You were such a formed writer so young. Do you rate that stuff now?
Ironically, when I was sixteen and I was a judged a ‘child prodigy’ – the new Neil Reid of the indie scene – I was pissed off. I wanted to be judged alongside the great songwriters, your Lou Reeds and your Leonard Cohens, not judged because of my age. But looking back I can see what they were on about. Compared to what I see now, it’s extraordinary that someone of sixteen – fifteen in some cases – was writing those songs. That’s nice to know, not in the sense of harking on your history, but just that music for me is a gift and I treat it like that; I try not to prostitute my muse. It’s important for me to hear those old songs again and remember where I came from.
In the early ‘80s it seemed that writers like yourself, Paddy McAloon, Edwyn Collins, perhaps Green had a sort of British romantic, melodic, literate school genre all to yourselves. Did you feel an affinity?
Absolutely. Especially Edwyn Collins. When I started Aztec Camera, I didn’t know anyone who was making music like us. Paddy went on to be a incredible writer but Edwyn, I couldn’t believe it. It was like meeting my doppelganger. When I saw Orange Juice, I couldn’t believe they were using the same big semi-acoustic guitars, same kind of augmented and diminished chords, his whole sensibility was just like mine. I don’t think we ever discussed it, it seemed like one of those unspoken things, we had so much in common. It kind of blew me away, I don’t know if I’ve experienced anything as uncanny as that since. I think we were part of a school, it’s nice that everyone’s stuck to their guns, carried on making nice records.
How do you view your time at Warners?
It was a great education and a great cushioning, people were looking out for me and they indulged me so much. One minute I wanted to make a white boy soul album and I was off to New York and Boston working with Michael Johnson and Marcus Miller and then I’d make a record with Mick Jones, then I’d work with Ryuichi Sakamoto… people must have been thinking ‘what’s going on, what’s the plan?’ Because I changed styles so much, it was very hard to build any long term plan. If you want to be big, choose a style and stick to your guns, be known for one thing. But that’s less fun in the long run.
Didn’t you get the ‘hit single’ pep talk?
Oh, about once a year. But it never seemed to wash with me, I’m so stubborn and bloody-minded. Initially I had to fight for autonomy, but once people realised that I do my own thing they kind of left me to it. You see, you can never tell with me, it might sell zero copies, it might be a big hit. Because I write quite hooky songs people thought, ‘well you never know, might be a good idea’. The music business is full of experts and professionals and no-one has a clue what’s going on, no-one knows. Never believe anyone who tells you that they do.
After the genre-dabbling, were you aware of your writing settling down?
Looking back, the whole Warners period was a period of experimentation for me. I thought I was going out and setting the tone but really I was just learning from people. I played with fantastic people in amazing situations and I just think now, I’ve got all my tools. The temptation these days is to go ‘ooh, let’s get that new sample/computer/guitar’, there’s so much out there for us to rob and steal and put together, it’s easier than ever. But the difficult and important thing is to come back to what is ostensibly boring – sitting down with your guitar and writing a song from your heart. The distractions are incredible and to do it every day is tough, but that’s what I’m trying to do. So far so good. I kind of feel like I’m halfway through ‘War And Peace’.
So you’re settled?
I’ve never really been that comfortable. I do suffer from what the Buddhists call ‘dhukka’ which drives all artists, a discomfort that chases you into the arms of a song, makes you want to express yourself, the feeling that you’re never quite at home, Edwyn and I and Paddy, we always felt like outsiders which is what drove us to write that kind of music. I’ve never lost that feeling. Some people say that to settle down is the kiss of death for a songwriter. I think the trick is to embrace and live with the contradictions and ironies and paradoxes of being alive. That’s the challenge, not to reconcile the differences beyond our reach. But I don’t put myself in uncomfortable situations just to milk a few songs; I wouldn’t treat my muse so brutally.
Are you rich?
In spirit? I suppose I’m doing much better in every sense than you might expect if you listen to people who think they know better. Follow your heart, do what you like, it all comes right in the end. The universe provides.
© Kit Aiken, Uncut, September 1999