Over breakfast of an English muffin and Diet Coke (and in a voice much lower than his singing falsetto), Green Gartside, the man who will always be Scritti Politti, tries to explain himself. Gartside grew disillusioned after Scritti Politti found pop success in the '80s and quickly walked away. Trying to explain how his disgust with the record industry somehow turned into a decadelong exile in the hill country of Wales isn't easy -- especially in light of the fact that he's returned to the business.
"I got back off a world promotional tour, told my girlfriend I was going for a pack of cigarettes, more or less, and disappeared," he recounts. "Didn't see her for many years, didn't see my management, didn't see musicians I'd worked with for maybe seven years. Went back to the Welsh countryside, found a whitewashed stone cottage in a village and stayed there. That sounds foolish or tragic or idyllic, I suppose, depending on your perspective, and it was all of those things. I didn't have to work -- miraculously. I would go to the village pubs and hang out with the farmers and play darts and read books. That's really what I did for a long, long time."
As for music, "I did have a room in the cottage with the guitars and the samplers and the Mac, but for a very long time, that was a room to be avoided at all costs."
Gartside did eventually get back to writing songs, but he took his time. Boredom eventually set in, despite the abundance of pubs in the area. Inspired by hip-hop, the only music he listened to during his exile, Gartside realized that he simply wanted to create beats -- with new songs growing out of that desire. Samples were taken from old funk records. He wrote a few tunes on guitar and sampled those, too. Soon Gartside was always in the once avoided room -- all but sleeping in it -- recording beats, creating songs and getting addicted to music again.
"People always say, 'Why didn't you leave it at that? If that's the fun and everything else is the agony, why not just stay in the bedroom?' [That] would be worse than writing someone a letter every day and then burning it. It's sort of a contract to be fulfilled, so I decided to make another record," he says.
For most musicians, putting out an album isn't a tough choice; Gartside is, obviously, different. Scritti Politti formed a little more than 20 years ago in Leeds, England, as a postpunk, art school band. In 1980, while on tour opening for the Gang of Four, Gartside had a stage-fright-induced panic attack and gave up performing live. He took a year off to recover, and the band's debut record, 1982's Songs to Remember, soon followed. Three years later, a change in direction found them flying the new pop-soul flag on Cupid & Psyche 85, which people of a certain age group remember fondly for the high-gloss, John Hughes-film-soundtrack-sounding hits "Perfect Way," "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" and "The Word Girl."
The new Scritti Politti record, Anomie & Bonhomie, is 2000's most unexpected and off-balance comeback. Produced by ex-Scritti member David Gamson, the album is split between the kind of, in Gartside's own words, "tooth-achingly saccharine pop" that was Scritti's '80s calling card and something close to hip-hop. It's not quite two separate records, but it's close, and despite the incongruous pop intentions and rap influences, Anomie is a daring and ambitious record. That's not to say it's really good, but it presents a unique mix of gloss and rhythm. Gartside has kept the Scritti Politti name -- it's pretty much been just him running the show anyway -- but is turning his back on the past; there are no keyboards on the album. A Scritti Politti record without sugary synths?
"None of the music I had been listening to for x number of years [had keyboards] and when I finally did start listening to guitar bands again, there were no keyboards," he says. "I hadn't enjoyed the keyboard for a long time, plus it helps to unify some disparate influences and stuff if you keep your palette limited to the staples of guitars, bass and drums."
He might be trying to unify the different elements, but the album's first single, "Tinseltown to the Boogiedown," switches, without flinching, between Gartside's high-pitched singing and the street-credible boom of rapper Mos Def. It would be a stretch to say that it's seamless, though, since Gartside cedes the mike for the most part, only singing the hook in his characteristic falsetto. The song is funky, even if it is white-boy funk.
"It does jump about between music at points," admits Gartside. "All I can tell you is that is expressly by design. I get up in the morning and I listen to the Beach Boys and the Beatnuts, the Foo Fighters and Mobb Deep. So you sit down and you want to play around with a bit of one and a bit of the other. You just kind of throw it all together, it's 'A' slapped bang up against 'B,' and it either works or it doesn't. It certainly isn't a record for straight-up hip-hop heads, nor is there any pretense on my part that I'm 'down.' There are friends of mine back in the U.K. that say, 'That could have been a nice record if you hadn't fucked it up with all the rapping.'"
Other guests on the record include Me'Shell Ndegéocello, Wendy and Lisa, and rappers Bashir Shakur and Redcloud. Previous Gartside collaborators have included Roger Troutman, Miles Davis, and Shabba Ranks, so it's not surprising that he was able to score some big names in the credits, but seriously: Just how does a white guy from England actually get someone like Mos Def, a serious hip-hopper, to rap on his record? "Well, it's even funnier because I'm a white man, rapidly approaching middle age, from Wales," says Gartside, laughing. "You just get on the telephone and ask people if they'd like to listen to some things. It never really is that difficult; they can only say no. Touch wood, I haven't had a rude, slamming down the telephone [experience]."
Sure, the bitterness about the music-industry machine -- the one that caused him to abandon his muse -- still creeps in, but at least he has a sense of humor about it. Too often musicians on the comeback trail think that the world owes them something because they once had hits. It gets even worse when they branch out in "new directions." (See, for example, Tommy Lee's Methods of Mayhem.)
Gartside recognizes that "Perfect Way" and "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" were minor blips in the history of disposable pop, destined to be found on Sedated in the Eighties compilations. And attempting a comeback, it might just be better to underplay the past.
"A career in the '80s is not the most prestigious calling card for musicians anywhere in the world right now," he says. "There's nothing I can do about it; I don't regret it. I guess one good thing when you come back in your 40s is that immediately puts you outside of one game to begin with -- there's no way they're going to want to pitch you to teen magazines anymore."
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