Music interview – Martyn Ware of BEF: ‘I know how much hard work it is to try to stay on course’

Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory of BEF and Heaven 17 will be appearing at Grassington Festival.
Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory of BEF and Heaven 17 will be appearing at Grassington Festival.
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Martyn Ware, formerly of Heaven 17, is heading to Grassington Festival with his ‘other band’. Duncan Seaman reports.

Martyn Ware has fond memories of Grassington Festival. “We’ve played it as Heaven 17, it was very nice,” says the Yorkshire-born musician, composer and producer.

Three years on from that closing-night appearance with Fine Young Cannibals singer Roland Gift, Ware is due to return to the picturesque Wharfedale market town with his ‘other band’, British Electric Foundation.

This time, as well as his regular musical partner Glenn Gregory, the 62-year-old will be accompanied by several guests including 80s star Mari Wilson, Glen Matlock, formerly of the Sex Pistols and Rich Kids, and Peter Hooton of The Farm. Also joining them will be Peter Hook, former bass player with New Order and Joy Division, and Jaki Graham, whose hits include Could It Be I’m Falling in Love and Set Me Free.

All have joined Ware’s BEF collective at various stages over the past three summers when they’ve been performing at Rewind 80s nostalgia festivals across the country. “This year they’re doing something a bit different so we’re not doing Rewind, so this is the only BEF show of the year,” Ware says. “It gave us a chance to do something somewhere else, so Grassington are getting an exclusive this year of the BEF show.”

Where back in the 80s he and Gregory had been reluctant to perform Heaven 17 hits such as Temptation, Come Live With Me and (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang live, in recent years they’ve taken to the stage with gusto. Yet Ware says has no regrets about not touring sooner.

Martyn Ware

Martyn Ware

“I think we’d have got bored with it by now – it’s like 40 years,” he says, pointing out that he did perform live for two years when he was a member of fellow Sheffield synth-pop greats The Human League (“So it’s not like we’d never tried it.”)

“The reason why we decided not to do it live with Heaven 17 was because MTV came around at that point and we’d actually spent quite a lot of money on tour support so we were massively unrecouped with the record company and we just thought we don’t want to get into huge amounts of debt. If we were going to spend money we wanted it to be more future-facing, like videos were at the time, and could also service loads of territories simultaneously without having to go on tour for a year at a time, which is what people did in those days, so that’s why we didn’t do it.

“Of course it became a dogma for a while and then when we were doing well in America around about 1985 we were once offered $1m to do a three-week tour of California and we said no. How stupid is that? Everybody makes mistakes throughout their career.”

Ware and Gregory have also been working on Heaven 17’s ninth studio album. “It’s kind of ground to a halt because Glenn’s been so busy doing film and TV work and I’ve been busy with my sound installation company Illustrious,” Ware admits. “We have to pay the bills and out view on the whole thing is if we can’t do it in the way that we really want to do it, we’d really not do it half-baked. So we’re two thirds of the way through but we’re struggling to finish it because we don’t have the time to sit in the studio together and do it. We’re always doing other things.”

I’m quite proud that I’ve managed to maintain my values and tried to do things for the right reason, and I’ve tried to do things for innovative, creative, forward-facing reasons as well.

Martyn Ware

The original idea for the album was a concept art piece called Not For Public Broadcast. “We’ve still got that idea,” says Ware, “primarily because we didn’t want to release it digitally at all as a kind of two fingers up to the way things are going. It’s not a resentment because we were very lucky to have the main body of our career in the perfect period where everybody was making money, so it’s not a bitterness, it’s actually a conceptual piece of work pointing how difficult it is for young artists to make a career out of music nowadays.”

Sonically “some of” the album leans towards modern-day Scott Walker territory. “But some of it’s pop,” he adds. “We perform some of it live as well. I don’t know, it’ll get finished one day.”

In the meantime Ware has become principal of Tileyard Education which offers a series of Masters courses in recording. He says he became interested in education because his studio is at Tileyard, in Kings Cross. “I’ve always been interested in education but not the formal version of it,” he says. “I’m a visiting professor at Queen Mary College at University of London and an honorary doctor but I am more interested in innovative ways of teaching people and looking at it from a maverick’s perspective. All the formality and the form-filling and the virtual learning environments and all of that nonsense gets on my nerves, frankly.

“At first they asked me to do it as a kind of figurehead for the whole thing and I said ‘Oh yes, I’ll do that’, it’s the first time I’ve had a salary since I was 19, so I’m going ‘I can always use that, it pays my mortgage’. But then they lured me into the trap. Now I’m teaching proper modules and designing modules and marking papers and I’m not sure,” he sighs. “I absolutely adore working with young people and I think I get on well with them. My son and daughter are 22 and 20, I understand them very well, I understand the challenges they face, I’ve also done quite a lot of advocacy for artists’ rights. I used to be on the board of the Featured Artists Coalition and I’m just standing for election to the board of the British Academy of Songwriters and I’ve done some advocacy in the European Parliament about artists’ rights so I’m very engaged with helping artists get a better deal because I think we live in very dangerous times for creativity.”

Ware also recently worked with Tracey Moberly and Sarah Hopkins on the multimedia art exhibition Power in Sheffield. “We did it as a project coming from the heart, really,” Ware says. “There was no money in it and eventually we didn’t even get funding from the Arts Council to put it on, so it actually cost us money to do this amazing exhibition which was four years in development. But I’m a big believer that if you do things for the right reason eventually it pays off. It certainly paid off artistically, it was a big success and there’s another version of it about to launch in Llanelli in South Wales and we’re hoping that it’s going to be a touring show and it’ll have a life of its own.

“It’s all about the steel industry. The two other artists come from Port Talbot and their parents worked in the steel industry and mine did. We were friends before that but we realised we had this one major thing in common and we thought wouldn’t it be fantastic to do a big immersive show with three-dimensional sound, big projections and LED screens, screen-printing and paintings and banners and giant soundscapes. It’s something that we wanted to do and we did it.”

Last October Ware received a Gold Badge for his contribution to UK songwriting. He says: “I’m not used to getting awards, to be honest, and I don’t really crave them particularly. It’s nice but I’m really not keen on award ceremonies of any description. I used to be on the board of the interactive committee at Bafta so I spent five years unpaid on the committees organising Bafta awards and I never want to get involved again. But for this to come out of the blue as a kind of lifetime achievement thing, I suppose – I think anybody who’s managed to survive 40 years in this business deserves some kind of award, it’s a rare thing. I’m quite proud of myself in respect that I’ve managed to maintain my values and tried to do things for the right reason, and I’ve tried to do things for innovative, creative, forward-facing reasons as well. I’m not meaning to sound arrogant but I know how much hard work it is to try to stay on course. There’s always temptation to do stuff for money and I’ve always resisted that.

“I’m not averse to money but if that’s the primary reason for doing it, it rubs up against my artistic [ideas]. All I’ve got left is my reputation, basically, so I can’t afford to mess it up.”

BEF and special guests play at Grassington Festival on Friday June 29. http://www.grassington-festival.org.uk/

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