As a certain soft-drinks corporation discovered shortly after altering the recipe on which their empire was built, sometimes you just have to accept that some things are tastier the way they were, and leave it at that. Rejoice, then, in the welcome return to the Morcheeba fold of singer Skye Edwards, whose reunion with Paul and Ross Godfrey on the band's new album Blood Like Lemonade restores the inimitable laidback charm that made them the mainstay of many a chill-out session.
"One thing Morcheeba's always tried to do is make the record we don't already have in our record collection," explains Ross Godfrey, the trio's guitarist and all-round multi-instrumentalist. "I can come home from the pub and spend hours going through thousands of old vinyl records trying to find the one perfect record to fit the moment, and that's always the one we wanted to make ourselves, with that 3am, spliffed-out sound, like a warm, fuzzy blanket of psychedelia."
Blood Like Lemonade is the album they've been searching for all these years, one which takes the essence of earlier classics like Who Can You Trust? and Big Calm, and transports it to exotic new places. At its heart are the band's trademark oozing downtempo trip-hop grooves, embellished with intriguing, idiosyncratic flourishes like the African thumb-piano of 'Even Though', the sitar drone and blues harmonica of 'Mandala', and the freak-folk guitar jangle of 'I Am The Spring', and topped off with Skye's intimately soulful vocals. It's also at once their most introspective album, with songs which illuminate the band's personal situation, and their most outward-looking, as Paul Godfrey's lyrics pursue characters into uncharted territories: the avenging vampire of 'Blood Like Lemonade', the abandoned astronaut of 'Even Though', the homicidal dinner-party host of 'Recipe For Disaster', the Viking explorers of 'Beat Of The Drum'.
It all adds up to the most satisfying album of a career now moving into its 15th year, since Morcheeba first sketched out the blueprint for trip-hop with their debut album Who Can You Trust?. It's a journey which took the Godfreys from their native Kent to appearing in front of 60,000 ecstatic fans in Brazil and China, and which along the way enabled them to play with musical heroes like Big Daddy Kane, David Byrne, Kurt Wagner and Slick Rick. But after four successful albums together, the brothers parted company with Skye, who went off to pursue her own solo career: working with producers like Pat Leonard and Daniel Lanois for her first album "Mind How You Go", and producer Ivor Guest for her second album "Keeping Secrets". Her replacements failed to satisfy the Godfreys' exacting standards, however, and for their sixth album Dive Deep Morcheeba were effectively a duo fronted by a series of guest vocalists. But the constant pressures of meeting the demands of the music industry had taken their toll, and it seemed as if that might be the end of the band, as Paul relocated to the South of France to seek his own Big Calm, and Ross moved to Hollywood to work on music for movies, most recently completing the soundtrack for Steven Soderbergh's new film The Girlfriend Experience.
"We always thought we'd work with Skye again," says Ross. "When we made the first four records, we knew it was a magic formula, but after a time we wanted a break, and Skye wanted to make a record of her own, because working within a band can be quite constricting. Then about six months ago, I bumped into her in London and suggested we get together and have a chat about making another record. I'd written a few pieces of music, and Paul and I had had a couple of writing sessions together, so we sent her some things we'd been working on and she came up with some melodies for them, and as soon as we heard her singing over our backing tracks, it was magic – there's a definite vibe that happens when the three of us work together, a combination of things that's unquantifiable. It's so personal to us, such a big part of our lives, that we got quite emotional about it. After that, it all worked out in a very natural way."
"It was Ross that drove the whole thing, really," explains Paul. "I moved down here to semi-retirement in France after Dive Deep, to take it easy and work on music in my spare time. Ross had gone to Hollywood to become a film composer, but he kind of did a U-turn and wanted to get the old band back together, which proved pretty complicated for us to negotiate our way through. Obviously, we'd pissed Skye off massively in the past, so there was a lot to deal with there. The bottom line was that we were doing it for the legacy of the band, and for the fans. We became increasingly aware that a lot of young fans are only just discovering Morcheeba, and then hearing that the band didn't really exist in the way they thought it did. So it became quite important to put it back together authentically, for that reason. It wasn't that we had to pay massive tax bills or anything, it just felt right that we should go back and pay tribute to our career and to our fans, to put personal differences aside and just get on with it."
But there were logistical problems to overcome, not least those caused by living in such far-flung locations. Works-in-progress would be sent back and forth between France, Hollywood and Surrey, gradually taking shape. "It was completely cool working with Paul and Ross again," says Skye. "We didn't really see that much of each other, because we recorded things separately: we hired some nice recording gear and Ross came over to my place in Surrey to show me how to use it, and after that I just got on with it. They sent me backing tracks, I loaded them into Garageband and came up with melodies, then sent them back to Ross and Paul, who'd come up with lyrics for the melodies and send them back to me to sing. On my solo albums, I was writing my own lyrics, but with Morcheeba, I just have to come up with the melodies, which is what I'm good at, and leave the lyrics to Paul. Sometimes he'd ask me how I visualised a song, whether I had any story in mind, and then he'd write lyrics around the story. It was a true collaboration."
Skye's favourite tracks on the new album include 'Crimson', about a married woman's lover who, when he wants to end the affair, tries to kill them both by crashing the car they're in; and 'Recipe For Disaster', in which a foodie kills her partner when he turns up drunk for dinner. "I can really relate to that one – not like I'm a potential murderess or anything!" she says. "But it helps having a character that you can get into, rather than just reading the words off the page. I also like 'I Am The Spring', and especially 'Easier Said Than Done', even though it's a difficult one to sing. Originally, the lyric went 'I know I have to let go', but I asked if we could change it to 'You know you have to let go', and it became much easier to sing."
"Ross recorded some guitar at home in Hollywood, and Skye recorded her vocals at home in Surrey, then it was all brought together here," explains Paul from his French home studio. "I even mastered it here myself, which was something I'd never done before. That was just my OCD need for learning, indulging myself in every stage of the procedure. If you see something all the way through, you can learn so much about every step. Mastering used to be an almost mystical process, especially in the vinyl era when it was so important."
"In the past, we were into so many different things that we couldn't quite fit all the ideas onto one record," adds Ross. "But this album was a much more relaxed affair, we weren't trying to prove anything to anyone. It was almost like when we made the first album, Who Can You Trust?, because back then we weren't signed to a label and didn't know much about the music business. And because of the virtual collapse of the music industry, we could do that again, working at our different homes without any pressure."
The changing circumstances of the music industry, Ross feels, are both a problem and an opportunity. When he and Paul started out playing in R&B bands, there was a flourishing scene of college parties, bars and clubs which could nurture young talent. "But that's been so marginalised that unless you go to the Brits School or are on The X Factor you just don't get a shot at it. And people who make good, genuine music just wouldn't want to do it that way." On the other hand, the ongoing collapse of old music industry methods has freed musicians from the kind of business demands which drove Morcheeba to the brink of depression. "Now that the music-business machine has gone, music has become much more local," he believes. "It feels much more like a personal experience. Which takes you out of thinking about where the music fits in, and demographics – you just make music for music's sake, which is really refreshing. So it's nice getting back with Skye and making an album for the love of it, rather than feeling we were just making money for a lot of people around us. It's more like a cottage industry." What's weird, he adds, is how he's been drawn back into older thought-patterns as the classic Morcheeba sound worked its magic: "I hadn't really smoked much dope for the past five or six years – but suddenly, making this record, I was smoking all day long. That's the secret!"
With Blood Like Lemonade set to drop in June, next on the agenda are the live dates planned for the summer and autumn, for which Ross and Skye are currently rehearsing with the Morcheeba road band. "Morcheeba is like a tepee, it needs all of us to make the structure to support it," explains Ross. "Paul ends up doing most of the studio work, while Skye and I do most of the performing."