On a typical rainy afternoon in South Wales the phone rings and on the other end of the line is a buoyant and happy Alvin Gibbs – he being the mighty four stringer from the parish of UK Subversives and former bass player in Iggy Pop’s band, Cheap and Nasty as well as one or two other projects we might get to cover.
The reason for the call is Alvin has just completed his debut solo record and if the first two songs are the yardstick of what’s to come then this might just be an amazing time to jump on the Alvin Gibbs Ghost train and pull up a seat and let the man tell you in his own words what he’s been up to and what he’s about to embark on. Alvin…
Let’s get straight into it and begin with an obvious question, why has it taken until now to write and record a solo album Alvin?
Mmmm, yeah you’re right it has taken quite a while to get to this point. For quite a while people have suggested it to me usually because they like the songs I’ve written and sung on the Subs records as well as others, including Charlie I might add he always said: “hey Alvin – you should record a solo album with all these songs you’re writing”. But my attitude for a long time was – oh it smacks of self-indulgence and vanity you know? Besides I’m in the Subs and I’ve got an outlet there for my songs and I sing the odd song so why would I do that.
Then there’s this guy Christos who’s become a very good friend over the years who’s from Poland and does the European tours with us and as I say I’ve known him for a very long time. When we tour over there he says don’t travel with the band I’ll drive you and we can chat about business and such like. Anyway every year he’s like you’ve got to do this solo album Alvin so many people like your songs you’ve just got to do it and so I’ve been thinking about it and – well, maybe it’s doable and maybe this is the right time and for me to not think its a vanity project but something worthwhile. So I spoke to Time & Matter (Rob & Mark) and they said they’d love to do it. They put the money up and I wrote the songs. It’s been a really interesting process. Obviously, it’s something I’ve never done before and I didn’t realise how much work there is involved in all the other side of releasing a record but when it’s all on your own shoulders you know you’re forced to face all of that. But I must say I’m really, really pleased with the results.
I was going to ask if there is possibly a different mindset or approach to making your own album as opposed to one with the Subs. Are you conscious not to over analyze things like the songs….who plays on what and the process of it all?
I think it’s been liberating in a way as I’ve not been worried about writing in a certain way or style. You’re writing for yourself you know so I’m not tailoring it for the UK Subs. It enables me to write songs I wouldn’t bring to the subs so yeah it’s allowed me to have a diverse range which I hope people will like. There’s a dark almost Nick Cave style song and some that would be the opposite side of the spectrum more in a style like the New York Dolls. So yeah it’s been a great process and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a lot of hard work – to be fair just writing twelve songs and giving you that pressure.
Do you write all the time Alvin? Do you sort of stockpile tracks you think might work for this or that project?
There has been a pressure to this but I kind of work better that way I think. Having said that I quite often pick up a guitar and start to play things that have popped into my head……It’s funny how things come to you if you hold a guitar long enough and start playing and you think oh, that sounds good. What I tend to do then is record it onto my phone. So when I started on this project I had a look at what’s on my phone and there were maybe five or six song ideas that were there – maybe a riff or progression of chords. Then there was that pressure of the need to write for the album which I quite enjoyed. There were a couple I had that ended up not being good enough but you know it’s funny there are ones you think won’t be good enough initially but once you start recording them and adding the other instruments they take on a certain form, change shape and sometimes go pow! They come alive and can be the best tracks. It was different but it was all enjoyable.
Do you find that when you’ve written a song you also start to piece together who you’d like to play on the track? I’ve heard some of the songs off the album and you have Brian (James) playing on ‘Clumsy Fingers’ was his name instantly lending itself to that track?
Maybe not when I first wrote it but after I’d recorded it in a basic way and Jamie (Oliver) played drums and I’d laid down a rhythm guitar (which I do for all the songs on the album) and the guide vocal was on there I then began to think “Who would I like to get to play on that” and ‘Clumsy Finger’ was kind of obvious for Brian because instantly it was his sort of thing. Brian loves his rock music and that’s kind of a straight-ahead ballsy rock song and suited his thing down to the ground but there are other songs, for instance – a song called ‘I’m not crying now’ which has a more swing Blues thing about it. And of course, Mick Rossi was the one for the Dolls or Stones rocker. So yeah, maybe not when I initially wrote them but once they were fleshed out and I needed to think about it there were obvious choices that certainly sprang to mind. I produced this with Steve (Godfathers) at his home studio and he’s a great guitar player. I’d ask him to have a go at this one and he was great to have around for that because he’s a great player. There were others I’d have loved to ask to play, but for one reason or another timing or whatever couldn’t get it done. People like Captain Sensible but everyone seems so busy doing other things and it would go on forever if you waited so some were not possible. There has to be a cut off there’s only so much time.
One of my questions was about that and obviously with unavailability was there anyone you have on hold for a follow-up?
Well, yeah let’s see how this does commercially I wouldn’t want to get ahead of myself never say never I obviously want to see how this goes but it’s been great so far. So far so good the reviews of the single have been great and people seem really enthusiastic which is really humbling and we’ve almost sold the entire first press on pre-order which is amazing and encouraging. So if the album does well or as well as some people have said it will, I might well be encouraged to do it all again yeah ha ha! But I’m certainly going to put a band around it.
For live shows….any idea who you’d have in the band?
I’ve kind of got a core of the band along with myself there’s Jamie. Jamie wants to do it. I did say you’re in the Subs, you have your own band you play with other people as well haha but he said he’d find the time and wants to do it. Tony Feedback is a friend of mine and he’s going to do it and I’d like to get some guests like Leigh (The Ruts) who also plays on the album….get him to jump up and play a few songs. James Stevenson (Chelsea, The Alarm, Gene Loves Jezebel) as well as maybe two or three other guests to get up and play which will also make it more of an interesting experience you know….
Does it help to have a good address book then?
Yeah, it does haha. I think it gives it some authenticity as well pulling in people who have their own audience. Maybe people who like them might not gravitate towards it on their own might see that this one is on there so might check it out.
I’m happy to admit that when I first heard the single I was expecting it to be good but I was blown away by how exciting it sounded…you really captured a moment in there its really energetic and vibrant and from the floor toms and bass its really going for it.
Thank you, I really appreciate that but in all honesty, there are better songs on the album in my opinion and I appreciate that you’ve not heard it all yet. We had to decide on a couple of songs for a single and in fact, there were two songs that hadn’t even been recorded when we were met with that deadline. Rob and Mark needed to get moving in order for us to meet our set deadline so we went with those two. I think there are at least four songs on there that could have been singles and there could still be a second single later from this album – I’m glad you get them and like them.
Lee (Ruts) plays some lovely intricate stuff on ‘Ghost Train’ and it really helps. Brian’s bonkers work on the single really helps and gives it some character.
I’m sure as a fan – I can honestly say that people will be blown away when they hear these songs and if this is an indication of the quality then I’m excited. As a fan of your work with Cheap & Nasty, I think there will be fans who aren’t Subs fans who will love this.
In fact, as you mention that era Timo plays on this album as well. I was really pleased I got him to play on this album as well you know, people will maybe be familiar with his work with Johnny Thunders as well. It’s nice that there are elements from throughout my career on this record back through Cheap & Nasty and other influences right the way back. There is some Stonesy stuff on this as well as the Iggy influence – it’s a nice balance. It’s great to hear that you like it – thank you.
Let’s move onto the lyrics for the album. I’ve told you before when we’ve met that ‘Neighbourhood Threat’ is exceptional and I really mean it when I say it’s up there with the best books of its kind Like Ian Hunters ‘Rock And Roll Star. The way you write flows, its really engaging and the reader feels like they’re on the road with you. So did you enjoy writing the lyrics for the songs as opposed to writing for a book?
Yes, I like writing. Been doing my memoirs for T&M and I’ve really enjoyed it – I only wished I had more time but I’m so busy with the Subs and now, of course, this solo record. I do enjoy writing lyrics and prose. I like the process I enjoy telling stories and recounting things. For me, I’ve always liked the confessional lyrics. It’s funny now I’m 60 (its hard to believe but it’s true) I’ve noticed that actually on this album there are a fair few songs dealing with the issue of mortality. Obviously, when you reach 60 you kinda go oh hang on a minute haha its like there isn’t a large amount of time with which you have left to do things. That’s another of the reasons to be fair why I’m doing this now is if I don’t get this done now it’s never going to happen. I do like to think about using my time wisely whilst I still can and all that sort of thing. It’s a natural consequence of aging I suppose.
I love listening to lyrics and trying to work out who or what they are about and going back over some of your songs and reading ‘Some Weird Sin’ I had a light bulb moment that Midnight Emperor was about Andy McCoy and the tour of Japan…
Oh yeah, that was awful. The label had these guys to show us around and stuff.
Like ‘Ghost Train’ deals with mortality and what you were saying just now…
Yeah, it’s a dual meaning really mortality and were born – using it as a metaphor, then we’re on this journey where the inevitability is this train has the same final destination for us all. The other side of it is the frightening political situations everywhere at the moment. People like Trump and Putin these guys are leading us all through scary times with the decisions they make and there doesn’t seem like there is anything we can do. We’re on the ghost train just riding along and hoping that things don’t get worse and we don’t end up heading down the same roads as the 1930’s. Democracy can be overtaken by something more sinister and dark – or maybe its just me being paranoid…
You’re definitely not alone in thinking that…
Oh good, I’m glad of that haha! But I do think people should be aware that a government can send people to another country and just kill people for speaking out……scary stuff.
With regards to your writing have you always kept diaries?
Yes, obviously it’s been a very important tool for me. I’ve got quite a good memory as well – it’s funny, sometimes I write something and I cross-reference it with my diary and wonder how I remembered it like that. It’s good to keep and they’ve been really useful. On that Iggy tour, I did a page – page and a half every day. I can fact check my past but at times it’s been really useful. I’m sure if Andy (McCoy) was to write a book about that tour it would be very different from mine…..
His Autobiography was certainly an unusual read haha!
He had a bit of a pop at me but I didn’t make him out to be the devil…it’s sad that guy could have had an amazing career he’s such a talent. He could be up there with the great players but ego and other things sadly got in the way…
So he wasn’t a name you looked up to call to contribute to this album then?
Ha, ha no, no…He’d have demanded an expensive hotel in London, a limo from the hotel to studio, first-class travel he’d then disappear and probably end up not doing anything (Ha ha ha ) and blow the budget haha…..But to answer the question it’s fair to say I wouldn’t work with Andy in any capacity haha I actually did a bit of digging for the updated Iggy book and was putting together what people had been doing since and with Andy it was a couple of singles since Hanoi reformed (and one LP Greese Helmet) in well over a decade…
He did do Big Brother in Finland I believe…
Oh did he…ha ha ha!
Anyway getting back on track… When you tour the album – you mentioned live dates. Will it be a UK Subs like tour or something more scaled down?
It would probably be two or three dates maybe some festival dates next year maybe Rebellion so that would be good. Some of the people I’d have as guests would probably be there as well with their other bands so that would be something to look at.
That must be a great feeling playing Rebellion with the Subs, knowing stuff like this year you were the only band to reach capacity in the Empress and have the situation of ‘one out – one in’ over the whole four days which is some achievement by anyone’s standard.
Yes that’s wonderful, it’s wonderful that people like the band so much, it’s a really productive time for us
As a fan of a certain age, the output from you guys over the last decade has been the best for me you just seem to be getting better and better. From ‘Work In Progress’ to the single and this EP we’ve never had it so good as Subs fans…..
I think part of it was when Charlie was in sole control he just wanted to play and stuff and maybe there wasn’t so much quality control…..things were rushed and when I came back and Jamie and Jet as well, when it became a proper band again, we said we had to do it properly or not at all
Was that around the time just prior to work in progress?
Yeah, yeah, it really gave the band a boost and slowly we built it up again to where we are now. This might well be the best it’s ever been in terms of sales and shows. There were some funny times – looking back to the 90’s I can remember Charlie phoning me up one weekend and he would go “Alvin its Charlie. Got a couple of gigs would you mind filling in on bass” and I’d go yes sure no problem. Then he’d go ones in Newcastle then the next night we’re in Exeter and it wouldn’t make any sense. Then he’d have me at his house at 1 o’clock on the day and I’d get to his flat, he’d let me in and he’d say I’m just on the phone. I could hear him pondering and the phone would go down. Then he’d pick it up again and I’d hear him ask someone hi it’s Charlie you haven’t got a van we could use have you? The day of the show ha, ha and he’s only just thought of booking a van! I seem to remember we ended up catching a train with our instruments and using the support bands amps. Another time that comes to mind was a show in Nottingham where we turned up at the venue and I turned to Charlie and asked him where’s the drummer? And Charlie looks at me and says “I thought I’d forgotten something” he’d only forgotten to sort out a drummer! Then he went on stage and asked if anyone in the audience was a drummer who knows our songs. Ha, ha can you imagine it, ha, ha, it was so embarrassing. Those days thankfully are over.
When Charlie’s in charge these things happen…..Charlie’s been writing his book for about 15 years and a few years ago I went up to him for a joke and said Hey Charlie, how’s yer book going? And his reply was – oh not bad I’m up til I’m eight years old. So fifteen years and he’s only got til eight years old haha! He did ask me to write it with him but we’ve just not got the time.
That’s another thing maybe people don’t know about you, Alvin. Where the hell did you find the time to get your BA Hons in History?
Well yeah, that’s another thing I did that was pretty stupid ha, ha. The short answer is I don’t know where I got the time from. But there you go I did and I got a 2:1 which I’m happy with. I found myself doing it on fire escapes, backstage, vans traveling places. I had to come back to the UK every year for an exam and do you know…..I really, really enjoyed it. It was such a great experience and an immense sense of satisfaction going to the Barbican to collect my scroll. I love history and feel I learned so much doing that…..its one of the best things I’ve done in my life and would recommend it to anybody. It’s something I was enthusiastic about and got into it on a much deeper level. Other things it taught me was with history it’s about analysis and reading between the lines and not take things for granted, critical thinking and such likes Things that have been good for me in general in life.
I think it’s not such a shocking thing it’s all about being creative with history and music things tend to lend themselves it’s not all about clichés. Look at me I live over here in France…I love the culture, the wine is lovely and a lifestyle I couldn’t afford in the UK. It’s totally different to what people perceive. You know I expect they think I should have an anarchy sign painted on the wall and pictures of punks and not art or antiques. I don’t know what people would expect ha, ha. Don’t play to the cliché I say.
It was there I let Mr. Gibbs get about his business. It was a pleasure to talk to someone so articulate and happy with his achievements and excited about what’s on the horizon. Click the links to read Alvin’s memoirs Time & Matter, pick up a copy of his stunning album and if you can still get hold of a copy….I can’t recommend his tour diary from that Instinct tour enough ‘Some Weird Sin’….An incredible book by one of Rock and Roll’s finest – Alvin Gibbs – legend.
Alvin’s solo album will be available via Time & Matter music. Other retailers will also stock it if not just ask them
Pictures courtesy of Time & Matter/Timo Kaltio/Johnny Hayward