John Lavin: Every time I listen to The Breaks the word that keeps popping into my head is ebullient. From the blissed out Hammond organ and Isaac Hayes-esque trumpet parps that characterise lead single, ‘The Santa Fe Skyline’, to the almost ‘It’s Lulu’-esqe guitars on the fantastic, Bullingdon-baiting ‘Senseless Apprentice’. It unquestionably feels like the most pop album that you’ve made since The Boo Radleys’ Wake Up! Would you agree? And if so, is there a particular reason? I understand that the album was made not long after you became a parent for the first time. Did this influence your song writing?
Martin Carr: I wanted to make an album of songs that I could stand up and sing with an acoustic guitar (I failed) because the only gigs I could get were acoustic ones because I had no band. So it was a simplicity and an immediacy that I was after. The Hammond was in the studio when I got there, it wasn’t part of the plan but as soon as John Rea fired it up it was like an aeroplane taking off, it became part of the plan. The album was written just after my second child was born. I was bored, it’s boring, y’know? It’s magical and wonderful and all that stuff but it’s also really boring and mundane at first so that’s where I was, pushing a pram up and down endless streets for months on end. It made a feminist of me.
Your own childhood has been a rich vein of inspiration for you in the past on songs like ‘Barney and Me’ and ‘Meltin’s Worm’. ‘St Peter in Chains’ on the new record seems to come from a similar place. The lyrics appear to be about corporal punishment in a Catholic School. ‘My mother said if you can’t behave/ We’re gonna send you away to be saved/ Concentrate the mind and purify the soul/ Wake you up from your dreaming/ …Love with the ruler or the hand or the cane/ My face against the wall/ …Dreaming’ are particularly poignant lyrics. Is the song rooted in personal experience or more a case of you imagining yourself being in that situation?
Some friends of mine sent their kids to a school called St Peter In Chains. Having gone to Catholic school as a kid it’s incomprehensible to me that anyone would do that to their kids but maybe I’m oversensitive because I can’t shake it. I learned very early on that I didn’t believe in any of it because I desperately wanted to as a seven or eight year-old. I would go into the church next to my primary school and kiss the feet of this statue and pray feverishly but nothing ever happened. The universe revealed itself to me as a cold and empty place. I think that had an effect on me as a kid. I was never what you would call happy, and I had a preoccupation with death, but about a year after that Kenny Dalglish signed for Liverpool and things started looking up. Anyway, I wanted to write a song about the parents who pretend to be religious in order to send their kids to the good (usually white) schools but I couldn’t find it so I wrote about being at primary school and getting the odd slap from a nun instead.
What would you say are the main lyrical themes of the album?
It’s just me at a point in my life. A Polaroid of a middle-aged man and a pram. Pushing the future while dragging the past.
Your lyrics have always been much more introspective and literary than people give you credit for – probably because people fixate on ‘Wake up it’s a beautiful morning!’ which is, in any case, a lovely lyric. Are there any lyricists or writers that have been a particular source of inspiration to you?
Well now, I would have to take issue with ‘Wake Up Boo’, I think it’s an embarrassment. If I’d spent as much time on the lyric as I did with the track it might be a good record. Dylan, Malkmus, Difford, Mitchell, Brautigan, Fante. A few others.
In ‘Mainstream’ you seem to cast your mind back to the Wake Up! era and the height of Britpop when, for a period, The Boo Radleys became huge chart stars. The lyric, ‘I tell my friends I subvert from within’, seems to sum up the conflicted emotions you appeared to be going through at that time (at least as viewed through the prism of the 90s’ music press). Is it still something that you feel conflicted about now?
That’s interesting, I’ve not thought of it that way but no, that song is about now. ‘WUB’ may have been mainstream but the way I lived my life wasn’t. But now I’m back in reality, bus stops, school runs, supermarkets, soft play etc.
‘Mainstream’ has a real Jimmy Webb vibe to it, are you still a disciple of the great songwriter?
I love his music. I toured with him a few years ago and he called me a ‘beautiful cat’ onstage in London. I caught that moment and keep it in my heart, occasionally getting it out and giving it a polish.
You also recently made the soundtrack for Snodgrass, the David Quantick film that imagines what would have happened if John Lennon had left the Beatles in 1962. What was it like to work on a soundtrack for the first time? (If I am correct in thinking that this was the first time you have worked this way?)
It was easy. To me the theme was disappointment at throwing away your big chance. I already had a couple of the songs written and the rest came quick. It’s not really a soundtrack – I wrote a couple of interludes but it was just like writing an album, but with specific timings.
You’ve always been a big Beatles fan, but I wonder if working on Snodgrass re-invigorated that love and influenced some of the more sixties-leaning pop sensibilities of The Breaks?
I don’t think so. I’ve had these songs for three or four years now. I have been listening to a lot of records made in 1973 recently though.
What are you listening to at the moment? Is there any new music that particularly excites you?
I love Sleaford Mods – I saw them last week in Cardiff and they blew me away. I love the industrial bleak landscape that the music inhabits in conjunction with the vocals that are so raw and without pretension. I like Young and Sick, Kate Tempest, Land Observations and Mandy.
It was the twentieth anniversary of The Boo Radley’s masterpiece, Giant Steps, last year. What are your memories of recording that album and how do you feel about it now?
I don’t think about it. I try not to think about any of that stuff. It’s gone.
While Giant Steps was deservedly album of the year in Select in 1993 and, I think, no. 2 in NME, other artists who also released important records that year – P J Harvey, Aphex Twin, Suede to name a few – appear to retain the full attention of the music press, while The Boo Radleys – and indeed your solo work – is not, in my opinion, given the attention that it deserves. Why do you think that this is?
I think it’s the price we pay for ‘Wake Up Boo’. Aphex Twin is great though, he’s still great.
You’re playing a gig with Gruff Rhys at the Sherman Theatre just before Christmas. The Boo Radleys and the Super Furry Animals always struck me as having a lot in common, being both extremely melodic and highly psychedelic. Do you feel a particular kinship with Gruff?
I love Gruff and I admire the way he works. I think he’s a true artist. SFA were a great band.
In a way American Interior (the album) and The Breaks strike me as similar records in that they both sound so lush and confident. When I reviewed American Interior earlier this year I wrote that it was Gruff’s first solo album where I didn’t, in no matter how small a way, miss the natural chemistry that the Super Furries added to his song writing. In a way I feel the same way about The Breaks. It feels like such a confident, self-contained universe of a record. I don’t mean by this that your records as Brave Captain weren’t excellent, absurdly overlooked works but there is something about The Breaks which suggests a new purpose, confidence and resolve. Do you think this would be fair to say?
It’s a beginning and also an ending. I don’t think I’ll ever make another record like this one.
Finally, what next? Are there any other live dates planned? Is there more new material on the way?
Touring early next year and then another record.