Following a series of line up changes The Hepburns returned to a wider audience in 2000 when they released Champagne Reception on the California based Radio Khartoum label.
A Hepburns discography will appear on Burning Aquarium in the near future.
I'm very pleased to be able to bring you this exclusive interview with songwriter Matt Jones- thank you Matt for giving so freely of your time. I appreciate that you're a busy man.
The Talented Mr Jones- photo courtesy of Emily Claire Evans
Burning Aquarium: My earliest memories have a soundtrack; the radio was always on in our house- did you grow up in a musical household?
Matt Jones: The radio was always on in ours too. My early childhood seems dominated by sport and the radio, by Charlie Drake and ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’ and Charlie George, lying on his back, arms raised in that cocky, messianic way after scoring the winner at Wembley.
My two grandfathers were both musical: dad’s dad sang in the concert party at the Legion in Crynant – mum’s dad was a trumpeter, had his own band, ‘Jack Jones and the Blue Notes’ – wrote his own stuff too. My Uncle Lynford, dad’s brother, taught me guitar when I was twelve
BA: I’m not presuming for one minute that one day a young Matthew decided ‘I’m going to be a songwriter’, but can you pinpoint any early influences that swayed you in that direction?
MJ: I remember sneaking off on a Sunday afternoon to play Uncle Lynford’s guitar on the sly – must have been about six – guitar was as big as me, couldn’t hold it properly. Love at first touch.
Later on, about fifteen, hearing the Jam – especially ‘All Mod Cons’ era – Weller’s lyrics were great, but I loved the way the albums changed moods, from things like ‘English Rose’ – gentle and tender – to ‘Wardour Street’ or ‘The Place I Love’ – totally brilliant.
BA: In a world of ever multiplying genres and micro genres The Hepburns have always been difficult to pigeon hole- lazy journalists always strive for comparisons (some of the ones that stand out in my memory being- The Monochrome Set, Orange Juice, The Go Betweens, XTC)- I’m sure your aware of more…possibly more bizarre?
MJ: What, like comparing us to Belle and Sebastian? That’s pretty lazy, considering they formed a good ten years after us. The engineer on the Peel session compared us to Freddie and the Dreamers. He was a bit pissed, mind. Other than that, Richard Stilgoe and Pam Ayres have been mentioned vis-a-vis the lyrics
BA: Have you ever consciously thought that you’ve got to retain this ‘uniqueness’ or does it just happen naturally?
MJ: Never occurred to me. You do what you do because you love it, because it’s fun, no other reason. If you’re in a band, of if you’re a writer of any kind, and you don’t love what you’re doing and it’s not fun then ask yourself why you’re doing it.
BA: Have you ever shelved or rejected material because it’s ‘too much like…’?
MJ: Don’t think so. Even if the music sounds overly Nick Drake-ish, or Ronnie Hazlehurst-ish, then the lyrics are always doing something out of the ordinary - I hope they are, anyway!
BA: The eclecticism of your work is striking- I’m guessing that this belies a very wide range of influences?
MJ: All that radio as a kid – Bernard Cribbins, Charlie Drake, Peter Sellers – George Formby after the bath on a Sunday night – Uncle Lynford was in a skiffle band, so Lonnie Donegan too – I didn’t know it but I was getting the history of British pop culture administered intravenously! My mum had some Jake Thackray records, we used to watch him on ‘That’s Life’ singing topical songs, can’t see anybody these days doing that, can you imagine how talented, and unpretentious, you’ve got to be to write a song about the news then play it on national telly? Then there was The Beatles 62-66, the red album, I wore that cassette out
When I got older, it would have been, Weller, like I say, although Ian Dury was my favourite lyricist by a mile. Guitar-wise, I’d say Lester out of the Monochrome Set, Thackray, early-Postcard stuff, I’d sit down and learn anything I liked – well, everything I liked actually. Oh, and film and TV themes, John Barry, Ronnie Hazlehurst and suchlike...
BA: And not only musical influences- Can you identify any specific literary influences on your lyric writing?
MJ: Not literary, not really. Anything creative that’s not up its own arse, that’s joyful, unpretentious and fun. I’ve been reading about Howard Hawks, who told Ernest Hemingway he could make a great film out of his worst novel – ‘To Have and Have Not’. The thing is, Hemingway didn’t get all precious about it, he went for it, helped Hawks rewrite the story. That’s the kind of spirit I’m talking about. The whole literary thing, it’s too precious on the whole. Ian Dury, that’s what it’s all about, playful and sad, filthy and human, great stuff
BA: Not taking anything away from the fact that you have enjoyed a recording career that spans 24 years (longer than the gap between Rock Around The Clock and Never Mind The Bollocks!) a lot of people still ask the question ‘whatever happened to The Hepburns?’- what are your feelings ( twenty odd years after you first hit the media spotlight, Peel, NME etc) on ‘what might have been?’
MJ: I don’t have any. We were lucky to get signed to a decent label like Cherry Red, for most bands, not even that happens. A bit of a leg-up is all anybody ever needs and that’s what the exposure back in the 80s did for the rest of our so-called career – without it, we’d have never had the interest we had from labels in the late-90s which led to us getting involved with Radio Khartoum in Berkeley. I say ‘so-called’ not to disparage bands for whom writing and playing is a job, but just to point out that it never was for us – or me, at any rate. Just as well really! It’s not about money or all the other rubbish that goes with careers. It’s all about the songs – all about the writing. If you’re still playing, and people are still interested in listening after 25 years then you’re ahead of the game.
BA: So, a recording career spanning 25 years- and I’m guessing a song writing career of 30 years. What keeps you going?
MJ: Writing’s what keeps me happy. The joy of writing a song and hearing it for the first time never diminishes – hearing it come together, the words against the music, one breathing life into the other – it’s magical
BA: I was lucky enough to hear demos of the legendary ‘lost’ second album- there was a lot of really strong material there- do you/ will you ever revisit some old stuff like that? Or is it consigned firmly to the past?
MJ: I bet you can guess the answer to that one! Songs are like any other piece of writing, they belong to a particular time and a place. It’s a fool who’ll try and go back there for whatever reason – there are no good reasons – straight ahead, it’s the only way, or at least, the only way to stay creative
BA: Thanks to the internet and accessible technologies the opportunities for writers/ performers to share/ distribute/ showcase their work are far greater now than they were when you started out- views?
MJ: Well, if the assumption is that ‘more’ is somehow ‘better’ then maybe yes, it’s a good thing. The counter-argument is convincing, though. Remember the adage: 99% of everything is shit. With all that shit out there, it can be a soul-destroying task to wade through it all – not to mention a smelly one! I mean, it’s like vanity publishing – internet companies making money out of writers who’ve had their work rejected and who will pay to get it published. Somewhere in there you might get a classic novel, play or poem, but you’d have to ask: wouldn’t the publishers have picked it out in the first place? Or is everyone these days living in a kind of paranoid fantasy where there are loads of undiscovered, unreleased and unpublished geniuses who’ve been overlooked by mainstream record labels and publishers - ?
BA: The poetic qualities of your lyrics have always been striking. So, are you a poet?
MJ: No. I’m a lyricist. I wouldn’t even go so far, as Ian Dury did, to say I’m a ‘wordsmith’, or something wanky like that. What’s the difference between a poem and a lyric, anyway? Apart from the obvious. Songs are more fun – you get to sing them. I feel sorry for poets, not being able to sing your own words must be frustrating!
BA: Have you ever considered the printed word as an alternative medium?
MJ: Yes. The next album, ‘Where the Missing Words Live’, will carry a short story of mine. Rather than the liner notes which I normally do, I thought I’d have a go at writing the short story equivalent of the lyrics instead. I had great fun doing it – don’t know if it makes good reading or not, but if it doesn’t, there are always the songs to listen to
BA: Do you write in other genres?
MJ: I’m shit at genres. I don’t even know what genre The Hepburns are. I thought we were lo-fi but Alexander (Alexander Bailey of Radio Khartoum-ed.)corrected me on that. Maybe we’re ‘twee’ or something? Little bit butch for that, perhaps.
BA: Have you got a vast archive somewhere of everything you’ve ever written, a massive stockpile of notebooks dating back to the year dot?
MJ: No. I’m no archivist, no Kubrick. I haven’t got a single copy of any of the hundred-odd songs we’ve released. I refuse to. All I’ve got is work in progress.
BA: On your last LP there were songs (I’m thinking Ken Park and Vermouth in particular) that were very much ‘slices of everyday life' (going to Asda to buy grog, listening to a conversation in a bar). Do you find that you are continually ‘tuned in’ to the aspects of everyday language that have poetic or musical qualities?
MJ: Definitely. The best poets – Duncan Bush, Kathleen Jamie, Ian McMillan, too, I think – have an ear for the vernacular and an eye for the detail of everyday life. The language – the life. It’s all we’ve got. And it’s more than enough. We should celebrate the one with the other
BA: Do you think that this is particularly pertinent to the speech and character of South West Wales (Praise the lord, we are a musical nation)?
MJ: No. Categorically no. The sooner we stop thinking about ourselves as poets and singers, the sooner we’ll start writing some decent poetry and songs
BA: Although exclusively in English your work is undeniably Welsh - Your views on ‘Welshness’ which is expressed in the English language (I avoid the term Anglo- Welsh, which suggests a hybrid. English is , after all, the first language of the vast majority of Welsh people).
MJ: Whilst I detest nationalism, if good writing bears the mark of time and place then it follows that if my writing is any good, then it should say something about living in Llanelli – even the occasional visit to Cardiff. By the same token, it should appeal to people from Stockholm and Tokyo as well as Cwmllynfell. I think I agree with the playwright Ed Thomas when he says that ‘Pobol y Cwm’ (a long running Welsh language soap opera-ed.) is practically the theatre of the absurd. Like he says, there isn’t a single community in Wales which is exclusively Welsh speaking. I’m all for the language – I’m thinking about learning it. But the idea that national identity somehow inheres in the language is, indeed, utterly absurd. If Camus had written ‘The Outsider’ in Arabic instead of French, would the meaning have been significantly different? Is the English translation inherently different? Personally, I don’t think so.
BA: So, tell us about your writing habits-
MJ: Fast. I write fast. Impulsively. When it’s done it’s done.
BA: I’ll give you a chance to make a 4 track ep of your work by which posterity will judge you- what tracks are you going to put on there?
MJ: Okay. It would have to be the next four songs I write. The first one is called ‘No Need for Language’. Thought of the title tonight. I tend to forget the rest of the stuff anyway.
BA: And what’s happening with you now? Either as Matthew Jones or The Hepburns? What projects are you working on at the moment? Anything in the pipeline?
MJ: I’m doing some songs with my brother, Jim. Sounding good, too. Also, been recording in Carmarthen with Gruff Owen, used to be in Iglw. Just finishing off an English degree at Trinity St David’s. Hoping to go on to do a PhD next year in Lampeter. After that I wouldn’t mind working abroad – California, if they’ll have me – or Sweden. Went to both with The Hepburns. See, if I hadn’t stuck at it, I’d never have got to go to such great places. Maybe the music did get me somewhere in the end.