No More Workhorse spoke to former Whipping Boy guitarist Paul Page, about the forthcoming rerelease of their second album Heartworm, 25 years on.
Were you guys listening to much music at the time? What were the key ‘influences’?
We were heavily influenced by the US noise scene in the beginning: Sonic Youth, Big Black, Swans. But also music closer to home: Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, My Bloody Valentine, That Petrol Emotion.
Around the time of Heartworm, I remember the album ‘Seamonsters’ by the Wedding Present being a big influence. The Tindersticks debut album made a big impression too. But we were also listening to albums like ‘Pet Sounds’ by the Beach Boys, Ennio Morricone, Frank Sinatra, Kitchens of Distinction, Nirvana, Nick Cave. All those influences seeped in there somewhere, even if it is not immediately obvious.
You guys really didn’t fit with what was going in the mid-nineties, Br*tp*p and all that shit.
Yeah, our timing was pretty awful! We released Heartworm smack bang in the middle of the Britpop explosion. And Heartworm was just a lot darker, a lot less radio-friendly than that music. I think the record company probably struggled because of that – they couldn’t easily stick a label on it and present it to radio stations and TV. There were some good people who tried very hard to do just that, but I would imagine it was a tough sell.
There were some exciting Irish bands at that time, such as Revelino, Rollerskate Skinny, The Revenants, Lir etc. Was there a healthy rivalry?
I was never really conscious of any real rivalry there. We played with Revelino on tour around Ireland at that time and we got on great – they were a fantastic band. Really admired what Rollerskate Skinny were doing too. We didn’t really socialise with other bands when we weren’t playing or touring – we lived in our own bubble and spent a lot of time together as a group when not playing.
Are you someone that really admired other guitar players? Which ones had a major effect on you?
Yeah, there were guitarists I really admired (and still do) – but they were never ‘axe hero’ types. I was never really into technically great guitarists who could play 10-minute guitar solos. Just wasn’t my thing.
Will Sergeant of the Bunnymen would have been a big influence. Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Kevin Shields & Bilinda Butcher (My Bloody Valentine). Julian Swales of Kitchens of Distinction. Guitarists who were more into textures and sounds.
I also really admire Johnny Marr of the Smiths. Marr is definitely the most orthodox and technically talented of all those, but his guitar work with the Smiths was undeniably a huge part of what made them such a seminal band.
Were many of the songs already written before recording or written during?
All the songs on Heartworm were written before we went into the studio. Pretty much all of them were demo-ed in advance too. We had plenty of time between the release of our debut so second album syndrome that affects so many bands, didn’t really affect us. We didn’t have to rush out our second album the way most bands who have some success with their debut do.
How long did it take to record the album, did it go smoothly?
It took about 8 weeks to record. Then we spent another two weeks in London mixing it. It seemed like such an incredibly long time after recording and mixing Submarine in just 12 days. The whole concept of taking a full day to try to get a drum sound just right was just alien to us. But the process of recording the album was relatively stress free. There was no tension in the studio – we did drive Warne Livesey (producer) crazy constantly comparing the recordings to the demo tapes! But that was about it – I remember it as a pretty positive experience.
Anything that nearly didn’t make the album or that got edged out at the last minute? You had some great B-sides on the singles. Would you change anything in retrospect?
We only recorded 12 songs during the Heartworm sessions. The one song that ended up as a b-side was ‘Plaything’. There was some debate as to whether that should make the album but we all agreed that ten songs, with ‘A Natural’ as a hidden track was about right. So wouldn’t change anything there.
Where did the idea for the album cover come from?
I often joke that we spent more time agonising over the cover than we did over the music!
So many meetings, so much debate over the artwork. It was designed By Steve Averill, who had done some of the early U2 covers. There were so many meetings, and every little detail was discussed and debated. I don’t envy designers – they come up with a vision, and then have every little detail picked apart by four different voices, all with different views!
We got there in the end – it was Steve’s concept and I remember we had some reservations at the time. But it did look fairly striking on the record shelves – that’s the perspective a designer brings, that we as a band wouldn’t even see.
I still remember hearing those songs for the first time, how different they were to most of what passed for alternative music at the time. Did you and the band feel that you had anything that might be a ‘hit’?
Honestly? Even at the recording stage, that was never on our minds. That might sound naïve but we just wanted to make the songs sound as good as we imagined them in our heads. I am sure the record company were thinking of that but to their credit, they never put us under any pressure to tone down the lyrics, or turn the guitars down, to make things more radio-friendly.
And when you look at the three singles released, there were things about all three of them that made them unlikely radio hits. ‘When We Were Young’ was probably the closest to a pop song that we got but even with that, the lyrics on the chorus probably made radio programmers a little uncomfortable.
Did you get sick of the questions about the lyrics of We Don’t Need Nobody Else? What inspired the lyrics? Any writers or artists that were an influence?
Fearghal (McKee) wrote those lyrics. They are obviously either brutally honest, based on observations, or a second-hand experience – I never recall any discussion within the band about the origins of the lyrics. I do remember when he first performed them being blown away by the power of those words. And they were made more powerful, more stark by the almost dispassionate spoken-word delivery. I don’t get sick of being asked about them but I don’t feel I am best placed to adequately explain the words – I just know that as a band, instinctively we knew they were incredibly powerful and we didn’t question that.
There were no artists or writers that had a profound influence on the record – the biggest influence on that record was our environment. Where we grew up. The streets and people that were part of our lives up to then.
The greatest piece of advice we got after Submarine had been released was ‘write about what you know’. I think Fearghal did that particularly well, and as musicians, we stopped trying to copy bands that we loved and just made music that felt right.
It was really important to us that the music had heart; that it was honest, and that it was unflinching. That it didn’t hold back. That was kind of the way we were as a live band too. We weren’t always great, you didn’t get a choreographed, slick show. Heartworm was an album that hinged on Fearghal’s unflinching, no holds barred approach. And people responded to that honesty because it wasn’t really the norm back then.
Do you think in retrospect it was a missed opportunity? Or was it just luck, how things turned out – a lot of attention but not enough… sales?
My perspective on that has changed in recent years. I used to think we might have been a little unlucky. But we got to record and release 3 albums and 2 EPs. We got to make music fulltime for 5 years, and tour with some of our favourite musicians. We made a record that is still talked about 25 years on. So in that sense, we were incredibly lucky and privileged.
It would have been nice to have sold more records – Heartworm regularly features in those ‘best of ‘ lists ahead of albums that have sold many multiples of what it sold.
And we have never earned a cent from record sales for any of recordings we released. Nothing. We poured everything into our 13 years together as a band – people forget we were together seven years before Heartworm came out. And while the acclaim is nice, it would have been good to see some return in terms of record sales, but that’s the way the music business operates.
Musicians rightfully complain about how little Spotify pay – but the music industry was always set up so that the record companies & the top 5% of acts make all the money – the rest make very little. Spotify and streaming services in general are just a new way of maintaining the status quo.
The Interview continues in Part 3…