Steve Skaith - Radio Africa Interview
Downtown Mexico City*
The plaintive cries and shrill notes of a trumpet punctuate the roar of the traffic and the hum of electricity the Mariachi's are on the prowl, bringing their sad northern ballad's to the ravaged streets of the Distrito Federale's Garabaldi Plaza. For a few pesos, customers buy a song or two, and slowly drift away into cantinas for tequila and tortillas, heavy on the lime.
Today though there's a new troubadour in town. It was inevitable when you think about it The Ballad of Philipe Escobar, the band's vocirferous criticisms of the murderous US-backed regimes of Central America, their involvement with Amnesty election-monitoring in Nicaragua, Bitter to the South... Steve Skaith has at last found a little Latin Quarter all of his own.
Forsaking the damp streets of his native Liverpool for the sun and salsa of the world's largest city, sixty million say unofficial estimates, Steve now works as a language tutor by day and a gigging local musician by night. He's assembled a band, written a clutch of new lyrics, reworked a couple of earlier songs, renewed his partnership with Mike Jones and cut an album: a stunning collection of tender and witty songs, the likes of which David Gray could only dream of playing, suffused with a lilting Northern European folkiness and the understated flamenco flourishes of Javier Gàmiz, the new hombre on the block.
We caught up with Steve earlier this year...
In his interview with Consumable Mike Jones said that SPV had given the impression that they saw Latin Quarter as a long-term commitment, presumably they never lived up to this commitment?
Unfortunately no they didn't. It never reads well when bands or artists moan about their record companies. It's like when we moan about bad reviews: it sounds like whingeing. And of course if we'd made an album as good as "Sergeant Pepper" or "Born to Run" or even "The Bends" we'd have SPV in the palm of our hands. But we did make a good album (even the critics agreed!) and they certainly did not do what they said they would. I don't recommend them.
Since "Bringing Rosa Home" was released you've moved to Mexico City, why?
I needed to throw my life up into the air a bit and get out of the rut I was slipping into. I felt like learning Spanish and experiencing a new culture. I couldn't stand another round of writing and recording new songs and then going round begging yet another European record company for a another long-term commitment. It felt like a good time to move on. I'd been on holiday here and met a musician who was interested in doing some stuff together. Its been a slow process but I think it has begun to work. I feel refreshed and very keen to get a new record out. Mister long-term commitment, I'm over here!
In his review of "Swimming Against the Stream" John Aizlewood said you were the ideal mouthpiece for Mike Jones' lyrics, so you must be disappointed that Mike Jones is no longer writing lyrics?
Yes I am. It was exhilarating when Mike was writing as prolifically as he used to. Every few weeks a new envelope would arrive with four or five new lyrics and it was always a huge inspiration. I always found it easier to compose to already written lyrics and sometimes his stuff would leave me completely stunned by its brilliance. The similarity of our experiences and outlook meant that he was the ideal writer for many of my thoughts and feelings. At the moment there is a backlog of lyrics and I still turn to it. In the new recordings there are three or four Mike Jones lyrics that are seeing the light of day for the first time. But yes, it would be great if he felt creative again and I do not give up hope that he can get inspired again. In fact I think the problem is more a lack of motivation. He feels he has written so much good stuff to such a lack of interest that he can no longer raise himself to face more disappointment. Check out what he was already writing in "It Makes My Heart Stop Speaking" on "Swimming Against the Stream."
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a batch of new songs, some of which are inspired by Mexico but love rather than politics seems to be the guiding light at the moment, with one rather extreme exception. I've written about half the lyrics but as I said, I'm using some Mike Jones lyrics that I've had for a while.
You've also been reworking some Latin Quarter songs including "Race Me Down", what's the reason for this?
Yes, I've been reworking "Race Me Down," "The Spearcarrier," "Felipe Escobar" and "Model Son". The reasons are quite simple. My friend Javier Gàmiz and I did some acoustic gigs last year and I taught him some Latin Quarter songs. He never heard the original arrangements so he started coming up with some really good new riffs - he is a guitarist. These songs in particular sounded really fresh so I thought it could be good to put them on tape. (A new version of "Radio Africa" also sounded good but even my mum would start screaming if that ever got re-recorded again!) The versions are simpler than the originals and I really like them.
Latin Quarter's musical style has always been diverse, no more so than on "Modern Times" and "Long Pig", has living in Mexico City changed your musical style in anyway?
Essentially no. There is one song which introduces a Latin American rhythm in the chorus which is completely new to me; and the arrangements do have a taste of Mexicana here and there. But essentially the songs have turned out less different than I thought they would. I've decided not to worry about that. The big difference if this album does see the light of day will be that it is much simpler and much less polished than the Latin Quarter ones. At the moment I feel strongly that that is a strength. So much music sounds so air-conditioned and tasteful nowadays, especially singer-songwriter stuff, that even when it is obviously good, like David Gray, it hovers on the bland line. I'd be happy for this record to sound a little like demos if that meant it sounded truer.
Both "Long Pig" and "Bringing Rosa Home" were recorded with several session musicians, are you working with other local musicians in Mexico?
As I said, with my friend Javier Gàmiz and briefly with a great Cuban sax player called Daniel. Unfortunately when Cubans speak Spanish they do so incredibly fast and miss out all the 'S' sounds. I couldn't understand a word Daniel ever said to me but I loved his playing.
It's fair to say Latin Quarter have had their fair share of disappointments, what has kept you motivated?
Well writing songs is its own reward and I love being in the studio recording. Playing live was never such an incentive. But in Mexico I am living by teaching English and let me tell you having a day job again after twenty years is a serious motivation!
When can we expect to hear any new material from you?
That is over to some record company somewhere who is going to make me yet another unbreakable long-term commitment. I can't wait and as always I will believe them.
Finally, you've written the lyrics to several Latin Quarter songs, what was the background to you writing these songs?
"No Rope As Long As Time"....was written after reading the biography of one of the founders of the South African Communist Party: a white guy whose name escapes me as does the name of the book. Sorry to be so vague but it is 17 years ago! The phrase 'No Rope as Long as Time' is/was a saying of black South Africans meaning that no amount of oppression could ever halt their eventual freedom. Musically the song was inspired by Bruce Springsteen. After composing so much at that time on keyboards, often using pop-type riffs ("Modern Times," "Seaport September," "No Ordinary Return," "America for Beginners," "Eddie," "Truth About John"...) I was listening to Springsteen and thought Jesus! why don't I get back to strumming a guitar. Actually you don't hear the acoustic guitar too much on the record, but that's how it started.
"February 1990"....In February 1990 I went on a delegation of musicians and actors to observe the elections in Nicaragua. The defeat of the Sandinista government in that election was a great blow and I felt once again that American money and influence had corrupted the region. When I got back to London, the first thing I saw in my bedroom was a magazine article I'd been reading about the murder of four Jesuit priests in El Salvador, another Central American country in which the US was spending a lot of money in order to defeat a popular left wing movement. The song February 1990 briefly expresses my feelings about those two very connected events.
"The Ballad of Felipe Escobar"....that year I began reading a lot about Central America. In one pamphlet, I read this story of a young peasant in Honduras who was murdered because he had been militant and spoken out against corrupt and despotic landlords. This was Felipe Escobar.
"Bitter to the South"....has a similar origin. The tune came out of meeting and playing with the Bhundu Boys, from Zimbabwe, but the lyrics were drawn from that same visit to Nicaragua in 1990. Tomas in the song is Tomas Borge, one of the leaders of the Sandinistas. The following year I visited a friend who was working in El Salvador for the United Nations, and had the opportunity to go into the guerrilla occupied territory. We arrived in this very small village which was riddled with bullet holes and mortar craters. We went into the only little shop and lo and behold! on the wall: a ninja turtle poster. American culture even here. The song is about the relation between the 1st and 3rd worlds.
"Angel"....a rather simple love song, written in those breathless moments when you are on the verge of falling in love with someone. (Not Mike Jones' favourite Latin Quarter song! I think he thinks we should leave this kind of stuff to bands from California.)
"The Spearcarrier"....written 6 months later when that love affair abruptly and inexplicably stopped. I was so shocked to be so suddenly pushed out of her life and this image came to me: that one day we can be the leading man, the star in someone's life and the next day nothing. Like an extra, a bit part player, (in Shakespeare) a Spearcarrier. The song didn't mean to be cruel but it is ironic and a little pointed.
"Branded"....another love song. This time when I felt I loved and wanted a woman more than she did me. This is great for desire but very bad for peace of mind. But then, maybe love is not about having peace of mind! Only after the song was recorded did I realise the obvious image in the middle 8: 'Comes like skin to fire', obvious given the song is called Branded, instead of the one I had sung 'like ice to fire'. So the booklet has 'skin' the actual singing 'ice'.
"Love Ain't What You Get"....was the fourth attempt to write a lyric for this song, which was originally composed at the time of "Swimming Against the Stream." It is about a couple of friends of mine in London.
"Remember"....written after going round Westminster Abbey and realising just how connected is religion and war: the British Army and its spiritual wing, the Anglican Church. On Remembrance Day we are asked to remember the dead, but what do we really remember when the church is always quick to bless the next adventure. I'm not a pacifist but the hypocrisy.
* Preface by Steve Uzzell