By K. Whitlock
“IT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE THE FLOYD!”
THE QUIETEST PINK OF ALL CHATS TO KEVIN WHITLOCK ABOUT HIS NEW ALBUM
“Record companies tend not to like solo albums very much, even ours. There are a few million people out there who’ll go out and buy the next Pink Floyd record without hearing a note. There may be a few diehards who’ll buy my solo records, but not many.”
This is a strange admission for someone to make in the middle of a promotional interview for one such solo project, but Richard Wright, keyboard player and sometime vocalist with Pink Floyd, knows the problems of cutting himself free from a musical brand name trusted by millions. We’re sitting in London’s Groucho Club, talking through Rick’s third solo album, “Broken China”, which is really rather good. Largely improvised, it feels fresh and is surprisingly contemporary-sounding. His previous solo records haven’t been all that successful. “Wet Dream”, his first, was a rather timid affair which sold poorly and is now quite collectable in its gatefold sleeve. His second, “Identity” (1984), a collaboration with ex-Fashion singer Dave Harris under the name Zee, was more interesting, but was badly received by Pink Floyd fans, who still regard it as an aberration.
Even Rick doesn’t think much of it, and will only say of the record: “It was an experimental mistake. I haven’t heard it for years. I don’t think it should have been released.” However, Wright deserves credit for “Identity”: or at least trying something different; and for embracing new technology (in the shape of the Fairlight synthesizer).
“Broken China” also embraces new technology and is in part another collaboration: this time with Anthony Moore, ex of ’70s avant-rockers Slapp Happy (alongside Dagmar Krause and Peter Blegvad) and an occasional Floyd collaborator. Moore co-wrote some of the music, most of the lyrics and co-produced the record with Rick. He even provided some of the vocals. Rick credits him with being an inspirational presence rather than being someone who played “huge number of notes”.
Also on the record are a number of stellar musicians: Pino Palladino on bass, Peter Gabriel’s drummer Manu Katche, Floyd man Tim Renwick on guitar, Sinead O’Connor on vocals, Dominic Miller (of Sting’s band) on guitar, and Steve Bolton on rhythm guitar.
Don’t expect lots of upbeat songs – this is a four-part suite of songs dedicated to the thorny subject of clinical depression, particularly that caused by repressed childhood trauma. But don’t expect lots of Roger Waters-esque rantings either: Wright is much more understated in his approach, and the record works all the better for it.
RC: Are you pleased with the record?
RW: I’m very pleased. I actually sit down and listen to it for entertainment, which is something I never do with Floyd albums. I like the way it flows thematically. I personally find it more interesting to write an album with a theme, rather than just a collection of songs, as the last Floyd album was. That’s not a criticism of “Division Bell”, but that record was intended to be a more thematic one, but it never turned out that way.
RC: I understand you wrote and recorded the whole thing quite quickly.
RW: I formulated the idea for “Broken China” on the “Division Bell” tour: I actually had the whole opening sequence written in my head. As I had a very good idea of the form of the record, the intention was to write on tour, but that never happened. Then in October 1994, when the “Division Bell” tour finished, I re-equipped my studio at my house in the south of France. We started work at the beginning of 1995, almost straight away. Although it’s structured, it mostly comes from me improvising, which I think keeps things fresh.
RC: It’s a pity the Floyd don’t do that more often these days.
RW: The band was an improvising group in the beginning. A lot of rubbish came out of it but a lot of good too. A lot of that was obviously to do with Syd – that was the way he worked. Then things got a lot more structured when Dave joined. He was a fine guitarist, but he wasn’t really comfortable with all that wild psychedelic stuff.
RC: Is it true that you nearly had Jeff Beck in to replace Syd? History could have been very different.
RW: He was definitely approached. I can’t remember exactly what his answer was, but it obviously wasn’t yes!
RC: To get back to “Broken China”, why the collaboration with Anthony Moore?
RW: He’d worked with the Floyd before (on 1987’s “Momentary Lapse Of Reason”), and he and I worked very well together on the “Wearing The Inside Out” track (on “Division Bell”). He liked my idea for the record. Anthony’s a man of many talents, and one thing I’d never learned to do, believe it or not, is to use a computer to compose. I’d always had a kind of mental block about them. Using a computer opened up a whole new way of composing for me, made life a hell of a lot easier.
RC: I like the record because – apart from a few references such as the “Piper” Farfisa sounds and some “Echoes”-ish piano pings – it doesn’t sound like the Floyd.
RW: Part of it is down to the fact that my voice sounds completely different; I’ve never felt confident about my singing, because there have always been engineers and producers and so on hanging around. But this time I recorded the vocals completely on my own and I felt uninhibited enough to do all kinds of silly things. It’s certainly nothing like my vocals on “Time”, for example.
RC: Tell me about the album’s subject matter. You’ve handled it rather differently than John Lennon or Roger Waters would have done.
RW: A very close friend of mine was suffering from a clinical depression, something I knew nothing about. The record is about that, and about the healing process. I’ve never suffered from that kind of depression, but I wanted to write about my feelings about her illness. It’s my emotional response to her illness, rather than me talking about the illness, or how to cure it directly. The big thing for me was not to be seen to be using or profiting from other people’s problems. But in one sense, the woman who was going through this depression was collaboration too, because I was in constant contact with her. What I get from the record, and what I hope other people get, is an incredible feeling of release.
RC: How did Sinead O’Connor get involved?
RW: I always intended two of the songs to be sung by a woman; if I’m the observer, the narrator, then those two songs would need to be sung by the person that the illness is actually happening to. I immediately thought of Sinead singing “Nothing Compares To U”. I thought she’d be perfect – her voice and her sympathy toward the subject matter meant she’d be perfect. I phoned her up and after hearing the record she recorded her contribution straight away.
RC: Didn’t Dave Gilmour play on the record?
RW: He did. He said he’d do one, quite rightly. He said, “This is your album, not a Floyd album.” He came over and played on the Sinead song, “Breakthrough”. He played some really great guitar, but later Dominic Miller came in and played this acoustic stuff and it just worked better.
RC: Any plans for a tour?
RW: Not at the moment. But I’d love to – it lends itself to a really interesting live performances, quite theatrical with actors and so on. If we did do it, we’d extend it out to make it an hour-and-a-half show. If the album was a huge success, I’d take it out on the road, because I love touring.
RC: Who do you think the record will appeal to?
RW: In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the record sells one copy or 10 million. This is a record I felt I had to make. But obviously I was as many people as possible to hear it because I’m very proud of it. Part of the problem is getting people to listen to it. Where does it get played? There aren’t any obvious singles on the record, but we’re doing some dance mixes of certain songs, such as “Furry Toys” in order to get it played.
RC: What’s next?
RW: I’m already thinking about my next record, and I want to work with Anthony again. I enjoyed the whole process of this and it’s given me real confidence. I want to do something next year, I’ve already got an idea, and it’ll be very different from “Broken China”. There’s nothing happening with the Floyd at the moment, so all those Pink Floyd fans had better go out there an buy my new solo album, because they’re not going to get anything else! If you look at the Floyd, things now work in seven-year cycles: ’87 for Momentary Lapse, 1994 for “The Division Bell”. If Dave wants to do another album now, we’ll do it. But I don’t see it as being very likely at the moment. So the next one will be out in 2001 – a very appropriate date for a Pink Floyd album.
It used to be thought that Rick also played keyboards on a B.B. King album released in the 1970s – this turns out not to have been the case, however. And finally, as an aside, in 1988 Strange Fruit records released a 12″ EP (and later, CD) of a Syd Barrett radio session for the John Peel show. One of the five songs, “Two Of A Kind” (unavailable anywhere else) is credited to Wright.