Interview with Jimmy Somerville

Jimmy Somerville was first heard from as part of 80’s synth-pop trio Bronski Beat (“Smalltown Boy”). After leaving that band, he went on to the equally excellent The Communards before launching a solo career. His new CD, “Manage the Damage” is out now on Instinct Records.

On “Manage the Damage” you worked with Sally Herbert, formerly of Banderas. How did that collaboration come about?

“Well, we live together and have known each other forever. So one day we thought we’d have a bit of fun and thought ‘oh, this is cool.’ So we decided to put a collection of songs together and see what happens.”

What was it like working together on music?

“The most amazing thing for us was that we did it at home. We were in control, we were doing it at our own leisure, in our own environment. It was more secure and relaxed. It’s a kind of low-key album in a sense, it’s kind of mellow, really. It’s not too in your face and manic. So for me at least lyrically that’s where I was at. We were just kind of finding our feet in terms of how we would actually work together. The next project I think will be definitely more adventurous, energy-wise, that’s for sure.”

What made you do the album at home?

“Well first of all budget, because it was on a smaller independent label. We had something like 40,000 pounds to do the album, and that’s not a lot of money. So we thought, what’s the point of spending it on studios? The state of the art ones cost like 1000 pounds a day. Technically, we were not very good, really. We had to bring in some people to help us out because technically we weren’t that competent and were just finding our way around. Creatively, we were really into it and were experimenting as well. So it was a learning process.

“It was quite exciting that we were doing it at home. You’re not thinking what the studio is costing, when you think you’ve really got to put something together and you end up with something that you’re not really completely sure of or satisfied with but there’s no going back, because that’s going to be another 1000 pounds or something. So that starts to take over. On this album, some of the tracks we came back to 6 months later and thought ‘hmm, that’s not right, this can change, so let’s do it’. So that’s what was really great about this process!”

Are there any disadvantages to working at home?

“It depends on how technically clinical you want it sound. Anyone who works in the music industry knows that the technology is there to turn probably your pet pig into a singing sensation. There’s that kind of thing that we probably missed out on, the state of the art technology. But in the end, I think it comes down to the fact that I can sing and I don’t need the technology. We’re quite competent as songwriters and musicians.”

Besides recording at home, how is it different not being on a major label now?

“Well it’s a completely different ball game, and money is the issue. You don’t have that kind of budget because these small companies just can’t afford to pay lots of money to do things. Which is kind of good, the only drawback is possibly the promotion, because you’re up against some of the big guns who can push and push the artists until they finally break through. This way, it’s breaking through purely through the talent that you have and the sound that you’ve created. And that can be very difficult, especially if you’re up against other major labels that are pushing and pushing and pushing. Sadly, some artists don’t have any talent but they’ve got the money behind them. It’s really difficult, and I think that the awful thing is that in rock it’s perfectly acceptable to be in your mid 30’s and your early 40’s etc, but if you’re in pop it’s almost as if there’s this unwritten law that says ‘thou shall not make pop if you’re over 35.’ And I think that’s awful, that’s such nonsense.”

Was it that way when you started out in the 80’s?

“No, I think there was much more room to do pop if you were kind of older. Definitely. Pop always had been about youth, in a sense, but there was never any kind of ….. the way is now, there are kinds of rules within radio. Especially in the UK. On Radio One, which is the national station and if they don’t play your record you’re kind of doomed from the beginning, they do have an agenda that is ‘nothing before 1990’ and not playing older artists. It’s really difficult.”

When you were on major labels, did you ever have any problems with losing creative control?

‘Yeah, you make so many compromises on the major labels. There’s certain songs that given a choice I never would have done. But i never felt confident enough to say no. That’s why in the end I did leave London Records, because I thought ‘I don’t want to keep doing this, having these fights and a constant battle about what I should and shouldn’t be doing’. I want to do what feels right for me, regardless of any commercial success. If it’s right for me and I’m creating it, then that’s the issue.”

Since you have a home studio, do you find yourself constantly doing music now?

“Not really. I’ll spent a long time not making any music. When this album was finished, I didn’t really do anything at all for maybe six or seven months. But now Sally and myself are starting to get excited about doing things, because we keep coming to each other will little ideas. That’s when I know I’m in a process when I want to start being creative. But it’s not something I live for. Because all of my early career was something that just happened, so it wasn’t a big deal for me. I was just doing it all for like a laugh almost, I was just having fun and not actually understanding what I was actually involved with. So that was kind of bizarre for me.”

At want point did you start thinking about music as your career?

“I think really roundabout ‘Read My Lips,’ the album for London Records. I was really involved in AIDS activism and Act Up in the UK and then suddenly I really realized that I had a passion for singing about what I feel and think. That when I suddenly realized those songs really meant something to me. There are songs obviously in the past as well, on previous albums, that do mean something to me and are really important. But suddenly I just realized that gosh, this is what I do, this is my job, my career now.”

What do you think of 80’s retro being cool now?

“In some respects, it’s kind of funny. I can’t complain, really, because it’s given a new audience access to things I’ve done in the past. But for me personally, there are very few pop songs and pop artists today who write songs themselves about who they are and what they are doing . There’s very few pop songs that are done in that tradition of story telling or a time and a place. And I believe that’s what I do, and that’s what I’ve done from the beginning. It’s been like a chronicle of my life, and the life of, a lot of the time, gay men and the people that surrounded me. So when something like ‘Smalltown Boy’ or “Why’ is on a compilation now and there’s like some college kids in Idaho or something who buy a compilation and they hear this and it clicks with them what this is about … to me that’s special, that’s really special. I still get letters every week from kids from all over the place who have just discovered these songs and they tell me ‘I can’t believe you did these songs so long ago, these songs are about being gay and about life,etc’ and they tell me how the songs are so special to them. I just think that’s a great thing, and that’s what makes me keep wanting to relay some kind of social comment along the way.”

Why did you think much of today’s pop music doesn’t do that?

“I think that’s just how we perceive pop now, and that’s how I think the industry expects pop to work. It’s not about anything other than a purely commercial moment that’s going to create hopefully for them a lot of revenue. It’s really kind of sad. I think there are a few people who can come through that, but they’re very few and far between. Usually the kind of artists who tend to maybe try to express something about their lives and what they do tend to be more of an alternative sounding kind of artist. Someone like Beck. But you don’t get the Becks in pure pop, and to have that combination would to me be fantastic. If people just loved a melody and suddenly also hear a great lyrics or thought.

How influenced are you by music that you hear?

“It’s kind of strange, because when I was working on this album was listening to a lots more kind of low key and subtle music. But at the same time I always say that and then realize I was listening to from Donna Summer and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood to Beck to Les Rythmes Digitales to Kraftwerk to Daft Punk. So I listen to just anything. I’m so eclectic in what I listen to, and I think that really influences me.”

Bronski Beat were pretty pioneering in their use of synths – how has the evolution of musical technology since that time affected the way you work?

“I think everyone assumes Bronski Beat was just purely electronic, and yet bizarrely we used choirs, we used strings, we used horns. We were very much a combination of synthesized and very much acoustic sounds. We always said we would never use purely synthetic strings, and I would never do that in my solo work, because I think it’s criminal. Also synthetic horns, I think that’s criminal. There’s something about strings and horns that you cannot replicate, and the sounds that you get electronically are maybe ok, but to combine that sound with a real one is just fantastic!”

Do you focus more on UK or overseas markets and audiences?

“My visibility in the UK, compared to places like Europe, is just nonexistent. It’s really bizarre for me. In the UK no one really cares if I put on a show or not, whereas somewhere like Germany, we just did PA gig in Dresden and there was like 3000 people and it was sold out. It’s very different there for me.”

What are your PA performances like? Do you use backing tapes?

“We use a DAT, and then there’s myself Gillian and Matthew. In a sense it’s more than a PA, we don’t have dancers, everything is focused on our voices. Matthew and Gillian, who I work with, together our voices are so strong. It’s more than just singing to a backing tape, it’s more of an emotional thing. People are always really amazed at how we sound vocally.”

Do you focus on the new material? Do you do any songs from your previous bands?

“I do various things, old things and new things and things that I’ve never really recorded.”

What do you think of the internet and the effects it’s having on the music industry?

“I things it’s good, and if anything I think the record industry has brought it upon themselves. Because they have refused to recognize that there is such an incredible sea of talent and creative people out there. They’re only interested in having a good package, regardless of whether the person can really sing that song. I think it must be awful if you have really a great voice but maybe you’re a bit overweight to be on the pages of these magazines that like to have this glamour look. That’s awful, because you have the talent and you’re a great songwriter but they only want a visual thing. That’s where the Internet comes into it, because it gives people who are outsiders but have talent the opportunity.”

How do you feel about it allowing people to buy individual tracks, rather than just full albums or designated singles?

“Yeah, because in the end we all like to make up our own compilations. Usually if you do buy an album you’re guaranteed that you’re not going to like every track on it. But what always amazed me is when people buy and album from an artist, and these artists have lots of commercial success and it’s based on one single. And everyone will buy this album, but the rest of it is kind of shit really apart from this one single. But people have been doing that for decades, and I don’t get it! it’s still the same old story, so this idea of individual tracks, I think it’s good. But it also means that this whole idea of musicians as multimillionaire celebrities is kind of like maybe going to come to an end. But I don’t think it will, there’s always going to be a gullible public who are just buying into that stuff. In the end, the music industry isn’t just about selling music, it’s about selling stars. It seems like to me people will always want celebrities and stars.”

Other Recent Interviews

Highlights From The Archives