Martha Davis isn’t being defensive when she points out that her current band – billed as Martha Davis & The Motels has been around, been treading the boards, longing than the original group – The Motels. It’s just a fact.
“I don’t get upset at people thinking this is some cash-in, I understand that. But when they’ve seen us – when they’ve seen these guys I’ve got with me now, then they understand. We’re a great live band. And I’ve got guys with me now we’ve been doing this for over a decade, these guys have got chops, ya know. Hey, Frank Zappa had 200 Motels, I’ve had over a thousand!”
And here she has a chuckle. I’ll read variations of that line in the handful of interviews that start to appear. She’ll work on that story, shape it, repeat it, hone it – as anyone does when forced to talk up their life and work. But it’s very easy talking to Davis. She’s into it. She’s a fun interviewee. She understands she’s lucky to have an audience – she’s grateful for it.
“I approach this all though as a songwriter, first and foremost. That was the bug for me. Performing is just a way to put the songs out there. I started playing guitar when I was eight – okay, not very well, and I’m still not great, but ever since I started playing I wanted to make my own songs. And that’s always been the thrill”.
Davis was in her late teens when she joined some friends from California to form The Warfield Foxes. This band would become The Motels. They gigged hard, partied, wrote songs, worked on cover versions, jammed and ultimately broke up. In the late1970s the band reformed with guitarist Jeff Jourard (he’d been in the pre-fame Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers) bringing songs and ideas, and his brother Marty – saxophonist/keyboardist. From here the sound of The Motels – the one of classic songs Only The Lonely and Total Control – began to take shape.
“It was exciting man – we just played a lot of shows. We worked hard. Up and down the country, in and out of bars and then the big thrill was that first album. I remember we signed for that and it was like a dream, I was still hoping we’d have enough good songs for the album. Turns out we did…”
But one of the Motels’ most iconic songs – easily their most iconic in New Zealand and Australia – started out life in a very different manner. And its success down under was both a thrill and – very big – surprise to the band.
Davis shuns any of that don’t talk about the hit shit. But thing is, Total Control was never really a hit. Not until they got to Australia to play.
“That story’s true”, she says, and breaks off for a chuckle. “It was mind-blowing actually. We were a few songs into the set, somewhere in Australia, and then we start playing Total Control and all these lighters go up in the air. And, okay, that’s fine. But next thing there’s huge applause – we think we’re just playing a new song, you know, an album track. But the crowd there sang every word back to me, pretty much drowned me out. And that was just amazing. That was really the key to that song being a success – it was number one in Australia before it was ever any sort of hit back home. And you guys – down there – have always been good to us. We don’t forget that”.
But the song could have been very different. It certainly started life in a different shape altogether.
“Total Control was a Jeff Jourard song – it started with him tearing it out, like a punk song. He had this riff, these chords and, you know, he had this angry punk song”. Here she recites it at breakneck pace, imagining angry guitars behind her: “Looking counter clockWISE!/Knowing what could HAPPEN/Any moment!/Maybe YOU!/MAYBE EVEN YOU!!” She shrieks out that last bit. She stops to laugh – tells me that she told Jourard to slow that shit right down. She says it’s really “an angry motherfuckin’ song, right”. But she senses it could sound great all glum, all moody, all slowed down. And of course she’s right.
“Songs are always a leap of faith – you never know it’s going to work until it does, no matter the feeling you think you’re getting. And that’s always been part of the lure for me, as a writer. Just hoping you latch onto something that works. It’s also a gift – a great, wonderful gift. I mean, I woke up from a dream one night and there’s Only The Lonely just sitting there on the end of my guitar – it’s just there when I wake up. That’s a gift and you can’t deny that sort of gift, you go with it, you shape the song. You realise you’re just so lucky to have that. As a gift…”
But luck ran out for The Motels in the mid-80s and Davis attempted a solo career, struggling to punch above lightweight in the pop charts, despite praise still – always – for her voice, her look, her feel. The songs just didn’t stack up with those new wave, pop-punk treats The Motels had created. She couldn’t adjust.
Davis offers a thin chuckle when I suggest that following through on the words about selling your soul for total control have come at a price.
“You never know how hard it’s going to be – this business. And for a while there I was sick and tired of this business. But I never deny that handful of hits – and the success they created. I have a very nice life and it’s because of a lot of work and a lot of gigs, but the perception, absolutely, is that it’s because of a few pop songs, one or two hits. Of course there’s a lot of heartbreak, a lot of life, a lot of cruel and interesting and tough experiences that go into making those one or two hits”.
“I’ve never stopped writing. I’m always working at songs. And we’ve written some really great material, people love the songs from the original Motels when we play but we also play a few from the recent records. And they go down well too”.
And interestingly the band’s original saxophone player, Marty Jourard, is back in the fold.
“Yeah, it’s funny – it’s great having Marty playing, but it’s funny to think now with the current band’s experience and all our time together. Marty is totally the new guy. Something he’s even said himself. That’s kind of funny…”