Perfect Sound Forever


Interview With Steve Hanley and Tommy Crooks
by Jason Gross
(May 1998)

I dragged Steve out of a practice for the second show after a four year lay-off of doing shows here in the States. The first show, which I caught the night before, was really solid (Mark was in good form and the band kicked up a lot of dust) with a lot of material from the recent Levitate (which is a good one). Little did I know, sitting down for a beer with Steve (and Tommy joining us later), that this was the calm before the storm. The rest of the tour was a pretty bumpy road for the band.

PSF: On Levitate, there's a lot of techno music along with some quieter passages.

STEVE: It's just a reflection of the songwriting. There's Mark's and Julia's input. It's not a typical Fall album, which we haven't had in a while really. It's like loads of different influences because everyone writes the music, all the musicians and you hear whatever they're listening to with the style of their writing. You do get a lot of varied things. They all sound like the Fall in the end but people bring in whatever they've been listening to.

I've listened to the Temptations a lot and I do think they sound like the Fall believe it or not. (laughs) Not the vocals and the brass section but the rhythm section and the guitar, if you listen to it. Really! Honestly! You know, simple bass lines and rhythm. If you check it out, it's true. I've always wanted to do a cover version of "Ball of Confusion."

PSF: The guitars and drums on the new one get mixed in and out at unexpected places also, almost like a dub record.

It was Mark's idea to get away from guitars because now in Britian, there's so many guitar bands. Now everybody's like the Beatles. It's always his thing to go the other way. Guitars have been kept down. It's like a bass and drum album.

PSF: How much of a factor is the (drum) programming on the songwriting?

It depends on the song really. It has worked on a few of the songs like "Ten Houses" and "Masquerade." We're trying to drag ourselves into the '90's! It's good though- we always like to try every style. There's no limits.

PSF: That's true- the last few CD's have had a lot of techno.

Yeah, but you could go back to whenever, like "Hit The North." We've always had a dance element to our... indie-goth-rock. (laughs)

PSF: Does chance and lucky accidents have anything to do with the songwriting?

Yeah, well people come into the studio with a basic idea of what they want the song to be like and it never turns out like that. People contribute and it turns out totally different. Usually Mark will have the vocals first and he'll have an idea of how he'll want the music. Somebody'll have a tune or an idea and everybody contributes. But it usually ends up totally different to the idea of how you wanted it in the first place. You're not always happy with it but that's just being in a band, isn't it?

PSF: But in the studio, you can go back to it and work on it.

You can do that but we seem to work pretty quickly. We don't see the point in spending four years in the studio. We put out an album a year which for most bands is a lot. But it's not that much, ten songs a year.

PSF: Another long-time trademark of the band is working with tapes and studio effects. How does that come into the songs?

That's usually Mark's input into the music. If you have a straight tune, he'll throw something in that throws it right off.

PSF: Do you think it's an important part of the music?

It can be. It depends how far out it is. Sometimes it can just be thrown in there for the sake of it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But I don't think albums should be perfect. You don't want to do a perfect album because then you've got nowhere to go. There are bands that do that with their first album. Our albums are like a diary of the band at the time. You can really tell if you look back, when the band's going through a bad time, the album's not so good. When you feel that the band's going through a good time, it's going to be better.

PSF: Any particular albums in mind when you say that?

Middle Class Revolt is pretty bad and Cerebral Caustic isn't as good as it could have been and Room To Live too. For good ones, there's The Infotainment Scan and Hex Enduction Hour. With Infotainment Scan, there's a definite sound of the band at the time and all the songs are strong. I mean, they've all got their good points but they are a reflection of the band at the time. It depends on the people in the band at the time and what they're coming up with. That's the thing about the Fall- it's not manufactured, what you see is what you get. Which is good.

PSF: The band choses some interesting cover songs too.

It's all Mark. He picks the covers. I don't know WHERE he gets them from. When you first hear them, you think 'God, why did he pick that? Where'd he get that from now?' "I'm A Mummy" came out good. I'm not too sure about "Jungle Rock" as we had a bit of difficulty with that. We were really trying to do a jungle version of that and it really didn't come off. Didn't quite get it I don't think but we had a go.

PSF: Because the band has a long history, is that a burden?

It is. Especially in England, we get pigeon-holed into this alternative type and we've got a cult following and people think 'they're that type of band' so we find it hard to get on daytime radio. People think that that's the Fall and they've got a set idea about it. Sometimes you hear things in the chart, selling millions and they just sound like the Fall.

PSF: I don't think the band has to worry about ripping people's music off.

Well, we do, we just disguise it well!

PSF: Where do the see the band now in relation to its history?

It seems to be more honest at the moment. We're just doing what we want to do. We always have really but there's nobody pushing us like if you signed with a big label. They'll be saying 'you got to get this single out now and gotta have a commercial single.' Now, we just do what we do. Nobody's pretending to be what we're not, like a pop band or anything.

PSF: A lot of English bands that started up in the late '70's barely lasted a few years. Why has the Fall lasted so long?

I don't know. It's got to be the songwriting, I think. All the bands who started when we did are on the cabaret circuit now, touring with their greatest hits, whatever they were. As long as we keep coming up with new ideas, it's worth keeping going. Once we're struggling for material and doing our greatest non-hits, then it's over.

It's harder for Mark really. He's got to come up with ten songs a year and lyrics. There's five people so it's a struggle for us to get our songs in.

PSF: What are the dynamics of the band? Are people supportive?

It's more of a battle really. It's like creative tension gone mad. Sometimes it works as long as it's not forced.

PSF: Or get into fist-fights.

Well, we do but creative tension's good. If you're in the Fall, you've got four people pushing you on. If you make a mistake, I've got four people on my neck and if Karl makes a mistake, he's got four people on him. That does tend to keep you on your toes. Sometimes it can get a bit out of hand.

PSF: It can't be that bad if the band's together.

Yeah but a lot of people have gone to the way side, they couldn't handle it. It depends on the person though. A lot of people can't take it.

PSF: But you've stayed in the band for a long time.

But I haven't been in any other bands so I don't know if they're any different.

PSF: So why do people keep coming and leaving the band? Is it a curse?

Yeah, it can be. It's great and it's crap as well.

PSF: Is it also a plus as you get new ideas from new people?

Yeah, that's always good.

PSF: With the band's reputation, it's probably easy to find people.

Well, it's easy to find people but it's hard to get them to stay. I don't know why. It's just something about the band. It's just intense.

(At this point, Tommy enters and valiantly manages to keep up with our beer consumption.)

TOMMY: It's an extremely tense situation, being in the Fall. We're almost like a bloody trained army unit that go in and do covert operations. They have to get to know what each other person's doing and you go to plan B up your sleeve. We're not a rock band, we don't operate like that. We don't go jumping about. We don't say 'oh, that should be B flat.' It's like the Canadian airforce where you're getting dropped at night time. I think it's a fear analogy.

PSF: What are the dynamics of the songwriting?

TOMMY: It comes from Steve and Karl and I try to put my butt in.

STEVE: Julia too. Everybody contributes.

TOMMY: Sometimes we'll play songs together that maybe two band members have never heard. But that's not a bad thing because it forces you to thing on your feet. If you can get through it and cut the mustard, fine. If you can't, not fine.

PSF: I was asking Steve, do you think accidents play a role with the songs?

TOMMY: There's no serendipity involved. You can lead your life day by day, applying yourself to the same rules. With us, when you throw us all togehter, it's entropy.

STEVE: Yeah, it's chaos.

TOMMY: We work as a unit together but we're definitely all individuals and Karl Burns'll be the first to tell you that. Karl is a dynamic man in the back and Steve gets the leads, which is very unusual. One of the secrets of the band is maybe the fact that the bass guitar is the lead instrument.

STEVE: It is actually.

TOMMY: Yeah, that adds a... weird dynamic. It's just part of the whole complexion. The arrangements of the songs kind of take care of themselves.

STEVE: It's really natural. It's not like we sit down for hours and discuss the songs and talk about music.

TOMMY: 'That last song was very aes-thet-ically pleasing, don't you think!' (laughs)

STEVE: We never do that. We'd rather talk about Monday night and if the Knicks or the Celtics won a game. If you analysis it too much...

TOMMY: You start getting introspective. You can disappear up your own ass. Metaphorically. The Fall is definitely a case of doing it and then think about it. Sometimes you get a song and add things to it. It's not like a case of where he need to get down that second bar of the chorus...

STEVE: Some people just do it and other people follow them.

TOMMY: The songs are very sculptural. The songs are almost like paintings, physical painters. I use that.

PSF: You did the sleeve for Levitate (see picture above).

TOMMY (modestly): Well, it's won a National Design Award and done two weeks at the National Gallery in London!

PSF: What happened with Craig (Scanlon, long time guitarist who left recently)?

STEVE: He just gave up on it. It's happened to loads of people. He was like the main songwriter and he just stopped writing songs and he had enough. I was disappointed but I could see it coming.

TOMMY: So did I. That's how I got the job. I saw an album cover and Craig wasn't on it.

STEVE: But it wasn't an instant thing. He had loads of chances and we'd been carrying him for a year or so.

PSF: I was also talking to Steve about how in the Fall's music, you don't just hear guitars and drums- you hear strange mixes and sounds all over the place.

TOMMY: To me a tenous comparison is some post-war American abstract artists that use techniques, like Robert Rauschenberg, where they'd grab objects and put them together.

STEVE: The thing about the tapes is that it seems to be seeping into everyday music. In a Madonna single, you'll hear it cut into a totally different track or a different version of it.

PSF: But mostly, that's just done to shift the beat around where the Fall uses this kind of thing to change the whole atmosphere of a song.

TOMMY: I consider most other bands to be rubbish, apart from Jimi Hendrix and Iggy Pop. The rest can go stuff themselves. These other bands STRIVE for seemless perfection whereas we go on stage and... we could have rehearsed and start working on stage. It's not really experimentation...

STEVE: Everything is worked out before we go on stage. Nobody's jamming or not knowing what part they're going to play.

TOMMY: That word doesn't exist in the Fall vocabulary- jamming!

STEVE: But you can rehearse everything out of a song just by playing it over and over again.

PSF: So how do you find a happy medium there?

TOMMY: We're always searching for that dynamic when we're playing.

STEVE: We've never found that.

TOMMY: No, we never have it. When we're playing, it's like a unit together. It's kind of mad in a way, playing with pure energy. I totally lose track of time when I'm on stage.

STEVE: No matter what you play, it's the way you play it.

TOMMY: If you work at a job for a time, you get experience. You make a thousand mistakes and then you learn something eventually. But you always want to keep things pure and alive as you're pushing along.

STEVE: There's no pretense, you just do what you do.

TOMMY: We're not trying to be pop stars. We're not the Spice Girls or Oasis.

STEVE: We don't know what motivates other bands but what motivates us is something else.

TOMMY: It's a purity because we know we're not ass-ing around. We're not trying to be a pastiche of something. We're not trying to emulate anything. It's a very pure entity. Actually, we're an impure entity like sour milk! Milk and gin, that's all we are! (laughs)

PSF: The band came out of Manchester and is still based there. What kind of effect do you think that city's had on the band?

STEVE: I don't think we could be from anywhere else really.

TOMMY: You're a product of your environment but I'm not from there- I'm from Scotland. The Fall are a product of Manchester. It's like any major city although it's a major, major industrial city. You're a victim of circumstance. If you're brought up there, you're going to take it's flavor.

STEVE: It's not an accident that loads of good bands come from Manchester. It's been responsible for things happening.

TOMMY: You always get a lot of creativity in a big city.

STEVE: It's always raining there all the time so you've got nothing else to do.

TOMMY: That's why you get that smell there. It's like when the garbage collection goes on strike... (laughs)

STEVE: It's always a think about the music business coming from London but it doesn't really matter these days. London bands are more career based and business orientated. Manchester bands do what we do and they've all got a certain attitude, if you look at New Order, Oasis, Stone Roses. There is a certain attitude where we do what we wanna do.

PSF: There was a big rave scene that came out of there also.

STEVE: It's not really had a big effect on us.

TOMMY: It's had no effect on the Fall. Rave is endemic. A lot of the young guys now listen to gangsta rap- there's a big American influence, I'm telling you. Young kids strutting about with their baseball caps backwards. They're REALLY into it.

STEVE: A few years ago, there were no bands about and everybody was getting into that. The Stone Roses and Oasis got people to pick up guitars again.

TOMMY: I quite like Supergrass, who we played with. They're quite good songwriters. But with a lot of these bands... I couldn't tell you what a Verve song or a Radiohead song sounds like. I know what Oasis sounds like though.

PSF: What kind of threads or qualities have been going through the band that have been worth pursing?

TOMMY: A lot of it comes from literature.

STEVE: The lyrics, you don't know where they come from.

TOMMY: 'They only had 20 pence for a coddly-woddly' or something.

STEVE: You never heard anything like it, which is good.

TOMMY: William Burroughs is kind of like that.

STEVE: Mark's just like that.

PSF: Do you think the lyrics reflect the music or vice versa?

STEVE: Yeah... I don't know how though!

PSF: What's in store for the band in the future?

STEVE: No idea. What got some dates for April. We don't plan ahead.

TOMMY: It's not like a band, it's not a normal thing.

STEVE: We finished a tour in December of last year and none of us were in the same room until we came here now. It's the only time all of us get together. We don't see a lot of each other otherwise.

TOMMY: We all hate each other. Actually, I like everybody but they all hate me! And they hate each other.

STEVE: But it all seems to click when we get together.

TOMMY: We're all pretty serious. We're got a common goal. Don't ask me to explain what that common goal is... In the words of Frank Zappa, there lies the crux of the biscuit!

STEVE: Being serious is enough really. We're not here to mess about.

Also see our Fall tribute

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