Pilgrim’s Progress: An Interview with Steve Pilgrim
By Richard Lewis - 26/8/2010
In a career that has seen him feature on a dozen highly varied albums running the gamut from Beefheartian blues, Japanese folktronica, classically tinged violin-led pop, Mersey skiffle, and Byrdsian indie rock, Steve Pilgrim has also found time to have a solo career. In addition to his two critically acclaimed singer-songwriter focused solo albums, he now serves as an integral part of Paul Weller’s backing band. Nerve met up with him for an interview.
Huddled in the corner of the bar upstairs at The Bluecoat, Steve Pilgrim is almost unrecognizable as the same man who on solo acoustic, played his emotive, personal songs to a rapt audience at St. Bride’s Church a few weeks earlier, or regularly appears in front of vast audiences as a member of Paul Weller’s backing band. After a short while however the quiet charisma he exudes clearly becomes apparent.
Having served as drummer for Liverpool band The Stands, played on all of Cast/La’s luminary John Power’s solo albums, worked with violinist Sophie Solomon and maintained an international collaboration with Japanese folktronica artist Akeboshi, his musical CV is hugely varied and massively impressive. That work is aside from his tenure with scousers The Cuckolds, Belfast band The Fools as well as singer-songwriters Alexander Wolf and Rachel Wright. At present his own solo career and drumming for Paul Weller occupy most of his days.
Receiving his first drumkit at the impossibly early age of six following a stint banging on pots and pans, Steve says his mum - a club singer - was one of his biggest early musical influences, her repertoire covering many different genres. Joining various bands as a teenager, Steve found a permanent berth in the unfairly overlooked The Stands, who released two albums in the mid 2000s. Steve also started to work with other acts as a drummer and guitarist, rather than limit himself to just one project.
As a drummer he insists his primary function is to act “as a rock”, to anchor the band’s sound. He admits to finding it easier drumming as there is “a lot more responsibility if you’re at the front, there’s a lot more at stake.” Branching out into writing his own material around the same time as his tenure in The Stands, Steve sums up the difference between the positions as “being a front guy’s more a mental battle. One’s quite primeval the other’s quite intellectual.”
The Stands supported Paul Weller and Oasis on tour in 2004-2005 and Noel Gallagher and ‘The Modfather’ himself became fans of the group. Befriending Noel Gallagher - The Stands recorded their second album 2005’s ‘Horse Fabulous’ in his studio - Steve received an invitation to join Paul Weller’s backing band via a mutual friend.
Asked if he found it daunting to replace Steve White as Paul Weller’s drummer - White had served with him for over twenty years since the inception of The Style Council - Steve nods emphatically. “It was very scary, yeah” he admits, “they were big boots to fill”. “It was kind of like ‘Dial a Drummer’ really, an emergency situation”, he continues. “Me and the bass player were new to it to and it was very much being thrown in at the deep end but we managed to float thankfully.”
Given an artist of Weller’s longevity and stature it wasn’t entirely surprising that there was opposition to the new arrivals from some quarters. “It had people up in arms on the [internet] forums, there was a really split opinion about whether it was the right thing to do.” Many were supportive of Weller’s decision to play with new people however, and the band has gelled over a tour itinerary that has seen the group play over much of the globe.
Paul’s willingness not to repeat himself and to try new things has clearly paid off as the album Steve features on, ‘Wake Up the Nation’ has garnered the best reviews of his solo career. “That’s what’s incredible about working with him”, Steve states. “He’s fifty-two now and he’s still pushing forwards with what he’s doing. It’s remarkable he’s reinvented himself so many times.”
An unannounced guest during a support slot Steve performed with Britpop survivors Ocean Colour Scene was Weller himself. “I asked him as a joke”, grins Steve, “I was half-serious when I asked him to play”. The YouTube footage of the amazed crowd’s reaction is well worth viewing. Steve and Paul regularly work together in this format live, as the acoustic section of the current arena tour features Steve stepping out from behind the kit to play guitar and provide backing vocals.
When asked about his own work, Steve cites Bob Dylan and John Lennon as the two biggest influences on his music. The verbose songwriters’ undiluted views made a lasting impression on Steve as he explains, “You look to people who have opinions for inspiration.” Relating this to his solo work in general, Steve continues, “What I’ve found difficult in becoming a songwriter is trying to find something to say really. That’s the challenge every time you pick up a pen to try and write a lyric, what can I do that means something?”
The move from behind the drumkit to centre stage has been a slow progression for him, “It’s not something I’ve come to naturally or easily, it’s something I’ve had to work at”, he explains. “It’s been a gradual progression for me; it’s not been an overnight thing. More recently I’ve tried to pluck up the courage to have an opinion and voice it, before I was too scared to do that.” Steve explains this change in direction was largely inspired by an incident at a gig in Liverpool.
“There was a turning point for me; I played a gig about two years ago in the Zanzibar, a solo set which went really well, singing the material off the first two records. This drunken scouser came up to me afterwards and said ‘That was great that, but like, you’re not really saying anything are you?’ He really offered me out on it! ‘You’re really good, you could be saying something’ and that threw down the gauntlet for me to try and think beyond the traditional love song, what can I and what am I capable of writing? What should I try and write about?’
Inspired by this rawer approach to his material, one of the highlights of Steve’s set at the St. Bride’s Church gig was a track entitled ‘Post-Thatcher Consumer Market Blues’. When asked if the change of administration has swayed his views politically, Steve is forthright. “For me, it’s a continuation of a general shift that was brought about and promoted by Thatcher and was then perpetuated by Blair. That kind of consumer-led, price-led economics, that seems to be the trend for the world.”
He continues, “It’s a bit of a cliché to be a left-wing musician saying ‘this is all crap’, but unfortunately we’re all in the position where we’re saying ‘this is all crap’. Steve, like many musicians clearly regards songwriting as catharsis for him, “It’s like a lot of artists, it’s therapy for all the things the world throws at you and you have to process. Being on the road, although a lot of people talk about it being the ‘rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle’ can be pretty lonely and suffocating, so there was more in me to try and expel.” Steve continues, “I’m trying to be honest about what’s bothering me, and unfortunately release it onto the world!” he laughs.
Following on from solo albums ‘Lover, Love Her’ in 2007 and ‘Sunshine’ last year, Steve is currently writing songs for his third album. “It’s tricky trying to fit in recording around touring.” he states, “I’m hoping to go in around January, to hopefully have it out springtime or summertime next year.”
Returning to his work with other musicians, Steve describes his approach towards each of the projects, “…as a drummer I always try to play for the song, that’s a consistent thing as a player. In terms of how they (the various musicians) group together stylistically, I think the only consistency there is inconsistency.” Hoping to make an album with Japanese musician Akeboshi, using material the two have penned together, Steve plans to continue the project the two began in 2008 when Steve stayed in Japan for a few productive weeks.
Steve cites ‘Stormbreaker’, the album he recorded with John Power in 2007 as his favourite amongst the myriad of LPs he has featured on. A project that was inspired by “Captain Beefheart and a lot of old blues records”, the album saw the La’s/Cast luminary move into vastly different territory from the indie-pop he made his name with. Steve regards the project as a learning curve for him personally as he found it “the most challenging for me as a player.”
As for his dream hook-up, Steve answers immediately: Ethan Johns. The son of legendary Beatles/Stones/ Who producer and engineer Glyn, Ethan may possibly become as revered as his dad with his production work for Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams, and a major influence of Steve’s, Ray Lamontagne.
Asked where he finds the energy to work with so many different musicians, Steve explains, “…a little bit like Paul I’ve got a desire in me to move forwards and to change what I’m doing next; the last few years with Weller have been the most full-on I’ve ever had”. The work rate he has maintained has meant that he has featured on several albums or tours by different artists including himself every year since The Stands’ debut album in 2003.
After the tour with Paul Weller and solo gigs have been concluded then, what next in 2010? More projects are surely on the horizon but Steve’s answer proves to be more prosaic, “Spend more time at home!” he grins, Get more early nights and try and enjoy Liverpool.”
Steve Pilgrim plays the Kazimier on 3rd September with a full backing band in a joint headlining gig with John Head (formally of Shack)
For more information visit www.stevepilgrim.co.uk
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