The Yeah Yeah Guy:
Bill Pritchard Rediscovers His Passion, and His Mother Tongue
To call Bill Pritchard a familiar name from the early ’90s would be a bit of an overstatement. The man had his 120 Minutes of MTV fame, on the strength of albums that can be filed snugly alongside contemporaries like Lloyd Cole and Robyn Hitchcock. But Bill himself admits he was better known in Canada than the US, and more popular in French speaking countries than in his native Britain. “I think a lot of people assumed I was French,” he speculates.
Pritchard’s hearty accent leaves little doubt as to his country of origin, and he’s been ensconced in the British Midlands (Stoke-on-Trent, to be precise) for the better part of two decades. In the mid-90s he vanished from mid-level fame, then made a totally unexpected and surprisingly solid return in 2014 with A Trip To the Coast. He’s now followed up that disc with the moderately more ambitious Mother Town Hall, drawing more liberally from his earlier French influences. For the album’s arresting opener “Saturn & Co” Pritchard told producer Tim Bradshaw, “Think mid-60s, B-side, Bridgette Bardot single. And he just got it! Bardot is mainly thought of as a film noir goddess, but she had some brilliant singles, produced by Serge Gainsbourg,” he relates with the enthusiasm of a man who’s just rediscovered a lifelong passion.
So what accounted for Pritchard’s vanishing act? “In simple terms, I had children, and decided another thing I wanted to do is teach. So I basically changed tracks and disappeared, musically speaking,” he explained over a crystal-clear Skype connection on a Saturday morning. “It was a good time to take stock and do something completely different, you know?” Pritchard initially taught high school French and German, “then I just happened upon a special needs school, and absolutely loved it. Still do.”
The circumstances behind Pritchard’s re-emergence fall into the “too good to be true” category. By the mid-90s his primary collaborator was fellow Brit Tim Bradshaw, the two eventually forming the short-lived band Beatitude. “It was a fantastic time, but we have nothing much to show for it other than one single. That was the point where Tim decided to continue to do music and I decided to do something else.” Bradshaw moved to the States, building his resume working with the likes of David Gray and John Mayer. “I suppose he’s my best mate, really, but we’d only spoken sporadically. Literally he rang me up one day and said ‘Bill I’m back home,’ and I assumed he meant London. I started thinking about when I could make the trip (a 2-3 hour train ride) and he said ‘No, I’ve moved to Bradwell,’ which is about a quarter mile from where I live.”
“We started playing just for ourselves, with no plans to release anything. Then I did a couple of gigs, the first in eleven years, because this guy in France rang me up and he sounded like a nice guy. This sounds terrible, but the main impetus was that me and my daughters got a free holiday out of it. And I really enjoyed it, and realized how much I missed it.”
The big keeper from Pritchard’s comeback record is “Yeah Yeah Girl,” which until we spoke I didn’t realize was about French chanteuse Francoise Hardy. “She’s the archetypal Yeah Yeah Girl. I did a bit of riffing but fundamentally I was thinking about her. I don’t know if I dreamt it, but I swear I was given one of her singles by my grandfather when I was a lad.” Here’s where the cultural confusion rears its head – I’ve always thought of the French genre as “ye-ye music,” but Pritchard spells and pronounces it “Yeah Yeah. He also pronounces Jolie, his 1991 near-breakthrough, “Jolly.” Hardy actually contributed backing vocals to Pritchard’s career high point, 1989’s Three Months, Three Weeks & Two Days, a connection he clearly cherishes. “She’s very reserved but extremely intelligent,” Pritchard gushes.
“Yeah Yeah Girl” includes the delicious line “I can’t help wonder how it could be/If I’d been more commercial/and you less twee.” I had mistakenly read this as a reference to he and Bradshaw, and possibly a veiled shot at some ’90s female songstress. “I like that line, but it’s really the other way around, isn’t it?” Then he refreshingly added, “If you ask a musician what a lyric means, depending on the time of the day it could change. Or they could just be making it up,” he laughs.
Pritchard’s French connections stem from a foreign exchange stint in Bordeaux while studying political science in college. “Because of my interest in music, you gravitate to certain people. They introduced me to then-current and ’60s French music, which I absolutely adored.” Independent radio had just taken off in mid-80s France, and Pritchard got involved as a DJ as well.
“The interesting thing about the French is, they were the one country in Europe that didn’t really go for the Beatles. So their pop lyrical and musical influences are rooted in a much earlier period, almost literary based. That single-mindedness, it’s quite refreshing.”
Pritchard went as far as to record his 2005 album By Paris, By Taxi, By Accident in matching French and English versions. However the label wound it putting it out as a hybrid of the two, and releasing it only in the Francophile markets. “I wouldn’t say I’m bi-lingual, but it’s the sounds of the foreign words that interest me, so I don’t do direct translations. I enjoy alliteration as much as the next man.”
By contrast, Mother Town Hall is the first Pritchard album not to include at least one song sung in French – although perhaps appropriately it does house “Mother Tongue,” which plays like a lost, Grant McLennan-penned Go-Betweens classic. It’s also his first disc that brings to mind for me other British cult treasures like the Monochrome Set (who dabbled in Parisian influences themselves) and Television Personalities (who titled an early album They Could Have Been Bigger Than the Beatles).
Pritchard readily acknowledges that Mother Town Hall was conceived as a complete album, as compared to Coast’s “let’s just see where it leads” attitude. “It was written in the space of a couple months; we had more resources,” he adds, explaining the at times orchestral sound. “Friends from Normandy provided horns, but the strings are computerized,” although you’d never know it. “I think back to the exclusivity of making an album in the late ’80s, when it cost the equivalent of buying a house.” Pritchard had Prehistoric Sounds, the divisive and brass-infused third album by Australian band the Saints in his mind as a template, proving that not all his influences are Gallic. He also confirmed my impression that Mother Town Hall was sequenced with vinyl in mind, the jangly, radio-ready “Heaven” kicking off side two. “All my favorite albums are very much constructed with Side A/Side B in mind – you start again on a bright note.”
Nonetheless, A Trip to the Coast ties together nicely as well. “I noticed the strands in the things I was writing about – that they were vaguely coherent. It was a very transient album, lyrically, which is ironic because it comes from the most stable period in my life.” Its closing title track finds Pritchard invoking creative license to reunite with his two brothers to spread his father’s ashes on an island off the coast of Wales, a family vacation spot from his youth.
Pritchard’s two girls are carrying on family legacies as well. Older daughter Chloe studies English and Philosophy at Cardiff University, “and has gotten the teaching bug too.” Alice is about to head to university, has started to write songs, and taught herself guitar. “It wasn’t my idea,” he laughs. “Tim taught her musical theory,” so she already has a leg up on her dad, who can’t read music.
Amazingly Pritchard has played only one US show – in New York – though in the heady days he was flown to LA for a photo shoot with Anton Corbijn. “America’s a bit of a mystery to me,” he admits, having otherwise never visited. Another mystery is how A Trip to the Coast found traction in Germany, where the country’s edition of Rolling Stone placed it on their top ten list for 2014. “I played this gig in Hamburg and people started coming up to me saying ‘Play ‘Number Five,’ play ‘Number Five’’ (the opening track from Jolie, or as some call it, Jolly) and I couldn’t even remember what they were talking about. And they knew all the words – I had done a video for it back in the day, and it apparently got a lot of airplay that I wasn’t aware of. Someone had a copy so I went backstage and listened to it, then sang the first verse and chorus later that night.”
Don’t expect Bill Pritchard to remedy his longstanding US absence anytime soon, however. He has no plans to leave his teaching gig, so touring will likely be limited to some brief summer European jaunts. Unless some intrepid promoter decides to concoct some sort of busman’s holiday for Bill and his daughters….