Sandwiched somewhere between the highly anticipated Ride reunion this summer and continuing to successfully create, collaborate and produce well noted music, Mark Gardener has still managed to find time in his busy schedule to release a brilliantly contemporary record with the equally talented Robin Guthrie (Cocetau Twins). Universal Road is an effortlessly assured collection of tracks that exude both the musicians’ genuine ability in creating addictive listening. Packed full of retrospective ambience, lush vocals and complex guitar arrangements, the album is remarkable in both its depth and diversity. We caught up with Mark, in the middle of a Ride rehearsal no less, which he assures is “taking over his life”, leaving only a little room to relax with his young children and have some well earned “Dad Time”.
Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I appreciate that you must be really busy right now.
I’ve been doing interviews and press every night for the past few weeks, as I know it’s a busy time with the Ride thing and obviously this record with Robin Guthrie. We go to America next week so there is always loads of interviews; they all like to talk over there. When I first went to America back in the day with Ride, we were greeted by a stretch limo, which at the time was surreal enough, so we thought this is going to be great. Then we got driven into New York, and then basically shut in a room in a record office for about two days straight, where we did an interview every half hour. By the end of that if we weren’t already smoking pot by then, we certainly were after two days of that. That’s when you start to think, no wonder bands do drugs.
So how did the collaboration with you and Robin come about? Some people still might think a Ride and Cocteau Twins collaboration is pretty unlikely…
I crossed paths with Robin from time to time back in the 90s; I was a huge Cocetau Twins fan. When I was about 14 or 15 I bought a CD player for the first time and I went to go and buy some CDS; I got a Cure album which was Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Hatful of Hollow by The Smiths and then somebody had said to me that I would be really into the Cocteau Twins too and I should give them a listen. So I thought I’d also get a CD from a band I hadn’t listened to, and from there on I was converted, a fan, I listened to them a lot. Then when I was doing the Ride thing, we just ended up bumping into each other a few times. Robin was a really buzzy character, always flying around, and I was on a different kind of drug. Back in the 90s I was a bit stoned and he was, kind of ‘fast’ shall we say. I remember once going back stage at a show they were playing in Birmingham, to say hello, and I walked into the dressing room and a chair just flew across the room; so I thought, maybe not a good time.
Wind it on a few years, Robin was doing a tour of Picture Houses, an art project. He got in touch around that time and asked if I fancied DJing at one of the events, and say hello. We properly met then I guess, and had a little chat. We got on really well, and had a curry that night in Oxford together. After that we just felt that we should maybe do some music together at some point. Obviously around that time Robin was busy mixing and producing, and I was doing the same, so maybe a year later after that I went over to France and we did ‘The Places We Go’ (2012 release). It was really just us experimenting working together. Then two years ago I went back over, with the idea in our heads that we were going to try and do some live dates. I was going to support Robin’s instrumental trio band and, then I would come on stage at the end and we would sing a song together. That was actually when we got ‘Dice’ sorted (second track on Universal Road).
How did you go about sitting down and writing and recording the whole album from that point?
Both of those recording sessions were kind of quick, over a couple of days really, having written the songs and recorded them. After that tour, we felt that ‘Dice’ was really good, and we knew that ‘Places We Go’ had received a really great reception too, so I went back to France again and we set about recording a few more songs.
That was about a year and a half ago now, and it was the first time we had both found space in our calendars do this properly. We started off and got four tracks together easily, and then we both looked a bit closer at our calendars and thought well actually ‘why don’t I just stay here in France, we’ve done these four or five tracks quite easily, so I’ll just stay on for another couple of weeks and we could potentially have an album.’ So probably in another three or four weeks we’d got the whole album together. It came around quite fast, the slow part of it was actually finding the time to work together. When I was actually there, we just thought lets just roll with it, because its feeling and sounding really good, so we just kept on going until we had a complete record.
That sounds like a very natural way of doing things…
When you go to France and work with Robin like that, his daughter and wife are there as well and his studio is just there in his house. So I kind of dipped into Robin Guthrie family life, which was really nice. We would go off to the beach sometimes, drink quite a lot of red wine on an evening, and then there would be a lot of exchanging of stories and anecdotes. We had both felt like we had been in similar situations; we’d both been in noted, critically acclaimed bands, and then of course the fall out from then not being in them, and what you do after that.
I think most of the vocals in this album, and the lyrics are actually quite reflective of that for both of us. We talked about the revelations that we had, and how we both felt about reflecting on that time that is now past. From being in something so successful and then that whole fall out process that happens and of course people still find it weird, the concept of a Robin Guthrie and Mark Gardner album, so part of that is all really in the writing. Also when you’re in that escapism of France, there’s a soulful element to it, the whole experience when you’re working like that together.
Was there anything in particular that you were listening to at the time that created influence on this record?
I still love trying to find new contemporary music to listen to. When I was driving over to France I had a lot of Bonobo on my stereo, so that definitely had an influence on me; the musical aspects of their music, and the beats. Also listening to Max Richter reworking the Four Seasons, I love that richness, musical thing. Stylistically Robin already has this richer sound already.
How did you fuse your styles together to create this newer one for the record? Universal Road still has that great nostalgic shoegaze vibe, but it certainly feels like a 2015 contemporary version…
How it would work is that either one of us would come with an initial idea, and then it was just a core progression from there. Pretty quickly we would both work it into a song structure (verse, chorus, type thing). We were both really good at structuring things quite early, we didn’t really get into long jams or whatever; which can work well for some bands but we definitely weren’t doing that. I would be in the room when Robin would be doing his electric guitar and bass and drums and then I would be doing the acoustic guitar, and as I was sat there listening to the tracks coming together musically. It was a real conducive environment to start thinking of words straight away in reaction to the music, and putting that top end vocal in harmony with the music that I was hearing. It’s a lovely space to be in when you’re hearing that. In a good way I think the album, consequentially does what it says on the tin.
I would listen to Robin create these beautiful sounds on his bass and his electric guitar, and inevitably after we’d opened a bottle of wine I would say, ‘I think I’ve got a vocal line that’s going to work’ or ‘I’ve got words that work well with this’. Then I would just get on the mic and throw some words at the music that was being created. Robin was great to do this with because he would just say ‘Yes, that’s really working’, or ‘Not that, you’ve had a bit too much wine now.’ I guess in that lucid way, amazing things with music kind of happen. You should always believe in that, you should let those juices flow, and the red wine is all sort of part of it. I guess its probably a better alternative to what we were using to get into that state in the good old days.
This all sounds very grown up…
We’re both just at a point that we’re really serious about what we do, music, I mean we love it. Robin’s house was really good for that inspiration as its full of books. I worked with this really great producer and he always used to say to me, ‘Mark, inspiration is all around you, you’ve just go to have your eyes and ears open”, and certainly when I was in Robins house, I was feeling that everywhere. Sometimes even if I just went to the toilet, I would just look and see a title on one of these books that were everywhere, and think ‘that’s really cool’. I was kind of a bit of a magpie, looking at phrases and words that resonated with what we were both talking about with each other. So it all kind of came really quite naturally.
We’re both quite meticulous, I suppose, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to think it came across as too polished. I hope the record has still got some soul from us both, I don’t mind some kind of roughness thrown in there.
Given how busy you are due to reforming Ride, what made now the right time to release the record?
To be honest, it’s totally the wrong time, but its just the way it all worked out. I knew for sure quite early last year about the RIDE situation, but we all just kept it quiet because of various people are in different commitments. I knew we had finished the album last year, and it was just the way it all worked out. In an ideal world, I guess this record would have been released later last year, so that there would have been a bit more chance of some live shows for the both of us. Then I think that the record itself anyway is kind of a slow burner from both of us, I believe in the quality of it and it will just do its own thing naturally. It gives it that time to have the word of mouth recognition thing, and then further down the line both Robin and I can confidently do some live shows together.
Ah, I was going to ask that. Are both you and Robin intending on doing some live shows with this record?
Well, apart from the small matter of Ride going on at the moment, I don’t think there’s any rush. Both Robin and me aren’t trying to be pop stars here with this record, we’re not playing the game in that sort of way. We’ve just done something that we’re really proud of…
… and made genuinely great music.
I trust and believe that people will find the record in their own time, and maybe even with the Ride thing going on, it will be accessed even more, as people are becoming aware of me again. I’m sure we’ll do some more music together at some point anyway, because for me I’ve been really heartened by obviously the response to Ride but just as equally heartened as to hear the reaction already from this record. We just do what we do, and try and do it to the best of our ability, but in the end its the listeners who decide, we just do the work and then hope that as much as we moved each other to make this record, you move other people too and that’s all you can hope for really.
Universal Road manages to convey a completely different emotion in each track I think, from the reflective sounds of ‘Sometimes’ to the fairly striking ‘Old Friend’. Was this diversity intentional?
I think if we were working on one song for a matter of a few days, we’d polish that up and then the natural instinct was to then move on to the next and go ‘Hey why not now try this?’. All our starting points were really different too, I would come in after hearing some bizarre music, and think that’s an interesting chord sequence, then I’d play it to Robin. Robin also would do that and work from a core progression, even from a little drum loop bit. Its just those start points, and they were all really different. The start of everything was king of experimental, and we just really went with a lot of it, and it got really interesting and became a track. It’s weird as it was just a bit subconscious, open and experimental. Because we both have our own sounds too, its quite nice that we can both bring those together and it stops it from sounding really samey. Its even more important to start with a more classical idea of a chord structure, or a more beats-y idea, and then in the end we will both ultimately bring it to a place that is what both Robin and I do. It makes the journey interesting really.
Finally, we need to talk Ride. How are you feeling about this summer?
I get on the plane this Monday, and a week on Friday I’ll be facing 70,000 people at Coachella festival. We’re the last ones on before AC/DC. I’m really excited. It’s been a long time coming, and we’ve all known for a while that this was happening. It’s a little bit daunting the shows, and festivals that we’re being offered. Daunting but really heartening as well of course.
How have you been preparing for it?
We’ve been in solid rehearsal full on for the past few months, and as soon as you do that I started to understand why people are excited and want to hear this. I’m feeling that Ride voodoo, and that magic again. I’m just feeling blessed that we can do this again. Sometimes with hindsight it makes you learn a lot about something that you couldn’t have learned when you’re in the middle of it. It was all we knew back then too, it was this wonderful journey and bubble to be in, until we crashed the car. Looking back I think that was good though. It was always the nature of that band, I never saw Ride as a career band. We were on the edge of mainstream, we were on the edge of life in a way. We teetered on the brink, and that was what was really special about it, and I think now it was totally right that when we did ultimately crash the car, we all left the stage as well. I think too many bands are scared to do that and will just try and keep themselves.
Music is totally transparent, and people can hear when something’s gone, or a vital element is missing. It’s wonderful now to be able to benefit from having all of that hindsight and to understand more about it. Also the objectivity to hear it fresh again and be able to now actually move it up to another level. The shows, the festivals, everything’s demanding that it moves up a level and I think that I see now that there was a big gap with the Ride story. We’ve been three birds doing our own thing that have been quite well documented; obviously Andy with Oasis and Beady Eye, and me with my mixing and producing. It’s wonderful that we can now come back together and feel that magic again. We appreciate it so much more, as when you’ve been away from that room with all of that chemistry, you really notice it when its back, and you’re a bit like holy shit, now I get it.
When everything was going really well for Ride in the olden days, we didn’t really learn anything, we didn’t really grow with it, its when that bubble bursts and we all fell out, you’re kind of then kicked around by life because you avoided normal life stuff from inside your bubble for eight years. That’s the stuff that either makes you crumble, or you come back as a better and stronger artist (not to try and sound too pretentious about it).
How do you feel different coming back into these years on?
For me having played all of these solo shows around the world, its been really tough, its like being naked, its as naked as it gets for me. Suddenly there wasn’t that band around you and its just your voice and the acoustic guitar for an hour, and to stop people from loosing interest it makes you become a better singer, make you write more interesting songs. In the same way Andy touring these huge shows with Oasis, he learned loads through that which was obviously very different. I now understand that we do all have those different skills now that we can take things up to another level, and to where the music needs to be at. I think we all demand this of each other that we all have to take the music up to that next level of development.
What made 2015 the right time for Ride?
We’d been talking about this for three years, and we thought that we all had different commitments, of course Andy with Beady Eye, but then suddenly that all changed there, and then suddenly we’ve got another clear run, and it felt like fate has nicely worked out for us. It felt right. For a good few years I thought Ride would never play again, but then that started to change when you see the like of the Stone Roses do it, and do it really well. My Bloody Valentine did a great job, and then you think well actually there isn’t going to be any peace of mind in my life as I still feel there’s a lot of unfinished Ride business.
Things have been great with the three of us for years. Naturally it was kind of strained towards the end of Ride, but I guess that kind of happened when you live in people’s pockets since school. Back then we weren’t very good at saying no fuck off, to record labels, and giving ourselves a break. It was what made it good though, but now the energy is still there but there’s now this element of control.