Even though they are not currently enjoying the same amount of popularity as they did at the beginning of their career, the members of Skyclad are still out there recording albums with strong political lyrics that again mix elements from many different styles of music. Still in search of promoting their latest release “A Semblance of Normality”, Kevin Ridley (vocals) was more than happy to explain the story behind this album and the reasons why people should re-discover their interest in this Newcastle-based outfit.
OK Kevin, now that you got your hands on a glass of wine and we got properly introduced let’s start this interview by telling you how pleased I was to have seen you a few weeks ago in Prague. I have somehow managed to lose track of the band right after Martin (Walker: ex-vocalist) left Skyclad, and now that I’ve seen you guys live, I really regret having done so! What have you been doing lately?
Kevin: Well, we did a short tour round Easter and we played in Prague and also some German dates. We were also quite busy sorting some dates out for the summer festivals. We are still kind of pushing our last album – we haven’t been to may places, but we are trying to play in places where we haven’t been before. We’ve been to Sweden recently and the week after next we’re off to Portugal. We’ve never been to Portugal before and we have been planning this for a really long time. A few weeks after that, we’re coming back to Germany to play a few festivals there. At the time we are still promoting “A Semblance of Normality”, before we start working on new material, believe it or not! This album was released last year.
That is true, but I believe that you actually started working on it in 2002, am I right?
Kevin: Yes that’s right! We started the recordings near the end of 2002, and we finished them in 2003. Thanks about what you said previously about the band. I gather that this might have been the reaction of a lot of people, which is one of the reasons why it took us so long to make this album. A lot of people were waiting to see what will happen with the new material and line up, so we wanted it to be absolutely right. I am glad to say that most people reacted just like you, you know? If you actually give the new stuff a chance, you may be pleasantly surprised (laughs). If you come and see the band and listen to the new album, you may actually find that things may have changed but not really that much. We were all in the band when Martin was still in the band anyway.
That is true, and that must have been round the time of the album “The Answer Machine”.
Kevin: I started touring with Skyclad with “The Answer Machine”, but the first album that I actually played on, as opposed to just working as an engineer and producer as in all of the band’s albums, was the album “Vintage Whine”. It was 1998 when I started playing with the band, but me, Steve (Ramsey: guitars), Graeme (English: bass) and Georgina (Biddle: violin) have been together for quite a while now.
No excuses should be used here – I think that it is the music press that’s responsible for many people’s decision not to continue listening to this band. Up till “Folkemon” was released, you would always find an article about Skyclad in a music magazine. Then, all of the sudden, all interest was lost.
Kevin: Yes. It is really interesting. We generally found it in England where there was a point round the mid-90’s that the band was really popular, and when the Brit pop happened there were quite a few changes in the magazines. They decided to move away from traditional Rock.
You are probably aware of the magazine called Classic Rock. The reason why that magazine kind of emerged was because there was this interest left for traditional rock bands and there was a gap there that they came to fill. The magazines that featured our band before had kind of moved into newer stuff if you like.
The interesting thing is that this didn’t happen so much in Germany. I remember talking to the owners of Time magazine, and they told me that Rock music was dying in general, and people were more interested in buying music from the late 90’s. This is before the new metal thing sort of kicked in. These bands were struggling to make rock as well as it previously had been. I suppose that with a band like Skyclad, you have to realise that we have been around for fifteen years now. Maybe after the first five or six years people were a bit like “well, what now?”. I remember talking to a journalist who said, “when you send out a Skyclad album, you can write the review before you even listen to it”.
After seven albums people said “OK, it is folk metal with some violins – we heard all that before”. That was their reaction and maybe they believed that we became a little bit predictable. That’s very difficult for me to understand, because if you listen to the band you will realise that each album is different from the other.
The band has never just released the same album. If you listen to “A Semblance of Normality”, you will find stuff there that have never been in any of our previous releases – things like string sections for instance. When Skyclad started playing music, they were like a Thrash metal band which incorporate a lot of traditional music into their style. Eventually they ended up doing “The Answer Machine” which was a concept album in a way, and wasn’t so metal if you like. Maybe people lost faith when the band decided to follow a slightly different musical path. When we did “Folkemon” we definitely came back to doing more metal things and I also think that our last album is a strong Rock album as well.
That is true – there are quite a few songs on “A Semblance of Normality” which sound particularly heavy. I also feel the need to mention how well you have managed to bring together many different musical elements. Can you please describe these different influences for us?
Kevin: As I was saying, we’ve always tried to push the band into doing different things. One of the things that I’ve wanted to do on this album, as a producer, was to get these things done for real. Normally, a lot of bands would use synthesizers if they wanted to add strings in their music. For this album we decided to do things differently by using the real instruments. That decision of ours made this recording quite a big project. Steve, who obviously writes all the songs, had some ideas of putting some songs with string sections in and so we started pestering the record company saying “we want a real string section in this – we don’t want to have a synthesized version of it”. They looked around, and they had a contact, which is how we got the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing on it. We took what Georgina had played originally, and we went down to London with fourteen string sections. That was one of the things that Steve really wanted to push – the other is the blues. Steve likes the blues a lot, and he wanted to put some of that stuff there as well, so we used the organ in a few cases. That gave a 70’s retro feeling to the album. From my part, and because of the whole Englishess of the album, I was very keen to use things like Northumbrian Pipes, so I got a Northumbrian Pipe player to record natural sounds for the album. Also we used an Irish drum called Bodhran, which we never used before! Everything was authentic. It took a lot of time to bring these different players together in and tie everything together, but you can say that there is indeed a theme that unites everything in the end.
Talking about Englishness: I have been living in your country long enough to know and appreciate the unique way that you people manage to express yourselves, both lyrically or musically. Is the majority of the foreign fanbase of the band able to understand this type of humour and lyrical expression that is so characteristic for Skyclad?
Kevin: There is not a problem there. We have been talking about this recently, because of our upcoming shows in Portugal. We have also played gigs in Italy and obviously in Greece where we have a lot of fans. We cannot quite understand why these hot, southern European countries like yours get into this English stuff! Believe it or not, this new album got a massive good reaction in Japan and Brazil. Obviously when I’m writing stuff, I assume that a lot of the references there must apply only to British people. The funny thing is that, as I said before, English people don’t pay so much attention to us anymore.
I believe that it’s because English fans have become quite spoiled when it comes to gigs. I remember in Athens back in the 80’s, we had to sometimes wait for two or three months in order to see a metal gig. Here there are two or three gigs every week!
Kevin: Yes, you’re right. I obviously don’t want to go too far into it, but there is a specific sense of humour that runs underneath everything that I write. Most things have two meanings, depending on how you see things on a personal level, and there is also an irony all the way through. I don’t take everything deadly seriously (laughs).
See, I always believed that Skyclad’s music is like a good Monty Python movie, and a great example of a song is “The Parliament of Fools” which I dare say is my favourite song of the album. What was going through your head when you were writing the lyrics to that song?
Kevin: The song would have to be played during the last few weeks when we had the parliament elections - that would be the perfect time for it really. This song is quite complicated to be honest with you. Again, unless you know a lot about English literature, you won’t understand many things. Basically, it is based upon a medieval poem by a guy called Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote the poem “A Parliament of Fowls”. Apart from the fact that that’s where I got the idea from, it’s about what I think has been happening in my life ever since I began to use the right to vote. I went to vote when I was eighteen and this song looks upon each of the political parties in tune and kind of makes fun of them. It talks about people in blue and red which I assume that you understand are Labour and the Conservatives. I also studied that stuff at college for a little while, and I remember reading a little about the underlined philosophies of every party and what they stand for. That’s basically what this song is about!
I guess all fans appreciated Skyclad’s sarcasm from the very early days, and it’s nice to see that it’s still there! Have you ever managed to get yourselves into trouble by speaking your minds as far as politics are concerned?
Kevin: No! As you say, it’s because we are English and we supposedly have freedom of speech...I don’t think that we go far enough to defame anybody’s character or anything like that. I don’t think that there’s anything libellous or anything like that, but it has been pretty close when Martin was still in the band and has to do with some of his lyrics. “The Parliament of Fools” for instance is a satyr, but it doesn’t directly refer to anybody in particular, and it is neither particularly vicious to the point where someone would take personal offence or take us to court (laughs). It’s not that savage I’m afraid. As I say, I don’t look into things that seriously – I would be a little bit concerned if I was. I like being more down to earth and I always try to see the other side of the argument and keep some sort of perspective on it. Who knows, maybe things will change in the next album (laughs).
Is there anything at all that you are willing to give away regarding the band’s next album – anything at all?
Kevin: No, not at this minute. We are actually just sketching some ideas because obviously we will have to get around to doing a new album now. What we did decide to do is nothing like the “No Daylights” album that we did, which is the unplugged album. We did all that stuff, and we got them out of our system, so the next album is going to be heavy. Now that we have this album out of the way, we will move in a similar heavy direction on the next one. It may not be exactly like the album that we just done, because again we don’t want to repeat ourselves. It would be easy for us to release another thrash album like the ones in the very beginning but I know Steve well enough to know that this would not make him a happy person.
You and Steve are the writing duet of the band, and you have obviously been working together for quite a while. How would you describe your artistic relationship?
Kevin: Skyclad is basically Steve’s and Graeme’s band. When I took over for doing the vocals, one thing that I was very careful of was not to change everything. Hopefully we still do carry the traditional elements of Skyclad’s music as you said.
We still have the same sense of humour and the political stuff that’s going on in the songs. I wanted to keep those elements and I wanted to make sure that Steve still did the writing for Skyclad, because Skyclad’s music is the trademark of what it is. I didn’t want to change that stuff too much, so basically both him and Graeme have always plenty of ideas in their heads and that is something that’s always impressed me. They used to release an album every year in the past but they never had a problem like what they needed to do on the next album – they always had some songs ready. They both are really inventive people!
Steve looks after most of the musical ideas, but one thing that he does is that he adapts and changes things. He had quite a few ideas for “A Semblance of Normality” that I ended up changing completely (laughs). He used to say “well this is the chorus now”, and I would come back saying, “well no, this is actually the verse now”. He was fine with that.
What I do is to put all my melodies and the singing parts on the table once I have them ready, and most of the times the rest of the band is like “yeah, that’s fine – we’ll work on that”. I remember that I gave Steve the lyrics for three songs, and he wrote the music for them in something like three hours...as I said, he is very inventive! Sometimes it works like that, but most of the times I tend to write to the music. I wait until he will give me a lot of songs, and I tend to pinch bits of them, even from different songs, and flip them all around (laughs). I tell him “look, this is what you thought was that song – now, would you like to play it a lot faster?”.
The band kind of works like that and obviously we get the other people involved and they will all add their own bits to it. That is what keeps the flavor in Skyclad’s music. There is a song on the last album called “The Song of No-Involvement”, which is a song that I wrote, and we have played that live – you heard it during the gig in Prague. It is a good song, but I wouldn’t want to do that all the time. If a song that I have fits in the album, that’s great, but I wouldn’t want to take over writing anything more than that. If that was to happen, I would end up dictating far too much of what is happening in the band. I am lucky that the band trusts me enough to let me get on and do the vocal parts.
How different is the experience of recording and performing songs live with Skyclad than what you used to do with bands like Screen Idols and Shotgun Brides?
Kevin: Err...I always used to co-write songs in every band that I have played with. I tend to work with the musicians rather than doing things any other way. Now that I said that, I have written quite a few things that I plan on releasing by myself (laughs). To continue what I was saying, I always tended to form writing teams with guitarists in the past. That is a fairly standard thing with bands where the singer and one of the guitarists are the main contributors of the band. From that perspective, it’s not that different. Steve and I write the songs and the rest of the band kind of interprets them. It’s a bit different in the fact that Skyclad has always been a multi-influenced outfit that had may different things happening in every song. Even with this last album, if we pick four songs like in chance, they will all be quite different. You will end up having one blues song, one accoustic song, one that has strings in it...not a lot of bands cover that much ground I don’t think.
Kevin, I need you to clarify something for me. Your label is Demolition Records...isn’t that the label that was created by you guys at some point in the recent past?
Kevin: No, we didn’t form it by ourselves. What it is, is that Demolition and Skyclad kind of work in partnership, if you like. This is a label that was set up by a guy who used to manage the band. If you decide to take a look at the Demolition site, you will see that this guy has a lot of bands like Twisted Sister, Sebastian Bach, Y&T and all these kinds of bands. Because he managed the band in the past, it was decided to go into a partnership with him – we didn’t sign anything like a formal contract or anything like that. That’s basically because we are friends with him. It was an easy way for us to do an album like “Daylights...” – it gave us the liberty to do things the way we wanted. It’s a good position to be, where you can just decide what you want to do with your music.
Does that mean that you guys are going to continue working with Demolition for your next album?
Kevin: I don’t know. We’re having a look at the situation at this minute. We haven’t got a contract that says that we need to produce another album with them – it’s just an open-ended agreement, so if everyone is happy we will do the next album with them too. We will see – we first have to go through the stage of writing some songs first.
Being a producer yourself, how would you judge the work that Dario Mollo did for “A Semblance of Normality”?
Kevin: Amazing! I cannot thank Dario enough, to be honest with you! We are very proud of this album, and that is the opinion of every person in this band. It took a long time to put it right and there are a lot of firsts on this album. This is our first fully digital recording as well as the first album where we used real instruments. It was a big album to do and Dario did a fantastic job in terms of technology and stuff. If you get the new album and an old album and you play them back to back, you will see the difference in terms of production and volume. This is generally a more polished, loud album. We did the mixing and the mastering of the album in Italy by the way. Dario deserves a lot of praise for that!
Did you get involved in any way in the recording process?
Kevin: When it came to the mixing, it was basically down to me and Dario to do the job. Steve came to the studio a few times, but I spend most of the time working on it with Dario, and I let him take the initiative since this was his studio and he knew the equipment better that I did. I was busy with the recordings also – we recorded forty-seven tracks and I had to steer him through my ideas and told him how I felt that they should sound. We did wok together, but he ended up doing most of it.
OK, let’s talk about something different now. There seems to be some kind of curse as far as the health of the members of this band is concerned. I think that Steve is the one who had most things happening to him so far, but it was Graeme the one that had an accident quire recently! What is happening here?
Kevin: (laughs) It’s funny that you used the word curse...there are two little things here: one is that Steve used to have a medical problem that he had to look at, but he is generally fine now. The other ones are funny, since there are things that are normally self-inflicted. You need to have some sympathy for people like me who get drunk and tend to fall downhill (laughs). Most of the time it’s just accidents, so I don’t think that we’re that bad to be honest with you (laughs). Hopefully, nobody’s cursed! I think that every band feels like they are Spinal Tap in one way or another – like a Monty Python sketch. Things happen that we think that could only happen to us, but they do happen to everyone really. Nobody has a serious problem, but we do tend to become a little bit silly when we go on tour. We should have grown up more gracefully, but I’m afraid that that didn’t happen (laughs).
Kevin, which are your best memories as a member of Skyclad so far?
Kevin: Oh dear me, it’s difficult to pick out something...some more people asked me of favourite things, and I always have a problem answering such a question. One of the things that I really enjoyed and I have to thank Skyclad for are the live gigs that I have been doing with them since 1997, when I joined as a singer. I was more of an engineer and producer in the past, working in the studio. I had done a few tours in the UK before but never to the extent that I did with Skyclad. That was not a thing that I particularly wanted to really get involved with, but I have to say that as a band we had a lot of good times when on the road. The best thing is when you manage to help eachother. After the show in Prague, we had to go to Hamburg, which meant that we had to drive for twelve hours and by the time you got there, you would expect to be already worn out! Somehow the band has this spirit if you like, and no matter how tired you are or how bad you feel, it will all go away once you hit the stage. There is electricity there that you can actually feel and you understand it better after the end of every show! That’s one of the best things for me. I can think of gigs like the “Gods of Metal” in Milan that we did in 1999, for instance. We arrived there at eight-o clock in the morning, having left from Austria the night before. We had to go on stage without having slept for something like three days! Memories like that are the best for me. Even the Irish pub gigs that we did. We used to have to lock the doors, because we couldn’t get any more people in (laughs). We couldn’t walk through the crowd so we had to stay on the stage and the crowd was singing louder than we were! I like making records, but playing live is the best thing really.
What is it that kept you guys going all these years – especially the last five or six years that you’ve been through slightly difficult times?
Kevin: Partly what I said about the chemistry that we have in our live performances, but also the fact that we all live in Newcastle now – that’s the first time that this ever happened. We don’t live in each other’s pockets, but we do tend to socialise a lot...we are friends. We don’t always agree on things and we do tend to fall out between arguments, but we generally get along fine, we share a vision and we enjoy what we do. Nobody in the band wants to give it up and leave, even though things are much more difficult now that we all have families. You cannot help getting older – fifteen years is a long time! What Skyclad is, is a great thing to be part of, and I think that this is what keeps us going!
Skyclad was once the fresh new band from Britain. As a musician, do you see a new band that you feel that they will be able to produce something good in the future?
Kevin: Hmm, an interesting question...I have to admit that I’m not the best person in the world to go looking for new bands. As you said, English music is very spoiled and nowadays is very fashion-orientated – very trendy! You have this new wave of bands that have this look about them, but when you listen to their sound you think “oh, yeah...”. It makes me believe that in two or three years time it will all just disappear, you know?
Generally speaking, which was the last album that you heard and that you really enjoyed?
Kevin: From an English point of view, someone like Radiohead would come to mind. When I first listened to all this computer stuff, I remember saying “Jesus, that is brilliant – that just came out of the blue”. I suppose that Muse is a band like that which many people talk of. Whether you are a metal band or not, it is good when you don’t sound like anybody else! Bands like that are very hard to find. Once one such band comes around, then you have at least a dozen others that are trying to copy them. I don’t want to say that I dislike the current musical crop that’s around. A lot of bands who come from the Northeast like we do sound good and that is nice – to be able to say that you are part of a healthy music scene. To finish what I wanted to say, I don’t tend to go out and check on bands nowadays, and particularly in our sort of area. Bands that I’ve heard doing the full rock stuff tend to be foreign. I tend to pick up things from Germany and Sweden and that’s why I listen to many different bands. When I go out, I am normally looking to find places where they play folk music or something like that.
If tomorrow we both find out that things have changed for the better in this world, how are Skyclad going to react to that? What are you guys going to talk about then?
Kevin: You just reminded me what Steve always says about how much he hates happy music! That’s why I don’t write any songs for this band – we can’t have happy songs on Skyclad (laughs). We would probably struggle if there was nothing to react against and be satirical about. I guess that we would still have to write about things and write them well. One of the famous things is the “Silver Clouds, White Lightning” – I think that Skyclad would manage to find it somehow! I don’t see how things will change anyway, but even if they do, things like drinking are not really bad – perhaps we would write more songs about drinking and having parties
Kevin, it has been a pleasure talking to you. I hope that people in England will finally decide to change their attitude towards the band and their music. What is the message that you want to give to them?
Kevin: The best message is: remember, this is only “A Semblance of Normality”.
Interview © 2005