Abrasive folk-blues-rocker Kevin Coyne has done several dozen albums since the late 1960s that reflect an interest in, and even affinity with, social outcasts and maladjusted behavior. Plenty of critics have assumed that Coyne was as mad as his music. It's doubtful that any madman, however, could keep up the hectic pace of work that Coyne has. In addition to his numerous albums, he's published acclaimed collections of short stories, plays, and poems, and has exhibited his paintings in German and English galleries for decades. His sardonic vocal delivery and black-comic portraits of misfits made him a critical favorite in the 1970s. John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten), always grudging in his praise, even admitted Coyne as an influence. Never more than a hazy underground favorite in the U.S., Coyne's work all but disappeared from stateside distribution since his relocation to Germany in the 1980s. Since I spoke to him in early 1997, however, his most recent indie albums have gained more Stateside exposure than anything in decades, and he's even managed to do a little touring across the Atlantic.
Were you doing much music before you recorded with Siren in the late 1960s?
When I first started in bands, this was in the late '50s, I guess. We were doing Chuck Berry and Little Richard, the people I liked. It was a band called the Vulcans. It was one of numerous local bands in Derby. It was very much a rock'n'roll thing, pre-Beatles thing. Then I went to the junior art school, then I went on to an art school proper, art school academy if you like, in Derby, and finished there in '65. During that time, I didn't do too much with bands, although you've got to remember around that time there was the blues boom, as they called it in England, where the Stones went up and all that. I got into that, as opposed to being directly sort of connected with rock and roll, so the two things mixed together.
I was always singing in pubs. But the last real bands I was in before Siren [were] in the late '50s really. There was a long gap. See, my brother was always a sort of jazz musician. My sister's an opera singer, amongst many other things. And music was around the house a lot. I sang with my brother sometimes, too. A fairly broad musical education. But I started out as an artist, a painter, really, and a printmaker, etcher, this kind of thing.
Even from the time you started with Siren, there seemed to be an affinity in your songs with social outsiders.
You've got to remember that around that time I was working in an asylum, basically. I left art school, and I went to do art and other things in a mental hospital in the north of England. This coincided with a lot of things I was doing on record, or taping with [Dave] Clague. And the things were very much on my mind. I was very concerned about what went on. I guess I do have an affection for outsiders, but I got much of it when I was working, just over three years, in this hospital. I was going down to London at certain points, doing some recordings, bits and pieces, with Clague. This is what came out. A lot of the things were to do with the day-to-day events that I was dealing with in the hospital. It was quite natural, I guess. I like to use music and whatever I do as a source of therapy as much as anything else, to get some of this out, and it was a good opportunity.
Was there much of a change in your approach when you stopped playing with Siren and became a solo artist?
Not much, really. I was very much concerned to get a sense of language across and a picture of the world as I saw it. That remained pretty well unchanged when I transferred from Siren to being a solo artist. Siren as such didn't really exist. We did some gigs, but it would fairly fluctuate...the root of it really was Nick Cudworth, the piano player. He and I lived together for a couple of years in a flat in London. We did most of the songs, really. He was a bluesman. I met him at art school in the early '60s, and Clague was the man with the music business connections, having been once in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. He knew a bit about how to get on, and how to get record contracts and things.
But as such, Siren was an invention, really. Guitarists came and went, drummers came and went. The root of it really was myself and Nick Cudworth. We'd been fiddling about, writing bits and pieces, from the early '60s. Clague's business sense was put on top of that, and Siren was sort of formed. It was never much of a gigging band, or working band. But as to my basic attitudes, I'm very much rooted in socialism, and pretty left-wing to some extent, around that time. And all of that came through too, and remains pretty much unchanged when I went solo.
The subject matter of your songs hasn't changed that much since then.
No it hasn't, really. It's still the same. Well, I mean, I got better at it. Obviously, I think some of those early things, those Siren things...you've got to remember, they were recorded in living rooms and kitchens, really, and the most primitive form of studio. Most of it wasn't really intended ever to [be] put out, although Dave Clague seems to have cornered the market in that and put most of them out [on the DJC label]. I don't agree necessarily with that. I think I would have been a lot more selective. Much of it was fooling around, at least half of it. But as you can gather from that, it was very spontaneous, really. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. I tend to work on that principle to this day, really.
I mean, I do write. I write books and things. I write things on paper, and have a concern for language, the written word. But when I do songs, I tend to be very spontaneous. I like to mirror the moment and the time. That all sounds very idealistic, but I'm a great believer in that. I learned something from the bluesmen, this kind of attitude. Very open-ended and responding to whatever the day brings, really, or life at that time. Sounds all very grand. I think at best it really works. It doesn't sound so manufactured as some pop music efforts sound.
I've seen it reported that you were considered as a replacement for Jim Morrison in the Doors, right after he died.
The fact of the matter is, it's true really, in the sense that I was...the day after Jim Morrison was dead, I got a call from the manager of Elektra in Europe, at the time a guy called Clive Selwood. [He] asked me, would I come around to the office in London, which was not so far because I was living in London anyway, and talk about this...it was an idea. I have to say I didn't show too much enthusiasm, and nothing more was heard about it. Maybe I should have shown more enthusiasm, maybe I would have got the job, I don't know. But certainly the fact that the early Siren things came out on Elektra [the Doors' label] was a connection. All I know is that nothing more was heard of it after not showing a great deal of interest. Probably [they] thought I was an ungrateful swine or something. But I really didn't fancy it anyway.
So Morrison wasn't even buried yet, and the label was thinking of a possible replacement already?
Such are the machinations of the record industry. Not much sentiment around. What I found astonishing now is this awful band from England called Bush, who are basically a copy of Nirvana to the last degree. Enormously popular in the States, and not only that, the lead singer is going out with, or I suppose is having some sort of relationship with Kurt Cobain's ex-wife. I find it astonishing. No sentiment or taste anywhere, and I think this story I've just related about the Doors is somewhat similar. There wasn't any question of, you know, poor old Jim, let's give him a bit of a rest now. It was like, got to keep the money wheels turning, keep the cash registers going. It was certainly, almost the next day, I would say. It was certainly within a few days. But anyway, as I say, such is the music business.
How did you end up being one of the first acts on Virgin Records?
Well, that was interesting. They rang me one day. Richard Branson, actually. I think he was fairly rich then [already]. He rang me, I guess either '72 or '73, I can't remember exactly when -- '72, I think it probably was. I went down to meet them, and I thought they were just a record shop. I was rather ignorant, I didn't realize that they had sort of recording ambitions. But I went to meet him and realized they were very serious. They admired things like Dandelion Records [a label Coyne had recorded for with Siren], and they wanted to create an alternative label, as it was at that time. So I went over and signed up. Simple really.
Which were your favorites, of the records you did for Virgin?
I love 'em all. I think I was at my very best then. I was wild and idealistic and younger, and I thought there was a great passion in what I did. A little misguided on occasion. I suppose old age and getting older makes you say things like that. But no, I'm very proud of the records I made.
On your Virgin records, it did seem like there was a vacillation between pretty uncompromising stuff and attempts to make you somewhat more commercial.
Oh always, yeah. Well, I mean, what I wanted to avoid more than anything was a mainstream rock sound. They really wanted something like a band sound with a mixture of the more quirky...the real Kevin Coyne stuff strewn around occasionally, to add a little bit of eccentricity to the thing. But the main push being on a radio commercial-bound rock sound, I would say, something which maybe comes through on the records. I don't think my ideas come across best when watered down. I gradually got away from all of that, to the point where I pretty well did what I liked. But there was efforts made, as you noted, to make me...I did a single, "Walk on By," with Mutt Lange, the guy who later go t involved with AC/DC. And I resented it, looking back. I don't have any of that now, I have to say. It took a long while to shake it all off.
You've never gotten much attention in the United States. Do you think it was hard for American audiences to grasp what you were doing?
I've read some rather good things, actually, over the years, bits of reviews. Things like Village Voice and this sort of thing, Trouser Press, very favorable. But I think they miss the point a lot of the time. I mean, [the double LP] Marjory Razorblade came out as a single album in the States, as did Living Black and White, which rather chopped the thing in half and put away a lot of the energy and the point of it all. I think Jac Holzman somewhere along the line, somebody like him, said he's too English or something for the American market, which -- who cares, whatever it means. I think these are all cliches developed to support the commercial aspect of the music business. They make up these rules, which they change periodically. Sometimes it's good to be English, sometimes it's not good to be English, etc. etc. But it's a very sort of vacuous thing to say. I get the odd letter from America, and I'm surprised how many people are interested. As I get older, I realize I wasn't for younger people anyway, etc. etc. I drift further and further away from the mainstream, if I was ever in it, really.
Chopping double albums down to single albums didn't do anyone any favors, did it?
I would have thought so. Fairly arbitrary choice of material and missing the point, really. I would have liked to have got across the impression that I'm a relatively intelligent human being, and what I have to say is valid and reasonable. I would like to assume that the audience had some intelligence too. But the commercial process doesn't allow that to happen. It's giving people things they think they want, but I deeply resent that, again. The less I have to do with it, the better, to be honest.
What did you think of comments from John Lydon that you influenced him? I don't hear many obvious similarities.
I don't seem to have influenced him [John Lydon] that much in the end. He still can't really sing properly! He's still wailing away pointedly. I think the Lydon thing was all right at the time. I rather appreciated it, but he's gone on to really carry on doing the same thing over and over again. I don't know about other people really. One can imagine things during paranoid moments that people have stolen things or whatever. But I don't really know. I mean, you've probably got more idea than I have, really. I'm being honest, I really can't think of any.
I've also read that the Police cited you as an inspiration.
I think that came from way, way back, from an interview in the Melody Maker or something, in the early days of Police. I can remember Police coming in rehearsal rooms near to where I was rehearsing, and all of us laughing, because we thought, this is Andy's last shot to make something. And they all look rather old to be, I suppose, punks. They didn't look like punks at all anyway. But I was very impressed by the early Police, really. Not now, I find it all rather naive. But at the time, I thought they were rather good. So Sting said whatever he said in his interview, which is true, he did say something to the effect that it moved him. Maybe just a passing fancy on his part, but it seems to have hung around in press releases ever since.
Despite any influence you might have had on famous acts like the Police, you yourself never seemed to make it into the mainstream.
I never did, really. I didn't really consider myself to be underground, rather than just around, I would say. I don't know -- I just thought I would carry on. Most of what I do now is based on the fact that when I do a gig, which is quite frequently, miraculously, there's always a decent crowd there (laughs). Which makes me think, well, the records might not be in every shop. I might not be on radio all the time. But the audience is still there. And that's what motivated me then. 'Cause I've always been very much a live performer, you know. It's more efficient to say [that's] what I do as an artist, if you like, and I pride myself on putting on a good show, as they say. So it didn't really affect me too much. I just carried on doing what I was doing, really. With the idea that I could get better at it, and I think I did.
I very early on cottoned on to the idea that people like to be entertained and amused and shocked. And the theatrical aspect of what I do has been very much ignored by people who haven't seen the gigs, or don't know that part of it. And I don't think the records generally all reflect pretty well -- they reflect part of what I do, but live performances are very different. The lyrics from the records are often forgotten, and tunes are changed round. Everything's turned upside down, depending on the venue and the time. It can be almost a comedy show some nights, and very serious another night. But I regard myself as an entertainer as much as anything.
So with that in mind, what was going on in fashion didn't have much to do with it really. I thought there'd always be a part for me, as long as I put on a good show. And it's proven to be right, actually.
As long as we're clearing up misconceptions that might be circulating in press releases, are reports that you were going crazy yourself around the early 1980s true?
That was based on a divorce, really, where I split up with my wife in London. Had a house in London. Still do, but it's not mine anymore. And having friends here in Germany and somewhere to go and making a fresh start and all the things that go with divorce really -- all very painful and rather unpleasant, but alright now.
You've got to remember that a German record company, and particularly Rockport Records, amiable and nice -- they can be quite inaccurate on occasion. I mean, I did have a sort of nervous breakdown. And I did have problems with alcohol. But not to the extent that it's pushed in some of those press releases, I think. I've not seen them for years -- I'm rather embarrassed by them when I read them. But I guess it's all based on things I said at the time, when I first got to know Rockport. But it's true, yes, I did have a couple of very bad years, really. These days, I think there's a lot of emphasis put on it somehow. And some people who've seen the show realize I'm not some miserable cowed...this is a general impression that often comes across, sometimes, with some of the records. I think that's one of my images. I'd rather play down all that mental stuff, because basically that's just many years ago. But it's true that I did have...I didn't actually enter a hospital for treatment, but I came pretty close to it.
How do you rate your records in the 1980s and 1990s?
I think a certain rigidity creeps in [in] the mid-'80s. There's a less flowing, sort of working with younger provincial German musicians. I don't say that in a nasty way, but it does show occasionally. A certain lack of improvisation in the studio. Possibly my least favorite albums are that period. But I love a lot of the last three albums. The new one I've just done is the favorite, but on reflection the change was the working style in a German studio. It may be a cliche, but there's a certain rigidity there. It could be something to do with the language, too, the fact that I'm singing in English, and most of them are talking German, etc.
But it's very hard to make it sort of loose here. They have a great respect for the machines, and the guitars all have to have six strings on them, and everything has to be in order. It doesn't suit my way of going about things. I've always thought they were the least important things, at least in what I did. Just to get it down and get it right, to get something of a feeling of how I feel, was the most important thing. But in many instances, it's not the case here. The most important thing is to get what they call a good studio sound. What the hell that is, I've never known, and I've never found out.
Of the musicians you've collaborated with over the years, which were the ones that were the best?
One is Brian Godding. I think he's a great musician, very interesting performer. As a guitar player, I think he's extremely underrated, full of music. Andy Summers was an interesting guy to work with. Not simply that he's well known -- I think he's got a very special sound. Rather neat and tidy for my sort of purposes, but nonetheless he had his own mind, and brought something [of] himself into the situation. Recently I've been working with Gary Lucas, the former Beefheart guitar player, who's worked with people like Joan Osborne, Tim Buckley's son, and he's an interesting player too. I liked his work very much. He's on the new album, which is not out yet. Gordon Smith, also -- very interesting slide player from the Marjory Razorblade period. Very underrated player, I think. Everybody brought something to the situation. But they're my favorites, the ones I just mentioned.
You also write fiction and work as an artist, in addition to doing your music. Are you going to be focusing on one field more than the other?
I'm trying to keep them all going. I've just given up smoking, which is, at the age of 53, quite tough after a lifetime of puffing away. This was my main obsession this last week. But seriously no, the gig list sheet of where I'm playing in the next few months seems to be more than ever, including French tours, and many gigs in Germany. Not so many exhibitions at the moment, artwise. Writing-wise, I still haven't...I'm looking for the perfect publisher, I think, at the moment, or something. But I'm very much involved with all three of those things, really. I'd like to put out mountains of stuff that I've got there. Some of it, I think, is far superior to the stuff that's already come out. Maybe stories or things. Serpent's Tail, the London publisher, are very good, very highly rated on the sort of underground, or overground really, these days. But somehow, I guess, I'm always looking for the perfect everything.
I would say that Rockport Records, as it stands, have done a good job for me. 'Cause I'm not really looking to do the next something, I'm me. And that's enough. But some people still have this misguided notion that you want to be like Mick Jagger, or whatever it is. Or you're copying the Smashing Pumpkins -- "you must have heard them." They forget how long you've been around.
A lot of the stories in your short story collection Show Business are about rock musicians. Was a lot of that drawn from your own experiences?
It does at a certain point. A sense of
the British musician's overriding sense of cynicism about everything
creeps into that book on occasion. A lot of it comes from that time,
touring and things said, in vans and in dressing rooms. It's still with
a sense of humor, I hope. A lot of people seem to think it was done out
of bitterness, which it certainly isn't. It's done with a sense of
really, at how these things -- they're versions of things which really
did happen. It was meant to amuse, but certain people didn't like it,
because they saw something of themselves in it, I don't know. I don't
either, really. All I know is that the musicians who've read it have
their heads off. I must be reaching somebody and doing the right thing.
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