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In the first part of a two part interview, former The Perfect Disaster frontman Philip Parfitt speaks to Denzil Watson about his second solo album, 'Mental House Recordings', and his return to music after an absence of many years.
It’s been some journey for the ex-front man of Velvets-influenced alternative rock band The Perfect Disaster. A journey I started with him as a fan back in the depths of the 80s. I was so taken by his music back in the late 1980s that he holds the distinction of being the only person that I’ve written fan mail to. He never replied but that was okay. He had a busy schedule back then and his music did the talking. After four studio albums including 1989’s critically acclaimed ‘Up’ album, the band went their separate ways but much to my delight he reappeared in 1994 with his new outfit Oedipussy and their flawless debut album ‘Divan’. With tickets booked to see him at The Leadmill in Sheffield, the gig got cancelled and he disappeared without a trace.
In 2003 I wrote a retrospective piece on ‘Oedipuss’ for Pennyblack full of praise for “Divan”. Then, out of the blue a comment appeared in the chat box below. “Thank you, that is a very decent, considerate review. Well written, researched and executed. Good luck, Phil Parfitt”. And a beautiful friendship was struck up. In 2014, Phil returned from the wilderness with his debut solo album, the gentle and self-reflective ‘I’m Not the Man I Used to Be’. It was an album about life, pain and joy.
Six years on, Phil has just released the follow-up album, ‘Mental Home Recordings’. It is a delicate and beautiful record that earned the accolade of my favourite album of 2020. I then arranged to interview Phil to get the low-down on the album and his plans for the future. What followed was one of the most enjoyable and relaxed interviews I’ve ever done with an artist. One that puts everything he’s done as an artist into context and reaffirms for me why he is one of the best songwriters currently plying their trade.
PB: It was a really long time between your last official release by Oedipussy and your first solo LP, and then the gap between that and ‘Mental Home Recordings’ although not as long, was still a good few years. What was the reason behind that? What was the gestation period down to? Does it take a long time to write stuff?
Philip Parfitt: Well, the thing is there, that, first of all, I have a very strange relationship with the concept of time. I don't really think I actually notice how long things are taking, so yes, there was a period of, I don't know, was it fifteen years or something between the first solo album and the second Oedipussy album, which didn't actually get released. And then I had various other projects that didn't receive official releases either.
But I kind of kept on writing all the time and accumulating all of this stuff. And then I sort of accidentally went on holiday in France and sort of, I don't know, went through a kind of strange period where I thought I needed to buy an old water mill which was practically a ruin. And I thought that I could singlehandedly renovate this property while bringing up two young children and trying to be self-sufficient and off-grid. And ten years into that idea or project, I realised that perhaps it wasn't the wisest decision I'd ever made in terms of getting stuff finished artistically.
So, I was kind of like recording loads of stuff. I had a minimal set up in the place where I lived. And I was writing and writing and writing and I had literally got hundreds of half-finished songs and what have you and several books that were nearly finished and hundreds of poems and journals filled with kind of thoughts and what have you. So, I was kind of doing loads of stuff. I actually wasn't finishing anything.
PB: What's more important? Is it the process of being creative or actually getting the finished product out there?
PP: It's the creative process of making stuff that is the most important to me. However, I do really enjoy it when I actually get to finish something and put it out. In respect of the last album, ‘Mental Home Recordings’, when that actually came out and got so much, and is still getting, really good press, I'm I was very pleased with that. I'm not going to pretend that I wasn't happy that the way that it was received, I was very happy. But the process of creating writing and recording and inventing is something that that's the thing that really kind of fires me.
I've never been somebody who wanted to be particularly famous in terms of being a well-known person in the kind of music world or whatever world it was I was inhabiting. That wasn't my notion of success. My notion of success, if there is one, is that I'm still creating and I'm still searching for new ideas.
Every time I pick up the guitar, sometimes I just have to stop myself just hitting record because I can have hundreds of ideas and they probably all sound the same. I've probably written the same song a thousand times.. But at the end of the day, if it still sounds fresh to me, that's the way I'm coming at it. I come at it like a kid. I pick up the guitar and I think, “How did I do that? What was that all about?” I don't sit down and go. “Okay. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Middle 8, bridge, verse, chorus, outro”. It just doesn't happen like that for me. I just do stuff that completely flows. I've got stuff to say with a musical instrument.
PB: And that really comes across as the songs have got a real feel to them. A feel that they've been crafted by somebody who's feeling them and feel almost feeling their way sometimes.
PP: You see, it’s the only way I can do it. I've really no idea of how to do anything, any other way. Everything I do, everything I write, is based around emotion and feeling and contact with it. The communication with whoever it is I'm speaking to, I mean, all my songs are about people or relationships or whatever aspects of a relationship you want to think of. But it's all about connectivity, connectivity between minds or between me and the planet, me and nature, me and people or whatever it is, you know, me and the universe. It's just me looking at stuff. But the only way I can do it is to be really connected to it. I have no other Modus Operandi.
PB: That really comes through. There are some pretty heavy lines in there. And if somebody who wasn't feeling them sang them, they would sound almost fake or false.
PP: I live in this house, right, and I've got neighbours, like quite a lot of people have. But I'm not used to that, because where I lived before, it was completely remote. They're constantly doing building work and I thought, “Oh, Jesus. Right. So that's meditation out for me this morning.” Although I did try to sit through it just to see if I could. I was doing my Zen meditation. And after I got up from that, I thought I was going to be working on some remixes I'm doing of ‘John Claire’ from the [current] album. And I thought, “Well, I can't really do that now so maybe I should listen to the album.” And I put it on the headphones, and I was wandering around the house listening to it. And I thought, “Bloody Hell. It's actually not bad.”
I haven't listened to it for a couple of months because I just couldn't. I listened to when I first got the vinyl just to check it thoroughly. I was so close to it. I had to check the master tapes when they came back from the test pressing. The pressing sounded great. And when I actually got the finished copies, I listened to it and I thought, “Yeah, right, so what's going on there?” And then I started to redo the mixes in my head.”. And so, I thought, “We’ve got to stop doing this.” So, I did not listen to it for a couple of months.
So, put it on thiat morning because I had done an interview recently and I got a copy of the magazine and in the kind of by-line the journalist had written “Career defining album” as part of the sentence. And I thought, “Blimey, what is all that about?” so I put it on, and I had that thought in my mind and I thought, “Right. Actually, it's not bad.”
I'm just so close to it I just don't know what to think of it. Some of the songs are lreally old like ‘My Love’. It’s twenty years old. That song is just one of those songs, along with a whole bunch of other songs, that I could have chosen to put on this album. And I eventually narrowed it down to about twenty and we had kind of three quarters finished them. And then I narrowed it down again, roughly thinking, trying to build a body of work, a coherent body of work. And I thought, “Does this really fit into it? Does that fit into it? And how does this all kind of sound? And is it all going to sound like this?” So, I'm starting to think about everything as a ‘one’. And it's not necessarily your best ten songs. It’s the songs that make the most cohesive overall piece of work. I was just waiting for someone to tell me it was a load of rubbish, and saying, “What are you doing? Get back to having an electric guitar plugged in very loud.” Not that I would have taken any of that advice, of course, as I've never been good at taking advice. I would have, however, second guessed myself probably to the nth degree when I was when I was mixing it and I was right in there with it.
So, to finally get to the point where I can listen to it and it's actually not bad makes me just want to get on with the next one. So, I'm kind of right now well into the path of the next one. I've got I've got a collection of songs, some of which are practically finished, and some of which are needing a lot more development, but I'm well into that process now. But it was just nice to go back to that, having not listened to it for a few months and think, “Okay. Yeah, right.” It's not like I'm giving myself a massive pat the back or anything. I don't do that kind of stuff. But I was happy to say, “All right, it wasn't a nightmare.” I've been in that position where we've done albums and I thought some of it sounds half good. And other bits of it just sounds like we're really pumping in the studio and everything sounds really great. And then when you get the recordings back and you just think, “Oh, right. This just isn't recorded correctly.”
PB: I'm a big fan of The Perfect Disaster. But if someone said to me “Did The Perfect Disaster make an absolutely outstanding album?” and I gave an honest answer then I'd probably say no. They made an album that was really well recorded. They made an album that had fantastic songs on it, but the production let it down. And then both elements came together on ‘Divan’ when you did Oedipussy. For me that was your career defining album, because everything about that album was absolutely spot on. Everything. The songs, the feel, the production.
PP: I can appreciate what you're saying about that album. And again, that was mostly me, with guests. I had Jason Pierce [Spacemen 3] there for a couple of tracks. I had Terry Bickers [House of Love] in there and I had the other players of Levitation including David Francolini and Laurence O'Keefe [both Levitation] playing bass and drums throughout the album with other players coming in. They were the mates who I was seeing a lot at the time and I said, “Look, I'm doing my solo album,” and they said, “Okay, cool. Come on, let's go.” So, I got them in. I had it mostly recorded and then I got them in when I needed them. But there was definitely a lot of going on there. We had some big players, and we had some great production and some very, very, good studios. I was also working with a really good mix producer/engineer called JC Concato. And at that time, after The Perfect Disaster, I was more in the front seat of production of where I wanted to take stuff, unlike in The Perfect Disaster, apart from ‘Up’, which I think sounds really great. Everyone would have a different take on it and of what we've done and what sounds better, but they're just personal opinions, aren't they?
When ‘Divan’ was finished, of course, I recorded another album again with great players and that was very strange because it was it was fantastically received by the publishing company Chrysalis and the label, which was a subsidiary of Chrysalis. And the first album, ‘Divan’, had got good press, but it didn't sell, and because I was then signed with the major, had I still been with a small indie label, they probably would have put the second album out. But because the first album didn't sell, and I was with a major, I think that's what prompted the accounts department to just say, “Look, if we're going to get this away, we need to spend an absolute bomb on it”..And they just didn't want to. They had other stuff to spend a bomb on. So, they just didn't release the album. And then I had some legal battles with them. It was nothing personal, it was just business to them, and they just wanted to keep me as a writer. But I just didn't see the point of being a writer there and not releasing stuff and endlessly recording stuff that one day they might release.
So, I got myself out of that publishing deal and then I was so fed up with the whole bloody thing. I didn't think that I was going to do anything as the lead singer or the front person of a band and just wanted to take a backseat and be a writer and a producer at that point. And then I started to do various other projects, none of which got off the ground. Some really good material recorded that I hope to one day actually put out there. But because I've got so much other stuff that I want to do going forward, I don't look too far back and think, “All right, I've got to spend six months trying to get this out.”. I'd rather work on new stuff, which is kind of where I sort of am.
PB: A lot of artists are like that. You build up something, you finish it and then you want to put it out there. And once that moment is gone, you've got more ideas and you’re on to the next thing.
PP: Well, exactly. They spent a bomb on recording the second Oedipussy album and when I listen to it now, and I think, “Right. It doesn't sound as good as the first one.” Or it doesn't sound as well put together in production terms. But is that really important? Do people really want to hear these songs, or do I need to put it out for my own personal reasons? And in the end, I thought, “Well, no, I don't need to put anything out.”. And that's where I was until to the point where ‘I'm Not the Man I Used to Be’ was released. And that was basically people like yourself and a few others who did actually say to me “What the hell are you doing? Why don't you put something out as the last album you put out was fantastic”?
Okay, it didn't sell anything, but I was just really fucked in my head to be fair. I was probably half or three quarters mentally ill. I just didn't want to go into the music industry. I'd seen too many mates fall deeply and some never climb out of the hole. And it was just a kind of rat race. And I thought, “Jesus, do I really want to be spending my life chasing around with all of these people who I've got very little or no respect for at all?” At that level I just found it was a lot of backstabbing and lots of kind of treachery. And I just thought, “Man, I don't need this”. So, I literally went to live like a recluse for a very long time and nobody knew where I was. In the UK or from the old world, nobody knew where I was.
PB: You're right. I tried to find you to tell you how much I liked the Oedipussy album, but I gave up. And then out of the blue, this comment popped up on Pennyblackmusic.
PP: I don't even know how I found that. It was from the guy, Mr. Buckley, who wrote a blog or still writes a blog, I think, called ‘Tulip Frenzy’. It's not it's not just about music. It's about many things, slices of life, and funnily enough, I'm still in touch with that fellow and he wrote a lovely review of it and put it up on Twitter. He was very involved with writing presidential campaigns for the Democratic party in the States if I’m not mistaken, but he still writes this blog. I remember my daughter, Candy, said to me about fifteen years ago “You know, there's this people writing stuff about your music, dad, on the web”. And I said, “Really?” And there was a page created by other people for The Perfect Disaster. And I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I should get on there and have a look.”
So, once when I was in Paris again with a mate who had been trying to contact me for about fifteen years. He finally managed to hook up with me and I hadn't seen him for fifteen years. That was quite an emotional encounter. But from the very, very old days he was from the early 80s, I knew that guy. And I’m still great mates with him. So, all of these people, it all just came together to conspire to actually sort of get me to pull my finger out of a dark place and start to think about putting stuff out.
So, I tentatively started to finish things, and that culminated in ‘I'm Not the Man I Used to Be”. And the period between that album back in 2014 and this one, ‘Mental Home Recordings’, in 2020, there was a period again of, shall we say, intense soul searching. That's probably the best way to describe what I was going through. Then the album came out and I got some offers to play around Europe. And I thought, “Okay, I can do this solo or shall I do with the band or whatever.” And then I started to programme a very low-key tour that started in Italy and Ricky Maymi of The Brian Jonestown Massacre had said to me that he'd like to do some stuff with me. So, we talked a bit. He was another character who came out of the blue one day on the internet. He said to me, “I’m a massive fan. I’m in a band.” And I really didn't know who he was. I knew who they [BJM] were. I’d listened to them in the early days and I thought they were really, really good. I listened to quite a bit because someone had said to me, they sounded a little bit like The Perfect Disaster when we were in our rocky era. I listened to them, but I didn't get that kind of connection, but I did think what they were doing was pretty cool. But I didn't really pay very much attention until Ricky had got in contact with me and said, “Look, I'm in this band”. I said, “Yeah, right. Who's that?” I was just talking to him like another guy on the internet. And he said, “I'm a massive fan.” And because I occasionally get one or two of these guys, and sometimes, they're completely nuts and sometimes they're really nice people and sometimes they're both. So, I was chatting away, and he says, “I’m in a band” and I went, “Oh yeah, who’s that?” And he said, “Brian Jonestown Massacre”. And I said, “Yeah, I've heard of them”. This was about like ten years ago or something. And we started to chat and became good mates and I have subsequently seen them a few times. And we get on really well. And he said, “You know, why don't we do something together?”. And I said, “Yeah, okay, cool. I've got these gigs coming up and I was wondering how to do it.” And he said, “Well, why don't I play guitar? And we should do it as a duo”. And I said “Yeah”.
That was all kind of planned. And it was like about three or four weeks before it was meant to happen, and he couldn't make it. For whatever reason, he was stuck in Australia somewhere or couldn't do it or something else that took precedence over what we were going to do. So, I thought ,“Oh shit. Right. I've got all of these gigs planned and I'd had planned on doing it as duo with me on acoustic and Ricky playing lead, just filling in a bit. So, I thought “What shall I do”? Cancel it or just do it on my own or find someone else. And then a friend in France put me in touch with a guitarist who was called Alex Creepy Mojo who played on the live shows.
So, I then started to talk to him about recording the new songs. And that's how Alex became involved in the new material that, as you know, culminated in the stuff for this collection of songs and will be part of the next album as well, because half of it was already recorded. So, we get on well, we understand each other well artistically, and he gels in very easily with the way I work. I know what I want in my mind, but within that I give the contributors, and especially in Alex's case, because he's been there beside me through the whole of this, tons of freedom to do whatever they want. And if they're going in a direction that I don't like I just say, “Bring it back a bit and have another go.” And so, this requires from the other players, a hell of a lot of patience with me, because I can see that it could be painful or not rewarding for some people. It takes a special kind of person to kind of deal with the way I work. But Alex is very much one of those. He can say. “Yeah, whatever”, you know. He can give me endless reams of stuff, all that would be fantastic, and I just have to choose what I want out of it. And he's like, “Yeah, go with what you want”.
PB: It’s funny because you just reminded me of a video I saw recently on YouTube of The Jesus and Mary Chain on ‘Letterman’. There was the Reid brothers and a second guitarist, and they used Letterman's house band. If you get a chance, watch it as it's hilarious. The rhythm section is going one way and the Mary Chain the other way and the Mary Chain are looking over at them going “What is this?” while Letterman’s funking out on the bass.
PP: So, the three of them went over there and they’d never worked with these people before, but obviously who were a very competent house band and can probably turn their hands to anything and got the morning to listen to the Mary Chain stuff. And they probably said, “Yeah. Okay. Yeah, that's pretty simple.” And then they actually go on there and did it with some musicians who are not trained in the same performance.
PB: It's fantastic TV. And you, of course, famously went on a whole tour with the Mary Chain, didn’t you?
PP: Yeah, the ‘Automatic’ tour. I mean, I've got some accounts in my memory of people actually saying to us that, on a few occasions, we were the better band of the evening. But that's neither here nor there. Whatever anyone says, it's all just a personal opinion. And it doesn't really mean anything.
PB: I saw you on that tour at your Sheffield date. I remember heckling you.
PP: You heckled me?
PB: Yeah. When you announced you were The Perfect Disaster, I shouted “Well, your haircut is mate.” And you immediately came back at me with one of your Parfitt one-liners and rightly put me back in my place.
PP: Ha, ha, well, I’m sorry.
PB: I can’t remember what you said now but it was very funny.
PP: Well, I’m glad it was funny, because they weren’t always funny. I've got a sharp wit, but it's not always directed with the softest of sentiments shall we say. In those days I was pretty wound up. I just got so intensely into what was happening on the stage that if something happened that kind of burst that bubble, then any response from me could have been forthcoming. I’m not a violent person but I have got a violent tongue if provoked. And if I had perceived that there was provocation, I would have responded in kind. I mean, it's just that I was so nervous. Nervous of in a kind of nervous energy way. When I was on-stage, I was on a hair trigger. So, if everything, was all going swimmingly, then I would obviously get into the groove and it would all be blissed out, heads down, whatever. And if the audience reaction was adverse, it didn't necessarily affect me adversely. It just meant backs to the audience, turn the amps up to eleven and a half and then just go for it. You know, we were finely tuned as a unit at that point, so anything could have happened. I remember the Mary Chain gig at the Brixton Academy.
PB: Which you recorded, didn't you?
PP: Yes, there are some recordings of that that are out there. We didn't even get a sound check. We got a line check to make sure that the amps were working because the Mary Chain took a very long time to soundcheck. They were the headliners. And that kind of stuff happens a lot. But anyway, so we were on there and got a line check and then five minutes later we were on. However, the onstage engineer had forgotten to turn on the fold-back system. So, the back line was all blaring out and I couldn't hear a single word I was saying or singing. And then so I just felt, “Okay. Right. This is this is where we're at, is it?” So, after the first couple of numbers, I couldn't hear anything so the vocal sounds a little bit flat on the recordings because you simply couldn't hear anything. I knew I was in tune, but it wasn't kind of like pumping on all levels, but the back line was all right and that was pretty much what happened.
So, we went into each scenario thinking, “Right, it’s us against the world,” and this is where we are and if people don’t like it that’s cool. And if people do like it, super cool. If you listen to the live recording of ‘B52’ from that gig, actually, that comes out. We literally had half an hour. I think the set lasted thirty minutes or so. I mean, that's that was our slot. So, as a joke, I just put an alarm clock on the top of my amp and set it for thirty minutes. So, I think we played we played four or five songs. And then for the second half of the thirty minutes, we played ‘B52’. I think I sound probably half demented because I didn't really care. We were just doing our thing. And I looked around at one point and I saw the Reid brothers at the side of the stage just watching. And I was laughing my head off in my head because right at the point there were massive wails of feedback and everything was just roaring. And then I saw the clock coming up to thirty minutes because I was right close to my amp to get some extra and it was thirty minutes, bing! I didn't hear it, but I could see it. And then suddenly everything was just unplugged, and we just walked off the stage and let it do its thing for a couple of minutes until someone came along and turned it off. And that's where you hear the flick of the switch at the end of it.
The second part of this interview will be published in our next magazine.
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