Ross McGibbon

There are a lot of words that people use to describe Vini Reilly but some of the simplest are Pete Mills' 'avant-garde jazz classical style' and 'chiming lightness of touch'.

Vini Reilly has been a legendary figure on the Manchester music scene since 1976. His debut LP, the 1979 sandpaper-sleeved 'The Return Of The Durutti Column' rapidly became a seminal work. Since then he has turned out twenty-odd albums, under the name The Durutti Column, each reinforcing his cult status. Lately, Vini has gone through a rough period, culminating the death of his mother. Factory collapsed, he owed the Inland Revenue lots of money, he had no manager, no accountant. He lost his home, he lost everything. At the nadir, he was about to take his guitar down to sell it to get some money when Carol, his partner, said 'why not use it to record'. Buying instead, a portastudio, Vini ensconced himself in a cellar and came up with his new album. Now he's out performing again to promote it.

It seems Vini is like liquorice. As Jerry Garcia once said, trying to describe the rabid following of The Grateful Dead, 'if you like liquorice, you love it, if you don't like it, you don't understand what there is to like about it'.

Carol: "His audience is a very odd audience. It's very determined and very devoted. People that know his music love his music. His fans are like City supporters because they're very dogged and persistent. They love pain and misery… "

I met Vini just before his Manchester Comedy Store gig. He'd just given a perfectionist sound check and we headed outside for a coffee. Stirring an astonishing eight sugars into his coffee, Vini was approached by a string of admirers and friends. A man announced that Vini had had an incredible influence on his life. A thirteen year-old came up for an autograph and asked for help with one of Vini's tunes that he'd been learning on his guitar. One of Vini's earliest musical partners rolled up - Norman. As a duo named Gamma Reilly, they toured talent competitions on a motorbike.

It was a strange interview, with friends arriving to say 'hi' and one and all being invited backstage after. Vini is a local celebrity, recognised across Manchester, and as far away as Japan. He's got six or seven dates lined up.

"I think there's going to be more. I'm just saying yes to every gig, which I've never really done before. I've had five years of waiting about; no record company, no manager, no nothing. Now I've got a new manager, he's given me a bit of enthusiasm to go out and do gigs again. I've got a little gang with me now; a couple of keyboard players, programmers and Bruce, as usual, on drums. I love doing it, I just wasn't being asked for a while. And even when I was being asked I couldn't do it because I didn't have a band and I was just in a bit of a mess."

It'll ruin your reputation as a recluse…

Carol chips in: "He's not a recluse, he's a rascal."

Vini laughs: " Shall I tell you what question Carol would ask if she was doing an interview? - 'Which string do you use the most?'"

Funny he should say that, the friend I was with would've asked what kind of strings he used (and I wouldn't understand the answer!).

"I use strings that no other musician uses and they go to an 006 on the top E, which is the lightest bass string you can get." And later that night, we see his amazing lightness of touch - so light that he doesn't have to retune over a ninety-minute gig. "Because I use my fingernails on steel strings."

Carol: "And this week he broke a nail and he had to go to a ladies' nail studio."

I'm curious about the singing on the new album. Is that a new thing?

"I've always sung."

Carol: "Everybody's always tried to stop him but now he's free to do what he likes."

"I can't sing for toffee but I really enjoy singing".

Over the last twenty-something albums, how much do you think you've changed?

"I've not really, it's all the same tune. I just keep playing the same tune over and over again. I've no idea, I haven't got a clue." Vini is very down to earth, very unspoilt by the honeyed words that have been poured over his music over the years. This is a man who was described by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers as one of the greatest living guitar players in the world.

I ask about the Apple Mac parked on the table by one of the band and Vini's use of samples.

"It's because I can't sing. I did it before Moby"

Carol: " If you want to get him really annoyed, mention Moby".

"Moby. Bloody hell. It's boring, it's really obvious. He's a huge plagiarist. He's listened to a lot of Factory bands and he's admitted as much. He's actually pinched my use of sampling I think, but made it really obvious. And he's a born again Christian, which makes it even worse."

That's the first mention of Factory, a label The Durutti Column is inextricably linked with. The collapse of Factory lost Vini a lot of money and has led to many of his albums being out of print despite a demand for them on the second-hand market.

Is Vini looking for a new audience?

"I've never known what my audience is and I've never known why anybody would want to listen to any of my music. I don't really think about the audience at all and I'm always amazed when an audience turns up. They must like something but I don't know what it is - it's certainly not the singing. I don't see the audience, which sounds terribly insulting, but I don't. I'm so preoccupied with so many things to think about on stage and I'm so into the music that I don't really see them. Sometimes I have to be told by Bruce to go and do an encore because I'm so unaware. You kind of go in a funny world of your own. It's a very odd thing, it's very nice."

It was time, then, for the standard question; what bands does Vini like, what music interests him?

"I like Eminem. I liked Eminem before he was anything. When he was just starting out. Because it's got a lot of passion and most music, over the last few years, has just been devoid of any kind of passion or sense of truth or reality. It's just fucking crap. I'm sure there's stuff out there but it's not getting played on Radio One. It was ever thus, really. I like Kletzmer, traditional Jewish music. I like Bollywood, which is very interesting. Amazing classically trained singers, classically trained musicians, a cheap Casio synthesiser, a stringed orchestra and it's all mixed together."

What is it that keeps Vini going? What brings him back into the recording studio?

"This time it was actually Carol. I went to a music shop to sell a guitar and Carol said 'don't sell the guitar, play it and while you're here, buy that little eight-track recording thing'. This plastic Boss home recording thing. Which I did and I then proceeded to record, constantly. And I did this newest album, more or less on that eight-track. The bass drum on one track is a book placed on top of a microphone and I'm hitting the book as the bass drum."

There are a lot of interesting noises on the album.

"People describe them as found samples and found voices. I always build up a catalogue of interesting loops and voice samples and stuff. Then I forget where I got them from a lot of the time, which is quite convenient…. I've used Annie Lennox's voice, Otis Redding's voice - which I called 'Otis' - it was played all over America for a telephone commercial - and loads and loads of famous voices and nobody's ever come at me and said 'you owe us loads of money'. A lot of the time I manipulate the sample anyway, so it's singing my tune, rather than the original tune. So it's kind of a creative thing really, whereas Moby just pinches somebody's tune then rips them off, calls it his. He's not original or creative. "

Vini describes sitting by the radio, DAT recorder plugged in, catching interesting bits. Still, guitar playing is the primal thing for him.

"The tune always comes from playing the guitar. As soon as I pick a guitar up I'll come up with a tune. I don't know whether it's good or bad but there's always a tune there."

Carol: "He disappears into the spare bedroom and comes out with a tune.".

"There's a great satisfaction to be derived from making music and recording music, that I find very pleasurable. I'm incredibly lucky, I have to say, I feel like I must act in a responsible way. People have paid money to come and hear me play I'm going to play as well as I possibly can."

You must get recognised a lot round the street.

"I don't actually. It's quite good in Manchester because if I do get recognised people just go 'hi Vini', which is cool. Places like Tokyo, it can be a bit scary - it's very full on, strange and unreal." So, here's Vini Reilly, The Durutti Column, famous round the globe. He's a quiet man, thinking carefully and giving considered replies to the crassest of questions. Sitting at the pavement table, he's warm to the strangers approaching him and, before I leave him to prepare for the gig Vini makes a point of telling me about the other people playing with him, making sure I get their names: Keir Stewart and Laurie Laptop on keys and samples, Bruce Mitchell on drums.

The Durutti Column have an album out now - see our reviews section.