Mythical Merseyside anti-heroes The Pies release their debut album three decades in the making in April, Getintothis’ Patrick Clarke speaks exclusively to frontman Ashley Martin.
Decades of infamy, mystery and scandal precedes The Pies. The most elusive of Liverpudlian semi-legends thanks to their guerrilla graffiti messages daubed in vast, glorious paint on the North West’s motorway bridges, airports and towers, almost nobody has heard a note from the band in their thirty years, yet there are few bands in the North West quite so notorious.
“Everbody’s heard of The Pies in Liverpool,” says their leader Ashley Martin with a mischievous glint of satisfaction as he speaks exclusively to Getintothis. “Everybody thinks The Pies are famous, but in actual fact The Pies have never had an official release. The Pies are not massive, The Pies are nothing!
“I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet, I’d be the first to tell you we haven’t done anything” he says, “but if you go down to the grassroots of people in Liverpool you’d have to go back as far as The Beatles to find a band as famous as The Pies”.
A big claim, certainly, but there’s a ring of truth to it, and the fact that the band have achieved so much notoriety with such minuscule exposure is a point of hilarity not lost on him. “I think it grates on even famous people, because they’ve had albums out, they’ve had fame and been successful, yet they’re not as famous as The Pies!” he laughs.
“We’ve brainwashed them with the poster campaigns and graffiti campaigns. A famous friend of mine once said ‘My nan came out the toilet the other day and said ‘why can’t you be as famous as The Pies!’’ That sums it up really – famous, but not really famous at all. If you go out into the greater world, The Pies are nothing, but what I’m telling you is that we have got something really special to record.”
Their long-awaited new album is booked for recording in March, and should all go to plan will be finished in April. On it will be twelve tracks, many as old as the band itself, refined over the course of a particularly curious career for the most part by Martin alone. “I’ve had the weight of history on my shoulders for years” he says.
Since the first of the band’s propaganda appeared smeared above the M57 in the mid-1980s, Martin has been the only consistent member, at times the sole Pie and at others backed by makeshift mobs of musicians for sporadic live appearances. Since 2005 the band have played only two gigs, the first in Walton Prison, the second to mark a decade since the September 11 attacks. All the while he’s carried a selection of songs, the twelve tracks that will finally make up their first official release.
“In the early 90s we had breaks” he says. “We did a tour of America and that was the point where we were either gonna be signed up or we weren’t, and we didn’t chase it. I had to bring my son up and we refused a deal in America. When I got back to Liverpool and signed on, I vowed then that I’d never do anything again without the right heads.”
For a while Martin continued The Pies as a solo acoustic artist while raising his son, but after 10 years realised that their graffiti had created an unintentional legacy. “The one we painted on the old [Speke] airport cost about £600 in paint! It was the biggest graffiti in history at the time, you could see it as you were flying out, it was 170 foot height!” he remembers with a laugh.
With rumours still abounding about the identity of The Pies during their mid-90s lull, some people positing that they were in fact a new guise for The La’s, Martin points out, “we were more famous 10 years later than we were at the start, so we got a line-up and recorded a single.”
That single was a limited run of This is Your Time, distributed only in Liverpool. “We only sold it in one branch of HMV” he says, and claims “we were outselling every band nationally. We were selling 100 a week while Take That were selling 50 a week.”
It is this question of assembling the ‘right heads’ that has been crucial in the long wait for The Pies’ debut album. “I’ve had the weight of history on my shoulders for years. There’s been pressure getting the musicians, having the strength to tell people they’re not required, to go through all that. I’ve got to a point now, it’s like I’m at the waterfall, I know it’s the best team I ever had.”
That team, by the way, is Tony Oxley (bass), Si Lee (guitar), Barbara Keenan (who takes lead vocals on a number of tracks and provides backing on the rest), Tim Kinch (“the best drummer in Liverpool”) and Lee Shone (keyboards). By all accounts they’re a talented bunch, the latest names in an ever-changing roster of musicians requiring a certain something from their recruiter. “I’ve always said you can tell when someone’s a Pie, and when they’re not” he says.
It’s a word he uses often, so I ask just what a ‘Pie’ actually is. “They’ve got to want to be a Pie” he explains. “I’ve had some famous people in my line-ups but it’s not always about whether they’re famous. It’s not always about how fantastic they are. They’ve got to be good people, and they’ve got to have the heart of The Pies. We do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it. We don’t chase the music business.”
The most elusive of Pies to find, however, has been the right producer, a search that’s been the biggest obstacle to putting his songs, thirty years in the making, to record. Two years ago The Liverpool Echo ran a story eerily similar to the one he’s painting me now – ‘The Pies say they are back and ready to record a debut album’ ran the headline.
“In the years since that Echo story I still haven’t found the right producer” he admits. “It’s got to be both things, we’ve got pay him his wages but he’s got to be fully into it, he’s got to be really excited about producing the pies LP.”
Two weeks after our first conversation, I call up again to discover that this search for the final piece of The Pies has finally come to an end with Michael Johnson, whose credits include New Order masterpieces such as Blue Monday and Bizarre Love Triangle, Joy Division, Erasure, The Durutti Column, Soft Cell, and cutting his teeth on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “A lot of other people just wanted the wages” says Martin. “Michael I think will be the kind of person who works after hours and runs a mile to do the best he can.”
When I speak with Johnson, he’s a kind, soft-spoken figure, a contrast to Martin’s urgent, gushing enthusiasm, politely asking if he can call me back once he settles his four month old grandson. He met Martin just over three years ago, and had never heard of The Pies until then. As befits the band’s bizarre brand of anonymous infamy, he had of course seen the graffiti.
Back then they discussed recording demos, but as Johnson, based out of his own Tankfield Studios in Wirral’s Fallen Industries, points out, “I just don’t think he was ever quite ready, with the arrangements or the musicians. He had a few changes of line-up but now he feels that everything’s going in the right direction, everything’s come together so let’s go for it. I’ve been up for it for ages.”
Martin could not, he says, have produced the record himself after all these years. “I’ve heard these songs for so long I’d be blinded if I produced them. I need somebody fresh, and somebody who’s a rebel” he says, almost thinking aloud, and Johnson agrees. “I bring a measure of independence. Everyone in the band has lived with the songs and arrangments for months and years, I haven’t so I can sift out the good ideas. Musicians tend to come up with loads of ideas and they’re not all great.”
It’s encouraging to hear Johnson enthusiastic about what he’s heard from The Pies so far. “It’s melodic but it’s got a lot of guts” he says when I ask him to describe the new material. “It’s not heavy but its good, solid music. There’s lots of interesting keyboard bits, female singers who do a few lead vocals. He’s put together quite a good band. I’ve watched them rehearsing and they’re dead solid. It’s really good stuff.”
Martin meanwhile is more interested in speaking about the message behind his music than the actual sound, and constantly hints at a strong political undertone. “We have really got a shit deal out of people. I’m talking about poor people and even people earning £100,000 a year. It’s like a giant fruit store and we’re just getting bits of peel that fall off the sides of it. The Pies, and my heart, have always been for the people.”
In The Pies’ wilderness years of late Martin has spent much of his time as an activist and campaigner, and lends particular focus on helping educate musicians and those in the industry about the importance of protection from tinnitus, a condition from which he tells me he at one point suffered from so badly he ‘did not want to carry on’. Recently he spent time speaking to LIPA’s budding sound engineers with specialists from Aintree Hospital as part of The British Tinnitus Association’s ‘Plug ’em‘ campaign, documented by BayTV Liverpool.
“I’ve done things from the heart, but never really done gigs for money or chased the traditional music business,” he continues, an approach that while admirable, has yielded little in the way of financial gain. Martin speaks to me by phone from his caravan where he lives a happy existence selling Chinese pottery online to pay the bills while away from his Liverpool flat.
“Money is not my god, fame is not my god” he says. “We’re a political organisation. It’s what I’ve been fighting for all my life, and I’ll continue fighting all my life, whether I hang off motorway bridges or live in a caravan, I’ll do what I’ve got to do.”
Martin is a fascinating figure in conversation, at once self-aggrandising and self-aware, each political proclamation countered minutes later with a contagious laugh about just how he’s managed to get away with it all – the intensely comic aspect is one not lost on the singer; he’s to name his debut album The Best of The Pies after all. The Pies is no novelty project, but it’s easy to see him as an outsider artist of sorts, ‘a mosquito in the side of humanity’ as he puts it.
“There’s a part of my personality that just seems to flow the opposite way,” he says. “We’ve always been outsiders. Because we’ve always been associated with graffiti and poster campaigns the council don’t like us. Liverpool’s has always been a thorny place for The Pies. Although everyone always associates The Pies with Liverpool, and rightly so, the actual city of Liverpool has never really embraced The Pies fully. We are outsiders.”
Ashley Martin is, among many other things, a determined man, and for no one does the long-awaited release of The Pies debut album mean more than it does for him. Across our hours of conversations, he makes constant passing reference to a ‘weight of history’ on his shoulders, and I ask just how it must feel to be approaching the end of a decades-long, intensely personal slog.
It’s like climbing a mountain” he says, his voice undercut with a rare drift of contemplation. “You’re exhausted already, and there’s another stretch to go. I know I’ve got to do this stretch; the final furlong. I can only see the top of the mountain, I honestly can’t see anything beyond the completion of this record. When I get to that peak I want a rest, a cup of tea and a smoke.”
As we wrap up our final interview, I ask Martin whether he thinks he’ll be happy with the record, and whether he thinks the public will accept his affable band of outsider rapscallions. “I know that it’s the best I can do” he says. “Hopefully they will like it, but whatever the case it’s The Best of The Pies. If it’s totally crap then it’s still the Best of The Pies! It’s everything I’ve got.”
Gallery: A selection of The Pies’ most infamous graffiti