Eighteen years ago this month Gene were on the cover of Melody Maker – and not for the last time that year. But their former singer has never been so acclaimed as he’s been for his debut solo album ‘The Defenestration Of St. Martin’, a set of stripped back torch songs featuring just his voice and a piano that falls somewhere between Morrissey’s heart-on-sleeve crooning and Nick Cave’s intense balladry.
Sales might not come close to the million records sold by Gene but critics adore the LP. The Guardian called it, “an unlikely but often brilliant comeback,” while in The Times Stewart Lee announced that we’d “lost a 20th century indie band to gain a 21st century solo artist.” Martin must be delighted, especially to see it appear in so many best of 2012 round ups.
“I am,” he says warmly, now out of his frozen cover shoot make-up. “Back in the 90s Gene were never press darlings. I lie – we were for about two weeks. It was curious because our first record came out within a week of Oasis’ first single. It was a zeitgeist shifting moment and we found ourselves on the wrong boat. So to have the amount of critical acclaim that I’ve now had is astonishing. For a few weeks I imagined I was Adele, which I’ve subsequently proved not to be.”
It’s easy to see why everyone has fallen for this unconventional record. The opening minute, before Martin even opens his mouth, contains some of the most beautifully concise and emotional melodies to come out of Brighton for many years. As Gene fans will no doubt tell you, Martin is a pop craftsman, but now, concentrating on just two elements – voice and piano – he’s taken delicate control of every single note. It’s often said that pop is the most difficult music to master. Simplicity requires not a single misstep and on ‘The Defenestration of…’ Martin walks the tightrope softly and confidently.
“The only thing I got from you is my name,” repeats the album’s most famous line, laying bare his feelings towards his estranged father. ‘Three Points On A Compass’ could be overwrought but, above beautiful, murmurating notes, Rossiter Jr gently hammers home one of the calmest character assassinations in musical history. It’s all the more powerful for not losing its temper throughout its never-less-than-captivating 10 minutes.
“You broke my home/And I will never forget/All of the things you did,” it promises. Even if your parents are still in love it’s absolutely devastating. The rest of the album covers themes of loss, isolation and sex among others. It seems like there needed to be a bit of life lived to be able to make it.
“Oh yes, I’ve lived,” he says. “To be honest I’m a fan of words in songs, things that aren’t necessarily particularly wordy. I’m a fan of sentiment but not sentimentality, and I want the truth from the records I listen to. I just wanted to live or die by it.”
Title aside, there’s little that’s wilfully obtuse about the album – it’s all there to soak in. ‘There’s no other explanation for this pain/I’ve been put on earth to suffer for no reason,” he says dramatically on the almost show tune-esque ‘I Must be Jesus’, while “Drop anchor with me/You’ve been at sea far too long,” pleads the soaring first single ‘Drop Anchor’.
“I don’t want the songs to be mysterious at all,” he says. “I want the songs to be utterly understood. I want the same response from every listener. I loathe that, ‘Oh, we keep it deliberately vague’. That excuse is for people who either can’t, or can’t be bothered to write words.
“There was a slight sense of risk taking in the lyrics – a sense of ‘This is quite easy to mock,’” he admits. “I tend to like things that are quite easy to mock. I understand that as a miserablist I’m quite easy to mock. I’m never going to stand in front of everybody naked in real life, this is as close as I’ll get.”
The lyrics become so central to the album thanks to the bold choice of leaving the backing to only Martin’s piano playing. Written – like all his songs – sat at a keyboard, he gradually realised that it was “the process itself” that was making the songs better. Against the advice of his producer, who felt it would be impossible to hold people’s interest over a whole album, Martin decided to keep them stark and simple.
“I think, even more than acoustic guitar and voice, piano and voice has the fewest hiding places,” he believes. “I genuinely feel I’ve never written anything as good and I think that’s been the response from most people. They appreciate the craft, the melody – all those things that people never talk about in the music industry. Hours and hours of work and love and care got put into every note – the honesty of them.”
Perhaps initially disappointingly for his old fans, there was never any chance of these first new songs in a decade being the basis of a new Gene album. Martin has been pretty outspoken about his contemporaries reforming (“Pulp, Blur…they can all fuck off to Butlins,” he told Sabotage Times) and is more than happy to tackle the subject again.
“The Stone Roses was the one that upset me the most,” he says. “The only reason they’ve done it is money and I value pop music too much. It’s an art form that deserves better than just nostalgia. The fact that they’re playing in Qatar, happy to take that particular currency, I find saddening. They’ll happily go and play a show in a country where homosexuals are killed by the state. It hurts. It breaks my heart.”
There’s been no such resting on past glories for Martin. When Gene stopped selling records he went out and got a job as a music teacher. Having worked alongside him we can only say that he’s as great in front of a class of teenagers as he is on stage.
“I think in some people’s head there’s this myth of some splendid artistic isolation where I’ve been living on nothing more than carrots and mid-priced Cava,” he says. “It’s not the case – I went and got a job cos I didn’t have any money. I enjoy it. The healthiest thing is that you can live off your reputation for about 90 minutes. An 18 year old was born the year ‘For The Dead’ came out. They don’t care I was in a band. It’ll probably mean more being on the front cover of SOURCE than on Top Of The Pops.
As articulate, open and witty as you’d hope he’d be from his songs, Martin is damn near the perfect interviewee.
“I enjoy interviews,” he admits. “For me singing on stage was secondary to going face to face with an interviewer. I remember our first interview with the NME – I was prepared, it was like going into combat. I enjoy the potential for violence that you get in an interview. I’d be so happy if you charged me with some sort of sense of fraud.”
We just don’t think we can. He’s put himself into ‘The Defenestration of…’ completely, so fully, that we can do nothing more than love it with all our heart.
ALBUM: ‘The Defenestration Of St. Martin’ out now
VIDEO: ‘Drop Anchor’, see below
Words By James Kendall
Photo By Kenny Mc Cracken at Create
Assisted By Matthew Ring and Lucy Beavis
Make-Up By Ange Watson