Red Box Simon Toulson-Clarke interview
Red Box have just released a new album, ’Plenty’ through Cherry Red Records and the band’s Simon Toulson-Clarke answers our 10Q’s…
What are you currently up to?
We are playing a series of gigs in people’s Living Rooms – very intimate! And during the warm weather we played in anyone’s Garden who would have us, which turned out to be more fun than is decent.
We plan a larger London show before Christmas.
We are also recording some new songs – like painting a large bridge, it never stops! In addition we are looking at making Orchestral versions of some older songs.
If ‘Plenty’ does OK, Cherry Red plan a ‘Best Of..’ and we are beginning to think about what that might be.
Right now we are excited about a possible collaboration with a 3D projection artist for something in 2011 which is a little bit secret, so I’ll say no more..
Could you take us through the songs on your excellent new album ‘Plenty’
We recorded this with a string orchestra at British Grove, Mark Knopfler’s beautiful studio in Chiswick. When we heard the first chords it sounded like an overture to us. Opening the record rather than closing it makes the song’s message ‘just stay and listen awhile.’ (As for the girl – she got away.)
Finding the inner calm in whirlwind love. Originally titled ‘More’ until everyone kept asking ‘What’s the name of that hurricane song?’ We delayed mixing the album in order to finish this track. Emily’s vocals (‘a thousand miles away …’) were added late in the game and we realized we had found the end of our song.
A song about the missing piece. We tried to keep this from being too anthemic, maintaining the sense of longing – strange since we’ve been told it’s one of our lusher recordings. Total failure there, then.
The journey is always worth it, but sometimes the way forward is, in fact, the way back home. The certainty of someone’s love is enough.
It’s the enlightenment that time throws on your own past; a song of grateful redemption, about being glad to be making a sound again. Embracing the past and maybe learning something new about it. In a case of art imitating life, this song reminds people of our first album The Circle & The Square.
Some people just make the day a little brighter!
‘I’VE BEEN THINKING OF YOU’
Exactly what it says on the tin: you just can’t get them out of your mind. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? It’s the hurt you love.
‘DON’T LET GO’
Love thrives on the edge. When it’s good it’s great; when it’s not it’s hanging by a thread. There’s a fine line between surviving and … not.
‘SAY WHAT’S IN YOUR HEAD’
We may share a home but I still want you to come calling on me. Be open, be true, be yourself, you are the one I love.
The street noise at the end was recorded by setting up mics right outside our studio in London, NW2. If you live in NW2 and hear yourself in the background, the cheque is in the post.
Entirely recorded in one session. In the middle of the take, Del, feeling he wasn’t contributing, put down his guitar and went up to the control room. He took a cup of tea with his left hand and tinkered on a Rhodes piano with his right. When we finished playing, Del said ‘Sorry everybody, just ignore what I was doing there.’ Luckily, the engineer had left his channel open and recorded a lovely piano part alongside our first (and last) speculative take. Fittingly, the song is about appreciating the faults of someone you love.
We always felt the dynamics of this song came in waves, and that between each wave there’s a moment of silence before the next one sweeps in. Alastair Gavin’s orchestral score reinforces the sense of remorse and longing we were looking for.
‘LET IT RAIN’
For those of you still paying attention, I guess ‘longing’ has been a recurring theme. The rest of the band are having Thai food, so I can say what I like now. Everyone had a go at the guitar part; they were all useless. It was me, me, ME.
Hey, they’re back …This features brilliant ensemble playing from every member of the band. This song is about the guy who posts bad reviews of us (that’s right, we’ve been watching you!).
‘NEVER LET IT BE SAID’
Part affirmation, part manifesto, part prayer. Amen!
3. Why did Red Box call it a day back in the 90’s and what have you been up to between then and Red Box reforming?
I thought that a good pop group should have some hits and then gracefully retire!
In 1991 I also came to the conclusion that our relationship with Warner Bros was unlikely to improve. We simply disagreed about direction. And unless we toed the line they didn’t promote us.
In my heart I felt it was better to live to fight another day rather than dumb it down: I always felt we would make another record at some point, it seemed an unclosed chapter – musically, we were still rich with ideas.
I didn’t imagine it would be 20 years later, but that’s how long it took to gain the experience and equipment to make an album in our own studio, with total creative independence.
In the intervening years I produced and wrote songs for (and sometimes with) other artists, I learned to be a sound engineer, and how to build Red Box’s perfect studio!
In the 80s Red Box was our family, an extended tribe of our own, and making music was our sole concern. Now we each have real families, and music works around those lives – it feels healthier and more real. It’s a lifestyle thing. It just takes a little longer…
4. What sort of audience are you expecting for the new album? Will the band’s fans from the 80’s come back and how will you go about trying to promote the album to a new set of listeners?
We expect nothing and hope for something!
The truth is that making another album is totally driven by the MUSIC. We had no idea to re-form, but found ourselves playing, jamming and improvising as friends do, and we were all smiling and joking about how it sounded like songs, like a band. It grew from that – we built a studio and just carried on, writing over 60 ideas to make these songs.
So our expectations are no more important than the process (sometimes the journey is enough).
Having said that, we’d be absolutely delighted if the album is well-received. We don’t know if our fans from the 80s will come back, we can only make the music honest and true. We have always pursued ideas that excited us (WE are fans of the band too!), and can only hope they still share our view. The challenge now is to make those fans aware that there is life in the old dog yet! Having spent all our pennies making the record sound good rather than on PR, we know that fan’s word-of-mouth is extremely important to its’ prospects.
5. You were one of the first people to successfully meld world music and pop music into your songs back in the 80’s. Did the record company at the time try to resist this and was it perhaps Red Box were a band ahead of their time?
It is true that our record company didn’t share our passion for weaving world influences into pop music; they saw little commercial prospect in it and were not slow to tell us!
When we had a couple of hits, I expected this problem to subside, but actually it just seemed to inflame it. They certainly felt I was being provocative in writing ‘For America’ in response to their request for a song that would appeal to the American market, and, given that Warner Bros. is a US label, defying them may not have been the best career move we ever made.
Timing is everything in music, and I would certainly like to think we were ‘early’ rather than ‘late’. But back then, World Music was really just beginning to gain a foothold here, and it easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight.
6. What have been the live highlights for you and why?
Playing live is just so enjoyable that it is hard to pick one show, or one night. But, since you ask so nicely, I choose a fantastic evening in Venice as our ‘standout’ gig. It was the last night of Carnival and we played to a packed 10,000 crowd many of whom were in costumes and masks, right in front of the Basilica in St. Mark’s Square. We used an art gallery full of Italian Masters as our dressing room, and were escorted to the stage in a ‘stretch limo’ speedboat complete with armed guards. It was a very glamorous moment.
My other great memory was another open-air event in Mexico, though for different reasons. Our plane touched down in the middle of a tropical storm and the pilot clearly couldn’t see the runway. I think the gig was good because we were all so surprised to be alive!
7. Cherry Red have been re-releasing Red Box’s early albums with ‘Motive’ to follow next year. How did you hook-up with them and have you been pleased with the reaction to these so far in terms of reviews and fan feedback?
They approached us about the re-issues some time ago, and we were delighted because Warner’s had shown such reluctance to make those albums available.
We like the people at CR, so I mentioned that we were recording a new album and, given the success of the re-issue they were interested in that. We played some early mixes to them, they liked it, and we did a deal. We have a common history in that they released our first ever record ‘Chenko’ back in the early 80s, and it felt right to complete this particular circle.
We have been very pleased with the reaction. I like to think that Red Box’s records are very committed in their given direction. Each one is different, of course, but there is a thread, and it seems that there is a better appreciation of this idea now, than there was back then.
8. In this age of downloads and declining CD sales has the internet helped you get your music out there or has it in some ways hindered it by websites offering free downloads etc
A very good question. I think we all in the music business must be excited and attentive to the possibilities, rather than afraid of the changes. The old model is dead or dying and it is up to us to explore new ones. It is not the first time technological advances have radically changed music. At the advent of recorded music many musicians feared for their future and yet, overall, it led to MORE possibilities rather than less.
I welcome the very direct contact we can now enjoy with the people who are interested in Red Box – in fact the activity on the web surrounding the band has actually kept the idea alive, kept us breathing, and given us independence from the major labels. It is up to us to be creative with it. I believe the key is ‘Quality’. If the music is good, it will be heard. In this respect, the internet can only help.
9. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from music?
What spare time? Hahaha!
We travel whenever we can. One of the ideas central to ‘The Circle & The Square’ was personal freedom, and we have always found being on the move inspiring creatively.
In truth, we enjoy nothing more than hanging together and making music and most social occasions usually end up with us back in the studio. As good friends, it is our activity of choice, which is a very lucky thing. We try and capture that warmth in the music.
10. Anything else to add and a message for your fans…
Well, I would like to thank them for keeping the band’s heart beating all these many years. We may not be the most well-known group but I think, in terms of fan passion and devotion, we are right up there! It is preferable to us to be ‘really important’ to fewer people than ‘mildly interesting’ to many.
So my message is: Thank You, and please continue to Spread The Word!
Oh, and if you like ‘Plenty’ we promise to make more music much sooner than 20 years…