Monday, October 8, 2018

"I Don't Want The Spell To Be Broken": My Interview With Lawrence (Felt, Denim, Go-Kart Mozart)

In early 1987, my friend Wolfgang bought Forever Breathes The Lonely Word (1986) from Felt on vinyl at Olsson's in Georgetown largely because the album cover vaguely reminded us of the front of Filigree and Shadow by This Mortal Coil. I can still recall Wolfgang's frantic call the next morning to say, "This sounds nothing like 4AD stuff! The singer sounds like Tom Verlaine!" As we were also fans of Television, this was seen as a good thing.

Sometime after that, I got Gold Mine Trash on import cassette, likely at the same store, and I drove around D.C. for ages memorizing those singles, and the instrumentals on side two. And that's how I fell in love with Felt.

The folks at Cherry Red Records have this year been putting out remastered editions of all 10 albums the band Felt released in the Eighties. The reissues have been offered up in two batches, reviewed by me here, and here. This is the sort of undertaking that fans have long deserved, the albums from the band having long needed this level of attention. And while front-man Lawrence has pursued other projects after the demise of Felt, it's these records that have secured his place in the hearts of anyone who loves UK indie-rock.

I sat down today to call Lawrence, to discuss the new Felt reissues, Denim, and Go-Kart Mozart. Having read recent interviews with the man who is nothing if not an enigma, I didn't know what to expect. In other pieces, there are indications of recent hardships suffered by Lawrence, hardships that have prevented him from being as famous as he surely deserves to be, and as famous as he longs to be. Knowing all that stuff, I was pleasantly surprised by how gracious Lawrence is with his genius and his time.

"I can't remember the actual seed of it anymore," he says describing the idea of reissuing the Felt albums. "It seemed to be the right time for Cherry Red," he explains, "but I was never satisfied [in the past]." As he says, "This was the last chance to get it right," a process that has taken six years.

When asked if he is happy with the albums now, Lawrence said, "Absolutely. We made those 10 albums really fast in a decade," making what he calls "minor mistakes" at times. "But, at this point, I was able to rectify [any minor mistakes]."

In some instances, those "minor mistakes" were really the results of others. The Robin Guthrie mixes of the tracks on album number 4 famously remained a big issue to be fixed. As for Ignite the Seven Cannons (1985), Lawrence has gone back, having kept the tapes of the six vocal tracks from the release, to "re-model," in his words, the album.

Having been present at the mixing of "Primitive Painters", Lawrence explains that it still sounds great, "because I was part of" the mixing with Robin Guthrie, unlike the other selections on the album. And "'Primitive Painters' has not been touched...no need to mess about with that." As for the rest of the record, he elaborates: "You couldn't hear the songs for the production. Robin Guthrie from the Cocteau Twins produced the record...and I wasn't allowed to be in the studio when he mixed the songs." That lack of input from Lawrence allowed Robin too much of a free rein and, as Lawrence explains, "he covered the songs with a blanket of effects." By making the songs on Ignite The Seven Cannons "shine" now, Lawrence has dramatically restored the album to its intended glory, and one gets a real sense of the front-man's genius here in this noble and well-intentioned mission to save this LP. Long-time fans may be surprised (as I was upon first listen), but this version of Ignite the Seven Cannons is how it was always intended to sound, and Lawrence's work with John A. Rivers has removed "the fog over the tracks." As Lawrence explains, "All I've done is peel the fog away," partly to elevate the sound of Maurice Deebank's gutiar "right to the top" of the album's mix.

This discussion really illuminated for me how involved Lawrence has been with the 2018 reissues of the Felt records. While Cherry Red rightly has a lot riding on these, it remains Lawrence's project, his intentions guiding this effort to shape the releases that will continue to grow "the cult of Felt," as he calls it.

Naturally, I had to ask some questions about a few of my favorite Felt songs, songs I know and love because of the versions on Gold Mine Trash. The demo versions of "Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow" and "Dismantled King is Off the Throne" found on that compilation are the result of the band being poised to sign to a Warner Brothers label, a proposed offshoot from Cherry Red. Lawrence and the band recorded those for that Warners pitch, but having nowhere else to place the cuts once it seemed Warner Brothers was not going to sign the band, he placed those two John A. Rivers-produced versions on Gold Mine Trash (1987). "We had to do demos for Warners, basically," he explains. "I thought it was the perfect place to put them," in order that Gold Mine Trash would not have just album tracks.

For The Pictorial Jackson Review (1988), the eighth album from Felt, Lawrence says, "What I've done, is put it back to the way it originally was." When it was about to come out, "I panicked," and "that's why the original album is an album of two halves," with the instrumentals on side two. But with this 2018 version, he's righted what was a "wrong thing to do," and now he's "gone back to the original album... This is how it was when we actually made The Pictorial Jackson Review" in 1988.

Following the dissolution of Felt, Lawrence launched Denim, a project he agrees one can hear foreshadowing of in the grooves on the final Felt release, Me And A Monkey On The Moon from 1989. "We were trying to get out of an independent ghetto, that's what we were in." And that's a sentiment one gathers applies to both Felt and Denim. "We wanted to be part of the everyday pop world." As for Denim, the need to hit the road to support the band's releases seems to have taken its toll on that group. "We had to do some shows," since the band had to play live to get an audience. "What we're gonna do is, in a couple of years maybe," he says of Denim, "we're probably going to do a Denim box," he indicates, "The three albums, and the single that was never released." But the band was an "idea that was so big, so grand, it couldn't possibly last."

"It's very unusual for someone to have three great bands," he says of what he accomplished with Felt and then Denim. "Go-Kart Mozart was... [taking my] foot off the pedal" Having realized he would never have a hit, he approached the Go-Kart Mozart efforts with a new perspective. "It's not a big commercial venture, it's about having fun...and making some great music with some great musicians." Does Lawrence agree that he might sound liberated here on these recent Go-Kart Mozart releases, like 2017's Mozart's Mini-Mart? "Yeah, I think so." Having released a few albums now, "We're coming to the end of the cycle now. Go-Kart Mozart was about doing four albums really quick, in really quick succession." But, as he explains, "Another one is coming in February [2019]", and then the band will have a break and "wait for people to catch up again."

And while the other projects are certainly important ones, it was with Felt that Lawrence rose to some sort of fame. And it's that band which will assure that Lawrence is rightly heralded as a genius forever.

"We had to wait a long time for the cult of Felt to happen, and I knew that was going to happen. I knew that," Lawrence instructs. And, if fame is the one thing he's never quite entirely grasped, "At the moment, I'm satisfied. Obviously, I'd love to be in a big band," with a bigger level of fame, and one imagines, greater familiarity with newer waves of fans. "I want to be on national television. I want to be famous." But, as he explains, by way of discussing Denim and Felt, and the lack of ambition he sees in other indie musicians, he seems content. "But at the moment I'm satisfied, because the cult [of Felt] is building. It's not like an avalanche. But it's building everyday," he says of the enduring legacy of the band.

And these reissues, this whole A Decade in Music project is a way for Lawrence to correct the record, and the records themselves. As he says, the blogs -- (hopefully not this one) -- have "gotten lots of the facts wrong about the Felt Decade" project, he says, indicating his displeasure with some of the reactions to the 2018 versions of the albums. "There are lots of misrepresentations of what we've done. All I've really done is try to make something really special and beautiful for the fans," he says. And when Lawrence says he's put his "heart and soul" into the project, one realizes how monumental this undertaking has been for the artist. These 2018 reissues of the Felt studio albums are meant to be the final word on the releases, and given the input from Lawrence himself, they certainly should be.

Dismissing any fears that these would need to be reissued again, "This is it," he states. "This is the final look at the decade of Felt." Gold Mine Trash and Bubblegum Perfume are out next year [on vinyl from 1972 Records], but this whole project now with Cherry Red represents the final, purest versions of these 10 Felt albums.

"There's nothing [else] in the can. When we recorded a record, we recorded all the songs we had," he says, "We recorded what we had and everything's been released." And, he stresses, "All I've tried to do is make something really, really special for the fans," he says of these reissues of the Felt albums. "There's no extras at all. I'm really proud of that, and Felt have not joined in the disease," of reissuing everything from sessions, like demos and live albums, which "spoils it, really."

"Sometimes people make too much stuff," he says. "I think I'm in a good place now because the time away gave people a chance to catch up and re-evaluate [the Felt records]," he explains.

"I'll always hold on to that mystery. I've been safeguarding the reputation of Felt for so long even when there was hardly anybody interested," he stresses, "nurturing" the band's image and legacy. And, he adds, "If you say that you're a fan of what I do, please go out and buy a vinyl record. You don't have to buy them all. Just buy one. Don't listen to it on Spotify. If you don't buy the vinyl, you're not a fan. If you don't buy the vinyl, we're gonna lose the chance to make more music."

While Lawrence's music has meant so much to me and many others of my generation, it seems as if the legacy of Felt is one that is to be cherished by Lawrence, and cherished in such a way that it's never tarnished or diluted. And, at times in the interview, I felt like I was simply a happy-and-willing messenger for the conveyance of Lawrence's final word on the band's work.

"I'm going to do my best to make sure nobody writes a biography of Felt," he says. "I do not want Felt to be broken. Felt is about mystery. It's about 'under-the-covers, in-the-dark', and it's not about shining a light on the background of the members, what we did in school, and all that shit." And that's why he says, "I'll never collaborate on a Felt biography."

"I don't want that spell to be broken. I really think that the music stands up for itself."

All the Felt albums are out now via Cherry Red Records.

More details via TheFeltDecade.com.

Many thanks to Lawrence. Extra special thanks to Matt Ingram from Cherry Red Records for arranging everything. And special thanks to my friend Stan for helping me prep for the interview.

[Photos: PP Hartnett; Deegan; P. Kelly; Band photo by Jane Leonard; Color band photos: PP Hartnett]