Former Adverts mainman TV SMITH, the hardest gigging man in punk rock showbiz, has just released his new ‘solo’ album ‘In The Arms Of My Enemy’. TV kindly found time while (inevitably) on tour to respond to Vive Le Punk’s questions.
VLP: Just in general terms, how would you compare ‘In The Arms Of My Enemy’ with ‘Misinformation Overload’?
“I think they both share a very strong selection of songs but have quite a different approach musically. ‘Arms’ is less reliant on electric rock guitar. On ‘Misinformation’ I played all the guitars myself, and it was a fairly straightforward rock sound, but on the new album I wanted to broaden the musical spectrum and integrate some more interesting instruments while still keeping the power and energy of the last album.
VLP: Haven’t you made a rod for your own back here? Just in terms of your prolific work as a solo performer, how on earth are you going to recreate some of those cross-current guitar lines on stage, or will you have to simplify them for performance? I’m presuming a lot of the lead lines are played by Tim Renwick (I have to say, stuff like ‘Open Up Your Heart’ (especially), ‘My Trojan Horse’ and ‘In The Arms Of My Enemy’ reminds me of Jimmy Wilsey’s work with Chris Isaak. There’s a definite country influence too. That should shock the punk nostalgics!
“Basically I don't try and recreate my albums on stage. In fact it's the other way round: I write the songs on acoustic guitar, then go out and road test them at gigs solo. By the time I come to record the songs I have a good idea of the way I want them to sound and I try and aim for that. I like having a full band on the records because I think you get more out of repeated listenings that way, whereas a solo record is not something I'd personally listen to very often. Luckily over the years I've built up a collection of musicians and friends who I can call on when I want to make a record, depending on the sound I'm after - people like Tim Renwick who I know understands my songs and can put them across with his playing. The guy is a genius and I think he's played some of his best ever guitar on this album.”
VLP: I noticed the unmistakable aroma of self-doubt on ‘I Wish I Could See Clearly'. I’ve always thought one of your songwriting strengths, going back through Adverts days and beyond, was in your ability to express confusion as much as certainty. You’re no stranger to phrasing a line of a lyric as an interrogative, are you?
“Well, if you're going to be honest in your lyrics you have to take on board the fact that you basically don't know what the fuck is going on. Anything else is just arrogance or self-deception.”
TV Smith in the Adverts days
VLP: Okay, other themes. ‘Get It Now’ – defiant, dance while your knees will still support you kind of thing – the album’s most optimistic song and a very different take on ‘consumption’ to that expressed in, say, ‘Clone Town’.
“Yeah, I've writtten a few songs around this theme and I have to keep coming back to it to make slight adjustments. I think this one fits in with songs like ‘The Future Used To Be Better’ from ‘Not A Bad Day’ and The Adverts' ‘We Who Wait’, among others. The idea of the song is: consumerism as a lifestyle is clearly destructive, but you have to remember to enjoy your own life while you have it. Most people want more all the time and forget to enjoy what they already have, so they wouldn't actually be capable of appreciating ‘more’ if they had it. I often find myself coming back to the same subjects when I'm writing songs. It's a bit like hammering down a plank - you get to one end and find the first nails have popped up so you have to go back and have another swing at them.”
VLP: ‘It’s Warming Up’ – it’s about that old Egyptian river de nile ain’t it? Was very pleased you just stuck to the line of taking the piss and not sneaking in some silly homily at the end.
“Heh heh! I just decided, for a joke, to make a blatant statement that I didn't actually believe myself: that mankind isn't responsible for global warming. There have been a few theories like that going around, and when one of them gets made public you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief - back in the gas guzzler, no need to bother with any more recycling! Life would be so much easier if we didn't have to be responsible so if someone tells us we're not responsible we're desperate to believe them.
VLP: ‘Backstage Bob’ – so how many of these phrases were genuine quotations? Because you’re a very warm performer, I would guess people see you as approachable offstage. But it sounds like you feel uncomfortable with unadulterated flattery as well as the falseness of the whole ‘backstage’ premise.
“This might shock you, but ‘Backstage Bob’ is actually totally sincere. It's about a fan who was a great friend and willing to help me out at gigs, give me lifts in his car, even researched publishers for my ‘Tour Diaries’ book because I didn't have time and would probably have never got round to doing it. He never wanted any thanks for it, he just said it was the least he could do to repay me for what my music gave him. When he died from a brain tumour a little over a year ago I decided to write a song for him. The only irony in it is that he would never have tried to “get backstage” - he just wasn't that kind of pushy type of person - and his name wasn't really Bob.”
VLP: Have you ever written a more musically complex song than ‘In The Arms Of My Enemy’? Some observations, which may of course be hugely wide of the mark – the lyric here reminded me of Justin’s early New Model Army work (he was very good at painting pictures of the slow death/suffocation of the individual), but also, to an extent, Mike Scott of the Waterboys (probably cos you’ve got all epic, like). I do think it works terrifically well though. I presume you do as well, hence making it the album’s title.
“I often get compared with Justin and Mike, I think it's fair to say we're fellow travellers. As for ‘most complicated song’, I think ‘I Looked At The Sun’ on the Adverts second album, and some of those Explorers songs must be in the running! The structure of ‘Arms’ isn't all that complex but the arrangement and musicianship on it is, and the lyrics are pretty devious. It's nice every now and then to stretch out a bit and not feel you have to get a song over with in three minutes.
VLP: And your voice sounds uncannily like Vi Subversa’s on ‘Open Up Your Heart’, strangely enough.
VLP: Are you, in terms of spirit and intent, the trojan horse of the title of the last track – is this what you do, effectively?
“Yes. Obviously when you're over fifty years old and still out there playing music with no particular mass appreciation of what you do there's a certain feeling that you're slipping your ideas into the culture undercover. Over the last few years I've been getting more and more people to gigs and selling more records than ever before but it's purely through word-of-mouth - there's no media push, no big business backing. Another reason that Trojan Horse is important to me is that it's a song I originally wrote and recorded with Tim Cross and Tim Renwick as a demo in the mid-‘80s, at a time when no one was interested in what I was doing and I'd pretty much slipped off the musical map, kicked out of the music business by the charlatans who run it. I always thought, one day I'll get this song our there and people will hear it...and now, my audience has found me again and it's the right time. To me, that song is a symbol of survival.
‘In the Arms of My Enemy’ is out now on Boss Tuneage.