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Former Six By Seven frontman recently released his debut solo album, 'A Streetcar Named Disaster'. Denzil Watson talks to him about life after Six By Seven, the new album and selling effects pedals to the Arctic Monkeys
If you’re a fan of atmospheric drone rock of the ilk of Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine then chances are you’ll also have a record in your collection by Nottingham based noise-merchants Six By Seven. They peppered the late 90s and most of the noughties with six fine long players and although not quite cracking the charts, caught the ear of one John Peel while at the same time building up a considerable underground following.
Chances are too that you will have also heard of their main creative force and imposing front man Chris Olley. After the demise of his former band in late 2008, he embarked on a brand new journey as a solo artist. If ever somebody was entitled to the title “renaissance man” then Chris is surely he.
Pennyblackmusic caught-up with the Midlands-based musician to talk about life after Six By Seven and his debut album 'A Streetcar Named Disaster',but also ended up chatting about photographing football grounds, the joys of the Dandy Warhols and selling effects pedals to the Arctic Monkeys.
PB: Chris Olley, how are you?
CO: I’m very well, thanks.
PB: How’s life as a solo artist?
CO: Quiet. I don’t have the other people around me and I just write music for myself and I don’t have the interaction of the band anymore so it’s become a different thing. It’s a different stage in my life. I enjoyed going into the rehearsal room and the banter and the fighting and all the rest of it, but it would take a lot to get me back into that again. I feel happier to just write music and find some kind of truth. Some kind of solace within music. Doing this on my own is like a private journey and tends to benefit me more at this stage in my life.
PB: That ties up that I read somewhere that after the demise of Six By Seven you “picked up an acoustic and tried to find out who I was within music”. Have you achieved that?
CO: Yeah, I think I’ve always tried to do that, but in Six By Seven it was always hampered by other input and because we all started it together so long ago we didn’t realise who was responsible for what. You work within what you can do. I was driven by a sound. Something that made me want to create a sound. The thing is I didn’t really understand. I knew what I didn’t want to do but couldn’t identify what I wanted to do with in Six By Seven. That was a difficult thing to do because everyone else was around me and we didn’t know who was responsible for what.
Recently I've started getting another band together and we went into the rehearsal room with three completely different people and within an hour it all started to sound like Six By Seven. The drummer said that it was really eerie that it just fell into place and people have told me that they can hear a certain sound within my solo stuff that’s close to Six By Seven, even if it’s not full blast.
PB: But given you were the guitarist/singer/songwriter perhaps that’s not too big a shock?
CO: Well I suppose you could say that, but I don’t know if these things are as obvious as they seem. They don’t seem that way when you are in the band and you started the band off together. No one ever turned round to me and said, “That’s your sound.” This is where I’m going back to where I’m able to find a truth and an honesty within music rather than being in a rehearsal room and trying to “bash one out”.
PB: Is the new band a band in its own right or more of a backing band scenario?
CO: I don’t know really. We had one rehearsal then we had to restructure it. But I made a vow to myself that I would only play as Chris Olley from now on. I used to do an electronic side-project called Twelve and then I had an electro-clash outfit called Fuck Me USA that I did with James Flower (Six By Seven keyboardist-Ed). These were sort of alter egos. When you kill off all the alter egos, you then make a decision to make music in your own name and you have to think about what you are doing more carefully.
PB: I guess that must feel a little like being stripped bare after the dense sound-scapes of Six By Seven?
CO: It could be. We had a Hammond organ and two guitars which is enough to fill up any soundscape. We did have songs with acoustic guitars and we did experiment with other types of music.
I think that that was one of the undercurrents with Six By Seven. We did used to listen to a lot of electronic music. We were all into Krautrock, Plastic man and The Aphex Twin. Ten years ago everyone was and we bought a lot of those influences into the band and people bought musical equipment that sounded different to being a straight rock band.
I guess the classic example of that happening to a band was when Radiohead did the two albums after 'OK Computer' ['Kid A' and 'Amnesia'], when they were experimenting mixing drum machines and the sounds of Warp records into a rock band. When you look back at those records they seem way ahead of their time. I didn’t even like them when they came out. If you get those two albums on your iPod and let it run on shuffle, you’ll keep going over and looking at it thinking, “What on earth is this?” It’ll always be something off these two records. Anyway, let’s not talk about Radiohead.
PB: Okay, let’s talk about your solo album. Were you please with the way it was reviewed and received?
CO: It got a really good review in 'Uncut'. It does make a difference. It’s also been slagged-off. Some people just go out of their way to be unkind. Good reviews don’t sell you records anyway. You need a bit of light and shade. You can’t just have good reviews. You’ve got to have those jerks who slag you off. It’s important because at least people go, “I’ll give that a go myself” and then the disenfranchised read about it and listen to it and go, “Ah, that’s really good,” lying in between the floorboards.
PB: It’s a very honest record, isn’t it?
CO: Yeah, I didn’t have a band and I didn’t want to use computers because when you record music on a computer you always have this tendency to be able to fix it and correct it and turn it into a band. You could get a drummer in and get him to play half the song and then copy and paste it all into place and move it around and with a bit of clever engineering make it sound like you’ve got a proper drummer when you haven’t. I thought, "I haven’t got a drummer and I haven’t got a band, but I can play guitar and bass and keyboards and sing and I’ll do all that." Then my friend came in to help me and put some kick drum and high hat on it.
PBM: I saw in the sleeve notes that it said “the absence of a snare drum on this record is entirely intentional.”
CO: I find that a snare drum is like a haircut. It will always date your music. The snare goes on the 2 and the 4 [beat] and it slides your music into a bracket. Then there’s the sound of the snare drum and if it has a lot of reverb on it will immediately sound like something from the 80s. With the snare drum you have to make all these decisions and once you’ve made them it affects the music.
When you don’t put any snare drum on the record it gives the idea that the music is hanging in the air, floating in a timeless capsule and it always feels like that there might kind of something missing. If you leave it off the entire record, it’s okay.
It’s a bit like the first Velvet Underground album – they didn’t use any cymbals. They used tambourines to give you the high end sound. Andy Warhol said, “Let’s not have any cymbals on this record. Let’s just use the tambourine.” The great thing about the Velvet Underground’s first album is that it has an almost pretty tambourine folky quality to it, but there’s a very dark feel to it with Nico’s voice and Lou Reed and the way the others are putting the layers and the textures into the music.
I used a lot of Mellotron on my album. The sound of the oboe and the flute and the percussion on the Mellotron were used a lot in the late sixties. I think the BBC used it on their children’s programmes like 'Noggin the Nog'. So it has this feeling of nostalgia. Not a feeling of nostalgia of something good, but of something that just happened. So I put a lot of oboes and flutes and Mellotrons on there – it just kind of gave the thing a feeling – it was a bit like looking at Super 8 film. When you look at Super 8 film, it look like you are looking into someone’s dream.
PB: The other thing I picked up on, apart from the Velvet Underground influences, was a bit of a Jesus and Mary Chain feel in places.
CO: I was quite amazed to read that in some of the reviews that the album had that. I really didn’t think of the Jesus and Mary Chain when I was making the record and I certainly didn’t want it to sound like that. I think it’s mainly one track, 'Rock’n’Roll', and oddly enough that was me trying to copy the Dandy Warhols.
PB: You’re a big fan of the Dandy Warhols, aren’t you?
CO: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the Dandy Warhols. I think that they are a fantastic band. They took us on tour with them ten years ago when they had the hits, 'Everyday Should Be a Holiday' and 'Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth'. When they did their second album, 'Come Down', which is their best album, they came over here to tour for the first time and we toured with the them. We had a really great time with them and I watched them every night and I fell in love with them. The way they delivered everything and the way they looked. They are just such a cool band. If you were in a band, that is the band you’d want to be in.
PB: Coming back to your own album release, latter Six by Seven albums appeared on your own Saturday Night Sunday Morning label. Is Long Distance Runner', which has released your new album, an imprint of Saturday Night Sunday Morning?
CO: Yeah, Saturday Night and Sunday Moorning and Long Distance Runner are just imprints. I’m part of Cargo Records in London. They do all the manufacturing and distribution. They’ve got both my own labels. I wanted to get away from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning because after we left Beggars Banquet we formed the label and I kind of associate it with Six By Seven. I just thought I’d put it under a different imprint.
PB: I read in another interview that somebody asked you about the best and worst thing about running your own label. I think the best thing was having total artistic freedom while the worst was packing CDs and taking them down the post office.
CO: Yeah. We used to release records on-line in the early days and it was bonkers. I remember when the first 'Peveril Hotel' album came out Six By Seven 2004 demos and unreleased tracks album-Ed) and I sent an e-mail round and we sold a hundred copies in one day. We had to write all the addresses on the envelopes and we went down the post office with two cars full. It was great though because we were making enough money and it was coming direct to us and going straight into the bank. It was really good and was a great time.
In 2004 we were able to sell more records on-line and direct to our fan-base than any independent label could sell now. But now it’s all died off, year after year after year. We’ve reached the point now where there’s a whole generation of people who think music should be free. We’ve acted too late. We’ve let the internet show its other side and it’s been unregulated and now we’ve got people who think music is like teenage money and just falls out of trees.
PB: It’s a short sighted view, isn’t it?
CO: Well, the first people it affects are the people in the cottage industry and who are working to sell directly to the fans. Okay, so Britney Spears loses a million but she’s got another five million. If you’re selling a thousand records over the internet and that goes down to say one hundred and fifty you’ve got to call it a day.
PB: Which leaves touring the only viable way for bands to make money directly.
CO: But it takes a lot of money to go on tour. You’ve got to hire a van and put petrol in it and if you want to go further afield you are going to have to kip on people’s floors. It’s all very well if you are Kasabian, but if you’re a brand new band starting out now you’re expected to give your music away and when you phone up promoters they’ve never heard of you. This is what happened to us at the start.
I wouldn’t want to be starting out now. You’ve got to sit on Facebook all day or do this guerrilla marketing on forums. There’s one element that it all goes back to and that’s the live show. I heard an interview with Tom Jones the other day and he said it doesn’t matter what you do, if you can’t play live that’s it. It all goes back to that. So if you are in a band now, I think your mission is probably the same as when we first started or any other band started. You’ve really got to astound people at the gig.
PB: What are your plans for playing live?
CO: I’m promoting the album on my own and I’ve been very select with gigs so I haven’t done many. I’ve done a couple of radio things and I’ve played in London but now I’m starting to get a few more offers. I’m playing Glastonbury and a gig in Poland on September 11th. I’ve got a gig in Leicester at the end of August and I’m playing in Nottingham in about two weeks time.
I just decided that I would do gigs if the money was right and it was worth me doing them as I didn’t want to get into that trap of going out and playing. It’s kind of interesting just doing stuff alone with an acoustic. I’m enjoying writing songs on a guitar like that then going out and playing them. Basically it works so I’ll carry on doing that.
PB: Will you play live with a band in the future?
CO: I’m putting a new band together at the moment. I went into a music shop and there was this cool geezer playing guitar and I just said, “Do you want to be in my band?” and he said, “Yeah”. And then the guy behind the counter he said, “I’ll join as well”.
PBM: That was a pretty fruitful visit to the music shop!
CO: Yeah, and they’re both very good at playing and singing. I was really surprised.
PB: Do you still keep in touch with your former band-mates?
CO: I saw Sam Hempton (Guitars-Ed) the other day. And I’m in contact with James Flower. He’s got a new band and I went to see them. Pazza the bass player [Pete Stevenson], I haven’t spoken to him in five years. He just picked up his guitars one day and walked out and no one ever saw him again. The drummer [Christian Davis], I’ve no idea, I don’t have anything to do with him now.
PB: Are you proud of the legacy that Six By Seven left behind?
CO: Not really, No. To be quite honest with you, there was so much compromises of sound on each record that none of them turned out the way that I wanted them to.
PB: But 'The Way I Feel Today'(Six By Seven's 2002 and third album-Ed) was a classic album, was it not?
CO: Sam left the band and I sat down and thought I better write some demos and put a load of stuff together and that was the one record were I did say, “Look let’s do this all live.” Because Sam had gone the rest of the band were scared and afraid of the future and didn’t know if we were going to be able to make another record. That’s a record where I’m really happy with the sound of it, but the trouble is that it is a bit all over the place.
I’m happy with the fact that we did five Peel Sessions. When you’re making music that’s so different from what everyone else is doing you have this feeling that you’re doing something. When John Peel phones up and asks if your band can come and do a session, you feel that your band has landed.
PB: Can I come on to another talent of yours now? I was looking at your website and happened on your photographs. I didn’t realise you were a photographer. There are some great pictures on there. Some of the portraits are excellent.
CO: Thanks. I did a degree in photography at college in Nottingham where we formed the band. Nobody in Six By Seven was from Nottingham. We all came in then formed the band. I love photography. When I was at the Poly I used to photography all the bands that came to play. I’ve got an exhibition at Derby museum mid-November. I’ve been doing this crazy project of photographing all the football stadiums in the country.
PB: Yes, I saw them. Some of them can be really difficult to photograph, can’t they?
CO: At Kenilworth Road in Luton you have to actually go through someone’s house to get into the ground! I’ve got to do all 116. It’s just fascinating when you drive round the country and you realise you’ve got this localism going on in certain parts of the country.
When you drive into a lot of towns the first thing you see is a little brown sign with a football on or you see “The Hawthorns this way” on about 25 different signs. Then you go to somewhere like Shrewsbury and there are two major roundabouts and a dual carriageway and the stadium’s right next to it and no where does it say “This way to the stadium”. It’s almost like they are saying ”Stay out of our town”. At Bradford, you drive in and spend so long looking for the stadium. It’s so hard to find. It’s right in the middle and there’s no indication of how to get there.
PB: Although we’re getting off the subject of music, there are quite a lot of parallels. Do you think football has gone the same way as music as it is now very commercial? And everyone supports either Man United or Chelsea.
CO: Yeah. My son’s twelve years old. When he was about seven I said, “Son, it’s time for you to decide upon a team. Now be careful with you decision as it’s going to stick with you for the rest of your life”. He looked at me and said, “David Beckham”. I said “No, that’s not quite how it works. Now, don’t say Man United”. He didn’t want to support Nottingham Forest as they were bottom of the First Division so he went for Chelsea. Which is fair enough as I wouldn’t have had him supporting Arsenal.
PB: Have you been commissioned to do the football ground project?
CO: Well, I started doing it myself and I was trying to get a book made, but when the credit crunch hit the book industry was even harder hit than the music industry. I was phoning people up trying to get a publisher, but they were saying, “You must be joking!”.
But I was lucky enough to get an exhibition in Derby Museum, so we are just working out how to do it. We trying to work out whether to put all 116 photos up there or whether to cut it down to a more a manageable size and show the other photos some other way. But I’m going to have to get my skates on. I’m trying to get out and finish all the rest of the stadiums and the weather’s been so bad. I need one of those sort of sunny cloudy days to take the perfect picture.
PB: Do you combine photographing the grounds with going to a game?
CO: No, I don’t. I do exactly the opposite. In fact if there’s a game on, I don’t take the pictures because I want the pictures almost to have nothing to do with the activity of the stadium. I want the stadium as just something that sits there quietly within its surroundings. That for me is reason I amdoing it and that’s what I find interesting.
They’ve been manufactured in a steel works then rolled out and built up like an Ikea flat pack. When you go to Pride Park or the Walker’s Stadium, you do get this feeling that you can smell the fresh concrete and it’s not lived in, it’s just sort of purpose built on an industrial estate or they’ve cleared the ground around it.
Take Doncaster for instance. If you drove past it, you’d think it was an Ikea or a Homebase. It’s weird. The weirdest one is Milton Keynes. What they’ve done is they’ve built it so it can be enlarged as they go up the league. You can lift the roof up and you can keep building it up. By the time they get to the Premier League they’ll be able to push it up to 60, 000 people! It’s sponsored by Marshall and everything is black. You just don’t see a black stadium!
PB: Which fits in nicely with the fact that you’re shooting them all in black and white.
CO: Yeah, I want to take them when they are really still and that’s why I want to get the clouds in. They provide a nice backdrop with movement. If there’s no clouds in the background it is like they are almost dead.
On a grey day in Stoke at Port Vale, the stadium isn’t anything to look at. It’s just a slab that just stands there. It comes alive on match days and that’s why I need a sunny day with clouds ,so that it at least it takes it away from being something that’s completely dead to being something that has a stillness. With all the cars around, if you get the shutter speed right, the cars are dotted around and they give you the feeling that something’s going on but there are no people around. So the cars add to the ambience of the pictures.
PB: Are you looking to publish a book off the back of the exhibition?
CO: We’re doing a catalogue. We’re doing it in the style of a 1975 FA Cup final programme when West Ham beat Fulham [Chris is a West Ham fan!-DW]. You never know with an exhibition. Ideally I’d like to make a stocking-filler book that I could then give to each stadium to sell in their merchandise shops.
PB: Do you look to keep your music separate from your photography or do you see them as complimenting each other?
CO: The thing is I’m an artist and I’ve always considered myself to be an artist. Whatever I do I try and do it because I feel an inner voice and I want to create it. When I’ve tried to do anything vaguely commercial I reel away from it.
I’m currently running a separate business with my friend and we make effects pedals and distortion boxes and that’s going quite well. We build valve fuzz boxes. The Arctic Monkeys bought three, Spiritualised three also, the Dandy Warhols bought some. Ronnie Wood, the Coral. We’re building this company up at the moment. Martin makes and designs the insides and the electronics and then I design the outside and go out and sell them to people. There’s an art to selling. It’s another thing that I’m doing.
PB: Chris, thank you very much for your time.
Chris Olley: http://chrisolley.webeden.co.uk/
Six By Seven: http://www.sixbyseven.co.uk
Coopersponic Audio Engineering: http://www.coopersonic.com
334 Posted By: Hughie D, South Yorkshire on 19 Jul 2010
...it really is quite good!
333 Posted By: Brian John Mitchell, Raleigh, NC, USA on 17 Jul 2010
I think "The Way I Feel Today" going all over the place is part of the magic that makes it a great record. Who wants to hear clones of the same song ten times in a row?