Henry Priestman first appeared in the UK New Wave/Power Pop act Yachts. The band released two full length albums and a collection of singles before splitting up in 1981. The band is perhaps best known for their song "Suffice To Say", following Yachts Priestman co-founded the group It's Immaterial. He then went on to play with the group The Christians. In 2008 he released his first solo album Chronicles of Modern Life on Stiff Records, which received great critical acclaim in the UK and was then picked up by Island Records for a major label re-release. He is currently working on a follow up to Chronicles.
The following interview was done between myself Dave Konstantino (host of Revolution Rock) and musician Henry Priestman. In the interview Henry discusses his time with Yachts, his post-Yachts bands and his current musical projects.
RR: What was it that inspired you to start making music? Were there any artists in particular and what are some of your favourite albums?
HP: Ever since hearing The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Tamla, Stax etc as a kid I knew I wanted to do something to do with music...my mates were buying comics and I was buying Disc & Music Echo, and NME..I thought I would probably end up working in a record shop (remember them?). Started playing guitar aged 14, then when I left school I decide to go to Art School (as all the bands I loved seem to have an Art School link - again Beatles, Who, Kinks etc), thought it would help me get into a band. Which is what Yachts were: the archetypal Art School band, all 4 of us were in the same year at Liverpool Art College (John Lennon’s old Art College).
Clive Langer, who was in the 3rd year at college when I was in 1st & in a Warners band called Deaf School, was the first person to say to me, “why don’t you write your own songs?”...Clive would go on to be a very successful producer on both side of the Atlantic, with number ones with Madness, Dexys, Bush etc. So I suppose he, and Roger Eagle who ran a very influential punk/New Wave club in Liverpool “Eric’s” are the ones I credit for getting me into this biz.
With Yachts we were listening to all those Nuggets bands, and scouring the remainder bins for obscure 60’s psych and garage albums, then trying to write in the same style (musically) and occasionally covering obscure 60’s bands (Look back in Love Not In Anger was originally by Bay State band Teddy and the Pandas). Lyrically we tried to make it very English, which ironically possibly worked against us in UK, but had the opposite effect in US.
RR: Before you were called Yachts, various members of the band played in Albert Dock, even opening for Sex Pistols at one gig. What prompted the name change and where did the name Yachts come from?
HP: Well, Albert Dock was a bit of a crazy, quite theatrical Art School band with around 8 members, mostly doing obscure covers...then we decided we should perhaps take it a bit more seriously, slim down the band, write our own stuff and therefore a name change seemed to be the next step....Yachts just seemed to fit the image, visually and lyrically, that we’d decided on.
RR: How did the band come up with "Suffice To Say"? Did the music or lyrics come first and why do you think people respond to that song so well?
HP: I think it was the first or second song I EVER wrote, and I actually wrote it on holiday in France in summer 1976, for my then girlfriend, and 33 years on she’s my wife, and we’re still together (ahhhh!); probably music came before the lyric (nicked the chords off an old Zappa track!)...then, despite the lyric stating “I never wrote a middle 8”, John Campbell (the original singer) came up with a great middle 8, and hence his name is in the brackets too!
Don’t know why people still like it...it gets called “quirky”, and “charming”, and the “cheesey” organ always gets mentioned..I still do it in my solo set (and there’s a new version as a secret track on my “Chronicles of Modern Life” album)
RR: The band always seemed to have a unique lyrical style, how did you decide on using lyrics? Such as on songs like "Suffice To Say", "Mantovani's Hits”, "Yachting Types", "Box 202" etc.?
HP: As mentioned above, we were deliberately trying to write very English lyrics, and ones that really nobody in their right mind would put in a pop song!..when I heard a word like “Tantamount”, I thought, oo that’s a good word to get into a title...but also as mentioned above, it slightly backfired over here in Britain...perhaps people thought we didn’t RAWWWKKK enough!..that said, the live shows were much more raw than the recorded versions (and probably better for it).
RR: What do you remember from recording Yachts first two albums? What was it like working with Martin Rushent as a producer on Without Radar (1980)?
HP: First album was recorded in 2 weeks at Radio City in New York, with Richard Gottehrer (writer of Hang On Sloopy, and producer of Blondie’s first album), so that was just so exciting for 4 lads from the North of England, who’d never really travelled much before...picked up at JFK by a limo, we thought we were “it”!
With hindsight, I think we lost the plot a bit on second album..not Martin Rushent’s fault, he was a joy to work with..songs weren’t as good, I think we were taking ourselves a bit too seriously on that record.
RR: What are some of the bands/projects you worked on following the split of Yachts up until now for example I know that you were with another band called The Christians?
HP: I left Yachts because this “hobby band” I was in, “It’s Immaterial” (re-united with original Yachts singer John Campbell) started being more fun, and more interesting musically than Yachts (even tho’ I wasn’t involved in the writing)...”Itsy” went on to record 2 albums for Warners, and had top 20 single chart success in UK...meanwhile I’d started to learn how to engineer in a small studio in Liverpool: we used this singing troop of 5 brothers (with surname Christian) to sing harmonies on an It’s Immaterial song “Ed’s Funky Diner”, and I plucked up courage at the session to ask them if they’d like to hear some of my songs – 2 couldn’t be bothered, 3 stayed around, and we worked on demos for the next year, and signed to Island records in 1986. By then I was over 30, and had never tasted any chart success, so it was quite a surprise when the first Christians album went straight in to the UK charts at #2, and went triple platinum!
The Christians recorded 3 albums for Island...remind me never to join a band with brothers in it!...by 1994 we’d all had enough...I’d started branching out into music for BBC TV (wildlife documentaries), and also doing sessions/tours with the likes of Echo and The Bunnymen, Ian McNabb, Ian Broudie’s Lightening seeds etc...and also got more into co-writing/production...then in 1999 we, The Christians, reformed for an acoustic tour (and an album) and managed to stay together till 2006 until once again the rot set in (the same with any band..)
RR: How did you come to record Chronicles of Modern Life? Who did you work with on this album (musicians/producers, etc.)?
HP: After leaving The Christians I suddenly thought “what the hell am I going to do now?”...so threw myself into writing and producing mostly acoustic-y singer-songwriter artists in my small studio set-up. On one of these writing occasions I worked with writer Tom Gilbert (who’s around the same age as me) and we just sat around musing on the ageing process (I was then 53) and came up with a song “Old”, which we thought we might try to get to Nashville.
Now, I hadn’t sung since 1981 (Yachts) and had assumed Tom would sing, but as he’s bigger than me, he bullied me into doing it, so the only way I could get through it, was to affect this “bad Bob Dylan”-type voice. Next morning we woke up listened to the track, and suddenly thought “Hang on, this great..this is me singing about my life”..and came up with another 10 songs in a similar slightly world-weary yet still poignant vein.
RR: Where/how was it recorded and why do you think it has got such a good response in the UK?
HP: I produced/engineered and basically played everything on the album, quickly, in my own tiny studio, with a few friends helping out on the tricky stuff (like strings/cello, or a slide guitar solo etc) and the odd backing vocal. This probably helped it sound like “an album of rough-hewn charm” as The Sunday Times called it... I think people liked the honesty of the album, musically and lyrically...and also it seemed to appeal to people “of a certain age”...and it was lucky that some of those people were producers and DJ’s on BBC’s national (and most-listened to station) Radio 2.
RR: Your current music has been described as “music for grumpy old men” by BBC Radio 2. Do you feel that is accurate? How would you describe your music?
HP: Yes, one of the aforementioned DJ’s came up with that phrase...”Grumpy Old Men” was a very successful light-hearted, wry documentary series here in the UK (about the trials and tribulations of getting older), featuring actors, comedians and even well respected DJ the late John Peel, so I didn’t really mind people saying it, if it helped them give me a genre...but I wouldn’t necessarily agree..there’s a lot of hope in the record.
RR: What are you currently up to musically? Is there a planned follow to Chronicles of Modern Life in the works? If so how will it sound as compared to Chronicles?
HP: I’m always writing with/for other people, and have continued to do that, and managed to get a few cuts on albums this year. I actually started on the follow up to Chronicles last year, but what with losing my Mum and a few other things, I downed-tools on the project, but am now ready to pick up the gauntlet again...I think if I’d have finished it last year it would have sounded more like Chronicles...now I want to make it a bit different..I don’t want to bore people with the same stuff again...nobody’s exactly waiting for it, so I may as well make it as good as poss..in the meantime I’ve discovered the joys of live performance (just me, a guitar and a uke) and am loving it!
These days the 'net has opened up things recording -wise so much, and on the forthcoming album (probably due in spring 2012), I've got Probyn Gregory from Brian Wilson's band playing French Horn, and trombone...I never met him, just sent him the tracks and two days later his brass parts came back over the 'net...it's amazing isn't it?...otherwise it's mainly me playing the usual guitar, bass, keys and drums stuff.
This Week's Play List:
1. The Pack AD - Rid of Me
2. The Milkshakes - Jaguar and Thunderbird
3. Modern Lovers - I'm Straight
4. Verdix - Looking Around
5. The Calling - The World
6. The Unusuals - Hit and Run
7. The Singles - T.V. Deceives
8. It's Immaterial - Driving Away From Home
9. Yachts - Yachting Types
10. The Videodromes - Steve Mcqueen
11. Klark Kent - Don't Care
12. Wreckless Eric - Semaphore Signals
13. The Clash - Overpowered By Funk
14. Magazine - Look What Fears Done To My Body (Peel Session)
15. Siskiyou - Keep Away The Dead
16. Elliot Brood - West End Shy
17. Henry Priestman - Grey's The New Blonde
18. Henry Priestman - It's Called A Heart
19. Them - I Can Only Give You Everything
20. The Ugly Ducklings - Girl Out of Time
21. The Kinks - Come On Now (Alternate Vocal Version)
22. Harlem - Spray Paint
23. The Rezillos - I Can't Stand My Baby
24. The Damned - Fan Club
To download this weeks program, visit CJAM's schedule page for Revolution Rock and download the file for August 30. Or subscribe to Revolution Rock as a Podcast.