MAV­ER­ICK: LAWRENCE

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

Q (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS michael clement

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.”

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