On the bus

Scritti Politti learn to tour
By KURT B. REIGHLEY  |  October 31, 2006

PANIC ATTACK?: Just be the guy in your bedroom night after night.
There’s nothing remarkable about a new band — or even an old one — hitting the tour circuit. When Green Gartside of Scritti Politti was a student, back in the heyday of UK post-punk, he did it. Only it freaked him out. So much so that in early 1980, while supporting Gang of Four, he walked off stage, convinced he was going into cardiac arrest. The band never performed live again . . . until this year. White Bread Black Beer (Nonesuch), the fifth Scritti Politti album in a quarter-century, was released this summer in the US to rave reviews; expect to see it on a lot of year-end lists. And as if that weren’t a big enough surprise, Gartside then announced a tour — which ends this Sunday at the Paradise — in which he’d be accompanied by a band of young unknowns.

This was never part of any big plan. Indeed, there was no plan. Playing live never occurred to Gartside while he was making the album. As the Welsh native explains over the phone from his current home in the London suburb of Hackney, “Why, I scarcely wrote this record with a view to it being listened to. But when my label said, ‘Would you like to try playing live?’, by that point I had met a bunch of musicians, individually, at my local pub.” He invited them over to hear the new songs. If they liked them, they were in.

Anyone who’s followed Gartside’s career would find it hard to believe it could have all been so casual. Scritti Politti’s glistening, high-tech pop was so intricate that even after “Perfect Way” hit #11 in the States in 1985, they had to scrap a lucrative tour because professionals couldn’t translate tracks like “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” into live arrangements. But White Bread Black Beer marries Gartside’s refined sensibility with a more DIY approach. He recorded it alone at home, and it’s more conducive to live performance.

“These songs are less demanding,” he admits. “There isn’t a lot of up-tempo material or syncopation. I played it all, so it’s all pretty simple.” In concert, the group play material from the album plus one or two early favorites: “Skank Bloc Bologna,” “The ‘Sweetest’ Girl.” Sorry, no MTV hits. Gartside says he would rather play new songs well than old ones poorly.

He adds that the process of recording helped him conquer his performance anxiety: “Recording in your own house makes a big difference because you can feel pretty uninhibited.” Although he’s long been one of the more distinctive pop singers, rendering his intellectual wordplay in a breathy voice that makes Michael Jackson sound butch, he says he used to hate singing in particular. That’s changed: “Now, the very physical act of singing is a pleasure.” All he has to do is be that guy in his bedroom night after night.

Then there’s the incentive of getting out of the house. “We started with a small pub gig in Brixton, which we did under an assumed name, and it wasn’t advertised.” After being away so long, he was stunned when the audience applauded. “When you finish that first number and everyone whoops and hollers and claps? That’s quite a nice feeling.”

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