Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
One of their three founder members lives in Prague, another in Antwerp, another in France, and they collectively left town over twenty years ago. And yet to many, Tindersticks are still seen as a Nottingham band. Ahead of the release of their tenth studio album, Across Six Leap Years, keyboardist Dave Boulter talked to Mike Atkinson about the band’s Nottingham roots, and about their recent re-invigoration as a working unit.
Home towns have a habit of claiming kinship. But do we have any legitimate claim to seeing you as a Nottingham band, over twenty years after you left?
I suppose so, in some ways. The media still refer to us as a Nottingham band, and it’s kind of stuck. But by the time we became Tindersticks, we had left Nottingham anyway, so it’s not even as if the band originated from Nottingham, in that way. But everybody comes from somewhere, and I think Nottingham’s as good a place as any to come from.
When you were working here as Asphalt Ribbons in the late Eighties, how did you find Nottingham, in terms of what it had to offer musicians? Was it a stimulating and supportive creative environment?
I think it was the opposite in some ways. Nottingham just didn’t have the kind of infrastructure that places like Manchester and Liverpool had, and there wasn’t anyone to help you. You did a radio session for Radio Trent, and that was about as much help as you got. But in terms of artistic support, it was great. There were a lot of really interesting bands around, and a lot of really talented musicians. But I think everyone tended to get to a level where they filled a pub, and they did that three or four times, and then they just split up or moved on. So it could be frustrating. But at the same time, there was a lot of really great music being made in Nottingham, and it’s a shame that a lot of it never broke out and got anywhere else.
I’ve been told that the Nottingham music scene in the Nineties could be quite a bitchy and competitive place, and that there wasn’t an awful lot of kinship between musicians. What was it like in the late Eighties?
Probably very similar. Quite often, we’d play some venue, and most of the audience would be people from other bands. They would stand there with their arms folded, looking at you and not really wanting to be impressed, not wanting to clap. But it’s just what you expected. We didn’t really know anything else, and it didn’t bother us. We kind of hated Stuart’s band, The Desert Birds. [Stuart Staples, lead vocals] They were one of the better bands, but even though we liked the music, we would never let them know that. We always used to stand there, looking unimpressed.
You had Craig Chettle in your band for a while. He’s now a major player in our creative community, but what was he like as a guitarist?
As a musician in general, he was great. I suppose he was a bit of a legend. He started very young, and he was a great all-round musician. We did a lot of demos at his house; he had a little 4-track or 8-track recorder in his bedroom. So it’s interesting to see him develop into what he’s become. He became our sound engineer as well, so we’ve had lots of different involvements with Craig.
The opening track (Chocolate) on your last album, The Something Rain, is an extended monologue which you wrote and delivered, describing a Friday night out in town.
It was a night out in Nottingham. It’s 99% true, except for the punchline. It wasn’t a cross-dressing man in the end, but she could have been either way for a while.
There are three locations in the monologue. You start off in a bar with a pool table, then you go to a place which has something of a reputation as a gay pub, then you end up in a club which sells onion bhajis. Can these be specifically mapped to locations?
Yeah, the pub that we always used to go to was called Jaceys, so that’s where we started. Then to have a quieter drink on a Friday night, we’d go round the corner to the Lord Roberts. And then up to The Garage. On the top floor, they used to have a little food place, which basically only did two things: chips and onion bhajis. They had a weird system where you paid for your food and got a cloakroom ticket, and then they’d call out the number. I think a lot of people tried to rip them off, so it didn’t last that long.
Do you ever return to Nottingham?
I was born in St Ann’s and my family still live there, so I go back and see them probably four or five times a year, depending on what’s happening.
You’ve only played Nottingham twice as Tindersticks: at The Old Vic in 1993, and at the Albert Hall in 2003. You’ve been visiting us at ten year intervals, so I think we’re due another one.
I definitely always want to play there, but it’s all down to offers, and what you can actually do. We’d want it to be something special, so we don’t feel like just going to the Rescue Rooms, and I think we’re not quite big enough to do Rock City, although I’ve always wanted to play there. The Albert Hall felt like a perfect place for us to play, but it was quite difficult to arrange.
We recently did a film soundtrack tour in the UK, and we were hoping to play the Royal Concert Hall. It was the only chance we would get to play there, because it was a sponsored tour of lots of theatres like that. It’s somewhere that we’d definitely say yes to. And on the last tour, we were hoping to play at St Mary’s Church in the Lace Market, but it just couldn’t work logistically.
Let’s talk about your new album, Across Six Leap Years, which is a collection of re-recordings of previously released tracks. Is this in lieu of doing a Best Of, or a Greatest Hits?
I suppose so. We got to a point where we felt like we wanted to celebrate twenty years of Tindersticks, and it felt more exciting to re-record some of the songs that we either felt we were playing better, or that we wanted to reintroduce to people. It just felt like something nicer to do, to make it more special. It was also easier in terms of licensing, because we’ve had three different record labels over the years.
Was it a question of methodically sitting down and replaying your entire catalogue, or did songs just emerge?
A lot of it was songs that we’ve always felt attracted to, or that we’ve been playing recently on tour. You have to do the things which feel right for you, and I suppose that’s why we didn’t pick so many obvious songs. We tried to pick the songs that feel the best between the band as it is at the moment.
Did you consciously have to blot out your memory of how they were originally recorded, and re-imagine them from the ground up?
The process started from the songs that we were playing on tour, and they grew in a way of their own. With some songs, we had a feeling that we’d gone beyond the original recordings. We didn’t need to think about how they worked, because we knew we could play them better. With others, it was more about showing our personality as it is now, and forgetting about the way it was.
Dickon Hinchliffe used to handle your arrangements, but he’s no longer with you. How are they worked on nowadays?
We farm some out, and we also do a lot more of them ourselves. On the last album, we made a conscious effort to not have any real strings. When we began, Dickon was a violin player, and he added his own personality. I think one of the reasons that we split up with him was because we were getting a bit too heavy on the string arrangements, and they were swamping the music in some ways. It was very hard to find the original motivation and drive of the band, and I think it’s something that has come back – especially on the last album, which feels very similar to how we felt twenty years ago.
Your music is known for having a kind of lugubrious, melancholy quality, and it tends to be quite downtempo. Are you never tempted to rock out? Do you never bash through a Pixies song in rehearsals?
In our minds, half of our songs do sound like The Pixies! People generalise a lot, and I can understand that, but I think we’ve had our moments, especially recently. That’s another thing about the re-invigoration of the band. We have become something different. People who maybe discount us in that way are shocked when they come to see us live, with the way that we actually are these days. But I suppose it’s the music that has always motivated us. We grew up in the Seventies, and even with punk, the only fast punk band for us was probably The Damned. You grew up in a certain way, and the music naturally comes out in a certain way.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
This time last year, The Afterdark Movement were riding on the crest of a wave. As champions of Future Sound of Nottingham 2012, they had the honour of opening the main stage at Splendour, and a debut EP, ADM, had just been released.
Twelve months down the line, the fresh-faced newcomers have matured into one of Nottingham’s most widely respected bands, drawing admirers from the urban scene and the live gigging circuit alike.
Released this weekend, their new EP Six Minds represents a significant progression in the Afterdark sound. Last time around, Bru-C’s raps dominated most of the tracks, but on the new material, singer Natalie steps forward and claims equal billing, exhibiting a new-found vocal confidence.
“I’m fine with that,” says Bru-C, who also runs a parallel career as a grime MC. “I think we’re more of a full band, and I don’t really see myself as the star.” The first EP was recorded not long after Natalie’s arrival turned the five-piece band into a six-piece, and so it was a case of slotting her into material that had already been written – but this time around, she had the opportunity to compose her own vocal parts.
Perhaps softened by Natalie’s soulful approach, Six Minds is also a less angry affair than its predecessor. “It’s definitely not as dark as the one before”, Bru-C admits. “We still have that dark element”, says guitarist and “chief organiser” Marty, “but Bru-C’s lyrics are trying to bring positive vibes as well”.
At the start of this week, a video was released for Days Go By. It’s the most ballad-like of the five new tracks, with a mournful quality that contrasts sharply with the full-tilt gyspy ska of Clean Lenses, the party tune that closes the EP.
The video was shot around the band’s home town of Long Eaton. “It’s a very suburban video”, says Bru-C. “It’s very groggy; just a typical day in the British life.” There’s no grand concept to the filming, which essentially lets the song speak for itself, and the same holds true for the EP as a whole.
Moving away from the tightly themed approach of ADM, which told an ever-darkening story, Six Minds is all about variety. “Every single person in the band is completely different, and I think it shows”, says Marty. “You’ve got a bit of everyone in every track. That’s why we’ve called it Six Minds, because that’s literally the message we’re putting out. It is six completely different minds.”
Although this wide spread of tastes and opinions can cause conflict during the creative process, it also represents one of Afterdark’s greatest strengths. “Everyone has their say, and it gets heated at times”, says Marty. “But if you all get along, all happy-dappy, you will not be a good band. Everyone’s got a lot of passion, and you can tell that especially when we’re live.”
Tomorrow night, there will be a chance to witness some of that passion, as the band launch their EP by headlining a seven-hour, three-stage mini-festival at The Maze. “We know and we talk to a lot of artists”, Bru-C explains. “We’ve kept in touch with people we’ve played with, right from when we started, and I’d say that at least a good 40% of the people playing are good friends of ours.”
With well over twenty acts performing, from acoustic singer-songwriters (Georgie Rose, Esther Van Leuven) to soul/r&b artists (Marita and the Peaches, Tasha Dean), and with open mic rap battles in the front bar, live graffiti art in the yard, dance DJs until late (Rubberdub , Tumble Audio) and even an acapella choir, the event represents the full spectrum of Afterdark’s musical interests and connections. The band themselves will be the last live act to perform, at around 11.30pm, before the DJs take over.
“You get certain scenes in Nottingham”, says Bru-C, “You get a scene that goes to all the live band nights, and you get a scene who go to Rubberdub, Tumble Audio, the house nights, the dubstep, the drum & bass. I’ve got a feeling that the crowd is going to change. It will be a big contrast, as it goes from eight to twelve, and then from twelve to three.”
“It’s a big contact network for people as well”, Marty adds, as we contemplate the possibilities generated by getting such a wide range of people together in the same building. “People linking in with other people; that’s what it should be like. But it’s just going to be a party. All good vibes, all good people.”
What were you doing this time ten years ago? What was life like?
Since that time, I’ve slowly been rubbing away my memory – replacing it with new endeavours, and with loads of drugs. (Laughs) This time ten years ago, I was just starting to beatbox. I was hearing these good beatboxers – Killa Kela, Rahzel – and I was finding as many people to learn from as possible. So I was building the foundations of my musical career.
How the hell do you learn to beatbox? Are there manuals and instruction videos, or do you have to work things out from first principles?
Back in the day, all I had was these amazingly well recorded live shows, from the best beatboxers in the world. You have to tell yourself that even though it sounds mental and impossible, you can do it. But there wasn’t that much resource for actually breaking it down. Now, on YouTube, you just type in “beatbox tutorial” and there will be a detailed, in-depth visual explanation.
So because there wasn’t a rulebook, you had more freedom to develop your own style.
I think that’s still valid now. People are going to sound different. Even a guitar will have a different tone, or a different feel, from another guitar – and then it’s down to the guitarist. Anyone can play a G chord and a C chord, but someone might write a beautiful, seminal song using those chords. It’s the same with beatboxing. There’s the physical element of creating a sound – like making noise out of your instrument – and then there’s the more metaphysical, spiritual side of it, where you arrange the music. So it’s unique to everyone, although a lot of beatboxers do sound the same, and they bore the fuck out of me.
When did the looping come along?
I just heard another beatboxer, MC Xander. He posted on some forum, just going: oh, I’ve got this looper thing, and here’s what I’ve done with it, and he was amazing. That was my first exposure to that technology, and it came at the right time, because I was starting to get a little bit bored. I felt a bit limited with beatboxing. The shows were great, and getting that crazy response from the crowd was fulfilling, but not really in a musical sense.
You may have routines and cool sounds, and you’re able to do things that people don’t understand and are therefore really interested in, but you don’t have songs, for people to emotionally connect to. So when I found out about these loop pedals, I could actually start to arrange songs and music. More than that, all of a sudden your sound is ten times bigger. Frequency spectrum-wise, you’ve now got everything going on. You’ve got the bass and the drums, which are constantly going, and then you’ve got some harmonies and trumpets over the top, and then you can sing as well. So all of a sudden, you sound like a full band.
And you use guitar as well. Was that something that you added later?
I always had this double personality in my head. I was a guitar player, and that’s my favourite instrument. I write songs, and I sing about love and weird stuff – and then I beatboxed. I was in these drum & bass and techno and hip hop clubs, and I even used to speak a bit different when I was on stage. (Laughs) It was a long, slow journey to reconnect and reconcile these two sides. They were both as valid as each other, but they each seemed like completely different worlds.
The first time I did it, I did a Pixies cover, of Where Is My Mind. I was like: everyone’s gonna hate this. Beatboxers are gonna go: that’s not really beatboxing, there’s nothing technically great about that. And then the Pixies fans will think that I’ve murdered one of their songs.
But that video was your tipping point, wasn’t it?
It went massive; it went viral. Even the Pixies put it on their website, so that was a good validation. I got Simon Ellis to film it; he’s a local director from Nottingham and he’s brilliant. It sounds really simple, because he’s just filming me – but the way he’s done it, with the depth of field and the slow camera movements, is just beautiful.
Before then, my highest viewed video was about 25,000, over three years. With this one, I put it up, went to bed, woke up, and it was on 7,000 views. By lunchtime, it had gone up to about 25,000. By the end of that night, it was on 100,000, and within a week it had half a million views. I didn’t do anything.
That’s quite encouraging, because your views rely on individual internet users seeing something, liking it, and wanting to share it with their friends. It’s quite organic, but also quite gutting, because it’s entirely non-replicable. You can’t go: well, I’ve had a viral video now, so I’ll just make another one. There’s no rhyme or reason for making it happen again. You just have to hope that what you make resonates.
Your Future Loops album came out last year, with a corresponding set of performance videos, featuring four originals and five covers. How did you select the covers?
The covers are just bands that I really fucking love. It’s as simple as that. So it’s Nirvana, Pixies, Crystal Castles, MGMT. They’re my favourite bands.
When I arrange a cover, I don’t listen to the original and work it out. I just play it as I remember it. That means that when I listen to the original, mine sounds nothing like it! Everyone’s like, you’ve totally made it your own, but I’ve just done it a bit wrong.
You also did a Beach Boys song, I Get Around. I heard it was a childhood obsession.
I had a 45 minute tape, and with my dad’s CD player, I recorded I Get Around over and over and over again. I had an entire tape on this little Walkman, and I’d just listen to the song over and over. So it was quite apt for the “Future Loops” concept.
What have been your recent gigging highlights?
I just played a festival in Lithuania, and that was mega, just brilliant, and a packed house. I toured Russia at the end of last year. It’s quite daunting when you’re travelling to another country for a headline tour. You’re like: who the fuck is going to come and see me? But at the same time, YouTube has this global reach. So, yeah, packed out shows every night – to see me! (Laughs)
Wasn’t there a time when you played Abu Dhabi for Formula One, and it was a total five-star treatment?
That was bonkers. I’d just been touring with Swimming, supporting Carl Barat around Europe. It was a budget affair, with five of us piled into a little hotel room. We’d have to sneak in through the windows. Then I flew straight from Bologna on the last date of the tour. I arrived in Abu Dhabi, someone met me at the end of the plane, and I didn’t have to go through customs. They were like, welcome to Abu Dhabi, here’s your phone, which you can keep, and that’s your car, and that’s your driver – anywhere you need to go, he’ll be waiting outside. We got in, and it was this posh BMW with those blackout things that go up. Then we went to this fucking seven star bonkers hotel, and Sophie Ellis Bextor was there, chilling in the foyer. I was like, who do they think I am, Kanye West?
The first night, I was invited to go out and watch Flo Rida. When the Formula One’s on, they have these huge pop-up clubs, and I was playing in one of them. They’re like huge mini-stadiums, with all these tiered tables. Prince played there. I was on my own, and they said: Mister Petebox, here is your table. There was a massive bottle of Grey Goose, and I’m like, sweet, does anybody want any?
I played my show the next day, right before the headliner, who was a huge local superstar. So I was there for 30,000 people, and they were all fucking hanging on everything I was doing. The next day: VIP booth at the Formula One. Dynamo was in front of me, and I had my lunch with Gabrielle.
To top it off, I had a girlfriend for the weekend who was this Brazilian model. I finished my show, and everyone was going, oh, there’s this Brazilian model looking for you. And I’m wandering round, and I met this beautiful girl. She said: Petebox! Oh man, I watched your stuff, I’m a singer, I love your music! I was like, please come this way to my dressing room, would you like a drink, or some fruit? I did actually have all this stuff. And then I was like, what are you doing later? I’ve got VIP tickets to see Prince, do you want to come? I’ll have my car pick you up.
And then, after three days, I left and went back to normal life. I was amazed at what was going on. Nothing was anything that I was expecting, or used to.
It’s funny, because I might be lying. You don’t know that. I always think about that. I was at my best mate’s wedding the other day, and I was like the vicar – I was delivering the ceremony. I turned down about three shows that day, but around 10 o’clock, I was like, I’ve got to go. I was dead emotional to leave, because there was all your friends and family and loved ones. So I’m going round to everyone saying goodbye, and they’re partying to the early hours, and I’m just driving on my own to this festival. And I just thought: they know I’m going to do a gig, but no one really knows what it’s like for me. It’s a weird thing.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Most mothers, when hearing their daughters performing live on national radio for the first time, must surely feel a certain surge of pride. But there can’t be many who would actually ring up the radio station, in the middle of the performance, to urge them to give up their day job. According to BBC 6Music presenter Marc Riley, who passed just such a message to Fists drummer Theresa Wrigley during his live interview with the band, it was an unusual occurrence.
“I don’t know if he was being sarcastic or not”, says Angi Fletcher, who sings and plays guitar with Fists. “I think it was a great surprise to us all that she rang in.”
“That was our first proper radio session” James Finlay explains. “It was an incredibly daunting experience. Because it was live, you would assume that the BBC would sit down and prep you about what you can and can’t say on the air. So they were incredibly trusting. You turn up, there’s a fridge full of Staropramen, and they just tell you to relax, and they’ll get you in a minute.”
Rather like the BBC’s breakfast television studio, the radio studio was visible to the public through a large pane of glass. “There was a man pressed up against the glass while we were singing, which was off-putting” says James. “You find your mind wandering – looking at the clouds and stuff, and forgetting about the reality of being live on air in front of a million people.”
A few days before the 6Music session, Fists headlined an all-day gig at the Boat Club, to mark the imminent launch of their debut album Phantasm. It was the band’s first gig in over a year, following an extended period of writing, rehearsing and recording the album.
The recording sessions took place in a floating studio inside a lightship, moored opposite London’s O2 Arena. They were produced by Rory Brattwell, who has previously worked with the likes of The Vaccines, Palma Violets and Veronica Falls. “His rates were incredibly cheap,” James admits, “but he’s got an incredibly large live room for London. He likes to work with independent bands that are a bit unusual. He could be charging a lot more money for his work now, but he did us a good deal.”
As regards the album’s title, Phantasm was already on the shortlist when James and Angi moved into their new house, only to find a copy of the soundtrack from the 1979 horror film of the same name sitting on their new mantelpiece. “To me, that says: well, we’ve got to call it Phantasm now” says James. “But there’s no meaning, necessarily. It’s just a sexy word.”
“I like the fact that it sounds like an amalgamation of the words phantom and orgasm”, says Angi.
The album’s eleven tracks run the full gamut of Fists’ influences, from skiffle and rockabilly through to punk rock and alt-rock, with a dash of country along the way. Thanks to a particularly fertile creative patch, Angi emerged as the record’s chief songwriter, although each track goes through several stages as band members pitch in with ideas.
Cinematic references abound. Straw Dog, the punkiest track on the album, brings Sam Peckinpah’s violent 1971 thriller to mind, while Wasted steals a line from the musical Bugsy Malone. Then there’s Gasp, which was inspired by Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about the oldest cave paintings ever discovered. “The way that Herzog talks about being in this cave, you just become consumed by the romance of it” says Angi. “This caveman was drawing sabre toothed tigers and mammoths. They were just outside his door. I couldn’t get over that.”
When writing Flaneur, James looked to the street culture of 19th century Paris. Flaneurs “were people who would stand in the street and allow street society to wash over them, as a way of feeling the movement of the world. They would write poetry based on that experience. So they would basically live in the street, and not really do anything. They would just exist there, and allow the movement of society around them to influence the way they wrote.”
Perhaps there’s something of the flaneur ethos in the way that Fists operate as a band. Unfazed by their recent brush with the national airwaves, they prefer to regard their music making as a “lifestyle choice”, rather than a career path.
“It’s something that we’ll be hopefully doing for the rest of our lives” says James. “We’re quite ambitious, in the sense that we don’t want to be playing in a pub in Sherwood doing Kings Of Leon covers. We want to be writing stuff that reflects our lives, and where we’re at. The record is all over the shop in terms of styles, so we’re not trying to define an identity, although we probably do that anyway. We’re just listening to music, and trying to contribute to culture, and express ourselves, and make that part of our lives.”
Phantasm is released by Gringo Records and Hello Thor on Monday July 8th.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
It might still be early days for Great British Weather – recently described, and with good reason, as “Nottingham’s best kept secret” – but the band’s seventeen year-old singer Andrew Tucker already has the air of a natural front man. Armed with a sharp haircut, a good leather jacket and a ready wit, he takes to being interviewed like a duck to water.
Sitting beside him, bassist Lewis Belle offers a gentler, more grounded presence. “You’re more reserved, aren’t you”, Andrew muses. “You’re the cool bass player; you’re redefining the stereotype. But when you do speak, it’s useful. It’s just measured.”
“I don’t want to come out with reams of bullshit”, says Lewis. It’s kindly meant.
Andrew considers the personalities of the other two members of the band: Tom the guitarist and the other Tom, who drums. Tom the guitarist is “a man of extremes. His feelings will spike and dip all over the place. He’ll either really love something, or he’ll just go: no, don’t want to do it.”
As for Tom the drummer, “He’s very assertive. It’s not a flaw. But whereas Lewis and I try to be a bit more diplomatic, [Tom and Tom] speak their emotions.”
It’s a combination which seems to be working. With each band member bringing different influences to the table, Great British Weather have forged a sound which is distinctly their own, fusing post-punk, math-rock and psychedelia with chiming guitar runs, funky basslines and inventive drumming which occasionally nods towards hip hop.
“I still like that angular stuff, like Gang Of Four, A Certain Ratio and Orange Juice” says Andrew. “In terms of lyrics, I like good songwriters like Morrissey and Elvis Costello. My dad used to be in the folk scene, but I’ve not really inherited that. I think I’ve gone away from that totally. But I listen to a bit of Bob Dylan.”
When you’re in your teens, getting some distance from your parents is all part of the process. To this end, Great British Weather have recently graduated from the Tucker family living room to a dedicated rehearsal space, above The Maze on Mansfield Road. “You don’t feel like an edgy band when your mum’s making meatballs”, says Andrew. “That’s not a complaint, by any means”, he adds, with telling haste.
As for the new space, “It’s a sick little place. We’ve got fairy lights on the ceiling, and there’s a spotlight with multi-colours. So we turn the main lights off and get a bit of an atmosphere going. You can see the lights from your pedals, and you go into a little trance.”
Although an EP was recorded in the band’s early days, almost two years ago, Andrew would rather it was forgotten about. “We listened to it in the car on the way back, and I thought: if this cropped up on the radio, I would turn it off. And you shouldn’t think that about your own music.”
“You should be your own favourite band”, agrees Lewis. “So please get rid of it now!”
Work has already begun on a new EP, with two tracks recorded at Confetti studios. It’s evidence of the band’s renewed focus, after a fairly quiet 2012. Their most recent gig, at the Dot To Dot Festival, became one of the talking points of the day, and expectations are running high for next Tuesday’s gig at the Rescue Rooms, supporting OneGirlOneBoy.
Talk turns to Andrew’s lyrics. He doesn’t discuss them much with the rest of the band – “I try to ignore them myself”, says Lewis – but he acknowledges that this can cause confusion. Take their latest track, for instance.
“We’ve just written a song that’s currently named Phil Taylor. Even though it’s a criticism of organised religion, it’s named after a darts player. So there’s been a bit of a miscommunication.”
“It does sound more like a darts song”, Lewis mutters.
The band’s current set closer is a powerful track, centred round a chanted refrain: “I wish I was alive in the space age”. There’s less room for confusion here, as Andrew explains.
“If I was being pretentious – and I will be, because I never miss an opportunity – I was watching some old videos at college, from the Fifties and Sixties, showing what they thought the world was going to be like in the 21st century: oh, we’ll be living on the moon. So it’s a nostalgia for a future that was promised, but never happened. We’ve got smartphones, and we were promised jetpacks. Larger than that, it’s disenchantment with everyday mundane life. There you go: pretention over, I’m done. It’s a tune. What more does it matter?”
An edited version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
“So, what sort of music do you play?”
If your work tends towards the leftfield end of the spectrum, you might come to dread this question, especially if asked by well-meaning relatives or less clued-up colleagues.
“I always end up giving vague descriptions and saying it sounds quite krautrocky” says John Simson (better known as Simmo), keyboard player with Cantaloupe. “Then people look at me and think: what’s that? So I always end up saying: you know the video games you played when you were a kid? It sounds like that. And they seem to get that.”
“You normally end up going: we’re really boring rock music” says Dave Stockwell, who contributes guitar and bass. “Then they stop talking. Otherwise they want to hear it. Then they go: what is this music? What are you doing? Like, is this pop music?”
In Cantaloupe’s heads, the answer is a firm yes. According to Simmo, “it’s just dancey, fun instrumental pop.” “We try to make it unpretentious and enjoyable, for us as well as everybody else”, Dave adds.
This still doesn’t account for Cantaloupe’s fondness for unusual time signatures, though. For all its bright, melodic accessibility, Splish, the lead track on their new single, is in 10/4 time. It’s danceable enough – but the closer you listen, the trickier it becomes.
“That’s definitely one of the challenges we like to take on”, says Simmo. “Doing something in an unusual time signature, so that when you listen to it, it has a totally natural rhythm and flow. But if you start breaking it down, maybe you see more complex things at play. Being an instrumental band makes it easier to take that on, because it’s hard to get vocals into an unusual measure, in a way that makes any sense.”
“Instrumental music is quite associative”, he continues. “When you have lyrical music, there’s a narrative there, which sets emotional boundaries. With instrumental music, you’re more reliant on hinting at things. So you get bands like Boards Of Canada, who have these almost nostalgic sounds, like something remembered from your childhood. I think with instrumental music, you’ve got to tap a lot more into that association and memory. One thing I never want to do is sound explicitly retro, but we definitely take cues.”
The three members of Cantaloupe came together last year, following the break-up of Souvaris, the band they had all played in for the past twelve years. Thanks to the contacts which they made over the years, they were recently able to book a full European tour.
“Half the tour is just us staying with friends”, says Dave. “You’re treated so well over there. You get fed really nice food, and you get really nice booze. We’re taking a half empty van and we’re going to come back with cases of wine.”
“I brought 36 bottles back the last time we went”, Simmo admits. “And that was just one out of six people.”
Continental Europe holds a special appeal to Cantaloupe. “It’s a different mentality”, Simmo explains, “because they haven’t really had fifty or sixty years of pop music culture, especially alternative music. It’s a bit more special to them. You get a much greater mix in the audience, for example.”
“There are stories we’ve got from touring Europe before, and the experiences we’ve had of meeting people”, says Dave. Take the case of Stanislav the Spanish artist, for instance.
“We were playing in the middle of nowhere in Spain, at two o’clock in the morning, in a theatre. Stanislav couldn’t afford to buy our record, so he went home, picked out an oil painting that he’d done, and insisted on paying us with an oil painting.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t get that kind of thing over here that often – and when you do, it’s normally a little more of a scary experience. But because you’re abroad, it seems much more charming.”
Cantaloupe release their new single Splish / Wet Dog on limited edition 12” vinyl and digital download on 17th June.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.
On a Wednesday in late April, I met up with five core members of the Pentatronix project at the Night Rooms studio, where they were working on a specially commissioned show for Nottingham Contemporary, under the direction of Mikey Davis, leader of Sabar Soundsystem. The invitation came with the promise of an exclusive performance of a brand new piece, which had been composed that very morning. Before that, while the rest of the team broke for lunch – classical Chinese musician Ling Peng, electronic artist Si Tew, and two players of the “chimes”, Sabar’s unique tubular bell constructions – I settled on a sofa with Mikey, who filled me in on the background behind the project.
I started by raising the delicate subject of Mikey’s 2009 appearance on Dragons Den, which saw his old percussion troupe, BassToneSlap, secure funding for a drumming-based corporate team-building venture. “That was one of the greatest errors of my life” he admitted.
But your clips weren’t embarrassing. You gave a good account of yourself.
Basically, we only ever wanted to do it for the advertising. We never actually thought we would do the thing, even though we shook hands. We didn’t take the money, but we made a lot of money just from being on the show.
So how could that have a negative consequence?
If you stick a big lot of money into a group, it changes people. And the working relationships all just changed. Basically, we went down a really stupid route, and we ended up doing a load of corporate shit, which is not why I play drums. We got caught by the pound signs in the eyes, and we lost sight of what it’s about.
We didn’t exactly disband – we still met up and did gigs – but it was very, very wounded. Then we started getting some fresh blood in, and we started getting back to what it was actually all about.
You changed your name to Sabar Soundsystem at the start of 2011. Did you consciously want to rebrand – to break the link?
Yes, and just to clear out the dead wood. One side of this studio used to be floor-to-ceiling with 150 djembes, which we used for corporate workshops. So we got rid of all the gear that was this monument to the failure of the whole thing, and we started writing fresh music.
How did the idea for the Pentatronix project come about?
A few of us are involved with City Arts, a Nottingham based arts company who do a lot of outdoor theatre. They gave us some money to develop a tune, which we performed at the WEYA festival last year, in front of the Council House. It was the first collaboratively written piece that we’d done. Afterwards, we thought we had to do more. People kept saying that I should apply to the Arts Council. I’m a drummer and I hate paperwork, but eventually I did it. It got the green light about three weeks ago, so we’ve just begun.
How many performers will be with you on the day itself?
It’s about ten at the moment. We’ll also have a tabla player: Biant Singh. He’s the most amazingly inspirational guy. He has a project called The Science of Rhythm, which has basically got the entire Nottinghamshire mental health service to put drums into their assessments. So when somebody is having a review, to see how they should be handled, they actually have the opportunity to drum with the people assessing them.
What does that bring to the assessment?
Rhythmic music has an effect on people. It links people together, so people start getting a communal feeling. On a fundamental level, people’s minds become synchronised, and it creates an openness. Through that openness, people become very empathic with each other.
Now think about those people who can’t communicate verbally. They’re the kind of people that Biant is dealing with. If you put a drum in there, they can drum with the people that they’re struggling to communicate with. And they just become in tune. They start to feel each other.
I was trying to track your influences when I saw Sabar performing at the Arts Theatre last year. Biant brought some Indian flavours, and I could also detect aspects of Indonesian, African and Cuban music.
That’s accurate. The sabar drums come from Gambia, and that’s where we take our name. Conceptually, our chimes are very similar to Javanese gamelan, and they use the same pentatonic scale as Chinese music. Now we’ve brought Ling in for her Chinese influence, and Si for a more European electronic influence.
There’s been a sort of a journey that has gone on for many years, which is the driving force as to why I do this thing. When I was a kid, I had this crazy fascination with Africa. Then I got the opportunity to go there in my late twenties. I went a few times. I spent a while in Gambia, living with a family who were traditional drummers, going back for generations.
The third time I was there, I basically realised that no matter how much you study it, you’re always going to have this problem of translation – because at the end of the day, it’s not my culture. I was so demoralised. I wanted to stop drumming, because I realised that I could never have the thing that I wanted – which, at that point, was simply to have been born into that culture. I got depressed about it for a long time, but then I started thinking: OK, what is the reality?
The actual reality is that I was born here, in England. We don’t really have a rhythmic tradition of our own; it’s all completely dissipated. As a nation, we’re utterly disconnected from our rhythmic root. Meanwhile, there are so many amazing bands from Africa, so why be a load of white guys playing African music? What is the purpose of that? Let them do it – they’re brilliant at it. But in England, we’re good at dance music. It’s a living folk music. It’s all made by computer, but it’s massively popular, and it gets people up and dancing.
I realised that I was barking up the wrong tree with the whole African thing. Actually, what it’s about is looking at what’s really successful here and creating it acoustically, because I think that acoustic music is always more powerful. Music made in the moment, by humans, is more powerful than a computer-generated version.
So essentially, that’s what this has now become: a sort of acoustic dance music, with a huge range of different influences.
It was time to hear an example of this music. The players gathered in a circle: Mikey on drums, Nicky and Ceri on chimes, Si on his laptop and sampler. Completing the circle, Ling picked up her erhu: a bowed instrument, whose small sound box was covered in Chinese python skin. “I went to the mountains and waited for the python to come out”, she explained. “You have to catch your own python, or else they don’t let you play”, Ceri added.
(OK, so this was a total wind-up. But let the story stand, as a testament to my gullibility.)
The piece that followed was a gentler, more meditative affair than I was expecting. Taking a traditional Chinese melody, Ling started unaccompanied, playing with exquisite beauty. The melody was taken up by the chimes, and expanded into rippling variations. Si added a discreet electronic bassline, topped with subtle samples of Ling’s erhu that stretched out her sound, without smothering its essence. Working to a click track, Mikey supplied the mid-paced rhythmic backdrop. It felt like an overture; the calm before the percussive, immersive storm.
Sabar Soundsystem presents ‘Pentatronix’ featuring Si Tew and Ling Peng: Nottingham Contemporary, Friday June 7. Tickets on sale from Nottingham Contemporary, gigantic.com, Alley Cafe, Jamcafe and The Music Exchange.
This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
Here in Nottingham, Katty Heath is best known as the singer with Spotlight Kid: a gloriously noisy alternative rock band, once described in this paper as “sounding like twenty thousand bees trapped in a wind tunnel”. But over in The Netherlands, where she has been living since 2011, Katty is more likely to be recognised a contestant on The Voice Of Holland, the TV talent show which spawned last year’s The Voice on BBC1.
Swapping the grime of the indie circuit for the glamour of the television studio, Katty’s transformation couldn’t have been more complete – but as she now reveals, her journey was a largely dispiriting and disillusioning experience.
“I was never a big fan of those shows in the first place”, she explains, talking to EG from her houseboat in central Amsterdam. “So I was going a little bit against my morals, I guess. But I felt that if I was going to have a permanent life here, I really want to have a music career here. So I thought, well, this could be a fast track way of making some connections in the industry.”
Persuaded to give the show a try, Katty applied online, and was invited in for a couple of selection rounds. These proved successful, as did the first two televised rounds: the “blind audition”, where the show’s judges cannot see the contestants, and the “battle round”, where each singer goes head-to-head with a rival. Katty sailed through them all, landing herself a place on the first of the live shows.
At this point, the eager contestant felt what little control she had over the process slipping away. Rejecting all her song proposals – Fleetwood Mac, Portishead, Nina Simone, Kate Bush – as “too unusual, not commercial enough, or too obvious”, the show’s producers insisted that she tackled Katy Perry’s Firework instead.
“Oh my God, I hate that song! And as the build-up came, it was very intensive. You’re in every day from nine in the morning until ten at night. It’s very tiring, so you’re not really in a fit state to sing to your biggest audience in your life.”
Swamped by a noisy arrangement, complete with mid-song pyrotechnics – the very opposite of what she had wanted – Katty did her best, but the voting went against her, and she failed to qualify for the next round.
A pre-recorded version of the track was immediately placed on iTunes, but “we never see a cent of that.” In fact, none of the contestants are paid to be on the show. “The only thing we received from it was a phone, because it was sponsored by Samsung.”
“When you’re in the show, you’re like: this is amazing, I’m loving the fame! And then as soon as you’re out of it, you’re like: Oh my God, it’s just a money-making machine, and we are pawns in it.”
“The first week after, I was just in a big hole of despair. You’re just dropped into nothingness. There’s no kind of follow-up, to see if you’re OK. From beginning to end, it’s six months, and you can’t really commit to anything else in your life. So I was sort of broken: financially, emotionally and psychologically.”
Tied by a year-long contract, which forbids her from releasing any other material until the end of March, Katty found herself in limbo, unable to capitalise from any immediate post-show opportunities. More humiliatingly still, she was even turned away from the doors of the studio, when attempting to watch one of the later live shows.
“Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t have done it”, she reflects. “But I still think it was a valuable lesson, and a learning experience.”
When asked what advice she would give to anyone contemplating a similar move, Katty pauses before answering.
“Don’t expect to get paid. Don’t expect it to be the be-all and end-all. Just see it as an experience, rather than a solution. See it for what it is: entertainment, a TV show, and very quickly you’re going to be yesterday’s news. Take from it what you can, but don’t be deluded into thinking it’s about you. Because it’s not. It’s about viewing figures, and the company making money out of you.”
The most intrusive part of the whole process for Katty was having her past scrutinised. “We all had to have an interview with a private investigator, who had already investigated us,” she says. “That’s to protect the company, because if people come forward with stories about you, they want to be prepared.”
She adds, laughing: “So of course they were with me for a long time, because I’ve had a right shady past!”
Spotlight Kid’s single Budge Up is out on Monday.
This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
They might describe their music as “claustrophobic, pounding and paranoid”, but in the flesh, I Am Lono are an affably untroubled pair of souls – or so it would seem on the surface, at any rate.
According to Matthew Cooper, who sings and plays the keyboards, the claustrophobia is a by-product of the duo’s creative environment. “We write all the music in the basement, and it is very claustrophobic. There are no windows. The dehumidifier is the only bit of moisture that we get close to.”
Guitarist and co-composer David Startin agrees. “Every time we write anything, we have these speakers that really enclose us. It’s a very direct way of writing, so we’ve always got that element.”
“I think we’re both very sensitive people”, adds Matthew. “It’s difficult not to be paranoid.”
The pair met through sharing music and books, and their mutual admiration for the crazed “gonzo journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson gave them their name. In his early Eighties memoir, The Curse Of Lono, Thompson finds himself in Hawaii, attempting to cover a marathon. A fishing trip ensues, and Thompson lands a huge marlin, which he clubs to death. Believing himself to be a reincarnation of Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility and music, he screams “I am Lono!” as he slaughters the fish, before going into hiding from angry islanders.
There’s another cultural reference in I Am Lono’s debut single, which will be launched at the Rescue Rooms on Tuesday. Lead track Leland is inspired by a character in David Lynch’s early Nineties drama Twin Peaks. Possessed by a demonic spirit, Leland Palmer, the small town’s seemingly mild-mannered attorney, is eventually revealed as the murderer of his daughter Laura, solving the central mystery of the show’s first season.
With that in mind, the song’s chorus – “Oh Leland, I want your love” – makes for a disturbing tribute, but as Matthew explains, “It has a sort of tension to it, that I liked. There is the ambiguity of the name, as it’s not definitely a male name, but also there’s ambiguity with Leland as a character. In a way, the song is a cry for innocence.”
It’s also a prime example of David and Matthew’s love of soundtrack music. John Carpenter is another inspirational figure – “Escape From New York is one of the best soundtracks ever”, says David – and before the band formed in early 2011, Matthew mainly worked on soundtracks for independent film makers.
Visuals are an important component of their approach; Matthew does all the artwork, and the pair are “very much in control of what we want visually”. At the launch, visuals will be provided by a member of the Kneel Before Zod video club, who regularly screen “old B-movies and slasher movies”. The intention is for these to be mixed with live visuals on the night.
As a further inducement, advance ticket purchasers will be able to exchange their stubs for a free copy of the vinyl single. This pairs Leland – their most “four-to-the-floor” and dance-derived composition to date, with a “1978 New York” feel to it – with the thrashier, more guitar-driven In Silence, which David describes as having “a Pixies-esque early Nineties kind of feel; that kind of sonic power that pushes out.”
A digital release is also planned, although David and Matthew are less enthused about the format. “With downloads, it does feel more like a rental – a partial ownership of music”, says Matthew. As for making their music available on Spotify, he is decidedly lukewarm. “One million hits, and you can’t even buy a pizza.”
Support on the night will be provided by another electronic duo, the gloriously splenetic Sleaford Mods, whose acerbic social commentary stands in contrast to I Am Lono’s more enigmatic approach. “We’ve not got a song that will bring down the government”, says David. “Not yet”, he adds. Well, you never know.
An edited version of this feature was originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Amongst the three members of Kagoule, there’s little discernible love for the garment which gave them their name. “We own probably none”, says singer and guitarist Cai Burns. “There’s at least three in my house”, admits bassist Lucy Hatter. “We just said it as a joke”, explains drummer Lawrence English, “but then we thought it might be alright.”
If you hear a band name often enough, it takes on its own meaning. Think of The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the band’s key influences, and gourd-related violence will rarely spring to mind. Likewise, it’s unlikely that you’ll link Kagoule with lightweight, foldable anoraks for too long. And besides, they’ve customised the name with a kooky K. Like Kriss Kross, or Kool and the Gang.
That’s pretty much where the kookiness ends, though. Despite their youth – they’re all seventeen, and in their final year at college – Kagoule are a remarkably level-headed bunch, with a clear-sighted dedication to their craft. Of the three, Lawrence is perhaps the most assertive, business-like one. Lucy tends to express the firmest opinions, while Cai has a thoughtful, dreamy reticence that marks him out as the main songwriter and front man.
The band formed two years ago. Lawrence knew Cai from school, Cai and Lucy were already a couple, and Lucy was friends with Lawrence’s sister, “so it all linked in quite nicely”. After serving the usual apprenticeship at “dodgy Maze nights”, the big break arrived in December 2011, when they were asked to open for Dog Is Dead on the main stage of Rock City. “It was the first proper gig”, reckons Lucy. “The first gig that wasn’t awful”, adds Lawrence.
The set was a triumph, opening the door to a host of new opportunities. “It made things more professional”, says Cai. “It made us feel like an actual band, and it got us into contact with a lot of people.” The band gigged regularly throughout 2012, appearing at festivals such as Dot To Dot, Y-Not and Branch Out. Denizen Recordings took them under their wing, giving them access to experienced management and state-of-the-art recording facilities. And now there’s a single, their first physical release, which will be launched at The Chameleon on Saturday night.
The tracks in question – Monarchy and Mudhole – are two of Cai’s earliest compositions, “so it seemed right to release them first”. Monarchy was written when he was just fourteen. It’s drawn from personal experience, but he declines to explain further, as “it can ruin it for some people”. Mudhole “is some fiction – I like to make up stories.” “It’s easier than writing a book”, says Lucy.
Musically, the band are inspired by the alt-rock of the early-to-mid Nineties: the Pumpkins, Nirvana, Fugazi, and Cai’s favourites, Unwound. “It’s so much better than what’s out now”, Lucy asserts. “It’s the most recent good music, I’d say.” “We didn’t really go for a Nineties sound”, says Cai. “We got compared to those kinds of bands, then we started listening to that music. After that, we realised that’s the music that we all really like.”
Once their studies are completed, the trio intends to take a year out, before thinking about university. “We’re not going to miss that opportunity”, says Lucy. An album is in the pipeline, and most of the tracks are already written. At the end of the month, they’ll be embarking on a mini-tour with label mates Kappa Gamma, with dates in Leicester, Leeds and Manchester.
Time for one final question. If Kagoule were given the opportunity to soundtrack a TV ad, what product would they choose to endorse? Pampers, says Lawrence, quick as a flash. Guns, says Lucy, without even a hint of a smile. Cai considers this longer and harder than the others, before opting for talcum powder. Nobody even thinks about lightweight, foldable anoraks.
An edited version of this interview was originally published in LeftLion magazine.
How did the idea for Invisible Orchestra get off the ground?
It’s been a culmination of things, over the years. Playing with lots of different people, meeting lots of different musicians. Everybody’s been in their own bands, wanting to get a bigger project together. And it’s also having a lot of music written that doesn’t actually suit the band I’m in [Royal Gala], and that would suit a much larger band. Then I met Martin, who plays the double bass, and we went on a tour together in Holland. I thought I’d really like to be in a band with Martin. And I just kinda got obsessed with it. It kept building and building. I know loads of brass players, and I’d probably got twenty people in the band by the time I booked the first gig, at the Arts Theatre. People were saying: I think it’s a bit short notice, I don’t think we’ve got enough time.
How far in advance did you book the gig?
I’d got about three and a half months, and we’d got about fifteen minutes of music together. So by having a date booked, it became a thing. I wanted a theatre, because I wanted to put on a proper event: a show, rather than a gig.
I saw a few people in the audience who were clearly Arts Theatre regulars. They looked a bit shell-shocked, that their Am Dram venue was turning into this maelstrom of excess.
(Laughs) Yeah, everybody was wasted and dancing off tables and chairs in the aisles – they were literally dancing in the aisles. The girl behind the bar was crying her eyes out, because she’d got three hundred people in front of her, all wanting a drink, and she was the only bar staff on. The theatre had a massive shock. I was telling them all along that it would be busy; it wasn’t going to be like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
How did you go about matching your tunes to the singers?
I didn’t approach some of the singers until we’d got the tunes done. I try not to have anything to do with the lyrics. That comes from the singers. What I do is to instigate things generally. I don’t write everybody’s parts, although I’ll remember everybody’s parts, even if they forget them. I’ll perhaps write a loose rhythm, ideas for percussion, the main brass line. Then they’ll get together and write around the idea that I’ve got. With some other people, I will write their complete lines. I might suggest something to Martin on the double bass, but he’s experienced enough just to know what it needs straight away. With Percy Dread, who’s been doing roots reggae for forty years, I asked him to do it, and he came along with a reggae tune. He’s been playing music for longer than I’ve been born, but I was getting him into the idea of doing a completely different style, but still in his own voice.
It was a very dramatic and unexpected start to your set. I was expecting Jools Holland-style good times from start to finish, but then Percy came on like this prophet of apocalyptic doom!
Percy’s a great guy, and he’s doing another song with us, for the next show. A lot of people are guests, but Percy’s like a proper member of the orchestra. At the rehearsal studio, the gates are locked and people have to ring me from outside, then I’ll go and fetch them. But somehow, once we start playing a song at rehearsals, Percy will just turn up, every time. He’ll walk straight in and start singing. I don’t know how he does it!
It must have been a huge departure for another of your singers, Ed Bannard from Hhymn. It would have taken him well outside his comfort zone.
I’ve known Ed since I was about 19. I knew him when he was in Skinny Sumo, and we’ve always been around each other. I wasn’t quite sure if he’d do it, but I think he enjoyed it in the end. For that particular song, I wrote all the music, and then Ed came in. To be honest, it took him about two rehearsals, and then he kind of nailed it.
Does everyone in the band come from Nottingham?
We’ve recruited a few people from further afield, but most people come from in and around Nottingham. Justin, the Hammond player, tours with Bad Manners quite a bit. He’s got a Grammy. He’s also played for Lee “Scratch” Perry. So, including all the vocalists, there were twenty-eight of us last time around.
Was it a logistical nightmare, getting all these people in the same room at specific times?
It was, but then it wasn’t so bad for the gig, because we knew that we’d be loading at 12, and we were paying the theatre from 12. We’d not finished some of the tunes on the day of the show. The percussion section sorted out some of Hannah Heartshape’s tune while we were sound checking. We only had about an hour with Natalie Duncan. She came to sound check, and we had a bit of a chat. So before the gig, we were as excited as anybody else to see how it sounded.
How did it feel when you were actually up on the stage?
It felt fucking great, to be honest with you. Everybody was hugging each other afterwards. It was a really, really fantastic feeling. Everybody put in such a lot of hard work, sacrificing their time. A lot of people had cancelled gigs to come. After the show, I said that we should take a break for a month or so. That lasted about a week. Then people were asking: when are we rehearsing again? So we organised the next practice a bit earlier than we intended – and everybody turned up!
What’s the plan for 2013?
I’ve just booked a show at Nottingham Contemporary on Easter Sunday, March 31st. We’ve got the whole of downstairs: The Space, and also the café bar. The line-up starts off with a barbershop quartet, then we’ve got Rollo Markee and the Tailshakers , a swing-blues band who I went on tour with. There’s also DJ Switch, who’s been three times the world DMC champion. He’s also the only DJ ever to play at The Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall. It’ll be like a family thing; we all know each other. We’ve had a lot of support from the Contemporary, and from Ste Allan of Dealmaker. So it will be a lot easier than last time, when we had no funding, no backing, a shell-shocked venue…
We’re also trying to confirm a show at The Scala in London at the moment, and there are a few more London shows in the pipeline as well. We’ve got a booking agent who has been looking for suitable festivals – and for realistic festivals, as this is not the sort of thing that we can go on tour with, unless there’s a lot of help and a lot of forward planning. There’s also a new Royal Gala album, which is coming out pretty soon; all the tracks have been recorded. And Invisible Orchestra have recorded five tracks at Paper Stone, who backed us without hearing us. They just trusted us.
How does this project differ from what you do in Royal Gala?
You get to work with a lot more different people. I’ve been working with Royal Gala for six years. Stylistically, they’ve become a lot more electronic, and a lot more dancey, which was our original plan anyway: to be a dance act.
Perhaps Royal Gala are more groove-based, whereas Invisible Orchestra are more song-based.
I suppose so. We are writing songs, that’s true. And we can go slow in the orchestra as well. Royal Gala are usually on late at a festival, with everybody off their heads, all dancing. We tried putting in a slow tune, and people just stopped dancing.
So the orchestra gives you a chance to explore a different range of emotions.
Yes, a complete range. Within your hour of set, you can have a whole show of emotions. We have been exploring that a lot more for the next gig. I want to work with more vocalists, and I’ve been talking to a few people. There will also be more people in the band; I’ve increased the strings, and there’s a sousaphone player and a really amazing trumpet player. I think there are seventeen in the brass section now.
Do people get you confused with The Hidden Orchestra, who are a completely different act?
Well, there’s fucking thirty-two of us now, so if they want to meet us outside in the car park, we’ll kick the fuck out of them!
What was the first pop song that you fell in love with, and how did it make you feel?
Take On Me by A-Ha. It made me feel five octaves higher, and then I turned into a very handsome pencil-drawn animated version of myself.
What was your first public performance?
Tap dancing while dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle when I was about eight. I think I peaked early.
2011 seemed to go rather well for you. What were the highlights?
I gave birth to two EPs, and hand-made some videos for my tracks which involved robot conventions and interrogating synthesisers. I played my first headline show in Stealth, and then later in the year I went to New York to play CMJ, and to Madrid for two weeks as a participant of the Red Bull Music Academy.
What did you get up to in New York? Did it live up to expectations?
My expectations of being in New York were being in a high speed car chase in a yellow cab, which didn’t happen. But I did play two shows at a venue called Webster Hall, which used to be owned by Al Capone and has had everyone from Frank Sinatra to Blondie playing there, which was dead cool. I also laughed my head off on the subway going to Coney Island while reading my copy of LeftLion which I’d taken with me.
Tell us about meeting Bootsy Collins and Nile Rodgers. How did that come about?
That was at the Red Bull Music Academy. Every day we had lectures from our musical heroes and we were unbelievably spoilt: Nile Rodgers, Bootsy Collins, Trevor Horn, RZA, Tony Visconti, Mannie Fresh and Peaches, to name a few. I learnt so much and they were all really lovely people who blew my mind.
In his recently published autobiography, Nile Rodgers explains that all his songs have “Deep Hidden Meanings”. Give us an example of a “Deep Hidden Meaning” in one of your songs.
Well, deep hidden meanings should remain a mystery. But go on, then; Only Only is about how to programme your relationship to last the test of time. Forget Yourself is about trying to overcome yourself in whatever negative way it may emerge.
When you’re working on a new song, what element emerges first: the words, the melody or the groove?
It’s normally either the melody or the groove; the lyrics are the last thing that falls into place for me. After the music is done, then I’m ready to go shopping for words. Or, more often, shoplifting for words.
What songs are on the next EP? Will there be remixes?
There’s Automatic, which is a summer jam with a Tom Tom Club vibe, and Turn It Out, which is dark Italo disco but with lyrics like Craig David. There will be remixes, but I’m not yet sure who from. I might remix it myself, like on my first EP. I like remixing. I recently remixed my living room and moved all the furniture around.
You used to be a sound engineer in Junktion 7. What are your memories of working there?
Constantly trying to wade through a sea of goths and metallers to try and get to the stage, or doing the sound for some of the awesome bands that played there, like Swound or The Smears, or just hanging out with the lovely people that worked there. A lot of the music at Junktion 7 wasn’t really my cup of tea: during one sound check I told one of the metal bands I liked jazz, and in the middle of their set they just stopped and played a jazz guitar solo just for me. The audience were very confused – as was I – but it was lovely. I do like a lot of guitar music, though; I have a varied musical diet.
We also know you like to do a bit of DJing. What are the records that never leave your box?
I’m very fond of playing Stacey Q’s Two of Hearts at the moment, and also Jellybean Benitez’sWho Found Who.
Do you ever play your own records when you’re DJing? Or does that feel a bit weird?
Yeah, I often slip one of my tunes in, then mime along and forget the words. It feels weird. I might blush.
Nottingham’s music scene is in a remarkably healthy state these days. How has that happened?
If we plot on a graph the amount of people making ace music on the X-axis, and then all the ace promoters, podcasts, DJs and press on the Y-axis, we can see Nottingham music accelerating at an alarming rate. Lots of talent and a supportive loving musical community I think is the key.
Who’s making the most exciting music in Nottingham right now?
Wow, there’s so many, so let’s break it down into boys versus girls. On the boys’ team, we have Swimming, Petebox, Joe Buhdha, Kirk Spencer, Neon Jung, 8mm Orchestra, Ben Fawce, Dog Is Dead, Rob Green, Juga-naut, Jake Bugg and We Show Up On Radar. On the girls’ team there’s Nina Smith, Harleighblu, Natalie Duncan, Marita, Fists and Royal Gala. Okay, so the last two aren’t all girls, but I still want them on our team…
We know you love the eighties, but what music from the nineties is closest to your heart?
Oh wow, so much, ‘cos I grew up in the nineties. So everything from The Prodigy, Deee-Lite, Saint Etienne, Baby D, Black Box, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Photek, Paradox, Goldie, Wu-Tang, The Pharcyde, Beastie Boys, Carl Craig, Chemical Brothers, Ninja Tune, Mo-Wax, Acid Jazz, Talking Loud, lots of house, techno and jungle.
Some numpty at the NME said they wanted you to be more like Katy Perry, but I suspect you might have more fitting role models, musical or otherwise. Who might they be?
Katy Perry is obviously my main musical influence, but other than her I’d probably pick Prince, Sly Stone, Bowie, David Byrne, Nile Rodgers, Kool Keith and Madonna.
You’re renowned for being a bit of a herbal tea girl. When was the last time you had an alcoholic drink, and what made you stop?
The last time I had an alcoholic drink was when I was thirteen. I don’t drink because I follow a religion called the Baha’i Faith which teaches the unity and oneness of mankind. But yeah, booze and drugs are out as the Baha’i writings encourage staying in a conscious state of mind.
But we all have our vices. What’s yours?
What’s the plan for 2012? And will there be more gigging than there was in 2011? We’d like some more gigging, please.
2012 is looking pretty rammed already. Automatic is coming out in March, with the album to follow later in the year. I’ve also got some big collaborations coming out very soon, which I’m mega-excited about. Yeah, there will definitely be more gigging in 2012. In March I’m playing the Bodega, plus some other shows around the country, then some festivals in the summer to be announced.
Let’s talk fashion. What are Ronika’s super-hot styling tips for Spring 2012? And what looks should we avoid?
My style tips for spring are vintage sportswear and lots of hairspray. Full body armour should be avoided in spring/summer – it’s too warm.
Style is nothing without substance, of course, so let’s end this interview with some words of profundity and wisdom. What’s the best piece of advice that you can give to your fellow travellers on life’s great highway?
If I may quote the great twentieth century thinker J. Springer; “Take care of yourselves (deliberate pause) aaand each other.”
Ronika will be playing Nottingham Bodega on Friday 23 March.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
You’ve just got back from the States. Has your body clock re-adjusted to UK time?
Yes – although having said that, I was up until four o’clock in the morning. I went for a little stroll at one o’clock in the morning, and found a local restaurant with the lights on. The restaurant owner and the chef were having a glass of red wine, so I joined them for a couple, and picked up on the local gossip.
You’re now preparing for the new tour. Will there be much in the way of new material?
There aren’t any new original songs, because they’re still sketches, but I’ve got an interesting new choice of covers.
You put a shout-out on Facebook for suggested covers. Have your followers given you any useful leads?
They got me looking behind my shoulder, thinking: are this lot in my house? A lot of their suggestions are songs that I love a lot. I could really talk all night with these people.
You use Facebook differently from a lot of people in your position, in that you’ll express what you’re genuinely feeling, rather than just using it as a PR tool. You sometimes post to it when you’re feeling completely sick to the back teeth of everything. Then your fans will rally round.
Yeah, like “I can’t find my bra – where is it?” Or “Oh my God, look at all this laundry!” I really enjoy it, because it’s absolute direct contact. They can talk to me, and I’ll respond. I would say that my Facebook meltdowns are now legendary. (Bursts out laughing) The record company are like: what’s she doing? They all follow me on Facebook as well.
That wasn’t anything to do with the fact that you were ill for a bit, was it?
I was ill. It was a big year, and everything went off really quickly, like a runaway train which took me with it. It was going at a hundred miles an hour. And it was great, but the thing about these big long schedules is this: it doesn’t take account of the fact that you’re human.
So if I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel well, and I’ve got to sing for Her Majesty The Queen, I can’t cancel. Or if my boyfriend’s dumped me and I’ve got to go onto Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, then I’ve got to do it. It doesn’t take into account your emotional state – or your tearful state, in fact – you have to fulfil your commitments, in any mood, and be as professional as possible.
What happened to me is that it just built up, and built up, and built up. I was struggling at adjusting to being in the media: being examined, being judged. As human beings, that what we’re all afraid of, aren’t we? Everyone pointing and staring.
Don’t you adopt the classic tactic of just not reading stuff about yourself?
No, I read everything. But I do stick up for myself, when people have been mean on blogs. I’ll go on and say “Oi! That’s really mean! What, all you grown men are going to start picking on little girls?” Ultimately, I’m a human being with an internet connection. I can see what they are saying, and I can go on there and say: what the fuck do you think you are doing?
I know some people will say that’s really stupid. I think I’m the opposite of what people say I should be. They’ll say: don’t get involved, don’t read anything. But if there are ten grown men tearing me to shreds, I’m going to go in there and make them feel bad about it. But that’s very rare. Most people are very nice.
Does touring change your relationship with your songs? If you’re having to perform them over and over again, you must have to enter into some sort of long-term committed relationship with them.
I’ve been in that relationship with them for a long time. As a singer, you commit to every single song, and you have to live the song when you’re performing it, like you were when you first wrote it.
As time passes and as you change, sometimes the emotional connection to the sentiment can get faint. But that’s when you bring in your meditative processes. You just have to go into that space, and almost method-act your own self. Recapture those emotions, find that part of yourself, and deliver it with all the passion that you can find.
When we spoke last year, before the album was released, you said there were angels in all of your songs. So I’ve been looking at your lyrics, and I’ve been searching for the angels.
The angels are on Come To Me High, for example. I was sitting in my room and thinking: I’m so depressed; what would happen if a chorus of angels were to burst into my room, and talk to me? When you’re depressed, it’s very hard to get out of that space. You have to shift that space by wanting to get out of it – by wanting that shift of consciousness.
And in Thankful, there’s a whole “forest of angels”.
Interestingly, I used to have no idea what it was. Then I realised that my mother was buried in a woodland burial, where you don’t have graves. You have all these different trees, with these little plaques, with people’s names on. And it is literally a forest of angels. I found it the most startling example of channelling. A lot of the most inspired lyrics and melodies were coming from beyond me, and I’m as puzzled as anyone until afterwards.
Before I go on stage, I imagine a circle of angels. I say a prayer, and I call on them. I summon them.
If the person you are now could send a message to the person who spoke to me last year, just before it all kicked off, what message would she convey?
Apart from a lot of practical things, I would say: this will pass. There was a feeling of anxiety around performing live. I got very frightened of big crowds, and I got stage fright. I’ve got much better since then. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’ve overcome that – with the help of my band, and with doctors, and with friends. I’m starting to really enjoy it now.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
I looked up your dialling code, so I know I’m calling you at home in Southend. What sort of place have you got? Is it a rock star mansion?
In my more imaginative moments, yes. It’s in a fairly normal street, but my house is the one with battlements. I defy the world from here. Actually, they’re a bit of a con. My house has got a flat roof, where I’ve got my telescope and my observatory. It looks like a little fortress. But if you go up on the roof, you’ll find that actually the battlements are only six inches high.
They’re not really going to repel the continental invaders, then?
Not really. I couldn’t practically pour boiling oil down on them. But I could put up a bit of a show.
Are there any rock star trappings inside? Are you the sort of person that puts framed gold discs on the walls?
Well, one thing that I’ve always thought was really horrible and vulgar – he says, like the fox with the sour grapes – was those bloody gold discs. Would I put them on my wall? No. I gave them away. Some people really dig ‘em, but in fact they’re rubbish – he said, with all the venom of somebody who hasn’t sold a record for about five hundred years. (Laughs)
Does living alone suit you well?
Actually, it does. Sometimes I sit here, and I go “Oh man, I’m so lonely in my fortress here!” But on the other hand, I can do whatever I like. If I want to shoot all the light bulbs out with my air pistol, I can do it. And nobody’s going to tell me off.
Yeah, but no one’s going to sweep the mess up for you, either.
Yes, and the house does turn into a slum, on a regular basis. I’ve kind of reverted to studenthood. But you can’t do anything about it. You think: hang on, this was all tidy a little while ago. And now it’s covered in fast food containers, old newspapers, and things that are probably best not investigated.
Generally, I stay indoors. People are always telling me off, because it’s gloomy here, in my castle. You can’t even draw the curtains. They’re actually nailed across the window. So I’m in this gloom; I kind of creep about. Upstairs, where my bed is, I’ve got this huge television. I connect it up to my laptop, with my astronomy program, and it becomes the window of my spaceship.
There was a supernova the other week; did you catch sight of it?
I’m afraid not. I caught sight of nothing, because it’s been so cloudy. Although actually, I thought I was being clever, because I recently acquired a solar telescope. So I can look at the sun.
I thought that was the one thing you should never do…
Oh yes. We must tell the public, and have a little announcement in a special box: never, never, never look at the sun through a telescope. This thing I have is a special one. If you look through it, you can’t see anything; it’s black. But when you point it at the sun, you can see the sun. It’s pretty good, except the sun is obscured by clouds, just as well as the stars. So I haven’t been doing a lot of astronomy this week.
Have you ever moved away from Essex, or have you been a lifelong resident?
I was born on Canvey Island, I grew up on Canvey Island, then I went to university at Newcastle for three years. Then after some wandering about, we came back to Canvey Island: me and the missus. Then the next thing I know, I made some money from doing rock and roll. So she buys a house up in Southend, within spitting distance of Canvey Island – which is probably the best distance. So I’ve stayed in Essex, but I do like Essex. It’s rather flat.
Flat lands scare me. I want to have a few hills around.
Well, there you go; you’re from up the bumpy bit. I get among hills, and I feel a bit overpowered. I like to see a big sky, a big horizon. Preferably with oil refineries. Then I feel comfortable.
Julian Temple’s documentary film (Oil City Confidential) about your former band Dr Feelgood was very well received. How closely were you involved with the making of it?
When I was told that Julian Temple wanted to make this film, my first reaction was surprise. Dr Feelgood largely existed before the days of video cameras, and there wasn’t a lot of footage of us. And Lee Brilleaux is dead. So how can you do it?
Man, what a guy! The first thing he wants is to film at the oil depot on Canvey Island, in the night time. He was going to project movies of Dr Feelgood onto the side of these big oil tanks, and interview us. What an experience! If you grow up on Canvey Island, you’re always aware of the oil works, but you never go there. So to go in there was a kick. To go in there in the night time, and then to stand there with these great big films being projected, of me and Lee Brilleaux from 35 years ago, was absolutely surreal. I could have stood there all night.
So I thought, well, this guy’s good. Julian gets you to say all sorts of things. I don’t know how he does it. He sort of insinuates himself into the conversation, and I find myself revealing all sorts.
Anyway, the film took some time to make, but I was never involved in the making of it, and I didn’t see any of it, even when it was completed. They gave me a DVD, which I didn’t watch.
So you don’t like looking at footage of yourself?
No. Or reading, or listening to records. The thing is: if you’ve made a record, or done a show, it’s done. There’s nothing you can do about it. So I just like to leave it there, for the universe to either ignore or applaud. I don’t wanna know.
Anyway, when the film was premiered – as we say in the business – in the National Film Theatre in London, of course I had to go and watch it then. You drink champagne, and you take your place. So I’m watching it through my fingers. I was sitting next to my son, and there’s all this stuff from before he was born. And it was the first time I’d ever actually seen Dr Feelgood. And I’m looking, and I’m thinking: pretty good! And I’m digging my boy in the ribs. I’m going: go on, get a load of that. I think it’s an excellent film. I’m very, very chuffed with what he’s done.
Has the film led to renewed interest in your work?
Certainly it was one of Julian Temple’s motivations. He felt that Dr Feelgood had been rather airbrushed out of history, and he wanted to reassert them. So, for instance, I’m finding a lot of younger people are coming to see the gigs now. And I go down Tesco’s, and people are going “Look, there’s Wilko Johnson! Can I take a picture of you with my telephone?” There was one young lad, a shelf stacker. He says “Oh wow, man!”, and he’s shouting out across the store, “Get me a felt tip! I want to get an autograph!” So I creep into Tesco’s now.
I always thought that Dr Feelgood’s legacy had been a bit overlooked, especially in terms of how it helped to inspire the British punk movement. Everyone will talk about Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls, but people never used to talk about the Feelgoods. Did the British punk forefathers acknowledge your influence?
Well, they did. I’d started to hear about these bands, and then it wasn’t long after that that Dr Feelgood exploded – or imploded, or whatever it did – and I was out of the band. And I was thinking, oh man, I wonder what all these new bands think about me? Do they relegate me to the dinosaurs that they are attacking?
But then I started to meet people. I shared a flat with Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers. Then I was walking in Oxford Street just after the bust-up had become public, in the rain, with my little boy on my shoulders. Suddenly, Joe Strummer comes running up. He goes to me, “You don’t know who I am.” I says, “Yes, I know who you are; I’ve seen you in the papers, man.” He says, “Well, what’s going to happen, what are you doing?” I says, “I don’t know.”
And so I got to meet him, and also the Pistols, and all these people, and I found out that actually, they all rather dug Dr Feelgood. The year before they’d all got going was the year that we were playing in London a lot, and I think most of them had seen us. I think what the punks took from Dr Feelgood was the energy.
In fact, with this flat I had, I used to have half of them sleeping on my floor. I’d get up in the morning, and I’d be tripping over Billy Idol. So I think it’s fair to say that we were quite a big influence on that whole thing.
You were back in touch with The Stranglers earlier this year, as you supported them on tour. How did that go?
It was great, because I’m old friends with Jean-Jacques. Last year, Oil City Confidential won the Mojo award, for being a brilliant film. I went with Julian to receive this accolade, and Jean-Jacques was presenting it. We hadn’t seen each other for about twenty years, so everyone was slobbering over each other. Shortly after that, he invited us to support them, and we were saying, why haven’t we done this before?
The shows went great; they were all sold out, and I think we put on a very enjoyable show. The Stranglers! DUR DUR DUR… (sings the riff from Peaches)
People normally describe your music as rhythm and blues, but today’s R&B stands for something very different. Do the Beyonces of this world have any right to call themselves R&B?
Actually yes, they do. R&B was really an American term for black music. It bounced over to England, with the Rolling Stones and all that, and that’s what we’re doing: it’s rhythm and blues. I started realising a long time ago that this term was a bit nebulous. What do I call my music? I call it beat music. I’m a beatster.
How musically open-minded are you? Is blues your first and foremost love, or do your listening habits range far and wide?
I’m no different from most old folks. I know nothing about anything that’s happened in the last twenty-five years. And being a rhythm and blues person, when I was a teenager: what a snob! It’s got to come from Chicago, or it’s no good. It’s like: how many rhythm and blues fans does it take to change a light bulb? It’s ten: one to change the light bulb, and nine to say it ain’t as good as the original. That would sum me up, in a way. I’m probably still a bit of a snob.
I think we’re all welded to the music of the time we were growing up.
Yes, and you can’t do anything about it. Every now and then, I might see or hear somebody that’s new to me, and it brings you up with a start. But generally speaking, I think you stick in your comfort zone, don’t you? Three chords and twelve bars does it for me.
What is it about the blues that has led to this lifetime love affair with the genre?
I don’t know. Like most Sixties people, I first started hearing it because of the Rolling Stones. When the Stones came out, it was just so exciting. At school, we all started growing our hair long. And then you think: what is this music that they’re playing? Then you start checking it out, and you start to hear the music from Chicago: Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, right through to Bo Diddley. It was just so powerful, and it made the kind of pop music that I’d heard before seem a bit trivial. I remember thinking: wow, this is the thing for me. And that was it. It knocked me out then, and it still does now. I’ll put on some Howling Wolf, and it will give me a tingle.
Like most old folks, I got into my own kind of bubble back then, and I still exist in it. For pure kicks, I’m going to play a record from a long time ago. It’s wrong of me, probably, but I don’t go searching out the latest sensation. But I’m sure they’re very splendid. Good luck to them!
You went through a bit of a hippy phase in your younger days. You did the Katmandu trail, for instance. Do you retain any residual hippy values?
I can still do a full Lotus, actually. I’m sitting on the carpet. Ooh… aah… yes, that’s it! Silly old fool.
That was a good scene. Oh man, I’ve got some beautiful memories of Afghanistan: the country, and the people there. And it’s just been so tragic, to see the way that country has been brutalised. Those people are really friendly, and they dig you, and I think it’s going to be a long time before an Englishman can go to Afghanistan and get a friendly reception. It’s a tragedy.
I guess you’re getting to that stage when people start calling you “one of the great survivors”. What would the Wilko Johnson of his twenties have made of the Wilko Johnson in his sixties? Would he be surprised at how things had turned out?
Absolutely. I’m playing in this local band for a couple of years, and then it starts happening. And of course you think: wow, this is great. I was twenty-five or something, and I’m thinking: yeah, this will be good for four or five years. I’ll have a good time, make a lot of money. If somebody had said to you: actually, you’re going to be doing it when you’re sixty-four, you would have laughed in their face.
But then again, if somebody said: one day, Bob Dylan’s going to be seventy… that still doesn’t sound right to me.
See also: my Dr Feelgood feature for The Guardian, January 2010.
Your current main place of residence is in Sweden, is that right?
Not really; I just stay in Gothenburg for a while, and I stay in Berlin, and I stay in London. So it’s either of those three places. I don’t have a place of my own. I just stay with friends.
What’s the Swedish connection? How did you fetch up in Gothenburg?
I made a bunch of friends when I went up there, and I started learning the language. I went up there to start working on a different project with Andreas Kleerup, and now I’ve started to develop some roots there. It’s just been in the last year and a half. I’ve met a bunch of amazing people, and they’ve taken me under their wing a little bit, because they can see that I’m excited about learning Swedish. Most of them are musicians, so we have that connection as well.
The Swedish music that I’m most familiar with is a certain kind of quite witty electronic pop music. Is that indicative of something that you’ve got up your sleeve?
Yeah, that’s part of what I really love. There are a lot of great bands in Gothenburg: Little Dragon come from there, and Jose Gonzalez lives there. There’s a band called Pacific!, and there are just endless amounts of good music. And of course I was always a big Abba fan when I was growing up.
There’s no imperative for you to learn Swedish, as many of them seem to speak better English than we do. So is that just a part of your general inclination towards modern languages?
For me, it’s about having a deeper connection. You can only get so far if you choose only to speak English. If you really want to get to know them, you have to learn the language. There’s a lot of stuff that they can’t explain to you, unless you speak their language.
I would imagine that your efforts would be greatly appreciated, because it must be quite unusual that anyone would care to do that.
From what I can tell, what happens a lot is that men come from all over the world and meet the love of their life there. Then they move there, because their wife or girlfriend is Swedish. So you have all these Brits and Americans and Australians, and people from all over the place, who come there because of some beautiful Swedish girl. I’ve met a lot of those guys, and they’ve all gone through the process of learning Swedish. It’s necessary, to get to know who they really are. I feel like if you don’t learn Swedish, then you’re always standing on the outside a little bit. And I want to get in there. All the way in there!
My Swedish vocabulary runs to two words. I know that love is “älskar”, and I know that the word for gay is “bog”.
That’s funny; I haven’t even come across that word yet.
I remember there was a shop in Stockholm where you could buy a T-shirt with BOG on the front, which if you were in Sweden meant that you were declaring the fact that you were gay. But if you wore it in the UK, it would be declaring the fact that you were a toilet.
That’s hilarious. I think maybe I’ve been told that fact before, but I didn’t do any further research. It’s funny; sexuality hasn’t really been a part of my experience over there yet.
Well, it’s a very integrated society anyway, isn’t it?
Yeah, and I haven’t really talked about that area of my life.
How many different tongues have you now acquired?
Well, I continue to deepen my knowledge of German, Russian and Spanish, and I work on my French when I’m in France. I have good friends there, who know what level I’m at. French is one of the languages that I’m least proficient in. I know a lot of French, but it’s a matter of living there and speaking it on a daily basis, to get to a level where I would be able to communicate, and do interviews, and stuff like that.
I’ve been working on Dutch and Swedish. I’m really, really into Dutch. In fact, it’s sort of my favourite right now. But I’ve worked on my Swedish a lot more, because I’ve been spending a lot more time there. I’ve made huge progress with my Swedish, and I need to keep that going. I see Dutch and Swedish as hobbies that I want to spend the rest of my life just doing for fun, and getting as far as I can.
I’ve learnt German and French, and I used to have a bit of Russian which has gone now, but I found that a switch would flick in the brain: from “native language” to “foreign language”, whichever that might be at the time. So if I was in Germany and I suddenly had to speak French, I’d almost find myself trying to translate from German, which was impossible.
Well, I lived in Germany for six years, and that became a second native tongue for me. You had to pass a proficiency exam to study in a German university, and I studied Russian for six years in German – so that really rounded my German into perfection. It wasn’t until I went to Ukraine and Russia that my Russian really took off. And when I went back to Germany, after having those experiences, then I was really flying with the Russian as well.
As far as going from foreign language to foreign language, the only problem I have is between Spanish and Russian. They seem to be the two that I mix up. It’s not that they clash; it’s the opposite. They flow together, and they seem to fit together in a weird way. It’s the way they sound: the rolled “R”, and stuff like that.
It’s very strange, because I never mix up German and Russian, and I don’t mix up French and Russian, or German and French. But I buy my books in all sorts of different directions. I have a Swedish grammar written in Russian, and I have a Russian-Dutch dictionary, and I have Russian-French, and I have Swedish-German. It’s just a great way to keep all of your other languages fresh, while you’re learning the new one. If you read about Swedish grammar in Russian, you learn more about Russian.
Each language has a different way of looking at grammar, because of the way their specific grammar functions. So you learn all sorts of different ways of approaching it, and it gives you a lot more tools. It’s really fascinating. It’s really just a blast for me, and I absolutely adore it.
There was a period after The Czars broke up, when you were making a living as a Russian interpreter. Was that a period where all musical activity ceased?
Yeah, I just didn’t have time for it, and I wasn’t seeking out musicians in New York. I worked at a really high class New York restaurant called Gramercy Tavern, and that took up about 90% of my energy, because that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I guess you have to maintain “world’s best” standard at all times?
Yes, and I’m really grateful to them in a lot of ways, because you really do receive an education. In a lot of countries, you go to school to become a professional waiter. You learn about food, and you learn about wine. You can spend the rest of your life learning about those subjects, especially wine. People who are actual sommeliers are few and far between.
So it was that level of knowledge about food and wine, and especially cheese. Cheese is an important thing in a lot of places these days. We had a cheese board with twenty different cheeses, and that would change quite often. So we were constantly taking classes on how cheese is made, and where it comes from. You would study cheeses from France, and then you would study cheeses from Germany, and cheeses from the States. And we had classes on Madeira, Calvados, Armagnac, Cognac, Champagne…
Normally, if a musician says “I was waiting tables”, it’s indicative of economic hardship – of doing a service level job in order to get by – but for you it was quite the opposite, as this was a proper professional environment.
It was – but I did do ten years of that other waiting. The whole time I was in my band The Czars, I was working in this Italian restaurant. I worked in the same place for ten years, when I wasn’t out touring. Then when I moved to New York, I stumbled upon an advert on Craigslist, for this place called Gramercy Tavern. And I thought, well, I’ll just try that out. And my friends were like, do you have any idea what that is? And I said, no. And they said, that’s one of the top places in town.
So I went in there, and basically they’re looking for people that they want to be a part of their organisation. They’re not too terribly concerned with how much knowledge you have in those areas. They want to know if you are the type of person that they want to impart that knowledge to.
So there are more general personal qualities, like whether you’re the sort of person who can establish a rapport with the diners, in that way that you get in those high class joints.
Exactly, yes. And they wanted people who were self-aware. That’s what their big deal was. They wanted people who could communicate well. It’s very difficult to get fired from a place like that, because they’re not easily intimidated by any sort of fuck-up that you can come up with. They want to have people there for as long as possible.
So you’re not living with the threat of instant dismissal for a single fuck-up? Because on reality cooking shows, you see scenes in kitchens where you get the feeling that people live under that kind of pressure.
Yeah, but it took me months to realise that I wasn’t on the line. The first night I was on the floor, I was in the main dining room. It’s sort of hushed in there, but it’s extremely high volume. You’re doing maybe eight tables of people and you have up to seven courses per table, and that’s all going at an extremely fast pace. It’s not as slow as you would think it is. And then I spilled an entire silver pot of coffee, on a white cloth in the middle of the dining room. It went all down the front of the cloth, and there was just this collective gasp.
But the test of a great restaurant isn’t so much the mistake, as how you recover from the mistake.
Exactly, and that’s an art form in itself. (Laughs)
Maybe I’m romanticising it, but that sounds like a blissful existence. Was it a wrench to leave?
Well, like I said, that job was the most difficult thing I ever did. At the end of every night, you were completely exhausted, and your brain was mush. There was a sense of pride in what you were doing, but it was a really high pressure environment, and a lot was expected of you. But I met people there who I’ll probably be in touch with for the rest of my life.
I was glad to get out of there, because I found there was too much pressure. The fact that I don’t drink any more made it difficult for me to achieve the level of knowledge that one needs to achieve in the world of spirits and wines.
Once I’d finished the schooling that I was doing for Russian, I went to Texas to start my album, then I came back to New York and I decided to work only at the hospital, doing Russian medical interpreting. But I just didn’t have any energy for music at that time.
Was there a kind of flashpoint, where you knew you had to switch your priorities?
It was a decision that took me a long time, because the Russian thing was really fascinating. It had the potential to be extremely fulfilling, and I was starting to really get into it. But I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity that Midlake were offering me. They were offering me an entire community to feel comfortable in. It wasn’t that they wanted to mould me; they wanted simply to offer themselves as tools, for me to achieve my vision.
I suppose you’re swapping a very structured, even regimented existence – and also quite a secure existence – for stepping back out into the unknown, and being much more the master of your own destiny. That must have been a strange and radical switch to make.
Well, it was. I was building something in New York, and I had started to put roots down, and I had gotten past the most difficult part. The first three years are the most difficult part in New York. It’s extremely hard to get to know people there at the beginning. And to get into a restaurant like the one I got into, and to get into that world: you could pretty much go to any other city and say “I worked at this restaurant”, and immediately have a job in that industry, because of the reputation that place has. And then the language thing: I had medical insurance for the first time in years, and it was a huge decision to leave all that security and leave my apartment, and depend on other people again, and live with other people, and not have my own space.
So it was a communal existence when you were working with Midlake?
Yeah, I lived with a couple of them. I went back and forth a little bit. That’s not easy. Living with other people is really difficult, the older you get – especially if you want to be invited back. You have to be cognisant of lots of different things: about the way things are done, and about how to respect other people’s space.
And you were living with people who were representing your songwriting vision. The songs you wrote for Queen Of Denmark dig pretty deeply into your own personal emotional experiences, so you’re laying yourself bare in front of these people, who are supporting you in that process. That must be a very strange situation to be in.
The basis for that was that they really loved who I was as a person. They loved the whole package. They didn’t just respect me as a musician; they were fascinated by me as a person. So I felt very safe in revealing myself to them, because I didn’t feel judged in any way. I didn’t feel like anybody was looking at me with a critical eye. They thought what I had to say was great, and they felt like I had a voice that people hadn’t heard before, and that people should hear. They all come from very different backgrounds to me in some ways, and very similar backgrounds in other ways. They really did an amazing thing for me. It can’t be stressed enough.
Are any members of Midlake accompanying you on this tour that’s coming up?
No, but we are playing a big show together at the Royal Festival Hall [on Wednesday September 7]. That will be like wrapping up the Queen Of Denmark chapter, and moving on to the next chapter. We’re going to be doing the entire album, except for one song: Leopard And Lamb. I’ve never done that one. I want to do it, but I’m not sure how to do it yet. So that’s going to be a really special night.
As for the provincial UK dates, are you going to be completely solo for those?
No, that will be me and one other guy. We switch off on synth and piano, and he brings backing vocals with me. I think it’s a very full experience. It’s the best way to see the songs on the album done.
Is there a psychological price to pay for having to drag these songs around with you on tour, long after you wrote them, and long after you’ve had the experiences which created them? It’s almost like dragging round emotional baggage. Does this trap you in those experiences, without being able to move on?
I think the jury’s still out on that. I find it really fulfilling, but I’ve definitely had that thought a million times. In other artists’ lives, you see these drastic changes, which people say they don’t understand. And that is the result of what you’re talking about. Yes, there is a high price to pay for dragging those things around.
As for the relationship that caused me to write many of those songs, it probably was much more difficult for me to let go of that person, because I was reliving a lot of the feelings that I had for that person on stage every night.
I think about the next record, and what I want to talk about, and what I don’t want to talk about. I’ve thought about being on stage with Allen Toussaint the other night at Bush Hall; he accompanied me on Chicken Bones, and it was an absolutely amazing, transcendent experience. There were three of us on stage: James Dean Bradfield from Manic Street Preachers, Allen Toussaint and myself. We each played six songs, but we went in a circle, so it lasted for about two hours.
And to have Allen Toussaint across from me, playing things like Let’s Make A Better World, Yes We Can Can and Southern Nights, which is a song I grew up listening to… I’m sure there’s going to be a time when it’s going to be too difficult and too heavy for me to constantly sing about the difficult stuff in the world. At some point, in order to move on from certain things, you have to move to different subjects. But I feel very comfortable in that world. I think that’s probably a big part of my problem in my personal life, because I feel comfortable in that warm blanket of awkwardness and pain.
There’s an interesting paradox. You’re expressing these emotions lyrically, but the musical style on Queen Of Denmark is actually very pleasant on the ears, with those references to Seventies soft-rock. So if you’re just listening to it as music, without focussing on the lyrics, it’s quite reassuring and uplifting – like a warm blanket.
That’s the effect that the music had on me, when I was growing up in the Seventies. I love that type of music, and I will always love the David Lynch aesthetic. But you also have to be really careful in what you choose to drag around with yourself. It can really drag you down, if you don’t have perspective. The way that you can continue to do what you want to do is to have perspective.
As an artist, the difficult thing is getting perspective, because you inhabit these places very deeply. These things that you talk about, and these things that you express on stage: you must inhabit them, in order to bring them across in an honest way.
So maybe you need a couple of show closers, which are all about redemption and resolution, with a kind of beatific view on the world…?
What you’re talking about is interesting, because the feeling that a lot of people get when they listen to Queen Of Denmark is that redemption is built into the songs. You don’t come out of that record thinking “I want to commit suicide”. It’s more of an uplifting experience than a negative one – because of the way the music is, the way it’s structured, the humour of the record. Otherwise it would be too much.
On the next record, I’m going to be dealing with some really heavy subject matter as well, and once again it’s about striking that balance. It’s about finding the humour and bringing everyday life into it. That’s another thing that I like about Queen Of Denmark: in order to give an honest picture of the human experience, when you deal with these heavy subjects, you have to bring in everyday life. Because that’s how we actually experience it.
So you have details like the old sweet shop, and the chicken bones…
Yes, and Sigourney Weaver too. You’re drawing from your personal loves. So you’ve just finished watching Alien for the twelfth time, and you absolutely love that movie. And you’re thinking about these other things, and it’s like: Jeez, I feel just like that fucking lady from Alien, you know? It’s that scene where she has to shoot all these aliens, and you can see her rolling her eyes: “Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t believe how ridiculous this is!” And yeah, it’s stuff that everybody can relate to.
Queen Of Denmark has had a lot of critical success. Has that had a positive impact upon your creative process, or does it create new pressures?
Definitely both. Sitting there with Allen Toussaint the other night was a big deal for me, because he was very complimentary about my song structure and my melodies. When we went back on stage, he said, “We should go out there and do more of his songs; they’re so beautiful.” That can’t do anything but give you confidence. And what Mojo has done has thrust me into another world, where I definitely feel like I can call myself a musician and a songwriter. That was something that I didn’t have before.
At the same time, when Queen Of Denmark came out, nobody expected anything from me. So it was much easier for me to do that record. Now, of course, there are expectations and people are very, very attached to that record.
But I’ve started introducing new music into the set. You’re going to hear a new song, and it’s another one that I feel really proud of. It’s dark subject matter, but it tells the story of how difficult it is to communicate with another human in a loving relationship at times. And the extreme emotion, and the vicissitudes – the ups and downs – of fear, joy, hatred and being hurt, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to somebody else, and taking the risk – because that’s what you do as an artist too. You do it every night when you get up on stage.
That’s why I think the touring process is so difficult. In order for you to connect with people, you have to stay in this space where you are vulnerable. You have to constantly go back and forth while you’re on the road. You’re putting up walls and you’re putting on your shield of armour, to protect yourself from all the bullshit; just the logistics of what it takes to tour. And then there’s being in your creative space and actually reaching out to people, listening to what they have to say, actually connecting with them, and forging those relationships on stage. I mean, it is mentally fucking exhausting.
When you finish a show, what sort of emotional state are you in? Do you just want to go away and find some quiet time?
Sometimes I just want to break down and cry, and sob for an hour. And most of the time, I feel elated; I feel euphoric. A lot of times, I go out and talk to people afterwards, and that takes a good hour and a half to two hours. If you go out there and make yourself available, then you have to do it. And “doing it” means listening to what people have to say to you.
And that might be all to do with their own reactions to the songs you’ve sung, and how they relate to their own lives. So they might be sharing quite detailed personal stuff with you – and that’s on top of having done a show where you’ve expressed your own stuff.
Exactly. And it’s really, really heavy duty. Then also you get a lot of people who are drunk, and who want to say, “Oh, that new song was really shit”. Or, “I thought those first three songs ended way too harshly.” And you just want to say, “Who gives a fuck what you think?” It would never occur to me to walk up to somebody and tell them those things, and to express my dislike for somebody’s art to their face.
That’s the culture we’re in. Social media encourages that. You get the chance to be rude to people in public life.
Yeah, you have to take the good with the bad. But for me personally, it’s something that I don’t understand. I usually walk up to an artist when I want to tell them how much I appreciate them, and that is what the majority of people do.
But those people are not usually coming up to you and telling you that they don’t like a song in order to hurt you. They’re doing it for different reasons. They’re usually doing it because they want to enter into a dialogue with you. They really respect you, and they feel like it’s OK, since they love you so much already. So you’re called upon to have a lot of understanding, and to try and see it from a different perspective – because at first glance it can be, “Well, what the fuck are you telling me this for?”
When people say “I’m really looking forward to your next album, but that new song really sucks”, I’m like: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be looking forward to the new album then, because that’s going to be on it!” (Laughs)
When I saw the track listing for your new album (Soul UK), I thought “we have to talk”. You have covered a lot of my all-time favourite British soul tracks, so I must commend you for your impeccable taste.
Thank you! Honestly, this record is an absolute labour of love. I’ve always banged on about how British soul doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and people always say that about me: “you don’t get the respect you deserve.” But you have to honour the people who put it in the spotlight in the first place.
Some of the blame lies with British soul fans, who could be quite snobby: if it comes from the US, it must be authentic, and if it comes from the UK, it’s just an imitation.
Completely right. That attitude has infiltrated the minds of a lot of people who are outside of the soul fraternity, and that’s a dreadful shame, because we know that’s not true. That’s why I made this record: to say “come on guys, celebrate your own”, and to reintroduce the songs to a wider audience, who will hopefully not see the difference between the continents.
You must have started with a massive shortlist of possible tracks. How did you go about whittling them down?
It was a massive list; I’ve got Soul UK Volumes 2, 3 and 4 here! I started by thinking: right, which songs can I tell you a tale about? Is there someone who I connected with over the years – someone who I went on to work with, or became mates with? And of course, with these guys being British, I pretty much had a story or a connection with everybody on these songs.
So you’ve met most of the people who recorded these songs in the first place?
I’ve met absolutely all of them. Some very briefly, like George Michael at a Terrence Higgins Trust fundraising event, and some are actual proper mates, like Jaki Graham.
I like what you’ve done with Jamiroquai’s debut single, When You Gonna Learn, because you’ve taken the track in quite a different direction.
I’ve sung with Jamiroquai on stage, but people have forgotten that Jay isn’t only famous for racing cars, and going out with models, and having punch-ups. He’s well known because he’s sold thirty million albums and made some great British soul/funk records. The original track is very much of its time, so I thought: let’s slow it down so that we can get the lyrics, because the lyrics are so pertinent; they were twenty years ahead of their time with that one.
The production on some of the Eighties tracks might sound a bit dated to modern ears, but you’ve produced an album which has its own particular stamp on it, with a production that hangs together all the way through.
It needed to be a cohesive record. With a lot of albums I’ve heard, where people have covered other people’s material, they take the guts out of the song and it becomes some kind of boring, bland old thing. I think: why have you done this? I can’t see the connection. I didn’t want to make a “covers album”. I wanted to make an album which was a concept of something which I feel desperately passionate about.
Just from reading the track listing, I sense you were one of these people who were always going down to the record shops and keeping tabs on everything that was coming out. Were you that kind of diehard soul girl?
My music tastes are really eclectic, but I’m soul at heart. I was a bit like a DJ in a way, with anything that came out: what is it, who is it, who’s released it, who’s the A&R? So I was one of those people who you’d find on a Saturday, when I was doing my degree, down at Cheltenham town hall, digging through the crates and finding these soul gems.
There’s an interesting mix between tracks Soul II Soul’s Fairplay, which was a drop-dead cool club cut at the time, and the poppier end of the spectrum, such as Jaki Graham and Roachford. So you’re reclaiming that side of things as well.
I wanted people to understand the diversity of what we were doing in Britain. I didn’t want it to be one of those intellectual [adopts ponderous, po-faced voice] “Yeah, this is one of these musical albums which chronicles 1974 from March to May.” That’s not the kind of tribalist, elitist thing that I wanted to do. I wanted everybody to come to the party. So Lewis Taylor is on there; you and I might know who he is, but other people would be like, who? Even some soul fans don’t know who he is.
I’m very pleased with your selection from Loose Ends. Everyone knows and loves Hanging On A String, but I was really pleased you went for Don’t Be A Fool.
And ditto Fairplay. The reason I went for Fairplay and Don’t Be A Fool is: what the hell am I going to bring to Hanging On A String? That song is not only iconic; it’s sacrosanct in my world. Even the way it starts, with the little electric toms, and the way it comes in, and Carl Macintosh’s little guitar licks, all of it – that’s what I want to hear, when I hear Hanging On A String. It’s not just the melody; it really is the production. It’s the same with Keep On Moving, and it’s the same with Back To Life. It’s not about taking the song out of the production and updating it, because part of it is the production. I’m not touching those songs. They are the Holy Grail.
One of the earliest tracks on the album is Freeez’s Southern Freeez (from 1981), which is a pretty sophisticated track for a young girl to be into.
I think it’s because I grew up with music in my system. Growing up with gospel, I didn’t grow up with straight up and down pop. That came when I started to nick the radio out of Mum and Dad’s room. I was growing up with sophisticated chord changes, which I completely understood because they were a part and parcel of my DNA anyway. I didn’t appreciate that they were sophisticated until I tried to replicate them on piano. So for me, Southern Freeez was just a song which I appreciate now has loads of changes, chord progressions and movements – but as a kid, it was just something which I totally understood and loved.
You’ve also covered a track by George Michael, who isn’t a name that you would directly associate with the British soul movement. Did you know right from the start that you were going to take One More Try in a Southern soul/gospel direction?
When I first heard One More Try as a kid, my first comment to my sister was “this sounds like church”. It had the chord progressions of a proper, old school, Charles Wesley hymn. Then when I did my version, I said to my sister “do you get what I mean now?”
You’ll be getting married next year. Is that all planned out, and what sort of music have you got lined up?
We’re trying to get married out of the country, maybe in Italy. That’s where we first went away together, so I thought it would be romantic! I’m going to beg my band to do the honours. It’s going to be old school soul with a little bit of funky house, because some of my singers have had funky house records in the charts in their own right. My best mate is DJ-ing, and he knows the kind of stuff I like. I don’t even have to tell him what to play; he just knows.
Do you know what your first dance is going to be?
We know, but we’ve got to keep it a secret. It’s an absolute classic from the Eighties. We’re not doing a slowie. We want to throw some shapes. We want to shake our butts! Once I do the business and get married, we’ll have a chat again, and you’ll be like: oh my God!
Blondie are having a good day. It’s Debbie Harry’s 66th birthday – yes, you read that right – and the band have just got back to the hotel, after a day of recording at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios. “It was really exciting – we had a really good time”, says drummer Clem Burke, who is no stranger to the studios himself.
“I did a record there with Mark Owen from Take That”, he explains, as I try to mask my surprise. “When Take That broke up, Mark did a solo record, and I was part of his band. And last year, all our road crew wanted to get a tour of Abbey Road – so, I rang up and we went over. Especially coming from the States, it’s great to go into that studio. It’s not something that you do every day.”
Although Blondie’s latest album – Panic Of Girls, their third since the band reformed in 1996 – is now available for purchase in the usual formats, it actually made its UK debut on the magazine racks a month earlier.
“Future Publications, who do Classic Rock, came to us with the idea of doing a complete Blondie magazine. It’s something that the fans have been waiting for, for a long time. There are lots of new photos, there’s archival stuff, and you get the record. It’s a different way of getting our music out there. It’s not necessarily new media, but it worked. We’re very happy with it, and we had a good time putting it together. “
In musical terms, the new album – or the new record, as Clem prefers to call it (“by definition, it’s a record of a performance”) – doesn’t deviate too far from the classic, if eclectic, Blondie template. Front-loaded with an opening salvo of gutsy, uptempo power-pop numbers, including the recent single Mother, the album begins to stretch out stylistically from the fourth track, before winding down towards a more sedate conclusion, in what used to be known as “Side Two”.
“There are some really catchy pop songs on there”, says Clem, “and there are also more left-of-centre things. Debbie’s singing in Spanish, she’s singing in French, and this is the first time that we’ve recorded way more material than we needed to. We recorded about thirty songs. Some of them will probably see the light of day later on.”
It has been eight years since the last record, but the band weren’t about to be rushed. “We completed the album more than a year ago, but we had a problem finding a proper way to release it. We wanted to do something special. Then when the fan pack came up, it seemed like a good way to launch it.”
Up until now, with just one exception – the glossy Autoamerican, which was recorded in Los Angeles in 1980 – all Blondie’s albums have been made in central Manhattan. For Panic Of Girls, the band shifted upstate to Woodstock, but the untypically rural location has had no discernible impact on their characteristically urban sound. Perhaps more surprisingly, the departure of keyboardist Jimmy Destri, who had been with the band since their very earliest days, has been seamlessly absorbed – even though this reduces the core of Blondie to just three founder members: Debbie, Clem, 56, and guitarist Chris Stein, 61.
“It’s definitely affected the dynamic”, Clem admits, while carefully sidestepping any discussion of the precise circumstances of Destri’s departure.
“I particularly miss Jimmy’s input with the writing. I don’t really know what happened with Jimmy. I thought he was going to participate in this record, in some way, shape or form, but at the end of the day he didn’t.”
On stage and in the studio, the founding trio are joined by three newer recruits – although bassist Leigh Foxx, who has been with the band since 1996, has become a familiar face to most fans. Guitarist Tommy Kessler joined last year, while Destri’s replacement on keyboards, Matt Katz-Bohen, picks up three co-songwriting credits on the new album.
Blondie have always been fond of adding covers to their original compositions, and Panic Of Girls sports a couple of unlikely additions, both rendered in a light reggae style. At Chris Stein’s suggestion, the band has tackled Sunday Smile, an album cut by Zach Condon’s critically acclaimed indie-folk outfit, Beirut. A couple of tracks earlier, Sophia George’s glorious Girlie Girlie – a UK top ten hit from 1985 – is given the full “Tide Is High” treatment, giving Debbie the chance to dabble with cheeky excursions into patois. As for the live set list, recent Blondie covers have ranged from a surprisingly successful reworking of Taio Cruz’s Break Your Heart, to a spirited thrash through The Damned’s New Rose.
The inclusion of New Rose – the first ever British punk single – is a direct reminder that, for all their later mainstream pop success, Blondie’s roots lie in the punk rock scene of mid-Seventies New York City, when they were one of a gang of bands who hung out at the tiny, grubby CBGB’s club in downtown Manhattan. The scene emerged as a reaction to the perceived excesses of the superstar rock elite that went before it, and it noisily espoused a defiantly grassroots, anti-star ethos. So when pop stardom happened for Blondie, did this cause any anguished ideological soul-searching?
“Well, we always wanted to be popular”, says Clem. “We always wanted to be on the radio. Of the music that we were influenced by, a lot of it was not considered to be cool – whether it be bubblegum music, or disco music. But people forget how subversive disco music was, when it first began. It was an underground phenomenon, in the gay clubs of New York. It was just as subversive as so-called punk rock.”
“I don’t think anybody considered themselves to be punks until the genre phrase was coined. Of course, there was punk rock in the Sixties: American garage bands like The Seeds or The Standells. But really, CBGB’s was all about a bunch of beatniks; musicians who were just trying to think outside the box a little bit.”
“We never wanted to be an underground band”, he continues, warming to his theme. “CBGB’s was like a workshop, where we were able to make our mistakes in public, influenced by bands like Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads, who were there at the same time. They actually contributed to the sound of the band, and vice versa. I think all those bands fed off each other.”
“To me, punk rock is a specific kind of music, with very loud guitars and Iggy and the Stooges influences. We loved all that, but that was only one facet of what Blondie was. We never really had a problem with the success. I think a few people were a little overawed by the success, and I also think the fact that Debbie was a woman kind of made it a little different for the guys in the band. “
“I think if she had been a man – if she was, say, Mick Jagger instead of Debbie Harry – it would have reflected differently upon the other guys in the band. But because she was such a gorgeous, beautiful, charismatic woman, it made for people going: oh, she’s the star, she’s the band. And she’d be the first person to say that was never really the case.”
One of Blondie’s great achievements was that their pop success was created and maintained largely on their own terms. Compared to most of today’s pop acts, they were given a remarkable amount of creative freedom. Nevertheless, their relationship with the music industry wasn’t entirely free from conflict. Clem remembers one moment in particular.
“The Autoamerican record had Rapture and The Tide Is High on it – but when we delivered it to the record company, the first thing they said was that there were no hits on the record. Most people didn’t know what rap music was, and things like doing reggae covers didn’t really line up with most people at record companies.”
“I think it’s to our credit that we pushed along the evolution of what pop music was. But we were never dictated to, and we never had stylists – although we had producers, and we worked hand in hand with people like Mike Chapman and Richard Gottehrer. But we actually did it on our own terms. Debbie certainly did whatever she wanted to do, as we all did. It wasn’t really pre-planned.”
Blondie might have embraced their success, but their commercial highpoint wasn’t necessarily the happiest period for the band members in personal terms.
“Well, it was a whirlwind – and it has been well documented that certain people were on too many drugs, and things like that. For me, the whole Blondie experience has been bittersweet in a lot of ways. From 1980 to 1982, which was a real height of success, when Rapture was a big hit around the world, we never really performed live, which I definitely regret not doing.”
In that case, were Blondie tiring of life at the top? Was there a feeling that they needed to step off the treadmill?
“Personally, no. Everybody dealt with success in their own way. Obviously I wasn’t in the limelight as much as Debbie was. It wasn’t planned as well as it could have been: when to take breaks and when to work, and things like that. But I’m a rock and roll fan and I love performing. We all do. If we didn’t now, we wouldn’t be doing it to the extent that we do it. But back then, it was a little different.”
Blondie Mark Two has now been together for considerably longer than Blondie Mark One, so why has Blondie Mark Two lasted so long? According to Clem, “it’s a different kind of success”, fuelled by the rise of new media in general, and YouTube in particular.
“YouTube gives us a longevity that’s unbelievable. You’d do some TV show in Berlin in 1978, and you never expected that you’d ever see it again. Now that everything’s on YouTube, younger audiences can go back and research a band, and see what we were about in our heyday. We had a very high profile back then, with video and things like that, and we did a lot of television. So that enables us to continue. I think that’s one aspect of the success that we have today. And, you know, we’re enjoying it! As a musician, you’re always learning. We’re all interested in the creative process, and that helps us to continue.”
Four years from now, the seemingly ageless Debbie Harry will reach her seventieth birthday. Does this impending “senior citizen” status put a time limit on Blondie, or will the band carry on rocking into their dotage?
“It’s not going to stop right now”, affirms Clem. “We’re already planning another record, and we’re not going to stop any time soon. But inevitably, we will stop before we drop.”
On the evidence of last Sunday’s rapturously received performance at London’s Lovebox festival (a greatest hits set, with two new songs and a riotous cover of an Eighties rap-rock classic), Blondie are in no imminent danger of either stopping, or dropping.
As a journalist, I want to know all about you – but as a listener, I quite like knowing nothing about you at all. So I’m a little reluctant to puncture your mystique.
(Laughs) There’s nothing to know! Mystique is good, but I’m not intentionally trying to hide myself.
Fair enough – but on your last.fm profile you describe yourself as a desolate planet, covered in desert and rock. What’s all that about?
Oh, sorry – I found that on Wikipedia. It’s a description of a planet from Star Wars called Ronika, so I decided to go with that as my biog.
You’ve disillusioned me already. It’s a copy-and-paste job from Wikipedia? I thought you’d invented a whole mythology about yourself.
Well, no. I Googled “Ronika” and found that there was actually a planet called Ronika in Star Wars. With killer wasps. And a hot surface. So I thought: yeah, that’s good.
So were your parents Star Wars fans? Does that have anything to do with the way you were named?
(Laughs) They’re not Star Wars fans. They’re Coronation Street fans. No, my name is Veronica and I shortened it to Ronika.
OK. So how long have you been making music, and how did you get started?
I’ve been making music since I was a teenager. I started writing tunes on the acoustic guitar, inspired by people like Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. I started getting into producing and making beats shortly afterwards. That was inspired by electro, old school hip hop, and people like Tiga, The Hacker and Daft Punk. Then I started building my own tracks.
The influences that come across most clearly to me are taken from early Eighties New York dance music: post-disco, but pre-house. Do you have a particular attraction to that period?
Yeah, I’m very much inspired by that kind of sound: Chaka Khan, The Sequence, with some early Madonna in there. Forget Yourself (on the new EP) came about from me and Joe Buhdha listening to stuff like Tom Tom Club, ESG and Blondie, where late disco met new-wave.
To what extent is what you’re doing a retro homage to that period, and to what extent are you trying to forge something completely new?
Hopefully it’s a mix of both. Everybody has musical inspirations and references which they bring into their music, and mine happens to be that kind of era – but hopefully I’m adding something to it.
Are you one of those people who thinks that music was better in the old days, or are we living in a golden age for music right now?
I think both, actually. There’s plenty of good stuff out there, and lots of people are making interesting stuff, but I do obviously have a sweet spot for the old days. When I was making the tunes, I was thinking: this is very different to what is out there. But I didn’t especially make them to get played on the radio.
What have you made of the critical reaction to the new EP (Forget Yourself/Wiyoo)?
It’s been amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. I’m just really glad that everybody is loving the tracks. That’s the main thing; I just wanted people to hear them.
When you read people writing stuff about you, do you think: yeah, they’ve got me right?
Absolutely, and I think that’s what has amazed me the most. With all the stuff that I’ve read, people have totally got me right, and they’ve totally understood where I’m coming from with my influences.
You put out two tracks last year, and you’ve put out two tracks this year. That’s a fairly slow trickle of music. How long are we going to have to wait to hear any more material?
I’ve been finishing recording my album; we’re mixing it at the moment. And the next EP is coming out in September, so you don’t have to wait too long. It will be on Record Shop, which is my own label.
Have you been fending off advances from larger labels?
There has been interest, so we’ll see. But for the next release, I’m going to stay indie and put it out myself.
In terms of live performances, do you have it in mind to be gigging more regularly?
I’d like to be doing more gigs. I’ve been busy in the studio up until now. But with the coming of the next EP, I’ll be doing more gigs. Splendour last year was brilliant; I opened the main stage. I also enjoy playing Lee Rosy’s Tea Shop; I did my first EP launch there.
Morrissey once said that his ideal audience would consist of skinheads wearing nail varnish. Who would be in your ideal audience?
Robots. All robots.
Are you a full time creative person, or do you have a day job?
I do work, but it’s not a soul-crushing day job. I work producing music with young people who have been kicked out of school. They generally like dubstep, so I make that kind of stuff with them.
It’s been said for years that Nottingham has underperformed in terms of producing artists that get outside recognition, but I get the sensation that this is beginning to change. What’s your take on it?
Well, Dog Is Dead are doing really well, and Swimming are on the verge of breaking through. Then you’ve got more established acts like Late Of The Pier and Lone, who are already doing well. So I think we might be moving to a better time. Then there’s Spotlight Kid – I’ve seen them and they’re brilliant – and Liam Bailey has just played Glastonbury. Then of course there are lots of people who have got masses of talent and who are coming up, like Nina Smith, Harleighblu, Marita Metelia and Natalie Duncan. But if you’re from Nottingham, you have to push a lot harder than if you’re from London, to make things work.
So, is Ronika here to save pop?
(Laughs) I don’t know about saving pop, but I do love pop music. To me, Eighties Madonna is perfect pop music, and that’s my inspiration.
Just don’t go changing into Noughties Madonna.
No, I’ll leave the leotards.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
You’ll be playing some fairly large venues on your second reunion tour, which starts in October. How do they compare to the venues you were playing the first time round?
These venues weren’t available in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We’ve got the chance to play to more people, but putting less strain on the vocalists – rather than doing four or five nights on the trot, like we did in Brixton on the first tour in 2009. It’s a pretty demanding set, and Terry Hall’s voice has improved in my opinion, but it can take its toll. So the bigger venues ain’t a bad idea.
Do you lose something when you scale the show up?
We’ve got such a phenomenal, passionate fanbase, that it translates perfectly. We’ve done lots of festivals over the past couple of years, but if you really want to see The Specials, then I like to think the indoor venues are the best. Football stadiums, stuff like that: they’re not really us.
I’ll tell you what I genuinely miss. In the old days, we used to have our stage invasions. We never really had a barrier between us and the fans – and I don’t just mean a physical barrier. We belong to our fans, and they feel very much a part of what we do. So I miss stage invasions. But they’re totally not on anymore. You can’t do it because of the health and safety factor. And there are good reasons for it.
I saw you play the Sports Hall at Nottingham University in 1980. There was a massive stage invasion, and you carried on playing well beyond the official encore time. They even turned the house lights up. But you carried on playing for about another half an hour. It was as if the band and the audience were locked into a battle: who was going to drop from exhaustion first?
We used to do about six encores. So roughly another quarter of the set used to take place as encores. But how can you possibly leave a crowd like that? The toughest thing is to stop playing, I find. OK, we’re a bit older – but we haven’t lost any energy. To be honest, I think the audience might even get tired before we do, these days.
There was a knife-edge atmosphere to that 1980 gig. A lot of people were having a lot of fun, but there was also an air of suppressed violence. You felt that the whole thing could have tipped over at any minute, either within the audience or within the band. Was that typical?
In a lot of cases, it was. We had a bit of a reputation amongst one or two of the extreme parties in this country; the National Front was one of them. They basically used to follow us about. Dealing with these people was one of Terry’s fortes. He was able to deal with it, and Neville (Staple) as well. You’d start off by feeling that sort of vibe, then towards the end of the night, they’d have been frozen out of the building. So at the end of the night, it was a beautiful feeling. But yes, there was a tension. We were targeted by these extremists, and they wanted to disrupt.
Nowadays, our audience has mellowed in a lot of respects. What really hit me on the first tour was the passion. You had these massive guys coming up, virtually with tears in their eyes, going “I’ve waited 27 years for this!”
I’ll give you an example. My wife is diminutive; she’s about five foot tall. She was down in the audience at Brixton, dancing away, and there were about half a dozen of these huge skinhead guys – lovely guys – who all linked arms and formed a circle round her, so she could dance. The camaraderie was fantastic.
When you decide to go to one of these shows, you’re motivated to a large extent by nostalgia. But then the show puts you back in touch with the person you once were. You’re reliving the emotions, and you realise that you’re still, in some ways, the same person. That can be quite emotionally overwhelming.
It’s good though, isn’t it? I get that feeling when I’m on stage. The weird thing is – and I hate to say this – but I’m a bit of a fan of the band, in a way. My son films some of the shows, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I look at them. There’s still something very special about the band, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Ghost Town was at Number One exactly thirty years ago. What do you remember about recording it?
It was recorded up in the Midlands, in Leamington. It was towards the end of things for The Specials. We were overworked and stressed, and I think you can almost feel that in the track. Well, I can; perhaps the listener can’t. But I knew that things were getting close to the end in the recording stages of Ghost Town. There was a strained atmosphere. But then again, there was a strained atmosphere in a lot of the work we did, because we were striving to do our best. After Ghost Town, Jerry Dammers and I carried on with The Special AKA, and some of the rest of the guys decided that it was time to move on.
Ghost Town getting to Number One wasn’t like most pop singles getting to Number One, because it accidentally soundtracked the inner city riots of the summer of 1981. Did that change the way you felt about it being top of the charts? Or were you all still going “Wa-hey, we made it, we’re top of the world”?
I wasn’t overly impressed by it being Number One. But I’ll tell you another track that I felt great about being on: Nelson Mandela. The fact that Nelson Mandela got anywhere was a tribute to the track, but at the same time there was the importance of it heightening awareness of the problem. I dunno; Ghost Town was a good bit of reportage, about what was going on around the inner cities…
…but Nelson Mandela actually changed things, whereas Ghost Town reflected things?
That’s a good way of putting it. I think that heightening awareness does change things, and lyrics in popular music don’t do that too often. So we felt that it was important, more than we felt that it should be top of the pops. But we’re in the thirtieth anniversary of Ghost Town this year, and nothing’s bloody changed out there, as far as I’m concerned.
This time, hopefully, we’re making a bit more of Ghost Town in the live performance. I can’t go into too much detail, but we are celebrating, if that’s the right word, the fact that it’s gone through thirty years. We’ve got something in mind, in production terms, which will be really nice to hear and see. But I can’t tell you what, because it would just let the cat out of the bag.
Is this a purely gigging project now, or has there been any talk of you getting back in the studio?
A few of us have talked about it. If the truth be known, I don’t see any harm in a project coming out of this. I wouldn’t like to say we’d ever try to produce stuff like the original Specials material. I don’t think we can do that anymore. But we’ve got one big asset, and that is our sound – and that’s not going to stop, let’s put it that way. We did a thing with MIA recently, on Jools Holland. It gave (some of) us a chance to stretch our legs a bit, with our rhythm sound. So we might be carrying a bit of a project on, but we’re not sure yet. Let’s get this tour out of the way first.
And in terms of the gigs, is this it? Or are you going to take a leaf out of Madness’s book and go on and on?
You never know what’s round the corner, but I don’t think we’ll be touring like this again. This will probably be the last tour we do. I think it’s pretty obvious why. However, there are some younger people out there, who perhaps could do with a band like The Specials occasionally. So if we’re called upon, who knows? I mean, we can still do it. There’s a few years left in the old dogs.
(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.)
I’m calling you at your office, which is near your home in Norfolk. What sort of place have you got?
We’re in a village, just on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. My missus and I – and this is what happens to old rockers – we love gardens. When we bought the house, it was just grass and gravel. So in the past six years, we’ve put in roughly four thousand plants. We reckon we’ve got about another two years to go, and then it’s tinkering time. It’s a lot of fun, to watch something happen. My missus is much better at it than me.
I’d imagine that someone of your background would have a castle, at the very least. Are there any turrets on your property?
Oh, crikey. Well, the first divorce put paid to the turrets, the second one put paid to the moat, and the third one put paid to the castle. Rachel and I have got a little old mill house – and a windmill, would you believe. Without the sails; they went in 1953. It’s not a huge mansion, but it’s a very nice house. There’s only the pair of us – the kids have all grown up and long since gone – so what do you want to rattle round in a great big place for? Ian Lavender found it for us; he played Pike in Dad’s Army. He lives just down the road.
You’ll be coming to see us next Thursday at Nottingham Playhouse. What sort of show can we expect?
I don’t do tours any more. I do one-offs. I’ve got a long list of music that I can do: stuff of my own, and stuff of other people’s that I’ve worked on, and a few things that people wouldn’t expect me to play. And because I’ve done Grumpy Old Men and things like that, there are an awful lot of ridiculous stories that go in between. So it’s almost half stand-up, half music.
When you’re on your own, you’ve got a lot more freedom. But if you’re doing night after night after night, it does get into a bit of a routine. You start playing all the same pieces; you tell the stories exactly the same. Whereas if you spread them out over the year, you’ve forgotten the ones you did the last time. You’ll throw in stories that you wouldn’t have thrown in normally, and throw in a different piece of music. I started doing that about three years ago, and I found that it just worked so well, because every night it’s almost like an opening night.
What sort of audiences do you get these days?
It’s changed a lot. The music people obviously still come, from the Yes days and so on, and there’s a whole batch of people who started coming from Countdown. I hosted an alternative comedy show called Live At Jongleurs on ITV for eight years, so a lot of students started coming; admittedly that was in the Eighties, so now they’ve grown up a bit. Then you get the generation who liked Grumpy Old Men, and now I do a spot on Watchdog every week, so you start getting a real eclectic mix of people. A lot of people come along with their kids, who are learning to play; I often think they bring ‘em along to put ‘em off . And in some cases I’ve had four generations of family, which has been quite amazing.
You’ve had a strange journey, from symphonic prog-rock keyboard player to TV pundit and professional grump. How did the TV work come about?
It started properly when Danny Baker had a Saturday night chat show. I was only meant to do a minute, but Danny knew a lot of my silly stories, so he said “just go for it”. I ended up doing ten minutes. The following Monday, my agent thought it was Christmas. We were getting offered everything. I’ve got a lot to thank Danny Baker for.
I suppose I’m quite lucky, because when you get older – I’m 62 now – you get to a stage where the media go: oh sod it, he ain’t gonna go away, let him do what he wants. For a long period of time, you’re expected to do what you’re known for doing. But when you get to a certain age, they leave you alone.
So I have a really nice time. I’ve got a radio production company, and I get a fair amount of mainstream television, which is great. I still do the great big shows – in fact I’m off to South America later in the year with the band and orchestra, to do the big orchestral prog-rock shows, which we do in big stadiums out there. I still do the band shows occasionally, mainly at festivals. I’ve got the one man show, I do the “Grumpy Old Rock Star” books every eighteen months, and I still do my recordings as well.
So every day is different in some way, and that’s really, really nice. I’m not sure I’d be very good at routines. But I’m always up at a quarter to six at the latest, and I’m rarely in bed before midnight. It’s the old expression: there’s not enough hours in the day.
On the musical front, you recently did an album and a tour with Jon Anderson. Is anything else planned between the two of you?
We’re off to do the same show in America, in late October and early November. Jon lives there, and we’ll do about twenty shows. While we’re over there, Jon and I will meet up with [former Yes guitarist] Trevor Rabin, and that will be the next project: Jon, Trevor and myself. We’ll do that next year, and hopefully some shows will come out of that.
Jon and I are of a similar ilk. We don’t like to stand still, do what comes easily, and live in the past. For us, the past creates the present and the present creates the future. We hate managers, and so we don’t have any. We decide what’s best for the music and what’s best for us, and then we bring somebody in to look after it. Too many bands today seem to work for the management. When we bring management in to do things for us, they work for us – not the other way round.
In terms of the group dynamic within Yes, I’d have expected you and Jon to be poles apart. He’s the other-worldly dreamer, and you’re the more earthbound soul. Is it a case of opposites attracting?
Exactly. Jon is one of my dearest friends, and we do have certain things in common. We both love football, and we both obviously love music. I understand Jon, and Jon understands me. And I think that’s the secret. We are both heading for the same thing.
To give a bad analogy: if we’re both starting off at London and we’re going to Tokyo, there’s two ways you can go. You can either go via Anchorage, or you can go via Moscow. So there’s one stage, even if you’re heading to the same place, where you couldn’t be further apart. As long as you’re heading for the same destination, it really doesn’t matter how you get there.
When you say that you understand Jon, does that extend to the lyric sheets of the classic Yes albums?
Um… (pause) some of them. I’ve talked to Jon a lot about them. Jon is a wordsmith, and to some extent they stand on their own, as a sort of surrealistic poetry. They do have very strong meanings for Jon, in every respect. But they can have different meanings for other people, and that’s not a problem at all. As Jon always says: as long as people get their own meaning from it. On The Living Tree, the album that Jon and I just did, I think he hit the sort of form lyrically that he had back in the Seventies. I thought it was tremendous. I always get excited waiting for Jon’s lyrics, and it was the same thing with Strawbs, waiting for Dave Cousins.
I find it weird that Jon’s place in Yes has been taken by the former lead singer with a tribute band. There have been some strange episodes, but this is up there with the strangest of them.
When Jon was very ill, five or six years ago, the right plan would have been to wait until Jon was fit again, in two or three years’ time. But for reasons known only to themselves, three of the guys said: no, we’re going to go out. Personally, I think you can’t have Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant, and you can’t have The Who without Roger Daltrey, so how the hell can you have Yes without Jon Anderson? But they decided that they could.
I don’t have anything to do with it. As far as the classic line-up is concerned, that will never see the light of day again. Yes was always a special band, and now it has turned into a gigging band. It’s trotting around, playing as many shows as humanly possible, and it’s just a great shame.
Is there a sense in which you still feel like a member of the band, even if you’re not officially part of it?
It’s like saying: does Bobby Charlton still feel part of Manchester United, even though he doesn’t play? Of course you are. But as regards what’s been going on for the past five years, this doesn’t have anything to do with me at all. I’ve changed clubs, as they say.
I don’t know whether Yes were ever considered as part of the counter-culture, but you’re certainly not part of the counter-culture now. You’re doing mainstream shows on BBC1.
Ah, but that happens to a lot of people. It’s like all the alternative comics, that I used to introduce when I did Live At Jongleurs. They’re all mainstream now. It’s what happens. Underground music in the Sixties eventually came overground, with people like Marc Bolan and T. Rex, and it became establishment.
I guess that every stream has got to join the big river…
All that “mainstream” really means is that enough people like it to bring it to the surface. And that’s happened to so many alternative comics, who are now as straight as the people that they tried to be against in the early days. Which is lovely, you know? That’s what happens. And it will always happen. It will never change.
So if the Rick Wakeman of 1973 could see the Rick Wakeman of 2011, what would he make of him?
He’d be very happy he was still alive! (Laughs)