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Acoustic Ladyland Interview With Pete Wareham, conducted by Roy Marmelstein and Robert Miles

Acoustic Ladyland are at the forefront of contemporary British Jazz. The band, whose first album 'Camouflage' was based on Jimi Hendrix songs, and who went on to fuse Jazz and Punk in their second album 'Last Chance Disco', have wowed audiences all over the world and won great critical acclaim.

We met with Pete Wareham, saxophonist and founder of the band, and his wife, Max who also writes lyrics for the band, for tea at Suburb, an independent coffee shop in London's Covent Garden.

ROB: How was Acoustic Ladyland formed?

Well, Seb (Rochford, the band's afro-headed drummer) was already playing in my band, my previous band, and I was already playing in Polar Bear and then Tom Herbert had joined Polar Bear a few months before, and I had known Tom from college and Tom Cawley have been playing for years and Max lived with his wife so we all kinda knew each other from hanging out really and playing together.

ROB: Your first album, Camouflage was very relaxing and low tempo and your second album, Last Chance Disco was very up-beat and intense. What's next, where do you go from here?

The next one is kind of, well, in between. The whole process up till now was taking vocal music and making it instrumental basically with all the Hendrix things... not the whole process but... Max writes a lot of lyrics... I was thinking why do people love certain tunes so much and not others and it must sort of be because the melodies are so good and more simple. So the thing I got from the Hendrix thing was playing the saxophone in a way that your only rhythmic parameter is the syllables of the songs. So that kind of gave me a sense of melody that I hadn't... before, it had always been quite technical and then suddenly it was all stretched out so I thought “oh wow let's try and develop that” so when Max started writing lyrics and we started thinking let's write some songs that you play the words on the saxophone and carry that going. So this album, actually we got it further and we're singing now... well, I'm singing... wait, we're both singing.

MAX: I don't really sing.

About half the album's vocal on this new album.

ROY : When will the new album be released?


ROY : Does it have a name?

Skinny Grin.

ROY : Why ‘Skinny Grin'?

It's a name of a song. I've got this painting, a little postcard from the Tate, just this expressionist sort of painting and I was looking at it one day and these words came into my head so I wrote this song and it's called Skinny Grin and that's the name of the album as well.

MAX: It's not from the Tate, he got it from New York.

Did I? Sorry.

ROB: Going back to 'Last Chance Disco', what drove you into trying to mix both punk and jazz?

It wasn't like a decision to play punk music, I basically got really frustrated with Jazz and how everyone has to be so qualified and you feel that you are never quite qualified enough, you're never quite good enough and there's this whole ethic and fun of punk where you just sort of go “fuck it, let's just do it and have fun” and I felt that Jazz really needed that. I felt it really needed someone to go “just fucking whatever” just playing for fun... not that we weren't doing that already, but I felt that I wasn't personally addressing that side of things.

Having done so much study into it, I felt in this shadow of this ideal in my mind… I mean, I can only ever speak personally… I felt that however much practice I did and however hard I worked, I was never good enough and then I got to this point thinking that's not what it is about, let's just go madness and have fun, y'know?

ROY : Were you pleased with the response to that?

Yeah, I was. It was kinda like... well, the only reason why I did the Hendrix thing was to find a way to bring my love to guitar music into Jazz and to me, he was kind of... an icon of guitar music. He is a symbol of guitar music and that's why I kinda chose him and from that I discovered a kind of sound, we collectively found another way of bringing the guitar music into it.

ROY : How do you go about writing a new song? Do you score it or improvise around a theme?

I try every which way, I just try to mix it up.

ROY : Is there a way that you feel works best?

I try to use a different technique every time I think. We've done a few songs where Max has written the lyrics and I've kinda tried to get the melody in my head as quick as I can and do it as quickly and as spontaneously as I can and other songs have just been real slow, just picking over things really really slowly. Some things come in one burst, some things I take a month over. It started off trying to find the best technique, going from technique to technique and trying to find…I was thinking that if only I could find the formula I'll be sorted and I'll just sit down and knock them out but actually in the course of time I began to realise that I actually prefer not really knowing what's the best formula and having to always completely learn from scratch how to write.

ROB: What prompts your composition?

All kinds of different things really. Something I hear on the radio, a certain emotion or a certain atmosphere. Quite often it is other people's music or a poem or some lyrics that Max has written and I read it and get the rhythm from it and get the melody and it goes from there... all sorts of different things…

ROY : When you perform the songs live, do they vary between performances? Does it ever get boring, doing the same song over and over again?

Well, the writing's always the same obviously but yeah, there is quite a lot of improvisation... it never gets boring. We do know which elements to keep the same and which elements to vary... you don't want to lose the directness. I think it's a problem with Jazz sometimes, it's also one of the nice things about it, being able to embellish melody and stuff and I think sometimes the directness can get lost…

ROY : Do you feel constrained by knowing people listened to a CD and expect to hear the song in a certain way?

I don't thing anyone expects us to play in some certain why. I think people expect us to do something they aren't expecting. At least, I hope they are.

ROB: What is Jazz?

No, I can't answer that.

ROB: Do you think that the F-IRE Collective, which you are an active part of, will have an impact as a Jazz movement on the future direction of Jazz?

I hope so. The thing about the F-IRE collective was that we were in a situation where we were all playing in each other's bands and playing each other's nights and none of us really knew what to do because none of us fitted particularly neatly into a particular genre, so a venue that specialises in a certain genre couldn't fit us in. So we decided the best thing to do would be to create our own context. Say, you have a venue that wouldn't be able to fit us into a normal night so we do a series of F-IRE nights and basically invent a context so we could exist. It has become a little bit more formalised than how it was at first because they've had to form a record company and they had to go that way but... I like being on my own really, I like the sense... not that I don't acknowledge other people's help because I wouldn't have got anywhere without... I'm always turning to people for help all the time and I have a very collaborative approach… but with the collective as a whole, I just wanted to make sure that my band wouldn't get kind of... would always be seen on its own as opposed to being seen as a part of something else. It's quite a subtle thing to put but nonetheless... it's been fantastic to be involved with all those people and I think we've all helped each other. It's been great in an informal kind of way.

ROB: Do you literally just write the music and hand it to the other members?

We sit in rehearsals and I give them all the parts and we work on things and it changes massively. That's one of the things that apparently makes our band unique, according to the other guys in the band, that I write these songs and then anything that they want to do gets done, or it gets tried at least because I think that ultimately the most important thing for me is if the idea sounds strong. It doesn't matter who has come up with the idea as long as the idea sounds strong. So we'll have tunes that get completely dropped or completely rewritten and I'm not allowed to use. If it was just me, saying “no, do it my way” then it would have been crap, we wouldn't have got anywhere. Some of the ideas I had, I think, christ, thank god the guys said no and I get to take all the credit for it, it's brilliant.

ROY : What music are you listening to now?

I just bought the new Scott Walker album, which is quite old, I'm quite into that... I've been listening to the Howling Bells recently, I like them. They're quite a good band. What else have I been listening to of late? I haven't been listening to an awful lot of music of late. Lots of David Bowie.


Lots of Bowie … we've just finished mastering the new album the day before yesterday and we had to make sure everything was finalised into approval and get everything fine. So I've been listening to that a lot and trying to rest in between so I haven't been listening to an awful lot of music.

ROB: What do you think about the effects of new technology on music?

I don't think it's anything new, I think it has been going on since the dawn of time. Technology is just relative, isn't it? I think even the Victorians would probably have had an argument of what they think about this new instrument that's been developed. There's always something that appears like a fad. I think that quite often these things serve a really useful purpose because they make you realise the value of stuff that is a bit more lasting. I'm a real believer in pop and the high ideal of pop, that's one of the reasons why I'm kinda pursuing this path. Because I really believe that you can have something that's really substantial and really disposable at the same time and I really like that. Without the things that are really disposable and the things that are really substantial, you wouldn't be able to find the middle ground. And it's really weird, like Take That and stuff... my sister was really into them when I was a kid and now they've got some weird cult status…

MAX: But I love Take That. I love Robbie Williams. Still do.

ROY : To what extent do you think music represents the time in which it was made?

It depends on the intention of the people who make it. If you listen to an album by The Thrills you wouldn't think they were trying to express something contemporary would you? To me they are trying to recreate a kind of AC/DC sort of thing and I think that they wouldn't have been doing that if it wasn't hip to do that at the time... it depends on the intention of the people.

ROY : And your music?

I think it's too difficult a thing for a musician to enter into. If I'm gonna do something that's really now, what's now? Is it me sitting in my living room? It could be... the thing is, some people might be able to do that but I don't think I have enough of a grasp of the general Zeitgeist in order to be able to express it, I will just do what I like and try not to be contrived about it. It just happens to come out sounding pretty contemporary. I think there are some bands that have deliberately done something retro, deliberately done something because a certain marketing person said that 1976 is hip this year, do something 1976. You can hear that... I would hope that most people would say the same thing, they do what they like, they do what they feel and hopefully that has some sort of contemporary resonance.

ROB: We've got this question here. Why create?

Why not? It's just an urge isn't it? It's something that you just feel like doing. I think it's something you do when you're a kid, just sit and draw and colour things in and if you get a space to carry that on, I guess you just do.

ROY : Do you see the creation of music as a selfish or as a selfless behaviour? Do you write with an audience in mind or purely for self-expression?

I think the initial impulse is a selfish one, you want to fulfil this urge you have but then the desire to develop it and make it as good as possible and as appealing and as enjoyable as possible is a selfless one. Otherwise, you could just sit and do something indulgently for hours on end and don't give a shit whether people like it or not but there comes a point where you have to rein that in so that people can digest it and so you really get your point across to people clearly and without anything distracting. You really need to think about how people will perceive it, that's what we have to give over. If you wouldn't have had that, the quality of what you'll do would be lower.

ROB: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Just be really, really organised and don't take anyone's opinion as read. Anyone in the business, anyone who says "don't try" and "oh, you're never gonna get anywhere doing that", just don't believe them, don't believe anything you hear at all. Just do what you think and if someone says “you can't do this”, just say “well I'll prove to you I can”. Just be really organised and don't listen to any adults. Organisation is the key to it all. Be ready for anything; always be at least six months ahead, at least.

ROY : We usually round up with five random questions.

Random questions? Should I give you random answers?

ROY : You can if you want to …

I just finished reading The Dice Man, it's a classic about this psychiatrist who gets bored of the confines of his life so he decides to give his entire life to the dice and he comes up with all these different options and throws a dice and ends up trying to create a completely random world. He achieves what he wanted to achieve which is to live a completely random life.

ROY : Right. Well, tell us a joke.

How much does a Cockney pay for his shampoo?

ROY : I don't know... how much does he pay?


ROY : Ha! What do you like the most about yourself?

My wife.

MAX: Awww... That's a sweet thing to say.

ROY : What do you dislike the most about yourself?

My wife. Nah... hmmm... selfishness.

ROY : Complete this sentence, you are happiest when…

Just having written a bit of music that I really feel good about.

ROY : If you had an unlimited amount of money to pursue a project of your choice, what would it be?

I would buy a building in a really cool part of town and start a massive concert venue, gallery, bookshop, cafe, record company, recording space, rehearsal studio. Everything in one spot, in the middle of town.