Ahead of his Warchild show this week at the Union Chapel, we are publishing our full interview with Richard Hawley from IVW. Words by Joe Zadeh.
Richard Hawley is the type of guy that can answer a question of opinion quite nonchalantly with “I feel ambiguous about that to be honest,” and then haphazardly drift into one of the finest philosophical monologues on said topic that you’ve ever heard. He’s speaks slowly, with clarity and understated conviction. He speaks like a man who crafts his thoughts carefully, and has little care for whether you agree with them or not. Which makes him a pretty great interviewee to be honest.
For more than 30 years, he’s been one of the most quietly admired musicians in Britain, first famed for his time in The Longpigs and Pulp, and then across his seven album solo discography, where he’s earned two Mercury nominations. Sometimes political, sometimes emotional, his tender songwriting and staggering technical ability on a guitar have seen him paint portrait upon portrait of humanity, hope, despair and, most notably, his hometown of Sheffield.
This Saturday he’ll play The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, as part of Independent Venue Week. Today though he’s just returned from a dog walk, and he’s allowed me to give him a ring to chat about loads of stuff: the importance of independent music venues, the sublime unpredictability of live music, the beauty of human memory, how it feels to get something back that you thought you’d lost forever… All the classic topics shall be wheeled out. Here’s how it went down…
Hi Richard, how are you?
Yeah, I’m good mate. Just got back from a dog walk so I’m happy.
So, what made you first become involved with Independent Venue Week?
I’ve been involved on and off for years, really. I’ve played so many of them, and when I was asked to do the Hebden Bridge gig this year I said yes straight away. That’s where I started out, you see, the little tiny venues. I think they are massively important, for loads and loads of reasons. They are really good fun to play, for a start. I like the big concerts obviously, but I really like to small ones. The ones where they are intimate and you can see the whites of their eyes.
One of the highlights of last year for me was that after all the massive concerts we’d played, I was offered to play an acoustic show. I was excited and terrified at the same time, because you’re just onstage alone with an acoustic guitar and that’s it. But I loved it so much and ended up asking if we could do more. It felt like taking it back to square one, where I started out. In a lot of ways, it was a challenge to myself to see if I could still do it.
What is special? Is it that you get to make an emotional connection with an audience, rather than a huge, anonymous, cheering… mess?
Yeah, it is. That’s a very simple way of putting it I guess. It’s a rhetorical question, and you’ve answered it yourself.
What was or is your favourite independent venue and why?
I don’t think I have just one, there’s loads. I remember touring loads, playing what they used to call the toilet tour. The rough places. I loved Duchess of York in Leeds, which is gone now. I remember playing there when I was in The Longpigs – we were supporting Pulp, so that was 1993. That was the Lipgloss tour, before Pulp had broken into being a really huge band. My wife was pregnant and she was due to give birth any day, and we’d just started the tour. I had a pager in my back pocket, not a mobile. I remember halfway through the set, I got a pager message saying, “Come home now, the baby is coming.” I remember skidding off stage and pelting it back to Sheffield from Leeds. I managed to make it too… I was there for the birth of my daughter.
Are these venues still as important now as they were in the 90s?
Of course they are. A lot of those small venues, they are run by deeply passionate people. I admire them very much. Places like The Adelphi Club in Hull. The only way you could run somewhere like that is if you were passionate about it, you know what I mean? A lot of them have survived over the years by the skin of their teeth, and they are an important part of British culture. I started off playing pubs and working men’s clubs when I was a kid, and when I got my own band, the act of graduating towards playing places like the Adelphi in Hull and Fibbers in York was huge to us.
If you miss that stage out, as a musician, then you’ve missed a massive part of the learning curve of becoming an artist. You don’t get to learn your shit properly. Without these venues, you have that awful gap; it’s like a cat leaping up a wall. We’ll just be left with X Factor style stars: massively inexperienced artists that all of a sudden find themselves in front of 10,000 people. For their own mental wellbeing that is not a good idea.
It’s so true. We see more and more stories these days about artists struggling to cope with the sudden pressure of these 60 date arena tours.
I’ve done it and it is a strange world. I am very careful to not enter too much into the pop star world, I’m sure you know that, and I don’t like it. But it is part of the territory. And if you don’t approach a world like that slowly, it can freak you out. I’ve seen younger artists having meltdowns in front of me at festivals, because they just aren’t emotionally prepared for it.
From an audience point of view, I also think it’s nice for people to follow the journey of an artist. Right from the beginning… from little acorns, great oaks grow, as they say. I totally believe in slowly building things, because it means more then. If you are suddenly thrown into the spotlight then it has no meaning, and you don’t have an audience that has grown with you. It’s not my vibe at all.
What have you learned about Britain’s thirst for live music from your 35 years of touring?
A stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and I think the passion for live music waxes and wanes. People get interested in it for a phase, and then it moves on to something else. There are little places in Sheffield that I love – there’s a place called The Greystones that is fantastic. It has a long and loyal live audience who go regularly. And with a lot of these venues, they tend to put really quality things on – not just shite. It still amazes me how much amazing music there is out there at a very grassroots level. You can pay a relatively small amount of money still, and see someone really fucking truly amazing.
You can, although some people are paying sizeable amounts of money. Through these secondary ticket scams for instance? It’s become a huge problem.
Oh, I fucking hate it. Every single time I play City Hall in Sheffield, there are 8 empty seats on the front row. And it does your head in, because every time it is because of these ticket touts. Even worse is that if you see those seats are full, you know some poor bastard has paid an outrageous amount of money to be there, and it makes me feel awful.
It’s been a problem in music since I started, in various ways. And it has escalated now into a full scale internet led business. I think it is grossly unfair, because the artists still get the money – the people who suffer are the fans forced to buy these tickets for the music they love. Without people coming to see you, you can’t continue to do what you do, so you must look after audiences wherever possible. The answer to stamping it out is probably encouraging fans to stop buying tickets from any of these websites. People need to realise that when they buy a ticket from there, they are funding a horrendous industry.
Money seems to be causing problems all over the music industry at the moment. In the last ten years, London has suffered heavily from mass closure of venues and soaring property prices. How have you seen the city change over the years?
Well, I don’t live in London, I live in Sheffield. So, I don’t know what that’s like.
Well, Sheffield feels like a city that has tried to protect itself from rampant gentrification. How does your love for the place compare now to how it was 30 years ago?
It grows with time. I think Sheffield is a wonderful city, there is no great surprise there. There are a lot of great cities in this country, but I’ve never been over-enamoured by ‘the Great London’. It has some amazing culture and history and all that, but it’s not the centre of my universe. And I’m not slagging it off in any way, because I hate that North/South shit, it’s bullshit. But the gentrification of places is a real problem wherever you go. It’s the old adage isn’t it: where there’s money there’s trouble.
Sheffield has 2.7million trees and a nearly 100% green belt, but the developers are slowly encroaching over time. I guess all you can do is try to resist. We must realise: for everything we think we gain, like more housing, it’s never affordable housing. People really desperate for a home never get access to these properties. It’s just an exercise in destroying beautiful places to create wealth and fortune for a very select group of people. Only the monied and privileged benefit.
Have you seen many of local venues come under threat?
Yeah, quite a few have closed. The Boardwalk has closed, which was very sad. I mean, The Sex Pistols played there… It had an incredible history. It used to be called The Black Swan originally, and was fondly known as The Mucky Duck around town. That was a great loss, but Sheffield has a really great live scene and a good club scene, so I think it’s still thriving very much.
Do you still go to many shows yourself?
The last great show I went to was my neighbour, Martin Simpson [laughs]. Honestly though, he’s a brilliant folk guitar player and a good friend. He played a Christmas show at The Greystones pub and that was amazing because he’s a virtuoso. World class!
Is this the same guy that played on your record?
Yeah, that’s him. I tend to go to that venue a lot because I like the place. It’s an easy venue to be in. Comfortable, the sound is good, and it’s local.
What do you think about iPhones at gigs?
I’m ambiguous really. If people want to do that, then fair enough. There was one concert we played at the Roundhouse though, and it was one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had. I really like standing and seated venues, and there you have seating at the back and standing in the middle. A lot of people in the standing part had their iPhones out, but there was also loads of iPads out as well, and they had sort of put them over their faces to film us. So to me, it was like looking at thousands of people with TV screens as heads. It was very odd.
There is a neurosis to it, I think; a fear of losing the moment. You want to preserve something. But those devices are not particularly great at filming live music, because they use a condenser microphone and they distort easily. The preservation of the memory is so low quality.
I do it, and I find I barely ever even go back and look at what I recorded. It’s just there, occupying invisible space in the ether.
Yeah, and even if you wanted to watch it, it would look shite. What is so wrong with relying on your own mind? I still remember concerts I went to when I was 12 years old; seeing The Jam and The Stranglers. I have vivid memories of it. No, getting your phones out at gigs is not for me, but I won’t be telling people not to do it, because they can do what they want.
You’ve never done it then?
Actually, I did it once. I took a picture once.
Once, yeah. I went to see Arthur Brown, the man who did The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and songs like “Fire”. He played at my local pub. I was so amazed that I was in the same room as Arthur Brown, that I admit I took one picture and I looked at it and I thought, “That looks fucking shit.” And I’ve never done it since.
We should talk about your music. Across your career, you’ve made an insane amount. When you write these days, how do you tap into something that still excites you?
I don’t think about things too much, I just do it. I’ve always written songs, since I was 8 or 9. I’ve always had ideas. You just keep going. I don’t really analyse things like that. That’s your job.
The minute you start questioning things too much as a musician, you start disappearing up your own arse real quick. I enjoy the process of being a human being, but being a creative human being. It’s really simple. My advice to any musician is: don’t over-complicate things. Keep it simple and you will be okay. Do, and then analyse after. Or don’t even do that… Just do, and then keep doing.
I recall that there was a possibility over the last few years that you might not play live again because of back problems.
I had a really serious back injury. It was really really serious. And I was told I might never walk again. But then luckily for me, I know quite a few professional footballers, and they put me in touch with this physio guy, and he sorted me out via natural means. He said to me “If I can get footballers with knackered backs and legs back on a pitch in 6 weeks, then you’ll be alright you old fucker.” It took a while though.
After experiencing all that, what was it like to get back up there and play again?
The moment I got back onstage, and I wasn’t in pain, was wonderful. The funny thing is, in a perverse way, I’m sort of glad I went through it all. When you’re threatened with something you love truly being taken away from you forever, but then miracle of miracles you get it back, it feels like the best feeling in the world. I felt so lucky to still play my guitar on a stage and see people clap. It felt like heaven. It made me really appreciate every facet of playing live: the audience and living in the moment. Because that is the beauty of live music: no matter what plans you put in place for that hour on stage, things can and will go completely tits up. That is the bit I find exciting. What is going to happen?
What is your favourite place in the world that music has taken you?
Well, that’s the thing… the world. You get to see a lot of it. There is no way I would have seen the things I’ve seen unless I learned to play guitar. It’s not me that took me around the world, it was the guitar. I am always eternally grateful for that, because I am from very humble beginnings. I was born in Pitsmoor in Sheffield, and there was no fucking choice back then. It was the guitar or nothing. And nothing didn’t quite appeal. So I stuck with the guitar.
Finally, what are you doing next?
Lots of things I couldn’t possibly tell you about. And I’m playing Hebden Bridge on January 28th.