“I’m a bit confused right now,” sighs Eric Goulden. He’s just spent eight hours driving from Edinburgh to London, and it’s nearing midnight local time as we speak on the phone. Yet he’s still eager to discuss the music he has made for the past four decades under the name Wreckless Eric. “Believe me — after that drive, this will be a relief,” he insists.
For someone with as long a history as Goulden, who performs at the Black Cat on Monday, time can often seem jumbled. Lately, his past has overshadowed his present: Four of his albums from the 1980s and ’90s have been reissued by U.K. label Fire since December. “As time goes on . . . looking back is almost overwhelming. And confusing,” he recently wrote on his blog. “My life doesn’t feel like just one life, more like a mismatched set of mini-lives . . . a succession of tracks that I hope will one day add up to a good album.”
Although Goulden, now 60 years old, still makes new music — mostly in a duo with his wife, singer-songwriter Amy Rigby — he’s been happy to revisit this slice of his history. “Usually, when I listen to my old stuff, I want to run out of the room screaming,” he says. “But I listened to [these reissues], and I thought, ‘That’s actually good!’ I don’t think I winced more than three times total.”
Perhaps that’s because the late-’80s and early-’90s were particularly good times for Goulden — a period when he broke free of past expectations. The East Sussex native began recording in the late 1970s and shared a record label — Stiff Records — with soon-to-be stars Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. Goulden’s debut single, “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World,” was a hit, garnering plenty of attention but also increasing demands.
“A lot of people thought I could have commercial success,” Goulden recalls. “But the kind of commercial success that people wanted me to have was not what I was, really. You had to be weird and wacky to be in the rock business at one time, but by the ’80s, some very straight people had got into it.”
Those people encouraged him to record in an expensive studio, which Goulden thought was wrong for his rough — indeed, wreckless — songs. “On my old records, I can hear the pressure I was under,” he remembers. “I’d be singing and thinking, ‘Is this the one everyone’s going to hear on the radio? If I get it wrong, are they not going to hear it at all?’ That’s terrible pressure to put yourself under.”
The strain led Goulden to contemplate early retirement. Instead, in 1985 he formed a group with two members of ramshackle garage band the Milkshakes. Bassist Russ Wilkins and drummer Bruce Brand shared his disdain for pro studios and high-pressure labels. In that anti-commercial spirit, Goulden dubbed the trio the Len Bright Combo, after a mysterious character that existed only in his mind. The group made two records in 1986: “The Len Bright Combo Present the Len Bright Combo By the Len Bright Combo” and “It’s Combo Time,” both reissued by Fire last December. Recorded with the trio’s cheap porta-studio in a village hall in the town of Medway, the albums are raw and vibrant. The group’s raucous energy is greatly enhanced by the lack of production gloss. “Someone I played the first album for said, ‘Is this some sort of joke?’ ” recounts Goulden. “Someone else said it should be available in toy shops everywhere, and I thought he kind of got it.”
Internal tensions caused the Len Bright Combo to flame out quickly, but when the trio reunited recently for a one-off show in London, Goulden was surprised to find they hadn’t skipped a beat. “We didn’t know how we’d get on, so we only booked the one show,” he laments .“We should’ve booked a 20-date tour — then we definitely wouldn’t have got on.”
After the Len Bright Combo’s late-’80s demise, Goulden spent time in a London depression clinic, where he met staff members who were fans of his music. That inspired him to return to writing songs — and bucking recording conventions. “I had a four-track tape recorder, and people said, ‘They’re good for making demos, but you can’t make a record on them,’ ” he remembers. “I thought, why not? My demos always sounded better than the records.” He set up the four-track in his London apartment to record 1989’s “Le Beat Group Electrique”; during some songs, you can hear the traffic passing by on the street below.
Reissued by Fire in April, “Le Beat Group Electrique” is typically unpolished, but its songs are packed with crafty melodies and engage with clever wordplay. Yet Goulden claims he had little confidence as a writer at the time. That insecurity is reflected in the title of his next album, “The Donovan of Trash,” recorded at his early-’90s home in rural France and reissued by Fire in May.
“When that record came out, someone said to me, ‘The trouble is you don’t know what you’re doing,’ ” he says. “I said, ‘If I knew what I was doing, I’d know what was going to happen, so there’d be no point.’ So maybe my self-perceived lack of ability at writing songs is something that I’ve actually engineered myself.”
Goulden still loves imperfection — he called his 1998 memoir “A Dysfunctional Success” — and still strives to make music that neither he nor his audience can predict. That DIY spirit extends to his current upstate New York home, where he and Rigby host living-room concerts. They call their series the Homemade Aeroplane; attendees purchase a boarding pass and are greeted by a flight attendant in the “departure lounge” of their kitchen. Living in the Catskills, which Goulden calls “incredibly liberating,” has renewed his interest in another DIY pursuit: painting. He studied art in college but switched to music because it seemed more instantly gratifying. “But in fact it’s turned out the other way,” he says. “I can make a painting in a day, take a photo of it, put it on the Internet and six hours later I’ve sold it. There’s something so ‘pop’ about it — how ‘pop’ used to be so immediate.”
Such immediacy is scarce in the error-free recordings of today, according to Goulden. “When I go to the circus, I don’t want the tightrope walker to just walk across, I want him to get into trouble,” he explains. “That’s what’s missing in a lot of records now. I don’t hear the struggle, where things get slightly off, and then the whole band pulls together and whack, they’re in there. If they’re already in there, it’s boring.”
Masters is a freelance writer.
Wreckless Eric performs Monday at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW, Washington. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call 202-667-4490.