May 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the first ever Plankton Records release so with such a long history we are always recognising some milestone or anniversary with regards to an artist or a particular release. This year has been no exception and Plankton Records partner Keith Dixon sat down with his old friend and Plankton artist STUART ELWIN to discuss his album LIVING IN THE DARK which was released 20 years ago in 1997. As you read this interview and then listen to the album, available on all major digital music download and streaming sites Worldwide, you’ll realise what a remarkable album it is, and what a remarkable artist and writer Stuart is too!
Hey Stuart, for those people who don’t know you, you are registered blind – a very important element of LIVING IN THE DARK which we’ll come onto soon – but can you tell us your story of growing up, because I remember you riding a bike around the streets etc
(Pic left – Stuart on his Grifter bike)
My red Rayleigh Grifter! (laughs) When I was a toddler I remember I couldn’t see things when the light went below a certain level – known as night blindness – but when I was 5 my parents realised something more was wrong and I eventually ended up at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London having tests. It was then that we officially found out I had a degenerative eye condition. Over the years I had to wear glasses because of my increasing short sightedness and I developed tunnel vision which increased as time went on. I couldn’t play sports because I couldn’t see the ball etc.
Please excuse the directness of this question, but when did you realise that your eyesight had really seriously deteriorated?
In 1989, when I was 23. I was riding my bike and I know it sounds strange but I suddenly realised that I couldn’t actually see, meaning focus on, anything. I clearly remember that exact time. Then, eventually in 1991 I was officially registered blind.
And as this was all happening, you were also playing music?
Yes I was. When I was 16 I started to play bass guitar at Church. I was given very very basic tuition (this is C etc) and then just learnt most of what I know from playing along with my records. Then I progressed onto keyboards and a bit of guitar and then played in a few local Christian bands including Playing for Keeps and Asylum. I played the Fringe at Greenbelt in 1995 with Asylum and we had a track on the Greenbelt Fringe ’95 CD that you organised and Plankton released.
Yes that’s right! That Greenbelt Fringe ’95 CD was a great album. 20 artists who all performed on the Fringe that year all contributed a track to it. This was when having your music available on a CD was quite something for independent or grassroots artists as CDs were quite new and expensive to manufacture.
Well there was certainly no way that my band could have afforded to release a CD then so thanks mate!
Anyway, you also did some solo recordings at your home studio which brings us onto LIVING IN THE DARK. How did that album come about?
My first solo release was the ‘Discerning Reality’ album and then in mid 1996 I wrote the song ‘Living in the Dark’ which was a song about the consequences of someone living with blindness and this proved to be the inspiration for the album
(Pic right – Stuart with his current guide dog SAUL)
There are 3 songs on the album that deal with / themed around being blind
Yes, there’s ‘Living in the Dark’ which also acknowledges the help I was experiencing from God, from my wonderful wife Sylvia and my first guide dog Norma. Then there’s ‘Picture This’ and finally ‘Silhouettes and Shadows’ which closes the album and is me ironically commenting on my everyday life with a sense of humour.
You also had some braille stuck on the back of the cassette cover too didn’t you. What did that say?
Yes I did. It said ‘Elwin’. I’d got to know a guy called Mark Lister who had a machine that could print out braille onto an adhesive plastic strip and it seemed like a good thing to do given the title and theme of the album. It was a good talking point!
50% of all money you received from sales went towards supporting the work of The British Retinitis Pigments Society (BRPS) didn’t it?
I’m an RP sufferer and was a member of the RP Society and given the main theme of the album it made sense. The symptoms of RP can become apparent at any age but most commonly occur in young adults. It is now acknowledged as being one of the most common forms of irreversible blindness. Research work into RP is being carried out throughout the World.
In saying all of this, there are also lots of other things explored in the other songs on the album too
Well, being registered blind is only part of my life and who I am! I write songs about people, situations and circumstances I encounter, experience and observe and also about things that I love and enjoy
(Pic left – Stuart with his wonderful wife Sylvia)
So that explains the song ‘Heart’ which also has (for Syl) after the title and several tracks that appear to have a sci-fi theme
Absolutely! At that point in time, Sylvia had been at my side through thick and thin – we got married in 1986 before I was registered blind – and she still is right at my side today. She has been my rock through everything. And I do love Sci-fi too. There are some samples from a famous film on one of the instrumental tracks but let’s not say anymore about that!
All of the songs on the album are originals, written by you. How did you actually write the songs?
Well I couldn’t sit down with a piece of paper! I’d usually go for a walk with my guide dog, coming up with and working on words and melodies in my head as we walked along and then I’d just have to remember them until I had chance to record them. I could then compose, arrange and record around this to build up the song. This was not always easy as sometimes the time between me coming up with the idea and then being able to record something was quite a long time
Your studio is in your home. How does this work and how did you work and record if you couldn’t see what you were doing. Is it specially adapted equipment?
No it’s not adapted or specialised in any way. I put the studio together myself in our spare bedroom. It wasn’t anything too grand – I couldn’t afford that! – but I put it together in a way that I could use it. I had to remember the layout of everything and would feel around and slowly work things out if I needed to re-wire or adjust anything. With regards to recording levels and mixing songs etc all I can say is there was a lot of trail and error! It was setting and checking all the levels by ear as I couldn’t read any equipment displays or meters. I had a few keyboards, a sound modulator and sequencer, drum machine, electric guitar and various pedals and outboard gear. I actually played all of the album’s bass parts on a keyboard. I recorded the final mixed tracks onto DAT tape and then I moved onto mini-disc.
So, who were your musical influences
Well, lyrically it was people like Todd Rundgren and David Bowie – who both you and I love. They were also musical influences too. Then musically there was Gary Numan who’s synthesizer/electronic influence is obvious and also Jean Michel Jarre , Early Roxy Music and solo Brian Eno and also Utopia (a band that Todd Rundgren was a member of) who used to have guitar and synths alternating between each other during solos – I loved that. Utopia were also an influence with regards to mixing vocals. I also liked heavier rock music and the likes of Alice Cooper. Some people might not realise that Alice Cooper is a Christian. One thing he said which I always remember is something like “I’m not a Christian artist, I’m a rock singer who happens to be a Christian” and that’s the approach I’ve always taken with my writing and recording. My faith was a big and important factor with regards to this album but there were other aspects in both my life, the lives of others around me and the world as a whole that I wanted to write about and incorporate in my music
(Pic right – Stuart enjoying some vinyl)
So, that album was 20 years ago. Have you recorded anything since?
Yes I have. I’ve got some tracks ‘in the vaults’ so to speak. Unfortunately, we had to dismantle my studio to make room for other things at home so its been out of action for some time but we are trying to reinstate it in some way at the moment so I can do some more work at some point. You never know what the future might bring.
Indeed not Stu. Thanks for your time. Always great to talk to you and listen, if there’s some kind of release to mark Plankton’s 40th anniversary we might want to discuss including one of those unreleased tracks?
Always a pleasure. I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement with regards to using one of my unreleased masterpieces (laughs)
Big thanks to Stu for the conversation. Stuart Elwin’s album LIVING IN THE DARK is available on all major digital music download and streaming sites Worldwide. To link to the album on UK iTunes (CLICK HERE)