7th November, 2008

Promoting his new solo album The Cross Eyed Rambler, Paul Heaton takes some time out to chat to Student Direct about how to write a great song, using Wikipedia to get a record deal, and the evil that is Walkers crisps.

Paul HeatonPaul Heaton, for those who are wondering, was the chief singer, songwriter, and all round communist of The Beautiful South, one of the biggest British bands of the late ‘80s and early 90s. Formed by ex Housemartins members Paul Heaton and Dave Hemmingway, the band became well known for Heaton’s dark, sarcastic and whingeing lyrics played over chirpy indie pop melodies. Songs such as ‘A Little Time’, ‘Song for Whoever’ and ‘Old Red Eyes is Back’ gained the band a devoted following, and Carry on up the Charts, the band’s first “best of” album, went down in history as the fastest selling British album. The band split up in January 2007, citing “musical differences” as the cause, but Heaton didn’t take retirement.

You’d think with that kind of résumé, getting a deal for a solo album wouldn’t be so hard. “It was devastating”, says Paul. “I finished the record, went on Wikipedia, and took down all the still going independent record labels”. He emailed 30 different labels (along the way finding out that 10 of them weren’t actually independent, but had recently been swallowed), and got two good responses. Five said no, without even listening to the record, stating that they “didn’t think there was a market for it”. Without listening to it. Yes, without listening to it. From that perspective, it’s interesting to consider how independent record labels that do this can survive, a notion that prompts a characteristically guard-dog like reaction from a man who, in his youth, was “left of Stalin” in terms of politics. “They exist on ripping bands off, and the bands you can rip off are the bands without managers or lawyers. Young bands. They sign them to a dodgy deal, before they [the band] know what a dodgy deal is.” “There’s also a bit of a John Peel ethic, you know, don’t touch somebody who’s had such chart success.” But to not want to listen to it first? “Bizarre”, he says.

Heaton has long been known for his song-writing. With lines like “with a choice between loneliness and love-sick QE2’s, well tonight I choose self-abuse” (‘Tonight I Fancy Myself’) to “Life my girl will take away that optimistic skip, stick its big foot out and try deliberately to trip, substitute young hope with arthritic hip” (‘Deckchair Collapsed’), for anyone looking for tips on how to pen an interesting chart topper, he’s your man. “I don’t think you can be too specific” when writing, he says. “If you’re too exact you start sounding like you’re punching the air a bit. Leave a little bit for the listener. Like ‘The Pub’ (a song from the new album). Let them think, “yeah, I know that pub”. Don’t fucking call it the Green Dragon, call it The Pub”.

The great British pub is one of the many issues close to Heaton’s heart, and with its mention springs a good five or six minute conversation about the “5000 pubs closing down a year in the UK”. “That makes me angry”, he says. “Everything about that part of our society has gone skew-wiff”. Preferring a rough pub filled with varied characters and the risk of a glassed face to a “bar full of business suits and wankers”, Heaton attributes the slow death of the “centre of the village society” to a rise in bar culture, and Tesco’s vending of cheap booze. Oh, and the Tories.

The Tories have caused Heaton much anguish, but ranking right up there is the inadvertent forcing of him to terminate his crisp packet collecting. “I do have an incredible collection, and that’s putting it modestly”, he admits. But those days are over. “When I was a kid my politics were to the left of Stalin” he jokingly states, but “I was always told “if you vote Tory then you’d have more choice”. But they didn’t have anything against monopolising everything”. “In my life, Walkers…my fucking daughter will never taste a packet of sausage and tomato crisps…Walkers have taken over. It’s Walkers everywhere.”

Politics is a “real strong vein” through Heaton’s life, as is arguing. “Everything is political”, he says, “and I can argue with that bottle over there. You can leave me in the van by myself and I’ll have a political argument”. “So it’s good to put in songs. Every song is a political song. If you look at charts and you look at a particular month when there wasn’t a song about anything, but there was a big crisis, say the Iraq war. All those people have decided not to talk about that in song. That’s a political statement, not to write anything.”

If you did know who the Beautiful South and Paul Heaton were, then you probably would have been wondering (before 2007) if they would ever go away. But Heaton has plenty left in the tank to rant about. Plus, when asked what he’d be doing if he wasn’t putting his politics to music, he looks visibly worried. “Err…err…when I was a kid I wanted to be a fireman, but I was scared of fire. I think I would’ve just been a real sad loser, I can’t imagine anything else I would’ve done.” So, when he writes that “nothing’s black and white no more, just permanently tanned”, the future for Paul Heaton is quite definitely orange.