“I made my first album when I was nineteen,” says Chris Bailey. “And that became an addictive process.” He pauses for a second then adds,” I don’t know if I have an addictive personality. I just like making records.”
It is near the beginning of Bailey’s interview with Pennyblackmusic and he is talking to us on the phone from his home in Haarlem, just outside Amsterdam where he has been based for the last seventeen years.

In his now nearly forty career, Chris Bailey has recorded twenty albums, fourteen with his band the Saints and another six solo albums.
One of the first Australian rock bands of note, the Saints erupted out of Brisbane in 1976 with their self-released debut single, ‘(I’m) Stranded’. It drew little attention in Australia, but was picked up in the UK by the music weekly ‘Sounds’ whose editor Jonh Ingham declared it, “Single of this week and every week.”

The Saints signed to Sire Records and relocated to London. Their debut album, also called ‘(I’m) Stranded’ (1977), consisted largely of whiplash songs, like the title track, which combined barbed guitars with Bailey’s sneering, slurred vocals. In a blueprint for what was to follow, the Saints, however, quickly started to show signs of outgrowing their early roots.

Their second album, ‘Eternally Yours’ (1978), which contained the first-rate single ‘Know Your Product’, merged punk with a brassy Stax soul sound, while their third album, ‘Prehistoric Sounds’ (1978), found the group moving in a completely different direction and was jazz and blues-influenced.

The Saints, which has since been through various line-ups in which Bailey has been the only founder member, has remained an experimental act. ‘King of the Sun’, their latest album, was originally released in 2012, on the Australian label, Highway 125. It was recorded by Bailey in Melbourne with eight session musicians including a keyboardist, a cellist and a brass section, and is a windswept, epic rock record that consists of tracks such as the soaring title track, the reflective ‘Turn’ and the melancholic ‘Road to Oblivion Part 2’.

Bailey has now reissued ‘King of the Sun’ on his new European label Fire Records in a new double CD edition, which, as well as the original album, also consists of an additional album entitled ‘King of the Midnight Sun’. Recorded in London over two days, ‘King of the Midnight Sun’ finds Bailey reunited with Peter Wilkinson, who has drummed for the Saints since 1999, and Barrington Francis, the group’s guitarist between 1979 and 1989 who has joined the band again after a twenty-five year absence. It consists of exactly the same songs, but reworks them as garage rock numbers.

Pennyblackmusic spoke to Chris Bailey about ‘King of the Sun/King of the Midnight Sun’, and the Saints’ forthcoming touring plans.

PB: The Saints were formed in Brisbane and are often as a result seen as being an Australian group, yet you were actually born in Kenya, your parents are Irish and you have spent most of the past forty odd years living in Europe and are now based in the Netherlands. Would you describe yourself as being Australian?

CB: I don’t really see myself as being that. I am not sure what nationality I would describe myself as. My people never took out Australian citizenship and I never had an Aussie passport. I used to have a resident stamp, so technically whenever I go back to Oz I have to get a work permit which is a minor annoyance.

I find it quite funny though, especially as I was contacted recently by the Aussie version of the BBC because they are doing yet another fucking documentary on the 70s and the political situation in Australia then and Brisbane rock bands. I was trying to explain to the director that, yes, in my teenage years I did live in Brisbane and, yes, I do speak Australian fluently and I love the place but I know absolutely nothing about the music scene there. I haven’t lived there since the mid 1970s. I sporadically go back there, but I can’t really speak about the scene and its evolution and why it sounds the way it does.

PB: You always have gone your own way with the Saints. How much of that at least initially was because you didn’t know any better and how much of that because you have never wanted to do what is expected of you?

CB: In the early days it was definitely because I didn’t have a clue. I have been in a rock band all of my adult life now, and I have a particularly ambivalent attitude towards show business. I am not particularly fond of showbiz. I have never wanted to be a rock star. I tend to get bored easily and so I have always tried to make my records all sound different from one another.

Over the years like everyone my batting average has not been 100%. Sometimes I am involved in making good records and sometimes I am involved in making rather the opposite, but still every time I make an album I want to make another one.

PB: You originally released ‘King of the Sun’ on the Australian label, Highway 125. How did you become involved with Fire Records and why did you decide to put it out again through them?

CB: It is a straightforward story. They approached me. I had just received the rights to much of my old back catalogue back from Universal, and I met up with James Nicholls, who runs it, to talk about re-releasing some of that.

There aren’t that many record labels left in the world. There are a couple of majors and they are the same as they ever were except more desperate, but a good old-fashioned record label with people who actually give a vague shit about what goes into records is very rare. I think that is where Fire is centred. They are, to quote an American cousin, “the real deal.”

I felt that the ‘King of the Sun’ album had not been well-serviced in Europe. James and I decided as our first punt at working together that we would just do a deluxe European edition of that album. After drinking too much gin one night, I came up with the dubious idea of, instead of just doing a bonus track as we had originally planned, to do a whole extra live album. We had already made the plan that this year was going to be a much more on-the-road kind of year, and I wanted to do something to reflect that.

PB: Barrington Francis, your current guitarist, recently came back to the band after an absence of twenty five years. How much had you had to do with each other in the intervening years when he wasn’t in the band first of all?

CB: We went off at various tangents and we didn’t see each other for a number of years. Then a few years back Pete and I were in this French band. We were really enjoying being in this other band and not being in the Saints and doing something different. It was quite a lark, and as it was a French band the catering was excellent (Laughs). Then we did a gig in London and Barry turned up. Pete and I were starting to talk about what we should do next, and I mentioned to an old friend that I had just met Barrington and he said, “Well, why don’t you get him back in the band? He was the best guitar player that you ever had.” So, I called Barrington up and said, “Do you want to do this?” and he agreed and we have been knocking about together again for a year or so.

It has been good. I was a bit unsure about things at first. You can never be sure if the chemistry is still going to be there, but the very first gig that we did it was like the intervening years were irrelevant.

PB: What is interesting about ‘King of the Midnight Sun’ is that it is not just you and Barrington that click together, but also Barrington and Peter do as well.

CB: You don’t know how true that statement is (Laughs), and that is at a lot of levels. Touring with them is quite exhausting because they are both night people, whereas I like the quiet life (Laughs).

PB: When you recorded ‘King of the Midnight Sun’, did you see it as a way or road testing what you, Peter and Barrington could do with each other?

CB: I suppose that was an aspect of it, but it wasn’t the main reason. When I started to make records in the late 70s, that was the era of coloured vinyl and in which musicians and record companies would add things on to their releases. The main motivation was just to add something to it, because the record was already released and so if you are going to reissue a record then you should make it a bit special. It was a really good icebreaker in the studio though as well.

Our whole ethos was to do it live. ‘King of the Sun’ is very much a studio record. It makes no pretensions at rock and roll. I have never been a fan of just recreating the sound of the studio album live. The fun of the studio is one thing. It is a totally different environment live, and my personal taste runs to sloppy rock and roll bands. It is what I like. We didn’t rehearse for ‘King of the Midnight Sun’. We knew the songs, and just went in and played them. Most of the vocals are guide vocals. Most of them are first takes, and there is a minimal amount of overdubbing.

PB: There have been various stories about ‘King of the Sun’ being a concept album. That is not true at all, is it?

CB: (Laughs) No.

PB: Where does that story come from?

CB: I have no idea. It could have been some misunderstanding of the press release. It could have been something daft that I said. It could have just been made up. I think the Kinks did some good what-we-call concept albums. I listened to ‘Tommy’ the other month and I guess that it is okay. I am not a big fan of rock opera. Rock and roll doesn’t necessarily have to be stupid, but pompous rock is about as entertaining as a night out with your local Conservative Member of Parliament. I quite like thoughtful lyrics, but if you over egg things then it becomes pretty tedious.

PB: The title track opens with the lines “Napoleon and Josephine serene in suffering/ Can’t figure the rent/The money’s spent/I know what that means,” and then you go in the chorus to sing, “I am divine/ When I am with you I am the king of the sun.” Napoleon and Josephine divorced when she failed to give him an heir. Do you see that as being despite that about a song about love often in difficult odds conquering all?

CB: I couldn’t have described it much better myself. One of the most difficult things I have found in a lifetime of penning pop songs is it is very hard coming up with a twist on a popular love tune. Maybe it is a generational thing, but I have often found it very difficult to write. I have had a few girlfriends say to me, “Why have you never written a song about a girl?” and it is not that I don’t like girls. Those songs are very hard to write, and without being too self-conscious about it maybe the thought process going on in the back of my head was to try and write something triumphal. It helps all the mock horns and the anthemic fade out on it, but it was meant to be a rare positive tune.

PB: ‘Turn’ in contrast seems to be about how life can suddenly be transformed and not necessarily for the better.

CB: That is sadly the case for a lot of folk. Noel Coward once said, “There is nothing quite so potent as a cheap pop song in the moonlight,” and I often turn to pop music particularly if I am in a less than positive mood. Without wishing to sound like I am providing a service, that is what I try and do as a songsmith and certainly attempted to do with ‘Turn’. I suppose it is like religion. It is like little band-aids on the wounds of life.
PB: On the subject of wounds of life, ‘Road to Oblivion Part 2’ comes across as perhaps the bleakest song on the album.

CB: I have had some bad hangovers in my time. My view of the world isn’t always rosy (Laughs).

PB: On that song you describe being carried off to Hades by Charon the boatman. How much of an interest in classical literature and particularly Greek literature do you have?

CB: It is not an obsession. I have a fairly lousy education record. I left school very early, but one of the things that I was blessed with when I was young was that I was a voracious reader. I guess that I am one of those badly educated people that have little bits of knowledge from lots of other areas (Laughs).

PB: Bruce Springsteen recently covered a version of your song ‘Just Like Fire Would’ on his album ‘High Hopes’. When did you first become aware that he was a fan and were you surprised when he recorded it?

CB: I am friends with an accountant that works for a tour company which Springsteen uses, and he mentioned to me that Bruce was really pissed off that he couldn’t come to a Saints gig. I thought at first that he was just lying to me (Laughs), and then I thought, “It’s possible. Maybe he does like my humble band.”

Then I think that it was the year before last that someone mentioned that Bruce was doing ‘Fire Would’ live, which was a real compliment. Then I went a little after that to see him play live in Paris, and met him then and he told me that he had cut a version of it ,and I was so surprised that I didn’t even think to say, “Well, what did you do that for?” A few months later I was obviously then told that it was on the album. I really hadn’t seen it coming at all. Bruce is such an icon rock god, and he also makes pretty good records and he has made a lot of them. It is enormously flattering really

PB: You are still perhaps best known for your first album, ‘(I‘m) Stranded’. How do you rate that album now? You said earlier on that you rate some of those records better than others.

CB: It is like asking someone what they think of a photograph of themselves when they are fifteen (Laughs). One part of me is really proud of the youthful Saints because that first album is very obnoxious and very badly recorded, but it is very sincere. I don’t know whether it is dated or of its time. I don’t have enough critical distance. In all honesty, I don’t know what I think of it. In certain kinds of moods I can listen to it an and it will make me smile and I will think, ”That’s great.” And then I will listen to other tracks and think, “What were you thinking of, for fuck’s sake?”

PB: Is that the way you feel about all your albums after you have recorded them?

CB: Sadly, yes. The very first time I heard my voice back through headphones I thought I was the worst thing ever, and it is not so bad these days but I still feel very self-conscious about the sound of my singing voice. I know that I am quite good, but I still can’t get over that feeling of “Oh God! Get a proper job, mate. It’s not working.” I think that is why I still have such enthusiasm for doing this and making records. I have this thought, “Next time I am going to make a record I am going to get it right.”

PB: You have described yourself as primarily a songwriter. Do you write the songs and bring them to whoever happens to be in the band at that time and work it up?

CB: Yes. That’s it. Songsmithery is a relatively solitary process. You lock yourself in a room, but I liken being in the recording studio to being on the factory floor. I have taught myself not to be too precious about things, and also to get the best out of folk. I suppose I work with Peter and Barrington for a particular reason, and that is because that they have skills that I don’t have. I like the idea of kicking things around. I can be quite stubborn and if I have got a set idea I can be quite grumpy, but generally speaking I like the collaborative process. There are lots of ways of doing things, and that is why I quite like the band environment.

PB: Neither Barrington or Pete live in the Netherlands, do they?

CB: Barrington is a Londoner and Pete lives in Dorset which is very nice.

PB: How easy is it for you to rehearse and record?

CB: It is a bit of a commute, but it is the twenty-first century. I am very fortunate that my other band members share my absolute distaste for rehearsing (Laughs). It’s not really an issue.

PB: Will you be touring?

CB: Yes, we are going to be touring a lot this year. It is starting in April, and the first cab of the rank for us is Spain. France is the next stop and we will be in the UK the third week in May.

We are also working on a new album. I have got about ten tracks recorded. My plan is to record maybe another ten songs, and pick maybe the best ten of those. That album will probably surface towards the end of the summer.

PB: Thank you.

The Saints will be playing the following UK dates: 21 May: Brudenell Social Club, Leeds; 22 May: Stereo, Glasgow; 23 May: The Bodega, Nottingham; 24 May: Oslo, London,; 25 May: Thekla, Bristol; 27 May: Zephyr Lounge, Leamington Spa; 28 May: The Kazimier, Liverpool; 29 May: The Forum, Tunbridge Wells; 26 Jul: Electric Circus, Edinburgh.

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