Zoe Howe is a music writer, editor and drummer. She has recently completed and been out and about promoting Wilko Johnson’s bio Looking Back at Me. She is also responsible for the acclaimed Slits bio Typical Girls? and How’s Your Dad?, Living in the Shadows of a Rock Star Parent (both published by Omnibus). Zoe was kind enough to indulge eyeplug for the AuthorQ over the period of a few weeks. Many thanks to her for her patience and good humour.
01 The reviews are in and the Wilko Johnson bio Looking Back At Me appears to be a big hit. How would you describe your role in getting the book happening and were there any challenges in convincing Wilko to agree to it?
Yes, the response so far has blown me away! Fantastic. Makes it all so worth it, it’s very exciting. It seemed to be the right time for a Wilko book – a photographer called Jerry Tremaine had taken a lot of pictures of Wilko in recent years and had initially spoken to me about the idea of getting a picture book off the ground; oddly enough just before then I had been saying to my husband Dylan, Wilko’s drummer (we’re all one big happy family!) that it would be great if there was an actual Wilko biography… cutting a long story short the two ideas eventually kind of came together, as it became clear that there was an opportunity (not to mention an appetite) for something fuller and more multi-dimensional. Wilko always says he wasn’t particularly involved at the beginning but he was always very generous with his time and allowed me to interview him on numerous occasions, during which I would often ask seemingly rather strange and random questions just to get off the beaten track and see where it took us! I maintain he’s one of the few interviewees to whom you can say in all seriousness: ‘What’s your favourite cloud?’ and not get a funny look from. He’s just straight in there, “Well, it has to be cumulonimbus because…’ Ha-ha! Nothing off limits, nothing too surreal or seemingly unrelated… I think we were a good match for this project, looking back!
Plus he allowed me to go through all of his old boxes of photos and treasures, poems and lyric sheets; it was like a treasure hunt and was so fascinating. Lots of lovely contemporary images in there too, so Jerry’s work is well-represented in there too. As I say, it was a real opportunity to do something quite off the wall and try to reflect Wilko as fully as possible, in all his multi-faceted glory…
02 What about publishers? Once the word was out it was happening was there much leg work involved?
We didn’t do it in the usual way – instead of going with a book publisher, which is how my previous books have been published, we actually went with Cadiz Music, who produced the fantastic Julien Temple Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential. Cadiz were very on side with the subject matter, of course, and because they aren’t a book publisher per se we were free to really shape something unique and beautiful, and Richard really helped to push it forward into something that was as good as it could be. It was also the first time really that I’d had the opportunity to get quite as involved with the visual side as well as the text, which is written more as an oral history than a conventional biography as I didn’t want to get in the way of Wilko’s narrative beyond shaping it and so on and so forth.
It was amazing to have the freedom to go a totally different way, which appealed to my inner Heath Robinson. It often felt a bit like… ‘Hmm, what happens if I pull THIS lever?’ ‘What happens if I weld this bit to THIS bit?’ Ha-ha! Great fun. And leg work? More than with any other book I’ve worked on, in some ways!
Also, because of the Cadiz link, I had the opportunity to work with the excellent designer (and damn fine drummer) Chris Musto, who had worked on Oil City, and he was great to work with, very simpatico, made the book look gorgeous and, again, it’s a rare opportunity for a writer to be able to work so closely with a designer on a book project like that. With my first book, Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits, I had a bit of input and I suppose was a tad bossy with the images I wanted and the cover, as it had to be right and bring out their colours, so to speak – you only get one go, although generally there are limitations as to how much you can really contribute once you’ve handed over the text. However, with this project I was able to really work out what I wanted where in many cases and work with Chris and develop it with him.
I really wanted the book to start and finish with the moon (a reference to Wilko’s love of astronomy) and I remember going down to Southend every month to try to capture a beautiful full moon over the water (I never managed it, but I found a photographer on the beach who did!), and I recall dividing up everything Dylan and I had scanned from Wilko’s collection of bits and pieces into folders and files with text and picture references, ‘I want this here, I want that there…’ Painstaking at times (and showed me just what a control freak I actually am) and as I say, probably a bit Heath Robinson but ultimately worth it! I think at first some people assumed I just recorded Wilko talking and then transcribed it, but there was much more to it than that. Ha-ha!
03 I’m sure that every writing project has its challenges but what were the particularly unique ones that you faced with Wilko? I know he is on the road quite a bit.
Wilko himself was brilliant, very kind and avuncular and really just a joy to work with, I don’t remember any particular problems – although when your first book is about the Slits and you’ve experienced the inimitable Ari Up at close range you tend to take most things in your stride once the dust settles! A rollercoaster, that was. New heights of stress were reached, as well as euphoria. It was worth it to pay them their dues though, which is what I always felt very passionately about doing.
But yes, back to Wilko, I think once he had really engaged with the project and became more involved, it stepped up a gear. The only other thing is really that I know there are more stories to be told! I originally wanted to call the book ‘The Universe According To Wilko Johnson’ not just because of the astronomy angle but because I wanted it to reflect his universe, not just the music but everything he was passionate about, and the memories and experiences that have shaped his life, but I think we’ve only really cracked a solar system, to be honest! There’ll have to be a volume two…
Text-wise the book has a stream of consciousnessy feel that feels quite natural and accidental but is very deliberate and is designed to make you feel like you are sitting with Wilko of an evening listening to him tell his stories and go off on tangents. It has a conversational quality – and who has a conversation in perfect chronological order? 😉
04 I understand you play the drums, been busy doing much of that lately?
Yes, I’ve been playing percussion and particularly drums on and off since I was 12. After the Slits book, Viv Albertine and I were working together as she’d just started playing guitar again after nearly 30 years. We kind of encouraged each other and Viv really inspired me to get playing again – and it was a magical time and a great learning curve in lots of ways. I’ll always appreciate that she helped me to get my confidence back musically and allowed me the freedom to contribute ideas and just blossom a bit. It was great playing her music, I must say, she was writing really creative, unusual and expressive songs and it was a thrill for that to be my way back into playing. Through a live gig with Viv, I met the chanteuse Anne Pigalle, who asked me if I would play drums for a few gigs, and that was a real joy too, just a great opportunity to play some wonderful, atmospheric songs in a very different style again, kind of dark cabaret, Chanson. My most recent exploits include being in the Southend band the Voronas, which was another incredible and intense learning experience – great for my playing, really muscular rockabilly infused with gypsy swing, great songs, great theatrical stage show, kind of dark! There’s another project on the cards too, very different again, more Kraut-rock influenced this time. It’s so great to have the opportunity to rise to musical challenges like this, very enriching and pushes you forward all the time.
05 If you don’t mind I would like to ask you a bit about your neighbourhood. Any favorite haunts? What is it that draws you there?
I’m in love with it, everything about it. The effect of just being by the water can’t be underestimated, and to be under these huge, beautiful skies (we used to live in Soho, so it’s quite a contrast! The novelty of being able to see the moon even when it’s low in the sky hasn’t worn off.) I also really love the people – there’s a great balance of elements, a rich seam of rock and roll, a very artistic and creative, ‘can-do’ vibe and very down to earth, cool, unpretentious people. To have that blend can be rare, so I appreciate it! It’s a very supportive atmosphere for anyone who wants to do something creative and off the wall. A big part of that is the company Metal Culture, which was started by Jude Kelly, and they put on some fabulous events with very high production values that are very reasonable for the local community to take advantage of. I’m talking about sea-themed literary festivals, arts and music festivals like Village Green, rock and pop salons, art trails and that sort of thing. Really enriching. And then there are the sunsets over the Estuary, the strange futuristic outline of the Coryton oil refinery on Canvey… well, all you need to do is listen to Wilko’s songs and you’ll know what I mean. ‘Stand and watch the tower, burning at the break of day…’ I see that tower every day and think of him as a young man penning the words to ‘Down by the Jetty’ for the first time. It’s a very evocative skyline and quite a strange and beautiful landscape. To paraphrase John Peel’s description of The Fall, ‘Always different, always the same.’ Like I say, I’m basically in love with it.
06 Let’s get back to the Slits for a moment. The Slits and Raincoats too of course, have such unique rhythmic structures and approaches. Was the writing project on the Slits a bit like trying to get one’s head around the band’s unusual chord changes and timings or was it a tad more eggshell, if you catch my drift?
One thing I can tell you is that it was really about striking a balance between telling a story, writing an appreciation and also respecting people’s feelings without letting the whole thing run out of control! I grew close to many of the people in the book, particularly Viv, Tessa and Keith (Levene), all of whom were brilliant and supportive, as was Christine Robertson, the Slits former manager. This was a first for all of us, so we were kind of feeling our way through with the project. It was my first book, I’d been a music journalist previously, but I felt really strongly that the Slits needed more attention, and that they deserved a book! So the project grew from there.
I have a lot of love for Ari, but I’m sure it won’t surprise many people to know that there was tension there at times. There were times when I felt she was really on side and it was all great and other times which were kind of the opposite. In her defence I think Ari was used to people trying to exploit the band but I was just really trying very hard to show the group the respect I felt they deserved. At the end of the day you can max out on the memories of the confusing and frustrating moments or the joyful and exciting ones; I just like to remember it as a mad, day-glo adventure that kind of changed my life!
Ari had previously complained about being written out of history and that no one had written a book about them, this was an opportunity to go at least some way to rectify that and I am so thrilled that it did seem to make a difference in various ways, some of which were unexpected. It was lovely to be able to put Ari back in touch with Poly Styrene too, especially considering what was on the horizon for both of them; little did we know at the time.
07 Viv Albertine really has maintained the attitude hasn’t she. Are you able to describe the creative process and working with her as a drummer a bit more?
Yes indeed, and I must say so has Tessa! Authentic and enduring Slitsyness right there. Both of them are totally creative and inspiring in different ways.
Viv was very brave when she first started playing again; she was writing songs and performing alone at open mics, really unusual material. After a while Viv decided to make an EP at the Levellers’ studio in Brighton, and my husband Dylan (a far, far finer drummer than I) played on it, arranged and produced it, and it featured the excellent Ross Stanley on Hammond organ and piano (and was mixed by the super lovely Dennis Bovell). That was such a fun period and, just being there (editing the last proof of the Slits book, I seem to recall) I was around to provide backing vocals and a bit of percussion, omnichords etc.
It wasn’t long before we started doing some live bits together as a duo – and on some gigs we had the fantastic Steve Beresford on piano, that was so great. What a guy. Thanks to playing percussion and keyboards etc with Viv, I started playing kit drums again, albeit in a slightly unusual way! And so I started playing kit and singing BVs with Viv for a while too: that I really enjoyed. Regarding the process, well, we spent a lot of time chatting, a lot of time playing around with ideas and trying things out, it was lovely, there was space to be quite odd musically!
We did a little recording for her album last year, which was fun, mostly backing vocals and percussion, and Dylan provided drums for a couple of tracks. In fact just after Ari passed away we did some recording for Viv’s Christmas single ‘Home Sweet Home (At Christmas)’, it felt good to be making music together during such a strange time.
08 Again, I’m very happy to see the attention Wilko is getting after so many years of, well, not really getting the attention many of us thought he deserved. I bet many of his long-time fans have thanked you mightily for doing the book with him?
Well, there’s certainly been a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, which is brilliant! It’s a two-way thing, of course, if it wasn’t for Wilko’s fans keeping the faith and supporting Wilko for all of these years, plus the new fans who have discovered Dr Feelgood through Oil City Confidential, then none of this would be happening, so I spend quite a lot of time thanking them mightily!
It was an amazing – and amusing – moment when, at the Half Moon in Putney, we did a book signing, and all around, in this legendary rock and roll sweatbox, there were people with their noses in books! They all just got stuck straight in. There’s so much love for Wilko, and quite right too, say I.
09 How long will you be actively promoting ‘Looking Back at Me’ do you figure?
As long as it takes! We had a few months of doing lots of press for it, but things crop up along the line which is nice. I still find myself doing interviews and events based around my first two books, the Slits biography and How’s Your Dad? Living In The Shadow Of A Rock Star Parent (a semi-humorous tome about the plight of rock and roll’s children) some years after their release, which is great. So we’ll see.
10. Can you tell me a bit about the new work Florence and the Machine?
It will be out in September on Omnibus Press, who I have worked with previously several times, I’m fortunate to say. It’s a kind of run down of her career, aimed at fans, not an official biography but a fun-packed, chiffon-swirling unauthorised one. It was a pleasure to do, she’s an interesting character, and of course the Grimm fairytales references, witchiness and Stevie Nicks-style leanings appeal hugely!
And right now I am beyond thrilled to say that I am working on a very exciting new project with an incredible, in many cases life-changing, group – watch this space. Here’s a clue: feedback.
11. Anything up musically you are currently working at?
Doing a bit of jamming with a cool artist known as Alien, totally different to anything I’ve done before, lots of loops and motorik grooves, and there may be something interesting coming up but it’s up in the air at the moment… stay tuned! (*Stay in touch for eyeplug future coverage)
12. I realise you are a very busy person. Where do you find the time to fit it all in?
Haha! Much caffeine is consumed and small hours are employed. Also, this will sound cheesy but I think it comes down to being really passionate about what you do, and knowing how lucky you are to do something you love that much. I remember meeting a cameraman who had this great motto, that to be a really good cameraman, part of you has to kind of fall in love with the person in front of the camera, and I think it’s the same when you’re working on projects like this – I have definitely fallen in love with the subjects of every book I’ve written and every article. And sometimes that means it can be painful, but at the end of the day, if you’re that crazy about it/him/her (in an entirely appropriate way, natch) then you damn well make time to honour the project and make it the best you possibly can. I tend not to have much of a routine per se but in my mind, as long as everything gets done and I have enough energy to do it all in a way that I will hopefully be proud of, then I’m happy!
Zoe Howe with Wilko: Peter Stevens – Photography
Zoe Howe: David Roberts – Rock Atlas
The Zoe Howe collection:
Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits – Omnibus 2009
How’s Your Dad? Living In The Shadow Of A Rock Star Parent – Omnibus 2010
Wilko Johnson – Looking Back At Me – Cadiz Music 2012
Florence + The Machine – An Almighty Sound – Omnibus 2012 (forthcoming)
Originally posted 2012-08-06 12:59:44. Republished by Blog Post Promoter