From his self-titled 1978 debut Wreckless Eric right up until his phenomenal 2019 release Transience, the English singer/songwriter Eric “Wreckless Eric” Goulden has been a pantheonic figure of the rock tradition, whose keen ear for big ticket hooks and gimlet eye for grim human comedy have long made him the envy of and inspiration to countless songwriting peers. Beginning his career in the same Stiff Records scene that brought performers like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury to the world’s attention, Goulden struck gold early as the author of the much-covered, peerless standard “The Whole Wide World.” Intellectual and creative restlessness soon set him apart from that crowd however, as classics like 1993’s The Donovan Of Trash recast his talent for confectionery melodies within the framework of claustrophobic experimentation and political and class anxiety. His latest release, the brilliant Transience updates those sentiments to the era of Brexit, confronting personal memories of his British childhood and weighing them against what can feel like the anxious final days of a decaying empire. I spoke to Eric recently about his thoughts on current events, his background in music and his experience recording himself and others, including his equally brilliant songwriter wife, the extraordinary Amy Rigby.
EN: The UK has been in a state of upheaval and you possess a unique perspective as a dual citizen. What is your impression of the Brexit movement and what would your father – a man who you mention voted for the right wing his entire life – have made of it? Put another way, what is your most generous interpretation of Brexit and your most cynical?
EG: I’m not actually a dual citizen, just a green card holder, which means I’m a U.S. resident with none of the privileges – or are they rights? – of citizenship and no voting rights even though I pay taxes. You could argue that it’s taxation without representation which I believe is unconstitutional, but it won’t get you very far!
The European Union may be less than ideal but leaving it in this manner is an utter idiocy and will have disastrous results. I’m sure a few people will somehow benefit greatly from it – nothing ever happens unless someone somewhere stands to benefit financially at the expense of a lot of people who can’t see how they’re being had. That’s modern politics!
I don’t know how my dad would feel about it, I imagine him and my mother waltzing together in some celestial ballroom, young, beautiful and free from my dad’s steroid dependency that blighted all our lives for forty years or so. I think that in his right mind he’d be utterly appalled by what’s happening.
EN: On your new album Transience’s opening track, “Father To The Man” you describe being stuck with a name that doesn’t fit. Do you feel that way about your stage name, your given name or both?
EG: I’d never thought of the line “I’ve got this name and it doesn’t fit” alluding to my given name. My full name was Eric Frank Goulden – Frank being my father’s name. I dropped it from all official documents, passport, drivers license, et cetera – not because of ill feeling towards my dad, more because I felt controlled by my parents when I was young and I felt that giving my sister and I their names as our middle names was a way of foisting their identity on to us. I think of my early life as a desperate search for some sort of self identity.
I ended up with the name Wreckless Eric because Eric Goulden was obviously too unwieldy a name for a pop star, even a pretend one like me. No one, me included, knew how to pronounce my surname. I tried for years to shake the Wreckless thing – it’s a mixed blessing: people have their preconceptions and their misconceptions – occasionally I’ll meet someone who will be surprised that I don’t have a Mohawk and a bone through my nose, and I get very bored with people who say “You don’t look very Wreckless to me” as though I was supposed to do something zany for their amusement like turn cartwheels or tip a pitcher of beer over their head.
I don’t like being aligned with punk but for some people the name is synonymous with that, even though I didn’t really feel I had much to do with it. I watched punk unfold and happily coexisted until morons took it over and used it as an excuse to revel in their own lack of ability and talent.
At the same time Wreckless Eric is my trade name, and I’m hoping that I define what it stands for, rather than it defining me. The alternative to having an arresting name with a long history is playing to very small audiences and struggling to get a foot in the door. I know, I’ve tried it, and I have friends who make great music and have difficulty finding an audience for it. So, like I said, it’s a mixed blessing but I think I’m very lucky.
EN: What were the records that indoctrinated you into a lifetime of songwriting servitude when you were young? Did you like Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle? What is your first recollection of rock and roll?
EG: I’m not that old! I heard Lonnie Donegan, Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker. But it was The Beatles that put everything into focus. I loved it – the sound of guitars, the voices, the clothes, the hair, all of it! This new language, the language of pop – the yeah yeah yeah, the sardonic wit, the “don’t try and dig what we all say…” I became a pop fan when it was still a comparatively new concept.
EN: I always hear a touch of glam in your records. “Strange Locomotion” feels like Slade by way of MENSA. Did the early days of Bolan and The Sweet imprint on you?
EG: I loved glam rock. I possibly viewed it with some sort of detached irony. It was like I’d come full circle and arrived back at pop.
Thanks largely to The Rolling Stones I discovered Chuck Berry and then the Chess label and Chicago blues – John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter… I bought 45s, one a week from the age of about nine until I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and I had a paper route so I could afford to buy LPs. The first LP I bought was Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a mono copy that I still have. I listened to Top Gear, John Peel’s two hour radio show, where I heard the newly formed Led Zeppelin (they may well have been called “The New Yardbirds” at this point), the Byrds and Traffic in their post big hits period, the Edgar Broughton Band, Juniors Eyes, Wild Man Fischer, the GTOs, Skip Bifferty, Family, Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, Blossom Toes, Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, the Nice, Eire Apparent, the Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers – the list goes on and on and the genres are endless. And then I started going to concerts. I discovered a world of extreme possibilities, the underground – the absolute antithesis of middle class suburbia and pop as represented by The Tremeloes or Gary Puckett And The Union Gap. I grew my hair long, became a freak or a doobie and sought out the unlistenable.
And then it was 1972 – I left home and went to art college. I continued my explorations into jazz (which I never professed to understand, but which I found deeply attractive) and free improvisation. It was a great time for pop music – the charts were full of good stuff and you’d hear it everywhere, on jukeboxes, at art school dances, on the radio – Slade, David Bowie, T. Rex, The Sweet – I love anything that rocks, I don’t care if it’s deep and meaningful or brainless drivel, though I tend to err on the side of brainless – much less complicated!
EN: Following experiences of every sort, you’ve taken to recording your own albums at home. What Is the best and worst studio experiences you have ever had while recording a record? In what regards do you enjoy being your own producer and would you ever consider working with an outside producer again?
EG: I don’t feel that I’ve “taken to recording my albums at home” – I stopped making records in regular recording studios back in 1986. I was sick and tired of being patronized, of not being allowed to touch the machinery, of not fully understanding what was going on, of working under the clock and having no control of how my own end product came out. I had a TEAC four track open reel tape recorder which I bought in 1978 with the first real money I earned from music. Eventually my demos sounded better to me than stuff I was recording in proper studios, so I started doing it myself. For years I heard voices saying you can’t do that, and that won’t work. I’d straighten up and answer, “Well, I just did, and I like how it sounds.”
On my last two albums, Construction Time & Demolition and Transience I’ve worked with an engineer called Andrija Tokic in his studio, the Bomb Shelter down in Nashville. I recorded at home, got everything pretty much ready to mix then took it down to him to put the finishing touches to it and mix. I couldn’t have dreamed of doing that at one time but Andrija and I have become good friends and share similar sensibilities – I’ve had enough recording experience that we could meet as equals in some way. He’s an utterly brilliant studio engineer. I love working together with him, we have a great time and it’s a thrill ride.
EN: You are married to the great songwriter Amy Rigby. I’m curious to know in the case of two legendary figures of the craft, how often do you talk about songwriting? You’ve collaborated together to beautiful effect, but does constantly being in the presence of such an accomplished peer ever make you anxious?
EG: No – it’s not a competition! I don’t think either of us feels anxious, we give each other security.
When we first got together we used to joke that between the two of us we made one good one. There’s some truth in that – we have different abilities. When we started our band which was called Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby I found out that Amy could play the piano, so she had to do that while I played the bass guitar which I hadn’t done for live shows since I was about nineteen years old, sometime back in the mid seventies. Amy writes songs and I can immediately hear them as records. I’ve never felt like a songwriter myself – a lot of the time, for me, songwriting is just part of the process of making a record, that’s what interests me. Amy has an incredible talent for creating vocal harmonies. She comes up with great electric guitar hooks – very organized, succinct – it goes great with my more frenetic lead playing. We work great together in the studio – we trust each other and understand when one of us has an idea how to either help it along or stay out of the way.
EN: When you started out there was little roadmap for a rocker reaching his 60s. And yet countless novelists have done their best work starting at that age. Now that you are doing your best work in your 60s, do you ever feel sympathy for the early casualties of rock’s youth obsession: Cochran, Holly or Presley? Didn’t we do them in?
I’m perhaps a bit too young to have played an active role in doing them in. I think “hope I die before I get old” has manifested in some corners as squeezing into overly tight trousers and the wearing of bandanas in desperate attempts to disguise receding hairlines, the Keith Richards chuckle, the elder statesmen. I’m relieved to see an end to Paul McCartney’s everlastingly brown hair.