Christian Madden is one of the four central members of The Earlies, a band who rose to fame with their debut album ‘These Were The Earlies’, released via Warners just over a decade ago. Along with programmers and multi-instrumentalists Giles Hatton, John-Mark Lapham and vocalist Brandon Carr, he writes, produces and arranges for the band, who then recreate their studio recordings in an entirely live manner, with an eleven piece band of talented players. We spoke to Christian to discuss their new single ‘Abandon’, the current musical landscape and progressive rock.
The new track ‘Abandon’ is excellent and there are plenty of subtle details in the arrangement, with a nice choice of instruments and percussion. Typically, how does a track like that come together, are you sending snippets between all the band members in their different locations to pull the finished track together?
Thank you for your kind words about the track. The snippets are typically sent back and forth between JM and myself. We both have studios and our respective pools of musicians come in to help. Sometimes ideas lie around for years before they start to turn into something. Abandon sprang out the sessions we did for JM’s side project the Revival Hour. JM chopped up a drum loop into a peculiar pattern and sent it back to me to develop. I got together with Richard, Alex and Nicky in our studio in Colne and created a rather odd instrumental piece that alternated between 15/8 and 16/8 time. It was a limping yet strangely elegant beast that we all agreed had some charm. JM and Brandon decided to make it into a pop song and started hacking away at it until vocals would fit over it. It ended up in a more foot tap friendly 12/8 time and was starting to sound quite accessible. They sent it back to me and then I rearranged the strings and brass to more specifically fit the new piece. This makes the whole process sound like four or five tidy exchanges, The reality was it took about fifteen messy exchanges and seemed to go on forever.
When you decided that The Earlies shouldn’t use computers for live performance, and opted for the 11 musician line-up, did you have a vision for how the live music should sound, and were there any large live ensembles that informed that decision?
I won’t mention any names but around the time we got signed I went to a few gigs with Giles and JM where electronic musicians were dancing around behind a laptop. I found these shows to be quite bizarre and struggled to accept them as a live show. I know these guys spend a lot of time working behind their computer when they make a record so it must seem a natural step to take their computer on the road and dance behind it for money. I felt fairly strongly that to do something like that would betray my musical upbringing so I didn’t want to do it with the Earlies. I’d never seen anyone do anything exactly like the Earlies live but I’d always been a fan of bigger lineups like Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago Transit Authority, Parliament, the JBs etc. so I was fairly confident we’d be able to do an ambitous live show and do it justice. I think JM and Giles allowed my stubbornness on this particular issue because they thought it’d make for a more interesting live show and I think Brandon was fairly excited to play with a big band. I don’t have a problem with computers being on a stage as such, I often use one to host a lot of the sounds I’m playing. I just really believe that people should actually be playing. I also understand that some music needs samples and loops to actually sound authentic. If anything I’m more offended by indie or rock bands going on tour with string parts and backing vocals on a hard drive than I am by the guys dancing behind their laptops. But anyway, aside from all that the people who played on the records were our friends and we really did think it’d be fun if they all came on the road. And fun it was. Financial folly, but fun.
You personally have worked with many artists away from The Earlies; King Creosote, I Am Kloot and Cherry Ghost to name a few and your bandmates do much the same, with John-Mark, Sara and Giles all having their individual projects. Do you think this is important for a modern musician?
I’m not sure if it’s important for a modern musician, it depends how you want to be perceived by people ultimately. If you keep turning up in people’s bands whilst trying to shop your own songs about you can end up looking like an unfocused journeyman who doesn’t have the drive or self belief to be entirely focused on their own music. For me personally though I grew up in awe of the session players of the 60s and 70s and in particular people like Booker T and the MGs, who just turned up at the studio day in day out and worked on whatever was going on that day. They’d build up a massive and diverse body of work over their career and when I was growing up I used to love following the threads of different session players’ careers through my record collection. I always wanted to have a body of work to look back over at the end of my career, and better still to move through these different albums with the same unit of friends working on different things together. I was thrilled that we all got to work together on the Earlies albums, Micah P Hinson and the Gospel of Progress, KC Rules OK and the first Plan B album. It’s certainly been necessary for me to have a varied career in order to make enough money to survive but I also feel privileged to have been involved with some of the acts I have. My discography on discogs doesn’t look like Booker T’s yet but there’s time.
It’s just over ten years since you released ‘These Were The Earlies’. Have you noticed the landscape of contemporary/popular music change in that time, and do you feel with you’re now entering a healthier situation for musicians and the music itself than you were in 2004?
Things have changed dramatically, there’s no doubt about that. I think we were fortunate to get in at the end of a period where record labels could throw a few thousand quid at something like the Earlies and see what happened. I understand the conversation when the optimists out there are talking about how positive it is now the gatekeepers have been removed and everybody can make music at home and stick it on soundcloud. But the gatekeepers weren’t all bad, they sometimes made good choices and invested in people that weren’t going to pay off in a big way immediately. The fact is that you can’t go out and tour with an 11 piece band without someone taking a bit of a risk on you. Our first gig sold out. It was in London, it held 130 people and we had to borrow £1500 off our record label in order to get there. I worry that we’ll move to a future in which it’s increasingly rare to see anything larger than a four piece in the smaller scale venues. You certainly won’t see transatlantic 11 piece circuses like ours. That’s why these gigs really are a one off. We’re funding it out of our own pockets and treating it as a jolly holiday. There isn’t a follow up tour on the way. This is all we have on the horizon, then that’ll be that.
As a music fan are you more fascinated by albums or the perfect single? Are there any which have stuck with you as serious favourites?
I love a good pop single but as a lifelong prog fan if you’re going to make me fall down on one side or the other I’ll have to say I’m an album fan. And if I had to pick one that stands out today, at the start of July 2015, as we start to contemplate a world without Chris Squire, it’d have to be Close to the Edge by Yes. I’ve loved so many prog albums but this one has never dulled for even a second. If I listen to it now I’ll be as fascinated as the first time i received a cassette of it from Gaz Fort at school. I’ll hear something I never heard before, I might hear a line in isolation for the first time or hear how two parts interact or echo each other the first time. The lyrics might confuse and confound me in a new way. Whatever happens though, when all 18 minutes and 43 seconds of the first song are finished I’ll feel that I absolutely have to keep going and listen to the whole album. I won’t move till I’m absolutely sure that Siberian Khatru has completely faded away. That’s what listening to albums is like. Now I think about it, I’ll always be an album guy.