Ten Years of Prevention – De Rosa interview

‘Prevention’ by De Rosa celebrated its tenth anniversary a few weeks ago.

It’s a special record for me as I started following De Rosa just as they were starting to play new songs that would end up on their second album. Consequently, I got to know the songs on the album quite well ahead of its release.

As the live shows had foreshadowed, ‘Prevention’ marked a departure from the indie folk of ‘Mend’ both sonically, with added textures on many songs, particularly electronics, and in the scope of their song-writing. Frustratingly, where the record might have taken De Rosa is one of life’s great imponderables as the band split for several years on the back of a successful UK tour supporting Doves.

The band are marking the tenth anniversary in a couple of ways.

First off, they have released a digital set of Martin’s solo demos for the album available both as a standalone download and as part of a limited batch of signed copies of the album in its final form plus the download.

If you’re a fan of the record, then the demos are definitely worth hearing. I confess I’d expected them to be simply singer/songwriter Martin John Henry and a guitar, yet, if not fully formed, the 10 tracks give a pretty good idea of the direction of the finished album.

Now I wouldn’t swap these for the record, but as a work in progress documenting choices made and some roads not taken, they really do intrigue.

The band are also playing a special 10th anniversary concert at the CCA in Glasgow on 14 December (for which tickets are available here) at which you can expect to see the ‘Prevention’ era line-up perform the album in full.

We’re principally here today though to look back on ‘Prevention’ in the company of singer/songwriter Martin as he recalls the writing and recording of the album.

MJH: “The songs were all written between my bedroom at home in Bellshill, shared flats in Glasgow and a rehearsal studio in Hamilton.

“Most of the songs were written in the usual way which is to invent something interesting on guitar, mumble a tune over it and lastly sort out the lyrics. However, ‘Nocturne for an Absentee’ was written completely on keyboards and ‘In Code’ came from a part I invented on a wee bass synthesiser.

“Most of the album was written in ’06-’07 but ‘It Helps to See You Hurt’ was written first – in July 2005 – around the time when we were mixing our first album, ‘Mend’. The last song to be written was ‘Stillness’ in January 2008.

“A chronological track list for’ Prevention’ would be:

It Helps to See You Hurt
Flight Recorder
Pest
In Code
Under the Stairs
A Love Economy
Tinto
Nocturne for an Absentee
Swell
Stillness

MPT: You talked before the release about liking albums which are musically varied and cover a lot of ground. ‘Prevention’ certainly accomplishes that but how much was that the intention from the start?

MJH: “When I was at high school I started a band with Chris Connick and during the only conversation about intent that we ever had we both agreed that we’d love to be in a band that would be able to do anything.

“So, yes, I think that approach has always been a part of De Rosa and everything I’ve done.”

To these ears at least there’s elements of the demos that sound quite Scottish indie 2007/8 – yet that’s not true of the final versions. What would you say were things that influenced the journey the songs ended up taking?

“I always tried to avoid listening to too many of my peers in Scottish music so as not to copy anyone, but I was definitely very much influenced by all the famous Chemikal bands. I probably tried to copy Malcolm (Middleton) and Mogwai a fair amount.

“We were also very into Kate Bush, Depeche Mode, the Blue Nile, Red House Painters and Sophia. And we were very keen to present a more controlled, refined sound for the second album.

“But I took the theme for ‘Stillness’ from Thomas Struth’s book, ‘Still’. So, I’d say I’m just as influenced by photography as I am music. Our first single ‘Camera’ was based on a work by photographer Robert Frank.”

Who played on the demos you’ve released? They seem more fully formed than I’d imagined they would be.

“I played everything on these recordings except from the glockenspiel on the ‘Flight Recorder’ demo. That part was written and played by Neil Woodside. The weirdest thing I played was an old broken accordion on ‘Stillness’.”

‘Prevention’ song by song

A Love Economy

“I remember writing ‘A Love Economy’ because it was my ‘big breakup song’ and it took a fair amount of development to strike a balance in the lyrics.

“When I started writing it, it was kind of tender and pleading, but I think I must’ve started to get to the angry phase by the time I got the final lyrics together. I totally failed to keep it nice!

“It’s funny, I tried my best to avoid bitterness and they’re so bitter and defeated and dark.”

Nocturne For An Absentee

“I made this song while playing with MIDI instruments and learning about quantisation. I loved that I could quickly play in synth or drum loops and then let the computer decide where to place the notes. As an indie folk guitarist this was a revelation to me.

“The drums are sampled from one of the biggest albums of the 1980s but I can’t tell you which in case I get sued!”

It Helps To See You Hurt

(The most obviously different demo from the final version, the piano is completely absent and this version wouldn’t have been out of place on ‘Mend’. Also part of a rock tradition of  a song that not appearing on a record from which it took its title.)

“When I look at the date of the demo – July 2005 – that probably puts it square in the mixing of ‘Mend’, so yes the title of debut album is closely related to the lyric of ‘It Helps…’.

“The demo sat around for a couple of years before we revisited it. In that time, we grew to a four piece, toured a lot and matured a bit. So, the song gradually developed through rehearsals and concerts to become the slower, more textured version you hear on ‘Prevention’.”

Pest

(‘Pest’ was the first song from ‘Prevention’ I heard live but after a couple of outings it disappeared from the setlist until the album was released.)

“I think you might be right that we played this live first. It made an appearance on our European tour in 2006. I’ve seen videos of it played at our Ostia Antica concert supporting Mogwai in Italy in Autumn 2006.

“I wrote the song in a flat in Dennistoun, it was one of the first demos I made with Ableton Live, which is a mainly a tool for making electronic music. There’s an even earlier demo with mumbled lyrics which has loads of electronics – vocoders and stuff.”

Stillness

(More insistent than the final version there’s also a longer coda here which, again, would have suited ‘Mend’.)

“This is an example of a song which I wasn’t sure about for De Rosa. I thought the rhythm was too swingy and I thought it was a little bit too colourful to fit with the rest of ‘Prevention’. It has a bloody accordion on it.

“However, the band liked it and did arrange it in a more subtle way. You can tell I’m enjoying playing the melody at the end on the demo, but we reined this in quite deliberately on the final version. The song is about stillness after all.”

Under The Stairs

(A fan favourite, plenty of rumours circulate about the origins of ‘Under The Stairs’. Martin sets the record straight!)

“Here’s the truth. I was asked in 2006 to write a Christmas song for some emerging artists playlist on the BBC website. I can’t remember for what channel or show. But they said keep it clean.

“I wrote ‘Under the Stairs’ especially for this, using my own dialect, including the word ‘piss’ and connotations of substance abuse and even violence.

“The playlist emerged soon after I submitted the track, sans De Rosa. Silly me.”

In Code

“The demo of ‘In Code’ was really just a sketch, not fleshed out at all. I remember that it felt raw sending it to the guys. The lyrics mention ‘Crossgates’, the oldest part of my hometown.

“With the demo being so bare bones, the more the others added the better it seemed to get. Then the acoustic drums just really lifted the dynamic and we added plenty of distortion to match it. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.”

Swell

“The demo is just me playing acoustic guitar and a cello effect on keys. The studio recording of ‘Swell’ features our former keys player Andy Bush. He added so much to this song – piano, organs and vibraphone at the middle section.

“Also, a bunch of folk that I love sing at the outro including my sister Leigh and my wife Morven.”

Flight Recorder

(If there’s a De Rosa song that demands an episode of Jeremy Kyle to itself then it’s ‘Flight Recorder’. The demo omits the second half of the final version and shares parentage with a song that ended up on third album ‘Weem’. As an aside, the demo also seems to have influenced the recent live arrangement.)

“’Flight Recorder’ and ‘Chip On My Shoulder’ were written around the same time and have similar chords and feel. The ‘Flight Recorder’ part was deemed strong enough to develop for ‘Prevention’, but it needed to go somewhere else.

“Lyrically, the song says what I needed to say before abandoning Glasgow for back home. Home is somewhere else. This was the end of Glasgow for me, at least creatively.

“All my songs from ‘Camera’ to most of ‘Prevention’ were made while residing physically and imaginatively in Glasgow. I was completely in love with the place.”

Tinto

“Tinto is a hill that sits way up in the Clyde valley and is a sort of hub for me imaginatively, even still. I know that I’m not alone in experiencing the benefits to mental health of climbing a hill in a beautiful place. This song is one of these things. Sung from the core.

“There’s nothing technical to say about the making or playing of it. It just came out and was written and demo’d in an hour or two.

“It is definitely the final destination of ‘Prevention’, which starts from a romantic break-up in Glasgow and ends up at the cairn on Tinto, in deepest Lanarkshire. It’s the point of letting go of all this young man’s turmoil. Thank goodness”.

The ‘Prevention Demos and Outtakes’ are available now from the De Rosa Bandcamp.

De Rosa play a not-to-be-missed show at the CCA in Glasgow on Saturday 14 December and tickets are available here.

If you want to hear Martin talking about the record back in 2009, incredibly, the first ever, technically shoddy, MPT podcast still seems to exist on the internet – check it out here.

Live photos taken at Huw Scott Hall, Anstruther on 2nd March 2009
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