Phone interview with Jon Epstein.
Fish: Happy New Year, Jon. Sorry about missing you last night. It's always a problem when you change diaries. There seems to always be scheduling problems when you change from one year to the next. But here we are. So what are you about now?
Jon: Well, I'm still writing for a couple of magazines and working at the University, working on a new book. I had my publisher send you a copy of the last one, did you happen to get it?
Fish: Yes. I started reading it on the tour. It's one of those things that make you go "Oh my God!" I find it difficult when the work you do is analyzed to such a degree. It's frightening.
I was watching a program last night called 'The Plague Monkeys' which was about this flu virus that's about. It's interesting that they discovered this thing in 1989 in America in Philadelphia, I think, which they identified as this super- virus. Then there was an outbreak in Germany where it killed 9 out of 20 people. Then there was this outbreak in Zaïre. What happened there was that the tribal chiefs, after withdrawing all their support from the local missionary hospital and reverted to this age-old procedure where everyone who contracted the virus had to fight it on their own. They bought the house people died in fenced-off villages and wouldn't let anybody in or anybody out, and identified that as a way to contain the thing.
I found it interesting that something that simple, an age-old concern really, could be so complicated.
Your work is the same on the rock'n'roll thing, sometimes you should stick to the ancient ways. You get to involved otherwise, and it gets frightening. It is really interesting, like the James Dean stuff. and the social groupings that occur. It's really interesting when you think about rock like that.
Jon: I think so. The main person who writes about that kind of thing is in Glasgow, Simon Frith.
Fish: I know the name.
Jon: Anyway, I'm glad you've taken an interest in reading it.
Fish: Yeah, it's not the kind of thing that you can read until five in the morning. I've got to deal with it in small doses. It s very heady so I take a couple of drafts and let it settle for a couple of days. Digesting as it were.
Jon: So, how about you? You have this new acoustic CD, which seems to have caused some concern among collectors because it was released in couple of different ways.
Fish: It's kind of difficult. The fan club had that one for about 4 or 5 months. The original thinking behind it, because Dick Brothers is a small independent record company and we don't have a fan base of 200,000 people -- it's more like 8000 people around the world, so originally we recorded it because so many radio stations now are looking for something different, the unplugged sort of thing.
It's a great idea when you have a record company who can shuttle the guys around the country to different radio stations. But you also have bills to pay, petrol bills etc etc.
We were going in and doing 10-15 minute gigs a say at radio stations and it got a bit crazy. So since we have an ISDN link in the studio so we thought we'd send it down line to any station that also had ISDN and it could be conceived of as an original session. A bit of magic in the studio and bang bang we're on. When we recorded it we kept it very, very raw and very live. We wanted an as 'before noon' sound as possible.
We also thought that if we were going to give CDs away to radio stations we'd have to give away at least 1000 in Europe and it's difficult to finance that sort of thing so we decided to take it to the fan club. They went for it to a certain extent but weren't crazy about it. We actually released it as a separate catalog number. Then we released 1000 or 2000 at the commercial level which helped finance the ones we gave to radio.
At the same time the actual members of the fan club got one which was a catalog number that was different which was limited. At the same time, though, I'd have to say that this isn't going to be commercially exploited to such a degree. It was really a financial life-saving device.
Jon: A life preserver.
Fish: Yeah. It's never going to be an official sort of release. I'd like to keep it as near fan club as possible. But at the same time I'd hope that people that are fans of mine understand that in my situation I ain't no Michael Oldfield or Meatloaf. I deal in music that isn't commercial mainstream and I've been floundering around on beaches for a long, long time. The way it works is that sometimes you need a life preserver to keep the operation going.
Jon: It's interesting, though, that some people did get quite upset.
Fish: Yeah well the fan club actually had that release four or five months before anyone else, long before it was ever released to the stores. On top of that the fan club are buying it for seven pounds fifty and the stores are selling it for twelve quid or so. It's not worth twelve, you know. But if someone in the fan club would write in they would find that we can provide a service that is actually better than retail.
Jon: Is the acoustic session CD getting any airplay?
Fish: Well, oddly it's been picked up by a number of American radio stations because of the general vibe now around acoustic sessions. The version of 'Kayleigh' I actually consider nearly as good or better than the original. It's more Joni Mitchell and more jazz based than the band version.
Right now were getting ready to record a best of collection in March and that s one of the songs that's going to be included. It's going to be two separate albums called 'Yin' and 'Yang'. It's specifically for trying to get a wedge into the American end of things. We're hoping to wrap up a lot of the great singles like 'Gentleman's Excuse Me' and 'Big Wedge' as well as some stuff off of 'Internal Exile' and the EMI days etc etc. 'Kayleigh' is one of the obvious choices. One of the problems at the moment is that EMI won't let me release it as a single. They'll give it to me for an album, but they won't let me use it as a single. It's to be expected, I suppose.
Jon: I can see their point, I guess. So what are your other plans for America?
Fish: That is the eternal question! The question about America has become about as popular as the Peter Gabriel question.
The whole thing about America is that it isn't possible to go over there and tour as an independent artist with no umbrella. I need some sort of backing to go and retake the place. To get radio stations, I'm going to need some sort of release because it's going to be difficult to convince the producers, stations, choice-makers and big wigs down there to support us if we don't have anything out there. With the plague of new releases lately the more you can get behind you the easier it's going to be for them to justify some serious airplay.
I've been there so many times with Marillion and not had the support of a record company and I know how much of a disaster area that can become.
I'm 36 years old. As much as I'd enjoy the experience of touring America again for three or four weeks I wouldn't enjoy seeing myself and ending up like a United Nations/Bosnia situation: getting bogged down in the valleys. I have to go over there with the right sort of releases.
With Suits we approached a couple of people and they just weren't interested. I was carrying too much baggage, too many albums etc etc. But now I've had a couple of breaks, I'm not going to mention any names but I have two people who are both big fans who work for different types of corporations both of who are interested in what I'm doing. I'm now talking about going into a label with ten albums. We aren't talking about just going in with the 'Suits' album, it's a major label deal.
I honestly, firmly believe that if I can find the right sort of corporation, which is what I'm going to need if I'm going to be right about the whole thing, I need someone with financial capability to provide the umbrellas to come in and tour under.
The acoustic show works brilliantly, like the 'Fortunes of War' digipak with the acoustic one on it. The acoustic show works, even rattling it a bit with semi-acoustic, and we can make it - dare I say - financially viable as a long term touring concern which would help to justify the time it would take to cross the States.
I've had to be patient, I've had to be very cautious, about where I actually lay the cards. The people on top can think for a moment. I'd be very happy about dealing with them.
It's an agonizingly slow process for the American fans, whether they believe it or not. I get letters from there saying can you play L.A. or you can do a gig in Vermont, or you can play NYC, or please do a gig in Boston, or wherever. I know that, but it's just not that simple a task. Hey guys: It's not like the Monkees where you jump on a plane and do a gig right now (sings) "Here we come, walking down the street... " You need people to advertise the gig, you need promoters who are into it, you need radio stations who are going to give the tour support. Most importantly you need to have some sort of goal, some sense of direction, and a plan of attack. It's got to be orchestrated, and that's what I'm trying to do is arrange the orchestration of my career and the release of the albums that we'd do there.
You throw 'Time and a Word' from 'Songs from the Mirror' and yea bang there's going to be a lot of interest. From 'Suits' you put 'Somebody Special' or 'Raw Meat'. 'Bandwagon' is a potential American hit. 'Family Business' or the jigged-up versions of 'Lucky' or 'Credo' that we're going to do... we're looking at so many lines of attack.
If I can find a company that believes in me as an overall artist, not just as a one album "let's sell two million copies and fuckin' retire" guy. We're looking for someone who will see that we have ten albums here and would like to orchestrate the career and spread it through America and try and create something more than just a bandwagon blazing through town once every five years.
I'm interested in that and honestly, firmly believe that it would work. I just have to find the right people.
Jon: What would you do with Dick Brothers, should you decide to sign with a major label?
Fish: Dick Brothers controls this stuff. If a major label wanted to take it on I'm not going to be so egotistical as to insist that my labels logo be on there. My company owns it, that's enough. The object here is not to have the Dick Brothers logo everywhere, the object is to try and get my music out. If that means that Dick Brothers becomes secondary to that of a corporation, then so be it. At the same time they aren't going to send someone around that tells me to write cowboy songs, because nobody's going to tell me what to write.
Jon: I wonder how much your history has to do with the reluctance of record companies to take you on in the States?
Fish: Too much baggage, you know? I don't want to sound big-headed about this, but bog labels want people who will just sign this and that. They want artists who can have their decisions made for them. What they don't want is people who are 36 years old, have been about for a while and have been through several pieces of litigation. I've listened intently to the lawyers so when I walk in they know I'm smarter than the average bear (laughs). They don't like to have to answer too many awkward questions.
Jon: Right. they want you to go "gee wow".
Fish: Yea. It's a bit like going out with a girl who sluts about a bit. She may have the experience, and may be able to deliver great head. It's the choice of that or whether you're capable of maturing and nurturing a relationship because you love that person, or whether you have this fantasy about taking this 19 year old virgin and doing dastardly things to her. They're different concepts, right?
Jon: Exactly. I think record companies are taken aback when an artist walks into their office that has some common sense, or business smarts, one that can't be bought off by a stack of Marshalls and a new Stratocaster.
Fish: Yea, exactly. And a limo delivering it to you! Well, well, well. But I'd go: Why is there a limo bringing this, and by the way: who's paying for this fucker?
It's really kind of funny. I did a couple of lectures at a local music college sort of to teach people the life of rock'n'roll etc etc. I delivered this speech and people just stared at me kind of gaga because I said: "I'm telling you this right now: no matter what I tell you today, no matter what I advise you to do every single one of you in this room is going to fuck up."
I said you all are going to fuck up, your going to be manipulated and ripped off and be treated badly because it happens to everybody. The trick is recovering from the first one and getting on with the second one. The second one you can deal with brilliantly, the first one you'll always fuck up. The most difficult thing is getting the second chance.
It takes a lot of tenacity and a lot of drive. And I think a lot of stupidity as well (laughs).
Jon: Well they do say that insanity is repeating the same mistakes expecting different results.
Fish: Yea, exactly. I take great solace in acts like Joni Mitchell and Tina Turner, and Chris Rea. People who were completely written off but then came back. It can be done.
I'm a firm believer in the big view, like we've done on a previous one, if you've got the balls to hang on to it. You'll eventually turn around and find the spotlight again.
Jon: So tell me about making the film 'Chasing the Deer'. How was that experience?
Fish: It was good. It was nice not being a part of the stress team for awhile. It was nice being the actor sitting at the back of the lot, smoking a cigarette, and watching everyone else pull their hair out for awhile. The pressure was in delivering a performance. Other than that you can be a bit of a back-seater rather than being managerial, producer, in charge.
I have great sympathy for the producer. We had a couple of whiskeys one night and I told him that I knew exactly what he was going through. It was interesting, I like it. I enjoyed the lack of responsibility. And I've always liked dressing up (laughs).
Jon: So acting agrees with you then?
Fish: Yea, but I'll never be DeNiro, I'll never be a major actor. But in a few weeks I've got an interview with BBC to discuss my two screenplays. They're very Scottish plays, the old social comment stuff, and I find that very exciting. Also a producer I know has been talking to me about a few other bits and pieces regarding screenplay writing.
Another producer friend and I have been talking about buying the screenplay rights to a certain book that has been proving very difficult to get: the guy considers himself John Grisham. But we're talking about writing that, developing it all the way through. I find that as exciting as music at the moment. In my future I see a link between what I do as an actor, a screenplay writer, and a rock'n'roll singer, performer, writer. I think that can become very attractive with CD ROM etc.
Jon: I wonder how close the relationship is between song-writing and writing screenplays.
Fish: It's really close. The beauty of writing a screenplay is that you don't have to make things rhyme. You don't have to get your phrasing just right, you can expand a little bit. No-one is going to come down on you for being a bit too wordy. When I first started the flow was incredible. I was sitting up for hours at night just doing pages. It was interesting not having to write in 4/4 or 6/8 rhythm, not looking for a middle eight.
Jon: It sounds like you really enjoy it. I'd be interested in checking it out when you're done.
Fish: You'd never understand it. It's Scottish (laughs).
Jon: I don't know, I've always wanted to get a job in the U.K., Get the hell out of here...
Fish: No, you don't want to come here. It's an accursed little island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean where it rains all the goddamn time.
Jon: Well it's about 10 degrees below zero here today...
Fish: Same here, but we don't have the prospect of a heady summer.
Jon: Well I guess you always want what you don't have. So what are your plans for this year?
Fish: Well, I'm going to finish this screenplay and two synopsis. Then I've got two record eleven tracks in three months for the 'best of' albums. Then I've got to arrange all my touring for after the initial release of those. Then, believe it or not, and this is no bullshit, I want to concentrate on the rest of the world with America at the top of the list of priorities, and that is not a bullshit answer.
We've the letters written and a big box set to go to L.A. tomorrow. It should arrive in about three days and hopefully I can get a decision by the end of next week. If that comes through I'd like to do the 'best of' album as a domestic American release on a major label, hopefully by late summer.
Jon: What do you think your existing fan base over here is now?
Fish: It's difficult to say because the import/export trade from Europe is really shabby. The best we can reckon, based on what we've sent to distributors on your end is about 60 or 70,000 people. Obviously that hasn't been touched by the 'Suits' album yet.
I believe that would be the minimum if the fact that I exist and am putting albums out were opened up. I think the potential in America is better than any other country in the world because of the way I'm writing. Because of the sentiment of the songs, the style of the music, because of the humanity. It's not this grunge primal scream stuff and it's not a severally cultured folk kind of thing. It's in the middle, somewhere near Springsteen or Mellencamp. Somewhere near Tom Waits, but it's got it's own grind. I think it could work very, very well over there. It's open for a Scottish artist, and I think it's open especially for a male lyricist.
You've got your Sheryl Crows, you've got your Joni Mitchells and Susan Vegas, Tori Amos. People seem to think that guys, the male in general, can not deliver sensitive lyrics. Males can not deliver lyrics with depth. Guys can only do lyrics about being Cowboys or working on the railroad or how many women he's pulled. Real macho shit.
Jon: Like Philip Lynott.
Fish: Right, and I think there is room for a sensitive male lyricist and a performer as well without having to forget about being a good, ordinary sort of guy, but without being Country and Western either. I honestly believe that I can supply that end.
Jon: Well there's definitely a market for that sort of thing.
Fish: Yea. Why are women the only ones who are allowed to write this stuff? The sensitive, emotional, heartfelt lyrics? Why is it that girls are the only ones who are allowed to express real, heartfelt emotion? Guys have those things, too. It's just that it's hard for us to get that out.
Jon: Right. It's very cliché. Guys can only express emotion if it's angst or rage. Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots are examples of that.
Fish: Yea that's part of the male myth: we should only express emotion physically.
Jon: that seem to be a very American attitude.
Fish: Nah, I think it's guys in general. Guys are very suspicious of other guys who can twang heartstrings.
Jon: Right, they're probably a little light in their loafers.
Fish: Yeah, exactly.
Jon: When you think about it, the males who are considered good lyricists, Neal Peart for example, are very unemotional. The quality of lyrics that people are looking at is their ability to analyze, not feel or whatever. Their work is calculated. It might be deep, but there is little emotion to it.
Fish: Right. Do you know Robert Bly?
Fish: Great stuff, I've been getting into that lately. Robert Bly. The magician/lover/warrior/king stuff.
Jon: Yes, but this stuff is relatively out of the mainstream.
Fish: But it's only out of the mainstream because people have been ignoring them. I think a lot of guys are unwilling to even contemplate that side of themselves. The idea of the expression of masculinity is one of the ideas for the next original album, after the 'best of's. The whole idea of being a guy and feeling very limited in the ways that you can express yourself. I'm thinking of the warrior/lover, king/farmer thing and expanding upon it. I suppose it's like the new Sheryl Crow album, but trying to handle that in a masculine way. I think a lot of guys get nervous about this kind of thing. They think that you're trying to hide the fact of being gay or something. I'm trying, lyrically, to find a way to set that up. Things are starting to crystalize on the next album and I'm pretty excited by it. It's brave, and could be shot down. But at the same time it's exciting to try and think about these things without getting caught up in that cowboy sort of thing.
Jon: Well, there were a lot of gay cowboys, and a number of nervous cows I suspect.
Fish: (laughs) Yea, right.
Jon: Speaking of being brave, have you heard 'Brave'?
Fish: Yea. I found it absolutely boring after about two tracks. I just don't relate to it. But they're supposed to be the best band in Britain so who the fuck am I? I think the further I get away from that, the less aware I am of what they do. With 'Brave' I was more interested in seeing the movie that they made of the album. I thought that was a pile of shit. It used every cliché since 'Tommy' in the world. I found it really below par. It was a very boring, bland rock video that went on far too long. If you're making movies, there's this stuff called light and shade but there wasn't anything in that film. It was very down, very depressed. You knew from the beginning that you were on a downward spiral, there was no hope offered in it. I mean Bergman's done that, but he did it a lot better. I just didn t enjoy it. In fact, it put me off listening to the whole album.
Jon: I listened to it a few time all the way through and that was it. I found it kind of flat, although musically it was pretty cool.
Fish: Yea, that's what I got as well. The chord structures and the whole thing was flat. There was no space. It was a bit like going into a room that had been locked up for years and years and thinking I know this room, but it's a bit musty.
Jon: Right. I've been dying to ask you; what is 1470?
Fish: It's the catalog number of the oldest skull on exhibition at the national museum of Kenya in Nairobi. The skull in the graphics on the album are of 1470. It was once the oldest example of a human skull in existence. I was actually originally thinking of it in terms of a movie.
Jon: I never would have guessed that.
Fish: Yea, it's pretty obscure. Now listen to the lyrics with that in mind.
Jon: It changes it quite a bit. I thought it had to do with Henry VI or something. It's funny I didn't figure that out, my office is in the same building as the anthropologists.
Fish: Yea? I always wanted to be an archeologist. It's a cool job, but the money is shit. Plus you end up exploited. They give you a hat and then it's "here's a shovel: get digging". I wanted to do it when I was in school but I couldn't because I was terrible at Latin which you needed for the classics. It was the only thing I got minus marks on in school. I got caught cheating so they took ten points off of my paper, but I only managed to get 8 1/2 so...
Jon: What do you need Latin for?
Fish: Well it's a British thing, all the Roman shit.
Jon: Right, of course. I got out of taking languages by doing philosophy instead. Apparently philosophy is considered a language here. Oh, by the way, thanks for sending the CDs.
Fish: No problem, and thanks for the book. I imagine I'll get through it by July or August.
Jon: Yeah well, it's a little deep I guess, but they pay me for it.
Fish: There you are, then.
Jon: Well, I better run, my phone bill is getting huge I suppose.
Fish: Right, I'll keep in touch, take care of yourself.
Reproduced with permission from Jon Epstein.
Interview January 1995