Not only was this my first ever face-to-face interview-type situation; it was also my first visit to Rock City’s labyrinthine backstage area, as accessed via a side door in the entrance lobby that I’d never spotted before (and I’ve been going ever there since the opening night in December 1980, so no marks for observation).
Several corridors later, I found myself in a decent sized room, with various people coming and going, and Beth Ditto seated at a laptop in the corner. She looked up, smiled and said Hi, then went back to checking her e-mails.
Drummer Hannah and guitarist Brace introduced themselves, and led me through gawd- knows-how-many other corridors until we found ourselves in The Rig: the nightclub extension to Rock City, which runs underneath the main hall. Above us, the support act – the charmingly titled “No Bra” – was sound-checking. I feared for the capabilities of my sensitive little digi-dictaphone, which isn’t awfully good at screening out background noise.
Should we wait for Beth, I asked. No, we should make a start without her, I was advised. A couple of minutes later, it became clear that Beth wasn’t going to be joining us after all. Mentally consigning half of my questions to the rubbish bin, I ditched the notepad and ploughed on regardless, like the professional which I sometimes affect to be.
Mike: So, how’s the tour been going?
Hannah: It’s been good. The shows have all been really fun.
Mike: Do things vary much from night to night, in terms of the audience you get? Do you get a distinct sense of character from each audience, or does it all become quite Groundhog Day?
Hannah: No, it’s not really Groundhog Day. I think it depends on what city you’re in. I mean, it’s consistently good, but some are more exciting than others, of course.
Mike: I think that the last time you were here, it would have been at the Arena, supporting the Scissor Sisters. How was that? You suddenly became an “arena band”…
Hannah: That was crazy. We’re so not an arena band! (Laughter)
Brace: We’re the opposite of an arena band. It was like putting an ant on a huge table, or something. It was weird.
Hannah: It was bizarre.
Mike: Well, the Scissor Sisters audience has changed so much.
Hannah: They’re super-mainstream now.
Mike: I saw their first ever date in the UK, I think. It was at a club in London called The Cock, which had a hyper-fashionable crowd. Then two years later, they’re playing to what you guys call Soccer Moms. At the Arena show, Ana Matronic called out “OK, who here’s gay?”, and then “OK, who here’s a mom?” – and there were equal numbers of both. Maybe that’s their natural constituency now. So, is this where you’re headed, the Soccer Mom market?
Hannah: I really hope not. I love the Scissor Sisters, and I think they’re doing great – but I would be bummed if that was my audience.
Brace: We’re such a minimal band, that it would be hard for us to be able to make Soccer Mom-loving sounds. The horns and stuff… I mean, that band has so much going on sound-wise.
Hannah: And the songs are more accessible to the mainstream, I think.
Brace: It sounds like the music they grew up on, like Elton John, Abba and the Bee Gees. It’s very familiar to them.
Mike: And you keep things pretty stripped down. But then, Standing In The Way Of Control has been a runaway success over the past few months, and it’s been quite a nice, organic thing – like in the old days, when records took time to become hits. It was around for a long time, but it gradually moved further onto people’s radars – then it was a hit, but it’s got legs and it’s still around now. It’s the one song that everyone knows – but are you worried that’s going to become a millstone? Like Radiohead had Creep, and it took them years to get away from it?
Brace: It is kind of our Smells Like Teen Spirit. But at least we have a Smells Like Teen Spirit, I guess. (Laughter)
Hannah: It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen for the next record; whether there’ll be another song that will break out, or if people will constantly compare what we’re doing to that.
Mike: Are you relaxed about the idea that maybe you’ll have a casual audience who will come on board for this song, and then they’ll move away and your core audience will stay put?
Hannah: Yeah, I am pretty relaxed about that. We’ve always had a really consistent underground following, so if we had to go back to that, it would still be there and it would be fine. We’re expecting it, pretty much.
Brace: The downfall… (Laughter)
Mike: Do you get that kind of fan who’s been with you from when you had an underground following, who starts grumbling at the idea that you’re getting mainstream success – the whole “sell-out” thing?
Brace: People seem to be pretty happy with us – because I think we haven’t obviously changed at all. It seems like the people that I’ve encountered, that would maybe feel that way, seem to be sound. It’s not like we did something that was really drastic.
Hannah: It just built really gradually. It wasn’t all of a sudden.
Brace: I guess that when the Soulwax remix [of Standing In The Way Of Control] came out, and the Skins thing, that made it really kinda crazy… but we’re still really who we are.
Hannah: We don’t actually come across a whole lot of negative attitudes about it. Which is good, because it would be annoying. (Laughter)
Mike: And then you have that whole thing where Beth is developing almost as a parallel media figure in her own right; she’s even an agony aunt now. Does that co-exist quite happily with everything else that you do?
Hannah: Yes, I think so. My main concern is just that people just see us as a group.
Mike: Rather than “The Beth Show”…
Hannah: Yeah, totally. Because it just has been that, for so long.
Brace: As long as they’re still good records and good music, that’s the most important thing. Interest in media figures fade quickly; they can go “in” and “out” so fast.
Mike: What do you think is going to happen in terms of your next material? Are you going to move your sound on, or is it going to stay pretty much in the ball park of where you are now?
Hannah: We don’t really think about it; it just comes out. The stuff we’ve been working on is pretty varied. Kinda like the last album, there’s a lot of different kinds of material in there…
Mike: Sure, punk elements and disco elements and so on…
Hannah: Yeah. So I think it’ll stay in that vein of doing different things, but having the same core sound.
Brace: Maybe a few different sounds, but still a minimal approach.
Mike: You’re not tempted to get a brass section in, or anything like that? You have the resources…
Brace: I think there’s something really powerful in knowing you have these resources, and then not using them. Or maybe just adding one keyboard sound, or more percussion, you know what I mean? To build a little bit, but not overkill. A lot of bands, especially when you produce your first major label record, have got string sections on every song, and all that over-production, and it just sounds stupid.
Hannah: They become, like, not the same band.
Mike: And then the “special guests” beat a path to your door…
Brace: Yeah, watch out for the special guests…
Mike: Watch out for Sir Elton, offering to write something for you… (Laughter) Have you had any of that, people trying to appropriate you?
Hannah: Not really. I think people are pretty stoked that we do what we do, and don’t really want to change it too much. People like us for a reason, so to go and change things drastically would be to change elements that people like.
Brace: Beth has collaborated with Jarvis Cocker and Mika, but those were just little live things I mean, I can’t imagine having Mika singing a song on our record. It would just be sort of weird…
Mike: I couldn’t imagine that. At all.
(Hannah and Brace mimic high-pitched operatic arpeggios.)
Hannah: He’s a good guy, he’s a good guy.
Mike: Is he? He’s very enigmatic. I can’t get the measure of him at all, from what I see. It’s interesting, though: you’ve got someone like Beth, who’s very open about all aspects of her life, and then you’ve got someone like Mika, who’s really protecting that mystery – and I think you can do it both ways.
Hannah: Yeah, sure. It’s like opposite ends of the spectrum, you know?
Brace: Like Morrissey…
Hannah: I think some people like to include their personal identity, and their politics, in the music, and some people just want to keep them completely separate. It can be done both ways, and there’s merit in both. So if he wants to be a more private person, then that’s his business.
Mike: Does Beth’s media profile give you an opportunity to hide away, or do you sometimes think: no, let me through too?
Hannah: I think that we’re not quite as comfortable about being total spotlight, cover-of-magazine, star-type people. She has more of a personality for that, and is more open with the public. That’s totally fine, and I think we feel more comfortable being in the shadows – but not losing that sense of unity as a band.
Mike: What have been your highlights of the year so far? There was Glastonbury, I suppose. That went down well…
Brace: The show was great, but the actual event was too muddy.
Hannah: The airline had lost our bags at the airport, and we didn’t have any wellies. So we got there, and it was like, What the FUCK? What IS this hell-hole? But the show was cool. And then we were in Ireland, at the Oxygen festival.
Brace: That was awesome.
Hannah: One of the best shows we’ve played in a long time. Chills.
Mike: And didn’t you play the True Colors tour in the US, with Cyndi Lauper, Erasure and Blondie? That was meant to be like a gay package day out…
Hannah: Yeah, that was wild. It was kinda like the Scissor Sisters experience, where we had a more mainstream audience – but there were some real legendary people involved, so it was cool to watch. Cyndi Lauper was great; she did an alternative version of She Bop that was really good. But the tour was a huge production, and it was a kind of world that we’re not that used to yet…
Brace: When you take a band that’s literally one guitar, a drummer and a vocalist, and you put them in an arena, then it can really weaken a band sound-wise, I think. You can put on a good show, but some of the other bands had such a big production. The reason why we tour so much is because we all get such a rush from playing – that’s what keeps us going. But sometimes when you have to play other shows, and they’re kinda weird, it can get a little…
Mike: Well, you’ve got the audience who are coming to see you and you alone, like you’ve got tonight, and then you’ve got the casual audience. Then of course it was an older audience forTrue Colors, because you had a lot of Eighties acts playing. Did that translate? Did they pick up on it?
Hannah: People actually really liked it – but it was hard to get a physical reaction out of them. A lot of people were telling me that it was the best part of the show – because it was something fresh, and not like a re-hash, you know?
Brace: It was funny when a few of the older people, that were there to see Debbie Harry, said “Oh, you remind me of the B-52’s”. It’s like they were referencing these older bands, that they thought were similar or something.
Mike: So they had a context in which to place you. I don’t see you particularly as a “young band”per se… I mean, I’m 45 and I enjoy your music…
Hannah: Oh, good! (Nervous laughter) That’s great…
But then, I see you’ve got a line of fans waiting outside the venue for you already. That doesn’t happen too often, unless it’s a younger crowd.
Hannah: That’s nice!
Mike: When My Chemical Romance played, there were people out there from breakfast time…
Brace: I can imagine.
Mike: I just think: why? Why sit there, all day?
Brace: When you’re young and full of energy, that’s fine.
Mike: You just want to be as near as possible, for as long as possible…?
Hannah: Yeah, it’s cute. It feels good, I think.
Brace: I think it’s a really good sign, when you have a consistently young crowd, because that means you’re doing something that’s slightly interesting. Well, that’s not always true, but…
Hannah: Sometimes the youth have bad taste.
Brace: It depends on what kind of youth you’re talking about.
Mike: They can think something’s new and fresh, whereas it’s actually something we’ve all heard before.
Hannah: I think we have a pretty good mix of ages and identities. We haven’t got, like, only straight-up jocks yet.
Mike: Perish the thought! (Laughter) And then the difficulty for older listeners is that they can be too quick to spot influences. They can just go: Oh yeah, I heard all that twenty years ago, and of course they miss the point of what it is that makes you different.
Nearly eighteen years after the publication of Sure Of You – the sixth and final instalment of Armistead Maupin’s celebrated Tales Of The City series, which detailed the lives and loves of a disparate and sometimes dissolute group of San Francisco residents – most of the main characters have been brought back to life in an unexpected yet welcome addition to the canon, entitled Michael Tolliver Lives.
Earlier in the week, and a full twenty years after his last visit, Armistead Maupin returned to Nottingham for a promotional appearance at Waterstones on Bridlesmith Gate. In front of a 150-strong audience of faithful devotees, he read from the new book, answered questions, and signed our hardback copies. “This is by far my favourite part of the job” reads the claim on his official website, and the 63-year old Maupin certainly seemed in relaxed good humour, radiating an easy, sincere charm which sat well against his ready wit and frequently hilarious anecdotes.
For the uninitiated, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver was one of the best-loved characters in the original Tales series: an essentially good-natured and well adjusted gay man, whose sexual adventurousness was tempered by a pronounced romantic streak. As the encroaching shadow of the 1980s AIDS epidemic began to fall over the carefree frolics that characterised the earlier novels, so Tolliver also suffered agonising loss, eventually being diagnosed HIV positive himself. For a whole generation of gay Americans, Tolliver was perhaps their closest approximation to an Everyman figure.
Now in his mid-fifties, and a long-term survivor of the disease, Michael has long since ceased to be staring imminent death in the face. For the first time, he is given the narrator’s role, telling us his story in his own words. As this story progresses, we gradually re-encounter many old friends, such as Michael’s former housemate Brian Hawkins and his former landlady Anna Madrigal. Characters whom we last saw as children are now fully grown adults, such as Brian’s daughter Shawna, a sex-blogger (“Grrrl On The Loose”) with a book deal, whose own frankness and sense of adventure makes even the formerly libidinous Michael – now ensconced in a blissful if not fully monogamous new relationship – squirm in embarrassment.
Maupin opened by commenting upon an Anglican bishop’s claim that our recent floods were “God’s wrath against us for being lenient towards homosexuals”, wryly noting that the torrential rain seemed to have followed him and his partner Christopher all round the country. “As the tour progressed, the rainier it got!” he chuckled, apparently ready to bear full responsibility.
Earlier in the day, he had paid a visit to York Minster, where his maternal grandmother (a resident of Derby) had given “dramatic recitations” in her youth. “I communed with her spirit”, he explained, adding that she had been a prime inspiration for the character of Anna Madrigal. “So I was going back to the source this morning.”
When asked whether more Tales-derived work might appear in the future, Maupin’s answer was optimistic, if tantalisingly inconclusive. “Maybe. I don’t want to be held to anything, but I’ve been plotting on the train. It just popped up all of a sudden, and I think it’s going to be off and running again. I hope so!”
Since it has been seven years since his last novel (The Night Listener), and a further eight years between that and its predecessor, perhaps it would be best not to get prematurely over-excited.
During these lengthy gaps, Maupin has worked on various dramatic spin-offs. A film adaptation of The Night Listener (starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette) was released last year, and the first three volumes of Tales Of The City (starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis) were serialised for television. Dukakis has stated that the transsexual landlady Anna Madrigal has been her favourite ever role, and the Oscar-nominated Linney has declared herself ready to resume work on Tales at any time.
“So I’ve been busy, but not that busy. I’m not pathological. I’m not Joyce Carol Oates, who writes her next novel in the back seat of the taxi when she’s on a book tour. I’m not anywhere near that kind of self-discipline.”
As for why he decided to write Michael Tolliver Lives in the first person: “I wanted to have the experience of crawling inside Michael. I wanted to tell the story of a middle-aged gay man living in San Francisco who had survived AIDS – who had been “out” to his parents for a long time, and yet they were still voting for politicians that demonise gay people. We’re still very polarised over there, and I thought I had a perfect vehicle to dramatise this. And also, about three years ago, I fell in love in a serious way. It put a whole new light on my life. I wanted to write about it, and to celebrate it.”
Michael Tolliver Lives is published in hardback by Doubleday, £17.99.
One of the more perplexing musical trends of the past few years has been the rise of the band with no bass guitar. White Stripes, Black Keys, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and now The Gossip: all of them have elected to survive on the sound of voice, lead guitar and drums alone. It’s a bold and uncompromising move, and yet not without its drawbacks. For when all is said and done, rock music – and especially live rock music – needs bass. It’s as simple and as inescapable as that.
That said, guitarist Brace Paine did an admirable and at times uncanny job at fleshing out the band’s sound. More often than not, he had the knack of simultaneously combining lead guitar riffs with funky basslines, in a way that left you wondering just how it was done.
Given such a minimalist backing, the vocalist’s job is rendered all the more difficult, and in many respects Beth Ditto rose to the challenge admirably. Beneath the fashionable punk-funk trappings and the in-your-face attitude, she has the voice of a classic blues-rock shouter. Lurching around the stage in her lemon yellow mini-dress, she may have given the impression of barely controlled chaos – but the delivery remained gloriously pitch-perfect throughout.
Perhaps the biggest problem lay with the band’s material, which essentially consisted of minor variations on the theme of their breakthrough hit (and instant classic) Standing In The Way Of Control. Unless you were intimately familiar with the songs – and plenty were – there was something inescapably one-dimensional about their sound. It was telling that, despite having three albums under their belts, the set only clocked in at a miserly fifty-five minutes, including the encore. Perhaps such a tightly restricted range simply couldn’t have been sustained for longer.
With less than five months until his eightieth birthday, Andy Williams is almost the last vocal artist of his generation still out there, performing on a regular basis. Even now, the first cracks and frailties in his singing voice are only just appearing. Strong as ever on the “big” notes, it was only during the softer, lower passages that you noticed any difficulties.
Looking trim and dapper in his dinner suit, and backed by a fine ten-piece band and four-strong chorus, Williams radiated a genial, assured charm, making it all look, as his old hit put it, “so easy”.
For those on a nostalgia kick, the old favourites were present and correct: a sassy, snappy Music To Watch Girls By, a tenderly yearning Home Lovin’ Man, and the evergreen classic Moon River, which drew a standing ovation. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You knocked spots off the version performed here recently by the Pet Shop Boys, and Smokey Robinson’s Just To See You set a high standard for the Motown legend to follow on Sunday evening.
While some covers worked better than others (Robbie Williams’ She’s The One was a bold but ill-advised choice), a thrilling rendition of MacArthur Park was the absolute musical highlight: adventurously arranged, and with Andy’s voice magically restored to full power.
The show ended with a historic announcement: not only was Nottingham the final date of the tour, but it was also Andy’s final tour. There had been something of the farewell lurking throughout the show – particularly during a slowed down Breaking Up Is Hard To Do – and now we knew why. With a minimum of fuss, Williams strolled casually off stage and, as Days Of Wine And Roses so poignantly put it, “towards a closing door, a door marked “nevermore” that wasn’t there before.”