Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
“I’m just a little moaning arse-fart, blowing smoke.” On an album which takes pot-shots at everyone from Cameron and Johnson to Brand and Blur, it only seems fair that Jason Williamson should turn on himself for a moment – but there’s more to Key Markets, the fifth Sleaford Mods album in three years, than mere scattergun abuse.
Lyrically more abstract than its predecessors, it’s also more varied in pace and mood, adding new colours to the palette. The opening two tracks, Live Tonight and No One’s Bothered, stick closest to what you’d expect – lairy chants, punk rock riffs – but elsewhere, we’re on shifting ground.
Silly Me nudges towards clumsy funk; Arabia wrong-foots you with awkward off-beats; Tarantula Deadly Cargo is a menacing, loose-limbed rumble, with an unfathomably surreal storyline. There’s seething rage on Face To Faces (“this daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful, it’s completely accepted by the vast majority”), but by the halfway mark on Side Two, Jason’s despair has taken a morose, almost defeated turn.
On the brooding, atmospheric Rupert’s Trousers, he takes weary aim at the Chipping Norton set, intoning mournfully over Andrew Fearn’s bleak, PiL-style dub tones. It’s followed by the staccato death-rattle of Giddy On The Ciggies, which gradually gathers steam, marshalling a final blast of fractured fury before ebbing away into hollow, wordless beats.
Hearteningly free of any concessions towards their new-found semi-fame (“we don’t want radio play, we’re not fucking Cannon and Ball”), Key Markets signals that Sleaford Mods are in for the long haul.
Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
In the three years since Souvaris played their farewell gig, three of its former members have forged a new path as Cantaloupe, developing a brighter, sunnier, more synth-based retro-futurist sound. On this, their debut album as a trio, we find them steering away from the tricky time signatures of old, and heading towards a more streamlined approach.
In another break from tradition, vocalists have been enlisted on three tracks. (One of them, Eleanor Lee, has since joined the full-time line-up.) But although it’s interesting to hear the band shaping their arrangements around traditional song structures (with stylistic nods towards Stereoloab, Chromeo and Broadcast), it’s on the instrumental cuts that Cantaloupe’s unique qualities fully come into their own.
On Big Kiss and Ian Whitehead, which open and close the album, they’re at their most assertively optimistic, as primary coloured, shape-shifting blocks of sound shimmer, clatter and rumble, evoking memories of late Sixties/early Seventies TV themes or public information films.
Named after a dodgy Nineties chatline, 0891 50 50 50 offers a thrilling excursion into early Eighties Hi-NRG and electro-funk, slapping a Bobby Orlando donk under Patrick Cowley synths. Placed at the start of Side Two, it’s the album’s most overtly dancefloor-friendly moment.
Between these energy peaks, the mood dips into calmer waters, but without ever losing that core sense of restless forward motion; in Cantaloupe’s world, nothing stays still for long, and there’s always a new twist waiting around the corner. Intricate and complex, yet instant and accessible, Zoetrope radiates joy and wonder throughout.
Originally published in Pride Life magazine.
A few years ago, Indiana found herself with an upright piano, left for storage by her sister. Undeterred by lack of training, she taught herself to play, uploading home-made clips to YouTube. A moody, stripped down cover of Joe Goddard’s club hit Gabriel attracted the attention of its composer, John Beck, and the pair started collaborating. In April 2012, the singer made her live début, gaining instant acclaim for her emotionally charged brand of leftfield electronic pop.
Just over a year later, Indiana performed David Bowie’s Heroes in front of the Queen, in Radio One’s Live Lounge. Since the song contained the potentially treasonous line “I will be Queen”, its lyrics needed prior vetting – to “Queen-proof it”, as she puts it.
“First of all, her people said: we’re going to make her change the words. Then they spoke to the Queen, and she said: no, it’s fine, just don’t look at me. The thing is, I was so conscious not to look at her, that my eyes were darting round the room, and they hit her a couple of times. So I did actually look at her when I sang the line!”
Earlier this year, Indiana charted with Solo Dancing, whose video was stuffed with visual puns for more intimate types of solo activity. (Beans were flicked, chains were yanked, cats were stroked: you get the picture.) “I go dancing by myself, I go dancing with no one else”, she sang, over a steadily throbbing synth pulse.
“The song is about empowerment”, she says. “It can be a metaphor for anything: to be comfortable in your own skin, and to be able to do something on your own.” For a gay audience, the song could be taken more literally; after all, many of us are no strangers to lone-wolfing it on the dancefloor. “I’d love to have the confidence to go out dancing on my own”, she admits. “I think that whoever’s got the balls to do that, has got the biggest balls!”
No stranger to the gay scene herself, Indiana was introduced to the bars and clubs of Brighton by her late uncle. “He was also a music producer. And on his deathbed, he said to my sister, who was into music – singing, piano lessons, gigging, writing, everything – ‘you’d better watch her, because she’s going to be nipping on your heels’. I didn’t even realise I wanted to be a musician then. So he always knew that I had something in me.”
In the video for current single Heart On Fire, Indiana stars alongside Charlie Bewley, best known for playing the vampire Demetri in the Twilight Saga series. (“He’s the director’s friend, so I got him for a steal.”) As the story unfolds, we see her “acting like a sweet girl, whereas I am in fact a powerful woman in a powerful position”. By the end of the video, she is revealed as an undercover drug enforcement officer, who has persuaded Bewley to set up his dealer friend in a sting operation. The theme of the story – that all is not what it seems – is explored further on Indiana’s début album, No Romeo.
“On the surface, the songs could be interpreted as love songs or just pop songs, but if you delve a little deeper, each one has a meaning that’s more sinister. Each time I write, I always have to have, for some reason, a sinister take on everything.”
Unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo, who finds true love but is ultimately destroyed by it, Indiana finds only tainted love, and yet she survives. Even at her most vengeful – “all your sons and daughters will be broken, from now on and ever more”, she pledges on Never Born, the opening track – you sense an underlying vulnerability, and even in her most vulnerable moments, her core strength never fully deserts her. On Bound, she uses S&M imagery to trace a journey from submission to dominance (“this isn’t love, this is dangerous”), while on the album’s title track, she spurns the whole idea of romantic love: “I don’t need no Romeo… it’s not enough, it’s alright, but I’m sleeping on my own tonight”.
A happily settled mother of two in real life, Indiana warns against interpreting her songs too literally. “They’re not all necessarily about relationships”, she suggests. “I like to tell stories, but I do draw on experiences and refer to them in songs.” In conversation, she is cheerful, straightforward, and quick to laugh, but any suggestion that “Indiana” is an invented persona is firmly rebuffed.
“I don’t feel I have to step into any shoes. I create songs to say things I never would, but I am Indiana. My mum says I have an interview voice. She says I sound more sensible, whereas in my own environment, I am a whirlwind of things going on inside my head. My dark side is channelled into my music, and I’m thankful that I have my music, so that I’m not out on killing sprees!”
Kagoule as the support, eh? Aargh, just my luck. The last time I saw them play – Lacehouse basement, December 2013, an “in the round” set which placed us inches from their speakers – the experience left my ears ringing for weeks. Since then – and please, I mean to cast no slurs upon Kagoule’s art – I’ve not been able to hear them without suffering some sort of psychosomatic relapse. Yeah, it’s been an issue.
They start with Monarchy, their oldest song. Singer/guitarist Cai Burns wrote it five years ago, aged fourteen. A couple of years later, the trio broke through with the uncharacteristically lilting Made of Concrete, won a contest to play Rock City, and signed to Denizen. For a while, they seemed shackled to another new band, Kappa Gamma: similar age, same Rock City contest, same label, even the same initial letters. Kappa Gamma have since dipped from view, but Kagoule have been slowly stepping up. They’re on Earache now, and Gush, their debut single for the label, came out at the end of last year.
They may not be as noisy as the average Earache act, but Kagoule are still a good fit. For a teenage act, they’re more in thrall than most to the alt-rock boom of over twenty years ago – Fugazi, Unwound, the Pumpkins – so their place on the veteran label’s roster somehow underlines that lineage.
I’ve seen this band many times over the past few years. They’re less doleful these days, and they’ve grown bolder, spikier, more sardonic. The newer songs take more twists and turns. I was expecting them to have grown heavier and doomier, but mercifully that hasn’t happened. We only need one Swans.
They still play Made of Concrete, Lawrence English is still an uncommonly fine drummer – the glue that binds the band together – and bassist Lucy Hatter still has that song where she sheds her mask of inscrutability and starts screaming seven shades of hell. They’ve played stronger sets than this – Lucy has monitor problems, Cai vows never to use his guitar again – but on a big night at a sold-out Rescue Rooms, they feel like the right band at the right time.
It’s been nearly two years since I last saw Sleaford Mods: upstairs at the same venue, supporting I Am Lono, their second album as a duo (Austerity Dogs) just out. A few months earlier (to re-phrase John Cooper Clarke, an act they are often compared to but sound nothing like), its predecessor (Wank) had soured the mood of the newly self-celebratory Nottingham music scene like a fart at a birthday party. Whether born of righteous outrage or plain old trolling, its parochial pot-shots hit the mark, finding favour on the fringes and – against the odds – drawing the duo towards the spotlight, pariahs no more.
Side Two of Austerity Dogs was more or less a vinyl reissue of Wank, but with Side One, you sensed a widening of the net, a broadening of the scope, and a gathering focus for the fury. Jason Williamson had been ranting over loops on tiny stages for years, but Andrew Fearn’s arrival added vital new ingredients: a shared mindset, the right beats, the perfect onstage foil.
Two years, two more albums, countless limited edition singles, hundreds of gigs, an unexpectedly devoted pan-European fanbase, a hardback book, reams of column inches, a Guardian editorial, a fistful of placings on year-end critics’ lists and a smattering of press spats with UK rock royalty later, the Mods have returned in triumph, selling out the Rescue Rooms and earning a heroes’ welcome – however belated some of those welcomes might be.
Their return might be triumphant, but it’s anything but triumphalist. If anything, Williamson looks nervier these days: his movements more staccato, his demeanour less arrogant hard-man, his stage positioning more side-angled than head-on. Has all this acclaim humbled him? It’s a viable possibility.
He has developed a new tic, constantly flicking the back of his head in a singular, changeless manoeuvre. There are other tics, more sparingly deployed: puckered kisses, cheeky tit-squeezes, belly-flashing shirt-flicks, regal waves to the gallery. They ape the moves of a narcissistic rock star, but with an off-kilter, truncated timing that renders them as arch performance art. Beside him, Fearn does his usual: pressing play on a stool-mounted laptop, chugging bottled lagers, grinning, shuffling, mouthing along with key lines, the Yang to Jason’s Yin.
They’re on for exactly an hour, counting the encore. I’m told the atmosphere is less intense than at the last headline show at Spankys. Barring a few diehards down the front, this set of punters remains largely stock still, but they’re no less appreciative. A lot of scenester faces from, ahem, “back in the day” are here, dotted around the edges. Better late than never, right?
They open with Bunch of Cunts, from the latest EP. As opening salvos go, it couldn’t be more perfect. The energy levels rise for Jolly Fucker (“elitist hippies, arrogant cunts, Ian Beale tight trunks”), and they rise again for McFlurry (“I got a Brit Award! I got a Brit Award!”). By the time we get to the double sucker punch of Jobseeker and Tied Up In Nottz (“Hello Derby!”), the room is on fire.
Unlike their recorded versions, tracks have a habit of ending with repeated chants. “Smash the fucking windows!” brings Tied Up In Nottz to its climax, and “sack the fucking manager!” shuts Fizzy down. Dedicated to managers everywhere, Fizzy hits a special nerve. Most of us have worked for a “cunt with the gut and the Buzz Lightyear haircut, calling all the workers plebs”, and so has Jason – until a few months ago, when his rising fortunes as a Sleaford Mod enabled him to quit his day job with the council. It must have been the sweetest of victories.
Doubtless mindful of his captive audience, Jason gets Andrew to cue up an unscheduled track from Wank. Inspired by LeftLion’s 2011 music scene cover shoot at Rock City, Showboat blasts the hometown posers and careerists. “I heard the rule was: move to London. I heard the monkeys get the train. I ain’t a showboat, but you are, and I’ll die laughing my tits off in your face.” It’s the nearest we get to a “how d’you like me now, suckers?” moment.
Pubic Hair Ltd deals another kiss-off, this time to the Wellers and Gallaghers of this world. “Who gives a fuck about yesterday’s heroes… it’s not a pyramid, you’re not a fucking Pharaoh.” The Wage Don’t Fit closes the main set, then they’re back for three more. Fearn hands one of his beers to the front row, and Tweet Tweet Tweet ends the hour on the highest of highs.
Rock City next, then? There seems no reason not to.
Set list: Bunch of Cunts, Middle Men, Jolly Fucker, A Little Ditty, McFlurry, The Demon, Jobseeker, Tied Up in Nottz, Routine Dean, Tiswas, Fizzy, Under the Plastic and N.C.T., Showboat, Pubic Hair Ltd, The Wage Don’t Fit, 6 Horsemen (The Brixtons), Five Pound Sixty, Tweet Tweet Tweet.
Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
“These may appear to be love songs but look closer, chip away their exterior beauty and reveal an inner darkness. I am No Romeo.” With these words, Indiana defines the central theme of her début album, which folds twisted takes on love, loss, betrayal, revenge and regret into sinister, icy, leftfield electronic pop.
Unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo, who finds true love but is ultimately destroyed by it, Indiana finds only tainted love, and yet she survives. Even at her most vengeful – “all your sons and daughters will be broken, from now on and ever more”, she pledges on Never Born, the opening track – you sense an underlying vulnerability, and even in her most vulnerable moments, her power never fully fades.
On the cavernous, gothic Play Dead, she could be Juliet, feigning death as a coping strategy. On Bound, she traces a journey from submission to dominance in a way that hints at sado-masochism (“this isn’t love, this is dangerous”), while on the title track, she spurns the whole idea of romantic love: “I don’t need no Romeo… it’s not enough, but it’s alright, I’m sleeping on my own tonight”.
Only The Lonely buries an uplifting dance anthem under six feet of soil; Heart On Fire subverts the headrush of falling in love, casting it as a perilous act, like jumping off a tall building. Finally, Mess Around ends the journey with a ghoulish resurrection and a deadly re-embrace: “Your suffering completes me, I’ll take no more, I want no less.”
This tiny room with perfect sound and a clued-up crowd has a track record of spotting some of the best up-and-coming bands – including the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters.
Who plays there: The Bodega has a remarkable knack for catching acts before they make it big: the Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Scissor Sisters, Bloc Party, the Libertines, MGMT, the National, Mumford & Sons, Snow Patrol and Haim, Clean Bandit and the 1975 have all played here. The run-up to Christmas this year brings Eagulls, Circa Waves, Thurston Moore, Marika Hackman and many more. There are several shows a week.
If the Hockley Hustle was Glastonbury, Nottingham Contemporary would be its Pyramid Stage. Dean Jackson and the BBC Introducing team have bagged a cracking line-up – including Harleighblu, Amber Run, Georgie and The Gorgeous Chans – and even at the start of the day, I find myself suppressing a rogue urge to park my lazy arse in The Space for the duration.
My Hustle odyssey duly begins here, with a long-awaited first chance to witness April Towers, a synth-pop duo who variously remind our little group of OMD, New Order and Hurts. April Towers have a knack for constructing sturdily chugging, dance-friendly tracks which surge into soaring, hooky choruses – not least on Arcadia, their imminent début single. All they need now are a couple of numbers which offer more of a contrast, in terms of rhythm and tempo.
There’s another strong bill at Antenna, at the opposite end of the festival. It’s a fair old trudge, but as my Glastonbury-hardened pals point out, it’s a mere stroll when compared to the trek between the Pyramid and Other stages. We’re here to see Ashmore, backed by his new band Unknown Era, but we also manage to catch the end of Captain Dangerous’s set; they’ll be performing again at the JamCafé later on.
The atmosphere at Antenna feels a bit weird: more like a TV studio than a gig venue, and focussed more on the Notts TV cameras than the seated audience behind them. The stage is hosted by Al Needham, who has been shunted onto a sofa in a far-flung corner, his introductions and interviews performed to cameras instead of punters. During his interview with Captain Dangerous, clipboard-wielding apparatchiks stalk the floor, shushing anyone who talks above a whisper. During Ashmore’s set, our view is obscured by a central column, and by a camera crew whose wheeled rig constantly trundles back and forth at the front of the stage. Still, the images on the monitor screens look most professional, and the event is sure to make good TV viewing.
In a departure from the gypsy jazz-tinged acoustic hip hop which first made his name, Ashmore’s sound has been fleshed out by the addition of electric guitars, bass and cajón, adding rock’s wallop and reggae’s lilt to familiar songs such as Misfit and My Town. It’s a bold step forward, and a successful one at that.
Signing ourselves out of Antenna – yes, there’s a little book on reception, even today – we emerge into an unexpected shower. With a spare thirty minutes before the next act on our list, we head for the main drag with open minds, ready to dive for shelter in any venue with music emerging from its doors. This does not prove to be an easy mission, as everywhere seems to be in turnaround, preparing for the next act at the top of the hour.
Help arrives on the corner of Stoney Street, as a group of friends on a smoke break usher us into The Corner, where I’m Not From London’s stage is already in full flow, blessed by a packed house. The band are “like Nirvana, but without a singer”, we are promised. “So, the Foo Fighters then?” we quip.
They turn out to be a bracingly intense instrumental trio, with the drummer marooned on stage and the guitarist and bassist lurching about on the main floor. Given the volume level, it takes me a while to establish their name. “Did you say Jay-Z The Pope?” “No, it’s like the bus stops.” “Bus Stop Madonnas? But this lot are blokes!” “I’ll write it down for you.” Oh, JC Decaux. Thank you. The atmosphere here is fantastic, but we have to move on.
In the dank basement of Bambuu, DH Lawrence & the Vaudeville Skiffle Show are the venue’s first live act at the day, over an hour earlier than the printed programme and on a different floor. This probably accounts for the somewhat sparse turn-out – the band themselves claim to recognise almost everyone in attendance – but a relaxed, jokey vibe prevails. The music is equal parts skiffle and bluegrass, with banjos, washboards, big hats, and our second cajón of the day. In a tribute to the band’s Eastwood forefather, Sons and Lovers sets passages from Lawrence’s classic novel to music. We emerge from the gloom with big smiles on our faces.
It’s one out, one in for Josh Wheatley at Boilermaker. With a dozen people ahead of us, we cut our losses and retreat. Where next? Bus Stop Madonnas are due on any minute at The Music Exchange, so we browse the racks and then take the afternoon air, to the strains of a busking duo covering Katy Perry. The expected few minutes stretch into half an hour – the first of several such delays – but we stand firm.
They’re worth the wait, of course. It’s a strange thing, watching rowdy, primitive, spirit-of-77 punk rock from all of three feet away, while an equal number of spectators cluster outside the shop window; clearly, the squall has no problems transmitting through glass. As all persons of taste should be aware, spirit-of-77 punk rock is one of the greatest genres known to humankind, and the two Madonnas serve it up with spirit and aplomb.
Dragging a couple of jazz fans with us, who have been enjoying the bill at Das Kino, we head back to Contemporary for Gallery 47. The last time I saw Jack Peachey perform, he was battling against chatty half-listeners at Jamcafé; this time around, he is blessed with absolute and total attention, from a hearteningly full room.
Doubtless bolstered by his recent European support slots with Paul Weller, Jack steps up to the demands of the larger space, projecting his performance without surrendering its core intimacy. Halfway through the set, he ditches his song list, ceremoniously handing it into the audience, and opts to play whatever takes his fancy. This includes a clutch of unreleased new songs, easily the equals of anything on his current album, and a beautifully understated rendition of All It Could Grow Up To Be, a personal favourite.
Within the prevailing “keep it positive” constraints of Notts music journalism, rave reviews are in danger of becoming devalued currency – but this was simply the finest Gallery 47 set I’ve seen to date, and my artistic highlight of the day. The jazz fans, who had never heard of him before, were mightily impressed; they can’t have been the only instant converts, either.
Time for a complete change of scene. Nirvana and Revolution are the places to be for hip hop and grime, so we descend upon a heaving Revolution, where rap battle league Don’t Flop will be filming the ultimate hometown clash: Youthoracle vs. Bru-C. First brought forward an hour, the battle is then delayed by half an hour. My friends lose patience and peel away – one to Band Of Jackals and the other to 94 Gunships (both reportedly excellent) – but having covered the big Don’t Flop event at the Rescue Rooms earlier in the year for The Guardian, there’s no way that I’m missing this local derby.
They may be the best of friends in real life, but Youth and Bru go in hard against each other. Bru-C mocks his opponent for his nu-metal past and a suspicious fondness for Classic FM; in turn, Youthoracle derides Bru-C’s indie hipster cred and his “relaxed high-top” haircut, and teases him for choking at the Rescue Rooms event. Hush in the room for the unamplified set is hard-won, but the local crowd lap up all the in-jokes and Notts-specific references, roaring their appreciation for the many killer punches. Youthoracle narrowly wins the trophy – but in truth, these were classic, precision-honed, top-of-their-game performances from both MCs alike.
It’s an easy stumble over the road to the LeftLion stage in the Broadway bar, where twinkly soul showman Rob Green is, as ever, charm personified. With a new band and a new set list, he’s on fine form, spreading good vibes across the room. I haven’t seen much dancing until now, but folk are eagerly getting their groove on, and it’s a pleasure to behold.
My middle-aged feet can only take one more act, and that act has to be the newly rebranded, deceased-canine-no-longer D.I.D, back in the reassuring comfort of the Contemporary. Like Rob Green before them, the band play a mostly all-new set, with Two Devils and a concluding Teenage Daughter thrown in as crowd-pleasers. Apart from the greasy blues-rock riff which powers one of the new songs, which will be made available for general consumption very soon, no especially radical re-inventions are unleashed. Instead, we are offered a refinement of the classic D.I.D sound – but it’s no mere rehash, either. The material is strong, well-crafted and instantly appealing, and it all bodes well for the next chapter in the band’s career.
The feet are screaming for relief, and so the odyssey comes to an end. It’s been an extraordinary day: rich in musical diversity and strong on collective goodwill, and all in the name of several charitable good causes. Everyone involved in the planning, promoting, staging and delivery of the event should take immense pride in their achievement.
Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
Lone’s music works best in the hazy heat of high summer, his sun-baked wooziness making an apt soundtrack for indolent, blissed-out afternoons. On his sixth album, there’s a shift away from the more rave-based textures of Galaxy Garden, and a reintroduction of some of the more chilled out, hip hop-derived elements of earlier releases. Downtempo tracks such as the floaty, mellifluous Jaded wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Lemurian, his 2008 release for Dealmaker, while even the housier tracks, of which there are plenty – Aurora Northern Quarter, 2 Is 8 – tend to ebb away into softer codas. On the perkily insistent, pan-pipey Begin To Begin, a voice cuts in: “am I dreaming, am I awake”, encapsulating the liminal mood. By the album’s end, you do sense a depletion of fresh ideas – but taken as an ambient piece, there’s still plenty to tickle the synapses and soothe the soul.
The Rescue Rooms is one of the jewels in the crown of a city that punches above its weight in music venues.
Capacity: 450. Upstairs, a separate performance space (the Red Room) holds 100.
Who plays there: Critically acclaimed bands on their way up, with the odd heritage act or tribute band along the way – the likes of Rudimental, Pere Ubu, Chvrches, John Murry, Fuck Buttons, 65daysofstatic, London Grammar, John Newman, Public Service Broadcasting and Low have appeared in the past year or so.
Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
As Youthoracle’s star continues to rise in the world of battle rap – he co-organised Don’t Flop’s Nottingham showcase in April, battling the league’s reigning champion – this four-track EP serves as a timely reminder of his skills as a recording artist. It’s an outspoken, socially conscious affair, pitting the MC’s fierce and furious flow against tough grime, dubstep and hip hop beats.
Hellectricity is an uncompromising opener, building from a wide-eyed ode to the wonders of nature (“the birds, the bees, the butterflies”) to an ever-accelerating blast of cold fury, so densely packed that only multiple plays will unlock its message. Just Be offers a statement of personal liberation, as Youthoracle asserts his right to be his own man, before laying into the superficialities of celebrity culture on Fake Sells. Finally, and most memorably of all, there’s the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping StoryTeller, a life story laid bare in unsparing, brutal detail.
Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
As the title of her long-awaited début album suggests – it’s a tribute to the legendary Nottingham record store, which closed in 2009 – Ronika is a committed crate-digger, whose journeys through pop music’s past have helped to shape her direction as an artist.
She might not be the first performer to be inspired by the Eighties, but her ability to absorb and reconfigure such a wide range of the era’s key pop-dance styles, with such loving attention to detail, marks her out from the pack.
For committed fans, just over half the tracks on Selectadisc will already be familiar – from 2011’s Forget Yourself to last year’s Rough N Soothe – but there’s plenty of new material here, too. Believe It is a languid, sultry summer jam, staccato stabs punctuate the frisky What’s In Your Bag, and long-time live favourite 1000 Nights mashes Taylor Dayne with Into The Groove, to instantly memorable effect.
“There might be stringent security, but a family atmosphere prevails at Don’t Flop as the likes of Bru-C, Oshea and Ogmios trade a cappella insults in the worst possible taste.”
Outside Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms, the Saturday afternoon queue is edging forwards at a glacial pace. So stringent are the police-imposed security checks – there’s even a temporary ID scanner in the lobby – that it takes over three hours to admit the 500 ticket holders, some of whom have been queuing since mid-morning.
“Nottingham police were very suspicious of a hip hop event of this magnitude”, says Eurgh, co-founder and managing director of Don’t Flop, the rap battle league who have organised today’s event. “When they see this many tickets sold, and they hear the word “battle”, they think of people stabbing each other in the face. But it’s not what it is, and they don’t understand.”
Inside the venue, the day’s first pair of battlers, Bru-C from Nottingham and Pamflit from Manchester, are chatting amiably at the bar. Four days ago, Bru-C’s original opponent dropped out, demolishing weeks of preparation; like all contestants, he researches exhaustively, reviewing old battles and tailoring every bar for maximum personal damage. Rebuilding his routine from scratch has stretched him to the limit, but he’s hiding his nerves well.
By half past four, the main room is packed and the Don’t Flop entourage – battlers and their supporters, camera crew, assorted hangers-on – are drifting onto the stage, like teachers at an assembly. None of today’s six battles will be judged, so a relaxed atmosphere prevails. As ever, each clash will be filmed for YouTube, and performed acapella; beats were largely banished years ago, for the sake of vocal clarity.
A shorter version of this interview was originally published in LeftLion magazine.
Due out on April 20th, Solo Dancing will be Indiana’s fourth release for Sony, following last year’s Bound, Smoking Gun and Mess Around. Premiered on Radio One as Zane Lowe’s “hottest record in the world right now”, championed by Popjustice as “something very special indeed”, and blogged into the Number One slot on the influential Hype Machine aggregator chart, it’s already her most talked about single to date, and potentially her breakthrough track.
“I wasn’t expecting it”, she tells me. “I was hoping that something would break through, because everything [to date] has been OK with radio and stuff, but nothing has started off as well as this one. So I am quite excited about it.”
In a marked departure from Indiana’s previous videos, the Solo Dancing video is intentionally funny, and stuffed full with visual puns for an altogether more intimate type of solo activity: beans are flicked, chains are yanked, pussies are stroked, you get the picture. It’s not what you might call a typical Indiana vibe, to say the least.
“This is actually the first video that I haven’t had anything do with, [in terms of] the writing or directing”, she admits. “I took a step back from all of that, and let Sony get some directors in, and they thought up this concept. So I, er… I went along with it. “
She’s sounding a little cautious, a little hesitant. Did she maybe worry that the video was cheapening the art? “Um, yeah, kind of. I was a little apprehensive. But I said I’m never gonna put out there, what it’s about. Some people don’t get it, some people think it’s just weird, and I’m happy with that. The weirder the better, with me. I’d rather be referred to as odd than normal. So those kinds of comments are cool. It’s good to get people talking, in any sense.”
“The song is about empowerment”, she explains. “It’s not necessarily going out dancing. It can be a metaphor for anything: just to be comfortable in your own skin, and to be able to do something on your own. So it’s not about what the actual video is about!”
In reality, Indiana has never turned up to a club by herself. “I’ve probably ended up being on my own”, she laughs, “but I’ve never set out on my own. I used to [go clubbing] a lot, and I do enjoy it when I do get a chance to go out, but I’m not really a clubby kind of girl now. I like going out and watching a band, having a few beers and socialising.”
Although Solo Dancing is her most uptempo track to date, “it’s not a dance BPM – it’s only 109 – so you’d maybe dance uncomfortably to it. It’s a good head-bobber, I think. But I have enjoyed writing a bit more uptempo than I normally am. I like to think the lyrics are intelligent, but they’re not as deep as I would often go, like Animal or Mess Around.”
Despite her fondness for lyrical darkness, which tends to explore the more dysfunctional aspects of relationships – betrayal and vengeance, addiction and co-dependence – Indiana is actually a happily settled mother of two, whose personal circumstances appear to contradict her subject matter. So where does this darkness come from?
“They’re not all necessarily about relationships “, she suggests. “I like to tell stories, and most of them are not true to facts, but I do draw on some experiences and refer to them in songs. I like to put on my story-telling hat; I think it’s more entertaining than ‘girl loves boy’ or ‘boy doesn’t love girl’. And I probably don’t come across as it, but I am quite a dark person, and the darker things interest me – so that comes across in my music.”
In terms of the songwriting process, Indiana favours an evolutionary approach. “It takes a lot for me to say, OK, that’s finished, because I keep going back, taking things out and putting things in. Lyrically, I take more time than some songwriters that I know, because I like to research and think of other words. I like to use a thesaurus, to use words that people wouldn’t often hear in songs. So I do take my time writing and producing.”
Once the songs have been completed in the studio, they are introduced to the band, whose job it is to reproduce them as faithfully as possible on stage. For Indiana’s headline show at the Bodega in February, we were introduced to a brand new line-up – Angelo on keys and bass, Tim on guitar, Ed on drums – all of whom hail from Nottingham. The geographic closeness works in everybody’s favour, as the previous band “were based in London, and with acoustic nights and live lounges and things that I have coming up, I want people to be able to hop in the car, come round to my house, and have a jam.” At the show, you could already sense a greater degree of engagement between the singer and her musicians. To put it baldly, they felt less like hired hands, and more like an integrated unit, in tune with Indiana’s vision.
Two new songs were premiered that night: Never Born (“a revenge song”) and Shadow Flash, inspired by a move in Mortal Kombat that makes one of the female characters immune to projectiles. Both, in their own ways, offered further representations of strength and empowerment. And although the set list was still short, the track listing for the début album has been steadily edging towards completion.
“I have a lot [of songs], but it’s finding that common thread: having songs that lift you, while other songs are quite deep, and finding that perfect kind of flow. I wanted another one that was a bit more uptempo, like Solo Dancing, and I think I’ve just nailed that. But the label hasn’t heard it yet, so we’ll see! Hopefully they’ll like it! I think once that is done, the album will be complete. I don’t know when it will be released. I might have another single after this one, and then the album, but it changes all the time.”
Inevitably, given the age-old conflict between art and commerce, certain battles have had to be fought with the record company. As an artist who likes to be “quite hands-on with everything” in terms of songwriting, production, video direction and personal styling, Indiana places a high value on retaining overall control, and keeping her operations in-house wherever possible; she is currently designing her album artwork with her boyfriend James, for example.
“I might have developed a little bit of a name for myself, with throwing my toys out of the pram too many times”, she giggles, when questioned about possible diva moments, “but I’ve got really strong opinions on how I think I should be portrayed. I might have been a diva a couple of times – not because I didn’t have all-blue M&Ms, but because I like to have creative control.”
“I think I’m a lot more knowledgeable now”, she continues. “I know a lot more about the music industry, and it’s not all good. There’s a lot that I’ve learnt over the past couple of years. I’ve come a long way. My first gig was only two years ago, and I had no idea what the music industry was about.”
The past two years have been peppered with highlights: a show at Glastonbury, the main stage at Splendour, and most recently a début London gig which “blew me away. I was so scared, because it wasn’t a crowd of fans, like in Nottingham. It was industry people, and they talk; they’re there to socialise, not just to watch me. In Nottingham, they kind of hang on my every word, and it’s really boosted my confidence, I’m like, oh my God, these people actually really like me!”
“So I’ve got that hanging over me, but there was complete silence for Blind As I Am. When I did the big ‘I’m rubbing gold’ bit, they all cheered, and then were silent again – and when I did it again, they cheered and were silent again. I came off, and my whole body was shaking. I felt like someone had spiked my drink. I was like, what’s going on, I can’t believe that, this feels amazing. It was because I’d won them over. I was so scared, just before I walked on. I felt really faint, because I’d been away from the gigging game for a little while, having a baby. So it was a big moment.”
In June 2013, Indiana was selected to perform live in front of the Queen, backed by The Script, for a rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes: a song which contains the potentially treasonous line “I will be Queen”. Naturally, such cheek required some measure of prior vetting.
“They have to read the lyrics, to kind of Queen-proof it. First of all, her people said: we’re going to have to make her change the words, and she’ll sing something else. Then they spoke to the Queen, and she said: no, it’s fine, just don’t look at me. So, then it got back to me: don’t look at the Queen when you sing ‘I will be Queen’. The thing is, when it was coming up to singing that line, I was so conscious not to look at her, that my eyes were darting round the room, and they hit her a couple of times. So I did actually look at her when I sang ‘I will be Queen’!”
What was the first record you bought?
Robbie Williams: Freedom. I was a big Take That fan when I was a little girl.
What was your first gig?
Oasis at Wembley.
Favourite recent single and album?
MS MR – Secondhand Rapture / Lorde – Royals.
If your house was on fire, and you could only save one possession, what would it be?
My MacBook – it’s got all my songs and stuff.
It’s my round at the bar. What are you drinking?
A bottle of beer.
Best holiday destination ever?
I had a really good time in Ibiza when I was 20. (Giggles)
You’re about to get on a plane. Which magazine do you buy from Smiths?
Heat magazine, for my sins – I’m a bit of a gossip mag reader.
Are you a dog person, a cat person, or neither?
Both – I couldn’t decide. I have four cats, and the only reason I don’t have a dog is because my lifestyle won’t let me.
What was your worst fashion mistake ever?
Bleaching the two bits at the front of my hair with toilet bleach.
Which decade had the best music?
Describe yourself in three words.
Creative, odd, dorky.
If you could send a message back to the Indiana of two years ago, what would you tell her?
You’ll never guess what; you’re going to sing for the Queen.
Originally published in the Business section of the Nottingham Post, to accompany an interview with George Akins of DHP Family.
The rising fortune of Nottingham’s music scene has much to teach us about the value of co-operation and collaboration. Shorn of the backbiting cliquishness of former years, a genuine sense of community now prevails, where new talent is welcomed and championed, and the success of more prominent acts sets an inspiring example for emerging artists.
Over the past three years, eight acts have signed to national labels, spanning a wide variety of genres: from Saint Raymond’s catchy indie-rock to Harleighblu’s fresh take on classic soul. During that time, Jake Bugg’s chart-topping success has shone a new light on the city, sending record company A&R teams regularly scuttling up to showcase gigs.
Three years ago, you would have struggled to find a Nottingham act headlining a DHP show. Since then, Dog Is Dead have sold out Rock City, Jake Bugg has headlined the Splendour Festival and filled the Capital FM Arena, and three artists are booked to top the bill at the Rescue Rooms over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, a welcome shift in booking policy has seen countless local acts filling support slots at DHP venues, offering valuable experience of working larger stages.
Further encouragement is provided by the likes of LeftLion magazine, which has noticeably increased its music coverage, and Mark Del’s NUSIC team, who provide podcasts, filmed sessions, workshops and school tours. Over at BBC Radio Nottingham, Dean Jackson has been a stalwart champion of East Midlands talent; thanks to his efforts, Nottingham music has been added to national radio playlists, and represented at the Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals. Elsewhere, an enthusiastic and interconnected network of promoters, venues, studios and independent labels all have their part to play.
Blessed with the imminent arrival of Notts TV, which is sure to give the scene a further significant boost, Nottingham’s thriving music community is both an inspiration, and a source of immense pride.
Capacity: 10,000 standing, 9,300 seated
Who plays there: A-list pop stars: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, Lady Gaga. R&B superstars: Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, Usher. Heritage legends: Elton John, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Status Quo. Festival headliners: Kings of Leon, the Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Elbow. Few acts are too big to play here, although Springsteen, Madonna and the Stones are still beyond its reach.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
For her sold out homecoming show at The Bodega, rescheduled from December due to illness, Indiana brought out a brand new band, making their début performance. Unlike the previous bunch of London-based hired hands, this new line-up hails from Nottingham: Tim on guitar, Ed on drums, Angelo on keyboards and occasional bass. Markedly younger than their predecessors, but every bit as able, they brought fresh vigour and commitment, adding new colours to familiar tunes.
There was something different about Indiana, too. Following the birth of her second child, she recently spent time recording in Los Angeles, and some of that Californian sophistication must have followed her home. Elegant in sleeveless black, she merged rock-chick cool with Hollywood gloss, looking every inch the rising star.
Multi-tracked vocal samples preceded her entrance, as the band established the mood: taut, coiled, menacing, lacing icy synth-pop with a grinding alt-rock crunch. An unreleased track, Never Born, opened the eight-song set, introducing Indiana at her most threatening (“I’m gonna make you wish you were never born”) and defiant (“I will rise up, I will rise up”).
First performed on the same stage 18 months earlier, as a stark piano ballad, Smoking Gun has evolved into a dense, passionate drama, building from wounded vulnerability into steely, vengeful fury. Animal’s sub-bass throbs darkened the mood further, before the synths took over completely on New Heart, pulsing steadily through the track.
A new song, Shadow Flash, showcased the skills of the band to superb effect, with the most sonically adventurous arrangement of the night: a thrilling blend of eerie chirrups, unsettling shouts, metallic whirrs and deep dub tones, augmented by extra percussion and synth brass.
The main set ended with Solo Dancing, the next single, premiered by Radio One’s Zane Lowe a night earlier, and praised by the influential Popjustice website as “something very special indeed”. Notably more uptempo than anything else that Indiana has recorded, this could well turn out to be her breakthrough track.
For the encore, Indiana took things back to basics with an unadorned Blind As I Am, holding the room in rapt silence with an astonishing acapella finish. Recent single Mess Around closed the show in fine style, leaving the singer beaming with exhausted relief; despite struggling with a non-functioning earpiece, she had overcome the obstacle like a true pro.
Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, the set did feel somewhat foreshortened – it would have been good to hear last year’s single Bound, for instance – and between the songs, Indiana’s stage patter could also benefit from some more polish, if she is to connect with crowds away from her home town. That aside, all the other elements – the songs, the arrangements, the presentation, and above all, that towering vocal talent – are fully in place, ready for this local girl to step up to the next level nationally.
Set list: Never Born, Smoking Gun, Animal, New Heart, Shadow Flash, Solo Dancing, Blind As I Am, Mess Around.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.
Named as Don’t Flop‘s 2012 Best Newcomer of the Year, Youthoracle has garnered over half a million YouTube views and was recently invited to Toronto to battle in King Of The Dot World Domination 4. He’s rumoured to be taking on a three-time Don’t Flop champion at the Nottingham event this April…
When preparing for this interview, I was warned it would be hard to find much information about you online, as you don’t want to provide your fellow battlers with material that they can use against you. Do you have to be really cautious in what you say?
Yes, I don’t really bring up anything about my personal life – as much as I’d like to, because obviously music is a way of expressing yourself. I know a lot of people that battle, and they also expose their personal lives in their tracks, and then they moan when it’s brought up against them.
So if you had talked about some tragic childhood experiences, or coming from a broken home, they would have no qualms about going in?
They wouldn’t have qualms about anything. There’s been some really horrible things said, but I do have a limit, as to where I go. I’d never bring up someone’s kids, but people do. I’ve seen a guy pull out a picture of another guy’s son, and stand there, name-calling and saying stuff about his son.
When I watch these battles online – and maybe this is because I’m not so familiar with the whole culture – I can’t completely work out what’s going on. You’re going in really hard against each other on one level, but on another level, it also seems totally friendly. Is the atmosphere there genuinely friendly?
It is, to an extent. There’s a lot of us who are really good friends, but there’s a lot of bad vibes in there as well. You get a lot of people who have feuds with each other, so they usually call those grudge matches. But really it’s just entertainment most of the time.
While your opponent is doing his round, what goes through your mind?
I just try and zone out and not really pay attention to what they’re saying, so I don’t get annoyed by anything. Sometimes they’ll finish their round, and I haven’t listened to anything they’ve said. Usually, I don’t worry too much. Nobody knows anything about me, and I can’t see a way that they would, because I’m a very private person in real life. So there’s no way, unless they’d been stalking me, that they’d know anything about my life.
Is there any scope for picking up what was said in the previous round, and using it there and then? Or is everything pre-prepared?
It’s not all pre-prepared. I’d say 90% of people listen through the whole round and try and pick up on something, so they can flip it, and do a rebuttal. I’ve started to do it recently, but I’m not the strongest freestyler, so I’m very nervous. I get pins and needles down my arms. I’ve literally stood there, feeling like I’m going to cry. So half the time, I don’t really dare do a rebuttal.
If we were sat here and just doing it now, and I was comfortable, I could reel off rebuttals all day. But when there’s a crowd of 600, I don’t want to chance something I haven’t pre-written.
You were recently battling in Toronto. Was that tough in terms of dealing with a different culture, where they’re not going to get your references or your accent?
Yeah, because I’ve got one of the strongest accents in Don’t Flop. Even in England, nobody really understands what I’m saying half the time. I’ve only realised since being in Don’t Flop how strong my accent is. I get pulled up on my accent constantly. I reckon that’s the number one thing that I get done for. In Canada, I didn’t do any British references. I kept my accent, but they didn’t understand a word that I was saying, so my battle didn’t really go that well.
How did you first get involved with Don’t Flop?
My friend Bru-C [MC with The Afterdark Movement] rang me one day, after the Mark Grist & Blizzard battle came out, and he said: watch this battle, it’s a teacher versus a student. [The battle went viral in early 2012, earning nearly 4 million views.] I’d been doing music for a good eight years at the time, but I’d never really done that much, and I was starting to lose the love for it a bit. Bru-C was going to do it, and my little brother was going crazy at me, saying: you need to do it, you’ll do well. But I didn’t want to do it, and I said that I really wasn’t up for it.
Then I went to Bru-C’s first battle, and I realised what that vibe is like: everyone’s actually friends, there’s no bad vibes. That’s when I thought: I’ll do it. So I went up to the organiser, and showed him a few lyrics. He said to me: if Bru-C wins his battle, then you’ve got a try-out, but if he loses, never contact me again, ever. And luckily Bru-C won!
How important is it to win? Does it make a difference to where you go next?
There’s no actual structure or hierarchy, but it does make a big difference. I’ve just beaten an American who’s very big out there; he’s been doing it for about eight years. That means my next battle will be really big. If I lost, it wouldn’t be as good.
With each new battle, does every bar have to be brand new?
You can’t reuse anything at all, but a lot of people use a catchphrase. There’s a guy who says “I’ll bring them bars right back!” at the end of every rhyme, and then the whole crowd shouts it. It is lazy. You only get three minutes [per round] at most, so if you’re going to waste 20 or 30 seconds on doing a catchphrase… I’ve done stuff like that, but only to take the piss.
Are the rhymes always acapella, or is there any scope for doing them with beats?
That’s only on the odd occasion, when we’re trying something out. There used to be, back with 8 Mile and stuff like that, but there’s less chance you’ll flop if you’re off the beat, because acapella you haven’t really got to keep up with anything, it’s all in your own time.
How does the judging work? What are you being judged on?
It depends on the individual, but usually there’s a way of judging it in terms of punch count. With every punchline you hit, or every good metaphor, they can put a mark and tally them up. But I don’t think that’s fair, because one punch could really overtake a whole battle. As soon as you bring something quite personal up about someone, or expose them for something, you’ve won really. Unless they expose you back, or they flip it; that’s the only way you can get out of that situation.
After the Mark Grist versus Blizzard video, the other moment where rap battling went into the public consciousness was with the whole James Arthur debacle. What was your take on that? Was he unfairly treated, or was he an idiot?
At the end of the day, a person in his position shouldn’t be homophobic, really. He can’t do it. That’s what happens when you’re in the mainstream. Whatever we do in Don’t Flop, we’re not at that level, so anything goes. There’s been worse things than homophobia brought up in Don’t Flop.
Some of your own punchlines can sound quite homophobic. As a gay man, should I be concerned?
No, not at all. I’m not homophobic in the slightest. In battles, I don’t feel half of what I say towards someone. It’s just lyrics. It’s just for the crowd reaction. All of us have an understanding at Don’t Flop. There is no homophobia. None of us are homophobic. There’s even a gay battler.
I’ve had loads of racism, and I’ve been really racist in my battles before, as well. I’ve said some really, really bad things. At an event in Birmingham, I went against a mixed race lad, and I said a few things that were quite touching the line. A guy came up to me afterwards and said, you need to watch what you’re fucking saying, and he had a go at me. But this mixed race lad had gone against a black guy before, and used loads of racism towards him. So it was to make the point of: if you’re so comfortable having a go at a black guy, and you’re mixed race, and I’m mixed race myself, then I’ll have a go at you about that.
But in terms of homophobia, one of the battlers, one of our friends, came out about being gay. Then one of the biggest battlers said as long as this gay guy can battle, he’s not battling any more. So Don’t Flop said, fine, don’t battle then. And this battler who’s gay, he isn’t a big battler, he doesn’t get many views, but at the end of the day it’s about the principle. He still battles now, all the time. There’s no actual homophobia or racism, it’s just…
Perhaps it’s like watching a boxing match. You enjoy the match, but you don’t go home and start punching people.
Sometimes, it can go over the top. Two years ago, a lad was against a guy from Liverpool, and he said something about Rhys Jones, the little boy that got killed. That opened up the question of where the line is drawn, because he definitely understood after that. He got death threats, and he still gets death threats now. He can’t really battle outside his city any more. But if you see something in the news, it’s definitely going to get brought up. It’s actually clichéd to say something about Jimmy Savile now. It’s just like: yeah, boring, we’ve heard it before.
Your EP Flash Floods was released last year. In terms of your music making, what are you up to now?
I’m recording Flash Floods Volume 2 at the moment, and I’m looking to feature some people from Nottingham; I’m not quite sure who yet. I’m hoping to drop it on March 8th, as Don’t Flop Nottingham is on March 7th & 8th.
The tryouts on March 7th will be a night time event, and there are some big old school Nottingham hip hop people on there, like Karizma. Some of the other ones are kind of grimey: there’s A9, and a really quirky guy called Evans who I found myself. Then Kane Ashmore is going against Sam Moore; they’re doing an acoustic guitar battle. It’s gonna be good. I’m really, really looking forward to having somebody else from Notts as part of the league.
Through Don’t Flop, I’ve found out that we’ve got a big scene in Nottingham. There’s a lot more rappers in Nottingham than in other places, where they don’t get the kind of views, and the buzz, that the Nottingham MCs do. The Nottingham buzz that’s there now, they’re all the younger MCs. This new generation are all really tight, and they all do music together.
I do think Nottingham as a whole has changed. It used to be a lot more ghetto, back in the day. There’s nothing much happening now, whereas [when I started out] it was just constant, absolute dramas, guns everywhere. No one really did clashes or battles, because it would have just turned into trouble.
Maybe social media has helped to heal the beefs. You’ve got to be friendly with lots of people, and you have to support each other, because that’s the way it works; that’s how you get your views.
Yeah, back when we used to do our music, we didn’t have YouTube or Facebook or anything like that. I think you’re right: social networking probably has stopped them… but you wouldn’t think that, with the comments that people can leave!
Originally published in LeftLion magazine.
Callum Burrows has a knack for a hook, and the title track of his second EP is stuffed full of them. Opening with a simple stomp and a cheery tinkle – swiftly joined by chiming guitar and a frisky, funky bassline – Young Blood builds to an expectant bridge (“we can make it if we try”), before blossoming into an exultant two-part chorus, complete with a festival-friendly chant that should carry Saint Raymond all the way through to the summer. It’s followed by Bonfires: a long-established live favourite, originally released as a free download. Although recorded as a demo, the key elements of Saint Raymond’s sound are already in place, and we hear them again in Threads, addressed to a departed lover who’s “the one with all the answers, the queen of second chances”. Closing the EP, As We Are Now is a short, sparse and poignant ode to seizing the moment.
“I have Callum on the line for you. Are you ready for the call?”
It’s a sign of an artist’s rising fortunes, when the only way you can speak to him is through the record company’s press office. It’s also quite unlike most LeftLion interviews, which are simply a case of arranging which pub to meet up in, after the act has finished work or college for the day. But for Callum Burrows, who signed as Saint Raymond to Asylum/Atlantic Records in August, there are now more exalted protocols to follow.
“It’s all crazy now”, he says, speaking to LeftLion from “sunny Hastings”, where he’s working on new material for a forthcoming EP, with a debut album to follow. “But to be honest, life hasn’t changed a ridiculous amount, in terms of what I’m doing. We’ve just carried on with the goals we set out. But we’ve obviously got a bigger team to help us out now, so it’s all good.”
For all his playful daftness on Twitter, Callum comes across as a serious-minded fellow with an utterly professional mindset, who’s not about to squander his opportunity. The way he sees it, Asylum “appreciated the work we were doing, and they wanted to get on board and help out. I’ve had advice about stuff, but it’s not been an overbearing thing, it’s just been a helpful process.”
“It’s a brand new world for me”, he adds, “and it all came very quickly. When we released the EP [Escapade, which came out on Gabrielle Aplin’s Never Fade label in May], we didn’t expect much of a reaction, and we got into the Top 25 on iTunes.”
While 2013 has been a landmark year for Callum, it has also been a year which has forced him to adapt quickly to new situations. The instant success of the EP led to extensive national radio airplay – Zane Lowe has been a particular fan – and a Radio One playlisting for Letting Go over the summer.
“The Radio One support has been amazing, Dean Jackson at Radio Nottingham has been exceptional, and I’ve been getting quite a few telly syncs. I was watching a programme, and they played one of my favourite songs, and I was like: oh, I love this song. Then it went quiet, and a song came on, and I was like: oh, wait. The next song was me. So it was kind of weird. When you’re in the public domain, you can be in a position where you’re just watching telly and you hear your own music. It’s a strange concept, but it’s brilliant.”
In fact, all four tracks from the Escapade EP have ended up soundtracking scenes on a variety of TV shows, including the final scene of the most recent series of Made In Chelsea: a prestigious, if somewhat incongruous moment.
Although the EP was recorded with a full band line-up, it was recorded at a time when Callum was still performing as a solo acoustic act – most notably at Dot To Dot in Nottingham, two days ahead of its release, when the 18-year old played the main stage of Rock City, to a full and noisily appreciative house.
For Saint Raymond’s next festival appearance, on the Jagermeister stage at Splendour, it was clear that a full time band had to be recruited – but astonishingly, the band only began rehearsing on the night before. “We were thrown in at the deep end”, Callum admits. “Splendour was a big moment, playing for a home crowd, and it felt really special.”
In contrast to most bands, who generally get the opportunity to cut their teeth at low-key gigs, the four piece line-up’s next three dates were at equally high-profile festivals. Thanks to Dean Jackson’s efforts, all three were on BBC Introducing stages, at Y-Not in Derbyshire (“the tent was really busy, and that was a really good show”), and at Reading and Leeds, alongside Nottingham’s Joel Baker and Amber Run.
Leeds proved to be a testing experience, as Callum explains. “We got put on a couple of minutes late. Then it came to our last song, and there were still three minutes left, but they were like: no, we haven’t got enough time. It was quite funny when all the staff came out to clear the stage. They had quite a hostile reception from the crowd. It was one of those moments when you have to bite your tongue, but I was grateful to even get the chance to play on that stage. At the time, it was an absolute pain – but looking back, you’ve got to see the bigger picture.”
Another challenge presented itself in September, at the Theatre Royal’s Nottingham Rocks showcase. Headlining the evening, Callum appeared without his band, accompanied instead by a fourteen-piece orchestra. Once again, this was another last-minute, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair.
“You have your first rehearsal with the orchestra the night before, and they know your songs better than you do. So you can’t make a mistake or anything; they’re so tight as an orchestra. That was another special moment.”
Later the same month, on the eve of his first headline UK tour, Callum faced another major test of his nerve. “The tour started on the Tuesday, and we had the first rehearsal on the Sunday, but the guitarist dropped out on the Friday. So we literally found someone on the Friday, who was a friend of a friend. It was so last minute, but it’s been amazing that he managed to pull it out of the bag.”
Unlike some solo acts, who get thrown together with a band by their record companies, Callum has been able to recruit his own team – including his brother-in-law, who plays bass. “I always wanted a family vibe on stage, and a friendly vibe”, he explains. “I think you see a lot of musicians, where you can just tell that they’re session musicians, and it doesn’t feel like a good vibe at all.”
The addition of a band doesn’t affect Callum’s writing process, though. “From day one, even when I was doing it acoustically, I was always writing with a band in mind. So nothing’s changed. When I wrote Fall At Your Feet, about 18 months ago, that was always a band song.”
As for the name, which originated when Saint Raymond were a duo and continued after Callum went solo, “Saint Raymond is me. I always wanted to be an artist with a different identity to myself, because I think you can easily slip into the category of: oh, you play the guitar and you’re a singer, so you must be like Ed Sheeran or someone like that. I always wanted to steer away from that. The name was personal to me, so I always wanted to stick with it.”
Despite this year’s sudden surge of progress, Callum has always tried to manage his development at an even pace. “I’ve always built it progressively and I’ve always wanted to do it organically, and take my time, and make sure the music was right. There are a lot of artists who are very keen to get the music out there, but you don’t want to be putting a product out if it’s not identifying yourself, and if you’re not making a statement about who you are, because it just becomes a confusion. “
In common with acts such as Harleighblu and Georgie Rose, he hasn’t gone down the slap-it-all-out-for-free-on-SoundCloud route, either. “I see some artists who decide to release all their catalogue really early, but I think you have to be careful. If that EP hadn’t reacted very well, then I might have gone: well, maybe the thing we’re doing isn’t working at the minute, so maybe we need to change the vibe of it.”
With the possibility of widespread national acclaim now dangling in front of him, our talk turns to future opportunities, and future perils to dodge. Of all his musical heroes – including Noel Gallagher (“I was brought up on Oasis”) and even, startlingly enough, the long-departed George Formby (“I had a really weird obsession”) – Callum would most like to meet Paul McCartney, his favourite Beatle. This leads us further into speculative waters, as I present him with a list of things that properly famous people do, seeking his reaction to each item.
For the record – and perhaps we should come back and check this in a couple of years’ time – Callum would say “yes” to an appearance on Later With Jools Holland, even if that meant being accompanied by the man himself on boogie-woogie piano. (“You’ve got to do it, haven’t you? I love his piano playing. He looks so chilled, yet his fingers are doing these amazing things.”) However, it’s a firm “no” to the poisoned chalice of a Sunday night X Factor guest slot, and an equally firm “no” to a spot of modelling for Heat magazine’s Torso of the Week, “unless they’ve got a section for lads who like a bit of beer and food.”
There are no such qualms when I raise the suggestion of a video featuring twerking models in flesh-coloured bikinis. “Yeah, why not – let’s do it. When do we start? I might tell them to calm down the twerking part, but I’m all for a model in a bikini.”
As for spouting off about politics, Russell Brand-style, on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, the lad is having none of it. “I don’t really care about politicians. As a musician, I think as soon as you start spouting off about anything where there’s a big opinion, you’re treading a thin line. So I’ll just stick to watching it at home.”
When it comes to the final item on my list – getting totally shitfaced at the Brit Awards – it turns out that Callum is already ahead of the game. “I went to the Q Awards the other day, and I did a very similar thing. It starts at midday, and it’s just free booze on the table, so you’re feeling a bit drunk by about half past one. Everyone goes to this pub afterwards as well. So you have to play the game a little bit, and fall into that world. But it was just a bit weird. You’re sat at the table, and someone’s going, can I just squeeze past you – and you turn around, and it’s Robbie Williams.”
We kick off a new weekly series giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the UK’s best venues with a trip to the East Midlands.
Capacity: 2,450 in the main room, 300 in the basement.
Who plays there: Big names from Rock City’s past include Nirvana, Oasis, David Bowie, REM, Guns N’ Roses and Blur. The roster is slanted towards rock, as the name would imply, but other genres still get a look in; to the disgust of regulars, Blue played here in 2013. The NME tour is an annual fixture, as are the Dot to Dot and Hit the Deck festivals, covering indie and rock respectively. Other recent acts include Two Door Cinema Club, the Deftones, Foals, Bastille, Suede, Public Enemy, Alt-J, the 1975, Johnny Marr, AlunaGeorge, Gary Numan and Disclosure.