Steve Skaith & Mike Jones - 'Modern Times' Interview
Originally released in 1985, Latin Quarter's debut album, 'Modern Times', has been re-released on the Cherry Red record label with the addition of five bonus songs. To mark the re-release, Steve Skaith and Mike Jones granted radioafrica.co.uk an exclusive interview. With Steve Skaith living in Mexico and Mike Jones in Liverpool it wasn't possible to interview them together, so they were interviewed separately without either knowing the other's answers. Only then were the answers combined to produce the finished interview.
What does the reissue of 'Modern Times' on Cherry Red Records mean to you?
Mike Jones: It means a hell of a lot. It can't help to feel validating when a record company decides that it might be a commercial prospect to re-release a 17 year old album. And it certainly doesn't feel like 17 years ago!! (I feel like Les from Crème Brulee!)
Steve Skaith: Well it was a nice surprise. It's good to be remembered, especially at a time when I'm trying to lift my head again above the parapet and get the new record 'Mexile' released.
How do you feel about this record after so many years?
Mike: I still feel very positive about it, there still doesn't seem to be a bad moment on it.
Steve: I have a great soft spot for it. The years we spent writing it and first demoing it were for me really great and creative - I was learning so much about music as I went. However I wish it had been made in the 60's rather than the mid 80's, cos I think most mid 80's records sound pretty horrible: all those synths and effects machines and 'Modern Times' definitely is a mid-eighties record!
What are your own favourite and least favourite songs on 'Modern Times'?
Mike: This will sound very vain but I can't choose. Again, there are no bad moments, no bad songs, there are production issues that we couldn't resolve at the time that I'd like some guru to come in and fix but these are just brushstrokes. (Drum sound on 'No Ordinary Return', revert to the B-side synth sound for 'Eddie'; a real Hammond on 'Truth About John' with more prominence for it - i.e. more like 'Highway 61', and no sax on 'America for Beginners'!!!)
Steve: I guess my favourite is either 'America for Beginners' or 'No Rope as Long as Time.' Again, it's about the process of writing them. I remember a late Saturday night when I first demoed 'America for Beginners' in my room and when I put those high backing vocals on I was just knocked out by the effect. 'No Rope' because I felt happy to write at least one lyric that could live with all the stuff Mike was sending down to me week after week.
Some music critics believe that much of the music from the 1980's sounds too artificial and synthesised, but 'Modern Times' seems to have avoided these pitfalls better than most, would you agree?
Mike: I think so but this is a fascinating area for discussion - and now I work in a music department I'm very aware of how little grasp I have of music and how it works. For example, I began watching a film last night and the first thing that struck me was how 80's it was - it was made in 1987. The synth and drum machine sounds on the soundtrack were vile, absolutely vile, yet, at the time, they would have been seen as cutting edge. Latin Quarter eventually became far too synth-dependent (I think we had five keyboards on stage at one point) which is why the later incarnations (the far less successful Latin Quarters of the early to mid-90s) were in many ways more satisfying. I've never even liked the Fender Rhodes piano sound. So, where the instrumentation and performance of Modern Times is concerned I think we were lucky that it doesn't have too many of those very dated sounds on it - this was more by accident than design, essentially Latin Quarter was a conventional rock band that used comparatively 'natural' keyboard sounds - using synths to sound like pianos and organs.
Steve: No, I actually agree with those critics.
'Modern Times' has been praised as pure musical alchemy, a mix of reggae, rock, funk and pop. What were the musical influences and why such a variety of sounds?
Mike: This is a question only Steve can truly answer but I'm glad that we had the diversity. It certainly was never contrived and it was always a pleasure to receive the demos because they were always as true to the lyric as they could have been. The songwriting was lyric driven and Steve composed around the lyric in the way that he thought most appropriate. Our biggest rows came when I couldn't see why he thought a particular setting was appropriate - but that was comparatively rare.
Steve: Remember we wrote the songs before any band was formed, so there was no chance of a single, overall band sound or approach. I was working as a Chappell's songwriter so I guess we were open to any style that seemed to fit the lyric or the mood of the song. The one underlying thing was a sense of 'pop hooks' that most of the songs tried to have. Even though we set out without any real belief in mainstream success, I think there was in that pop sense, a mainstream approach.
Do the lyrics from 'Modern Times' stand up after all this time? And what lyrics are you most proud of?
Mike: Yes, they do, though there's some naivety there that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable - the obscurity of the references in 'Toulouse', there is some unevenness in 'Truth About John', I'm not completely convinced that 'Cora' was such a good idea but its got some good writing in it. I'm proudest of 'Long Pig' as a set of lyrics.
In his Q magazine review of 'Modern Times', John Aizlewood said the subject matter had dated but the music hasn't, but has the subject matter really dated? Looking at the problems in Africa today and with Bush in the White House things don't seem to have changed that much.
Steve: I think the details of the subject matter have changed obviously. But you're right, a new songwriter today could easily write a song along the lines of 'Radio Africa', or 'America For Beginners'. But the lyrics should not only be judged in this way. I would still challenge anyone to find a better and more brilliant set of lyrics than on those Latin Quarter records. It never was about moralising or sloganeering but about very carefully written analyses and descriptions of situations. Mike: I think he's both wrong and right! The danger of any politically engaged expression is that the world moves on, contexts change, people gain more information, heroes turn out to be bastards (like Mugabe!) connotations shift and so on. I suppose Modern Times isn't art because Picasso's 'Guernica' hasn't dated…. The weirdest thing I've heard is that a Radio Station in Zimbabwe plays 'Radio Africa' almost everyday - but probably for the approving reference to Mugabe - I'd be anti-Mugabe now but the words of the song have been appropriated and set to a different political agenda - abit like the Tories attempting to hi-jack 'Power to the people' and 'Imagine.'
'Radio Africa' is the album's most famous song, but although there have been some positive changes in Africa the situation seems just as bad today. Was the song's message of hope for the future misplaced?
Steve: Did the song have a message of hope? Well, yes, it was a time when we thought certain leaders like Mugabe might lead a fight against the continuing capitalist domination of the region and hope in him was definitely misplaced.
The inclusion of the five bonus songs will be welcomed by fans, especially as four of them haven't been available on CD before, but how do you feel about this as it does change the whole feel of the album?
Steve: I have no strong opinions on this. I love 'Voices Inside' and am happy to hear it again after all these years, whereas 'This Side of Midnight' is a bit of an in-joke that I wouldn't have missed if it wasn't there. It's live at a gig in Hamburg when we'd foolishly challenged the drummer to play it as fast as he could. He did and no one could really keep up.
Mike: It's definitely an issue. Even at the time, the US release of 'Modern Times' was a little like this as well. It's a trend, isn't it; even Love and The Byrds have been released this way. I'm not unhappy, it's obvious to see where the original album ended. I'm not struck on the choices though - I'd have preferred 'Pyramid Label' to the 12" 'Modern Times' remix but that was on 'Nothing Like Velvet.'
A couple of the bonus songs could quite easily have been included in the original 'Modern Times' release, was it a difficult decision to leave off any of these songs? And did hearing them again bring back good memories?
Steve: Actually those songs couldn't have been included. Remember, 'Modern Times' was recorded for vinyl not for CD and on vinyl there was a kind of 40 minute limit to what you could include without losing quality or volume. At least that was the common wisdom at the time, even though I remember Elvis Costello trying to challenge that.
Mike: I always had a slightly different conception of what should and shouldn't be on albums from the released versions. Without a list of demos in front of me it would be hard to say what else might have been included on 'Modern Times' - but 'Voices Inside' is a terrific song and I would have loved that to have been on an album.
The 12" version of 'Modern Times' is an example of a remix that even improves on the original version, were you happy with the remix versions of the singles from 'Modern Times'? And how much say did you have in them?
Steve: To tell you the truth I can't really remember the remix versions. I think I found them interesting in a kind of way, but didn't take too much notice to be honest.
Mike: We had far too little say. Jeff Gilbert who ran the label did too many orthodox and conventional things with us. It's because he saw Latin Quarter as a new Fleetwood Mac, as absolutely mainstream with huge potential. It's obviously gratifying to be thought about that way and he wasn't at all afraid of putting his money where his mouth was - but we were never going to be that kind of band. Latin Quarter's biggest problem was that we could never explain what we were about. Consequently the record companies ran with their version. I don't like the re-mix, partly because it was an outcome of 'you have to have a 12"' - well, why? It didn't do us any good, it cost a fortune (which was added to our debt) and, worse still, it was yet another release. One of the factors that so under-mined us was the constant releasing of singles. We came to seem like a desperate band. The simple solution would have been to have deleted 'Modern Times' and then re-released when 'Radio Africa' charted. The fact that 'Modern Times' wasn't a hit album in the UK is just insane.
The single and 12" version of 'America For Beginners' was a re-recording of the album version, why did you feel the need to record it?
Steve: We'd developed a live version that seemed stronger (included the women doing the backing vocals) and it was felt that we could give the fans something new. I do think it's stronger and that version is on the album 'Nothing Like Velvet'. It's probably one of the best sounding tracks we ever did.
Mike: We always saw it as our 'classic'. To us, 'Radio Africa' was just a song, a good one, but, then, we thought the other tracks on 'Modern Times' were equally good, but 'America For Beginners' was special, right from the outset. But the song caused huge rows because somehow we could never quite get it to work the way that the original demo worked. Basically Steve almost whispered the vocal, incredibly intimately, you could here the saliva in his mouth - perfect!! It was meant to be ominous and threatening. The 'response' vocals were incredibly distant in that original mix - and that heightened the tension and added to the drama. So, when the guitar came in at the end it sounded like an explosion. It was great!! But as soon as it became 'sung' and regularised in the studio it lost its edge, and all the versions just got further and further away from the original template. The original may not have been Radio 1 friendly, but, fuck it, it was a classic, it just went on to become a lost classic! I mean, imaging being thrilled about Jason Corsaro's drum sound on the single version - that's how fucked up we'd become.
Toyah recorded an almost identical version of 'America For Beginners' for her 'Minx' album, did you like her version?
Mike: No, not just because she was so naff but because that was a straight steal by whoever the producer was. He had our demos, wanted to produce us, didn't, and took our demo to Toyah who lapped it up. Thank god it wasn't a hit for her!
Steve: We actually tried to stop them releasing it, not because we didn't like it but because they had no right to go ahead and release it before we had our version out. They went ahead and we didn't bother suing them (which we could have done.) Yea, the producer of that record Chris Neill had met me and been interested in producing the track (and 'Radio Africa') with us. It didn't happen and so he took the demo and basically copied it for Toyah. No I didn't particularly like the way she sang it.
On the production side, Nigel Gray, who is best known for his work on the Police albums, produced 'Radio Africa' and Latin Quarter produced the rest of the album with Pete Hammond. How did you come to work with these producers?
Steve: I am tempted to pass on this question because I wish Nigel had stayed involved, but after 'Radio Africa' we did some stuff together which turned out really sloppy and unconvincing. The point was that Nigel was going through a hard time partly because The Police ripped him off terribly and he found that difficult to come to terms with. So we moved on to work with Pete who was an engineer friend who had done a lot of work with Steve Jeffries our keyboard player at the time.
Having so many band members to keep happy must have made the 'Modern Times' recording process very difficult at times, especially with having three vocalists. Was this the case? And who chose who sang which song?
Steve: No not in the case of 'Modern Times.' As I said, 'Modern Times' was written mainly before the band came along so there was a clear blueprint for how to record the songs. I think the kind of problems you refer to came later on the dreaded second album. As for deciding who sang what on Modern Times, I think I made those kinds of decisions. I think.
Mike has said in an interview that every Latin Quarter album was a compromise of sorts, what where the compromises that you had to make with 'Modern Times'?
Steve: I think this was the least compromised in fact. OK the budget meant that we didn't really get the 'No Ordinary Return' that we wanted and there may have been one or two other corners cut ('Modern Times' the song could be a little more explosive). But in general, I think it was just about the album we went in to the studio to make, for better or worse.
James Swinson's memorable album cover helps gives the album a timeless feel and compliments the rich musical style, however was there no pressure put on the band to appear on the cover of singles or the album?
Steve: I don't remember any pressure of this sort. I think the record company was very happy with the cover. I know in Germany they wanted to get me to have my broken tooth fixed, but that is another story.
Finally, Mike you told us a while ago that you've stopped writing and that all this is behind you. Does the release maybe change your mind?
Mike: Its now been so long since I wrote a song I doubt very much whether I can actually write (it's not like riding a bike!). Further I don't have the same motivation. When Steve and I began to write we were both involved in politics and shared a particular political perspective. I've never really strayed from Marxist theory as an explanation of why the world is the way it is. I'm certainly no longer an activist and the term 'burnt out' comes to mind. The problem for me now is that I teach in a music department - I teach the music industry and also songwriting - and I'm surrounded by incredibly talented people, so part of me is tempted to begin to write again. Not so much because I feel I have anything to prove but I'm beginning to remember that making music is a pleasurable activity (or its meant to be). I found Latin Quarter's slippery grasp on success enormously difficult to deal with as the more depressed interviews with me reveal. I've also found the success of Oasis hard to deal with - not because I resent it or believe that it could have been Latin Quarter, it couldn't, but because its meant that Marcus Russell has been able to stay in the music business and I haven't! I'm sick of my own negativity and the world remains a challenging and stimulating place to live. Teaching is creative in a way but maybe, just maybe, I might find writing a pleasure again - though it seems a dim and distant possibility from the right here and the right now.