had that email. Having said that, I was always a Bowie fan and, as you said, my voice has probably got enough Bowie in really to just make it work anyway without having to try too hard. PB: I got that from the show you did last year. You trying to sound like Bowie would have come across as a parody, like a tribute band, but it doesn't come across like that. It was great he said that because it gave you the artistic freedom to kind of do what you want. GG: Exactly – it was just a by the by comment he made at the end of the email and I was like "Actually I'm really glad you said that". Whereas I might have been trying to find a way to interpret them with a bit more of a kind of 'twang' - but no, it's just me and I think they are really pleased with it. Tony said that as well. He said, "I love it because you just sing it the way you sing it, not try and do it the way he did it, or how you think he might want," and because of that that's what's making it work. PB: I saw Marc Almond and Gary Kemp join you on stage at the Shepherd's Bush gig last year, is Marc a part of the show? GG: Last time he did a couple of concerts, but this time he's doing five or six of them and doing four or five songs. I love singing with him on stage. We have such a good rapport, so that's working really well. PB: Are you going to sing the whole of 'MWSTW' and then he sings songs later, or will he join you doing the album? GG: I do all of 'MWSTW'. He might do 'After All' – I just do backing vocals on that, then we do a medley together. PB: What is your favourite Bowie track of all time? GG: That's a difficult question - there are so many, but I really like 'Can You Hear Me?' from 'Young Americans' actually. A lot of people don't like that album so much but I really do. But having said that, 'Aladdin Sane', I love that album. One of my favourite ones to sing is 'Time' – it really suits me and I really feel I've got the attitude right on that one and I really do sing it well, I think – even though I say so myself! PB: Charles Shaar Murray and Roy Carr of the 'NME' have stated that 'MWSTW' was where 'it' all started. I'm guessing they were talking about Glam, but I feel it's more of a rock album. GG: It is more of a rock album, and in a way I definitely see parallels between that and 'Aladdin Sane' and 'Diamond Dogs', in the way there is a story that runs through them both. Yes it is Glam. He finally got it where he was going, but then it was still unformed. PB: You have cited Roxy Music as an influence on you in the past, but who was your biggest influence on your vocals? GG: It's funny, that; I have been listening to a whole heap of Bowie recently just to learn the songs, but just the other day I made a playlist of Roxy Music and I remember saying to my wife, '"You know I always think it's Bowie, but there are a real lot of Roxy albums out there that are fantastic". I mean it definitely was Bowie, but there are some really really good Roxy ones. PB: Do you mean the early stuff like 'Virginia Plain' and 'Pyjamarama'? GG: All of those – the first two albums, ('Roxy Music' and 'For Your Pleasure') definitely, but even the later albums that you don't hear as much, there are a couple of tracks off nearly all of them where you go, "Aww, I love that track," like 'Manifesto' and 'Avalon' - they all have something to give. PB: Just going back a step, what did you think of Lulu's version of 'MWSTW'? GG: I think it was a really good cover and in a way it's kind of better known. PB: Did Bowie himself turn up to any of those gigs, as I read somewhere you were a bit nervous of maybe having him in the audience? GG: No he didn't. I know he has seen some of the footage, so he's fully aware that it's there but if he ever were to come then please don't tell me beforehand! Everything has to go through him first and he had to have the nod. I know that Woody and everyone involved didn't want to do it without his acknowledgement really. PB: I guess that Tony Visconti does feel a sense of ownership as he was so involved in the development of the album? GG: Exactly, and he played on and mixed the album. PB: 'Penthouse and Pavement' – one of the top four albums of the early Eighties along with 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome', 'Dare' and 'The Lexicon of Love'. How do you feel about it now? GG: Yes, that's a fine choice of four albums I think. Well those two albums, 'Dare' and 'Penthouse', when Martyn (Ware) left the Human League and formed Heaven 17 and I went back to Sheffield to join them. The only kind of asset the band had was the fact they had a studio in Sheffield which was a terrible, derelict old building. I think it was called Monumental Studios and it wasn't a bit 'monumental' in any way. In fact the only thing monumental about it was the number of used milk bottles in the kitchen! But that was the only asset, and both those albums were written in that same studio. We worked ten at night 'til ten in the morning, and they worked ten in the morning 'til ten at night. But we both wrote those albums in the same studio. PB: What's next for Heaven 17? I believe there is a tour in the offing? GG: We're playing live quite a lot this year – it's almost knitted itself together to become a tour, but between the festival dates and the individual dates we are probably going to be playing over fifty gigs. PB: But that's like a proper comeback, isn't it? GG: Yes, and actually our live stuff is going really well; we have really connected with the audience in a large, very good way. They are liking us and we are really enjoying it and I think we are getting reasonably good at it now! I'm probably going to be singing the most I have ever sung in June and July this year, what with the Holy Holys and Heaven 17. I think I only have three days off in June. Then in July we are doing 'MWSTW' in Japan. I have to fly via Paris and then when we land it's just six hours until the first gig! Berenice (Scott – Keyboards) is coming too, she is Heaven 17's keyboard player but also plays in Holy Holy as well. Then we have four gigs, fly back and I have a Heaven 17 gig the following day! I am going to be fucked! PB: What about the audience at the average Heaven 17 gig these days? I was interviewing a young Manchester band the other day and they had a big clunky bass sound actually not far away from 'Fascist Groove Thing'. GG: It's funny ,isn't it? I know it seems clichéd to say it but our audience seem to be getting younger! You've got fans from seeing you at the time. But there are kids, 17,18,19 coming with albums to sign and we're like, genuinely, are these your dad's or something? I actually have a lot of stuff running on my iPod and my son will ask, "What's that, Dad?" And I'll say "Roxy Music", and before you know it he's on his computer and he's downloaded it and he's listening to it. PB: You've been recording a new album – how is that going to sound? GG: With everything else we are doing we are trying to write a new Heaven 17 album, and it's going really well. It's slow but only because we physically can't get in to the studio together. We want to do it old style, not remotely. It's myself and Martyn, and because we are both busy it is going slowly but what we are doing sounds great. There are a couple of tunes already; one's called 'Pray' and one's called 'Illumination', and 'Pray', I think, is one of the best songs we have written since 'Let Me Go' - I think it's really good. PB: Is it in the same vein? GG: Yes it is, but that vein is very rich at the moment and it's that vein that people are mining, so it sounds very contemporary. For example on 'Pray', we are using the same analogue synth, the System 100, that we used on 'Being Boiled'! And when it comes on you can see how it lifts the crowd. There is just something that sounds so contemporary. PB: Do you have any tips for anyone starting out in music these days? GG: Find your individuality, and it doesn't have to be that you are the only band doing it, but if it's drum, bass and guitar for example, then that's what you are and don't try and be anything else. Stick to what you do and just get really good at what you do. Just practise and get really good and try and write good songs. PB: I watch 'The X-Factor' and 'Britain's Got Talent' and they do try and mould people. And chuck them down a direction they would rather not go. GG: I don't watch it and I don't even have a television to watch it on. If you want to make a lasting impression in music then that is not the route to take. PB: Everyone has a thing, Alice Cooper has golf, I'm a swimmer – what's your thing? GG: The only thing that I really kind of enjoy doing is that I love the sea. I love going sea kayaking, but I am no happier than when I am in the studio working, and, to be honest, if I have the day off I will go into the studio. PB: Finally, any collaborations set up for the future? I saw you had written a couple of tracks with Midge Ure. GG: There is a band I work with called Honeyroot, with Keith Lowndes, but Keith and I have stopped working together. Berenice and I have just started writing a few little things together and we are going to put an album out, so that is my next collaboration. We've got a few ideas on the go that we are going to start in August. We don't even have a name, so at the moment it's called 'B and G'. PB: Thanks Glenn, I'll let you get back to your holiday! The Man Who Sold The World Dates: Thu June 18 2015 - LIVERPOOL O2 Academy Bristol Sun June 21 2015 - LEEDS O2 Academy Leeds Thu June 25 2015 - GLASGOW O2 ABC Glasgow Fri June 26 2015 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE O2 Academy Newcastle Mon June 29 2015 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham Tue June 30 2015 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

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Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory talks to Nigel Carr about his latest project, touring David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold the World with original drummer Woody Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti and its accompanying live album

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