Stuart Moxham was guitarist and principal songwriter for the Young Marble Giants. Their 1980 album, "Colossal Youth," is one of the most highly regarded indie cult post-punk recordings, with a unique hushed and minimal atmosphere. In early 1997, he talked about the Young Marble Giants and his later projects.
What were your early formative influences?
We loved things like Devo, Kraftwerk, early Ultravox. I was into early Roxy Music, Iggy Pop's The Idiot. My personal influences, the things I've loved, are things like Neil Young, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. Obviously the Beatles--massively, above everything else. Steve Miller. We were really into the Police when they first came out. We were very excited by the kind of early techno thing of drum machines and synthesizers.
There was actually a virtual fourth member of the band, a cousin of mine and Phil's, Pete Joyce. He was a telephone engineer at the time, and a bit of a gearhead. He built our drum machine and few other things as well. He had a very early synthesizer which was built into a briefcase. He also had the large version of Rolf Harris' Stylophone. It was a small thing, a bit smaller than a video cassette. And it had a shiny metal keyboard that didn't move, and it had a pen with a wire which attached it to the main body of the instrument. It just made this kind of nee-nee-nee-nee noise, it's quite naff. But he did a bigger version [than the one Bowie used on "Space Oddity"], and he had one of those. I can't remember how it was better. I think you could maybe alter the parameters of the sound or something, I don't know. He was into things like Pere Ubu and Kraftwerk. We were really big into Kraftwerk. We had all the solo albums and went to see them live and stuff like that. We were mad about Devo as well. He was quite a big influence, in that he supplied all the technical know-how, and all the gear we used. We actually made tapes of our music as we were writing it, as we went along. We actually made tapes on a reel-to-reel.
I'm just about to release those tapes. There's going to be a second Young Marble Giants album. We like a good gap between albums. It's like four tracks that haven't been released before. In fact, one of them, I didn't know we'd done. I just came across it by accident. The year before [Colossal Youth]. Most we did at home. We just did them in order to suit what we were sounding like, really. Before we started playing live, I had the idea to put the tapes, just locally. I was just working at Virgin Records in Cardiff at time, and the manager there let me put a poster up and sell them in the shop. Then we basically just put a couple of tracks on post-punk DIY compilation album called Is the War Over. Rough Trade heard that.
We never really fitted in. Even though it was Rough Trade, it was still very much, everyone wore black and was into the Keith Richard kind of rockist idea of existence. Black leather and drugs and all that sort of stuff. We were lounge lizards before our time, I think.
Had you been writing songs before Young Marble Giants?
I had been writing songs, but I'd say I was pretty much a learner up to that point. I'd say I'd written maybe a handful of really good songs before the Young Marble Giants. The thing about the Young Marble Giants is that we wanted to write, to make a body of work that was exceptional, that was really gonna stand out. We were all kind of desperate to make it and get out of Cardiff. This music had to achieve a lot for us, basically. It had to get us a record deal, which nobody we knew had ever done. Cardiff wasn't on the musical map at all until recently. It was like a kind of impossible dream. My songwriting before the Young Marble Giants was kind of organic, it's just what I did, whatever came to mind. It wasn't really considered, it wasn't styled in any way. The Young Marble Giants stuff was very rigidly written for that kind of formula, really. Very stylized, very molded, for a purpose.
It's quiet. It's minimal. My whole idea, really, was this is what's happening, this is what's out there, this is what we know about, and everyone kind of does the same stuff. Let's just turn out backs on that, and see what else there is to do. Being quiet was one thing, and being very minimal was another thing. So we thought right, we'll go against all the grains and see if we can come up with something. As somebody once said in Rough Trade, basically it's rock and roll. It's basically twelve-bar blues. It's just sort of chopped up a bit.
And that's very much the case. Cardiff is a rhythm and blues town. It's a town with heavy industry, and you generally get--that kind of music's very popular. Like heavy rock and stuff is very popular there. We were also rebelling against that as well. I can remember one night doing gigs in Cardiff before we'd made any records or anything, and someone shouting out, play rock and roll. So I kind of went into this Chuck Berry riff, and then stopped and said look, anyone can do that. They're doing it all over town. But we want to do this. If you want that, go somewhere else. Cardiff's like a small town, and we were quite frustrated, really. It's a great place. I'm jaundiced because I lived there for the first 25 years of my life. It's got a hell of a lot going for it, really. I haven't been there for a long time, now. The thing is, it's just cut off from the rest of Britain really. You feel like you're at the end of a tunnel. There's nothing really in Wales. London's always kind of been a magnet for me, so I felt like I was two hours away from anywhere that mattered.
What kind of sound were you aiming for on the album?
We knew nothing about production. The short answer is yes, definitely. The whole thing was--we planned the whole thing very economically. Basically we bumped our drum machine down to a cassette, and we used that one cassette for every gig we did. And we used that same cassette to make a record with. We kept it all very minimal and very simple. We did exactly the same thing in the studio as we did live. I think we did about two or three overdubs on the whole album. The album was done in five days, and we mixed it in 20 minutes. The whole idea was to keep it very simple. Since then, I've got fucked into the way of working everybody else works, endless overdubs and multitracking and mixing and remixing, all that kind of stuff, I've done all that kind of business. At times I just think to myself, God, I got it right the first time around. Why am I doing all this? It's crazy!
What were the reasons behind the breakup?
I'd say naivete is the main reason, really. There was a lack of communication, definitely, between the three of us. So problems, just personal things, built up. We weren't talking about anything, so it kind of overwhelmed us, really. We never formally said, right, we're going to split the band or anything. It was all a bit sort of bad-tempered and silly, really. It's the old story of--basically, with two couples. There was me and my girlfriend, and Phil and Alison, who were a couple. You just get tensions between two couples, for one thing. When you're on the road--it was also early success, that syndrome, where practically the first thing any of us had ever done was like immensely successful. In fact, I'm still discovering how successful it was. I don't really know how many records we sold. Everywhere I go, I can be in a lift somewhere and the liftman will know about the Young Marble Giants. It's incredible.
It was just daft, really. I say naivete because if I had an ounce of common sense, I would have said, let's have a break. Let's keep this thing together. And we would have been absolutely massive. I'm sure we would have made a really good couple more albums, at least. But at the time, I was just sort of cheesed off. I thought, well, I'm doing sort of 80% of the work here anyway, writing the songs and the melodies and everything, the lyrics, half the drum machine stuff, even some of the bass lines. I don't want to diminish the input that Phil made musically, and of course the impact of Alison's singing. But in terms of the actual amount of creative work--and also I was managing the band as well, which I never kind of thought about at the time, I just did it. I just thought, well, I can do this on my own. Typical kind of Spinal Tap ego trip, you know.
What kind of albums do you think the group would have done if they had stayed together longer?
I think it would have become--it's very hard to answer that, of course. One of the latest songs on the album is "Salad Days." For me, that's kind of a much more open-sounding arrangement. I think maybe we would have diversified. We would have used different instruments for a start. Diversified our sounds a bit, but I think still have really, tight poppy songs. I've always done that, really. It's very hard to say. I think we had an excellent formula which had, as I say, I reckon, at least another two albums in it. Without being immodest, I think the quality of the songs was so good that it almost wouldn't matter about stylistic--it just wouldn't have mattered, really, if we even just kind of ploughed the same furrow. Because another two albums pretty much similar to that, maybe with less of the scratchy guitar and perhaps a better drum machine sound and different keyboard sounds maybe. It's extremely minimal in every sense. There's no vocal double-tracking or anything. Even some basic production techniques would have given us, would have made the albums different enough from that one, I think.
We were very strict when we went into the studio to do "Colossal Youth." We were very, very strict about how we wanted to do it. I had to be stripped right down, no frills. I've always been a reverb freak, and I love reverb, so we had that. But I mean, there were no frills, really. That's about the best answer I can give you.
You had one tour of the United States.
We came to San Francisco and that was a great chapter. We actually split up in the States, really. We did our last gig in New York. We played with the Flamin' Groovies in San Francisco at an outdoor concert, we played in Palo Alto in a Hell's Angels-run club. We played Los Angeles in a Czechoslavakian community center. We drove up Highway 1 all the way up the West Coast, and played in Vancouver. That was a great gig. It was like a folk club where you couldn't plug in. It was a bit like a school hall, it was all kind of wood-lined and people had folding chairs. They allowed us to plug in, but we the amps on, like, 1. And it was just great, a lovely atmosphere. And then we went to New York, and we were there for a couple of weeks. We did quite a few gigs there. We played in Hoboken stuff. We did two nights at Harrah, and those were our final gigs. We went down well, definitely. We wouldn't have gone there if we hadn't been a commercially viable proposition for Rough Trade. Obviously the record was selling in the States.
Did you do a reunion single in 1987, as one book says you did?
No, there wasn't. I don't know where that came up. I've seen that in books and things. It must have been a misunderstanding somewhere or other. What happened is they've looked in other books, and just taken the information out without checking. From what I remember reading somewhere about it, it said--something to do with the French? There was a time--it was a complete misunderstanding. I was going to do a track called "It Took You," which is something I did myself. It's on an album I did in 1992.
Was there ever thought of having a reunion?
On several occasions, to get the band back together again. Both sort of very soon after it split up, and for a couple of years afterwards as well. I actually did get working again with well, and with our brother Andrew, who I work with a lot now. Andrew's kind of my sidekick now. We did some tapes, which we then passed on to Alison to see if she wanted to put some singing to it. But nothing ever really came of it in the end. Sort of fizzled out. I was really excited at the time. Funny enough, I've recently listened to the tapes all the way through, 'cause I just got myself a digital eight-track, and kind of archiving all my analog tapes and stuff. And I didn't bother to keep any of that stuff, 'cause it was just like--well, it seemed great at the time, but in retrospect it's not too good, really.
It's going to come out on my own label, which is Room Records, sometime this year, hopefully. If royalties come in from the Hole cover.
The Young Marble Giants only recorded, really, for one year. And only existed in total for two years. When the group split up and I kind of went careering off like a misguided missile as the Gist, I didn't really have any idea. I was absolutely terrified, because suddenly, from having this really strong formula, this kind of secure basis to work from, I had no idea artistically what to do at all. I bought a four-track and a mixing desk, and I got into multi-tracking. I just started to use that, really, as a tool to write songs, just like laying down different things and finding out to record, really. Basically, that's how I came to do the album "Embrace the Herd," the Gist album, which the least said the better.
I was really finding my way during that period as the Gist. I was kind of struggling to find a way to work really. Some things worked really well. There was good elements in that stuff. But basically, it was a bit of a dodgy period, a bit of a shaky period, I think, artistically. Then about '87, I moved out of Cardiff, back up to London. I was no longer around Andrew and Phil and other people I worked with as the Gist. I just decided, well, I could go solo and just be a minstrel with my acoustic guitar and skip right back to where I started before the Young Marble Giants, just somebody who was a singer-songwriter. Although I'd been through this filter with multi-tracking. I've always been a gearhead. I've always loved the whole business of recording. That kind of influenced what I did as well a lot, really.
I didn't actually make any records for about nine years, from when the Gist stopped records putting out records, which was '82, '83, until '92. I just put out one single on my own label, which was a friend, actually, it was under his name. A guy called ? did a tune of mine, and Phil and Andrew played on that. It was a kind of reggae thing. As ever, I've always written, and I've always recorded at home. I have a big pile of tapes. In the mid-80s, I had a huge cover version in France [by Etienne Daho]. He's a big pop star over there. He covered a Gist song called "Love at First Sight," which was a single of mine. He wrote his own lyrics to it, so it's called "Paris Le Fleur." Anyway, he did it as an album track, and that made a lot of money for me. I hired an eight-track, and the results of all that recording, everything, came out in '92 on Feel Good All Over. That was an album called "Signal Path." That was kind of a compilation of tapes over different tape periods, in different places and things.
Since then, I did an album for a French friend called "Random Rules," which was really the first time ever I've actually done the conventional thing of going into a good studio and working on 24-track and having an excellent engineer, and Louis Phillippe helped produce it. It was a wonderful experience. It was in the summer, I was making two new friends with Louis and the engineer, Ken. I'm really happy with that, and I'd like to re-release that as well. Then I did an album for a label Vinyl Japan. They asked me if I'd like to do something. I thought, well, this is an opportunity. I had all these songs, 'cause I had nine years of making no records. Well this time, I'll do a project, really, where I get together my ultimate band, which was Phil on bass, Andrew on drums, a mutual friend from very early Young Marble Giants days, a guy called Spike, who was in Weekend, on guitar. And we did it live, just in one room. I put vocals and overdubbed keyboards and things later on. That came out--it's called "Cars and Grass."
In the meantime, I'm still waiting for an album to come out in Chicago, an album called "Plan A," which John Henderson has the tapes of. I don't know what he's doing, really. He's had it for years, and keeps saying I must come over and polish it. He reckons it's going to be a masterpiece. I reckon he's probably right. Some things on there reduced everyone in the studio to tears. Some of it's so beautiful, you know. It's basically Andrew and I and some Chicago musicians who came in to do brass and things like that. I just can't wait for that to come out. There's some great songs on it. And really, that was the end of me using material from all over the place, from like even before the Young Marble Giants. I've really cleared out my back catalog. Since then, "Fine Tuning," which was done at the very end of that "Plan A" session. Literally in the afternoon, evening. I did about 30 or 40 songs with a guitar, straight to DAT. And John put them out.
Since then, I'm just working now with Louis Phillippe. I feel like I've tried lots of different ways to work since the Young Marble Giants. 'Cause basically, I don't think I can ever be in a group again, in a sense that I could ever really commit to myself to working with people like that. 'Cause that was it for me, as far as being in a group is concerned. I've tried working with people as a group, but not a democratic thing, where it's just working on my material and they're kind of writing their parts of whatever. I've tried being solo. And now, I can honestly say that working with Louis on this new stuff--we're about halfway through my next album--I'm just so happy. I really feel that I'm back on the case again, totally, for the first time since the Young Marbles.
It's a great format, because Louis's very experienced and very talented. He knows my stuff, he's a fan of my stuff. The difficulty about being solo, when you play live, it's so hard, it's really difficult being just one person with an instrument onstage to actually maintain people's attention as a duo. There's nothing to play going on, and enough dynamic and tension. And we both sing as a kind of harmony, and whatever. It's great fun, it just works really well. We're doing a stripped-down album of all-new material. I feel like I've had a couple of years of writing just amazing amounts of good stuff. So the future's looking really good right now. I can't wait to finish this and try to get a good release for it.
It sounds like things are a lot better than they were for you in the Option article in 1994. That gave the impression you were virtually starving.
We did obviously a lot more talking than got written down. He took the angle of me being poverty-stricken, which was, I suppose, fair enough. But when you're trying to break America, even if you're not trying, but you're aware that it might happen anyway, and you know that the dollar is everything, it makes you look like you don't exist. I'm kind of two minds about that article. But any publicity is good publicity.
It has improved a hell of a lot, I'm glad to say. It was a tough time, I suppose, looking back on it. But this business, you can't make a living--you might make not enough, or far too much. I've learned that since then, and I'm just trying to make far too much, because I haven't got any choice in the matter. I mean, half my problem has always been, I wanted to make a living, I've never really that ambitious about money. But no, I mean, this Etienne Daho thing has done really well. It's continued to make a lot of money. He's just released a live album and did a version of the song on that as well, so it's still pouring in from that.
Of course, Hole covered "Credit in the Straight World," ironically enough, on "Live Through This." That's done very well. It's funny, actually. You won't believe this, but in a lot of ways, in the Young Marble Giants, I was a frustrated rocker. I mean, a lot of those riffs and things would sound great on loud, distorted guitars in a conventional band. Something a bit repressed about that music. I can't say I really like it, actually, having said all that. I can't say I like it. It's hard to ruin a good song. That record has made a hell of a big difference for my life. I've got a wife and three kids and I've been able to sort of not have to do a shitty day job for best part of a year now, which is fantastic. It's also enabled me to get a really good studio setup together, so that I can work at home.
Were you surprised by the kinds of stuff Alison did solo?
No. I didn't really have any idea what she would do. 'Cause when Phil and I first met her, she was one of a few backing singer for a group we were in called True Wheel. Her input in that group was as a backing singer, really. I didn't know that she wrote or anything. The thing about Weekend was that a lot of the influence in that group was from Simon Boothe. He was the big jazz freak there. That probably explains why it went in that direction, perhaps more than Alison's input. I don't know.
How would you explain the cult around "Colossal Youth"?
My criteria for a great album--there's really two things. One is atmosphere. All great albums are immensely atmosphere. To attain atmosphere, it has to be more than the sum of its parts. The other thing is detail. It's kind of contradictory, but if you think of any good album that is extremely atmospheric. If you listen to the bass line, or the sound of a kick drum, or anything, any detail--it's still absolutely sublime in its details. I think that's the reason. The songs are good, the riffs are great, and somehow, just by the fact that it's extremely simple, it's very atmospheric as well. It's the quality of Alison's voice, and there's lots of minor chords, and a lot of the songs are very sad.
Obviously we've read lots of reviews, and talked to people about it. Everyone goes on about how there's a darkness about it as well. I think mystery is always a great selling point. It's difficult for me to be objective about things I do myself. I was really pulling all the stops out, because I wanted to achieve the impossible, or what I thought was impossible. Looking back on it now, when I actually came to make the booklet for the reissue in '94 of "Colossal Youth," it was the first time I've ever sat down, written out the lyrics, and kind of had it in front of me, like a book or something. The thing that hit me about it was I didn't know what I was writing about at the time. It was kind of--it was like stream-of-consciousness. I just wrote down things. A lot of it is poetic, not that it's contrived, but in the sense that I didn't have any other way to say what I wanted to say.
I'm quite a sort of bookish person, probably to a greater extent than is healthy. I think I escaped into books during kind of a difficult adolescence, and fell in love with books and records. Listened to records, sticking on headphones and just disappearing from the world. It had a very intense effect on me. I think that came out, when I came to make songs with Young Marble Giants. I think it came out that way because that's the kind of person I am, I suppose. I'm quite quiet, and work from inside myself. I don't really listen to much music, really, by other people. I don't really kind of, or I didn't, go out clubbing a lot or any of that kind of stuff. I had a quiet life, and just drew from what I knew.
A lot of is emotional trauma, the usual
things, really, love affairs and all the rest of it. I think
can absolutely relate to all of that. It's still true of what I'm
doing now. In lots of ways, everything I've done before and since
Young Marble Giants--there's lots of common themes in it, really.
Although I would say now that this new stuff I'm doing, that I've been
writing in the last couple of years. My life has changed a
I have three lovely kids and everything, and I think a bit older and
I'm writing not love songs anymore, which is great, it's a huge
As John Henderson said to me, I'm one of the greatest love song writers
in the world. But why can't I write about anything else.
you hear this album, I'd be interested to know what you think,
I really feel so happy and so strong in what I'm doing. I've
a great way to work again.
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