Translating the Language of Love – the Boo Hewerdine interview

While many artists are raring to get back out on the road again, soon as it’s deemed safe to do so, it seems that treasured Glasgow-based singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine is happy just where he is for now.

The former frontman of The Bible, having written for a multitude of artists in recent years – not least Squeeze co-founder Chris Difford, ex-Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader, and 2017 BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year Kris Drever – has got along fine in his home studio these past 12 months.

In fact, Boo – recently turned 60 – is as creative and productive as ever, having swapped those long hours zipping up and down the roads of Great Britain for a little quality home time – writing, recording, and producing other artists.

And while live dates will follow, he’s staying put for now, overseeing the release of new collection, Select Works, and working on a follow-up to 20126’s splendid Swimming in Mercury.

The new 20-song compilation album was sequenced by Tom Rose, Reveal Records’ owner choosing the tracks himself, delving deep into an extraordinary catalogue.

His choices include a fresh recording of ‘The Village Bell’ with label-mate Drever, new single ‘The Language of Love’, and a few more tracks only previously available in digital format.

Boo, who has recorded a track-by-track online radio stream with DJ/presenter Adam Wilson discussing the album and songs in depth, was multi-tasking when I called … but remained engaging.

I regret never catching The Bible live in their initial 1985/89 period, their brief 1993/94 return, and more recent reunion shows. I was also slow to pick up on Boo’s solo career … until he came to me – my first sighting in May 2007 at St Bede’s Club, Whittle-le-Woods, a mere five mile round-trip from my adopted Lancashire base.

“Where was that? I can’t remember that. What did it look like?”

A discussion followed about that location and an area I got to know so well from news and sports reporting for a decade-plus from 1996. In fact, I think it was previously missing the legendary Frank Sidebottom in the same setting that made me more determined to get tickets for Boo.

Strange as that may seem to put those acts together, there are similarities, even if Boo’s head is not made of papier-mache, the comedy value of Boo’s between-songs banter often worth the entrance fee alone, as was the case at his Mr Kite Benefit fundraiser in aid of the Arthritis Research Campaign.

I don’t recall a right lot now, and as I paid my own way I was probably reluctant to scribble anything for the local paper, but have it in mind that his other half drove him there that night.

“Possibly, we were probably staying with her sister in Lytham. Yes, my missus is from Lancashire.”

When I asked friend of this blog Jim Wilkinson what he remembered about that occasion, he succinctly replied, ‘Just seeing Boo on the bandit having a fag, pre-gig’.

“Oh, I don’t smoke anymore. That stopped about 10 years ago – all forms of pleasure! I don’t drink or smoke.”

Was that a health consideration?

“I think I thought I’d give myself a break for a week. Being on the road, people give you free booze all the time. And I never missed it and haven’t thought about it since. But if you want free drink, be a musician!”

My most recent live sighting was in April 2017, Jim and I joined by fellow ex-reporting pal Tony in the inspired setting of Wigan’s All Saints’ Church, my review reminding me that Boo was ‘even foregoing the PA system at one stage to make the most of the sonic possibilities’.

This time he was supported by The Huers, joining the North West folk roots scene regulars on their version of ‘King of California’, then inviting them back later for a combined take on the sublime ‘Bell, Book and Candle’.

“That’s right! Very nice people, and a lovely show. And they’ve done a really nice version on one of their records.”

Incidentally, Boo told us in Wigan – just two days after playing the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards – that song had been used in no less than seven TV shows where characters die, including Tricia Dingle’s death by chimney-pot one stormy night in Emmerdale, adding a deadpan, ‘So if you don’t make it through this song, thanks for coming anyway’.

Boo’s set also included afore-mentioned number ‘The Village Bell’, one of two contributions to the Ballads of Child Migration project, helping shine a light on one of the more shameful chapters of recent UK history.

“This is a new version, Kris (Drever) and I recording in our flats then sending them off to our friend Chris Pepper in Huntingdon. And I really like it. I think it’s better than the original version.”

I’ve only had chance to hear the new album a couple of times so far – late last night and this morning …

“And you’re still awake?”

Indeed. I’m loving it, and ‘And’ was one of the first songs to jump out at me, a new one to me.

“I think there are six new songs on there, and that was the first after we got locked down, the first we did remotely. It was done here and with my friend in Copenhagen, Gustaf Ljunggren. I’ve worked with him nearly 20 years now. He’s a multi-instrumental genius. I also sent him some files yesterday that I want him to work on.”

Perhaps with that history of remote collaboration, you were ahead of the curve with regard to sharing files online, mid-pandemic. 

“Yes, we’ve been doing that because of where he is for a while. And I’ve produced quite a few records for other people from my flat. When you’re on the road, you have good intentions, but … during this last year I’ve done so much.

“I’ve also written an album with Adam Holmes, which is fantastic. Then there’s another with Lady Nade, which I’m working on right now while I’m trying to concentrate! Yeah, I’ve been working more than ever before. I’ve been out doing up to 200 gigs a year – my record was just shy of that figure. But I just love being at home.”

In fact, his last live show was on March 11th, 2020, at Edinburgh Folk Club.

“That was the day before the first Scottish lockdown, I think. It sold out, but the room was empty, a lot of people already very nervy. I’ve done telly since then, and online gigs, but that was the last proper one.”

Boo has been living in Glasgow for the last two years, having been based close to his old roots in Cambridgeshire, from where The Bible sprang, last time I caught him live.

“I’d worked so much in Glasgow, particularly with Eddi Reader, and also with engineer Mark Freegard and my friend Findlay Napier, who I do workshops with. I had so many friends here that I just thought, ‘Why don’t we give it a go?’. My wife has a fantastic job, working for the Scottish Refugee Council, a fantastic, involving job.

“We both love it, and I’d made albums here, spending up to a month here at times. It was a place I knew, so didn’t feel like a big wrench, moving here. We’re on the southside of Glasgow, which has got loads of parks, and it’s just lovely.”

I knew a couple of The Bible’s near-hits first time around, but didn’t truly appreciate them until the end of their first spell together. In fact, I can place my Road to Damascus moment with Boo’s breakthrough band to somewhere just off the A143 – the Road to Diss really – during a weekend in Norfolk in May 1989, when I was 21, staying with a friend – and visiting a few local hostelries – who ran a farm nearby, something which seemed apt for this fan of Norwich outfits Serious Drinking, The Higsons and The Farmer’s Boys.

Actually, the farmer’s dad was celebrated author, screenwriter and University of East Anglia lecturer Malcolm Bradbury, who just happened to be hosting the visiting Arthur Miller that weekend, but that’s another story. What is relevant though is that our host, Matthew, played an alternative, more organic take of ‘Graceland’ as he drove us to the pub in his Isuzu that first night, me rolling around in the back. And I loved that raw acoustic version, in a sense perhaps a taster for what we were to get from Boo’s solo years.

“I think that was when our second record came out – we did some acoustic versions for promo purposes.”

I was impressed enough to splash out on retrospective collection The Bible on vinyl on my return, but clearly didn’t learn from my slow appreciation of the band, later finding myself playing catch-up with Boo’s solo career too, a state of affairs his writing partner Chris Difford admitted as well when we spoke in 2015, when I asked if he was aware of Boo in his days with The Bible, the Squeeze legend also confessing to catching up retrospectively.

“I work with him all the time, but I’ve never assumed he listens to me. Ha!”

Well, I can confirm he’s definitely a fan, I added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

“Actually, I get my guitars from Atkin Guitars, where you can buy a Boo Hewerdine model … and Chris has bought one, designed to my spec … although all that really means is it’s got to have strings and stuff – I’m not a guitar nerd, at all. I do love Alister’s guitars though, and I was recording something using one before I spoke to you.”

While this was my first interview with Boo, he’s popped up now and again in conversations with other interviewees in recent years, not just Chris Difford and Eddi Reader but also US songsmith Dean Friedman.

“Oh right. I did his festival. We had a really nice time – it was a very lovely affair.”

Getting back to Boo’s initial Bible era, how about his own link to Norwich label Backs Records – who put out their self-produced 1986 debut LP Walking the Ghost Back Home – were those happy days?

“Yeah, and I’ve been so lucky with people I’ve met. Actually, I was speaking with them this morning. I’m still working with Backs, now called Shellshock and still distributing records for me. I also have the label I set up with them, Haven, and was speaking earlier about releasing my son’s new single.”

That’s Cambridge-based Ben Hewerdine, 26, who goes out under the name The Entertainment, and co-wrote the impressive title track of Boo’s last LP, David Bowie tribute ‘Swimming in Mercury’, a version of which also appears on the latest collection.

“There’s two songs on this album with his name on. In fact, he wrote one by himself, to be honest, but gave me a credit … which was very nice of him, thinking of his old man. He’s also in a band called Simon and the Astronauts, who’ve just got a record deal in America and made an album.”

What he didn’t add there was that he also features in Simon and the Astronauts, an outfit led by Simon Wells and also involving the afore-mentioned Findlay Napier and Chris Pepper, plus Karine Polwart and Darden Smith, Boo having made an album with the latter in 1989.

With regard to the family line, Boo told me his own ‘old man’, who died last year, was a ‘very good musician, but never did anything with it’. Did he encourage his son’s talent the way Boo does Ben’s?

“Well, he didn’t think I was any good, so I had to go and practise by myself. He gave my sisters piano lessons, but not me.”

Do you think that drove you?

“It kind of did. The moment when he decided perhaps I wasn’t wasting my time was when he was watching Howard’s Way and ‘Graceland’ was playing in the background of a scene. He rang up and said, ‘You’ve cracked it’. I didn’t know what he meant at the time. Once that happened, it was okay.”

Will Boo be publicly celebrating his recent 60th birthday back on the road with live shows later this year?

“Possibly. I’m not really accepting it. I don’t feel it at all. It’s all very weird. I suppose it’s because of what I do. I speak to people younger than me, making first records, and don’t see myself as anything different. I think it’s perceived that age is important, but within it, it isn’t. I remember being at folk festivals where guys of 80 were sharing ideas with new musicians of 16, and that’s a great thing.”

When you made Walking the Ghost Back Home, could you have imagined still being so involved in music at this grand age?

“Yeah, I guess. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. It’s where I feel at home. And in my mind … I may be deluded, but I’m still trying to make the perfect record. I’ve some friends who look back on things with nostalgia, and I love doing that a little, but I don’t really do that.

“That’s one of the reasons it’s so good working with Eddi Reader, because it’s always about the next thing. The other thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever had real success. I’ve sort of pottered along. I haven’t really got a glory era to look back on.

“What I’m doing now always seems to be the most exciting thing I’ve been involved with. I mean, this Adam Holmes record is one of the two or three best things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Talking of just pottering along, I love your live between-song banter, not least the self-deprecating, unlikely rock’n’roll anecdotes, for instance the premise that your ‘big hit’, Patience of Angels – which grazed the top-40 in 1994 for Eddi Reader – helped buy you a shed ‘big enough for the mower’.

“That was true, yeah.”

Boo says it was a spell working for The Beat Goes On record shop in Cambridge – his work colleagues including Bible drummer Tony Shepherd, who co-produced the first LP with him – that turned him on to so much great music, irrespective of genre.

“Yeah, you just hear everything – the really cool, good stuff – and that makes you less interested in genre. On a release day you might get Talking Heads, Scritti Politti, Motorhead, and listen to it all, saying, I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’.

“Musicians don’t always tend to think about genre. I remember hanging out with Manic Street Preachers at one point, one night in a little B&B, just chatting about music – nothing tribal. And that’s really great with my kids – they’ve no concept of the peer pressure we were under in the years before.”

Ever listen back to The Great Divide, your first band, and think, ‘I wish we’d tried this’ or ‘I wish we did that differently’?

“I have a Patreon page, so while I’ve never really dug back before, I now try and put something up every day, whereas most with a Patreon page tend to do something once a month, but every single day I’ll find something.

“I put work in progress up sometimes, but yesterday put up a song I wrote with Chris Difford, ‘On My Own I’m Never Bored’, which was in the Squeeze set for a while, and was thinking how 17-year-old me … his head would have exploded if he knew that!

“So I can go back, but it’s normally just to entertain people. I’m not like Norma Desmond, watching my old movies!”

Do you remain in touch with bandmates from The Bible?

“I spoke to Neill (McColl) yesterday. There’s a lady who plays harp and does these mash-ups, and as his Dad (Ewan MacColl) wrote ‘I First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, I told him about her doing that – singing the words while playing the harp to the tune of ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John. I had to send that to him to cheer him up. And the great thing was, I knew Ewan but also know Graham Fellows, who played Jilted John, so it was like a perfect storm! And she does it really well, deadpan.

“I don’t speak to the others so much, but not for any other reason than Neil is still very active in music.”

And who remains on the dream songwriting collaborations list?

“Oh, I don’t know! That’s a really good question, but if I was to say Tom Waits or Paul McCartney or somebody, I’d just freeze. Chris Difford talked about nearly writing with Paul McCartney and just feeling terror. And I like finding new people.

“I’ve found some amazing people to work with over the last year. There’s a really nice guy who lives in Bratislava, a young guy in a really cool band in Slovakia. And all my friends are songwriters – it’s a good way of making friends when you’re a bit shy.”

As for the new record, Boo’s taking very little credit for the way it’s turned out.

“It was all put together by the record company. It was Tom Rose’s ideas. I’ve had nothing to do with it apart from approving the mastering. That was the first time I heard it, and I really liked it.

“And I was surprised how much I’d done. I’m working towards the new record, and he wants me to hand that in in October. He’s like a teacher, making sure I hand my homework in!”

I look forward to that, and it was good to finally track you down for a proper conversation, rather than just share snatched exchanges, like when you signed my copy of Swimming in Mercury in Wigan.

“Was I polite?”

Of course, although I probably gushed something in a forlorn bid to say something witty on the spur of the moment in that strange situation, lining up in a church with fellow fans. Actually, come to think of it, I may have mentioned how I expected you to finish with ’Holy Water’, rather than ‘Murder in the Dark’.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played that song. That was the album where Richard Thompson was my guitar player. That was the producer’s idea, but I just felt … I mean, he’s such a hero. Whatever he played, I’d just say (adopts a high-pitched voice), ‘Oh, that’s nice’.”

So you became a fan-boy, like so many of us in those testing situations.

“Yes! And with Danny Thompson on bass, it was all a bit overwhelming!”

For more detail about Boo Hewerdine’s Selected Works, visit the Reveal Records website here or head to his Bandcamp page. You can also keep in touch with Boo via his social media platforms on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

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Looking beyond the lockdowns – the Provincials feature/interview

Shingle Life: Polly Perry, Steve Gibson and Seb Hunter take Provincials’ route to be beside the seaside

Ground-breaking singer/songwriter turned broadcaster and double WriteWyattUK interviewee Tom Robinson described Provincials on his BBC 6 Music show as ‘poetic, brooding, resonant and menacing’, with ‘an edge of Ennio Morricone’, while The Independent deemed them, ‘by turns ethereal, unsettling and hypnagogic’, offering a ‘fresh alternative take on English folk’, ‘beautifully intricate…a stellar, stellar band’.

Similarly, this alternative Hampshire three-piece describe themselves as a ‘dark folk / ecstatic rock trio’, although I take issue with that handle, judging by the tracks I’ve been privileged to hear from their as yet unreleased third LP.

It kind of works for their second album, 2019’s The Dark Ages, but this one sees them move on again, and – on the evidence of five teasers for the 12-track Heaven Protect Us – it’s not altogether folk, and not always so dark, as I suggest to guitarist/main songwriter Seb Hunter.

“Yeah, I don’t know. That’s me, I don’t know what to call us! Dark folk used to fit really well with the stuff we used to do … but we’ve now expanded the sound. First off, it was all dark harmoniums, lap steel and weird tunings.

“That’s probably still the core of our sound, all very soundtracky, and when we play live we tend to turn the lights off, go down to red fairy lights, all very vibey. But we’ve added drums, widening that sound, and like having free sections, coming from an improv background.

“However, that has opened this issue, having initially been pushed towards that folk label. We’re excited about our new material, heading towards a slightly more dynamic, more psychy side. But the album still has the dark stuff as well, so I don’t know if we’re going down the wrong route by leading with these tracks.”

Seb and his fellow Provincials, vocalist/theremin player Polly Perry and pianist/drummer Steve Gibson, hope to deliver Heaven Protect Us soon, and also embark on a full tour to help spread the word. And he assured this Lancashire-based scribe that they’re keen to return north.

“Very much so. Like everyone else we had to cancel everything last year, but we’ve lots of plans … it just depends at this point. Soon as everywhere is open, we’ll be on it. We’d be happy to get in a car and drive anywhere at this stage, with friends in Manchester, Sheffield, and so on.”

Provincials released debut LP, Muhsik seven years ago, although that passed me by then, not crossing my path until their vocalist was out on the road, fronting Polly and the Billets Doux, calling by at The Continental in Preston and Fylde Folk Festival in 2015, when she was the subject of a WriteWyattUK interview.

Casting Aspersions: Polly Perry getting in the lockdown zone for Provincials’ ‘Terms and Conditions’ promo

The Billets Doux story ended not long after, following two fine albums, Polly rejoining Seb and Steve. And a year on from the initial Covid-19 UK lockdown, they’ve just nailed this past 12 months with new single ‘Terms and Conditions’.

In a monochrome-filmed folk noir statement of sorts, the self-made tie-in promo video finds Polly behind a desk, addressing the nation, reading out details of the latest conflicting Government stay-at home lockdown advice, slowly losing her grip amid constant changes and mixed messages; while a masked-up Steve goes haywire with his kit and Seb lets loose on his six-string in a warehouse setting, the shutters symbolically dropping and finally re-opening.

All that’s missing is a sneak-shot of chief shit-stirrer Dominic Cummings brazenly walking past outside, I reckon. And yet … only problem is, I suggested, I’m not sure if we want to be reminded of this miserable pandemic year right now, however spot on its observations.

“Mmm … that’s the thing. At first, we thought it was going to be a spoken-word track with a more zoomy chorus, but then came up with this, and there’s the problem of when we should release it.”

The video certainly carries the vibe of stay-at-home Britain, Polly crammed into office space, Steve squeezed into a claustrophobic setting, and Seb … is he playing guitar while he should be working in that warehouse?

“That’s a storage facility just outside Winchester, run by Polly’s Mum and Dad parents. Under lockdown, you’re kind of limited to where you can do things.

“Steve has his own company, working as a dental technician, so he’s playing drums at his workplace, while Polly’s in my teenage daughter’s bedroom, and I’m stood around throwing stupid rock shapes in a storage warehouse.”

The song ends with the ambiguous line, ‘Take down the walls’, the shutter doors of the storage unit slowly raised again.

“Yes, although every now and again a family would walk past, and I’d be totally mortified. Rock’n’roll, man!”

Seb, a guitar teacher by day (having just tutored a local vicar before we spoke), made a few albums as part of decade-long improv project Crater with Steve, and also played with Owen Tromans in Delphic Vapours, an ‘improv guitar duo who bizarrely put out loads of cassettes and polled No.2 in a Village Voice Noise Albums of the Year chart’. As for Provincials …

Office Surprise: Steve, Polly and Seb take five before their next assault on the outside world as Provincials

“It started just as an idea. I was playing with Steve in Crater for about 10 years, and we were totally out there, really. I was playing lap steel, Steve was playing piano, and there was Polly. It was all entirely improvised.

“We had a session in a rehearsal room in Winchester, I recorded loads of it, that sort of coalescing into songs. I sent it to someone I knew who worked in the music industry in London, they said they loved it, and we took it from there.”

Seven years on, I love all five tracks I’ve heard from the third LP, with ‘Feels Like Falling’ a clear second single for me, music to Seb’s ears at a time when their part-time status suggests they can’t afford outside promotional help, established labels seemingly reluctant to take chances on non-roster artists in this current climate. And they’ve certainly done all the donkey work this time.

“It’s a terrible time for all the arts. But we’re in a fortunate position where we do everything ourselves – from the cover art to the videos, hoping those prove to be our shop window and people pick up on it all and break it out of our own social media bubble.”

They make a great team, the musicianship beyond reproach, the harmonies spot on, and Polly’s voice truly powerful when it needs to be. And I tell Seb that ‘Feels Like Falling’, like a couple of tracks here, reminds me of lots I love, yet nothing in particular … if you get me.

“I think I know what you mean. It’s kind of country, but sort of Aerosmith at the end.”

That’s one way of describing it. First, there’s Polly’s understated approach on the verses, then a gorgeous two-part harmony with Seb on the chorus, then … it goes somewhere else, Polly going airborne in the style of Merry Clayton on 1969’s ‘Gimme Shelter’, pushing that mighty voice of hers, going off at a tangent.

Then there’s the in-your-face ‘Planetary Stand-Off’, introductory hand claps quickly developing into full-blown Led Zeppelin-like heavy blues pomp. But it works, big time, and seems a contender for LP opener or closer, I suggest.

“That’s the opening song, and totally conceived as that, one we were very excited about and get a real thrill from playing.”

Alternatively, there’s ‘Outskirts’ …

Alternative Congregation: Steve Gibson, Polly Perry and Seb Hunter take a pew as they await service

“That’s more like the stuff off the last album.”

I see that, its soothing nature underpinned by melancholy quality. The opening riff reminded me of something I couldn’t place until after the interview, following much racking of the brain, its early chord sequence bringing to mind far removed but equally wondrous, early Psychedelic Furs single ‘Sister Europe’.

On the whole, again it seems familiar yet so different, somewhere between the revered Nick Drake and sadly (so far) forgotten Deep Season, favourites of mine since forming from the ashes of wondrous indie-pop outfit Jim Jiminee in 1990, not far from my South East roots and pretty close to Provincials’ own, that band looking to break through during a period in which it seemed most A&R men were more interested in clambering to sign baggy bands in the slipstream of The Stone Roses.

Anyway, there’s something else there. Maybe it’s just Polly’s laid-back vocal, but there’s a certain French chanteuse feel, I’d say.

“Do you know, that was originally called ‘Paris Film Rain’, my working title. And yes, it was totally that.”

It has that filmic quality, for sure. There’s also a bit of instrumental noodling, two minutes in …

“That’s probably the theremin … and then there’s some skittery drums kicking in …”

Indeed, as if a train’s reached a junction, taking a different road, so to speak.

“Exactly!”

Then there’s ‘Cold Fusioneers’, a song of at least two parts, its more measured verses followed by climactic choruses reminiscent of ‘Mandinka’ era Sinead O’Connor. And again, that big voice.

“Well, that to me is the obvious big single. But I seem to be the only person who thinks that! That’s the massive pop smash for me.”

Seb’s musical roots were actually in heavy metal, as reflected in critically-acclaimed 2004 memoir, Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict, loved by the likes of Bill Bailey, Bruce Dickinson, and various broadsheets and magazines, both sides of the Atlantic.

Dark Folk: Cover art for the second Provincials LP, from 2019, with the next instalment on its way soon

“I ‘escaped’ from metal in the early ‘90s, got into shoe-gazey stuff, only discovering The Beatles in my late 20s. You know how tribal music used to be! But this band came out of improvised music, and I guess we feel we can do anything really. There are no tribal loyalties now, and we’re multi-instrumentalists, so …”

There’s no confirmed LP release date yet, the band happy to put out occasional digital singles and videos to help spread the word. Besides, maybe they’re a little distracted right now.

Spring is on the mind, we’re about to come out of lockdown (hopefully), and there just happens to be a new arrival in the house for partners Seb and Polly, their son arriving two weeks before we spoke. In fact, that’s Bracken’s heartbeat sampled at the opening of ‘Terms and Conditions’.

“We had the scan earlier that day, had a recording, and Polly was like, ‘Right, I want this on there!’ And it works really well.”

Of their addition, proud Seb was more lost for words, however smitten, as if still processing the change.

“We’re slightly in the fog of newborn … getting the hours where we can … although I don’t think you ever make up for that lack of sleep. It’s amazing how little sleep the human being can function on, but you’re still slightly on the back-foot. You get used to it, but it’s a weird existence!”  

Reflection Time: Steve, Seb and Polly wait as the UK gears up to leave its lockdown (Photo: Clive Tagg)

For more information about Provincials and to keep updated regarding live shows and the band’s third album, you can head to https://provincials.bandcamp.com/ and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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The Continuing Adventures of the Desperate Quartet – in conversation with Robert Lloyd

Shared Space: Andreas, Fliss, Jim and Robert in a relaxed pre-gig state before another rocking Nightingales show

Shared Space: Andreas, Fliss, Jim and Robert in a relaxed pre-gig state before another rocking Nightingales show

Spring is in the air, and with it the distant promise of a return to live music across the UK. But you’ll forgive Robert Lloyd for being a little guarded about the prospects right now.

The legendary Nightingales frontman lit up the small screen recently in the terrestrial TV premiere – via freeview channel Sky Arts – of highly entertaining cult documentary film King Rocker, appearing alongside comedian and indie champion Stewart Lee.

Inspirational and quirky by turns, Lee and Michael Cumming’s inspired ‘anti-rockumentary’ film tells the story of a musical outsider who’s somehow ‘survived under the radar for over four decades’, weaving the story of Birmingham’s ‘undervalued underdog autodidact’ into that of the city’s forgotten public sculpture of King Kong, with cameos from the likes of Frank Skinner (who said of The Prefects, for whom he sat in on a few rehearsals before Robert got the nod, ‘I don’t know if I’m their Pete Best, or they’re mine’), Nigel Slater, Robin Askwith, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and Samira Ahmed.

But for all the film’s acclaim, and subsequent swift sales for a planned Autumn tour, Robert’s not quite counting his blessings yet.

“To be honest, this is the fourth time this tour’s been rearranged. And in Birmingham, London and Manchester we kind of expect to sell out anyway. For reasons too boring to go into, this is our fifth attempt to play Hebden Bridge. That sold out probably a year or two ago.”

You’ll enjoy that. It’s a lovely venue.

“I haven’t been there yet … but all I’ve heard is glowing reports, and the people who run it are really nice. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it very much.”

From my point of view, I’m looking forward to The Nightingales’ late summer return to The Continental in Preston, set to precede that tour, lined up to be one of their first post-pandemic outings, and my main excuse for tracking him down. Last time, I missed out. I was away. And I believe that wasn’t so well supported.

“I can’t remember the last time, in truth. We’ve been quite a few years. It’s been a while now, but at one stage we seemed to be there at least once a year.”

Live Presence: Robert lloyd and The nightingales, heading towards perfromance fever pitch. just another night.

Live Presence: Just another night as Robert, right, and Jim head towards Nightingales performance fever pitch

The visit prior to that was in 2016, for one of Tuff Life Boogie’s celebrated John Peel tributes, and that was certainly a winner. I recall a fair packed main room for you.

“Well, I like the Conti and obviously Rico (la Rocca, promoter) has been a great supporter … so fingers crossed it will be a hit this time.”

Only The Fall and The Wedding Present recorded more Peel sessions – 16 between 1978 and 1991 – than Robert, half of those recordings made with The Nightingales, two with his breakthrough punk band The Prefects, and the rest as a solo artist.

Since reforming The Nightingales – of whom John Robb, whose Louder Than War label put out 2015 LP, Mind Over Matter, described in definitive post-punk biography Death to Trad Rock as the ‘misfits’ misfits’ – in 2004, Robert’s band have put out more albums than first time around, with numerous live shows in the UK, mainland Europe and the US.

What’s more, as UK music magazine Uncut put it, ‘They genuinely sound more vital than ever’, while The Independent reckoned, ‘Lloyd is the most underestimated songwriter of his generation’.

Only in recent years settling on their current, classic four-piece, this year’s seen an upsurge in interest via King Rocker, which I’d just seen for the second time when I spoke to Robert, these days based in Telford, barely 20 miles west of his Cannock roots and 35 miles from where his music journey started in Birmingham.

There’s a lovely piece from Stewart Lee early on which seems to sum up the premise behind the film with regard to his subject, proclaiming, ‘We live in a culture where mediocrity is rewarded and originality and integrity are punished, and John Peel said of The Nightingales that years after all the others of their era have been revealed as charlatans and chancers, someone would finally recognise that they were one of the greatest bands. Whether that will happen or not I don’t know, but what I do understand is how Rob Lloyd kept that group going for over four decades in the face of commercial and critical indifference’.

But what about those early days? Does Robert ever go back to listen to the songs he wrote and performed with the first band he made headlines with, Peel favourites The Prefects, whose claims to fame included a short spell as a support act on The Clash’s White Riot tour in 1977?

“No, far from it, and if you’d have asked me this question six months ago it would have been a long, long time since I’s heard any of those songs. But Fire Records released all the Prefects records that exist on an album within the last year, and one night – I think I’d had a few drinks – I put it on. That’s probably the first time in a decade or two.”

Were you transported in time to those days, back in the moment?

“Well, I know how the songs go! it’s a bit of a mixed bag really. There’s a bunch of stuff I think is kind of pretty shitty, basic punk rock. Then there were some things I’m quite proud of. I did actually enjoy it more than I imagined I was going to.

“I’m not really a nostalgia type of person, and in my head, I think we were more at the shitty punk rock end, but there is actually some quite decent inventive material.”

Praise indeed. But I get the impression you went your separate ways as some were happy with that punk rock aspect while you and those who followed you wanted to move on. And I suppose that’s been your approach throughout your music career.

“Yeah, I mean I do like rock’n’roll music, but realistically I was more interested in slightly more off-kilter stuff than 1-2-3-4, and I’d done my time really.”

Seeing as you mentioned 1-2-3-4, there were some great photos shown of you with the Ramones, outside the Roundhouse at the time of their first London visit in the Summer of ’76, long before many were aware of the band.

“Yeah, there were a lot of people there, but the Flamin’ Groovies where the headline act, and I’m not sure how many were there for the Ramones. Also, they played their own headline show at Dingwalls the following night.

“Actually, when I got sent the final cut of the film by Michael (Cumming, director) and Stewart (Lee), I genuinely didn’t know they’d spoken to (Ramones manager) Danny Fields, so when he appeared I was really chuffed – that was a bit of a highlight for me.”

Were you back up to Birmingham the next day, or did you make it to that headline show the following night?

“Well, we were due to hitchhike back home. We weren’t interested in the Flamin’ Groovies, so when they were on, we went to the bar, and Danny and the Ramones were the only people in there. To cut a very long story short, they couldn’t get the hats on that three people had actually gone to see them, let alone hitch-hiked down.

Blooming Marvellous: The Nightingales, coming to a venue near you soon … fresh Covid pandemic restrictions willing

“Danny said, ‘Are you coming to the gig tomorrow?’ We said no, we’ve got to be back at school, but he paid for us to stay at the same hotel as them. So we went to Dingwalls as well, and before the gig Sire Records took them out for a big posh slap-up meal, so we went to that – we were just part of the crew for a couple of days.”

The audience on the second night famously – at least in punklore circles – included The Stranglers and The Clash, JJ Burnel and Paul Simonon supposedly involved in a punch-up outside. And within a year, The Prefects got to spend a few days on the road with the latter outfit on their seminal White Riot tour, a spell which sped up Robert’s disillusion with the punk movement – not so much the spirit but its stage-managed elements, with regard to those pulling the strings, like Clash manager Bernie Rhodes (who apparently said to the band, ‘I am a patron of the arts , and you’re just a bunch of amateur wankers’, hence the name of the band’s retrospective compilation album, released 25 years after they split).

“That’s a pretty accurate way of putting it. There were some good bands, but also some not so good ones. I think what happened in general, in every small town around the country there were people who liked The Stooges, MC5, all that kind of stuff, and didn’t like Yes, ELP, and so on. The Sex Pistols and bands that followed in their wake were catalysts that brought all those lone figures from these towns together. That’s the way I see it.”

It’s a generalisation, but with bands like Genesis and Yes, there was a feeling you could never achieve that level of musicianship, whereas some of those punk bands gave you the impression you could follow in their wake, pick up a guitar or whatever.

“Yeah, I’ve never had a downer on anyone who can play an instrument though, and when Mark Perry and Sniffin’ Glue printed their three chords and ‘now form a band’ cover, I wish most of them hadn’t! I’m not a champion of punk rock and down on other music.

“But I was a teenager, I wanted to be in a band, and that was the kind of catalyst to actually get it together and stop daydreaming.”

Another band whom John Peel loved were The Fall, who featured on the same bills a few times. Mark E. Smith didn’t follow the rules and went his own way. How was your relationship with Mark and his band?

“Pretty good. Yvonne Pawlett, their keyboard player on the first couple of albums, was my girlfriend at the time, so I spent quite a lot of time in the company of Mark, Martin (Bramagh) and Kay (Carroll) in that sort of period.

“I always got on okay if I’m truthful. I’m not a massive fan, but we did a few gigs together in the last few years, and I always got on alright with him. I know people who know him better than I do, and I’ve heard both generous things and things where he come across as a bit of a cunt. But who am I to judge? All I know is that when I’ve been in the same room as him, we always got on okay.”

One former member of The Fall you clearly connected with definitely proved a great supporter down the years – Marc Riley, in a sense taking over where John Peel left off.

“Yeah, he’s been great. Since Peel died, to a certain extent, the media has changed considerably, probably for the worst. We’ve been left out in the cold a bit, so it’s pretty much, ‘Thank God for Marc Riley’. Him and Gideon Coe have played a few things, while others you would expect to play us just ignore us. So yeah – hurrah for Mark and being able to do a session every year or so.

“Although I must tell you that back in the old days – and I don’t want to sound an old fart about it – the BBC actually used to pay you, whereas now it’s an absolute joke.”

I suppose funds are tighter and they work off the presumption that you’re getting the publicity so you’re doing well out of any coverage offered.

“I suppose so. The emphasis has shifted … but you just get fuck all now.”

Peel and (producer) John Walters were symbolic of that era when you were better looked after. Did Peel or Waters used to phone you, invite you in for sessions? How did that work?

“In the end, when I’d got four songs at a demo stage I wanted to record – because we never had a steady record company – and in the period when The Nightingales had ceased working and I was doing solo stuff, I’d call Peel, say, ‘Can I come in for a session?’ and he always said yes.

“Before all that, there was that date where they saw us at The Rainbow and got The Prefects in, and once The Nightingales got started, it was pretty much a case every year at some point that Walters would ring us up, and we’d go in.

“I’m glad you mentioned Walters – he was a big part of it, and Peel was just great to us. One thing I’ll always remember – going back to The Prefects era – he used to do his John Peel Roadshow, DJ-ing at gigs, and part of the deal for being booked was that he’d insist he could choose a band or two.

“One time at Huddersfield Poly, as it was then, he chose us and The Mekons. I might be wrong about this, but his figure I think was £1,000, with us bands getting £50 – about our standard rate. But at the end of the night he gave us and The Mekons £500 each, which was money we’d never seen before! That’s just one story to show the kind of bloke he was.”

It’s easy to get nostalgic about these things, but in your early days in Birmingham, many seminal bands passed through, not least at the Barbarella’s venue. Recently I chanced upon a Classic Albums TV documentary featuring the story of Duran Duran, their Rio LP, and the period leading up to it. Then I watched King Rocker again, and there was John Taylor talking about your old band. Birmingham’s a big city, but I guess those with similar interests would have been aware of each other back then. Were you close at one stage?

“Yeah, I knew John when he was Nigel Taylor. I’ve known him since he was a kid with groups before Duran Duran. And when the Durannies got together, we shared rehearsal space. Well, when I say ‘rehearsal space’, we shared a room at the back of someone’s house, with the same equipment!

“There was a band called the Subterranean Hawks, there was Duran Duran, and there was us. I didn’t know Simon le Bon, but they had two singers prior to that, both of whom I knew.”

Was one of those Stephen Duffy, later of The Lilac Time?

“Yes, there was Stephen and Andy Wickett, the bloke who wrote ‘Girls on Film’, although I don’t think he ever got any credit for it. That’s another story. I do know the story but won’t go into it now … but Nigel, Stephen, Andy and Roger (Taylor) were all decent blokes.

“I never really got on with Nick Bates, now known as Nick Rhodes. I think he always thought I was a bit obnoxious, and I always felt he was a bit pretentious. It still gets me to this day that he’s now famous, a rich man, and gets lifetime achievements and stuff … but there you go!”

So when they were in tropical climes filming blockbuster music videos, there was a bit of resentment and needle back home?

“Well, I remember them in Sounds or somewhere, saying when they filmed that ‘Rio’ video in Sri Lanka that they’d paid the extras with biros or something, and seemed to think this was good. As a socialist kind of figure, I find that appalling.

“But yeah, Nigel’s a good bloke and I’m glad he appeared in the film. That was decent of him. Again, I didn’t know he’d done that, but Dave Twist, the drummer in The Prefects towards the end, went to school with John Taylor, and I’m not going to slag them off.”

Were there bands you saw at Barbarella’s and decided this was what you were going to do with your life?

“I saw some good bands that there’s a good chance you won’t have heard of, but that was after I was first in a band. The bands I saw the inspired me were the Ramones first and foremost, then the Sex Pistols, by which time I was sort of getting there myself.

“But I loved Patti Smith, and when The Clash started out and had three guitar players – with Keith Levene involved – I saw them a couple of times and they were good, and I liked the Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto. But it was the Ramones and the Sex Pistols – they were the two. The Clash and the Buzzcocks jumped on that bandwagon.”

Talking of top entertainment, I always had a soft spot for Ted Chippington, catching him headlining a couple of times in 1986 and 1987, no doubt first aware of him via Peel. ‘Rocking with Rita’ and ‘She Loves You’ still get regular spins to this day. That said, I’m not sure I realised that Vindaloo Records was your label at the time, and the manner of the interconnectivity between Ted, The Nightingales and We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It. Are you still in touch with Ted?

“I am in touch. We shared a flat around the time of the Vindaloo days, and while he lives in Torquay now, he’s doing a couple of the gigs on our tour, and we talk on a regular basis. Yeah, he’s doing okay – he’s in good nick.”

I thought it was Totnes actually, but maybe Ted’s since moved. Anyway, while Robert’s in Telford these days, two of his bandmates are not far off – Fliss Kitson (drums) having relocated from Norwich to Wolverhampton, and Jim Smith (guitar) in Birmingham. However, Andreas Schmid (bass) remains in Germany. Is that creating a potential problem in this post-Brexit nightmare?

“It’s a big problem for sure, and we don’t even know the size of that problem as yet.”

I take it you mean you haven’t been tested yet, pandemic travel restrictions the main obstacle until now.

Street Life: The Nightingales – Fliss, Andreas, Jim and Robert – are looking forward to being out and about again

“Well, March 13th a year ago was the last time we rehearsed as a band. We are due to make a new album in September this year though, and we’ve got these gigs lined up, including the Rebellion Festival (Winter Gardens, Blackpool, August 5th/8th), so we hope we’ll be able to do them. We don’t know if Andy’s even being allowed in the country, so Brexit probably affects us more than most bands.

“In terms of the coronavirus thing, all bands have suffered, but we have that additional aggravation as one of our members is a foreigner in a foreign country. And while it’s not the sort of thing I’d have done anyway, we can’t just do a Zoom gig and all that malarkey.”

You mentioned new material, and there was a lovely reaction to the last album, Four Against Fate, while the feedback from King Rocker has been amazing. I get the impression you’re in a good place right now, and Fliss seems to have you well organised.

“Well, we’ve never had a manager or booking agent, and all that kind of assistance. I suppose I used to do most of it, but when Fliss joined the band, she started helping out and proved far more enthusiastic and better at it, so she’s kind of taken over that side of things, booking gigs and what-have-you and tons of incidental stuff. Like she knows how to draw, so if you want a T-shirt designed she can do that.”

She also did the artwork for the last album, didn’t she?

“Yes, we’d used an artist in Scarborough, David Yates, but he was unavailable, so Fliss stepped in. We’ve a couple of new records coming out this year too, and I’ve done the cover for one, having done a lot of the ‘80s covers. But yeah, as well as being a really nice and fun person and an excellent drummer, she’s also turned out to be a right grafter. There are things like social media that we wouldn’t have otherwise – there was no way that me, Jim or Andy would be bothered to do it!”

And how long have you known Stewart Lee?

“It transpires that it’s longer than I thought, going back to about 2004, when I got a new version of The Nightingales back together. An American record company wanted to put a Prefects CD out, but I wasn’t very keen. Frankly, I was fucking fed up of The Prefects, and told them the only way I’d do it is if they paid for The Nightingales to make a single. They gave me the money, and I put it out on my own label. Then I had this ridiculous idea – which more or less bankrupted me – being like Slade and putting out a new single every six weeks or so. We did four before we realised it was just a mental idea and was haemorrhaging cash.”

Point Made: Robert Lloyd letting us know just where we stand in these socially-distanced time (Photo: Jeff Higgott)

Fellow Peel favourites The Wedding Present managed 12 in one year in the early ‘90s, but that was with the backing of RCA, so that’s a little different.

“Yeah, and this was so different. Here’s a true story. We played SXSW in Austin (Texas) and our merch man at the time had a table with our four 7-inch records on. Now, people forget this now, because it’s all back, but these Yanks were going up to the stall, picking up these records, saying, ‘What is this?’ That’s how unfashionable the 7-inch single was at the time. We had to get them manufactured in the Czech Republic.

“Anyway, having haemorrhaged all the cash that was available putting these records out on my own label, I got a phone call from Stewart – I don’t know how he got my number – and he said, ‘Is there any chance now you’ve got a label again that you’ll be reissuing Ted Chippington’s stuff?’ He was a mad Ted fan.

“I said I wouldn’t have thought so, we’ve no money and Ted’s sort of given up on it – he’s not that interested anymore. But Stewart said, ‘He’s the reason I’m doing stand-up and I know loads of people who love him, so if there’s any help I can give, if he does want to do a record, let me know’.

“I spoke with Ted and we came up with this idea. We didn’t just want to reissue a Ted Chippington record – we thought we’d put out a four-CD boxset of all the recordings we’d got – studio and live stuff.“We wanted to package it like it was a Pavarotti boxset – really slick, with a book in every CD case, and so on. We got back to Stewart and said we want to do this, and – God bless him – he organised a performance at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, with him, Bridget Christie, Phill Jupitus, Simon Munnery, Simon Amstell, Richard Herring … all these comedians who loved Ted … plus The Nightingales of course, doing this one-off performance which sold out instantly, none of the performers taking any money – they gave us all the takings to manufacture this ridiculous Ted Chippington project!”

“That was the first time I remember meeting Stewart, and I took a shine to him straight away, thinking what a generous but also a maverick thing to do. And it transpired during the course of meeting him that not only did he love Ted, but he was also a fan of The Nightingales.

“And despite what he says in the film – which is not exactly true – later, Phill Jupitus, another big Nightingales fan, said we should do a documentary about the band, maybe the BBC would pay for it. In retrospect, knowing more about the process now, they were never going to go for that, and nothing came of it. But at some stage I was in London, maybe to see Stewart perform somewhere, we ended up in a pub, and I told him about this idea of a documentary.

“I thought nothing of it until about three years ago go when Stewart rang and said, ‘I’ve met this director, Michael Cumming, a fan of The Nightingales, and I’ve just been in a film about folk singer Shirley Collins and was really impressed by the film’s producer (James Nicholls). Michael’s keen to direct the documentary and I’m keen to make it. If this producer comes on board, are you still up for it?’

“I said yes, thinking it was going to be a documentary about The Nightingales. I didn’t realise it was going to be about me. I don’t think Stewart knew either. It was kind of ad-libbed as we went along. But he got back to me and James was willing to produce it, which basically meant putting together the initial finance. That’s really how the film was born … which is a very long-winded answer to your question, ‘how long have you known Stewart?’.

Travelling Man: Ted Chippington, apparently barely one mile from the nearest railway station, roughly speaking

Incidentally, Stewart expresses his love for Ted Chippington in 2010’s splendid How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian.

And if not this amazing life as a performer on the periphery of pop stardom, what do you think you’d have been up to? Could you have gone on to manage a bakery, as your first employer might have envisaged when you joined them straight from Cannock Grammar School (the fact that he’d been to grammar school – despite failing all his exams – seemed enough to suggest he had the potential as far as they were concerned)?

“I wanted to be in a band, and I’ve told this story a few times, but it is true. When I was a boy, I was mad about football – I played before school, in the breaks at school, when I got home, and went and watch football at the weekend.”

Was that to see Wolverhampton Wanderers?

“No, I’m actually named after Bobby Charlton. My Dad was a Manchester United fan and I got to see the Best, Charlton, Law and Stiles era side. Wolves is another story altogether. If you come to the Conti, maybe I’ll talk to you about that. But when I was at Cannock Grammar School, around 11 or 12 I suppose, I realised all the boys liked footballers and all the girls liked pop singers. And I’d got interested in girls at that stage, so I decided pop music was the way to go … so it’s rather ironic that I’ve had one of the most uncommercial musical careers ever!

“The theory of the time was when you saw someone like Marc Bolan or even David Cassidy, that was the way … plus I was a talented but limited football player. I was never going to get to the top … like in the music business! Ha!

“So yeah, I wanted to be in a band. I couldn’t play an instrument and didn’t have the wherewithal to learn, so I was always going to be the singer … the one the girls all seem to like.”

In a sense, you became like an alternative Simon Le Bon.

“Well, I had a few bands knocking about in someone’s shed, but never did a gig, and was never anything … then the punk rock thing came along when I was 15 or 16, and it was like, ‘Get a band together rather than talking about it and fucking about!’”

Live Presence: The Nightingales get down on it at the Lexington, Islington, in April 2018 (Photo: Peter Tainsh)

And what do you think was the closest you got to that ultimate pop moment? Was that in your early ‘80s brief major label solo career, or in the mid-‘80s alongside Ted and Fuzzbox with the Vindaloo Summer Special?

“I think the Vindaloo Summer Special. I’m not sure what number it got to in the charts – in my eyes unless it’s in the top-20 or, if you’re really liberal about it, the top-40 – but I don’t consider being No.46 a hit single. And I’ve had a few of those – a No.51 and a No.47.”

Sounds like something you’d order with your vindaloo. But those are the stories I love sometimes – like The Farmer’s Boys reaching No.41 with ‘In the Country’, on the verge of a Top of the Pops appearance only for Alphaville to fly over at the last minute from Germany. And you’ve probably experienced a few similar tales.

“Oh yeah, I could reel a few of those off, but … I don’t want to come over as being bitter and twisted. It’s just the luck of the draw really.”

I should point out – in case it doesn’t come over in print – that Robert is anything but miserable when he says all these things. Watch the documentary and you’ll see that. There’s a lovely quote early on where he confides in Stewart Lee, ‘I always used to think that when I pegged it, all of a sudden people would buy the records and pretend they liked us all along. But I’m beginning to worry that, ‘What if I peg it and they still don’t buy the records?’’, the pair of them then falling about in laughter.

There’s the mark of the man. And to quote Lee in the documentary again, “There’s a distinctive strain of post-war working-class bohemians who have been legislated out of existence by successive Tory governments, never to be seen again. Rob Lloyd has survived decades outside the system, wheeling and dealing in fertile cracks, and continues to produce exceptional work in conjunction with a supporting case of musicians, even after a stroke briefly felled this great oak of a man.”

In King Rocker, I put it to him, he comes over really well. It was a pleasure to watch and the reaction from many others suggest that’s an across-the-board reaction. It’s a great advert for the underground music scene I love. And the fact that you’re still performing and making records to this day suggests you’re still enjoying it, and that has to count for something.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I suppose it’s a mixture of me thinking I’ve got something to say, the band wanting to express themselves, and the quality of the material. I know what pop stars are like – it’s a traditional to say the material you’re working on is the best thing you’ve ever done. If we had a quid for every time we’ve heard that. But I do think this is our best stuff – better than the old Nightingales, and I really like the three people who are in the band. That makes a massive difference.

“All I need now is for us to sell some records and hopefully make a few quid. I don’t want to die a pauper, with everyone saying I was a good bloke!

“There’s a new single out on April 16, a brand-new Nightingales song called ‘10 Bob Each Way’. And on the B-side, Stewart Lee’s doing a version of ‘Use Your Loaf’. And all the ‘80s albums are being reissued as deluxe editions this summer. There will also be the film soundtrack and a DVD somewhere along the line, with a 12” EP available in time for our October dates.

“So there’s quite a bit a lot happening. Of course, I say all this as if this whole COVID thing is going to pan out and everything’s going to be wonderful, and we don’t know about that. But next year there’ll be a new album and we’ll be going back to America …”

Taking some vinyl back with you again?

“Yeah! People can’t get enough of it now. Once we started doing it, everyone wanted to do it.”

Trailblazers. And with that Robert’s away, signing off with a Ted Chippington-like, ‘Alright then, chief. Take care. Goodbye.’ A good bloke and top entertainer to boot.

Waiting Room: The Nightingales await the call before heading out to see us this coming summer and autumn

The Nightingales play The Boatyard venue at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, on Friday, August 6, with tickets £12 in advance, and early booking recommended. Then there are those autumn dates. For more details head to the band’s website, and check out their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter links.

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Celebrating Preston Pop Fest 2021 … and the (hopefully) imminent return of live music

Coming Soon:  A cover starring role for Rico's Coco on the Preston Pop fest bill, neatly designed by The Great Leap Forward's Simon Williams

Coming Soon: A cover starring role for Rico’s Coco on the Preston Pop Fest bill, neatly designed by Simon Williams

Whisper it, but while we never seem to be too far away from the latest new wave when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, spring and summer are definitely on the mind, and surely … hopefully … better days await.

It’s been a long, long time since my last live event, and my most recent visit to nearby favourite water hole The Continental in Preston was on Leap Day 2020, when The Amber List, West on Colfax and The Cornelius Crane held court and were on fine form.

By then there was already a feeling that difficult times and decisions were ahead though, with just two more live shows following for me before the first lockdown. And as well as the devastating human toll, there have been business casualties and financial worries for Lancashire’s treasured independent venues, as is the case across the UK.

But while it’s somewhat unnerving seeing those out and about among the daffodils on my adopted patch as if it’s VE Day, and while none of us want to tempt fate, there’s a genuine feeling of optimism right now, the return of live music integral to any ‘recovery road map’ for music lovers.

Across town, The Ferret on Fylde Road, Preston, has already announced and either sold out or shifted plenty of tickets for its first scheduled shows – its guests including Damo Suzuki, The Blinders, Evil Blizzard, The Primitives and Goldie Lookin’ Chain –  and the same is true for The Continental on South Meadow Lane, under its recently-added live venue banner, The Boatyard.

Having already announced a Conti return for The Nightingales – watch this space for a full feature/interview next week – the same promoter, Tuff Life Boogie, i.e. our Rico, announced an ambitious three-day event in late August, taking over The Boatyard and late-night slots at its sister venue, the afore-mentioned Ferret, for a weekend event ‘featuring the cream of the UK’s indie pop scene across two stages over three days’.

By the time last weekend was out, it had already sold out (although there is a waiting list for returns), somewhat negating my need to publicise the event in the first place … but I’m more than happy to celebrate the event all the same, so let’s just go with the flow, right?

Also involving ‘sinister short stories told by some of the country’s best writers and a chance to be Mark E. Smith’ (more of which later), the ambitious event’s headliners include Glaswegian crossover indie darlings The Bluebells, in a super-rare appearance south of the border.

Masked Marauders: The Bluebells, taking precautions while signing the reissued Sisters, and set for Preston

Closing out the Sunday evening of Preston Pop Fest, they’re a band the promoter labelled ‘genuine chart-toppers’ – the power of TV advertising having taken ‘Young at Heart’ to a belated 1993 UK No.1, for a single that first charted nine years earlier.

And it’s fair to say the band’s principal songwriter and guitarist Robert Hodgens, aka Bobby Bluebell, was looking forward to the prospect of a visit.

“Our last gig was actually the last gig played in front of a live audience in Scotland – in October 2020 at SWG3 in Glasgow. We have more festivals lined up though, and we’re coming to Preston straight from a two-night event in Glasgow.” 

Line-up wise, Bobby (guitar) is set to be joined by fellow stalwarts David (drums) and Ken McCluskey (vocals) plus Campbell Owen (bass, also Aztec Camera), Mick Slaven (guitar, Bourgie Bourgie), Andy Alston (keyboards, Del Amitri ), and Douglas McIntyre (guitar, The Jazzateers/Creeping Bent).

Bobby added that fellow Bluebells guitarist Russell Irvine ‘might be there in the audience as our guest’, and as for the last year, it’s clear The Bluebells haven’t sat around waiting for bookings.

“We’ve been very busy with the re-release of Sisters and working with other bands. I was working with Texas amongst others, and we did a hell of a lot of lockdown gigs for ‘charidee’. 

There was also a successful online ‘listening party’ for Sisters, the band’s sole full-length album, originally released in 1984 (a big favourite at Captains Log HQ in my fanzine days),hosted by Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess, another ‘highlight’ for Bobby.

And while dates for the Sisters remaster/reissue project were lined up then postponed, he hopes they can be completed soon, adding that the band will record a new Bluebells record ‘eventually’.

Live Wires: The Bluebells, 21st century style, head to Preston from their native Glasgow this August, all being well

Right now, the focus is on his other band, The Poems, and the McCluskey brothers’ own venture, their respective albums Young America and Favourite Colours set for simultaneous vinyl releases. But August shouldn’t be too far away. Any memories and anecdotes spring to mind of past shows in Preston or elsewhere in Lancashire?

“When we played there first in the ‘80s, we were amazed at how many skinheads there were!”

Are you in touch with any of the other bands on the Preston Pop Fest bill?

“Yes, we’re really looking forward to meeting up with Jasmine Minks, The Orchids, and Amelia Fletcher’s Swansea Sound – Amelia used to come to our gigs in the early days.” 

So how did Rico la Rocca (the inspiration behind Tuff Life Boogie) manage to get you on board, what will it cost him with regards to a band rider, and can we expect old school post-punk shenanigans from The Bluebells on the night?

“Rico is a legend, and we thought our pals The Pastels were playing too, so it seemed like a great adventure after a year of nothingness.” 

I wouldn’t rule out that promising possibility of The Pastels performing quite yet, to be honest, and I dare say we’ll hear either way at some stage soon. And on a mighty bill also including Lancashire’s celebrated Ginnel and Vukovar, and fellow Prestonians Baboon and Fighting, the afore-mentioned Rico said, “Preston is proudly following in the footsteps of Paris, London, New York and Madrid by hosting its own Pop Fest: a celebration of inspiring, affecting and resolutely DIY pop music.”

Also from north of the border are Friday night headliners Close Lobsters, from Paisley, who with Essex outfit and fellow returnees and Saturday night headliners The Wolfhounds featured on the NME’s genre-defining C86 compilation, both outfits big favourites of this scribe since the start.

Fully Booked:The Wolfhounds, taking time out before their Preston return this August (Photo: Andrew Springham)

More to the point, perhaps, each of the first two nights’ headliners have produced exceptional new LPs in the last 12 months, and Wolfhounds singer David Lance Callahan will also be playing a solo set during the weekend. 

Meanwhile, defining indie-pop labels of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Creation and Sarah, are represented by The Jazz Butcher, The Jasmine Minks, returning Scots outfit The Orchids – who proved a big hit on their last visit four years ago -and Robert Sekula (of 14 Iced Bears).

Stuart Moxham, the songwriter behind one of the most influential albums of the early ‘80s, Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth, also features, as do indie-pop legends Amelia Fletcher (Talulah Gosh/Heavenly) and Hue Williams (Pooh Sticks), appearing together in the afore-mentioned Swansea Sound. 

John Peel favourites Yeah Yeah Noh, The Great Leap Forward and Dave Jackson (who appears in The Room in the Wood) are also booked, as are ex-members of Age of Chance, Bogshed, Lungleg, and The Stretchheads in new projects.  

Rico added: “Preston Pop Fest also has a cracking selection of new acts, most of whom have never played in the North West before. Jetstream Pony have been picking up a massive buzz since issuing their self-titled debut album last year, and their dreamy, propulsive pop tunes with elements of shoegaze are completely addictive. 

“Sheffield’s Potpurri supply space age bachelorette pad music delivered with a glacial cool that belies their warm hearts. And US Highball are the latest addition to the great tradition of Glasgow jangle-pop bands like BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub, and Anglo-French outfit Love Tan recall the untutored sexy innocence of another Glasgow group, The Vaselines.

“Marcel Wave include members of Sauna Youth and Cold Pumas, channel early Fall and Stranglers musically, and feature the trenchant vocals and poetry of writer Maike Hale-Jones : quite simply a stunning combination.

“London outfit Barry provided the indie-pop anthem of last year with ‘Liz Naylor’ and cannot fail to put a smile on your face. Laura Fell is a superior singer-songwriter, who has already established herself as a major talent with her debut album Safe from Me

Peel Favourites: Yeah Yeah Noh are among many fine acts booked up for this August’s ambitious Preston Pop Fest

“Michael and the Angelos are a mystery-solving, draft-dodging beat combo, obsessed with freak-beat and Pebbles compilations, and Thee Windom Earles are the North West’s gnarliest garage-rock combo.”

Furthermore, at midnight each evening, the programme in the Conti will wind down with a sinister tale told by one of the UK’s premier writers.

“Nicholas Blincoe started his career in the arts with a rap 12” on Factory Records in 1987 and Manchester music and nightlife informed his early run of superior crime thrillers like Acid Casuals and Manchester Slingback. 

“Cathi Unsworth was a journalist for Sounds and Melody Maker before publishing first novel, The Not Knowing, in 2005. Since then she’s carved out a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost noir writers, producing five further novels and numerous short stories.

“And Graham Duff wrote and starred in Ideal, the surreal sitcom which featured Johnny Vegas as a small-time dope dealer. This year he publishes The Otherwise, a much-anticipated horror film treatment, co-written with the late Mark E. Smith.  

“Speaking of whom, Preston Pop Fest also offers you the chance to be the Hip Priest yourself, fronting The Fallen Women, the live Fall karaoke band primed and ready with a huge selection from the Salford legends’ repertoire.”

Sound Choice: Swansea Sound, a collaborative project all set to board at The Boatyard this coming August

Preston Pop Fest, scheduled for Friday August 20, Saturday August 21, and Sunday August 22 at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston (PR1 8JP), with late-night sets and DJs at The Ferret, Fylde Road, Preston (PR1 2XQ), sold out within a matter of days. However, there is a waiting list for returns, and if you didn’t manage to buy a ticket in time, there’s plenty going on at both The Continental and The Ferret this year, as Rob Talbot and Matt Fawbert recently revealed to me in this handy addition to the above feature.

Matt Fawbert, the new general manager at The Ferret, told me the venue’s last full-capacity gig was back on March 20th, 2020, starring Mancunian singer-songwriter Danny Mahon.

“We managed to do a short run of limited-capacity seated and socially-distanced shows in autumn as well, all of which sold out in advance. This run got cut short by local restrictions hitting Preston, so we had to close before the last of our planned gigs. 

“Over recent months we’ve been running weekly livestream gigs, various live acts from the area – filmed live on our stage behind closed doors, and broadcast over our social media platforms – usually via facebook.com/ferretpreston, many of which can be watched again via Youtube at youtube.com/ferretpreston

“Live music is missed massively by everyone, from performers to audiences. It’s going to be quite emotional when we finally get to open up properly, it will probably feel too good to be true at first. Gigs have a way of connecting people – not only through the music, but the shared experience and friendships that are built in the crowd, on the dancefloor and in the beer garden!

“We’re confident the dates released by the Government are very possible … for a change! The work of the Music Venue Trust has been instrumental in helping keep grassroots music venues not only financially viable but positive about the future and the possibility of opening up this summer.

“There’s definitely an appetite, we have a number of sold-out shows already, and responses to our new announcements are always positive. Also, loads of bands, artists and agents are getting in touch, clamouring for gig dates, which is a great sign – that had all but dried up over lockdown.

“There’s loads in the pipeline for this year, our autumn programme is almost full, with the various rescheduled shows and new dates added recently. Wolfgang Flur (ex-Kraftwerk), Goldie Lookin’ Chain, The Blinders & The K’s are all sold out, with A Certain Ratio, Cabbage and The Primitives not far behind.

“We’re now focusing on the next few months, and May 17th will hopefully see us allowed to run another series of socially-distanced seated gigs, which we’re in the process of planning. Then from June 21st it’s apparently full steam ahead, so we’ll be booking plenty of events to take us through summer.

Hay Festival: The Ferret during its annual transformation for Glastonferret, hopefully returning this August bank holiday

“Also, our annual multi-day music festival, Glastonferret, returns on the August bank holiday after a forced year off. This year is the 15th anniversary – with the first Glastonferret way back in 2006. As usual, we’ll be turfing the inside of the pub, extending our beer garden and booking the best acts to fill the whole weekend, going all out for a four-day event (Thursday, August 26th to Bank Holiday Sunday, August 29th).

Meanwhile, Rob Talbot, events head honcho at The Continental, told me the venue’s last show involved a packed-out night for Ska Face.

“The pandemic hit just as we were due to host a show with folk legend Martin Carthy. After being rescheduled four times, that still hasn’t happened, but hopefully will this September.

If everything goes to the Government’s plan, we’ll be kicking off – live streamed events aside – with a massive weekend at the end of June, with the AC/DC Experience on Friday (June 25th) and The Vibrators on Saturday (June 26th). And people definitely seem to be ready, judging by ticket sales!

“In fact, we’ve loads lined up for the second half of 2021, including The Amber List’s album launch (watch this website for more on that soon), a show with doom-metal giants Conan and Gandalf the Green, The Nightingales (again, watch this space), Salvation Jayne, the Anti-Nowhere League, and the UK Subs.

“What’s more, our world music strand is set to return with Afrobeat combo Alafia and roots reggae from the Golty Farabeau Band. We also have some of the best tribute acts in the country – some you might expect, some you won’t!”

And for more details of all that, you can head to this link for the Conti.  

Bluebells Season: The Bluebells hold up their product to the light to prove its quality, ahead of their Lancashire visit

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The Rilly Groovy return of the Beautiful People – in conversation with Du Kane

Remember the Beautiful People’s If 60’s Were 90’s? If nothing else, you may recall a couple of commercials from the mid-1990s featuring their songs, including a car ad featuring Manchester United and Wales football legend Ryan Giggs and Aussie actor Bryan Brown. And it turns out that several big names were fans.

Consisting of more than 50 guitar riffs, vocal cut-outs, out-take lead breaks, and word raps by guitar god Jimi Hendrix – all under official licence – it was a relatively simple idea, brilliantly executed.

And now this influential indie-dance crossover LP – using more than 30 different Hendrix recordings – is getting the boxset reboot treatment,almost three decades later, to the delight ofWeymouth-based singer/guitarist and former acid house promoter Duncan Elder, aka Du Kane, who was at the heart of the project from day one.

If 60’s Were 90’s also includes ‘spoken steals’ from iconic Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, and a party called the Milky Way Express that featured Frank Zappa, its creators priding themselves on a finished record that operates ‘like some groovy psychedelic time-machine cruising the Hendrixphere’.

Kris Needs, in the NME, called it an ‘ambient dance dream tribute’; Ian McCann, for Vox, referenced ‘super-psychedelic baggy indie dance with Orb-like overtones’; and David Sinclair, in Billboard magazine, described Beautiful People as a ‘bunch of movers and shakers from London’s acid house scene who have a highly developed fascination with the music of Jimi Hendrix’, insisting they were ‘emphatically not a ‘tribute’ band in the style of The Bootleg Beatles or The Australian Doors’, instead using ‘sampling technology to virtually recruit Hendrix into the group’s line-up.’

Then there were those in the business who took inspiration, including The Cult / Dead Man Walking guitarist Billy Duffy, who called it ‘a hidden gem’ and ‘welcome relief from Brit Pop’; Small Faces, Faces and The Who drummer Kenney Jones, who saw Beautiful People as ‘one of my favourite bands of the 90s’; and legendary producer and Killing Joke bass player Youth, who recalled hearing them ‘on a beach on a 20k rig with 2,000 freaks going crazy just after dawn – dolphins were flippin’, naked beautiful people in the waterfall … certainly one of the best and most memorable experiences I’ve ever had’.

And the band are equally proud of the verdict from Karl Ferris, photographer and designer of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s US album covers for Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland, who reckoned the man himself ‘would have loved it and would have wanted to jam with them’.

The initial project came about when Duncan teamed up with keyboard player/studio techno wizard Luke Baldry to create a one-off Hendrix-sampled house track, then happened to drop it off with Eric Clapton, who lived close to their rehearsal space in rural Surrey. Clapton initially wanted to release the track, but on managerial advice passed it to creative head of the Hendrix estate Alan Douglas, who just so happened to be on the look-out for an outlet to sample the iconic guitarist at that time.

They got the gig, taking their band from Duncan’s acid house promotion company, the name inspired by a term used by cult US author Ken Kesey for his team of comrades and followers, the Merry Pranksters. The resultant LP, ready by July 1992, included drums from Robin Goodridge – soon snapped up by US-based UK success Bush – and was first released in 1993 on Castle Communications’ Essential label, including remixes by the afore-mentioned Youth.

The album was generally well received, even if the idea freaked out some purists. But it proved a grower, the New York Post calling it ‘an inspired bit of grave-digging’. In 1994 they toured Europe as a support for Hawkwind, then on the personal request of Noel Gallagher toured the UK on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe tour, soon securing an American deal, subsequently racking up respective No.1 and No.3 US dance chart hits with ‘If 60s Was 90s’ and ‘Rilly Groovy’, the latter featuring James Sunquist, aka Jimi Hendrix, Jr.

But then, after a couple of songs were used on movie soundtracks, with a huge Stateside tour booked and a single set for mainstream release, their US label Continuum Records went bust, the project frozen. For a long time, it looked like that was it – ‘this cult favourite lost in a 90s ethereal mist’ … until now.

The remastered triple-CD/purple vinyl release from Gonzo MultiMedia comes in impressive boxset form, including remixes by Youth, PM Dawn, Ben Mitchell, and Astralasia; a DVD featuring all the band’s TV performances and music videos; an interview with Alan Douglas; and a scrapbook-style coffee table book put together by Ian Brown and Fall producer Mike Bennett with Du Kane, telling the whole story, including official and behind-the-scenes photographs and personal testimonials on the LP’s influence from members of The Darkness, Happy Mondays, The Fall, Sub Sub, Wishbone Ash, The Sisters of Mercy, Oasis, Spiritualised, Steve Etherington, Bush, Primal Scream, Will Johns, Fuzzbox, Dust Junkys, and the afore-mentioned Karl Ferris.

Apparently, there was a follow-up album too, although that’s yet to see the light of day.

“Yeah, we got another deal after that, but it was very hard to cross over from that to … anything! Unless we were sampling The Beatles or something. I did some recording, sampling Vangelis and Demis Roussos’ 666 (the pair recording together as Greek prog rock outfit Aphrodite’s Child). But they’re still unreleased.

“The second Beautiful People album though was just a bunch of really great songs, going back to what we would have done before the Hendrix project came along and we changed direction. We had an album called Beautopia, released on Castle, with one single, ‘Take It’ / ‘Psychedelic Betty’, and another, ‘Not Necessarily Stoned’, which is on the DVD – the only thing that’s on there not from this first album. But they didn’t release the album, which was a shame, one that led to a misunderstanding, mainly because Castle got bought out.

“I went into the label one day, didn’t recognise anyone. Everyone had left. They started a new company, and they weren’t big enough to take us on. We were left with this album and a lot of unreleased material, very Brit Pop/rocky. I’m very proud of it. Great songs, and I probably will put that out, now people can deal with people directly, online. I just want to have my work out there! I’ve been carrying it around for years on my back, proud as I am of it. Until then, I can’t really move forward.”

It all came to a screeching halt with that first album too, as US label Continuum went under.

“Yeah, it just went bang! I signed a deal for £150,000 in my name, that cheque due in September 1994. We all went on holiday and I wrote a few songs … and then they were just gone. We had a tour planned. They’d licensed it for about five years, but that was all tied up.

“I was 29 … I couldn’t wait. I wanted to be on Top of the Pops! So I just left it, didn’t even think about it until around 2010. I knew Alan (Douglas, who died in 2014) was having (legal) problems, being involved with all the court stuff, and then he lost all the rights to his Hendrix material. Whereas our LP was very Hendrix-y, it was considered (by the receivers) a Beautiful People album. I saw Alan around 10 years later, and he said they didn’t take it as it wasn’t a Hendrix album.”

Live, Beautiful People were far from reliant on samples, most of the band originally with Duncan in indie-funk outfit Lax Lifetime, who built a large following in their native South East in the late-‘80s.

“We were all in the same gang, sharing houses, in our own world, and had a unique but tribal feel, all very close friends.”

How did it work with If 60s Were 90s? You assembled a talented group of musicians, not least ex-Lax Lifetime bandmate (sorry, couldn’t resist that ex-lax line) Dave Maskrey on lead guitar. But it wasn’t just a case of playing the parts on the original records.

“Dave played lead guitar on a couple of demo tracks, but all the guitar on the record is Jimi Hendrix. Any other guitars, I added. I was always ‘the wah-wah guy’. When we played live, I was set to play my parts and Dave would play some Hendrix parts, and when the guitar solos came, instead of having them through the speakers from Hendrix, David would play those. So it would be different from the record. And it wasn’t nailed down, it’s him playing it his way.

“He was a Hendrix disciple anyway – we were busking ‘Stone Free’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Foxy Lady’ on the street in Guildford in the late ‘80s, and Hendrix would have loved David’s playing. We just asked him to do his thing, and that’s how he fits in. On the second album, he was co-writing a lot with me, as we had in our time with Lax Lifetime and other bands we were in.”

Duncan, by his own admission now an ‘old bastard’ at 55, and David were in the same school year, albeit different Surrey schools, my interviewee telling me he was a former ‘£10 Pom’, sailing to Australia at a young age, his family hailing from around Woking and Ottershaw.

“I had my fourth birthday on the boat going out. We were there around four years, in St Kilda and Camberwell in Melbourne, then came back again, as my parents split up. But my first memories are of Australia.”

He re-settled in Cranleigh, where he remained until he was around 18, at one stage learning a few guitar riffs while staying with a friend in Leicester, inspired to buy a guitar off a friend for £10 – the seller having bought it off his sister for £5, he added – and soon playing songs at a party.

“I was asked to join a band to make up the numbers, rehearsing at a friend’s house. We were a four-piece called The Gallery. Not as if we called ourselves that in public! We did two gigs, one in Dougie (McLeish’s) lounge and one at a summer fair at Glebelands (his secondary school), doing instrumentals, the same songs over and over. I played bass, but went home and started writing a few ideas, knowing about eight guitar chords, creating something that sounded nice and jangly, Cure-like, and from then on was writing all the songs.

“After that, Fil B (Phil Bushen), in the year below at school, asked if I wanted to start a band. I said yeah, but I didn’t want to play bass. He said, ‘That’s alright – I play bass!’. We started to jam, had a couple of girls try out as vocalists, Siouxsie Sioux type stuff, rehearsing in Ewhurst, where Dave Howick, the drummer had a place. We were there around eight years, every weekday night.”

I’m guessing that’s where the Eric Clapton link came in.

“Well yeah, because it was no big deal to pass his house on the way home from rehearsal.”

I’m ahead of him there though. Back to the tale and how Flow Motion (Du Kane, Phil B, David H and Karl Selfe) became Yellow Lifetime (the same band with a different singer, plus former Shoot! Dispute sax player Scampi) then Lax Lifetime (Scampi moving on, and lead guitarist David Maskrey and percussionist Anton Daniels joining) …

Re Lax: Duncan and Anna-Lucy out front as Lax Lifetime, long before the Beautiful People followed in their wake

“We got a proper vocalist, Karl, a bloke in my year at school. We were pretty good. We did a gig at Woking’s Old Schoolhouse, blew all the other bands off stage. We’d also play The Royal, The Cranley Hotel, Godalming College … it all culminated with this show at the Rock Garden, taking two coaches up. It was absolutely rammed. That was September 1984.

“But then Karl announced he was leaving, joining this band Parallel Motion, soon to become Never B4, a band later managed by Bruce Foxton. Luke Baldry was playing keyboards for them. They were originally a funk band, with Anna-Lucy (Torjussen) singing. Gorgeous voice, lovely looking, and Karl’s girlfriend at the time. But then they nicked him off us and chucked her out. I can’t imagine how that must have gone down! Anyway, I asked Anna if she wanted to join us.

“I didn’t want to sing, but we tried all these singers and it didn’t work, so I said I’d do it in the meantime, as I was writing the songs. I’m more a guitarist who sings, but Phil suggested I should do it. Anyway, we somehow became Yellow Lifetime. I wrote all these names down on a piece of paper, and we went with that as someone saw the name and was telling people how good this Yellow Lifetime were. In time, that became Lax Lifetime. We had our little emblem, doing flyers, arranging clubs, doing gigs in London, but I felt we should do something in Guildford instead, rather than taking so many people up to London, hoping record companies might come down to see us if we told them we’d filled Guildford Civic Hall. So we invented this club, The Rak.

“I invented a false company called the Dance Conglomerate from London who arranged warehouse parties, all very trendy in that period leading up to house music. I got a friend to pretend to be this fella called Lance Lush, head of the Dance Conglomerate, and we went around local papers saying we’d met in New York and I’d won this rap competition – all a complete and utter lie. ‘Lance’ also said our band, Lax Lifetime was fantastic and were coming to Guildford to wake it up!

“We had the whole of page three in the Surrey Advertiser, with this picture of us, and that helped launch our first show in 1988 at Guildford Civic Hall and this new club, The Rak, where Lax Lifetime just happened to be the featured band, with lots of light projections … very house music like. So when all that came in a year or so later, we were right in front.”

I was there with some mates for that first Civic Hall date, on the last Saturday in February ‘88. Not as if I recall too much. I think we’d started early in The Star, the Guildford pub where the Stranglers played their first gig. I seem to recall there was an impressive following though.

“From then on, record companies would send me records, wanting to play my club, becoming an acid house promoter as well as a band guy. For the first two years it was The Dance Conglomerate, then me and Phil fell out, he went his own way, and I came up with the Beautiful People, from a Ken Kesey book that Dave (Maskrey) leant me. The book’s idea of the ‘acid test’ worked well. And to me, those were the first raves, doing a similar thing.

“Then Phil came back from San Francisco, and Luke and I had done this one-off track for a laugh, the first with someone outside our band – I was very loyal otherwise. So we dropped it off with Clapton, and that’s where it all started.”

Common People: Beautiful People take six on Clapham Common, well away from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’

So, relatively seamlessly, Lax Lifetime became the Beautiful People, Duncan (guitar) once again joined by Dave Maskrey (lead guitar), Anton (percussion), plus the returning Fil B (bass) as well as  Luke (keyboards) and Robin Goodridge on drums, the latter then replaced by Nathan Curran, aka Tuggy Lane. There was also a brief spell within for Chris ‘Chunn’ as well, apparently. Got all that? Good, then I shall continue (stopping briefly only to confuse you more by recalling that for a brief spell they were known as Fab Daze).

After the end of the initial Beautiful People reign, did you keep tabs on all your bandmates?

“Well, we didn’t really split up, but the deal ran out and we had no money …”

Rather the band ‘petered out’, as he put it, for his part Duncan becoming a father in 1998, at one stage working as a barman in the Royal Oak pub in Guildford to make ends meet, barely a year and a half after securing that impressive record deal.

“Not that I minded being a barman, but I was staying at my Mum’s with my pregnant girlfriend, with people walking in the pub and saying, ‘I thought you were on tour with Oasis?’ But then luckily, my friend Piers phoned me, said he was starting a magazine, and asking if I wanted to be a writer. I said yeah, and he said, ‘Okay, can you fly to Beirut next weekend with (Birmingham club) Miss Moneypenny’s dancers, write up about them raving in Beirut for the weekend?’. So that’s what I did for the next two or three years, writing for Front magazine.

“As for the others, Anton happened to live near me, so I’d see him now and again, but I didn’t see anyone else from the band for quite some time.”

As for Robin Goodridge, he recalls in the boxset’s accompanying book how he gave Gavin Rossdale a copy, the Bush frontman so impressed he called ‘early the next morning about doing an audition’. Clearly the rest was history in that instance.

“Yeah, I knew Robin from (Guildford music shop) Andertons. He was part of a Loxwood gang, a little more elite, and up on the house music thing. We were drinking in the Mucky Duck, as Luke and I moved to Fittleworth, where we started working on some tracks, using drum loops. We met Rob there, he said he’d come along and drum for us, and got involved in replacing all the loops, generally playing live drums over what we’d done.

Junior Showtime: Jimi Hendrix, Jr. and Du Kane in Hammersmith on the If 60s Were 90s video shoot set, March 1994

“But he couldn’t really commit. He was in loads of other bands and had a Uriah Heep tour when we had a tour with Hawkwind, so he chose that. By then, we’d met Tuggy (Nathan), who was so bloody good, I felt we couldn’t put him on hold – someone would snap him up. He came along in 1993, straight on to the Hawkwind tour. So Robin never really left, but then Bush caught fire …”

See what he did there? Bush, I suggested, are one of those bands famous for doing amazingly in America but never really making it in their home country … at least initially.

“Probably the best way to describe them! Ha! Actually, in the Noughties, Robin lived just around the corner from me. We were good mates, and I introduced him to his wife. He’s in America now, and I haven’t seen him since around 2009.

“I do remember Rob had a night off during the Uriah Heep tour, and we were playing in Worthing that night, not far away from where he was based. He walked into our dressing room, stopped, looked at Tug, looked at me, and said, ‘Someone break one of his limbs for me, will you?’ Ha! He could see how good he was, at just 17 or so.”

Duncan eventually returned to his musical roots, including spells busking on London Underground and playing in a wedding band, with a big gap before The Shakespearos came on the scene.

“I was still with my wife then. We moved to London, and I was busking on the Tube with my battered guitar, talking to the kids down there, asking how it worked. That was after Front went down, and they made it (busking) legal in 2002, and when the press wanted to talk to someone about it, they put me forward. I started a club for buskers in Hoxton for a while.

“I was based in Belsize Park, and also worked in a wedding band at weekends. I guess I was just a musician with no stress, earning enough to get through the day, not having to do some fucking awful job I had no interest in and wouldn’t know where to start. Then, in around 2010, Steve Smith – the Beautiful People soundman, who’d touring with us since Lax Lifetime days – got in touch.”

That’s where we bring the story up to date, Duncan, Dave, past WriteWyattUK interviewee Steve Smith – best known as the bass player in The Vapors – and Nick Horton regularly out and about (give or take the odd pandemic) with punk/new wave covers band The Shakespearos, their name taken from a line in The Stranglers’ ‘No More Heroes’, having first got together 10 years ago this spring.

Whatever Happened: The Shakespearos - Nick Horton, Du Kane, Steve Smith,  Dave Maskery (Photo: Alabama Photography)

Whatever Happened: The Shakespearos – experienced and hopefully out and about and entertaining on a stage near you again rilly soon. From the left – Nick Horton, Du Kane, Steve Smith, and Dave Maskery (Photo: Alabama Arnold)

“I knew Steve from Shoot! Dispute days (Steve’s post-Vapors outfit, John Peel favourites who recorded two BBC Radio 1 sessions for the legendary DJ), and around the time Scampi, their sax player, offered his services to us in our days as Flow Motion (and later Yellow Lifetime). And just knowing I was working with Steve Smith and all these nearly pop stars … I mean, who were we? We were from Cranleigh – we didn’t know anything! Whereas these guys … Steve actually had hits, all around the world!”

They also employed Steve when it came to recording, from Yellow Lifetime days onwards. And then came that decision to form a band together.

“The morning after Steve called, I thought, ‘He’s miles away, he lives in Brighton. Is this a good idea?’ All my gigs were in Weymouth. I’d been here since around 2007. My Mum had a pie shop and café here. I came down to live with her, having previously visited with my boys at weekends. There were always loads of pubs with music. I started getting gigs here and there, and before I knew it, was doing a couple a week, making enough cash to live through the week on.

“But I told Steve there were loads of gigs to be had in Weymouth, and he was happy to drive over. We rehearsed in Guildford, I suggested Dave on guitar, and we met up with him, not having seen Dave for around 10 years. We tried a few drummers, and at first Anton (Daniels) came along. He was staying with his Dad in Ash, so we asked if he’d like to ‘keep time until we got someone else’ – the classic story!

“We worked out a set, mostly punky sings like those by The Clash, with a few baggy and Brit Pop songs, and a bit of The Cure. I always thought it would help if we did the odd Vapors song, but that was something Steve wouldn’t really talk about at the time.

“I’d had the name knocking around for a while, wondering when I heard ‘No More Heroes’ if there’d ever been a band of that name. Someone must have used it, surely. I looked online, and there was a band in Canada, boys around nine, playing a song by The Clash at a fete or something. They were alright, actually, but when I looked back a few years ago I noticed they hadn’t done anything since.”

For the past decade The Shakespearos have built a winning reputation via regular gigs on the South Coast, summer stints in Portugal, and festivals – including Guildford’s Guilfest and Blackpool’s Rebellion. But right now, Duncan’s missing the live circuit, not least additional Sunday lunchtime gigs as part of a Frank Sinatra covers duo.

“I had a whole year of gigs lined up, and around 100 gigs last year with The Shakespearos. This year though, I haven’t planned anything. I’m not chasing anyone until I know we can do them. It’s all the ‘undoing’ … the ‘unpromoting’ – it’s hard work.”

As for that name, I let on to Duncan that we have a mutual friend who always calls them The Shapiros. There are only so many times you can correct someone, after all. I quite like that concept though. Maybe he could start doing a couple of Helen Shapiro covers and play under that name as a sideline. Come to think of it, a take on ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’ might prove quite a tonic right now.

“Ha! Well, a guy in Portugal tells us he’s going to start a band called the Fakespearos! Then there’s those who call us The Shakespeareos, which sounds like some kind of fucking breakfast cereal!”

But while the lockdowns, pandemic restrictions and the virus itself have caused frustration and plenty of heartache, and there’s added uncertainty over future European dates as a result of the ongoing Brexit nightmare, Duncan’s kept himself well and truly busy through the Beautiful People boxset project.

“I don’t suppose we’ll sell an awful lot, but people who want to know what it was all about can now have everything.”

Was that good timing, coming during a period where you’ve been able to play live, or is it something you’ve been meaning to fit in for a long time?

“It was a case of someone coming to us, saying they’d like to put this out.”

All because of a chance conversation with Mike Bennett, and him subsequently helping get you a deal with the people at Gonzo?

“Yes, he was full of how good the Beautiful People were, and said, ‘I know so many people who love that record,’ making me realise there were an awful lot of people dotted around who had it and loved it, and it had quite a big effect, historically … on a cult level.

“That’s a really lovely thing, to be thought of like that. I’m really pleased, even though we never made any cash out of the record. It was nice that it had such an effect.” 

Cover Stars: Caught on vinyl, first time around, at Ben’s Collectors’ Records in uptown Guildford (Photo: Ben Darnton)

To purchase the remastered Beautiful People’s If 60’s Were 90’s boxset and related merchandise, head to https://www.musicglue.com/beautiful-people/. You can also learn more about the band via this Facebook link. And for the latest from The Shakespearos, head here.

Compiled with a further nod to David Shephard for his Soundscene Does Facebook page, and his hard graft putting together those Surrey & North Hants rock family trees in the first place.

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Taking the Afrobeat message forward – in conversation with Femi and Made Kuti

Generation Game: Made and Femi Kuti, in tune with each other, Nigeria, Africa and the world (Pic: Optimus Dammy)

At a time when hope and inspiration is needed perhaps more than ever, a brand new two-album package involving solo LPs from both Afrobeat legend Femi Kuti and his son Made fits the bill nicely.

The pair have joined forces to release Legacy +, featuring Femi’s Stop The Hate and Made’s For(e)ward (the cover art featuring portraits of the father and son musicians by Brooklyn-based artist Delphine Desane), both LPs attracting plenty of acclaim and proudly upholding the legacy of Nigerian innovator Fela Kuti – Femi’s father and Made’s grandfather – as torchbearers for change in their own right, the pair’s work steeped in the tradition of the Afrobeat genre he helped establish.

But this is no Afrobeat-by-numbers project. Each album showcases the respective Nigeria-based artists’ own unique vision and sound – Stop the Hate fusing life-affirming songs with political edge, and For(e)ward offering a more modern take, a progressive manifesto, testing boundaries, with Made performing every instrument.

The Kuti family name has been synonymous with Afrobeat since Fela’s breakout in the 1970s, its influence found in everything from hip-hop samples via Missy Elliot to a current London jazz resurgence, with both Femi and Made key to that continuing resonance.

Fela made his name singing out in protest at the Nigeria that stumbled out of British colonial rule, taking aim at the ruling military juntas of the ‘70s, while setting up his own commune, declaring it independent. More than a million mourners attended his funeral in 1997, and five decades after he recorded Fela’s London Scene at Abbey Road Studios, there’s finally a posthumous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, the latest accolade in a headline-grabbing life for this influential multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, Pan-Africanist pioneer, and political activist.

Already the subject of a full-length documentary film, with a statue in Lagos in his honour, an annual music and arts festival held there on his birthday, celebrating his life and impact (Felabration), and plays and books written about him, many of Fela’s LPs have been remastered and reissued in recent years, alongside new compilations.

But while his legacy remains strong, almost a quarter-century after his passing, Femi and Made are exploring new approaches to Afrobeat, inspired by a man brave and bold enough to speak out on matters affecting his beloved country and continent. And it’s clear from these latest two additions to the Kuti canon that there’s still plenty to rail against. Until now, it’s been Femi leading the charge, keeping the legacy alive while taking his own path forward. But the new joint-release suggests the dynasty is in no way done for yet.

Over the years, Femi has amassed worldwide acclaim as an ambassador of Afrobeat and many humanitarian organisations, his Positive Force band remaining at the forefront of the movement, earning multiple Grammy nominations, performing on prestigious bills and at key festivals, and collaborating with iconic musicians across a wide array of genres, most recently Coldplay on the Everyday Life LP.

As for Made, he recently spoke out in support of anti-police brutality protests across Nigeria, that campaign leading to the government dissolving the notorious SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) police unit, taking to the streets himself, his father by his side.

And songs like ‘Free Your Mind’, the opening track on For(e)ward, are a great place to start in explaining Made’s world view, the 25-year-old, full name Omorinmade Anikulapo Kuti, revealing, “It is very much inspired by the teachings I received from my father and his efforts to make me understand exactly what the black man and woman’s situation is in Nigeria, Africa, and around the world.

“I think freeing your mind is, in a way, the opposite of what the phrase actually sounds like. ‘Free your mind’ almost sounds like decadence, like ‘don’t be constrained by anything, just take things as they are.’ I think the true meaning is to be critical. It means use your mind to its full potential—to think, to try to find answers and ask the right questions.”

Meanwhile, in ‘As We Struggle Everyday’, Femi – full name Olufela Olufemi Anikulapo Kuti , sings, ‘We try to find a better way … we people have the power to make our lives get better’. And he recently stressed, “’As We Struggle Everyday’ is to do with how hard people work every day to make ends meet and still go to vote corrupt politicians into power who are meant to be in jail.”

Then, on ‘Pa Pa Pa’, the joyful opening track on Stop the Hate, he insists, ‘We must face the government; the government must not waste our time’. And there’s a similar theme explored on Made’s ‘Different Streets’, telling us, ‘That’s why I know the difference between making an honest living and corrupt embezzlement.’

It seems, I put it to them during a Zoom call between Lancashire and Lagos, there’s still a determination and perceived need to carry on the struggle, taking on the family’s cultural and political legacy.

Femi: “Yes!”

Made: “And you could argue that there’s more work to do now than there was before. In many ways it’s got even worse here.”

There’s certainly an equal determination from you both – reflected in your music – to fight for a brighter future. Was that part of the thinking behind the joint-LP idea? Two generations for the price of one and strength in partnership, proudly carrying on that legacy as torchbearers for change?

Femi: “Not really. I think we just did our own thing, and it just happened. Everything just came together.”

Made: “I think my Dad’s ‘Set Your Minds and Souls Free’, coming just before ‘Free Your Mind’ was also a coincidence. A lot of it was just us being in synch.”

Femi: “Nothing was planned! The joint album wasn’t really planned. We were supposed to release the albums at different times last year, and I just thought, ‘Wow, it would be great to have a joint album, because no parent and child had ever done that before’.

“That was special, and we should inspire people, show all these good things. I passed it to him, and he said, ‘Wow, we love it, Daddy!’, then we passed it to the label and management. So that’s where we are. But nothing was planned, and nobody knew what was going to happen.”

There’s much talk of legacy and family tradition, but isn’t it also just a story of two guys from different generations who love music and happen to make great records?

Femi: “Ah, the legacy’s there. But of course, we’re passing it about, playing music. Made plays all the musical instruments (on his LP) and recorded it all, and I still do six hours of practise (a day).

“That’s our life! Unfortunately, we have to sing about those things, because we live this situation. This poverty’s right outside our doorstep, we drive bad roads, we have bad healthcare. I don’t see a love story as important as the crimes I see outside – the kidnappings and the hatred. But I hope the music will inspire change, and I think Made can speak for himself …” 

Made: “Because of our upbringing, the books we read, the conversations we have, the life we experience, the music is really just a reflection of our state of mind.”

Where Fela first trod the boards, his son and grandson follow, each having learned their trade from an early age – Femi starting out in 1979, playing saxophone in his father’s band, Egypt ’80, and Made touring with his father, playing bass or saxophone in Positive Force.

Made: “That’s where it started for me. I showed little interest in many instruments at a young age! I’d say, ‘I want to play the trumpet’, then would do one year with the trumpet, drop it for the sax, then do the same with the piano. And during my A-levels I was teaching myself the bass.

“But somewhere after I came back from Trinity (College of Music, London) in 2018, I started to practise a lot, about 12/14 hours every day, and wanted to reflect in my music the possibility that I could communicate every single detail on my own, wanting listeners to have that kind of intimate experience with the sound.”

It’s not just about carrying on a Kuti tradition. There’s also a responsibility to Afrobeat, honouring its past and many components, while taking it on to the next generations, pushing boundaries even further. That’s clearly something you both feel passionately about.

Made: “I feel very passionate about Afrobeat. It’s the fundamental element in everything I publish that I compose. My Dad has said many times it’s like Fela discovered the universe, we understood that universe, then ventured out to find many other universes – my Dad’s family’s universe. I’m still exploring my universe, and he’s still exploring his, with Afrobeat the fundamental element to reach the universe.”

It also seems you’re both still having to hammer the message home about the evils of racism, corruption and division the world over, not least in America and the UK.

Father Figure: Femi Kuti, still with plenty to share, judging by new LP, Stop the Hate (Photo: Sean Thomas)

Femi: “We’ll probably do this for the rest of our lives. I think those problems will always be. That’s why we’ll always have to talk about it. We have to keep on educating the minds of the people, including our minds.  

“Human life is about development, knowledge, wisdom, and its teachings. All we’re doing is … while we’re playing, we’re teaching ourselves, and what we learn, spiritually, we pass to the next person. We train ourselves not to hate, not to be envious, we train ourselves to be tolerant, to be humble.

“This reflects in our albums, and I think we understand we are just mediums. That’s why the artist has always remained humble. Evil will always exist, whether we like it or not, I think, and that’s why we always have to show the positive side of living and encourage people.  

“This has gone on for generations, and thousands and thousands of years, to lead to the path of righteousness and virtues. And that is all we’re doing.  

“I think it’s worse right now. Maybe it’s the age we live in – there’s so much hatred; capitalism has taken a very different form; there’s the right wing; wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and its kidnappings; then the pandemic comes … things seem to have gone for the worse.

“But whilst we talk about it, we still have to remain optimistic. We can’t give up hope. That’s where people like us come in – in order to give people hope. The suicide rate is high, but maybe music like this just says, ‘Oh, there are people feeling what I feel.”  

Trumpet Messenger: Lagos-based Made Kuti is on fine form with his new LP, For(e)ward (Photo: Optimus Dammy)

Fela wasn’t the first to speak out in the family. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, campaigned for women’s rights and against colonialism, and her husband was a proud union man, Anglican minister and school principal. In short, Femi and Made come from a proud tradition of orators, campaigners and activists.  

Made: “Yes, and we’ve traced the music in the family as well, and it’s going back seven generations.”

A devastating raid in 1977 on Fela’s commune, after Nigerian government forces took exception to his critical message on that year’s Zombie (a raid involving 1,000 soldiers, with Fela severely beaten and his elderly mother thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries, with the commune burned, and his studio, instruments and master tapes destroyed), would surely have proved enough for many. But here you are – his son and grandson – almost 45 years later, still speaking out, taking on the struggle. That says something about a spirit of determination and maybe an inner strength.

Femil: “Mmm … maybe it’s gospel, maybe it’s from outer space somewhere, giving us that courage or wisdom, not to give up. Maybe … who knows! I really don’t think about it. Probably, if we thought deeply, we would probably think of a different path. I don’t know. It’s strange, you know.”  

Made: “I do wonder how my Dad, despite so many things he experienced – like the jailings, the beatings, all those past experiences, the fear of losing a father, of losing your mother and your sisters … I haven’t had that struggle, those risky encounters.”

Femi: “And then the rebuilding of the (New Afrika) Shrine … I really don’t know, when I look back, sometimes … yesterday, I woke up very scared, because Nigeria is going through a very dark period, people drumming the drumbeat of war. There’s the kidnappings …

Trail Blazer: The 1961 LP Fela’s London Scene, by Fela Kuti, introduced many to the emerging genre of Afrobeat

“I fear for my family. I fear for everything. I woke up so depressed yesterday. But this has always been my state … of life. I think that’s where the music comes in. Because the music is what gives me the wisdom or the courage to continue.  

“I wake up, then I practise, and find some faith in music and practising. I just want to practise for hours, and I notice whilst I practise it eases this pain in me. I just think of my family, see the beautiful children I have, and I worry, then I practise – this has always been the vicious circle in my life!”

Fela Kuti was a complex man, a man of his time in certain respects. History records him as a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, political activist, Pan-Africanist, pioneer of Afrobeat. But how about his role as a father – how did he measure up there?

Femi laughs a little, possibly considering how best to answer that. Instead, I ask Made – who grew up in the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos – about the impact on his life of his grandfather, who died when he was barely two.

Made: “I was too young to remember him. The only encounters I had with him come from stories my Dad has told me, like giving me my name. It’s second-hand memories, not first.”

Femi: “To put it politely, he wasn’t a special father. Just to remain polite! But I will state that I think he will have made a great grandfather. Because at that time he recognised his mistakes with me.

Roots Radical: Zombie, the 1977 LP by Fela Kuti, caused shockwaves in his native Nigeria, and far beyond

“And every time my eldest sister sees Made writing a song or playing with his band, she cries, because she just can’t stop imagining how my father will have reacted. I think Made will have been his favourite person. He will have loved Made. It was already showing.

“Made will have been able to read music, and will have been able to have all these discussions … all that he couldn’t do with me, he was already showing that with Made as a baby and as a toddler.

“Made was born in 1995 and he died in 1997, but as soon as Made was born, he was already very sick. They had to carry him to my house. He said he had to be there to give him his name. And he would ask, ‘Bring him to see me, I want to see him!’ So this bond was already developing very strongly at that time.”

Fela was born when Nigeria was still a British colony, and there are key UK links down the years, not least with Femi born in London in 1962. Furthermore, Made – unlike his father, who didn’t formally study music – studied at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, as did Fela when it was Trinity College of Music (having initially planned to study medicine on arrival in 1958, like his brothers). That must have been a special connection for you, I suggested.

Made: “It really was, and it was even better, because the head of composition was a fan of Fela, and was very interested when I said I wanted to take Afrobeat into a contemporary classical setting and to experiment, which was what the composition course was about – that experimentation.  

“It was a really nice experience, all the way through. I learned a lot of things I never knew before. I only wish that my Dad had that experience as well. But I know he’s given me that experience and my joy … he sees that and can experience it. Trinity was a special experience.”

Finally, Fela was known for his showmanship, his concerts proving memorable events, and that’s something you’ve both taken forward.

Femi: Yeah … in our own way!”

Made: “Yeah, in our own way. Ha!”

Sounding Out: Made and Femi Kuti, spreading the gospel of Afrobeat to new generations (Photo: Sean Thomas)

The two-album Legacy + package is out now via Partisan Records, featuring both Femi Kuti’s Stop the Hate and Made Kuti’s For(e)ward LPs. For more details head to the official Femi Kuti and Made Kuti websites.

You can also keep in touch with Femi Kuti via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and with Made Kuti via Instagram, Twitter and YouTube 

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Back in time with K÷ – in conversation with Peter Hook

Live Presence: Peter Hook is missing the thrill of touring right now, and is eager to return soon (Photo: Ant Mulryan)

It was suggested I should persevere when trying to get hold of Peter Hook, the Joy Division and New Order bass guitar legend not always likely to answer his phone.

The moment I was told that, I was reminded of our previous interview in December 2017, when it took a few days to get to speak to him, my interviewee finally calling back on a Saturday afternoon after a soundcheck in Belfast. But he picked up straight away this time.

“I’ve just been out with the dogs. I’ve done my bit. I was just tidying up you lot, then I’ll be watching Netflix with the rest of the bloody country.”

Anything else lined up (I asked, mischievously)?

“Are you joking? Mate, I thought it was bad in January and February last year, watching all my dominoes fall down. But someone put all my dominoes back up, moved them to 2021, and now they’re all fucking falling down again!”

Despite the gruff exterior, Peter’s enjoying a rare bit of dedicated family time at present, locked down with his good lady and one of his children.

“Me and the better half have done very well, I must admit. After being away for 40 years … ha ha! … being thrust together for a year and a half has actually worked out fantastically. I could actually count our major arguments on one hand.

“The weird thing about being away all the time is that you get nothing done … and when you come back, you’re fucked – you don’t feel like doing anything. But because I’ve been here, I’ve managed to get loads of stuff done, which has been very satisfying.

“I’m keeping fit, and as a grumpy old bloke who never goes anywhere … we went out the other day to Sainsbury’s, and I realised I’d not been outside the door of our house, apart from walking the dogs, and haven’t mixed in public with anyone for three and a half weeks.

Ritz Cracker: Peter Hook in trademark low-slung bass action at the Ritz, Manchester, happy to be facing the crowd

“I’m in the vulnerable category – I’ve got asthma, pneumonic scarring on my lungs, so have to be really careful. It’s weird, isn’t it. How are you coping?”

We talk some more about having our children home, university studies carrying on from home – from Sheffield in my case – for now. And I suggest it’s the younger generation I feel most sorry for – missing out on vital life experiences. They should be out, living life.

“Doing what we bloody did! My daughter was at Sheffield, graduated last year and is now doing a Master’s in Newcastle. I took her back to have a picture with the name of the college. There was no graduation do, but the kids were going down, posting pictures of themselves next to the name.

“It’s been awful. It’s going to be two years we never get back … and at our age it’s maybe more important! It’s quite odd for me as a musician. I had a massive hit with ‘Aries’, then – lo and bloody behold – Jaz got in touch with me, told me he’s found this fricking tape!”

The single ‘Aries’ was from the latest Gorillaz LP, Song Machine Season One – Strange Timez, and he’s also talking about K÷, described as a ‘unique collaboration between kindred spirits’, namely Peter, the afore-mentioned Jaz Coleman, and his Killing Joke bandmate, guitarist Geordie Walker.

On March 5th, they’re set to release the K÷93 EP on numbered 10” clear vinyl in a gatefold sleeve, limited to just 2,000 copies worldwide, also including a gig flyer postcard and exclusive sleeve notes by Jaz and Peter.

Recorded in 1993 at Peter’s Suite 16 Studios, the former Cargo Studios in Rochdale where Joy Division recorded as far back as 1978, the recordings were lost until last November, when Chris Kettle (formerly of E.G. Records) handed Jaz a DAT cassette at a record signing for Magna Invocatio in a London record store, saying, ‘Look what I found’. Remastered from the original cassette, the session according to Jaz, ‘could be described as spontaneous and magical. I think it sur­prised all of us. Peter encouraged the softer, lower tones of my voice. And then we emerged from the haze and went our separate ways.”

Jaz added, “When you listen to this rare chemistry, you will understand why I’ve always felt this experience begs for a full opus magnum somewhere in the near future.”

Finder’s Keepers: Jaz Coleman unearthed tracks from 1993’s sessions with Geordie and Hooky (Photo: Mont Sherar)

I’ve had those three tracks on repeat for a while now, and I’m impressed. Not at all what I initially expected … even though I’d read the advance publicity. My favourite track is ‘Scrying’, the gothic feel you might expect beautifully fused with melodic touches. Think where the more commercial Cure and Damned were headed in the mid-‘80s, add a little more menace and elements of electronica, Jaz building upon Geordie’s accomplished guitar and Peter’s distinctive bass. That said, it’s not over-obviously Hooky, and as for the vocals – switching between beautifully under-stated and more impassioned but still not over-wrought – it’s definitely not what I’d associate with Jaz, who adds more pegged-back but still brooding and powerful (alternating between gruff and more sensuous) vibe among the minor chord workouts, while stirring synth floats above Geordie’s subtle touches.

Maybe that’s the byword and by-product here – subtlety. From all three musicians involved. It’s certainly difficult to equate with the might of Killing Joke’s ‘Millennium’ the following year … and yet, I see more similarities there than with New Order’s Republic, released that summer. More to the point, whatever they decided to conjure up in the studio, it worked. But what’s Peter’s take on it all, 28 years later?

“I played that session – we did eight songs together – and a lot of my friends who heard it, loved it, and kept asking, ‘Where’s the tape?’. I told them I didn’t know, I’d lost the cassette, and also – which I’m a little more annoyed about considering it was my recording studio – we didn’t have the master tapes. So they must have been skipped somewhere.

“When I came to do the New Order memorabilia for an auction last May, they were asking, ‘Have you found that tape yet?’. I’ve since been through the whole of my tapes – 500 of the buggers! – and it’s not there. So when Jaz phoned to tell me he’d found three, I was absolutely delighted. And when I heard these three tracks, I was even more delighted, because they were really fucking good!

“It was an odd session. I was asked to do an experimental recording session in Cologne by a promoter who’d put New Order on, a nice guy I’d got to know quite well. He came up with this concept of hiring out this four-studio complex, getting 20 musicians from different walks of life – including a lot of older German musicians from Faust and Can – and putting them all together.

“It was like reality TV, putting them into teams, and I was delighted because he shoved me in with Geordie and Jaz. I knew them both very well. We used to play with Killing Joke as Joy Division, there was huge rivalry between us, which has never gone away – we fought like fucking cat and dog!

“But I always liked their attitude, I love Geordie as a guitarist, thought Jaz was stark raving fucking mad! I knew (Paul) Raven really well as well. I’d go to the Embassy Club with him, Siouxsie and the Banshees roadies, Richard Jobson, and the DJ who owned the club … oh, what’s his name?”

We paused there while I tried to work out who Peter was referring to.

“We’ve got a senior fucking moment, mate! I can fucking see him! It’ll come to me … anyway, we had a wild old time.”

It’ll probably come to you in the middle of the night – you’ll be shouting it out in bed.

“Yes, and the wife will go, ‘No, not again!’ Ahh – Rusty Egan! That’s who it was! Phew! He’d have killed me if I’d lost his name.

“Anyway, we had a lot to do with each other, and when Killing Joke came to Manchester, I’d go and see them, meet up with Jaz, Geordie, Raven, and then Youth. We were very good acquaintances. If the boys needed anything in Manchester, they’d phone me.

“So, on FreeSpiel (the name of the project), we worked in the studio, did two songs very quickly, which turned out really well. I had a few words with Jaz though. He started singing like in Killing Joke. I said, ‘Mate, have you ever thought of just singing?’ He went (adopting shouty Southern tones), ‘What do you fucking mean?’

“We had a bit of a ding-dong with that, but I got him to sing, which I was delighted about … and he sounded great. And sometimes we need pulling up, whatever we’re doing.

“The session worked very well, then that evening we went out, got absolutely plastered, and they played me their new record. They were having problems with Youth at the time. He’d left, and they asked if I’d join Killing Joke. I was like, ‘What a compliment,’ and New Order weren’t getting on much better, so I considered it, but realised when I listened to the music that I didn’t play bass like that. It just didn’t feel right for me.

“I remember Jaz got really pissed off with me, saying I couldn’t do it, but we parted on good terms, and when we got home I got another phone call off him, asking if they could come down – him and Geordie – if we fancied doing more tracks.

“I said, ‘Yeah, fucking great!’, offered them my studio, so he said, ‘Right, we’ll come down, three weeks, see what we can come up with.’ I said great, no problem. Then, literally within hours my doorbell went, and there was Jaz and Geordie with all their bags. I said, ‘Eh? What are you doing? I thought you were staying in a hotel, not fucking moving in here!’.

“They proceeded to move in with me, like fucking Big Brother, for three weeks! You can imagine, it was a very interesting time, we’d go and work at Suite 16, with my mate Rex (Sargeant) as engineer. The tracks came very quickly and easily. In three weeks we had eight tracks, many with vocals, and – achieving one of my ambitions – I managed to rip off the bass from Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’. We had a song featuring that, which I was over the moon about, thinking about that for so long.

Cool As: Geordie Walker, up there with Paul Simonon in the cool stakes in Peter Hook’s eyes (Photo: Mont Sherar)

“So we went out, got fucking hammered at the Hacienda, had a wild three weeks, then they went back to London, and it wasn’t long after that I came down to talk to their management about forming a group, the three of us. I remember that meeting very well. It was very positive, the music was great, we were all quite happy, but then the manager said, ‘I’m going to set you the biggest task of all, you’re going to have to come up with a name’.

“We’d all been through that – a name can be the most difficult thing in the world, and I’ve no idea what happened, but I ended up going back to bloody New Order, and they told Youth I was thinking of joining .. so he came back. Ha ha!”

Perhaps that was all the inspiration he needed to return.

“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment. And basically, we forgot all about it and got on with our lives. I’ve only seen Jaz and Geordie a few times since … and we’ve never mentioned it. It was just left. So when he found the cassette, I was delighted. All we had to do then was think of a bloody name!”

That, I guess, is part of the positive side of this past year, being given the time to breathe and get the grey matter properly going. And it’s also given people the chance to root out these gems from darkened cupboards.

“Yeah, and I was delighted. That was a wonderful time, and I remember it very fondly, realising one of my ambitions by playing with Geordie, having always rated him – he’s an amazing guitarist, I love his style and everything about him. To me, he’s as cool as Paul Simonon.

“I don’t know how the record will be received, but whatever it leads to, I’ll be absolutely delighted.”

Last time we spoke, just over three years ago, you were in Belfast for that evening’s Peter Hook and the Light performance at the Limelight. Having the time of your life, I seem to recall.

“Yeah. Listen, the only thing that’s blighted my life has been this bloody legal battle with New Order. I’ve had a fantastic time apart from that.

Stepping Out: Peter Hook, immensely proud of the quality of tracks written with Jaz and Geordie (Photo: Ant Mulryan)

“I’ve heard of some group battles, but this one now has been going on 14 years, and I cannot believe the amount of energy, time and money we’ve put into it. I’m completely baffled. And with covid and what we’ve all gone through, people we’ve all lost throughout this period, it’s makes our fucking stupid arguments ridiculous.

“But you know, I keep saying to the wife, the good bit of my life – like The Light, what we achieved with ‘Blue Monday’, and what we’ve achieved throughout the whole 40 years, this is the price I have to pay. Ha ha!”

Yeah, maybe.

“Oh, thanks for agreeing with me! Ha! It’s like wearing a bloody hair shirt, innit!”

I have to say, it saddens me, those situations, bands I love, like The Jam, Slade, New Order, whoever, falling out …

“It’s weird, isn’t it. It’s that combination of ego and money, it seems to be the worse combination. I’m sure there are people in the business world that argue about money all the fucking time, but because they’re not in the public eye and they’re not fighting for fans or whatever …

“It’s very difficult, and it has to be said, you know … I’m not too sure how much I can tell you … but it’s very difficult that people expect you to act in a certain way, yet do nothing to deserve it, and you get stuck in a vicious cycle.”

You don’t think you’re any closer to resolving all this?

“No, I’d say we’re as far away today as we were on this day in 2007. In fact, if anything, it’s worse.”

New Direction: New Order’s debut LP, Movement, 10 months after first single ‘Ceremony’, turns 40 later this year

Let’s talk some brighter anniversaries instead then, and there’s a big birthday coming your way (last weekend) – your 65th. Is that a scary proposition, or just another number?

“Ha ha! Is it scaring me? I guess in the way a number can scare you, considering my Dad died when he was 58, I suppose I’m lucky to get to 65. The odd thing is, I was doing an interview about John McGeoch the other day, and you start realising how many of your contemporaries you’ve lost. It’s absolutely awful, and just here in Manchester, losing people like CP Lee, Mark E Smith …”

Both names I was about to bring up.

“CP was such a nice guy. I didn’t get to go to his funeral. And we lost one of our roadies a couple of weeks ago, with us from Joy Division days, and again couldn’t pay our respects. It’s like a surreal grief.”

With Pete Shelley gone not so long ago, of course.

“Yes, of course, the one who got me and Barney going. Without him, we wouldn’t have known what the fuck to do. He was so generous with his time, and so nice when we were starting. He was literally the only one that encouraged us. What a lovely man.”

One of the last gigs I saw in 2019, not long before the shutters started to come down, involved Steve Diggle’s latest Buzzcocks line-up playing Gorilla, Manchester. Such an emotional night, back there on the band’s home turf.

“Yeah, and I played with the Buzzcocks – with Pete – that summer. They were on just after us, and I was saying to him, ‘Fucking hell, this is weird, innit – me and you still here! Ha! The way we started, almost together.’ Of course, his group was formed to support the Sex Pistols that second time (they visited Manchester).”

And this summer marks 45 years since the first momentous Lesser Free Trade Hall happening in Manchester.

“Yeah, we were running neck and neck. I’m very blessed, mate, and think when I do wake up Saturday morning, I will be thanking my lucky stars. And I’m raring to go!”

First Cover: The original Blue Monday sleeve by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens resembled a ​5 1⁄4 inch floppy disc

Seeing as you mentioned CP Lee, I have to ask about Gerry & the Holograms’ self-titled EP lead track.

“What’s that one?”

The one some might suggest shared key characteristics with New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’.

“Oh, the piss-take?”

Well, maybe … but that was out first.

“Yes, it was. You know what, CP, I’d known him a long, long time, and he taught my daughter at college. Amazingly, he arranged for me to give out the prizes – me and Mrs Merton (Peter’s ex – the late Caroline Aherne) – one year at Salford College, a fucking hoot ‘cos we were both pissed.

“He was such a great friend. As the singer of the Albertos (Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias), I used to see him and Bruce (Mitchell, also of the Albertos), and CP would go to great lengths to tell me it was him who shouted, ‘Judas!’ at Bob Dylan at the Free Trade Hall, when he played electric guitar. Yeah, the guy’s a fucking legend!

“And I believe they’ve made a little shrine to him in his pub, with his umbrella, which he left last time he was in. I’m really looking forward to visiting that … soon as we’re allowed.”

There seems to be real kinship between all those Manchester and Salford acts from back then. You’re still out there, give or take the last year, as is Jez Kerr with A Certain Ratio, while Johnny Marr’s in a continued rich vein of form, and somehow John Cooper Clarke seems to get younger by the year.

“He’s the only bloody one! Ha!”

New Dawn: The iconic cover of 1979’s debut Joy Division LP, Unknown Pleasures, the beginning of the story

And from the previous generation, someone like Graham Nash’s still coming up with the goods.

“Yeah, and we’ve played with Graham quite a lot, supporting the Hacienda Classical, so I see him quite a lot.”

I was briefly baffled at this, later realising he mis-heard, thinking I’d mentioned Graham Massey, of 808 State. But we’d already moved on.

“Yeah, so really the only ones I’m not friendly with are the rest of fucking New Order! Ha! How bonkers is that?”

As for Mark E Smith, it’s now been three years since we lost him. How did you rub along with him, and the rest of the band for that matter?

“Yeah, the band were gorgeous people. I knew them all very well. But Mark was very difficult. We were really in competition ever since we first played with them. We did the first punk festival in Athens when Greece first opened up and became democratic.

“I also played with him at a Derek Hatton benefit, and saw them play a lot, but every time we did an interview together it was very caustic. I remember doing one for Melody Maker and he was proper off on it. We were arguing like fuck, taking the piss out of each other. He said, ‘Listen, I’ve got a fucking plastic bag ‘ere, with all my takings from Ireland in. I’ve just come back off tour’. And I said, ‘I bet that’s not very heavy, you twat!’

“We were proper going at each other, then I got up, went for a wee. We were both having a drink, put it that way. While I’m in the urinal, he walked in, and I thought, ‘Ay up, he’s going to have a go, the twat!’ And he just got his nob out, went to the next urinal, and went, ‘How’s it going? Not bad this, is it? Good craic.”

“I thought, ‘Fucking hell, what is this?’ So you did get that aspect of him being a wind-up merchant, shall we say. And I remember him getting his own back once, when I went out with Mrs Merton, and he came up, kept telling her I was shagging loads of women behind her back. Every time I moved away from her, he would go over … bastard, he got me in some trouble that night!

Bass Instinct: Peter Hook in live action. And he’s itching to get back out, soon as he can (Photo: Connor Griffin)

“So yeah, we had a very healthy, antagonistic relationship. But I went to his funeral, met friends there, and it was as nice as it could possibly be.”

Well, next time I hear ‘Carrier Bag Man’, perhaps I’ll think of you.

“Well, please do! I suppose it was one of those good-natured jibes at the Melody Maker interview, where I said, ‘I won’t be going to your funeral, y’bastard,’ and him going, ‘I’ll be going to yours, y’bastard!’. And unfortunately, he lost that one, God bless him.

“Y’know though, he’s an under-rated musician. It amazes me when you listen to some of their tracks, then hear the trouble they had making them. They always worked in Suite 16 with my great mates Rex Sargeant – God rest his soul – and CJ (Chris Jones), the keyboard player in Revenge.

“He’d say they were fighting constantly. How they got anything done … but by God, didn’t it give them an edge! And I was thinking today, characters like him are sorely missed. You don’t get characters like him anymore, do you.”

While we’re talking history and anniversaries, it’ll have been 40 years last month since ‘Ceremony’ came out the first time. A great single, and listening back, I see that as a continuation of where you’d been heading with Joy Division. And within three months, you’d be recording that first New Order album, although it would be mid-November before Movement was released.

“That’s a bit scary, 40 years, isn’t it. Perhaps I should pop round to Bernard’s with a bottle of champagne.”

Captain Hook: Peter Hook, in the swing of things as The Light shone out on the scene in 2017 (Photo: Craige Barker)

Good call. Why not!

“Ha ha! I could lob it over the fence – ha ha! But I suppose it is … 40 years! And it always struck me, and one of the reasons I started The Light when I was unemployed, was because I couldn’t believe that as an entity we never celebrated anything to do with Joy Division. Throughout the whole of our career.

“And here we are now, not celebrating anything to do with New Order either! It was the anniversary of New Order’s first gig last year, we did nothing for that, and it’s just such a great shame. I’ll never … I just cannot admit they are New Order now. So we get off on the wrong foot right away.

“I do understand the survival technique needed, but … yeah, it is a great shame. And the thing is, the fans I’m sure would love any kind of olive branch – anything you could do would make everybody much better. But you never know, mate. Listen, we never thought we’d see a time like this in our lives …”

So when was the last time you saw a live band, or that you played in public?

“My God! We finished a tour of America at the end of November 2019, then I had three months off to do the New Order memorabilia auction … then covid came, I lost 150 gigs last year, and it’s looking like I’m going to miss the same amount this year, which is devastating.

“But listen, I’m fit and healthy …”

Is your vaccine jab booked yet?

“I’ve heard nothing … but I go up a category this Saturday. I’ve heard of a few people who have had the jab, so I can’t be far away.”

Maybe someone has been modifying your date of birth on the records.

“Hey! As long as they’re not modifying my jab! If I wake up with two heads, you’ll know who did it!”

As for this weekend’s birthday party, I’m guessing you’re not hiring a huge warehouse in Manchester on the sly. A quiet one at home, is it?

“Yeah, I’m not great at celebrating birthdays, I must admit. I’m a pretty typical, olden male. But every morning I wake up and thank God for another day … another day to waste, pissing about doing fuck all! But listen, we’ve all still got stuff to do. And I can’t believe it. I still feel fucking 24! Unbelievable.”

And long may that last.

“Well, thank you very much! You have a great time …”

And with that, he’s away, off to watch Netflix presumably.

To pre-order the K÷93 10”, featuring the songs, ‘Remembrance Day’, ‘Giving Up The Ghost’, and ‘Scrying’, plus exclusive merchandise, including t-shirts and mugs, head here

For the latest from Peter Hook, head here. For news from Killing Joke, follow this link. And for details of Chris Bryans’ impressive A Prophecy Fulfilled, ‘a tale of pioneers and revelations’ and a people’s history written about and with the co-operation of Killing Joke (This Day in Music Books, 2020), head here.

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Timeless cack-handed melodies – talking The La’s and Shack with Iain Templeton

Doorstep Troubadour: Action stills from Solian’s ‘B-Side the Sea’ promo video, Iain Templeton donning film-maker Jason Biggs’ Sunderland scarf on location in downtown Liverpool (Photo: WriteWyattUK via The Pool Underground)

“I’ve kind of been airbrushed out of their history really. I was busking in a band on Bold Street, and someone said, ‘The La’s are checking you out.’ I replied, ‘Ah, fuck The La’s. Syd Barrett meets The Beatles. Not interested!”. But then Lee (Mavers) came up to me. him and John (Power). He always had a bit of an entourage with him. This was early 1988. He said, ‘You’re our new drummer!’. The first thing he said to me. ‘This is biblical, la! You’re our new drummer. You are The La’s drummer.’

“I pretended I didn’t know who he was. I said, ‘Ah, no, not my scene’. They asked if they could go round my flat when I’d finished, play me a few songs. It was about teatime, Saturday night, they left at two in the morning and were back at nine, then went back to Huyton, where they lived. They stayed until I said, ‘Alright, I’ll give it a shot’.

“So I joined them, but he was so myopic – everything was ‘right’, everything had to have ‘dignity’! He’d say, ‘You’ve got to stomp with your right foot!’ I’d swing between left and right, and he was like, ‘No, you’ve got to do it like this, la!’. I was with them probably five or six months. I was the guy who left them, so he airbrushed me out. I don’t really get a mention.

“But there were about 40 drummers! They had Chris Sharrock waiting in the wings. I told them they didn’t need me, they needed someone like Chris. Lee’s Dad told me, ‘You’re like Gene Krupa!’ He was lovely. When I left, Lee said, ‘I could cry, la, but I won’t!’ I suggested, ‘Get your Neil’, and he said, ‘It’s not the fucking Osmonds, la!’. Neil’s a really great drummer, but that’s what he said at the time.

“He’d seen me busk in town, stood up with a bass drum, ride-cymbal, mounted tom and snare. From then he wanted stand-up drummers. Neil would stand up. Don’t get me wrong, Chris Sharrock was a great drummer, but … he went from Robbie Williams to Oasis, that’s what you need to know. He’s established, a bit mainstream … but he played with Lou Reed, man! A nice lad. I remember seeing him in a pub in town one afternoon. He’d been with them about a month. He asked, ‘How do you handle them?’ I said, ‘Well, I left, didn’t I?’.”

I’ve experienced some long interviews down the years, and my chat with Iain Templeton, known to some as Tempo, is certainly up there with them. I wrote lots of questions, but it took an age to get through just a few of them. It didn’t matter though. Most of what I wanted to ask came up, anecdotes about his spell with The La’s a perfect example (even if official records suggest 10 drummers rather than 40). And soon we moved on to his next prestigious employer, one assuring his place in the rich history of Liverpool’s music scene.  

“I’d only been in Liverpool a year and a half when I got with The La’s, where John Power was like an acolyte to the Messiah, Lee. Then I got with Shack and it was brothers – that was even thicker. It was all cocaine as well, which I didn’t like. And the reason I left Shack three times early doors, was because of The La’s experience. The songs were brilliant, but Scousers, for being so broad-minded were also so myopic. At least that’s my experience.”  

Live Tempo: Paris 2018 with Silvain Vanot, (Video copyright: Arnaud Bringer-Casanova / Les Champs Magnétiques)

I won’t bother with background detail about The La’s. If you’re reading this, you probably know enough. I’ll still say it though – their self-titled 1990 debut LP (the only one, as it turned out) was a work of genius. And while there’s not too much mention of Iain’s part in the official story (many of the parts were re-recorded, and as far as I can tell one of the few public airings of his part in the band’s short but rich history was a BBC Radio One session for Liz Kershaw in May ’88), it’s in the small print.

As for Shack, the same principles apply. If you’ve got this far down the interview, I reckon you’ll know about the cult Merseyside outfit formed by Michael and John Head, previously at the forefront of The Pale Fountains. Again, the word genius comes into it. If you’ve somehow missed out though, you’ll do far worse than start with 1999 LP, HMS Fable. And this time, Iain’s name is written large on the credits.

That wasn’t his only contribution though. He featured on Michael Head and the Strands’ LP, The Magical World of the Strands, recorded around 1993 and finally released in 1996, something of a bridge between the first and second comings of Shack. And Tempo largely stuck around since, also proving integral to 2003’s …Here’s Tom with the Weather (its title a nod to the Bill Hicks line, but partly in reference to his son of the same name, a regular around the studio as a youngster) and 2006’s On the Corner of Miles and Gil (named in tribute to a musical partnership that duly inspired Michael Head – Miles Davis and Gil Evans). And I put it to my interviewee that while the online history suggests he was on board from 1991/92, then 1998 onwards, I get the feeling it’s more complicated.

“I got with them in 1990, lasted a year and a half, falling out with them in a studio in London which ended up being smashed, part of the Waterpistol debacle. I walked out at half two in the morning, said, ‘You can fuck off!’, went back to where we were staying, grabbed my weed and my bag, and hitched home. It took me 16 hours to get to Liverpool!

“That was in a studio called Star Street, where the Ghetto (Recording Company) label was based. The irony, eh! The label was set up by music publisher Dick Lee, and Ian Broudie did the early Lightning Seeds stuff there. They had an office upstairs, and this demo studio downstairs.

“Too much brandy and coke. I wasn’t used to that horrible white shit. We had this big scrap, then I walked off, said I’m going home … forgetting it was in London! Ha! They probably thought I’d be in the room when they got back.”

I should add some background history. Waterpistol was the second Shack album, recorded in 1991 – on the back of less-celebrated 1988 debut, Zilch – but the Star Street studio where it was chiefly made burnt down shortly after, with most of the tapes destroyed. The sole remaining DAT was with producer Chris Allison, at that time in Los Angeles. Word has it that on returning, he left his copy in a hire car. It was found weeks later after a frenzied search, but by then Ghetto had folded, the LP without a distributor.

Accordingly, Shack split, bass player Pete Wilkinson joining John Power of The La’s in Cast, with Waterpistol not released until 1995, via German indie label Marina. In the meantime, the Head brothers – after a few dates backing Arthur Lee’s Love, formed the afore-mentioned Michael Head & The Strands, earning further critical acclaim when the resultant Magical World LP finally surfaced, increased interest leading to them soon working on the sessions that would lead to the highly-acclaimed HMS Fable, Tempo long since back on board.

“I’d just split up with my Chilean girl, went to the Canary Islands, and they went to Sheffield to mix The Strands album with the guy who did the first Oasis album. But they were on smack. I was putting down drums on tracks they’d already recorded.

Live Presence: Iain Templeton, Paris 2018, guesting on ‘Queen Matilda’, (WriteWyattUK via Arnaud Bringer-Casanova)

“When I (first) came back, we had a little skirmish, about 1995, but later that year they got a deal and said, ‘Look, we can give you three ton a week. Are you doing it?’ I said yeah, and 1996 to 2006 proved a very active time. After that, John wouldn’t work with Mick, so we sort of fragmented. It’s been on and off, but a lot more on than off. Immense grey areas there. It hasn’t been easy. We did get together to do a couple of things though, and I wouldn’t rule out a reunion.”

With no Shack reunions I know about since 2010, Michael Head has worked with the Red Elastic Band in more recent years, as well as Bill Ryder-Jones, formerly with The Coral. Meanwhile, Iain remains in touch with and occasionally plays alongside John Head. As you can probably tell, throughout our conversation we drifted from subject to subject, but now and again we dipped back into Shack-related tales, like the following story.

“In 1992 I fell out with Mick Head, so I left, but when I saw them at the Everyman pub in town (later that year), he said, ‘Up for a jam sometime?’. I said, ‘Yeah, why not,’ and he said, ‘Well, how about a tour of Japan?’ So I ended up back with them, we went over to Japan, got to Osaka, got out of the bullet train (Shinkansen), and there were hundreds of people there. We were like, ‘What the f-?’. Then we turned around, and Gary Lineker was behind us. Mick shouted out, ‘Alright, Gary, yer bluenose!’. Straight out. There he is in Japan, just got into the city, and someone’s called him a Bluenose! Ha! Hilarious.”

For the uninitiated, that’s a term from the red half of Liverpool for those associated with Everton, with whom England striker Lineker featured for a season after seven years with hometown club Leicester City, leaving Goodison Park for three more under Terry Venables then Johan Cruyff at Barcelona. Three years followed for Tottenham Hostpur before an injury-ravaged two-term finale at Nagoya Grampus Eight. You probably knew all that, but at least that’s something where I can give a few certain dates. The history of Shack appears far more sketchy.  

Then there was a story touching on a friendship with a certain Zak Starkey, on board with The Who since 1996, but also spending between time stints with several other outfits, including Oasis from 2004/08, both of whom took Shack out on tour as a support band.

“We became good mates, me and Zak. I took to him to where his old man was born, and once everybody clocked who he was, they all started ripping beermats, ‘Here y’are, sign this! You’re just like your auld feller!’ And when he looks at you, he does look ‘Liverpool’. He looks local. A lovely guy.”

That pub was The Empress, the Dingle hostelry that features on the cover of Ringo’s 1970 solo LP, Sentimental Journey. In fact, he’d already mentioned that boozer, not far from his Toxteth base, when we’d somehow got on to Don Powell, him telling me a mate was in there one day, having a pint, when the legendary Slade drummer – a Beatles nut – walked in, making his own pilgrimage. 

“Those streets have been renovated now, and where Ringo lived was like a bombsite just 10 years ago, they go for a lot of money. Toxteth’s been regentrified.”

There’s plenty we didn’t get on to, for instance his work with David Gray, just before ‘Babylon’ took him to another level, a stint with Pete Wylie, around the time Liverpool venue The Picket was forced to close in 2004, and also the Last Poets’ Jalal Muriddin, and French singer-songwriter Silvain Vanot. But my main excuse for getting in touch was a forthcoming solo release, a project accelerated by the covid-19 shutdown, my interviewee only recently going public about his new songs, also conducting an online interview for Independent Venue Week with Greg Topolian … after a little encouragement.  

“I’d never really let anyone hear those songs, other than people who might play on them … until last August. I’d say, ‘I’ll be in your band if your songs are as good as mine’. But drummers tend not to get as much chance. Weather Report’s Peter Erskine said, ‘What’s the quickest way to split up a band? The drummer goes, ‘Hey guys, I’ve got a couple of tunes.’!’ Mick (Head) wanted one of mine on the last couple of albums, but it was hard enough for John. But now I’ve decided I’ve got to do this.”

Home Comforts: Tempo takes it easy, awaiting the verdict on his new solo venture (Photo copyright: Claire Melhado)

He sent me side one of his proposed album before our interview, side two soon following, Tempo intending to release them under the name Solian. The six songs on side one bleed into each other, something he attributes to a love of Manu Chao’s work. But while the lo-fi quality of the recording works so well, and I reckon they’re as good as ready, it seems he’s not averse to a few late changes, as I learned when my confusion over the name of the opening song (was it ‘Sweet Home’ or ‘Home Suite’?) led to him renaming it ‘Sweet Home Suite’ on the spot before telling me more about its origin.

“There’s a festival called Liverpool Light Nights, and I was booked to do this small gig next to the Anglican cathedral, at The Oratory. Then covid happened. But they had a theme, ‘Light Nights Present Home’, and on the poster I added the word ‘Stay’ before the last word, and felt this song would work in the circumstances. All those people complaining about not being able to have a haircut or being stuck at home during lockdowns. Having travelled around India and various places, I just feel we should think ourselves lucky we’ve got a home. There’s a lot of people in town whose home is a fucking tent!”

It’s a great start to the record – lush, laidback, ethereal, with gorgeous chord sequences and additional guitar from Jason Kristensen and John Head (having continued to occasionally work with the younger Head brother in recent years).

“There’s probably four guitars, mostly me, but I also had John on there, embellishing. You see, I’m left-handed and play upside down …”

A lengthy discussion followed with your fellow left-handed scribe, one I’ll hold back on for now other than to say he’s keen to conduct ‘a study into left-handedness in the arts’.

Back to the recordings, and we go straight into ‘B-side the Sea’ (he does love his wordplay), Tempo having made a promo video with guitarist Jason Biggs, part of his The Pool Underground venture.

“It was raining, so we were shooting it in Jason’s house. I said, ‘I really wanted to be beside the sea, but he said, ‘Iain, this song is about home. You’re just wishing you were beside the sea.’ Also a good way of minimising the expense! It’s a bit vaudeville, but it’s an instant song, and it’s got layers. It was the first track we did and the most commercial – it should get radio play. Yet it’s lo-fi, because I recorded it myself.”

Monochrome Set: Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton, grounded in black and white (Photo copyright: Alex Wolkowicz)

In the tradition of great tracks like The Coral’s 2003 single ‘Pass It On’, it’s barely two and a quarter minutes, not outstaying its welcome. And I suggested it has a George Harrison meets Dave Davies vibe.

“Wow! I’ve been sending stuff to a friend of Jason’s, Laura Rickenbacker – a great name for a bass player! She’s in Sweden, a total Beatles and Nilsson nut, and said, ‘The way to sum you up is you’re a dark horse, like George. I was knocked out by that, and both Greg and you have now mentioned The Kinks. Nice one.”

Discussion followed about our mutual favourite Kinks LP, Arthur, and their finest single, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, Tempo bringing the Head brothers in.

“He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but Ray Davies is a big influence on Mick, and John loves that Ray’s little brother, Dave, is still treated like a little brother. That dynamic – Shack was that really! That’s why I didn’t give them many songs. There was no room for mine.”

I love the seaside sound effects, and I’m also reminded of ‘Seaside’, the short introductory track on 2006 debut Kooks LP, Inside in/Inside Out, one I’ve put on many a holiday compilation. As for track three, again there’s a Kinks vibe. What’s it called? Is it ‘I’ll Be There For You’, as I scribbled down?

“That’s ’I Be There’. I didn’t want it to be another ‘I’ll Be There’. There’s loads of them. Yeah, I suppose there’s a Kinks thing there too, now I look back. I grew up with them and the Small Faces.”

He was soon off again, this time in praise of Steve Marriott and Dusty Springfield, then getting on to Ronnie Lane’s songcraft, Geno Washington’s stagecraft and Toxteth’s own The Chants and the band that followed, The Real Thing … before we get back to ‘I Be There’.

“My son was only four or five – around 18 years ago – when I came up with that. It was really me saying, ‘When I’m not there, I’m there! You’re always in my heart. I’ll be there, watching over you, and I’ll be coming home.’ That universally works as a love song … and it’s another single really.”

The whistling adds to its charm, I suggested, and somehow we get on to Lionel Bart’s Oliver soundtrack, Iain again in awe, before we get back on topic.

“That goes into a song called ‘Dayze’ … which is actually about night. It’s good to be arty at night, because most people are asleep and you can pick up on all the active vibes that are out there. As I say in the song, ‘Night-time is the time to be free, everything you own is really something you don’t need.’ You can just have a pair of shoes and a pair of shorts and get by in a warm country.”

Again, there’s a reflective, dreamy feel, its lovely over-lapping vocals really working.

“I double-tracked them. I was singing into my sleeve then. I’m more confident now! The lovely piano is played by Rachel Diop. She also plays clarinet, flute, she’s a great singer, plays guitar, an all-round, great musician, and having worked with fellas for so long, she’s so accommodating. That was our first collaboration. Once we’d got that piano in, it was like bricks and cement.

“I initially used a drum machine, and over-dubbed tom-toms and cymbal. I love drum machines. People say, ‘Aren’t they the enemy?’ No, that’s musicians – they’re the enemy!

“That then fits into ‘Free like a Bird’ …”

Ah, I’d written down ‘She Don’t Waste No Time’, maybe to distance it from posthumous Lennon-penned Beatles single ‘Free As a Bird’.

“Oh! Well, how about ‘Free (She Don’t Waste no Time)’? Getting this feedback is amazing!

“I wanted it to be all one word, like Love’s ‘Andmoreagain’ … but ‘Freelikeabirdinthesky’ looked ridiculous! That song’s really about, ‘Aren’t women lovely … the special ones’. It’s about my girlfriend who flew back to Chile – the regime was fucked, so she could go back. I always say, ‘She left me for another country’! She loved Chile, in her heart. And like the first song, it’s almost like the Cuban mountain music that initiated what we call salsa. When you play those chords, rumba-style … I love those chords. A lot of what I do is very Cuban, and therefore has West African roots, Spanish, Indian … even if it ends up sounding like The Kinks!”

Perhaps that fits in with this lad – in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from around the age of six to 17, by which time he was playing ‘in all sorts of pub bands, blues and everything’ – identifying with Liverpool. Like the port that became his home, all manner of international influences pass through and are taken on board.  But how did he end up on Merseyside?

“I first came here in 1986, to Toxteth, where I am today, for a party, over from Blackpool by car with three other lads. I met this woman, stayed the weekend, forgot my afro-comb, and she said, ‘Just leave it. It’ll go into locks’. I did, and I’m still here! And in my heart, I’m as scouse as anyone. These are my people. This is what I’m like – direct.

“I said to The La’s, ‘You can’t have me on drums. I’m not even a scouser.’ But Lee said, ‘You are now’. So after a year and a half, I was in the top band in town, being called an honorary scouser.”

Back to the record, the last track on side one – is it ‘Ocean Sea’, ‘Without You’, or ‘Only Wanna Be With You’?

“It’s actually ‘Sola Luna’. It’s about the sun and wanting to be out in the sun. And like ‘B-side the Sea’ it’s a dream, ‘the deep blue ocean calling me home’.”

There are more chord changes to savour there.

“Nice one. On the first demo it was more a love song. Then I sussed it was about the sun, adding ‘Luna’ as it’s a Ying and Yang thing, the duality of life – very important. You can’t have the sun without the moon. The moon turns the tides, and all that.”

Funnily enough, it reminds me a little of Paul Weller’s bandmate Andy Crofts’ band The Moons. And talking of Weller, his drummer Steve Pilgrim also features in Liverpool outfit The Stands (not to be confused with Michael Head’s Strands, although Steve Pilgrim has also played with Michael), a former Shack support band.

Talking of drummers, the introduction to the final track on side one reminds me of Ringo on ‘The End’ from Abbey Road, as sampled in the intro to ‘Get Back’ on the Love album.

“Well, when this album comes out of ‘Dayze’ and Free (She Don’t Waste no Time)’, it’s definitely got a Love element to it. And on ‘Sola Luna’ I think it’s all the way through … but it’s not conscious. I love that album, seeing Love as George Martin’s epitaph as well as the crossover with (son) Giles. A beautiful album.”

Again, it’s not far off a glorious final two and a half minutes, and for me has the feel of Neil Finn’s son Liam’s I’ll Be Lightning LP from 2007.

“You know Yorkie? His Mum’s house was where the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and Pale Fountains rehearsed, in the basement. He ended up playing bass for Space, and produced our last album (Shack’s 2006 LP On the Corner of Miles and Gil). He absolutely loves Crowded House and really loves Split Enz. He’d say, ‘Fuck Liverpool bands, these are the most rewarding of The Beatles’ crown!”

Well, check out I’ll Be Lightning, you’ll love the sound …

“What, it’s lo-fi and shit like mine? Ha!”

I was actually going to say that final track on side one has a soupy quality, like it’s come out of the speaker into some kind of vat.

“It’s a broth … all thrown into a pan of scouse. Juices come out, and there you go – soup!”

And like the album itself, it’s chock-full of timeless cack-handed melodies.

“Ah, man, that’s great!”

At this point, he decides to interview me instead. But I’m not quite done and plough on, picking up my programme from Catatonia’s Home Internationals in May 1999, having seen Cerys Matthews and co.’s showcase outdoor event at Llangollen, where, as well as a cracking headline set, there were memorable appearances from feted Welsh outfits Gorky’s Zygotic Mynki, Big Leaves and Richard Parfitt, and a certain band called Shack, third on the bill.

“Ah, yeah! We arrived on Friday night, got to the hotel late, but Cerys waited up for us, along with the bass player, Paul (Jones, on board from 1993 to the end in 2001). I got chatting to Cerys, and it was all a bit abstract, like meeting someone on a train. I told her, ‘Cerys, you are the Princess of Wales!’, and she gave me a big hug.

“When they came on the next night, she said, ‘What did you think of Shack? Great, aren’t they?’ And when we went to Margam Park, Port Talbot, she said it again.

“I was hanging with the bass player quite a bit, there with his wife and kids, and I was missing my son. Paul was about 55 then, having been in loads of bands in Wales (including Y Cyrff). I also recall meeting Cerys’ Dad, a doctor. Both her parents came to Port Talbot. I said, ‘You must be so proud of her’, and he said, straight back, ‘I’m proud of all of my kids’. A lovely thing to say.”

Shack certainly impressed that day, so I’m surprised it took a while before I got round to buying HMS Fable. Then again, within nine months we had our first daughter, so priorities changed, any disposable income disappearing. In fact, I’m not even sure I’d picked up on Michael and John having been at the heart of The Pale Fountains, despite having loved 1985’s From Across the Kitchen Table LP. Now, of course, I clearly hear parallels between the title track and ‘Natalie’s Party’, for a start.

“I think what it was, the Palies used to wear stupid clothes, like Oxford graduates from the ‘20s, and were trying to live that down. I think that’s part of the reason they wanted me on drums. I’d been in The La’s and they were trying to be like The La’s then. They wanted to go indie, get away from that over-blown Virgin, spend-a-fortune image.

“Actually, when we went to Japan, we were called Shack/The Pale Fountains, doing all those songs, and I ended up playing with the Palies at a reunion, the original drummer, Jock (Thomas Whelan), struggling with his walking. But I played on a few songs with him, and it was lovely – that line-up complete but for the bass player, Chris ‘Biffa’ McCaffrey, who sadly died in 1989.

“Actually, my most beautiful memory with Shack was from the second time I was with them, when Mick turned to John and said, ‘It’s like having Biffa back’. Biffa was his best friend, and only 28 when he died. When I got the depth of what I’d heard him say, that blew my mind. It’s a deep love I’ve got with them boys, and Wilkie.”

That’s bass player Peter Wilkinson, part of the 1990/91 version of Shack before joining John Power’s Cast, in more recent years featuring with both Echo and the Bunnymen and returning to Shack. But back to Llangollen …

“Everyone was great backstage. A lot of Welsh spoken, but soon as you came along, they’d go into English. Gorky’s were great too.

“After that we ended up doing the Manics’ Millennium Stadium shows in Cardiff, New Year’s Eve ‘99. They were lovely lads. I remember James Dean Bradfield knocked and came into our room, said, ‘Alright lads’, went back out and came back with two crates of champagne. ‘This is from us to you. Thanks for doing it. It means a lot to us. We love you’. Nicky (Wire) was great too. His brother’s a poet (Patrick Jones) and opened for us. And just taking the trouble to come and see us, knock and say hello means loads.”

From what I can gather, Cerys saw you live at an NME event at the ICA earlier that year, and was so impressed she booked you, having also heard an advance copy of HMS Fable.

“Yeah, she knew our management. I’ll talk anyone’s head off, as you now know, but she was worse than me! ‘What do you wanna drink?’ ‘I’ll have a beer’. ‘I’ll get you a beer. Would you like a brandy with it?’ I then had three hours listening to her. Ha! She was great!

“And I love North Wales. We did …Here’s Tom with the Weather in Bethesda. We were there around four months. We went to this pub, and next thing we’re talking to the Super Furry Animals’ roadie. Sadly, he died a couple of years ago. You’d asked for strings and he’d offer coke as well!

“But from Cerys onwards, they embraced it, and we felt welcome there. I’ll tell you something else. I love Gruff Rhys. ‘Ice Hockey Hair’ is an absolute masterpiece. Of all those from that era – the Gallaghers, The Verve, and so on, Gruff’s my man. And I’ll tell you something else – he’s also left-handed, plays guitar upside down like me!”

Footnote: after our interview, Tempo shared side two of his solo LP with me, and I can confirm the second half is as rich and compelling as the first, the quality continuing across the record. I won’t go into detail yet, but watch this space. Hopefully a release date is imminent, those timeless cack-handed melodies deserving your attention.

Looking Up: Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton says grace, whilst awaiting his next live outing (Photo copyright: Claire Melhado)

For Iain Templeton’s rather elusive online presence, try this Whispering Pines label website link. You can also find Solian’s ‘B-Side the Sea’ promo video via The Pool Underground here, the track available as a digital single from March 4th, with more detail following soon.

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Updating the profile – the Cathal Coughlan interview

CC Rider: Cathal Coughlan, back with sixth solo LP Song of Co-Aklan, his first in a decade (Photo: Gregory Dunn)

Home is normally London for Cathal Coughlan, having initially left Cork in the summer of 1983 alongside Sean O’Hagan to relaunch Microdisney, keen to pick up on interest from legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel and escape a supposed ‘unpopular support band’ tag.

But right now, he’s holed up with his partner in North Staffordshire, isolating of sorts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re just taking a break in the Midlands … except that we’re stuck here for the lockdown. We began by taking a break … a break that became mandatory. It’s ok though – it’s possible to get out and have a walk, which became really hard in London.”

My excuse for tracking down Cathal is the forthcoming release of his sixth solo album, his first in more than a decade, Song Of Co-Aklan a compelling 12-song opus recorded in London, with guest appearances from good friends and old bandmates, including the afore-mentioned Sean O’ Hagan, Jon Fell and John Bennett (Microdisney/High Llamas), Luke Haines (Auteurs/Black Box Recorder), Rhodri Marsden (Scritti Politti), Aindrías Ó Gruama (Fatima Mansions), Cory Gray (The Delines), and Dublin singer-songwriter Eileen Gogan.

I was only a couple of listens in when we spoke, but continue to pick up more and more with every play, the first shot across the bows the sublimely-catchy lead single and title track, an accompanying video by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker George Seminara also starring Luke Haines and James Woodrow, Nick Allum and Audrey Riley (aka the Grand Necropolitan Quartet, Cathal’s long-time collaborators, drummer/percussionist Nick Allum having featured throughout the Fatima Mansions years and on all Cathal’s solo LPs). 

And yet I put it to Cathal that I love how the second single is the darker, more brooding and discordant Steely Dan meets Scott Walker-like ‘Owl in the Parlour’, going from arguably the most commercial on the record to one of the least obviously radio-friendly.

“Oh, yeah!”

It’s certainly a record worth putting the extra ear-work in for, tracks like ‘St Wellbeing Axe’,  with its hints of latter-day Bowie, and the slow-building ‘The Lobster’s Dream’ coming alive, the same applying to ‘Owl in the Parlour’, now among my favourites.  Besides, I guess he’s got form for all that, going right back, an amazing song like Microdisney’s ‘Loftholdingswood’ initially relegated to B-side status. But while the new LP grows ever stronger for me, I’m guessing top-40 hits aren’t on the agenda.

“I wish I could say it was entirely premeditated, but it’s such a diverse-sounding record that it took a long time to come up with a running order. I’ve ended up with this thing that starts off lively, gets really intense for quite a long time, and finishes in quite a pastoral way. I hope people go for it – ha! – because I couldn’t find another way to do it.”

I agree about the way the LP is sequenced, that second half of the album my preferred half, I’d say, with so much in there waiting to grab you after repeated listenings, not least on ‘The Copper Beech’, ‘Falling Out North St.’ and ‘Unrealtime’. Getting back to the opening title track though, particularly with the chorus, I hear echoes of the Icicle Works. I guess his and Ian McNabb’s voices share certain qualities. 

“It’s a fairly singalong chorus, and it’s got some very nice jangly guitar from Mr Woodrow. It does get a bit ragged in the middle part, but the idea was to be kind of contrary. There are more straightforward things on the album, like ‘The Knockout Artist’, quite near the end. I don’t really mess with people much on that one.”

There’s a song that grows on me the more I hear it, my favourite on the record, one on which Sean O’Hagan adds synth touches. It’s also one deserving wider airplay, with lots of lovely guitar, swirling keyboard, and an underlying ‘70s feel. But is there an overriding message? Does this record tell us more about where we are right now in the 2020s? And what’s ‘The Song of Co-Aklan’ about?

“It’s kind of a refracted vision of how people are being forced to live in seemingly intolerable situations, like having their homes bombed out from under them, and in the overall scheme of things it’s not seen as mattering, because so much of the wealthy part of the world has become completely numb to things that would have caused a lot of concern, even in the ‘70s.

“The ‘70s was a very turbulent time and in the ‘80s we had the Lebanese civil war and a bunch of other really long conflicts – Northern Ireland kept on going and going – and yet something like Syria seems to cause no direct alarm to anybody. And I say direct because the refugee problem and the mass migration it fuelled has contributed to other political movements as more wealthy countries try to keep those people out, even though their situation has been rendered so intolerable.

“But I’m not trying to offer any kind of solution, I’m just kind of offering a suitably broken-up vision of it. Because it is a broken reality. That’s what I’m trying to get across really – it’s a broken reality where certainties that we console ourselves with don’t work. Once a thing like that descends on you, all bets are off, and the pandemic has given us a taste, but no more than that.”

Speaking of which, I initially took a positive slant on the public reaction to the covid crisis, the public seemingly recognising the true value of health workers, carers, front-line workers, and so on. After all that divisive shite about Brexit and the General Election won on it, maybe we were waking up to what was really important – the NHS, the Welfare State, community values …

But it didn’t take long for that vision to sour, a Government seemingly more interested in awarding key contracts to cronies, freezing public sector pay while clapping along with the rest of us. And already we see the reality of false borders between the UK and Europe, media outlets stoking up ‘us and them’ attitudes, so many taken in by it all.

“Yeah, that is diabolical, the exceptionalism and very selective view of history is really fundamentally disturbing for the future of this country. When I moved here, I had a slightly Pollyanna view which is that the UK had the welfare state and had taken some measures to reform its society after the shock of the Second World War. But gradually we’ve seen so much of that reversed, done in a dishonest and ambiguous way – with sneaky privatisations and little bits of kleptocracy.

Owl's That: Parlour-made Cathal Coughlan, back with 12 brand new songs for 2021 (Photo: Gregory Dunn)

Owl’s That: Parlour-made Cathal Coughlan, back with 12 brand new compositions for 2021 (Photo: Gregory Dunn)

“The thing about the NHS in the pandemic is that because of this dearth of candour we have, it was possible for the whole ‘leave’ wing of the Tory party to co-opt the Thursday night applause as if they’d thought of it. And clearly there’s still no consideration given toward rewarding properly the people who have worked in the NHS through all of this or taking into account the fact that such a high proportion at certain levels were born in another country.

“It would be nice to think once the smoke has cleared, there will be some sort of evaluation. No one’s looking for a lynch-mob, but it doesn’t seem too likely at the moment that this evaluation will happen. It will just move on to the next thing.”

First time I saw Cathal was with Microdisney in December 1985 – 35 years ago last month – supporting That Petrol Emotion at the Boston Arms, Tufnell Park, North London, his imposing stage presence just part of a rich sonic and visual tapestry, this punter soon splashing out on The Clock That Comes Down the Stairs, that Rough Trade release remaining among my favourite ever LPs.

Seemingly mournful in tone, here was sheer poetry, in music and lyric form. While many of the LPs I listened to then were slowly left behind, it stood the test of time. And the following year came another corking album, the Lenny Kaye-produced Crooked Mile, this time on major label Virgin. Ahead of this interview I went back to that for the first in a very long time, having forgotten how well I knew every chord change, every nuance, so many of the lyrics coming back mid-song.

Those albums were an integral part of the soundtrack of my life around then. But only one more followed, the overall too safe and smooth (although partially good as ever) 39 Minutes proving to be their last, Sean going on to form The High Llamas while Cathal gave us the similarly-acclaimed if not wildly different Fatima Mansions.

Although it took a while, Cathal’s now rightly considered to be among Ireland’s most revered singer/ songwriters, ‘beloved by fans of caustic literate lyricism and erudite songcraft’, as current label Dimple Discs put it.

Since the demise of Fatima Mansions in the mid-‘90s, he’s released five acclaimed solo albums and taken part in an array of different collaborations, making numerous guest appearances. And there was 2019’s Ireland’s National Concert Hall Trailblazer Award – celebrating culturally-important LPs by iconic Irish musicians, songwriters and composers – for The Clock Comes Down the Stairs.

Despite that old adage about never judging a book, or in this case an LP by its cover, if an image ever sold a record, there it was for me, sold from the start by Felicia Cohen’s sleeve photograph of a busy rail intersection at Crystal Palace, soon feeling the same way about the record itself.

“I think it’s aged pretty well. There are things on it which are of their time, sound-wise, but I think they actually hold up. It doesn’t automatically follow that just because you can pretty accurately work out when something was made that it’s automatically anachronistic. There’s some great things from the ‘80s that could only have been made then – the classic for me being Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen, which completely works.”

Agreed. But while The Clock briefly topped the indie charts in late ’85, as former Buzzcocks manager and New Hormones label boss Richard Boon put it on Paul McDermott’s splendid 2018 radio documentary about Microdisney for RTE, ‘They should have been more than just cult heroes’.

I wasn’t trying to work out what resonated then, but listening back now – knowing where Sean went with the High Llamas and his love of Brian Wilson’s work, and hearing Cathal’s love of Scott Walker, Bertolt Brecht, and so on – I see how a chalk and cheese combination of Cathal’s often mournful tones – although never less than poetic, descriptive and insightful – and Sean’s bright guitar work and melodies appealed. What John Peel called, with a nod to Thomas Carlyle, ‘an iron fist in velvet glove’. And there were parallels with Prefab Sprout and Microdisney’s Aussie pals The Go-Betweens.

There’s a quote from Robert Forster on the RTE documentary suggesting ‘we were immigrants and I think that was something that pulled us together’. Both bands struggled to be heard, with very little money to get by on, sharing the same rehearsal rooms and alcohol-fuelled downtimes. I also assume there was a feeling for both bands that they had to make it big or face going home, their dreams burst. But raise their games they did, the songcraft of each act making me sit up and notice then and now. And it’s clearer now that they had in common positions on the outside lane of pop – outsiders in more ways than one.

“Yeah, we were. I think we confused people. Some of it cultural stuff. We didn’t have the agenda capabilities of the normal London music group, where it’s important to show your influences and maybe not mix your messages too much. I’m not saying we were right and they were all wrong, because frankly there were a lot more of them than us! But coming from Ireland as it was in those days, you didn’t have that kind of nous, really. It was just about finding something that worked. If it confused people, that was the price you had to pay.”

In music, football or whatever, I’ll often come down on the side of the underdog. I guess in Cathal’s case too, the accent and Irish heritage marked him out as different. A love of The Undertones and their successors, That Petrol Emotion, made me more open to that, but I guess that made it all the harder for London Irish outfits running the gauntlet on a daily basis at a time when the Troubles were such an issue, both sides of the water.

“It wasn’t overtly terrible, but there were everyday things that were problematic, like looking for a place to live when you needed to do that, and politics generally. But inside music, at least with the people who’d speak to you, there was no problem at all. It was quite a welcoming set-up in many ways. We met people like The Mekons and The Go-Betweens, and a little later, the Kitchenware people. But officialdom was a lot stickier in those days.”

Picking up on the indie factor, you were with Rough Trade, and a small number of acts on leading independent labels like Factory and Postcard went on to have commercial success. Was there a defined manifesto to do the same when you got to London, and did you know where you were headed?

“We thought we were headed for the label that became Blanco y Negro, best known to posterity as the home of The Jesus and Mary Chain, although that was still a couple of years in the future. But it was going to be this amazing kind of artistic salon, co-funded by Geoff Travis (Rough Trade) but also Mike Alway from Cherry Red and a bunch of other people.

“It didn’t really turn out like that, so there was a lot of waiting around. They did sign their name on the invoice for us to go and record most of the first album but over-committed all over town and inevitably a reckoning came. Geoff had told us if all else failed the album could come out on Rough Trade, and Sean had the presence of mind to remind him of that, so that ended up happening. But it was a weird time at Rough Trade, The Smiths just beginning to absolutely sky-rocket!”

I understand you were helping out in the warehouse with that push.

“We had to re-sleeve a whole lot of ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ singles because of changes to the cover.”

While no doubt always short of cash, in a critical sense you had important backers. You mentioned Geoff Travis and Mike Alway, and there was Peel …

“Oh yeah, more than anyone else really.”

Was it six Peel sessions with Microdisney and two with Fatima Mansions altogether?

“Sounds about right. There was an awful lot of support, and the amazing thing – hard to describe to anybody nowadays – is that you could communicate with a pretty broad audience all over the UK and even Ireland and wherever people picked up UK armed forces radio, whether or not you had a record out. When you had as much coverage, session-wise, as we had, it was pretty decisive.”

True enough. We picked up on bands time and again through Peel playing them first. I guess that was the case all over, helping you play towns and cities where you had no previous links.  

“It was. I’m not saying we were getting fantastic fees, but as long as you didn’t have to stay over and pay for a B&B … that was about the limit. We could just about do Newcastle, because we knew people there and could stay. We only made it to Glasgow once during that period. There was the usual pretty unsavoury driving after shows, the driver having trouble staying awake, completely sober but having difficulty. There was a lot of that.”

It was hard enough for us getting home from London, let alone heading in all directions back to the capital. Many a time I drifted off down the A3 after a few ales as a passenger after nights out in Kentish Town, Kilburn, Camden, or wherever.

Going back to that first time I saw you, I’m not even sure we caught the start of the Boston Arms set, but recall you in rant mode during ‘464’ or ‘Harmony Time’ (or both). I was aware that the early years’ collection was called We Hate You South African Bastards! and perhaps put those factors together, misremembering a major shouty moment about the evils of apartheid. Either way, it made a huge impression.

“Yeah, memory over long distance is a little bit tough. It certainly is for me. I’m not even positive that we did the Boston Arms with the Petrols.”

Well, I recently discovered an online upload of someone’s bootleg that night.

“Oh, really. We did the Town and Country Club with The Go-Betweens around then …”

I think that was late April ’86.

“Oh, okay.”

I should point out I only knew that because I looked it up earlier. I’m not that much of an anorak … honest. I don’t think I saw Microdisney’s Whistle Test performance earlier that year first time around though. I’d have definitely remembered that.

“Ha!”

Anyway, when did you last get back to Cork?

“Oh … that’s a sore one. September 2019. It really bites this time. If I had any idea this was coming, I would have made other plans for the latter part of that year. But there was stuff that had to be done, then this happened, and it’s the longest I’ve been away for 40 years.”

How different is Cork today from that you left in 1983 when you came over with Sean?

“In some aspects, it’s unrecognisable. I have to be really careful not to make assumptions about anything, because I haven’t spent any big chunk of time there, but in the case of Cork in particular the appreciation my generation had for music, visual art and literature from outside really blossomed for the generations since, and there is actual infrastructure that allows people to do stuff there, have their base there and have a community there.

“That wasn’t there in my time, so it’s a great thing. On the other side, they suffered through the 2008/2010 economic collapse. That really took its toll, so the progress hasn’t always been in one direction, but it could be argued that it’s still the same place, just more sure of itself, certainly on the creative side.”

Regarding your initial era here, you made lots of good friends then that remain so today. And this LP is with Dimple Discs, a label effectively revolving around Damian O’Neill (The Undertones, That Petrol Emotion, The Everlasting Yeah) and namesake Brian O’Neill, from your Rough Trade days. I guess you’ve known both for a long time.

“I first met Damian in 1981, I think, with the five-piece early Micro Disney (as they were then). We supported The Undertones in Salthill, a resort just on the edge of Galway. I think we drove back to Cork that night, but spent a very happy hour or so chatting to Damian, John (O’Neill), Mickey (Bradley), Feargal (Sharkey) …

“I met Brian at Rough Trade, I think that would have been 1983, probably that stint in the warehouse. Somebody last year posted a video where I think you see the side of my head. It’s not like I spent a huge amount of time there. It just happened to be the day someone was walking around with a camera. Someone else who features heavily is Nick Clift, who’s working the digital side of this album from his current home in Jersey City.”

I interviewed Nick last year about his band, the Folk Devils, their story intertwining historically with the early days of Killing Joke and links with Rude Boy leading actor Ray Gange, bringing in The Clash story and squat scene of the early ‘80s. While clearly a big city, it seems there was a relatively small community of artists around London out to make an impact, including Sean and yourself, rehearsing in Camberwell, living initially in Kensal Rise, but also with an East London link.

“East London was where are all the cheap premises were, particularly studios like that in Hoxton Square – unthinkable now. We did a lot of mixing for The Clock Comes Down the Stairs there. Yeah, even London was capable of hosting lots of rough and ready little businesses, which no way it is now.”

When you first came over, I was still 15, yet to do my O-levels, but equate Summer ’83 with the last Undertones gigs (until their 1999 return), seeing them bow out at the Lyceum and Selhurst Park.

“I remember me and Sean running into Damian and Mickey (Bradley) on Ladbroke Grove that following winter, and they were starting a group.”

Was that Eleven?

“That’s right!”

I saw them a couple of times at the Marquee. I thought they were great, felt that might be their next direction. But it wasn’t to be.

“I never got to hear them. We were pretty skint and could only go to gigs if we could get in for free.”

Well, they managed one Peel session.

“Ah, I didn’t know!”

Would you ever have thought, almost four decades later, you’d still be involved in all this? Or was that never in doubt? Did you always have that belief you were going somewhere?

“I can’t say I had the belief, but certainly had quite a lot of determination, although I’ve been prone to extremes of doubt and a lot of short-term thinking. It is quite surprising to look back now, for that reason. Even though it’s been intermittent for the last while, there’s still been live work, other people’s projects or bits of writing, and I’ve been able to keep it going.”

Are you making a living out of this? So many of us end up dabbling in other areas to ensure bills are paid.

“I’ve had to do that. It’s just a logical consequence of not selling any records! There is no mystery benefactor. You have to sustain yourself by some means. But at the moment I’ve got a bit of breathing space to try and do as much as I can.”

This new LP suggests you’ve put a difficult year to great use, as have several artists I’ve spoken to lately. In a sense it’s how we function perhaps – maybe others are getting a taste of that approach to life, having to adapt similar coping mechanisms. That doesn’t mean we’re not suffering the same mental health issues, but …

“I suppose so, although there are still times when I have to pinch myself. I nearly grab my coat to go down the shops to get a screw or a packet of nails or something, and you can only do that under quite specific circumstances. Just having that ability and breathing space to a possibly quite mundane experience that takes you outside of yourself. Even when I’ve been at home doing music seven days a week, I’d always want to take a walk around, get some vegetables or something, just to break that up, and now that’s difficult.

“I was lucky that the album was more or less already mixed and I’d been in the studio, but had quite a lot left to do. The only way I was going to get done in any reasonable timeframe was to do it myself. That pulled me through the first couple of months without any major shift. It was a case of get the head down, get the thing actually finished.

“After that, I started working with Jacknife Lee on this duo album we’ve done as Telefis. That will come out later this year. And although it’s been done remotely, it’s pretty intense in its own way – it’s not an introspective strum-along!”

Co-Dependence: Cathal Coughlan, ready to return to the road once the covid coast is clear (Photo: Gregory Dunn)

Although part of you as an artist is used to working alone, I bet you miss the performing.

“Oh yeah, that would be the next logical thing to do. We just don’t know when it’s going to be possible.”

It’s all very well telling you it’s a great album, but I’m guessing you need that feel from people seeing you play in a crowded pub or whatever.

“You do. That’s when the material starts to talk back to you, and you get more of a focus on what you want to do next. That’s the thing. I’m trying hard to get stuck into the next thing and I’ve got some things I think are quite good. But it would really help to give this album a bit of a kicking in front of an audience to find out some things.”

When that finally happens – and we won’t try and put a date on it – would that involve a set based on this LP but with a sprinkling of past solo work, Fatima Mansions and Microdisney songs?

“Definitely a mix. The only slight unknown is what kind of line-up I’d have on stage. That’s partly a factor of how far you’ve got to go and how many people you can afford to bring along! To an extent that dictates what material to pick from, but I’m pretty lucky at this point there’s a lot to choose from.”

You’ve worked with a lot of those involved on this album for a while, haven’t you, like Luke Haines?

“Yeah, we’ve done quite a bit. We did The North Sea Scrolls with Andrew Müller (2012). That was the most intensive co-working we’ve had, but we see each other pretty often. When he offered to do some stuff, I was delighted, especially when it transpired it wasn’t going to be a double-bass record – it was going to be bass guitar, which wasn’t any logical decision, but he was able to fit in great. He’s totally self-sufficient in home recording.”

James Woodrow and Nick Allum also go back a long time with you.

“Yeah, and Audrey, but Nick goes back the longest of all – 1988 or thereabouts.”

Last year, I interviewed Eileen Gogan – who features on understated, slowly-building finale ‘Unrealtime’, along with Sean O’Hagan – and she revealed how important Microdisney were to her growing up and how great it was to guest with you for the band’s reunion shows, and for yourself and Sean to work on her record.

“It’s been great getting to know Eileen and work with her. I was a fan of her first solo record. That’s where that started. Obviously, she’s a bit younger, we weren’t part of the same generation, although we know some of the same people. There was a real feeling of strength in having her on stage with us – a great thing for us.”

Did you keep in touch with June Miles-Kingston (who contributed backing vocals on The Clock, Crooked Mile and 39 Minutes)?

“A few social media ‘hello’s, but I haven’t seen her in a great many years.”

Her CV is certainly impressive.

“Absolutely, and the reason for getting her on The Clock was that I was so taken with the way she sang ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ with Fun Boy Three. Her and Terry Hall were a great blend.”

You’ve not always gone for the expected. For example, when you played the Barbican with Microdisney, you finished with Frankie Valli’s ‘The Night’. I also see you covered ‘Easy’ by The Commodores back in the day. It seems you liked to surprise people.

“Yeah, we specialised in awkward cover versions, and that was one!”

Is that an Irish showband mentality coming through?

“Erm … we were willing to allude to it. We didn’t think it was going to win us fans, necessarily. We did ‘Woodstock’ at a couple of shows, and I think one by The Jesus and Mary Chain, who were opening for us. We also did ‘Jesus Christ’, the Big Star (Christmas) song, in the middle of a summer! So yeah, lots of really stupid cover versions.”

I guess we’d have expected you to do Captain Beefheart or something along those lines. But I like the fact you did that instead.

“Yeah – Beefheart, the Velvets … that would have been the right thing to do, but we were not going to do the right thing!”

Going back to your roots, you played a bit of piano early on. Were you the first in your family to try and make it in music? And was there always music around the house?

“Not so much around our house, but there were people in my extended family who were very talented. On my mother’s side my aunt and uncle were really great singers. My uncle’s still singing at the age of 81 – a very powerful tenor, I guess you’d say, with my aunt a soprano. Neither of them did it professionally, but they were known throughout the region for their talent.”

Looking forward to live shows when it’s safe to get out again, will those be under the Co-Aklan banner?

“I’ve an intention to evolve into Co-Aklan. That’s the plan. We’ll see what fate does to that for me.”

Is this alias you trying to spell out all these years later how to say your name properly?

“Not really. I think I’ve had second thoughts about just going by my own name. It came to seem like a bit of an unnecessarily rigid thing to do, probably the product of the state of mind I was in back in 1989. That’s a long time ago now, so it seems I should try and do something else.”

To quote ‘Town to Town’, ‘She’s nervous and her best friend is waiting, she’s trying to pronounce my name.’ All these years on, it seems that might still be the case.

“Well, I totally get that. Both parts of my name are pronounced in different ways depending where you are in Ireland, much less California, where they have a very tough time with it.”

And outside the solo work, will there be any more Microdisney shows? Crooked Mile will be 35 next year. Or was that it with The Clock and those live shows I sadly missed?

“I think it probably was, but we had a great time doing it. I absolutely wouldn’t rule anything out, but there are no plans.”

And Fatima Mansions?

“Oh, the Mansions – haha! I mean, the fact it’s never happened apart from one semi-reunion for a birthday party means there’s nothing to tap into in terms of logistics and everybody living in widely different places. I’m not sure it could be pulled together.

“It would be fun, but could involve weight-training for six months. It would be everything Microdisney wasn’t. With Microdisney there was work to be done, but it wasn’t mad!”

Live Return: Hopefully it won’t be long before Cathal Coughlan is back at a venue near you (Photo: Gregory Dunn)

Song of Co-Aklan is due to land on March 26th, with detail on how to pre-order and all the latest from Cathal Coghlan via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or his own website.

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Creating soundscapes, drawn from life at home and abroad – the Brick Briscoe interview

Saloon Ranger: Brick Briscoe, performing live at Montrose Saloon, Chicago, Illinois, with Allen Clark III, left, on drums

Brick Briscoe was editing his TV show at his home studio in Petersburg, Indiana, when I called last week, needing it submitted by Sunday night ahead of an air date of February 11th.

“I’m almost done – get off my back, man! Ha!”

Am I adding to the pressure from up top?

“Just from the network. No big deal. It’s the game I chose to play for rock’n’roll.”

This talented singer/songwriter and guitarist with a passion for film (he also produces commercials and other TV and film-based projects from his studio base) also produces and hosts The Song Show for PBS/NPR affiliate public radio station WNIN, serving the Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky tri-state area, showcasing his true passion for music, mining the deep history of song by relating common themes across genres and time periods in each episode, his guests the musicians and songwriters he comes across playing music or picks up the phone to call. 

“Actually, we were going to call the TV show The Song Show TV, but I decided it was going to be a music and travel show, travelling around the world, looking at culture and music in every little spot, deciding we’d just go anywhere, so we decided to call it Any Road.”

But then, a worldwide pandemic surfaced.

“Oh, my God. We were getting ready to film season two in Europe, leaving on March 21st. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I had to adjust, making a two-part two-hour series called Music is Dead, about the state of the industry, filming everybody who’s been on the show, talking about all that … and then this happened. Now part two is totally different to how it was planned.”

At the risk of an ‘Ooh, I bet you’ve seen some changes’ type question, the music industry has shifted immeasurably in the last couple of decades.

“Oh yeah, completely. You used to imagine you could make money on records, and still can … but right now, you can’t. We’re so used to selling in person, after a show or during a show. Records, t-shirts, whatever. It’s interesting that people still buy CDs at shows, maybe as a memento.”

I brought up with an interviewee a while ago how I’d seen an online discussion involving Billy Bragg, someone on his Facebook page questioning why he was selling early years memorabilia, more or less saying, ‘You can’t be hard up, surely’. But there’s a fella who makes his living on the road, and hasn’t been able to do that. Some people don’t seem to get that.

“I don’t think they do. I saw someone giving him guff about selling some posters or something, saying, ‘I thought you were a socialist’. What the hell, man? It’s not like he’s Elon Musk. We’re talking about a guy who’s worked his ass off 200 days a year, you know.”  

Scheduled to be in Europe to work on television and music, Brick instead found himself with nothing but time on his hands, stuck in Petersburg, where he was born and raised, revealing, “I buried myself in my home studio and dreamed in pictures, trying to find the colours on my guitar. The words were easy, the script was already written. And, to paraphrase filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, I spent the next weeks ‘sculpting in time’.

“This was one of the first projects I’ve done where the music came first. After I had the sounds the lyrics came naturally. I drew on my past life and found inspiration. Most don’t know that my first career move was to be a film director. It seemed like a responsible move when I was 18!

“So with that in mind, I started writing lyrics that reflected ideas for films, both personal and remote, that I always knew I was going to make. And the one that came closest to actually happening was called ‘My Favorite Los Angeles Restaurant’. So the journey began. I’ll let the listener decide if some of these ‘films’ have the same characters or if the whole record is just one big movie.

“I loved living in Los Angeles. I really miss it and as I was working on this, I tried to put myself in the mindset I had when I did live there. It’s a place close to my heart, not so much for filmmaking, but my daughter was born there, so it feels like home. And I learned more about who I am and what it takes to get anything done from the constant trials and tribulations I endured while trying to make films. I don’t know why, but it makes me laugh now.

“I hope the romance of cinema shows up subversively in the record. It isn’t an homage to Hollywood, but an homage to how the mixture of how I feel when I see a film with the realities that music is something I can actually do in a practical sense. I was working with the tagline, ‘I was going to make a film about you, but the money wasn’t there’ when I started the project. I love the feel of that. I wanted to make a film, but all I could afford was this postcard, or this piece of pie, or these songs. And hopefully, no matter how you cut it, it isn’t cheap.”

The result of his locked-down labours, My Favorite Los Angeles Restaurant, Brick Briscoe’s 13th LP, was released last week on our side of the Atlantic, produced by Brick with Brian Sherman and recorded at The Spider Cave (aka La Cueva de la Araña), Petersburg, with further recording in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Middletown, Delaware. Is he pleased with the transatlantic reaction so far?

“Oh, my! It’s really been cool to see the different takes on what I do, and the songs some radio stations are playing. It’s like, ‘What? That’s what they chose?’. Really interesting.

Soundscape Survivor: Brick Briscoe, making the most of a difficult situation in 2020 and showing the way in 2021

“It almost makes me feel like a progressive rocker. Over here, I’d be more known as someone with that indie-punk thing going on, and I come from a punk rock generation, so it would make sense that would hang on. But they’ve picked up on the more cinematic songs.”

Although initially wanting to do nothing more than be in a rock band, he was coerced into attending university, and after taking a class at Indiana University on the complete works of Charles Chaplin, he decided to try to make films. Then, during a stint at Southern Illinois University the following year, he discovered Truffaut, Godard and Tarkovsky, his fate sealed.

During a journey of personal and financial ruin, Brick moved to New York, then Los Angeles, and finally back to New York chasing the cinema. Influenced greatly by Cassavetes, Truffaut, Rohmer, Cukor and a host of others, he pitched films all over both cities (with several near misses) until he moved back to his hometown, deeming cinema dead.

It does seem, I put to him, that he’s had to adapt his game, with career rethinks en route, not least perhaps moving away from dreams of making it primarily as a filmmaker with a budget, instead adapting your cinematic vision to soundscapes of sorts.

“Yeah, for sure. I’ve tried to weasel my way into scoring films, and I’ve been lucky enough to score some things, although not big movies as I would imagine. Being a filmmaker, I kind of think in those picaresque moments of travelling, so it would make sense that those big cinematic moments would show up in my music eventually.”

A few months ago, I told Brick, I spoke to California-based filmmaker Saunder Jurriaans about his success scoring for films and TV and his own adaptation to make the most of a difficult situation amid the pandemic, in his case finally releasing a solo album he’s wanted to for some time. I guess you’ve had to think similarly.

“I think that’s true. I was supposed to be over there (Europe) for eight weeks, and wasn’t just gonna sit around and mope, so used that time to work on my record, rather than wait to get back. I was probably going to start this record about now.

“I’ve written so much stuff. We actually started my next record last Thursday. But what you said about not being able to do certain things, I think it’s radically different over here. I’m very cautious because I’m in remission from cancer, but overall in the Midwest, bar bands are still playing. Cover bands, that is. Original bands aren’t out there. We get asked to play all the time, and it’s like, ‘No!’.

“But everyone’s real cool about it. They get it. I understand these places need to keep making money and somehow keep their employees, but I would feel awful if someone came to my show, caught the COVID, and died. Or If I brought it home to my wife or grandkid.

Shutters Down: Brick Briscoe is staying put in Petersburg, Indiana, right now, but with a view to a return to Europe

“We’ve filmed a couple of concerts though, and they came off really well, in front of no audience for the LP. I weaned my way into this historic opera house in a placed called New Harmony, Indiana, with an amazing history of utopianism – a really fascinating story. “

That was with his band The Skinny.And I like the sound of New Harmony, Indiana, for a start, I told him. And Thrall’s Opera House. 

“Oh yeah, it’s a town of around 800 people, but it’s incredible, and they have this beautiful opera house. We just set up on the stage in a circle, playing to each other, with just a crew with us. That came off great, so we decided, ‘Let’s do it again’, went to this big warehouse, filmed a bunch of my older songs, a little more rock’n’roll, kind of did that the same way.

“That’s been great for us and kept us in people’s eyes a little bit. And we’re gonna do more. We’re actually filming all these recording sessions. That’s what we have to do, y’know!”

In another interview, Brick revealed, “I spent years chasing the cinema dragon in NYC and Los Angeles.  I came up pretty empty and sometime around 1996 I decided rock’n’roll was easier to manifest.  With that in mind, I decided to make some of the films I thought I were going to make me the ‘auteur’ I imagined I was. I’d rewrite them with lyrics, guitars and piano.  It all started with a romance, ‘Woke Up Beside You’, and then the pulse of the title track jump started the process”.

With Brick rooted in the US Midwest – with a twist on but an ultimate nod to a big hit for R. Dean Taylor – I put it to him that maybe Indiana wants him, and he can’t get away now.

“Right! A little bit. I remember that song as a kid, thinking, ‘Oh wow! He’s singing about us!’ It didn’t mean much to me then, but heck, yeah. I’ve been all over this country but came back here, for some godforsaken reason.”

However, New York City is also where the heart is, yeah?

“It really is. The music I grew up with and ended up loving, like Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, all that stuff, along with The Jam and The Clash, all that, those formed who I was for sure.”

Did you happen to see The Clash when they played their long run at Bond’s in NYC in the summer of 1981?

“I did not, unfortunately. I was still in college then, totally broke at the time. But I have a lot of friends who were there. Frank Funaro, who played and produced one of my records and was in the band Cracker and (the later version of) Camper Van Beethoven, he was there.

“He was actually in Joey Ramone’s band for his solo record, and the Del Lords, and the Dictators. He became great friends when I was in New York, telling me all about that scene.”

Well, tell him next time you see him that I’ll never tire of Camper Van Beethoven’s ‘Take The Skinheads Bowling’. A perfect recipe for world peace, I’d say.

“Oh! I’ve seen him play that song a bunch of times.”

The press release that comes with the new LP suggests quite rightly that the songs ‘move between punk rock edge and a curious freeform adventure, with Brick’s buzzsaw and angular guitar riffs cutting a trail for his lyrics to find an unsettling safe house’. I can’t argue with that, and seeing as he mentioned Television, I tell him there’s a real Tom Verlaine quality to his voice in places.

“I’ve seen that comparison before … although not to my vocals. But I’ll take that.”

Perhaps it’s your inferences. And they were a mighty influence, it would seem.

Marquee Moon in particular was a profound influence for me. But I have to be honest, I thought those guys were so good that I didn’t ever try to imitate what they did! To hear Verlaine and (Richard) Lloyd play together is like, ‘Oh, my God!’ They know what notes they’re playing!”

Brick Surrounds: Brick Briscoe, ready for the outside world and any road out as soon as it’s safe to get back out there

I got to at least talk a little about New York punk with Chris Stein of Blondie in 2017. But you were too young to be part of that CBGB’s scene, weren’t you?

“Well, that was what I was digging at high school, but I wasn’t there when it happened. The high point though was when I was standing backstage at CBGB’s in one of the last years it was open, The Dictators were playing, and I felt this presence right next to me, and it was Joey Ramone!

“I’m tall, but this guy was really tall. My God, he looks so sick … but that’s just how he was. These beautiful girls were just coming up, fawning over him. I’m like, ‘My gosh – this is what being a rock star means.

“Then the coolest thing happened. He walked out on stage and sang a bunch of Who songs with The Dictators, me standing there, right by the side of the stage. A great rock’n’roll moment.

“I got to talk to him a little backstage after the show. I wasn’t going to play fan-boy, although I was in my heart! But that’s something living in LA and New York teaches you – you don’t do that. It doesn’t play well!”

At that point, we briefly got on to my South-East roots, growing up in towns where bands like The Stranglers and The Jam spring from, knowing Brick loved both bands.

“I’d say Paul Weller was my biggest influence. And growing up a lower middle-class kid – my Dad was a teacher – guys like Ray Davies, Pete Townshend and Paul Weller sang about us better than our guys did. Everybody was hippies and all that stuff until punk rock happened, then REM came around. I just didn’t identify with all that. I got the angst from the British guys!”

I’m sure a number of Irish influences deserve a mention too. And, I put it to him, The Beatles were heavily influenced by US rock’n’roll and soul, the Rolling Stones by the Blues, and so on, that back and forth nature of music – one side of the Atlantic inspiring those on the other side – going on for so long now. Similarly, there’s the influence on the punk bands over here of the psychedelic scene, Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets and all that.

“I think the US and the UK have this amazing thing, musically, this amazing culture going on. We absolutely love what’s going on. We take it, then make it our own … then we send it back! Like you did with the Blues.”

Inspirational Fare: The highly-influential early-1977 Television LP Marquee Moon made a big impression on Brick

I suppose The Beatles and The Beach Boys did that too – inspiring each other to go that little bit further.

“Yeah! Absolutely, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

I’ve yet to catch Brick live, but word has it that his live shows are fittingly intense.

“I’m really lucky I’ve got a band, yet it’s almost like I’m playing a solo show – they just get what I’m about to do. They know when I’m gonna slow down or when I’m going to get quieter or throw my guitar at ‘em … although that’s never happened!

“I’m not a real friendly guy before I go on. I hate to say this, but I try to get in character for those songs. But after the show, man, I’m so happy … even if we sucked! That’s over, and it’s like, ‘Let’s hang, have a beer. Let me cry to you about how we were bad tonight, and you tell me we were great!’. Nobody knows when you’re being bad, y’know … unless you’re terrible! Not that that’s ever happened either!”  

Is that right that half of your 2018 LP, IV (which I pronounce ‘four’) was recorded in a hospital bed?

“Yeah, and I love that you called it that … because really it’s ‘IV’ (‘eye-vee’), and I did that on purpose but didn’t want to draw too much attention to it. The picture on the front of the album – go look at it sometime – is actually a close-up of the wound where my chemo port goes. But maybe some people thought that was a flower or something.”

So, IV as in intravenous?

“Yeah, but what I did – when I got diagnosed – my old drummer, from Phoenix, Arizona, flew home and brought me a drumkit, set up my studio, my old bass player from here came too, and we recorded half the record. I had to go to do chemo, then we recorded the other half in my studio.

“They allowed me to set up in the hospital. I was scoring at the time a documentary on NPR, with a deadline looming, so they let me camp out. I started recording and writing new songs, recording almost all the guitar parts and a lot of the vocals in hospital.

“You’ll be shocked how well soundproofed hospital rooms are … but I think that’s on purpose. You don’t want to hear other people crying, particularly on the oncology ward.

“I never thought I was going to die, although there was a possibility. But I heard people who were … crying to go home at night. That probably influenced a lot of what I was doing.”

I guess music provided the additional medicine and therapy that ultimately pulled you through.

“Well, absolutely. I would say at that point – although I’m never one to have had a bucket-list – you start realising what your legacy might be, so I just felt, ‘Why wait?’. I may not have any energy, but …

“As soon as I got out of the hospital, I had no feeling in my fingers, and I never thought I’d play guitar again. The chemo gives you neuropathy. I still can’t really feel my feet, although it doesn’t affect my walking. I could not feel my fingers in months.”    

It clearly takes more than the big C to keep you down.

“I hope that’s true for everybody. It’s like this in any aspect of life – attitude is almost everything. I’m lucky, but my parents were such optimistic, hard-working people, I’m optimistic too and know that if I don’t do stuff, the pay-off in the negative is awful if you just hold yourself back.

“People cared that I had cancer, and that I might die, but they wouldn’t have cared about what angst I was going through, so I might as well put it out there as art … then they might care.”

Talking of optimistic vibes, while the pandemic continues to rage, with plenty of ignorance and misinformation doing the rounds out there, the vaccines are on the way and there’s a new president in office, the orange one finally gone and set to stand trial. It seems that there are reasons to feel positive again right now.

“I think so. My wife and I watched the inauguration all day, and we wept and all that. I’m not foolish enough to think there weren’t people within a three-iron of my house who weren’t as mad as hell that this guy got elected though, and we’re so divided in this country.

“We have so many people who believe conspiracy theories that are so outlandish. They’re not going to let go of it. It’s gonna take some patience. But you’re right – I believe we’re going to get a handle on COVID, and if this goes well, you’ll see me the end of this year or beginning of next year over there.”

Well, let’s be honest, we’ve got our fair amount of nutters here. Again, it seems pretty much a 50/50 split in various respects.

“Yeah, I’ve been watching closely, and guess it started with Brexit and all that, right? Although I don’t live there, it seems like a strange situation. I can’t judge so much what they’re doing, but boy, it doesn’t look smart.

“And while we’re talking, a notice just popped up from Reuters on my phone saying, ‘UK surpasses 100,000 COVID-19 deaths’.” 

Yes, a sad landmark. But let’s not go there right now. Instead, I see you married your high school sweetheart Marta in 1987, having started dating in 1978. Was that in Petersburg?

“Yeah, she moved into town from Phoenix, Arizona. I’d already gone through all the girls in our little town, so they wouldn’t talk to me! Ha! So when a new girl turned up, and she didn’t know me …”

I guess she’s knows you by now.

“Oh, my God! She got me through the cancer, for sure. I’ve got a daughter and granddaughter, that gives you reason to at least live, but Marta has been so important and supportive of everything I’ve done. And she has incredible patience.”

And hopefully soon you’ll be able to travel again, including your postponed return to France (the LP From Lucky Point to Pere Lachaise conceived while making a film there immediately after going into remission), maybe?

“Yeah, the thing that influenced me in art the most were the films of Godard and Truffaut, and Éric Rohmer. Those had profound influence, and I always imagined I’d got to France. Then, right after I got out of having cancer, I got the opportunity to go, make a documentary about World War One.

“I just fell in love with it all. This was like New York to me, this spirituality to the art. I could spend a year there, easily. I kind of have the same feeling about England, thinking of Weller, Morrissey and Marr … I’d love it there too. And we watch all your TV shows, y’know.”

Your travels down the years haven’t yet taken you to St Petersburg though?

“Florida?”

I was thinking Russia, to be honest.

“No, but I had an opportunity when I left college. My grandmother had a bit of money at the time and said, ‘I’ll send you on a trip’. I wanted to go to Russia, thinking it would be fascinating artistically to see all the Cold War stuff. Then I realised I should take that money, move to New York, so that’s what I did instead.”

Clearly, with no regrets. Maybe next time instead.

“I would go there in a heartbeat. I’ve been to St Petersburg, Florida, but have a feeling that’s different!”

Hometown Sunset: Brick Briscoe captures the sun setting on Petersburg, Indiana, where he was born and raised

Talking of Petersburg, Indiana, the song that first drew me in from the LP was ‘The Blue Jean Bridge’, its Stan Ridgway-esque vibe building to angular guitar and a Pete Townshend-like song of two parts feel. There’s also a great promo video of Brick and his band the Damn Dudes playing the song – in a self-isolated style – out there, linked here. Is that song a good example of your imaginative storytelling, or is that a true story?

“The Blue Jean Bridge is an actual bridge, about two miles from my house, named after a politician from here’s nickname.

“Growing up here, it’s such a hard life, it’s a coalmining area going through an awful lot of upheaval, people here constantly losing their jobs, trying to figure out a way of getting back into it.

“I’ve seen people walking across that bridge and every time, ‘Are they thinking about jumping?’ That’s what that’s about.

“It’s a good example, but I’d say maybe (LP opener) ‘Cody Jarrett’ and ‘My Americana Lust’, those are maybe the songs … I like poetry more than novels, and try to create a vibe.”

I hadn’t picked up on the latter until after my interview, but it’s quickly become one of my favourites from his impressive new record, an early-‘70s-like Who feel met by a Ray Davies-esque vocal and songcraft.

And there for me lies the strength of the new LP, enough to make me want to head back through his catalogue. That last three-song salvo of ‘The Blue Jean Bridge’, ‘My Americana Lust’ – with added vocals from Cynthia Murray, who also contributes to the title track – and ‘Let’s Get Sick’ make for a thrilling finale, the last track building nicely, kind of Lenny Kravitz meets the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder.

I didn’t know that when we spoke though, so couldn’t tell Brick that at the time. Instead – time against us both – we wrapped up, me mentioning what a great line it had been between Lancashire and Indiana, the reception suggesting he might even be in the next room.

“It’s amazing. And no, I’m not, but if I am, I’m probably not supposed to be there.”

Good point. You’d be breaking our lockdown isolation bubble situation for a start.

“Well, there’s a real interview right there, buddy!”

Garage Bandleader: Brick Briscoe, in action during a pre-recorded show for WEHT in Evansville/Henderson, Indiana

Brick Briscoe’s new album, My Favorite Los Angeles Restaurant, is out now via www.brickbriscoe.com and https://brickbriscoe.bandcamp.com/

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