POP SAVIOR, OR GIGANTIC MANATEE? Pugwash

Thomas Walsh holds
forth on Brian Wilson, Kim Fowley, Andy Partridge, Neil Hannon, Michael Jackson’s inconvenient demise, and more.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

Thomas Walsh’s Pugwash have been one of Irish pop’s best
kept secrets for a decade now. That looks set to change, though, after Walsh
recently signed to Andy Partridge’s new Ape House label, a move that’ll see
Pugwash’s back catalog made available in the US and the UK. To whet appetites,
Partridge has also curated Giddy, a
compilation drawing on the band’s four albums (review is here).  Ape House is the ideal place for
Walsh, steeped as he is in a rich English pop tradition ranging from the
Beatles and the Kinks to Honeybus, ELO, XTC and numerous points in between.

 

In addition to his duties as the brains behind Pugwash,
Walsh has always kept himself busy, from ’90s work with legendary producer Kim
Fowley and singer-songwriter Andy White to popular success in summer 2009 as
one half of cricket-pop phenomenon the Duckworth Lewis Method (with the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon; read the review here).

 

Without a bathroom break (that Blurt was aware of, at least), the extremely affable and garrulous
Walsh held forth on, among other things, getting the thumbs up from Brian
Wilson, being treated to an impromptu XTC gig in Andy Partridge’s living room,
his aversion to the other B-word, his love of garden sheds, the magic of Abbey
Road studios and his (and others’) telephonic toilet habits.

 

***

 

BLURT: Tell me about
the roots of Pugwash.

 

WALSH: I started out watching my brother playing the guitar:
watching the chords, looking at his fingers and then replicating it. I used to
spend forever in the back bedroom of my parents’ house just playing the guitar.
They say it’s a misspent youth — well, it has to be. I didn’t want to go out
and play football or anything like that. I just wanted to sit inside and strum
the guitar. So I wrote my first songs when I was 15, I think — pretty late on.
And of course they’re all shit, but you’ve got to get them out of the way and
write and write and write. Then, in the late ’80s, I got into XTC. Andy
Partridge and XTC were a huge influence in the second stage of my life as a
writer. Until then, it was all ELO, the Beatles and ’60s kind of stuff and
classic ’70s stuff. And it still is, ultimately, but with XTC it was great for
me to find a band that were so different and were still out there doing stuff.
I heard Skylarking and it changed my
life, I suppose.

 

You also liked the
idea that Andy Partridge worked on music in his shed.

 

Yeah. I found out that Andy Partridge wasn’t playing live
any more but that he recorded at home and that he had a shed — so I wanted a
shed. I got one — a little wooden shed — and I put some gear in it and my dad
put electricity into it, and that was it. I started demo-ing. I used to go out
in the shed and record songs on a little tape recorder. It was too much Jeff
Lynne, too much Ray Davies, XTC, far too much Lennon and McCartney, just
overdosing on their songs. And a lot of those early songs were on my first
record, Almond Tea, in 1999.

 

What is it about
sheds and creativity? Eno even had one constructed
inside his London office.

 

I have such fond memories of my shed, down the back garden
with a little heater in it. I used to come back from hanging out with my
friends in the middle of winter. There’d be snow on the ground, freezing cold,
and I’d come in, stick the plug in for the electricity in the back garden and
open the shed door. It’s just a wooden shed, it’s freezing cold in there, all the
gear’s freezing cold, and I stick the heater on straight away. Then I’d shut the door again and walk back into the
house, put the kettle on and make a cup of tea, have a biscuit, walk out there
again 10 minutes later, and it’s like a cozy, warm piece of wood with all your
gear in it amid freezing cold snow. When everything’s going on around you, it’s
a bit of tranquility. I love that Colin Moulding line in XTC’s “Fruit Nut,” where he talks about having a shed:
“A man must have a shed to keep
him sane.”

 

Talking of sanity,
how did you get involved with Kim Fowley? Does he live up to his reputation?

 

The thing with Kim Fowley is that in America he’s such a
fucking eejit — and I can say this openly because I’m a friend of Kim’s. When
he’s in his home country, it’s Kim with his obnoxious façade; when he’s over in
Ireland, he’s a great guy. He was a big influence on me getting going because
he gave me the confidence that nobody else had. I learned so much from him. He
got me the job playing with Andy White.

 

When he came to Dublin in the mid-’90s, he asked Hot Press magazine, “Who’s the
biggest thing right now? I’m not talking about sales, I’m talking about
demos.” I’d sent a demo in to Hot
Press
and they’d given me the “Demo of the Year,” so they gave
Kim my number. So he rang me up and went, “Hi, I’m Kim Fowley.” And I
went, “Yeah, right. Bye!” At the time, I didn’t believe it was him. I
thought, “Why would Kim Fowley be ringing me?” He said, “We’re
here writing some songs. Can you come in?” I couldn’t comprehend, but I
went in and there was Kim with, like, 20 new songwriters all sitting around and
he’s saying things like “Metal
World!”
and “Flying Angels
of Shit!”
And people are writing songs called “Flying Angels of
Shit” and I was, like, “This is shit, I don’t want to be in
here.” I was sitting on the outside of it all and he grabbed me and went,
“Are you Thomas? I’ve heard your stuff, it’s very
Beatles-y,” and I said, “Thanks very much, but I’m not really
into this stuff. This isn’t me.” And he goes, “I just want to see if
you can write a fucking song. If I say” — and he just comes up with any
old shite — “‘Pillows in the Sky,’ could you write a song?” I said, “Yes, I can.” And he said,
“Do a T.Rex beat!” So I did a T.Rex kind of beat, like “Get It
On,” and we just wrote very quickly together, in front of people.

 

I was so happy to get out of there alive. I thought I’d never hear from
him again, but he rang me the next day and he went, “Hey man, weren’t most
of them people shit? Fucking hell! What’s going on in Dublin? You’re the only
guy!” And for the next five years, I became Kim’s right-hand man in
Ireland, and his mate. I feel bad because he’s been in touch, but I haven’t got
back to him recently. If you ring Kim, you have
to designate a week to be on the fucking phone — I mean, I’m bad enough as you
can hear — but he’s incredible. Once, I went to the toilet twice during a conversation: one was
sitting down, the other was standing up. He never stops.

 

What’s the
Pugwash-Brian Wilson connection?

 

I met Brian Wilson originally in 2005 through Joe D’Ambrosio
in New York, who did some freelance stuff for me, just for the laugh and
because he loved my songs. I did a promo of “Nice to Be Nice” [from Jollity] in early 2005, and when Joe was
over in Dublin, he picked up a few copies and brought them back to the States
because he loved it. He gave one to Brian Wilson’s manager, David Leaf, who’s a
friend of his, and David played it to Brian. Then I got
an email from David saying, “Thomas, Brian would like to meet you when he
comes to Dublin on his tour.” To say that I urinated all over myself would
be an understatement. He said, “Brian’s really getting into the track and
he’d like to meet you.” I couldn’t even comprehend that statement. So I
got to meet him. It was quick. With Brian, you’re not going to sit down at this
stage and discuss the finer points of Oscar Wilde. It’s just going to be
“hello” and “how are you?” And that’s how it was, but he
was so nice. He actually said, “Are you the ‘Nice to Be Nice’ guy?”
And I went, “Yes. Are you the guy that changed the world?” He was
brilliant. I got a great picture of him: me standing there like an idiot, grinning.
It was an amazing night.

 

Pugwash’s music has a
strong retro flavor. What distinguishes you from other similarly inclined
bands?

 

With every single fucking band that’s headlining festivals
around the world this summer, from your Kasabians to your Kings of Leon to your
Fleet Foxes, there’s elements of their music that you could say are Beatlesque
or like Crosby Stills and Nash or Roxy Music or whatever. All these bands are
more retro than me because they look like they’re from back then and they sound
like they’re from back then. Now, I just look like a fucking gigantic manatee
– that’s me — and I love the instruments of that era and I love using them,
but I definitely put my own little slant on things. I don’t want to just
recreate the past. I mean, I’ve been to Abbey Road and I’ve worked on records
there — but I’ve never wanted to go there just to put down feckin’ rugs and
try and recreate ’67 or something. It wasn’t in my head to do that. I just know
it’s an incredibly brilliant studio to record in, and
I knew the sound of the place would help a record. I was very honored to
be there, but I’ve been there to work every time. I think you have to work in
the place: it’s steeped in history, but it’s a place of work.

 

What do you think
when people like me use the B-word to describe your music?

 

To describe something as Beatlesque is beyond lazy. It’s
just a way of referring to a song with any melodic content. That’s a kind of
compliment in the way that the Beatles were so melodic and covered every genre
of melody, but it’s lazy. The lowest common denominator is the Beatles, but
I’ve got so many other elements — the whole XTC thing and obviously the ELO
thing, and I actually push more towards that. If someone says, “You’re
very ELO,” I take that as a huge compliment because I’m such a huge Jeff
Lynne fan. I’d rather they say that I’m like ELO than the Beatles because it
means that at least they know a little bit more than just going back to the
kings: it’s so easy just to refer to the Beatles. Obviously, it’s a huge, huge
compliment, but I don’t think it’s meant in that way. But, you know, it could
be worse — they could say you’re shit, so I’ll take it!

 

Part of the retro feel in Pugwash comes from
those old instruments that you mentioned. You’re a big fan of the
Mellotron/Novatron.

 

My Novatron is the weight of five of me in a coffin; an
original Mellotron would be about ten of me in a coffin. They’re the heaviest things on the planet. It’s made of
pure, thick wood and it’s got one little keyboard in the front. I use it on
everything. It’s my favorite instrument in the world, pretty much. I love it.
It’s one of those instruments that doesn’t date. To me, the Mellotron, the
Novatron and the Chamberlin, their sounds are completely timeless. I absolutely
love them.

 

Your first two albums, Almond Tea and Almanac, are
hard to come by now.

 

The Vélo label, who
put out Almond Tea and Almanac, went bust the week Almanac came out, and I took 300 copies
that were left in the storage space. The people at the storage space told me,
“You’re not getting these records. We’re owed money off your label, so
we’re keeping these.” And I went, “I’m coming down with a car and I’m
fucking reversing in and I’m taking them. So try and stop me.” And they
went, [meekly] “Oh, okay” and they even brought them out on a little
conveyor thing and just gave me them. I got 150 copies of Almond Tea that were there, as well. And because Jason Falkner’s on
Almanac, I got in touch with his web
site person, Linda, and she offered to sell the album through his web site for
10 dollars. That’s where they went over the years, and that’s why it’s such a
cult record in America. It used to cost me five dollars just to post them. I
just didn’t feel like I should even fucking take money for them. I just
thought, “Let people have it.” Then my friend Daragh Bohan heard Almanac and said, “You’ve got to
make a real record that’s gonna do something and get it out there.” So he
started the 1969 record label and Jollity came out on 1969. I thought I really had to step up and make a statement: it
was my first album with a real label that’d been set up with some money behind
it.

 

XTC’s David Gregory worked on Jollity.
How did that happen?

 

Andy Partridge did a
song called “Born out of Your Mouth” for the Microsoft web site — a
friend of mine, Peter, who’s a big XTC fan, had asked him to do it and he’d
gone to Swindon to discuss it. And when Peter was in Swindon, he’d also met
Dave Gregory. So I said to Peter, “I’ve got a song called ‘A Rose in a
Garden of Weeds,’ and I’ve got some money for this record; do you think there’s
any chance Dave Gregory would do a string arrangement for me?” He emailed
him and Dave said, “Send me the songs and if they’re any good, I’ll think
about it.” So I sent him the demos of the songs and I got an email back
saying, “Hello Thomas, Wow! Jesus Christ! The songs are wonderful. I’d
love to work on them.” I asked him straight away what the price would be
and it was an incredible, do-able price: for a man as brilliant, as genius as
Dave Gregory is to sit down and write a string arrangement, it was do-able for
me.

 

And on top of that, you ended up recording at
Abbey Road’s Studio Two.

 

In the meantime, I’d
got to know the Section Quartet from Los Angeles. When they came to Dublin, I
got up and sang “Us and Them” with them when they did Dark Side of the Moon and “Ashes to
Ashes” when they did some Bowie stuff. They were fans of what they’d heard
of my stuff, so I got in touch with them and asked, “If Dave
Gregory scores this track for my new album, would it be possible for you to
record it if I send the score over?” I was
thinking I’d send the backing tracks and we could do this over the internet.
They said, “We’ll go one better than that. If you’re around at the start
of April [2004], we’re going to be in London with Grant-Lee Phillips. We’ve
done loads of stuff with Jon Brion in Abbey Road, and we can get you Studio
Two.” I went, “No, that’s bollocks! No way!” I was nearly
shitting meself. Again, it was totally do-able. So I said to Dave, “Do you
fancy coming down and conducting the Section Quartet in Studio Two at Abbey
Road?” And that’s how it happened. It was really natural. That’s how we
got to Abbey Road and that’s how Jollity started.

 

Was it through David
Gregory that you met Andy Partridge, hence the deal with Ape House?

 

Yeah. After the string arrangement went so well, Dave said,
“You must come over to Andy’s to have dinner,” and so I went to
Swindon and met the guy. The day I met Andy, it was like meeting Jesus Christ.
When he walked towards me and gave me a hug, it was like, fucking hell! Then,
for it to snowball into him signing me up and, of course, me writing with him,
it was too much. When I went to Andy’s for dinner, with Dave, they did an
entire XTC gig for me in Andy’s front room. Then, they said, “You play a
song.” And I said, “Not one of mine!” and I did “Love on a
Farmboy’s Wages” or something. It was brilliant fun. I did do a couple of
mine, though, because Andy asked. But, of course, when Andy’s on it, he’s like,
“Let me do ‘Collideascope,’
” and he’d be grabbing the guitar back off me because you can’t stop him
then. That’s the thing: he’s a born entertainer. It’s just that the stage as a
medium isn’t where he wants to be. I think he’s never really utilized the power
of the podcast or the webcam — if he did, the guy would be a star, his time
would come around again. He’s so entertaining at home. That was a very special
day.

 

So after that, I sent him over copies of my back catalog, Almond Tea and Almanac, and he got back in touch and said, “This is fucking
brilliant stuff.”  Almanac is Andy’s favorite Pugwash album.
After that, we sent emails and spoke on the phone a lot. Andy can push Kim
Fowley for madness on the phone, but he’s a lot more concise: Andy needs to go
off and have a piss, so he’ll get of the phone after about 40 minutes or so. We
have such fun on the phone.

 

Although you’re Irish, your music could be
described as a quintessentially English — part of a tradition of quirky
psychedelic pop.

 

I’m a great example
of a real Irishman, which is basically to say that any real Irishman is steeped
in Englishness, because we literally grew up with BBC TV and radio. It was
infinitely better than all the shit we had in our country. I do love my
country, but it’s unbelievably, inherently talentless as a broadcasting nation.
We’ve got incredible writers and poets, but let’s be
honest, Irish TV and radio and the majority of music we got at the time I was
growing up were all awful. I would have moved to Belgium to get the semblance
of a decent fuckin’ radio station. There was no way you could turn on
Irish radio when you had Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg or the BBC. But
the reception was terrible: it would fade in and out, and I used to listen to
music like that. It was even more exciting like that than hearing some fuckin’
eejit on Irish radio with perfect reception playing the fiddle for ten hours. I
really immersed myself in everything English because, as well as that, English
psychedelia is the best. Me and Andy Partridge totally agree on that: my
favorite psychedelic bands from America are the Lemon Pipers and the Left Banke
because they’re the most English. Andy always says Vietnam is basically
American psychedelia and English psychedelia is, like, tea: the Americans had
Vietnam to write about and English psychedelia goes back to tea, 1890s
novelists and silly things like that.

 

Your songAt the Sea,” on Eleven
Modern Antiquities,
could easily be
about the ambiguous charm of English summers….

 

I wrote “At the
Sea” with Andy. It was a melodic collaboration, but lyrically it was all
me. I wrote those lyrics because that’s what Irish summers are like — that’s
how close they are to English ones: we went to the
seaside, we bought fish and chips, we had knotted hankies on our heads; it was
freezing cold, and people did pose for photos with their trousers rolled up to
their knees. My ma would sit out in whatever sun there was for, like, days,
just to get brown. You know, she’d be out in the rain if there was a bit of sun
coming through. There was no difference between English and Irish summers.
We’re very different countries in a lot of ways, but we’re so similar as well.
And I think so many Irish mannerisms and language have come over to England –
especially Liverpool. It’s like East Dublin, as a place. I think it’s great. I
mean, I’m a big cricket fan, and I actually support England; I went to see them
win the Ashes, and I sang “Jerusalem” and “Rule Britannia,”
and I have no problem saying that. Why should I? They’re only songs. People
aren’t singing them because they want to take over the world. I have no problem
accepting other countries’ wonderful traits. I speak up very quickly about the
bad stuff, but when it comes to the good stuff, I embrace all things English –
especially the good music and the sport.

 

Andy Partridge called you “the savior of modern pop.” No pressure there, then….

 

Yeah, no pressure there…and almost embarrassing — and I
mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s an incredible thing to say. He also
had a great quote for me when I asked for a few words to put on a biog when I
released Jollity very low-key in England.
Actually, it was so low-key that I don’t think it even got off the
fucking ship and landed in England. So Andy sent back a quote: “Better
than McCartney; fatter than Lennon,” and I thought, “Brilliant.”
I laughed my fucking head off. Andy has a turn of phrase that’s just killer.
He’s a genius like that.

 

There’s some really talented people on his label. We’re all
steeped in that classic tradition of quirky pop that Andy loves. This is what I
think is great about Andy. He flies in the face of everything, really — even
when it comes to be being a label boss. He might get a bit of a ribbing that
we’re very like XTC, but what are you going to do? Sign a band that’s
deliberately anti-XTC? How dare he get bands he likes on his label! Why is he
going to promote a band he doesn’t like? It makes no sense. He’s not in it for
the business. He’s in it because he wants to release music from bands he loves
and musicians he loves, and I think that’s the perfect way of having a
homegrown little label. I’m hugely proud and honored to be there. And whatever
he says about me, I’ll take it!

 

Andy Partridge
selected his favorite tracks for
Giddy. While that’s great, the fact that one
person chose everything inevitably means some people will complain that their
favorites aren’t on it.

 

Andy is releasing pretty much everything from the back
catalog, so it’s going to be great that people can find all the other tracks
when they come out. With the 2003 Australian Earworm compilation of tracks from the first two albums, there was
too much stuff and it was too incohesive. So I thought it would be great to
release a really concise compilation, leaving off some big tracks, like
“Here,” “Take Me Away” and “Landsdowne Valley”
from Eleven Modern Antiquities — and
Andy’s releasing Eleven Modern
Antiquities
in England and the US next year. With Andy saying, “I want
to do this, this, this and this” — unless it’s something that really
sticks in my throat — I’m just letting him do it. I’m having great fun just
knowing that he’s really enjoying tinkering around with all this because this
is what he’s brilliant at.

 

Changing the subject,
how did the Duckworth Lewis Method project come about?

 

I met Neil [Hannon] at [comedy writer] Graham Linehan’s
wedding: Pugwash were his wedding band. Neil was there as a guest too, and he
was going to play “Songs of Love” and a couple of other things, and
he asked for a lend of my guitar, my piece of shit Charvel guitar. And six
months later Graham Linehan had lost his mobile phone — which Graham does
regularly — and he sent out this email, cc-ing everyone, saying he’d lost his
mobile phone and giving his new number. And, halfway down the emails, I saw
Neil Hannon’s address. I wasn’t stalking him or anything — I’m a fan of
Neil’s, but I’m not like some of the fans he has…. I wasn’t just getting in
touch to go, “Oh, you’re brilliant” and all that stuff! I was releasing
a charity single for Brainwave, the Irish epilepsy organization, in December
2006. It was a Roy Wood-esque, silly, over-the-top Christmas song, “Tinsel and Marzipan.” I said to
Neil that it would be good for the sales of the record to get a big star on it,
and Neil’s a big star. I thought it would be really cool for the record.

 

And you eventually
discovered a mutual love of cricket?

 

We realized that we both loved cricket and ELO. There was a
real synergy there. We tried writing a few songs
together, and it went really well. We wrote some silly love songs and pop songs
for other people, like Tom Jones, but they were never taken up. We were having
fun, though, so we used them anyway. We thought, “Shit, we’ve got four
songs here that are really good,” so we wrote some more, and then we
decided to do an album. We finally got twelve tracks, and Neil’s management and
label in England were interested, and 1969 Records were interested. It’s
probably gonna be my pension record. It’s done so well.

 

Inevitably, people
were dubious about the Duckworth Lewis Method record before they heard it. I
mean, an album about cricket, of all things?

 

So many people would say, “This can’t be good, this is
going to be shit, it’s about cricket,” as if the album’s going to be five
days long and be narration about cricket. For some reason, people forgot that
we were musicians first and foremost. We weren’t suddenly cricket players or
cricket historians. We were just using that as a jumping-off point to get pop
melodies across. But we do love the subject. If people’d sat there and thought
about it for two minutes, it was always going to be a pop record. But that’s
fair enough. It’s good to know that the power of the recorded song is still
there, because people really thought this was going to be crap. Then, all of a
sudden, they hear it and think, “Oh, this is actually really good.”
So we were happy with that.

 

The record got
massive media coverage, particularly since its release coincided with the start
of the Ashes series. You were even on the BBC’s Test Match Special, performing
live in the commentary box. What was that like?

 

It was the most surreal thing. There was ten people stuffed
into a room the size of a port-a-loo. It was mental. It was really, really
great, and it was one of the highlights of the whole Duckworth Lewis thing.
Neil was very nervous. I got him through that session in a way, because I just
talk shite a lot more, to relax him. We even met Shane Warne. Shane Warne is the
Kurt Cobain of cricket. It’s him who’s saved the game. He’s the greatest player
that’s ever lived.

 

Just before the
release of the record, you were invited to a special dinner in the MCC pavilion at Lord’s cricket ground.

 

Which is an incredible honor, bestowed only on very, very
special people. And me being a working-class lad from Dublin, it was a very
weird, very special and proud moment. I even took the seating chart off the
board and took it home with me because it showed all the names of the people on
our table: Frank Skinner beside me, the likes of Tim Rice sitting across from
me with Michael Atherton, Graeme Swann, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Ronald
Harwood, Mervyn King (the Governor of the Bank of England) and a load of
[London] Times journalists. We were
served a four-course dinner by these incredibly dressed Lord’s waiters and
waitresses. And we just talked about cricket, back and forth, Michael Atherton
asking me and Neil and Tim Rice questions about music. It was ridiculous.

 

And it took an even
stranger turn.

 

We ate the meal and talked around the table and then
everyone broke off into little huddles. And I was sitting there drunk with Frank Skinner, talking about football and Roy Wood,
and Neil was talking to Graeme Swann about spin
bowling, and Graeme Swann was showing him how to grip the ball. And,
then, Tim Rice wanders over with his mobile phone and says, “Michael
Jackson’s just died.” So everyone turned on their phones at the same time,
getting their messages, and all the Times journalists who were there had to leave and go back to the office, at 11.30 at
night. And I remember sitting there and saying to Neil, “Can this night
get any more fucking surreal?” It’s a real sad loss, and obviously it’s
something that should never have happened, but to be told the next week that,
after he died, 15 of his albums went straight into the charts…. I’m not going
to slag Mr. Jackson, of course, but we were told we’d have got to number 29 in
the charts if Michael hadn’t popped his clogs! That’s the way it is. Of course,
it’s far worse to be dead.

 

You and Neil both cultivated impressive Victorian facial hair for the Duckworth Lewis Method. Your WG Grace style
beard was outstanding.

 

If people are gonna remember me for something, it might as
well be a beard. Some people never get remembered, so it might as well be a
beard for me.

 

 

[Pictured above: Pugwash (L-R) - Thomas Walsh, Johnny Boyle,
Keith Farrell]

 

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