|Graham Day & The Forefathers, Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, 2013|
Graham Day, the Medway powerhouse singer, songwriter and guitarist, formed the Prisoners at school in the late 70s and made four albums, including the bona fide classic The Last Fourfathers in 1985, which continue to inspire and thrill today. After a cooling off period following the demise of the Prisoners he headed a succession of bands – the Prime Movers, Planet, the Solarflares, Graham Day & the Gaolers – all tough and uncompromising; his music – granite slabs of his own unmistakable brand of garage rock with tough melodies – eschewing the vagaries of fashion. After the second Graham Day & the Gaolers album, Triple Distilled in 2008, he hung up his guitar until last year when, with long-standing friends and bandmates Allan Crockford and Wolf Howard, he returned, to the delight of his legion of fans, to front Graham Day & the Forefathers, playing songs spanning the whole of his career to date.
I was delighted to finally pin Graham down (figuratively speaking) for a rare interview.
What has the reaction been to Graham Day & the Forefathers? Is it what you expected?
It’s been fantastic and pretty unexpected I suppose. We never intended to make it a regular thing but the reaction has been so good we decided to carry on for a while.
You made two great albums as Graham Day & the Gaolers and then disappeared. What happened? What were you doing the meantime?
For me the Gaolers were amazing. I’d sort of retired and had been playing bass with the Buff Medways. Billy [Childish] decided that had run its course and that was that, but my mate Dan from a band called the Woggles was over in England visiting some friends and we met up in London for a beer. He told me I should start a new band with him and the Woggles bass player. Sounded like a great idea so they flew back over a couple of months later and we made the first Gaolers album, Soundtrack To The Daily Grind. There were no real plans to tour as it was a bit of a logistical nightmare with them both being in the USA but it was so good we just had to. It sort of carried on from there. I thought our second album, Triple Distilled, was the best thing I’ve ever done and we did some great tours, but touring takes so much energy and time, and we could never do single gigs as it was too expensive to bring Dan over so we ended up not playing again. I’ve never said it was finished but it sort of fizzled out. What was I doing in the meantime? Retired again I suppose.
What made you get back out there playing again in 2013?
The Prime Movers did our first album, Sins Of The Fourfathers, on a German label, Unique Records. Last year was their 25th anniversary and they asked us to play a one-off show playing that album at their party near Dusseldorf. It sounded like a fun plan but too much effort to just play one gig, so we added three gigs and made it a mini-tour. It also wasn’t interesting or long enough just to play songs off that album so we added a few Solarflares and Prisoners songs to the set. It was so much fun and went down really well so we decided to carry on doing it. But by the end of the mini-tour we’d dropped most of the Prime Movers songs and were playing more Solarflares, Prisoners and a couple of Gaolers songs so it seemed ridiculous to call it the Prime Movers any more. So we came up with the Forefathers because of the Prisoners reference and stuck my name on the beginning just to tie up the fact we were playing songs I’d written in all the bands over the years.
The Prime Movers changed quite dramatically across three albums, most notably with Arc in 1993 which had a strong prog-rock feel. What are your thoughts on those albums?
I love the first album. It’s totally raw and full of energy. We recorded it as a three-piece but never gigged as a three-piece. Fay [Hallam/Day] used to join us on stage for half the set and then started writing songs and was soon with us full time. The band changed pretty quickly due to Fay’s influence. I have no idea what really happened to the sound, it turned into Deep Purple during the next two albums, and live I thought it was great, although pretty self-indulgent and very strange. I was quite happy to go along with it at the time because it was something different but looking back on it I don’t understand it at all. It sounds totally alien and often laughable, like a piss take. When people talk about the Prime Movers I’ve subconsciously deleted those last two albums – Earth Church and Arc - and think of it as nothing to do with me although I’m undoubtedly guilty as charged.
|The Prisoners, 100 Club, 1985|
How do you feel about the esteem The Prisoners are held in?
It’s always puzzled me how much people go on about the Prisoners. At the time we did okay in London and France but elsewhere we were pretty unknown and played a lot of gigs to bar staff in mostly empty venues. I never thought of the band as being particularly special; everyone we knew was in a band and it seemed just the normal thing to do. I thought we were pretty good live but never managed to make a record which did us justice. It was the wrong time for our music; the popular thing was New Romantic and recording studio engineers tried to make us sound like the music of the time. We had constant frustrating battles trying to explain what we were about and never getting it. The press mostly hated us and said were out of date and just retro shit.
Have the Prisoners overshadowed your work since?
The adoration people have shown that band over the years astounds me. It’s very touching but has also been annoying at times. Most of the stuff I’ve done since has been fairly well received but totally overshadowed by the Prisoners. Every gig people shout for Prisoners songs and it made me feel like they just wanted a nostalgia trip and weren’t prepared to let me move on. Sometimes people get quite aggressive about it and think I owe them something. Promoters would ring up to offer a gig but they wanted a Prisoners reunion, not the current band. For a songwriter that can be quite damaging, as if my musical career ended at age 22 and has been worthless ever since. There’s no point carrying on unless you really think what you’re doing is the best stuff you’ve ever done and with a couple of exceptions I’ve always believed that. So it has been frustrating to think that no-one else agrees with you.
No chance of any more Prisoners reunions then?
There are still people who want the original Prisoners line-up to get back together, which will never happen again, and it still manages to piss me off. We did some reunion gigs in the 90s and although nostalgic it just wasn’t the same. People have to realise that Johnny [Symons] has never played the drums since so was never relaxed or particularly good when we played and James [Taylor] has made a career out of jazz funk and plays the organ totally differently than he used to; which might be brilliant but unfortunately doesn’t work too well with those songs. Promoters will pay ten times our normal fee to get something which simply doesn’t work, that doesn’t make any sense, and I find it quite insulting that they wouldn’t understand that. The best thing about the Forefathers is that finally I’ve been able to stop fighting against the Prisoners. This is not a new band playing new material; it’s just about embracing the past and enjoying it for what it is. For the first time I’ve been able to appreciate those old songs and have found it quite emotional. Of course we’re now giving the audience what they’ve always wanted so the gigs are no longer a battle and are just one big happy party.
Am I right in thinking you look back at the Solarflares period the most fondly?
I loved the Solarflares. I wrote some of my best songs during that period and also learnt how to sing properly. It started off being quite popular but support dwindled slowly until it wasn’t worth doing it any more. We did some great tours and I look back fondly because we had such a laugh and got on so well together. For the first time we made some records which sounded like the band and I learnt how to produce decent records. I wouldn’t say I look back most fondly at that period; at the time yes, but I’ve enjoyed most things I’ve done and as I said earlier I always believe the current stuff is the best. Following that logic I would have to say the Gaolers was the best period. The happiest period is right now I suppose but that doesn’t count as it’s just a tribute band of ourselves.
If the Solarflares had been your first band in the early 80s and the Prisoners later do you think they’d been judged differently?
Maybe it would be the exact reverse but I’m not sure. There was something really cool about the Prisoners, maybe because we were so young and because of the conflict between me and James which made it explosive at times. I think the Flares were more measured, happier and less cool as a result.
I started playing drums in the Mighty Caesars in 1986 while the Prisoners were still going and I loved it. I was getting pissed off with the Prisoners and loved the freedom to literally take a back seat and bash away on the drums in a cracking rock and roll band without the hassle of singing and feeling responsible for it. Some people got really angry that I did that. When we were gigging one night after the Prisoners split up someone from the audience grabbed me and shouted at me to stop playing this shit and get the Prisoners back together. I never played the drums before but loved it and still do. Same playing bass in the Buff Medways; I loved that for the same reasons. I’m not sure I would like playing guitar in someone else’s band, and definitely wouldn’t sing for anyone else, but on a different instrument it’s great fun.
In what ways are you similar and different to Billy?
Billy and I are very different. We used to live in the same house during the Prisoners days and we’ve always got on really well. He’s much more driven than me, always doing something; be it songs, painting or writing, I’m the opposite and only do something if I’m inclined to. He will record every song he’s ever written and I’m much more self-critical and will bin a lot of stuff before I even play it to anyone else. His life is in the public eye and is a living breathing ‘artiste’ and social commentator; I’m just a normal bloke with a proper job and nothing to say who happens to play in a band for a hobby.
I started off playing bass, playing along to Stranglers and Rezillos songs in my bedroom. When me and Allan Crockford started a band in 1978 I found I was too fiddly on the bass and he was a good rhythm guitar player but couldn’t play lead, so we swapped. When I heard Syd Barrett playing guitar on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn it blew my mind. I discovered how you could make a guitar sound so powerful without being ‘rock’ with loads of unnecessary notes, and it changed the way I viewed the instrument. Similarly with Steve Marriott’s guitar sound and playing, it made me question what a typical guitar player is expected to do.
And to write songs?
I found quite early on that I had some kind of ability to write songs. I suppose it starts off by being inspired by and developing or even copying other people. I’ve found over the years that if you try to do something completely original it’ll be total shit, which is why it’s never been done before. The Prisoners were quite plagiaristic, embarrassingly so at times. Sometimes I did that because I thought a song had a great chorus but rubbish verse or vice-versa and wanted to improve the song. “Midnight To Six Man” is a good example of what I mean. I always loved the song but hated the chorus so I wrote a different one and called it “Be On Your Way”. Generally songs have tended to come to me when I’m trying to sleep at night. I sort of dream about seeing us on stage playing the song and realise I haven’t written it yet. So I have to get up and whisper it into a tape recorder because I know it’ll be forgotten in the morning. If a song doesn’t come together in ten minutes I usually bin it. These days I find it funny to play some of those songs I wrote as an angst-ridden teenager, singing some of those angry misogynistic lyrics now aged 50.
Did you always see yourself as vocalist?
Vocally I struggled for a long time. I never thought of myself as a singer and all the people I loved I tried to emulate to disastrous effect. Phil May, Steve Marriott, all them great soul singers, I quickly realised I wasn’t ever going to be them and had to try to find my own voice. I think I found it sometime during the Solarflares period and I’m only really happy with it in recent years. Just listen to the vocals on Thewisermiserdemelza to hear one of the main reasons I hate that album.
You mentioned about some of the songs you wrote as a teenager. How old were you when you wrote your first album A Taste Of Pink? How do you feel listening back to them?
I think the earliest songs I wrote which made that album were “Say Your Prayers” and “Don’t Call My Name” and I was 16. I still like some of those songs; they have a beautiful naivety and simplicity which can never be recreated. I’ve always been very anal about music and consequently I’m very narrow-minded. I think that’s why on the whole I was still writing songs with 3 or 4 chords, a guitar riff and a simple melody, recording it in the most basic way possible right up until the last album.
Does song writing come easily now or does it involve a lot of concerted effort? What’s your usual writing method?
I still don’t understand how I write songs. As I said they just come to me. If I sit down with a guitar and say right, I’m going to write a song now, it’ll never happen. I’ve never been someone who always writes songs for fun and have only ever done it when I’m inspired to by having an album or a new band to energise me. I think I’m just essentially lazy. Having said that if we’re recording a new album I’ll probably write a batch of crap first, then the juices will flow and I can normally come up with the music really quickly. Lyrics are another matter completely and I hate writing them. I often used to gig a new song and make the words up as I go along and hope something sticks. The only real exception to that is the last Gaolers album. I had so much fun writing those lyrics as they’re all about touring and past experiences, and some of the best things I’ve written. I absolutely detest some of the shitty lyrics I’ve written in the past particularly about conservation or trying to say something meaningful.
Has the Forefathers got those juices flowing and given you the urge to write any new material?
Not yet. I do have some new stuff I wrote before which was for a possible new Gaolers album and I also started writing an instrumental album but with no real chance of the Gaolers playing again I gave up.
What made you choose “Love Me Lies” as the first single to be released by Graham Day and the Forefathers?
No real reason actually. We recorded the whole set of backing tracks live and when it came to choosing one for a single I just felt drawn to that song.
I assumed it was because you were unhappy with the original on Thewisermiserdemelza. I love that record but you’ve been very critical of it. Why?
Yes I hate Thewisermiserdemelza for lots of reasons. One is the real disappointment with the sound. We had Phil Chevron - rest his soul - as producer; it was the first time we’d had a producer and we had very different ideas about the album. Fair enough but it was our album so he should have listened to us. I’ve already said that at that time studio engineers would try to get you to sound modern and that’s the last thing we wanted. So from the outset we just fought against the engineer and producer. Some conflicts can result in a fiery, energetic battle which can get really good results. This one did the opposite. Secondly I hate the vocals. I just tried to put on some silly gruff voice which sounds completely false. Phil to his credit did try to get me to sing properly but I didn’t listen. It was my 20th birthday during the recording session and I was just pissed most of the time we were there. Lastly I just don’t like many of the songs on the album. I was clearly going through some kind of psychedelic ballad period and just don’t like it.
How has your taste in music changed/developed over the years? What do you listen to now that you wouldn’t have when you were starting out?
I don’t really listen to music that much as I know all my records inside out and I don’t like modern music. I’m cursed by the love of a certain type of recording sound and find it incredibly difficult to like anything if it doesn’t sound like that. I haven’t liked much music since the punk era; although the recording of punk music is really poor I guess I’ve forgiven it because that’s what I grew up with.
What three records have left the most lasting impression on you and why?
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn because Syd Barrett inspired my early guitar playing; The Pretty Things first album because it introduced me to blues, great singing and the ultimate sound of rock and roll; and the Kinks Kontroversy because it showed me how good songs can be.
If you had to pick three of your own albums to best represent your career which would they be and why?
The Last Fourfathers because it’s the best and most representative Prisoners album; That Was Then And So Is This by the Solarflares because we were at our peak then, touring and loving it; and Triple Distilled by the Gaolers because it’s the best album I’ve ever made.
|Graham Day & The Gaolers, 100 Club, 2008|
“Love Me Lies” by Graham Day & The Forefathers is out now on State Records. The band play the 229 Club in London on Friday 31st October 2014, tickets here.