Neil Fraser - Author of 'Long Shadows, High Hopes' talks to paulie
I have to start by saying that I remember distinctly walking into Selectadisc in Nottingham and they were playing Uncertain Smile...I had to ask who it was even though I had a Some Bizarre album with a The The track on. “Where have you been?” the staff said, (It hadn’t been out long... ) almost too ‘Hi Fidelity’.....my point is that song had a definite impact on my life... Are you a long time fan?
Pic Link - TheThe.com
I was never what I would call a big fan of The The. I was aware of the name from as early as 79-80 through seeing gig ads in NME/SOUNDS. To be honest I always (wrongly) thought, for whatever reason, that he was going to be akin to a Lloyd Cole type act. The first record I heard was the Mike Thorne 12" mix of Uncertain Smile which used to get played at a club-night I used to go to when I lived in Blackpool. This would have been 1983 I guess. I came across 'Soul Mining' via my sister who was (still does) living in Nottingham at the time (1984). I put the record on and was surprised to hear 'Uncertain Smile' (thus finding out what it was called), though it was a different version. I think I bought the album myself some time later. Fast forward to 1986...I was now living in Sheffield. The 'Infected' album and singles seemed to be on TV a lot - particularly 'Heartland'. This album was a big deal at the time, probably due in part to the Channel 4 screening of the 'Infected' film. I was very bored of guitar-based music by this time and had started going to clubs in Sheffield that were playing funk, soul, electro, hip-hop and the first house records. The only non-dance music I listened to that year was stuff like ACR, Quando Quango, New Order and the 'Infected' album. Within months however I was only listening to house, Detroit techno, funk, jazz etc. So by the time 'Mind Bomb' came out I had lost touch with The The and this album and the ones following completely passed me by.
Interestingly, Matt said right from the start that he was happy for me to do the biography because A) I wasn't a music journalist B) I wasn't a huge The The fan. I think he felt that this meant he could trust me and my motives. Although I like his music, and 'Soul Mining' and 'Infected' were records I bought at the time, I was interested more in Matt's story. I came to the book as a writer rather than a music writer - if you get my drift.
You’ve answered in part, I was going to ask how the book came about was Matt looking for someone to tell the story or did you approach him - I imagine it being very therapeutic for an artist recalling events, did Matt Change a memory or two as he remembered things along the way? Was it a book that fought you? You mentioned being a writer was that - is that fiction?
I approached Matt. Originally I was just going to interview him for a different project. I had written a book about the history of what is now the borough of Newham in East London, which I had to get together in a few months in time for the 2012 Olympics which were, of course, hosted (mostly) in that borough. This was a kind of commission for Shane Billingham of Function Records who decided he wanted to branch out into publishing [he has since published a book about Post Rock, though the name of the author escapes me].
As this book was done at breakneck speed I didn’t have the time to talk to local residents and so was planning a follow-up which would I evolve just that. Matt’s dad was first on my list, and I met Matt at the same time. Anyway, I think he and his dad liked the piece I wrote on him for a website and Matt also agreed to an interview. At this stage I assumed someone had already written a book about him but in my research quickly found out this wasn’t the case. As I was so familiar with his dad’s story (I had read Tales of the Two Puddings, which Eddie Johnson wrote and Matt published) and learnt a bit more about Matt I thought he would be a good subject for a book. At the end of our interview I just came out and asked him if he was interested and to my surprise he agreed.
We met for a coffee a week or so later to discuss an outline plan I had and our ideas tallied. We had a lot of similar reference points in terms of music and culture and politics so I think this reassured Matt that he could trust me. I learnt later that if I had asked him a few months earlier he probably would have said no. So in a way it was just good timing, or serendipity. He put me in touch with a lot of people. Without his introductions many of them would not have spoken to me I believe, so this was very useful. The book took longer than I wanted, mostly because of my day job as an FE teacher during a bad time for my department at the college. And having two young children. I was always mindful however the book would come out at the right time and luckily he decided to go out on tour again so there was a bit of a mad few months rushing to meet the final deadline.
Timeline…I think it was summer 2013 when I first proposed the idea to Matt. I started writing/interviewing in 2014. So it took 4 years or so.
For the first couple of years I saw a lot of Matt and we conducted a lot of lengthy interviews that covered his childhood and early The The career up to Soul Mining. Then Andrew died so I left him to work through that for a few months and then I had some problems at work so things slowed down for around a year. I didn’t actually get to do any interviews with him (well, apart from a brief one) after this. I did have access to his archive however. In Autumn-Winter of 2017 I started sending him the book chapter by chapter so he could check facts and we got into a system where he added his memories/stories/details etc in a different coloured font and I kind of edited these into the text. It was quite a tricky process as it was hard to keep track of versions, but it was the only way we could do it as he was too busy to sit dow and do interviews at this stage. We did a final long interview over the phone. To tie up loose ends that December. I didn’t get to interview Johnny Marr until December 23rd when we had a three hour phone conversation - so there was a lot of folding new information into the original text.
Matt has an amazing memory and could rattle off the tiniest details about all his guitars and synths over the years. I don’t recall that he changed anything, other than remembering a small detail slightly differently - but these were factual things. He is perfectionist about detail! I thought he might ask me to remove certain things but there was only two things - each only a line long and they were about other people. I was happy to oblige. He was very generous in this regard, allowing me to pretty much write what I wanted, though we had discussed certain issues and he knew that I wasn’t into digging up dirt/scandal or whatever and had no intention of making anyone look foolish.
Being a writer (rather than a music writer)…my original plan years ago was to write fiction and I still want to follow this up. I keep getting the opportunity to write books I know will get published however, so a bird in the hand and all that. I am researching another music book but not a biography which is too much work when you have other commitments - plus there isn’t anyone whose story I think is interesting enough who hasn’t already been written about.
Book Cover pic link - Neil Fraser Twitter
Can I ask you about you? As I understand it your still teaching, but your clearly passionate about your writing, when did that start?
I started writing when I did an English course at Sheffield Polytechnic (1985-88). Writing skills was part of the course - in fact the only bit that actually appealed to me. I mostly went to Sheffield to escape Blackpool. It was then a big music city so I thought it would be a better place to be. Turns out I had a bit of writing ability so I was encouraged by my tutors. Wanted to study journalism but couldn't afford to do any more studying and to cut a long story short I spent a few years on the dole - this was the North during Thatcher's peak and you probably know jobs were hard to come by. Made my way down to London (via Nottingham) and worked in a betting shop for 5 years, then a mail-order book club for 4-5 years before I was made redundant. I did do a bit of unpaid freelance music journalism in 91-92 when I firts got to London, for a long defunct magazine called Outlook, but gave up trying to make any headway as paying the rent was priority. I've been teaching in FE since 2001. I was initially asked to help cover some ICT teaching for a month and here I still am - now teaching Health and Social Care. When I lived in Stratford, (East London) I used to go drinking with Shane Billingham who runs Function Records, and he knew I had an interest in the history of the area. When the Olympics were awarded to Stratford I guess he started getting ideas at some point because in October 2011 he made the suggestion that I write a book about the local history and weave in a story about the Olympic bid and what it would do to the area. That's how my writing career started really. My second child had just been born and my first was only 3 years old so I was a bit unsure, but Shane is a real - "Fuck that, let's just do it" kind of a person so I said if he was mad enough to start a publishing imprint I would be mad enough to research and write it. The actual writing was done in 3 moths of very late nights and a few weekends. Not sure how I managed it really!
I never particularly wanted to be a teacher. I went to one of the worst schools in Blackpool so had no desire to end up at one as an adult! But here I am...education is fucked these days, for all kinds of reasons, but i'm sure you don't need me to tell you that. I do - mostly - enjoy spending time with my students, who often lead incredibly difficult lives, but the rest of the job I can't stand, and as such my experience of the education system (as opposed to education) has been the same as an adult as it was as a child - very negative. It's also bloody hard work! As jobs go however I do feel that I am doing something worthwhile
Finally Neil were you able to say 'it's finished' easily on this project? And I'd love to know what's next for you?
All the time I was working on the book I was conscious of the fact that Matt might finally get back on stage again or start recording new material at some point and so this was always the ideal end-point as it would make a more satisfying narrative and at the same time suggest the story/narrative is ongoing. This is of course what happened when Matt announced the comeback tour, though I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for a while before this and so it caught me on the hop a bit and it was a bit of a manic few months getting the final version finished. This was complicated by the fact that originally the publisher gave me what I thought was a somewhat meagre word count and I had to cut over 50,000 words from my working draft. They then relented and by this time Matt was inputting a lot of stuff about his later albums, his time in New York, Sweden and return to London. So the word count ended up a lot healthier, though the early chapters of the book had quite a lot of text that had to go, which was a shame in a way, but as it was about his parents and his early years it made sense to cut here rather than elsewhere.
So - yes. It was easy to say, “it’s finished” as the comeback tour was the perfect point to end. Having said that, there is more of the story to come from what I discussed with Matt and we would like a paperback edition with an extra chapter. I feel Matt’s story is a very interesting one and of interest to music fans in general, not just fans of The The. Any decision on a paperback is down to the publisher however.
In terms of is it finished from a writer’s perspective - well I expect most writers would say they would have liked a bit more time to polish things a bit but deadlines are deadlines and Omnibus had been pretty flexible with a deadline for around a year so it wouldn’t have been right to insist on any more time and it made sense to have the book on the shelves at the same time as the tour started. Based on the very first meeting I had with Matt to discuss how I envisioned the book as a narrative (and he agreed with the plan I sketched out) I would say we got 70% there - not bad in the grand scheme of things. What has pleased me is that the feedback I have received from The The fans who have read the book is overwhelmingly positive, and as a writer I couldn’t ask for more.
And that is why I enjoy interviewing writers Neil, thank you so much!