Having formed the critically lauded band Jack and the spin-off Jacques, Anthony Reynolds is now turning to writing books.
It’s a balmy evening in north London, and we’re standing on his doorstep trying to get an answer. We’re late. Has he decided he’s waited long enough and gone out?
It’s impossible to see anything inside as the ground-floor window is boarded over – this isn’t a fashionable area (at least not yet) and the few people around look vaguely menacing.
Our apology for being late – two bottles of wine – is graciously accepted. “Would you like a glass?” says a man infamous for his consumption. “We’ve been here about six months and we’re still trying to get it straight,” says Anthony apologetically. His voice is very soft, with a lilting Welsh accent.
In fact the room’s very welcoming – cobalt blue walls, books and CDs everywhere, Warhol and Cocteau prints. It’s even tidy, but this is because Anthony reveals he was expecting a film crew to accompany us, wires having somehow got very crossed. “It’s the only reason I shaved,” he moans. We whip out a camera, sans battery cover. “Oh well, if I’d known it was missing a battery cover I wouldn’t even have bothered to dress. You’d have got me in my dressing gown,” Anthony grins. His face is transformed from that of a serious, slightly petulant young man to that of a mischievous cherub. “Every album I do there’s two to three TV things, and I always ask the people to come to the flat, because it’s great to have a video of it. I’m sure the Scandinavian camera crew will be arriving any moment.”
They’re probably just stuck at Earl’s Court, we comment: the reason we were late in the first place. This leads us to the subject of suicide, frequent references to which abound in Anthony’s songs – perhaps the most morbid being Morning Light:
“If we kill ourselves tonight we’ll be somewhere else by the morning light
We could crash a stolen car or drink ourselves to death in some hotel bar
Slowly open our veins as we share a bath…”
However it seems that Anthony’s not that way inclined himself. “Yeah, it’s really dodgy that, isn’t it – people on the line. It’s almost one a week. And then you get the people that are pushed on – which happens almost once a month. Some hideous figure. Someone going ‘woof’ to some little guy who works in the bowels of National Insurance, or whatever. These are the facts you have to deal with when you live in London, Paris, New York… so whenever the tubes come in I’m always up against the wall…”
A music publication once said: “Jack is The Divine Comedy without the laughs.” There’s a long pause. “Hmm. I don’t know. I always thought our stuff was – really kind of funny.” Even the suicide songs? “Oh, yeah! I mean, almost so bleak, so black, that you can’t really take much seriously… and I’m not going to slag off The Divine Comedy!”
Anthony presented his offshoot project, Jacques, the previous week at London’s Borderline venue, with a nine-piece band including Bryan Mills of The Divine Comedy. “I didn’t enjoy that – lots of reasons, probably not that many of them to do with the gig, strange as that might sound. But just previously I had played Paris, and done the Spitz before that, and I think I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. You know I never enjoy gigs… it’s like showering in public or something.” Another big grin. “But I did enjoy the Spitz, actually, and Paris was really easy. Anyway as soon as I walked into the Borderline, I just thought, well… strange.”
When we arrived it was very empty – but it did fill up… “Yeah, but not enough. It’s strange because there’s no pattern – with Paris, and even the Spitz – I mean the Spitz wasn’t Beatlemania, there wasn’t anything astonishing, but it was really comfortable. So I kind of thought maybe this time round – I haven’t played live for a year, it will be different. And then at the Borderline it’s terrible because if there’s 500, a thousand people who are totally in to it, I can only really see the one guy chatting at the bar… that’s all I can possibly concentrate on. But – you liked it – that’s good.”
Marcella Detroit told this site that she once told a punter: “Will you shut up! Have you written the songs? Does it matter to you?” And everyone gave her a round of applause and he just left. We suggest he could try her approach. “Yeah – I’ve had my fair share,” he says. “Bob Geldof asked me to do a show, of all people, at some restaurant. And a really good friend of mine had hung himself two days before, so I wasn’t in a great frame of mind. So I was doing the gig and someone shouted out ‘I’m fucking fed up with this suicide music’. Of course he didn’t know, so I was rather… volatile in my response. Pretty emphatic in my negativity… and he was hustled out or whatever. But after that, I don’t know – if people are talking, I’m not sure I have got the right to tell them to shut up.”
It’s a fair assumption that most of them are there to listen to the band, and it’s quite irritating for the rest of the audience. “Well I hoped the rest of the audience would tell them to shut up… but I’m not a very presumptuous person so I have a big problem saying ‘I’m trying to do a job here, and you’re getting in the way’. I’m not that comfortable with confrontation, really. You see the crux for me is that I really don’t want people to come to a show to see me, I want them to come for the songs and the material. I think that’s the reason I’m clumsy about it, I try to let the songs speak for themselves. And you know it’s worked… I’ve done shows lots of places, and you can hear a pin drop the whole way through. The atmosphere at the Spitz was really receptive – I think a lot of it has to do with the venue.”
Does it get any easier, performing live – or is it two steps forward and one step back?
“No – it’s a bit like flying, I think… to use someone else’s analogy… he was talking about being famous. The same applies to playing live. At first it’s exciting, then it’s boring, and then you get the fear.”
Fear of failing? “What is failure? Failure for me would be working in the Civil Service, and not trying – that would be failure. I don’t know what it is – I mean I’ve thought about it, but no-ones going to shoot you – I mean they’re not, are they?”
“Are you comfy?” says Anthony from his position on a cushion on the floor, to us in regal splendour on his couch… ‘Yes, I’m fine… it’s great for the posture. I can put off wearing a corset.’ Another nail in the coffin of the arrogant prima donna I had half expected to meet.
We ask how Bryan Mills became involved with Jacques. “He was recommended to me… I’d kind of met Bryan, a couple of years ago -we did a Jacques tour with The Divine Comedy – but although we’d speak to everybody we didn’t go out to dinner. Bryan was recommended by the record company, Setanta – and he’s a lovely guy, really mellow.”
Another publication said a while back that Reynolds was what Scott Walker could have been if he’d had the guts. There’s another long pause. “I think an awful lot happened to Scott Walker, didn’t it? I love his stuff – I like his voice and I like his tunes. But he’s a rare example of someone who’s been true to himself. He didn’t sell out at every opportunity. He didn’t take everything that was offered, though I know he went through some pretty tough financial times, and he didn’t need to. So to be 40 and have a 30-year old landlord saying you haven’t paid the rent, so get out, and having someone else say look, if you sing this song or if you do a residency in Blackpool, and saying actually, I don’t agree – that’s fantastic, I think. But not a lot of people have that opportunity, do they – Scott Walker had a natural gift. I think it’s an admirable thing to set aside personal comfort, financial comfort, for something potentially greater… so yeah, I love him in that respect.’
I think they were suggesting he was pretentious.
“But again, how do you define pretension? Something you’re pretending to be or something you’re aspiring to be? Rich people have a huge problem with that – especially where I come from.”
Another quotation: “Your music glorifies depravation and poverty, raising it to a level where it becomes art for art’s sake.” “It sounds like a heading for a thesis,” replies our host. “Well, you know, I certainly don’t think that just because your life might be tougher than is appropriate at a certain point, that you should block it out or cancel it… I think almost anything is worthy of celebration and embracing. I really do. That’s the only way I can approach it. There is a lot of beauty to be found, in almost anything… and I believe beauty’s really important. So for me to try and find that, in the most awful situations, may be a survival technique – I don’t know. Even when I’m having to compromise myself, and my ideals, I try to find something worthwhile in that as well. Maybe a lot of people don’t have to do that: don’t have to face any of those issues. They just go through life, and as long as they can make their mortgage, as long as they’re paying the bills, and they can get pissed on Friday night – you know, ‘I must be doing OK, I’ve got my 1.5 kids, I’ve got this, I’ve got that’, but there’s no real frisson.”
What ideals is he striving for? “To be awake, really, which might seem strange – because I am very interested in drinking, and other kinds of intoxication, but to be awake. It’s really tempting to shut off and go to sleep when times are tough, aren’t going as planned. To be aware of who are and where you are. To be engaged is the only way I can say it, really. It’s not an original idea: I suppose I just feel that we’re being offered an awful lot at any given time, and a lot of people don’t open themselves to it. So when I’m writing about grimness, or whatever, I suppose I’m trying to find the beauty in it.”
His reviews seem to be either absolutely appalling, or ecstatic – no middle ground. Do bad reviews upset him? Does he look for the beauty in bad reviews?
“Well for a start I think all reviews are true. Usually. I’ll give you a classic example: I love this one. It was a review a couple of years back. The review said – and it’s terrible that I can remember it, but I do remember the bad ones – that ‘Anthony Reynolds is this, or thinks he’s that, blah blah, some kind of European Bryan Ferry-esque whatever, but in reality he’s a Welsh dwarf in a cheap suit.’ So I was with my press officer and one of her friends, who I knew vaguely, came up to me and said: ‘Do you know it’s really amazing, I’ve met you a couple of times before, and I’d no idea that you were actually short.’” Anthony’s face cracks. “Now I’m not a basketball player, but…” Anthony’s in fact sort of medium height, though apparently women tend to think he’s taller… it must be something to do with the dark green bedroom eyes.
“So when people say you’re a short man-eating or woman-waffling monster, that’s not nice. But most reviews have really got an element of truth. And of course the first time someone said this guy’s a genius, or whatever, it was lovely, because you think, ‘Oh, that’s good, it’s confirming everything I already know about myself.’” We get the big grin again. “But that can become tedious, when you’re reading that and you’re broke, and you can’t actually afford to buy the paper you’re reading it in. What do reviews mean? The fact that one person’s opinion is printed in the Guardian may be a lot less valid to me than a review by a good friend of mine. In fact it certainly is, because if you could say ‘album of the week in the Guardian (which Jack had twice) – that’s two, three thousand copies sold,’ sure. Great. That’d be fine. I think what reviews actually mean in terms of physical or tangible returns is more in doubt than ever, really.”
You split with Too Pure / Beggars Banquet. What happened there?
“We left shortly after they dropped us and it was a mutual decision on their part… We made a second album (The Jazz Age) which for Too Pure, which is a small label, had an astronomical budget. It was about the price of a Small Faces video in 1968 but to Too Pure it was huge. They were full of confidence – they thought the record was going to sell by the truckload.”
It got terrific reviews. “Again, how do you connect the two… anyway, it was a year late and it sold OK, it wasn’t a hideous embarrassment, but there was no way they could recoup. So they offered us a reduced budget for the third album, and the only way we thought we could make sense of that budget was by doing it ourselves, by spending the money on equipment for a studio and so forth. They didn’t have enough faith to do that and so we said goodbye.”
Do you think they did enough to support you, to ensure decent sales of The Jazz Age? Anthony sighs deeply. “How can you ensure decent sales?”
Do you think your type of music just isn’t fashionable at the moment? “Certainly, the music I’m making is completely out of context at the moment. Completely.”
Has he got a new label in mind? “Well, Setanta for Jacques… and Jack has signed as well, to a French label, Les Disques Crepuscules.” (Twilight Records – is Anthony playing a joke on us or has he found the perfect label for his graveyard lyrics?) “They’ve given us money to do what Too Pure didn’t trust us to do, which is to build a studio here. We’re supposed to start recording the new Jack album this week, it’s just getting the equipment. There’s some really beautiful gear and it’s totally non-recoupable.”
So he ends up with a nice studio. This thought cheers Anthony up no end. “Yeah – if the record sells five copies the studio is ours… the royalty rate is slightly down, but it’s great because I think the idea of going into big studios with top producers is a pretty invalid, old fashioned idea. How do I put it? Five people are selling a billion records, yeah? Britney Spears, Travis etc. And then you’ve got five billion people selling five records. Which is where I’m coming in. With Jack and Jacques I’m the only person in the world with a major publishing deal, with two record deals, who’s still very far away from being rich!”
And is he still working on a novel? “No – there is a book, which was finished ages ago, but it was short stories, unpublished lyrics, and prose – which I’m reading from at the end of the month, at Borders bookshop.”
Will he have a band there as well? “I’ll be there with a pianist and a string section, but that’s just to make me feel comfortable! They won’t be actually playing… I’ll just be there reading.”
“Actually the next Jack album is going to have some actors on… this is an exclusive! There’s going to be narration… I was asked to do a Bukowski reading at Borders a couple of weeks back, which was great – I’d not done that before. I had to read from my favourite Bukowski text – one of my favourite authors – we were doing it with David Thewlis, and it got me thinking. So I’ve written a song with Matthew (Scott), and it needs to be different, so I’m not going to appear on that song at all, I’m going to get a load of actors. I don’t want to go too Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels… I don’t like that whole “I’ll cut his fucking face off” (Anthony switches into a passable East London menace accent)… these latent homosexuals acting as monstrous men of the manor. I’m not too big on that. But I do want to change the way people think about Hugh Grant!” Anthony guffaws. “Which I’m going to do on this record!”
“I’ve started writing a play – I’ve written one act – in theory he’s perfect but I haven’t approached (Hugh) yet. I know a lot of people don’t like him. I’ve always liked him, and I’ve got a very broad interest in films. For instance I liked Notting Hill. I’m coming out of the closet but I enjoyed it, and I also like Fellini and Cocteau. I don’t see that they’re mutually exclusive. I don’t always want to be hugely challenged – sometimes I just want to eat popcorn and to forget about stuff.
“But back to Hugh. I saw him being interviewed and he was looking really pissed off to start with, and the interviewer was being really saccharine – “so, Hugh – anything in the pipeline?” And he said (Hugh Grant impression) “not really… especially… er…” “Oh, can’t get the work here?” “I actually do enjoy not working… very much…as it happens. I work when I have to.” And I thought, well that’s pretty cool. And the interview went on and she said “So could you give us an exclusive, Hugh? Any plans for you and Liz to tie the knot?” He said “Oh, grow up!”, took the earpiece out and just walked off… add that to the fact that he was caught more or less red handed getting a nosh job off a black whore… that’s pretty interesting for me when you contrast it with his public persona. I know hardly anybody goes to prostitutes – or do they? Perhaps for reasons of desperation… I’m not sure. But there’s an interesting psychology at work… and when someone like Hugh Grant, who was at the peak of his career, is found on Sunset Boulevard being noshed… a fascinating character, I thought. So I’ve got this dark play (quelle surprise!) and I think if I got somebody like David Thewlis, or a Tarantino actor, it’d be no big deal. To have somebody who’s slightly challenging would be much more rewarding.
“Anyway I’ll be doing this reading and I’ll maybe do the first act of the play, and I want to get Hugh and people like David Thewlis for the Jack album. I want to approach the next Jack album more as a film than a musical thing.”
Jarvis Cocker once said that film is the ultimate medium, so he was asked ‘what on earth are you doing choosing music, then?’ He said that was his apprenticeship, as far as he was concerned…
“Oh – I like that, yeah. The ultimate medium. I’m still not convinced, although of course sound is a secondary thing – people go for visuals first, don’t they. People can happily watch adverts rather than put on a pair of headphones. Its also great when you’re coming down off whatever – speed or coke – and you’ve got cable TV. 3 seconds of one channel – horrible. Three seconds of this channel – I don’t want to buy jewellery as worn by Victoria Principal. Channel 3 – I don’t understand what you’re saying, I’m sorry, I thought everybody in the world spoke English by now. Channel 4… and then of course you get to channel 99 and you’re back to the first, and you can keep going on like that indefinitely. It’s a visual thing. If you had the radio on it wouldn’t be quite the same. So… maybe. If you’re lazy it’s easier to make a record. Also making records was better because there was more for the imagination to work with. You’re given less to work with so the scope for the imagination was bigger. But I wonder now…”
There’s so much alcohol in his songs and his words. Is alcohol really that important? He must have a hangover cure that works… Anthony’s grin is positively wicked. “You know the answer to that – you just have a drink.” Then he takes time to reflect. “Drinking. Well, I wouldn’t like to be an alcoholic, and I’m not an alcoholic. I’m 29 now, and I didn’t drink until I was 21. I always hated the taste of alcohol. I like the option of drinking without it having to be a necessity. A lot of people in London or when I go abroad to Spain or France often say ‘you’re always drunk’, and it’s because whenever they see me, I’m drunk. Because I’m pretty shy. If you ask my girlfriend, who I live with, and you ask my family and my friends, they would say, well I see him every day and he’s drunk maybe two, three times a week – maybe that’s a lot, I don’t know. I like drinking, although I’m starting to find that moderation… I mean, I’m just growing up. This last two weeks I’ve been able to approach eating, going out for dinner, and enjoying the first course. I just used to want to wolf it down and say right, let’s go…! I’m starting to mellow, and to see things as a whole experience. And there’s nothing like having a beautiful bottle of wine with monkfish and asparagus… I really came late to that. But I used to drink for nerves. And because I was always in relationships from the age of 16, and then all of a sudden, I’d just started recording the second Jack Album and I’d split up with my girlfriend. If you want to have sex with people you don’t really want to have sex with, drink is a fantastic first step… naming no names!”
Why would anyone want to do that, we ask? It doesn’t seem that there’s much point in it… “There isn’t, no. But to be a man of 24, and to have always been in very domestic relationships, and then I’m making a record, and booze and money is suddenly in, and then you split up with someone… basically I just wanted to have sex. I think it’s a male thing…” He grins. “I’m not speaking for most of my male friends… I think most men don’t have a problem having sex with someone they don’t want to have sex with. But when you’re as sensitive and deep as I am…” The grin gets bigger and bigger… “it’s quite a problem”.
When did he realise that he had rather a special voice? “I don’t. I don’t think I have got a special voice.” We inform him that he does actually. Anthony grimaces and forces out a thank you. But he must realise that he has because he uses it…
“There is… something there that I can use, almost like a muscle you can flex, maybe? I can sing – I’m not a rapper; I can hold a tune. But it seems so self-indulgent, talking to people about it… sometimes I talk to Anna (Anthony’s girlfriend) – “do you think my voice is…” – yeah, yeah – “but do you think it’s sounding too ravaged…”
And what was the answer? “‘We’re talking about you again…!’ So at work today, so-and-so said to me, ‘Do you think people don’t buy the records because they don’t like the voice? Oh, yeah… you’re the guy that sings…’” Anthony laughs, totally unconcerned.
Did he come from a musical background? “I started off as a drummer. Always loved music. I come from (cue the violin player) a very working class background. Dad’s a crane driver; mum’s a secretary. I came from a very horrible area, as I see it now. Totally lacking in any kind of cultural aspect. A place called Tremorfa, just outside Cardiff. Born in a place called Splot – it gets a laugh every time! 389 interviews and it still gets a chuckle… It’s Welsh for spit – a spit of land.”
They never thought about that when they named it…? “Well, they didn’t know that Welsh wasn’t going to take over the world! We’d be speaking Welsh now…” Can he speak Welsh? “No…! I don’t feel Welsh at all. But I came from Cardiff, and I don’t know anyone who speaks Welsh. I come to London and people go, “oh, you’re a Taffy…”
“The only cultural aspect in the house I was growing up in was pop music. That was it. No bookshelves, no library, we never went to the theatre. We went to the cinema very occasionally. But there was pop music and my mother had fantastic taste in music, thank God. The Walker Brothers – Scott Walker. And when you listen to Scott Walker records you’re not just listening to Scott Walker singing, you’re listening to (Jacques) Brel, to a whole French tradition. David Bowie. Jack Jones. Motown. She was a big Beatles fan. So that was the only exposure I had to any kind of culture, and maybe I latched on to that. Maybe if my dad had been working in theatre, or maybe if my mum was a film buff… what I’m saying I suppose is I never really thought that I had any particular musical ability, but it was the only thing available to me.”
He went straight into a band when he left school? “I was in a band before I left school. Fellini‘s father used to run a cinema or something, but he was still surrounded by dirt, and how someone like that sat down and said I’m going to make a film… but it’s very easy for anybody to get a guitar. There’s usually one hanging about. I just gripped on to that as if my life depended on it, I suppose. I started writing songs when I was about 15. I didn’t know chords… I guess if I was that age now it would be computers, wouldn’t it, and samplers… I suppose I was just at the end of a tradition. People just used to have pianos in the house!”
Does he find now that sometimes the technology of recording an album gets in the way of the art? “I guess previously people would have an idea that they’d carved out on an acoustic guitar or an acoustic piano. And if it works on that format it’ll work on any format – with an orchestra, with a choir, with a computer or whatever. Whereas if you’ve got a computer you can do almost anything – you can get away with much more. But then if you try to transpose what you’ve done on the computer to an orchestra, a pianist, or if you just said to an arranger, OK, now do this for a quartet, it wouldn’t maybe work.”
That was officially the end of the interview with Anthony – he’d already given us more than twice the time agreed. But we continued chatting (and drinking) about many diverse topics.
Why was there a photograph of Anthony in drag on the cover of the irresistible Jack single, Steamin’? “It was a big mistake,” says Anthony. And is Dress you in Mourning still his favourite song – and what’s behind it? Yes, and it’s inspired by the title of a book about El Cordobes, the famous bullfighter, who rose from absolute poverty to riches but with the constant possibility that he could die. He says to his sister before his first major fight: “I’ll buy you a house – or I’ll dress you in mourning.” “Life’s like a bullfight,” comments Anthony, as he takes us into another room to see two Cocteau prints of El Cordobes. “Anything could happen.” And no, in case you’re wondering, he hasn’t been to a bullfight and isn’t likely to.
What inspired The Crack in the Ceiling, the eerily beautiful song from the first Jacques album, How to Make Love? A childhood fear? “No – I’d just moved in to a new flat, and I’d been mixing, and I was totally out of it for three days – couldn’t get out of bed.”
Why the names Jack and Jacques? “Well, when I was 19 and I was living with a girl… we were talking about what we would call a kid if we had one. I thought Jack was the perfect name – strong and sensitive at the same time.”
And what about money and fame? “I would like to make a record that would be true to me but would clear the board. I always wanted to be an ex-popstar… invisible, but well off. I’m always true to my instincts but it’s not paying for that house on the cliffs…”
Time is drawing on and we’ve completely ruined Anthony’s plans for the evening. His girlfriend is probably fuming. We make leaving noises, feeling guilty at taking up so much of his time, but he seems totally unruffled. “Well before you go, listen to this.” Anthony puts on Tilt, the Scott Walker album that received less than polite reviews from many. He plays us the first track, which is hauntingly beautiful – Walker’s familiar voice recognisable but produced in a completely new, almost operatic way – delicate orchestration reminiscent of Philip Glass with undertones of Nick Cave. “That’s how I’d like to work with an orchestra.” It’s something to look forward to.
So we stumbled out, much wine later and hoping the car still had four wheels, after a fascinating evening with a very charismatic character. Half cut and wholly yours, Anthony, to steal the title of one of your most beguiling songs.