Friends Again - Interview
published: 24 / 12 / 2019
John Clarkson chats to Paul McGeechan, the keyboardist with influential Glaswegian pop act Friends Again, about the double CD reissue of their 1984 debut and only album, 'Trapped and Unwrapped'.
Friends Again were one of the acts on the vibrant Glasgow pop scene of the 1980s that also included Orange Juice, Altered Images, the Bluebells, Aztec Camera and Hipsway. They were briefly a popular act in their native Scotland, but broke up a few weeks before their debut album, ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’, came out in late 1984. They are, however, seen to be of important note in Scottish musical history as several of their members went on to become key players in other principal Glaswegian bands. Friends Again was formed in 1981 by Chris Thomson (vocals, guitar, songs), Paul McGeechan (keyboards) and Neil Cunningham (bass), whom had all been at school with each other and played in various other short-lived bands together. After initial line-up changes, the group steadied to also include James Grant (guitars, vocals) and Stuart Kerr (drums, harmonies). Soon after a demo of one of their songs, ‘Honey at the Core’, was picked up for airplay on the show of influential DJ Billy Sloan on a local radio station Radio Clyde, they signed to Phonogram Records. When their second single, ‘State of Art’, failed to chart in late 1983, stalling at no.93, Phonogram delayed ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’. Although they released other singles across 1984 and a five song double vinyl EP ‘The Friends Again EP’, which reached no. 59 in the charts, Friends Again began to lose ground, and broke up when Grant, who wanted to front his own band and develop his own songwriting, left to form soul/funk/rock outfit Love and Money, taking McGeechan, Kerr and briefly Cunningham with him. Chris Thomson went on to form chamber pop consortium the Bathers, which released six albums of increasingly strings-drenched and European-influenced art rock. Grant recorded four albums initially with Love and Money, and, since their first break-up in late 1994, has maintained a solo career and released five albums under his own name as well as composed soundtrack music. Keyboardist Paul McGeechan was also a member of Love and Money and has worked as a producer. After Love and Money broke up again, having reformed in 2011 and released a fifth and final album ‘The Devil’s Debt’ in 2012, McGeechan established another project, the orchestral Starless, which has featured guest vocalists including Paul Buchanan from the Blue Nile, Karen Matheson from Capercaillie and Thomson as well as the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Starless’ eponymous debut album came out in 2016, and will be followed by a second album, ‘Earthbound’, in 2020. ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’, which has been remastered by Paul McGeechan, has just been reissued in a double CD edition, which also includes remixes, alternative versions, B-sides and demos. It involved five sets of producers including the highly regarded Bob Sargeant, Television frontman Tom Verlaine, Jon Turner and Bobby Henry who had produced the band’s early demos at Palladium Studios in Edinburgh, and Friends Again themselves. With elements also of guitar rock, folk, new wave and acoustic pop all present on ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’, it is a very diverse record which holds together surprisingly well. Chris Thomson’s thoughtful lyrics which focus largely on obsessive infatuation and love as an intoxicating, sometimes ecstatic sickness - a theme he would return to with the Bathers - are a binding factor. There are also several stand-out moments. ‘Honey at the Core’ and ‘State of Art’ are both sublime and classic pop numbers. The Tom Verlaine-produced, keyboards-dominated ‘Swallows in the Rain’ has a sweeping sound, and is an early indicator of the fine arrangements which Thomson and McGeechan in particular would become renowned for later in their career. ‘South of Love’ , another highlight, is on the surface upbeat and breezy, but carries a bittersweet punch as it is about the dying moments in a love affair. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Paul McGeechan about returning to ’Trapped and Unwrapped’ thirty-five years on. PB: How have you enjoyed going back to and revisiting ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’ all these years on? PM: It was made when we were quite young, but it is something that I can still listen to and be proud of as a record. My wife likes it a lot and I have heard it a few times over the years, but it was interesting in particular going back and hearing some of the stuff that was never available on CD before and some of the other alternative versions which, while I recall once hearing, I had forgotten all about. At one level it was just as well that I did get involved in the reissue because there were so many variations in versions no one would have known what they were but a member of the band. I could remember where things were done and so forth. I think artistically it is what it is. It was made when we were quite young, but it is something that I can still listen to and quite like and be proud of as a record. PB: The album’s main producer was Bob Sargeant, who worked on eight of its twelve tracks. You have said that “working with Bob Sargeant had a huge influence on my career as a professional musician”. In what way did it affect it? PM: Well, let’s say it was tough love as Bob was a perfectionist. He had worked with the Beat and bands like Haircut 100. Although they were pop bands, their records were very well produced. He was a big fan of Steely Dan and Gary Katz’s work with them as a producer, and he was trying to do something similar. It is quite ironic that Love and Money then went on to work with Gary Katz on ‘Strange Kind of Love’. He wanted the records he worked on to be as good as they could possibly be. I would play in the studio, and I would then go back to the apartment we were staying in London while we worked with him at RAK Studios, and practice for four or five hours for the next day, for the next track to make sure that I wasn’t replaced by someone else (Laughs). He was a tough taskmaster, but at the same time it was a very positive experience. You just had to perform well. He brought your game up and we learnt a lot. We had worked with other producers, but we hadn’t worked at that kind of level and he pushed us on. It was a good learning experience, and he installed in us a work ethic. That was not something that I thought that I had a twenty-year old person. He taught me, however, that what you get out of things is what you put in. He also tried to encourage you to be inventive as well. I think that is part of the reason why I still am in the music industry. I had those lessons from Bob early on. PB: What are your memories of working with Tom Verlaine? PM: That was a very different process. Tom was interested in doing a track with us. He chose ‘Swallows in the Rain’, and I remember him at the time saying that he had chosen that track because there were a lot of keyboards in it while some of the other tracks had more guitar. He wanted to do something with more keyboards on it because people would presume that he just wanted to do a guitar thing because he is such a great guitarist. He did take after take, and he kept every one, reels and reels of tape, until he got the take that he wanted. It was a different way of working but another valuable experience. James Grant and Bobby Paterson (Love and Money bassist) went on to appear with him on ‘The Tube’ as well. We were all on the same bill, and they played with Love and Money and then they went on with him as well. PB: The new version of ‘Trapped and Unwrapped’ contains three previously unreleased demos, ‘A Reader Decides’, ‘If You Can’t Love Her Madly’’ and ‘Caller’. When were those recorded? PM: They would have been recorded in mid to late 1984, somewhere round about that period. We make clear on the reissue that they are only demos as we didn’t have the masters to go back to. We wanted to make sure that people that bought the record knew that the quality is not quite the same, but it was nice to include them because it was the final part of the band’s history. PB: Things seemed to happen very quickly for Friends Again after ‘Honey at the Core’ was played on Radio Clyde. How soon after that did you sign to Phonogram? PM: It was about six weeks for the publishing and it was maybe slightly longer for the record company. The band had been together for a good while. We had demoed a lot but as soon as the demo of ‘Honey at the Core’ was played on Billy Sloan’s show there things moved fairly quickly from there. PB: You were popular in Scotland. How well did you do down South and over the border? PM: We were very well known in Scotland but we were also surprisingly well known in London and England as well. There wasn’t, however, much written about us. Tim Barr, the music journalist, who did the sleeve notes for the reissue said that he enjoyed doing it partly because there wasn’t that much already out there about Friends Again, whereas everything else that he is writing about nowadays has already been written about. I talked to Chris Thomson the other day about that and said, “Why do you think that was?” and I had forgotten that it was quite simply the fact that the album had come out after the band had split up, so there was nothing to promote. We didn’t do any interviews or anything like that. It has surprised me a lot over the years that through Love and Money and touring people have come up quite often and said, “I am such a big Friends Again fan.” It seems that here was quite a lot of love for the album. The news of the reissue has also been popular. I think there are a lot of fans of the band out there, but there was just no band to promote it. PB: You toured the UK with the Bluebells in June 1984. Was that your only UK tour? PM: No, Friends Again did a lot of shows with the Bluebells, but we also played the college circuit quite a lot and we toured extensively. The album took, however, a long time to come out. We released ‘State of Art’ as a single, but when that wasn’t a hit the record company kept putting the dates back and by that time James was developing a desire to be a front man. I had forgotten this as well, but we had been trying to get on ‘The Tube’ for a long time and we were finally offered a slot and we didn’t play it. I said to Chris, “I wonder why were stupid enough not to do that,” but Chris reminded me that it wasn’t us that decided not to do it. We would have done it but our management wouldn’t let us do it because we had already split up. If we had gone back together to do ‘The Tube’, it might have been a different thing. PB: Friends Again were very diverse in their sound. You were very difficult to slot into a category. Was that something do you think which went for or against the band? PM: I think that it went for the band. Someone said to me, “How do you compare Friends Again to other things at the time?”, and I was like, “Well, you didn’t” (Laughs). James grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Chic, Chris was into Bowie and Roxy Music in a big way, and I listened to a lot of Gary Numan and Kraftwerk. We had things in common and things that weren’t, but we all fed in and that was what made Friends Again sound so diverse. I think that was a good thing and it pleases me. It meant that we weren’t like other people. The musicianship is better than I remembered. James was always a superb guitarist. I didn’t really remember the rest of us as, however, being good musicians, but there is some good playing on there and some good ideas. PB: You had a band meeting without Chris Thomson and decided to break up and form what became Love and Money. Chris said very quickly afterwards that it was the right decision creatively. Do you agree? PB: James says in the sleeve notes to the reissue that if we had stayed together he would have driven Chris crazy, and I think that there is some truth in that. They both wanted to some extent to do their own thing. The Bathers were very different to Friends Again. There were some similarities there, but Chris is a very talented writer and it became a new platform for him. It was a shock to him at the time when Friends Again split, but those Bathers records are very unusual as well. When we decided to do Love and Money, we also wanted to be nothing like Friends Again. It was what people expected. Everyone who came to the first Love and Money gig expected another Friends Again, and we went on with a thirteen piece band and a horn section just to prove that they were wrong. It was as much a statement as anything else. There was no point in splitting one thing up to do something similar. PB: Your own working relationship with Chris has started again. He appeared on ‘Misty Nights’ on the first Starless album and will appear on ‘Earthbound’ as well. PM: Yes, he has got a couple of tracks on ‘Earthbound’. I had appeared on stage with him occasionally at Bathers gigs, doing one song here and there, but other than that we didn’t work together for a long time. ‘Misty Nights’ was the first time we had worked together in the studio since Friends Again, so we’re talking a good thirty years. It was my wife that suggested that I ask him to sing on ‘Starless’, so I gave him some ideas and he sang it. It was quite emotional because he tied in the lyrics on ‘Misty Nights’ with where we used to rehearse in Friends Again. We are going to be definitely doing some shows together under the name of Chris Thomson and Paul McGeechan at some point next year, and we are also going to be doing a Starless show in May. We are also going to do hopefully a Friends Again show. PB: Yourself, James and Chris Thomson have remained in the public eye. What are Stuart Kerr and Neil Cunningham doing now? PM: I have tried many times to get in touch with Stuart, but Stuart is not on the radar. You can’t find him on social media. You can’t find him on the electoral roll. He doesn’t want to be found (Laughs). Stuart, of course, went on to do Love and Money, and then he was in Texas. He was also in Gun for a while, but I think he has given up the drumsticks now. I am still going to try and contact him to see if he wants to do the Friends Again show if it comes off next year. His backing vocals were a big part of the Friends Again sound, but I don’t know if I can get in touch. I am still friends with Neil. Neil is a video editor at the BBC and has been for a great number of years. He has not played the bass for many years, but we did say to him if we were going to do a show would he come up and do a couple of songs, so we will wait and see what happens there. PB: The German label Firestation is putting out as well a compilation of early Friends Again material called ‘In the Beginning’? How much did have you had to do with that? PM: Everything (Laughs). I did the running order and mastered it. I chose the tracks with Chris’s input. Firestation approached me through Facebook. There was a website that had some old demos and stuff up without our permission, and they wanted to do a package. I had the old original recordings and original demos from back in ’81, so I got them transferred and restored from those early tracks. I am quite pleased with it. The quality is good enough audio wise, but I will let the audience judge the quality of the tracks. It is very much us at the beginning. PB: You said that you might be doing a Friends Again gig next year. Do you know when that will be? PM: It has been talked about, but it has not been totally decided yet. We are waiting to see who is available and who wants to do it before we settle on anything. We are still in the discussion stages at the moment . PB: Finally when will the second Starless album be coming out? PM: It will be May, as we have got a Starless concert then. The gig is the 15th and is at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow. Hopefully the album will come out on the same date. It is being released on Last Night from Glasgow and, as well as Chris, also features Emma Pollock from the Delgados, Julie Fowlis, Steven Lindsay from the Big Dish and Grahame Skinner from Hipsway. It looks like the majority of the people who sing on the album are going to be at the gig as well. PB: Thank you.
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