I was first introduced to Martin Newell's longrunning Cleaners From Venus project on a drive to New Jersey during Rose Quartz's magnificent New York trip last year. Samuel Franklin and Luka Usmiani of Big Troubles were blasting "Mercury Girl," which the band had actually guest posted the previous week on AZ. It was an epiphanic moment for me-- the soft romance of the songwriting, the lo-fi production shot through with brittle, ultra-British Autumn light. I don't think his music's proximity to the semi-flawed pop of today is the only thing responsible for the recent uptick in interest in Newell's work, whether it be under the Cleaners' moniker or his own name. His early embrace of cassette and home-recording culture, linked somewhat to the post-punk movement of the early '80s, is parallel to the workings of fans like Gary War, Ariel Pink, and many contemporary American artists on the indie music peripheries. Newell's recent album under the Cleaners moniker, English Electric, is full of the same lucid poetry and jangly guitar arrangements as '80s classics like Midnight Cleaners (1982) and Songs For A Fallow Land (1985), which was recently reissued by Taylor Richardson and Gary War's own Fixed Identity imprint. The night I called him in Wivenhoe, where he is now (and has always been) based, he recalled the '80s in the spry storytelling mode of his manifold poems and memoirs.
AZ: Are you very familiar with Altered Zones?
Martin: I’ve come across it. In fact, I met someone who said, "Oh, you’ve been mentioned by Altered Zones." I’m trying to think who it was. It might’ve been Nick Nicely-- and he seemed to be think it was a really big deal. But I don’t do many interviews. It’s not that I’m adverse to them; I’m just more interested in interviewing people myself, though the kind of people I’m interested in interviewing tend to be, you know, farmers and people like that. I don’t meet many people in the pop industry these days, though I’ve known a few in my time, as you may imagine.
AZ: Do you still write for The Independent?
Martin: Yeah, I’ve written for that for 19 years. But I’ve become very disinterested in the pop industry in general, especially in London and the English pop industry. I remember being interviewed by Q Magazine, years ago, for some “Where Are They Now” sort of feature about the Cleaners From Venus, and it was almost like I was this sort of Syd Barrett character who didn’t have any brains left. [The interviewer] said, "So what are you doing nooow, Martin?” [affects patronising voice]. I wasn’t really having that and said something cheeky and it sort of cracked a whip in his brain and he said, “You know, Q Magazine can make or break an artist." Not in my world it can’t, though! So I said, "Have you only been writing for Q since NME closed down?" Because I hated NME; I thought it was the world's worst shit rag [laughs]. I think Q and Mojo are just boys comics; I never send any review copies to them because I just think, "What’s the point if they can’t even write as well as I would?" It’s ike Frank Sinatra said, "It’s people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read." I do like talking to people though!
AZ: I guess I was wondering when I asked about Altered Zones whether you've paid much attention to any of the recent interest in your work coming from the American underground.
Martin: Yes, I have noticed this increased American interest, actually. It’s been interesting. People there seem very interested in hearing from me and the music in some almost unqualified sort of way. I guess it's something about the sound that is attractive somehow, but I mean, it's 30 years old! There seems to be a small group of American musicians who like the stuff I did, but I didn't do it from any artistic or style point of view. I just didn’t have any money and I wasn’t very good, so I made this racket that I thought was quite entertaining at the time, but I didn’t expect many people to take it seriously. So, suddenly I’m an art statement, which is great! I mean, I just listened to The Damn Busters and things like that.
AZ: Well, I mean a lot of those guys seem to be getting into your style and production techniques as a reflection of a certain anti-capitalist ethos. The idea of smaller tape runs, and of self-releasing because it's cheaper, is a big part of the weird pop culture of right now.
Martin: Well, we didn’t do it as a style device. I’ve been trying to make people understand that it was just because we didn’t have any money. I mean, we couldn't get arrested by a record company. No one was interested. They thought our music was amateurish, badly sung, badly recorded and all the rest. So I just thought, "Bugger it; we’ll put it out on cassette and sell it ourselves." I do enjoy the fact that this is happening these days; anything that puts another nail in the coffin of the music industry is good for me, because I hate them! [laughs]. They took all my money and that of other artists and spent it on cocaine and lies. You know all those things that Johnny Rotten said? I’m still saying them, but I really mean them, and I’m not doing a butter commercial. [Friend in background laughs]. I was into music because I liked music; I loved music, I loved it to death. I just wanted to make something lovely, twangy, and harmonic, with loads of echo on the vocals, and I wanted to have girls chase me and just have a good time. How wrong I was; it was actually like going into some sort of factory. So in the end I thought, "Why not just forget the money, forget the fame and just have some fun?" And it’s been very endearing, apart from mild periods of starvation and depression.
AZ: Well even if you’re being glib or joking a bit about this, it’s all pretty true. I guess it will always be romanticised. I think the same myth surrounded the whole Flying Nun Records thing. Are you familiar with that? Bands like The Clean and stuff?
Martin: Oh… No, I haven’t. I’ve heard of the Cleaners From Venus [laughs].
AZ: Woah, seriously?
Martin: Yeah! Well, Giles Smith, who joined my band years ago, he was really amazed that I wasn’t listening to records. He was always like, “Have you heard this new record from such and such a band?” And I’d say “No,” and he’d often wonder why not. But I guess it was just because I often didn’t like many new records and stuck to stuff from the '60s for '50s or something. People are very surprised when I say I haven’t heard of some of this hip stuff; they think I’m being ironic or joking or something.
AZ: Do you listen to music a lot? I mean, that’s an obvious question maybe, but out there in Wivenhoe in day-to-day life, do you put a lot of records on?
AZ: I read once that you were concerned about people copying and re-selling versions of the earlier Cleaners tapes on eBay.
Martin: I don’t understand it; I’m very flattered that people like my old stuff so much but really, it was me and Lol [Elliott, from Cleaners] in the kitchen! We were broke but inspired and enjoyed listening to it. But I think the biggest pleasure we got out of it at the time was that I used to make homemade beer, and Lol used to make these candles, 'cause he didn’t have enough money to pay his electricity bill. So I used to swap some of the beer for some dope that someone else used to grow, and we would make our own music on cassettes that Lol stole. And I thought one night-- stoned, drunk, listening to music by candlelight--, "We’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves tonight, and it’s cost nothing!" That was sort of the epitome of anarchy for me: generating our own everything. It was fantastic.
As for the quality of them though, I guess they’ll change form a bit over the years. In fact, they must have degenerated tremendously, but I’m not the one who is profiting from it now; I don’t get why anyone would want the old things to be honest. But again, we just used tapes because they were cheap.
AZ: I know a lot of contemporary bands are very interested in the types of equipment you used and your general approach to recording. Was there anything in particular that led to you to the vocal effects on "Helpless," for instance?
Martin: “Helpless.” Hmm... I can’t even remember doing that one. Is it the one that has this sort of piano line? [plays piano]
AZ: Nah, I can play it for you now though. [Plays via iTunes]
Martin: Oh! Wow, yeah, I remember now [plays piano along with it]. I’ve just played it on the same piano! Yeah, the vocals have this great, underwater-y effect. I remember what we did; we just fed it through a flanger. I’m not sure what led us to that; I think we just got bored with the normal straight sound, so we plugged the mic into the flanger and didn’t mess about with it much after that. It was just about budget and by that time, it was very instinctive-- like, “Let’s try this, and just put it down onto a tape machine." We didn’t think anyone would be listening, so maybe that’s why we felt quite free to do whatever. The good thing about it of course was it was just for ourselves, and not some prick at some big record label. In that way, it was sort of defiant; I was very uninterested in taking advice from producers, or anyone who had a record company, or even my fellow musicians. It was just the whole attitude of youthful defiance: "I don’t care if I’m not making any money, I don’t care if I die in a gutter, I’m doing this!" I can remember the spirit; I can still stand up now and applaud my younger self for being a completely defiant, awkward bastard who told everybody to fuck off, never made any money, and still won.