Expecting To Fly: An interview with Mark Morriss of The Bluetones

Currently on what he describes as a ‘world tour of Derbyshire’ The Bluetones’ frontman Mark Morriss is heading into the second of three local dates tonight. Starting last weekend with a solo set at the Belper Games, he’ll play The Flowerpot tonight and make a ‘slight return’ (see what we did there?) in a fortnight to play The Venue with The Bluetones.

This piece from Storge editor Sarah Lay was originally carried in issue 2 of Louder Than War magazine

The jet engines rumble and hiss as they fade away into the blue. The warm guitar tumbles in to replace them, a circling riff persistently burrowing into you before life-weary words of disillusionment and hope begin their spiral around each other finding a way to write themselves straight through you.

Two decades on, the opening of Expecting To Fly is still clearly the hurtling take-off of a record and a band about to soar. It is the lead in to a debut of tempered exhilaration and the first rendering of a sound which would evolve over the years but become characteristic for The Bluetones too.

When it hit record stores in February 1996, briefly knocking OasisWhat’s the Story, Morning Glory from its six-week stint in number 1 album slot, Mark Morriss was in his mid-20s and that period of life is reflected throughout the album. The first bright burn of coming of age is dimming, the reality of adult life curling around the edges as hedonism and responsibility slide across each other while the gleaming magic of love begins to tarnish with the actuality of relationships.

With a keen observer’s eye, a wry wit, a literary bent and a mellow guitar-led sound The Bluetones went on to record six studio albums, amicably parting ways after 2010’s A New Athens. But with the twentieth anniversary of their acclaimed and much-loved debut about us the band are back together and are part way through a celebratory tour, set to continue with a last clutch of dates next spring.

Frontman Mark Morriss enthuses about the dates they’ve already done and playing as a band again, “It was chemical. I think we all missed it and were aware that time is passing and we only have one life to live. We decided to waste no more time shilly-shallying and just get ourselves out on the road.”

And with that two-decade strong back catalogue the recent live shows have been a reminder of the volume of hits this band has at their fingertips.

From the earlier part of their career there are top ten hits including Slight Return, Cut Some Rug, Marblehead Johnson and a steady procession of those that hovered just outside – Solomon Bites the Worm, If and Keep the Home Fires Burning. These have been joined on recent dates by fan favourites, b sides and album tracks such as Mudslide, 4-Day Weekend and I Was A Teenage Jesus.

These are the classics The Bluetones have contributed to contemporary songwriting. These are the songs that have always had a grown up feel while retaining a youthful exuberance, a certain shrewdness and guile. These are the songs sung with the idiosyncratic inflection, that sound like the hip-swaying shimmy with which they are performed. These are old friends that show a new facet each time they are rediscovered in your collection.

Morriss shares the dates he’s loved so far on tour, “The shows in London and Manchester were highlights this time round. They were both the biggest shows the band had played in those cities for quite a few years, so we didn’t know whether or not we’d over-reached ourselves by booking those venues. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried.”

Ever the charismatic frontman he reflects on the passage of time and whether after so many years, after the living of life, these songs can still be connected and mean something to band and audience.

“When The Bluetones toured Expecting to Fly in 2009 I hadn’t listened to a lot of those songs in a while. In the way that you don’t, of course you don’t; you would have to be some kind of maniac to listen to your own songs over and over.

“It felt odd. I’m a different man now to the one that wrote these words so singing them, I feel the distance, and I have to overcome that.

“Some of the songs mean something different. Some of them have retained their sort of universal appeal and value to me.”

 

Each show has been a reminder of how many indie dance floor moments this band has been a backdrop to, but yes, time has moved on and whether they want to look back or not both band and audience are different people now.

“As a performer you only exist in the moment. Of course there are folk in the audience for whom the event is a nostalgic occasion, but that’s life.

“There are people who watch old movies in order to be reminded of their younger years rather than enjoy the art for what it is.

“I didn’t go into this tour with any intention other than to play these songs and entertain to the best of my ability, which is what I’ve always strived to do.”

Mark traversed his own musical history on most recent solo album, The Taste of Mark Morriss. An album of covers, it started as studio fun to break through writer’s block but turned into a way of exploring songwriting and performance. Did nostalgia play a part in his choices?

“With some of the choices, yes there was a sense of falling in love again, with familiar emotions and forgotten memories, but that doesn’t last long. You’re very quickly distracted with the matter in hand. The re-invention and interpretation. The nostalgia thing is not something that interests me as far as making art goes!

“My selection was more a case of songs I just wanted to sing. I didn’t have to have a personal or emotional story connected to them. They were just songs I wanted to inhabit for a little while which is why the Laura Brannigan song is on there, because it’s just a brilliant song to sing. It’s a singer’s dream to sing, a pop singer’s dream.

“And the OMD song emerged and just because I heard it in my head this sort of Glen Campbell-style version of that which is a beautiful, beautiful melody and then Lucretia (My Reflection) is just one of my favourite songs from my youth.

“I was obsessed with Sisters of Mercy for about 18 months and that song has always always been something that makes the hairs of the back of your neck stand up. The original is amazing.

“And so a part of me was thinking songs I’d like other people to hear forgotten songs, like Lucretia.”

Mark has alternated solo shows touring his own album with being back out on the road with The Bluetones, their own anniversary part of the ubiquitous look-back at the industry bubble and hype of Britpop, when indie music suddenly became the plaything of the mainstream.

Bringing back the bands of the day only highlights how much the sound of that period, itself referencing and in some cases aping great music of the years before, now sounds through artists making music today.

Morriss is pragmatic about the vogue for nostalgia, seeing it as an opportunity to celebrate the best of cultural history beyond any sentimental grasp to slow a personal passage of time.

“Art always looks backwards before it can take a step forward. You can’t hope to carve a new future without knowing a bit about the past and I think it’s great that things are celebrated on anniversaries.

“I remember in the early part of the century when those The Smiths albums were being re-evaluated and feeling ‘Well, this is great as a whole new audience is going to discover and explore them’.”

Are the re-appraisels, the anniversary album tours, the always one-eye-on-the-past practice keeping culture from breaking new ground? Is new music living in the past rather than borrowing from it, taking inspiration but ultimately creating something fresh?

“I don’t think it encourages bands to suddenly become copyists, it’s just the way inspiration works.

“I mean we started a band because we saw the Stone Roses and we came out of that gig with about 250 other people, and we were just like ‘do you wanna start a band’ ‘yeah, I wanna start a band, like tomorrow’ ‘yeah, me too’ ‘let’s start a band!’ sort of thing and that’s it.

“The next couple of years of being in your band, your first band, you’re just trying to be whoever it is that inspired you – the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, the Stone Roses, Nirvana, or whoever.

“And then you find yourself, you find your voice and your way of doing it.

“I think it’s brilliant when I hear young bands and they remind me of old psychedelic bands. It’s as if they’ve discovered something for the first time and that, for me, is exciting.

“Bands now have got so many great references they can pilfer. Everything is so much more available now than it was to our generation. To find new music or find something old you had to go down the library. You had to go down Our Price. Beyond that you were kind of screwed. Now you just Google it and away you go.”

Mark himself is as much a music fan today as always, enthusing about vinyl and discovering new music. Does he stick to the old formats or prefer the convenience of the new?

“A bit of both really. I have Shazam on my phone, like everybody else I suppose, and that is probably the medium I use most in order to discover new artists.

“If I’m out and about and something catches my ear it’s great to be able to log it and store it and revisit it later.

“But vinyl still feels like king. And I guess, you know, a lot of my audience feels that way. My generation etc but I think vinyl is just generally on the increase again.”

With music still his full time career and having not just survived but thrived in the industry for so long what has been the highlight, the moment he realised he’d made it?

“There’s not one moment. It happens with regularity. They do. It’s why I got into this. I mean I’m still doing it and that’s almost like justification in itself.

“I love it, I’m lucky. I’ve worked hard to kind of still be here, there’s been some lean times, times when you consider what it is that you’re doing but I just have to accept that this is what I was put here to do.

“Music is what I was made to do and I’m at peace with that and if it’s going to make me a millionaire it is, if it’s not going to make me a millionaire that’s fine. If I have to starve and die in a garret then that’s the case as well.”

 

When asked about the rest of the band Morriss’ wry humour shines, “Adam (Devlin, guitar) is a full time card-sharp and spread better. Scott (Morriss, bass) works in an abattoir in Romford, and I don’t know what Eds (Chester, drums) is up to. I haven’t seen or heard from him since we came offstage in Bristol.”

Joking about how the band spend their time aside, for now The Bluetones are content with marking the anniversary of the album that launched them and a back catalogue that has established their sound as a touchstone for many musicians since.

This slight return will have satisfied some fans, those who want to simply revisit their youth, but for others it will have lit a fire under the hope that the band could head back to the studio and give them something new to fall in love with.

Mark is good-humoured but emphatic about the future beyond the spring tour dates: “Another tour, yes, but no plans for a new record. Never say never, I know, but we’ll NEVER do it.”

~

Mark’s new album Look Up is available via PledgeMusic. He plays a solo show tonight (22 July) at The Flowerpot – details available here, and tickets available on the door. The Bluetones play The Venue on Friday 4 August, tickets available in advance and full details here.

Find Mark Morriss:

Find The Bluetones:

This interview was originally carried out by Sarah Lay for issue 2 of Louder Than War magazine.

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