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Q&A: Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet) Gets Reflective on ‘In Solo’ (“A Scrapbook About a Man of My Age Trying to Join the Dots in His Life”)
Gary Kemp helped soundtrack the MTV-era as the principal songwriter of 1980s mega-stars Spandau Ballet. The hits he penned for the band — “Through the Barricades,” “Only When You Leave,” “Gold” and the worldwide smash “True” among them — were some of the defining sounds of the blue-eyed New Romantic pop/soul explosion during that decade, especially for Americans, who saw the band night and day on MTV, not to mention at the massive Live Aid concert in 1985.
In the mid-90s, after a starring turn in the gritty cult hit The Krays, the biopic chronicling the rise and fall of Swinging London’s twin-brother gangsters, Kemp turned his hand to a solo career. But Little Bruises, released just as BritPop caught fire, although excellent, felt out of step, and Kemp returned to acting, with well-received starring turns on London’s West End stages, as well as in hit films like The Bodyguard, and even a brief but memorable run in the beloved Garry Shandling HBO series The Larry Sanders Show.
But Rock Cellar fans, of course, will likely know Kemp best as the lead guitarist and singer of Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, the former-Pink Floyd drummer’s recent dip into the venerable and underappreciated Syd Barrett-era, early Floyd catalog.
Kemp’s latest project, the grand, elegant — but also rocking — new album In Solo, is out Friday, and combines his undoubted gift for melody with the first generation Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie fan’s love of all things glam rock, plus some of the guitar fireworks he’s no doubt honed touring alongside Mason and company over the past several years.
Kemp is also joined by a heavyweight line-up of musician friends, including Pink Floyd and David Gilmour alum (and fellow Rockonteurs podcast host) Guy Pratt — who’s also the bassist in Saucerful of Secrets — brother Martin Kemp and Queen’s Roger Taylor, among others.
Below, enjoy a conversation with Gary Kemp in which he discusses what he’s learned from his stint in Saucerful of Secrets, why his formative years as a music-lover in the 1970s were so important, why he felt the time was right, after more than twenty-five years, for a new solo album, and much more.
Rock Cellar: It’s been a long time since you made a solo record. You’ve lived a lot of life in that time. You’re now a star of stage, screen, and podcast. This record feels like it’s a mature record, and also feels like you’ve learned a lot as a performer and singer and player, especially, maybe, from playing with Nick Mason and Saucerful of Secrets. Do you feel that’s true?
Gary Kemp: I think what playing with Saucerful did was it gave me confidence as a singer and to be able to front something. With Spandau Ballet, I was always writing, but I was at the side. And when I did my first record, that came out right in the middle of Britpop. No one was really paying attention. I am so proud of that record. I think it sounds still fresh and good today, everything about it musically. But there was some shyness for me on that record. I hadn’t committed myself fully as a front man or even really as a guitar player.
Then Britpop happened, and the album didn’t do great, so I went off to do other things. But I love playing with Nick, and I love fronting that band, and I like being able to play my own guitar parts, even though I’m playing other people’s songs.
Rock Cellar: As a songwriter, that’s hard.
Gary Kemp: I desperately wanted to get back to my songs, so I found myself writing a lot of songs on tour with Nick. And that’s the story of this album, because I was writing an album about me for me. When you’re writing for someone else, as I did in Spandau, I was always thinking melody first, and then what kind of song genre am I tackling. But writing for yourself, it’s got to be about the words.
And the other thing I suppose I’ve learned to do, being accepted by the Pink Floyd fraternity, who are very forensic and discerning and were quite surprised when they found out it was me in Saucerful, but then got to like me, I think, and I’ve only had good things said from them … is that I can go back to my prog roots, all the stuff that I loved when I was a kid.
I don’t have to make an album of three-minute songs. This album reflects my collection of musical taste: From Genesis to Bowie to Chic to Sondheim to Fairport Convention to Scott Walker to Jimmy Webb. The sort of albums that I might play at home.
You know, I’m a theater guy. I’ve done Pinter, I’ve done West End drama, so I’m allowing myself to write my “MacArthur Park” on the title track, “In Solo.” I was allowing myself to write songs that were full of drama, I think. And I think “In Solo” is the first song I approached on the album, and there were some inspirations, like the Edward Hopper picture was a big inspiration at the time, this disparate couple that are together but not together, they’re isolated but within a city. We’re looking through a window and you see her with her finger on the piano and wondering, what is she going to play? And I wanted to almost write what she was going to play.
I’ve always loved McCartney’s “Another Day”; that sort of mundane process of the woman going out to work. So, I began with that character and suddenly, in the second verse, a guy appears. I didn’t know at the time they were together, but when they do come together, eventually, in the final verse, you realize they’re struggling. And then I began to extend it. I think very visually when I write, and I’m an actor, so I can get inside their heads as well, so I saw them in a city.
Because we all feel the paradox of being surrounded by millions of people but feeling extraordinarily isolated at the same time. And that’s when the guitar part happens, and the Greek chorus section in the middle happens. That’s looking at the whole lit up cityscape. And we developed the arrangement in a very cinematic way in the studio, to reflect the action. So, I’m now able to write music like that, because I’ve been onstage doing atonal stuff like Saucerful of Secrets, and I’m feeling at home doing that.
But at the same time, my sensibility is always for hooks. And I’m still, at the same time, able to sit and write a song like “Ahead of the Game,” which has a very seventies feel to it. But it is a completely different genre, too, because it’s a solo album, it’s not a band, and I felt I could experiment as long as I was still expressing my own views. And so, when I wrote “The Haunted,” I realized “The Haunted” it was the two characters from “In Solo,” just later on in their story, and I connected it with a few of the musical themes that I had in “In Solo.” At that point I felt I had the beginning of an album.
Rock Cellar: There’s a lot to unpack there!
Gary Kemp: Sorry, mate!
RCM: But I think what I heard was not just all that, but a mature perspective.
Gary Kemp: Well, there was another theme that started to really dominate my head, and that was turning 60. So, this is me looking back and trying to see all of these other versions of myself, and how they relate to me now. How could I join the dots between all of those versions, those incarnations, to the man I am today? “I Remember You” was the first song I wrote that was based on that. And then when I wrote “Waiting for the Band,” which is an homage to my fandom, to my fanaticism of music, and to all of us, but it’s looking back really nostalgically at first to those early days, and then I really felt like I had some themes for the album, and that gave me the confidence to say, this is an album. This isn’t just me sitting writing four or five songs.
Rock Cellar: In the liner notes, you thank Pete Townshend. When you talk about turning 60 — I absolutely heard a person who was grappling autobiographically, as a songwriter, with this mature point in their lives — I thought about Endless Wire. I remember when Pete was working on that record, and he was also writing his book, “he’s one of the first rock stars to deal with mature issues like that,” you know, not like a blues song or whatever, but in the pop song format. Is that why you thanked him, or is it because it’s sort of, loosely, a concept album?
Gary Kemp: Yeah, it is a concept album in my mind, even though there are two separate running themes. There are the odd tracks that jump out of those themes, but even within those tracks, I was interested in trying to find the scrapbook of my life that dealt sonically with what I’d found growing up.
So, you know, I would be saying to Toby [Chapman, In Solo’s producer] while we were making it, “This album from Wings, which really turned me on as a kid, I want to get that backing vocal sound.” “I want it to sound like this 10cc section here.” Obviously, “Waiting for the Band” is an homage to me and my relationship with Bowie, but then it goes on beyond that and says that I still want to feel that way. I still am waiting for this great moment to come in music, you know, the second coming, as it were. It was a discussion with myself. “I am the past trying to be here.” But even, as I say, on “Ahead of the Game,” it was about what turned me on when I was growing up. I love those euphoric, dare I say yacht rock songs. I wanted to write one of those.
Because they’re part of my life, too.
Rock Cellar: We all have our guilty pleasures.
Gary Kemp: Yeah. And I’m not guilty! Todd Rundgren is one of my gods in songwriting. And so I feel like you could definitely say “I am the Past,” “Waiting for the Band,” “I Remember You,” are all songs that are dealing with the same issues: How does a man of my age still feel relevant and excited about himself and his place on the earth creatively? How do I do that?
My wife’s a lot younger than me and maybe there’s elements of me thinking about that, too. You never knew the man that I once was, you know? So, it wasn’t me just sitting down writing a load of different songs, putting them all together at some stage, and “Ooh, look, I have 12, it’s an album.” I think it’s a scrapbook about a man of my age trying to join the dots in his life, who lives in a city, and who grapples with the concept of city life. And I write on my own. I go to the piano and I’m trying to join the lyrics, which are from my head, with the music, which is from my heart, and I’m trying to combine the two and express myself.
It was a therapy that I was going through, making the record, I think.
Rock Cellar: Your musical approach has changed somewhat, too. Obviously, you’ve worked with Toby for a very long time. But your guitar playing has taken on some of the characteristics of David Gilmour’s playing, and that’s something I’d never really heard before. Is that maybe because you’re more self-confident, and letting loose a lot more on this record?
Gary Kemp: You know what, there must be a bit of that, because I’ve listened to him a lot, especially, but I can hear more Mick Ronson in my playing than David. Guy [Pratt] said to me the other day, because I do this little scrape on the guitar here and there, and he said, “David invented that, you know?” And I said, “Just go and listen to ‘Life on Mars.’ The end solo, Mick does it.”
“Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” the sounds that that guy made! There are other guitar players, of course. Steve Hackett has an incredible melodic guitar sound. And obviously Robert Fripp’s in there, and even to a certain extent Gary Moore, that melodic, sustained guitar playing. I grew up with him. And I love Richard Thompson’s work. And there’s a guy called Mickey Jones from Man, I really like what he did. I love what Frampton did back in those days. All of those went in my melting pot as a kid when I was learning to play guitar. But I think Mick is the one, for me, who is the the one I always wanted to sound like, especially in my solos.
Rock Cellar: That’s because you’re a songwriter and he was, as an arranger, really. More than anything, he could go in there and make a song a hit song with that guitar, with those hooks and those solos. He really elevated things. I think that’s the songwriter in you that’s appreciating that side of him.
Gary Kemp: Yeah, well, basically, my guitar is melody, and I think maybe that’s where it connects with Mick, and David, too. I’m not into sort of improvised solos. “Oh, let’s put down four or five different improvised solos.” All the solos on this album were really thought through melodically. Look at the opening of “Hello Again.” It begins with a guitar solo. It begins with melody. That guitar solo, you can whistle that. So, I think that’s the kind of guitar player I was coming out of Saucerful. Before the pandemic hit, I was just about to go on tour with Saucerful. “Oh, no you’re not!” “Oh, right. I’ll make an album then. Here’s the same rig and here’s the same noise.”
Rock Cellar: It’s been 20, 25 years since you made a record. Why this moment? Was it purely lockdown? And did the lockdown inspire and inform not just the process, obviously, because you had to do it in pieces, but also the lyric writing, and the sensibility?
Gary Kemp: Well, a lot of it was written before lockdown. I think I was heading toward making a record. But I recorded it in lockdown. I had the songs. Some of them were just on my piano. I write everything on piano and guitar. I don’t go to the computer ever to write. I go to the computer to do a demo, and then a lot of the demo ends up being on the real record.
Rock Cellar: And it’s a really beautifully recorded record. People don’t make records like this very much these days.
Gary Kemp: Toby and I are 100 percent about detail. I people have been into the vintage recording style for 20 years now, but I didn’t want to make that record. I wanted to make a sonically exciting record. I still, when I’m working, I’m still thinking, what would Trever Horn do at this point? What would Steely Dan do right now? Toby and I are really into our sound quality, and that comes from the arrangement.
RCM: And the running order too, by the way, is fantastic.
Gary Kemp: A running order is really important. Think about vinyl. Think about the fact that halfway through you’re going to have to get to the end of Side 1, Act I. Vinyl is two acts. I mean, it’s masterly, really.
Rock music was hooking onto something that was to do with movements from classical music. And the average movement is about 15 to 20 minutes long, so they made vinyl that long, and then rock music came in and did the same thing. It just works in storytelling. If you go to theater, Act I is normally 20 minutes. It’s the same thing. So then, you know, how do I begin Act II? Side 2? I didn’t want to hide my worst track or whatever is traditional.
I put “The Haunted” there. That, to me, was the bookend of the album. Here was “In Solo” and here were “The Haunted.” These were the same people you’re coming back to. Then, I didn’t want to finish the album, because “Our Light” is a true love song to my wife and to me and to everything that I find beautiful. I actually, strangely, have written my death into that song. There’s a line at the end, the last verse, about me leaving her at the end and how life continues.
I thought, I want to go out on the most positive song that I could, you know, almost spiritual, really.
September 15, 2021
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