This month sees the launch of a new project created by Dutch film composer STEPHEN EMMER, a one-time member of MINNY POPS, whose previous collaborators have included Billy Mackenzie and Lou Reed on his solo albums ‘Vogue Estate’ (1982) and ‘Recitement’ (2008) respectively. He also worked with Claudia Brücken on the ACT album ‘Laughter, Tears & Rage’.
Titled ‘International Blue’, the album is a concept that pays homage to the art of the pop crooner, but with a twist.
So imagine a combination of Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, Nick Cave and David Bowie. Produced by Tony Visconti whose work with David Bowie and Marc Bolan had gone down in legend, the orchestral collection connects with the Synth Britannia world via the casting of HEAVEN 17’s Glenn Gregory and ULTRAVOX’s Midge Ure among its line-up of guest vocalists.
The first single ‘Untouchable’ featuring Glenn Gregory is a poignant ballad of loss and heartbreak; it has also been written as a tribute to the late Billy Mackenzie of ASSOCIATES, a mutual friend of both Emmer and Gregory. Recorded at the world famous Abbey Road Studios, the song is swathed in multilayered textures and smooth reverb to provide a perfect setting for celebration as well as remembrance.
Glenn Gregory kindly took time out from recording the new HEAVEN 17 album to chat to the Electricity Club about his three contributions to the album, Billy Mackenzie and why pop, not rock, rules…
How did the collaboration with Stephen come about?
It was a Facebook thing funnily enough! I got a message from Stephen who had this connected past from working with Billy Mackenzie and Claudia Brücken. He suggested working together and sent me a link to two spoken word albums. They had really interesting people on like Lou Reed and I thought “I love the sound of this, it’s really lush and interesting”.
We got on very well on the telephone and spoke for two hours. We knew a lot of the same people so I was surprised we’d never met before. He sent me a track and recording went very well, I was pleased with the vocal. Shortly after that he sent me another one which then became ‘A Break In The Weather’ and that was even better as we had got a bit of rapport by then as we’d talked about the art of the crooner, Scott Walker and how beautiful those type of songs are. There was no consideration for making it suitable for radio, it was “it goes where it goes” and that freedom was really nice. It got me into a different way of thinking.
Then he sent me this third track ‘Untouchable’… I immediately fell in love with it, it was lush and emotive. I started thinking about the people that both me and Stephen had known, and Billy Mackenzie came up.
‘Untouchable’ pays tribute to Billy and starts with the lyric: “The cup is smashed…” – what was in your mind?
Stephen loved HEAVEN 17’s version of ‘Party Fears Two’ and I started writing these lyrics that were becoming about Billy. That line is obviously a throwback to “I’ll smash another cup…” and it’s carrying on from ‘Party Fears Two’ really. I found it very emotional in the studio and when I was singing it, I actually shed a tear and wondering how he got to that stage where he could commit suicide. I know why as he was upset and depressed after his mother had died, but I was trying to be inside his train of thought really. Billy changed a lot through his career and as a person. But his beauty and his talent, it’s untouchable.
I sang it and really liked the lead vocal but then I started playing with different notes, melodies and harmonies. Then I got really big and pushing my range… I was almost fainting doing the vocal! I thought it was fantastic and sent it to Stephen, he was blown away. We had another two hour phone call at the end of that day to decompress. He thought it was wonderful and understood why I liked it so much. I’m really happy we got it together.
You know he was completely into Whippets and bred them? ASSOCIATES lived in a hotel round the corner from me and the whippets had their own room! It’s crazy!
So my favourite memory was when we were mixing ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ for the BEF album – Billy came in and went “one of my daughters has had a puppy, do you want one?”, I went “NO! I DON’T BLOODY WANT ONE!”. This went on and on and I said “NO!”, so he eventually he went “oh, no worries”.
But that night, we were going to a screening of ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ at The Scala Cinema in Kings Cross. We were stood in the bar chatting with Rik Mayall and Robbie Coltrane when Billy arrived in a big overcoat and his black beret. We said hello and he went “Alright… by the way Glenn, I brought you a present” and took out from under his coat, this tiny whippet puppy… I was like “BILLY!!! F*CK OFF!” but I thought “I’m never gonna get out of this one!”
So the dog stayed with us all night and wandered around the cinema, p*ssing and sh*tting everywhere! But I fell in love with it and I am now on my fourth Whippet. I’m as much in love with them as he was. In fact, the Whippet I’ve got now is called Billy… we got him about two months after Billy had died. But of course, I then had to phone Billie Godfrey, HEAVEN 17’s backing singer to tell her “I’m calling my dog Billy, but not after you, I hope you don’t mind” *laughs*
You’re no stranger to working with an orchestra having done so on ‘The Luxury Gap’, ‘How Men Are’ and more recently, on the ‘Night Of The Proms’ shows in Germany… what are the main challenges for you working within an orchestral format compared with electronics?
I don’t really think there are many. When you do it live, I guess you’ve got to be more flexible in that the orchestra is more in control than you are. When you have a band and you make mistakes or change things, the band can catch up with what you are doing. But you can’t really do that with an orchestra. When we did the ‘Night Of The Proms’ things in Germany, it was amazing but quickly, you realise you are not in control at all, you’ve got to do what they do at their tempo, you’re being conducted as it were. But in a recording environment, there’s no real difference at all apart from the lush beauty that it brings…but that’s not saying electronics doesn’t have a lush beauty as well.
One of the other songs you’ve done with Stephen is called ‘A Break In The Weather’ which has a sort of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ meets Bond Theme quality about it. What was the inspiration behind this?
I was thinking of Scott Walker and Burt Bacharach, interesting songs like that and that style of writing. I was trying to find a connection, I had a melody and everything but then I took the dog for a walk in the park. It was cold and the sky opened up and I thought “we need a break in the weather”. So I got inspired to write about a relationship that needs some space when there’s been a break up and there’s the hope of getting back together.
I’ve always been a really big fan of crooners, my mum had an enormous collection of Anthony Newley singles and was really into Dean Martin. I remember I was listening to them even when I was starting to get into KRAFTWERK and NEU! So it’s always been there. The way I sing anyway, people always used to say I sounded a bit like a crooner, that baritone type thing. I like pop and Dusty Springfield… even Cilla Black. They’re just good songs, it’s good to have that sensibility. It’s pop, not rock. I was never into The Stones, I don’t really get them. I’d much rather listen to Scott Walker or Anthony Newley.
What was it like working with Tony Visconti?
That was amazing, what a nice guy. We were at Abbey Road together and he told me some great stories.
How was the Koko concert with HEAVEN 17 doing that early HUMAN LEAGUE material for you?
We really enjoyed that Virgin40 gig. I completely loved it. It was a challenge doing those songs to make them sound as much like the original ones but then, it is different because I’m singing them and not Phil. Mine and Phil’s voices are pretty similar in a lot of ways so they did kind of fit. You know I love those songs. Every time I see Phil, I plead with him to do those first two HUMAN LEAGUE albums, just even if it’s once!
Yes I did! What can I say? He did come to see HEAVEN 17 so I can understand him being a bit p*ssed off. But there’s a total history line there all the way through even to the extent that there was a possibility that If I’d had not gone to London, I would have been the singer with THE HUMAN LEAGUE originally. So there really is a complete line of history through the whole thing and most HEAVEN 17 fans know that; there’s a shared love of those two bands so I think most people enjoyed it.
Is there a HUMAN LEAGUE song from that era that you haven’t performed yet but would like to give a go?
I think ‘Dreams Of Leaving’ would be right there on the list. In fact, Martyn Ware and I talked about that in the studio a few weeks ago so you never know! We toyed with ‘I Don’t Depend On You’ for the BEF weekender at The Roundhouse but I don’t know why we didn’t do it. That came on my iPod the other day on shuffle and it sounded great. I was actually there when they recorded that one. They always used to stay at my house when they came to London… house??? That sounds very grand! They actually used to stay in my basement flat and sleep on the floor! *laughs*
And how is recording of the new HEAVEN 17 album coming along?
At the moment, it’s fairly loose… I’m doing that deliberately, the drum tracks are very basic and I’d say as guide, the tracks are more like the electronic side of ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ than ‘The Luxury Gap’ or ‘How Men Are’. Whether it will when we’ve finished, I don’t know. It’s feeling more ‘Travelogue’ era HUMAN LEAGUE / initial ‘Penthouse & Pavement’. It’s going to get pulled both ways so it could be a bit funky as well like early PRINCE.
We usually only do three or four days together and then do the rest on our own because you need time to focus on what you’re doing. Otherwise you take turns at being sat behind the other and going “DO THIS! DO THAT!” *laughs*
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to GLENN GREGORY
Special thanks to Sacha Taylor-Cox at Impressive PR
‘Untouchable’ by STEPHEN EMMER & GLENN GREGORY is released on 7th April 2014 and available via the usual digital outlets
STEPHEN EMMER’s album ‘International Blue’ featuring further songs by Glenn Gregory plus Midge Ure and Liam McKahey is due out later in 2014
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
7th April 2014, updated 4th May 2014