Martin Newell is an English indie singer-songwriter, poet, and author, who leads the Cleaners from Venus. He is one the UK’s most notable figures in the history of DIY music and has a musical career that spans five decades, with almost thirty albums under his belt, most of them recorded in his kitchen. His latest album is Penny Novelettes.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
In every way. I was expected, I think, to be a soldier (like my dad) and to be interested in sport (which I hate) I actually became a classic English boho pop musician and writer. Except for a couple of things. A strong work ethic and highly-disciplined way doing things seemed to be hard-wired into me. I couldn’t help myself but get up in the morning and do something useful . Not even when I was long haired teenager. Much of my routine even now could be regarded as slightly soldierly. It’s been a good combination in some ways. I’ve got a large body of work and I can be trusted to get on with things which I’ve been asked to do. I didn’t expect, however to become a poet or to become so published.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
Music would be the obvious one. Always rebellious against anyone who would presume to govern me, by my mid 20s I was beginning to realise that there seemed to be no way in which I could make music and be paid for it, without conforming to the spurious methods of the greedy, shallow and frankly, not-very-bright people who controlled the popular music world. I realised that I would have to make my music in reduced or almost d.i.y. circumstances. There would be no proper remuneration and no wide distribution. Confronted with this, I decided that the music was most important. So I did that. For years and years most people ignored me, laughed at me or actually insulted me. Even when I made occasional ripples in the conventional music world, the reviewers of the main publications were usually dismissive of me. I stopped sending out review copies of anything I did. There seemed no point anymore. Gradually, word-of-mouth and the advent of the internet have vindicated me. The music press and the reviewers have nearly all gone. I’m still here making a living out of music. The story’s not quite over yet.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
In terms of my music recordings and books? Well, I’m pleased to say, most of them. Even that I’ve written these poems and books and and have made these records surprises me. Especially when I look back at my teens and my twenties. If you could have shown that younger incarnation of me, how much I’d have managed to do within the next 30 or 40 years, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
When I was 19 years old, I’d rather come off the rails. I was hanging around in the town where I’d been born taking drugs, only doing dead-end jobs and getting into minor trouble with the law. I was also becoming ill and a little bit crazy. One morning, I packed my things, left the town forever and moved briefly back to my parents’ house in a tiny village 60 miles away where I knew no-one. I repaired my health. I took a job in a factory in a nearby town. One day I went to another nearby town to audition for a glam rock band, as a singer. I was very insecure and unsure of myself. But I got the job. There wasn’t much money in it but it changed life forever. I now knew what I wanted to do. Leaving my lovely old home town was the hardest thing but also single most important thing I ever did in my life.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
I could only do this humorously and it would be very easy, because at 68 years old, with nearly white hair and a face like
something out of a Werner Herzog movie, only the most eccentric women of the same type as me would be interested. I suppose I’d call the song something like “Granny Magnet” Or “Gimme Sheltered Accommodation” Yeah, I’d have to
play it for laughs.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
Well ‘yes’, is the conventional answer. But then I don’t seem to want the same material things as so many other people do. I don’t want a car. Or a big house. Or more money than I need. I don’t want to go on holiday anywhere. I like to do nice things everyday rather than going somewhere for two weeks for a treat. I mostly do all the things I want to do. My needs are very simple. So I don’t feel I’ve made too many sacrifices. I have been poor, yes. But mostly I seem to
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
Golly, this is really quite difficult to answer. I have to say that I think that Paul McCartney, at 79 years old has done a pretty good job of staying graceful and dignified. I think Keith Richards has been pretty impressive too, as a musician of great integrity. Both of these guys are kind of like distant big brother figures to me. You know? Not perfect (who is?) But they steered around the bear-traps of fame and wealth pretty well. Not only that, I know that both have quietly done many good things for people , without really publicising it. Either of these two would be pretty good.
But the person I’d least like to be, doesn’t have a name. He’s a kind of small town android, buys what he’s told to, likes lots of status symbols, looks down on anyone who’s a bit different to himself and speaks in cliches. So who would I least like to be? The Unknown Android
If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
My keys (in case I needed to get back into my house) Some brandy in case I woke up. A lock of my daughter’s baby hair. A set of good boho clothes in case I needed to do a performance for the gods.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
As you might expect, I have a few of my own. Here are three. take your pick.
1) Don’t gorge yourself on the past, you won’t leave any room for the future.
2) Measure your wealth not by how much you own, as by how little you owe.
3) Remember: a cynic is only a rusted-up romantic.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
The film, A Hard Day’s Night. It’s an unintentional snapshot of the 1960s, an era which somebody once called ‘The Party After The War’.