BILLY MACKENZIE: Interview
By Randy Haecker
I was fortunate to have the chance to interview Billy MacKenzie in 1990. Our conversation took place in the Beverly Hills' offices of Charisma Records, the label responsible for the U.S. release of the final Associates album, "Wild And Lonely." Billy arrived on time, dressed in casual slacks, a colorful vest, and wearing his trademark beret. Initially, he was slightly guarded in his answers, but once my line of questioning proved that I was a devout fan, he relaxed and opened up about nearly every phase of his musical career. The interview lasted an hour. Billy intermittently sipped on a can of Coca-Cola.
My introduction to the Associates occurred in 1982 when I chanced upon a copy of "Sulk" in a record store in Austin, Texas. I was immediately captivated by its famous sleeve, which portrays Billy and his musical partner Alan Rankine bathed in aqua blue and green light, lounging in what appears to be an Atlantean hothouse. It perfectly encapsulated the Associates' sensual aesthetic, and hooked this music fan for life.
What were you trying to accomplish with "Wild and Lonely"?
Nothing. I would say I was trying to get across the sum of my experiences. I'm always trying to communicate to some other lost souls out there. What happens... it's like a bloodhound on a trail. It's the music that comes first because the music never lies. With the lyrics it's a 'you can be a poet and you don't know it' type thing. So it's the music ... I love writing and I love composing. It's like getting on a speedboat and going out on the ocean. You don't know where you're gonna go, but all you know is you're enjoying it and it feels right.
I think the new record is the most romantic Associates album to date. Was there a particular inspiration behind this album?
Yeah, my own vulnerability. In my youth I didn't need anyone. I was so self-absorbed that I was quite hard, really. I don't really fall in love ... two years without sex or something ... I had crushes on Ann-Margret when I was 7 and had fantasies about people ... Jane Fonda in "Barbarella" was another one that got a little bit of a tickle on that barometer. So as you say it was quite romantic.
Was it in Glasgow that you first fell in love?
No, where was it now? It was in Britain and I've had quite a few encounters since then. But when I was 16, 17, I was so self-absorbed and busy with myself, and discovering myself, I never really thought about it. It was only once I became vulnerable ... if I wasn't vulnerable I still think I'd be kinda ... If I hadn't had self doubts I don't think I would've been able to fall in love. I had less self confidence, so life boxed me about the ears quite a bit. I found solace in people. I was not self sufficient, emotionally either. When it eventually came along I didn't believe it. No, I didn't believe it. I wasn't interested. But then it kinda got a bit gooey around my mid-'20s, a bit too gooey.
You said earlier that your lyrics are a bit secondary, but I think they're quite good.
What I'm saying ... well, it's not that ... I'm really glad that you point out that you do like them, because I like them as well, they're perfect pieces. They really are a great portrayal of the human condition. I'm quite good at that, I think. But what I'm saying is that it's the music that doesn't lie. It's an international language.
What does 'glamour' mean to you?
There are positive and negative aspects. Glamour is luxury, but not grandeur. And I like to have a feeling of luxury, but I don't like it to be too ...
Yeah. I want everybody to have it. It's an altruistic thing. It's negative when it's forced and people aren't themselves. When they're sort of living vicariously through other people, then it's problematic. But who am I to judge people and their behavior?
But you're as good a judge as anybody.
Yeah, but it's cruel, because sometimes I do self-evaluate myself and give myself a higher score just because somebody seems to me a bit fake or phoney. And it's not nice to pick on people.
What was it like working with Julian Mendelsohn?
I think it was really that we stretched Julian. And I'm not saying that in an arrogant way. He'd heard that I was a monster to work with, which, of course, is true, and I don't mind that, it's just the way that I work, really quickly and I want things down on tape. I have to pat myself on the back because this album only took eight weeks, from inception to finishing it, which is quite quick these days considering so many people take 6 months to a year to finish an album, and they hone it down, and it all becomes like a marketing ploy. And that's disgusting to me. I was quite tense, and all that I'll say about Julian is that we called him a "hedgehog" (smiles). Prickly, but you'll still put a saucer of milk out for them at the same time.
Were the lyrics written when you went in the studio?
Some of them. There's all sorts of variations in the way I write.
Were the songs new, or did some of them go back a few years?
One of them, "Just Can't Say Goodbye," was a track that I had tried to record but it had never worked. So it was put in a deep freeze and brought back to life (grinning). I like to say that. And the rest are new. But they're all, they're new, but they might have had their seeds sewn back when I was 8, which is what I would say "Calling All Around The World" is about. It's there, but then it sort of comes out ... they're like "time lapse" songs, you know what I mean?
Did you choose Julian because of his work with the Pet Shop Boys? Do you feel any affinity for what they're doing?
I think really what it was ... in a way the Associates had broke some new ground around 1980. And then other bands maybe took it commercially, and saw the possibilities of it and stretched it. So I think really the Associates were responsible for influencing more the Pet Shop Boys than vice versa. It just so happened that Julian gave this record a very commercial sound and made it good crossover material. But I have liked quite a lot of the Pet Shop Boys. I do think they're really talented. I like the fact that they have this love affair with '60s singers. I think we do come from the same musical stratas. I think that things are moving quickly now, and that's what's great about it right now. I think that some of these '80s English producers really have to go downtown and get a bit sweaty and dirty ...
To keep up with the trends.
It's not even a trend. Because a trend to me is the music of the youth, and not as important.
So you're talking about "the production values of the week"?
You've got to get a bit groovin', and hang out in the worst places.
You just mentioned "groovin'". Can you tell me where "Groovin' With Mr. Bloe" came from? It's such a wonderful track.
When I was about 12, I just went crazy when I heard it. It was like a religious experience. It's from the '70s, a Jewish instrumentalist from New York wrote it, and it was a massive hit in Britain just as an instrumental in 1970.
You seem to be regularly doing covers on the b-sides of your singles lately. "Green Tambourine", "Groovin' With Mr. Bloe" ...
I thought it would be great to energize myself with these tracks. It's something that I've wanted to do ... covers ... a lot of covers. But I didn't want to do them as an album and charge you $15 for it. So I can do it this way and people can compile their own Associates covers album. It's something I still might do but I'd like to do it as a half-price album.
There's talk of a U.S. tour.
I was meant to go back on Monday, but I decided to stay about 8 weeks. We're going to go across the states and eat some burritos and drink Dr. Peppers and get into trouble. We're going to go back and do an album, we've got the next Associates album ready, so hopefully we're going to come back in August, do about 6 dates across the States, and we're looking forward to that. It was a great surprise to me that people actually knew of the Associates over here. In the States I didn't realize that we're considered a cult band.
Is it strange to have such a warm reception visiting America with this album? Did you think you'd even have the chance to release another record in America after "Sulk"?
(Tentatively) ... yeah. The thing is I related strongly to America when I was a teenager, that's why I came over here and lived here. I was more gregarious, and a bit loud, and a bit energetic for Scotland when I was between 12 and 16. Well, I take it back, I wasn't loud, I just had tons of energy. So I came across and lived in Los Angeles and worked here. I was able to relate to Americans quite easy because they're quite childish, and I'm quite like that as well. I was studious, but at the same time I would sort of like to ... I was quite childish and I think that's a good quality to keep.
How long did you live here?
That's brave of you at 17.
Yeah, it was all an education. I'd decided that I wanted to come here and go to Philadelphia. The Philly sound was happening in '74, I was mad for soul and I just wanted to get the best black band and just groove out.
How did you afford that visit?
I met up with a long lost cousin in a little town called Azusa, but I don't know how I got by. I seemed to get by by working in hamburger stores, cleaning swimming pools, the Salvation Army thrift shop, and, of course, I was a prostitute for quite a while (mischievous chuckle).
I've heard the rumors.
I'm only joking! No way, I wasn't a prostitute, although when I came here, and I used to work at swimming pools, and things like that, although I'd been having sort of ... how would you say? ... a 'varied' sex life from the time I was 11, really, I wasn't prepared for what was happening up and down Sunset Boulevard, you know what I mean? So I was getting 'What are you doing here? Would you like to ...? (laughs).' It was wild.
Your British label, Circa, has several Scottish acts on its roster - Hue & Cry, Paul Haig...
I know, but who doesn't? I don't know what it is about us lot ... well, I DO KNOW what is about the Scottish lot. For a country filled with such self expression their souls are in chains because of the sort of like dominance of the country that we don't really want to be attached to, which is England. See what happened is I think the artists showed the way. It's a great country now, there's been a renaissance and it's England that's really sinking into the ocean and Scotland is like 'YAY!' That's what happens because England was such a greedy, gluttonous country, and it robbed us and it robbed South Africa. They're quite sneaky about it. So I've felt that we're an occupied country. I'm not against the individual English, just the historical ... what's happened.
You mentioned that a new album is already in the works. Is it finished?
All the songs are written, yeah, so we'll just go back ... I might actually record two or three tracks in New York, then a couple of tracks in Berlin.
Sounds very intercontinental.
Funnily enough, the album's actually called OUTERNATIONAL.
With the cinematic feel to your material, have you thought about doing music for soundtracks?
Yeah. What we've done, with the next album, instead of it being accompanied by videos, we're going to accompany it by, we've written a screenplay. It's quite ambitious, and it's just something that came to me really easy. I don't know if I'd do another one, this one was just so natural, and it says everything about what I feel. It's going to be something to worry about (laughs). I think what I'm doing is forcing people to be honest with themselves. Because once you start being honest with yourself you can really begin to, as the queen says, (mock accent) 'Grow as a person.'
You're taking on a big responsibility.
Not really. Honesty's not a responsibility to me. And I think that's how I'm not dead. Because I'm honest. With myself. I can't lie to myself, that's how I can't take drugs, or go OTT in that sort of sense because the high's a lie to me. I'll just get high on global ... good will.
Which directors, or periods in film, do you find particularly inspirational?
I just adored from 1937 to '48, a lot of the American films, like Susan Hayward in "I Want To Live," a lot of the dramatic films of that period. I'd say that was my favorite period, that American golden age. I like "In The Heat Of The Night" ... just so many, too numerous to mention. I'm absorbed by them. There's a kind of hypnotic feel to a lot of the films then that we don't really have now. Maybe that's because it's all too planned and before they actually go to the cutting room they have previewing and they get sheets to score them... you know what I mean? It just rips it all apart. That's horrible.
Did you discover those films as a teen?
No, from a kid. I like a lot of European films as well.
When you travel do you jot down notes in a journal?
Sometimes, but I've got a really good memory. And I sort of developed that ability to retain my music and lyric. I had to (laughs). I thought that would be better ...
Why do you feel that "larger than life" element is lacking in our pop charts today? It seems like the majority of music is so predictable.
"Larger than life" to me is in everyday things. It depends on your inner ear, and what sparks off that communion between you and the music, but personally it's such a natural medium for me to go into. "Larger than life" to me is something that is out of reach. And I don't think anything on earth is out of reach to me. It's all within our own grasp.
How do you spend your time away from music? Is there any time away from music?
Not really ... but being fascinated by people. I've got seven or eight friends that I could never get to the bottom of, you know, they're totally enigmatic, even to themselves. I love that just when I get to know someone I discover another facet to them. They're so informed and intuitive ... they're "apostle like". (Whispering conspiratorially) I think of them as "sonic apostles".
I think only you can fathom what that means exactly.
(Laughs) So that, and then I've got a brilliant ... I'm the eldest of six, so I've got a large number of brothers and sisters, and we're like 12" remixes of each other, so that's interesting. And then Scotland as a whole is like one big family, the Scottish nation. There's not a lot of bad feeling towards me and the Associates, even though I've got a lot of self doubt about myself as a person. I think I might want to be a bit too perfect. That's a terrible thing. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with myself, as I say, I'm trying to be too good and that's bad.
The world needs more people like you.
(Laughs uncomfortably) I don't know. It's difficult being nice. I do like to be positive and I do like to do the right thing and I do like harmony. I don't get off on being a ... (whispers) 'cunt'. That's a horrible word, innit?
I can't believe you said it.
I know. I don't usually, but it's the only word ...
That expressed what you were feeling at the moment.
So I'm not going to ask about the bad blood between you and WEA ...
But you had tried to buy back the unreleased album, "The Glamour Chase," from them at some point?
Yeah. It's got some of my best songs on it. There's one called "Empires of Your Heart," which, funny enough, one of my aunts, she says it's like the Ultimate Uttering to music (smiles).
The "Ultimate Uttering"?
(Cackles mischievously) That's mad, innit? It was like losing a baby when they didn't put it out. I don't know how I was able to get over that. Plus I'd lost my little niece at the same time, so it was a really difficult period for me. But I do think that I've got a little angel. And everything works out for me. I've been prepared to learn the game of patience. That seems to be my mission in life, to learn patience. To be able to sift through things and not be impulsive, and yet that impulse drives you to do what you do so it's strange ...
Besides that album, is there very much of your material that's unreleased?
Well, that album ... you have to excuse me, I'm still thinking about what I just said (he then asks if he can have the remainder of my Coca Cola. As he pours it into a plastic cup he sings an operatic scale). Yeah, I've done something for my friend in London, he's just such a gorgeous person, Martyn Ware (Heaven 17 and British Electric Foundation). I've done a cover version ... oh well, now we're talking about cover versions again, but that's great because as I say I don't use them as marketing tools. Anyway, I've done Deniece Williams' "Free". And then there's a 'best of' Associates coming out with some unreleased tracks. It's called "Popera". It's ten years, so it's a 'pop era,' and it's opera and it's pop. It kind of summed up what I felt about the Associates.
When did you develop your fondness for whippets?
(Laughs) When I was 10, 11, 12, it wasn't pop stars or film stars that went on my walls. It was cheetahs and dolphins and marmosets and ocelots. I've got a really close affinity with animals. I work with them ... I'm attached to them. You've got to have a communication with animals, and so ... I used to be fascinated by anything fast. And the first time I saw a whippet it was like an electric shock, because it was the closest thing to a cheetah. All I'd done when I was small was read nature books, while listening to pop music, of course. And I'd dream of having a gazelle, or a baby elephant. God, I sound like Michael Jackson! (laughs). So I've got a bit of that Michael Jackson syndrome! Anyway, I've got nine dogs and I breed them, and I raise them, and we just have great fun. I've got like a little farm.
So the song "Whippets" on the Holger Hiller album, were you responsible for that?
Well, yeah, but he called it that. I must say I'm quite surprised you know about that. You've done your homework.
I have, indeed. And now we're going to go back to the Associates' past. Where did the inspiration come from for those early Situation Two singles... "Message Oblique Speech"... "Q Quarters"... "Nude Spoons"? Now come on! That's the weirdest pop song I've ever heard.
(Laughs) It's mental, innit? I think it was a combination of being supressed by the youth culture at that time in Scotland. It was a reaction to the horror of it. Plus I'm such a vivid, vivid dreamer. I have such colorful dreams, and they just come from the subconscious (pauses). To me, "Message Oblique Speech" is quite operatic. I think it's quite Italian, really, in its sentiment. It's anthemic in ways. But you've got to look toward your own history because your own group Sparks were probably responsible for some of the influence on that. God knows, because what happens, what I think it is, is that some people, some interpreters just get tuned into the mass collective subconscious of whatever's out there ... I think that at the end of the universe there's a video screen and everything is documented there for posterity.
That's a fantastic image. So why did the break with Alan occur?
I think with every group, when it reaches the pinnacle of its creative juices, the group should disperse, and not go downhill. If I hadn't split with Alan there wouldn't have been any "Breakfast," or "Those First Impressions," or "The Best of You" or "Helicopter," which I think, as songs, are just as good. Maybe the production values weren't as extreme as "Sulk," but as songs I'm very proud of them. So I felt that all good groups should split up at the pinnacle of their career.
Why would he have held you back in regards to the songs you mentioned? Was he going in a more rock direction?
I think Alan was going in a more, yeah, sort of safe element and I've always wanted to break from the boundaries and not be frightened of your imagination. I think Alan was getting a bit frightened of his own imagination, it was overwhelming him. And I had to push it because sometimes I used to create situations and Alan would be having an anxiety attack on the floor! I was quite cruel that way. I wanted him to realize that he had a lot in his cave of his musical psyche.
So where does your affinity for the avant-garde come from? It seems that you like to collaborate with artists on the fringe, or do you simply avoid approaching things in a conventional way?
Yeah, I know. There's got to be some reason for it (pause). I think it must be that animal side coming out. It's very catlike. It's like how cats take mad half hours. It's an energy you've got. It's like a cat could be sitting, right? It's created its own lifestyle. It's so methodical the way it goes about its everyday life. Then, just all of a sudden, it just starts (motions madly) running from corner to corner, acting quite mad.
It cuts loose.
What instruments do you play? You're never credited with any of the instrumentation on the records.
Bass, piano, and I can sort of play the bagpipes (laughs). I'm lucky that what I really love is when people are interpreting my ideas, and when they're brilliant at it you just salivate. It's a lot nicer getting their energy as well, and that's where the 'association' comes from. It's not just me, it's other people and their feelings and sentiments. I'm honored when someone's able to do it graciously.
Do you wish more people would take a chance and cover some of your songs? I'm only aware of "Chain" by Paul Haig.
I don't think there would be a lot of people able to cover Associates tracks.
Perhaps in the next millennium people might begin to appreciate your music a bit more.
(Laughs) Well, even then I don't think people would be able to do a cover version of "Message Oblique Speech," you know? The way you can do a cover version of "White Light, White Heat" or something. But I do love when you've got like-minded musicians, that really is a transcendental feeling. I think that's the purest art form of music.
The "Sulk" album was a big time for you, living in London, which I know you didn't enjoy. It was stressful.
That's true. I felt vulgar, and vulgarized, because I never thought deprivation was a great way to write. I always liked to do it through love and joy. But it just so happened that situations arose that I was shocked at, because I was emotionally naive, because I was such a positive person and I encountered a lot of hostility and learned to cope with reacting against stuff. It was horrible for me to react in that manner. It was quite a horrible time. I never used to eat, and we were quite broke. Around that time I developed a heavy shaving growth (laughs). I mean, it was a bit like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It was a time when I reached the realization that when you get up in the morning you needed to shave every couple of days, because up until 19 you were able to get away with not shaving for a week. Horrible things like that, you know what I mean? I never ate properly, and we used to drink an awful lot. We used to party hard. It was because we were away from home, although I was considered... how would you say... a bit of a musical maverick of sorts, I never got totally swept away by what was happening. I still liked to phone my grandmother up regularly.
How do you view your chart success to date? Several singles from "Sulk" broke the Top 40.
We've had about a dozen Top 50 hits, which is fine, I like it like that. I get congratulated by people like George Michael, who says 'I love the way that you do things, you just suit yourself'. He knows that it's not money that brings happiness. He's got 65 million dollars, but I wouldn't want that. It would be a curse. Unless you're going to do something with that ... it's like excess baggage to me. George is somebody who realizes that I could've cashed in. And done this sort of thing ten years ago, but it didn't feel right, and I've always got to go with how I feel. I think people are a lot more aware of issues that I find important now. Back then, I mean I used to talk to a brick wall half the time. I might be more in tune than people of my own age because all my friends were on heroin, drugs. It was horrible. Every friend of mine was on drugs. That was the other thing that was really hurtful -- I was in London and I used to go up and visit everybody and they were all skagging out, and I thought it was such a waste, and when I'd try to help I'd just be spat on. Seeing most of your best friends just turn into vicious people.
In a book published in the early '80s called "Rock Secrets" (Proteus Books) both you and Alan filled out a standardized questionnaire. One of the questions was "Reveal your greatest secret". And your response was "Not a great lover".
(Long, hardy giggle) Um, "Not a great lover" -- that could interpret itself in so many ways. For instance, I'm not a great lover of violence, although I'm aggressive ... sometimes (coyly). I'm not a great lover of injustice. So I would say I was thinking in broader terms.
Let me congratulate you on your evasiveness. You really dodged that one. I suppose whenever anyone reads a quote from Billy Mackenzie one really has to let their imagination go and read a lot more into the statement.
(Laughs) I'm a great affectioner (!?!). I put affection first. I do like to enjoy myself -- I'm not a Morrissey figure. I was the guy at school who used to be found at dinner break around the back of the school with someone. I had more sexual relationships between 13 and 15 than I had in my '20s. I like anything as long as it's not vulgar. You know, I hate porn videos or nudity when it's not beautiful. Nudity can be beautiful with just the right lighting and all. I hate when a woman's body is vulgarized. It's just horrible. It's God's creation. The Greeks got it right, you know? They got a lot of things right (smiles).
We're going to end the interview on that note: "The Greeks got it right!"