Interview by Adam McKibbin
As frontman of Unbelievable Truth in the '90s, Andy Yorke (brother of Radiohead's Thom) sold a couple hundred thousand records - then, as a new decade dawned, walked away from music altogether. His introspective first solo album, Simple, shows new scars but no signs of rust. In this wide-ranging interview, he explains the reasons for his return to music, reflects on his years with UT, and considers the chances of another Cold War with the country that became his second home.
I saw Unbelievable Truth in the States when you were supporting Tori Amos. That show was in Madison, Wisconsin, and while I came away quite moved, the crowd at large wasn’t particularly warm and fuzzy. It was nothing personal; it was just that they seemed to think that whoever opened was keeping them from seeing Tori, as though she wasn’t complicit in having an opening act. I’m not sure whether that was a typical night or an exception to the rule. How did it go from your vantage point? And did you notice a bump in American awareness afterwards?
I was quite intimidated by the prospect of playing these huge venues in support of Tori. So for the first few concerts it was pretty scary. But we were with Tori for about 10 weeks I think, and it’s amazing how complacent you can get in any environment if you’re exposed to it day after day. Half way into the tour we decided to do a cover of “Shipbuilding” by Elvis Costello even though we hadn’t rehearsed it and we remembered it only vaguely. Sure enough, we completely messed it up, but we laughed it off and no one in the audience seemed to mind … or even notice.
What you described was fairly typical although I don’t remember the audience reaction ever being negative. It just wasn’t very interested, but that’s pretty common for support bands anyway. And we did pick up a few new fans along the way. But there wasn’t much of a bump in American awareness, largely because there was no real support from the record company – so not much in the way of interviews and promo that would have helped raise our profile.
Touring with Tori was a good experience, not least because Tori and her crew looked after us amazingly well, they were good people. But it was also a mistake, in that in order to do it we had to cancel a big French tour that had already sold well. Things had been shaping up well in France and that tour could have really made us a name there. But we had no choice – we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to go to the US instead.
You’ve described yourself as a serial band quitter. When the curtain fell on UT for the last time, it sounded like you were done with music – professionally, anyway – for good. What brought you to that precipice? When did it stop becoming fun?
There were a lot of factors, but I was unhappy and I thought that it was because I was pursuing this career in music and it wasn’t what I should be doing. In retrospect I think I misdiagnosed the problem – I was unhappy for other, more fundamental reasons. But I also wanted to get back into academic study of Russia, to use my brain again. I did go back to university and I’m really glad I did. So now I live this schizophrenic life where I’m a Russia expert and a singer-songwriter in roughly equal measure. Although I’m doing music again, I can’t imagine it ever again becoming the sole thing that I do for a living.
When did it stop becoming fun? It had been fun once, especially around the time we were writing and recording Almost Here, when it felt like we were in the zone creatively. But even then I guess I never felt comfortable as the frontman of a band. I still don’t. It just ultimately doesn’t feel like me. Now it’s ok, because there are other things that I do, so I enjoy the music for what it is without the pressure of having it be my career. So to answer the question, it stopped being fun when it became a career choice.
Had you always been writing solo even during the UT days, and then taking songs in that were mostly intact to your bandmates? Or was it more of a collaborative process then – making it a much different sort of process for Simple?
It was very different during the UT days and that’s the main reason why Simple has been released as an Andy Yorke album rather than a UT album. In UT the songwriting was always a collaborative process. There were one or two exceptions - like the song ”Almost Here” which was pretty much all me, or “A Name” where the music was 100% Nigel – but generally the UT songs had a lot of input from each of us. In those days I was generally incapable of finishing a song – I’d write a nice chord progression, a vocal line and some lyrics, but I’d have no idea where to take a song after verse-chorus-verse-chorus. So Nigel and Jason would help me out. But there were also a lot of songs - some of the best ones in fact - where the initial idea came from Jason or Nigel.
Do you look back fondly on the UT catalog now? This is the sort of question that really seems to divide songwriters practically 50/50…. Some people are very philosophical about themselves and others can hardly bear to hear what they put to tape last week, let alone years ago.
There are relatively few old songs I can listen to without cringing, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of them, believe it or not! It’s just that they are too evocative of their time, or there is a certain flaw in the vocal that really bothers me but doesn’t stop me knowing objectively that the song as a whole is good. There is one song, “From This Height”, that never made it onto Almost Here but for me is possibly better than anything that is on there. I’ve tried to get Virgin to make it available on iTunes, but it didn’t quite happen – they’ve had more pressing matters to deal with lately.
I think that all three of us are really proud of Almost Here as a body of work. We’re less happy with how Sorrythankyou turned out, although there are some really nice songs on there. Part of the problem is that it’s too long, which is something that I insisted on, fool that I am.
Was there an “ah-ha” moment when you picked up the guitar and starting writing again? Or was it not quite as dramatic as that… were you writing here and there throughout your hiatus?
I can remember when I first picked up the guitar again and started coming up with ideas for songs. But the first fruits of this weren’t hugely inspired. I guess it was more a case of gradually getting back into the habit of playing the guitar. For me, writing always follows from just playing around on the guitar, because I’ve never been interested in learning how to play other people’s songs. I took some comfort from playing and writing, and after a while the quality of the song ideas started to improve quite dramatically.
A lot of these songs are relationship songs – or, perhaps more precisely, end-of-relationship songs. Now that the impetus behind your return to songwriting has been dealt with, do you think you may put the music aside again? Or are those floodgates back open for the near future?
Good question. If I’m honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything at all. Someone told me that it’s common for a songwriter to clam up creatively while there’s an existing album that hasn’t been released. But I suspect that you’re right and the impetus for writing Simple is gone now – I’m happy and a lot less conflicted than before. So I guess I have to wait for something else to come along and inspire me. But if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy.
Your bio mentions that these songs were cathartic to write – that they were coping mechanisms in some sense. What’s it like to play them night after night? Doesn’t that rip open the scabs a little bit?
I think that playing songs night after night inevitably means that you gain some detachment from the emotions that gave rise to those songs originally. But in order to give a good performance of the song, you do have to try to remember and reconnect with those emotions to some extent.
Aside from writing your own songs… as a listener and music lover, who do you most frequently return to in your hours of need?
Musicians with any cred are supposed to answer this question with the name of some band no-one else has heard of. But for me, the honest answer is that I can’t stop listening to Sigur Ros. I saw them live for the first time at the Latitude Festival in the UK this summer, and it was magical. Easily the best gig I’ve ever been to in my life.
One of the bands that I see frequently mentioned as a reference point for you is Crowded House. Do you see things like that and think “Hmm, yeah, I can see that” – or “Where the hell do they come up with that?”
It makes sense on the surface – I guess I’m in the same acoustic singer-songwriter genre. I think Crowded House are pretty good but they don’t excite me a great deal. Their music is more accessible - maybe this is really unfair, but I don’t feel it really aspires to be much more than that. My stuff is a lot more personal and probably less accessible – but whether that makes it better or worse is entirely a matter of opinion.
I’m always interested in how people find their way to their passion points – and for you, it’s been much remarked about how you became enchanted with Russian culture. I know that you were taking Russian classes as a schoolboy, but what planted that seed? With all of the many countries that would have been unlike your own upbringing, what was about Russia that called (and calls) out to you?
The answer is very mundane. I happened to go to a school where you could take Russian as an option from the age of 12 or 13. And for me the choice came down to Russian or German. My Dad had learnt German so he was quite keen for me to follow in his footsteps. So I picked Russian, but not just to annoy my Dad. I just thought it sounded much more exotic and cool than German.
Then at the age of 15 I visited Russia for the first time, on a school trip to what was then the Soviet Union. We also visited the Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. That trip probably ensured that I was hooked for life – it was all so alien and made a huge impression on me. Then I lived in Russia as a student in 1992, when the whole country was in chaos. It was a miserable time for the Russians who were struggling to adapt and survive the lawlessness and economic degradation, but for us foreign students it was pretty thrilling. It was the most intense year of my life.
I don’t want to drift too far onto a tangent here, but as our site also covers politics, I was interested in your take about the direction Russia is headed from a sociopolitical standpoint. Here in America, Russia has of course been a hot topic during this election year. Some pundits are posturing like another Cold War may be upon us. In the years that you’ve been living and working in Russia, what sort of a shift have you seen? Did any of this play a part in your return from the country?
Well, even in 1987 there was the feeling of “we’re just like you”, and Gorbachev was working to open the country up to the West. And that was still the zeitgeist in 1992, when despite the chaos there was still the hope that Russia would rejoin the world community as a normal country. But during the 1990s, as things continued to deteriorate, that kind of naïve sentiment - that we’re all the same and we’ll soon be one happy family - went out of fashion. So Putin has presided over the partial restoration of Russia’s economic and political power, and when he blames the West for having brought Russia to its knees he’s echoing what most Russians feel. Gorbachev is a joke to the Russians now, and so is Andrei Kozyrev, who served as Russia’s first foreign minister and did whatever it took to please the West. There’s still a big sense of wounded pride, and now that Russia has got some power and influence to project, nothing will give Putin and the Russian people more delight than to throw their weight around and show the world they’re back on the map.
So I don’t think it makes much sense to call it a new Cold War, but Russia is a force to be reckoned with again. It has oil and gas, and let’s not forget that it still has an enormous nuclear arsenal. And it doesn’t have much interest in being a good global citizen as we in the US or the UK would define it. It has no interest in being on friendly terms with the West unless there are real benefits to be gained from that – benefits that outweigh the advantages of selling arms or nuclear technology to pariah states, for example.