“I'm fast awake in my own need. . .”

July 2005
by Paul Culnane
A Chalkhills Exclusive

a cyber-conversation with Steve Somerset

Steve Somerset is a London-based artist who has distinguished himself in a variety of musically related pursuits. He kindly consented to conduct this Q&A session with me via e-mail, and in it, we discover the many facets of his interesting career.

Hello Steve, Paul here with some toe-curlers for you! I trust this finds you well and happy. On behalf of our readers, let me thank you in advance for giving some of your time. I'd like to divide the questions into three main categories, if that's okay? Here we go. . .

The videos

Paul Culnane [PC]: I gather one of your earlier career incarnations was in music video production, mainly with Kevin Godley's & Lol Creme's production company (called Medialab). There's a kinda Godley & Creme "showreel" called ‘History Mix’. . .

Steve Somerset [SS]: Oh my God History Mix...That was an album and a video put together to celebrate 25 years of Kev and Lol working together. There are clips of every video they had done up to that point in it. If you look very closely there's footage of an 8mm horror film that Kevin made as a teenager. That's where he met Lol, he cast him to play The Hunchback in his production of Dracula!

But we were editing the video for ‘This Time’ by INXS in one studio and Kev and Lol were doing ‘History Mix’ in the other. Suddenly Kev rushes in and says to me "Here Steve you know ‘Life Is A Minestrone’ get in here now". So I went into the other studio and I'm in that shot that zooms out of the TV to sing the song. The whole thing is so solarized you can't see me. My own Mother wouldn't have known I was there. In the version of ‘Cry’ that's on there too the woman sobbing at the end was the only model that didn't make into the actual video for ‘Cry’. Even Gonzo and Miss Piggy make an appearance, Jim Henson was shooting in the same studio. Bloody hell! It's all coming back to me now!

PC: Ha ha. I looked for you in the solarized bit, and it's only a guess mind you: is that you behind Lol's right shoulder? There's a few blokes and a few girls — it's really hard to tell, as you say. Of course, those transmogrifying faces in ‘Cry’ — that was an early defining moment in video technique, wasn't it? Fantastic! Well, how would you describe your role on these video clips — I mean, is it jack-of-all-trades stuff?

SS: I'm in there somewhere Paul. Screen left I think — very left! I think my elbow was very good in it. If there was an award for best elbow in a music video it would be mine! ‘Cry’ was very interesting. The original idea for that promo was to film a specially choreographed routine by Tourville and Dean, Olympic Ice Dancing champions at the time. It was to be filmed with moving cameras on the ice and would have looked pretty spectacular but it would have cost a fortune and Kev and Lol as musicians didn't command the kind of budget that some of their clients did. One day someone in the office was photocopying faces from a model agency when the photocopier jammed. When the offending paper was removed it actually had two faces blended together. Hey presto! That's how ‘Cry’ was born. Also there's nothing digital there, it's all old fashioned wipes and dissolves. It was a very creative atmosphere at Medialab . We all threw ideas into the pot. There was a creative team of four and we would work in teams of two. Tracks would be dished out and we, working on our own and then later with the director, would come up with a concept for the song.

PC: Were there any projects you particularly enjoyed working on, or artists you liked working with? You mentioned that INXS clip to me earlier, but there were heaps that Kev and Lol made clips for — The Police, that naughty Duran one with the iced nipples and stuff, Frankie Goes To Hollywood (‘Two Tribes’, where Reagan and Breznev are having serious fisticuffs), 10cc, Sting, Yes, Toyah Wilcox, Go West, Quo (!), Visage, Culture Club, er, Howard Jones. As well as Kev & Lol's own clips of course. Chroma-key galore!

SS: I arrived at Medialab around the time of ‘Cry’ and I have to say my fondest memories are of working with INXS on ‘This Time’. That was my first assignment there. They were not terribly well known in the UK and their previous videos were very good but a bit arty and I think the label wanted to promote them as a hot ticket live in the States. Just how good a live band they actually were I discovered a couple of days after I met them when they invited me to a rehearsal at Nomis Studios in West London. Michael wasn't feeling too well and he sat on a sofa between me and my girlfriend facing the band. We were treated to their entire set, a private show just for us! I remember the first thing they played was ‘Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down A Mountain)’ and it just blew me away. Later the band were working on a cover version of Bob Marley's ‘Could You Be Loved’. I don't think they did it because Michael wasn't that keen but it was pretty funky as I recall. But back to the video... Vari lights were very new then and the manufacturers gave us hundreds of the things to play with. It was shot over three days in Bray Studio where they used to shoot all the Hammer Horror Films. Recently I walked into a shop and ‘This Time’ came on and it took me right back I had shivers down the spine and I swear I could smell those smoke machines. Three days listening to one track over and over ingrains itself into your brain. I also got to direct about thirty seconds of it too. I did the second verse with the tracking shot of Michael walking across the stage. Also there was a rumour that their road manager got jiggy with the catering girl behind the stage as we were shooting. Sex and chips and rock 'n' roll! But it was a great time and we would go and see the band whenever they rolled into town. Next time I met them they were gigging at the Marquee Club (the original one in Wardour Street) next it was Hammersmith Odeon it just got bigger and bigger and that was exciting to see. We would often go back to the hotel after gigs. Michael nearly got chucked out one night for playing James Brown very loud! Then when ‘Kick’ came out they became enormous. Oh and if Jon Farris ever reads this can I have my Peter Sellers book back please?

Some of the INXS boys, with Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, along the time that they and Steve made the ‘This Time’ video

PC: I'll pass the message along to Jon if I can. Peter Sellers, eh? A real hero for me. Let me tell you buddy, I used to be a delivery boy, distributing cakes and pavlovas and suchlike. One day, I came along to the Park-Royal Inn, just to deliver the cakes. Now, there they were, the INXS guys. I said "hi, sorry I missed your concert". Jonny invited me up into their suite, these guys were so sweet (oh, that kinda rhymes). There were girls galore, it was amazing. And, y'know, we got talking and we shared a spliff.

Now, moving further along to this year. You were commissioned to create a coupla videos to accompany a forthcoming XTC box set of their ‘Apple Venus’ stuff, to be displayed on their website. But, disappointingly that project has since been nixed. Are you able to tell us why? And how far did you get into it before it was pulled?

SS: Ha Ha I would love to tell you the story there but if I did I'm afraid I'd have to kill you! But I have to say it would make an article in itself... next time maybe?

PC: Seems you haven't had much joy making films for our Swindon friends! You did a short film script treatment based on the ‘25 O'Clock’ EP by XTC's psychedelic alter ego, The Dukes Of Stratosphear, but that never came to fruition either. Can you give us a precis, or must we wait to read the script itself, which you're currently offering for sale as a limited collector's edition? I mean, ever since I first heard about this project, I was very excited (there are lots of Dukes freaks at large, you know)

SS: Yes that's true XTC and videos, with or without my involvement, seem to be tortuous for all concerned. ‘25 O'Clock’ started life as another Medialab project. We were asked to come up with idea for a long form music video and I thought the Dukes of Stratosphear would be ideal for a video treatment. Being a huge fan of Dick Lester's I had always wanted to make a sixties movie and this was my chance. It was about to go into production when Medialab began to have financial problems and the project was cancelled. But I did walk away with the script and although Andy Partridge's interest waned over the years I continued to try and get the project back on the tracks. Over the years I've added to the script considerably and we are now talking feature rather than a short. The most recent activity came about when it almost became an animated film. A medium I still think would suit it well. But it is so hard to get finance for a project. I think in the old days you could turn up at the BBC with your idea and some chap would say "jolly good old chum" and you would be away. This was extremely tough, you keep doing the rounds of meetings and presentations but without someone putting up some development money you just run out of steam. But I tried, God knows I tried. Okay here's a quick synopsis:- Uncle Alfred, an inventor, makes a 25 hour clock. This inspires his nephew who is in a band (The Dukes Of Stratosphear) to write a song and name their next album ‘25 O'Clock’. The group appear on television performing the title tracks, this is picked up by The Ministry of Time where Grand Master Time (GMT) decrees that they are anarchists trying to disrupt the fabric of time. Still with me?

PC: Yes, I'm drooling!

SS: He then sends his Minute Men in their Mole Machine (giant grandfather clocks with drilling screws to burrow beneath the earth) to get the clock back what follows is a psychedelic chase movie in which a splendid time is guaranteed for all! The reason I made the script available was because it was twenty years since I began the project and I wanted to share the story so that fans could go away and make the movie in their heads.

Extremely rare out-take from the animated film treatment of ‘25 O'Clock’. Here's "Red" and "John".

PC: Oh well, yummo Steve. Do you foresee further work in the music video field, or are you more inclined towards creating your own actual music these days?

SS: I'm an ideas person and I still love working in video. I'm very pleased to have worked during ‘The Golden Age’ of pop video. It was an experience I wouldn't have swapped for the world. I have written a movie script based upon my time during the Medialab years. John Gaydon the managing director of Medialab read it and thanked me for filling in a few gaps in his memory! One day I may get that made too! But the editing system I have on my computer is better than the studios I worked in twenty years ago so I guess I'll always be messing around with video one way or another.

PC: All I can say there is, "more power to you matey!"

The music

PC: For the benefit of those who don't know, last year you put together a CD ‘The Wish List’, to celebrate, and raise funds for, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, who have been established now for 50 years. It's a splendid collection of songs, and coheres really well. Now, how did you muster that outstanding roster of performers (including the aforementioned Dukes — re-forming after 15 years; Justin Hayward; Stephen Duffy & the Lilac Time; Phil Thornalley — a favourite producer/engineer of mine — Martin Newell; Steve Hogarth; Harold Budd and Peter Blegvad) to participate? Must've been a logistical headache in your role as executive producer?

SS: For me in putting the album together was a steep learning curve. Not only was I dealing with the music and the artists but also the sleeve design, pressing, etc. The difficulty was co-ordinating everything. Synchronising rock 'n' roll clocks is tough. Yes I got the Dukes to reform but were they in the studio at the same time. Oh no. I'd met Stephen Duffy a couple of times and had beaten him at table tennis in RAK studios, so I guess it was time to collect my prize. The song he gave me was superb, I couldn't believe he gave up such a fab track for our album. I'd been a huge fan of Justin Hayward's songwriting and I was delighted when he agreed to come on board. But I just badgered every one with telephone calls and e-mails. The magical thing was everyone's contribution just fell into place and when I had all the tracks, sequencing them was easy.

It was a lot of work and very draining. It took about nine months in all but once baby ‘Wish List’ was born I certainly forgot about all the problems I'd encountered during its creation. It was very well received and we raised a fair bit of cash for the MS Society.

PC: Yeah, and credit to you in excelsis! I also thought the two Shadow Kabinet songs you contributed were charming, which brings us to. . . ‘Hark!’, the new Shadow Kabinet album was released in October 2004, after recording sessions spanning July 2003 to July 2004. Is it common for an album to have such a long gestation period between conception and release?

SS: Thank you. My songs on ‘The Wish List;’ were certainly a turning point because it got my music out there. I remember getting a lovely e-mail from a girl in Japan who loved those tracks and I thought "right let's do an album." I was still writing and recording songs alongside all the ‘Wish List’ activity. When you are doing everything yourself, producing, performing, engineering and mixing you need to take breaks because you can go a bit crazy. Plus I'm writing all the time. I don't write twelve songs and say "that's the album.". Some of the songs on ‘Hark!’ were written as I was recording, some were in the stockpile. But you also need to distance yourself from time to time to get some perspective on the work. When I record I'm actually pretty quick and I like to keep things as spontaneous as possible. So sometimes I'll put the bass on a track that I started weeks ago and have forgotten about. So that keeps it fresh. Some tracks like ‘Full Moon Song’ were recorded in a couple of hours, others took ages. But my working methods are pretty flexible. Also I love the Brian Eno ‘Oblique Strategies’ in which he says "Honour your mistakes as intentions". His diary ‘A Year With Swollen Appendices’ is very inspirational - recommended reading.

PC: I take on your recommendation there mate. But can I bring it down to basics? My dear friend, Terry Chambers, erstwhile drummer for our beloved XTC, told me a funny little story (and it's so typical of TC): there he was in New York, in company with various Talking Heads and suchlike. Eno was at the table, apparently espousing his theories. Terry, in frustration, piped up to Brian Eno and just said: "Look mate, forget yer fuckin' ‘Oblique Strategies’ and just pass me that beer, before it gets too warm". We need more people like Tezza, to bring us back to earth, eh?

Here we go: You yourself have described the music on your album as ranging from "Syd Barrett mayhem" to "haunting Nick Drake-ish", and I agree. But I detect other flavours and influences, such as ELO and Robyn Hitchcock, yet the songs retain your own distinct stamp. Would you like to comment Steve?

SS: I think that statement describes opposite ends of the spectrum, or should that be plectrum? But yes there is a lot of ground covered in between. I played someone a new song the other day and they said "that sounds a bit like the Moody Blues" which had never entered my head at anytime during its writing or recording. In fact I thought it sounded more like the Monkees! Comparisons are both flattering and frustrating sometimes. I think whenever drums, guitars and bass get together and produce something with a melody people automatically say "it sounds like The Beatles". I think that says more about the lack of melody around these days. You know The Beatles wrote the book as far as writing popular songs goes. You can't help but be influenced by that body of work but the other things that informs my album is variety. I get very bored easily and I like doing lots of different styles of songs while keeping the melody quotient high and that's a Beatle trait too. All to often these days you hear a track by someone buy the album and it all sounds the same. An album is a blank canvas where you can go anywhere. I just recorded a country song that might make it onto the next album. I get the feeling if I had an A&R man looking over my shoulder he would be shouting "You can't do that!" But I can, so there!

PC: Sounds like you had a lot of fun in the recording process, embellishing the songs with classic psychedelic touches like backwards masking, sound effects, stereo panning, mellotrons and so on. What's your recording set-up like? Do you prefer to retain that 60s-ish feel to things? Which is not to say that the CD lacks a contemporary pop sheen — I'd say it's pretty timeless in its sound ("fresh and now", as Mark Hudson, who did the liner notes, would have it). Again, care to comment?

SS: Yes I do love that adventure playground that was the mid to late sixties. I was an art student and that whole experimentation, psychedelic thing together with the songwriting really captured my imagination. I think a lot of the music recorded in the sixties is pretty timeless and I hope that people listening to ‘Hark!’ feel they are meeting an old friend who is somehow a bit different from the last time you met them . New haircut? Taller? Contact lenses? Face lift? No... just new songs.

PC: Where do you draw your inspiration for the songs? Quite a few of your lyrics involve intricate and evocative wordplay but they're coupled with classically simple melodies and arrangements. When you compose, do both words and music fall into place together, or do you come up with music first, or vice versa, or does the process vary from song to song?

SS: There really is no set formula for writing. Sometimes a melody will fall into my lap, or the lyrics or a title. It's a bit of a mystery and I love that. I don't analyse it too much but it is the best feeling when you suddenly get this thing that you can play to someone that didn't exist a few hours before. ‘Cause For Concern’ on the album was written in about fifteen minutes. I went out for some milk and came back with a song. I just started singing it on the way home from the shops. Picked up my guitar and there it was. That's exciting and on that one I recorded it the very next day because I was on a high from writing it and I just wanted to keep the energy flowing, get it down as soon as possible.

PC: If pressed, which couple of your songs are you most pleased with, and why?

SS: That's a tough one. I like ‘Save Me’; It's a very emotive song and I've played it at a couple of gigs recently just me and a guitar and the song retains its power. But I do like they way that one went down, especially the slide guitars going into the last verse. I was also pleased with ‘I'd Rather Be Out In The Rain’ the vocal arrangement on that came completely out of the blue. It's the Swingle Singers ! How did they get in there? Actually someone wrote to me recently saying they thought it was very clever how I made the backward high hat sound like windscreen wipers in the rain. It does but I'd never thought of that before. Thank you very much. I'll have that!

PC: Oh yeah, I love that kinda serendipity. The Swingle Singers, wow! Bom-ditty-bom! How very cool, you should take that as a compliment Steve. And, I tend to admire these clever-dicks who play all the instruments themselves, then do their own arrangements and production. That was one aspect that attracted me to you as an artist. Can you give us a run-down of the instruments you use? That white Gibson you're wielding on the cover of ‘Hark!’ is pretty sexy. . .

The front cover of the ‘Hark!’ album

SS: That guitar is actually a '56 Gold Top 40th Anniversary Model it just looks white because the photograph is so bleached out. Now other guitars let me see... I have a white Gibson SG which which isn't really a Gibson but it was put together by a guitar maker around a 1969 SG body, it has a new neck and pick ups and it plays like a dream, I have a '74 Antoria Strat copy which was my main guitar for years, I have a 64 Burn's Nusonic which was my first electric guitar and it's fab, a Yamaha BB 400 bass, an Aria '72 acoustic and a late sixties Harmony Sovereign acoustic, a Yamaha APX-4A electric acoustic, a cheapo Spanish guitar and a ukulele! Various keyboards and I record on a Tascam 788 digital eight track. My secret weapon is an old Revox B77 reel to reel recorder which I use as a pre-amp and I put virtually everything through that before it goes digital. It warms the sound up and just gives it that Shadow Kabinet sound.

PC: And there certainly is a distinct Shadow Kabinet "sound", for sure. Er, what would you say was your earliest musical "turn-on"? What was the first record you bought? And what other musician or group is your greatest inspiration?

SS: My dad has some 8mm footage of me aged about six jumping around the garden and posing outrageously with a toy guitar so music has always been there. The Beatles obviously were a huge influence and I clearly remember my Dad bringing home ‘Sgt Pepper’. I still have that copy. Damn, I cut out all the cut outs! But the first record I bought with my own money was ‘Autumn Almanac’ by The Kinks and my favourite album of all time has to be ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ by the Kinks. Also I came quite late to Mr Dylan but I find his body of work a never ending source of inspiration.

PC: Oh, so many things you and I have in common mate! Yeah, check out the recent remastered box set for ‘Village Green’, it's magic, and did you nearly die like I did, with that circular cover for ‘Ogden's Nut Gone Flake’???

Are there any plans to commercially release the music that you and Dave Gregory made for the ‘Planet Food’ TV series?

SS: No I don't think so, not unless someone releases ‘Now That's What I Call Great TV Cookery Show Themes’. Never has 29 seconds of music been sweated over as much as that piece was. I wrote it and Dave arranged and produced it. It's quite a tortuous tale how I got that gig but when we finally came to record it I got to the studio Dave said "I've cut my finger and can't play guitar you'll have to do it." Now playing guitar in front of Mr Gregory is quite intimidating but hey that's me wailing away on electric guitar. The show is still playing around the world too.

PC: I ain't got cable, but my sister gets the show on her TV. She loves it, but possibly doesn't realise the significance of who's making the music. Well, can I ask you, what does the future hold, musically speaking, for Steve Somerset and The Shadow Kabinet?

SS: The feedback from ‘Hark!’ has been tremendous and I obviously want to broaden the audience. Last week I got an e-mail to say a track had been played on a Radio Vidra in Serbia and Montenegro. Quite how they got hold of it I don't know but that's great. There's some label interest from the States too so that's exciting. So I'm working the album baby! Also I'm recording new material for the next one which is sounding pretty good but I'm taking my time. I don't have a deadline. But rest assured The Shadow Kabinet will return soon.

PC: All I can say is "best of luck". It all sounds very exciting. . .

The person

PC: From the evidence before me, you're a "causes" person. After your wife Hilary was diagnosed with MS, you devised the ‘Wish List’ CD, and even accompanied her to a charity function at 10 Downing Street. But your name keeps popping up in connection with other benefits and causes. What motivates you?

Steve performing at a fund-raiser in Matlock, Derbyshire, 23/10/04, in memory of Alistair Taylor (Brian Epstein's assistant in the swinging sixties)

SS: Yes the Shadow Kabinet made it to 10 Downing Street. Cherie Blair has a school friend who has MS so that's how that came about. But I like to think Tony gets the Strat out and jams along with the album now and again.

But it's great if you can do something that you do naturally and help raise money or awareness. I'm never going to do a sponsored bike ride across the Andes but if someone says will you write a song or come and play and support their cause I'll try and be there. ‘The Wish List’ was close to home and I made it primarily for my wife.

The other thing I did recently was a concert for a UK Cancer Charity called the McMillan Trust. I got a call from someone organising a concert to commemorate the life of Alistair Taylor who was Brian Epstein's assistant during the sixties. So I travelled up to the green hills of Derbyshire and played some of my songs and did ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ which I dedicated to Alistair and George Harrison. That was a great moment, there was a lot of Beatles aficionados there and I started playing and the whole room just fell totally silent. I did the version with the extra verse and as I was playing it I was thinking "Don't balls this up. They're going to kill me if I get this wrong."

PC: Apart from music, what other hobbies/pursuits occupy your time Steve?

SS: Usual stuff: collecting used batteries, egg juggling, knitting with glass... no seriously - reading especially biographies (I'm currently reading Bob Dylan's ‘Chronicles Vol One’) movies, exhibitions, I recently went to see the Lee Miller exhibition at the National Gallery here in London. I love modern art and last year I went to the Guggenheim in Venice and that was just amazing. My guilty pleasure? Sixties spy movies, James Bond, Harry Plamer, ‘Our Man Flint’, U.N.C.L.E., Matt Helm. . .

PC: Before we close, do you have any other pearls of wisdom to offer us?

SS: Yeah buy my album! And as a wise man once said "Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb."

PC: Well, I'd just like to thank you, Steve Somerset, for giving me your time (and patience), and providing a most entertaining and informative insight into your life. Best of luck in future!

SS: Thanks Paul it's been great.

Here's "Tick and Tock", the mad "Minute Men" from Steve's animated film treatment for ‘25 O'Clock’

  • Questions devised and posed by Paul Culnane.
  • illustrations and photographs © Steve Somerset
  • References and research:

    www.shadowkabinet.com (you can buy Steve's albums from there, and find out more about him)

    The Shadow Kabinet — ‘Hark!’ (CD Sound Mind Records SMR01)

    Various artists — ‘The Wish List’ (charity CD for the Multiple Sclerosis Society)

    10cc and Godley & Creme — ‘Changing Faces’ — video collection (Polygram 0416752)

    with much thanks for assistance & ideas to Jamie Lowe and Mark Kirk

Thanks too, to Dom, Ben, Ian and John.

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