An interview with Alison Statton for a special midweek issue.

Alison Statton is a Welsh singer-songwriter who was part of the minimal pop trio Young Marble Giants. In the years since, sheís released music in Weekend and with Alun Mark Williams as Alison Statton & Spike. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Young Marble Giantsí landmark LP, Colossal Youth, and Domino is marking the occasion with a limited edition reissue. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Alison Statton on the phone on October 29th, 2020 to discuss Young Marble Giants, the importance of communication, and how she thinks about death daily.

Joshua Minsoo Kim
: Hello!

Alison Statton : Hi!

Howís your day been Alison?

Itís been good. Iím in Wales so weíre on another lockdown which is slightly different from England and other parts of the UK. Weíve got our own minister and government which has some control over Wales itself, so itís been pretty quiet because thereís not so much you can go out to do. Weíre going into autumn and itís a pretty wet, grey day. I did go out for a walk, but itís been quite a quiet day, really.

 

How has this year been for you in general with the pandemic?
Iíve been lucky in that my health stayed good. Thereís been a lot going on around me. I know people whoíve had the coronavirus and itís not been any delight. Myself and my partner and my kids, weíve stayed well. My sonís over in Australia and that feels like a really long way away at the moment, knowing that itíll be a while before we can visit each other again.

Iím glad that youíre safe. I also know people whoíve gotten the coronavirus and itís always scary. And itís hard to see an end in sight for all this.

Yes. Weíre really having to live with uncertainty, arenít we? And having to look at our mortality. Thatís been a big one. Itís been hard on a lot of people, even if they havenít actually had the coronavirus itself, itís affected them economically. And itís affected a lot of peopleís mental health.

Itís been a struggle for many people in all walks of life with wherever theyíre working. Some people are on the frontlines working and getting burnt out, and there are others who are wondering where their next piece of work is coming from. And itís not just a few countries, itís a major world shift.

Right, itís just been a lot for everyone. You know, I wanted to ask about your childhood. Did you have a close family?

Yeah, we were a very close family. My brother and sister were a lot older than me so it was a little bit like being an only child in terms of home life. They left home when they were 17 and went far away, but they still kept in touch. I have the bonus of having an older brother and sister but I spent a lot of time on my own and with friends obviously. This was in the days when you could play out in the street and didnít have so many restrictions as we have now. We were a very close family and continue to be, really.

I know in the past youíve talked about foundational musical experiences, like with you being in church and hearing the church organ. Do you recall the moment when you realized that music was something you wanted to pursue, to devote time and energy to?

Music was always something I cared about but it was never something I envisaged making a living from doing professionally. Even when I was in bands, it was for fun and it was for just the whole creative get-together with other people rather than feeling like I would go on to make a living from that. It felt far less accessible in those days. Now you can put stuff online; there are lots of ways you can promote yourself or your music and get people to hear it. Even right up to the point Young Marble Giants got offered a deal from Rough Trade, I never really thought that was going to be a way to goóit was just something I was doing on top of my life. Thereís no moment where I thought, ďRight, this is it.Ē It was a bit like it was handed to me on a plate.

 

 

Were your parents really into music?

My parents both loved music, my father in particular. My brother, sister, and fatheróthey had quite a wide music collection. I used to listen to music from the crib, really. Apart from my mother, who played piano when she was younger, nobody played any instruments in the family. It was just everyone enjoying music. My father used to whistle and sing, but there was no creative process; it was just an indulgent thing of listening to people.

 

Do you remember the sort of music that was playing around the house? Do you remember anything your family members loved that you loved?

It was a really wide range. I also had a friend who lived down the road who had brothers and sisters and they all listened to different things. I listened to Motown, country, there was obviously The Beatles, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, a lot of í60s pop. Motown is one that I really enjoyed. The thing I listened to least was probably classical. It didnít feature largely at the time when I was younger, but every other genre, you can guarantee somebody was playing it in my surroundings.

I know you were a dental nurse for some time.

I studied at a local hospital and then I worked for a year as a dental nurse. I just got a post in the hospital and then we got this deal, so thatís when I abandoned that vocation.

What initially led you to pursue that?

To be honest, it was just something that I could train to do. And I was kind of interested in biology. It was an exit out of school for me and a way to be independent. It was something I enjoyed and I learned a lot of skills from it but it wasnít my dream job. Everything was so different then. You could try out all sorts of things in terms of work or training; you didnít just decide on your one dream. Well, I didnít anyway (laughter). There was more availableóthere were more jobs available, there were more options. Unless you were seriously focused on one thing, there were a lot of things you could try and see.

I donít regret for a minute having trained as a dental nurse. I learned a lot from it and I enjoyed the experience of working because it was in a hospital, it wasnít just in a clinic. You go into local aesthetics, [pediatrics], orthodontics, even watching surgery. There was major surgery for a cancer I saw. It was all very interesting while I was there. But I didnít miss it enough to go back into it, so I moved on.

Whatís one thing you feel like you took away from that profession?

Oooh. (pauses). Communication. And that was verbal and nonverbal in terms of communicating with the patient and with a person that youíre working with. Being able to anticipate what somebody needed. Itís a difficult one to put into words but I would say communication, just seeing the step ahead before you get there.

Communication is not about how you talk, itís about how you listen. Hearing what the patient is saying and the dentist is saying. And nonverbal communicationójust reading the signs, really. Once you were well-trained, it was knowing what was needed next before it was asked. It was a challenge, if you like, to be one step ahead so you could be really efficient, and I enjoy that challenge.

I like what youíre saying, about how communication involves careful listening, attentiveness, the ability to be one step aheadÖ do you feel like any of those things translatedóand this may not be directóto being in Young Marble Giants or just as a musician in general? This could be with writing lyrics, how you sing, the way you performed. Do you think thereís a link? And there may not be.

Not strongly. I think communicating with crew and promotersóthat side of thingsóbut not hugely in the creative process. I went on to train to be a chiropractor, and thatís where I brought all of that back in, and thatís when it was really useful. In terms of music, I would just say it was useful with interactions with other people, but not so obviously..

Just from what youíre saying, it seems like you really care about the way other people feel when youíre with them. Would you say thatís true?

Absolutely spot on, yes. Thatís very important to me. That could be just sitting on a bus next to someone, or someone you buy a newspaper from, as well as people who are more directly in your compass.

Did you ever think about how Young Marble Giantsí music came off to listeners?

Initially, I suppose it felt like such a surreal world, playing to larger audiences. Once we left the local gig setup, I got quite nervous because Iím much better on a one-to-one. I didnít have a rapport with the audience, but if someone came up with at the end of the gig I would enjoy talking with them on a one-to-one or one-to-two basis. Iím not a natural at communicating in terms of performance, I would say. At least to a large group. When it came to talking in between songs and having a whole chat with a mass audience, that wasnít so easy. Does that make sense to you?

 

It makes sense, yes. Are there any memorable fan interactions that youíve had?

When we started playing again later on, I remember hearing of couples talking about how theyíd met and they had gone on to have children. They started out as fans of YMG. In the younger days it was just a whirlwind because we were playing with other bands and meeting crew and people who hosted us. We werenít staying in hotels; we were staying on peopleís floors or their spare living room. We were on the road roughing it, really.

I remember one girl saying to me, even before we made a record and were just playing locally, that she had seen Debbie Harry [of Blondie] and thought we were better than Debbie Harry (laughter). I just thought, ďWow, really?Ē (laughter). But you know, just silly little things like that. We met loads of lovely people and it was very genuine. We were all just young and finding life together.

And you were in this band at a young and formative age.

Very.

This is a hypothetical so itís hard to pin down, but what do you feel like being in YMG taught you that you wouldnít have learned if you werenít in the band? This could be about music, about yourself as a person, or about people in general.

(thinking) What did it teach meÖ (pauses). It taught me a lot in hindsight. I said how important communication is and when we were all together as a trio, there were things that I should have been more proactive about with opening up. This is in terms of discussing any difficulties within the band without being timid. I was too weary of accepting my feelings or my ideas. In hindsight, I couldíve been clearer but I didnít have the confidence.

Do you feel like now, decades later, that you have the confidence to share how youíre feeling with people?

Absolutely. Iíve learned that lesson, definitely. We all have a natural tendency of being one way or another, of holding things in or blurting everything out. I have to manage myself so I donít hold too much in and so I can speak out. Itís not my natural platform to go to that place, but it actually is far more useful to share what youíre thinking or what youíre feeling instead of having it all locked up inside.

Do you feel like when you sang any of the songs, that they helped you express things that needed to be expressed? And this could be with YMG or with anything after.

With Young Marble Giants, for most of the songs, I was doing my interpretation of Stuartís lyrics and stories.

Right.

My creative role was just to have my own take on it, just as anybody who listens to any song will have their own movie that runs along the side with an interpretationóand that interpretation might be a million miles away from what was meant when it was written. When it comes to later on with Weekend and Alison Statton & Spike stuff, that was a way to just be a little more open.

Is there a song from the Weekend or the Alison Statton & Spike material that was meaningful to you in that way? That helped you to express things that you really wanted to?

It would be really hard to pick one. With most of the songs Iíve written, it really is for processing something. Itís about communicating what I want to communicate rather than something that doesnít mean much; they all mean something quite important. I can pick one that didnít do that because it was far more lighthearted. It was a throwaway and I had a few lyrics and we had to get it written really quickly and everyone was just chucking in a line here or there. That was ďSummerdaysĒóthat was the exception to the rule.

 

Do you remember any songs being difficult to write?

There were a couple on the more recent Bimini Twist album. I touched on some areas I had been meaning to write about.

Do you mind sharing about that? Itís ok if you donít want to.

I probably mustnít (laughing).

No worries at all. Itís interesting to hear you talking about things in hindsight. I know the band has talked about Cardiff not being a place you had positive memories of.

Iíll actually step in there because I think that was more Stuartís take on Cardiff. I grew up in Cardiff and I would say I didnít have any dislike for it at all. Like many cities, it was quite industrial, and by the late í70s, there were a lot of problems in terms of poverty. It wasnít the most advanced in terms of music but there was still a little underground counterculture in the í60s pushing through. Most of the venues were rock Ďn roll and rhythm and blues in terms of getting gigs, but overall I was happy with Cardiff. I didnít have a great aversion to it and I didnít have a great desire to run away and never come back again, and I suppose thatís partly because my family was there, my school friends were there, and all my connections were there. And all of that was so important to me.

Iím living just outside Cardiff now. I did move away to London for a while and then moved back to Cardiff and now Iím just outside of Cardiff. The reason for that is because I like living nearer to the sea, a little bit further out of the city. Where Iím living is almost like a seaside suburb of Cardiff. But yeah, I have no aversion to Cardiff or Wales (laughter). Thatís the trouble: something gets said and then it becomes a group opinion when it wasnít necessarily the same for every member. I would say Stuart had the greatest desire to be out of Cardiff and out of Wales maybe.

Iím happy weíre talking individually because you and Stuart are different peopleóyou have different thoughts and opinions and everything.

I think that was one of the things that made things difficult to communicate, really, early on in the band life. And now it is easier to discuss those thingsóthose differencesóand not be afraid to put your two pennyworth in. Not that youíre right and youíre wrong, but that we have different experiences. Itís about opening up the differences instead of closing them down if thereís not an agreement.

If you were to go back in time, what would you say that you didnít back then?

I wouldíve just opened up the area of where there was any unhappiness rather than just sensing it. I wouldíve seen if there was a way that it could be changed without totally disbanding (laughs).

So this is in terms of the band breaking up?

And the lead up to that as well. There was too much silence in the lead up. Stuart and I have done lots of talking since then and we really have opened up things since, and probably havenít gone to every corner but weíve made amends to some of the differences. Iíve got a great respect for the Moxham brothers and the other brothers who werenít in the bandóthey always felt like family to me and familyís not always easy, is it? (laughter). It was quite natural that we had our struggles.

How do you feel like youíre all different? Like, who is Alison? And how are you different from Stuart and Philip?

(laughs). Weíre all different from who we were then, thatís for sure. As weíve got older and hopefully a little bit wiser, we all actually have become similar, more alignedóthere are more similarities than differences. Thatís definitely how I feel now when Iím with them. I suppose I was less ambitious, I was less driven. I was a little oversensitive, maybe. Those were some of the things that I would say were my foibles or my weaknesses but maybe werenít present in Stuart.

I think Phil, when he was my partner, was always in the middle somewhere. And Phil is very quiet, and sadly his voice rarely gets heard in interviews because heís not that forthcoming for them. Itís a shame, really, because he is a really important third dimension. It tends to be that you donít hear that third point on the triangle, that angle.

What do you feel like Phil brought to the group that you or Stuart didnít or couldnít bring?

In terms of any technical issues he was very focused and patient. He was quite a perfectionist in some ways. Thatís not the right word but he really saw it important to get things right. There was a steadiness there which you can hear in his basslines.

I definitely can hear that in his basslines. What do you feel like you brought that the other members didnít?

I donít know what the word isÖ but maybe a softer quality. I donít know. I canít find the words for that (laughter). Thatís an interesting question. I suppose everything was quite choppy, quite rhythmic, quite electronic, so I brought a slightly more human touch to the actual sound, something less controlled, less automated.

How do you feel like youíve grown as an artist throughout the past decades? You continue to make music, you had Banini Twist a couple years ago.

Certainly, Iíve grown in feeling more confident about writing. To some degree, it was working with other people, though I always worry I donít have enough knowledge or expertise. But in terms of how Iíve grown, Iíve certainly become more confident in putting ideas forward. And being part of the creative process. And I didnít have that confidence in Young Marble Giants, which is why so much of the songwriting quickly fell into a role of myself being a vocalist and Stuart writing most of the lyrics. I was writing, but I wasnít putting things forward. We got into the pattern really quickly.

Do you feel a distance from the album at all?

No. It being such a journey during formative yearsÖ it feels so long ago but itís all so close to my heart. I have a great respect, even more respect as time goes on, for Stuartís ability and songwriting and for Philís creative input and some of the drum rhythms and basslines and his putting things together.

Is there a particular song that resonates with you the most?/

Thatís changed over the years. ďN.I.T.A.Ē was a big one for a long time. ďFinal DayĒ is another one. They all have a little place. I would say ďFinal DayĒ at the moment, if I were to pick one song. Itís hard to say. At the time, we were going through the threat of the end of the world at the press of a button. Nuclear power was a huge issue and so there was this fear. I suppose itís like coronavirus right nowóthereís always some big global thing. Thereís climate change. Thereís always something out there that reminds us of our mortality.

ďFinal DayĒ looked at everyday actionsótrying to get a baby to sleep, for exampleóand presented them in an atmosphere where at any point, it could all be ended in the blink of an eye. Iím going down a bleak alley here, but Iím just being realistic (laughter). I thought ďFinal DayĒ just addressed the major threat at the time and what most people were focused on. Do you often think about

Do you often think about your own mortality?

Yes. Yes, I would say so, possibly on a daily basis. And itís not just about getting older. I can remember worrying about mortality as a very young child, worrying about my parentsí mortality, all my loved onesí mortality. You become a parent and you worry about your children, your friendsÖ I wouldnít say a day goes by where Iím not aware of it. And thatís not because Iím living in some great hole of depressionóitís reality.

When Iím working with patients as a chiropractor, theyíve got people who are terribly ill in their families, or itís their carers, or theyíve lost their friends. People open up in those situations and they talk about the things that people donít feel comfortable talking about. It creates its own physical patterns in the body, so often itís where these things are unlocked. It is part of the everydayósomebodyís struggling or dying. It is part of life and wherever weíll end up.

The big scary thing is not knowing when and where. And in reflecting on that, you want to make the most of every day. And again, it means itís very important to say what you need to say and not keep things in, because one day you wonít have the opportunity to say it. That doesnít mean expressing all your venom, it just means it is useful to communicate, to even tell someone you love them. Itís an important thing to say. And itís better than regretting not saying it because theyíre no longer there tomorrow or whenever..

Thanks for sharing that, I really appreciate it. Iím wondering nowódo you feel content with your life? Like, if you were to pass away right now, God forbid, would you be content with what youíve done with your life thus far?

As with most people, there would be time I felt I wasted. How I feel now, though, is that I wouldnít have any regrets about what I have done; I would [have regrets] about not doing just that little bit more. And in that way I donít mean wanting to achieve more, but spending time on more of the important stuff. It might be wishing that I had really followed up on that email instead of just leaving them hanging (laughter) because I was too busy. Or that I should have made more effort to see that friend. Just those sorts of things. Just being a little bit more proactive.

I like being with people but I really like to have quiet time. Thatís partly why lockdown hasnít been too traumatic for me, but I think sometimes I should put myself out there a little bit more. Just sometimes instead of just going into my little lockdown for a while.

What are some things you want to make sure you still do and accomplish within the next few years. This isnít to say youíre going to pass away soon, but what would those be?

If that were the case, Iíd want to do things that make it easier for everybody I left behind rather than saying I want to write another album. But that would be nice (laughter). It would be fun to do another collaboration with somebody and just have some fun like that. In terms of important things, it would be putting my life straight and making sure it was easier for the people left behind that thereís not so much crap to sort out (laughter). Not just piles and piles of papers to go through, or just an unanswered question that they wonít be able to ask me later on. Thatís why everyday communication is good because they can just refer back to that conversation we had on a walk or a phone call or what have you and remember, we were okay.

I love this idea of you wanting to make sure you say the things you want to say before itís too late. But youíre also talking about making opportunities for people to say those things to you. It goes both ways.

I suppose itís just asking questions, because you might communicate but other people might not. Itís about making yourself available and not hiding anywhere.

Have you and Stuart and Phil ever talked about playing together again?

No, no. Our last gig was the Meltdown Festival. If you look it up thatíll give you the year, and the month, and the day (laughter). That was our last time playing together. We werenít going to reform in the first place but we kind of got tempted into it. It was at the Hay on Wye Book Festival and we just thought, ďOkay thatíll be great, itís just booksóweíre not coming out trying to do rock Ďn roll or make a comeback.Ē

With a book festival itís all very middle-aged and respectable and fun and different. It was just lovely to see the people who turned up there. There was a couple who just got married, another couple who metóas I mentioned earlieróthrough our music. People were bringing their kids to the gig and like how I had grown up listening to The Beatles, they had grown up listening to Young Marble Giants.

We slowly got to do that but our lives werenít rock Ďn roll anymore, we had jobs and families. It wasnít the plan, although we did have this one show in Spain where we all had our family and it was fantastic. We were like aunts and uncles to each otherís kids and all the kids were like a bunch of cousins. It brought the extended family together again, which was fun. But I really donít think that we would play as Young Marble Giants again..

Is there something you would like people to know about yourself that people wouldnít know about you?

When I write, I write from my personal experience but I always feel that my personal experience isnít unique and there will then be things in there that people can identify with. I wouldnít say anything I do is that original, itís just that I have a desire to do it sometimes and share it. If people can relate to that, thatís great. I donít think Iíve got any big secrets to share with anyone (laughter)..

And I have one last question that I ask everyone: do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?

That I care. Iím not about myself; I care about others. Thatís whatís important to me.

Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we didnít get to?

This interview was interesting because we just talked a bit more about life in general, and it was more like a conversation than just answering questions. Youíve asked me questions that I canít answer straight away, and I might go away and think about those (laughs). Iím giving you some answers, but youíre giving me some things to think about as well. Itís good. Itís an exchange rather than just rattling some answers or some anecdotes.

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