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Click Opera Interview: Rhodri Marsden

For a while now I've thought it might be interesting to do interviews on Click Opera. I always think there's something cool about people like curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who apparently interviews everyone he meets and has built up a huge personal archive.

Well, here's my first Click Opera interview. It's with Rhodri Marsden, the singer-songwriter behind The Free French, the band I'll be co-headlining a London show on April 27th with. I got to know Rhodri thanks to a shared interest in 1980s conceptual English pop group Sudden Sway. I then discovered he had one of the most active and amusing blogs on LiveJournal, rhodri, with a huge and devoted following ready to leave 70 comments on a subject as unpromising as the confusion surrounding London's telephone codes.



Many things intrigue me about Rhodri's blog. It seems incredibly English to me (although I believe Rhodri is at least partially Welsh). It's so different in outlook, tone and emphasis from my own blog that I almost feel Rhodri and I are like a yin and yang of Britishness; complementary opposites. (Rather in the same way that Marxy's views on Japan and mine end up complementing each other.) And I'm fascinated that, in this age of self-mediation, Rhodri chooses to project such a doleful and self-effacing public persona. (Rhodri is far from an ineffectual bumbler: he writes for The Guardian and co-presents a show on Resonance FM.) Read Rhodri's impersonation of a brand consultant PowerPointing the reps from Momus Synthetic Derivatives Inc and all will become clear...


1. The first question is multiple choice, nice and easy, to get the ball rolling. Which of these statements would you say best describes you:

A. I'm an ordinary bloke.

B. I'm an "ordinary bloke".

C. I'm an extraordinary bloke playing an ordinary bloke.

D. I'm extraordinary because it only looks like I'm extraordinary because I'm ordinary, yeah?

E. I'm a truly gifted and talented soul only momentarily passing through this time-space frame.

F. Housewife superstar.

Feel free just to choose one, or choose none, or comment.


B, probably. As this discussion was provoked by my indulgence in self-deprecation, it's unlikely that I'd ever describe myself as extraordinary. But I do like the idea of "ordinary bloke". The quotation marks somehow give that bloke the potential of being extraordinary, at least.

2. Ian McCulloch of the Bunnymen, long ago and far away, said "It doesn't matter what you say to the small tape-recorders. It's what you say to the big tape-recorders that counts." Meaning that whatever he'd spouted in press interviews should be discounted and people should let the records speak for themselves. Back in those days it was all so simple, wasn't it? But now our blogs and our records are likely to be made on the same computer, out of the same zeroes and ones. Do you treat the activity of making a song very differently from the activity of making a blog entry? Is the Rhodri in a Free French song a very different personality than the one we meet in Extended Timewasting, the blog? Is writing only a waste of time when it's not songwriting?

McCulloch's statement has two levels of arrogance to it; it implies that people might actually have paid attention to anything he said to a music journalist in the first place, and that we should also sit down and thoughtfully analyse "Bring On The Dancing Horses". When he was sitting down with a Melody Maker journalist, he was thinking about portraying himself as a popstar. When I'm writing in my blog, I'm essentially writing up mundane experiences for my mates. They're not going to tolerate any level of arrogance from me. And the level that The Free French are at (we sell tiny numbers of records) there are very few - if any - people who are going to look at my lyrics, follow the link to my blog, read my blog, and then compare the two. Why bother? I certainly hadn't considered the link between the two until you asked me.

The process of writing a song is very similar to writing a blog entry; I try not to spend too much time over it, I think about the rhythm of words, narrative structure and, [cough] humour. Whether I'm writing about myself or other people, the voice is essentially mine, and it's rarely contrived - and if it is, I'll make huge efforts to point it out beforehand. This probably makes for a very one-dimensional reading / listening experience, and over the years it may well become very tired, but for now I'm kind of happy with it.

3. Imagine the following scenario. I'm a representative for Momus, a worldwide concern selling synthetic derivatives. We're concerned that our products aren't doing well on the English market. A string of brand consultants has told us that this is because we've positioned the Momus brand in ways that alienate most English consumers. "You just aren't connecting with the way the English think, their needs, their outlook on life, their aspirations," comes the message. How can we connect? How can we turn the brand around? Someone mentions you. "Rhodri has positioned the Rhodri brand in the English market very deftly. You should get him in to work on the Momus account. He'll detail his experiences positioning the Rhodri brand, make a checklist of what he sees as your strategic errors in the territory with Momus, then bullet list some recommendations.  Rhodri's your man!"

Okay, you've come in, we're sitting round the boardroom table, you're at the whiteboard, the lights are dimmed, the LCD projector comes on, you start to speak... What do you say?


"The mistake you're making is the way you've been attempting to persuade the English how magnificent these Momus Synthetic Derivatives are. You're trying too hard. They simply don't believe you. The claims that you're making are severely stretching the credibility of the product.

"Yes, I know, McCreedy, but I'm not the person you have to convince of the worth of Momus Synthetic Derivatives. I'm certain of their magnificence. I can look at you all in the eye and say to you, hand on heart, that I truly BELIEVE in Momus Synthetic Derivatives. But look. Look at these figures. And these figures, here. And these. No, not those ones, these ones. Yep. You see my point? We need to reposition Momus Synthetic Derivatives as a understated, reliable workhorse, not some kind of majestic stallion. Allow the English to discover the merits of MSDs in their own time, at their own pace.

"Yes, of course they need MSDs, as do we all, but they don't like to be told this - they despise recommendation, or assistance. Our aim is to make them all believe they happened upon MSDs by accident. Exactly, Whittington, exactly, we must be stealthy. Bide Our Time. But on no account blow the trumpet of Momus Synthetic Derivatives. Or indeed, any trumpet. I don't really like trumpets." 

4. How big do you a) want and b) expect your pop group The Free French to get?

I want The Free French to dominate the Radio 2 playlist and to be able to effortlessly sell out, say, the Bloomsbury Theatre. I expect us to be played once on late-night Radio 2 and to lose moderate sums of money hiring our own venues and playing to our friends. This isn't deliberate pessimism; merely that over the 16 years that I've been in bands I've managed to engineer an utter lack of ambition. Ambition rarely gets rewarded, and there's only so much disappointment one man can stand. Hard work plus vague hope has more chance of being rewarded, I feel. Certainly in the music business, ambition suggests a complete detachment from reality - and I find the driven attitudes and swagger of yet-to-be-successful bands persistently hilarious.

5. Your LJ icon shows you holding up a sign saying "I give up". Can you describe the shoot for us? Was the sign your idea or the photographer's? Did you go for maximum pathos in your facial expression? Do you enjoy the fact that the image casts an "irony shadow" over many of your posts? (For instance, when you talk about wanting to win an award, the virtual you is "giving up" even as you make the comment.)

Oh, I wandered around the Barbican with my photographer friend Red, carrying  a piece of cane attached to a speech bubble, on which I wrote various things, off the top of my head. There wasn't much thought given to it. I also wrote "Ecoutez et repetez", as I remember. It's just a co-incidence that the most pleasant picture of me had the most depressing slogan. Honestly. I'm bursting with ideas, with joie de vivre. I promise.
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