Pugwash... Living the rock star lifestyle
Published on April 7th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Pugwash front man Thomas Walsh looks excited darting around in the Brixton offices of their new UK label Lojinx, photographing all sorts and scanning a CD copy of his band’s latest album The Olympus Sound as if it was the first time he’d seen it. Given that it had been available digitally in Ireland and is only now being readied for a physical release, it probably was the first time.
We’d met before; in fact, the very first interview to appear on Rocksucker was this half-cricket-half-music-based chat at The Oval with Thomas and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, who at the time were promoting their still-dazzling 2009 record as The Duckworth Lewis Method. As such, there was a sense of having come full circle when I had the honour of a private audience with Thomas, Tosh Flood, Shaun McGee and Joey Fitzgerald, the four men who comprise this bloody brilliant band, at a particularly noisy Costa in order to discuss The Olympus Sound, their astonishing array of celebrity fans, their recent nomination for Ireland’s prestigious Meteor Choice Music Prize, and why forging the Pope’s signature can be fun. First though, a choice cut from the new ‘un…
For the benefit of your UK audience, what can we expect from The Olympus Sound? Feel free to be as abstract as you like…
Thomas: You can expect fifteen tracks, which is three more than the rest of the world has got so far. It’s our most accomplished record, definitely. It’s a co-production between Tosh and I, and before this I’d only ever really co-produced with Neil before, and a bit with Keith Farrell on early Pugwash stuff. We did eighteen tracks in three days, which is no mean feat by anybody’s standards.
(A comically loud combo of police and ambulance sirens goes wailing past just outside.)
If we’re getting fifteen, and you recorded eighteen, what’s happening with the other three?
Thomas: Two of them are iTunes-only bonus tracks so they can’t be put on the release. They’re even harder to get hold of now because the iTunes release is only in Ireland. To be honest with you, we could have released a seventeen-track album because all the tracks are quality.
(Thomas is then drowned out by the grinding din emanating from the ice machine.)
Were the songs all written in one frenzied burst of creativity, or do the origins of some date back further than others?
Thomas: I’d say it was written during two stages. The first section of writing was around late 2009/early 2010, then I stopped because some money came in from working with Neil, and I pissed it up the wall. I generally spent 2010 getting drunk, so I ended up not very well and had to stop. I haven’t drunk since. I then thought, “Right, get back to doing what you’re supposed to and do it well,” and started writing tunes again. There were five or six songs written before ‘the crossroads’ that were really good, so it made the album a bitter-sweet thing; some of the songs I wrote after I came out of hospital, and they were a bit more ‘up’, obviously. That’s a great blend for any record.
I wanted to do what I normally do with a Pugwash record, which is wait until the second acoustic demo stage before playing the songs to people, but Tosh wanted to hear the Olympus Dictaphone demos. I sent them over reluctantly, and within about three hours he’d sent back about eight tracks of guitars, keyboards and Mellotron on “There You Are”, and those ended up being the ones we used on the final the song. It was the perfect sound so we kept it and started the album from there.
At what stage do you work out the harmonies?
Tosh: We did them over Christmas 2010, in a single session, just bashed the songs out and arranged the harmonies.
Thomas: That’s the fun bit for me, coming up with on-the-spot harmonies in the studio. I don’t do a lot of on-the-spot recording, but for me that’s the one thing you leave to the studio. A lot of stuff came out of the Christmas harmonies session we had, but I found it a bit laborious because to me they should be spur-of-the-moment. We’ve got great harmonists in this band, the best around, and that’s the buzz of doing it there and then in the studio.
Tosh: When we’re recording, sometimes Thomas will do a harmony vocal, then we’ll blank it out and he’ll do another harmony, then we blank that and so on. So they’re multi-tracked, stacked up, and it’s only when you listen back to them together that you can see what he’s getting at. It’s brilliant because you listen to one and say, “That’s not going to work,” but then it does.
It has been claimed that the definition of a musical genius is someone who can hear five harmonies at the same time. Unsurprisingly, Brian Wilson is apparently one such person.
Thomas: I can probably hear three. By the time we’ve finished recording a song, there are probably nine or ten on it. We did a six-part harmony on “There You Are”, building them up as the song goes on.
Do you all sing?
Thomas: All except for Joey, who can sing but chooses not to. Although I think he appears on “Waltz With Me”, one of the bonus tracks. Joey pulls a Ringo on that one, just to get the Beatles connection out of the way.
Joey: I don’t need to sing because the other three are so good at it, and it’s not really viable to sing when we use backing tracks as well.
Shaun: Joey’s got a great voice.
Thomas: Just use this quote for Joey: “better singer than Ringo”.
I could condense that to “better than Ringo”, if you like.
(The ice machine rattles into life again. We briefly lament the fact that not one of us had anticipated this problem, and doggedly continue regardless. Heroic, some might say. And then a baby starts crying at the next table…)
How disappointed were you not to win the Meteor Choice Music Prize?
Thomas: I’ve said this enough times but I’ll say it again; you have to believe that you’re making a better album than anyone else, better than Radiohead’s new album or whatever. If you didn’t think so, you wouldn’t have the motivation to do it. People in music say they’re pleased for other people when they win something instead of them, and maybe they know them and they’re very nice people, but they could just say, “He’s a lovely guy/She’s a lovely girl, but personally I’m disappointed.” And we were disappointed, because we felt we made a better record and we still believe that.
Tosh: Not only us; some of the other bands made better records [than Jape’s] as well.
Do you like the Cashier No.9 album?
(Mutterings of approval across the board)
Thomas: Tyrannosaur are great as well. There’s something about those bands, they have something. Maybe we’d have preferred for one of those bands to win, but we still wouldn’t have been happy. It’s that X Factor element, isn’t it, people hugging each other when they get voted off; it makes no sense to me. That’s passionless music. We’re not going to say that Jape made a shit record and shouldn’t have won, because that’s not what we’re about. We’re just saying we made a better one.
Have you started thinking about the next album yet?
Thomas: There’s the new one for you (passes me my promo copy of The Olympus Sound). And you want another one, do you? Give us a few days! This fuel strike’s set us back at least a year. I’m thinking about making a poster for our gig tomorrow night: “Panic buy the tickets! Set fire to them!”
Tosh: Well, they’re sold out, so we can’t really sell any more.
Thomas: (Returning to the question at hand) To be honest with you, I am going to write another Duckworth Lewis album with Neil. We’ll be doing a lot of touring this year in promotion of this record, but on the odd free day I get back in Ireland we’re going to hook up and write stuff. Neil has loads on; he’s just written a song for Kylie Minogue, he’s just written a mini-opera, Swallows and Amazons is still going on…so he’s busy as well, but during the little gaps we’ll be working on Duckworth Lewis stuff. Tosh would be involved in the recording of it but the others won’t be because Neil doesn’t like them (laughs). No, there’s a set-up that’s been there for ages…
Joey: That just sounds like a Pugwash record, doesn’t it?
Thomas: We want to tour and promote this album for the next year, wherever we can go and even beyond. Of course I’ll be writing, and hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have written enough for another record, but at the moment this one’s only six months old. I remember Crowded House touring Woodface for two years, and it had already been out for a year when it broke. I think they said they toured it for eighteen months to two years, and we’d love this to be our Woodface .
Do you know yet which festivals you’ll be playing this summer?
Thomas: That’s the thing, we’ve only just sealed a deal with Mark Hobrough, who’s a wonderful manager and PR guy in the UK
How did you first come into contact with Andy Partridge, and do you remember how you felt when you first met him?
Thomas: I came into contact with him through a Ouija Board that I found in a skip. No, it was through Dave Gregory, who did some string arrangements on our Jollity album around 2004. Andy and Dave were still good friends then but they’re not quite as close now, although they’re still mates for life I’m sure. We used to all meet up for dinner and Andy went [about Pugwash], “This is the best stuff I’ve heard in years; I want this band on my label.” He got in touch, we became friends over the phone and then we went to go meet him; we used to round his house, had many dinners.
Tosh: He’d play songs in his kitchen.
Thomas: We used to go to XTC gigs, you know, and suddenly him and Dave would play XTC songs to us in his front room, even stuff from the ‘wilderness years’. It was a dream come true because XTC had been one of my favourite bands for years. But Andy shouldn’t be a businessman, you know; he’s too nice a person deep down to be in business, and when he goes into business he becomes not such a nice person. It wasn’t easy. I don’t want to paint it all in a bad way because we did some amazing stuff, and I’m sure one day we’ll all hug and make up. Just as long as he hugs me with a ten-grand cheque in his pocket!
(All laugh incredulously at what Thomas just said.)
How did you get Ben Folds involved?
Thomas: It was really easy, actually; Neil knows him really well. He came over to Dublin to start a tour and he got in touch with Neil. Neil doesn’t really socialise apart from when he goes out with us – he mostly just hangs out at home writing and watching Frasier, or spending time with his daughter – but he said to Ben that his friends were in the studio mixing their album, so he rang me and said, “We’re looking to kill a few hours; can we come to the studio?” and I said, “Absolutely.” We had one track that we’d written for the actress Belinda Stewart-Wilson, and Matt Berry was going to play keyboards on it because he’s a wonderful keyboard player, but Belinda and Matt split up so we couldn’t invite him as it would have been a bit too weird.
We left the track keyboard-free for the mix, but then a light bulb went on in my head and I said to our engineer Fergal Davis, “Just get any kind of crappy keyboard down, we can use a plug-in to get a sound. He can play on ‘Dear Belinda’, let’s ask him.” So we asked him, and he went straight on the keyboard, spent an hour and a half listening to the song and then playing it. It was a great moment, and he nailed it. There’s a video of it up on YouTube somewhere.
There certainly is
You recently played with Fountains of Wayne…
Thomas: They’re simply our biggest fans.
Tosh: Great guys.
Thomas: Chris Collingwood did a few press quotes for us as well, really flattering.
Tosh: I played keyboards with them live on Irish television. The following day we were supporting them in Dublin so they got us and David Mead onstage, and we did “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” because I knew the keyboard parts for it.
Thomas: I got up with a brand new 12-string Rickenbacker guitar that I’d just bought, and literally the first time I strummed it anywhere was playing that song. David Mead is a big fan of ours as well, and although he supported Fountains of Wayne for the whole tour, he very kindly offered to go on first when they said they wanted to add Pugwash to the line-up for their Dublin show. It’s great, we’ve got some really well-known fans, and we don’t go around collecting them like little trinkets; they seem to come to us, which is nice.
Joey: Bill Bailey’s a massive fan.
Thomas: Brian Wilson, Jeff Lynne, Joe Elliott, Phill Jupitus, Roger Joseph Manning, Darian Sahanaja…
Darian’s brilliant, and not just for getting SMiLE out of Brian Wilson! The Wondermints were great too.
Thomas: He sent a mail reviewing every track on The Olympus Sound. He called it a masterpiece!
Tosh: Darian also played keyboards with The Zombies when they did Odessey and Oracle live.
Thomas: Jeff Lynne sent me a letter saying how much he loved Pugwash. Lojinx asked me if they could use a quote from that [for promo] and I said yeah because it’s just too big not to. Chris Morris said he might make it down to our gig tomorrow, Kevin Eldon should be there, as well as The Bluetones and a couple of guys from The Viz.
What’s Chris Morris like?
Thomas: What’s brilliant about him is that when you meet him he’s perfectly normal, totally articulate, but when he sends emails he talks like the Brass Eye Chris Morris. I always remember when he heard Pugwash for the first time, he said: “Brilliant songs. Let’s scythe up The Thrills!” Not “let’s be bigger than The Thrills”, “let’s scythe them up”! Another time he wrote back saying, “Apologies Thomas, I’ve been spit-roasting on a warp fork”, which is one of the greatest ways I’ve ever heard of saying “I’ve been busy”. I once got a Christmas card from him…
A Chris Morris card?
Joey: A Chris Morris card!
(From here on in, the conversation descends into free-form anecdote-telling and music chat, the juice of which shall be presented to you in handy, bite-sized chunks…)
Thomas: We came out of Absolute Radio yesterday and Joey spotted Chris Moyles walking up Golden Square with a girl and another guy. We had a bag of CDs and a box of vinyl on us, so we thought, “Shall we doorstep him with a copy of the album?” Sean went, “Yeah, let’s go for it! I’ll do it!” He grabbed the album in his hand, ran up to them, elbowed Chris Moyles out the way and went up to the guy who wasn’t Chris Moyles.
Sean: I didn’t know who Chris Moyles was.
Thomas: Turns out it was Chris Moyles’s brother, who’s a top radio plugger, and he knew all about us. But Sean basically elbowed Chris Moyles out of the way to get to Chris Moyles.
Joey: The reason I spotted him is that I said, “That looks like a skinny version of Chris Moyles.” And it was Chris Moyles. He’s lost a lot of weight.
Tosh: “The Diary of Horace Wimp”.
Thomas: Joey likes “10538 Overture”!
Joey: I love The Idle Race. And I like the Eldorado album.
Thomas: When I look back, I did fall in love with the first album because it was just completely mental. I used to freak my dad out with it by playing “The Battle of Marston Moor” literally every day; he’d come in and say, “What the fuck is that??” It really did make the most ridiculous sound, a Chinese cello with a hacksaw, and my dad being into Perry Como and stuff like that…well, I think it brought on the early stages of dementia back in the late ’70s. I loved the first album, and then I moved onto Eldorado and On the Third Day…
Tosh: On the Third Day is brilliant.
Thomas: …and ELO 2, Face the Music, A New World Record, Out of the Blue, Discovery, and there were some great Jeff Lynne tracks on Xanadu as well, then Time, Secret Messages, Balance of Power and Zoom. Those kind of albums.
Joey: All of them, then. [Rocksucker says: Thomas has indeed named all of them, and largely in the correct order.]
On The Kinks…
Thomas: That would have to be “Satisfaction”! [Rocksucker says: he was of course joking]
Tosh: We all love The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Face to Face as well. Something Else is probably my favourite. [Rocksucker says: click here to read our in-depth review of last year’s Face to Face deluxe edition, and here to read our Something Else review.]
Joey: I don’t think I could choose between Village Green and Something Else. It’s too hard.
Tosh: It’s like choosing between Revolver and Rubber Soul.
Thomas: We’re all pretty much on the same page with The Kinks, but beyond the late ’60s stuff we’ve already mentioned – and I might annoy the lads by saying this – I think The Kinks were still writing great songs into the ’80s, at least the odd song. Soap Opera in 1975 is still a great album. Sleepwalker  has three great songs on it. Low Budget  and Give the People What They Want  are horrible though; you can forget about them as Kinks albums, I think. The odd track on UK Jive  wasn’t bad, and to be honest with you I listened to Think Visual  recently and it’s actually pretty decent; “How Are You?” is a great song.
Tosh: “Did Ya” [from 1993 album Phobia] is a good song as well.
Sean: I really like “The Way Love Used to Be” off Percy.
Tosh: We were driving into Muswell Hill and “The Way Love Used to Be” came on the CD player. It was brilliant.
Joey: Percy‘s okay, yeah.
I think Muswell Hillbillies is a pretty great album, if not quite up there with their best.
Thomas: You see, I don’t go near Muswell Hillbillies. That’s just Ray Davies knowing he’s that good and saying, “I’m going to make a slightly un-melodic country album,” and that just annoys me. I still love him, but why? He just didn’t have to. [Rocksucker says: For once I am in disagreement, and here is one compelling reason why.]
Joey: Singles-wise in the ’60s they were just phenomenal.
Thomas: Completely untouched. The Beatles’ albums are up there but The Kinks didn’t do anything wrong for a good while. After their early singles you wonder if they were going to continue doing songs like “All Day and All of the Night”, and then he comes back with “A Well Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”. The rest is history.
On the Small Faces…
Thomas: Tosh was involved for two years in the remastering of the Small Faces’ back catalogue, which is all coming out in May. We went to AIR Studios recently, met Kenney Jones and got to see Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake being pressed to vinyl, which Tosh had a major hand in as well as all the other stuff. I always liked the Small Faces’ singles but I’ve been getting mad into a whole load of their stuff through the lads of late. It’s amazing.
On meeting Brian Wilson…
Thomas: He asked to meet me! I could tell you what happened but the lads will be bored shitless.
Joey: Tell him. He doesn’t know the story.
Thomas: Well, a friend of mine in New York played our song “It’s Nice to Be Nice” to David Leaf, Brian’s personal assistant who he was doing some work for at the time…
It’s a very Beach Boys-y song, actually.
Thomas: Yeah, it’s got ‘nice’ in the title. I gather than Brian likes anything with ‘nice’ in the title! If I was to write a song called “God’s Nice Ice Cream”, he’d probably explode.[Rocksucker says: While taking a break from transcribing this interview, I felt suddenly inspired to write and record – on an Olympus Dictaphone, no less – a song called “God’s Nice Ice Cream”. Here is the resulting demo, recorded during the half-time interval of Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur, a game which as I write this remains 0-0 after 67 minutes…]
Anyway, David Leaf then got in touch with Joe D’Ambrosio and said, “The kids love that song by that Pugwash band, they play it in the car all the time and it’s become this thing where they want to hear it again and again. I’m going over to Brian’s tonight, so I’ll bring it over and play it to him.” And he did, and six months later I got an email from David Leaf saying, “We’re coming to Ireland to play a gig, and Brian would like to meet you.” I still have the email. I got these passes and a wristband that was a colour that no wristband has ever been, and when I got to Vicar Street the guy at the door laughed at me and said, “You’re not getting in, Thomas. This is Brian Wilson, he doesn’t meet anybody. I know you’re a big fan but see you later. Bye-bye.”
The next thing I knew, Jeffrey Foskett from Brian Wilson’s band was going, “Hey Tom, come in!” over his back. I just go, “Fuck you!” So he brings me to Brian, who’s sitting on a table, and says, “Hey Brian, this is the Pugwash guy!” Brian looked at me and said, “You’re that ‘Nice to Be Nice’ guy? It’s a great song.”
You should have said, “Aren’t you that ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ guy?”
Thomas: “Aren’t you that guy who wrote ‘Kokomo’?” I got a beautiful picture with him, because he’s got a smile that could cure you of all diseases. I had my arm around him and he’s like a big ox. We took a couple more pictures for safety and when we got them developed – as you did back in the day! – in the first one he looks like this (pulls big, beaming smile) and in the second one he’s like this (face drops). So I thought, “I’ll use the first one.” The Jeff Lynne letter meant just as much though; he just said beautiful things about Pugwash, that it was very ’60s/’70s and he loved the double-tracked vocals…
Tosh: And the use of strings.
Thomas: …”memorable melodies”…it was an amazing letter, and a very special moment for me. And then he slagged Neil, which was fucking phenomenal! Well, he said, “I really like the cricket album but I don’t think it features you enough.” So I showed it to Neil and said, “That’s your fault; for the next album, you can fuck off!” I’m joking, he didn’t really mean it like that. I think he just meant: less of the diminutive Protestant, more of the big, hairy Catholic.
The Pope story…
Tosh: A mate of ours ran a second-hand record store in Dublin in the ’90s. One day I walked in there and in the 50p section he had these RTE-issued commemorative records of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979, which was a big deal. I was bored one day so I autographed one: “People of Ireland, I love you, Papa John-Paul xx”, stuck £4.50 on it and put it out on the racks. Some fucking idiot actually brought it up and said, “Is that the Pope’s autograph?” “Yeah.”
Thomas: I think it’s brilliant because the record would have come out about six months after the Pope visited Ireland, so someone would have had to go to the Vatican to get him to sign it.
And finally, a recommendation…
Thomas: There’s a great new band called Beef Wynd who are going to be the next big thing. Their album’s called Night Crossing. I think it’s on the Pregnant Prawn label.