BACK IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT Paul Roberts & Sniff ‘n’ the Tears
BY DAVE STEINFELD
If you were listening to the radio in 1979, it was a stellar time - one when there was much less of a schism between the music that was good and the music that was popular. Add to that the creative surge that took place in the aftermath of punk and the fact that a new decade was imminent (Ronald Reagan hadn't yet set America on the path that would ultimately send it down the tubes) and you can understand why there was a genuine sense of excitement and possibility in the air back then.
That summer and fall, among other things, American radio was happily hijacked by a group of musicians from the UK who experienced some chart success with a series of catchy, guitar-based singles. Many of these musicians (though not all) had been veterans of the London pub rock scene and were now re-emerging as "New Wave" acts. Popular tunes at the time included Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind," Ian Gomm's "Hold On," Bram Tchaikovsky's "Girl of My Dreams," The Records' "Starry Eyes" and the debut by Sniff ‘n' the Tears, an unforgettable song called "Driver's Seat."
Sniff was led by singer-songwriter Paul Roberts, who was originally from Wales. The sextet that appeared on the album Fickle Heart - which spawned "Driver's Seat" and the follow-up single, "New Lines on Love" - was rounded out by guitarists Loz Netto and Mick Dyche, keyboardist Alan Fealdman, bass player Chris Birkin and Roberts' longtime friend Luigi Salvoni on drums. With its cryptic lyrics and grade-A arrangement (including an eerie synth solo by guest musician Keith Miller), "Driver's Seat" became a smash on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sniff ‘n' the Tears never scored another hit as big as "Driver's Seat" but they enjoyed a pretty good run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, releasing four initial studio discs before disbanding. An accomplished artist as well as musician, Roberts was responsible for the paintings that graced all four album covers. (He's pictured above with some of his typically provocative/sensual artwork; to view an online gallery, go to the Paul Roberts Paintings website
Roberts' musical output over the past three decades or so has been pretty sporadic. The last official Sniff ‘n' the Tears album, Underground, arrived nearly a decade ago. But now the band is back with the release of Downstream. A more consistent and diverse effort than Underground, the album begins with "Black Money" - a song inspired by the aftermath of the war in Iraq which, like many Sniff tunes, is both haunting and infectious simultaneously - and ends with the title track. In between are 10 top-notch songs that range from the lovely ballad "These Streets" to rockers like "St. Raphael" and the topical "Don't Rectify Me" to the fun, midtempo groove of "Night Owl Prowl." In addition to Roberts, the current Sniff lineup includes longtime members Les Davidson and Nick South on guitar and bass, respectively; drummer Richard Marcantonio; and keyboardist Robin Langridge.
BLURT recently got a chance to talk with Paul Roberts about the past and present of Sniff ‘n' the Tears.
BLURT: Close to a decade has passed since the release of the last Sniff album, Underground. What happened during that period -- either in your own life or in the world at large since it's been a pretty significant time globally -- that went into the making of this album??
PAUL ROBERTS: Underground should have been followed by some live work to raise the profile and let people know that we were here. I had done a lot of that album myself and although Les [Davidson] was involved as always, there was no drummer and no bass player; it was an experiment in some ways to see what I could do [on my own]. As such, I think it worked within its limitations [but] I would like to put proper drums on it at some point to do it full justice.
I became involved with a London gallery for my painting and in 2003 and 2005 had one-man shows with the gallery, which kept me pretty busy. I have become somewhat disillusioned with the art world which I think is now just another branch of celebrity culture, not much more interesting than fashion and with a lot of the same principles.
As a parent, it's not difficult to be horrified at the way the world is going. My parents had plenty to worry about with the cold war, nuclear proliferation and drip-dry shirts. But what seems particularly awful about these times is how little we seem to have learned from past mistakes. The Internet is empowering and is becoming a game changer for both good and ill. The good is that politicians can no longer have it all their own way and the mobile phone is a revolutionary tool. This album is certainly preoccupied with the craziness of these times.
I'd like to ask you about a few specific songs on the album. Reading about "Pray" on your website, you mention that in this current age of economic meltdown, religious fundamentalism etc., maybe all we can do is pray. Like you, I'm an atheist. My question is, who do we pray to when we don't believe in the traditional God that organized religion would have us believe in?
The injunction in the song, to pray, is meant to combine irony with despair. We seem to be at a juncture in human history when we know the answers but are incapable of acting with any moral conviction when what are perceived as our own interests are at stake. Those perceptions will only change when we take responsibility for our actions for the greater good. You can't defend democracy as an ideal while at the same time supporting any tin pot dictator who you consider useful.
We live in a culture where bankers can blithely play high stakes roulette with our lives and we are expected to somehow accept it as inevitable. The dumber and the more preoccupied we are with the trivia of our lives, the more we can be spoon-fed the lie that we are all in this together -- the reality being that the gap between the haves and the have-nots has never been greater. The song is about complacency; the ship's going down and we're still planning to be the only people in the lifeboat.
One song that immediately jumped out at me on Downstream is "Don't Rectify Me." Tell me a bit about what inspired that one.
Reality television, the Internet [and] the media in general [tell us that we] are part of a community, a global community, a consumer community. Countless books and magazines advise you on how to be a better, more beautiful or more successful person. A mirror is held up to us which says you are what matters, you are starring in your own movie, you are whatever you think you are. It's bullshit, but we want to believe it. Andy Warhol's dictum that in the future everybody will have fifteen minutes of fame is proving remarkably prescient. All I'm saying in the song is, don't try and make me into something I'm not. Don't educate me for your economy, don't try and sell me your hair-shirt and don't tell what I should like, how I should look and what I should think or believe.
Having said all that, it's not meant to be taken too seriously.
"These Streets" is one of the more upbeat tunes on the album -- if not musically than in terms of the mood it conveys. How did that one come about??
One of the themes of the album is to do with the "journey through life" as implied in the title Downstream. "These Streets" is about the affirmation and celebration of life and of love: feeling good because you have both.
Tell me a little about the music scene that Sniff 'n' the Tears originally came out of and the period between pub rock and punk rock, as it were. Was the music scene in London as exciting as it sounds during the mid to late '70s?
The first incarnation of Sniff ‘n' The Tears started in 1972. We were involved in the pub rock scene in London, which was fun. While ELP and Yes played some massive stadium, you could pop down to the local boozer and see some great little band. In 1974, I went to France and ended up staying for two years. When I came back to London, I asked a friend what was happening and he said "There's this band called the Sex Pistols." Then my old manager, who had got into promotion, got me down to the Roundhouse to see Patti Smith supported by The Stranglers.
In France, I had signed to a record company who had let me make some demos in London. It was in the making of these demos that Fickle Heart and "Driver's Seat" were born. When we recorded the album in 1977, there was no doubt that the record industry was wide open to change. [It was] one of those rare seismic moments when creativity -- rather than commerce -- is allowed to flourish because all of the sustainable models have been undermined. This gave opportunities to a lot of bands that would perhaps have been ignored before punk upset the apple cart. It got labeled as New Wave, which was a spurious title for a very loose collective. There was the 2 Tone thing and Madness... We did a little festival tour in Germany with The Police, Talking Heads, Dr. Feelgood [and other bands]. It was a time when anything seemed possible [but] it didn't last long.
Tell me about "Driver's Seat." What inspired the song? Who arranged it?
The lyrics were inspired by the bewilderment felt in the aftermath of a breakup and the need to be positive. The basic arrangement was done for the demos [with] me strumming the chords, which had an unusual rhythmic twist, and everybody playing along. What made it work was the combination of musicians. This, plus the fact that the song has a three-chord revolving structure, making it great for getting into a groove. [That's] no doubt why it's been sampled so often by dance music producers. The main innovations came from the engineers, Steve Lipson and Bazza, who thought that there was too much going on in the track and edited out the guitar riff in the verses. This gave the song a lot more air and dynamics. Luigi [Salvoni] then suggested we did it at a faster tempo. Suggestions came from everyone in the studio, so I would call it a collaborative effort arrangement-wise.
You're also a successful painter. In fact, you were successful in that medium before music. What do you get from painting a picture that you don't get from writing a song and vice-versa?
It's been a difficult trick to combine the two. Ironically, I was at my most successful as a painter when Luigi approached me about reforming Sniff. Not good for my painting career, as it meant I hardly painted for several years.
I don't make a connection between the two [art forms]. For me, painting was a way of exploring visual language in the way it is used to manipulate, through the media and the arts. Music is much more personal and emotional for me. I absolutely love music. The art world [often] leaves me cold. But I do love the craft of painting and drawing, trying to create something memorable and beautiful.
Are you still in touch with the other original Tears like Luigi, Mick and Loz and if so, what are they up to these days??
I speak to Luigi from time to time but I haven't seen Loz and Mick for years. They're all still playing. I heard Loz had made a blues album.
Will you be supporting Downstream with any live dates?? Anything else of note planned for 2011??
The plan is definitely to get out and play. We just want to get out and enjoy it, which I think is a benefit of a certain maturity. We've got nothing to prove.
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