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Ulysses - Interview

  by Kimberly Bright

published: 6 / 8 / 2019

Ulysses - Interview


Ulysses frontman Luke Smyth chats with Kimberly Bright about the history of the band, his personal musical development, songwriting, the current cultural climate and being taken seriously while still being amazingly well-dressed.

Luke Smyth is the singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader of Bath’s primo hard rock glam revivalists Ulysses. Don’t let the exquisite Barrett barnet, tasty threads and raunchy aura fool you: Smyth is an eclectic, emotionally literate lyricist whose more thoughtful musings on the band’s most recent album 'On Safari', like 'Why Aren’t These People My Friends?', have been slightly overshadowed by his more swaggering, funnier songs. He spoke to Pennyblackmusic at length from his home in Bath in mid-July. Pennyblack: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. First off, I need to apologize for leaving off [bass player] Julian Wells’s name in my Pennyblackmusic review of 'On Safari'. I realised it when it was too late to fix it, so I wanted to apologize and ask what the deal was with him and [new bass player] Jimmy Peppers. What exactly happened? Luke Smyth: So with Jules I’d been doing music with him for quite a long time, and he basically had a sort of mid-life crisis and ran off with a girl from another band that we played with, and left his wife and moved away. So, he knew he was going to leave the band when we were making the album, because he’s the sort of person who goes all in and basically bailed as soon as he knew. We were pissed off, because he waited until the album had gone to press so that we couldn’t change it and left the band, so he didn’t have to do any of the hard work to go with it. So, it was a bit of a stitch-up. Fortunately Denny Pepper’s brother Jimmy was available and wanting to be in the band. Otherwise we’d be a bit scuppered. PB: So, he’s not going to be doing the videos anymore, obviously. LS: No. Jules edits our videos, so that was problematic. We’ve got one more coming from him that we’ve already done the filming for, and then that’ll be that. Yeah, a bit of a weird time. PB: How did Jimmy do at Glastonbury? That must have been a stressful thing, to go from being the new guy to having to do that. LS: He loved it. I mean, he’s loving being in a band, because he hasn’t been in a band for about ten years. He had kids and stuff and is old enough now, relatively stable enough to be able to be in a band again and do the kind of pain-in-the-arse crazy stuff that we do. It’s kind of been good, to be honest, that we ended up with Jules leaving and Jimmy joining, because it’s given us the enthusiasm and new experiences that we needed. PB: As I said in my review for 'On Safari' I couldn’t find much background information about you, so this is going to be the 1970 John Lennon 'Playboy' interview. LS: Yeah, nice. PB: How old are you? Did you grow up in Bath? LS: I’m 44, and I grew up in Bath in England. I was talking to someone about this last night, that when I left school in that era hardly any of our friends went to university. We all just stayed in Bath and formed bands, skateboarding, and drugs and all that. I’ve always been in bands since then. I’m thinking back, I first met Jules in the late ‘90s. We were in lots of bands. Everyone in the band, we’ve all been in bands for fifteen years now. Shane (drummer) was in rival bands to my bands, and I was always trying to get him to come and join my band, and it sort of didn’t happen for a long time. Then he joined in about 2009. It’s been weird. We’ve been around a long time. PB: What were some of your pre-Ulysses bands? LS: My first proper band I was in, we were called Inside Marilyn after the ‘70s porn film, and our drummer in that, I’m still friends with him. The singer in that band, he was the guitarist for the Heavy. That was when I was about 18. Then after that I didn’t do a band for a while, because I was busy having fun and girlfriends and things like that. Then I joined Jules’ band at the time to help out on bass, because their bass player had left, and that turned into a new band with Jules doing my songs. We actually called that band Ulysses even though it was quite different. That was one of those things where we had a lot of record company interest. We were a young rock group, we were in our early twenties at the time, and there was still a lot of money in the record industry then in England during the post-Britpop era. We didn’t have a manager or anything like that, and we imploded under the pressure of that situation really, because there were a lot of record companies and publishers checking us out and getting us in to do demos in their in-house studios and things like that. But they all knew each other. It was quite a weird situation. Then the band imploded under that. Then I didn’t do a band for a while after that, me and Jules went our separate ways. I just got back to recording on my own, sort of playing everything myself in a Paul McCartney home studio type way. Then I got a band back together again in 2003, 2004, so that was quite a few years after, and that got me back playing live again and back playing with Jules again probably in about 2006, something like that, and that sort of turned into Ulysses as it is now. But I always count Ulysses as it is now from starting in 2008 when we did the 'Black Music' EP,. That was after that. That was when we sort of discovered an identity, if you know what I mean. Before that I was always grabbing around, hinting at whatever, then we kind of got into the kind of glam rock and discovered a lot of ‘70s stuff or discovered a lot of ‘70s music. I don’t know about you, but growing up in England, you had all these things that you weren’t allowed to like, growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you know. PB: Oh, yes. In the US too. LS: You weren’t allowed to like ‘70s Paul McCartney, and you weren’t allowed to like Fleetwood Mac, like 'Rumours'-era Fleetwood Mac. You weren’t allowed to like rock and this kind of thing. So we didn’t hear a lot of that growing up, because you weren’t allowed to like it, and your parents didn’t play it, and nobody talked about it. Then I worked in record shops for years growing up, like independent record shops, and I think that enabled me to discover a lot of music that I otherwise wouldn’t have. A lot of, you know, kind of indie, when I say “indie,” like underground bands. I’ll give a shout-out to Bobby Conn. Have you ever heard of a guy called Bobby Conn? PB: I ran across him on Facebook. LS: Right, from Chicago. When I was working in a record shop he had a couple of albums on an indie label, and he’s just one of those people that he should be a world famous megastar, because he’s an incredible performer and musician. He’s written amazing songs. But he’s too weird and wacky, really, I guess. But yeah, he was possibly influential on our direction in a sense of the ‘70s and the rock thing and the fun thing. But not rock in a cock rock way, in just a rocking way, because you weren’t allowed to rock in England, you know? Lots of worry about it. PB: Coming from the Bath/Bristol scene then, that was when the whole Sarah Records thing was prevalent, right? LS: Sarah Records, yeah. We knew guys who were older than us who were in bands who were on Sarah Records, yeah, dreamy, fey, indie sort of thing. Yeah, I like that sort of thing as well. That’s the thing with our band, because we’re somewhere in between. I like stuff like Lilys, dream indie pop stuff, you know, but we also like rocking, Black Crowes and Thin Lizzy as well. Maybe things come around to that a bit more, but certainly the press and people have been very confused by us, because you’re not allowed to do both, you know? You’re either supposed to be a modern classic rock band or you’re supposed to be an indie band that wouldn’t dare being rocky. And we have pop songs as well, which I think really confuses everybody. PB: Do you think there’s an attack on rock and roll right now as a genre? You know, the whole “toxic masculinity” thing people keep talking about and guitar music in general? LS: I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, I read a thing about how over 50% of new guitar players are girls, which is great. Naturally that sort of balances itself out. In terms of toxic masculinity in rock itself, I don’t know. I mean, people kind of get away with it, don’t they? I mean, nobody gives Led Zeppelin a hard time for all the debauched sexist behavior they got up to. I guess if you were to do it now it would be frowned upon, I suppose. But then bands aren’t really that rock and roll nowadays, are they? PB: Right. LS: There’s a few American people who’ve got in trouble, haven’t they, recently? Like Ryan Adams and that sort of thing. They’re a bit more creepy, grooming, though, aren’t they, rather than debauched rock and roll behavior, I suppose. PB: It just seems that whenever I read certain music websites and publications I keep running across these statements about “Oh no, how boring, it’s just another bunch of white guys with guitars.” LS: Oh, I see. PB: And well, I happen to quite like white guys with guitars! LS: Yeah, they criticise it immediately just because it’s some white guys with guitars. I know what you mean. I mean, I guess that’s that sort of indie, liberal press default position, isn’t it? I don’t know. I guess there’s a lot of positive discrimination going on, you know, for girls in music and things like that. I don’t know if we’ve got to that point where it’ll just cross over, and it’ll just be normal that women are playing music as much as men are, and that’ll become just the normal space. But yeah, like you say, it is annoying when you’re written off just for being white blokes with guitars. Maybe that has hindered us getting indie press in Britain. The mainstream music situation in Britain, like BBC 6 Radio and all that, is very indie-centric. They have one rock show out of everything that happens in a week. They have one two-hour rock show that plays anything rocky, and the rest is all indie people, that post-punk sensibility of just innate hatred of anything rocking. So that probably has hindered us, yeah. PB: You mentioned in a couple of interviews the lack of humour in a lot of these bands, which I totally agree with. I’ve always called it Prozac rock, because they always sound so depressed and humourless. LS: Yeah, and for variety as well, because any bands I liked from old times, they did such a huge variety of stuff, you know. That’s what puzzles me, because all those bands, like the Beatles, or whoever, and even the Rolling Stones, there’s a real sense of fun in what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do a sad song and not be taken seriously with the sad song, then do a really weird song, and then do a song with a completely different instrumentation. Whereas now you have to be a specific specific style and genre for every single song you do. You have to be a serious band or a comedy band, or you make it hard for the crowd to understand you. PB: For the 'Dragons' video, you obviously grew up watching 'The Goodies', 'The Monkees' and 'Monty Python'. LS: Yeah yeah, absolutely. We loved that kind of stuff. 'Monty Python', 'The Young Ones'. We can have fun with it, but we’ll still do a serious song or a sad song that should be taken seriously. That’s what I mean, that we can have fun some of the time, but then people don’t take some of our more serious songs seriously. PB: It’s a real shame that people can’t separate the two, because the presentation of the two kinds of songs [on the new album 'On Safari' is marvellous. I mean, if you could be on a Rutles tribute album, for example, you would, right? LS: Yes, exactly, of course. PB: What song would you pick? LS: Oh. I think 'Hold My Hand'. It’s the best song. It’s not the sunniest one, but I do love that song. It’s a great song. Maybe 'Doubleback Alley' as well. One of those. PB: How do you characterise yourself as a band leader, since you’re the one running the show. Are you a despot? Do you have rules? LS: In a sense. I guess in a kind of Paul McCartney-esque kind of way. Since I can play drums as well and usually I come up with a song, I can hear everything, you know, and I can do pretty good demos with myself playing a lot of things. I try to find a halfway house between what I need things to be like in order to not piss me off, because they have to be a certain way, and I’ll leave a bit of scope for the other guys to put their own thing on it. With Shane, I get him to to do certain things I need, then he’ll put some other stuff in there wherein Jules naturally falls into phase with him. Denny Peppers as well, he thinks about music in a very different way than I do, and I love that. I’ll leave things open for him to come up with his own parts. I think it’s a combination of certain things having to be certain ways but leaving things open for surprises. Those are my favorite songs. If everyone played exactly what I played previously then it’s boring. Does that make sense? We’ve got a bit of that Pink Floyd passive-aggressive thing, but were funnier than that as well. We’re a bit like 'The Young Ones', I suppose. I mean, with Jimmy in the band there’s a new energy. The band is a lot more fun, happy place to be now that Jimmy’s in and Jules isn’t in it. I think Jules used to somehow put everybody on edge a bit. Now it’s a lot more fun and laid back, playing live and all that stuff. PB: Do you consider yourself to be more of a quiet person or an extroverted people person? LS: I could quite happily stay up all night and make music, you know. The late night thing, I think, for me is just problematic with having kids and jobs and getting up early and things like that. Basically creating, I like coming up with stuff on my own. I like to do that on my own and just not have to worry about what I’m doing, just get it all out, and create like that. But I have a band, I suppose, because I like hanging out with those guys, you know. I like that. You can’t fake a band, a good proper band. A gang of people who have that kind of shared band/gang mentality, those are my favorite bands. They have that shared group sense of humour. When you’re playing together enough to be cackling when you’re playing live, I quite like it, really. PB: Is your label Black Glove Recordings run by you as well? LS: Black Glove Recordings is run by me purely to put Ulysses stuff out on, the reason being we have trouble finding labels that will put our stuff out! Often it’s because we aren’t classifiable enough. Most small indie labels are run by one middle-aged fanatic guy who sells X amount of the same sounding bands to X amount of the same people every time, and they can’t afford to take a gamble. We’re happy with the situation, though, as it allows us total control and we always know where we’re at. PB: I read in another interview you did that you have difficulty with lyrics. How do you write them? Do you give yourself a deadline or do them at the last minute? LS: The problem I have with lyrics is that I usually get some lyrics that come with my initial idea, then I start doing the arrangements and sections and parts, and I just keep kind of rewriting and reediting, you know, more and more. I think with this latest album, with 'On Safari' I’m definitely happier with the lyrics on there. They’re more meaningful than perhaps they used to be in the past, or they feel more important to me, anyway. It’s a weird, general thing that people who loved the album kind of still think the whole thing’s funny, which is odd. There is stuff on there that I don’t think is very funny, or it’s not funny to me. It all has a personal level. I don’t know. In terms of lyrics, it’s just me writing really. Things like 'Calendar Street', I think we’d done a demo version of the song, and it had a bit of an intro that I wasn’t happy with. Then in my dreams I came up with it and thought “Shit! I need to call this into my phone,” and I woke up and bang, I played it into my phone. I don’t know how that happens. It doesn’t happen very often, to dream a song. PB: That’s very McCartney. LS: Yeah, McCartney McCartney McCartney, all the time. As to where do they come from, I don’t know. I’ve never seen, like, a political situation and written about it. Maybe one day I will. That’s not how I’ve done things so far. PB: What were the inspirations for 'Bad Tattoo' and 'Situation Man'? LS: In terms of lyrics and thematically? PB: Yeah. LS: Well, 'Situation Man,', I think “he sits alone at his computer with a bottle in his hand” is just me being alone on the internet at night, drinking at home, just recognizing that it’s something slightly pathetic. But, you know, in political way, not contradicting what I just said, I guess it’s a resigned song about modern life, if you know what I mean, and how he feels powerless and whatever. That’s the payoff of that line, really, “alone at his computer with a bottle in his hand”, thinking how fucking useless everybody is and how shit everything is, I’m surprised that the world isn’t even worse than it is, you know? There’s so many fucking idiots around, I’m surprised that more people aren’t crashing their car a hundred times more than they are. 'Bad Tattoo' wasn’t called that originally. That song originally didn’t have a rock backing. It was more kind of like a ‘60s girl group song, boom-boom-boom-crash, Phil Spector production type thing, but I only had a verse, then we decided to AC/DC that up and that led on to the chorus and the other parts. In my mind the song is thematically or the lyrics are to do with different tattoos. If we’d had the money we would have a graphic video of all the different lyrics in the song turning into tattoos or something like that. I suppose it’s about an ideal, a spirit in different places in the world. A celebration of femininity. PB: Was 'Looking for a Guru' your 'Sexy Sadie' type of song? LS: Yeah, it has that connotation, the guru thing. Jules kind of came under the spell of somebody else, and I think that may have influenced that lyric a bit. Somebody else I know got into a little bit of following, not gurus but influencer type people, and how there are certain kinds of people who are looking for a guru, and they’re looking for somebody else to take charge of their lives, to have someone to look up to, to be in charge. I suppose it’s saying, it’s a Bob Dylan personal attack song, mentioning how I’m not looking for a guru. I suppose in a typical Beatlesque way maybe I am as well, but it then turned into just a surreal story about a couple and they end up in a retreat or whatever in India in the last verse. Mainly the song is being critical of a friend of a partner, even the need to have a guru. It’s me thinking about why do so many people need a guru, whether it’s a guru or a life coach or a business coach or a stronger partner in their relationship, or somebody else to take charge of their existence so that they feel whole or feel good about things. PB: Anthony Robbins [the motivational speaker]. LS: There’s definitely a whole business of that, isn’t there, certainly in America? But it’s a luxury as well, isn’t it, to have time to have a guru? If you’re completely broke, you just have to work all the time. You don’t have time to pay money to follow a guru. PB: Exactly. LS: So I guess it’s that kind of hypocrisy. In my mind, anyway. PB: Speaking of working all the time, I saw that you had a journalism background. LS: I do a bit of writing for 'Shindig!' magazine, but that’s because they discovered my band first and then Jon MIlls, he’s the main guy at 'Shindig!', he wanted to do PR, which is how we hooked up with you. He did the first album’s PR, because he loved the writing that we came up with, and he got me to write for them. It’s really not a paying job as such, so I’ve done decent reviews and writing on the back of that. My wife works in tech, software tech, in management, and they do a podcast for a foundation she works for that’s famous in England. So, I did that for them, for a weekly podcast ['The Product Experience']. Then my middle son has Asperger’s, so he’s only at school half the time, so I have him two days. Between the band and all that, it’s pretty hectic. PB: Is the podcast your day job? LS: It’s a couple of days a week. I have my son two days a week and I’ve got two other kids as well. I do all the childcare, run the house, and all that stuff. Not very glamorous, I’m afraid. PB: But that’s wonderful, though. That’s real life. LS: Yeah. PB: My last question is my TARDIS question. If you had to time travel and play a festival, would you play Isle of Wight ‘69 or ‘70, the Monterey Pop Festival, or the first Woodstock? LS: Oooh, that’s difficult. I’ve seen all the films. I think Monterey had the hottest looking women. Isle of Wight’s in England, so I’m not so interested. The first Woodstock film was the biggest. I don’t know. Can I say Monterey because it had the hottest women? PB: Yes, you are allowed to say that. LS: I’ll go with Monterey. It’s close, though. Woodstock had the film and the recording. KB: Thank you.

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On Safari (2019)
Bath’s ace glam-rockers Ulysses offer towering sound and non-stop delight on their latest album

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