Keeping the Look of Love Alive: OX meets Martin Fry
"Artic Monkeys have really, really skilled lyrics. There’s a lot of art involved in pop music and people pretend there isn’t"
A vital part of the 80s new wave synthpop era, ABC brought some Sheffield sophistication to the charts.
Reformed in 1997 and on the come-back ever since, we send Northern lass Jill Rayner along to talk Sheffield and gold suits with Martin Fry.
Rewind Festival is obviously a massive excuse to exchange some memories…
Yeah, I think that’s part of the appeal. It’s an excuse to redesign the 1980’s in a way, isn’t it?
The line-up contains an incredible amount of artists that you must have played with over the years. Being a Sheffield girl, I can’t believe how many artists from Sheffield are on the bill. Will it be an excuse for a huge hug from everybody?
Yes, definitely. British Electric Foundation and Martyn Ware are doing sets aren’t they? Yeah, it’s one big love-in! There’s always the Sheffield connection where you least expect it. Obviously Human League, British Electric Foundation, Heaven 17…is John Parr on the lineup? I don’t think he’s on this one but he’s been in LA for 40 years but still has a Yorkshire accent, it was great when I ran into him.
When you got together with ABC at the start, did you have a game plan?
No! Our pop success came out of a lack of alternatives really. I was never going to play for Sheffield United! There weren’t that many avenues out there really, so pop music was it, I just threw myself into it hook, line and sinker.
There used to be loads of rehearsal rooms on West Street, Clock DVA had a rehearsal room there. I think they were all workshops basically, full of swarf cuttings. We used to clear them out and then you’d hear music playing. I don’t know if that’s my romantic memory of Sheffield or if was the reality back then. I used to go down the Wapentake and there’d be Def Leppard on the stage. Everywhere you went there seemed to be music, that’s my memory of it. There was no master plan though, definitely not. It was swift though, our rise to fame.
Your tracks were so emotional and dancey at a time when artists like Clock DVA and Monochrome Set were quite serious and intense. You guys picked all that up, threw it in the air and skipped with it.
Yeah, we used to say “Through with matte and into gloss”. We wanted the world to be a bit more day-glo. When I looked out over the field of 30 or 40 thousand people in their fluorescent deely boppers, Madonna outfits and Michael Jackson outfits, it kind of came true in a way all these years on!
I promised myself that I wouldn’t mention the gold suit, but you were always such a sassy dresser. Do you still believe that clothes maketh the man?
It’s not what it’s all about, but in rock ‘n’ roll music for example, Elvis sounded a certain way so he looked a certain way. Its how everyone presents themselves, from Elvis through to Jay-Z or Lady Gaga today. I think that’s a big part of self-expression. These days for me it’s more Savile Row suits. The gold suit was like a suit of armor but it was tough wearing that suit in Sheffield! It was very impractical. I had a tonic suit that I bought from a jumble sale, and I thought “how can I top that?” so I thought I’d get a gold suit. I guess there was an element of Elvis and Billy Fury. People used to throw beer at me! Heads definitely turned, but I think that was just what was going on. It was everybody, a whole generation that felt ignored so I think that’s where the whole “peacock”, larger-than-life flamboyance came from. There wasn’t a lot of work back then so I think it was kind of a cry for help I think. I think that’s true of a lot of the bands in the eighties.
So what inspired you back then?
A lot of things really. A big part of it was that we sold a lot of records and it became a commercial venture, but originally it was for entertaining ourselves.
The clothes came from queuing with old ladies outside church doors for jumble sales. They call it vintage clothing now, but you used to have to fight it out for a waistcoat!
Musically, I don’t know. When you first start you just bluff your way into a situation. You walk into Top of the Pops next to Mick Jagger or David Bowie and you think, “Okay, you’ve arrived!” in a funny kind of way. Overnight, you’d be in everybody’s home.
If you were setting up a band today, would these inspirational figures in the past still influence you today, or would you have newer influences?
I’m inspired by a lot of new bands like Alt-J and Everything Everything, but when I look on iTunes for example, there’s a big documentary about Kurt Cobain, and he died over 20 years ago. I mean, Bowie’s still an influence and would be today, just like people like James Brown. Pop music is a funny media but there’s a lot of really poetic people in it, when you think of Sean Ryder, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Heaton, Bernard from New Order and so on… What makes somebody write those songs that are so unique? It’s a tradition and I hope I’m part of that tradition. It only struck me recently that the Artic Monkeys have really, really skilled lyrics. There’s a lot of art involved in pop music and people pretend there isn’t.
You’re obviously busy with dates throughout the year, and some of them are with an amazing young symphony orchestra. Do you approach playing with a huge orchestra differently to playing with a band?
Yeah, it is. When playing at Rewind, it’s just a 30 or 40 minute set, it’s a quick burst. When you come on at 7:30 or 8 o’clock at a festival, your role is to kind of lift the crowd, because they’ve been standing in a field all day.
With an orchestra, it’s a 2-hour show. We work with a lot of orchestras but the Southbank Sinfonia are really good because they’re very young, so there’s an energy there when they play. They’ve got a buzz about them.
It must also suit the huge production side of ABC.
Yeah, it’s a bit like piloting a big plane really, standing at the front of a show. We’ve been writing a lot of new songs for orchestra recently, almost like a follow-up to ‘The Lexicon of Love’ in a way, and we played ‘Viva Love’ and ‘Ten Below Zero’ with the orchestra and that brought me right back in to writing new stuff again. We do a show with all the hits basically, and then we do ‘The Lexicon of Love’ in its entirety. It’s a lot of music!
What’s your favourite track to perform?
‘All of my Heart’ feels like it’s come home [when performed with the orchestra].
I can imagine. Does the new material have a timescale? Is it nearly ready for release?
I don’t know. I’ve been working with the guy who does the orchestra for Mr Selfridge, Charlie Mole, and also with Ann Dudley who did the Lexicon of Love arrangements. She did Poldark as well recently, so sometimes when I flick over to a TV station I can hear her! I’ve got about 8 or 9 songs so we’re just building it up. It’s kind of nice when we do the orchestral shows to try out the new material, alongside ‘Lexicon of Love’, ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘All of my Heart’ and all the bigger ABC hits. The audience is open to that, because in a theatre they’re there to listen.
Do you gauge the material based on audience response?
Definitely, you can sense if people are getting bored or enjoying it.
If you had one of today’s artists cover one of your tracks, which track would it be and who would it be?
Today, well Rihanna. Yeah, that’d be great. I’d have Everything Everything do ‘Poison Arrow’, and Rihanna doing ‘All of my Heart’. Lana del Rey as well, she could do ‘Lexicon of Love’.
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