A very enjoyable interview with the affable, sharp, and nicely bittersweet Fred Macpherson, who also wins a prize for his Twitter tribute to the great Alan Rickman.
Spector. The Guardian described them as being “somewhere between Roxy Music and The Strokes”. Enjoy It While It Lasts, their first album, stormed through the UK charts. “All the Sad Young Men”, the first single off the second album, was Zane Lowe’s hottest record in the world. They’ve played Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds. How to follow up? Well, August saw the release of Moth Boys, album number two that takes all the promise of the first and builds from there. Sharp and witty lyrics that unveil a laser vision of life burn through a mix of pop and rock that frequently soars, showcasing a clever reworking of 80s influence. Spector, and their front man, Fred Macpherson, deliver hook filled choruses and melancholy moments with a decisive boldness. When they arrived in New York City a couple of weeks ago, Spector played a storming set at Mercury Lounge that saw the usually tough crowd seduced by the sheer energy and verve of the singer and the band. Northern Transmissions wanted to hear from Spector about their year. Alice Severin talked to Fred Macpherson about the album, his influences, and plans for the future.
Northern Transmissions: Hi, how are you doing and where are you this morning?
Fred Macpherson: I’m good, thank you. I’m in London, in my house. I’m trying to meet my cousin online. Which is quite a good way to waste the morning, especially if you could see the weather in London right now. But I imagine New York isn’t much better.
NT: It’s not too bad here. And you’ve had terrible weather over there. Big storms.
FM: Yeah, it’s not great.
NT: Over here, we’re just having global warming. So it’s 60 in December. So thanks so much for doing this. I saw you at Mercury Lounge – was it just last week?
FM: It was, yeah. This time last week.
NT: How was it for you, and how was the New York trip?
FM: I really enjoyed it, actually. We very much enjoyed it. That night…we were in celebratory mood after the gigs, it was our last gig of the year. And then kind of…the wheels fell off a bit later in the evening and I ended up…I don’t know what. (laughs) But it was a great night. We really enjoyed the show. The NY crowd was quite sympathetic. I thought people might be, one of those cities where people can just kind of stand still and you really need to convince them. It seemed like people were quite warm, actually.
NT: I think that can definitely be true. I thought you were quite convincing though – there was a tremendous amount of energy that you all had.
FM: Thank you very much I think so much of gigs just depend on the people who are there really. Like we played in Brooklyn on Tuesday and it was a completely different vibe. It was fun. But Thursday it felt quite special, I guess. Like what one would want for your first gig in a city like that, or a country that you’ve kind of grown up knowing a lot about and being a big fan of. It was exciting.
NT: It’s a huge thing. I always think it’s kind of fascinating because you come over from the UK, you’ve played big festivals, Reading and Leeds and then to move to a small club. What does that feel like?
FM: It’s quite good. We have the same thing like when we go to other places, like countries in Europe where we don’t play to that many people. So we’re kind of used to playing to bigger crowds and small crowds. And actually sometimes it’s more humanizing and more real just playing to a small room without a big light show. Because it makes it more about you and the music and it’s fun to have to prove yourself to people rather than just being complacent and resting on your laurels.
NT: The new album – Moth Boys – I wanted to ask you more about that. But first of all – is it going to be released over here?
FM: It is. We’re just kind of working out what’s going on with what we’re going to release where, as in which label. So we just need to sort out the boring stuff, and it will get an official release. I think it’s on iTunes and Spotify now. What we might do is a kind of compilation of some of our best songs from both albums, which might be something cool to do to kind of bring people up to speed.
NT: Yes – because your first album was fairly huge in the UK.
FM: Yeah, it was quite big. I don’t know about huge, but it seemed to…people were aware of it. I think this album is a nice step on musically, and so we just need to keep working to get people hearing our songs. I think especially a song like “All the Sad Young Men” which is the first track on it, and probably the best song we’ve done, so. We just need to keep working hard to keep getting the music out there, and get people hearing it, I guess.
NT: And Dev Hynes co-produced the album with you.
FM: He did, three or four songs. He co-wrote a song on it called “Cocktail Party”, he co-wrote a song called “Decade of Decay”. He kind of had an influence on it production wise, and writing wise. But we also worked with two producers in London called Duncan Mills and Adam Jeffrey, who we had met through various people. But the thrust of a lot of the production was done by ourselves at home. It was quite a long journey from beginning to end and often we were kind of carried by ourselves which was good, and there were great influences from people like Dev along the way.
NT: How do you go about the process of it all? Does it depend on the song?
FM: Yeah, it does, because we, especially on this album we have more of us writing songs. But my process generally is working on instrumentals at my flat in London under my bed where I have a very, very small studio set-up. I don’t even know if it could be described as a studio, but a computer and speakers and microphones and a piano. And I kind of just start making bits of music, and then I persevere with the ones I like. And then I write loads of lyrics all the time on my phone. And when I feel a song is worthy of completion, then I start putting lyrics into it and vocal melodies. It’s a slightly disjointed collage-y kind of process. I don’t sit down with a guitar and write a song from beginning to end. But I think the style in which we write suits the lyrical content and mood, fragmented, momentary thoughts or musings on different bits of what life is.
NT: Your lyrics are quite unique in a way because you incorporate regular, day to day phrases and things that people say in this way that’s very ironic and witty.
FM: Yeah, I think that’s been influenced by things like Twitter, and text messages, and the way I communicate with people on the internet. And the phone stuff. Because it creates a kind of, what’s the word for it – aphorisms – little one liners, trying to say things, like quips, kind of thing. And that, as I grew up, even before I was making music, it was always kind of jokes and one-liners that were what I got the most of joy out of. So I think it’s just taking that approach of like kind of how people make jokes on the internet or how they communicate with each other on the internet through these kind of short, witty lines. That’s kind of what’s been as big a lyrical inspiration as lyricists and musicians I love.
NT: Some of the lines…it’s almost a little like Oscar Wilde in a sense, but very modern.
FM: Yeah, and when you read something like Oscar Wilde now, it sounds a stupid thing to say, but you can see how much he would have loved something like Twitter, this outlet for smart, funny one-liners. And for me, lyrics don’t always have to be one-liners, but it’s just a good chance to say something honest. And if you say it in a funny way, sometimes that makes it something – like with dark subject matter, you get to engage with it.
NT: You grew up in London.
FM: Yeah, I was born in London, I’ve never really lived anywhere else. It’s probably about time I should.
NT: What was it like for you growing up there? Do you think that coming from London, gives you a certain world view?
FM: Potentially, yeah. I think I didn’t realize when I was young that I guess growing up in a city like that is quite a unique thing, or potentially privileged. It gives you, doesn’t it, a certain outlook to what a lot of people have. And now, being this age, I realize how few people who I know were actually born in London, who live in London now. But I think England has had a bigger influence on me than London, although obviously being amongst the kind of… It’s so densely populated and so many buildings, there’s been a kind of urban influence, but for me, the influence is really England and its humor. It’s the most important thing to me about being English and a kind of ability to laugh, even in the darkest situations, and a kind of irony and just a sense of humor that I think helps carry the whole, everyone, through all sorts of situations, going back to world wars or whatever. Sometimes English people aren’t as emotional as they could be, maybe, but I think it’s definitely shaped my world view. I know I feel that more when I speak to American people. And you realize that even though on paper we’re so similar and we speak the same language, we have the same culture in terms of a lot of the music and cinema and stuff. But actually England is quite is kind of unique place. Not without its problems, obviously, but I think I like the kind of attitudes that we have here.
NT: So are there plans to come back over here and do some more touring?
FM: Yeah, I think it’s just…depends on who wants to see us and whether it’s cost-effective and everything, because I know English bands who bankrupt themselves touring America just for the sake of doing it, just to kind of prove something to themselves. And I think we’re quite keen, it took us a few years to get back to America. We’re just conscious that we only want to go to places when people want to see us rather than necessarily kind of forcing ourselves upon people. But we’ve got visas now, so I hope we’ll be back in America next year.
NT: Tell me more about the album and writing the songs. Is there one song that was particularly easy or difficult that stands out?
FM: Some come really quickly. There’s a song called “Don’t Make Me Try” which is one of my favorites and one of the most honest songs on the album. And that I wrote in a few minutes – it just came out. Like a few chords, and all the lyrics came pretty much immediately. Then there’s one’s like “All the Sad Young Men” where we wrote the music of it quickly but the lyrics we agonized over and were still changing single words right up until the last couple of days of recording. And then there’s a song called “Lately It’s You” on the album, that it ends with, that I’ve had in kind of fragmented forms for years, even before our first album. These bits of kind of electronic choir chords and stuff, and melodies. I’d been writing all these bits never really knowing what to do with them. And I had the idea to put them all together, because I felt that lyrically, it could act as a good conclusion to the record. So it’s a kind of boring thing to say, but sometimes songs come really fast and sometimes you have to agonize over them. I think the way we write isn’t always very helpful, because we don’t have someone writing a song on guitar and then taking it to the band, saying let’s learn the song. We are kind of sometimes slowed down by our songwriting process being quite blocky, in terms of building things up from lots of different strands of ideas and samples and drum loops and stuff put together on computers and then almost kind of deconstructing them. Our writing style is quite digital, you know, the lyrics are all quite personal. We don’t write as a band and we don’t write in the traditional way, guitar piano, but maybe we’ll begin to absorb a bit more of that as we go on and make it, make the process a bit more human. Because the process always has a big effect on the vinyl thing.
NT: Are there influences that you think of, or does everything come together in a big melting pot?
FM: Well, I mean, there’s influences, but I think some of our influences we don’t necessarily sound like. You have Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits – those kind of lyricists, but also modern, more pop hip hop stuff like Drake and Kanye West. I like characters in music, where any song you listen to you feel like you’re tuning in to some part of the story, whether it’s them telling their story or someone else’s story, more in your Nick Cave and Tom Waits’ case. But someone like Drake, I feel like every time he puts a song out he just gets another angle on his life or another piece. And that kind of inspires me. Even listening to Frank Sinatra, whose subject matter was essentially the same for fifty years. It never worries me, writing songs about the same thing because I think there’s always another way to say it. It’s kind of not what you say, but how you say it. My biggest influences are artists who kind of have careers that feel like they just continue to unfold even when they are singing about the same stuff.
NT: It’s a progression. What you’ve learned.
FM: Yeah. Variations on a theme.
NT: Your stage presence is very interesting. And the image is obviously different from the standard front man, out there. But you also have these elements of intimacy and theatrical intensity. I wanted to ask if you had any background in theatre at all.
FM: Well, a lot of my family are actors. And two of my cousins are actors. My grandparents both worked in films. I was never planning on doing it but there was kind of always a sense of just showing off in our family. And entertainment. Especially growing up. I had four cousins and my brother, and we kind of just spent a lot of time trying to entertain each other and trying to create these kind of …as I’m sure a lot of kids do, you’re making films or putting on plays, making bands and writing songs, even going back to when we were like 4 or 5 years old. And I guess some people grow out of that, and maybe I didn’t. But also the people I love on stage, once you bring that kind of theatricality, people like Nick Cave, where it really feels like you’re getting more than just a band playing songs but someone trying to tell a story, physically as well, I guess. So it was never kind self-conscious, that there would be a theatrical influence, but I think that’s just where my style fits naturally. Like I don’t think I’m a kind of “sexy pop star” so I can’t really play it in that way. I think it’s more, I think I have strengths in other places, more just kind of trying to work out how to tell the story in a way that’s personal to us, and human.
NT: It’s funny, I saw Nick Cave playing solo, a show at Town Hall, and he’s definitely one of these people who has presence, even simply coming out onto the stage. When I think of theatricality, that’s what I mean. And I think you have that. You come out and the stage gets smaller – and you get bigger.
FM: Haha. Well, that’s nice of you to say. You were lucky to see us at a good gig. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. I do see a concert in a sense as an event, especially if people are paying for it. And also especially when you’re on tour, you’re offstage 23 hours a day and you’re onstage for one. So it’s kind of like your only real chance to exhibit the things you believe are the most important in the world. So it’s not an opportunity that you really want to waste. That sounds a bit pretentious. Obviously it’s still entertainment, but if there’s an hour in every day to entertain then I think, yeah, you’re going to try and take the bull by the horns, as it were.
NT: You had said, which I really liked, ‘it’s the journalist’s job to theorize about the musicians, and not the musician’s job to theorize about what the journalist is thinking.’ It seems now that artists are asked to do everything. They’re going to do their own PR, they’re going to tell their own story, their own meta-narrative to the whole thing. Do you think that the constant stream of comments that’s out there makes it trickier to be creative?
FM: I think it makes it trickier for the audience to take the creativity at face value. Because it’s been filtered through a constant stream of comments. I think it only makes it more difficult for the person being creative if they’re aware and they engage in that stream of commentary. And in the past, I’m sure we’ve been guilty, as many people have and will be, of kind of tuning into that stream. And when you do, that’s dangerous. Undoubtedly, we, and many artists, will be at their most creative when they’re at their most disengaged with all the feedback. But that’s what’s getting harder and harder to do. Especially with the all the technology that’s at our fingertips the whole time. And so my goal for the next year is to just try and disengage a bit more with that whole stream and engage more personally with the creative element and not…kind of almost not be hearing that feedback the whole time. That background noise. Because it’s can be pretty tough to take if you try to engage in it all. It’s like in The Man Who Fell to Earth, when David Bowie watches like 10 TVs at the same time. It’s too much. It’s like, you should never google yourself because you just fall down a kind of rabbit hole. The opinions of your friends and family and a critic or something that’s personal to you, what they say might mean something to you. But how can everything that everyone thinks about you hold meaning? It would be like saying everyone has a right to define a color in their way. Or a flower, or whatever. Everyone’s going to see it slightly differently. And that’s a great thing. And it’s great for audiences, in some ways, to be able to communicate their feelings about music and art, because it allows underground things to really spread as well. But, yeah, I’m trying to engage in that less, even though I find the internet so addictive.
NT: It really is. I agree with you. Because everyone’s got a different opinion, you can’t possibly take it all in. It drives you mad. And gets you further away from what you were thinking on your own, which is what got you there in the first place.
NT: Are you working on new music at the moment?
FM: Yeah, we’re writing now. And next year, depending on what we wrote, we’ll work out what and how, where, and when it will get released. But I still kind of feel like there’s still work to do on this second album to spread the songs. But yeah, we’re writing and we’re starting to think about what direction we would move in and what the next thing we want to say is, I guess.
NT: And five albums that you return to.
Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
It’s one that…I just think it’s one of the best albums of all time and it chills me every time I listen to it. And I hear something new in it and it feels very human and very joyful and very painful. That’s the sort of album that makes me think it’s worth keeping making music, to try and get closer to something that feels that honest and true, I guess.
The Strokes – Room on Fire
I would say Is This It, but it’s kind been almost overplayed in my life and is too associated with certain times growing up, it makes me feel uncomfortable to listen to, whereas Room on Fire, it’s kind of like the underdog of those two albums but I think it’s as good, and it’s one that I return to more because it’s less harrowing, in terms of…it’s less like a trip down memory lane. I can just enjoy it more on a surface level. All those first few Strokes albums are just classic.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
It’s an album, there’s so much in it. It’s like going to a party every time you listen to it. If I ever need reminding why life is worth living, that’s now my go-to. It’s one I completely love.
Nick Cave – Push the Sky Away
It’s one of my favorite albums, probably my favorite album of his. And he’s my favorite artist, one of my favorite artists, and so it’s great to have a desert album that’s so recent by him. I can go back to it, and just lyrically, it’s just a masterclass, it feels like he’s on the top of his game.
Throbbing Gristle – 20 Jazz Funk Greats
If I want to listen to something slightly more for the mind, and just be challenged and remind me when art should be challenging I guess. An album that was one of the first albums that really proved to me that it’s worth pushing boundaries, especially knowing that that was made around the time when there were all these three chord punk bands. And Throbbing Gristle were making something genuinely uncomfortable and transgressive, in the sense of fun and irony at the same time.
Interview by Alice Severin