Interview with Mark Gardener

Mark Gardener from Ride talks about the new LP he and Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie recently made, 'Universal Road.'

Ride and the Cocteau Twins – two iconic bands, each with an unmistakable, unique sound. You could call them legendary, with a fan base no less devoted than they ever were. Ride has reformed and is touring again, playing festivals and small venues, to ecstatic fans. The Guardian gave their live show five stars and said that the band “plays…with the care and passion of musicians who made – and still make – an emotional connection.” Meanwhile, Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins has been touring as a trio and demonstrating his mastery of the ethereal, powerful sound that made the Cocteau Twins so special. Now take Mark Gardener from Ride and Robin Guthrie, and put them together in a room in France, to work on songs together. The end result was Universal Road, the album that they recently released together. Lyrically emotional, sonically euphoric, the combination of their energies reveals a shared musical passion that’s melodic and complex. Shoegaze may be experiencing a resurgence of interest, but this album both encompasses and transcends that energy. Whether you were devoted to these bands back in the day, or never heard of them, the album is an unmissable listen, with a timeless quality that looks towards the future. Northern Transmissions wanted to hear the story behind the album. Alice Severin spoke with Mark Gardener about working with Robin Guthrie, life after Ride, and the unexplained.

Northern Transmissions: How are you and where are you?

Mark Gardener: I am in Oxford at the moment, I’m back in the studio, just doing little bits of mix work between all the Ride shows, and stuff like that. Obviously doing interviews, and just being close to home, things like that. My other life. My other world. (laughs)

NT: You have a studio there?

MG: I have just a small mix room in Oxford, it’s my kind of thing, it’s not like a commercial big studio. It’s just where I do mixing and production and overdub stuff. I don’t have bands here, or anything, it’s not like that. If I do that, I use a different studio in Oxford or somewhere else. This is just my own little thing really.

NT: How did you start working on the album with Robin Guthrie? What gave you both the idea of doing something like this?

MG: Well, we’ve known each other for years, really. We used to see each other on occasion back in the day, when he was in the Cocteau Twins and I was in Ride. Robin worked with some bands that we toured with, Lush, and people like that. So… At that time I was a big fan of the Cocteau Twins, in fact Ride were big fans of many of the 4AD bands. I think if we’d not been on Creation, we’d have liked to have been on 4AD. So there was always that kind of mutual respect in place from an early time. I have to say that one of the very early CDs I bought was Treasure by the Cocteau Twins, I think it was like my third CD that I bought. So yeah, basically that was then. Robin came to Oxford to do a tour, he was doing a tour of picture houses, I think it was a Lumière tour that he was doing, for one of his records where he was playing music to visuals. Basically, I went to that, and I was asked if maybe I wanted to DJ there, although that didn’t really happen. But we did end up just going and having some food together, and properly having a chat. Maybe that was 8 years ago. It’s quite a long, long time ago. It was then that we sort of said, because we were both doing quite a lot of mixing and production, I’d obviously been doing quite a lot of collaboration work with various artists and people. More of that will come out soon as well. But basically it was there and then that we said, I’d like to come out to France, maybe we should try and do something together.

So maybe a year after that, I went over to France and that’s when we did the single which was called “The Places We Go” which you can find online. It was just an online single, a sort of test the water thing between us. Then we got a lot of positive response from that and we both thought it was really good, and it worked quite well, my voice with Robin’s orchestration and stuff. Then about three years ago, or a couple of winters ago anyway, Robin said, look, I’m going to go on tour with my band, he tours a three piece, just doing his instrumental stuff. And he said, come over, let’s try and do another song or two. And then basically we can do that live on stage as part of the tour. So I went back over, and that’s when we did “Dice” together, which we did play live at the end of all of those concerts. We did a UK tour during February, which was quite a tough tour but it was great to play with him and the band. And then we said look, we’ve got to try and get together and do an album, because it’s worked really well.

A few months after that, I went over to France. And we got another four or five songs together very quickly, within 10 days I guess. And I just said, look, why don’t I just stay, and let’s carry on, you know? And sure enough, in another couple of weeks, just me staying in France, we did the album. So the album actually happened pretty quickly. But it was just finding…we’re both really busy doing production stuff, which is obviously how I’ve been, how we’ve both been paying the bills, post being in the Cocteau Twins and Ride. It was just tough trying to find time and space within our schedules, because obviously we’re not being paid to do this, it’s just something we did for the love. So we just had to find that sort of good bit of down time to kind of do it, really. And basically, that’s how it all happened, really.

NT: Did you have a specific idea of the sound you were looking for, or was it more experimental, the process of writing songs?

MG: No, you know, Robin kind of has the sound, you know. I love that sound. Obviously, Robin was the Cocteau Twins minus Elizabeth Fraser, so I understand the sounds that Robin makes, and obviously his instrumental work also, I love that, it’s beautiful. So he has a way of doing things, and he has a sound which I think is beautiful, and I always have done. So I kind of knew that’s what you get with Robin Guthrie and I love that. Neither of us are kind of into plans, or saying look, this has to be a certain way. I think there’s a good, nice kind of mutual respect between us. I really respect what he does, and he obviously respects me as vocalist and song writer, and you know, a guitar player. So with that in mind, that’s how we just sat about, writing the songs. Either Robin or I would come in with some chord progressions, or a half idea of something that maybe you’ve had knocking around, not knowing what to do with it. We’d sit and get an initial sort of song structure together very quickly, and as soon as we had that, then I’d sit back and Robin would do the drums, bass, and electric guitars, and I was ready to do the acoustic guitars. And as Robin was getting the music together, I’d sat listening to it with my laptop, and notepad, and I’d basically be working out some kind of word ideas, really. And I have to say, sitting in that environment, with Robin, as the music was coming together, was very conducive for lyrics, and for me to come up with lyrics and ideas I thought could fit in harmony with the music. So basically, normally by the end of the day, we’d have a bottle of red wine in the evening, or something, then I was usually ready to throw some sort of vocal line idea at it. Then we kind of bounced those ideas around, and usually the next day, or the second day, I’d be trying to get some kind of final vocals happening. It kind of just rolled right out, really well.

NT: There’s a quiet intensity to all these songs. Like “Amnesia” and “Universal Road” seem to have a personal kind of feel.

MG: Yeah. I think we both love the beauty of the sound, of music, how it can take you away, you know? I think there is a kind of intensity there with both of us, because I think we both feel that…it’s kind of strange when you’ve been in a band like Ride or the Cocteau Twins, and then when you’re not in those bands, it’s just weird, how it’s tough. You know, people are always ready to accept Ride, they’re always ready to accept Cocteau Twins, but generally people find it quite difficult to accept the people who played a big part in those bands can do other things. (laughs) You know? And the subject matter is pretty soulful for me. Like “Universal Road” the first song, is about me sitting on the night, with my dad when he passed away. That’s kind of what that song is about. And then, some of the other songs were from conversations I was having with Robin. He’s got loads of books, and stuff all around, on the walls. Just conversations we were having about that, you know? It’s tricky, once you’ve done something, once you’re known for something. So some of the other subject matter is about that, and I think with that there is an intensity, and with that comes a more soulful sounding thing. Because I certainly feel that, I think we both feel that.

NT: I thought the lyrics on the album were very philosophical, in the best possible sense.

MG: Yeah, absolutely. For me, that’s the thing – you’ve got to write about things you know, and that move you. It has to raise emotions in me to sing, to stand any chance of connecting with any emotions in people, you know. And also, that’s what some of the music sort of suggested to me, the way I was hearing some of the music. I think it fits together really nicely. Obviously, we’re both really happy with the outcome.

NT: There’s that beautiful line in the title track that says “I carry you wherever I go.”

MG: Thanks. I guess a lot of songwriters write that song. You know what I mean? About that time. And it’s obviously, that’s a real trip, that people don’t talk about. Obviously we all talk about people and celebrate babies coming into the world, but when people pass out of the world, that’s something we tend not to talk about so much. I knew what was happening, I was actually in that situation, not totally unprepared for that, but with a weird kind of feeling that it was my duty to be there. He brought me into the world. And I think it’s right, although it’s not talked about, if you can be there to help people say goodbye… Yeah, it’s strange. It’s something beyond, and something very powerful. And strangely, though it might sound a bit weird, there’s actually a lot of life and energy in death as well. So, it was one of those…it’s something that, there’s bigger forces at work. So that’s kind of what I was getting at, about yeah ok, the physical body goes, and, in a way, universally those people are always with you.

NT: It’s a powerful line, and emotion.

MG: Yeah. And referring to the fact that the songs will live on, whereas the people who made them won’t. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want to sound morbid, but I think there’s a positive thing in there. I think it’s trying to find positivity out of something that’s really pretty crazy situation, really. But I was glad that I was there. And then you realize when you talk to your family in more detail, then I realized that my dad was there when his dad passed, and that’s the cycle and reality of life. Then ok, that’s even more sensible that I was there. At the end of the day, it’s all good, because you can say that energy is always there, always sort of continues. And that conversation is always there, strangely as well in a way.

NT: It’s true that what you said that people don’t always spend as much time talking about that part of life.

MG: Yeah, and I’m not…when I talk about energy and stuff, I’m not really a religious person. And what happens in the name of religion sort of appalls me, actually. It’s quite topical, especially as I find out about Tunisia and what just happened there. It’s more of a…it’s kind of bigger than that in a way for me. It’s just an energy thing for me. I just think that certain energy comes into you, and certain energy of yours goes with that person as well, so it’s a weird kind of exchange that happens at that moment. Yeah. You know, it’s one of the great unexplains for me, and I’m all right with it being like that. It’s another sort of mysterious thing for me, it’s something that you feel. So again, a lot of things in life I’m quite confused about, and I find quite mysterious. All sorts of stuff. And that’s generally what I’m singing about, is more my confusion than somebody that has answers. (laughs) You know what I mean? And even though you get older and you get better at dealing with certain things, there’s still a lot of confusion out there, and that stuff is what I generally sing about in a way.

NT: Listening to the album, you get a sense of questioning and thinking about things, rather than some conclusion.

MG: I think it’s good that people find that solace in believing in god and all that, that’s great. I’m happy for them. But too many people killing in the name of god, and I just don’t get that at all.

NT: It’s crazy, and tragic.

MG: Yeah, well if that’s what believing in what your god is telling you to do, then I just don’t need that in life. My dad was a scientist as well, so I guess part of that is involved as well. There’s a kind of slightly more, logical ideas, and stuff like that.

NT: Being open to questioning, but also being analytical.

MG: Yeah, in a way yeah. I think people make …You know what? For me god is in the nature, nature is incredible and mindblowing. I don’t believe in immaculate conception…I mean, I don’t want to get too into this(laughs) but I think a man and a woman make babies, and I’m good with that. And I’m sure there was someone called Jesus who loads of people listened to, who was a very interesting dude. But I see it more in terms that I can understand, rather than all the immaculate stuff, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. They were dudes. (laughing) Interesting people to listen to, you know. Anyway.

NT: You lived in France for a while, but now you’re back settled in the UK. And Robin Guthrie is still in France. What do you think is the appeal of France and what’s good about being back in the UK?

MG: Well, I think – from Robin’s point of view, he’s got a French wife, so they live there. For me, I just kind of ran away, post-Ride. My life got a little bit, my house was like a nightclub. I think, post-Ride, I found it really difficult and I probably tried to… I think when you’re used to a life that was a wild and adrenalin fueled as Ride, then when that bubble’s burst afterwards, I think it’s strange. I tried to party a lot, do lots of things to try and keep the buzz going a bit. And then you suddenly realize that the house is now a nightclub, and I’ve got to stop this crap and get out for my sanity’s sake. I’ve maybe always had a bit of a romantic idea of running away to the wilds of France, and finding a new life there, and then happily ever after, which didn’t quite happen. (laughing) I mean, that was my thought process then. And at first, I had some friends in France who I was at art school with, some really good friends, who I met at the same time as I met the Ride guys. It was a place I used to go to during the Ride days and it always refueled me. You know, when I felt everything in life was draining, I just spent some time in the wilds of France, in nature, in the middle of nowhere really, and I just found it really just great to put something back in the tank. And some of the Ride songs I wrote about that, like Medicine is about partying with my friends in wild chateaux in France and just feeling medieval and mad and crazy, so it’s great. I don’t know. I thought it would be a good place for me to go and I thought that would be exactly what the doctor ordered, just to give myself some time and space to kind of get peace with my past, and just to realize that Ride was what it was. Just to chill out a bit, really. (laughs) And for a couple of years it worked really well. I always went to India during that time for six months, and then I spent another few years in France and it kind of started…I think I’d gotten all the good I could putting myself in the middle of the wilds. And then I started to travel, I felt good about playing music again, and started the acoustic shows. I spent some time in New York, in Brooklyn after being in France, as you do to rebalance. The extreme countryside to extreme city life. Which is great too, that’s why I’m kind of, at the time when I did my solo record, These Beautiful Ghosts. That all kind of worked. I think France is the opposite of England in many ways, because England a smaller place with so many people. You can still find places to be in the wilds a bit here, but it’s quite crowded, Britain. France is the opposite, because it’s a kind of massive, maybe two and a half, three times the size of Britain, but with half the population. I love the nature thing, it was good to be away from it all for a while. So that’s the appeal of it for me. I see it as a second home in a way. I even managed to learn to speak some French as well, which helps. (laughs)

NT: Ride has reformed now and you’ve been playing shows. Is this project with Robin Guthrie something that’s going to go on alongside of Ride? And do you think that doing the album made you rethink playing with Ride, or did it all happen at the same time?

MG: For the last three years, I kind of felt that Ride, I didn’t know for sure, but after a lot of years of thinking Ride would probably never play again, in the last three years, I started to realize that it would probably would, once the stars had realigned a bit and things had cleared with what we were all doing individually. But when I did that record with Robin, I wasn’t thinking about a Ride reunion. Also, the album came out and I realized that I was going to be touring. We did that three weeks with Ride when we were going from Britain to America to Canada, it was pretty full on. So I just waited for that initial period to calm down a bit before I could properly start talking to press, and doing what I’m doing now to help the Guthrie/Gardener album, because I think it’s a little bit lost in the, you know, in the shadows of what was going on with Ride. I hope, it depends really what happens with the album. We love working together, and I’m sure we’d love to do more. But, look, I don’t think either of us are expecting this to be a bit hit, Robbie Williams type album. (laughs) We understand that, we both feel that it’s quality and we hope that word of mouth can work. And we’ll know, because at a certain time, I’d love to do some live shows with Robin, even if they’re smaller shows, playing songs from this album, I’d love that. And if we can get to that place, I’m sure then we’d consider making another record. But we believe in the quality of the record. We’re both out of pocket from doing it, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t think either of us is doing what we’re doing to try and make lots of money. I think we both gave up on that idea years ago (laughs). Because it’s like the music industry these days is not the place for that. But we love what we do. It’s an artistic project to us. If I can keep ticking along, doing music and cover the bills, and keep things intact, then I hope to continue to do that. And for me, that’s success. I don’t have big expectations on anything, because I think you just always end up disappointed. And it is tricky, these days where everybody shares files, people don’t really buy records, it doesn’t make a project like me and Robin that easy. If we can do enough to know we’re not losing from doing this, then I’m sure there will be more.

NT: It would be great to see a live show with the two of you. But it’s true, the music industry has really changed.

MG: I still buy CDs, you know. I’ve got a studio, and if I love bands, I’d still happily buy CDs. But I think I’m few and far between. And it’s weird, you know. I was thinking about this the other day, it’s like when you think about the festival culture now, and festivals basically used to be free. And the bands would play free festivals, so that people would go and buy their records. Because they realized if they played to a lot of people, the chances were that they’d go and buy their records. That’s a total turnaround on that now. Bands play festivals, they get paid pretty well, which helps them live, or whatever, and then obviously now people aren’t really buying music, they’re sharing files or whatever. And when you think about 20 odd years ago, there used to be a filter, which was labels, you had to pass a certain sort of standard in a way to be considered, invested in to make a record, because of course it was expensive to make a record, you had to go to a studio. Of course, people can now do that in their bedrooms. And that can be really good, I didn’t think a lot of the filters in the old days were right anyway, a lot of people got it wrong. At the same time, it means everyone is releasing records these days. My postman’s just released an album. (laughs) But I think a lot of people are realistic. Like some of the bands I work with. They don’t want to be pop stars, but they’ve always wanted to get together and make a great record. That’s quite good. I think sometimes when people are a bit too concerned with being stars, or famous, or something, it’s really just stupid. The whole cult of celebrity to me is just ludicrous. So I think some beautiful records are made by people who have no desire to be a celeb, or something, they just have got songs and things that they want to say, you know?

NT: And five albums that you return to.

MG: Albums that I always return to. Well, let’s think. Some albums that I’d always return to would be like Scott Walker, some obvious ones I guess. Like I’ll listen to a Beatles album now and again, Stones. But some of those obvious to me, rock pop people who just are always there. Just thinking in the last few months, I bought the Beck album, I’m a Beck fan, I like what Beck does. I bought Death Cab For Cutie who just did a festival with Ride, where they played before us, I really like that band as well. And I just bought the Leftfield album, Alternative Light Source, which came out over here. Leftfield, I was a massive fan back in the day. The more dance sort of side of things. I think there were some real pioneers in that, like Orbital as well, made musical interesting beat records. Obviously, there’s a line there from something like Kraftwerk, which I’ll come back to as well, which I love. And also, I love people like Yann Tiersen for the more French style instrumental style stuff. I listen to a lot of classical music as well, and Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain, albums like that. I never tire of listening to those. Yeah, even Cocteau Twins would fit into that, for me. There’s loads really, when I think about my CD collection, it’s huge, and very eclectic. Beach Boys as well. As soon as I think of one, I think of another ten.

But I just think music as a whole is something that I’m madly passionate about. It’s a really powerful force. I really believe in that, and I think that’s something we have in common in Ride, we all like music, music freaks. Beyond that, Robin Guthrie is the same, I realize I’m doing music with other people who are music enthusiasts as well, great musicians. I think it all feeds each other, in a way. And the great artists can be inspired by all of that stuff, and then turn it into something of their own. Create their own environments. I think that’s the challenge, is to do something which is rich and strong enough to create its own environment. And to hopefully be interesting when there is so much music. There’s a hailstorm of new bands now. It’s tough, obviously, to still stand out in that hailstorm. But I love that challenge, and I love writing words as well, so I think if you can marry those two things together well, that’s still my drive, I just want to keep creating and writing, keep writing about all that confusion.

Interview by Alice Severin

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