It is the last week of June and the first week of our intense summer heatwave. Luckily my phone interview with Mr FM Cornog (Fred to his pals) aka East River Pipe, has been put back to 8.30 pm, or else I would have to do it from inside a cold running shower. So from a sweltering flat just behind Queen's, Belfast, to another sweltering flat in Queen's, New York, Fred unknowingly becomes a participant in the first ever transatlantic Weedbus interview. His background is fascinating and will be explored later in the conversation, but for now let me inform you that ERP are the proud creators of three fine albums to date - including 93's classic debut 'Goodbye California' and the recent, teasingly brief 'Even the Sun Was Afraid'. Some wonderful songs, deceptively simple arrangements and an overall sound fit to fill the gap left by the demise of the Go Betweens. In short, ERP are lovely. So how has Britain taken to you so far, FM?
"Well, I notice that a lot of the reviews that I get from the UK refer to the label, Sarah records, and I don't really know how to react to that. I think a lot of people in the music industry over there tend to pigeonhole Sarah, and they imagine that any band on that label has to be cute or whatever. I suppose that is a little frustrating, but I guess it's the same with all labels, whether you are Warner Brothers or Drag City. The critics seem to have a typical 'Sarah' review already written. I mean, I don't think that I'm a typical Sarah act, I personally like a lot of stuff that Sarah release, but I certainly don't fit the stereotype."
Were you aware of the label? I mean, when you were making demos were you thinking "I'll send this to Sarah records"?
"No. It's kind of a weird story. Before anyone was interested in East River Pipe at all, my girlfriend Barbara Powers took me off the streets - I was living in Hoboken train station with a 6 pack of bad, bad beer - but anyway, she heard about a tape of mine, and we met and connected right away. So she put out two 7" singles by me, and we brought them over to a record shop in Hoboken begging the guy to take five copies of it. He said his name was Tom Prendergast and he really liked what we did. His label wasn't interested but he told us about this label in England - Sarah Records - and he gave me their address. Luckily, Matt and Claire wrote back and said they would love to put the stuff out in the UK. Barbara and I were astonished, but that's how it happened, and we became the only American act on Sarah."
What would you have done if no-one had picked up on your songs?
"I've always just written for myself anyway, in the same way some people would kick a soccer ball around, you know, just for fun. My thing is that I write songs, and I'm always gonna do it, whether somebody picks up on it or not. It never really occured to me that people would want to put this out. It was Barbara's idea, I didn't have any burning desire to start a record label or anything. That it has got this far is a surprise to me, because I just record right here in the apartment on an eight track."
What was your ambition when you started out? Did you just do it for the love of it?
"My ambition was just to write good songs. It was never my goal to be a rock star or something, and to be on a big label competing with the Pet Shop Boys and Oasis. I just wanted to write good songs and whether they got out to people or not didnÍt really matter to me."
What sort of things still inspire you to keep going?
"Really the things that have always inspired me - just to keep writing good songs. I like to think that these songs can compete with anybody really. I know sonically, because its recorded on this little portastudio, that my records cannot compete with people with big studio budgets, but I honestly think that my songs are as good as anyone's, so now you can shoot me out for being an arrogant asshole!"
Are you ever going to get a full time band and play gigs, etc?
"At some point, yes. I have a drummer right now. While I still record at home, I'm having fun with this drummer whom I've known since we were kids in high school - he actually introduced me to Barbara. I would like to find a bass player and guitar player, but the problem is that I live in NYC and everything is very macho. No-one plays wimpy enough for me! Besides, a lot of my songs like 'Make A Deal With The City' are really repetitious. Inevitably the guitar players don't want to get stuck on that one riff, they want to start playing Eric Clapton blues riffs over my little East River Pipe song! As soon as I hear one blues note I tell the guy to hit the door. I would love to get a band and tour but I have to get people to play this stuff properly."
Are there any musicians that you admire or that you could see yourself working with?
"I consider my idol (for want of a better term!) to be Tom Verlaine (Television). He's the reason I picked up a guitar. I love the way he writes a song, I love the ambiguity in the words and I love the guitar playing. Other people I really admire would be Laurie Anderson, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, to a certain extent Sonic Youth. I like a lot of cheesy soul music from the 70s like the Chi-lites and Harold Nelson, Gladys Knight and the Pips. To me that's the coolest music in the world. As for contemporary people - I would say I listen to Pavement, Built To Spill, Guided By Voices. In a brotherly way I admire the fact that they had to struggle for ten years in utter obscurity before Matador picked up on them. Also I think that Morrissey's recent stuff has been fantastic - "Vauxhall and I" is great. There are bands I like such as Shrimpboat, Drink Me, oh, and I absolutely love "Very" by the Pet Shop Boys. For me that's the best album of the last four or five years. There's a big mix of artists that I really enjoy - I don't like to pigeonhole things."
Tell us about the down and out period. Was music the furthest thing from your thoughts then?
"I suppose when I was really messed up, living day after day in a train station in the middle of March, unbelievably cold, the only thing I was really thinking of was what a huge loser I was, and did I want to live or die, basically. Oh, and where the hell was I going to get my next beer. Music wasn't on my mind. NYC is like the capital of homeless people and when you're living that way - you've got nowhere to go, you've got no friends, nowhere to sleep, no way to get money - your life is right up in your face and you have no breathing room. I was so far down I wouldn't take a shower or change my clothes, you can't even imagine coming back to the 'real world'. I wasn't thinking about music at that time of my life, and it only became an option after Barbara had found me and let me sleep on her couch. I really believe that if you're going to start thinking about the more transcendent things in life then you really need a roof over your head, you need food, you have to get laid every once in a while... the basic necessities come first. You ask yourself "am I going to survive?" My story isn't as romantic as it might appear - the guy sleeping in a station dreaming of pop stardom! I wouldn't recommend what I've done, to anybody. You don't have to torture yourself to be a good artist. You just have to keep a level head and just follow your heart."
Interview by Jonathan Greer, summer 1995