The Blog

McAlmont & Butler: A Conversation...

Bernard Butler had a great idea- he often has them- to film a discussion with each other about The Sound of McAlmont & Butler, our 1995 album, to accompany its reissue and a short tour later this year. Instead of asking a journalist to pose questions we would just have a conversation about the album in a cafe or something.

These days I try not to invest coincidence with a surfeit of meaning. I have often been harshly dealt with by The Fates when I have slipped into the "meaning trap"- well-meaning as my thirst for meaning may have been: "Oh my gaaaad! You like squid ink linguini too? Let's get married!"

On the other hand some configurations shared with other human beings can possess a compelling uncanniness, but I no longer allow the seemingly stellar-touched to mean that much either. "Oh, you share a birth month with me? You were born on the 1st? I'm the 2nd. That's cute." Having said as much, revelation still floats by pinnace.

Yesterday afternoon was altogether revelatory. Bernard Butler had a great idea- he often has them- to film a discussion with each other about The Sound of McAlmont & Butler, our 1995 album, to accompany its reissue and a short tour later this year. Instead of asking a journalist to pose questions we would just have a conversation about the album in a cafe or something.

The day began with sunshine on London and we duly rendezvoused at Great Portland Street station to stroll to Regent's Park with the intention of sitting on the grass to film our conversation. By the time we met, the skies had clouded over and the wind, though mercifully less blustery than of late, created intolerable interference for our mics. We could not in good conscience record and make this wind-rumbled chitchat available for public scrutiny.

We strolled to various points in the park, which was wonderful for me because there were distinctive varieties of Aesculus trees everywhere, my favourite blossom bearers. We were attempting to find a less windy spot to have our conversation, but the cafes contained talkative adults- as you would expect- and hissing coffee machines, while the fields teemed with legions of children's cricket squads hauling along heaven knows what in noisy bewheeled holdalls.

Bernard was running out of time and getting a little panicked; also his foot was killing him: he broke it playing football in the very same Regent's Park. I reiterated my intention to visit my friend Bill later in the afternoon, at which point I noticed a light bulb switch on in Bernard's head.

"Why don't we just go to Bill's?"

I rang Bill straight away.

As it is, we should have just gone to Bill's in the first place: he was an eyewitness to the advent of M & B; I became "That McAlmont" in his living room; he faithfully archived all of our press clippings and releases during the mayhem; I wrote the lyrics to Yes in his house; it was he who dismissed my first draught of Yes, as "a bit one-dimensional", making me reach higher; he is very much part of the legend, if you will. He also has a very useful kit: LED lights, cameras, a lovely home, tea, coffee, biscuits and other essentials.

Thus settled in the considerably less windy comfort of Bill's warm auspices, Bernard and I could finally roll the cameras, and song by song recount what we had individually brought to The Sound of... twenty years ago, and I can report that two Taurean jaws landed hard on the floor. The caffeine fuelled tête-à-tête turned out to be quite the thrill.

I wanted to know more about Bernard's aspiration to write the happiest song imaginable, and the consequent translation from his study of Dusty Springfield and The Walker Brothers arrangements into that song. He spoke of how appropriate it was to detect a Motown influence, but said that the Phil Spector comments that some had voiced were strange because he just wasn't going for a Phil Spector sound:

"The record is mostly me and Mako playing, not a crowd of musicians in a room!"

I agreed with him: you can hear the sonic separation in M&B stuff, whereas Spector created a thick monolithic sonic fog. What struck me was Bernard's insistence that philosophically his process was one of pushing and pushing until someone told him to stop or to get lost.

I explained to him how at the time of The Sound of... I found what seemed like his indifference to the application of my intimate personal stories in lyric-form to his music mystifying. The position he voiced was that he didn't feel it was his place to comment on my words. And anyway,

"You know me David. If I think something is shit I'll say so!"

After which he asked who the characters in my songs were.

I floored him: he had no idea that I had written Tonight for him, from his perspective, in light of recent events at the time, "You threw me out of the party by the back door and you were wrong!" He was touched; he felt daft when I explained that Don't Call it Soul was an ode to Marvin Gaye, "I have to tell you what's been going on..." and he was astonished when I revealed that Judy Garland had inspired my Yes melody; I found myself loving the fact that the song had been shaped by Bernard's Dusty and my Judy. Then we discussed another of his favourites, Although, and I realised that I had fearfully imagined an unnecessarily bleak future for a loved one.

At the same time I was floored too: I was blown away when he said that his chord progression for You Do was an attempt to emulate One by U2; and I didn't know until yesterday that I had inherited the arrangement: he had originally written it for Suede's second album. I couldn't believe it when he said that he taped down the keys of the Hammond in an E chord shape- with gaffer tape- for You'll Lose a Good Thing because he didn't feel he could play it very well; I had simply thought at the time that it was inspired genius.

His description of his guitar textures as "Glam" was interesting, as was his admission that he "blagged" the production a lot, having no idea that Disappointment would become the epic stomp that it became until it actually happened in the studio. And then there was his resolution to make a record that sounded as non-indie as possible by using saxophone on Disappointment, and mellotron strings with flamenco-esque colours on How About You?

Once the conversation had started it was as if the cameras just dissolved. It was intense, lively and altogether absorbing. It felt more like (dare I use the expression?) artistic closure. It was so much the conversation we had needed to have but never got around to having. There was stuff we really wanted to know and stuff we really wanted to understand. It's a shame we didn't carry on with a Bring it Back discussion.

I confessed that I often misinterpreted Bernard's approach as more mechanical than artistic. But that impression was quickly adjusted by his remarks about using the mechanics of music to shape pure emotion, which he described as "often wild and traumatising."

All in all, our conversation at Bill's proved to be a very illuminating space in which to find ourselves and find ourselves. I got to know Bernard a lot better and yes I did feel better- Phnaar. It was a conversation that will no doubt imbue The Sound of... reissue with more to treasure and our November shindig with a little emotional extra. Actually, it really made my week and it brought the season of Taurus to a stellar-touched close.

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