I caught up with Paul Armfield just as he was headed to Eurosonic and another festival in Rotterdam, but he kindly agreed to answer my questions on his return. I keeping that promise a strange coincidence was revealed as it seems Paul spent his early life but a couple of miles from me. But being better known as a resident of the Isle Of Wight than as a Brummie, that naturally is the focus of this interview. Paul’s song display a gift for a story, he’s clearly thoughtful and highly literate, which also makes for some interesting answers. So, read on…
Tell me a bit about growing up on the Isle of Wight. Does it have an insular feel? Were you aware of any difference with the mainland? With the benefit of hindsight, how do you think it shaped you?
Having lived in Birmingham up until the age of 10 I knew that life on the Island was very different. Ventnor, the town we moved to, is built on a hill with the downs above and the sea below, a perfect place for boyhood adventures. It was only as a teenager getting into music that I and my friends began to feel we were missing out by being on an Island, the venues, record shops and clothes shops of Portsmouth and Southampton became shrines of pilgrimage. But the more you leave the more you begin to appreciate that boat journey back, and any Islander will tell you that as the boat approaches you begin to slow down and relax and prepare to step back in time to a less frantic way of life. Sanctuary. It used to be the case that anyone with any get up and go would literally get up and go, and many of my friends went straight to Poly or Uni from school to never be seen again, staying behind felt a little like failure, but in the past 20 years that has changed somewhat and with several big festivals here, a few home-grown bands to be proud of, and various celebrities enjoying the unique beauty of the Island I’ve noticed there’s almost a kudos in staying or returning.
What were your early musical pleasures? Did you grow up in a musically aware environment or did you have to find your own?
My dad was an old Ted but with very eclectic tastes and as long as I can remember I would listen to his odd selection of records through enormous, bass-heavy headphones: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Sonny Boy Williamson, Dylan, Bo Diddley as well as a motley assortment of lesser-knowns such as Sandford Clark, The Preston Epps, Freddie Boom Boom Canon. Then there seemed to be a gap in his music buying that picked up again with the likes of Elton John, The Moody Blues, Queen and Black Sabbath (with whom I was on first name terms as they lived on the farm my Uncle worked and where we would visit each weekend, my cousins taking me to babysit at Ozzy’s house). And then there was my mother’s Sinatra records. I knew every pop and scratch of both their record collections. The first single I bought myself was Kate Bush’s ‘Wow’ and the first album Dean Friedman’s ‘Well Well Said The Rocking Chair’, I love them both still, thereafter my pocket money was reserved for punk records.
To follow that,I guess there is a common point where people start to become specific about tastes in music, usually through a shared understanding with friends in the early teens. Was this true for you and if so what shaped and influenced your tastes?
Yes, I remember it being very tribal around the age of 12/13, you were either a punk or a mod or a ted. Myself and a group of mates formed a punk band before we even had any instruments. It was all about the names- I remember being called variously ‘Brain Explosion’ and ‘Mongol Babies’. I wanted to play bass because Jean Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers and Paul Simonon of the Clash were the epitome of cool. But I could never stick to one thing and when synthesisers and more sartorial bands began to appear I was off.
When did you first start playing and writing songs? Was there a single event that made you think, “I want to do that”? Have you ever wanted to be… (enter name of your choice)?
I did my first gig as part of the punk band at 12 years old. Shortly after I joined as the third member of a band pretty much obsessed with the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees and as neither of the other two musicians sang, I did. When accused by a local fanzine of being nothing more than a covers band I went away and wrote a whole set of songs in a matter of weeks. I was pretty fearless then. When the drummer and guitarist couldn’t make a gig, I sat down with a drum machine and a reel to reel and recorded all their parts in a day and gigged that night without them.
How did the crew for the current record come together and is this a slice of the Isle of Wight’s musical talent?
Many people say the Island has more than it’s fair share of musical talent. I’m not sure that’s true but with its finite boundaries it certainly feels that way. What is true is that it’s a very fertile musical environment with plenty of opportunities to play and a very supportive community of musicians happy to give anyone a go. There’s not so many bands as musicians playing with each other on an ad-hoc basis. So I had played with all of the musicians on the record at one time or another. Each of the five days we spent in the studio I selected a different combination of players whose styles I thought would complement the song.
JC seems to have been a pretty constant companion, tell me more.
I’ve played with JC many times since my mid teens. Whereas I always had an eye on the charts, JC and his musical oppo Jake Rodrigues seldom listened to anything later than the 1930s (humourously, they once auditioned to play with Midge Ure, and when he played ‘Vienna’- neither of them had ever heard of it- despite that they got the job and spent 3 years touring with him as a trio) I just loved playing so was always happy to busk along with them. JC has been fortunate enough to make a living playing his own music in pubs (mostly just on the Island) most nights of the week. Very much grounded in roots and acoustic music he will always get members of the audience to play and his insistence to regularly put me on the spot really moved me on as a musician. For several years we would play as a duo every Monday night to very few people, it was a fantastic opportunity to each hone our songwriting skills and we would throw the gauntlet down each week with challenges to write a song about any given subject that came to mind. Coming from very different musical backgrounds we both got a great deal from each other and continue to do so. I can talk to him about music in a way that I can’t with anyone else, we have a very deep connection.
I read somewhere in you bio that you left for eastern Europe to find revolution. What was behind that? Did you find it? I may get myself into hot water here, but does it feel like the revolution has actually happened in the reverse way to the way it should have gone?
[pullquote]…they appointed the poet and supporter of music Vaclav Havel as their president- one of the first things he did was to appoint Frank Zappa as his cultural ambassador.[/pullquote]In my early 20s I found myself at a very low ebb (In hindsight I can see that much of the reason for this is because I wasn’t making music) depressed and with no idea of what I was doing in my life. A friend of mine had just found himself a job in Czechoslovakia (as it was then) which had just had the Velvet Revolution, I wasted no time time in joining him and enjoyed two years in Bratislava. It was the perfect thing to do- a fresh start for them and a fresh start for me. It also made me realise the power of music- everyone I spoke to who had been involved in the revolution were big fans of western music and especially the Beatles- those hippy ideals got past the iron curtain disguised as innocent pop songs. When those students who listened to those songs grew up and were in positions to make change those hippy ideals came into their own. The day after the revolution the Czechs did two things, they started a grafitti wall dedicated to John Lennon with the words ‘Give Peace A Chance’ writ large, and they appointed the poet and supporter of music Vaclav Havel as their president- one of the first things he did was to appoint Frank Zappa as his cultural ambassador.
Tell me about Germany too, you seem to have found an audience there?
My first album came out 10 years ago via a very successful German rap label called Groove Attack (for reasons we won’t go into here), it was such an unlikely pairing that it gained a lot of attention in the press and gave my career there a big kick start. I’ve been riding on that initial push ever since, there exists a fairly large network of small to medium venues across the country all run by music lovers happy to put on the likes of me. They look after their artists very well, it’s a pleasure to go there. The audiences are attentive and don’t mind performers who take themselves seriously, they listen closely to the lyrics and they love their vinyl.
In Migration, you talk about people finding their destinations in the margins and the folds of the maps. Are these the places that interest you?
Yes, I get bored of beautiful places, give me brutal socialist architecture and dereliction and I’m happy. I have a contrary nature and don’t enjoy crowds so want to go where others aren’t.
Does this apply to other areas of life? I’m thinking especially music and literature?
A little yes, as I say my contrary nature sends me into obscure corners. When I ran a bookstore I would never read the best-sellers, I thought it my duty to find hidden gems to recommend. I’m not sure if it’s a sense of adventure that makes me like this or if, as with many kids who feel left out of the club, I try always to make my own (willfully obscure) club beyond their boundaries.
When managing a bookshop did you read avidly. Are you able to define your tastes in literature, poetry and so forth? It’s probably unfair and impossible to answer, but what do you think the relationship between literature and music is? Does one rank more highly for you?
[pullquote]I think words are our bluntest tools for expression…I think melody can breathe freshness into our language and literally make it sing.[/pullquote]I’m not an avid reader but I do love words and language. I think words are our bluntest tools for expression as we use them so often. It’s very difficult to get someone’s attention with words, to create an impact. Words that have gone straight to my core have usually been accompanied by music, I think melody can breathe freshness into our language and literally make it sing.
To get back to the songwriting thing, how do you work? You seem to be telling stories, but in some ways they are more like fables with some little nugget contained therein. (Perhaps that just me and how I hear your songs!!)
I come from Gypsy stock on my mothers side and used to carry on the family tradition of reading tarot. I quickly realised that the way the cards work is the same way songs work: they tell tales that are true for anyone at any time and we each fill in the gaps with our own specifics. When I write I seldom start with an idea, a little bit of concentration or purposeful doodling is usually enough to come up with some starting point, a word, a phrase a chord change or a riff, and from there the song grows with a mixture of instinct, chance and craft. As it starts to take on a more definite form I then start to use my brain to fill in the specifics.
Music and literature combine most obviously for the Tennyson album, tell me more. I feel ignorant of the poet and his work, was it simply the Isle Of Wight connection that drew you to him? Is Up Here (the song) a nod to his pandeism?
I always felt a little ashamed that as a bookstore manager on the Isle of Wight I knew so little about Tennyson. I found it hard to find a way into his work, I couldn’t hear his voice, my attempts to put his words to music were an attempt to address that. That album was very much an exercise in that respect and also I wanted to see if I could make an album entirely on my own, playing all the instruments and recording and producing myself too, I doubt if I would have attempted that had I written the lyrics myself, I would have cared about it too much to risk ruining it.
In my review I described you as a glass half full type of person, is that true?
No. With the exception of my wife, I would say that I am the most realistic person I know. The glass is neither half-full, nor half-empty with me, I’ll be too busy thinking about what I can have to drink next.
The wisdom of age vs child like wonder – discuss. (both seem to be there throughout Up Here)
Yes, as with my answer to the last question, I approach middle age with the same happy realism as I do the glass. So on the album I’m looking at age and youth in equal measure. I hate nostalgia, for me there is no time like the present, however the likes of facebook throws up the occasional face from the past (sometimes my own) that catches you unawares. I find the passage of time and the ageing process fascinating, perhaps in a childlike way. I’ve always felt simultaneously naive and worldly which I guess is why I enjoy middle age so much.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Speed of Clouds
You Will Be Loved Again
2nd February 2014
Lexington (Support to Elephant Revival)
8th February 2014
The Union Record Store
8th February 2014
Music’s Not Dead Record Store
Bexhill On Sea (UK)
9th March 2014
26th April 2014
Newport IOW (UK)
Find Paul on:
Up Here is out now available via all good record stores.
Photo Credit: Hanna Pribitzer