A Conversation with Nite Jewel and Woo – AdHoc

A Conversation with Nite Jewel and Woo

The following is a conversation between Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel and Clive Ives of the cult British duo Woo. Their intimate synth pop record from 1989, It’s Cosy Inside, was recently reissued by Drag City and was an inspirational record to Ramona.

Clive: A good place to start is about that quote (from the sticker on the It’s Cosy Inside reissue) about how It’s Cosy Inside saved your life?

Ramona: Cole and I started listening to Woo when we lived in New York. We lived in a horrible neighborhood and in a horrible apartment together sharing one room. There was always loud music playing down the alleyway. We would listen to Woo at night to relax and fall asleep almost every night. We did other things too, but did that a lot. We loved it very much, but then weird stuff started happening. Cosy became a record that if I was having a big problem mentally, I would have to turn it on, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to deal with it. This one night, in Los Angeles actually, we were taking acid with a friend and we were practicing our band. We were having a great time and then we went outside and were sort of harassed by the police. It started getting really dark so we went back to our house and I started going into a really bad downward spiral of darkness. I basically thought I was going to die, so I put your record on and for literally 8 hours I listened to it on loop and that was the only way that I could imagine that I wasn’t going to die

Clive: Awww… So it really was a bit of a lifeline while you were tripping?

Ramona: It completely was. It was the only thing that could make me not go completely insane. It was strange because it was like a switch turned on.

Clive: Well, that makes you sound like a great Woo fan.

Ramona: I am the biggest Woo fan. I am.

Clive: In a way you are the most influential, because I think whatever you have done out there for us has initiated this possibility, and now you and I are on a single together, which is really cool.

Ramona: Never in a million years would I have imagined that would happen. When I was researching you guys I found your Myspace page, which I thought was great– that’s how I first contacted you. I think you were on Myspace because you were telling me Mark drew the picture for Light of All Beings, which was my profile picture at the time. Can you tell me about how you and Mark grew up?

Clive: Well, in suburban South London. Where to begin? When Mark was about six, he had a doctor that said he had to move out of London because he had asthma. We moved out just to the edge of London where it was higher up and the air was clearer. We lived on the outskirts of London. Then we moved back. With the cover of It’s Cosy Inside, the guy in the attic is symbolic of my dad and that is my mum on the phone. She was quite a wild socialite, you know, really wanted a good time and quite, sort of fiery. My dad was very conventional and normal, very practical. I think that was quite a strong influence on my brother and I because they never agreed on anything about how to bring us up or about what was right and what was wrong. So, I think Mark and I didn’t have parents that were working as a team, they were definitely quite different and had different viewpoints of the world.

Ramona: I’m looking at the cover right now, and I love these drawings. They’re so amazing! I was always really drawn to the mom, she’s so animated.

Clive: Well I’m glad you said that because I drew her.

Ramona: I love her!

Clive: Yeah, she’s wild isn’t she?

Ramona: Yeah! You have your parents on the cover of this record, so clearly it’s about you guys.

Clive: Well, yeah. Let me think. The title has lots of meanings to me. The idea that it’s cozy inside could be taken as a very spiritual concept. There, the little peace symbol’s saying, really, we’re all at peace, it’s just really whether we can feel that or not. Then there is the idea that there is this sort of futuristic vision that the world was becoming more hostile. There is the camera out in the street watching people, it was just coming up to 1984, that whole George Orwell concept of big brother watching you. We were very busy with a lot of that stuff and conspiracy theories, so that was woven into it. So there is my mum on the phone and my dad on the attic, the little boy is a photograph of me when I was six.

Ramona: Really?

Clive: Yeah. That was me when I found this old, big airplane so I just put that in. I don’t know if you can figure it out but there is a little picture on the right hand side of the wall.

Ramona:  Yeah I can’t tell what that is.

Clive: If you look at it upside down, it’s still a bit obscure, but it’s actually a close up of Mark with a dummy in his mouth. And that’s why we called the track ‘Upside Down’. But what Mark saw– he has a bit of a knack of looking into things and seeing other things in them, and when you look at this picture you might not get it– was in the dummy there is a little elf character. When I first brought this out I thought it was obvious, but what I realized is that it was all very personal, very subtle, and hardly anyone got any association with the titles and all the things on the cover.

Ramona: When did you and Mark start thinking that you were going work on music together?

Clive: I do remember, when he was about thirteen, he was writing these songs and I remember just being so impressed by what he was doing. I thought he was incredible. Then he left home, and he went off to the Isle of Wight for a year. When he came back, I was about fifteen and I had seen an advert for a cute little monophonic synthesizer in a newspaper. Prior to that, we had been playing music but I would just do things like the drums and he’d play guitar. When I got this synthesizer, we really started to develop the Woo sound and realized there was something quite special going on between him and I.

Ramona: Do you remember the synthesizer by any chance? Was it a Moog synthesizer?

Clive: No it wasn’t, it was a Roland… I’m pretty sure it was one of the first Rolands.

Ramona: The SH 101?

Clive: I got one of those later on, but it was actually before that. It was a really cute little thing, on the left hand side it had all of the buttons and controls… a three octave keyboard.

Ramona: Interesting. Was it all black?

Clive: Yeah.

Ramona:  Okay, I feel like I have seen it before, it’s a really basic synth. You found that in the newspaper, do you remember around what year that was? I’m sorry, I’m such a nerd with this stuff.

Clive: (laughs) That must have been, let’s see, about 1971, I should think. It’s a bit abstract but something like that.

Ramona: Were you drawn to electronics and synthesizers? The Woo sound, as organic as it is, is also very technological because you cannot tell where a lot of the sound is coming from. It’s very other worldly and that is something that you can only really get through synthesis. When you got the synthesizer, was it a sort of aha moment?

Clive: Well, I think it’s a mixture of stuff. The whole electronic thing was very exciting to me: the whole idea of having buttons and dials and stuff, I was really cool with that. The magic ingredient for us was that even in this really basic first synth, there was an input to put a microphone or a line to feed through the synthesizer. That then became our thing, we spent years exploring and developing that.

Ramona: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean! Because when I listen to Woo, initially– and let’s say It’s Cosy Inside in particular– there were these drum sounds quote unquote [Ramona beatboxes a Woo beat], and Cole and I always thought, “what is making that sound?” We could never figure it out. So, when I asked you or Mark on Myspace, and it was, like you said, the input into a modular synth in order to make that kind of sequenced drum sound, I just thought that was so ingenious. We couldn’t guess what it was.

Clive: That’s what gave our stuff this sort of organic quality because, even Mark and I sometimes listen to things again and go, “well, what did that?” We can’t figure it out. Were we bashing our high hats’ heads or were we playing a xylophone through a vocoder, or were we getting a sequence going; and then I used to do some really great things where he would play the guitar and then I wouldn’t have a sequence going by just setting the keyboard up. I’d shape it so it was quite sharp, and I could play the keyboard to trigger it so that only when I played the keyboard did his sound come through. I could play rhythms– let’s say he’s strumming a guitar– I could play the rhythm from the keyboard, and if you played the lower notes, it was murkier and duller and if you played the top notes, it had more of a sharpness to it.

Ramona: The weird thing for me is that I always imagined that Woo was something that was made in the country, that Woo was something that was meant for a rural English setting. But, I guess it was just conceived in the city of London itself again. That’s something that makes me think differently about it.

Clive: The reality is actually somewhere in between because suburban London is not too urban. It’s not like certain places, like in Putney, where you would only have to walk half a mile up a hill and there was sort of a green open space, we weren’t like in the wrong side of New York or anything (laughs).

Ramona: So in your teenage years you realized there was something special between you two, musically speaking: when did you start recording these things and how did you record them?

Clive: I suppose what I remember is a year or two of Mark coming and going a bit. When he first left home he joined the RAF Band for a year– he was in the Air Force believe it or not, but he did learn to play the clarinet there. He left after a year.

Ramona: He learned to play the clarinet in the Air Force?

Clive: Yeah, because he was in the band.

Ramona: Wow. Okay.

Clive: But he really wasn’t suited for the Air Force, such to the point that even though he had signed a five-year contract to be there– which normally no one ever gets out of– they actually said, “look, if you want to leave, it’s fine by us.” (both laughs) So, he was lucky, he managed to get out and then he got a job in London, he got himself a little studio flat, and eventually he ended up living with a friend of his somewhere else while I lived in this flat. It was perfect for me, I was going to art school and I had this little studio flat with all the musical equipment in it and about three times a week he’d turn up. It would just be evenings, and if it got going, we’d go all night. We would record, and we were in a very wonderful, exciting adventure because every time we set off, we really didn’t know where it was headed. Occasionally we’d get these magic moments, and that would inspire us to take some other approach and try a different way of composing or a way of starting.

Ramona: Did you record them on an 8-track?

Clive: So, initially we had, I think it was called a Decoder 4-track, and then I remember we got a Teac 4-track recorder. Most of those early years were recorded on things like that. So we could do sound on sound. Fundamentally it was just four tracks but then we’d often just bounce it down and then do another. Working in this flat developed one of the interesting ingredients in the Woo sound: the later it got, the quieter we had to play. There was a woman that lived below us, and if she got pissed off she’d get this big broom handle and bash on the ceiling. So, that’s where a lot of our tracks sort of have this very subtle quality to them out of just the necessity of having to play quietly.

Ramona: They definitely have that hushed sound for sure.

Clive: The one that I remember was “The Bird” on It’s Cosy Inside– a very subtle, minimal thing. I mean, I couldn’t even bash the keyboards loud because she would sort of hear it, so everything would have to be done really gently. It was interesting, it gave us this sort of mystical quality in the things we created at that time.

Ramona: Yeah “The Bird” is just an incredibly beautiful song. [hums a bit of the melody]. When you were in this flat, you ended up making songs for It’s Cosy Inside, did they all originate from this flat or were they pulled from other times that you guys had been recording?

Clive: It’s a little hard to place exactly where all of them were done, but some were definitely done there;  “The Bird”, I think “Overheard” was done there, but then tracks like “BB….!”, “The Water Drum” was done at Putney, but anyway, we had the flat at Putney and eventually he and I moved into a place together. We actually lived in the same house together and then we recorded a lot of the Whichever Way stuff and some of the Cosy tracks.

Ramona: This was ’78 or when?

Clive: Maybe about ’76. At that time in England, there was quite a heavy energy going on. You had Thatcher in government and there was a big divide between the rich and the poor, a lot of things going on with that. We were buying into conspiracy theories about the illuminati and all sorts of stuff, but there’s a much more personal thing when I think back on it. Just before the release of Whichever Way, Mark went to India for several months and got dysentery while he was there, and it really didn’t do him a lot of good. When he came back he was in quite a state for a while. I’m just trying to think with the album, the timing is quite a bit different because Cosy was later, but we made It’s Cosy Inside just a year or two after the other one, so they were quite close together. It was a difficult time because he had come back from India and he was really not well. In a way, I produced a lot of Cosy, as this follow up to what had really been a critically acclaimed record with the first one, but at the time we made, like people do, a real mess of it. The guys who had loved the first album, they didn’t even really respond to it when we sent them the second.

Ramona: That’s so strange because it’s not that different.

Clive: Yeah, I tried to fathom it out: where did we go wrong? The first album was more acoustic; there was more real guitars and more real clarinets, and it sounded a bit more conventional maybe. By the time we brought out that second one, we were just dropped by the media.

Ramona: It’s so stupid. The media is just stupid. It’s so strange to me. Whichever Way is great. But It’s Cosy, to me, is a total masterpiece. It has an entire narrative that draws you in and there’s no escape from it once you’re inside. That’s what a good record is. So I don’t quite understand it. There’s a lot of depth to it; it’s not stylish, and it’s very experimental as well, so I can see why it was maybe off-putting to some…