Normally what tends to happen with my albums is the last 10 songs I've written, prior to the date of that album, are the 10 songs that go on the album, and the rest get discarded. I have the... inspiration, you might call it, every day, and, I do something every day. I never tend to forget what it is. It might be the odd line I've written down on the back of a postage stamp, that sort of thing, but generally, it's quite immediate, and we just throw it all at the wall in Miraval, ...leave it for a couple of weeks, and then look at it again, select the... a final 15... numbers, and then, work on them.
How much trouble do you have in making your records?
My trouble... is different from other people's, a lot of people, by in large the majority are told by the record company to commence an album, and they always think 'Oh dear, have we got enough material', and you often hear the story of people in studios struggling to find all the material. For me it's the opposite, I would... I would prefer to put at least two if not three albums out a year. My frustration is when the record company says 'we don't need you for another... 14 months, goodbye'. And when we've got it down to about 14, 15 months an album, which a lot of people regard as a very high, if not too high an output, but I love doing it.
Is it hard to be your own producer?
Not for me no, not at all. I know what I want to hear, I know exactly how I want to hear it, so really I am the best man for the job. When you've been making records as long as I have, that side of it, it tends to take care of itself now, because obviously you learn, over 12 years, and, we don't really as such have a producer, we just make music. It's Chris Rea, and he knows what he's doing (hah)!
Tell us about how you work.
Well the crux of the band is, Max Middleton, keyboards, who's been with me now for as long as I can remember, also Martin Ditcham on drums and Robert Ahwai, who will either play a guitar part or a bass part. It's done very subconsciously, it's very loose, you know, we just make music and whatever's required. We then find the extra musicians to fill the spaces, that we've filled by using tracking, to take on the road. The scene is I play most instruments, Max plays fantastic bass, on his old moog, he plays fantastic keyboards, I mean he's prob... I think he's the best keyboard player in England. Martin is Sade's percussionist, which speaks for itself, and Robert, you know, is a wonderful bass player, or a wonderful guitarist, a very underrated guitarist. So we just make music. It's a great thing, but it's boring for interviews, cos... the amazing thing is is how easy it is for us now after 8 years to work together, but... it's amazing if you see it. And it's not very interesting for an interview cos the only answer is we walk in the room every morning and just do it, don't even think about it.
Tell us about how you work in the studio.
We always work very early, both Martin and Max, and myself are very early risers, we're always up at seven, we'll be in the studio 9, 9.30, which for other people working on the album, engineers and stuff, takes a bit of taking used to, it's almost like having jet-lag, because they're used to maybe working with most people midday till after midnight. Whereas we work 9 till dinner time, or drinking time or whatever. And that's it. And I'll walk in the studio and I'll either have a song that I've written that morning, or... there'll be a tune we were playing with the day before, and I say 'I think I'd like to do it this way', and we just play away, putting them down. The engineer has to be able to keep up with that cos we tend to flip around very quickly from... so we tend to set all the instruments up that we're likely to use, have them all plugged in, and they're all ready just to be brought up to the tape machine input.
Tell us about Nothing to fear
Nothing to fear is a song about a European guy welcoming Muslims, and the gist of the story is that if you show us we have nothing to fear, you know, there's gonna be no problem. And it's asking them to show a sign of peace. It's one of those songs that can get me in trouble sometimes, in the wrong context because I like to do double meanings and things like that, I was always a great poetry fan. And, then song also applies to a man and a woman, or any relationship, in it's beginning, and it's basically saying, you know, you've got to show each other that there's nothing to fear. It was originally conceived as this thing for... I was listening to a Muslim on the radio, and... I just thought to myself he sounds like a good guy, he doesn't sound like there is any problem, what's the big... you know, because there are a lot of westerners who put up this... these is always somebody, isn't there. You know, it was once the Russians, we all had to be frightened of the Russians, then we had to be frightened of the Chinese, and at the moment, for the last year, it's been this... the coming of the Muslims thing. You get these very dramatic documentaries on the television, which frankly, you know I'm a bit weary of. Mainly it's a load of sensationalist footage, strung together. Without the sensationalist footage I doubt weather they had actually made the documentary, and, this is the other side. All Muslim guys I know are great guys, and frankly, basically it's been me saying I don't mind living next door to one. A lot of people wonder, they have this fear of what's it all gonna be about, but their values, their basic values are very very good, and, in my view, needed in many cases in Europe.
It is in it's form as you hear it on the record is exactly how we did
it. I'd also been playing around with... a sort of North-African scales with
the guitar. Somebody on the last tillary[?] in Paris remarked that the slide
guitar was now sounding, starting to sound more like a violin, and less like
your usual dust-my-broom[??] blues bottleneck. And there were inflections
in it that weren't in other people's guitar playing, and this... it twigged
a little, it asked me where I'd got it from, and I honestly didn't know,
where I'd got this from. It's very easy to know... if you're.. obviously
if you were a Ry Cooder fan in your early days that shows, and you were a
Joe Walsh fan, that shows, but it was quite mysterious where this sudden
development of using major 7ths, since in slide guitar play it's normally
never ever done. And... flats and sharps... I didn't know where I'd got it
from, but it started of as that, it started off as Max and I just playing
together, he had the synthesiser, and he was following, which he's absolute
genius at doing, and loves... that how he likes to works best. And I'm just
playing, and he's just providing the bed, and it's quite eerie that when
I'll move for instance on the intro of that song, you hear it move up a semitone,
and you actually hear the keyboard behind it has moved up as well, and I
didn't tell him I was going to do it, you know. It's... it is Max and me
at our best. I'd been doing that little piece at the beginning, it then suddenly...
the nothing to fear song was pulled out of the imaginary cupboard, mentally,
and so I just got a thing for this, and quickly run down the cord-shifts
and that was joined on to the intro guitar.
We then went on to completely fill up every track, putting all sorts of things on, putting Moroccan drums on, putting Algerian percussion, experimenting with lots of different things. And there was a demo of what Max and I had done just with ourselves and the rhythm box, and it was played one night in Province and someone said "That's it, you already have it!", so we actually went backwards in stead of filling the tracks up and mixing, we went the opposite way, and it's virtually a live demo, that you are listening to.
As for me it's not important, it never has been, and in the passed I've struggled with trying to accommodate somebody at the record company and somebody in the radio stations who has a definite time that you have to... it's why we have a lot of trouble in America with this, because of the format. And all I can say is that we hopefully wait for the revolution, you know, that hopefully one day will come when there will be just music. And people won't say how long a track is, there's some many dictations, to what you must and must not do. It's very difficult to be artistically free, and we do struggle with it. Because Chris Rea sounds like Chris Rea, and everybody attempts to... somebody said if somebody could find the perfect description of what your music is, and put it in that bag, you'd sell a lot more records. The fact that you're not exactly like anybody else, which I think should be a plus, actually goes against you, which is a shame. But get on, we survive.
I was always a fan of double meaning poetry, and just emotive poetry, Dylan Thomas's and people like that. Where in those days you had to have sleeve notes by the side of the poems, to let you know why you put a triple meaning in there, and that slips in to for example nothing to fear, when it actually doesn't ever mention anything to do with Islam, and sometimes it gets you into trouble because people miss completely the point of the song. I've also tried lately not to put the fourth and fifth verse in, because in some ways it spoils it. You know, if Nothing to fear had a verse specifically referring to the fact that the song is about Islam, or the inspiration was, the song would then be 15 minutes long (hah)! Which might be just a bit too much. So I do, lately I have tried to like, throwing on idea on the wall with the oil paints, as opposed to painfully painting a very very technically accurate picture.
We found it very difficult to add anything to it. Which worries you, while you're in the studio, cos you think we've gotta be... there should be more pain to this, there should be more worrying about it and trying and... It's hard to say that what you've just done is it, thank you very much, goodnight. You feel as if you, you should try harder, sweat more, worry more. At least I do, and I find it difficult to just walk in, do it first time, and for everybody to say fine.
Miles is a cigarette
It's a song about a guy who's driving along and hears a Miles Davis track, and he's stopped smoking for eight months, well in fact it happened to me, I immediately pulled the car over, went in to the shop and bought some cigarettes, and started smoking again. It was a strange thing, I don't know why I did it, I wanted to do it. It actually felt better for doing it, so Miles was a cigarette... I didn't know it was Miles Davis, when I heard it. You're driving along in the car, switch the radio on and it was, like, two back to back tracks. So this track came in without any DJ announcing it, I immediately felt total affiliation with it, and for a musician, especially if you've had an up and down career, and a struggle with journalists and music critics over what it should and shouldn't be, then you hear this, it brings a lump to your throat. You actually feel an immediate relationship with who ever it is making the music, and you immediately want to join his gang, or so to speak.
And it, it made me laugh a little when I found out it was Miles Davis, I mean it's like saying I had this drink last night, it as fantastic, it was like wine but it had bubbles in it, and somebody tells you the next day it was champagne, you know. You hit yourself on the head and say dear me, champagne is great, you know.
It was just very easy, very easy to do. '
Lately, For the last sort of four or five albums I've put my favourite four or five songs on the front of the album. I remember when we used to make it side one, you know, it's a great shame to me that you don't have side one, and side two any more and that with CD and cassette it's just one long list, which I think affects people's listening potential. You know, we have moulded our art, the size of our canvas, if we very painters, has always been governed by say twenty minutes on side one and twenty minutes on side two, and the music has always been subconsciously dictated by that, you get a rest, you've got to get up, you got to turn the record over. You don't have that now, and it just goes on all the way through. Also you don't have a time limit so to speak. You now get up to 100 minutes on an album or cassette, and sometimes there's a danger with CD albums now of good songs not getting the correct show with people's ears, in as much as by the time they get their eight or nine songs without a break you automatically want to switch off, and there's many a good song been on the back of a CD on the last three or four albums that people haven't really latched onto until two or three years later. So for that reason I always put my favourite four or five songs on the very beginning.
God's Great Banana Skin
The original spark of the idea came from one of my daughters who was about to laugh at somebody who'd been giving her a hard time, slipped on the banana skin so to speak, and I told her not to laugh, "don't laugh when people go down even if they've been awful to you because you're tempting God to throw you a banana skin". I didn't realise what I'd said, and then regretted it deeply when she asked me what I meant which took a lot of doing, and within half an hour of that situation, the song's there. It's one of those instant ideas. And it's half moral and it's half superstition. Anybody who's done me a disservice in life, and I see them go down, you get tempted to laugh, I don't know whether it's superstition or not, or I daren't laugh just in case God throws me a banana skin as well.
90's blues pleases me in as much as it is Chris Rea with the blues. There's a very strong top line violin part within it, so it's not, as somebody said, Chicago blues, and I said no it's mine - it's Chris Rea in the Thames Valley in the 90's. I don't go in for buying a Little Walter record and just trying to sound exactly like him. You know you do find a lot of blues players who do nothing but copy what somebody else has done. Whereas this is me with the blues, consequently it has got certain inflections that black American blues hasn't got. I make no mistake about the fact that black American blues is black American blues, it should be left alone as black American blues. And if some other guy from another culture has the blues then it should take its own form.
Too Much Pride
This is one of those Tuesday morning songs. I call them Tuesday morning songs in as much as there's no great plan behind it, because I write a song a day and that is exactly what was in my head that morning. It was just somebody who seemed to be completely screwing himself up by having too much pride. And it just comes off, it's short, snappy, simple. You often get a really good idea for a song and a really good song title, but you're having an argument or a discussion with somebody and all the time you're expecting your brain of the obvious and yet suddenly you just tune around and you say to somebody, the only thing wrong with you is you've got too much pride. And you go, click, you know, and this is one of those, it is short and simple, what I call a Tuesday morning song.
The guitar sound on "Boom Boom"
No guitar is ever the same. This old friend of mine Willie, he collects them and he walked in with this very, very old Fender guitar which was one of those guitars, and it's almost priceless now. It's that sound, it's nothing else. You can't play anything else on that guitar except base notes, twangy guitar. So at that moment this song is being played, and we plug this guitar in just to smile, listen to it, have fun. And immediately that's what was played. If it had been any song, even if it had been in the Miles Davis song, that guitar would have gone on. And it's just one of those nice moments. That's what it's all about in the end, those highs are so great, you never forget them.
There She Goes
Songs like this are difficult to explain in interviews because they don't have a topical flavour to them, for example Nothing to Fear is the Muslim thing, Miles Davis is very different, you've got the 90's Blues referring to Greens and Robert Maxwell, your Banana Skins... In my opinion, to blow my own trumpet, There She Goes is just a bloody good song. Sometimes they are hard to get onto an album and hard to discuss because it's just an emotion and this is just one of those, like Too Much Pride, where it's song writing at its simplest.
I Ain't The Fool
The idea for the song came from having been on a live chat show and behind the scenes in the guest holding area were two politicians, and publicly they were enemies, publicly they were complete opposites and I was stunned at how friendly they were, at how unimportant the issues were and they were planning this as if it were a big show and it devastated me for a while. I had always thought in naiveté that a politician's first aim was to try to change the world. I hadn't realised till that day that these people were just ego maniacs, nothing else at all. I had these people in mind when I wrote that lyric; because they tended to regard the people around them as fools, and I just thought, you're not fooling me.
Yes, for me you would say it's to fast. There's one on every album. They're always in there. Hopefully one day someone will turn around and say it's about time Chris Rea had a full album of up tempo songs. But it doesn't work that way, people don't associate me with it. It's one of those songs that you write on the spot, you do with the band on the spot, it gives you a thrill to do it, and if you play it loud, it's great.
I have to say I don't particularly like it. It's on the album because people in the room and who are always in the room when we're making records, all loved it. It never turned out exactly as I wanted it, but everybody else seems to love it. It certainly doesn't hurt me to hear it. I wasn't quite there with what I was getting at and I'm glad other people like it. A lot of people like it a lot, and say it should have been earlier on in the album. It never quite gelled for me. It should have either stayed very sparse and John Lee Hookerish or it should have gone even more desperate. The inspiration of the song was actually watching a black dog that I have occasion to watch on a chain, who is playing with its chain trying to get off it and it was striking image and very immediate form of inspiration. But it goes along as opposed to belts along.
Soft Top, Hard Shoulder
It's a song specifically written for a movie. Half way through the album I had occasion to see Channel 4, they have an Arts, Entertainment, Media section on their breakfast show, and I saw these guys struggling with a lower budget and I heard the idea of the movie, and I saw what they were trying to do, and was very impressed. It seemed very real, very real life and it appealed to me. It was movie making like I try to make music - it was for the sake of its own art. So I went down immediately, that morning, and knocked on their door and said, I want to do the music for the film. They were very, very surprised, in fact it took them a while to actually say yes. They first thought I was mad. I succeeded in convincing them that I could do it and they said OK. So we were in Provence making the record and then half way through the album we did the film music, all the incidental music and then we went back to the album. And the movie is called Soft Top Hard Shoulder.