Your second album has been out for a few months now, and it’s still selling well. Have you been pleased with its reception?
I’ve been happy with the response in the UK, definitely. I’m more concerned about the States, because it has always been a difficult territory for me. Maybe it’s an odd time to be making records, as fewer people are buying albums – but considering there’s no pop or radio hit on there, it’s a totally respectable amount. I’m absolutely glad for any attention I might receive! (Laughs)
It’s not an obvious sounding record, and the songs aren’t particularly straightforward. Do you think your audience has got where you’re coming from?
I think that my audience are generally musophiles, who are deeply interested in music. So of course they’re going to get it, because music is obvious, if you open your mind and your heart to it. I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s quite exposed emotionally, and you have to like that kind of element. If you’re a very serious jazzo, who likes things that are not particularly emotional, then I don’t know if you’re going to love Martha Wainwright. It takes all kinds.
Although this seems to be another very personal, confessional collection of songs, I sense that maybe we shouldn’t always take the lyrics as directly autobiographical, even when they feel that way.
I think that’s right. I think that there’s a power to poetry, and to meaning. If I take things a little far, it may not be exactly autobiographical – and that’s because it’s to make a point. And as a singer, if I have to sing the same songs over and over again, sometimes it’s better that they’re not exactly autobiographical! (Laughs) Otherwise it becomes quite indulgent and scary.
One of the things that I try to do as a songwriter is to allow the songs to have several possible meanings. So as a singer, you are just there to serve the song – so that the song becomes the focal point, and not me as the singer.
In that way, the personal element can become more universal, and people can identify themselves within it. And also as a singer, it becomes more interesting for me to sing if there are different ways that I can interpret it, night after night.
The album sets up an interesting conundrum for me. When I listen to your music – and I think the same applies to a lot of singer-songwriters – the distance between the singer and the song can become blurred, giving the illusion that there’s no distance between the singer and the song. It strikes me that maybe that’s something you’re consciously playing with: that you’re effectively setting up a hall of mirrors, which deliberately leaves us puzzling as to where you are.
I know… it’s very odd, because when I listen to myself singing the song, sometimes I’m more interested in the song, rather than the fact I’m singing it. But I could see that, especially with the way that I sing, that people think it’s only about…. (pause)
Because you have that dramatic delivery in your voice…
All I can say is: yes, it has this feeling that I’m alone on the earth and these terrible things are happening to me – but I’ve noticed from the standpoint of an audience that a lot of them seem to identify, and feel as though I am perhaps singing their experiences in their own voices.
And I think that’s the point of being a singer-songwriter: as a minstrel or a troubadour, just to tell the story of the people of your town, or whatever. And I get the sense that people seem to understand what I’m saying, and to feel as though it’s their story as well. So maybe the way to do that is to be quite internalised in the style; I’m not sure.
There’s the troubadour aspect, and there’s also maybe a theatrical aspect. I gather you’ve had acting experience, so is there any process by which you might consciously step into different characters for different songs? I spoke to Liza Minnelli a few months ago, and she said that when she sings her songs, she does a whole method acting breakdown; she thinks about the character that narrates each separate song. Is there a sense in which you do that, or do you approach them more as different facets of your own character?
I think I have the tendency to be a bit of a chameleon – in a good way and a bad way – throughout my whole life. Certainly in my songs, and in my life, I straddle between a very strong willed person and someone who’s quite damaged and vulnerable. There’s always that duality there. So a lot of these songs can be sung differently, depending on how strongly you want to go either way: whether you want to give them from the point of view of the victim, or from the point of view of the victor.
But I think a certain amount of acting becomes necessary. The songs are kind of theatrical, and you don’t want to lose control on stage emotionally. And I used to do that more. I used to be very affected by things, perhaps because I was younger. I made the mistake of actually losing a certain amount of control, whether it’s to the point of crying on stage or something else. And then I realised that I didn’t really want to do that any more.
Well, there’s a sense in which that’s age-appropriate. Maybe that’s what you’d expect from a younger performer.
Yeah, exactly. And then at a certain point professionally, you have to get better at what you do, and also be in more control – and that feels good. That being said, it’s sometimes really nice to just open yourself up and allow the music to take you somewhere. And have that fear perhaps after the show, or in a moment where no-one can notice.
There must be a combination of emotional states to deal with, once the show is over. You might feel mentally drained, because you’ve had to dig so deep. Or does the audience gives you something more valuable in return?
I think that does happen. I’ve noticed that the more you give, the more you get back. And it’s true that if you’re singing to the point where your kidneys are hurting or whatever (laughter), and you’re trying to be sincere, you can look out at people’s faces, and at their lips moving to your words… and it’s an incredible return. It’s an exchange.
There are certain nights where you get off stage, and you sit down, and you do need to put your head in your hands for a moment, but that doesn’t last. Generally there’s just enough time to have a nice glass of wine and go and have some dinner in a good restaurant! (Laughs)
Is there a particular state of mind which you have to get into, in order to write a song?
Well, I like to be on the edge. Maybe that’s not a good idea all the time, but I have a tendency to write songs when I’ve been heavily affected by something, or something is grating at me. I think that can sometimes at least open the gates of poetry and ideas, and you can jot things down. Then if you jot down a lot of different ideas, or phrases, or things like that, they can be useful later on – when feel like you need to try and write something, even though you’re emotionally OK.
That’s interesting. So the process would begin in the heat of the moment, when you’re experiencing that emotion – and then you might return later, in a calmer, more contemplative state of mind, and order the thoughts?
That’s right. You might start with something that’s got some kind of real abandon, but it takes time. I’m not very fast – and I’m also very lazy, in the sense that I do it in a condensed sort of way. I won’t write for hours and hours and hours at a time, because I’m not very virtuosic on my instrument. So it takes weeks, sometimes months, to finish a song.
Sometimes I’ll just sit down and be like: OK, I’ve got to get this second verse. You’ve got to spend three or four hours just to try and finish something, and you might not be completely and utterly feeling what you initially felt when you started writing the song, but you’ll try and sort of get back there, or bring something into it.
In terms of songwriting, are there any aspects of your character, or of your life, which you quite clearly identify as being off-limits?
From experience, I’ve learnt that it’s not a great idea to write songs about people that put them in a bad light.
Even when you think you’ve disguised their identity?
Yeah, exactly. That’s something that I’ve learned, and it’s good to know. And it’s good to couch things. If you need to talk about someone, then find a way not to have them be able to identify themselves completely.
That being said, I think that some of my songs are about people who would recognise themselves fully, such as Bleeding All Over You. The people who that song is about would know who they are.
So I care a certain amount about it, but at the same time I think there’s poetic licence, and I think it’s also important not to be afraid. Because oftentimes music becomes so dull, if everyone’s so conscious of hurting anyone’s feelings.
You’ve been married for just over a year now. Is there a risk that your natural source of inspiration might dry up, because you’re just so darned happy all the time?
Well, from what I’ve experienced of it, marriage is not all bliss. It’s a very serious institution. I’m also married to someone whom I work with, so it’s very intertwined with work and music, and it’s very helpful to my career! (Laughs) So if I were to get rid of the husband, then maybe I’d write another bunch of songs about unrequited love – but I don’t know if I’d ever get them made into a record. If I become really, really happy and I need to make a living, then I’ll just sing other people’s sad songs!
Your one cover on this album is See Emily Play. I’m curious to know why you covered it, as it seems to come from quite a different place to the other self-composed songs on there.
When I was making the record, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough songs. I was really conscious that every song had to be record-worthy, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to write them in time, because I really wanted to get a record out. So I was thinking about different covers. It was a song that my mother Kate had suggested, because Joe Boyd had asked us to learn it for the Syd Barrett tribute at the Barbican the year before. I wanted her to be on the record, and it was a perfect opportunity.
It forms a nice counterpoint to the other emotions; there’s almost a sense of childhood nostalgia in there.
It’s a breath of fresh air, after all of the overly emotional gloomy singing that I do.
You’ve performed a number of songs by Leonard Cohen over the years. Have you had the chance to see him live this year?
Yeah, I opened up for him in Bruges. I’d wanted to open up for him for a long time. When I got there, I was worried that his audience wouldn’t care, because they’d waited twenty years to see him. But they were a really great audience, because they’re so interested in lyrics – so I was very satisfied with myself. Then I watched the show, and I realised that he really doesn’t need an opening act at all! It was a stupid idea!
He was on stage for three hours when I saw him at Manchester. It was an amazing show. It was like he’d learnt to sing all over again, and I felt he was singing for posterity – as if it might be his last chance, and so he was going to give the performance of a lifetime.
Exactly, exactly. That’s exactly the feeling that I had. It was really and truly and utterly a farewell, on an epic scale, from one of the greatest songwriters ever. Then I sort of felt stupid for pushing so hard to open up! (Laughs)
One last question. I’ve avoided asking you all the standard questions about your famous musical family, but do you have any relatives with no aptitude or interest for music at all? Are there any cloth-eared cousins who only buy two CDs a year?
No, unfortunately. My sister’s a singer too – Loudon’s other daughter – so it’s crazy. It’s a drag! No, it’s amazing.
Speaking at last Friday’s funeral for Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, the Reverend Jesse Jackson mistakenly listed Otis Williams, sole surviving founder member of The Temptations, as another deceased Motown legend. This must have come as surprising news to the ebullient Williams, still leading the group after 47 years in the business.
His four newer colleagues – Joe, Ron, Terry and Bruce – joined the group well after their classic run of Sixties and Seventies hits. Although no match for former lead singers such as Edwards, Kendricks and Ruffin, the burly Bruce and the more diminutive Ron acquitted themselves ably enough, reminding us that the songs and the spirit of The Temptations have always been greater than any individual member. As the group’s chequered history would testify, over-inflated egos have never survived in its ranks for very long.
As ever, band leader Otis remained happy in his traditional role as “tenor in the middle”, never grabbing the solo limelight for more than an occasional line. However, the group’s trademark vocal balance was undermined by a surprisingly under-par PA system, whose murkiness all but smothered bass singer Joe Herndon’s vital contributions. The nine-piece horn section fared little better, sounding oddly muted and distant.
None of this deterred the loyal crowd of seasoned Motown fans, who spent most of the show’s second half on their feet, reserving their warmest cheers for Sixties classics such as Since I Lost My Baby and the immortal My Girl. Their enthusiasm, coupled with the group’s slick choreography and impeccable back catalogue, saved the night.
Overture (Also Sprach Zarathustra)
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
Ball Of Confusion
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone
I Can’t Get Next To You
You Are So Necessary In My Life
Treat Her Like A Lady
Since I Lost My Baby
The Girl’s Alright With Me
(I Know) I’m Losing You
Where are you today? According to your schedule, you should be in North Carolina.
Yeah, we’re on the tour bus right now.
It says here that you’re playing two dates tomorrow: in Baltimore and Washington DC. Was that a misprint?
Tomorrow, in one day? Maybe, maybe not! I don’t know! (Laughs)
Do you just take each day as it comes, and not worry too much?
I do. I think you have to, on this schedule.
How long is it since you’ve managed to get back to your home town in Florida?
I was home maybe a week ago, for a few days. We get to go back every now and then.
The script was written by this Texas guy, who based it on his favourite 1980s cartoons. The video is awesome; I love it. But I don’t really feel like it’s me. You’re sitting in front of a green screen, and then all of a sudden you see this made video, and you think: oh wow, look at that helmet that I’m wearing, and there’s the car I’m driving! It’s all kind of odd, because it wasn’t there when we were making the video.
You’ve been doing a lot of work in the UK and Europe this year, as that’s where your greatest amount of success has been so far. Are you now trying to break the States?
That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re trying to get more support, by doing television shows, and lots of interviews, and just getting summer out of the way, and meeting fans and stuff like that.
You had a lot of initial love from the music bloggers in the States, back in the early days. Does that kind of “blog love” translate into a wider popularity in the quote-unquote “real world”?
I think sometimes it can make or break a band. But I’m not sure whether that happens if the band’s already big.
You must be doing a phenomenal amount of travelling this year. Is it broadening the mind, or does it become routine like any regular business travel?
I still love travelling and seeing different places. Usually I don’t get to see much when I go to the towns, so maybe one day I’ll be able to actually go and take a look at some museums and stuff.
What have been your top travel destinations?
I loved Norway when I went up there. It was beautiful and green, with the water and different kinds of boats. I don’t know, I just really enjoyed it.
Any highlights from the festival season?
My favourite thing is meeting the bands that I really love. I got to see Yeasayer probably three or four times this year.
Which acts would you say were your fellow travellers? If someone was mentioning a whole bunch of bands in a list and your name was on there, who else would you like to see in that list?
What, like people who have been travelling with us?
I’m thinking kindred spirits. People who are doing a similar sort of thing, with a similar sort of vibe.
Magistrates [an electro band from Essex]. Cut Copy, who are definitely a dance groove, party down kind of band. CSS definitely; I love them.
You recorded your album with Bernard Butler in the UK. What was he like to work with?
For me, I guess he was like a father figure. It was one of our first times in the studio, and he made me feel at home. It was really comfortable. Reggie was already a huge fan, and I knew some of his songs, and I was like: wow, we get to work with this guy!
Are the band finding time to write new material? If so, how will it be different?
We haven’t really decided what direction we want to go in. We do have some new songs, that we’ll be playing on the UK tour.
In terms of the band dynamic, how democratic are you? Is there a leader?
We’re all pretty equal. We read things that come along, and we just sit and discuss it for a while. I wouldn’t say that one of us has more say than the others.
You’re known for playing basically happy music, but you’re playing it in increasingly troubled times. Is this a good time for escapism?
I think any time is good for listening to happy music – because maybe it clears it out, I don’t know. But the music does have some underlying sexual tension, and it’s kind of like comedy. Even though it sounds happy, it might not necessarily be happy music.
When I saw you playing Nottingham in June, you all looked like you were having a great time. But if you’re touring night after night, are there ever situations where you have to manufacture the joy?
Well, that’s the thing about playing live. Even if you’ve had a shitty day, you can get up there and just let it all out. That’s my favourite thing about being in a band. I don’t get tired of playing live, ever. That’s the truth of it.
That sounds like one of the best reasons for being in a band. Every shitty day becomes a good day by the end of it.
It’s true. Especially when you have good fans out there.
Riding a commercial and critical high in the wake of his classic Transformer album, Lou Reed alienated many newly acquired fans with its downbeat follow-up Berlin (1973). Said to be one of the most depressing records ever made, the album flopped in the States and was never performed live. In the UK, where we don’t let a healthy dollop of misery deter us, Berlin went Top Ten. To this day, it remains Reed’s second highest charting album.
In December 2006, Reed fulfilled his long-held ambition of performing a stage adaptation, complete with orchestra and children’s choir. This DVD was recorded at an early New York show, with Julian Schnabel directing the cinematography. Schnabel’s daughter Lola provides the atmospheric movie clips that weave in and out of the performance footage, illustrating the decline and fall of the story’s anti-heroine Caroline.
Reed’s second and final Berlin tour came to Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall in June. For those who attended that memorable, magical show, this DVD provides a useful musical souvenir. As in Nottingham, the album’s original guitarist Steve Hunter leads the band. (If Berlin was meant to be a downer, then no-one seems to have told the irrepressible Steve.)
Those who recall the many extended guitar jams between Lou and Steve at the June show will be either disappointed or relieved by their near total absence from the DVD. Indeed, the whole show is a markedly more sombre affair, the dimly lit stage bathed in tones of muted, sickly green. The album’s second half is a particularly harrowing parade of misfortune, punctuated by crying children and gloomy choral wails.
Things don’t even pick up for the encore. Antony Hegarty (of the Johnsons) adds a mournful guest vocal to Candy Says, leaving even the habitually impassive Reed looking visibly moved.
Your debut solo album Lemurian has been out since August. What sort of reaction have you been getting?
It’s all been really flattering – which has been strange, because I always tend to think the worst about stuff like this. It has given me a lot more confidence to do another one, and not be too worried about what people think about it.
Were you worried it was a bit too leftfield to connect with people?
It was the only thing I was worried about. My mates all said: oh, it’ll be all right, people will like it – but the only thing you’d have to worry about is that maybe it will go over peoples’ heads.
When I first played the album, the first things that hit me were all those warped, wow-and-flutter samples. I think there’s a bridge that has to be crossed there – but two or three plays in, they just become a natural part of the fabric of the music.
Yeah, totally. It’s strange for me, because obviously when I’m making the tracks I hear them over and over again, so none of it really shocks me at all. So I can forget that for other people, on their first listen, it might be a bit strange – but hopefully you can get into it after a while.
How did the idea come about?
I’ve always been into Boards Of Canada, who were the first people that I heard using it. I took it from a different angle – like a warm, hazy sound like you get on an old tape that has been out in the sun too long. It’s something I’ve been obsessed with since I was really young, from listening to tapes in my parents’ car that were warped. I thought they sounded better like that.
It just makes things sound nicer, for some strange reason. It gives a more gritty feel to the music. It almost makes it more human. It gives it more personality, rather than just sounding really clean, and turning into ambient, which is something I really don’t want it to be.
Did you have a particular concept for the album, even before you started recording the music?
I knew I wanted to make music that sounded kind of warped, but it wasn’t until I’d made loads of tracks that it started taking shape, and getting this summery feel. I didn’t really set out for it to be a summery sounding record. As I gradually got more into it, it took that on for itself. I just ran with it.
Comparing the reviews, the same words keep cropping up: shimmering, sun-drenched, hazy. What were the climate conditions like when you wrote the tracks?
Not quite as nice! I started it last summer. I made a couple of tracks in a short space of time, and the weather was really nice then. So I thought: right, if I keep making tracks like this, it will get me away from the fact that the weather’s going to be really shitty and horrible. I kept making tracks that sounded like they were for the summer, because I hate the winter so much. So maybe there was a bit of escapism.
How about this summer? Did you go to anywhere sun-drenched and heat-hazed and lie by an ocean?
I’ve just been in Nottingham for the whole summer, in the rain basically. It’s typical: I make a really summery record, and I hoped that once I got to the summer, it would all be perfect – but we’ve only had about a week of sun. Typical, really. But never mind.
At what age did you start making music?
Probably about twelve. Probably even earlier – but you really couldn’t call it music, it was just messing around with a tape player and keyboard. Then I heard Boards of Canada on John Peel when I was twelve, and that was it – I just got into music from then. It was their appreciation for writing melodies, basically. The most important thing for me now is nice melodies, and they were the best I’ve heard.
You’ve got some club dates in Nottingham coming up. When DJ-ing, are you setting a mood or are you aiming to fill a floor?
I want to make people dance. I try to get music in there that relates to what I do – but it’s totally different, because my stuff just doesn’t work in a club.
So what sort of avenues do you go down?
What I usually want to hear in a club is dubstep, but I’ll try to play as much as possible. I’ve been playing a lot of sleazy Eighties synth-funk, because that’s the stuff I’m going to try and make next. Things like Michael Jackson, and even stuff like Luther Vandross. If you can mix that with hip hop and stuff, then people go with it, which is lucky. And I do play a bit of acid house: the real early stuff from the late Eighties.
You’ve got an EP scheduled to come out later in the year. How’s that going to sound?
It’s totally different. It still sounds like my stuff, but it’s a lot faster and it’s really influenced by Eighties synth-funk. I don’t know if it’s going to put people off who like the album, but I just don’t want to repeat myself.
I’ve been reading up on the history of The Temptations, and I hadn’t realised what a dramatic, epic story it was. With so many changes to the line-up over the years, it almost reads like a soul soap opera. But looking back on your career to date, what makes you the most proud?
Being able to survive. Once you know the history of The Tempts, with all the ins and outs of different guys coming in, and the deaths and the tragedies, here we are 47 years later, still doing it. Ordinarily, a group that has gone through as many changes as we have would have been through a long time ago.
A lot of that longevity must be down to you, as the sole surviving member of the original line-up. Were you always the band leader?
I’ve been the spokesman for the group from day one. As far as the records, that was Motown’s concern, because they were the record company. But as far as the members, and who was in the group, that was pretty much up to me.
Did you do the hiring and the firing?
Well, I hate to sound callous – but you know, somebody’s got to do it. I don’t necessarily want to fire anybody, but in most cases, something would happen that would just make it circumstantial. So we would have to let a guy go, for health reasons, or for many different reasons. I just wasn’t firing somebody because that was my role; it would have to be something very detrimental to the group for me to do so.
A lot of times, it’s a group effort. I would always some of the other guys what they thought. Our president, he’s got a cabinet, and we have to ask to see what their thoughts are. So it was pretty much a diplomatic kind of thing.
Looking at your contribution to the band, it’s interesting that as the leader of the band, you’ve never taken on the lead vocals. Instead, you’re known as “the tenor in the middle”. Why has that been so?
If it’s a song that I really feel good about, then I would do it, but most cases I was just happy keeping it together. We all got the same money, so it wasn’t that the ones that were doing the lead were getting more money than me. I guess we all have a role to play, and mine was to keep The Temptations going and to take care of business. So I’ve always been the man behind the scenes.
In many of your hits, you each take it in turns to sing single lines. Is there one particular line that you can point to, where we can all recognise you?
On I Can’t Get Next To You, I sing “I can make a change, just with a wave of my hand.”
I’m personally very fond of your output from the late Sixties and early Seventies when you worked with the late Norman Whitfield, who took over from Smokey Robinson as your chief musical mentor. How did that change come about?
Well, we started losing record sales. Berry Gordy was always having a competitive thing going with his songwriters and producers. He said that if Get Ready didn’t crack the Top Ten, then Norman Whitfield would have the next release. Get Ready did real well, but it didn’t go Top Ten pop-wise. So Ain’t Too Proud To Beg came out, and we had a great eight or nine year run with Norman.
People sometimes call it your “psychedelic soul” period, but it doesn’t sound psychedelic to me. “Psychedelic” sugggests fantasy and escape, but a lot of your songs of this period – Ball of Confusion, Law of the Land – were rooted in realism and social commentary.
I can understand why some people refer to it as psychedelic soul, because prior to Cloud Nine we were doing sweet ballads like Please Return Your Love, My Girl and Since I Lost My Baby, and those funky R&B tunes like Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and I Could Never Love Another. So when you change from those kinds of songs to something that’s got a whole other spin to it – and here comes the psychedelic era at that point – I can understand why they would relate to it as psychedelic soul.
When we came out with Cloud Nine, it didn’t jump off at first. For about a week or two after Motown released it, we were kind of concerned, because normally when our record came out it would run up the charts real fast. But it took a minute for Cloud Nine, and I guess our fans were thinking: wow, the Tempts have really changed up on us. But the next thing you know, it took off, it sold a million copies and we won our first Grammy.
It sounded so different. I remember the first time I heard Papa Was A Rolling Stone on the radio. At the age of ten, I’d never heard anything like it before. It felt groundbreaking.
We were the first act at Motown to venture off over into that kind of style of music, and we were the first Motown act to win a Grammy, so it paid off very handsomely all the way round.
That social commentary aspect is something that seems to have disappeared from a lot of modern popular music. Do you miss that at all?
Its just like anything else; there’s always a change. The Sixties has been noted as the most tumultuous decade in the last hundred years. All kinds of movements were involved. Dr King was making his move. You could sit right at home and see world leaders lose their lives on TV. There was women’s lib; there was civil unrest at school campuses. We were living in some crazy times, which would breed that kind of creation, as far as making music goes. So I guess it was just indicative of the times that we were living in.
Was there a lot of competition between the Motown acts, to try and get the best songs that everyone else wanted?
The way Berry had everything set up, at the beginning he would say: Hey, I think I’ve got a song for the Temptations. That could come from Norman Whitfield, or from Smokey Robinson, or possibly from Holland Dozier Holland. But once Smokey really started having consistency, he was the man. But Motown was so competitive from within. They would have a quality control meeting up in Berry’s office on a Friday. A lot of things were decided in those meetings, depending on whoever had recorded the best material during the course of that week.
Who are you still in touch with from the old Motown days?
Well, all of us are still good friends; we just don’t see each other. Because Motown is no longer the Motown that we knew, or that the world knew, everybody has moved on with their lives in different places. But when I see Smokey, it’s just like we never missed a step.
When you play to British audiences, how different are we to your American audiences?
England is almost like coming to our second home. We’ve been over there so often, and for so long, that the English people just love us unconditionally, even if we were never to get another hit record. They really love and appreciate the hits that we have. England just loves that old Motown music! We’re getting ready to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary, and the music is just as fresh and well received as if it was being made today.
Great soul music always stands the test of time. I think it matures like a good red wine.
I agree. And Motown music, Philadelphia International music, Stax music, and all the music from the Sixties and the Seventies is still wonderful. They’re not making records like that today. I listen to the music that’s being made today, because I’m in the business, but the music that we all made was much better.
You didn’t just turn on the machines. You put your heart and soul into it.
They may have looked like mild-mannered indie kids – but when it came to unleashing an all-out barrage of distinctly unholy noise, this experimental four-piece from Toronto held nothing back.
Teaming a traditional rhythm section with a sprawling array of electronic devices, the band welded rock dynamics to dance-derived textures and effects. No pre-programmed beats were deployed, and there were no laptops on hand to provide easy shortcuts. Pieces of kit were rapidly unplugged and re-wired on the fly, according to need.
The psychedelic squiggles and swirls sometimes evoked the progressive space-rock of the early Seventies. At other times, the brutal rhythmic energy strayed closer to late Nineties hard trance – but equally, we were never bludgeoned by over-repetition. Tempos were constantly switched, keeping us alert and focussed.
The similarly mild-mannered crowd nodded and twitched their appreciation, but never truly cut loose. Considering the visceral power of the performance, their restraint was perplexing.
Just over two years ago, Brazilian dance-punk sextet CSS – then known as Cansei de Ser Sexy (“tired of being sexy”) – made their British live debut at Stealth. For their fourth Nottingham appearance, a packed Rescue Rooms was treated to an early, short (it was all over by 9:25) and pleasingly chaotic set.
Opening with selections from their second album Donkey – a more streamlined but less memorable collection than their eccentric, fun-packed debut – it took the band a while to connect with the room. Notably less dance-orientated, the first few numbers felt buried beneath a muddy, guitar-heavy squall which betrayed a lack of technical finesse.
As the set progressed, both band and crowd loosened up, the introduction of keyboards adding welcome funkiness and flair. Teaming her sea-green bodysuit with a shaggy cape of multi-coloured rope, her eyebrows dyed dayglo orange, lead singer Lovefoxx goofed merrily around the stage, lost in her own parallel universe.
The show ended on a rowdy, exhilarating high. A disco mirror ball was procured; helium balloons were inhaled; shiny armfuls of confetti were strewn. A gloriously messy (if barely recognisable) “Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above” gave way to an exultant “Alala”, leaving us with the frustrating sense that CSS had only just warmed up.
The mythology surrounding Seasick Steve is a powerful one. Having drifted around the fringes of the music industry since the Sixties, an appearance on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny dramatically raised his profile. Now in his seventh decade, his third album in the Top Ten, this former train-hopping hobo has become one of the year’s more unlikely stars.
Last night at Rock City, a capacity crowd treated the grizzly, bearded bluesman to a hero’s welcome. Like thousands before them, they seemed keen to buy into Steve’s heart-warming rags-to-riches story.
The set began promisingly enough. Mixing traditional blues stylings with a dash of rock-based, Jack White-style showmanship, Steve played well – if not spectacularly – and quickly developed an easy, jokey rapport with the crowd. Good natured heckles were met with a brandished baseball bat. Showy slugs were taken from a bottle of Jack Daniels. A female admirer was serenaded on stage. A clock was theatrically smashed.
Nevertheless, attention spans soon started to drift. We might have warmed to the man and the myth, but how many were truly in love with the music? The songs became interchangeable, the genre’s limitations ever more exposed. Worst of all, most of us could barely see Steve’s seated figure – an awkward situation which eventually drew an apology.
As the crowd chatter escalated to uncomfortable levels, Steve worked ever harder to save the show. Quieter numbers were dropped. The rock-star flourishes grew flashier. It still wasn’t enough. Two years from now, will we still be indulging him like this?
Congratulations on the success of your new album, A Piece Of What You Need: not only your first Top Ten entry, but also the first of your four albums to chart.
I think everybody was pleasantly surprised. We all put quite a lot into the set up, so we were hoping for something in the Top Forty – but not quite as high as we got, which was great.
You have described the mood of the record as “happy”, and there are certainly a lot of uptempo tracks – but lyrically, things seem to tell quite a different story.
It seems happy to me, but only relative to my previous work! (Laughs) It is more uptempo than before, but not necessarily happier in terms of subject matter. I’ve always loved happy tunes with sad lyrics. A lot of country music employs that tack. It was something I was always trying to do, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. It doesn’t come naturally to me!
The lyrics of Turning The Gun On Myself leapt out at me. On paper, they read as bleak in the extreme, but something about the arrangement suggests we shouldn’t be taking them too seriously.
Exactly – it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek. I was trying to dip my toe into Randy Newman territory – not that I claim to be at that level – but it’s dark humour. It depends what your perspective is, because people in America didn’t find it very funny.
Well, it does happen quite a bit over there…
We had the sound effect of a gunshot at the end of the song, which they made us remove. The promo copies in America had it, and they had some complaints from, I don’t know, Wal-Mart or something. Who sell guns, but refuse to carry music with the sound of a gunshot. Actually, the percussion on the track is a slowed down gunshot, so there’s gunshots on every beat. We slid it in there!
The lyrics of the title track have something of a jaundiced quality to them. You talk about a “drop dead gorgeous teen” who’s singing bad diary entries, and there’s a “soulless boy” who’s making us feel “pretty blank”. Did you have any particular individuals in mind?
Well, I’m not going to touch that! Probably at the time, but I’m not going to mention names. Not that they’d care what I think. It’s more of a general comment on the music business: traipsing around America and feeling like you’re banging your head against a wall, and why bother, because people don’t really want to hear this sort of thing; they want to hear disposable pop music. ‘Twas ever thus…
On my first listen to the album, I thought: this is all very pleasant, but maybe a bit on the mainstream Radio Two side for my tastes. I’ve since reassessed that initial knee-jerk reaction. There are some sly lyrics, and there’s some great and sometimes surprising orchestration – particularly as the album progresses, on tracks like Jonathan’s Book and Can’t Think Straight. It feels like you’ve placed the straight-up pop tunes at the front, and then as the album progresses, you stretch out and take things in new directions.
To be honest, I’ve been trying to make a real pop record for the last three records (laughs). I just hadn’t quite been able to do it, and so they turned out as slightly more home made and a bit less sparkly.
Things lined up this time. I was able to get a producer I wanted to work with for a long, long time (Marius De Vries), and so it just fell into place. I thought we had some really good pop tunes, but I knew that he would bring some interesting quirky production moments.
I didn’t change the way I wrote the songs. It was more a question of recording them in such a way that they were fully realised pop moments. We really tried to take each idea to its conclusion. I hadn’t really done that before.
If you look at the sleeve notes, Marius is credited with strange things like “lushness”, “can-do attitude”, and “general showing off”. But how did the collaboration work? What did he bring to the table?
Marius is a bit of an old school producer. He’s a bit George Martin-esque: tall and English and proper. I called him to make my first record, eight years ago, but it never worked out. I then met him about three years ago, because he was working with Rufus Wainwright, and we became friends. So it all came around, and I was able to get my man!
I’ve worked with different people, and some are more hands-on than others. Marius is very hands-on. You really feel like it’s money well spent by the end of the project – no matter what the result – because he works very hard.
He does a lot of pre-production, and a lot of thought goes on between the two of us before we even got in the studio. Once we did, he played a lot of things, and he arranged a lot of things in the studio. After we finished he did a lot of work, physically engineering and tweaking things. So he really did everything that I didn’t do, which was… well, he did a lot more than me! (Laughter)
Which is as it should be, you know? I’d written all the songs and done all the work, and it’s right and proper that the producer should come in and take over and make your dreams come true. Which he did.
Why did you call him “Mr. Bounce” on the sleeve notes?
I found some Mr. Men books at a book store on my way to the studio one day. I got Mr. Bounce for him, because he literally bounces into the studio every morning, no matter how little sleep he’s had. I think I got Mr. Worry for me, because I was constantly fretting over things.
There’s also a curious, and perhaps not entirely serious credit to Sir Elton. Have you met?
No, I just had to write that very quickly, so I don’t know where that came from. But I did read that he mentioned me somewhere, a few months ago. I think he mentioned me, Justin Timberlake and The Killers as his favourite new music, which was incredible. But I was just messing about, and looking to curry some favour with the movers and shakers! (Laughter)
Well, you do seem pretty well connected anyway. I’ve seen your name popping up on various credits over the years – most notably with Rufus Wainwright, who even has a cameo in your new video, dressed as Elvis. Are you planning to work together again?
I should think so, yeah. It’s all quite family-ish now. We’ve been friends for a long time, and our families all know each other, and I’ll be at his Christmas show in New York with lots of other friends and family. So I’m sure we will – but to what extent, who knows?
You’ve participated in a number of Leonard Cohen tributes. Have you seen him on tour this year?
Yes, I saw him at the O2 Arena a couple of months ago.
What did you make of the show?
I can’t imagine seeing him at the O2, I have to say.
I’m trying to think of a superlative, but I can’t think of one quite lofty enough. It was really brilliant. He played very quietly, which was a way of trying to make the O2 more intimate. Everybody was sort of leaning in, which made for a wonderful atmosphere. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried for a good portion of a couple of the songs – but everybody, even the people in the friends and family box, couldn’t hold their tears for the whole show.
I saw him at Manchester Opera House and there was a sort of soft weeping, going round the room.
Yeah, very square jawed, tough looking guys were crumbling. The ladies went first!
I notice that you’ve covered Roger Miller’s King Of The Road (on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack). I have to tell you that my partner absolutely cannot listen to that song. He actually has to leave the room, because he finds it incredibly emotionally upsetting, for reasons that I cannot fathom. Have you ever known anyone who’s had a similarly extreme reaction?
No, not to that particular song. That seems as if there are some underlying emotional problems!