You’d be hardpressed to find any club-going alternative music fan in the mid 80’s who didn’t have a copy of The Woodentops’ ‘Giant’ LP spinning in heavy rotation on their turntable. Infectious tunes like “Good Thing”, “Give It Time” and “Get It On” were catchy, quirky, but anything but mainstream. A string of singles and a couple of albums dotted the late 80’s into the early 90’s when the band essentially broke up. Singer/songwriter Rolo McGinty went on to other projects until a rekindled interest arose leading to a brand new retrospective 3 cd release. Band members, having kept in touch over the years, decided to go back to the studio and record a new album, which is very nearly finished. Things are definitely looking up for The Woodentops with live concert dates being scheduled as well. Recently I threw a few questions Rolo’s way and here’s what he had to say.
First off, thank you Rolo for taking time out of your schedule to do a little Q&A.
Of course I have to ask Is Rolo your real name?
I was christened Richard. At about 13/14 a kid at school thought my initials looked like Rolo M as I’d done little circles instead of dots between the letters. It spread around the school and never stopped. Only my mum calls me Richard.
Talk about your childhood, where were you born, and any fond memories.
I was born in Kent south England. I have a younger brother and we didn’t fight at all, we went to Paris a lot where my aunt lived. My brother and I were really interested in synthesizers tape recorders, he became an electronics whizz and built them I would play, he too and we’d record on an old reel to reel. Stuff like that. We weren’t wealthy as a family we moved up and down the country following my dads jobs in the paper making industry. Amazing huge factories with the biggest loudest machines you could get. All my family went deaf from that.
Were your parents, siblings musically inclined?
Dad fancied himself as a crooner he told me recently. Sort of Sinatra copyist. He decided the living was too precarious.
Any formal training?
Do you recall the first 45 or album you bought?
“Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music. Pink Floyd’s ‘Relics’/the Faust tapes.
How did you become interested in music?
The record player. Also as a small boy I went to a local school in Grimsby. It had a choir and I got tested and was invited in. Ended up singing in the tower of Rekyavik cathedral when the doors opened to the public.
What was the first band you were a part of?
School band, which included a guy who later became the Jazz Butcher. He played very good flute and sang. I played bass.
Artists/musicians that influenced you early on?
Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Can, Terry Riley when I was 12/13.
You were a member of Liverpool’s Wild Swans? In what capacity and for how long?
Not long maybe a year? I loved it and they were great guys, I just couldn’t keep going up and down to Liverpool, couldn’t afford to either.
You mentioned The Jazz Butcher. How was it being in a band with Pat Fish?
Well, I was in the original band of that. We did quite a few gigs, first single and album. He is my longest running still friend in this world.
How did you meet David Balfe (ex-Dalek I Love You, Teardrop Explodes)? How did you guys come to work together?
Through Julian Cope. Before I wrote any songs I auditioned for the Teardops and damn nearly got the job. I did however make a friend in Julian who continued to recommend me to other bands. I did recordings with other Teardrop members, Dave and Troy and Gary and was up in Liverpool a lot through Wild Swans and all those bands up there were very friendly and I became one of the gang so to speak. Julian Dave and Bill Drummond pop up later when Woodentops are going, Julian taking us on our first tour, Dave recording our first single and Bill signing my publishing. In fact Bill Drummond is the distant father of the Woodentops! My bass got stolen on the Bunnymen/Wild Swans tour. Bill personally saw to it I got my insurance money and with that I bought another bass a small drum machine and a casio and that’s what I began to write with.
The Woodentops. Who came up with the name and why?
The name came from Alice our original keyboard player. It means a lot of things, including “woodenhead” i.e. idiot!
Talk about the genesis of The Woodentops, how things came together as a group.
I had written a few songs, had no confidence so I played them to my friend Simon Mawby, then at college in Bristol. Then my friend at Jazz Butcher, Alice Thompson and we started to play them. I sang. In 1982 we began to search for bass and drums. It seemed to be my job to sing!
Food Records – a pretty small label, eh? How did you sign with them?
It was a tiny label. We were the second single on it. Not any more! We only did the one record , signed to Rough Trade afterwards.
Panni Bharti. How did you meet and start rehearsing in her studio?
Panni I met when she was taking photos of Dexys Midnight Runners. I was bassist for the support band and we lived near to each other. Friendship started there and continues to this day. Spoke with her yesterday.
Did you make an arrangement whereby Panni would do the artwork on your albums for time used in her studio?
Ha no, I helped a bit to set up the warehouse she runs. We were already mates then. Record company paid for the artwork.
Interesting how the cover of the “Plenty” single happened.
Oh yes. It was carved and photographed. However Food Records kinda wanted to use their own guy. So they put a really tight deadline on us. We said “done it!’ They said bring it in. This we did as pieces in a bin liner. Haha we set it up on the floor and said that’s it!!
And then Rough Trade became interested in signing you?
We had a few to choose from but ourselves we chose Rough Trade.
1984 and the “Move Me” single. Andy Partridge of XTC produced. Frank de Freitas joined you on bass. I understand you had been friends with his brother Pete (RIP), then drummer with Echo & The Bunnymen?
Oh yes. Pete and I were the ‘not from Liverpool’ pair on the Liverpool ‘scene’. We were good friends and it was he that recorded with the Wild Swans . Loved him and miss him. He was a bright character and talented as hell. I was one of the last people to see him alive. He left our rehearsal room and drove to Liverpool and didn’t make it . If I could take time backwards…
Andy Partridge was brilliant, one of the Rough Trade producer ideas. So he came to my flat to meet but we ended up making a tune on my portastudio intead of sitting round talking. He was inspiring to us and I love what he did in the studio with us. Im tricky to work with and he had no problem with it.
Talk about the “Well Well Well” single and the development into “hypnobeat”.
Hynobeat was our first ‘dance beat’. On our first gig that got the place really going. “Well Well Well” was a wild beat I kind of sang to Paul Hookham our first drummer..also a brilliant one..and he put the life into my idea. Andy partridge recorded “Well Well Well” but it is a mix by Godwin Logie ( a reggae producer) that was the release.
Why was Godwin Logie, reggae mixer, brought in to remix the song?
He was keen to do the job, we tried him out. Whoah! I would go along and watch him work, let him get on with it but be there for any questions. He brought that beat to the front. Perfect! Sadly Godwin is no longer with us. If he had been I’d like to have given him more to mix.
At this time drummer Paul Hookham left to join left-wing polsters The Redskins. You auditioned drummers and chose Benny Staples, a Kiwi noted for his funky rhythms. Was this the “fit” you were looking for?
Oh yes. Perfect fit. I didn’t know it until I saw it!
The “It Will Come” single in ’85 had the accompanying home-made video. Did you enjoy making the video?
Oh yes. It’s usually other people taking the place over to film in. This time it was us. Panni made animations and we filmed live and Derek Burbidge pieced it all together.
The album ‘Giant’ of course is my fondest recollection of The Woodentops. Songs like “Get It On”, “Good Thing”, “Give It Time” and “So Good Today” were constantly on my turntable as well as included on many mixed tapes of that era. “Good Thing” – also released as a single – was one of your first compositions from 1983. Why was it not released earlier prior to ‘Giant’?
We demo’d it, although at the time the ending went the other way. It got really dreamy. Then one day, in the early days of Benny’s time with us it built up and worked shockingly well. I can’t remember if I suggested we try that or it just happened in a jam. Either way, soon as we heard it we stuck with it .
What are you personal favorites on the album?
“Get It On” and “Travelling Man” to be honest, all of it. Got my brother’s synth on “History”, the one he made when he was 15. A Jen, from a kit in a magazine. Had a hired martin acoustic for the sessions. A big old thing. Could hit it really hard. Playing that was ace.
You must have been pretty pleased the release was picked up in the US on CBS.
I guess. At the time it just meant we might go there to play. Very exciting. Had never been to the US at the time.
Talk about how a live recording for California radio station KROQ became “Live Hypnobeat Live” and how “Why Why Why” became such a big UK club hit.
We were so busy touring ‘Giant’ there was no time to do any writing or recording. So a live radio broadcast became a live album. “Why Why Why” had not been completed in the Giant sessions. It was the track we ran out of time for. Usually there’s always one! We’d been playing the Spanish coast a lot and a particular young guy Alfredo Fiorito was running and djing nights in Ibiza. He was a fan and saw us getting the whole place bugging out. So the live album came out and he chose to play that song, because of the percussion and acoustic guitar, and of course the beat and chorus. He was one of several DJs then playing that song, mixing it in with other styles. Balearic. It exploded over there we had no idea. However for us it was normal in that our mission was to get a whole place dancing and that’s what we did. We noticed that the mosh pit was become more a get down and boogie pit. We did a secret gig at the Wag Club. Almost a completely different audience. Packed to the gills and dancing like mad. I got a call while in the US from Paul Oakenfold in which he explained we had a massive hit on our hands and must get to Ibiza now! He said there are as many as 10,000 people in these clubs and they go beserk for Why. However this was at that really opening stage of the whole scene. Daft Punk are #1 as I write this! The music business was not focused in this area. I went out at 11 pm and the business people went to bed. So we actually could not get approval and help to get there. I was mad about that at the time. However I’m happy enough to have at least one record in the history books.
Were you surprised there would later be so many dance/trance remixes of the song by the likes of Paul Oakenfold and others?
No. I did one myself! Benny did also.
One of your favorite venues to play was the Loft in Berlin. Recall one night that sticks out in your mind.
It would be hard to recall one. They blend! The Loft was special. It was run by Monica who was an older lady but very artpunk. Super nice and basically looked after all those guys like Nick Cave and Blixa and the crowd of bad boys there. For us it would be around half way in a tour we’d do the long drive to Berlin. The welcome we’d get from her made it feel worth the ride! So nice. The gigs were fairly furious and I remember the backstage filled with musicians and gothy berliners. A very fun time.
Other favorite places you’ve played live?
Ooh. Zenith Barcelona, Big outdoor disco/club in Valencia,The Ica, Glastonbury (not the man stage one), Tokyo, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I live to play live and tour and I enjoy every moment of it.
Your 2nd album ‘Wooden Cops on the Highway’, while not as mainstream as ‘Giant’, had some intriguing guest appearances, in particular Gary Lucas (ex-Captain Beefheart) and Bernie Worrell (founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic). Had you been a fan of these bands?
The band began including sampling and computers with ambient mixes. Did you feel this was a natural, or rather “un-natural” progression for the band and music?
Natural. Our songs were written electronically/manually. Then we played them acoustic. Then it became possible to introduce elements of electronic work actually on stage. We had the first affordable samplers soon as they came out! Great one was the Casio FZ1. Drums went in that one. Emax had a lot of our Casio sounds transferred into it and some of the keyboard motifs and sound effects.
Ok, I have to bring up the cover of the Japanese compilation ‘Wheels Turning’. I take it you would have chosen a different visual to grace the exterior?
Haha, I had no idea about it until I saw one. I was pissed. But it was already out. I was WTF is that? Impaling myself on my Levin guitar was not a daily occurrence!
There have been a few bootleg recordings that have been in circulation for years. Which do you feel really capture the essence of The Woodentops?
I only know of the Loft ones. We were quite unpredictable and shakey in those days. Still trying to get there. So being recorded from the desk, a kind of upside down balance compared to what people in the hall actually hear, it felt like they were a bit inferior. I have both of them. A lot of live cassettes were distrubuted/copied/sold. I even got a few myself to hear how we were doing!
Rolo, you write all of the material yourself, let me ask you where that inspiration comes from. In your writing process do the lyrics come first or the melody?
No rules. Some the words were roughly there, others messing with a drumbeat started it, or a bass line. Of course a few acoustic guitar and word and voice began it. Say “Well Well Well”. “Get It On” sounded like a kind of afro beat mish mash originally. A whole load of drums! “Move Me” was like electro pop! Depeche Mode or something. “Good Thing” was a bass and drums jam..anything to get the thing going! Usually solitude is the key. No solitude=no songs. Lyrical content is usually personally driven. Usually real life experience or story. Very rarely is it political. I’m too stupid to know big answers to the huge questions of national or international function.
Talk about the various producers you’ve worked with.
Dave Balfe, really methodical and bossy. Did a great job on “Plenty”. Really improved it. However we locked him out for the other two songs on the record. Hahah.
Andy Partridge. I, we, loved him.
John leckie. Really got the best of us being us. To me he was a magic man.
Bob Sargeant. A hit maker. Brought with him an awesome engineer John Gallen. It was life in the deep end. High pressure. You were under a microscope. Scary but fun. No time for whining because your fingers hurt. You can’t play it quick, he’ll bring one of his team in and do it.
Scott Litt. Did the live album and ‘Woodenfoot’ with Scott. Still friends and he had the tricky task of having to produce a hit album in USA too as that’s where his pay came from and deliver on time also. Except we were almost without any songs at all to record. I had enforced solitude for a month and a half to write some then straight in. No time for everybody to rehearse and play around a bit. More high pressure than the Giant album! If you are a band doing well you have to be able to work like this. No cozy few years of playing songs. Straight in! Blind!
Ian Tregoning . Ian came from Yello. We started on “Stop This Car” then went on to do a further 3 sessions before doing a whole (double!) album that never saw the light of day.
The band continued playing live until 1992. Did you or do you prefer playing live to recording?
I’m afraid I enjoy both. They both have their perils!
If you could put your finger on it, what would you say really caused the band to break up?
Rough Trade went down. We had played nonstop for 10 years. I couldn’t pay people to sit around waiting. So we kind of agreed to go see what other things we could do in life and get together soonish. We all got involved into whatever we chose to do. We kept in touch of course and the catalyst to playing again was a cd someone sent us of a show 1988 in spain. It was so good it kick started us back to playing.
In the 90’s you wer a part of DJ band Pluto and the Dogs Deluxe electronic project.
What kept you busy at the beginning of the new millennium before the recent One Little Indian retrospective release?
Making club music of varying descriptions under a few different names. Pluto I loved. We played live a few times and that was hot. I got involved with events up in mountains, djing at snowboard events and learnt to board myself. I also found an opening into experimental music for tv and film. I did a lot of that, really interesting stuff. I had creative freedom, a sort of alternative think tank for Boosey and Hawkes.
Now talking about the ‘Before During After’ 3 cd release, was it nice to have Panni Bharti do a cover again?
Oh yes. Pleasing indeed. Keeping up appearances!
Any surprises or rarities you’d like to note on this compilation?
“Keep a Knockin'”, a really long version without the piano I did. Great fun mix. “Tainted World”, probably the most un-Woodentops like track in there. I have memories of watching Kiss FM NYC dj Tony Humphries mashing up the floor at 4am with it. 3 copies on 3 decks. I saw him do it twice at the Ministry of Sound ‘superclub’ in its heyday early 90’s. No other indie band other than the St. Etienne MAW mix of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” got a spot like that. Couple of tracks thought lost, mastered brilliantly from cassette! Arthur Baker’s “Give it Time” or Adrian’s version of same. I was so lucky to find them.
According to your website the new album is almost complete. Very interesting the live retro/futuristic approach to recording. Shed a little light on that process.
It’s not titled yet. It has 12 songs. About 3 we’ve been playing a while. The same formula, songs that were written electronically then I wrote some parts with guitars and sang on them. I made a list of about 24 songs and everybody chipped in and chose what they’d like most to work on. Short list made, then we chipped in together to rent a house for a week down Ashford way, remote so we could bang away at night if we wished. We all moved in together and practiced away. I did a little film about it (a hobby of mine) and popped it in You Tube of course. Then we packed up and moved back to London and straight into Dada Studio Clapham where I used to do a lot of Pluto work. There’s a big room upstairs that is a yoga center. It being bank holiday it was free , so we set the drums up in there. I contacted a friend Ed Chocolate and brought him in with his collection of antique mics to get a more old time sound. More like pre Giant sound. We recorded the drums and basic parts there, oh yes we got snowed in! Perfect! Then over a period of a year 4 more tracks were recorded and back to Dada for vocals/overdubs. I was thinking I was going to personally mix it but an old pal who I’ve never actually worked with, Mike Nielsen offered to get involved. Mike does stuff like Underworld, Jamiraquoi as well as world music and so forth, he’s great. He lives now in Istanbul so I ftp’d everything to him there and went over for a fortnight to work on it with him. One more track to go!
And it’s great you are playing live again back as The Woodentops. Any chance you’ll tour the States?
There is a chance , not sure when. Of course we can’t wait. Like before!
Looking back over the years, what songs are you most proud of?
“Well Well Well”, “Steady Steady”, “Why”, “Heaven”, “Hear Me James”, “Plutonium Rock” , “Everybody”, “Tainted World”, “Move Me” – I’m going to say them all aren’t I? Better stop!
Your thoughts on the current state of the music industry as opposed to earlier on in your career?
Artistically it’s healthy. Full of music. Too much to keep up with! Financially harder than ever. You earn so little from online sales or performance. To do a really full on great show feels as good as it ever did so I am still hopelessly addicted. Therefore the way the business is now makes no change to the good feeling that is generated by a good show.
Rolo, do you have other interests outside of music?
Yeah I ice skate and skateboard. I enjoy making films and editing them. As much as possible I like to travel. Have been to Africa, Asia, USA , Iceland is a fave..
Any books/literature that you’ve read that have impacted your life?
When I was very young a funny little book called ‘Birdy Pop Whistler’. It was about a kid who whistled and his manager getting him to the top of the ‘battle of the bands’. I’m sure that gave me ideas at 7 yrs old!
What about your personal life? Family? Pets?
I have a bit of a tricky family personal life, made so by the musical obsession. I do have two daughters who live close by. I’m not with their mother which is ok as we get on and work together on their happiness and I spend as much time as possible with them. Although a pram in the hallway is the enemy of the artist I’m hugely grateful to have these two awesome characters in my life.
Finally, what’s on the horizon for Rolo McGinty? Any other projects – musical or otherwise – in the works?
No, just the attention needed to the ‘anthology’ and the final stages of the new body of work. We are looking to be playing a lot more in September. I’m very much looking forward to that.