- by Kevin Orton Release Date: Label:
The Loft were one of those great long-lost cult bands in the 1980s who were simply born at the wrong time and died at the wrong time. Along with R.E.M. and the Smiths, they were stubbornly at odds with the musical trends of their era with their grey days and jangly guitars. Frontman Pete Astor later formed The Weather Prophets, another great band helping to establish him as a songwriter's songwriter and an all too best kept secret.
Since The Weather Prophets split, he's continued to steadily release solo albums and cropped up in intruiguing side-projects like Ellis Island Sound and Wisdom of Harry. Over the last few years, however, Astor's kept a low profile and moved away from recording and performing, focusing on a career in academia. Fortunately, Astor has found his Muse again and has resurfaced with a gem of a new album, Spilt Milk. We managed to catch up with the indie auteur extraordinaire ask him a few on his ongoing career and new album.
It’s been a few years since your last solo effort, what inspired you to head into the studio and cut Spilt Milk?
I’ve really fallen totally back in love with writing and singing songs. I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent attitude to the writing songs and being a musician – it sometimes feels like it’s brought a lot of trouble into my world; it’s all there in Mistress of Song on Songbox. At that point I really felt like that was me done. The album was going to be called Gold Watch, but I was persuaded otherwise. Now I’ve made my peace with what I do as a musician – I’m in it for life now, there’s no escape! In the best possible way.
The jangling guitar on Spilt Milk has a gorgeous tone. What model are you playing? And have you had any preference for any particular model over the years?
I play a 70s’ G&L ASAT. It weighs a ton, but it always sounds good – whenever I borrow amps live, I just plug it in and go and it sounds fine. It also never goes out of tune! Also, just as important for the record is how well James understands and records electric guitar. He’s got a Music Man amp and always gets the tone exactly right. I think he played an old Gretsch on most of the album, which also sounds really good.
Growing up, what would you say were your greatest influences and inspirations Musically?
Oh, the Velvets, CBGBs stuff – my 33 1/3 about Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation sums up all my feelings on falling in love with that particular sound and attitude. Here’s the beginning of the book which I think sums it up pretty well: "Richard Hell was the one for me. He embodied exactly the right mixture of nihilism and ego that a sixteen year old needed. And he looked right. Like all the best rock and roll, here was someone - as we would all find out in the passage of time – who remained mired in the emotional onslaught that adolescence brings. And had no intention of doing anything other than continuing to wallow in its endless contradictions and rail against it with poise, poetry and an elegant sneer. Just another permanent adolescent, staring down the world. This was glamorous, elegant and damaged and signposted a universe of possibilities and I wanted in. It was love at first sight. It’s hard to say exactly when the love affair started, because before you’re really ready, so many things have to be in place… I think you could actually substitute whoever you wanted for Richard Hell – the music love affair is always pretty much the same, I’d say".
How different were the Loft and Weather Prophets creatively speaking, for you?
The Loft came together more organically, which gave us a strong creative push but also led to us imploding. The band started with Bill and Andy coming to see Andy’s friend Razzle (yes, the same guy that ended up in Hanoi Rocks!) playing drums in a band called The Fuck Pigs (or the Anal Dwarfs, I can’t remember). My band was supporting and Bill and Andy asked me to join their band as singer/guitarist. Over time I ended up being the songwriter and I think that made the dynamic a bit odd, because it started with me joining them and ending up in a different role. And then it all blew up because of our inability to properly communicate with each other. I certainly didn’t seem to have the ability to negotiate what I felt; instead I let my frustrations build and build until there was an explosion. By the time I was in the dressing room at the Hammersmith Palais, it was probably too late; before that, I would say to myself to try and express what I thought. But, unfortunately, me – and the rest of us – didn’t really acknowledge feelings in our day-to-day lives. The Weather Prophets were more planned, directed and definitely happier. I set it up in a clear way in terms of who did what it the group, which meant that the personal dynamics were really good. We had a brilliant time together, recording, touring and hanging out. But sometimes I do think that the tensions between people can make for good creative work.
A couple of numbers on Spilt Milk features a drum machine. What inspired your past forays in electronic Music with Wisdom of Harry and Ellis Island Sound?
The other key part of my musical tastes as they were forming was hearing (and seeing) Can – so I’ve always loved the drum box-directed groove. There’s always been that side of my interest in music – I loved the first wave of Drum and Bass in the early 90s – I used to go to Metalheadz, Speed, et al. So, that’s often seeped through.
1988’s The Weather Prophets Diesel River features a terrific Robert Johnson cover. 2005’s Hal’s Eggs, delved into reworking’s of Traditional Folk. Has early Blues and Folk been a large influence on you?
Oh yes, always go back to it – it’s where so much of the music we listen to and play comes from. My favourite is Mississippi John Hurt; I love the stuff that’s really gentle and hymnal-sounding – Washington Phillips; and the way that Furry Lewis and Skip James sing in such high, pure, gentle voices. More recently, Ted Hawkins did that too.
In between albums you have made a career for yourself as Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster. What has been the focus for your lecturing, writing and research?
I teach practical and theoretical modules, but in both cases, the most important thing for me is to be able to think, and think well, about music. I think all good music is made by people who are more than technicians. It’s all about ideas.
If my sources are correct, The Loft played NYC’s Popfest in 2015. How did that come about? Was this the original line up? And can we expect more NYC appearances in the future?
We were asked by the organizers and were very happy to go. With Slumberland doing the album in the States I should get over to play some shows…
Looking back on your past records, which are you most proud of?
I’m particularly fond of Torch Division by The Wisdom of Harry. But it’s like kids – there are no ‘favourites’. So, I love them all!
Looking ahead, can we expect more recording and live shows in the future?
Absolutely; I’m not going anywhere - I’m in it for the long haul now!