SPYGENIUS – Jobbernowl (Q&A)

Peter Watts succeeds in creating his own world with Spygenius. That world is not only populated by a cartload of beautiful melodies and lyrics but also decorated with beautiful art.

Let’s talk about that.

Both your lyrics and your melodies are very rich. Do they arise at the same time or are the stories leading during the writing process?

Ah, the mysteries of song writing! To be honest, it varies a bit from song to song, but for myself, I suppose what I do in general is constantly tinker with bits and pieces of stuff that might end up being in a song one day… so I have this kind of imaginary box of song bric-a-brac – musical and lyrical fragments that I keep lying around for whenever… and then from time to time a song will sort of emerge – or more accurately the idea of what a new song could be will galvanize in my head – a sort of light bulb moment – and that key idea could be around a lyric or a rhyme or a theme or a specific groove – and once that’s happened I’ll dig around in the junk box to see what I’ve got that’s usable or adaptable, see what I need to make from scratch etc. But I do try to wait for those light-bulb moments because I think the songs come out better that way than when I sit down to write to order.

I Dig Your New Robes, Pierre!, Mandy Rice-Davies Applies are just two example of song titles that immediately make it clear that you seem to get your inspiration from different places than most others. Do you feel that way too?

Well I don’t know, because I don’t really know where other people get their inspiration from! But for me it goes back to those ‘light-bulb’ moments – I try to stay open all the time in everyday non-musical life to the possibility of encountering something – anything really – that might trigger a song. And I’m also acutely aware that I’m a middle aged man working in a somewhat anachronistic medium which was originally a vehicle for expressing teenage angst, and which is riven with clichés – so there’s always a danger of sounding hackneyed or down right creepy – I mean unintentionally creepy!

So I feel like I have to go sideways a bit to find the right words, and I draw on stuff that maybe isn’t the usual fare of pop-rock-psych or whatever it is that we do. I don’t know. I don’t think I’m the only person taking this sort of approach – but I often draw on stuff I’ve read – books, plays, histories, contemporary news, whatever – and on conversations I’ve had, stuff I overhear, stuff I mishear, titles of paintings (pinched that idea from the Bonzos!), instructions on the packaging of takeaway food, a chance encounter with a penetrating metaphor or a terrible pun… all that kind of stuff.

If you look in that other place, will you come across Ray Davies there? Or are there other sources of inspiration?

Well the Kinks are just part of my musical fabric from way back! Love them! But Ray Davies is really good at something that I don’t think I can do so well, which is writing really keen, concise observational vignettes. I think I trend more surreal than that… but what we certainly do share is a wry sense of humour – which may be a particularly British sense of humour, I don’t know – and a sense of how humour can be used in music to make serious points (although sometimes whimsy for the sake of whimsy is just fine) – a dash of humour can open up a lyric and let you say perspicacious things which you might not be able to say so well if you were really earnest about it – and I think that approach crops up a lot in the artists who’ve influenced me lyrically.

You see it in a lot of the British sixties groups – not just the famous wit of the Beatles, but groups like the Small Faces or even the Who would crack a funny from time to time. Then in later generations we’ve had Ian Dury of course, and Squeeze, and Pat Fish, and the Divine Comedy, and I swear I’ve even heard some gags in Elvis Costello songs… and then there’s that thing of writing something that sounds really earnest but is actually kind of taking the p*ss… Lydon did that with the Pistols, I think, and you can’t tell me that the Cure don’t giggle at their own output. In the 80s I thought that Morrissey took the same approach but now I’m not so sure… I mean I love other lyrical styles too – where the focus is on the form and sound of the words, as much as or more than their meaning, in order create something evocative – think early REM, Throwing Muses, Pixies (I recall reading an interview with Charles where he talked about searching for ‘eargasm’ – great coinage!) – but I can’t write like that without starting to laugh at myself, I have to throw in a gag… oh, and the theme from Goldfinger should get a mention… gave me an unhealthy fondness for inside-rhymes…

The specific lyrics, the song structures, but also the cover art ensure that you create a whole world of your own. Is that a goal in itself or did it arise?

It arose, by chance, but we fostered it because it was good. We’ve been working with Champniss since a little before we released ‘Pacéphale (our fourth album and the first on Big Stir). We met him because Ruth had been googling my old band from the 80s (the Murrumbidgee Whalers) who never really achieved all that much apart from releasing one track which still crops up on Discogs from time to time. We still play the song to this day. Anyway, Ruth discovered that someone had tweeted the lyrics of that song and so sent a message to say hi – and a couple of weeks later some unsolicited artwork turned up, with Spygenius rendered in cartoon form – and we loved it! But it was followed not long after by an entire animated video to one of our songs – which was just amazing, and that really clinched it for us that we needed to get to know and hopefully work with this person…

So there followed a sort of courtship, I suppose, between the band (mostly me) and Champniss, where we got to know each other, how we think and how we might work together, through a series of increasingly bizarre conversations on Facebook Messenger – and again, it was our sense of humour that drew us together, I think, as well as a mutual love of the same music. We bonded over the Bonzo Dog Band and the Rutles. We experimented with communicating only through the medium of Deryck Guyler, which proved to be an entertaining dead end. So we conspired to produce a book of illustrated lyrics, but not tell anyone where it could be bought. (It exists: it’s called the Spygenius Book of Forbidden Fruit Cocktails.) And then we discussed an imaginary full length animated feature film about Spygenius, but with animal characters – kind of a cross between Fritz the Cat and Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds – which is where Satchmo paNDa came from, and I guess also the whole ‘realm of Spygenius’ thing, too.   

You have been very productive in recent years and you deliver consistent quality. How on earth is it possible that you are now delivering a record with songs that are even better?

Well that’s very kind of you to say so! I guess because the actual gestation period for all those songs was a lot longer than the release schedule! ‘Pacéphale and Man On The Sea were actually recorded in one long sprawling set of sessions over several years where we worked through a backlog of material that we’d built up, as well as on new songs that came along during that period – but once we’d put Man On The Sea to bed, we just sort of hit a purple patch where a lot of new songs came together pretty well pretty quickly – if they hadn’t we wouldn’t have put them out so soon – we don’t like to release stuff until it’s ready. I think that 2020/21 was such an intense time for us personally, that it kind of speeded things up. We’ll probably take things easier for the next couple of years…

And what is it like to read all those rave reviews?

It’s wonderful! Exceedingly pleasing! Most agreeable! Deeply gratifying!

Spygenius’s original mission was to write, record and perform original music to as good a standard as we could muster, to our own satisfaction, for as long we could get away with it, without really caring about what the world at large thought. But there’s this lovely rhyming couplet by Neil Hannon – “The writer writes for himself, not for you – a song is not a song until it’s listened to” – and what I take from that is that when you’re in the creative zone you have to follow your muse and not worry about – not even think about, really – what others’ are going to make of it… but at the same time, the creative process isn’t really done until someone who isn’t you hears what you’ve made and goes ‘yes!’… it doesn’t have to be a lot of people, you just have to connect with someone… but we’re getting a lot more of those ‘yesses’ now than ever before, and that is marvelous.

And we really have to give a bit thank you to Christina and Rex for this change in fortunes – before we joined Big Stir we’d released three albums (which are all really good, folks, and are still very much available!!!) but we were terrible at promoting ourselves – that’s all been transformed by the amazing efforts of the Big Stir team, they really get the message out there. Kudos to everyone!  

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