Below is a transcript of a conversation I had with Steve Hanley, bass player with The Fall for nineteen years and instrumental in developing the sound of the group, at the launch event for the paperback edition of The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall, by Steve and Olivia Piekarski (published by Route Books). The event took place in the Tap and Barrel pub in Pontefract. This conversation took place in the beer garden. Towards the end, Olivia joins the conversation, as does Ian Daley, the publisher.
Michael: The first thing I want to say Steve is how much I enjoyed the book. It’s not just one of the best books about The Fall, but one of the best books about being in a band I’ve ever read. It is unusual as it focuses on the work, the day to day grind of life in a band that tours and records almost constantly. Was that your intention from the outset?
Steve: Firstly, we wanted it to not be all about Mark. We wanted it to be about the other members who had been bypassed. We wanted to reflect The Fall as a working band, a prolific band who did an album a year and loads of other stuff as well.
Michael: Reading the book, it seemed unrelenting. Tour. Album. Tour. Album. Tour.
Steve: Yeah, but is that really that hard though?
Michael: I don’t know. Reading it feels fairly gruelling. Particularly the American tours where you are stuck on a bus most of the day, going to far flung places. Tempers fray. There’s a lot of hostility.
Steve: It was a lot easier to write about them. You tour Europe and you go from Holland to Belgium to Germany, and not much happens. But on the American tours there is always high jinks. The more difficult things to experience are the easier things to write about. It’s a lot harder to write about the good times.
Michael: Was it a cathartic process then?
Steve: It was, yes. I hadn’t listened to The Fall since I left.
Michael: And was that because it brought back bad memories?
Steve: The last five years were that bad that it coloured all my memories of the other years.
Michael: And can you listen to The Fall now without that?
Steve: Well, I had to listen to the albums I was on for the research for the book. I was pleasantly surprised.
Michael: Has writing the book changed your outlook then?
Steve: It has, yes. The last few years of the band, it had become… all the nonsense. No one was talking about the music any more. It was all about walking off stage, fights and sackings. And there was no place in that for me because I was just stood at the back playing the bass. All I was in it for was the music.
Michael: The book reads like a novel. The way it is structured, the characterisation, scene building and the level of detail.
Steve: This was one of my first conversations with Olivia, I don’t want to make it about the singer, but how do we do that? And she said, we’ll write it as a novel with you as the main character.
Michael: Had you written before?
Steve: No. Olivia had, but not me. Olivia is a novelist. Her first novel was being banded about, then I met her and she was looking for a project. We both learned a lot from writing the book.
Michael: The detail was forensic and I wondered to what extent you had recollected that, and to what extent you had relied on the testimonies of others.
Steve: To an extent it’s the way my memory works, but we had a few people on tap. My brother Paul has a great memory. Colin the roadie helped us a lot. What we found was that people who were in the band for a short time, like Mike Leigh who was on Dragnet, or our Paul who was in it for four years, they could remember pretty much all of the time they were in the group. But it’s amazing the way your mind opens up.
Michael: Did you make any of it up?
Steve: None of it is made up. There is some shift of time, where we’ve moved a scene say. But it’s all true.
Michael: So what was the process? How did the two of you put it together?
Steve: We started with a dictaphone. We had about three sessions where we were just talking with Olivia asking me questions.
Michael: So she interviewed you?
Steve: Yeah. We tried that. We’d start about nine o’clock at night, but it wasn’t really working. In fact, when we played it back, I could only hear Olivia talking. So what we did is we started from the end point and worked back. And gradually things would open up until we got to the beginning. We got a first draft down, and tinkered with it. Then we would go over and over it. Add bits, take bits away.
Michael: And how long did that take?
Steve: It took four years. I spoke to people and they said to do it properly it’s going to take five years. But I thought, I’m not spending five years on this. I’ll get it knocked out in a year. But no, it took four years. We were learning on the job. We had to learn a lot about what worked and what didn’t. We’d say, we’ve got this character right but not these, and we’d learn from that and go back and try again. Learn from the bits we’d got right.
Michael: Did you have a publisher in mind?
Steve: The first three years we didn’t. We had a bit of interest from a London publisher, but nothing definite.
Michael: So how did Route get involved?
Steve: I was working with Tom Hingley at the time.
Michael: Right, and Route had just brought out his memoir?
Steve: That’s right. Ian at Route rang us up and said he’d like to publish our book.
Michael: There are a lot of oblique references to drug taking. For example on page 145 [of the hardback] when you are writing about a flight over to America, ‘Karl, Mark and Sol, our driver, are puffing away at the back of the plane, no doubt pooling their dodgy New York contracts in preparation for arrival.’ Also on page 212, ‘I’ve pushed Paul through customs with a nice little present for the band stuck neatly into his disposable nappy fastening.’ Now we all know what these things are referring to, but you don’t state it explicitly.
Steve: Well, the thing is, if you know it then that’s fine, but if you don’t it doesn’t matter. But you’re writing about people who are friends, or ex-friends, people in the public eye, and you’ve got to be careful. People who have got children now. Do they want their kids to know what they got up to twenty years ago? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.
Michael: So it wasn’t for legal reasons?
Steve: No. It’s not my place to tell tales, but at the same time you don’t want it to be bland. It’s getting the balance right.
Michael: Were you worried that Mark would kick off?
Steve: No. Not at all. If you are going to write a book worrying about what Mark Smith is going to do about it, you’d never do it. When the hardback came out, Mark ordered someone to pick a book up from the launch and deliver it through his letterbox at midnight.
Michael: You know this for sure?
Steve: Yeah. He’s a big Fall fan and he told us at the launch. Then a couple of days later Mark’s sister rang to complain. And I said, what’s the problem? She said, you mention our dad. Mark doesn’t like that you mentioned our dad in the book. That stuff about his dad, at that time I was really ill in hospital. I was approaching my thirties, and Mark’s dad died, and that kind of thing gives you a taste of your own mortality. So we thought it was an important bit of the book.
Michael: It’s called The Big Midweek. Do you think if the top forty charts had been announced on a Wednesday instead of a Sunday your fate would have been different?
Steve: Not really.
Michael: But that’s what the title is implying. That you were almost a chart-topping band. If the fans weren’t so keen to buy the records as soon as they came out.
Steve: It just seemed like an apt title. It’s a metaphor. I wanted it to sound like a gritty northern drama like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Michael: It works for me because it asks a question. I didn’t know before reading it what the title referred to.
Steve: It’s a little bit frustrating when you’re almost there a few times, but then would you want to?
Michael: I want to refer to something in the book again. Here it is on page 388, ‘Not getting on? Not getting on was in the first few years. Not getting on would be great now. We are set in our own ways and have never been more isolated from each other and the rest of the world.’ That’s pretty bleak stuff. And yet you stayed some time after that. It sounds like it wasn’t fun for a very long time. So what made you stay?
Steve: It’s that thing when you’re in the middle of it and you don’t really see ‘it’ for what it is.
Michael: So this is a retrospective insight?
Michael: I mean you were a member of The Fall for nineteen years. The longest standing member of the group. What do you think it is about you that kept you in the band when others left? Is it resilience, or something else?
Steve: It’s probably a bit like people being abused. It becomes the norm.
Michael: Like a battered wife?
Michael: And it’s only when you go to work the next day with a black eye…
Steve: …and someone says, that’s not right. That was really brought home to me by people like Colin.
Michael: The roadie?
Steve: Yeah, who worked with us in the late eighties and then again in the late nineties and he couldn’t believe the difference.
Michael: Did you ever worry about Mark’s mental health to the point where you thought he should be seeking help?
Steve: Yeah. People used to say it to me all the time. You’ve got to tell him. You’ve got to tell him. But there was no point, he wasn’t going to listen to me.
Michael: Did he know he was ill?
Steve: Did he? I don’t know.
[We are joined by Olivia Piekarski at this point.]
Olivia: when you’ve got psychosis you don’t realise you’ve got it. You think everyone else is mad. That’s part of the condition.
Michael: There’s that scene in a bar in Australia. Extricate has just come out and you’re on tour. It’s a great album. One of your best. It’s getting fantastic reviews. And you’re enjoying a pint, thinking, things are pretty good. The group is alright now. Marcia and Martin are at the other end of the bar, and everything is cushy. Then Mark walks up to you and whispers in your ear, ‘they’ve got to go,’ pointing to Marcia and Martin. They are sacked there and then, in the middle of the tour and they have to go home. Do you think that form of self-sabotage is purely artistic?
Steve: I don’t think it’s artistic at all.
Michael: So why do you think he needs to keep breaking things that work? You spend hours setting up the equipment, getting the sound right, then he comes on stage and kicks it all up in the air. To what extent is that about Mark trying to create those artistic tensions for the good of the sound and to what extent is it destructive?
Steve: There’s something about creating tension. He thought he needed it.
Michael: Is that his delusion though?
Steve: To an extent it worked. A certain amount of it. But it went way beyond that.
Olivia: He didn’t want it to get too successful. He wanted to keep control.
Michael: See, I think that’s the key actually. That it’s about control. He hates the internet because he can’t control it.
Steve: He loathes it. He’s tried to control that Fall fan website so many times. He’s tried to have it taken down. He tried to make it official so he could control it that way.
Michael: What’s your relationship with Mark like now? Do you still see him? Do you bump into him from time to time?
Steve: I was saying this to Brix just last week. It’s a bit strange, in nearly twenty years now, I mean Manchester is big but it’s not that big, but I’ve never bumped into him, in pubs or anywhere. Not once. I mean I don’t go to Prestwich.
Olivia: You do avoid that area.
Steve: There’s a pub called The King’s Arms that Paul Heaton owns.
Michael: I know it, near Salford Station. Nice pub.
Steve: Yeah, I spent a lot of time there. Put some gigs on there, and I heard that Mark drank there as well.
Michael: Is that where Paul keeps all his anoraks?
Steve: I don’t know.
Michael: What would happen if you did bump into him in a pub do you think?
Steve: You just can’t second guess that. He could come in and say, ‘Fancy a pint Steve?’ or he could come in and go, ‘Oi! You fucking bastard!’
Michael: What about other members of The Fall?
Steve: The launch was great. I think eleven or twelve came. We had Simon and Craig. We had Mike Leigh, Marcia, Brix.
Michael: Can I turn to you, Olivia. Can you talk me through your involvement with the book.
Olivia: Well, I eked the story out of Steve. It took him a long time to feel comfortable. To trust me enough to put his life in my hands. I said I’m only going to do it if we write it as a novel. And we did quite well, keeping Mark out of it. I applied creative writing techniques to the process. I would have found it quite boring to write a straight-forward autobiography. To picture a scene, it has to have detail. Steve would say, I’m back in the room. I’m back in that dressing room in Australia, and now I know that sound guy’s name, he was called Mitch. And it all started coming back. And I was like, quick, write it down. Steve remembered all the bad stuff, but he’d forgotten about the good stuff.
Steve: I had this black cloud over a lot of it.
Olivia: And we wanted to avoid a lot of the clichés associated with the genre. We took drugs. We shagged birds. You know, all that.
[Ian Daley, of Route Publishing joins us at the table at this point.]
Michael: Can I ask you, Ian, as the publisher, what was it about this book that interested you the most?
Ian: A number of things. Michael Nath, a novelist we publish. I interviewed him for his book La Rochelle. We did a podcast and I said bring some music. He put some Can on, Tago Mago. Then he put on Dragnet, ‘Is there anybody there?’
Michael: ‘Psychic Dancehall’.
Ian: And I said, can we put Can back on.
Michael: So you weren’t a Fall fan then?
Ian: No, not at all.
Michael: Had you heard of them?
Ian: I knew bits and bats. I knew about Steve, because I worked on Tom Hingley’s book and Steve was in a band with Tom at the time. Anyway, I asked Michael Nath about The Fall and he said, ‘I’ll tell you the history of English letters: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, The Fall.’ And I laughed, Michael didn’t. At the same time Tom was telling me about Steve, about him doing a book. Tom had a radio show and one night he played ‘Telephone Thing’ and said this is my mate Steve Hanley on bass. We bought Extricate. We had a four hour drive to Glasgow to see the film The Angels’ Share, a stay overnight, then a four hour drive back the next day. We had Extricate on there and back. By the time I got back from Glasgow I thought, that’s really something. So I went online and found a fan site with the top ten best Fall albums and Extricate wasn’t on the list. I couldn’t quite understand that. The one that came out top was Hex Enduction Hour. I started with that and began to work my way through to listen to all the albums. Then Steve and Olivia sent me the manuscript and I thought, this is going to work.
[At this point we had to go back inside the pub to start the event which consisted of readings, archive footage, an interview, a Q and A, and name that tune.]
The paperback is now available to buy from Route Books: http://www.route-online.com/all-books/the-big-midweek-life-inside-the-fall.html