Print Music Editor Richard Ainslie interviews Mark Kermode, ahead of his upcoming gig with The Dodge Brothers at Exeter Cavern
Your skiffle band is playing at Cavern on the 6th November, so my first question is why would someone want to make their own instruments to play?
It was a necessity really. When I was a kid I wanted to have an electric guitar – I was in love with Slade, and electric guitars were really expensive. They’re probably cheaper now but back then they were hundreds if not thousands of pounds, and I was a teenager and I didn’t have that kind of money. But I had an issue of practical electronics and there was an article that said you could build an electric guitar for under 30 quid. It was supposed to take two weeks but it ended up taking two years, and during the course of it, I learnt a lot about musical instruments, most importantly that they are just pieces of wood and string and brass, and you shouldn’t be frightened of them.
Do you think it’s a special part of the skiffle aesthetic – the homemade element?
Skiffle comes from jug bands and kazoo bands, and people who played with homemade instruments. That’s how we got skiffle in the UK. Ken Cole had been to New Orleans and seen spasm bands playing with homemade equipment and he brought that back. Before the rock and roll revolution, there was the skiffle revolution – so the Beatles started as a skiffle band, and famously Jenny Page. So it turns out I was always interested in skiffle, I just didn’t know it. In terms of The Dodge Brothers we all play bought instruments, except for Al who plays a washboard, but I had a double bass made for me out of a wardrobe for a long time. A man in Manchester called Les made it for me and it was great – it weighed a tonne though, it was more of a weapon than an instrument.
You’ve said that you have long wanted to be a pop star, why did you gravitate towards the blues and rockabilly music?
In terms of the gig we’re doing in Exeter, I do a talk beforehand about my book called How Does It Feel? about the ridiculous history of me being in bands all my life and then the Dodges play. What happened when I was younger, I thought you wanted to make music that’s very intense and angular, and bands I was in would go out of our way to make stuff that was frankly unlistenable. Our ethos was we’ve suffered for our art and now it’s your turn. Then I was in Edinburgh busking with the band that was then The Bottlers, and I remember seeing people smiling – which I had never experienced before. I’d thought that music was to be endured, not enjoyed, and I suddenly realised that ‘oh, its perfectly possible to make music that people like’. Once that had happened there was no looking back.
I’d thought that music was to be endured, not enjoyed, and I suddenly realised that ‘oh, its perfectly possible to make music that people like’
You’ve said that you have managed to get away with a lack of musical talent as a bassist, do you think you will make the transition to frontman?
Well, I made the transition to bassist. As a kid, I thought I’d be the guitarist and the singer and I’d be out front, that was how I imagined it because I was, like every other teenager, a raging narcissist. Then I discovered that actually I wanted to hide behind other people and playing the bass you can get away with an awful lot. Most people start out thinking they’re a frontman and then find out that they’re not. If I fronted a band, the band wouldn’t be very good, but if I was standing at the back playing bass then the rest of the band can be great and I can ride in on their coattails. Me and Al laugh about the fact that Mike and Aly are doing all the hard work and we’re just going boom-chicka-boom-chicka-boom in the background.
Has it been strange going from playing for fun to playing the Albert Hall?
Its only strange in as much as I can’t quite believe it’s happening. My philosophy has been that I don’t say no to anything, musically. My book begins with me on stage at the Royal Philharmonic with a chromatic harmonica and the BBC concert orchestra. I’m meant to be playing a tune in front of a massive audience, and I don’t know how to do it. The book starts there and goes back to when I built an electric guitar and decided I could play anything. I can’t, incidentally, but I had a philosophy that if somebody asked if I could play something then I’d say yes, by which I meant not yet. If you said to me ‘can you play the tuba?’, I’d say not yet. But give me a week, how hard can it be? What I discovered with most musical instruments it’s quite easy to be adequate, it’s very very difficult to be good. But that’s fine because I’m not actually good at anything, but I’m adequate at many things, and there are some instruments that are particularly forgiving – the bass is one of them. I’ve never let an inability to do something stop me from doing it, ask anybody who’s heard me on the radio.
With the Dodge Brothers’ second album recorded at Sun Studios, you were trying to get an authentic 50’s rockabilly sound. How did you go about that?
The first thing was recording in Sun. The studio there is a tiny little room, whereas studios now tend to be more spacious so you can separate the instruments. In Sun Studios you can’t separate anything, everyone plays round a microphone at the same time. Part of it is the room, part is how you do it. If you stand in a room unaltered since the 50s and you play as they did in the 50s, and you record it on equipment they used in the 1950s, guess what it sounds like the 50s. That was a revelation – we could have recorded everything digitally in a high tech studio then spent a long time trying to reproduce it, or we could just go to Sun and do it.
If you said to me ‘can you play the tuba?’, I’d say not yet. But give me a week, how hard can it be?
Listening through the Sun album you’ve accurately captured the southern blues aesthetic, what do you think are the essential images when writing the songs?
We used to say that we write songs about transport and homicide and that was the original joke. When Mike and I started a band we were playing the old American songbook. At some point I thought we should play our own songs, but it didn’t fit with the old material. We used to say we wouldn’t play anything recorded after 1956. So I wondered if I could write something that sounds old, so I wrote a song and then next time I saw Mike I sung it to him. Very simple, straightforward twelve bar blues. I told him it was called ‘Church House Blues’ and he went away and looked it up on the internet and he couldn’t find it anywhere. He called me up and said “I can’t find this song online, did you write it?” and I said that I’d answer that question if he thought there was a possibility that I didn’t. And I was trying to prove that if you think of all the elements you can write new old songs. We started with transport and homicide, alcohol, and heartbreak. We asked, “how would you write a song that starts with ‘I woke up this morning and…’?”.
Do you think you have to be a little drunk to play skiffle?
I don’t think you have to be, when I was in the railtown bottlers and we were the most successful skiffle band in the north-west metropolitan area (and I know how that sounds) we used to go busking – and busking would involve drinking. I always thought we sounded better the more we drank but I’m sure that’s not true. It’s more about how that kind of music comes out of pubs, it’s street music. I’m sure you can play skiffle sober, I’m just not sure why you’d want to.
Your book is all about your musical misadventures up to now, what is the next misadventure?
We’re in a weird position now because it’s worked out quite well. We’ve recorded the third album, we’re gigging, and we accompany silent movies. Now I’d really like to release our albums on vinyl. All ours have been on CD until now, but in all my career there’s only ever been one vinyl record I’ve played on, so we talked about reissuing The Dodge Brothers’ albums as records. I said why don’t we release one of them as a collection of shellac 78’s with 10 tracks on each side, but we did the maths and it would have cost £200 per record! I would still love to have a Dodge Brothers album on vinyl though.