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Josef K - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 22 / 11 / 2006

Josef K - Interview


Although they were together barely two years, early 80's Edinburgh-based band Josef K's brittle guitar sound and nerve-worn lyrics have proved a massive influence on the likes of Franz Ferdinand. With a new compilation just out, John Clarkson chats to singer Paul Haig about his seminal group

For a band who were together barely two years and who only put one album in their lifetime, before breaking up within a month of its release, Josef K have achieved a remarkable degree of notoriety and longevity. In the quarter of a century since that album , 1981's 'The Only Fun in Town', came out, the first long player release of Alan Horne's seminal Glaswegian label Postcard Records, the Edinburgh-based quartet's brittle, scratchy guitar sound and singer Paul Haig's nerve-worn, guilt-ridden lyrics have both proved massively influential. The effect of their sound can heard in the music of groups as diverse as Echo and the Bunnymen, Wire, Interpol, the Chameleons, Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand, the latter of whom in particular have acknowledged that influence. There have also been four retrospective CDs. The first 'Young and Stupid' came out in 1989 and was followed a year later by a double CD, 'Sorry for Laughing/The Only Fun in Town'. The third, 'Endless Love', was released on the German label Marina in 1998. The latest,'Entomology', which came out on Franz Ferdinand-label Domino in November, is possibly the most definitive yet, running to 22 songs and featuring singles and their B sides and tracks from both 'The Only Fun in Town' and also abandoned album 'Sorry for Laughing'. Josef K were formed in 1979 out of the remnants of another Edinburgh outfit TV Art by Haig (guitar, vocals) ; Malcolm Ross (guitar ) ; David Weddell (bass) and Ronnie Torrance (drums). Their debut single, 'Chance Meeting', was released on one-off label Absolute in November of that year. Shortly afterwards they joined Postcard, becoming the second band on its roster after Orange Juice, whom they had played shows with regularly. Their next single, which was recorded on the same day as 'Blue Boy', Orange Juice's second single for Postcard, followed in August 1980. A third single 'It's Kinda Funny', originally planned to coincide with the scrapped 'Sorry for Laughing' album, came out in November of that year. For their fourth single, April 1981's 'Sorry for Laughing', Josef K briefly switched labels to the Belgium label Les Disques Du Crepuscule for whom they had played a set at Plan K, a New Year Festival that the Belgiums had organised in Brussels. They returned to Postcard to release another single, an altered version of 'Chance Meeting', in June of that year, and then 'The Only Fun in Town', which featured reworked versions of five of the songs on the 'Sorry for Laughing' album, in July. Josef K broke up in August at the end of a short tour to promote 'The Only Fun in Town' which had concluded with a date at the Venue in London. A posthumous single 'The Missionary' was released on Les Disques du Crepuscule in February 1982. After Josef K broke up, Malcolm Ross joined Orange Juice, playing with them until the end of 1983. He then worked as a session guitarist, recording and touring with Aztec Camera for their 'Knife' album and then with Blancmange on their album, 'Believe You Me'. He subsequently became a solo artist and hsd recorded various solo albums, including two for Marina in the late 1990's. David Weddell and Ron Torrance meanwhile played in the Happy Family who recorded a single album, 'The Man on the Street', on 4AD before breaking up in 1982. Paul Haig turned solo directly after Josef K's collapse. He recorded his first solo album, a dance/electro album, 'The Great White Hope', in New York in 1982 for Island Records with name producer Alex Sadkin (Joe Cocker, Marianne Faithful, Grace Jones), and session players who included Bernie Worrell (Talking Heads) and Anton Fier (Bob Mould). He afterwards released albums on various solo albums including Les Disques du Crepuscule and Virgin offshoot Circa, but, after years in which he often found his records shelved or released sometimes years late, he formed his own label Rhythm of Life in 1999. His most recent release has been the third in the 'Cinematique' series, the latest in a series of imaginary soundtracks. With 'Entomology' now out, and the band receiving further renewed interest, Pennyblackmusic spoke to Paul Haig about Josef K. PB : The new compilation, ‘Entomology’ , has just come out on Domino. There have been several other Josef K compilations in the past. Why has another compilation come out now ? PH : It is because of Domino and the fact that Franz Ferdinand have quite often mentioned Josef K as being an influence. Domino thought that it would be a good idea to capitalise on that and to put out a Josef K compilation. PB : Are you happy about that ? PH : Yes, I think it is a good thing. Franz Ferdinand have got a huge audience. Maybe a lot of their fans will be interested in finding out why they were influenced by Josef K and it will give them a chance to hear our music. PB : It must be quite flattering 25 years on to be still attracting such interest really. PH : Yes, it is. It is quite incredible. I don't think it would have happened if there hadn't been this interest from Franz Ferdinand, but it was surprising to me also when the past compilations also sold well. PB : It seems to go in eight year cycles. The double compilation, ‘Sorry for Laughing/The Only Fun in Town’ came out in 1990, then there was the Marina compilation, ‘Endless Love’ in 1998 and now there is this one. PH : Yes, that’s true. It is surprising that there has been so many because there wasn't a lot of material to start with. I think that this one is quite a definitive gathering of songs, but I also thought that the Marina one was a very good collection, very well put together. PB : You formed Josef K formed out of the ashes of another band TV Art. Who were they ? PH : It was basically the same people. We had Gary McCormack instead though on bass. He went off and joined the Exploited. PB : That's quite a contrast. PH : Yeah ! It is (Laughs). It is quite incongruous really if you think about it. We got David Weddell who was at school with us to replace him on bass. Malcolm and I taught him how to play bass. Ronnie Torrance was also in TV Art. It was basically the same set up. The four of us had all gone to the same school together in Edinburgh, Firrhill High. PB : There was quite a unique musical scene in Edinburgh at the time. The Fire Engines, the Associates, the Scars and Another Pretty Face (Mike Scott’s band before the Waterboys-Ed)were all your contemporaries. Did it seem unique to you at the time ? PH : I have often been asked that. We all emerged at the same time, but were all so involved in it that we didn't realise that there was a scene or anything. We only started to realise that there was something going on when Dave McCulloch interviewed us from 'Sounds' and asked us all about the start of the Scottish scene. PB : Your first release was ‘Chance Meeting’, the one and only single of Absolute, which was the label of Steven Daly who was the drummer in Orange Juice. You used to support each other at one another's home town gigs. How did you become first involved with one another ? PH : Malcolm met Steven one night on a night out and Steven mentioned that he was in a band called Orange Juice, so we went to see them as a result of that and they came to see us and we ended playing up some gigs together. PB : With that first single, ‘Chance Meeting’ and its B side, ‘Romance’, is it true that you recorded eight songs as a demo and just told Steven to take two of them ? PH : We had done a couple of demos and Steven was very keen on 'Chance Meeting' and 'Romance' and we agreed on those for the single. PB : From Absolute how did you become involved with Postcard Records ? PH : Alan Horne and Edwyn Collins had talked about starting Postcard, and because we had got in with the Glasgow scene they thought that it would be good to put out a Josef K single and an Orange Juice single consecutively. The relationship with Postcard grew out of our relationship with Steven. PB : One of the interesting things about Josef K was your image. You avoided the leathers and pins of the traditional punk movement and dressed in very monochrome clothes. You had this manifesto that you wanted to be experimental and that you didn't want to be cliched. Is that why you decided to dress like that ? PH : It was really just because both Malcolm and I were into 60's clothes and 60's fashion. We used to go around second hand shops, and I used to wear my father's old suits. We preferred second hand clothes really and we would go a lot to Oxfam and Barnardo's. PB : Your lyrics were nervy, often quite guilt-ridden and very literary. The group took its name from the central character in Frank Kafka’s ‘The Trial’. Was literature as big an inspiration to you as music ? PH : Literature was massively influential. I was reading an awful lot during those years, Kafka, Albert Camus and Knut Hamsun. I was really into all of their stuff. There was this occurring theme of alienation that ran through all of their books, and that had a big effect on my lyrics. When I first read 'The Trial' I could relate and totally empathise with the character. I had the same kind of feelings. It was kind of finding something that was there already. The absurdity of existence was another common theme in nearly all of their novels, and that also had an impact on our lyrics. I was always thinking about that too from an early age. Nothing light (Laughs !). PB : The group didn't seem entirely to be without humour though. There was a period in which you wore psychedelic shirts on stage. You had a policy of not talking to audience between numbers, so you used to put taped introductions to the songs over the PA, and Malcolm and you used to do Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis routines on stage. Was there a strong element of self-deprecation as well ? PH : Oh yes ! We didn't take ourselves too seriously. A lot of people thought that we were very serious, but underneath it all there was always an undercurrent of humour. We would play practical jokes on each other and do daft things. I remember there was a review I think in 'Sounds' or 'Melody Maker' in which we had played a show in Paisley and one of their journalists had seen us. He had heard about this semi-psychedelic new wave of music that was going on. He thought we were trying to fall for that and said that we were about as psychedelic as a tube of smarties (Laughs). He didn’t think that it was happening for us at all. We just really liked those shirts. We bought them at a place in Morningside in Edinburgh and got them made to fit. PB : How did the band create its music ? Did it come about largely through improvisation in rehearsal ? PH : Very rarely. Usually what would happen is that I would write in my bedroom at home and then use two tape recorders to bounce the bass and guitar parts together. That is usuallly how I would write a song and Malcolm would do the same. He would come up with some guitar ideas and we would get together as a band and then start rehearsing. PB : How did the band’s guitar sound evolve ? PH : That was mostly to do with our influences. We were really into Television and the early Talking Heads. We just fused their guitar sounds together. We were always looking for great guitars and great amps and eventually ended up with a vox and a Fender amp which seemed to be a great combination. We tended to turn up the treble tone on our amps up quite a lot as well. PB : Your first Postcard single, 'Radio Drill Time', was recorded in a shared studio session with Orange Juice, who recorded 'Blue Boy' at the same time. Why did you do that ? Was it just to save money ? PH : It was. Alan Horne and Edwyn were looking to save money and we recorded both singles in one session in one day, but it worked out fine. We were playing live a lot at the time and were rehearsing regularly, so it wasn't too difficult to go in and play as a band in the studio. It seems surprising now that you could record a single so quickly, but at the time it happened a lot. PB : Is it true that ‘Radio Drill Time’ was released in the same sleeve as 'Blue Boy'? PH : That's right. Yeah (Laughs). That was to save money too. We used to reverse the sleeves and sometimes we would hand colour them. PB : It has been said that Alan Horne was fairly ambivalent about Josef K and that he was only really concerned about Orange Juice and wanted you on the roster to make Postcard more solid. Was there any truth in that ? PH : Yes, I think so. He was never keen on our angular sound at all. He appreciated much more the softer West Coast aspects of Orange Juice. He used to say that we were the Velvet Underground of Postcard, and Orange Juice were like the Byrds. I think he felt that it was cool to have a gloomy band as well as a jolly one on the roster. PB : How did Josef K react to that ? Were you happy just to be on a label ? PH : I didn't mind too much about that. We knew that he didn't really like the music, but we didn’t care really. It was a way to get records out and we were quite happy about that. PB : You released your second Postcard single, 'It's Kinda Funny', in October 1980 and recorded 'Sorry for Laughing' at around about the same period. That album was scrapped at the eleventh hour. There has been various suggestions about why it was scrapped. One was that it didn't capture the sound of your live set. Why did you axe that album ? PH : That's basically why. We recorded what we thought was the best album that we could make, but when it was mastered the sound had changed. That also happened with 'It's Kinda Funny'. We felt that the guitars were a bit compressed. They weren't as cutting as they should have been. We were pretty disappointed with the overall cleanness of it all. I know it is a crazy now, but we were more intent on capturing a live sound as much as possible and there we were, clinical and slightly over-produced. At the time we wanted to get a rougher edge to things. PB : Was it your decision to scrap it or was it Postcard's ? PH : It was the band's decision and Alan Horne agreed to it at the end of the day. PB : There is no truth in the rumour that you scrapped it so late so that you could create enough promo copies to make it an instant collector's item. PH : Absolutely not ! That is not true at all. PB : The group spent New Year that year, 1980/1981, with Orange Juice in Brussels at the Plan K Festival which was run by Les Disques Du Crepuscule. It was the start of your own long relationship with Les Disques Du Crepuscule who went on to release several of your solo albums and singles. How did you end up over there ? PH : They invited us over. They had heard our music and we got a phone call saying that we could go over and play live and so we jumped at the chance to play outside the UK. That's how that started. Then they asked us if we wanted to do a single and that's how 'Sorry for Laughing' came out, much to Alan Horne's disgust. PB : He wasn’t happy about it ? PH : No, he wasn’t too happy ! I think that he felt that it was one of our most commercial songs and he really wanted it to come out on Postcard. PB : And then you went back to Postcard to re-record 'Chance Meeting'. PH : That's right. It just seemed like a nice thing to do somethingwith Crepuscule, to have a foreign release PB : And then you released 'The Only Fun in Town' in July 1981. That's a very different album from 'Sorry for Laughing'. It is quite striking when listening to the new compilation to see how much you have evolved as a band in the ten months or so between recording sessions. PH : Yes, that was mainly because of the production. When we recorded ‘The Only Fun in Town’, we wanted to keep our live sound as much as possible. We thrashed it out in a really short time-it only took six days-and on purpose we mixed the volume low because we wanted to keep that live feel, which again in hindsight was stupid. Afterwards we made things slightly more polished, but the album was still pretty abrasive. PB : Had your influences changed as well during that 10 month period ? It is much more accomplished musically as well. PH : I had been listening to a lot of Abba of all things (Laughs) and I think that guitar wise it was getting a lot slicker. It is nowhere near too polished, but I think that had a lot to do with it. PB : The group played a very short tour in August of that year and split up at the end of it. The reasons for the split have always been obscure. Various reasons have been cited. It has been said that you weren't getting on a as a band, that there were too great expectations and too small incomes, and Alan Horne also blamed the 'NME'. Why did you actually split up ? PH : We were drifting apart as friends and drugs got involved. We weren't interacting socially very much and it all became less fun. It it was nothing to do with sales or money and it was definitely not to do with the press. Alan Horne just made that up for something dramatic to say (Laughs). I decided to leave and so I told the others I was leaving and they could carry on without me, but they didn't want to. It was depressing at the time, but again we had run our course and, if it wasn't fun, we didn't want to keep going. PB : Josef K is alleged to have said that it would always split up after one album. You've since been also quoted as denying that and in fact to have said that you would split up after two at the most. Did you ever make that first statement ? PH : We did say that we would split up after one album. Malcolm was very nervous in our first major interview and he said one album, when we were meant to say two. It was simple as that really. PB : And this whole myth has been built up around that statement ever since. PH : Yes. We never really expected to last very long and had talked amongst ourselves about two albums at the most. PB : What kind of audiences were Josef K attracting in their lifetime ? How big were the audiences ? PH : Our audiences were getting bigger. Towards the end we were getting quite successful. The last concert at the London Venue was packed. The audience was growing all the time. PB : What sort of numbers are we talking about for that concert ? PH : It was full up. I am not sure what the capacity was for the Venue at the time. It was maybe four or five hundred I think. PB : How do you feel about Josef K's legacy now ? Do you see it as a blessing or a curse ? PH : I think there have been times in the past, especially in the 80's with my solo career, when I thought it was a bit of an albatross and a curse (Laughs). Everything always came back to Josef K and I was desperately trying to move away from the whole concept of Josef K and its music, and I was trying to get into something completely different, so it was a bit annoying at times then. I have been increasingly through the years more than happy with it and I am very pleased with the way things have turned out after 25 years. PB : How old were you when Josef K split ? 22 or 23 ? PH : I was just turning 21. My first solo releases came out when I was 22 and 23. PB : Your first solo album 'The Great White Hope' was recorded in 1982 in New York. How did you find that experience ? PH : It was a real culture shock. The whole experience of going to New York and working with a heavyweight producer and technicians and famous people was a massive change. I am not so keen on that first solo album. I felt that I lost my grip on it as I had to work with a producer for the first time. It was difficult to adapt that. It didn't really turn out very close to how I perceived it. It would have a bit harder and less commerical, a bit harder and more electronic if I had been producing it. PB : It was Island that it came out on. How did you become involved with them ? PH : It was through Crepescule. Michel Duval at Crepsecule had met Chris Blackwell at Island at a party. I had been recording in Brussels because I went to live there for a while in 1982. Michel passed over some of the stuff I had recorded to Chris and he thought that was great and wanted to do a deal with Crepescule and myself PB : And you also recorded in complete contrast at the time a 10" swing EP which didn't eventually come out until three years later. PH : That was a crazy notion (Laughs). I recorded that while I was living in Brussels. I was really into Sinatra and Michel suggested “Why don’t you record some Sinatra type classics ?” It was a bizarre experience. I ended up working in a small studio with a great jazz pianist who had actually worked with Sinatra at some point, a great double bass player and drummer and being completely out of my depth. I was far too young to tackle something like that. I think if I had done something like that later in life I would have been okay, but certainly my voice didn’t have the depth or the tones to attempt something like that. PB : Would you be interested in doing something like that now ? PH : No (Laughs). PB : You’ve got your own label now Rhythm of Life. You had a difficult time in the late 80’s and early 90’s and really mucked around by some of the record labels you were on, with albums which you recorded coming out years late if at all. Has running your own label solved that problem ? PH : Yes. I’ve just been able to take artistic control which is great. It is a very small label and I don’t release much because of the budget but it is great to be able to put something out without any interference and also when you want to you can actually do it rather than having to wait because of the roster bigger companies have. If there is a famous band, all the attention goes to them and you get left behind. I didn’t have a great experience with some of the bigger labels. PB : You record label has not just released records by yourself, but by other artists as well including the Subterraneans and Misty Roses. Who are they ? PH : Misty Roses ate an American duo from New York and they sent me demos. When I started the Rhythm of Life website and label I used to get an awful lot of demos and records and that is how I ended up putting out that and a few other artists. When I heard Misty Roses, I just thought that it was very good stuff, and so I found a way to get it out. The Subterraneans are centered around Jude Rawlins who is based in London. He’s very active in the music business there. The Subterraneans did a pretend soundtrack for ‘Pandora’s Box’ for Rhythm of Life. That was a really good, experimental thing to be involved in. PB : And on the subject of imaginary soundtracks you have done three albums of your own of them , the ‘Cinematique’ records. Do you have film images in your mind when you record those ? PH : Yes, I do. I always seem to have some kind of film idea when I am doing that kind of music. They're like soundscapes. I have found that it is good to go out driving when you are making that kind of music. When you’re working on that kind of stuff, if you go out in the car for an hour or two with some rough ideas, you can come back full of things to do after you have been out driving for a while. PB : And how do you record those albums ? Do you do it by yourself or with other musicians ? PH : I have pretty much done them all by myself. I have got recording stuff at home, so I just work from home now. With the computer technology now you don’t need to go into the studio. PB : You seem to have concentrated in recent years on this than more perhaps vocal stuff. Can you see yourself returning to vocal stuff ? PH : I am doing it right now. I am working on a brand new solo album which I am about halfway through and that will have vocals on it. It is an electronic album so it won’t be too wordy. I am also in a new band the Cathode Ray with Jeremy Thoms, an Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter, and which also features Neil Baldwin who used to play in the Bluebells. I have written an album’s worth of songs with Jeremy and I sing some of the songs on that. I got into the ‘Cinematique’ things because I really enjoy just making instrumental music and I just didn’t want to sing. I couldn’t be bothered (Laughs). I didn’t fancy hearing my voice, so I just did instrumentals, but I am really enjoying singing again now. PB : Could you see yourself doing a ‘Cinematique 4’ ? PH : I think I probably will. Yes. It’s nice because you can return to that kind of music at any time and start doing that again. It’s all easy to do. There could be a ‘Cinematique Volume 12’ (Laughs) . PB : Last questions. You have toured a lot with Josef K, but since then have done very little of of that. Could you see yourself doing more of that ? PH : Not really ! I am not a fan of playing live. I don’t really feel comfortable with it. It’s just an odd thing being on stage and I’m not really cut out for it. PB : Is that something you have always felt even back in the days of Josef K when you toured a lot ? PH : Yes, we loved playing live, but still we always felt awkward (Laughs). I guess it is the person you are. PB : Is the big thing at the moment then the new solo studio album ? PH : I’m very busy both with that and also the Cathode Ray album. One ha s guitars and drums and is all real and the other is completely electronic. PB : You have never remained the same. You’ve moved on a lot. You have done the dance-orientated stuff, you’ve done swing, you’ve done the instrumental soundtracks and you’ve done electronic music and you're also now back in a band. Is it important for you with each album to try and move on a little bit more ? PH : It’s probably got a lot to do with the fact that I get bored easily and I also really love music of all styles. Sometimes it is difficult for me to start an album with one concept because I have got lots of musical ideas. On this electronic album I am totally restricting it to pure electronica. I am not going to put any guitar pop songs on it. I am kind of learning how to do that as I sometimes in the past have been a bit too eclectic. PB ; Thank you very much for your time.

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Josef K - Interview

Josef K - Interview

Josef K - Interview

Josef K - Interview

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