The Montecristos are the new band of Neal X.

Neal X was the guitarist in the much critically maligned Sigue Sigue Sputnik, which, allegedly signed to EMI with a £4 million deal, in 1986 had a Top 3 hit with their Giorgio Moroder–produced debut single ‘Love Missile F1-11’ and reached the Top 10 with their first album, ‘Flaunt It’.

Since Sigue Sigue Sputnik finally broke up in 2004 after various reformations, 54-year old X has worked as Marc Almond’s long-term guitarist and also done film soundtrack work.

The Montecristos combine a 50’s-influenced rock and roll sound with brass instrumentation, and, as well as X (vocals, guitars, synthesizers), also consists of Emma Goss (double bass), Gemma B (trumpet and brass arrangements), Sophie Freeman (tenor and baritone saxophone), Orlando La Rose (tenor and baritone saxophone) and Hugh Wilkinson (drums and percussion).

They have just released their debut album, ‘Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll’, after a successful Kickstarter crowd funding campaign, on Easy Action Records. As well as covers of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s ‘Love Missile F1-11’ and ‘Jayne Mansfield’, which appeared on their 1988 second album ‘Dress for Esxesss’, ‘Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ features several of X’s own compositions, including instrumental opening number ‘Atlantic Surf’ and the title track which he co-wrote with rock biographer and journalist Nina Antonia (Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, Peter Perrett).

Pennyblackmusic spoke to Neal X about the Montecristos and ‘Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll’.


PB: You have been really busy since Sigue Sigue Sputnik finished. You have been working with Marc Almond. You have been involved in soundtrack work, and you have started a family. With such an active schedule already, why did you decide that you wanted to front a band as well?

NEAL X: It has a lot to do with looking at my own mortality. I have been talking about doing another rock and roll band forever and a day and boring my friends about it, and I felt I had to do it now. Otherwise it would be too late.

Having said that, I started my family quite late and when I was in my forties, and it has taken an enormous amount of time and energy. I really wasn’t able to do anything for a long time, but I have been champing at the bit to do this and as soon as the kids were old enough – they are ten and twelve now – I started making this my main focus.

PB: Is this is your first time as a front man?

NEAL X: Yeah. Kind of. We were working again as Sigue Sigue Sputnik - Tony James (guitarist-Ed), myself and Martin Degville (vocals –Ed) - and we made a record in 2003 and went out touring in 2004, and Martin walked off in one drunken, hissy fit too many. I stepped up to singing with Sputnik, so we could finish the tour. I was used to doing it. It has been great fun. Remembering the words is quite difficult, but that is probably down to age, isn’t it (Laughs)?

PB: Sigue Sigue Sputnik were always very futuristic in their outlook. The Montecristos are primarily a rock and roll band and then have mixed this up with a brass sound. Was the aim of doing the Montecristos to simply do something that you hadn’t already done before?

NEAL X: Yes, basically. I think that with Sputnik conceptually we stepped back to the ‘50s and to the roots of rock and roll. We felt that if we started with that original sound and played it on futuristic instruments it would sound unique. It wouldn’t sound like our contemporaries, and it would be the sound of Elvis as if he had crashed on Earth aged eighteen. It would sound like that original energy of rock and roll brought up to date.

That is the basic idea of the Montecristos as well, to go back to the roots of rock and roll again, but this time to mix it up with brass instruments and to hopefully make it contemporary rather than futuristic - to have our feet our planted firmly in the Fifties but reimagined for the 21st century.

I love working with girls. I wanted to work with girls in this group and happened to spot some really great girl brass players. The 50’s film, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’, with Jayne Mansfield, is my favourite movie, and there is this great scene in it in which Little Richard sings the title song while playing the piano and with the aid of five saxophonists. They sound fantastic. That was my prototype for the Montecristos. I really loved the idea of having a brass section.

PB: Who are the Montecristos' female members, Gemma B, Sophie Freeman and Emma Goss?

NEAL X: I found Gemma B working with Roy Wood from Wizzard. I have always felt that Roy Wood is very misunderstood. If he was American and didn’t have a Brummie accent, we would think of him with the same reverence that we used to hold Phil Spector in before he was sent to jail. If you look at the work that he has done, it is incredible. He started the Move, then started the Electric Light Orchestra up and then left that and started Wizzard. He is known for novelty records now, but I have always thought that he is really great. He was touring with a ten piece brass section, and we both happened to be on the same pilot for a TV show one night, and I was struck by Gemma’s charisma. She was the one that you looked at from across the back of the room. I thought she had something special.

Sophie came along with Gemma. They were great friends. She is a proper rock and roll saxophonist. She plays with PJ Proby. Marc Almond and I made an album, ‘Legend’, with PJ in the late 1990s. We wrote and produced an album for PJ. Both of us were big fans, big fans of his bonkersness. Sophie is just phenomenal. It is like a touchstone. You say, “Play something,” and she is off.

I had to track down Emma. I thought that it would be great to have a female double bass player if such a thing existed. I figured that you can find anything on the internet, and I unearthed her there. I found a clip on YouTube labelled ‘Emma Goss Slap Bass Solo’. I tracked her down from that, and she lives twenty minutes up the road from me. It was meant to be.

PB: What about Orlando La Rose?

NEAL X: Orlando La Rose is another brass player. He is a friend of Gemma’s. Unfortunately he is super busy, so he has not been playing live with us over the last few concerts, but he is terrific. He plays with the Selecter with Pauline Black. He is out touring with her most of the time, but is a terrific baritone sax player.

PB: And Hugh Wilkinson?

NEAL X: Marc Almond found him when we looking for a drummer and percussionist to play Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown with us in 2012. Marc said, “I have found a guy who I think would be a really good percussionist,” and alarm bells rang in my head because it is not normally Marc’s forte but in this case he absolutely nailed it. Hugh is a phenomenal drummer, but he is first and foremost a percussionist. He plays piano and tuned percussion and he just happens to have been in a surf band when he was seventeen, so he brings a musicality to it which I really love. He is absolutely rock solid.

PB: You been the recipient of a very expensive record deal in the past with Sigue Sigue Sputnik and are presumably well enough known to have found yourself another record label, yet, to quote your press release, “in an attempt to sidestep a record industry that purges rock ‘roll from the books” you decided to do release this album with the aid of a Kickstarter campaign. Why did you decide to do that?

NEAL X: As I live in London and have a family, spare cash doesn’t really happen a lot these days. One of the things about having that record deal in the 80s – it was quoted as being a four million pound deal - was that it was broken down over seven albums. You’re not actually given the money unfortunately, and everything you do with the record company is charged back to you, so it is really easy to spend much more money than you are ever going to make.

I was aware of that. I also just thought the modern way of doing things was crowd funding. I didn’t have any cash. I prefer to be in a situation in which I have a lot of ideas and creativity than loads of money. It is much better than having loads of money and no ideas. I felt that I had the ideas and really wanted to do something, and so I found a studio which I wanted to work in and Kenny Jones, a producer that I enjoy working with and the only thing that stopped me was a lack of cash, so the Kickstarter thing was a really easy way to tap into that.

PB: How successful was the Kickstarter campaign? You reached your target fairly quickly, didn’t you?

NEAL X: I hoped to raise five grand and in the end I raised nine thousand which was I over the moon with. I spent five grand on making the record and the rest has gone into bits of PR, promotion, things like that.

PB: You have worked with some pretty unlikely producers in the past. ‘Flaunt It’, Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s debut album, was infamously recorded with Giorgio Moroder. Their second album ‘Dress for Excess’ was recorded with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. What are your memories of working with them both and were they happy or unhappy experiences?

NEAL X: Working with Giorgio was a very happy experience. He was really good. We learnt lessons that we still use today, really great lessons about how not to waste time or money. He was really good, really creative. He had a brilliant team of engineers and programmers as well. It was thoroughly enjoyable. The first single that we did with him ‘Love Missile F1 -11’, and which we also released as a 12”, was a really brilliant. Maybe some of the rest of the album did not live up to the initial promise of the first single, but I remember being in the studio when we did ‘21st Century Boy’, the next single, and everyone – record company, our agent who came down, friends and family - were all going, “This is even better than ‘Love Missile’.” We thought that we were going to have an even bigger hit, but somehow it didn’t happen.

After that we began to look at producers to make the next record. We were talking to both Nile Rodgers and Rick Ocasek from the Cars who had produced Suicide about making a record, and somehow it turned from that to us making a record with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. We only did one single, ‘Success’ with them, and in every way it was the opposite to working with Giorgio.

I couldn’t stand anything about them. It was a thoroughly depressing experience. We disagreed on everything. They took our demo which we saw as being T. Rex meets Donna Summer in dub, which is what we wanted, and we went to their studio to hear their version and they said, “Listen to this,” and pressed play and it sounded like Bananarama and we went, “What is this shit?” Then they said, “Here’s the vocal,” and they had just put the fader up on the guide vocal and it sounded horrible. We both spent ages working on something that probably neither of us wanted. We should have probably stick with the initial demo. We ended up producing a lot of the rest of that album ourselves.

Somebody at EMI suggested it. They said, “Look, Stock, Aitken and Waterman are the most unpopular producers on the planet. You are the most unpopular group in the planet. Let’s get you together.” It is funny on paper, but looking back now I think, “What the fuck were we thinking?” We could have been working with Nile Rodgers or someone else from a vast array of super-talented producers.

PB: That brings us to ‘Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll’. You mentioned already that you wanted to work with Kenny Jones. Who is he?

NEAL X. Kenny used to work for Matrix Studios. In London there is a chain of studios, very low rent and cheap, called Matrix Studios, which is run by a guy called Nigel Frieda, who is the brother of John Frieda, the hairdresser, and everyone worked there in the 1980s and 1990s. They were cheap and cheerful and a lot of creative stuff was done there.

Adrian Sherwood used to work there, and Marc Almond used to still work there when I first started working with him. He loved it there and he made some of his 80s records there. The chief engineer was this guy called Kenny Jones who was something of a mythical figure. He had worked with the Smiths. He did their first couple of albums with them and he was really great, really inventive, great with sounds, but also had really good people skills and was really good in the studio, someone who was very good at getting the best out of you.

He produced ‘Open All Night’ for Marc Almond, so I had worked with him a lot because I worked on all the sessions for that. You lose contact sometimes and a pal of mine said, “Can I bring Kenny to the Montecristos gig that you are doing on Friday ?” And I said, “Kenny who?” And he said, “Kenny Jones,” and I said, “God, I haven’t seen him for fifteen years. What is he up to?” After the show, Kenny said, I have got my own studio now. Come over and have a look,” and so I went over and had a look and it felt right instantly. It is called Alchemy Studios. It is by Alexandra Park in North London. Again it is close to home. I believe in working local. You don’t want to spend all day getting to the studio.

We also used Dean Street Studios to record ‘Born to Rock ‘n; Roll’. It is fantastic as well. I love it. It used to be Tony Visconti’s studio right in the heart of Soho and I have made a lot of records there in the past I have produced some stuff with Tony James and done some records with Marc Almond there. It is where Bowie did ‘Space Oddity’ but it is expensive. I couldn’t afford it all the time. We, therefore, started and finished it at Dean Street Studios but the bulk of it was recorded at Alchemy.

PB: ‘Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ starts with an instrumental ‘track Atlantic Surf’, which was used for the film ‘Down Dog’. What is that film about?

NEAL X: It is a comedy written by Simon Nye who wrote ‘Men Behaving Badly’ and it is about men’s problems and men’s inability to grow up. It was directed by Andres Dussan, a fellow school dad at my daughter’s primary school. He said, “Can you give me some help to do some music for a movie,” and I saw the script and rough cut of the film early on, and I thought it was very funny and something great to be involved in.

PB: The title track was co-written with the rock journalist and biographer Nina Antonia. How well did you know her beforehand?

NEAL X: I have known her since the 1980s, but not terribly well. She interviewed Tony when she wrote her book Johnny Thunders (‘Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood’, 1987), so knew her from that. I would see her sometimes at gigs and we were on nodding terms.

I did an interview with her –it must have been late last year – about a Stiv Bators album that I was involved with in 1990. Unfortunately Stiv died during the recording, but I worked on it as the bass guitarist/guitarist/engineer/producer. The record has finally after twenty-years been released on Easy Action Records, which is the label that I am with. Nina was writing the sleeve notes, and it was really good to see her after all this time and catch up, and it just struck me that when I read the sleeve notes that she writes really clearly and paints really great pictures with her words.

I was struggling with some lyrics, so I sent some music with an email attached saying, “I have got the main theme, but I need some blanks filled in,” and she sent the words back about ten minutes later, saying, “What about this?” And it was pretty much 95% there. We changed a few “ands” and “theres” and “buts”, but it was largely there. It was an experience that we both want to repeat, so we are going to do some more lyrics together hopefully for the next album.

PB: You have covered yourself because you have re-recorded Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s songs ‘Love Missile F1-11’ and ‘Jayne Mansfield’ for ‘Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ .Why did re-record those tracks?

NEAL X: I feel that Sputnik has been much maligned by the media and the general public. I felt that we weren’t as great as we maybe thought that we were at the time, but we certainly weren’t as bad as were made out to be either. Time hasn’t been kind to the Sputnik legacy yet, but I thought that it was a great opportune moment to grab back some of the best bits of my past and reinvent them and show that they are great songs. I wanted the Montecristos to be a really positive experience, and I think they really fit into that world.

I thought that we had done ‘Love Missile F1-11’ really well with Sputnik. The 12” which Giorgio did, and the version which is used in the ‘Ferris Bueuller’s Day Off’, in particular, is really good. David Bowie covered it in 2003 on a video only single on his ‘Reality’ album. I thought that if it was good enough for Bowie that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my past, and get in there and reinvent it. With ‘Jayne Mansfield’, I thought that we never really captured the magic of what the song should be. I just wanted to show that is just a great song.

PB: The Montecristos were the support for some of the dates on Marc Almond’s last tour. Why did you decide some dates rather than the whole tour?

NEAL X: Marc has been very supportive and originally he said, “Do you want to come and open for me for the entire tour? It was an amazing opportunity and a really great chance, but as I said I am not in my thirties anymore. It is quite physically tiring doing one of Marc’s gigs already, and the Montescristos’ set is quite up tempo. If I am there to work with him, I am there to work with him and that has got to take priority, but I cherrypicked four with days off afterwards and said, “I could do those because even if I am really tired I get a day to recover. “ And in fact we couldn’t do one of those. Emma had a wedding to go to, so we did just three shows.

PB: Final question. What are your plans now? Are you going to be touring a lot this year?

NEAL X: I am basically going to see what happens now. We are starting to pick up radio play with the Montecristos. The reaction and interest in ‘Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll' has been phenomenal. It has been overwhelmingly positive, so I do think something is going to happen. What that thing is I don’t know yet, but I would like to be playing all the time. I would like to be playing a couple of shows a week, but whether it is actually possible and whether the offers will come in I don’t know. There is obviously the logistical cost of putting it together and the group aren’t all London-based. Sophie lives in Derbyshire. Petrol costs alone do make shows quite difficult sometimes, but I do personally want to be playing all the time. This is what I will be doing until I die.

PB: Thank you.


Photos by Melanie Smith
www.mudkissphotography.co.uk
















Related Links:

http://www.themontecristos.com
https://twitter.com/themontecristos
https://www.facebook.com/TheMontecristos


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