British songwriter and mainstay of the Sarah Recs gang weighs in on his long and varied career. (This interview originally published at the mighty Dagger zine.)
BY TIM HINELY
I have to admit I didn’t know a great deal about British musician Harvey Williams when I asked him if he’s like to do an interview. Oh sure, I have some of his solo records and those under his solo moniker, Another Sunny Day (all on the Sarah Records label), but hadn’t read as much about him as maybe other musicians from that stable. He also played in the Field Mice with Bobby Wratten and later in Wratten’s other project, Trembling Blue Stars (who I was lucky enough to see twice), but as you’ll read below, he’s done much more. A lot of his music is acoustic-based with plenty of keyboard work, but he can also rock with the best of ‘em. The guy is a terrific songwriter so that should be reason enough to listen to his music if you’ve yet to do so (or go spin one of his records right now if you’re already a fan). With is dark-framed glasses and that blonde hair you can’t spot him from a mile away. If there’s ever an indie pop hall of fame he’d easily be a shoo-in. Ladies and gentlemen….Harvey Williams!
Where did you grow up?
In Newlyn, a small fishing port in west Cornwall.
What was the first instrument that you picked up?
I had some piano lessons when I was maybe 9-10 years old. I quite enjoyed them, but always preferred lessons in music theory. I was hopeless at sight-reading, and still am. My parents gave me a cheap nylon-strung acoustic guitar for Christmas in 1976, I think, which was much easier to deal with.
Was punk rock a big deal to you at the time? New wave? Something else?
Oh yes, it changed everything. It seemed as if one moment my favourite bands were 10cc and Queen, the next moment I was buying Damned & Stranglers records. It was partly peer pressure I suppose (my elder brother was a bigger fan of punk than I was, and was more attuned to its sensibility than a mere 11 year old me), but the more melodic end of new wave/power pop (Buzzcocks, Nick Lowe, other Stiff acts) was absolutely my kind of thing. It also opened the door into the wider world of non-chart-oriented music in general, and started me listening to the John Peel show.
What was your first band?
I’ve never really had a band. I suppose circa 78-79 I used to get together with my brother & a couple of his mates occasionally & we would…I hesitate to use the word “jam”, but free-form Swell-Maps-esque stuff would just emerge from us.
What were some of the first bands you saw live? Were those shows in London?
By the early ‘80s I was a huge fan of Kraftwerk, and in the summer of 1981 I took the 300 mile journey from Newlyn to London to see them. They were the first band I saw live, outside of folk groups that we would see as a family outing when I was younger. I didn’t start seeing bands regularly until I moved to Plymouth in the mid 80s (Smiths, Primals, Microdisney, Talk Talk…). Plenty of bands played in west Cornwall in the 70s, somewhat surprisingly, as it’s well off the beaten track, but I was far too young to see any of them (though I did lurk briefly outside the Penzance Winter Gardens on the night the Sex Pistols played there).
How, when and where did you first meet Bobby Wratten? Did you join the Field Mice shortly after that?
I was back living in Newlyn in 1988 when Clare & Matt sent me the first Field Mice EP. I was really impressed by the staggering heartfelt simplicity of it. I knew I would be moving to London within a few months, so I wrote to Bobby suggesting we might want to form some kind of mutually beneficial arrangement whereby I would have them as a rhythm section, they would have me as a second guitarist. He seemed to think this was a good idea, so that was what happened. We played a few gigs where Bobby & Michael would join me in an Another Sunny Day set, and I would join them in a Field Mice set (sometimes mixing each band’s songs within sets), but it became apparent very quickly that they were much more productive (and popular) than I was, so Another Sunny Day sets were kind of wound down. Which was fine with me.
I think I met Michael first.
When/how did Another Sunny Day come about? Was that before or after the Field Mice?
Another Sunny Day came first. I’d been writing songs since maybe the mid-1980s (when a couple of friends & I pooled resources & bought a 2nd hand Fostex X15 portastudio), but not really doing anything with them. By 1986 the songs were becoming more influenced by the prevelant guitar pop sound, and by mid 1987 I’d started sending cassettes out to folk who might be interested (actually just two: Matt Haynes & Bob Stanley, both of whose fanzines were utterly inspirational).
At the time of the A.S.D. stuff, were there any other labels other than Sarah that you wanted to be on?
Not really. As you’ll have gathered, I didn’t really send tapes out to any labels, rather fanzine writers. I didn’t for one moment think that a record label would be interested in releasing my music. I suppose it might have been nice to have been on Creation around that era, but I was far too provincial a person to be part of that scene. And (if I’m going to be honest), I wasn’t writing the kind of songs that a label like Creation would have been interested in.
What was the reaction like when “You Should All be Murdered” was released? (god I love that song- ed.).
Thanks! I don’t really remember what the reaction was like, although I think it was the first record I was really happy with. I’d never had a particularly enjoyable time in recording studios up to that point; in fact, for my second EP, we’d resorted to using the –far more satisfactory- demos I’d recorded at home on that Fostex rather than the half-hearted 16 track re-recordings. In contrast, working with Ian Catt was a joy; very welcoming, very sympathetic, very skilled.
I have very mixed emotions about that song nowadays.
How did you feel about the cult-like love for Sarah Records, both while it was happening and after the label dissolved?
It ought to be stressed that at the time, it was a minuscule scene. The people who loved those records really loved them, but there weren’t many of them. I was one of the first signings to the label, and had no expectations whatsoever. Any reaction at all was a good thing as far as I was concerned. The down side of course is that the insularity of the scene makes it quite a struggle to break out of, but I had no desire to break out of it, at least as a solo artist.
The fact that people are still talking about the label is a constant source of surprise (and pride) to me.
With Sarah Records, did you feel like you were part of a musical community, maybe something you had been looking for?
That is absolutely how it felt, and yes, it was exactly what I had been looking for. People on the same musical and emotional wavelength.
How did your involvement come about with Trembling Blue Stars? Were you in the band for their entire tenure?
I was in the band on-and-off for I think 5 years. Bobby was considering playing some live shows to promote the first LP. I offered my services (on guitar/keyboards/sequencers etc), and he accepted. I was only on a few of their recordings from around that era, but enjoyed playing live with the band from 1996-2001. After the US tour of 2001, Bobby put Trembling Blue Stars on hold for awhile, at least in terms of a live band, as he didn’t –and doesn’t- enjoy playing live. I don’t really know what happened after that.
How did the California record come about? How do you feel about it today?
I’d stayed in touch with Matt (and Clare also) after Sarah shut up shop. I had a few songs I thought might make an interesting record, sent him some demos, and he agreed to recording an album for his new label Shinkansen. How do I feel about it today? As with You Should All Be Murdered, there are elements of it that I feel uneasy about nowadays. But it’s the record I’m most happy with. It’s really a shame no-one else likes it.
Any other bands I’m missing that you’ve been part of?
Towards the end of 1991, after The Field Mice split up, I was asked to join fellow Sarah act Blueboy as second guitarist, which I was more than happy to do. I was asked to leave the band (along with keyboardist/vocalist/cellist Gemma Townley) after Sarah closed down. I think Keith & Paul had ideas for the band that didn’t necessarily include us. Blueboy always was a very personal vision for the two of them, and all the better for it, I think.
I also helped out with The Hit Parade on occasion, and was also briefly in the first line up of Saint Etienne (well before their line-up had settled into the Sarah/Bob/Pete formation).
What’s been your proudest moment as a musician?
Gosh. I will never forget switching on the radio one evening sometime in May/June 1988, and not immediately recognising the record being played (it turned out to be Peel’s first airing of I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist). Those few seconds when the cogs in my head were whirring…oh yeah… oh my god!! I guess I’m also really proud of contributing to other people’s records; playing something that you think works, but also that the songwriter thinks fits perfectly with what they have in mind.
Are you curerently making music or in any bands?
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
Oh blimey. This will be tricky. Autobahn, Sunflower, Odessey & Oracle, A Hard Day’s Night, Someday Man (Paul Williams), Randy Newman’s first, With Love From The Hit Parade, 69 Love Songs, You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, Polnareff’s. Easy!
Who are some of your current musical favorites?
I’m not sure I’ve bought any records by new bands this year. I liked that C Duncan record from last year very much. (aside: Tim, if you don’t know this one, youtube “I’ll Be Gone By Winter” and you’ll know the kind of record I’d want to make now if I thought anyone would be interested).
John Grant, BC Camplight. Wave Pictures. Darren Hayman.
Do you get out to many gigs these days? If so who’ve you seen recently?
Not as often as I used to. The best two shows I’ve seen this year have been Burt Bacharach & Carole King. I cried all the way through both gigs. Draw from that what you will.
What’s your day job?
I work for the BBC in film preservation/restoration.
BONUS QUESTION: Who is one living producer that you’d like to work with?
I’d like to make a record with Darian Sahanaja at Liam Watson’s studio. Please.