Late Flowering Lust: Andrew Weatherall on The Asphodells
Andrew Weatherall has abandoned the rock and roll of his last album to create The Asphodells with Timothy J. Fairplay, a glorious celebration of post-punk and electronica inspired by John Betjeman, AR Kane, and his club night, A Love From Outer Space
“Give me one minute, I've just got the teabag in,” says Andrew Weatherall. “That's not a euphemism – I am actually making a cup of tea.” Speaking from his book-lined studio “in a basement on the outskirts of London's decreasingly-fashionable Shoreditch,” Weatherall is on excellent form, holding forth with enthusiasm about current collaborator Timothy J. Fairplay, with whom he made new album Ruled By Passion, Destroyed By Lust [reviewed here] under the name The Asphodells. They met when Fairplay was: “...a fresh-faced acid-house loving punter” at one of Weatherall's nights, called Haywire. “He would usually be the first to arrive and the last to leave...”
Then there's the subject of his sprawling three-disc mix compilation for Ministry of Sound, released this year, inspired by his increasingly-acclaimed club night with Sean Johnston, A Love From Outer Space: “I did think about it long and hard," he confesses. "Do I want to be associated with Ministry of Sound?” With regular anecdotes about his passion for music, his start in the record industry, and digressions to discuss the works of everyone from John Betjeman to William Hazlitt, Weatherall is an erudite, charming conversationalist – humble and excitable, a mercurial wit who describes himself, after more than two decades of making music, as “a kind of gentleman amateur.”
We're here to talk about The Asphodells' album, which is a thoroughly different beast to Weatherall's last solo outing, A Pox on the Pioneers. Where that album explored rockabilly, dub and and good old-fashioned rock and roll, Passion / Lust is an album of synth-led grooves with seductive, minimal vocal performances from Weatherall, taking in elements of disco, techno, post-punk, synth-pop and acid house. Made on analogue synthesisers and drum machines, with guitars and live bass, it is so good it feels effortless. Although the songs are rooted in deceptively simple, melancholic chord structures and pulsing, minimal electronic grooves, the casual flair with which The Asphodells wear their influences – from classic acid house to Joy Division, from Kraftwerk to Faust – is a whole lot of fun.
“I'm glad you used the word fun, because although we're very serious about what we do, and the music has been described as dark, I still like laughter in the studio,” says Weatherall. “It's vital to me, it always has been.” Coming off the back of an “acrimonious” split with a former production partner, Weatherall had to abandon some co-written material, to avoid “all sorts of devious wrangling” should he ever want to release it. The collaboration with Fairplay started organically – he had moved into Weatherall's studio complex eighteen months previously, and they started working together. “He knew how I worked,” Weatherall explains. “He just stepped into the breach beautifully. It was a very painless transition.”
With its cover versions and heartfelt references to classic electronic music, the album was not conceived as a project, rather it started to take shape as Fairplay and Weatherall collaborated and worked together in the studio. “People say: 'How did the album start?' But things don't really 'start' down here. It doesn't ever stop – music's constantly being made or listened to, six or seven days a week.” Drawing on ideas from remixes, and from Fairplay's own “almost unlimited amount” of material, the common ground of their musical influences began to coalesce into the sound of The Asphodells – a process that Weatherall says happened “more by accident than design.”
“I've made it sound a bit slapdash,” he laughs. “A lot of thought went into it. There are tracks there which are just a few months old, some are eighteen months old. We don't just record ten tracks and then decide to put an album out. There's never a moment where you sit down and say: 'This is Day one of The Asphodells album.' We were working away, and after six or seven months we kind of looked at each other and said, 'We've not put an album out for a while...'”
The Asphodells' minimalism is a departure from A Pox..., which Weatherall describes as “a bit more studied, a bit more technically conventional.” It's a strong, well-rounded album. “God bless you for saying 'well-rounded,'” laughs Weatherall. “We don't just lump everything together every six months and then put it out. I'm very conscious of not doing that, especially with 'dance music,' for want of a better phrase. A lot of techno albums, electronic albums, are just a collection of tracks, and they don't hold together particularly well as an album. I've been buying albums since I was eleven years old, I'm very conscious of the concept of an album, and it being a body of work that all fits together. It's in my bones.” He laughs again. “My description of how it came about was a little bit flippant.”
The process of recording the tracks is more important to their quality than the influences that inspired them. “We don't jam – I don't like jamming,” Weatherall insists, laughing again. “It all starts with the percussion and the bass, as with a lot of musical forms down the years. If we're a bit jaded on a Monday, and we've had a bit of a crazy weekend, the tempo of it will be a bit slower. We pick a tempo, get an old drum machine – usually an 808. I'll then go to a certain keyboard I like, usually a Juno 106, which has got some nice bass sounds.” The duo bash out a rhythmic structure, and if they need an organic bassline, they call in Andy Baxter, a musician in the studio next door who has an amazing collection of “eye-wateringly beautiful vintage bass guitars.” Modestly, Weatherall says: “Tim's knowledge of musical construction is somewhat better than mine, so he'll help me figure out how to get somewhere and then back again.”
It was “liberating” to abandon the song-based approach of A Pox... and just lay down tracks with Fairplay. Weatherall is proud their influences can be clearly heard in the work: “What I'm trying to do, as an amateur, is 'authentic approximation,'” he explains. “I'm not trying to be original. If you sit in a studio all day trying to be original, you'll never do it. If you play me something you think is original, I'll play you something from 1958 that proves otherwise! You become original by default. If you go into a studio and do an authentic approximation of music you love, I think you end up becoming original without even trying.” He says these influences work best when they are “unconscious,” saying: “If you're a writer, or an artist, whatever line of work you are in, you're putting your experiences up to that point, either consciously or subconsciously, into your work. Music changed my life, from the age of about eleven or twelve. That's thirty-eight years of listening to music. So it's bound to come out.”
Weatherall's singing on the album, often double-tracked, is notably stronger on The Asphodells tracks, although he disagrees: “Maybe it's a bit more confident? I started singing again on the Two Lone Swordsmen stuff, round about when we were working on Double Gone Chapel. If you listen to that, it's very reserved. I'm singing from the throat. I'm not having to project because I'm in a studio, with lots of people looking at me and laughing. But then, when we started to do the live stuff, you start singing from a different place. My voice actually goes up an octave. It's because you're projecting – you're singing from a different place. You're singing from your guts, from your lungs.”
His description of his early years in the music industry is candid: “The whole reason I got into this job was because twenty, twenty-five years ago, I was just bumming around... back in those days, you could get a job for a couple of months, jack it in, spunk the proceeds on clothes and going out, then step back into another job. You can't really do that these days, but back then you could...” He says he “accidentally” got into DJing because he “had a good record collection, which accidentally led me to going into the studio.” Weatherall was convinced it wouldn't last. “I remember going for a job interview with a test pressing of Loaded under my arm... it was at a record company. The guy saw me come in and he said, 'Look, I'd interview you, but what the fuck are you doing here?' I said: ''Well, I need a job.' He said: 'No you don't, because that record you've got under your arm there is going to be reasonably successful.' So, from day one, because I thought it was all going to end tomorrow, I thought, I'm not going to try and impress the boss, or be on some sort of career ladder... I'm just going to have fun.”
With the success of his club night A Love From Outer Space, which started in Stoke Newington but has travelled up and down the country, including a night in Glasgow, is Weatherall enjoying a creative renaissance? “Because I've been around for so long, you go in and out of favour,” he says. “But I am more vibed up about music – making it and listening to it – than I have been since I was a kid. No, in fact – that's not right. I'm still just as enthusiastic as I was then. When I was twelve, after I'd been to the record shop, I could not wait to get home. I'd risk life and limb weaving through traffic because I wanted to get back and play all the music at once. I'm still like that. When I go record shopping, if I go to Rough Trade – which luckily is at the end of my street - or if I go to Phonica in the West End, I come out with two carrier bags of music, and I just cannot wait to get back to the studio and start playing it. I've never lost that.”
He says he is in an “enviable position” because he has “a reasonably good heritage” and a “reasonably good back catalogue.” He reflects that perhaps this latest surge of interest in his work is to do with what he represents: “People want something to balance up that fleeting, ephemeral pop culture atmosphere. Anyone that's been around for more than ten or fifteen years kind of represents that, and that's why I'm getting people still coming to my clubs after twenty-five years.” He describes seeing three generations of clubbers on the dancefloor at his recent Glasgow appearance, and speculates: “I do represent the antithesis to the throwaway, mp3 culture. I've got nothing against that – you can have both quite easily, you know, I do both. But I think that's why I have had a renaissance over the last couple of years... people are looking for something a bit more than this week's shiny object. Maybe I represent something that strikes a balance against that.” He laughs again, before adding: “It's not just because I'm old!”
Speaking of the twin influences of John Betjeman and A.R. Kane, he describes his parents encouraging to read from a young age, saying: “ I was kind of in love with language.” Encountering Viv Stanshall on John Peel's radio show, and listening to the likes of Ivor Cutler and Professor Stanley Unwin led him to Betjeman's two '70s albums, Banana Blush and Late Flowering Love. These writers were “creating parallel universes with words,” captivating the young listener: “Some of it I didn't understand because I was too young, but I just loved the rhythms. It's like sometimes when you watch Shakespeare, you don't really understand what's being said, but you do because of the inherent rhythm, and the structure of the prose. Sometimes if you mention John Betjeman, people think, 'Oh, that's a bit cosy, a bit 'little England.'' But there's more to it than that.” He describes Betjeman's albums as “beautiful, dark, well-orchestrated,” and Betjeman's “kind of fruity manner, like a schoolteacher with a slightly rascally side to him.” He played his favourite track, Late Flowering Lust, with its Velvet Underground-like bassline to Fairplay, who immediately suggested they cover it.
The A.R. Kane cover which gave his club night its name was one he approached with trepidation: although he has mooted a compilation of obscure post-punk covers before, A Love From Outer Space was one of those tracks which Weatherall was afraid to “demean” with his “amateurish doodlings.” His love for the track prevailed over any misgivings. “It's one of the most euphoric, beautiful tracks. I've used it as the theme to going out – the last track I play on Friday or Saturday night before I go out, or the last track I hear before I slip into unconsciousness after self-medicating too heavily. It's a joyous 'Lets go out and get fucked' track, or it's a joyous 'Jesus, we're fucked, lets go to bed' track." He chuckles. "It's the beginning and end of your night.” The Asphodells recorded their louche, spaced-out take on it: “In the end, I just figured, even if people hear my version and go and hear the AR Kane one and think that it's so much better, that's fine – at least they've discovered AR Kane.”
Another significant release from Weatherall in 2012 was his 'Mastermind' mix for Ministry of Sound. It nearly didn't happen – Weatherall had reservations about being associated with such “a commercial area” of the music industry. Concinced to take part by Gavin Fraser, then working for Nuphonic, he was eventually convinced by the idea of sharing the music which he had been playing to “one hundred in the basement of a pub” with a wider audience. Besides, the idea appealed on the grounds that it was “ quite perverse.” From the 'Mastermind' selection he namechecks Dan Avery and Craig Bratley, the latter of whom has a release forthcoming on Weatherall's bespoke vinyl label Bird Scarer, for big things in 2013. He also has an eye on a duo called Eskimo Twins: “They wear brogues and tweed when they play – what's not to like?”
Rotters Golf Club, the label he started in 2001, operates on an autonomous basis now: “If I went to them and said, 'I want to do a limited edition vinyl,' they're too busy to do that. If it's an album I'm going to promote, which will sell a reasonable amount of copies, and is a bigger project, then fair enough. And if I found someone that might do something on on that level, I might [get them to] put something else out. But a lot of the music I want to put out is of... limited interest, shall we say. For my office to work on a 300 vinyl-only, no download record... it would be taking the piss; you'd be taking them away from other people who are equally as important as me, you know?” The label works with artists like folk singer Shirley Collins, and Alec Empire, and Weatherall doesn't want to take the shine away from them: hence he started Bird Scarer. The limited edition, 300 vinyl copies of each release sell out almost instantly, allowing Weatherall to showcase artists with niche appeal and his own “ vanity projects.” It's an ideal set-up: “There's a lot of effort that goes into Bird Scarer, but not a lot of work, if that makes sense,” he chuckles.
He's keen to downplay the cliché of 'Weatherall the Luddite' but says he does still avoid social networks. “Maybe I'm lucky – I lead quite a busy, full life. And it's too busy and full to take time out to tell people what a busy, full life I'm leading. I just don't feel the need. There's just too much daylight, too much magic sometimes, with computers. Too many secrets are being given away. So I'm just going to hold on to mine for a little bit... I don't feel the need to share my life. I've got an amazing, beautiful set of friends, and that's the only social network I need, really.”
Co-promoter Sean Johnston and his management handle his website and the club night's online presence. “I'm in the basement, I do my stuff, and how they disseminate it in the outside world is of little concern to me... I mean, if I didn't do what I was doing, there'd be nothing for them to put on the social media!” He laughs heartily, again denying that he's a Luddite, hilariously illustrating this with a story about Edwardian writer, artist and interior designer William Morris, a proponent of the semi-mythical 'Albion,' an idealised, pre-industrial England: “He was using mechanised production techniques to maintain his vision of an England that had existed three-hundred to five-hundred years previously. That's what I feel like. I am able to create this kind of slapdash, Edwardian inventor's steam-powered world, but in the background, I've got a whole team of people using up-to-the-minute technology on my behalf.”
He's only half-joking when he says: “I'm not a slave to technology, technology is a slave to me. I use music software to make music, but I don't feel the need to update every two months, to have the latest thing. If I've got something that's doing a job, and it's doing it perfectly well, I will keep that piece of machinery until it gives up the ghost. That's not being a Luddite, that's just being sensible! I'm not seduced by the digital world, habitually. I find it attractive, and very interesting. It's a brilliant thing. If you have a laptop in your front room, you're connected to literally everything in the world there's ever been. It's how it's used, I suppose – I just use it too enhance my life in a practical way, rather than a cosmetic way.”
He's unconcerned with voguish appropriations of his cultivated, gentlemanly mode of dress: “I'll be fifty next year, so it would be a little bit churlish to get upset by the fact a twenty-year old bloke has got clothes on that are a bit like mine,” he says paternally. His wife is involved in fashion, but he says his own reputation as a stylish gent is “more luck than judgment.” It's a cyclical thing: “Fashion goes round in circles, so every now and then what I'm doing appears to be really fashionable.” Nonetheless, he is a self-confessed clothes fiend, and finds fashion fascinating: “It's facile, it's shallow, it's stupid, it's beyond idiotic, but I'm glad it exists. It does brighten up the world a little bit. When I was young, the '50s teddy boy thing was having a resurgence, so I've had that love of the drape coat, the Edwardian jacket, from about the age of ten or eleven.” It's a smart, decadent, stylish image that is a perfect fit for the casually pristine music of The Asphodells.
Weatherall returns to Radio 6 on 4 Jan with a show promising the “usual smorgasbord of delights,” a post-Hogmanay hangover show he's calling Come Down With Me. Approaching his half century, Weatherall is modest about his reputation as the elder statesman of the UK dance scene, comfortable to live the quiet life in his studio, and come out to play on his own terms. Describing the studio, which he has occupied for fifteen years, he says: “I've got a good library of books down here, and a good library of music.” That's all Andrew Weatherall has ever needed.