Perfect Sound Forever

MARTIN BELMONT


Interview by Jason Gross
(December 2013)



PSF: Let's start at the start. Did you grow up in Bromley, Kent?

MB: Actually, I was born in Bromley and until I was about 8 or 9, (I) lived in Grove Park in south east London. Then, the rest of my growing up was in Yeovil, in the west of England.

PSF: Got it- thanks for clarifying. And what kind of music really sparked your interest when you were young?

MB: I think the first thing I heard like that was Elvis but I wasn't really aware of him at first. I didn't really know him until about '58 or '59 and my first record I got was “Jailhouse Rock." And then around the same time in England was a band called the Shadows. I don't know if you've heard of them.

PSF: I know about them.

MB: They were like... you had the Ventures and we had the Shadows. They played instrumentals. And the guitarist was very influential on a whole lot of people. His name was Hank Marvin. He was a great guitar player and he played on a Fender Stratocaster, which was the most exciting thing I've ever seen. On the rare occasion, you'd see a color photo of him.

And then, I was... 14 or 15 when the Beatles came along and that changed an awful lot. I was at art school then.

PSF: How did they change things, the way you saw it?

MB: For a start, all of the great pop music seemed to come from America before that. And then the Beatles came along and it was kind of an unstoppable tide of music.

The first time I heard them, I can remember the feeling. It just sounded so good. And then there were all the other English bands following them were the Stones and all the other English bands that came along. To be fair, America did give us Bob Dylan around the same time. And it just CHANGED. All the popular music just changed with the Beatles. And you can still hear their effects today.

PSF: How did you go from being a music fan to being a musician?

MB: I think when I was about 11 or 12, I pestered my parents into buying me a guitar. I just wanted to play. I used to hold a tennis racket to play and pose in front of a mirror with the Shadows on in the background. So I was playing a guitar by holding a tennis racket the wrong way around. And eventually I got a little acoustic guitar. I never had any lessons but I bought a book. The first book I bought was ‘How To Play A Spanish Guitar' and I didn't know that there was any difference between a Spanish guitar and a regular acoustic guitar, so I was inadvertently learning how to play finger picking style. And then I eventually realized that it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing and I got the right book. I just kind of slowly taught myself over a couple of years.

I went to art school when I was 15, 16. I could play chords. When I went to art school in the 60's, it was great because there were more guitar pickers there than artists. (laughs) Everybody was playing guitar in some sort of way or another, playing blues and stuff... Lots of people playing Bob Dylan... And it was great.

PSF: How did you get associated with the guys in band Brinsley Schwarz?

MB: Well, when I left art school in 1970, I moved up to London and I was just kind of knocking around, doing odd jobs and this and that. And I met a friend that I knew at art school and he formed a friendship with a band called Help Yourself, who were under the same management at the time as Brinsley Schwarz, and the group were tour buddies. And he introduced me and I found out that the Brinsley Schwarz band needed a roadie so I got that job and I did that for a year or so. So that's how I met Brinsley and Bob (Andrews) and the rest of them.

PSF: What did get out of being a roadie with them?

MB: A lot of cuts and bruises! (laughs) It was interesting seeing the Brinselys because I kind of got sidetracked during the late ‘60's and got sucked in to that kind of music where in order for it to be good, it had to be incredibly complicated, which started to creep in then. After Cream and all that, a bass couldn't play a straight forward bass line, it had to be really complicated. It was just an attitude.

And seeing the Brinsleys who were playing very, very straight forward country rock, just good songs played well, kind of reaffirmed my original... like when the Beatles came along, that's what it really came down to in the end. Good songs played well and good lyrics. So it kind of reestablished that so I went on and started a band myself in the wake of that.

PSF: Could you talk more about how Ducks Deluxe came about then?

MB: I met Sean Tyla again though someone who was connected through Brinsley Schwarz. In fact, he was a guy named Dai Davies and he was a publicist and Brinsley Schwarz was one of his clients. So I met Sean through him and we were both knocking about, wanting to be in a band, doing rock and roll. It was great because he could write songs and he had written loads and he was a singer of his own songs and I was the guitar player.

So we knocked about for a bit and then we met a bass player who was living in a squat. I don't know if you know what that is. Basically, it's an empty property that you move into, living without paying rent or anything. It was the kind of thing that went on a lot at that time. So we had this big house in London and there was myself, Sean and the bass player. And we were looking for a drummer and we found a drummer. And then, we just got going and we just started playing in the local pubs near where we were, built up a repertoire of original songs and covers and kind of took it from there. And Guy became our manager. And after maybe... I don't know exactly how long... maybe about six to eight months of gigging around London , we got a record deal with RCA, which was very exciting. I was thinking ‘I'm going to be on the same label as Elvis Presley!' (laughs)

PSF: What was the dynamic of the band? Was anyone kind of an obvious leader?

MB: Um... no, I'm not sure. Obviously the guy who's singing and writing the songs is going to have a big say but I wrote a few songs and the bass player we had, not Ken, he only stayed with about six months and then we got a guy called Nick Garvey, and he wrote songs and sang as well. It was a kind of... reasonably sort of an equal split but I would say probably Sean and Nick and to a lesser extent myself were the... leaders really isn't quite the right word... I don't know. We agreed on things- there was nobody that said ‘Right, we're going to do this!' It doesn't really work like that in a band. It's not a true democracy either because there are some people that are more equal than others. (laughs) But that's the way it works. In any band, there tends to be one person that provides the majority of the material, and becomes the guide of the band, if you like.

PSF: Why do you think that Ducks Deluxe didn't last very long?

MB: Well, we did two albums and an EP, a 4-track 45 RPM. We got a piano player in after the first year and we did a lot of gigging, touring around England and Europe. Then there was a bit of a falling out where the bass player and the keyboard player left together- they later formed the Motors and had a couple of hit records. Then the drummer left and we got a new bass player who was really good called Mickey Groome and then we got the drummer from the Brinsley Schwarz band (Billy Rankin), who had broken up a month or so previously. And then in fact, Brinsley came and played with us as well. We did an English tour and a couple of English dates and that was it.

You kind of know when a band is running its course. For everybody, the direction they want to go in is slightly different. Sean maybe wanted to do something different and Brinsley and I were keen to work together in a different kind of set up. And that was it, around late spring, early summer '75.


Ducks Deluxe, 1974, with Martin on the left

PSF: Ducks Deluxe gets grouped into the label of ‘pub rock.' Did you think that was a real scene?

MB: Yeah, there were a lot of bands really and it was a reaction to the times. In the early to mid 70's period, the big name acts at that time were either the sort of glam, poppy bands like T. Rex and David Bowie and Slade, or for the ‘serious' music lover, there were these unbelievably appalling progressive rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Genesis and Yes. And the approach was, you sat there and listened with your eyes shut to their pretentious twaddling and they were saying ‘to be good, it had to be complicated,' which we all now know is bullocks! (laughs)

So it was kind of a reaction to that. All the people that were playing in bands that were termed ‘pub rock' were doing that because pubs were great venues for people to dance and get drunk and sing and shout. And you couldn't go in there and play progressive rock, thank goodness, so you went In there and played your own particular version of rock and roll, which covers such a broad canvas. That's pretty much what it was- you got to be doing music that people could either sing or dance to or just enjoy themselves.

PSF: How did you hook up with Graham Parker initially?

MB: Me and Brinsely, we wanted to be in a band together- that was our aim. And then Bob Andrews, the keyboard player from Brinsley Schwarz, he was there and he wanted to do something. So the three of us were kind of talking about doing something and we met Steve (Goulding) and Andrew (Bodnar), the bassist and drummer, through Dave Robinson who had been the manager of Brinsley Schwarz and was now living at a pub in northeast London, where I was also living, and he was running a little eight-track studio. And we had spoken to him, saying that we wanted to start this band and (asked) ‘do you know any good rhythm sections?' (He said) ‘Well, there's this group Bontemps Roulez and they're breaking up and their rhythm section is great.' And we got in touch with them (Steve and Andrew) and they were up for it so that's how we got together.

And so we did a bit of rehearsing, trying out different songs and stuff. We had a few ideas and the basic line-up seemed to work- keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. And then Graham had somehow heard of Dave Robinson's studio and he had come in and made a demo there. And Dave played me the demos and one was a song called “Between You And Me" and the other was an early version of “Hey Lord, Don't Ask Me Questions." And I was just knocked out. I thought ‘Christ, this is brilliant, this if fucking great!' And Dave also had a bit of scheme in mind- here was a band of musicians looking for a direction or some way to go and here was a young... well, not that much younger than us (laughs)... singer-songwriter looking for a band. So, the tumblers all fell into place at that point and we started rehearsing and we did a couple of early gigs. Graham's demo got played on a London radio station and a guy from Phonogram heard it and Graham got signed and the Rumor got signed to a record deal. And then we were off and running.

PSF: Could you talk about making the first record with Graham, Howlin' Wind?

MB: Yeah, I can talk about these things as much as I can remember, but it was a long time ago so there'll be some black spots.

PSF: Understood.

MB: As I said, we got signed by Phonogram and they decided that Nick Lowe would produce the first album. I believe that it was the first record he had ever produced. Dave thought he was a good man for the job. We went into the studio, very raw, Graham particular since he'd never done anything like this before but he had a bunch of really great songs. And we did the album in 10 days or a couple of weeks, something like that and it just went great. It sounded natural. We worked together well. What more can I tell you? (laughs)

PSF: In the liner notes to the CD reissue of the second album, Heat Treatment, Graham said that he wasn't as happy with how that came out. What did you think of the record?

MB: I didn't like it anywhere near as much as the first one. It's not the songs, it's the approach. It was a different producer- a guy named (Robert John) "Mutt" Lange who went on to be HUGELY, hugely successful. His way of working was the complete opposite way of Nick Lowe's. That's fine- you get a different perspective on different ways of recording but I didn't like the results that he came up with particularly. And I know there are a lot of people who love Heat Treatment but I'm not one of them, mainly because looking back on it, it was really hard work and wasn't much fun.

PSF: Did you think that the third record. Stick To Me, was better?

MB: Well, that was a weird thing because we recorded that one twice. The first time we recorded it with a producer and I've forgotten his name. And Graham had a bunch of songs and they were great... I mean, Graham doesn't write many bad songs, if any, but he writes great songs and very good songs. Then we did this album and there were a couple of innovations- we had strings on a couple of tracks and we'd been playing with a horn section from the first album and worked with them a lot. We recorded this album and there was some kind of technical thing where what we thought was going on to the tape was not what we were hearing back through the speakers. As soon as the tape was taken to another studio, an unworkable sort of noise came out and there was also something wrong with the tape, it was disintegrating. This was at a big London studio, Island Studios. And there was a lot of ‘we're not paying,' ‘oh yes you are,' ‘no we're not.' In the end, a kind of audio specialist was called in to mediate the matter and he said ‘no, it's the studio and partly the producer's fault for not realizing what was going on.' So we didn't pay.

We were booked to go out and gig so we started touring again. Then we came back in for a week and got Nick Lowe and we had to work quickly. We knew the songs- we'd been playing the arrangements live with the horns and stuff. The only thing we didn't have live were the strings. So we came in and we re-recorded the album in under a week! (laughs) We had a lot of fun doing it and I like it. I think it's a great record.

PSF: What about Squeezing Out Sparks? That seemed different in sound that the earlier records.

MB: Yeah, there was a live album in between (The Parkerilla) but Squeezing Out Sparks for me was the best album we made in that period. We had a different producer then- Jack Nitzsche, a bit of a legend, worked with Phil Spector as an arranger on all those great pop hits and wrote film scores, won an Oscar, worked with the Rolling Stones. His approach was much more like Nick Lowe- he went for the feel of things, trusting the musicians to perform. And Graham's songs were fantastic on that record... bar one, I think there's one duffer on that. But I think it's a marvelous, marvelous album.

PSF: Do you think it was an easy transition going from the early R&B sound on the earlier albums to more of a hard rock sound on that album?

MB: I wouldn't call it ‘hard rock' at all. Hard rock implies a group like Aerosmith. It's nothing like that at all. Basically what happened was, we decided to work without the horn section and that effected the way we played. The songs sounded like they didn't need horns. It was just back to basics- three guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. That was it. And that's how it worked. The songs were great. The sounds were great. It just worked. It was of its moment as well. That was the top one for that time, for me.

PSF: Around that time, the punk scene had been spreading around. Did you guys feel any kind of kinship with those bands?

MB: Ehhh, to a certain extent I guess but we were kind of older than those guys though. Some of the groups and those crowds liked us because we were pretty high energy and Graham's songs are very much in your face. But we were kind of more experienced players. Obviously we were kind of effected by that but you really couldn't call us a punk band. I think don't we fit into any category really except for the broad umbrella of rock and roll. (laughs)

PSF: At the same time, the two Rumor albums came out...

MB: Yeah, we did that. That was something we wanted to do because we had some songs. Bob (Andrews) was a pretty prolific songwriter and a very good singer. So we did the first one in '77 and it was called Max. Do you know why it was called ‘Max'?

PSF: No, tell me.

MB: Well, what was the biggest album in that period in the American charts?

PSF: Saturday Night Fever?

MB: No, Fleetwood Mac. And they had an album called Rumors. So we, the Rumor, decided to do an album and called it Max.

PSF: That's pretty funny.

MB: Well, it's not THAT funny but it appealed to us! (laughs)

PSF: What did you think of the Rumour albums in hindsight?

MB: I thought they were fine, fine records. The next one we did the following year called Frogs Sprouts Clogs and Krauts. I don't know if those words mean anything to you. That's basically English descriptions. ‘Frogs' are French. ‘Sprouts' are Belgian, brussels sprouts. ‘Clogs' are Dutchmen. And ‘Krauts' are Germans. So it was our Euro album. (laughs) So I liked those records, they were fine but for me, it was never the main thing- the main thing for me was Graham Parker and the Rumor. And it was nice that we had an album to do our own stuff and were signed to Phonogram ourselves. But that was a nice extra little thing that we had there.

PSF: Could you talk about The Up Escalator, which was the last album that the band did with Graham up until now?

MB: At that time, that was 1980. By the end of 1979, we toured mercilessly the whole year. There's a website called Stuck by Lightning and it's all about Graham Parker and what he's done and there's a deep diary, year by year. And if you look at 1979, it starts in Aberdeen in Scotland in about February and finishes in the Auckland in New Zealand at the end of November. (laughs) That was pretty much the story of that year, the Squeezing Out Sparks year.

And that year, Bob Andrews the keyboard player left the band and Graham wanted to do the next album and again, it was a different producer. I'm not sure why- maybe Jack Nitzsche didn't want to do it. We came to New York to do that last album. We recorded it at the Record Plant with a produced named Jimmy Iovine who worked as an engineer for Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And that was that album. And after that, we did a couple of gigs. We did a huge TV show that you can get on DVD called Rockpalast - we had Nicky Hopkins playing piano was us who was a pretty legendary session man. And then that was it- us and Graham went our separate ways.

PSF: What was the reason for that?

MB: Again, you know, Graham felt that it had run its course and he wanted to try something different. And really the only thing left for him to do different was to do something without the Rumor. And that's what he did.

PSF: Why didn't the Rumor stay together and do its own thing?

MB: Well, we did for a little bit. The four of us made another album, which is called Purity of Essence. That album has just been released on CD in America for the first time and you can get it from Graham's website. I think that was a pretty good record. We got a gig playing with a New York singer called Garland Jeffreys. We did a European tour and an American tour and we got to open the show with a short Rumor set with songs from that Purity of Essence album. So we did that and that was another year gone. And then again, it was felt that there were other things to do at that point. We worked a worked a little bit with Carlene Carter but the Rumor broke up and I went into Carlene's band and that became Nick Lowe's band because they were married, etc.. Then I played with Nick for the next four or five years I think.

PSF: Let's talk about your solo albums. It took a while for the first one, Solo Guitar, to come out.

MB: It didn't take THAT long to put together. I wasn't really trying to put together an album for decades. (laughs) It's just that it never really occurred to me to do an album under my own name. But then I started writing these little instrumental tunes and I thought they sounded good. I had a particular kind of guitar called a baritone guitar, which gives you the big, deep twang that I'm found of. So that album is mainly instruments played on the baritone guitar, a couple on the acoustic guitar and two or three songs that I sing, which are one original and a couple of covers- a Johnny Cash song and a Howlin' Wolf song. And I think that came out around '94, '95. It was great and I like it. I'm very pleased with it. But at that point, I was not going to have a hit record or anything. (laughs) It was just great to be able to do it and have it released. I think there's some really good tunes on it. I kept waiting for a TV show to pick up one of the instrumentals because they use those kind of instrumental snatches all the time but nobody did and it's their loss, not mine! (laughs)

PSF: Exactly. What about your Guest List album which came out just a few years ago?

MB: Well, that was 10 years later. I had written a few more instrumentals and I figured ‘well, I'll see if I could put together something.' By this time, I was doing a lot of work with a drummer called Roy Dodds. He had his own little recording set-up in his house. So we started laying down a few of these little guitar and drums tracks and then I one time I was talking to Dave Robinson and telling him about these tracks I was thinking of doing. He said ‘well what you should do is ask all the singers who you ever played guitar for to each one come in and sing one song.' And I said ‘Oh, that's a ridiculous idea- no one's ever going to want to do that.' And of course I was wrong and he was right. I asked Nick, who sang a track and Carlene sang a track and Graham sang a track and Sean from the Ducks sang a track and a lot of other people. So I called it Guest List because it's almost entirely sung by guests. And it's all covers. I didn't want anybody's original songs- I wanted their choice of a cover or my choice. That's kind of what it is. And I'm REALLY pleased with that. I think it's a really good record.

PSF: How did the Ducks Deluxe reunion come about?

MB: That came about because of an American gentleman called Mike Halpern and one of his main goals in life was to see Ducks Deluxe perform again. Around 2007 I think, he basically got in touch with me and Sean, sort of financed us to do a gig. We got the guy who played bass at the end, Mickey Groome, Brinsley's old drummer who was playing with us when we broke up in '75 (Billy Rankin) and we did a rehearsal and then we did a gig at the 100 Club. And that was that as far as we knew. And it was great fun and everybody had a good time, played all the old songs. But then we got an offer to play in Paris ‘cause we were quite popular originally in France. And the bass player and the drummer didn't want to do it- the bass player had another gig anyway and the drummer was no longer really interested in touring. We got a different bass player and drummer. The bass player is a guy called Kevin Foster. The drummer is a guy called Jim Russell. So the four of us, we went and did this gig in Paris and then we got an offer to do a Swedish tour so we did that. Then we got a week in Monte Carlo so we did that. Then we did an English tour and we'd tour Sweden every year and got Brinsley back in the Ducks Deluxe band as well so for the last Swedish tour, we were a five piece. So that was how that came about.

PSF: So you think this is an ongoing proposition?

MB: Yeah, I think so. We're looking at another Swedish tour around May time and maybe a few gigs here and there. You never know what's going to come up.


Live in NYC, December 2012
Brinsley, a bit of Andrew Bodnar, Martin and Graham
Photo by Jason Gross

PSF: Let's talk about the Rumor reunion. How's that going and what do you think the future of it is?

MB: Well, I don't know the future and I'm not going to speculate. First of all, last year, we got an e-mail from Graham saying ‘would you be interested in coming over and making an album in Woodstock?' Three of us in the Rumor live in England and two live in America. So we all said yes and we came over and recorded this album and the songs were fabulous. And we did it and it seemed so relatively easy and natural as if we took off where we left off in 1979. We made this album and it sounded really good.

And then at the same time, you just never know... Judd Apatow, the director, got in touch with Graham to ask him to ask him to play himself in this film he was making. And Graham said ‘that's funny- I'm just about to make an album with the Rumor.' And Judd thought that was fantastic- ‘we'll have them in the film as well.' So we got flown first class to Hollywood last year and we were here for a week.

I saw the movie last night and it's fantastic. It's a really good film, This is Forty. It's the sort of sequel to Knocked Up but it's about these two sort of secondary characters from that film, with Paul Rudd's character and Leslie Mann's character. Paul Rudd runs a little independent record label and he mourns that Graham Parker should have been more popular so he reunites Graham with us in the movie so it seemed a kind of obvious step to do some shows.

So we did about 10 shows on the East Coast. We played in Los Angeles. Tomorrow, we're going up to Santa Cruz and then San Francisco and then Chicago and then Minneapolis and that's it. But who knows what might happen next year? You never know. Our performance in the movie is about a minute but they filmed a good hour's worth of us playing live and it sounds really good. So there's DVD talks and extras when the film comes out on DVD. So there's still more stuff to come. Whether that includes more live shows remains to be seen but that's pretty much how it goes.

The shows have been fantastic. The audiences, as we sort of expected, have just been unbelievably great. We've been playing fantastic and with each gig, it's gone up a notch. We've changed the songs around and we've tried to add several new songs during the course of the tour and changed the set list a bit. It's just great. It really is.


Also see our Brinsley Schwarz interview


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