Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
No one could ever accuse Katy Perry of doing things by half measures. Just over three years after her last visit, she returned to Nottingham with a stage show that was every bit as breathtakingly elaborate as before.
This was just the fourth date on Katy’s Prismatic World Tour, which she will be performing around the world from now until December, and although the staging was technically flawless, her crew took a lot longer than planned to put everything in place.
This wasn’t good news for the fans queuing outside, who were kept waiting for an extra 90 minutes, and it was even worse news for those with trains to catch at the end of the night, who were obliged to leave the venue well before the final encore. The Arena’s Twitter account was suitably apologetic, but as for La Perry herself, there was apparently no room in her script to say “sorry folks, we messed up”.
That said, the 90 minute delay had shrunk to 45 minutes by the time that Katy took to the stage, and no time-saving cuts were made to the two-hour extravaganza, which finished twenty-five minutes short of midnight. There must have been a lot of yawning in class on Monday morning, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a small price to pay.
Opening the show with Roar, perhaps her biggest hit to date, Katy emerged from a collapsing pyramid, in the centre of a massively extended triangular stage that reached more than halfway into the Arena’s standing section. In the middle of this triangle, her superfans were enclosed in a special pen, cut off from the rest of the crowd. This wasn’t perhaps the ideal vantage point, as their idol spent a lot of time at the very front of the stage, with her back turned to them – but they still looked appropriately thrilled throughout.
Setting the bar courageously high for the rest of the show, Roar featured tribal warriors with illuminated Mohicans and light spears, luminous skipping ropes, backwards conveyor belts that held the running dancers stationary – and that was before we got to the rising, rotating platforms, the high wires, the trapezes, the floating prisms, the giant teacups and all the rest of it. In the midst of this spectacle, Katy shimmied, hoofed and mugged, ever the showgirl, in a space-age crop top and matching skater skirt. The hem of her skirt and the edges of her top were also illuminated, as were the braids in her pony tail.
“We’re back”, she announced. “Let’s be in this moment, right now, together. Let’s forget about tomorrow!” Across the hall, anxious mothers checked their watches, while their daughters screamed with unrestrained delight.
While the 2011 show stuck to a carefully themed narrative, the Prismatic Tour jumped between wildly contrasting sections. For the second act, the stage turned into Ancient Egypt, as Katy reappeared on a gigantic golden horse, dressed as Cleopatra. For the third act, she returned to her alter ego, “Kitty Purry”, clad in a hot pink catsuit with matching ears, standing on a ball of wool. Towards the end of the show, dayglo and neon were the order of the day, with an early Nineties retro feel; a bra top was adorned with smiley faces on each breast, and a black and white yin-and-yang skirt rose ever higher from the stage. Elsewhere, an inflatable pink Cadillac transported the dancers along the catwalks – Nicki Minaj had one of those, too, but this was a sturdier construction – while a giant pink champagne bottle and a tube of lipstick floated around the sides of the hall.
Things calmed down for the acoustic section, giving Katy a chance to focus on her interpretative skills, on new album tracks such as By The Grace Of God and Double Rainbow. Although this did rather expose her limitations as an artist – sincerity isn’t her strongest suit – it did allow her to forge a more personal connection with her fans. “I usually don’t perspire, but my back is sweating right now”, she confessed, before reaching for a refreshing pint of beer. “Down it! Down it!”, the crowd chanted, in true Nottingham style. “I am a lady!”, she retorted, before handing most of her pint over to a grateful punter, with a word of caution: “I have a bit of a cold, so drink it – but I’ll be with you for between ten days and two weeks.”
Towards the end of the acoustic section, Katy took out her phone and called her mother, to wish her a happy Mother’s Day (in the US, they celebrate on a different date). “She has no idea, so let’s put her on speaker phone, and see what comes out of her mouth.” Mother Perry handled the surprise well, graciously wishing us all goodbye at the end of the call. It was a rare unscripted moment, and all the more entertaining for it.
Having focussed on her most recent album, Prism, for most of the show, Katy returned to some of her older hits for the finale: Teenage Dream, California Gurls, and a showstopping rendition of Firework. Alone on the stage in a voluminous multi-coloured skirt, she twirled beneath the pyrotechnics, singing her heart out, caught up in the moment, and unabashedly lapping up the experience for all it was worth. The triumph was deserved. No one else at the top of their game in contemporary pop is working it as hard as Katy Perry right now; for while Gaga and Bieber might be stumbling, she continues to reign supreme.
Set list: Roar, Part Of Me, Wide Awake, This Moment/Love Me, Dark Horse, E.T., Legendary Lovers, I Kissed A Girl, Hot N Cold, International Smile/Vogue, By The Grace Of God, The One That Got Away/Thinking Of You, Double Rainbow, Unconditionally, Walking On Air, It Takes Two, This Is How We Do/Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), Teenage Dream, California Gurls, Birthday, Firework.
“There might be stringent security, but a family atmosphere prevails at Don’t Flop as the likes of Bru-C, Oshea and Ogmios trade a cappella insults in the worst possible taste.”
Outside Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms, the Saturday afternoon queue is edging forwards at a glacial pace. So stringent are the police-imposed security checks – there’s even a temporary ID scanner in the lobby – that it takes over three hours to admit the 500 ticket holders, some of whom have been queuing since mid-morning.
“Nottingham police were very suspicious of a hip hop event of this magnitude”, says Eurgh, co-founder and managing director of Don’t Flop, the rap battle league who have organised today’s event. “When they see this many tickets sold, and they hear the word “battle”, they think of people stabbing each other in the face. But it’s not what it is, and they don’t understand.”
Inside the venue, the day’s first pair of battlers, Bru-C from Nottingham and Pamflit from Manchester, are chatting amiably at the bar. Four days ago, Bru-C’s original opponent dropped out, demolishing weeks of preparation; like all contestants, he researches exhaustively, reviewing old battles and tailoring every bar for maximum personal damage. Rebuilding his routine from scratch has stretched him to the limit, but he’s hiding his nerves well.
By half past four, the main room is packed and the Don’t Flop entourage – battlers and their supporters, camera crew, assorted hangers-on – are drifting onto the stage, like teachers at an assembly. None of today’s six battles will be judged, so a relaxed atmosphere prevails. As ever, each clash will be filmed for YouTube, and performed acapella; beats were largely banished years ago, for the sake of vocal clarity.
A shorter version of this interview was originally published in LeftLion magazine.
Due out on April 20th, Solo Dancing will be Indiana’s fourth release for Sony, following last year’s Bound, Smoking Gun and Mess Around. Premiered on Radio One as Zane Lowe’s “hottest record in the world right now”, championed by Popjustice as “something very special indeed”, and blogged into the Number One slot on the influential Hype Machine aggregator chart, it’s already her most talked about single to date, and potentially her breakthrough track.
“I wasn’t expecting it”, she tells me. “I was hoping that something would break through, because everything [to date] has been OK with radio and stuff, but nothing has started off as well as this one. So I am quite excited about it.”
In a marked departure from Indiana’s previous videos, the Solo Dancing video is intentionally funny, and stuffed full with visual puns for an altogether more intimate type of solo activity: beans are flicked, chains are yanked, pussies are stroked, you get the picture. It’s not what you might call a typical Indiana vibe, to say the least.
“This is actually the first video that I haven’t had anything do with, [in terms of] the writing or directing”, she admits. “I took a step back from all of that, and let Sony get some directors in, and they thought up this concept. So I, er… I went along with it. “
She’s sounding a little cautious, a little hesitant. Did she maybe worry that the video was cheapening the art? “Um, yeah, kind of. I was a little apprehensive. But I said I’m never gonna put out there, what it’s about. Some people don’t get it, some people think it’s just weird, and I’m happy with that. The weirder the better, with me. I’d rather be referred to as odd than normal. So those kinds of comments are cool. It’s good to get people talking, in any sense.”
“The song is about empowerment”, she explains. “It’s not necessarily going out dancing. It can be a metaphor for anything: just to be comfortable in your own skin, and to be able to do something on your own. So it’s not about what the actual video is about!”
In reality, Indiana has never turned up to a club by herself. “I’ve probably ended up being on my own”, she laughs, “but I’ve never set out on my own. I used to [go clubbing] a lot, and I do enjoy it when I do get a chance to go out, but I’m not really a clubby kind of girl now. I like going out and watching a band, having a few beers and socialising.”
Although Solo Dancing is her most uptempo track to date, “it’s not a dance BPM – it’s only 109 – so you’d maybe dance uncomfortably to it. It’s a good head-bobber, I think. But I have enjoyed writing a bit more uptempo than I normally am. I like to think the lyrics are intelligent, but they’re not as deep as I would often go, like Animal or Mess Around.”
Despite her fondness for lyrical darkness, which tends to explore the more dysfunctional aspects of relationships – betrayal and vengeance, addiction and co-dependence – Indiana is actually a happily settled mother of two, whose personal circumstances appear to contradict her subject matter. So where does this darkness come from?
“They’re not all necessarily about relationships “, she suggests. “I like to tell stories, and most of them are not true to facts, but I do draw on some experiences and refer to them in songs. I like to put on my story-telling hat; I think it’s more entertaining than ‘girl loves boy’ or ‘boy doesn’t love girl’. And I probably don’t come across as it, but I am quite a dark person, and the darker things interest me – so that comes across in my music.”
In terms of the songwriting process, Indiana favours an evolutionary approach. “It takes a lot for me to say, OK, that’s finished, because I keep going back, taking things out and putting things in. Lyrically, I take more time than some songwriters that I know, because I like to research and think of other words. I like to use a thesaurus, to use words that people wouldn’t often hear in songs. So I do take my time writing and producing.”
Once the songs have been completed in the studio, they are introduced to the band, whose job it is to reproduce them as faithfully as possible on stage. For Indiana’s headline show at the Bodega in February, we were introduced to a brand new line-up – Angelo on keys and bass, Tim on guitar, Ed on drums – all of whom hail from Nottingham. The geographic closeness works in everybody’s favour, as the previous band “were based in London, and with acoustic nights and live lounges and things that I have coming up, I want people to be able to hop in the car, come round to my house, and have a jam.” At the show, you could already sense a greater degree of engagement between the singer and her musicians. To put it baldly, they felt less like hired hands, and more like an integrated unit, in tune with Indiana’s vision.
Two new songs were premiered that night: Never Born (“a revenge song”) and Shadow Flash, inspired by a move in Mortal Kombat that makes one of the female characters immune to projectiles. Both, in their own ways, offered further representations of strength and empowerment. And although the set list was still short, the track listing for the début album has been steadily edging towards completion.
“I have a lot [of songs], but it’s finding that common thread: having songs that lift you, while other songs are quite deep, and finding that perfect kind of flow. I wanted another one that was a bit more uptempo, like Solo Dancing, and I think I’ve just nailed that. But the label hasn’t heard it yet, so we’ll see! Hopefully they’ll like it! I think once that is done, the album will be complete. I don’t know when it will be released. I might have another single after this one, and then the album, but it changes all the time.”
Inevitably, given the age-old conflict between art and commerce, certain battles have had to be fought with the record company. As an artist who likes to be “quite hands-on with everything” in terms of songwriting, production, video direction and personal styling, Indiana places a high value on retaining overall control, and keeping her operations in-house wherever possible; she is currently designing her album artwork with her boyfriend James, for example.
“I might have developed a little bit of a name for myself, with throwing my toys out of the pram too many times”, she giggles, when questioned about possible diva moments, “but I’ve got really strong opinions on how I think I should be portrayed. I might have been a diva a couple of times – not because I didn’t have all-blue M&Ms, but because I like to have creative control.”
“I think I’m a lot more knowledgeable now”, she continues. “I know a lot more about the music industry, and it’s not all good. There’s a lot that I’ve learnt over the past couple of years. I’ve come a long way. My first gig was only two years ago, and I had no idea what the music industry was about.”
The past two years have been peppered with highlights: a show at Glastonbury, the main stage at Splendour, and most recently a début London gig which “blew me away. I was so scared, because it wasn’t a crowd of fans, like in Nottingham. It was industry people, and they talk; they’re there to socialise, not just to watch me. In Nottingham, they kind of hang on my every word, and it’s really boosted my confidence, I’m like, oh my God, these people actually really like me!”
“So I’ve got that hanging over me, but there was complete silence for Blind As I Am. When I did the big ‘I’m rubbing gold’ bit, they all cheered, and then were silent again – and when I did it again, they cheered and were silent again. I came off, and my whole body was shaking. I felt like someone had spiked my drink. I was like, what’s going on, I can’t believe that, this feels amazing. It was because I’d won them over. I was so scared, just before I walked on. I felt really faint, because I’d been away from the gigging game for a little while, having a baby. So it was a big moment.”
In June 2013, Indiana was selected to perform live in front of the Queen, backed by The Script, for a rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes: a song which contains the potentially treasonous line “I will be Queen”. Naturally, such cheek required some measure of prior vetting.
“They have to read the lyrics, to kind of Queen-proof it. First of all, her people said: we’re going to have to make her change the words, and she’ll sing something else. Then they spoke to the Queen, and she said: no, it’s fine, just don’t look at me. So, then it got back to me: don’t look at the Queen when you sing ‘I will be Queen’. The thing is, when it was coming up to singing that line, I was so conscious not to look at her, that my eyes were darting round the room, and they hit her a couple of times. So I did actually look at her when I sang ‘I will be Queen’!”
What was the first record you bought?
Robbie Williams: Freedom. I was a big Take That fan when I was a little girl.
What was your first gig?
Oasis at Wembley.
Favourite recent single and album?
MS MR – Secondhand Rapture / Lorde – Royals.
If your house was on fire, and you could only save one possession, what would it be?
My MacBook – it’s got all my songs and stuff.
It’s my round at the bar. What are you drinking?
A bottle of beer.
Best holiday destination ever?
I had a really good time in Ibiza when I was 20. (Giggles)
You’re about to get on a plane. Which magazine do you buy from Smiths?
Heat magazine, for my sins – I’m a bit of a gossip mag reader.
Are you a dog person, a cat person, or neither?
Both – I couldn’t decide. I have four cats, and the only reason I don’t have a dog is because my lifestyle won’t let me.
What was your worst fashion mistake ever?
Bleaching the two bits at the front of my hair with toilet bleach.
Which decade had the best music?
Describe yourself in three words.
Creative, odd, dorky.
If you could send a message back to the Indiana of two years ago, what would you tell her?
You’ll never guess what; you’re going to sing for the Queen.
Originally published in the Business section of the Nottingham Post, to accompany an interview with George Akins of DHP Family.
The rising fortune of Nottingham’s music scene has much to teach us about the value of co-operation and collaboration. Shorn of the backbiting cliquishness of former years, a genuine sense of community now prevails, where new talent is welcomed and championed, and the success of more prominent acts sets an inspiring example for emerging artists.
Over the past three years, eight acts have signed to national labels, spanning a wide variety of genres: from Saint Raymond’s catchy indie-rock to Harleighblu’s fresh take on classic soul. During that time, Jake Bugg’s chart-topping success has shone a new light on the city, sending record company A&R teams regularly scuttling up to showcase gigs.
Three years ago, you would have struggled to find a Nottingham act headlining a DHP show. Since then, Dog Is Dead have sold out Rock City, Jake Bugg has headlined the Splendour Festival and filled the Capital FM Arena, and three artists are booked to top the bill at the Rescue Rooms over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, a welcome shift in booking policy has seen countless local acts filling support slots at DHP venues, offering valuable experience of working larger stages.
Further encouragement is provided by the likes of LeftLion magazine, which has noticeably increased its music coverage, and Mark Del’s NUSIC team, who provide podcasts, filmed sessions, workshops and school tours. Over at BBC Radio Nottingham, Dean Jackson has been a stalwart champion of East Midlands talent; thanks to his efforts, Nottingham music has been added to national radio playlists, and represented at the Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals. Elsewhere, an enthusiastic and interconnected network of promoters, venues, studios and independent labels all have their part to play.
Blessed with the imminent arrival of Notts TV, which is sure to give the scene a further significant boost, Nottingham’s thriving music community is both an inspiration, and a source of immense pride.
Capacity: 10,000 standing, 9,300 seated
Who plays there: A-list pop stars: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, Lady Gaga. R&B superstars: Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, Usher. Heritage legends: Elton John, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Status Quo. Festival headliners: Kings of Leon, the Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Elbow. Few acts are too big to play here, although Springsteen, Madonna and the Stones are still beyond its reach.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
For her sold out homecoming show at The Bodega, rescheduled from December due to illness, Indiana brought out a brand new band, making their début performance. Unlike the previous bunch of London-based hired hands, this new line-up hails from Nottingham: Tim on guitar, Ed on drums, Angelo on keyboards and occasional bass. Markedly younger than their predecessors, but every bit as able, they brought fresh vigour and commitment, adding new colours to familiar tunes.
There was something different about Indiana, too. Following the birth of her second child, she recently spent time recording in Los Angeles, and some of that Californian sophistication must have followed her home. Elegant in sleeveless black, she merged rock-chick cool with Hollywood gloss, looking every inch the rising star.
Multi-tracked vocal samples preceded her entrance, as the band established the mood: taut, coiled, menacing, lacing icy synth-pop with a grinding alt-rock crunch. An unreleased track, Never Born, opened the eight-song set, introducing Indiana at her most threatening (“I’m gonna make you wish you were never born”) and defiant (“I will rise up, I will rise up”).
First performed on the same stage 18 months earlier, as a stark piano ballad, Smoking Gun has evolved into a dense, passionate drama, building from wounded vulnerability into steely, vengeful fury. Animal’s sub-bass throbs darkened the mood further, before the synths took over completely on New Heart, pulsing steadily through the track.
A new song, Shadow Flash, showcased the skills of the band to superb effect, with the most sonically adventurous arrangement of the night: a thrilling blend of eerie chirrups, unsettling shouts, metallic whirrs and deep dub tones, augmented by extra percussion and synth brass.
The main set ended with Solo Dancing, the next single, premiered by Radio One’s Zane Lowe a night earlier, and praised by the influential Popjustice website as “something very special indeed”. Notably more uptempo than anything else that Indiana has recorded, this could well turn out to be her breakthrough track.
For the encore, Indiana took things back to basics with an unadorned Blind As I Am, holding the room in rapt silence with an astonishing acapella finish. Recent single Mess Around closed the show in fine style, leaving the singer beaming with exhausted relief; despite struggling with a non-functioning earpiece, she had overcome the obstacle like a true pro.
Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, the set did feel somewhat foreshortened – it would have been good to hear last year’s single Bound, for instance – and between the songs, Indiana’s stage patter could also benefit from some more polish, if she is to connect with crowds away from her home town. That aside, all the other elements – the songs, the arrangements, the presentation, and above all, that towering vocal talent – are fully in place, ready for this local girl to step up to the next level nationally.
Set list: Never Born, Smoking Gun, Animal, New Heart, Shadow Flash, Solo Dancing, Blind As I Am, Mess Around.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.
Named as Don’t Flop‘s 2012 Best Newcomer of the Year, Youthoracle has garnered over half a million YouTube views and was recently invited to Toronto to battle in King Of The Dot World Domination 4. He’s rumoured to be taking on a three-time Don’t Flop champion at the Nottingham event this April…
When preparing for this interview, I was warned it would be hard to find much information about you online, as you don’t want to provide your fellow battlers with material that they can use against you. Do you have to be really cautious in what you say?
Yes, I don’t really bring up anything about my personal life – as much as I’d like to, because obviously music is a way of expressing yourself. I know a lot of people that battle, and they also expose their personal lives in their tracks, and then they moan when it’s brought up against them.
So if you had talked about some tragic childhood experiences, or coming from a broken home, they would have no qualms about going in?
They wouldn’t have qualms about anything. There’s been some really horrible things said, but I do have a limit, as to where I go. I’d never bring up someone’s kids, but people do. I’ve seen a guy pull out a picture of another guy’s son, and stand there, name-calling and saying stuff about his son.
When I watch these battles online – and maybe this is because I’m not so familiar with the whole culture – I can’t completely work out what’s going on. You’re going in really hard against each other on one level, but on another level, it also seems totally friendly. Is the atmosphere there genuinely friendly?
It is, to an extent. There’s a lot of us who are really good friends, but there’s a lot of bad vibes in there as well. You get a lot of people who have feuds with each other, so they usually call those grudge matches. But really it’s just entertainment most of the time.
While your opponent is doing his round, what goes through your mind?
I just try and zone out and not really pay attention to what they’re saying, so I don’t get annoyed by anything. Sometimes they’ll finish their round, and I haven’t listened to anything they’ve said. Usually, I don’t worry too much. Nobody knows anything about me, and I can’t see a way that they would, because I’m a very private person in real life. So there’s no way, unless they’d been stalking me, that they’d know anything about my life.
Is there any scope for picking up what was said in the previous round, and using it there and then? Or is everything pre-prepared?
It’s not all pre-prepared. I’d say 90% of people listen through the whole round and try and pick up on something, so they can flip it, and do a rebuttal. I’ve started to do it recently, but I’m not the strongest freestyler, so I’m very nervous. I get pins and needles down my arms. I’ve literally stood there, feeling like I’m going to cry. So half the time, I don’t really dare do a rebuttal.
If we were sat here and just doing it now, and I was comfortable, I could reel off rebuttals all day. But when there’s a crowd of 600, I don’t want to chance something I haven’t pre-written.
You were recently battling in Toronto. Was that tough in terms of dealing with a different culture, where they’re not going to get your references or your accent?
Yeah, because I’ve got one of the strongest accents in Don’t Flop. Even in England, nobody really understands what I’m saying half the time. I’ve only realised since being in Don’t Flop how strong my accent is. I get pulled up on my accent constantly. I reckon that’s the number one thing that I get done for. In Canada, I didn’t do any British references. I kept my accent, but they didn’t understand a word that I was saying, so my battle didn’t really go that well.
How did you first get involved with Don’t Flop?
My friend Bru-C [MC with The Afterdark Movement] rang me one day, after the Mark Grist & Blizzard battle came out, and he said: watch this battle, it’s a teacher versus a student. [The battle went viral in early 2012, earning nearly 4 million views.] I’d been doing music for a good eight years at the time, but I’d never really done that much, and I was starting to lose the love for it a bit. Bru-C was going to do it, and my little brother was going crazy at me, saying: you need to do it, you’ll do well. But I didn’t want to do it, and I said that I really wasn’t up for it.
Then I went to Bru-C’s first battle, and I realised what that vibe is like: everyone’s actually friends, there’s no bad vibes. That’s when I thought: I’ll do it. So I went up to the organiser, and showed him a few lyrics. He said to me: if Bru-C wins his battle, then you’ve got a try-out, but if he loses, never contact me again, ever. And luckily Bru-C won!
How important is it to win? Does it make a difference to where you go next?
There’s no actual structure or hierarchy, but it does make a big difference. I’ve just beaten an American who’s very big out there; he’s been doing it for about eight years. That means my next battle will be really big. If I lost, it wouldn’t be as good.
With each new battle, does every bar have to be brand new?
You can’t reuse anything at all, but a lot of people use a catchphrase. There’s a guy who says “I’ll bring them bars right back!” at the end of every rhyme, and then the whole crowd shouts it. It is lazy. You only get three minutes [per round] at most, so if you’re going to waste 20 or 30 seconds on doing a catchphrase… I’ve done stuff like that, but only to take the piss.
Are the rhymes always acapella, or is there any scope for doing them with beats?
That’s only on the odd occasion, when we’re trying something out. There used to be, back with 8 Mile and stuff like that, but there’s less chance you’ll flop if you’re off the beat, because acapella you haven’t really got to keep up with anything, it’s all in your own time.
How does the judging work? What are you being judged on?
It depends on the individual, but usually there’s a way of judging it in terms of punch count. With every punchline you hit, or every good metaphor, they can put a mark and tally them up. But I don’t think that’s fair, because one punch could really overtake a whole battle. As soon as you bring something quite personal up about someone, or expose them for something, you’ve won really. Unless they expose you back, or they flip it; that’s the only way you can get out of that situation.
After the Mark Grist versus Blizzard video, the other moment where rap battling went into the public consciousness was with the whole James Arthur debacle. What was your take on that? Was he unfairly treated, or was he an idiot?
At the end of the day, a person in his position shouldn’t be homophobic, really. He can’t do it. That’s what happens when you’re in the mainstream. Whatever we do in Don’t Flop, we’re not at that level, so anything goes. There’s been worse things than homophobia brought up in Don’t Flop.
Some of your own punchlines can sound quite homophobic. As a gay man, should I be concerned?
No, not at all. I’m not homophobic in the slightest. In battles, I don’t feel half of what I say towards someone. It’s just lyrics. It’s just for the crowd reaction. All of us have an understanding at Don’t Flop. There is no homophobia. None of us are homophobic. There’s even a gay battler.
I’ve had loads of racism, and I’ve been really racist in my battles before, as well. I’ve said some really, really bad things. At an event in Birmingham, I went against a mixed race lad, and I said a few things that were quite touching the line. A guy came up to me afterwards and said, you need to watch what you’re fucking saying, and he had a go at me. But this mixed race lad had gone against a black guy before, and used loads of racism towards him. So it was to make the point of: if you’re so comfortable having a go at a black guy, and you’re mixed race, and I’m mixed race myself, then I’ll have a go at you about that.
But in terms of homophobia, one of the battlers, one of our friends, came out about being gay. Then one of the biggest battlers said as long as this gay guy can battle, he’s not battling any more. So Don’t Flop said, fine, don’t battle then. And this battler who’s gay, he isn’t a big battler, he doesn’t get many views, but at the end of the day it’s about the principle. He still battles now, all the time. There’s no actual homophobia or racism, it’s just…
Perhaps it’s like watching a boxing match. You enjoy the match, but you don’t go home and start punching people.
Sometimes, it can go over the top. Two years ago, a lad was against a guy from Liverpool, and he said something about Rhys Jones, the little boy that got killed. That opened up the question of where the line is drawn, because he definitely understood after that. He got death threats, and he still gets death threats now. He can’t really battle outside his city any more. But if you see something in the news, it’s definitely going to get brought up. It’s actually clichéd to say something about Jimmy Savile now. It’s just like: yeah, boring, we’ve heard it before.
Your EP Flash Floods was released last year. In terms of your music making, what are you up to now?
I’m recording Flash Floods Volume 2 at the moment, and I’m looking to feature some people from Nottingham; I’m not quite sure who yet. I’m hoping to drop it on March 8th, as Don’t Flop Nottingham is on March 7th & 8th.
The tryouts on March 7th will be a night time event, and there are some big old school Nottingham hip hop people on there, like Karizma. Some of the other ones are kind of grimey: there’s A9, and a really quirky guy called Evans who I found myself. Then Kane Ashmore is going against Sam Moore; they’re doing an acoustic guitar battle. It’s gonna be good. I’m really, really looking forward to having somebody else from Notts as part of the league.
Through Don’t Flop, I’ve found out that we’ve got a big scene in Nottingham. There’s a lot more rappers in Nottingham than in other places, where they don’t get the kind of views, and the buzz, that the Nottingham MCs do. The Nottingham buzz that’s there now, they’re all the younger MCs. This new generation are all really tight, and they all do music together.
I do think Nottingham as a whole has changed. It used to be a lot more ghetto, back in the day. There’s nothing much happening now, whereas [when I started out] it was just constant, absolute dramas, guns everywhere. No one really did clashes or battles, because it would have just turned into trouble.
Maybe social media has helped to heal the beefs. You’ve got to be friendly with lots of people, and you have to support each other, because that’s the way it works; that’s how you get your views.
Yeah, back when we used to do our music, we didn’t have YouTube or Facebook or anything like that. I think you’re right: social networking probably has stopped them… but you wouldn’t think that, with the comments that people can leave!
Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
Callum Burrows has a knack for a hook, and the title track of his second EP is stuffed full of them. Opening with a simple stomp and a cheery tinkle – swiftly joined by chiming guitar and a frisky, funky bassline – Young Blood builds to an expectant bridge (“we can make it if we try”), before blossoming into an exultant two-part chorus, complete with a festival-friendly chant that should carry Saint Raymond all the way through to the summer. It’s followed by Bonfires: a long-established live favourite, originally released as a free download. Although recorded as a demo, the key elements of Saint Raymond’s sound are already in place, and we hear them again in Threads, addressed to a departed lover who’s “the one with all the answers, the queen of second chances”. Closing the EP, As We Are Now is a short, sparse and poignant ode to seizing the moment.
Originally published in Pride Life magazine.
Lacing her icy synth-pop with a grinding alt-rock crunch, Indiana built steady support for her music in 2013; even the Queen got to witness her in action, at Radio One’s Live Lounge. Lyrically, she explores the darker, more dysfunctional aspects of relationships; you’d never guess she was a happily settled mother of two, but Indiana thrives on such contrasts. “I’m in possession of a smoking gun, and I wanna hurt you just for fun”, she threatens, with a performance style that switches from doe-eyed vulnerability to steely fury in the blink of an eye. Mess with her at your peril.
Uniquely for a dance-based collective, Clean Bandit started out as a string quartet at Cambridge University, making them light on urban credentials, but strong on musical prowess. Strings are still central to their sound, which is peppered with naggingly familiar classical quotes, adding melodic sweetness to the electronic thump. They charted briefly, with the endearingly daft Mozart’s House, but they’ve been shaking off the novelty tag since then, with tracks such as the reflective Dust Clears and the uplifting diva-house of No Place I’d Rather Be. Like Basement Jaxx before them, their anything-goes musical stance is a joy to behold.
Formed just over a year ago, Amber Run have made remarkable progress for such a young band. Their fourth and fifth gigs were at the Reading and Leeds festivals – a baptism of fire, if ever there was one – and for their sixth show, they were backed by a 14-piece orchestra. Now signed to RCA Victor, the five lads have dropped out of their final years at university, to concentrate full-time on their music, described as “anthemic rock mixed with cinematic post-rock”. With songs as strong as Noah, Heaven and Spark, they could well be one of next summer’s festival favourites.
Having topped the singles chart with her guest vocal on Rudimental’s Waiting All Night, Ella Eyre is looking to match the solo success of John Newman, another Rudimental collaborator. A fierce and passionate performer on stage, the 19 year-old Brit School graduate has harnessed the same raw energy for Deeper, her début EP. Musically, the new material builds on Rudimental’s template, fusing classic soul/funk stylings with more dance-based elements, but it’s Ella’s husky, bluesy delivery that holds your attention throughout. A punchier, more powerful sound is promised for her forthcoming début album – but even now, she’s hardly short on clout.
Unlike our other four picks, Sleaford Mods are unlikely to taste major commercial success in 2014 – they’re far too sweary, for starters – but their heroically uncompromising approach deserves a wider audience. Backed by Andrew Hearn’s minimal low-fi electronics, Jason Williamson spits surreal venom and scathing fury in an earthy East Midlands rasp, as if Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, had been weaned on John Cooper Clarke and The Fall. “Boris Johnson and The Cheeky Girls shut down the underground!” he rages – and, if only for a moment, you find yourself punching the air in agreement.
“I have Callum on the line for you. Are you ready for the call?”
It’s a sign of an artist’s rising fortunes, when the only way you can speak to him is through the record company’s press office. It’s also quite unlike most LeftLion interviews, which are simply a case of arranging which pub to meet up in, after the act has finished work or college for the day. But for Callum Burrows, who signed as Saint Raymond to Asylum/Atlantic Records in August, there are now more exalted protocols to follow.
“It’s all crazy now”, he says, speaking to LeftLion from “sunny Hastings”, where he’s working on new material for a forthcoming EP, with a debut album to follow. “But to be honest, life hasn’t changed a ridiculous amount, in terms of what I’m doing. We’ve just carried on with the goals we set out. But we’ve obviously got a bigger team to help us out now, so it’s all good.”
For all his playful daftness on Twitter, Callum comes across as a serious-minded fellow with an utterly professional mindset, who’s not about to squander his opportunity. The way he sees it, Asylum “appreciated the work we were doing, and they wanted to get on board and help out. I’ve had advice about stuff, but it’s not been an overbearing thing, it’s just been a helpful process.”
“It’s a brand new world for me”, he adds, “and it all came very quickly. When we released the EP [Escapade, which came out on Gabrielle Aplin’s Never Fade label in May], we didn’t expect much of a reaction, and we got into the Top 25 on iTunes.”
While 2013 has been a landmark year for Callum, it has also been a year which has forced him to adapt quickly to new situations. The instant success of the EP led to extensive national radio airplay – Zane Lowe has been a particular fan – and a Radio One playlisting for Letting Go over the summer.
“The Radio One support has been amazing, Dean Jackson at Radio Nottingham has been exceptional, and I’ve been getting quite a few telly syncs. I was watching a programme, and they played one of my favourite songs, and I was like: oh, I love this song. Then it went quiet, and a song came on, and I was like: oh, wait. The next song was me. So it was kind of weird. When you’re in the public domain, you can be in a position where you’re just watching telly and you hear your own music. It’s a strange concept, but it’s brilliant.”
In fact, all four tracks from the Escapade EP have ended up soundtracking scenes on a variety of TV shows, including the final scene of the most recent series of Made In Chelsea: a prestigious, if somewhat incongruous moment.
Although the EP was recorded with a full band line-up, it was recorded at a time when Callum was still performing as a solo acoustic act – most notably at Dot To Dot in Nottingham, two days ahead of its release, when the 18-year old played the main stage of Rock City, to a full and noisily appreciative house.
For Saint Raymond’s next festival appearance, on the Jagermeister stage at Splendour, it was clear that a full time band had to be recruited – but astonishingly, the band only began rehearsing on the night before. “We were thrown in at the deep end”, Callum admits. “Splendour was a big moment, playing for a home crowd, and it felt really special.”
In contrast to most bands, who generally get the opportunity to cut their teeth at low-key gigs, the four piece line-up’s next three dates were at equally high-profile festivals. Thanks to Dean Jackson’s efforts, all three were on BBC Introducing stages, at Y-Not in Derbyshire (“the tent was really busy, and that was a really good show”), and at Reading and Leeds, alongside Nottingham’s Joel Baker and Amber Run.
Leeds proved to be a testing experience, as Callum explains. “We got put on a couple of minutes late. Then it came to our last song, and there were still three minutes left, but they were like: no, we haven’t got enough time. It was quite funny when all the staff came out to clear the stage. They had quite a hostile reception from the crowd. It was one of those moments when you have to bite your tongue, but I was grateful to even get the chance to play on that stage. At the time, it was an absolute pain – but looking back, you’ve got to see the bigger picture.”
Another challenge presented itself in September, at the Theatre Royal’s Nottingham Rocks showcase. Headlining the evening, Callum appeared without his band, accompanied instead by a fourteen-piece orchestra. Once again, this was another last-minute, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair.
“You have your first rehearsal with the orchestra the night before, and they know your songs better than you do. So you can’t make a mistake or anything; they’re so tight as an orchestra. That was another special moment.”
Later the same month, on the eve of his first headline UK tour, Callum faced another major test of his nerve. “The tour started on the Tuesday, and we had the first rehearsal on the Sunday, but the guitarist dropped out on the Friday. So we literally found someone on the Friday, who was a friend of a friend. It was so last minute, but it’s been amazing that he managed to pull it out of the bag.”
Unlike some solo acts, who get thrown together with a band by their record companies, Callum has been able to recruit his own team – including his brother-in-law, who plays bass. “I always wanted a family vibe on stage, and a friendly vibe”, he explains. “I think you see a lot of musicians, where you can just tell that they’re session musicians, and it doesn’t feel like a good vibe at all.”
The addition of a band doesn’t affect Callum’s writing process, though. “From day one, even when I was doing it acoustically, I was always writing with a band in mind. So nothing’s changed. When I wrote Fall At Your Feet, about 18 months ago, that was always a band song.”
As for the name, which originated when Saint Raymond were a duo and continued after Callum went solo, “Saint Raymond is me. I always wanted to be an artist with a different identity to myself, because I think you can easily slip into the category of: oh, you play the guitar and you’re a singer, so you must be like Ed Sheeran or someone like that. I always wanted to steer away from that. The name was personal to me, so I always wanted to stick with it.”
Despite this year’s sudden surge of progress, Callum has always tried to manage his development at an even pace. “I’ve always built it progressively and I’ve always wanted to do it organically, and take my time, and make sure the music was right. There are a lot of artists who are very keen to get the music out there, but you don’t want to be putting a product out if it’s not identifying yourself, and if you’re not making a statement about who you are, because it just becomes a confusion. “
In common with acts such as Harleighblu and Georgie Rose, he hasn’t gone down the slap-it-all-out-for-free-on-SoundCloud route, either. “I see some artists who decide to release all their catalogue really early, but I think you have to be careful. If that EP hadn’t reacted very well, then I might have gone: well, maybe the thing we’re doing isn’t working at the minute, so maybe we need to change the vibe of it.”
With the possibility of widespread national acclaim now dangling in front of him, our talk turns to future opportunities, and future perils to dodge. Of all his musical heroes – including Noel Gallagher (“I was brought up on Oasis”) and even, startlingly enough, the long-departed George Formby (“I had a really weird obsession”) – Callum would most like to meet Paul McCartney, his favourite Beatle. This leads us further into speculative waters, as I present him with a list of things that properly famous people do, seeking his reaction to each item.
For the record – and perhaps we should come back and check this in a couple of years’ time – Callum would say “yes” to an appearance on Later With Jools Holland, even if that meant being accompanied by the man himself on boogie-woogie piano. (“You’ve got to do it, haven’t you? I love his piano playing. He looks so chilled, yet his fingers are doing these amazing things.”) However, it’s a firm “no” to the poisoned chalice of a Sunday night X Factor guest slot, and an equally firm “no” to a spot of modelling for Heat magazine’s Torso of the Week, “unless they’ve got a section for lads who like a bit of beer and food.”
There are no such qualms when I raise the suggestion of a video featuring twerking models in flesh-coloured bikinis. “Yeah, why not – let’s do it. When do we start? I might tell them to calm down the twerking part, but I’m all for a model in a bikini.”
As for spouting off about politics, Russell Brand-style, on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, the lad is having none of it. “I don’t really care about politicians. As a musician, I think as soon as you start spouting off about anything where there’s a big opinion, you’re treading a thin line. So I’ll just stick to watching it at home.”
When it comes to the final item on my list – getting totally shitfaced at the Brit Awards – it turns out that Callum is already ahead of the game. “I went to the Q Awards the other day, and I did a very similar thing. It starts at midday, and it’s just free booze on the table, so you’re feeling a bit drunk by about half past one. Everyone goes to this pub afterwards as well. So you have to play the game a little bit, and fall into that world. But it was just a bit weird. You’re sat at the table, and someone’s going, can I just squeeze past you – and you turn around, and it’s Robbie Williams.”
We kick off a new weekly series giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the UK’s best venues with a trip to the East Midlands.
Capacity: 2,450 in the main room, 300 in the basement.
Who plays there: Big names from Rock City’s past include Nirvana, Oasis, David Bowie, REM, Guns N’ Roses and Blur. The roster is slanted towards rock, as the name would imply, but other genres still get a look in; to the disgust of regulars, Blue played here in 2013. The NME tour is an annual fixture, as are the Dot to Dot and Hit the Deck festivals, covering indie and rock respectively. Other recent acts include Two Door Cinema Club, the Deftones, Foals, Bastille, Suede, Public Enemy, Alt-J, the 1975, Johnny Marr, AlunaGeorge, Gary Numan and Disclosure.
Originally written for Nottingham LIVE
I’m starting this list with an artist who I only heard for the first time today – but hey, when you feel it, you’ve got to go with it. Having recently guested on One Bomb’s Take Over, Aja is now preparing for the release of a four-track EP, which showcases her brand of icy, bassy electronica – and as a teaser video for lead track Made Of Glass suggests, she’s equally strong on visual presentation, too.
2. Amber Run
If Aja is the darkest horse on this list, then Amber Run have to be one of the safest bets. Signed by RCA Victor less than a year after they formed, and with appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals already under their belts, Amber Run’s rise has been so swift, and so smooth, that you could be forgiven for suspecting an undisclosed sinister master plan. The truth is pretty simple, though: they’re a naturally cohesive unit, blessed with good looks, canny management and a talent for turning out future festival anthems, such as last summer’s ubiquitous Noah and their anthemic set-closer, Spark. Aided by its memorable closing refrain – “Let the light in, let the light in” – Spark could well be their breakthrough track in early 2014.
3. April Towers
Formed from the ashes of the late lamented Frontiers, Charles Burley and Alexander Noble have re-grouped as an electronic duo, channelling something of the spirit of New Order and Electronic. They’ve been a studio-based project thus far, but live dates are promised in early 2014.
With a loose-limbed, beatnik style that sets him apart from the hip hop pack, Kane Ashmore burst onto the Nottingham scene last spring with his low-slung signature tune, The Ashmore Show. Since then, he’s been gigging incessantly, and building expectation for his next project, Loonyology, due in February and featuring the likes of Bru- C, Motormouf and Rebecca King. An unreleased album has been knocking around for a while – perhaps it will never see the light of day – but tracks such as the Notts-to-its-core Yah Get Meh and the cheeky Scribbling & Dribbling (“I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”) are too good to be left on the shelf forever.
I may not know much about emo – well, let’s face it, I know next to nothing about emo – but Bluebird impressed me greatly when supporting Kagoule in the basement of the Lacehouse in December. As I said at the time, they’re “a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigate complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.”
6. Gallery 47
If I had to pick a favourite track of 2013 from a Nottingham artist, it would have to be All It Could Grow Up To Be, from Gallery 47’s free EP Dividends. Since then, The Guardian’s Paul Lester has picked Jack Peachey’s alter ego as one of his New Bands of the Day, describing him as a “Midlands tunesmith with an angelic falsetto singing about car bombs and weight loss”, and a number of London showcase gigs towards the end of the year have further helped to spread the word. A second album, All Will Be Well, is due shortly.
7. Georgie Rose
Few, if any, local acts can have worked it harder on the city’s live circuit in 2013, and no festival was ever complete without Georgie Rose’s name on the bill. And yet, wisely, she has resisted the temptation to give it all away for free on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, thus building expectations for the studio recordings which are sure to follow in 2014. In the meantime, live favourites such as Twenty Mile Road, Fool In The Summer, Love Me Again and L.O.V.E. are clear indications of a talent which has only just begun to be tapped.
Underground to the point of near-invisibility – you’ll search in vain for the merest trace of an online presence – Hang have retained a pleasing sense of mystery. “Transcendental repeato-riffs and primal boogie, for fans of all things cyclical”, said Cantaloupe, prior to a joint gig at The Chameleon. It’s a fair description, but nothing can really prepare you for the immersive onslaught of their live show. Pitched halfway between Hookworms and Hawkwind, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, they play without pause, twisting basic, chugging riffs into slowly shifting shapes while their keyboardist adds sonic texture, and their drummer provides rhythmic colour. Spellbinding stuff, but you’ll need to work hard to track them down.
Tipped by many to break through big time in 2013, Indiana opted instead for the slow build, rather than the big bang; understandable, when you’ve a baby on the way. Three singles emerged – Bound, Smoking Gun, Mess Around – and each fared well in terms of national radio support, if not in terms of chart placings. Meanwhile, she debuted at Glastonbury, performed for the Queen, recorded in L.A, and gave birth to Etta, her second child. With the likes of London Grammar achieving significant success in a similar musical vein, the time is ripe for that long awaited début album.
10. Josh Wheatley
“I’m not that rich, and I don’t have a boat; all I own is in my coat.” Featuring Nottingham LIVE! Radio’s favourite lyric of the year, “Sail Away” was angelic-voiced 18 year-old Josh Wheatley’s calling card, bringing him to the the city’s attention back in April. Produced by Trekkah from the Afterdark Movement, Josh’s début EP (Follow The Smoke) is due for release at the end of January, with a launch gig at Pepper Rocks on Thursday January 30th.
Their studies complete, Kagoule are now free to concentrate on their music full-time, making 2014 theirs for the taking. Once rather shy on stage, their performances now crackle with chemistry, as Laurence’s brilliant drumming underpins Cai and Lucy’s instinctive rapport. Radio One and the NME are already on board; many more look certain to follow.
12. Nina Smith
The formerly ubiquitous Nina Smith took time out during 2013, in order to work on new material and a fresh approach. Re-emerging at the end of November, with a showcase gig at a packed Rescue Rooms, she staged a triumphant return, working her way through a brand new set list with a brand new band, and never sounding in finer voice. A second appearance swiftly followed at the Royal Concert Hall, confirming that one of the city’s most enduringly popular characters is well and truly back in the game.
It was also a quiet year for Ronika, with just one EP release to her name (plus a free download, featuring her strongest vocal performance to date), but that’s all set to change in 2014, with the release of her splendidly titled début album, Selectadisc. She might be based in London now, but what better tribute could there be to Ronika’s Nottingham roots?
14. Saint Raymond
At this stage, it’s almost beyond question that Saint Raymond is set to become Nottingham’s biggest post-Bugg breakout star. Signed to Asylum/Atlantic on the strength of his Escapade EP, Callum Burrows has gone one better with his follow-up, which is due to drop on January 5th. As a songwriter, he has an enviable knack for a winning indie-pop hook, and tunes like Young Blood (his hit-in-waiting) and Fall At Your Feet (from the first EP) are stuffed full of them, from end to end. Fresh from supporting Haim on tour, he’s perfectly poised to seize the moment.
15. Sleaford Mods
Embraced during 2013 by the European arthouse hipster set, with gigs in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and boosted by Twitter support from Luke Haines and Kim Gordon, Sleaford Mods ended the year on various publications’ “best of” lists for their album Austerity Dogs, while simultaneously releasing four 7-inch singles on four different European labels. A German tour is planned for May – although what German audiences will make of Jason Williamson’s surreal, venomous and deeply sweary tirades is anyone’s guess – and, perhaps most unlikely of all, a feature on the duo is due to be published in Arena Homme Plus, a magazine that is best known for its upmarket mens’ fashion spreads. Where will it all end? The catwalk, or the dole office?
Originally published in the Nottingham Post
Your current touring schedule looks insane. You’re playing a large number of countries this month alone, including three separate trips to the UK. Is this a typical month for you?
Whatever they present to me when they do the booking, I just go along with it. I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’m 73 now. So it’s no problem; it’s great.
It’s the sort of schedule that could exhaust a man half your age. How do you maintain your energy levels?
I guess I maintain it by eating the right foods and staying healthy, not using alcohol or drugs, or anything like that. I keep my body clean; that’s the key to a healthy life.
Are you the sort of person that likes to get out and about, exploring each city you visit?
When I was young, but I don’t do that anymore. With most of the cities I’ve been to, I’ve travelled to them many times. I’ve been to Paris many times, and to London many, many times. So I don’t hang out anymore. It’s not even a thrill anymore. I just enjoy performing and sleeping and travelling.
Are there any places you’ve not yet played, that you would still like to visit?
The only place I haven’t been is most of the Middle Eastern countries. That’s because so many of them are having problems, like Syria and Egypt. I always wanted to go to Egypt. But I’ve been to almost every other country in the world. I’ve been to China, Russia, Brazil, and of course I work a lot in the USA.
How does your instrument, the vibraphone, handle all the travel? Is it a robust instrument?
I play a vibraphone called KAT. It’s small like a piano. It’s not huge, like the big vibraphone, so it’s easy to handle. Not only do I get the vibraphone sound, but I also get all kinds of synthesiser sounds. It’s very handy, very easy and portable.
How did you first start learning to play the vibraphone?
I got all of my musical training through Mr Samuel Browne, my high school teacher. He taught me musical history, and of course harmony. I graduated from there in 1958. And of course I’ve played with so many great artists. I went on to play with Herbie Mann, which was when I really started to get international recognition. I’ve worked with people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Henderson from the Jazz Crusaders. I’ve recorded with Rick James, and I’ve done albums with George Benson. There’s so many great artists that I been with, like Guru’s Jazzmatazz and Donald Byrd, and I’m continuing to have a wonderful career.
Is the vibraphone difficult to learn?
It’s a difficult instrument, because it requires balance. When I was a little younger, I used to experiment with things. I used to put a towel over the top and play to people, because I remember where all the notes are. I got my first set of vibraphone mallets from Lionel Hampton when I was five years old, so I always wanted to be like Lionel Hampton. At one time, when I was very young, I was thinking I was going to be Lionel Hampton. When I grew up, my mother and father always played his music, so I was reared on Lionel Hampton.
Your music has never gone out of style. With some other artists, the audience will get older as they get older, but it’s not the case with you. You keep getting new generations turning up to your shows. Does that surprise you?
No, it doesn’t. It makes me feel good. As it happens, I have more sampled hits than anyone else in the music industry. It really made me feel good when they told me that. I have maybe 44, 45 songs that have been sampled by hip hop artists, and most of the songs that have been sampled have been hits, which is wonderful.
You’ve always been musically broad-minded. You’ve embraced jazz-funk, disco, Afrobeat, hip hop and house music. I’d like to know about your collaboration with the late Fela Kuti. What was it like, working with him?
It was a pleasure working with Fela Kuti in Nigeria. I spent almost a month over there with him. He was a mystery genius, because he taught his band, all of them, how to play in jail. He was a truly remarkable individual. Musically he was very on top of it, and he was a nice guy. I still have a couple of gigs that I did with him on video, in 1979. It’s never been seen, but it’s something that I plan on issuing later on. I have it in New York.
You’ve also worked with house musicians such as Masters At Work and Kerri Chandler. What was your first introduction to house music?
They come up with so much stuff over there in England, and that’s where I was exposed to it. I heard about it in New York, but I really heard about it on a much more popular level in England. It was so interesting to have all those kinds of transitions coming through my ears, because music continues to grow, and new expressions are happening, and I still continue to have a good time exploring new innovations.
What kind of band leader are you? Are you from the James Brown school of strict discipline, or are you more laidback?
I’m from the Herbie Mann school. He was the best leader that I’ve ever been with, and I run my band the same way. He was not very strict, but he was very organised and very together. He took care of business, and everybody got paid.
Do you always keep to the same set list, or are you open to requests?
Sometimes, in the middle of the show. I don’t mind them, if I have them planned. But sometimes people call for songs that I don’t retain any more; I’ve done 86 albums!
If I was asking for a song, it would be We Live In Brooklyn, Baby. Is that part of your repertoire?
We do that every night. We sing, “We live in Brooklyn baby, we’re trying to make it baby”, and then later on in the song we sing “We shop at Tesco’s, baby!”
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Goodtimes present Roy Ayers & Ubiquity live at The Approach on Sunday December 22.
Completed in May 1855, under the supervision of architect Thomas Chambers Hine, the Park Tunnel instantly became something of a white elephant. Although it had been planned as a main carriageway from Derby Road into the Park Estate, more convenient routes had already been constructed, and the expected traffic never materialised. Even to this day, it remains an obscurity, its street-side entrance obscured by apartment blocks and a car park.
However, as Nottingham Contemporary successfully demonstrated on a cold, drizzly December evening, this vast sandstone hollow has much to offer as a unique performance space. Illuminated after dark, for those few pedestrians who know of its existence, and with a naturally resonant acoustic, the tunnel turns out to be tailor-made for live music.
Around a hundred gathered for the free show. Folding chairs were provided, and a mulled wine and mince pie stall did brisk business. A health and safety announcement was made, but the designated fire exits couldn’t have been more self-evident. Hello, it’s a tunnel.
The bill began with Plain, shift, plane: the first of three improvised pieces, all conceived as specific responses to the tunnel space. Described as presenting “constellations of selected sets of pitch clusters”, it took the form of a dialogue between Rebecca Lee’s flute and Jack Harris’s sine tones, with the tunnel itself cast as the mediating third party.
Lee sounded each call, with a series of long, sustained flute tones; Harris would then provide a response, mirroring the natural sine waves of the flute with an electronic counterpart. Sometimes the tones were equally pitched, fusing into one as the instruments changed over, leaving Lee to complete each cycle. At other times, Lee would go much higher or much lower, extending the sonic range.
Stripped of melody and rhythm, the tones swayed in the air, shimmering and reverberating against the sandstone, and cutting themselves loose from any discernible sense of place. During certain passages, the sound felt all-enveloping, as if beamed from inside the listener’s head. At quieter moments, the steady, distant rumble of Derby Road traffic blended subtly into the mix.
A lone pedestrian stepped softly through the tunnel, past the performers and up to the street. Instead of breaking the spell, his footsteps somehow augmented the experience, nudging us into a fuller appreciation of the space.
“Before I begin, I just want to…”
Hunched over his smartphone, a loudspeaker strapped to his back, Phillip Henderson wandered off from us, inaudibly muttering his way up the tunnel’s incline. At the top, he turned around – “Sorry, sorry” – and commenced his return journey. Was this bumbling ineptitude, or an integral part of Maximal Cluster, his ten-minute performance piece? Almost certainly, it was the latter.
As Henderson paced the full length of the crypt-like space – down and up, then down again and up again, briefly conversing with the clipboard-and-programmes attendant at the bottom, but mostly resembling a pre-occupied academic checking his emails – the “Ion Block Rocker Bluetooth” on his back amplified the sounds generated by his constant smartphone key-taps.
These sounds – booming sub-bass rumbles for the most part, topped with high-pitched shrieks – filled the tunnel from top to bottom, no matter where Henderson happened to be at the time. As he stepped directly past you, they would briefly come into sharper focus, before dissolving back into infinite loops of echo. It was all too much for the pigeons at the top end, who surrendered their perches en masse.
Back in the centre, the performer casually scraped his shoe across the gravel a few times, signalling the end of the recital. His demeanour was deceptive. This had been a carefully researched exploration of the site’s sonic capabilities, where the tunnel became “not just an arena for sound art, but the instrument that we all get into”, and the performance became “a perfect opportunity to bring out the infinite maximal colours from inside the earth”.
No stranger to the process of exploring “the extreme acoustics of very resonant spaces”, John Butcher presented a two-part improvisation for tenor and soprano saxophone, intended to generate “an encounter between a musician and a place that gives a fighting chance to drawing something new from both of them”.
Arguably the most challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding performance of the night, The Geometry of Sentiment stalked the outer reaches of free jazz improv, as Butcher conjured a constantly shape-shifting, endlessly unpredictable riot of sound from his instruments, with a bracing disregard for conventional modes of playing.
Primitive and evolved in equal measure, Butcher’s playing pitched the unfettered explorations of a child against the studied technique of a pro, with startling results: sucking, wheezing, rasping, yelping and bellowing, sometimes tapping his reed against his tongue, sometimes bursting into glorious melodic flurries that could have been sourced from Gershwin, before instantly subverting them, like a crazed scratch DJ.
As if in solidarity with the pigeons, one listener made a mid-set exit. Turning towards the departing figure, Butcher’s sax fell into puttering, satirical step with the footfalls. The audience giggled, gently. Their concluding applause was hearty, warm and sustained.
Fifteen minutes later, reaching for my keys on a quiet road, I became newly fascinated by their jangle. Pausing at the front door, I jiggled them in my palm, savouring the rhythms they created. Evidently, the spell had yet to be fully broken. Perhaps other artists will soon find equally innovative ways of tapping into the Park Tunnel’s power, and expanding a few more perceptions in the process.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post
For the first date of Kagoule’s UK tour, which will take them as far afield as Aberdeen and Brighton, the teenage alt-rock trio opted to play a special gig in the basement of the Lacehouse. While the bar’s regular Friday night crowd hopped around upstairs to cheesy Eighties hits, the basement filled with a markedly different set of punters, who thronged around a central performance space.
In the middle of the room, the three bands on the bill – Kagoule, Hang and Bluebird – performed in the round, facing each other, their monitors arranged inwards. Rope lighting marked out the boundaries of their zone, giving the cellar a crypt-like feel.
For the audience, this was a chance for an up-close and personal experience, which gave us an extra focus on the dynamics between the players. The volume might have been skull-crushingly loud, but the experience was curiously, and thrillingly, intimate.
Bluebird are a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigated complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.
Hang started their set with a basic, chugging two-chord riff, which seemed like it would never end. It formed the starting point for a uniquely immersive set, performed as one continuous instrumental piece. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the riff twisted into new shapes. As the guitar and bass kept a steady pulse, and the keyboards added sonic texture, the drummer was left free to roam, adding rhythmic colour to the hypnotic groove.
Pitched halfway between Hawkwind and Hookworms, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, Hang’s set was utterly spellbinding.
It has been almost two years since Kagoule burst onto the Nottingham scene, with their landmark appearance at Rock City with Dog Is Dead – and yet the band members are still only just old enough to order beers at the bar. Having completed their education over the summer, Cai Burns (lead vocals, guitar), Lucy Hatter (bass) and Lawrence English (drums) are now free to concentrate on the band full-time, building on all the promise which they have consistently shown.
Inspired by Nineties alt-rock, as pioneered by the likes of Fugazi, Nirvana and Unwound, Kagoule breathe new life into the genre. Opening with Monarchy – their oldest song, written by Cai at the age of fifteen – they tore into their set with visceral power. Brought forward from his usual place at the back of the stage, Lawrence’s brilliant drumming was dragged right into the centre of the storm, underpinning Cai and Lucy’s instinctive chemistry.
The intensity lightened for the comparatively gentle Made In Concrete, before rising to new heights for new single Adjust The Way, perhaps their heaviest track to date. Encoring with a track so new that Cai apologised in advance for not remembering its words, Kagoule drew thunderous applause from the hometown crowd. If the staging had been an experiment, then it had paid off handsomely. Let’s hope that more city bands follow their example.
Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Like his Sixties heroes, Jake Bugg prefers to bash his music out quickly. Recorded in a fortnight, Shangri-La emerges just thirteen months after his début, and there’s a similar urgency to its opening volley of rattling, skiffly bangers. The scope widens as the album unfolds, but there are fewer all-acoustic moments, as the plaintive folkie of two years ago steps further into rockier territory.
Dismissed by some as overly conservative, he’s best viewed as a classicist, using vintage stylings to express present-day concerns. Some new influences emerge, ranging from What Doesn’t Kill You’s three-chord punk thrash to the Neil Young flavourings of All Your Reasons, but Jake’s jaundiced view of his hometown is unchanged: “speed bump city” has become Slumville (“this place is just not for me, I say it all the time”), and “messed up kids” are still dealing blow on the corner. One day, he might yet pay tribute to our proud lace-making heritage and our vibrant creative business hubs – but you wouldn’t want to bet on it.
Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Edging onto the margins of the city’s hip-hop scene, Ashmore’s laid-back quirkiness marks him out from the pack. He’s a loose-limbed rhymer with a characterful beatnik style, who first attracted attention with the album’s loping, swampy title track. “I’m not like the other folk, I’ve got nothing to prove”, he declares, with a half-sung, half-rapped delivery and a confidential manner which draws the listener close. Elsewhere, Misfit draws on swirling Balkan gypsy jazz, as does The Rebellious Jiggle, while Scribbling & Dribbling warns that “I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”. Sampling the perky theme tune from I Dream Of Jeannie, a 1960s TV comedy show, Yah Get Meh is Notts to its core. It’s followed by BeatyWeaty – featuring the mandatory Motormouf guest spot – before Brick By Brick’s pissed-off social commentary wraps up this thoroughly likeable debut.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Downsized from Rock City at the eleventh hour, Stornoway adapted to their reduced circumstances with good grace; they’re more of a Rescue Rooms band in any case, and the comparative intimacy of the room suited them well. Entering to the strains of the original Dr Who theme tune, they preluded their first song, Farewell Appalachia, with a delicate arrangement for triangle, torn newspaper, wood block and axe. It’s doubtful whether this would have worked so well on a larger stage.
Although they’ve been playing together since 2006, and releasing records since 2009, this was the band’s first visit to Nottingham, we were told. To mark the event, front man Brian Briggs had done some prior research, and he duly declared himself impressed to be performing in the birthplace of “cat’s eyes, HP sauce, shin pads and genetically modified tomatoes”.
Seeking to add spice to I Saw You Blink, a well-worn old favourite, Briggs had also been casting around for a song from a Nottingham band, whose lyrics he could work into the tune. “As I’m sure you are painfully aware, there aren’t many bands to choose from”, he told us, blithely unaware of the city’s reviving musical reputation. A snatch of Lightning Bolt might have been fun, and even Billy Don’t Be A Hero might have raised a smile, but we had to settle instead for KWS’s cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go. Oh well, never mind.
A six-track mini-album, You Don’t Know Anything, was released a fortnight ago, and three of its tracks found their way into the set list. The best of these was Clockwatching, a rousing early highlight which collapsed into cacophony before the final refrain, like an explosion in a farmyard. Later in the set, the droll lyrics of the title track – “I’ve less energy than a stick of a celery” – raised chuckles in the crowd.
Stepping away from the mikes for an unamplified four-song sequence, Briggs performed November Song on his own – “the noise of the air conditioning you can imagine to be the wild winds”, he quipped – before gradually being joined by the rest of the band, their guest fiddler and their guest trumpeter. Again, such intimacy would have been impossible at Rock City, but here it drew perhaps the loudest applause of the night, particularly following the gentle hoedown of We Are The Battery Humans.
Perplexingly, the band’s most recent full-length release, Tales From Terra Firma, was poorly represented in the set list – it would have been particularly good to have heard Knock Me On The Head and Invite To Eternity, for example – but on the whole, the audience warmed most to the oldest songs, softly singing along to Boats & Trains and Fuel Up, both from the first album.
Pitched somewhere between Noah & The Whale’s folk-pop and Belle & Sebastian’s chamber-pop, with a fondness for nature and wildlife imagery that makes them naturals for the outdoor festival circuit, Stornoway have carved a serviceable niche for themselves. They’re clearly sensible and grounded fellows – perhaps a little too sensible and grounded at times, with a tendency towards pious over-tidiness that could do with keeping in check – but they do what they do well, at a level of success that should sustain them for a good while to come.
Set list: Farewell Appalachia, Clockwatching, I Saw You Blink, Boats & Trains, When You Touch Down From Outer Space, The Ones We Hurt The Most, Fuel Up, November Song, Josephine, You Don’t Know Anything, We Are The Battery Humans, Watching Birds, You Take Me As I Am, The Great Procrastinator, Zorbing.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
It’s been a long time since we last heard from Nina Smith. For most of this year, she has been lying low, working on new material and developing a new sound, which sees her shifting away from acoustic pop and heading in a more soulful direction.
Having taken such a long break from performing, Nina needed to come back with a bang. Booking the main stage of the Rescue Rooms was a bold move – it’s the first time she has headlined there – but as she stepped onto the stage in front of a packed room, to wild applause, it was clear that the risk had paid off.
As an introductory video explained, Nina has forged a more “grown-up” approach to her songwriting and presentation, with a fuller, richer and funkier sound that draws inspiration from Alicia Keys, Carole King and Nineties R&B. With a new four-piece band, two new backing singers, and a brand new set of songs, she had set herself the task of effectively re-inventing herself in public.
Quirkily stylish in a black polka-dot top and crimson velvet hotpants, Nina radiated personality, warmth and charm, connecting with the room in an instant, and displaying a keen commitment to her new material. “Tired of closing curtains, I want to open up to sunshine”, she sang on Waiting For You, a song about hanging on to hope in an unrequited love affair – but the words fitted the occasion, too.
Elsewhere, Why Can’t I Sleep dealt with conflicting emotions at the end of a relationship, a theme that was revisited for I Wish, the eighth and final song of the night. There were more unrequited longings in This Love – “your heart’s not for sale, but I stole it” – while on Come Home (“let me show you, this is how it’s done”) and I Can’t Read You, Nina asserted her desires more explicitly. “You should come a little closer, take your clothes off”, she teased on the latter, drawing mid-song cheers.
Musical influences ranged far and wide. Opening the set, Love To Leave’s light reggae backbeat served the song well, and those Carole King influences came to the fore on Scars, a stripped down number for voice and piano.
Overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the crowd, Nina couldn’t thank us often enough. There will be another chance to catch her performing for free this year, at the Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday December 3rd. In the meantime, she can take pride in this triumphant comeback, which opens a highly promising new chapter in her career.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Girls In Hawaii are a top five act in their native Belgium, who have yet to make much of an impact over here. Regrouping after the death of their drummer in 2010, they have just released their third album, Everest. It’s an understandably melancholy and subdued affair for the most part, which stands in marked contrast to the six-piece band’s muscular and varied live set. Whenever you think you’ve got the measure of them, they’ll throw in something unexpected: a funky keyboard vamp, a discordant howl, a big pop chorus.
Midway through the set, the two keyboard players abandon their posts, bringing the number of guitars on stage up to five. Wired to identical amps, two Telecasters are played in unison, fattening the sound; a simple but effective trick, which is repeated for the set’s closing song. By this stage, the formerly mild-mannered singer has vaulted one of the speaker stacks. Bathed in red light, his tambourine worn like a crown, he yells unintelligibly into an old-fashioned telephone receiver, as the band crank up the energy levels to a breathtaking degree. Nobody saw this coming. It’s a stunning moment.
The mood lightens for the headliners, who preface their set with a public information film of their own, warning us of the perils of Wafty Mobile Phone Camera Video Disorder: a welcome and hearteningly effective piece of propaganda.
Borrowing the words of Lord Reith, the founding father of the BBC, the title of Public Service Broadcasting’s album – Inform Educate Entertain – spells out their mission. Blending sound samples and video footage from vintage public information films with live drums, keyboards, guitars and banjo, they mash the past up with the present, with wit, style and dexterity.
To the right of the stage, the tweed-jacketed and bow-tied J. Willgoose, Esq. manipulates the sonic elements, looping and layering his live instruments, and punching sound samples from his array of kit. Even the stage banter is pre-recorded (“we have always wanted to play” – long pause – “Rescue Rooms”), including retorts to hecklers (“we’ve all had a few”). To the left, Wrigglesworth’s gleeful live drumming powers the set, while in the centre, Mister B controls the visuals, beaming pre-recorded and live footage onto two giant screens and two rickety towers of antique television sets. Completing the boffin look, all three performers sport the same thick-rimmed spectacles.
Two new tracks are performed, both of them in Dutch (“it seemed like the logical next step”), and featuring footage of the world’s biggest ice-skating race. Elsewhere, dandies in boutiques form the backdrop for The Now Generation (“how about these slacks?”), while Night Mail pays tribute to our most recently privatised public service, and Spitfire quotes from The First of the Few, a fictionalised account of the airplane’s construction that served as a morale-booster during World War Two.
It’s high-concept stuff, but there’s nothing too academic or remote about it either; “entertain” takes priority over “inform” and “educate” throughout, and the players clearly don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s difficult to see how they can sustain their act in the long-term, as its novelty is a large part of its appeal – but as of now, it’s a raging success, and a delight to witness.