‘I THINK I’M SORRY, BUT IT’S TOO CLOSE TO CALL’:
MATTHEW EDWARDS & THE UNFORTUNATES
I want to tell my part of the truth. There were poets in Birmingham before this. I’ve read more than a few. But poetry is ever-renewing. What’s it about? It’s about thirty-seven minutes. It’s about rhyming ‘underpants’ with ‘looking askance.’ It’s never the same. But alike. Strong vocals mixed to the fore. A touch of chanson. A touch of Divine Comedy. The emphasis on song and story. The simple energy of guitar strings, as pure as a hit of truth-drugs. Tasteful shimmers of studio effects and girls voices, pillow-talk and prose leaving magic in their wake.
Matthew Edwards is a troubadour of unease who sings bar-stool serenades in a dislocated sense of the present tense. He sings ‘I lost my mind on the way to the stars’ in a Music-Hall setting with a jerky cut-up calliope backdrop of hot-air balloons, teacups and polar bears. He wakes up the dead with the ‘English Blues’, by dancing on its bones in a song that Mark Almond could emote in smoky video. And “Ghost” uses resonant cello on a Scott Walker ballad of continental sway and shivering phantom strings.
But we’re here to talk about his current CD, ‘The Birmingham Poets’, ten new songs with lots of quotable quotes, such as ‘the fact that we’re temporary doesn’t make us any less true’. Do Devils run in Matthew’s family? ‘No, liars’ he snaps back. ‘Although there’s a lot of candour on this album.’
“The Sons Of Marxist Fathers” is a stand-out track of hopeful utopias and forgotten insurgency, recalling the opening bars of “Three Steps To Heaven” then building into stately high-drama and keening madness, before relaxing back into acoustic memory. To what extent is it autobiographical? ‘100%. Well 80%’ he concedes. ‘My Dad attended many meetings in pub back rooms – some Marxist, some not. My Mom was involved with a very spartan Welsh Baptist ministry. It was good for my Mom as she’d had a hard life. The second verse is about me escaping and being in San Francisco, broadening my life but also seeing you can’t really run from yourself. It was a hard song to sing. Draining.’
Are the songs all your own work? ‘I write all the songs – chords, lyrics the lot. The band are free to interpret them as they wish. But I only work with people who I know get the central ethos/aesthetic and who aren’t dickheads. Many musicians are. I don’t really like the company of most musicians.’ Except, of course – the Unfortunates, Bobby Cotterill (bass), Derick Simmonds (drums/ vocals), Craigus Barry (electric guitars/ omnichord), David Roberton (mellotron, piano, theremin), and Chris Cundy (bass clarinet). ‘Danielle Cawdell, Kirsty Griffiths, my wife Jenny, and Dagmar Krause (Slapp Happy, Henry Cow) sing on the record too.’
How did that Slapp Happy connection come about? ‘Slapp Happy are my favourite group. I’m friends with Fred Frith, who played on our first record – ‘The Fates’ (2013). I became friendly online with Dagmar as she liked my song “The English Blues” and wanted to cover it. She has sung on my last two records. She’s a dear friend.’ (The second album being ‘Folklore’ in 2017).
Matthew lived in San Francisco, a city full of mythologies. Did you stroll Haight-Ashbury and hear the hippie ghosts of Jefferson Airplane humming in the wires? Did you sit on the Dock Of The Bay…? ‘All the above. I was in SF twenty years and had three wives there. I love Big Sur and spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree. Mythologies are everywhere. Film is very important to me. A massive influence. Movies trigger ideas. I don’t write about films. However, once-immersed scraps of dialogue can open new doors.’
Can you think of a specific line of movie dialogue that triggered a song idea? ‘No. But the songs are little movie scripts. It’s the same as earwigging in a bar. Listening for poetry in a common phrase. I listen a lot.’
So you’re the creepy guy in the Bar listening into other people’s conversations? ‘I write down everything that interests me in a little black book. I’m quite invisible. I’ve learned to be… and people don’t really know that you’re listening.’
If this all sounds dour and serious, it isn’t. It’s tuneful, melodic and quite beautiful. With strong clear vocals, and a driving Beat-group template – albeit with angst, for “Bad Design”. “Our Boldest Daughter” has the Folkie starkness of ‘broadsides, spells and protest songs’, while on “Desire Is A Witch” he’s ‘all dressed up to get let down’. ‘But I’m burnt out. This record took so much out of me. It may well be my last.’
Is being a Bingo-Caller a career fallback position? ‘No, I did that way back when I was scrabbling for a living, out of necessity, I took what my agent sent me. Talent shows, pageants. Bingo is a talent in itself – I still know how to do it without upsetting the grannies.’
But no. Creative people create. That’s what they do. This won’t be Matthew’s last album.
THE FULL INTERVIEW…
Matthew Edwards: Thank you for the delightful review Sir. Super! You really ‘got’ us.
Andrew Darlington: It’s a fine album. It’s no small thing to create those songs. So it’s good to be able to play a small part in bringing some attention to it. At one time you’d have taken your songs along to audition for a major label and got fed through that music-machine – for better or worse. Now there’s just the obligation to get out there and do the shouting in order to draw a little attention, in a crowded market. There’s a lot of product out there. You gotta shout sometimes, if with taste and class… But it’s a two-way thing. I can only honestly enthuse over music that I can relate to. You get that lyric-musical balance right.
ME: Thank you. It is my best I think… This ‘thing’ is the only thing I do well. I appreciate your note, Sir. I await your questions.
AD: I enjoyed reading your biog-sheet. Is being a Bingo-Caller a career fallback position?
ME: No, I did it way back when and still know how to do it without upsetting the grannies. A talent in itself.
AD: I would imagine Bingo-Calling is a good discipline in learning voice-projection and how to command attention…
ME: It is. I was scrabbling for a living at the time and took what my agent sent me. Bingo, talent shows, pageants.
AD: We’ve all done that scrabbling thing – ‘played sad songs for favours, to entertain the waiters, they paid me off in beer and fags’. It’s a great way of storing up ideas and anecdotes and experiences that become lyrics and songs.
ME: Yeah it is.
AD: I love the idea of you doing Talent Shows. I’d imagine that not upsetting the grannies is a vital element there?
ME: It was quite lucrative but ultimately demoralising. I did cruises too.
AD: Were you doing covers at that time? Using songs that are familiar to those audiences helps to cross over.
ME: Oh yes. Mainly soul/Motown covers and Beat stuff. It was out of necessity, to live.
AD: You did a video in the retro-set ‘Make-Out Room’ in Frisco’s ‘Twenty-Second & Mission’…? What happens there? It sounds quite decadent. Is Making-Out a part of the audience activities? Is it that kind of Bar?
ME: It’s my friend’s pub. The ‘Make Out Room’ is a palace of sin. Along with ‘Lucky Thirteen’ it’s my favourite haunt in SF.
AD: Do you play there… with the American incarnation of the Unfortunates?
ME: Yes. I think I’m going to be doing ‘An Evening with Matthew Edwards’ in CA.
AD: Your lyric ‘the race is run, and I came in last, I’d shake your hand, but I’d have to put down my glass’ is worthy of a Bukowski.
ME: Why thank you. I am guilty of enjoying bar-rooms! I am very fond of “California, Can You Wait?” (track 7 on the CD).
AD: The song contrasts ba-ba-ba sunshine West-Coast Bubble-Pop with downbeat lyric ‘it’s been a bad day for the dreamers’, and even takes a sideways swipe at ‘should enchantment fall out of every door’ reverting to “On The Street Where You Live”. That’s the kind of detail I want. SF is a city full of mythologies. Did you ever visit the ‘City Lights’ Bookshop with all that Beat Generation history? Did you stroll Haight-Ashbury and hear the hippie ghosts of Jefferson Airplane humming in the wires? Did you sit on the Dock Of The Bay…?
ME: All the above. Not much of a fan of the Beats. I love Big Sur and spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree. Mythologies are everywhere. But that’s true of Birmingham too. I was in SF twenty years and had three wives there. One kid. The city has been decimated by the tech co’s.
AD: Kerouac wrote about ‘Big Sur’. Gene Clark of the Byrds once told an ‘NME’ questionnaire that his ambition was to ‘hang around Big Sur and paint rocks’. I thought that sounded so very cool.
ME: Gene Clark was the soul of the Byrds.
AD: Some might say that Silicon Valley has opened up new futures…?
ME: Yes it has. But the folks who work there are unsophisticated non-social, they’re straight out of MIT and making 160k. Turning San Fran into a dormitory city.
AD: Jack Kerouac never used an Apple laptop for sure. If you don’t like the Beats – and Birmingham poet ‘Charlie Hill bothers me’, which writers do you relate to…?
ME: David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Shirley Jackson, Patrick Hamilton, Boris Vian etc. Poets – Anne Sexton, Weldon Keyes, Stevie Smith. Film is very important to me. A massive influence.
AD: Some great stuff in there. You mean that you lift visual images from movies to establish the mood of your songs… or you plunder film for video ideas?
ME: Movies trigger ideas. Not that I write about films – dear god no. However, once immersed scraps of dialogue can open new doors.
AD: That’s a good way of describing it. Can you think of a specific line of movie dialogue that has triggered a song idea?
ME: No. But the songs are little movie scripts. It’s the same as earwigging in a bar. Listening for poetry in a common phrase. I listen a lot.
AD: HaHa! That is the art of sampling dialogue. So you’re the creepy guy in the Bar listening into other people’s conversations?
ME: I write down everything that interests me in a little black book. I’m quite invisible. I’ve learned to be… and people don’t really know that you’re listening.
AD: Do Devils run in your family?
ME: No, liars.
AD: That’s a good response. As in your lyric ‘I want to tell the truth’ but ‘I could tell a lie, I could tell you a fabulous lie.’ All creative people are liars, telling tales about things that never happened to people who never existed… Your “The Rag Trade” resembles ‘Honky Dory’-era David Bowie. “Anthony Bold” could be a Ray Davies sketch of a misfit oddity. I could hear Scott Walker singing your “Ghost”, and Marc Almond singing your “English Blues”. But to what extent is stand-out track “The Sons Of Marxist Fathers” autobiographical?
ME: 100%. Well 80%. My Dad attended many meetings in pub back rooms – some Marxist, some not. My Mom was involved with a very spartan Welsh Baptist ministry. Austere in approach but very kind actually. It was good for my Mom as she’d had a hard life. The second verse is about me escaping and being in SF, broadening my life but also seeing you can’t really run from yourself.
AD: It’s a very powerful song, one I’ve found myself returning to.
ME: Thank you. It was hard to sing. Draining.
AD: I can’t find a song-title called “Draining”?
ME: No, it’s draining to sing! HaHa
AD: I know, it was my stupid attempt at humour.
ME: Ah, OK.
AD: You mean it was emotionally difficult to sing, because it touches a raw nerve?
AD: That’s the litmus test of authenticity. Which other track would you direct my attention to?
ME: I like the whole record. It is my favourite of all the ones I’ve made. “Beside Myself” is very autographical too. Plus of course “We Think The World Of You” ( – with evocative lyric ‘I’m here to kiss the man who sings forgotten songs’, and an endless title-repetition over shifting instrumental patterns). I’m burnt out. This record took so much out of me. It may well be my last. It’s doing alright but I will probably never transcend the level I’m at now and I would have liked to have reached more people. I’ll always perform though.
AD: Creative people create. That’s what they do. It won’t be your last. When you can no longer transcend a level you merely go around it at a new tangent.
ME: My Dad said to me ‘They won’t get you ‘til you’re gone’.
AD: Your Dad the Marxist Father of hopeful utopias and forgotten insurgency.
ME: He was also very depressed most of his adult life. A good Dad but sad.
AD: Idealists and artists are fragile people
ME: I’m pretty resilient. I’ve had to be. I get more uncertain as I get older…
AD: The world seldom conforms to our expectations.
ME: Although there is a lot of candour on this album. There had to be as we were all going through extreme times.
AD: When you say ‘all’, you mean the members of the Unfortunates?
ME: Yes. Illness, death, breakdowns.
AD: Are the songs all your own work? To what extent do the other musicians contribute?
ME: I write all the songs – chords, lyrics the lot. The band are free to interpret them as they wish. But I only work with people I know get the central ethos/aesthetic and who aren’t dickheads. Many musicians are. I suggest all the added instrumentation – baritone, clarinet etc. I don’t really like the company of most musicians.
AD: The other musicians on the album don’t seem to get a credit. Who is the girl you sing with?
ME: Oh, you must have a promo. So sorry. In the promo photo – left to right, it’s me (vocals and jangle-Pop guitars), Bobby Cotterill (bass), Derick Simmonds (drums and vocals), Craigus Barry (electric guitars and omnichord) and David Roberton (tinkling keyboards, mellotron, piano, theremin). Oh and Chris Cundy plays bass clarinet. Danielle Cawdell and Kirsty Griffiths sing on most of the record.
AD: I like the use of mellotron and theremin. They add an interesting texture.
ME: Thank you. I like a broad palette.
AD: There’s a long melancholy note that introduces “Beside Myself” – ‘sometimes my head and my hands don’t agree,’ it’s a kind of two-faced split-level personality, with girl-voices adding third-party commentary, grandiose and flawed.
ME: My wife Jenny sings on “Beside Myself” and “We Think The World Of You”. Dagmar Krause (Slapp Happy, Henry Cow etc.) sings on “Bad Design”, “The Rag Trade” and “We Think The World Of You”.
AD: How did the Slapp Happy connection come about? I have a lot of respect for the Henry Cow legacy.
ME: So do I. Slapp Happy are my favourite group. I’m friends with Fred Frith. Fred played on our first record. I became friendly online with Dagmar as she liked my song “The English Blues” and wanted to cover it. She has sung on my last two records. She is a dear friend. I think Daggy would do a beautiful ‘English Blues’.
AD: It would be great if that cover comes about.
ME: We want to collaborate but she’s unwell at the moment. Her melodies, share responsibility for lyrics and I’d write the music. She is getting older and quite frail.
AD: Aren’t we all…?!?!
ME: I’m almost asleep already. Yea to another day. Yes but can I make myself free for this? I don’t know. I’m sorry. My last comment was ridiculous.
AD: Ridiculous can be a part of it, if its amusingly or informatively ridiculous.
ME: I am away in Wales this weekend and unreachable but I’d like to continue this. Can we designate a day/time? Back in a bit. Back… for a bit. Best. Ta.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
‘The Unfortunates’ is an experimental ‘book in a box’ published in 1969 by English author B. S. Johnson and reissued in 2008 by New Directions. The 27 sections are unbound, with a first and last chapter specified. The 25 sections in-between, ranging from a single paragraph to twelve-pages in length, are designed to be read in any order. The number of possible combinations the sections can be read in numbers fifteen-septillion. Matthew says ‘that is the book we are named after. I am quite a fan.’
A much-extended version of an interview that was originally published in ‘R’N’R’ magazine