No sad songs, an interview with Stephen Duffy

The excuse for talking to Stephen Duffy is the release of the first Lilac Time album in ten years, but that really is just an excuse: we could listen to him forever. Paradise Circus is more named after the Lilac Time album  of that name than even the traffic island. That said, No Sad Songs is a wonderful collection that you should head out and pick up right now.


“Yes, we have always been guilty of self mythologising,” Stephen Duffy tells me, so allow me to build my own. I’m talking to him not sitting on the grass near Nick Drake’s grave, nor in a dappled Digbeth pub where our words would be lit with dusty spikes of light though the stained glass, but over the phone. He’s at home in Cornwall, I’m in an almost quiet enough corner of a conference centre in London that will from now be forever Birmingham.

It used to be the case that you read about most music long before you heard it, and if the artist was interesting enough and the writer good enough then you would file their name in your head or perhaps a notebook — for when you had money and chanced upon a second hand copy. Sometimes this would end in disappointment: it took about ten years for me to finally get a copy of Television’s Marque Moon and in that time all the artists I really like who had name-checked it had done everything it had the power to do for me.

A loving article about folk music and ecstasy in Dazed and Confused, a vinyl copy of & Love for All (The Lilac Time’s third LP, from 1990) picked up in a basement fire-sale on the Tottenham Court Road in 1990, which had the label pressed over the last two tracks of side two, and finally the Britpop reinvention of Duffy were the journey to the world of Stephen Duffy. A world that has been rewarding and mysterious: a half heard rumour of a new record, a film that never quite makes it, a lyric (from Eucharist, which also contains a biography better than you might find in most interviews) “the day after someone dies, you wake a little less alive” that felt like the biggest truth there could be.

No Sad Songs is the first album of spring, after a hard winter, a bright and roomy collection that seems to be getting — at last — a decent bit of attention.

“It was impossible to tell what the reaction was going to be. It’s been so long since we’ve put out a record and it’s been amazing. It’s funny as you get older I think you appreciate it more. When you’re a kid you just think you’re brilliant and you deserve it, but now when we get something out I’m amazed by it.”

“We recorded so many songs that it could have been a completely different record. I think that by calling it ‘No Sad Songs’ I’ve sent people off down a bit of a — not quite a — blind alley. I knew that it sounded like a manifesto or something. ‘The Lilac Time, No Sad Songs’ sounds like a instruction, but if I’d have called it ‘The First Song of Spring’ [track one] then I don’t think people’s attention would have been drawn so much to the fact that it was a little bit more upbeat.

“On some of the last Lilac Time records I was writing about depression so it wasn’t going to be very cheery anyway.”

With the new record, it’s not the cheeriness as such, but a defiance that struck me. She Writes a Symphony says “I know where the light is, it’s always out there in the darkness” — which sounds both resigned and optimistic.

Babylon Revisited is the most direct, almost angry.”’We were the band that never did reform’ – if only we had broken up we’d have been fêted. I’m jealous of a band that can get back together.”

The song also has a very angry message, which in an almost Morrissey-esque way is carried by a melody that bounces and cajoles acquiescence.“Do you remember Mervyn King ,and his friends that lost everything? All’s well, I hear they rot in hell.” It’s the furthest Stephen moves from personal experience, but it doesn’t feel out of place. Like everything here it just feels, well, true.

“I think that it’s that sort of — and I’m not saying the lyrics are like Hemingway — but like the incredibly precise short sentences that he wrote. I wrote such a lot of complete flowery nonsense when I was a kid, or stuff that didn’t make any sense but it just sounded like it might, that as I’ve got older I’ve tried to make it more intelligible. So nobody has to ask any questions about it.

“Unless people can understand it on the first go you’ve failed in a way, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t levels to it. It’s got to mean something straight away or you’re kind of wasting people’s time.”

What I perhaps love most about work of Stephen Duffy are the shards of Birmingham that run through it. Not big songs, but songs that take place where they do because they — in his experience — couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Holte End Hotel (from Music in Colours, 1993) is his most direct song about the place — “I’ll meet you where the lane from Witton stalls,” it says, with reference to Andy Lochhead and the then derelict pub’s “ballroom days”.

“It’s part of my mythology,” he says,”looking back now I still feel as if I’m only 17 and every record feels like it’s the first one i’ve ever made, but I am going to be 55 this year. So the Birmingham that I grew up in was a completely different place altogether. Youth is lost.

“When the place where you spent your childhood changes into a different place that’s interesting to me. I was born in Highfield Road in Alum Rock which you can’t believe is the same area.

“Someone came and delivered a sofa here, they were from Birmingham and when I said I was from Highfield Road they thought I was joking. All the pubs have been knocked down… the Pelham Arms, no the Ward End is still there.

“The last time I played in Birmingham we were driving in, and I said, ‘it’s OK I’ll be able to tell you where to go’ — I think we were doing an in-store at Swordfish — and they must have been building Harvey Nicholls or something and we drove though what felt like acres of tarmac and they had just put some metal rods on either side and a bit of string and you were driving though a desert of tarmac with nothing there except for being guided by this string.”

“Mothers has always interested me, I was reading a book and it had something about Fleetwood Mac who had already been at number one — with Peter Green — they’d done an American tour and then they came back and the day they flew in they got in a van and went and played Mothers. Music has changed so much. If you were a number one band now, what would be the thought of playing over what is now a carpet shop?”

“When the Durans started, we played Barbarella’s and the first number was a drum machine and synth instrumental with a bit of clarinet on it. I just sort of danced. How we didn’t get killed playing in a punk club doing this… but the fact that people didn’t kill us meant we had to carry on, I suppose.

“There isn’t the whole culture of kids getting together and making a racket and then going to the pub and playing it there and seeing the reaction of people’s faces — or their backs as they walk out. Nothing beats having that strength of belief in what you do that you can stand in front of people and do it.

“When you first start making records in a studio the red light would come on and it was frightening and you were scared into trying to be good. There’s a lot of music being made in bedrooms now that isn’t very good.”

(Stephen’s photos of that time accompanied with a lovely essay are on online.)

I digress, possibly because I have to move — a talk about supermarket social media statistics is about to begin — is it about competition, I want to know. When I was in a band the big thing was to be better than the bands next door in the practise rooms (they were The Starries and Mistress, and we weren’t).

“When we started the Lilac time we were rehearsing somewhere in London and the band next door were Europe and they were playing The Final Countdown over and over again. Every time we stopped playing they were playing The Final Countdown. They were very good at it.

“It’s not competition now, it’s more like an old people’s home, you’re glad that Lloyd Cole is still out there with his zimmer frame, and Edwyn [Collins].

“At the time you didn’t want to admit that you were buying their records and thinking ‘why are they more popular than us’. I’m just pleased that some of them are still around.”

A couple of years ago I saw the film Memory & Desire: 30 Years in the Wilderness at a Flatpack Festival showing. In fact I got to introduce it, with some of the same sort of drivel I’m writing now. If it were true that there had been a wandering, surely Stephen must feel that he (they) are now back.

“I didn’t really feel in the wilderness, that’s why we didn’t release the film. I just thought that the way it was put together in the end was too bleak, it didn’t represent how I felt and luckily I was in a position to say ‘no lets not’.”

“We’re going to stick it back together in a happier order and we’re playing Port Elliot festival so we’re gong to record some of that and put that in. It will get more interesting as time goes on, maybe not to anyone else.”

“I don’t know whether people from Birmingham are more immediately nostalgic than anyone else but you leave school and there’s someone trying to arrange a reunion already. Perhaps people from Birmingham do have a slightly more sentimental nature to them and I think that’s probably — in our case — something to do with the Irish/Scottish maudlin Celtic strain in our family.”

“I worry that we might look back and nothing is there.

“My problem with all the digital stuff is I’m not sure that it exists and I don’t know… I had to open a session from this album that we mixed just before Christmas and it wouldn’t open, a plugin had expired or something. This was months after it was made — in a few years will I be able to open it? In 35 years what are the chances of any of the recordings being intelligible or sounding like anything.

“I never really understood how music lived on magnetic tape, it was magical but you did stuff and it was all down to listening. You had to trust your ears. Now people can see it and they adjust it by looking — you were never meant to see music like that, you were meant to paint magical psychedelic pictures. Not see them.

“It’s as if we’ve turned music into accountancy,”

“There, I did it,” he announces, “I came up with a quote.”

The mythology is intact. The Lilac Time are back.

Author: Jon Bounds

Jon was voted the ‘14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands’ in 2008. Subsequently he has not been placed. He’s been a football referee, venetian blind maker, cellar man, and a losing Labour council candidate: “No, no chance. A complete no-hoper” said a spoilt ballot. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama performed on Twitter when he persuaded a cast including MPs and journalists to give over their timelines to perform Twitpanto. But all that is behind him.

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