Strawberry Spotlight with Modern English
Lady Audio: Hi everyone and welcome to the Strawberry Spotlight radio show. I am Lady Audio and I will be your host. Our guest this week is Mick Conroy of Modern English, yes, Modern English. Mick welcome to the show. How are you today?
Mick: I’m very good, thank you, it’s very nice to be here!
Lady Audio: My first question is always, what attracted you to the realm of music?
Mick: Well, I was always in love with music. My first record I ever owned that I got for one Christmas was Alladin Sane, so I was always into David Bowie and at the time he was kind of weird pop music. So it’s just something – music has always been a part of my life. I mean, I always have music on, even today.
Lady Audio: So in the band Modern English – the band has been around for a while and I just want to know how did you guys meet up and how did Modern English get started?
Mick: Okay well we all ended up in a town called Colchester which is a small town about 60 miles from London. Gary and Robbie and Steve were all friends and they were younger. I was introduced as someone who can play the bass and basically, we couldn’t play our instruments and so we fourmed a punk rock band. Not being able to play music. It wasn’t that important at the time.
Lady Audio: Yeah, so when was that?
Mick: 1977, basically. When punk rock and Sex Pistols and The Clash and all that was happening. Siouxsie and the Banshees came to play a concert in Colchester and somehow we wangled our way onto the bill. (laughs)
Lady Audio: That’s cool.
Mick: It happens – the same way today. Sometimes we do gigs and we get local bands and that they’ll say it’s their first-ever gig and we think well, you know, you gotta start somewhere. That’s exactly how we did.
Lady Audio: Yeah and have you had any member changes over the years?
Mick: Hundreds. Yeah yeah. The original lineup was me – well there was a band called The Lepers. It was me Robby, Gary and the drummer called Richard Brown and then we change your name to Modern English. Then Steve Walker joined, the keyboard player, and then we did – this is really condensed bio coming up – and then we did three LP’s initially Mesh and Lave, After The Snow and Ricochet Days. Then Steve and Richard left and then someone called Aaron Davidson came in and then we did two further albums and then all of us left. (laughs) Robbie carried on for another two albums and then Robbie left. (laughs) Then there was none and then about 8 years ago nine – eight or nine- years ago I moved here to – I’m in Suffolk. Robbie, I wasn’t sure, I hadn’t seen Rob for quite a while – several years – and Robbie lived part-time in Suffolk and in Thailand. Gary, the guitarist, had moved its Thailand about about eighteen – sixteen years ago. So I saw Rob here and we were talking and said I’ve got loads of songs and he’s got loads of songs and so let’s see what happens. Then I called up Gary and Steve and said, “okay, right, it’s time to carry on,” basically. Then, we’ve had two drummers – Roy, who drums for us now, Roy Martin, he played on our fifth LP in 1990 – so he had a 25-year gap.
Lady Audio: Wow, wow. So besides Modern English you’ve worked with a couple of other projects and I recently got to interview Morgane Lhote who played with Stereolab for a while.
Mick: Oh, okay.
Lady Audio: It was actually my first Strawberry Spotlight show was with Morghane. Did you work on any projects with Stereolab?
Mick: Oh yeah yeah. I hate to say it but they’ve had more members than The Fall. I don’t know Morghane. I was in the original lineup of Stereolab – in the very beginning and people were kind of like peeling away. I’d be at gigs and be like, oh, there’s another bass player tonight. I did – it’s a long story but – Tim and Letitia were friends of mine and friends of other people I knew. When they asked me to join I thought they wanted me to be the bass player, which was quite normal, because I’m the bass player. But then when I got to the rehearsals they pointed to the keyboard and said, “right, you’re playing that,” and I was like okay. (laughs) So I did a couple of records with them and quite a few John Peel sessions with them and tours. This was at the very beginning when they were in their Krautrock-type period. Long before Bossanova and the absolutely complete wig-out music periods. Even in the beginning we used to play songs that would last like 10 minutes. Really because we didn’t have that many songs. (laughs)
Lady Audio: That’s funny.
Mick: It was good fun. Sometimes it was a bit like being in the Velvet Underground. All you have to do is play four notes and you’re good.
Lady Audio: Yeah, good to go. So did you also work with This Mortal Coil?
Mick: Yeah, yeah. Again that was at the very beginning of This Mortal Coil. That was Ivo, the guy who used to run 4AD, Ivo Watts Russell came to see – Modern English played – in New York – I think this is how the story goes… We played “Gathering Dust” and “16 Days,” two very early songs as an encore, but, kind of segeued them together and Ivo said, “we should go rerecord them.” At the time we didn’t think was such a good idea. It was no big deal and then Ivo decided – later on – to kind of like form a project. He wanted to have that project record those two songs and me and Gary and Robbie and Liz from The Cocteaus and Martin from Colorboxx, who I’ll tell you more about in a bit who ended up reducing our new LP, and Gordon Sharp from Cindytalk. Don’t know if you know them?
Lady Audio: No I actually don’t.
Mick: He’s got an amazing – absolutely amazing voice and Liz, when they sang together it was really spine-chilling. It was Ivo’s project, so he was going to – you know – he could do whatever he wanted – so we basically just went in and recorded with Ivo and John Fryar and then we left. Modern English went on tour and then in the meantime he got Robin and Liz to do “Song to the Siren” and that’s when the whole thing kind of – that sounded amazing. Then Ivo used that as kind of a template for following This Mortal Coil LP’s. Taking bits from – using of the musicians, generally, on 4ad and then making an ongoing project that but once again had more members than Stereolab and The Fall put together! (laughs)
Lady Audio: Wow, yeah. So, going back to Modern English. Right now is it the original lineup again?
Mick: Yes. Apart from the drummer.
Lady Audio: Okay, excellent.
Mick: Yes, old men.
Lady Audio: It’s cool. So you have a new album that was just released and it’s called Take Me to the Trees. I just wanted to ask a few questions about that now. So, how long did it take to record the album and who helped you with the recording?
Mick: (laughs) Okay that album took – it kind of – it started in fits and then there was a stop. We’d start things and not carry on because it just wasn’t sounding right. I mean, over the last five years we’ve recorded a song called “Moon Beam” about three different times. I mentioned Martin Young, from Colourboxx, who was in This Mortal Coil as well. He also did, with his brother Steve – who I used to go to school with some known him since I was 11 – they did “Pump Up the Volume” the Marrs record.
Lady Audio: I have that 45!
Mick: Okay, right. Check-out Colourbox. They’re completely amazing – years ahead of their time. So Martin came to see us play and he said, “alright you’ve got some new songs and some of them are quite good,” and I said “yep we’ve been trying to record them on our own and it’s just not happening.” He said, “so, what are you going to do” and I said, “do it all again.” He asked who was going to produce it and I just pointed at him, jokingly, and said, “you are.” Because I’ve been asking him to produce us for years and he’s always said, “no,” basically. So he kind of went and thought about it and then we began. I have a studio here – I didn’t at the time – but it’s worked out amazingly well. To cut a long story short, it took us about three years to record ten songs. Martin is quite meticulous, shall we say.
Lady Audio: That’s great though.
Mick: Yeah it’s been interesting. In this part of England where I live, Suffolk, is absolutely gorgeous – very quiet and my studio is an ex-US Air Force Base. So we can just get on with it and not be bothered by anyone and take as long as we want which is a helluva lot longer than we should have done.
Lady Audio: I’m always surprised when people say, “oh your musician,” and they won’t rent to you or anything cuz I think you’re really loud. When actually, in reality, musicians are really sensitive to sound and need to have that silence in order to paint on.
Mick: Yeah, yeah. Lots of dog walking and thinking goes on. Yeah I looked at some of your stuff last night and I was thinking about and you probably know more about Logic than me and Martin put together.
Lady Audio: (laughs) Really, oh cool.
Mick: I spent the last two days with my Apollo Twin thinking why the bloody hell isn’t this working suddenly? (laughs)
Lady Audio: Oh, gosh. Recording is a whole different beast.
Mick: Yeah, so there was lots and lots of that going on with me and Martin. Just working on our own and Logic suddenly introduced the Mellotron. So that took us back six months, you know,listening to Diamond Dogs and Low and just basically see what was going on there.
Lady Audio: So since we’re on the topic – what was the most what was one of the most challenging experiences you had recording the album?
Mick: oh God. Oh this is getting bit technical know if your listeners are into the uber technics, but, I don’t think we did enough pre-production, as a band. Because I wrote most – pretty much all the music – here on my boat with Logic. You know once you get started on those things you kind of end up with a horn section that you probably never use. Then the idea was to bring them to our rehearsal space and throw them around. But, I think, because of quite a lot of the songs – the music – I would send the music to Robbie in Thailand. He would do the vocals in Logic there. But some of the songs were too “demo’d” in you know what I mean, for the others to get their teeth stuck into them and rip them apart. But having said, that there was one song called “Sweet Revenge” that we completely and utterly manage to deconstruct and we basically rewrote, But there wasn’t enough time to do that with all the others. Then, also, going into the studio and not really being as strict on ourselves, me and Martin especially. You know, sticking to schedules and, you know , I was recording endless, endless things that we knew would never get used. Be were were like, “let’s try it with a different microphone.” There was lots of shootouts going on.
Lady Audio: So it was one of the most wonderful experiences you had while recording this album?
Mick: Probably where we live. There’s a – have you heard of a composer called Benjamin Britten?
Lady Audio: No.
Mick: Okay, right. He’s quite famous. He’s obviously long gone, but where we live he was a local resident. There’s a massive music concert hall and there’s music schools and these things, where lots of young musicians come and play, and major people like Philip Glass will come and play as well. Our singer’s wife – she works with these people and she got in contact with a young composer – a cassical arranger person/ So we sent him the songs to arrange string sections and orchestra type things. What he sent back was – it amazed us – it sounded so – and he did it on Logic – and he’s only 21. So we kind of again – it was it was an amazing, wonderful thing to happen – but, it kind of made us have to go back and think about what we were doing. When that happened – I thought that was really cool. Also, one of the great things about where I live it’s an artist co-op. So, I get to use the gallery which is like really big space to record all of the live things in.
Lady Audio: Oh, nice.
Mick: I wanted it to sound like Low-by Bowie. You know the way there that live sound in Hansa Berlin, so as soon as the drummer started dropping it was like really loud you know bouncing off the walls….
Lady Audio: Yeah but that’s how you get good drum sounds though I was going if you recorded drums in there.
Mick: Yeah you know guitars and basses and all manner of things percussion and stuff like that, as well. Even though it’s a studio only because we record music there it’s not really you have to make the vocal booths as you go along kind of thing.
Lady Audio: And that stuff takes time.
Mick: Yeah, yeah, yeah…days. (laughs)
Lady Audio: So the album is going to be released on vinyl, and that is so cool. I just wanted to ask you, what made the band decide to go by now with this new release?
Mick: Oh because we’re old-fashioned. Because the guy who does our artwork Vaughn Oliver, who does all of the 4AD stuff. The first art sleeve he ever made was for us and 1980. There’s never any doubt. Oddly enough I’ve been hearing that vinyl – the figures have just been released that vinyl is outselling downloads that people pay for. It will never out do streaming or Spotify and stuff like that. It’s just a nice thing to have.
Lady Audio: Yeah I hope to go vinyl with our next project but we shall see about that because we’re not signed or anything and I know that’s a pretty penny.
Mick: Well, I don’t know. We played with so many bands last year – we did a six-week tour last year doing Mesh and Lace. And we, well, we didn’t, but Drastic Plastic, a company in Nebraska, Omaha Nebraska, I think. They released our first two albums on 200 gram vinyl – limited to 500 copies each. All of the opening acts had vinyl – they are made quite cheaply as well. People were buying them hopefully to play in the record players not to just put on the wall. We actually mastered the LP at Abbey Road with this guy – his speciality is mastering for vinyl – so we definitely wanted it to – you know I can’t stand hearing people, or seeing people listening to music on their phones or on laptops. It drives me insane, you know, even shitty headphones send me up the wall as well. If you’re going to buy record at least, you probably got a semi-decent record player and decent speakers to hear it on.
Lady Audio: Yeah you’re right along my track of thinking that was going to be my next question who mastered it cuz I know that mastering for vinyl can be another challenge in itself.
Mick: Yeah. I’ve forgotten his name! But he was – Martin – he basically took over all the mastering stuff because we spend ages reading there’s this Bob Katz article that I’ve just ready that the enemy of the world is the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Californication.
Lady Audio: I agree. I wholeheartedly agree.
Mick: But the thing is – he’s talking to me and you and my friend Martin and about ten other people and most other people you know we’ve had people that bought the CD – we did Master it for CD is well – but they are complaining it’s too quiet.
Lady Audio: Yeah well that’s what the volume button is for, right?
Mick: Exactly and also you probably noticed there is less high end noise going on and drilling songs, and stuff, and static happening, you know. But if you listen to music on your phone you know, that’s that.
Lady Audio: At least put some decent headphones on.
Mick: Yeah it’s like when you see these new phones with and they say new improved speakers I think oh God. Then they sound heartbeats if you put them under your pillow and fall asleep listening to Polkas or something (laughs)
Lady Audio: Okay so now I want to dive into more about the songs on the album. So I think the single is going to be “You’re Corrupt,” is that right?
Mick: Well, that’s kind of like the lead, the first track. But having said that I notice in iTunes you can buy “You’re Corrupt,” actually. Sorry I’m getting confused because we’re actually mixing something right now called “Sweet Revenge” that will be in January. Yes “You’re Corrupt” has just been made available on Soundcloud as well.
Lady Audio: So what is “Your corrupt” about?
Mick: Well, Rob writes the lyrics. Well to me it’s about having a drum beat that goes around and 4/4 and then 3/4 (laughs) and then really random baseline that I thought Rob would never be able to sing to – but lo and behold he did. But I can imagine but when the lyrics written it was all of this banking scandals going on in the news. Everyone was going to hell in a handcart. This is all pre-Brexit and pre Trump and we didn’t think things could get any worse. Oh God bless us. A year so… So I think that’s of Rob’s observation on how insane the world was – not knowing that just wait a year and it’s going to get even crazier, but you know, the funny this is, it’s more out now when you see who Trump’s appointing in his positions….
[Play You’re Corrupt]
Lady Audio: And another song that I really like is “Come Out of Your Hole.” I wanted to ask you what is a story behind that song?
Mick: Okay, well. I actually recorded – I did quite a lot of recording on my iPhone. I was trying to my girl – ex-girlfriend’s, well, now, house and I was getting up to take my dog for a walk in the morning and one of my basses was there and I stopped into started playing it. Lo and behold, I played that and I thought, “oh I’ll record that and look at it later,” and then we recorded that again two or three times before we get the version on the album. But, with Rob sometimes, I think, I know what he singing about and then he’ll just surprise me and say no it’s about this and then I don’t know if he’s joking or not. But at the time I thought it was – quite often a lot of his lyrics are a call to arms – you know, within the band, I think. We’re a cool English people we don’t really talk to each other – that much – about what we’re feeling. So Rob will put it into words and sing it instead and if someone goes is that about blah blah – Rob will say, “oh I hadn’t thought about that,” and then I think maybe it’s just as well I don’t know what it’s about.
[Play Come Out of Your Hole]
Lady Audio: I like how it starts out kind of minimalistic and by the end of the song there’s a lot going on.
Mick: Yeah well that was very fun actually. Again I took that bass line – I sent that to Rob and Rob sang on it. Then we took her to the her rehearsal space and Gary was like, “what should I do,” and I was, “I dunno, do what you want,” and then towards the end he started hitting his guitar (laughs) and we said “yeah, that kind of thing, go on go absolutely bananas.” So that was it. It was like Gary the bass is quiet at the beginning but make sure that at the end the guitar is telling the bass to shut up. The guitar takes over basically so that’s how Gary ended up doing that.
Lady Audio: Okay just want to talk about one more song, “I Feel Small.” What is what is the story behind that song?
Mick: Oh, god, it was a bloody nightmare to record that song. Again that was one that I did on my boat and, to me, it was really straightforward but a lot of other people it was like the signature the time signature in the way things were crossing over and all of that. Again, I sent that to Rob and then he started singing on it which is how it normally works and I don’t know maybe – Rob was in Thailand – even though he goes there every year – away from the activity. I don’t know but it kind of been an incident that happened in Thailand, I’m not sure. Rob is really the one to talk about the words I’m just second-guessing everything here
Lady Audio: Well thank you for talking about it anyway. So what is your favorite tune from Take Me To The Trees?
Mick: Oh God. I like “Something’s Going On.” Today, I like that. But I really love – that was what I was talking about when Logic brought out the Mellotron. I don’t if you remember when that happened there was an update logic 10.2 or something like that and I thought of this is amazing ‘cuz, again, it’s like a Diamond Dogs. There is quite a few Diamond Dogs references on the album. We had this whole section of “There’s Something Going On,” that we didn’t know what to do with and we played around with for ages. Then the Mellotron came out and me and Martin we were on our own in the studio and he said, we okay, need 16 bars of – something. Then, we’ll work from there, so, basically count Logic – one, two – and we just played that and I have no idea what I did and then put the drums on it and then put the Bass on and then joined that to the end of the song. So basically like shoehorned the section in and we were thinking, “God knows what the others are going to think,” but I dunno. Afterwards I thought, “it sounds great – like Roxy Music. Like very early For Your Pleasure Roxy Music era,” which has loads of Mellotron.
Lady Audio: Well, it definitely works for the song.
Mick: Yes it was good fun kind of cut the song and half. Also in my car I listen to a lot of Steve Reich stuff happens in my car – you know. When the cat’s away the mice will play kind of thing and I was left to my own devices I could just go on with doing what I really wanted to do.
Lady Audio: So you have a tour coming up and where are you going to visit?
Mick: Quite a lot of places – hold on a sec – I’m just going to turn on – we’re going to SXSW in March 12th or something like that we’re doing two dates they’re San Diego, LA, the usual stuff up the West Coast. Then we’re going to San Diego, salt Lake City, Kansas, Kansas City, Denver, Saint Paul, Boston, Brooklyn, Washington, Pittsburgh, Ferndale, Michigan. When I get these tour dates in, I think, “well I’ve been to all these places but I’ve never been to Ferndale so that’s something to look forward too. But hopefully we’re going to get to Albuquerque as well which I really like I’m kind of hoping that the Albuquerque date gets confirmed. I love chilis – so I can have chilis for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Lady Audio: Haha. That’s funny. Cool. Well now it’s time for the scenario bit. Are you ready?
Mick: Okay, go on then.
Lady Audio: You’re walking into a forest in the middle of winter. It’s daytime and the sun is shining but the air is very cold and crisp and clean. The snow, which comes up to your knees, is light and powdery and it softly crunches under your feet as you walk. Ahead of you you see a huge conifer tree – it could be a Yew tree. As you approach the tree you see there are three items beneath it – right at the base of the tree. What are the gifts that you find there?
Mick: Right, the picture you just described is incredibly normal to me because where I live there’s lots of forest so I’m always in the forst with my dog. So, I’d say, one would be a pine cone, which my dog loves chasing. Another one would probably be a tennis ball.
Lady Audio: Another one for the dog. (laughs)
Mick: Yeah, yeah. Oh I’m always walking in the woods. The forest is about 6 minutes from my studio, so I go there all the time. So, possibly – I don’t know maybe a deer – I quite often see deer but I’d have to be really quiet because my dog would go bananas when he sees deers. So a pine cone, a tennis ball, and a deer – asleep – hiding from my dog.
Lady Audio: Awww, that’s so sweet. Last but not least what is your favorite flower?
Mick: Probably orchids, I’d say.
Lady Audio: Orchids are beautiful.
Mick: Yeah, but it’s only because I can’t understand them and I’m absolutely rubbish at trying to maintain them.
Lady Audio: Yeah, they are kind of tough to maintain.
Mick: Yeah, and I’ve actually broken a few in my time – testing whether they’re plastic or not.
Lady Audio: (laughs) Yeah, I do the same thing.
Mick: Yeah, they’re something I don’t really understand yet, but I’d love to be able to grow them properly.
Lady Audio: Cool. So where can people go to purchase the new Modern English vinyl album?
Mick: Well, hopefully The Cartel group will distributing it. But we’ve got a pledge campaign going on – pledgemusic.com, I guess. There’s plegemusic.com/modernenglish and you can order them there. But hopefully – we’re hoping that they’re actually going to be made by the 16th of December. The artwork is all done, the sleeves are all printed. It’s just getting the vinyl pressed. It’s going to be kind of like red vinyl, orange some type. But, on February the 23rd that’s when it’s going to have a physical release and hopefully and if anyone knows where to find a record shop (laughs) they’ll be able to go there. But, Rough Trade have already put it on their website, Amazon has put it on theirs, and so people can go the weird old fashioned route and mail order and get it delivered. But there’s going to be a thousand copies made in orange vinyl and then after that – it’ll just be – apparently – just normal black vinyl. But I imagine it will still be that heavyweight vinyl. So it will be in Record shops. There’s not a record shop within 50 miles where I’m standing. (laughs)
Lady Audio: When I get the links to it – I’ll definitely post it in the show notes that people can click on that and do the pre order and also do the ordering and have it delivered because record shops are becoming very far and few between these days.
Mick: I know you can go into, in England anyway, into big supermarkets places and they do have vinyl sections next to telephones or whatever. It’s always like like Adele and Electric Light Orchestra and Queen and stuff like that and maybe and maybe Ziggy Stardust, as well, if you’re lucky. You certainly wouldn’t be able to buy it and 7-Eleven or anything like that.
Lady Audio: Thank you so much for joining me today, Mick. It was a real pleasure speaking to you and I really appreciate your time.
Mick: Right, it’s been good fun. Thank you.
Strawberry Tongue would like to thank Mick Conroy of Modern English for chatting with Lady Audio for this edition of Strawberry Spotlight. Learn more about Modern English, their upcoming tour dates and links to listen to and buy their music at their website.