R & D (Risk & Disruption): Interview with Kevin Godley (part 1)

The following interview was conducted between Kevin Godley and myself via Skype last July (2018). It is part of an ongoing series I’ve been doing with recording artists whose work has had a considerable impact on the ways people make popular music today. The transcript shown here is the first half only (stay tuned for part two).

Kevin Godley is a polymath. He was one of the first artists to explore the studio-as-instrument paradigm in the early-to-mid seventies with his band 10cc, co-producing, co-writing, and performing each song in autonomous fashion within the band’s own multitrack recording studio.

After only four years together as 10cc – and having produced eight Top Ten UK singles (including two No. 1s), four Top Ten UK albums, and a US hit single (No.2) – Kevin and art-school chum Lol Creme split from the band to work as a duo. In addition to making innovative and, at times, challenging music together, Kevin and Lol found time over the next decade to instigate many diverse extra-musical projects including: a book lampooning the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (featuring their own illustrations); the development, manufacture, and marketing of the Gizmotron, a device that mechanically bows the strings of the electric guitar (notably used by such artists as Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page); TV commercials for corporate clients including Yellow Pages, Nissan, and Wrangler Jeans (as writer-directors); and a Hollywood screenplay.

Most notably perhaps, Godley & Creme helped pioneer the music-video format: writing-directing over fifty videos for artists as diverse as The Police, Elton John, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Yes. Since going solo in 1989, Kevin has not only expanded his music-video output to include such notable clients as Paul McCartney, U2, and The Beatles (as well as, further developing his TV commercial work), but has also developed the award-winning, iOS application Youdio: a free app that allows users to make music and video collaborations with anyone across the globe.

Most recently, Kevin has authored an eBook memoir, has been made an honourary Doctor of the Arts by Staffordshire University, has started an album of songs (Muscle Memory) co-written with ‘remote collaborators’ from around the world that he’s never met before, has joined the board of AAA games developer Blue Sock Studios, and, as  if that’s not enough, is currently making a feature film biography about Orson Welles.

Marshall Heiser: Kevin, thank you so very much for agreeing to talk today about the playful frame of mind and the role it plays in popular music and beyond. I’m delighted, as I said.

Kevin Godley: That’s all right. Thank you. It sounds like an interesting project. The playfulness in music, it’s very true.

MH: In many interviews you’ve done over the years, a particular word keeps popping up: ‘fun.’ Having fun appears to have been a major motivation in your creative life; it also seems to have influenced the direction you career has taken at times. Would you agree?

Godley: Yeah. I don’t know if fun is the right word. ‘Pleasure’ is probably an equally good word. I think it’s because, particularly, if we’re talking about music specifically, the making of music, you’re actually making something that’s intangible. It doesn’t exist. All that you can ever hope to do is create something that people can buy access to. It’s an interesting point. A friend of mine wrote a paper on this. You never actually own music, you only ever own access to it. Buying a record, or a CD, or a download, where’s the actual stuff itself? Essentially, when you’re making music you’re sculpting air. And that, to me, is insane. You’re constantly on your toes, and you’re constantly using your imagination to try and define something that’s indefinable. That is fun. That is pleasurable. If you manage to pull that off in any way, shape, or form, then you’ve done something worthwhile. I’ve somehow managed to do that and it gives me enormous pleasure [laughs].

MH: You said in a recent interview that you enjoy a bit of risk: that’s when things are the most fun. How are the two connected?

Godley: Probably a reward, I suppose. There’s something rewarding about creating something new that has an individuality about it. It seems pointless for me to aim to create something that someone else can probably do better than me. Why would I want to do that? So, subconsciously, it’s probably always been there. It probably came out of my art school training. I spent eight years at art college and the one valuable lesson that I learnt was to always try and push what you do. Don’t be happy with something because it fits and works. Always explore a little bit further. Jump in a little bit further. I do that automatically. If something sounds normal I try and find ways to fuck it up [laughs], because in the back of my mind something’s actually saying, ‘Well, what you’ve just done is OK, but somebody else could do that. Where’s your footprint in this? It could be so much more interesting.’ And I suppose that’s an art thing. It’s like, art should reflect who you are, as opposed to everything else that’s around. In the media that I work in there’s a lot of stuff that’s the same. Variations on a theme. Whereas, I always try and climb inside that, because it’s more enjoyable. If I come out the other end with something where I can say, ‘That sounds interesting. It works, but it doesn’t sound like anything else! It sounds like me,’ then it’s been a worthwhile exercise.

MH: So is the risk in facing the unknown?

Godley: To a degree yeah, but all I’m really doing is knowing that I’m appealing to the risk factor in me that needs to be satisfied. If I don’t satisfy that risk factor it’s not been a worthwhile exercise. I’m not one hundred percent sure why that exists.

MH: Are there times in creative practice when risk isn’t fun, or isn’t useful?

Godley: Yeah, when you’re up against the clock. I’ll give you a good example. Lol Creme and myself, when we left the band 10cc, made a concept album [Consequences, 1977], which was a huge risk on many levels. But I remember, we finished the first side of the album and got our management team in to listen to it. As per usual, we locked them into the studio control room, turned everything up to ‘eleven,’ and left them alone for twenty minutes. They emerged with glasses hanging off their faces and howling. We asked them what they thought. They said, ‘Wow!’ ‘That was stunning!’ ‘Never heard anything like that!’ ‘Incredible!’ And we felt proud, you know, and went back to work while they went into the live area of the studio to have a conversation. Unfortunately, there was a live mic in there and we could hear, ‘What the fuck was that!?’ ‘How are we going to sell this?’ ‘Argh! What are we going to do?’ ‘Does the word oven – and noose – mean anything?’ I think it’s probably in the book [Spacecake, Godley, 2015]. It’s like when people say, ‘It’s fabulous,’ but what they’re actually saying is, ‘We’ve no idea what the fuck is going on!’ That’s the unpleasant side of risk. Where you’ve done something and people just do not get it at all.

MH: You recently said that the great thing about technology is that it can be disruptive. Could you maybe expand upon that a little?

Godley: Yeah. Technology involves machines and things that I don’t really understand. But going way back into the mists of time when Lol Creme and I used to edit music videos analogue style, we were always going into the machine room, which was where all the brains of the editing equipment was, with screwdrivers and tweaking things. And people were horrified! Things were actually calibrated to do a specific job, but we were interested in seeing what happens if you fuck that up. Essentially, we were trying to create a situation that was as close to making music as possible, which, back then, meant picking up an instrument and playing it, which allowed mistakes to happen. Sometimes, mistakes are better than what you’re trying to get anyway, because it’s not coming from the same place. We were trying to see what happens if you disrupt something. We amplified the technology that exists by changing the brightness or changing the colours. I think, probably, the most significant thing we ever did was purely an experiment, and fuck knows how we got away with it, based on the thought that this will work. We did a music video for The Police called ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ (1983). We figured out if we played the track at double speed but filmed them at 50 frames [per second – approximately double the usual frame rate] then what we would actually get when the film came back was they’re moving in ‘slow-mo,’ but the words would be in real time. And it worked, kind of. We had to do it in sort of twenty-second increments. Now, that technology is standard. You can actually do that using various other bits of equipment. It’s that sense of searching for something that no one else has done yet, but you know in your mind’s eye it would look extraordinary. Something that’s quite normal now was extraordinary back then. It’s that constant exploration.

MH: One notable play scholar [Corinne Hutt, 1979] makes the differentiation between ‘exploratory’ behaviour and ‘play.’ She says that when children explore something, it’s their way of asking, ‘What does this thing do?’ In play the question becomes, ‘What can I do with this thing?’ How does that distinction relate to your experience?

Godley: A couple of things. It may sound odd, but the thing that keeps me fresh, and it also worked for Orson Welles strangely enough, is a modicum of ignorance, not knowing. There is so much information out there, you can find out about anything and everything. But not knowing what something is for, or not knowing how it’s supposed to work, can be beneficial to the process. A good example of this is, Lol and I again, we were doing a record called Freeze Frame (1979a) back in the day. At the recording studio where we were working, people would occasionally drop new pieces of equipment by to try out. And on this particular day, they dropped a thing by called a Harmoniser. But they’d also supplied a one-octave keyboard with it. There were no instructions, nothing. They just dropped it off and said, ‘Play with this!’ We had no idea what it was for, but we kind of figured out that if, for instance, I was to record a vocal that was on one note, we could then pass it through the keyboard and it could be played. This must have been 1979. And it worked incredibly well. So, it’s not knowing. It’s like, ‘Well, what is this for?’ If there’d been an instruction leaflet with it, we’d probably not have bothered. I remember seeing something recently, it was an interview with Steven Spielberg, and he said something like, ‘We’re all directors when we’re kids.’ We’re all directors because we pick up a toy like an aeroplane and go [makes a plane noise] and we’re looking at soldiers. We are directors. We’re looking at elements of the world in a particular way because, as you say, we want to use them. We want to be part of it in some strange way. So it’s that mad quest thing again. It’s like the element of surprise, ‘What is this? How does it work? I don’t care!’ ‘What can I do to it to make it work and provide me with what I need,’ is always the question. ‘How can it satisfy me?’ And out of that can come something that may, or may not, satisfy somebody else.

MH: Well, it certainly satisfied me as a teenager. That particular track was one of the key records for me from Godley and Creme.

Godley: Yeah, thank you, ‘I Pity Inanimate Objects’ (1979b).

MH: Paul McCartney once said in an interview that he doesn’t work for a living, he gets paid to play…

Godley: Yeah.

MH: …and there’s a play-creativity scholar, J. Nina Lieberman (1977), who calls artists the Practitioners of Playfulness. Is that a job description you can relate to?

Godley: Yeah, definitely. You work in a bank, you don’t play in a bank. If you did, I wouldn’t be banking with you. It’s a whole different mindset. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. It’s probably because we don’t know what we’re doing until we’ve done it, whereas, everything in the real world is finite, and definable, and tangible. You know, if I work in a bank, this is what I do. I count money and I give money to you, and this has to happen, this has to happen, and it’s an ordered world. In the art world nothing is ordered. It’s continuously in flux until something exists. It’s a crazy way to be, but you have to be a little crazy to be in it.

MH: Do think for 10cc it was a little bit like the bankers [Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman] and the artists [Godley and Creme]?

Godley: [Laughs] Not quite that bad. Although, people do divide it like that. I think it’s probably true to say two members of the band had a slightly more highly-tuned, commercial sensibility than we did. We were the fuck-ups because we came from art school. They were the professionals that did this for a living. We were all equally talented, but their sense of the real world was maybe slightly more attuned.

MH: OK. Do you think they were thinking about end results more than you two?

Godley: Maybe. Well, I think they had a sense of career, which we never did. I think there was a point where the band knew what the band was. There was a point where we had a modicum of success and, therefore, ‘This is what 10cc should be! The next thing we do must have a bit of this, and a bit of this, and a bit of the other.’ It makes perfect sense to me, but unfortunately, I don’t like it [laughs]. As you must have already gathered, the fun, the pleasure, is the element of surprise. What we come up with next shouldn’t always be defined at the beginning, it’s something that happens at the end. ‘Oh, we’ve got to write a funny one and a long one. Now, we’ve gotta do a big ballad. Oh Shit!’ It’s not a blank canvas anymore. In the real world that makes perfect sense, ‘OK, we can do that.’ And we did. But after we’d done it, it was like, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore’ [Laughs].

MH: Is that perhaps why Sheet Music (1974) is your favourite 10cc album? Because, things hadn’t been set in stone at that point. Things were still open-ended; you were still learning?

Godley: Yeah. We sort of made the first album [10cc, 1973] on instinct only, in a short amount of time, and we’d shut off the reflection process I think. For the first album, we were young, and we made an album in response to having a hit. We wrote and recorded it in about three weeks. There was no time to examine everything we did and hold it up against what we thought was good music. Back then, it was The Beatles or The Beach Boys, they were making what was known as ‘good music.’ Any new musician starting off, you always have your heroes and, to a degree, you ape them. But there was no time to do this. Whatever we poured onto tape was it and it just came straight out. That process of comparison never existed. On the second album, once we’d had a little bit more success, we just took that to the next stage using whatever taste and knowledge we’d acquired recording the first thing, but hadn’t yet reached that point where we knew who we were. And I didn’t want to ever know who we were! I just wanted to keep pushing stuff out there that was interesting without any recourse to a definition. And that, I think, worked spectacularly well on Sheet Music. Everything about it went up a few rungs up the ladder. Whereas, on [The] Original Soundtrack (1975d), which was also a great album, it was like, ‘Ah, we’re at home now. This is what we do!’ Again, it was unspoken, but for the next album, it was spoken about prior to doing it. ‘We need this one. We need a funny one. We need a long one,’ you know. Fuck!

MH: [rephrased question] In your autobiography Spacecake, you credit your fine-arts lecturer Bill Clarke with constantly pushing students out of their comfort zones: an experience you describe as having informed everything you’ve done ever since.

Godley: Big, big time! And fun. I mean that was fun! He was having fun, and we were having fun doing it. It was like a show, ‘OK, so you’re right handed. OK, paint with your left hand.’ ‘You usually use charcoal, there’s a brush.’ ‘You usually work on canvas, work on the paper, and do it on one leg.’ It was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ But OK, off you go, and eight times out of ten it would be shit, but some gears would be grinding in here, and in here [points to head]. ‘I know what he’s trying to do, he’s trying to push you into the unknown.’ The reason you’re at art college is you can draw, and you can do fuck-all else, and your parents decided to send you there because maybe you can be a graphic designer. But underneath all that, maybe, there’s something greater that you can do. That was the spirit of the guy!

MH: Right.

Godley: There was something else that I don’t think I mentioned in Spacecake that goes back to when I was very, very young. I always had a feeling that people were staring at me, and laughing at me, as a kid. I don’t know why, and it was probably bullshit, but I always resolved in the back of my head, ‘If you’re gonna be looking at me and staring at me, I’m gonna give you a fucking good reason for doing so!’ It was not a conscious thought, but now when people stare and look at me, I’m kinda aware it’s possibly because I’ve managed to do something that’s quite interesting. I’m not just a stupid little kid that looks like a twat. So, it’s a deep, deep, childhood psychological thing. Plus, exposure to Bill Clarke, and finding like-minded people to be friends with and work with. It’s interesting that when Lol and I were at college, we were at two different college, you were either a graphic designer, or an illustrator, or a sculptor, or a painter. You couldn’t do two things, let alone, a multiplicity of things. ‘People just don’t do that! You’re a musician, or you’re a painter. Which do you want to be?’ We were always, from the off, slightly left-of-centre. We were lucky in that we somehow managed to navigate a path through everything to a degree.

MH: Speaking of art school musicians, there’s a book that came out in 2010 about Syd Barrett called A Very Irregular Head (Chapman). It’s a well-researched and sensitive appraisal of both the man and his 1960s socio-cultural environment. After reading it, my impression was that, despite his profound mental-health issues, Syd seemed to be an innocent. It was his creative work that mattered. He lived for his art, whereas, pop stardom – and all it’s inherent pressures – held no attraction for him. Nonetheless, he demonstrated what might be called ‘a pathology of play’ (McDermott, 1991). That is, he was being playful in the wrong places and the wrong times: acting in ways that were destructive for both himself and his band’s career. So, play isn’t the creative be-all and end-all that some might suggest. All that being said, did you ever relate to, or have any sympathy for, Syd as an artist?

Godley: Well, yeah, to a degree, but you’re absolutely right, an artist lives in two worlds. There’s the world of what’s going on up here [points to head], which is obviously the world that Syd lived in, but he lived in one hundred percent by the sound of it. He didn’t inhabit this world at all. I sometimes have difficulty with this world, but I’m aware that I have to live in it. I occasionally pay a bill [laughs] and do something that belongs in this world. I have relationships with people. I’m married. I live somewhere. I quite enjoy aspects of the real world, but sitting down here and making music and filming things, and so on and so forth, is really where I feel happiest, in the world that doesn’t exist yet, in the world that I’m constantly conjuring. I think that’s another aspect of an artist’s life worth that may be worth examining. I feel that when I do what I do, I’m trying to make my personal world a little better. I’m saying that my world would be slightly better if this thing I’m making actually existed, and if that bit of film existed, my world that I see might be ever-so-slightly better. Maybe, you try and mend things in a way, subconsciously. Coming back to Syd. I think he just left this world completely. Probably had too much acid. I’ve never had acid, so I wouldn’t know. He just sort of ‘up sticks’ and left for the other world.

MH: Most musicians would agree, I think, that collaboration with others (especially in bands) involves many tacit expectations, unspoken roles, factions, and pecking orders. Could you talk about two different situations you’ve been involved in where (a) these elements were entirely unspoken, and compare that with a situation where (b) the rules of engagement were laid out openly and negotiated consciously.

Godley: Do you mean like role-playing, but in a group context?

MH: Yes.

Godley: [In 10cc] we never actually really spoke about that. Although, there was a sense of, ‘I’m this,’ and ‘I’m the other,’ but, generally speaking, the original band was only together for four years, and that was only starting to creep in towards the end of the four years, which is one of the reasons we left. For the most part it was an egoless situation. We created an environment whereby egos didn’t intrude too much. It was really all about the work. It was really all about, ‘Who’s going to sing this?’ So, the role-playing was more about, ‘Well you start. You try it first. You go in the studio.’ And someone would attempt to sing this song, and the others would stay in the control room. If it was shit, they’d hold up a sign that said, ‘Next!’

MH: Fantastic [laughs].

Godley: Like scoring figure skating, ‘Four out of ten!’ In other words, we tried everything and everyone. Everybody would get a shot, mainly vocals, because not everybody played every instrument, but mainly [for auditioning] vocals this process came into being. I would go in, and it wasn’t my key. So, ‘Next!’ Eric would try it, and it was in his key, ‘Right, you do it. But let’s all have a go after it,’ and it became self-evident which was going to work best. I suppose, the only time it became a little bit more obvious was when we were playing live. If you were drumming, you were at the back, and if you were up front and on the microphone, you’d be the front-person. There was a little bit of role-playing but nothing too detrimental I don’t think, until perhaps near the end, when we were successful. I suppose, everybody had a different idea of how much their own presence contributed to that success. But it’s not what sticks in my mind particularly.

MH: Do you think that it’s the recording studio environment that allows you to be a bit more fluid with the roles than in a live performance situation?

Godley: A recording studio is an instrument in itself. It’s there to help you bring whatever you’re doing to life. I think that our attitude was also borne out of the fact that we weren’t in the thick of it. We weren’t in London, we weren’t mixing with other people in big studios. Some big studios have maybe four or five different rooms with different sessions going on. There was no community, where we sat down and someone said, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ and I’d go, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ We were isolated and, in retrospect, that was probably a good thing. We were hard workers. We knuckled down, and just bashed away until there was a consensus that what we actually had was good.

MH: It is possible to be ‘in it thick of it’ and have a sense of ‘psychological distance’ even though you’ve got people constantly in your face?

Godley: I don’t like that. I mean, sometimes a certain degree of discipline is good for a project. Consequences is probably a good example of a failure of discipline. Because, we thought we were ‘god’s gift’ at that point, and we spent probably about fourteen to eighteen months in the studio, which doesn’t sound like a lot now, but back then it was like a lifetime. And we just kept on going, and kept on going, based on the notion that if we thought of it, it must be genius. But it was self-indulgent. And so, a discipline is extremely useful. You get used to a discipline much more in the visual arts or the media than I’ve [experienced] in sound. Because, essentially, when you’re writing and recording music, you’re not doing it for anybody else other than yourself. When you’re creating music video, even if you’re treating it as art up here [points to head], you’re actually creating a commercial entity to help sell a piece of music. It’s a different kettle of fish. But I’ve always found that a helpful thing, that you have to tick a number of different boxes, and you only have a finite amount of time to do it in. There are certain annoying things that happen. Like, you’re asked to write a treatment for a music video, and you’ve got a really great idea and they come back, ‘Oh, we’ve changed the track. We’re not releasing that one. We’re releasing this one.’ ‘What!?’ Stuff like that.

MH: How does that feel when you’ve put your heart and soul into something and it’s just flippantly discarded?

Godley: Oh! You want to punch them. The flipside of the coin is a project I’m currently working on. I’m doing an album, a solo album, and I’m doing it in a very unusual way. It’s a collaborative album via a website called Pledge Music and what I’ve done is ask people to send me pieces of instrumental music up to, say, 4½-five minutes. I’m picking maybe twelve of these, and I’m turning them into songs, writing them and performing songs, and that is a sort of remote version of collaboration that I’m finding incredibly satisfying. It’s like musical ‘Blind Date.’ They send me a piece of music in an email, I don’t read the email. I play the music, ‘That’s interesting. Can I do anything with that?’ ‘No. Next one,’ ‘Can I do something with that?’ ‘Yes,’ I do something with it, and then I look at the email, ‘Oh, I don’t know who you are, but you live in Norway.’ It’s fascinating-but-tricky, because I was sent 280 pieces of music [laughs], which is fabulous! I never anticipated anything like that, but it’s amazing to see what all these people do. The diversity is incredible. The thought processes that go into what they’ve sent me are incredible. I’ve been sent things that sound like they’ve been recorded on a cassette a mile away from the piano. I’ve been sent things that are insane. I’ve been sent things that are beautiful. Quite a lot of the stuff sounds very similar, because the tools that you can buy at a decent price these days are readily available. A lot of stuff has that particular sound, or the other particular sound, or a drum pattern. It’s a fascinating experience. I’ve met a lot of new people to work with, even though they live in America, or Norway, and Ireland, or wherever.


(c) 2018 Marshall Heiser. All rights reserved.


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