Martin Bramah interviewed about the return of The Blue Orchids
By Bob Gourley | Published on August 29, 2016
As a founding member of The Fall, Martin Bramah had initially tried to distance himself from them musically when launching his subsequent project, The Blue Orchids. But as time went on, Bramah learned to “forget about not trying to sound like The Fall” and to simply do the music that comes naturally. After having spent several years with Factory Star, Bramah decided that it’s time to bring back The Blue Orchids. The group has a new album, “The Once And Future,” and released “Awefull,” a collection of non-LP Rough Trade material. They also released “Blue Orchids Bomb Manchester! / Bomb Hamburg!,” a double cd of live shows from 1981 and 1985. In addition, Bramah has re-issued his little-heard solo album, “The Battle Of Twisted Heel. ” In a phone interview, Bramah discussed his career and the return of The Blue Orchids.
There is a new Blue Orchids album, as well as several re-issues. Which came about first? Did the new release inspire the re-issues, or did preparing re-issues inspire you to re-activate the Blue Orchids?
The Blue Orchids reformed about 3 years ago. There was some interest for us to perform at festivals, so I put a band together. I couldn’t get the original members because a lot of time had passed. I had been with a band called Factory Star, which provided the basis for it, though I did get a couple of other people in to make up the new Blue Orchids. So we started gigging as the Blue Orchids, because promoters were interested. I had new material which was suitable, so after a year, we started looking at putting another album together. So the new album came first, in that sense, recording-wise. I had some strong material and was looking for an outlet. We recorded it in the northeast of England. Then once we had it in the can, the guy who’s helping us out financially put an idea on the table, suggesting that we could make the launch more significant by re-issuing some classic stuff and re-presenting my solo album. That solo album had kind of slipped by the wayside the first time around. That’s how this whole package of the new album, the Rough Trade singles album and my solo album reissue, came together.
Does Factory Star still exist, or have you completely moved back to Blue Orchids?
Well, Factory Star had kind of served its purpose, I suppose. I wanted to reassess my place in music and my approach to making music. Factory Star started when I returned to Manchester, where I’m from, after being in London for quite a few years. I didn’t just want to pick up the old name and the old kind of attitude. I wanted a fresh start. Factory Star seemed to be a semi-whimsical name, and also kind of a blank name that I could make my own. But it was very much a Manchester kind of thing. I think it had a fresh sense of the history of Manchester. I was writing in a UK-centric, North England kind of way. I had that going for 5 years with various members. But I suppose that at my stage in life, I’d proven my point that I could do something new, so I just fell back on the Blue Orchids. With the reality of gigging here in the UK, it’s quite difficult getting gigs even if you’re a big name. And I’m part of the underground. So I needed that hook to get more work. Blue Orchids is just a stronger name and can demand better money and things like that. I’d gone against the grain by not using it, but after a while, you just do what you can to have an advantage.
Did you have a clear sense as to what you wanted the new version of Blue Orchids to sound like?
Yeah, I always have a clear idea of what the band should sound like. It’s not always the same, though. It evolves over time and is based on my own interests. The band is a vehicle for myself as a professional musician and the people I am currently working with. I give people the freedom to collaborate and join in. The new album had continuity in sound with the band, but also it’s an up-to-date record. It’s in the context of what I want to achieve and what I enjoy.
But is it different now that time has passed, and it’s not as important to sound different from The Fall?
With Blue Orchids, I did definitely want to get away from The Fall sound because I didn’t want to be accused of rehashing what the media perceived as being owned by Mark E. Smith. So in a way I was tying one arm behind my back, because I actually sound like The Fall, or can. I was responsible for a lot of the music during the first couple of years. So yeah, I was trying to get away from that. But at the same time, it’s inevitable that the music has an element of that, because it’s me. It’s the kind of music I make. I think that in the early days, Blue Orchids was consciously trying to not sound like The Fall. But as time has gone by, with Factory Star I was really trying to forget about not trying to sound like The Fall. So that did sound more like The Fall, even as far as working with ex-Fall members Steve Hamley and his brother Paul. Although we didn’t record together, we worked together live quite a lot for a year. And then we played some Fall songs in the set, which didn’t go down that well with people. They thought we had no right. I’d only co-written them, you know. But that’s just UK audience members, I think. Fall fans can be quite smug in this country. It is a double-edged sword. But these days, I don’t care so much. I don’t worry about it because as I said, I have every right to sound something like The Fall. It’s a natural thing.
Could you talk a bit about the solo album?
I was cynical about the relationships I’d had with record labels at that point, the smaller labels that I had been dealing with. I just wanted to put something out myself. A friend of mine had set up the blueorchids.net website for mail order CDs. Not a lot of people knew it was there, because a website not connected to all the social media sites is like a shop window down a back street. That was in 2008. It was self-released; we just pressed some CDs and mailed them out to people who ordered through our website. So it didn’t sell a lot of copies, basically. The solo thing was a vague attempt at being a folk singer, or my own take on folk singing. Because to me, The Fall was a folk rock band. I don’t like all this folk rock as it’s labelled by the mainstream music press. To me, folk music is just original music from the people, not classically or university-trained musicians. Just people who pick up an instrument and learn to play it and write. So in a sense, I always thought I was a folk musician. Obviously not style-wise, but in intent and the way I’d come into music. So that solo album was kind of touching into the more acoustic and folk world, but still with an originality. It was a very low-key release, and I did a couple of gigs solo but thought no, I need a band again. Then I started Factory Star and just went electric again. So the solo album just passed a lot of people by. It’s a piece of work I’m really proud of, but it’s another aspect of me. With the label that we’ve currently started, Tiny Global, we’re looking to give it a wider audience so that it can be re-discovered.
Did you consider re-interpreting that music for a full band?
Well, I did an element of that with the Factory Star band; we re-recorded some of the tracks form that solo album. There are two Factory Star albums, there’s “Enter Castle Perilous” and then there’s a 10-inch mini album called “New Sacral.” There were 3 or 4 songs from the solo album re-interpreted with a band on those 2 records. You can cross-reference. “Fall of Great Britain,” “Black Comic Book,” “Stone Tumbling Stream” and “Super Real.” I still do occasional Factory Star stuff and songs from the solo album when I’m currently playing with the current Blue Orchids live.
What made you go with Pledgemusic for the new album and re-issues, and what are your thoughts on this type of distribution?
Well, it kind of demands the listener/purchaser to be more pro-active. The good thing about something like Pledgemusic is that it does cut out the middleman, the records labels, to some extent. A good record label is invaluable and a great thing for an artist to be involved with. But so much nonsense goes on, especially with the bigger labels. Unless you’re a multimillion-selling artist and need that kind of backup distribution-wise [it’s not worth it]. With Pledgemusic, it’s just the public dealing with the artist, and perhaps their management. It’s a good thing, but it does require people to get out to seek the music out, unless you’ve got an advertising budget as well. It’s a more specialized audience initially, I think, of music fans who would go out and seek stuff and order it and wait for it to arrive. That’s the way music has gone, I think. I don’t know what it’s like in America, but in this country, the scene is changing a lot. It’s not the mass market it used to be, apart from the stuff that’s just being hammered on the radio. The live scene is not what it was; people are just doing other things with their time it seems, and not hanging around in clubs watching rock bands as much. There’s still an audience, but it’s nothing like it used to be. I think it’s the beginning of something; it’s not like this a new way of getting your music out there; it’s just a first experiment in new ways of presenting music. Initially, I was a bit worried because I don’t really like the idea of asking people for money before they know what they are getting; it’s just not very rock and roll. But when you look at it again, it’s like well, it is a sensible way and worth having a look at. At least having a go at it.
How do you handle the challenge of reaching new audiences?
Well, it’s always a challenge, I guess, to reach new audiences. You can be deceived that way, being my age and how long I’ve been doing it. It’s a challenge, but it’s an interesting challenge. I hate the idea that I’m just playing to my generation; it’s not really how I see myself when I’m writing. Age is kind of relative, and I think that if you do something interesting, it should be interesting across the board. So it’s a challenge, but it’s not like I’m consciously trying to reach the kids or anything like that. I’m just trying to write interesting stuff, intelligent and thought-provoking, and that should appeal to anyone of any age who has an interest in music that’s got some kind of content.
You’ve worked with many different musicians over the years. Is this your preference, or would you have liked to have a more steady group of collaborators?
Really, that’s just life. I think the bands where you’ve got the same four or five people for years—they’re lucky if it works and remains interesting. They’re lucky to have that unified vision. All I’ve encountered is ongoing problems with different people after a while [laughs]. But you know, people want different things out of it. I’ve never made a lot of money off of this; I’ve always done it for the love of it. People come and go, as they’ve got other things they want to get on with and get other opportunities. People come and go for different reasons, either you fall out or they get another offer. I just move on. I guess I’m more eclectic like that. I’ve never been part of the group that has had the glue to stick together, like the Rolling Stones or the Ramones or something.