Off Course: Down the Road Less Traveled with Young Marble Giants' Stuart Moxham

PopMatters talks with post-punk hero Stuart Moxham about Young Marble Giants, his Personal Best, and what he thinks about "the ugly car syndrome".

Stuart Moxham

Personal Best

Label: hABIT
US Release Date: 2010-06-21
UK Release Date: 2010-05-31

Stuart Moxham is a contrarian.

How else would you describe a gifted songwriter who definitely has the pop chops, but rarely, if ever, chooses to go the route of easy appeal? Perhaps there’s a better reason to explain why Moxham, the mastermind behind Young Marble Giants, decided not to pursue the band after achieving everything he had hoped for upon starting the cult favorite with his brother Philip and singer Allison Statton. Regardless of his reasoning, Moxham is no crowd pleaser, which accounts for the counterintuitive streak in his music that he refers to as the "ugly car syndrome."

"I think of ugly car syndrome: It's easy to be attracted to a new model of car, but then someone would come up with something fairly hideous, only for it to grow on you and become preferable to the pretty car. That process of appreciation adds value to the experience. I suppose it's the joy of education -- always a painful learning curve, but the sunlit uplands of enlightenment soon replace the struggle with the unfamiliar. Maybe deeper, 'difficult' art is more satisfying partly because it requires our engagement in order to glean its full benefit."

That's one way to characterize an over 30-year career in which Moxham has continued to create engaging, thoughtful music while enduring some pretty extreme changes in fortune.

PopMatters caught up with Moxham in the midst of what must be one of his most fruitful periods of the last three decades, which has him promoting his solo best-of collection Personal Best, recording new projects, starting up his own label, and even pondering the possibility of a future for Young Marble Giants.

While Moxham jokingly chalks up his tendency to go against the grain to his Welsh background, his enigmatic ways might better be attributed to being a perfectionist. Painstaking attention to detail is a hallmark of Moxham's artsy-pop, from the sparse but precise experimentalism of Young Marble Giants to the intricate, gossamer folk songs of his solo efforts. Moxham might demand a lot from himself as an artist, but he also expects a lot from his listeners, hoping that they'll dig a little deeper to find what's most interesting about his music.

"With respect to listening to music, there is a first listen syndrome whereby we don't treasure a first listen, if we know one is about to happen," Moxham explains. "But, in time to come, we wish we could go back to that moment after years of growing love and appreciation for a record. This is not nostalgia. If only we had known just how great and meaningful a song was to become for us, we could have approached our first exposure to it with such great openheartedness. Why don't we?"

Not only is that a good way to think about Moxham's craft, but it also applies to his under-the-radar career, both of which have encouraged fresh reassessments over time. For those who think Moxham's story essentially begins and ends with Young Marble Giants, there's a lot more going on with a life in music that started before the now-legendary post-punk band and has continued long after its demise. After picking up a roommate's guitar and learning how to play in 1975, Moxham jumped right into songwriting and "felt it would be a shame to spend time learning someone else’s songs when I could be writing some of my own." He did, however, work his way through The Complete Beatles songbook as a means of testing his own skills and to pick up some ideas on how to develop his own musical vernacular.

Coming together a few years later, Young Marble Giants, as Moxham tells it, was less an end in itself than a means to establish himself as a musician. The enterprise started out as what Moxham calls his "mission impossible," designed to transform an "unknown Welsh chancer" into a bona-fide songwriter.

"I had a lot of idealism at the time and was pretty naive too,” says Moxham. “But for all of us, I think, it was something we approached with affection and a strong sense of fun, of the ridiculous. That's the kind of people we are.

"At the same time it was a terrible Catch-22. I perceived YMG as my only chance to fulfill myself as a person and to get out of Cardiff as a songwriter, but was 99.9% convinced it had no chance of achieving those enormous ambitions, due to the overwhelming body of evidence all around us. So yes, it was, unconsciously at the time, a vehicle for me to escape the gravity of provincial obscurity."

So while many of his fans might assume that Young Marble Giants has defined his identity as a musician, Moxham considers the experience as something of "a special case" where he felt more distanced from his music than perhaps at any other time.

"The fact that I was writing for a band, a kind of abstract idea created as a tool for self promotion, enabled me to be one degree removed from the meaning in those songs,” Moxham says.” “And of course, having a female singer was another degree of separation."

Despite the splash that Young Marble Giants made, Moxham veered off course and, instead, pursued a solo career that unfolded through many fits and starts, while he persevered through such hardships as a serious motorcycle accident and financial woes. Still, Moxham became something of an elder statesman of the indie scene during the '80s and '90s, flourishing as a producer and collaborator by working with likeminded artists who were clearly influenced by him, such as Tracey Thorn during her Marine Girls days and American twee-punk pioneers Beat Happening. As a band leader, he continued to build his own catalog slowly but surely by joining forces with eccentric underground favorites like Barbara Manning and Louis Phillippe, further refining an aesthetic that was already delicate and meticulously crafted.

Moxham's career trajectory certainly reflects his blueprint for making music: "As for my music, I'm not upfront. I don't lay my wares out in plain view," Moxham elaborates. "In songwriting I often attempt to lead the listener down a garden path. I set up a comfort zone first, using familiar elements, then introduce something distracting which subverts them, so that suddenly the listener finds himself somewhere unexpected. Sneaky -- and in a way the opposite of ugly car syndrome -- because I want my stuff to appear very accessible, but I use that as a ploy to introduce something dark and/or humorous."

Listen to Personal Best and you can definitely hear where Moxham is coming from; the collection spans Moxham's post-YMG catalogue and gives a good sampling of all the eclectic dimensions of his music, from his dexterous jazz guitar play to the straight-up folk elements to some tasteful electronic noodling and studio trickery. Part of what distinguishes the approach that Moxham has used is that his songs don't feel dated or marked by particular trends. A trip down Moxham's “garden path” reveals unexpected details, as nuanced detours and clever sleights-of-hand appear with repeated listens. The liner notes of Personal Best say it best, explaining that the collection tries to capture "a fair overview of [his] attempts never to write the same song twice."

Personal Best is not only a recounting of past accomplishments, but also represents Moxham's revitalization as an artist and his reinvention as a musical raconteur, since it is the first release on his own hABIT label. Moxham is currently making multiple new recordings, including a mini-album (Six Winter Mornings) slated for this fall. With a trusty management team taking care of the business side of the label, Moxham is, in his words, "free to do the floppy-hat artist stuff, like writing, playing, and recording songs, doing cover art. It's certainly a recipe for success as long as I can come up with the goods -- and I feel absolutely in my prime right now and very hopeful that folks will, for example, see the potential in my [commercial-oriented] stuff."

With greater control over his craft and more room to experiment, Moxham finds himself trying new things on Six Winter Mornings, a three-generation family affair that also features his father Terence, younger brother Andrew, and daughter Melody.

"I didn't anticipate that possibility, but it's led to a very refreshing and affirming attitude on this project, allowing for all manner of firsts: singing with vibrato, playing the mouth organ, using violins," Moxham details. "I'm also doing 'explicit' mixing [that's] radio-friendly. Everything upfront - using the bass as a rhythmic device to make booty’s shake, rather than a melodic attention-grabber, à la YMG style."

One of the projects that Moxham hopes to move off the back-burner is a much dreamed-of Young Marble Giants follow-up. While there has been talk of this before, the positive response to the 2007 reissue of YMG's landmark Colossal Youth and the handful of comeback shows the reformed group has done over the past few years have heartened Moxham, who now has the vehicle in hABIT to make good on such possibilities. As Moxham considers the resurgent interest in Young Marble Giants, "It's nothing less than the continuation of an incredible story. I feel so blessed that we have a new, young element in our audience since the success of the Domino re-release package, that there is almost tangible love at our gigs from our audiences, and that we have an opportunity to heal old wounds within the band with the wisdom and humor of maturity."

Maybe that's the greatest gift of looking back for Moxham, via Personal Best and the reissue of Colossal Youth: to have the opportunity tie up loose ends and take stock of the past, while also imagining a future that seems brighter than ever. The way Stuart Moxham tells it, there's a realization that what came before might have a lot to do with what's yet to come.

"I’ve also come through the bizarre feeling of being plunged back, lucidly, into 1980, because [playing] the music, being so tight and minimal, demands note-perfect rendition,” Moxham relates. "Not least, there is the intention to write new material, the possibility of a second album. They say you have all your life to write your first one, 25 years, in my case. Well, I’ve had 30 years to write the next one!"

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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