Thanks a thousand to William Jones for the interview! Get Friends releases at the Summerhouse website!
++ Hi William! I was doing some research, and as you’ve done quiet a couple of interviews, I don’t want to repeat the same old questions. So let’s talk first about the future. How did you end up playing at Indietracks? What can popkids expect from Friends in this big festival? Are you looking forward to any of the bands from the festival?
How we ended up playing at Indietracks was through a random sequence of events, which went like this:
- Someone called Sam reviewed our singles compilation Single Friends on his blog A Layer Of Chips
- Someone called Jennifer added a question asking how she could hear some of the songs before committing to a purchase
- Shortly afterwards someone in Chicago called Jennifer ordered a copy of Single Friends
- Using my powers of guesswork I emailed Jennifer to ask if this was a coincidence. It wasn’t and we got into an email conversation via MySpace
- Jennifer strongly recommended us to the Indietracks promoter
- Indietracks asked us to play
So most of the credit goes to Chicago Jennifer, the remaining share to Indietracks of course (who did in fact know of us already) and a little bit to ourselves!
I don’t want to spoil it for those popkids, so let’s just say we’ll be playing a 40-minute set covering songs from 1987 to our most recent album Spangleland.
I don’t know a lot about the other bands, but I like what I’ve heard of Camera Obscura. I’m ready to be impressed by the rest on the day!
++ You told me that in the near future there will be two new Friends albums. Care to tell a bit about both of them?
Not so sure about the ‘near’ future. But anyway, this is the plan. There is a very very acoustic album called The Zen House, which is nearly complete. It just awaits keyboards on three songs and final mixing. In 1995 we released a fairly acoustic album called Folk Songs (which aren’t folk songs, of course!) and fancied doing something even more minimal again. So most of the songs are just voice and acoustic or Spanish guitar, with percussion, double bass, keyboards or string quartet on three or four songs at the most. Several of them were recorded in a single take ‘live’ in the studio.
The other is the next album with the full-on band throughout, which we’ve started rehearsing. It’s all written, we just need to narrow it down to around ten songs, and then of course record them, which will probably happen next year. It doesn’t have a title yet.
In indieland time is a very flexible commodity which usually stretches out much further than I’d like it to.
++ One of your favourite things in life is running marathons! How many marathons have you run? Which was your best one? When is the next one you’ll run?
Eight marathons so far, and still getting faster! I’ve done New York four times, London three times and Edinburgh once. Each one is a great thrill. I think my favourites were my first London marathon in 2004, simply because I proved to myself that I could do it; and my most recent New York marathon in November 2008, because I finished in under four hours for the first time and beat my personal best by 16 minutes. After the first couple, the challenge for me is always to improve on my finishing time, because the initial novelty factor has gone. But it’s a great experience every time.
I like New York the best, because it’s so spectacular, the streets are so wide and the noise and excitement are the greatest. At the start, running over the bridge from Staten Island and seeing Manhattan rising up in front of you is a breathtaking moment, and the last couple of miles through Central Park are always very emotional, as I’m so close to the finish but also feel so close to tears and collapsing! When you’ve finished you feel like a hero, and it’s great walking back afterwards with complete strangers in New York saying well done or giving up their seats on the subway to a smelly, sweaty foreigner. I’m hoping to go back this autumn but it’s getting very expensive so I might have to miss a year.
++ Are there any other activities William Jones is passionate about?
I love wine, especially Chianti and Soave, although I go for long periods without drinking any. Other things? Siamese cats – at one time I had four of them, incredibly elegant and entertaining creatures. Going back to North Wales, where my family comes from. Films, my all-time favourites are Midnight Run and Walkabout. Anything with Robert De Niro will do. I do cryptic crosswords in the Guardian newspaper with our guitarist Richard. I wouldn’t say it’s a passion but it’s great fun as we both enjoy messing about with words. I love Indian music and listen to it a lot. And I’m a keen follower of the political scene, in fact last time I did the New York marathon I was there the day before Obama was elected so I caught the last few days of the campaign. I envy you as I think he’s a truly great man.
++ Friends have seen lots of lineup changes, why do you think that happened? Who is in the band nowadays?
The early line-ups were particularly unstable, but since the early to mid 90s it’s been pretty much constant. Many of the early changes were due to my propensity for sacking trumpeters, usually for serious crimes against music. Back in those days the band was made up of five or six full members, who would hang around a while to see if we’d make it big, and eventually fly the nest when it became clear that recording for Summerhouse Records wasn’t going to pay for that yacht in the south of France. So we did a bit of a business restructuring and organised the band so that it was a core of myself and Stewart (later Martin Parker from 1991). But the other musicians, Richard Buckton, Jon Kirby and Katherine Dow Blyton, have been with us since 1992-1995. Edwin Pearson, our bass player, was actually in the very first line-up in 1986, and rejoined when I bumped into him in the street nearly ten years ago in Walthamstow, London, where he was working as a session musician. Kath, our backing singer, records with us and works with us live when she’s not acting. We’ve gone for quality of musicians rather than constant availability, and it’s turned out well this way, although it does have its frustrations sometimes.
++ You are a music graduate, right? So how do you scene the music business today? Do you think there’s any way to save it? What do you think of blogs that offer full album downloads for free?
Yes, I studied music at King’s College, London University, and then did a postgraduate degree in what used to be called ethnomusicology, specialising in Indian music. The degree didn’t really deal with the music business in those days, it covered music analysis, composition, the development of Western classical music, and what they called ‘stylistic studies’ which was about learning to write in the styles of other composers – incredibly useful for understanding their music by going through the same processes. The other most useful thing I learned was writing music accurately straight from my head onto paper, so being able to score for a string quartet, for example, without having to try it out on piano or guitar as you go along – just like writing words really, but developing the ability to hear the exact sounds in your head and turn them into notation.
The music business? Well, that’s always been about delivering music to an audience, in return for a slice of the action. At different times there has been a greater or lesser need for the ‘business’ as an intermediary. These days of course bands can do a lot more for themselves, but I think there will always be some kind of infrastructure to facilitate the things that bands can’t do or can’t afford. So I don’t think it needs to save itself – it will adapt and survive by meeting the needs of listeners.
Free album downloads on blogs? Outrageous, unless it’s done with the permission of the copyright holder. I’ve seen tracks of ours appearing on different websites and if people are smart enough they can pretty much pick up the whole album for free. Which really pisses me off as the band and label are trying to pay their way by selling it.
Like with illicit file-sharing, I hold the old-fashioned view that music has a monetary value. After all, who goes to work for free, and why should musicians? There will always be people who take what they can get without paying. But I really can’t understand how anyone who cares about music would take it for free when it’s easily available at a very reasonable price, as downloads anyway. I think the record business has done a very poor job of arguing the ethical case, and just concentrated on wringing their hands and prosecuting a handful of idiots. As well as the creators of the music losing out, there’s a whole infrastructure of studios, producers, musicians, engineers, designers, who are increasingly being deprived of a living because money is no longer finding its way down the chain. Labels like ours are struggling to survive because so many people think we owe it to them to give them our music. People who are happy to pay £3 in a pub for a pint of beer or the same for a cup of foam in Starbucks, which will last them ten minutes, won’t shell out the same amount for an EP which they can play for years. But I’m powerless to do anything about this except shake my fist and argue the case – and appreciate the people who think our music is worth a price, and buy it.
++ I read that you first started in a friend’s band playing viola, harpsichord and a bit of guitar. What was the band name? What happened to it?
That’s right. The band was put together by my old friend Carl Green, later of Whirlpool Guest House and Shandy Wildtyme, and more recently of The Close-Ups. It was called Love The Bulbs, and I think Carl called it a ‘project’ rather than a band. At that time, which was around 1985, Carl had got thoroughly sick of playing live and trying to secure record deals, so he reverted to doing much more experimental things. I could play all these different instruments from my days as a music student, when I used to play in chamber music groups and orchestras, and I could play by ear quite well, and just pick up very quickly what he wanted to hear. He’d often sing the parts to me, and I’d reproduce them on whatever instrument he wanted. We did a tape of four songs. They were good songs. When it became clear that we were both songwriters with our own approach, and each wanted our own band, I set up Friends and Carl started Whirlpool Guest House. It was a very amicable ‘split’ and we both ended up releasing records on Summerhouse.
++ Most of your recordings have been done with John Spence. How did you meet him and what is that that he brings for Friends that no other producer can do?
We came across John through a friend of mine called Steve Skinner, who had a band called International Rescue, and later joined the final Orange Juice line-up and then Edwyn Collins’ band on guitar. We’d done our first single at a very expensive studio, and now needed something a bit more ‘appropriate’ to our level. Steve recommended Fairview in Hull, where he’d done a lot of recording with John Spence. We recorded our second single Far And Away there, then did our next few albums in Darlington, where our drummer had his own studio. When I moved away from the North East we were looking for somewhere new, and it seemed natural to go back to Fairview, where we’d got a really good sound with Far And Away.
John has many great qualities as a producer. Most importantly he’s got a good pair of ears, and he’s easy to get on with. The way we record, we don’t need a producer to give us a ‘sound’, or change our sound, we just want someone to run the session, get good performances from us, make a judgement about the quality of the takes, and mix the results to get the best possible sound. In other words to give a fairly ‘live’ representation of what we do. John can work in other ways too, and one of the good things about him is that he’s very flexible and always puts the music and the band’s vision first. He’s not unique in that, but when we’ve thought about the next album we’ve never yet felt the urge to change the producer.
++ Why did you call the band Friends? I really like the name but do you find that the internet era has made it difficult to search for more information about Friends? It’s quite hard to google Friends and find the band’s stuff!
Oh dear. Big mistake. If someone had told me in 1986 that there was this big internet thing just around the corner, and the name would be a major problem, I promise I would have listened.
The intention of the name wasn’t intended as a statement of ‘we’re all Friends’ in any wimpy way (and we weren’t anyway!), it was meant to suggest something solid and positive, like the Society of Friends, the original name for the Quakers. But it’s asking a lot to expect people to read that into it, I know. I’ve never explained the original inspiration for the name, but it came from a pair of banners I saw with a band supporting The Chameleons, I think it was Balaam And The Angel. One just said ‘family’ and the other ‘friends’. I just thought ‘that’s it’, it seemed very strong and bold.
The internet has been great in many ways, but for our name it’s a nightmare, as are those people on the TV who turned up with our name well after we’d started. In fact I remember seeing the programme in the TV listings early on and thinking ‘how interesting, someone else has got our name’. The thing is now, though, that within our industry, or sector, the name has been there too long to change it, and after 23 years I can’t face going through the process of choosing another one. And then maybe finding out that it’s already out there too! To anyone who has wasted hours trying to find us through search engines I say ‘sorry’. But you’ll always find us quickly via Summerhouse Records, and the Friends area of the Summerhouse website includes everything about us.
++ Why did you move from Stockton-on-Tees to London? Do you miss anything from that town? What do you like best about London?
I actually didn’t move straight to London, but lived in a small town in the midlands called Worksop for about ten years in between. I moved from there to London to become Head Of Marketing at the Barbican Centre, which is Europe’s largest arts and conference centre – quite a big job.
I miss Stockton-On-Tees enormously. I love the place and have very happy memories of nearly eight years there, which really formed me as a person. I miss the Arts Centre where I used to work, which has now been demolished to make way for something bigger and newer. And I miss many of the people I knew there. It’s an area where the people have a quality or a character I’ve never encountered anywhere else. I still have some good friends there, like Carl Green, and our old soundman and driver Geoff Walker. I went back in late 2007 for the first time in nearly 15 years and it was a very strange and emotional experience, seeing my old house again and the places I used to go. Not much had changed in many ways.
Everything moves on, and I wouldn’t go back. I love living in London and wouldn’t live anywhere else except New York. I like the vastness of it, the parks, the character of its different districts, the convenience of being able to get pretty much anything at any time, the quietness of my street, feeling at the centre of things, lying in the sun on Primrose Hill, my old school, the National Theatre, the museums and galleries, old friends, new friends. Quite a lot really.
++ With such a vast discography, what is your favourite of all of your releases? Do you have any favourite song that you have to play in every gig maybe? Or maybe there’s that one song that means everything to you?
My favourite release is usually the most recent, that’s been the trend since the early 90s anyway. And it’s not just the novelty of the newest recording, it tends to remain my favourite too, certainly until the next one. I’m still very fond of the first two albums, I do like the purity of the sound and the fact that the style of the songs was still fairly embryonic. My favourites releases are the albums Spangleland and Beautiful You. There are a few very long songs on Spangleland that I’m particularly keen on.
Yes, there are a couple of songs we play live every time, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone going to Indietracks! Generally the live set is very powerful and punchy, songs that work really well live because of a particular groove or riff. Just standing at the front of that glorious sound is a wonderful feeling, being part of the flow of music coming out.
One song that means everything? Well, many of my songs are about just a couple of people, who have very generously and unknowingly provided subject matter over the years, and who have been very important in my life. My all-time favourite Friends songs are Beautiful To Me and Day By Night.
++ You told to the good Tommy Gunnarson on an interview that you don’t listen to any new indiepop anymore? Why is that? Or perhaps nowadays you do listen to some indiepop?
I think I said I was very out of touch, and listened mostly to older things. I certainly don’t have an aversion to indiepop as such, it’s just that there’s very little that sounds strikingly different from anything else, and if you hang around as long as I have you start to hear the same things coming back 20 years later.
That interview was six years ago, and since then I’ve come across some bands I like very much, often through being approached by them on MySpace or by playing last.fm. I used to love Dolly Mixture and I’ve managed to catch up with what they’ve done since then, particularly Debsey with Birdie, who are (or were) brilliant. Also Shy Girl and Warm Morning who I’ve listened to a lot on MySpace, and I’m very keen on Lily Allen, although she’s not exactly indiepop! Showstar, the Belgian band on our label, are also excellent. So maybe I’m a bit more in touch than I was, and my ears are still open to anything new that comes along. But the things I still go back to again and again are The Chameleons, Strawbs, Steely Dan, Renaissance, Martin Newell, Bob Mould and Nick Drake, who I only heard for the first time a few years ago.
++ One thing I never understood, why a band like Friends, one of the best bands that has appeared in UK (or to be more fair, in the whole world) is not more known, so so underrated! A friend once told me that you should have been more popular than The Smiths. And I thought there was some truth in that. Why do you think you’ve been under the radar all this time? Do you like the title “cult band”?
I’ve no idea. It’s not for want of trying. I try not to let our lack of commercial success frustrate me, or to become bitter. But thanks for your comment, it’s very gratifying, and when I read that, and messages like one we got from someone from the other side of the world describing our music as ‘a soundtrack to his life’, then I know we make a connection with people. Of course I’d like more of these connections, I’d like more people to hear our music, and I’d like to make a decent living from it. But in many ways we’ve done alright. We’ve sold more albums than Nick Drake did in his lifetime! Although a lot fewer than since he died. There are some very deserving bands that didn’t make it as big as they should have done. The Chameleons, who I love more than any other, and who had a massive and passionate live following, reached a certain niche level and then never went further.
There is probably something about the music which isn’t universal enough to have more widespread appeal, is maybe too personal, but then the upside of that is that it feels so much more special to the smaller numbers who appreciate it, who really feel it’s ‘theirs’.
I generally think that if you have major commercial potential someone will find you and help you to capitalise on it. But I’m happy with the life and career I’ve had, and after all we’ve released eleven albums and six singles of my music, which sound pretty much the way I want, and we’ve reached thousands of people round the world. That’s OK!
++ What will there be for dinner today at William Jones place?
That’s a difficult one. Big decision. I get bored cooking, so I tend to make a very big meal and do a big fruit salad once a week, and eat it for as long as it’s still healthy! This weekend I think it’s going to be a very large spaghetti bolognese. I recommend sticking some mushrooms in, readers.
++ Anything else you’d like to tell the popkids out there?
Keep popping, kids, and one day you’ll grow up to be like me.
Friends – Let’s Get Away From it All