UK rockers Blackballed have cemented their already rather good reputation with the release of new album Elephant in the Room (Metalville), so what better time to catch up with the band’s vocalist/guitarist Marshall Gill for a chinwag about said opus?
The album’s been out a few days now – are you pleased with the reactions to it that you’ve seen? “Yes, it seems to be going down really well. It’s quite daunting because we recorded this one ourselves, and to put it out there with confidence is a bit scary. But yes, everybody seems to like different songs, which is really cool, and we’re definitely happy with that”.
Generally when you’re coming up to the recording of an album you’d have a few shows where you can road test new material in front of an audience to see how it goes – was it much different this time what with COVID? “That’s the way we’d hoped to do it. The way things work is that I tend to do gigs with New Model Army in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and then January is always a quiet month. So we had a few ideas, but nothing was finished as such, so basically we set off recording the album in January without playing any of the songs in front of anybody. The whole situation has been a bit of an experience but it’s been good”.
And now it’s out of course you’d like to be playing shows to promote it. What are you doing with regards to COVID-era promo? Are you a fan of these lockdown shows that a lot of bands are doing at the moment? “It’s a crap situation all round for everybody isn’t it? I just love music so for me you can’t beat that live performance. Either watching it or doing it yourself. Lockdown videos? When they first came out the idea was perfect for the situation. But if I’m being a bit of a snob, most of them don’t sound too good. So at first, for me, I was thinking ‘I don’t want to do one of those because they don’t sound good…’ but as time is going by and we’re still stuck in this lockdown situation – especially for live performance – it’s something we’re going to look into and I’m sure we’ll do one or two before the end of the year. But I’m hoping we can start doing some outside gigs. A few of those seem to be happening in England at the moment. It’s possible that at some point we might get to perform in front of tables of separated people!”
We’ve been talking to quite a few artists, especially in the UK and Europe recently, and many of them tell the same story of tours booked optimistically for the end of this year, which are now being cancelled. It’s just not going to happen is it? “Not realistically, no. Maybe a few of these smaller pub-type gigs will get up-and-running, but there’s just too much involved to get a ‘proper’ show up and running. Sadly I’m thinking it’s going to be the (Northern) Summer next year, maybe a little earlier”.
Let’s get back to the album. Cheer ourselves up. I’d like to go through it with you track-by-track… just tell us something about each song if you would please. The album opens with When The Devil Calls. “It’s lyrically the story of the blues. Or it’s pretenders. You know guys who say they are all about the blues, but they are really rockers or metal, or something, and this is ‘the blues’ saying ‘you have to live the blues to be it’ (laughs)… that’s what it’s about, with a definite Led Zeppelin feel to it”.
Next up – Someone Else’s Shoes. “That one is about homeless people. I always think of myself as a guitarist before I’m a lyricist or singer, but I really enjoyed writing the lyrics for this album. My Mrs works in Manchester where they have a big homeless problem. I give her a lift to work a lot and see it all the time. So this is about guys living on the streets”.
Track three is the title track – Elephant in the Room. “That track… I usually write songs at home when I’m jamming. And that one just popped into my head. I’m like ‘quick! Get the mobile phone! Get it recorded!’ – it’s a groovy track. I love the riffs in the chorus”.
It’s a thing of wonder, the mobile phone… “Yes! It’s crazy though. They are a fantastic tool but they can also be very controlling”.
Track four – Show Me The Light. “The way this album was written predominantly was that I would write the riffs or the song or the lyrics myself and then take them all to the rehearsal room where we jammed them out. And this one, when putting it all together, the chorus reminded us of another song. So we’re thinking ‘we can’t do that, we’re going to have to change it. Fortunately by the time we worked the lyrics and the melody into it we turned it around and made it sound like a Blackballed song again. So everything was all right. I won’t tell you what the song was that it sounded like though!”
Rock and roll is sixty five years old now. It must be increasingly difficult as a songwriter to come up with anything that is entirely fresh? “Yes. When I first started really playing in bands, in the first proper band I was in we had that in mind. We always tried to play something that sounded nothing like everybody else, and we kind of managed to do that. So nobody came to any of our gigs! You don’t want to copy something direct but it has to have a familiar feel… Clever music is fantastic, especially if you’re a musician who’s into that type of stuff – it’s amazing. But for the general public, there has to be something that they can grab onto, the hook or something else that’s familiar. You definitely have to come up with stuff that has it’s own originality to it but which people can grab on to… that’s the challenge and that’s the fun of writing tracks”.
Next track is Another Lonely Day. “That one is quite interesting. I wrote the music for that one about a year ago. So again that went down onto my phone. I’m a big fan of all rock and blues music, stuff that’s got feel to it. A lot of sixties and seventies bands. The Beatles, Slade even… or The Kinks. This song came up around those sort of ideas. So when I recorded the song on my phone I just mumbled a guide lyric, made stuff up. When I finally came to write the first verse, what I’d written originally seemed to tie in with the Coronavirus situation. Unbeknownst to me I’d mumbled all this stuff about it nearly a year before! So the first verse of this song is exactly what I sang into my phone. And then the rest of it I tied into the original idea. A bit of a lucky accident, really”.
What happens with this recording onto a phone then – Do you risk these ideas getting lost when you drop your phone into a pint? Or do you transfer them as soon as you can onto a more permanent hosting device? “What we tend to do is that small ideas get put down on the phone first. But we have a permanent rehearsal room, and there we’ve got a basic digital recording capability. So when I have a bit of time I go up to the rehearsal studio and flesh out the ideas properly. And hope that nothing gets forgotten! Like we were saying earlier about phones being wonderful things… can you imagine the number of unbelievable songs that must have been lost over the years that somebody wrote and then forgot? The older I’m getting the more often that’s happening so these phones do work!”
The next song on the album is Flesh And Bone. “The place where we rehearse is quite a nice place – six or eight rehearsal spaces, and a room where you can sit and have a brew, or play a bit of pool. It has a piano in it as well. One day I was out there making myself a brew, and whilst the kettle was boiling I sat down at the piano. I am not a piano player. I can fight my way around a piano, just about, but I am not a player. So I sat down at the piano whilst the kettle was playing, and just picked out the chords for what became Flesh and Bone. And then a melody, and then I made up some words. Got my phone (laughs) and recorded it! It was amazing how it happened. It’s a different track to the rest of the album, obviously – it’s not a rocker – but it’s definitely got some vibe going on. And that’s not me playing the piano on the album. I’m desperately trying to learn it but we ended up getting a guy in to play it”.
Does that give you more satisfaction – the fact that a song has gotten on the album that you thrashed out on a piano rather than by using your usual instrument? “Yes, definitely. Again, like I said, I like all kinds of rock music. And back in the sixties or seventies you’d have a full-on rocker but then you’d have a chilled-out, ballady-type thing. Nowadays music – and there’s nothing wrong with this – but music tends to have a vibe that goes throughout the album. But I definitely like those old albums that move about through moods and styles. And it’s nice to have a piano track on the album”.
The next track is The Lion. “There’s a guy who lives in our town, Oldham, called Jimmy Needham. And he’s just one of those guys that everybody knows. He’s loud, he’s lovable, he’s scary. A big lovely guy. He has a bit of a past, he’s been a bit of a monster in his time but everybody loves him. Unfortunately at the beginning of the Coronavirus thing, he had a party at his house for his sixty fifth birthday. A couple of days later he ended up in hospital and a couple of days after that he was in intensive care… he was close to death. Jimmy Needham! Nothing can kill Jimmy! Everybody was rooting for him. He was in hospital for six weeks. So The Lion is about him. And how he kicked Coronavirus’ arse!”
Following The Lion is Break These Chains. “The outro of that song… I don’t know where it came from. Just a crazy idea that came up while we were recording. It’s got a riff at the end that changes the vibe, a really heavy riff. Somewhere along the line we decided to make some spooky, weird outro music to go with it. The keyboard player who helped us out – Ben Matravers – put a bunch of strings and weird keyboard sounds on the outro. Very different to what we usually do but it’s nice to do stuff like that on an album”.
The penultimate track is Bring You Down. “This track I wrote maybe twelve years ago. I was playing in a different band then, obviously. We played it live a few times and then, over a period of twelve to fifteen months the band slowly split up, and it’s just been sat there since then. When we were putting the album together we had a few problems that I won’t go into but it became a bit of a long process. We had to do it in two sessions. It was a bit painful. There were other song ideas, but nothing that was nailed down beyond the nine songs we’d written. We could have either thrashed something out in the studio to get a tenth song, but I asked the guys about doing this one. It felt a bit weird, resurrecting an old song, but both the guys liked it. It’s a good song so we gave it a shot. It’s possibly got a different feel to the other stuff”.
It was of course the song we picked out in our review as not being like the others… “Yes! That was really interesting… If I’m being one hundred per cent honest I was a bit angry on first reading the review because I didn’t think you liked the track, which actually wasn’t what you said. You said it was still a good track but different. It was funny because it does sound different. Which is obvious because I did write it twelve years ago in a different band! But I’m sure it’ll be a rocker when we play it live”.
The closing song is Mother Earth. “The main intro riff for that had been knocking around for a long while. Written quite early on in Blackballed but just never finished. It always felt a bit heavy metal to me. We are a bluesy heavy rock band, but that one had a metal feel to it so it sat on a shelf for a while. But then I thought ‘it’s a good riff, why are we messing about?’. Let’s go out with a bang and a rocker at the end!”
Always a good idea.
Elephant in the Room is out now. Read Scott’s review of the album HERE