IN 1977, an ex-art student emerged from the U.K. underground with a perfect hit. With two chords feeding through a scuzzy guitar and an unmistakable Cockney accent, Wreckless Eric’s "Whole Wide World" has gone down as one of the great new wave hits of its time. Clad in brightly-patterned attire and boasting an everpresent air of mischief, Eric Goulden was an early Stiff Records signee, along with the likes of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.
While those two have certainly reached a level of commercial success, Goulden has, for much of his career, remained underground, working with independent labels, writing with his wife, Amy Rigby, and playing by his own rules.
In 2011, the England native moved to New York, touring and dishing out tunes on his latest effort, amERICa. By phone, he’s much like one might expect from his music—chatty with a fierce sense of sarcasm and a delightful way with words. Did we mention he’s funny as hell? (On touring alone in the U.S. and driving past miles and miles of billboards: “Why would some useless species who can invent carpet discount warehouses be granted everlasting life?”)
Goulden brings his one-man show to Congress St. Social Club on Sunday. It’s all-ages and free—you have no excuse to not rejoice in this underground icon’s presence.
Where are you today?
I already forgot! [Laughs] I'm in Huntsville, Alabama. Home of NASA headquarters. The sons and daughters of astronauts, and astronauts themselves, want to see me!
You're touring in support of amERICa. It has such a well-traveled feel. Were you inspired by your move to the U.S.?
I suppose the thing is, I had to call an album amERICa because I could! I like the conceit of it. It's maybe quite banal and everything, but there's layers, there's depths, shallows. I thought it was terribly funny. At the same time, it's about America, but it's about me. And it's more about me than it is about America, so I'm in capital letters in amERICa!
Moving to America was...I don’t know...kind of traumatic. We had to get everything we owned into a container and have it shipped across the Atlantic. Once we got there, I think there was a period of shock.
I suppose I was taking the shock of the situation—here I was, and naturally one day you say, ‘How did I get here?’ and it’s quite a puzzle.
I think it’s a thing in getting older, and an unfashionable thing to do, but unfortunately it does happen: you start to wonder, look back at life, and it’s tiring to actually look at it. I think some of the album is a transitory thing.
Obviously, ‘Several Shades of Green,’ that’s me saying, ‘Look, I don’t want to actually be a pop star. In the first place, it was a bit of a joke, really.’
It’s terribly sad, because I’m in the gym looking at these people, and everyone’s desperately trying to stay alive. I do think, ‘For what?’
There’s all these screens. I would always end up on some treadmill watching these property shows with the subtitles on:
‘Well, yeah, it’s a great house, but it’s not got granite countertops.’ And you’re thinking, ‘You’re 35 years old! You’re spending three quarter million on a house and granite countertops are deal breakers?’
Have you enjoyed living here?
I love America. It’s a thrill for me just about every day. There are some really messed up people here, obviously...the election has turned into a fiasco, for one thing, and the corruption is almost childlike in this country compared to how it is in Europe.
It’s layers and layers of deceit that you couldn’t possibly imagine. It’s more shallow in a way here...I dunno.
Do find your audiences are different playing here versus the UK/Europe?
Every time I say it’s different, it turns out to be the same. You can’t tell. And the kids change, as well.
There are some places you play and you end up playing a [audibly cringes] listening room, which I think is incredibly conceited. Who invented those? Where are those rooms where we break bottles over each other’s heads? It all goes to being a bit treacherous, really. But I do all kinds of shows, I really do.
You play alone; what’s your live setup like to capture your full sound?
I don’t need a band, and a band doesn’t need me, either. I have acoustic guitars, and an electric guitar, and a large amplifier. I got a big sound. I use an acoustic guitar, it splits off, goes into the PA with this big, fat sound, then it goes through two fuzz boxes. One of them I’ve had for years, I keep customizing it. It’s basically a homemade device. And I have an old ‘70s distortion pedal which I’ve always kept with me, and a delay pedal and a looper, which I don’t use as a looper, I hate all that, that’s horrible. This one cuts everything down to half-speed, drops an octave, and moves it backwards.
The amplifier has a really great vibrato tremolo in it. With a combination of distortions and clean sounds, I can do all kinds of things.
I can play just about everything from the new album—quite a lot of the set is the new album, and I always play ‘Whole Wide World.’ People say, ‘Don’t you get tired of playing it?’ No! It’s a hit! People wanna hear it, it makes it easy to play it.
I haven’t got time for those people, they have a hit and they don’t want to play out and be known for that. I want to be known for other stuff, but for god’s sake, when I was a kid, I dreamed of having a hit record. Now, I’ve got one. I’ve got a song that touches people. It’s a funny business—I don’t mind playing it.
When I was a kid, I used to play this game saying a word over and over until it didn’t make sense. I get worried I’m doing that with songs.
But I’ve heard people play the same set for 20 years and it sounds just the same as it did 20 years ago; it gets washed up.
In the Stiff Records days, what was the energy like around that scene? Did it feel like it was going to be big?
I think it was absolutely overrated in a lot of ways. It was like we had gotten into the basement of the building—the building being the music business—and we’re in the basement dismantling the place and it’ll bring them all down. And it was funny, but it’s been blown out of proportion.
I never really aligned myself with punk. That really did me a disservice. Look what punk became—asshole music. It’s for people who can’t play, dumb-bags, and people who could count up to four. What are you doing, are you having some kind of seizure, are you stupid?
The Stupid Brigade got a hold of it, then punk was nothing of any use to anybody, and it did a lot of bad because it swept a lot out of its way...an awful lot of music that happened in in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was actually much more interesting and had merit.