Originally published in the Nottingham Post and Metro. Photos by Laura Patterson.
A month after topping the album charts with his debut album, in its first week of release, 18 year old Clifton lad Jake Bugg returned to Nottingham in triumph, for his big homecoming show at the Rescue Rooms.
We knew this one was going to be special. As the gig had sold out months in advance, all those present were aware of their good fortune, making for a charged atmosphere of eager anticipation. If Adam Ant hadn’t been booked next door at Rock City, Jake Bugg’s fans could easily have filled the larger venue. (The good news: he’ll be headlining there in February. The bad news: the show is already sold out.)
Jake’s success has a special significance for Nottingham. Almost unbelievably, he is the first home-grown act ever to score a Number One album; an achievement which is long overdue, to put it mildly. Nurtured by a supportive, confident and ever-expanding music community within the city, his success has shown other local acts that anything is possible. On the front of the council house, they even put banners up in his honour.
At a time when mainstream pop music has increasingly painted itself into a corner, endlessly recycling the same stale bag of tricks, Jake’s traditionally styled songcraft feels timely and fresh. He’s only a day older than Justin Bieber, but an old soul lurks within him, channelling the values of classic artists from past decades, and adapting them to the concerns of a younger generation. In this respect, the tracks which played over the PA system before the show told their own tale: Bob Dylan, Oasis, The Stone Roses, Nick Drake.
Unfazed as ever by his sudden good fortune, Jake took the homecoming hero’s welcome in his stride. “It’s great to be back”, he murmured, his expression betraying nothing more than a steady focus on getting the job done. Stage patter just isn’t his style, you see. Songs were prefaced with nothing more wordy than “this one’s off the album”, or “you should all know this one”.
Backed by Tom Robertson on bass and Jack Atherton on drums, Jake delivered a fifty minute, fourteen song set, which took in all of his singles, most of the album, and all four tracks from the Taste It EP. Unlike the album, which starts with the rockers and winds down into the acoustic ballads, the set list was a more satisfyingly structured affair, flowing neatly from one mood to the next.
It started with Jake on acoustic guitar, strumming his way through Kentucky and Love Me The Way You Do from the EP. Second single Trouble Town raised the temperature, its opening lines quickly picked up by the crowd for the first of several throaty singalongs. It was the first reminder that, for all the council-sanctioned banners, Jake makes for an unlikely civic ambassador. Lines such as “Stuck in speed bump city, where the only thing that’s pretty is the thought of getting out” are hardly the stuff of tourist brochures, and many of his lyrics cast a jaundiced eye on the harsh realities of urban life.
The boy is developing nicely as a rocker, too. Swapping to an electric guitar for the heavy, brooding Ballad Of Mr Jones, he launched into a blistering, bluesy solo, suggesting a talent that is only just starting to make its presence felt.
Switching back to the solo acoustic ballads which first made his name locally, Jake hushed the crowd with a piercingly delicate rendition of Someone Told Me, followed by the equally lovely Note To Self and Simple As This. Then it was back to the rockers, climaxing with the big crowd pleasers of the night: Two Fingers, Taste It and Lightning Bolt.
Chants of “We are Nottingham!” brought the band back to the stage, threatening to drown out the opening bars of Country Song. Dropping his cool at last, Jake even cracked a broad smile: a rare event, but the occasion demanded nothing less.
This time last year, Jake Bugg was quietly working his way through a late night residency at the Glee Club. In twelve months’ time, he could be selling out arenas, maybe even with an award or two under his belt. With that in mind, it was a real treat to witness this rising star for maybe the last time at such close quarters, bringing it back home and making us all feel proud.
(originally published in Metro and the Nottingham Post)
To mark the launch of their debut album, Dog Is Dead brought it all the way back home. Not to Rock City, as might have been expected, but south of the river, to the part of town where they grew up.
“It’s good to be back”, said singer Rob Milton, “especially so close to home… NG2!” At the age of 13, Rob played his second ever gig at the legendary Boat Club, once the hottest venue in town (Zeppelin, Sabbath, and the Pistols all played there in the Seventies), and you could feel something of the old atmosphere returning to the old place, as the heat rose and the sweat flew.
Inspired by the band’s formative Bridgford years, All Our Favourite Stories is an album about the joys and sorrows of being young and growing up. Some of the songs were written when the boys were still in their teens; they tend to be the quirkier, brasher ones. Others are so new that they have never been performed live before; they’re the reflective, bitter-sweet ones, whose anthemic choruses are underpinned by a certain sense of melancholy.
For one night only, the band tore up their usual set list, opting to play the album in full, in the same track sequence. This approach wouldn’t work for all albums, but the structure of All Our Favourite Stories lends itself perfectly to the concept; if you were the DJ at an indie disco, this is probably how you’d sequence the tracks anyway.
Opening with the sombre Get Low, and building the mood with the mid-paced groove of Do The Right Thing, the five lads (plus an extra mystery guitarist, tucked away at the back of the stage) reached full throttle on the excellent Teenage Daughter. This, you quickly realised, is a band who have learnt a lot from their summer on the festival circuit. They sometimes used to be a little cautious on stage, never quite letting go of their reserve. That’s all gone now. Once you’ve played in front of 5000 up-for-it punters at Reading and Leeds, there’s just no place for it any more. This made Teenage Daughter a perfect vehicle for the new, turbo-charged, no-holds-barred Dog Is Dead to open up, let rip, and have fun. It came as no surprise to learn that this will be the next single.
Four singles in a row followed it, from the brand new Talk Through The Night to the evergreen Glockenspiel Song. (When Trev slipped off his bass and reached for his sax, you knew what was coming up next.) The already vocal crowd were word perfect on this old favourite, navigating all of its twists and turns, filling the room with its chanted choruses, and turning it into a triumphant homecoming anthem: “Oh this town, it’s so electric; since I got the feeling, I can’t shut down.”
New song Heal It steadied the energy levels, sounding beefier and rockier on stage than in its Trevor Horn-produced album version. Then came the climax: a storming version of River Jordan, which played to all of the band’s new-found strengths. A future Glastonbury anthem, if ever there was one. One more track – the mournful, questioning Any Movement – and it was all over, despite calls for an encore that lasted long after the house lights had come up. Well, when you’ve just played the ten tracks that mean more to you than any others, where else is there left to go?
The rest of the UK will be getting them towards the end of the month, as they begin their biggest UK tour to date. We got them early, for a very special performance with a “friends and family” atmosphere all of its own. And we’ll be getting them again in March, when they return to Rock City for their second headlining show there. It’s been a long time coming, but Dog Is Dead are finally getting the national recognition they deserve – and it couldn’t be more richly deserved, either. All this and Jake Bugg too? Nottingham’s rocking the nation like never before, and we can all feel proud.
#nottinghamrocks: Natalie Duncan, Nina Smith & Indiana – Nottingham Theatre Royal, Saturday September 23
Originally published in the Nottingham Post and Metro.
This is an exciting time for Nottingham’s music scene. The debut albums from two of our best-known acts, Jake Bugg and Dog Is Dead, are scheduled for release in October, bringing renewed national attention to the city, and every opportunity is being taken to shout as loudly as possible about the amazing wealth of talent that we have to offer. Banners have appeared on city centre streets, proclaiming us as “the most vibrant music scene in the UK”. Two large-scale events, the Branch Out Festival and the Festival of Nottingham, will offer a platform to dozens of local acts. And by way of an overture to all of this, no less a venue than the Theatre Royal saw fit to open its doors on Saturday evening, to three of our finest female singer-songwriters, accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra.
Since making her live debut just five months ago, Indiana has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of the city’s most hotly tipped new talents, and her simply staged performances, backed by a lone keyboard player, have won her many admirers. However, nothing could have prepared us for such a transformation, as the shy newcomer re-emerged as a fully-fledged theatrical diva (even the hairdo was new, a striking combination of shaved skull and golden curls), adapting her performance style to the lush orchestral backing with the ease of a seasoned professional.
Four original compositions and a cover (of Frank Ocean’s Swim Good) were given stunning new arrangements by Jonathan Vincent, the show’s musical director, turning Indiana’s stripped down piano ballads into dramatic production numbers, which took the singer into a whole new dimension. Everything about her performance felt boosted and amplified, particularly the way in which she could switch emotional gears in an instant: pleading one moment, contemptuous the next, with an expression that could flick from timid vulnerability to steely rage and back again, in the space of a single line.
“That truly was the single best experience of my life”, she told her supporters after the show. “As well as the scariest”, she added – but the fire in Indiana’s eyes on the Theatre Royal stage signalled that this was where she truly belonged.
Nina Smith is one of the best-known characters on the current Nottingham scene, and a major supporter of her fellow artists, whose collaborations with figures from the hip-hop, R&B and dance communities have already demonstrated her flexibility as an artist. Undaunted by the orchestra behind her, she rose to the challenge with relaxed good cheer, and a determination to enjoy every minute. “I’ve asked them to play my next gig at The Social”, she grinned. “Some of them looked interested!”
Jonathan Vincent’s sympathetic arrangements added new colours to Nina’s open-hearted songs of love, longing and loss, meshing beautifully with the strumming and box-bashing of her regular three-piece band. Highlights included a scintillating percussion break in the middle of Sexy Surprise, and a soaring orchestral swell towards the end of This Love, which would have melted the hardest of hearts. “Most of these songs were written in my bedroom”, Nina explained, “so to hear them here is pretty special.”
For the final number of the first half, the twelve-piece G.O.A Choir joined the already crowded stage, for a reworking of R.E.M’s Everybody Hurts which soon spun far away from the original, turning itself into a whole new track. Glammed up to the nines, with outlandish costumes, hair and make-up, the self-styled “Gang of Angels” provided a suitably celestial chorus, as Nina Smith brought her set to a triumphant conclusion.
Opening with the title track of her debut album, Natalie Duncan began the second half unaccompanied, with her most starkly arresting lyric: “Sometimes I feel you looking for the devil in me, like I’m a dying dog and I’m begging for your bones.” Switching from raw vocals to stately, neo-classical piano, she ushered in the orchestra, who accompanied all eleven songs of her set – another astonishing achievement for arranger Jonathan Vincent and his troupe.
With her rendition of the Etta James classic At Last currently sound-tracking a television advert, and with appearances on Later With Jools Holland scheduled for Tuesday and Friday of this week – alongside The Beach Boys, Muse, Public Image Ltd and The xx, no less – Natalie’s star is rising, after many years of patient graft and hard struggle. Some of her most painful experiences are inevitably reflected in her songs, but there’s room too for tender sweetness and fond reflection, such as on Old Rock, a tribute to a grizzled, alcoholic regular in the city centre pub where Natalie once worked.
Elsewhere in the set, the sultry, low-slung Black Thorn provided a showcase for some truly outstanding vocals, while the sheer drama of Sky Is Falling and Villain Hands turned both tracks into worthy candidates for a future Bond theme. Became So Sweet upped up the tempo, bringing a few people to their feet, and the sombre, anthemic Uncomfortable Silence – like Nina Simone with a side-order of Radiohead – closed the show, drawing a deserved standing ovation.
Although stylistically diverse in most respects, all three performers shared one very important quality: absolute, heartfelt sincerity. Thrilled but unfazed, each one of them stepped it up to the next level, seizing the moment and using it to amplify their talents to the best possible effect. Forget the hype – this was a landmark show for all the right reasons, and an event in which all involved should take immense pride.
Billed as “the first of a series of events that will celebrate the wealth of talent walking the streets of Nottingham”, From Notts With Love brought six of the city’s finest musical acts together, performing to a sold-out crowd in The Space, downstairs at Nottingham Contemporary.
Although stylistically diverse, all the acts shared distinctly soulful qualities, blending classic songwriting skills with powerful, characterful vocal performances and top-flight musicianship. As BBC Radio Nottingham’s Dean Jackson remarked, in his role as compere for the night, we could almost have been watching a locally flavoured edition of Later with Jools Holland.
While some of the acts are familiar presences on the city’s current gigging circuit, others had journeyed up from London for the night, turning the event into something of a homecoming and a reunion. United by strong bonds of mutual respect, and visibly thrilled to be sharing the bill with their friends and peers, they rose to the occasion, bringing out the best in each other’s performances. This made for an uncommonly warm and happy atmosphere, where you felt that everyone – performers and audience alike – was basically on the same side, celebrating the best that the city has to offer.
Two brothers opened the show, performing separately, but sharing some of their musicians. Tim McDonald led a seven-piece band, including a three-piece string section, whose rich arrangements complemented his smooth vocals. A harmonica player joined them for the rousing final number, One Step Back, only to re-appear playing guitar for Tim’s brother Chris, alongside two fiddles, trumpet and banjo.
Although he is now London-based, Chris McDonald retains strong links with his home county, and he played a key role in organising the bill. Confident but never cocky, with a style that bears comparison with Paolo Nutini, Ray LaMontagne and Mumford and Sons, Chris previewed selections from his forthcoming album. If the album gets the attention that his set suggested it deserves, then his live act could easily scale up to larger stages; it already has the power and the presence to make the transition.
Oozing class from the off, Harleighblu turned The Space into a smoky jazz club – minus the smoke, of course – leading another sizeable troupe of players through a set that drew influences from Jill Scott and Erykah Badu’s neo-soul, flavouring it with the older-school stylings of Aretha Franklin, Bille Holiday and Etta James. Glamorous yet down to earth, wreathed in smiles yet singing from the heart, she opened with the brassy, languidly mocking Casanova, before twisting Madonna’s Who’s That Girl into a whole new shape.
The ever-delightful Nina Smith followed, lightening the mood with her airy, affecting R&B-tinged acoustic pop. Old favourites from last year’s Lonely Heart Club EP were mixed with new compositions such as I Can’t Read You and the delicately shimmering This Love. As for her deft mash-up of The Spice Girls (Two Become One) with The Police (Message In A Bottle), what might sound daft in theory actually worked a treat on stage.
It has been far too long since Liam Bailey last took to a Nottingham stage. Thanks to his success with Chase And Status, which has seen him play to huge festivals worldwide, adding guest vocals to their anthemic dance hit Blind Faith, Liam has acquired a commanding stage presence, without surrendering any of his unique qualities as a performer.
Beaming with pleasure at being back home, and buoyed up by an outstanding new band, he delivered a magnificent, spell-binding set, which brought out the best in his songs: last year’s singles You Better Leave Me and It’s Not The Same, the loping, Marley-esque backbeat of When Will They Learn, and a brand new track called Autumn Leaves. By way of an extra treat, Harleighblu joined him on stage for a dazzling duet on How Does It Feel. Playful yet focussed, thrillingly idiosyncratic (and at times downright unhinged), unfettered and bursting with life, Liam exuded star quality from every pore.
Natalie Duncan brought the long night to a fittingly intense climax, previewing tracks from her remarkable debut album Devil In Me, released on July 16th. Natalie has come a long way since the days of her Sunday jazz sessions at The Bell Inn, and on Old Rock she paid fond tribute to a particularly eccentric old regular: “They call me crazy too, but you’ve got fifty years on me.” On the tender, subdued Flower, further tribute was paid: this time to an old friend, who had supported Natalie through troubled times and was now in need of support in return.
Seated behind her keyboards for most of the set, Natalie took to her feet for Pick Me Up Bar, which nodded towards Gil Scott-Heron in its influences, climaxing with a superb coda of echoey psychedelic dub. An unrecorded song, Became So Sweet, closed the set, causing an outbreak of dancing in the front ranks which seemed to take the performers by delighted surprise. An encore hadn’t been planned, but we got one anyway: Uncomfortable Silence, which closes the album in a sombre but stirring fashion.
Next month, an almost identical line-up of performers will reunite in London, offering the capital city a showcase of Nottingham talent. Based on the evidence of this astonishingly accomplished show, we couldn’t ask for a better set of ambassadors.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
You’ve just got back from the States. Has your body clock re-adjusted to UK time?
Yes – although having said that, I was up until four o’clock in the morning. I went for a little stroll at one o’clock in the morning, and found a local restaurant with the lights on. The restaurant owner and the chef were having a glass of red wine, so I joined them for a couple, and picked up on the local gossip.
You’re now preparing for the new tour. Will there be much in the way of new material?
There aren’t any new original songs, because they’re still sketches, but I’ve got an interesting new choice of covers.
You put a shout-out on Facebook for suggested covers. Have your followers given you any useful leads?
They got me looking behind my shoulder, thinking: are this lot in my house? A lot of their suggestions are songs that I love a lot. I could really talk all night with these people.
You use Facebook differently from a lot of people in your position, in that you’ll express what you’re genuinely feeling, rather than just using it as a PR tool. You sometimes post to it when you’re feeling completely sick to the back teeth of everything. Then your fans will rally round.
Yeah, like “I can’t find my bra – where is it?” Or “Oh my God, look at all this laundry!” I really enjoy it, because it’s absolute direct contact. They can talk to me, and I’ll respond. I would say that my Facebook meltdowns are now legendary. (Bursts out laughing) The record company are like: what’s she doing? They all follow me on Facebook as well.
That wasn’t anything to do with the fact that you were ill for a bit, was it?
I was ill. It was a big year, and everything went off really quickly, like a runaway train which took me with it. It was going at a hundred miles an hour. And it was great, but the thing about these big long schedules is this: it doesn’t take account of the fact that you’re human.
So if I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel well, and I’ve got to sing for Her Majesty The Queen, I can’t cancel. Or if my boyfriend’s dumped me and I’ve got to go onto Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, then I’ve got to do it. It doesn’t take into account your emotional state – or your tearful state, in fact – you have to fulfil your commitments, in any mood, and be as professional as possible.
What happened to me is that it just built up, and built up, and built up. I was struggling at adjusting to being in the media: being examined, being judged. As human beings, that what we’re all afraid of, aren’t we? Everyone pointing and staring.
Don’t you adopt the classic tactic of just not reading stuff about yourself?
No, I read everything. But I do stick up for myself, when people have been mean on blogs. I’ll go on and say “Oi! That’s really mean! What, all you grown men are going to start picking on little girls?” Ultimately, I’m a human being with an internet connection. I can see what they are saying, and I can go on there and say: what the fuck do you think you are doing?
I know some people will say that’s really stupid. I think I’m the opposite of what people say I should be. They’ll say: don’t get involved, don’t read anything. But if there are ten grown men tearing me to shreds, I’m going to go in there and make them feel bad about it. But that’s very rare. Most people are very nice.
Does touring change your relationship with your songs? If you’re having to perform them over and over again, you must have to enter into some sort of long-term committed relationship with them.
I’ve been in that relationship with them for a long time. As a singer, you commit to every single song, and you have to live the song when you’re performing it, like you were when you first wrote it.
As time passes and as you change, sometimes the emotional connection to the sentiment can get faint. But that’s when you bring in your meditative processes. You just have to go into that space, and almost method-act your own self. Recapture those emotions, find that part of yourself, and deliver it with all the passion that you can find.
When we spoke last year, before the album was released, you said there were angels in all of your songs. So I’ve been looking at your lyrics, and I’ve been searching for the angels.
The angels are on Come To Me High, for example. I was sitting in my room and thinking: I’m so depressed; what would happen if a chorus of angels were to burst into my room, and talk to me? When you’re depressed, it’s very hard to get out of that space. You have to shift that space by wanting to get out of it – by wanting that shift of consciousness.
And in Thankful, there’s a whole “forest of angels”.
Interestingly, I used to have no idea what it was. Then I realised that my mother was buried in a woodland burial, where you don’t have graves. You have all these different trees, with these little plaques, with people’s names on. And it is literally a forest of angels. I found it the most startling example of channelling. A lot of the most inspired lyrics and melodies were coming from beyond me, and I’m as puzzled as anyone until afterwards.
Before I go on stage, I imagine a circle of angels. I say a prayer, and I call on them. I summon them.
If the person you are now could send a message to the person who spoke to me last year, just before it all kicked off, what message would she convey?
Apart from a lot of practical things, I would say: this will pass. There was a feeling of anxiety around performing live. I got very frightened of big crowds, and I got stage fright. I’ve got much better since then. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’ve overcome that – with the help of my band, and with doctors, and with friends. I’m starting to really enjoy it now.
Your current main place of residence is in Sweden, is that right?
Not really; I just stay in Gothenburg for a while, and I stay in Berlin, and I stay in London. So it’s either of those three places. I don’t have a place of my own. I just stay with friends.
What’s the Swedish connection? How did you fetch up in Gothenburg?
I made a bunch of friends when I went up there, and I started learning the language. I went up there to start working on a different project with Andreas Kleerup, and now I’ve started to develop some roots there. It’s just been in the last year and a half. I’ve met a bunch of amazing people, and they’ve taken me under their wing a little bit, because they can see that I’m excited about learning Swedish. Most of them are musicians, so we have that connection as well.
The Swedish music that I’m most familiar with is a certain kind of quite witty electronic pop music. Is that indicative of something that you’ve got up your sleeve?
Yeah, that’s part of what I really love. There are a lot of great bands in Gothenburg: Little Dragon come from there, and Jose Gonzalez lives there. There’s a band called Pacific!, and there are just endless amounts of good music. And of course I was always a big Abba fan when I was growing up.
There’s no imperative for you to learn Swedish, as many of them seem to speak better English than we do. So is that just a part of your general inclination towards modern languages?
For me, it’s about having a deeper connection. You can only get so far if you choose only to speak English. If you really want to get to know them, you have to learn the language. There’s a lot of stuff that they can’t explain to you, unless you speak their language.
I would imagine that your efforts would be greatly appreciated, because it must be quite unusual that anyone would care to do that.
From what I can tell, what happens a lot is that men come from all over the world and meet the love of their life there. Then they move there, because their wife or girlfriend is Swedish. So you have all these Brits and Americans and Australians, and people from all over the place, who come there because of some beautiful Swedish girl. I’ve met a lot of those guys, and they’ve all gone through the process of learning Swedish. It’s necessary, to get to know who they really are. I feel like if you don’t learn Swedish, then you’re always standing on the outside a little bit. And I want to get in there. All the way in there!
My Swedish vocabulary runs to two words. I know that love is “älskar”, and I know that the word for gay is “bog”.
That’s funny; I haven’t even come across that word yet.
I remember there was a shop in Stockholm where you could buy a T-shirt with BOG on the front, which if you were in Sweden meant that you were declaring the fact that you were gay. But if you wore it in the UK, it would be declaring the fact that you were a toilet.
That’s hilarious. I think maybe I’ve been told that fact before, but I didn’t do any further research. It’s funny; sexuality hasn’t really been a part of my experience over there yet.
Well, it’s a very integrated society anyway, isn’t it?
Yeah, and I haven’t really talked about that area of my life.
How many different tongues have you now acquired?
Well, I continue to deepen my knowledge of German, Russian and Spanish, and I work on my French when I’m in France. I have good friends there, who know what level I’m at. French is one of the languages that I’m least proficient in. I know a lot of French, but it’s a matter of living there and speaking it on a daily basis, to get to a level where I would be able to communicate, and do interviews, and stuff like that.
I’ve been working on Dutch and Swedish. I’m really, really into Dutch. In fact, it’s sort of my favourite right now. But I’ve worked on my Swedish a lot more, because I’ve been spending a lot more time there. I’ve made huge progress with my Swedish, and I need to keep that going. I see Dutch and Swedish as hobbies that I want to spend the rest of my life just doing for fun, and getting as far as I can.
I’ve learnt German and French, and I used to have a bit of Russian which has gone now, but I found that a switch would flick in the brain: from “native language” to “foreign language”, whichever that might be at the time. So if I was in Germany and I suddenly had to speak French, I’d almost find myself trying to translate from German, which was impossible.
Well, I lived in Germany for six years, and that became a second native tongue for me. You had to pass a proficiency exam to study in a German university, and I studied Russian for six years in German – so that really rounded my German into perfection. It wasn’t until I went to Ukraine and Russia that my Russian really took off. And when I went back to Germany, after having those experiences, then I was really flying with the Russian as well.
As far as going from foreign language to foreign language, the only problem I have is between Spanish and Russian. They seem to be the two that I mix up. It’s not that they clash; it’s the opposite. They flow together, and they seem to fit together in a weird way. It’s the way they sound: the rolled “R”, and stuff like that.
It’s very strange, because I never mix up German and Russian, and I don’t mix up French and Russian, or German and French. But I buy my books in all sorts of different directions. I have a Swedish grammar written in Russian, and I have a Russian-Dutch dictionary, and I have Russian-French, and I have Swedish-German. It’s just a great way to keep all of your other languages fresh, while you’re learning the new one. If you read about Swedish grammar in Russian, you learn more about Russian.
Each language has a different way of looking at grammar, because of the way their specific grammar functions. So you learn all sorts of different ways of approaching it, and it gives you a lot more tools. It’s really fascinating. It’s really just a blast for me, and I absolutely adore it.
There was a period after The Czars broke up, when you were making a living as a Russian interpreter. Was that a period where all musical activity ceased?
Yeah, I just didn’t have time for it, and I wasn’t seeking out musicians in New York. I worked at a really high class New York restaurant called Gramercy Tavern, and that took up about 90% of my energy, because that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I guess you have to maintain “world’s best” standard at all times?
Yes, and I’m really grateful to them in a lot of ways, because you really do receive an education. In a lot of countries, you go to school to become a professional waiter. You learn about food, and you learn about wine. You can spend the rest of your life learning about those subjects, especially wine. People who are actual sommeliers are few and far between.
So it was that level of knowledge about food and wine, and especially cheese. Cheese is an important thing in a lot of places these days. We had a cheese board with twenty different cheeses, and that would change quite often. So we were constantly taking classes on how cheese is made, and where it comes from. You would study cheeses from France, and then you would study cheeses from Germany, and cheeses from the States. And we had classes on Madeira, Calvados, Armagnac, Cognac, Champagne…
Normally, if a musician says “I was waiting tables”, it’s indicative of economic hardship – of doing a service level job in order to get by – but for you it was quite the opposite, as this was a proper professional environment.
It was – but I did do ten years of that other waiting. The whole time I was in my band The Czars, I was working in this Italian restaurant. I worked in the same place for ten years, when I wasn’t out touring. Then when I moved to New York, I stumbled upon an advert on Craigslist, for this place called Gramercy Tavern. And I thought, well, I’ll just try that out. And my friends were like, do you have any idea what that is? And I said, no. And they said, that’s one of the top places in town.
So I went in there, and basically they’re looking for people that they want to be a part of their organisation. They’re not too terribly concerned with how much knowledge you have in those areas. They want to know if you are the type of person that they want to impart that knowledge to.
So there are more general personal qualities, like whether you’re the sort of person who can establish a rapport with the diners, in that way that you get in those high class joints.
Exactly, yes. And they wanted people who were self-aware. That’s what their big deal was. They wanted people who could communicate well. It’s very difficult to get fired from a place like that, because they’re not easily intimidated by any sort of fuck-up that you can come up with. They want to have people there for as long as possible.
So you’re not living with the threat of instant dismissal for a single fuck-up? Because on reality cooking shows, you see scenes in kitchens where you get the feeling that people live under that kind of pressure.
Yeah, but it took me months to realise that I wasn’t on the line. The first night I was on the floor, I was in the main dining room. It’s sort of hushed in there, but it’s extremely high volume. You’re doing maybe eight tables of people and you have up to seven courses per table, and that’s all going at an extremely fast pace. It’s not as slow as you would think it is. And then I spilled an entire silver pot of coffee, on a white cloth in the middle of the dining room. It went all down the front of the cloth, and there was just this collective gasp.
But the test of a great restaurant isn’t so much the mistake, as how you recover from the mistake.
Exactly, and that’s an art form in itself. (Laughs)
Maybe I’m romanticising it, but that sounds like a blissful existence. Was it a wrench to leave?
Well, like I said, that job was the most difficult thing I ever did. At the end of every night, you were completely exhausted, and your brain was mush. There was a sense of pride in what you were doing, but it was a really high pressure environment, and a lot was expected of you. But I met people there who I’ll probably be in touch with for the rest of my life.
I was glad to get out of there, because I found there was too much pressure. The fact that I don’t drink any more made it difficult for me to achieve the level of knowledge that one needs to achieve in the world of spirits and wines.
Once I’d finished the schooling that I was doing for Russian, I went to Texas to start my album, then I came back to New York and I decided to work only at the hospital, doing Russian medical interpreting. But I just didn’t have any energy for music at that time.
Was there a kind of flashpoint, where you knew you had to switch your priorities?
It was a decision that took me a long time, because the Russian thing was really fascinating. It had the potential to be extremely fulfilling, and I was starting to really get into it. But I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity that Midlake were offering me. They were offering me an entire community to feel comfortable in. It wasn’t that they wanted to mould me; they wanted simply to offer themselves as tools, for me to achieve my vision.
I suppose you’re swapping a very structured, even regimented existence – and also quite a secure existence – for stepping back out into the unknown, and being much more the master of your own destiny. That must have been a strange and radical switch to make.
Well, it was. I was building something in New York, and I had started to put roots down, and I had gotten past the most difficult part. The first three years are the most difficult part in New York. It’s extremely hard to get to know people there at the beginning. And to get into a restaurant like the one I got into, and to get into that world: you could pretty much go to any other city and say “I worked at this restaurant”, and immediately have a job in that industry, because of the reputation that place has. And then the language thing: I had medical insurance for the first time in years, and it was a huge decision to leave all that security and leave my apartment, and depend on other people again, and live with other people, and not have my own space.
So it was a communal existence when you were working with Midlake?
Yeah, I lived with a couple of them. I went back and forth a little bit. That’s not easy. Living with other people is really difficult, the older you get – especially if you want to be invited back. You have to be cognisant of lots of different things: about the way things are done, and about how to respect other people’s space.
And you were living with people who were representing your songwriting vision. The songs you wrote for Queen Of Denmark dig pretty deeply into your own personal emotional experiences, so you’re laying yourself bare in front of these people, who are supporting you in that process. That must be a very strange situation to be in.
The basis for that was that they really loved who I was as a person. They loved the whole package. They didn’t just respect me as a musician; they were fascinated by me as a person. So I felt very safe in revealing myself to them, because I didn’t feel judged in any way. I didn’t feel like anybody was looking at me with a critical eye. They thought what I had to say was great, and they felt like I had a voice that people hadn’t heard before, and that people should hear. They all come from very different backgrounds to me in some ways, and very similar backgrounds in other ways. They really did an amazing thing for me. It can’t be stressed enough.
Are any members of Midlake accompanying you on this tour that’s coming up?
No, but we are playing a big show together at the Royal Festival Hall [on Wednesday September 7]. That will be like wrapping up the Queen Of Denmark chapter, and moving on to the next chapter. We’re going to be doing the entire album, except for one song: Leopard And Lamb. I’ve never done that one. I want to do it, but I’m not sure how to do it yet. So that’s going to be a really special night.
As for the provincial UK dates, are you going to be completely solo for those?
No, that will be me and one other guy. We switch off on synth and piano, and he brings backing vocals with me. I think it’s a very full experience. It’s the best way to see the songs on the album done.
Is there a psychological price to pay for having to drag these songs around with you on tour, long after you wrote them, and long after you’ve had the experiences which created them? It’s almost like dragging round emotional baggage. Does this trap you in those experiences, without being able to move on?
I think the jury’s still out on that. I find it really fulfilling, but I’ve definitely had that thought a million times. In other artists’ lives, you see these drastic changes, which people say they don’t understand. And that is the result of what you’re talking about. Yes, there is a high price to pay for dragging those things around.
As for the relationship that caused me to write many of those songs, it probably was much more difficult for me to let go of that person, because I was reliving a lot of the feelings that I had for that person on stage every night.
I think about the next record, and what I want to talk about, and what I don’t want to talk about. I’ve thought about being on stage with Allen Toussaint the other night at Bush Hall; he accompanied me on Chicken Bones, and it was an absolutely amazing, transcendent experience. There were three of us on stage: James Dean Bradfield from Manic Street Preachers, Allen Toussaint and myself. We each played six songs, but we went in a circle, so it lasted for about two hours.
And to have Allen Toussaint across from me, playing things like Let’s Make A Better World, Yes We Can Can and Southern Nights, which is a song I grew up listening to… I’m sure there’s going to be a time when it’s going to be too difficult and too heavy for me to constantly sing about the difficult stuff in the world. At some point, in order to move on from certain things, you have to move to different subjects. But I feel very comfortable in that world. I think that’s probably a big part of my problem in my personal life, because I feel comfortable in that warm blanket of awkwardness and pain.
There’s an interesting paradox. You’re expressing these emotions lyrically, but the musical style on Queen Of Denmark is actually very pleasant on the ears, with those references to Seventies soft-rock. So if you’re just listening to it as music, without focussing on the lyrics, it’s quite reassuring and uplifting – like a warm blanket.
That’s the effect that the music had on me, when I was growing up in the Seventies. I love that type of music, and I will always love the David Lynch aesthetic. But you also have to be really careful in what you choose to drag around with yourself. It can really drag you down, if you don’t have perspective. The way that you can continue to do what you want to do is to have perspective.
As an artist, the difficult thing is getting perspective, because you inhabit these places very deeply. These things that you talk about, and these things that you express on stage: you must inhabit them, in order to bring them across in an honest way.
So maybe you need a couple of show closers, which are all about redemption and resolution, with a kind of beatific view on the world…?
What you’re talking about is interesting, because the feeling that a lot of people get when they listen to Queen Of Denmark is that redemption is built into the songs. You don’t come out of that record thinking “I want to commit suicide”. It’s more of an uplifting experience than a negative one – because of the way the music is, the way it’s structured, the humour of the record. Otherwise it would be too much.
On the next record, I’m going to be dealing with some really heavy subject matter as well, and once again it’s about striking that balance. It’s about finding the humour and bringing everyday life into it. That’s another thing that I like about Queen Of Denmark: in order to give an honest picture of the human experience, when you deal with these heavy subjects, you have to bring in everyday life. Because that’s how we actually experience it.
So you have details like the old sweet shop, and the chicken bones…
Yes, and Sigourney Weaver too. You’re drawing from your personal loves. So you’ve just finished watching Alien for the twelfth time, and you absolutely love that movie. And you’re thinking about these other things, and it’s like: Jeez, I feel just like that fucking lady from Alien, you know? It’s that scene where she has to shoot all these aliens, and you can see her rolling her eyes: “Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t believe how ridiculous this is!” And yeah, it’s stuff that everybody can relate to.
Queen Of Denmark has had a lot of critical success. Has that had a positive impact upon your creative process, or does it create new pressures?
Definitely both. Sitting there with Allen Toussaint the other night was a big deal for me, because he was very complimentary about my song structure and my melodies. When we went back on stage, he said, “We should go out there and do more of his songs; they’re so beautiful.” That can’t do anything but give you confidence. And what Mojo has done has thrust me into another world, where I definitely feel like I can call myself a musician and a songwriter. That was something that I didn’t have before.
At the same time, when Queen Of Denmark came out, nobody expected anything from me. So it was much easier for me to do that record. Now, of course, there are expectations and people are very, very attached to that record.
But I’ve started introducing new music into the set. You’re going to hear a new song, and it’s another one that I feel really proud of. It’s dark subject matter, but it tells the story of how difficult it is to communicate with another human in a loving relationship at times. And the extreme emotion, and the vicissitudes – the ups and downs – of fear, joy, hatred and being hurt, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to somebody else, and taking the risk – because that’s what you do as an artist too. You do it every night when you get up on stage.
That’s why I think the touring process is so difficult. In order for you to connect with people, you have to stay in this space where you are vulnerable. You have to constantly go back and forth while you’re on the road. You’re putting up walls and you’re putting on your shield of armour, to protect yourself from all the bullshit; just the logistics of what it takes to tour. And then there’s being in your creative space and actually reaching out to people, listening to what they have to say, actually connecting with them, and forging those relationships on stage. I mean, it is mentally fucking exhausting.
When you finish a show, what sort of emotional state are you in? Do you just want to go away and find some quiet time?
Sometimes I just want to break down and cry, and sob for an hour. And most of the time, I feel elated; I feel euphoric. A lot of times, I go out and talk to people afterwards, and that takes a good hour and a half to two hours. If you go out there and make yourself available, then you have to do it. And “doing it” means listening to what people have to say to you.
And that might be all to do with their own reactions to the songs you’ve sung, and how they relate to their own lives. So they might be sharing quite detailed personal stuff with you – and that’s on top of having done a show where you’ve expressed your own stuff.
Exactly. And it’s really, really heavy duty. Then also you get a lot of people who are drunk, and who want to say, “Oh, that new song was really shit”. Or, “I thought those first three songs ended way too harshly.” And you just want to say, “Who gives a fuck what you think?” It would never occur to me to walk up to somebody and tell them those things, and to express my dislike for somebody’s art to their face.
That’s the culture we’re in. Social media encourages that. You get the chance to be rude to people in public life.
Yeah, you have to take the good with the bad. But for me personally, it’s something that I don’t understand. I usually walk up to an artist when I want to tell them how much I appreciate them, and that is what the majority of people do.
But those people are not usually coming up to you and telling you that they don’t like a song in order to hurt you. They’re doing it for different reasons. They’re usually doing it because they want to enter into a dialogue with you. They really respect you, and they feel like it’s OK, since they love you so much already. So you’re called upon to have a lot of understanding, and to try and see it from a different perspective – because at first glance it can be, “Well, what the fuck are you telling me this for?”
When people say “I’m really looking forward to your next album, but that new song really sucks”, I’m like: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be looking forward to the new album then, because that’s going to be on it!” (Laughs)
(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.)
I’m calling you at your office, which is near your home in Norfolk. What sort of place have you got?
We’re in a village, just on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. My missus and I – and this is what happens to old rockers – we love gardens. When we bought the house, it was just grass and gravel. So in the past six years, we’ve put in roughly four thousand plants. We reckon we’ve got about another two years to go, and then it’s tinkering time. It’s a lot of fun, to watch something happen. My missus is much better at it than me.
I’d imagine that someone of your background would have a castle, at the very least. Are there any turrets on your property?
Oh, crikey. Well, the first divorce put paid to the turrets, the second one put paid to the moat, and the third one put paid to the castle. Rachel and I have got a little old mill house – and a windmill, would you believe. Without the sails; they went in 1953. It’s not a huge mansion, but it’s a very nice house. There’s only the pair of us – the kids have all grown up and long since gone – so what do you want to rattle round in a great big place for? Ian Lavender found it for us; he played Pike in Dad’s Army. He lives just down the road.
You’ll be coming to see us next Thursday at Nottingham Playhouse. What sort of show can we expect?
I don’t do tours any more. I do one-offs. I’ve got a long list of music that I can do: stuff of my own, and stuff of other people’s that I’ve worked on, and a few things that people wouldn’t expect me to play. And because I’ve done Grumpy Old Men and things like that, there are an awful lot of ridiculous stories that go in between. So it’s almost half stand-up, half music.
When you’re on your own, you’ve got a lot more freedom. But if you’re doing night after night after night, it does get into a bit of a routine. You start playing all the same pieces; you tell the stories exactly the same. Whereas if you spread them out over the year, you’ve forgotten the ones you did the last time. You’ll throw in stories that you wouldn’t have thrown in normally, and throw in a different piece of music. I started doing that about three years ago, and I found that it just worked so well, because every night it’s almost like an opening night.
What sort of audiences do you get these days?
It’s changed a lot. The music people obviously still come, from the Yes days and so on, and there’s a whole batch of people who started coming from Countdown. I hosted an alternative comedy show called Live At Jongleurs on ITV for eight years, so a lot of students started coming; admittedly that was in the Eighties, so now they’ve grown up a bit. Then you get the generation who liked Grumpy Old Men, and now I do a spot on Watchdog every week, so you start getting a real eclectic mix of people. A lot of people come along with their kids, who are learning to play; I often think they bring ‘em along to put ‘em off . And in some cases I’ve had four generations of family, which has been quite amazing.
You’ve had a strange journey, from symphonic prog-rock keyboard player to TV pundit and professional grump. How did the TV work come about?
It started properly when Danny Baker had a Saturday night chat show. I was only meant to do a minute, but Danny knew a lot of my silly stories, so he said “just go for it”. I ended up doing ten minutes. The following Monday, my agent thought it was Christmas. We were getting offered everything. I’ve got a lot to thank Danny Baker for.
I suppose I’m quite lucky, because when you get older – I’m 62 now – you get to a stage where the media go: oh sod it, he ain’t gonna go away, let him do what he wants. For a long period of time, you’re expected to do what you’re known for doing. But when you get to a certain age, they leave you alone.
So I have a really nice time. I’ve got a radio production company, and I get a fair amount of mainstream television, which is great. I still do the great big shows – in fact I’m off to South America later in the year with the band and orchestra, to do the big orchestral prog-rock shows, which we do in big stadiums out there. I still do the band shows occasionally, mainly at festivals. I’ve got the one man show, I do the “Grumpy Old Rock Star” books every eighteen months, and I still do my recordings as well.
So every day is different in some way, and that’s really, really nice. I’m not sure I’d be very good at routines. But I’m always up at a quarter to six at the latest, and I’m rarely in bed before midnight. It’s the old expression: there’s not enough hours in the day.
On the musical front, you recently did an album and a tour with Jon Anderson. Is anything else planned between the two of you?
We’re off to do the same show in America, in late October and early November. Jon lives there, and we’ll do about twenty shows. While we’re over there, Jon and I will meet up with [former Yes guitarist] Trevor Rabin, and that will be the next project: Jon, Trevor and myself. We’ll do that next year, and hopefully some shows will come out of that.
Jon and I are of a similar ilk. We don’t like to stand still, do what comes easily, and live in the past. For us, the past creates the present and the present creates the future. We hate managers, and so we don’t have any. We decide what’s best for the music and what’s best for us, and then we bring somebody in to look after it. Too many bands today seem to work for the management. When we bring management in to do things for us, they work for us – not the other way round.
In terms of the group dynamic within Yes, I’d have expected you and Jon to be poles apart. He’s the other-worldly dreamer, and you’re the more earthbound soul. Is it a case of opposites attracting?
Exactly. Jon is one of my dearest friends, and we do have certain things in common. We both love football, and we both obviously love music. I understand Jon, and Jon understands me. And I think that’s the secret. We are both heading for the same thing.
To give a bad analogy: if we’re both starting off at London and we’re going to Tokyo, there’s two ways you can go. You can either go via Anchorage, or you can go via Moscow. So there’s one stage, even if you’re heading to the same place, where you couldn’t be further apart. As long as you’re heading for the same destination, it really doesn’t matter how you get there.
When you say that you understand Jon, does that extend to the lyric sheets of the classic Yes albums?
Um… (pause) some of them. I’ve talked to Jon a lot about them. Jon is a wordsmith, and to some extent they stand on their own, as a sort of surrealistic poetry. They do have very strong meanings for Jon, in every respect. But they can have different meanings for other people, and that’s not a problem at all. As Jon always says: as long as people get their own meaning from it. On The Living Tree, the album that Jon and I just did, I think he hit the sort of form lyrically that he had back in the Seventies. I thought it was tremendous. I always get excited waiting for Jon’s lyrics, and it was the same thing with Strawbs, waiting for Dave Cousins.
I find it weird that Jon’s place in Yes has been taken by the former lead singer with a tribute band. There have been some strange episodes, but this is up there with the strangest of them.
When Jon was very ill, five or six years ago, the right plan would have been to wait until Jon was fit again, in two or three years’ time. But for reasons known only to themselves, three of the guys said: no, we’re going to go out. Personally, I think you can’t have Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant, and you can’t have The Who without Roger Daltrey, so how the hell can you have Yes without Jon Anderson? But they decided that they could.
I don’t have anything to do with it. As far as the classic line-up is concerned, that will never see the light of day again. Yes was always a special band, and now it has turned into a gigging band. It’s trotting around, playing as many shows as humanly possible, and it’s just a great shame.
Is there a sense in which you still feel like a member of the band, even if you’re not officially part of it?
It’s like saying: does Bobby Charlton still feel part of Manchester United, even though he doesn’t play? Of course you are. But as regards what’s been going on for the past five years, this doesn’t have anything to do with me at all. I’ve changed clubs, as they say.
I don’t know whether Yes were ever considered as part of the counter-culture, but you’re certainly not part of the counter-culture now. You’re doing mainstream shows on BBC1.
Ah, but that happens to a lot of people. It’s like all the alternative comics, that I used to introduce when I did Live At Jongleurs. They’re all mainstream now. It’s what happens. Underground music in the Sixties eventually came overground, with people like Marc Bolan and T. Rex, and it became establishment.
I guess that every stream has got to join the big river…
All that “mainstream” really means is that enough people like it to bring it to the surface. And that’s happened to so many alternative comics, who are now as straight as the people that they tried to be against in the early days. Which is lovely, you know? That’s what happens. And it will always happen. It will never change.
So if the Rick Wakeman of 1973 could see the Rick Wakeman of 2011, what would he make of him?
He’d be very happy he was still alive! (Laughs)
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Post.
I’m calling you in London; is that your place of residence these days?
I’ve been in London for years. The rest of the band are still in Ireland. The singer Paul lives in Dublin, but the others are still in Derry, our home town. I’m the black sheep of the family! I left in the early Eighties, and somehow never returned. I’ve got a family here. But maybe someday I’ll be back…
How much of your time these days is involved with being an Undertone?
I’d say half the time, at the moment. We’re working on new material for a new record. I’ve been working on songs that my brother John sends me, so the last couple of weeks have been quite intense. But normally, we don’t play that often. It’s not like we’re doing a full time career anymore, so we just play when we feel like it. But we’ve been quite busy over the last couple of years with live shows. Last year we went to Japan, and we did a load of festivals. Summer’s always the busiest time for us, with festivals and stuff. They’re just starting to come in now. There’s a weirdly titled one coming up in May/June; it’s called the Bearded Theory festival.
That’s near here, at Kedleston Hall. I think they take the bearded thing quite literally. There is something about the wearing of beards which is intrinsic to the festival. So just be ready for a sea of beards. Not all of which might be real.
I tried to grow a beard last year, for about two weeks. It was a pretty pathetic attempt. It was getting so itchy that I shaved it off. But I might try and grow it back for this one. (Laughs)
It doesn’t seem right, having an Undertone with a beard.
It doesn’t seem right at all.
You’ll be playing your 1979 debut album in full on the next tour, so – because geeks like me need to know – will you be playing the original fourteen track version which came out in the May, or the expanded version that came out five months later, with a couple of singles (Teenage Kicks and Get Over You) added?
We’ll play the original LP in its original song sequence; I think that’s important. But with True Confessions: on the LP, it’s a different version. I always thought that was a bit of a mistake. We did it on a whim at the time, and I kind of wish we didn’t now. So we’ll do True Confessions with the original Good Vibrations version – the better version, basically. And then after Casbah Rock, we’ll probably do Teenage Kicks and Get Over You.
When the LP originally came out, Sire Records really wanted us to put Teenage Kicks and Get Over You on it. But we insisted, and we got our way somehow. We just said: no way. A lot of bands at the time, like Buzzcocks, used to put their singles out separately. It was just really good value for money, basically.
And then the record company won you over six months later.
Yeah, and by the second LP we hadn’t enough new songs anyway! So we had to! Although actually, You’ve Got My Number isn’t on Hypnotised either.
Some of the band were reportedly quite reluctant to record Teenage Kicks in the first place. Which camp were you in?
I was in the pro camp!
Well, your brother did write it.
Yeah, my brother John wrote the song. We all kinda liked it, and there was never any doubt about recording it, but I think some people in the band didn’t think it was good enough for the first EP on Good Vibrations, believe it or not. Can you believe that? I don’t remember there being any real arguments about it – and I forget who – but all I can say is that it wasn’t me! (Laughs)
Was it one of your very earliest songs?
I was looking this up the other day. This is how anorak I am: I used to make a list of when we wrote what songs. I think it was written in June 1977. It was a fruitful month for John, because he also wrote Get Over You in the same month. So, two great singles in a month; not bad.
As for the legendary moment when John Peel played your first EP, were you listening to him that night?
Oh, of course! We’d got wind. In fact, a friend of the band has a cassette copy of that announcement. The famous thing is that he said “It’s so good that I’ve got to play that again”. And he played it twice, which he’d never done before.
Then he made a whole speech later in the week, saying that you guys were the reason he did his entire show. It was very impassioned; it was quite a moment.
Wow. I’d love to hear that again, actually. But we were definitely listening, I remember that. And we couldn’t believe it; we were whooping with delight when he played it for the second time. We were like: frigging hell, this is incredible! We just couldn’t believe it. Because we were massive John Peel fans, and we used to listen religiously to him. You had to, to hear new stuff. He was the man.
The band had been together since 1975, so you would have formed before punk as we know it came along. Did the Pistols and the Ramones cause you to change direction?
We were going that way anyway, because the covers we were doing were very R&B. We loved early 60s R&B, like the early Stones. Actually, I love later Stones as well, but the earlier stuff was easier to play. So we could do Round And Around and Little Red Rooster, and Van Morrison’s Them, that kind of stuff. I think we tried a few Cream songs, but that was beyond us! (Laughs) Eric Clapton could play too fast.
We loved Doctor Feelgood, who came along in 75 with Down By The Jetty. Just seeing them on TV was amazing. Especially Wilko, and the way he dressed. So that influenced us, and I have to give credit to Eddie and the Hot Rods as well. The Live At The Marquee EP came out in summer 76, which we loved, and we actually used to do a bit of “Get out of Denver, baby”. After that, we basically speeded up the covers that we were doing, to make it more like that. And then by late 76, we heard Anarchy In The UK and The Damned’s first single. Then the whole game changed again, because they were even younger. So we automatically identified with that.
Did you feel part of a local scene, or were you the only ones in Derry doing this kind of thing?
We were out on a limb. You know that song by The Saints, (I’m) Stranded? We felt like that. We felt stranded in Derry. There was a bit of a scene in Belfast, but there was nothing going on where we lived. And we were getting a lot of crap and abuse on the street for doing the music that we did. We got to be known for doing kinda strange music, and for the way we dressed. We wouldn’t dress the way that punks dressed in London, but just wearing straight jeans could get your head kicked in. And having short hair. And Feargal, being the singer and being an extrovert, got abuse in the street. But even if he wasn’t in a band, he probably would have anyway. Were singled out a lot, just for being punk rockers. On the back of the Teenage Kicks EP, there’s a photo: “The Undertones Are Shit”. That’s genuine. That’s the kind of feeling we got from people. They hated us! (Laughs)
Did it help you that Stiff Little Fingers had broken through a few months earlier?
They opened the doors a bit, I suppose. John Peel played them, and we were very jealous. We weren’t big fans, to be honest – but because John Peel was playing them, it made us more determined. It raised the game.
Did you ever feel tempted to go along with the prevalent feeling at the time, which was to write political message songs?
No, we wanted to escape from the Troubles. We didn’t want to wallow in it. I don’t like dissing Stiff Little Fingers anymore, because some of it’s good, but we just thought what they were doing was a bit corny.
I sometimes thought there was something a bit calculated about it. They got someone else to write their lyrics, didn’t they?
Yeah, that was another thing as well. They had their manager, who was English, to write the lyrics. It was a bit contrived.
That’s not really very punk rock.
No, it’s not. We loved Fifties and Sixties rock and roll, and girl groups like The Shirelles, and then of course the New York Dolls and MC5. We wanted to write about love and girls, not about bombs and bullets.
I guess you’ve gone back to that debut album recently, preparing for the tour. Are there songs on there which you’ve not played for, that you’re looking forward to exhuming?
We’ve probably done most of them over the years, because the first LP is almost like a greatest hits. But there is Casbah Rock – I don’t know if we’ve ever done that since.
It’s such a short track, as well.
There are a few extra verses which never made it on the record. On the LP, it’s just a cassette demo recording that we did, a year previously. I think it was my idea to stick that on at the end, as a little snippet.
Wasn’t that the name of the club where you had an early residency?
The Casbah was our Cavern, basically. It was where we learned our chops. It was a bit of a den of iniquity, to be honest. It used to be a pub, and then it was bombed and they replaced it with a Portakabin. A lot of rock bands played there, doing Thin Lizzy covers and whatever. So we kinda went in there with a snotty attitude: we were going to play some decent music. But we loved it, because that was where we built up our crowd.
What do you remember about the sessions for recording the album?
Because we had played those songs for about a year, we could knock them off really quick. Roger Bechirian was the producer, and it was great working with him. He did a really good job; I was a bit scared that he’d soften it a bit, and lose the edge.
I think the production has a real sparkle to it.
It’s very poppy as well, which is great. We did Get Over You with Roger before the album, and I was a bit disappointed with that, because it was a bit too polished. But he stepped back a bit, and let us just be ourselves on the LP.
It was done at Eden Studios in Acton. We over to London in January 79, and I think we were there for about four weeks. So it wasn’t that quick really, when I think about it. Probably two weeks recording and two weeks mixing. We rented out some little place, just off Paddington. The first time you’re ever in London, your eyes are wide open. It was a great atmosphere, and the camaraderie was great. It was probably the best time, you know? The best time in the band.
You split in 83, after eight years together. Then you reformed in 99, with Paul McLoone singing instead of Feargal Sharkey. This line-up has actually been together longer than the original line-up, so why has it lasted so long?
I think it’s because there’s no pressure now. We’re not signed to a record company, so we can do it at our own leisurely pace. And we don’t play every week, which keeps it fresh.
Why did the original version fold? Were there internal tensions, or was it because of chart positions?
Yeah, chart positions. The third and fourth LPs were selling less and less. We were playing to half-empty halls. Like most bands, it was just demoralising. You think: why bother? The fun had gone out of it. And you’ve got to remember, this was 82, 83. It was all synthesisers and New Romantics. So we were definitely passé by then.
Will you be starting your set with the debut album?
I think we will, but it will probably only last about twenty minutes! (Laughs) Then we’ll do Get Over You, Teenage Kicks, and maybe a few B-sides. And then of course we’ll do the other songs from Hypnotised, and we do new songs as well. We’ve recorded two LPs with this line-up. A lot of the music press don’t take the new Undertones seriously, because it’s not Feargal. So they won’t listen; they won’t give it a chance. Which is a real shame, because I like to think we’re still coming up with really good songs.
I haven’t seen you on stage since you famously played the first ever night at Rock City, in late 1980.
I still remember that really well. Orange Juice supported us – what a great band they were, as well. Oh, it was a brilliant night! A fantastic night! That’s a great venue.
A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.
Neil Tennant is in need of some sea air. He and Chris Lowe have just arrived at Blackpool (“the huge convoy of trucks arrived separately; we rolled up on the train”), ahead of the first Pet Shop Boys show in Chris’s home town in almost twenty years. “We thought it was about time we played it”, he muses. “It’s nice to be here, actually. I like Blackpool.”
Having booked a hotel room on the sea front, Neil has just discovered that his windows cannot be opened without assistance. “I guess it’s slightly odd”, he mutters, as flunkies come and go and window-related negotiations progress, stalling our conversation and prompting courteous apologies from the ozone-starved pop survivor.
The Blackpool date comes midway through the latest leg of the Pet Shop Boys’ seemingly never-ending Pandemonium tour. This particular show has been on the road since June of last year, with a five month break between December and May. A souvenir live album was recorded before Christmas, and the CD has been on sale since February, and yet the show rolls on, evoking unlikely comparisons with the perpetually touring Bob Dylan.
“We actually finish the whole thing with the V Festival at the end of August”, Neil assures me, unaware of the dangerous precedent set by Oasis, whose headlining set at Weston Park last year turned out to be their final performance. But while the Gallagher brothers turned in a bored, lacklustre, last-legs set that shamed their legacy, there seems little danger that disaster will strike twice, especially given this show’s recent ecstatic reception on the festival circuit. “Pandemonium” might not be the first word that you would associate with a Pet Shop Boys concert, but it’s a state of mind which Tennant and Lowe are happy to encourage.
“We always say that a lot of the pandemonium tends to come from the audience”, says Neil. “Since we started at the end of May, we headlined the Primavera festival in Barcelona, then we did a show in a castle in Italy, then we did Glastonbury, and we’ve just come back from the Balaton festival in Hungary, and playing in Munich. And I really think that all of these shows have been the best shows of our lives. I don’t know why, but the experience has been incredible and the show is very tight now. I like to think it’s a very entertaining show. It’s not a bit like anyone else’s show.”
Tomorrow’s performance at Splendour in Woollaton Park – where Tennant and Lowe headline over Calvin Harris, The Noisettes, Athlete and viral YouTube sensations OK Go – will to all intents and purposes be the same visual and musical experience which they brought to Glastonbury four weeks ago. If you caught the set on BBC Three, where it was broadcast live in its entirety, then you’ll know what to expect.
The memory makes Tennant both beam and bristle. “Glastonbury was an amazing experience. We got between forty and fifty thousand people watching. Of course, the media traditionally emphasises rock bands – they’re regarded as more important – but in fact we got an amazing reaction.”
It has been ten years since the Boys last played Glastonbury. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking, because Glastonbury has become such a big deal. Because it’s televised, it’s almost treated like a sporting event by the media, and so there’s something very competitive about it. When we first did it in 2000, we were on the main stage between two rock bands: Ocean Colour Scene and Travis. So we were wondering whether it was going to be our audience. In fact, once we got going, the audience grew and grew, and afterwards everybody said it was a big success.”
“This time, we were headlining the Other Stage. We were wondering how big the crowd would be, because we knew that Muse were on the main stage. But actually, Glastonbury isn’t a rock festival – they call it a festival of contemporary arts – so we got a huge audience before we even started, and the reaction and the energy from the audience was really remarkable.”
For anyone who still nurses memories of those impassive, static television appearances which defined the duo’s image in the Eighties, Tennant’s newly energised, openly enthusiastic performing style – complete with actual smiling, actual waving, and actual invitations to sing along – may come as some surprise. And yet he denies that playing to a festival crowd has changed his approach to his stagecraft.
“No, the show is the show”, he insists. “Maybe if you saw the transmission from Glastonbury, we were very hyped up, in a way. Because it’s a big deal, and of course it’s live on the television. And it’s a different audience. At a concert, people have paid to see you specifically. But at a festival, people have paid for the experience of a festival. So you’re very much aware that while you’re on, there’s a range of other people they could go and see. From the stage, you can see the coming and going of the audience. And at these concerts recently, we haven’t seen a lot of going!”
Of course, having an elaborate and ever-changing stage set-up will always help maintain an audience’s attention – and in this area, the Pandemonium experience is unlikely to disappoint. As Neil explains, the show is a “theatrical, multi-media experience” which splits into four distinct parts. “It’s not a story, but it has a sort of narrative impetus, that takes you through to the end. It’s a very creative show, and people can’t quite believe that it’s based around 250 cardboard boxes.”
Early in the set, as the recent album track “Building A Wall” is performed, these white boxes start to stack up at the rear of the stage, in a manner which might evoke memories of a certain legendary Pink Floyd show. But later on, as the wall disintegrates and the boxes form looser, more disorganised shapes, you might be reminded of the Turner Prize-winning artist Rachel Whiteread, and her recent “giant sugar cube” installation at Tate Modern.
“I’ve never seen the Pink Floyd show”, says Neil. “It’s much more Rachel Whiteread, although I don’t think it’s inspired by her either. Sometimes we might be playing a small theatre in Milwaukee, and sometimes we’ll be headlining Glastonbury – so you want something that’s flexible. That was our original starting point.”
The show starts with a song which, despite topping the charts for three weeks in 1988, remains the least remembered of the Pet Shop Boys’ four Number One singles. For while most people will have no difficulty recalling West End Girls, It’s A Sin and Always On My Mind, they may well have forgotten about Heart. For many years, the track was omitted from the Boys’ live set. More recently, it has been welcomed back into their repertoire.
If Tennant had ever fallen out of love with Heart, he is not about to admit it now. “The audience normally sing along, so it’s not that forgotten. And it’s a lovely song. Every night that we sing it, I think what a clever song it is: the melody and the way it’s structured. It’s a very warm song, and that’s what I really like about it.”
As for Always On My Mind, the song’s seemingly warm and heartfelt sentiments are undercut by Tennant’s final line, delivered just as the track starts to fade. “Maybe I didn’t love you”, he sings once more – and this time there’s no qualification, just a brutal full stop.
“The song is sung from the point of view of a selfish and self-obsessed man, who is possibly incapable of love, and who is now drinking whiskey and feeling sorry for himself. It’s a completely tactless song. And I guess I never told you” – here, Neil places withering emphasis on the word “guess” – “or, you know, I guess I could have held you. So actually, “maybe I didn’t love you” is a completely logical conclusion. It was written originally as a country song, and it’s a very maudlin and in my opinion slightly cynical country song. I sang it on the record like that. At the same time, it’s a beautiful melody.”
Another unlikely cover is saved for the show’s climax: Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, mashed up with Tennant and Lowe’s 1988 hit Domino Dancing. But as unlikely as the song choice might seem, Neil has a full explanation for its inclusion.
“When we were working on the last album, that Coldplay record had just come out. In fact, we heard it from EMI even before it came out. Viva La Vida was a very unusual song for Coldplay. It bears no relationship to the rest of their catalogue. It’s what we call a “four on the floor” dance record – and it sounds like a Pet Shop Boys record. We suggested doing a remix for them, and I think they were quite into the idea.”
“I don’t know if you remember what happened with Viva La Vida, but it was the first record that the public ever made a Number One hit, without it actually being released as a single. So it was too late. But Chris and I always had this idea that we would like to record it, and turn it into the Pet Shop Boys record we always felt it could be.”
“Because we have the song Se A Vida É, we thought we’d go into Viva La Vida. We call it Se A Vida La Viva, so it’s a sort of Latin section of the show. Chris had the idea of putting the Domino Dancing riff over it, and it works really well. It’s a great audience sing along as well.”
“In fact”, he continues, warming to his theme, “we were in St Petersburg on the very first day of our tour – and of course, the song is all about “St Peter won’t call my name”. So we shot some film of me wandering around the statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg.” How very conceptual. How very Pet Shop Boys.
Although Domino Dancing’s comparatively low chart position effectively ended what Tennant has subsequently called the group’s “imperial phase”, what followed was not a dramatic fall from grace, but rather a graceful abdication of their position as the UK’s top pop act.
“You know that sort of thing is never going to last”, he explains. “So we just carried on following our instincts, and doing the kind of thing we wanted to do. In the Eighties, the Pet Shop Boys was a singles band. In the Nineties, the Pet Shop Boys became an albums band. In the following decade, the Pet Shop Boys became a touring band, as well as being a singles band and an albums band. We branched out into a variety of other projects, and we have evolved a combination of music and theatre in our performances, which I think has influenced a few people – but I also think it’s something that really only we do. Digital music frees you up for a lot of visuals, because we don’t have a drum riser on the stage, for instance. And so, twenty-five years after West End Girls, here we are. I think it’s a tribute to actually not being about fame, and not being about celebrity, but being about songwriting and creativity.”
It sometimes feels as if you’re following a seamless master plan, which you’re executing with absolute certainty. I imagine you getting together for planning meetings once a year, and deciding on your theme word for the year – like “Yes” or “Fundamental”.
What’s great is that – as we have actually written this ballet now – after we do the V Festival in August, I don’t really know what we’re doing. There’s something quite liberating about that. We don’t really think more than a year ahead, to be honest.
I’d like to know more about this ballet.
It came about because a friend of ours is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet. He phoned me up one day, and said he’d been offered a solo slot at Sadlers Wells, as part of their summer season, and would we write something for him. He was actually thinking of a male Dance of the Seven Veils. And I said: well, I don’t know, I’m quite busy at the moment, but I’ll ask Chris. To be honest, I forgot all about it.
But by a weird coincidence, Chris phoned me up two days later and said that he’d been reading Hans Christian Andersen stories. There was this one called The Most Incredible Thing, and he thought it would make an amazing ballet. So we decided that because of the synchronicity of that, we should do this.
We met Sadlers Wells, who are an amazing organisation, and we’ve subsequently written this three-act ballet, which is a mixture of electronic music and a small chamber orchestra. It opens on March 20th next year at Sadlers Wells, and goes on, I believe, a ten week tour. It might even go to Nottingham!
We are on the map for this sort of thing.
I know you are! I think you’ve got a good theatre for dance. So hopefully it will come to Nottingham. It was very exciting. What we wanted was to update the idea of a Tchaikovsky ballet, but do it with modern electronic music.
Do you get any say over the staging, or is your contribution strictly musical?
Well, we’ve developed the story. It’s a four page story, although in fact there’s so much in that four pages, you could have made a ten hour ballet out of it. We’ve been involved with a playwright called Matthew Dunster, in developing the scenario to write the music to.
When it comes to the staging and the choreography, they do very kindly ask our opinion. But Chris and I think we should just let them get on with it, really. We don’t claim to know anything about ballet.
People have said, are you going to be in it? (laughs) Actually, there is a non-dancing role: the king. I keep hinting to people that maybe I could play it. But they haven’t taken up the hint. (laughs)
(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.)
A Stranglers greatest hits collection (Decades Apart) is about to come out – well, maybe not a greatest hits collection, but a retrospective collection. What’s the story?
It’s not entirely a greatest hits collection. We aborted one about eighteen months ago, called 4240. That was going to be all 42 of our Top 40 hits, but this one’s more… I mean, we didn’t have hits in the Nineties! So it’s going to cover all the periods.
The track listing suggests a good even spread, covering the entirety of your career.
Yeah, it’s a bit scary. I think the title stretches the credibility to a certain extent, because it’s talking about five decades: the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Noughties and the Teens. But there are two new tracks as well, so it does bring us right up to date.
One of the new tracks, Retro Rockets, is also your new single. What’s the message of the song?
It’s a protest song. It’s a song about all the banal music, fronted by pretty – or what people consider to be pretty – front people. It’s about the state of music now.
Do you think we’re in a particularly parlous state? We’ve always had vapid, pretty people singing pop music.
Of course, and all hail the power of pop music. I’ve not a problem with that. But it’s just the mediocrity of it now. They talk about nothing. It’s cheesy, it’s dominated, and maybe that’s why there’s a reaction. People are going to gigs more these days then almost ever before – apart from the old pub rock scene, when people were actually going to bars and seeing bands all the time. A lot of people, including ourselves, did our apprenticeship there.
It does feel like we are living in a golden age for live music.
And thank God for that! Also, I get the impression that a lot of people are quite cynical about what’s made accessible to them, whether on TV or radio, and there’s a kind of a backlash. So you have people who want to see something actually real and live.
Absolutely – it’s the one musical experience that you can’t obtain digitally. And it’s the last place you can hear analogue sound.
And they don’t want it lip-synched, either.
Some of them try.
In China, lip-synching is illegal. And funnily enough, two famous Chinese pop stars were [recently] arrested for lip-synching at a gig! (Laughs)
I didn’t know the Chinese were so rockist. OK, so you’re having a bit of a dig at the new breed, and there are lines in the song such as “Where’s the melody? Where’s the identity?” Are we not veering dangerously close to Grumpy Old Man territory here?
Absolutely! And? You say it as if there’s something wrong there!
It was a charge that was levelled at your generation of bands, when you first broke through in the Seventies.
Well, we were grumpy teenagers – so I think we’re being true to ourselves. No, listen: there is some kind of seriousness behind it. If you think that every single human being is unique, and that the output from all those human beings often is not unique, there seems to be some kind of disparity there. All our fingerprints are unique. Our voices are unique. So why is the creative output from those unique individuals not always as unique as it could be?
There’s a pressure to adopt the formula that’s currently selling at the time.
It’s almost the tail wagging the dog, isn’t it? “Oh, I want to be famous, what shall I do? I shall do this thing that’s happening now.”
I’m aware that there is a bit of a Facebook campaign to get Retro Rockets into the charts. I’m reliably informed that to crack the Top 40 in the current climate, you need about 7,800 sales. Do you think that’s doable?
I’ve no fucking idea! (Laughter) But it is doable, yes.
You do have a particularly strong relationship with your fans, as far as I can tell. There does seem to be an unusually strong sense of community there. They even arrange coach trips…
They do, yeah. They do it amongst themselves. Because of the longevity of it, I’ve seen people become couples through meeting at Stranglers concerts. I can only say this. In the past, we’ve been demonised, and we’ve found ourselves ghettoised – so we’ve developed a sort of siege mentality. I think a lot of people who liked our music and identified with us felt strongly too. So they developed that same “us and them” attitude. So every time we have a small victory, they feel part of it. It is some kind of symbiotic relationship. But without the fans, we’re nothing. We’ve grown up together, and there are new people coming all the time. There are loads of teenagers checking us out now.
I suppose you get Stranglers families turning up. Families in black…
Yeah, I suspect you do. But also I think you get the fans you deserve. I like to think we have pretty intelligent fans. They’re smart, and they’re also quite hedonistic people. (Laughs) And why not, you know? They’re alive. Our fans are alive. And kicking.
At your shows, I guess you must attract two different groups: the nostalgia brigade who want to hear the old hits, and the diehard fan community who want to hear the other stuff. Is there a kind of juggling act, and does it vary from tour to tour as to how you balance it?
It does, of course. But as you get older, and as you accumulate more material, there’s even more of that – because we don’t always want to play the old stuff. Some songs, you get sick and tired of playing them. You’re just going through the motions. So you stop. We stopped playing Peaches for twelve years, because we’d had enough. Then we resurrected it, because suddenly we enjoyed playing it again and seeing the reaction on people’s faces. But the dog must always wag the tail. There’s nothing worse than going through the motions. You might as well be a karaoke band, or a covers band. That’s no good.
Looking through your touring schedule, I see you’re playing Hammersmith Apollo for the first time since 1983, as there was a bit of an incident there last time. What happened?
Oh, the guys in the monkey suits… um… (Long pause)
Why am I looking at this? I’m looking at a magazine called Attitude. It’s got Gareth Thomas on the front. (Pause – sound of pages being turned) Why is that in front of me here?
I wouldn’t have thought The Stranglers would be part of Attitude magazine’s remit.
I’ve never heard of it.
It’s a gay magazine.
It’s got a lot of… I can see that. Oh! Hmm. Anyway! Where were we?
I was plugging you for details on the 1983 Hammersmith Apollo incident.
Yeah, sorry! I got taken aback! The guys in the monkey suits were being a bit macho and turning their backs on us, and we’d had enough of that. The old-school bouncers weren’t very smart; they were just local thugs. So we had a set-to with them, during the first of our two nights there. As I recall, they had to draw the curtains. The audience were on one side, and we were on the stage with the management and a few heavy bouncers, and saying: listen, this is not the way we want to continue our concert, you’re being rude and aggressive to our fans, blah blah blah. So we carried on the show without the bouncers. Inevitably there were a few seats damaged. The next day, the management unilaterally cancelled the concert. And we weren’t booked again.
I guess people will have calmed down a bit since those days. But you were tagged at the time as having a sort of – how can I put it? – troublesome reputation. There were run-ins with journalists, and stuff like that. Was the reputation deserved?
No, not really. I think our reputation came before us, and some people reacted to that. So to be honest, we gave as good as we got. But if people were civil and nice to us, we were civil and nice back. We were quite defensive at one point, because we were selling more records than anyone, and we were getting slagged off by people saying we weren’t toeing the party line. We didn’t fit the punk orthodoxy and we had done it outside of the box, so the daggers were out for us. A lot of the so-called punk aristocracy were in cahoots with their media friends, and we didn’t have any media friends. And there was the fact that we had a keyboard player and we were – God forbid – using synthesisers, which was considered a new heresy.
Too many notes, you see.
Too many notes – and we were striving to play well, and to do arrangements, and we weren’t trying to be as loutish as possible. And we weren’t hiding our past. I didn’t hide the fact that I was educated, like some people. (Laughs)
There were quite a lot of ex-public school punks, as I remember.
There were. There were so many phoneys. Even someone as illustrious and as lovely as Joe Strummer slummed it a bit. He was an ex-public school boy whose Dad was a diplomat, and he was giving himself an accent. Shane MacGowan went to Westminster, for Christ’s sake. So they all hid that, and we said: no, we just want to improve our musicianship. We’re educated; we can talk about stuff, and not just slogans that have been fed to us.
People thought there was some kind of dichotomy between [what they saw as] pseudo-intellectualism, and being physical. Or violent, in my case. In some parts of the British media, you’re either intellectual or a thug. You can’t be physical and also strive for some kind of intellectual goal.
So we didn’t fit into any of those things, and we were still selling more than the others, and the accusation was: ah, they’ve sold out. Well, yeah – we were selling out everywhere we went! That upset a lot of people, so we started taking our revenge on journalists; those who we [had in our] black book. Le droit de réponse, you know?
Another charge has recently been laid at you. Apparently, you were directly responsible for turning a young Simon Cowell away from rock music. His girlfriend took him to a Stranglers gig, and he found the whole thing very distressing. Is that a heavy cross to bear?
It’s such a heavy cross to bear, but I shall bear it with equanimity. (Laughs) I think he’s got his facts slightly wrong, though. He was accusing me of spitting at his girlfriend, but I never, ever spat at anyone. I found that pretty cheap.
Initially, we had one song (School Mam) on our second album, No More Heroes – slightly based on the truth, actually – that was based on a schoolmistress who masturbates herself to death. In the process of this song, the singer – it was Hugh (Cornwell) at the time – would simulate masturbation on his neck, until he ejaculated by spitting.
Oh, so the spitting was artistically justified?
Completely! When we did that for the first time in 1976, at a club called Dingwalls, they had fifty-odd letters of complaint. So we were never booked there again. And that’s where we think that started. But I think at one point, the audience were spitting because they had read in the News of the World that that’s what you were supposed to do. So he’s probably got his facts wrong. But I don’t mind taking the blame.
Jet Black (drummer) is getting on a bit now (he turns 72 in August), so might this be your last big tour?
I hope not; I don’t see any reason. It might be the last one with Jet, but we’ve been saying that for years. I mean, he’s not with us all the time. We (recently) played in Greece, and that was without Jet. He wouldn’t have been able to take it. They smoke more than any other country in the world, I think. It’s incredible. It’s funny how quickly it looks shocking to us, in the space of two years since the smoking ban.
A lot of the shows that we’ve been doing for the last three or four years, we’ve done without Jet. But then he comes back and plays. He’s had some health problems. He was on life support only eighteen months ago. So any time he plays with us, it’s great. And when he doesn’t, his little Dauphin (Ian Barnard), who’s been with us for eight years, replaces him. But we’re definitely assuming that Jet’s playing with us on this tour.
A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.
Your new album (One Life Stand) feels notably different from your previous work. Do you see it in terms of a musical progression?
We can’t help but move forward in some ways, I suppose. As an album, it has its own identity, and it hangs together well. All those songs really belong to each other, if you know what I mean. We probably worked in a more concentrated way, and for a longer amount of time, on this record than we have on the previous two. They were sandwiched into the touring schedule, whereas last year we took a break from touring. So we had pretty much the whole year. We were busy doing lots of other things, but one of the things that we were concentrating on was recording this album. So we had eight weeks in the studio, and I think that comes through on the record. It feels as though it was made at a certain time.
So this was more studio-recorded, whereas your earlier stuff was more home-recorded?
Two songs on the record were still recorded in Joe (Goddard)’s bedroom, but the majority of the record is recorded in the studio that I run with Felix (Martin) in East London. It wasn’t really the five of us playing in a room so much, but it was definitely like setting up camp in a room and having all of our toys plugged in and ready to play with. We felt very comfortable there, basically. It was a nice way to make some music.
So it was over a concentrated period of time, where you weren’t doing anything else?
Yeah, but the songs were still written over quite a long period of time. It was about two years between the earliest one – which was probably Take It In or Alley Cats, which was actually played on the previous tour – to the newer ones like Keep Quiet, which was written in October last year. So they were written over a long period of time, but the recording process was quite concentrated.
Was there any prior discussion as to what direction you’d be taking?
Well, it wasn’t ever going to be like a strong concept record, or anything like that. We definitely had this idea of keeping the album quite concise, so we decided quite early on to have just ten songs on the record. And also to be a little bit less range-y in our musical mood. Made In The Dark [Hot Chip’s third album] is still a record that I really like, but I think it was quite confusing to some people. A third of it was slow-ish, introspective music, and then two-thirds of it was quite balls-out dance or rock music. So we decided to reduce those extremes.
You’ve reined in some of the more overt wackiness, I suppose.
Yeah. There are still some songs that have that kind of lightness of touch to them. A song like Brothers isn’t some sort of wacky comedy record, but it’s still got that kind of lightness. It’s probably the wrong word to use, but it does seem like a sort of music hall song.
We Have Love is also very stylistically diverse. You’ve got all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, but it still feels logical. It has quite an emotional vocal delivery, but you’ve also got these pitch-shifted chipmunk voices, and vocal cut-ups, and you’ve even thrown in an organ break for good measure. So there’s a sense that you’re still having fun experimenting, but in a very clear direction.
That was a funny one. That was actually the one I was trying to remember. There’s a kind of end-of-the-pier style organ in it, which was quite strange, and then the rest of the song is quite heavily influenced by current UK dance music, like this funky house movement that’s around at the moment. So there are these big bouncy basslines. Joe’s a big fan, so he was keen to reference a few of those things.
You’ve drafted in some guest drummers along the way. There’s a steel pan guy called Fimber Bravo, who crops up all the way through the album. How did that come about?
He’s somebody that we worked with before. He did the steel pans when we recorded a cover of Joy Division’s Transmission, about a year and a half ago. He’s actually one of the most in-demand steel players; he’s played with Brian Eno, and he’s been on the scene for many years. So we had him in for a couple of days, and we’ve ended up doing a little bit of production work with him on some of his own stuff as well.
And then we played with Charles Hayward, who is the drummer from a band called This Heat.
I’m amazed that anyone remembers This Heat; I’d not heard anything from them for years, so where did you dig him up from?
Alexis, how did you meet Charles?
Alexis Taylor: I went to watch him play once, and the gig was cancelled. He was standing outside the venue, saying that the gig had been cancelled, because the venue had been destroyed. And I just said, oh, I came to see your gig! (Laughter)
Alexis has actually been playing with him in his own side-project band, called About. He’s been to a couple of gigs since then, and we had a great day with him. The drum sessions were just one day with each drummer, so we had to really cram it in. He’s got an amazing kit that he’s built up over the years. It sounds very particular and he sets it up in his own particular way. He’s an amazing musician; he’s capable of doing extremely straight stuff, really powerfully played, but he’s also capable of doing incredibly rhythmically complex things.
And then the third person was Leo Taylor, [drummer from The Invisible], who played live with us for a whole year prior to working on this record, so we were very used to playing with him. Again, he’s a very technically proficient drummer.
Are any of them going to come out on tour with you?
Well, we’ve actually gone for a third option, which is a guy called Rob Smoughton. He’s actually the original drummer in Hot Chip, and he now has a solo project under the name Grosvenor which we’ve been championing for a good few years. We’ve asked him many times when we’ve gone on tour if he’ll drum with us, and he’s always not been available, but this time he is.
Have you played any of the new songs live yet?
The only one is Alley Cats. That’s actually changed quite radically from what it was – so no, we haven’t played any of the new songs. In fact, that’s the funny thing about the way that we go about recording. We couldn’t play any of the songs until (last month), because they weren’t recorded in that way, if you know what I mean. We’ve actually got to re-learn all of the songs. When they’re recorded, we’re recording track-by-track, and also a lot of the time we’ll be using instruments in the studio that you won’t necessarily want to take out on the road, like old analogue synths that aren’t very stable. And working out how to do all the percussion, and that kind of stuff live, is totally different.
So that could potentially take the songs in different directions?
Yeah, everything’s a little more stripped back and a little more raw and powerful, and I’ve had to learn how to play the steel pans.
I’m glad they’re getting an outing. That fits in well with your UK Funky influences, because there’s that kind of soca element to the percussion.
Yeah, definitely. They’re fun to play.
But you haven’t completely left behind references to Eighties synth-pop, either. During the first track, Thieves In The Night, I kept hearing a bit of the chord sequence of Visage’s Fade To Grey.
I think in retrospect, if you had to say something about the album, it is relatively Eighties; there’s a lot of arpeggiated synths.
I link that more with Nineties dance, actually.
Yeah, maybe, but maybe I’m thinking more of (Giorgio) Moroder, and Italo-Disco.
The Eighties revival never went away for the whole of the last decade, but it seemed to come to a head commercially last year. There was an awful lot of it about in terms of chart pop. Do you feel any sort of connection with what’s been going on there?
I think there’s a big difference between being influenced by bands that happen to be in the Eighties, and sort of “cod” Eighties, when you’re deliberately trying to label your sound in that way. There are bands we like that span the decades, like Joy Division and New Order, and then into Brian Eno and Talking Heads, that have always combined synthesisers with guitars. Or even something like Leonard Cohen, who uses a lot of synthesisers. An album like I’m Your Man is incredibly Eighties, but it’s also its own thing; you can’t reduce it to being that label, if you know what I mean. So we never felt as though we wanted to be some kind of retro band.
There’s an emotional warmth in there, which I think sets it apart, and I think that’s maybe the quality I’ve picked up on most. A lot of it is quite uplifting and positive and joyful, but it’s also quite plaintive and yearning at the same time.
There’s a stability that’s come from being married and having houses and families and that kind of thing, and being the age that we are – which is not tremendously old, but it’s still older than a lot of the young kids that are coming through. And so automatically we’re not going to be talking about going out and partying; it just wouldn’t make sense to do that. But at the same time, we’re still in the business of making pop music, so it’s got to feel like a bit of a party somehow.
Even before we’d written the record, Joe was saying that he would quite like to make an album of end of the night songs, which is quite a good way of thinking about it. Songs that aren’t necessarily quite as upfront as something like Ready For The Floor or Over And Over from the previous albums, but have that kind of euphoric sensation that you might get from finishing a big night.
The way that the tracks have been sequenced, that would certainly fit. The more euphoric, upbeat stuff tends to be more in the first half of the album. Then Slush is your big ballad, and then there’s a kind of a wind-down that goes from there. So you could put it on when your feet are still twitching a bit.
Well, that’s just the major label front-loading making it like that! (Laughs) But we wanted it to be that as well.
Photo by SteveB
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.
You’ve had an interesting ride this year. Right at the start of the year, when fewer people were aware of you, you were on a big arena tour with Keane. Did you scale up comfortably to the demands of an arena?
I learnt a lot from that tour. The biggest lesson that I learnt was to not get really drunk in Manchester the weekend before, and then not being able to sing for half of the tour. I got ill. But I was very unhappy throughout, due to the amount of things that I had to throw myself into for the first time. I’m not one of those people who bodes well with throwing myself into new situations.
Then you went to the opposite extreme. You did the “Live and Lost” tour, where you went round the country with 20 quid in your back pocket, relying on the kindness of fans. Was that a good experience?
It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I didn’t realise it at the time, due to the fact that I hated it. I was ill with tonsillitis, and it knocked me completely sideways. But it was amazing to see people come together for a common cause, and it was very humbling. I’m not just being schmaltzy, it really was. It was a rather bizarre idea that was brought to the table by the record label. I really didn’t want to do it, but I’m glad I did.
So there was a process of forging closer links with members of your audience than most artists would experience?
The conclusion I came to was like this. Everyone nowadays owns a digital camera, but no one seems to put their photographs into print these days. I was taking my digital friends and bringing them into the reality of a print, by meeting them and engaging with them on a human level. The internet is such an un-human thing in so many ways, and it does deteriorate our social ability to communicate with people in ways that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. So I was trying to take things back to a very real place. Throwing myself into some rather bizarre situations with complete strangers is always going to create a lot of exciting human interactions.
Now that period is over, do you continue to engage directly with your fans?
I engage in conversations. I end up in relationships with some of them. There’s no real boundaries, due to the fact that I’ve always seen myself as the same as anyone else. I would never want to put myself on a pedestal, or separate myself from anyone with the job that I do. I don’t think it’s right.
Having looked through your press clippings, I’ve rarely seen such a polarised reaction to one artist. People think you’re either the future of pop, or the living embodiment of everything that’s wrong with pop, and there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot in the middle. How do you deal with that?
As Oscar Wilde once said, I would rather weigh my press than read it. It doesn’t matter how much press there is, as long as there’s lots of it. Answering your point on the polarised opinion, I feel that it’s better to be somewhere of an extreme than somewhere very averagely in the middle. The NME review gave me one star, which was a horrific journalist writing these horrible things about me. I found that journalist’s old band, and it was the biggest load of crap I’d ever heard in my life. It’s just people’s opinions. I didn’t start making music because I cared about what anyone thought, so I should carry on that way.
How do you feel about attempts to label you as part of an Eighties synth-pop revival, along with artists such as Little Boots and La Roux?
I hate feeling like I’m the only intelligent person on this fucking planet sometimes. If people actually looked a little bit deeper, they would realise that La Roux, Victoria Hesketh [aka Little Boots] and myself are all pretty much of the same age. We all grew up in the Eighties, and we have a very idealised view of Eighties music – without having a social or political attachment, which you guys would have remembered. We have taken the influence of the Eighties, which is what we grew up with, and put it in our sound, due to the fact that’s probably what impacted us the most. It’s just the same as the Kooks or any other band looking back to the Sixties – to do Beatles music basically, but no one really says that. Indie music is the Sixties and Seventies revival, but synth-pop has got such a character to it, that it’s very easily associated.
As someone who does remember Eighties synth-pop from the first time round, I’m curious as to which aspects people of your generation choose to revive. To me, it’s interesting to see you twist it in new ways. I remember glam-rockers in the Seventies being criticised for supposedly ripping off Fifties rock and roll, and so it goes on. But if you’re younger, you don’t get weighed down by this whole idea that it’s revivalist.
Exactly. There’s a journalist called Paul Morley who did a very interesting article about me, and he kind of summed up all of us, to some degree. We don’t have the weight or the history attached to us, which older people would have had remembering the Eighties – from Thatcherism to anything else. We take the music videos, we take the music, and we don’t really go any deeper than that. We make our own interpretations. But I wouldn’t say that I was ever trying to re-affirm nostalgia. There’s a fine line between being nostalgic, and just using something as an inspiration.
I’m a bit confused by what your next single is going to be. Is it Time Will Tell, or is it Three Little Words again?
Do you want to know what my next single is? There isn’t one. I spoke to the label, and I told them I didn’t want to do any more singles from this album. I just wanted to move straight on to the next album, while I still felt like I wanted to. You can promote and promote a record until it’s dead, but I feel like I would be flogging a dead horse. Why not just say: that record did well, let’s move on, get another record out for very early next year, and just keep on being fresh. You need to be fresh in this day and age. You don’t have time to wait around. I’m moving straight on.
Your first album (Complete Me) is highly personal, in that it dealt with the disintegration and break-up of a relationship. So you wouldn’t want to be trapped for too long, reliving experiences that you’ve probably moved on from.
You’re actually the first person to say that to me – not just as a journalist, but in general – and you’re very right. I would like to write a whole new album that is moved on from that experience. I don’t really want to write about relationships for a while. I don’t want to write about anything to do with love, to some degree.
Well, how the hell are you going to get a date? Because they’re going to think: oh, I’m gonna be album number two.
Well that’s what’s happened, yeah. That has happened. That’s why I’m moving to Los Angeles, where I’m not so known. (Laughs)
Oh God, really? Well, that’s one way of dealing with it.
Yeah, I think it’s a pretty good way. And I’ll get a suntan at the same time.
Do you have an idea of what the next lot of material is going to address? Are you going to go for a unified theme, in the same way as Complete Me?
No. I had a lot to prove to myself on the first record. I wanted to produce and write the whole thing myself. I had additional help from a few other people on production, but every single word was written by me. On this next album, I don’t want it to be so personal. Some will say that I’m selling out, but I will say that I’m liberating myself. I want to be able to write a record that isn’t so tied down – and I haven’t got anything else to write about from my personal life. I don’t want to write about that. I want to have something to hold back. So I’m going to be working with some writers, and collaborating a bit more. The next record is going to be very different. It’s going to be even more pop than this album. So it’s a different way of doing things. You’ve got keep on keeping everybody guessing.
As to who you might be collaborating with, are there any names you can drop?
I’m going to try and get Tinchy Stryder on the record, because we’re old friends. I’m going to try a couple of other people, such as Sophie Ellis Bextor and Taio Cruz. Taio is someone I’ve started to become friends with this year, and it would be great to collaborate with him. We’ve got a shared friend who is a producer, who I think will want to work on a track with us. And I want to work with some American artists as well.
Any remix projects on the go? I’ve got Alexandra Burke’s name scribbled down here, and I can’t remember why.
I was supposed to do some writing for her, but since the time we were supposed to speak, [I decided that] I didn’t want to write for anyone else. I needed to write for myself. I’m working with an up and coming artist called Ellie Goulding, who is a really talented songwriter. And there’s another guy called Starsmith who’s going to be coming on tour with me. I don’t want to work with big names because they’re big names. I want to work with people who excite me and interest me.
And you were involved with a charity single for War Child?
It was a mixture, a mish-mash of artists – from Pixie Lott to N-Dubz and myself. It’s the Killers song: I Got Soul (But I’m Not A Soldier) [aka All These Things That I’ve Done]. We performed it at the MOBOs. It was a great experience. To be honest with you, I had no idea what it was all about until after I’d done the recording. I’m not gonna lie! But it’s an amazing charity. I don’t really pay much heed to charities, due to the fact that I only associate them with very annoying people in the street with clipboards, and those painfully schmaltzy adverts you get on TV. But War Child is something that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.
2009 must have been a pretty momentous year, all things considered. A year of great changes, I would imagine. Is there one particular highlight?
Getting to the end of 2009 with my head still screwed on. To be honest, you’re on autopilot when you do this. You can never really know what to expect. Any expectations you have on something is bollocks. It will never be what you think it is. But I think the biggest highlight for me is 2009 as a whole. So many things happened, and it’s a huge bookmark in my life. I’m sure I haven’t absorbed even a fraction of what’s happened this past year. I’ll probably look back in ten years, and it will start to make some sort of sense. But as a whole, it’s just been a bloody great year, and I hope that I have many more to come.
What do you think you’ve learned about yourself along the way?
Not to worry so much. To take control of situations when you really have to, but to let people do their jobs to their furthest potential, without getting in the way. I don’t trust anyone generally, but I feel that it’s driving me slightly crazy, trying to be in control of everything at all times. It’s impossible. And the other thing I’ve learnt is to not have a girlfriend, until I stop being a musician.
Well, I wish you well in your newly monastic existence in Los Angeles.
I’m looking forward to it!