THE WEDDING PRESENT: THE POP WAY
illustration by abraham jay torres
Imagine doing something for thirty (plus!) years. Now imagine creating something that stands the test of that time over those thirty-some odd years—and on your very first try! It’d be easy to use that as justification to slip into complacency. But David Gedge—the man behind and synonymous with the Wedding Present—has made a career out of pushing through the boundaries of sentimentality. By fusing the punk rock aesthetic with a romantic spirit, Gedge and the Wedding Present created music that speaks to the heart of several generations. Still driven by a restlessness that shows itself in the continued need to create, Gedge remains steadfast in addressing that gnawing desire to connect with others. They’re touring to help raise awareness of a documentary on their classic George Best album, and they perform on Sat., Mar. 10, at the Echo. This interview by Nathan Martel.
You seem like such a full-on romantic from your music—but you actually studied to be a mathematician. Those seem like opposite qualities.
David Gedge (guitar/vocals): [laughs] How ironic, right? But math is philosophy—when you really get into pure mathematics. I find the subject rather romantic. To answer your question, it was more about finding a band and writing really, which is what I wanted to do. Be in a band, be a songwriter, record a record … the mathematics thing was what I was most good at, and when thinking about school. I was still trying to figure out what to do. So I go to university to pursue my ambitions of wanting to start a band … and while I do that, I study math.
You’d expect you to have been a literature major. Not something based on such … hard data?
David Gedge: You say that, but then again music is truly mathematically based. I mean, it has mathematical reasoning behind it—like musical theory. But there is certainly an amount of logic to the process. There’s a process of arrangement to song writing that is based on mathematical reasoning that can take the entire structure to a new place. You’d be surprised how many musicians actually are based in math. I mean, again, it’s quite logical. I approach songwriting from a reporting angle. I’ve always been interested in what people say and how they say it, why they say it and the way they say it. I like to look at and explore the particular way things are said by people in certain circumstances. I’ve always been fascinated by it all, really.
As a songwriter, you’re very literary—you’re bringing the sensibilities of the novel to the song.
David Gedge: I try to stay away from the literary, prosaic poetic style of writing. I lean more toward a situational, more direct form—more to streamline a story and make it accessible. I want it to reflect the way people talk and interact versus anything else. It helps explain ideas and make things more relatable. Which is important to my perspective when writing. It’s somewhat like a biopic—just expressing experience and doing so in a way that is straightforward. I really do feel like I’m reporting—in a way documenting life. As opposed to imagining. Writing something I’ve overheard in another conversation, taking a little from this conversation, a little from that conversation. And piecing it together really. And making it work. [laughs]
You were there for a unique moment at the University of Leeds—the early activities of Gang of Four, Girls At Our Best, the Mekons and more, as well as the emergence of Thatcherism. This all must have influenced your creative drive.
David Gedge: Possibly. I mean, I even had some top forty mates in Manchester, where I grew up. I was born in Leeds and grew up mainly in Manchester, and then returned to Leeds for university. And that’s why I went back to University of Leeds. I wanted to be part of that scene, really. The Mekons, Gang of Four—all these great bands were happening. And I could see these bands. I was there. And certainly during that whole period a lot of interesting music came out of Leeds. It may not have been a direct rebellion against these fascist years, but in other ways … it probably was. There were a lot of things that we were responding to—poverty, political strife, a lot of changes were occurring then. It was the end of the ‘golden years’ of the 50s and 60s. And there seemed like there might not be much left. So we started forming bands to address the post-dream reality.
The music created where you were was distinct from the music being created elsewhere—New York, for example, was vastly different, versus the grounded, working-class point of view from parts of England.
David Gedge: I could see that. In America rock music has always been different than that of Europe—rock in America has always been different then anywhere else. The styles will be different because the cultures are different. Pop, punk, new wave … what’s been played here on the radio is different then what was going on in England. You get exposed to different experiences in each place. Here people grow up on Lynyrd Skynyd or ‘Free Bird.’ We didn’t have that kind of influence so much. People are going to be influenced by what’s around. Radio, TV … but then again you have bands like the Velvet Underground, which clearly influenced my style of writing lyrics. But they weren’t too celebrated here. The whole conversational style of approaching songwriting … obviously, we valued different things culturally, and it led to these forms of music that are labeled rock, but are unique to their surrounding and influences.
From the early 70s to the late 70s, music in England underwent a significant culture shift—perhaps even an ideological one as well. Did this affect the way you approached music?
David Gedge: Yeah—totally! I’m really fortunate to have been a teenager in those years. I grew up as a kid in the 60s being exposed to all this different kind of music, falling in love with rock ‘n’ roll … you know the pop glam-rock era. That spoke to me. And I remember thinking, ‘This is something else.’ From Sweet to T. Rex, they were good bands. But I was becoming more evolved, looking for something else. And I get into more … what’s today called classic rock. Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, and I think, ‘Wow, this is really, really great.’ And then this thing punk happens, and all these bands I like, I now disown! I can’t like Pink Floyd now! [laughs] Now it’s a whole new world. And the movements are fast moving, and there’s this passion. I want to be a part of it. And then there’s new wave. It was all really exciting. The punk revolution was great. And it was quite dangerous, really. [laughs] But really it was all molded by these things that came through that time, the previous pop music, the previous rock music. We were shaped by those ideals—even being a punk band or an independent band. It was deeply impactful.
The Wedding Present had it’s own distinct sound even then—apart from your influences and your contemporaries, too.
The thing we had in common with them was the spirit. The attitude that was in the air. We all tired to have a unique sound—that was very important to us. We didn’t want to sound like Gang of Four. We looked to not sound like the Fall. We didn’t want to sound like all these other bands. We made it a point to write our songs as differently as possible from those other bands around us. If we wrote a song that begun to sound familiar or like somebody else we’d actually start going, ‘Wait, wait, wait!!’ There were so many original bands back then. I mean—we liked all these bands. We liked the Fall. We like Gang of Four. But that wasn’t us.
Plus compared to some of these bands … the Wedding Present seemed more proficient as players.
David Gedge: Oh really?! [laughs] I don’t know about that at the time! [laughs] We knew what we were doing, but at the same time we had no idea what we were doing. We had an idea about what we didn’t want to sound like. That somewhat helped, I suppose.
When you create something that’s considered a classic on your first outing, like George Best, do you feel like you’re chasing the dragon later? Trying to duplicate that success again?
David Gedge: No, no, not at all! [laughs] George Best, I should say, was a feeling. We were so young. It’s a very personal record. It’s my least favorite record. So,for me, it’s always been, ‘I’ve been there. We’re done here.’ And then we did Bizarro, and it was almost a reaction to George Best. We just continued to move on.
Kind of killing nostalgia.
David Gedge: I used to feel that way. About ten years ago, around the 20th anniversary of George Best, people started asking if we would play it. I would answer, ‘No, no. That’s nostalgia. Those days are gone. We have new songs. This is a different band.’ On and on. But everybody, band members even, would say, ‘Oh, you got to play George Best live. That would be amazing.’ Because we had never played the entire record live. So I diplomatically said, ‘Ok. I’ll give it go.’ But when I started doing it, I really began to enjoy it and found it rather challenging. It became very satisfying, and not from a nostalgia point of view. It was interesting to look back and remember why you did something, wrote something or played something. Why you played it a certain way 20 or 30 years ago. Also it allowed me to visit who I was then. I was different person. So you kind of recreate that. It was a kind of surreal exploration. And now we’ve done it a few time over the years and you find something new each time. We’ve done Seamonsters and Bizarro, and I’ve changed my mind on that. I’ve gotten away from the idea that this is nostalgia. These records I’ve made some thirty years ago, I forgot about … but this helps me to go back and analyze a record. It helps me in creating today.
In your songs, the instrumental landscape is very disorienting—maybe an emotional disorientation that reflects the subject matter? But your voice is an anchor in the chaos. As least that’s my experience.
David Gedge: One certainly can find that in there. There is this slogan: ‘The pop way.’ And certainly in the instrumentation, there is a chaos, some discordance. A racket, if you will, at times. And then the vocal melodies are built around the pop mode and are influenced by the pop tendencies. That’s what I want, really. I’ve been influenced by all these great pop records and want to achieve a great pop sound myself. And that’s possibly what you’re hinting at there. The tension between the vocals and instrumentation. And that’s kind of the pop way. And that’s it really—vocals and sounds.
That reflects the humanity of the listener: relating to the emotional chaos of a situation, but being able to rationalize your way through the chaos.
David Gedge: That I would agree with. That’s what makes a great record. That’s the desired effect.
And that’s the lifelong pursuit.
David Gedge: We’ve been playing a lot lately. We did a compilation record after George Best called Tommy, and it’s the thirtieth anniversary of the album this year. We’ve been playing it back in the U.K. It gives you a chance to see where it all started. It’s when the Wedding Present began to come together, what it meant to create these songs and where it’s all lead to. And it reminds you of where you were at a time and the experiences you were having at that time. I think that represents a time and some lessons of that time. Certainly these songs are about relationships. Being friends and then not being friends. It’s about life and competition. Criticism. It can be looking at the connections between people and their surroundings.
You’ve been a working musician for thirty-plus years—how do you continue to make it work?
David Gedge: Everything [then] was much more innocent, obviously. But I think it’s very different now. The way you make music, the way you record, and they way you distribute it … it quite literally all has changed. But it means this is still the same. [indicating the recorder and interview.] Answering questions on tape! [laughs] Things have gotten certainly much easier. It makes it much cheaper. With my other band Cinerama, I had to hire an entire orchestra—it cost me a fortune. Now I can do all of that on a computer at home. I’m creating differently then I was then. Now it’s different, indeed. And even recently, I have been recording over here in L.A., doing lead vocals—I send the file over to England, get them back with everything else done. It’s never been this convenient and easy. In some ways it makes people lazy, I think. You can play a part back and correct it in the file or what have you. So it’s not a pure document. But there are many benefits to it as well. It definitely changes the way I write. The downside is you don’t get into a room all the time and hear people playing.
Making things more accessible can maybe lead to a lack of creativity or a glut of individuals who aren’t necessarily creating with the best of intentions, sometimes. Like it becomes too easy.
David Gedge: I’m not sure why you might feel that way. I think it’s great that by things being more accessible you might bring in people who normally wouldn’t be doing creative things otherwise. It allows them to express these weird ideas. It has democratized it, really. Anybody can pay for these things now. It makes it easier for people to be bolder as well. But it also makes it much harder for people to make a career out of it now. It’s made things more playful—people can express ideas or have a band that lasts five minutes.
THE WEDDING PRESENT WITH TERRY DE CASTRO ON SAT., MAR. 10, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 5:30 PM / $17.50-$20 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! MORE INFO ON THE SOMETHING LEFT BEHIND DOCUMENTARY AT SOMETHINGLEFTBEHIND.COM. VISIT THE WEDDING PRESENT AT SCOPITONES.CO.UK.