The Luxury of Reflection: After Nyne Meets…Martin Rossiter

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After Nyne were delighted to send our arts correspondent Daniel David Gothard on a very personal pilgrimage to meet ex-Gene frontman Martin Rossiter.

Gene were often misleadingly described as a ‘Britpop’ band, but did not fit the boorish and nationalistic mould and illuminated the 1990s with songs such as Olympian and We Could Be Kings. They disbanded in 2004, having accumulated 10 Top Forty hits, over a million record sales and a devoted international fanbase.

For longtime Rossiter fan Daniel, and for After Nyne, it was an opportunity to get into the mind of one of the finest lyricists of his generation.

Your songs have always struck me as walking the line between the highly personal and studies in the common experiences of adulthood. I’ve always thought the intricate storytelling detail and sophistication in lyricism such as yours is unusual in popular music – which, in the mainstream, tends to depend on shortish verses and a crowd-pleasing chorus. Have you made a deliberate effort, over the years, to make the words as important as the music? If so, why?

When I was a teenager I was drawn to the same records as most of my friends, bog standard indie fare of its day. I found myself falling in love with a lot of these records on a superficial level but as a singer I think I was more interested in words than most and slowly realised I was being conned.

I would listen and sing along and feel that I was somehow too stupid as I didn’t understand the lyrical content, but as I got older it became obvious that a lot of these songs were actually meaningless and tried to trick the listener into believing there was depth where there was none. ‘String a few multisyllabic words together and the stupid fan will think we’re too smart for them to get it’, this was how a lot of writer’s thought. Bastards.

Then Billy Bragg and The Redskins walked into my stereo and the world changed. Once I realised the impact of a well written lyric combined with musical power how could I try to do anything else.

In a way, the problem doesn’t lie with the mainstream, Rita Ora’s songs may be drivel but at least they are drivel that doesn’t patronise its audience and try to make them feel dumb. The problem lies with white boys holding guitars.

Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile has said he cannot perform his song, From a Late Night Train live anymore as it’s just too personal and painful – actually bringing him to tears on stage. Have any of your songs had that effect on you?

Three Points on a Compass was very difficult to sing for quite a while. Now I see it as a chance to exact revenge on my father, if I could sing it every night, I would.

Drop Anchor and No One Left to Blame – from your solo album – seem like songs that have found resolutions in the stark reality of growing up, and I believe are two of your best songs. Did you approach the record with a determination to musically and emotionally progress, or was there a different approach altogether?

Thank you. To be honest without sounding too pompous, I think I’ve just got better at my craft. An eight year gap between records allows you the luxury of reflection.

There are a lot of Gene records I’m very proud of and still play at home, I dance around my flat naked terrorising the neighbours, but there are some that shall remain fond but imperfect memories. I was determined that the album was going to be piano and voice mainly to force me to write songs that could stand up in that format.

I saw Gene play a number of times – you were a formidable live band. Do you ever suffer from stage fright or do you feel at home in front of an audience? What does the live experience feel like for you – especially as the front man? Do you feel a weight of responsibility to ‘create’ the perfect gig? I well remember the incredible feeling of connection between you, the other members of Gene and the audience, for example, during the chorus of Olympian.

I was never scared. It’s hard not to resort to cliche answering this but I saw it as my chance to show off. I can’t dance, I can’t paint and I can’t act but I can hold a tune and vaguely wobble my fat arse in time and we had some lovely tunes and as for my arse….

The first two Gene albums (Olympian and Drawn to the Deep End) seem to be about desire and loss – although I appreciate that’s oversimplifying things – whereas the third album (Revelations) was characterised by a lot of the music press as a searing polemic. Do you think writing overtly political songs alienated some of your fans? Was that a conscious decision – to challenge the establishment? Did you receive any record company pressure to reproduce the themes/successes of the previous albums? Given the chance, would you approach Revelations differently?

I just wish I had been better at writing those political songs. Looking at my younger self now I see someone who meant well but simply didn’t have the skill to convey a growing rage musically. I hadn’t read enough books, I was ill-educated politically but bless me for trying. To be fair to Polydor, there was no pressure, maybe they thought ‘give them enough rope’.

Brett Anderson, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn all have successful solo careers too and have managed to reform Suede, Pulp and Blur while maintaining credibility; in ways that don’t seem like a simple cash-in. What’s your view on reforming a band and is it something you would consider with Gene?

Re-arrange these words-NO.

How do you feel, looking back, about the whole 90s Britpop phenomenon? I remember seeing you play on the BBC showcase Britpop Now! That period – the good, bad and the ugly – seems like the end of the last (loose) ‘movement’ in modern music – pop music seems quite generic these days: The Voice, Pop Idol, etc. Does the current state of rock and pop music inspire or depress you?

There are some amazing musicians making music, I have taught some of them. What is depressing is that what was once a slightly maverick corner of business has now become a flag-waving cheerleader for the worst in corporate capitalism. You have more chance of becoming an MP if you’re from a council estate than you do a ‘pop star’. James Bay anyone?

Gene were often compared to The Smiths and you to Morrissey. Was that comparison a blessing (of sorts – relating to publicity in the aftermath of The Smiths’ split and the gap they left for intelligent pop music) or a constant curse?

“For all the things that I’ve said, I’m still haunted by you”

Your solo album is called The Defenestration of St Martin.  What was the reason for that title?

Who wouldn’t want to chuck their younger self out of a window?

You have been very politically outspoken – quite a rare thing in music, film, etc. Have you ever considered standing for political office? I was certainly very moved by Michael Sheen’s recent NHS speech and would happily vote for him!

I’m far too ego-centric. I’ve been lucky to have met a few decent people in politics (maybe the only ones) and I am constantly impressed by their crocodile thick skin, relentless energy and lack of self.

I have recently joined the Greens and the election result has stoked my fire and I am going to get more involved at a local grassroots level. However, I think my tunnel sized gob would get me into too much trouble as an elected member of anything so I shall continue fighting from a position of no responsibility.

Who or what have been your greatest influences and why?

My sister, Ann. She was the only person who didn’t mock me when I was fifteen. That’s one versus 4.84 billion.

If you could go back to 1995, as Olympian is about to hit the record shops and the charts, what advice would you offer your younger self?

Just because everyone says you are wonderful doesn’t mean you are plus buy every Smokey Robinson record ever made.

And what advice would you give to bands starting out today?

Just because everyone says you are wonderful doesn’t mean you are plus buy every Smokey Robinson record ever made.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

I have three children, the youngest of which is two and I believe in an equitable distribution of work between parents. Also, I’m 45 years old with the liver of Keith Richards, what makes you think I’m working on anything?

Something will happen one day.