Simon Armitage: There’s a bit of Mark E. Smith in everybody”

Indie music’s poet-in-chief – oh, and also the nation’s Poet Laureate, by royal appointment – gives us the rhyme and reason behind the magnificent new album from his band, LYR.

I’ve arranged to meet Simon Armitage outside a café in East London.

It’s 27°C and I’m taking shelter from the sun underneath a large parasol in front of a Portakabin when I see the rock-star fantasist (his words), turned British Poet Laureate (Her late Majesty The Queen’s words), turned rock-star actualist (my words) striding towards me in a short-sleeved shirt.

To be fair, he does look more like an off-duty indie singer than a Professor of Poetry, the title he currently holds at Leeds University (it’s the lack of elbow patches – they’d fall off a short-sleeve). Then again, we’re not really here to talk about poetry at all.

Armitage, 60, has just releasedThe Ultraviolet Age, a second album from his band Land Yacht Regatta, formed with singer-songwriter Richard Walters and multi-instrumentalist and producer Patrick Pearson. While their first record, 2020’s acclaimed Call in the Crash Team, was made without ever being in the same room, The Ultraviolet Age sees LYR become, in Walters’ words, a proper band”.

We learnt a lot from playing live after the first album,” Walters, whose singing sits alongside Armitage’s spoken-word contributions, tells me over email. We understood much more about what made us tick, and I think we went into this album knowing what kind of sounds would engage our audience.”

To that end the record is, simply, more beautiful, more emotional; Armitage’s contributions resting on a bed of fragile but expansive instrumentation. It’s often sad, but just as often funny and uplifting, too.

Deep down, I think we were aiming for something beautiful from the beginning; we were just slow to admit it,” adds Pearson, also over email. We’ve worked within a few different moods and sounds as a band, but I think we always enjoy that slice of cinematic beauty somewhere in there.”

But back to the cinematic beauty of the parasol in front of the Portakabin, where Armitage – born in Marsden and still resident in West Yorkshire – is currently espousing the benefits of wandering”.

It’s good to wander,” he confirms, accent flattening and stretching the word, as we sit facing one another on a picnic bench.

It must be useful in your line of work.

Yeah. Especially in urban environments, because I didn’t really grow up in one. I’ve never really lived in cities. So out in London is like Narnia for me; through the back of the wardrobe. I love just wandering around and seeing how people are living.

I wanted to ask you a fairly mechanical question first. Do the guys send you the music and then you give them the words? Or does it happen the other way around?

It happens in every direction. This whole LYR project started about six or seven years ago. Richard got in touch and he was interested in using some of the poems as song lyrics for his writing. We started doing a bit more Then he sent me a dictaphone and said, if I had any ideas, to put them on there as voice tracks and he’ll try to work them into songs. Richard had been working with Pat. Eventually we started doing more and more and it got a bit more formal.

But, in answer to your question: I would say that 70 percent of it begins with the lyric, me writing something and recording it as a voice track. Then either Richard puts a topline melody on it, or Pat puts a composition around it, and then we go into the studio and work it up from there.

Presumably, when you have the words first, there’s already a form and shape to them. Is it ever surprising what comes back and do you often have to change the form of what you’ve written?

You do change it sometimes. I always say, these aren’t fixed. Because we’re trying to make something different. The satisfying part of the process is that what comes back is often different to what I had imagined. If I write something that I think is melancholy and sombre, Pat will somehow find ecstasy or euphoria, and the same with Richard. The unexpected and the unknown is a real part of the creative process, and a big part of the enjoyment of it.

Also, just to see what happens when you put spoken words against music – it’s an interesting brew. I’ve always liked it in records when people start talking. It’s like they’ve taken their mask off or something. Like you’re watching them in the wings.

You’ve used lyrics” and spoken words” to describe your writing, but not poems”. I’m interested – are they written as poems and then change once they have music? Are they still poems just fulfilled differently? Or something else entirely?

They’re quite difficult to categorise exactly. Some of them do function as very lyrical, very traditional poems, in as much as they have a verse-chorus format and might be quite heavily rhymed – metered, even, in some cases. I published a book of all the lyrics that I’ve written [Never Good With Horses] and one of the reasons for doing that is, increasingly, I’ve been reading them out at poetry readings.

So, some of them are definitely poems of a certain kind, others are more noticeably lyrics. And the ones that are more noticeable lyrics are probably ones that I have written to Richard’s tunes, because they don’t really scan in their own right without the beat.

It’s quite hard to say that there are poems here, and lyrics over there, and they either fall into one or the other. There’s a crossover, and some are more in that area than others. I quite like the idea that I’m involved in something now that goes back probably to poetry’s origins. Poetry presumably started alongside song, chant, beat in the temple or around the campfire. I’m probably doing something that’s more honestly connected to my interest in arranged language – which was prayer or hymn or in song lyrics, looking at lyrics on album sleeves and things like that.

So even though it’s a step away from regular published poetry, it doesn’t feel contrary to it.

In that same way, you don’t have to sit down and put a different head on when you’re doing the music – it comes from the same place?

Well, with the performance it definitely started in a different place, and quite an uncomfortable one. When we started making the music, I was loving it creatively. Then, when it got a bit more organised and a bit more formal and we got a label and they started talking about doing shows, I thought: I dunno about that.

Because when I do poetry readings it’s just me, I’m practised at it and experienced. I feel as though, to a certain point, I can control it. But I can’t control the shows. There are so many variables, a lot of it technical, there are other people involved doing their stuff, different crowds – every show we play is a different atmosphere with different expectations. Even to the point where we sat down and I said that I’m not standing in the middle, I’m not that person.

But then, I got there and they’d already soundchecked and my mic was in the middle at the front. Because I’m talking or reciting, or whatever you want to call it, I can still occupy a space that is related to what I do when I read the poems. It’s started to feel increasingly comfortable and enjoyable. I suppose there’s an excitement of the collaboration and camaraderie that you don’t usually get with writing. They’re all 20 years younger than me so they’ve got different energies and attitudes and it’s great.

[“When everything falls in place it’s a remarkable, incomparable feeling,” Walters tells me over email. To be onstage with LYR some nights is like a blast of light, so unbelievably special and memorable. I think in a post-lockdown world I’m more aware than ever of those moments. I bank them. I love my bandmates. it’s a very genuine feeling of respect and admiration I have for them.”]

What do you think about when you’re on stage?

That would be interesting wouldn’t it, to see a kind of printout of my thoughts? We talked a lot early on – one thing I didn’t want to do was to be onstage knowing all the words. That didn’t connect with me as a writer, because when I read, I read from a book. [But] I didn’t want to stand there with a book. I figured out a way of having the words in front of me, but by and large I know them. It’s a prop rather than a prompt.

A lot of the time, I’m thinking: what comes next? I think I’m trying to enjoy it. We usually play as a three, and that’s like a stripped thing. When we’ve played festivals there’s been five of us and that feels like more of a show, you’re making more of a racket. But I’ve never been tempted to move or anything like that. I’m like the spindle in the middle of the record. Everything’s going around me.

I can really hear you using your voice as an instrument on the new record. The line that stands out is the way you deliver that final my way” on Living Legend.

Oh, and it all gets a little nasally and Northern.

I really like that bit. Is it a different way of using your voice, compared to the readings? Are you using it as an instrument? Does it feel like singing?

When we were with the previous label [Call in the Crash Team was released on Mercury KX, The Ultraviolet Age by the newly founded EMI North] they said to me at one point: Do you want a voice coach?” And I was like: I know how to talk and I know how to read and I feel as though that’s been going alright.” But I’ve always taken the idea [that] I’m only interested in everything”.

So I thought:,Yeah, OK. During lockdown I started having conversations with this voice coach and I just found it really fascinating. It was all about body and breath. But more body than breath. She wanted me to really perform, and it was quite an awkward conversation, where I was saying a lot of the time: I don’t think I want to be that person. I want to bring some kind of stillness and deadpan to what we’re doing.” But after a few sessions I’d notice that when we’d go back to the studio, I’d let go a bit more.

We did an album for a project in Barnsley and some of it is quite ranty. Maybe there’s an inner Mark E. Smith coming into myself. There’s a bit of Mark E. Smith in everybody. Anyway, he’s not here now so somebody’s got to do it.

Do you enjoy the recording process as well as the live thing? Do you enjoy being in the studio with the guys?

I really, really like it. It’s fun, you know, quite knockabout. You’re all cooking and drinking and laughing together. The eye-contact is very useful in making stuff. Showing people what you’re in agreement and disagreement with.

Also, just observing those guys. Music’s a language that I don’t speak, so they have a vocabulary around the songs and their accomplishment on instruments and their versatility with lots of different instruments. I admire that enormously.

But even without speaking it, you clearly love music and it’s been a huge part of your life [Armitage released a book, Gig, about his love of music in 2008]. You must have developed a sense of what you like and what you don’t?

Oh, definitely. I’m not quiet in the studio about that. I don’t have a way of speaking about it but I’ve got plenty to say. We talk a lot about song structures. They’ve got all the right terminology and I’m like: You know that bit when it goes a bit wobbly?” We’ve also noticed that I can’t really contribute to a discussion of the songs until I can see it, on Pat’s screen, all the stems. I point to the yellow bit or the blue bit: Can we bring that bit down?” I have to sit there with the lyrics in front of me as a written thing to be able to think about the structure, too. It’s a part of my brain that I didn’t know I used very much.

I always encourage my students to write by hand – they don’t. But you build up an archaeology of your mistakes. It’s important to see the process that you’ve gone through”

When did you know that words would be such a significant part of your life? Was there a particularly defining moment or did it creep up on you?

There were defining moments at school where we started reading Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath. I definitely knew at that point that I was interested in these managed forms of very intense language. It was like language at play, not just language as information, which was how you tended to use it at school. Language tended to be logical, rational. Suddenly, this was a much more playful and very compact form of it.

I wanted to read poetry, and also thought it was alternative, the people that were doing it. It was a bit subversive. I associated it with music at that time, the music that I was listening to, which was all the old post-punk stuff. Not many people were listening to it so it felt like a way of getting outside the mainstream.

I don’t think it represented a career then, or even an opportunity for a career, because I didn’t study English at university or anything. I studied geography. I wasn’t thinking of it as a tenure track.

Were the words in the songs that you listened to important?

Definitely. I like a lot of pop music whose words are utterly banal, but the music I like more has interesting and powerful lyrics. I remember that Talking Heads album, Fear of Music, getting that and just thinking: that is so interesting. You’ve gone through punk and it was all slogans and shouting and then suddenly there was this more artful introspection going on. I was just the right age and was like, I want to move into something more introspective. And that became Morrissey, Paddy McAloon [from Prefab Sprout], David Byrne. Anybody doing interesting things with language. Especially detail – detail in songs.

I like it when a lyric is very, very specific, I find it weirdly more affecting than something that you think would be more catch-all.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? At gigs sometimes, when you’re listening to people singing along and the lyric is so abstract and peculiar – what’s the connection? People at a Radiohead concert singing the words watering can”. What’s the connection there? But there is a connection through the music, through the chord change in the moment.

Thinking about that point when words became important to you, that first urge you felt to write or create something: have there ever been points when it’s gone away? And in what way do you think it’s changed or developed over the years?

There’s definitely been times when I’ve felt tired of poetry. Because it’s quite an intense activity, an intense relationship with language, every now and again you go, I don’t want to exist at that pitch”, or: I’m not sure it’s the right medium to be expressing myself in anymore.” I don’t think they’ve been big, existential worries about who I am and what I do. I just think, maybe tiredness every now and again and exhaustion. I wake up the next day and it gets to about 11 o’clock and think: yeah I want to write a poem now.

Like that, you feel that urge?

It is slightly… I was going to say compulsive… but I even wonder if it’s addictive. I’ve always associated it with stolen time because for seven or eight years I was a probation officer in Manchester and I was writing then. That was stolen time – I was stealing time from the Home Office. And stealing their stationery.

When I gave that up to become a poet full-time, I still, in my head, thought: I’ve got to embezzle this feeling from somewhere else. That’s what still excites me about it. What’s the right work? It’s a kind of a refuge sometimes. Me and my little book.

You write by hand?

I do with the poems. And the lyrics, actually. All the bigger stuff, all the prose – it’s too slow doing it by hand. But the poems, there’s nothing to put on the screen really until I’ve scratched and scribbled away for a little while or got a bit of shape to something. It’s good fun when you get it onto a screen because you can start moving blocks around.

But there’s more of a permanence if it’s handwritten.

I always encourage my students to write by hand – they don’t. But you build up an archaeology of your mistakes. It’s important to see the process that you’ve gone through. Because when you’re just on the computer screen, you delete everything that you don’t want, and eventually you’re just left with the one thing and it looks like it came out perfectly formed.

One of the high points of the record is The Song Thrush and the Mountain Ash, which looks at the separation necessitated by the pandemic. Do you find that writing helps you process things?

I’ve always said that I don’t write to try and explain things to myself. I’ve always arrived at the answer before I sit down and write. Some people definitely use writing as a form of enquiry. Whether it helped? I mean, the process of making things helped definitely through lockdown.

During that time, the big frustration for me was – it’s not like there was a shortage of stuff to write about, there were lots to write about. But I just wasn’t picking up the bits and pieces, the cement that you need to make stuff with. I’d got all the bricks but that mortar, it comes from everyday chance encounters, being out and about and hearing things, seeing things, unexpected. And every day was just so familiar.

But that piece was commissioned [by Huddersfield Choral Society] and what helped me during that period was someone saying: Make something on this subject.” Because it occupied my mind. Rather than writing about the subject, just the act of writing in itself was very therapeutic.

What are you finding interesting to write about at the moment?

Since I became laureate, I’ve felt as if there’s been a responsibility to respond to public events, topical events and there’s been quite a lot going on.

The pandemic, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth, a new King, war…

Yeah, there’s been a lot of stuff. I tend not to write about party politics head-on and there’s a lot of that going on at the moment, but I don’t think I’ll be getting anywhere near that. It’s been a chance just to get into my own writing. I’ve been writing a collection of poems for several years now called New Cemetery. Small, quite skeletal pieces and I’ve just about finished that, on the point of handing it in.

The slate feels pretty clean at the moment. Clear. I’ve been translating an old Babylonian poem called Gilgamesh in collaboration with a guy at Oxford who’s doing the minutiae of the translations. Strangely enough, I find myself not being able to speak Akkadian cuneiform.

It’s not on Duolingo, is it?

No, it’s not. And none of my mates speak it so it wouldn’t be much use. I’m up-to-date with that so I feel at a bit of a junction really. We’ve got a lot of our LYR work under our thumb now so I’m looking ahead and seeing what’s on the horizon. I write a lot. For my birthday recently somebody made a fold-out – it was like a pack of cards but they were concertinaed and onto each one they’d photocopied a cover of all the books I’d written. It went on for three yards long! And I did think: well, if I never wrote another word, there’s plenty there. I could prove that I was a writer.

The Ultraviolet Age is out now on EMI North.

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