Marc Almond

Russian Almond

With all these lifetime achievement awards that are handed out nowadays, I think it’s about time Marc Almond got one. After all, he’s provided us with some astonishingly good records with Soft Cell, and released some equally fine solo output, so I was delighted when he agreed to have a chat with me about his recent album (full of enchanting Russian romance songs) “Heart On Snow”, as well as his inception as the granddaddy of Acid House, false eyelashes and…er…TATU…? Read on.

AD: Hi Marc. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that I’ve just been on a website that’s dedicated to finding out “What kind of Marc Almond are you?”…

MA: Oh no! Those kind of things scare me. I NEVER visit those sites – they can be like traps and the next thing you know, you’re sitting in a whole nest of vipers.

AD: It wasn’t too bad actually. Not incriminating in any way. I was “Non-stop Erotic Cabaret Marc”…

MA: Haha, well…er…good for you…I think! Hmm..maybe I SHOULD go on this site – find out what kind of Marc Almond I am!

AD: Go on, you know you want to! Anyway, moving along to the proper interview questions: Russia seems to have become something of a second home for you lately. I think your recent “Heart On Snow” album was a brave project to take on, but to my ears you seem to have made a marvellous job of it. What convinced you to take the idea on in the first place, and what was it about these songs that made you want to tackle them?

MA: Ah. Well, that was all down to my extremely persistent producer, Misha Kucherenko, who badgered me for a whole year about it; Misha was a friend who I met in Russia whilst I was touring, and he gave me a CD of Russian romance songs. It really intrigued me, because the songs were often so decadent; there were many about the war and they were all great singers with so much soul, so when Misha suggested I should do an album of these songs I thought it was a fantastic idea. So I said yes. Then I began to have reservations about it and I kept thinking “How will this work?” and wondering whether I had the time or the energy to do it; but in the end I was just pestered so much that I gave in and agreed to have a go.

AD: Were you more restricted where artistic control was concerned though, as opposed to if you were making a solo or Soft Cell record?

MA: No, I had just about as much control as I could have done. The fact is though, that I wanted to use all the Russian musicians anyway, because I wanted it to sound Russian through and through. It was very economical as well! I had the chance of working with all these incredible native musicians and it really was just amazing. I had a full naval choir in St.Petersburg for instance, and a Russian gypsy singer. Those are experiences that I’ll never forget; but as far as artistic control was concerned, I was still able to say “Yes I like this” or “No, I don’t like that” and was part of the paring down program at the end. Maybe we lost some of the fine potting that way, but I think it worked.

AD: I agree. So what reaction have you had from the Russian public and press?

MA: It’s been mixed, but on the whole, better than I expected. There is a thought process that runs through the Russian music press along the lines of “Why would he do this? Why hasn’t he worked with TATU?”!
The thing is though, if I wanted to do a dance record, I COULD do a dance record, but when you’ve got the choice between that, and doing a duet with some of the oldest remaining Russian artists…well, really there’s no contest. I suppose doing something with TATU would have had a kind of camp, kitsch value, but I think I made the right choice being in the presence of a man who’d been pretty much the voice of Soviet Russia for the last 40 years or so, don’t you?

AD: I’d say that saved you from commercial suicide, yes…

MA: Thank you…but yes, there is quite a bit of snobbery and cynicism in the Russian music press, but the public liked it enough to make it 4th best selling album in Russia when it was released. I made it more for a Western audience really – to give them a sample of Russia.

AD: It’s certainly going to inspire a fair few people into taking a holiday there…

MA: I hope so, yes. I hope I’ve brought the right level of emotion to songs like “The Stork”, and conveyed the sense of loss from war that you can’t help but feel when you visit here. Of coure there is so much incredible architecture here as well. There’s a song on the album too by a chap called Boris Grovensikov, who lost his job as a lab assistant over here and had to work cleaning the streets. It’s about his disillusionment and disappointment in his own country.

AD: If we can just go back to the early days for a while, I always thought that “Non-stop Erotic Cabaret” was one of the best album titles ever, because it seemed to be poking fun at, what was back then, really quite a conservative music industry. Did you see yourselves as an antidote to that?

MA: We hoped we were, yes. We didn’t feel like we quite fitted in with the electronic scene, and neither did we fit with your Duran Durans or Spandau Ballets. We were kind of like the seedy underbelly of the North. We were what you found BEHIND the glamour, behind the façade - we were the peep show sleaziness that existed at that time. I think it’s because Dave and I came from very much a post punk background and bands like Cabaret Voltaire.

AD: So was it much of a surprise to you when “Tainted Love” became the best selling single of 1981?

MA: Oh we were shocked! Numb even. It was great to have the success, but on the flip side, we just became obnoxious brats after that! I mean, we found ourselves on the cover of “Flexi-Pop” wearing party hats for goodness sake, and that was exactly the kind of thing we’d been rallying against!

AD: I’ll never forget sitting watching you on “Top of the Pops” with my parents, and my dad going “What the hell is this? Who’s that poof? Is it a man or a woman?”…

MA: Hahaha, that must have been the “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” video, where I was wearing my false eyelashes under my dark glasses! I remember the tabloids all condemning us and saying we shouldn’t be such a bad influence on teenybop kids, and all these uptight record company people and journalists – fully grown adults – squirming in their seats when they saw us. The great thing is that the right people “got it”.

AD: Of course, you went on to make “Memorabilia”, which is widely regarded as the first ever techno record. How do you feel about being the “Godfather” of modern dance music?

MA: I think it is just great to be a part of something that’s influenced so many other people. It was the next kind of linear record – Acid House with a rapping bit over the top. It’s weird though, because the amount of records I’ve bought over the last ten years that have sampled “Memorabilia”…well, it’s just amazing…and flattering of course!

AD: You’ve worked with an incredible range of artists over your career – if you could pick one shining moment as the highlight, which would it be?

MA: Gosh! There’s so many! Well, I loved working with Gene Pitney, because I remembered watching him on “Ready Steady Go” when I was younger, so when I worked with him, it was such a special thing. Plus, the first time I met him was in Las Vegas – I think he put about one dollar in a slot machine and won 8,000 dollars from it immediately! I’d love to relive that moment, although I like the old Vegas better than the newer part. I’d suggest to anyone that visits to go and see the old, run down part.

AD: I heard your appearance in Mexico recently was rather shambolic…

MA: Oh God yes. I don’t like doing PA performances where you sing with a tape anyway, and the fact that the whole system packed up, and the microphones stopped working…well, that was just really embarrassing – an utter fiasco and disaster.

AD: A bit of an All About Eve moment, by all accounts…

MA: Oh yes, I love that film. (NB I got the impression that Marc didn’t realise I was referring to that infamous TOTP appearance here, so I moved on…)

AD: One thing I’ve always had an interest in is great lyrics, and not long ago you had a book published called “The End of New York” featuring your favourite prose and poems about the city’s nightlife. How important do YOU regard lyrics in your own music?

MA: Oh, VERY important, because I’ve always regarded myself as a storyteller as well as a performer. When you write…or perform a song, it’s all about the right lyrics. It’s all about convincing people. You do need that structure, and there has to be something interesting. When I write, I go through the process of cutting away any needless excess lyrics afterwards – I like simplicity you see. I don’t like to be too oblique.

AD: Whenever I try to write poems they turn out pretty silly. I can’t help it.

MA: Oh yes? Give me an example…

AD: Well, I wrote one called “This Is a Masterpiece”…

MA: Now that’s ASKING for trouble!

AD: It’s very silly…do you want to hear it?

MA: Go on then.

AD: (Tone clears throat) Ahem: “This is a masterpiece, this painting just here/ the one titled “Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear”/ What’s that you say? It’s been done before?/ You mean it’s for nothing I inflicted this gore/ on myself when I artfully cut my ear off?/ and you tell me NOW that some bloke called Van Gogh/ has beaten me to it? To critical acclaim?/ What about these Sunflowers?/ WHAT? He’s done the SAME?/ I might as well just point this gun at my head/ and he’s done that TOO? Oh well, thank f*ck HE’S dead!”

MA: Hahaha! That’s fantastic! Excellent! You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself!

AD: Thank you for the compliment, and thanks very much for the interview too.

MA: No problem, I really enjoyed talking to you. Bye.

And that was that. Well, actually that’s not true – Marc was such a nice bloke that I had enough output for 5 interviews! But I won’t bore you with that (though, given the guy’s excellent sense of humour, I doubt if it WOULD have bored you), and I’ll just say this: if you want a sophisticated, wonderfully chilled out and beautiful record, you need look no further than “Heart On Snow”. Go get it.

Interview and transcript; Tone E

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