Stephen Duffy

Pop’s poet-in-residence re-appears…

4. September 2015,

Stephen Duffy (middle) and The Lilac Time (Photo: Nick Duffy)

It was perhaps fitting that I would encounter one of British pop music’s great runaways, Stephen Duffy, at Port Eliot Festival. Unlike your usual festival experience of massive stages and pricey lager, Port Eliot feels more like a decadent garden party that’s got pleasingly out of hand. Imagine Edwardian hippies. In a good way. It’s an event that takes place annually in the splendid bucolic wilds of a fading stately home, surrounded by hills, secret gardens, exotic flowers and seemingly an entire town of interesting people. Possibly the most perfect location for The Lilac Time to stage a comeback concert.

Stephen Duffy, the metaphysical folk-pop poet, has spent a lifetime chasing the perfect pop song, inspired by seemingly endless muses, both literary and feminine. A career you can’t really imagine the modern music industry will ever produce again. From a late 70s teenage stint as lead singer of Duran Duran through brief 80s pop stardom and then a series of exquisite if increasingly rare Lilac Time albums, his career has charted both his own ups and downs as well as holding up something of a mirror to the music industry itself.
We caught up with him in a rather eighties decor’d Airstream trailer on a Cornish hillside for a Kaput chat about life, the new Lilac Time album and whatever’s next.

So you’re back on the road! It’s been a while no? I think I saw you at the Cecil Sharp House in Camden Town, in about 2004…?
Oh yes. And that was only the first time we had played together as the Lilac Time since about 1990… This concert today… is only our sixth gig of the 21st century! So every time we decide to do something it’s just this insane re-learning process and I realised that if we didn’t do it now it would be like 10 years since we had aired the repertoire… It’s been the longest I’ve been since doing a gig… we shall see how it goes… does the magic leave you?

At that last gig I recall you asked the audience to dance and only one, somewhat older guy got up… I think you then stopped playing as you were hoping it would be some younger women dancing!
Ha! Yes well obviously I was joking, but now you get to the point where to have any kind of audience at all you feel kind of absurdly grateful… I mean how do you persuade anybody that a band led by a 55 year old guy who’ve only done 6 gigs in the 21st century… I mean this isn’t a great selling point to be honest…

On that point, how does the job of pop star look at this stage, beyond obviously just writing songs…?
I feel pretty grateful to still have the chance to make records, but looking back … I mean we didn’t think the 80s were glory years really. Successful artists felt that after the 70s there weren’t so many great records, but there were these great selling records like BAD by Michael Jackson that could pay for millions of inept records, or little bands like the Lilac Time could function because labels could afford to have us and look after us quite well.
Back in the early 80s when I left school they said to me “Pop music? This is crazy, almost everybody fails…” but then when I went to the record company offices, there was all this money seemingly falling from the ceiling, all you had to do was hold out your hands and catch some of it.
Now, it’s just the TV talent shows that suggest there’s some sort of musical career to be had, that there’s a recording contract in the offing, but that means nothing because nobody’s buying any records…
But then to have lived through any of those years is great, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be trying to start now, when you have to have a job and do it in your holidays …

Does the pop star concept still mean anything do you think? Does it ever leave you?
I certainly feel that coming back to this after an 8 year gap between records, I think in that time I probably thought there must be some way of making a Lilac Time album without losing too much money. I mean, obviously it’s okay to lose other people’s money… but I then realised how much ego you need to put out a record at all and say “this is worthy of your time” in an era when there’s so much unedited bollocks. You know great stuff next to somebody’s demos, there’s no editor, no curator, something from 1928 next to some teenager from Milwaukee who made a demo in 1984… So the ego you need to say to everybody “Take time to enjoy what I, I have been thinking as I looked at the sea…” and then the vanity it takes to kind of go out and be in public… I’d kind of forgotten about that.
I’d thought that I used to be vain but had got over it, and yet there I was in a German radio station recently, and I caught myself in the mirror thinking “God, please don’t take a picture of me and put it on Facebook…”
But the 80s pop star thing was sort of the high point of preening and ego and vanity, it couldn’t ever go higher could it? Because ego overtook the music – I mean the music was just an advert for digital reverb really…

The 80s sound seems to never really die, particularly now children of the 80s like Taylor Swift are pushing its latest incarnation. How does it sit with you?
To be honest we were already trying to get away from the 80s in 1986 and that was a conscious thing. In the era when snare drums sounded like they’d been thrown into a canyon we were determined to make a small-sounding record. But as we got more and more in hock to the record company they insisted on this bigger and bigger sound, and And Love For All which we did with XTC’s Andy Partridge in 1990 is actually our most 80s sounding record. Shortly afterwards we split up, but then the 90s brought in so much change, Primal Scream, Nirvana, so many different things had gone on by the time we reformed in 1999.

You were a little player in the Britpop scene, did you find it weird that Britpop has already had a revival?
Well it’s going to be like that from now on… the 80s are wrung out, and there’s a whole generation of 90s acts trying to regenerate their careers on terrible package tours …


Lilac Time Set List at Port Eliot Festival.

The new album “No Sad Songs” feels very bright, airy, coming back after a hiatus do you feel you’re writing differently?
Well, my wife said to me “If you’re not making records why have you got such an amazing studio in the basement?” and I did allow myself to mess around with songs for a while, indulge in a bit more experimentation on this record. But i I think that to me it’s always been “write the lyrics first…”

This is how you always write?
(laughing) If only! This is kind of what I would say to anybody, get at least a page of lyrics that say what you want and then set it to music, because then you’ll be able to write a song… if you’ve half an ear for a tune, in at least an afternoon. If you write the music first and try to become Shakespeare over the top of it you’ll drive yourself nuts. If you write a few chords and then write lots of tunes over the top and then try to write lyrics over that, which is what people do in ProTools a lot you kind of think “this sounds great”, but for me that’s the road away from what people want from a song. Pithy, to the point,…

So it would be fair to say you’re not a fan of the Swedish pop production house style?
Well, it was all started by Stock/Aitken/Waterman really. There was some reason in the 1980s why I ended up doing something in their pop factory, I can’t recall why, but it was exactly like that. They had a wall covered with lines, titles, bits of songs that they would try to paste together. And they were rubbish titles! You bothered to write this down?

Talking of writing, the album’s next single is Prussian Blue, which has wonderfully ornate lyrics…
I don’t imagine anyone would guess but I’m a big fan of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks and I sort of wanted … particularly his lyrical absurdity. He’s an incredibly gifted musician, he picks up a guitar and plays beautifully and then over the top there’s this stream of stuff comes out… I was aiming for that. And people say about records sometimes, “this is the first time that word’s ever been in a pop song” and I made a definite attempt to do that in this song… “Diaphanous”… “Vituperative”

“Vituperative” has to be a quadruple word score right?
Well I was kind of playing with that idea, of how limited pop music’s palette is thought to be. But then I read not that long ago that rappers tend to use a bigger vocabulary than Bob Dylan, and The Who only ever used about 3 words, … it was a serious song of course, but I wanted to try to push it…

So you seem to be back in the saddle as it were, is this the beginning of a tour for the Lilac Time?
Well I guess that’s why we’re here at Port Eliot… To see how much money I can lose doing just one gig. (laughs) I mean we lost so much money last time, because there just comes the point where I think “I can’t face being in this hotel”, and I tend to blow curfews so we lose money there too… So am I able to get the discipline of tour managing myself, like Lloyd Cole who just goes out playing?
I mean the last time I was tour manager it was a disaster. I’d have to go to bed early. Arrange everyone’s car passes? You must be joking. I mean you’re interviewing me in an Airstream. I’ve blown this budget on an Airstream…

Haha! Well people are buying more records at gigs these days though right?…
Actually that’s something I love about being on Tapete Records, we’re making most money selling vinyl. Men of a certain age are helping us break even…

You do see younger people buying records in London, even though albums are about £25 on vinyl…
But LPs should be about £25! They were £5 in the seventies…

So maybe a tour is on?
For us this is more about whether or not we enjoy playing as a three-piece, and also it was the thinking behind the record, a bit like when the Beatles made Get Back/Let it be – you know, let’s not bother with all that overdubbing, can we make an interesting record with just us, and will people come and hear a faithful reproduction of that?
That said, we’ll be playing songs like “All for love” which was from the Andy Partridge produced record and that was nothing like how we’ll be playing it tonight. Tonight it will be stripped right down, totally acoustic. Completely analogue. Ideally I’d like to wheel in an old tape machine, two microphones and just record straight to stereo. Obviously it would be full of mistakes and swearing but I’m sure there might be an audience for that…

Thanks so much Stephen and have a great show…

“No Sad Songs” (2015), and the (vinyl) 12” “Prussian Blue” are both out now on Tapete Records.


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