Howard Devoto

Interview with a Resurfacing Should-Have-Been Musical Legend

by Charlotte Robinson


Howard Devoto is one of those musicians who, if there were any justice at all in the world, would be hugely famous. Having made a series of sharp, literate New Wave/pop albums with the groups Magazine and Luxuria as well as one on his own, Devoto remains best known for his brief early stint in the Buzzcocks, during which he and Pete Shelley penned such blistering punk anthems as “Boredom”, “Breakdown”, and “Orgasm Addict”. Never mind that his work with Magazine and Luxuria was more complex and just as pissed off (listen to lyrics like “Now that I’m out of touch with anger / Now I have nothing to live up to” and “I simply may be evil” for proof); it’s still his affiliation with the Buzzcocks for which Devoto is best remembered. No wonder, then, that he called it a day in 1990 after Luxuria’s second album failed to gain momentum. Devoto has spent the last decade working a full-time job at a photographers’ agency, far removed from the days of recording studios and world tours. After twelve years of silence, though, he has returned to recording with Buzzkunst, a collaboration with his old Buzzcocks bandmate, Pete Shelley. Why has he returned to music-making, and why has he renewed the artistic partnership that has overshadowed his other accomplishments for so long? I found out when I phoned Devoto in London to chat about his new collaboration, simply called ShelleyDevoto.

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It’s been over ten years since the release of your last album, Luxuria’s Beast Box. Why did you get out of the music business and why are you recording again?

I got out of the music business because I had to for my own sanity and life. It wasn’t treating me very well by the end of the 1980s. Kind of the cap on it was Beast Box opening to what seemed like almost universal disinterest. I really liked that album. It had taken me awhile to recover myself, but I really thought it was a great album and the fact that it was so overlooked just made me feel, “Okay, there’s much more of you than there is of me, so you must be right and I must be wrong.” So I went and got myself a proper job, basically. Complete life change. I couldn’t make a living anymore. I had to get real.

You’re a photo librarian, right?

I work at a photographers’ agency. There’s a collection of many hundreds of thousands of images there and, yeah, I try to kind of control it.

How did you end up playing the show in London with Pete Shelley that led to your recording together again?

We had started writing before then, and it was starting to happen so quickly. We got together about four or five songs so quickly, and we were feeling euphoric about that. This was a Mute Records evening in London. I was asked did I want to do something for ten minutes. I think they had imagined me coming on and doing a reading or something like that, and I just said, “What if me and Pete Shelley come and play a few songs?” We didn’t meet through that, in other words.

You’d kept in touch after you left Buzzcocks?

Intermittently. Not in any big way. Quite how it happened is a mystery to me, but Pete’s manager spoke to me about did I fancy possibly writing with them again or being involved with an album given that it was coming up to twenty-five years. And I said yeah, I could be interested in that—not doing a whole album, but maybe just doing three or four songs. That could be kind of interesting, as long as we try something different. But once Pete and I started working together, it went off in a totally different direction, and we just kept it to ourselves. The whole thing sort of snowballed.

What was the songwriting process like? Who did what in terms of the music? Did the lyrics come before the music, or vice versa?

All over the place, but the tracks would start with Pete. It started with him handing me a CD with ten backing tracks, basic tracks, whatever you call it—the grooves—on it, and just seeing what I came up with. I just started working with those, sometimes working instrumentally with them and sometimes, yeah, just going straight for a lyric. Different ones in different ways. Some of the ones we played at that first gig like “‘Til the Stars in His Eyes Are Dead” and “Going Off”, those were more or less me taking Pete’s music and doing what I’m very used to doing, which is putting words to that. But some of the others I built up instrumentally myself. He’d start them and I’d finish them.

Some of the tracks, “Strain of Bacteria” in particular, betray your pre-Buzzcocks influences, like Kraut rock, Eno, artier things. What other musical influences do you have?

On this album? Charlotte, I think I’m way beyond being influenced, really. I mean, everything can conceivably go into the stew that one might have been exposed to, and fritters up through your subconscious. I would just take what Pete gave me to start with, and initially, in some ways, I wasn’t sure I would necessarily be able to do something with some of them, because it was a different musical vibe from things I’d worked with before, but I got into it. I’d have an evening where four would suddenly start falling into place. Not that I’d finish them, but I’d see a way into them. Influences don’t really come into it. It’s not like you think, “I want to be influenced by so and so on this.” In a sense, you don’t want to be influenced by anything—well I don’t at this stage, anyway. I just want to do what I want to do when it happens to turn up as it comes off the end of my fingertips or out of my mouth.

You’ve commented that the song “Stupid Kunst” was “written around a time I was wont to be heard musing that creativity is an ineffective means of obtaining happiness or enlightenment”. How do you feel now about music as a means of expressing yourself?

I don’t mind having a job. People don’t really believe me, I think, but it’s okay. In myself, when I took that decision in 1990, I actually became a far happier person. On that basis, I feel I’m entitled to be a bit cynical about a world that seems to put such a high premium on creativity. I think such a lot of bollocks is talked about how wonderful creativity is. So that’s kind of how I am sometimes. But, paradoxically, doing this album was just the greatest. I just had a great time doing it. I enjoyed doing it immensely. It was free of pressure. I was coming to it fresh after more than ten years. We didn’t have an expensive studio booked, no expectations from a band wanting to go on the road or a record company with lots of things planned. It absolutely felt like a blank sheet of paper, and I just had a great time doing it. So, I’m kind of contradicting myself on that, but so be it.

Do you feel a difference in how you express yourself through different kinds of music? Buzzcocks seemed more visceral than Magazine, Luxuria, or ShelleyDevoto, which is musically artier and more cerebral.

Do you mean the Buzzcocks stuff that I did right in the very early days? That was like me at school, my schoolwork. It was an awful long time ago and written within the constraints of a very disciplined music aesthetic which was early British punk—musically very constrained. And even the general themes and stuff that one would deal with, one was on a limited diet which, yes, I wanted to get away from almost immediately. And I think I did so very much with Magazine and sort of continued that with Luxuria, and I just feel I kind of continue with this. The thing with this is it’s not rock as it were, and that’s fine by me because I’ve done a lot of rock, so to do something else is interesting.

Do you get frustrated that there are people who still focus on work you did 25 years ago when you’ve done so many things since then?

A little bit, yes. Even the Buzzcocks bit of it is some of the most frustrating. I think it’s partly because they got back together again and they still work and everything else, so the name is still around. So my association with them comes up from time to time, which is slightly frustrating for me because I was involved for such a short time and so early on. It’s a little like being known for your schoolwork. But, whatever, it’s still good to be remembered. I’ve started working with Peter again, so it does tend to raise all those questions. I hope the album absolutely confounds all of them. We’ve tried to do a single in Britain that is a little commentary on this situation, given that the album is coming out, inadvertently, nearly twenty-five years on from Spiral Scratch. We’ve put out “‘Til the Stars in His Eyes Are Dead” as the lead track because it’s the most Buzzcocky, to me anyway. We’ve got a really slow version of “Breakdown” which will hopefully annoy people. Then there’s another song called “Punk of Me” which is just the most un-punklike song, hopefully, anyone could imagine. We’re trying to be difficult about it.

Could you comment on the lyric in “‘Til the Stars in His Eyes Are Dead”: “Because the message is cheap and exhilarating / Now he’s slobbering on the glass / A sexistic boy, having a world wide wank / He says ‘Well, that’s very punk of me’”? Is that a jab at people’s expectations or what they think you’re going to feel about punk? A stab against nostalgia?

To do that song, [the title] was from a line I wrote when I was fourteen. In a blurry sense, that’s sort of who I felt I was talking about. I was talking about some youngster, in part myself, way back somewhere/when. Looking back, I do wonder how much punk music I actually enjoyed. I’m not sure there was a lot of it. There’s an awful lot of lip service to punk attitudes and this, that, and the other, but it’s just a lot of hogwash to me.

How do you feel your outlook is represented by your lyrical work? Do you think it represents you accurately?

What? A total picture of me? Not at all. It is an exercise that is quite difficult for people to do a lot of the time, to stand outside of themselves and see and hear themselves “objectively”. I think I write from a relatively constrained bandwidth of myself. I mean, again, we’re talking lyrically, aren’t we? I suppose what I hope for is that the musical breadth will cast all kinds of different light on that. I’ve always liked to produce records that have a great number of moods and the musical palette is very wide. I was saying the same sorts of things when Real Life came out. To me it was a very panoramic album. Some bands seem to like to produce albums where instrumentation is very similar and the pacing can be very similar—Oasis, the Strokes. I’ve never wanted to do that, so maybe that’s a bit of rationale for that. It comes out of things that come to me—the lyrics anyway—from whatever will make me write something down in my notebook. It’s not everything. It’s a certain way of thinking, a certain form of words that somehow I feel is the right sort of thing I feel I should be making lyrics from. Quite why that is is a little difficult to say. Dunno. Does any of that make sense? I think about what you’re asking me actually quite a lot. There’s all kinds of music I like and in a way I might theoretically be interested in having a stab at it. I suppose unless the opportunity really. . . I don’t know. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Somewhere there’s still an idea of your creative identity, that you’ve got to retain a bit of something with. That’s why I really did want to work with instrumentals, because so much of that gets chucked away. I think people could have played any of the instrumentals on [Buzzkunst] and asked, “Who’s that?” and never got it in a thousand years.

Where do you see the collaboration going from here? Are you going to tour, or is it going to be a one-off recording?

I think we don’t know about recording again. The live thing is difficult because of the way we did the album, which is the modern computer way. It’s quite difficult to work out how to do it. We just played a 15-minute set at the ICA. Great. Why does anybody need to play longer than fifteen minutes? I hardly worked up a sweat. It was great. Beyond playing for fifteen minutes, it’s actually quite difficult to work out how to do it. My time is somewhat constrained. Someone would have to make it all very easy for me as well. It’s not the side of things that I enjoy most. A bit of it’s okay, playing live, but not too much. So that one’s in a bit of limbo at the moment. I guess we’ll see how it goes. Pete’s working on a new Buzzcocks album at the moment. I guess they’ll see how that goes. Dunno. As I say, I enjoyed it greatly. We’ll see.

So, as long as it feels enjoyable and it feels right?

Probably. Well, yes, I enjoyed it this time and I don’t want anything that comes after to spoil that this time. Before, things would get quite tense. I don’t want to be financially dependent on my creativity again.

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