Published on November 23rd, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Surely Madness require no introduction – other than to say that they have just announced the lush, romantic “Never Knew Your Name” as the second single to be released from their recent Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da album – so let’s just get on with the show.
Yes, Rocksucker was honoured to enjoy a jolly good chinwag with the legendary group’s drummer Daniel ‘Woody’ Woodgate on the eve of this weekend’s Madness House of Fun Weekender at Butlins, Minehead, our conversation taking in such talking points as the band’s evolution over the years, a stolen saxophone, Woody’s Movember effort and what it means to swim with the molecules…
Where does Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da rank in the Madness oeuvre for you?
On a personal note it’s very rewarding because I’ve got more songs on it than I’ve had on any other album.
I know “Small World” is yours; which others?
I wrote “Circus Freaks” with Lee [Thompson, saxophonist], and both “Kitchen Floor” and “Leon” with my brother. On “Leon” I wrote all of the music and most of the lyrics, but my brother came up with the melody and that one line which is the chorus, which actually sparked off me writing the song, so I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. On “Circus Freaks” I wrote the music and Lee wrote the lyrics. I haven’t got a clue what they’re about! “Small World” I wrote completely on my own, music and lyrics, and “Kitchen Floor” was a mad song that my brother came up with, although it was a fifty-fifty job because I completed the lyrics and came up with the middle eight.
Have you stockpiled many songs of yours over the years?
I have, yes. I’m actually about to release an album with my brother that we’ve done by ourselves. I think it’s healthy for band members to branch out and do something of their own. I’ve always written songs but my background in music isn’t really one of ska/Blue Beat/Motown, that sort of thing; I’m a bit more rock and my brother’s a bit more Beatles-y in his style, so often when I’ve brought songs to the band they’ve not been of the right genre, let’s say, so I need another avenue. Jimi Hendrix needed to go off and play his guitar after being in The Isley Brothers: it’s a bit like that! (Laughs)
To my ears, Madness have quite a grand, elegant pop sound these days. How do you perceive the Madness of today compared to the Madness of old?
I’d say we’ve become more refined, a little grander. There are more brass and string parts, and I think it’s a richer sound, more complex. In the early days it was quite a basic sound, which was good, but I think we’ve developed the sound a bit. It’s definitely become a little grander; maybe it’s because we have as people! (Laughs) He said sarcastically. Yeah, I dunno…it’s definitely fun, we’re enjoying it very much.
You must have drawn a lot of confidence from the very warm critical reception that greeted The Liberty of Norton Folgate. Do you see this as an Indian summer?
Well, yes. I think we had to go through a few processes to get to Norton Folgate. In 1999 we did the album Wonderful after doing all our greatest hits throughout the ’90s, but we did it in a way that was just like how we recorded in 1986. We didn’t move on, we were still stuck in the old way of recording where you go to a studio, you grind away, do loads of overdubs, and people go in separately so it’s not very collective as a band. It was somewhat of a struggle to do that album, so to make our lives easier we thought we’d just do a load of covers; in fact, we found when doing sessions for the next album The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1 that it wasn’t easy at all because we had to bring some element of the band to it. It’s easy to cover people’s songs in a way that just sounds a bit karaoke, so what we decided then to do was to go out and play them live to get back to the roots of what we did, putting a mic on a piano and organ, keeping it really simple.
We then realised that that was the answer: we needed to get right back to our roots. We were better than just doing covers, we could write our own songs, but we went back to basics, stripped the band right down, went into an eight-track recording studio called Toe Rag and started laying down some demos. It was so exciting as soon as we did a song that we went out and did it live; we made sure we could play the songs live, so they were fresh. For some godforsaken reason we kind of rediscovered what we did back in 1979, and I think that’s why The Liberty of Norton Folgate works. We went back to basics and remembered why the hell we did this: it was pure, simple dance music with a tale to tell.
The title track of the album, that nine-minute epic thing, was a journey that we really enjoyed: it explained London, where we came from, and it opened up a new understanding of the band itself, our history and influences. It gave us a ton of confidence to be able to say, “What we do, we do well, so let’s not pretend to be anything else.” In the past we used to say, “We’ve done that, let’s try something new,” but now we’re comfortable in our own skin, comfortable with what we do. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Where did Lee’s saxophone turn up?
It turned up in a minicab. It’s all rather mysterious; we don’t really understand how, but the driver said that someone had left what they thought was a guitar in the back of his cab, and it was there for a couple of weeks, or something like that. We can’t really get to the bottom of it because we can’t be sure who’s telling the truth, but we’re relieved it’s back!
How’s your moustache coming along?
Oh, it’s bloody horrible! (Laughs) I can’t bear it, it’s itchy and my wife isn’t very complimentary about it. It was actually the ex-footballer Jason Cundy who got me to do it; we ended up one year judging a Movember moustache competition together, looking at all these men walking past us showing off their moustaches. It was really surreal but I thought, “I must do this one year,” and I finally plucked up the courage to do it. I’d never grown a moustache in my life and I now know why! It’s so itchy and I look like an idiot, but there you go. It’s for a fantastic cause, a prostate cancer charity.
How involved were you in selecting the line-up for the House of Fun Weekender?
To be honest, I let the people who’ve got the energy for that sort of thing get on with it. I’m not really involved in it personally but I know that other members of the band are. Our guitarist Chris [Foreman] is very keen on making the weekend go very well so he’s really getting involved, picking films for the cinema we’ve got there, and he’s there on the weekend mixing with the fans. To be honest I’m not really up on what’s ‘hip’ and what isn’t, so I leave it to people who have that energy! It’s lovely to think that Madness fans all come and congregate for a great weekend, and that’s all I’m bothered about. My part is to go along and play the music as best I can, so I try not to get involved in anything else.
Going back to the new album momentarily, I’m quite intrigued by the line “Don’t become crystalline, you’re gonna have to swim with the molecules” from “How Can I Tell You”. Any idea what it’s about?
That’s Cathal [aka backing singer/dancer Chas Smash]. I think it’s about getting on with life, because it’s a song written by a father to his child. It’s about going with life, really, having many experiences to come. It’s a father’s wise words to his child: “Don’t become stuck in your ways, go with life.” Simple, really! (Laughs) That’s the way I read it, anyway. What you’ve got to understand is that each lyric is personal to the writer, but when it’s good it’s open to interpretation.
Were you involved with the backing vocals on “Misery”? They sound like they must have been fun to do.
No, we got in a barbershop quartet for that. Interestingly enough, a barbershop quartet has five people in it. Isn’t that interesting? Apparently all barbershop quartets have five people in them. Maybe they gave our producer a load of waffle and tacked another bloke on! Who knows?
Finally, if you had to spend the rest of your life with the back catalogues of just five different musical artists, whose would you choose?
John McLaughlin and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Brian Eno, Steve Hillage’s solo albums, Phil Manzanera and Pink Floyd.
Woody, thank you.
Madness will release “Never Knew Your Name”, the second single from their top-10 album Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da, on 14th January. For more information, please visit blog.madness.co.uk