Never to be sold – The original punk poet Patrik Fitzgerald interviewed by Billie Ray Martin

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by Billie Ray Martin about
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From the moment the CD is inserted in the tray and that cockney voice declares, “Here comes the bus again” you’re thrown headfirst back into Patrik Fitzgerald’s world, like you, or he, has never been away.

 

His music, as always, seems to grow seamlessly out of some secret sound-fabric or process, where no strain or doubt seeps into the production and recording but instead all the elements seem to have been designed to slot into place, as if by magic. Whether in a combination of voice and guitar (or band) or assisted by electronic beats, keys and loops, the merging creates a triumphant and exhilarating soundscape. There is the feeling that only a few months have passed since his early ‘hits’ such as “Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart” or the second, electronic loops-based album Gifts and Telegrams and now he just happened to make another album.

The collectable six-page gatefold card pack with booklet is sold by him through his website and Facebook account, bypassing the kind of promo hype and blunt attempts to gain listeners so prominent within online networking. His anti-marketing approach is a unique model and worth exploring. The original cockney punk poet has truly returned and his message is as uncompromising as ever. Lyrically it is at times hard to swallow in its brutal realism (pictures flashing in my mind of Gary Oldman’s directing debut Nil by Mouth) but assisted by the inspired arrangements so as to carry the listener through the album without the temptation arising to ‘look the other way’ when things get a bit uncomfortable.

The injustices bestowed upon the working classes by the ruling elite—so essentially British a concern—are again subject matters deeply ingrained in Fitzgerald’s psyche but embedded as always in personal experience and accounts of the individual’s plight in the artificial construct of society rather than by use of political platitudes. He hit the punk scene at the right time and fitted seamlessly into a landscape where there was ample space for individuality. His first and to this day most successful record “Safety Pin Stuck in my Heart” ensured a secure place within punk history. Yet his career has been a rocky one, as it is for anyone with ‘too much’ individuality in a world in thrall to numbers, of units. Remarkably the music never suffered. Thus it is with childlike excitement that I am able to interview the master.

Subliminal alienation sounds like it could easily have been a follow-up album of either Grubby Stories or Gifts and Telegrams.  How do you manage to stay so true to your style of writing and production and yet with each recording find inspiring ways of dealing with the classic elements you use?

I only write and record things in my own way and never try to copy anybody. I don’t think there is a particular art to that other than “don’t follow trends or try to be something you are not”. I am lucky in that I find different instruments to use or different computer studio systems to record with that are easy to use—I am not very good with technology.

 

Supposing that the alienation of the album title is your own (and those of your characters you describe) I find that there isn’t much that’s subliminal about it. You describe bleak lives in sometimes brutal surroundings. The music is anything but bleak, however, but your alienation seems to be more direct and terminal than ever. Am I mistaken?

The reason it is called Subliminal Alienation is because I think a lot of people exist in a state where they don’t even realize that they are alienated, they just go about their daily lives. I would say that this is pretty terminal but it seems to be the way things have gone. People have become used to a sense of complete powerlessness.

After you released Grubby Stories what inspired you to use electronic sounds and loops for your next album Gifts and Telegrams?  Were you concerned that people would hold the unexpected change against you, like Dylan going electric and reaping much resentment as a result? How was the album received?

After playing acoustically for about three years I had a group, which featured acoustic and electric guitar, saxophone, flute, drum box, Casio keyboard, electric piano and a Wasp synthesizer. So when it came to making my next album I had got used to my songs using those sort of instruments and I couldn’t imagine the songs without those things. A friend lent me a Revox tape recorder, so I just sat at home recording the songs myself and added things like saucepans and kitchen utensils, recorder, and speeded up voices and an octave divider pedal which turns a guitar into a bass. I also used the drum box as individual beats, usually out of time and just had a lot of fun turning my songs into soundscapes, again not attempting to sound like anyone.

The approach to electronic music on Gifts and Telegrams—and also throughout your work and on the new album—would be considered trendy and cutting edge in the present musical landscape. Kids around the world are trying to produce loops and tracks that sound like that. Does this surprise you to hear?

PF: If they have the same approach as me that isn’t really surprising. One of the biggest surprises to me was getting an email from Adamski who made one of the best techno tracks ever in “Killer”, who said that I was one of the reasons he started recording his own songs at home. Hardly the same style of music as mine but I felt really proud to know that I had made somebody feel that they could record their own songs.

Were the songs for Subliminal Alienation written within a specific time frame and specifically for this album or were they written over an extended time period as perhaps as part of a larger group of songs, which you then picked from for this album?

PF: They are a bunch of songs written over a number of years and I just chose the ones that I felt fitted best together. I wanted to represent where my songs fit in to the general scheme of things and which I felt lived within the realms of the album title. I always think in terms of making a demanding album as opposed to easy listening. An album has to be a collection of songs which leaves an impression as opposed to just 50 minutes or so of music that just takes up someone’s time.

The song “Knockabout” is a brutal description of a married couple’s bleak existence, held together by sex coupled with violence. What inspired this song?

Somebody that I know lived out this song. The violence was not consensual. I was able to use my platform as a songwriter to put this out there. I believe that songs should be more than just pointless entertainment.

The song “Laughter Far Away” is a typical Patrik Fitzgerald soundscape where all the elements merge seamlessly yet each part stands out on its own. Is the song about one’s continuing drift into loneliness as time passes? The sentiments remind me of a film by Lucino Visconti called Conversation Piece, in which an aged Burt Lancaster is terrorised by an eccentric family who have moved in above him. He hears the sound of death walking once they’re gone and silence remains. 

The song was originally rejected as racist by a Patrik Fitzgerald band member in the ‘80s because I had explained that it was a song about white farmers waiting to have their farms taken over by black people in southern Africa (hence the line about “a dirty black cloud hovering above the ground”). It has since become clear to me that the song is actually about depression and alienation, which is why it was included on this album. I like the way that my track and the strings in the background seem to almost be playing a different song, It’s almost like the string track is playing through a haze of Valium. It’s a good aural evocation of living in a world where you are given drugs to help you adjust to living in the same world as everybody else.

Your attitude to an existence in and on the fringes of the music industry seems to be a truly independent one, both in your musical output as in your actions. Do you have a philosophy on how an artist can exist as a musician at the present time and in the digital age?

I feel quite on the edge of it all really, but I also feel happy in that position, because I think to be embraced by the music industry would feel like you weren’t producing anything of any actual value. It suits some people. It doesn’t suit me. After 50 years in the music industry I’d expect to be given a cheap shitty watch and then be packed off to a retirement home.

Trent Reznor coined the phrase: ‘We are the music industry’. Does this mean anything to you?

I’m not sure. Trent Reznor appears happy to have loaned out his musical skills to anybody who will pay. This doesn’t seem too different from anybody else in the music industry.

Have you embraced the digital marketing landscape, such as social networks?

I don’t really like having to make sales pitches or justifying what you do. If you are driven to write songs or do anything else that is supposedly ‘creative’ however, it’s just something that you have to do, to some extent.

I’m interested to know more about your personal outlook on your career in terms of getting exposure now and in future; gaining listeners etc. Are you bothered?

Yes and no. Everything is pretty temporary. I have days when I will tell everybody that I am the best songwriter in the world. That’s usually when I’m drunk. However, There are other days when I actually believe that. But I go back to yes and no. Everything is temporary.

 Your song “All the Years of Trying” (one of my favourite tunes which accompanies my life always) was written when you were young. What seems remarkable is your understanding then of a long career and what remains at the end of it. Does this song mean a lot to you now?

Again yes and no. It was the only song my mother recognized as an actual song!

Let me end by saying thank you for your time. A safety pin is firmly stuck in my heart for you.~

Patrik Fitzgerald’s Subliminal Alienation is out now on Crispin Glover Records.