London Student

In Conversation with Alison Statton (Young Marble Giants)

Alison Statton was the lead vocalist of cult ‘80s post-punk band Young Marble Giants. Their only album, Colossal Youth, was pioneering in its use of minimalism and negative space, and its release in 1980 laid the ground for the new wave and indie that was to come, but they split before they could truly capitalise on their success. Statton spent the next decade and a half fronting a series of different bands, all very different stylistically to Young Marble Giants but equally adventurous – and equally overlooked. Eventually she stepped away from the industry to work as a chiropractor and raise a family.

Her last album, with long-time collaborator Spike, was in 1997 – but on September 7th this year, the duo returned with a new record, Bimini Twist. Ahead of their return, I spoke to Alison about Young Marble Giants, the music she loves, and her new record.

DY: Lots of writing about Colossal Youth suggests its sound emerged from a vacuum, is that true? Was there a scene in Cardiff at the time?

AS: The scene in Cardiff at the time was rock ‘n roll and rhythm ‘n blues, we were pretty much received like we were aliens. There was a punk scene that was a whole scene of its own – local people definitely saw that as an invasion from another world. YMG [Young Marble Giants] were just doing their own thing completely really. It was a bit of a reaction against everything else that was available and around. One of those chemistry things where there were so many musical interests and yet rather than having all of those thrown at the canvas there were just selective elements of it that ended up making the sound.

I can see how it would come about from a reaction to punk, particularly in your voice which has a tranquillity to it, almost the opposite way to handle a female vocal compared to what punk singers were doing which was to highlight the violent, masculine side they had.

Sure, which for me would have been just – I mean we all have a dark side – but my natural nature is far from that, I’m cautious and sensitive. That’s my expression of being really, rather than being ‘out there’ – though God would I like to do that, really.

So when Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love started saying how much they liked Colossal Youth you were never tempted to give grunge a go?

No hahaha, I really wouldn’t have carried it off. That would be very interesting though, who knows, maybe in a few album’s time. Anything’s possible isn’t it?

Colossal Youth was such an influential album for many many artists over the year. It must be the case that you’ve heard other artists and thought “That idea sounds familiar”, or “That approach sounds like mine”. How do you feel when that occurs?

Maybe people heard YMG and thought, “That sounds like…” who knows. I think the more music that’s available the more crossed influences there can be. Just occasionally I’ve heard a song and been really intrigued by it and thought that sounds a bit YMG-ish, or a bit Weekend-ish [after Young Marble Giants, Alison formed Weekend with Spike], and then found out it had been written before. So that’s interesting. There’s a certain amount of synchronicity that goes around the world, there’ll be someone on the other side of the world having the same conversation I’m sure. You just don’t know about it do you? So I think there was some obvious influence on people, people picking up the baton and taking it off in another direction. But loads of people influence me and I don’t suppose you pick up on those references.

It feels like the way you sang on that record opened up a new way of singing for frontwomen in rock and indie.

I think for somebody who’s sensitive and cautious, with those natural tendencies, I think I had a lot of bare-faced cheek to go out there and be the lead singer, not having been trained, not having a great vocal range, not having a lot of vocal control, all of the things that would be expected more of a female vocalist than a male vocalist – men have always got away with a bit more there. I think in a way I was quite courageous and it paid off. But having said that – The Raincoats, I hadn’t heard of them ‘til I was gigging in London. There were more of them, and they were layering their vocals together, but again they weren’t doing the loud shouty thing, they were soft and gentle vocals, compared to say the Slits and the other punk bands not doing the traditional songbird stuff.

Yes, they also helped to bridge the gap, but not to the same extent as you.

I suppose I somehow dared to go out and do it without the polish. It never felt comfortable but I did it anyway. That seemed quite unusual at the time which is why it made waves really.

I think that was inspiring in itself, looking back, it seems to have inspired other singers, people like Tracey Thorn, Bilinda Butcher in My Bloody Valentine. You turned having a limited range and not much polish into a kind of positive pressure to find something that did work, to concentrate in on what you could do.

Yeah, if I listen to vocals, whether they be male or female, there is something I find quite enchanting about hearing someone a little bit on the edge, because it feels real, I admire polished voices, I really do, but the things that really get under my skin and I get hooked onto are the more in-the-moment, really raw and honest sounds. That’s something in hindsight I’ve recognised, even in a guitar performance – something that’s not perfect, that doesn’t sound like it’s been really well practised and executed, something that’s finding its way through really. And recognising that over the years I’ve been able to see “Ah, maybe that was the appeal with YMG at the time” I was a bit bemused with the attention back in the day.

One person I’ve always thought sounds like you is Morrissey, but I’ve never seen him acknowledge that influence, but the timing is right and you were both on Rough Trade. Do you know anything about him liking YMG?

Hahaha, I wouldn’t have thought so. I remember Geoff Travis playing me The Smiths’ demo in Rough Trade office and he was so excited. But I never saw that likeness, it’s interesting.

It’s that flutter vibrato you have when you’re holding a note, Morrissey seems to do that as well.

I’d never thought of that, that’s interesting.

Maybe I’m way off.

Hahaha. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be a Young Marble Giants fan.

He was quite disparaging about the acts on Rough Trade before they signed the Smiths, which is obviously unfair and arrogant, but that might suggest he hadn’t heard YMG.

Well Rough Trade got him out there and got him noticed, so he might be dismissive but for all the things we could criticise Rough Trade about, they gave a lot of people a lot of opportunities, including ourselves. We’d disbanded by the time we were offered a deal so who knows, we might never have done anything musically if we hadn’t been given that opportunity.

A lot of influential bands seem to split up either just before or just after they get noticed. Pixies didn’t last long initially, neither did the original line-up of the Velvet Underground.

I suppose a lot of bands who never make it, who you never hear of, they also break up. It’s also to do with the time of life you put bands together. I was fluctuating all the time in terms of my influences and where I wanted to go in life, you’re doing a lot of twisting and turning and developing at that time in life and that’s quite common whether you make it or you don’t. I guess we hear about the few that actually get offered something just on that breaking point but there must be so many more. I know of people that were in good bands but they split up and they were never heard of any more which seems a real shame.

You say you were fluctuating in terms of what you liked and what you were influenced by at that time, do you think that’s why you were in quite a large number of projects in a short amount of time?

I think that’s partly to do with it. I think people in some ways grow up a lot quicker now than I was then, I was really quite naïve still at the age of 20, 21, 22, and I guess I am quite bad at being tied to something as well haha, I like to do things and move on. Though with my chiropractor’s career, I;ve consistently developed and worked on it and enjoyed, it’s been a steady straight path. Musically, it’s a little bit less planned and it’s a bit like – that was fun but oh well hahaha. I just drop the reins for a while and don’t really hone it or develop it with one group of people or with one genre – its more playful. In the early days it was definitely about not having developed confidence or a real style. There was an element very early on where I felt like everything was quite hedonistic as well so I was wondering about the validity of the music business and lots of the things that go with it, it was a bit too hedonistic and I needed to go inward a bit. I’ve watched the development of other musicians and their direction, and it makes more sense for them than my direction really, it’s quite intriguing.

It works for some people and not for others?

Sure.

How did you and Spike come to make Bimini Twist?

Like most things I do, the beginnings of it were quite circumstantial, there was no great plan. Spike had just moved back to Cardiff and we were just chatting, talking about playing a little bit together then we talked about making a few demos of things we were working on and that took us in a direction we had no great conversation about. Spike hadn’t played any music for a long, long time, he was re-entering the music world after a big diversion. Apart from fitting back into some gigs with YMG, I’ve had a long break too.

You sound very happy on the record – is that a true reflection of how you were feeling during recording?

Absolutely. I’m quite content and happy in life, I’m in a position where I realise you’ve got to really be happy for what you’ve got. I’ve got a great family, so I think there’s less stress than when I was an angsty teenager in my early 20s. I mean there’s always stuff to worry about when you look at the wider picture, but you’ve got to find some contentment in yourself as well, and I’ve got better at doing that over time. When you’re doing something like writing a song or recording or doing something creative, its quite a privilege to have the time and chance to do that so you’ve got to enjoy it really.

During this long time off – over 20 years – had you always felt you were going to come back to recording again?

It’s something that I’d never said I wouldn’t do again, but I didn’t have any set plan. Everything I’ve done has kinda just happened, rather than come from a ‘Right I’m gonna do this’ attitude. I suppose I always felt if the opportunity came up to write and record with someone again then I’d be open to do it. It’s something I get enjoyment from, and that reflective space of writing is something I’ve always enjoyed. I never stepped away from it, music has always been my big passion throughout bringing up children and working as a chiropractor, during everything else I’ve done my big go-to has been gigs music, festivals, listening to other people’s creativity, radio on in the background all the time… I was less aware of how far away I’d drifted from the creative shore if you like because I always felt in the hub of it, even though I wasn’t actively doing something. I guess it’s interesting how it looks from the outside that I drifted off somewhere even though I always felt I was in the middle of it. Writing is something I’ve always done, just jotting away even though it’s never been used, as a form of clearing things and expressing thoughts to myself and losing them really.

What contemporary music do you like to listen to?

Oh lots, there’s some fantastic up-and-coming people. I went to Womad recently and Mammal Hands were a band I’d never heard of but they sounded interesting so I went along – fantastic trio, amazing drummer. And Ezra Collective, lots of really good up-and-coming jazz bands…Sons of Kemet too. But loads of other stuff as well, it’s not just jazz. But now you’re asking me I’ve done the usual thing of going absolutely blank. The great thing nowadays is you can just Shazam it…back in the day you’d hear something in a restaurant and no-one could tell you what it was and you’d never track it down or hear it again, whereas now you can instantly access anything just about

Recording studios and the music industry have really changed since the ‘90s, how have you found that coming back to it now?

That’s interesting really because in some ways back in YMG’s original days with the reel-to-reel, it was more of a challenge, but that challenge and that restriction almost added to the sound, and it was something that was out of your control and produced something you couldn’t just keep going back to and changing – and there’s something quite refreshing about that. With Bimini Twist most of it was just home recordings, demos, not polished recordings. Which is probably why I sound quite happy because I didn’t feel like I was having to do the final take in the studio. When things are digital on a CD you can get away with anything but when they did a test recording for the vinyl there were a lot of messy Ss so there were a couple of songs where I had to rerecord the vocals. I was disappointed because a) I then felt like I had to get it right because this wasn’t just laying down a track for us and b) I felt the creative process and the integrity of just putting it down for the first time or the second time got lost in trying to get it right. So there are some tracks where I feel the demo vocal was actually much better. Its subtle because I just felt it was better when I first put it down. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but when you change something it takes a bit of time to get used to. Sometimes it’s just the atmosphere of it that gets lost when you rerecord it. I’ve never been one for really wanting great polish. Weekend is the closest we got to that working with Robin Miller in the studio, and that was fantastic, it was a great experience, with the string arrangements, it was a whole other affair that was way over my head really, just letting everybody get on with it and doing my bit when asked. But again you have huge pressures there because studio time was so expensive and you just felt like ‘Well I can’t ask to do this again or say I’m not happy with it’. And vocals are always the last thing when you’re running out of time and the pressures in those circumstances feel quite huge.

Pressure can be a positive as well, because, as you alluded to earlier, it’s the pressure to do good.

Absolutely.

Your work with Weekend was more polished, more complex, it had a lot more layers than with Young Marble Giants.

With Weekend we were lucky to work with some fantastic musicians and they were great to play live with, true professionals. Sadly, they were all recognised and well-respected but sadly they didn’t really get the recognition they deserved over their musical time. It’s a lot easier to get yourself out there these days – they had to put the graft in to get known on the circuit really.

People complain about the music industry today in many ways but there have always been difficulties haven’t there?

Absolutely, there’s pros and cons. I think we have to try and appreciate what we’ve got with advancement and just reflect on what could be retrieved from old methods.

It does sound like you’ve returned to the Weekend’s style on Bimini Twist

I think that’s partly because with La Varieté, it started off initially similarly, the seeds of those songs just came from Spike and I coming together and playing around with a few ideas. We then went on to London and met up with Simon to collaborate and those ideas got taken on a journey towards a bigger sound so it’s coming from a similar initial palette

Just you and Spike doing what comes naturally?

Sure.

There’s a lot of samba music on Bimini Twist – is ‘World Music’ something you’re inspired by?

Definitely, I love Latin music, I love African music, so many genres. I go to Womad every year, there’s such a wide variety and it increases every year. The thing that’s getting harder and harder is for musicians to get visas and its’ getting worse and worse.

Yeah it seems terrible – and stupid.

It is stupid. Music is one of those things that unites people wherever they’re from and it’s a real gift that unifies, music and dance, Womad’s a fantastic festival and it’s stayed strong and grown. There’s so many different influences in terms of world music that I’ve just thrived on and probably a lot of it doesn’t come through in my writing but I guess maybe the samba and Latin American sounds are maybe a little bit more obvious than others.

Even on Weekend you can hear some African, Congolese-style guitar lines

Well around that time there were so many brilliant African bands around and musicians releasing music over the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There were some great world music sounds that we were picking up on. And Spike’s guitar style was very strongly influenced by them as well. Heart of the Congos – that was a huge record for me. Very melodic, beautiful songs. Also Youssou N’Dour, and Manu Debango.

Is there any reason you named this album after a fishing knot, the Bimini twist?

Hahaha, why why why? I guess I live right near the sea hahaha, right on the coast. We had the album cover in process before it had a name and there’s an influence there. There’s loads of brilliant names for fishing knots that have always sounded to me like a dance or a rhythm and so what I liked about ‘Bimini twist’ was that it kinda sounded like it could have been a dance rather than a fishing knot. It was a just a bit obscure rather than something that would pin it anywhere in particular.

What’s next for you and Spike?

The only live date we’ve got in the offing is something with Stuart [Moxham, of Young Marble Giants] at Café Oto, a really lovely venue with a café and a record shop, that’s on November 11th, a bit of an ‘Evening With’ with some chat, Stuart playing some songs by The Gist, some Alison Statton and Spike songs… maybe even some Young Marble Giants songs.