Ė Jud Cost interviews Martyn Leaper
Martyn Leaper, the late-blooming pop wizard behind the Minders, is so tunnel-focused as heís sorting through a spaghetti-like mountain of wire - trying to make the correct electrical connections onstage at San Franciscoís Great American Music Hall - that he doesnít even notice Apples In Stereoís Robert Schneider bellowing at him from the wings. Schneider, a delightful guy with the patience of a mosquito, finally hops onstage and bodily drags Leaper over to meet me. Leaper and I had recently spoken on the phone about his wonderful band, the Minders, whose third album Golden Street is, by far, their best effort yet. Itís also their first long-player to be cut without the presence of Robert Schneider. Leaper is one of those people you immediately feel youíve known for a long time. Now living in Portland, Oregon, Leaper was more than happy to discuss just what makes his combo tick and in the middle of fixing some musical equipment as he answered the phone.
PT: I get the feeling you have an appreciation for vintage musical gear, Martyn.
ML: I have very old equipment. Itís simpler and easier to work on. A lot of things today sort of go off lead after a while and people will say, "Oh, weíll just throw that out and get a new one." The amplifier that I have is a beauty, an old Silvertone that packs a massive punch. And itís very simple, all hand-wired, so if something goes wrong itís fairly easy to pinpoint the problem. I like things that are stripped-down and make sense. You look at these computerized things today and say, "I could never work on that." There are some very good synthesizers out there today, but they all look so loaded with different options. I just like the simple old things that when they break down arenít impossible to fix.
How old were you when you moved to the States?
I moved to the States when I was sixteen. My father, my mother, two sisters and I moved to Colorado in 1984. My father was an electronic engineer working in Germany at the time for Digital Equipment and requested a transfer to Colorado Springs. Iíd been kicked out of the boarding school I was going to in Germany because I wasnít doing very well and wound up back in England going to a comprehensive school, the Montgomery El Alamein Boys School in Winchester. It was amazing. You walked into the foyer of the school and there were portraits of both Montgomery and Rommel (laughs).
OK, enough of military history. What got you into music as a kid?
My favourite bands growing up were anywhere from Madness to E.L.O.
Funny you should mention that, because I can hear some faint echoes of Jeff Lynne in your voice.
Oh, yeah! I actually saw E.L.O. in 1982 at the Munich Olympia Stadium for the Time album - it had the single "Hold On Tight." I was a fanatic. I had all their records. I still have all their records and still listen to them. Production-wise, theyíre phenomenal recordings. You can hear everything from Doo Wop to the Beatles. Jeff Lynne has a great ear for arrangement. I love all that stuff. I think he was an absolute mastermind of pop music.
Iíve done a couple of interviews with Jason Lytle of Grandaddy and heís a huge Jeff Lynne fan.
Oh, I love Grandaddy. Yeah, I can hear that on one of those Grandaddy songs, (sings) "Gotta get outta here." Thatís so E.L.O. The only thing that was sort of dismaying about E.L.O. to me when I got older and I started to appreciate lyrical content was that it was definitely lacking in that band. But Grandaddy, no way! Theyíre awesome. They have an awful lot of substance.
How did you first bump into Robert Schneider of Apples In Stereo?
Iíd moved to Denver and was going to school at the Institute Of Art, where I first met Robert. Heíd just recently moved there, too. I met him through a high school pal of mine who was also an XTC fan. Robert had boasted in this local article that not only was his band, the Apples - this was before they added the "In Stereo" bit - the greatest pop band in the world, but all the bands on the Elephant 6 label were the greatest pop bands in the world. My friend Joe bumped into (Apples drummer) Hilarie Sidney working in a record shop and she told him to come on down and check them out. So I went down and met Robert. He was immediately very amiable.
Did you have a band at the time?
I was in a band at the time called the Henrys. Iíve been in a ton of bands - a death-rock band. I was even a drummer for a heavy-metal band called Jokers Wild (laughs). But I didnít have long hair. I had a crew-cut and a four-piece Gretsch drum set. I was the odd man out. The Henrys was my band, a three-piece and very much XTC-inspired. "Golden Street" was one song that we played. We did two recordings, but nothing I would share with anybody. We were together for at least a couple of years. Then I got into this louder band called Ink, a noisy, grungey kind of band. Our bass player was into Les Claypool (laughs). Two different worlds! I was still writing pop songs and these guys didnít want to do that.
Knowing Robert, I bet he had something do with getting you into the studio.
All that time Robert was saying, "Hey, we should record those songs you wrote with the Henrys." So when Ink broke up and I didnít have anything, he said, "Letís do a single." We actually started the band together. I came up with the name. Robert played the bass and lead guitar and Hilarie played the drums. Thatís how we got it started, more of a project than a band at first. I knew I wanted to write some fairly solid pop songs, do a single and get íem out. Then Rebecca (Cole) became the drummer. Weíve been together seven years now and married for five years.
Did you get a lot of "second division Elephant 6" notices in the press?
Oh, we got that all the time. I mean, we did. Weíre being compared less and less lately. We got so tired of it. For a very long time we couldnít have a review without it. It seemed like there were only three bands that counted and the rest were forgotten. People would say stupid shit like we were the "second generation." I mean, we were an album behind, but I resented that "second-generation" stuff. All of us have been involved in this kind of music for a long time. Itís not old enough to have a second generation. But itís been the story of this band from the get-go. Weíve either been compared to those bands or our influences. But everybody comes from somewhere. Buddy Holly came from a various number of influences. Nothing just pops out of nowhere.
So you get not just the E6 comparisons but the "retro" thing too, I imagine.
Somebody told me recently he thought of us as a throwback. And I can see itís very easy to say that. But a lot of bands today are borrowing from other sources. The newest new craze these days is New Wave (laughs). But Iím 33 and I remember it pretty damn well, and I have to say I love a lot of that synthy pop stuff. Are there any original New Wave bands out there? Well, Stereolab draws from such obscure influences maybe you could say theyíre original.
Well, who is totally original anyway? Certainly not the Beatles or the Stones or Bob Dylan. Nobody creates in a vacuum.
Iím not just trying to wriggle out, but I donít see it, man. I only know a certain way of singing and writing. I could try and affect something, I guess. But this seems a little more natural. I enjoyed and had a very difficult time making that record. I got a lot out of it. I learned an awful lot. I wanted to learn essentially how to write songs other than two-minute pop songs. And weíre still learning. Iím working on ideas now for a new album and I feel really refreshed--and a little scared, too. Can we keep it fresh with new ideas? But it keeps continuing to grow. We will try anything. Weíre getting a lot out of making music right now, which is beautiful. For the first time weíre starting to feel comfortable with our live set. When you start out youíre really self-conscious, and thatís a healthy thing. But I feel a little more confident about the things weíre doing.
Are you a perfectionist in the studio? It sounds like maybe you are.
Iím fairly critical of my work. If thereís a weakling (song) we try to weed it out. I am a perfectionist, but thereís also an alarm that goes off in me a lot of the time. To a certain extent, Iíd tend to ignore it with this last record. There are a few reasons for it. For one, I was incredibly nervous about having full production duties. Robert wasnít there at all. The first album he was very much in control and I liked that when he said, "Hey, look, youíve gotta trust me. Letís make this record." I more or less just stood back and it was a very good way of working together. Obviously, it was very open. It was a wonderful experience making that album, at the same time doing a record with someone I highly respected but doing it the way I wanted to do it. With my other bands the engineer wouldnít even let you go near the board. But Robert takes great pleasure in finding sounds. Heíll spend all day getting the sound heís looking for and heíll fucking get it.
One last Robert comparison and then weíll let it drop. I hear quite a bit of Arthur-era Ray Davies/Kinks in both of you.
Yep. Iíve listened to that record quite a bit lately and it really struck me. Iíd never really listened to it before that closely. To me, it was the kind of concept record that was perfectly not a concept record. It was loosely affiliated bunch of songs strung together to make some sort of a concept. The songs stood out on their own. I donít think of it as anything. Like Tommy. "Some Motherís Son," Yes Sir, No Sir" go deeper than any song on Tommy. Two years ago I went back to England and stayed with my grandmother whoís in her early 90s. Sheís had the same neighbours for 40 years. It was that time of the year and all of that clicked. All of those stories on that record are true. "Arthur, the worldís gonna pass you by." I have a member of my family who fits that description exactly. I suppose you could listen to Arthur in the middle of the Grand Canyon and not get the same thing, but I had it all in front of me.
So, what made you want to write songs in the first place?
Well, Iíd been a pop fan for years. I would sing along in the car, sang along to stuff on headphones. It was just wanting to sing along to stuff all the time. Wanted to do it since day one. I can tell you the first time I was absolutely blown away by pop music. It was 1977 and it was (E.L.O. album) Out Of The Blue. I think I saw "Mr. Blue Sky" on Top Of The Pops and I knew thatís what I wanted to do. I was nine at the time. I canít think of anything else that really gets me going. I paint - I went to school for that - but I havenít done that in a while.
Did you feel out of it in 1977 with friends who were into punk?
No, because I enjoyed that too. E.L.O. was on the radio the same time as Elvis Costello: "Oliverís Army." No, we listened to anything. On Radio One, as a kid, there was a mishmash of everything on there. For four years, that was the greatest pop in the world. You had not only great punk but great pop. And I can listen to, and get pleasure out of, both. Iíd been in louder, dissonant kind of bands, but I didnít want to do that anymore. I wanted to do what I truly, truly love.
So, whatís with the ten-minute track on the new album, "Nice Day For It"?
That is our longest song ever, by seven minutes (laughs). That was a lot of fun. It was a crazy, "the worldís a polluted mess" kind of psychedelic pop song. And weíd never gone into that territory before, with a crazy, rock-out jam at the end.
You credit an old friend of mine, Jeff Saltzman, on the new album. Has he ever played his Cerebral Corps album for you?
No, he wonít let me hear it. I keep asking him, "Am I going to hear that record at some point?" and heíll say, "No, no, I donít think thatís possible." I know itís gotta be good.
Iíll send you a tape of it, if you like.
Well, I wouldnít want to do it behind his back, because he really doesnít want me to hear it. I really enjoy working with Jeff. Actually, I just did something with him recently. He mastered a track for this split-single weíre doing with Tobin Sprout of Guided By Voices. Jeff did a great job on the Stephen Malkmus record. Heís quite the engineer.
Do you feel part of this new Portland scene? The Dandy Warhols certainly get a lot of press.
Well, thereís definitely a scene. And I suppose weíre affiliated with a couple of little corners of the local scene. We hang out with the guys from Magic Marker. Then thereís a band I recorded called the Kissing Book. We play with shows with them. Weíre playing a show tonight with Luther Russell. Thereís a lot of different cliques in Portland, a great musical town. Weíve been here three years now.
Why did you move from Denver?
We felt a little stifled there, maybe a little bit in the shadow of the Apples. And we wanted to experience something other than our own scene. There wasnít really much more going on in Denver other than our own little thing. And I felt that was dangerous. And I also wanted to go to a place that was colder, temperature-wise. Denver in the summer was brutal. Weíd played a show out in Portland the year before and had a better response than we got in Denver. And I thought, "Wow, this is a great place." Weíd play in Denver once a month and no on would ever come.
I get the feeling from the new album that youíre not afraid to try anything.
No, and you shouldnít be. Weíre making records, godammit. This is the only time Iím going to be able make records. Maybe I wonít ever be able to do it again. Fuck, once youíve got this chance to make records youíve got to grab it. I donít have any hirable skills outside of this. This is the only thing I know how to do. And Iím going to keep doing it as long as what weíre doing isnít something thatís just cooked-up. It comes straight from the heart. We do it because we absolutely love it.
Are you ever discouraged by shallow, off-base record reviews?
We do get brushed off by the press mostly. (U.S. magazine) AP recently described us as being just Meet The Beatles, which I donít agree with at all. But that just hardens our resolve a little more and go wherever we want. I have noticed that music critics are pretty much a buddy club. Whateverís determined as the cool record of the month is gonna be boosted.
Are you, as we like to call it in the States, bi-coastal faves - popular on both coasts with a tougher slog in between?
Itís funny, you know I was terrified of the East Coast the first time we went out there. New York and Philadelphia seemed so daunting at the time. A band like us, people would turn their noses up. But now, the East and West Coasts are the two places we look forward to playing most. Every time we play San Francisco we have a great time. Thereís a level of enthusiasm that you just donít see in other towns. We played a great show there recently with the Pernice Brothers.
Would not being able to do this send your life into a tailspin?
Without this I wouldnít say my life would be over. Iím fairly critical of my work. If thereís a weakling (song) we try to weed it out. But if it got to the point where I felt we werenít doing anything good, I would definitely move on. But, then again, Iíd like to get to that point where Iíll never stop doing it completely. At some point I can see where we wonít be putting out records every year. Thereís a limit to what you can write about, I suppose. Or maybe there isnít.
Written, produced and directed by Jud Cost, © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 2001