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An Interview with Martin Bramah, Occasional Fall Guy

In this exclusive excerpt from Uniform magazine issue two (launching tonight), Kiran Dass interviews English post-punk legend Martin Bramah, on the eve of his former band The Fall’s New Zealand tour, about his life in drugs and music.

“The only way out is up,” bellows Martin Bramah on the psyched-out 1982 Blue Orchids song ‘Dumb Magician’. One of the founding members of legendary and singular Prestwich post-punk group The Fall, guitarist Bramah – who legend has it was originally supposed to be The Fall’s singer because he was the one with the good looks – left the group in 1979 when he and Fall-mate Una Baines formed Blue Orchids. The group continued on with and explored further the psychedelic heart that The Fall had hinted at with their early work. Bramah has always moved up when he’s moved out of one group and into another, and says the band dynamics of his current group – Factory Star – are friendlier.

While The Fall’s cantankerous Mark E. Smith cuts an imposing and abrasive figure as a frontman, Bramah exudes a quietly knowing charm. Smith commands us to ‘Look, Know’, while Bramah’s music taps into the romantic and arcane mysteries of the heart and soul. While both are brilliant and authentic frontmen, they come in from different angles. And there probably wasn’t room for both men in one group.

To the surprise of some, Bramah rejoined The Fall for the 1990 album Extricate. He says he rejoined because he was proud of the work he did with the group the first time around. But this second stint ended abruptly while on tour in Australia when, after playing in New Zealand, Smith gave him his marching orders.

Bramah is the master of the clever title: The Fall’s firecracker debut album Live at the Witch Trials (most of which Bramah co-wrote) isn’t actually a live album, the Blue Orchids album The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) could be seen as a dig at record labels, pop charts or a sly drug reference, and the name Factory Star could reference Factory Records (the label on which a number of Bramah’s Manchester peers such as Joy Division appeared on), Andy Warhol’s Factory, or Manchester’s factory landscape… you get the drift.

KD: Some of your wordplay is clever and shows a sense of humour and knowingness. I know I won’t be the first person to have made the observation, but I guess The Greatest Hit can be taken in two ways: The pop charts and drugs! The same can be said of Factory Star: A reference to Factory Records who some of your Manchester peers appeared on, as well as Andy Warhol’s Factory – the Velvet Underground & Nico (who Bramah met and played music with when she washed up in Manchester in the 1980s) are pretty key. Then there’s the Manchester Factory, which churns out product…. What were you thinking of when you came up with these titles?

MB: Record companies are always bringing out “Greatest Hits” albums by various popular artists and so I thought it would be interesting to name our first album The Greatest Hit (definitive singular), it appealed to my sense of humour, as you say – but then what is the greatest hit? It may be a drug or climbing a mountain or falling in love or seeing your favorite band – for me it is being really present in the moment – savoring life without all the baggage.

As for Factory Star – I wanted a fairly plain sounding name that I could make my own – something that would give me room to move, musically speaking. I also thought it might piss off a few people in Manchester, which again appealed to my sense of humour!

Was The Fall was your first group? Being around in Manchester at that time must have been an exciting time musically.

Nuclear Angel was my first band, featuring Karl Burns [long serving Fall member] on drums. But that all channeled into the embryonic Fall. Manchester in the late ’70s/80s was a very exciting time, it’s true – a lot has been written about it already, so it must have been!

It seemed the most natural thing at the time. The air was thick with ideas and possibilities, and so many young minds tuning in to it. Manchester had its fifteen minutes and then we managed to steal a few more and blag a couple extra too. Manchester has been around a long time – her spirit is strong.

Can you remember the first memory you have of music really exciting or moving you?

I remember being a small child listening to the radio, and feeling for the first time all the adult emotion of ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ as sung by Cilla Black.

The first record I really identified with was ‘Get Off of My Cloud’ by The Rolling Stones – a great tune for jumping around and pointing at people!

I’m interested in the literary side which has filtered through all of your musical projects. I’m a fan of The Shout by Robert Graves, there’s a deep sort of inner trauma and horror in there. But I understand the key Graves text for you was The White Goddess?

Yes, The White Goddess was an important book for me. It helped me form my own alternative sense of history and the rich possibilities lying in our past. It helped me to understand the power of words, and to see the poet as a diviner of meaning, as a kind of shaman.

Were you more into words and poetry when you first started out in music? So to that end, was music just a vehicle to explore the concepts and poetry you were coming up with?

Yes, that’s all true. But music is the final ingredient – it’s more immediate. It’s the popular medium of our time – the best way to express yourself, with minimum restrictions. Or it can be.

Tell me about the dynamic between you and Una Baines and how that grew and changed from your time as bandmates in The Fall to forming Blue Orchids as well as being in a relationship. Was that a difficult dynamic?

It was dynamic and it was difficult!

Your interest in the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff – it all seems to tie in together: The search for transcendence, the desire to achieve full human potential, the idea of the ‘waking sleep’, the drugs and the music that was to become a platform for exploring these ideas. What attracted you to his esoteric concepts?

There was the taste of reality about Gurdjieff, his ideas struck a chord in me as a young man. He’s a great role model for what a man should be.

He made music too, didn’t he? Didn’t he work with the harmonium?

Yes, he composed music, wrote books and taught dance. He managed to create a kind of pressure cooker environment around himself from which he would mess with people’s minds – experimenting with human potential.

Nico (ex Velvet Underground) played the harmonium, too. Was it bizarre when she showed up in Manchester, of all places?! I mean, initially it seems so incongruous, but at the same time, it seems like the most appropriate backdrop for someone like her. Tell me about what meeting her was like for you.

It was a big surprise when she turned up in Manchester – a meeting with a remarkable woman!

I’d been a fan of Nico’s work since my mid-teens, so meeting her was like a dream come true. She did not disappoint. I first met her in a cheap Polish hotel in south Manchester, in which she was managing to hold court, like some exiled Eastern European queen – we ate oranges and Turkish Delight, I recall.

How did your group Blue Orchids end up being her backing band? I did read the book her keyboardist wrote (Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio) about the experience.

Nico was looking for a band – that is why I was introduced to her – that band was Blue Orchids. We were the first band she worked with in Manchester.

After a year or so I decided to stop working with her and other musicians took on the job – that is where the keyboard player Jim Young’s book begins.

The surviving clips from some of the shows are sort of harrowing. The versions of some of the songs seem to me to foreshadow textured ‘shoegaze’ music – really blissed out and skygazing. Those versions that I have heard (not many) are beautiful. I love them though some people I know can’t bear to watch those clips because they’re so bleak! Was it a heavy time for you and how did you emerge from this?

Heroin became a big problem in the Nico camp. I grew tired of it. Other members of the band fell in love with it.

Nico wanted to carry on using the name ‘Blue Orchids’ after I left her band – so there is some confusion as to who is playing on a lot of those videos. There are not many recordings of the original Blue Orchids and Nico – but a lot of stuff on YouTube claims to be.

Blue Orchids is very curiously ‘New Zealand’ sounding. I guess that’s not entirely surprising given that The Fall was a chart group here in the 1980s. But there is a very distinct similarity in the sound of Blue Orchids and groups such as The Chills (who in the mid 80s had a song called ‘Drug Magicians’) and The Puddle from early 1980s Dunedin New Zealand who also have a dark psychedelic and heady drug-steeped, knowing voodoo sound. Actually, George D. Henderson from The Puddle told me that for years, he always thought your song ‘Dumb Magician’ was called ‘Drug Musicians’! Too much poppy tea perhaps.

“Drug Musicians” that’s great – I’m going to record that one next!  

The early Blue Orchids had a song called ‘I Want Some Drugs Or Something!’ which never did get recorded.

I love the Blue Orchids instrumental ‘Tighten My Belt’ – there’s a ‘gateway’ feeling to it. Mystical. It transcends something. Like much of the music you have created, there’s something visionary about it. How important was the role of drug experimentation in opening doors to reaching this other-worldly level? I mean, how did you musically interpret the experiences you were having while on different drugs?

Drugs opened Pandora’s Box for me and I sang about what I found there.

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The Agents of Change EP and songs like ‘Release’ seemed to deliberately shun the “classic” Blue Orchids sound. They’re really stripped back and gentle. I came to love those later songs a great deal. The group was always a step ahead of their listeners in that sense. The same could be said about ‘NY Gargoyles’ which has a completely different sound, as well as the amazing stuff which came later from (Bramah’s post Blue Orchids group) Thirst which has an odd minimalist Ska feel/rock & roll (!) feel and is more garage rockist than earlier work. Were you just interested in exploring all musical avenues or were you and Una Baines interested in “throwing” or challenging your listeners?

We were just following our musical muse really – which is always a challenge!

‘Agents of Change’ was recorded just after we stopped working with Nico, and I think it reflects some of the subtlety and depth we’d heard in her music.

‘The Long Night Out’ in particular, is a reflection on my time spent in Nico’s band.

I’d love to know what your brief time working with Mayo Thompson [of legendary avant garde rock group Red Krayola. Thompson produced the excellent Blue Orchids 7” The Flood/Disney Boys] was like! I understand he had a wild time in the studio with you. What do you remember about that particular time?

Mayo was great to be around. It was like having a psychedelic big brother watching over you in the studio. I remember him getting very emotionally involved in the project – I think I may have even seen a tear in his eye when we played back the final mix of ‘Disney Boys’, as he whispered ” We captured it!”.

Tell me about the song ‘No Looking Back’. From the first time I heard it, it really got under my skin.

‘No Looking Back’, is about the beginnings of alienation – and the struggle to come to terms with feelings of remorse and a kind of cold forgiveness.

You’ve gone through a few line-up changes to perfect the current line-up of Factory Star (a line-up which seems to be very harmonious!) tell me about how you gathered this current crew – were they Manchester musicians that you already knew?

John Paul Moran aka Hop Man Jr. is the longest serving member of the current line-up. I met him at the first Factory Star gig back in December 2008. Neil from GNOD (a Mancunian psychedelic drone band) introduced us, and I fell for his wild garage keyboard sound.

Chris Dutton I met because he kept on slipping me his phone number at gigs and saying “You should give me a try.” So I did. He’s a disciplined and gutsy bass player and a joy to be around.

Joe McKechnie on drums is from Liverpool. I met him on Facebook when he replied to a “drummer wanted” ad I posted. A true beatnik. His pedigree is irrefutable – so don’t even try it!

So what do they contribute to the dynamics and workings of Factory Star?

I like to work quickly with Factory Star. We improvise a lot of the music at rehearsal, so everyone brings something of themselves to the sound. I turn up with half an idea – and together we breathe life into it.

You had the Hanley brothers (Steve and Paul, also key former members of The Fall) playing in Factory Star briefly. I know you would have wanted to keep some sort of distance between you and your past as a Fall member but you would also have known that the three of you would work well together. Did you feel uncertain about having the brothers in the group because of your shared past? Is that why it didn’t last?

There was a strong karmic thing going on there, in retrospect. I thought it would be interesting to play with the Hanleys again – but I knew it wouldn’t last.

Yes, you’re right. Our shared past made it seem like the band had three times the baggage it needed – and I’m all for moving forward.

What is the ‘New Sacral’? I just ask because it makes me think of the ‘sacrum’ – the spine, and it reminds me of how Vladimir Nabokov said that we shouldn’t get so caught up with reading with just our minds but we should also remember to “worship the spine” – the thing that gives you a thrilling tingle. Blue Orchids/Factory Star definitely fits in with that for me.

You’ve pretty much nailed it there. Sacral is anything pertaining to the sacred bone in us. I love that quote from Nabokov – I’ll have to use it, thanks!

Did your second stint in The Fall bust up in Australia or New Zealand, when was that, around 1990? I am pretty sure you played in NZ, but can you refresh my memory? If so, what are your memories of the time?

My second stint in The Fall ended in Australia. We played in New Zealand too on that tour and were about to go to Japan but Mark had other plans for me. I got back to my hotel after our last date in Oz, to discover that the band had been moved to another hotel – and there was a letter waiting for me at the reception desk, from Mr Smith, telling me I was too good to be wasted in The Fall, and my services were no longer required.

Indeed, what was it that made you go back a second time? And how was the experience different the second time around after having a bit of distance?

I rejoined The Fall because I wanted to explore being a guitar player again – I was very proud of the work we did the first time around – so when I saw an opportunity to make some noise, I took it.

The second time around turned out to be an interesting phase… a very busy period for the band – but the “reign of terror” had set in by then, so it wasn’t so much fun. The rest of the band just took the paycheck and kept their heads down – I was never that good at biting my tongue though.

The Fall and Blue Orchids are groups which are the same but completely different. Blue Orchids seem to be more ‘heart’ while The Fall seem to be about the ‘head’. Though, Blue Orchids seem to have continued with the sort of deeply heavy psychedelic music that The Fall only really hinted at with the first album. You’re both ‘frontmen’, but were you and Mark E. Smith polar opposites coming in from completely different angles or was there a connection there?

To begin with there was an attraction – a connection of minds – we were very good friends for a while. I don’t think we were opposites in that way – but there was a rivalry between us. In the original Fall this made us more creative – later on… not so much.

How did you two relate to each other?

In the beginning, as good friends. Later, as employer and employee.

I love your guitar playing, are you left-handed? It reminds me of (or vice versa) Tom Verlaine, who is such a neat guitarist. I know you were “non musicians” when you started out. How has that shaped and informed your guitar playing? For me, they are often the best, most interesting guitarists. I read an article for fun the other day, it was in one of those horrible guitar magazines, and it was an article about ‘the worst guitar solos ever’. I knew it would just be stuff that I love! And of course, on the top of the list was Blue Cheer’s amazing ‘Summertime Blues’! When I saw The Fall play recently, they were so boring because they had this slick guitar player and they sounded like a well-oiled ‘rock band’. Um, that’s not really a question but I guess I want to know what you find attractive in the guitar and its sounds. Blue Orchids and Factory Star are more about texture, atmosphere and mood rather than being flash…

Yes, I am left-handed and I tend to be an intuitive player. I’m self-taught and I like to play around with discord in music and I always try to leave some room for chaos.

Being a “non musician” I tend to use sound in the same way as the pop artists used colour. Deconstructing pop music clichés and breaking them down into their basic building blocks, then making simple new patterns. Keeping the layman’s ear for the overall sound. I’m really enjoying playing with Factory Star. I think it is now time for us to conceive our great concept album…


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