The title of your new album (Beyond the Neighbourhood) is quite ironic, since it was actually recorded within your home neighbourhood, in a studio which you built yourselves.
Yeah, that’s true. I’d not really thought about that! Part of the story of the record is definitely the fact that we recorded and produced it ourselves. Quite literally, we just got a car mechanics’ warehouse, had the walls physically built inside it, brought in the gear, set it all up ourselves… because all along, we had it in the back of our minds that one day we’d like to make our own record. We just felt ready and confident enough to take that step.
It’s also the first album that we recorded whilst actually living at home. We’ve always had a place to write tunes and make demos, and then we would rent somewhere in the countryside for a couple of months, in order to go and physically make the record. But being able to stay at home this time has been really important for us. The environment that you make your record in, and the kind of lifestyle that you have at the time, is obviously going to contribute to the feeling of the music. After touring so much off the last album, to be able to make a record but still be able to get up and have breakfast with your family has been a really nice change.
It’s interesting that Hard-Fi have done the same thing on their new album: building their own studio near to where they live, and so keeping things within their own neighbourhood.
It’s become more and more affordable, as something for people to consider. If you’re someone like The Streets, making a kind of “bedroom” record, then it’s been possible for a while – but when you’ve got equipment like drum kits to consider, and when the sound of the record partly depends on having a space that sounds acoustically good, then it’s also becoming more possible for bands to do it. I think it will become a more frequent story as time goes on.
You didn’t miss having a producer, then? Is there nothing that an outside producer can give you at this stage?
It’s funny – Victor (Van Vugt), who produced the first record and most of the last one, was partly responsible for putting the idea into our heads, and thereby doing himself out of a job! Right at the beginning, he could tell that we were that kind of a band, and that one day this would work for us. By the time that we met up with him to record the tunes, we already knew, production-wise, what the parts were going to be, and all the little sounds and nuances. So to a certain extent, we have always been producing our own records.
Obviously, Victor knew how to get good sounds, how to capture the performance – and on the technical side of things, which microphones were going to be right for subtle changes in different tunes, what compressor boxes were going to work best on a particular sound, and so on. They were the kinds of things that worried us more. We were confident about producing the record, but physically capturing it was more of a concern.
But we needed a new home anyway. Even if it hadn’t worked out, we needed somewhere to write songs and make demos together. So in a sense, it’s a huge, glorified home studio, which would have served its purpose anyway.
As it turned out, with the first few songs that we wrote, we just felt that there was something there. It wasn’t just “good enough”, but it was going to make for a better record than us heading off to an expensive studio again. If you’re spending eight hundred pounds a day, and you’re looking at this huge desk that’s worth seventy-five grand, and you’re sitting in front of it and twiddling away on a Casio keyboard that you bought for £3.50 from a car boot sale, then it just feels a bit wrong! You can feel the money ticking away behind you. Having your own venue, you don’t need to worry about that kind of stuff.
When you look at the lyrical themes of this album, it does seem to be an album of “big issues”. You’re tackling the big themes here. Was that the intention?
Yes, definitely. It was quite a novel thing for us. That was partly why we wanted to recognise it in the title.
The first record was very much a bunch of stories about our little community, in our little corner of London, and just full of the joys of being in a band who had just signed a deal with a great record company.
The next record was very narrative in its basis, and very much about a band on the road, coming to terms with being away a lot from that home community. It’s full of longing – of being away from the people you love, and dealing with holding down important relationships whilst not being there for eight months of the year. It’s natural, as an artist, to work out your struggles within your music. But that’s something that we’ve dealt with now. We’ve got used to it being the routine of our life, and we’re more comfortable with it than we were when writing those tunes.
So, yeah, this is the first time that there’s a record that doesn’t exclusively deal with our little world, and our stories, and our concerns. There are still some songs whose stories are based in personal experience – but lyrically, it’s definitely a lot more outward looking. Dealing with big issues – but actually, not dealing with them at all. There’s a lot of environmental sentiment on there.
Yes, I picked that up. There’s Hurricane and there’s Airport Disco…
Hurricane’s an obvious one, yes. There’s also Second Hand Stores, which is based around an article that Joel read, that was talking about birdsong in Canada being out of synch with itself, with the wrong songs being sung at the wrong time of year.
But when you have a certain level of success, you also start getting approached by various concerns and charities, and you do start to wonder if there’s an extra responsibility which comes with this profile. All we’ve done is write a couple of tunes and toured a lot, but so many people feel like we’ve got a platform, and that they should ask for a quote from us, or something like that.
It’s a difficult line to walk…
It is difficult. I was recently listening to an advert on the radio, in which various Hollywood stars and big musicians were saying to people: what you should do is take showers instead of having a bath, and flush your toilet less often. And I was thinking that it just didn’t sit right. I don’t think people want us to be that prescriptive. It would be so hypocritical anyway, because our carbon footprint is probably ten times bigger than the average, as we spend half the year flying around the world to do gigs.
So it’s not the kind of record that has a message at all. It’s a record that’s full more of questions than answers.
Exactly. You’re questioning rather than preaching, and that’s how you walk that line.
It’s almost like sitting across the kitchen table, you know? It’s what people are chatting about. When we were writing our first album at the turn of the millennium, there was a lot of optimism around. Whereas now, I think everyone would say it feels like times are more uncertain, and so it’s natural that a kind of questioning comes into play.
So you’re asking the same questions that any members of your generation would ask, rather than it being a case of “we know best”.
Exactly. There’s this line in the song Tokyo: “I am a hypocrite”. For me, that’s a really important line on the record – because if you’re touching on those kinds of issues, then I would want that kind of humanity to be there. It basically says that I’m as culpable as anyone else. It also hints at the root of the problem, because if I were in the position of making decisions, then I’d probably make some of the same mistakes that other people have made. It’s always easier to rally against other people, but it’s actually much harder to live it yourself.
In musical terms, and especially with Hurricane and Tokyo towards the beginning, there’s a very confident sound to the album. The lyrics might be questioning, but the music sounds confident. I found a nice quote on an early Amazon review of the album, which says: “If Vehicles and Animals was the innocent child and Tourist was the emotional teenager, Beyond the Neighbourhood is the philosophical adult.”
Well, it’s been seven years for us now. It makes for a kind of progression, because obviously as people, we’re not twenty-two now. We’re hitting thirty, and I think that’s reflected in the music. That’s quite a nice summary, actually. We should probably start using it! (Laughter)
There’s certainly more of an electronic edge to the record. It’s Not Your Fault uses breakbeats, and there are some quite adventurous samples as well. There’s a whole section at the end of The Outsiders which is quite out-there and interesting.
We’ve always been into that. It was less prevalent on the last record, because of the subject matter of the tunes, and the emotion behind them, so it’s been nice to work some of the playfulness of the first album back into the production. We’ve always been into songs taking little twists which you don’t necessarily expect.
As for the end of The Outsiders, it’s just not what you think is going to happen to the tune at that point. I love those little twists and turns. I think when people know that tune, that’s going to be a real moment live.
I had a weird experience listening to that track, while out walking this morning. There are some “found sounds” in there, some everyday sounds, and I was thinking: wow, that’s really clever, the way they’ve got that burglar alarm in the distance. Then the track ended, and I could still hear the burglar alarm. It was coming from the next street…
It’s partly because there were mechanics around us, and carpenters next door, so it was always going to be impossible to get a pristine recording. But we were really happy about that. For us, Tourist was a beautiful sounding record, but it was also kind of “perfect”, and if there was one thing that we wanted to do this time, it was to make it feel like you were sitting in a room with a band playing their instruments together.
There are also things in there that people may only hear on the hundredth listen, or when they stick some headphones on, such as the piano stool creaking and being adjusted just as it’s about to be played, and the little knocks of the keys. At the end of one song, you even hear Joel get up, put his guitar down, and leave the room to go to the loo. It’s these little things that give you the sense that this music was played by real people.
For the end of The Outsiders, we just took the microphone round the studio, and hit chairs, stairs and anything we could find. We just banged things together, opened and shut doors, and sampled all those little noises from our room. Then Steve [Roberts – drummer] built them into this beautiful little loop. To begin with, they’re just weird noises, and then they start to make rhythmic sense. I like that.
And part of this record is obviously the room. There’s something really nice about the fact that no-one’s ever made music there before. On the last record, I loved going into Abbey Road to record the strings, and thinking of all the history in that room, and the people who have made their music there. That meant something, obviously. But it was a really nice experience just setting up that drum kit for the first time, and placing the mikes, and starting the first tune, and knowing that no-one had made music there before. That’s going to lend something to this record, you know?
This must be a strange time for you. You’ve completed all the work on the album, it’s ready to go out, and yet you’ve not had any sense of what the wider reaction’s going to be. I wouldn’t have thought you’d had many reviews yet…
No, no. It’s strange when you’ve handed it over. There’s a little bit of paranoia. In terms of the reviews, we had a bit of a reaction to the last record which was like: they’re using the piano now, so they’ve decided to copy Coldplay in order to sell as many records as possible. It hit us a bit hard, to be honest with you.
Are people going to say this time: oh, they’ve tried to make their own OK Computer? (Nervous laughter)
I’ve got absolutely no idea. I’m sure there will be someone who will accuse us of something. But when we’ve sat back and wondered what makes Athlete Athlete, across three very different sounding records, one thing that we’ve decided we’re good at is writing great pop tunes. People can choose to be cynical, but for us, we’ve just made a record where we’ve gone: we’re good at that, we’re good at writing those kinds of tunes that lots of people can sing along to, and you might not be comfortable with that, but we’re really comfortable with it. I like the fact that at the end of the day, the songs go out on the radio, and people make their own minds up, don’t they?
Yes, they’re pop tunes – but if you scratch below the surface of the record, there are things like the end of The Outsiders, and the whole of tunes like Flying Over Bus Stops, that in production terms are quite risky choices, and wouldn’t necessarily be made by some of the bands that we get compared to. Because that’s us doing our thing, playing around with it, and knowing that we’re going to sit on that line of writing pop tunes but wanting to produce them in ways that surprise people. So, who knows? Who knows which way it will fall?
It will be interesting to see how the songs work on stage. You did three nights in London, so I guess you were premiering the material there.
Yeah, done that. But there’s definitely something special about playing the gigs once the record’s out. I find this in-between period a bit hard, because part of the live experience is people knowing the songs. They come into their own, don’t they, when people have had the record for ages.
They’ll hear the opening notes of Hurricane… that could be your anthemic one, I think, that’s going to pull it all together in the room.
You never know which song it’s going to be, though. There are the obvious ones, like Hurricane and Second Hand Stores, but then there are tunes like The Outsiders and Airport Disco which have got that certain something, and also hidden gems on the record that might surprise people – and you find out about them live.
Well, we’re delighted that you’ve chosen Rock City, in our fair city of Nottingham, to start your UK tour…
It’s always a great gig, so I’m really looking forward to coming back.
It’s a great venue. I saw you there supporting the Doves and The Coral about five years ago, for a Radio One broadcast. That was the first time that I’d heard of you.
That’s right, that’s the first time that we played there.
I hope it goes well for you, and I look forward to seeing you in October.
Thanks very much, Mike. A pleasure talking to you.
A considerably shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. This is more or less the full transcript of my conversation with Kano, who clearly hadn’t been briefed to expect my call, when I rang him at home on Tuesday lunchtime (September 25th).
In fact, I’m fairly certain that I woke the poor guy up, so all credit to him for accepting the call, after I gave him the option to decline. As the recording demonstrates, his replies progress from half-asleep mumbling to full alertness, in the space of just over 15 minutes. Ah, the resilience of youth!
The new album London Town is selling well, and the single’s your biggest hit to date, so congratulations for that.
Yeah, I’m kind of pleased. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking after you’ve worked for so long on a project, when it could be that no-one likes it. But I’m quite happy with the way it’s gone. I’m starting the tour tomorrow, so that’s when you get the real feedback, the crowd reaction and stuff.
This one definitely sounds different from the debut, Home Sweet Home. The collaborations cover all bases: from Craig David to Kate Nash, and from Damon Albarn to Vybz Kartel. Maybe some people might see it as a move into the mainstream.
It’s really nothing that I intended. Craig David was someone that I originally knew through a producer, so it was just a case of us getting together in the studio. As for Kate Nash, I worked with her before she was considered mainstream, and before she had a Number One album. That was me trying to find an unknown singer on Myspace, but as it’s turned out, she’s blown up. If was looking for that, I probably would have went for Lily Allen, but I wasn’t looking for that. And with Vybz Kartel, I’m just really into dancehall reggae music. He’s not a massive worldwide known artist. It was just a mixture of stuff that I was into – like I was into Gorillaz, and so I thought I could do something with Damon, and got the opportunity to do so.
Arguably, there’s a darker, more serious side to many of the tracks on this album. There seems to be less joking around then there was on Home Sweet Home.
In terms of music and lyrics and writing skills, it’s definitely progressed. I think I’m in a whole different space. Even having a little bit of success with Home Sweet Home, you have to deal with a lot of a lot of things that come with it. You have to deal with a lot of stress, and a lot of the time you’re pissed off, like it says on This Is My Life, where I’m just fed up with the whole industry. So a lot of the tracks are quite serious. Then there’s just the whole street culture, the kids and the violence at the moment, so that’s where you get songs like Fightin’ The Nation. It’s just maturing, I suppose. I wouldn’t really have spoken about a lot of that stuff before. The things that are happening around me are what my lyrics are.
There are those lines on This Is My Life: “I’m fed up of promos, fed up of press, I’m a product to be sold now, a marketing plan but I can’t slow down.” Do you find that too much of your time is spent on days like today, when you’ve got to do these interviews and stuff? How much of your time do you get to spend on the creative side, on the art?
I think that the balance, for me, definitely works out OK. I get enough time in the studio, so it’s not like the label was rushing me for the record. I got to spend a year and a bit on it, so I really just had to go to the studio every day, and even take time out to be inspired. So I’ve got time to relax. But it’s when the record’s finished that the other stuff really kicks in, and you’ve just got to accept that. You’ve got to do that if you want people to hear your music – but I would never let it get to a stage where my music is suffering because there’s so much other stuff going on. That actually kills the art.
Is everything we hear on the album directly from you – from Kane Robinson – or as Kano, do you adopt characters to tell a story?
Not often, not often. Some tracks, like Fightin’ The Nation, were a story I had in my head. It’s nothing that I’d gone through; it wasn’t somebody that I knew; that was something that I made up. But everything else is me.
I was wondering about Bad Boy, actually. Was that a character that you took on for the song?
No, that was just speaking for boys in general, or just a type of boy. It’s not a story.
It was a surprise to me, hearing that track. I’d come to you through tracks like Brown Eyes, which was a very tender love song – and then here you were, going to the strip clubs, and I kind of thought: oh, right…!
You might get the impression of me from Brown Eyes and Nite Nite that I’m a bit of a romantic, a bit of a ladies’ man. I’m not really, you know. (Laughter) I’m not really! I’m maybe speaking of one relationship that I’ve had, and that one relationship out of the year that we’re living in is not much. I know there’s been times where I’ve wanted a girlfriend and I just don’t care, and I’m just being young, and I’m going out and doing these things and enjoying my life, you know what I mean? It’s a different mentality.
Rap music is a very confident, assertive art form, which can express many emotions: joy and pain, love and hate, tenderness and anger. But you don’t often find a rapper expressing lack of confidence, nervousness, anxiety or fear. When you’re away from the microphone and the studio, does that affect you? Do you get feelings like stage fright, forgetting your lines, that kind of stuff?
Sometimes I’ll forget lines… but I don’t know, I just like to be real as a person, but with an audience; that’s how to deal with it. I get a little bit nervous before I go on stage, especially when it’s not really my crowd; that’s just a normal thing. I feel a lot of things deeply, I get emotional, and I think some music’s best when the artists are vulnerable.
I mean, everybody likes to show their best side – or what they think is the best side, like the hard side – and bulwark off the rest of their personality. But every person’s complex, and I think everyone should show every side of themselves.
That’s what I try to do in my music, and that’s why a lot of rappers are fake… or not really fake, but they’re just portraying an image. It’s a little part of them, but it doesn’t make the whole of them. And I just like to show every side of me.
That’s interesting. When a rapper does forget the lines on stage, then I guess you’ve all got tricks that you can use to cover up. I mean, you’d never know, so there must be stock lines that you can go back to. Or when rappers go “Make some noise!”, is that when they’ve forgotten the line?
(Laughter) When I forget lines, I like to start the track again.
Oh, is that it? “Can I get a rewind”… that means “I’ve forgotten the line”?
Yeah, that’s the best way.
You seemed very confident on stage at the MOBOs, at the London O2 Arena. That was a massive gig. Was it the largest audience you’ve ever played to?
I think I’ve done a bigger one as a support act, when I played with Jay-Z at Wembley Arena. There were a lot of people in there, but there was added pressure because the cameras were there too, and also people in the industry, your peers, and other musicians.
But I don’t know, you just… it’s like yesterday, I went to Thorpe Park, and I never go on rides like that, that go upside down, I’m scared of that shit, I really don’t like heights too much. But I went on there, and they strapped me in and started counting down, and it was like: that’s it now, you can’t go back, you can’t say stop or whatever.
It’s the same when I’m on stage. When you step on stage, that’s it. You ain’t got time to be nervous, you’ve just got to get on with it, and make it look good. (Laughs)
You came out of the grime scene; do you still feel part of that scene, and connected to that culture?
I definitely feel connected to that culture. It’s something that I did come from, so I respect it a lot. It’s something that I’m still in touch with: I know what’s going on, and who’s the hottest guy of the moment, and there are people who I still work with, and who I still speak to, and I still drop mixtapes, and all of that stuff. But it’s definitely time for me to do my solo career, and make music that feels right for me. But yeah, I’m still in touch with the grime scene.
I guess that a close scene can sometimes pull you down. People want you to stay within that scene, and they get suspicious when you try and do things outside it. I wondered whether that was part of the thinking behind the hidden track at the end of the album – which I loved, I must say – the Grime MC track. I thought that was hilarious; full of energy. Did you have particular people in mind when you were doing that?
I didn’t have people in mind, but I just had the whole scene in mind. I was trying to be on that cliché of the grime MC, dressed like a grime MC dresses, with the cap on top of the hood. I’m saying that’s just how people are. That’s how I could be, if I wasn’t as strong and creative as I am.
People think they’ve got to be one thing. So it’s hard when you come from somewhere, because everyone just expects you to keep doing that. But it’s Catch 22. If I kept doing that, everyone would be like: one-trick pony, you can only do that. That’s been said about a few MCs before, but I’ve just got to do what I do, you know what I mean?
I’m with you. Going back to early days, obviously you’ve got a love of words, but what came first: the realisation that you were good with words, or was it the love of hip hop which led you into it?
I think I was kind of good with words. I always used to make up little lines. I was one of them people that could just hear the song, and then just spit the lyrics back out, and learn words really quick.
Did they recognise that ability at school?
No, there was nothing at school that anybody recognised. It was just at home with my brother, and my cousin recognised that I was alright, and a few of my family members.
I used to go to Jamaica a lot, and it was really a love of dancehall music at the start, and then garage music. And just me getting in the playground, and gaining a little bit of respect amongst the other kids, and the battles in the playground and stuff, and then I started making my own songs.
And then you actually went back to your old school for the choir on the track Feel Free. How did that come about? That must have been strange.
Do you know what, it wasn’t that strange, because I go to my old school quite a bit.
Yeah, yeah. We made the track, and I was like: it sounds like a lot of people could sing this, it would be great if there was kids. My mum works at the school. So I just asked her, could you get a few kids down, and she said yeah. I said, I need ten, and ten turned to twenty, and twenty turned to thirty-two. So loads of kids came down; it was good.
I didn’t have to go to school to do it – they came to the studio – but I go back to my school a lot. I’ll come and hand the Records of Achievement out at the end of the school year. Little things. It was great to give something back to them, as well as get the sound right for my track.
So you’ve gone from teachers saying, oh, you haven’t done your homework on time, to teachers using you as a role model.
It’s a funny thing, that. Because all the teachers that I see when I go there, they didn’t like me. (Laughs) They were always putting me into detention; I was always getting into trouble. And now they see me and it’s like, yeah, Kane was a great kid, and he loved us, and l’m like, no I didn’t like you! (Laughs)
“Work hard, children, and you could grow up to be like Kano!”
The tour starts tomorrow, and it’s coming to Trent University next week. What can we expect to see?
You can expect to see me perform old and new stuff, and you can always expect a lot of energy. You may hear some songs a bit differently. I’m taking a live band out on tour as well as a DJ, so I’m going to mix that up,
Oh, good stuff.
Yeah, and do something different, you know? Quite a lot of it is going to be different to any other Kano show that you’ve been to. It should be interesting.
Having celebrated its last night as The Social on Saturday, and ahead of its official re-opening as the Bodega Social Club next weekend, the Pelham Street venue remains open for the duration, even if its actual name is currently a matter of debate. (When pressed on this point, a helpful staff member suggested inventing an anagram.)
Billed as the last act ever to play The Social under its original name (but wasn’t that… oh, forget it…), the Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist proved a fine choice to mark the occasion. Following its use in the iPod Nano advertising campaign, current single 1234 has just entered the Top 40, once again confirming this tiny venue’s uncanny knack of spotting successful acts just ahead of the curve.
Feist commenced her set alone on stage, using live looping effects to augment the sound of her voice and guitar. The effect was instantly spellbinding. Her four-piece backing band kicked in halfway through a deftly arranged cover of Ron Sexsmith’s Secret Heart, providing added muscle to the delicacy of the recorded version. The impeccably delivered performance climaxed with a frenzied jam on Nina Simone’s See Line Woman, before calming down for a final, haunting Let It Die.
The show in question, On the Stage – and Off, is a comedic adaptation of the first book by Jerome K Jerome. As Rodney wryly commented, when EG spoke to him earlier this week, “He was only famous forThree Men in a Boat. Nobody thinks he did anything else, just as nobody thinks I’ve done anything other than The Likely Lads – although I’ve been an actor for fifty-five years.”
Before embarking upon his literary career, the young Jerome spent three years during the 1880s trying to make it as an actor, with a spectacular lack of success that left him penniless and nearly destitute. On the Stage chronicles this period – but with the accent on comedy rather than tragedy, as Jerome lurches between a succession of second-rate productions, seedy lodging houses and unscrupulous managers. “Slowly, he comes to see the world of glamorous show business for what it is”, explained Bewes, with some force of feeling.
Jerome’s memoir was well received in its day, so much so that when Three Men in a Boat appeared, the critics were initially disappointed that it didn’t live up to the expectations of his debut. Having already toured Three Men as a one-man show in the 1990s, Bewes clearly feels a particular affinity with its author.
“He came to London from a poor upbringing, and then he made his own life – which is exactly what I did. I could never have done P.G. Wodehouse! I can empathise with Jerome K Jerome, as he wasn’t posh. After his success, the press nicknamed him ‘Arry K ‘Arry, because of his street vernacular. Even so, he became best friends with Conan Doyle, Kipling and J.M. Barrie, and so he was part of the literary set.”
As the tour progresses, Rodney has noticed that it tends to attract “an audience who like theatre. They’re the people who keep the roofs on theatres. It always amazes me who actually comes, away from the television and the fireside and the barbecue and the lawn.”
The show is also peppered with unscripted ad-libs and asides, ensuring that it never becomes a dry, scripted monologue, of interest merely to the antiquarian. “Somebody said it was ‘interactive’, and I had to go and ask what that meant. Apparently, it’s when I muck about with the audience. But I love latecomers, and I love mobile phones.”
“During one of the Edinburgh shows, a mobile phone went off. Because I’m an actor in my head during the play, I turned in the direction of the phone and said: ‘Do answer it! It might be an offer of work!’”
Although the young Jerome might have failed to find his big break as an actor, the young Rodney Bewes enjoyed conspicuously better luck. Following his casting alongside Tom Courtenay in the classic British comedy film Billy Liar, there was no turning back. A few years later, his portrayal of the hapless Bob Ferris in The Likely Lads sealed his reputation. While some actors might have felt somewhat shackled to such an enduringly popular character, the experience has brought Bewes nothing but satisfaction.
“A lot of actors get very grand and self-important, and I don’t think you should. The Likely Ladswas my claim to fame, if you like. I even mention it on the posters for my tour. Why not? We’re here to sell tickets.”
“The series was re-released last year on DVD, and a man from the BBC said to me: ‘We’re so thrilled that you’re going to be a boxed set, Rodney’. And I said: ‘Well, what’s next? After you’re a boxed set, it must be the knighthood!’”
Now that the Polyphonic Spree have faded from view, and the Flaming Lips have graduated to larger venues, I’m From Barcelona are filling the gap for those who want their indie-pop served up with the maximum degree of fun and frolics, theatricality and spectacle.
Reduced from their full line-up of 29 to a skeletal minimum of 13, the touring version of the band aims to turn every show they play into a riotous party for overgrown children. Heroically undaunted by the sparse turn-out, they succeeded in bringing the Rescue Rooms to a state of near delirium.
Within the opening minutes, showers of scarlet confetti were being pelted at the audience, while a sackload of balloons fluttered down from the balcony. Remarkably, fresh supplies of confetti were constantly unleashed throughout the set, covering the venue in thick layers of paper. In preparation for the unlikely anthem We’re From Barcelona (a strange choice considering that the band hails from Jönköping in Sweden), front man Emanuel Lundgren descended from the stage and handed out handfuls of the stuff to the crowd, who obliged him by creating an impromptu ticker-tape parade.
In the midst of all this mayhem, the music almost took second place. Relentlessly upbeat and exultant in tone, what it lacked in emotional range was compensated for by the sheer exuberance of the performance. Clad in black, with sparkling silver braces, home-made fuzzy-felt corsages and glam-rock make-up, the band members led by example, turning their unselfconscious glee into invigorating performance art.
Fifteen years ago, as the poster boy for the so-called “slacker” generation, Lemonheads front man Evan Dando was riding the crest of a wave. While Kurt Cobain struggled with the pressures of sudden, unasked-for fame, articulating the pain of his generation, Dando’s easy-going brand of instantly likeable grunge-pop brought smiles to those same faces.
Earlier this year, Evan Dando turned forty. On the evidence of last night’s show – the second of two warm-ups for a major support slot with the Jesus and Mary Chain – he wears his age lightly, with a surprisingly healthy demeanour for someone who has indulged in the full range of rock star excesses. His lank, centre-parted hair still falls well below his shoulders. His face still bears that same dazed, doe-eyed, almost innocent expression. His audience may have settled into regular jobs and conventional lifestyles, but Evan remains the eternal slacker, making everything seem effortless and unforced.
Accompanied by regular collaborator Chris Brokaw, Dando strummed his way through a selection which spanned his whole career. Inevitably, old Lemonheads favourites such as Into Your Arms, Big Gay Heart and It’s A Shame About Ray drew the biggest cheers. But on this uncomfortably hot and sticky night, the show never quite took off.
Towards the rear, a brawl broke out. Shortly afterwards, Dando abruptly and ungraciously ended the set, and stalked off. (“I don’t like modern rock shows. I’ve played you nineteen songs. If that’s not enough, see me later.”) It was an awkward end to a pleasant but underwhelming evening.
Despite his many visits to the Royal Concert Hall over the years, few in last night’s audience appeared to recognise OMD keyboardist Paul Humphreys, now performing with Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken as part of Onetwo. Despite some initial nervousness, their brooding, dramatic synthpop was politely received, with the warmest applause reserved for the instantly recognisable Propaganda classic Duel.
Although they have never won the critical acclaim of fellow Eighties survivors the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure have achieved a similar level of success, on their own terms, without ever bending to musical fashions. You can always spot an Erasure song – but you might struggle to guess the decade in which it was recorded.
For this reason, the duo – Andy Bell as enthusiastic as ever on vocals, Vince Clarke as impassive as ever on keyboards – can easily switch between old and new material on stage, without anyone noticing the join. The new songs may not sell quite as well as they used to, but last night’s capacity crowd lapped them up as readily as the old hits. Opening the set, recent single Sunday Girl (no, not the Blondie number) got all three tiers on their feet, where they remained throughout. Not even the Pet Shop Boys managed that, when they played here in June.
But then, Erasure have always been more Pop than Art, and they’ve never been above letting their audience know that they’re having fun too: the three impeccably glamorous backing singers struggled to keep straight faces during Chains Of Love, and Andy performed old favourite Oh L’Amour as a duet with a fake fur stole called “Mint Sauce”. For beneath all the costumes and camp (paint-splattered suits, ridiculous Andy Warhol wigs, army fatigue cocktail dresses), there lies an unassuming generosity of spirit, which welcomes everyone to Erasure’s party. Long may they party on.
I actually spoke to Vince Clarke a few months ago; it was back in April, just before your current album Light At The End Of The World was released. Speaking to you now that it’s been out for three months or so, are you pleased with the way it has been received?
It’s really hard to tell these days. I think we’ve sold about 70,000 copies worldwide, so sales-wise it has been disappointing – but when you go out and play, and people know all the words to the new songs, even in America, you think: oh, this is really amazing. So I think people are just sharing their music. They don’t buy anything much anymore, unless it’s blasted at them all the time, on the TV and stuff. So I’m pleased at how people know the songs, and that they’re going down well.
In 1995, when we had the Erasure album out, and Fingers And Thumbs was released as a single, we went on stage and nobody knew it. But this time, they’ve heard them.
Well, you do have a very dedicated fanbase – and extraordinarily, you haven’t had a single fail to make the UK Top Forty for over twenty years. That’s an incredible achievement. How do you keep that kind of consistency?
Vince and I still love writing songs together, and we don’t always realise what craftsmen we are. We just do it, without comparing ourselves to other people. When I listen to something like Abba’s Lay All Your Love On Me now, it still sounds really beautiful. Then I think: well, some of the stuff we’ve done sounds just as good. The vocals are really tight, the music’s clear and sharp, and you can hear all the words.
It’s the same on stage, where things are note-perfect. We may not have the same exposure, but it’s high quality material.
I was talking to Vince about your particular creative process, and it was interesting that you’re always together in the same room when you write, despite living on separate continents.
You have to be, really. We did one experiment before Light At The End Of The World, where Vince sent me ten dance tracks, of music that was inspired by Electric Blue [Andy’s 2005 solo album]. I tried to think of some tunes, but he wants the whole song all at once – whereas when we’re separate, I just get up on a vibe. But when we’re together, then he can say: right, we’ll use this part and that part, and we can put them together. Otherwise, I’ll just sing a lot of rhythm parts strung together, which is mostly what dance music is these days.
Everything you do is clearly song-driven, even if there are dance undercurrents…
I think it’s kind of old-fashioned now. It’s quite hard; you don’t hear too much of it in the charts anymore. Even stuff that’s quite popular, like Mika and stuff; it just sounds like an advert or something.
So in a sense, you’re preserving the art of songwriting when so much else is groove-based. But when you started out, you were an electronic duo at a time when it was a very progressive, futuristic thing to do. You’ve very much stuck to that template, but do you ever worry that you might turn into the Status Quo of electro-pop?
Well, probably! [Laughter] I don’t really mind. I’ve always tried not to concern myself with those fashion things: whether you’re in or you’re out. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider anyway, along with Vince; not really into designer labels, and what’s the latest really hot thing that you have to wear, and gadgets, and things like that.
Well, nothing dates more quickly than the fashionable…
Yeah, and I think it’s the same with music as well. You can date quite quickly; within three years or so. Sometimes, I must admit, I can get a bit bored with the sounds that Vince uses, and I do tell him, but he just sticks to his guns. I sometimes think we could make it more up to date – but in the long run, I think he’s making the wisest choice. He’s keeping his sound pure, and it’s recognisable as him, so he’s being the designer, if you know what I mean.
You both talk about ploughing your own furrow, and not taking account of prevalent trends, but do you feel any particular kinship with any other current acts?
I’d say definitely with the Scissor Sisters. They’ve done it the opposite way round; they’ve come out of America and have done it in the UK, whereas we came out in the UK and did it in America. I think they’re really brave, being “out” in America, where it’s still really hard. Even for us, it’s still hard.
I was wondering whether the experience of being on the True Colors package tour in the States had brought you together with people you might consider to be your fellow travellers…
Oh, it was lovely. I couldn’t believe that we were together with Deborah Harry. She’s such a wise lady. I was asking her all of these questions about what it was like, being in the limelight and being the most photographed person, and she said: well, it’s the same for you. She was so gracious; she bought me a T-shirt that had “Rock Royalty” written on it. I couldn’t believe it, because I was such a huge, huge Blondie fan. And she’s done all this solo material, but I said: that’s fine, you do what you like, and I think some of your solo songs are really good anyway.
Then also, Cyndi Lauper turned out be a huge fan of ours! I really hadn’t taken much notice of her career, although I knew her songs – but now that I’ve listened to her songs after being on tour with her, she’s an incredible singer, and I’m going: wow, her voice is amazing.
I think I’ve always undervalued her as well. She was a bit uncool when she started, and I kind of wrote her off.
Yeah, but when she sings She Bop, and she goes up and down that trill like Lene Lovich…
I heard there was an amazing version of She Bop. I was talking to The Gossip, who were also on that tour, and they said that was one of their highlights. But they said they felt kind of stuck on the edge of things a bit, being a younger band but playing to an older audience.
Oh, they did really well; their reception was fantastic.
When I spoke to Vince, I was asking him about what music he was listening to, and he said that basically, as the father of a young child, the music he hears the most is The Wiggles. So I wondered whether this has any bearing on the rumour that your next project might be a concept album of nursery rhymes…?
We’re kind of halfway through doing that. We’ve started it already, and now Vince wants to turn it into an original Gothic story, rather than just using old nursery rhymes. Which sounds a bit complicated, inventing these people from the past, like the old woman who lived in a shoe, her story. We will finish it, but we are going to have a couple of years’ break, after the tour has finished. We’ll probably do some other things outside of Erasure, but that one is still in the pipeline.
Vince and yourself are clearly different but complementary personalities. I asked Vince what was the last time that he went out and shook his hips in a public place; he reckoned it was about 1979. What about yourself? Do you still get out there, and go out clubbing and stuff?
Not so much, really. When you’ve been doing a gig, you don’t feel like shaking it all around. If I’m DJ-ing, then that’s still a bit like work, but I really enjoy it.
I wasn’t aware you did DJ-ing…
Only a little bit. We did one in Atlantic City; Perez Hilton was there, and the guy from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, so it was fun. Our singers dance, and some of the crew dance, and things like that. I suppose that going out-wise, I go down to the south coast quite a lot. I just go out to the pubs around Hastings. It’s enough, really.
You’ve been touring the US, and you’ve just taken a month’s break before commencing the UK tour next week. What have you done during the break?
Well, as I say, I’ve been down on the south coast. I have my boyfriend there on the market stall. I’m a housewife when I get home. Which I really like! [Laughter]
He has a market stall, does he?
Yeah, he sells bread.
Do you find there’s a difference between your US and your UK audiences? I’d imagine that in the US, it’s more of a cult gay thing, whereas in the UK it’s more mainstream.
It’s quite gay, but in the UK it’s not that huge an amount of people. I’d say it was probably about 30%. There’s quite a few young people, who have either heard us themselves or through their parents, and quite a few oldies as well, so it’s a good mixture.
You’re starting the UK tour in Oxford on Monday, and then you’re coming to us in Nottingham for the second night. What can we expect from the tour? I’m assuming costumes…
Well, it’s quite pared down. It looks quite sharp and slick, as you’d imagine an electro band to look like around twenty years ago. Like the Human League when they started. We’ve got all the DVD monitors behind us, playing mashed up versions of the videos. Plenty of dance routines, and the most glamorous backing singers that you’ve ever seen.
In terms of balancing old and new material, you’ve never become a nostalgia act, so I presume the new album is well represented?
That’s something I’m quite scared of, becoming a nostalgia act.
I don’t blame you…
So the mixture works really well, between old and new.
How do you approach the old material? Do you like to play it straight, or do you like doing significant revamps?
No, that will be one of our next things as well. When we do tour again, in a couple of years, we’re going to do The Remix Tour. Vince doesn’t really listen to them, so I’ll choose the ones I think are really good, and do some interpretations of those.
From The Kinks to The Jam, from Suede to Hard-Fi, the suburbs of outer London have provided English rock music with one of its most enduring sources of inspiration. Nevertheless, having risen to prominence by documenting the world around them, and by expressing their desire for escape, most of these bands will traditionally seize the first available opportunity to re-locate to the big city.
Unusually, Hard-Fi have defied this tradition by electing to stay put in their native Staines in Middlesex, even going to the lengths of building their own recording studio there, in a former mini-cab office. Seeing nothing to be gained from being subjected to the pressures of London life, and opting instead to remain amongst their families and friends, their perspective remains firmly, almost defiantly suburban.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the lead single Suburban Knights, with its rallying call of “We’re the ones you’ve forgotten, but we will not be denied, coming out of the shadows, we rock the satellites.” In common with most of the tracks on this follow-up to the chart-topping Stars of CCTV, the mood is rousing and anthemic, blending the staccato swagger and strut of vintage Clash and Jam with pulsing electronics and instantly memorable pop-influenced choruses.
Although the band’s musical template remains broadly similar to their debut album, there are touches of musical progression to be found, most notably in the orchestral arrangements which accompany many of its twelve tracks. Set against this is a heavy reliance on the sort of wordless terrace chants that seem purpose-built for crowd participation at live shows. Indeed, these choruses are stuffed so full of hey-ey-eys, woh-oh-ohs and aah-ah-ahs that the overall effect becomes dangerously repetitive.
However, the band’s chief weakness remains a lyrical one. For all the earnestness of Richard Archer’s delivery, it is difficult to suppress a snigger at some of the more trite lines, particularly on the first couple of listens. After all, observations such as “Television, the new religion” and “Politicians don’t wanna listen” (both from the chorus of Television) are scarcely original ones.
Similarly, I Close My Eyes would be a much more effective depiction of an office worker’s soul-crushing daily grind, if it wasn’t weighed down by pedestrian clunkers such as “I’ve got to get to work, you know I’m always late, the boss is on my back, the boss is in my face.”
That said, just because something is a cliché, it doesn’t necessarily make it any less true – and there’s something about the palpable sincerity of the band’s performance which, particularly after repeated plays, inclines you to forgive the occasional banality of their lyrics.
Unsophisticated, obvious and suburban they may be, but in this age of so-called “ITV indie”, Hard-Fi’s gauche, heart-on-sleeve sincerity is infinitely preferable to the smug, calculated superficiality of the Kaiser Chiefs, the identikit conservatism of the Kooks or The Twang, or the tastefully wan miserablism of Newton Faulkner or Snow Patrol.
For that alone, they should be welcomed back with open arms.
There’s something both accurate and misleading about the title of Athlete’s third album, which will be slugging it out with Hard-Fi in next week’s race for Number One. In common with the Staines lads, Athlete have built their own studio in the area where they grew up, making this self-produced album very much a product of remainingwithin the neighbourhood. Conversely, its lyrical themes are firmly centred outwards, tackling hefty concerns such as global warming, environmental destruction and the futility of protest.
There are obvious dangers with this approach, which can easily slide into patronising preachiness. Thankfully, Athlete have avoided this trap. Rather than claiming a exalted rock star’s insight, the songs have an uncertain, questioning feel. As such, this marks a healthy progression from the inward-looking emotional concerns of its predecessor, Tourist.
Unfortunately, what hasn’t changed is the over-familiar, derivative sound of the music. Although efforts have been made to sidestep the “poor man’s Coldplay” accusations, the nagging feeling is that this is Athlete’s attempt at “doing an OK Computer”. Despite a promising opening run of spirited, uptempo numbers, the songs soon become bogged down in stodgy earnestness.