"(On The Overwhelming Sadness Of) Gravity": An Interview with Quarterman
We recently had the chance to have a video chat to Man the Lifeboats frontman Rich Quarterman about his new solo album and his writing process. It was a fun and interesting discussion. Here’s what he had to tell us:
Karis: How did you come to pursue music and how long have you been at it?
Rich: "Good Question – How long have we got? I don’t know if it was a conscious decision, I don’t know if it ever is, but I was given a guitar for my 16th birthday. Growing up in Yorkshire you’re never far away from music, it’s always around. Before the guitar I played trumpet in a band, E-flat horn in a band, because everyone just plays in a brass band or goes ‘round to the school music department. I actually read my school report a couple of weeks ago, I found the music one. Everything else was “Could try harder, doesn’t do much work” The music one was “Very enthusiastic”. I think it took a while to find an instrument and then I didn’t really know what to do with it, I wasn’t very good at practicing, but my Dad used to play folk music and all sorts of American stuff, Dylan, Tom Waits, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson all the time around the house, so I heard Bob Dylan and I immediately wanted to be Bob Dylan. I started copying, singing songs up in my room. I think it wasn’t really just the music though, it was always about the lyrics in the songs and I found that more appealing and more important when listening to a Dylan song than some of the melodies and the music…his voice is interesting…so I think for me it was a love of language and what Dylan did with language and the poetry he conjured up and making a song out of that that could say something. I think one of the first songs I ever wrote was, I wrote down 25 Bob Dylan song titles and rearranged them to make a song."
"So I think that was how I got into it and then I started playing in bands and I thought “This is great! I’m not good enough to play on my own, but there’s three or four people to hide behind here and we can have some fun together” and then, five bands later there was Man the Lifeboats, so that’s stuck longer than the others but I’ve been doing this for 20-25 years I guess now and I’m releasing my first solo single."
Karis: That’s really interesting, I’m gonna come on to some other questions later about your influences, but the Dylan lyrical influence I think really comes through on the album. So, following on from that you’ve mentioned being in a few bands and being in Man the Lifeboats now, what made you decide to release a solo album?
Rich: "It was a number of things. The first among those is; I constantly write songs. They just come out, whether they are any good or not is for others to decide. Sometimes they sit on a piece of paper or on my phone notes for years before anything happens. I had a collection of songs that I played to the guys [Man the Lifeboats] and they said maybe; “This isn’t gonna work for the band” or “It’s a bit quiet” or “I can’t really see how it’s gonna fit in”, so basically these are all rejects!
It started off being a collection of songs that were rejected by the band and I kinda thought; “I want to do something a bit different and do something with these anyway” and it was just about getting to 40 years old and thinking; “I want to do this, I don’t think I’ll be happy with myself if I don’t release an album of my own songs on my own and see what happens” so that was the main motivation for it."
Karis: They’re definitely a very different style to Man the Lifeboats, so that makes a lot of sense. Can you walk me through your process of writing music?
Rich: "You just have to turn yourself on to everything being a possible song and sometimes they’ll come to you, like the other day I woke up in the morning and I already had a little melody in my head. Sometimes it’s looking at my phone at notes that I make and often it does come from a note, it comes from a lyric or a phrase or something somebody says and you think; “That’s an interesting concept” or “That’s an interesting phrase” or “That’s got a nice rhythm to it” and you take that as the beginning and then usually the melody and the song comes after that. I think I have to have something to say before I want to sit down and write a song. That’s a thing that Leonard Cohen often said about his songs, that you can’t force them. Sometimes they’ll sit in your notepad for ten years or however long before you find an angle or you find a way of presenting them, so I don’t like to force them. Often the lyrics come on dog walks. I go for long dog walks and I think it exercises a part of your brain that’s more active, you’re thinking, you’re looking around you, you’re playing with different rhyme schemes and so on."
"Sometimes, I don’t want to say you end up copying someone, but you hear a song and you think it’s brilliant and you play along to it for a while and think you could do something just by changing a bit. I used to do that with Dylan and Tom Waits a lot, with Manu Chao. You just play along with a simple rhythm and a chord sequence and add something to it. Often though, I don’t know where they come from, the melody is just there in your head. For me it’s always been quite a solitary process. I haven’t always found it that easy to write a song with other people. With Man the Lifeboats I kind of present the song to them and Dan on the fiddle will come up with a melody or Aaron will come up with a melody and we edit it together but the song is usually quite fully formed before the band have it. With this solo album it was a bit more collaborative because I know the producer, Jamie, he’s a good friend of mine from a long time ago and I felt more comfortable with him pulling the songs apart and doing different things with them, taking the guitar out completely and so on. So he did play a bit more of a role in the writing this time."
Karis: Right now I’m reading Dolly Parton’s book “Songteller”, I got it for Christmas, and there seem to be a lot of parallels with how you write and how she writes. I was sitting reading it the other night and I had thought about asking you, because so many of your songs are like stories so I just find the similarities really interesting. [We briefly discuss the book and the book Rich is currently reading “Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell which also covers the song writing process] Based on that and you’ve sort of answered this in part already, what artists do you feel have influenced you in writing this album, obviously you’ve mentioned Dylan and Leonard Cohen, or who were you listening to during the writing process?
Rich: "I was just putting together a playlist this morning of exactly that – the artists I was listening to. A lot of Neil Young, and bits and bobs of songs, there’s an album by Beck; “Sea Change” it’s not like his usual stuff, it’s a bit of a heartbreak album, but it’s toned down and acoustic and it’s got really close vocals and weird guitars, pianos and strings and it’s sonically really interesting. A lot of Bob Dylan of course. Every song came from a different period so I think it was probably influenced by whatever I was listening to at the time. “Carondelet” was one of the latest ones and it was just written on a ukulele and at the time I think I was listening to a lot of Nick Mulvey. He uses ukulele and a lot of people think it’s a very twee instrument but a lot of people use it really well and one or two of his albums are almost entirely written on ukulele, so a lot of him. “Fisherman” was influenced by this Italian band called “Il Lupo” – “The Wolf”. The last two or three years I’ve listened to a lot of them, everything they’ve ever done. No one knows them outside of Italy, they’ve never been to England, they only tour in Lombardy in the north of Italy really. So I’ll put this playlist out so you can see. Bon Iver. I was trying to listen to people who were not recording with a full band and were just layering up guitar and vocals. I think Jamie the producer was listening to a lot of Belgian music [laughs] and a lot of John Lennon and he’s thrown all of that in. A huge variety."
Karis: You’ve touched on writing at different times. I know your single release "Bonnie" was written a few years ago, but for me, as I listen to this album, as a whole it feels very much like a child of lockdown, very relevant to the moment. How much of it was written in the last year or so and how much is material that you are revisiting?
Rich: "That’s interesting. To be honest, none of it was written in lockdown."
Karis: It really feels, to me the soundscape is very ‘of the moment’
Rich: "I listened to it so much in lockdown. The video for “Bonnie” was filmed in lockdown. Some of the lyrics could easily be about being confined and longing to get out and to escape. I did write a lot of songs during lockdown but none of them made it on to this because this was actually finished and being mixed and mastered as we were going into lockdown [mid-March 2020]. It’s taken 6 months to a year to get it ready for release. I know what you mean, it kind of feels like a lockdown album but it was written before lockdown."
Karis: My follow on question from that was gonna be was it a conscious decision to reflect this melancholy general mood of the nation? It sounds like it wasn’t.
Rich: "I think kind of, releasing it is. It does have that melancholy to it and it feels like now is the right time to get it out and to get people to listen to it, obviously being still in lockdown because there is a lot of longing. One thing that was really interesting in lockdown, Bob Dylan released that 17 minute epic song “Murder Most Foul” and you know, no one releases a 17 minute single but I’ve always loved really, really long songs. I think listening to that over and over again gave me the confidence to keep the songs that I had written, ‘cause they’re quite long. 5, 6, 7 minutes is a bit long for radio and it’s a bit long to keep most people’s attention, but I thought I’d put them out because people do have more time to listen now. Good question, that’s interesting, it does feel like a lockdown album but it wasn’t actually written in lockdown it was written before."
Karis: I definitely went in to it, not expecting it to be exactly what we’ve had from Man the Lifeboats but when I’ve seen you live, you’re quite a party band and a lot of your songs have social messages but you can stamp your feet to them. Whereas with this, I was enjoying myself but I wasn’t stamping my feet.
Rich: "Not a foot stamper. That’s probably why the songs were rejected by the guys because if you play half of them live people will wander off to the bar."
Karis: Yeah, you want people to be in more of a reflective mood, don’t you?
Karis: So my final question; is there anything else you’d like readers to know about the album or about you as a songwriter and a performer that we haven’t covered? That’s a very broad question.
Rich: [Laughing] "That’s a big question! I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve been looking a lot into how to get this out there because a lot of people start writing and playing music because of the music. They don’t really look at the management side of getting it out there. The marketing, the business side of things, so the last 6 months I’ve been thinking; “What am I gonna do now? I’ve got this album, it’s recorded and I don’t know what to do with it”. I mean, gone are the days where you approach record labels or you even have to approach record labels, you can just release it all yourself and hope somebody picks up on it. I think the aim for me was not even that, of course I want people to hear it and give feedback, I want to know what they think of it, but the aim was never to do something big and get loads of attention it was simply to get some music out there and see what the result was, that wasn’t Man the Lifeboats."
"It also feels like a good time to do solo stuff. I’m hijacking Man the Lifeboats’ media channels and everything else because we can’t do that much with the band at the moment. We had a studio booked back in December and then I got COVID, so we had to cancel it. We’ve booked it again in April but we don’t know if we’re going to have enough time to rehearse, and obviously there’s no gigs, there’s no live music. There’s this new tax on live streaming [we both sigh], it’s just unbelievable."
"I’ve spoken to a lot of bands in similar positions, it’s not a good time, especially bands whose strength is playing live, it’s not a good time to be doing anything. It feels like the right time to get something out there that is a bit quieter, a bit more reflective."
"One thing struck me that I read the other day, writing a biography for my website was one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do. It’s really hard to write about yourself and make it engaging and interesting. I read something the other day that said you have to have a story to tell, so I’m trying to work out what the story is. I think the story of this album is that it’s the sound of two friends coming together, myself and Jamie, we grew up, we played in the same football team, we kicked around the same bus stops, even went to America on a school exchange together. We were good friends and then didn’t see each other for 20 years. He went off and did his music, I went off and did my music and then I called him up one day and we came back together. We recorded it on the same street that we grew up on. You can hear the crows in the background, you can hear the sound of the fire crackling. It feels like coming home, meeting old friends again, so that is the story for me. It doesn’t really say anything politically. Tough question."
Karis: Yeah, a bit broad! That’s it. Thanks so much, I’ve really enjoyed the album, as I said it wasn’t what I expected but I just chilled out and got into and there are some really resonant tracks on there for me. When does it come out?
Rich: "The second single will be out at the end of February and the album will be the end of March."
Thanks to Rich for taking the time to chat with us.