He’s one of the greatest songwriters Britain’s underground has produced, reinventing himself three times since 1980 with Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. So why is he basically destitute? Ted Kessler meets Lawrence in his East London council flat to talk l
The creative genius behind Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart invites Q up to his council flat in East London for a chat.
For someone so often characterised as peculiarly eccentric, Lawrence is a slave to disciplined routine. Every morning, he gets in his lift on the 12th floor of a council block of flats near Old Street, East London, and he rides down to buy a cup of tea from Cafe Fix, across the road. There, he also has his first cigarette of the day. “And I stick to this being my only cigarette of the morning,” he says, standing on the doorstep of Fix, as the bustle of the market continues around us despite the wintry drizzle. For a while, he found himself smoking very heavily. He was smoking as soon as he got off a train, or just walking from A to B. “I thought, ‘What are you doing?!’” So now he has one in the morning with his first tea, one with his afternoon cuppa, and plays it by ear at night, when he’s usually standing on his balcony, thinking about all the plans and songs and golden fires that burn in his head. He might smoke more then. “But this morning cigarette, this is great on its own,” he says in his soft Birmingham accent, a question mark and an exclamation mark both appearing at the end of each proclamation. “How many do you need?!” Fix is also where Lawrence routinely meets people who want to interview him about his work as the singer, songwriter and mastermind behind Felt in the 1980s, Denim in the ’ 90s, and Go-Kart Mozart subsequently. Really, he’d be just as happy coming to your office to do the interview. He always offers to do so. Journalists generally feel uncomfortable, though, about an exotic icon appearing at their desks. It cracks the imaginary fourth wall. So, usually, he meets them at Fix and then they head back to his flat. First, though, he has to clear something up. “Do you need the toilet?” he asks. If so, Fix has facilities for that kind of enterprise. Once, he let a journalist use the toilet in his home. That won’t happen again. We walk over to his block. Lawrence – stick-thin, wearing a Tesco-value sweatshirt, a long coat and his omnipresent baseball cap – looks like a malevolent but hip vagrant, Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy crossed with an electroclash Fagin, with just a touch of Dot Cotton. He consequently gets a lot of sideways glances wherever he goes. “It’s never girls, though,” he says, sadly. “Not like that anyway. They don’t notice me.” We get into his lift. His flat has been undergoing painfully slow renovation since it first appeared as his salvation in the classic 2011 documentary film by Paul Kelly about him, Lawrence Of Belgravia. That film ended with a slow tracking shot of Lawrence standing on his balcony, plotting a brighter future after years of intermittent homelessness, gazing out at panoramic views across Central London. It was just a film, though. “I’ve got a leak in this window,” he complains, explaining why the blinds are now shut in the living room. He’s been at war with the council about it. “They finally sent a guy round to inspect it and he’s going to abseil down the front to fix it.” His elderly neighbour couldn’t believe it. She said all the windows leak and they’ve never sent anyone around before. “I told her, ‘They haven’t met anyone like me before. I never give in. Never.’” The flat has saved Lawrence’s life, he reckons. For years he was in temporary council accommodation, being shuffled from one place to another, ending up in a hostel at one stage. He blames himself. His friend Pete Astor, singer with The Weather Prophets, told him when he first moved to London in the ’ 80s to get on a list for a council flat. “I was like, ‘No, I’m going to be living in a penthouse. I’m going to be a star! I’m not getting a council flat.’” He shakes his head. “Biggest mistake I could’ve made.” He was on the list for a long time, but now he’s in he’s not going anywhere. “They’ll take me out of here feet first in a box.” It’s why he’s so relaxed about the slow progress of decoration (“my fault again: I’m relying on a pyramid scheme of favours”). He’s finally settled. The décor will arrive eventually. We sit on his sofa. There’s only one change of circumstance that would make him consider a move, he says. “I do sometimes think, ‘What would happen if Emmerdale rang me up?’” he wonders. He fantasises about that, he explains. What would he do? It’s a dilemma.
“I love Emmerdale. What if they phoned me up and said, ‘We’ve got a part for some crazy tramp drifter, from Birmingham, who comes to the village and has an affair with Charity Dingle?!’”
“I love Emmerdale. What if they phoned me up and said, ‘We’ve got a part for some crazy tramp drifter, from Birmingham, who comes to the village and causes mayhem and has an affair with Charity Dingle?!’” He’d have a big problem, he reckons. Because he’d want to do it. He’d want to be in Emmerdale and he’d want to have an affair with Charity Dingle. He wants to cause some mayhem. But he doesn’t think he could. “I love Charity Dingle. She’s my favourite character. But I think I’d have to say no, because I’m not moving to Yorkshire. I’m not giving up this flat, even for Emmerdale. I do turn it down, even in my fantasy.” There must be a way around this, though, if Charity Dingle comes knocking. “I suppose if you’re a big enough star, you can keep the London flat and just go there and rent something. But I don’t think I’d be paid enough. It would just be a small part for a short time, and I don’t think the public would like me very much.” He looks into his huge Styrofoam teacup. “I mean, they never have before.” Let’s talk about Felt, then.
If it all gets too much, there’s things you can do,” sang Lawrence on Fortune, from Felt’s 1982 debut album, Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty. “To end it all now, or see it all through.” He was singing about killing yourself, but he might as well have been predicting his career as a musician, an uphill struggle that has often seemed either like the longest-ever career suicide note, or an unusually principled artistic stand – depending on whether you judge a musician’s worth by the number of people who love them, or by the stubborn originality of their work. Lawrence, now 56, wanted both accolades, but he’s had to settle for being a genius several steps out of time. Better than nothing, but he could’ve done with some money. “I love money,” he says, wistfully. “I’m a total capitalist. I’m just so poor. Literally, nothing. All my life. But if I had some money, you’d see. I’d do something really good. I wouldn’t let anyone down. I’m a great investment.” His career has simultaneously been perfect and a complete disaster. It’s been perfect because when he was a teenager in Water Orton, a small village outside of Birmingham, he designed the ideal underground group in his head. The songs would be intricate and elegant, he imagined, with guitars that weave like Television, full of melodic longing, and lyrics which would be poetic, romantic, knowingly pretentious, “like Patti Smith or Richard Hell”. They’d make 10 albums in 10 years, and then, at the height of their esteem, they’d quit. They’d be the underground band of the 1980s, come in at the start, see out 1989, quit, breaking everyone’s heart. Lawrence could ditch forever the surname of the family he always felt an alien in (google the name, if you really need to know). And the group would be called Felt. He imagined it and all of that came true, except for the bit about their esteem and the broken hearts. That went badly wrong. “When we announced our farewell tour,
we could only get six gigs. Six!” He shakes his head. The Stone Roses and The La’s were coming and when he saw them, he knew Felt couldn’t compete on their terms. “My gosh, we got out in time. But I always knew I was speaking to kids who hadn’t even been born yet, that our music would be discovered in generations to come. I might not even be alive to see us succeed commercially, unfortunately.” And what treasures lie in store for those future Felt fans. Felt divided into two periods. The intense first four albums and seven singles Lawrence made with his reluctant guitar-foil, the classically-trained, deeply original Maurice Deebank; and when Deebank finally left for good (“He got married and that was that. I’ve sacrificed everything. I heard he lives in a monastery in Birmingham now – so that’s ironic”), teenage keyboard wizard Martin Duffy, later of Primal Scream, joined and the group set off for more exploratory pastures: Dylan-like organ ballads, instrumental albums, spaceblues. The thread that ran throughout the journey was Lawrence’s vision. His words, his voice, his songs, his melodic ear, his artwork, his unerring eye for detail. As Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream once said, “there’s old wave, there’s new wave and then there’s Lawrence.” The commercial failure hurt, though, because Lawrence thought they’d quit as a massive cult band. So he was determined to do something about that with his next group, Denim (even though, essentially, it was just him and some session men). Denim were going to fuse his childhood memories and the pop melodies of the 1970s with the contemporary production values of the ’ 90s. They would be the opposite of Felt. No more indie, small-time nonsense. They’d be signed to a major. They’d write songs with big choruses, such as Middle Of The Road or The Osmonds, hits that everyone could sing. They were going to be a massive chart band. It all came true, of course, except for the success. That didn’t happen at all. “So many things went wrong behind the scenes, and it’s stressful thinking about it even now,” he says, “but the main thing was something I couldn’t help and I never can. We were ahead of our time.” Denim predicted Pulp’s Britpop incarnation three years ahead of schedule, and a grunge-based music world was simply not yet ready for it delivered in isolation. Here was a small, balding Brummie backed by members of The Glitter Band singing songs about the IRA and blowjobs. He needed back-up. He couldn’t do it alone. There were other issues, too. For example, the vintage session men in the band that Lawrence insisted upon playing live with made it prohibitively expensive to tour. And so, if you weren’t already in The Cult Of Lawrence you never sought them out because they were nowhere to be seen. The final straw was Summer Smash, the hit single he’d written for Denim to be released by EMI in 1997. “They said, ‘Give us a hit, write a real smash.’ So I did.” EMI loved it. More encouragingly, radio loved it. It was going to be hit. Then, on the day before its release, Princess Diana died in her car crash and EMI decided that pop songs about smashes were in bad taste. They incinerated the single before it even came out. That was it. After two exquisite studio albums, one compilation and a still-born hit-single, Lawrence retired Denim before the debts crushed him. He took it very badly. “If I was a boxer,” he says, “I’d have been counted out. I was on the deck. I wasn’t getting up. I was knocked out.” He says he’s not bitter. “It’s one of my strong points.” But to see his friends and contemporaries such as Primal Scream and Pulp, fellow “literary frontmen” as he calls them, succeed commercially through nothing more than right time/right place circumstances so soon after he’d been comprehensively in the wrong place at the wrong time again, stung. “I thought, ‘I can’t do it any more.’ I’d had enough for good.” Beaten, he retired from music and public life. Then, three months later, he started work on the first Go-Kart Mozart album. What choice did he have?
Lawrence’s productivity dramatically decreased in Go-Kart Mozart. He made 12 full studio albums with Felt and Denim in 14 years. He’s made just four in the 19 years since Go-Kart Mozart’s first in 1999. Yet, on the face of it, the Go-Kart Mozart records should be much easier to knock up. They’re his “B-sides band”, the “novelty rock group” he formed to take the heat out of his grand plans. “When you make a B-side, you let yourself go,” he explains. “I needed to stop thinking so deeply about it because Denim was big budgets, big studios. It was a trial. I wanted something carefree.” If it’s so carefree, why does it take so long? On a practical level, it’s hard financially to make a record now for Lawrence. He still has an obsessive attention to detail, but he’s not able to pay for the things he needs to make the kind of record he wants to hear:
crystal-clear, ultra-modern pop. Shiny, hi-definition sounds. The best musicians and backing singers. His records go through Cherry Red and, with respect, that’s not their bag. He has to beg, he has to borrow. He asks friends if they can help him out in their lunchbreaks. That’s how he pieced together his new album, Mozart’s Mini-Mart. “I didn’t even ask Cherry Red how much I could have for it,” he says, “because it’d be much less than I need. It’s soul destroying. It’s hard being the only full-time person in a part-time set-up.” The other reason for his reduced productivity is what he calls “real-life” problems. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but his heroin use was not only briefly flashed in Lawrence Of Belgravia by way of a methadone prescription. It’s also an explicit topic of several songs he’s written since the last Denim album in ’ 96, which featured Glue And Smack. “I don’t talk about it,” he says, evenly. “Because it’s boring. I don’t want to be one of those pop stars who try to gain credibility for their lifestyle. The guy from Depeche Mode.” Dave Gahan? “Yeah – shut up about it, man! It’s some kind of badge of honour for these people.” Yet despite this, it’s hard to think of many other modern songwriters who’ve laid their addiction on the line so clearly in song. Usually as the chorus. Plead With The Man (“De Quincey shines in my mind’s eye/ When the man’s coming round with the gear”). At The DDU (“That massive shot of meth won’t hit you at the DDU”). Donna & The Dopefiends (“Hey Donna, come on! I need to score!”). Should we just talk about these songs instead? “They’re bulletins,” he says, with a smile. “Jack Kerouac said, ‘Don’t ask me, just read my books.’ It’s all there and when I’m dead, you can put it all together. Even if you’re a poetic, imaginative, metaphoric writer you have to put yourself into your work.” Lawrence has been all of those things. He’s been a poetic, imaginative, metaphoric writer who puts himself into his songs. He’s also been a social commentator, beautifully summarising the past in Denim and nailing the grime of modern Britain in Go Kart-Mozart with daring, garishly funny lines a million miles removed from Felt’s poetry. He sings that he’s a “sardonic Lucifer” on the current album, a description that’s apt, but distinctly removed from the wistfully earnest youth fronting Felt. His catalogue of songs is deep and uniquely varied, stretching across nearly 40 years of composition. And yet, you’ll never hear the tracks he wrote before Go-Kart Mozart performed by him again. “I’ll never play the old songs,” he says, seriously. “I’ll never play Felt or Denim.” He knows he could solve a lot of his money problems by touring the old songs now, but he won’t. “I’ll never do it. I want to do something new. I’m the one musician you can rely on for that. Tell everyone. I know lots of musicians and I am nothing like them.” He’s more like a film director or a great painter, he thinks. “Lots of great painters, if they lived to 80 they’d carry on doing brilliant new stuff. You wouldn’t get them painting the stuff they did at 25 again, just for a few quid. People call me mad, but suggesting that’s a good idea, that’s mad.” He brings up LCD Soundsystem re-forming so soon after their farewell concerts. “If I was that guy [ James Murphy] I would be hiding my head in shame. A farewell concert, farewell album of the concert then a couple of years later, ‘Oh, I’m back!’” Lawrence is incredulous. “I’m not saying he should go to prison… but maybe. People flew from around the world for those farewell concerts?!” Lawrence is nothing like James Murphy. “I can’t think of anyone who’s done what I’ve done,” he says, both proudly and forlornly. “I sit here at night and think, ‘God, I feel so alone in the music world.’ I don’t relate to other musicians. I have completely different thoughts. I’m on my own. I’m right on the edge.” The only person he thinks is like him, shares his attitude in only looking forward, is the man who gave Felt their first gig, as support to The Fall: Mark E Smith. “It’s just me and Mark E Smith,” he says. “We’re alone out here. We’re the only two left you can rely on.” Ten days later, Mark E Smith dies.
If there’s one subject that has been a constant throughout Lawrence’s songwriting, it’s death. Few writers have so thoroughly examined the unbearable lightness of being as Lawrence. In Felt, it was routine for him to philosophically discuss mortality, both his and humanity’s. Now, it’s more broad and satirical, if possible, as on A Black Hood On His Head on Mozart’s MiniMart, where he watches a prisoner executed on TV. In Felt, he even lay a riddle about his death, when on Declaration he sang, “And I will have, as my epitaph, the second line of Black Ship In The Harbour…”, sending Felt fans scurrying back through his old songs to Black Ship In The Harbour. Its second line? “I was a moment that quickly passed…” In the end, Lawrence comes to the Q office after all. It was that or Cafe Fix again, so we meet in the building’s reception a few weeks later, not because he needs to talk about Smith’s death, but because I do. If there’s one
person who’d have an insight into it, it would be Smith’s old cohort, Lawrence. He’s flicking through a copy of Q when I arrive. “Can you get me a copy of your St. Vincent issue, please?” he asks. “I love her.” There’s a rack of TV, celebrity and soap magazines behind him. Would he like one of those? “Oh no,” he replies, “I’ve already got all of those.” We head to a small meeting room. “This is perfect,” he decides, upon entering the tiny, sterile cubicle. “It’s so tidy.” The death of Mark E Smith ambushed him. “I’m on my own now, I suppose,” he says, not unhappily. In his mind, success is a ladder and his work is on a certain rung of that ladder. With each event – a new album, the film about him, even this interview – he moves up a rung. Though a great artistic light went out when Mark Smith died, it also created a space on one of those rungs. A space only slightly above Lawrence. “It’s going to be really slow to get to the top, but I’ll get there.” Smith’s death made Lawrence question just how much time he has. “First thing I thought was, ‘Gosh, how many albums have I got left?’ I’ve got to return to the Felt days when I was releasing them quickly.” He has designs in that respect. Firstly, there’s a final Go-Kart Mozart mini album later this year. “Then I’m mothballing the group. Give the world a chance to catch up. People always get into it when you stop it.” After that, a total change of direction looms. “I’m making a singer-songwriter album. Stripped-back, really direct, really personal. Guitars again. I’ve got so many songs for it. The complete opposite to Go-Kart, that’s for certain.” The big dilemma for Lawrence is whether he can squeeze another project he has in mind out before the singer-songwriter venture. Or whether he can get anyone to fund it. “I’ve written a Christian rock album.” Christian rock? “Yeah. Heartfelt pleas to God and Jesus. It’s not taking the mickey out of Him. Because I’ve noticed millions of people buy these Christian rock songs. I thought, ‘I could tap into that, that’s a market for me…’” What Lawrence hopes for with his money-
“I sit here at night and think, ‘God, I feel so alone in the music world.’ I don’t relate to other musicians. I’m on my own. I’m right on the edge.”
making Christian rock album, is that “some big Christian singer in Texas” covers the songs, thus making Lawrence rich. Meanwhile, Lawrence fans will “see it as another piece of the jigsaw. ‘Oh, what about that Christian rock album he made?! That was incredible! And he finally got that penthouse!’ They’ll get it, but the Christians won’t know who I am.” He can’t find a label for it, but they’re making a big mistake. The first single is called, simply, God Is Great. “And I’ve got a good album title too: Jacob, Abraham, Noah & The Other Cats In The Bible. Eight songs. Each a future Christian classic.” The sardonic Lucifer cracks a broad smirk, and then readjusts his poker face. Is he joking? Could it be a step up the success ladder for him? Who knows. It’s nothing, really. Just a moment that quickly passes.
Home sweet home: chez Lawrence, Old Street, London.
“A catalogue of songs deep and uniquely varied”: (from top) Felt’s The Splendour Of Fear ( 1984); Denim’s Back In Denim ( 1992); and Go-Kart Mozart’s Mozart’s Mini-Mart ( 2018).
The cult of Lawrence: (clockwise from left) far right, in Felt, 1980; right, in Denim, September 1992; in Go-Kart Mozart, 2002.
“I’m a total capitalist. I’m just so poor. Literally, nothing.”