As the impossibly dapper, fabulously witty frontman of Gene, Martin Rossiter successfully sidestepped the motorway pile-up that was Britpop, sold a million euphoric records and then disappeared from view altogether.
Eight years after Gene hit the buffers, Rossiter returns with his first solo release, the most emotionally eloquent album of 2012. I meet him for a few pints in his Brighton local to discuss his love of a good hymn, the evils of Britpop, bisexuality, depression and his glorious comeback.
JW: What were your earliest musical influences?
MR: I grew up in Cardiff in the 70s. Like most other kids of my age in the area I would attend the Methodist church on a Sunday and sing hymns. I always found the melodies and words very affecting. There’s a certain stridency to hymns, almost a pomposity. The emotions in those hymns are writ large and I like that very much. I still sit and play hymns at the piano. I also enjoy watching Songs Of Praise, so long as it’s not being broadcast from a modern church.
Back then I’d go to a church that was largely populated by burly men who were unembarrassed at belting these hymns out. That’s when I first understood that singing was just something that everybody did. In Wales there was no sense that singing was in any way effete.
From an early age I loved musicals but there were no pop records in the house. My parents were quite old and they’d skipped rock’n’roll and The Beatles completely. The most contemporary album my folks owned was Sinatra's Songs For Swinging Lovers and that never got played. I heard my first pop record when I was nine. The first Top Of The Pops I watched featured 'Something Else' by Sex Pistols. I was completely intrigued by the band’s name, which was quite shocking to me, a clean-living Methodist boy.
I became quite obsessed by the pop chart and would even compile my own chart that involved a very complex points system. I’d religiously record the chart run-down on a Sunday evening. I was the kid in the playground that the others would come to with pop music questions. The first band to really light a fuse for me would have been Adam & The Ants around the time of Kings Of The Wild Frontier. I was completely smitten with pop music from that point. To my way of thinking, pop music is by far the most potent art form there has ever been. I mean, you stick Carole King in the boxing ring with Milton and King will win.
JW: At what age did you decide to become a singer?
MR: It just happened really. After leaving school I drifted through a series of mundane jobs. I stuffed envelopes and stacked shelves. I was in removals for a few months and that was a kind of living hell. I played in quite a few bands before Gene, including a gay disco group called Drop. Then, in the early nineties, I was in a club and was approached by Steve Mason who played guitar in a band called Sp!n. His band had been involved in a road accident where they’d collided with a 40-ton truck, which resulted in the bassist going into a coma. He walked up to me and asked if I could sing. I thought his shoes were quite interesting so I said, “Yes, I can sing,” and handed him my card that read “Soothsayer to the rich and famous.” A few weeks later I went for an audition and became the singer. This was my first proper band in the sense that they’d released records, they had a manager, and they had gigs lined up in London. I felt like I’d taken a Stannah stairlift to the top of Mount Everest. I’d finally arrived. We released one single together as Sp!n and, in 1992, we evolved into Gene. I had no long-term plan at that stage. I was just happy to be swept along.
JW: Throughout your time with Gene, you were routinely compared with Morrissey. How much of a burden did that become?
MR: I liked The Smiths a lot. From an early age, I’d always felt a sense of “otherness” and, to me, The Smiths were the musical manifestation of that otherness. I enjoyed the fact that Morrissey would use language in a way that was very different from any other singer of the time. Morrissey did cast a long shadow and became a kind of shadow that I could never quite get away from. I did get fed up with the comparisons because his name would keep coming up whenever Gene was written about. The comparisons came up because, like Morrissey, I sing in an English accent which is surprisingly rare when you think about it. Like Morrissey I sing with a vibrato. I suppose we both have an interest in the human condition. But, as far as I’m concerned, that’s where it ends.
JW: By the time Gene’s debut album, Olympian, was released in 1995, Britpop was in full swing. Despite the media’s attempts to co-opt you into the movement, you gave it a wide berth. Why?
MR: I felt very uncomfortable with the whole Britpop thing. It was played out under the dirty shadow of the union flag which I always found quite distasteful. I never had any desire to represent Great Britain. At the time I said that I regarded myself as European rather than British. I’m a Socialist and I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with the idea of nationalism because it can be a very dangerous thing.
Looking back, Gene’s timing was appalling. When we arrived, it was a time of Loaded Magazine and Oasis. All of a sudden, misogyny became fashionable. There was a lot of nastiness in the air. You had Noel Gallagher wishing AIDS on Damon Albarn and Alex James. I had Liam Gallagher calling me a faggot to my face. A few years earlier all of this would have been considered completely unacceptable. But everyone seemed to be turning a blind eye to it.
I felt we had nothing in common with all those Britpop bands. There were modern British references in our songs but I always tried to steer clear of going down the Mary Poppins version of Britain because that sort of thing is a load of crap. Also it never existed in the first place.
JW: I imagine you weren’t a big fan of Oasis.
MR: There was a lot to dislike about them. They obviously lacked craft but Noel did have this knack of writing a chorus that had universality to it. I remember lying awake in bed around midnight in the autumn of ’95 and hearing these drunken men swagger along the road singing 'Wonderwall' as though their lives depended on it. They were singing as though the song was dripping in meaning and, quite clearly, it isn’t. But the melody does have some primitive emotional tug. I think it’s a truly horrendous song but I can appreciate the fact that some of their songs contained these big headline feelings that people connected with.
JW: How rock’n’roll were Gene in terms of excess?
MR: I was never into drugs though I did like a drink. In 1995 we played close to 300 shows, which included tours of Europe, America and Japan. I stopped drinking for a while around that time simply because it was beginning to affect my voice. In terms of groupies I’m sure there were the odd moments of mischief but we weren’t exactly in Hammer Of The Gods territory. You certainly wouldn’t have found us throwing television sets into hotel pools or any of that nonsense. If you consider rock’n’roll to be some kind of artistic expression and rebellion, chucking a TV set out of a window is the antithesis of rock’n’roll. Some poor sod has to clear that mess up afterwards. It’s Thatcherite behaviour, the living embodiment of self.
JW: Anything you regret about that period?
MR: I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying about whether my hair looked OK. Apart from that, it was all very enjoyable, particularly the live shows. I’ve always loved being on stage. I’ve never taken ecstasy but I imagine that it creates a similar feeling to the one you get when you’re singing in front of a few thousand people.
JW: Around this time it became known that you were bisexual. Was this an issue that you made a conscious decision to go public about?
MR: I wasn’t remotely interested in a game of hide and seek with the media. I’d have considered that to be a betrayal of the people who’d gone before me and fought for gay rights. I couldn’t be doing with some long running “is he or isn’t he?” debate because that would have been profoundly boring. I didn’t want to be Michael Stipe or Morrissey. Admitting that I was bisexual didn’t harm me in the slightest. In the main my sexuality was irrelevant to the songs.
JW: You had the reputation of being something of a fop. Yet you weren’t adverse to letting off a bit of steam. Didn’t you once head-butt Paul Kaye (TV’s Dennis Pennis) in a nightclub?
MR: That would have been 1997 or thereabouts. He was being extremely rude to me and physically aggressive. I was a little drunk. So I head-butted him and he hit me very hard in return. Then the fight was broken up. I wasn’t quite as foppish as was made out. Some people had this idea that I was this uni-dimensional type who would spend all his time lounging at home on a faux leather armchair reading a first edition of Dorothy Parker, which wasn’t exactly the case. I mean, it wasn’t unknown for me to enjoy a good football match.
JW: 1997’s Drawn To The Deep End is often described as Gene’s darkest work. The songs on that album would certainly indicate that you were no stranger to Churchill’s black dog.
MR: From the age of eleven I’ve suffered from dysthymia, which is a relatively rare form of depression. It’s also known as double depression. It’s a unipolar depression so the lows are much lower and there are no ups as such. I was only properly diagnosed at the age of thirty. I’ve pretty much whipped it now. I’m more balanced and content than I have been in a long while. I’m wary of saying too much about depression as I don’t want people to think, “Here’s another person from a band banging on about how miserable he is.” But the songs on Drawn To The Deep End do address that condition and they do reflect the times in which the record was made.
JW: 1999’s Revelations album took a more political turn. Was there a specific reason for that?
MR: From my teens I’d had this burning rage against what I saw as injustice and I felt a need to do something about it. But I’d never felt skilled enough to write good political songs like Billy Bragg who, for me, is like Real Madrid compared to Bob Dylan’s Scunthorpe United. It’s a dangerous area to step in because it’s very easy to get it terribly wrong. It’s difficult to write a political song without sounding like you wear a tweed jacket and stand on an orange box. Around that time I was reading a lot of political biographies and trade union histories. I felt impelled to address politics in some way in the songs. I particularly loathed Peter Mandelson who I felt was placing the wreath on everything that I held dear.
JW: There’s a theory about Gene…that everything led up to your 1997 headline gig with full orchestra at the Albert Hall and everything led away from it.
MR: It’s a terribly convenient thing for someone to write. The Libertine album came out in 2001 and I’d argue that was our best work. In terms of commerciality, the theory does hold some water because we started selling fewer records and tickets after ’97. If we’re talking creatively, it would be wrong to say that we were on the slide after that time. In 2000, we got dropped by Polydor. I put out a press statement saying that, by the time we got to Gretna Green, Polydor had already disembarked at Crewe. I didn’t want “Gene dropped by Polydor” to be the headline. There was a big sea change at the label. Suddenly they were only interested in hits. It had become completely business-orientated.
JW: Why did Gene disband in 2004?
MR: I decided to end it. I called a meeting and told the others I didn’t want to do it anymore. The reasons I gave were truthful. To make another album would have required a commitment of time I couldn’t give. Our money had run out and I’d started working as a music teacher. I had young children and they were a priority. Beyond that, I really didn’t want to do it any more. No disrespect to the others but I didn’t want to work with them any longer. I couldn’t see that we were going to make better records. I was just so tired with it all.
JW: Didn’t you all get back together to play at the 100 Club in 2008?
MR: That was for our ex-manager’s 50th birthday party. We performed five songs and that was it. There was no thought of reforming the band, certainly not as far as I was concerned. A lot of people have brought it up as a possibility but it’s not something that interests me. Not in the slightest. A lot of people would be interested in it for nostalgic reasons. We could sell out Brixton Academy in no time at all. We could certainly sell many more tickets than I’m selling on my own. But who would be interested in Gene doing anything new? Every other band, including Stone Roses, has reformed and they’re all money-grabbing bastards. Shame on the lot of them.
JW: But you do accept that people have to earn a living?
MR: Absolutely. Earn a living by all means. Go and do what I did. Get a job. Earn a living my arse! I used to quote Stone Roses as the one band who wouldn’t reform. I was led to believe that Ian Brown was a man of principle. He always cited that principle as the reason for not reforming the band. As someone who is deeply passionate about pop music, I was heartbroken when they announced their comeback tour because the only reason they’re doing it is commerce. It’s moral-free racketeering. They’re selfish bastards, the lot of them. Pulp, Blur…they can all fuck off to Butlins. I feel a genuine sense of betrayal when bands reform for the money. For me the real art of pop music is something like capturing a Polaroid of a moment. To keep returning to that Polaroid rather than try to do anything new, that to me is selfish and shameful.
JW: Ian Brown’s divorce has proven to be very expensive, I gather…
MR: That’s no excuse. There are no excuses. I had this argument once with Jonathan Ross when we were on Never Mind The Buzzcocks together. He’d just done an advert for The Sun and I cornered him about this backstage. He just shrugged and said, “Everyone’s got to earn a living”. He’s a fucking millionaire. He doesn’t need to do adverts for The Sun.
JW: But you do accept that Ian Brown is never going to become a bus conductor?
MR: Why not? Besides, he’d never have to do that. Ian Brown will make enough money off PRS to live comfortably for the rest of his life, certainly by my definition of what comfort is. He’ll come off this world tour and find himself a multi-millionaire and it’s wrong. Unless he’s planning to give all his money away, which is a bit unlikely.
I don’t like many Paul Weller records but I do respect him for saying that his kids would literally have to be destitute for him to think about getting The Jam back together… At which point I should announce that Gene have reformed and will be doing three nights at Pontins next month. (laughs) No, seriously, I would never do it.
JW: It is said that Gene sold more than a million records. True?
MR: A million is about right, I’d say. Not that we made much out of it. From 1991 to 2004 my average yearly income was ten grand. At the very peak of Gene we were paying ourselves £1000 a month each. There was no gross financial mismanagement involved. That’s just how these things work. We self-financed our final album, Libertine, which didn’t sell too many copies, and we ended up completely skint.
JW: How would you sum up your time between the end of Gene and the release of your first solo album?
MR: I’ve been working in further and higher education, teaching music and songwriting. I’ve also been working with disadvantaged kids. It’s been magical. When Gene came to an end I felt an enormous relief, mostly because someone was prepared to give me a job and I found that I was good at it. There have been moments when I’ve missed being in a band. When you’re in a band you have other people with you, people you can go to and say, “Weren’t we brilliant?” or “wasn’t that astonishing?” without feeling egotistical. That’s the only thing I miss. I have no-one I can share that with who are as much a part of it as I am.
Mostly though, I’ve missed the process of writing songs and having them heard. People might ask why it has taken so long for me to make this new album and the simple answer to that is that I wanted to get it right.
JW: How would you sum up the current state of the music industry?
MR: The interesting question for me is how the models that currently exist in the industry are going to impact on the music that is going to be made. Firstly there’s the democratisation of the means of production of music. What that means is that you can borrow your mate’s Mac, get a crack copy of Logic Audio and make a record that might well end up in the charts. But there’s a problem with that in that it’s only applicable to certain types of music. You can make a wonderful drum and bass record or any music that is predominantly electronic. However, if your ambition is to make a record that requires the recording of live instruments such a piano, violin or French horn, you run up against the fact that the technology that exists is unable to replicate those sounds. If you want those sounds, that becomes, comparatively, a very expensive record to make. If you’re running a record company and you’ve got £20k to invest, are you going to put the money into the band who’ve demo’d up some big, orchestral masterpiece? Or are you going to invest that money in ten artists who are making equally brilliant electronic music that will cost next to nothing to record?
So we’ve got a situation where the industry is favouring electronic music whereas the live industry is currently favouring more traditional meat’n’veg bands and acoustic music. Electronic music is a much harder sell visually in a live context. So we’ve got this two-stream industry that is rather unfavourable to both methods of production. If you’re an acoustic musician with a vision for an album with a string quartet and oboes but you happen to be too cripplingly shy to perform live, where is your home? Nobody is going to pay for that recording. Then there’s the electronic musician who probably will get someone to punt them a couple of grand to make their album which everyone will steal off the internet but they might not be able to perform it live because they are unable to make it visually exciting.
I don’t really see any other endgame other than that all music will become muzak. The people who are serious about music and who will actually sit down and listen to it is already a dwindling minority
JW: Your new album is being sold via the hands-on, direct-to-fans platform of Pledge Music. What made you decide to take this approach?
MR: I’d be misleading people if I were to declare that I decided on that option from the beginning. The truth is that I went looking for a record deal. Not many companies were interested and no company cared enough to sign me. The fact is that I was a singer in a quite successful band a long time ago. I haven’t been around for eight years. I haven’t been popping up in the press every five minutes to talk about my back catalogue. I’ve been getting on with my life like everybody else. On paper that is not a very attractive proposition to a record label and I understand that.
I’ve gone for the fan-funded model of releasing music and there are some aspects of it that trouble me. I struggle with commerce. When I was initially talking with Pledge I looked at thirty or so other acts on their site and was shocked and dismayed at what I saw. Take Martha Wainwright. You can actually buy a pair of her promotional pants for $20. She’s selling signed CDs for $50. She’ll call you up on Skype and play a song to you for $200. She’ll come to your house and play a full set for $20,000. Then there’s Ben Folds Five who will charge you $400 for a signed lyric sheet and $2500 to include your name in one of their songs. There’s someone on there charging a small fortune for a lap dance. You start thinking, “How much would they charge for a three-minute fisting?” Because that’s what they’re doing to the consumer. I find the whole thing really distasteful. I suppose commerce at any cost has become acceptable.
During my first meeting with Pledge, they were full of ideas. “You could charge a thousand quid for doing this…” Well, what if I don’t want to?
I had to seriously question not only the pricing of what I was selling but what I was actually selling. In order to make another record I have to make money but there are certain things I won’t do. I’ve been offered silly money to sing at people’s weddings but I’m just not that person. I just will not whore myself out.
JW: What made you decide on a voice/piano format for the songs on your new album?
MR: I’ve been playing piano since the age of five. The reason I decided on piano and voice for this record was that I wanted the songs to be completely candid. You can’t hide when you’ve got a voice and one instrument. When you’re working with other instruments and other musicians you can make a good record out of a mediocre song. OutKast’s 'Hey Ya' is a good example of such a song.
JW: The songs on this album sound like emotional autobiography, drawing on various chapters of your life.
MR: That’s it, exactly. With the exception of 'Darling Sorrow', which is a made-up narrative about a couple who meet on Beachy Head, these are autobiographical songs. Compared to some albums I suppose it could be described as downbeat. But it has its optimistic moments. 'I Must Be Jesus', for example, is one of the cheeriest songs ever written about childhood depression. It could easily be the theme song to a musical about that subject. It’s got a kind of vaudevillian swagger about it, with a Welsh male voice choir thrown into the middle.
Only now do I feel confident in saying that I consider myself to be a really good songwriter. I genuinely struggle to think of any songwriters who have been so emotionally blunt and yet made something quite as beautiful as 'Three Points On A Compass'. It’s quite obviously a song about my dad. I can’t think of any other song that offers a critique of their father. He’s alive and I haven’t seen him for years but I hope he hears it. After I wrote it I couldn’t sing it for three months. Lots of men are estranged from their fathers and it’s a whole area that pop music, to my knowledge, hasn’t touched upon. But the response I’ve had about that song from men has been astonishing. I’ve been told by men that this is the only song that has ever made them openly weep. For some men, trying to make things right between themselves and their dads is like attempting to bridge the Pacific.
JW: What are your commercial expectations for this album?
MR: Quite honestly I’ll be heartened if it sells more copies than the number of people who came to see Gene play at the Albert Hall. That’s roughly 5000. I don’t mean that in an “I deserve better” way. I mean it in a “music deserves better” way. This album is unlikely to put gold discs on my bathroom wall. But I want to carry on making music. I’d rather that I was putting out albums than most people. I simply have more to offer musically than most people out there. I sit very comfortably among good artists and I’m not talking about Jools Holland here.
JW: Any final thoughts?
MR: With The Defenestration Of St. Martin I set out to make the greatest album ever and I believe I’ve succeeded. This is my favourite album, ever, with the possible exception of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
The Defenestration Of St. Martin is available via Pledge Music.