July 23, 2024

Interview with Manchester poet Mike Garry

(Mike Garry (far right), with Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and New Order at Carnegie Hall)

“Mike Garry is the poet laureate of the north. He is an amazing performer and his poems of life in Manchester are hypnotic, tough and funny as fuck. check his stuff out on youtube.” – John Robb (Louder than War)

Upcoming performances: Manchester – Chorlton Library – Monday October 12th – 6pm

Today is ‘National Poetry Day’, so it seemed fitting to take the opportunity to post my interview with Manchester poet Mike Garry. Mike recently released a single – ‘St Anthony’ – with composer Joe Duddell. It was officially a charity single, raising money for The Christie, where the track’s subject Tony Wilson was treated for cancer. The single did remarkably well in the charts, and even reached number one in the Vinyl Chart.

Mike was kind enough to take the time out of his busy schedule socialising with the likes of New Order and Iggy Pop to meet me for an interview.

The first time I met him, Mike was resplendent in a canary-yellow tracksuit, and had just finished impressing a large crowd at Festival No. 6. He’d toned it down somewhat at our meeting but still stood out in a pair of bright red trousers, looking every bit the hip artisty type and attracting a somewhat suspicious glance from the bartender. Mike seemed relaxed and in good spirits and was clearly very pleased with his recent musical success.

Jenny: So how’s it going with St Anthony?

Mike: It’s great. Really good, really successful, sold loads of records, loads of downloads, great achievements. Number one in three charts, most shared Spotify track in August. Lots of really proud things have come out of it. And it’s not going to die overnight, it’ll keep raising its head. Over a million hits on YouTube and our site’s getting millions of hits as well. Interestingly lots from America.

Jenny: So were you surprised at how successful it was or were you expecting that?

Mike: I was expecting it to be honest, I’m not surprised by its success.

Jenny: Confident!

Mike: Well, I’m not! Everyone played it down but I remember being sat in meetings saying ‘This is gonna chart’ and lots of people saying ‘don’t talk about charts’. But I grew up with going to the shop and buying singles…

Jenny: Yeah, it was all about the charts then wasn’t it.

Mike: Yeah, it was always the charts when I was a kid. I remember recording Top of the Pops on a shitty tape recorder and my dad coming in cursing at me. Charts are important to me. Especially the fact that it went to number one in the vinyl chart, that was really important to me. I’m very honoured. I was very proud of what the team achieved more than anything else.

Jenny: How many people were involved?

Mike: About ten of us. There was a whole PR team behind it who work in the music industry who we approached and asked ‘will you do this for free?’ They probably worked harder than they’ve ever worked before in their lives. But the achievement from it… it’s never happened before. People just don’t go in from nowhere and sell that many records, and I think it’s testament to the amount of effort and work that went in. There was a huge amount of effort from me, from Ally Hudson who manages Joe Duddell, from Pete Jobson of I Am Kloot, and from the record label who were behind us all the way through.

Jenny: Obviously it’s very Manchester focused, and focused on quite a specific era. How has it been received by other parts of the country, other parts of the world? You mentioned you were surprised at the American success.

Mike: Well our biggest hits have been in America, by a considerable percentage. Biggest hits on our website has been America.

Jenny: Why do you think that is?

Mike: Because Manchester travels incredibly well in America. When I did New York with Bernard and New Order I was incredibly shocked by how big New Order was. I was doing a poem about little old Tony Wilson and Philip Glass was coming up to me saying ‘Tony was really important’ and Iggy Pop was coming up to me saying ‘Tony was really important’and The National are queuing to see me play with New Order. We underestimate how well we travel as Mancunians. Like working class kids, we underestimate how intelligent they are because they’ve been brought up working class. Because we’re Mancunian we’ve been told we’re shit all our lives, we don’t realise how good we actually are until we take it across the pond and the Americans love it. We don’t realise how important Manchester is. I toured America with Johnny (Cooper Clarke) in May and I was just shocked at how much interest there was for us.

Jenny: I gather you were approached a few times before Joe Duddell came to you about St Anthony. What was it about his idea or his approach that won you over?

Mike: I was being approached by lots of bands and musicians and they were all making the same sound. What you’ve got to understand that Joe Duddell is a professor of music. He works at it every single day and he’s very, very good at what he does. He isn’t sat in his bedroom with a guitar and a Beatles songbook, he knows a lot about music. You’re not dealing with a bedroom guitar hero here, you’re dealing with a professor of music who lives and breathes everything he does. And his management workwith a similar professionalism and hard work ethic. So that’s what made me want to go with Joe more than anything else. And also the fact that he did it quite simply, he’d take a track and turn it quickly. He’d take a poem and turn it pretty quickly into an amazing, amazing track. I remember Philip Glass standing up when we were in Amsterdam after we did a rehearsal. We did one rehearsal of a track we’re doing called Live Forever, and he just played it with the band and he stood up at the end of it and said ‘that’s indestructible that track, indestructible.’ And he’s right because what Joe does is so fucking solid.

Jenny: Is there anybody else that you would’ve considered if they had approached you?

Mike: I considered New Order when they asked me to play with them. Well, I knew how to play with New Order, how to be associated with them. And they made me feel part of New Order. They dragged me into interviews and ensured that I was with them during press, during TV, and ensured that I was there at rehearsals. Bernard’s still in contact with me regularly, we keep in contact a lot.

Jenny: Am I right in understanding that you never actually had a conversation with Tony (Wilson)?

Mike: No, I never spoke to Tony.

Jenny: You did meet him though?

Mike: Yeah we crossed paths loads of times, but I wasn’t a very confident young man. I wasn’t confident enough to speak to someone who quotes Nietzsche! I wasn’t going to cross swords with Tony Wilson, I was going leave him to pontificate and be posh while I sat quietly and pondered life and pondered the effects of the Hacienda and the music.

Jenny: What do you think he’d make of the single, of the poem? Do you think he’d like it? Would he be embarrassed?

Mike: I think he’d hate it! I think he’d hate it all. He didn’t like that much focus upon himself, I don’t think. I think he’d have laughed, he’d have found it funny. Ultimately we don’t like to hear celebrations and lionisations of ourselves.

Jenny: That’s another British thing isn’t it, we don’t like to be praised and complimented.

Mike: No, we struggle with it. Also, there’s criticism in there as well. It’s not just licking Tony’s arse, there’s pointing the finger in certain places. I think it’s quite an honest representation of Tony, I think it’s a fair representation of him so there’s probably a few things in there that he wouldn’t like to hear. But no, I don’t think he would like it. Although, during Tony’s life he never ceased to amaze me, I’d usually wrong guess him every time. I’d try and guess what he was thinking and get it wrong every single time.

Jenny: He’d probably love the single then.

Mike: (Laughs) Yeah! He’d probably love it.

Jenny: Have you had any feedback from family or close friends of his?

Mike: Yes because I know his daughter and his son really well, and I love them like my own – which is probably a wrong thing to say – but I do, I love them both and I feel a great responsibility to them both in the memory of their father. And I know their mum, I speak to her regularly, I’ve got pure respect for the family, and having their blessing with the single was the most important thing I could have had. Having them turn up at the event and having the lovely things that they’ve all said about what we’re doing in terms of remembering their father’s name is probably the most important thing to me.

Jenny: Moving on from St Anthony to poetry in general, what do you think of the current ‘scene’? Do you still get involved in that at all?

Mike: I get asked this a lot and I really don’t know. And the reason why I don’t know is because I don’t go to poetry events, because going to poetry events for me is like going to work. And I’m also sat there nervously thinking ‘I’m gonna be on any minute.’

Jenny: Do you not even go to spectate, to see what everyone else is like?

Mike: No. And also, another reason I don’t go is because I don’t want to see anyone who’s good.

Jenny: You don’t like the competition?

Mike: No, not at all. I want them all to be shit so that I look great! But it doesn’t always work that way.

Jenny: A friend of mine saw you on one of the JCC dates and came out and said ‘I could do that!’ he’s now doing pretty well on the poetry circuit, and you started him off…

Mike: See, apparently what I do is I inspire people. Seriously! What I do is I make people believe that if I can do it anyone can fucking do it, which is a special power. Just make sure you don’t do it as good as I do! It’s difficult because there’s loads of people who are doing very similar things to what I’m doing. But fair play to anyone who makes a living out of writing words. If you’re making money out of writing words you must be doing something right.

Jenny: So is there not anyone that’s on your radar, anyone you find interesting?

Mike: I steer clear of the bastards, to be honest! No, there’s loads of young kids coming through who are really, really good. I like Tony Walsh he’s good. Marvin Cheeseman’s good. I love the young kids who come out of Identity, the group that Shirley May coaches. This great poet called Shirley May who coaches a group of kids out of Contact Theatre and they never cease to amaze me, how good they are. Ben Mellor’s good as well, I like what he does.

Jenny: How do people in schools, prisons etc. respond to you when you introduce yourself as a poet, are they quite scornful at first?

Mike: Incredibly scornful.

Jenny: So how do you turn that around?

Mike: well it’s a great thing that their expectations are so low and then I’ll do some poems and they’re usually pretty gobsmacked by what they’re hearing and then they’re asking “do you want to hear some of mine?” I find that in education I’m in a win-win situation to be honest because the education system’s pretty shit, pretty out of date, and holds no relevance to their lives whatsoever. So when they hear something contemporary and something so filmic, it’s much more gripping. Also what I try to do is do more than just write a poem, I try to create a mood, a scene, an atmosphere. So it’s more about the feeling as opposed to the words. When you come to one of my gigs you take something away from it with you rather than just hearing random words being said, you have an emotional involvement or an emotional attachment with what I’m doing, I don’t think anyone else does that to be honest. I’m trying to talk about contemporary issues which are important.

Jenny: Do you ever find someone really promising, but you know they won’t go any further with it because of peer pressure, or because they feel too embarrassed?

Mike: No, what I do is I nick their ideas and call them shite so that their confidence diminishes… give them really low self-esteem! No, it’s the total opposite. In most cases they’re better writers than me. The kids I meet are better writers than me.

Jenny: Have you run out of ideas yet? Maybe that’s it!

Mike: No… you can never run out of ideas because every day something new comes up, something else is happening. Something breathtaking happens every day; it’s just a matter of looking. And we don’t look much, we’re too busy locked in our own little worlds to open our eyes and realise that there’s amazing things going on in the world, amazing people who need celebrating. We walk past heroes every day, walk from here down to Moss Side and you’ll pass war veterans and pass Somali kids who’ve lost grandmas, who’ve had their arms chopped off in their villages and who’ve had the bollocks to stand up and fight to get away. And we’re putting up barbed wire fences stopping people coming in?

Jenny: Do you still draw inspiration from Manchester as a city?

Mike: Yeah, I do draw major inspiration from Manchester, but at the same time my poetry isn’t necessarily about Manchester. It’s a global thing, I talk about global issues, global actions and behaviours and we just happen to live in a great city which is at the forefront of lots of things in terms of culture, in terms of art, in terms of theatre… Manchester’s a welcoming city, I’m quite proud of that. I’m proud of the fact that my parents were immigrants. I’m proud of the fact that we open our arms to people. I’m proud of the fact that there’s a big gay scene, a big Irish scene, an Afro-Caribbean community. We get great food. There’s a big student population that comes here year in, year out…

Jenny: And they stay here, too.

Mike: Yeah, they stay here. So it’s reasons like that that I’ll champion this city. I travel loads, I’m hardly here these days, I’ve got a house here and now that all the kids have gone I’ve got a place in Morocco, so I spend a bit of time there. I’m also associate fellow at the University of Westminster in London so I’m spending a bit of time there as well. And I’ve just got a doctorate in Education, so I’m Doctor Garry now! I’m home and away a lot, but it’s great. I love coming home, my family’s here.

Jenny: OK, just a few music related questions. I’ve read that when you’re in schools, you read lyrics to the kids, treating it like a poem. Do you think that all song lyrics are poetry, is there anything that separates it, other than music?

Mike: No I don’t think they are. I think they’re two separate things. I think a poem’s a poem and lyrics are lyrics. They get very close, but they’re still different in that they exist in their own right. I think lyrics are a lot easier.

Jenny: You would say that!

Mike: Well it’s easier when you can stick a load of noise around it. It’s like I say all the time, I’m just a voice, just a voice, and that’s all a poem is… just a voice. It’s done differently, it has different intention.

Jenny: But theoretically, you could write a poem, and then decide to turn it into a song. But then is it a poem…

Mike: …or is it lyrics? Yeah. Well I always see them as poems with music around them to be honest. I also think it’s a lot harder for a poem to just stand there on its own, especially on a page. What I’m trying to do now which is very difficult is read page poems live. It’s very difficult to do page poems live.

Jenny: Are there any of your other poems that you’d want to do something similar to Saint Anthony with, or do you think it was just a one off?

Mike: We’ve got a few irons in the fire. Music’s always more interesting because it means you collaborate with people. And like I said about Joe before, you get to work with people whose be all and end all is their art. My be all and end all is my art; it’s what I work on daily. So to work with musicians who have the same commitment and same desire is great. I’m not doing it to have number one records, I’m doing it because I really enjoy doing music and writing poems to go with music and going to schools and inspiring young people to be great writers. Letting them know that the education system isn’t the only way of testing intelligence, there’s loads of other ways in which it happens. School is not the only way to learn. I never studied English but I probably know more about literature than many English teachers. But yeah, watch this space. We’ll be making more music.

Jenny: Well you’ve started to answer my last question there which is “what’s next?”

Mike: The BBC have just bought my first pamphlet which was called ‘Men’s Morning’ which was about a sauna in Moss Side Leisure Centre. It’s about a group of blokes who go to the sauna every Friday morning. BBC Radio 4 are doing something with that in the next few months which is a real honour considering it’s 18 years old. I’m also releasing that as a book which should be out by Christmas.

To find out more, visit: http://www.saint-anthony.co.uk/
Mike Garry’s website can be found at: https://godisamanc.wordpress.com/

Single Review – Saint Anthony

There are few people – if any – who have made as much of an impact on Manchester’s music scene as the late Tony Wilson. His legacy includes Factory Records, the Haçienda nightclub, and some of Manchester’s best loved bands; his name synonymous with the ‘Madchester’ scene. Although Wilson died in 2007, his name lives on in popular culture; he is the key character in the 2002 film ’24 Hour Party People’ (played by Steve Coogan), and is now the subject of a chart topping single; ‘St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson.’

‘St Anthony’ is the result of collaboration between Manchester poet Mike Garry and composer Joe Duddell. Using the words from the original poem, St Anthony takes the listener on an alphabetical journey through all things Manchester. The lines are spoken by Garry, imploring Wilson to ‘talk to me’, his passion and emotion riding high atop every line. Even if you weren’t there – as I wasn’t – the track envelops you in a sort of nostalgia and Manchester pride as Garry talks to you about ‘Curtis, Cancer, Christies, Catholicism…’

It’s a moving tribute, but you don’t have to be a die hard Manc to enjoy ‘St Anthony’. You don’t have to be a fan of Tony Wilson, or even a fan of poetry, to find yourself moved by this powerful track.

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