Guitarist Maurice Deebank founded Felt with singer Lawrence back in 1980. Felt established themselves as one of the few truly interesting bands in UK indie pop history. As influential for some as Television and as unique as The Smiths. Felt were set apart by Lawrence's laconic vocal style, his poetry too, but there were lots of laconic vocalists back then, no? Yes of course, they all were. Lawrence was better at it, but what set Felt apart was Maurice Deebank's contextually-rich guitar work and his unshakeable focus as the innovative creator of the Felt Sound. In this remarkable and generous interview, Maurice provides an amazing insight into the rigors of all flavours that will prevail for a band of people in the public eye.
Outsideleft: What was your earliest musical inspiration?
Maurice Deebank: My Father was strictly a classical music fan, so Top of the Pops was never welcome in the family home. Then, one evening when I was ten years old my family went out and left me alone in the house. I decided that this would be an opportunity to watch this formerly elusive programme and see what was so special about it. Immediately, I was taken by the early seventies pop sound and in particular, the guitarists in each band. From that point on, I knew I had to become a guitarist and musician in a band.
I was bought a guitar and had guitar lessons from the age of eleven. Later, at the age of fourteen, I became a cornet player in a silver band, which contributed much to my ability to play ensemble; something which had eluded me up till that point, as classical guitarists usually play solo and such training prepared me for being in a band, as it taught me how to musically interact with other players. On the other hand, my classical guitar experience taught me how to be a self-contained musician. I really had the best of both worlds, then.
By the time I was fifteen, I went through a major life-changing experience. Firstly, I got a steel string acoustic guitar, which would enable me to play popular music and secondly, a boy in my class introduced me to the music of Yes and Steve Hillage (both of which I went to see in concert that year), as well as other art rock bands such as, Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream. I was absolutely enthralled by these bands' oneiric sound worlds; they seemed to reflect so perfectly what was already on the inside of me. At sixteen I acquired my first electric guitar. It really was an amazing event, as I could now learn techniques and conjure up sounds that hitherto had been out of reach. It was at that time that I encountered a fellow villager named, Lawrence.
Outsideleft: What were your experiences of Felt like?
Maurice Deebank: Lawrence and I wrote material and practised in his bedroom from 1978 - 1979, but it never really took off. He had no musical skills and I had to teach him everything from scratch. I remember it being very frustrating, as I wanted more from the music we were doing and eventually we drifted apart. We simply did not share the same vision. It was not until January 1980 that he approached me and asked if I wanted to start a band. I decided to give it another try and we formed Felt together. There is so much talk about Lawrence starting Felt and everyone believing that the band and songs were his. That is not the way it was at all. I was the co-founder and co-writer. I was not his guitarist, rather, I was a musician in my own right, who was almost the sole creator of the musical sound the band had during my entire tenure with it. How else could it be when I had to teach all the early Felt members how to play? For example, most of the bass lines were written by me for the first three albums.
There were many aspects of the musical arrangements on later recordings that I wanted to incorporate on the earlier ones, but which were objected to at the time. Cymbals, hi-hat and more complex bass lines are just a few examples. There were many U-turns in Felt and I was time and time again left thinking to myself, 'if only you had listened in the first place.' Even the albums that were made after I left have my fingerprints all over them. The lyrics, however, were all Lawrence's.
Outsideleft: What was your musical vision?
Maurice Deebank: It was born of a desire to express through sound the Life Principles that I hold dear. I believe in a transcendental Intelligence that is responsible for existence at every level and from which everything emanates. I hold it to be Absolute and that it constitutes all that is Good and Truth. I sought to know it to the best of my ability and to follow Its Way. I therefore studied music both intensively and extensively in order to acquire myriad tools and techniques so as to be able to express more diversely and competently the underlying nature of reality in artistic form. It is just like learning new vocabulary and more complex ways of speaking so as to be able to communicate more intelligently. It is all very well following a philosophy of 'do-it-yourself' with as little technical ability as possible, but personally, I rejected the prevailing ideology of the day, which was to start and end with Janet and John books and never progress toward Shakespeare. It was the Shakespearian level that I aspired to and I ended up being completely self-fulfilled by knowingly achieving it. One of the most important aspects of my musical education and enlightenment was my student days at Birmingham Conservatoire, where I majored in serious music composition. I put everything into my studies; I consummately lived the musical experience there. I even took Gamelan (an Indonesian collection of orchestral instruments), which I became student leader of.
Outsideleft: What were the early Felt shows like?
Maurice Deebank: Our first three shows were with The Fall in 1980. Instrumentation consisted of two guitars, one vocal and a snare drum. None of us had any pop band performance experience and we were a little rough around the edges due to a lack of experience, but we soon found our feet. There can be no doubt that we were always very well received by audiences. I always wanted to play live regularly because repeated performances hone your skills far more than spending hours in a practice room, but in Felt there was an air of being excessively fastidious about where we should play and that very much held us back, because when you are going for long periods of time between concerts you quickly lose what you have gained. You have to keep going and maintain momentum. Additionally, you are pleasing fans by taking the music to them, while giving yourself an added exposure to the public. It therefore makes perfect sense to play regularly. However, there was so much emphasis placed on image, I only played some sixty or seventy shows in 5 years. We could have been so much more of a live band than we were. We even had the chance to be with an agent full-time, but against my will, this was rejected and we suffered for it.
Outsideleft: What was it like making your earlier recordings at Woodbine studios with John Rivers?
Maurice Deebank: John was a very amiable person and a very fine technician. He knew how to use his studio equipment and interacted well with us. He helped us to learn about studio techniques, which served us well where our later recordings were concerned. He was particularly helpful to me when I made Inner Thought Zone.
Outsideleft: As a guitar player were there other guitarists and musicians that made you want to be a musician?
Maurice Deebank: In the following chronological order: early ‘70s guitarists and bands I saw on, Top of the Pops (particularly the glam groups), classical guitarists and Steve Howe of Yes. The latter in particular, filled me with awe, as did the music of Yes. It had a deeply spiritual sound that I loved and I particularly liked the way it weaved polyphonic textures like a mini orchestra. I must also mention the great Steve Hillage.
Outsideleft: Felt made amazing records and some timeless individual songs, but wider appeal eluded you. Commercially, do you think you would have greater impact today?
Maurice Deebank: Without being artistically critical, Lawrence does not have a daytime radio friendly voice whatever the era. He is a very fine poet, but most people want to hear clearly defined melodies delivered in a dynamic way. Minus the vocals I single-handed created, Primitive Painters with its epic over-arching structure and its cathedralesque soundscape. This is the direction I wanted Felt to go in; powerful grandiose tapestries of epic heroism. I also wanted to change the way the music was arranged.
Primitive Painters was, for me, a new era and the next direction. That is why it sounds so different to other Felt material. As far as both the band and music in general are concerned, there had never been anything like it. It was truly unique in its sound and had the benefit of being both acceptable to the wider public and to the more elitist music listener. It truly was seminal and marked a new age of enlightenment where music composition was concerned. If Felt wanted both artistic integrity and a more universal appeal, then this piece I delivered to the outfit should have been instrumental in inaugurating precisely that. But it was sadly not to be. Soon after the recording of Ignite the Seven Cannons I once again tried to explain to the rest about my wanting to change the way in which the music was arranged and I remember drawing yet again another blank. I was repeatedly met by a wall of silence and, on that final occasion it dawned on me that there was no way of communicating what I needed to. It was the final nail in the coffin lid and I decided to call it a day.
I think that history assists in supporting what I have said. Primitive Painters was played on radio 1’s Round Table and was lauded to the hilt. It reached number one in the independent charts and was number 7 in John Peel’s Festive Top 50. I proved that I could create artistic integrity in a universal language; everyone loves it. Felt never had as much success for the remainder of their existence. How very different it all could, and should, have been.
Outsideleft: Are there high points and low points with the band you can talk about?
Maurice Deebank: It is a sad fact that the Felt environment was very abusive. I am an autistic person, which makes me very different and I have been subject to much bullying and bellitling in my life. It was no different in Felt and although I recognise and accept the quality of the music there is little else that I can speak about in a positive way. I was made to suffer very considerably throughout my time with the band and I therefore do not have pleasant memories of it. It was all a very big sacrifice for me. No one ever stops to consider that Professor Albert Einstein and a number of other Nobel prize winners were autistic. There needs to be far greater tolerance, but as always on planet earth, there is very little of it. Felt members never knew of my autism, but do people really need to in order to be reasonable? Writing derogatory songs about a colleague cannot be described as reasonable.
Outsideleft: What were the economics of Felt like and how does that stack up having been the co-founder of a legendary band?
Maurice Deebank: We were on a small label so, even as the co-writer I was never going to be rich. However, the situation was made much worse by there being a lack of desire to do live shows as well as certain other things like sell merchandise. There was no marketing concept in place and there was a complete reluctance to embrace one. Again, this caused me much frustration. I never really felt I was making the progress that I deserved. Both artistically and materially I was constantly unfulfilled. I tried to explain to the others what needed to be done, but no one would listen with the result that I would feel distant. This was then translated into me being looked upon as being disinterested and laconic. I was never understood in Felt. As the co-founder of the group I naturally should have been listened to where the decision making process was concerned, but there was an appropriation of power and my leadership rights were violated. In effect, I had been hoodwinked; I had been led to believe that I was one of two leaders starting a project, but, once in I was just used for what only I could do. It was like being in a cult in which you have promises made to you, but everything quickly turns sour and you end up being controlled. It was only with the passage of time that the full import of what had been going on all that time finally impinged itself on me. Greater wisdom through life experience finally revealed the terrible truth to me. How shallow youth can be.
Outsideleft: You left the band right? And it carried on. It seems somehow disconcerting, like Rainbow without Richie Blackmore or Rainbow without Zippy.
Maurice Deebank: That is a very good point and, as intimated above, the band really hung itself. I could have taken Felt to far greater heights had they co-operated rather than constantly fought against me. And although they continued after I finally left they had already had their sound formed for them, but without the same inspired uniqueness, because they were recycling the same materials and techniques of composition. It is not egotistical of me to say this, because I am not an egotistical person; it is just simply fact.
For me, even at a slower pace, there is an edgy chaotic excitement about the music of Felt, whereas your solo record, Inner Thought Zone, sounds like it comes from a different place and a different person. It is an amazing record altogether. Can you talk a bit about making that record?
I had already made a name for myself as an “out of the ordinary guitarist/composer” and Cherry Red wanted to focus on what they saw as the possibility of a guitar extravaganza from someone they believed could deliver.
Half of the material was written before going into the studio and the other half was written or improvised on site. The entire body of work was recorded in five days and mixed in one. It was quite an amazing feat in that respect alone, but I always knew where I was with the project and everything worked out pretty much as I intended.
In Felt, everything I ever played was written note for note. This way of writing I liked very much because everything could be repeated at an acceptable standard once perfected at the level of music composition. The classical influence was very much responsible for that. However, with my solo record I wanted to experiment with other ways of composing and recording. I loved being in the studio, I felt like a mad professor in his laboratory. Also, I wanted to probe new guitar sounds and this is something else I experimented with. At one point I even blew my amp speaker up in the process. People have often commented on what they believe to be keyboards on, Inner Thought Zone and are astonished when I tell them that synths are used only on, Study Number 1, So Serene and A Trail from Scriabin’s Lonely Trail.
High points of the recording session were freely improvising the long spacey opening section of, Dance of Deliverance and, the also totally extemporized backwards guitar solo on, Maestoso Con Anima. John Rivers was great throughout the session. He knew I wanted to break from my Felt sound and he worked with me in a very supportive way to help me accomplish the kind of voice I was searching for.
Inner Thought Zone was given four stars out of five by Robin Gibson of Sounds. But Melody Maker had an understanding of the work that equalled that of other Felt members, as well as some other indie band members I spoke to. None of them got it. They were gauging Inner Thought Zone by indie music standards and that was a ridiculous way to think about it because it is obviously not indie sounding; rather, it is from the other side of the universe. Just because I was in an indie band they had to think that I was intending to create indie music. That is not what I am about. I have never seen myself as being the property of any one genre. I only wanted to make music and not belong to any one school of thought or the fashion of the month. I was simply a musician whose middle name was, “eclectic.” Therefore, many people thought they were very clever in passing negative judgement on the record, but they were usually people who had enslaved themselves to being “cool,” so-called. Their way of thinking is sectarian and therefore stuck in a time and space hole; and where there is sectarianism there is intolerance resulting in a totally blinkered vision; and that is everything I hate and reject. However, anything I have seen in print about the record since its 2013 re-release on 1972 records in America, I am glad to say that it is clear that with the passage of time, Inner Thought Zone is much better understood. Thank you Cherry Red and thank you America.
Inner Thought Zone is about higher mental states that transcend the everyday waking consciousness that man experiences in his day to day activities. It is about aspiring to and achieving inner illumination and developing the mind in conjunction with higher forces that exist in the cosmos. It is contemplative and meditative. It is therefore a serious musical creation and should be approached with respect for that which is higher than man. It is in effect, an epistemological work and all the titles and record cover graphics have both tropological and anagogical meanings.
Outsideleft: Finally, the Felt re-issues. Did Cherry Red even send them to you? Anecdotally, someone once told me that Geffen made them pay for their gold disc. Can you talk about the whole re-issue thing?
Maurice Deebank: I think that the Felt re-issues have come out extremely well, though sadly, opportunities have been missed with the first L.P. There can be no doubt that my guitars are now very clear on, Ignite the Seven Cannons and naturally that will be very pleasing for the fans.
Cherry Red have, at my request, kindly sent me the re-issues in all formats free of charge and I am grateful for that. I think they have much to be happy about now that new life has been breathed into the music.
Ancient Champion only ever communicates with us online so, so much we don't know. Proud Citizen of Nowhere is the response when we ask where you from? We do know the Ancient Champion is releasing a new single each month of 2018. Instrumental music characterised as easy listening for difficult people. And a collection of extremely short stories, Six Stories About Motoring Nowhere as part of the SideCartel's Sextet series. More info at AncientChampion.com