Seth Lakeman likes the Rescue Rooms, and with good reason. One of his first gigs was at the venue, and its warmth and intimacy have always suited him well. However, times and circumstances change.
Three years after his breakthrough nomination at the Mercury Music Prize, and less than two years after his Freedom Fields album cracked the Top Forty, Seth has reached a level of popular success which no other young English folk artist has reached since the days of Steeleye Span, over thirty years ago. Quite simply, he has outgrown the venue, which by his own admission resembled a “sweat pit” last night.
There’s nothing wrong with sweat pits, of course: but for all the muscular, percussive energy on display, something vital was lost along the way. Lakeman’s songs are mostly centred around stories, and successful story-telling requires a certain degree of calm, focussed concentration – particularly when, in the case of the selections from the forthcoming album Poor Man’s Heaven, the stories haven’t been heard before.
Without that direct, personal connection between artist and audience, the newer material fell somewhat flat. Seth is an able guitar player and a more than nifty fiddle player – indeed, the solo voice-and-fiddle pieces went down better than anything else – but he is no virtuoso either, and so his performance fell rather between two stools.
Nevertheless, it was still a delight to witness further evidence of English folk’s unexpected and wholly deserved revival – and on St George’s Day itself, what could have been more appropriate?
It’s refreshing to note that you’re embarking on an 11-date UK tour, without having any new product to promote. We don’t get that too often anymore. Does the tour have a particular purpose?
Just to get out and play, really. We enjoy touring, we enjoy playing, and it seems to be something that audiences are into. There’s also a whole new album called Poor Man’s Heaven, which comes out on 30th June.
Will you be performing some of the new songs for the first time?
We will, actually. We’ll probably play a good eight or nine songs from the new record. We played a handful of them last summer, and on our last tour in November, and there was a great reaction. We’re quite excited to see how they go down. And playing the Rescue Rooms is always a lot of fun for us.
We are blessed. It has a great acoustic, and you can get quite an intimacy.
I think so as well. Last time in Nottingham we played the university, and I was actually missing playing the Rescue Rooms. We always have a great night there. I did one of my first gigs there, with Benji Kirkpatrick and also John Jones from the Oyster Band, and I remember just thinking it was an amazing venue. And it turned into a club afterwards!
I’ve heard rumours that the new album is less acoustic and more electric…?
It’s not electric, no. It’s just heavyweight; it’s quite in your face. In terms of the stories, I’ve gone for a coastal-based concept. There are stories of tragedy, including the true story of a lifeboat disaster that happened in Cornwall. There are stories of the wreckers in Cornwall, who used to put beacons on the coast to lure ships in and steal their cargo. There’s a story of a pirate, and there’s a story of the Hurlers Stones on Bodmin Moor, so it’s very much a West Country based record. Most of the stories are about wanting or aspiring to something more in your life, and so the title of Poor Man’s Heaven refers to that aspiration, or that ambition.
How do you come across these stories? We’ve lost the oral tradition, so is there a certain amount of research involved?
Obviously, there’s some of it which is made up. Some are based on a true story, such as Solomon Browne, the Penlee lifeboat disaster song. Crimson Dawn is based on a very romantic true story with a happy ending, which is quite strange for a folk song! There’s also The Unquiet Grave, which is a traditional song that I’ve reworked. But mostly it’s researched: looking on the Internet, or knowing about the songs anyway. A lot of people in this area are aware of the little coves where wrecks have happened, and of the Manacles rocks, which have wrecked thousands of ships over the years. So I guess it’s common knowledge round here, and you just kind of dig out the details.
We don’t have anything like that in our part of the country at all, I don’t think…
[Baffled] What, in Nottingham? Haven’t you got …?
[Hastily] Well, yes, we have Mr. Hood. But he’s been done to death. And he’s apparently from Sheffield, anyway. They’ve even put Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster! It’s got nothing to do with us!
That’s madness… (Laughter)
Going back a bit, you first caught a lot of people’s attention when you were plucked from obscurity for the Mercury Music Prize in 2005. You represented what a lot of people still think of as the “token folk” category, which means that no-one thinks it will win. A lot of the nominated folk artists have quickly returned to their own scenes, but for you it provided a real springboard to greater success. In retrospect, do you see that as a defining moment?
I think it just gave me the confidence to work out that what I was doing was something that people could enjoy, and were starting to enjoy. I wasn’t even trying to be a lead singer. At that point, I was actually trying to put a band together with a girl singer. I released Kitty Jay as an experiment, and then the nomination meant that I could actually be a professional solo artist. So that was the break.
I’m a person who likes to experiment in music quite a lot. I like to produce my own records, with my brother Sean, and I like to be involved in every part of the project. It develops with curiosity, I guess.
Your breakout at the Mercurys seemed to coincide with a remarkable resurgence of popular interest in British folk and folk-influenced music. It feels like it has broken out of the niche where it was languishing for a good couple of decades.
I was lucky enough to come out at that point, yes – but I was already well aware that acoustic music, open mike nights and contemporary singer-songwriters were coming through. The record companies were starting to finance people like Damien Rice and KT Tunstall, well before I was doing anything. With artists like Kate Rusby, Jose Gonzales and Newton Faulkner, a lot of people are doing things from different directions – but you’re right, it seems to be more popular than ever. I think that’s because of the confidence from the labels of using acoustic instruments, and so they’re putting money behind that. I also think it’s from MySpace and the Internet revolution, which has really fuelled independent musicians.
It’s bad news for the record companies, but an amazing opportunity for people who are actually making the music, so I think you’re right. A friend tells me that there’s a whole underground acoustic scene going on in London at the moment: not so much directly folk-influenced, but very much acoustic music. He’s going to gigs all the time, and there’s a whole network of people that all seem to know each other, and so there’s something really breaking through there.
Yes, it’s exciting. I think it’s good for English music, so hopefully we’ll get something that will translate internationally, and that we can stand proud of as a country. Because I think, to be honest, we could do with that musically. It’s just an exciting time. You kind of know. You can feel something bubbling, can’t you?
Definitely, definitely. Talking about breaking out internationally, you supported Tori Amos around Europe last year. How did European audiences take to your very English material? They wouldn’t have had the same reference points, so did they get it?
Well, that’s the thing about what I do. There’s quite a lot of depth, in terms of the stories and the messages that I’m singing about. So without having that in the forefront of your mind, and because it’s not popular music, it doesn’t translate as well.
But because of the energy, and the instruments that we use, and the way the guys are so amazing musically: whenever we’ve played abroad, people really are into it. They really like what they’re hearing. In that way, I would love to follow in the footsteps of an act like the John Butler Trio. He sells a lot of records in other countries, and he spreads himself in a really good way, but without selling out to anyone.
In a certain sense, a weight has been placed on your shoulders, in that you’re almost being cast in the role of an ambassador for British folk. For people that don’t buy fRoots magazine, or who don’t listen to Mike Harding’s show on Radio Two, yours and Kate Rusby’s may be the only folk-influenced albums in their collections. Does that role sit easily on your shoulders?
Kate would probably be more of a folk artist than me. I’m definitely a folk singer, but I write pretty much most of what I do. Because it’s conjured up from my mind, but inspired from where I live and the people I live around, it’s definitely very realistic English music; there’s no doubt about that. I do feel a certain amount of pressure sometimes, but I also feel very content with the way things have gone. I couldn’t be happier, actually. I’ve been very lucky. The reality of what I do is: I play the fiddle and the tenor guitar, stomp my foot, and sing songs about local legends and stuff.
Unlike the rock tradition, which exploits the differences between the generations, you seem to be playing in a tradition which actually builds bridges between them. There’s less of an emphasis on that kind of difference. Is that a fair observation?
I think it is, yeah. I’m trying to look forward as well as re-work traditional songs, which I have done once or twice on this new record. I like to write new narrative tales such as Solomon Browne, which covers a disaster from 1981. I’m trying to put a record together that feels right and can flow well, and I think Poor Man’s Heaven has done that. I’m not consciously setting out to change folk song, or direct it in a different way. I’m really just trying to find a collection of songs that I’ve written, that really encompass a poor man’s heaven.
What line-up will you be taking on stage? You used to perform accompanied by nothing more than your foot, but I guess it has expanded a bit by now.
Yeah, my foot has turned into an engine room drum kit behind me: a guy called Andy Tween from Bristol, who’s amazing. Then we’ve got Ben Nichols on double bass and banjo, me on fiddle and acoustic guitar, and my brother Sean on acoustic six-string guitar.
So it’s an acoustic line-up – but like you say, there has been such a boom. Last year, we were playing after McFly and before The Sugababes on the V Festival Tent, which was an amazing experience for us, and something that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. So I think you’re right: the music is changing, and young people are really getting into it.
Unlike most contemporary dance companies, DV8 specialise in adding more overtly theatrical elements to their productions, making integral use of the spoken word throughout. For this performance, the text was entirely sourced from specially recorded interviews, which explored issues of sexual identity and its acceptance and repression within different religious and ethnic cultures.
Thematically speaking, this was a hard-hitting, unflinching examination of homophobia and its consequences. As such, it challenged the cosy assumptions of our supposedly more enlightened times, without ever needing to resort to obvious soap-box tactics.
But where did all of this leave To Be Straight With You as a contemporary dance performance? With so much to challenge the mind, some of the more visual aspects were in danger of being swamped. For the most part, the balance was deftly struck – but a notable lessening of dramatic tension in the closing scenes brought the evening to an unexpectedly subdued conclusion.
The Breeders are not a band to be rushed. Released at the beginning of this week, Mountain Battles is only their fourth album in eighteen years. It’s a murky, low-fi, subdued affair, whose understated charm sneaks up on you from behind. Unlike 1993’s breakthrough album Last Splash, it won’t be going internationally platinum any time soon. These days, that’s hardly the point.
As on record, so they were on stage: unhurried, slightly shambling, not making a big deal out of themselves. An amiable goofiness, which masked a calm, clear sense of purpose.
Leading the band as always, but resisting the centre stage limelight, a broadly beaming Kim Deal set the mood of the whole show. “When are you going to marry me?” shouted one fan. “No warrants, a licence and a job, that’s all I ask”, she batted back, with an earthy cackle.
Her addictions long since conquered, Kim’s sister Kelley looked weather-beaten yet gamine, her singing voice as sweet as ever. Later this year, she’ll be publishing a book of knitting patterns: “Bags That Rock: Knitting on the Road”. How times change.
Trent Uni’s student union building is a sadly underused venue, whose superb acoustic played to the band’s strengths. The slower material from Mountain Battles resonated and captivated, while old favourites like Divine Hammer and the classic Cannonball retained a box-fresh sparkle.
Like Kim’s former band The Pixies, you can never quite pin down what makes The Breeders so special. You just instinctively know that they’re a class act.
Your new album The Seldom Seem Kid is out today. It’s been on sale for, what, about three hours now, so it must be an exciting and nerve-wracking moment.
Very, very exciting. Not so nerve-wracking, really. I’m very proud of it, and it’s been a long time in the making. It’s been a couple of years, for various reasons, with record company negotiations and such like. We had the luxury of quite a long time to make it. We just locked ourselves away in our studio, and in my opinion we’ve made the best record we’ve ever done.
I see that the album is self-produced for the first time. Hard-Fi and Athlete did the same thing last year, and a few bands seem to be going down this route. How did the decision come about for you?
It’s something that we’ve always dabbled in. We’ve always had a pro-active part in the production, even when working with other producers. Leaders of the Free World was pretty much recorded by ourselves, but we didn’t quite have the confidence to mix it, and so we worked with a guy out in L.A. Whilst we were out there mixing, we basically came to the decision that we’re actually quite capable of doing this ourselves. My brother [keyboardist Craig Potter] has really proved himself as the producer. I’m very proud of him, and for me it’s our best sounding record.
So you now have your own dedicated studio, which is part of a larger complex?
Yes, we rent a large space on the top floor. You can actually see it in the DVD that came with Leaders of the Free World. There’s a really big room up there, in which we do a lot of the live stuff in, and a smaller room which is our control centre. Over the years, we’ve made a point of upgrading and building our own studio whenever we can. You never know when record companies won’t exist, and so hopefully we’ll always be able to put records out.
The album isn’t what I was expecting. I had you down much more as a sort of straight down the line, meat-and-two-veg guitar band, so it came as a pleasant surprise. A couple of things stood out: the sheer musical variety on offer, and also, as you say, the quality of the production. There are so many little details tucked away on there, and so I think people need to hear it on CD, rather than getting it on a cheap download.
The fact we had such a long time to make it definitely contributes to that. You talk about the finer details – we’re very much perfectionists about what we do, especially my brother as the producer. Some songs can come literally from a sound – that’s where they can begin.
Elbow songs are written, recorded, re-written, then played live, and then re-recorded. So it’s quite a long process, before the song ever comes to completion. I think it’s that attention to detail which sets us aside from other acts.
The flow of the album is quite unusual. It starts quite lively, building up to a crescendo with the fourth track Grounds For Divorce, before slipping back into a quieter, slower mood for the remaining seven tracks. You’re the lead guitarist, and you supply that grinding riff onGrounds For Divorce. Was there a part of you that felt frustrated at not being able to rock out for a bit longer?
(Laughs) I am the rocker in the band, and I’ve been playing around with that riff for many years now. Eventually, the rest of them picked up on it and thought: Hang on, it’s pretty good, that riff. Let’s get that in a song.
The fact that all five members of the band contribute to the writing is what gives it its eclectic nature. We all love bands like Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age, and more recently Smashing Pumpkins, on the heavier side of things. But then we love stuff like David Sylvian – and Talk Talk, who are a massive influence on all of us. I actually think that delicate beauty is what we do best, and I think matches up well with Guy’s lyrical style.
There’s a very pronounced emotional quality that runs all the way through. The album’s title refers to a friend of yours called Brian Glancy, who died last year. Can you tell me a bit more about him?
He was a very good friend of ours – a local Manchester musician, who had been around for many years. He did some stuff with Mark Burgess [The Chameleons] many years ago. He was just such a loved guy: he was best friends with multi-millionaire rock stars and homeless people in the street. His music was very delicate: he played beautiful, heartfelt songs on an acoustic guitar. He’s very sadly missed. I don’t think there was a musician in Manchester that wasn’t mourning for quite a while when we lost him, to the point where I think there’s going to be a tribute record coming out, of local Manchester bands performing his songs.
The album’s final track Friend Of Ours is clearly dedicated to him.
It is. That’s a direct goodbye to him, from all of us. Whereas the lead single Grounds For Divorce is really about the way we felt. After his death, there were a lot of people drinking heavily, in a couple of our local bars in Manchester. Guy’s lyric – “I’m working on a cocktail called Grounds For Divorce” – was basically him saying: it’s getting a bit on top me now, and I want to get out of this feeling. So it’s not about divorcing your missus; it’s about divorcing a feeling within oneself.
I’ve not seen a lyric sheet, and I have struggled in a couple of places without one. I’m particularly curious to know more about the lyrical concept behind Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.
Guy [Garvey, singer and lyricist] actually met a guy in a pub – there’s a theme running here, the pub seems to come into it quite a lot! – and he was a power crane driver on one of the work sites near the studio. They started talking, and Guy was saying: Oh, it must be great doing your job and being up there. The guy was saying: Yeah, I absolutely love it, I’ve got my own little toilet, and I’ve got a TV up there.
But after a few beers, it came out that this guy was very lonely. He wasn’t liked on the site, because his was the highest paid job and so he was making more money than anyone else. And at the end of the working day, by the time he’d got down from his power crane, everyone had gone. Therefore he didn’t have any friends on the site. So it’s really about that isolated sort of feeling.
What would you say are the album’s main lyrical themes?
Love is something that Guy has always written about. He’s very much in love, for the first time in a long time, and so it’s about the way that love make you feel. Mirrorball is about how you feel the day after you’ve met somebody that you know is special, when the world looks differently to you.
So it’s about love, it’s about loss – with Brian, obviously – it’s about hope, and it’s about us being comfortable with where we are musically. I don’t think that we’ve ever been so confident with the music that we make.
One particular departure is the track One Day Like This. In a way, it’s the nearest you’ve got to a stadium anthem. It’s notably more uplifting, with a singalong chant (“throw those curtains wide”), but it’s actually a very personal love song at the same time, so there’s quite a contrast.
That was quite intentional. I do find it hard commenting on Guy’s lyrics, because they’re so personal to him. On Weather to Fly, Guy talks about how we feel as a group of mates, and as a group of musicians, who are lucky enough still to be doing what we love after all these years. It’s actually my favourite song on the album, and I’m afraid it brings a bit of a tear to my eye, because it’s a bit of an “I’m proud of you, lads” from Guy to the band.
There’s also a duet with Richard Hawley on The Fix, which is a nice piece of Manchester-Sheffield crossover. How did that come about?
Guy met Richard as part of a strange collaboration in Memphis, Tennessee. I think it was Jack Daniels sponsored, and so it was a small gig in a distillery out there. They used some legendary local Memphis musicians who had played on a lot of Motown stuff, and Frank Black was also out there. Guy became very friendly with Richard out there, and they sang with Frank on a Pixies song. On the plane back home, they made a decision to do a collaboration.
The song is about a couple of friends who fix a horse race and then disappear on their winnings. As soon as we heard it, we thought it would be great to get Richard on. He came down one afternoon, we set two mikes up, they stood opposite each other, and it was pretty much done on the first or second take.
It was interesting to hear that you write the songs and play them live, before going back and re-recording them. Because the production is such a key feature of the album, I wondered whether there would be problems translating those songs to a live setting. But it’s like you’ve done that first, in a way.
Almost, but not with everything. In an ideal world, you’d write a record, then tour it, then go into the studio and record it. That’s because songs evolve live.
We never try to do an accurate, bang-on version of the actual album. We’re not big fans of backing tapes, or anything like that – although there are certain sounds that we will use on stage, as long as there’s one of us playing a similar thing. As long as there’s a visual, actual live representation of it, then we’ll occasionally use subtle sounds to back up what we’re doing. But we will actually be touring with a string section as well.
Cool, I was wondering about those orchestral flourishes…
I hate it when you see a band, and halfway through the gig, a string section comes out of nowhere. It’s not good enough, in my opinion.
I also read somewhere that this might be your last new album in the traditional sense of the word, and you might switch to releasing EPs and single tracks from now on. Is that correct?
I think that was slightly misquoted, actually. In fact, it definitely was. Guy was talking about how these days, the album as a format is a dying thing, because of all the downloading. We wanted this to be a record where people listen from to start to finish. We took it to the point where we had written three songs, and then we started putting them together in the order we thought they would work on the album. Then we’d listen to them and we’d think: OK, what would be great to follow that? For example, there’s a high backing vocal at the end of Weather to Fly which starts the following track, An Audience with the Pope. I don’t think there are many people doing that these days.
Where are you speaking from today, Gaz?
I’m at home on Oxford, recording some B-sides in my little studio, with a few of the fellas. It’s been a good day, actually.
You recently appeared on ITV’s Guilty Pleasures, covering Michael Jackson’s Beat It. I thought it was a good performance on an otherwise iffy show.
You just don’t know at the time. When we heard about it, we knew the Magic Numbers would be there, and Sophie Ellis Bextor, and obviously a few real mainstreamers. I thought it sounded alright, and that it could be quite a laugh. When I saw it, I thought it was a bit dull. But although it didn’t make for riveting viewing, I actually really enjoyed it. Basically, it was like walking into a pub full of old folks and screaming really loudly. We woke everything up a bit, I think.
I do take issue with the concept of “guilty pleasures”, though. Apart from maybe smoking, I don’t see why any pleasures should be guilty ones. I thought we were over the whole “cool factor” thing by now?
Well, that’s true – but there are certain pleasures that maybe one wouldn’t want to mention too much in public!
I guess that show marked the end of your Diamond Hoo Ha Men side project, where you and drummer Danny Goffey went out and performed as a duo – including here at the Bodega Social last December.
We knew we wanted to get out and play, because our bassist Mick was still laid up after a serious accident, but we didn’t want to reconstruct Supergrass too differently, and bring in too many different people. A lot of our new songs have riffs in them, and so they were possible to translate into guitar and drums, in a White Stripes-y kind of way. So it all pieced together, and it all worked. Plus playing in little clubs for 18 to 25 year olds was a really good laugh.
The title track on the new album (Diamond Hoo Ha) has a White Stripes sound about it, with that typically bluesy riff, so I guess there was a link.
I dunno. I mean, we weren’t really taking the White Stripes thing too far. They’re an amazing, inspiring band, but we’ve always written with riffs, going back to Richard III.
Have you buried the alter egos, or will they make a re-appearance?
I can’t remember where they are at the moment. They went off on sabbatical. Maybe joined a cult, somewhere in Middle America.
Good luck to ‘em. The new album is more upbeat, punchy and straightforwardly joyful than I was expecting. After some of the darker material on Road to Rouen, was there a conscious decision to return to fun?
I don’t think there was a conscious decision to return to anything. From the beginning, we were writing in quite an energetic fashion, so we just pushed that. We didn’t want to repeat Road to Rouen, but at the same time we wanted to take some of its more intense elements and bring those into the new record. In songs like Whiskey & Green Tea and The Return Of, there’s some crazy stuff going on, which isn’t simple. It might sound simple, but it has complexities underneath.
In The Return Of, you sing about “the return of inspiration, the return of serotonin”. It made me feel that Supergrass is back in a happy place.
There’s maybe some underlying message in there, yeah. I don’t think there has ever been any lack of inspiration, but there has definitely been a return of a sort of bonding between us as a band. Our closeness has come back really strongly. There were troubling times between us over the last three years, so it’s great to be close and excitable again.
It’s such a relief that you haven’t gone down the route of making the sort of polite, sensible, mid-paced, thirty-something corporate indie which you hear so much of these days. Naming no names…
It’s just not in our nature. We like things to be raw. We’ve never really thought about whether something will break through and sell millions of records – although we always think after we’ve completed each record, that it’s definitely a massive album that should sell millions. So someone’s going wrong, somewhere along the line!
There’s also an unexpected variety on the album. Based on the two singles, and on the songs that you’ve been performing on TV, you would expect that all-out, rock based energy to run all the way through, but there’s a change of direction in the middle. Songs like The Return Of and Ghost of a Friend have a lighter, more pop-based approach, and there are some 1970s Bowie influence at work on the final track Butterfly. Is that due to the influence of the Hansa studios in Berlin, where Bowie recorded in the 1970s, and where you recorded this album?
Not necessarily. The songs were written before that, back in Oxford. For me, Butterfly has a kind of epic quality, but in quite a raw way. There aren’t too many instruments plastered all over it, just a sort of emotional power. We try not to get into particular references, where we want something to sound like Bowie or whatever.
I just thought that there might have been a deliberate nod towards him. I suppose it was something about the way it was phrased.
I don’t think we ever do any deliberate nods to people. We stumble across things, and at times they might have a bit of Stones-y edge, or a bit of a Bowie feel, or a bit of a Talking Heads-ness, but that’s as far as it normally goes for me. It’s what I do with all bands. Even with really so-called “pioneering” bands like Radiohead or the White Stripes, I can still say: oh, there’s definitely a little bit of Al Green there…
It’s a game we all play, isn’t it?
Definitely, yeah. So it’s that sort of thing, but we don’t really look at references too much.
The song that has grabbed me the most is Ghost of a Friend. It’s certainly the tune I’ve been ear-worming the most. It sounds like a really radio-friendly, hooky pop song, at least on a certain level. Would that be a potential candidate for a future single?
I don’t know. We all love that one, and it’s just a case of which ones are coming through, and which ones are getting the feedback. It hasn’t necessarily come through as a single yet, but there’s still time. Rebel In You is going to be the next single, but after that we don’t really know what the deal is.
Well, that would be my tip, for what it’s worth…
Yeah, mine too, I’m into that one.
Although on one level it’s radio-friendly, hooky pop, there also seem to be some personal references going on. It sounds like someone from your past – maybe a former lover, or a former friend – is reminding you to keep your distance from some of the madder elements of the rock and roll circus.
Yeah, I think that’s what it is. Danny wrote a lot of those lyrics, and I think he was escaping from that kind of intense life, that doesn’t really let you breathe. It’s really constricting and suffocating. Then there’s a chance to get out, and you hear the voice of someone pushing you or guiding you through. It’s definitely got that vibe.
The other one that interested me lyrically was Whiskey & Green Tea, which describes a trip to a Chinese karaoke bar called KTV. I’ve spent some time working in China myself, and we had a KTV in our city as well. It sounds like you’ve had one of those deeply weird nights that can only happen in China.
Well, that’s it; all sorts of things happened. It was a really mad visit, and really culturally interesting. On the plane home, I started writing about it. It was almost like a little story, and we just picked out lines from it for the final track. Things like going up to the thirteenth floor, to be greeted by military rows of schoolgirls. The situations were bizarre, so it deserved to be noted down.
I ended up in a nightclub on Christmas Day, with go-go dancers dressed as Santa Claus, writhing to a gangsta rap version of Jingle Bells. Then when you went to the loo, the toilet attendant would give you a back massage, whether you wanted one or not. Totally weird. I also met some musicians when I was over there, and they seemed culturally starved in terms of access to Western rock music. You couldn’t buy it in the shops, so I sent some over when I got back, almost like food parcels. When you were there, did you get any indication that China might be opening up to Western rock music?
Only the very beginnings of it. I think we were only the fourth rock and roll band to go over there, or something. I think it will open up, because like anything they’ll realise that there’s potentially money to be made. There were little signs of it.
In the city I was in, there was just one club that played live rock music, and that was shutting. I went to the last night. Everyone was still talking about when Suede played Shanghai five or six years earlier, as there had been nothing since.
Yeah, yeah, totally – it’s crazy.
I have a niggle about the album’s packaging, which is rather on the minimal side. It’s like you’re just expecting people to burn it to their iPods, and never look at the CD box again.
That’s pretty much what they do, isn’t it? But I don’t know if that was really the issue. On vinyl, it’s actually superb. It’s brilliant: you basically pull the vinyl out of the… [pause] inside bit, if you know what I mean. It all makes sense; it’s like you wouldn’t want any more. But yeah, the CD does perhaps look a bit minimal.
I just think that with a CD, you want to add a bit of value to the people who are going to pay that extra three quid, rather than just going straight to iTunes.
Well, perhaps, perhaps. But I love the cover anyway.
In terms of the way that you’ve survived, people now see you as the last survivors of the Britpop era. A lot of the reasons why bands tend to split up haven’t happened to you, so what is it that has kept you together as a foursome?
I suppose we feel like there’s a long way to go. We haven’t yet explored everything that we want to. Maybe there’s a timeless quality. Maybe when bands are stuck into a fashion or a trend or a movement, it shortens their life as a band.
Often one person will take over and start dictating the musical direction, but it strikes me that you must be considerably more democratic than that.
All four of us write songs, so it’s a bit like the bloody Beatles! No, I’m joking. But as we all write, it’s easy to get variation. It keeps the interest going, and it keeps things flowing.
Am I right in thinking that you’re touring as a five-piece?
Yeah, we’ve got my brother Charlie on board. He’s playing second guitar, and some backing vocals. It’s really opened up certain tracks. Some of the new album has a real heavy guitar sound, so it really works with that second guitar.
Is Mick fully recovered, and coping OK with the demands of touring?
Yeah, he’s pretty good. We did those four dates last month, and he played really well, so we’re not really worried about that. We’re looking forward to the gigs. We’re playing better than we have done for years, so the set’s going to be wicked.
And you’ve had many, many visits to Rock City under your belts before. A favourite venue?
Yeah, it can be just totally fucking mental. The roof can really lift off, so it can be a great night.
Well, best of luck with the album. I know that it hasn’t exactly set the charts alight, so I hope that situation turns around.
I think it’s really down to EMI. If you don’t put much money into something, you probably won’t get it out there, so it is frustrating. We’ve loved everything we’ve done on this record, and so you want that to come from other areas as well. But we’ll see what happens, eh?
Witnessing first-hand the squeals of female delight which greeted his every move, I suddenly realised that John Barrowman might be something unique: an openly gay heartthrob, whose unequivocal frankness merely adds to his appeal. If that sounds like a contradiction, then it’s certainly not one which bothered either the artist or his adoring audience, whose tangible rapport was wonderful to behold.
Drawing on his long experience in musical theatre, Barrowman delivered a highly accomplished performance, mixing pop standards and favourite show tunes with sparky quips and occasionally tear-jerking personal stories, all with the total self-assurance of a seasoned professional.
Although a gifted musical interpreter, Barrowman was canny enough to realise that, in his new incarnation as a Saturday night prime time TV regular, he would have to up the cheese factor: Barry Manilow numbers, Latino rump-shakers, I Am What I Am histrionics, the works.
Occasionally, he overstepped the mark: an over-familiar Amarillo was an end-of-the-pier gesture too far. But for the most part, the balance between showmanship and song craft was ably struck.
Highlights for the music lovers included fine renditions of Nina Simone’s Feelin’ Good and I Won’t Send Roses (from Mack and Mabel). Highlights for the fans included special appearances from Captain Jack’s greatcoat and the Elvis outfit from Dancing On Ice.
Who cared if the outfits got the bigger cheers? Certainly not the ebullient Barrowman, whose infectiously gleeful determination to make the absolute most of his “moment in the sun” may be his biggest asset of all.
A Barry Adamson gig outside London is rare enough, but a full tour is something quite unprecedented. Last seen here in 1984 with the Bad Seeds, Adamson’s long overdue return saw him fronting a six piece band, and promoting his eighth solo album, Back To The Cat.
Although a multi-instrumentalist in the studio, Barry played no instruments on stage (unless you counted a vintage Rolf Harris Stylopohone, which was briefly brandished and caressed in the manner of an axe hero giving a virtuoso performance). Shaven-headed, sharply dressed and powerfully built, he prowled the stage with the arresting presence of a retired boxer, immersing himself in the characters of his filmic, retro-flavoured “imaginary soundtracks”.
As the set progressed, selections from the new album increasingly dominated – as well they might, given that this is possibly Adamson’s most immediate, audience-friendly work to date, and hence the inspiration for breaking with precedent and staging the tour. I Could Love You flirted with deep soul, Straight ‘Til Sunrise mixed Bacharach-style breeziness with lyrical darkness, and the rousing, anthemic Civilization drew the loudest cheers.
The band encored with the album’s brooding opener Beaten Side Of Town, before closing with a slinky re-working of Sly Stone’s (and Magazine’s) Thank You.
I read with some amazement that this will be your first ever solo tour. Why now, and why never before?
This is the question on everybody’s lips at the moment! That sentence has been taken a little bit too much to heart. I’ve always played live, but I’ve never done a consecutive string of dates. So I think that’s where the gasps of amazement are coming from, as if I’ve never left the house for thirty years. And sure, the last time I played Nottingham was at Rock City with the Bad Seeds, or maybe with Magazine, which is eons ago.
But the “why now” is a fair question – and it’s because the new album [Back to the Cat] just screams to be played live, that’s all. Funnily enough, I was able to play it live as a preview, right after it was written. It went down really well, which gave me an indication. So I thought: OK, let’s just do it. Let’s go out, night after night, and play it. And I think I’ve now got a sufficient body of work, as well.
Also, I wasn’t really a band. I was this guy who sat with a keyboard, twiddling away and making these scores, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking that out on the road. I’m not really a band now – but it sounds like it’s a band, and it’s presented in a band way.
So you don’t generally define as a band leader for most of the time?
I do now, and I feel like I can take that out.
Are these people that you’ve worked with many times before?
Yes, they’re regulars. They’re the same people that play on the new record, and on the other records.
So there will be quite a full line-up, I guess.
It’s funny, because people think there’s eighty people playing on each track, and there’s not really. There’s only four or five, or seven at most, and they’re the people that I’ll be bringing with me, so sonically it will be fine. People do seem to think that we’ll be coming on ten buses.
You do imagine an orchestra, somehow.
Yeah, but there’s not one there. That’s how it works today. A keyboard can sound like an orchestra, which it does on the record.
Tell me more about the Back to the Cat album. Are there particular unifying themes?
I guess there always is with me, because I’ve got that film head. I guess I work in the background. I run around from theme to theme, from the psychological set-up to the next beat of the movie, and I pull it together in that way.
But what’s interesting about this record is that there wasn’t a lot of pre-meditation. The first song that popped up was Walk On Fire. I thought: well, that’s pretty upbeat, even though it still has the same flavours of noir, and a dark leaning in some ways. It set me off, and then it was a bit like watching a garden flower, really. The songs sprang up one after the other, really quite quickly.
It’s funny, because I usually keep such a tight rein on the themes. I put it down to experience, and having a bit more confidence, just to let things happen.
It’s more stylistically diverse than I was expecting. I had a pre-conceived notion of your music as being very much down the John Barry and Leonard Bernstein route.
Yeah, I’ve always been linked to the Bernstein/Barry ends of film composition, but maybe there are newer elements that I’m adding.
The standard description which gets applied to you, over and over again, is that you compose soundtracks for imaginary movies. Is that the way that you approach the composition process? Does an imaginary movie spool in your head?
I think it does, actually. I’m writing from an idea, which is driven from character – but you do almost drift, from station to station. You go into each place, and inhabit each world on the record.
I think it was more applicable in the early days. The pieces were instrumental, and so they were like soundscapes, where you could apply your own imagery. In that sense, they were open. There wasn’t a narrative, and there wasn’t an idea that was verbalised. But I still think that that’s the thread of the record, yeah. I still think they have a sense of that.
A track that I visualised particularly strongly was your instrumental Flight. To me, it suggests men in trench coats and trilbies, running down dark alleyways at night, with police sirens whooping behind them and lights chasing them…
All that for a little cat, running down the alleyway! But I know what you mean, of course. It does hark back to that way of working. I actually find that track quite out there on its own. It’s not like anything I’ve done before, but at the same time you kind of know what it means. And it’s exactly the description you’ve made there – that’s what’s going on in it.
So basically, you’ll start from a narrative standpoint, as opposed to an emotional standpoint. You don’t really write about personal emotions, in terms of spilling your heart out and letting a particular personal situation inform a song.
Well, no. I’ve made mistakes in the past where I’ve attempted to do that, and I don’t think that’s good art. Well, I can’t do it, put it that way.
What I tend to do is use symbolism and metaphor, that drop quite definitely into the emotions. Then you can get a sense of where I’m coming from, and of the feelings which come behind that, which are in some ways therefore biographical.
So what I enjoy is mixing up those states, and moving from the head to the heart, if you like, and back again. Being abstract about that, and then covering that, and then mapping that, and then purposely not revealing that, and then revealing something when you think: well, that’s all obviously made up. It’s very much a filmic way.
Truffaut had this idea that you should write 25% of yourself, 25% from a friend, 25% from what you read in the newspaper, and 25% totally made up. That’s what makes up a narrative.
To what extent, if any, should the album be viewed as a quote-unquote “retro” project?
I think that would be a cheap shot. I think that would be a slightly cynical way of brushing off something, in order to get back to reading the News of the World.
But it has a retro-istic standpoint, and on purpose. Because, if you think about it, where we are now musically: there’s nothing going on. I don’t think anything’s really going forward. I think we’ve driven to the coast, and we’re looking to build a boat. So all I’m doing is saying: while we’re building the boat, just think this. This is what’s got us here anyway, so let’s go and build the boat. To be honest with you, that’s what my thinking is.
“Mm, grunted Mike!” (Laughs) No, go on!
Well, yeah, there is an undeniably retro feel – but to me, there’s an element which reminds me of the music that I grew up with in the Sixties, which is very formative music for me. There’s something very reassuring about some of the Bacharach/David elements, and so on.
That’s true, but there’s another thing going on there, Mike. Why? Why? Why is he doing a record like this? There’s something else going on there. You’re right: I’m taking comfort from that in some ways, but I’m also saying: this is where the buck has stopped. You know, if it was 1977, well, I wouldn’t be making that kind of record.
You’d have been tearing up the past?
Yeah, exactly. But I don’t see that happening now. And when it does happen, I’ll gracefully bow out, and do something else. But until then, I’ll create these worlds, and use the past to inform a future.
When you do see people attempting to tear up the past and start afresh, it all seems a little bit unconvincing to me. Maybe I’ve just been around too long, and I’m not taken in by it. Maybe we’ve reached a point where we can’t do it anymore.
I’m not convinced that you can ignore history, ever. In artwork, or in music, or whatever.
Finally, I have to commend you for playing on one of my absolute favourite singles of all time, which is Magazine’s A Song From Under the Floorboards. It came along at just the right time for me, especially with the way that it revels in self-abasement, in a way that I found very appealing at the time. I guess you must have been responsible for that lovely popping bassline, that goes all the way through it…
That’s true, yes. Well, you see, even then that was kind of new for me – a case of: oh let’s just try it and see what happens. It was taking an idea that I’d heard on a Sly Stone record, and then from something that was going on in a David Bowie record at the time. I was trying to fuse them together, and to make this thing that was bubbling underneath the surface – which was like the floorboards, from my end of the story.