Time for Something New: An Interview With Stuart David of Looper
by dave heaton
Most of us first knew Stuart David as a member of Belle and Sebastian…especially from his voice showing up on a couple of their songs, telling stories about seeing Elvis or taking a dream-trip to Mars. And then early in 1999 his band Looper released their first album, Up a Tree, and everything changed - it was even better than expected, a lovely trip through childhood and infatuation, dreams and wishes, within simple yet sublime pop songs and stories. Gently funky beats, odd samples, and lyrics (sung or spoken) that were warm, friendly, creative, beautiful, and so on…Now it's four years later, and in the time since then David's published two novels (Nalda Said and The Peacock Manifesto) and Looper's released two more great albums, The Geometrid and The Snare, albums that took them onto the dancefloor, through outer space, onto the stage, down the dark streets of some imagined film-noir classic, and further into our hearts. Now they're free of a record contract and are exploring new frontiers by releasing EPs of new music (two so far, with one more on the way) through their web site, putting the music out there and letting anyone download it for free. It's a promising move, but even more special are the songs themselves, which are fantastic. I'm always sensing more good things to come from Looper...maybe it's merely in how much I love their songs, or perhaps in the sense of quiet hopefulness for tomorrow that runs through their music, articulated so well in their millennial wish for a better world "Who's Afraid of Y2K?" or in the sweet melodies of songs like "These Things" and "Quiet and Small," melodies that I feel blessed to have roaming around my brain.
Over email, Stuart David answered my questions about Looper's present, future, past, all of that...
What lead to your decision to leave Mute and release your new songs via the Internet?
They were two separate decisions really. With Mute, I just didn't feel it worked as a relationship - which surprised me. From the talks we had with them before we signed, and from the history they have, I was expecting a much more inventive way of going about things. But it turned out they had very rigid methods and ways of going about things, with everything from recording schedules right down to the type of press pictures they wanted. There wasn't any room for manouver or inventiveness, which is the last thing I would have imagined from Mute beforehand. Then they sold themselves and us to EMI, and we'd no idea it was happening until it was done. So we put out our second single from the album and then asked if we could go.
Releasing stuff on the internet was what I'd imagined doing for a few years beforehand. We've always had the Looper websites at the centre of whatever project were doing at the time, but it hasn't really been until very recently that it's been a viable way to release things. Napster and then Kaaza have shifted people to seeing downloading MP3s as the main way to get music now I think, so when we left Mute it just seemed like the perfect time to try that.
Do you plan on continuing to release music in this way for a while?
We do, uh-huh. I think everybody who wants to continue doing music should be planning on it. We've got one more Ep to do in this series, and then we'll look at how an album in this way would work.
Does releasing these EPs as free MP3 files affect your approach to recording or writing them in any way? For example, is there less pressure involved when the music is outside of the whole world of buying and selling?
It wasn't so different for the first EP, cause I hadn't really realized with that one what a difference it made. That one would probably have been exactly the same if it had been for a record company. But then you realize, when the music is going straight to the people who like what you do, that there's a lot more freedom to make it exactly the way you want it to be. With a record, you're always aware, on some level, that for it to get to the people it's really for, it first of all has to appeal to people that it's not necessarily for. People who program radio, and who write reviews. People who work at the distributors and at the pluggers and press offices. I think that's probably a big part of what's damaged so much of popular music up til now. So knowing none of those people are involved, and that people who like what you do will still get to hear it even if those people don't rate it…it shifts the whole focus.
"I'd Fall At Her Feet" is one of the prettiest songs I've heard in a long time. And as a piano ballad, it's also a lot different from any Looper song I can think of. What can you tell me about the writing of it, or what it means to you?
I wrote it on a ukulele. Initially it was supposed to be a song from my Peacock character to his wife, Bev. And it's got some influences from how my dad was when I was young too, lyrically. I like it. I used to do a lot of songs in that style when I was younger, but I had less of a grasp of melody then, so I'm happier with this one.
The music on "Pale Blue E-Type" reminds me of an old Hollywood score - are movie scores a type of music that you enjoy or are influenced by? If so, what are some of your favorites?
I like John Barry a lot, and Michel Legrand. Legrand's music for The Thomas Crown Affair is one of my favourites. I don't really listen to many film scores just on their own, just bits and pieces from some. But I like those kinds of films from the sixties and seventies when there was still an air of glamour. And I like the music that was part of creating that glamour.
How conscious are you of giving each of your albums a particular atmosphere that holds through the whole thing? All of them are very cohesive in that way.
I've always thought it was what made an album an album, but some people don't seem to trust it. You sometimes get accused of making a concept album or whatever. The albums I like are like that. Bob Dylan's Desire, or Blonde on Blonde, or Blood on the Tracks. They're all very different from each other, but cohesive within themselves. The same with David Bowie's Young Americans or Aladdin Sane or Low. And Tom Waits with Heart Attack and Vine, Blue Valentine, and then Bone Machine. I was just labouring under the idea that that's what an album was. I'm not sure what will happen now though. I think the album might have run its course, cause it was a response to a format and that format is just about gone. I think it's time for something new.
How separate are your songwriting and fiction-writing? Obviously with The Snare and The Peacock Manifesto there was a connection, how about with your music in general? Do you ever plan to write a novel and it turns into a song, or the other way around?
They are pretty separate. The Snare thing became confused, partly because of the problems with Mute. There was a connection, but it wasn't really that the two works were related, it was supposed to be that the presentation was related, but it all got messed about, and somehow the theory started to circulate that album was based on the book or whatever. I think the only idea I had for a book that became a song instead was the "Spider Man" song on the first MP3 EP. Usually the idea for a book develops in a different way from for a song. But I have done quite a few songs about the Peacock character, and from the point of view of the Peacock character, and had him in books too.
In general you seem to have moved away from the spoken/story approach towards more of a pop song-based approach. Is this something you've been consciously trying to do, to continually broaden the types of songs that you write?
It really happened the other way round, initially. I've always written the pop song type of songs, and then I just discovered the spoken word method by accident when I did the "Century of Elvis" song with Belle and Sebastian. Stuart asked me if I could read one of my stories over the backing track of "Century of Fakers", and I went into the studio on my own one morning with just the engineer to do it. But I forgot to take my story with me. I didn't want to tell the engineer though, cause the studio was £600 a day, so I just got him to start recording and I talked til I couldn't think of what to say next, and then I got him to stop - and when I'd thought for a minute I'd get him to start again, and I did that a few times til we got to the end. Then I got ideas for a few more of them later on, so I kept doing it. But I've never really been sure if it's a valid form or not. I swing about from thinking it's just pissing about, and that I won't do it anymore, to having another idea and doing another one.
What is your background like, music-wise? Did you play music much before you joined Belle & Sebastian? Had you sung much before you started singing with Looper?
I'll be celebrating my twentieth year in show business next year. I'm sure no-one else will be celebrating it, but I will. :) I wrote my first songs, and formed my first band, and did my first recordings in 1985. I was always the singer. I was fifteen then, and I thought if I could get a hit I wouldn't need to do my exams the next year. But the exams came and went, and then I thought if I had a hit I wouldn't have to get a job. So I left school the next year, and I didn't get a job, but I didn't get a hit either. I just kept writing songs and being unemployed, and then when I was twenty I thought, maybe if I wrote a novel it could be a hit and I wouldn't be unemployed anymore. So I did that, but no-one would publish it - and then I wrote another one, and no-one would publish that. And I wrote more songs and formed more bands, and then about ten years after I left school I went on this course for the unemployed musicians, cause if you didn't go on it your money got stopped. And I met Stuart Murdoch there, and I was trying to learn bass for my own band, so I played with him for practice - and then everything went wrong. :)
Do you have a house full of synthesizers or does it just sound like it? What are your favorite instruments to play these days?
I've got some now, but I didn't have any when we made the Looper albums. Now I've got an SH-101, and an Access Virus. The 101 is great to play. I think my favourite instrument is any kind of sampler though. And I really enjoy the ukulele too. I was doing music for a film last year where they wanted a ukuele in it, so I bought a cheap one and learned it, and I got hooked on it. So now I have a Martin. That's the only top-of-the range instrument I've ever had.
You wrote on your web site last summer that you were getting ready to put a new live show together - how has that been going? What is the status of Looper as a touring band?
It hasn't happened yet. We have an idea for a new show now that I think is good. But a combination of things has stopped us touring for a while, the main one at the moment being the war stuff. We did most of our touring in the US, but we haven't been there since the whole fiasco of Bush's election. When that happened I thought things were going to go a bit off for a while, so we started working on other things. And with everything that followed in the wake of Bush's election, it wasn't too appealing to be adrift the way you are during a tour, in a country where that kind of stuff is going on. So we'll wait till it seems more like the welcoming place it used to be.
I've read in various places that both of your novels are being made into movies - is that true? What's the status on them? What is your role, if any, in the film versions?
They've both had the options taken up on the film rights, and they both have directors and script writers in place I think. Just for small budget UK films I think. But how much it will go beyond the stage it's at I don't know. I think most things get to that stage, but very few things actually make it into production. I think I had the option of being involved, if they do get made, but I didn't want to be. I don't think even directors have the power to get a film to turn out they way they think it should be, so I knew I would have no chance. I would be curious to see them as films, but that's all. I think a film is always a step down from a novel, so it would just be a little curiosity for me.
Is it fair to assume that most of your songs are drawn from your own experiences, even those that sound like science fiction or children's fables?
Some of them are. Ones like "Impossible Things" and "Dave the Moonman" are straight from life. It's generally the spoken word ones that are, I think. Apart from "Columbo's Car". And "The Spider Man". I made those up. Most of them are though, I think.
Anything else going on that you'd like to share with us? Do you have new recordings or books that you're working on?
There'll be the third MP3 EP, and then I just finished a first draught of another Peacock book a few days ago. And there's another book I might start before I do the second draught of that. Then it'll be the next Looper album I think. And that idea we've got for a show.