Martin Fry an English singer, songwriter, composer, record producer and founding member of ABC, chats with Kevin Cooper about working with Trevor Horn, having sandwiches on his live rider, playing at Sheffield City Hall and their latest album Lexicon Of Love Live due for release on 19th May 2023.

Martin Fry is an English singer, songwriter, musician, and record producer. With a career spanning more than forty years he came to prominence in the early 1980’s as co-founder and lead singer of the pop band ABC.

In 1978 Fry edited a fanzine titled Modern Drugs which is when he met future ABC band members, Mark White and Stephen Singleton whilst interviewing them for the fanzine. At the time they were fronting an electronic band called Vicer Versa and they invited Fry to join them.

With Fry in place as lead singer and lyricist, they changed their name to ABC. Between 1982 and 1991 they recorded six studio albums, The Lexicon Of Love, Beauty Stab, How To Be A…Zillionaire! Alphabet City, Up, and Abracadabra, and released a greatest hits album called Absolutely.

ABC disbanded in 1991 and Fry continued to work with EMI but left the label before he could release any of his solo work. The band was resurrected in 1997 and in 2008 they released a new ABC album titled Traffic.

In April 2009, Fry and original drummer David Palmer performed The Lexicon Of Love album live at The Royal Albert Hall. The band was accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Anne Dudley of Art of Noise fame, who arranged and played keyboards on the original album, conducted the performance.

In April 2016 a single with a music video, Viva Love, was released as a teaser for The Lexicon Of Love II album. It entered the UK albums chart at number five, the band’s highest chart position since 1982 and first top ten entry since 1990.

In 2012 he received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the University of Sheffield for his contribution of more than thirty years to music.

Whilst busy promoting the release of the Lexicon Of Love Live album which is due for release on 19th May, Fry took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Martin, good afternoon, how are you today?

Hello Kevin, I’ve been expecting your call, and yes, all is good thank you. In fact all is very good indeed.

Before we move on let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No, thank you, it’s not a problem. In fact it’s always a pleasure whenever we get to chat and attempt to put the world to rights (laughter).

I have to ask, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

It’s not too bad but it’s so cold isn’t it. We really do need some sunshine (laughter). I suppose that I shouldn’t complain really as I have just returned from South Beach in Miami, and then I moved onto Orlando where I have been playing some shows out there.

You quite obviously like your sunshine as the last time that you and I spoke you had just returned from Marrakesh.

Yes, I remember that well (laughter). Now that really is a nice part of the world. You really should get yourself over there as soon as you can.

We will talk about that later, but in the meantime, I want to ask you how did you manage to keep yourself active and sane during lockdown?

That’s easy; it was all down to my family, my family most definitely. I have got a shed at the end of the garden and believe it or not, I kept re-painting it all different colours, and I have to say, it really does look fantastic. I also have a small allotment where I used to grow cucumbers and stuff; that really is sad isn’t it (laughter). My garden played a huge part in keeping me sane as it encouraged me to get out into the open and to take in some fresh air. Some days were worse than others for everybody. In a way it was good to be able to get back to nature and I personally feel that some of that has got to go on, you can feel it.

We have to talk about the new live album but before we do, if I may, I would like to take you back some forty years to the release of the original Lexicon Of Love album. Just where the hell did those years go?

(Laughter) I know, four whole decades which could contain a whole adventure, and let me tell you that a hell of a lot has happened during those forty years (laughter). It was the fortieth anniversary of the original album being released so we wanted to document just what it was that we had been doing live on stage during the past few years, especially the stuff that we had been doing with the orchestra, with The Southbank Symphonia and with Anne Dudley. So, we recorded the show at The City Hall in Sheffield. So I guess that makes the original studio album our demo for the new live album (laughter). Forty years ago, I wrote a few songs, and we recorded a whole load of different songs, and I have to say that it is really great to be able to run the Lexicon stuff together, in sequence.

When you first wrote and recorded the album, could you ever envisage that here we are some forty years later, and the songs are still so popular?

Not at all, no way, fifteen minutes is a long time, fifteen milliseconds is a long time in pop music. I can still remember driving back to Chesterfield in the van, listening to the monito mixes of Poison Arrow. We had been down to the Sarm East Recording Studios in Whitechapel, London, where Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded. We had been working with Trevor (Horn) who gave us a cassette of the mix halfway through the recording session, and we must have played that cassette until it fell apart. It was great listening to it.

You have mentioned Trevor. What was it like working with him for the first time?

What can I say, Trevor is great. He has got a really good sense of humour. Let me put it this way; there are two things about Trevor that you cannot help but like. Firstly, he has got a very mischievous sense of humour and secondly, he has got a very low boredom threshold. So, as long as he is laughing and you are all having a really good laugh, then you will always get things done. But if he isn’t, he is kind of like a coach, like I would imagine Eric Ten Hag would be at Manchester United. If an idea wasn’t working, he would just kind of drift off. However, if it was working then we would have a wonderful time recording it. It really was a lot of fun working with Trevor.

I have to tell you that I played the original album earlier today and I have to say that I personally feel that it sounds as good today as it did some forty years ago now. Would you agree with that?

It’s quite surreal really isn’t it? I have to say that forty years is a hell of a long time. In answer to your question, I don’t really know as I feel that the album has a life of its own. As soon as you finish something it’s done, it becomes public property and it’s out there. It then becomes down to the audience, they own it, I no longer own it, I merely perform it. I will agree with you and say yes, sometimes it does feel fresh. It is really hard for me to describe that, because a lot of music has come and gone since, a lot of trends come and go, and I can hear a lot of influences of eighties stuff in a lot of today’s productions, even Taylor Swift or The Weeknd. A lot of Max Martins productions today have an element of those shiny pop records from back in the eighties.

There were five hit singles on the album. Did you at the time realise that you had recorded something special?

(Laughter) looking back, we were really Gung Ho about trying to make our debut album catch people’s imaginations, so we worked really hard on that. Everybody who collaborated on the record really did try to do that including all the guys in the band. We all spent a lot of time trying to make it the best that we possibly could. But I don’t know really. I know that I wanted the album to find itself in a few record collections, but I had no idea that some forty years later we would still be playing it.

Coming right up to date, whose idea was it to put it out as a live album?

I suppose that would have been mine. I had listened to Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! by The Rolling Stones and also Live At Leeds by The Who and it was those live albums that introduced me to those bands as a young lad growing up in the seventies. I thought that it would be nice to showcase the legacy of what it is that we are doing now with the orchestra. Some of the orchestral parts are so beautiful. Some of the work that Anne Dudley has put into it, and the way that the band were playing, I really did want to capture that, and that is why it felt right for us to put out a live recording. Sometimes, people will put out acoustic versions of their songs, whereas we went in the other direction. We went out and actually made more complex versions of our songs; symphonic versions of our songs. That was the way in which I wanted to do it really.

You have briefly mentioned the Sheffield City Hall. Once the decision had been made to release a live album there was only one show that it could be, wasn’t there?

Yes, there was, and I have to say that it really was irresistible. I didn’t want to record twenty shows and edit them together, like people used to do years ago. I simply wanted to capture the magic of that one night, and whatever went on during that one night at the City Hall. Whenever we play Sheffield, it is always emotional, but I knew that if it was the fortieth anniversary then it had to be the show at Sheffield City Hall. The band hadn’t played the orchestral show for a while, so I knew that it was going to be an emotional evening for everybody, and it was. Having said that, we played the Royal Albert Hall the following night and I have to say that was a killer show as was the Bridgewater Hall the night before, but as you rightly say, it just had to be Sheffield (laughter).

I have to be totally honest with you and say that the album really did surprise me because back in the day live albums were either great or a train crash.

I totally agree with you, there really were a lot of terrible live albums out there (laughter). I wanted to do something that showed that we really are a live band. We don’t use any sequencing, nor do we use any vari-tuning or stuff like that, and that is how the band has evolved over the years. That’s one of the reasons why we augmented so well with the orchestra. It was the live stage that we wanted to capture, that’s all really. We really did want to do the songs justice.

Obviously, people have heard The Lexicon Of Love but the live album is like The Lexicon Of Love on steroids almost, with even more musicians on stage (laughter). I think that I soon realised that I couldn’t take it any bigger, so it was the time for us to record it as a document for what we have been doing. I sometimes play those songs just on an acoustic guitar, and strip it right back, which is really popular now, isn’t it?

Yes, it is.

For example, Mad World, a classic Tears For Fears track being performed by a young singer acoustically but what we have done is a totally different approach.

The only way to record a live show back in the day was to use The Rolling Stones mobile recording studio, but thankfully technology has since moved on (laughter).

(Laughter) yes, that’s right. Those buggers must have made a fortune from their mobile recording studio (laughter). The art of recording now days is, thankfully, a lot more refined; you can even do it on your mobile phone. I have to tell you that whenever we play live, we have two sound desks, we have evolved the show over a long period of time and we now have two guys on two desks because it was far too much for one guy to do. There was a hell of a lot to balance.

You have got six Cellos, four Violas, six Violins, a drummer behind perspex, a bass player, and the percussionists, so there really was a hell of a lot to balance and so that was one of the main reasons as to why I wanted to record it really, seeing just how hard it was for them.

You have mentioned that The Albert Hall gig was a blast. Having now listened to the Sheffield City Hall gig, are you happy with it or are there parts that you perhaps feel could have gone better?

I just like it; in fact, I love it. You can almost taste the excitement on the record. I honestly do not think that it could have gone better. Sometimes, there are a few moments over a two-hour show that will get fluffed, but I personally feel that simply adds to the authenticity of it all and I am so pleased; it really was a great show in Sheffield.

I think that the live album takes the original studio album to another level. Would you agree with that?

Yes, we wanted to try and do that in a way, yes because forty years had gone by. I wanted the live album to sit next to the original, proudly alongside the original recording. That is what ABC are all about. As you know I am a perfectionist and there are a couple of moments when I fluffed a line or two and I thought, ‘I could go back into the studio and re-record those parts’, but I just thought, ‘no, its fine’ (laughter). I wanted to capture exactly what had happened throughout the whole show. In a show it builds up to a climax, then it drops and builds back up again, and I also realised when I was mixing the album that the crowd have a lot of influence on just how we play.

That was the very first time that I had realised that. The way that they respond to stuff; it’s quite hard because it got really loud in every intro. Whenever people hear the beginning of a song and they recognise it, they start cheering (laughter). I was going to leave that out, but I thought, ‘no, leave it in; it’s the excitement of the night’.

I actually wrote down when I was listening to the album that it captures everything that is good about ABC.

That’s good, thank you for saying that. It is really good to hear you say that so thank you.

In my opinion your voice is sounding better than ever. Is there anything in particular that you do to help keep it in shape?

Thanks very much, I really do enjoy singing, and I have to say that in my opinion it is a two-way street. I personally feel that the more you sing the more warmed up you get. I have toured a hell of a lot and have climbed inside those songs, but I am lucky because sometimes people’s voices just go, so I really don’t know what to say (laughter). It’s like a football player running a hundred metres, whilst you can do it, it feels great, and that is currently where I am at. To be totally honest with you, I’m terrible.

I warm up a little before a show; some singers have a very elaborate process and preparation prior to a show but I just wander around chatting to everybody, waiting to get myself on stage (laughter). Some guys will get up in the morning and not speak to anyone until its show time, but that’s not me. What is good for me is to have played a couple of shows during that week; I find that oils my voice.

It’s good to see that you haven’t adopted the Mick Hucknall method of staying healthy. I’ve heard that whenever he walks down the corridors at the Arena the staff have to turn their back to him and face the wall (laughter).

Is that how it works (laughter). I’ve never tried that, but Phil (Oakey) tried it once. Phil and I were stood on the stairs at The Hammersmith Odeon once when he tried it. He has never tried it again (hysterical laughter). Maybe, if someone looks at you it depletes your charisma; I don’t know what happens (laughter). What I will say is that there is no hiding place whenever you get on stage; once you are out there on stage you are totally naked. It’s not just remembering the words and singing the songs in tune and in time, you are also carrying the weight of people’s expectations too. It was my birthday recently and let me tell you, I’m not getting any younger (laughter). To me, it always feels like a great privilege whenever I get on stage to sing those songs.

Will you tour again with the Sinfonia?

Yes, I think we will. The Southbank Sinfonia are a very young orchestra, and I have to say that Anne Dudley is incredible. Her experience with orchestras is phenomenal. Somebody once said to me, “what was it like working with Anne, working with a female conductor” and quite honestly, I had never thought about Anne in that way. In a man’s world, where most orchestra conductors are men, there is Anne, a woman. I have to say of course that is the case, but I had never really thought that through. She is an incredible talent and that is just the way that it is. I have known Anne for years, so the chance for us to work together really was great.

We will most probably tour again with Anne and the Southbank Sinfonia sometime in January or February next year. As I said, the Southbank Sinfonia is a very young orchestra and it is an orchestra where people come in order to play in their first orchestra, so there is a lot of energy there which is great. We did a SKY TV Arts programme, and they filmed us playing at the Palladium, when we performed eleven songs there, so that’s due to be released sometime soon too. We did that in order to compliment the live album, and to show people just what we are like on stage.

Did you have any problems sourcing vinyl or cardboard in order to get the album pressed?

I have to say that I think that it is a lot easier than it was a couple of years ago. Isn’t it a shame that they shut down all of those vinyl factories in the UK. Somebody was not thinking straight when they did that (laughter). I know that people still cut vinyl in Slovakia and various places now. I would love to own a vinyl factory; I would love that job (laughter).

The last time that you and I spoke, you told me that you had written six new songs for a new album. How is that coming along?

(Laughter) well, what can I say, there are always new songs being written. For us to do the live record and to celebrate the fortieth anniversary, it clears the deck so in the future I would love to do another record; another new album with all new songs. As you know, I am always writing; writing for me is now like a hobby.

I see that you are playing the 80s Mix Tape 2023 Weekender at Darley Park Derby on Saturday 26th August. Are you playing anymore?

Yes, we are, there are quite a few dates coming up this year, I really must get my Bandsintown App working. I am currently having a few problems with it. Whenever you book a show, it then goes directly onto your website, so yes, we do have a number of shows coming up this summer. So, what can I say except watch this space (laughter). One show that I am really excited about playing is the Cruel World Festival in Pasadena, on Saturday 20th May. Also on the bill are Siouxsie, Iggy Pop, and Billy Idol, to name but a few. I really am excited about playing there, I can’t wait.

What is on Martin Fry’s live rider?

My rider, (hysterical laughter). I think that my rider is one of the easiest riders going really partly because I stopped drinking when I reached forty. That really has shrunk my rider considerably (laughter). At a recent convention gig over in Orlando, they gave me a gift bag which contained a pair of those incredible MAC headphones and stuff like that (laughter). I should really put electronic goods on my rider. But to answer your question, it is basically a packet of mints, some non-alcoholic beers; I have just discovered Zero Guinness, the zero alcohol in a can and let me tell you, it’s a work of art (laughter).

I think I might have to change the rider. The thing that I always insist are on my rider are sandwiches, I’m a bit of a sandwich geek. You arrive at the gig, you arrive at the theatre, and you eat sandwiches, but I did have to take off all things chocolate (laughter). Other than that, it really wasn’t very decadent at all (laughter). My wife said to me, “you really must try to eat healthily” (laughter).

On that note Martin, let me once again thank you for your time, it’s always great whenever you and I get to catch up.

Likewise Kevin, you take care, and I will see you at a gig this summer. Make sure that you come over and say hello.