Record Overplayed
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Mark Morriss interview | Stockton Ku Bar | 02/07/10

“I’m lucky and I know I’m lucky.”

Interview and Photos by Dawn

It’s nearing 1am as Mark Morriss lights up a cigarette in the street outside Ku Bar. He’s just played a brilliant, if unusually late-night set to the people of Stockton-on-Tees (stage times were adjusted to avoid the World Cup match) and, personally, I’m now beginning to flag a bit. Mark, on the other hand, is as jovial and as lively as ever as he finishes his cigarette and leads me backstage for a chat, calling at the bar on the way for another glass of wine.

It’s been a good few years since I got to sit down and interrogate the man who, as well as fronting one of the most underrated bands of all time (The Bluetones, but you knew that) also has a reputation as being one of the nicest men in music. It’s not been quite so long, though, since Mark was last in Stockton, having played at the Arc roughly five months earlier. With so many solo shows of late it seems he’s enjoying a new sense of freedom since passing his driving test?

‘Absolutely, yeah,’ says Mark. ‘I just throw my guitar on the back seat and some sandwiches and a clean pair of underwear and go. I do like the fact that I can just go off and have my own little space for a few hours, listen to some music I like, get in the mood.’

Mark’s solo shows are compelling not just because of his songs, but because of his hilarious, quick witted banter, like tonight’s suggestion that all those cheering for Slight Return have managed to keep him in Converse trainers for the past 15 years. There’s also an amusing moment when he promises to go away and learn how to play Bluetonic and If, neither of which he can remember on the guitar because he “only wrote the lyrics”.

I realise that, despite having had the pleasure of talking to him several times now, I’ve never actually asked Mark how he first got into music.

‘That’s a hard question to answer really,’ he says. ‘I think like everyone else it was ingrained in me at a young age the pleasure of playing music and just enjoying music. As I grew up I wanted to learn how to play it and I just got it into my blood really that there was nothing else I really wanted to do. I enjoyed it and I thought I was getting better at it and it was like an apprenticeship in a way. I spent my teenage years practising and practising and as I got older I thought this is something I’m actually quite good at and I could actually pursue it.’

I’m surprised to learn, however, that Mark’s parents didn’t influence his taste in or love for music. ‘No, not really,’ he says. ‘There was very little in our household as we were growing up in the way of music to refer to. My mum only had about seven or eight LPs so me and my brother just used to listen to the radio a lot.’ And it’s still Mark’s favourite way to discover new music: ‘Same as when I was a kid. Or from friends’ recommendations. And now and again you’ll hear something on a TV show and you’ll Google it and try to find out what it was. But generally speaking it’s on the radio, on BBC 6Music most of the time. I’m screwed if it closes.’ (Thankfully, a few days after our chat, it was announced that 6Music had been saved – for the time being at least.)

Mark’s debut solo CD, Memory Muscle, was released in 2008. Had the songs on it been lying around for a while or were they written specifically for the project?

‘Some of them are quite new. Some of them were only written in the six months preceding it,’ says Mark. ‘They were always my own things, they were never Bluetones songs.’

And how did the Teenage Fanclub cover (a gorgeous, mellow version of Alcoholiday) come about?

‘I used to play it to myself and I worked out all the chords for myself, which aren’t quite the same chords as they play on the record, and I quite liked the contrast between my version and their version. Obviously I think their version is ultimately superior but I quite liked the fact that I’d stumbled across their song accidentally while working out on the guitar.’

Having recently seen the band live, I have to ask which is Mark’s favourite Teenage Fanclub song: ‘Alcoholiday is definitely one of them. My favourite... there’s a song called I Don’t Want Control of You off Songs From Northern Britain and that’s up there. I don’t know, it’s hard to pick a favourite Teenage Fanclub song...’

As great as it must be to make a living from travelling the country playing music, I ask Mark if he ever wishes that he had a more traditional job with regular hours. He grabs my hand, pulling both it and the dictaphone grasped within to his mouth, and answers with a carefully pronounced ‘No!’. Smiling, he elaborates: ‘Who does? I’m lucky and I know I’m lucky. But I’ve worked hard to be lucky. You put yourself in the right place at the right time I suppose. But what everyone doesn’t see is the hours you put in to get to that place.’

Not to mention the years of hard graft with the band. Speaking of which, what does a typical Bluetones gig crowd look like these days? ‘Well, you do notice that there are familiar faces who were obviously there in the beginning. But weirdly as well there are some younger types getting on board, so I’m not sure what that’s all about.’

Perhaps part of the band’s success is down to Mark’s distinctive voice, I suggest. Too many bands these days have singers who all sound the same.

‘I know what you mean,’ Mark agrees. ‘There are a lot of voices that are interchangeable aren’t there? There seems to be a sort of template that people try to aspire to and I realised a long time ago that I could never get anywhere near that so I didn’t even attempt to and went another way I suppose.’

Mark’s vocals have, once or twice, been described as “fey”. He looks ever so slightly horrified:

I don’t like fey. It’s not very nice. I don’t think I’m fey. I’m butch!’ We’ll stick with “distinctive” then, to distinguish you from the masses? ‘I prefer that, yeah.’

With huge thanks to Mark for his time and his repair skills. Visit http://www.myspace.com/markmorrissmusic for more info on Mark’s solo work.

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