'50 Questions With Ian Pickering' - 2nd September, 2019
By Sneaker Pimps Legacy...
Hello Ian! Nice to have you here and many thanks for agreeing to partake in this interview with Sneaker Pimps Legacy. Being that lyrics are the basis of any song, you are quite the important role in the song creation process and the history of the band, so I appreciate your time here. So! How are you doing?
I’m very well, thank you. I just came back from a few days staying with the parents of some friends in the Loire Valley, just four nights but they were so kind and it was so peaceful and beautiful that we feel like we’ve been away for a month. It’s my first time not in a city for three years, so, maybe it’s just that.
What are you doing right now? Be honest!
Well, avoiding the obviously hilarious but juvenile “Answering these fucking questions!” response, I’m just sitting on the sofa, preparing some demos for what will become the second album for a new project I’ve started. The first album should be mixed and mastered by Christmas, ready for 2020. But there’s a couple of songs coming out in October and November.
What time is it where you are - is the weather alright? It's raining here…
Talk of rain could almost make me jealous today. It’s just before midnight and the heat’s only just dropped to a reasonable 22 degrees - it’s gonna be in the 30's all week. OMG I’m talking about the weather in an interview. That’s so ridiculously English!
Are you ready for this interview?
Why, is it like a test? Will I be judged? Yes, I’m ready, let’s go :-)
So Ian, how did you first become Sneaker Pimps' 'Lyrical Wizard', so to speak?
Short answer, Liam asked me. The longer answer, if you want to skip to the next question, could meander away into the wee small hours. But Liam and I have known each other all our lives - our mothers met two years’ before I was born, at the hospital when they were giving birth to our respective brothers and we all used to do everything together as kids. And somewhere about 10 or 11, he started getting music equipment beyond the Casio VL Tone and I started writing lyrics - no poetry, no sonnets, no overly-descriptive essays on nothing - always lyrics, without music. And that was it really - writing songs and making music took over everything and we wrote a lot together through school. Then Chris came along and it was obvious pretty quickly that they were on the way to developing something very special musically together. Fast forward four years, Christmas 1995, and Liam said he wanted me to try and write lyrics for an album him and Chris were making for Clean Up, who’d signed them after the Frisk white label came out, and, because of this album, Clean Up were gonna be snapped up by One Little Indian. He said they’d found a female singer and it was gonna be magic and that was everything I wanted, same as them, so I said “yes”, of course, and then I think I promptly played him one of my early awful acoustic guitar songs. And yes I cringed so hard about a week later when they gave me the first of many tapes with some of the dummy tracks on. It was already, even the ones where Chris was just playing acoustic guitar and repeating the same line for the melody, from another world. And I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it, genuinely, I was terrified of not being capable of writing something good enough for this music - but everything I’d been hoping to be as a lyricist for a long time, it all came together somehow, it just suddenly all came out and came out right. I have theories why and how but there’s another 45 questions I think.
Can you tell me what was life like for Ian Pickering before Sneaker Pimps had formed? Did you work or attend a college?
I was at journalism college in Portsmouth when we were writing and making Becoming X and then I’d moved to Birmingham to be a news reporter the January before it was released. The journalism training is what I think made the difference in me as a lyricist, incidentally. But money was tight - I stayed in Portsmouth after the course finished and signed on because I could use the computers at the college to write articles and apply for jobs and I used to get my cheque on a Saturday, buy a bottle of red wine, a little weed, a big bar of chocolate and a loaf or bread and a big bag of crisps. And that would be my little treat every two weeks and I’d basically eat crisp sandwiches until the next cheque came. Nothing much has changed, financially or nutritionally.
Music can be deeper than just the sound itself. Are there any songs you have written that you can connect to personally, or feel have a moral, or meaning?
Let's pick Bloodsport as an example here; 'My mother never told me that love is just a Bloodsport', which in some cases, it can be?
That line is a cut and shut of the two original lines - Mother never told me that love wasn’t logic, which I believe was Chris and the song was called Love Wasn’t Logic on the demo, I think, and the other line - love is just a bloodsport, I pilfered that from an episode of Roseanne, the whole of that verse in fact is from something John Goodman said that struck me as genius - so I wrote it down and adapted it when the right song came along! I don’t really connect on a deep level with any of those lines. I connect with them like an old saying that’s just common sense. But they’re all three fantastic pop lyrics and that’s really quite hard to do. Most of the songs, if not all the songs, I feel a very deep, personal connection to. Even if you’re adding to an existing first verse and a chorus and the tone’s set or it’s just a title, some dummy lyrics to show me the melody and a theory to explore or a story they want to tell, I have to find a way into that and find that character who can finish the song and further the story rather than just rephrase and reword the same idea. So my whole heart and soul goes into every song I work on, I’m always right there - my feelings are there, my thoughts are there, this is what I need to share with you. But that doesn’t mean the songs are about me. Every Sneaker song - every song I do for me or anyone else in fact - can be interpreted as being sung from a personal viewpoint, an individual’s experience, and sung about society as a whole, which is just reaching out for like-minded souls or trying to change people’s thoughts and opinions or at least offering them another way of thinking about, well, everything. And they all have a moral and a meaning. Always at least one or the other. But I think, if I was forced to choose the one Sneaker song that I connect to very personally is Spin Spin Sugar. That’s one of them songs that you write very rarely and it kind of encapsulates everything that you write about, care about are concerned about in a one-track nutshell. I’m everyone - I feel used. I could have just stopped there. End of story.
As most people may know, you joined the band on the last Sneaker Pimps tour in 2003 and played on bass guitar, synthesizers and provided vocals. How come this never happened earlier on in the band's existence? Did it work out and would it be something you'd be happy to do again?
It was necessity really - Liam couldn’t tour because he had young kids, Joe couldn’t do it anymore, and with those two gone from the live band, it maybe just needed someone they knew, who was available and, as a bonus, had a very obvious long-term connection with the band and the songs. That was a great tour, the gigs were fucking amazing, the crowds stunning - shame it turned out to be the last at that time because we genuinely felt very loved in Europe on that tour, mostly playing all new stuff. It was phenomenal, the reaction was a privilege. Would I do it again? Let me see if I can get through the first The Noise Who Runs gig first, I reckon. I’ve played live twice since 2006 and hated every second of it. But I’ve got this one sorted. Few more rehearsals.
Ok, Ian. This could be a tricky one. Are there any tracks you have written for Sneaker Pimps, or any other artist in general, in which you are not that fond of how the final result sounds? This could be that it isn't your type of music genre?
Actually, not at all. There’s maybe little things here and there where the final album version doesn’t have something I’d become used to from whatever version I worked with or last heard. Bloodsport’s a good example, since we were already on that. The ‘Mamma never told me that love wasn’t logic’ line was repeated through a different intro of the song when we did the recordings for the album out in France and that intro was rethought in the studio back in London but I missed that intro, I thought it was dance-floor and catchy as fuck. But I don’t throw my hat into the ring too much on what happens with the music, that’s always Liam and Chris’s shout; even the lyrics, I write with what I’m given and present it and that’s only the first part of even that process. With Sneakers, everything can and will change very rapidly. Finally listening to the finished album, for me, even though I’ve heard it in many forms and guises and have worked on the songs, it’s more in common with your first listen than the band’s experience of listening. I think that’s a bonus.
Other people’s stuff that I’ve worked on, the track is as finished as it can be without lyrics and they’d usually be great as instrumentals, so I know very much the style of music and work towards that. I think my lyrics suit electronic music the best - and lyrics in electronica are fairly average to be honest, with a host of stunning, quirky exceptions that I’m not going to list here.
If there is one, please pick a favourite Sneaker Pimps song that you have contributed your lyrical magic to and why? You must pick one and only one!
For sure, Six Underground. That song had been around forever as a demo called Earthblues. And it would have been a big single even without the new lyrics - that song took me a long time to find a way in and finish because it was the main song that the label were touting around, it was what was fast-tracking the project really. Musically, it was finished, more or less the same as the album version and it was just Kelli singing dummy lyrics but everyone instantly loved it. It would have made the top 10 easy, but I don’t think it would be as played and remembered as it is 22 years later if Liam and Chris hadn’t insisted on changing all the words so it became Six Underground. Lyrics are kind of low on the totem pole in the music industry, record companies don’t give a shit about the lyrics really, in my experience. Somewhere way below production (because it turns out you can in fact polish a turd) and a little above what hairdresser to use.
So. Out of all your input and work during Sneaker Pimps' existence, which has to be your favourite album, or one you are most proud of and why? Again, pick only one!
I’m going to say Splinter as the one I’m most proud of, but it’s close. I find Bloodsport and Becoming X easier to listen to, more fun, quirkier even and there’s so many reasons for being proud of both of them. I can hear those albums and really enjoy them. On Splinter, it was like doing a new first album all over again and, with Chris taking over the vocals, I felt I had more freedom to explore subjects and themes in the lyrics than Becoming X, which isn’t to say writing for that was restrictive in any way whatsoever, just that I felt differently in my approach on Splinter and all of us having been through the whole process before, it simply felt more liberated on some level - I find it very open and honest and vulnerable, whereas Becoming X and Bloodsport are much more on the attack, bulletproof and abrasive for the most part. I’d say I’ve achieved a good balance between the two styles at this point of my writing - after 25 years!
Right, Ian. Some information-type questions coming up now. In around 2004/2005, demos from the fan-dubbed 'SP4' were mysteriously released onto the world-wide-web. Do you have any recollection of this time and how this project was put aside? Knowing that the amount of effort put into those tracks for them to ultimately end up being shelved surely must have been flattening?
If what you call SP4 is the unreleased album with Chris singing all of it, I have utterly no recollection of that being leaked onto the net. That in itself wouldn’t have been flattening, more the writing and recording of the album to be met with a massively underwhelming response when we played it for the various people you play your album for and that all happened before the last tour in 2003. And that album actually came off the back of an abandoned film project. That period - a kind of slow sunset with sporadic meteor strikes on Planet Sneakers - was mostly a shame because so many good songs and ideas never really got to see the light of day.
In 2006/2007, an update from yourself appeared on the official Sneaker Pimps website stating that 7 new songs were to be put to a music publisher (In which you called The Magnificent Seven). They too, were very quickly abandoned. There was a rumour that Chris left a Sony MiniDisc player in a Russian bar, containing these very tracks and that was supposedly the source of the leak. Do you have any recollection of this time and why the tracks were never released officially?
I have absolutely no recollection of writing any update for any Sneaker Pimps website - genuinely. I remember those songs very well but they were written and worked up into demos in 2004 and 2005 so nothing had been done with them. I remember the songs being leaked on the net and that Chris had left them on an iPod or MiniDisc or whatever, but that didn’t really scupper any plans for those songs - certainly it didn’t adversely affect any grand design. No idea what prompted this random update on the website - well, it’s a safe bet, at that time, it was alcohol-related.
As you very well know, over the past few years, a lot of musical legends have passed away. David Bowie, Scott Walker, Prince and so on. Picking out Prince for this question, a lot of his unreleased work has been released from his vault since his passing. Do you think that this will happen to Sneaker Pimps' unreleased repertoire during the remaining lifetime of the Pimps?
I would hazard a guess that any unreleased songs would be more likely to be reworked and appear on any new Sneaker releases rather than just thrown together in their current, historical form. That scraping through the vaults for anything that could be used to make a marketable, saleable ‘new’ product, I don’t really hold with that unless it’s an expressed desire from the artist themselves. But we just write and record and perform, other people, usually without any creative ability whatsoever generally sit around thinking of ways to spin straw into gold.
Going on the vibe of the previous question, a planned DVD was supposed to be released containing concert footage, b-sides, photos, remixes, demos and more. This was delayed several times until being completely forgotten about. Do you have any information about this and why it never saw the light of day?
Absolutely not at all. There are always so many ideas floating around and inevitably they come to nothing. For Sneakers, I think it would be a case of why would you release something old without something new to either precede or follow it. Even greatest hits albums after any less than five studio albums strikes me as kind of mercenary to be honest.
There were strong rumours from several sources that Sneaker Pimps had planned to make an indie-style, neo-noir film. One actor to mention that was to star in it was a one of the main cast from the BBC television series: The Bill. Do you have any knowledge about this?
I remember going down to London and Chris explaining the plan to me for a movie with this mate of his, Michael, who was an actor and he outlined this skin vision research or article he’d been intrigued by which was inspiring his writing and thinking. And we promptly wrote at least three songs and started looking at a few more the same afternoon - this is the first incarnation of songs like Skin Vision, Missile, Lulled by Numbers, Naked but Safe, a song from the leaked seven tracks - Elias is the brother of your suffering - all of these were from that era and written towards the soundtrack of the film. When I went home a few days later, I just started writing a story - Blind Michael, which was a very dark, twisted modern fairy tale - and sent them the first few scenes and everyone was kind of excited and into it, the whole project. Chris’s thinking was if we’re gonna do it, let’s do shake it up, do what we want and push things elsewhere, other directions, and he was absolutely right with that. It’s all but finished and I work on the ending sometimes still because I’m never happy with it. I thought about doing it as a book because it was really written in three separate parts - a stage play, a children’s story and a novella. It was equal in ambition only to the idea of us making a movie in the first place. Anyway, I think it was at this point that we kind overstretched or funds and had to forget about it and change to just doing a straightforward album, which is what you all call SP4, I guess. Like I said, there were a lot of plans always floating around. Look at Home Taping for starters. How cool was that?
During the release of Bloodsport, 9/11 sadly occurred. This supposedly had an impact on the release of the album, due to Tommy Boy Records' offices being either in the World Trade centre, or the nearby office buildings during the collapse. Several sources state that the album's release was then, by no other choice, funded by the band themselves. Is this true and could you elaborate more about this?
I don’t really know the Tommy Boy being in the vicinity of Ground Zero part but I know we had a meeting and we decided to plough what we needed back into Sneakers. Of course, it’s a great album, how could we not? Maybe that meeting was another time about something else entirely but the answer to the question is yes, it’s true. I’ve always thought Tommy Boy just cocked it all up so now I feel a wee bit guilty.
Could you possibly elaborate on the rumours that Sneaker Pimps had planned to write a biography of the band itself?
I mentioned a book to Liam a few times maybe five, six years ago and it was mooted as something we could offer on a crowdfunding campaign but it was the last three years my drinking and I couldn’t personally follow through on much of anything beyond the excitement of the inspiration and planning of the ideas. But I was writing a lot of stories at that time and The Magnificent Radish (my working title - this was the joke name we always fell back on when trying to think of names for anything. But yes, Sneaker Pimps could have been The Magnificent Radish!) began writing itself. And as with everything Sneakers, it very quickly became something very different in concept to a biography of a band. What was worked on was becoming kind of special. Like I said, there was never any shortage of ideas. I would like to do something with the Blind Michael script and the Radish one day.
Towards the end of the Sneaker Pimps' final activity, before they moved onto other projects, you formed a band called 'Transporter'. Next year marks 15 years since it was formed, do you plan to re-release it or make a follow-up to it?
Bizarrely enough, there are plans being discussed. Transporter was the third incarnation of a band I had with my cousin and his friend, which I started doing while Sneakers were touring all the time with Becoming X. And after just starting to build a decent reputation as a live act and making a couple of EPs, I went on the Sneakers tour in 2003 and it just lost impetus and then people moved on. But we kept doing stuff and our Nick, my cousin, he just asked for the stuff and said he wanted to mix the album. And we’d mixed these tracks so many times, it was no worries to let him just do it. I love that album - All These Lines Make Noises. It’ll be available on the new The Noise Who Runs website and then it’s how interesting we make the process of making new Transporter music. All These Lines Make Noises too, maybe.
So then, Ian. Now, you're living life in France. What lead to this move and are the croissants nicer than the ones we have to put up with in Tesco?
Yes, they are, you have to give the French the top prize for food, particularly the cakes. Oh my days! But I’d met up with Emilie again for the only time since we met (on the last two nights of that 2003 Sneakers tour.) in March 2016 and one of us was getting the Euro-star every weekend anyway and I was out of a job at the end of June, so we thought we’d take a chance, I came across with a suitcase and my guitar and we found me a job in less than a week. And somehow I was meant to be here, with Emilie, and we’re getting married, which I never thought I would say in my life. And because of moving here I finally managed to stop drinking, which I’d been trying to do very unsuccessfully for seven years. You have to understand, it wasn’t that I drank too much at this point, 2010, when I first sought help - it was that I did nothing else. I just drank whenever I wasn’t working. Just whisky at home. Normal drinks when I was out. And I kind of controlled it more or less to functioning alcoholic after six months off it, but I had a lot of shit come at me all at once in such a short space of time that the last three years, from 2013 by the time I got done for drunk-driving, I just didn’t care and barely functioned. Inside me was like a permanent living Hell, I realise that even more now I’m sober. And at the time I moved I’d been on two litres of vodka a day for the best part of nine months. I was twisted inside but mostly looked passable - but not often enough for people not to know. But not long after I moved here, we started talking about it, and I fucked up a lot with the booze the first six months, I finally knew I would never have a drink again. Which is nice, for everyone.
I recently read that your solo project 'Left Handed Tendencies' had you pack up and move to Chile - of all places! What lead to this exotic decision and can you elaborate more on this?
All happy accidents and coincidences. The guy in Chile - Claudio - moved into the house I was living in in South London, summer 2011, and he was over doing a music production course in Clapham, and so the whole time inevitably revolved around music and we played and recorded a lot of songs of mine. And back in Chile, he set up his own label and built his studio - very beautiful part of Chile, up in the hills about half an hour from Valparaiso - and he said he would like to make and record an album with me and all I had to do was make the time and buy a flight. So, why not? And I think that’s a great album, I’m very happy with the songs and the lyrics. It was a straightforward approach but he did a fabulous job of producing it. I never did anything to promote that album at all, which is a shame. But it really wasn’t a good time to release it. Nothing was in place to promote it and I had a lot of personal things all over the place and in the air. Claudio produced the two singles that are coming out in October.
Out of all the places you have visited, do you have a personal favourite, or somewhere you find you are at your happiest? Maybe Pickering, in North Yorkshire perhaps?
I could be the King of Flamingo Land and annex Lightwater Valley! I can see that. I’m always kind of happy with wherever I’m living, it’s the people who can make you happy or unhappy, and that depends on yourself. City’s are increasingly homogenised and every country possesses great natural beauty, wonderful signposts of civilisation and human inspiration and endeavour but sadly also the living testaments to greed, corruption and cruelty that haven’t changed under one empire in history ever. Or Lisbon - I adore Lisbon.
When another artist approaches you and asks for lyrical contribution, such as in 'Horrorfall's' case, what makes you want to accept an offer? Does it have to have a certain sound or do you have to connect with the artist first?
I just like to write lyrics, more than any other part of the process, so I’m always saying yes. But obviously I have to like the song. I always just tell people to send the tracks and when I listen I’ll get thoughts appearing in my head from the music and I say give us a week but generally I have a three-day turnaround before I have something to give them. I think because of Sneaker Pimps, everything I’m approached about is on the electronica end of the musical spectrum and on first listen I used to think ‘Oh my God, what the fuck can anyone possibly come up with for this. Impossible.’ But somehow it does, so I don’t worry about that anymore. The song ‘Becoming X’ is a perfect example of just that. Liam played me the instrumental driving into Hartlepool one afternoon and I was blown away but was lost completely on how it could possibly be a song with vocals. And a few months later, it was the only track left unfinished, Liam came to see me in Portsmouth and played it on acoustic guitar while explaining his idea of what the lyrics would try and say and two hours later it was done. In a way, it’s like a sculptor with the music as the perfect block of stone. You basically spend a lot of the first moments just listening and writing down words that are divining the melody and dividing the track into sections. You have to give your imagination over to the world of each track, get in there and get your metaphorical hands dirty and work to the emotions and feelings of the music. Again, it’s not, to my mind, too dissimilar from method acting. I’m sure Sir Laurence Olivier would just say “Why not just try writing, my dear boy.” Which, in a very small percentage of similarity, is a little like telling Michelangelo to just do the roof in white.
When you have the desire to write lyrics, how do you go about writing and editing them? Do you have a certain inspiration which starts the writing process off and roughly how long does it take for you feel a song is fully written and doesn't need changing?
Well, my bizarre recurring Jesus-complex miraculously disappeared when I stopped drinking, but THREE DAYS is my usual turnaround time on lyrics - the resurrection point! There’s always a slight thought that this time the lyrical well might’ve run dry, so when you reach the point where you know you have something good, then it’s all endgame, you just need to get the song to checkmate but I can relax because I know it’s coming so in a way I can indulge it a little. I don’t know how usual my process is - I don’t make a habit of talking with other lyricists to be fair.
Basically, someone sends me a track or tracks they would like me to have a go at and I listen to them over and over again on repeat, in an almost ambient way, like muzak. And that way the tracks become a part of your thinking. Ideas for melodies and very often a few couplets, phrases, just a repeated line perhaps, get refined almost passively and only then do I pay attention to the structure, split it into my own adopted Verse/Chorus/funny bit - the good places for the vocals to be, the parts that should be left as just the music. After that, it’s all pen and paper. There’s nothing worse than a blank white sheet of A4 laughing at you and your chewed down pencil, so I kind of write down the structure with whatever words I have, leaving blanks for lines I haven’t come up with and then essentially try and fill those gaps from everything I’ve written down on the brainstorming sheets I’ve been making all the time. I’m roughly on five sides of A4 per track, not including the neat copy of my finished version. But anything is open to change - I don’t welcome arbitrary changes but I’m not precious about the lyrics I write, just very sensitive as to what’s best for the song as a whole. Specifically with Sneakers, it doesn’t help to be precious because they can change everything about the music so you have to get used to reworking and rewriting. Or even be prepared to start over completely. I heard that Bernie Taupin - Elton John’s longtime lyricist - refuses, allegedly, to change a single word of what he writes, even if the artist concerned changes the structure, the melody or wants an extra line here and a line cut there. And if that happens, he allegedly just walks away from it - it’s like taking your ball home from the park because they won’t let you be Lionel Messi. Personally, I think that’s missing the point and cutting off your nose to spite your face. And usually, these musical changes that mean you have to redo some lyrics result in a better song. I guess, just do your job as best you can. There’s no fine line between can’t and won’t - it’s a light year apart - and won’t gets you nowhere near anything at all.
Is there a certain frame of mind that you find you can only write lyrics in, or can you cope in any mood, time or situation?
Solitude is always best I find, but not essential. And you can make your own solitude. I can jump a mile when I suddenly become conscious of Lise or Emilie trying to get my attention. I never write anything other than lines or thoughts when I’m in any kind of emotional state - happy, sad, outraged. That all comes back when you perform the songs. More than having to be in a certain frame of mind, I’d say it was more being taken out of quite a large Cinderella zone for writing by everyday life that can be the problem. So once I start the process of writing lyrics, I do a lot of work while I’m walking to the metro and walking to work. I go for a walk if I hit a block or get stuck on a specific part. After that, I pick my times so the next morning I don’t have to be at work and I settle on the sofa with the laptop and the pen and paper and get on with it. Since I’ve been in France this way is working very well. I’m hyper-productive by my own lazy, procrastinating standards. The only problem with my way is my lips start to move very often and very noticeably when I’m thinking hard on something, so I look a bit suspect or ridiculous.
Do you have a favourite memory from your musical career that you can recall?
Well, there’s the first time I ever met Emilie at the penultimate last tour gig in Luxembourg. That would have to be my favourite. That tour, because it was the only tour I did, was fabulous, for me. And because it was just 10 or so shows, I have a lot of memories of each one and the people we met. But we did two gigs after that, the 16-tonnes in Moscow and the Nuke Festival in Austria, and Liam got back onstage and played those two, so that was magic. Writing-wise, I liked the three of us being told off by some teacher on playground duty at Liam’s old school when we were celebrating finishing Spin Spin Sugar. We were up at Liam’s, and his back garden backs onto the school field. I’d written a load of lines - anti-capitalist ranting, really - and the phrase I’d had in one of own songs but I knew it had to have something striking and strong as hook so I sorted that for the chorus and then Liam and Chris came down and we they sang through all the lines, kicked out the ones that didn’t scan right, and then we put what was left in order and played it over and over again and eventually it was just three idiots with too much available red wine screaming FUCK FUCK SUGAR at the top of our voices every time the chorus came round.
Not many people may know, but you are actually more than a lyricist, more to the point, a multi-instrumentalist. Do you have a favourite type of instrument or brand/model that you like to play?
Instruments are like food groups - I just need the basics. I like my acoustic very much - it’s a very expensive Martin that I picked up for £200 when a friend of a friend decided to sell all his possessions and go off and follow some guru figure in the Far East. But the Juno 100, that’s my inorganic right hand man - I barely leave home without it. I love that keyboard so much.
What is your go-to choice of instrument when writing a song and which do you find is easier when writing?
It changes really - you use what you notice, so if you buy something new, you tend to do everything on that for a few weeks. Right now, I’m back on Yamaha RY30 drum machine and my first ever electric guitar, which I picked up in a French Cash Converters last year. I just re-stringed it the other month, so everything’s been about the electric since then. If I was allowed one instrument on a desert island, though, it would be an acoustic guitar.
Would you ever consider creating an instrumental album of music?
I am genuinely absolutely laughing my arse off with that. I would never say never, I guess, but seriously don’t hold your breath on that one. I can’t hear traffic without starting to write words. I can barely keep quiet most of the time, I move my lips when I’m thinking. It would be a gargantuan effort to be able to keep a whole album of songs as an instrumental, to be honest.
What song or album takes pride of place in Ian Pickering's music collection?
I’m going to say a special anniversary version of Ziggy Stardust, a present from my mate Josh in London. But that’s really tough - mostly because the nature of collecting has changed. All my vinyl, CDs, DVDs, videos are on my laptop and the originals in Mrs Pickering’s loft back in England. Everything new, I buy and download. And if it’s not in front of me, I don’t think about it or even make a choice to listen to music like I used to, let alone choose an album to put on right at that moment. It’s somehow become a blind spot. I’ve just decided I don’t like that at all. I have to get my possessions in my possession again!
What was the first album that you ever bought and when?
I got my Dad to buy me Pink Floyd The Wall album on cassette at a motorway services when the single was number one. I would have been about seven. That’s a bit young for Pink Floyd - we were driving off on a family holiday and I was confused by Another Brick in the Wall part 1 in the first place and then simply reduced to tears and hysteria at this fucking monster on the tape player that I did not understand in any way in my little head. And now I remember the first album I actually chose to buy with my own money because I liked them and that would have been Depeche Mode, A Broken Frame. On tape! Bizarrely, we’d been on a school trip to watch them on tour at Newcastle City Hall, so cool as that is, why not? And that was my first gig and my first album after that.
Do you have a favourite singer or band?
I have a lot but I reckon Primal Scream above everything when it gets down to it. They’re a juggernaut, a sonic masterpiece. From Vanishing Point on, there’s a kind of new development into what I love about them, but all the albums are stunning. And I saw them a lot live around that time over a few years and then again at Christmas 2010, the Screamadelica anniversary tour and they’re just mesmerising and they are up there, you know, proper Velvet Underground cool fuckers.
Have you ever written any music for a film soundtrack? If not, would this appeal to you and what style or type of film and genre would you write to, if given the opportunity?
Just Velvet Divorce. I did a soundtrack to a short film and a song for the closing credits, but then they didn’t use it. I like that very much. Sneakers’ music suits movie screens. And I go to a lot of effort - Velvet Divorce was the only song in that film that had anything to do with the script or the story. I went to town on that before we got together to write it. I was sent a VHS with the trailer, with the scene we were writing for and a synopsis - I felt obliged to actually do some work. And then we were invited to a special preview and then we were gonna write the song, but we did it the afternoon beforehand. I like that song a lot. The biggest challenge would be to do something so well known and twist it in a totally new way - a Disney cartoon or a James Bond song. Horror has always been my favourite genre, but it’s probably not so easy to songs for that but a soundtrack, certainly. How about a musical version of Salem’s Lot? Why not? Becoming a musical seems to be what happens to everything these days. Liam often talked about making a really good musical, even if just to show how awful the majority of them are.
Do you have a favourite film or director?
I’m a big Tim Burton fan - he’s off-kilter from somewhere deep inside and it’s always a very alternative reality in his films. But I’m going to have to say Shane Meadows, with Dead Man’s Shoes his stand-out film for me. My actual favourite movie is by neither of those two. Withnail and I.
Have any films or soundtracks inspired your song creating process?
There are a lot of lines from movies that I write down and become the trigger for new songs, certainly. Recently I watched a Brazilian short film - A Musa Impassível - which is a very charming, quirky story and the narrator often repeats the phrase ‘One tiny cloud blocks out the sun’. And that phrase has so far inspired two songs, Little Hurricanes, Masterpiece of your Ignorance Part 2. Oh, and actually, Masterpiece of your Ignorance Parts 1 and 2 were inspired by Victor Hugo’s history and description of the Paris sewage system in Les Miserable. With music, I often sample a little snippet from a soundtrack - most recently I spent two days creating a bizarre string track using Excalibur and An American Werewolf in London - but it eventually becomes superfluous and goes unused - the song quickly transforms into something where the sample is unnecessary. Simple answer, though - Yes, I seem to do this a hell of a lot as it turns out.
Do you have a favourite genre or musical period, such as the 1960's/1970's/1980's etc.?
Not really - but I was born in 1971 and I was a teenager through the 80's, so that wouldn’t be a bad specialist subject on Mastermind. I tend to just come to different artists across the whole span of music, usually someone playing me something or just hearing something somewhere. I think the post-BritPop was when different genres from those of us born in the 70's and 80's really started to be blended and mixed up to create new branches and smaller subsets of genre. And that’s why you end up with Trip Hop and Dub Step for names, which to my lyricist ears means nothing. Rock is rock, Pop is pop. I’m not sure about the countless names for different genres. Everyone everyone’s very fond of filing things in their proper place so you have to give them a name of some sort.
What lead to the path of becoming a full-time song-writer rather than following it as a hobby?
Apart from the fact that I just liked to write, it’s all just a bunch of coincidences. Knowing Liam, meeting Chris, for starters. But I think the reason I turned out to be good when they asked me to give it a go was the journalism training. I had a writing style that inevitably developed in school, and good as it was, it was limited. And the first thing you do at journalism school, which was total anathema to me but I got on with it, was they stripped all the style out of your writing and set you writing good news stories. And then your style - your genuine style as a 24-year-old, for me anyway - begins to reassert itself but it’s been harnessed and refined. And when I went back to writing lyrics it was like stepping out of the dark. It was a bit like when I got my Martin acoustic. I was used to playing on just a battered old £100 thing I got and was never very happy with my playing. But as soon as I played the Martin it was like someone good was playing it.
Have you ever covered any other artist's songs?
Just for fun, and never bothered to finish them ever. And deleted the evidence. 99 Red Balloons I was doing the last time and just got bored. I think that’s more of a musician thing, I have no real desire to sing other people’s songs because they move me or speak to me, I didn’t write it, it’s not my place to sing it, I don’t want to interpret and translate it just because I relate to it. That’s what karaoke’s for. The first incarnation of Transporter - Caine - used to play a mean full-on electric guitar version of Six Underground though.
Being one yourself, do you have a favourite lyricist?
I have a lot, but mostly at certain periods of their recording careers. Like Dylan on three albums was immaculate for me. But my genuine all-time favourite has been Michael Stipe for a long long time. I have more REM than any other artist in my record collection, Primal Scream probably second. But I think he writes beautiful lyrics and was never afraid to write and risk being ridiculed about the state of the world and governments and inequalities. Document and Green are very political albums, I feel. But the simplicity of Everybody Hurts without being cheesy in the slightest. That’s incredible. His voice maybe has a lot to do with it, it’s unique and very special.
Is there anything that annoys you when listening to a song, such as a type of genre or an overused drum pattern or sound, maybe a repetitive chord or style of singing, for example?
All of the above in all of my songs! But at least I never use that awful fucking robot, pitch-bending autotune effect - I hate that sound on any and every song it appears. It’s genuinely made good stuff impossible for me to listen to.
What is your honest opinion on today's music and where you think it will end up?
There’s been some artists in the past few years I’ve really liked songs of but haven’t followed through on albums. I seem to have evolved into listening to music when other people have it on. But music is essential to human existence and social change. Life is a rebel song, not a national anthem. And music is moving all the time in all directions now, but always forwards. Otherwise we’d all be prancing like Tudor tosspots with just our fingers touching to the harpsichord and mandolin stylings of Sir Fatboy of Slim. Chart music and the majority of big-selling, coffee table popular acts are a bit shit, but that’s always been the case but it’s easier to find good music, unsigned, honest and underground, doing the job record companies used to do themselves than it ever was. Everything always gets monetised eventually, but that just leaves space for the next new thing, so music always passes its medical.
What is your view on the record industry at this present time and services such as Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, illegal downloading and has this change ever affected you as an artist?
Probably it has. I really didn’t notice. Artists get a really bum deal at every conceivable place they can convince you that a deal is necessary, so there’s no need to single any one platform or site, it’s new to the status quo but artists get the same thin end of the wedge. But for independent artists doing things under their own steam, which is a fucking lot of people, these revenue streams are important, and rich companies don’t like losing money or at least not being able to make money off anything they can, it’ll get sorted. I think everything went crazy after Top of The Pops got cancelled. I think they should bring that show back on a new Doctor Who-sized scale.
Right then, Ian. This is nearing to an end now, so the questions are slightly more casual. You can now relax! Could you name one thing you would like to do before you leave this earth?
I’d like to be given the job of ‘Governor of the Buckets’, where my role is to approve or forbid the items on people’s ‘Things to do before I die’ lists. Life is precious, time is short - seriously, a lot of stuff isn’t worth it.
If you could change only one thing in the world, what would it be?
The whole narrative since New Labour. I would have said the Agricultural Revolution because that seems to be the trigger cause of capitalism, but I don’t think Hunters and Gatherers would ever have evolved into endlessly mutating civilisations and unlocked the secrets of the universe and all the horror of it all was most likely worth it. So I’m going to change history so that former Labour leader John Smith doesn’t die and because of his continued presence and influence, the whole country remains a little saner, a little fairer and a hell of a lot more fucking honest.
Vinyl or CD?
Are they not both, really, superfluous now? In which case, it’s vinyl because CD doesn’t have any real personality as a medium to add to the listening experience.
Eranu or Uvavu?
Ah, Vic and Bob. Definitely, Uvavu. They were my favourites until I first saw The Mighty Boosh.
Tea or coffee?
Mostly coffee first thing and through the morning but always, if I’m at home, a cup of Yorkshire Tea around 4pm. And always tea if I’m up late working on songs.
Cats or dogs?
We have a cat - Billie - who sits on my legs in the evenings. She’s my lucky mascot when I’m watching Man City. So as a pet for me personally, it’s cats. But I love dogs, though just to borrow on occasion. But I would be happy to have a dog. Not, I think, without a cat as well.
Do you have any decent jokes? This one has to be answered!
I’m awful when put on the spot to think of jokes. Let me find something suitable…maybe the guy with the speech impediment. Let’s try that…
There’s this old man, very nice, very kind, very polite. He does, however, suffer from a very bad speech impediment - a lot of problems with his hearing when he was a child that, in those days, no one bothered to even think about it maybe putting right. So, he gets up one morning, looks at his little to do list stuck to the fridge, gets his things together and leaves the house to go into town. First, he goes to the horologists, his mother’s old antique clock needed fixing and he just needs to collect it. “I’ve come about my cock,” he announces when he reaches the till. “I beg your pardon, sir?” “Me cock - you were fixing me antique cock!” The shop assistant suddenly realises: “Of course, sir, your clock - just one moment please” and promptly hands over the clock, which the man puts in his shopping bag. Then he goes to the hardware store. He has a problem with a leaky pipe under the kitchen sink and his old metal bucket is full of holes. “ I want a fuck it”. “I’m sorry, Sir, I don’t speak Italian,” The shop assistant replies: “Perhaps you can show me or speak more slowly, if possible?” The old man points at the display behind the counter and says, very slowly: “I - WANT - A - NEW - FUCK - IT - P-LEASE. It’s for my leaky sink - water going everywhere.” Understanding the request, the shop assistant says: “Ah, sir requires a bucket to help with his leaky sink. Why certainly, sir.” The transaction complete, the old man heads to the bakery to get something for his lunch. “I’d like to try your finest bum, please madam.” The young woman in the bakery just stares at him for a minute, wondering whether to slap him round the mouth with a cheese and ham baguette. “You want to try my what? You disgusting old pervert. “No, no, young lady,” pleads the man. “A bum - for me lunch. You know - a bum. A bap, a roll, a cob - a bread roll, a BUM!!!!” The assistant finally understands and hands him a nice, fresh bread bun. Well, his bag is full with the clock, so he puts the bread roll in his bucket and leaves the shop and goes for a little walk in the park to work up an appetite. Now, a little later, as he’s walking back across the park to go home, he runs into the young lady from the bakery on her lunch break and they smile and say a quiet hello, recognising each other from earlier. Just then, the young lady realises her phone is out of battery and turns after the old man. “Excuse me, sir, you don’t happen to have the right time, do you please?” And the old man looks at the young lady, gestures to the contents of both his hands and says proudly: “I’ve got the very thing you need - hold me bum and fuck it while I get my cock out.”
Ha! Nice one. OK! And finally, if I may, what is next for Ian Pickering?
Well, everybody knows that new Sneakers is coming so that’ll be interesting to see what happens. And obviously The Noise Who Runs is launching next month - I’m just putting together the content for the website, the first two singles are being mastered, and the videos are being edited now. And the album is in production ready for new year. And we’re having a few warm up gigs her in Lille and then my plan, since Lille is the rail hub of Europe, is to play the interesting cities, probably where I know people who it’d be nice to see again. But mostly I just carry on in my own simple but clumsy way.
Well Ian, I appreciate your time and very honest and in-depth answers and I wish you all the best for your next projects!
Ian Pickering On BandCamp: https://ianpickering.bandcamp.com/releases
Ian Pickering On SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/ianpickeringofficial
Ian Pickering On Discogs: https://www.discogs.com/artist/665441-Ian-Pickering