Originally published as a cover feature in Pride Life magazine.
Thirty years after Like A Virgin turned her into a global star, Madonna is still setting tongues wagging, flashbulbs popping and cash tills ringing – and yet, seven years since her last internationally chart-topping hit, her place at the top of pop’s ladder looks a good deal less secure.
This spring, with the release of her thirteenth studio album Rebel Heart, the 56 year-old is once again gearing up to claim centre stage as a relevant pop artist, whose glory days are far from over. It’s a game which almost all of her contemporaries have long since given up, and yet Madonna’s determination seems as fierce as ever. It’s a determination which has fuelled one of the most remarkable success stories of modern times.
In contrast to the remote, quasi-regal position she now holds, safely sequestered behind superstardom’s velvet ropes, Madonna’s roots were grounded in club culture. Emerging from the cutting-edge Manhattan scene of the early Eighties, she scaled the dance charts before setting her sights on the Top Forty, using her club-savvy instincts to shape her sound and style.
It was a smart opening move, but this limited world was never going to contain Madonna for long. Doubtless mindful of the short shelf-life of most club-based acts, she wasted no time in trading dance chart credibility for mass pop appeal. Chic’s Nile Rodgers might have been her new producer, but Like A Virgin stepped firmly away from funkiness, shedding the egalitarianism of the dancefloor in favour of the nakedly ambitious individualism of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Madonna now wanted to be a star. She didn’t care who knew it, and she knew exactly how to get there. Material Girl, the album’s second hit, said it all: ironic and arch on one level, disarmingly sincere on another.
By the time of her third album, the staggeringly successful True Blue, any lingering traces of subversion had been snuffed out. The dream had been fulfilled. She was the stadium-filling darling of suburban Middle America, whose songs had ceased to say anything much beyond “where’s the party?” Granted, Papa Don’t Preach tackled the controversial subject of an unplanned pregnancy, but not in a way that would have disturbed a conservative mindset.
It still wasn’t enough. With commercial success now in the bag, Madonna re-booted her mission and embarked on a new journey: from ephemeral pop star to mature artist. Like A Prayer marked a thrilling re-invention, which seemed to expand the scope of what pop could achieve. Like the very best pop albums – the Thrillers, the Sgt. Peppers – it embraced a rich variety of genres, moods and themes, mixing the playful with the provocative, the sacred with the profane, and attracting the attention of heavyweight cultural commentators in the process. Madonna hadn’t been cool since her first and best movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. Suddenly, academics were falling over themselves to study her, high-end couturiers were clamouring to clothe her, and the world in general was starting to take her very seriously indeed.
From 1989 to 1992, Madonna ruled pop. The Immaculate Collection cherry-picked and subtly remixed her back catalogue, showcasing the gems and ditching the duds. To this day, it remains her biggest selling record. The Blonde Ambition tour scaled new heights of artistry and spectacle. Vogue conquered every dancefloor on the planet, its accompanying video oozing style and class. A fly-on-the-wall documentary, In Bed With Madonna, offered unprecedented levels of access to her private life, simultaneously bulldozing her mystique and building her brand. The Like A Prayer video drew accusations of blasphemy, the Justify My Love video was decried as soft-core pornography, and yet Madonna thrived on controversy, always ready with an eloquent defence. To most of us, it seemed as if she could do no wrong.
This period came to an abrupt end in October 1992, with the simultaneous release of Erotica (the single and the album) and Sex (the eye-popping coffee-table book). For many observers, Madonna had already pushed successfully at sexual boundaries – most recently with Justify My Love – and so it now felt as if she was boxing herself into a rather coarse and charmless corner. But for all this knee-jerk outrage (fuelled further by the teasing misdirection of some of its song titles: Why’s It So Hard, Deeper and Deeper, Secret Garden) the Erotica album turned out to be a surprisingly understated affair. More stylistically cohesive than its predecessor, it stands up well to the test of time.
Two years later, Madonna struck back. “Screw you, haters” songs might be commonplace these days, but with its defiant refusal to repent, Human Nature mapped out new territory. (“You punished me for telling you my fantasies, I’m breaking all the rules I didn’t make.”) Its parent album, Bedtime Stories, remains an under-appreciated piece of work. Warm, sensual and seductive, it supplied a ready-made soundtrack to countless nocturnal encounters. If you were ever invited back to a stranger’s room in the mid-Nineties, you would almost certainly have heard Bedtime Stories.
By Madonna’s standards, this was a lower-key release, paving the way for an extended break from the treadmill of pop. However, the singing lessons which she took for her screen portrayal of Eva Perón – the fulfilment of another long-held desire – stood her in good stead for the next reincarnation. Released in March 1998, Ray Of Light felt like an artistic rebirth, re-casting the go-getting sexual adventuress as a spiritually questing earth mother. Vocally, she adopted a fuller, more expressive tone, which matched the richness of William Orbit’s sumptuous, intricate arrangements. Lyrically, she offered her most personal collection of songs to date, openly questioning her former set of values, and striving for a deeper personal fulfilment. It was a triumphant comeback, selling more copies worldwide than Erotica and Bedtime Stories combined.
The winning streak continued with Music, an album whose mastery of diverse turn-of-the-millennium pop styles felt almost effortless. Perhaps uniquely for a pop star, Madonna had entered a second “imperial phase” (to use Neil Tennant’s memorable term), a full ten years after first peaking with Vogue. This renewed flush of globe-straddling success made what came next all the more shocking.
American Life was not an easy listen. Over jarring, jagged, minimal electronics, Madonna spat out her cynicism, rage, disillusionment and pain. The album’s mood was confrontational and claustrophobic, the gospel-tinged balladry of Nothing Fails its only moment of respite. You could admire the boldness of its execution, but it remained a difficult album to love.
If American Life had opened a window on Madonna’s darker side, then Confessions on a Dance Floor represented a move back into the light. With the assistance of producer Stuart Price, the erstwhile clubland queen reclaimed her crown, reminding us of one of her core strengths: the power to make us get down and boogie. Sequenced like a non-stop mixtape, with no drippy love songs to kill the buzz, the album felt both classic and contemporary: acknowledging Madonna’s pedigree, while placing her firmly in the here and now. For her long-standing gay audience, this was manna from heaven – but with many of her original gay fans now approaching clubbing retirement age, for how much longer could she rely on them to keep up?
Faced with the choice of either gracefully accepting her “heritage act” status, or of continuing to pitch herself as relevant to contemporary pop trends, Madonna opted for the latter. Equally significantly, as her marriage to Guy Ritchie began to crumble and her love affair with the UK began to wane, she turned back to the opposite side of the Atlantic for inspiration.
The result was Hard Candy, a collaboration with three major forces in R&B-slanted pop: Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. For the first time, Madonna was chasing established stars, rather than giving a leg up to emerging talents. The album was efficient enough, giving her a massive international hit with 4 Minutes, but it was hard to shake off the suspicion that she was beginning to follow trends, rather than setting them.
The suspicion was compounded by MDNA, a half-hearted mish-mash of semi-digested dance-pop styles – EDM and dubstep among them – which is already starting to sound dated. With worldwide sales of around 4 million, Hard Candy had been the lowest selling studio album of Madonna’s career; four years later, MDMA managed to halve that figure. Too trend-driven to retain an older audience, and too out-of-touch to win a younger one, it fell between demographic stools.
A more satisfactory balance has been struck on the latest album, Rebel Heart. As its title implies, Madonna’s outspoken and romantic sides are equally accommodated, from Holy Water’s shrill “bitch, get off my pole!” to Inside Out’s tender “let me solve your mysteries”. There’s less desperate bandwagon-chasing this time around; instead, the songs are sturdier, and the singing comes from a more honest place. She may never again enjoy a period of absolute global rule, but as a tireless striver, dogged survivor and unrepentant provocateur, Madonna still has no equal.
Madonna in the 1980s.
HIT: Like A Prayer – the song which elevated Madonna from “pop star” to “artist”.
MISS: Causing A Commotion – a pale, trite attempt to recapture the glories of Into The Groove.
Madonna in the 1990s.
HIT: Take A Bow – if Bedtime Stories was one long seduction, this deceptively sweet-sounding kiss-off was the bitter sting in its tail.
MISS: Little Star – a sickly lullaby to baby Lourdes, which tells her to “never forget who you are” – as if such a thing were possible?
Madonna in the 2000s.
HIT: Hung Up – boosted by a killer Abba riff, it re-crowned her as queen of the dancefloor.
MISS: Die Another Day – given the chance to craft a classic Bond theme, she flunked it with this jagged, jarring hodge-podge.
Madonna in the 2010s.
HIT: Joan Of Arc – sounding more emotionally engaged than she has done in years, Madonna gives us a rare glimpse of her vulnerable side.
MISS: Superstar – a clod-hopping, lyrically inane rip of I Gotta Feeling, which already felt two years too late.
Originally published in Pride Life magazine.
Over thirty-five years after the music industry tried to declare it dead, disco remains the genre that refuses to go away. Take this year, for instance. There are new releases from Chic and Giorgio Moroder, two of disco’s greatest practitioners. The early work of Grace Jones is being reappraised, thanks to a comprehensive boxed set, The Disco Years. Jimi Somerville, arguably the first big-selling artist to revive the genre in the first place, has returned to disco with his latest album, Homage. To the delight of the crate-digging cognoscenti, the legendary French disco producer Cerrone is making his Glastonbury debut. At the Berlin Film Festival, a radically revised director’s cut of Studio 54 wowed the critics. Meanwhile, Seventies-inspired looks have been a major story in many of this year’s spring/summer fashion collections. Once derided by rock fans for its superficiality, and sniggered at by style snobs for its excess, disco has been enjoying the last laugh ever since.
The movement’s roots stretch back to east coast America in the early Seventies, and an unlikely collision between seemingly disconnected underground scenes. Emerging from decades of oppression, and now openly striving for both personal and political liberation, a new generation of gay men were finding salvation every weekend on the dance floor, as documented by writers such as Andrew Holleran (Dancer from the Dance) and Edmund White (States of Desire). Elsewhere in the same urban centres, a similar new mood of confidence and optimism was re-shaping black culture, soundtracked by a smoother, more luxuriant take on soul music that found its perfect vehicle in the richly orchestrated Philadelphia sound (and equally eager audiences in working class Italian-American and Latino communities). Add the lingering influences of post-psychedelic drug culture into the mix, sprinkle with bohemians, fashionistas, artists, dealers, hookers, slumming high-lifers and hustling low-lifers, and you have a unique melting pot that would soon bubble over from the underground to the mainstream.
By the time that the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon had repackaged disco culture for the masses (an unlikely development, given the gritty, glamour-puncturing nature of the film itself), there were dance clubs in every town in the Western world, where dolled-up suburbanites shimmied to the Bee Gees, entirely unaware of the subcultures which had spawned their weekend rituals. Disco had become big business, and record companies and radio stations fuelled the glut. Rock superstars, showbiz legends and new wave upstarts alike jumped on the bandwagon, with results ranging from the sublime (Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, The Rolling Stones’ Miss You) to the ridiculous (Rod Stewart’s Da Ya Think I’m Sexy, the unspeakable horror of Ethel Merman’s Disco Album).
A backlash had become inevitable, and nowhere did it strike more sharply than in disco’s homeland, the USA. In July 1979, just as the music was reaching its highest commercial peak, a “Disco Demolition Night” in a Chicago baseball stadium, where piles of disco records were literally exploded on the pitch, turned into a riot, making national headlines and coining a new slogan: “disco sucks”. Chastened by the wrath of the rock fans, the American music industry beat a hasty retreat. The Knack’s My Sharona replaced Chic’s Good Times at the top of the Billboard chart, and by the autumn of that year, “disco” had become a dirty word. Collars, lapels and trouser legs all shrank, bouffants were trimmed and shirt buttons were re-fastened over chests, as the Eighties loomed into view.
Over here in Europe, where nobody quite got the “disco sucks” memo, the genre was permitted a more graceful decline. The melting pot fragmented once again, as smaller scenes re-grouped. A dedicated soul/funk crowd continued to carry the torch for the cooler, less hyped-up end of the spectrum, while disco’s zingier, sparklier side became more expressly linked with gay dancefloors, re-emerging a couple of years later as hi-NRG. Meanwhile, Shalamar, Kool and the Gang and Odyssey all enjoyed respectable hit-making careers, regardless of whether anyone called them “disco” or not, and continental summer holidays continued to be soundtracked by the brash and breezy strains of Euro-disco.
Other legacies were also brewing. In one corner, there was hip hop: disco’s bastard offspring, quietly biding its time. In another, even tinier corner, a group of black and gay Chicago DJs were keeping the faith, preparing the way for the house music explosion – or “disco’s revenge”, as some commentators wisely put it.
There were wider and equally enduring legacies, too. Disco had introduced us to the art of seamless beat-mixing, and the pleasures of dancing until dawn in a darkened room, whether chemically assisted or not. And it had given the world a new breed of performer: the glamorous dance diva, defiantly masking her pain, and giving a soulful voice to our joys and sorrows, our dreams and our desires. The genre itself might have dipped in and out of style over the years (although we never seem to be more than a few years away from its next revival), but most of its key elements – dressing to impress on a Saturday night, the communal ritual of the dance floor, the craft of the DJ, door policies, velvet ropes, lasers, smoke machines, and that biggest totem of them all, the hallowed mirror ball – will probably always be with us.
TEN ALL-TIME DISCO CLASSICS
Boogie Oogie Oogie – A Taste Of Honey
Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston
Everybody Dance – Chic
Never Can Say Goodbye – Gloria Gaynor
On The Radio – Donna Summer
Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King
The Boss – Diana Ross
Turn The Beat Around – Vicki Sue Robinson
Vertigo/Relight My Fire – Dan Hartman
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Sylvester
TEN DISCO CRATE-DIGGERS’ CULT CUTS
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (The Garage Version) – Inner Life
Change – Zulema
Dancer – Gino Soccio
Haven’t You Heard – Patrice Rushen
I Know You, I Live You – Chaka Khan
Law Of The Land – The Temptations
Souveniers – Voyage
Take Off – Harlow
Tell You (Today) – Loose Joints
The Hills Of Katmandu – Tantra
Originally published in Pride Life magazine.
From synthpop to soul, Mike Atkinson picks some of the hottest talent you’ll be hearing a lot more of this year.
The latest in a long line of synthpop duos, stretching all the way back to Soft Cell and Yazoo, April Towers have a knack for constructing sturdily chugging, instantly danceable songs which surge into soaring, hooky choruses. Rhythmically similar to New Order, melodically reminiscent of OMD and vocally akin to Depeche Mode, they take classic influences and embellish them with a contemporary twist, placing them alongside the likes of Hot Chip and Hurts. Having made their live debut just over a year ago, long-time friends Charles Burley and Alexander Noble have already released two singles this year: the elegantly remorseful Arcadia and the insistently throbbing No Corruption.
For fans of: New Order, OMD, Hurts.
Comprised of twin sisters Paris and Amber Strother and their friend Anita Bias, the always-to-be-capitalised KING (no relation to the mid-Eighties hitmakers!) specialise in classic neo-soul, adorned with rich three-part harmonies. There’s a smooth sophistication to their music which bears comparison with Erykah Badu and Jill Scott in their Nineties heyday – and indeed, Badu herself has already lent them her support. Following last year’s well-received single Mister Chameleon, a wry take on “fair-weather love”, the trio are preparing to release their self-written and self-produced debut album, We Are KING. As performers, they are imbued with a graceful warmth and an easy charm that makes light of their musical prowess.
For fans of: Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Angie Stone.
Blessed with a voice of exceptional purity and clarity, with a singer-songwriter’s emotional sincerity and a jazz performer’s subtlety of tone, Laura Groves has remained a well-kept secret for too long. This could all change soon, with a new EP, Committed Language, and some high-profile support sets with Elbow, which have been arranged at the band’s specific request. This is delicate, intimate and contemplative music, skilfully arranged but delightfully unshowy. Originally from Bradford, Laura first performed as Blue Roses, before moving to London and working under her own name. Her fascination with the blurred boundaries between dreams and reality informs much of her work, lending it an other-worldly quality.
For fans of: Joni Mitchell, Donald Fagen, Kate Bush.
Channelling the energy of vintage funk (Parliament, Stevie Wonder, Prince) and filtering it through “a cement-coloured North of England lens”, Mancunian singer and multi-instrumentalist Julie Campbell, aka LoneLady, is back after a four-year break with her second album, Hinterland. Recorded at home on an 8-track cassette recorder, with production completed in a remote vintage analogue studio in Michigan, the nervy post-punk influences of her earlier work are still there, but they’re now sweetened with a more dance-infused approach; recent single Groove It Out explores similar territory to La Roux’s most recent work, while Bunkerpop chugs along like a distant cousin of the Eurythmics evergreen, Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.
For fans of: La Roux, St. Vincent, Imogen Heap.
Already basking in critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, the debut album from Nashville’s Natalie Prass could end up as one of this year’s stealthy word-of-mouth successes. It’s a break-up record at heart, but delivered with a swooning sweetness that masks much of the underlying pain. “Where do you go, when the only home that you know is with a stranger?” she asks on the opening track (My Baby Don’t Understand Me), concluding that “our love is a long goodbye”. Widely compared to Dusty In Memphis, the music harks back to classic country-soul, sung with captivating tenderness and orchestrated with Hollywood strings and Muscle Shoals horns.
For fans of: Dusty Springfield, Laura Marling, Feist.
Raised in semi-rural North Las Vegas, Shamir Bailey started his musical journey with acoustic country and folk music, before making a late teenage detour into punk rock. Now aged 20, he is beginning to make his name as a pop performer, drawing on dance, funk and rap influences, and creating something characterful and unique. Inspired equally by Nina Simone, Joanna Newsom and The Slits, his intentionally androgynous vocals are showcased on If It Wasn’t True, a funky Prince-goes-house jam, while on On The Regular, his most recent release, playful rap sits on top of bouncy, fresh-faced, sugar-rush pop. It’s not all madcap hyperactivity, though; Shamir can also work a lovelorn lament, with yearning conviction.
For fans of: Prince, Jungle, Azealia Banks.
Originally published in Pride Life magazine.
A few years ago, Indiana found herself with an upright piano, left for storage by her sister. Undeterred by lack of training, she taught herself to play, uploading home-made clips to YouTube. A moody, stripped down cover of Joe Goddard’s club hit Gabriel attracted the attention of its composer, John Beck, and the pair started collaborating. In April 2012, the singer made her live début, gaining instant acclaim for her emotionally charged brand of leftfield electronic pop.
Just over a year later, Indiana performed David Bowie’s Heroes in front of the Queen, in Radio One’s Live Lounge. Since the song contained the potentially treasonous line “I will be Queen”, its lyrics needed prior vetting – to “Queen-proof it”, as she puts it.
“First of all, her people said: we’re going to make her change the words. Then they spoke to the Queen, and she said: no, it’s fine, just don’t look at me. The thing is, I was so conscious not to look at her, that my eyes were darting round the room, and they hit her a couple of times. So I did actually look at her when I sang the line!”
Earlier this year, Indiana charted with Solo Dancing, whose video was stuffed with visual puns for more intimate types of solo activity. (Beans were flicked, chains were yanked, cats were stroked: you get the picture.) “I go dancing by myself, I go dancing with no one else”, she sang, over a steadily throbbing synth pulse.
“The song is about empowerment”, she says. “It can be a metaphor for anything: to be comfortable in your own skin, and to be able to do something on your own.” For a gay audience, the song could be taken more literally; after all, many of us are no strangers to lone-wolfing it on the dancefloor. “I’d love to have the confidence to go out dancing on my own”, she admits. “I think that whoever’s got the balls to do that, has got the biggest balls!”
No stranger to the gay scene herself, Indiana was introduced to the bars and clubs of Brighton by her late uncle. “He was also a music producer. And on his deathbed, he said to my sister, who was into music – singing, piano lessons, gigging, writing, everything – ‘you’d better watch her, because she’s going to be nipping on your heels’. I didn’t even realise I wanted to be a musician then. So he always knew that I had something in me.”
In the video for current single Heart On Fire, Indiana stars alongside Charlie Bewley, best known for playing the vampire Demetri in the Twilight Saga series. (“He’s the director’s friend, so I got him for a steal.”) As the story unfolds, we see her “acting like a sweet girl, whereas I am in fact a powerful woman in a powerful position”. By the end of the video, she is revealed as an undercover drug enforcement officer, who has persuaded Bewley to set up his dealer friend in a sting operation. The theme of the story – that all is not what it seems – is explored further on Indiana’s début album, No Romeo.
“On the surface, the songs could be interpreted as love songs or just pop songs, but if you delve a little deeper, each one has a meaning that’s more sinister. Each time I write, I always have to have, for some reason, a sinister take on everything.”
Unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo, who finds true love but is ultimately destroyed by it, Indiana finds only tainted love, and yet she survives. Even at her most vengeful – “all your sons and daughters will be broken, from now on and ever more”, she pledges on Never Born, the opening track – you sense an underlying vulnerability, and even in her most vulnerable moments, her core strength never fully deserts her. On Bound, she uses S&M imagery to trace a journey from submission to dominance (“this isn’t love, this is dangerous”), while on the album’s title track, she spurns the whole idea of romantic love: “I don’t need no Romeo… it’s not enough, it’s alright, but I’m sleeping on my own tonight”.
A happily settled mother of two in real life, Indiana warns against interpreting her songs too literally. “They’re not all necessarily about relationships”, she suggests. “I like to tell stories, but I do draw on experiences and refer to them in songs.” In conversation, she is cheerful, straightforward, and quick to laugh, but any suggestion that “Indiana” is an invented persona is firmly rebuffed.
“I don’t feel I have to step into any shoes. I create songs to say things I never would, but I am Indiana. My mum says I have an interview voice. She says I sound more sensible, whereas in my own environment, I am a whirlwind of things going on inside my head. My dark side is channelled into my music, and I’m thankful that I have my music, so that I’m not out on killing sprees!”
This tiny room with perfect sound and a clued-up crowd has a track record of spotting some of the best up-and-coming bands – including the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters.
Who plays there: The Bodega has a remarkable knack for catching acts before they make it big: the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters, Bloc Party, the Libertines, MGMT, the National, Mumford & Sons, Snow Patrol and Haim, Clean Bandit and the 1975 have all played here. The run-up to Christmas this year brings Eagulls, Circa Waves, Thurston Moore, Marika Hackman and many more. There are several shows a week.
Originally published in Pride Life magazine.
It’s a long way from the Welsh valleys to the streets of Brooklyn, but for Rod Thomas, the Neath-born purveyor of electronic pop who performs as Bright Light Bright Light, New York already feels like a natural home. “I moved over there in March 2013”, he tells me, “because I was working on my second album, and wanted a different stimulus. I’m a firm believer that the world around you and the people you interact with have a big impact on your outlook, so I thought it was a good idea to try living somewhere new.”
The album’s title, Life Is Easy, suggests a new-found contentment, but given New York’s reputation as a tough, competitive city, perhaps it shouldn’t be taken at face value. “No, my life is not easy”, Rod admits. “It’s a tongue in cheek statement. It partly refers to the idea that everyone dreams of the grass being greener somewhere else. If you go away and have an amazing time, part of that is escaping things you need to deal with, and part is being caught up in the magic and charm of being somewhere exciting and new.”
“But also, life is kind of easy”, he continues. “If you want to enjoy life, you really can. There are people with such horrendous circumstances across the world, who really make the most of life, while so much of our modern culture is based on reaching for something new, not being happy with your lot, improving, upgrading. But you can meet so many wonderful characters in your day to day life, who can change the way you look at the world.”
“There was nothing easy about moving to New York. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life over the last year. It’s a hard place, but it suits me. People work hard, but they also play hard, which is how I approach my life. They make sure that when they’re not working, they enjoy this wonderful city that they have, to make it worth working that hard.”
This newly optimistic mood is reflected in the album’s subject matter, described as “a snapshot of my last year and a half”. Rod credits much of this to the friends he has made in New York, who have “brought me back from a place where I felt exhausted, and at a bit at a loss, to a place where I feel positive and excited again. The album is about taking back control, and getting to a point where I can see life for all of the wonderful things it has to offer, rather than being caught up in a slightly British mindset of moaning.”
Del Marquis from the Scissor Sisters, one of Rod’s closest friends, is heavily involved with the album, and on its lead single, I Wish We Were Leaving, another friend supplies guest vocals: Sir Elton John, who has since invited Bright Light Bright Light to support him on tour during June and July. “I wouldn’t have asked him to do it, if we weren’t friends”, says Rod. “It means more than just having a ‘featured artist’ – because what does that add, unless they mean something to the track?”
Inspired by the ending of a real-life relationship, the song examines the situation from both sides, focussing on forgiveness and acceptance, rather than the self-pity and blame of so many break-up songs. “It’s not bitter”, he agrees. “The relationship hasn’t worked out, but you don’t hate them for it. You want to hold on to what you like about them.”
The video adds poignancy to Rod’s lyrics, being filmed in one of his ex-boyfriend’s favourite restaurants. The location was suggested by the video’s directors, who had no idea of its significance when pitching the storyline. “It was a real shock”, he admits. “So I thought: well, that’s fine, I’ll go along with the treatment!”
Although Rod is an openly gay performer, and the song is undeniably about the break-up of a gay relationship, the drama is re-enacted for the video by a heterosexual couple, and there are no gender-specific lyrical references. “I thought it was quite nice to show a connection between a man and a woman”, he says, “because some people would presume I’d never think about heterosexual relationships. It’s important to see life from every perspective, which is what my whole album is about. It’s about friendships, family, and relationships: straight and gay.”
On his previous single, In Your Care, Rod tackles a theme which many gay listeners can relate to, especially those who have left home to forge a new identity elsewhere. “I’m an only child, so I feel guilty when I leave my family behind. It’s important that people back home don’t see it as a snub. The song tries to get across what is sometimes hard to say: I do think about you all the time, and you are in my thoughts. It’s a direct song to my parents.”
“I find it hard to perform In Your Care live, and I nearly cry every time I sing it. I never thought it would affect me quite so much, because I’ve sung so many songs about people who have broken my heart, and it’s never got to me on stage. But that song does, and I’m pleased, because it’s about something very real.”
“Not many gay artists have written songs about their families specifically, and I just felt: fuck it, this is probably the biggest issue that anyone I know has got with their sexuality, especially if their family are religious, or from a small town. I wanted to do something as a gay artist that wasn’t just about sex or love. It’s a different type of love. Yes, I go on stage in fucking chenille jumpsuits or whatever, but I also can be quite boring. I like to go home and have a cup of tea with my gran, because I love her very much, and I never see her, or my mother and father. Gay people very clearly have families, and it’s important that people recognise that.”
The Rescue Rooms is one of the jewels in the crown of a city that punches above its weight in music venues.
Capacity: 450. Upstairs, a separate performance space (the Red Room) holds 100.
Who plays there: Critically acclaimed bands on their way up, with the odd heritage act or tribute band along the way – the likes of Rudimental, Pere Ubu, Chvrches, John Murry, Fuck Buttons, 65daysofstatic, London Grammar, John Newman, Public Service Broadcasting and Low have appeared in the past year or so.
“There might be stringent security, but a family atmosphere prevails at Don’t Flop as the likes of Bru-C, Oshea and Ogmios trade a cappella insults in the worst possible taste.”
Outside Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms, the Saturday afternoon queue is edging forwards at a glacial pace. So stringent are the police-imposed security checks – there’s even a temporary ID scanner in the lobby – that it takes over three hours to admit the 500 ticket holders, some of whom have been queuing since mid-morning.
“Nottingham police were very suspicious of a hip hop event of this magnitude”, says Eurgh, co-founder and managing director of Don’t Flop, the rap battle league who have organised today’s event. “When they see this many tickets sold, and they hear the word “battle”, they think of people stabbing each other in the face. But it’s not what it is, and they don’t understand.”
Inside the venue, the day’s first pair of battlers, Bru-C from Nottingham and Pamflit from Manchester, are chatting amiably at the bar. Four days ago, Bru-C’s original opponent dropped out, demolishing weeks of preparation; like all contestants, he researches exhaustively, reviewing old battles and tailoring every bar for maximum personal damage. Rebuilding his routine from scratch has stretched him to the limit, but he’s hiding his nerves well.
By half past four, the main room is packed and the Don’t Flop entourage – battlers and their supporters, camera crew, assorted hangers-on – are drifting onto the stage, like teachers at an assembly. None of today’s six battles will be judged, so a relaxed atmosphere prevails. As ever, each clash will be filmed for YouTube, and performed acapella; beats were largely banished years ago, for the sake of vocal clarity.
Originally published in the Business section of the Nottingham Post, to accompany an interview with George Akins of DHP Family.
The rising fortune of Nottingham’s music scene has much to teach us about the value of co-operation and collaboration. Shorn of the backbiting cliquishness of former years, a genuine sense of community now prevails, where new talent is welcomed and championed, and the success of more prominent acts sets an inspiring example for emerging artists.
Over the past three years, eight acts have signed to national labels, spanning a wide variety of genres: from Saint Raymond’s catchy indie-rock to Harleighblu’s fresh take on classic soul. During that time, Jake Bugg’s chart-topping success has shone a new light on the city, sending record company A&R teams regularly scuttling up to showcase gigs.
Three years ago, you would have struggled to find a Nottingham act headlining a DHP show. Since then, Dog Is Dead have sold out Rock City, Jake Bugg has headlined the Splendour Festival and filled the Capital FM Arena, and three artists are booked to top the bill at the Rescue Rooms over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, a welcome shift in booking policy has seen countless local acts filling support slots at DHP venues, offering valuable experience of working larger stages.
Further encouragement is provided by the likes of LeftLion magazine, which has noticeably increased its music coverage, and Mark Del’s NUSIC team, who provide podcasts, filmed sessions, workshops and school tours. Over at BBC Radio Nottingham, Dean Jackson has been a stalwart champion of East Midlands talent; thanks to his efforts, Nottingham music has been added to national radio playlists, and represented at the Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals. Elsewhere, an enthusiastic and interconnected network of promoters, venues, studios and independent labels all have their part to play.
Blessed with the imminent arrival of Notts TV, which is sure to give the scene a further significant boost, Nottingham’s thriving music community is both an inspiration, and a source of immense pride.
Capacity: 10,000 standing, 9,300 seated
Who plays there: A-list pop stars: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, Lady Gaga. R&B superstars: Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, Usher. Heritage legends: Elton John, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Status Quo. Festival headliners: Kings of Leon, the Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Elbow. Few acts are too big to play here, although Springsteen, Madonna and the Stones are still beyond its reach.
Originally published in Pride Life magazine.
Lacing her icy synth-pop with a grinding alt-rock crunch, Indiana built steady support for her music in 2013; even the Queen got to witness her in action, at Radio One’s Live Lounge. Lyrically, she explores the darker, more dysfunctional aspects of relationships; you’d never guess she was a happily settled mother of two, but Indiana thrives on such contrasts. “I’m in possession of a smoking gun, and I wanna hurt you just for fun”, she threatens, with a performance style that switches from doe-eyed vulnerability to steely fury in the blink of an eye. Mess with her at your peril.
Uniquely for a dance-based collective, Clean Bandit started out as a string quartet at Cambridge University, making them light on urban credentials, but strong on musical prowess. Strings are still central to their sound, which is peppered with naggingly familiar classical quotes, adding melodic sweetness to the electronic thump. They charted briefly, with the endearingly daft Mozart’s House, but they’ve been shaking off the novelty tag since then, with tracks such as the reflective Dust Clears and the uplifting diva-house of No Place I’d Rather Be. Like Basement Jaxx before them, their anything-goes musical stance is a joy to behold.
Formed just over a year ago, Amber Run have made remarkable progress for such a young band. Their fourth and fifth gigs were at the Reading and Leeds festivals – a baptism of fire, if ever there was one – and for their sixth show, they were backed by a 14-piece orchestra. Now signed to RCA Victor, the five lads have dropped out of their final years at university, to concentrate full-time on their music, described as “anthemic rock mixed with cinematic post-rock”. With songs as strong as Noah, Heaven and Spark, they could well be one of next summer’s festival favourites.
Having topped the singles chart with her guest vocal on Rudimental’s Waiting All Night, Ella Eyre is looking to match the solo success of John Newman, another Rudimental collaborator. A fierce and passionate performer on stage, the 19 year-old Brit School graduate has harnessed the same raw energy for Deeper, her début EP. Musically, the new material builds on Rudimental’s template, fusing classic soul/funk stylings with more dance-based elements, but it’s Ella’s husky, bluesy delivery that holds your attention throughout. A punchier, more powerful sound is promised for her forthcoming début album – but even now, she’s hardly short on clout.
Unlike our other four picks, Sleaford Mods are unlikely to taste major commercial success in 2014 – they’re far too sweary, for starters – but their heroically uncompromising approach deserves a wider audience. Backed by Andrew Hearn’s minimal low-fi electronics, Jason Williamson spits surreal venom and scathing fury in an earthy East Midlands rasp, as if Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, had been weaned on John Cooper Clarke and The Fall. “Boris Johnson and The Cheeky Girls shut down the underground!” he rages – and, if only for a moment, you find yourself punching the air in agreement.
We kick off a new weekly series giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the UK’s best venues with a trip to the East Midlands.
Capacity: 2,450 in the main room, 300 in the basement.
Who plays there: Big names from Rock City’s past include Nirvana, Oasis, David Bowie, REM, Guns N’ Roses and Blur. The roster is slanted towards rock, as the name would imply, but other genres still get a look in; to the disgust of regulars, Blue played here in 2013. The NME tour is an annual fixture, as are the Dot to Dot and Hit the Deck festivals, covering indie and rock respectively. Other recent acts include Two Door Cinema Club, the Deftones, Foals, Bastille, Suede, Public Enemy, Alt-J, the 1975, Johnny Marr, AlunaGeorge, Gary Numan and Disclosure.
Originally written for Nottingham LIVE
I’m starting this list with an artist who I only heard for the first time today – but hey, when you feel it, you’ve got to go with it. Having recently guested on One Bomb’s Take Over, Aja is now preparing for the release of a four-track EP, which showcases her brand of icy, bassy electronica – and as a teaser video for lead track Made Of Glass suggests, she’s equally strong on visual presentation, too.
2. Amber Run
If Aja is the darkest horse on this list, then Amber Run have to be one of the safest bets. Signed by RCA Victor less than a year after they formed, and with appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals already under their belts, Amber Run’s rise has been so swift, and so smooth, that you could be forgiven for suspecting an undisclosed sinister master plan. The truth is pretty simple, though: they’re a naturally cohesive unit, blessed with good looks, canny management and a talent for turning out future festival anthems, such as last summer’s ubiquitous Noah and their anthemic set-closer, Spark. Aided by its memorable closing refrain – “Let the light in, let the light in” – Spark could well be their breakthrough track in early 2014.
3. April Towers
Formed from the ashes of the late lamented Frontiers, Charles Burley and Alexander Noble have re-grouped as an electronic duo, channelling something of the spirit of New Order and Electronic. They’ve been a studio-based project thus far, but live dates are promised in early 2014.
With a loose-limbed, beatnik style that sets him apart from the hip hop pack, Kane Ashmore burst onto the Nottingham scene last spring with his low-slung signature tune, The Ashmore Show. Since then, he’s been gigging incessantly, and building expectation for his next project, Loonyology, due in February and featuring the likes of Bru- C, Motormouf and Rebecca King. An unreleased album has been knocking around for a while – perhaps it will never see the light of day – but tracks such as the Notts-to-its-core Yah Get Meh and the cheeky Scribbling & Dribbling (“I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”) are too good to be left on the shelf forever.
I may not know much about emo – well, let’s face it, I know next to nothing about emo – but Bluebird impressed me greatly when supporting Kagoule in the basement of the Lacehouse in December. As I said at the time, they’re “a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigate complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.”
6. Gallery 47
If I had to pick a favourite track of 2013 from a Nottingham artist, it would have to be All It Could Grow Up To Be, from Gallery 47’s free EP Dividends. Since then, The Guardian’s Paul Lester has picked Jack Peachey’s alter ego as one of his New Bands of the Day, describing him as a “Midlands tunesmith with an angelic falsetto singing about car bombs and weight loss”, and a number of London showcase gigs towards the end of the year have further helped to spread the word. A second album, All Will Be Well, is due shortly.
7. Georgie Rose
Few, if any, local acts can have worked it harder on the city’s live circuit in 2013, and no festival was ever complete without Georgie Rose’s name on the bill. And yet, wisely, she has resisted the temptation to give it all away for free on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, thus building expectations for the studio recordings which are sure to follow in 2014. In the meantime, live favourites such as Twenty Mile Road, Fool In The Summer, Love Me Again and L.O.V.E. are clear indications of a talent which has only just begun to be tapped.
Underground to the point of near-invisibility – you’ll search in vain for the merest trace of an online presence – Hang have retained a pleasing sense of mystery. “Transcendental repeato-riffs and primal boogie, for fans of all things cyclical”, said Cantaloupe, prior to a joint gig at The Chameleon. It’s a fair description, but nothing can really prepare you for the immersive onslaught of their live show. Pitched halfway between Hookworms and Hawkwind, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, they play without pause, twisting basic, chugging riffs into slowly shifting shapes while their keyboardist adds sonic texture, and their drummer provides rhythmic colour. Spellbinding stuff, but you’ll need to work hard to track them down.
Tipped by many to break through big time in 2013, Indiana opted instead for the slow build, rather than the big bang; understandable, when you’ve a baby on the way. Three singles emerged – Bound, Smoking Gun, Mess Around – and each fared well in terms of national radio support, if not in terms of chart placings. Meanwhile, she debuted at Glastonbury, performed for the Queen, recorded in L.A, and gave birth to Etta, her second child. With the likes of London Grammar achieving significant success in a similar musical vein, the time is ripe for that long awaited début album.
10. Josh Wheatley
“I’m not that rich, and I don’t have a boat; all I own is in my coat.” Featuring Nottingham LIVE! Radio’s favourite lyric of the year, “Sail Away” was angelic-voiced 18 year-old Josh Wheatley’s calling card, bringing him to the the city’s attention back in April. Produced by Trekkah from the Afterdark Movement, Josh’s début EP (Follow The Smoke) is due for release at the end of January, with a launch gig at Pepper Rocks on Thursday January 30th.
Their studies complete, Kagoule are now free to concentrate on their music full-time, making 2014 theirs for the taking. Once rather shy on stage, their performances now crackle with chemistry, as Laurence’s brilliant drumming underpins Cai and Lucy’s instinctive rapport. Radio One and the NME are already on board; many more look certain to follow.
12. Nina Smith
The formerly ubiquitous Nina Smith took time out during 2013, in order to work on new material and a fresh approach. Re-emerging at the end of November, with a showcase gig at a packed Rescue Rooms, she staged a triumphant return, working her way through a brand new set list with a brand new band, and never sounding in finer voice. A second appearance swiftly followed at the Royal Concert Hall, confirming that one of the city’s most enduringly popular characters is well and truly back in the game.
It was also a quiet year for Ronika, with just one EP release to her name (plus a free download, featuring her strongest vocal performance to date), but that’s all set to change in 2014, with the release of her splendidly titled début album, Selectadisc. She might be based in London now, but what better tribute could there be to Ronika’s Nottingham roots?
14. Saint Raymond
At this stage, it’s almost beyond question that Saint Raymond is set to become Nottingham’s biggest post-Bugg breakout star. Signed to Asylum/Atlantic on the strength of his Escapade EP, Callum Burrows has gone one better with his follow-up, which is due to drop on January 5th. As a songwriter, he has an enviable knack for a winning indie-pop hook, and tunes like Young Blood (his hit-in-waiting) and Fall At Your Feet (from the first EP) are stuffed full of them, from end to end. Fresh from supporting Haim on tour, he’s perfectly poised to seize the moment.
15. Sleaford Mods
Embraced during 2013 by the European arthouse hipster set, with gigs in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and boosted by Twitter support from Luke Haines and Kim Gordon, Sleaford Mods ended the year on various publications’ “best of” lists for their album Austerity Dogs, while simultaneously releasing four 7-inch singles on four different European labels. A German tour is planned for May – although what German audiences will make of Jason Williamson’s surreal, venomous and deeply sweary tirades is anyone’s guess – and, perhaps most unlikely of all, a feature on the duo is due to be published in Arena Homme Plus, a magazine that is best known for its upmarket mens’ fashion spreads. Where will it all end? The catwalk, or the dole office?
An edited version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
“So, what sort of music do you play?”
If your work tends towards the leftfield end of the spectrum, you might come to dread this question, especially if asked by well-meaning relatives or less clued-up colleagues.
“I always end up giving vague descriptions and saying it sounds quite krautrocky” says John Simson (better known as Simmo), keyboard player with Cantaloupe. “Then people look at me and think: what’s that? So I always end up saying: you know the video games you played when you were a kid? It sounds like that. And they seem to get that.”
“You normally end up going: we’re really boring rock music” says Dave Stockwell, who contributes guitar and bass. “Then they stop talking. Otherwise they want to hear it. Then they go: what is this music? What are you doing? Like, is this pop music?”
In Cantaloupe’s heads, the answer is a firm yes. According to Simmo, “it’s just dancey, fun instrumental pop.” “We try to make it unpretentious and enjoyable, for us as well as everybody else”, Dave adds.
This still doesn’t account for Cantaloupe’s fondness for unusual time signatures, though. For all its bright, melodic accessibility, Splish, the lead track on their new single, is in 10/4 time. It’s danceable enough – but the closer you listen, the trickier it becomes.
“That’s definitely one of the challenges we like to take on”, says Simmo. “Doing something in an unusual time signature, so that when you listen to it, it has a totally natural rhythm and flow. But if you start breaking it down, maybe you see more complex things at play. Being an instrumental band makes it easier to take that on, because it’s hard to get vocals into an unusual measure, in a way that makes any sense.”
“Instrumental music is quite associative”, he continues. “When you have lyrical music, there’s a narrative there, which sets emotional boundaries. With instrumental music, you’re more reliant on hinting at things. So you get bands like Boards Of Canada, who have these almost nostalgic sounds, like something remembered from your childhood. I think with instrumental music, you’ve got to tap a lot more into that association and memory. One thing I never want to do is sound explicitly retro, but we definitely take cues.”
The three members of Cantaloupe came together last year, following the break-up of Souvaris, the band they had all played in for the past twelve years. Thanks to the contacts which they made over the years, they were recently able to book a full European tour.
“Half the tour is just us staying with friends”, says Dave. “You’re treated so well over there. You get fed really nice food, and you get really nice booze. We’re taking a half empty van and we’re going to come back with cases of wine.”
“I brought 36 bottles back the last time we went”, Simmo admits. “And that was just one out of six people.”
Continental Europe holds a special appeal to Cantaloupe. “It’s a different mentality”, Simmo explains, “because they haven’t really had fifty or sixty years of pop music culture, especially alternative music. It’s a bit more special to them. You get a much greater mix in the audience, for example.”
“There are stories we’ve got from touring Europe before, and the experiences we’ve had of meeting people”, says Dave. Take the case of Stanislav the Spanish artist, for instance.
“We were playing in the middle of nowhere in Spain, at two o’clock in the morning, in a theatre. Stanislav couldn’t afford to buy our record, so he went home, picked out an oil painting that he’d done, and insisted on paying us with an oil painting.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t get that kind of thing over here that often – and when you do, it’s normally a little more of a scary experience. But because you’re abroad, it seems much more charming.”
Cantaloupe release their new single Splish / Wet Dog on limited edition 12” vinyl and digital download on 17th June.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.
On a Wednesday in late April, I met up with five core members of the Pentatronix project at the Night Rooms studio, where they were working on a specially commissioned show for Nottingham Contemporary, under the direction of Mikey Davis, leader of Sabar Soundsystem. The invitation came with the promise of an exclusive performance of a brand new piece, which had been composed that very morning. Before that, while the rest of the team broke for lunch – classical Chinese musician Ling Peng, electronic artist Si Tew, and two players of the “chimes”, Sabar’s unique tubular bell constructions – I settled on a sofa with Mikey, who filled me in on the background behind the project.
I started by raising the delicate subject of Mikey’s 2009 appearance on Dragons Den, which saw his old percussion troupe, BassToneSlap, secure funding for a drumming-based corporate team-building venture. “That was one of the greatest errors of my life” he admitted.
But your clips weren’t embarrassing. You gave a good account of yourself.
Basically, we only ever wanted to do it for the advertising. We never actually thought we would do the thing, even though we shook hands. We didn’t take the money, but we made a lot of money just from being on the show.
So how could that have a negative consequence?
If you stick a big lot of money into a group, it changes people. And the working relationships all just changed. Basically, we went down a really stupid route, and we ended up doing a load of corporate shit, which is not why I play drums. We got caught by the pound signs in the eyes, and we lost sight of what it’s about.
We didn’t exactly disband – we still met up and did gigs – but it was very, very wounded. Then we started getting some fresh blood in, and we started getting back to what it was actually all about.
You changed your name to Sabar Soundsystem at the start of 2011. Did you consciously want to rebrand – to break the link?
Yes, and just to clear out the dead wood. One side of this studio used to be floor-to-ceiling with 150 djembes, which we used for corporate workshops. So we got rid of all the gear that was this monument to the failure of the whole thing, and we started writing fresh music.
How did the idea for the Pentatronix project come about?
A few of us are involved with City Arts, a Nottingham based arts company who do a lot of outdoor theatre. They gave us some money to develop a tune, which we performed at the WEYA festival last year, in front of the Council House. It was the first collaboratively written piece that we’d done. Afterwards, we thought we had to do more. People kept saying that I should apply to the Arts Council. I’m a drummer and I hate paperwork, but eventually I did it. It got the green light about three weeks ago, so we’ve just begun.
How many performers will be with you on the day itself?
It’s about ten at the moment. We’ll also have a tabla player: Biant Singh. He’s the most amazingly inspirational guy. He has a project called The Science of Rhythm, which has basically got the entire Nottinghamshire mental health service to put drums into their assessments. So when somebody is having a review, to see how they should be handled, they actually have the opportunity to drum with the people assessing them.
What does that bring to the assessment?
Rhythmic music has an effect on people. It links people together, so people start getting a communal feeling. On a fundamental level, people’s minds become synchronised, and it creates an openness. Through that openness, people become very empathic with each other.
Now think about those people who can’t communicate verbally. They’re the kind of people that Biant is dealing with. If you put a drum in there, they can drum with the people that they’re struggling to communicate with. And they just become in tune. They start to feel each other.
I was trying to track your influences when I saw Sabar performing at the Arts Theatre last year. Biant brought some Indian flavours, and I could also detect aspects of Indonesian, African and Cuban music.
That’s accurate. The sabar drums come from Gambia, and that’s where we take our name. Conceptually, our chimes are very similar to Javanese gamelan, and they use the same pentatonic scale as Chinese music. Now we’ve brought Ling in for her Chinese influence, and Si for a more European electronic influence.
There’s been a sort of a journey that has gone on for many years, which is the driving force as to why I do this thing. When I was a kid, I had this crazy fascination with Africa. Then I got the opportunity to go there in my late twenties. I went a few times. I spent a while in Gambia, living with a family who were traditional drummers, going back for generations.
The third time I was there, I basically realised that no matter how much you study it, you’re always going to have this problem of translation – because at the end of the day, it’s not my culture. I was so demoralised. I wanted to stop drumming, because I realised that I could never have the thing that I wanted – which, at that point, was simply to have been born into that culture. I got depressed about it for a long time, but then I started thinking: OK, what is the reality?
The actual reality is that I was born here, in England. We don’t really have a rhythmic tradition of our own; it’s all completely dissipated. As a nation, we’re utterly disconnected from our rhythmic root. Meanwhile, there are so many amazing bands from Africa, so why be a load of white guys playing African music? What is the purpose of that? Let them do it – they’re brilliant at it. But in England, we’re good at dance music. It’s a living folk music. It’s all made by computer, but it’s massively popular, and it gets people up and dancing.
I realised that I was barking up the wrong tree with the whole African thing. Actually, what it’s about is looking at what’s really successful here and creating it acoustically, because I think that acoustic music is always more powerful. Music made in the moment, by humans, is more powerful than a computer-generated version.
So essentially, that’s what this has now become: a sort of acoustic dance music, with a huge range of different influences.
It was time to hear an example of this music. The players gathered in a circle: Mikey on drums, Nicky and Ceri on chimes, Si on his laptop and sampler. Completing the circle, Ling picked up her erhu: a bowed instrument, whose small sound box was covered in Chinese python skin. “I went to the mountains and waited for the python to come out”, she explained. “You have to catch your own python, or else they don’t let you play”, Ceri added.
(OK, so this was a total wind-up. But let the story stand, as a testament to my gullibility.)
The piece that followed was a gentler, more meditative affair than I was expecting. Taking a traditional Chinese melody, Ling started unaccompanied, playing with exquisite beauty. The melody was taken up by the chimes, and expanded into rippling variations. Si added a discreet electronic bassline, topped with subtle samples of Ling’s erhu that stretched out her sound, without smothering its essence. Working to a click track, Mikey supplied the mid-paced rhythmic backdrop. It felt like an overture; the calm before the percussive, immersive storm.
Sabar Soundsystem presents ‘Pentatronix’ featuring Si Tew and Ling Peng: Nottingham Contemporary, Friday June 7. Tickets on sale from Nottingham Contemporary, gigantic.com, Alley Cafe, Jamcafe and The Music Exchange.
This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
Here in Nottingham, Katty Heath is best known as the singer with Spotlight Kid: a gloriously noisy alternative rock band, once described in this paper as “sounding like twenty thousand bees trapped in a wind tunnel”. But over in The Netherlands, where she has been living since 2011, Katty is more likely to be recognised a contestant on The Voice Of Holland, the TV talent show which spawned last year’s The Voice on BBC1.
Swapping the grime of the indie circuit for the glamour of the television studio, Katty’s transformation couldn’t have been more complete – but as she now reveals, her journey was a largely dispiriting and disillusioning experience.
“I was never a big fan of those shows in the first place”, she explains, talking to EG from her houseboat in central Amsterdam. “So I was going a little bit against my morals, I guess. But I felt that if I was going to have a permanent life here, I really want to have a music career here. So I thought, well, this could be a fast track way of making some connections in the industry.”
Persuaded to give the show a try, Katty applied online, and was invited in for a couple of selection rounds. These proved successful, as did the first two televised rounds: the “blind audition”, where the show’s judges cannot see the contestants, and the “battle round”, where each singer goes head-to-head with a rival. Katty sailed through them all, landing herself a place on the first of the live shows.
At this point, the eager contestant felt what little control she had over the process slipping away. Rejecting all her song proposals – Fleetwood Mac, Portishead, Nina Simone, Kate Bush – as “too unusual, not commercial enough, or too obvious”, the show’s producers insisted that she tackled Katy Perry’s Firework instead.
“Oh my God, I hate that song! And as the build-up came, it was very intensive. You’re in every day from nine in the morning until ten at night. It’s very tiring, so you’re not really in a fit state to sing to your biggest audience in your life.”
Swamped by a noisy arrangement, complete with mid-song pyrotechnics – the very opposite of what she had wanted – Katty did her best, but the voting went against her, and she failed to qualify for the next round.
A pre-recorded version of the track was immediately placed on iTunes, but “we never see a cent of that.” In fact, none of the contestants are paid to be on the show. “The only thing we received from it was a phone, because it was sponsored by Samsung.”
“When you’re in the show, you’re like: this is amazing, I’m loving the fame! And then as soon as you’re out of it, you’re like: Oh my God, it’s just a money-making machine, and we are pawns in it.”
“The first week after, I was just in a big hole of despair. You’re just dropped into nothingness. There’s no kind of follow-up, to see if you’re OK. From beginning to end, it’s six months, and you can’t really commit to anything else in your life. So I was sort of broken: financially, emotionally and psychologically.”
Tied by a year-long contract, which forbids her from releasing any other material until the end of March, Katty found herself in limbo, unable to capitalise from any immediate post-show opportunities. More humiliatingly still, she was even turned away from the doors of the studio, when attempting to watch one of the later live shows.
“Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t have done it”, she reflects. “But I still think it was a valuable lesson, and a learning experience.”
When asked what advice she would give to anyone contemplating a similar move, Katty pauses before answering.
“Don’t expect to get paid. Don’t expect it to be the be-all and end-all. Just see it as an experience, rather than a solution. See it for what it is: entertainment, a TV show, and very quickly you’re going to be yesterday’s news. Take from it what you can, but don’t be deluded into thinking it’s about you. Because it’s not. It’s about viewing figures, and the company making money out of you.”
The most intrusive part of the whole process for Katty was having her past scrutinised. “We all had to have an interview with a private investigator, who had already investigated us,” she says. “That’s to protect the company, because if people come forward with stories about you, they want to be prepared.”
She adds, laughing: “So of course they were with me for a long time, because I’ve had a right shady past!”
Spotlight Kid’s single Budge Up is out on Monday.
This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
They might describe their music as “claustrophobic, pounding and paranoid”, but in the flesh, I Am Lono are an affably untroubled pair of souls – or so it would seem on the surface, at any rate.
According to Matthew Cooper, who sings and plays the keyboards, the claustrophobia is a by-product of the duo’s creative environment. “We write all the music in the basement, and it is very claustrophobic. There are no windows. The dehumidifier is the only bit of moisture that we get close to.”
Guitarist and co-composer David Startin agrees. “Every time we write anything, we have these speakers that really enclose us. It’s a very direct way of writing, so we’ve always got that element.”
“I think we’re both very sensitive people”, adds Matthew. “It’s difficult not to be paranoid.”
The pair met through sharing music and books, and their mutual admiration for the crazed “gonzo journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson gave them their name. In his early Eighties memoir, The Curse Of Lono, Thompson finds himself in Hawaii, attempting to cover a marathon. A fishing trip ensues, and Thompson lands a huge marlin, which he clubs to death. Believing himself to be a reincarnation of Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility and music, he screams “I am Lono!” as he slaughters the fish, before going into hiding from angry islanders.
There’s another cultural reference in I Am Lono’s debut single, which will be launched at the Rescue Rooms on Tuesday. Lead track Leland is inspired by a character in David Lynch’s early Nineties drama Twin Peaks. Possessed by a demonic spirit, Leland Palmer, the small town’s seemingly mild-mannered attorney, is eventually revealed as the murderer of his daughter Laura, solving the central mystery of the show’s first season.
With that in mind, the song’s chorus – “Oh Leland, I want your love” – makes for a disturbing tribute, but as Matthew explains, “It has a sort of tension to it, that I liked. There is the ambiguity of the name, as it’s not definitely a male name, but also there’s ambiguity with Leland as a character. In a way, the song is a cry for innocence.”
It’s also a prime example of David and Matthew’s love of soundtrack music. John Carpenter is another inspirational figure – “Escape From New York is one of the best soundtracks ever”, says David – and before the band formed in early 2011, Matthew mainly worked on soundtracks for independent film makers.
Visuals are an important component of their approach; Matthew does all the artwork, and the pair are “very much in control of what we want visually”. At the launch, visuals will be provided by a member of the Kneel Before Zod video club, who regularly screen “old B-movies and slasher movies”. The intention is for these to be mixed with live visuals on the night.
As a further inducement, advance ticket purchasers will be able to exchange their stubs for a free copy of the vinyl single. This pairs Leland – their most “four-to-the-floor” and dance-derived composition to date, with a “1978 New York” feel to it – with the thrashier, more guitar-driven In Silence, which David describes as having “a Pixies-esque early Nineties kind of feel; that kind of sonic power that pushes out.”
A digital release is also planned, although David and Matthew are less enthused about the format. “With downloads, it does feel more like a rental – a partial ownership of music”, says Matthew. As for making their music available on Spotify, he is decidedly lukewarm. “One million hits, and you can’t even buy a pizza.”
Support on the night will be provided by another electronic duo, the gloriously splenetic Sleaford Mods, whose acerbic social commentary stands in contrast to I Am Lono’s more enigmatic approach. “We’ve not got a song that will bring down the government”, says David. “Not yet”, he adds. Well, you never know.
An edited version of this feature was originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Amongst the three members of Kagoule, there’s little discernible love for the garment which gave them their name. “We own probably none”, says singer and guitarist Cai Burns. “There’s at least three in my house”, admits bassist Lucy Hatter. “We just said it as a joke”, explains drummer Lawrence English, “but then we thought it might be alright.”
If you hear a band name often enough, it takes on its own meaning. Think of The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the band’s key influences, and gourd-related violence will rarely spring to mind. Likewise, it’s unlikely that you’ll link Kagoule with lightweight, foldable anoraks for too long. And besides, they’ve customised the name with a kooky K. Like Kriss Kross, or Kool and the Gang.
That’s pretty much where the kookiness ends, though. Despite their youth – they’re all seventeen, and in their final year at college – Kagoule are a remarkably level-headed bunch, with a clear-sighted dedication to their craft. Of the three, Lawrence is perhaps the most assertive, business-like one. Lucy tends to express the firmest opinions, while Cai has a thoughtful, dreamy reticence that marks him out as the main songwriter and front man.
The band formed two years ago. Lawrence knew Cai from school, Cai and Lucy were already a couple, and Lucy was friends with Lawrence’s sister, “so it all linked in quite nicely”. After serving the usual apprenticeship at “dodgy Maze nights”, the big break arrived in December 2011, when they were asked to open for Dog Is Dead on the main stage of Rock City. “It was the first proper gig”, reckons Lucy. “The first gig that wasn’t awful”, adds Lawrence.
The set was a triumph, opening the door to a host of new opportunities. “It made things more professional”, says Cai. “It made us feel like an actual band, and it got us into contact with a lot of people.” The band gigged regularly throughout 2012, appearing at festivals such as Dot To Dot, Y-Not and Branch Out. Denizen Recordings took them under their wing, giving them access to experienced management and state-of-the-art recording facilities. And now there’s a single, their first physical release, which will be launched at The Chameleon on Saturday night.
The tracks in question – Monarchy and Mudhole – are two of Cai’s earliest compositions, “so it seemed right to release them first”. Monarchy was written when he was just fourteen. It’s drawn from personal experience, but he declines to explain further, as “it can ruin it for some people”. Mudhole “is some fiction – I like to make up stories.” “It’s easier than writing a book”, says Lucy.
Musically, the band are inspired by the alt-rock of the early-to-mid Nineties: the Pumpkins, Nirvana, Fugazi, and Cai’s favourites, Unwound. “It’s so much better than what’s out now”, Lucy asserts. “It’s the most recent good music, I’d say.” “We didn’t really go for a Nineties sound”, says Cai. “We got compared to those kinds of bands, then we started listening to that music. After that, we realised that’s the music that we all really like.”
Once their studies are completed, the trio intends to take a year out, before thinking about university. “We’re not going to miss that opportunity”, says Lucy. An album is in the pipeline, and most of the tracks are already written. At the end of the month, they’ll be embarking on a mini-tour with label mates Kappa Gamma, with dates in Leicester, Leeds and Manchester.
Time for one final question. If Kagoule were given the opportunity to soundtrack a TV ad, what product would they choose to endorse? Pampers, says Lawrence, quick as a flash. Guns, says Lucy, without even a hint of a smile. Cai considers this longer and harder than the others, before opting for talcum powder. Nobody even thinks about lightweight, foldable anoraks.
We asked fourteen local music experts to select the top ten Nottingham bands and artists they were excited about in 2013. We then collated their results and picked out the dozen that came up most.
This is not a ‘best of’ or ‘most likely to’ list. It’s a mixture of established acts and newcomers who our panel believe are on the verge of doing something interesting musically this year. In alphabetical order we have…
(Written for LeftLion magazine)
For those who still remember Radio Trent in its Seventies and Eighties glory days, when the station broadcast on 301 metres AM, Trent Sound’s studio address should hold a special resonance. In point of fact, there wasn’t a “301 Coventry Road, Bulwell” before the service launched on June 13th – but for station manager Andy Lloyd, who sold his adjacent computer business in order to fund the start-up, the chance to revive the memory was too good to pass up.
It’s a fitting inspiration for a station that seeks to “capture the magic, fun and local identity of Radio Trent” – although for the latter-day owners of the now defunct Trent FM, which was subsumed into the Capital behemoth on January 3rd, the tribute fell on somewhat stony ground.
According to Lloyd, “All hell broke loose; they sent a courier up from London on a motorbike, with a cease and desist letter. They didn’t want us to use the name Trent at all. We had to sign certain undertakings about things that we wouldn’t do, and they in turn “permitted” us to use the word Trent. We pointed out that it’s actually the name of a river – which they may not have been aware of, down in London – and it’s not really in their gift to grant. We’ve got Trent Valley Windows, Trent Kebabs… Trent everything, really.”
While various Trent exiles – including the station’s first ever on-air presenter, John Peters – clubbed together at radiotrent.co.uk, which launched as a web-only service three weeks after Trent Sound, Lloyd and his team started to forge a different path. Their ultimate objective is to secure a community radio licence, which would allow them to migrate to FM full time. There will be a chance to do that in 2013, when Ofcom opens its doors to the next round of licensing applications – but until then, the station is obliged to remain almost entirely internet-based, broadcasting round the clock from http://www.trentsound.com.
Despite this restriction, there are still periodic opportunities for Trent Sound to hit the city’s radio dials, thanks to Ofcom’s “restricted service licences” (or RSLs, as they say in the business). These can be granted to stations who are preparing to apply for a permanent licence, up to a maximum of two 28-day periods per year.
Handily timed for the holiday period, Trent Sound’s first RSL is scheduled to run from December 12th until January 8th. You’ll find them right at the top of the dial – on 87.9 FM, just to the left of Radio 2 – and if you like what you hear, they’re hoping you’ll follow them back onto the internet, after the licence expires. In this respect, the welcome lack of on-air adverts should help curry favour with new listeners. “We really need to get the station out there”, says Lloyd, “and we don’t give a stuff about making money”.
Although the station’s weekday output sticks to an oldies-based format – nothing before 1965, nothing after 1995 – a wide array of evening and weekend specialist slots aim to create “a radio station for everybody”, according to Lloyd. There are programmes dedicated to rock, indie, R&B, house, world/folk and blues, as well as a gay show on Saturday nights, and a three hour show on Wednesday evenings called Notts Live, which is dedicated to promoting local talent.
Presented by Andy Haynes and Bainy Bain, Notts Live has been doing its thing since September 2010. After its original hosts Sherwood Radio shut down in May, the show quickly found a new home at Trent Sound. Each week’s edition is themed around acts that will be playing in town over the following week, and a full gig guide is broadcast during the first hour. “We try not to be genre-based”, says Andy Haynes. “If they’re from Nottingham, we’ll try and feature them.”
Since its inception, Notts Live has featured tracks by around five hundred Nottingham acts. It’s a staggering total, which speaks volumes about the healthy state of the current scene. Live studio sessions have featured such local worthies as Will Jeffrey, Alexa Hawksworth, Adam Peter Smith and Euler, and regular “two hour takeovers” have been hosted by the likes of Satnam’s Tash and the Amber Herd. No stranger to music-making himself, Andy Haynes has been known to join the Amber Herd on stage, brandishing his Theremin. (“I put myself out there as a bit of a Theremin slag”, he explains, “but I’ve not had too much take-up on that.”) The Notts Live brand also extends to occasional live promotions, and to this end there will be a “Notts Live Office Christmas Party” at the Jam Cafe on Dec 21st, headlined by Spaceships Are Cool and broadcast live on the show.
As for the rest of Trent Sound’s schedule, Andy Lloyd’s operates an “open access” policy, which presents opportunities for aspiring broadcasters to get involved. “This doesn’t mean that anybody can”, he cautions, “because you have to have some degree of professionalism, but we’re not an old boys’ network and we want to be accessible. But it’s going to be staffed with the people who will stay. What I don’t want are the glory boys, who will just come in for the RSL. We’ve had it already!”
They’re aiming high, and there’s still a long way to go. But if you agree with Lloyd that “the whole premise of independent local radio has died” – just listen to Capital, and weep for what has been lost – then Trent Sound deserves full credit, for trying to put the “local” back into local radio.