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A Short Conversation with Harry Stafford

26 March 2020

With his latest album Urban Gothic Blues painting such a vivid picture of the ever changing nature of the modern city, as well as being such a fantastic collection of songs, I spoke to Harry Stafford about the thens, the nows and the where next for him, his band, his music and the city which inspired it.

Gothic Urban Blues feels like a love/hate letter to modern city life, would it be accurate to say that you find your inspirations in the decaying back streets of the urban sprawl?

Harry Stafford: Hi Dave, thanks so much for inviting me to talk to you The Big Takeover. Absolutely, and ode to the city, the metropolis and yes, the urban sprawl. I can only really base it on Manchester where I have lived for the last 38 years. When I arrived in 1981 the city was a slum. Post war industry had declined, the city was derelict with rusty machinery in empty workhouses. Everything was soiled with a defeated damp stain. There was no work, there was no people, just bored window shoppers waiting to get the last orange double decker but back to their out of town estate.
In the evening wretched pubs, downbeat strip clubs and desperate casinos masqueraded as entertainment to a seedy underbelly of ‘out of towners’. The ripped back streets and the sticky carpet end of town was the norm. It was not so much a black and white city as a soot-grey, dirty slum where you would find yourself desperately wandering between two worlds, one dead the other powerless to be born.

When Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures around this time it was a stark soundtrack to a dying northern town. Manchester was forsaken, void, a wet emptiness. A kind of Gothic Urban Blues permeated society, where the architecture, incipient despair and the music scene were sucked headfirst into an existential abyss.
I remember cherishing the very few places where you could see a band or go to a club that played punk and Bowie and moreover where we could express our sartorial aloofness. Everyone knew the place was a dump and was desperate to lift it out of this 70s malaise.

In the 80s I was trying to get my band inca babies off the ground and to further our profile I hung out with local record labels New Hormones and Factory who were collectively bringing the city back to life with gig promotions and a new gig venue and night club; The Hacienda. I loved this moment in time, watching the place go through some serious and brilliant changes. It wasn’t all good though, Jazz-funk (the bastard offspring of Northern Soul) and the drug gangs were unnecessary evils that had to be sweated out of the system, but the Hacienda and the Manchester music scene at the time, made it possible to love the place again.

Thankfully the old city was slowly pulled down and lifted up a refurbished Victorian factory and a sky-scraping, tower block at a time. The reinvention of the city really began when actual people began to live in the warehouse urban shelters, creating a wide-eyed community of urban aesthetes and a disposable income, a party population of young creative professionals. It was a wild time.Gone were the curb crawlers and pub carpark brawlers to be replaced with the gentrification of apartments, bars and restaurants.

Now in 2020 the city is unrecognisable. But while the city is thriving with a sense of identity and belonging, I can’t help thinking it has gone too far the other way. Too many bars, too many gigs, too many restaurants, where’s the scene and where’s the soul? Sure, Manchester has its mojo back but for me the Gothic Urban Blues of the soul, if you like, seems sadly absent.

After so long being associated with Inca Babies, what made you feel that the time was right to explore the solo path with Guitar Shaped Hammers a few years ago?

Harry Stafford: I had so many ideas that were bouncing around my head. Stuff that wouldn’t make good inca babies’ songs but somehow needed to see the light of an arena. All these songs had been written and put into files or recorded and filed away in ‘back-of-the-hard-drive mp3 folders’. Now, I decided to see what I had and wow! It’s like an inheritance that you left to yourself. Admittedly a lot of these songs didn’t make the final record but the ideas, the spirit and the stories often did.

Also, At the time I was going to a lot of open mics and watching my friends play there, almost to a performer every one of them was a guitar player. I thought, why doesn’t anyone play piano like Tom Waits or Nick Cave or Hoagy Carmichael or Mose Allison or . . . or . . . or . . .??

I went up to one of the organisers, Mat Hibbert a big Tom Waits fan, who did all the open Mics around South Manchester and asked him if he wanted someone playing Blues piano at his nights. He nearly bit my hand off. “Please do! we need something different”.

This was six years ago, and 170 gigs later it has given me the time and practice to understand what I really want to do. Believe me I was a fairly basic player when I started but now, I think, I finally get it, it certainly feels sublime when it all comes together. I feel like a reborn bluesman.

Your solo work relies less on a-raw edged guitar sound and explores other sonic landscapes, particularly those created by the piano. Did this change the nature of your song-writing?

Harry Stafford: Yes, most definitely. Suddenly I was finding a new voice, everything sounded as though a bell jar had been lifted from around me and I was no longer breathing the same foul air. It was inspirational to just try things that sounded novel and fresh. The piano is also a percussive instrument in the orchestra and the two hands you use to play it naturally beat out a rhythm. Which to me was so much more than a guitar.

It was a revelation that was both exciting and curious. I realised that I could really fuck with the DNA of previous ideas and come up with something (to me) that was utterly original. I liked the idea of layering the notes and using the damper. Using effects pedals meant for guitars. Wah-Wah piano anyone? It suddenly seemed to me that I could write a sonic concerto.

Obviously a thousand musicians have discovered all this before me, but at the time I was opening each idea with a sense of wonder and populating them with my own material for nightmares and visions of worlds yet unborn. It was huge for my creativity.

After such a long career writing songs and playing live, do you find that inspirations and ideas still come easily to you?

Harry Stafford: I wouldn’t say easily, but I do usually find I have a starting point, it’s where the muse takes me that is important. I love writing about characters and their reaction to a situation, or their motivation for a particular action. Also I do like to take the listener on a journey they may not have decided on. And while I don’t want to bore people with intellectual metaphysics I do like the idea of the artist as an expressionistic anarchist or bohemian, but I guess I can never really take myself that seriously.

‘Spiritus Mundi’ was a term used by W.B. Yeats to describe the collective soul of the universe containing the memories of all time. From ‘Spiritus Mundi,’ Yeats believed, came all poets’ inspiration. Well maybe? Song writing is for me the natural expression of the poet because it allows us contact to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Words and music are the greatest reality simulator.

But I don’t always paint a rosy picture the character in She just blew me Away is the kind of guy who exists Wandering around in a druggy fog of ugly sex, self-harm, and forever-February malaise. Not a role model. To paraphrase the great Willie Nelson: “Ninety percent of the people in the world end up with the wrong person. And that’s what makes the jukebox spin.” 

Now with a live band, named from your debut album, set to hit the stage, how do you think the live sound will differ from the album recordings and why?

Harry Stafford: The live sound is and will be somewhat improvised I have three musicians who seldom play the same thing twice, much that I would like them to. Kevin Davy is a trumpeter in the Miles Davis mode he soars and jags with the mood of the moment, but at the same time he is unafraid of the deafening silence at the edge of the sound. Vincent is a lap steal blues guitarist and will happily reinvent each song.

In essence I shall play the songs as I believe they should sound, but my backing band may well have some surprises for me.

And where next for you, the band and the music?

Harry Stafford: There will be a third album along in a couple of years because I believe that art should express itself in trilogies. I am writing and collecting a suitcase of songs that will explore the wandering soul and the dreams and difficulties that haunt a stateless being.

Or because of Covid-19 maybe we will be reluctant to travel again? And all we’ll have is a recollection of places we once visited as if in a dream.

Thank you very much for you time