From The Vault - Gerard Langley

Interview by John A. Wilcox

I recently moved. As I was going through papers and such in the process of packing, I came across an old Apex stenographic notebook. Inside it I found my handwritten transcription of an interview I had done on 9/17/91 with Blue Aeroplanes frontman Gerard Langley. The album Beatsongs had been released the month before, so we sat down to discuss it. The local paper it was done for had folded right about that time, so this interview has never seen the light of day. Until now...

PS: On Beatsongs, how much of the sound change is Larry Hirsch and how much is the band itself?

GL: It was Larry's decision to record at Oceanway. The most significant part is the studio. There was only one line-up change at that time which was the drummer. It did help the guitars to come forward to have a less propulsive, less rock drummer. With a bit more swing in it you get more of a groove thing going and the guitars dictate the change of the pace slightly more than they used to. The main thing though, is the studio, which we chose because we normally like to record live. The basic band, that is, live. Then we do all our overdubs and our silly instruments and all that kind of thing. We've always had problems in the past. First we had the problem of not having any money, so you couldn't get a great sound. On Swagger, we had a bigger budget but we didn't really consider the implications of going to a studio that didn't have a room big enough to get all the amps in. And we didn't have sufficiently good microphones to record everybody with a brilliant sound. When we recorded Swagger, most of the backing tracks were live, but we didn't have much control over the way the guitars sounded because no studios in England, and probably not in Europe, have that many old valve microphones.
Oceanway has the best collection of old valve microphones in the world. A guy's gone around Europe for years collecting them. Whenever a German studio upgraded its technology to digital, he'd ask them for their old valve mics. He'd actually buy whole studios just for the microphones and then sell the studio off. So we could actually play live in a room with the amps in the room - Alex didn't even wear headphones most of the time. Because we could hear ourselves We'd spend a whole day just setting up the guitar amps and we had 3 or 4 mics on every guitar that in most studios would be the vocal mic. The only time we ever got to do that before was at the BBC Studios when you do a session there. That's why The John Peel Sessions always seem to sound really good, They're recorded very, very quickly because the quality of microphones is so good. But you can't hire the BBC for two months! That was one of the major things, really. But it perfectly suits Larry's way of working.

PS: How did you hook up with Larry?

GL: He was recommended by the record company in L.A. I heard the last couple of Los Lobos albums - the Grammy one. Prior to that he co-produced King Of America for Elvis Costello. He's engineered about 300 albums. He's worked with everybody. If money was no object, you had your producer, and you wanted the best engineer in the world - Larry's in the top half-dozen. Now he wants to be a producer.

PS: Where and when were the tracks from the World View Blue EP recorded?

GL: They're just basically the contents of some EPs that got released in England. Some were Swagger outtakes - not outtakes. What we usually do at the end of each album session, we just take a day and record a load of stuff really quickly. A couple of them were a four day session in Los Angeles where we did You (Are Loved) and You're Going To Need Somebody. And a couple were from a live BBC broadcast.

PS: When I listen to your lytics, I'm reminded at times of Richard Thompson. Are you a fan?

GL: Richard Thompson is a big hero. I've got everything he's ever done from Fairport Convention onwards. He's a big influence on Angelo as well.

PS: How long did Beatsongs take to record?

GL: The thing about recording live or mostly live is that you can do several takes and get the best vibe. So you can spend a lot of time setting up the actual sound of the room and the microphones and what have you. Then you just go in and play. 5 to 6 weeks recording, 3 or 4 weeks mixing. Then there were a couple of things I knew weren't going to come out right. Just a little difference of opinion or whatever, you know, so rather than argue about it or discuss it too much, I just waited til we got back to England and finished them there. So 2 or 3 tracks were actually finished in England.

PS: Is it fair to say that the album has a more positive sound?

GL: I think it's a product of being fairly happy, basically. Not everyone's comfortable with getting bigger. Some people just want to play music and the more things you have to do like signing autographs, or being videos or photo shoots, or doing interviews - they just don't wanna do 'em, y'know? But it's not really fair when the workload increases and someone just sits there and says, "I'm not going to do that". It just increases the workload for everyone else. I think some people are really just happier playing small clubs. This line up, everyone's happy to do everything. Hazel, who's one of the new guitarists, was already on our second video since she joined. Before, sometimes you'd get a few people saying "Oh God, I hate videos!" And Hazel just turns around to me halfway through the day and says, "God! This is so exciting!" It makes a difference.

PS: Do you enjoy videos or see them as a necessity?

GL: I do really see videos as a necessary evil, I must admit. In general, I think having one set of images does tend to limit a song which you could have several images for. There are very few videos or video compilations that I watch over and over again. I don't mind doing them myself. I'm a bit unsure about the medium in general.

PS: How much control do you keep on what is done?

GL: Depends. Some of our videos I have a very tight control over. Sometimes when they put it on one day off in the middle of a tour, you just say, "Oh, God, well - just direct me ... " Unless you've got respect for the director, you let them get on with it. That means that really what you are doing up on that video is more the product of someone else's imagination than your own, which I'm not used to in terms of recording at all. Then again, that's what actors do all the time.

PS: Who are the Blue Aeroplanes right now?

GL: It's the same band as on Beatsongs, but Alex has left to work with people he's worked with since he was 14. In his place we have Hazel Winter - a guitarist on the Bristol scene and a guy called Robin Key - he's playing keyboards. We knew we wanted a keyboard and an acoustic player because it's on all our records but it's been hard to do live. So he's coming in to play keyboards, acoustic stuff, and some electric guitar. You know, we really want to thrash out. He actually played in a very early line up of the Aeroplanes and then went off with his brother for a long time. His brother is the guy who wrote the music for Yr Own World, who is a guitarist I worked with before the Aeroplanes. We all know each other, it all comes 'round. I like dealing with people I know.

PS: Now your brother John left when? In late '80's?

GL: Yes, he left at the end of the tour. Basically, the only reason he left is that he didn't want to record in Los Angeles. We were in Los Angeles and he said, "I'm flying home tomorrow."

PS: So John's in The Mekons now, isn't he?

GL: Yeah, yeah. And I think, by all accounts, very happy. Oddly enough they did some dates with our ex-bass player as well. Basically, The Mekons now have the rhythm section we had on Spitting Out Miracles and Friendloverplane.

PS: Rodney Allen wrote Fun - a song not out of place with your compositions. Do you both see eye to eye musically and lyrically?

GL: Ideologically we do. You see, Rod used to be a solo artist before he joined the band. Initially he kept both things going, but I think for the moment he's not interested in anything but being in the band. He does actually get offers for solo stuff, but he's not really interested now. He writes songs all the time. He's got quite a backlog of songs. I think most of his earlier songs didn't suit the band that much, which is why we never recorded them. I think generally he's one of the prime movers in the band's music and inevitably the songs he writes now are going to reflect that. I think he writes within the band's structure.

PS: Why have there been no Rodney Allen / Angelo Bruschini collaborations?

GL: Because we tour so much we tend not to do the kind of "jam" writing that we used to. Most of the stuff on Beatsongs was written separately and at the home by people on their portastudios. Rodney and Alex share composer credits because Alex would go 'round to Rodney's house or suggest a middle eight or something like that. Angelo tends to write fully formed pieces that tend not to need an extra set of chords somewhere. That's the only reason, really. It's not antipathy or anything. They write from a different viewpoint as well. Rod tends to write 'round fairly familiar chord sequences and Angelo tends to approach it from a rather more peculiar standpoint, and then make it poppy.

PS: Take me through a Blue Aeroplanes song.

GL: If I had a completed set of words I won't really change them at all. When they come up with a piece of music that seems really appropriate for it, then we shape the music to go with the words, structurally. I might say, "Can we make the third chorus longer?," or, "It would be really good for me to have a middle eight here". Sometimes, they've got a piece of music and I haven't got a full set of words. I've just got maybe an idea, or I've got the chorus and the first two lines. I'll let them carry on working a structure out with just vague "It would be good for me if ... " Often I let them finish it completely and do the whole backing track before I finish the words. But the trick is to not let people know which is which.

PS: Yr Own World - written from personal experience or a character?

GL: It's in general written from personal experience. Most of my stuff is. Not always mine, but either observed or actual. Most things, in my words, I've either seen, heard, had described to me, or done. Not all, though. Things like My Hurricane are more a comment. Something like Yr Own World, yes. Some of the details like some of the lines kind of sum up L.A or whatever were written out of an earlier version of it where I just got completely drunk with The Jazz Butcher and we wrote of set of parody rap lyrics for it. A few of those lines survived like the plaster casters line. Mostly, its an actual story, folks!

PS: Colour Me.

GL: When you were a kid and you get your first box of watercolors they're always called very obvious things like red, orange, brown. But there's always one called burnt sienna. It's just a name for a color that always appealed to me. I just like the sound of it. It's better than saying color me with orange.

PS: Any "beat" influences on your lyrics?

GL: Not really. Its more a reference to what people perceive of as beats. Beatnik and Bohemian now are just buzzwords. In general, yes, we do have a Beatnik or Bohemian aspect to us both visually, and to a sense, lifestyle. Not specifically beat poets, though. I'm not influenced by them.

PS: Why music, why not poetry?

GL: Have you ever been to a poetry reading?

PS: Say no more!

GL: I got into pop music when I was about 13. It took over from football - soccer that is - in my life. Since then it's a major part of my life. I buy 3 or 4 albums a week. I play music all the time. I find the whole lifestyle very simpatico. I was 19-20 when I left college and punk started. Punk was a great time - you could actually be in a band. Before that the musicians had bands. I never even considered the possibility of being in a band. It never even occurred to me. Then suddenly you not only could - you had to. You were a bit of a wimp if you weren't in a band. It was just a cool lifestyle. And then, I never necessarily took it that seriously, either. I had a job at the time and 3 things happened. One of the guitarists I was working with - I found a little song lyric he started writing which was about me - basically saying I should get off my ass and be an artist. I didn't tell him I'd seen it, actually, I don't think he knows. In fact, that's the guy who wrote Yr Own World. And then we started getting bigger - I had a band before the Blue Aeroplanes when I was like 20. And they started getting bigger in Bristol and we were doing quite well and it split up because everyone wanted to do their own thing. I always thought it was just going to be something local, y'know? Then Tom Waits brought out Swordfishtrombones, which is so like the kind of stuff that I was recording and demoing. It's a mixture of peculiar instruments, and stolen shit, and its total, total, non-funkness. The early '80's was all electronic music and white funk, especially in Bristol. Then Laurie Anderson had a hit in England with O, Superman. I just thought, "Well if they can do it, I can do it." I thought, "Ah! Here's my career!" I burnt all my beats and I'm probably unemployable now.


Thanks to Sasha for the transcription!

Table Of Contents