• Darby VanDeVeen

Mansion Harlots - Resurfacing After 20 Years

20 years after the formation of rock band Mansion Harlots, members Baz Francis and Will Gray decided to reform the band and release All Around a Fairground. Over that time, the two friends had a lot of growing up to do, and you can see how they combine the old with the new on this record. New influences came into play, as well as big life changes that helped to shape their perspective on the world around them. I recently got the chance to sit down with Baz Francis and talk about the process of bringing a band back after 20 years, his favorite moments over his career and more. 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your music?

I have been playing music live and recording for about 23 years now. I started with my band Mansion Harlots, who were a short lived band in the 90s. Then I went on to eventually form Magic Eight Ball and do solo work before bringing Mansion Harlots back as well. Magic Eight Ball, Mansion Harlots and my solo work were all happening next to each other and I have just put out the Mansion Harlots album, All Around a Fairground. That’s on my label, Magic Cat Records. That’s my fifth album that I’ve worked on now. I’m kind of in between albums at the moment, so I’ve been doing some singles, some recording. I was due to be on tour again back in April/May, but you know how that goes. So I’ve played in over 20 countries across 4 continents so far. I’ve gotten to work with my heroes and make albums, singles, EPs and collaborations, so I can’t really complain about life.

That’s really cool. With two bands and a label you must be really busy.

It’s a real juggling act because the nature of consumerism in this day and age means that people lose concentration and interest real quick. I was finishing the Mansion Harlots album last year, performing solo, and I also reestablished Magic Eight Ball in the United States and played shows in California, even opening for one of my favorite bands, Blind Melon. It was strange because I was doing other things. I still had people say “Oh, so Magic Eight Ball’s not going anymore” and it’s like no, I’m doing other things as well and it takes time. It’s kind of time consuming being in a band and organizing two bands...like the Mansion Harlots album took a while to put together, and organizing shows for another band and still playing solo. I sometimes think that most people don’t realize there’s a lot of boring, bookwork-y stuff that goes into getting these things. I don’t mind because it’s rewarding when you self-manage yourself like I do and you see the benefits of your so-called business know how. That’s quite satisfying because I’m not a music manager per say and I’m not a business minded person so it’s still nice to do stuff like that. And overseeing photography and artwork as well, and making sure each of my different projects has a very clear identity of it’s own. It’s all part of a large process. I talk to people that are not playing music at the moment and they’re kind of sad about that, since they’re working in a store and that’s not what they want to do. And I always remind them that if you’re formulating ideas in your head, you are working in music. There’s a lot of thinking that has to go behind a musical project and a band and an album. So if you’re stacking shelves or serving coffee but you are generating cool ideas and getting inspiration, you’re always working in music. It’s quite a lot to take on at times, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m very fortunate to be able to make music.

So is there a lot of pressure to keep releasing things and putting things out since you said people lose interest so quickly?

Yeah, because then people assume that you’re dead. I read some posts about myself from people who live in a country or a town that I haven’t played in for a year. It’s like an obituary - “I remember, I remember when he was around here.” I’m only one state over, one country over - I’m still alive. So there is that pressure. But I don’t let it get to me too much, because what I’ve realized is that the people who like my music, who truly like my music, tend to be patient and understand that there is a process behind it. Whereas it's the fly-by-night people who’ve never actually bought the records - they may have streamed them, they may have watched the video - but they’re like “where’s the new album, where’s the new single?” When you do put it up, they’re in no rush to watch it. I always make sure that my toughest critic is myself and things happen on my own schedule. The Mansion Harlots album took longer than I had planned to complete, but I wouldn’t change anything because the making of an album is a story unto itself. If there is a story of interest behind an album, then I think it makes it all the more compelling. It certainly wasn’t contrived with that because I was moving across to the other side of the world at the making of it, and when it got complete it was just this document of a time of upheaval in my life. To hear those joyous songs that were created through moments of pain is very uplifting. Cause you go "well, I was going through something at that time, but this music sounds like the hope at the end of the tunnel." It’s funny because with Mansion Harlots, we were a defunct band for 20 years. Some of these songs on the album have origins back in the 90s. Some of them were never even demoed. Some of these ideas only lived in my head. And they were rattling up there for so long, so it’s really weird to have radio stations play those songs. They seem like they just existed in my imagination for so long. And now to see them have that life, and have people attach their own meaning to them is just so wonderful and uplifting. It makes me go ‘well, it took awhile to make that one, but why change something that has that positive effect at the end of the road.

That must be really cool to see an idea and fragments you had in your mind come to life.

It was very different from other records I’ve worked on because these songs had been incomplete or untouched for so long. A lot of the lyrics from those songs in question had to be rewritten. I don’t know how much of my 10 songs on the album -- Will Gray wrote another two -- I would say it’s about 70% new ideas. The other 30% comes from the past and has been updated. It’s also really interesting for me, if no one else. I remember going into the studio at the college I was in in England and recording demos for some of these songs. I remember how hard it was to sing certain notes. But as you grow older, you develop a certain strength for it. That’s nice to see the upward curve of progress. We hadn’t had a gig together as Mansion Harlots for 20 years, so to do that again in Europe (which I did in 2018) was really just another level of excitement. I remember we did this show in Luxembourg, which was probably my favorite gig ever, and this woman came up to me afterwards and said “you guys are really good, what’s your name?” And I went “We’re Mansion Harlots.” And it was so weird saying that after 20 years. It was so weird playing the first notes of one of the songs in the rehearsal room. It’s really weird when people introduce me as Baz from Mansion Harlots. But it’s never taken away from Magic Eight Ball and I want to begin work on the new Magic Eight Ball album this year. You’ve got to put in those hours. With COVID-19 for the most part a lot of people think it’s terrible not to go out to bars or restaurants. To me, it’s just another night in recording. It isn’t really that much different. It did get to me in the end. But that’s kind of what I’ve been doing and who I am.

Are you excited to work with Will Gray again after such a long break?

Baz Francis (left) and Will Gray (right)

Yeah, Will and I have this long standing friendship from 26 years ago and we’ve had so many ups and downs over the years. We are quite an unlikely pair. He was like "how will my songs fit on this record?" and I said "trust me, trust me they will." We just have this odd, but beautiful musical relationship. I’ve had a bunch of people say to me that one of his songs - "Meet Me in the Shadows" - is their favorite song on the album. They don’t realize that it’s Will singing and that he wrote the song. Will asked me if that irritated me and I told him that that is what this band was always meant to be. It was meant to be our band. I said to him from the start that his songs will be some people’s favorites and my songs might be for others. You get to a point where it’s counterproductive to have an ego about these things. I’m really proud of Will for the songs that he contributed to the album. I love those tracks. I’m glad we did it. What the future holds for Mansion Harlots - I don’t know. One thing I can tell you is that this album that I’m so proud of, and that last wonderful show in Luxembourg are anything to go by...if they are the last stands of Mansion Harlots then I think we’ll be closing that book on a high. I’m not in a rush to close any books. I’m always open to new ideas and new suggestions. During the making of the album, Will had a kid. So his life has gone off in a different direction. During the making of the album, I moved from the UK to California to New Mexico. That had its own upheavals to it. Life happens. Some of that is probably documented in the sentiments I’m expressing on the album.

Those big life changes are definitely represented on the album.

Thank you -- There’s one song in particular, called "Tale of the Same Old Story", and I’m basically singing about how you kind of end up chasing your tail if you never have the desire to look beyond your own neighborhood. You can tell yourself that you’re completely satisfied, sitting in the town where you were born. And that’s completely fine if you are. But if you’re not, and you’re lying to yourself, then that’s kind of sad. For me, I had to leave because my heart was in California. I had so much toxicity in my family that I wanted to get thousands of miles away from it, and that wouldn’t be for everyone, but it sure was for me. That song probably does express that the strongest for me, but I’m glad you picked up on that.

With the album, what were your biggest influences? It seemed like a bunch of different styles of rock all put together.

I sort of came up with a manifesto for the return of Mansion Harlots and about how we should approach the songs. I said if something was a bad idea, it’s not magically a good idea now. There is no room for nostalgia. If an idea has been rattling around my head for 20 years and I still like it, that’s a good sign. I wanted the primary influence on my songs of the album to be musical influences of mine from Mansion Harlots Era 1 that I still love today. I wanted to tastefully add elements of bands that I’ve gotten into since. The old influences that are still on the record are bands like Everclear, Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead. The more recent influences that have come onto the record (some of which I was starting to get into as the band was fading away) were Guns N’ Roses, Queen and at a later point, Teenage FanClub. I would say it kind of crosses this spectrum of indie rock to stadium rock in terms of influence. Will, his favorite band is Radiohead, so the song "Deepest Sleep," I think was inspired by Midlake. With "Meet Me in the Shadows," that just sounds very Will and that’s kind of representative of his leanings towards a different type of alternative rock to me. When it all came together, it didn’t seem to be out of place. It all seemed to work nicely. I think with rock and music in general that there’s such a loose definition of what it is. When people ask me what kind of band I’m in or what kind of singer I am, I answer rock. Then they make assumptions. Do you sound like Linkin Park? No. Do you sound like Coldplay? No. You can go down so many different avenues based on that one word and I’ve always loved soul music. That has been as much of an influence in the way I approach singing as much as the rock singers that I love. I don’t describe myself as a soul singer, or a rock singer, I just describe myself as a singer. It is a bit of a melting pot but I don’t think it sounds disjointed for being so.

When you merged your old influences and your new influences were you also merging the old Mansion Harlots sounds with what you wanted it to be?

Yeah, it was kind of "what would we have sounded like back in the day if we could play better and we could actually do the things we wanted to do then." There was an element of that. When I proposed making the album to start with, I thought it wouldn’t take long since Mansion Harlots demos back in the day were very rough and ready and raw. Then when I reapproached the songs with 20 years of additional life experience at the least I thought “well that could do with a harmony,” which I didn’t know how to sing back then. And that could do with a guitar arrangement, which I didn’t know how to do back then and that could do with piano, which I didn’t know how to play back then. I tried very very hard and very subtly to make that transition between old and new without sounding like a completely different band. Just the band we were going to be 20 years on.

That’s really cool.

Thank you. If you read the liner notes of the album, it basically tells the exact origins of some of the songs, the live history, and it is really a detailed account of how we came to be what we were 20 years later.

Yeah. I always like seeing how bands evolve over time and I feel like Mansion Harlots is a really good example of that.

Well thank you very much. It was weird because there was no real middle period. Will and I would occasionally do things musically together, but I was primarily working with Magic Eight Ball and he was predominantly working with his bands: Signal Fires, Atlantic Fire and {satellite-state}. We’d occasionally do things together but never under the Mansion Harlots name. I put together a proposal and it just felt like the right time. It was actually going to take place a few years from now. Something came up and I was just about to move to America and I had a gap in my diary. And I wondered when I would get the opportunity in life to have my brother Rob (who was in Mansion Harlots back in the day), my niece Poppi (who there’s a song about on the album), Will, Andrea (my wife) and myself on the same album, in the same room. When will that next opportunity come? I was like "it’s gotta be now." It was a good job because then Will had his kid Toby and we all went through our own life experiences after that. It really was a document in time and I really treasured those tracks until they were ready to release unto the world. I knew that you can’t go back. If you listen to the song "Panda Eyes" you hear my niece at the start. If the record was made three years later, you wouldn’t have that tone to her voice. She was 8 at the time. She wasn’t going to sound like that for much longer. Through powers of musical recording, she’s been immortalized at that age. We did our growing together but apart.

That’s such a good story behind it too.

Why thank you. I also wanted the booklet to the album with our story, cause Will’s got a terrible memory and I’ve got a really good memory. I did a lot of research through my old cassette tapes and I dug up things before I shipped out of the UK. I was doing my research and I wanted the story to be a complete and accurate document of all that I knew during that time. It makes for a compelling read to me, but I can imagine to others it just gives them a little bit of background as to what they’re listening to. We were talking about how CDs to some degree have become not the most popular format to buy your music these days. Physical copies of records have the artwork. Everything from the photos and the writing and the illustrations within it have lots of significance. There are little Easter Eggs within the album artwork. The drawing by Joseph Weide has little Easter Eggs relating to the band the first time around. They’re at the fairground and there’s a rifle shooting range. Well, Mansion Harlots one proper gig back in the 90s was at a venue called The Rifleman. There’s also a sign that says ‘Entrance.’ The second Mansion Harlots demo was called "Make a Graceful Entrance." The color of the circus tent - the red and the white stripes - was very similar to the stars and the stripes from our first demo ‘The Complainers Anthems.’ There’s all these little details that acknowledge where we come from. It’s more of a complete package. When you download something you hear the record, which is the most important thing. There is so much more to it if you actually open up the booklet. If you watch the video to “Panda Eyes” there are all these Easter Eggs that explain the story from 1997 to 2019.

The album art looks really cool - I’m looking at it now. Was it hand drawn?

It was. Joseph Weide is an artist who goes under the name of Mr. Willow. He works out of Florida. I had been following his black and white fountain pen drawings on Instagram. I said “look, I’ve got this idea for an album cover. I’d like you to do it, but can you do color?” He said he hadn’t done color before but he’ll give it a try. He sent me some tests and he nailed it. He very sweetly sent me a framed copy of the final work, which was really cool too. That was a custom painting, or drawing, I should say. I had that for a long time, whilst I was making the album. So I knew what it was going to look like. I knew what it was going to sound like. Putting all those parts together was where a lot of the frustration comes from. Because you feel like the album’s already made and it's like, well I just need to do another 10 tracks there, and another 10 tracks pop up there. It was blood, sweat and tears, but it was the way it had to happen. I honestly thought that I could make a Mansion Harlots album simultaneous to another Magic Eight Ball album. I thought Mansion Harlots won’t be as full on since a lot of the songs were already written. What I didn’t realize was that only parts of the songs were written. They still had to be completed and new songs had to be written as well. The production of it needed to be a lot more than our original sound. I thought that I’m not going to do another album at the same time as this; I need to focus all my energy towards this. That benefitted the album because it wasn’t something I was doing on the side - it became my main focus for a while. It didn’t stop the existence of Magic Eight Ball. I’ve done various things with Magic Eight Ball between 2017 and now. I last played with Robbie for a set on the radio in England back in January. It’s like I said before because you try to explain to people that you’re still going. I also wanted to go off and do other things so when I came back to making a Magic Eight Ball record that it would be fresh. Cause I felt that if I followed up our third album immediately with what I wanted to do next, that it would sound like a watered down version. I wanted it to be a heavier record. So I did a solo album and then the opportunity came up for Mansion Harlots that wasn’t ever going to present itself again. I don’t know why people are concerned that that’s the end of Magic Eight Ball because I’ve got plenty of ideas waiting for that.

That’s really cool. I admire how you manage to juggle both bands at once.

Thank you. It was a lot of sleepless nights at times. But, I love what I do. And then you have these terrible days - we all have terrible days - and you wonder whether this was the right move. And then I would have moments like the gig in Luxembourg or getting the final CD in my hand for All Around a Fairground, or playing with Magic Eight Ball on a new continent. These moments along the way just mean the world to me. So, I have to focus on them as opposed to the bad days. If you don’t do your homework, if you don’t do the laborious paperwork then you’re just going to take things for granted. And think that you’ll just be off on this wonderful thing tomorrow. Tomorrow might not come. Life happens and you just have to roll with it don’t you?

Yeah. What’s been your favorite moment so far that you’ve looked back on?

Musically, there have been a few, but I’m going to pick one. Six years ago last month, I got to work with my hero Rik Mayall, and he read my poetry on the Magic Eight Ball album Last of the Old Romantics. And four weeks later, a month ago this week, he passed away. I ended up being one of the last people to work with my hero. He said some things to me about my abilities that would have just been nice for anyone to say. But you talk to this guy and he’s just telling you these nice things and you’re thinking that he’s your childhood hero saying these things. He died before the album came out, so there was that bittersweetness then as well. It’s still one of the weirdest experiences to meet your hero, and for there to be any amount of mutual respect, and then for them to die and it be on the front pages. You’re just walking past the newspapers, tearing up because only a month prior to that you were hanging out with him. That to me, going back to what you were saying before about juggling things, that to me, speaks volumes just to why all of us must not take the future for granted. Imagine if I’d asked him if he wants to be on the album next year, the next record. If I’d done that it would've been too late. He didn’t know. He had a brain seizure and died in bed. No one saw it coming. I thought it was a nasty hoax when I found out. One of the last things my hero ever recorded was “they’re a nice enough bunch of guys, but that Baz is a complete and utter c***” I love that. So much. And if I’m ever in a graveyard I want that on my tombstone. If you know the humor of Rik Mayall that is just brilliant. It’s just a wonderful thing. It’s how it should be. He was universally loved because he was so funny and he still makes me howl with laughter to this day. It was a badge of honor to have him want to work with me. When I was in the studio making him a cup of tea, Dave (the producer) had the record button pressed down and he captured a conversation with Rik in which he basically said what he’d said to me outside by himself, so somewhere I have it. Him being very sweet about me. I just remember sitting in the studio on the sofa and he started to read my words. I closed my eyes and listened to his inimitable voice and I just thought “you stood next to your hero, he’s reading your poetry for your band’s new album. Enjoy this moment Baz, cause life doesn't get much better than this.” And I was kind of right wasn’t I? So, I’m going to put Rik at number one.

Be sure to check out All Around a Fairground on Apple Music or Spotify.

2 views0 comments