After a six year absence Steve Skaith returns with a new band and a brand new album, ‘Mexile’ (Pläne Records). The former frontman of the English pop group Latin Quarter has teamed up with musicians in Mexico to produce an album brimming with memorable rhythms and intelligent lyrics. Although recorded in Mexico, ‘Mexile’ still retains an essentially British feel, much in the same way as Kirsty MacColl’s Brazilian recorded ‘Tropical Brainstorm’. Whether this album finally brings Steve Skaith the plaudits his music has long deserved remains to be seen, but it is sure to be welcomed by Latin Quarter fans and hopefully a whole new audience as well. We caught up with Steve Skaith to ask him about his new project…
The last Latin Quarter album, ‘Bringing Rosa Home’, was released six years ago. Why such a long gap?
The gap wasn’t my idea! It’s just how the real world of the music business can work sometimes. After ‘Bringing Rosa Home’ the record company suddenly told us they needed a ‘hit single’ if we were to continue with them and apparently we didn’t have any ‘hit singles’. At that point I basically lost heart in continuing in the same world in the same way and felt I needed a big change: I came to Mexico in 1999. Of course I would have liked to have made an album in that first year and released it in 2000. But it took time, first to record the album and then to find a record company. Thankfully it is finally coming out and we can get on to the next one. Lets hope that won’t take another six years!
The Latin Quarter name is well established, so why have you decided to use the name ‘Steve Skaith Band’?
I wanted to make a new start, and given that Richard Wright is not involved in this record it would be difficult to say that this was ‘Latin Quarter’. The process, the players have been very different even if the end result is not a million miles away from what Latin Quarter was. From a commercial point of view I actually thought this would be better: the 7th Latin Quarter album would be less newsworthy, I figured, than the first album of a new project with the in-built story about UK songwriter going to Mexico etc. Let’s see if that’s true.
We thought of alternative band names but in the end used my rather mundane name (wish I’d been born Elvis something-or-other.) We did this so Latin Quarter fans would recognise it plus the fact that I want this to be judged mainly as a singer-songwriter project. This doesn’t reduce the importance of the other guys in the band but as always, the songs/lyrics come first. I want that to be the focus, not some guitar sound or look or whatever.
So what would you say the other band members have brought to the album?
Well in general they bring a Mexican/Latin sauce (in instruments, and some rhythms) that does, I hope, make the album a little distinctive among British singer-songwriter projects.
More specifically: before there was a band, there was Javier, the guitarist, and we worked a lot on some of these songs as a duet, playing in bars etc. What he brought is clear: riffs. With the exception of ‘Radio Africa’, I don’t think he has heard any Latin Quarter track. So when you hear him playing on ‘Race Me Down’, ‘Model Son’ or ‘The Spearcarrier’, he has no idea how the originals sounded. He just came up with those riffs that you hear on the new versions. We also arranged ‘Lucky Man’ together and there you can hear two musical traditions meeting.
The bass player Beto and drummer Hugo brought solidity. In fact for technical reasons, Beto had to play all of his parts again after the rest of us had long finished. He came to the studio, plugged in and did it all in first takes.
Hugo has since left the band and we have a new guy Ricardo Serrano playing with us. He and Beto are great together and I think that the next album (which we have started rehearsing) will show off the rhythm section more than ‘Mexile’, and probably have a little more Latin influence.
Where does the title ‘Mexile’ come from?
Straight from the pen of Mike Jones. Its obviously a play on two simple words: Mexico and Exile, and refers to me being here. As soon as he suggested it I knew it was right. I should say though that I’m not trying to dramatise my situation here. I am not a political exile or an asylum seeker. I chose to come to Mexico.
Nevertheless, I can sometimes feel a long way from home and the fact that I don’t have the money to return whenever I want can sometimes make it feel a little enforced. (I wouldn’t mind being in Europe right now that ‘Mexile’ is being released for example!!)
The feel of this album is more upbeat that the last Latin Quarter album. Is this a reflection of your personal circumstances, the influence of Mexico or both?
I had no idea that ‘Mexile’ sounded more upbeat than ‘Bringing Rosa Home’ and will have to take your word for it. (And I am not being facetious.) In fact, I think I was pretty down when I started recording most of these songs, though I am rarely depressed on the actual days I am recording because I love it so much.
I guess this question and my (non)-answer just shows how little we know of how our music strikes other people
Was recording this album much different from recording Latin Quarter albums? What was the recording process for ‘Mexile’?
It was different. We began before there was any band, just Javier and me, and he involved himself really only when there were guitar parts to be played. So it was like the days before Latin Quarter when I was basically alone just doing my demos. I love this freedom. In fact my first title for the record was ‘Demo’, and I intended to leave it as rough as possible. I think at this time I felt angry with the music biz and what I saw as the proliferation of bland sounding records that were all polish and no meaning.
As the band came into being it seemed a good idea to include them in the recording and when Javier bought some really up-to-date recording equipment we went ahead and did that. We transferred all the stuff from the earlier tapes, re-did some of our parts and added live bass and drums on most of the tracks. It was no longer to be ‘Demo’.
The final stage was going to mix the tracks with Willy Levins in LA. This was my favourite part. He is great, not only as a mixer but also as a musician, and loves to work quickly. We did all my vocals there and he added a few things. He felt the record needed a little more variety in instrument colour and so played E-Bow guitar on a few tracks, distorted Javier’s guitar on ‘Fake’, etc. He also had great ideas like taking the recorded ‘click tracks’ (the metronome that the musicians listen to, to keep in time) messing with the sound and using it in the mix. (Listen to ‘Model Son’ and that percussion noise in the first verse).
For money and record-company-searching reasons, this process took in all nearly three years. (You want a definition of frustration? In 2001 the record just sat there waiting to be finished.) This I guess was similar to Latin Quarter in the ’90s. Every individual stage though was done very quickly, using first takes if possible, and this is different to the LQ way. Richard Wright and I certainly worked much slower and more deliberately. I don’t know if this is reflected in the way record sounds.
Has Richard Wright or other ex-members of Latin Quarter heard ‘Mexile’? What do they think of it?
I’ve given copies to all of them and yea they have been very kind in their comments. (I assume they were being honest.)
‘Mexile’ is coming out on a German label, Pläne Records. Why is it that so many UK bands have to go to France or Germany to get their records released?
I actually feel very out of touch with the music biz so I’m just assuming here – but I would guess it’s the same as it ever was. The UK music biz is obsessed with what is new and ‘happening’ whereas on the continent there is greater long-term loyalty and interest in bands. Depending which side you are on, you can accuse the UK of being shallow and slaves to novelty rather than quality; or you can accuse the Germans of being slow and conservative and always behind fresh new music.
To be honest I try not to think too much about the music business anymore. I’m pleased to have this deal and I hope people throughout Europe discover that the record is available.
Will there be any tour to promote the record?
I hope so, and I think the band hope so even more. They are dying to come to see Europe. I guess a lot depends on the reactions to ‘Mexile’ when it is released. A promoter will want to gauge what kind of interest people may have in seeing us play live. But of course the record company would like to see a tour and September is the month we have vaguely talked about. If there is a tour, you’ll be the first to know.
The cover for ‘Mexile’ is a James Swinson painting, just like the cover of ‘Modern Times’. You are a great fan I assume?
Yes, a great fan and a great friend. In fact James had a very good relationship with everyone in Latin Quarter and I am sure we are all grateful to him. I guess also he’s happy to have worked with us – though the truth is I am sure that we drew him into some very disappointing times. I never wanted to have straight out fights with our record companies nor management, so for instance when for ‘Mick and Caroline’ they both wanted a new photographer, new graphic designer, new video director, we went along and James was relegated to a minor role. I feel a little guilty now thinking about it – and it wasn’t exactly the greatest decision ever made in the history of the music industry, was it? On ‘Long Pig’ as well, he had a much better cover but the company insisted they didn’t like it and wanted there own. Again we went along and James never complained. But it couldn’t have been easy for him sometimes.
The ‘Mexile’ cover is great and I know from the Latin Quarter chat club that people like it. It is very striking and people are going to notice it in the shops.
So what is next?
Another record. One of my biggest regrets with Latin Quarter was that we made so few records and there were such big gaps between them. I hope that with Plaene Records we can establish a really stable and long-term relation that allows us to put out records at least every two years, if not 18 months or even every year! This way we can really build up a consistent relation with people who like what we do. In fact we have started rehearsing songs for the next album and hope to start recording in the next couple of weeks. And it is sounding great. I think we have seven really strong new songs already, plus the band want to include our new version of ‘King for a Day’. There is no reason to suppose we won’t have another record ready for Christmas.
But it’s all down to ‘Mexile’ giving us a good start. So lets hope…….