INTERVIEW: Paddy Steer | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Paddy Steer live experience is a unique and wonderful thing. Steer – in cape and hat or flashing space helmet – is jammed behind a distinctly Harry Partch-meets-Heath Robinson arrangement of synths, machines and analogue instruments, playing wonky and surreal acid-jazz-tropicalia-funk to blow your mind and move your feet. But don’t call him the Mancunian Moondog.

“It’s like saying I’m the Barry White of the Isle of Wight. The Shirley Bassey of Stoke-On-Trent. It doesn’t make any sense to me, that analogy. I do love his music, and I’ve got a beard and I wear a cape and a hat!” As for whether Steer is a jazz musician, he demurs – partly, it seems, out of humility. “I love more jazz than anything – compositional stuff as well as twiddly stuff – but I wouldn’t really say I’m a jazz musician. I love it, but I don’t think I’ve got the knowledge to pull it off…it sort of depends how it’s presented. Sometimes jazz can be lacking in emotional impact, especially modern people who don’t have the emotional intensity of Mingus or whatever.”

Steer has been active on the Manchester music scene for more than thirty years, primarily as a bassist, frequently collaborating with 808 State’s Graham Massey and playing with everyone from Yargo to Biting Tongues, Lionrock to Ted Milton. He was also a key member of Homelife, who released a couple of albums on Ninja Tune. So after all the collaborating, how did the solo act come about?

“Homelife rose to a 12-piece band and kind of decayed because of how difficult it was to keep a big band together and on the road and rehearsing. Then this came about because of my love of colour, playing with so many musicians, and thinking that as a bass player it’d be pretty boring to go out solo. I never thought I’d do anything solo really, but Graham got me to play this Moon Landing commemorative party and I just put a few tunes together. The DIY aspect followed on from that, I had a few synths that I used and I just started tinkering.”

Despite having been such a fixture on the Manchester music scene, Steer has never felt he really belonged, and clearly doesn’t mind. “I think when we were doing Yargo it was all that Madchester baggy thing, all that sixties throwback referencing, and we were nowhere near that and so we died a death. I never really felt part of it, I don’t really feel the need to be part of something, although it’d be nice not to worry about bills and stuff.”

I bought a bassoon a couple of years ago and that’s really hard to play, it makes your mouth and your arse hurt simultaneously and my missus thinks it sounds like a goose having a heart attack

Steer admits he’s not proficient on the vast array of instruments he uses but uses them as building blocks in the recording process. “I bought a bassoon a couple of years ago and that’s really hard to play, it makes your mouth and your arse hurt simultaneously and my missus thinks it sounds like a goose having a heart attack. I can maybe string a couple of notes together, to use it as a colour, you know? It’s like chucking all the colours at it and then scraping them off again.”

Steer doesn’t worry too much about the live presentation when he’s recording. “At the moment I’m trying to present something that’s at least partly representative of what I do. But I do see them as completely different things, seeing something live, it shouldn’t be for sale – apart from the ticket price – it should be an experience, it doesn’t really bother me not to sell a product every time I play, that’s not very appealing.”

His live performances can be seat-of-the-pants experiences. “I can be using an iPhone as a sequencer and the lead comes out of that every now and again, and I’m like ‘right, okay – I’ll plug it back in!’ I mean as a musician, I quite like seeing people have a nervous breakdown, or bleeding or fighting onstage, I don’t like overconfident performers, I think I like a bit of frailty and vulnerability. As well as something passionate or ballsy.”

There’s a strong vein of absurdism in Steer’s work – he mentions Spike Milligan in particular and cites ‘the absurdity of existence’ as a common thread. “Just, ‘fuck it, I’m gonna be dead soon, I might as well do something stupid…’ You can’t take anything with you and to be a struggling musician for thirty years, you come to a realisation that trying to slot into some sort of commercial framework, it’s just depressing, you know, so it’s a little bit of a reaction to that. And – lo and behold – at 52 years old, it’s the busiest I’ve ever been in my life!”

Steer denies that the dressing up is about playing a character. “If you put something over your head, it kinda detaches you from yourself so you can enter into a different aspect of it. I just like the Brechtian aspect – put the stuff on onstage, I don’t like making an appearance in character or anything. There’s a Mancunian artist called Ed Barton, he did a night called Hip Replacement at the Band On The Wall about 20 years ago. He brought three wardrobes onstage and we improvised in the wardrobes. There was such a cosy feeling of not being seen, and it felt joyful that you weren’t being presented in front of an audience but you were being listened to attentively. There was something really playful and absurd about that, you know. And I guess the papier-mâché head is just an extension of that – you can’t see me grimacing away at some malfunctioning kit.”

Paddy Steer plays Newcastle’s Mining Institute on Friday 26th January, with support from Grey Tapes.



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