Irrelevancy has never been more relevant. Whether it’s the Middle Earth of Tolkien, the Hogwarts of Rowling or the fantasy worlds of computer games and comic books, the willingness of audiences to engage with the modern world diminishes daily. Psychologically, this is no surprise – when reality become too horrific, we don’t just turn away, but start humming an old, comforting melody. We remember again forgotten woods and secret gardens – far from a cutting-edge of PDAs and paedophiles – containing babbling streams and dulcet birdsong. In the midst of this bucolic fantasy we find the band Scarlet’s Well, whose leader, Bid, I had arranged to meet in a Tooting tavern. At present, Bid lives just up the road in Streatham.
Is the creation of the idyllic fictional village of Mousseron a reaction to the grime of the modern world, like Streatham High Road (recently voted the worst street in Britain)?
“It used to be great. It was a nice, clean high road, but now it’s just derelict,” he says in a soft South London accent. “I don’t exactly know where I got Mousseron. An influence upon it – upon the visuals – is an old Powell and Pressburger film, A Canterbury Tale, there’s a certain atmosphere to it. The same kind of atmosphere there is an Orson Welles film, which I think is called Falstaff [Chimes at Midnight]. It’s a sort of between-the-wars England, which is also in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End [an album made into a film by Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band], of being in the English countryside with all these gadflys buzzing around, lost to the world. Which it probably still is if you go to Wiltshire and Cornwall, and also France. I just like that kind of thing. It doesn’t come from living in cities all my life. It’s timeless, it’s modern, but at the same time it’s separated from the modern world.”
In the next few months Bid will be taking Scarlet’s Well on tour for the first time. This for a band who have recorded four albums. Why are you only taking it out on the road now?
“I wanted to almost from the beginning, but there were practicalities. Unless you want to start touring London, which is what new bands have to do, you have to be established. I didn’t want to perform until we had at least two albums, enough to play a 45 minutes set. Also, in the last 6 months I have become a lot less busy.
“As it happens, around Christmas, Alex [Kapranos] rang me and said that he had put a band together and would I like to come and see them. I told him I was busy. A few months later, I just happened to turn the TV on and there he was. It was seeing him on TV that made me just say: ‘Wake up, do something.’ That was one of the things that has pushed me to go out there and do something – and stop thinking about it.”
In 1996, Bid produced The Karelia’s Divorce at High Noon, Alex Kapranos’s classic lost album. It came about when Alex, who was putting on gigs at the time, booked Bid to do an acoustic spot in Glasgow. One gets the feeling that the rocketing success of Franz Ferdinand has given Bid food for thought, allowing him to reflect on his years in the music industry:
“One day there’s going to have to be a marriage between what Alex is – which is an intelligent, funny guy – and what he has been touted as, which is a bland, idiot pop star. There’s a big difference between the two. He can’t suppress that side of his nature.”
Talking of suppressing nature: What is the difference Ganesh Seshadri (his real name) and Bid?
“The only time someone calls me Ganesh Seshadri is at the Dentist’s or when paying bills. It doesn’t mean anything at all. It is the persona that everyone has when they go shopping and pay bills and deal with the tax man. But it isn’t really a persona it’s a mass-human-robot which does those things.”
And you don’t like the fact that you can almost be two separate people?
“I’ve never created a persona. From a grease paint point of view, one turns it on when one goes on stage . . . But it sounds strange to me to have a persona. I’m not an Adam Ant – going into a lunatic asylum and reinventing myself. I’m sort of a musician, a muso in a band, not a frontman stroke star.”
Are you ever recognised?
“A man came up to me in the studio when we were recording the last album and said: ‘I’m your biggest fan, you’re a great bloke, you rang my mate up when he was in prison and stopped him from committing suicide.’ I didn’t know who the fuck he was or what he was talking about. It just means nothing to me. It’s weird.”
The latest Scarlet’s Well album, The Dream Spider of the Laughing Horse is based around the Chaucerian conceit of a group of storytellers, with each song having a different mood and often different singers. We are taken on a journey from gypsy folk to English psychedelic rock to the kind of literate pop familiar to listeners of the Tindersticks. Such eclecticism is kept in check by a dominant dream-like mood, a playful atmosphere of possibilities, far from the cold logic of the world as seen on 24 hour news.
One of most attractive features of Scarlet’s Well is that it exists in its own world, its own universe. You’re not interested in being relevant?
“My head has been out of the music business for so long. I’ve been told about all these bands. Prior to somebody telling me about them, I’d never heard of Magnetic Fields. Maybe I represent a normal Mrs Ida Smith on the street, but I actually don’t know anybody. I’m getting back into it, being re-educated. But I’m not bothered at all by what is contemporary fashion. It’s childish of me, but I’d actually not do something because it is contemporary.”
What do you think of the music you get sent?
“When you’ve listened to stuff since the sixties, it is very difficult to pick out stuff which is different. When I listen to Magnetic Fields I hear Jonathan Richman. I make an immediate comparison; and it’s often not a good comparison.”
Like The Magnetic Fields main man, Stephin Merritt, Bid has been accused of being aloof and intellectual as a lyricist. Deemed too arty in the early eighties, The Monochrome Set’s lyrics now come across as exquisitely playful. The verses of ‘The Jet Set Junta’ deserve to be quoted in full, wittily capturing the essence of the Uruguayan insurgency:
Tick, tock, go the death-watch beetles in el presidente’s swill
Pop, pop, goes the Cliqout magnum at the reading of the will
Hiss, hiss, goes the snakeskin wallet, stuffed with Cruziero bills
Vroom, vroom, goes the armoured Cadillac through Montevideo
Rat-a-tat go the sub-machine guns to restore the status quo
Snip, snip, go the tailors’ scissors on the suit at Saville Row
Thud, thud, goes the rubber truncheon on the Indian peon’s heel
Buzz, buzz, go the brass electrodes, as the flesh begins to peel
Rattle, rattle, goes the bullet, round and round the roulette wheel
As Bid says:
“The Monochrome Set weren’t deliberately anything. We became the focus for affectation or planning. As though it were too constructed to be a free flow of ideas.”
The lyrics to the latest album are poetic and free; impressively different from anything else in the pop world. On ‘The Curse’ we get the following verse featuring a salesman describing his wares to a sceptical customer:
Furies wore this cloak of dusk
And when the Moon’s in apogee
Mystic symbols of Delphi appear,
You can’t buy that in Fez.
You Philistine, that’s not a kebab stain
It’s Apollo’s lyre.
I mention these lines about the kebab stain and a notable couplet in a later verse: ‘What do you mean, of course it’s got a hole/ It’s a fucking crown!’
“I can’t say a lot of it is deliberate. I just wrote that instantly and didn’t think what I was writing about. It’s hard for me to say something about that because the lyrics look as though they’ve really been thought about, like W.S. Gilbert thinking: ‘I’m going to put a joke in there.’ But actually, when I’m writing it takes 30 seconds and I don’t know what I’m writing. It looks very contrived, but it isn’t.”
You haven’t put the Scarlet’s Well lyrics on the website, why is that?
“There’s a huge argument between me and Dickon about that. My argument is that if you buy the album you don’t need the lyrics. If you need the lyrics you haven’t bought the album. Some people have very good reasons for pirating the album – like poverty or the fact that they can’t get them anywhere. That’s fair enough. I don’t see why I should give them the lyrics as well. I’ve got other things to worry about, like the record company.”
Don’t you want to encourage pirates? After all, your lyrics do make frequent references to them.
“We have arguments about different kinds of pirating. I have my own views that some of it is fine and some of it isn’t. But most of the reasons for music piracy I disagree with. For example, normal albums in jewel cases cost 30p to make, Scarlet’s Well albums with the packaging cost £2. So they’re barely breaking even.”
How do you make ends meet?
“At the moment I’m not doing an awful lot, cause I’ve been suing a lot of people for the last few years. When I was busy with the band I was earning money touring, especially in the last few years. But piracy has been abysmal. The sales over the last few years have gone right down.”
I hear that you made hats for Alice Cooper . . .
“Don’t mention names! I was in the fashion business from 87 to 96. We had a shop called Thunderpussy in Kingston Market. It was very successful. I’ve got lots of stories to tell about how bad people look without their wigs and how much they ended up owing us. But I can’t tell them because they’re still alive. However, Lord Sutch is dead so I can mention him. I made hats for Lord Sutch. Oh and you remember the film of The Avengers they made a few years ago, Me and Flo (his wife) made all the chainmail stuff. They paid us a lot and then used nothing.”
“Uma Thurman didn’t like it cause it didn’t show her tits enough. They lost millions.”
I also heard you’re from a line of Indian Kings . . .
“I’m only half-Indian. So what?”
I was wondering what you thought about reincarnation as a member of the Brahmin caste . . .
“Brahmins aren’t Kings. Is reincarnation a Hindu thing? I don’t know. Most Brahmins don’t realise that there are 2 strains of Vedic philosophy, one is religion and the other is natural philosophy, which is atheism. I’m a vibrant atheist. I don’t believe in a macrocosmic intent, but a microcosmic consciousness.”
And if you were reincarnated . . .
“I am now an entirely different person to who I was in 1975. Every single day 100,000 of molecules are shed. Technically speaking, the reality of me could be a 100% different. On a molecular level I could be an entirely different person to who I was 30 years ago. And what I am is a memory, every day, your personality is a kind of memory. That was me in 1980. Let’s say it could be true, that every atom of my body is different, so in a sense every single day I’m being reincarnated. Who you are is a fantasy – when molecules join you they learn the fantasy. You are breathing in other people’s molecules and the molecules of wood.”
Indeed, statistically everyone in the world has in them a few molecules of Shakespeare.
No, Hitler hasn’t been dead long enough to circulate so far.
“You’d have to eat a bit of his charred body . . .”
Changing the subject somewhat, what are the high points of your life so far?
“The best thing about living are the little moments, like having a picnic with the band on a mountain in Switzerland. Or when we were on tour we’d have these big riders that always included 12 comfortable chairs. We had them once and we couldn’t get into the dressing room. Or when the Japanese mobbed us and carried our keyboard player around in the air. Tiny moments like that make my life. It’s not sniffing coke off the belly of an elephant or making a £1000 a day in the fashion business. Because it was shit to be working that hard; that was just making a load of money.”
And the low points?
“There’s been a lot. Reality is quite shit really: it’s Westminster Council chasing me for non-payment of business rates, my ex-wife’s bankruptcy, getting ripped off. Low points continue weekly, as they do when you have to deal with a bunch of people.”
Do you look forward to a day when you can live without complication?
“It is not possible. It is like being a gnu walking from one place to another getting attacked by flies, that’s a gnu’s life. To be living without complication would mean that that I was doing nothing. If you go too far out you’ll never come back. Always a balance.”
What motivates you then?
“If I can’t do music, I get depressed. But I don’t do it just to keep busy: I can’t stop writing. If I stop I get depressed. It is very easy to get into a depressive state, circling away from what you should be doing.”
Scarlet’s Well play beautiful, evocative music with Indian strings and schoolgirl singers; psychedelic airs floating through an atmosphere New Wave inventiveness familiar to us from Bid’s previous band, The Monochrome Set. By bringing the magic of Scarlet’s Well to the world, by making this world more like that of Mousseron, Bid is doing exactly what he should be