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Papernut Cambridge - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 6 / 11 / 2019

Papernut Cambridge - Interview


Ben Howarth visits the home of Ian Button and chats about his Papernut Cambridge project.

In 2015, Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge project released an album of covers, ‘Nutlets:1967-80’, paying tribute to the music of his childhood, ranging from 1967 through to 1980. It was a companion piece to two well received albums, blending hazy psychedelia with glam rock – loosely themed around the idea of an imaginary, mysterious band who had formed in Ian Button’s corner of South-East London/Kent. It was as much a tribute to his memories of being a pop fan in that era as it was a tribute to the music; with packaging to match, multi-formatted and arriving fan-club style with an accompanying mug and set of badges. Now four years (and several more Papernut Cambridge releases) later, he releases a second volume, covering the songs that influenced him most from 1981 through to 2001. By this time, he wasn’t just a fan but an active participant, having joined a schoolfriend in a band called 'The Climb', who would turn into 'Thrashing Doves'. “We decided to go pro in about 1982”, he explains, “which meant we quit our jobs and became a full working, rehearsing band. We managed to do it for a couple of years and get signed.” The band lasted until the early nineties, releasing albums on A&M and then, as simply 'The Doves', on Elektra. In the early 1990s, he began his first project as a songwriter, 'Motorcyclone', before being invited by one of his bandmates from that era to join 'Death In Vegas', who were looking to add live instrumentation and rock riffs to their electronic sound. The second volume of Nutlets ends in 2001, as 'Death In Vegas' were in the process of recording the follow-up to their acclaimed and Mercury nominated album, ‘The Contino Sessions’. “So I guess through the tracks on these albums”, he says, “it is running parallel to what I was doing. A lot of the guitar stuff on these covers is what I was trying to filter into these bands that I was in at the time". In more recent years, Ian Button has combined playing and recording with a wide number of bands, lecturing in music technology and (having previously released homemade albums as 'The Anthony Anderson Project') turning Papernut Cambridge into a prolific outfit, with four albums of original songs, a further album where a cast of bandmates take over the songwriting and two volumes of instrumental library music (which, having been named as one of Shindig’s albums of the year in 2017, have proven to be among the most successful Papernut releases). Nutlets wouldn’t be a Papernut Cambridge album if it didn’t come, in true seventies fan-club style, with elaborate and unique packaging. This time, he’s offering a deluxe-double vinyl, with a pink and blue theme and an insert. “That has sleeve-notes and track-by-track notes from me, with memories of all the songs I feel like you have to do this, to justify the cost. I almost have the outlook that it is artwork that you are charging for when you sell an LP, because if people just wanted the music, they could get that without any of the packaging". I meet Ian at his home in North Kent, where he offers me some food and a glass of wine as we catch up on what’s being going on in Papernut Cambridge world since his last interview with Pennyblackmusic in 2014. PB: What made you do another Nutlets album? Did you always plan it to be a series? IB: I think I always knew that it was an unfinished story, because the first one only went up to certain point in my musical listening. So I think there was a certain hint at the end of the first one that it could go later. I didn’t think about it for quite a long time actually but I had just started to listen again to more music from that slightly later period. You know, you go through phases of what you listen to. At the time of making that first Nutlets, it was a kind of self-generating thing. We were being told, “oh, you sound like this and you sound like that", so that was the reason for doing the first one, to say, OK yeah, let’s come clean with that and say which records that I liked and listened to when I was a kid. But there are also later influences, that hadn’t perhaps been talked about as being influences on Papernut Cambridge’s music. To me, they were there, but perhaps they weren’t as obvious. Lots of people said it was an early-70s glam rock influenced band, but that wasn’t all. In a way, the music on this second one is more personally relevant to me, because that’s the stuff that I was listening to when I was actually becoming a musician and leaning to play. Whereas, the stuff from the late 60s and early 70s is from when I was a kid – and wasn’t really doing music, I was just listening to it. PB: So how did you go about choosing the individual tracks that ended up on Nutlets album? Do you think these would have been the songs you would have picked at the time, or are they the songs that have perhaps become more important to you since? IB: I think I would have picked the same bands. I think a lot of those are the bands that are in my musical DNA. In fact, a lot of them are in that box of 7” singles over there, which is my DJ set – in fact, that may have been the catalyst for doing it – I used that as my set about a year and a half ago at the ‘Winter Sprinter’ gig nights. So, in a way, this album is almost my DJ set transformed into Papernut Cambridge versions. Some of those bands, like the Bunnymen and Psychedelic Furs, I would say that they are amongst my favourite bands ever, so I think I would have always looked at those. I changed the songs that I chose as I was making the album, like with the Bunnymen, I did a cover of the song ‘Rescue’ when we played and I did start to record a version of that and almost finished it but then, just before the final compiling of the album, I had a brainstorm and ended up deciding to change a lot of the tracks that were on it. That Bunnymen track was one of those – a last minute switch to another track. Somehow the version I had decided to make of ‘Rescue’ wasn’t coming out as good as I thought it would. PB: The tracklisting is roughly chronological – but not quite. Was that deliberate? IB: It’s generally intentionally chronological – and then any slight discrepancy is accidental. In a way, I like to have that decision made for me, where I then didn’t have to think about the running order. PB: When you flip onto the second half of the album, there is quite a change of tone – once you get into the 80s indie side, rather than the post-punk era. I suppose that is less a deliberate choice on your part and more a reflection of what happened to the music you were listening to at the time? IB: I think so. I guess this could have been an album of two distinct volumes. I was aware that lots of the songs are concentrated around a small number of years, a lot around the late 70s and early 80s and then it gets much more thin after that. I have tried to wonder why that could be. I was scrabbling around trying to find things to do from the 90s, without doing anything really obvious, like there is no Blur and no Pulp. I can’t think of the reason why there is so little from that period but I was trying to do unusual and unexpected things, that people wouldn’t expect us to cover. PB: That period that you have effectively missed out – 1993 through to about 1998 – is that odd period where a lot of ‘indie’ music suddenly was unambiguously popular – some of the bands you’ve covered were relatively successful, but not to the extent of Blur and Oasis, who were pretty much guaranteed to go to number one or two in the charts with everything they released. IB: Yes, that period where the music I liked goes mainstream – bands that would otherwise have been underground. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it’s an interesting point. I mean, the song that I did pick – the Len track, ‘Steal My Sunshine’, was one that one of my oldest mates used to go on about how brilliant it was when it was out. He was someone who, you know, I always sort of respected his judgment on what was a brilliant song. He didn’t really care if it was a mainstream thing or if it fitted in with what else was going on at the time – he just said, “no, that’s a brilliant record that”. So I always had it in the back of my mind. But it was a slightly different option to pick, a googly. Darren Hayman plays bass on that the start of the recording. I was also aware that some of these songs have been covered by other people – you know, things like ‘Velocity Girl’ by Primal Scream. A lot of people have done that and I researched it, I listened to the Manics’ version for example. And there is also the 'Girls At Our Best' track, which the Wedding Present had also done. I knew of that version but their version of ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’, sounds like the Wedding Present, they’ve sped it up and owned the song. What I am trying to do is an obsessive thing of trying to be as much like the original version of the song as I can, which I know a lot of people would say is pointless. Lots of people who do covers want to re-interpret the song and there are plenty of good examples of that but what I am trying to do with both of these volumes of Nutlets is to capture the feeling that I would have had hearing those songs when they first came out, by doing them again. It’s a strange psychological thing going on (laughs..) PB: Through that process of trying to make the songs, if not sound exactly the same, but at least feel as close to the original as possible, were there some that you ended up not including because you couldn’t achieve that? IB: Yeah, there were a few where I felt something was happening on the original that I wasn’t getting. That was definitely the case with the Bunnymen song, there was something he did on the vocal that I wasn’t getting and that’s what made me try and see if there was a song I could do that I could sing better. Another one was the 'Only Ones' song. We’d done another of their songs as a live cover but in the end, I swapped it for ‘Deadly Nightshade’ because I wanted an uptempo song for that point in the album. And I didn’t want ‘Another Girl Another Planet’, because that was too obvious. PB: That was definitely one where their biggest song was the only one of theirs I knew, and I went back and dug out the original version… I’m interested that you mention the vocal, I think I had assumed you would be thinking more about the guitar sounds and other effects when you were trying to recreate the songs? IB: It did vary. The vocals happen quite quickly on all the recordings I have done, including my original songs. I usually start with a simple guitar and drum backing, and then try and do the vocals quite early in the recording process. That’s what I did with these covers. So, the vocals are all done before any of the band get to play on them and it becomes an early signal of whether the song is going to work or not. So, on some of them, I was listening very closely and trying to get actual parts right. Like the 'Josef K' track, I love the bright, brittle, jangly sound on their album and I was trying to get it. I was listening to the original to try and work out what they were doing with the guitars, how many guitar tracks that had. So, on that, it was the guitars that took the longest. Then on the 'New Order' one, I actually downloaded midi files – you can get these files for karaoke or home keyboard – and that was the basis of the track, with all the synthesiser sounds and argpeggios on that. There is some lead guitar on my version where I am actually trying to emulate Peter Hook’s bassline, trying to play like him. One of the most precise ones was the 'Big Audio Dynamite' songs, you have the machines they used and then you have Mick Jones doing a Clash style guitar, but then chopped up with samples added. That took a long time to get right. PB: Were the other band members involved in choosing the songs? IB: (Immediately) No. I was aware that, for quite a lot of the songs, they wouldn’t have known the songs very well and certainly wouldn’t have played the parts before. So I only gave each band member 4 or 5 songs each – and poor old Robert Rotifer only ended up with one, because he’s been so busy recently. I wanted him to do the 'Big Audio Dynamite' track too, as he would have done a great job with the Mick Jones guitar but there just wasn’t time. I did all the music for the Len cover myself and then I got Emma from 'Deep Cut' to do the second vocal, because I knew it had to be a duet. PB: Is there anything from this process that you think you would take into the next album of original Papernut Cambridge songs? IB: I don’t think anything will change on the technical side. I have actually already started work on the next one, in a very, very embryonic form but I think in spirit, it might be a bit more guitar heavy. In the wake of having to do slightly more full-on guitars on those covers. So, maybe, I don’t know… (laughs) PB: Over time, would you say it’s fair to say that, if you just look at the full albums of original songs, Papernut Cambridge has moved much closer to being a full band, rather than your project, over time? IB: Yes. Nutlets was a lot more of me, than the people in the band – the main reason is actually that I am doing the drums, rather than Darren playing drums and the two records of library music (‘Mellotron Phase’ volumes 1 and 2) are, for various reasons, completely done by me. Certainly if you look at the full albums, in particular the last one ‘Outstairs Instairs’ and the ‘Love The Things Your Lover Does’ album before that, they were both done with the aim of having as many of the regular band members in a room together at one time as possible. I still started with my guide versions of vocal and guitars and would then go to the studio and have Darren on drums, Rob Halcrow on bass and maybe Jack. I never managed to get everyone, but would always have a core of people, over the course of a day playing over these demos that I had done and that meant the albums had the interactions of playing together and the vibes that come from other people being present when people are adding their parts. I still had other parts added later – like with Robert Rotifer, I would always go down to his house for an evening, and do all of his guitar parts on the album and motor through like that. Then on the ‘Outstairs Instairs’ album, the added element is the piano – although that it several different people. Lots of it is by Terry Miles, who I know from 'Death In Vegas' and 'Go Kart Mozart' but I deliberately didn’t get Terry to do all of it, so there is also piano by Emma Winston on some tracks and also Luke Smith on others, who I know from Canterbury. With both of those albums, what I really wanted, was to have whoever was going to be in the band that would perform those songs live, to perform those parts of the record. So I wanted it to be something we could reproduce and it wouldn’t be a totally different concept if you went to a gig. In fact, as it’s transpired, we haven’t done as much live as perhaps we could have done, or I thought we would but those albums still work in that way. I hope and think that this is how the original side of Papernut Cambridge will continue. PB: Has any of the backstory that you originally had – of an imaginary band existing in the background – survived. Is that something you are thinking about when you make any of the newer albums? IB: I don’t think I have said anything about the original band for a while, so perhaps it’s gone. Like the imaginary friend that you grow out of, it was the kind of thing that you could potentially pretend to stand behind, you know, if I decided at some point to do a heavy metal album, I could just blame it on the imaginary band. I think I still have to explain the original concept and what the band is, so I will always say how the project started out, channelling songs from the imaginary band. But it’s not the lynchpin for the music now. PB: Given all that you do with multi-formats and special editions across the different Papernut Cambridge releases, do you see any trends in terms of what people choose? IB: Well, the main thing is that vinyl does best for us! PB: A decade ago, I would have been really surprised by that.. IB: Yes, but now vinyl does a lot better than CD. There will always be some people who will choose a CD and also, sending out CDs is still the best way of generating attention and getting people to review the albums but for me, vinyl does considerably better than digital – in terms of downloads and streaming income, it is negligible, even compared to some of the other artists on Gare Du Nord, some of whom do quite well on digital but there seems to be a set of people, regular customers, who like Papernut Cambridge and will buy the formats. That inspires me to keep trying to do something nice with the packaging for each release. We have people on the label that don’t make vinyl, so they will do a CD and some people who don’t do either – although overall on the label, we don’t get as much response from a digital only release. PB: The final thing I was going to ask is for a bit of a run-down of all the things you are up to outside of Papernut Cambridge, I know you play with other people, do recording and do a lot with the Gare Du Nord label. IB: Well, one thing I have been doing is lots of recording. I have just been producing Helen McCookerybook (formely of the 'Chefs' and then 'Helen and the Horns') she comes here and records at the table over there. So, there is an album called ‘Green’ that she’s just released and we are now working on a second project, a mini-album that we’ve just finished. I am working with Pete Astor (of 'The Loft', 'The Weather Prophets' and more recently 'Ellis Island Sound') on his new album, which is also a covers album. Again, we did that mostly here and by sending files around and getting other people to add bits here and there. I then have this project called 'Föhn', which myself and Joss Cope formed with Napo Camassa, who is a poet, at the end of last year, just on a bit of a whim. I met Napo at one of the record label markets, he’s an Italian improviser who plays lots of things, including saxophone. We made friends with him and sat around talking about music. He had loads of old tapes, going back to the seventies, and we were originally going to do something with those, but it didn’t quite work. So, instead, we decided to do some new music, so the three of us got together and improvised a load of stuff in a studio over a day, then brought it home and edited into an album’s worth of stuff. It was really satisfying to do, I hadn’t done anything like that in a long time. There were lots of surprises in how it came together, completely different to how Papernut Cambridge would go. In fact, they are coming tomorrow, we’re going to do the second album tomorrow. I don’t know what we are going to do, but we will have something by the end of day. I’m also playing with some other bands and doing some mixing. I am doing some drums for the 'The Catenary Wires', with Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey. I got to know them through Andy Lewis, who I’ve played with quite a lot, who said they were looking for a drummer for some gigs and hopefully I might end up doing some recording with them. That’s one of the things I most enjoy – sometimes doing recording where you don’t know the music in advance, you just turn up and play. PB: Thankyou.

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Papernut Cambridge - Interview

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Interview (2014)
Papernut Cambridge - Interview
Ben Howarth chats to Death In Vegas and Rotifer member Ian Button about his band Papernut Cambridge's second solo album, 'There's No Underground'


Outstairs Instairs (2018)
Fourth album from Ian Button’s indie supergroup Papernut Cambridge plays back-to-front and finds him fleshing out the band’s glam-pop with a piano based-sound
Love the Things Your Lover Loves (2016)
Nutlets 1967-80 (2015)

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Papernut Cambridge: Interview (2014
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