Shoegaze veterans Mark Gardener and Robin Guthrie have released their latest collaboration, the excellent new album ‘Universal Road’, I caught up with Mark Gardener recently to hear all about it.
How did the album with Robin Guthrie come about?
Pretty organically really, I knew Robin from the early Ride, Cocteau Twins days we did a lot of tours with Lush and people who had worked with Robin, so we had crossed paths a few times, but I guess back then we were on different kinds of drugs, he was sort of flying around a bit and I was in a stoned cloud as well. It was a bit like passing ships at that point and then as time went on Robin came to Oxford to promote one of his solo records about 9 – 10 years ago, doing a little tour of picture houses where he was playing music with images in the cinema. So he when he came to the Oxford one he asked me to DJ there which I kind of did but actually ended up talking after his show having a curry and a proper meet, and it was then we decided to at least do a track together. Which became “The Places We Go” which was an online release, it came out about 7 years ago.
We thought that worked out really well and had lots of positive noise about that, and then we thought at some point we should do an album or a tour and just do more really. Two years ago I went over and at that time I knew that Robin was going to do a tour with his band and I was going to support him with my acoustic looped show thing. We thought it would be really nice to let people know we had been collaborating together and do a song together which was called “Dice“. I would come on for the encores with Robin and his 3 piece band then we started to do “Dice”, showing it off live, we thought that worked out well and then a few months after that I went over thinking we will do a few more tracks and after 2 weeks we had pretty much 6-7 tracks together and we were happy with the flow of it so I thought ill just stay here another week or 2 and by that time we had made an album.
The actual recording of the album was quite a short and quick process which was nice because that was the way we both like to work, the tricky bit was at that time both of us were busy doing mixing and production with other bands and trying to find slots where we could get together, so that’s how it all came about really.
When writing the album did you both sit down to write together or did you each bring individual ideas to the table?
We were pretty much in the room together all the time, he would have an initial song idea or I would come in with some chord sequences. Robin was really good at saying “great that’s good lets now work and get a structure together”, so most of those songs were pretty well structured in an hour or 2 really, even from simple chords. we knew with the song “Dice” that we wanted to do something interesting with the ending, that the rest of the song wasn’t doing. As soon as we got a song structure together I would always stay in the room but I’d go to my laptop or notebook or whatever. Robin would then start to get the rhythm track together, drums, bass and beautiful guitar sounds. I loved it, it was a very conducive atmosphere for me to sit in, then I would start writing thoughts and ideas quickly.
Usually by the evening and by the time we got a track pretty much in shape I was usually ready either that evening or the next day to throw vocal ideas at it, and then obviously we would bounce those ideas I had between us until we felt things were good. That’s pretty much how most of it came about, and certainly some of the tunes Robin had knocking about that he didn’t know quite what to do with and needed extra writing so there was some of that and also me with ideas that I had. I loved it, it was a nice place to be in rural France if you set the scene, there is no real distraction there, and the nature of the way that Robin works and his sounds, I love it. I was a big Cocteau Twins fan, I loved being around Robin and being in the room and hearing that sound that he does so well.
Usually by the evening we would start opening bottles of red wine to get the ying and put some yang in there as well (laughs) to go with the flow of it all really.
It’s a great collaboration and it works really well on the album, but it’s a collaboration I’d never seen coming, even though both your bands came from a similar place sonically.
Yeah I suppose, I really like loads of Robin’s instrumental stuff as well. Robin has been used to working with Liz Fraser who is an incredible vocalist and I think after that he was quite happy to do the instrumental stuff but obviously I have a voice that doesn’t do his head in and he was happy to work with (laughs). He has done a few vocal collaboration things with other people, with us it felt like it worked really well. There is maybe a similarity with our bands but we also come from quite different places as well. That’s what I like with my collaborations is you never quite know, it’s always different, I have done stuff with Brian Jonestown Massacre and all sorts of people really. It keeps it fresh and interesting working with different people, you never develop that fatigue of “Oh here we are on our 4th album and its the same people in the room” , things can spark in different ways, and I also consider Robin to be a great friend and he’s an interesting guy to talk to. I think We both felt that thing that happens when you’ve been successful in a band, afterwards you can feel like you are in an odd space and plus I also lived in the wilds of France for 3 or 4 years and he is still in the wilds of France.
There was some sort of synergy with how we felt about bands that we’ve been in and its quite hard for people to accept you doing anything that isn’t those bands really, it’s quite weird, I think we both feel that but at the same time we both continue to make beautiful lovely music buts it’s not quite so easily marketed or so easily taken in by people because it isn’t Ride or the Cocteau Twins, its us! We just wanted it to appear as Mark Gardener and Robin Guthrie rather than put a veil of a band name around it because this is exactly what it is really.
I find it’s a very nocturnal album, I have found myself listening to it late at night.
I think that’s good, I suppose in a way it’s a little but cathartic because a lot of the lyrical content did come from those discussions with Robin about how you can feel a bit lost sometimes, it’s obviously tongue and cheek as well, like the song “Yesterdays News” is saying “It can get weird after you have been in a band or whatever but at the same time we would still rather be doing this than anything else.” Which is kind of what that song is saying and those words for me sit well with Robins beautiful music and its about trying to get those 2 things to sit together without jarring in a way. Robin has always made beautiful sounding records from the Cocteau Twins on wards, that’s what he does and I think he a real genius for that.
Is this album the beginning of a new musical relationship that will produce more music?
We hope so but obviously Ride coming back overshadowed the release of this completely but I thought once we had gone through the initial mad phase with Ride that it was time to give it a push and PR to try and get it to radio a bit.
I have a little time now cos now we are into doing festivals at weekends with Ride rather than having 3 weeks away in one block. At the moment I hope that it’s given a fair hearing and people respond to it well and if we sell enough to make us feel that we would like to play some shows with this then I would say that it would definitely lead to another record. We both really love the record and believe in the quality of it.
It’s great that Ride are back together, how are the shows going?
It’s been amazing they have been going really really well, it’s one of those things really our legacy was so strong that the one thing to do is come back and play and not be so good. I think we all had that in mind and we all realised that some bands can come back and be better than what they were, that was the challenge for us. We headlined Primavera recently and are headlining a lot of other festivals, that’s a lot of big shows for us. We took it very seriously and made lots and lots of little adjustments, which made a big difference in the end to make the sound and everything bigger and better than what it was before. I believe that we can do it well on a big stage without turning into Coldplay if you know what I mean. I love the fact of being able to have a big stage and a lot of people, like Primavera for example there might have been a thousand people there that knew about Ride or maybe 500 hundred hardcore Ride fans but then there’s 50.000 + standing there wondering whats going on? (laughs) and that great from my point of view I love it.
Iv’e really enjoyed presenting the more edgier psychedelic odd side of Ride on a big stage, I have to say it felt really great. I feel blessed that we have all been doing different things in the interim, Loz has been drumming with the Jesus and Mary Chain, Andy Bell has been quite well documented with Oasis and Beady Eye. Myself with collaborations, mixing and production. This time with Robin was one of those things, we have all been doing bits and pieces but at the end of the day its so nice to come back to a room with those guys like your first band your first love and realise there is a real special chemistry there that we probably appreciate more now than we ever did early on because we didn’t really understand it early on, it was our first band experience and we didn’t understand what a lot of the chemistry we had was, there was no distance on it we were kind of on the inside of it.
I personally thought in the last few years that there was some unfinished business with us and I thought it would be really sad to get to an older age were something like that could never have happened, so personally I am really pleased that we are doing this now, the whole world is different from what it was 20 years ago, there is great festivals all over the place, there is an audience who has been shouting at us collectively and individually for years to do this which we have taken note of. So people have called it, and we wanted to do it and we realise that 70–80% of the people at some of the shows were too young to be out there the first time. I think it’s nice that people are getting to see Ride now.
Now that Ride are back together and have been playing shows, have you been writing any new material together?
We basically have been really focused on playing these shows, when you know you’ve got Primavera coming along it really focuses your mind to try and make the shows brilliant. We know we have got big shows from now until November, and we think we look at it then. There is no plans to do it and there is no plans not to do it if you know what I mean, we’ve just got to get through all of these shows and give everybody what they want with the old stuff and I think we will see how we feel then. There is a good possibility for that but again you just can’t make plans like that, I have already been around the block enough to know that. In a way I’m just trying to enjoy the moment more because I’m totally aware that one minute somethings there and it’s feeling amazing then it’s gone, so now we are trying to live in the present and enjoy these festivals and shows we are playing and we will see where we are at in December.
Personally my favourite Ride album is “Going Blank Again”, do you have a favourite?
Yeah if I was pushed that would probably be my favorite Ride album as well. We have obviously talked about it a lot and we felt that the way it was working with us on that album was the best way. The 4 of us were in a good place and the way we all worked together on that record was really good. I think if we ever did do another record we would want to recreate that working way of how we worked on “Going Blank Again“.
The so called Shoegaze movement is enjoying a revival now, Ride are back together, Slowdive are touring and there has been the recent ‘Beautiful Noise’ Documentary, it seems like very good timing.
Yeah I guess, the timing was out of our hands in some ways, Andy Bell was pretty much nailed in with Oasis and Beady Eye, Loz was with The Jesus and Mary Chain, I have been busy with my production work. Things just needed to clear a bit, although Andy was looking at doing Beady Eye and Ride at one point, but that naturally cleared when Liam Gallagher called time on Beady Eye. We didn’t totally pick the time, I have to say we knew in the 3 few years that we were all kind of keen to do this, so I feel it need those 2-3 years to feel that, right now is the time to strike really.
I agree hopefully in the end Shoegaze or whatever you want to call it, I think a lot of those bands that you mention and a lot of those bands covered on “Beautiful Noise”, whatever they were, they made some great records and maybe at the time some things were a bit beaten by Grunge coming in and then everyone started waving flags for Britpop and what I thought was a lot of not very interesting bands really. I just think that a lot of those guys were a bit more substance over style maybe and styles come and go a little bit, but I think that substance has stood the test of time a bit better than maybe some of the more stylish things that came after it or whatever.
I think rightly the way things work now with word of mouth, the internet that if things have been good and are good people are generally finding them and there is a big calling to see those bands again and I think its great, I felt at the time and I still think now there is a lot of great music, a lot of those bands are really good, I think it’s great that they are getting the chance to do some big shows to be heard by a bigger audience again.
Ride were signed by Alan McGee to Creation Records who released some amazing music over the years, did you feel lucky to be on such a great label at the time?
Yeah we did, Creation gravitated to us and equally we gravitated straight to Creation and Alan McGee, he kind of stalked us in the early days to make sure that we would sign with Creation. Steve in Ride had worked in a record shop, he had already got his hands on My Bloody Valentine and some House of Love records they seemed to be on this new label called Creation. We just thought when you start hearing bands like that on a label, that it’s a great label, a real interesting independent label, rather than a few so called independent labels at that time that were all tied in with major labels which was basically signing a major deal, but Creation weren’t one of those.
We thought that’s great, so as soon as we realised that McGee was stalking us we thought, “That worked out alright” (laughs). No one could really understand what he was talking about half the time either, but we kind of got the impression that he really loved the band and there was nowhere else that we were going to sign really, so I think it was good judgement on both sides, and it was a great marriage because Creation and Alan believed in the people he signed because he would get to know them and get them all off their heads and really get to know them and therefore leave them to get on with the music, so you didn’t get these awful record company people coming in saying, “You should be doing this and that” which would never have worked with us, we were pretty head strong about the way that we wanted to do things and Creation understood that and that’s kind of why it worked so well, and not just for us, they let a lot of their bands do it that way.
That amount of freedom wouldn’t happen nowadays with labels.
I guess sometimes, sometimes not, sometimes it’s so that a lot people don’t have labels now, but yes I agree if suddenly the big labels got involved now, then they would definitely be having some say on stuff. We kind of ran into trouble with “Nowhere“, wondering who was going to mix it, Alan was there and suggested that Alan Moulder would be good for it. We knew that we had great stuff down but wondered who the hell was going to mix it. I don’t know how it works now with big labels, it seems really strange, I’m always happier working independently, I always have been. I have sort of flirted with being around major labels but its always been pretty disastrous and kind of like Spinal Tap. (laughs)
What inspired you to get into mixing and producing other bands?
I kind of always wanted to do it, I always sat on the mixing desk when Ride were recording, I always sat next to John Leckie and Alan Moulder. I always wanted to work out what they were doing and work out what they weren’t doing. I was always really into it and I think the real magic for me is making records and making things sound like a record so that’s the real wizardry or the magic, so I think it was the natural place to go. I am totally crazy and passionate, as we all are in Ride about music , so I think you need that and I think that is what drives it.
I only generally work with people who ignite that passion in me, then I like the challenge to try and help them or be the guy to get something sounding like a great record with the hope that maybe it will connect with people, but of course many times it doesn’t. You just hope that something you are going to do will make that kind of connection. I like that its not an exact science, I like working in that way I’m kind of a gear geek I like valves, compressors and all that sort of stuff. I learned a bit about the theory side as well as having kit where I just feel like a kid in a toy shop turning knobs and not really know what I’m doing which I think I always keep an element of that which keeps it fun and experimental as well. Everyone you work with and deal with has different needs and that keeps it all interesting to me.
Would bands you work with ask you for advice?
Sometimes yeah, for everyone I work with I just feel how tough it is for them to make a full time thing out of it, it’s really tough, and certainly working with vocalists and stuff I know that a lot of bands pay for things themselves, gone are the days where bands sit around smoking loads of pot waiting for inspiration to happen. When people are paying for it themselves they basically get on with it. A lot of the time for me is spent trying to take the stress out of the situation and to try and keep people feeling relaxed knowing that that’s generally when people come up with their best delivery or vocal or best performance. I try to keep it as live and as real as possible.
Do you get the same satisfaction producing bands as you do writing and recording your own stuff?
Yes in kind of a weird way I do it’s a different feeling, I say to the bands that I work with, that my work is only done when your completely 100% happy with it. It’s never like “Guys its done!” I’m not that sort of guy. It’s only when everyone says, “That’s great now” that it’s time for the next thing, but I have to say its been lovely working with Ride again in the rehearsal room.
What do you thing of the current crop of streaming services such as Tidal and Apple Music?
I’m totally with my friend Anton Newcombe from Brian Jonestown Massacre, he had a big fight with Apple. I think its disgusting that Apple think they can take people’s music for free for 3 months, it’s just awful, it really disgusts me it’s difficult enough as it is for musicians and music let alone when you’ve got people doing that. More money needs to come through to the artist otherwise your just killing it really.
The Guthrie / Gardener album is a perfect example, 20 years ago or whatever we would expect to sell like thousands of that album, but now on that album if we don’t get enough sales on it, it’s going to be hard for us to make another one. We aren’t trying to make a lot of money it’s just you need something to keep going to be able to create more music, and people think now with the Ride reunion that we are getting payed good money and we are getting paid better money for some of the shows, but when I go back ten years of scraping production budgets together which isn’t easy, its difficult and actually a builder has probably been on more money that I have been on over the past 15 years. Production budgets used to be 20–30 grand and now your lucky to get 2 or 3 grand really or if you get 5 grand for an album that’s great, it’s such a massive difference now, but I love doing music so as long as I can scrape any sort of living together doing it then ill keep doing it, it’s as simple as that.
I think that corporations really need to look after artists much better but the difficult thing is if they do that people will still share files. We always used to tape music and I think that’s fine, but file sharing is so just the way to do things now for the younger generation but its really making it so tough for so many artists.
Experts are predicting that subscriptions for Apple Music will be huge and that will mean Apple will be able to pay artists more than other streaming services such as Spotify.
They need to because Spotify is just ridiculous it’s a joke when you look at how much streaming that goes on and how little comes though to the artist it’s crazy! (laughs) It is good in some ways it can make people hear the music then go and watch us at a festival, you get paid better at festivals but that’s a complete turnaround because festivals back in the day were free. Everyone would come to the festivals for free, they would see a band then go and buy their records but now it’s completely the other way it couldn’t be more different now. And that’s why bands are doing lots of festivals now because that’s going to be their income now or gigs from playing live, and that’s good because it can be quite a good income. It’s great doing that, I love doing that and will always be happy doing it, even if were not making so much money these days. Robin Guthrie will tell you the same it’s kind of the same struggle for him he has a family as I do and its hard to keep going.
(Since this interview Apple have said they will pay all artists for any streams during the free 3-month trial period)
Are there any plans to bring the Ride tour to Ireland?
There isn’t any plans but we are going to find a way to do it I’d love to come and play Belfast and Dublin again, I think it’s a matter of time. It was a subject on the tour bus that Ireland has missed out a bit at the moment, we have lots of good ties and fond memories of Ireland so we will try and find a way to do some shows there at some point.
So what is next for Mark Gardener?
We have got a little bit of time off, a couple of weeks and then we are basically doing festivals and touring until November and also in that time I’m hoping to see how the Guthrie / Gardener album has done along the way, so that’s as far as I’m seeing at the moment which takes me to December.
Find out about upcoming Ride Tour dates: HERE