Interview with British Cult Icon Lee Mavers of the La's
Writer – Tom Graves
Mag. – Rock & Roll Disc
Date: September, 1991
Subject: Interview with Lee Mavers of The La’s
An Interview with The La’s Driving Force and Angriest Member, Lee Mavers
By Tom Graves
Just when you think you’ve seen or heard everything that could happen in the music business, something like the La’s imbroglio comes along. The La’s in 1988 and ’89 practically owned the music scene in their hometown of Liverpool, where there hadn’t been so much excitement for a new Mersey band since four mop-topped lads created a mania of their own nearly 30 years ago.
Record company executives flocked to their sold-out club gigs, and Polygrams’ London label quickly snapped them up, ready to promote the La’s as their major new artists of the year. London had enough confidence in this untested band to hire famed producer Steve Lillywhite (U2 among many others to his credit) to be at the helm for their debut recording, and he was obviously impressed with the talents of the band and in particular their singer, songwriter, and driving force, Lee Mavers.
Then the fun began. The band chafed under Lillywhite’s studio direction, feeling that he was intentionally subverting their aggressive approach in favor of a lighter pop sound. Towards the end of the session the band – all studio greenhorns – walked out on Lillywhite, leaving him to mix and master the 12 tracks himself without their input or consent. Stranger yet, the album when released became a hit, getting almost constant rotation on college radio stations and MTV. The first single from the album, “There She Goes,” attracted almost universal critical acclaim and Mavers was compared favorably to rock lions such as Pete Townshend and Ray Davies.
A worldwide tour was organized to capitalize on the album’s success, but in the face of fame, recognition, and plaudits Lee Mavers actively disavowed the album in print.
As an early admirer of the band and an admirer of the album, I was shocked that Mavers would seemingly commit commercial suicide by badmouthing his only ticket to success. I thought to myself that Mavers either must be the most naïve megalomaniac in recent music history or an artist so sure of his vision that he would do anything to preserve it – to the point of attacking anything he felt was non-representative.
Rock & Roll Disc caught up with Lee Mavers toward the end of the La’s American tour. Passionate and articulate, Mavers left no doubt that he was a man committed to his artistic principles first and foremost. Taken out of context his comments here could be mistaken for the arrogance of his youth (he’s in his early twenties), but in context they can be seen as the opinions of a supremely confident and gifted young artist, an individual who allows no second-guessing when it comes to his music goals.
Rock & Roll Disc: How do you think the current tour’s gone over so far in the States?
Lee Mavers: Yeah, it’s o.k. now. Now that we’ve got our sound man things are looking up.
R&RD: At one time Britain’s art schools were a training ground for musicians, especially in Liverpool. Did that have anything to do with how you formed?
Mavers: No, man. Our school is the school of the universe, y’know. The universe is my university, y’dig. My school is the streets, my school is the world, the universe. I’ve got me own point of view about things, not somebody else’s.
R&RD: How did the La’s get together?
Mavers: Out of necessity. It just sort of happened and we hit on somethin’. There was nothing particularly special, y’know no fuckin’ magic thing that happened. It just happened.
R&RD: Am I right that you’ve been together four years now?
Mavers: Well, since 1986 which is close to five years now i’n it? In ’86 we just started jumpin’ up on stage and playing after other bands, y’know, shouting out for bass players out of the audience, shouting out for drummers, etc., until by that October we had the nucleus of the band. We had no place to really play, we needed the extra time to get tight and get together, y’know what I’m sayin’, to get more seasoned.
So we approached the public house and just asked ‘em if we could play for nuthin’. They let us do it, and a few weeks later we were bringing in such a big following that they started giving us, y’know, 15 pounds, 30 pounds, 60pounds. Then there was a shake-up within the band, the guitarist went, another guitarist came in, then we took Liverpool by storm, record companies came over, took us into a storm…
R&RD: The record companies started courting you when word of your following in the clubs starting getting out, right? And did your following branch out into the rest of England at this point?
Mavers: No, it was concentrated in Liverpool. Since we had no tapes or records out the following was just concentrated around there. So the record companies approached us, put us in their studio thing, and they got what they wanted out of us. But we don’t like [the album], and we’ll get our chance next.
R&RD: Did the La’s have out four singles before signing to London/Polygram?
Mavers: No, you’re talking about what happened after we signed. I have no idea how many singles they’ve put out on us at this time. Y’know we were in their studios seven times before the album came out, but we turned our backs on the nonsense we’ve been made to do, and they mixed it over without our consent, so that’s why I’m not interested in it, basically. There’ve been times when I’ve come home and me Mum’s had [the album] on and I just don’t like it.
R&RD: I’d like to ask you about this music scene in Manchester that’s been discussed…
Mavers: It’s been and gone in England. It might be coming over to America now, but belatedly so.
R&RD: Well, how would you characterize the differences you see between your music and the music of the critically successful bands from England like The Charlatans U.K. and Inspiral Carpets, and so forth?
Mavers: Ours is soul, theirs is fashion.
R&RD: Was the La’s the outgrowth of any musical movement in Liverpool?
Mavers: There are a lot of bands from up around our way but they’re all into fashion and we’ve got the soul.
R&RD: How has Liverpool’s music history, with the Beatles and the Mersey Sound, affected what you are doing?
Mavers: The Mersey Sound no, it hasn’t affected us, but the Beatles certainly had an impact on all of music. But we’re not playing their stuff either first-hand or second-hand. The Beatles wouldn’t even be in our list of Top Ten favorites.
R&RD: Yeah? Who would be some of your favorites?
Mavers: Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Captain Beefheart, early Who, stuff like that…Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald. There’s loads of other stuff, but they’re not consistent enough to be named.
R&RD: In the ‘80s acoustic music seemed to really take a backseat to electric music and only folkie die-hards seemed to play it, but that seems to be changing now. How do you feel about the acoustic parts of what you do?
Mavers: We keep getting lumped into a kind of indie, acoustic folkie thing, but no that’s not us. But all music is “folk” isn’t it? All of it is for people. We’re not folk, we just occasionally strap an acoustic guitar on, but that doesn’t make us a folk band. But look at “Substitute” by the Who. Is that folk?
R&RD: What I was getting at is that it seems acoustic music isn’t being categorized like it used to, don’t you think?
Mavers: But we are fighting being categorized, I mean we play all types of music. It’s like being categorized shouldn’t have to exist today – they keep wanting to categorize music, and they keep getting’ it wrong.
R&RD: Explain how you came up with the name the La’s. What does the name mean?
Mavers: When we formed the band we just named it the La’s, I don’t know why.
R&RD: It doesn’t have some sort of British meaning we Yanks don’t understand does it?
Mavers: I could tell you one meaning, but it would mean only the one you say, and that might be the wrong one. I mean the word “la” is a musical term – you know do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do. It’s also the most commonly used word in almost every language in the whole world. In Ireland and Liverpool it’s also an abbreviation for “lad,” like people here saying “alright lads” would say “alright la’.”
R&RD: What goals do you have in mind when you sit down to write a song?
Mavers: I don’t know. I just don’t know, man. If I knew what I was lookin’ for it would be found. But what I believe in is music that’s absolutely timeless; you know what is very ancient is also very futuristic and very now because now is always now.
R&RD: John Power in the La’s is quoted as saying the La’s is the only group around “making music properly.” What did he mean by that?
Mavers: The La’s are the only ones who are making music, the others are just manners and things. Keep music alive, you know. Other music is nothing but sampled beats so everything feels and sounds the same.
R&RD: Of course we’ve been reading about your dissatisfaction with producer Steve Lillywhite on the album and you mentioned it earlier. Would you care to talk some more about that?
Mavers: Well, that’s why we turned our backs on the album and just left it with them and they did that mix without our consent. I feel that the album is duller than it should be and our bad time in the studio shows. I mean parts of it are just crap.
R&RD: If we heard the La’s the way you meant for the La’s to be heard, what would we hear different?
Mavers: The La’s the way I would have wanted you to hear it. I mean, you’ll have to just hear it, I can’t speak it y’know. It’s silly that that’s the way it works, but live we are exciting. I want our records to show and feel that.
R&RD: If we saw you live would that clue us in to your real sound?
Mavers: Well, we’re still gettin’ together live if truth be told. We’ve been playin’ through somebody else’s medium for the last five years. Now we’ve got our own sound boys and we’re working on that. It’s gettin’ more like it.
R&RD: When can we expect to hear something new from you?
Mavers: Once we get back home we hope to have something ready by New Year’s Day or so.
R&RD: Who’s going to produce the next album?
Mavers: We’re going to produce it ourselves as we play. I don’t know what the fuck a producer can do, except produce bullshit from his mouth. I don’t talk to Lillywhite, but that doesn’t affect me. That pain that they’ve inflicted doesn’t affect me because I know the score and them other people don’t. On the next album we want to take the record company’s fingers out of it so that we can do it.
You know we are the talent, they are the salesmen, and that’s the way it should be. At the moment I’m just workin’ through the business because we’ve got to get over the battle.
Also, just wait until the next time, because when we’re up at bat we’re going to hit a home run. This album, though, is largely dull and unentertaining. Don’t buy the album, just give us the money.
R&RD: How do you like the video that’s out?
Mavers: I don’t like it. You’re referring to the one from ’88 that was made on a Super 8 for 50 pounds in Liverpool in half a day. Not the one that was made for thousands of dollars in L.A. The reason we had to make that was they said “if you don’t have an American to make it, we’re not going to show it.” All that bullshit.
R&RD: So are you going to do your own videos in the future as well?
Mavers: We’re going to do our own records, our own record covers, and our own videos, absolutely everything to do with the album.
R&RD: Did you like the graphics on the album cover of a close-up of a girl’s eye?
Mavers: I thought it was pathetic. What does it signify? I hate it.
R&RD: How has the record company responded to your charges? I must admit I’ve never seen anything quite like this before.
Mavers: They tell us to keep our mouths shut. Most of the time it’s John Powers gettin’ interviewed because he’s diplomatic, and I’ll tell the truth otherwise. So I’m kept down. I’m glad you wanted to speak to me. You know you’ve got to look after y’self because no one else will. We’re tired of dickheads tellin’ us what to play and how to play it. Now that they’ve used up the backlog of our recordings, the ball’s in our court and it’s our turn to bat, and they’ll only get what we give them and they’ll get it in such a way that they won’t be able to tamper with it. They’ll get it in such a way that they’ll only be able to sell it, which is the whole point of a bleedin’ record company. Y’know the art guides the artist, the artist guides the art, and the salesman sells it.