Interview: Marc Riley (Part 2)

By on Friday, 23rd December 2011 at 1:00 pm

Missed the first part of my interview with Marc Riley? No worries, you can read it at this link.

Something special (or several somethings special) that sets Marc Riley’s evening programme on 6music apart from anyone else on the radio are his unusual features. For example, Marc will proffer a couple nonsensical clues on the identity of the person on the t-shirt he is wearing that night, and listeners are invited to email or text into the show to offer their guess on the mystery person’s (or band’s) identity. It’s a cool way to get your audience involved, and thanks to the internet, Marc can field guesses from all over the globe. I asked him how much freedom he’s given to create features like that. “100 percent. To be honest, I used to have a battle with someone who used to work for the station who isn’t there anymore, because I was supposed to be playing a few playlist tracks every half hour, a couple every half hour. It doesn’t seem like much, but as I mentioned before, the playlist is very small, and there are bands on there I just refuse to play. Like the Killers, or Razorlight, or whatever. So that made the playlist even smaller. Of the ones that I would play, it was a depleted a number and they’d keep coming round and round again! And even though I liked them, it would be like, ‘oh god, not this again! I did like it last week, but not now!’ Then the listeners were saying, ‘if you play that again, I’m gonna strangle ya!’ It’s not a bad record, and I had an argument with one of my bosses, and I ended up winning that argument. And so I pick all the music, sometimes the listeners pick the sessions, Peter (the man who puts Marc’s shows together) help pick the sessions. But if Peter was to choose a session by Razorlight, it wouldn’t end up on air.

“And they just let me get on with it. I think sometimes they get the impression that it’s a bit like ‘don’t quite understand what you’re doing, but we get a lot of listeners’ because the programme does really well. Sometimes I get the impression from some people in management that it’s a bit like ‘oh yeah, just get on with it, I’m not sure what it is you do, but it seems to be working’. But other people really do understand what I’m doing. My philosophy is that you must never, never patronise your audience. I think that’s the biggest crime in radio, I really do…patronising your audience. And I also think if the audience knows what’s coming next, then that’s bad. I like to put things in together because they don’t go together. Just because it’s in your comfort zone, and then you pick something because it sounds good on the back of that. There’s a possibility I’ll do that, but there’s a possibility I’ll put a really ridiculous song from 1955 in. Every now and then, I’ll play Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ because I like it! It’s a great record! I maintain that if the Shangri-Las had made ‘Toxic’, all the naysayers that have a go at me whenever I play it, (they) would think it was cool. ‘That Shangri-Las record from 1967 was great!’, not ‘Britney Spears? What are you doing playing Britney Spears, get it off, I’m going to another station!’ Byeeeee! By the same token, I get people – not many, not many at all – but some people will have a go at me for playing a 20-minute Can track. But obviously I get so many more emails saying, ‘wow, you’re right. Can. I’ve never heard this before, it’s amazing’.

“Our programme starts at 7 o’clock, which is traditionally a time on British radio when things start to get a little weirder. Like even on Radio1, me and Mark Radcliffe had to play terrible music, just the worst, but we used to mess about in between songs. And we know people used to listen in to us to hear us for a laugh and then turn the music down, or conversely, turn the music up and then when these two old men start talking, turn it down. We were all too aware that they had to get rid of us, and it was dead right that they did. But I want my show to be a 2-hour adventure and a bit of fun, not too much messing about to be tedious, I hope. I get on well with the bands because the bands know that they’re only in there because I want them to be there. I choose the bands. They know that if they’re in there, they know it’s for the right reasons, and they’re among friends. So that’s why with Field Music, I’ve had them in I imagine about 9 times in 7 years, and they’re mates of mine now. It’s a very healthy regime we’ve got on the whole of 6music music, and I know there is a lot of mutual respect there.

“We had Wild Billy Childish on last night, from London. And Billy wrote three new tunes for us, just for the session. So nobody apart from the band had heard them before last night. One of them was called ‘Radio Dregs’ and it was a song about John Peel and me. There was a lot of mischief in the song and really funny. And it was so brilliant that he had made the effort to do something so peculiar! Do you know the band Deerhunter? Bradford Cox, he’s done a couple of sessions for me now with Deerhunter, the first time he came, he did a cover of a Fall song that I’d cowritten the music for, called ‘Who Makes the Nazis?’ So they did a session, then went off and did a gig in Manchester, then they came back the following year and did a Magazine cover version of ‘The Light Pours Out of Me’, and then went off and did a gig in Manchester. I love the band, I really love them. Last time they were here, I said, ‘thanks for coming in again, you’ve got a big night, a big gig to go and do straight after the session’ and he said, ‘no, this is great. This is what we do now. We come to Manchester, we do a session for you, and then we do a gig’. The bands recognise that when they come here, everyone’s friendly, everyone’s dead helpful. There’s no attitude from anybody, and there’s rarely any attitude from the bands.

“In all the years (I’ve been doing this), it’s been 21 years, there’s only been a handful of people who have been a bit of a nightmare. Jonathan Richman was horrible. Jonathan Richman, you think he’s going to be so nice. All these Mister ‘Ice Cream Man’ and twee little pop songs. And he was the most surly git, just objectionable. Ray Davies was hard work…but honestly, I’m starting to run out of names now, because people generally speaking are really nice and not grateful, but they’re aware that (their appearance) is good for them and it’s good for us. Everyone benefits, even the listeners. And I’m also aware that there are a lot of people who can’t get to gigs, for one reason or another. Where they live, or maybe their predicament, or they’re too young. Quite often the first thing they’ll hear at the start of the programme is a live band. I think that’s really important.

“I was thinking the other day, since I started at 6music, which has been 7 years now, we’ve probably had over a thousand sessions. Now, that’s dwarfed by John Peel’s magnificent session archive, and John will never be beaten, in every respect in broadcasting for me personally. But the difference between John’s sessions and ours, the bands would go off to Maida Vale with a producer, on their own, and the tapes were delivered to John. He did some stuff at Peel Acres but not much. But of all of those thousand or so sessions, I think all but 10 were in a room with me or whoever who was sitting in for me. They were always live, in the same room, with the presenter. So it’s like a thousand mini little gigs I’ve witnessed. It is the best job I’ve ever had. We get a good listenership, I think we get 400,000 people listening, which is good if you consider it’s 7 o’clock at night and pretty off-kilter. Like I said, Mark and I used to get anywhere from 10 million and up and we had Bowie in session at Radio1, which is something I never thought would happen. Despite all that, this is the best job I’ve ever had, this is the job I love more than anything else. It will also be the job I will be most upset with when I lose. But I’m still here for the time being.”

Beyond the live sessions, Marc has also gently suggested bands he likes to his listeners by simply playing them on his show and in essence, promoting their records. I ask Marc which bands are the ones he’s proudest for breaking them to the British public. “There are three bands at the moment…god, this is difficult. Definitely Field Music. There’s a band called These New Puritans. Their last album…I had them in when they had their first EP out, so that must have been 4 years ago. Their first album ‘Beat Pyramid’ was just amazing, and the last one (‘Hidden’, released in 2010) was just awe-inspiring, really. They have a song on there called ‘We Want War’ and it was inspired by Benjamin Britten. To me, it’s the most important record of the last 10 years. So I am really proud to have championed them. Wild Beasts, again, I think I’ve been talking about them for 5 years now. The second session we did with them, the band said to us, ‘thanks for sticking with us. People don’t seem to be getting it just yet, the falsetto. They’re not getting it’. And now they’re Mercury nominated and everything now [and I point out, they’ve sold out Shepherds Bush Empire]. Same with Metronomy, I was also pretty relentless with Metronomy. I put ‘Holiday’ on, which was the first single from the ‘Lights Out’ album I’d heard, ‘oh, I don’t know if I like this, hmm…’ and then put it again and thought, ‘yeah, it’s a bit dancey for me’. Put it on again and thought, ‘this is a bit wonky. This is good!’ Put it on again and thought, ‘session!’ Funny thing with them, I had a band in called Your Twenties in, who’ve split up now. Great band. I talked to Gabriel (Stebbing), I said, ‘you know Metronomy, don’t you? I don’t really understand them yet, but do you think it’d be a good session?’ And he said yeah, it’d be a great session. So I booked it and they came in, and Gabriel was in Metronomy as well. I went, ‘you’re in the band!’ Devious! Them and Field Music at the moment, favourite bands, full stop.”

We are in full agreement on the potential of Dutch Uncles, who Marc describes as “jaw-droppingly amazing”. It seems to go a bit surreal when I tell him I’ll also be at the Deaf Institute show tomorrow night and he responds, “then I’ll see you there!” I mean, how often do I get to go to shows where one of my favourite radio presenters will also be in attendance? [An aside: to prove to you just how small Manchester is, I was standing by the stage before the show started, and who should come through the backstage door but Marc Riley? Note to self: backstage before a gig, going to have to work on that…] “Pete and the Pirates, I really love them. And the Wave Pictures…not saying I broke them like the first four I was talking about, we were there before anyone else, I think, and have been relentless in our support…Pete and the Pirates, they are the new Buzzcocks, really. But yeah, there’ve been bands that we’ve support that come and go. Someone said to me and I wasn’t thinking about it until it was mentioned, it’s just as important that we give a break to the bands that decide to pack it in after a year, because then they’ve had that chance. For some bands, it just doesn’t really click, they make a good record or I think it’s a good record, or do a gig and become popular, but after too long, they pack it in. But at least they’ve had a taste and an opportunity to shine and show everyone what they’re doing. And if they decide for themselves it’s not for them, it’s a really important service that we offer. Rather than ‘we did Marc Riley and now we’re playing Shepherds Bush Empire’, which is amazing and great. There was a band the Hornblower Brothers, we used them to play a lot and their ‘The Android with a Heart’, a great pop song. Everyone loved it but being in a band is a struggle, in the end they ended up packing it in after 18 months. One of them wrote to me later and said one of the highlights of the 18 months was doing a session for us. So that means a lot to me as well.”

Conversely, I ask him which bands he expected to be bigger than they eventually became. Driver Drive Faster, they were here on Monday, they used to be in band called Polytechnic, who I thought was going to crack. They didn’t fall apart, most of their members are in Driver Drive Faster, but that didn’t come to fruition”. Marc bemoans his terrible memory. “I so wish I kept a diary. The Fall stories would have been amazing. One of my mates was in the Fall with me, and he asked, ‘do you remember when we went to a fairground with Nick Cave, where we rode on the Big Dipper with Nick Cave?’ No, I don’t, because I would have gotten so drunk that night, the next morning I wouldn’t remember my name, let alone Nick Cave. And throughout the years of broadcasting, you know, doing all this stuff with all the bands I love, and doing stuff with Bowie and McCartney…I wished I’d kept a diary, my memory is so terrible. I don’t think there’s a book in me, because I don’t have a diary…I could always lie!” I show my disapproval, saying he shouldn’t want to be like Morrissey and go off reinventing history, which draws an “ooher!” from Mr. Riley. “You know all the Morrissey and the Smiths stuff. Mike Joyce is one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet in your life, a real gentleman. Regardless of whatever Morrissey says, he’s a real gent.”

To finish, I ask Marc what in his life has he not done yet that he would like to. You know, before the end. He has a quick answer for me. “Cage diving. With a great white shark. That’s the one thing that I’ve not done. Professionally, honestly…I’ve introduced David Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon. I went into the Hammersmith dressing room, which is in the Ziggy film, with Mark Radcliffe, and he goes, ‘oh hello fellas, come in!’ And then he goes, ‘what do you think of this set list?’ I’m in the dressing room in the Hammersmith Odeon and David Bowie is asking me what I think of the set list. It just quite simply doesn’t get better than that.”

Shortly after our interview, Field Music turned up for their live appearance and Marc put on a different hat, one he became very familiar with in the early days of being with the Fall: roadie. It’s really something watching a legendary BBC presenter carrying guitar cases around for the talent. But that’s how down to earth Marc Riley is. He even invited me to hang out and watch the Brewis brothers as they soundchecked, peering at them in awe from the production room window. I’ve had some very special moments in my life as a blogger, and this is definitely high up on the list.

I would very much like to thank Marc and his producer Michelle for being so helpful in sorting this to fit my schedule in Manchester around theirs and allowing me to come into their space and watch all the magic happening. Cheers!

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