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06 March 2018

INTERVIEW: Phil Sutton of Pale Lights.

I was introduced to the music of Pale Lights through my pal Jack Rabid, editor and publisher of Big Takeover Magazine. The band’s music is timeless and seems drawn from the same deep well of 80s indie pop that continues to enchant me to this day. The band’s music is a sort of dream pop meshed with Kiwi pop influences. Phil Sutton (vocals/guitar) was kind enough to answer some questions about the band’s history and their great new album.

Phil, when did you get started in music? Were you a band geek, or did you have an influential family member with a great record collection?
My parents weren't music nuts, though they liked listening to it. There were no instruments in the house, and we weren't particularly encouraged to play, though I think I always had a hankering too. Always drumming on the table. They had a record player, with records by Abba, Nancy and Lee, Esther and Obi Ofarim, The Seekers, a single Beatles LP (The White Album), The Carpenters, Crystal Gayle: all pretty MOR, 60s and 70s, but stuff that's either ingrained in me (The Seekers) or that I still love (Nancy and Lee). My Mum always had BBC Radio 1 or 2 playing in the kitchen. All very pop. I guess that's why my songs have verses and choruses. Not much Stockhausen in our house!

As I got older I developed my own tastes, mostly chart music at the time: Blondie, Dexys, ABBA, The Jam, then 60s pop, followed by the usual teen 1980s fodder, The Smiths, New Order, Aztec Camera, Go Betweens, Orange Juice, etc. I lived in a Conservative market town that I was happy to leave. The main outlet for music was Woolworths, so I would buy what was in the NME that they had: The Wedding Present, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello spring to mind. Stuff that was a little edgy, but that made the Top 40. Later, I went to 6th form (17-18), then art school in Banbury. Me and a few friends got into the whole indie thing, the Jesus and Mary Chain, C86, felt, Creation bands like the Jasmine Minks, Biff Bang Pow!, the Blue Aeroplanes, The Pastels, Talulah Gosh, all that. Some of us wore striped tees, paisley shirts, suede jackets, or skater/BMX stuff (not me - too weedy) all that stuff.

Back then it wasn't called twee, it was called shambling, or cutie, or Pastelism. There were a lot of goths, crusties and punks in Banbury, and we'd end up at the same parties. But there weren't many indie kids. About 7 of us. I went to art school with 3 of Ride, so when they arrived for a brief pre-fame stay, that made it about 10 indie kids in Banbury. They were from Oxford, so most of us Banbury types used to go to Oxford to see shows, mostly at the Jericho Tavern. Oxford then was buzzing with bands, home to Heavenly, The Jennifers (later Supergrass), On a Friday (later Radiohead), The Razorcuts, Swervedriver, Carousel, The Anyways. Probably lots more I've forgotten. The Jericho was the place to see music in the late 1980s / early 1990s. A friend and myself promoted shows by McCarthy, The Wolfhounds, The Driscolls, Ride, and the Inspiral Carpets. We ran out of money before we could put The Siddeleys on. We practically lived at the Jericho. Tavern in fact I moved to Jericho area with my then girlfriend. I saw Morse being filmed.

Can you tell us about your previous bands (Comet Gain, The Soft City, etc.)? Did anyone in Pale Lights play in those other groups with you? I hear threads of your current sound in The Soft City, though you weren’t singing back then. What made you decide to take lead on vocals?
When I was in Oxford, I shared a flat with two fellas, one of whom worked at the local indie record shop, Manic Hedgehog, a store he was slowly bankrupting by overstocking the shelves with too many indie pop records. 50 copies of the new TVPs record, which only three people would buy. Even though most of the clientele wanted rave 12 inches - those were the times. Dave Hedgehog (as he was known) would put labels on the records with lines of closely written script telling you why you should buy this 7 inch by The Claim, or The Dentists, or whomever. I thought he seemed like an interesting chap, so I talked to him (at a BMX Bandits gig, of course). He needed a roommate, and a drummer. So, Comet Gain was born, in Oxford, in 1992.

Comet Gain was originally a three piece. Well we were a two piece, just David and me, making terribly recorded demos in his room, him playing a really crap guitar through a tiny amp, me hitting the yellow pages with paintbrushes (no conceit - I would have used knitting needles), and taping everything. David released some of the early things we did on tape and sold them through the Rough Trade shop. Then he told me we had a show in London, in the Bull and Gate, opening for Huggy Bear, Blood Sausage, and a bunch of other acts, as part of the Huggy Nation, a thing Huggy Bear had going. David and myself were joined onstage by his friend George Wright, who travelled down from Glasgow, and Dale from Blood Sausage. We improvised mostly, I think. We didn't even know who was going to sing until we went onstage. It was probably a right racket. An old housemate of mine said a few years later it was the best thing we ever did, and we went downhill after that!

After that, in late 1993, David auditioned Sarah Bleach as a co-singer, but he wouldn't let me in on the audition, which took place in his room. Which was odd! I could hear them practicing from my room next door. The next thing I heard was that Sarah's college friend Jax Coombes was now our bass player. Then David said he'd found a guitarist, Sam Pluck, and were going to London to play a show with the Voodoo Queens, Blood Sausage, and Mambo Taxi. Only we weren’t rehearsing, oh no. That would be too obvious. So, the four of us went to London, where we met Sam, and we got on stage together. Now scratch bands can work, if everyone knows the songs. We were an unmitigated wall of twee noise, trying to play Dexy’s Midnight Runners' "Plan B", a song I couldn’t even remember, which some of us didn’t know. We could not play (maybe Sam and Jax could), but we got away with it. That was the times. Underground POP, Riot Grrrl, punk rock, lots of experimentation and racket. The NME hated it, but we had a ball. It was political, but enormous fun too.

We were equally shambolic when we opened for Bikini Kill some few weeks later, at the Jericho Tavern. We were so bad, I stopped playing and hid behind my drum kit until it was all over. David did a song with Kathy from Bikini Kill called Tight Pants, Fat Butt. The promotor/sound man Mac hated us, and said we were the worst band in Oxford. A review by indie pop fan scribe Chris Fish in the local paper said that in music the most interesting groups often occupy the edges of the spectrum, the very best and the very worst. He gave us a good review. We were the new Shaggs!

After that we rehearsed once or twice (possibly literally), played with lots more great bands (The Pastels, The TVPs, Cornershop, Bis, I forget), signed to Wiiija, did some Peel Sessions, and made some records. We split in 1996, somewhat acrimoniously as it turned out, but inevitably, as the band had two strong songwriting teams, with different ideas about pop music, both equally valid. Some people were very angry about the split, most of whom weren’t even in the group. We’re all old and weepy now, so we are on pretty reasonable terms. I really enjoyed the early days with CG. and I think Riot Grrrl was our punk rock. Perhaps the biggest impact was that I’ve always wanted to be in mixed gender groups since.

After Comet Gain, I was briefly in Velocette, with the faction that left Comet Gain, before starting my own group, Kicker, with my then girlfriend and some friends. We had a lot of fun, especially early on, spent more time in the pub than in the rehearsal room, but were still pretty competent. We made a couple of records with the Track and Field Organization, which include a few songs I think are pretty good. Kicker ended when I emigrated to the US.

I first heard your music through our great mutual friend, Jack Rabid. How was it playing at his 35th festival? Did you attend his 30th anniversary festival? That was amazing.
Jack has been very supportive, which we really appreciate. He gives so much time for so many acts like ourselves who would not (and don’t!) get coverage otherwise. And it’s nice seeing something in print. That reminds me, I need to renew my Big Takeover subscription! Do it today people! Playing the 35th anniversary festival was a great honor, and a lot of fun. We played with New Lines too, which was special. They’re a great group, with two excellent LPs under their belts. I actually knew Allison from back in the UK, where she was in a group called the Eighteenth Day of May. Kicker and they shared a guitarist, an old school friend of mine, Ben Philipson, who now plays for Bonnie Dobson and Comet Gain (still doing folk rock and indie pop!), and who has his own group, the excellent Trimden Grange Explosion. Wandering off topic here and talking about loads of bands. Perhaps a worthy rabbit hole excursion, a bit Rabidesque maybe!

How do you manage to sound like so many of my favorite bands, yet manage to spin your own original sound? It is a classic, sunny sound that ushers in hints of the late 80s (Go Betweens, Chills, Lloyd Cole, for example) but is utterly modern. And it’s so entrancing, that Flying Nun meets Velvet Underground by way of Postcard sound.
I don’t know. I’m not really a musician. I can barely play the guitar - as anyone who has seen us live can attest! But I love to write songs and get them recorded. It’s quite low budget, and DIY, and rooted in my love of sixties, and melody, but still wanting to write lyrics that are interesting. Amateurism was rife in the 60s (the Beatles were self-taught, couldn’t read music), and in post punk period. I think it’s somewhere in that. Pale Lights aren’t professional musicians - though I think Suzanne has the chops, and Andy has recorded and toured at a higher level with Crystal Stilts -  but we do it the way it comes out, I think. I don’t know how to make it sound different without Gary Olson doing loads of crazy things in the studio. It’s a budget thing too. Little time (like the 60s) and little money (like DIY/indie in the 80s). Maybe. I’m not moaning though. I’d hate to have a big budget. Wouldn’t know what to do with it!

How does the band approach songwriting in terms of who comes up with lyrics, music, and arrangements? How about recording and touring? I assume you must all have day jobs that are flexible enough to allow time off for tours (like going to Berlin, for example).
I write the songs, bring them in fairly fully formed. Then the others play what they want. I generally find it more interesting if I let people do their thing. I’d never say, play it this way or that. I might say can we have an acoustic on that, but not much more. We all work days. Working gives us the flexibility to buy airline tickets to go to Europe! We’re playing Germany more like a holiday than a potential revenue earner.

Are there any specific elements that inform your songwriting? For example, film and literature seem to influence a lot of artists.
The Monkees. I write a tune, sing gibberish words, and then see if there’s any kind of mood. Sometimes I’ll write lyrics that relate to my take on a film, or a book, or short story. Port of Shadows is based on my memory of watching the film. The Night Tells No Lies is Mamma Roma remembered. Two of my favorite films. Heroic tales of failure from the point of view of a man in one, and a woman in the other. Both amazing films. Please watch them if you haven’t. Anna Magnani and Jean Gabin are two of the greatest actors ever. The performances are very different, but incredible. Really weighty, very adult acting. No fluff. Back on point, a lot of my songs are looser, based on dreams, memory, a sense of things. Lots of metaphor.

Compare and contrast your two full length records. What do you like about both of them?
Hmm. They’re not that different really! I think the new one hangs together better as a set of songs. There’s no slow song on the new LP. Not sure. I’m too close. I always think they’re crap just before I release them. I’m happy with them. They’re pretty much what I hoped they’d be.

How many songs did not make the record? In other words, do you have a large backlog of tunes you might release at a later date?
The only songs that didn’t make the LP are on the CD. No left overs. I write a lot of songs. Usually we know if something isn’t working and it doesn’t make it out of the rehearsal room. We’re working on new ones now that I like. I have a folder with about 20 demos in it.

Is your largest base of fans here in the US or in Europe? Because I can imagine you would go over well in other geographic areas.
I think it’s more overseas, Europe especially. But we sell records in the US too. We are definitely a cult! We are touring Germany, but no plans for the US yet!

How long will you tour behind The Stars Seemed Brighter?
We probably won’t. We only play when asked, to be honest. Hoping to play some shows in NJ, MA, PA though. And there’s talk of an indie pop fest in Chicago, which would be great. I’d like to play some indie pop fests outside of NY, but we’re not really on anyone’s radar. We’ll see.

Any other musical projects happening with yourself or other band members?
Cinema, Red and Blue have a new EP out this year, and I’m appearing on a Comet Gain record (!), a lo-fi effort I recorded with David back in 1998, I think. And Pale Lights have a split seven with Lake Ruth (we cover a song of each other’s), and a song on a compilation, both released by our label KUS.