Only If...: Bill Ryder-Jones at Manchester Literature Festival

Poet Michael Pedersen talks with Bill Ryder-Jones ahead of the singer-songwriter's live performance of his landmark solo debut, If..., with the Manchester Camerata as part of the Manchester Literature Festival

Feature by Michael Pedersen | 30 Sep 2014

Bill Ryder-Jones’s album If... was the inaugural release under his own lovely name (post-big-band life) and what a way to arrive. Not only was this a debut album but an interpretation of a cult (Italian postmodernist) novel; it involved musical backing from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (grand orchestral movements juxtaposing naked vocals); and was recorded in as diverse a range of places as grand Scandinavian churches and his old ma’s loft. Up until this point Bill was, of course, best known as lead guitarist in Liverpool psychedelic rockers The Coral – with Noel Gallagher and Graham Coxon amongst his fervent fans (and friends). As a founding member of the band he rode that ship all over the world from 1996 to 2008, through five studio albums (signing off with Roots & Echoes). As Bill moves towards the arrival of his third solo album with Domino Records, why is it only now that his 2011 release is seeing a live outing (Manchester Literature Festival proudly at the helm)?

Image: Andrew Ellis

The Skinny: Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler is the source of inspiration behind the album. Tell us about first discovering the book and why it chimed a bell with you?

Bill Ryder-Jones: The book was given to me by an ex-girlfriend. I think at first it was the scope of it, the joy and frustration of finding all these amazing first chapters of books that never were. It wasn't until later that it really blew me away properly. Calvino is exploring a thing that I'd always half known but never fully understood or even been able to put into any kind of thought or sentence. The idea that it's the first few pages or first listens of a piece of music that get you, how all your own thoughts and desires and all the possibilities of what could be are wrapped up in those pages. Also how dealing in a medium that has to have an end makes holding on to that promise impossible.

Was the idea to compose music around the text forming in your head as you read it or did that arrive sometime later?

No, that was a much later idea. I definitely have always made pictures in my mind when reading. I have an awful attention span even for things I love, so I've always found picturing the pages a way of retaining the information and staying with it. Writing music for me is much the same – I think once you've defined your terms or palette then it becomes an obvious thing that seemed to have already been in existence.

I read somewhere that you've a capricious mind when it comes to choosing your favourite track from If... – is that still the case?

Ha, I don't know what that word means, petal. I have thought about this, though, and I do think The Reader is probably the best thing I've ever written.

Bill Ryder-Jones - The Reader [Malbork]

Is it perhaps better viewed as a total piece? I think that's how I see it...

I'm not sure, I'd like to think it works like that but I couldn't listen to it in one go.

The album came out in 2011 yet has in fact never been performed live  why do you feel like now is the right time and what influenced that decision? Allied to that, how will it work on the night?

Well I never thought it a possibility really. The album didn't exactly set the world alight and I never thought there would be the interest. Thankfully Sarah-Jane Roberts at Manchester Lit Fest asked if she could put it on, she contacted the great people at the Manchester Camerata, which was incredible to me. We’re going to play it top to bottom – no changes or owt fancy. There’ll be a few little surprises but I’m not messing with any of the music or the order of the tracks.

Quite a wild transition from being one-sixth of an internationally renowned psychedelic rock band to arriving as a solo artist/composer with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra behind you. Were you making a conscious effort to ensure the first mark made under your own name was a far fling from what you'd done before?

I guess I probably was on a certain level, although I think I had moved on from psych guitar stuff before I left the band. At the end of my time with The Coral I'd got bored of guitar/song things and was listening to a lot of classical and film score things. I don't remember wanting to be seen in a different light but that does sound like something I'd go and do to be spiteful [laughs].

“Calvino is exploring a thing that I'd always half known but never fully understood” – Bill Ryder-Jones

What of other great If-based works? You're in good company I'd say: Rudyard Kipling's infamous poem and then the 1968 British drama film directed by Lindsay Anderson starring Malcolm McDowell. Dig 'em? Came across others?

I do, and enjoy both of those examples very much. I have a lovely picture with Kipling's If written on it, very moving – and no I think there's only so much I can drain from one ambiguous word!

Any additional literary texts on your radar as fit for the purposes of having imaginary film scores sewn around them?

No, I don't think so. If... was always meant to be an interpretation and not a soundtrack to an imaginary film. I think I'll wait until someone asks me to write something for them specifically.

[Note: pre-If..., Bill orchestrated the soundtrack to the short film A Leave Taking (2009) which makes up the bulk of his solo EP; post-If... he composed the score to his first feature film, the psychological thriller Piggy. There’s more in the pipeline naturally, with Bill boasting a real admiration for the works of composer Clint Mansell (who scored The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, among others). That’s alongside his penchant for lauded songwriters such as Euros Childs, Syd Barrett and Nick Drake – a delicious feast of flavours there.]

Rumour has it you've recently moved from being a vegetarian to being a vegetarian with an occasional aberration into the world of red meat – can you elaborate on that and do you think it will influence your music going forward?

[Laughs.] No, I rarely talk about my thoughts on the death trade that is animal breeding for consumption, but I do not consider myself vegetarian or anything else. I'm not wearing my beliefs like some badge that I can define myself with and show to others – at the same time if I for whatever reason at some point in my life decide to eat meat then I won't accept it being made an issue of in the way that most people who can't understand my thoughts on it seem to love doing. For the record, people who consider and announce themselves as 'vegetarian' tend to be pussies and attention seekers, people who eat meat and treat those who don't as people who've been denied some right at birth tend to be cocks.

Outside of his own albums Ryder-Jones has been spotted playing live with Artic Monkeys (whose album he features on); producing for the likes of Saint Saviour, Bird, The Wytches, By The Sea and TeenCanteen; and touting his exclusive range of Bill Ryder-Jones T-shirts (new batch just in by the way – all sizes!). Our Bill remarks of the forthcoming bash, "I think this will be the only time this happens. Perhaps in the future if the album grows into something bigger in terms of popularity then maybe I can see it, but there’s certainly no plan for that."

For those who know his work, the MLF performance of If.. will have been long anticipated and much lusted-after (as it seemed more chimerical than probable at one stage); for those who don’t, what a fantastic introduction to the maestro. It’s enough to implore me doon from Scotland – that’s fur sure. As a wee extra, it’s well known that Bill makes the ladies (and the men) swoon – just so we’re clear.

Manchester Camerata & Bill Ryder-Jones, If..., Manchester Cathedral, 9 Oct, 8pm