The Catherine Wheel Interview

By theajaysharma

On a gorgeous April afternoon, Rob Dickinson sprawls by the rooftop pool at a West Hollywood hotel, looking every bit the native LA sun worshipper. "I used to live here, four or five years ago," he says, sipping a beer. "I really like this place." Dickinson and the rest of The Catherine Wheel have come to promote Wishville. It's their first album in three years, during which they've bid farewell to founding member Dave Hawes; joined forces again with Tim Friese-Green (producer of their breakthrough debut Ferment); and broken down what Catherine Wheel was all about, putting it back together as who they are now.

Interview by Lisa Y. Garibay

EO: Do you have a lot of expectations for Wishville?

Rob: (Laughing) Yeah - whether I'd like to tempt fate and say what they are or not, I don't know. I think that we spent a lot of time trying to make a very particular type of record.

EO: Is that why there was such a break between this album and 1997's Adam and Eve?

Rob: Yes. I think if you try and make reasonably ambitious music, the more records you make the harder it gets. We've always tried to make each record a sort of quantum leap from the previous one, and I think if you maintain that modus operandi, your avenues automatically, unavoidably, start to narrow. And if you don't want to repeat yourself, you have to look a little harder and a little deeper into different techniques and try different methods of writing and recording the music. Tim Friese-Greene [Talk Talk], who produced this record, told us that it's the case and he's right. The idea of knocking off a quick record would be very enticing, but it just doesn't happen.

EO: You're getting a lot of attention on how short this album is.

Rob: Why is it short? I don't think the record is short, I think the record is the correct length! All music that existed before the CD revolution was 40 minutes long - twenty minutes either side on vinyl. It meant you listened to a whole album and it was a special thing; it wasn't just this disparate collection of 17 tunes which you had your favorites from. All my favorite records are things which you put on and finish, and then you even think about putting them on again. The idea of just putting nine songs on a record was a conceptual goal that we had very early on. It just concentrates the brain.

One of the toughest processes I think any band has is knowing what to leave off, and having the strength - the commitment - to realize that you might be attached to a song that isn't necessarily the best and doesn't need to go on a record. So that's where a lot of the time was spent - figuring out what not to put on the record, and figuring out what songs had a relationship to each other and would create some kind of mood.

EO: How many songs did you have to whittle down from?

Rob: Sixty is what we finally - after ten months of writing songs - had in various forms. We distilled that down to twenty-five, and that's when we started rehearsing. We started writing in August '98 and rehearsing in May of last year. We rehearsed 25 songs and got those down to nine.

EO: Did you feel any pressure at all from the label to make it longer?

Rob: (Laughing) No...we kind of kept that little bit quiet. But it's hardly revolutionary. I think people probably may presume it's some kind of artistic statement for the sake of it, but it isn't. It's there for very watertight musical, creative reasons, and I defend them all the time.

The record company didn't care - they said, "You can make the statement you want but we have to be able to try and get it played on the radio," and I thought that was honest and fair. Tim said that writing singles can either be the devil's work or it can be an interesting, intellectual challenge. In the past, we always tried not to think any of our songs would be selected as singles, knowing full well that, of course, they will be. This time, I think the band's grown up a bit.

EO: In terms of what?

Rob: I just felt that we felt far more comfortable admitting things that were true anyway. Rather than having stuff lifted from an album which maybe wasn't representative or ideal as singles, we thought, "Let's write some ideal singles that don't do a disservice to the group, do the job that singles need to do, but are interesting, challenging pieces of music in their own right."

EO: After having four credited producers on Adam and Eve, how was it to go back to just one producer on Wishville?

Rob: (Laughing) Great! I asked Tim to make another record with us about eighteen months ago when we got drunk in a Spanish bar in London. We made Ferment with Tim in '92, and he hasn't made another record since for anyone else. I think he'd felt that we'd learned enough things and that I was in a good mental state to make a record with him involved again - because it's a bit of a torturous procedure making records with Tim.

I think Tim's the closest thing I've ever come to meeting a genius. He's someone who has a talent and an out-of-this-world ability to see things in a way which I can't even begin to grasp. He knows the band very well and I trust him. In the end, his musical abilities - he's a fantastic musician - and his ability with sounds take a back seat to the fact that I trust his judgement on songs we write. We've worked with some great people but it felt right for Tim to make Wishville. I felt that we could make a genuinely creative artistic statement with Tim which we couldn't with anyone else at this moment.

Tim was very much intrigued by making a record which had commercial possibilities but was still challenging to listen to. And that's what I wanted to make - I mean, this band's a pop group at heart. I think we've always made music which has been very accessible, and I just wanted to build on that.

EO: Which is your favorite Catherine Wheel album?

Rob: I think Like Cats and Dogs, the B-sides record, purely because it's conceptually different from the studio records. All the songs were recorded very quickly and written very quickly. It just reveals a very interesting side to the band which I don't think many people are that familiar with.

EO: What was the changeover in bassists all about?

Rob: I think we drifted apart from Dave and Dave drifted apart from us. Dave was living in America, and we just didn't feel like we were all the same group anymore. It happened slowly, over the last kind of eighteen months or two years.

EO: So he didn't play at all on Wishville.

Rob: No.

EO: Has the change in line-up affected the sound of the group and contributed to a different direction?

Rob: Definitely. (Laughs) It's good - Ben Ellis is a real injection of youth and energy which I think we needed. It's not that we're jaded about doing big American tours, but Ben's all wide-eyed; we're living vicariously through him as he experiences America for the first time. (Grins) It's all good - new album, new label...

EO: Why did you leave Mercury/Fontana?

Rob: They wouldn't prioritize the band as being important enough. I think we were sick of making really good records which you couldn't buy in record shops. A recording contract is a bargain and we've always fulfilled our part of it by making good records. We had some great allies and great friends at Mercury, but ultimately, there has to be some kind of commitment from the people who make things happen. We never really saw that, and so we had to say goodbye.

EO: Do you think the new album will be more popular in America or succeed in Europe?

Rob: I don't know. In Europe it's got less to do with what the music is and more to do with how fashionable it is. It's not a question of the music being good - that's not good enough, really. It's whether the music has some kind of resonance with what people are listening to. Records get released out of time, I think, sometimes. We've never tailored our music to any kind of fashionable regime, but I don't see why it shouldn't do well.

I think Wishville's a record full of really strong songs. Some of the best musical brains in England have put their heart and soul into this record - how it could not be good's impossible not to be good. Whether it reflects what people's tastes are these days or not, I don't know - it's a totally different thing, it's totally arbitrary.

EO: How important is success in Europe to you versus success in the States?

Rob: I really don't care. I mean, it's important - all the English bands want to do well in America, but very few will admit it. When it doesn't happen, people just say, "Oh, it's fucking America - we don't care." But everyone wants to do it - I don't get it. We have a better chance than Oasis, we have a better chance than Travis, we probably have a better chance than Radiohead - none of these bands have cracked America, really. (Laughs) I think we are the only English band which is quintessentially British and hasn't signed a pact with the devil to sell records in America to do well in this country. I think we have a good mental attitude to it - we take the good things of America, they nourish us, and we spit out the awful things.

EO: What bands are exciting for you to listen to now?

Rob: Mercury Rev I was listening to the other day in my car - Deserter's Songs. I'm a big fan of them. Mazzy Star - I'm a big fan of Mazzy Star; Hope Sandoval sings me to sleep every night. I haven't really heard a lot of new stuff which has caught my ear, but I don't listen to a lot of music.

EO: Who are the classic bands who drove you to becoming a musician?

Rob: Queen, Led Zepplin, Whitesnake. (Laughing loudly) I remember grooving along to some crappo Whitesnake song when I was 11 with a pretend microphone in my hand. All these things make a difference. Oh, God, I'm not very cool, I'm afraid.

EO: Finally, on your past albums the band's name is Catherine Wheel; on Wishville it says The Catherine Wheel. Which one is it?

Rob: It's "The" - it was important that it wasn't "The" when we started; now, it's important that it is. I like the definitive aspect of it. We're the only one.