Rob Clarke And The Wooltones – Putting The L in Wootones (Q&A)

Sweet Sweet Music spoke to Rob Clarke about his new record ‘Putting The L in Wootones’, and … and about many other topics.

What was the moment you knew you were on to something?

I’d been working pretty much as an acoustic singer/ songwriter and began to fancy getting the electric guitar out again. For some of that feeling of when you started your first school band. You know, the excitement of turning up and freeing up. I live in Woolton, Liverpool, and woke up one morning thinking ‘what about the Wooltones as a name?’. I mentioned it to Fran Ashcroft who’d been producing my solo stuff as it seemed so obvious someone must have done it, or that it was a stupid idea. When he said he liked it I thought ‘hmm maybe we can do this’.

So I wrote a song called ‘Are You Wooltoned’ that I thought would suit a band. And when I, GP, and Pepe played it for the first time, there was the excitement there that made me think ‘yes we’ve got something worthwhile here’. And that was the take we used for our first single.

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How did this record come together?

Well, we finished ‘Big Night Out’ and pretty much all the next songs were ready or at least nearly ready. So the expectation was this one would be done quickly. But it then took about a year to get what I and Fran agreed were the right takes to work on, what with everyone’s availability, holidays, illnesses, the odd hard drive or technical issue, other commitments, gigs, etc etc etc. Basically all the stuff you could imagine that might hold things up. Even COVID had an impact. To finish the album, on the last song we ended up adding the bass with GP in headphones on the lawn while I was inside as the engineer.

On this and our previous albums, I like to do the basic tracks completely live so the guitar, lead vocal, and drums are what we use on the master. And then we add a few overdubs or edits that seem to add something without detracting from the live feel too much. In other words, we try to work as much as possible as the bands did in the 60s – so it’s a live take, no click, and the minimum of overdubs.

I went to Nashville a few years back to work with Elliot Mazer who produced some of Neil Young’s stuff like Heart of Gold and the Harvest album. He was well up for the live approach too as it was what had worked so well back then. So although it’s probably unusual to do things that way now there are still some people who are prepared to take the gamble to do it.

Anyway, due to the delays in the end we virtually ended up working on each song at a time rather than doing them all as a batch. And that took time too. There’s a lot to debate putting an album together. I’ve done three solo albums, 1 country album, and three Wooltones albums plus a load of other stuff with Fran so you can imagine that’s a lot of decisions to be made between you. Because you can disagree about anything from what’s on the songs, what’s in the songs, the order of the songs, or even the gaps in between the songs! Let alone artwork and other things.

So there comes a point where you almost need to think like a record company ie ‘We need ‘product’ out NOW! Stop mucking about or arguing about mixes and overdubs and finish it!’

When did you decide to start asking for opinions on the new songs?

I take all my ideas for songs to Fran since as the producer he’s going to have strong thoughts about the structures, treatments, and every aspect of them. So you might as well get his input early on rather than wasting time recording stuff that’s not going to make the cut later.

So we play through the songs and hammer them into shape before taking them to the band. As ever some ideas make it through pretty much as intended some are changed out of all recognition. Personally, I like getting that input early on. Particularly when it’s going to be played as a band. It’s not like it’s a solo kind of thing where there’s a bit more of a personal feel to it.

The meaning of success has changed over the years. What does success look like for the new record?

More of everything. More sales, more good reviews, more plays, more audience, more coverage, more respect for what we’re doing. Just more!

As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?

Very. Of course, it’s a good point as to how much or what someone is actually showing. There can be a certain amount of role-play – at least that’s what I see in others and I’m sure it’s the same with me.

Any ideas about how to turn this one into a million-seller?

None whatsoever.

You can pick 3 co-writers to write new songs with. Who? … and Why?

That’s very easy – John, Paul, and George, what could be better?

What’s the gig you will always remember? And why?

We did one at St Peter’s Hall in Woolton to commemorate the 60th anniversary of when John met Paul. Colin Hanton of the Quarrymen the drummer who played at the original gig sat in with us for the whole set and we recorded it as a bonus disk for our previous album ‘Big Night Out’. We tried to do it as close as we could to how things went on the famous day – just one microphone, tiny PA, same songs, same set, same check shirts, same wrong words (because John could only try to pick them up from the radio), same drummer! It was great when I was saying a bit in between the songs to turn round and check the story with Colin – he knew the truth because he was there!

When was the last time you thought ‘I just wrote a hit!’?

I can’t recall ever thinking that – people might have said it but not me! Maybe I should be thinking more like that!

Is recording a record easier than getting it heard nowadays?

I think it’s about the same – it’s easier to record as everyone has the stuff on their computer to do it and easier for people to hear it because there are so many radio and internet stations and sites like Bandcamp. It’s probably easier to get on the BBC too without having to pay pluggers and promo people because it’s so much easier to communicate around the world and reach out to anyone you want to.

Cassettes are back. Which 5 five songs would definitely make your first mixtape?

I’m happy enough with CDs or even downloads, although as we know CDs are phasing out. It’s as important or more what you’re playing it on as what the medium is. So I haven’t played a vinyl record in a long, long, long time. I’m not a vinyl or cassette freak and don’t really see all that as being very important. It’s more critical what your speakers or amp are doing and how your EQ’s set or even where you’re listening. I’m not sure how many people would pass a blindfold test if everything was equaled up. It was always meant to be a disposable thing. If people want to get all collector about it that’s up to them. But it’s meant to be rock n roll, not stamp collecting. Record players used to sound great at parties back in the day or if you were listening to something more intimate on your own.

And the records were made with that in mind. And of course, you do miss sitting staring at the cover for hours and scrutinizing it. But that was because there was nothing better to do! Whereas now there are so many things to do. I did a thing on Woody Radio recently where I picked 6 songs that influenced me. That’s pretty difficult and would no doubt change almost every day.

But I picked Fool on the Hill (Beatles from Love), Gimme Shelter (Stones), I Can See For Miles (Who), Ramble Tamble (CCR), Cowgirl in the Sand (4 Way Street), and When TheMusic’s Over (Absolutely Live). Who knows?

The 80s/90s stuff seems to have dated somewhat and more recent stuff may be fantastic but more difficult to put into a context. In the 60s/70s music was so important that the songs and performances seem to resonate more. But then again I’m completely biased of course. I do like contemporary stuff but there’s not the same context of needing to buy it as there is when you’re young and building your identity and music is the main thing helping you to do it.

Recording music. What’s all the fun about?

The fun to me is in the performance. That’s the good bit. Everything else is a bit of a pain, like filling in the colors on a sketch long after you actually had and were excited about the idea! But it has to be done otherwise you’ve got nothing! Luckily there are people around like Fran or Elliot Mazer who like doing that part of it! You have to finish things whether it’s songs, singles, or albums – get them out and move on. The one thing that Elliot said to me that I always remember is you have to keep writing. But it’s easy to put that off especially if you’re having to promote your own stuff.

Playing music in front of a crowd. What’s all the fun about?

Well, that’s a good question. To me, you’re trying to create a better world. One that’s based on music and universal thoughts and sentiments. One that you’re in control of. And you’re showing yourself off in the best possible light. As someone worth listening to with something to say and an attitude as to how to deal with the real world that doesn’t involve getting sucked into some of the crap that surrounds us all.

Always proud to answer ‘I am a musician’ to the question ‘what are you doing?’?

In the current situation being a musician isn’t like working in a hospital or driving a bus or even feeding people. It’s not a necessity – it’s a luxury that’s nice to have and worth preserving if we can. People might clap at the end of a song but they’re not going to be standing in the streets applauding us musos – much as that sounds like a great idea!

You can’t control the way people ‘hear’ your music. But if you could make them aware of certain aspects, you think, set your songs apart. What would they be?

I think the control element is in overseeing what goes out in your name – the songwriting, the recording, the production, the videos, the promotion. That’s the ‘content’. Once you’ve done all that who would want to control any more?

Vinyl is back, Spotify is ruling, tickets for concerts are becoming more and more expensive, everybody can record songs, social media is the marketing tool, Coldplay stops touring … how will the music industry look like in 5 years?

I can’t understand why the current deals with Spotify and the likes were made. But as soon as you ask the question the answer is obvious – it must have been in someone’s interest, just not mine or yours. The deals should all be renegotiated. People that write great songs need to be rewarded just as film writers and makers/novelists/sports people are.

Ideally from the royalties generated by their work. If music has no value then to me that’s a problem. Because it’s maybe one of the few things that actually does have some value. It’s just that you don’t see a lot of people prepared to put their hand in their pocket to prove that, especially if they can download someone’s masterpiece for zilch. But at this stage, you’d be pleasantly surprised to see that change.

As regards the future there’s the effect of COVID. Some people who were in the music industry in various capacities probably won’t be in the future. How many people work in the docks or down the coal mines now compared to the 70s?

For good and bad things change. And this does seem like one of those turning points. Anything to do with people socializing and meeting is in trouble at the moment. But people will always want music. I understand the venues we need to play in to hone our craft are facing extinction if nothing is done. And the equipment companies and everyone who earns their crust out of it. Anyone can see that. The thought of a music industry permanently or even partially subsidized by governments troubles me too though. Rock n roll or whatever you want to call it is meant to be anti-authority. Because we don’t want to be told what to do.

It’s meant to be a struggle and hard work. Involving times when you’re really out on the edge with no money and nowhere to live. That’s what it is – it’s not meant to be for everyone or something that’s subsidized by anyone. Arguably the early days of rock n roll were exciting because it was all on the hoof and people thought they could make money out of it.

Big money. It worries me that we’ll end up in a situation, even with the best intentions, in which music is supported and subsidized and ultimately pasteurized. Rather than being a visceral product of the chaotic free for all of the glory days. And that as a result, we’ll end up with some even worse art than we currently have. In other words, music that sounds like it was produced by people who’ve never done any of these things, sponsored, written, and produced by committee. In which case it won’t make much difference if it’s on vinyl or not!

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