It came as no surprise to fans when The Bluetones announced they were to reform for a UK tour this year. Unlike most bands prevalent in the mid-1990s, this is only their first reunion, and it’s happening just four years from their breakup. Until 2011, the band had been going strong. The Morriss brothers (lead singer Mark and bassist brother Scott) had always seemed to have a much steadier relationship than sibling partnerships from other contemporary bands (not naming any names) and there had never been any visible tension over anything, even when Mark embarked on a solo career on the side.
Morriss has this year released his third studio album, an LP of cover versions nostalgically entitled “The Taste of Mark Morriss”. An inscription on the back of the sleeve reads “This record should be played LOUD. Ideally on a yacht.” This is the kind of humour fans have grown to expect from the cocky yet self-deprecating vocalist, and its irony never rings truer than when I am asked to call his landline because his mobile is playing up.
“Right, you’ve got me.” Mark says after the pleasantries have been exchanged, and for 15 minutes it really feels like I have. This is a man who manages to at once feel disenchanted by the music industry, as he’ll explore later in our conversation, and fantastically passionate about his music and his craft. Not once does he sound jaded.
I first ask him why he chose to make a covers album. It’s an obvious question that seems unavoidable.
“It felt like something that hadn’t been done for a while, when I started to consider my options,” he begins. “I remember when I was a kid it was quite a common thing. Well, not common, but it wasn’t as rare as it is now for that sort of thing to happen. I don’t mean in a sort of Susan Boyle way; in a kind of like…people like Bryan Ferry and David Bowie…”
“Harry Nilsson…” I add helpfully. We start to explore why Mark chose the specific songs that he did for the record. I point out that the songs aren’t the usual choices. They’re all a little more obscure; a little more unexpected.
“There’s lots of stuff I grew up with and lots of stuff that helped shape my musical taste,” Mark explains. “Also things that I just wanted to sing – not songs that had any great personal connection, but just as a performer that I felt like inhabiting and that I could do a good job with. I mean, especially things like the Laura Branigan song. It’s just a joy to do that one.”
“Did you know what songs you wanted to do straightaway or did you record a lot of other material that didn’t make the cut?” I ask. I’m eager to know whether we’ll be treated to a B-sides collection with a cover of Babylon Zoo’s “Spaceman”.
“No, I didn’t really record that much other material,” he says, squandering the dream. “It was a long laborious process that took almost a year. I had these cornerstone songs I wanted to record immediately and they were the Pet Shop Boys song, the Buffalo Springfield song, the Scott Walker song, and the first song “This Pullover”. They were all songs I wanted to do; they were gonna be like the cornerstones of the record, and then build it up around that and construct an album around those songs. Like ‘this can go at the beginning, this can go at the end, what comes next? What does this record need?’ Like a story unfolding. The album feels like it’s got an arc.”
“It’s much like the process I used to work on with The Bluetones,” the singer continues, providing me with a helpful segue that I neglect to exploit. “We used to get a feel for an album by the first sort of five or six songs that we’d write…not even that – three or four songs that we’d write where it felt like “these are definitely on” and then you’d build the album around those.”
For his 2014 LP A Flash of Darkness, Morriss started to utilise the ever-growing practice of crowdfunding. I ask whether choosing to crowdfund means there is more pressure to give fans something specific, and Mark argues that it doesn’t.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s any pressure to give the fans something specific. I think when you start out on the process, that’s never part of the deal….I think you’re taking a different sort of leap with an artist. I mean, with someone like me, who’s been doing it a long time, I have an audience and they kind of know what they’re gonna get, it’s not such a leap in the dark for them, but at the same time it’s not like I’m thinking ‘Well they’ve paid their money and they’ll probably want one of these songs or one of those kind of songs.’ You just ask them to take a leap of faith…in the same way you do every time. The thing is it’s just putting the process the other way around. You’re asking for the money upfront whereas before… you make that music anyway and you put it out there and you hope people will like it, and this is it. I guess with this thing there’s no refunds. If you don’t like it you can’t take it back to the shop!”
He chuckles to himself and I choose not to point out that you probably could, if you had the receipt and it was still in the original packaging. Instead I choose to muse that “your fans have to have more confidence I guess, from the off, but with such a back catalogue I guess that’s not difficult.”
“Well, it’s never something I take for granted, you know?” comes the humble reply, “I think people are interested when people go out on a limb a bit. As long as I’m not gonna release an album that’s kind of…dance music or trad jazz, then people won’t feel that short changed. Hopefully.”
I decide to segue clumsily into asking about his work with The Bluetones, and ask him to compare and contrast this to his solo work.
“I think the process is a lot slower when I write on my own because I don’t have the immediacy of someone to bounce ideas off, and someone to have that rapport with in a recording studio or a rehearsal studio. So it does take a bit longer for me to have the eureka moments, because I’m just hanging around in the dark on my own.”
It’s funny for a moment to imagine Mark Morriss sitting in the dark of his Tunbridge-Wells home attempting to write a song, his mobile playing up. However, take one listen to any one of his records and you can see that these feel-good songs were not written in the dark – even the title track of A Flash of Darkness, which is a subtle oxymoron so typical in Morriss’ songwriting.
“I’ve noticed a lot more lyrical witticisms in the solo tunes…” I observe, and Mark sounds surprised.
“Oh really? I guess I must just be getting better then! There was nothing conscious to make it more wordy. It’s nice of you to say that.”
“It’s a little cheekier, I’d say,” I add.
“Yeah possibly!” Morriss chirps, “I think perhaps some of the humour is more overt than it is with The Bluetones.”
“Okay then, in terms of The Bluetones, why did you choose to do the reunion tour?” I ask, and it feels like a million dollar question.
“That’s a good question,” he confirms, “I don’t think we chose it, so much as the time came around and it chose us. I think there was a slow realisation amongst the four of us that we do actually rather miss each other and there’s this sense of “Well why? Why shouldn’t we?””
“”Well because you told us all that you were splitting up!”” he jokes, anticipating the response, “I mean yeah, there’s that, but it’s our band! So we just wanted to play some shows together again and spend some time together and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know if this is gonna be like the big part two of the band’s career or anything like that and we’re suddenly gonna launch into a new recording career.”
“That was part two of the question really,” I admit.
“We’ve not even had that discussion between the four of us, so I can’t say it’s the top of our priorities. We’ll see! We’ll all just wait to see where we are,” he replies, but I feel as if I can hear a glimmer of hope in his voice.
“Tell me if I’m keeping you too long by the way,” I mutter, imagining him on his sofa, tied to his landline phone. Or maybe he has one of those modern ones where you can take it off the receiver and walk around. I ask if he feels like it’s harder for guitar bands in 2015 than it was twenty years ago.
“I think it is at this very moment a little harder, but I do think it will change again,” he says optimistically, “I think the emergence of programs like The X Factor and The Voice have changed young people’s perceptions about making music, and I think that will change.”
“You think that’s genuinely problematic then?” I ask, surprised by his opinion.
“Yeah. In as much as, there’s only so much air time and there’s only so much in terms of press interviews that can be filled up and a lot of it is taken up with things that are meaningless light entertainment. I mean, I think there’s gonna be a reaction against this. There are lots of brilliantly talented young musicians out there making really exciting guitar music. They’re just not getting the platform they once were. But then again, when things were like that for The Bluetones, we were lucky! It was an anomaly then. It’s not like it had always been that way. It was like…it was out of time. And I believe that that will come round again. I certainly hope so. I’ve got to believe it or else I’d give up…if I believed that the future of music was decided by Simon Cowell.”
I explore his relationship with new music, and whether it’s tied up with what I choose to describe as “NME culture.”
“No no, I don’t read the NME anymore. I find it far too depressing. They’re just as bad as everyone else. They write about things they shouldn’t be writing about. They write about…the new Rita Ora single or the X Factor winner single, which is not what you get into the NME for. I’ve always found it so depressing. I’ve stopped all contact with the NME these days. I think there are some other interesting blogs out there and some interesting sites writing more seriously about music than NME are. And 6Music’s a great window… I just stopped following [NME] on Twitter because I found their tweets so depressing.”
“I find that they pick which bands they like and then they’re on the cover for like the next two years,” I express grumpily.
“Yeah I know, it’s obscene,” Mark concurs. A change of mood seems necessary as our conversation comes to an end, so I whimsically ask what he’s most looking forward to about The Bluetones tour.
“I’m actually most looking forward to playing. It sounds silly because that’s the obvious thing but really that’s the thing. That thing I’ve not had for 4 years,” he sounds excited, “Playing those songs with those guys. It’s gonna be great. It’s gonna be slightly surreal. Just wrapping myself up in that big duvet again. The big duvet of The Bluetones.”
I giggle at his quirky metaphor and thank him for talking to us. I’m looking forward to seeing The Bluetones play again at Leeds’ O2 Academy on the 16th and climbing into that duvet myself.
Meanwhile, Mark picks up the telephone again. “Yeah sorry Mum. My mobile’s been playing up. Yeah I know. Yeah I know you worry.”