Q&A With Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham

Few indie artists have influenced as many musicians as Stuart Moxham has in his career. Whether as a member of Young Marble Giants, the G!st or solo, the Cardiff, Wales, native has produced one of the most distinctive catalogs of the past 30 years. His latest release, Personal Best (hABIT), is a 20-track compilation of solo material from 1981 to the present. The album is sequenced non-chronologically and kicks off with “Vampire Of Love,” a jaunty tune with intricate classical guitar and handclaps. “Save It,” from 2007’s The Huddle House collaboration with Louis Philippe, is a mournful highlight and proves that Moxham’s post-YMG output has been criminally overlooked by countless fans. The oldest track here, 1981’s “Settled Hash,” is actually one of the most forward-looking; its bleeps and whooshes remind one of the indie electro that’s become popular in music-geek circles over the past few years. Moxham and the other members of YMG have performed together again recently, and many longtime fanatics are hoping the group finally records a follow-up to 1980’s Colossal Youth, its sole album. Personal Best, however, proves that Moxham has turned out plenty of worthy music on his own. Moxham will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“Autumn Song” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/AutumnSong.mp3

MAGNET: Young Marble Giants never sold a ton of records, but they influenced many later bands such as Nirvana.  What about YMG do you feel inspired so many other artists?
Moxham: I beg to differ. We reached the top of the indie chart back in the day, and we have sold consistently for 30 years with a huge surge since the Domino re-release in 2007. Don’t forget that the indie sector had the majors on the ropes for a spell, with “our” chart needing more sales to get to number one. Those were the days! As for influence, it’s not for me to say. I can never recognize YMG influence in other people until someone points it out.

You grew up in Cardiff.  Do you feel part of a lineage of Welsh musical and literary artists?
I don’t, sadly. Until very recently, Wales was totally ignored, as were all provincial places, by the mainstream music biz. It was only because Geoff Travis, Rough Trade and their like were music-oriented, as opposed to money-oriented, that bands like us got a break. I would love to be proud of feeling part of a glorious Welsh lineage, but we were hardly recognized in Wales until the BBC did a radio documentary in 2007. We came to attention before Wales did, musically speaking. It was too early to be included in the limelight now being enjoyed there. I did a solo gig at the Laugharne Festival in Dylan Thomas’ home village, though, and that was a thrill.

What led to the demise of Young Marble Giants, and why did you decide to reunite?
The demise? The usual crap. The reunion? To write a new album but definitely not to do gigs as an ‘80s comeback!

Before YMG, you performed in a cover band called True Wheel. What type of songs did you cover?
True Wheel covered “Superstition,” “Sweet Jane,” “Black Magic Woman,” etc. Not my choices. The band was Matthew Davis’ vehicle, but I enjoyed it.

Was it difficult performing in a band with your brother Philip? Was the fact that he was dating YMG singer Alison Statton at the time an issue?
Good question! Phil and I have an intuitive, brotherly musical connection that is tacit, as you can imagine. It’s a major strength. And let’s not forget that he and I arrived at the YMG sound/style together. His aesthetic filtered into and my influenced my writing. Their dating per se was not an issue for me. It was more that I didn’t have plans for anyone else to be in the band as I had imagined it. They presented me with a fait accompli: “It’s both of us or nothing.” As I was planning for failure anyway, I accepted, and the demise of the band was therefore incorporated, as the rigors of relationships dissolving (mine with Wendy Smith at the same time) and touring in a fierce and totally unexpected spotlight, along with the added mayhem of Olympian ganja intake, took their toll. We had no plan-b for success, either, let alone plans for a second record.

There were plans for a Young Marble Giants tribute album in the early 1990s, but it never materialized. What happened?
I have no idea.

You have said that you managed to record Colossal Youth in five days and mix it in about 20 minutes. Was that out of necessity, or were you so inspired that it came together quickly?
I felt the project was doomed to failure, given its Welsh context. I didn’t want to waste any time, so we were super-efficient: one hour of music, all playable by three people and one cassette player, whether live or in a studio. We were inspired. I definitely pulled out all the stops, because I was 25 and had no future but felt like songwriting and playing guitar were my only chance.

Your early musical influences included artists such as Kraftwerk, Iggy Pop, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Which newer artists are influencing your solo material?
Phew, that’s so difficult. It’s only in retrospect, when listening to a Cat Stevens or Ultravox album, that I realize how they influenced me. You can’t tell at the time. I guess I admire people like Prefab Sprout and Fleet Foxes, but I see us as kind of stablemates. I think it’s people who do something radically different than one’s self who actually influence, and to be honest, I’m not really aware of anyone like that. As you get older you realize that music is all mathematics anyway. Ha!

How did the G!st differ in style and content from Young Marble Giants?
YMG had a cast-iron formula, if you like, for the style and sound of the music we made. The G!st’s was experimentation. Having been released from the lovely strictures of YMG’s aesthetic, it was inevitable that, in lieu of a solid idea about how to proceed and with technology replacing band members, I turned to free-form noodling!

You just released a compilation of your solo work, Personal Best, on your own hABIT label. What prompted you to collect these songs?
If you mean why those particular songs, well I couldn’t think of a better criterion than choosing the stuff I personally like the most. I think it gives a good sample of what is a large catalogue. I couldn’t include any YMG or G!st stuff, because it’s all out there on Domino and Cherry Red, respectively. However, I am planning a live YMG record and DVD based on our recent gigs. There is also quite a bit of unheard G!st material for a future compilation to be called Musical Headstone.

When do you plan to release a new solo album of all original material?
The Devil Laughs will be my next new full-length solo album of all original material (I’m recording it now), but there will be a six-track mini-album, Six Winter Mornings, coming out meanwhile as a taster and to keep the flag flying while the full album is in production. Dates? Well, probably September for Six Winter Mornings, and The Devil Laughs should be early 2011.

You were diagnosed with clinical depression as a young man. How has that affected your recording career?
I did what doubt allowed. It’s very interesting how one copes with depression and how one lives with it. I think depression is mental growing pains; we get it when we are ignoring a need to change. Depression is there for a reason, and like any negative, finding the reason for it turns it into a positive. It’s not a meaningless plague, despite the way it may feel. Depression has made me careful with myself, made me parent myself, take responsibility for myself, look after myself. Part of that is, paradoxically, giving up the impossible fantasy that one is omnipotent. True peace comes from accepting the love of your higher power. I read something in The Guardian today about how a long-term lack of love makes men destroy the world. Our Creator loves us all always, equally and without distinction. I’ve learned, from bitter experience, from counseling and from loving friends, to be completely honest always. Or at least to try. Honesty becomes habitual and builds on itself, making mendacity irrelevant. Most importantly: Do it now—don’t procrastinate! I think the depth and intensity of thought that accompanied my determination to understand my mental anguish contributed hugely to the content of my material. Also, I’m an indefatigable optimist, and as lovely Babs Manning said, “Optimism is its own reward.”

What was it like recording music with both your father and your daughter?
Truly wonderful! It was the first time my dad (at 81, a lifelong singer who has membership of the BBC Welsh Chorus in his CV) had ever sung solo into a microphone!  He was a true pro, and it was a delight to produce him. It was similar with my daughter Melody, who was so attuned to the music and even contributed harmony ideas of her own. She will be featuring regularly on my recordings.

What prompted The Huddle House with Louis Philippe? Do you plan to work together on another project in the future?
I met Louis (and Ken Brake, the third member of the team) in 1993, when I was looking for a studio to make Random Rules. He’s very proactive (I call him Louis “Action Direct” Philippe) and he got involved in that session to good effect. Over the intervening years, we have enjoyed working together both live and in the studio. His contributions to my projects became greater with time; we made “You Built A Path” from Personal Best together in my attic one day when he visited. He actually took charge of what became The Huddle House project, getting it up and running on my behalf. It was the culmination of our long musical courtship and the pinnacle of my recording career so far in terms of performance, arrangement and production values. I’m currently waiting for him to come to my new studio, The Signal Box, to contribute to the Devil Laughs sessions.

What are your musical goals for the next year?
So many. To utilize the excellent new people I’m working with: Charlie Rose, Melody Moxham, songwriting/guitarist partner Ken Brake and another beautiful singer (to be announced). Our first collaboration, “East,” will feature on TDL, as well as my trusty posse of musical compadres. Also, to grab current opportunities and make the most of them. Apart from the two records amply plugged above, I am a bass singer (like my father) in a local choir, Maxwell’s Silver Hummers, doing Bacharach, Abba, Leonard Cohen, etc., and loving it. I will take the time to practice and gig with them. I’ve also just bought a drum kit on eBay this very evening, and I will joyfully get back into audible dancing. I am also preparing to record an album by a singer/songwriter called Jim Driscoll in my studio and want to develop that strand of my endeavors, as well as hABIT and my own songwriting and gigs. My dream is to quit the day job, of course. Young Marble Giants are on very good form, and I’m still trying to realize my conviction that we can make more exceptional YMG music. I have a new song for the band, which none of them have heard yet. I want to play it to them live, in a room full of instruments and a recording device.

—Danielle Bacher

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