Mike Atkinson

NME Radar Tour: La Roux, Heartbreak, Magistrates, The Chapman Family – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday April 29.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on April 30, 2009

Sticking out like a raw, throbbing thumb on the NME’s latest package of up-and-coming young bands, The Chapman Family faced the hardest job of the night: warming up the still sparse crowd, at the awkwardly un-rock-and-roll hour of 7pm, with their intense, thrashy, guitar-heavy squall. To add to the challenge, they were forced to compete for our attention with an annoyingly distracting overhead video screen, which was mostly given over to advertising the NME brand and the tour’s mobile phone sponsors. Worse still, they had to suffer the indignity of performing beneath an endlessly repeating multiple choice text competition: “Which town do The Chapman Family come from?”

To their credit, none of this deterred the band from delivering an impressively full-tilt, committed performance. Mercifully, the screen was switched off during the remaining three sets.

Notably less self-assured than their predecessors, Magistrates were likeable, but lacking in charisma. They were name-checked as a band to watch by Dawn from Black Kids, when she spoke to the Post last October – and it was easy to see the musical connection, as both acts deliver a light, tuneful, breezy brand of indie-pop. If you like Franz Ferdinand and MGMT, then Magistrates may well be up your street.

Heartbreak belong to the classic tradition of synth duos, but with an added drummer. Their singer sported a spivvy pencil moustache, teamed with a close-fitting leather blouson which sported the sort of shoulder padding last seen on Gary Numan in the early Eighties. Fully aware of his own preposterousness, he strutted and preened with a winning sense of self-belief, occasionally breaking into interpretive mime, and even a brief moonwalk. The girls down the front loved him, and he lapped up their adoration. The music drew on hi-NRG and Italo-disco influences, and was strongly reminiscent of the much hyped electroclash movement of 2002. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Almost unknown at the start of the year, La Roux have been one of this year’s big breakthrough acts. Astonishingly, they had never even played live until just over two months ago, and so their learning curve has been a steep and public one. Backed by two synth players, Elly Jackson cut a startling presence on stage, her outsized quiff sculpted into a gravity-defying vertical point. Plagued by technical hitches in the middle of the set, she shrugged off the problems with self-deprecating humour. (“Thank you for forgiving me. I wouldn’t have done!”)

Somehow, this lack of slickness reinforced Elly’s compellingly flawed yet strangely winning qualities. Yes, her pitch control is all over the place, and she undoubtedly has a “Marmite” voice. You’ll either cover your ears in horror at the shrill screechiness of it all – or you’ll recognise that La Roux are all about celebrating human frailty and imperfection, and you’ll end up loving them all the more for it.

For in this age of airbrushed, Auto-tuned pop robots, who never quite seem fully real, it’s refreshing that the charts can still make way for a quirky girl with weird hair, an odd voice – and some cracking tunes to match.

Interview: Elly Jackson, La Roux.

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 27, 2009

(Photo taken in Toronto, April 5th 2009 – the night before this interview – by chromewaves)

Congratulations on going Top Ten with “In For The Kill”. Did you expect the song to do so well?

It’s kinda weird. I know it’s a pop song, and that with the right exposure and the right push behind it, we always knew it could get to where it’s got. But without things like radio backing, it doesn’t matter how good your song is; if no one hears it, no one can buy it. So it’s just all a bit of a gamble. It’s obviously one of those songs that people have heard once or twice and bought.

There’s also been a lot of buzz about the Skream remix, which is quite unusual for a remix.

Well, this is the thing. That’s helped. I think it’s probably about 50% of the reason why it’s sold so much, because that remix means that the song has reached people that it wouldn’t otherwise have reached.

It takes the song in quite a different direction. Was it a strange experience to hear it for the first time?

Yeah, I think it was. I was in a hotel in Exeter at the time, just after our first gig. I could only hear it on my laptop speakers.

Which is how most people hear their music these days, I guess.

I know, and it was exactly the same – so you might as well listen to it. And you’ve got to be clever with the remix. You’ve got to be sensible. A remix is about taking the song into a new vein. There would be no point in getting a really electro remix, because it’s already like that, if you know what I mean. So you’ve got to do something with it.

You first came to a lot of people’s attention when you placed fifth in the BBC’s “Sound Of 2009” poll at the start of the year. At that stage, you had one limited edition single and a couple of songs on MySpace, and you hadn’t yet played live. So how did all these tipsters find out about you?

I think it was just an industry buzz. That BBC poll was based on 130 people in the music industry – and that is pretty much most of the music industry, to be honest. People in the music industry had known about me for about a year, so it wasn’t that shocking. We didn’t know if we would definitely be in it – but to be honest, I really don’t care. I know that’s really bad. You know, I’m not dissing the BBC or anything…

But you were glad of it? You didn’t think: oh shit, I’m not ready yet, stop?

Not at all – it came at the perfect moment. And it was the perfect position. I wouldn’t have wanted to be any higher. If you’re at Number One in that poll, you deserve a fuck of a lot of expectation. You’ve got to have your album ready, then you’ve got to come back with a whole load of press – a whole load of bang, bang, bang – or people forget.

I think being at Number Five is a nice thing, because it’s slow and gradual. But I don’t think it makes any fucking difference whatsoever. Yeah, it’s important, and we wouldn’t have had as much awareness without that poll. But in terms of meaning anything real, it’s not going to affect record sales or anything like that. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the poll not; if you’ve got strong songs and a good label behind you and good management, it’s gonna work.

Do you still keep tabs on what people are saying about you in the press, or is that a bad idea at this stage? Do you Google yourself, for instance?

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Do you know what? I have absolutely no interest. I don’t go on YouTube. I check my front page messages on MySpace, but that is literally it. You only have to read one nasty thing about you on the Internet to make you never want to look for it again. It’s just not worth it. For every five people who like you, there’s gonna be five people who don’t like you.

And anyway, it’s all losers on the Internet. Anyone who’s got enough time to fucking sit there and comment and slag people off… It’s nice to write positive things, and if people feel compelled to write positive things, that’s different. I don’t think that means you’re a loser or anything…

It’s easy to hate…

How much of a sad bastard have you got to be to fucking sit there and slag people off on the Internet all day? Get a life, seriously!

What stage are you at with the album?

Oh, the album’s finished. It’s all done. It’s out in June. We’ve been writing it for four years.

Is that four years as a duo with Ben [Langmaid]?

Yeah. It was essentially a solo act, until we realised that it wasn’t a solo act – in that it’s not just a producer/singer situation. We produce together, and we write the lyrics together, and so it was more of a Goldfrapp thing. The songs are all about my life, and I’m the front woman, and I am “La Roux” – but in the studio, we are a band and it’s like Goldfrapp.

[Ben] doesn’t come out live or anything. He’s just not really interested, and I am the “face”, as it were, of La Roux.

I mean, I am La Roux – but we are La Roux at the same time. It’s kind of confusing.

The Goldfrapp thing helps to settle it in my mind, actually.

Yeah, I don’t know what I’d do without Goldfrapp, in order to explain things. I don’t know how they explain things; you’ll have to read some old interviews of theirs.

But you’ve gone in an opposite direction from Goldfrapp. They’ve moved from electronica into a more acoustic singer-songwriter vein, whereas you’ve done the reverse. Was there a moment of revelation, when you discovered the joys of the synthesiser?

Yeah, there was. I started fucking about on the synths one afternoon at a mate’s house. He used to make tunes in his bedroom. He dabbles in various areas of the industry – a bit of tour managing here and there – and we used to hang out. I used to go up to Dalston and not leave for days on end. He got me to play guitar on someone’s track and he said: do you wanna start making a tune, just for fun? And I was like: yeah, OK. Then he gave me a synth and he was like, do you wanna put some chords down on this? And then I was like, fucking hell, this is amazing!

Then I wrote “Colourless Colour”, which is on the album. It kinda spurred off my synth love. Then I went back to Ben and said: I wanna do this instead.

Did you junk all songs that you’d written beforehand?

No, no, no. “Fascination” was the first song me and Ben ever wrote together on guitar.

Did it change the way you put songs together?

We don’t write on guitar anymore, but we still go through the same process. You get four or five chords that you really like, and then you start humming over them. And you find some lyrics, and find a melody, and go from there really. So it’s the same process, but on a different instrument.

I was reading some old interviews, and in one of them you were asked to pick five words to describe your music. One of the first words you picked was “cheap”. People don’t normally describe music as “cheap” in a positive way, so what are its virtues?

We have one of these synthesizers called a Matrix. It’s by Oberheim and it’s fucking brilliant. It’s not like a keyboard synth. It’s just a rack with a plus and minus button to go through the presets. And it comes out with these noises that… there is no other way to describe them, apart from cheap and nasty. They’re just really tinny and thin and tacky and scratchy and plonky, and I love sounds like that. Really angular.

Obviously it doesn’t sound cheap now, because it’s been mixed and mastered and stuff. But some of our early demos were like old tracks from “Speak and Spell”. Really, really, really dry and beepy and angular. Then as the album grows, it starts to become more and more expensive… (Laughs)

Do you see yourself retaining that certain cheapness in your sound? Or could you ever imagine yourself hiring an orchestra and going for that whole epic, widescreen production?

No, I’m probably gonna go really epic, I reckon! (Laughs) But hopefully still with those cheap sounds in it. Songs like “Tigerlily” have that. They’ve got that slightly epic thing, but they’ve also got a cheap kind of Caribbean feel.

Do your songs come directly from personal experience, or do you like to invent characters and situations?

No, I can’t do that. I’m really good at lying (laughs), but I’m really bad at making stuff up. So it’s all totally from personal experience.

So how much of La Roux is a mask, and how much are we getting the real you, baring her soul on stage?

When you see me on stage, that is totally me: baring my most personal, most upset, most tragic moments, as it were. That really is what you’re getting. I really mean that, as well.

The character of “La Roux” came after the songs, so the songs are totally and utterly me and they always will be. La Roux is the hair, La Roux is the clothes, La Roux is the stage persona as it were – but it’s just a slight exaggeration of what I actually am. It’s not a massive acting job, or anything.

Your first live show was only in early February: at the Notting Hill Arts Club, where you had a short residency. Then just over a month later, you were supporting Lily Allen on tour, and so playing in much larger venues. You must have had to scale up pretty quickly, so how did that go?

It was kind of weird. I remember the first night of the Lily Allen tour: being backstage in the dressing room and just kind of… not being nervous. And then being nervous about not being nervous. But there were about 2000 people out there, and I could hear them. And I was like: I’ve got to go from 200 to 2000 in the space of two weeks, with no extra rehearsal either.

It could have gone so wrong. But it didn’t! I fucking loved it! It was brilliant! I think I was just really ready for it, and now I’ll probably be slightly disappointed to be back on small stages.

In a strange sort of way, it might be easier in a larger venue – because you haven’t quite got that intimacy with your audience. If you’re playing the Notting Hill Arts Club, you can see the whites of their eyes – but if you’re playing the Glasgow Apollo or wherever, there’s just a dark mass in front of you.

Oh, exactly. It is much easier. You can be that character a lot more, and you can over-perform. You can’t over-perform in a venue with 150 people in it, because it doesn’t have quite the same impact. It just looks like you’re over-performing for the size of the venue. So you have to bring it back down again. I was really enjoying performing, and really getting into that persona of La Roux – and La Roux doesn’t really like small stages much. (Laughs)

You can retain a mystique in larger venues – whereas in a tiny venue, you’ve got to hop off the stage at the end, and go to the bar with everyone else. So there’s a bit of a disconnect there.

I like that distance, and it can be hard to maintain that distance. Last night [at a small showcase gig in Toronto] I literally had to walk off the side of the stage, pretty much into the crowd, and this girl just showed me her tits.

She was like: I’m just going to show you my tits. And I was like: can you please not? I really don’t want to see them. At all. And that’s really… woah, it’s in your face.

And you can hear everyone talking and stuff! They’re right there in front of you, so you can practically hear what they’re saying. You can go to the front of the stage and drop down to do a kind of emotional bit – and literally, their face is where your crotch is. It’s just a bit weird!

What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from these past four months?

(Long pause) I think it’s the stuff you learn from doing live shows every night. It’s stuff that you can’t really pinpoint, or that you’ve specifically learnt – but you find yourself being more and more comfortable on stage every night. And the people that have seen you from the beginning really notice the changes.

Every night you go: hmm, tomorrow night, I think I’m gonna walk right over to the left of the stage. Or I’m gonna use up a bit more of the stage. It’s little things about a performance, that really make a difference. You start to learn through experience and practice. There’s no other way of learning, apart from just doing it.

It must be a period of very rapid personal growth.

Yeah, and also just learning about interview technique: what’s going to be taken in the wrong context, and what’s going to be taken in the right context.

And learning not to get bored with the same old questions?

Yeah, totally: to give the same passionate answers, just as you would the first time you were asked the question. Because it’s not going to be the same people reading it. It’s going to be different people.

Well, we appreciate that. Finally, a friend of mine is concerned about the grammatical inaccuracy of “La Roux”. He says that it should be “Le Roux” for a man, or “La Rousse” for a woman.

I dunno, it was in this baby name book! It was their fault! Obviously, “La Roux” looks much better written down. Also, I didn’t know it was wrong until about a month after I chose it. And I just didn’t give a shit, really. I just didn’t care. It’s so irrelevant.

To me, it means “red-haired one” – and it does, vaguely. It’s just a male version of “red-haired one”, which I think is even cooler, because I’m well androgynous anyway. So it kind of makes sense.

And Depeche Mode doesn’t make any sense! And loads of English bands, or any bands all over the world, they call themselves… you know, a name like… I dunno, I’m trying to think of something. (Pause) Well, the Eurythmics isn’t a real word, is it?

No, I suppose not.

Exactly! But no one goes on about that!

My friend thought it might be a conspiracy. Because “la” and “roux” aren’t meant to go together, and because they haven’t been used together before, he said you’d show up quicker on Google.

[Stunned] Really? Oh, that’s amazing.

But then the French for wheel is “la roue”, and the French for street is “la rue”, so you can defend it on those grounds. And the famous female impersonator is also called Danny La Rue.

I thought he was a transvestite? No, I was wrong?

I don’t think he likes that, no. He’s a female impersonator.

Oh, never mind! (Laughter)

Blackout Crew – Dialled.

Posted in singles reviews, The Singles Jukebox by Mike A on April 24, 2009

In olden times, the craft of novelty songwriting was afforded sufficient respect to warrant a regular category at the Ivor Novello Awards. And as someone whose earliest 7-inch purchases were mostly novelty-flavoured (”Johnny Reggae”, “Monster Mash”, “The Ying Tong Song”), it’s a craft for which I’m still prepared to rep quite hard. So I’ve been gagging for a follow-up to the brilliant “Put A Donk On It”, one of the best novelty songs of recent years – but at the same time, I’ve been mindful that novelty follow-ups tend to fall victim to the law of diminishing returns (”Desperate Dan” was hardly the equal of “Mouldy Old Dough”, was it?). Sadly, “Dialled” is another case in point. It’s jolly enough, but the jollity and the wit seem forced at times, and the whole thing lacks some of the precision-honed attack of its predecessor. MC Rapid’s rhymes on the second verse (that’s the “another new track done and dusted” section) seem especially stiff and stilted – but then Dowie MC pulls things back admirably in the third verse, rhyming in the style of a chirpy call centre worker. They also could have done with re-donking their donk, as their existing donk is sounding a bit donked out… but now I’m just being picky.

Shontelle ft. Akon – Stuck With Each Other.

Posted in singles reviews, The Singles Jukebox by Mike A on April 23, 2009

Sheesh, what a hackfest! Diane Warren is nothing if not versatile, and there’s little to indicate her compositional hand at work (other than the usual stultifying lack of inspiration, originality or passion – but that’s a given). Meanwhile, Akon is no slouch when it comes to whacking the Autotune up to 11 and hitching a ride on the “ft” bus – but beyond that, he’s as functionally useless as ever. (What, and you were seriously expecting rapport?) This is the bastard child of “Hate That I Love You”, intoned by a bored girl and a robot on autopilot, whose utter indifference to each other is mirrored by both lyric and performance.

Just Jack – Embers.

Posted in singles reviews, The Singles Jukebox by Mike A on April 23, 2009

So, when was the last time that a fully fledged canon went Top Twenty? Kudos to Jack for pushing his compositional envelope – and considering that the last two singles flopped, we should also commend his commercial bravery – but “Embers” would be a stronger piece still if it were actually, you know, about something. Then again, there’s nothing overly wince-making about the impressionistic lyrical fragments that Jack weaves in and out of the arrangement, deftly layering each on top of the other – and when they all run together at the song’s peak, the overall effect is really rather fetching.

Demi Lovato – Don’t Forget.

Posted in singles reviews, The Singles Jukebox by Mike A on April 22, 2009

“Our love is like a song; you can’t forget it.” Now, there’s a presumptious generalisation (what, any song, even this year’s Bulgarian Eurovision carcrash?) – not to say a double-edged one (I’ve had “The Promise” stuck in my head for most of the day, but that doesn’t make it a particularly desirable return visitor). The line concludes the clonkiest section of an altogether leaden piece of work, which confirms any suspicions I might have had about the compositional skills of the Jonas Brothers. The tentative, marginally Pachelbel-esque opening section drags on way too long, failing to prepare the ground for the thrashy “Homage to Demi’s Deep Love of Metal” section, which crashes in from nowhere like a mistimed cut-and-paste. “Our love is like a song, but you won’t sing along”, concludes Demi, lowering her tear-streaked face as the rain lashes down around her. Well, if you must set these dirge-based metaphorical traps…

Basement Jaxx – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday April 21st.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rock City by Mike A on April 22, 2009

Two and a half years on from their last album, it feels like Basement Jaxx are itching to get back in the game. Instead of waiting for their forthcoming album Scars to be released (it’s due in May or June), they’ve broken with convention, touring the new material before anyone has a chance to hear it elsewhere.

Perhaps the purpose of this tour, which kicked off the night before in Newcastle, is simply to remind us that Basement Jaxx are still a going concern, and anything but a spent force? If so, then it’s a canny if unusual move.

The new stuff sounds good enough – particularly the addictively thumping new single “Raindrops”, which the band had only performed once before – and appetites were duly whetted for the recorded versions, which will include guest spots from the likes of Yoko Ono and Lightspeed Champion.

But it was the band’s sterling back catalogue which the capacity crowd had come to hear, and it was songs like the strident “Good Luck” (which opened the show), the ridiculously cheery 1920s throwback “Do Your Thing” and the relentlessly building momentum of Slarta John’s “Jump N’ Shout” which drew the loudest cheers from the surprisingly youthful audience.

The ten-strong line-up divided equally between the musicians and a fluctuating team of up to five guest vocalists, whose every re-appearance signalled yet another change of outfit. The outfits drew heavily on early 1980s hip hop influences, with plenty of bold primary colours, and the brilliant computer-generated animations at the back of the stage continued this bright, colourful theme.

As ever, the core creative duo of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton kept a relatively low profile, allowing free rein to the crew at the front of the stage. The diva-esque Vula Malinga was as loveably sassy as ever, the more lithe Joy Malcolm busted some amazing dance moves, and the interaction between all the performers felt fresh, spontaneous, sometimes cheekily provocative, and always full of fun.

The 100-minute set peaked with a thunderous, roof-raising “Where’s Your Head At”, which had pretty much everyone in the room pogoing on the spot and furiously pumping their fists. Bizarrely, it was prefaced by the opening lines of “Three Times A Lady”, which cut off just as Lionel Richie was telling us that “there’s something I must say out loud”. The Jaxx are never anything less than eclectic, and their spirit of inclusion and open-mindedness is one of their greatest strengths – but who would have guessed that dear old Lionel would rank as one of their muses?

Electrik Red – So Good.

Posted in singles reviews, The Singles Jukebox by Mike A on April 20, 2009

The-Dream might have produced it – but Christopher “Tricky” Stewart composed it, and so should receive his fair due. The ubiquity of the Dream/Tricky pairing shows no sign of letting up (hell, they even pop up on Lionel Richie’s new album), and while “So Good” is no “Umbrella” or “Single Ladies”, there’s a freshness to this which makes it a spot-on spring jam.

(Last week, when the weather was still a bit shit, I wasn’t feeling this at all. But earlier today, strolling to work in the sunshine, everything snapped into place.)

The arrangement’s slight 1990s vibe suits the track well, adding mock-credence to the singer’s not entirely serious claim to be an old-fashioned Baking Betty who has suddenly and miraculously changed her ways (and we only have to clock the langourous lingering over that first “We had a fliiiiiing”, to know that the re-invention is merely tactical).

For while “So Good” purports to be a simple and heartfelt declaration of romantic intent, it strikes me more as a jokily knowing come-hither from a girl who knows the rules of the game backwards.

(OK, so there’s four of them in the group – but this is to all intents and purposes a solo turn, backed up with a few strategically supportive ooh’s and yeah’s.)

So although you could argue that Lil’ Wayne’s contribution on the remix (whose chorus inserts a “shit” between the “ooh” and the “damn”, in a way that suggests that “ooh” and “damn” had been keeping its place warm all along) subverts the message in a rather nasty fashion, I prefer to see it as Weezy calling his ex-shag’s bluff, and letting her know that Baking Betty isn’t fooling him for one moment.

And then I imagine the whole lot of them falling about and cackling at the whole extended wind-up, and sloping off for al-fresco early evening cocktails, just before the sun goes in and the air turns from crisp to nippy.

[4] last week; [6] earlier today; and a [7] since sundown.

Lionel Richie – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Monday March 30.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 1, 2009

Lionel Richie doesn’t exactly shy away from the superlatives. “I’m having the best night of my life, right here on this stage tonight!” he exclaimed, just before the encore – and given his seemingly boundless enthusiasm, which never flagged for a second during last night’s epic 24-song set, we could almost believe him.

Displaying all the hyped-up energy of a man half his age, the 59-year old Richie was in no danger of resting on his laurels. His sheer love of performing radiated from every sweat-soaked pore, and his easy, unforced charisma proved instantly infectious with his adoring audience. By the fourth number – a gracious and delightful rendition of Penny Lover from the career-defining Can’t Slow Down album – happy couples were swaying contentedly in the aisles, arms draped around each other’s shoulders.

Lionel’s strongest suit is the love song, and his most successful love songs – Truly, Stuck On You, Endless Love – are unashamedly romantic celebrations of strong, committed and lasting unions. You hear them as first dances at weddings, or as anniversary dedications on the radio. They don’t seek to say anything particularly new, and some of them teeter on the brink of downright corniness – but when you witness the reactions that they provoke amongst the faithful, it’s hard to remain cynical for long. Even the corniest of them all – the evergreen Three Times A Lady and the deathless Hello – had the ring of sincerity about them. For that’s Lionel’s art: to turn age-old sentiments into universal truths, and to make even the most over-used rhymes sound as if they had never been written before.

As for the more uptempo numbers – of which there were plenty – the musical emphasis leant more towards rock than funk. A pounding Running With The Night played to all the strengths of the five-piece band, and an extended Dancing On The Ceiling closed the main set in storming fashion, raising cheers as it dropped briefly into the opening bars of Van Halen’s Jump.

Surprisingly, there was just one selection from the newly released Just Go album: a duet with contemporary R&B superstar Akon, whose contribution was relayed from the giant video screens above the stage. Perhaps it wouldn’t have hurt to plug the new material a little harder. But then again, we were there to hear the classics – and from the opening Easy to the final All Night Long, the irrepressible, irresistible and hugely likeable Lionel Richie made it his business to give us all that we could possibly want.

Set list:
All Around The World
Just Go
Penny Lover
Just For You
Stuck On You
Tender Heart
Ballerina Girl
Running With The Night
Say You Say Me
Wandering Stranger
Lady (You Bring Me Up)
Brick House
Three Times A Lady
Sail On
Dancing On The Ceiling
Endless Love
Don’t Stop The Music
My Destiny
All Night Long (All Night)