Pop erratic, matinee idol, cool-obsessive, ex-insomniac, hopeless romantic, strategist, hedonist. After a series of chart successes with The Associates and a protracted three-year vacation, Billy Mackenzie is back.
Interview by John Wilde Photograph by Richard Haughton
Is that him? Billy Mackenzie ambles across the hotel lounge sporting an unlikely pair of gawky Morrissey spectacles and a slovenly, craggy five o'clock jaw bristle. If he looks like anything, he looks, unmistakably, like a man in control. Unreasonably so.
Before he reaches my couch, he is intercepted by a Californian crone with a voice like a Shire horse who asks what time the bars open in England. Billy tells her he doesn't know. "Oh," she caterwauls, "I thought you were in charge." Billy gives this some thought. "Yes," he decides, "I am in charge." Then he joins me on the couch, shaking my hand a little too vigorously, with the kind of force most of us reserve for cracking open Brazil nuts halfway through the Queen's speech on Christmas Day. Billy Mackenzie is back and, unmistakably, in charge.
But where has he been? Where has the time gone? Whatever happened to Billy Mackenzie pop erratic, matinee idol, five octave chanter, cool obsessive, ex-insomniac, divorce, dilettante, hopeless romantic, strategist, hedonist?
"Changing, walking, swimming, investing, a lot of living, learning, travelling, sleeping, yawning, spending, clubbing, dancing, watching people dance, eating well (salmon mousse and chives), racing, escaping, a lot of very positive things."
It is now six-and-a-half-years since 'Party Fears Two', the strange refrain which brought The Associates, rather peculiarly, to Top Of The Pops and the nation's lazy attention. It is now a whole three-and-a-half years since 'Breakfast', the last Associates hit. The Class of '82 - Fry, Gartside, Frame, Gregory, Marsh, Ware. Collins, Haig, Oakey, George - have, like the Class of 77 before them, digressed or disappeared, diversified or self-destructed. Some have, at various times, done all these things. Few have managed to avoid turning in second-rate popwash. The rumour was that Billy Mackenzie had turned completely dotty. The truth was that Mackenzie went back to Dundee, invested in property and wiled away the time on all the above. He is not coming back for the loot, that's for sure.
"Remember," he says, "a lot of money has passed through my hands. I gleefully squandered it. Just about every single penny of it. There was an incredible amount of it. It all went on the experience of having money. I'd be a weirdo if I hadn't chucked it all away. But I was always an enterprising bugger. I realised at some point that, to survive, I'd need some kind of fortress. A nice place to stay and a nice car. Then, a little later, I had to look after The Associates' interests. So, a couple of years ago, I took what money remained and invested in property. I couldn't have anyone getting the upper hand on me, you see. The only way they could get to me was by cutting my allowance, which they had tried once.
"Unfortunately I had to become a landlord. But it means I don't have to sell records for a living. It also means that I don't have to make myself available to the whole music circus, which would seriously damage my benign nature. The record company basically regard me as a pain in the neck because I won't come down to London and get a flat off the Edgware Road and all that. They view me now as a dark horse that could possibly win the race. That's fine by me. I don't have to play their game. Getting London out of my hair took a very longtime back then. It's always been boring to me. It might have been OK in 1890. Good hats, good marzipan shops.."
This 'comeback' is now in motion because, for Mackenzie, the time is right. Last year, he appeared on Yello's One Second album, contributing a beautiful, ghostly vocal to 'Moon On Ice', written in collaboration with Meier and Blank. Somewhere between 1985 and 1988, he recorded with Trevor Horn and Dave Stewart, recordings which never saw the light of day because Mackenzie didn't feel they were quite right.
Now he is back, in the guise of The Associates, with a cool, casual version of Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass' and a complete album of new songs to follow.
"I haven't really changed," he tells me, "not really. I guess I've been reverting back more to what I was like at 18. I have been forced to look at things in a different way because of my dedication to what I'm doing. Now that I'm getting a lot more freedom to do what I want to do the more relaxed I am about it."
If anything, he has busied himself with gaining control over his situation, re-shaping and re-shuffling his objectives.
"The time belongs to me, not to the record company. The time went back to me. I made sure of that. I'm extremely self-aware. I don't question too much, just enough. I only ever go into things to find an answer but I'm not a maniac about it. I have to be in charge. With music, you give out a tremendous amount of energy and that's your force-shield. Psychically, what happens is that you leave yourself vulnerable to so many negative feelings because you've put out all your positive feelings. Your defences are down because you've put out so much. It's like a primal scream or something. When your defences are down after ten years, that's when it really begins to tell.
"You see, I didn't have any teenage problems. I never had a spot and I never had any difficulty getting a hard-on. It was blissful. My teenage problems happened from 20 onwards. So I was a late developer. It's still going on. Until this album is out and over with, then that's the end of my adolescent period. Basically, I just love being responsible for myself. That way, I can't blame anyone else for anything. I can only blame myself:
He surprises me by confiding that, these days, he has no need for relationships and that makes him feel lucky. We're not talking celibacy though, surely?
"Oh no," he laughs, giving me one of his roguish Sidney James looks. I like a bit of a romp, know what I mean? I do like a bit of a romp. I can romp with the best of them but, at the same time, I know what it is. It's a body function. It used to be a spiritual thing for me. But I thought that was a bit hysterical. People lose their personal dignity, don't they? I prefer to have my own personal decorum. I'm not as Latin as I used to be. I used to get jealous, stuff like that. Pathetic."
I mention Morrissey, England's most notorious celibate.
"Oh, Morrissey's not celibate," he casually tells me. "I don't think Morrissey knows what celibacy is. Tell him he's not celibate. I've been to visit him in my dreams."
The Associates are, one way or another thirteen years old now, formed back in 1975 when Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the Bay City Rollers ruled the roost, when punk rock was just a fly in McLaren's eye. By the time the Sex Pistols arrived to splinter the rock face, Mackenzie and partner Alan Rankine were touring working men's clubs with a suitcaseful of old Dusty Springfield and Peggy Lee songs.
"That was bloody punk rock if anything was," Mackenzie now insists. "That was more subversive than listening to Lou Reed at the time. Making out you're Iggy Pop but coming on like Perry Como! You got more Carlsberg bottles thrown at you for that! No, all that was very subversive for the time."
Even the Matt Munro parties?
"Them especially! We didn't get very far with all that, mind. There was no support. We just felt we were being submerged, pushed under. We really felt that it wasn't going to last. That the factory floor was calling." They managed to hang on long enough to see their debut LP, The Affectionate Punch, released by Chris Parry's Fiction label in 1980, a record that both Mackenzie and Rankine have since, inexplicably, disowned. It still sounds like a proper old cracker-barrel. Unnaturally tense. Always precocious and presumptuous. Always ahead of its time.
Party Fears Two', one highly surprising success, was the first of six Top Fifty hits between February 1982 and January 1985. Rankine and Mackenzie had already parted company by the time Perhaps, the 1984 LP, arrived. Mackenzie held on precariously. Perhaps, by the time it arrived, was almost perfunctory. By then, the edge had been lost. Mackenzie was about to disappear.
The Associates, I tell Billy, have always been notoriously inconsistent. When they were brilliant (Party Fears Two', Tell Me Easter's On Friday', Message Oblique Speech', White Car In Germany', Logan Time', Even Dogs In The Wild'), it seemed like a glorious, gorgeous fluke. Knowingly, they seemed to squander their talent. At times, it seemed like there was an excess of talent that made them sound like they were bursting apart at the seams.
"We didn't adhere to the money-spinning aspect, so it always looked like we were fragmented. It was fragmented but through environmental, situational and tactical circumstances. Maybe we did squander our chances. But I was never precious about it. If I was abroad and someone asked me what I did, I'd never dream of saying I was a musician. I would say I'm an interior designer. I'm only in The Associates sometimes, when I feel like it. I always wanted to be a vet."
You never looked like you were trying too hard.
"I immersed myself. It's like if someone's swimming. If they are tense in water, they won't be able to swim well. I was absorbed. I just bathed myself in groovy chords."
Mackenzie never looked too comfortable playing the pop game anyway. He always looked like he wished he was somewhere else. At the peak of The Associates' success, he was expressing a wish to play Batley Variety Club. In a sense, I suggest, The Associates never left the nightclub.
"It's one big nightclub," he grins. "It's too exciting to leave. I always thought The Associates should be like one of those American nightclubs from the 1940s, though the music was always played in a 1980s idiom. I was pleased when we had hits, obviously. I had done what I set out to do. Technically, I was a pop star when Sulk came out. Coming from my background, that was a kind of achievement. But all I can remember about 1982 was a lot of lip gloss.
"It's just that I'm not aware how The Associates are regarded now. I always liked the idea of other people covering my songs. But I couldn't see them singing 'Club Country' at the Halifax Miners' Social Club. Unfortunately."
Mackenzie is now 31. "I used to be 29," he informs me. "Once." He tells me that it is very very likely that he will disappear again.
"Oh, yeah. But it's not really disappearing. It's just not wanting to be a media whore, which is something I find very distasteful. Anyone who needs that must be so insecure. I couldn't say for certain that I will have hits this time. I don't care about all that. This isn't a comeback. I don't feel I've been part of it that much to warrant a comeback. I've not really done anything special, other than try to follow as closely as possible to what I really want to do. I'm not into it for an ego massage. I like to be liked and I loathe to be hated but I can accept all that so much better these days, I must admit, though, I'm a striver to the point where I put an extreme amount of pressure on myself."
Are you missing the plot?
"Well I'm not dotty like people think. But would I be enlightened if I knew what the plot was? There's a great deal of spontaneity. Nothing's really planned or geared towards massive album sales."
Are you calmer on the inside or the outside?
"Externally things affect me a great deal. Internally, left to myself, I'm gathered. I was always the Marjorie Proops of the class at school. A lot of people come to me with their problems. It's always been like that. I've always had a soothing effect on others. I'm a total action junkie, though. Changing, but constantly the same really. The dual aspect of my personality. There's an aspect that absolutely adores tranquility and there's an aspect that needs colossal stimulation."
Mackenzie tells me that he has implicit faith in the new songs. "They must be good," he laughs, "if I actually like them!"
Heart Of Glass' is sung for Debbie Harry. "I just wondered how she would like it sung basically. I just worshipped her. That's all. I wanted to sing it and not overplay the melodic sense of it. Sometimes you have to balance it out between not giving too much and being downright hysterical."
It's hardly the Moby Dick of a return that we might have expected. Even so, it is startling to hear that voice, as long-chance as ever, bursting out with maximum dare. It sounds like it is, itself, on the verge of nervous breakdown, soaring off into space. Billy Mackenzie is still overdoing it.
"Almost overdramatic," he agrees. "Because that's real. Whenever I'm so dramatic about anything, it's because something has affected me like that. My normal personality is made like that. If I'm up like that, then things will get me down. It's a natural euphoria. I express myself as much with my body as with my voice. Both are compatible with each other."
The outcome is uncertain. But Billy Mackenzie is committed to what he describes as a tremendous amount of living. To his own sense of time.
"My own sense of appreciation, basically. I think that's why some of those early records sound, as you say, precocious. There was an insight that was unusual for a 21-year-old. I've never had a sheltered life. Therefore, I felt it was an authority to write like that. I've always been open to things. If I ever start closing down, it will mean I've contracted some kind of mental illness. I could actually die from frustration or boredom. It grips me that much. Empty moments have come but I've sidestepped them. I could never give in to them."
The only certain thing is that, at the end of the year, Mackenzie will be moving to Amsterdam and will commute from there to his native Dundee. Everything else is a might be. He might become a teacher. He might, yet, become a vet.
"I'm curious about all life forms. Everything from amoeba to Millwall supporters, if you can differentiate between the two. Everything accept fish. I like fish least of all. They are infuriatingly boring. To me, they are just scaled lizards. I don't think they've got any soul. I don't believe they are at all spiritual. I don't reckon they think about God at all. I don't think they dream at all and, basically, I'm highly suspicious of things that don't dream." Shaking my hand a little too vigorously, he leaves me with a wish.
"I want other people to get as much out of life as I have. Unfortunately, they won't."