Andy White, formerly of ALT with Liam of Hothouse Flowers and Tim of Crowded House, is now solo and looking to be famous on his own terms. We caught up with his stratospheric folksy star, for a natter in the bar. The Irish 12-string player, songwriter, singer, storyteller, Peter Gabriel collaborator and Cambridge graduate is taking a breather from soundchecking in the 12 Bar, off London’s Tottenham Court Road, to talk to us about how it all started.
I started by asking him if he thought himself a storyteller or a pop star. His reply, very much that of a storyteller, put the matter to rest. His speech, even in this gighouse, was near a whisper, and despite living now in Switzerland (at the time of writing) his Irish accent was instantly detectable.
“I think it’s time for me to become a pop star. I guess people think I’m a storyteller. I always wrote before I sang, or played anything. One of the first things I ever did was write poems on my dad’s typewriter. We always had typewriters around the house and we were brought up to regard writing and typing as normal things to do, so I’ve got some poems from when I was nine years old.
“I played separately. I played bass, then double bass, other instruments, but I didn’t put it all together until I went to Cambridge and finally lost some of the inhibitions I had about doing things on stage, in public; then I started to put the writing together with the music. I moved to Brixton and my flat was burgled. I just came back to find all my electric guitars and all this stuff gone. So I went back to Belfast and stayed at a friend’s house – he had this 12-string guitar, and he threw it out of the window because he hated it so much – but we were lucky. It was a first floor window, but it survived intact, so I asked him if I could have it, so really that’s when I started playing acoustic, because the electric stuff was gone. I heard the soundtrack of a documentary and loved the power of the acoustic guitar from then.”
“I think it’s time for me to become a pop star…” – Andy White, putting the pop into folk…
Thus far I’d asked Andy one question – he’d answered at least five. But his stories, as you will see above, are comedic and captivating, and one is loathe to interrupt. We’ve come to a natural break now, so I leap in with my next question; what was the last gig he saw and enjoyed? Being as he is rooted in folk music, his reply may startle some…
“Blondie.” Blondie? Deborah Harry and chums? No way… “She played in Switzerland, where I live now and I knew the lyrics to every single song. Not many people play where we live, and they were amazing.” But would Blondie be amongst his musical heroes, his personal Music Hall of Fame? Who are Andy White’s musical heroes?
“The band I tour with, I suppose.” How refreshing is it to hear that from a guy with a record deal? “We’ve just met a big ALT fan – they exist! They’re out there, hidden, like King Arthur’s Knights, but they rise to the occasion.” ALT, for those of you none the wiser, stood for Andy, Liam and Tim. The Andy is for the folkster chatting to me, the Liam is for Liam of Hothouse Flowers fame, a good friend of Andy’s, and the Tim is for Tim Finn, brother of Neil, of Crowded House fame. Musical pedigree indeed. But King Arthur’s Knights? Oh well, tell me about ALT then. Tell me a story.
“We got together in a way that everyone thinks is a lie. It doesn’t sound very interesting when you hear it but it looks good written down…” Something tells me that he’s been asked how ALT formed before.
“Liam met Tim and Neil Finn in a booth in a cafe. He invited them over to stay in Ireland because although they were brought up by their mother to feel Irish, they never really had the chance to stay there and had just seen it on tour, so they went to stay with Liam in Dublin. Tim went over for about a week and stayed for three months and we all had a great time together. We met each other’s people and didn’t really write anything for ages. Tim was up till then writing a solo album called Before And After. Around the time when we were going to the recording studio we tried to get into this club in Dublin but were turned away three times, but eventually got welcomed in, they bought us drinks all night and I ended up writing a song. It went on Tim’s album but it was the first ALT song really.”
So why ALT? Couldn’t they have thought of a shorter name?
“We did extensive research. We discarded LAT and TLA and ALT just became the zeitgeist name – we didn’t know about computer keyboard commands or anything like that. It would mean different things to different people. It means ‘joint’ in Ireland – no, like in a door, like a hinge! – and it means everything in Norwegian. It became a name for us doing lo-fi things in a hi-tech way. Hi-tech in an internet way. We were into the Net from quite early on; the Crowded House people are really good at that. We toured America and there would be people at every gig who would know exactly what happened at the gig the night before – spooky sometimes, but great.”
Now I’m beginning to think he reads minds as well. My next question was to deal with his views of the World Wide Web and its impact on music. I just let him carry on.
“You don’t really need a band…” – Andy White on getting famous…
“It’s all very democratic – Phil Collins can have philcollins.com and Sandra Beerbubble can have sandrabeerbubble.com – she can have no money and he can have loads of money, she might have one CD out and he can have 300 million CDs out and her site can be many times more interesting than his. And I know you can’t get my third album in HMV in Bangkok but you can get it on my web site, so it is all very useful. I haven’t got the credit card thing yet – it seemed too much like being a business. I prefer it to be really personal. But you can waste your life on the web!
Now he wants me to change jobs. I am a web designer! It pays my keep, say I, but I know he means surfing the web rather than building it. Andy tells me that his brother-in-law and Liam all understand all that – “HTML” – and I’m impressed. I think he’s the first person I’ve met who fronts a band and knows what HTML stands for. There’s a future after all…
Anyway, back to Crowded House and Hothouse Flowers. How does Andy view the Finns’ and Liam’s success in the music business?
“I wrote a song with Neil and Tim,” whispers the storyteller, “and it was just amazing to see the ease with which they could come up with a really good song. Melody’s just second nature to them. I’ve known Liam for years, so I know he’s immensely talented, a true rock star I suppose, but I don’t really think of him in those terms; he’s a mate. I think more about his beer, his bad jokes – and his personal hygiene!”
It emerges that while ALT may not be technically together, they will still play for the right audience. “We played Japan last December, but it is really complicated and it takes a long time to work out when everybody is free.”
In the meantime Andy is signed to Cooking Vinyl, a label he shares with The Wedding Present, Billy Bragg, and goddess of the universe Ani DiFranco. It is no secret that I am rather partial to the angst-folk queen’s playing but what does Andy think of her?
“Ani DiFranco is a lifestyle choice…” – Andy White on that li’l ole lady from the US of A…
“She’s a lifestyle choice. She’s on a totally different level than just a musician. If you go to any of her concerts in America it is just amazing. There are all these girls who just look like her in the audience, and she means something to their lives – it is incredible. I’d rather listen to her live than on CD. She’s one of these people – like Billy Bragg. I don’t really like the band sound she has on records. I know she’s amazing – a true star. Even her shoes are amazing. I’ve half-written a song called Ani DiFranco’s Shoes! I saw her in Australia and she had these huge shoes – she probably had to climb up them to put them on, wearing an oxygen mask!”
What a wag. But what of his own music? Cooking Vinyl released an Andy White compilation album; the catchy title was ‘AndyWhite.compilation’. Just the merest hint of his web site address, should you have wondered about it. Some of the gems of his 12 Bar set later that night can be found on it, including Looking For James Joyce’s Grave. He’s also brought out a new album this year.
“On Compilation I chose the songs, which to me was very important. There are six albums that I’ve written but I don’t know how many you can get here, so I was asked to do this compilation as an introduction. I think maybe people like Ani and Billy have raised the profile of Cooking Vinyl so you can find it in most places.”
From a personal viewpoint, I always like to ask established artists for their advice to bands just starting up. I’ve recently acquired some musical types to make a noise with and while it is probably fair to say that Andy White has more talent in his little finger than the four of us put together, it is always interesting to hear this question answered.
“If you’re the only person writing and you’re at the centre of it then you don’t really need a band, maybe except for gigs. If you have mates who want to be in a band then great, but you can do it yourself.”
“Mo Mowlam has been amazing…” – Andy White on redoubtable cabinet ministers…
This is indeed a man who has done it himself, and has delved into Irish politics in a way that no other Irish band has really bothered to do, save for the odd song here and there. The Divine Comedy have entered this area with the track Sunrise in 1998 but no-one else immediately springs to mind. At the last gig Andy played before this interview, at The Garage in Islington, his largely Irish audience applauded loudly when he satirised the marching season.
“I watched them all on telly today and I’m not surprised that they (other Irish bands) wouldn’t want to mention it. But you see them now and think nothing’s really changed, but they have, quite dramatically, but even that isn’t enough. I don’t see any great Tony Blair Solution to it, but that isn’t his fault. It is the intractability of it. Hardly anyone in bands, especially from the north, mention it, and that’s fair enough, because it drives you insane. But when I started I just said what I thought. I always thought ‘Give Peace A Chance’ was the strongest slogan you could have. But I think you have to be broad-minded about it, because I don’t think peace has got another chance if it doesn’t work this time and the problems will just go on forever.”
Strong stuff indeed. I asked Andy what he’d do if he were Northern Ireland Secretary or Irish Foreign Minister.
“The noise of a typewriter was the soundtrack to my youth…” – Andy White on sleepless nights…
“Wow! You didn’t say Irish Foreign Secretary! That was really clever!” Slightly non-plussed, I carry on regardless, saying I knew that it was minister rather than secretary. He seems to have made assumptions about my accent correlating with a lack of feeling for Irish affairs; indeed the opposite is true. If I was non-plussed, he was thrown off-balance as well, but soon commences the narrative.
“Mo Mowlam has been amazing – she’s put up with so much stick and she really has been completely different from every other Northern Ireland Secretary in history. The Foreign Minister of Ireland… it doesn’t matter too much who it is, as the Taoiseach decides these things. What would I do differently? I think I’d give all of them the heaviest ultimatums possible. But I guess Senator Mitchell does that.”
It was a subject that did need mentioning, but rather than conclude with that I ask the finale. Where will he be in five years’ time?
“Relaxing on a beach somewhere in Australia. Oh, I’m sure to be playing music, but I’d like to be playing it on a beach in Australia. Yeah.”
With that he’s off to chat with his band about the forthcoming headline set. I’m left with a profound sense of relaxation as well; even on thorny issues Andy White seems to see a path through and imparts it to you with that Irish whisper of his in such a way that you never doubt him for a second. He is most certainly a gifted storyteller, but maybe it is time for him to be better known. A pop star with as clear a mind as this man would be a very refreshing change for the music industry.