“Only You Could Save Me”
Yves Altana is a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist playing guitar, keyboards and bass for among others The Chrysalids, Wonky Alice and Invincible. He’s also worked as producer and engineer in the past and currently with up and coming bands in the UK, Germany and France. Yves lives in Manchester, England with his wife Sally and son Ziggy.
Yves, I want to get one thing cleared up at the outset. Napoleon Bonaparte is your great, great, great, great uncle, correct? Sorry, a lame attempt at a joke since you both hail from Corsica. For those readers who don’t know where Corsica is, can you give a brief geography lesson?
Hahaha! Very funny! Corsica is an Island in the Mediterranean sea, above Sardinia. The island was invaded by the French around 1769.
What was life like growing up in Corsica?
Corsica is very family based (like in the Godfather), so life revolves around respect …and eating.
How did you become interested in music?
My grandfather played guitar when I was a child and there have always been guitars around the house. It wasn’t long before I picked one up and began strumming it, playing at family get-togethers etc.
Can you recall your first 45 or LP you purchased?
Yes! The first 45 vinyl I bought was ‘Crazy Horses’ by the Osmonds in the mid-seventies.
Alrighty then. We’ll just keep that between the two of us – oh and whoever reads this interview. What was the first instrument you played? Did you have any formal training or were you self taught?
Guitar, then later on the bass guitar when I formed my first band. There was no bass player in town so I switched to bass… I’m self-taught and have never had any formal training.
In 1981 you started playing in Corsican bands. What kind of music were you playing back then? Care to drop any names of the bands you played in?
I went to see a band called The Opposition in late 1981. They were from London, the very first British band that ever played in Corsica. They played in a church in my home town of Ajaccio and inspired me to form a band.
The music we played was derived from The Opposition, bands like The Cure, Joe Jackson, The Stranglers, generally post-punk bands. At that time, these bands were still very much underground.
You moved to London in 1983. Why London?
My influences were British bands, so it didn’t make any sense form me to be in France. With London being the capital of England, it seemed to be the obvious place to start.
1984 found you back in Corsica DJing at local clubs. This is of special interest to me since I was spinning records here in Texas circa 1985-’86. What were some of the 12″s and songs you enjoyed tossing on the turntables?
I decided to leave London and return to Corsica to recharge my batteries. I had been squatting in London (Brixton, Portobello..) for too long and was pretty low. My expectations had been so high and I didn’t find anybody to play with in London. The language barrier played a big part in this. I knew I was going to return to London and wanted to be more prepared the next time.
Before leaving Corsica, I was already Djing in discotheques in Ajaccio, so it was natural for me to return to this. I specialised in playing alternative music, something no-one else in Corsica was doing at this time. We attracted a mixed clientele including gangsters! I enjoyed playing Killing Joke’s 12” version of ‘Love Like Blood’. Echo and the Bunnymen 12” version of ‘The Killing Moon’ and bands like Talking Heads, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, The Stranglers, Tears for Fears, The Smiths, etc.
Ex-One Thousand Violins vocalist John Wood and yourself formed The Chrysalids in ’87. I only discovered the “Violins” a few years ago while checking out the Vinyl Japan website and picking up a copy of Like One Thousand Violins. Fine band that was. Tell me how you and John got together and why The Chrysalids was so short lived.
On my return to London in the mid-80s, I decided to place an ad in Melody Maker looking for a singer in order to form a band. This was how I met John. We soon decided to move to Manchester to be able to find other musicians to form The Chrysalids. The band stayed together for 4 years, so it wasn’t that short-lived. We gigged constantly for 3 years. John Lever of The Chameleons joined us in the last year. It was a strange time really as we were playing to an audience who expected that “Madchester” sound that we didn’t have at all. It was at times quite frustrating! 🙂
Around the same time you moved to Manchester where you still reside today. Wow what a music city! Some of the best talent has emerged from that part of Northern England – particularly The Chameleons, Durutti Column, The Fall, Smiths, Railway Children and of course Joy Division. Was this rich history and fertile creative ground what drew you to Manchester?
Being a big fan of most bands that you mention, I decided to move out of London. Manchester was a more welcoming, friendlier place than the capital. Even though we left Manchester in 2002, we decided to move back early last year 2009 so yes, of course, it certainly wasn’t for the weather!
In the late 80’s you began engineering and producing material. Was this something you had always wanted to try? How was the transition from performing music to working on the mixing board, etc?
I have always been interested in recording my own demos, as do most musicians. This was just a natural progression for me – learning how to use technology to be more creative, especially with the arrival of midi computers such as the Atari ST / Cubase in the late 80s.
From 1991-1993 you produced, mixed, co-wrote and performed in a band called Wonky Alice. First, explain what is a “Wonky Alice”? How did this group come together? What is your favourite material and fondest memory(s) of Wonky Alice?
Wonky Alice is just the name of the band. It wasn’t named after a mad girl from the neighbourhood 🙂
The group emerged from Oldham (on the outskirts of Manchester) and I joined them when their guitarist walked out. I met them when they came to the studio where I was recording demos at the time.
My favourite Wonky material was unfortunately never even released but I suppose the first 12” single “Insect and Astronauts” is my fav of our releases. There was a great chemistry within the band and that was very powerful. We were a great live band.
My fondest memory was of a fight at a gig in Halifax (Yorkshire). People were fighting in front of the stage (!) unplugging our FXs pedals etc, so I started joining in, kicking them!!! It added something to the show! 🙂
Of course my brother Jon and I visited with you and Mark Burgess before your show in Dallas in 2007. Tell the story of how you went searching for Mark and ended up at his parent’s house.
At that time, being a huge fan of The Chameleons, I realised my home was ½ a mile away from Middleton, so… me being too spontaneous I went to bang on his parents door just to say hello and ended up having a cup of tea and biscuits with his mum.
Was it a mutual admiration that brought you and Mark together? Explain your working relationship as well as your friendship with Mr. Burgess.
Yes and no. Mark got in touch through Pomona Records (the Rochdale based label that signed Wonky Alice) as he was looking for a guitar player with a view to playing some Chameleons songs for the last time, during his Zima Junction era.
Our mutual admiration comes from sharing a similar interest and influence in various bands such as Bowie, T-Rex, Sparks.
1995 marked the release of Paradyning, which happens to be one of my favorite albums. Relate your experiences writing and recording this album.
I was brought in as a Producer/Arranger for Mark’s next album. Most of the songs were already written on an acoustic guitar, so my involvement was that of developing the whole musical ideas, writing drums and instrument arrangements resulting in the album Paradyning.
The Bardots from East Anglia and 1995’s V-Neck. How did you get asked to play on this LP?
When the album “Atomic Raindance” of Wonky Alice was released, we shared a UK tour with The Bardots. This is how we met. A year later they asked me to join the band when their guitarist walked out. They asked me if I’d be interested in producing their next album as I was already working with the band. I ended up recording, producing and playing on V-Neck. It was a great achievement. I still really love the songs from this album.
You produced The Convent’s 3rd release Crashed Cars & Love Letters in 1996. How was it working with this German band?
In a word: Fun
I’d met Carlo through Mark when we played in Germany and they asked me to produce their album.
It was quite different to work with The Convent. It was the first time they recorded using real drums, the drummer wasn’t very good but we worked hard and achieved something quite different than what they expected… I think.
1998 saw you and Mark back in the studio recording Venus as Invincible. For my 2 cents worth, “Think (It’s Going To Happen)”, “Only You Could Save Me” and “Verboten” are the best tracks, but overall it’s a well conceived and executed album. How did you feel about the end product?
Well… “Venus” was a very difficult album to accomplish but at the end and after all, I was very proud of it. Artistically, it certainly the best album I ever been involved in.
After “Venus” you left the UK. Why?
Just after the release of “Venus” of Invincible Mark walked away and reformed The Chameleons so for obvious and personal matters we simply couldn’t carry on working together. It was a shock.
I decided to get away from the UK and stay away from any musical projects.
I didn’t touch a guitar for about 5 years.
After the sudden death of a very close friend, I received a call from Mark to ask me if I would be interested in playing a few shows to coincide his “Boomerang” compilation CD album (The Chameleons split again).
We ended up touring the UK as the main support for New Model Army. I could not believe I was going to play those songs from the “Venus” album once again. It was the main reason that I agreed to join him.
What can you tell us about Black Swan Lane?
I can’t really tell you much about Black Swan Lane… Mark was already involved in this project with main songwriter Jack Sobel. I was asked to jam on a couple of tracks and they ended up on an album. I wasn’t even aware these recordings were going to be publicly released… and to be totally honest, I wasn’t ‘close’ enough to any of the songs and I don’t understand why I’m credited for playing guitar on the album, I played 30 seconds on one or two of the tracks.
Catch us up on what’s been happening with you of late.
Since the US tour in March 2007, I’ve heard twice from Mark Burgess; once to ask me to play the drums (!) when The Sun and The Moon reformed to play a “Versus Cancer” charity event at The Ritz in Manchester in May 2008 and the second time was in July 2009 when he decided to call himself “Chameleons Vox” with a view to playing yet again Chameleons songs. I wasn’t interested in being involved with the project.
I am currently working as a Self Employed audio producer/engineer/composer working at Vibe Studios and other Manchester based recording studios and composing music for a new game called Hydrophobia which is going to be available later on this year for Microsoft Xbox.
I am also playing some shows with a Manchester band called I Am Kloot, playing electric guitar for their European tour Oct/Nov 2010.
I have a son called Ziggy (“Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars” being one of the most important album of all times) 🙂
Ziggy is totally adorable. He’s now 2 years old.
Yves Altana – October 2010