Interview: Mark Gardener (Ride/The Animalhouse) – part 1
Published on January 17th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
It is a widely held belief that the phenomenon of Beatlemania, with all its now-quite-alien-seeming levels of hysteria, was something the likes of which we shall never see again. This is just as well, for it was the Fab Four’s inability to even hear themselves playing and singing over such pandemonium that led at least in part to their decision to stop performing live. In terms of a phenomenon still yet to be replicated, it is far more distressing to consider that we may never again witness such a steady, centralised flow of genuine musical inspiration as that which emanated from Alan McGee’s Creation Records from the late ‘80s right up to, but not quite including, the millennium.
The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, The Boo Radleys, Teenage Fanclub, Oasis, Super Furry Animals, Swervedriver, Slowdive: although “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” is traditionally the preserve of an older generation struggling to reconcile the inscrutable racket before them with popular music as they know and love it, Rocksucker is going to have to buck the trend by pining for the soaring, cacophonous guitars and fuzzy, rumbling adventure displayed by those aforementioned groups. Fleet Foxes are all well and good, but where’s the chutzpah gone?
You may be wondering why we left Ride out of the list above; well, that’s because we’re going to be writing about them for the next few paragraphs. Born on the night of the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert in 1969, Mark Gardener entered the world to a backdrop of chaos and creation, a dynamic reinforced by a childhood spent listening to his uncle’s record collection while his mother dragged a vacuum cleaner around the home. Gardener would later credit this early exposure to great tunes swamped by industrial noise as a blueprint for the band’s sound, and it’s tempting at this juncture to draw your attention back to the clash of melody and maelstrom described in the opening paragraph of this very article.
Though not quite on the scale of Beatlemania – after all, nothing shall ever be again – Ride were a phenomenon in their own right. Almost supernaturally accomplished as a band before they’d even exited their teen years, their 1990 debut album Nowhere was such a bolt from the blue that even its front cover was simply a picture of a single wave in an ocean. Still held up alongside Loveless as one of the defining “shoegaze” records (even though the sheer energy and dynamism of Ride’s performances should arguably have precluded them from such terminology), it made stars of the youngsters and paved the way for two subsequent albums of dreamy, harmonious fuzz-rock bliss, namely 1992’s Going Blank Again and 1994’s Carnival of Light.
However, the non-stop partying concomitant with life on the roster of Creation saw to it that this particular Ride was an all-too-brief one. Gardener fell out with guitarist and co-songwriter Andy Bell (later of Oasis, Hurricane #1 and now of Beady Eye, of course), with the latter penning the vast majority of poorly received 1996 swansong Tarantula. Despite the souring of this dream, the party rumbled on for Gardener as his Oxford pad became a hive of recreational activity for friends and associates alike; that is, until he fled to a walnut orchard in France in order to get away from all the madness, although not before teaming up with Supergrass producer Sam Williams to write and record 2000’s bloody marvelous Ready to Receive album as The Animalhouse.
Sublime, harmony-soaked solo debut These Beautiful Ghosts followed in 2005, recorded with the sadly defunct Goldrush as his backing band, and as things stand that remains the last notch on the bedpost of his discography (unless you happen to count co-writing the song “Monkey Powder” with Anton Newcombe for The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 2008 album My Bloody Underground, or indeed providing the soundtrack for Danny O’Connor’s superb Creation documentary film Upside Down.
These days, Gardener has his own studio in Oxford named Ox-4-Sound where he produces and mixes for a number of other artists (see his website for more details), seemingly content to embrace a life of relative peace and studio wizardry. Nosy parkers that we are, Rocksucker wanted to know more; fortunately, an affable and relaxed-sounding Gardener was only too happy to oblige…
Ride – “Vapour Trail” (from Nowhere)
What are you working on at the moment in the studio?
I’m working on a project called Sotto, who are a trio from LA I met last year while I was out there doing a Joshua Tree gig, which was great. It’s really nice – they’ve got a kind of psychedelic country vibe, if that makes sense!
Sounds tailor-made for you to chip in with some harmonies…
Yeah, there are some nice harmonies, and different singers need to come to the fore. I’ve got a few bits and pieces going on at the moment as per usual, which is good because that’s how I want it, really.
You’ve talked in the past about how much you learned from Sam Williams in terms of production, and didn’t you once get to work in Dave Fridmann’s studio?
Yeah, me and Sam sort of constructed our own studio during the Animalhouse project, and that’s when we first started to embrace using technology alongside the kind of thing we were already doing, so that project was a big learning curve for both of us. I certainly got some good tips from Sam because he’s been producing for years. Dave Fridmann, I basically got to work in his studio in Buffalo when I recorded half of the stuff for my solo album with Goldrush. I had Bill Racine as my engineer, who works alongside Dave Fridmann for all the Flaming Lips stuff, and The Flaming Lips were good enough to lend us all their kit, because we were touring around America at that time.
I also learned a lot from working with people like John Leckie and George Drakoulias back in the day, also Alan Moulder from an engineering and sound perspective. I’ve always been interested in production and, when I’ve been in studios, it’s a process I wanted to demystify, you know? I’ve always enjoyed sitting in on it and getting to grips with it. In a way, the technical side kind of becomes more invisible; you just deal with the music, the musicians, and getting the best sound out of the speakers. So there’s definitely a certain amount of science involved that you do need to get your head around. (Laughs)
Ride – “Leave Them All Behind” (from Going Blank Again)
You’ve said that you’re not a schooled or trained musician, which is an approach that can really be conducive to creativity. Do you find the same thing with production?
I do. I’m sure good people come out of schools of audio engineering and those sorts of places, but some of the ones I’ve met are like droids because they’ve been in an environment which isn’t real, in a way. I think you really start to learn when you’re doing it, dealing with bands and people. I sort of taught myself to play guitar, and to sing, play bass; it’s always come out of passion, for me. Also having lots of stuff in the studio, like Moogs and things like that, my approach is really to be a bit like a kid in a toyshop, just wanting to make noises. I probably do things differently to how I would if I was properly classically trained. I mean, I really admire people who are musicians in orchestras and things like that, amazing at what they do, but I think it can sometimes limit imagination and creativity, you know?
Lennon and McCartney couldn’t read music, apparently.
Yeah. I mean, I can read chords and understand music to a certain extent, but if you stuck a load of crotchets and minims in front of me and said “play that!” then I’d be a bit lost, really! You know, I can understand it when it’s something like “play the chord of C!” but to sit with a feather and start writing a symphony, I don’t do it like that. It’s all by ear, from what I’m hearing, putting notes together. There are a lot of things that classically you might not put together, but you know…especially with the soundtrack work I did for the Creation film, I was sending the people editing it some really discordant, weird shit, which actually worked better than stuff that sounded nicer, if you know what I mean! It was totally ‘elbows and hands on the keys’ and making really weird noises in the background for the bit where Alan McGhee’s talking about his drug psychosis, and stuff like that. In a way, everything needs its own approach, and I’m just a music lover and enthusiast first and foremost so I’m quite happy that this is my job. (Laughs)
Are there any plans for a follow-up to These Beautiful Ghosts?
I’ve always got plans for it but I always seem to get caught up in working on other people’s albums at the moment! That helps pay the mortgage and put food on the table. Making that album did leave me a bit broke because I’d put a fair bit of money to make it work and do it exactly how I wanted to do it, going into Fridmann’s studio and stuff like that. What I learned from that was to become more self-sufficient and gradually get a studio together, which I’ve got now. I would like to do another – I think it would be a more experimental sort of album, an Eno-y sort of album but still with songs in there – and I do plan to get something done in the next year, yeah. Now I’ve got a studio I can do it in, I wouldn’t be running up loads of costs, so there is a plan for that, yeah.
Do you still write songs on the guitar?
Yeah, absolutely, and I always will because I think the mark of a great song is being able to stand and play it with just a voice and a guitar, but I think around that you can muck around with things a lot more now. I’ve always liked the idea of mixing things that don’t normally sit together, avoiding the “now he’s done his country album” thing. I Neil Young-y music, but then I also love Boards of Canada and that sort of stuff, so it’ll be some sort of mix of those things I think! In my mind, it could be something really interesting (laughs). In saying that, though, it could end up being a French folk album or something. God knows. It’s just all music that moves me and I want to use that to hopefully move others.
Mark Gardener – “Snow in Mexico” (from These Beautiful Ghosts)
Martin Carr from your erstwhile label mates The Boo Radleys has put out some great stuff that comes close to matching that description, under the name bravecaptain. (Thinking on, Carr’s wonderful 2009 album Ye Gods (and little fishes) album shares a fair bit of common ground with These Beautiful Ghosts.)
Okay, I’m not really aware of that. Maybe if I listen to that then I’ll be like, “Oh shit – forget it, it’s been done!” (Laughs) I think whatever I do I’ll put my stamp on it; my voice sounds a certain way, and I’m into that ‘hypnotic’ way of writing songs…but yeah, I’ll have to check out bravecaptain!
I suppose Super Furry Animals, another great Creation band, have touched on that sort of stuff as well.
Yeah, they did. We’d pretty much split by that point so I didn’t catch up with Super Furries until later. A couple of years ago I did a little unannounced gig with Adam Franklin from Swervedriver, did a few songs together before Super Furry Animals came on in Cardiff for one of the Upside Down screening nights. They were absolutely brilliant. I hadn’t really seen them until then, even though I’d always liked the records, so it was great to see them and meet them as well. Gruff’s great! When I think about Creation now, it just had that ethos of people who were committed to the art first and foremost, and I think that’s why it worked so well. I still feel really strongly about that and the independent movement because things have got pretty ‘coffee table’ since then.
I know everything’s changed but I still believe in fighting and keeping things independent, and from talking to people and hearing things I think there is a good independent movement happening again. You can kind of do it yourself these days, without record labels, and I think that’s really important because otherwise we’re just going to be awash with dull, Simon Cowell coffee table music. I’ve been really encouraged by the bands I’ve worked with, which you can see on my site. There are plenty of good, interesting bands out there still, as I think there always will be, so I’m definitely not feeling jaded by it all. The way it’s listened to and consumed now is different, but that’s okay. It has to go with the changes!
In the past, you’ve escaped to places like France and India to get away from it all and refresh yourself. Do you still find you need to get away from time to time, or are you too busy now to do that?
I don’t get away so much because I’ve been busy, but I find that I kind of ‘get away’ in my head a lot, in the studio. That’s my ‘getting away’ as much as anything. At that point in my life I really did need those trips as I felt burnt-out after ten years or so of the Creation days and then my life in Oxford, where it had become a bit of a party lifestyle after Ride split and all of that, so staying at a walnut orchard in France was kind of needed for a couple of years, just to get away from it all. Since then, I’ve slowly made my way back via Spain, America and six months in India, which was great. Without wanting to sound like Sting, I kind of found myself at an ashram in India and I got into yoga as a way of maintaining sanity while dealing with musicians! (Laughs)
As a slight sidetrack, what are Goldrush up to these days?
I don’t think they’re operating as a band anymore. I know they had a bit of a nightmare with the Truck festival last year, which is organised by the Bennett brothers from Goldrush; I think it went bankrupt last year, so I think they might be still dealing with the fallout from that. But they’ve always been good at getting music things going locally, and there are always things going on in Oxford. They’re very proactive with these kind of things so I’m sure it won’t be long before you hear something from them.
The Animalhouse – “Ready to Receive”
Ride and Supergrass are two bands that were almost freakishly accomplished before they were even out of their teens, while the members of Radiohead met at school. Is there something in the water in Oxford, or do you think there’s a more straightforward explanation for this phenomenon? Perhaps the greater proliferation of open spaces is more conducive to kids being able to rehearse properly than in more compact urban areas…?
Actually, there’s just been a film made about that called Anyone Can Play Guitar, which tells you why they think it happened, and why it didn’t happen for lots of other people as well. But yeah, I agree, I think there’s something in the water. Or the weed! I’m not quite sure why it worked like it did, but we got together with other Oxford bands at screenings of the film; I was with Ed [O’Brien] from Radiohead and Gaz from Supergrass, and Ed said that Ride opened the doors, made everyone in Oxford realise what was possible. I remember Gaz coming to our shows back then and he was so young at the time, so we were very aware of him, also because our manager-at-the-time’s assistant started looking after The Jennifers, who would become Supergrass. So I think they just dived into the venues early.
Oxford has got that kind of infrastructure, like a scene but not like the Manchester scene or anything like that; people were getting into gigs early, seeing bands and getting inspired. I suppose Oxford’s always been a place that’s known for the great writers who came from here, but from travelling around the world I think people are aware that some great bands come from here as well.
Where would you rehearse in the early days? Good quality, affordable studio space seems to be quite hard to come by here in London…
Yeah, exactly. In Oxford, there’s always been a really good infrastructure for that. We used to rehearse at a place in Cumnor called Coldroom Studios, where we’d be going in while Radiohead would be leaving, and then Supergrass would come in after us! It was kind of like that for a while. That place worked really well and it kind of expanded a bit; certainly as well as rehearsal spaces there were recording spaces you could use. We recorded our first EP underneath a house in East Oxford, and it was rare at that point to find a pretty country studio where you could make records.
The rehearsal spaces are still there, and now Evolution Studios has just opened, which I’ve kind of been a bit involved with as well, along with Sam Williams. He’s now built them and we’ve got the Trident mixing desk, which is the one that was in Sawmills; they always had two so we put all the modules together and made one. That was the desk that recorded The Stone Roses, The Verve, Supergrass, Ride…loads of amazing records were recorded through it, and that’s now just opened in Oxford. You’d think opening a studio in the current climate would be mad as loads have been closing, but in Oxford it makes sense because we make sure that local bands can come and use it at good rates, as well as people from outside Oxford, from all over the place. Obviously I’ve got my own studio in Oxford now as well but that’s more just a mixing space.
Then you’ve got Tim Turan who’s been mastering everything, from Slade’s back catalogue to the entire 2 Tone catalogue and Gaz Coombes’ new album. He just does everybody; his client list is just ridiculous. So we’ve still got a way for bands to rehearse, record and then have their records mixed and then mastered. It’s all contained in Oxford, and I think that’s good because these are the same people that have been doing it for twenty-five years, you know? They’re still alive, which is good! (Laughs) It’s still happening and everyone’s still busy with it, which is great.
Click here to read part 2 of Rocksucker’s interview with Mark Gardener, in which we discuss Ride’s back catalogue, Creation Records, The Animalhouse and what happened to his proposed collaboration album with Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins…