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.
Then I needed a band because I felt the songs should be played live, that seemed that it was the natural environment for the project, and I worked with Felipe and I had physiotherapy from Gerald for my left shoulder, which is a lot better now thanks, so we started rehearsing just with drum tracks and recording guitars and bass for the album, but we needed to step up the use of technology for playing the songs live and, yeah, we needed a drummer. And Gerald found both, and a producer as well. All in one man. And he’s the reason the EP is here now and the website and the video. I don’t like finishing things.
I didn’t know any of this until after the confinement began here in France. Julien joined the project just before Christmas, the place we were rehearsing at had closed down for January and February and moving premises, so we recorded the drums for the album, were just preparing to record the vocals and final bits of guitar and bass, and then we were all trapped inside our separate homes.
And that’s when I had a plan, the start of the second week of the lockdown. I could feel the optimism about change, and I wrote So it Goes very quickly, made a plan for two EPs, and sent SIG to Julien. And after that, we’d found how this was all gonna work going forward because, although he’d already got the job with the other song I’d already given him – electronic babysitter I think – he worked a very simple kind of nothing version into exactly what I had in mind but beyond what I could have actually imagined. I was just so happy to have a mindreader on the job because I don’t like explaining what I’m doing to people – at all.
So here we are – three EPs coming out – between now and the end of July. I feel like I forgot the question really.
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.
About this EP, there are different music genres explored within the songs, did you plan to write a specific genre song for each one? Can you explain your approach to writing songs?
No, I didn’t think about them musically at all at that stage. I had two songs on the go, brand new ones, So it Goes and Somewhere between Dogs and Wolves, one for each of the EPs and I’d just trawled all my GarageBand files looking for something I’d named weirdly and lost, so I knew all the songs I had, they were fresh in my thinking again as I plucked the idea of two four-song EPs out of somewhere. So I chose the songs for the lyrics first and foremost, the songs I felt resonated best with all the different feelings and emotions and hardships and worries suddenly facing everyone and an economic system and a corporate-led, biased ideology that has noticeably and shamefully exacerbated if not caused the whole present catastrophe.
In terms of approach, once I have a bit of a tune and some words at least kicking around my head, It’s always the same. I find a loop or program the drum machine, record that, and either play the simple chords on piano or acoustic. That’s kind of default most of the time. Then I try and finish the lyrics and record a guide vocal as early on as possible and then try out more instrument parts after that. What happens then is I get it to a level where it’s a good enough example of what I’m wanting it to sound like, export the demo in varying states of disrepair, always with too many fucking tracks on all the time – I don’t like finishing things, I don’t like editing – and move onto the next song. Now I can just give that song to Julien and he does that decision making for me. So far, it seems like he can see what the song is trying to achieve and he knows what it’s going to take to do that, and he tries and it works or it doesn’t and he tries again. But with the two EPs we’ve finished so far, it’s been a revelation of a process. We’ll see what happens now I’m ready to give him the files for EP3. There’s some special things on that one.
What is your favourite song on this EP?
I like the EP as a whole, that’s how it was intended, and I change which one I like best a lot. I haven’t listened to it for a few weeks now. But it’s a tie between Things Fall Apart and Zoe’s Edible Garden. Things Fall Apart because it was a very old transporter song, from around the time of Splinter, I took the title from a book I found during the first writing session for that actually. So to have an old song more than 20 years old, with the lyrics just 100 per cent remaining exactly as relevant as they were, brought to new life and made with such a strong vibe and feel for what it’s saying, that was a nice moment when he played me that. And Zoe’s for the exact reason, it’s very British, it’s a bit Beatles-y, a bit Manchester rather than Britpop, but it’s very well fucking executed.
Can you tell us more about the future of The Noise Who Runs after that EP? Give us a scoop!
Yes, yes I can – if it was a really slow news day. To be honest, all I ever wanted was to arrive in a position where things were in place for a sustained period of activity, and up until that point, everyone that was involved in the recording and production side of project prior to Julien’s arrival wasn’t paying a blind bit of attention to that necessity I felt. I have to work, I get one day off a week, and I’m the one jumping through hoops to arbitrary deadlines and people trying to dictate what happens when. Well, that’s up to me and the others immediately involved in the band part of the project. Now I’m happy the project is in a position to flow as smoothly as possible because we’ve all worked hard for that.
So, we have the three Coronaviral EPs, and they will then be released as a pre-album at the end of the summer and as soon as the third EP is ready for mastering, we will sit down together and listen to the album from where we left it at the end of February and rethink anything with a view to the brand new work we’ve just done on the EPs. But the confinement period was very creative and I wrote a whole album for other people to sing tracks on, so that is currently being worked on in what I guess you’d laughably call our downtime and will be TNWR plus ‘insert name’ and I find that a quite fascinating development with a lot of strange potential. I have one particular singer in mind for most of the songs and we’ve talked about some guest vocalists for a few others.
But first the three EPs, and we’re currently working on a video for one song from each the second and third EPs. We started with a lyric video for So it Goes from EP1, which I tried to do first and then Julien took over from my embryonic idea and cackhanded, all fingers and thumbs visual and graphic abilities and produced something that blew me away. At the moment, for EP2 we are working towards a video for Somewhere Between Dogs and Wolves and a final decision on which track from EP3 is circling. I wrote a new song last week that I think is the best choice for a video treatment – ‘Always with the Empty Horses’, if the song turns out the way we envisage.
So, busy, busy, busy.
Can you describe your working relationship with Julien? How do you share the working tasks in the creative process?
At the moment, I have written a lot of songs and keep writing new ones. I record and produce a version on GarageBand, which is usually very dense, very full, everything and the kitchen sink and the farmer’s wife favourite cow on it. And then he removes it and does something better. My job is to find the feeling of the song, and his job is to find the song in the feeling. So far that seems to be working just fine, but, same for Gerald and Felipe, I expect them all to start writing stuf at some point, that’s inevitable, and I’ll gladly write words to it because I like that part best of all – that’s my thing.
We more or less seem to have fallen into the same deal with the visuals. Again, I have no talent for graphic art but conceptually my ideas are not bad. But Julien has a lot of experience in doing exactly that, so to be honest, I’m not so precious about that. I know certain things from editing magazines on the visual front, but really I just present ideas and Julien takes them over and I’m just happy someone who knows what they’re doing and is such a perfectionist and so hard on himself is working on a project together with me.
When can we expect the debut album to be released?
September 2019. But that didn’t happen because it was just me working on the songs, apart from Felipe and Gerald recording bass and guitars, and I don’t like finishing things, I like starting things.
At the moment, I’m hoping for October, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes the start of 2021. But there’s a lot more material coming and being prepared while we work on that that we’ll be releasing in the meantime. We thought it was almost finished but now we should probably go back and see if we want to make any fundamental changes in light of what we’ve been doing on the Coronaviral EPs.
Julien said that you’re not familiar with tech, but you do use computers to make your songs. Can you explain your approach with computers and how you create songs with them?
Me and technology – an accidental Luddite’s tale! If you invented the wheel and asked me to use it for a week, you’d come to collect it and be very upset because I’d probably be serving pizza on it. Liam (Sneaker Pimps) was the first person I knew who had a computer with a mouse, an Atari he ran Cubase from at the time. We must have been about 13, and he asked me to press record while he laid down a vocal. ‘You haven’t pressed record, what’re you doing?’ he was yelling from the vocal ‘cupboard’ in his spare bedroom. And there I was , holding this mouse in the air, trying to get the cursor to move, screaming: ‘I can’t get it to work!’
None of which has anything to do with this question, I know.
First and foremost, all the technology is just a way to get something resembling what’s inside my head to a level where I can play it to other people. Now, I could do that with a pen and pencil, a piece of paper and an acoustic guitar or a piano. But, essentially, that doesn’t help anyone working with you to know what you are trying to achieve. So I just do the best I can, record with Garageband, try and capture the mood of what I’m trying to say in the lyrics. And sometimes I can do a very very good job that doesn’t really need a lot of attention and other times the song needs stripping down and putting back together to find its true identity. I finish it as quickly as possible and give it to someone to work the necessary magic. He does have something of the wizard about him, our Julien.