Interview: Martin Newell of The Cleaners From Venus

Martin Newell is the prolific and outspoken frontman of DIY-pop icons The Cleaners From Venus. Stretching over a thirty year period, his body of work is vast and consistently satisfying, from the humble homemade cassette releases of the early 80's to Return To Bohemia, a brand-new effort slated to be released on CD on July 7th by Soft Bodies Records. Also, considering the thorough re-issue project of Newell's early material, it's a great time to be a Cleaners From Venus fan, and it's easier than ever to dive into his colossal discography. I had the pleasure of sending him a few questions, answered below.

The new Cleaners From Venus music video, "Imaginary Seas", is a wonderful pairing of live-action footage and watercolor paintings. Who was behind the underwater artwork and what was the process of filming it like?

Jodie Lowther and Rob Britton must take the credit for this. Jodie is an animator, artist and filmaker, working very much in a the same tradition as The Cleaners from Venus have for many years now: with more inspiration than budget. If you treat financial and technical restriction as 'a cage to be brilliant in' you can get some very good results. I was amazed by how well the vid went with the track. We did a brief morning's filming up here with two phones and a camcorder. It was quite painless actually for such a beautiful end result.

 "Imaginary Seas" is one of two singles that have officially been released from your upcoming album, Return To Bohemia. What should listeners come to expect from this new effort? What is the significance of the album's title?

A Return to Bohemia? I had a bit of a bad year for health last year. Two eye operations and a freak seizure which almost killed me. As I was recovering, it occurred to me that perhaps over recent years, despite my alleged rock'n'roll life, I'd actually become quite grown-up and responsible. Lying around last summer in a dark room for a fortnight, I thought, "When I get out of here. I'm going to do what I used to, just record music and write songs..take some time off and be nice to myself. I'd become rather a workaholic, I suppose. I needed to get back to what I was in my early 20s...and yet with the guile and experience of middle age.
I wanted to make yet another of my 'front room Rubber Souls.' I always try to do that...but this time, I think I really have.

Captured Tracks has recently re-issued a great portion of your discography over the past few years, which is actually what led me to discover your music in the first place. What has it been like to look back at your body of work as a whole?

It's been an extraordinary experience. Captured Tracks have done a brilliant job. They're very good people to work with. They're a strange cocktail of friendly enthusiasm and ruthless efficiency. If I'd had a record company like when I was in my mid 20s, I could have conquered the universe. Looking back at the old records, I can't believe I did so much in what was, actually only about a ten-year period. Some of the tracks are clumsy, lo-fi and shoddily recorded it's true...but so many great ideas!  For a long time, I looked back at that period affectionately, but with the view that they were actually only the sketch books of a still immature artist. Now, I sometimes, think, " Wow. How can I get that back again?"  The truth is, it was the soundtrack of me struggling through life on a small budget, but with a lot of hope in my heart, If I didn't make it really big at that time, I think it's been a very good thing, because I'm still as enthusiastic as I was then...maybe more so.

Much of your earliest material was originally released on homemade cassette tape, a release format that has regained popularity in some circles in recent years. What was it like putting out your first few releases? What inspired you to start making music?

Well, when I was a 19 or 20 year old Glam rocker, I just wanted to make records, be a pop star and meet girls. Actually, I'd loved music since I was a very little boy and since first seeing the Shadows and a bit later The Beatles on TV before I was ten, I kind of knew that this was going to be the job for me. I'd made records before I started putting out cassettes. The cassette thing came about because having dealt with the people in the London music industry, I just thought they were a bunch of bastards and decided not to deal with them. I thought that maybe , with the invention of the 4 track portastudio, now I had a cheap means of recording myself, that maybe I could make my own records and just sell them myself. What we didn't have were the means of distribution or promotion. I still concluded however, that if I sold only one or two hundred of my own things, it was still better than selling two hundred thousand records and having to deal with those soul-less bastards. I thought at the time that DIY cassettes would destroy the music biz as I knew it. I wanted to be one carcinogenic cell on the carcass of that dinosaur. In the end, the Internet destroyed them. The music biz is only just beginning to reconfigure itself. Soft Bodies and Captured Tracks are two examples of new rather more human face of the music biz.  

 Do you approach songwriting any differently now than you do then?

I'm a sly old wolf of a songwriter. I've been writing songs since I was 14 years old and am absolutely at the top of my game. There are not many songwriters working today of whom I will say, "Yeah. I could learn a bit from him / her." There are still plenty in the past who scare me though.

I love song-writing. I don't think it can be work-shopped or taught, as such. You must listen to it. You must do it. There are some real twats out there making money from teaching songwriting and most of them, I could write off the table. It may sound arrogant but that is how it is. The fact that I am unapplauded in music biz circles is more to do with my unwillingness to engage with the Big Dinner and Awards brigade. I don't care about them. I don't respect them. Why would I care about their judgements. Who are they, exactly?
And then they (all your favourite rock 'rebels') smile nicely, say thank you and put on bow ties. Bow ties! The  sartorial equivalent of a swastika, the bow tie is.  The industry awards the industry. The mugs...

What music are you listening to these days? 

A load old old 1960s pop. Zombies, Hermans Hermits, lots of Hollies. Radio 3 Late Junction
Marin Marais..early baroque sort of stuff. Loads of continental songwriters. Jazz: Art Pepper, Stan Getz Vince, Guaraldi. Oh, and a really great merseybeat / doo wop band from Liverpool called The Chants. Check out a track called Sweet Was The Wine.  

Besides music, what else do you enjoy doing and taking in?

I got rid of my TV two years ago. It was like having a shit-pump in the living room. Now I just watch films and Family Guy, I just love that! So witty, inventive and strange. I cycle round country lanes a lot. Oh, I forgot I'm a poet and columnist for various papers Best of all at present I'd like to plug Mule TV. Google Mule TV/Facebook. I'm doing a year of trying to crash the Eurovision Song Contest. We're on show 4 at the moment. If they won't let me in, I'm going to hold my own on video and write and perform all the entries. That includes dressing up as German woman if necessary.

Check out another sample of the new record from the Soft Bodies Records Bandcamp page. You can pre-order the CD there as well: