INTERVIEW: Latin Quarter
- Reto Koradi
Some people may remember Latin Quarter from their minor hit "Radio Africa" more than 10 years ago, but apart from that, their previous four albums never received the attention that the should have. Their catalog was deleted in most countries (except for Germany), and the two most recent albums have been released on small German record labels. What remains of a band of once around seven people are lead vocalist Steve Skaith and guitarist Richard Wright, with Mike Jones still writing most of the lyrics; all other instruments are played by session musicians.
Considering the reduced lineup, it is only logical that the music sounds more stripped down. The keyboards, which played a major role in the 80's, have disappeared completely, and at least on some tracks the sound relies more heavily on the groove given by bass and drums. Also missing, and probably missed by old fans, are the female vocals by Yona Dunsford and Carol Douet. Still, the important qualities remain the same. Latin Quarter make fine and intelligent music that attracts both mind and soul. And Steve Skaith continues to be an outstanding vocalist with a lot of sensibility.
The clear political statements presented in the lyrics of Mike Jones on previous releases have largely disappeared on their current release, Bringing Rosa Home (SPV Europe). The lyrics still carry a message, but it has mostly gone from global politics to a more social and even personal level.
All Latin Quarter albums will always have to live with the comparison to their first release Modern Times, arguably one of the best albums of the 80's. Even though Bringing Rosa Home may not quite reach that level, it is still a fine album, and highly recommended to everybody with a sense for music that takes time and attention to listen to, and is more than just background noise.
Consumable was able to catch up with Latin Quarter's lyricist Mike Jones, and find out what the group's been up to for the past decade...
Consumable: Most people probably didn't hear anything from Latin Quarter for almost 10 years, and it seemed as if you had split. What happened in the meantime?
Mike: What 'killed' the first Latin Quarter was the failure of the followup to Modern Times - Mick and Caroline. Critics hated it and it sold less well than Modern Times. Perhaps all it lacked was a hit single, but there was more to our downfall than that.
Partly it was a question of definition and identity - three vocalists was never a good idea, and neither was the 'non-playing' lyricist'. If you look at a band like The Beautiful South, they've done really well with the kind of line up and material we had on Swimming Against the Stream, but they present nothing to take a stance against.
So, what I'm saying is, Mick and Caroline may have been a good or bad, but it didn't matter. Not enough people were encouraged to buy it because no-one knew how to market Latin Quarter, and Latin Quarter didn't know how to market itself. Steve put up resistance against marketing, full-stop. The others had no real say; our manager wanted a kick-ass rock and roll band, and the record label wanted the new Fleetwood Mac (which is how they saw us). Me? I wanted to be famous.
The transfer to RCA seemed like a good idea at the time. Swimming has some great songs on it, although it tends to sound lifeless. We meant nothing at all by the time it was released and, again, there was no obvious hit single on it. (People left) and Steve hated being in a band that he felt musically out of control of, and Richard always insisted that the band had been formed too soon - this was especially a huge source of tension with our manager, Marcus Russell.
It became clear that the band was not a joint enterprise between Steve and me. Because I don't play I had very little power. On the other hand, Marcus was my oldest friend and I found it difficult to side against him. He hated Swimming and, by this time, he was managing The Bible, Johnny Marr and The The - he now manages Oasis. Basically, we sacked him but he could afford to go.
C: Your role in the band sounds unusual; was it again the case that you wrote the lyrics on your own, and then sent them to the rest of the band by mail? Or was there a closer interaction, were you involved in the recording process?
MJ: My role in the band always was unusual and yes, I did post lyrics to Steve. But when we had the money I always attended rehearsals and recording and I had no difficulty in contributing to the recording process or in making musical as well as lyrical changes when the occasion arose.
C: What are you personally doing when you aren't writing lyrics for Latin Quarter?
MJ: One of the things I've done in the past few years is to write a Ph.D thesis on popular music making and I've used Mick and Caroline as one of my case studies. Many other things happened and I'd still like to be involved in the new National Centre for Popular Music which is opening here, in Sheffield, sometime soon. In the meantime as royalties dwindled I've had to take on more amd more teaching - and very little of it has any connection with music, it's more Media and Communication classes that I teach at the local college.
C: The lyrics on the new album are less political than they used to be. What is the reason for this? Has the world improved so that you don't see hot topics any more, or did you give up on pointing them out?
MJ: The lyrical changes on the new album are deliberate. Latin Quarter were so anonymous we felt that Steve should emerge as a human being, as someone that listeners could relate to - I encouraged him to do this so that's why there are songs like "Angel" and "Branded" on the album - they are songs about his love affairs. Also, I began to feel like an 'ambulance chaser' - 'look, there's some human suffering, let's write about it'.
It was the war between Croatia and Serbia that finished me off. The Croats were Nazi sympathisers in the last war. As soon as they began their atrocities and the Serbs responded, I just gave up. In many ways, I've lost my enthusiasm for Latin Quarter and for song writing; ten years without success is far too long. That's partly why there are only eight out of twelve of my lyrics on this album - there will be even fewer on the next one. The songs on Bringing Rosa Home tend to still be about injustice, but in a more individual way.
C: Do you think that the clear political statements in your lyrics helped the success of the band, or could it even be that they were a problem?
MJ: I think that Latin Quarter were ignored, ultimately, because all pop radio programming is about 'good times', about creating an artificial 'party atmosphere' day after day after day - and there is just so litttle room for music that doesn't conform to that programming be that Jungle, Einst. Neubaten, Consolidated or whoever. We were censored for being serious, not for being 'political' there's a difference.
C: Let's talk about a few songs on Bringing Rosa Home. Who is the Rosa in the title track?
MJ: 'Rosa' (after Rosa Luxemburg) is a pseudonym for Hilary Creek, a member of the British 'Angry Brigade' - a name the press gave to an unnamed Marxist terrorist cell in the early 70's. These were crazy times and it drove her crazy while in prison - maybe she's recovered now, I don't know. I don't agree with terrorism but there is a pathos in the way that young people find so much commitment inside themseves and work so hard for what they define as progress - yet nothing changes, that's my story as well.
C: "Come Down And Buy" is about tourism to poor countries, and about the attitude that people show there...
MJ: Yes, the 3rd World Tourism song is quite cynical. I wrote it after a trip to Tunisia. I had never been anywhere so poor and I felt so many contradictions about my privileged Western background and just touring such a poor place. Being anti-imperialist but turning up in people's towns and villages because I derived my power from that same imperialism. I felt the same way when Latin Quarter went to East Germany as we did, twice.
C: "Smoking Gun" is about a professional killer?
MJ: "Smoking Gun" is about the killings of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. I still can't believe how the USA survived those assassinations, and how its system survived the obvious suspicion that people with power organised those killings. But I also wanted to consider the gumnan, how he (if it was a 'he') would feel satisfaction from 'a job well done'.
C: "Older" is a song about getting older; is this a topic that worries you personally, or are you just observing?
MJ: "Older" is about me getting older and about aging in general. When you set out to write songs that you expect to change the world, you are clearly driven by a lot of youthful adrenalin. The massive failure of Latin Quarter has crippled my life - but its also made me a far stronger person than I might have been. Its been a hard, hard lesson which boils down to, 'if you're going to commit yourself totally you'd better know what the fuck it is you're getting into'.
C: Are you happy with what Latin Quarter achieved, or does it sometimes make you bitter that you didn't sell more?
MJ: I don't really feel bitter about the Latin Quarter experience. Writing the Ph.D has really helped me because vastly more bands fail than succeed and I've interviewed people who have had a far worse time than Latin Quarter. Also, I can see where we went wrong and why it was always likely that we wouldn't succeed. I feel frustrated because I think I am a very good pop lyricist and hardly anyone, anywhere knows my work; meanwhile Tim Rice goes on getting Oscars, and Elvis Costello and Billy Bragg had ten years of praise for what they wrote.
But pop isn't just about lyrics or about music, its about organisation for success and Latin Quarter never had that. The principal reason for the success of Oasis has been Marcus's organisation of them - and he learned all that through us.
C: So is Bringing Rosa Home the start of a comeback for Latin Quarter, or just a one shot project?
MJ: As far as Steve and Richard are concerned, Latin Quarter has never been away. Also, they expect to make more albums after this one, SPV have given them the impression that they see Latin Quarter as a long-term commitment. I have mixed feelings about it. I don't believe that we can ever regain what we had, let alone go far beyond it. Basically, I think I'd like to close the book on Latin Quarter; it has brought me too much grief. I'd still like some pop success though - and no-one else is beating a path to my door. In fact, what I'd really like to do is to make my own album, I hate having to be so dependent on others and having to filter everything through Steve and Richard. I'm sure I know enough to organise a twelve track album with session players. I just need the budget!