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Putting The Record Straight: Mark Kermode talks to Tootal Blog

There are seemingly two loves in your life, music and film, in which case is this book a chance to talk about the one for which you are less well known?

Yes but I’ve always done both of them, I’ve always played in bands. And I write in the book that one of the most important moments for me was seeing Slade In Flame – a film about Pop music; the two things bought perfectly together. I’ve played in bands my whole life and there is actually a certain section of people who only know me for the music. There is a kind of Dodge Brothers music fan who is not interested at all in the film stuff.

I have been trying to persuade someone to let me write a book about my music stuff for quite a long time, so, yes, it is a chance to write about the thing that I really wanted to.

You’ve named your book after the 1975 Slade single ‘How Does It Feel’. Are there many points where your passion for music and film meet?

Perhaps the best example is our band The Dodge Brothers accompanying silent films, because on one hand, I’ve always played with bands, making music and records and stuff, and on the other hand I am a film critic. I’ve written about Pop music and about movies, and in fact I’m working on a book about the history of Pop music in movies, and how the two things kind of inter twine. We started accompanying silent movies with Neil Brand, who is a brilliant pianist, composer and arranger, who accompanies silent films just improvising, watching the screen and playing along. He said, ‘Look, I’d like to do this with a pick-up band, because that’s how they used to do it’. I said, ‘How’s that going to work? I can’t read music’. And he said, ‘No, we don’t read music, we improvise.’ To which I said, ‘But there’s a whole band! You can’t all just improvise’. So he said, ‘Actually, there are ways of doing it. You have certain key themes…’

As a result of that conversation we ended up playing at Glastonbury, accompanying a silent film – I think we were the first band to do ever that. And we played in Tromsø, up in the Arctic Circle, where we accompanied the 1928 silent movie Beggars of Life. So, having long been interested in the way Pop music and movies work together, and loving the two things separately, they have now become welded together – they have literally become the same thing.

You’ve been in a few groups across the years – is there a ‘Rock Family Tree’ to explain them all?     

The younger Kermode (left) with Manchester Skiffle outfit The Railtown Bottlers.

If someone did a Rock Family Tree of all the bands that didn’t make it in Manchester in the 1980s, it would go on for absolute miles. One of the weird things about period was, particularly in Hulme where I lived, everyone was in a band; most people were in two or three at the same time. It was all incredibly internecine. I remember being in a friend’s flat in Charles Barry Crescent, and A Guy Called Gerald was down one way, and Russians Eat Bambi were down that way, and Jamie who ran The Kitchen recording studio was upstairs – it was more like a crèche for musicians than it was a housing estate at that point. So, yes, it would make a brilliant Family Tree but it would be so hard to unravel.

There is something of a “what’s the worst that can happen” theme in your book. Should it be filed under ‘Self Improvement’?

I don’t know if it’s ‘improvement’. If there’s an underlying philosophy it’s “How hard can it be?’ I keep saying, I would love to be a musician but I’m really not; I’m really genuinely not. I have managed to surround myself with other people who are, and through sheer force of will I’ve managed to bluff myself into some fairly decent gigs. If there is a message then it is “What’s the worst that can happen?’ The worst that can happen is you will make a fool of yourself in public, and as I discovered when I tried the (stand-up comedian) Henry One Hundred thing, once you’ve been canned off stage in Hull, you’re kind of indestructible. Everyone’s going to laugh at you? Fine, I’ve had that – wasn’t that bad… though they were quite aggressive.

Was there a lot of music in your house as a child?

There was. My Dad was a huge Jelly Roll Morton fan. He really loved what now gets called Trad Jazz, very old Jazz, old Blues. So, I grew up with his record collection, and it was on all the time. He had a “hi-fi”, as they were called in those days. He had a record deck with an SME arm and a Shure cartridge – serious stuff. So, we weren’t allowed to touch it, and that meant the only music that got played was “Dad’s music”. It wasn’t until some time later when I got a little Dansette to play singles on that I was actually able to choose for myself. The first ten years of my life I was entirely marinated in my Dad’s record collection.

Can you remember the first record you bought and where you bought it?

Mark Kermode’s Record Collection: The Early Years

If you don’t count my Mum buying me ‘Dougal & The Blue Cat’, the first record I bought was ‘Jealous Mind’ by Alvin Stardust, and the second was ‘Sugar Baby Love’ by The Rubettes. And, yes, I remember where I bought it from – it was the newsagent in Finchley. They had this thing with ex-jukebox singles; 45-RPM singles and they sold for 45p. And they came with the holes punched out in the middle, and without the adaptors, so you had to have one of your own. What I remember really clearly was, you had to really look at the record to see what condition it was in because jukeboxes destroyed records. ‘Jealous Mind’ I bought because it was in really good condition; ‘Sugar Baby Love’, there were a couple of copies of it, and I found a clean one that wasn’t totally scratched to pieces, so those were the first two.

Photos in your book suggest the Mark Kermode of 2018 doesn’t look dissimilar to, say, the 1980 model. Can we assume you’ve found a style you’re comfortable with?

That is true. There’s that saying “once an old Ted, always an old Ted”. I was talking to Tim Polecat about this. I said, ‘Why do you think it is that people who are into Rockabilly and Rock ‘n’ Roll, they stick with it?”

Because I’m in my mid to late fifties now, and I’ll quite often walk down the street and see someone slightly portly, balding, Harrington and the remains of a quiff, and you kind of nod at each other. And Tim said, “Yes, it is remarkable, isn’t it? It’s because once you’ve gone down that route – once you’ve gone “Rockin’” – it just sticks. It’s not something that you grow into and grow out of”. Partly, I think, because it would be considered an act of betrayal. I remember when I was first doing telly, and people would say, “Why has he got that stupid haircut?” And I knew there were other people who were literally going, “Good for him”. So, I thought “Keeping that; not changing that”.

Do you remember the first time you could buy your own clothes?

Mark Kermode, Isle of Man c. 1975. Under the influence of The Rubettes.

The first time I was allowed to buy my own clothes was when I worked in a jeans shop in North Finchley called Jean Genie – I’m sure there was a copyright issue there. I worked there on a Saturday from 8 o’clock in the morning, until 5 o’clock. And for that you got ten pounds, plus you could buy the clothes at wholesale price; and they sold Levi’s, Levi’s t-shirts and Levi’s jackets, so the first time I was able to buy my own stuff was working there, doing fairly menial stuff but at the end of it you could buy a pair of Levi’s for ten quid, though this was the 1970s. I can remember buying a Levi’s jacket, that I had to work for a few weeks to save up for, but I was really, really proud of it. And then, I think we used to buy Harrington’s from Carnaby Street. Baracuta weren’t really around then…

In 1993 you were part of the House Band for Danny Baker’s chat show After All, and got the chance to work with some great talent. So, what’s the biggest thrill you’ve got from meeting a musical hero?

Suggs was just brilliant, not least because he came in at the last minute when we had a sort of “falling out” with somebody else. And he’s very funny, very dry but so understated. He said, ‘Who dropped out?’ and when I told him and he laughed for about five minutes. He was so cool; he had this brilliant suit – it was light blue but it looked like it was beige – and these glasses with a leopard print frame, and that great haircut. I just remember playing with him and thinking you are The Coolest Man – the way he behaved, the way he spoke, everything about him I remember thinking was absolutely brilliant.

Since then I’ve met Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, who I’m a huge fan of, Stephen Fellows from The Comsat Angels, who I absolutely idolised, and Henry Priestman, who was in Yachts and The Christians and It’s Immaterial. I played on his record, he played on our record and I’ve still never met him, we did it all by remote control. Henry and I are going to meet for the first time ever onstage in Camden, when he’s doing a gig and I’m going to play bass on a couple of songs. But I just remember being completely starstruck by Suggs, because he was so effortlessly cool.

Your band, The Dodge Brothers, have a new album ‘Drive Train’ out in September. Do you have a music masterplan?

Bangin’ and twangin’ and… whatever it is that washboards do. The Dodge Brothers onstage.

The masterplan is literally nothing other than to keep going. I mean, when we recorded ‘The Sun Set’ album at Sun Studios, and that was a really big deal because going abroad to record an album is one thing but going abroad to record an album in Memphis, at Sun… I thought it would never happen, I thought it was some crazy pipe dream, but it did and the results were brilliant.

We basically write old-fashioned songs; we always have done so we’re not going to suddenly turn in a Prog album or an experimental album. We’re probably going to go further and further back in time but our main plan is to just keep going, because we really love doing it, and I’m really proud of it, as well, so we’ll just keep going until we drop of our perches.

When Mike (Hammond) our guitarist and I started the band, we were in a social club somewhere and there were these two old guys, they must have been in their ‘80s, and they both played Blues guitar, and they must have known each other since they were… forever! And they were sitting there, playing the Blues, and I remember Mike and I looking at them and saying, ‘That’s going to be us. That’s what we’re going to be doing when we’re in our ‘80s’.

Believe me, I am immensely grateful for having lived a charmed life, and the key to it is although I’m not a very good musician I surrounded myself with other people who are, and I landed on my feet.

Ending on a positive note, it’s the end of the world and you can only take your three favourite films or your three favourite records on The Ark – what’s it going to be?

The records. Am I allowed box sets? Okay then, the box set of Washboard Sam, which I think is seven volumes but that’s the total Washboard Sam recordings, absolute genius. Probably ‘Sleep No More’ by The Comsat Angels, because I have always, always loved that record, I just think it’s wonderful. And a collection of Jelly Roll Morton because it reminds me of what I grew up on.

How Does It Feel? A Life of Musical Misadventures by Mark Kermode is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is available now in all good bookshops.

The Dodge Brothers new album, ‘Drive Train’, is out now on Weeping Angel Records and available at www.dodgebrothers.co.uk