Martin Stephenson has very much forged his own path – from 1980s major label pop credibility to conceptual musician working with a wide spectrum of artists. His consistent touring and extensive recording history has secured him an avid loyal following. Martin brought his band The Daintees back to London for a show at The Borderline on 17 December 2013. Early in the evening, after soundcheck, he sat down with me to talk about music as medicine, grappling with record companies, channelling songs from the universe and getting pulled into line by Patti Smith’s guitarist. Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk
You’ve recorded a mammoth 40 albums, the latest being 2012’s California Star – how would you say your sound has evolved over the last 30 years?
When we first started off in the early 80s we were on an ‘indie’ label with Prefab Sprout and Hurrah. Our whole thing then was anti-anger, anti-power and anti-fame. We were against the whole perception of the music business, so to sound softer, gentler, to have a soft name was a big thing with us. So, we thought we’d have a very short life! We brought out a couple of little indie singles – one was called ‘Roll on Summertime’ the other was called ‘Involved with Love’. Then we signed to London Records, which was a major label. We had to find songs for the first album and I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I just started channelling. I’d had a guru when I was 11, as a table tennis player. I had an awareness of meditation, love consciousness, giving things up, So, I had a completely different perception of the music industry. My heroes were Peter Green and Jonathan Richman and another one was Syd Barratt. So, the 80s to me was hell. I couldn’t relate to The Smiths, I’m sorry but I couldn’t. My teachers were off into the distance – Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. So, I just started writing about things that were going on, like my cousin had a miscarriage and the alcoholic thing and so my first album was really weird. The press really picked up on it for some reason and it become a bit of a cult album. Then the record company, being what they are, cos they invest, they’re very hungry. So, they want singles, they want hits. I found myself in the whirlpool of carnal pressures, needs, low level consciousness – it took four major albums to get out, then I got out of the whole system.
Some people think that’s the achievement, to me that was where to get out of – I got free of the majors around about 89/90, that included my partner, everything, it was the whole cocoon. The physical cocoon energy – when I got free of that, the best I could do was to have nothing, then I was no use to it. So it went looking for another, cause there’s many out there that want to be in the cocoon, there’s people dying to get in. I want to be out. So, I only really stepped into my power about 92. Then I became really free and liberated, I could do ‘The Incredible Shrinking Band’ (2001), I could do ‘Beyond Leap’ (2011). At 32, just wandering around Ireland, just picking people up, concepts, because concepts were the real goal. Conceptual art, conceptual things – I would meet chiefs from different bands and give them conceptual energy and currency. There’s always people that will walk with you because there’s always people looking around thinking ‘is this it?’. There’s always people wanting, they’ve got a calling, so I’d use the creativity to bring people together. I’m more proud of projects I’ve done that are actually outside of the industrial birthplace because I can hear the need. It’s a bit like being an artist – if someone’s invested in you, they kind of own you but if you’re free of that then you’re free to paint, but then you have to sustain yourself, you’ve got that problem. But when you’re in that space, especially if you’re say 29 or 30, there’s a lot of fears because you’re picking up other people’s needs as well. You learn to manage that. I’m still on the journey.
You said you got into meditation very young – have you carried that through, is it something that you still do on a daily basis?
Yes. Sometimes you get distracted. It’s practise, it’s just breathing really. When I was younger and had the whole thing around me, I used to hold onto my breath, used to hold on to my body, feel everybody’s stuff. It was a bit like having a birthday party that you can’t enjoy and everybody else is! So, I practised my breathing for periods when I was under pressure. But if I can breathe fully for the energy, I get the guidance, navigate the head, Because the ego’s in there, the lower self, not that there’s anything wrong with it but I’d rather receive guidance cause I know guidance is cosmically connected. So, it’s not just for me it would be for everybody, collective consciousness, receive your medicine, be part of it. I know how good it could be, this earth. Collectively we’re trained to put our attention on the illusion rather than the perfection that we already are. You speak this language to some people and you lose them, you know, they start looking at their watch, so you have to be very careful. So, I got into the habit of putting it into songs, just put it in there and if they like the music, the music’s there for them to listen and if they want to go deeper – my artform is in there. Every song, they’re like children and they’ve got cosmic sculptures within them. Some people have the lens to read and other people haven’t.
Has your inspiration changed much over the years?
It’s interesting because you can play a song that you wrote in maybe 77 like that song in the sound check, that I wrote when I was 14 (‘Neon Skies’) and it’s actually alright. I’m 52 now, and it’s like you can time travel through your own writings. It’s like you see a sketch you did when you were young and you just pick an old piece of paper up from when you were 15 – the essence is there, isn’t it, you can just be there. I love that. And that’s cosmic energy, it’s beyond the paper and control and the publishing and all the people who are trying to sell it. There’s a much more beautiful currency and it’s there every day.
The thing I’m most proud of with the Daintees is it’s a collective. We don’t have any business people around us now. People come back for some reason. It’s grown and grown and grown. But there’s people from over 30 years coming back in some way or another. There’s little cycles of things I’m spotting, like California Star – it’s well recorded, it’s well crafted. I think that’s an echo of the damaging experience I had being in studios in the early 80s – big studios where there was a budget. My first album was done with a guy called Gil Norton and he ended up doing The Pixies and James. He did our first album – it was his first album too, he’d just come out of his apprenticeship with Ian Broudie who’d done Echo and the Bunnymen and it was a bit of magic time. That budget, I think it was 15 grand. The second album was about 35 grand, with Paul Samwell-Smith, who was the bass player in the Yardbirds and he’d done Cat Stevens and all that. The third album was about 120 grand and it was done in Los Angeles. The songs are about the north east and you’ve got the Tower of Power on there! It’s nuts. But you learn something from that. I can even put together a very high level, high quality more straight sounding record for maybe, 3 grand. If the consciousness is good and all the ingredients are good, it’ll be alright. But at one time you’d spend 10 grand mastering a record. I’ve learned to manage situations and budgets. But if you’re truthful on your path, you get all your angels. You’re angels to one another and the support it’s always there. Like Kate and John. I did my first album with John and then he disappeared for 20 years. He worked at the BBC, they had massive careers, but they love the drums and guitar. I couldn’t really afford to pay them what they need but they just want to contribute, so I tell them what I’m earning and I tell them what I can afford and we just work on a nice level. There’s not that needy, greedy thing. They’re all chiefs, you know. I’m a chief but I’m just a chief in a bunch of chiefs. So, I’m in service to the other chiefs. (Laughs)
Do you write songs only when you’re inspired to do so or do you sit down and treat it like a craft?
No, I need to just channel. I like channelling. To me there’s the imagined future and the dead past, so if I pour all the energy out of my eyes into the imagined future, I ain’t got a chance. The ego’s got a chance to get a hold of the imagined future and the dead past. If I’m in the here and now, then I’m going into service, you know, and I say ‘how can I help, what do you want? Do you want to bring it through my crown and I’ll see what I can do?’. It’s playful interpretation. I know it’s coming from the higher power, so it’s never going to have any deviance. Cause love consciousness does not know fear, pain, suffering, deviance, so I know it’s coming from the right place and it will always be alright. It’s navigating the low levels of consciousness – that’s the tricky one.
You performed the full Boat To Bolivia album last year, what made you decide to do this?
‘Boat To Bolivia’ I did it in its entirety, in acoustic form because I wanted to see it as a sketch. Obviously it got recorded and had drums and all that on. So, I just wanted to see it in its sketch form, see if the songs stood up without arrangements. Sometimes some songs are actually built like houses and if you take a brick out they fall. To me a good song in its core will be strong.
Playing an album straight through is something that’s become popular in the last few years. What the albums would you like to hear all the way through live?
Of somebody else? I love the Modern Lovers, I love ‘Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’, you can hear the garage. I think they’re perfect. Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’, cause she’s an artist, she’d just do something completely different, you probably wouldn’t even recognise half of the stuff, you know? I like her because she channels, I got to work with her guitarist Lenny Kaye for a long time – he did my fourth album. He was a good lad. Very good teacher actually, very disciplined. I thought he’d be nuts, you know? I was young and I thought we’d be nuts together and actually he told me what a twit I was, I was drinking too much, he kicked my arse a lot actually.
You now run a label – Barbaraville – what do you look for in artists to sign to that label?
People who need supporting. I just bump into them. I met this lady where I live called Miriam, her voice is resonant, really special. So, I sat with her and she had three half songs, so I just worked with her. People love support they love somebody taking an interest in them for absolutely no reason or condition. I just worked with her for a year and helped her get songs, we just used to get together once a week. So, Barbararville, really I just imagine it as a little bit of a raft and doing things for non sensical reasons as well. You know how some people will only work with you if you’re any use for them, so they get their social foothold? Well, it’s the opposite. We go to people and they think ‘why do you want to work with me?’. And I say: ‘why don’t I? You’re in the area.’. (Laughs)
Where does the name come from?
I live in a village called Barbaraville.
Do you keep the same setlist each night?
No. What’s happening tonight is that a girl’s coming to film, she got in touch two days ago and I just said ‘yes’. She asked if we do a setlist and I said ‘no’ and she looked a bit (looks deflated)…so I said ‘but we’ll do one for you’! So, that’s how I work – if somebody says I think your album should be called this, at the time, I’ll go ‘alright’ because what do I know? That might be an angel. What do I know? Just go with it, you know. As long as it’s positive – if it’s a negative message…nah!
What would you like people to take away from the show tonight?
Good medicine. To me, medicine is a really important thing. If you think of all the smiles you’ve contributed to the earth when you’ve been here, that’s enough. If there’s a bunch of us collectively sharing joy, that’s a job done. It’s not about me, it’s everybody. And if we dive into that we’re all alright, you know?
Martin headed off to give tonight’s audience their dose of good medicine. With a 2014 tour lined up, he will certainly be continuing to share the joy as a man not only very much dedicated to singing his own song but heartily wishing for you to sing yours too.
Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk on 17 December 2013. Imelda has her own website: www.rebeladelica.com.