In “Red Cassette” from your 2014 album “Cheap Hotel” you sang nostalgically “From the golden days of long ago, the ones you’ll never forget”, but when I listen to “Golden Days”, it seems that those days have just begun for Mamas Gun. Am I right?
Taken in context, the line you quoted from ‘Red Cassette’ referred specifically to childhood, but I would absolutely agree with you in saying that right now is the golden period for Mamas Gun and yes in many ways, those days have just begun. The band is the strongest it has ever been, on every level: the musicianship, the songwriting, the confidence in our outlook in who we are and what it is that we do and how we want to be perceived, right down to the personal chemistry and the keen sense of brotherhood on which this band thrives and fosters
Your last album “Cheap Hotel” was characterized by a more polished and modern pop sound. With “Golden Days” you return to an organic and analogue sound reminiscent of the warm 70s soul productions of Marvin Gaye or Leroy Hutson. Was it your aim to record a more “classic” soul album this time?
Mamas Gun has always been quite musically restless keen to try different things, and in a sense (personally speaking) that has stemmed from the songwriting and a desire to find one’s place in a music mainstream which bears no resemblance to the music I respect and take the most influence from. I think it has taken up until now for me as a writer, and indirectly as a band, to have the confidence to say ‘you know what, this is what I do, this is what I love and if it doesn’t play the game with current trends and contemporary radio and TV tastemakers, then so be it.’ I have always been drawn to and had my songwriting rooted in the well crafted ‘classic’ (aka timeless) pop/rock and funk/soul of the 60s and 70’s.
The album sounds even more like out of one piece than its predecessors. How important was it for you to create a coherent record?
Sonically and aesthetically, it was pretty much top of the list. It’s actually much easier to create an eclectic record full of different pieces than it is to create a single journey which sounds and feels like one experience but features enough variety for the listener to be captivated from start to finish.
Many of my favourite records are ones you can just leave playing, rather than listening to your favourite tracks or skipping the filler.
In the past, Mamas Gun worked with renowned producers like Julian Simmons and Martin Terefe. “Golden Days” is the first Mamas Gun album, where you and your band mates took the production in your own hands. How did this decision come about?
It basically came from a number of things converging at the same time. It transpired that overall as a band, there was a feeling that we didn’t really enjoy being shepherded by a producer, that it ultimately stifled creativity. Over-working things can often lead to lifeless recordings lacking spontaneity and crucial human feel and error (yes error!). Working on the songs for this record was often a case of me writing the song, having one session to arrange the song and write parts in a rehearsal room before recording it live with minimal overdubbing.
Since Cheap Hotel (2014) I have gradually been building up and investing my own studio just outside London, kitting it out with everything you need to make records – instruments, mics, pre-amps, tape machine, mixing desk etc. Engineering an entire record single handedly was something I’d never done with a whole band across a whole album but I relished and thrived on the process.
Production-wise it was definitely a group effort, with the sonic parameters being clearly signposted before we even hit the record button. We had another personnel change too – new drummer Chris Boot. He has a great sense of music aesthetic and social media perception and was instrumental in us placing greater emphasis on the sound and references for the record.
Also, I believe you cannot be creative in the present and the future without ever looking back, and so perhaps the greatest and most obvious clues lay in the past, to define where we would head towards for the sound of the Golden Days LP. In other words, it took 3 albums for us to have the confidence to think ‘yeah, we got this, we can do this’.
American producer and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee aka “Silver Fox” from your West Coast music side project Young Gun Silver Fox also mixed “Golden Days” and played on several songs. How important was his contribution to the sound of the album?
Mixing is the last part of the production process and I would say that Shawn Lee (and Pierre Duplan) definitely elevated our recordings to a final polished level. Shawn and P just ‘got it’ and understood that this record needed to be ‘a classic sophisticated soul record with just the right amount of grit’ – [ Shawn Lee Dec 2017 ]. From the hardware reverbs to the subtle overdubbing of one or two things here and there, they definitely rose to the challenge and complimented our vision perfectly.
Without taking any credit away from Shawn and P, I will also say that the way we made the recordings from the ground-up meant that (hopefully!) many of the songs, to a certain extent, mixed themselves. We were very careful and considerate about how we recorded backing vocals for example: 3 or 4 of us around 1 microphone. Same for the drums: Just 3 microphones on the drum kit usually. So the rough mixes were already sounding like records before we sent them to Shawn and P, which is a great place to be, but I definitely would not have had anyone else mix this record that’s for sure!
Lastly, I think the Young Gun Silver Fox project definitely helped myself and MG to ensure we had a simple and clear sonic palette for the journey of the record. The fact that ‘West End Coast’ feels like a one-piece journey is not a coincidence but a clear influencing factor (one of many) in how we approached making Golden Days. But that’s the beauty of music, and to the same extent life: it is a constant work-in-progress and if you have the sense that you are learning, growing and flourishing then you are doing something right.
With the new single “London Girls” you wrote a declaration of love to your home town and its women. But it seems there are also personal references in this song – your wife Jodie Seymour co-wrote the song and the single’s artwork includes an image of your mother. How important were women for your musical development?
The buck starts and stops with the women on this planet – all hail !!! My wife Jodie and I share a special musical relationship independent of our personal relationship and we have always written together, whether it is for her music, my music or hits for singers in overseas territories. As well as being a brilliant writer and musician, she is the ultimate mirror and sounding board and hears things very differently to me, classic yin and yang! My mother was musical when she was younger and played nylon strung guitar. We would often sing songs together from the ‘Beatles Complete’ musical manuscript late into the evening, with me at the piano and her turning the pages and singing in harmony with me. ‘London Girls’ is really a metaphor and a tribute to all women in their strong feminine finery. London is just a perfect foil for capturing the idea: the strong metropolitan woman from the nursery, to the street, to the boardroom.
You started the band in 2007 by conducting an internet search for talented musicians. After a few changes in the band over the years, it seems that Mamas Gun has grown together to a real band. Is “Golden Days” a band album?
Golden Days is the truest band album I have ever been involved in. It’s true that Mamas Gun started life as me, just a songwriter, seeking musicians to give life to my songs. I’ve never been one to seek out the limelight as a solo artist (though that may well happen for an album or two at some point), but I do know that when collaboration with others really ‘clicks’ and adds something of real value, it’s important to hold onto that and celebrate it. These guys are also amongst my very best friends.
You are back from a Asia tour with Mamas Gun. From the beginning on the band have great success and become a live force in South East Asia. How do you explain your success and the passion of your Asian audience?
I can only guess that our continued success in various parts of South East Asia lies in the fact that the nature of our hugely energetic and uplifting live shows, and the craft of our music resonate in such a way that we have carved out our own niche, different to many of the other musical offerings from the West.
Can we look forward to a Mamas Gun Europe tour this year?
Yes, plans are already in place to hit Benelux, Germany and Spain. We will be looking to broaden our European horizons as much as possible.
2018 is a productive year for you. In addition to the new Mamas Gun album will be released in April, the long-awaited second album by Young Gun Silver Fox. Is it difficult to reconcile both projects?
Believe it or not, it’s getting much easier! To me, the lines between the two projects are becoming clearer all the time. I think the sense of ‘edge’ (MG) and ‘smoothness’ (YGSF) are what separates the two and also the fact that in YGSF Shawn is pretty much leading the sound and production, although the songwriting also has an effect on that too of course. The process in YGSF is also massively different, which is something I enjoy. A band dynamic like MG requires greater patience and sensitivity – it’s about managing personalities as much as ideas – whereas a duo in many ways is much simpler to navigate and certainly with a ‘West Coast’ sound palette, the sonic spotlight is already in place.
Songwriting has always been an important part of your career. You collaborated with lettered artists such as Rod Temperton and John Oates and enjoyed success writing songs for artists in Asia and Europe. How can we imagine your writing process? Do you decide in advance if you want to write for example a Mamas Gun or Young Gun Silver Fox song or do the the songs develop a life of their own during the writing process?
The more songs I write, the more my focus shifts to the lyrical aspect. Certainly as I get older, that is where I derive more and more of my songwriting satisfaction. I am quite prolific when it comes to melodies and complimentary musical elements, they shift and evolve with age in a way that mirrors my listening tastes and my personal life, but I’ve always felt like a musician first, so maybe that ‘wordsmith’ side of things has always felt more elusive, and so it is the aspect on which I usually work the hardest. Whether it is for MG or YGSF, it is not unusual for me to write 2 or 3 different complete sets of lyrics for a song before I decide which is ‘the one’ or whether I then go on to write ‘the one’.
The outlet for the song, whether it is for MG, YGSF or another artist, is usually decided later – I don’t like to constrict myself when ideas are flowing, they need to be uncovered and bottled in the most organic and uncontrived way to ever stand a chance of being something which I feel is reflective of me personally, musically, and in terms of quality – equal to and above the high standards I set myself.
A lot of ideas come to me when I am occupied with a simple menial task, so that my creative mind is running like a smartphone app in the background. Walking the dog or driving in the car encourages this kind of process, and so the process of discovery and refinement starts there.
I do the old school too though. I always have a trusted notebook in my bag or sitting by the piano. I am constantly harvesting song titles, since often they can be the best way ‘in’ to a song.
‘I Need Win’ was written this way, and is the song I am most proud of on Golden Days. Aesthetically this song borrows from the Motown sound to create a warm and familiar sonic canvas on which it’s lyrics are painted. Lyrically it’s deals with the wildfire chaos following a cataclysmic life event, rooted in something much deeper than the well-travelled themes of love/romance/heartbreak, pivoting between the poles of salvation-seeking hope and infinite despair:
‘Life flies an arrow to your heart,
sailing over your defences
breaking your will apart…’
‘…So I pray,
but each word sounds so in vain
when joy keeps quiet as a whisper
and bad luck falls like rain’.
Ultimately optimism gains a foothold in the final lines of the song in it’s quest for a single shaft of soul-saving sunlight:
‘I thought my losing streak was over,
though this player’s headed nowhere,
there’s no giving in,
I need an angel on my shoulder
somebody watching over
Give me me angel on my shoulder
‘cause I Need A Win’.
This interview was first published on June 13, 2018.
Photo: Mamas Gun