Sunday, 30 December 2012

Desert island Discs 74 A Different Lifetime by Spearmint

74 A Different Lifetime by Spearmint 2001

Spearmint have featured before in Bigger Than The Beatles and across 6 lps and 2 compilations have shown a consistent ambition in songwriting way above that of other indie guitar bands. Partly driven by lead singer Shirley Lee's ongoing ambition to write a musical , a number of the lps have a central concept whether christmas eve for the residents of a small town , a weeks holiday or 4 people meeting in paris.

A Different Lifetime for me is the most fully formed  simple telling the story of falling in love , being in love , falling out of love.

This is what Shirley writes on the band's website about the story of the lp

A Different Lifetime

Halfway through making "A Week Away" I was already thinking about writing "A Different Lifetime". A couple of my friends were going through difficult break-ups, divorces in fact. I had an idea that love is a cycle, and one way or another it always ends. A gloomy thought, but one that is so core to life that it should be wallowed in and celebrated. Most of all we should make the most of it at the time - this is the same idea as a lot of Spearmint songs: to make the most of life as it is happening.

I wanted the album to feel like a novel or a movie, and had "Umbrellas Of Cherbourg", "Birthday Letters", "A Farewell To Arms", or "The End Of The Affair" in mind. I started putting aside odd ideas for songs for this album. In fact I finished a song called "Start Again" with the intention of it going near the end of "A Different Lifetime", but we were so into the track as a band that it forced its way onto "A Week Away". the same thing happened with "I Went Away" on "Oklahoma!" - this was written for the middle of "A Different Lifetime", but we liked it so much it got used sooner.

In retrospect, I wish "A Different Lifetime" had been longer - a fully fledged double-album including these songs and some others. I find there are gaps in the narrative, particularly the reason why this love fades, and also the "in love" section feels too brief for me, I guess because I was mainly writing about break-up. I have mentioned in the past that we could do a "director's cut" of the album live, and I think we could expand sections by adding songs.

We recorded the album in a studio called The Garden near Spitalfields Market towards the East End of London. We worked with a "proper" producer called Pete Hofmann. The studio was owned by Matt Johnson of The The. A friend of Pete's, James Banbury, came in and turned the melodies I hummed as stringlines into properly written down parts for live strings. The whole project was very grand and very expensive, but again I was totally wrapped up in the vision of it.

We were aware that if we had a chance of commercial success it was by making more of the "A Week Away" style disco Pop, but that idea seemed silly compared to the opportunity to make this album, which felt really important to us. I remember promising the record label in Japan that there would be "A Trip Into Space"-esque dance tracks on this album. This was partly a false promise, but partly true - on the original demos I did have some Dancey tracks which never made it to the final album as they seemed inappropriate. "Scottish Pop" initially had two versions - the other being a Dance track. I have not heard that since I did the demos, but Jim said recently that his wife Janis always preferred that version.

I remember coming back to face the band after that meeting in Tokyo and them being really worried that I had made this promise about the album. In fact, we have never been invited back to Japan since then... Jim sometimes claims to be working on an album called "Return To Space" so that we can do some shows over there again!

We made the album in 3 separate 10 day sessions. We had a good working routine - I would get in around 10.30 in the morning and talk about a song with Pete. He would then record a guide vocal version with acoustic guitar. Most of the vocals on the album are these takes as they felt quite spontaneous. the downside was that I sang quite quietly and whispery, as it was early in the day and they were only guides - I am not fond of the whispery vocal sound on the album. This was the first album to feature Andy Lewis on bass. After a couple of years of playing bass, Jim persuaded us that we would sound better with a second guitarist. Implying that my sparse rhythm style was not enough! We auditioned and drafted in Dickon Edwards, who is a wonderful London personality and has his own band Fosca. Dickon toured with us, and brought loads of character and style to the band, but Jim was frustrated that he could play the guitar parts much better himself. So I had to fire Dickon, an experience akin to deliberately running over a small dog with your car. Jim finally got what he had really wanted all along and became our guitarist in 2000. That was when we got the estimable Andy Lewis in on bass.

Weirdly my friend Graham and I used to go and see Andy Lewis DJ at the Locomotion Northern Soul nights years before. We thought he was an amazing DJ and Dancer, as well as being rather terrifyingly "wired"! Andy started coming to Spearmint gigs and liked us, which was a real compliment. When he heard that Dickon was leaving he got word to us that he plays bass, and he joined straight away. It turned out he is
an ace bass player.

So Ronan and Andy would come in and record drums and bass in the afternoon. While they were doing that I would either go out for a walk (I had a book of City walks), or sit in the chill-room upstairs watching movies - I saw "La Dolce Vita" for the first time here. I also remember watching "Julian Donkey Boy"... Once bass and drums were done, we would record my guitars. At tea-time Jim and Si would arrive and we would start on keyboards, harmonies and more guitars. At 6.30, one of us would cook a huge curry or pasta dish, and we would stop for 20 minutes to eat together. That was nice. Then we would work through until about 11 and Pete would give me a lift home. Pete was amazing - very focused with absolutely no slacking.

Jim wanted to use photography for the artwork - we convened at the home of Jay Brooks in Islington one Saturday morning to do some snaps in his back garden. We did lots of shots and were breaking for coffee inside (it was a cold grey day), when I picked up a Polaroid photo that was lying on the table. It was a test shot Jay had done to look at light and colour, and it showed green grass in the lower half then a fence and blue sky in the upper half. "That's it - that's the album cover!" I exclaimed to James. Somehow it was just right, conveying loss, loneliness, beauty, inevitability and also for me almost had the atmosphere of an empty World War I battlefield in spring. It became the sleeve and I still love the image. The shots of us in the garden appear elsewhere in the artwork and I am not too fond of them - too much like a band doing photos. We are not U2 after all. Quite funny though.

Jim has a habit of not getting certain tracks for ages - he did this with "Sweeping The Nation", didn't like it at all for a long time, then suddenly loved it. He was the same with the song "A Different Lifetime". He didn't get it at all through demo and rehearsal through recording. Then one Saturday afternoon he came in to listen to the latest mixes. Pete put the song on really loud and James and I sat in the control room listening. I remember him spinning round on his chair at the end with tears in his eyes and saying "Now I understand!" - he suddenly loved it and has done ever since. So sometimes now when Jim doesn't like a song at the early stages, I secretly think it is a good sign.

I once referred live to "A Different Lifetime" as being a song back from the grave. People took that to mean we hadn't played it for ages, or that we had previously discarded it. I did not make myself clear. What I meant was that in one sense the narrator on this song is singing back to his lost love from the afterlife. The album got great reviews and appeared in a couple of end of year polls, but sold zilch. Too many copies were pressed and we still have quite a lot in storage. We lost a lot of money on the project, and we lost any commercial momentum in Sweden and Japan, where we were told they preferred the "Pop" Spearmint. The album got a good response in Germany, where "Scottish Pop" became one of our most popular tunes (and seems to have made people think we are Scottish). In retrospect, I wished we had pressed fewer copies, but do not regret spending so much on making it - it suited the grand concept of the album - and after all we spent less on the whole project than a major label would on a single video. I am every bit as proud of this album as of "A Week Away", possibly more so. Again, it is not perfect, but the essence is there.

The lps has a trio of classic indie pop songs in Julie Christie , Scottish Pop and Flaming Lips

The centre piece though is the title track. I love teh extended instrumental meanderings at the end

A Different Lifetime - Spearmint

I'll finish with what Spearmint do best a good old jangly sing along

Julie Christie - Spearmint

You can buy a Different Lifetime here


  1. An excellent album. I know I went for 'Paris in a Bottle' but could just as easily have been this. It contains my favourite track by them 'Scottish Pop'
    Another album that was hard to pick sits at my #74 The Smiths - The Queen is Dead

  2. Hi Phil

    The smiths is one to wrestle with and somethng else won with a last second body slam

  3. Spearmint another band I discovered through your blog, but haven't ordered CD's yet. From what I've sampled I'm partial to "A Week Away"...

    #74 - PET SHOP BOYS - Behavior (1990)
    - a great singles band, so wish I could pick "Discography"; hard to choose an LP, but this one is pretty solid...

  4. Hi Tim

    this is my fav PSB lp (and i have them all!) - Being Boring is the best thing they have done an just a fantastic single and one of those songs that I just want to go on and on

  5. Spearmint are new to me and I like the samples - will listen more when time opens up. It's hard to keep up with all this music and keep excavating my own collection as well. The days are not long enough.

  6. Hi Seamus I like the fact that they tend to be wildly over ambitious and as a result there are some somgs that just dont work (I think sometimes the themes can both liberate and restrict if that makes sense) but when they get it right you cant help but wonder why they don't have a higher profile

  7. I love Scottish Pop from this album!
    Happy New Year to you and yours!!


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