Interviewing Ian Pickering
We know you mainly as a lyricist, but how did you come to start writing music?
From about 10 or 11 years old, I wrote lyrics; not poems, not stories, always lyrics. So eventually I simply had to. From about that time Liam (Howe, Sneaker Pimps) started putting some of the lyrics to music and he started getting decent recording equipment from the old reel to reel machine his Dad had, and I then got his old stuff every time he got new stuff, so I was behind on upgrades essentially but I had enough to write and record a full song, drum machine, one programmable synth thing (a Yamaha CX5-M music composer) with a lot of sounds and that could record proper songs, so I really just started there. Liam continued developing to the very top and I essentially, as far as I can tell, have simply replaced that stuff with GarageBand. I only had the synth at the time, I got an acoustic and a bass when I was 19, and currently I have two basses, an acoustic and an electric guitar, a Juno 60, a USB thing for GarageBand and an old Yamaha RY30 drum machine, which is jackpot. That’s come out of retirement again to work on demos. And the electric’s due for a wheel around the grounds. I kind of do that with the instruments, I have a little season of using them as the first recording tool and then I move onto to another instrument. I just bought a kalimba, so that’ll be interesting. Or ridiculous perhaps. That’s the fun of it.
Can you explain more about why you created “The Noise Who Runs” project and the story that led us to this first EP?
If there was an Ian-shaped hole in the world that needed to be filled, I would have found it by now. There isn’t. And I’m not a solo artist and would never want to be, so I had already decided after my Left Handed Tendencies album that I wanted to settle on a proper name for an ongoing project that would evolve and not be typecast and prejudged by what I’d done before. And to be honest, the stuff I was coming up with once I moved to France, was, in musical terms, moving away from the more traditional approach I seemed to have fallen into post-transporter and during what became the longest sabbatical on record for Sneaker Pimps. And then The Noise Who Runs name fell into my lap – or my dinner plate, more accurately. I was being taken out for dinner and the restaurant was called O Bruit Qui Court, which is very nice to say. I wanted to know what it meant and the direct English translation turned out to be The Noise Who Runs and I instantly knew that was the name for the project.
This was all happening around the end of 2017 – I’d wanted to do an EP to follow up Left Handed Tendencies, mostly rehashed old songs I’d never recorded; a very simple idea that sprang from wanting to release just a piano song with lyrics that were the polar opposite to the schmaltzy now routine Christmas song we get from some store or other every year. But I’m very precise about not just the musical balance but massively the lyrical balance on EPs and albums, so it became six songs, two of which were specially written to create the balance I had somewhere in a vision in my head. Anyway, those two songs turned out to be really good and the rest I didn’t like, so I scrapped that and suddenly I hit a huge wave of creative mania, which considering I was working two school jobs at the time, must have actually been a pretty strong impulse. But that wave hasn’t stopped yet.
So it was a shift in musical approach and direction, and lyrically it was turning out, in my opinion only I think, a lot more direct in what they were saying about the state of things. A long-held theory that this is not the best we could be as a people, a society, a civilisation seems to be becoming more vocal in general, the majority of people are actually calling loudly or praying in their hearts that change is on the top of the agenda for humanity from what we have now. The lyrics from that point on mostly stay on topic, certainly the planned debut album that Coronavirus has put on hold. For me, I don’t see the difference between what I was writing on Becoming X and what I write now – I feel the same, I’ve known all of this instinctively since I was a child, things are wrong too many times. But possibly expressing that – and really I think a lot of what I write is an amalgamation of the generations – the protest songs of the sixties, the punk anarchy of the 70s, The Jam in the early 80s, UB40’s One in Ten, the noise and angst of the early 90s. And that’s where I began, and I feel all of that and I experienced most of it, and in the 70s and 80s I lived in the wretched state of the country that inspired it.
And to cut a long story short – a story that isn’t answering the question at all, I think, is it? – it felt like carrying on as Ian Pickering was not what the project was about. It needed its own identity and The Noise Who Runs is everything I ever wanted a name to say. In French, they use it for ‘gossip’ but I like it as an expression of the great idealogical revolution.
What are your main subjects that inspire you to write songs?
Well, you know, I want to be Robin Hood. Every superhero’s just Robin Hood, every good guy in every movie – it’s just Robin Hood. Even Doctor Who’s Robin Hood. There’s a lot of injustice on a global scale and in microcosm at the very personal level for too much of society, too many people. But I can’t steal, I have very clumsy tendencies, noisy ones too, and I’d feel terrible even if I could get away with it, and I’m certain the rich have many security systems beyond their gated communities anyways, so I write songs to right wrongs. Or perhaps I explore the wrongs and comment on them. That’s the general reason behind my writing, what inspires me from song to song, idea to idea, can be anything. I was a news reporter for 10 years, all through the Sneakers era, so you get the habit of reading the news a lot, but I read a lot of fiction, poetry, I watch a lot of documentaries on history, the universe, the planet. So I’ll read something or hear something that’ll trigger off an idea, it could be a lyric or a title. And musically, I just get stuff in my head, sometimes when I’m walking, walking is one of my musical triggers, and showering. Which is annoying cos it’s hard to write in water. And actually since the confinement started I’ve reduced my water usage for showering to just three inches of a washing up bowl and about thirty seconds to rinse my hair. So that’s not really happening now.
With the Sneakers it’s different because Liam and Chris always have a lot of strong ideas and theories of what they want the lyrics to be about and so it’s a challenge really to take all that into account and work with it into something that expresses what they were wanting and also express myself, or my subjective self’s take on being that persona in the song. It’s always very me in the end, anything I write for anyone., but I like that with Sneakers I can be more abstracted and freed from where my brain wants to always go. They’ll never make me Poet Laureate but a Nobel Prize isn’t out of the question, surely? I feel good about my lyrics, that’s my biggest confidence, said in confidence, I’m very happy with what I’m producing for TNWR and the other things I’m working on. When they asked me to have a go at writing the lyrics for Becoming X, while they’d spent the six or seven years since school knuckling down and really evolving musically and developing their skills in the studio, I was endlessly uncreative for most of that time, just becoming something I could live with, I was terribly shy and anxious and I was finding coping mechanisms and ways to show people who I was a little more. And somehow, a good kicking from a group of locals where I was at university in Wales fixed a lot of that as much as it fucked me up with some new ones there. After that, I became, eventually, more of a don’t care attitude. Then with the addition of journalism college, by the time they asked me to write the words, it was like I’d been loaded, they just needed to pull back a finger.