Stephen Solo on phoning it in
'Phoning it in’ is usually an insult but for Stephen Solo, it means quite the reverse.
“It’s a very cheap joke,” he says of his ‘Pii’ series. “I’m poking fun at the methodology as I always wanted to be really really quick.”
He’s just released ‘Pii3’ – the third in a trilogy of albums, each one recorded on his mobile. And not for some artistic reason, but out of necessity. “It was all wrapped round the birth of my first child and he wasn’t sleeping, it was really one of the most difficult time of my life – trying to reconcile how I could ever be creative again with the setup at home.”
That led to the first ‘Pii’ and like its successors, is on the Last Night From Glasgow label. The non-profit independent imprint works as unconventionally as its artists.
“Murray (Easton, a co-founder of the label), who managed my previous band Sonny Marvello, called and asked me what I was up to. ‘Just doing things on my phone’. He asked to hear them and got back to ask ‘would you considering releasing these?’"
At first uncertain, Solo came round to the idea – “it was the knowledge of it being listened to and enjoyed” - and adding three more tracks, the first ‘Pii’ was born.
And that enforced method of working, at first caused by these limitations, became his trademark.
“I realised I was taking joy in doing the first thing that comes into your head,” he says. “I’d just hum it, sing it, and it was done – I didn’t do more than two takes.”
The method was partly inspired by one of his heroes – as you can tell from listening to ‘Pii’ #2. Anyone who has come across Solo before may well have heard ‘David Bowie Never Had To’, the tale of how the glam superstar’s career was not held back by having to “taking out the bins still wearing his gig clothes”.
“Bowie had that cutup method he got from William Burroughs,” says Solo of the system he uses to write new material. “There are these ways to bring yourself into a creative space – if you pick up a guitar and play a couple of chords, you will eventually start writing cliches.”
Certainly the stereotype of rock stars in large expensive 24-track studios is far removed from the ‘location‘ recording that has shaped the ‘Pii’ series. “Bathrooms, kitchens, the couch,” are some of the less exotic sites. “‘LocoCoco’ was done in the car park outside the school and there were parents walking by, looking at the car…” he laughs. “But the whole thing is making do with what I have.”
Throughout the three albums there is, inevitably, an ’80s feel, though with its sometimes bizarre subject matter and Solo’s unique approach, a timeless feel. “I loved 1980s pop,” he admits, “music from the ’80s all always sound futuristic to me.”
I suggest that the Stephen Solo sound might be quite different if, say, a record deal (or a lottery win) was forthcoming. He agrees. “I’d love to (record in a big studio) but to get that sound any bigger or clearer would take quite a lot of money – not just live drums, everything would have to be upped, with proper old analog synths to get the sound that’s in my head… I can’t do a ‘OK Computer’ and record at Jane Seymour’s mansion for six months.”
“I’m fighting the technology a little bit, I’m never going to get an expansive full sound, I’m always going to have to make do.”
Indeed, even Apple were against him, it seems.
“I wasn’t able to complete the third album using just the phone,” he admits, “because the headphone jack was also for monitoring the keyboard. (The computer giant famously removed the socket from newer models of its iPhone). Eventually the musician had to buy a second-hand laptop for the final mixing. “I railed against, so I used an actual four-track and the keyboard from when I was 14 to write one of the songs – so I balanced things by using really out-of-date tech.”
His label are known for their love of limited releases in ‘retro’ formats like vinyl and tape – though nothing quite like the release of ‘Pii’, which opens with ‘I Ate A Motorcycle’.
Inevitably, then, the launch gig saw the album appear on ‘edible motorcycle’ (with an mp3 download code). And a special (very) limited edition.
“The chocolate motorcycle came with a prize draw card for the vinyl of ‘Pii’ 1, 2 and 3 – one 12” version of each.
“I was extremely tempted to enter the draw myself,” Solo confides, “it’s a little bit heartbreaking I’ll not have it on vinyl.” Perhaps a little jealousy creeping in?
“I had an idea a few years ago about trying to construct an album where you only have one listen to an album, then it’d destroy itself,” he admits.
Such ideas seem to appeal to his bosses as much as the artist – a match made in heaven it seems.
“(Label boss) Ian Smith said the other night: ‘It doesn’t matter what you give us, go as experimental as you want, if it’s just clicks and whistles we’ll release it.”
‘Pii 3’ is out now – more at www.lastnightfromglasgow.com.