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William D Drake - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 16 / 4 / 2007

William D Drake - Interview


Experimental songwriter and former Cardiacs keyboardist William D Drake released two albums, 'Briny Hooves' and 'Yew's Paw' on the same day earlier this year. He talks to Mark Rowland about the joys of committing commercial suicide

The term commercial suicide is often thrown out when a band does something a little off the wall in their career. Putting out an album that is completely different in style than the previous one could be labelled commercial suicide, for example, or swathing your tunes in a wash of dissonant noise. It is also typically used when a band releases more than one album in a short space of time. It’s hard to determine how these moves came to be labelled as commercial suicide in the first place. Obviously, making an album of pure noise is an overtly anti-commercial move, and to a degree, the same could be said of completely abandoning your original sound for a new one (although it could be argued that Dylan and the Beatles did just that, on more than one occasion). Releasing more than one album in a short space of time, however, is surely dependent on the band and the situation in which the albums were released. Another problem with the phrase commercial suicide is that those bands who are said to have committed it don’t often tend to be that commercial. William D Drake released two albums this year on the same day in February. He is hardly considered commercial, having previously played with the distinctly unhinged sounding Cardiacs in the 80's, and yet when his albums, ‘Briny Hooves’, a song-based, full band album and ‘Yew’s Paw’, an album of piano instrumentals, came out earlier this year, ’commercial suicide’ was the phrase bandied about by some reviewers. “It might be seen as commercial suicide in many cases but neither of them are particularly commercial albums,” says Drake, sitting down with Pennyblackmusic at a pub in Clapham. “Obviously, I want them to sell, but I don’t it to be at the expense of the sort of music I like doing.” Drake tells us that the two albums just happened to come together at the same time: “‘Briny Hooves’ took about four years to come together, we did a lot of re-working and remixing tracks,” he says. “It took a couple of things to get things right. Yews Paw was made up from stuff I had from years ago but that took some time to get it sounding right. So both were ready at the same time and they had both taken so long to come together that I didn’t want to wait another six months to put one of them out, and we thought why not put them out on the same day? They’re both very different but they also compliment each other really well. I’m really glad we decided to release them together.” According to Drake, ‘Briny Hooves’ took so long by chance, with mixing sessions taking place sporadically. “It was recorded in stages in a bedroom in Tooting, then obviously we did the drums somewhere else. Then we did a few more mixes, which were done over the two years, on and off,” he says. “Then Daryl the producer moved to this fantastic studio with this great equipment that was used by the Birmingham Philarmonic about 15 years ago. We were mixing one of the tracks that actually wasn’t going to go on the album, and it sounded so good, so zingy and lively, that we realised we were going to have mix the tracks again.” The time it took to complete ‘Briny Hooves’ is a drop in the ocean compared to the writing and recording of ‘Yew’s Paw’, however. Many of the pieces that feature on the album were written when Drake was still in the Cardiacs, back in the 80's. “Obviously I would have periods of time not doing anything and I had this grand piano. I’d spend quite a lot of time messing about on it and started coming up with these pieces and quite a lot of it ended up becoming Yew’s Paw,” he says. “Some of it was written in the 90's as well. There’d be times when I’d have quite a lot of time on my hands and I would just sit down and play piano and more pieces came from that. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to release them." “Then Nick from Onomatopoeia contacted me and said he wanted to put something out by me> Whatever I wanted to do he would release it. It occurred to me while thinking about that album; why not record all these piano pieces I’ve had all these years? That’s why there’s a very different feel to that album than 'Briny Hooves' because the pieces were written over so many years, while the 'Briny Hooves' material was all written within the last six years. I suppose because I’m going under my own name now, rather than playing in bands, I really just want to explore my solo career, work with different people and take it in different directions.” Those different directions include a collaboration with two brothers called Richard and James Larcombe: “They have their own band called Stars In Battledress, who are pretty amazing. Richard plays electric and acoustic guitars and sings vocals and James plays harmonium and sings, so we have three-point harmonies, and I will play piano with them. I have a lot of songs that I haven’t used with other bands that are perfect for the Larcombes> They’re very energetic and fast and it suits them really, really well. So that will be one album. I don’t really know how to describe it, it’ll probably be a mixture of 'Yew’s Paw' and 'Briny Hooves', sort of fast piano-y music, but it’s not all like that, just funny old songs really.” Drake plans to release another album soon after that: “It will probably be more in the vein of 'Briny Hooves'. The one I do with James and Richard will be fairly live I imagine, so I’d like the other one to be more layered. There’s still quite a few piano pieces that I‘d like to release, but I would quite like to arrange them and have them played on a lot of different instruments. I did at some point think it would be fun to do that with 'Yew‘s Paw', but in the end it was better for me to do those just on piano.” Exploring different methods of recording is an enjoyable part of the process for Drake, who has no preference for recording live takes or layering up tracks. Despite this, he surprisingly hasn’t really got into the technical side of recording. “I wouldn’t say I’m a technophobe, but I tend to just play piano and write little pieces. I know quite a few people who have their own studio equipment so I can record little bits with them. I have finally got a new computer, so I might get something to go on that.” Recording is easier for Drake to do than touring these days. He teaches music at a London college, which takes up a large amount of his time. Drake has managed to play a few gigs since the release of his album, however. “I played at the Spitz on February 9 as a launch for the albums. We hired a piano for the evening. Stars in Battledress played first. Then I came on and played most of 'Yew’s Paw'. Then we got a band onstage, minus a drummer and bass player, because they couldn’t make it. We’re going to do a gig at some point with the full band. It seemed to go really well, there was a lovely atmosphere. “Funnily enough, we got through 'Yew’s Paw' and 'Briny Hooves', but the audience didn’t want us to stop after that, so we had a break then the audience shouted out requests and we played whole bunch of other material. So we did about 15 requests, stuff off my first album, then some Cardiacs stuff and some from the Cardiacs offshoots like Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake and the Sea Nymphs.” Drake is looking to do a proper tour for the albums as soon as possible, however: “We want to do a little Italian tour. We did a gig in Venice for some promoters called Musica Continua. They particularly like prog music, which I wouldn’t say my music is, though it has elements of it. I got an email from a guy called Alessandro asking if we’d like to play there, so we went out there and played it. We got a really good reaction and they said they would help us sort out a tour. So we’re going to go back out there for a few dates then I think we’ll continue the tour when we come back and play a few venues in the UK. I’ll either do it on my own, or I could play with the full band, so I’ve got that flexibility. That’s one of the advantages of releasing two records at once, one of which I did on my own.” Drake has done a few solo gigs playing the ‘Yew’s Paw’ material and stripped down versions of songs from his back catalogue. “I’d played a few gigs playing Yew’s Paw, supporting the North Sea Radio Orchestra which was started by a guy called Craig Fortnam and his wife Sharron,” he says. “It is an orchestra. There’s about 15-20 people who play with them. I used to be in a band with Craig called Lake of Puppies. Craig is the composer and they arrange these melodic orchestral pieces and Sharron sings on a few of them. They released an album last year. What was the question again ? I’ve completely lost my train of thought.” Drake’s passion for all things musical often takes the conversation in directions that eventually lose the point that he was originally trying to make. His enthusiasm is admirable, and was instilled in him from a very young age. “I learnt classical piano until I was about 18, and I’d been playing since I was about five. I originally started playing on a little harmonium. It was quite interesting-looking, which is good when you’re a kid, and it was small so it was about the right size for me. My mother taught me how to play 'Chopsticks 'and we’d play it together. Then one of my neighbours, who had noticed I was interested in music, went to New Zealand for a year and asked if I’d like to look after their piano while they were away, and it took off from there really." “My mother and grandmother both played, so I was surrounded by music and they were very encouraging, I’d play duets with them and I started getting lessons. I’d make up little things as well, so it all really came together from a really young age. I learnt to play piano classically, but I was heavily into the Beatles and David Bowie, I went to boarding school as well, and there was certain times during the week when you’d have to practice piano, so that helped me keep it up as well.” When Drake left school he played in a few bands, but things really changed for him when he met Tim Smith in the early 80s, when he was 21. “I was playing a gig with another band. He was doing the sound, and we became friends after that. He invited me to see his band, and gave me a tape, which I really liked and he asked me to join them about a year later.” Knowing that Drake was classically trained, Smith wrote particularly complex parts for him to play. The complicated, time-signature shifting keyboard work became a distinctive feature of the Cardiacs’ sound. “Tim has always written extremely complex pieces. Before I joined the band, he was playing them on guitar, and then when I joined he could write those complex lines for the keyboard as well.” The Cardiacs were an off-beat band, their sound lurching and hyperactive. They spent a lot of time sefl-releasing cassettes and touring non-stop before they released their first proper full-length album, ‘A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window’. “With the Cardiacs, we really built it up from nothing by touring the toilet circuit across the country, but that was the right way to do it for us,” says Drake. “I remember when we first played this place in Birmingham called the Mermaid, the first time we’d played there nobody heard of us apart from the brother of Sarah, who was sax player in the band. That was in the days where we had a very extravagant set up, very scattergun and theatrical, and we had this thick make-up on, and we played to a few people and Sarah’s brother, then the second time we played there we played to a few more people, and the third time we were playing to quite a lot more people.” The band never really achieved any commercial success, coming closest with single ’Is This The Life’, but they were never a commercial band. They managed to attract a cult following of die-hard fans, some of which went on to form bands themselves. “We were doing a lot of stuff in the 80's and we ended up influencing bands who came out in the 90s. I know that Blur really liked us, for example, and quite a few other bands,” Drake says. “The bands we did influence were always very British.” Drake thinks that ’A Little Man and a House and a Whole World Window’ would be a good starting point for those uninitiated to the Cardiacs. He also recommends ’On Land and in the Sea’, which is considered by many of their fans to be their best. “It tends to get better the more that you listen to,” says Drake of the Cardiacs’ music. “It was a great apprenticeship for me working with those guys, I learnt a lot by playing with them and it helped to develop my own song-writing style. With both ’Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window’ and ‘On Land and in the Sea’, I was in the studio the whole time and got to see how Tim was working. It was just great fun, lots of exploring and experimenting. I suppose when I’m doing my own albums, I try to keep the same level of exploration that was going on there.” Drake left the band in the early 90's, but has remained on good terms with Smith. They collaborated after that in the Sea Nymphs, with Smith’s wife Sarah, also a member of the Cardiacs. Smith also produced Drake’s first solo record. The Cardiacs are still performing and recording sporadically, and have vowed to play at least one gig a year. Drake may have left the band, but still enjoys collaborating with Smith. He is hoping that one of his subsequent albums will be recorded in collaboration with Smith. “I’d like to work with him on another album, I really like working with him. He’s just finished building this huge studio so I’d like to record there at some point. Perhaps I’ll work with him on one of my next albums.”

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William D Drake - Interview

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