After a considerable period in isolation back in his native Scotland, Grahame Skinner, formerly of 80s chart success Hipsway, has decided to try his luck once more with the simply titled Skinner.
‘I got no wisdom teeth and a stupid mouth. I tell the people in the north that I prefer it in the south. I got a winning smile and a loser’s luck. I saw the first punch coming but I didn’t try to duck. Life’s so sweet since I tasted candy’ (‘Since I Tasted Candy’, Cowboy Mouth)
“You have reached your destination” repeat “You have reached your destination”. Possibly the very words running through the mind of Grahame Skinner – ex-Jazzateers, Hipsway, Witness, The Pleasure Lords – when time was finally called on his then last project Cowboy Mouth. After experiencing various degrees of success with the aforementioned Hipsway during the 80s, the bands which followed failed to find their mark commercially despite offering cleverly crafted slices of guitar pop. In fact, final outing Cowboy Mouth was borderline perfection melding the deft musicianship of stalwart Douglas MacIntyre with the wondrous croon of Messer Skinner detailing various tales of broken promises, failed relationships and numerous excesses. It is with the latter problem that produced one of the finest lyrics to come out of the Skinner stable with a definite nod to an individual at rock bottom and staring out of the gutter at what might have been (see above).
With such a chequered history musically, Famous Last Words was eager to learn of the thought processes making up the lyrical compositions of Grahame Skinner during a recent visit to his home city of Glasgow. Fortunately for FLW, the former Hipsway frontman was in a reflective mood regarding his career to date, but also equally willing to discuss plans regarding his latest venture simply titled, Skinner. But first things first, ‘Since I Tasted Candy’.
“I was living in London, and happy living there, but I basically moved to London because I wanted to get away from Glasgow at that time,” explains Grahame. “That’s why I moved to London because it was too much here. I am much happier up here now than I was in London as I had had enough of London as well. But it is different now, as I don’t have that pressure that I had when I was there. I think there was a point…[he pauses to rephrase what he is saying] it’s hard to say I was an alcoholic because I don’t think that I was really, but I did drink a lot and everybody did. I don’t do that now. It really does mess you up when you’re waking up with a hangover every day. I got to a point where I started to get a bit panicky so I decided to stop. Also, having success and then not having it and the way people perceive you, it took me a long time to adjust to the fact that I was that person, and still am that person, but I’m not in Hipsway and not on TV anymore and I‘m quite comfortable with that now. It was a hard thing to lose. Even though we worked hard, it all seemed effortless. For six months of your life you were still doing everything you wanted to do because you were going out all the time and stuff like that. You could afford to live on a credit card back then. It’s my happiest recording experience as I was running about f****** myself up but I was making a record and really enjoying it.”
Grahame Skinner’s first foray into music was a result of seeing live performances by the likes of Orange Juice and The Fire Engines before taking his first tentative steps as a musician with the enigma that was The Jazzateers due to the various incarnations the band seemed to muster at will.
“I loved Orange juice – the way they were playing, even though they were ramshackle bands, you could see that they were good musicians and Edwyn Collins [lead singer] was a great guitar player but quite advanced at the time for my abilities, but there was something about the Fire engines that made me believe that I could be in a band,” reflects Grahame whilst lighting his cigarette. “I had been messing about with a guitar for a while and then I met Harry [drummer in Hipsway] and we decided to start a band. Both of us met at university but neither were students as we met through friends of students who were at university. Then we started writing songs and we gradually started a band that finally we thought was good enough to play live. So we started playing gigs and became part of, at that time, a pretty happening Glasgow scene . I got asked to sing on The Jazzateers album and that was the first record I ever sang on and it received good reviews. Not long after that, we got asked by Altered Images manager if we’d like to form a band and he’d manage us, and that’s how Hipsway got started. We were into punk rock and what came after that and it just seemed like the natural thing to do to start a band.”
What was it like being a part of The Jazzateers?
“That was a one off thing because they had a deal with Rough Trade to make a record,” says Grahame. “The Jazzateers was the complete opposite of what Rough Trade was expecting as the record they delivered was this kinda tough, guitar-driven sort of New York influenced sound but they were also doing this fey, Postcard [Records] kind of music, which I liked as well, so it was kind of odd with two different kinds of things. The Jazzateers got me singing [on the album] and apparently Geoff Travis, the owner of Rough Trade, was not very happy about it [the album] as he was expecting this jangly pop stuff and he got this hard-edged thing. Anyway, they put it out and it received good reviews in the NME and all of a sudden it was like a dream that had come true.”
Was it difficult to secure Hipsway’s first record contract?
“I gave up my job and lived on my credit card for six months and practiced every day and finally we got a deal,” replies Grahame between puffs of smoke. “We took it very professionally in terms of getting a deal but we had to be good technically. So we really practiced and wrote lots of songs whilst still living in Glasgow. It was a commitment and we really made a commitment and went for it. I think having Jerry as a manager – who managed Altered Images – gave us the confidence to go for it as well as he seemed pretty certain it would all work out. But it wasn’t as straightforward as we thought it was going to be as we thought we’d just get a record contract.”
Mention the name Hipsway to most people who know something about music and the likely response will be the breakthrough single ‘The Honeythief’, which reached number seventeen in the British singles chart and also the Top 20 in the US. This was something of a feat during the 1980s as mounting an assault on the Top 40 was a tough mission to accomplish because in order to secure the number one spot sales in the region of one million plus would most likely do it.
“It was odd because at that point technology was really taking over. We talked earlier [pre-interview] about CDs when they first came out and how everybody just bought into it. The same things were happening in recording studios as they were just starting to go digital. You were getting all this new equipment in such as keyboards and there was a kind of edge of perfectionism happening with everything having to be a lot more shiny and perfect. We were kinda carried along with that because if you look at the Hipsway album, which was recorded in the 1980s, and compare with Cowboy Mouth, recorded maybe ten years later, that is a really lo-fi record. So it put quite a lot of pressure on us because it was our first proper record, and to try and get that perfect sound that everybody was trying to go for – Simple Minds had already made four records before they got to that sparkly shiny stage – it was tough as we had to do it on our first album and it put a lot of pressure on the band as it usually takes a few years to get comfortable and really know what you’re talking about as we were learning as we went along.”
Were you happy with the final outcomes of both Hipsway albums?
“The first album, people still talk to me about it and they really love it,” he explains. “I still play about four or five songs from that live on an acoustic guitar. When Hipsway split up, I didn’t want to hear it again because I was sick of it because we had played it so much. I don’t feel like that now. The second album, ‘Scratch The Surface’ was as much production as we could ever have – the kitchen sink that album! We took a long time [recording] and just got fed up with it.”
Detecting a slight unease in terms of the response regarding the soulful pop that was Hipsway, FLW considers it worth investigating further the connection Grahame Skinner had with Hipsway in order to ascertain whether this period matched the success the band experienced with a certain level of contentment as well.
“There was a lot of…” comes the reply before hesitating and resuming with, “It didn’t end well. So I can’t look back totally fondly on it. It’s never always happy, but I’m glad that I did it.”
Being slightly taken aback by this reaction considering Hipsway’s level of success during the excess years of the eighties, it would seem that success does not always guarantee that happiness will automatically follow. But what exactly were the reasons for this unfulfilled level of contentment in the former Hipsway frontman?
“People didn’t get on and the pressure made people change as well. I guess I changed, but I didn’t notice that!” he laughs knowingly. “I just noticed everybody else changing. I never thought about money or anything like that, but I guess people around us were thinking about it all the time as this has got to be a certain way as we’re trying to be commercial and stuff. I never thought about it in that way. As long as I could go out at night I was happy. Buying a house and things like that never occurred to me until the band split up. Three of us were really quite rock ‘n’ roll, whereas Johnny [McElhone] was very well-behaved and didn’t go out much. I guess that put a bit of a strain on us.”
From a distance, the 1980s appeared to have a dreamlike quality that suggested a permanent state of wonderland as far as the music industry was concerned. The majority of bands signed to a lucrative contract were seemingly given the opportunity to realise their full potential with at least two or three albums in the can before industry figures wanted to see a serious return on their investments. This obviously did not work out for all bands but at least there seemed to be a level of patience in terms of major record labels giving bands several chances to fix the components creatively and (unfortunately) commercially.
The same level of patience was afforded to Hipsway, as the band were given a considerable period of time to write and record their material, despite the aforementioned assertion that the band were under considerable pressure to learn their craft quickly due to the advancing developments technologically. This, however, did not stop Hipsway making the most of their new found freedoms as Grahame rather neatly sums up.
“To use a Glaswegian expression, ‘we ripped the arse out of it!'” he comments laughing loudly. “We were in New York when we recorded our second album. I think living in New York was an amazing period for us because we were away from everybody and did what we wanted. We were there for nine months out of a year.”
Despite nearly choking on this incredible admission of a nine month stint living and recording in America’s Big Apple due to such luxuries simply unheard of in the current climate of bands in the UK starting out on the road to recognition, Grahame Skinner is fully aware of the privileges his band were afforded but also that such luxuries are no longer welcome.
“So that album [‘Scratch The Surface’] and the Witness album I did after that was probably one of the last albums where people were allowed to spend as much money as they wanted. I hate that now, even if I had the chance I would never work like that again.”
Rather than retreating back to the urban environment of his native Glasgow, Grahame Skinner opted to stay in the equally urban surroundings of England’s capital, after the demise of Hipsway, due to the network he had worked hard to attain but also due to unfinished business, musically, that was still incessantly nagging to be heard on a much larger platform.
In the aftermath of Hipsway, two projects came forward from the Skinner stall with the first being Witness and then later followed by the rather unfortunately titled The Pleasure Lords (Grahame is in unison with FLW that this moniker was perhaps not the best). However, it is Witness that Grahame expresses his feelings most strongly for as the breakthrough somehow eluded them.
“Witness came out of Hipsway, basically. We just dropped the moniker Hipsway because we just didn’t want to play those records anymore,” explains Grahame regarding the birth of new project Witness. “We got a new deal and just wanted to start from scratch. It was basically me and Pim [Jones] and we had some songs left over from Hipsway and some new songs as well. We were still going for a big production but it was a bit less overproduced, if you know what I mean?”
Do you feel that Witness should have been the band to really set you up musically?
“I thought that album was a real strong commercial record. We put the first single out, made the video and the guy who was our A&R man had been with us from a previous company got promoted to another company and left us. So going from having the most important guy at the record company backing us to him leaving and having no backing just at the point when we needed the backing, it all just fell apart after that. The record came out with accompanying singles, but they [record label] didn’t really do any work on it, and I’ve never been so angry! It was totally the wrong thing, but I’d given people a barracking when I should’ve been nice to them. So we ended up falling out with them and getting dropped.”
Enter The Pleasure Lords.
“The Pleasure Lords started as a kind of joke as we went really quite heavy!” explains Grahame sounding slightly surprised even now at the thought of one of his bands turning the amps up a notch or two. “We used to gig for a while in London and that band was amazing live and probably the best live band I have been in. We used to do these amazing gigs sometimes to a couple of hundred people and sometimes in front of five people. We were so good. So it was one of those tragic things as it never really took off.”
Despite Grahame Skinner’s admission regarding the demise of The Pleasure Lords – and yes, the songs certainly stand up – The Pleasure Lord’s demise is FLWs’ gain as from the ashes emerged Cowboy Mouth. With only two albums to their name, Cowboy Mouth was the perfect melding of Grahame Skinner’s brooding vocals and late-night tales of sadness, obsession, loneliness and regret coupled with the deft musicianship of Douglas MacIntyre [Love & Money] creating a lo-fi sound that found a home with the equalling perfect Marina Records. In fact, ‘Life As A Dog’ and ‘Love Is Dead’ are as close to perfection as one could ask for, and the kinds of records, in FLWs’ humble opinion, that Grahame Skinner should have made many moons ago. It came as no surprise to learn, therefore, that this perfect partnership has stemmed from a long-standing friendship.
“It just came about through friendship, which is the best way really to start a band,” comments Grahame regarding Cowboy Mouth. “Douglas and I had been in a band before, and it never worked out, so it felt like unfinished business. Also, we both had the same idea of doing something quick and cheap in terms of going in and recording. ‘Life As A Dog’ took five days to record and that’s not in any way an exaggeration because we didn’t have any money to record and mix that whole Cowboy Mouth album. I basically had the money and paid for the recording, and the guys who played on it played for nothing.”
A stark contrast then compared to the recording methods and budgets you were used to with Hipsway and Witness?
“As I said, it took five days to do ten tracks and you’d be lucky to do a track in five days in the 80s. I thought that’s how it had to be done; it has to be like this because that’s the way I have been taught. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Was the recording process for Cowboy Mouth ever difficult considering the budget restraints and timescale?
“Everything was effortless,” responds Grahame whilst lighting another cigarette. “For example, the second album [‘Love Is Dead’] there is a song called ‘Summer Runaway’, I wrote that with Douglas while I was making him an omelette for breakfast because he had come down to stay with us. We had been up drinking the night before, and he’s sleeping in the living room, when he starts playing this thing on the guitar and I just let roll the lyrics while I was cooking.”
How did the record deal with Marina Records happen?
“We sent it [recordings] to Marina,” is the immediate reply. “I don’t know how we knew Marina but I think Douglas had a connection with them as he had been playing bits and pieces on The Bathers [Scottish band also on Marina Records] albums so that’s probably where the connection is from. Stefan [Kassel, Marina Records] flipped when he heard the record because he just loved that record so much. It was getting great reviews in Europe and stuff like that with record of the week, but I couldn’t seem to get much going over here. I guess I didn’t really know what I was doing as I was not used to trying to do anything on the indie scene. Also, I was in London and Douglas was up here [Glasgow] and he’s just starting a family and I’m struggling down in London. So it was difficult for us to get up much of a head of steam.”
The frustration felt by Grahame Skinner of seeing Cowboy Mouth’s first output, at least, receiving rave reviews but not quite cutting it in terms of a UK audience due to a lack of publicity and seemingly powerless to do much about this due to being thrown to the lions of the indie scene, no doubt helped fuel several of the songs found throughout the band’s recorded output. In fact, ‘Life As A Dog’ sounds like someone on the verge of a breakdown due to the various emotions portrayed; ‘Headlights’ in particular coming to a seething conclusion of incensed guitar (Mick Slaven’s mastery FLW is informed) and venomous words that make for uncomfortable listening.
“I think I was really quite down at the time [‘Life As A Dog’] but didn’t quite realise it until I thought about my situation, which was going from not having any financial cares to always struggling,” reflects Grahame on the period of recording Cowboy Mouth’s first album. “My wife was just starting out in her career, so it was quite a difficult time from being able to walk into any club and not paying and people buying you drinks to…” he trails off in deep reflection before resuming. “I still had lots of friends but maybe it’s a good thing that happened to me as it took me out of that but I was really overdoing it. But that’s the way it was as you’d finish rehearsals and then go to the pub and drink six pints and went home. I didn’t think I was drunk when I had six pints but of course I was. I have been listening to a lot of Aidan Moffat [records] and that sounds like me when I was 35! When you’re in the middle of something you don’t realise until you look back and see. I’m a much more rounded individual now, and I have got over my ego and my loss,” he finishes laughing.
With two sublime albums to their name, Cowboy Mouth decided to call time on their brief career, which also seemed to signal the end of Grahame Skinner as a singer-songwriter due to the low profile maintained since the band’s demise with only a stint playing bass for a band called Bruise in 2000.
“I came up here [Glasgow] and didn’t do anything musically for about ten years,” says Grahame. “Two years ago I was working at the jazz festival and James Grant [Love & Money] said that he was playing there and asked if I could perform two songs with him – ‘Broken Years’ and ‘Ask the Lord’. I thought at the time, ‘Oh f***! I hate those songs!’ I hated those songs at the time and didn’t want to know about it, but I couldn’t get out of it and had no reason not to do it as I wasn’t working [musically]. So I went up and did it with just a wee playing area and roughly 150 people there. James [Grant] is brilliant at this stuff, and we did it and everybody applauded warmly and I thought to myself, ‘I think I’ll start doing this again!’” laughing loudly at the memory of this. “So, I got in touch with Douglas [MacIntyre] again, and he was into it, and that was how Skinner came about.”
Skinner being Grahame’s new, and latest project with the previously mentioned Douglas MacIntyre on board once more to flex their creative muscles in a fresh attempt to reel in the masses with perhaps one final fling.
“Douglas came up with the name for what we’re doing now,” explains Grahame regarding the band’s new moniker of simply Skinner, “as you can do what you like with the idea being that we can play Hipsway songs, Cowboy Mouth songs, Jazzateers songs or whatever. So it’s a nice umbrella as we can play new stuff as well. Therefore, it means you can use me as the figurehead and not worry about who’s in the band as the nature of it is that you may work with someone one time and then someone else another because it’s impossible to get everyone in the room at the same time. So it’s just trying to adapt to your circumstances, basically.”
As thoughts begin to focus on the long trek back to the south, FLW requires one final reassurance from our Glaswegian host that the musician who brought us such wondrous delights as the ‘The Honeythief’, ‘Since I Tasted Candy’, ‘Letter From LA’, ‘Bad Poetry’, ‘Waiting For An Echo’ to name but a few, that the music world has not seen the last of Grahame Skinner.
“Douglas [MacIntyre] and I have written an albums worth of material,” comes the reply and one that FLW had hoped for regarding a possible new album. “There is all that stuff in between Cowboy Mouth and Bruise as well, some of which I may plunder. There is also another new project Douglas and I want to do, and that is record our own version of a Frank Sinatra album called ‘Watertown’. You could take it from New Jersey and plonk it down in Glasgow as it all makes the same sense. It’s an album he did for the Four Seasons. So they wrote all the songs and he sang them and it’s almost like a rock record; it’s quite interesting.”
I didn’t think I was drunk when I had six pints but of course I was. I have been listening to a lot of Aidan Moffat [records] and that sounds like me when I was 35!"
FLW - From the Tapes
For those wondering about a Hipsway reunion…
“I think I can categorically state that that will never happen. People have been interested in it happening. I have suggested to Celtic Connections that this current project that I have – Skinner – that we just do the whole album [‘Hipsway’] from start to finish as part of their festival as they have been doing this thing called Classic Albums. Unfortunately that did not materialise as I think the people running the festival wanted it to be Hipsway. I said that I can’t call myself Hipsway. I don’t want to, and I can’t, so that’s two reasons for it not happening and I don’t really want to go back to it. It would be nice to do because I could draw a line under it and if we got enough money to make the next album [laughs]. Slightly mercenary, but it would have been nice to do it once and then say that’s it and I won’t be doing that again.”