++ You have just released a new album “Trojan Hearse”. Tell us a bit about it, what can we expect? Does it continue the line of “Something Worth Stealing”? Any funny anecdotes while recording it? Why the change of labels?
If you’ve heard a Hepburns albums before then you’d probably be expecting some guitar-based pop songs with half-happy, half-sad lyrics and an album that sounds as if it’s cost a few hundred quid to record in portable accommodation in the shadow of a slag heap in a remote Welsh village.
The Hepburns became known for well-written songs with a lo-fi sound long before the term ‘lo-fi’ entered common parlance. Our ‘homemade’ sound was due to a lack of cash, mainly, but also the ‘junk’ aesthetic of punk and post-punk. We grew up in the 60s and 70s, made our first records in the 80s, and were influenced by the original ‘indie’ bands like Orange Juice, so the point for us was always the tune, the lyric, the passion and energy with which those were delivered, with production values on somebody else’s list, probably a band from down the road who were into Zappa or something.
“Trojan Hearse” isn’t like that, though. We recorded it in the fabulous Music Box Studios, Cardiff, with a friend of ours, Charlie Francis, who is a brilliant producer and who we knew would get the best out of The Hepburns, take us to new places in the studio – such as the amazing vegetarian Indian restaurant on Penarth Road…seriously, Charlie had worked with one of our heroes, Sean O’Hagan from the High Llamas, and has an incredible way of getting inside the minds and the work of the musicians he records. We thought this more thoughtful – more expensive! – approach to recording was long overdue after 25 years of just whacking it down.
Any interesting anecdotes? The Super Furries had been rehearsing the week before in Music Box and as we arrived their stuff was being loaded into a lorry. We felt elated and deflated – not unusual for The Heps – sort of like “Hey, there’s the Super Furries’ amps!” then realising how pathetic that was. There was a Vox AC30 amp that used to belong to the Webb Brothers which Charlie let us use so my guitar may – may! – have come out of the same amp as ‘Wichita Line Man’. Also, Martin Carr had been recording there and I’d like to state now, for the record, that there is absolutely no truth in the rumour that I recorded half the album on the Gibson semi-acoustic he wrote “Wake up Boo” on.
The change of labels was like any other change – to do something different, fresh, exciting. The Bendigedig Recordings headquarters are in Nantgaredig, a small village in the Towy Valley, which in a way is a bit more us than San Francisco – where Radio Khartoum is – although I like both places to be honest. The label belongs to our old friend and mentor, TV’s Simon Wright, although his son Jamie was heavily involved with artwork and stuff, so it was good to do it in Wales for once.
++ You say this album is for drunks, cyclists, and drunk cyclists everywhere. Why is that?
Drunks and cyclists? Well, no need to harp on about drinking, it’s what most people do, isn’t it, the Welsh might do it more often and with more of a vengeance than others, but it’s pretty boring though, getting pissed, being hung-over, getting pissed, being hung-over…when we went to the States on tour me and Mike (bass) got pissed every night for three weeks, that’s no way to see a fantastic country like America, is it? The worst was going to an after-show party in Seattle and waking up still half-cut in Salt Lake City. What a weirdly beautiful place that was, like a moonscape, but frankly I didn’t know where I was – I could have been in Port Talbot for all I knew. What a waste. I almost felt sorry for the Scandinavians on tour. We were relentless. In Fredrikstad, Norway, we went to this Film company’s xmas party where there was a free bar! The Norwegians like a drink but we drunk the place dry – literally – then ate taco mince with our hands as the sun came up. We were like a plague on the town, I should apologise now for the hurt we caused. Childish it is.
During the summer I cycle between 120-150 miles a week, weather depending. Every year I do the London-Oxford ride, 60 miles through the Chilterns. Anyway, on the London ride last year I was joined by an associate of mine, Ken Garrington – we met in a Smiths gig in Swansea Uni back in the 80s – he’s a bit of a drinker, cider being his beverage of choice. Trouble is with Ken is he’s known to start early – or finish late, same difference – so no surprises when he started off around about 5 am with a pint of white wine and two cans of Strongbow. Fortunately he was accompanied by his girlfriend Emily who’s a computer programmer but who acted as his personal nurse on the day. I’d have left him for dead myself, spread-eagled on the pavement 2 miles out of Oxford, begging for a can of pop. For her dubious reward Ken’s marrying Emily next year. The song ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is dedicated to him and his ilk.
++ What are the future plans for the band now? Do you feel you’ve accomplished all you wanted with The Hepburns?
Future Plans? We’re going to record some more material with Testbild! in Malmo. We started doing a record with them last year, such a great time, Testbild! are one of my favourite bands, so it was a huge thrill working with them. Their music is wonderfully intricate and fabulously constructed and I’m hoping some of that care and consideration to writing and especially recording will rub off on us. Apart from that – nothing really. Our criteria for success have always been very basic – provided we’re writing good songs and making good records we’ll carry on. You’ve got to live your life to be able to do that and the songs are just records of a time and a place and the things which happen to you. So – living and writing, that’s all I want to do.
++ Which is the strangest place you’ve ever played a gig? What about the farthest place from Wales? And your favourite gig?
Strangest place we ever played a gig was in a basement in Olympia, Washington. The roughest place you ever saw, singing through guitar amps, surrounded by young Olympians singing their heads off and their hearts out to our tunes, totally wonderful – roughest, strangest and best. Farthest place is either Seattle or Monterey, I guess, somewhere on the West Coast, anyway.
++ I have to ask this question, even if it is kind of silly, did you name the band because of Audrey Hepburn or was it for some other Hepburn like Katharine?
We named the band after two beautiful, stylish, female filmstars. Incredibly, I think we must have known what we were doing. It’s a good name. It’s belonged to several other bands, too, since we borrowed it from Katherine and Audrey, but like an old 50s dress, nobody wears it quite so well as us, not even ‘Hepburn’ and they were women. Just goes to show that gender is a state of mind.
++ Your first two releases came out on Cherry Red Records, two sought-after records on ebay, “Goalmouth Incident” and the “The Magic of the Hepburns” LP. What happened after? Why didnt Cherry Red support you? I heard there’s an unreleased “lost album”, is that true? Will Cherry Red re-release these recordings?
Yes, there is a lost album called ‘Road Movie’. The songs are fragments of life so I quite like the idea of some of those fragments being scattered to the wind. As for Cherry Red, I’m glad they took us on, of course I am, it’s unlikely I’d be talking to you if they hadn’t. They can’t be held responsible for the disappointment we felt when the music business didn’t meet our expectations – I mean to say, what did we expect? Three young boys with absolutely no clue about anything except how to write a song. Being dumped is the same whether it’s by a record label or by your girlfriend or boyfriend – kind of painful but you gradually become aware that nobody’s to blame and that life goes on, most importantly of all, that there’ll be another label – someone else – out there for you.
What happened after Cherry Red was, unfortunately, the 90s – then after that Alexander Bailey and Radio Khartoum. Bailey is our Clem Greenberg, our John Ruskin. If Cherry Red helped to kick things off then Bailey has kept us going – him and Simon Wright. It just goes to show that one person to hold your hand is all you need. By the time we made our first Radio Khartoum record I was 37 years old. Okay, so Ian Dury was about that age when he recorded ‘New Boots and Panties’ but the idea of old people making pop music had already become absurd by that late-90s – it probably seems even more foolish ten years on. If you were being cynical I think you’d say that we appealed to collectors from various parts of the world who’d bought ‘The Magic of The Hepburns’ and who wanted to ensure their collection was complete. RK was also, whether by design or not, catering for the ‘twee’ indie pop market that survived – still survives – the C86 thing. But if that’s all it had been – sort of our own Hepburns tribute act – then it wouldn’t have worked, not for us or RK.
I don’t think I’m deluded when I say that the point of the Hepburns – our skewed, slightly melancholic view of the world filtered through pop influences such as Jake Thackray, Orange Juice and Burt Bacharach – is just as valid, just as interesting, as it was 25 years ago. I think it’s one hell of a claim but I think it’s true. People say we sound like Belle and Sebastian when the point is – they sound like us. We were amongst the first people to realise that smart, grammar-school boy lyrics with references to literature, film and 70s sitcoms but also detailing the cracks of a broken heart sounded great to a John Barry-style backing. You may hate all that stuff – in which case don’t buy our record. The point is that it’s just as relevant or irrelevant as it always was and that we’ve earned our insignificant place in the history of small things.
++ Twee.net lists a release called “Electrified (From Countryside to City)” which was a private release. I’ve never seen or heard this record. Care to tell us a bit about it?
‘Electrified’ was released on our own ‘Magic’ label. We were assisted by Scott Longley, ex-Cherry Red, and sponsored by his dad, Brian, who died before we were able to press and release ‘Road Movie’. We did however release ‘Electrified’ which featured the frenzied guitar stylings of The King of Wales, but also a drum machine, our drummer Les Mun had found Jesus and Pharmacy in and lost his enthusiasm for playing live drums. You see, we were always disintegrating. Maybe writing songs and being in a band is 90% just trying to hold it together with the help of a few angels like Bailey and Wright.
++ What about that shared flexi with the great Waltones? Do you remember anything about how did this happen?
The flexi disc was stuck to the back of ‘Zine’ fanzine which was edited by Iestyn George, yet another of the Hepburns admirers who became much more famous than the band. I don’t recall any other recyclable tales except that we did a Welsh-language version of ‘Where You Belong’ called ‘Croseo i M&S’ or ‘Welcome to Mars & Spencer’ (‘Mae bwyd yno’n blasus ac yn fres’/ ‘The food there is tasty and fresh’).
++ The Welsh scene from the late eighties seems undocumented as compared to the one from England or even Scotland. When you started as a band were there any good bands you enjoyed from Wales? What about now, any good bands you’d recommend?
The only other band from the ‘Welsh scene’ was The Pooh Sticks. I’m still friendly with ‘Huw Pooh’ who’s a lovely bloke, always a lot cooler than me, now as then. The best new Welsh act at the moment is probably The Boy, saw him and his band in Swansea Milkwoodjam recently, thought they were very exciting.
++ Do you speak Welsh? Have you ever thought in writing music in that language?
Despite the ‘Croseo…’ song I don’t speak Welsh fluently – so I couldn’t write in Welsh even if I wanted to. I despise Nationalism. If it’s grounds for exclusion from a culture than I will quite happily be ruled out. You’ll find me sitting on a plane somewhere between continents reading Salman Rushdie’s ‘Imaginary Homelands’ and plotting the downfall of nationalists everywhere. I may not know who you are but I’m pretty sure where you live…
++ I read in another interview that one of your biggest passions was cooking! What are the latest specialties of Matt Jones?
Cooking wise, I’ve gone back to Uni to study English and creative writing, so at the moment I’m living on Beef & Tomato Pot Noodle which I make by placing the tomato sauce on top of the noodles then holding the lot under the hot water tap, thereby saving on electric. Beans on toast when I’m feeling flush – or a something from Jenkins the Bakers on my birthday.
++ Just wondering, why did you write a song for Velma from Scooby Doo? Was that your favourite cartoon? What other cartoons did you like?
I loved just about all the cartoons when I was a kid: Marine Boy, Whacky Races, The Hair Bair Bunch, although Tin Tin was, it has to be said, a bit rubbish. I wrote ‘Song for Velma’ about an ex-girlfriend of mine who was a scientist. There were echoes of the shrewd and perceptive Velma in her, or at least, I found the comparison amusing.
++ Thanks so much Matt, anything else you’d like to add?
Whatever makes you happy, I suppose.