At the beginning of the 1980s, a trio from Cardiff made a noticable impression with their debut album. Young Marble Giants ‘Colossal Youth’ made the reputation of the wilfully obscure and minimalist group and retains its popularity today, after bands such as Galaxie 500, The Magnetic Fields and Belle And Sebastian recorded their own versions of YMG songs, and also as the response to the 2020 reissue of the album has shown. The members of YMG went on to other projects and now, songwriter Stuart Moxham has just released a new album of songs recorded with French musician Louis Philippe. Stuart found the time to talk with Deviation Street about his musical past, present and future.
When did the association with Louis Phillipe begin?
“The Devil Laughs” is the third of my albums to which Louis Philippe has contributed.
We first met in the summer of 1993 when he was asked by Christian Fevret, (younger brother of the editor of the nationally-distributed French cultural magazine “Les Inrockuptibles”,) to find a studio in London for me to record the album “Random Rules.”
Louis had recently worked in a small audio-visual studio in Parsons Green called Momentum Sound, with the engineer Ken Brake, so we met there – but it had not yet opened for the day’s business. So Louis and I went to have coffee – and found “Cafe Louis”! We got on well and later he introduced me to Ken, at the studio. I immediately hit it off with Ken too, and we began work. Louis sat in and made occasional contributions which were unusual and exciting to my ears. (I had not heard any of his music at this point.) So it was a (cough) momentous occasion because we three became good friends and indispensable musical allies from then on.
Several years later I invited Louis to add his unmistakable stamp to another bunch of my songs, this time recording at Ken’s home studio in Primrose Hill, London, and the result was “The Huddle House” album. Louis was more involved in this and so got his “…and Louis Philippe” credit.
All three of us were busy with other musical projects throughout the intervening years, sometimes meeting to do an occasional gig, which is how I got to know Danny Manners, (late of Big Big Train,) who has worked extensively with Louis.
It was another age before I once more approached Louis to work his magic on “The Devil Laughs.” This time he really went to town; after laying down my guitar/piano/percussion and vocals, I pretty much sat back, letting him have free rein. Hence “…with Louis Philippe” on that sleeve.
I had no way of knowing this but Louis had been at the first (and only) gig that Young Marble Giants played in France in early 1980 – he is a fan and meeting him was, for me, one of the blessings of having been in that band. After Phil Moxham he was really the first person with whom I have had a special musical connection.
There seems to be a definite mood attached to the songs on ‘The Devil Laughs’, was this a conscious decision on your part?
Interesting that you feel a mood was aimed for on “TDL” I wonder what you feel it is? It was not intentional – at least not from me. I think the album is simply the best example of how the different styles Louis and I have can work together, but in terms of the choice of songs, that was mostly random – a kind of batch sample from the pile at the time.
I tend to simply want my music to support the song, the lyrical content. Louis, I’d say, has more of an arranger’s hat on when he writes his parts. Whatever, I guess we both respond to the meaning in the songs, to their individual atmospheres. It would be interesting to know his thoughts.
As for influences on “The Devil Laughs” – as I wrote in the sleeve notes, it’s everything that the four of us (including Danny) brought to the party. In terms of the songs, my divorce, the preceding years of marriage and the consequent ones too, was a huge influence. I had intended, around 200? to make my “divorce album” but as things turned out I started my own label Habit Records, and, in order to get it up and running used some of the post-divorce material on a mini album called “Six Winter Mornings.”
The likes of Kurt Cobain and Belle And Sebastian have referenced your work, how does that feel ?
It’s amazing to get recognition, period. I’ve never really been a buyer of records, on any sort of scale, and since age 30ish have mostly listened to music on the radio. I stopped hearing chart music in the early 1980s and I’m the sort of writer who works from a fairly isolated life, so I didn’t know, for instance, who Kurt Cobain and Belle And Sebastian were. I think I’m pretty observant and therefore I seem to find inspiration in small, always fleeting, and often quiet things. Dreams have been providing material – especially in lockdown. Again, because of the pandemic, I’ve been finding music – sometimes albums – which are new and/or new to me, at least. I like Bandcamp.
Can it seem as if the legacy of Young Marble Giants somehow overshadows your more recent music?
I certainly have had to struggle to find another sound/way of making musical arrangements – the YMG template was so strong. But I don’t think my subsequent songs, fundamentally, are really much different from those. The discipline and craft of recording has been essential in the path towards a style which feels authentic, somehow, for me. Although recording is the other side of the coin from live shows, its forensic nature really lets you hear what you’re doing, technically. Gigs really let you know what you’re doing emotionally – whether the songs work. Each feeds in to the other.
That said, and despite having written many songs since 1980 which I would easily rate as good as the best of YMG, the scale of the impact that “Colossal Youth” made in the world is extraordinary. One example which deserves a mention is The Gist single “Love At First Sight” which vies with (irony spoiler) “Credit In The Straight World” in terms of income generation.
In my mind YMG were/are special, right from the beginning. It was a Herculean task to get our stuff noticed and it wouldn’t have happened of course without the people in Cardiff, and then London, who supported us because they liked what we were doing. Inevitably making a body of work which was so unusual was a product of the situation we came from. It was the combustible atmosphere within the group, which itself existed within a bubble of non-communication, that made the music happen – and also killed it off, along with the usual attrition of sudden, overwhelming success and the consequent mental health fallout. I personally was fighting for my life, for my future, when I wrote that material. There was an overbearing feeling of urgency for me, at the age of 24, to somehow start doing what I wanted to be – a songwriter. I had precious little experience and was acutely aware of my instrumental limitations too, so it was basically a colossal workaround! That success and subsequent failure also shaped what I did afterwards – I was then numb, and working in the dark, luckily having good friends, old and new, to help.
The Gist was an amorphous idea – just a name, really, which in practice slowly evolved from a shellshocked hermitage, learning multitrack recording after a motorbike prang, through returning to Cardiff where I began a long and fruitful alliance with my younger brother Andrew, taught myself to play the drumkit, and got back into writing songs.
I then met my wife to be, got into working in animation, moved to London and started making an occasional series of albums under my own name. Our three children came along and I persisted, in my home studio, buoyed by interest in north America from John Henderson of Feel Good All Over Records in Chicago. A big move to rural life in southwest England in late 2000 coincided with an attempt to get into serious full-time work as a Driving Instructor and, post-divorce, as a Ministry of Defence Driver. I became seriously ill just as I was serving my Notice in that job and things went badly for a while – I even got evicted from a studio which I’d spent a considerable amount of money converting and from which I was obliged to get rid of lots of gear, etc. in short order. I was effectively homeless for a while around this time but eventually a friend, whom I’d met towards the end of a decade of playing music for recovering addicts in a local residential home, helped me to find refuge in an alms house and I eked a living from long distance taxi driving and royalties.
I found a space in a farm outbuilding in late 2013, which is where I still work, and through Facebook reconnected with John Henderson who, happily, was starting his new label, Tiny Global Productions. He began the process of encouraging interested parties to catch up, chronologically, with my post – 1982 output, which is still ongoing, along with releasing new recordings.
The Young Marble Giants 40th anniversary this year reminded me of the astonishing effect that music has had and of how different it is to anything I’ve done subsequently in many ways, if not entirely. In short, not overshadowing, but enabling me to continue the self-taught exploration I began in November 1978. Stuart’s upcoming gigs are : 16th Oct Westgart Social Club Middlesbrough & 29th October at The Thunderbolt Bristol Be sure to get along ‘The Devil Laughs’ is released by Tiny Global Records