The Invisible Man Stuart Moxham's Minimalist Pop

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The Invisible Man
Stuart Moxham's Minimalist Pop
by Neil Strauss
Option, 1993
The guitars die down late on a Wednesday night at the Ludlow Street Cafe
in Manhattan, and a waitress passes around a pitcher for donations.
Stuart Moxham has stopped into the cafe to see if it is still serving
food, but when the pitcher comes to him, he digs into his pocket and
drops all the money he has into it anyway. One dime. His last dime.
A strange sense of deja vu' creeps into Moxham's mind. Since the former
Young Marble Giant was dropped by Rough Trade Records in 1983, life has
been cruel: unemployment, state housing, motorcycle accidents. Just when
he hit rock bottom last year -- paying to play at a pub near London,
selling his equipment to raise enough money for test copies of a solo
record -- opportunity roared Its golden head again. John Henderson, a
Young Marble Giants fan who runs the Feel Good All Over label, put
Moxham on a salary and released the solo album, Signal Path. Soon, the
guitarist/songwriter was back in action, recording for independents in
France and Japan, and collaborating with everyone from the Mekons' Jon
Langford to San Francisco-based songwriter Barbara Manning and Beat
Happening.
"There's a nice symmetry to It," the once-again penniless Moxham says as
he steps outside of the cafe. "On a personal level, I was the most
arrogant asshole I could be when I was with the Young Marble Giants. Now
that I've been eating humble pie for ten years, everything's changed.
I've become really harmless - like a baby."
After touring with Beat Happening and Lois Maffeo, and producing albums
for both artists (Lois's Butterfly Kiss bears an uncanny resemblance to
a Marine Girls album he produced in 1983), Moxham has found new faith in
music as a means of sustenance. This year, he completed a second solo
album, Random Rules, in a 24-track studio in London. He's also
collaborating with Manning and Langford on another record in Chicago.
And when he returns to England, Moxham plans to reunite with former
Young Marble Giant Alison Statton, his brothers Philip and Andrew, and
Spike of the group Weekend to record yet another album. Finally, he is
also developing new material with former X-Ray Spex saxophonist Lora
Logic. (webmaster's note: this last two apparently never materialized)
Tall, friendly-looking, and wearing jeans and a button-down shirt with
an old pattern that looks like something his mother might have bought
him, Moxham paints a depressing picture of his current life. "Basically
I live in State housing with my wife and my daughter, and I'm
unemployed," he says, rubbing his large cleft chin with his ring finger.
"It's really grim, really grim. We've lost an enormous amount of money
in the past three years. It's been hell. I owe John Henderson a lot.
Though I hate to say it, I've had to ring him up and say, 'John, I'm
completely stumped. Please send me some American dollars or I'm going to
starve this week.' And he's sent me some money.
His bandmates -- Dave Trumfio, Mike Hagler, and Moxham's soft-spoken
younger brother, Andrew -- trail behind as their leader outlines his
current living conditions. The group is exhausted, sore, and badly in
need of food since they plan to leave Manhattan shortly to attempt a
non-stop drive to Chicago. They're in town to drop off Barbara Manning,
who's been touring the East Coast with them and working on Moxham's
upcoming album.
"The government in England is an insult to any thinking person," Moxham
continues, oblivious to the nutritional needs of his mates. "It's just
completely inept, and they've been dumped with the legacy of Margaret
Thatcher's aborted importation of the American dream. They just try to
keep making Britain more like America all the time, but it didn't work.
The credit bubble burst, and everyone just went straight down and hit
bottom. I'm sick of it. If you're someone like me, with no
qualifications and no professional skills, you're the first person to
get kicked out of the job market. I've never been to college. College is
plan B. This is plan A -- to make it in music."
---------------------------------------------
In 1977, Stuart Moxham was a callow 24- year-old playing Rolling Stones
and Velvet Underground songs with a cover band in his hometown of
Cardiff. Another one of the four Moxham brothers, Philip, was the
group's bassist. (Eldest brother Richard is the only Moxham who hasn't
pursued a music career; he currently works as a truck driver in London.)
The first clue to what that band would become was in their name, True
Wheel, which was taken from a Brian Eno song. When a diminutive local
girl named Alison Statton tried out to be a backing singer, a chain of
events was set in motion that would give Cardiff one of its few
successful bands of the time with the exception of Freur and Shakin'
Stevens.
"Phil and Alison started going out after she auditioned for the cover
band," Moxham remembers, "and soon after, the group split up. Suddenly
it occurred to me in a blinding flash that I could form my own band and
do my own music. So that's how the Young Marble Giants started, named
after a book about classical statues of architecture."
The Young Marble Giants were an unlikely product of this strait-laced,
working-class city. Influenced by the artsy end of the rock spectrum --
Eno, Kraftwerk, Can -- they brought a winsome minimalism to rock 'n
rolI. Philip Moxham's clean bass line was the most present sound in each
song, tracing the outlines of Statton's soft, dispassionate vocals.
Stuart Moxham, who wrote most of the material, filled out the songs with
guitar and organ, while warm but mechanical-sounding electronics hummed
with the fidelity of a vacuum cleaner. If the group's electronics set
the stage for new wave, its minimalism was even farther-reaching, laying
the sparse foundation for future indie-rockers ranging from Unrest to
Nirvana to Yo La Tengo.
"We had an unofficial fourth member of the band, who was a cousin, a guy
called Pete Joyce," Moxham remembers. "He was a telephone engineer who
had this fabulous computer in a briefcase. It opened up and had all
these buttons and stuff. He built our drum machine out of an article in
Practical Wireless magazine. It's the one we've used all along. He also
had a ring modulator in a box. It had two inputs and an output, and you
could put any two things together and they'd blend into each other. This
was pre-samplers and pre-cassettes; we're talking 1979, 1980.
Synthesizers were practically unheard of."
In their lyrics, the Young Marble Giants spent most of the time making
fun of the "straight world" around them in Cardiff, of the people who
were "dying in plastic homes." Says Moxham. "I think we were known by
the cognoscenti, an artsy few. Cardiff is like a rhythm & blues town,
really. And because there's such heavy industry there, they like heavy
rock."
-----------------------------------------------
The opening bars of "Satisfaction" drift out of a tavern across the
street as Moxham continues speaking. Half a block in front of us, his
bandmates have located an all-night eatery. Moxham, however, is lost in
the Young Marbles' past.
"It was ridiculous when we got signed to Rough Trade," he says. "They
didn't even want to hear our music at all. They heard two tracks from a
compilation album. We went to see them, and they said, 'What do you want
to do, a single or an album?' And we said, 'We'll do an album.' They
said. 'OK, here's the money.' We did it as quickly as we could, in five
days, 20 minutes for a mix, just to save them money. And that was it.
They didn't promote it; they didn't spend any money on it. Then it got
all these great reviews and stuff, and it's just carried on selling."
The Young Marble Giants were a short-lived proposition. After releasing
its only album, 1980's massively influential Colossal Youth and an EP,
Testcard, the band members went their separate ways. "It was basically
my problem with Alison," Moxham says, pushing open the door of the Kiev,
a 24-hour Polish restaurant on Second Avenue. "I never really wanted her
to be in my band. That was the fault in the perfect gem. It was also a
lack of communication. We just got all silly and bad-tempered, and fell
apart. I've learned a lesson. Now I work with other singers all the
time. That's what my new band, the Original Artists, is all about. It's
just a convenient forum for whomever I'm working with." Moxham gestures
toward his motley crew, which has found a table at the back of the
restaurant, "These guys are all Original Artists."
Like an old sweater, the Young Marble Giants disintegrated into dozens
of interconnected threads. Statton joined Weekend, a trio with
guitarists Simon Booth and Spike, to pursue a fuller, jazzier pop sound.
Philip Moxham joined the short-lived David Thomas's Pedestrians and,
later, Everything But the Girl. And Stuart Moxham led the Gist with a
helping hand from brothers Philip and Andrew. After releasing one record
(Embrace the Herd, 1983), three singles, and touring Germany, the Gist's
deal was dissolved by the financially beleaguered Rough Trade, which
referred to the contract as "a meaningless piece of paper."
"What also happened with the Gist is that I moved away from Cardiff when
I met my wife, so I wasn't playing with Andrew anymore," Moxham
explains. His large eyes grow misty as he talks about the four blissful
years he and his wife spent living on a 40-foot boat near London. Then
he continues, "I thought I'd just go solo and stop hiding behind a name
that sounds like I'm in a group. I just stripped it right down to what I
really do, which is play songs on an acoustic guitar."
Three nights ago at CB's Gallery, a small bar next to CBGB, Moxham was
back to basics. Though his supporting musicians were on hand for half
the show, the rest of the time he stood alone onstage with his acoustic
guitar, dedicating every song to friends or family. Moxham played
pre-Marbles tunes side-by-side with more recent ones. His touch was
gentle, his vocals soft. and his songs falling somewhere between early
Bryan Ferry and late John Lennon. It was his first New York performance
in 13 years. (webmaster can't help interrupting again: Actually, it was
his second -- he played next door at CBGB proper in June 1992) Backstage
after the show, he said, "When we get onstage, the most difficult thing
is the first thing you say when you come to the microphone. You have to
get the audience on your side and say something so they don't think
you're a complete putz."
At the Kiev, Moxham is plowing into his hearty Polish platter and
reflecting on his performances. "This is the first time I've played with
a band for eight years," he says, looking at his brother. "It just
occurred to me, it's so good to be supported by a few people. In London
you have to pay to play. There's so many bands and everything that I got
reduced to paying two quid to go into some pub and play."
--------------------------------------------------------------
Moxham's recent solo album, Signal Path, calls a lot of attention to
itself, not because it's radical but because it's so diverse. With 14
songs recorded since the Gist's first and final album, the collection
varies from lounge-lizard pop to new wave electro-folk. Lyrics like
"Beyond my own expenses lies the land of milk and honey" resonate
deeply, given Moxham's credit history. Alison Statton, who's since found
work as a chiropractor, actually duets with Moxham on one song, "Knives
(Always Fall)," indicating Moxham isn't being altogether honest when he
says he never liked her voice.
"Signal Path is basically the result of me having no money and lots of
time," he says. "I just sat down and thought, I'll try to make
definitive arrangements of my songs on my four-track. So I set up the
drums in my bedroom with sheets all around them and egg boxes and stuff.
I haven't stopped since."
Though it's the most primitive-sounding of Moxham's upcoming albums,
Signal Path is also the most meaningful. Every song, every instrument
and every mix-down was made possible through tragedy. For example,
during a period of comparative prosperity in 1987, Moxham, who is also
an animator, was working as a cell painter on the Disney movie Who
Framed Roger Rabbit? One evening, however, he wiped out on his
motorcycle. "All the turning points in my life seem to hinge around
motorbike accidents." He was given two months off work -- paid -- so he
rented an eight-track mixing desk. "I had my leg in plaster, I was stuck
in my bedroom, and I put everything into eight-track."
Moxham pauses to borrow five dollars from his brother to pay for his
food, then continues: "It took me years to get the money together to put
that record out. I sold all my equipment to finance making it -- my
four-track, my microphones, my electric guitars. It was a desperate
11th-hour gamble, and it worked, because John Henderson heard about it
and got in touch with me. I was eventually able to buy my four-track
back from the guy I sold it to. I'm slowly but surely replacing the
equipment. So I've gone up in the world now."
In spite of his current living conditions, Moxham is now hopeful again.
"I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to make these records and
come here and play," he says. "I just feel so confident and happy about
what I'm doing. It's great. But I can't help feeling funny about it. I'm
still basically unemployed, there's no animation work, and I have no
skills or qualifications for any other job. And now I've just dedicated
myself to the foolish, vain goose-chase that is a career in music."


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Apr 25, 2009, 9:18:29 AM4/25/09
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