Strummered – The Mescaleros Interview

By Mark Youll | 22nd December, 2012 | articles |

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Over the three years that produced as many albums and subsequent global tours, the Mescaleros were seen by many as Joe Strummer's strongest solo persuit. On this, the tenth anniversary of his untimely passing, some of the band's key players reflect on their time working with the former Clash man, his inspiration musically during the latter years, and their shared experience on being "Strummered"

“Joe was a man, a human, and If you think that he was just a punk king who rolled into town, spat out some lyrics, stayed up till dawn and then rolled back into his punk bed till the next show then shame on you!”

How would describe your first encounter with Joe?

Martin Slattery (keyboards, guitars, production): I first met Joe after a Black Grape show. I was playing Hammond organ and he’d been sat by the Leslie (speaker) the whole gig. He came up to me afterwards and told me how much he loved the sound, I however, having been a jazz head up until joining Black Grape said ” ah thanks man, sorry , what’s your name again!”

Scott Shields (bass, guitars, production): My first encounter was strange and cool at the same time. Martin was playing keys with Joe. He explained he was looking for a bass player and that I should come along and try out, but I’d never played anything other than drums on a stage before. I went to the Battery studios where Rock Art was in the process of being recorded, put together and mixed. I met with Joe and Ant (Genn) and we went for a curry where I was told rather prematurely that I had the job. I tried to explain that maybe they should audition me first but Joe seemed quite content that with Martin’s recommendation and that I’d do fine. I did later go back to the studio and play a few notes to something or other, just to show I wasn’t a complete charlatan!

Steve “Smiley” Barnard (drums, 1999-2000): I met Joe as I was pulling into the studio. He was going out to get a paper. Our paths crossed and we were bonded for life!

Simon Stafford (bass, 2001-2002): I First met him at a practice room in north Ladbroke Grove – first thing he did was blag a lift off me, and we went to the mini-mart to get a load of food and booze in for everybody for the week.

Pablo Cook (percussion, 1999-2001): I was working with a band called the Grid and we were working out in a place called Almeria in Spain, and he had a house there (in Cabo de Gata) and so one of the guys asked him across to appear in the video. We ended up hanging out together, sitting about drinking at night, and talking about welding and at some point he called me up and said “hey you seem like a nice bloke, come up for the weekend and let’s make a fucking tune man.” That was sort of it really. Seeped in alcohol and quite a lot of confusion. We got into the studio, his little woodshed and set about writing.

In what capacity were you connected the music of the Clash prior to working with Joe?

Martin: I had no interest in The Clash or their music. I was four years-old in 1977, and by the time I was a teenager I was a bit of a Jazz snob. I had no interest in pop music, just wanted to play like Miles, Coltrane or Bird…

Scott: If I’m honest, which is a big if; I’d say I wasn’t huge fan. I didn’t really like the Clash that much at the time. I had lived with, and played in a band with (Gun vocalist) Baby Stafford and he was quite often playing Clash stuff so I was familiar with it, but only really liked a few songs, so that wasn’t the main draw for me. It was a gig, and at the time I needed one, and the fact that friends were already involved helped a lot to get me up on the stage.

Simon: Not at all really. I liked them, played a few covers here and there in early bands.

Smiley: To be perfectly honest I kind of missed the clash first time round. They either changed your life or you just missed them age-wise. I went back to investigate later of course

Pablo: I liked the Clash, but I wouldn’t say I was a Clash fan. It wasn’t until I got to work with Joe that I became a fan. When all that stuff was happening I was a punk in Norwich. They played the Pavilion a couple of times, but that was in my heyday of drink and drugs and probably spent the night of the gig being sick in some toilet somewhere! Of all of that punk lot I was more into the more indie types like the Piranhas or the Leyton Buzzards, and a whole scene in Brighton I got into. I never had a Clash record, but working in the Mescalaros and playing those songs, I got to love them.

Would you say you ever found it uncomfortable playing Clash numbers live?

Martin: At first it was fun. I had just been living in L.A, and whilst I was there making a record I learnt to play guitar. When we started rehearsing and I just fell into the lead guitar role, so I got my head into playing all Mick’s great guitar lines! By the third record though I felt it was starting to become a bit cabaret, and wanted to explore the sound of the Mescaleros and have the band stand alone without the weight of Joe’s History. Looking back though, I know that I was dreaming to think that Joe would be allowed to leave the past alone, impossible.

Pablo: No, not at all. Joe and I used to go out and do acoustic things in really weird places and we’d do stuff like London Calling, just the two of us, bongos and acoustic guitar. Of course, when we did those songs as a full band I was sceptical about putting too many Clash songs in there, but people come to see Joe and to hear those tunes. As a band we were tight as nuts so once we got the tunes together they sounded fucking amazing. You’d get to that point of the set where you knew there’d be four or five Clash tunes coming up and it was quite exciting. Playing Global A Go Go and those tunes was great as well, but there’s nothing like steaming through Rock the Casbah or London Calling.

Scott: I didn’t start off uncomfortable, but there came a point on the Rock Art tour where Joe seemed to be less and less comfortable playing the new songs live. He would be slipping more and more Clash songs into the set. I think because the fans that were coming to the gigs were such die hard Clash fans, and they had a need to hear those songs, Joe felt obliged to give them what they wanted, at least one more time. The band on the other hand had a different view. We didn’t join a Clash covers band (we were once advertised as “Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Clash tribute band”) and we thought we were trying to do something new, so as each new song got swapped for a Clash song the tensions rose. At the same time I could see Joe was still not comfortable doing this again. He would have his freak outs in various inappropriate places (usually on stage). Sometimes it was fun to be onstage with the angry punk Joe, but other times it was almost embarrassing to watch him throw a tantrum. Glastonbury for example (hitting the camera man with his mic stand) or the Roseland Ballroom in New York where he kicked the monitors off the stage.

Simon: Not uncomfortable, it just wasn’t really what I or the other Mescaleros wanted to play. We played mostly Mescalero tunes anyway, and some old Clash covers, in my time in the band, and stuff like Blitzkrieg Bop, The Harder they Come, Police and Thieves, Armagidion Time, though later on we did re-introduce a few more Clash tunes such as Bankrobber, Rudie Can’t Fail, London’s Burning and White Man. The most enjoyable covers we did were Message to You Rudy, and Walk on the Wild Side, ’cause they were our arrangements. The more we played the old stuff the less I enjoyed playing it, ’cause I wanted to play stuff we had all written together. At the same time I knew that for the live shows we had no new songs that were as thrilling for the audience as stuff like London’s Burning. We actually did one tour where we played only original Mescaleros material, and Joe said he found that very liberating. He said it was like losing a millstone from round his neck, so he definitely wanted to move away from relying on the Clash tunes in the set too, but we just had to keep trying to write more up-beat tunes to take their place.

Did Joe often discuss the Clash with the band?

Scott: The Clash were only really spoken about if we were rehearsing up one of their tunes for the set. Even then, it was more a case of “here’s a song the Clash used to play” or “let’s do this song, the Clash used to cover it.”They were never really discussed or looked to as inspiration. I got the impression that Joe was trying to do something else.

Smiley: He did when we were learning Clash songs, but he didn’t talk about them that much. He was definitely one for looking forward rather than dwelling on the past.

Simon: No. Though I would add that he obviously loved being in that band, and was proud of what they did, but there was a bit of unresolved bitterness there too.

How did working with Joe differ from other artists you have worked with?

Simon: As Lou Reed says, “we are all as common as snowflakes…”

Smiley: I think I realised after a while that he was a rarity, in that he was the real deal. Everyone respected him, and I can’t think of anyone else you could say that about.

Martin: Joe was smart, and realised that working with young guys would bring a wide-eyed intensity to the Mescaleros. He also honoured us by letting us get on with making music, and was in no way a control freak. In fact, sometimes hours would pass while we were cooking up the music, then he’d just show up with a Fisher-Price tape recorder, record where we were at, then go off into the dark to write lyrics.

Scott: I took a while to be able to talk with Joe properly. In fact, I don’t know if I was ever able to entirely relax in his company. Yes, I could go out and get drunk with him, but I think I was always watching my words. Not because I thought he would disapprove, but just in a kind of respect your elders-type way. I was very aware of his who he was and even though I wasn’t the biggest fan, it was still a big deal. He was also quite private in a way, making himself a little quiet section of the tour bus, or decking out his own room in the studio and quietly doing his own thing… listening to music, smoking, drinking port or wine, writing lyrics and notes…

Pablo: I would say it was different in a sense he was a very gentle and kind guy whose main operative really was to just be cool with people and be friendly. Although he was an icon he used to meet fans after a gig, shake hands and buy them drinks. There were usually more people in the changing room than at the fucking gig! You’d be there till six in the morning while he was there meeting and greeting. One thing that came across and what’s brushed off on me is, these people are buying the records and so it’s good to communicate with them. The other artists that I’ve worked with like Robbie Williams, Moby and Pulp… actually, Pulp are not so bad, but a lot of these guys are poster-boyish, locking themselves away in their helicopters and limousines and hotels and being this mystery. Joe didn’t like that whole thing. I wasn’t with the Mesceleros towards the end as I was on another tour, but even then he was out giving out flyers to his gig, he was really grounded. It’s about being really true to people and kind. It’s a really important thing in our business, you meet hundreds of people every day and after a while they just become faces. I’ve been on the road since I was eighteen and you meet a fuck of a lot of people. And of course, musically, Joe was just a fucking genius to work with.

Would you say Joe was ever under pressure to keep up the whole “Joe Strummer” persona?

Smiley: Not at all. Because that persona was real . He wasn’t acting. He was genuine and extremely intelligent.

Martin: Anyone who invents something has to invest serious energy to keep up a pretence, so that can be bought into, and legend can be made. It’s no surprise that at one point in his career Dylan just wanted a picket fence and a tin of white paint!

Scott: I never really knew how he worked in his head, and to be fair I wasn’t always that interested. I was having a ball on tour with Joe. We were hanging out with cool people, meeting all Joe’s mates from back in the day, playing packed- out gigs, and staying up all night misbehaving. I got the impression that Joe was very genuine and that was what “Joe Strummer” meant now. I think the Joe Strummer back in the day would have been a very different character who I’m not so sure I’d have had such a connection with.

Simon: I didn’t really ever see him trying to pretend to be anybody other than himself. A lot of people expected a lot of him, and sometimes he was glad to be in a private situation, away from the bullshit of fame and fashion, but he was a gentleman about all that stuff, and would spend hours signing stuff and talking to fans after a show.

Pablo: I think he got a little bit of that from Simon ( Moran) his management. He’d go through the pressures of playing record companies various tunes, or doing a gig where we’d have to play the Clash, and he used to hate that, but his sort of role as the angry punk, as he got older when I knew him, it was more a sort of controlled ‘this is what people expect him to be’ you know? Occasionally he’s get irate because the fairy lights weren’t put up, or a flag was missing, but it was almost like he was always in a fucking film. Like that footage of him smashing up the gear at Glastonbury (1999), well I got caught up in that too, got tangled up with a cameraman, causing twenty grand’s worth of damage or whatever, and after we came off stage Joe just looked at me at said “I don’t know why I did that” and I was like “me neither really”. He did what he felt. It’s a really hard question to answer because he became a musical friend but beyond that he became part of my family, coming to visit at weekends and all that stuff. So past meeting him, and him becoming one of my best mates, I never really saw him as the Joe Strummer people see at the front of the stage. On stage it was like playing with a mate or your brother really.

Was there a side to Joe’s personality that was never really fully exposed to the public eye?

Simon: There is with everybody in the public eye, partly because the press and the public see what they want to see, and it isn’t their hero washing the dishes. But Joe was pretty gentle and laid-back in most circumstances, as much a hippy as a punk.

Martin: Joe was a man, a human, and If you think that he was just a punk king who rolled into town, spat out some lyrics, stayed up till dawn and then rolled back into his punk bed till the next show then shame on you!!

Scott: If anything, I think the family man Joe was kept more under wraps. He was very good at showing his love for his family, but I suppose not too many people got the chance to see that side as he was never really seen in that situation.

Pablo: Oh yeah, a massive side. The kindness of the man, like he could be this quiet, secluded person who’s disappear for a while. After gigs sometimes he’d be gone. He’s go to freshen up his head and do his own thing, and nobody knew where he went, he was just gone. The only clues you would get would be in songs like Willesden to Cricklewood, and really all he was doing was walking the streets and taking it all in. His family life, whenever I was over there he would sometimes walk down to the wood and smoke cigarettes and be a very quiet person. When he was like that I never bugged him, I kept out of the way really.

Smiley: There were a couple of times when we were alone when he was having a bad day and I saw him sad. We had a couple of tearful moments. I remember we all went to watch the Beach Boys and when they played ‘God Only Knows’ we all cried, him more than everyone. He was a very deep man, a beautiful man.

Was Joe an easy artist to work with, both on a musical and personal level?

Scott: Wow, yes and no. He was easy in the sense that he didn’t try to control what we did. He encouraged us to be as free and creative as we pleased, and he would leave us alone to get on with it up to a point, whilst secretly recording what was going on (on his Fisher-Price tape recorder), to write stuff later. But what was difficult was trying to get him to perform in the studio. If he didn’t want to sing, he wouldn’t sing. We tried all sorts of tactics to get a performance out of him. I think it was partly because we were making music that was different to what he was used to singing, so it was more difficult for him, but also partly it was just stubbornness and lack of confidence in his vocals. I became aware that we were trying to make Joe into more of a ‘singer’ rather than the vibey, shouty guy he had been, and I think deep down he was quite into the idea.

Smiley: Most of the time. He had his moments, but that is having pride in your work. We had a great relationship in work and on a personal level.

Martin: Joe would let us get on with our creative endeavours, but if he wasn’t feeling it then you would feel the bite of his acerbic wit. I once started a chord sequence that unwittingly had a bit of a feel of (the Eagles’) Hotel California. He fucking hated that song, and I got the message! It did however , develop into the title track of Global A Go-Go. Personally, I found Joe incredibly welcoming, a great raconteur and a gent, most of the time!

Simon: Yes. Easy to talk to, easy to hang out with, and easy to work with. He wasn’t technically minded, or a particularly great guitar player, but he had a unique style and presence. As a musician, you get used to dealing with different people and their idiosyncrasies anyway, but it’s not like he was a tyrant or anything. Sometimes on stage he’d shout at somebody to play louder or quieter, that’s about it. Mostly he’d be happy to let people do their thing. We used to hang out and get stoned a lot when we should have been working, but none of us had really noticed that until Luke (Bullen, drummer) pointed it out one day.

Pablo: When I first started working him, he was a bit of an oddbod to work with because the way he would make the music was to encourage you to make the music. To get Joe to play and sing was really an odd phenomena in itself. An example would be when we went to France to do a movie with Eric Cantina (Question D’Honneur, 1999). I was doing the music and Joe the words, and we didn’t really have any ideas so Joe did one of his walkabout things and so I recorded this piano part and the following morning Joe had got to the studio at seven o’clock and had all his vocal things screened off and decorated with candles, and sort of did his bit. He wasn’t a big fan of rolling up his sleeves and getting on with it, he had a really odd way of getting stuff done, and the time had to be right. I don’t produce like the other guys in the band; I just let things happen really. Like Scott and Martin, they didn’t have issues really, but there was sometimes friction in the studio to try and get things done. Like I said, he goes on a walkabout for two days and we didn’t know what was going on. There was ways of nurturing it to get it out of him. One way was to make sure it was happening really late at night of first thing in the morning. Normally there was wine or a bit of puff knocking about, but in all honesty if he didn’t want to do it he wouldn’t do it. Like on tour, we’d sometimes have three weeks booked in to rehearse and he’d spend a lot of that time down the pub and it was all a bit last minute. Like no other musician I’ve ever worked with in that respect!

What would you say chiefly inspired Joe musically during the Mescaleros years? .

Martin: Kumbia!!

Scott: He had lots of influences although nobody I could name. He make his mix tapes of various artists and style with reggae and Kumbia music making up the biggest part of it. I never heard him listening to anything very recent without saying how bad it was.

Simon: I’d say the people he hung out with, his family and us. He listened to all sorts of music, whatever we all put on the stereo. The only CD I ever saw him put on the tour bus was Chet Baker Sings.

Pablo: It was sort of like a chasm of influences and records he used to play. One minute, he’s be listening to odd Indian station on long-wave radio coming off his tiny little radio in the studio, and then some days he’d be listening to Lou Reed. I would say throughout all of that period that we worked with him, although you can’t really hear it in the music; he listened to a lot of Kumbia music. It was introduced to him by Jason (Mayall) up at Smash (Corporation), and that would always be on the turntable, at parties or camping outside. I left just before the last album because I was working on tour with Moby, but I remember the last gigs I did with the band. There was a lot of sitting around with acoustic guitars and stuff. I think Martin and Scott had convinced him it was a cool way to go. It wasn’t my cup of tea and partly the reason for me leaving was they were starting to wear suits and play acoustic guitars. So I think he was also influenced by Martin and Scott, they were young kids and so he went down that root. Also, musically, his house was absolutely full of all sorts you know?

Smiley: I think everything inspired him. He had a crazy musical taste, and loved art. He was an incredibly well-read man and was open to every culture.

What would you say you learnt most from Joe, musically or otherwise?

Martin: Sing your own song!

Scott: Humility. He always surprised me how after our gigs he would open the doors to the dressing room , let everyone in, usually two minutes after we left the stage which used to drive me mad, head straight for the little guy or the weirdo and spend most of his time talking to them, whilst the big shots and egotists that were up in his face were ignored. In the meantime I would be hiding quietly in another room waiting for the adrenaline to stop running through my body, and to come back to feeling normal again.

Simon: His vibe, though unspoken, was something like this; You’ve got to put all your energy into trying to make every performance the best one of your life so far…. It was not just him, but the whole Mescalero ethos, particularly Marty Slatto – I noticed pretty early on that every time you turned round to look at anyone else in the group on stage, they were always vibing. Always.

Smiley: Well he’s the coolest man I’ve ever known..and the sharpest. So if either of those has rubbed off on me then I am happy. I feel pretty blessed to have worked with him and even more blessed to have called him a true friend.

On Being “Strummered”.

Martin: Joe had a theory that if you worked through the night, then your creativity could flow because no one would bother you! So, making Global A Go-Go, the studio start time would rapidly get later and later till, within a few days we would be starting at 8 in the evening! So for weeks on end the start of the working day would be a curry and a spliff and I’d get home the next day at midday, go to bed and be back in later for “breakfast”…

Scott: When someone got Strummered they would be Joe’s partner for the night. Your job was to keep Joe company through the long hours of the night till he headed off to bed. We used to take it in turns, which makes it sound like a tough job but don’t get me wrong, it was fun it was just that us younger guys couldn’t keep up for more than one or two nights. He’d kind of kidnap people on occasion, literally. For example he kept one guy talking so long he woke up in Ireland having started on the tour bus in the U.K. I was once taken out in Paris on a night out, and when I wanted to go to bed, at around seven in the morning, he threatened to sack me if I left.

Pablo: Jesus, I was Strummered for the last fifteen years I think, since I met him! To be honest, I think I came off alright because not many people could hang on to him. Last doors it was usually Joe and myself. Yeah, the last fifteen years I was Strummered and my kidneys are still recovering from it.

Simon: If he had represented us in the Olympic drinking games, we’d be world champions every time. The only guy who could speak the same language was Shane McGowan. Metaxa and coke for breakfast. Everybody go bonkers! The only time I saw him dance was at a rave at the bottom of Mount Fuji, but he only did it for a second. The last time I saw him we shared a bottle of rum till the early hours, and as I turned in he said “cancel all plans.”

Smiley: Let’s just say that the special Aspirin he once gave me kept me up for three days…

Do you think the Mescaleros as a band reached its full potential?

Martin: The Mescaleros inspired us all to create and move forward, with a free spirit. That’s all I’m interested in.

Scott: I think Streetcore would have been the bands best album, maybe it still is? But if Joe had the chance to see it through it would have been the best album to play live. We had a few great song ideas that we had played live or in rehearsals, but had never recorded vocals for, so sadly we had to leave them off the record. We were trying to replace the Clash songs with our own up-beat, stomping, sing-a-long-type of songs. Joe had become very comfortable in this band and was happy that he’d given the Clash fans one last chance to hear the old songs before he moved on. His singing had improved greatly too. He had really pushed himself out of his comfort zone to become more of a singer in the traditional sense. His range, timing and tuning were really on it, and the band were very comfortable on stage. So, I think we were very close.

Pablo: Yeah, definitely. At the top of their game with the original Mescaleros with Ant Genn and Smiley it was really cooking, it was fucking amazing. I’ve played in hundreds of bands but that band was so on top of their game. Even when we’d been out on tour for a long time, and all the late nights, we could still pull it off. Again, there were moments in the studio, stuff like Willesden to Cricklewood with the harp in there and lots of pads, that was a whole new feel for Joe really. After that I don’t really know. I still speak to the boys and they speak fondly of how it went after I left and I still go and work for Martin and Ant, and do stuff with Scotty. As a band, even when Joe wasn’t knocking about, we could fire those songs off really well. Like a lot of love affairs it can get quite tricky and we were all producers in our right, even Smiley, and having that many chiefs in the fucking studio it became tricky. It wasn’t like were falling out, it was just we all wanted to produce. It’s kind of what we all ended up doing. Ant works for Pulp and Jarvis (Cocker) and has the Hours with Martin, Scott does loads of stuff as well. You could almost see what was coming because of what was happening in the studio. We were getting older and I didn’t really want to go on the road so I homed in on the recording thing. We’ve all done well out of what we learnt as a group.

Was it difficult finishing the Streetcore album without Joe?

Scott: Streetcore was hard to finish without Joe. After he died it took us about a week to decide if we should try and finish the record he wanted to make. Joe had started a process to make a mostly live album, and he’d leave his vocals to the end. Sometimes he’d give a guide vocal, which in some cases, posthumously, became the final vocal, then leave it for a while till he figured out what he really wanted to do. The band were really on form and we wanted to catch that spirit that we had on stage, so we started looking at what we had and found that nothing was really finished. On a few songs we had to build the intended vocal track from bits he had recorded as a guide, or edit together various takes to make up the finished article. This would prove to be hard. He’d quite often stop singing and ask for things like level changes, or to go back to the start, but it meant that every day you were hearing the man, who you missed greatly, shouting your name or laughing or just generally still being there. This was hard for me to take. I think we did this every day for three months before we eventually had enough material for the record, so you can imagine how it made us feel. There was also a quality control that he left in his wake. We’d find ourselves questioning all the time, is it what he’d want ? Would he’d have wanted it like this? When we finally finished, myself and Martin had had enough. We had been production partners for three years and we decided, without saying as much, that we’d knock it on the head. I think in finishing that album we had driven each other mad, and just needed to do our own thing after that.

What would be your lasting main memory of Joe?

Martin: Red wine-stained lips, a spliff, and a man who was genuinely interested in his fellow man.

Simon: That line from Ramshackle day parade – “With half closed eyes you realize Love in the life that is paradise”.

Smiley: He was my friend, and my hero.

Pablo: What I like to remember really was his kindness and generosity, not really anything to do with music, just to watch him look after people. He used to just glow sometimes. Like when people sometimes around rock stars they get a bit nervy and say silly things, he had a calming effect on it. People’s lives opened up around him when they were with him and it did for me as well. My whole life changed when I started working with him because it’s like getting into Joe’s world, he was a very lovable, gentle guy and I miss him deeply still.

Scott: I get asked this a lot, but as yet have been able to narrow it down to one memory. He had so many angles I couldn’t sum it up in one sentence, or even a paragraph. All I will say is that when I remember him, it’s with a warmness in my heart. All the bullshit, and there was some, disappears, and I just think of a good man with a good set of morals who was really interesting to be with. There were good times and bad times, but in the end he gave me a chance to write and produce albums with him. He helped me start what is my career now (film music composing) and he taught me that its better talking to the weirdos and underdogs, than the celebs and big shots.

These interviews were conducted by Mark Youll during October, 2012. Many thanks to Martin, Scott, Simon, Smiley and Pablo for their time and enthusiasm for this piece.