LIES DAMNED LIES have been pioneers both in bringing the highest creative quality to pop/rock made by Christians and establishing a cutting edge album platform for it. Tim Thwaites spoke to the Glaswegians who run Sticky Music.
Steve Butler, Charlie Irvine and Dot Reid are Lies Damned Lies. The soaringly gifted trio of musicians also run the near-legendary Glasgow record company Sticky Music. These facts alone would give them plenty of accolades from in-the-know Christian music buffs particularly if they'd heard 'The Human Dress' which had Reviewer Cummings drivelling in CR17 and which will be in your high street CD-merchant any time now. Lies Damned Lies are a slice of Christian music history so to understand their present I thought I'd dig into my and their past. Stored away in my past is the memory of schooldays when the Christian Union invited a loud Christian rock band to play. The band was called Harvest and Steve and Charlie were in it. After Harvest in 1981, Steve recorded a solo album 'Oblique' which was Sticky's first release. By then Charlie and Dot had another band called Talking Drums and the idea of a label which would be more than a vehicle for DIY releases began to emerge.
Remembered Charlie Irvine, "Steve had this vision which he discussed with me, saying if you really want to go somewhere you should make a record. That was a very radical idea at the time because Harvest had existed for five years without making anything except one single and here was the idea that straight away you commit stuff to tape and that legitimises and authenticates your music. So we did it. We booked the studio in February or March '82 and recorded it all in a week -an album called 'Fighting To The Finish' -and it was sold at our gigs. I cringe when I listen to it now but it was the first time we had something to sell and it was fantastic -it gave the band confidence. And it did sell. Our first run was 200 but we probably sold nearly 2000 eventually. It's one of those things that just kept going and was constantly in demand, and it was the first time we saw the power of the recorded work - that it's a different thing from live work. A lot of people are going to think I'm teaching my granny to suck eggs here but it was quite radical to us at the time. Steve and Dot became partners some time in that year and formed this philosophy of giving bands a chance to be authenticated by making a record. You're putting a stamp of approval on the music saying this can be listened to repeatedly."
It has struck me that Christian artists are divided into those who are happy to work within the Christian scene and accept that their music will never reach outside appreciably and those who quite bitterly rebel against what they see as a necessity to reduce their art to a vehicle for religious slogans. Sticky and its bands have steered between these two extremes by producing work which retains its artistic integrity whilst often exploring spiritual themes with the depth and sensitivity appropriate to them.
"Well, it was never conceived as a Christian label per se," said Charlie. "It so happened that all of the friends we had and the artists we knew were Christians but it's not like Word or Kingsway. We never saw ourselves as a vehicle for the propagation of the Christian faith through music, we always saw ourselves as a vehicle for creative artists. It was semi-accidental, half thought out and half instinctive, but I think one of the reasons was that we were artists ourselves. Having done Harvest which was like an apprenticeship we had sufficient of the bitterness and anger so we already wanted to put some distance between ourselves and the Christian scene but at the same time not enough to reject all of it because we're in it and of it. Our faith pervades everything we do and there's no point in denying it. But there's this sense that if you pursue art rigorously then what makes for good art and what makes for good propaganda do not necessarily coincide. And then there's what actually honours the Creator. A lot of this was though out later but it comes back to our central philosophy that God is our Creator, therefore to be creative is to be a mirror, a reflection, an echo. My friend Richard (Nicholson, aka Sticky artist Billy Penn's Brother) once described to me a beautiful garden as saying Hallelujah to the Creator and I think that beautiful or good art is in some way the same. It needs no justification in evangelistic propaganda terms. That's where I'm coming from and I think that's always been the Sticky angle."
The next releases were the Victors' album 'Days In Arcadia' and Talking Drums' 'Courage' 12" single which was Sticky's first vinyl release and gave them their first crack at radio. A second Steve Butler album, 'Waving And Drowning', followed and then came 'So Long Ago', Ricky Ross's album prior to the formation of Deacon Blue.
"With Ricky the idea of giving people a chance really came to fruition," continued Charlie. "Ricky was a teacher. He played in a band with Brian McGlynn and he wanted to do a solo album. I think he was a long way off being able to do that although I'm sure he would've got there eventually without us, but we legitimised what he was doing. We said to him, 'You're good,' and we gave him that confidence - a kind of leg-up. I think a lot of the Sticky relationships have felt that way. It was a very small budget thing but it still exists. Recently we put it out on CD. The original tapes sell for 40 pounds between collectors."
Talking Drums and then Lies Damned Lies had major record deals so Sticky went on the back burner for three or four years. Remembered Charlie, "It was only when we got dropped by Siren and made 'Flying Kites' that we started to think that what we did for Ricky we could do for other people; that the label has as much of a function now as it did in 1982 when we first started. That's why we did another album with Brian McGlynn, and albums with Billy Penn's Brother, Calvin's Dream and Dan Donovan. In each of these there's a sense of giving a living band or writer some sort of authentication. The roots of it are still very much in why we're doing it today rather than as a vehicle for the propagation of the gospel."
Lies Damned Lies and before them Talking Drums were very visible at Greenbelt which enabled them to build up an audience within the Christian subculture, nevertheless they always strove to place their music in a wider context. "Being a Christian band is like being a big fish in a small pond," Charlie continued. "Lies Damned Lies were a small fish in a big pond but at least we've been there. We've swum in the choppy waters of the real world. Talking Drums had a measure of secular success with two record deals and a publishing deal. I remember we did Greenbelt in '84. We were on mainstage, third from the top and it was a really big buzz. We were playing to thousands of people and it just felt like a great gig, like we'd really come home. We did that gig on the Sunday night then we had to travel overnight up to Edinburgh where we were third on the bill to King and The Armoury Show (Richard Jobson's band between the Skids and becoming a TV presenter). We were treated like squirts and we played to probably a hundred people. We were dead knackered, we'd had to drive all night and we were just nothing. It was a really seminal experience: what a thrill - we've played to 10 thousand people at Greenbelt and tonight we're back to real life. This is the world and this is where we want to be."
Talking Drums and Lies Damned Lies have both had major record deals neither of which delivered the promised career boost. Did Charlie ever think about giving up? "Yes," he exclaimed, "but not really in relation to being dropped by a major label. I think there have been three or four times when I've thought I should just stop. When Talking Drums split up I thought maybe I should just be a lawyer and go back to doing a normal thing - think of all the times I would have, all the good things I could do in my life. Being a musician takes up all your time and energy, you don't ever do anything else. You start thinking is it worth it? But every time I've thought, I can't. Ultimately you do music because you've really got no choice. You do it because you must, not because you're going to make money out of it."
What actually went wrong with Siren? "We didn't have any hits. Siren had a very simple philosophy - spend lots of money making an album then release singles which go to Radio 1 and if Radio 1 playlist them then you have a hit, then you sell the album off the back of the hit. Radio 1 didn't play the singles. But there was more to it than that. I think with hindsight we would now say that we were artistically compromised in the sense that the producer we used, Stewart Levine, really entered into the creative process too much and I think we were pushed into a bit of a box by the label without really meaning to be. When they said they had T'Pau and The Cutting Crew on the label we were horrified. We didn't want to sound like that, but I think quite subtly we were made to because Stewart Levine took such a dominant role. He organised the bass player and the drummer and he chose the songs as well and there were songs that never got on the album that we'd have preferred. Some appeared on B-sides but there was one called 'Feet On The Ground' which never appeared anywhere. Right up to the last minute I was trying to persuade Stewart to put it on the album and it never got there. So I think we were a wee bit artistically compromised and I don't think it was a very good album. At the end of the day an album has to have what our manager used to call legs of its own otherwise it can't survive out there in the world with no hype and just be loved by people. We always had this one role model, the Blue Nile and I think their albums have legs of their own, they just fall into your lap and within a couple of listens you're in love with it. We felt that 'Flying Kites' did that for us much more than the first album ever did although it cost a 500th of the price to make."
Compared to the first album 'Flying Kites' and the new one 'The Human Dress' seem uncommercial to an almost perverse degree. Was there a conscious reaction against their experience with Siren? "I think undoubtedly there's truth in that," agreed Charlie. "When we delivered it to our publisher, we were still published by Virgin, that was his first impression. He said, 'It's lovely but it's such an overreaction to what you've done before and you'll swing back.' But at the same time there was a great sense of breathing freely, saying 'Yeah, let's have some space, let's have nothing.' It was just a fantastic feeling because the first album was full of guitars and drums that smacked you over the head. The first song we completed for 'Flying Kites' was 'Same Road' and there's no reverb on that whole song. It's totally dry and shockingly empty or so it seemed to us and this was really pleasurable. We felt we were breaking new ground for us and that was much more satisfying than having hits, though infinitely more impoverishing."
'The Human Dress' shows a further stripping down of their sound - recorded live in front of an audience with no overdubs, no electric guitars and no drummer. It is, nevertheless, a fully-fledged new album with all new songs. So where will this process of minimalisation end? "It could end that we do an acapella album but I don't think it will," stated Charlie. "The Human Dress' has been a constant surprise to us. It was intended as a stop gap because we were very busy in the studio. We'd worked on full band versions of the songs but we felt that it was going to take another year to do it as well as we'd done 'Flying Kites'. Because when we made 'Flying Kites' we still had money left over from the record deal so we still had the luxury of demoing all day, working all day; whereas we're out of that now, we're - what's the word Joni Mitchell uses - 'scrabbling around in the street', we're down in the dirt with everyone else now, trying to make a living, so we just felt we hadn't the time. So we thought let's do an acoustic album. We'll just record a gig and put it out and if some of the fans buy it then it will have fulfilled its function. In fact what's happened is people are saying they like it better and quite a lot of people have told us it's more commercial. I think we'll probably swing back but we just can't tell yet. It's enjoyable to do the acoustic thing, we're going to tour with it in February and we'll see how that goes. The last electric gig we did was in Dublin in August and in many ways it was the best gig I'd ever played. The crowd loved it, it was a complete treat to play to people who were really into it, and it felt so joyful to play the electric guitar that I'm sure we'll swing back. What 'The Human Dress' has allowed us to do is to explore the texture of acoustic guitars and simple keyboards -organ and piano; and because we can sing three part harmonies you can get away with acoustic stuff since there's such a lot of melody in that. Also, there's something about uncovering the essence of the song. When we were doing the first album with Stewart Levine I thought our songwriting was good. I never thought I'm just going to write a commercial pop song, but because of the arrangement people used to think that was all it was. We got quite cruel reviews from the papers and it was obviously accepted as quite shallow. It's taken me a long time to fully accept that if you want to be taken seriously lyrically, in some respects you have to lead people by the nose and say, 'Look, here are words.' Singer/songwriters with only an acoustic guitar are far more likely to be taken seriously as lyric writers, as people with something to say, than an eight piece band. It's just in the nature of things and it annoys me, but on some levels I suppose we've come around to saying, 'Here's the song, it's naked, there's no big band to disguise it.'"
By 'naked', on two of the songs, we're talking three voices and the merest hint of percussion. This implies a certain confidence. "We went to Holland in April and toured before we recorded the album and we did one acoustic gig and a whole lot of electric gigs and the electric gigs were pretty dismal because the crowds were pretty small and we felt we'd done all this rehearsal and we know we're good, we're just much more professional than we were five years ago; and we're playing to 20 drunken, stoned Dutchmen - what's the point? When we did the acoustic gig it felt really refreshing and we thought, 'We can do this, let's give it a go.' It's in the air, there's a lot of acoustic music around. It was almost like, 'We should've thought of this sooner'. Maybe it's our natural territory, although I love the electric guitar, there is something about the acoustic music. I think maybe Dot and Steve, to be fair to them, were more fed up with noise and drawn to the emptiness. We really are the product of the three of us pulling in different directions."
It does sound good too, and still very much their own sound, the voices blending gorgeously, especially striking on the acapella songs. My suggestion of a Cockburn influence here and there goes down well as Steve is a big fan. Another good name to drop is William Blake, whose poem The Divine Image is set to music and provides the album with its title.
Explained Charlie, "That was by and large a Steve idea, we did it for a wedding. But when you look at the words they're incredibly modern - a fantastic expression, I think, for all of us, of our philosophy of life. I think Blake was a radical and a very unusual character, and when you look at the lines, 'And all must love the human form/In heathen, Turk or Jew/Where mercy, love and pity dwell/There God is dwelling too.' I believe that. I'd stake my life on that. I think that's what the incarnation is all about, that there's a resident piece of God-ness in all of us. I suppose that's why we chose our title from that song because that's where we're at. It's an incarnational theology, and Blake seems to sum it up very well."
The other non-original piece on the album is Woody Guthrie's "Deportees". "We just liked Sweet Honey In The Rock's version of it. It's very satisfying to sing and I think people get moved by it. Like a lot of protest songs if they're good you can read a lot of different situations into it. People can paint in their own versions of it."
There seems to me to be an atmosphere of melancholy surrounding Lies Damned Lies' work which if anything deepens with each release. "It's hard to say why, on one level it's just the way it comes out. I think there's something inherently tragic about the human condition. On 'Flying Kites' we were exploring particularly themes of lost love, broken relationships and hurt people and I've always been drawn to those kinds of songs. It tells me far more about life to hear a song about a broken relationship than a song of joy about someone you fancy at the start of a relationship. It's something about the nature of being, that the flesh is weak. We went to lona to write a lot of 'The Human Dress' and we used the mass, the confession, the adoration -we just hung our writing on them. So there was definitely more of a religious tone and I think it's more connected to the sadness and yearning at the heart of the human condition - that built into this God-ness within us is | the tragedy of our own mortality, so we have these yearnings for the immortal, the transcendent, and yet we're trapped with feet of clay, with bodies that decay. I think that it's a sense of striving to understand that which our work is shot through with, if you want to be honest about it. It's not deliberate, we've never sat down and thought, 'Oh yeah, we need to write really sad songs.' I have tried to write happy songs but they just don't come off."
The album ends breathtakingly with the acapella "So Many Wys". It contains these lines: "Holes in my soul/Holes in my heart/And I know what I know/I think it's a part of me/Everything points/To the conclusion/That we are loved.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.