Picture caption - Lee Mavers: The La's poet (geddit, la'?)
When Lee Mavers talks, in that cracked-up Mersey drawl of his, he
It's been a long five years since Lee Mavers did an interview and
it feels almost as though he's using this long, strange afternoon as an
exorcism, letting the ghosts come whizzing out of the cupboard in an endless
stream of thoughts and words, ideas and grand schemes And there's little
you can do but sit there trying desperately to take it all in and wonder
if this is really the same man who built an image around never saying anything,
same golden-haired beat prophet credited as being indisputably the greatest
Mersey songsmith since Lennon and McCartney. And, stranger still, if the
endless riddles and rhymes and near messianic tone he adopts for his pronouncements
are a fiction or just the sound of a man right on the edge of stark raving
THE LA'S first surfaced in the bleak late-'80s, when The Stone Roses were still in eyeliner. They signed to Go! Discs in a flurry of interest and released the scratchy, brutally Rolling Stones influenced 'Way Out' in October '87 which received some positive radio play but was treated pretty much as a retro fixated anomaly. The singer looked sort of weird, arrogant in a Beatles-in-Hamburg way and notable for a honeycomb bouffant just like the one Roger Daltrey had when the rest of The Who called him 'Gloria'. But the general consensus was that that was pretty much it.
And then, just over a year later, came 'There She Goes'. The video, shot on a hand-held camera in Liverpool sidestreets, had the band scampering up and down weed-infested back alleys with their bashed-up drum kit like a home movie Help!, but the song was something else altogether - a stone cold classic of pop brevity. Rumours about it being an ode to heroin (thanks to the line "There she goes, pulsing through my vein") really were missing the point. This was simply a masterful display of songwriting.
By the time of its subsequent re-release in October '90 and inevitable chart placing (it reached Number 13), several things had come to light about these cagey, dope-obsessed La's. They were as fiercely protective over the sound of their records, and as ill-disposed toward studio technology, as to be Luddites and, secondly, they had a singer who was so disinterested in cheap press and the clinging demands of the media as to induce instant cardiac arrest for their beleaguered press officers.
Not a word would be spoken onstage. In interview, particularly in a notorious NME trip to New York in September '91, Lee Mavers would have to be cajoled into saying anything, forever telling his inquisitors to feel the message in the music, to soak up the vibes. Nothing else was important.
And, following the acrimony that surrounded the recording of their
rapturously received debut album, The La's simply shrugged their shoulders
and went underground. Go! Discs half heartedly released 'Feelin" as a single
from the album in February '91, but such an effortless celebration of good
times couldn't have been less well timed. The La's simply weren't interested.
FIRST INTRODUCTIONS are bizarre. Contacted through friends of friends - and delighted by the news that Lee Mavers has intimated that he's keen to talk - we're guided through the heart of Liverpool by La's intermediary Barry (guitarist in Oasis- approved rockers Small) until we end up at a disused industrial estate and home to The La's rehearsal rooms.
Lee's already sitting there, clutching his guitar to his chest like a machine gun as the band sit silently around him. As you're getting over the initial shock (he looks not a day less angelic than he did five years ago) you're just as overwhelmed by the room itself. It's instantly recognisable from photos as the old La's rehearsal room, a shrine to Hendrix, The Who and The Beatles, right down to a big cardboard cut-out of Jimi in one corner and the battered drum kit in the other that starred in the 'There She Goes' video. It's been untouched, in the long eight years since The La's started playing gigs and remains, as Lee once pointed out, the only room in the world where the music the band plays actually comes out sounding the way it does in his head.
Before there's even a chance for the briefest of introductions, however, he's up on the tiny stage, banging out a riff as the others, seemingly used to these wordless prompts, shuffle up after him and begin a long sprawling jam. After five or so minutes the drums rolling along a bashed up late-'60s groove, the guitars churning out a 'White Album' era chord progression, he starts singing, rasping out the lyrics in a mantra, like a 'Cold Turkey' period Lennon, dry throated, desperate: "I'm never giving up, I'm never gonna stop!" Mavers jigs around from foot to foot as he sings, forcing the band into gear change after gear change.
Next thing, he's given up on it and is back sitting on the sofa, explaining ten to the dozen what his inspirations are, free wheeling, intent on getting his message over...
"Y'see that's what it is, Ia', just the three chords turning. That's all you need. We'll be playing sets that'll last for two hours or four hours or however long we want to. Simple as. There's no beginning and no end, it'll just keep moving in a permanent flow. But it won't be long before we do it. We needed a rest because of what we'd found. Now we've rested and we're headed back, because it's calling (slight pause). Before it was all nonsense, now it's beginning to make one sense.."
And before you can even try and pin him down to the specifics of quite how, and why, he wants to achieve any of this he's picked up the acoustic guitar by his side and is strumming out another new song, staring off into the middle distance while the band sit around him, soberly taking in every new pearl of wisdom.
When it's suggested that it sounds like one of those early '70s Townshend songs, when fame and high living had turned his songs into musical egg-shells, it's almost as if he hardly even hears, far off somewhere in the middle of a dream.
"No Ia'... I think it sounds like a tank, near the pyramids, in Egypt somewhere... a Nazi tank with these weird symbols on the side of it, y'know... it's gonna sound like a tank... a panzer division!" And then he turns into a human beatbox as he hears the song, fully-formed, in his head at deafening volume.
"TCH-TCH-BOOM! TCH TCH-BOOM! TCH-TCH BOOM!"
Has it served any purpose being away for so long?
"It's about records, because after you're gone that's all that remains, y'know. A song is never written by anyone it's just caught in the net. I don't write all these songs, I just catch them. I can't believe no-one's got them before me. And then people hear the records and then learn from them. It's such a perfect thing. It's spirit and matter. Spirit matters. One soul, soul nation!"
The weird thing is, if you can just negotiate your way past all the nonsense, Lee Mavers' scrambled message is crystal clear. His theme is that there's a spirit in The La's music that's not so much rooted in the '60s but in the depths of time, immune to any concepts of current musical trends or the decrees of fashion (if Lee Mavers could name a single song by Blur it would be a miracle). He hardly seems aware that The Stone Roses have been away and come back and, now that they have, barely feels the need to talk about them. In the larger scheme of things a short spell away hardly matters ("Look at James Brown and Bob Marley, they were playing for years before anyone really accepted them... it takes years").
More startling, as the afternoon creeps on, is that Lee sees The La's as being part of an until now secret world history. In all seriousness (and with a conviction not seen outside Robert Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy or recent Brett Anderson interviews) he explains that The La's have had their namesakes way back in time, in the philosophies of the Oo-Gla Oo-Gla tribe of American Indians ("It's like the Oo-Gla Oo-Gla tribe. Everyone had a piece of the cake or no-one had a piece of the cake. And we're baking it!") and, even more fantastically, in that ultimately resurrected soul, Lazarus. And all this whilst the band enthuse around him, as convinced as he is by the beautiful simplicity of it all.
Left to right - ' Lee ', Cammy, Neil Mavers, Lee Mavers.
"Lazarus, La's-arus, La's. He directed light. And the light comes from the water. It keeps you alive, la. And the pool is where we have to be. The Liver-Pool. The Mississippi, the Mersey-sippi. In history all the maddest scientists were the best ones and they all stayed close to the water."
Hold on. Is some divine force telling you what to do then?
"I dunno. People recognise us, because we've recognised what we have to do. We've been suckered into our responsibilities because we became aware of them, y'know what I'm saying? We've got more responsibility, but responsibility is whatever you want... and this is what we want!"
He pauses, intent on getting the message home. Spirituality is the
key. Music is the current through which it travels. And these things are
getting so lost in the whirl of technology it's getting to the point where
music is losing its meaning altogether.
Why can't you just record The La's songs here then, on four- track,
or release the stuff you recorded on the dictaphone?
THESE POOR beautiful La's. Whilst the world swims away on a tide of studio trickery and an endless barrage of hype, Lee Mavers remains patron saint of some hitherto lost mythical higher ground, steeped in the power of music to overcome pretty much anything.
In five years interviewing musicians I've never seen or heard anything like these spellbinding, quasi-religious exhortations to see some inner light. It's not even the question of his being a pop star: it's the impression you get that Lee Mavers is somewhere way beyond all that, either a genuine, spell-binding prophet or, potentially, a latter-day Syd Barrett or BrianJones, squandering his genius on too much acid and too little productivity.
As he's winding down from one last sprawling anecdote, which ends with him reminiscing about the sour times of the first album ("Ah... there's been plenty of weekends scrambling my brains since then") the Future Sound Of London come on in the background, and he's suddenly bobbing up and down furiously on the sofa, faster and faster until he's in danger of picking up too much speed and catapulting straight into next week.
Does he think he's anywhere near madness?
"I dunno... I'm no nearer than anyone else, la'... you just have to follow your own destiny. But don't be confused by the finger that points to the light - see the light and you'll see that the light is the finger that points to you..."
And then the beat messiah gets sidetracked from his latest biblical proclamation and is distracted by the music, back deep in reverie.
"I just see colours when I hear music. Listen to this! It sounds like 1968 or somethin', y'know what I mean, even though it's dead modern. It's just got a connection to something that's gone before, a feel.
"Listen to those drums... it's like a tank... TCH-BOOM! TCH-BOOM! That's what it's gonna be like when we play, like a tank..."
He turns those crystal blue eyes on you and you realise that this tortured La-cissus has the key to everything inside his head if only he could find the lock, if only the world would understand that dictaphones are the only thing to hear The La's music on and that soul is the only thing music thrives on.
Mesmerising, la'. Simple as.