Anyone expecting the originally advertised support act was in for a disappointment last night, as The Noisettes turned out to be missing from the bill – mysteriously so, as they are still listed as the support for the remainder of Maxïmo Park’s current tour. Their place was taken by Bombay Bicycle Club: a likeable teenage indie band, whose album is due out in early July. Singer Jack Steadman put in an intriguingly eccentric performance, his face contorted into the sort of cringing, apologetic grimace that you might pull if you had just offended your grandparents with an off-colour joke.
In stark contrast, Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith – as natty as ever in his trademark black trilby and a close-fitting maroon checked suit – radiated an ebullient, unshakeable confidence from the off, his energy levels never dipping for a single second of his hour and ten minutes on stage. Eyes bulging and arms akimbo, he spent much of the set perched on a raised area at the lip of the stage, allowing even the most tightly crushed punter at the back of the sold-out venue to enjoy a full performance.
For a band whose rabble-rousing, anthemic indie rock was always underpinned with thoughtful lyrics and a leftfield approach, Maxïmo’s latest album is a disappointingly safe and conventional affair, which sees them treading water artistically. Beefed up on stage, the new material worked well enough – particularly recent single The Kids Are Sick Again – but it paled in comparison to crowd favourites such as Graffiti (which opened the set) and Apply Some Pressure (the final encore). And by placing such an emphasis on getting the crowd to leap around and generally go mad, much of the band’s subtlety was lost along the way.
Maxïmo Park used to be a little bit arty, a little bit different. Nowadays, they seem happy to turn themselves into the Kaiser Chiefs. Given their talent and potential, you can’t help wondering whether they’re selling themselves short.
Starting at 5:30 in the afternoon and ending shortly after midnight, Nottingham’s inaugural Spex Fest offered an opportunity to sample six experimental indie bands – most of them American – in a well-chosen line-up which showcased the diversity of the current scene.
Following opening sets from Lovvers and Shitty Limits, Icy Demons (from Chicago) took to the stage at 7:45. Arguably the most technically accomplished live performers of the day, the band played a dazzlingly eclectic set, drawing on influences that ranged from jazzy prog-rock to funk and dub, all underpinned with a keenly rhythmic intensity. If you’ve been mourning the demise of Stereolab, then Icy Demons might just be the band for you.
Rainbow Arabia (from California) are a boy-girl duo who combine dance-derived electronica with Middle Eastern influences, overlain with obscure, echo-heavy vocals and pealing guitar lines. They took a while to hit their stride – but when they did, the effect was compelling.
Times New Viking (from Columbus, Ohio) took things back to raw, lo-fi basics, with a thrashy, brutal simplicity that stood in stark contrast to the previous two acts. Appealing enough in small doses, there was something a little too one-dimensional about their approach, which would have benefited from a sharper sense of dynamics.
Telepathe (from Brooklyn) were perhaps the strangest, most awkward and most challenging act of the day, blending girlish innocence with an unsettling sense of menace. Melissa Livaudais and the splendidly named Busy Gangnes stood sweetly behind their keyboards and percussion, singing mostly in unison with frail, emotionless, unschooled voices – while a booming, throbbing, deafening maelstrom of sound crashed around the room.
Brace yourself for the Hell Machine, some Balkan bombast and a rendition of ‘skiddly buffely boodely bump’ as Mike Atkinson tips 10 potential winners of Eurovision 2009.
Language buffs might be drawn to the Eurovision Song Contest for its cultural plurality. A statistician might revel in the quirks of its voting system. A homesick expatriate might place an emotional stake in the success of his or her homeland, however justifiably (most former Soviet or Yugoslav republics) or foolishly (all points west of Prague). But for Britons, the contest represents one of the last outposts of that most devalued of currencies: high camp. And in this year’s finals in Moscow, the camp comes no higher than Sweden’s daring fusion of light opera and throbbing eurodance.
Graced with the voice of a song-thrush, the shoulders of a stevedore and the lung power of an industrial dehumidifier, Malena Ernman is an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano with serious chops: she’s played Carmen and Dido, sung at Vienna and Glyndebourne, and worked with Barenboim and Rattle. Tomorrow night, equipped with little more than a feathery frock, a souped-up karaoke machine and a mask-flaunting dance troupe, she faces an audience of 100 million, whose unqualified respect might not be forthcoming. If camp’s comedic power resides in the gap between intention and effect, then the gap here is one in which we may all gratefully luxuriate.
No country is more eager to win Eurovision than Malta, and no country has displayed greater loyalty to the hapless UK – even to the point of awarding the full douze points to Scooch, in 2007. There’s no getting away from it: we owe them.
With that in mind, you are urged to gaze charitably upon the delightful Chiara, who returns to the finals for a third attempt. Granted, there’s nothing immediately ear-grabbing about What If We, an old-fashioned ballad that mires itself in metaphysical riddles (“What if we could be free? Mystify our wisdom in time and one day we’ll see”). But know this also: Chiara has form. She came third in 1998, second in 2005, and her hardcore Eurovision fanbase adore her still-can-do spirit. Underestimate her at your peril.
Times may change, but a Eurovision cleansed of lyrical toddler-talk would be a bleak place indeed. With this in mind, we must commend its few remaining exponents. Moldova has us merrily shai-lalai-ing; Armenia chips in with some sturdy takituk-takituk-takituk-ing; and Germany goes the whole hog, inviting us variously to “do the skiddly skiddly bo”, the “skiddly buffely boodely bump” and most winningly of all, the “ring-a-bing bing”.
But it’s to Turkey’s Hadise that we must turn for a toddler song title – first pausing to admire her way with a double-edged compliment. “No one can kiss like you do – as if it’s your profession,” she purrs. Surely there are better ways to a man’s heart than suggesting he snogs like a rent boy?
Düm Tek Tek is the hotly tipped, rump-shaking ditty in question, its title an onomatopoeic representation of Hadise’s wild, unfettered heartbeat. In other words, it’s a Turkish version of Boom Bang-a-Bang. And for that alone, we must salute it.
There’s a certain strain of butched-up Balkan bombast that always does well at Eurovision, to the bafflement of those deprived of sufficient opportunities to acquire a taste for it. This year it’s the Bosnian rock band Regina who look set to galvanise the former Yugoslav voting bloc into phone-stabbing action. Bistra Voda (Clear Water) couples a stirring tune with poetic, impressionistic lyrics and distinct military overtones; you could imagine it performed by a weary, battle-scarred marching band, still defiant in defeat. Watch out for a striking Socialist Realist tableau vivant, in which the players adopt the noble, faraway gazes of Worker Hero archetypes. Or are they merely refugees from a Sarajevan production of Les Miserables? It’s hard to decide.
Where football leads, Eurovision follows. As countries of birth or residence become ever less relevant when it comes to assigning players to teams (Ronan Keating has co-written this year’s Danish entry, for instance), cynical tongues have seen fit to wag at Norway’s apparent outsourcing of their entry to Alexander Rybak, a Byelorussian. What neater way could there be to unite two of the major voting blocs, the Slavs and the Scandinavians?
In fairness, Rybak has lived in Norway since he was four, giving him every right to assert his Norwegian identity. During the fortnight of rehearsals, press conferences and parties that have preceded tomorrow’s finals, he has presented himself as a model of accessible, unassuming charm – and it’s these qualities that make his self-penned song Fairytale such a strong tip to win. Indeed, it has been the universally acknowledged red-hot favourite for so long that its supremacy has rather deadened the fun of trying to pick a winner.
Stringed instruments are big news at this year’s Eurovision – nobody quite knows why – and Rybak’s nimble fiddle breaks lie at the heart of Fairytale’s appeal. Granted, his irrepressible sunniness does clash with the lyrical despair (“I don’t care if I lose my mind, I’m already cursed”), and there’s an awkward tautology in the opening line (“Years ago, when I was younger”) which sits oddly with the winsome boyishness he projects – but Rybak has just turned 23, and is hence clearly entitled to have a “past”. Fairytale’s spell palls swiftly on repeated exposure, but it would be churlish not to wish him well.
We last saw Sakis Rouvas at the 2006 finals in Athens, as presenter rather than contestant. Those who recall his graceful, high-wire-assisted descent on to the Athens stage will be heartened by this year’s continuation of the “man in flight” theme – although this time round, as the Greek entrant, his execution is altogether more earthbound. In other words, Sakis gets to jump off his podium a lot, barking “Fly!” upon each descent, with a misplaced optimism that would have shamed Icarus.
A fully fledged heartthrob at home, Sakis seems blissfully unburdened by self-doubt – but at 37, his age might just be starting to catch up with him. So as you watch him shimmy and thrust, playing eternal peek-a-boo with midriff and man-cleavage alike, you can’t help questioning the age-appropriateness of all this galumphing around. Still, there’s plenty on stage to distract us. The posing platform briefly becomes a conveyor belt, before morphing into a giant sunbed, upon whose half-open lid Sakis triumphantly perches. Unmissable stuff.
In a comparatively unchallenging year for the Eurovision props department, it falls to Ukraine’s frankly alarming Svetlana Loboda to go the whole hog, bolstered by an equally arresting troupe of swarthy hunks and “anti-crisis girls”. Brace yourselves for a riot of eye-popping gimmickry – from the so-called “Hell Machine” that dominates the stage (essentially a set of giant MDF cogs, but let’s not puncture the metaphor), to the drum kit on wheels that is heaved towards centre stage in the closing moments. The overall aesthetic combines interwar industrial dystopianism – think Chaplin’s Modern Times, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – with bare-chested centurions who appear to have been drafted in from a Derek Jarman film.
And all this for a mispronounced ode to the male posterior – “You are sexy bom; really crazy bom.” You sense that someone on Svetlana’s design team must be having the time of his life.
And so to the vexed question of “political voting”, and the apparent refusal of eastern European countries to cast votes for their western counterparts. Until last year, the standard anti-conspiracy theory ran like this: political voting might bump a mediocre song up a couple of notches, but it has never created a winner. Besides, non-conspiracists would say: how exactly does one organise a conspiracy based on not voting for people? But at the 2008 finals, with former Soviet republics submitting nearly a quarter of all votes cast, most agreed that a tipping point had been reached. How else to explain the triumph of Russian-language superstar Dima Bilan, and his resolutely unmemorable song Believe?
Stung into action by a surging tide of western dissent, Terry Wogan fulminating at its helm, the authorities have tried to reassure those suspicious of the east by reintroducing a jury system that will count for half of each country’s votes, with votes from TV viewers accounting for the other half (since 2002, TV viewers have controlled the whole vote). Theoretically, jurors are drawn from a select pool of music business experts, and charged with the solemn duty of evaluating each entry strictly on its songcraft – but if past practice is any measure, then any country deploying pan pipes, Gypsy fiddles or power ballads stands to be rewarded handsomely.
None of this need concern this year’s Russian entry, as every effort has been taken to ensure that Moscow won’t be playing host again in 2010. Anastasiya Prikhodko was parachuted into the selection process at the 11th hour, and whole sections of her song Mamo are caterwauled in Ukranian, in effect dampening local support to a containable minimum. Besides, every final needs its toilet break. It’s a service, of sorts.
For the so-called “big four” (France, Germany, Spain and the UK), whose annual financial contributions to Eurovision guarantee automatic passage to the finals (payola didn’t die, it just became transparent), crunch time has come. Long since barred from the top half of the scoreboard, and presumably weary of forever bankrolling their own ritual humiliation, all four countries have raised their games – even the French, habitually impervious to being slighted by the rest of Europe.
Patricia Kaas is a multimillion-selling institution in her homeland, so there’s nothing she needs to prove tomorrow night. Indeed, her gimmick is that there’s no gimmick. Alone on a bare stage, she smoulders; she emotes; she delivers. Her song – no, her chanson – is John Barry with a twist of Jacques Brel; it’s Charlotte Rampling sulking in a wet-look trenchcoat; it’s a jaded nightclub turn at the end of the evening. It’s a grower rather than an instant hit, to be sure – but it could be the “growers” that stand to gain most from the reintroduction of a jury system. Although for safety’s sake, a last-minute burst of Gypsy fiddling possibly wouldn’t go amiss.
Dare we dream? OK, so the combination of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren might have gifted us with little more than a glorified upgrade of the X Factor winner’s template – as if the world was crying out for another That’s My Goal, When You Believe or A Moment Like This, for pity’s sake. But to dwell on It’s My Time’s generic standing-prouds, breaking-throughs and moah-ments risks missing a crucial point. Its whole raison d’être is to grab votes, and if that calls for a syrupy show tune, then so be it.
Boosted by a superb place in tomorrow’s draw (the 23rd song of 25, sandwiched between undistinguished offerings from Romania and Finland), “our” Jade Ewen has everything to play for. An unarguably accomplished vocalist, she sells It’s My Time like a trouper, taking us on a three-minute journey from nervous hesitance to triumphant certainty.
In a night of a thousand key changes (don’t even think of planning your Eurovision drinking game without factoring them in), Ewen gets to ride the most show-stopping, ovation-inducing key change of them all – just as the camera pans round to reveal Lord Lloyd Webber himself, modestly placed behind his piano, and doubtless flushing with demure pride at a job well done.
At first, they sound like a novelty act – but on closer inspection, there’s a real seriousness of purpose behind Michael Goldwasser’s Easy Star All-Stars project. It takes a certain amount of brass neck for a bunch of mostly American and Jamaican reggae musicians to dedicate themselves to their chosen task: that of producing thoughtful, inventive and entertaining full-length covers of classic British concept albums. But instead of coming across as flippant or sacrilegious, the band’s underlying respect for their source material – Dark Side Of The Moon, OK Computer and most recently Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – shines through, breathing new life into the familiar songs.
There are eight people in the current touring version of the band, with most vocals split between the statuesque Kirsty Rock, the effervescent Menny More and the beaming, calming Rasta presence of Ras I Ray. Barring a couple of self-penned openers, the lengthy set divided fairly evenly between the Floyd, Radiohead and Beatles covers. The selections from Sgt. Pepper were lighter and cheerier, with the occasional artfully altered lyric – those cellophane flowers in “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” are now red, gold and green, for instance. But where Dark Side and OK Computer can tend towards the oppressively bleak, the All-Stars didn’t let the subject matter stand in the way of serving up a good time. If anything, a little more English gloom wouldn’t have gone amiss – but perhaps this wouldn’t have played so well with the crowd, sections of which were bordering on the delirious by the end of the night.
There were a couple of misfires. The Beat’s Ranking Roger showed up for a brief guest vocal, but sheepishly resorted to cribbing the lyrics from his phone. Considering that he only had one verse to sing, it was difficult to feel much sympathy. And the encore section dragged badly – firstly with Kirsty’s over-stretched attempts to re-create the vocal drama of the Floyd’s “Great Gig In The Sky”, and secondly with an interminable meet-the-band jam session that brought the show to an anti-climactic finish. But set against these were a sparkling dub-style take on “When I’m 64”, a lush, emotional “Breathe”, a finely crafted “Paranoid Android”, a complex yet danceable “Money”, and much more besides.
There’s a good reason why this bunch have been almost permanent fixtures in the upper reached of the US Billboard reggae charts for most of the decade, and it was a pleasure to hear them weave their unlikely magic in front of such an appreciative audience.
The band themselves might be sick of the constant comparisons, but it’s hard to witness Doves’ return from the wilderness – it’s been four years since the last album – without remembering Elbow’s position this time last year. Both bands deal in a similar sort of weather-beaten Mancunian wistfulness: blending the melancholy with the uplifting, and addressing themselves more to the individual listener than the collective throng. And both bands have come back re-energised: offering fresh new twists on their classic sound, and trusting that the quality of the music alone will see them through.
But where Elbow’s Guy Garvey plays the showman, actively seeking a direct emotional connection with his audience, Doves’ Jimi Goodwin cuts an altogether more distanced, elusive, almost private figure. His band aren’t there to force their own interpretations of their music upon you. What you make of the songs is up to you. Everything’s left open-ended: from the impressionistic lyrics through to the obscure movie footage on the back wall.
At times, it seemed as if everyone in the room was lost in their own private world: concentrating on the exquisitely played material, without letting their faces give anything away. And then occasionally, an anthem like “Black And White Town” or “Pounding” would punch through: breaking the spell, and sending hands flying skywards.
A four-song encore climaxed with “There Goes The Fear”, whose coda had the whole band bashing out funky percussion rhythms, their regular instruments abandoned. It formed the perfect moment for an unscripted extra encore, especially for the “Nottingham ravers” in the house who had been bellowing for it all night: the 1992 cult club classic “Space Face”, recorded back when Doves were still known as Sub Sub. It was the one truly spontaneous moment of the night – and all the more welcome for it.
With both Leon Jackson and Same Difference dropped by their record labels, Rhydian Roberts has turned out to be the dark horse from The X Factor’s 2007 finals. Last night at the Royal Concert Hall, in front of a packed and adoring audience of all ages, the reason for his enduring success became clear. This was no cheap cash-in job from someone who had been sold an empty dream, hoovering up the remaining pennies while there was still time. Instead, we were treated to a lavish stage show – there were eleven performers on stage, including a delightful four-piece string section – and a carefully rehearsed, musically ambitious, stylistically diverse and artistically satisfying musical experience.
The show opened with a lengthy, dramatic medley of two Meat Loaf numbers. Rhydian threw himself into one of the most challenging vocal performances of the night, stalking the stage like a man possessed, and wringing every last drop of drama from the material. It was an awesome statement of intent: grandiose, bombastic – and, let’s be truthful here, ever so slightly preposterous.
For Rhydian is a unique performer in every way – that extraordinary voice, those strange mannerisms, that gleaming white quiff – and tasteful understatement just isn’t his style. Sometimes, he played upon his eccentricities for laughs. His take on David Bowie’s “Heroes” was an exercise in high camp, and his cheesy dance routine in the middle of “Macarthur Park” was an absolute hoot – “like Michael Jackson meets Simon Cowell”, as one of the fans on his official forum observed.
Weirdly, none of these theatrical jinks got in the way of Rhydian’s remarkable ability to stir our emotions, when the material called for it. The night’s artistic highlight belonged to a simple, traditional song called “Myfanwy”, which was sung in its original Welsh. It was a tender, heartfelt performance, sung with utter conviction. As the song reached its climax, a Welsh male voice choir appeared on the overhead video screen, adding their warm, rich tones to the song’s closing moments.
Other elements were harder to justify. Did Rhydian really need to abandon the stage for three lengthy costume changes, leaving his band to entertain us with a curious selection of instrumental numbers? And was it altogether wise to pick no less than five numbers from Shirley Bassey’s back catalogue, including the last three songs of the night? No matter, this was a sparkling show from a determined and likeable young talent, who has made his mark in his own very special way. Reality TV wannabes may come and go, but Rhydian Roberts is here for the long haul.
Medley: I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) / Not A Dry Eye In The House
Coming Home Again
Instrumental: Albinoni Adagio
The Living Tree
There Will Be A Time
Instrumental: Classical Gas
To Where You Are
Get The Party Started
The Show Must Go On
This Is My Life
The Impossible Dream
(Photo taken at Sheffield Academy, Tuesday April 28, by phoenixlily)
It’s been four years between the last album and the new one [Kingdom Of Rust], so what have you been up to? Was there a chance to take a sabbatical break?
There was, yes. We took about four or five months off. We didn’t have a break for [second album] The Last Broadcast, and we had about a month off for [third album] Some Cities. Then with this one we said: look, let’s try and actually live like normal people – not in this weird travelling bubble, or studio bubble. It was a nice time to find ourselves again. When you’re in a band, it’s like this weird family you’re connected to – so we wanted to spend time with our other families! (Laughs) It was much needed.
Then from there it was like: right, fourth album, blank canvas. OK, we didn’t know quite where to start, or what the fuck to do. But a year later, we had all these songs. And we kind of stepped back from it, and we were saying: yeah, it’s good, but it’s a bit comfort zone for us.
Then we started upon our quest, if you like, to search for what we could do that’s different. We needed to push ourselves and go down different avenues for Doves. To almost justify coming back with a fourth album, it’s got to be different for us. So that became the long road to doing this album: what we could try and what we couldn’t try, what we could get away with and what we couldn’t get away with.
So there was a process of experimentation, where you were trying to push at boundaries and see where they’d take you?
It was almost on a song by song basis. It was like, where haven’t we been before? Right, let’s go down that road. Then when we came out of the recording sessions with all these songs, we wanted to pick almost polar opposites. On the album you get “Jetstream” followed by “Kingdom Of Rust”: totally opposing songs. And everyone was like: you can’t do that!
But in a weird way, it works. It’s a strange Doves DNA stamp that we’ve got: we seem to get away with what other bands might not be able to get away with. (Laughs)
There are a few changes that I’ve picked up on. The album has a big, majestic, quite grand sort of sound, which can get very intense.
I’d agree with that. It’s possibly our most intense album, because it takes you through some dark passages. Thinking about it, maybe it was a reflection of some of the struggles we were going through with this album: personally and with the band. You can’t help but for it to come out, so it’s always a good stamp of where you were at the time.
But there’s a lot of optimism on that album as well. And there are also snapshots, which is what I call it when you take a picture with words. Lyrically, we enjoyed going into things that we haven’t really done so much.
The lyrics are quite impressionistic, aren’t they?
We’ve always liked songs that are ambiguous. In fact, we hate pinpointing what they’re about. Some are obvious, like “10:03” and “Jetstream”. But there are others where we wanna keep it ambiguous, so the listener can put their own version of the story on them.
Anyone’s point of view is just as valid as ours. We might be coming at it from a different angle than what the listener might interpret it as, but that’s cool. That’s what good songs do.
What about “Kingdom Of Rust” itself? What’s the significance of that title?
It’s got quite a strange resonance, that song. We went away for four years, and literally the whole music industry imploded. We wanted to write a song with a bit of optimism, so the lyrics “It takes an ocean of trust in the kingdom of rust” hit a nice resonance with what’s going on today.
You’ve got a couple of your own lead vocals on the album, and it was interesting to note that they’re two of the more electronic influenced tracks.
In Doves camp, we always pass the mike. Jimi’s the main singer, but we always get tracks where we’ll go: you try it Andy, or you try it Jez. We’ll literally get the mike and try it. And if someone’s personality works best in the song, then that gets the vote. Jimi’s one of the first people to encourage other people to take the mike, so it was very natural. In fact, it wasn’t even an issue. The song’s got the ego, and not the individual.
You pride yourselves on this democratic approach – so egos get checked at the door, do they?
You know what? The democratic approach is fine, but it’s a pain in the arse. Everything takes twice as long. (Laughs) With quite a lot of bands, it all comes from one person: here are the songs, this is how they are, you can just play them. That’s never what Doves have been about. It’s always been about a sort of painful democracy, if you like.
Did you literally hole yourselves up in your converted farmhouse studio for months on end, cutting yourself off from the outside world?
Looking back on it now, I suppose we were isolated. We were almost in a tunnel, if you like. Halfway through, we were thinking there was no end in sight. We started to lose it a little bit. “When is the end in sight? When is it?” And so it just seemed to be this endless tunnel, with no light coming in.
But three-quarters of the way through, we started to see an album emerging, which was the most amazing feeling. It’s like you’re looking at a jigsaw puzzle and then suddenly in front of you, you can start to see the picture. So it was literally from the darkest point to the highest point, in a couple of weeks! (Laughs)
You’ve got a big tour coming up, where you’ll be spending two months on the road. I guess it’s been quite a long time, so have you had any warm-up dates?
We did six warm-up dates, and it was great. It’s something that’s been missing from being in a band. The live circuit has always been a part of us, and it was weird to be in a studio for so long and not do a gig. So it felt so good to get back there. That’s what being in a band is about: actually getting on stage and playing it, in front of the whites of the eyes in the audience.
It feels good to have fresh material in the set, and just to exercise these songs live is an amazing feeling. If you’re playing for a year, you get to understand the songs a little bit more, and you can have a different twist on them from the actual studio recordings.
It’s the old cliché: it’s the travelling and everything else that’s shit, but that actual hour and a half on stage is what you do it for.
Have you got any festival appearances coming up?
Glastonbury is confirmed now. We had two choices – the second stage or the John Peel tent – and we decided to close the John Peel tent on the Friday night. Just because we wanted word of mouth. Everyone was complaining: it’s not big enough, it’s not big enough! But it’s like: sod it, we want to get some atmosphere going in that old tent. It’s gonna be cool.
I’ve heard a few people comparing your position in 2009 with Elbow’s position this time last year. I hope no one’s putting any pressure on you to “do an Elbow”…
Well, that’s out of my control, isn’t it? We’ve done an album that we’re all very proud of, and that we’ve worked ridiculously hard on – so our work is kind of done in that respect. As for commercial pressures and all that, that’s out of our control now. What will be, will be. I don’t think we’ve done an interview, or an article, without people mentioning Elbow!
But there’s one thing that their success has shown: that if you make a bloody good record that can stand on its own qualities, then that record will actually see you through.
Well, yeah. I’m always a strong believer in that. When we went from [early 1990s dance act] Sub Sub to Doves, we thought people wouldn’t give us a chance, because of our prior history – but it just shows you how wrong I was. You do a good album, and I think people will appreciate it.
Having previously released reggae covers of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Radiohead’s OK Computer, what made you decide to cover The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for your latest project?
Our thing is that we like to do concept albums. We don’t just want to do a collection of songs, or greatest hits, in reggae. We want to do higher albums that work really well as a cohesive unit, where the songs make sense together. Sgt. Pepper’s is considered to be one of the first concept albums, so that made it a logical choice.
Besides that, our first two albums were – because of the source material – were somewhat dark, minor key affairs. We thought it would be a great challenge to apply our sound to something different: to a more upbeat, major key, pop-orientated album.
As a resident of New York City, is it important that the albums that you choose are all British? Because they’ve all been British so far.
I think it’s somewhat of a coincidence. Or maybe it’s just that the British make the best albums? I don’t know if this informs the decision-making, but I did grow up being something of a musical Anglophile – even with reggae, as a lot of my favourite reggae comes from British bands.
Were there any delicate negotiations involved, when it came to assigning tracks to your various guest artists? [Steel Pulse, Ranking Roger, Max Romeo, U-Roy, Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul, The Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru’s Michael Rose, Third World’s Bunny Rugs and others.] Or did they just do what they were told?
The funny thing is, that while Sgt. Pepper’s is considered by many people in the rock and pop world to be one of the greatest albums of all time, a lot of Jamaicans – while they might be familiar with The Beatles – don’t know the album. It’s such a well known album, but it doesn’t have a lot of so-called “hits” on it. There are songs that get played on rock radio each year in America, such as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day In The Life”, but you don’t hear a lot of the deeper album cuts. And therefore they haven’t been covered a lot. So it was great for us to be able to do songs like “Fixing A Hole” and “Getting Better”, that probably haven’t been adapted. I’m sure that there’s covers of every Beatles song, but they’re not so well-known.
Listening through to the Beatles originals, how easy was it for you to imagine them as reggae versions?
There were certainly some tracks that were pretty difficult. My overall first impression was that it would be a very difficult project. Partly it’s because the vibe of the album is very different from our first two albums. Partly it’s the reverence that people have for this album.
It’s always good to attack that sense of reverence.
Oh yeah, and I have no problem with doing it – but it’s something to think about. I spent about six months just writing the arrangements. The beginning period was really just listening to the album, and immersing myself on a deeper level. I was very familiar with the album from the time that I was a child, but I hadn’t really analysed it on an intellectual and musical level.
Certain songs came easier. With something like “Lovely Rita”, I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to do with it musically.
I‘d have thought “Within You, Without You” would be a challenge. That was the one that I just couldn’t imagine, before I played the album. But I like what you’ve done. You’ve put that “Sleng Teng” rhythm underneath it…
Hey, you’re the second reviewer who caught that, which is great. That arrangement was really difficult, because originally part of it is in 10:8 time, and then in 3 time. With our previous two albums, I’d done a lot of experimentation with doing reggae in odd time signatures – but on this one, just because of the pop aspect of it, I wanted to keep this album for the most part in 4:4 time. So I knew I had to get some kind of 4:4 beat and rhythm to this song. So, yes, this one was pretty tough.
Our bassist Victor Rice, who also mixed the album, wrote the string arrangement. He did a brilliant job of making it work in basically 5 time over 4. And then the whole “Sleng Teng” thing didn’t come about until we were actually in the mixing studio. I was like: you know what, this just isn’t night. It’s just not good enough. And I was just fooling around, and I thought: what if I replace the original bassline for it? I’d somehow got the idea of interpolating “Sleng Teng”, and that really glued the song together for me. It gave me the drive that it needed.
Another song which I didn’t think would work is “When I’m 64”, but it’s one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album. Especially with that extended dub section, which has a kind of Rico Rodriguez feel to it…
Yeah, with the trombone. “When I’m 64” was also difficult. I think that in England, people understand that it’s somewhat of a tribute to the whole 1920s music hall genre. But in America, people couldn’t quite relate to it on that level. I know quite a few people who actually just don’t like the song. They think that it’s too corny: “This isn’t rock and roll, what is this?”
In the course of my life, I’ve heard a lot of reggae covers of other music that I thought were very corny. It could be corny because of the source material, or corny because of making it reggae. So I had to be really careful to give it something that would make it sound cool to reggae fans and rock fans alike.
I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the arrangement, but I was just somehow thinking: OK, Twenties music hall in London; I’m gonna transport that to early Eighties dancehall in Jamaica. It’s kinda got the vibe of a classic Sugar Minott song called “Herbman Hustling”, and then I was like: well, let’s get Sugar Minott in to sing this one.
Have you had any response, from the Beatles camp? Do you know if they’re even aware of it?
Well, we do all of our albums above board. Before we put anything out, we’re dealing with the management and the publishers. We don’t want to fly under the radar. We want everyone to hear this, and we wouldn’t want to give anyone a reason to sue us.
So a long time ago, we dealt with Apple Corps: the Beatles company that they set up in 1968, which still technically administers their business. We got approval from them, and then we dealt with their publishers, Sony ATV, which was a much more lengthy procedure. That being said, we’ve not yet heard a response from Paul or Ringo or Olivia Harrison or Yoko Ono – but we really, really hope to get some responses from them.
I’d like to think that if Paul heard this, he would like it. I’m pretty sure that he likes reggae, and it seems like he’s into experimentation. Even if this album tanks commercially, if Paul McCartney ever said to me “I really appreciate what you did with my music”, I would remember that for the rest of my life.
Will your live show be dominated by Sgt. Pepper, or do you split it between the other projects?
We do a pretty long show, and with this new album we’re certainly going to play the majority of it. But because so many people love Dub Side Of The Moon and Radiodread, we’re still going to give them a healthy serving of those songs as well.
Do you carry a mental shortlist of albums that you might consider for your next project?
Oh, sure. When we did Dub Side Of The Moon, we didn’t realise that we were going to create a series. But once that became somewhat successful, we’ve thought about many dozens of albums. There are some that I’ve even started writing arrangements for. So we have a bunch in mind for the next one. I can’t tell you what it could be, because we try to surprise people when it comes out.
For what it’s worth, my vote would go to REM’s Automatic For The People. I’d like to hear you tackle that one.
I will register your vote!