It’s hard to believe, but Big Boy Bloater’s cracking ‘Luxury Hobo’ only came out this year. I’ve lived with the album since its release and it remains one of those rare albums that, despite the dark tone of some of the lyrics, never fails to put a smile on my face thanks to the sparkling music and witty invention that it so frequently demonstrates. A wide-ranging musical mix that is loosely tethered to the blues, ‘Luxury Hobo’ offers much more than just one genre as the live shows that took place earlier in the year so ably demonstrated. Thus, it was with some glee that I grasped the opportunity to interview Big Boy Bloater about the recording of the album and the ensuing tour. Of course, ringing someone up and asking for “Big Boy” is something to be approached with caution (not least because there’s a chance you’ll get a call back from the police shortly thereafter), but fortunately it was Bloater at the other end of the line. Down to earth and possessed of the same sparky charisma that drives the album, Bloater spoke at length on recording, inspiration and the importance of a varied taste in music – read on and enter Big Boy’s swamp…
Hello, I hesitate to say this but I’m looking for a Big Boy,
Err, yes, it’s Bloater speaking. How you doing man?
It’s not often I have to phone up someone and ask that sort of question…
Yeah, well, you know…
To kind of roll things back (which’ll probably have you rolling your eyes)…
No that’s cool…
When I listen to ‘Luxury Hobo’, it’s a really varied album, albeit one that came with a slightly misleading press release that placed it very firmly in the Blues genre…
…I know that you were influenced by your parents who were heavily into music, but I was wondering what started your personal journey into discovering the styles of music that appeal to you the most?
Well, yeah, I think like a lot of people, you’re introduced to a lot of things by your parents and your siblings and that sort of thing, but you then wander off don’t you? You take that as a starting point and you then wander off here, there and everywhere. I don’t know what’s really driven or guided it… I think as I got older, my musical taste has got wider, definitely, and that may have gone off in strange directions at times. I have always tried to look for good, honest stuff. There’s so much… I hesitate to say crap, but a lot of it is crap around today, and I think that’s possibly why I’m still looking back to a lot of music form the seventies and stuff like that – there was a lot more to it back then, it was much more real.
For me (I believe you do a lot of music journalism as well as playing), for me, you’re exposed to a lot of music every week via email and what have you and what I look for in any artist is not what genre they’re tethered to but whether there’s a sense of passion that informs what they do and I think that’s really important…
…and that’s what attracted me to ‘Luxury Hobo’ which, as I understand it came out of three years of writing and what was quite a dark period of your life…
Yeah, well I actually… the actual writing of the album was fairly quick, but it was an amalgamation of the last three years and everything that had happened. Quite a lot happened, I guess, so it was actually quite an easy album to right in retrospect. I’m not this kind of guy who will just write some songs every week and see what works and what doesn’t. I’m a deadline kinda guy and until someone says “right you’ve got an album coming out in blah blah, have you written any songs at all?” I’ll suddenly write three songs in a week. So you start drawing on anything that you possibly can, you know, maybe it’s not the best approach…
With that approach, there’s a spontaneity, perhaps, that doesn’t come when you labour over a song for too long?
I guess it’s a good snapshot of what’s going on exactly then. It’s kind of … [line goes dead]
I guess that’s what I get for asking for ‘Big Boy’ isn’t it?! Sorry, I lost you somewhere around ‘snapshot’…
Right, I’ll try to back up and remember what I said [laughs]
Yeah, I guess, writing it all gives you a great snapshot of what you’re feeling at the time. People who write over a few months, or a few years even, I guess your mood can change and things can look different and maybe that’s a good thing, but I think, the way my brain was working at the time does tie the album together very well. The songs may be about different subjects but they’re all coming from the same thought pattern kind of thing.
There is one area where I think that does tether your music to the blues, perhaps. I was speaking to another artist about how, with the blues, you can get these very dark, very honest lyrics which, as you say, reflect a snapshot of your life but then the music can be juxtaposed to that. And so a lot of the lyrical themes can be dark, but the music is quite joyful in a lot of places – so maybe that honesty is why people think of the blues first and foremost when they think of Big Boy Bloater?
Yeah, maybe, I’ve never thought about it that way, but yeah, that makes sense. I think that lyrically there’s a lot of substance there, but I think musically… I always kinda go for the more upbeat kind of… energy kind of thing. I guess it comes from doing a lot of live gigs and thinking “right I want to do that…”
In terms of lyrical content, one of the songs that comes across most strongly is ‘the devil’s tail’ which ties into the modern, social experience quite powerfully.
Yeah, I wrote that song because I was watching a TV programme about people throwing themselves off houses just to get some attention, and the stupid things that people do and… for what? It just seems like madness, but that’s the world we live in these days, right?
Maybe a flip side of that is the title track of ‘Luxury Hobo’ blues, where (and maybe I’m interpreting it wrong) on the one hand we have more items or what have you than ever before and yet there’s an emptiness that seems to be growing as those items replace society…
Yeah, I think that the more stuff you pile in, the more you realize it doesn’t count for a lot. That’s just the way our modern society is. I guess ‘Luxury Hobo’ is the most inward looking song on the album for me. It’s very much about my life and the great things that have happened… and you know some of the bad things and how I’ve dealt with them and how I deal with them now and still take the medication, you know?!
Is it difficult, because your lyrics reflect you… is there a part of you that, when you go through the lyrics, wants to leave bits out to avoid awkward questions from annoying people such as myself?
Aaah… Have I ever censored something that I…? I’m not sure I have. I think I’ve probably let everything out of my head that’s come out of my head. I was thinking earlier that I think my song writing has changed over the years. Just getting older and having more experience gives a lot more things to write about, so my song-writing has gone from the sort of cliché, love break up songs that everyone writes to more… stranger, darker things. But that’s because I’ve got more experience and I’ve thought, “right, I can write about something I know…” That’s what they say to do, isn’t it, write about something you know [laughs]. So yeah, the strange workings of my brain.
One of my favourite tracks both live and, thanks to a really interesting video, is “It came out of the swamp’, which has that really cool Lego video clip, and I was wondering how that came about?
Well, a few years back when I reached a terrible point in my life, as I was dragging myself out of it (and friends and family helped me out quite a bit), one of the things I started doing was Lego animation. I got hold of some old Lego and just started doing it, just as a kind of… therapy. Keep my brain bisy and to have some sort of outlet. So when I wrote the song ‘it came out of the swamp’, that was about the time that Lego had done a little swamp-monster creature, so I had to go out and buy that, and it was a match made in heaven, so I locked myself away in my room for six weeks and animated the video.
The album, as we discussed earlier, is very varied and one of the things that I hear in there is a kind of fifties, surfer vibe – the Cramps, Dick Dale – was that surfy, reverb-laden sound something you were deliberately edging towards?
[Laughs] Well, not consciously, but you know, I’ve certainly been into a lot of that stuff at points of my life and I think one of the first songs I ever learnt how to play was ‘human fly’ by The Cramps, I was at school at the time. So I don’t think it was consciously in there, but I’ve definitely played and enjoyed that music over the years. And I thin, when people listen to the album they generally pick out the things they recognize, you know, so you may hear a bit of that and someone else may hear something else, but that’s kind of a nice way to put it I think.
I’m always very interested in song composition and influences, and I remember reading an interview with a metal band (I think), who basically said something along of the lines that if you only listen to one genre, you’ll always be an imitator, whereas if you listen to a wide variety of music, you’ll end up with music that is interesting and endures. That’s something, I think, that really comes through in your album because it draws from such a wide variety of different elements.
Yeah definitely, I very much had both feet in that fifties / sixties thing for quite a while, actually, before I decided it was time to move on. And with the LiMiTs, the whole idea was to be able to do anything and not be tied to a genre or a style or anything. Just letting it flow, whatever came out. I am trying to very much keep myself out of going down a cul-de-sac, so not looking back, just looking forwards.
Another thing that seems to be a bit of a fetish at a moment, is that you’ll see musicians with a huge array of guitars, pouring over boutique gear in guitar magazines and the like, but from what I can gather from what I’ve seen of you on stage you’re not at all precious about gear beyond finding something that’s comfortable to play.
Yeah, I’m not a guitar collector really, or a gear collector, or obsessed with pedals or EQ-ing or whatever. For me it’s just a tool. I’ve got one guitar that I use, basically. It works for me at the moment, does the job and it’s not so precious that, if I fall over drunk on it, that it’ll cost me a lot of money to replace but it’s good enough to take a beating every night and stay in tune. People are really into that, that’s cool… I kind of admire it, but I don’t understand it, I just tend to glaze over when people start talking about how many winds on the pick ups they’ve got or what size strings… it’s just a guitar to me, it’s just something to… thrash out music on.
Have you had an opportunity now, as it’s almost a year since the album was released, to look back on what you’ve achieved and to start thinking about what’s next?
Um, yeah… Kind of. It’s interesting. I think ‘Luxury Hobo’ still has quite a lot of life in it and I think there’s still work to do. But my mind is sort of turning to thinking about another album. But, I’m still kind of in love with a lot of those songs, so it’s a strange one. I never really like to plan songs. I’ll jot down bits of lines and phrases every now and then, but I try not to write too far in advance. I’m probably champing at the bit to start writing again, actually, but I think there’s a lot of life in ‘Luxury Hobo’ and it’s still got some work to do.
It’s possibly a product of a time we live in because in the past you may well have written the album and then not done anything for years, but now it seems there is this expectation that you’ll put something out all the time.
Yeah, I think that albums get used up very quickly these days, definitely. I think, going back to when I had the break down, that was just after I released the last album which was ‘the world explained’, and because of getting myself better and taking some time out for myself, it was three years until the next album, ‘Luxury Hobo’, and I think that was probably a little too long, actually, in this day and age. People forget about you very quickly, so it’s a real balancing act there – how quickly to bring out an album without treading on the toes of the last one or leaving it too long and everyone’s lost the vibe. Maybe Mascot should advise me on that…
You’ll probably get some threatening email telling you to record the album immediately now…
Yeah “we want it next week!”
When it comes to the album, I believe that the albums up until ‘Luxury Hobo’ you produced yourself, and then you went with a colleague, Adam Whalley – was that just to free yourself up, or was there something in his expertise that you particularly wanted to harness?
Yeah, both actually. I’ve always produced albums myself and tried to be on both sides of the glass at the same time and I’m kind of OK with that, I don’t mind doing that. But I think this time, I really wanted to let go and just play and see where it took me. And I think working with Adam as well, he’s quite a young guy and he’s got a rock vibe going on but he has got a very good musical knowledge, so I just wanted to see what he could bring to it as well. I’d already done some work with him and I could see he knew what he was doing and I thought he could probably give me some good ideas. It’s nice to have someone to bounce an idea off, rather than just go in with what you think is right. It’s nice to be able to say to someone “what do you think, should we put an extra guitar on this?” and then have them say “yeah, and what you could do as well is…” It’s nice to have that input and make them do all the hard work I suppose.
But at the same time, as a songwriter, it can be very difficult where you’ve got a fixed idea in your head and then someone comes along and says “yeah, well, that’s cool but it would be better if you did this…” and you’re sat there thinking “yeah, you might be right, but bastard!”
Yeah, songs are very… they’re like children almost aren’t they? It’s like someone telling you your kid’s ugly! I had done some fairly detailed demos and given them to him, so I think he had time to think about changes or what was good and what we should be doing more of, so it wasn’t just going in cold. SO, it was good to have that soft introduction to the material.
I suppose it helps that he’s someone you know and not someone who’s a total stranger in the control room barking orders and production tips.
Yeah, he wasn’t cracking the whip or anything and he definitely knew my previous albums as well, he had a good grasp of that and we knew each other and we’d worked together before, so it was all very comfortable. I think there was just a really relaxed vibe in the studio, it was just hanging out really, which is the way I like it.