Britpop Popped: An Interview with Ex-Mansun Frontman Paul Draper
Paul Draper discusses a variety of topics from his early years in Liverpool to the acrimonious split of Mansun to his visit to the unofficial capital of all things extraterrestrial.
The last time Paul Draper toured America was in 1997 as the frontman of Mansun—a band that, when not confused with a certain cartoonishly dressed shock-rocker, is best remembered by Stateside audiences for the panoramic post-Britpop single "Wide Open Space", which received some modest college radio airplay. But back in the UK, Mansun were a much bigger deal and a curiously polarizing phenomenon. Their debut album, Attack of the Grey Lantern, a loose concept record that featured a cast of absurd fictional characters and also took a few choice swipes at the Catholic church, rather infamously knocked Blur's self-titled album from the #1 chart position. And while Mansun never again scaled the same commercial heights, the band has enjoyed a devoted, cultish following over the years, thanks to both Attack and the head-spinning, Nutcracker Suite-sampling follow-up, Six. The latter record arguably paved the way for the commercial breakthrough of millennial prog-rockers, Muse.
On the eve of his long-overdue return to the States—this time as a solo artist—Draper sat down for a wide-ranging interview covering a variety of topics from his early years in Liverpool to the acrimonious split of Mansun to his visit to the unofficial capital of all things extraterrestrial.
Take me back to the beginning. Was music important in your house when you were growing up?
I was born in Liverpool in England, and if you're born in Liverpool, you're indoctrinated with the Beatles from birth. You have their albums in your house and that's what happened to me. My parents weren't musicians themselves, but in the '60s before I was born, the Liverpool scene was the greatest in the world and they were going to gigs and concerts all the time. There were a lot of bands from that era on their shelves from Bread to Yes to Johnny Mathis. But just as important as my parents were my sisters. They were quite a bit older than me, and when I was seven or eight, and they were out working on summer holidays, I would just play their records constantly—Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, ELO, the Pretenders, and very early Gary Numan. If you put my Dad's and my sisters' record collections together, well, I reckon that's how you get Mansun.
So your family really provided the musical education.
You could say that and also we had a show in England every week called Top of the Pops. Every Thursday evening for half an hour, they would count down the top 40. That was the TV show that hooked me and made me really want a guitar. I remember on my 10th birthday, I finally got one.
Do you remember when you got the idea that you wanted to do this as a career?
Right at the start, but I didn't want to be a pop star like a singer. I remember opening a book or album sleeve and there was a picture of the Beatles and Abbey Road with George Martin standing there and my dad was sitting with me and said, "That's George Martin and the Beatles in the recording studio." I asked him how you get into a studio and he told me they only let the best musicians in. Of course, I found out later that wasn't exactly true but that comment sort of drove me. The recording studio was the most fascinating place to me because where else could someone tell a band as good as the Beatles what to do. It sparked my interest in recording.
So your interest wasn't really as an artist. It was the recording.
So how did the artist idea come about then?
I was always in bands in school. I had a karaoke machine, drum machine, a four-track, and synths. All during my teenage years I was completely music mad, and I developed an appreciation for performance. I loved Prince—and he showed me it didn't have to be an either/or. You could be an amazing producer and performer at the same time.
What does that role of producer mean to you?
The first two Mansun albums, I co-produced. All a producer is is someone who gets the record made. You're the driving force in pushing it through in the studio. Most producers come from a technical background. They tend to be sound engineers and have deep understanding of recording. I was a bit unusual in that respect. I was in a band and I went into the studio and said, "I want to produce these records." To be honest, the record company sort of laughed at me. But at least they were generous enough to give us a nine-day tryout. I delivered five songs in that time and I think they quickly realized I could do it. When they didn't throw me out, I just seized my chance. I made three or four of the Mansun tracks that wound up on the first album in a week.
That's fairly unusual for a band to self-produce their debut album for a major label, is it not?
Yeah, I suppose so. Like I said, my favorite artist ever is Prince, and with his first record, he wanted to produce it and be in charge. Just like me, he had a friend who gave him regular access to the studio, so he learned how it all worked. Although I wasn't very technical at the point that I produced the Mansun albums, I did have the drive.
Well, and you need the ear too, right? You're the one ultimately calling the shots—this sounds good, and this doesn't.
To a point. I wish it was that clear-cut. You don't sit in the studio and make all the decisions without asking for input from everyone else. It's a team effort. The jobs bleed into each other, and there's a lot of compromises.
How long did it take in total to put together Attack of the Grey Lantern? It sounds quite big and expensive when you listen to it, though hearing you tell it, it sounds like it was done pretty quickly.
I would say what you're hearing is the mix. I wasn't a massively experienced studio person, but if you can get stuff in there in time and in tune with a decent song, the mixer can work wonders. We always worked with an amazing guy by the name of Mark "Spike" Stent. Spike can take your recording and make it sound like a million dollars. He has a real talent.
I was hoping you could talk a little more specifically about your creative contributions to Mansun around that time. Was this band closer to a true egalitarian effort or was it more like, say, the War on Drugs where it's one guy doing everything on his own? Where did Mansun fall on that spectrum during the first two albums?
It started off more like the War on Drugs where I was the dictator, and it was more my thing. Having said that, we worked with a drummer (Andie Rathbone), and Stove [King] put bass parts in, though I did play [bass] occasionally. [Guitarist Dominic] Chad would add stuff here and there, but I played lead guitar too. So it wasn't totally a one-man production, but I was the driving force. What happened after [Attack] became successful was that the others were unhappy that they hadn't been as much a part of it. [For Six] I brought Dominic Chad in more on the writing side. That was a compromise to keep it together.
Talk to me about the mindset going into an album like Six because one of the things I've always liked about Mansun is that you really took a lot chances album to album. Whether they panned out is another matter but…
Sure. The first album is me saying "fuck the Britpop thing that's going on. I'm just going to go widescreen." In my mind, I was just an English guitar band version of Prince. We weren't following the fashion in England. By the time we got to Six, we realized it was very hard on the road to recreate a lot of the strings and synths, so our reaction was to make a very guitar-based album. Most of the effects you hear are pedals. There's a bit of organ on "Anti-Everything," but it's effectively a guitar album.
Even Six is still very much apart from what's going on at the time. You're sort of off in your own world on these albums. That's why the mindset is interesting to me because here you are operating within a major record company. What kind of feedback were you getting from them as you were putting these albums together?
None. [laughs.] Attack sold like a million copies, but we still weren't a priority. We were basically forgotten about. I know that sounds crazy in 2018 because a million copies is unheard of, but you need to remember that in that year alone, Parlophone, our UK label, put out the [self-titled] Blur album. "Song 2" was a massive hit. And OK Computer came out three months after [Attack] on Parlophone as well. This is 1997 on just our label. Then at EMI, you had the Verve with Urban Hymns and the Prodigy's The Fat of the Land on XL. That was one fucking incredible year. We made money and we were successful, but we were in a sea…
You were basically a tax write-off.
We really were a tax loss! I wrote that song ["Taxloss"] especially for the record label, but they, of course, got me back by putting it out as a single.
So what you're telling me is that while you were successful, you weren't successful enough that anyone who mattered at the label was really paying attention.
Yeah, so what happened was we went out and built a fan base, and then we came back from tour and rented a house in London without having written a thing. We went in and started jamming on the first day. The opening track "Six" was a leftover from Attack called "More." That was all we had to start, and we recorded everything chronologically as we came up with it.
Why did the American version of Six sound so different? [Editor's Note: The American version has a unique running order, different mixes and a condensed track list.]
You know, we signed to Epic in America. They bastardized the first album so they could put "Take It Easy, Chicken" on it, which was kind of a stereotypical brit-pop anthem. When they received the second one, they didn't know what to make of it. If I'm being honest, I think it went completely over their heads.
It's unfortunate what they did to Six in the US.
At the time, it was heartwrenching for us. Epic didn't even support the record after they changed it all. We didn't go back to the States to tour, and we had probably done thirty to forty dates on the previous album. It was a tragedy.
They even ruined the cover art.
I can't say I was [in love] with the original cover art for Six.
What bothered you about it?
It was too proggy, I think. Mansun always had a proggy element to it, but I didn't want to put the proggy cover on it. Are you a prog fan?
I don't listen to any other music that might be classified as prog. Maybe that's why it doesn't bother me – because I have no real context for it since I don't spend a lot of time in that musical world.
I think now with the passage of time it doesn't matter as much. But at the time, it carried some connotations, which pegged the album as out of fashion. Years later as bands like Muse became popular, the climate for stuff like that changed and people became more receptive.
I am curious for your thoughts on a band like Muse coming in behind you. In some sense, one could say they capitalized on what you started.
They just got it right, didn't they? When they came out, they were a little bit Radiohead, a little bit Mansun. But you know, I just think it was the wrong time for Mansun. We were a band out of time. If it had been five years later, it might have been different for us. The music industry is littered with curiosities. Bands get forgotten and then remembered again. Now the 13th Floor Elevators are a seminal band.
Were there specific moments where you realized "this is the end"? What led to the end of Mansun?
I think a lot of it was a power struggle. After the Six album, everything was taken out of my hands. We had a producer brought in from the outside. At that point, Dominic Chad was predominantly running the business side of things for the band. I think it's fair to say that business wasn't a strong suit. If I could give a bit of advice to his younger self, I'd say "just play the guitar, mate."
This interests me because I can imagine the difficulties of keeping a band together over a period of years, especially one with even modest success.
There's nothing in the world like the dynamics of a band. Families are involved. It gets personal. In a sports team, you have a manager and there's a clear hierarchy. In a band, it's madness. You have to get the right people for it to work long-term, and Mansun was just not the right combination of people. I'm over it now, but I was really hurt about it for a long time. By the time of the Little Kix album, I was excluded from all the business meetings. They were actually planning to get another band [together]. They always had their eye on what would happen at the end of Mansun and who would get the contracts.
How did they think they could operate without the singer/songwriter?
Well, they found that out the hard way, didn't they?
Was it your third album, Little Kix, that ended the band?
That album was basically just some demos and bits and bobs that we'd initially rejected. The managers just needed to collect their advances. It's as simple as that. It should have never come out. But me and the guitarist did not work together, so I couldn't have a conversation with him to say "let's get this right." Because we were lost at the record company, they put it out anyway. It had a hit single ("I Can Only Disappoint U"), but in my eyes, that wasn't my album. I was steamrolled into doing it. We were told in no uncertain terms, "you make a pop record or you can fuck off."
That's what the record company was telling you?
Through the managers, yeah. I sort of capitulated really.
I remember listening to the album and thinking that the weirdness that initially attracted me to this band was gone. There was no underdog feeling anymore.
Yeah, it was no weirdness allowed. That was the #1 rule. You have to understand that at the point the record came out, the label in London was pumping out 30-40 projects every year.
Over the years, I had read about friction between you and Stove King, the bassist, but I wasn't as aware of the friction between you and Dominic Chad.
The two of them were buddies. We'd met around Chester to get the band together. It was my thing, and I was writing and producing the songs. I thought everyone was cool with that, but when it got down to it, the other two wanted me out of the way.
But they're out of the industry now.
Well, like I said, they found out the hard way. They were deluded. They thought they were going to get rid of me and go to the record company and say, "Could you bring a session writer, finance it and put it out for us?" I'm sure you can imagine how that went over. They were completely out of their minds.
So how in the world did Kleptomania, the aborted fourth album sessions, even come to be given the state of the band at that point?
After they failed to convince the label to bankroll session recordings, they were told to sort it out with me. In their delusion of grandeur, they decided they were still going to sack me but weren't going to tell me. They essentially wanted me to come to the studio to make a record for them. That's what the Kleptomania sessions were. As soon as I realized what was happening, I walked out. It was dark, and it took me a long time to get over it.
It doesn't sound like there are any relationships with any of the former members except perhaps with Andie [Rathbone].
Yeah, I think Andie was trying to save it. The others didn't want to save it though. Dominic wanted his own record deal. That was it. He wanted to be the star, I think. Professional jealousy and egos. If I saw him today, all I'd say to him would be: "Why didn't you just keep playing the guitar? We'd have been a massive arena band if you'd just played the guitar."
He was good at it.
He was, but he believed I wasn't good enough to be in a band with him. He genuinely believed that. With the first album, it was fine, but things got odd with Six because there was no controlling force at that point.
Looking back on it, do you think it was a mistake to cede some creative control?
I have no idea. If I'd run the show completely on Six, I have no idea if it would have been an incredible success or failure. Looking back now, Six was a great album. Ultimately a cult record I suppose, but I can't complain.
So then there's a fairly long hiatus. You're not really in the public eye for a number of years. What's happening in your life at that time?
First of all, my A&R rep sent me to France to write and produce with Skin from Skunk Anansie. That took about a year of my time. When I came back, the label asked if I wanted to do a solo album. I actually had a bunch of songs written and I suppose I could have put them out, but I looked around and the Strokes, the Libertines and White Stripes were the bands people seemed to care about. Based on the way the industry was and where I was personally and just not particularly seeing myself as a solo artist, I wasn't ready for it. I'd gone from playing Brixton Academy and Glastonbury in Mansun and I wasn't ready to start over again playing for 250 people. My ego needed to deflate a bit. So I bottled it. I leased a space in London for a recording studio and have run it for eight years now. We had Frank Ocean in not too long ago. I always thought I'd do my own project in there and I did—a female singer-songwriter artist named the Anchoress, which I jokingly describe as Barbara Streisand on acid. Her album was actually nominated for best Welsh album of the year.
During this time did you remain a full-time musician?
I've never stopped! I wake up at 10 am in the morning, and I'm usually in the studio by 11 am. That's pretty fucking early for a musician. I still love it.
These upcoming tour dates in the States are your first in over 20 years. How does it feel coming back after being away so long?
Well, I've actually spent quite a bit of time in the States even though I haven't been on tour there since 1997. After I walked out of the Kleptomania sessions, my girlfriend and I flew right to San Francisco, rented a car and spent three months just driving around America.
Where did you go?
After San Francisco, we went to Santa Barbara and then Los Angeles. We traveled to Vegas and then went off the beaten tracks. We ended up deep in the Southwest. I'm a big fan of The X-Files, so the main purpose was to get to Roswell. I love New Mexico. I made the rookie error of shitting myself over petrol or gas as you call it. You think "Ok, I've got half a tank but fuck if I know where the next gas station is." And this pre-iPhone era so I had absolutely no idea. There were some hairy moments but we eventually made it to Roswell. My favorite thing was that they painted the street lamps as alien heads. I loved that. All my lyrics for this solo album actually came out of that road trip. The lyrics are very caustic because I'd just come out of the band and felt massively betrayed. But at least it gave my solo album a clear narrative (laughs). It meant something to me.
Did you make it to Prince's hometown of Minneapolis?
Not on that trip but I came close on our tour of America in '97. We were booked to play First Ave and shortly before we were due to play, [management] called us up and told us we had to go back to England to play Glastonbury. We had to cancel our Minneapolis gig and to this day, I've never made it back. The best show I ever saw, without question, was Prince on the LoveSexy tour in 1988. Him and Stevie Wonder are the closest things to geniuses in music. He could out-dance Michael Jackson, write songs on the level with the Beatles. Prince was off the fucking clock.
One of my favorite interviews of all time with any artist was a Mansun interview. Do you know which interview I'm referring to?
It must be some old TV interview that's been archived on YouTube.
Correct! It's an interview that aired on a Thailand TV station. You know exactly the interview I'm referring to.
[Laughs.] Yeah, didn't we pour water over [the host's] head?
Yes, you did.
Have you ever seen the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show? Ugh, I wouldn't do that sort of thing now. All I can say is that I really was an angry young man…
I have to believe that woman will remember that interview for the rest of her life.
I don't think we made any friends by doing that [interview], but hey, we're still talking about it now.
Every time I watch it, I can't help but imagine what you all did just prior to going on air. Would you say, as a band, you were more or less interested in extracurricular activities compared to other artists at the time?
I mean, c'mon, fucking hell. Let's cut the crap. The amount of sex and drugs that were going on was off the scale. I was pretty much a square in it all.
Do you think your band was unusual in that regard?
No, not really. Maybe. Louise Wener of Sleeper, a Britpop band we supported, wrote an autobiography and in it, she said the only things Mansun were interested in were cocaine and groupies, or something along those lines.
Was she being unfair?
[Laughs.] Really, who am I to argue with Louise Wener?
Photo courtesy of Chuff Media
Paul Draper supports Steven Wilson on the following dates.
24 April – Washington DC,
25 April – Philadelphia, PA, The Keswick Theatre
27 April – Boston, MA, Berklee Performance Center
28 April – New York, NY, PlayStation Theater
29th April – New York, NY, PlayStation Theater
1st May – Chicago, IL, The Vic Theatre
2nd May – Chicago, IL, The Vic Theatre
3rd May – Milwaukee, WI, Pabst / Riverside / Turner Hall