Following Mansun‘s dramatic split in 2003, the myths and rumour surrounding a Paul Draper solo record have continued to swirl. Fans of the band desperate to hear what the enigmatic songwriter had been concocting after the dramatic and painful disillusionment of one of the ’90s most idiosyncratic and successful bands were left to speculate feverishly at the time about its existence and when it would be released to no avail. Recording sessions for a solo album were shelved in 2004 and Paul Draper disappeared from view in the middle of a crisis of confidence, fans left somewhat bereft by the complete radio silence from a songwriter who crafted such wonderful albums as their string laden grandeur and dark wit of their 1997 debut Attack of the Grey Lantern and the myriad of ideas contained in its follow-up the experimental concept album Six and the ill-fated Little Kix, their last official release as a band. Draper claiming that lead guitarist Chad tried to sack him from the band several times following the release of Little Kix: “(Chad) didn’t want me to be the producer or the songwriter and he wanted me replaced by another singer and for the band to be more like The Seahorses, remember that band with John Squire? He wanted the songs to come out of jams in rehearsal rooms”
In the years since Paul gradually returned to public view, songwriting for Skin, working with Menace Beach and The Joy Formidable then after a fan petition, he agreed to work on a release of the unfinished sessions for their fourth unreleased album Kleptomania and a ‘Best Of’. Then after various fan petitions and a Mansun fan convention depicting just how strong the Mansun fan community was, even after twenty years since their first album, in 2007 news came that Draper had started working with Catherine Davies (The Anchoress) on producing her debut album. After two EP releases on Too Pure, it’s finally here, the much discussed solo album from Paul Draper. It’s been a long, long wait and whilst perhaps it won’t receive the same commercial attention it would have back in the early ’00s, it’s still a much anticipated artistic statement and a full stop on a myth that’s existed for over a decade and whilst it doesn’t push many conceptual and sonic barriers like Six did, it’s well worth listening to. Dark, brooding, and ripe with percussive rock grooves, layered synths, and shuddering crescendos and laced with Draper’s trademark bittersweet, melodramatic theatrical vocals that swoop with disappointment and injected with searingly honest lyrics.
An attempt to capture a more live band sound, released last week Spooky Action doesn’t try to push much beyond the Mansun sound, indeed any song with Draper’s vocals on is going to remind you of them, thus it surfs the lines between the sonic experimental concept album Six and the more accessible anthemic, lyrical duality of Attack of the Grey Lantern yet it sounds rawer and heavier than both. Choice cuts include the infectious groove of ‘The Things People Want’ the intensity of ‘Feeling My Heart Run Slow’ and songs that point towards a possible future with a psych, voodoo rock of ‘Grey House’ and synth pop of ‘Jealousy is a Powerful Emotion’ that’s redolent of peak Depeche Mode as played by a proper prog rock band, featuring five tracks co-written with Catherine Davies that reflecting on his life, at times exhaustively laying to rest ghosts of the bitter turmoil and betrayal he experienced during the disillusionment of Mansun, it contains some of the most personal and brutal lyrics he’s ever committed to record.
I meet Paul after a record signing at Spillers records, to say it’s somewhat of a surreal experience for me interviewing a man responsible for records I loved to death, in the late 1990s is an understatement made all the more unusual by the animal rights activists on Cardiff’s St Mary’s street that drown out the first five minutes of our interview outside a pub, before we retreat inside. Slightly tired from an in-store a gig in London the night before and the travel to Cardiff the day after, nevertheless he appears in fine form; an honest, engaging, funny and interesting interviewee. Here are the answers to my questions and those of Mansun fans who sent me them:
I heard you played an in-store last night?
I played a three-track acoustic set last night in Rough Trade in London. The set was ‘Friends Make The Worst Enemies’, ‘The Inner Wheel’ and then I ended with ‘Disgusting’ but I had to take a break half way through because the lyrics blew away. I don’t even remember lyrics from this album never mind Mansun ones.
Did working with Catherine help reignite your passion for songwriting again?
Catherine (The Anchoress) had the drive and energy to stand out from the sea of shit out there on the internet and to make herself an alternative pop star. She co-wrote five songs and she sings backing vocals on the middle eight of ‘Feel Like I Wanna Stay’ on the album. She’s a big part of it, if that project hadn’t took off I wouldn’t be here doing this or talking to you.
In the years leading up to the confirmation of new material, you were once quoted as saying (something to the effect of) that you didn’t really like singing anymore, not even in the shower. Did you go through a phase of being tired of your singing voice, and how do feel about it now?
I don’t like my own voice and I don’t like singing but I like making records. Spooky Action is no different to The Anchoress record or the rest of everything I’ve ever done, except I’m singing on it.
You originally started solo record years ago but shelved it didn’t you? When did you come back to this material?
About 18 months ago. I was never going to do it but my studio in Acton got taken over so I had to relocate to my engineer’s studio Pdub, it became obvious when I was working with Catherine there was still the interest there and for the first time, I thought about it again.
When Mansun split up there was fevered speculation online about a solo project…
Mansun was such a nasty break up of a band and I had the wind knock out of me, I never saw myself as a solo artist until I saw the amount of fanship on the internet when doing the album with Catherine. And you can’t turn that down, once you’ve got thousands of people saying yes 20 years after the fact. If Beyonce had come along and asked me to produce her I probably would have done it, I would have made more money but now I’ve done it and I’m here in Cardiff, and it’s awesome.
‘Feeling My Heart Run Slow’ feels and sounds intense like you are being placed in the eye of a very intense maelstrom…
Well ‘Feeling My Heart Run Slow’ means laying low for a while after you’ve been fucked over. Lyrically, everything I did on this album was very very quick. I’d been through such a massive experience that I just wrote the same song out 11 times. Then Catherine stepped in and said you keep writing the same thing 11 times, so I changed the words around, it’s all part of the same story of me in coming out of Mansun, and that’s probably why they’re all a bit dark.
The lyrics on ‘Spooky Action’ are brutally honest. Is there a sense of settling scores and reflecting on being taken advantage of in the past or are they more of a “getting things off your chest”?
There’s no settling scores, there’s no bitterness. If there was settling scores and bitterness I wouldn’t be doing music again. I wouldn’t be here talking to you. It’s just a thought process I’ve had over a long time. Some people will understand some of the lyrics and relate to them, other people won’t. Some of them are obvious others are obvious to the people involved.
Well, even the titles like ‘Jealousy is a Powerful Emotion’ and ‘Friends Make The Worst Enemies’ – they are pretty direct messages. I read somewhere that you felt like you had been taken advantage of in Mansun?
Well, some are pretty obvious, really. I felt like in Mansun they had a good laugh at my expense, but time is a great healer. If I’d have released it at the time it probably would have been a disaster straight after the fact. But the lyrics are still true to how I felt, when I picked those things up 18 months ago and just finished them, they reflected how I felt then, but after finishing the record now I don’t think about it.
Why Spooky Action? I hear this dark shadowy theme running throughout the songs…
The title came first; it came from part of a lyric (on ‘Feeling My Heart Run Slow’). When we started the album and the more spooky it got, the more it went into the title. Conceptual things aren’t usually the place of someone with a genius mind who comes up with an amazing idea, I’d say they are developed more on the fly. I wouldn’t say there’s an amazing concept with Spooky Action other than they are a raw set of feelings laid out on a record. A raw arc of saying the same thing 11 times. When I came back to finish the album off and I revisited the tracks and that place, but I couldn’t have gone back to that place unless I’d resolved it in my own mind. I would say you move on but you never really deal with it fully; it’s an ongoing process of catharsis, but isn’t life like that? Isn’t music a reflection of life?
I hear the themes of mental well-being and anxiety from songs like ‘The Inner Wheel’…
Well, I was pretty fucked up after Mansun. Well with ‘The Inner Wheel‘ there’s a big story to it at the end of the album. I’m asking a question: Is ignorance bliss in life or should you seek a resolution to it? But there’s a double meaning to the song because at the end of my street is a bench and I always sit on it because I haven’t got a garden and it says on it ‘donated by the inner wheel’. I thought the inner wheel was a cycling club but it turns out it was the female masons or something. It’s like the cycling ground of things in my head, so it has a double meaning. If you listen to the end of the song you’ll get it.
I get a really dark and proggy vibe from the album sound. Was this intentional?
On this album we left it pretty loose; they want to equalise everything very tightly these days. My record was based around playing in a room. There’s a looseness and there’s a groove to it; the darkness emerged, we are Welsh, man – if you are Welsh you have the funk, man. I was born in Liverpool but moved to Wales when I was zero. My band has the funk in it. It’s more accessible than Six but not quite as accessible as Grey Lantern; it’s somewhere in between. If the record company had left me on my own to make a record that’s probably what the third Mansun album would have been, instead of trying to make us into a pop group. At the time everyone was going mad for us after Six, but we were a big pop band. Now I’m an independent artist on an independent label. I mean I could have done it differently, I had an offer from Sony and Universal to do this album but there would have been compromises.
It might have ended up a bit like Liam Gallagher’s upcoming major label solo album..?
I’ve heard three of the tracks off the Liam Gallagher album – two I really like. But it’s very of the now, it’s very modern. Mine’s very DIY and live sounding.
What are the themes that inform your new single ‘The Things People Want’?
It was one of the last lyrics I wrote about the anger of coming out of Mansun and the realisation of where you are in your life. I should have written I want a Ferrari sport, massive mansion, a house in Barbados and eight million quid in the bank but I changed the lyrics and the reality is somewhat different. Yet I’m living in a flat with no garden so I sit on the ‘Inner Wheel.’
Was there a conscious effort to move away from the Mansun sound with your solo work?
How can I escape the Mansun sound? Yeah, I don’t want to diminish the other guys involved but I was the main protagonist in it.
But you’re still trying to experiment with that sound. There’s things like the psych ‘Grey House’ and the shadowy ‘Poke The Bear’ that possess experimental elements?
I think you always want to be relevant, have a balance between that and the art. If you’re a Mansun fan I think you’ll like it, if you’re into like Shania Twain or Kesha, Katy Perry or Ed Sheeran then you’ll probably think it’s a crock of shite and I’m fine with that. I haven’t tried to be commercial on this album at all. There’s some songs on the album with hooks on them. With Mansun, we wrote singles and we were the pop music of our day, but I can’t be arsed anymore.
How different is releasing an album now compared to back in the late ’90s when you were with Mansun?
When Mansun was a big band we were the pop music of our day, I was a pop star, and now I’m just an alternative artist, I don’t have any pressure to get in the charts or anything. I think this album is relatively accessible – if anything it’s a bit long winded. I could have pushed it harder and made it more odd but we’ll see how it goes. It is a balance but it just happens; I haven’t tried to write any singles. You’ve got to remember in Mansun, our manager would call us up and say ‘give us a hit rekkid, give us a hit rekkid’ [laughs]. If you’re Katy Perry, I’m sure you still get that. I’ve just done an album, released a couple of EPs I am seeing how it goes. I will play some gigs and try and enjoy it all.
Mansun releases always contained a plethora of themes and inspirations particularly ‘Six’ it was almost like a jigsaw puzzle at times trying to piece together the ideas… What themes have informed your solo recordings?
It’s not a conceptual piece but there’s an over-riding arc of me not thinking too hard about the lyrics but just writing down what happened to me in the band. It’s not about a super hero coming down to save the planet or something!
I saw a programme on BBC4 about concept albums recently and Six by Mansun was a glaring absence, did it start out as a concept album or was it more a case of pulling all the of the ideas/songs together into one record?
We could have gone down the route of having another big pop album instead. I look back now and think maybe I should have. I’d have a house in Barbados now. Suede did their Dog Man Star but they made a conscious decision to make a pop record with Coming Up and there’s nowt wrong with that. We had some bits of ideas and songs, that’s all we had.
I read that you weren’t even talking at the time?
I wasn’t mates with those guys at the time. I was ready to throw the towel in, but they persuaded me to come and do it. We weren’t going to walk away from it.
What are your thoughts on anniversary re-releases/full-album tours, given that it’s always so many years since something was released – Six notably due to turn 20 next year.
There’s going to be an anniversary reissue of Six next year. I’ll do a couple of Mansun songs on my upcoming dates but it will mainly new stuff.
It’s 20 years since the release of the Attack of The Grey Lantern this year. Could you ever see a record like that getting to number one in the charts now?
Well, it depends. Stephen Wilson could. But it’s the age of the established artist; in the ’90s you could come out of nowhere. Spotify has made the established artists a lot more important
I wonder if Spotify has just reinforced major artists sometimes, people listen to it like background music and that’s made music bland as a result.
Most people drive Ford Fiestas, listen to Ed Sheeran and go and watch super hero films; people like middle of the road stuff.
Little Kix remains a lovely, oddly uplifting record with some fine singles. Given the difficulties and compromises you’ve described as hindering the recording of the album, are you able to hear the good elements in it?
I think there’s loads of good elements until the ‘Next Life’, ‘Forgive Me’, ‘I Can Only Disappoint You’, ‘New Beginning’, ‘Comes As No Surprise’, there’s loads of good elements on it – just fucked it up. The production wasn’t right and we didn’t pick the right songs. I was not the producer, I was not even allowed to take part in the mixing side of it.
You have spoken about how you can’t envisage a Mansun reunion, but how do you feel when you see other ’90s acts getting back together such as Lush, Ride, Stone Roses et al…?
Well, it doesn’t bother me or affect the Mansun story. Mansun had our own thing really. I can’t tell you if we would ever get back together; the other guys took the band over from me. It would be their decision really. Maybe I wouldn’t even be in it?
What! It would be like the Jam without Paul Weller…?
Yeah, from the Mansun, yeah there’s a band called From the Jam. I’ve yet to see the full stupidity of Mansun’s other members.
In recent years you have collaborated with quite a few bands and artists including Skin, Menace Beach, The Joy Formidable and of course The Anchoress. Who would be your dream collaboration?
Well, that’s it now, that chapters over. It depends on how this goes but I think it’s going alright so far. My next project after this is me again, that’s as far into the future as I can see.
I saw you posting about the greatness of Talk Talk on Facebook. Why do you think they are a bit under appreciated?
I just thought they were a great pop group from the eighties when I was a kid but they also went a bit leftfield and stuff with ‘Laughing Stock’ and Mark Hollis’s solo album. I am sure there will be a BBC4 documentary at some point there’s a lot of rumours about them.
What current songwriters/artists/bands are you into?
Alabama Shakes. I like them. I’ve been listening to some of the Cabbage stuff that’s all right, and The Blossoms‘ album. Everything is a bit ’80s and shiny and poppy these days. I like Beak> stuff – that’s cool too; Geoff Barrow from Portishead‘s solo stuff – it’s lo fi which is a nice reference for my solo work. The equipment you have these days that you have to put a lot of effort into making it sound shit.
You are playing your first shows for a very long time, are you nervous? What can we expect for the forthcoming tour?
It’s mainly going to be new stuff. I’m a bit nervous and I need to get into shape for it.
Would you consider playing Cardiff again?
Yeah, we will come back in February and March to play Cardiff.
Are there plans for more singles from the album?
We are going to do a couple I think. We’re going to do a 7″ around the tour in September. We’re going to a new single from the album with an acoustic version of one of the tracks on the b-side; a different version from the album.
Paul Draper’s Spooky Action is out now on Kscope.
Paul Draper plays a sold out tour of the UK in September with a full live band that includes regular studio collaborator Catherine AD (the Anchoress).
These are his first solo live dates. Paul will play at:
Thu 14th Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
Fri 15th Manchester, Gorilla
Sat 16th Glasgow, King Tuts
Thu 21st London, Scala
Fri 22nd Bristol, Thekla
Sat 23rd Birmingham, Institute 2
Photo: Kevin Pick