Mike Atkinson

Sleaford Mods: Key Markets

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

smkm“I’m just a little moaning arse-fart, blowing smoke.” On an album which takes pot-shots at everyone from Cameron and Johnson to Brand and Blur, it only seems fair that Jason Williamson should turn on himself for a moment – but there’s more to Key Markets, the fifth Sleaford Mods album in three years, than mere scattergun abuse.

Lyrically more abstract than its predecessors, it’s also more varied in pace and mood, adding new colours to the palette. The opening two tracks, Live Tonight and No One’s Bothered, stick closest to what you’d expect – lairy chants, punk rock riffs – but elsewhere, we’re on shifting ground.

Silly Me nudges towards clumsy funk; Arabia wrong-foots you with awkward off-beats; Tarantula Deadly Cargo is a menacing, loose-limbed rumble, with an unfathomably surreal storyline. There’s seething rage on Face To Faces (“this daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful, it’s completely accepted by the vast majority”), but by the halfway mark on Side Two, Jason’s despair has taken a morose, almost defeated turn.

On the brooding, atmospheric Rupert’s Trousers, he takes weary aim at the Chipping Norton set, intoning mournfully over Andrew Fearn’s bleak, PiL-style dub tones. It’s followed by the staccato death-rattle of Giddy On The Ciggies, which gradually gathers steam, marshalling a final blast of fractured fury before ebbing away into hollow, wordless beats.

Hearteningly free of any concessions towards their new-found semi-fame (“we don’t want radio play, we’re not fucking Cannon and Ball”), Key Markets signals that Sleaford Mods are in for the long haul.

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Cantaloupe – Zoetrope

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

In the three years since Souvaris played their farewell gig, three of its former members have forged a new path as Cantaloupe, developing a brighter, sunnier, more synth-based retro-futurist sound. On this, their debut album as a trio, we find them steering away from the tricky time signatures of old, and heading towards a more streamlined approach.

In another break from tradition, vocalists have been enlisted on three tracks. (One of them, Eleanor Lee, has since joined the full-time line-up.) But although it’s interesting to hear the band shaping their arrangements around traditional song structures (with stylistic nods towards Stereoloab, Chromeo and Broadcast), it’s on the instrumental cuts that Cantaloupe’s unique qualities fully come into their own.

On Big Kiss and Ian Whitehead, which open and close the album, they’re at their most assertively optimistic, as primary coloured, shape-shifting blocks of sound shimmer, clatter and rumble, evoking memories of late Sixties/early Seventies TV themes or public information films.

Named after a dodgy Nineties chatline, 0891 50 50 50 offers a thrilling excursion into early Eighties Hi-NRG and electro-funk, slapping a Bobby Orlando donk under Patrick Cowley synths. Placed at the start of Side Two, it’s the album’s most overtly dancefloor-friendly moment.

Between these energy peaks, the mood dips into calmer waters, but without ever losing that core sense of restless forward motion; in Cantaloupe’s world, nothing stays still for long, and there’s always a new twist waiting around the corner. Intricate and complex, yet instant and accessible, Zoetrope radiates joy and wonder throughout.

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Sleaford Mods & Kagoule – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday January 27.

Posted in gigs, LeftLion, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on February 3, 2015

Originally written for LeftLion.

Kagoule as the support, eh? Aargh, just my luck. The last time I saw them play – Lacehouse basement, December 2013, an “in the round” set which placed us inches from their speakers – the experience left my ears ringing for weeks. Since then – and please, I mean to cast no slurs upon Kagoule’s art – I’ve not been able to hear them without suffering some sort of psychosomatic relapse. Yeah, it’s been an issue.

They start with Monarchy, their oldest song. Singer/guitarist Cai Burns wrote it five years ago, aged fourteen. A couple of years later, the trio broke through with the uncharacteristically lilting Made of Concrete, won a contest to play Rock City, and signed to Denizen. For a while, they seemed shackled to another new band, Kappa Gamma: similar age, same Rock City contest, same label, even the same initial letters. Kappa Gamma have since dipped from view, but Kagoule have been slowly stepping up. They’re on Earache now, and Gush, their debut single for the label, came out at the end of last year.

They may not be as noisy as the average Earache act, but Kagoule are still a good fit. For a teenage act, they’re more in thrall than most to the alt-rock boom of over twenty years ago – Fugazi, Unwound, the Pumpkins – so their place on the veteran label’s roster somehow underlines that lineage.

I’ve seen this band many times over the past few years. They’re less doleful these days, and they’ve grown bolder, spikier, more sardonic. The newer songs take more twists and turns. I was expecting them to have grown heavier and doomier, but mercifully that hasn’t happened. We only need one Swans.

They still play Made of Concrete, Lawrence English is still an uncommonly fine drummer – the glue that binds the band together – and bassist Lucy Hatter still has that song where she sheds her mask of inscrutability and starts screaming seven shades of hell. They’ve played stronger sets than this – Lucy has monitor problems, Cai vows never to use his guitar again – but on a big night at a sold-out Rescue Rooms, they feel like the right band at the right time.

It’s been nearly two years since I last saw Sleaford Mods: upstairs at the same venue, supporting I Am Lono, their second album as a duo (Austerity Dogs) just out. A few months earlier (to re-phrase John Cooper Clarke, an act they are often compared to but sound nothing like), its predecessor (Wank) had soured the mood of the newly self-celebratory Nottingham music scene like a fart at a birthday party. Whether born of righteous outrage or plain old trolling, its parochial pot-shots hit the mark, finding favour on the fringes and – against the odds – drawing the duo towards the spotlight, pariahs no more.

Side Two of Austerity Dogs was more or less a vinyl reissue of Wank, but with Side One, you sensed a widening of the net, a broadening of the scope, and a gathering focus for the fury. Jason Williamson had been ranting over loops on tiny stages for years, but Andrew Fearn’s arrival added vital new ingredients: a shared mindset, the right beats, the perfect onstage foil.

Two years, two more albums, countless limited edition singles, hundreds of gigs, an unexpectedly devoted pan-European fanbase, a hardback book, reams of column inches, a Guardian editorial, a fistful of placings on year-end critics’ lists and a smattering of press spats with UK rock royalty later, the Mods have returned in triumph, selling out the Rescue Rooms and earning a heroes’ welcome – however belated some of those welcomes might be.

Their return might be triumphant, but it’s anything but triumphalist. If anything, Williamson looks nervier these days: his movements more staccato, his demeanour less arrogant hard-man, his stage positioning more side-angled than head-on. Has all this acclaim humbled him? It’s a viable possibility.

He has developed a new tic, constantly flicking the back of his head in a singular, changeless manoeuvre. There are other tics, more sparingly deployed: puckered kisses, cheeky tit-squeezes, belly-flashing shirt-flicks, regal waves to the gallery. They ape the moves of a narcissistic rock star, but with an off-kilter, truncated timing that renders them as arch performance art. Beside him, Fearn does his usual: pressing play on a stool-mounted laptop, chugging bottled lagers, grinning, shuffling, mouthing along with key lines, the Yang to Jason’s Yin.

They’re on for exactly an hour, counting the encore. I’m told the atmosphere is less intense than at the last headline show at Spankys. Barring a few diehards down the front, this set of punters remains largely stock still, but they’re no less appreciative. A lot of scenester faces from, ahem, “back in the day” are here, dotted around the edges. Better late than never, right?

They open with Bunch of Cunts, from the latest EP. As opening salvos go, it couldn’t be more perfect. The energy levels rise for Jolly Fucker (“elitist hippies, arrogant cunts, Ian Beale tight trunks”), and they rise again for McFlurry (“I got a Brit Award! I got a Brit Award!”). By the time we get to the double sucker punch of Jobseeker and Tied Up In Nottz (“Hello Derby!”), the room is on fire.

Unlike their recorded versions, tracks have a habit of ending with repeated chants. “Smash the fucking windows!” brings Tied Up In Nottz to its climax, and “sack the fucking manager!” shuts Fizzy down. Dedicated to managers everywhere, Fizzy hits a special nerve. Most of us have worked for a “cunt with the gut and the Buzz Lightyear haircut, calling all the workers plebs”, and so has Jason – until a few months ago, when his rising fortunes as a Sleaford Mod enabled him to quit his day job with the council. It must have been the sweetest of victories.

Doubtless mindful of his captive audience, Jason gets Andrew to cue up an unscheduled track from Wank. Inspired by LeftLion’s 2011 music scene cover shoot at Rock City, Showboat blasts the hometown posers and careerists. “I heard the rule was: move to London. I heard the monkeys get the train. I ain’t a showboat, but you are, and I’ll die laughing my tits off in your face.” It’s the nearest we get to a “how d’you like me now, suckers?” moment.

Pubic Hair Ltd deals another kiss-off, this time to the Wellers and Gallaghers of this world. “Who gives a fuck about yesterday’s heroes… it’s not a pyramid, you’re not a fucking Pharaoh.” The Wage Don’t Fit closes the main set, then they’re back for three more. Fearn hands one of his beers to the front row, and Tweet Tweet Tweet ends the hour on the highest of highs.

Rock City next, then? There seems no reason not to.

Set list: Bunch of Cunts, Middle Men, Jolly Fucker, A Little Ditty, McFlurry, The Demon, Jobseeker, Tied Up in Nottz, Routine Dean, Tiswas, Fizzy, Under the Plastic and N.C.T., Showboat, Pubic Hair Ltd, The Wage Don’t Fit, 6 Horsemen (The Brixtons), Five Pound Sixty, Tweet Tweet Tweet.

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Album review: Indiana – No Romeo.

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on February 3, 2015

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

NoRomeo“These may appear to be love songs but look closer, chip away their exterior beauty and reveal an inner darkness. I am No Romeo.” With these words, Indiana defines the central theme of her début album, which folds twisted takes on love, loss, betrayal, revenge and regret into sinister, icy, leftfield electronic pop.

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 power never fully fades.

On the cavernous, gothic Play Dead, she could be Juliet, feigning death as a coping strategy. On Bound, she traces a journey from submission to dominance in a way that hints at sado-masochism (“this isn’t love, this is dangerous”), while on the title track, she spurns the whole idea of romantic love: “I don’t need no Romeo… it’s not enough, but it’s alright, I’m sleeping on my own tonight”.

Only The Lonely buries an uplifting dance anthem under six feet of soil; Heart On Fire subverts the headrush of falling in love, casting it as a perilous act, like jumping off a tall building. Finally, Mess Around ends the journey with a ghoulish resurrection and a deadly re-embrace: “Your suffering completes me, I’ll take no more, I want no less.”

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Hockley Hustle – Nottingham, Sunday October 19

Posted in gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on February 3, 2015

Originally written for LeftLion

If the Hockley Hustle was Glastonbury, Nottingham Contemporary would be its Pyramid Stage. Dean Jackson and the BBC Introducing team have bagged a cracking line-up – including Harleighblu, Amber Run, Georgie and The Gorgeous Chans – and even at the start of the day, I find myself suppressing a rogue urge to park my lazy arse in The Space for the duration.

My Hustle odyssey duly begins here, with a long-awaited first chance to witness April Towers, a synth-pop duo who variously remind our little group of OMD, New Order and Hurts. April Towers have a knack for constructing sturdily chugging, dance-friendly tracks which surge into soaring, hooky choruses – not least on Arcadia, their imminent début single. All they need now are a couple of numbers which offer more of a contrast, in terms of rhythm and tempo.

There’s another strong bill at Antenna, at the opposite end of the festival. It’s a fair old trudge, but as my Glastonbury-hardened pals point out, it’s a mere stroll when compared to the trek between the Pyramid and Other stages. We’re here to see Ashmore, backed by his new band Unknown Era, but we also manage to catch the end of Captain Dangerous’s set; they’ll be performing again at the JamCafé later on.

The atmosphere at Antenna feels a bit weird: more like a TV studio than a gig venue, and focussed more on the Notts TV cameras than the seated audience behind them. The stage is hosted by Al Needham, who has been shunted onto a sofa in a far-flung corner, his introductions and interviews performed to cameras instead of punters. During his interview with Captain Dangerous, clipboard-wielding apparatchiks stalk the floor, shushing anyone who talks above a whisper. During Ashmore’s set, our view is obscured by a central column, and by a camera crew whose wheeled rig constantly trundles back and forth at the front of the stage. Still, the images on the monitor screens look most professional, and the event is sure to make good TV viewing.

In a departure from the gypsy jazz-tinged acoustic hip hop which first made his name, Ashmore’s sound has been fleshed out by the addition of electric guitars, bass and cajón, adding rock’s wallop and reggae’s lilt to familiar songs such as Misfit and My Town. It’s a bold step forward, and a successful one at that.

Signing ourselves out of Antenna – yes, there’s a little book on reception, even today – we emerge into an unexpected shower. With a spare thirty minutes before the next act on our list, we head for the main drag with open minds, ready to dive for shelter in any venue with music emerging from its doors. This does not prove to be an easy mission, as everywhere seems to be in turnaround, preparing for the next act at the top of the hour.

Help arrives on the corner of Stoney Street, as a group of friends on a smoke break usher us into The Corner, where I’m Not From London’s stage is already in full flow, blessed by a packed house. The band are “like Nirvana, but without a singer”, we are promised. “So, the Foo Fighters then?” we quip.

They turn out to be a bracingly intense instrumental trio, with the drummer marooned on stage and the guitarist and bassist lurching about on the main floor. Given the volume level, it takes me a while to establish their name. “Did you say Jay-Z The Pope?” “No, it’s like the bus stops.” “Bus Stop Madonnas? But this lot are blokes!” “I’ll write it down for you.” Oh, JC Decaux. Thank you. The atmosphere here is fantastic, but we have to move on.

In the dank basement of Bambuu, DH Lawrence & the Vaudeville Skiffle Show are the venue’s first live act at the day, over an hour earlier than the printed programme and on a different floor. This probably accounts for the somewhat sparse turn-out – the band themselves claim to recognise almost everyone in attendance – but a relaxed, jokey vibe prevails. The music is equal parts skiffle and bluegrass, with banjos, washboards, big hats, and our second cajón of the day. In a tribute to the band’s Eastwood forefather, Sons and Lovers sets passages from Lawrence’s classic novel to music. We emerge from the gloom with big smiles on our faces.

It’s one out, one in for Josh Wheatley at Boilermaker. With a dozen people ahead of us, we cut our losses and retreat. Where next? Bus Stop Madonnas are due on any minute at The Music Exchange, so we browse the racks and then take the afternoon air, to the strains of a busking duo covering Katy Perry. The expected few minutes stretch into half an hour – the first of several such delays – but we stand firm.

They’re worth the wait, of course. It’s a strange thing, watching rowdy, primitive, spirit-of-77 punk rock from all of three feet away, while an equal number of spectators cluster outside the shop window; clearly, the squall has no problems transmitting through glass. As all persons of taste should be aware, spirit-of-77 punk rock is one of the greatest genres known to humankind, and the two Madonnas serve it up with spirit and aplomb.

Dragging a couple of jazz fans with us, who have been enjoying the bill at Das Kino, we head back to Contemporary for Gallery 47. The last time I saw Jack Peachey perform, he was battling against chatty half-listeners at Jamcafé; this time around, he is blessed with absolute and total attention, from a hearteningly full room.

Doubtless bolstered by his recent European support slots with Paul Weller, Jack steps up to the demands of the larger space, projecting his performance without surrendering its core intimacy. Halfway through the set, he ditches his song list, ceremoniously handing it into the audience, and opts to play whatever takes his fancy. This includes a clutch of unreleased new songs, easily the equals of anything on his current album, and a beautifully understated rendition of All It Could Grow Up To Be, a personal favourite.

Within the prevailing “keep it positive” constraints of Notts music journalism, rave reviews are in danger of becoming devalued currency – but this was simply the finest Gallery 47 set I’ve seen to date, and my artistic highlight of the day. The jazz fans, who had never heard of him before, were mightily impressed; they can’t have been the only instant converts, either.

Time for a complete change of scene. Nirvana and Revolution are the places to be for hip hop and grime, so we descend upon a heaving Revolution, where rap battle league Don’t Flop will be filming the ultimate hometown clash: Youthoracle vs. Bru-C. First brought forward an hour, the battle is then delayed by half an hour. My friends lose patience and peel away – one to Band Of Jackals and the other to 94 Gunships (both reportedly excellent) – but having covered the big Don’t Flop event at the Rescue Rooms earlier in the year for The Guardian, there’s no way that I’m missing this local derby.

They may be the best of friends in real life, but Youth and Bru go in hard against each other. Bru-C mocks his opponent for his nu-metal past and a suspicious fondness for Classic FM; in turn, Youthoracle derides Bru-C’s indie hipster cred and his “relaxed high-top” haircut, and teases him for choking at the Rescue Rooms event. Hush in the room for the unamplified set is hard-won, but the local crowd lap up all the in-jokes and Notts-specific references, roaring their appreciation for the many killer punches. Youthoracle narrowly wins the trophy – but in truth, these were classic, precision-honed, top-of-their-game performances from both MCs alike.

It’s an easy stumble over the road to the LeftLion stage in the Broadway bar, where twinkly soul showman Rob Green is, as ever, charm personified. With a new band and a new set list, he’s on fine form, spreading good vibes across the room. I haven’t seen much dancing until now, but folk are eagerly getting their groove on, and it’s a pleasure to behold.

My middle-aged feet can only take one more act, and that act has to be the newly rebranded, deceased-canine-no-longer D.I.D, back in the reassuring comfort of the Contemporary. Like Rob Green before them, the band play a mostly all-new set, with Two Devils and a concluding Teenage Daughter thrown in as crowd-pleasers. Apart from the greasy blues-rock riff which powers one of the new songs, which will be made available for general consumption very soon, no especially radical re-inventions are unleashed. Instead, we are offered a refinement of the classic D.I.D sound – but it’s no mere rehash, either. The material is strong, well-crafted and instantly appealing, and it all bodes well for the next chapter in the band’s career.

The feet are screaming for relief, and so the odyssey comes to an end. It’s been an extraordinary day: rich in musical diversity and strong on collective goodwill, and all in the name of several charitable good causes. Everyone involved in the planning, promoting, staging and delivery of the event should take immense pride in their achievement.

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Lone – Reality Testing

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

lonrealtestLone’s music works best in the hazy heat of high summer, his sun-baked wooziness making an apt soundtrack for indolent, blissed-out afternoons. On his sixth album, there’s a shift away from the more rave-based textures of Galaxy Garden, and a reintroduction of some of the more chilled out, hip hop-derived elements of earlier releases. Downtempo tracks such as the floaty, mellifluous Jaded wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Lemurian, his 2008 release for Dealmaker, while even the housier tracks, of which there are plenty – Aurora Northern Quarter, 2 Is 8 – tend to ebb away into softer codas. On the perkily insistent, pan-pipey Begin To Begin, a voice cuts in: “am I dreaming, am I awake”, encapsulating the liminal mood. By the album’s end, you do sense a depletion of fresh ideas – but taken as an ambient piece, there’s still plenty to tickle the synapses and soothe the soul.

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Youthoracle – Flash Floods Vol.2 EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

yoff2As Youthoracle’s star continues to rise in the world of battle rap – he co-organised Don’t Flop’s Nottingham showcase in April, battling the league’s reigning champion – this four-track EP serves as a timely reminder of his skills as a recording artist. It’s an outspoken, socially conscious affair, pitting the MC’s fierce and furious flow against tough grime, dubstep and hip hop beats.

Hellectricity is an uncompromising opener, building from a wide-eyed ode to the wonders of nature (“the birds, the bees, the butterflies”) to an ever-accelerating blast of cold fury, so densely packed that only multiple plays will unlock its message. Just Be offers a statement of personal liberation, as Youthoracle asserts his right to be his own man, before laying into the superficialities of celebrity culture on Fake Sells. Finally, and most memorably of all, there’s the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping StoryTeller, a life story laid bare in unsparing, brutal detail.

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Ronika – Selectadisc

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

ronselAs the title of her long-awaited début album suggests – it’s a tribute to the legendary Nottingham record store, which closed in 2009 – Ronika is a committed crate-digger, whose journeys through pop music’s past have helped to shape her direction as an artist.

She might not be the first performer to be inspired by the Eighties, but her ability to absorb and reconfigure such a wide range of the era’s key pop-dance styles, with such loving attention to detail, marks her out from the pack.

For committed fans, just over half the tracks on Selectadisc will already be familiar – from 2011’s Forget Yourself to last year’s Rough N Soothe – but there’s plenty of new material here, too. Believe It is a languid, sultry summer jam, staccato stabs punctuate the frisky What’s In Your Bag, and long-time live favourite 1000 Nights mashes Taylor Dayne with Into The Groove, to instantly memorable effect.

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Interview: Indiana

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on April 10, 2014

A shorter version of this interview was originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Due out on April 20th, Solo Dancing will be Indiana’s fourth release for Sony, following last year’s Bound, Smoking Gun and Mess Around. Premiered on Radio One as Zane Lowe’s “hottest record in the world right now”, championed by Popjustice as “something very special indeed”, and blogged into the Number One slot on the influential Hype Machine aggregator chart, it’s already her most talked about single to date, and potentially her breakthrough track.

“I wasn’t expecting it”, she tells me. “I was hoping that something would break through, because everything [to date] has been OK with radio and stuff, but nothing has started off as well as this one. So I am quite excited about it.”

In a marked departure from Indiana’s previous videos, the Solo Dancing video is intentionally funny, and stuffed full with visual puns for an altogether more intimate type of solo activity: beans are flicked, chains are yanked, pussies are stroked, you get the picture. It’s not what you might call a typical Indiana vibe, to say the least.

“This is actually the first video that I haven’t had anything do with, [in terms of] the writing or directing”, she admits. “I took a step back from all of that, and let Sony get some directors in, and they thought up this concept. So I, er… I went along with it. “

She’s sounding a little cautious, a little hesitant. Did she maybe worry that the video was cheapening the art? “Um, yeah, kind of. I was a little apprehensive. But I said I’m never gonna put out there, what it’s about. Some people don’t get it, some people think it’s just weird, and I’m happy with that. The weirder the better, with me. I’d rather be referred to as odd than normal. So those kinds of comments are cool. It’s good to get people talking, in any sense.”

“The song is about empowerment”, she explains. “It’s not necessarily going out dancing. It can be a metaphor for anything: just to be comfortable in your own skin, and to be able to do something on your own. So it’s not about what the actual video is about!”

In reality, Indiana has never turned up to a club by herself. “I’ve probably ended up being on my own”, she laughs, “but I’ve never set out on my own. I used to [go clubbing] a lot, and I do enjoy it when I do get a chance to go out, but I’m not really a clubby kind of girl now. I like going out and watching a band, having a few beers and socialising.”

Although Solo Dancing is her most uptempo track to date, “it’s not a dance BPM – it’s only 109 – so you’d maybe dance uncomfortably to it. It’s a good head-bobber, I think. But I have enjoyed writing a bit more uptempo than I normally am. I like to think the lyrics are intelligent, but they’re not as deep as I would often go, like Animal or Mess Around.”

Despite her fondness for lyrical darkness, which tends to explore the more dysfunctional aspects of relationships – betrayal and vengeance, addiction and co-dependence – Indiana is actually a happily settled mother of two, whose personal circumstances appear to contradict her subject matter.  So where does this darkness come from?

“They’re not all necessarily about relationships “, she suggests. “I like to tell stories, and most of them are not true to facts, but I do draw on some experiences and refer to them in songs. I like to put on my story-telling hat; I think it’s more entertaining than ‘girl loves boy’ or ‘boy doesn’t love girl’. And I probably don’t come across as it, but I am quite a dark person, and the darker things interest me – so that comes across in my music.”

In terms of the songwriting process, Indiana favours an evolutionary approach. “It takes a lot for me to say, OK, that’s finished, because I keep going back, taking things out and putting things in. Lyrically, I take more time than some songwriters that I know, because I like to research and think of other words. I like to use a thesaurus, to use words that people wouldn’t often hear in songs. So I do take my time writing and producing.”

Once the songs have been completed in the studio, they are introduced to the band, whose job it is to reproduce them as faithfully as possible on stage. For Indiana’s headline show at the Bodega in February, we were introduced to a brand new line-up – Angelo on keys and bass, Tim on guitar, Ed on drums – all of whom hail from Nottingham. The geographic closeness works in everybody’s favour, as the previous band “were based in London, and with acoustic nights and live lounges and things that I have coming up, I want people to be able to hop in the car, come round to my house, and have a jam.” At the show, you could already sense a greater degree of engagement between the singer and her musicians. To put it baldly, they felt less like hired hands, and more like an integrated unit, in tune with Indiana’s vision.

Two new songs were premiered that night: Never Born (“a revenge song”) and Shadow Flash, inspired by a move in Mortal Kombat that makes one of the female characters immune to projectiles. Both, in their own ways, offered further representations of strength and empowerment. And although the set list was still short, the track listing for the début album has been steadily edging towards completion.

“I have a lot [of songs], but it’s finding that common thread: having songs that lift you, while other songs are quite deep, and finding that perfect kind of flow. I wanted another one that was a bit more uptempo, like Solo Dancing, and I think I’ve just nailed that. But the label hasn’t heard it yet, so we’ll see! Hopefully they’ll like it! I think once that is done, the album will be complete. I don’t know when it will be released.  I might have another single after this one, and then the album, but it changes all the time.”

Inevitably, given the age-old conflict between art and commerce, certain battles have had to be fought with the record company. As an artist who likes to be “quite hands-on with everything” in terms of songwriting, production, video direction and personal styling, Indiana places a high value on retaining overall control, and keeping her operations in-house wherever possible; she is currently designing her album artwork with her boyfriend James, for example.

“I might have developed a little bit of a name for myself, with throwing my toys out of the pram too many times”, she giggles, when questioned about possible diva moments, “but I’ve got really strong opinions on how I think I should be portrayed.  I might have been a diva a couple of times – not because I didn’t have all-blue M&Ms, but because I like to have creative control.”

I think I’m a lot more knowledgeable now”, she continues. “I know a lot more about the music industry, and it’s not all good. There’s a lot that I’ve learnt over the past couple of years. I’ve come a long way. My first gig was only two years ago, and I had no idea what the music industry was about.”

The past two years have been peppered with highlights: a show at Glastonbury, the main stage at Splendour, and most recently a début London gig which “blew me away. I was so scared, because it wasn’t a crowd of fans, like in Nottingham. It was industry people, and they talk; they’re there to socialise, not just to watch me. In Nottingham, they kind of hang on my every word, and it’s really boosted my confidence, I’m like, oh my God, these people actually really like me!”

“So I’ve got that hanging over me, but there was complete silence for Blind As I Am. When I did the big ‘I’m rubbing gold’ bit, they all cheered, and then were silent again – and when I did it again, they cheered and were silent again. I came off, and my whole body was shaking. I felt like someone had spiked my drink. I was like, what’s going on, I can’t believe that, this feels amazing. It was because I’d won them over. I was so scared, just before I walked on. I felt really faint, because I’d been away from the gigging game for a little while, having a baby. So it was a big moment.”

In June 2013, Indiana was selected to perform live in front of the Queen, backed by The Script, for a rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes: a song which contains the potentially treasonous line “I will be Queen”.  Naturally, such cheek required some measure of prior vetting.

“They have to read the lyrics, to kind of Queen-proof it. First of all, her people said: we’re going to have to make her change the words, and she’ll sing something else. Then they spoke to the Queen, and she said: no, it’s fine, just don’t look at me. So, then it got back to me: don’t look at the Queen when you sing ‘I will be Queen’. The thing is, when it was coming up to singing that line, 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 ‘I will be Queen’!”

BONUS Q&A

What was the first record you bought?
Robbie Williams: Freedom. I was a big Take That fan when I was a little girl.

What was your first gig?
Oasis at Wembley.

Favourite recent single and album?
MS MR – Secondhand Rapture / Lorde – Royals.

If your house was on fire, and you could only save one possession, what would it be?
My MacBook – it’s got all my songs and stuff.

It’s my round at the bar. What are you drinking?
A bottle of beer.

Best holiday destination ever?
I had a really good time in Ibiza when I was 20. (Giggles)

You’re about to get on a plane. Which magazine do you buy from Smiths?
Heat magazine, for my sins – I’m a bit of a gossip mag reader.

Are you a dog person, a cat person, or neither?
Both – I couldn’t decide. I have four cats, and the only reason I don’t have a dog is because my lifestyle won’t let me.

What was your worst fashion mistake ever?
Bleaching the two bits at the front of my hair with toilet bleach.

Which decade had the best music?
The Eighties.

Describe yourself in three words.
Creative, odd, dorky.

If you could send a message back to the Indiana of two years ago, what would you tell her?
You’ll never guess what; you’re going to sing for the Queen.

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Interview: Youthoracle

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on February 3, 2014

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.

Named as Don’t Flop‘s 2012 Best Newcomer of the Year, Youthoracle has garnered over half a million YouTube views and was recently invited to Toronto to battle in King Of The Dot World Domination 4. He’s rumoured to be taking on a three-time Don’t Flop champion at the Nottingham event this April…

When preparing for this interview, I was warned it would be hard to find much information about you online, as you don’t want to provide your fellow battlers with material that they can use against you. Do you have to be really cautious in what you say?

Yes, I don’t really bring up anything about my personal life – as much as I’d like to, because obviously music is a way of expressing yourself. I know a lot of people that battle, and they also expose their personal lives in their tracks, and then they moan when it’s brought up against them.

So if you had talked about some tragic childhood experiences, or coming from a broken home, they would have no qualms about going in?

They wouldn’t have qualms about anything. There’s been some really horrible things said, but I do have a limit, as to where I go. I’d never bring up someone’s kids, but people do. I’ve seen a guy pull out a picture of another guy’s son, and stand there, name-calling and saying stuff about his son.

When I watch these battles online – and maybe this is because I’m not so familiar with the whole culture – I can’t completely work out what’s going on. You’re going in really hard against each other on one level, but on another level, it also seems totally friendly. Is the atmosphere there genuinely friendly?

It is, to an extent. There’s a lot of us who are really good friends, but there’s a lot of bad vibes in there as well. You get a lot of people who have feuds with each other, so they usually call those grudge matches. But really it’s just entertainment most of the time.

While your opponent is doing his round, what goes through your mind?

I just try and zone out and not really pay attention to what they’re saying, so I don’t get annoyed by anything. Sometimes they’ll finish their round, and I haven’t listened to anything they’ve said. Usually, I don’t worry too much. Nobody knows anything about me, and I can’t see a way that they would, because I’m a very private person in real life. So there’s no way, unless they’d been stalking me, that they’d know anything about my life.

Is there any scope for picking up what was said in the previous round, and using it there and then? Or is everything pre-prepared?

It’s not all pre-prepared. I’d say 90% of people listen through the whole round and try and pick up on something, so they can flip it, and do a rebuttal. I’ve started to do it recently, but I’m not the strongest freestyler, so I’m very nervous. I get pins and needles down my arms. I’ve literally stood there, feeling like I’m going to cry. So half the time, I don’t really dare do a rebuttal.

If we were sat here and just doing it now, and I was comfortable, I could reel off rebuttals all day. But when there’s a crowd of 600, I don’t want to chance something I haven’t pre-written.

You were recently battling in Toronto. Was that tough in terms of dealing with a different culture, where they’re not going to get your references or your accent?

Yeah, because I’ve got one of the strongest accents in Don’t Flop. Even in England, nobody really understands what I’m saying half the time. I’ve only realised since being in Don’t Flop how strong my accent is. I get pulled up on my accent constantly. I reckon that’s the number one thing that I get done for. In Canada, I didn’t do any British references. I kept my accent, but they didn’t understand a word that I was saying, so my battle didn’t really go that well.

How did you first get involved with Don’t Flop?

My friend Bru-C [MC with The Afterdark Movement] rang me one day, after the Mark Grist & Blizzard battle came out, and he said: watch this battle, it’s a teacher versus a student. [The battle went viral in early 2012, earning nearly 4 million views.] I’d been doing music for a good eight years at the time, but I’d never really done that much, and I was starting to lose the love for it a bit. Bru-C was going to do it, and my little brother was going crazy at me, saying: you need to do it, you’ll do well. But I didn’t want to do it, and I said that I really wasn’t up for it.

Then I went to Bru-C’s first battle, and I realised what that vibe is like: everyone’s actually friends, there’s no bad vibes. That’s when I thought: I’ll do it. So I went up to the organiser, and showed him a few lyrics. He said to me: if Bru-C wins his battle, then you’ve got a try-out, but if he loses, never contact me again, ever. And luckily Bru-C won!

How important is it to win? Does it make a difference to where you go next?

There’s no actual structure or hierarchy, but it does make a big difference. I’ve just beaten an American who’s very big out there; he’s been doing it for about eight years. That means my next battle will be really big. If I lost, it wouldn’t be as good.

With each new battle, does every bar have to be brand new?

You can’t reuse anything at all, but a lot of people use a catchphrase. There’s a guy who says “I’ll bring them bars right back!” at the end of every rhyme, and then the whole crowd shouts it. It is lazy. You only get three minutes [per round] at most, so if you’re going to waste 20 or 30 seconds on doing a catchphrase… I’ve done stuff like that, but only to take the piss.

Are the rhymes always acapella, or is there any scope for doing them with beats?

That’s only on the odd occasion, when we’re trying something out. There used to be, back with 8 Mile and stuff like that, but there’s less chance you’ll flop if you’re off the beat, because acapella you haven’t really got to keep up with anything, it’s all in your own time.

How does the judging work? What are you being judged on?

It depends on the individual, but usually there’s a way of judging it in terms of punch count. With every punchline you hit, or every good metaphor, they can put a mark and tally them up. But I don’t think that’s fair, because one punch could really overtake a whole battle. As soon as you bring something quite personal up about someone, or expose them for something, you’ve won really. Unless they expose you back, or they flip it; that’s the only way you can get out of that situation.

After the Mark Grist versus Blizzard video, the other moment where rap battling went into the public consciousness was with the whole James Arthur debacle. What was your take on that? Was he unfairly treated, or was he an idiot?

At the end of the day, a person in his position shouldn’t be homophobic, really. He can’t do it. That’s what happens when you’re in the mainstream. Whatever we do in Don’t Flop, we’re not at that level, so anything goes. There’s been worse things than homophobia brought up in Don’t Flop.

Some of your own punchlines can sound quite homophobic. As a gay man, should I be concerned?

No, not at all. I’m not homophobic in the slightest. In battles, I don’t feel half of what I say towards someone. It’s just lyrics. It’s just for the crowd reaction. All of us have an understanding at Don’t Flop. There is no homophobia. None of us are homophobic. There’s even a gay battler.

I’ve had loads of racism, and I’ve been really racist in my battles before, as well. I’ve said some really, really bad things. At an event in Birmingham, I went against a mixed race lad, and I said a few things that were quite touching the line. A guy came up to me afterwards and said, you need to watch what you’re fucking saying, and he had a go at me. But this mixed race lad had gone against a black guy before, and used loads of racism towards him. So it was to make the point of: if you’re so comfortable having a go at a black guy, and you’re mixed race, and I’m mixed race myself, then I’ll have a go at you about that.

But in terms of homophobia, one of the battlers, one of our friends, came out about being gay. Then one of the biggest battlers said as long as this gay guy can battle, he’s not battling any more. So Don’t Flop said, fine, don’t battle then. And this battler who’s gay, he isn’t a big battler, he doesn’t get many views, but at the end of the day it’s about the principle. He still battles now, all the time. There’s no actual homophobia or racism, it’s just…

Perhaps it’s like watching a boxing match. You enjoy the match, but you don’t go home and start punching people.

Sometimes, it can go over the top. Two years ago, a lad was against a guy from Liverpool, and he said something about Rhys Jones, the little boy that got killed. That opened up the question of where the line is drawn, because he definitely understood after that. He got death threats, and he still gets death threats now. He can’t really battle outside his city any more. But if you see something in the news, it’s definitely going to get brought up. It’s actually clichéd to say something about Jimmy Savile now. It’s just like: yeah, boring, we’ve heard it before.

Your EP Flash Floods was released last year. In terms of your music making, what are you up to now?

I’m recording Flash Floods Volume 2 at the moment, and I’m looking to feature some people from Nottingham; I’m not quite sure who yet. I’m hoping to drop it on March 8th, as Don’t Flop Nottingham is on March 7th & 8th.

The tryouts on March 7th will be a night time event, and there are some big old school Nottingham hip hop people on there, like Karizma. Some of the other ones are kind of grimey: there’s A9, and a really quirky guy called Evans who I found myself. Then Kane Ashmore is going against Sam Moore; they’re doing an acoustic guitar battle. It’s gonna be good. I’m really, really looking forward to having somebody else from Notts as part of the league.

Through Don’t Flop, I’ve found out that we’ve got a big scene in Nottingham.  There’s a lot more rappers in Nottingham than in other places, where they don’t get the kind of views, and the buzz, that the Nottingham MCs do. The Nottingham buzz that’s there now, they’re all the younger MCs. This new generation are all really tight, and they all do music together.

I do think Nottingham as a whole has changed. It used to be a lot more ghetto, back in the day. There’s nothing much happening now, whereas [when I started out] it was just constant, absolute dramas, guns everywhere. No one really did clashes or battles, because it would have just turned into trouble.

Maybe social media has helped to heal the beefs. You’ve got to be friendly with lots of people, and you have to support each other, because that’s the way it works; that’s how you get your views.

Yeah, back when we used to do our music, we didn’t have YouTube or Facebook or anything like that. I think you’re right: social networking probably has stopped them… but you wouldn’t think that, with the comments that people can leave!

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Saint Raymond – Young Blood EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on February 2, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Callum Burrows has a knack for a hook, and the title track of his second EP is stuffed full of them. Opening with a simple stomp and a cheery tinkle – swiftly joined by chiming guitar and a frisky, funky bassline – Young Blood builds to an expectant bridge (“we can make it if we try”), before blossoming into an exultant two-part chorus, complete with a festival-friendly chant that should carry Saint Raymond all the way through to the summer. It’s followed by Bonfires: a long-established live favourite, originally released as a free download. Although recorded as a demo, the key elements of Saint Raymond’s sound are already in place, and we hear them again in Threads, addressed to a departed lover who’s “the one with all the answers, the queen of second chances”.  Closing the EP, As We Are Now is a short, sparse and poignant ode to seizing the moment.

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Interview: Saint Raymond

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on January 23, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine

“I have Callum on the line for you. Are you ready for the call?”

It’s a sign of an artist’s rising fortunes, when the only way you can speak to him is through the record company’s press office. It’s also quite unlike most LeftLion interviews, which are simply a case of arranging which pub to meet up in, after the act has finished work or college for the day. But for Callum Burrows, who signed as Saint Raymond to Asylum/Atlantic Records in August, there are now more exalted protocols to follow.

“It’s all crazy now”, he says, speaking to LeftLion from “sunny Hastings”, where he’s working on new material for a forthcoming EP, with a debut album to follow. “But to be honest, life hasn’t changed a ridiculous amount, in terms of what I’m doing. We’ve just carried on with the goals we set out. But we’ve obviously got a bigger team to help us out now, so it’s all good.”

For all his playful daftness on Twitter, Callum comes across as a serious-minded fellow with an utterly professional mindset, who’s not about to squander his opportunity. The way he sees it, Asylum “appreciated the work we were doing, and they wanted to get on board and help out. I’ve had advice about stuff, but it’s not been an overbearing thing, it’s just been a helpful process.”

“It’s a brand new world for me”, he adds, “and it all came very quickly. When we released the EP [Escapade, which came out on Gabrielle Aplin’s Never Fade label in May], we didn’t expect much of a reaction, and we got into the Top 25 on iTunes.”

While 2013 has been a landmark year for Callum, it has also been a year which has forced him to adapt quickly to new situations. The instant success of the EP led to extensive national radio airplay – Zane Lowe has been a particular fan – and a Radio One playlisting for Letting Go over the summer.

“The Radio One support has been amazing, Dean Jackson at Radio Nottingham has been exceptional, and I’ve been getting quite a few telly syncs. I was watching a programme, and they played one of my favourite songs, and I was like: oh, I love this song. Then it went quiet, and a song came on, and I was like: oh, wait. The next song was me. So it was kind of weird. When you’re in the public domain, you can be in a position where you’re just watching telly and you hear your own music. It’s a strange concept, but it’s brilliant.”

In fact, all four tracks from the Escapade EP have ended up soundtracking scenes on a variety of TV shows, including the final scene of the most recent series of Made In Chelsea: a prestigious, if somewhat incongruous moment.

Although the EP was recorded with a full band line-up, it was recorded at a time when Callum was still performing as a solo acoustic act – most notably at Dot To Dot in Nottingham, two days ahead of its release, when the 18-year old played the main stage of Rock City, to a full and noisily appreciative house.

For Saint Raymond’s next festival appearance, on the Jagermeister stage at Splendour, it was clear that a full time band had to be recruited – but astonishingly, the band only began rehearsing on the night before. “We were thrown in at the deep end”, Callum admits. “Splendour was a big moment, playing for a home crowd, and it felt really special.”

In contrast to most bands, who generally get the opportunity to cut their teeth at low-key gigs, the four piece line-up’s next three dates were at equally high-profile festivals. Thanks to Dean Jackson’s efforts, all three were on BBC Introducing stages, at Y-Not in Derbyshire (“the tent was really busy, and that was a really good show”), and at Reading and Leeds, alongside Nottingham’s Joel Baker and Amber Run.

Leeds proved to be a testing experience, as Callum explains. “We got put on a couple of minutes late. Then it came to our last song, and there were still three minutes left, but they were like: no, we haven’t got enough time. It was quite funny when all the staff came out to clear the stage. They had quite a hostile reception from the crowd. It was one of those moments when you have to bite your tongue, but I was grateful to even get the chance to play on that stage. At the time, it was an absolute pain – but looking back, you’ve got to see the bigger picture.”

Another challenge presented itself in September, at the Theatre Royal’s Nottingham Rocks showcase. Headlining the evening, Callum appeared without his band, accompanied instead by a fourteen-piece orchestra. Once again, this was another last-minute, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair.

“You have your first rehearsal with the orchestra the night before, and they know your songs better than you do. So you can’t make a mistake or anything; they’re so tight as an orchestra. That was another special moment.”

Later the same month, on the eve of his first headline UK tour, Callum faced another major test of his nerve. “The tour started on the Tuesday, and we had the first rehearsal on the Sunday, but the guitarist dropped out on the Friday. So we literally found someone on the Friday, who was a friend of a friend. It was so last minute, but it’s been amazing that he managed to pull it out of the bag.”

Unlike some solo acts, who get thrown together with a band by their record companies, Callum has been able to recruit his own team – including his brother-in-law, who plays bass. “I always wanted a family vibe on stage, and a friendly vibe”, he explains. “I think you see a lot of musicians, where you can just tell that they’re session musicians, and it doesn’t feel like a good vibe at all.”

The addition of a band doesn’t affect Callum’s writing process, though. “From day one, even when I was doing it acoustically, I was always writing with a band in mind. So nothing’s changed. When I wrote Fall At Your Feet, about 18 months ago, that was always a band song.”

As for the name, which originated when Saint Raymond were a duo and continued after Callum went solo, “Saint Raymond is me. I always wanted to be an artist with a different identity to myself, because I think you can easily slip into the category of: oh, you play the guitar and you’re a singer, so you must be like Ed Sheeran or someone like that. I always wanted to steer away from that. The name was personal to me, so I always wanted to stick with it.”

Despite this year’s sudden surge of progress, Callum has always tried to manage his development at an even pace. “I’ve always built it progressively and I’ve always wanted to do it organically, and take my time, and make sure the music was right. There are a lot of artists who are very keen to get the music out there, but you don’t want to be putting a product out if it’s not identifying yourself, and if you’re not making a statement about who you are, because it just becomes a confusion. “

In common with acts such as Harleighblu and Georgie Rose, he hasn’t gone down the slap-it-all-out-for-free-on-SoundCloud route, either. “I see some artists who decide to release all their catalogue really early, but I think you have to be careful. If that EP hadn’t reacted very well, then I might have gone: well, maybe the thing we’re doing isn’t working at the minute, so maybe we need to change the vibe of it.”

With the possibility of widespread national acclaim now dangling in front of him, our talk turns to future opportunities, and future perils to dodge. Of all his musical heroes – including Noel Gallagher (“I was brought up on Oasis”) and even, startlingly enough, the long-departed George Formby (“I had a really weird obsession”) – Callum would most like to meet Paul McCartney, his favourite Beatle. This leads us further into speculative waters, as I present him with a list of things that properly famous people do, seeking his reaction to each item.

For the record – and perhaps we should come back and check this in a couple of years’ time – Callum would say “yes” to an appearance on Later With Jools Holland, even if that meant being accompanied by the man himself on boogie-woogie piano. (“You’ve got to do it, haven’t you? I love his piano playing. He looks so chilled, yet his fingers are doing these amazing things.”) However, it’s a firm “no” to the poisoned chalice of a Sunday night X Factor guest slot, and an equally firm “no” to a spot of modelling for Heat magazine’s Torso of the Week, “unless they’ve got a section for lads who like a bit of beer and food.”

There are no such qualms when I raise the suggestion of a video featuring twerking models in flesh-coloured bikinis. “Yeah, why not – let’s do it. When do we start? I might tell them to calm down the twerking part, but I’m all for a model in a bikini.”

As for spouting off about politics, Russell Brand-style, on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, the lad is having none of it. “I don’t really care about politicians. As a musician, I think as soon as you start spouting off about anything where there’s a big opinion, you’re treading a thin line. So I’ll just stick to watching it at home.”

When it comes to the final item on my list – getting totally shitfaced at the Brit Awards – it turns out that Callum is already ahead of the game. “I went to the Q Awards the other day, and I did a very similar thing. It starts at midday, and it’s just free booze on the table, so you’re feeling a bit drunk by about half past one. Everyone goes to this pub afterwards as well. So you have to play the game a little bit, and fall into that world. But it was just a bit weird. You’re sat at the table, and someone’s going, can I just squeeze past you – and you turn around, and it’s Robbie Williams.”

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Curating Sound Performance – Nottingham Park Tunnel, Thursday December 12

Posted in gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion

Completed in May 1855, under the supervision of architect Thomas Chambers Hine, the Park Tunnel instantly became something of a white elephant. Although it had been planned as a main carriageway from Derby Road into the Park Estate, more convenient routes had already been constructed, and the expected traffic never materialised. Even to this day, it remains an obscurity, its street-side entrance obscured by apartment blocks and a car park.

However, as Nottingham Contemporary successfully demonstrated on a cold, drizzly December evening, this vast sandstone hollow has much to offer as a unique performance space. Illuminated after dark, for those few pedestrians who know of its existence, and with a naturally resonant acoustic, the tunnel turns out to be tailor-made for live music.

Around a hundred gathered for the free show. Folding chairs were provided, and a mulled wine and mince pie stall did brisk business. A health and safety announcement was made, but the designated fire exits couldn’t have been more self-evident. Hello, it’s a tunnel.

———

The bill began with Plain, shift, plane: the first of three improvised pieces, all conceived as specific responses to the tunnel space. Described as presenting “constellations of selected sets of pitch clusters”, it took the form of a dialogue between Rebecca Lee’s flute and Jack Harris’s sine tones, with the tunnel itself cast as the mediating third party.

Lee sounded each call, with a series of long, sustained flute tones; Harris would then provide a response, mirroring the natural sine waves of the flute with an electronic counterpart. Sometimes the tones were equally pitched, fusing into one as the instruments changed over, leaving Lee to complete each cycle. At other times, Lee would go much higher or much lower, extending the sonic range.

Stripped of melody and rhythm, the tones swayed in the air, shimmering and reverberating against the sandstone, and cutting themselves loose from any discernible sense of place. During certain passages, the sound felt all-enveloping, as if beamed from inside the listener’s head. At quieter moments, the steady, distant rumble of Derby Road traffic blended subtly into the mix.

A lone pedestrian stepped softly through the tunnel, past the performers and up to the street. Instead of breaking the spell, his footsteps somehow augmented the experience, nudging us into a fuller appreciation of the space.

———

“Before I begin, I just want to…”

Hunched over his smartphone, a loudspeaker strapped to his back, Phillip Henderson wandered off from us, inaudibly muttering his way up the tunnel’s incline. At the top, he turned around – “Sorry, sorry” – and commenced his return journey. Was this bumbling ineptitude, or an integral part of Maximal Cluster, his ten-minute performance piece? Almost certainly, it was the latter.

As Henderson paced the full length of the crypt-like space – down and up, then down again and up again, briefly conversing with the clipboard-and-programmes attendant at the bottom, but mostly resembling a pre-occupied academic checking his emails – the “Ion Block Rocker Bluetooth” on his back amplified the sounds generated by his constant smartphone key-taps.

These sounds – booming sub-bass rumbles for the most part, topped with high-pitched shrieks – filled the tunnel from top to bottom, no matter where Henderson happened to be at the time. As he stepped directly past you, they would briefly come into sharper focus, before dissolving back into infinite loops of echo. It was all too much for the pigeons at the top end, who surrendered their perches en masse.

Back in the centre, the performer casually scraped his shoe across the gravel a few times, signalling the end of the recital. His demeanour was deceptive. This had been a carefully researched exploration of the site’s sonic capabilities, where the tunnel became “not just an arena for sound art, but the instrument that we all get into”, and the performance became “a perfect opportunity to bring out the infinite maximal colours from inside the earth”.

———

No stranger to the process of exploring “the extreme acoustics of very resonant spaces”, John Butcher presented a two-part improvisation for tenor and soprano saxophone, intended to generate “an encounter between a musician and a place that gives a fighting chance to drawing something new from both of them”.

Arguably the most challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding performance of the night, The Geometry of Sentiment stalked the outer reaches of free jazz improv, as Butcher conjured a constantly shape-shifting, endlessly unpredictable riot of sound from his instruments, with a bracing disregard for conventional modes of playing.

Primitive and evolved in equal measure, Butcher’s playing pitched the unfettered explorations of a child against the studied technique of a pro, with startling results: sucking, wheezing, rasping, yelping and bellowing, sometimes tapping his reed against his tongue, sometimes bursting into glorious melodic flurries that could have been sourced from Gershwin, before instantly subverting them, like a crazed scratch DJ.

As if in solidarity with the pigeons, one listener made a mid-set exit. Turning towards the departing figure, Butcher’s sax fell into puttering, satirical step with the footfalls. The audience giggled, gently. Their concluding applause was hearty, warm and sustained.

———

Fifteen minutes later, reaching for my keys on a quiet road, I became newly fascinated by their jangle. Pausing at the front door, I jiggled them in my palm, savouring the rhythms they created. Evidently, the spell had yet to be fully broken. Perhaps other artists will soon find equally innovative ways of tapping into the Park Tunnel’s power, and expanding a few more perceptions in the process.

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Jake Bugg – Shangri La

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Like his Sixties heroes, Jake Bugg prefers to bash his music out quickly. Recorded in a fortnight, Shangri-La emerges just thirteen months after his début, and there’s a similar urgency to its opening volley of rattling, skiffly bangers. The scope widens as the album unfolds, but there are fewer all-acoustic moments, as the plaintive folkie of two years ago steps further into rockier territory.

Dismissed by some as overly conservative, he’s best viewed as a classicist, using vintage stylings to express present-day concerns. Some new influences emerge, ranging from What Doesn’t Kill You’s three-chord punk thrash to the Neil Young flavourings of All Your Reasons, but Jake’s jaundiced view of his hometown is unchanged: “speed bump city” has become Slumville (“this place is just not for me, I say it all the time”), and “messed up kids” are still dealing blow on the corner. One day, he might yet pay tribute to our proud lace-making heritage and our vibrant creative business hubs – but you wouldn’t want to bet on it.

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Ashmore – The Ashmore Show (album)

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Edging onto the margins of the city’s hip-hop scene, Ashmore’s laid-back quirkiness marks him out from the pack. He’s a loose-limbed rhymer with a characterful beatnik style, who first attracted attention with the album’s loping, swampy title track. “I’m not like the other folk, I’ve got nothing to prove”, he declares, with a half-sung, half-rapped delivery and a confidential manner which draws the listener close. Elsewhere, Misfit draws on swirling Balkan gypsy jazz, as does The Rebellious Jiggle, while Scribbling & Dribbling warns that “I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”. Sampling the perky theme tune from I Dream Of Jeannie, a 1960s TV comedy show, Yah Get Meh is Notts to its core. It’s followed by BeatyWeaty – featuring the mandatory Motormouf guest spot – before Brick By Brick’s pissed-off social commentary wraps up this thoroughly likeable debut.

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The Great Hip Hop Hoax – Broadway screening, Thursday September 5

Posted in Broadway, film reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally written for LeftLion.

Following the success of Sound It Out, which took a fond look at Teesside’s last surviving record shop, Nottingham director’s Jeanie Finlay’s latest documentary, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, is now on general release across the UK. A day before its commercial opening night in Dundee, the original home of its central characters, Broadway hosted a special screening and Q&A, hosted by Sarah Lutton, programme advisor for the London Film Festival.

As Jeanie Finlay explained, the film-making process was littered with obstacles. Its two protagonists were no longer on speaking terms, and securing permission to film their story proved to be a lengthy uphill struggle. Given the breathtaking scale of the deception which the movie documents, this is perhaps scarcely surprising.

Thirteen years ago, Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain were a pair of talented and ambitious hip hop MCs, seeking a foothold in the music industry, but constantly thwarted by the mere fact of their Scottishness. At an audition for Warner Brothers, they were practically laughed out of the room, dismissed as “the rapping Proclaimers.”

However, once Boyd and Bain decided to re-invent themselves as Silibil ‘n Brains – a bratty, hell-raising and downright obnoxious skate-rap duo from Huntington Beach in California – doors that had previously been closed suddenly swung open. Signed up in 2004 by showbiz mogul Jonathan Shalit, manager of the likes of Charlotte Church, Myleene Klass and N-Dubz, they soon found themselves larging it in London on a hefty advance, widely tipped as rap’s Next Big Thing.

Throughout this time, Billy and Gavin – neither of whom had ever visited the USA – played their Silibil ‘n Brains roles to perfection, fooling everyone they met and never letting their meticulously constructed personas slip for a second. Consumed by their alter-egos, they partied hard and behaved atrociously, as Gavin’s obsessively captured video footage demonstrates. The mask only threatened to slip once: backstage at the Brit Awards, as a bemused Daniel Bedingfield perceptively queried Billy’s Californian accent. (“But I thought you were Scottish?”)

If the era of social media had dawned a few years earlier, Silibil ‘n Brains wouldn’t have lasted five minutes; one tweet from a former classmate, and the game would have been up.  But as the deception continued unchallenged, the internal tensions grew, ultimately reaching a breaking point which torpedoed Billy and Gavin’s friendship.

Cutting between archive footage, present-day interviews with the chastened and reflective pair (conducted separately, and spread over several years), and Jon Burgerman’s comic animated re-stagings of certain key scenes, the film skilfully tells a story that is by turns funny, shocking, touching and agonising. Having wormed their way into a subculture that sets great store on “keeping it real”, the fakers had unwittingly signed a Faustian pact – and while their downfall might have been inevitable, their failure to foresee it lends them an “innocents abroad” quality that even the worst of their excesses cannot fully smother.

For Jeanie Finlay, “trying to navigate between two known liars” was an immensely challenging process, as she sought to unpick the truth from a pair of unreliable witnesses whose mutual hostility remained undimmed. “I felt like a terrible divorce lawyer”, she confessed, fielding questions after the screening.

The tale does have a happier coda, though. The Great Hip Hop Hoax received its world premiere earlier this year, at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, and both Gavin and Billy flew over with Jeanie for the occasion, reunited for the first time since their bust-up. Buoyed the renewed interest, they are now rumoured to be working on a comeback album. Perhaps there’s a loophole in that Faustian pact after all.

Interview: Tindersticks (Dave Boulter)

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

One of their three founder members lives in Prague, another in Antwerp, another in France, and they collectively left town over twenty years ago. And yet to many, Tindersticks are still seen as a Nottingham band. Ahead of the release of their tenth studio album, Across Six Leap Years, keyboardist Dave Boulter talked to Mike Atkinson about the band’s Nottingham roots, and about their recent re-invigoration as a working unit.

Home towns have a habit of claiming kinship. But do we have any legitimate claim to seeing you as a Nottingham band, over twenty years after you left?

I suppose so, in some ways. The media still refer to us as a Nottingham band, and it’s kind of stuck. But by the time we became Tindersticks, we had left Nottingham anyway, so it’s not even as if the band originated from Nottingham, in that way. But everybody comes from somewhere, and I think Nottingham’s as good a place as any to come from.

When you were working here as Asphalt Ribbons in the late Eighties, how did you find Nottingham, in terms of what it had to offer musicians? Was it a stimulating and supportive creative environment?

I think it was the opposite in some ways. Nottingham just didn’t have the kind of infrastructure that places like Manchester and Liverpool had, and there wasn’t anyone to help you. You did a radio session for Radio Trent, and that was about as much help as you got. But in terms of artistic support, it was great. There were a lot of really interesting bands around, and a lot of really talented musicians. But I think everyone tended to get to a level where they filled a pub, and they did that three or four times, and then they just split up or moved on. So it could be frustrating. But at the same time, there was a lot of really great music being made in Nottingham, and it’s a shame that a lot of it never broke out and got anywhere else.

I’ve been told that the Nottingham music scene in the Nineties could be quite a bitchy and competitive place, and that there wasn’t an awful lot of kinship between musicians. What was it like in the late Eighties?

Probably very similar. Quite often, we’d play some venue, and most of the audience would be people from other bands. They would stand there with their arms folded, looking at you and not really wanting to be impressed, not wanting to clap. But it’s just what you expected. We didn’t really know anything else, and it didn’t bother us. We kind of hated Stuart’s band, The Desert Birds. [Stuart Staples, lead vocals] They were one of the better bands, but even though we liked the music, we would never let them know that. We always used to stand there, looking unimpressed.

You had Craig Chettle in your band for a while. He’s now a major player in our creative community, but what was he like as a guitarist?

As a musician in general, he was great. I suppose he was a bit of a legend. He started very young, and he was a great all-round musician. We did a lot of demos at his house; he had a little 4-track or 8-track recorder in his bedroom.  So it’s interesting to see him develop into what he’s become. He became our sound engineer as well, so we’ve had lots of different involvements with Craig.

The opening track (Chocolate) on your last album, The Something Rain, is an extended monologue which you wrote and delivered, describing a Friday night out in town.

It was a night out in Nottingham. It’s 99% true, except for the punchline. It wasn’t a cross-dressing man in the end, but she could have been either way for a while.

There are three locations in the monologue. You start off in a bar with a pool table, then you go to a place which has something of a reputation as a gay pub, then you end up in a club which sells onion bhajis. Can these be specifically mapped to locations?

Yeah, the pub that we always used to go to was called Jaceys, so that’s where we started. Then to have a quieter drink on a Friday night, we’d go round the corner to the Lord Roberts. And then up to The Garage. On the top floor, they used to have a little food place, which basically only did two things: chips and onion bhajis. They had a weird system where you paid for your food and got a cloakroom ticket, and then they’d call out the number. I think a lot of people tried to rip them off, so it didn’t last that long.

Do you ever return to Nottingham?

I was born in St Ann’s and my family still live there, so I go back and see them probably four or five times a year, depending on what’s happening.

You’ve only played Nottingham twice as Tindersticks: at The Old Vic in 1993, and at the Albert Hall in 2003. You’ve been visiting us at ten year intervals, so I think we’re due another one.

I definitely always want to play there, but it’s all down to offers, and what you can actually do. We’d want it to be something special, so we don’t feel like just going to the Rescue Rooms, and I think we’re not quite big enough to do Rock City, although I’ve always wanted to play there. The Albert Hall felt like a perfect place for us to play, but it was quite difficult to arrange.

We recently did a film soundtrack tour in the UK, and we were hoping to play the Royal Concert Hall. It was the only chance we would get to play there, because it was a sponsored tour of lots of theatres like that. It’s somewhere that we’d definitely say yes to. And on the last tour, we were hoping to play at St Mary’s Church in the Lace Market, but it just couldn’t work logistically.

Let’s talk about your new album, Across Six Leap Years, which is a collection of re-recordings of previously released tracks. Is this in lieu of doing a Best Of, or a Greatest Hits?

I suppose so. We got to a point where we felt like we wanted to celebrate twenty years of Tindersticks, and it felt more exciting to re-record some of the songs that we either felt we were playing better, or that we wanted to reintroduce to people. It just felt like something nicer to do, to make it more special. It was also easier in terms of licensing, because we’ve had three different record labels over the years.

Was it a question of methodically sitting down and replaying your entire catalogue, or did songs just emerge?

A lot of it was songs that we’ve always felt attracted to, or that we’ve been playing recently on tour. You have to do the things which feel right for you, and I suppose that’s why we didn’t pick so many obvious songs. We tried to pick the songs that feel the best between the band as it is at the moment.

Did you consciously have to blot out your memory of how they were originally recorded, and re-imagine them from the ground up?

The process started from the songs that we were playing on tour, and they grew in a way of their own. With some songs, we had a feeling that we’d gone beyond the original recordings. We didn’t need to think about how they worked, because we knew we could play them better. With others, it was more about showing our personality as it is now, and forgetting about the way it was.

Dickon Hinchliffe used to handle your arrangements, but he’s no longer with you. How are they worked on nowadays?

We farm some out, and we also do a lot more of them ourselves. On the last album, we made a conscious effort to not have any real strings. When we began, Dickon was a violin player, and he added his own personality. I think one of the reasons that we split up with him was because we were getting a bit too heavy on the string arrangements, and they were swamping the music in some ways. It was very hard to find the original motivation and drive of the band, and I think it’s something that has come back – especially on the last album, which feels very similar to how we felt twenty years ago.

Your music is known for having a kind of lugubrious, melancholy quality, and it tends to be quite downtempo. Are you never tempted to rock out? Do you never bash through a Pixies song in rehearsals?

In our minds, half of our songs do sound like The Pixies! People generalise a lot, and I can understand that, but I think we’ve had our moments, especially recently. That’s another thing about the re-invigoration of the band. We have become something different. People who maybe discount us in that way are shocked when they come to see us live, with the way that we actually are these days. But I suppose it’s the music that has always motivated us. We grew up in the Seventies, and even with punk, the only fast punk band for us was probably The Damned. You grew up in a certain way, and the music naturally comes out in a certain way.

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One Bomb – The Takeover EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Formed in early 2012, One Bomb blends the talents of Si Tew (keys, synth, bass, a background in downtempo/electronica) and Shookz ( beats, samples, FX, a background in drum & bass), fusing elegant melodic textures with tougher dancefloor beats. This, their debut release, slots neatly alongside Disclosure and Rudimental’s new-school deep house, but with certain key features that are all One Bomb’s own: they’re particularly fond of punctuating their rhythms with subtle staccato string jabs, or of overlaying their breakdowns with rippling whooshes and breezy swoops. Lead track Take Over pits Aja’s vocals against Jackdalad’s rap, while Gave Me Hope takes its time to build, placing Jasper’s vocal samples over a pared-down groove. The sublime Train Tracks is the standout cut, with Wreh-Asha adding a melancholic twist to the euphoric glide, while Roll This Dice takes similar ideas into rougher-edged territory, aided by Aja’s commanding, fiery vocal.

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Intervew: THePETEBOX

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

What were you doing this time ten years ago? What was life like?

Since that time, I’ve slowly been rubbing away my memory – replacing it with new endeavours, and with loads of drugs. (Laughs) This time ten years ago, I was just starting to beatbox. I was hearing these good beatboxers – Killa Kela, Rahzel – and I was finding as many people to learn from as possible. So I was building the foundations of my musical career.

How the hell do you learn to beatbox? Are there manuals and instruction videos, or do you have to work things out from first principles?

Back in the day, all I had was these amazingly well recorded live shows, from the best beatboxers in the world. You have to tell yourself that even though it sounds mental and impossible, you can do it. But there wasn’t that much resource for actually breaking it down. Now, on YouTube, you just type in “beatbox tutorial” and there will be a detailed, in-depth visual explanation.

So because there wasn’t a rulebook, you had more freedom to develop your own style.

I think that’s still valid now. People are going to sound different. Even a guitar will have a different tone, or a different feel, from another guitar – and then it’s down to the guitarist. Anyone can play a G chord and a C chord, but someone might write a beautiful, seminal song using those chords. It’s the same with beatboxing. There’s the physical element of creating a sound – like making noise out of your instrument – and then there’s the more metaphysical, spiritual side of it, where you arrange the music. So it’s unique to everyone, although a lot of beatboxers do sound the same, and they bore the fuck out of me.

When did the looping come along?

I just heard another beatboxer, MC Xander. He posted on some forum, just going: oh, I’ve got this looper thing, and here’s what I’ve done with it, and he was amazing. That was my first exposure to that technology, and it came at the right time, because I was starting to get a little bit bored. I felt a bit limited with beatboxing. The shows were great, and getting that crazy response from the crowd was fulfilling, but not really in a musical sense.

You may have routines and cool sounds, and you’re able to do things that people don’t understand and are therefore really interested in, but you don’t have songs, for people to emotionally connect to. So when I found out about these loop pedals, I could actually start to arrange songs and music. More than that, all of a sudden your sound is ten times bigger. Frequency spectrum-wise, you’ve now got everything going on. You’ve got the bass and the drums, which are constantly going, and then you’ve got some harmonies and trumpets over the top, and then you can sing as well. So all of a sudden, you sound like a full band.

And you use guitar as well. Was that something that you added later?

I always had this double personality in my head. I was a guitar player, and that’s my favourite instrument. I write songs, and I sing about love and weird stuff – and then I beatboxed. I was in these drum & bass and techno and hip hop clubs, and I even used to speak a bit different when I was on stage. (Laughs) It was a long, slow journey to reconnect and reconcile these two sides. They were both as valid as each other, but they each seemed like completely different worlds.

The first time I did it, I did a Pixies cover, of Where Is My Mind. I was like: everyone’s gonna hate this. Beatboxers are gonna go: that’s not really beatboxing, there’s nothing technically great about that. And then the Pixies fans will think that I’ve murdered one of their songs.

But that video was your tipping point, wasn’t it?

It went massive; it went viral. Even the Pixies put it on their website, so that was a good validation. I got Simon Ellis to film it; he’s a local director from Nottingham and he’s brilliant. It sounds really simple, because he’s just filming me – but the way he’s done it, with the depth of field and the slow camera movements, is just beautiful.

Before then, my highest viewed video was about 25,000, over three years. With this one, I put it up, went to bed, woke up, and it was on 7,000 views. By lunchtime, it had gone up to about 25,000. By the end of that night, it was on 100,000, and within a week it had half a million views. I didn’t do anything.

That’s quite encouraging, because your views rely on individual internet users seeing something, liking it, and wanting to share it with their friends.  It’s quite organic, but also quite gutting, because it’s entirely non-replicable. You can’t go: well, I’ve had a viral video now, so I’ll just make another one. There’s no rhyme or reason for making it happen again. You just have to hope that what you make resonates.

Your Future Loops album came out last year, with a corresponding set of performance videos, featuring four originals and five covers. How did you select the covers?

The covers are just bands that I really fucking love. It’s as simple as that. So it’s Nirvana, Pixies, Crystal Castles, MGMT. They’re my favourite bands.

When I arrange a cover, I don’t listen to the original and work it out. I just play it as I remember it. That means that when I listen to the original, mine sounds nothing like it! Everyone’s like, you’ve totally made it your own, but I’ve just done it a bit wrong.

You also did a Beach Boys song, I Get Around. I heard it was a childhood obsession.

I had a 45 minute tape, and with my dad’s CD player, I recorded I Get Around over and over and over again. I had an entire tape on this little Walkman, and I’d just listen to the song over and over. So it was quite apt for the “Future Loops” concept.

What have been your recent gigging highlights?

I just played a festival in Lithuania, and that was mega, just brilliant, and a packed house. I toured Russia at the end of last year. It’s quite daunting when you’re travelling to another country for a headline tour. You’re like: who the fuck is going to come and see me? But at the same time, YouTube has this global reach. So, yeah, packed out shows every night – to see me! (Laughs)

Wasn’t there a time when you played Abu Dhabi for Formula One, and it was a total five-star treatment?

That was bonkers. I’d just been touring with Swimming, supporting Carl Barat around Europe. It was a budget affair, with five of us piled into a little hotel room. We’d have to sneak in through the windows. Then I flew straight from Bologna on the last date of the tour. I arrived in Abu Dhabi, someone met me at the end of the plane, and I didn’t have to go through customs. They were like, welcome to Abu Dhabi, here’s your phone, which you can keep, and that’s your car, and that’s your driver – anywhere you need to go, he’ll be waiting outside. We got in, and it was this posh BMW with those blackout things that go up. Then we went to this fucking seven star bonkers hotel, and Sophie Ellis Bextor was there, chilling in the foyer. I was like, who do they think I am, Kanye West?

The first night, I was invited to go out and watch Flo Rida. When the Formula One’s on, they have these huge pop-up clubs, and I was playing in one of them. They’re like huge mini-stadiums, with all these tiered tables. Prince played there. I was on my own, and they said: Mister Petebox, here is your table. There was a massive bottle of Grey Goose, and I’m like, sweet, does anybody want any?

I played my show the next day, right before the headliner, who was a huge local superstar. So I was there for 30,000 people, and they were all fucking hanging on everything I was doing. The next day: VIP booth at the Formula One. Dynamo was in front of me, and I had my lunch with Gabrielle.

To top it off, I had a girlfriend for the weekend who was this Brazilian model. I finished my show, and everyone was going, oh, there’s this Brazilian model looking for you. And I’m wandering round, and I met this beautiful girl. She said: Petebox! Oh man, I watched your stuff, I’m a singer, I love your music! I was like, please come this way to my dressing room, would you like a drink, or some fruit? I did actually have all this stuff. And then I was like, what are you doing later? I’ve got VIP tickets to see Prince, do you want to come? I’ll have my car pick you up.

And then, after three days, I left and went back to normal life. I was amazed at what was going on. Nothing was anything that I was expecting, or used to.

It’s funny, because I might be lying. You don’t know that. I always think about that. I was at my best mate’s wedding the other day, and I was like the vicar – I was delivering the ceremony. I turned down about three shows that day, but around 10 o’clock, I was like, I’ve got to go. I was dead emotional to leave, because there was all your friends and family and loved ones. So I’m going round to everyone saying goodbye, and they’re partying to the early hours, and I’m just driving on my own to this festival. And I just thought: they know I’m going to do a gig, but no one really knows what it’s like for me. It’s a weird thing.

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Marita – Just Me EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

If Kirk Spencer’s Wonderland EP, on which Marita guested, offered a vision of peaceful solace in the heart of the city, then Marita’s Just Me – released simultaneously, co-produced by Spencer and bearing some of his sonic hallmarks – reveals the darker flipside. Throughout its five tracks, Marita prays and pleads for release – both from “the city, so diverse though I feel so alone”, and from her own inner struggles – and yet that release never comes, leaving her suspended in fretful claustrophobia. “I need to be at peace with my mind”, she intones, while fidgety beats, restless electronic pulses and deep bass drops trap her in their web. “I’m going to fly away, I’m going to find a way”, she sighs – but we feel steadily less inclined to believe she will succeed. By the final track, Shackles, her dreams feel drained of purpose, as skeletal beats and woozy sonic backdrops dissolve around her.

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