“We always try and do something different with each album”, says Rob ‘Hacker’ Jessett at the start of an interview with Pennyblackmusic on the phone from Spain to talk about his band Morton Valence’s new and sixth album, ‘Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape’. “I guess our brief to ourselves with this album was that we had to write a bunch of songs that were positive and uplifting, not just typical depressing singer-songwriter stuff but at the same do it without sounding incredibly cheesy, which is quite a challenge, I think, for a songwriter.”

In 2017 the South London-formed, self-described ‘urban country’ outfit released their previous album, ‘Europa’. Recorded as a result of the Brexit vote, it included songs sung in seven different European languages and originally featured tracks by Kraftwerk, Serge Gainsbourg and Plastic Bertrand. A celebration of European culture and music, it met with a mixed reaction winning the cult act, which is centred around Jessett (vocals, guitar) and the Northern Irish-born Anne Gilpin (vocals, keyboards) acclaim from their strong fan base, but also found them the target of online trolls and death threats.

The release of ‘Bob And Veronica’s Great Escape’ finds Jessett, who lost his job at a London languages school due to a fall in the number of overseas visitors because of the Brexit result, now working in Madrid where he has been based since September and Gilpin continuing to live in London.

Stripped back and largely based around acoustic guitars and Jessett and Gilpin’s vocal harmonies, ‘Bob And Veronica’s Great Escape’ takes as its main theme escaping from the world. Its songs include opening track ‘It’s A New Morning’, in which two recovering former drug addicts reconcile after a long absence, and ‘Maybe We Could Go Downstairs and See?’, in which two lovers happily holed upstairs in their bedroom, wonder if they should venture down to see who is banging at the door. In its last few minutes ‘Bob And Veronica’s Great Escape’ goes through an astonishing change of direction. There is some brief ambience with ‘The Final Segue’, before it erupts into stabbing electronica with the offbeat and surreally humorous ‘Mr. Whippy’ in which Jessett howling through a megaphone pays tribute to his favourite ice cream. Rob Jessett spoke to Pennyblackmusic about ‘‘Bob And Veronica’s Great Escape’.


PB: You have stripped back on your usual keyboards and the synths on ‘Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape’. There is plenty of acoustic guitars but the instrumentation is much sparser on it. Was that a conscious decision?

RJ: We didn’t want to make a record that was studio-driven or over-produced. Sometimes we have lapsed a little into what I would call over-production in the past. I look back at some of our recordings and think, “I wish that wasn’t in there.” Rather than thinking “I wish I could add this,” I usually think, “I wish that I could take this, that or the other out.” We wanted the songs to do the talking, and it is very much a song-driven rather than a production-driven album which I am very happy about that.

We were originally going to do a totally acoustic album. We weren’t going to have any drums or anything other than two voices and an acoustic guitar. That was the original idea, but some of the songs like the opening track ‘It’s a New Morning’ have a kind of groove to it, so I actually played drums on that myself (laughs). Most of it, however, is guitar and two voices. It is a much purer album than anything we have done before.

PB: As a band you have always stockpiled songs, some of the tracks on your records go back years, while others are more recent. How many songs on this album were old songs and how many of them were new?

RJ: Most of them were new. ‘It’s a New Morning’, ‘Goldenlights’, ‘Pretty Little Crystals’, ‘Maybe We Could Go Back Downstairs’, ‘Start Me Back Over Again’, these are all completely new songs. We took two songs from ‘Black Angel Drifter’, an album that we put out a couple of years ago. It is a record that we are very proud of but it didn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention your average Morton Valence record seems to get, so there are two songs from that, ‘The Visit’ and ‘Black-Eyed Susan’. We wanted them to have more of an airing, so we re-recorded them.

Then we did a piece of music called ‘The Final Segue’. Anne and I have a penchant for ambient music anyway. We usually have little segues between each track and little moments of ambience then, but with this track we stuck it on the end and then we put ‘Mr. Whippy’ on after that because we wanted to end ‘Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape’ on a high.

‘Mr. Whippy’ is a really old song. It goes back a long way but we never actually released it. We won the FOPP/PRS Award for Best New Band in 2006 and that was one of the songs that we recorded then, but we have never have done anything with it. People have often asked me about that song. Why don’t you play it live anymore? Why don’t you put it up on Spotify? It is like a bonus track. That is why we put ‘The Final Segue’ between the last track which is ‘The Visit’ before going out with a bang with ‘Mr. Whippy’.

PB: Who is officially in Morton Valence nowadays?

RJ: Literally at the moment it is just me and Anne, which it always has been really. It is a bit like The Fall was Mark E. Smith and whoever he happened to be playing with. Morton Valence is Anne and me. We have almost had as many band members as The Fall. We have got a loose collection of friends that come in and play with us, most notably Alan Cook who plays pedal steel on a few tracks on this record. Joe Udwin also plays a little bit of bass, and Daryl Holley plays some percussion. Basically, however, Morton Valence is myself and Anne, and whoever happens to be playing with us that day.

PB: The main theme of ‘Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape’ seems to be escaping from the world and taking time out from it. Is it true that you were trolled and received death threats after ‘Europa’?

RJ: Yeah. I was quite disturbed at the level of nastiness that we got because we were very verbal about being against Brexit. We got a lot of horrible, nasty, abusive, threatening language that some very cowardly people tend to do from the comfort of their computer screens. They are very, very brave when they are sitting in front of a laptop, but if you confront somebody like that they will probably show their true colours.

We were obviously of a certain political opinion that not everyone is going to agree with, but it is not like we were saying with that record “We love the EU” or anything like that. We, myself and Anne however, consider ourselves as Europeans. We have toured a lot in Europe. I am now living in Madrid and Anne is Northern Irish, so she has had that whole experience from Northern Ireland in her background.

The whole thing to do with that album was that we didn’t want to come out with a hostile attitude. We wanted to come out with a positive attitude, and we thought what better way to do it than to celebrate the music of Europe. I also wanted to say to people who were in Europe, whether we were in or out of the EU, whatever that is or whatever than entails, that we appreciate you and we hope that you appreciate us. In fact, we know that you appreciate us.

It was more to do with countering the negativity that there seemed to be in the fall out of Brexit. There are a lot of very, very hostile attitudes in particular towards people who aren’t British. I guess that they were always there those attitudes. It is just that I think before Brexit it was very taboo to demonstrate those kind of attitudes, but now it as if you can flaunt it as much as you like. You go on somewhere like YouTube or Twitter, and you look at the kind of language that people use to describe people who don’t quite gel with their own political beliefs. Personally, it makes me lose faith in humanity. It is so nasty, whereas we wanted to do the opposite of that.

We have moved on from that though now. I kind of feel that we failed with ‘Europa’ because I was hoping that that album would do more than it did. I think a lot the problem is people are sick of Brexit. They are sick of hearing and talking about it, as at one level as I am too.

PB: ‘Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape’ is the first Morton Valence album that has not been particularly socially conscious or political. Were you saying then with this album that we all just need a break from reality?

RJ: What this album is saying that everything outside is absolutely shit, but let’s just lock the doors and pretend that it is isn’t. That is our political message for this album (laughs).

PB: ‘Maybe We Could Go Downstairs and See?’, however, implies that any escape from the world is always going to be temporary, and it is perhaps not sensible to spend too long away from reality. Was that what you were trying to say with that song?

RJ: Maybe. I don’t know. I suppose that this is the most introspective of all our records in terms of the content and the songs. We have, however, expressed our political ideals and social conscience in the past, but it just feels like you end up banging your head against the wall. Anne and I both just want to get on with the rest of our life now.

PB: ‘It’s a New Morning’ is about reconciliation against the odds. What inspired that?

RJ: it is just that. I have moved to Madrid. Things have changed, and it is about looking at what you have and appreciating that. Okay, I am not a millionaire. Lots of things have happened in my life that I wish could have gone differently (laughs), but at the end of the day I count myself as being very lucky because I have a beautiful wife, a beautiful family and all the other cheesy clichés. It is the simple things in life rather than the complicated ones that matter the most and it is about that, but it is also about seeing the wood from the trees, which is something that I have only just started to feel, and so I wanted to put that down in a piece of music.

PB: You are about to release a film documentary, ‘This Is the Story Of a Band’, about Morton Valence.

RJ: Yes, we have got a film coming out (laughs). There is basically a load of footage of the band. Most of it is about ten years old now and it was found a hard drive in a basement somewhere in New York. I know that sounds very romantic but it is actually true.

We did two tours of Germany in 2009 and 2010, and these two Americans who were both called Mike came on tour with us. They were like a little film crew intent on making a documentary. The tour ended with us and them going our different ways fairly acrimoniously, as these things often do. I have recently, however, re-established contact with one of the Mikes, a lovely guy in New York called Mike Brandon, and he sent me all the footage. There is literally about thirty hours of footage of us playing in a variety of places in Germany.

We have whittled it down to about an hour and it is actually pretty good quality, so what we are doing is we are going to put it out as a kind of mini-series. Rather than put it out as an hour-long film, we are going to release it in fifteen minute segments over the next few months and hopefully it will educate and entertain the general public out there about Morton Valence. Some of it is very, very funny, and borders on ‘Spinal Tap’.

PB: Some of this footage apparently goes back to 2001 pre-Morton Valence. Where was that filmed and does that involve your previous band?

RJ: The first incarnation of Morton Valence was a band called Florida, and we were told that that was a bad idea for a name by our manager at the time because it wasn’t very good for this up and coming thing called the Internet (laughs). That is how long ago that was, but he was proven right. We changed our name to Morton Valence, which is actually the name of the place where Chuck, another of the then members of the band, had a little recording studio.

Florida played a gig with (NYC singer-songwriter) Jeffrey Lewis at the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street in 2002, and it was recorded. The visual image is very bad quality, but the sound is excellent. That will be appearing in the first installment. It is a live clip of ‘The Day I Went to Bed for Ten Years’ which we finally released on the album ‘Left’ which came out in 2014. All the gigs at the 12 Bar Club used to be filmed. There was a guy with an old VHS recorder whom you would bung ten quid or something, and you would get a video at the end of the gig. We have converted that video onto digital, and I was really impressed with the sound quality. It is a nice little archive. It is very grainy. The quite bad visual quality adds to the charm anyway. It very much looks like it was filmed back in the day.

PB: And some footage is more recent. It takes it right up to last year, doesn’t it?

RJ: There are a couple of clips of us playing in the Country Soul Sessions in Soho. There is a little bit of that, but most of it, about 80% of it is from the tours we did in Germany and were shot by Mike and Mike.

PB: You’re now based in Madrid and Anne is based in London. How do you to hope to promote this album given that you are living in two different countries?

RJ: We are lucky because we have always had a very good relationship with our fans. When we did a very early version of crowdfunding or our first album, it worked for us because of that. We still maintain that and, while I don’t expect to go double platinum, I know there will always be a whole bunch of people who will buy our album. When we play a show in London, we are always guaranteed a crowd. Our last show which we did at The Lexington in London completely sold out. There are people who are still aware of the band, and in the age of the Internet like lots of bands you learn to use social networking to get the message out there.

PB: Will you be playing gigs to promote this album and are they going to be confined to London?

RJ: We are going to play Madrid as well, but I am planning on coming back to London at some point in the Spring and we will play some shows then. If we can play a few shows out of town as well, that would be great. It is just the logistics and the practicality of it, but we will definitely be playing some gigs to back up the new album.

I have done some things in Madrid already in a few small acoustic clubs as well. It’s not quite the same because I am without Anne, but I have really enjoyed it and I have made some really good friends here. Everyone here has been really kind and generous and I have met no negativity from anyone whatsoever (laughs). In fact quite the opposite.

PB: And final question. Will there be another Morton Valence album after this one?

RJ: Yes, we are working on one now. As long as the songs keep coming the albums will keep coming, and as long as there are people out there wanting to listen we will keep making the records. I have got about probably an album’s worth of material written that we are yet to record. We are certainly not planning to throw in the towel.

PB: Thank you.











Related Links:

http://www.mortonvalence.com
https://twitter.com/mortonvalence
https://www.facebook.com/mortonvalence


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