David Boulter, Yarmouth and Clay Pipe Music

Melted ice cream running down the sleeve of a navy-blue parka. Fish and chips with grains of sand lurking at the bottom of the tray. Elaborate, fortified sandcastles destroyed by labrador raiding parties, blue-rinsed old ladies paddling gingerly in the tide. And – just occasionally – blistering, hallucinogenic sunshine, breaking through a uniform grey wall of lingering sea fret and drizzle.

David Boulter‘s debut solo record Yarmouth, released through Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe label, perfectly encapsulates the kaleidoscopic imagery of a traditional British seaside holiday. For thirty years, David has toured the world as the keyboard player with Tindersticks, but the album harks back to an earlier way of life: his family’s annual pilgrimage from their Nottingham home to the Norfolk seaside resort of Great Yarmouth. It deftly combines the intimate with the distinctly cinematic, offering a flickering, widescreen view of tantalisingly vague and fleeting childhood memories.

In January 2021, I spoke to David via Skype from Prague, where he has lived since the late 1990s. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: How often did you visit Great Yarmouth as a child? Was it an annual event?

David: Yeah, every summer holiday from when I was born up until the age of about 14 or 15. So from the second half of the 1960s until around 1979.

Did you see the place change during that time?

I probably did, but I didn’t take it in. Even though I was growing up and things were changing, going on holiday still felt like an exciting thing. And the one thing that never changed was the guest house we stayed in, run by a woman called Trudy. In my memories, nothing ever changed there. We always stayed in the same front bedroom, overlooking the street.

And Trudy herself is namechecked on the album – there’s a track, ‘Looking For Trudy’. What was she like?

A very typical Norfolk woman! She always seemed to have a pinny on, as it was usually mealtimes when we saw her. We had breakfast there, and an evening meal, and she was always bringing people their food. I think my dad was a bit of a flirt with her! She had a German Shepherd dog as well, which we used to take for early morning walks.

The track title suggests she might have been somewhat elusive…

Well, I did go back and find the street recently. It still looked a bit like a guest house, but there didn’t seem to be a sign outside. I don’t think Trudy would have around: she’d be a similar age to my parents, late seventies, so I guess it’s possible she could still be running a guest house, but it didn’t look like she was there.

So was it always a happy experience for you, then? It’s a warm-sounding album.

I think so, generally. I suppose things changed as I became a teenager, and I wanted different things. And there was probably a lot of rain and a bit of misery… but all I remember is bright sunshine and being able to have an ice cream every day!

I think 15 is the age when you start to question whether you really want to go on holiday with your parents, or whether it might be more fun to stay at home while they go away…

Yeah, my sister was four years older than me and the last couple of times that we went, she didn’t go with us. She was off with her friends, doing whatever she wanted to do, so it began to feel very different. Although even when we went as a family unit, I’d be pottering around on my own – maybe trying to make a friend. Or just sitting on the beach, building sandcastles.

Did you actually make any holiday friends?

Occasionally, but I think it was more my parents seeing people with a boy my age, and trying to get me to play with him! I do remember them taking someone’s address, and sending a Christmas card, assuming that they might meet again in Yarmouth the next summer… but they never did.

Is it possible the connections that we forge with regular holiday destinations are often nearly as potent as the connections to our home towns? I think you can take the place in which you live for granted a little bit – you can live somewhere with all kinds of interesting features and history, and they just become part of the everyday humdrum. But with a place you only visit on holiday – that’s quite an intense relationship, concentrated into a short period of time.

Yeah, I think so. And, at the time, it was quite a bad road from Norfolk to Nottingham. My dad will have had some old car, and we’ll have stopped at different points – it easily took five or six hours, maybe even longer. So it felt like a big adventure! We’d set off at dawn to get there for early afternoon. And part of the excitement as a child was sitting there for so long in the car… and then having the release of arriving at the sea. The sea was something really special.

And I suppose, as you’re growing up at school, the summers become the benchmarks of your life, and how it’s changing. You go up a year in school… they mark out your life almost more than your birthdays. There’s that progression of: “That’s what I did that summer, and that’s what I did the summer after”.

Completely. I can remember all of my childhood summers really clearly and distinctly, and they all have a completely different feel. Whereas now… I can barely tell you any distinguishing features of the last 20 summers of my life.  

Yeah, it’s all the little details. Buying a certain book to read on holiday, or taking whatever little toy I was playing with that year. And I remember the very last year of being there, I was trying to find record shops to look for music. Things had really changed…

Yes! All of my childhood summers have completely different soundtracks. Particular songs can be completely attached to specific summer holidays.

Yeah, and I think that changed a lot for me: by 1979, I was in my late phase of trying to be a punk, so I had a particular kind of style.

And I remember one big thing: we always used to see a show on the pier, which would be a typical 1970s variety show. And I remember one year, we saw a band called Our Kid.

I remember them! They were actually kids, weren’t they?

Yeah – they were seen as a reply to bands like The Osmonds. And I remember them being on the beach, and girls like my sister – who would have been about 14 – saying “Wow, there are pop stars on the beach!” And then going to see them perform on the pier… that was such a weird thing.

Did you go for a full fortnight?

We just did a week, but we always had a set routine that I don’t think ever really changed that much. The first day we got there, on the Saturday, Trudy didn’t cook an evening meal – I think because everyone in the guest house was changing over. So we’d always have fish and chips on the first evening there, which was a big deal for me. At home I’d just get a bag of chips, but because I was on holiday I’d get a fish as well! That was really exciting.

Probably with bits of sand in it…  

Yeah! And then there’d be a night when we’d go to a show on the pier, and a night when we’d go to a Roller Skating rink. There’d be a show with professional skaters, almost like a circus with dance routines and clowns. And then there’d be an evening when we went all the way down to the Pleasure Beach for the fair, and a day when we played Crazy Golf. It always seemed to be the same routine every year.

At what point during the summer holidays did you generally visit Yarmouth? I was talking to Keith Seatman last year, and he has a theory that the school summer holidays had three distinct phases. The first fortnight was a giddy rush of excitement, going out every day and having fun. The second fortnight, a bit of boredom and uncertainty began to creep in. And the final fortnight had a real sense of melancholy and impending doom. When did your trips to Yarmouth usually fall? I thought the album had a wistful “final fortnight” feel to it in places…

That’s interesting, as I’m pretty sure we always went in the first two weeks! We never went in August… I don’t think Trudy would have had different prices for different weeks, as that feels more like a modern practice, but maybe it just got too busy for my Dad in August. No, it was always July.

You’re right about that last week before you went back to school, though: it always seemed as though a little fog or mist would descend, and it would start to rain. Maybe that “end of summer” feeling is just my reflective way of thinking about things.

Seaside towns out of season can be very evocative, I think. All the boarded-up amusement aracades and windswept, empty beaches. Did you try to encapsulate even a little of that feeling on the album?

I did, and one of the things that actually sparked the idea for me was playing a Tindersticks show in Norwich about five years ago. I ended up getting there the day before the show, and I’d arrived by rail and saw that another train was leaving for Great Yarmouth. And it was only forty minutes away, so I decided to go there for the day.

This was in November, so it had a very grey feeling and it was at least 30 years since I’d been there. It was very different, and – to begin with – it was very depressing. But then I started to see things that I recognised, and to remember things that I hadn’t thought about at all during that time. It brought about some very strange emotions in me – not really nostalgia, or wanting to go back, but definitely something.

It was around the time of the whole Brexit referendum, and I suppose I was thinking about being an Englishman living in Prague. And things just felt like they’d become “us and them” in some way. Like I had to decide whose side I was on – am I British? Or am I Czech, almost? And standing in Yarmouth, looking at these grey rainy clouds and trying to find things that I recognised, almost summed everything up for me. That was the big inspiration behind trying to do something musical with it all.

And just walking along the front… it had been this massive place to me. This big adventure. And it was surprising how small it suddenly felt. I got off the train, then worked my way to Victoria Road, and walked the route we took every morning to the beach. There was Regent Street, which had some amazing shops – I remember a really big toy shop, with huge glass windows full of all the toys I wanted as a kid. But it was really depressing – just full of kebab shops and pound shops now. Which a lot of places are… I’m not saying it’s only Yarmouth that’s like that. But it just felt so different. The energy was different.

Did that post-Brexit feeling make it’s way into the album at all? Or was it purely rooted in the 1960s and 70s?

No, I think it’s purely rooted in my childhood. Although maybe the melancholy of some of the tracks came from me reflecting on everything changing. For a lot of British people that don’t live in the UK any more, there’s a slight feeling of being cut off… as though somebody has come along with a pair of big scissors and snipped the link we have to our past. It’s quite sad in a way, and maybe the reason is some people not wanting to be part of everything else. That’s maybe what made me so sad about my past – the feeling that something has changed.

I mean, maybe that’s been good for me, in a way. I don’t think I should dwell on the past too much. But for me, it did draw a line, and I felt like I had to step on one side or the other.

I’d never felt like I lived in a divided country until about five years ago. Obviously people had always had different opinions, but now it feels like there’s a real schism in British society.

Yeah, and you feel it everywhere. With Donald Trump, and even in this country with things like Covid. People have said they’re not taking the vaccination. And it doesn’t feel like people can debate any more – it’s just yes or no. That’s it.

It’s almost like opinions have become football. You have to pick a side and cheer that side on, regardless.

Yeah. And I find that frightening. You don’t have that middle ground, and people trying to understand other people. It can be dangerous.

So, going back to you revisiting Great Yarmouth – did you find ‘The Milk Bar’, as immortalised on the album? I was googling that, trying to work out if it was still there…

That would have been on Regent Street, but ‘The Milk Bar’ was just what my Dad called it! I don’t know what its actual name was. We’d go there and get these big milkshakes. Not the creamy, thick ones that you get these days, just strawberry-flavoured milk frothed up a bit so it had bubbles.  

It was probably Cresta. It’s frothy, man…

Yeah! And we’d sit in the window and look out at Regent Street. I think it was right opposite the toy shop.

And where was the ‘Rusty Old Pedal Car’?

That was on the front. There was a little racing track. Once or twice a week, they’ll put me in a little tin pedal car, and I’d go round. There were lots of red, green and yellow cars, but only two white ones. And I always wanted a white one. I’d be waiting for some kid to get off one of those, timing it to get to the front of the queue at the right moment.

Why the white ones?

I think just because there weren’t many of them! I just wanted the one that looked special. It was somehow better than the others… [Laughs]

‘The Flower Clock’ is a beautiful, dream-like track. Is that a reference to blowing the seeds from a dandelion to tell the time?

It’s not, actually! It’s… a Flower Clock! As we drove into Yarmouth, they had a huge flower display on an embankment, obviously planted during the Spring, and it was a working clock. It told you the time, and said “Welcome To Great Yarmouth”… in flowers.

Well, I’ve often thought that there’s a kind of weirdness to British seaside towns. They have an atmosphere that you just don’t find anywhere else in the country – they’re filled with strange amusement arcades and Kiss Me Quick hats. And, indeed, Flower Clocks.

Yeah, and I think that’s very unique to Britain as well. I suppose you see a similar thing in Europe sometimes, but it’s never quite that pronounced. One of the things for me, living in Prague – which is miles away from the coast – is just that feeling of getting to the sea. The energy it gives you. I always wanted to live next to the sea, it was a dream for me. And I ended up going as far away from it as I possibly could!

There was always a great moment of excitement on journeys to the seaside, even for me growing up within 15 miles of the coast. It was that moment when we all saw the sea for the first time. A big cheer would go up in the car.

When I go back to England for the summer, we’ve started to go to Scarborough as a family. Just to give my kids that British seaside vibe! I think we just chose the nearest place to Nottingham… well, actually, that’s probably Skegness. Which is a depressing place for me, because we used to go there on school trips, so I don’t have great memories of it. But Scarborough has still got that “classic” vibe… it still feels vibrant, with a lot happening. Whereas places like Skegness – and Yarmouth, maybe – feel like they need a bit of rejuvenation. They’re a bit too “down” for me.

I quite like that feeling. I think I’m drawn to melancholy. I had a wonderful time in Cleethorpes in October a couple of years ago.

I suppose for me, the fact that I don’t live in the UK maybe reflects on things a bit more. I don’t want to feel sad when I come back, I want a good feeling!

Ever driven up the coast from Scarborough to visit Whitby?


We did! The last couple of times, we went to Whitby. And people talk about the decline of the British holiday – it was packed! Completely packed. Even in early July, before the British school holidays started, I was amazed at how busy it was.

It can be a bugger to get parked in Whitby.

When we went the year before last, it was the first week of really hot weather. And everyone from Yorkshire had just decided to go there for the day… [Laughs]

It’s probably not surprising, given your background, that there’s a cinematic quality to the album. I think I mentioned in my Electronic Sound review that the opening track, ‘Across Sea To Sand’ made me think of 1960s Michael Caine eating an ice cream outside the Milk Bar. Do you ever have images like that in your head when you’re composing? Does the music have a visual quality for you?

Definitely. I suppose it just comes from visualising those memories. Even making soundtracks… I’ve never really been able to describe the action so much, you just kind of make your own character in the music, and that helps the images in some way. And making Yarmouth was very much trying to evoke those hazy, childhood memories that are half there. They feel like watching a film where the colours are washed out, but – at the same time – they are very pronounced.

I did contemplate trying to make sounds that felt a bit more seaside-y… but ultimately, I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to conjure how it felt for me.

What were you thinking? Wurlitzer organs, things like that?

Yeah… actually, I’ll turn this around, so you can see [at this point, David spins his laptop around to reveal a huge wooden organ on the other side of the room]. That’s my instrument. Which is almost like a Wurlitzer! It’s a 1970s keyboard with an early version of an arpeggiator, and it’s slightly faulty. I can’t imagine ever getting somebody to fix it, so it’s very dreamy sometimes. It has a slightly washy sound. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I find it very easy to create something on this that’s a starting block for something slightly dream-like.

I’m always fascinated by the actual process of that, particularly with instrumental trcks. I totally get that something like ‘Rusty Old Pedal Car’ completely encapsulates your memories of being a child on a summer holiday in the 1970s. That completely comes over in the music. But I can’t for the life of me understand how that process works. How do you do it? Or is it a mystery to you as well?

I think it’s a mystery in a lot of ways. I suppose the last holiday we had, in 1979, was around the time I started to think about making my own music. I’d been a music fan for a long time: I’d started buying records myself, and was thinking about what they meant to me.

And around that time, I got my first little keyboard and started to try and make music. I was quite a shy, quiet child, and I think for the first time in my life I felt I had a way of expressing myself. And I guess it’s the same with Yarmouth: if I was able to find the words, I would write a book about it. But using music as a way to express an emotion or feeling is something I just do. It’s not easy, but when I found that I could do that, when I was 15, it solved a lot of problems for me.

I like you mentioning the fuzzy quality of our childhood memories, too. We are have gaps, and labels like Ghost Box and – indeed – Clay Pipe often look to explore those gaps. Were they labels you’d been aware of for a while?

Yeah, definitely. Ghost Box I’ve known for a long time. And I got to know Frances through the Plinth album, Music For Smalls Lighthouse. I can’t remember where it was, but I saw the sleeve in an online review, and thought: “I’m going to like this”. I ordered it from Frances, saw the other stuff she was releasing, and just became a fan. And when I decided to make Yarmouth, Clay Pipe felt like the most natural place for it to exist. I think if she’d said “No, I’m not interested,” it would probably never have been released. It would be on a shelf somewhere.

How much of a collaborative process is it with Frances? Do you ping musical ideas back and forth?

Not really – I think it was almost there. I sent her the music and said “This is the idea – it’s music that evokes my childhood memories of Yarmouth”. And she wrote back saying that she loved it, but that it needed a bit of refining. Which was really good! That gave me the energy to take stock, and work out what I wanted to do. She didn’t say “That’s a bad piece of music, change that…” It was just a general refinement.

And the other thing I really like about Frances is the artwork she does. It could have worked nicely with a photo from my childhood… but marrying the music and the artwork, and inspiring her to do something, is more interesting for me in a way. Especially with it being my first record, I wanted it to have an identity. And I think Frances brought that.

Have you seen the railway posters by her grandfather, Frank Sherwin? Once you know, you can’t help but see the similarities in their artwork.

That makes sense, but I don’t think she’s ever connected the two for me! That’s great.

So what’s next for you? There’s a new Tindersticks album out soon, isn’t there Distractions?

There is. It’s a bit of a strange thing… it’s not really a Covid album, but there were a couple of ideas that we’d begun working on at the beginning of our 2020 tour. And because that was cut short, they got left… but Stuart wanted to finish them, and we got together for a week in the summer, during that little window of time when things opened up.

It does feel like a Covid isolation record, but it wasn’t really intended to be that. It gives us a chance to keep some momentum going, given that we can’t really do anything else.

I did wonder if Yarmouth was also something you were able to work on because the Tindersticks tour had been cut short.

It was kind of there already. And I’m amazed that it managed to come out on time, and that everything worked. It was good for me to have something happening during my downtime.

And after 30 years in Tindersticks, is it a curious experience having an album with your own name on the front?

It is, yeah! I think one of the things that held me up for so long is that, in the past, I’ve always got to the point of having instrumental music, and bits left over from soundtracks, and thinking – could that be an album? But I think what held me back was not having a concept. Not that I want to give too much weight to it being a concept album, but I needed that thing that pulls everything together. The Yarmouth idea is something that I’d been searching for for a long time.

Quite a lot of the time, I have an idea for something – but it gets used by Tindersticks, and kind of taken out of the context that I wanted it for.   

Will you do it again?

I think so. I’m working on something very different at the moment – it’s more of a spoken word thing, and it might happen this year after the Tindersticks album. It feels like it’s something different to a Clay Pipe release… but I would like to do more with Frances, too. We both agreed that we enjoyed the experience, and there are two more places that I’d really like to visit in my memory.

One would be St Ann’s, where I grew up. It defined who I am as a character, in a lot of ways. It’s probably the biggest, oldest estate in Nottingham, and it got kind of destroyed in the late 1960s – everyone moved out. And I remember, when I first moved to London, I was sitting on the tube reading the Evening Standard, and the big centre spread was “THE WORST ESTATE IN BRITAIN – ST ANN’S, NOTTINGHAM”. It had the highest gun crime rate, things like that! And I was thinking… “Well, two weeks ago, I lived there and I’ve never seen anyone shoot a gun.”

There are issues, but no worse than many other places. It’s quite a pleasant estate, with nice front gardens. And inside toilets! For the first five years of my life, we had an outside toilet, just a little cistern. And it would take you the afternoon to fill a bath. We had tin baths, as well! So St Ann’s was a special place for me, and it evokes a lot of emotions that could become music.

And then I’d like to bring things up to date, and make music about how Prague makes me feel. Musically, there are things here that are inspiring. And it has its own cultural heritage, which I’ve absorbed a bit and found really interesting. Those Eastern European zithers! There’s definitely something to explore there, in my own way. 

The second pressing of Yarmouth is available to pre-order here:

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/yarmouth/


And David’s own website is here:

https://davidboulter.co.uk/