Esteemed songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Gary Kemp was the force behind Spandau Ballet for many years, and currently plays in Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, performing older Pink Floyd selections. Gary’s recent solo album, INSOLO, is a beautiful reflection on life, love, and music, and I jumped at the chance to ask him about his past and present.
I’ve been enjoying the Rockonteurs podcast you do with Guy Pratt [Pink Floyd/David Gilmour/Saucerful bassist]. You both have worked with so many people over the years.
I’m fundamentally a massive fan of music. There’s even a track on this album that’s a homage to being a fan, “Waiting for the Band.” It’s about thinking about the fact that I still have my greatest musical moments as a fan, as opposed to being on stage. I still get goosebumps from being a fan. But I don’t get that on stage. On stage, you’re going through a technical process of playing and performing and worrying, and all the things it takes to do a good show.
The only euphoria you get is when you come off stage, and that’s only an overload of adrenaline that has got nowhere to go. Being a fan of music history, I grew up in one of the most eclectic times to be around. I told everyone I liked Bowie, but I secretly bought Genesis and listened to Yes. I attended a grammar school that was a mixture of working class kids and middle class kids. I wanted to be in that little corner of the playground where they were talking about Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and then I wanted to be over there where they were talking about Rod Stewart and The Faces. My collection is super eclectic. Whenever we talk to anyone on Rockonteurs, I’m passionate about what they do. There are very few genres that I wouldn’t be interested in. One little gap in my musical area would probably be heavy metal. Metal doesn’t really do it for me. Led Zeppelin a bit, but those records still sound quite thin when I listen to them. I’m interested in the world, and I still read autobiographies; I’m interested in how you got to where you were.
I watched the documentary on Spandau Ballet, Soul Boys of the Western World, for the first time last night. I’d never seen so much video footage of that era.
Our generation was turned on by glam rock. On my album, I can still hear me trying to be Mick Ronson at times. That was the first guitar hero I ever fell in love with. That sound that he made on his guitar; that sound on his right hand, and the melody. Ronson, Steve Hackett [Genesis], [Robert] Fripp, Micky Jones from Man, and Peter Frampton; these people all go into my melting pot. But the first thing that turned our generation on was glam. Here’s Marc Bolan, Bryan Ferry, [Brian] Eno [Tape Op #85], and [David] Bowie. I come from a very poor, working class background, and I was watching guys on TV that came from another planet! That’s the theatrical benchmark. Music should always deliver visually as well as sonically. All of my generation, when it came to be our turn at the end of the ‘70s and beginning of the ‘80s – and taking all of the eclectic mix of the music that we loved – it went into a melting pot, and you have the sound of the ‘80s.
Electric Warrior [T. Rex] still sounds sonically brilliant. That was the first time I ever saw Tony Visconti’s name. That recording is clear and there’s clarity on it. It’s all about the arrangement. Don’t overburden the arrangement in certain frequencies. A lot of people work on computers nowadays. They tend to put up keyboard sounds, give themselves millions of options, and things stay around in the mix. They don’t get edited out. They’re all wodging themselves around in the mid frequencies. It becomes a big pudding. You should think about what you need. What’s missing in that little sonic area you’ve got there? That’s what you want to aim for. Maybe you’ve got a bass that’s playing in a certain area, so the piano needs to be up an octave, not down there. Tony Visconti has been great with that clarity over the years. Then, in saying that, some of my most favorite famous Bowie records are Ken Scott’s.
Right. Your early first two records with Spandau Ballet had Richard James Burgess producing. How did you pick him, and what did he teach you guys?
We picked him because he’d seen us at the Blitz Club, where we were sort of the house band. London is very good at this. It’s always had youth movements and music genres beginning in a place. It might be the Eel Pie Club with the Rolling Stones. It might be the UFO Club where Pink Floyd and psychedelia started, with Joe Boyd [Tape Op #60] working the door. Joe Boyd, we all know, made some of the greatest records of all time. I particularly love what he did with Fairport [Convention] and The Incredible String Band.
…and Nick Drake.
He was part of that scene. He understood that because they moved that scene from the UFO Club to Middle Earth, which was a club in Covent Garden where Bowie and T. Rex started, and the folk rock scene started as well. Then you might have punk down at the Roxy Club with the Sex Pistols, and then we were the house band of the Blitz Club. Inside there was our “Joe Boyd,” if you like. It was Richard James Burgess. He was a jazz drummer who played in an electronic band called Landscape, who had this song out called “Einstein a Go-Go.” Here’s a guy who understood music and understood the studios. He had a very close relationship with Dave Simmons who was developing an electronic drum kit. When we were going to go make our first record, I said, “Richard, can you give us a hand and help us out?” He did not want to embellish us too much. He wanted to keep us with the same live, garage-y sound that we had and not overdub too heavy. What I did with Richard, as soon as I went into the studio, I loved when you’d mute channels and run the track. I loved that you could suddenly change everything. I’d grown up buying a lot of disco records, imports from America, and elongated 12-inches. At that time, 12-inch records were mostly made by Black soul disco acts, right? Bands like ours weren’t making any extended 12-inch mixes. I said, “Richard, let’s do a 6 and a half minute mix of ‘To Cut a Long Story Short.’” We’ll put it out on a white label [an unmarked/blank label] to DJs. For the first album, all of the singles were done like that. Then, when we came to the second album, we did a 12-inch mix of every track and put it out in a box set. When we did “Chant No. 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On),” we sent it out to all these DJs and didn’t even tell them that it was by Spandau Ballet. Richard was an instigator in what became the norm for a few years, of doing 12-inch mixes, to the extent that I remember arguing with a record company about doing the first one, because they didn’t want to do it. When we got to “True” and said, “We’re not doing a 12-inch mix of this,” they said, “But you have to!”
By the time you got to your third album, True, you were working with Nicholas Jolley and Tony Swain at Compass Point Studios in Nassau [Bahamas]. You had some success, especially in Britain, but this became a career-changing record. There’s a different vibe going on with these songs.
Yeah. I suppose growing up as a Bowie fan, I was also taught that you don’t have to stay in the same genre. I didn’t want to be a Depeche Mode, and do electronica forever. I was a kid; I was interested in different genres and how I could express myself through them. Previously to True, we were in a different kind of band, and America never really got to witness that. For the first two albums, and in fact on part of the second album, we got a bit lost in some prog rock – believe it or not – on the second side. I kind of didn’t know which way I wanted to go. After having six hit singles, I realized that what I didn’t need to do was to hang onto any cult club scene that was going on in the center of London. I needed to write something that was universal, that was about the song first and not about the rhythm, not about the beat, or not about the riff. I was going through a particular time where, relationship-wise, I was now listening to Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and to Daryl Hall and John Oates. I thought, “I just want to write a great song.” I was still living with my parents and I was 22 years old. I hadn’t earned enough money to go and buy a flat. I wrote the True album, which inclueded “Gold,” “True,” “Lifeline,” and all those. It [True] was the song first. I’d take the song, I’d play it to the band, and we’d put it together in a rehearsal room before we recorded it. I wanted to go to Nassau, because I wanted to get away from London recording. I didn’t want to be a “London band” anymore. I wanted to be an international band. I knew that Nassau had a great history of blue-eyed soul, like with Robert Palmer. Talking Heads were there when we arrived. And Tom Tom Club. And Chris Blackwell, who owned Island Records and Compass Point had wanted to sign us, and he’d seen us play at The Blitz. True ended up getting played on a lot of Black stations in America. I don’t know what it’s like now, but at that time there were serious divisions. The music stations were either Black soul or white rock. We ended up doing Soul Train.
I saw that clip.
I think previous to us was Bowie, Hall & Oates, and Elton John. We were the fourth white band to ever go on Soul Train, and it was one of my proudest moments. I loved doing it.
Was your new album, INSOLO, all made during lockdown or did you get started beforehand?
It got recorded during lockdown, to a large extent.
There’s a lot of reflection in the lyrics.
It’s a lot of reflection. I suppose the two lines that sum up what I was trying to achieve are on that track “I am the Past.” The chorus is, “I am the past, trying to be here.” That’s the weight of your history – that’s always on my shoulders. I was trying to be reflective in the end. That’s not to say it’s not uplifting at times, because there are uplifting things about it.
Absolutely. How did co-producer Toby Chapman get involved with this?
Toby played keyboards with Spandau since the mid-’80s. I’ve known him for a long time. I’d demoed tracks with him in the end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. When I did my first solo album [Little Bruises] in ‘95, he did keyboards on that and sang backing vocals with me. Finally, I’d got these songs and I was starting to put them down as demos. I was asking myself, “Am I brave enough to say I’m making an album?” I was halfway through the songwriting. What I did is think, “Right. I’ve got to get out of my demo studio. I’ve got to commit by going into a big studio, spending more money, and getting some vocals done in a nice place, where he [Toby] can sit on the other side of the screen.” I don’t want to record my own vocals, ever. I don’t like pressing the button and coming back to the mic. No. I’d rather go to a studio and get into it. Perform. It’s like the other side of the camera, like being on stage. Make it the performance. Toby was a great reactor. He would be able to give me confidence, tell me what I was doing, and what I should try. Once I started to do that, I felt, “I’ve committed myself to a record now.” Unfortunately, we went into lockdown.
But it was then me sending the tracks out to musicians, and saying, “Let’s try and work with this.” Some of those great guys have all got their own studios now; [drummers] Ash Soan, Roger Taylor [of Queen], and Ged Lynch. [Bassist] Richard Jones from The Feeling. Guy Pratt wasn’t great at doing it remote. He liked to get in the studio with me and chat and to improv. I found the other guys were more doing what I’d programmed, apart from Roger Taylor of course, because that’s Roger.
Right. Was it a surprise to get his track, and the feel he put on it?
It was. What was a surprise was I’d written this song, the last song that was written, which was about struggling through all that was going on in the world; all the shit that was coming at me. I’d be listening to artists on social media telling us how we should all behave, and what we should be doing for the environment to save the planet, and I thought, “I can’t write that song.” Sometimes I’d sit down and think, “Should I be writing ‘Fragile,’ like Sting?” No, I can’t! I want to write about how fucking frustrating it is. I want to hide from it all and be with my family and protect them and be with my wife. And that’s when I wrote “Too Much.” “‘Cause there’s too much in the world. Too much.” When Roger put his drums on that middle eight – they’re big and they open the door – to me that’s like, “Wow, now I’m really telling everyone. This isn’t a private message.” He delivered that to the song.
There’s a sense of drama in the way he plays; perfect dynamics.
He did insist, “You’ve got to keep the ambience on
Oh, cool. That makes sense.
This is what you try and achieve. You try to get everything into the mix, keeping the personality of what you’ve recorded. That’s quite hard nowadays. You can fiddle forever. What happened in the past is your options were much lower. You had that drum sound you got at the beginning, and you couldn’t fucking change it.
Or you’d be mixing all hands on a console.
I did this all on [Apple] Logic. I’m not a Pro Tools person. I was throwing parts down on Logic, and then I wanted to get real guitars on there. I substituted all the recorded faux-Wurlys and faux-Hammonds and pianos; all of those turned into real instruments when I went to RAK and Metropolis [studios]. The guitars are mostly all through a real amp, using my pedals and sticking a Hiwatt amp out in the studio. In lockdown I had to do some parts quickly. I found that I could get them going on the computer, but normally I prefer to get a real sound of something organic.
I saw you with Saucerful of Secrets in Seattle a few years ago, and I was impressed with your guitar tones.
I suppose the rack and the setup that I’ve got with Saucerful was my go-to sound on this album for lead solos. As I said earlier, I love Mick Ronson. I love what he did, and that was definitely going on. That’s always been a part of my playing. Maybe some elements of David [Gilmour] have gone in there as well. Somebody else got the album and said, “Oh, there’s some Gary Moore in there.” I think what they mean is melodic. I’m a songwriter, and I don’t like piddly solos. I like melodic solos. I want you to hum the solo.
Even going way back into Spandau songs, there were lots of rests with the guitar, and not constantly playing.
You know what it was with Spandau? I always saw myself as a songwriter first. Not as a guitar player. I was delivering for the band. Here was the song, now what best serves the song? It might be less guitar. That time it might have been more keyboard-heavy. With this album, I wasn’t scared of putting guitar on and being up-front with it, because I see it as another vocal. There’s a track on this album called “The Haunted.”
I love that song.
It’s a big powerful guitar part that comes in at the end. It should be another voice. It’s a voice coming in. It’s not, “Oh, now the guy’s showing us what he can do on the guitar.” It’s melody. It’s an operatic moment. That is what it should be, and it’s done with a guitar.
Right. The string arrangements on the album, especially on the title track [“In Solo”] are beautiful. You collaborated on those, right, with Toby and the conductor, Rob Taggart?
I started that in my studio. The concept was I wanted it to have just strings and piano, right up to the bit where the drums and guitar come in. I wanted it to become synthesized later on. Toby and I then developed the arrangement on the strings, the wind [instruments], and a French horn. Rob Taggart gave us what we’d already put down, but it was real. You can hear the wonderful ebb and flow you get with real players. We did it at RAK. We only used ten players. I did a blend on some parts, here and there.
With sampled strings?
Yeah, but mostly it’s just the strings. I was knocked out by how few strings you need to make it sound good, if the arrangement’s right.
I’ve done a lot of sessions with quartets, and it can sound quite big if you double the passes up.
Well, even twice as many is not twice as much sound. It blurs the sound. What I wanted was intimacy in some of it. String arrangement-wise, a lot of this album musically has bits of my ‘70s scrapbook in there. There are bits of 10cc, Wings, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Steely Dan, Scott Walker, and Jimmy Webb. This is an album about my life, and where I am at this stage now. I wanted it to have those elements of what I like. So, there were some string arrangements from that period. Then the French horn I replaced with Matt Clifford from the Rolling Stones. I saw Matt play French horn on stage with the Stones; he’s the second keyboard player. I sent the tracks to him. He said, “Yeah, I’ll do some French horn.” Then he came back and said, “I didn’t realize you’d written an entire French horn symphony!”
It’s a lot of work! To wrap up the mixing, you got [Mike] “Spike” Stent to mix one of the songs.
He did the single [“Ahead of the Game”]. I have to say, I liked the mix we did [before], but Spike is a guaranteed “get you on the radio” sound. Everyone’s fighting for the compression and the top end nowadays. When you’re up against everyone else who’s compressing and top ending it, he was great at picking out what needed to be up. The backing vocals came back much louder when he delivered it. The arrangement was the same, but he put the bass up more. He lost the bottom end; there’s more punch and middle in the bass. Of course, Richard Jones from The Feeling played on that track. He’s a great player.
His part is really good.
All those fast runs are his. It was, “This is the first single off the album. Let’s see what Spike can do.” I was nervous when the guy from Columbia suggested it. He said, “We don’t have to use the mix. Don’t worry!” I was on the phone every five minutes with Spike. “Spike, please keep the guitar at the front. I must have the guitar at the front.” Because I thought, “He’s going to come back and try to turn it into a Gary Barlow or Adele record.” And he didn’t. I’m pleased with it. But what I also am pleased with is that it doesn’t stand out on the album as being odd. That is the danger of being mixed by someone else on one track.
I love the way it came out. My favorite track is still “The Haunted.” That and “In Solo.”
Musically, obviously, they’re married together. There’s a theme in the guitar solo from “In Solo” that begins “The Haunted” because I’m saying, “This is the same story.” These are the same two guys, and it’s later on in their story. Of course, it is a story that’s happened to me once in my life, that idea of building a song around a house, initially, that is no longer, that once had life in it and now no longer does. This album came out of my confidence and my journey that I’ve been going on with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. Being accepted by that Pink Floyd fraternity, who can be very forensic about their musicianship. It’s all about the tone on your guitar. “Oh, my god. This guy from Spandau Ballet is going to be playing Syd Barrett songs. He’s going to be playing David Gilmour songs. This can’t be true!” Guy Pratt has obviously been accepted into that world for many years.
A long time ago!
It worked for me. People think they know you, and then they don’t know you. Can I just say this? There’s a lot of sexism in rock music. More than any place I know currently. If a band is liked predominantly by women, [society perceives that] they can’t be any good.
That’s the general sensibility of guys. Pink Floyd are liked by guys, so they’re good. It’s absolute nonsense, and it’s sexism, of course! Here I was in a band, Spandau Ballet, predominately liked by women, and now I’m playing in this band predominately liked by men. I got accepted. It gave me confidence to be more dominant on guitar. To expand my musical arrangements in a way to embrace all those eclectic, different styles that I’d grown up with in the ‘70s, whether it be Floyd, Genesis, or folk music.
Oh, man. Yeah.
I’m an actor, so my world can be very theatrical. Let me even add [Stephen] Sondheim to the mix. I’d reached an age where I felt that I needed to understand what relevance my past had to my present. How do I join the dots between all those different people who I was? That guy from Spandau Ballet, that guy who got divorced, that guy who went to court, that kid who loved bands, who dressed up and went running into Hammersmith Odeon and fell in love with music. How do I join all these dots up to a guy who’s trying to now write a song at the piano?