A Musical Chameleon: An Interview with Morcheeba
One year since the release of Morcheeba's Blaze Away, the band unleash a special edition full of remixes, which leads to questions of how their process works, how some songs got remixes and others didn't, and what the next 20 years of Morcheeba look like.
Blaze Away: The Remixes
31 May 2019
In 2018, with the release of Blaze Away, Morcheeba returned to releasing music together after a five-year hiatus, the time during which founding member Paul Godfrey left the band. However, in Blaze Away remaining members Ross Godfrey and Skye Edwards (who released a collaboration titled Skye & Ross in 2016) crafted one of their most exquisite records. A combination of blues, jazz, downtempo, country, and electronica distilled in ten wondrous tracks that suggest a band at its creative peak. In the lush opening track, "Never Undo", Edwards' vocals swoop in like waves on a faraway beach, as Godfrey's inventive arrangements tease psychedelic elements. In the appropriately titled "Love Dub", the band plays with reggae sounds, as Edwards' smooth voice becomes one with a playful guitar. Less than four tracks into the album, it's clear that the soul of Morcheeba remains.
Earlier this year, Morcheeba released a special edition of the album featuring 12 remixes by artists like Yimino, Djrum, Folamour, and Da Lata. Rather than feeling like a marketing-driven re-release, the new tracks on Blaze Away add texture to an already incredible album. Take Kelpe's remix of "Free of Debris", which turns the shoegazing tone of the original, into a sensuous lounge track. Or FaltyDL's take on "Set Your Sails", which transforms Edwards' voice from a pop chanteuse into an electronica siren.
According to Godfrey, the remixes on Blaze Away, are some of his favorite ever. PopMatters spoke to the proficient composer/musician about reuniting with Edwards, his take on the new tracks, and what the future holds for Morcheeba.
Your albums are always so efficient time-wise, Blaze Away takes us on a journey from A-Z, but with the special edition featuring all the remixes, it's like having two albums. What's it like for you to let other artists play with your music and then put it out in the world?
It's a strange experience. When you're making the record initially we don't like to waste too much time; we want to make it concise. I like old albums, for instance where you had five songs on one side, five songs on the B side and it doesn't get boring. I don't like albums with 18 tracks where the artist includes every demo they made for the album. We like to get rid of the good and make way for the excellent. It takes us a long time to deliver our baby to then let other artists take the arms and legs off, but on this remix package, we were very lucky to get some incredible people involved. People like Yimino and Drjum have done such an amazing job, in some instances, I think their versions are better than the album versions which never happened to me before with remixes. The Drjum remix of "Find Another Way", which took a country/folk ballad and turned into a dark electronic dub track, was incredible. We were very happy with the result.
There's two remixes of "Free of Debris", but some songs don't get remixes at all. How do you decide that?
We wanted to get remixes of almost every track, and we let the people decide because you can't force people to remix tracks they're not feeling. The process could've gone horribly wrong, but it went well.
Going back to the original song selection, how do you know what makes the album material?
In the old days, we used to finish every song we'd written. These days it's much more efficient. If we don't think it'll make it to the album, then we don't finish the song. We leave it in a pile on the floor. You have to be your own music editor. Otherwise, you waste too much time. I think we finished 11 tracks and ten made it on the album.
Does that 11th track make it to the next album or are you done with it?
[laughs] I don't know. We didn't even mix it; it sounded like it should be in an earlier record, it sounded like traditional West Coast psychedelic rock. Even though that's one of my favorite kinds of music, it didn't feel like it fit on the record. It's nice to have records where all the songs are related, like a family of songs. They can be different as long as there's some kind of link going on.
Remixes make me think of going to your analyst and have them uncover something you weren't aware of in the song you wrote. Is that accurate?
There was a couple of times on Big Calm I think, where tracks remixed by Reflection Eternal turned from a pop song into a cool sounding hip-hop track. We were very happy with that because it's rare we get remixes we love. Sometimes people keep most of the elements from your track, but other instances where they make completely different songs, and that's weird. It can go too far that way, where we don't understand the relation between the original track and the remix. On this album, the artists turned out some really surprising songs. They took them to different places.
How much of the process of creating music nowadays is defined by streaming and how people listen to tracks rather than albums?
We want to make albums people listen to, not just make a couple of good songs with eight or nine tracks as filler. As far as streaming, I think people are making their songs more concise. I read something recently about songs being shorter, if you listen to Joshua Tree all the intros are like one minute long, and the length of an intro now is one or two seconds, because people wanna know instantly what the song is before moving on to another. We did think about that, "It's Summertime" for instance, we go straight to the chorus. We know the listener doesn't have a long attention span anymore, so we try to cut to the chase as fast as we can.
Does that become a challenge when you want to incorporate songs from this record to a live show with songs from other albums?
We've got four or five songs we can play in our live show that sound good. We have a small band, it's five of us, so some songs sound natural live. We try to limit the number of samples we use. We want to have a natural sound. The process is very natural too, we jam to the album and then pick the songs we enjoy playing.
After not recording under the name of Morcheeba for five years before releasing Blaze Away, did you feel any pressure to either sound like the previous records or do something completely new?
I felt a little bit nervous, in an exciting way, not like stage fright. Once Skye and I got together, all we had to do was be ourselves, the music we make together sounds like us. We have to try really hard not to sound like that. My brother Paul wasn't involved in the writing or production of this record, so that was a little bit different, he wrote lyrics and brought hip-hop sounds to the album, so that was different. Paul will always be a part of Morcheeba, the three of us created the foundation of the band, and we wanted to stay true to that as much as we could.
Would it be accurate to say that when you start writing a song now, Skye's voice is already living in your head and you can imagine what she'll sound like?
Yes and no. Writing is a very haphazard thing, a song takes over and it's impossible to steer it. The song tells you what it wants instead of letting you take it down a road it doesn't want to go. You just have to listen to the music. The best way to get on with making a record is to go with the flow.
When you started the band more than 20 years ago you weren't as involved with the lyrics. Now you are, how is that different for you?
On this record Skye wrote most of the lyrics, she's done a lot of solo albums in between Morcheeba records, and she's very good at it. Songwriters tend to sing their own lyrics in a more emotive way because they're closer to them, so I felt the marriage of Skye's lyrics and her voice worked very well in this record.
In previous interviews, some even going back to 1998, you mentioned you didn't want trip-hop to define who you were. But even now on iTunes, Morcheeba albums are listed under trip-hop. Have you come up with a perfect name for your genre?
[laughs] No, I wish I did. Music is too abstract to come up with a one-word category for what it is. We combine psychedelic rock, jazz, country, electronica, and dance. There's too much we want to do be able to confine it into one thing. Even though we didn't like the term trip-hop when we were younger, we don't mind it now. It's kind of cute. Most of the trip-hop albums back then also sounded very different, other than the fact the production techniques were similar. I still think that Portishead's Third is the quintessential trip-hop album. They really got it right, it's a masterpiece, and I don't think anyone will ever beat it.
Our work is about the songs, not about the genre. It's nice not to be definable. Sometimes I look at it like the lineup at a heavy metal festival, where all the bands are heavy metal, and it must be kind of weird to be in a group of 100,000 people where they are all into the same kind of music. It's nice that we can flip between different things, we can play jazz festivals, or blues festivals, or electronica things. We're like a musical chameleon.
If people listen to your albums they might have preconceptions of the kind of music you might listen to. What artist that you love would surprise people the most?
I quite like the band Idles, I've been listening to them recently, they're Welsh, kind of punk and do very, very funny, clever lyrics. One of my favorite bands I've seen live about 20 or 30 times is Dinosaur Jr. I love them, J. Mascis is one of my guitar gods.
Considering how much you love Neil Young, have you ever thought about covering any of his music?
No, but we have done "Don't Let It Bring You Down" live a couple of times. That's one of my favorite songs. I was thinking of maybe having the band do a cover of "Like a Hurricane," that would be great. But no, we've never done a cover on a record, because we like having new material, so we've never considered that.
You've been making music since you were a little boy. Looking back, is there anything else you would've done with your life, or was music always it?
I have no plan B whatsoever. Much to the annoyance of my parents, I decided I wanted to be a rockstar and that was it.
What do you think has changed the most since you started making music with Morcheeba?
Technology has changed the way we make music. You used to spend days and weeks recording until you got things perfectly in time. Nowadays you can do that in 20 minutes on Pro Tools. It's made everything much easier, but it hasn't necessarily made people make better music. That's one of the paradoxes of music technology. The other thing is that technology has made music much more accessible. In my childhood, I'd spend hours going through records trying to find music. There were things you had to hunt down to listen to. I kind of miss the thrill of the chase a little bit. It devalues music in the sense that you can look up everything we've ever made and listen to it. It's lost some of the magic and the mystery. There's also too much information about bands out there. I remember when the first couple of Pixies' albums came out no one knew what they looked like, it was quite something to be involved in a musical mystery like that. Now you can look everything up on Wikipedia.
I was watching the "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" music video recently, and you're in it for a few seconds. In many ways, people think of Morcheeba and see Skye. Was that mystery you were mentioning part of why you stayed away from being featured prominently in marketing?
We're quite shy people. Skye was quite shy at first, now she enjoys being on stage, but she still gets nervous. We still have to drink a couple of tequila shots before we go out there, especially if there's a big audience.
You don't seem to stop touring. Is that your favorite thing to do with the band?
We absolutely love it. We've been doing it a lot. We've traveled about 75,000 miles recently. We traveled to China, North Africa, South America. For us, it's great getting paid for things so exciting and adventure-like. We just drink it up. We're very lucky people.
After 22 years of Morcheeba, have you envisioned what the next 20 years will look like for the band?
I know that we want to work really hard as a band for the next ten years. We're still relatively young, and music is a thing that people in music tend to do less as they get older because going on tour is quite demanding physically. But there's plenty of examples of people who have kept doing it into old age, and I can't imagine us doing anything else. It's nice to spend time with your family and friends too, but for the next ten years, we want to pop out some more records and tour as much as we can and then we'll take it from there.