Way More Than Six Questions For ... Wreckless Eric

Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby: He only had to go to Hull to find her.

If Elvis Costello was the King of the Stiff Records crew and Nick Lowe was the Prince, then would that make Wreckless Eric the jester? It might be accurate -- Eric (Goulden) certainly never achieved the widespread success or acclaim of his labelmates, and he was certainly known to have a good time up on stage. But it would also be a criminal underselling of one of the punk era's great characters and underrated songwriters. His first single, "Whole Wide World," a ragged, two-chord rocker, ended up being his biggest hit, but Eric's discography is littered with highlights, even if some of those records can only now be found in the darkest corners of your local vinyl warehouse. Those first two albums on Stiff are perfect complements to the work being done at the same time by Lowe ("He was built to last," Eric says) and Costello ("Elvis was really ambitious. He was overtly and dangerously ambitious, I suppose"), a little less cerebral and a little more fun, highlighted by his thick cockney accent.

There was nothing even resembling clear sailing after those first few years, though. Stiff Records went down the tubes, he recorded with a handful of new bands that were as unpopular as they were great (read: very), had a nervous breakdown, recovered and kept plugging away with music. His even penned an autobiography, the aptly-titled "A Dysfunctional Success." He's doing well lately, though, personally and professionally. He's married to American singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, "pop's sweetest cynic" and a cult figure in her own right, thanks to her '80s band the Shams and also her solo work, particularly 1996's "Diary of a Mod Housewife." It didn't take long for the two to join musical forces and the resulting album -- released on a revitalized Stiff Records -- has the kind of funny, smart and charming garage-pop gems you'd expect from the pair. I talked to Eric from the couple's home in France before they set off on their current American tour which brings them to Jammin' Java Thursday night, where they'll play songs from the new album along with highlights from their respective careers.

How did you and Amy meet anyway?
We met in a pub in Hull. Hull is a really kind of rough town in the Northeast of England. I went to art school there in the early '70s. And I was going back there to play. And I met Amy because she was playing the night before and the promoter asked me if I would DJ at this gig that Amy was doing. He said, "And you get to meet Amy, she does 'Whole Wide World.'" And I said, "Yeah I'd like to see it." So I came and I DJ'd and I got there late and it was all a bit confusing and I sort of vaguely met her. And then she played and she did "Whole Wide World" and the promoter pushed me on to do it with her and we did "Whole Wide World" together and it was very funny. Yeah. Then I didn't see her for a few years, really. A couple of years. And then I'd see her and one or other of us would be kind of involved which was always a bit of a nuisance. Because I really liked her. I had an admiration of her in every way. Eventually we did get together over in England again. But the pub in Hull was where we first ever sang "Whole Wide World."

So the first time you met her you were up on stage with her and then didn't see her again for a year?
Yeah, that's it. Then we did eventually get together.

Was it natural to want to play music together or did that take a while?
Oh no, that was right away. Amy was doing a tour over in England and I was doing some tour and then my tour ended up in the same towns as her and having nights off and stuff. And we got to see each other play and got to hang out and then eventually Amy came to see me at my house and kind of never left. She came over, she had the day off and the next day she had a gig so I took her along to the gig and she got me to play the guitar a bit with her. She would do her hair and put rollers in and put a headscarf on and then we'd get in the car and drive to London and on the way she'd take her rollers out and get some hairspray out. (Laughs.) I thought, this is great, this is just like hanging out with Tammy Wynette!

Amy's first album was her biggest success and your first single was your biggest hit. Does you feel like you both have been fighting uphill battles since you started?
Well we've been on the slippery slope ever since. But I don't think "Diary of a Mod Housewife" is necessarily Amy's best work. I think she's been pretty consistent all the way through. I mean, I haven't. But my best work is actually completely unknown.

What would you say is your best work?
The Beat Group Electrique came out on New Rose in 1989. And that's a great album. It's very strange. It's quite lo-fi, it's fairly live in the way it's done and very stripped down. The drums -- it's a cardboard box with a tambourine, it's this percussive thing the drummer played. I did all the vocals on it live. I really like those songs. They meant a lot. I'd been through a bad time before that. I had a nervous breakdown and I was getting better from that, recovering from that. It's just got such a lot of truth in it, really. But it's not that well known.

I was going to ask you about the Len Bright Combo, which has been an absolute favorite of mine since a friend introduced me to it a couple of years ago.
That was me and Russ Wilkins and Bruce Brand of Thee Milkshakes. Yeah, everyone hated it. They hated it! They were like, What the [expletive] is this? Is this a joke? One of the reviews said, "Rumor has it they recorded this album in a village hole. Next time they record an album one would hope they would put the microphone inside the hole with them."

To me it just sounds really real.
It's great, innit? Another part of that same review said "The Golden Hour of Harry Secombe" was the musical equivalent of making mud pie. And another one said something about, "I've had more fun at a petrol sniffing pajama party." People hated us. The first times we played there were people queuing up to get out. There was one gig where we started off with a full house and ended up with about 15 people left. And they became our fanbase. This was a London gig, one of the early ones. There was a queue to get out. People were asking for their money back.

What were they expecting?
They either wanted Wreckless Eric or they wanted Thee Milkshakes. We weren't either. We were the Len Bright Combo. Someone said, the thing is you've got all these great songs and you're throwing it away with this crappy group. Other people wish they could have what you have. And I was like, I've got nothing and I've got nothing to lose. I thought it was great, it was primitive.

You've got Bruce Brand playing drums, come on!
Oh, he's one of the best! I always said he's a perfect cross between Ginger Baker and Ringo Starr.

"Whole Wide World" - Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby

(Much more after the jump, including lots of good stuff on the old days and Stiff Records.)

So the new album is on Stiff and I know that Stiff's not exactly the same Stiff as it was 30 years ago, but it still must be a nice full-circle thing to be back on the label you started out on all those years ago.
Absolutely, yeah. The way the album's come out in America ... no one would put it out because we had a tour booked already. And we're like, OK you've got six weeks to put the album out. And so it was only going to be available on import but then we got a distribution deal in place and we're just putting it out with no sell-in period whatsoever and [expletive] 'em all. If they can't deal with that that's their problem, but this is how it's going to be. And we just took off with it. And I think that's so kind of early Stiff. It's worthy of Jake Riviera at his best.

You've gone on record saying that dealings at the end of your original tenure with Stiff led you to quit music for a while.
Well Stiff Records started off great, right? And then basically there was a split between Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. And I think Dave saw the possibilities of money and advancement and I think he changed. Because from all accounts he was a very decent person at the start. But for me, he turned into something quite monstrous. One minute we were having a great time. We were taking the piss! We were taking the piss out of the music business! We were being so rude, arrogant, funny. Then suddenly all the people we were taking the piss out of they started working for the company. So you had someone who worked for Phonogram Records. I mean Phonogram! It was the [expletive] stodgiest label in existence! Even though it had Thin Lizzy and Graham Parker and the Rumour and all of that, but still, it was a stodgy label. You only had to look at the label copy on the record. Not very funny this lot, they take it seriously.

Suddenly someone from there is working for it and someone from Charisma, who put out Genesis records, they're all working for Stiff and suddenly it's playing the game. So it was a complete about face from what it had started as. And these people, you'd say, "Well things are very difficult I can't pay the electricity bill." And they'd say, "Well just hang on in there, hang on in there, it'll be OK." And so I'm hanging on in there and they say, "We're all in the same boat here." And then I'm noticing the other people aren't hanging on in there. They're all [expletive] getting new cars and moving into flats that they bought and these flats are turning into houses that they bought. And I'm thinking, I'm still [expletive] hanging on in there. And there was never any accounting. It was dubious.

It was like these people, they ended up with such inflated egos they thought that the record company existed because they were the stars of the record company and that was what the record company was about, the staff. A record company ain't about the staff. People didn't buy Beatles records because it was EMI, because they were fans of EMI. You could say Stax Records, well, it's a Stax record, I'll like that. But they knew it was going to be good because of Booker T and the MGs, because of Isaac Hayes. These people at Stiff, they really thought the label was all about them. Artists were just treated like [expletive]. (Shrill noise in the background.) Hold on, the kettle seems to be boiling. Oh, OK, Amy's got it. So it was a very unhealthy situation.

"Take the Cash (K.A.S.H.) - Wreckless Eric"

You had a reputation as a drinker and a big partier. Was that accurate, played up by people trying to give you an identity, or a bit of both?
There were problems I did have. I am a recovering alcoholic. I haven't had a drink for 23 years. I'm OK. But yeah, I used to drink a lot. And a couple of times I [expletive] up and arrived on the stage paralytic drunk. That's happened to lots of people. It wasn't very good and sometimes you might be a bit lit up, but most of the time I was just doing what I do and I was quite good at getting together. You were dealing with idiots at Stiff Records those days. They would start talking about you and saying this, that and the other. Say, Oh he's our resident drunk. He's a drunk. When a re-release came out it had a quote from one of the people who worked at Stiff describing me as a "drunken loony." And this came out just after I'd had my breakdown and actually being in a mental hospital for a while. I stopped drinking and shortly afterwards I had a mental breakdown. And then I come out and there's a record that comes out saying, "Originally he seemed to be quite happy with his drunken loony image." So yeah, they played it up. People just felt the need to explain it away. But everyone was off their faces, what's the problem?

You were a bit of a musical wanderer for a while, jumping labels pretty frequently. How was that experience?
It was very frustrating, all of it, really. The big thing at the time was the '80s happened. And I think the '80s was a [expletive] catastrophe. Politically, socially, stylistically, in every way possible the '80s was a catastrophe. For western civilization it was probably the worst catastrophe there ever had been. I think it actually changed the English character. English people became negative, self-seeking, mindless survivalists. Even music became fascistic. Dave Robinson had slogans like "Money Talks, People Mumble." It was embarrassing. For me at that time it was starting to be embarrassing to be on Stiff Records. But it had been embarrassing for a while. "When You Kill Time You Murder Success." And I don't want to [expletive] hear it. So yeah, it went right through me. You got that kind of fascistic big drum sound. Live Aid, Queen at Live Aid. And people said how marvelous it was. But [expletive] me, it looked like Nuremberg rally!

I guess that helps explain why people hated Len Bright so much.
Yeah, but we hated everybody. We hated the record company. We stopped a concert once in London, we were playing with Wilko Johnson at the 100 Club. Wilko was in the Feelgoods. We were the opening act. Wilko was being touted as a hot ticket then and the A&R men were all there. And this guy from EMI's sitting in front and I said, wait a minute I [expletive] know you. You're an A&R man, aren't you? And he said, that's right. So I said, what label are you from? And he said, EMI. And I said, well, you could [expletive] off! You can [expletive] off out of here, we don't [expletive] want you sitting in front of us! We don't [expletive] need it! It was like shooting yourself in the foot but I can't describe to you how much we despised the music business. It was all [expletive] some big cocaine party. These people were [expletive] airheads, a lot of them. Just airheads. It was about shifting a lot of [expletive] units. There was no humanity in it.

What do you think about what's happening to the record industry now?
Well, a record label can't actually exist unless it's interested in shifting units. And I've learned that the hard way as an artist. You don't want to be with a label that doesn't shift units. (Laughs.) But there are degrees of doing this kind of thing. The people whose whole motivation is just shifting units, they could be selling Corn Flakes or plastic pipes or anything. They're not the people that you want to be with. They don't understand. They will compromise everything you do shift a unit or two more. But there are other people who don't. I think it's gotten much easier, the music business. I talked to the editor of one of the music magazines in England the other day. He said, I've got your album here. I said, Well do you think we'll get a good review? Is there any chance? He said, Of course you will. Everyone loves you! And I'm thinking, that's about face! Because I remember when it felt like everyone in the English music press hated me and they hated me because they hated Stiff Records by that time. They felt let down.

Do you think there's a nostalgia factor?
For people like me it works in my favor. I get 16-year-olds getting in touch because they've heard "Whole Wide World" because it was in "Stranger Than Fiction." "We think you're music is way cool, man!" Yeah, but, you know, when you see me you think, Who is this old git? (Laughs.) I don't know if they'd be disappointed when they find out I'm 54. And I've got gray hair. I've got my own hair, but it's gray. I'm not the young popster that did "Whole Wide World." But I can still do "Whole Wide World." I think I do it better than anyone else.

By David Malitz |  September 24, 2008; 11:01 AM ET Interviews
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cool interview!

Posted by: vincey | September 24, 2008 4:16 PM

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