Down on the farm: an interview with Andy Diagram

Andy Diagram on trumpet

Heart of brass: Andy Diagram (photo by Alan Gregson)

By Alan Gregson

Any James fan will tell you that a vital part of the band’s live show is Andy Diagram and his roving trumpet antics. What they might not know is that over the years, Diagram has performed trumpet duties for, among others, Black Francis, Nico, A Certain Ratio, The Pale Fountains and Pere Ubu.

Diagram was one of the first trumpeters to use effects pedals with his instrument and he took the sound to a new level with his own band, Spaceheads, using loopers controlled from his iPhone, along with percussion from his long-time collaborator Richard Harrison, to produce extraordinary soundscapes, usually accompanied by projections from Rucksack Cinema.

We catch up with Diagram on the Warrington farm of his mate Mark Harrison for the 11th annual Mud Hutters Tea Party.

Following on from my last article for British Ideas Corporation comparing music festivals to Seventies Butlins holidays, I’ve now moved down a notch. I’m visiting a modern-day village fete, the annual Mud Hutters Tea Party on Croft Farm between the M6 and M56.

Seated in a campervan with a malfunctioning voice recorder between us, things are not looking good, but then I remember my phone, so with said phone in the spot vacated by the recorder and after refreshing our glasses ­– cloudy Strongbow for Mr Diagram, Lancaster Black stout for me – we begin.

This event that’s brought us together, Mud Hutters, tell us about it.
Well, this is the 11th Mud Hutters Tea Party. This place, Mark’s farm, has been an inspiration ever since I first came here in 1980. This is where Dislocation Dance used to rehearse. Mark used to have all his mates round and they made music in the barns. Mark had his own band, the Mud Hutters. They made a few records in the late Seventies. So this place has been a hub of alternative Manchester music since the mid Seventies when they were all into krautrock and pre-punk. They used to jam for hours in a Can style. In the late Nineties, Richard [Harrison, Spaceheads’ drummer] built a mud hut in the bottom field. You can still see it down there rotting away.

You took us down there last year.
Yes I did, it features on the Spaceheads’ Low Pressure [2002] album cover. The first Mud Hutters Tea Party was 2005, when Richard and Mark were both 50 years old, and last year they were 60 so they had two parties. On the line-up tonight we have sets from Spaceheads, The Nightingales, Blacakat [James’ drummer David Baynton-Power’s side project], Thick Richard, Mal Dino’s Big Band and projections from Jaime Rory Lucy’s Rucksack Cinema, along with fire, cakes and the Rave Cave going on until well after the sun rises.

You’ve played with many bands over the years, Diagram Brothers, Dislocation Dance, The Pale Fountains, Pere Ubu, Loop Ellington, James and Spaceheads, among others. All different, but all with your distinctive trumpet sound, except for your bass in Diagram Brothers. What are your memories of playing in Eighties bands?
The Eighties bands, well it all started in Manchester, really. I was living in London and moved to Manchester, and Manchester was just a hotbed of musical creativity. I was a Londoner who’d just come up and hardly knew anyone so I joined a musicians’ collective. I met lots of people and was able to join bands, especially as a trumpet player as it was an unusual instrument. I’d stopped playing trumpet [in London] because I was really influenced by punk rock and post-punk which was more guitar based, so I considered myself a bass player and it was people in Manchester who said, “Oh no, we want trumpet, we want trumpet.”

You’ve said in the past that people in London weren’t open to trumpet.
Well, the thing is with London is that it’s so big that musicians, even today, tend to coalesce into scenes, so you have a jazz scene, a rock scene, a rap scene and so on, whereas in Manchester there was much more cross-fertilisation going on. So [in London] I didn’t consider myself a trumpet player because I didn’t want to end up in a jazz band. I was much more interested in the post-punk sound, bands like the Gang Of Four, The Pop Group and Pere Ubu. Those were the bands I loved at the time. So that’s what I wanted to do, and that’s why I was a bass player and I ended up playing bass in a band called the Diagram Brothers, because they were my long lost brothers. Paul Emerson, the secretary of the Manchester Musicians Collective, told me about his band called Dislocation Dance. He said, “Come and play trumpet,” so I ended up playing with them, but I was using the trumpet not as a jazz musician or a member of a horn section – because that’s what I wanted to get away from – but as an individual voice in its own right. So immediately, I was plugging the trumpet into a microphone and thinking, “Well that’s a bit boring, it just sounds like a louder trumpet, so I stuck the microphone into an echo machine and a fuzz pedal and suddenly I got a “sound”. So that’s how it all started. I was determined not to end up playing jazz or traditional trumpety type things but to start experimenting.

How did you first become involved in James?
Ahh, right, OK. Having said I didn’t play jazz, as the Eighties went on music became more centred on bands getting on Top Of The Pops and making money. It became boring again and that early experimentation started dispersing. You look at the great early Eighties bands. As time wore on, they became more traditional, either traditional rock bands or more traditional jazz bands. It became a bit crap, really, and I ended up playing in a jazz band in Manchester with people who were from a similar background to me in terms of playing in rock bands. There were people out of A Certain Ratio and Kalima, and so they’d had that post-punk thing then got into jazz. One of the guys from Kalima, Cliff [Saffer], he was their sax player, set up a T-shirt company and he started doing all the James T-shirts. They asked him if he wanted to play sax and he said, “Nahh.” He wasn’t the most confident sax player anyway and he said, “You should go ask Andy,.” so Tim Booth [James’ singer] was on the phone to me straight away. He asked me if I’d like to come and record with them. They had a sax player, a guy called Vinny, I think he was playing with The Jazz Defektors at the time [that would be Vincent Corrigan, then], so they now had sax and trumpet. At the time, I’d done a bit of recording with bands already, and bands were just starting recording using overdubs. You lay the drums down, you lay keyboards down, etc, but when I got in the studio with James they were all set up in different rooms. Drums in one room, bass in another and they were playing live. It was quite exciting. So I thought, “Oh yeah, this is quite good.” We were jamming and it was “Gold Mother”, that moment is on the record. Vinny’s on that, there is sax on the original “Gold Mother”.

That’s the period where I moved away from James and went more towards the hardcore music of Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, so you joining James must have put me off in some way, I think.
I can understand that, I put myself off. For me, James was Stutter and those early singles. I loved them, and after that, I think they got boring. I liked their method. The jamming in the studio was fantastic. So they asked me to join, they really liked the effects I brought, so I said, “Yeah, I’ll do the tour.” I think they liked the idea that I wasn’t really that arsed, whereas Vinny was like, “Can I play? Can I play?” Aww, sorry Vinny, he really loves James but…

We don’t want anybody that likes James in the band.
Ha-ha-ha… He was a very traditional player, lovely lad, but very traditional. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that tour,” and I thought that would be as far as it goes but that was the tour at the end of ’89 and it was mental and I had a really good time. In Manchester, it was the Apollo I think, there was a massive stage invasion and I remember picking up a towel and whizzing it around my head to keep people away. I’d never seen anything like it.

While digging around the depths of YouTube researching for this, I saw a clip of you and Richard on stage with Nico. How did that happen?
Well, in around ’84 Nico played the International, I think [long-gone venue on Anson Road in Manchester, owned by Gareth Evans, Stone Roses’ manager]. Nico wanted a band to play with her for her big songs that night, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and a few other Velvet Underground things, and she pulled us in to do that. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, thinking that Nico did this wherever she played. She ended up living in Manchester and she befriended a guy called Alan Wise [promoter, character and integral part of the Manchester scene] who shared an office with New Hormones. He started looking after Nico. I wouldn’t say he became her manager, not officially, he just sort of looked after her and got her drugs and put bands together for her. We were asked to play with her quite a lot. We did a good few gigs around Manchester. Then she put a more permanent band together called The Faction, made up of some friends of mine. They were her band and I wasn’t involved in that, but whenever they couldn’t make a gig she got her friend Eric Random and his mates in. We did a big one in Chelsea Town Hall in ’85, then there was a six-week tour around Europe that The Faction couldn’t do, so Eric Random And The Bedlamites did it.

You’ve toured the world as part of James and extensively with Spaceheads. Which do you prefer, the big bus with roadies or the little van and doing it all yourself?
Well, the big bus and the roadies is easier, it’s like a holiday. They both have their good and bad points. When I first joined James, me and Richard were in another band with some friends in London called The Honkies, and part of my thing about joining James was, “I’m not really into James but I’ll do it, but you’ve got to let me do my own thing.” So The Honkies were touring at the same time as James. The Honkies were touring in a van full of equipment around Europe with two bands and only four seats, so we all had to sit on the equipment, travelling around Europe for three weeks. James were in luxury buses while we were sleeping on people’s floors. You see much more when you’re in the back of a van, and people look after you, they feed you, put you up in their house. Sometimes the house is really nice, sometimes it’s a dirty squat, but you know you have to take what you get and at least you see the world. With James, you’re so looked after and cossetted from the outside world, you could be anywhere. It’s even worse when you’re off your face. Nico was famous for not knowing where she was. She’d wake up going, “Where are we, are we in Berlin still?” and we’d be like, “No, Nico, that was three days ago, we’re in Paris now.”

On previous James tours you were at the back of the stage but the last couple of tours you’ve been coming forwards more, moving around. When did you start to become more extroverted?
Well, I don’t think it’s sudden. I’ve been at the front ever since I re-joined in 2007.

But you’ve definitely become more confident and more prominent in the past couple of tours.
Have I?

Yes, definitely, interacting with people a lot more.
When I was at the back in the old days, I always used to come forward, especially when I had my tambourine and was doing “Come Home” or the cowbell on “How Was It For You?” In the old days my stage position was at the back. They’ve given me a microphone at the front now but that’s since 2007.

The radio mic allows you to wander the arena.
One of the good things about being in James is they introduced me to the radio mic in the Nineties. Miles Davis had just died and they gave me the radio mic. The two things are unconnected, but they’re connected in my head. It’s just like, “Oh f***ing hell, I’ve discovered the radio mic and it’s on the day Miles Davis has died.” He used a radio mic all the time. Something passed on there. Once they’d introduced me to that technology, I used it in The Honkies. I used my money from James to buy three sets of radio mics. The Honkies have two saxophones and a trumpet and we were all on radio mics. That allowed us to put on loads of face paint and weird costumes and run around the audience. We would scare people out of their skins. It used to empty the halls, it was great. So I’ve been using radio mics ever since. When I re-joined James in 2007, they introduced me to a new technology – the in-ear monitors. These affect how I move around stage because when you have a stage position, your sound comes out of your monitor, so if you move away from your monitor you can’t hear yourself, unless you have these in-ear monitors. Now I can go anywhere and I can hear myself. So I think the technology has made it easier for people to move around. [Diagram starts pouring my bottle into his glass] Oh God, that’s yours.

Ahh, a nice bit of stout in your cider: a cocktail.
Yeah, it adds a bit of richness. But we haven’t talked about Spaceheads at all yet.

Spaceheads, a unique sound, a development of everything you’ve done previously, your loops and effects.
I’m not sure if it’s a development of what I’ve done previously but Spaceheads came out of that period when I joined James and was doing jazzier things. Me and Richard were in The Honkies together and we’d been in Dislocation Dance together. We lived in the same house. I had my own studio in the basement which I’d bought with money from The Pale Fountains and I was learning how to produce stuff and we just started recording, started doing bits and getting friends involved, but it was mostly just us two working together.

Did you start out to be a band or was it just messing around and something good came out of it?
Messing around and something good came out of it. We released a couple of cassettes on Bop Cassettes. They were a cassette label based in Manchester, started by Ian Runacres, the singer out of Dislocation Dance. We released a lot of our recordings on one tape called Bip Bap Bop, which was jazzy, and one we actually called Spaceheads, which was more me and Richard alone but with a few guests. Bip Bap Bop hasn’t seen the light of day since. It’s really good, actually. We did take a track off it for the re-release of Ho! Fat Wallet, which was our first proper album.

That’s the one you posted as a tribute to the late Alan Wise.
That’s right, Alan Wise was on that album, yes. Alan used to turn up at the studio and want to take us out for drives and to pubs and stuff, because he was a lonely guy, I think, and we were a house full of musicians and he was [goes quiet] quite a sad character really, [laughs] and quite a funny character as well, and quite an annoying character, but yeah, he came around our house, and one way I thought to get rid of him was to ask him to sing one of our songs. I thought he’d run a mile but he didn’t. He picked up the mic and started singing. He was good, actually. That was at the beginning of Spaceheads. It just happened by accident. We didn’t know how to do it live, though, because it was all studio-based. At the time, The Honkies toured Europe a lot and one band we played with were called The Ex [from Amsterdam]. They’re still about, a very good band. They were playing with this cello player called Tom Cora and doing quite Eastern European rhythmic stuff, really good. Tom Cora was playing with loopers and he’d start playing the cello and build up sounds and I was like, “Wow, I’m going to do this with my trumpet.” So it was Tom Cora who got me into loopers and I started to introduce that into The Honkies as well. It creates quite a big sound, though, which didn’t work so well with The Honkies as it filled all the space and you’ve got too many other instruments in that space, but if I do it on my own, with just drums for backing, suddenly Spaceheads became something we could do as a live thing. So after Ho! Fat Wallet came out, we carried on the name Spaceheads and said, “Let’s do some gigs with loopers and stuff,” so we started building up a set and we became Spaceheads as a band.

And you supported James?
Yeah we did. I left James because I wanted to do my own stuff and they wanted to break America and do six-month tours and I was just, “No way.” Tim said to me, “Come on Andy, come and do ’em, we’ll get Eno in to produce our next album, you want to work with Eno.” I said, “Yeah I do, but I don’t want to tour America for six months at a time.” I could have lied and gone, “Yeah, why not,” then done the album and just left, ha-ha. Tim said, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t be in the band now if you’d done that.” I gave them a year’s notice after we’d recorded Seven and I said, “After I’ve promoted this, I’m not doing the next one.” They believed me but they didn’t want me to leave. We had a big party and I remember Jim and Tim saying, “This is amazing, we’ve never had anyone leave the band on such good terms before.” So they came back from a tour with Neil Young and did an acoustic tour; they got Spaceheads in to support them. We’d not done that many gigs at that point and I was still new to the looper, but we did our stuff in front of thousands and people like Chunny [Mark Hunter, James’ keyboard player] were going, “Wow, f***in’ hell.” Nowadays, it’s become a lot more normal, but then it used to blow people away.

So you were reluctant to join James originally. Were you any more enthusiastic re-joining them?
No. When they got back together and said, “Are you coming to join us?” I said, “No,” and so I didn’t do those first few gigs, but Tim kept phoning me up saying, “Just try it, Andy, see what it’s like.” So over the next summer, I said, “OK, I’ll do a few gigs but I’m not going abroad, I’m not going out of the country with you.” Well, I did a few festivals over the summer of 2007 but then they were doing Portugal and Tim said, “How much do you want to do Portugal? We’ll pay for all your expenses.” And I said, “Nope.” But Spaceheads were quiet at the time because Richard’s kids were really young and Two Pale Boys had come to a stop because David Thomas was back into Pere Ubu, so I had the time. So I said, “I’ll record the next album and see what happens.” We spent six weeks in a French villa recording Hey Ma and there’s a ton of trumpet on there.

For a lot of people, it was the trumpet that marked James out from the other Manchester bands of the time.
Well yeah, I wasn’t totally convinced that my trumpet was working but people seemed to like it

One of your bands that we’ve not spoken about is The Pale Fountains. They totally passed me by, but I like the single “Thank You” [1982].
That one’s not really representative of Pale Fountains. That was a big record company sticking their oar in and putting us with a big orchestra. We didn’t really like it. It was actually recorded by Rough Trade. They put the money up for it because they were looking for a big hit with a big pop band. This was pre-Smiths, but Virgin bought our contract. They paid Geoff Travis and Rough Trade tons of money for that recording because Virgin thought it would be No.1. It got released the week they did a big investigation into plugging and rigging the charts, because basically Virgin would have bought the No.1 spot. Instead, a load of shops were discounted from the charts and we ended up somewhere outside the Top 40. So Pale Fountains were unlucky to miss the No.1 spot but I’d say we were lucky because Virgin gave us a shitload of money, thinking they could buy us a No.1 spot and then the whole house of cards fell down. But we were sitting pretty with a massive Virgin contract. They didn’t really understand what we were and we had a really frustrating time trying to make a record with crap producers who would humiliate us in the studio and try to get Mick [Michael Head, singer] to dump the band and get session musicians in, which is what people were doing at the time. But Mick stood his ground, cos he’s proper, and stuck by his mates and we eventually made the record we wanted to do, with just us and an engineer. That’s Pacific Street [1984], and you know when you hear it, we were right, it still sounds like a modern record, not Eighties shit. So I think we did well in adverse circumstances.

Why did you leave The Pale Fountains?
As the Pale Fountains went on, Mick got into a more rocky thing and wanted less trumpet. I ended up playing more keyboards, so I said, “I’m leaving.” So that was that. I was 25 when I left Pale Fountains. I thought I was getting old, you know, my punk rock days were over. In the post-punk days everyone was 18, 19 and if you were in your mid-20s, you were past it. That was how much of a youth rebellion it was. All the bands were like that, apart from The Stranglers, who were always old men. When I left, I thought there was no future in this, so I needed to be more serious in my music-making, be more sensible and get a career that’s not to do with pop. And that’s sort of what I was doing with the Honkies and experimenting in the studio with Richard. When James came along, I thought, “Not another bloody pop band,” but I joined anyway, and then when I left James, I said, “I’m not into playing pop music, there’s no future in it, we’re all getting old,” because at the time, there weren’t 50-year-old rockers around. In my head, I imagined as we got older, people would get into jazz or blues, like people who were old back then. I didn’t realise that rock music could be old. But culture has gone downhill because if you look at the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, it was a youth movement. Young people were coming up with new music. When I was in James, there was new music coming out, techno, acid house and dance music, and in a way, in the early days of James, we did feel – and I know I’m not the only one in James who felt this – out of step, and a bit old hat compared to bands who were doing the rave culture. And we did feel we were playing an old-fashioned style of music that would eventually die out.

Is that why Chunny started doing different mixes?
I guess so, and Dave’s always liked his dance music, as you hear with Blacakat. In a way, James are still old-fashioned but it’s still new music. We’re able to do new things within the James style because there’s an audience that’s grown up with us who still like it.

There is a danger there, though. When a new album sounds very different to the old ones, you get people who like a particular sound, and if you change that sound, you alienate a certain percentage of your audience. But if you’re constantly evolving, you’re changing your fanbase and hopefully getting new fans. That’s what I see at your gigs. There’s a lot of people who are younger than most James albums.
That’s the vibe now. You go to festivals and the bands are in their fifties and the audience are in their teens. Back in the Eighties, that wasn’t going on. There was the feeling that young people would come up with new music and change things. You had the Sixties hippy thing and Seventies heavy metal and punk. Kids were reinventing music over and over every few years, there were youth revolutions all the time, then it slowed down a bit, then with acid house and rave culture in the Nineties, you had it again. In a way that’s what culture should be like but in a lot of ways now, we’ve gone backwards and downhill.

Do you think we’ve run out of ideas?
I think society has run out of ideas.

There’s a huge emphasis in music on nostalgia now.
I think music has become less important to young people’s lives. It’s happening, new bands and new sounds are out there, but the opportunities to break into the mainstream have diminished. New music is all on the fringes. It never breaks through. There’s always been massive artists but the fringes are where the new music has traditionally started. They were the creative triggers but the media doesn’t seem to cover them any more. Recently, we’ve had grime coming through, which is great. It’s still kids in an urban environment inventing sound in their bedrooms. It hasn’t hit the mainstream like it should have done. It’s always been shut out. I was teaching at Hammersmith College from 2002 and 80 per cent of my students were young black kids between 16 and 19. They were all doing grime, they didn’t give a toss about mainstream music. They were all putting their tracks on pirate radio. They were all using the college equipment. We were the teachers but they treated us like technicians: “Oh, my equipment’s not working.” Now, as a teacher, we’re supposed to say, “Why do you think it’s not working?” but they’d be like, “Just f***in’ fix it, I gotta spit this tune before you kick me out.” Then you have to give them a ten-minute warning that the lesson’s ending and they’d say, “No, no, I’m just gettin’ this beat together.” The number of times I’ve stood by the door going, “Ten seconds and the power’s going off.” And they’d grab my arm, “No, no, I gotta finish.” It’s a shame because grime is so vibrant but it’s not been picked up by the mainstream. There was one guy, I forget his name, I taught him, his real name was Dylan. He won the Mercury Prize, then he went more hip-hop, whatsisname, yeah, Dizzee Rascal, he was one of my students and the closest grime has got to being mainstream.

Back around the time Dizzee Rascal was winning his Mercury Prize, you were working on an interesting project with Frank Black. How did that come about?
That collaboration came about because Frank Black is a very big fan of David Thomas and Pere Ubu and cites them as his biggest influences. One of David Thomas’ projects with me and Keith [Moliné] – Two Pale Boys – or, in this case, The Pale Orchestra, was a “rogue opera” called Mirror Man. When it was performed at UCLA in 2003, Frank was one of the invited participants. Over the course of the rehearsals, we got to know Frank and he invited us – me and Keith from Two Pale Boys – to record with his band, Frank Black And The Catholics. He liked the soundscapes me and Keith created, and around this time, his manager was asking him to release all his early pre-Pixies demos, which were just guitar and vocal versions of early Pixies tunes. They’d been widely bootlegged and were making someone, but not him, loads of money. Frank didn’t like the idea of just releasing the demos and had an idea that if he had to, as his manager recommended, then he would twin it as a double album with some modern weirded-out versions of some Pixies tunes. He thought of me and Keith and so he came to London and put down guitar and vocals to a load of Pixies tunes in my studio. Me and Keith were then given free rein to make them as weird as possible with the only proviso being that we didn’t use any of Kim Deal’s lines, so no famous backing vocal for “Where Is My Mind?”! It was eventually released as a two-CD set in October 2004 – one CD being the old demos and the other being the versions with me and Keith. It annoyed a lot of Pixies fans as they thought we were taking the piss! The Pixies reformed just after these versions were released. Needless to say, me and Keith were not invited to join the Pixies. Frank Black is still a friend to this day and we met up on a festival bill in Mexico a few years back with The Pixies and James.

The fridge is now empty and the battery in my phone is on its last legs, so we decide the Frank Black story is a suitable high note to wind things up. Interview over, Diagram steps out into the late-afternoon drizzle and heads over to the shed to soundcheck.

Spaceheads are playing at Manchester The Wonder Inn on 14 October and Oswestry Hermon Chapel on 15 October.

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