First things first: Kathrin deBoer’s supremely elegant cocktail frock deserves a special mention. With its high collar, plunging wrap-around bodice, tied belt and A-line skirt, the singer’s black and white polka dot creation was a masterpiece of stitching, which bestowed an air of effortless glamour upon its wearer.
Kathrin’s sartorial classiness was matched by her performance style. She sighed, cooed, purred and swooned her way through Belleruche’s hour-long set, her beaming geniality and understated delivery masking a deft technical precision. In terms of vocal tone, there was something of Roisin Murphy’s silk-cut smokiness about her.
The comparison extended to the music, which positioned the trio as natural descendants of Murphy’s former band Moloko, and their compatriots from the lighter, more tuneful end of mid-Nineties trip-hop.
But if DJ Modest’s funky, low-slung beats and scratches mined familiar territory, guitarist Ricky Fabulous provided the twist, augmenting the template with eclectic flourishes that drew equally from jazz, blues, soul, funk and rock.
The guitarist switched to bass for a cover of The Beat’s 1980 hit Mirror In The Bathroom. Although the original vocal tempo was retained, half-speed beats gave the track a fresh feel. The bass returned for a throbbing and clattering 3 Amp Fuse: one of several tracks from Belleruche’s newly released third album (270 Stories), which was bolstered by sampled cellos from a recent London show.
The set ended with spirited scat singing from deBoer, accelerating to breakneck speed as DJ Modest ramped up the tempo of his beats. Although Stealth’s compact performance space was jam-packed (surprisingly so, for a band which has largely hovered below the popular radar), there was still just enough wiggle room for those who felt like dancing – which, by the end of this assured and immensely likeable performance, was most of us.
On record, Crystal Castles are an awkward proposition. Their screechy, scratchy electronica is shot through with a primitive punk rock attitude, resulting in a musical blend which strives to be both uplifting and menacing – but the bratty petulance of their approach can get in the way, reducing the music to a tinny, ugly mess. However, as last night’s storming show clearly demonstrated, if you’ve only heard Crystal Castles on record, then you haven’t really heard them at all.
On stage, the three performers – singer Alice Glass, keyboardist Ethan Kath and their touring drummer Christopher Chartrand – are shrouded in smoke and strobes to the point of near-invisibility. When we do catch sight of Glass, it’s still difficult to read her. She is a mesmerising performer, who certainly isn’t afraid to engage with her crowd – standing on their shoulders, passing round a bottle of liquor, then launching her body onto their outstretched arms – and yet she somehow remains cool, aloof, unknowable.
Vocally, Glass is just as hard to fathom. Buried in reverb, her toneless squeaks and squawks barely count as singing at all – and yet they sit perfectly on top of Kath’s thunderous backing tracks, which add whole new dimensions of power to the indie-electro originals.
It’s this scaling up of the band’s sound which makes the show such a success. Tracks such as Crimewave (from the first album) and Baptism (from this year’s follow-up) are transformed into dancefloor-friendly juggernauts, which are ecstatically received by the mostly teenage audience. (Curiously, certain sections of the crowd mosh even harder to the slower tracks.)
With little to focus our attention on stage, it’s the audience rather than the performers which create the atmosphere. Alice Glass and Ethan Kath are merely the catalysts, giving us no more and no less than we need. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. In reality, it was an unqualified triumph – perhaps even the gig of the year.
What are you up to you today?
Well, I’m doing something good today. I’m going for a fitting at Dolce e Gabanna, so it’s really not that bad! I rarely go to parties, but I’m in town for two day doing fashion week, and there’s Naomi Campbell’s party tonight. That’s about the only glamorous thing in this business! (Laughs)
You’ve just returned from the States. Was that your first major tour over there?
Yeah, and it was absolutely amazing. America’s bizarre as a country, and the pop culture is bizarre and weird. So for me, as an artist who draws her inspiration from observing it, it was so fascinating.
You’ve spoken before about feeling emotionally drawn to the US in your writing. There’s that famous line from Hollywood: “I’m obsessed with the mess that’s America”. Where did that feeling of connection come from?
I’m not sure whether other people of my generation feel the same, or whether it’s just something personal to me, but when I was growing up, success as an artist meant being on MTV – and those things were very iconic and imprinted on my brain as a child. So maybe I related it to success. And for me, I will not have made it until I’ve won something like the VMA awards, because that for me equals success.
So it’s important for you to win over an American audience.
Yeah, and it’s not just because of this old myth of “if you make it in America, you can make it everywhere”. It’s not strictly true. However, I think there’s something really bleak about America. And that relates to middle America, and to the people who live there – just normal, everyday people. I don’t care about the celebrity side of it. I care about normal people and the public. I grew up in much the same way, in a little village in Wales, from quite a humble background. So that’s what I think of when I go there and play to people.
You must have had certain preconceptions of American life. How did they measure up against the reality?
When I first started going there, I felt very cold towards it. That’s how you feel when an illusion is exposed as an illusion. It’s like biting into a cake that has no flavour. I don’t mean that in a bad way – that was just in the beginning. And now people are so warm. It’s not just a naïvely happy thing – they’re like that because they’re very hopeful people. And I don’t think we should be so cynical about that. The country has gone through a hard time, and it’s not the people’s fault. It’s the government, and the system that’s in place there, and the media that’s in place there, that’s the ruin of the country.
Do you now have an opportunity to infiltrate that media yourself, and to get some different messages out there?
Absolutely. I think that’s why I have found a strange fan base there, even though I’m not pop enough to be on the radio. It’s because I’m very honest, and I think my lyrics relate to big things in people’s lives: their dreams, their aspirations and how they feel about themselves. So I don’t want to portray things like: OK, I’m in a club with loads of guys around me, and I’ve got loads of money. Because that’s not true! (Laughs)
No, I think we’ve got enough of that. You’re not after Ke$ha’s market. Could you ever imagine yourself moving to the US?
Oh, absolutely. As a young person, I haven’t got the responsibilities of children and husbands and all that kind of thing. I really want to move to New York next year, maybe for a year, a year and a half. Then I’ll come back to London, because I do love the UK.
The video for your new single (Shampain) is a strong contrast from your previous video (Oh No). In Oh No you were the aggressor, but in Shampain you’re almost the victim. Was this an attempt to show a different side?
Yeah, definitely. Because I’ve only done one album, I suppose people only have that snapshot of me: as a success-hungry, questioning person who wasn’t very happy. (Laughs) And that is very true, but it’s quite hard sometimes when you’re quite a hungry person and people think that you’re like that all the time. But obviously those songs come from somewhere. So with Shampain, it made sense to do a darker, heavier video.
The song is about vices, and about being a very split personality. It’s the fine line between feeling absolutely incredible when you’re hammered, and then suddenly something going wrong and everything going to hell and you want to die. (Giggles)
The title reads as “sham pain” – but lyrically, you’re describing a very real pain. So what’s going on there?
(Laughs) Well, I always want to make things more interesting! And I actually hate champagne. If I had put “Champagne” as the title, perhaps people would have thought it was some typical club song.
The video was shot in Southwark Park, in London, from 4pm until 7am. It was the coldest video I’ve ever done in my life. I was absolutely freezing.
It’s an uptempo track, but you have also performed it as stripped down ballad. Was it originally written as an uptempo song?
It’s one of the few that were. Most of my songs start as ballads – Hollywood was a ballad – I’ll do them on piano. But Shampain was actually studio written.
Do you like playing around with differing interpretations of your songs?
It’s really important to me. In the pop world, I don’t think people don’t expect to see a real musician. And with people like Elly [Jackson, aka La Roux] and Florence, and Lady Gaga as well, they all have great voices, and I love that. Because you really have to stand up as an artist live, to be a long term act. In America, it’s quite unheard of. Not that they don’t have great singers, but pure pop is very Autotuned.
Somehow, if you put the same song through different interpretations, it highlights the strength of the song. It makes people listen to the song in a fresh way.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And for me as a songwriter as well, that’s a test – that I’ve written a song that could be timeless, if you take it out of the studio and strip it of the production and play it on your own.
It must have been a mad, busy year for you. How are your energy levels holding up?
Usually, I’m like “Yeeeeeah, I’m FINE! I can go on for nine more years!” But today, I feel absolutely knackered. It’s probably the jetlag from L.A. But generally I’m happy. I’m gearing up for the autumn tour, and I feel great.
When you do get downtime – assuming you get any at all – do you find it easy to relax, or do you tend to crash and burn?
I don’t know what I tend to do, because it rarely happens. So if I do, I actually just take sleeping pills, because I can’t sleep very well either. I’m quite an anxious sleeper.
Oh my goodness, you want to watch that. (Laughter)
So I’m not sure – I just try and chill out, I suppose. I stay at home usually, and I write.
Do you still have the time and space to work on new material?
Yeah, I do. I’m inspired every day, even if it’s just writing lyrics. It’s like a muscle. If you don’t use it, then the next time you go back and try, you tend to be cranky. So I try. But I don’t think you should force yourself to be creative, especially when you’re pretty stressed. The key is calm, and then you can do it.
Are any new lyrical themes emerging?
Yeah – death, usually! But it’s going well! (Laughs)
Oh well, that’s what success does to you, then. It makes you morbid.
Yeah, it does!
It has been a year of great change, of course. Your whole professional career has stepped up several notches. Were you prepared for that change, and has it matched your expectations?
Oh, absolutely. Yes, yes and yes. I’m someone who over-thinks everything, and I’ve over-thought my career since I planned it ten years ago. So nothing has felt strange. Also, I have quite a wry outlook on things. Even though on the first album I was talking about success – what it means, and that I want it, and that I’m ambitious – I’m very aware of what this entails, and I don’t lie to myself. So I don’t really feel like things have changed. I just expect more of myself.
Some people find it a disillusioning process, but it sounds like you didn’t have too many illusions to begin with.
No, I didn’t. I wanted to be worked, and I want to feel like I’ve earned this. Some people come into this expecting the soft beauty and glamour of it. I think there are loads of people who really struggle – but the work horses don’t. And they usually last.
Is there necessarily more of a distance between you and your fans now – or your “diamonds” as you call them – or do you consciously try to bridge that distance?
I still comment on Facebook, and I tweet them sometimes. I have several fans from the beginning who I’m in very regular contact with, and have been for four years. So it might not be as publicised, as in everyone knowing about it, but I have really close contact with people. And it’s on a very genuine level.
I don’t say “diamonds” to be cute. I created Marina and the Diamonds because I felt very excluded, and I never want to make anybody feel like that. I want to make people very welcome.
There’s a kind of hierarchical nature in this industry, which is encouraged. I hate it. I think it’s bullshit. So I’ll meet people after every single gig, on every single tour.
Adapting a classic soul template for the ears of a new generation has become one of pop music’s great traditions. Amy Winehouse did it in 2007; Duffy repeated the trick in 2008; and this year, to the surprise of those who had followed his early career as a hip hop artist, Plan B has successfully reinvented himself as a soul-based storyteller, scoring a chart-topping album (The Defamation of Strickland Banks) in the process.
Although a return to his hip hop roots is reportedly on the cards in the near future, the 26-year East Ender is sticking to his winning formula for now. Opening his 14-date autumn tour in Nottingham last night, Plan B took to the stage in a sharp suit and tie, fronting an equally slick looking band. Two diva-esque backing singers completed the line-up – although you might easily have missed them, tucked away in a dark corner and barely audible in the mix.
Instead of sticking to the narrative sequence of his album, which traces the arrest and wrongful imprisonment of his Strickland Banks character, Plan B shuffled the order of the tracks, interspersing them with older material and a couple of brand new songs. His 2006 single Mama (Loves a Crackhead) re-surfaced as a mash-up with the Hall and Oates classic, I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) – a cute enough rendition, although it did rather obscure the lyrical power of the original.
As for the new stuff, first night nerves forced a restart of Make Me Your Religion (“so new that I forgot the words!”), but the track proved to be an impassioned belter, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the album. The same held true for Every Rule: a lothario’s lament, which cast Plan B as a “male slag”, imprisoned by his bad boy reputation.
The big hits were saved for the end of the set, led by an extended version of Prayin’ which switched from blaring soul to choppy reggae for its final section. As there was barely time for an encore (“the landlord’s chucking us out!”), the brilliant courtroom drama of She Said was followed almost immediately – and appropriately, given that we had passed the 10pm curfew – by a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred Stay Too Long. Red-faced from the exertion of his final, climactic rap, his suit jacket still neatly fastened and his tie not even fractionally askew, Plan B acknowledged our thundering ovation and scarpered.
Nottingham’s gig-goers were spoilt for choice last night, as three bands with strong live reputations vied for our ticket money. Like punters caught between competing stages at a festival, we were forced to choose between the cheery folk-rock of Mumford And Sons at Rock City, The Twilight Sad’s blistering angst at Stealth – or the Mercury nominated Mancunian three-piece I Am Kloot at the Rescue Rooms, now touring their fifth, and biggest selling, studio album.
Any worries that this conflict might have depleted the audience numbers were swiftly replaced by other concerns. A shoulder-to-shoulder capacity crowd, some of them caught out by the early show time, strained to catch a glimpse of the three players and their two occasional accompanists.
In such cramped circumstances, it can take a supreme effort of will to zone out from your surroundings and home in on the music. Mercifully, the sheer quality of I Am Kloot’s performance made the task an easy one. Band leader John Bramwell’s crystal clear diction soared above the exquisitely judged playing and the superb sound mix, drawing you into his world of bruised romance, beer-soaked regret and battered optimism.
“A lot of these songs are written about the night”, he informed us. “I’m not sure why”, he added. “Perhaps we could break up into small groups later and discuss it?”
The metaphysical poetry of The Moon Is A Blind Eye (“The sun may glorify the heavens, but he never sees the stars”) was a case in point, while the skeletally arranged I Still Do showcased Bramwell’s interpretive skills to astonishing effect, every repetition of the title line drawing out new meanings.
Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Craig Potter produced the current album (Sky At Night), and the close affinity between the two bands was unmistakeable. And with the anthemic and uncharacteristically triumphant Radiation (“Everything we ever thought we’d ever want, me and you, well it just came through, it just came true”), I Am Kloot even have their own One Day Like This.
The hundred minute set concluded with Same Shoes (“Over and out, is it screwed?”), which pitted deep, sleazy cabaret sax against a higher, sweeter supper-club trumpet. It provided a wonderfully downbeat conclusion to a stunning show from a band who, eleven years down the line, are now operating at the peak of their powers.
Following a well-received appearance on last week’s Later, which drew praise from Sandie Shaw and John Prescott alike, 31-year old Rumer has quickly become one of the most hotly tipped new acts of the autumn. Ahead of next month’s Nottingham show, supporting Jools Holland at the Royal Concert Hall, she spoke to Mike Atkinson.
Your performance on Later seems to have created quite a buzz. Sandie Shaw even singled you out for praise on the show.
I know! She is one of my favourite Bacharach singers. I know there are so many, but she’s a gorgeous singer.
Did you get to meet her?
I didn’t actually, no. I think people’s schedules are so intense that they just disappear. But I think I went to the bar where all the punters go; I don’t think it was for the proper famous people.
Was that your first TV performance?
(Long pause) Do you know what, that probably was! I’ve done live radio, which is actually a good rehearsal for TV. When that little light goes on, you think: oh my God, I’m live! If you’ve done that a few times, it does prepare you.
Just after the show, I went onto Twitter and searched on your name, just to see what people were saying about your performance. Then I spotted a tweet from John Prescott, of all people. The next thing I know, he’s written an article for The Guardian, praising you to the heavens. I think you’ve inspired him to take up music journalism.
He’s after your job! It was a very good piece – very interesting. It’s quite funny, isn’t it, how you can just be watching telly of an evening, and then tweet something, and then the next minute you’re a music journalist. He was on Twitter, and the music editor of The Guardian said: “Prezza, I can make you the next Lester Bangs. What do you reckon, 400 words?” And Prezza went: “OK, I’ll have a go.”
The buzz is spreading. I checked Amazon the next day, and your album was in their Top 10. It’s not even out until November, so that must be a bit frustrating.
I know; it was one below Seal. And Seal’s been on the telly, and in the magazines, and doing a proper promo. And I haven’t done anything! I know the record company are going to spend money, but they haven’t started yet.
Are you prepared for all this excitement?
No, I’m not thin enough yet! I need six more months. I need to run around and lose a few more pounds. Apart from that, I am ready! (Laughs)
You’ve been working for this moment for a very long time. I gather that for a lot of that time, it was like bashing your head against a wall, and not getting very far, and having to do loads of service-level jobs. That must be a huge test of an artist’s commitment. How did you maintain your resolve?
It got to the point where I was getting quite Zen. I just thought: it doesn’t matter what you do. I quite enjoyed cleaning, and I’d do it again. If ever it all dissolved, and I ended up cleaning toilets again, I think I could be Zen about it. Because I don’t think your value is what you do. I think we all play an equal role in life, and I don’t think it matters what we do for our jobs.
How did things start coming together? Was there a particular turning point?
When I met (producer) Steve Brown, that was when I had a chance. He was a very successful man; a rich, benevolent man. Not in the music industry; he does TV and comedy and stuff like that. But because he’d started off in bands, before he went pro, he related to me. He never had a shot at it, and so he gave me a chance. He had the money, and he just put everything on his pad.
He was a self-made man: a working class guy, taught himself how to read music, how to arrange, worked his way up, was a grafter, and gradually became very successful. And he was just thinking that it was time to give something back.
So when you started collaborating with him, did that steer you in a particular musical direction? Did it focus you towards these lushly orchestrated love ballads?
I think I always wanted them to be like that. I’d written them like that, but I could never realise them like that. My love of music came from movie musicals and old-fashioned songwriters like Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, all those lovely old-fashioned American writers. The music always wanted to be like that. It always wanted to be grand and lush.
Had you heard the arrangements in your head?
Yeah, I did. But I never dreamed that they would be like that. The only way was to do harmonies: just going “ba-ba-ba” and “la-la-la” and pretending. I couldn’t have the trumpets, the orchestra, the brass – so I would do all these little harmonies.
Along the way, had you dabbled in working in other genres?
I was in a band for a little while, called La Honda. I wouldn’t say it was indie, but it was a four-part harmony, rock and roll / country group. It was melodic, but it had a kind of soft-rock vibe to it. I’ve also put vocals on downbeat dance tracks.
There’s not some dance white label lying around in a warehouse somewhere?
Oh yeah. There’s a definitely a white label.
Long Long Day is a cover of Paul Simon, but are the other songs on your album all your own compositions?
Long Long Day isn’t on the album. There are ten songs that are my songs, and the other one is a cover by Bread: the theme from Goodbye Girl. It was the record company’s call. I think the MD’s children liked it!
To what extent are your songs autobiographical?
Oh, I think they all are. Sometimes fiction tells a story better than the truth. So a lot of them are stories, but they’re stories that are embedded in the truth. [The new single] Aretha, for example, is a story, but there are loads of true elements in it. And I think it tells a lot of people’s stories.
I find Slow quite an intriguing song. If you’re not giving it your full attention, you might think it was just a sweet song about being in love – but then you focus in, and discover something of a twist in its tail. By the end you’re thinking: oh hang on, it’s changed, he doesn’t want this.
(Laughs) Well, they never do! And this is the thing. It’s not that he doesn’t want it, it’s just that men tend to will you not to screw it up. In the beginning of relationship, they desperately want the female not to overdo it, you know? In a way, they’re willing you not to push it. Like saying “I love you” too quickly, or stuff like that.
It’s interesting what you’ve done with the chorus. I think you described it as being like a Greek chorus. I was confused at first. I was thinking: who is this “they”?
They’re the angels. The Greek chorus was the PR company’s words, but actually I believe in angels. I completely, 100%, believe in angels. And angels are in all my songs. You can hear them; you’ll hear the “they” in all the songs. Their voices are all there. And you think: where are they coming from? And they’re not coming from me. They’re angels. I know this sounds a bit funny! (Laughs)
No, it sounds really intriguing. It makes me want to get hold of the album. Now, shall we grasp the Karen Carpenter nettle? Because the Karen Carpenter comparisons are being thrown around like mad at the moment. I think it’s because you’re at that stage where people are throwing around comparisons in order to get a handle on your sound. Does it bug you a bit, having everyone going on about Karen Carpenter?
No, I think it’s nice that people are thinking of her. I’m happy to be a reminder, if you like. I’m a Carpenters fan. So if it helps people to remember to put their Carpenters CD on, and to think about Karen and how wonderful she was, and how tragic it was, I think that’s good.
I’ve not heard you performing any uptempo numbers. Does that ever happen?
Well, I did a charity gig recently for Pakistan, when I did Jambalaya (On The Bayou). But the flavour of the album is very moody, emotional and ethereal.
So it would break the spell if you suddenly went: come on everybody, get up on your feet?
Well, it’s a bit like a Leonard Cohen concert. I don’t think I’d expect him to suddenly start leaping up and down. There was a review in The Guardian, saying that I could have been a bit more upbeat. Fair enough, but it depends what you go out on a night for. There’s plenty of music that’s uptempo.
If you were forced to perform an uptempo song on stage, or else face unspeakably dire consequences, what song might you pick?
I’d probably pick Upside Down by Diana Ross, or Wedding Bell Blues by the Fifth Dimension. I love upbeat music, and my concert is not upbeat – but it is uplifting. It’s a different kind of experience. It’s a more cerebral experience – like theatre or poetry.
NME Radar Tour (The Joy Formidable, Chapel Club, Flats) – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday September 30
Although smaller in scale than their annual ShockWaves packages, the NME’s Radar tours have helped to break a significant number of new acts to a wider public. In recent years, Friendly Fires, La Roux, Marina and the Diamonds and Hurts have all benefited from the exposure – but on the strength of last night’s triple line-up, it’s difficult to see who will be next in line.
One thing’s for sure: it won’t be Flats, who opened the night with a short set of uncompromising aggression that harked back to the second-wave British punk bands of thirty years ago. Quaintly, there was even a number (Rat Trap) which expressed their loathing of mods.
Outside the venue, a member of Chapel Club’s street team was cheerfully doling out so-called “download CDs”, in return for our e-mail addresses. These turned out to be designed for the express purpose of downloading and burning four exclusive remixes of the band’s new single. Or to put it another way: they were blank CDs. But they came with a nice cardboard sleeve, and the promise of receiving exciting marketing e-mails in perpetuity.
As for Chapel Club themselves, whose seven song set was respectfully if unenthusiastically received, perhaps their chances of wider acclaim rest on whether the world is yet ready for the next White Lies. (Remember them? They were the next Editors. Who, of course, were the next Interpol.) Competent to a fault, their familiar sonic template was beefed up with generous dollops of echo and effects pedals, lending it an agreeably expansive air.
Things stepped up a good few notches for headliners The Joy Formidable, who were clearly the band that most of the audience had come to see. The Welsh trio radiated good-natured bonhomie from the outset – particularly singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan, whose smile sparkled from beneath a razor-sharp platinum bob. The reference points here were late Eighties bands such as The Primitives, The Darling Buds and Transvision Vamp.
Although they tended to err somewhat on the polite side, the band pulled out all the stops for the set-closing Whirring, which morphed into a lengthy and increasingly chaotic instrumental coda. It provided a rousing end to a night which, although billed as a showcase for forward-thinking breakthrough acts, turned out to have more than a whiff of the retrograde about it.