Michael Head: ‘I’m surprised how good the songs are, they’re fresh and new’

Michael Head. Picture: John Johnson
Michael Head. Picture: John Johnson
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Singer-songwriter Michael Head is working with collective The Red Elastic Band on a new album. Duncan Seaman reports.

Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Michael Head has gained cult status over the course of the last 40 years for his work with bands such as The Pale Fountains, Shack and The Strands, but it’s apparent he is not one to dwell on commercial near-misses or what might have been.

“I’m just a songwriter,” says the softly spoken 58-year-old. “It’s like when you say miss, where’s the target? All I do is write songs.”

His latest group is called The Red Elastic Band. Their first album, Adios Señor Pussycat, came out in 2017 to widespread plaudits for a collection of timeless tunes in the vein of The Byrds and Love; now they’re working on a follow-up, titled New Brighton Rock.

“We’re about two thirds into it,” he says, noting that four songs are already recorded by the time we speak, and at the end of that week they will “do another three”.

The sessions are being produced by Bill Ryder-Jones, former lead guitarist with The Coral, who in 2008 struck out as a solo artist. “I used to go and watch The Coral when they first started,” Head says. “And they blew me away. I love Bill’s stuff and when he said he’d love to do it, it was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s have that’.”

Michael Head. Picture: John Johnson

Michael Head. Picture: John Johnson

Three years on from Adios Señor Pussycat, Head’s creativity seems to have been reinvigorated. “I’m surprised how good the songs are, they’re fresh and new,” he says. “The band that I’m working with we’re all on the same page, it’s just a joy, really.”

After initially being launched as a fluid collective, The Red Elastic Band’s line-up has also settled. “When we were doing the last gig, the three-part harmonies were like an extra instrument and most of the songs are like a five-piece band anyway,” he says. “It was a conscious thing not to have strings and brass.”

Head has also talked of greater positivity around him and reconnecting with his family, but he hesitates to say whether that’s directly reflected in his writing. “I don’t know,” he ponders. “The songs are quite different, eclectic, for want of a better word.

“The last album I needed personally to get out of my system. There was one song that was 25 years old, and that’s why it’s all in the title, really. But the new stuff I’m surprising myself. I played the songs down the phone to the lads. It’s exciting at the moment. The new album I think is going to be good... That’s what is so refreshing, the songs have been written over the last 12 months.”

The piano is the heaviest thing I’ve ever picked up in my life, that’s why it’s stayed by the front door. But it was quite interesting, actually. You couldn’t walk past it without sitting down and playing.

Michael Head

Writing some songs on the piano, rather than the guitar, has changed his approach too. “I’m a complete novice on the piano but I’ve got some great ideas,” he says. “We’ve got a new song called The Next Day which is about the futility of war and the different ranks and class and things like that which I wrote on the piano because of my friend Nina, who plays piano with The Red Elastic Band.

“It’s the heaviest thing I’ve ever picked up in my life, that’s why it’s stayed by the front door. But it was quite interesting, actually. You couldn’t walk past it without sitting down and playing, so it was good to have it there. It was a real musical gift from a friend, this lovely upright piano which had loads of effects, but I didn’t use them; I learnt the pedals. Some of the songs were written on the piano and then transferred.

“What I’m going to do on the album is I’m going to have two versions – the guitar version and then the piano version, which is how it was written.”

Several of the new songs will be aired this month on the band’s UK tour. “What was really positive from the last gig we did in Liverpool was people I’ve known a long time saying things about the new songs. It was really beautiful people responding,” Head says.

“It’s stripped down to a five-piece intentionally and we wanted to not make it like the last gigs that we’d done. Because it’s a new album, we wanted to play predominantly as many new songs from it as we could. But we are mixing it up, there are some songs that we didn’t play in the past 20 years. It’s a two-way street, isn’t it, with the members of the audience. There’s a mutual respect, I would’ve thought. That’s what I get anyway from the gigs we do.”

In recent years Head has written a collection of short stories and a screenplay. “I think short stories are an extension of cramming stories into three-and-a-half or four minute songs,” he says. “I’ve always done it and I’ve got a couple of ideas on the go at the moment.”

In the meantime, he needs to raise cash to complete the new album. “We’re getting the money together to do the sessions. Bill’s really busy, so when he’s got time he lets us know. It’s a work in progress, if you like. We’re going to get some songs down and possibly put it to someone to say, ‘do you want to finance the rest of the album?’”

Michael Head and The Red Elastic Band play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on Friday January 24. www.michaelhead.co.uk