Mark Morriss releases his fourth solo album ‘Look Up’ today via independent record label Reckless Yes. Perhaps best known as the frontman of indie band The Bluetones, Mark Morriss is now well into a solo career and with the release of fourth album ‘Look Up’ we find his most creative work yet.
Having been recorded through a crowdfunding campaign in 2016, ‘Look Up’ is now set for a full release across vinyl, CD and digital. Those expecting straightforward acoustic songwriting are in for a surprise as this is an album meticulously and skillfully constructed to create brilliantly melodic and catchy tracks from a musical spectrum taking in Country, folk, Americana, Prog, soundtracks, and classic pop. Mark Millar caught up with Mark Morriss to talk about the new album, playing live and The Bluetones.
Your new album Look Up was recorded in 2016, funded by a Pledge Music campaign. Why has it taken so long to release it? Was it anything to do with Pledge collapsing?
MM: No, it was nothing to do with Pledge collapsing - it was all done and dusted way before that shit hit the fan. It was 2017 when I finished the record, so it's been sat on the shelf for two years for several reasons. A few personal things were going on that distracted me and took my eye off many things and what I wanted to do with the record. Also, many of the songs were written quite quickly at the end of the breakdown of my relationship. And it would have been weird to be promoting the album when it was all so fresh. So I decided to put it in my back pocket for a little while and wait until I could be a bit more focussed on the record itself rather than everything collapsing around me in my personal life, to put it mildly. (Laughs)
Time has passed, and the record has been sat on the shelf - I'm very proud of it. I had a chance conversation with Sarah from RecklessYes records at the end of last year, and she expressed an interest in getting involved to help me put the record out. I had the wind taken out of my sails by a few things that happened in 2017 with the breakdown of my marriage and all that sort of shit, but time is a healer. It's such a cliché, but the passing of time allowed me to have a bit more distance from the record and a bit more objectivity from it and think, “I've got to get off my arse and share this thing now.” I had worked so hard on it, and then to get to the end of the process and to have some distance from it was strange. It was a weird time, but now I can see the record from a bit of distance, and now I don't feel as emotionally tangled with it as I was at the time.
You are putting the album out with the small independent label RecklessYes. Why did you decide to go with them?
MM: I had been with Acid Jazz before that, and they released my previous two records, but their circumstances changed, and they were no longer as independent as they had been. They were bought out, and there was going to be a bit of a shift around there with personnel changes, so it felt like a completely new label. I had enjoyed working with Acid Jazz, but everyone I had worked with had gone. It was a mutual decision to leave – I just wanted a fresh start, and speaking to Sarah and Pete at RecklessYes struck me as they were a much smaller company. They have a more direct liaison with the artist, and there's much less within lines of communication which is always the problem – too many cooks spoil the broth. I wanted to scale it all down because I manage myself, and if I'm dealing with a load of people all the time, it becomes a bit of a head fuck! Now I'm just dealing with two people about everything, including distribution, artwork, and videos - it's a much easier way of getting stuff done.
Did you go into the recording with any preconceived ideas about how it should sound and the kind of songs you wanted to write about?
MM: Not as a whole – I had four or five cornerstone songs. It's like building a house – you erect those, and then you stick your walls around it. It's a complicated process to try and make sound logical, but I had many songs, and I had a lot of music and melodies. The lyrics of some of the songs wrapped themselves up quite quickly towards the end of the process when everything started to go wrong in my personal life; I suddenly felt inspired. (Laughs) I think that's quite a common reaction to those kinds of circumstances. I didn't have an overall overarching theme – I never do. It’s always a case of getting these four or five songs together that you think, "Okay, they help me identify the character of the record."
The albums sound is very diverse; you explore different music styles such as Country, Folk, '70s sci-fi soundtracks, and classic pop.
MM: I think it was the case that I wanted to push myself a little harder in certain areas. I know what I can do in my sleep regarding the indie-pop thing – that's very easy for me. Being my fourth record, I wanted to expand my sound a little bit and be more ambitious with certain things. It's my tenth record all in all, but it's my fourth solo record, and I've tried not to go over the same ground again each time. I have worked with Gordon, the producer, since 2001, and we have excellent communication – it’s all intuitive, and a lot of it is unspoken. We can use buzz words with each other, and we both know what each other means. He's got good taste and a good ear, and it is just like two halves of the same whole. The record is as much his at it is mine – all of them are.
Some lyrics on Look Up are informed by the EU Referendum result, and the cultural disassociation felt as a result. Three years down the line from the album was recorded. How do you feel about the way things are now with the country.
MM: I have found it absurd - I am mixed, in my opinion. The fact that it hasn't gone through gives me hope that it won't go through, and the people and our government will see sense and not do this. I'm not talking about all the economic ramifications of leaving the EU – that's not something that I completely understand. It's more the philosophical element and what it says. I don't want to feel like a stranger in my own country, and that's how I feel about this. I have always been proud to be British because it's always been a very accepting group of nations, and now we are saying we want to be isolated, which jars with me on a philosophical level.
That doesn't feel like me - it doesn't feel like my home and what I associate my home with being for my whole life. So that's what angers me, and that's what upsets me and saddens me. I can look around my nation and feel like a stranger, and I think we need to fix that, and I don't think the solution is isolationism. We only formed the EU to stop us from having wars - it’s not about straight bananas. It’s about peace in our time. People have such short memories.
There are some great guitar solos on the record, especially on the songs 'But Still' and 'Rimini' - Is that you playing?
MM: No! (Laughs) The guitar solo on 'Rimini' is an old college friend of mine, and he's a great guitarist. He's not an active musician anymore, but he's always been a proper metalhead, and that's the sound I wanted - I wanted a Dave Gilmour guitar solo. So I phoned him up and sent him the track and said, "I want you to be Dave Gilmour for the afternoon." And he came along and nailed it. Mike Wilton plays on 'But Still' - he and I have a lot of the same tastes, and I said to him, "I want it to be like an Arthur Lee from Love guitar solo where it builds." I just had to say that to him, and he did it in three takes. I am fortunate that I know these talented people, and we share similar tastes.
Is there a particular song on the new album that you thought, "this is why I'm doing this?
MM: It was the song 'But Still' that was one of the first songs I wrote for the record. It was 'But Still,' 'Mother Moon, 'Poor Me', and 'All the Wrong People.' It was those four songs that I’d written where I felt like I might be heading towards having an album. I don't do it because I have to do it - I do it because I can't help but do it, and you never know when you might be spent. It's a relief to think I've still got something in there, and I still have some excellent ideas buzzing around inside.
I love the artwork for Look Up; it's very interesting; what was the idea behind it?
MM: I farmed it out to a friend of mine - a guy called Chris, who I've known for years, who is an art director who had worked on several magazines. When he was working for Playboy - he sent me about a dozen different ideas in terms of feel and flavour for the record, and one of them was a sketch picture for what ended up being the artwork. I liked it because it’s kind of cheeky. And I know some people have seen it and said they were disappointed that I've gone down that road. Look - it’s a joke. It’s a reference to the album title again. It's like 'lookup' you are looking at someone's knees. It's not saying look down; it's not saying look at these. (Laughs) But I liked it because I thought Chris got the cheekiness of the title and the flavour of what I do, I guess.
Did you find it hard to adjust to making music by yourself when the Bluetones folded?
MM: No, not really - I found it quite liberating, and that's not to say that my relationship within the Bluetones has ever been restricted, but it’s a democracy being in a band, or if you are in the right kind of group it’s a democracy. And it was nice being a bit more autocratic and not having to discuss song structures or anything and just being able to get on with it – that was quite pleasant. I enjoyed working with other people, having worked with The Bluetones for my whole adult life. It was nice to work with other musicians and hang out with them and have their ideas come to the fore – it was great. But at the same time, I still love working with the band – it’s still my favourite thing.
In 1996 I had the Bluetones album Expecting to Fly on constant rotation. When the band was together, you had 14 top ten singles and 3 top ten albums. What were your highlights from the time in the band?
MM: I do have particular highlights, like Polaroid memories like flashes rather than anything else. The first time we flew into Japan, for example, the clouds broke, and I saw the coastline of Japan – that was magical because it suddenly felt, "shit man, this is real, this is actually happening." It was the same when we went to America. We hardly did any shows there, but just being there and playing our songs in those days felt like a dream come true – it was our ambition realized. It’s nothing to do with achieving fame or money or positions in the charts - it was more a sense of my friends and me and my gang had done this on our own terms and our own merit – it felt very satisfying.
Could there be any new music from The Bluetones in the future?
MM: Well, I think it's inevitable, although I don't know in what form it will arrive. We have been playing the old songs now for the last three or four years, and we know them all inside out, so in rehearsals, we spend an hour and a half blasting through the old songs and then we spend the rest of the day mucking about and seeing what happens. I think it's inevitable that something will bubble up next year so that we will see what. I don’t think it will be an album - maybe it will be a couple of EPs or something.
Do you approach songwriting differently with The Bluetones than you do for your solo work?
MM: Yeah, I do. When I'm writing with The Bluetones, I don't get everything as finished as I would. I have to get the songs to a certain level, then I present them to the band and ask them what they think, and see if they have got any ideas or if they want to change anything, so the burden of arranging songs is shared.
You are always on tour, and these days it seems to make a career bands and artists have to be always on the road. How have you adapted to this?
MM: Yeah, it’s always been in me - I love being on the road, and I love touring and performing. I don't understand why you would want to be a musician and not want to be playing as much or as often as you can. I never understood the process before where you would make a record, spending a year or so writing and recording it, and then you tour it for a year, then you are off the road for a year, and you get rusty. You get a sense of distance from being in front of a crowd and alienation from that whole experience – it's better to be in it all the time and work the creative side around it. You only really learn in front of an audience – you only learn when you are up there in the moment.
Are you still able to find time to write songs on the road?
MM: Oh yeah, more than ever - I was never particularly good at it before because being on the road meant I was with my gang, so there were too many distractions. (Laughs) But now it’s a much more solitary thing, and I do tend to get more productive as well.
Do you have a record that you always return to?
MM: I have a few - Forever Changes by Love is probably the classic one. It always gets a turnout every year. There’s not a summer or a winter that goes by without me playing that. Also, Harvest by Neil Young, The Queen is Dead by the Smiths, and this might sound unusual, but Rio by Duran Duran. All their stuff gets a little bit sneered at because of the time it was made and because of the nature of pop music back then, but that record is pretty flawless.
What are you most grateful for about being able to be a musician every day?
MM: The hours are good, and I don't have a boss. I look forward to doing what I do every day - I don't know what to do with myself when I've got nothing to do. I can look forward to some time off, and then after a day and a half, I go out of my mind. I like the fact that I've got something to look forward to all of the time – I think that's a real luxury and a blessing.
Look Up Tracklist:
2 Roll Away
3 All The Wrong People
4 Holiday Of A Lifetime
5 Poor Me, Poor Me
6 Cowboy Juice
7 But, Still...
9 All You Talk About
10 The Beans
11 Mother Moon
Almost constantly on tour, check Mark Morriss’ website for the latest dates, including dates with Starshaped Club throughout September. He will also do in-store performances for Truck in Oxford on 10 October and Vinyl Tap in Huddersfield on 14 December. More info to follow.