Interview – Bid of The Monochrome Set

The Monochrome Set are more often than not cited as an influential band. They were part of a wave of groups in the late ’70s that released their early material through one of the first independent record labels, Rough Trade. Johnny Marr of The Smiths once mentioned his and Morrissey’s admiration for them, as did Franz Ferdinand. Although considered an ‘art school’ band, The Monochrome Set were so before Pulp or Blur; they were ‘art school’ when it was cheap to attend, that is, if you ever turned up at all. Although it’s tempting for bands that were part of the ‘new wave’ to cash in on the UK’s rampant ’80s nostalgia, you get the sense that songwriter Bid of The Monochrome Set still cares greatly about the quality of the material that he has been releasing in recent years. He reformed the band in 2010 and since has put out three new albums, Platinum Coils’ (2012), ‘Super Plastic City’ (2013) and ‘Spaces Everywhere’ (2015). Our Events Promotion Co-ordinator Lottie Brazier does the honours of talking about all this with him:

Lottie: The title of your new album with The Monochrome Set ‘Spaces Everywhere’. What is this in reference to?

Bid: It’s sort of about loss. This is something that happened in the film business, quite a few decades ago. When stars were dying they weren’t really being replaced like for like if you know what I mean. And now in showbiz it looks as if the life expectancy is around 70, like with David Bowie and whatnot. Prince was the same age as me. There are talented people but there isn’t the mechanism for taking talented people and making them into stars.

Lottie: Going more back to The Monochrome Set as a band, has the line-up changed around you or are there any other constant members?

Bid: Lester Square has been in the band since when we started, but he left last year. He’s just not that interested in being in a band anymore… You get to that point! Andy Warren wasn’t a founding member but two years into the band he joined and so he did the first album with us. Since then we’ve had other people coming and going.

Lottie: Lester Square’s guitar playing is quite idiosyncratic and has had a big influence on people like Johnny Marr.

Bid: In terms of being influential, the way that the lyrics are written and the melodies are written or constructed, and the use of guitar (in the sense that the guitar is another melodic instrument). We have sections in our songs which are set aside and the guitarist plays melodies over the vocal melody. And that’s kind of the way [The Monochrome Set] are! I think this comes from the late ‘60s, but in a subtle way we took it to a different level. It was not very often that you had a lead guitar part playing an alternate melody over the vocal melody.

Lottie: And how about your own rhythm guitar?

Bid: [laughs] is it a style? It’s just guitar really! It’s just having learnt… It’s a bit jazzy I suppose. It’s a fairly full sound. A lot of people write with a few chords on guitar but I learned various techniques and things like that which I think just expand your songwriting. I wanted to learn about chords and the way you can play them, using open strings. When you’re sitting down to write a song you just have a palette of things you can draw from automatically. You play guitar as well don’t you?

Lottie: Yeah I do actually!

Bid: So you know what I mean then. Songwriters use specialist craftspeople around them to prepare a certain path. Songwriters also tend to know more about music than anyone else, just because it’s actually coming from them, so they’re actually writing the chords for the piece. But I think that you have to learn as much technique as possible. Not to be distracted by it, just so that when you go in automation mode and you start writing, you just have a lot more to draw from; your fingers will just start playing some things and the melodies come, stuff like that. A lot of guitar players, particularly songwriters will not do that. They’ll just use barre chords and then it restricts them because after a few years they’ll run out of ways to play.

Lottie: Would you say that the influences that you have as a songwriter are different now to when you first started? Have they expanded?

Bid: Not really. I’m happy to be influenced by everything in the 20th century. Apart from anything past the mid eighties where things started to get really repetitive. But I mean I’ve been influenced by twenties and thirties music through to the sixties. I listened to all that and occasionally I still do. It was a time when people didn’t especially know what they were doing. I’m not very interested in genres. I’m only interested in listening to creative artists. Creative artists are never part of genres, but they might start a genre. But as soon as everything becomes a genre, it’s no longer interesting, no longer art. You know what art is? [laughs] The time it came out it wasn’t any genre. But as soon as it becomes that [part of one] it’s just copying. But that’s not to say that people can’t be influenced, because there are people I know, where one of their influences might be me. But it’s not like they’re copying me. It’s kind of just an inspiration or a particular way of doing things.

Like a painter might go into an art gallery… Most painters, fine art painters when they go into galleries aren’t really looking at the painting! They’re looking at the ways that the artist has painted. They walk in there and they instantly know what it’s all about. They understand everything that’s on the wall. But what they’ll be interested in is the way that someone has done something. And then they’ll go off and somewhere this’ll go in a big melting pot in their head. And then it’ll eventually just come out.

Lottie: I do think it works a bit like that. So you see the process involved more in terms of inspiration as a platform or springboard, rather than ‘Oh yeah, I’d like to imitate that style or way of playing’.

Bid: It’s disappointing sometimes when I speak to people, and craftspeople as well – when I mean that I mean really good drummers or bass players. And I kind of exhort them to listen to go to YouTube and ask them to listen to a particular drummer or bass player. They’ll be doing things that you think ‘Wow! I just never thought of doing things like that!’. And it’s inspiring. And so they’re someone you should listen to – it’s fun to be constantly expanding how you’re doing something. Because it’ll come out in two or three years’ time, it’ll suddenly start creeping into the way you play. And the best I can hope for myself as an artist, for artists, is to show that they can do things in a certain way. It’s not to copy me but it’s just to think ‘OK, yeah I’ll do this and I’ll do that

Lottie: In an early incarnation of The Monochrome Set, you had a filmmaker called Tony Potts on board with the designing of your sets.

Bid: When we had J.D. Haney in the band, he was a drummer from the beginning of The Monochrome Set and he lived in a squat in Brixton. And Tony Potts used to live in that same squat with a lot of other people. And that’s where we used to rehearse and so that’s where we met him. He was at the Chelsea School of Art at the time as a filmmaker, and after four or five gigs we just asked him to come down and put some of his projectors up with some of his films on. It just went from there. It wasn’t really planned, it was a bit of a lark, you know. In those days, people used to get paid to go to art school, they could have a grant, now you get into debt as soon as you hit 19. So nobody goes into art school anymore, which is a shame. And so that’s really how new wave started; there were loads of places in London where you could live in a squat for free, get paid to go to art school and you wouldn’t have go there! But in the meantime, you’d be in a band. Or you’d be making films. That’s just what happened, you know. All kinds of people were milling around, doing various things.

Lottie: So was being in a London band quite different to when you first started to what it’s like to be in one now?

Bid: I don’t know. I think there are more opportunities to play in London. But there’s no support. In Manchester, if you’re a Manchester band and you’re half good… Manchester is very Manchester orientated! So everything in Manchester is great and everything else is rubbish. But at the same time you get a bit of support. And you do in Glasgow, you probably do in Paris. You don’t really get any support in London, because it’s such a free-for-all. And it’s a very outwards looking free-for-all. There’s no real gel… I mean the sales are really down. And it’s very very difficult for any band… When I was young, after 4 or 5 gigs I had a hard-core following of 50 people and now it’s virtually impossible for any band now to kind of get anywhere. And that’s just the way it is. Society is too heavily loaded, there’s not enough money… Society goes through periods like that. And in Germany, not so much now but for quite a while it was good. I’d see what’s happened in Sweden. Sweden’s a fantastic place for coming up with young bands, but there’s been nothing in Sweden for quite a long time. It’s actually a lot to do with financial pressures; it’s more expensive to hire a venue in Stockholm than it is in London. So there’s no real music scene in Sweden at all, despite the fact that for 20 years, it was coming up with the most fantastic indie bands. Societies just go through periods.

Lottie: Talking more about things you’ve been involved in outside of The Monochrome Set, am I right in thinking that you worked with Franz Ferdinand at one point?

Bid: Alex [Kapranos] was in a band called The Blisters, and then they changed their name to The Karelia and I produced that album. The Karelia – it’s the name of a Greek cigarette! They were kind of a jazz band, they had a trumpet player. I sort of lost contact with him for a while, for 2 or 3 years and then suddenly the next thing I knew he was on TV, being a popstar. Which I found really funny. We ended up being sort of friends, but we’re both busy and we only talk once in a while.

Lottie: Is all of this online still, or is it lost to the Myspace void?

Bid: Well I think you can still buy that album. You can probably go to YouTube and hear some of it.

Lottie: Is there any important info for fans to bear in mind before your gig at the John Peel Centre?

Bid: We put out that ‘Volume, Contrast, Brilliance… Vol 2’. But actually, in part of the winter we’ve been recording a new album. So that will be out in September. That’s what we’re waiting for. We’re in the post-recording period where we’re all completely fucked! This is a full time job… I do some other things. Now we’re just relaxing and recovering. So that’s really it. If you’re doing a lot of writing and recording you go into a blank state a few weeks afterwards and that’s the state I’m in at the moment. So yeah, I’m blank!

The Monochrome Set will be playing at the John Peel Centre on 18th June. Tickets still available at a very reasonable £10 on We Got Tickets.