At this point, I don’t think I had ever been as nervous about doing an interview as I was about speaking with Andy. The Smiths were a huge part of my teens, like most sad fucks around my age. They’ve transcended, that’s for sure. This was my chance to get an insight into one of my all-time favourite bands from a unique, first-hand perspective. Andy was super-cool and very happy to talk about things from back in the day; although I made sure to focus on his more recent efforts as well. So enjoy my fangirl freakout. Maybe you’ll freak out yourself.
– DJY, October 2014
“If you can feel some heat coming through the line,” says Andy Rourke on the line from New York, “that’s me blushing!” He sounds simply chuffed, and deservedly so. Some crazy fan of his previous band, The Smiths, is on the line singing his praises for both his fantastic bass playing and for being a part of one of what many describe as one of the all-time great bands. (He may well have written this article, but that’s neither here nor there.) With hits like “How Soon is Now?”, “This Charming Man” and “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” – just to name a few – the band helped redefine a sound for indie British rock music. Though the band themselves are long gone, its members remain active. Rourke, in particular, has been spending the past few years working as a DJ.
“I started out about seven years ago,” he says on the origins of working behind the decks. “A friend of mine who played in Spiral Carpets had a night in Manchester. He had guest DJs each night, and he asked me to do a set. I told him ‘Nah! I don’t DJ, I can’t DJ’ and that. But he gave me a quick lesson – y’know, “here’s your gear, here’s the faders and off y’go’.” And this was deemed a success? “It went really well and the crowd liked it,” he notes enthusiastically. “I was on a real adrenalin buzz afterwards, that didn’t come down for about fifteen minutes. So I got an agent and started doing more and more DJing. I’ve been around the world a few times doing it.”
“I like it, y’know,” Rourke continues, casually. “It’s a different medium, but it’s a nice way to meet your audience. A lot of young people turn up to the shows, lot of people who never got to see The Smiths live.” Indeed, fans of the band will know of the tension and bad blood between most of the former band members – particularly drummer Mike Joyce, who infamously filed a lawsuit against vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr for allegedly taking the lion’s share of the band’s royalties. Things have cooled substantially between Rourke and Marr, at least. In fact, Marr, now playing guitar for UK band The Cribs, was hoping to catch up with Andy when the two (separately) visit Australia – Marr with The Cribs and Rourke DJing for the newly launched Club NME Australia nights.
“I got an email from him just yesterday or the day before”, says Rourke on his former bandmate. “I think he’d heard on the grapevine that I was going to be in Australia and he was just checking what date I was going to be there. Unfortunately, it was about a week before I arrive, which is a shame.” In spite of this, the two still see one another on an intermittent basis. “I saw him two weeks ago in New York,” continues Andy. “We played a gig, and a month before we’d played another one. But yeah, I see a lot of Johnny, considering I live in New York and he lives in Manchester.”
Musically, Rourke has been fairly casual in his recent band appearances. There’s one project, however, that’s finally coming into the limelight which Andy has been at work on for quite some time. It’s entitled Freebass – a collaboration with two other bassists [Joy Division/New Order’s Peter Hook and Stone Roses/Primal Scream’s Mani Mounfield] to create a very interesting triple bass guitar sound. “We’re nearly there!” promises Rourke in regards to the long-awaited project. “I was supposed to go back two weeks ago, but I was ill. We’re doing the final mixes of the EP and the album. We haven’t shopped it around to the labels yet, but we’re getting plenty of offers.”
He remains somewhat tight-lipped on the actual sound of Freebass, but one can rest assured that if Rourke is a part of a musical sound, it’s going to be something that stands out, embossing itself with relatively little fuss. The sound of The Smiths, of course is something that’s easily recognisable to most music fans. Marr’s “jangle” guitar sound and Morrissey’s wailing vocals have particularly been influential to everyone from R.E.M. to Jeff Buckley. When questioned about the band’s more recent influence, however, Andy seems determined to tread lightly.
“There’s some, but I wouldn’t really like to name any,” he comments. “It might be assuming. But yeah, there’s definitely a few where you can hear different bits and pieces. “I think today, bands are a little bit more guarded, and won’t make anything that’s quite so obvious. But you definitely hear some elements like guitar, or bass, or even Morrissey’s voice or lyrics. I think, over the years, we’ve been quite an influence.”
Coming from any other musician, such a statement may come across as exceedingly arrogant. It’s difficult to fault his sentiment, however – simply take a listen to any of the band’s four albums, and you will find an unmistakable sound. Rourke, too, had a very particular sound to his bass playing. All it takes is one listen to Meat is Murder’s “Rusholme Ruffians” or the self-titled’s “This Charming Man” to hear the thick, picked out and heavily toned sound that became Rourke’s signature sound. He insists, however, that it was never an attempt to sound distinguishable. Rather, it was simply a matter of being heard.
“I liked playing funk and I liked the sound of it,” he says, “but I hated the look of the slap bass player – if I played it with my fingers, especially in rehearsals, you couldn’t hear it. It’d sound more like a rumble. So I started playing with the plectrum so I could hear myself in rehearsals.” From that point – creating a sound out of necessity – it became something that Andy felt comfortable to work around and experiment with. “Once you’ve learned it like that,” he comments, “it starts defining the sound and that’s what you’re left with. It wasn’t really something where I was like ‘I want this’ or anything. People talk about it a lot, though.”
We find the forty-six-year-old Andy Rourke in a surprisingly good place in a post-Smiths world. He is still open and happy to talk about his band’s work (“It’s something I’m proud of”, he notes), and continues to see the world in his own little way. He appears to have found a niche talent of his in DJing, and he can’t wait to come to Australia and get the hipsters dancing to a variety of tunes.
“My first love is playing bass, and it always will be,” he says emphatically. “But I don’t see myself lessening the importance of the DJing. Unless there’s public demand for me to give it up, y’know.” He can’t help himself for a little self-reference, wise-cracking: “‘Hang the DJ!’”