Life in Lockdown with: Martin Newell of The Cleaners From Venus

Illustration by @imocrossland

Interview by Emmally Parsons

How has the last couple of weeks been for you? Have you been isolating with your wife at your home in Essex?

MN: I’ve been mostly by myself here in my studio/home/workplace. I’m not married. I have a partner but unluckily for me, she’s in another social group, one of whom is a (very) key worker. So, since a week before lockdown I’ve been here, writing, recording, cooking for myself, locking up each night and putting myself to bed, like a good boy. I cycle over to her place most days/evenings where I can sit in the garden, converse, and occasionally cut hedges without breaking any lockdown rules. Sometimes I have missed human contact.  

What are your top tips for your survival through lockdown?

MN: Keep busy, do some walking, some cycling and stay in touch with mother nature. The phrase I’ve most heard uttered is “strange days”. They mostly haven’t been strange to me. I’ve just carried on doing what I do, writing, playing and recording. No change really. I’ve loved the lack of cars, the quiet skies, the noisy bird life – and the fact that all the airheads who think that shopping and getting in cars or on planes all the time is ‘normal’ have been forced to reconsider the matter.    

Martin Newell, 1993
What music, films & books have you been listening/watching/reading recently?

MN: I’m reading A Woman of Passion by Julia Briggs, a biography of Edith Nesbit The Railway Children author, Pomes Flixus a new collection of poems by  MW Bewick and The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. Oh, and a load of Viz Comic back issues. I’ve been watching The Outlaw Josey Wales a 1976 Clint Eastwood film, with beautiful cinematography and one of the first westerns to give a really positive portrait of Native Americans. Oh, I also watched a reality show Ibiza Dreams, which I found very heartwarming. I’d initially hoped it would be trash. I was wrong. I don’t watch much TV but I like feelgood stuff. I don’t like ‘quality BBC drama’ it tends to be just lushly produced stuff about people getting murdered.

Who and what inspired you to start playing music? 

MN: The Shadows, The Beatles, The Who, Rogers and Hammerstein, all the great songwriters. I’m a pop fan.

Martin Newell and XTC’s Andy Partridge in August 1993 finishing The Greatest Living Englishman album
What was it like working with Alan Partridge from XTC on The Greatest Living Englishman?         

MN: Alan Partridge? Aaahaaaaa. Knowing me. Knowing You? You mean Andy Partridge! We got on really well. We had a huge laugh most days. We worked hard. We drank a little beer sometimes. We created what some people (mostly Americans) think was my best album. It was a very memorable 6 months of my life…and I think Andy’s too.

Are there any new Martin Newell / Cleaners FROM Venus songs in the works? If so can you give us a sneak peak?

MN: There’s nearly always new stuff. Like Dylan’s on tour till he drops. I’m recording and writing songs till I drop. There’s a new EP out July  in a couple of weeks. And I might even sneak a new album in before Christmas. Let’s see. I’ve sent one. I’ll bung another one on here.

Forthcoming Cleaners From Venus EP ‘July’
Golden Lion of the Sun
Do you know how much of a cult icon you are? And how do you respond to that?

MN: These stories leak back to me. I’m aware that the audience has increased for my records – old and new – and that my audience is quite young and cool. A lot of my own generation didn’t seem to like or understand what I was trying to do at the time and still don’t. How do I respond? I’m always glad and pathetically grateful that any people seem to like my stuff. Because for years, I was either ignored or occasionally slagged off. It’s why I don’t have much to do with anyone in the music biz or (what’s left of) the music press. I don’t recognise their authority or respect their judgement.  

What is your opinion on current bands today, such as N0V3L from Canada covering “Tukani (Monday is Grey)” from your album On Any Normal Monday on their UK tour in London this time last year?  

MN: I didn’t know anything about it. I just checked them out on YouTube, they’re very energetic with good ideas…I suppose I’m rather flattered that young bands such as NOV3L are interested in my stuff.  I didn’t even know who MGMT were until a few years back when they covered my song “Only A Shadow” and someone who knew about them told me so.  

Are you still in touch on a friend basis or even musical basis with any of your fellow band members? 

MN: Yeah. I haven’t fallen out with any of them. But I’m regularly in touch with Lol Elliott and Nelson (who was in The Cleaners… and The Brotherhood of Lizards). Giles Smith, I’m only occasionally in touch with. Nelson, I still play music with sometimes on this or that project. He’s a really good guy.

Martin Newell aged 20 in his glam rock band, The Mighty Plod
In a recent blog post about your love of Ordnance Survey Maps, Karl Hyde of Underworld wrote that ‘Essex is a state of mind’. How has Wivenhoe informed your writing over the years? 

MN: Wivenhoe, lots of people agree, is one of those places a bit like Bath, Brighton, Hebden Bridge or Totnes. It’s a bit arty and quaint. And as such it can be a little bit ‘up itself’. It’s also quite kindly and tolerant, with environs which are quietly beautiful. I sort of belong to it. I don’t know whether it informs my writing. But it can be very pleasant…when its ‘creatives’ aren’t all patting each other on the back. It was a working town too: shipyards, fishing and farming. That was the heart of it.      

Can you tell our readers a bit about more your book The Greatest Living Englishman and why you wrote it? 

MN: The Greatest Living Englishman is the second part of my music memoirs, taking in the years 1975 to 1995. The first part was called This Little Ziggy and covers from 1964 to 1975 (roughly from ages 11 to 21).  I’d been promising to write the GLE for some years, and I finally got around to finishing it in early 2019 after a bout of flu, when I wasn’t allowed to do anything else for about 3 months. There might even be a third part, before I die. I guess I wrote the book because I couldn’t not write it. Professor Germaine Greer once said of me, “it’s clear you couldn’t stop him writing if you sawed his hands off.”

Martin Newell aged 21, July 1974
Do you have any good gossip about any stars that “made it” in the 70’s?

MN: I didn’t know too many stars in the 70s, I was still trying to be a star myself. However, I did once help out as a sort of recording assistant, on a session in early 1977, in a freezing cold quarry shed in Ipswich. I was in my early 20s  we recorded a young trio called Hog. They were all about 17 and bloody good, especially the young guitarist, who was called Nik. He wrote exceptional songs and I  later played his demo to a friend of mine, a jazzer called Kenn. Kenn was duly impressed. Soon, Nik was playing in his band, Fusion, while still a teenager. I mean, they were a working pro band. Young Nik would have learned quickly. Within a few short years, he’d become admired by the likes of Elton John and Eric Clapton. The thing about Nik is that he was (and still is) a fabulous musician. The irony is that he briefly became a massive teen idol for a year or two,  something which rather discomfited him. He was at core a very shy kid. As such, however he was regarded as fair game for a rather cruel and nasty rock press, who I don’t think, ever realised quite how good he really was. Look up Nik Kershaw sometime.

Oh yeah, and Rod Stewart whom a few years ago I had a really long phone conversation with, is a genuinely good guy, with the memory of an elephant. It was a campfire story for many years, that as a teenager, he’d played the famous harmonica solo on the late Millie Small‘s “My Boy Lollipop”, yet he explained he didn’t play it, thereby clearing up a mystery of almost four decades. I did eventually find out who did play it, a guy who played harmonica in Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions. One thing about famous people which I’ve learned: you can read and assume all you like about them. Much of the gossip and surmise will be negative. But you never know exactly what you’ll find till you either get up close, or spend some time talking with them. Very often they’re actually very nice.  

What are future plans looking like? Do you think you’ll play more UK solo shows? 

MN: I wouldn’t rule out playing a few shows. I enjoy performing and I can still sing. I wouldn’t want to play any rock venues though…or anywhere too big. And I like playing afternoon shows rather than night time. I don’t encourage reviewers. No press passes either. They should pay, especially in London. Ha ha ha. I doubt they’d want to come anyway. I did enjoy playing the Regent Street Cinema last August and I loved playing St Giles in the Fields in 2015. Live shows take an awful lot of time and energy. There are far too many embarrassing old guys out there trying to ‘rock out’  like the old days. I’d like to do something embarrassingly different. Then meet all the audience afterwards for a chat and a drink.  My wider future plans I suppose are just to continue making my little records, writing songs and treating it all like a cottage industry rather than the bow-ties’n’ cigars, back-patting sales convention which Big Daddy Music Biz has always been at core.    

And finally, Why are you known as “The Psychedelic Gardener/Mr. Mule” according to the web?

MN: ‘Mr. Mule’? The people who ran the Indian restaurant here at that time called me Mr. Mule after they misheard me when I made a telephone booking. I went in there with some friends really knackered from a hard week. Also, my girlfriend had left me. It was a bad day. I arrived in the restaurant. The Bangladeshi waiter asked me “Table for six, for Mr. Mule?” I said. “Mr. Newell actually.” He looked at me accusingly and asked again. “Are you Mr. Mule?”  I said wearily, “Tonight, I think I probably am. Yes. May I have a drink now please?” After that, I became known to certain of my friends as Mr. Mule. The Psychedelic Gardener was something a friend called me years ago. I was working as a gardener and making rather ‘out there’ music at the time.

Martin onstage at a soundcheck last year.

Check out Martin Newell’s Oddcaste especially curated for MOOF, to help you through these strange days. Listen live on Soho Radio from 6pm on Sunday 12th July or later on our Mixcloud

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