The Woodentops returned in February with ‘Granular Tales’, their first album in twenty-six years.

The five-piece group, which originates from South London, formed in 1983, and soon became known for their use of acoustic guitars and their frenetic sound.

After signing to Rough Trade, they released their debut album ‘Giant’ in 1986, which saw the band experimenting with sequencers and samplers and also strings and trumpets. A live album, ‘Live Hypnobeat Live’, which was recorded at a show in Los Angeles, came out the following year in 1987, and combined on it both old and then otherwise unreleased songs with dance and early techno beats. The Woodentops’ second album, ‘Wooden Foot Cops the Highway’, was released in 1988, and, partially recorded in New York, was more polished in sound and electronica-based.

Although never officially splitting up, the Woodentops fell into permanent hiatus in 1992, shortly after Rough Trade went bust. They only finally emerged again, initially to play some gigs, in 2006 in a line-up that consisted of original members Rolo McGinty (vocals and acoustic guitar), Simon Mawby (electric guitar), Frank De Freitas (bass) and Benny Staples (drums, since replaced by Paul Ashby) and new recruit Aine O’Keeffe (keyboards). A three CD anthology ‘Before During After’ came out last year on One Little Indian.

‘Granular Tales’ has many of the Woodentops’ familiar trademarks - the same emphasis on acoustic instrumentation, and, while slightly gentler in sound than its predecessors, many of the tracks have a similar franticness. Although it was mixed and mastered on up-to-date technology, it was recorded using often vintage equipment including a collection of ancient microphones, dating back to the 1930s. While at one level a return to the band’s early career and lo-fi beginnings, ‘Granular Tales’ also finds the band maintaining their experimental edge and breaking new ground.

In what is our third interview with him, Pennyblackmusic spoke to Rolo McGinty about the making and recording of 'Granular Tales'.

PB: You have been planning to make a new Woodentops album for some years now. Why has it taken so long for ‘Granular Tales’ to come out?

RM: We actually recorded the main body of the album in pretty much one hit a while ago, but it has taken some time since then to finish it off. Quite a lot of other things happened after we recorded it. We got involved in doing the ‘Before During After’ retrospective with One Little Indian and ended up doing some gigs here and there on the back of that, so the process of editing it took a long time.

PB: ‘Before During After’ must have renewed interest in the Woodentops when it came out last year. How much of a push did that give you into finishing the album?

RM: I don’t know if it has or if it hasn’t renewed interest in us. As it didn’t feature a load of new material and was basically a collector’s thing, it won’t have gone in same direction as a new release. I don’t know if it would have made much difference.

We played live extensively at that time, and it made sense obviously to put the new one out after the retrospective, but to be honest that was the way it worked out anyway. It was just coincidence. By the time ‘Granular Tales’ was ready to released, it was way after ‘Before During After’ had been completed.

PB: You co-wrote some of this album with Richard Thomas, who composed and wrote the score for ‘The Jerry Springer Show: The Opera’. How did you first become involved with him?

RM: Richard has also acted and been involved in a lot of really funny and interesting things for television, things like ‘Attention Scum’ and also ‘Kompaq Opera’. He was the pianist for a comedian for a while as well.

The reason that I know Richard is because his practice room and studio was right next to mine in Brixton. This was towards the end of the 90s. I had not written any songs at all for a while. Everything I had been writing was all instrumental and usually electronic-based. It was something that I wanted to investigate again, and so I rented a place in Somerset that was cheap and remote, and I was going to go there on my own with some recording equipment and to just lock myself away and try my hand at song writing again.

Richard’s piano playing is great, but it is not really what he has known for. We didn’t really know each other very well at this stage, but about a week before I was due to go we went out for a drink and got on really well, and then we went back to his room and wrote a song on a Dictaphone, just really quickly. It felt like a creative, fun, working relationship from that point on, and so I invited him to come down to Somerset with me.

In that week we wrote eighteen tunes. It was one of the most creative things that I have ever done. It was great fun, but we would literally get up, start working, work until we had to eat, eat, work until we had to sleep, sleep. It was incredible. We had ideas all the time we were there.
I then used the best of those songs for the album. I wrote other songs outside that session, but it was that session that really just got me back into song writing, and so when we made the decision that, yes, we were going to record an album, I had a bag of over twenty songs for everyone to choose from. As a group, we then worked out together which ones we were going to record.

PB: ‘Granular Tales’ is the first Woodentops’ album that you have recorded without Benny Staples on drums. When the group first reformed, he was still part of the band. He, however, is based in New Zealand. Had it become too difficult as a result of that?

RM: I am afraid so. It just wasn’t possible in the long run for that to continue because it was just too costly to bring him over. It might have been possible if we are the Red Hot Chili Peppers but we are not (Laughs). There was a visa issue as well. It just became impossible.

PB: Who is Paul Ashby who has taken over from him?

RM: We went through three, maybe four people to try and replace Benny, and none of them worked out. I thought he was irreplaceable, but Paul was actually someone that I already knew. I was friends with Paul’s wife, and his wife told me that he had seen us play a few times and had been mulling over the idea of whether he should approach us and ask us if we were interested. It was a lovely organic thing. He came down and he auditioned and he was right for the job.

PB: Frank De Frietas is based in Spain. How does that effect recording and playing gigs?

RM: It makes it difficult if it is a one-off gig. If it is a brace of three or four gigs in the row, it is not bad at all because flights aren’t really that expensive from Europe particularly if you book in advance. Frank has continued to come over from Barcelona, and it has never usually been a problem. We have a musician in Belfast as well. Our keyboardist Aine O’ Keeffe lives there.

On a couple of times when the budget has been tight, we have had to decide, “Do we want to do this gig or not?” and generally it has been, “Yeah, we do.” It sounds pretty clichéd, but as a bunch of people we get on really well. It is always a pleasure to get together and do something. If there is an excuse to get together and play or record, then we will.

PB: You have said that there were the two events that made this “a special album” for you. Of these, the first was rehearsing ‘Granular Tales’ in a remote house. Where was that remote house? Was it the same one that you and Richard had used?

RM: No, it was another one. After I realised how well that worked, I found another cottage which was near Ashford in Kent. It was at the end of a farmer’s land and a family rental. We chipped in together and rented that out. We shelled out the living room, and got all the furniture out and all the gear in, and worked in there for a week, and then at the end of it we were pretty much ready to go into the studio.

PB: The second event was recording it at Dada Studios in Clapham. You apparently got stuck in a severe snowstorm, and ended up recording the whole album overnight.

RM: Yeah, that is true. London was absolutely locked down. Dada has closed down now, but there was a big, open room upstairs, which was great for drums, and then a smaller room and a control room below. It wasn’t particularly well sound-proofed in the big room upstairs, and it was a busy flight line, so you would hear planes coming over, and, of course, it being Clapham you would hear the odd police siren too, but because of the snow there was none of that. London was at a standstill, and it was absolutely silent apart from us (Laughs).

There were a couple of complaints from neighbours during the night actually. There was one time in which George, the engineer and the owner of the building, had to almost fight someone off. We were there for more than a night. We were there for most of the next day as well. We couldn’t have got out even if we wanted to. Even if we could have got to the end of the road and where the pavement was, we wouldn’t have got back to where everybody lived. We just decided to stay and make the most of it.

We recorded thirteen songs eventually. There was one song in rehearsals that we felt really confident with and we were able to play really easily. We did it as the first take of anything that we recorded, and we were really pleased with it. We finished recording it, and thought, “Oh my God, do we have any need to re-record it?” It was just the first thing that we recorded, and we got it. Then we did a few more takes of other songs, and that song was the one that we ended up not completing. We didn’t bother putting final parts on it or mixing it. By the time we finished it seemed ordinary compared to the others.

PB: You also used a selection of microphones that dated back to the 1930s to record the album, and one of them in particular, a 1950’s microphone which had belonged to an old tape recorder, gave the album its name because of its granular sound. Why did you decide to use all this old equipment?

RM: The opportunity came up through a friend of mine, who has a collection of microphones that he has bought up gradually. The last time that the band had recorded was with the top-of-the-range equipment in the 80’s and I wanted to shuffle things around. The individuality of the Woodentops has always been an important thing, but now even more so because there are not many bands from our time still making records. We were really keen to make this record sound different from our other albums.

PB: You mixed the album in Istanbul. Why did you decide to go to there?

RM: Mike Nielsen, who mixed the album, lives there. He has got a little studio there. He has been the engineer/co-producer of Jamiroquai and Underworld and all these people that have come out of Strong Room Studios. We had always been friends, but we had just never had the chance to work with each other before. It made sense and proved cheaper for me to go over there rather than him flying over here to do it.

PB: ‘I’m Delighted’ is a beautiful and tender love song. What inspired that song?

RM: That is about meeting someone again and, realising that while this person might rescue you body, mind and soul, that you might be very destructive to them (Laughs).

I wanted to re-do the vocal on and do other things with that song, but we just ran out of time. Often having creative restrictions are what helps you to have a finished article as much as anything else. I actually wanted to find a gospel choir to sing backing vocals on that song. I sent the backing track to Mike in Istanbul to start working on it, and I was going to record the backing vocalists and redo the lead vocal and then send them to him to drop onto the track. In the meantime I took quite a long time to find anybody, and he sent me the finished version of the tune. He didn’t realise that it was just the backing version. He just worked with what he had, and it sounded good so that I decided I didn’t need to find any other singers.

PB: Was ‘Off the War’ inspired by one particular war or was it about all wars?

RM: It was inspired by ‘Call of Duty’ and video games like that. It is about people thinking that they are really something because they can kick your ass in a video game, and how delusional they are about that, and how completely and utterly horrible war actually is (Laughs). It is poking fun at that.

PB: What is ‘Stay Out of the Light’ about? Is that also about war?

RM: it was written during the period of the First Gulf War. It was about how history constantly seems to be repeating itself, and all the bloody misery war produces for people in war-torn torn zones.

PB: You are going to be playing some dates in April. Where do the Woodentops go from here? What have you planned after that?

RM: I don’t know. I am interested to see what this album does for us i.e. if people like it, and if it will lead to more opportunities to play in public which is what we want to do and what we need to do. It has been a long time since we have done anything new, so it has been quite difficult for us to get new band type gigs. What we are hoping that it will do is create enough interest for us hone our live show as tightly as possible. What we would like to achieve is to be able to really play well live, and we need to play live quite a lot to do that.

We have just done two shows in London, one in Portland Street at The Venue, and then one at the Fire Station in Windsor, and then we have other shows in April at The Cross in Birmingham and also in Manchester.

PB: Thank you.

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