In off the Rebound – the Eleanor Friedberger feature

Rebound Sound: Eleanor Friedberger, heading back to Europe (Photograph: Chris Eckert)

Before I even ask Eleanor Friedberger a question, I’m being heckled by her Dad about cricket. I’d expect sledging from Australians, but not someone from Chicago, Illinois.

Turns out he’s originally from Northamptonshire, picking up on where I was calling from, alluding to Lancashire’s relegation from the County Championship top flight. Not as if Northants’ form was anything to write home about this season. As a Surrey boy, I might have countered with something about a 19th title and an already-bulging trophy cabinet. I’m not one to gloat though. Honest.

Closer to the subject, I’ve learned that Eleanor’s grandmother was a musician and choir director at a Greek Orthodox church, with at least three female generations showcasing musical talents.

“Mum’s American, but her family’s Greek, and I started going with her over 20 years ago, regularly for family holidays, then about eight or nine years ago started playing shows in Athens and developed a great network of friends there. And in early 2017 I stayed for a month, doing the same later that year, getting a group of guys together as a backing band, playing a bunch of shows.

“I went with the idea that I was going to write an album there, but ended up messing around a lot as well as taking Greek lessons and developing friendships, which was good for when I came back to write the album.”

That exhaustive groundwork – nice work if you can get it – eventually led to Eleanor’s acclaimed fourth solo LP, Rebound, following eight treasured albums with her brother Matthew, four years her senior, in indie outfit The Fiery Furnaces. Apparently though, she hadn’t written so much of the latest record before visiting a Greek club of the same name, described as ‘an ’80s goth disco where everyone does the chicken dance’, discovering therein what resembled a Mediterranean knock-off of  The Cure or Joy Division, which Jonah Bromwich, reviewing the record for Pitchfork, reckons ‘imbued the new record with that spooky, dancy vibe, lacing its gentle psychedelia with a dash of foreboding’, with the ‘bleached, hazy feel of a sun-damaged Polaroid with a blurred figure in the corner’. Well put.

Eleanor was born in Oak Park, Chicago, 42 years ago, and that was there I found her ahead of a show at The Empty Bottle. She resides in Ulster County, New York, these days, between travels with her music, but is very much a citizen of the world. No borders or phoney walls for this gifted performer, who was set to complete a 17-date North American run when I got in touch, a show the next day in Detroit followed by a flight to London.

“Yes, it’s kind of hard to believe we just drove across the country in two days. And before that there was rather a dramatic ending with a van I’d been driving for the last 15 years, hoping it would get me around the country one more time, but I ended up leaving it in Los Angeles. So I’m going to have to go back and most likely sell it in California.”

Hot Stuff: Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger in their formative Fiery Furnaces days (Photograph: Ken Hively)

So, next up is the European leg of her tour, with eight UK shows followed by 10 more in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Spain and, fittingly, Greece.

“I’m playing with yet another band, a few Welsh guys, rehearsing in Cardiff for a week. They’re in various bands, and I met one through Cate Le Bon. He plays in her band. I’ve been clued into this whole Welsh scene, I guess, since The Fiery Furnaces opened for Super Furry Animals quite some time ago. It’s a pretty small scene, but all incredibly talented musicians. I’m lucky to play with them.”

The first date is at Oslo in Hackney, getting on for two decades after Eleanor had a brief stint in London before moving to New York and co-founding The Fiery Furnaces.

“Dad’s English and I have dual-citizenship, with family living in West London. I went as a teenager and a cousin took me up to Camden when I was 16, and had it in my head that I wanted to try living there. I did, after college, wanting to work on a film or on a TV set as a PA or something. That never worked out, but I found a cheap place to live in Camden, went into a University of London student centre, saw a notice-board and got a room for £55 a week with a bunch of medical students.

“I then wandered down the street into a health food store and was hired on the spot, working there and making a bunch of good friends, seeing a lot of music but not playing music. That was in 1999. I wasn’t hanging around with musicians, but I did see a huge amount of music, and it was a great place to live, in the centre of town. I could walk anywhere, it was a really great time.

“Some of my best friends I made were Swedish, and one was very encouraging. In fact, first time I ever played music in front of anyone was when I went that following summer to visit them in Stockholm. He kind of forced me to play in front of people in a bar.”

Was that a nerve-racking moment, or fairly natural for you?

“A bit of both. I was really nervous but I did feel it was something I had to do. It’s pretty natural, although it’s good to have a few butterflies. I feel pretty comfortable on stage, and sometimes the more awkward the situation the more comfortable I feel!”

On this latest visit – not least seeing as I’m posting this during National Libraries Week – Eleanor’s UK dates include a Get It Loud in Libraries show in Lancaster, part of an initiative dating back to 2005 showcasing emerging acts, delivering more than 240 library shows in the North West of England since 2005, reaching 30,000 or so punters, some of the more high-profile names involved – in Lancaster alone – including Adele, Bat for Lashes, Camera Obscura, Ellie Goulding, Florence and the Machine, Jessie J, Plan B, Robert Forster, The Thrills, and past WriteWyattUK interviewees Ian Broudie and James Walsh. But has Eleanor ever played a public library before?

“That’s a good question. I wonder if … I definitely played somewhere in Princeton University, New Jersey, where I’m pretty sure we played a library there.”

Were public libraries important to you growing up?

“Oh my gosh, yeah, very much. I was lucky to grow up in a place that had a very good public library, and that was just part of regular life. A thing to do – just go in there and check out books. My Dad’s a historian, my Mum’s a big reader, and my brother has basically a bookstore’s worth of books.

“So there have always been lots of books around. And going to libraries, spending time with Dad, he’d be off going to different university libraries, and I’d spend a lot of time hanging out there.”

The UK leg includes two Scottish dates, my excuse to skate on thin ice and mention Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Eleanor Put Your Boots On’, written in her honour by Eleanor’s ex, Alex Kapranos. I guess she gets asked a lot about that song.

“Uh-huh.”

Is she still in touch with the band?

“Not so much, no.”

Is it nice to have songs written about you?

“Erm, of course it’s nice. But I’ve had several songs written about me. That’s just one, y’know.”

She laughs at this, but I get the feeling the matter’s closed so I move on, back to her student days. Before London there was Austin, studying film and American Studies at the University of Texas. Was she writing back then?

“I did very briefly, when I first started playing and I’d just got a four-track recorder, but I didn’t take it very seriously when I was in college. I was dating another musician. I don’t know if I was living vicariously by him or something. But it was really formative, being with somebody who was touring and making records on a real label.

“I got to see that first-hand, so maybe without knowing it I was learning about the other aspects of being in a band aside from the writing, and learned a lot from that experience.  And Austin was an amazing place to see live music. I could see bands four or five times a week.”

When you moved to New York City, was Matthew already established there?

“No, it was the other way around. I moved there first. He came maybe nine months later. I’d already started playing with a friend I’d gone to university with, and he joined us.”

Did the two of you already have the idea of the band?

“It’s hard now to really remember. When I came back from living in London, we started writing songs by me kind of telling him stories. I remember telling him one and he said, ‘That’ll make a good song’, and that was the first we wrote.

“I think he just saw me playing and … I don’t remember who asked who, but he was the best musician I knew, so it made sense to ask him to play with us. There was no scheming master-plan though. It was more like, ‘All these other people are doing this, we can do just as well as them.”

And the records you made together still sound so fresh listening back. You were fairly prolific too. Was that work ethic always there?

“Yeah, now it seems kind of shocking that I’ve been making records on my own for seven years, almost as long as The Fiery Furnaces, and we made eight albums or something.  I don’t know where that work ethic comes from. I’ve been lucky I haven’t had to have another job, and I’ve just plugged away at this.”

Was it an emotional finale at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona in 2011, or just a story put on hold? I think you’ve used the term ‘hiatus’.

“Yeah, we hadn’t played in a year when we did that show. It wasn’t something we discussed, but it was a festival we always wanted to play. But to be honest I was already on to my solo work. It wasn’t a sombre time. We had other things to do.”

Was it inevitable that you were always going to go it alone?

“I don’t know about that. It’s easy to say in hindsight.”

I’m guessing that decade or so together gave both of you confidence to move on, do your own thing.

“For sure. I don’t know if I gave him that, but he certainly gave me that.”

Four solo albums followed those eight studio LPs with her brother, the first of which was Last Summer in 2011 for Merge Records. Was that a case of hitting the ground running? And were those songs already fully-formed?

“Yes, that was slightly similar to the album I’ve just put out. I made all these demos first, and started using GarageBand on my computer for the first time. I hadn’t made home demos since using a four-track recorder.

“So for me that was re-learning how to do that, having fun and a few drinks at night, hitting ‘record’ and seeing what happens. It was a lot of fun and gave me the freedom to improvise lyrics and then decide to keep them.”

Three more critically-acclaimed albums have followed, namely Personal Record (2013), New View (2016), and this year’s fine offering, Rebound. Does she see each as a certain moment in time, telling her story, snapshots of her life along the way, or is she too close to the subject to tell?

“I do see them that way. I see them all far too clearly! I don’t know how much to give away in terms of explaining what it is, but I know exactly not only where each album comes from but each song and each line.”

After the more guitar-centric focus and band feel of the splendid New View, it took me a couple of listens to get to grips with the new long player, but it’s a winner all the same. And while opening tracks ‘My Jesus Phase’ and ‘The Letter’ suggest a seemingly-deeper, somewhat darker feel to Eleanor’s songcraft, the next three tracks appear to define the more airwave-friendly sound of this latest record – the catchy summer soundtrack of ‘Everything’, ‘In Between Stars’ and ‘Make Me a Song’ all good indicators of what Heather Phares of allmusic.com calls ‘literate electronic pop’. But if we can fill the charts with something classy, why not? Even then though, Eleanor can’t resist occasional gear changes into more complex structures.

On side two, the more reflective ‘Nice to be Nowhere’ takes us back where we were, guitar again breaking through a warm sea of synth, while further in another highlight, ‘Are We Good?’ further showcases an inventive approach and appreciation of a great hook. And while the influences aren’t overtly Club Med, this is the sound of an engaging singer-songwriter showing and telling what she did on her holiday, on a largely reflective set of songs.

On the subject of that progression from record to record, I suggest to Eleanor this is perhaps her most commercial record to date.

“Oh gosh, I have no idea.”

I’m guessing that’s not something you set out to achieve then.

“No, and to me it doesn’t sound that way. That’s cool, but I don’t even know what would make it that. So much of it was recorded by myself at home, and we used a lot of that. So to say it sounds commercial is so funny, because it was definitely lo-fi.”

Maybe it’s just that’s it’s more synth-led than guitar-oriented (and there’s that characterful rich vocal too, of course).

“Well, it’s funny that drum machines and synthesisers equate to what’s more commercial … but I guess that makes sense.”

I’ll put it another way. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I see a couple of those singles more on a par with a Sharleen Spiteri release because of your voice, straddling that pop world (perhaps even with ’70s hints of Carly Simon, I thought later), than maybe the more Aimee Mann-like craft of the records that came before (I say that with something like New View’s splendid ‘He Didn’t Mention His Mother’ in mind).

Athenian Ending: Eleanor finishes her tour with a special performance of Rebound in its entirety at Stavros Niarchos Hall in Athens on November 26th, accompanied by the Hellenic EFG and a string quartet.

“OK.”

She’s clearly not going to give me more on that, so I ask instead who she feels have been her biggest influences in recent times.

“You’d be surprised, I guess. I had this experience doing shows in conjunction with the Andy Warhol Museum, and we did a show at the Barbican in London a few years ago, so someone like Martin Rev from Suicide. It’s not Aimee Mann, but maybe someone more like him … and his attitude. I saw him sing the song ‘Kansas City’, like karaoke, and that to me was a big moment.”

Eleanor’s involvement in the Exposed arts project involved live-scoring previously unseen Warhol films. How did she end up getting on board?

“Dean Wareham, who was in Galaxie 500 and Luna, did a project scoring Andy Warhol’s screen-tests. That went well so he was asked to curate another project, and he chose four additional musicians – me, Tom Verlaine from Television, Martin from Suicide and Bradford Cox from Deerhunter. We were each assigned three films and made music for them.”

Well, that sounds like a super-group and a half to me.

“Yeah, it was pretty amazing.”

And she’s worked in various fields for quite some time – from that film-scoring and regular podcast guest appearances to house-band roles on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, advertising for Italian fashion label Miu Miu, and work with multi-media artist Doug Aitken’s experimental train project and subsequent film, Station to Station. Is this how to get by in this day and age, or just a case of variety making it all work for her?

“A little bit of both. It’s fun, and I wish I could be even more diverse in the things I could do. It’s fun to get to work with different people, because usually it’s a kind of solitary existence. I’d love to do more quirky projects if I could.”

Corner Shot: Eleanor Friedberger, all set for her next set of UK dates (Photograph: Chris Eckert)

Rather than just you and an acoustic guitar in the bedroom?

”Yeah, that’s pretty tiring.”

And when you do get home, that’s  in Ulster Country, New York. Tell me about that neck of the woods.

“It’s about 75 miles north of Manhattan, and a part of the world people from New York City have been moving to forever. There’s this famous beat-writer, Diane Di Prima, who lived in the town very briefly, and wrote even then – in the ’50s – that it was becoming over-populated. I live kind of close to Woodstock too, which is still seen as this creative hub. So I’m close to the city – about a two-hour drive – but it feels like a different world, and it’s a lot more affordable to live there.”

And what do you miss most about home when you’re out on the road?

“Erm … my bed! I don’t miss too much though. I don’t know what the characteristic is, but it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I try to be in the present and don’t think about that stuff too much.”

Four Sure: Eleanor Friedberger now has four solo albums behind her (Photograph: Chris Eckert)

For Lancaster Library tickets (Saturday, October 27) try this link and for other dates head here.  And for more on Eleanor, try her official website, or via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

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Happy families seek Wanderlust – Neil Arthur’s continuing Blancmange adventure

At a time when international debate and key government policies are focused on borders and freedom of movement, it’s clear to see where Neil Arthur stands and draws his lines.

High-ranking pop chart success may be behind the sole survivor of 1980s hit-makers Blancmange, but there’s still plenty of deserved acclaim, adulation and appreciation afforded this Gloucestershire-based Lancastrian’s stunning body of work. And new LP, Wanderlust, continues that creative discourse, 36 years after debut album, Happy Families.

If there’s an over-riding theme to his new record, a set of 10 songs composed by Neil and arranged, co-produced and mixed with Ben Edwards, aka Benge (Wrangler/Creep Show) at the latter’s Memetune Studios in Cornwall, it involves the title’s subject matter – that strong desire to travel, be that a personal or political journey. And believe you me (as we say in Blancmange circles), he’d much rather you interpret its meaning than himself.

But before we get to all that, how’s his adopted Gloucestershire today?

“It’s absolutely beautiful. I had a fantastic walk this morning, way out, walking the dog with the missus. I’m back in work now, in the studio. I’ve just cycled up a very steep hill, doing a few errands.”

As many of my conversations go these days, we soon got on to dogs, Neil telling me a Blancmange-related not-so-shaggy dog tale involving his Parson Russell Terrier, Audrey, a ‘feisty lady to say the least’.

“At another studio I had, I was working on one of the Blancmange albums, had done the main vocal and was adding backing vocals, layering them up, with headphones on, then I was listening back and hearing this weird noise. I isolated every track, working out what I’d picked up on there, going through the guitars, synths and then vocal tracks, and on every chorus the bloody dog’s joining in!

“I put about four tracks down, and she joined in … Audrey the dog, singing along. She still does. When we sing happy birthday to friends and relatives, she joins in. She’s got a better voice than me.”

Looking Up: Blancmange mastermind Neil Arthur (Photo: Piers Allardyce).

Did you leave her on the recording?

“No! It was too good. It was embarrassing. She was more in tune than I was. I had to sack her. I didn’t even know she was in the studio. They follow you around, and she snuck in there.”

While clearly loving life on the edge of the West Country, Neil headed further toward Land’s End to record again with Benge, as on last autumn’s wondrous Unfurnished Rooms and with the pair’s side-project Fader before that. What’s more, Wanderlust is his second album this year, after a collaboration with electronic solo artist Jez Bernholz on Near Future’s debut album Ideal Home in May. It’s also the fifth Blancmange LP since Neil’s musical partner Stephen Luscombe was forced by illness to stop touring and recording in 2011.

And the results certainly suggest that Neil and Benge had fun playing in the studio in Cornwall.

“Yeah, in all the darkness … It’s great, and I really enjoy working with Benge.”

Reading an Attack magazine interview with him, he said his studio there is kind of the complete opposite of the one he had before in East London.

“Yeah, and for me the opportunity to work with him is amazing. We get on really well. He’s an absolute expert on synths, engineering and mixing, and we understand each other and don’t step on each other’s toes but push each other to get the best out of one another and surprise each other. You don’t know what’s going to happen sometimes.”

Does David Rhodes, your touring guitarist, come in later?

“He only played on one track on this album, on ‘Leaves’.”

Well, there’s a beautiful big sound on that track. It’s a real builder.

Commuter 23: Neil Arthur, discovering yet another platform with Blancmange

“Yes, I wanted something quite dramatic for the choruses, and Benge got out not only electronic drums, but we ended up using real stuff as well, as a kind of overlay, and one of my reference points was a band called This Heat.

“I wanted something dramatic to empathise the simplicity of the vocal line and let it breathe a bit in the verses. That was one of the first tracks we recorded. And I ended up doing the other guitar – if you can call it guitar – as I’d written it. Benge said, ‘Let’s keep it. It works’. I’ve always written on guitar, but in terms of being a guitarist … maybe not. I’m nowhere near the standard Mr. Rhodes gets up to.”

That’s typical Neil – first denigrating himself as a singer, then as a guitarist too. Maybe it’s his Lancashire roots, not wanting to appear to be acting above his station. And talking of Lancashire, it appears that he couldn’t resist another return to his native Darwen and the Library Theatre on his forthcoming tour, on the back of a great night at the same venue around the same time last year.

“Absolutely. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m hoping I might get a wander up on the moors. Last time we had technical issues and I had interviews, and by the time we got through a soundcheck it was too dark … although I did venture forth to a local pub!”

This time he has a gap in the itinerary before his November 7th date there, heading straight on to Edinburgh, Glasgow, then Newcastle before another short break. In fact, he’s nudged his East Lancs show two weeks closer to the end of the year. It’s as if he wants to be snowed in for a couple of days, embracing a Northern winter.

“If that’s the case, I’ll definitely get myself up on the moors. I’ll have to dig out my Mum and Dad’s seat (up there) to sit on it amid a snowdrift.”

Switched On: Neil’s collaborator Benge gets to grips with his machinery.

He’s also tagged on six more dates next April and May, including further North-West dates in Liverpool and Manchester.

“Yes, taking in some of the areas we won’t be able to get to this time around, also including Birmingham, London, Sheffield, and a gig in Southend, a lovely one to do.”

I mention his Sheffield date, seeing as my eldest daughter is now there for university, Neil mentioning the ‘fantastic countryside surrounding it’, leading to me telling him that – like Rome – it’s a city surrounded by seven hills, something even mentioned in George Orwell’s classic 1937 sociological study of Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier.

“Ah, is it! Blimey, so we’ll be going to the Rome of the North and the Athens of the North (Edinburgh)! Yeah, there are a lot of dates, but it’ll be good fun.”

Seeing as we were talking about weather patterns back there, the LP’s lead single, ‘Distant Storm’, suggests to me a band maybe 30 years younger than the birth certificates suggest.  Think Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ given a Giorgio Moroder treatment. Come to think of it, throughout Wanderlust, Blancmange again prove that futuristic ’80s dance music remains relevant. In fact, good dance – from Fats Domino, Ray Charles and James Brown through – fails to age as long as you avoid recording fads and throwaway techniques that date songs, as ‘Distant Storm’ proves.

“Well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure. I thoroughly enjoy my work. It’s always been the case really, regardless of some of them ending up being hits in terms of pop music. Fortunately, we have an audience who are appreciative, and I hope it comes across. I try and be as honest as I can. I’m not trying to be anybody else.”

On the subject of that single, it’s not a wholly conventional Neil Arthur vocal, but mention of a car park (his East Lancashire tones coming through again) and ‘forensic detail’ prove to be a giveaway, Perhaps we have another incident, like on the last LP’s ‘We Are the Chemicals’, involving ‘a trading estate in Altrincham’.

“Ah, well, it might not be a million miles away. I’ve even name-checked Cheadle Hulme later! (on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’)”

The same goes for those shuddering bass-synth touches, which could neatly segue into old favourite, ‘Feel Me’ (not as if I’m looking to order his live set-list this time around).

“Yeah, there’s a bit of a groove on ‘Distant Storm’. When I started writing, before I went out to Benge, I got this idea in my head that the album was going to have quite a lot of dance tracks on it. I wrote a number of songs in that vein, and we ended up with a pool of material, then decided on which we’d work on. I wanted Benge to have a big input, and he chose the songs he wanted to work on.

“That effectively shaped what you hear – the 10 songs, although initially there were 17, which will all eventually arrive, some of which are already finished but ended up not being put on the album. ’Distant Storm’ was one of the very dance-y tracks, whereas others didn’t end up going on as we ended up taking a slightly different course.

“But with that, we ended up having a remix done by Kincaid, and that’s going down well, being played by DJs. Of course, the other thing about Kincaid is that he also happens to be my son, so it’s really nice to be working on a collaboration with my lad.”

Incidentally, Blancmange have reached new audiences of late via last year’s remix of ‘What’s the Time?’ (for Disco Halal) and a new collaboration with Kincaid, ‘Fat Head’, both tracks played by the likes of Ame (Innervisions Label) and Solomun. And talking of those dance music effects, we’re talking dreamy vocoder over moody Moogs on ‘Distant Storm’. I’ve always been suspicious of auto-tune type phasing, since Cher’s ‘Believe’ probably, something that winds me up about a lot of modern pop, but Neil’s quick to let me know that’s a whole different approach to his own.

“We’ve used vocoder on quite a few tracks before, and there’s quite a bit on this album. It just gives you a break from me really!”

If there’s a theme to this album, your press release suggests it’s where ‘wistfulness turns to anger; dislocation morphs into a powerful desire to be somewhere else, with a sense of someone fighting for forward motion, dreams, family and the joys of life while seeing … the pretence of a normal world being erased’. Is this Neil getting to grips with an uncaring, crumbling Government, this whole Brexit farce, and so on (not as if I’m leading him)?

“There’s certainly a lot of that, without a doubt. I wouldn’t even call this a Government. They’re careerists. They don’t give a shit about us. So yeah, there’s a lot of that, and I just absorb stuff going on around that you can maybe make stories from, make observations, including stuff I wish wasn’t happening.

“We should be concerned, without a doubt. I’m not standing on a bloody soapbox though. These are just songs – poetry with music over the top of it. And there’s other stuff on the album that has more to do with slightly more personal things, with an overview of a lack of empathy in the world.

“I was determined to get Rees-Mogg into one song, get the words in there and slowly unravel this thing. Instead of giving all the answers – which I’m still searching for – you leave a certain amount of ambiguity and people can make out of it what they want.

“But there are other songs, a lot about being a parent. You just talked about your daughter going to university, which is fantastic, but it also means she’s not at home, and you’ve got to let go. We’re not in a dissimilar position, and everybody goes through this in families. It’s the same the first day your child goes to school, or their first sleepover later, the first stages of letting go.

“You cannot control, and they have an absolute need to be a long way away from you in terms of the way a relationship changes. They must be their own person. And with the last track on the album, ‘Wanderlust’, that word’s the closest we can get to it, but another German word, ‘fernweh’, carries far more weight – about this absolute need to be away.”

That answers another question regarding that title track. The lady on the sample’s not saying, ‘Tenby wanderlust’ then? I felt for a moment it might be about escaping to South West Wales. It’s a lovely area after all.

“No, it’s not my place … well, it is. Each person has their own place they need to go. I used to go to Worm’s Head, not too far from there. Very beautiful. But I’m writing about my children and their need to be away, and I’m also in a situation where I’m observing it as myself – amid all the mayhem around me, with my own need to get away.

“But again, I’ll reiterate, I’m not on some bloody soapbox, and I don’t have any answers! It just seems that people in control are making a right pig’s ear of it, and this whole Brexit thing drives me absolute bonkers.”

Two Sides: 2015’s Semi Detached

It finally strikes me that the subject of ‘Leaves’ might be more political than I first envisaged, but Neil would rather we made our own interpretations of what that’s about. That said, he’s still on one.

“We’ve gone down a route where people are screaming because they don’t like something, But what’s coming our way is going to be a damned sight worse. I’d rather be at the table, talking, than locked out and no longer be able to.

“These are our neighbours! We’re all immigrants! We’ve got to come from somewhere. And after all the horror, all the difficulties, all the pain everybody’s been through in Ireland, for these people to talk so flippantly about it … it’s ignorance.”

Taking the album track by track beyond ‘Distant Storm’, there’s another nod to Blancmange’s pop past on the second number, ‘In Your Room’, to me the best Depeche Mode single I’ve heard in some years, somewhere between their own pop roots and later, darker material. A hit, in old money.

“Ha! Their dark minimal ways, yeah? Well, there’s no intention. I wrote that a number of years ago, and never found the right time to release it until now. Simply, (it’s about) when you’re with somebody and at one with them and at ease with them, the room is enough, not wanting to deal with what’s out there at that moment – out there, it’s all too much.”

I could say the same about track three, ‘I Smashed Your Phone’, which to carry on my earlier theme, could have been Ultravox’s finest ever single. Yet thematically it could be an alternative take on Gruff Rhys’ recent duet with Lily Cole on the gorgeous ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, a track I suggested Neil checked out after our conversation.

“The idea of that … well, you can’t even have a conversation these days without someone having a look at their bloody phone, like they’re umbilically attached to it … myself included at times. Also, it’s just that generational thing – the world changes and we like to think we understand it, but we don’t. You never know. I’m learning all the bloody time. The one thing I’m certain about is that I don’t know.”

And seeing out side one, you seem like you’re having a lot of fun in the studio with Benge on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’ and ‘Talking to Machines’.

“We had a fantastic time with those synths! We got a VCS3 out on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’. And on ‘Talking to Machines’ I put down drums, but because of the kind of stuff Benge has access to, we can go down so many different routes, so there’s loads of analogue drums and weird basses going on. And before that, on ‘I Smashed your Phone’ we referenced Ringo Starr’s drums on ‘Ticket to Ride’.

“For ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’, I got this idea for a story about social climbing at any cost, and the emptiness at its core to get where you want to be. I wanted this groove, having this reference in my head to ‘Love is the Drug’, doing it from memory rather than listening to that song.”

Debut LP: Blancmange’s Happy Families

Ah, now the gravel drive in the title makes sense.

“That’s why it came up, although it never appears in the lyric. With ‘Talking to Machines’, I love The Beatles but what I really liked as well was the Plastic Ono Band, so there’s a reference to that at times, in the type of production we went for.”

Neil’s wordplay and imagery hits another high on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’, not least that image of how, addressing his social climber, ‘Your record still stands for the longest scream of anyone falling off anything, anytime, anywhere’.  And musically that track strikes me as a theme tune to a timeslip movie set in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. There’s also a bit of Bowie in there for me, as is the case with ‘Talking to Machines’ and later, ‘TV Debate’. For me, all three could be out-takes from Blackstar. I put this to Neil, but he’s not going there.

“Blimey. I don’t think so. That’s very much a different world. He was an absolute genius.”

We briefly talk some more about Blackstar, Neil mentioning how its heart-searing final track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, references an earlier Bowie track, my interviewee going back to his online collection while I hang on the line, attempting to place it, despite the fact that his next caller is now due.

I soon hear Blackstar playing in the background, Neil crooning along, mentioning ‘the Midnight Cowboy mouth organ thing going on’, determined as he tells me, ‘I’m not going to let this go now. You’re going to have to bear with me. I will find it!’ He finally gets there, deciding on ‘Soul Love’ from 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, adding an emphatic, ‘Isn’t that fantastic, referencing one of your own songs! Unbelievable.

“As RCA put it for the launch of Heroes, ‘There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie.’ And that’s exactly how we saw it. He was out there on his own, and such a massive influence on all of us. And there would always be changes with Bowie! You didn’t have to stay the same – keep re-inventing and experimenting.”

Back to Wanderlust, and I meant to mention how the stabbing synth on ‘Talking to Machines’ reminds me of Soft Cell’s 12″ ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Where Did Your Love Go?’ mash-up, a dance tune within escaping. I was already way over my allotted time though, so moved on to mention our mutual friend Hannah Peel, who also worked with Benge in her days working with influential electronic pioneer John Foxx‘s band The Maths. She’s had another interesting year, I ventured, not least through her more recent work – along with her partner in The Magnetic North, Erland Cooper – with Paul Weller on True Meanings, her star continuing its rise.

And there’s certainly a pleasing vocal blend with Neil and Ms Peel on the chorus of side two opener, ‘Not a Priority’, a song about ‘people who are apparently not seen by others, who have a sense that you don’t count or are seen as not important.’ Again, there’s Blancmange’s balancing act between melancholy and hope for renewed self-belief, Hannah adding Star Trek-like ethereal chanting as well as harmonies. Or perhaps, with Neil painting a picture of ‘The sky at night glitching in the system’, it’s not so much Hannah as her alter-ego, the eponymous heroine of Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia.

“Oh! That was an absolute privilege. We asked Hannah if she’d sing on that song, and her contribution is huge. I’m very grateful, and she’s a really lovely person and an incredibly talented songwriter and musician.”

Next off, there’s the afore-mentioned Bowie-esque ‘TV Debate’, guitars finally breaking through on an often under-stated yet powerful number, featuring a series of channel-surfing images about contemporary politics and vacuous celebrity shows. And again the imagery is truly evocative. Then, beyond the beautiful build of ‘Leaves’, carrying on apace with where we left off on track seven – the end/leave line seemingly in sight – there’s ‘White Circle, Black Hole’, another track that really hit me from the first play, one I’m convinced I’ll be playing a lot more these coming weeks. A huge hit in any other decade, with a great hook, multi-layered yet truly accessible. And dare I mention it’s almost Vangelis-esque in parts? Somehow I’ll find my way home … from up there. With that in mind, not least after bringing in John Grant on the last LP, how about Neil enticing fellow East Lancastrian Jon Anderson out for an alternative version?

“Ha! We’ll have to have a chat!”

Mange Neuf: Neil Arthur is back with Blancmange’s ninth original studio album, Wanderlust.

Then, finally, there’s that electronically yet emotionally-charged finale, the spoken words and Neil’s poetic discourse evoking that longing to be elsewhere, craving new experiences, living for the moment. There’s sadness in what change can bring, but elation too at letting go and moving on. And musically, a nod to Kraftwerk, maybe?

“Not knowingly, but you know I like Kraftwerk. Probably more Neu if there’s a reference. Certainly German! But sometimes you don’t know in terms of referencing. It could be noises I’d heard in my sleep, which is where ‘Distant Storm’ came from. That’s something I heard in the night. It was actually my partner breathing. I couldn’t quite work out what it was. I was in that kind of in-between state.

“And ‘White Circle, Black Hole’, which is a bit like ‘I’ve Seen the Word’ in many respects, is actually about a repetitive nightmare I had when I was a child, but I try and sing it in a really nice way.”

So – with songs about the cycle of life, that craving to make sense of the modern world, and that continuing search for meaning – is this all aural therapy for you?

“Yeah, I suppose so, getting it out of my system!”

Ringing Endorsement: Neil Arthur, still waiting patiently for writewyattuk’s call

Malcolm Wyatt previously spoke to Neil Arthur for a March 2016 interview, with a link here, and in September 2017, with a link here. You can also check out a live review of Blancmange at Darwen’s Library Theatre from October 2017 here and the WriteWyattUK take on last year’s Unfurnished Rooms here

Wanderlust is out on October 19th on Blanc Check Records (BCR012), while Blancmange’s November tour calls at: Norwich Arts Centre (1st); Nottingham Rescue Rooms (2nd); Cardiff Acapela (3rd); Bristol The Fleece (4th); Darwen Library Theatre (7th); Edinburgh Voodoo Rooms (8th); Glasgow Oran Mor (9th); Newcastle The Cluny (10th); Brighton The Old Market (15th); Southampton Brook (16th); Dover Booking Hall (17th); Wolverhampton Robin 2 (22nd); Gloucester Guild Hall (23rd); Northampton Roadmender (24th); Leeds The Wardrobe (29th); Derby Flowerpot (30th). for more details, head to www.blancmange.co.uk You can also keep in touch with the band via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

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Everything’s coming up Rosy with Goat Girl

How high: Goat Girl, reaching up to the top right now. From left – Rosy Bones, Clottie Cream, L.E.D., Naima Jelly (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

After a delay while she was getting to New Cross on the train, Rosy Bones had reached the pub by the time I got hold of her late on Tuesday afternoon, visiting friends after a day of ‘admin’ and a visit to the Rough Trade offices with fellow Goat Girl bandmates Clottie Cream (vocals/guitar), L.E.D (guitar), and Naima Jelly (bass).

I’m not convinced those names will appear on the 2021 census, but it’s all I have for now.

Rosy, the band’s drummer, is based in Lewisham but grew up in South-West London, while her bandmates gravitate from East London, getting to know her via a happening South London music scene, ‘getting integrated into this thing’.

“We all went to the same gigs and like the same things. That’s how I met them, really.”

Which bands were they watching back then?

“Erm … Warmduscher, Meatraffle … Trashmouth Records’ nights every so often. There’s always a gig to go to.”

That takes me back to formative nights listening to John Peel in the ’80s, those not in the know always slightly amused or bemused by the odd names of bands we craved back then. Now, 30 or so years on, it seems that I’m the clueless one. Have I become that bloke?

The Windmill in Brixton was key to that whole scene, Rosy told me, and she’d soon joined the band that became Goat Girl, practising with them, with gigs around Peckham and New Cross too.

My excuse for speaking to her was an upcoming Manchester Gorilla date (Tuesday, October 23rd) on the band’s autumn UK tour. And it wasn’t so long ago, I pointed out,  that they were in nearby Salford for Sounds from the Other City.

”That was crazy. We had quite a fun day, although I’d twisted my ankle a couple of months before, then fell and re-twisted it. It was kind of mad. We didn’t expect the crowd we had. We were on really late, the only thing still on, and everyone seemed really drunk. It was a good crowd. Yeah, I really liked that festival.”

I’m not suggesting she’s accident prone, but the previous month Goat Girl had to postpone a date in Sheffield after an accident on a ferry from Dublin when Rosy had boiling water poured over the left side of my body. Ouch. Anyway, talking of festivals, how was Portmeirion and their No.6 appearance?

“Oh yeah, that was alright but a bit horrible with the weather, really rainy and muddy. It was all good, but we did a few gigs before that around the UK, and were a bit tired, with a lot of waiting around.”

What other festivals or other appearances stand out from this year?

“I think Green Man was probably the highlight. We didn’t play that well, but the crowd was really good. Loads of people were there, including friends. Another big moment was this festival in Zurich, with Kendrick Lamar playing. That was amazing. There was a storm as soon as he’d finished. The clouds opened, with massive thunder and lightning. We ran out into the heaviest rain ever, had a little rain-dance.”

I was reminding myself of your appearance on BBC 2’s Later with Jools Holland this summer too, sharing a bill with Niles Rodgers’ Chic, former Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes, and Chas and Dave, one of their very final appearances together.

“I was very excited to see Chic, and Chas & Dave … RIP Chas! Actually, I’m a bit worried we’re cursed, having also appeared on the same bill as Mark E Smith in some of his last shows.”

Those were at The Garage and the 100 Club in early May, Goat Girl chosen by the legendary front-man for what turned out to be The Fall’s final London gigs.

And it’s been a manic year for the girls, still in their early 20s, with lots going on, not least the release of their self-titled debut album, with lots of rightful acclaim following. Is it nice to be appreciated, or is there concern that the music press traditionally build bands up only to knock them down later? Everyone seems to be raving about you at the moment.

“Well, it’s nice that people are listening. We’re not going to sacrifice anything though. It will always be about the music we want to make, whether people like it or not. And we’re all pretty level-headed.”

Green Lights: Goat Girl, about to head off out again, this time for an autumn UK tour (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

Was there a lightbulb moment when you were out watching bands, realising you could do this? And was there a manifesto for success and where you could get to?

“No, we’ve never really had any sort of plan. For some, it works to have a manifesto. But for us, if it works … well, we try not to over-think it.”

The first single, Country Sleaze, seemed to light the way for you, waking people up to who you were and somewhat setting out your stall. Was there a good feeling putting those early songs together?

“I guess so. I kind of think we’ve only recently realised that we are kind of good! We never really thought of ourselves as that. We just thought, ‘Let’s enjoy it, y’know.’ If we hadn’t had the label around us, we’d still be making music, although I don’t know if we’d have released anything.”

That’s certainly seems to be one of their strengths. There’s a raw feel to the band, one that shows on their recorded product so far.

When I hear Goat Girl, I hear the likes of PJ Harvey, but also Nick Cave, and even Blur’s Graham Coxon’s solo material. You’ll see plenty of others touted as influences. But who were the bands Rosy heard that inspired her to have a crack at all this?

“I think we were all influenced by different music we were listening to when we were growing up, including female pop stars like Rihanna and Gwen Stefani.”

That’s more down the pop line than I expected. But in the week Wolf Alice secured the Mercury Prize, there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in critical circles for female-fronted guitar bands too.

“Maybe, but I always find that kind of thing rigged, and just think good music should be appreciated (regardless of awards).”

Monkey Do: Everybody has something to hide apart from Rosy and her monkey (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

Rosy started playing drums at the age of 12, having stalled with early piano and guitar lessons, while ‘the drums made sense’. She is learning and enjoying piano now though, and you’ll see her tinkering away for an filmed acoustic stroll through album track ‘Viper Fish’ for BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley show recently.

“That was a lot of fun! And it’s nice to be able to stretch out the songs.”

I’m reading Robert Forster’s Grant and I at the moment, a great read from a fellow performer with a Rough Trade past, in his days with The Go-Betweens. He talks about the band only starting to finally get a wage, and we’re talking £50 a week, after a few albums and perceived success in the late ‘80s. Is that how it is for you 30 years on?

“I think there’s still money in it for the big cheeses. We get money to live off, because we can’t really have jobs, but it’s kind of like fake money really. And I don’t think there’s much in it for bands anymore. There’s a threshold.”

Back to the LP, and it’s 19 tracks and 40 minutes altogether, certainly value for money. Do you think you’ve captured the true live Goat Girl experience on there?

“Yeah, definitely. We wanted it to have that live feel … and there’s a few mistakes in there as well!”

Well, that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I also love the feel of the A Hard Day’s Night-like promo video for ‘The Man’. Where was that filmed?

“In and around London, with some of it around Borough Market. We spent around two days filming that. Yeah, that was fun.”

What happens next, after this tour? Are you on with the next record? Or is it like with Joe Strummer’s shocked, ‘What do you mean, ‘second album’?’ when questioned after basking in the glory of The Clash’s self-titled debut LP?

“I think we’re going to go on a hiatus, focus on writing some new bangers! We haven’t really had the time, and I think we want to do some sort of charity work and get back to some sort of reality and be able to write songs. Because we’ve used them all up now!”

And if you weren’t doing all this now, or at least if no record company came calling, what would you be up to instead?

“It was always like a big passion, but we’re also really passionate about animals, so I think I’d want to be sort of helping turtles get into the sea or something, doing some sort of humanitarian thing … or travelling … working and saving money to go travelling.”

London Girls: Goat Girl, making a huge impact across the UK in 2018 (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

For Goat Girl’s autumn tour details, head here. You can also keep in touch with the band via their website, and Facebook and Instagram pages.

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A new belief and sweet relief for The Coral – talking to Nick Power

No big moves to London or even Liverpool for The Coral, it seems, an outfit perfectly happy with life on the Wirral, 22 years after their first fumblings at getting a band together.

As keyboard player Nick Power, at home in Hoylake painting his stairs when I called, put it, “We’re still all pretty much based in and around the area, or within a five-minute drive.”

In fact, Nick tells me they never moved away, even at their commercial peak around the time of second LP, Magic and Medicine, a 2003 UK No.1 and one of nine top-20 albums in all.

I briefly side-tracked him there, revealing how I was editing an official history of fellow prime Wirral export, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, whose formative gigs included church hall shows in Hoylake.

“I think they were from the same area, and there are quite a lot of old halls and things like that round here. It’s almost like a retirement village.”

Thankfully, there’s no retirement plan yet for The Coral, who last month released Move Through the Dawn, recorded at Liverpool’s Parr Street Studios and produced by the band with Rich Turvey. Their second LP for Ignition, it reached No.14 in the UK, and is seen by the band as the second chapter in the story of ‘The Coral Reborn’.

After 2010’s Butterfly House album, a group whose members went from being at school to being on tour with Oasis with hardly a moment to contemplate it all, took five years out to work on other projects, an experience Nick saw as ‘like going into Castle Greyskull. The outside world was a scary place.’

They finally returned, recharged, with 2016’s psychedelic, riff-heavy Distance Inbetween LP. And now they’re back with something completely different, showing off their proven pop potential as well as their superior songcraft. Perhaps, like their lauded Merseyside neighbours and inspiration, The La’s, ‘The melody always finds me, whenever the thought reminds me.’

The Wordsmith: Nick Power, concentrating on his writing

Before we got on to that though, we carried on talking about those Wirral roots.

“It’s sort of like a tradesmen’s town.”

I told Nick I have a friend now base din Western Australia who hails from just off Birkenhead Park and always told us he was actually from ‘rural Cheshire’, although I’m not sure we truly believed him.

“Even to Liverpool, we’re the ugly ducklings of the area, like.”

Talking about the importance of his roots ahead of the new LP’s release, Nick wrote (I only found these quotes afterwards), “We live by the sea. When you go to New Brighton on the Wirral peninsula you hear Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ in the arcade, or on the waltzer. I went the other day and they were playing Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘Break On Through’ by The Doors. It’s a great timewarp to be in.

“People do grow up on Love, Captain Beefheart and Floyd up here, which might have something to do with people congregating in bedrooms, smoking weed and doing acid. Liverpool is not affected by fashions and as a result has its own roots music, its own jingle-jangle quality.

“I used to think of Merseybeat as a swearword, but I like it now. And we’re all still in The Wirral — I live on the road behind James (Skelly), Paul (Duffy) is behind that, and Ian (Skelly) is up the road — so we’re pretty tight-knit. We haven’t bought mansions in LA. Not that anyone has offered them. I think you hear that in the music.”

When we spoke, I’d only heard a few tracks on the new LP – something since remedied – but of those, first single, ‘Sweet Release’, plus ‘Eyes Like Pearls’, ‘After the Fair’ and ‘Reaching Out for a Friend’ certainly impressed. It’s fair to say The Coral still know how to write a hell of a song.

“Yeah, nice one! That’s what we try to do, really. The album that preceded it didn’t particularly have anything on it like that. We wanted to come out, do something more besides, like Pink Floyd or Hawkwind.

“I think people were probably expecting us to do that again. But for better or for worse we always recoil from that and end up doing the opposite. I think we’d probably be more well off now if we’d have just done what people expected us to do, but it’s not in our nature to do that.”

I can see that. I think of fellow Wirral musician, Elvis Costello, getting the impression he could always write great three-minute pop if he wanted to, but it never interested him most of the time. And there’s an element of that about The Coral. You have your quirky moments and then out and out classic pop moments like ‘Pass It On’, a timeless staple of many of my in-car compilation CDs back in the day.

“Lovely. Yeah, we always turn away from the production techniques of the time, so I don’t think they date badly. And there is a sort of timeless element to some of those recordings.”

Coral Reefers: The Coral take it to the Great Outdoors

The band have cited Phil Spector’s ‘70s work with The Ramones and Dion as influences on their latest batch of songs; ‘albums that brought a big sound while still holding onto a sense of innocence’. Meanwhile, lead singer and main songwriter James Skelly also cites early Bob Marley, ELO and the Traveling Wilburys as inspirations, while a simple lyrical and philosophical theme runs throughout: ‘trying to find something real in a world that seems more artificial by the day’.

But above all else, they’ve looked to make an album ‘in service to the song’, going ‘back to pure melody’, seeing Distance Inbetween as ‘extreme in one way’ and Move Through The Dawn ‘extreme in the other way’.

“If you are a fan of ours,” Nick added, “You don’t want to hear the same album all over again. I love well-written songs as much as I love Faust or Can. To write a simple song, and make it sound like something a four-year-old kid whistled on the way to the bus stop, is not easy. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Founded in 1996 by friends Ian Skelly (drums) and Paul Duffy (bass), practising in school, lead guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, Ian’s older brother James Skelly, and rhythm guitarist Lee Southall soon joined a band initially known as Hive.

Two years later, Nick joined, but had always known them, sitting in on their ‘praccies’ while in another band, their schoolroom sessions followed by those in Ian’s bedroom, the fledgling outfit then using connections to jam elsewhere, such as the basement of Hoylake pub Flat Foot Sam’s.

Soon, they graduated to the Liverpool circuit, including a residency at the Cavern on Sunday afternoons, playing ‘three gigs a day to three Japanese tourists’. And in time, Alan Wills heard them, offering to manage them and even form a record label, Deltasonic, around them. The big time quickly beckoned.

These days The Coral feature my interviewee, the Skelly brothers, Paul Duffy and Paul Molloy (covering for Lee since 2015), and somehow it’s been 20 years in the frame for Nick, who also contributes guitar, organ, piano, melodica, harmonica, backing vocals and lyrics.

“I know! It’s becoming scarier every day, how time speeds up and your sense of time runs away with itself. I remember going through my 20s thinking I’ll do whatever it is I need to do tomorrow. Time seemed so slow. But now I can almost see my hands changing in the light.”

While they remain far removed from the heritage circuit and gloriously ‘now’, I told Nick the first single from the album, ‘Sweet Release’, was more about glam rock urgency for me, reminiscent of a Sweet song, spanning the decades.

“Yes, that’s kind of what I was trying to do with that, actually.”

I also hear something of latter-day That Petrol Emotion there too, not least the riff, leading to this scribe filling Nick in on a band he somehow missed, explaining how they were around just a tad too early to get the attention latter, lesser bands did amid BritPop fever, despite paving the way in many ways.

“I think with every great scene, there are bands ahead of the curve who don’t necessarily make it. Even in my generation, bands like The Strokes, who thought of themselves as the best. Then there are bands like The Killers who get on that and go to the top.”

So where do you see The Coral on that scale? You had that very high-profile period around the time Magic and Medicine built on the success of your self-titled debut album.

“I don’t know. I probably saw us as outsiders.”

Which is probably a good thing.

“Yeah, it is. Revisionists now kind of write us out of everything. It started with The Strokes and The White Stripes, and then The Libertines came along. But we were out there with The Strokes.

“It’s the same with (Echo and) the Bunnymen. All Bunnymen articles are stand-alone articles, but when it’s written about the collective (scene), they always seem to get written out. But I suppose you choose your own fate in the end.”

That took us briefly on to that particular legendary Liverpool outfit, not least as I was about to speak later that day to Ian McCulloch about their new album, prompting Nick to talk a little about Mac and Will Sergeant.

“I’ve had some amazing nights with McCulloch, one of the funniest fellas … but there’s been times when I’ve wanted to punch his lights out as well!”

Getting back to The Coral’s more commercial highs, you always had that ability to mix things up, go for the unexpected, and right from the start, it seems. Despite the more poppy songs, you’d still offer a little more off-kilter material too.

“Yeah. I thought that was the only way to break through at the time. There was this weird thing with Liverpool bands, a hangover from The La’s. People wouldn’t touch Liverpool bands for ages, so at that point in your career you’re going, how can we escape? What do we have to do to get signed or break through and get people to listen to us?’

“And it was that sort of obscure side of the ’60s and that weird stuff we got into. You’d just do whatever’s most original to get attention. Even though we gravitate towards that music naturally, you’re doing whatever you can, in that Springsteen way.”

Part of the reason you did break through was thanks to Alan Wills, his Deltasonic label putting out your first six studio albums. He certainly championed your music … and not just the more commercial elements. Not so many would have seen or understood your potential.

“Alan was a massive part of that, and was even an outsider on the Liverpool scene. He was this fella with massive enthusiasm and really strong opinions, but no one really took him that seriously. But an outsider like that, they’re the visionaries and they’ve got nothing to lose. He was massive for us.”

Many of the record companies around at the time would have said, ‘That’s not a single,’ to something like your debut release, ‘Shadows Fall.’

“Yeah, and he’d encourage us to do all that. He got me into so many good authors and so many good film directors, like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, and stuff like Leningrad Cowboys, all that alternative stuff.

“He was just so giving. He’d just give it to you, like ‘take that home, listen to that.’ To each band member. He said to me, ‘Read this book by Sam Shepard, and it’s my favourite of all time. Motel Chronicles. I’ve still got the copy and it’s one of the most important things that ever happened to me, giving me that book.”

That took me neatly on to Nick’s own writing. When The Coral had their hiatus and his bandmates went off to explore solo music projects, production or Jame sand Ian’s Skeleton Key label, he looked to his publishing interests. Is that where he is now, between the band and his writing projects?

“Kind of. There’s a tour diary that’s out with this album, and I’ve had really good feedback from. So yeah, I am between the two really. I’ve tried doing poems and monologues, I’m not sure about novels, but there’s some sort of in-between space that can be filled.”

That new publication, his third, is Into the Void, Nick’s first-hand account of the recording, release and touring of the Distance Inbetween album, ‘a memoir on life in The Coral after that five-year break’.

As the band press release puts it, as ‘an insight into the band experience, from dealing with fights at gigs to trying to sleep in a cell-like Travelodge bed to capturing a moment in time on an album before moving on, it is as essential as it is entertaining’. Included are tales of shared rehearsal space with a swingers’ club, and wandering Los Angeles in search of The Castle; the legendary former home of Bela Lugosi where Arthur Lee and Love wrote Forever Changes.

In short, the band see Into The Void as underlining ‘the special thing The Coral have, of being a band forged of friendship and a shared love of cool music, books, films and ideas’.

Does Nick now think he might be in a position at some stage to write an insiders’ biography of the band?

“Not anytime soon. The band thought is that we just need to keep it current. We’re not about looking back at the moment. We’re not into the legacy artists. We’re not there yet. We’ve still got a lot to give. As long as I’ve got the chance to do it, I’m gonna do it because the opportunity’s there and that’s what I love doing.”

When major success came The Coral’s way around the time of the second LP, did it all come a bit too fast for you to properly enjoy the experience?

“At some point, yeah. After that we all took a year off. We were all just teenagers and had to become adults in the midst of it all.”

Is that ultimately why Bill Ryder-Jones moved on in 2005?

“It’s a tough one with Bill. I can’t really speak for him. But we never had a great infrastructure for touring. It was always wild. Sometimes you look at other young bands and they’re really well organised. That’s how you’ve got to do it. I think we were put off touring a bit because we did it so ramshackle.”

Was the album Butterfly House about starting again in that sense?

“Pretty much. It was a case of, ‘can we do it without Bill?’ But I think that was more about the end (of part one of The Coral’s story). Distance Inbetween was about starting again, and I do enjoy it more now. It’s just … I don’t know … it’s just better to be in. It’s debatable if we’re better as artists. That’s for other people to decide, but I’m just loving it.”

Well, it sounds pretty good from where I’m standing, and I think perhaps that hiatus period you had as a band helped strengthen you as a creative unit.

“Exactly. You go away and get a lot a stuff of your system. When it was just us in the band and that’s all we had, everyone in the band would be trying to put their whole year’s-worth of experience into a guitar line. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit back and allow a song to breathe. We’re a lot more laid-back in that respect.”

On a similar point, James Skelly – the eldest, but still only 20 when the band got signed – said, “We had the best attitude on the first album, when everyone was going in the same direction. Sometimes tension does make for great tunes, but it is hard to make a cohesive album when the band isn’t functioning as one. Usually Ian and I will be in the studio and the others sit behind us, slagging off everything we’re doing. And once they stop slagging it off, you know you’re onto something.”

And Nick added, “When we started out it came so quick, and we were so young and hungry, that we didn’t question anything. But by our mid-20s, we thought: what are we doing this for? So we took a break. People did solo albums.

“Everyone was spreading their wings, hanging out with other artists, getting a different perspective. It was hard psychologically and financially, especially as we’re not qualified to do anything else, but it was enriching creatively. We looked outward rather than inward.”

James added more on the band’s recent direction change too, revealing, “We’d pretty much written a whole other album in the style of the last one. Distance Inbetween was well received, and it would have been easy to go in and do the same thing again.

“Then we booked the studio and had a revelation: we had to go in the opposite direction. We had to write three-minute songs, all the fat trimmed off, hardly any solos. I mean, I like the War on Drugs and the Arcade Fire, but does your shortest track have to be over five minutes long? It seemed that three-minute songs had become unfashionable in guitar music and they needed reviving.”

Talking of pop sensibilities, going right back to the beginning, we mentioned The La’s, a band I still hear in The Coral’s music. They at least sound like they were a major influence. Were they, Nick?

“Yeah. You couldn’t really get away from them. There was a point where we had to do something really drastic to not sound like them in those early days. Because everyone did and no one stood out for not trying to sound like The La’s.”

Hence you going down a more psych-rock avenue?

“I think so. When we moved to Liverpool, we met loads of other bands on the Zanzibar scene, and everyone knows them. So it was a case of getting into other stuff like The Teardrop Explodes and all the Nuggets stuff, The Doors were massive for us, and Echo and the Bunnymen and all that.”

On that first single, there was something of a Specials ska feel.

“I think ‘Ghost Town’ was the greatest single ever. Never been bettered. Jerry Dammers is one of my favourite writers. And songs like ‘Stereotype’ … brilliant.”

It’s fair to say The Coral proved influential too. Early tracks like ‘Goodbye’, for example, seem to pre-date lauded later acts like Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, not least with their harmonies.

“Definitely. When they came out, that was one of my favourite periods of music, that year, with so much of the things I like – weird sort of Christian or Quaker music mixed with The Beach Boys. I fell back in love with music around then.”

I’m not sure if it’s just about geography, but there’s definitely a Liverpool identity to your sound, and not just because Ian Broudie co-produced four of your first five albums.

“I’m massively into the theory of geography and how it affects music. It’s psychography almost, the way it influences you. The thing about us and Liverpool bands, it’s in your blood, the way you construct or sing a melody, the product of living by docks and freighters, all that.

“Then on the Wirral we can see the Liverpool Docks clearly. I can see them from my house now. But I can see hills as well, and we took from Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s as well, so it’s a weird mix of Welsh psychedelia and Merseybeat almost.”

He mentions Super Furry Animals there after a brief chat about my previous interviewee Gruff Rhys, Nick claiming, ‘He’s like a British jewel in the crown – he’s a fucking genius!’  And talk of ‘90s’ Welsh outfits reminded me of seeing Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci support Catatonia at Llangollen in 1999, with ex-Pale Fountains frontman Michael Head also playing, early in his second spell fronting Shack. Was Michael another key influence on The Coral’s song-craft?

“Yeah. We met Mick Head a few times when we were 15 or 16, and he was great, another big influence. Yet he’s only starting to get recognition now. He was really unfashionable back then. But he’s such a good writer. It’s like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, some of it!”

You’re right, and long before Shack I loved The Pale Fountains’ 1984 LP, From Across the Kitchen Table.

“Yeah, and he’s always been a really positive fella, with no real ego about new bands. He’s a true artist.”

The other band I haven’t mentioned so far who seem to have walked a parallel path with The Coral is another Liverpool outfit, The Zutons. Were you close to them?

“At the time we were, and Russ (Pritchard) plays bass with Noel Gallagher now (The Coral were on the bill with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds in late May, on the back of eight dates supporting the Manic Street Preachers). We know everyone, yeah … all good.”

The Coral’s eight-show October run starts at Newcastle’s Riverside Club (Wednesday 3rd), and heads to Birmingham Institute (Friday 5th), Leeds Beckett Students’ Union (Saturday 6th), Sheffield Leadmill (Sunday 7th),  then Bristol SWX (Tuesday 9th) and London’s Koko in Camden (Thursday 11th), before ending at Liverpool University’s Mountford Hall (Friday 12th) and Manchester’s Albert Hall (Saturday 13th). Is it always good to play hometown gigs … or at least Liverpool?

“Ah, great, yeah … apart from family ringing you every five minutes to get backstage!”

Suddenly remembering who you are?

“Yeah, exactly!”

But you still really enjoy playing live as well as in the studio, I guess.

“Ah, I love it, and it’s so much more of a live set now … and has been for years.”

Studio Tan: The Coral in 2018 (Photo: Ben Morgan)

For ticket details of all The Coral’s forthcoming live dates and more on new album Move Through the Dawn and how to get hold of Nick’s Into the Void book, head to www.thecoral.co.uk. You can also keep in touch with the band via their Facebook and Twitter pages.

 

 

 

 

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Babelsberg calling – the Gruff Rhys interview

Three months after the release of a record he originally considered putting out two years earlier, musician, composer, producer, filmmaker and author Gruff Rhys is set to re-tread the boards around the UK, amid plenty of deserved acclaim for Babelsberg.

In fact, it’s been four years since the Haverfordwest-born, Bethesda-raised, Cardiff-based Super Furry Animals front-man came up with the LP’s name, revealing, “I’d made a note of the name after driving past a sign when I was on tour. Cut to a few years later and the (Bristol) studio where I recorded the album was being knocked down, just a week after I finished, to make way for a ‘luxury’ apartment development.

“I was looking for a name that evoked the Tower of Babel – people building towers to reach an idea of heaven … but maybe creating a kind of hell – I’m an atheist, by the way. In any case I had written ‘Babelsberg’ down and when I listened to the songs together, it finally made sense why.”

Babelsberg is Gruff’s fifth solo album, and his first for Rough Trade since 2007’s Candylion, its 10 tracks initially recorded in a whirlwind three-day session before producer Ali Chant’s studio was demolished, working with drummer Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips) and multi-instrumentalists Stephen Black and Osian Gwynedd, 18 months passing before Swansea composer Stephen McNeff added orchestrated scores and brought in the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales (NOW).

The result is something of a triumph, Gruff’s songcraft – melodies and lyrics – shining through, perfectly reflecting the troubled times we live in. There was proof of the album’s staying power in his initial hometown outing for the record in June, joining the BBC NOW at the Millennium Centre as part of Cardiff’s annual Festival of Voice.

And this week’s Barbican Centre show with the London Contemporary Orchestra is being followed this weekend by a two-night stand at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, this time with the RNCM Orchestra.

You may have heard a few of the tracks already, the already-aired ‘Frontier Man’ and ‘Limited Edition Heart’ (I’m not sure if we can call these tracks singles these days – I see no evidence of 7″ vinyl), just two of many highlights. And while the landscape in the songs is often bleak, the soundscape is somewhat gorgeous.

But what else would you expect from a fella who’s no stranger to commercial and critical success, Super Furry Animals – recording in Welsh and English, like Gruff, who prior to that fronted the band Ffa Coffi Pawb, among the leading lights of the Welsh music scene at the time – having managed 19 top-40 singles and 10 top-10 LPs between 1996 and 2009.

Gruff, also part of electro-pop collaborative project Neon Neon in recent years, was at home in Cardiff when we spoke, a few days ahead of last-minute rehearsals for his London and Manchester orchestral shows, telling me, “It’s still quite a new set, and the songs aren’t second nature yet.”

Does it seem odd talking publicly about Babelsberg now, two years after completing much of the LP?

“Yeah, I think I’ve prepared myself to let it stick around a lot longer. I could have released it in a kind of raw form but decided to work on it a bit more. And I’ll be playing these songs for a few years. But I’m really happy with the record, and to talk about it.”

How much input did you have in Stephen McNeff’s orchestral scores? Or did you take a step back?

“One one hand I insisted completely that his scores would be pretty spectacular, just from working with him previously and knowing his work. I made some suggestions and sent him YouTube links to orchestral pop music I’m into and similar music, playing the odd melody I wanted to convey that weren’t on the songs in their raw state. But beyond that it was all him and I was happy to hand it over.”

I’m guessing there were no hang-ups on your part, considering the difference between your world and that of Stephen’s classical music background.

“Yeah, I suppose it’s just a pop album. I don’t know what kind of pop, but the sound’s pretty simple, and not particularly experimental. I suppose if anything I was encouraging, ‘If in doubt keep it dangerous’. I thought it was quite a heavy record in its raw form, and it’s quite a breezy listen now.”

Was it a special moment hearing those scores the first time?

“Oh yeah. It felt like I’d gate-crashed someone else’s recording session. It was amazing, and I was trying not to get carried away.”

Alongside his musical journey, Gruff was the subject of Dylan Goch’s 2010 documentary film, Separado! about his trip to Patagonia  to try to locate members of his family, whose ancestors had emigrated in Victorian times.

In 2014, the pair then co-directed a film about Welsh explorer, John Evans,  American Interior. And you can see a lot of that ‘soundscape’ treatment in Gruff’s work before and since.

The new LP’s definitely a grower. The more I hear the songs, the more I love them. And I suppose in that sense you’ve carried on where you were with the Set Fire to the Stars soundtrack (2014) and before that your American Interior album (2016).

“I think so. I’ve learned a lot making those records and fed that into this record. And although it’s got a full orchestra on it, it’s not a perfectionist album, and I didn’t try and clean it up. The songs speed up and down, and my voice goes out of tune now and again. I wanted to keep some of that immediacy.”

If there’s a theme, what is it? Thematically, is this you trying to make sense of Brexit Britain, Trump’s America, and all that? There’s clearly a political message to be had about this Tower of Babel (as you might expect from an artist who in 2016 composed and sang ‘I Love EU’ to support the Remain campaign in the UK European Membership Referendum).

“Yeah, it’s not a concept record, and there’s no one theme, but that was definitely affecting my mental state during the making of it! And the lyrics reflect what seemed to me at the time to be a very frustrating time to be alive.

I was reading about your father’s world outlook (Ioan Bowen Rees, 1929/99, ‘poet, essayist, polemicist, mountaineer, internationalist … and a White Robe Druid of the Gorsedd of Bards’), seemingly a proud Welshman but not a great one for nationalism. That appears to be your standpoint too. I see you with a true sense of national identity but can’t see you holding out to the idea of hard borders and all that.

“Yeah … I definitely think it’s healthy to have cultural exchanges, and I suppose a lot of the songs are about the rise of popularism and delusional politicians … and musicians!”

At the same time, you seem to have come some way from your early days with Super Furry Animals and more in-your-face singles like The Man Don’t Give a Fuck. And in a sense the subtlety in your current material gives your message just as much of an impact.

“Yes, it’s hard for me to be objective but it’s difficult not to make the same record over and over again … no matter how hard I try. I’m trying to work on my songs and I still feel I’ve got some way to go with songwriting and getting words to fit properly in the songs.”

I won’t dwell too much on the earlier years here (although it’s about time this website carried a feature on that whole wondrous scene), but was there a genuine feeling of being part of some kind of movement of Welsh bands in the ‘90s, along with the likes of Catatonia and Manic Street Preachers, inspired by ‘80s trailblazers like Anhrefn?

“Erm, we were definitely inspired and helped by those bands and actively helped by the Manics as well, taking us on tour. We were very close to Catatonia, sharing a lot, including a kind of ambition. And bands like Anhrefn in a way pioneered everything and were our kind of political education as youngsters.”

And I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised at the direction you’ve taken over the years. That song-craft was always there with Super Furry Animals. 2001’s sublime ‘Juxtaposed With U’ for example having something of an Elvis Costello feel, vocally and melodically.

Incidentally, when I first heard this LP I was thinking of the likes of Scott Walker, in the same way that someone like Jarvis Cocker might interpret him. But then I thought again and felt that perhaps it was more like a lost Kinks album, with a real Ray Davies vibe.

“Well, I’ve listened to thousands of records and suppose the songs on this record and how they’ve been played is quite old school. I didn’t set out to make it Ray Davies sounding, but it’s not far-fetched in that I’m dealing with orchestral pop music and some kind of lyrical, social commentary.”

Meanwhile, there remains a lot of love out there for your work, and it seems that concert ticket sales are going really well, including a few sell-outs on your forthcoming UK and European tour.

“Yes, it’s quite exciting, and I’m going to be doing the tour with the core of the band I played with on the record, so it’s going to be true to those takes. And I’ve rarely been able to play a whole album live.

“Usually in the studio I’m really into production techniques and experimenting and sometimes that means songs are hard to play live, and sometimes were never played live in the studio. So to be able to perform live this album, playing it in order all the way through and playing every song on guitar …”

I was wondering about that. You recorded the LP with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (NOW), but your Barbican Centre show is with the London Contemporary Orchestra and the Manchester show with the RNCM Orchestra. Are the core of the autumn dates with the NOW?

“They played on the album and I played with them – a full 72-piece orchestra – in June in Cardiff, but we’ve also done a mini-version for about 24 musicians so we’re going to do that in London, and Stephen McNeff is going to conduct. Then we’re doing two nights in Manchester.”

Gruff also revealed how the Royal Northern College of Music shows involved special guests, being joined on Saturday, September 15th by H. Hawkline, who’s played guitar for Cate Le Bon and records for Heavenly Records in his own right, while the Sunday, September 16th show will involve 9 Bach’s Lisa Jen Brown. Has Gruff played that Manchester concert hall before?

“I played there before on my own, so this will be a little different, with about 30 of us on stage!”

If the main bones of this album were recorded by you a couple of years ago, does that mean you’re already working on a follow-up?

“Yeah, I’ve been writing lots. At the time of Babelsberg I could only write bleak songs, lyrically, and it seems everything’s going worse by the minute in political life, but I seem to be out of that patch, into something quite a bit different.”

Well, you say bleak, but there’s something quite beguiling about the music that brings the listener through, not least on his post-apocalyptic duet with actor and supermodel Lily Cole on closer ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, If we’re all going to go out under a mushroom cloud, surely that’s not a bad way to go.

“I was asked to help out with some music she was creating. I had this song on the go and felt it could be an interesting one for someone who’s been photographed a lot, feeling she’d have more insights into the song, and she helped adapt the words.”

I guess it would have been more likely that you’d have shared that vocal with someone you’ve worked with before, like Lisa Jen Brown, and that also made me think of the duet she recently did with J. Willgoose Esq. from Public Service Broadcasting on Every Valley’s lovely ‘You + Me’ last year. In fact, that’s almost a parallel song, I’d suggest – another sweet love song removed from the mainstream.

And how about the splendid penultimate track, ‘Architecture of Amnesia’, which to me has that kind of ethereal, later David Bowie, ‘Black Star’ feel.

“Ah, it’s strange, with ‘Black Star’ I felt so sad he had died that I couldn’t listen to the record. I just couldn’t face it.”

I know the feeling. It took me a long while before I could properly play that whole album. But it was worth the wait. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and a fitting finale.

“Sometimes I’m not ready for some records, but I’m sure there’ll be a time in life when I’ll be ready for it.”

Listening to this album has certainly made me go back to your earlier solo records, not so much seeing that body of work in a new light as just wanting to hear more of your post-Super Furry Animals material. Something else has struck me though. I get the feeling that with every solo release you’re moving further away from being in a position where that next album might come together with the band that made your name.

“Erm … in a sense, a record is as mysterious to anyone in the band as it is to me. It’s made a band go to places where you can’t think what a finished record’s going to be like when you’ve got five particular personalities making it and you can’t decide exactly what makes the records what they are. They could only be the product of the five members in a way.

“Making solo records is more predictable in the sense that they’re planned out and they end up quite like you set out to do, whereas band records have some kind of alchemy of what a particular group of people can do together. It’s quite a different process.”

But you wouldn’t rule out a 10th Super Furry Animals album at some point?

“Yeah … but at the moment there’s no plan at all.”

Maybe one day though?

“I’ve no idea. It’s definitely ….”

I think hiatus is the term that’s been used so far.

“Hibernation, I think!”

A few days after this feature went live, a promo video emerged featuring  Gruff and Lily Cole for ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, too good not to share, directed and animated by Ewan Jones Morris, its stars creating animojis ahead of the apocalypse.

Gruff wrote, “A couple of years ago I noticed some smiling, healthy looking young people taking selfies in front of a particularly spectacular sunset, I turned around to walk away only to see another sunset in front of me.

“I realised the first sunset was just the glow looming above a chemical plant. Still, the selfies would have looked like they were taken in California (we weren’t in California). 

“It got me thinking about Armageddon. Maybe people will be taking selfies till the very end. They’ll be pretty spectacular and will feature the golden colours of the Sunset. With the acceleration of climate change maybe it is the end. A slow painful process not an event.

“My friend Graham from South Shields was working with Lily Cole on some music a while back – there was some talk of me helping out in some way as a musician. “Nothing came of it – but I invited her to help me finish this song in any case, as she has a greater insight into the world of imagery. It turns out that her Mother is from Rhydaman and has been taking selfies since the 1960’s. 

“This isn’t a judgmental song about Selfies – Selfies aren’t the problem. They bring joy into this precarious life. It’s just a really sad song.” 

Gruff then signs off ‘with sincerest apologies to Mel Gibson’. Video link here.

Reflective Energy: Gruff Rhys at work, channeling Babelsberg (Photo: Kirsten McTernan)

This Saturday and Sunday (September 15th/16th), Gruff Rhys appears with the RNCM Orchestra at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, followed by a show at Hull’s Jubilee Church on Saturday, September 29th  and 15 Canadian and US dates in October. And then comes his UK and European autumn tour, involving visits to:

Nov 8th – Portsmouth, Wedgewood Rooms; Nov 9th – Brighton, The Old Market; Nov 10th – Folkestone, The Quarterhouse; Nov 11th – Oxford, O2 Academy; Nov 12th – Bristol, SWX; Nov 13th – Birmingham, Glee Club; Nov 15th – Glasgow, SWG3; Nov 16th – Leeds, Church Leeds; Nov 17th – Liverpool, Arts Club (sold out); Nov 19th – Paris, France, Le Badaboum; Nov 20th – Schaffhausen, Switzerland, Tap Tab; Nov 21st  – Munich, Germany, Ampere; Nov 22nd  – Berlin, Germany, Privatclub; Nov 23rd – Hamburg, Germany,  Turmzimmer; Nov 24th – Copenhagen, Denmark, Alice; Nov 26th – Brussels, Belgium, Botanique/Rotonde; Nov 27th – Cologne, Germany, Studio 672; Nov 28th – Amsterdam, NL,  Paradiso Noord; Dec 1st – Cork, Ireland, Live At St.Luke’s; Dec 2nd – Galway, Ireland, Roisin Dublin; Dec 3rd – Dublin, Ireland, Button Factory.

For tickets and further information head to http://www.gruffrhys.com/. You can also keep in touch via the Gruffington Post Facebook, Instagram and Twitter artist pages.

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Remembering Joe Strummer, with Lucinda Mellor and Robert Gordon McHarg III

 

All-Round Inspiration: Joe Strummer, Polaroid style (Photo: Bob Gruen)

To mark late September 2018’s release of a box-set tribute to Clash frontman, punk pioneer, singer/songwriter, activist and all-round inspiration Joe Strummer, who died in late 2002, WriteWyattUK  tracked down the project’s main drivers – artist Robert Gordon McHarg III and Joe’s widow, Lucinda Mellor. But first, a little pre-amble. 

Later this month, Ignition Records issue new LP/CD/digital boxset project, Joe Strummer 001, the first compilation spanning Strummer’s career outside The Clash,  including various rarities and fan favourites from recordings with the 101’ers and The Mescaleros, his solo LPs and soundtrack work, plus an LP of unreleased songs.

All formats include tracks that have never appeared before, as well as new remasters, and the album of unreleased material includes an early ‘This Is England’ demo (‘Czechoslovak Song/Where Is England’), a solo ‘Letsagetabitarockin’’ demo recorded in Elgin Avenue in 1975, outtakes from Sid & Nancy featuring Joe’s main Clash collaborator Mick Jones, and unreleased songs ‘Rose Of Erin,’ biographical/mythical recording ‘The Cool Impossible’, and ‘London Is Burning’, one of the last he recorded.

Arguably the most charismatic and passionate frontman to emerge from the punk rock explosion of the late ‘70s, it was discovered after Joe’s untimely death in December 2002 that he’d been quite an archivist of his own work, with barns full of writings and tapes stored in his back garden. In fact, there are now more than 20,000 items in the Joe Strummer Archive, the archiving of material and compiling of Joe Strummer 001 overseen by his widow, Lucinda Mellor, and artist Robert Gordon McHarg III.

All the tracks for the box-set were restored and mastered by Grammy Award winner Peter J. Moore at the E. Room in Toronto, Canada. And going through cassettes and recording tapes it was discovered that Joe was also rather frugal and keen on hiding tracks. On cassettes he would leave 20 minutes between songs, and on one-inch eight-track recordings hidden tracks were discovered superimposed on to each other. For example, tracks one to four were taken by one song and tracks five to eight by two other songs, initially thought when played back to be caused by tape denigration until Moore stepped in and separated one song from another.

The box-set has the same content as the CD set and is pressed on audiophile quality 180g vinyl, while an accompanying book included with the deluxe CD set features rarely seen and previously unpublished memorabilia from Joe’s personal collection as well as historical press reviews and technical notes about the albums. The cover of all formats is taken from Joe’s 1990 Californian driving licence.

The project was curated by long-time friend of Joe Strummer, Canada-born artist Robert Gordon McHarg III, who previously worked on The Clash’s Sound System box-set with Paul Simonon, and also curated the Black Market Clash exhibition. Gordon explained, “The idea behind the book is that it’s an A4 notebook done as if Joe had designed it himself, telling his story. Hopefully it’s an insight into his workings and includes hand-written lyrics with personal notes and scribbles.”

To mark the occasion, I asked Gordon and Joe’s widow Lucinda Mellor their thoughts on the project and Strummer’s enduring legacy, 16 years after his departure. My questions follow in italics, followed by answers from Gordon, Luce, or both.

A lot of hard work went into this collection, as with all your labour compiling Joe’s archive. Was this project at the drawing board stage for a long time?

Gordon: “Joe did all the hard work; we’ve laboured. Finding a way to share the archive has taken time.”

Luce: “No not really, as we were concerned primarily with the written work he left behind, having no idea of the wealth of recording material buried in the boxes and bags.”

The first thing I heard from this box-set was part of a different treatment of ‘London’s Burning’/’Burnin’ Streets’, just one shining example showcasing the versatility of so many great tracks in his back-catalogue. I gather that Joe was one for ‘hidden tracks’ tucked away on tapes. Was there a fear that some of those old tapes would snap and be lost forever after all this time?

Gordon: “Preserving all of Joe’s archive has been a challenge. ‘London Is Burning’ was Pockets’ ((another old friend of Joe) contribution to JS001.”

Luce: “Yes, this was real fear, and for this reason Gordon sought out the amazing Peter Moore in Canada, a master at repairing these precious old tapes.”

Was there much gnashing of teeth, scratching of heads and arguments for arguments’ sake over the track-listing? I guess it would seem fairly apt to Joe’s memory if that was the case.

Gordon: “Absolutely. It took months. I worked on around seven variations. Having archived so many of Joe’s set-lists, it was imperative to try and channel that dedication into trying to get it right.”

Luce: “There was a little bit, as the question of why these gems never found the light of day was always prominent in our selection, and also personal preferences are subjective.”

True Icon: Joe Strummer in 1989 (Photo: Bob Gruen)

Were there occasional conversations in compiling this box-set when you felt the need to ask Joe’s opinion on something?

Gordon: “Occasional? All the way through this. It’s ongoing …”

Luce: “Continual, but then I still find that today and wonder ‘What would Joe do or say?’.”

As I understand it, there are more than 20,000 items in the Joe Strummer Archive. Were there moments when it all seemed a bit much to even contemplate sorting out?

Gordon: “It’s been emotional!”

Luce: “Yes, the project has been huge, and without the input, help and enthusiasm from Gordon and Martin Bradley and his team, I would have abandoned it years ago. It really has been a mammoth undertaking.”

Have there been sleepless nights thinking you shouldn’t have left such and such a track off? And is there scope for a ‘Joe Strummer 002’?

Gordon: “There have been many sleepless nights. I care so much about not letting Joe down. The archive is so rich in material, there is more to share. JS002 is definitely a desire.”

Luce: “Many, many sleepless nights, and I’m sure there are many varying opinions out there as to what we should and shouldn’t have included, but there is easily a 002 and maybe even a 003.”

In an interview in 2007 with The Independent, you (Lucinda) suggested an ‘amazing book’ may follow on the archive someday. Any further advanced on that?

Luce: “This is what we were originally planning when we realised Joe had left so many interesting and beautiful lyrics, poems and drawings. So we have put together a book to accompany the release with his handwritten lyrics, scribbles, drawings, photographs and a bio he wrote himself. In effect, we’ve left the book to Joe to introduce us to the album. That is not to say that sometime in the future I would love to put out a glossy coffee table book!”

I’ve come to appreciate in recent years the strength of the 101’ers material. Might that have been something Joe was likely to go back to and reinterpret/re-record a few songs?

Luce: “That I cannot answer, but it’s interesting to note that ‘Pouring Rain’ was first visited in 1984 and then again in 1993, so I guess we will never know.”

There were a few ‘in between’ projects before the Mescaleros evolved, not least the film soundtrack work. What tracks from those less celebrated albums really jumped out at you all these years on?

Gordon: “I have enjoyed watching and learning more about the films Joe was involved in. I Hired A Contract Killer by Aki Kaurismaki is high on my list, and the track ’Burning Lights’ is up there. To add to that, when Luce played me ‘Generations’ I thought this is one of Joe’s best. It had to go on. And of course, when he wrote ‘Sandpaper Blues’ for my exhibition soundtrack, that will always be a personal life highlight.”

Luce: “I think my favourites are the songs he did for Sara Driver’s film, When Pigs Fly. But Walker is astounding too. I find myself listening to that album a lot and never tire of it.”

It seems sad that it took Joe’s departure for much of his work to be truly recognised in certain circles, but I’m more and more convinced I don’t just hold the last two albums in such reverence because of the circumstances, but because he was on a genuine career high.

Gordon: “I really enjoyed seeing Joe play with The Mescaleros. All the albums are great.”

Luce: “I feel he was just getting back into his stride too, and he had a fantastically talented bunch of musicians in the Mescaleros who reignited his passion for writing, recording and performing, so I would agree with you.”

There’s a tendency to think, going back over old interviews, footage and records, that we’re still in late 2002 in Joe’s world. But while I felt Streetcore was perhaps his finest body of work and a couple more albums of that strength may have followed, his restless nature might have seen him move on to another band or solo project at some stage. Do you reckon that may have happened?

Gordon: “Joe was always working with different artists …”

Luce: “Perhaps. He really enjoyed his collaborations with Horace Andy, Richard Norris, Jimmy Cliff and right at the end of his life with Dave Stewart, so I’m sure he would have branched out, and of course he was swapping ideas with Mick at the end too.”

Inevitably, talk will always go back to a Clash reformation and whether it was likely to happen. Signs and snippets of quotes suggest It was at least on a bucket-list for Joe at some point. Any thoughts?

Gordon: “I don’t have the answer … (but) Joe loved The Clash.”

Luce: “As I said, Mick and he were swapping ideas in the last few months of his life, and I guess the Clash was always unfinished business. He had enormous respect and love for Mick, so who knows.”

We tend to think of you as Joe’s widow, Luce, but time moves on. Where are you at now? And where’s home these days?

Luce: “Home is Somerset and where my heart is.”

What’s (Joe and Lucinda’s daughter) Eliza up to these days? Are you still in touch with (Joe’s other daughters) Jazz and Lola and other members of his family? And do you often speak to Mick, Paul and Topper?

Luce: “Eliza is a singer and a producer and goes under the name of Lyza Jane. She has an EP out on Blah Records and has just finished writing her first album. Jazz and Lola are both mothers, living on the South coast, and I saw them a couple of weekends ago. Mick, Paul and Topper, not as often as I don’t come to London much these days, but we are in touch.”

It’s now 25 years since you met Joe, and although you were only together around a decade, you clearly knew him so much better than most. Although you both had West London links, he seemed to be just as at home in Somerset, away from the big city.

Luce: “He took to Somerset life easily and did love it down here, although he never lost his thirst for London and indeed other cities.”

Joe was something of an archivist of his own work and could seemingly outdo most of us with his hoarding capabilities. I get a picture of a ‘carrier-bag man’ keeping hold of so many items that might one day come in handy (lyrics or whatever). Were there ever difficult ‘Do you really need this, Joe?’ conversations?

Luce: “Many. I couldn’t understand why he kept these endless plastic bags which littered the house, especially as I am the opposite, and love a good clear-out.”

How important was Gordon’s input in setting the right tone on this box-set project? 

Luce: “This whole project is really Gordon’s baby, he has masterminded and engineered it from conception.”

How did you (Gordon) get to know Joe? I think you suggested to Robert Elms on BBC Radio London that it involved a copy of a Hank Williams book and a pumpkin pie.  

Country Style: Joe Strummer in 1984 (Photographer Unknown)

Gordon: “Back in the early ‘90s, my friend Lucky Pete, drummer of Gaz Mayall’s band The Trojans, left my Hank Williams book at Joe’s house. I wanted my book back and lived around the corner from Joe when he was living on Lancaster Road. I remember having a Baby Belling cooker and thought I would make a pie and customise the outside of the box – ‘Slim’s Pumpkin Pie’. I was cooking Sunday lunch at The Globe, Talbot Road at the time. Anyway … I turned up, rang the bell; Joe opened the door and I asked for my Hank book. He went and got it from the lounge and said he read it, which made me happy. Standing at the front door sporting my cowboy hat and pie in hand, I said ‘I made this for you’. He immediately invited me in, with my son Hughie and Lucky Pete. He seemed happy with the pie. We chatted and my son played with his kids Lola and Jazzy. This was the beginning of our friendship.”

Were you a Clash fan, growing up in Montreal? Ever dream you might get to know the band and know their London? And what did you think when Luce asked you to get involved on all this?

Gordon: “Yes. I saw The Clash in Montreal 1982. I was 18. ‘The Call Up’ really got into my head.

“I arrived in London on Carnival Monday, 1983, and knew no one. I didn’t know that Notting Hill Carnival was on and ended up on Portobello Road, under the Westway, listening to Aswad. Six years later I met Paul Simonon at his after-carnival party through my friend Gaz.

“I always feel it is a great privilege to help Luce with Joe’s archive.”

You’ve paid tribute to Joe with art installations in London, Belfast and Tokyo, most famously the Edgware Road tube project. Ever try to define what it was about him that truly resonated with you?

Gordon: “The Joe Strummer Subway was my guerrilla project to rename the subway under the Marylebone flyover intersection of the Westway and the Edgware Road where I had The Subway Gallery for 10 years.

“Joe was one of my teachers, along with Hank Williams, John Fogerty, The Beatles, Gene Clark, John Cooper Clarke, Shel Silverstein, to name but a few. I have learned a lot through rock’n’roll, and Joe was a huge part of that.”

Four years ago, you were saying how your ‘seven-day pop-up shop’ was to raise funds for a Strummer statue. There have been temporary murals and tributes in London, Spain and the US since 2002. Any closer to your dream?

Lone Ranger: Joe Strummer, caught on camera by Lucinda in 1997 (Photo: Lucinda Mellor)

Gordon: “I raised enough from the pop-up shop to make a 3D-printed maquette. It ended up totally different to my original idea. In Joe’s archive I found a great drawing that he did. A self-portrait of Joe as a cactus with a cowboy hat, boom-box and a smoke. We made a special print of this for the JS001 box-set. My dream is to make this as a life-size sculpture.”

The biographers who got closest to the subject, not least Pat Gilbert, Marcus Gray and Chris Salewicz, gave honest portraits of a man who (like us all) for all his faults still came out as nothing less than charismatic and passionate, words that come up time and again when reference is made to Joe. Yet he remained something of an enigma. Do you think only a few of you got to know the real John Mellor?

Gordon: “I got to meet Joe Strummer …”

Luce: “Perhaps.”

Have there been genuine moments when you’ve been overwhelmed by just how much love there is still out there for Joe, all around the world, where he’s touched so many lives and inspired so many people?

Gordon: “Never overwhelmed. Proud to be a part of it.”

Luce: “Yes, I’m continually amazed that the passion and love for the man and his music is still so strong.”

The way politics has gone in recent years, particularly in the UK and US, seems to be the antithesis of everything Joe fought for – anti-poverty, anti-borders, pro-inclusion, promotion of the arts/culture, pro-cooperation and connecting. He would have plenty to rail about if he was still with us, wouldn’t he?

Gordon: “Yes. Without doubt.”

Luce: “Of that I am certain.”

Where are we at with the Joe Strummer Foundation in 2018? Are there projects ongoing? And are there special events taking place to mark the release of the box-set?

Gordon: “Yes. We are working on something special for the release …”

Luce: “The Foundation is going really well and there are many projects happening at the moment. We have partnered with Kerrang Radio to create Revolution Rock, where we are helping provide musical instruments for financially-challenged schools and music-mentoring for the homeless and/or underprivileged, helping youths find a way out of gang crime or music therapy for mental health issues. There was also Strummer Jam in August and a gig at Dingwall’s on September 7th, plus supporting emerging musicians in the Hastings area through a project called DEBUT (all information for those events and more can be found via joestrummerfoundation.org).

Finally, in a sense, Joe never left us – his music remains with us. Approaching 16 years after his passing, what do you both think of when Joe Strummer springs to mind today? What picture of him do you both see?

Gordon: “His energy and laugh. Chatting with him around his campfire at Fuji Rock Festival and Glastonbury.”

Luce: “I see him in the kitchen with a half-eaten sandwich, his dog asleep on his feet, waving a piece of paper at me and asking me to fax it quick to Mick.”

Joe Strummer 001, out on Friday, September 28th, is available to pre-order via this link in the following formats: 

Limited edition deluxe box-set: quadruple heavyweight vinyl, 7” vinyl single, cassette, A4 book, enamel badge, art print, screen print, lyrics and sticker sheet (IGN53BOX).

Limited edition deluxe double CD in A4 book (IGNCD53X).

Double CD in slipcase (IGNCD53).

Quadruple heavyweight vinyl in slipcase (IGNLP53X).

Digital download.

Meanwhile, ’London Is Burning’, an alternative/early version of ‘Burnin’ Street’ from Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ final album Streetcore is available now via this link.  

Live Presence: Joe Strummer in impassioned action with The Mescaleros in 2002

For more details about ongoing charity projects in Joe’s name, head to joestrummerfoundation.org.

Footnote:  this feature/interview is set to feature in a different format in a brand new biography of The Clash by Malcolm Wyatt, to be published next month (October 2018) by This Day in Music Books. Further details will follow on this blog as soon as possible. In the meantime, for the WriteWyattUK  lowdown on ‘White Riot’, 40 years on, published in mid-March 2017, follow this link.

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Hold tight, now we’re on our own – the Fay Fife interview

Point Made: Fay Fife shows her Rezillos bandmates which way she reckons they should be heading next

Four decades after first gracing our TV screens, belting out the tremendous ‘Top of the Pops’ on the iconic BBC chart show of the same name, the alluring Fay Fife clearly still has a passion for rock’n’roll.

Anyone who’s caught The Rezillos live knows that, and from this week onward she’ll be leaping about at venues up and down the country again, out front with co-founder Eugene Reynolds, 42 years after they first teamed up north of the border.

A shared love of ‘50s rock’n’roll and ‘60s garage bands inspired them initially, punk rock providing the spark for a ‘new wave beat group’ who could never be accused of taking the more po-faced approach to their art.

In 1978, the Edinburgh College of Art formed outfit made an impact with debut LP Can’t Stand the Rezillos, following that with mighty live follow-up, Mission Accomplished…But the Beat Goes On! By the time that latter Glasgow Apollo show was committed to vinyl they’d already split though, guitarist/songwriter Jo Callis going on to join The Human League, in time co-writing several more top-20 hits, including the Sheffield synth-pop stars’ sole No.1 hit, ‘Don’t You Want Me’. However, Fay (real name Shelagh Hynd) and co-vocalist Eugene (real name Alan Forbes) reconvened to co-front The Revillos, carrying on until 1985, and the band’s pulling power endures all these years on.

The Rezillos briefly reformed in the mid-‘90s for a number of Japanese and UK dates, with Jo Callis back on board around then, getting back together again – this time for good – in 2001 after an invite to play Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations. And while the current band – with Fay and Eugene joined by fellow founder-member Alasdair ‘Angel’ Paterson (drums), 2008 recruit Chris Agnew (bass) and 2010 recruit Jim Brady (guitar) – remain busy with other music projects, they still get together when they can. That includes occasional recordings, their most recent LP of fresh material, Zero, landing in 2015. But right now, they’re heading back out again, proving – all these years on – that The Beat Goes On!

When I called Fay, she was sat at her computer, working on one of ‘various music projects ongoing’, briefly mentioning a ‘big multi-media project’ coming our way later this month. She told me, “I also have an alternative country band … but I know you’re phoning up about The Rezillos.”

It just so happens that the first tour date this time around is on my patch, visiting Preston Guild Hall’s LiVe room this Thursday, September 6th, supported by Department S, best known for 1981 hit ‘Is Vic There?’

“We’re doing quite a lot of UK dates through autumn, including London and Edinburgh. We’re kind of busy ‘til the end of the year, and then there are other plans I probably shouldn’t talk about yet.”

At this stage I professed my long-term love for the band, not least that splendid debut LP and the record that followed, which remains one of my favourite live albums.

“Oh right … I think I’ve only listened to it once!”

While the Flying Saucer Attack: The Complete Recordings 1977-1979 compilation landed courtesy of Cherry Red earlier this year, it’s fair to say The Rezillos are hardly the most prolific of acts, taking 37 years to get around to releasing that second studio album, Zero. Will we have to wait that long for the next one?

“Well, there is another in the pipeline. I wouldn’t say The Rezillos are really quick off the mark, but we are actually starting to write material for a new album. One of the new songs we’re going to do on a BBC 6 Music session, called Goodbye, My Motorbike Guy. But we really need to get to work on all that. Everybody in The Rezillos does other things, so it’s hard to get everybody together to get it done, but I’m pushing for that. If you’re going to be doing this and not staying creative, there’s no point.”

I guess that was always the case. You were always sparking off at different angles, that creative energy a key component of the band’s appeal. You also saw that in the careers you all carved out, such as your move into theatrical studies, Eugene setting up his motorbike business, Angel developing his architectural concern in his adopted Germany …

“Well, I only did the theatrical thing for a short time, then took time out to bring up my son, then later studied psychology. I don’t know what I was thinking there. I’ve done all sorts of things, and now I’ve come full circle, in the last few years returning completely to music. I wanted a more settled life when my son was growing up, but now he’s at university (aged 23, studying games design), I feel I can do more of my own thing.”

Incidentally, Fay’s son’s father was Revillos guitarist Kid Krupa, a ‘very fine guitarist and producer’ who died in his early 40s in 2005, having joined the Mk. II outfit in 1980, aged 17, later becoming a session player for the likes of Tim Finn, Roger Daltrey, Del Amitri, Bonnie Tyler and Shakin’ Stevens, later returning to the ranks for the mid-‘90s shows.

Fay also remains involved with the University of Edinburgh, where she studied after the band’s first two incarnations, these days providing services in ‘therapy for people with addiction problems’, a sideline she feels keeps her ‘fairly grounded’.

But make no mistake. This is no highbrow concern. Aside from the more serious side of punk, The Rezillos always struck me as more fun, with plenty of touches of art-rock experimentation about them too.

“I think you’re right, and there are different sorts of laughter, I guess. And if you’re feeling creative and working with creative people, you laugh very easily and humour is part of it. If you’re going to be over-serious and dour, even if you’re writing a serious song, it kind of deadens things. We’ve always had that angle to us, and are still able to tune into that.

“Certainly, myself and Eugene have a similar humour and sort of spark off each other.”

That certainly shows in their stage presence. Is it easier to get on with each other all these years on, or was that never an issue?

“I don’t know. Age brings a bit of settling down, and there is some of that, but people still maintain the core of their personality and identity. It’s not like you get older and all the problems in life disappear. You still come up against challenges, inter-personal things too, and have creative challenges as to what direction to take. All these things are still up for discussion, but in general we manage them better.”

And there’s still a love from the band across the world, as proved by the last two decades’ adventures.

“There’s certainly still an appetite for it. People think we’ve come back several times, but we haven’t. We reformed in 2001 and have continued on and off since, although we’ve had times when we didn’t do very much, which was a mutual decision. We’ve either got too much going on or we can’t get people to do things all at the same time, but we’ve never stopped doing things.”

The travelling continues, and not long ago they had a get-together with several fellow punk luminaries in Germany, celebrating a successful LP by former John Peel favourites Die Toten Hosen, also involving past WriteWyattUK interviewees Steve Diggle (Buzzcocks), JC Carroll (The Members) and Damian O’Neill (The Undertones), among others.

“That was a bit of a blast. What an outrageous and fun event. You could write a wee novel about that … but I’ll draw a discreet blind over that.”

That’s a shame. Maybe I’ll ask her again sometime. But seeing as I mentioned WriteWyattUK favourites The Undertones (and it doesn’t usually take me long to get on to that subject), I’ve heard great stories about their time with Sire Records, not least with Seymour Stein. How was your own experience with that renowned label boss?

“I can’t remember having any negative relationship with him, but I do recall that I seriously put his and his wife’s noses out of joint when I got a bit high-spirited at a party, with a bit of alcohol going around, and decided to put a bit of cake – a big cream cake – on top of her head. It was a laugh at the time, but I don’t know why I did it. It seemed appealing. I don’t know what came over me. But in general, I think we got on fine.”

While we’re talking travel, this year alone has included festival dates in Spain, Italy … even Canada.

“Yeah, we’ve really been galloping around the place, and these were really nice things to play. We’ve done quite a lot of travel in Spain. We’re quite popular there. We do a lot of shows and keep on doing this because we know we put on a good show and enjoy doing it.

“It does seem strange that we’re still doing that, but for me we’ve got to keep putting in new material and developing it as well as giving people the old music. We can’t deny we are a heritage band, but nevertheless – to keep it fresh for me – we keep the material developing.”

Somehow, it’s now been 42 years since it all began. Can Fay remember much about the first show? And was there a lightbulb moment when they realised this had real potential?

“I think there were several lightbulb moments, but I think the key one was at our first gig. There was another singer in the band then, Gail (Warning), and we made our stage outfits that day, really unusual things for the time. I had a red plastic dress and she had a green plastic dress, and everyone turned up that night like themselves but a slightly exaggerated version.

“When we got on stage, something happened. You’ll have to remember that The Rezillos was my first band, whereas among us two or three of us had another band at the same time. So I’d never really been on stage with a band until then. But Eugene said – and I wasn’t aware of this at the time – it was really clear once we started singing that something else happened and took over, some sort of performance thing.

“That was me personally, and altogether we just completely gelled and took off. And we really communicated with the audience, and you could tell they were getting it. So that was the big moment – that realisation that our performance was quite something.”

There was also that love of ‘50s rock’n’roll and ‘60s beat bands that you had in common. But there seems to be a blurred line between the likes of The Rezillos and pioneering US bands with similar influences like The B-52’s and The Cramps. Did they predate them?

“I don’t know if we did. I think we were all around about the same time. We were certainly independent of each other. We actually went to New York to record Can’t Stand The Rezillos and sort of linked up with Lux (Interior) and (Poison) Ivy, becoming good pals with them. They’d been around New York for a while trying to get a thing going and were aware of the B-52’s too. So I think it was around the same time for everybody.”

This tour includes a visit to La Belle Angele in Edinburgh (Friday, October 19th). Is it always good to have a hometown gig?

“Well, yeah, and we did a gig here in early summer for a big exhibition of pop music, Rip It Up, with this festival to celebrate the opening. But this is our own show, so that should be good too.

“I always think we’re an Edinburgh band, although I’m the only person in the band who actually lives here. Eugene lives nearby, in the countryside, Chris lives in Fife, Jim lives in Glasgow, and our drummer lives in Germany. So we do feel this is our hometown gig, but Glasgow is almost our other hometown gig and also very important to us. We’re not there this time, partly because of the big fire in Glasgow (at the celebrated Mackintosh building, the School of Art, in June), but we’ll put that off until a wee bit later.”

When I spoke to Eugene for this website (April 2014, with a link here), he told me life’s always been ‘birds, booze and bikes’ or ‘music, motorcycles and madness’. How would Fay describe her own experience with The Rezillos over the years?

“Well … the first thing that came into my mind there was ‘art, music and sex’. What more can you say?”

What indeed. And does she still get people asking about her acting days and appearances in Taggart and The Bill?

“No, you’re the first person who’s asked me for about 15 years or something! It was just such a small part of my life. I didn’t really take to acting very much. I really loved doing lots of improvisation but didn’t really take to it other than that. It was more like a side-step. It was interesting, but it’s music I really like.

“Interestingly though, I’m currently working with an actor and I understand a bit where she’s coming from, because I’ve done a bit of that and understand it from a different performance perspective. Even though I’m not an actor and I’m not theatrical, I’ve been there to some extent.

“And interestingly, last night I was working on another project with (former Casualty regular and current Coronation Street star) Rula Lenska.”

Finally, when I think of The Rezillos, I think not only of those first two albums but also one of those memorable Top of the Pops appearances in 1978, Fay decked out in classic ’60s chic, behind the boys but still hogging the camera shots in lurid green and orange spotted white mini-dress, huge hoop ear-rings, and orange tights, with plenty of excessive pointing at the audience during the chorus as if to underline the irony of the lyric, the location, and the occasion. But are there moments across the band’s history that stand out above all others more for her?

“To me, the first of two great peak moments of everything I’ve been involved in goes way back to when The Revillos were touring America. We did it on a fairly small scale, although we played a few shows with a pretty big capacity. We were in a mini-bus, and traveled all over, including down to Tucson, Arizona, and through the Grand Canyon, and over the Rockies. It was like being in an extended, bizarre musical adventure. It reminded me of Scooby Doo, such an amazing experience.

“That was fantastic, and more recently, maybe three years ago, we were touring America again, this time on the West coast. We had a really great tour bus and I had my room at the end and felt like Tammy Wynette. I just loved the fact that you’d sometimes wake up really early and look out on really amazing scenery. We travelled down from Canada right down to Mexico, and there was something about it that was quite transcendent.”

I can understand that, and there must be moments where you realise this isn’t such a bad way to make a living.

“Yes, sometimes you feel that, then others, it’s, ‘My God, I’ve spent about a million hours getting to the gig, I’ve gone on stage for 45 minutes, and then I’ve gone home!”

Line Dancers: The Rezillos, heading for a town near you, celebrating 40 years since that iconic debut album

The Rezillos and support Department S kick off their autumn tour at Preston Guild Hall LiVe on Thursday, September 6 (01772 804 444, with details here). For more dates and all the latest from the band, try their web, Facebook and Twitter links. 

 

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Glade Alive – the John Bramwell interview

If there’s a camper van parked outside the Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on Thursday, September 6th, you can rest assured that John Bramwell has safely arrived from Cheshire’s clutches.

The esteemed guitarist/singer/songwriter will be at the Ribbleside hostelry to play songs from impressive solo LP, Leave alone the Empty Spaces, plus favourites from his days fronting I Am Kloot, and several new tracks ear-marked for release next year.

He might even bring nine-year-old rescue dog Henry along for the ride, to a venue he last visited in late October 2015, before news of I Am Kloot’s split filtered through. Yep, one man and his dog in a converted Mercedes Sprinter, on a day-trip from Crewe, his ‘central hub in the UK, enabling me to easily reach all corners of the country’. And that description got us on the subject of railway towns.

“It’s amazing really, I didn’t realise until I moved here and went to the museum. They built the trains here but also the track and the sleepers and made the gravel, they made stations, they made everything! All made in Crewe, in two huge buildings employing 40,000 people, and everything went out of here on rail.

“Yet it’s quaint York that has the National Railway Museum. But it’s quite beautiful here, and I’m surrounded by this great Cheshire countryside.”

Has that been your base since you quit Manchester?

“Eight years. I’ve converted the garage to a recording studio, and the lounge. I’ve come to an agreement with my girlfriend that during the hours of nine and three, weekdays, that’s also utilised now. I do podcasts and recording in there, and it’s a better sound for vocals than the garage.”

I’m looking forward to John’s latest Continental visit. And so’s he.

“It’s brilliant. I absolutely loved it last time. This is what is happening more and more in the country – people setting up venues, putting some nice food on. It’s by the river and it’s a lovely room, and the sound’s great.

“Last time I was completely solo, but this time I’m bringing a cello player and a pianist, and the support act – Dave Fidler – also joins me on stage, and he played on my solo album. We’re going to preview songs from my next album as well as a few from the first solo album.”

Honest John: Former I Am Kloot frontman John Bramwell in live action

I’ve been listening to that last record a lot lately, and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s up there with the best of the sparkling output of his last band.

“Ah thanks. I just realised the other day it’s just nine songs. I thought it was 10! Once I’ve made an album, I try to move on in my head.”

I suppose it’s more about feel than numbers. Those nine songs work so well together. Why add another for the sake of it?

“Yeah. I had more songs, but it was about having an atmosphere on the album. That’s what I’ve really learned. With Kloot, the first album had a real feel to it, I wrote all the songs in one batch, but after that we got quite eclectic …”

At this point he lost his thread. His better half reckoned the neighbours might have been listening in to our conversation. So he got into his van. Was there a possibility that they’d finally sussed what he does for a living?

“Yeah! ‘I keep seeing him go out at teatime …’ No, the neighbours knew when I started making that album!”

Was it like in The Ladykillers, I suggested, John going out with a guitar case but no guitar, instead concealing the spoils of nefarious activities? That image rather tickled him, and he told me he would dig that classic Ealing comedy out and re-watch it that afternoon. A top choice, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d cost him a couple of hours’ songwriting.

“Do you know what? Well done, Malcolm! I’m waiting in for a parcel today, so I’m going to get that on. Brilliant! I’ve just been watching all the Cary Grant movies. So I’ll get that on the big screen next.”

I told him I last saw The Ladykillers as a live theatre production in the glorious setting of West Cornwall’s Atlantic-facing Minack Theatre.

“I played there about 15 years ago and would love to again. In fact, I’ll have a look at that. I’ve a film of my show at the Union Chapel in London out this Christmas, and that would be another that makes a great setting for a film.”

Nefarious Sidelines: Ealing classic The Ladykillers, 1955

I mentioned how Citizen Smith star Robert Lindsay, as a young touring actor, once put on what he felt must have been a wondrous performance at that same venue with a touring company, his lines delivered to mighty gasps from the audience, only to then realise the awestruck theatre-goers were actually watching a spectacular sunset behind him.

“You’ve got to watch that, although I could time that and do an ambient instrumental. That’s a brilliant idea. We could make the gig into a sunset gig. That’s a plan for next summer. Well done, Malcolm!”

With an almost seamless segue, I asked about ‘From the Shore’, the first song to grab me on his solo album. Did he record the seabirds heard on that track?

“Yeah, I travel around in my camper van to gigs quite a lot, and that was at Freshwater East in Pembrokeshire. I spent a lovely afternoon recording gulls with a nice bottle of Chablis.”

Nice work if you can get it.

“Somebody’s gotta do it! I was sat in the dunes. That was a splendid day.”

Across the album, I had a feeling he was  wearing his influences on his sleeves, and ‘Who is Anybody’ has a kind of Crosby Stills Nash and Young feel (as well as a Lilac Time riff). I suppose it’s the harmonies.

“That’s funny, because I was never a fan. They were never an influence, although Neil Young was. But Dave Fidler’s brother Andy put the high harmony on that, and he’s a big fan. I play classical guitar rather than folk guitar, so I guess it is the harmony. There’s a song I’m recording for the new album, a kind of folk-electronica thing, ‘The Sun King’, and that and much of this new album are really about harmonies.”

Harmonising with Dave, or just yourself?

“Me and myself. You always come in with a different harmony, depending on who you are, physically on what your voice will do, or mentally. The trick with the harmony is to play the song once to somebody, just the lead vocal, then have them improvise their own harmony straight away and record it.

Guitar Man: John Bramwell takes it to the bridge … in this case the railway bridge by the River Ribble

“Some of it won’t work, but some will, and for me it’s what the brain or the spirit will naturally do that is most fascinating. What Dave and I will come up with will be different. And Dave plays most of my gigs with me, so we tend to do a lot of harmonies.

“I don’t drum and don’t play cello, but apart from that I do everything myself, and this album is mostly guitars, plus electronics, drums, and lots of harmonies, and the key thing is that I’m able to play it on stage. I don’t like to bring in the kitchen sink then be unable to do that. And I don’t so a song unless it works with just me and a guitar. It has to work at that level before I elaborate.”

Meanwhile, ‘Times Arrow’ and ‘Meet Me at the Station’ have something of a Bob Dylan vibe.

“Yeah, I suppose so. I started playing guitar 38 years ago, with my older sister’s and Mum and Dad’s record collections on in the background while I was learning to play. It wasn’t so much what I was listening to. I was listening to Hawkwind. I started when I was five but not properly until I was seven or eight. It was my sister’s guitar. She was having lessons but got bored, so I started playing it, miming in the mirror with it at first.

“And my finger-style came from ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Blackbird’ off the White Album, (The Beatles).”

I was going to mention John Lennon, and then told him – despite his Manchester roots (he was born in Hyde, and I Am Kloot took shape in Manchester) – I always saw him closer to a Liverpool sound than a Manchester one.

“Yeah, I’ve never believed in the ‘from Manchester’ or ‘from Liverpool’ thing. I can’t bear it. I think the whole Manchester thing is a self-fulfilling myth. (I Am Kloot bass player) Peter Jobson moved to Manchester from Newcastle in order to be in a band. It’s not like something in the water.

“The real reason? I think I know why. It’s the cotton mills. Before and after the war there was a thriving music scene in Manchester, and I believe that’s because jobs were so plentiful that for the first time, workers had their own say because the mills needed the workers. My Mum told me she’d be able to walk out of a job on a Friday night, her and her mates, and start again across the road.

“They had power, and so they invented the weekend in Manchester! That I think was the beginning of the Manchester music scene. It was the first place to have a Saturday off, and where the Friday night thing started happening, something that became synonymous with music. From then on, people have gravitated towards there. I see talent all over the country so I find that, ‘Oh, they’re from Manchester, let’s listen’ thing ridiculous.”

Three’s Company: John Bramwell, centre, in I Am Kloot with Andy Hargreaves (left) and Peter Jobson (right)

I mentioned a Liverpool sound, and for me ‘The Whipperwill’ wouldn’t have been out of place on recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Ian Broudie’s acoustic album, Tales Told, or something by The Coral perhaps.

”Wow. Now you see, I’ve worked with Ian and he’s a great producer, but I wouldn’t say he was an influence. With that song, I was literally between gigs in my camper van, camping by a wood, sitting in a glade. It’s about sitting with my guitar, the birds and the sunlight. It’s about songwriting and the inspiration of it.”

Then the wonderful ‘Sat Beneath the Lightning Tree’ for me is maybe a 21st century ‘Vincent’ rewrite. Is there a nod to Don McLean there, not least with those mentions of starry nights?

“Ha ha! With my songs from Kloot and this, people have said it should be called More Songs about Stars. I’m always interested in astronomy, and the Sky at Night album was about astronomy and astrology, the night and sleeplessness, but ‘Vincent’ is one of those songs that’s just in the background.

“When I started, I was playing pubs in South Wales, when my Dad moved there. I was about 12. There would be a singer each night, and I would do three or four songs in their break. Those were my first ever gigs. I’d be nervous about that all day … I still am, but think that’s all part of doing a good gig and I’m fine as soon as I go on.  Songs like ‘Vincent’ were always in the background of these nights when I’d be playing, along with Dylan and stuff like that. I’d get up and do Simon and Garfunkel and Bowie, then two of my own songs -even then.”

Well, ‘Meet me at the Station’ has a bit of a ‘Homeward Bound’ feel to it too.

“It really has, now I think about it. I was sat at the station and Henry, my dog, beamed it to me! He looked up at me, and I was just sat waiting. I got the whole song in my head, singing it into my phone on the journey and recording it as soon as I got home. Sometimes the best songs really do just pop into your head without a guitar.”

Paul Simon famously wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ at Widnes station, so where you were when that came to you?

“We were heading to Crewe. I can’t remember where we were though.”

No commemorative plaque for John then, unless he remembers later. I suggested other possible influences too, wondering if Nick Drake was another ‘in the background’.

“Well, I play acoustic guitar and I’m not a strummer. And the real reason I’ve gone solo is because I started as a finger-style classical and folk guitarist. It was great to be in a band, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really work in that format. It needs to be exposed. Nick Drake wasn’t really important to me. Those are all people I’m aware of, obviously, but …”

OK, moving on, and ‘Wherever I Go, Wherever You Are’ takes me back to Paul Weller’s 22 Dreams (not least ‘Where’er Ye Go’), probably the closest he got – in places – to folk.

“I don’t know that album, although I think it was nominated for the Mercury Prize the same year as us (that was 2010, for I Am Kloot’s wondrous Sky at Night, but it was actually Weller’s Wake Up the Nation on the shortlist with them). I’ll have a good listen to that. But my biggest influence is films.”

That makes sense. There’s a very filmic feel to his material.

“I think so, although I never try to explain what a song is about. Sometimes it’s very impressionistic … or expressionistic. For instance, ‘The Whipperwill’ is really about relaying the experience of what was happening, which was sitting in a glade with a guitar as the sun changed and then the birds started singing. There’s no actual meaning as such. It’s about an atmosphere, conjuring up a feeling without a specific thought. And ‘Sat Beneath the Lightning Tree’ is about feeling the inspiration of life and finding the beauty in things, rather than wasting your time.”

I could mention other acts I hear in his work, not least The Go-Betweens’ revered, sadly-departed Grant McLennan, but don’t go into that, instead mentioning parallels between John  and another performer from the outskirts of Manchester, past WriteWyattUK interviuewee Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy).

“I suppose so, although I don’t think either of us ever pledge inspiration from each other!”

Maybe not, but they have a similar heritage and timeline as performers, and I get the feeling they’ve both seen themselves as being somewhat out of step – not quite fitting in with the bigger indie names they broke through with.

”Well, I’ve always been an isolationist, and don’t really want to be part of anything. For instance, when we put our first album out and Damon had his first out, and the Kings of Convenience and Turin Brakes put out theirs, the NME came up with this thing called the New Acoustic Movement.

“They rang us, telling us they were going to do this big feature on all four of us. I said I wasn’t doing it – you can screw that. I’m not being part of a scene – you can fuck off! But they put us in anyway, saying if there’s such a thing as NAM, I Am Kloot are the VietCong.

“I’m against all that, and when people in bands hang out with each other it doesn’t really do much good. It’s a load of back-slapping and doesn’t help creatively if people think everything they do is marvellous. That’s why people make crap third albums. They start to believe whatever they do is great, because they are … y’know, cool.”

I can think of exceptions, like The Jam, whose rather lacking second album gave rise to a mighty third, All Mod Cons.

“Weller’s a good one – from that moment on he shunned being part of the new wave or punk thing and was actually despised for that – there was quite a lot of anti-Jam sentiment, because they weren’t fitting in with all this art-house London feel and the Soho set. He was an isolationist too.  And that’s important. I moved out of Manchester eight years ago, and that’s one of the reasons. I found it claustrophobic.”

Am I right in thinking his Preston gig is something of a warm-up for your Portmeirion appearance at Festival No.6?

“Not really. Festivals are nice to do, but a gig is a gig. I do an hour and 20 minutes, and it’s a real journey, whereas the festival is more a showcase to people who haven’t seen what you do. Hopefully, they then say, ‘Right, we’ll go and see him do a proper gig’. The gig is more important. Things often get screwed up in this business as to what’s important.”

That said, it’s another spectacular setting for a show. Has he played there before?

“I did it two years back. It’s great, but this is the last one. I’m not sure why. I’m playing in the town, where The Prisoner was filmed. It should be a belter.”

So what’s the format at the Conti?

“I do about eight or nine songs from my time with Kloot, and I’m going to do some I’ve not done before. I’ve just done two and a half to three years with a really good mix of old stuff and some from this first album, so now have a pretty good set and I can debut four or five songs from the album coming out next year, provisionally called Organic Material. Folk/electronica, I suppose you’d call it, somewhere in that bracket. I’m trying to get a real blend of natural stuff with guitars, harp, piano and harmonies.“

Will it be Leave alone the Empty Spaces part two?

“No, I think the thread of it, because of my finger-style and the way I harmonise with Andy and Dave, makes it closer to ‘Who is Anybody’, in furtherance of that … although I’m not sure if that’s a good description actually.”

And will you be coming to Preston by campervan?

“Erm. We’ll look at the weather forecast, but it could be.”

Winning Profile: John Bramwell, from Hyde to Crewe, via Manchester and the world

Winning Profile: John Bramwell, from Hyde to Crewe, via Manchester and the world

Will we get to meet Henry?

“He’s getting to the point where … maybe not. When it gets to about eight o’clock, he’d just lie on the rug. … If I do come in the van, I’ll probably bring him, but it depends.”

Incidentally, John describes Henry as a cross-breed, adding, ‘He’s got these big feet of a Basset Hound, and a longish body, and a Jack Russell head (but a big Jack Russell head), and also – here’s one to look up – he could be a (Portuguese) podengo. He could have some of that in him, and we think he’s got some bearded collie.”

Soon we were revisiting his early days performing in the North West. Was he on the right road with The Mouth, or was that him just finding his feet?

“It’s difficult to know really.”

There were several early dabblings with bands and solo ventures, also including The Ignition, Five Go Off To Play Guitar, The Debuchias, and John Peel favourites Johnny Dangerously, the solo venture that led to 1989 mini-LP, You, Me and the Alarm Clock.

“As a solo acoustic singer-songwriter, Peel would play me occasionally, and I worked as a delivery driver most of the time, using that money to press my own vinyl. I’d get gigs and had a bit of a following in Manchester, playing places like the Green Room. But the problem I had was demonstrated by a support tour I did with The La’s when ‘There She Goes’ went top-40 and we played the Boardwalk in Manchester to 50 people.

“Nobody was coming out to see bands. It’s impossible to tell people today what it was like in the ’80s. If it wasn’t synth-pop or American garage-house, people weren’t going to see it. A few bands broke through, but not many. All we had was the NME and Peel, and there was this selected group of people who were in, a real clique. I was pressing my own stuff, but the gigs I were doing were with performance poets, doing gigs as part of some alternative cabaret scene.

“I did a tour with John Cooper-Clarke, which was great, but a lot of those so-called poets weren’t so talented at all. They were crap, and most still are. I then did gigs with Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan and John Thomson when they were starting out. As a musician and songwriter, it wasn’t ideal, but those were the only gigs going.

“The La’s had Go! Discs behind them, who were going to put stuff of mine out, but they had Billy Bragg so felt they already had a songwriter. Geoff (Travis) from Rough Trade came to a gig and said, ‘No, your songwriting’s too literal’. What on earth do you mean? I always felt it was more about their image than yours, something you’d more likely equate with major labels.”

Finger Style: John Bramwell, from across the table

Finger Style: John Bramwell, from across the table

There have been plenty of bad knocks en route. It’s hardly been a smooth ride.

“Oh, I fall out with everyone eventually!”

Cue maniacal laughter.

“To be honest, I think we’d have stayed with Wall of Sound forever, but they went into administration just as our album came out, and it wasn’t in the shops. We were about to get loads of press. This was pre-Internet, around 1999.”

That was when you recorded in a church on the Isle of Mull with Guy Garvey, wasn’t it?

“That’s right. That was a very organic, brilliant record. We then went to Chrysalis for publishing, but it was a case of having to rather than wanting to, the only way to continue really. For my mind, they started throwing too much money at it. We recorded in Metropolis Studios in London, at vast expense. I was like, ‘Please stop spending this money – it doesn’t make it any better!’

Did you learn more from your recording sessions for John Peel in 2001 and 2004.

“Yes, with the first one we’d just come back from Japan and the Fuji Rock Festival, and if you listen, we play the songs really slow. We were absolutely shattered.”

Looking back on 17 impressive years of I Am Kloot, with six studio albums along the way and rightful critical acclaim, including the odd prestigious award nomination, it was all quite something, yeah?

“It was, and someone told me the other day we’ve appeared at Glastonbury maybe more times than anyone. We’ve done seven, and I’m hoping to play there next year. I’m pitching for it, but I’m doing everything for myself. I’m not with an agent or anything like that.”

He always had that DIY element, as seen with I Am Kloot’s first vinyl venture in late ‘99, double A-side single ‘Titanic/To You’ for Ugly Man Records, borrowing £1,000 to release it, packing them in brown paper bags to save a few quid.

“Yeah. We were working at Night and Day in Manchester, putting gigs on, and from that got to know from all the other bands and labels where the pressing plants were, who puts the posters up, all that.”

You were ahead of the curve really, not reliant on a major label to help out when the industry inevitably scaled down soon after.

“Exactly. We knew what to do and sometimes you could sign to a label and some were just no good. We put a band on, David Devant & His Spirit Wife, who were brilliant, it went really well, so we put them on the following year, got them a piece in the (Manchester) Evening News, pre-internet, but struggled to get photographs. Could we get photos from their label? Could we, fuck! Things like that.”

His mention of cinematic influences prompted me to mention his link with multi-award-winning director Danny Boyle, who used ‘Avenue of Hope’ for the closing credits to 2007 sci-fi thriller, Sunshine.

“Yeah. It’s a shame. That was going to be the opening to that film, which would have been amazing, a space-ship drifting through space and the sun exploding. But the film was so complicated it was felt nobody could really understand it, so they needed a voiceover at the beginning to explain what the hell’s going on. So bang went the song, having it at the end instead.”

Have you worked with Danny since?

“No, again I think my isolationist approach doesn’t necessarily go down in showbiz circles. It would be nice to talk to him though.”

At that point, John hinted at another project currently in the early stages, something he promised to enlarge upon later. Then he quickly changed the subject.

“But the Minack Theatre … yeah, I’m going to get on to that! And get The Ladykillers on!”

Ribbleside Troubadour: John Bramwell, on his way to the Preston Continental

John Bramwell plays The Continental, Preston, on Thursday, September 6th (doors 7.30pm), with support from Dave Fidler. Tickets are £17 in advance, online via SeeTickets, WeGotTickets and Skiddle, or in person from the venue (01772 499425) or Action Records (01772 884772), with more detail here. He then headlines the Central Piazza in Portmeirion Village at Festival No.6 the following evening, with details here.

For more gig details, how to get hold of John’s recordings, and all his news, visit this website and Facebook page.

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Popping back t’ Cornershop – the Tjinder Singh interview

There’s a brand new single out from indie-dance favourites Cornershop, a band Mojo have dubbed ‘the quintessential 21st-century pop group’, The Independent labelled ‘cultural critique you can dance to’, and The Guardian reckon are ‘clever and engaging, happily detached from the mainstream’.

As far as I’m concerned, this latest offering from a much-treasured outfit with Lancashire roots deserves to be all over the airwaves, and could go someway towards the success of their 1998 tribute to Indian singer Asha Bhosle and their sole UK No.1, ‘Brimful of Asha’, coining the sound of summer two decades on. Wishful thinking maybe, but why not?

The new 45 pairs the laid-back, feelgood dance groove of ‘Double Denim’ with a cover of The Archies’ 1969 bubblegum chart-topper, ‘Sugar Sugar’. There’s also an extra helping of promo video to go with it, and in the animated ‘Double Denim’, featuring fictional band Heavy Duty and seen as director Ian Viggars’ ‘homage to Hanna-Barbera and Peanuts’, the band are apparently celebrating ‘denim as a way of expressing one’s love for music with badges, patches or spray paint’. And more power to their jean-jacketed elbows for that.

The ensemble responsible are now 27 years into an impressive career, with co-founders Tjinder Singh (vocals/guitar/bass/dholki) and Ben Ayres (guitar/keyboards/tamboura)  still at the helm. They’re also currently working on a new album – their 10th, just the excuse I needed to track down Tjinder and quiz him about the band’s past, present and future.

Usually, I’d then hone that and add in the odd nugget of back-story as we went along. But having read back Tjinder’s entertaining responses (put my way via the wonders of electronic mail in this instance), I felt I should just print our Q&A as it came, with the bare minimum of add-ins. So here goes, starting with me carelessly flouting every rule I’ve ever learned about trying to get off to a friendly start, half-suggesting I couldn’t work out why they would go anywhere near that annoyingly-catchy cover version.

So, first off, ‘Sugar Sugar’ – was The Archies’ 1969 version not enough for all time? You do realise that’ll be the song I hear first thing in the morning and last thing at night in my head for a few months again now. Please explain yourself, Tjinder.

“That cover came about from a tweet that endearingly said ‘Cornershop are the real life Archies.’  However, this comparison needed a few months of detailed analysis under laboratory conditions, after which we decided the tweeter was most correct. During such time, a lot of information came to light on the studio recording sessions on the making of ‘Sugar Sugar’, so I decided to do our own version based on these volts of information. We love the original a lot so have been surprised that so many people have taken our version to heart.”

Were yourself and Ben around when that track first topped the charts? I was barely two, but it clearly made a deep impression on me from continued radio rotation in the following years.

Derek Randall: Retford’s finest is believed to be a big fan of Cornershop, possibly

“In those days all we cared about was chess, cricket and awaiting for someone like Derek Randall to enter the field.”

Now I’ve got that out of the way, I feel the need to stress how much I’m loving ‘Double Denim’ (and no doubt I’ll grow to like the other side in time). By rights, this should be the sound of late summer 2018, getting as much airplay as songs like Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. Might we finally see your first top-40 hit since 2002’s ‘Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III’?

“Again, we have been taken aback by how well ‘Double Denim’ has been received. Mainly because we released the single in the reduced action of holiday season. Maybe it’s because of the ‘It ain’t half hot mum’ weather that the summer sound tag has been put to it, but in any case thank you for your very kind words here. One forgets that it was so long since being in the charts, but one is comforted that songs like that mean even more nowadays.”

You suggest ‘Double Denim’ is a reminder that music is still the key to many of our woes. With the dire political landscape here and over the Atlantic right now, we need that, don’t we?

“Politics in music have always been a key meter for us, even if like Double Diamond here we talk about attire and escapism it mentions the start of work on Mondays morning too.  Further, as many northerners know, denim and the doubling up of such material is a political stance relating way back to Mods and the Dirty Rockers.”

Double Diamond, eh. Now we’re going back. It seems to be the early ’70s again, with that song on the radio. But moving on … What have yourself and Ben been up to since 2015’s Hold On It’s Easy album? Do you get together fairly regularly, or just in creative spurts now and then?

“We have met every Tuesday and Friday at 2pm for the last eight years. Nowadays we don’t work as hard as we did, but we do keep up the Lancashire tradition of cream teas and extremely clean language.”

Quite right too. And there’s a new album on the way, yeah? Are these two tracks a good indication of where Cornershop are at in 2018?

“There is a new album out there. However, like the next Derek Randall, these things take time. I don’t think the album is anything like these two tracks, less spank. We try to keep things different and can’t be sure.”

Band Substance: Cornershop’s first press shot, taken at West Orange Studios, Preston, early 1992. From the left – Ben Ayres, Tjinder Singh, Avtar Singh, David Chambers.

The ‘Double Denim’ video features fictional band Heavy Duty. Is that a nod to your Preston roots in the band, General Havoc? And while I get the Archies inference with the cartoon style, how do Heavy Duty compare to more recent animated ensemble, Gorillaz?

“In terms of influence, many – even academic circles – have said Gorillaz was taken from the blueprint of our side-project Clinton due to its music direction, and as we were the first to use producer Dan the Automator in the UK. Those papers put aside, Heavy Duty are neither Gorillaz nor The General Havoc. They are more of an Olympia, Washington State type group.”

That’s cleared that up then. Taking you right back to your Lancashire years, were those fun days, or was it just a slog to get heard around then?

“It was a most enjoyable time, mainly because there was no slog to be heard. It didn’t become a slog until we got signed to Wiiija Records, which gave us the chance to either stay in a band if we worked hard enough or go back to being unemployed. Preston was always about what you made of it. When we arrived, there was still a hint of the ’50s about it in people’s dress and the music of Glenn Miller and Jo Stafford in the second-hand shops, which was all great to have taken in. Then there were places like Action Records, Ribblesdale Club, and live music at The Lamb.”

Have you strong memories of the first General Havoc gig? And where exactly was that?

“I think I speak for all band individuals in saying ‘very strong’. So strong that even the hint of a Double Diamond transports us back – I can’t however remember where the hell it was we played.”

How about that very first Cornershop show at O’Jays in your next musical base, Leicester?

“That set in store a series of venues we played at which folded soon after our performances, so we were soon refused gigs. O’Jays was a really great gig though – the North was taken, now the Midlands had fallen, and we felt it only a matter of time ‘fore the south to capitulate.”

Pressing Matters: Ben Ayres and Tjinder Singh in 2000 at the Damont Audio record pressing factory in Hayes, Middlesex, where Ben used to work

What were you studying in your Preston days? And is that how you got to know fellow Cornershop bandmates Dave (Chambers, drums) and Ben?

“I studied Business Information Technology, and Ben was on Heavy Geography, at what was then Preston Polytechnic. At that time the town was divided between students and local Prestonians, but we always got on with whoever we liked. It was also a violent town centre, a situation that was bettered down the years, chiefly by investment and by the aid of music.”

Rumour has it that as the social secretary of the Poly (these days the University of Central Lancashire) you very quickly blew the budget through booking bands like The Wedding Present, Mercury Rev, Spiritualised, and so on. Is that true?

“As I said earlier, Preston was what you made of it, so as Social Secretary I tried to have more bands and comedians play. Being so well placed between Manchester and Liverpool or prior to bands going up to Scotland, it seemed a waste of the Polytechnic’s venues and resources not to book bands that were touring. So more gigs took place instead of bad discos, and more local community was welcomed in. In fact, I also set up a free festival at Avenham Park in the summer third term – not something you could do without a budget.

“Truth is, I had two votes of no confidence within my first three weeks, I had racial resentment throughout my tenure, it was very stressful but exhilarating. I was then re-elected as Social Secretary, a role which I then declined. It was this experience in a so called educated arena that made the band change name to the racially-charged Cornershop, and adopt an even more political direction overnight.”

Did you always believe in the band’s chance of striking it big? I get the impression it was more of a winning concept than a happening musical unit at first.

“We only believed in the band’s ability to meet from time to time in different cities as some of us exited from Preston. However, right from the start we had David HB Chambers join us on the basis that he thought we had something. We always had the support of Marcus Parnell or Gaynor, and later John Robb and Tony Wilson, and when we got to Rough Trade, Portobello, there was Pete, Jude and Nigel. So there was always encouragement, but there was never an aim to strike up anything.

“Upon getting signed, everything changed, and no group has ever worked as hard as we have to get somewhere. We started going to Europe’s mainland to keep things going and eventually that led to America, which responded to us in a very open manner, a manner which made it reasonable at that time to deem it a great forward-thinking country.”

Ford Perfect: The first Cornershop EP, from 1993

Something that seems to have deserted the US in recent times, unfortunately … at least for now. Going back, those early days of Cornershop were prime post-punk indie DIY days. Was there a proper community feel among acts from the North West, and something of    a similar philosophy (with assistance from the likes of the afore-mentioned John Robb and Marcus Parnell)?

“There were certainly acts around Preston that had a similar philosophy as each other, such as Dandelion Adventure, or Bogshed, or Stretcheads, but we had not developed enough ourselves to fit into any of it at that time. The live band scene was healthy though. Sometimes you could see three or four events a night and still have time to be arrested. As well as the town pubs and venues, there were Labour clubs in Deepdale and Ribblesdale, which with the help of Action Records got a healthy anti-major label sentiment going.”

It’s 25 years now since legendary broadcaster John Peel introduced you to a wider audience and spoke of ‘the first poptastic band from Britain’s Asian community’ and those first two Cornershop EPs on Wiiija (In the Days of Ford Cortina and Lock, Stock and Double Barrel). Was that exciting, hearing yourself on the national airwaves? And do you remember much about recording that first Peel session in 1993 (more followed in 1998 and 2002, the band having five entries in Peel’s Festive Fifty overall, including a No.1 with ‘Brimful of Asha’ in 1997)?

“John Peel was a catalyst for many a band to get together, and his sentiment was the same as Preston’s circuit. It was wonderful to hear him announce our records, and even better to see him at our gigs. In fact, we became quite close to him. We spent hours in conversation about people like Marc Bolan and the way the industry and technology was going. His favourite song of ours was ‘Staging The Plaguing of the Raised Platform.’ We do remember the first Peel Session. It was a little daunting, as BBC technical engineers were all around us, and it was on the back of a heavy duty night. Marcus Parnell, whom became our manager for a while, was asleep on top of the grand piano, and John Robb, who helped produce our first records, popped in towards the end.”

The powerful ‘England’s Dreaming’, from that first session (voted No.17 in Peel’s 1993 Festive Fifty), seemed to set out your stall as a musically creative force. I’m sure you and your brother (Avtar Singh, bass guitar, vocals) had to put up with prejudice, but you seemed to take that all head on, not least with the band name, challenging the clichés.

“That song was all about working at the Union in Preston, which I talked about earlier. It also uses The Smiths’ line, as at this time we had already been burning Morrissey posters due to his dubious move towards the far right.”

With regard to where we’re at politically right now, the time’s ripe for a Cornershop revival, surely?

“Politically, we are in a hot-pot of course, but the time is really ripe for other Cornershops to say something of the situation. Unfortunately, politics seem to have been taken out of music again and we are back to songs that don’t represent the hard political situations we are having to deal with. The youth seem more set on singing about meeting someone in a car park than why they can’t afford to buy a car.

“I grew up in Wolverhampton, in the rivers of blood that Enoch Powell wanted to magnify.  So our songs were always about what may go wrong, and the way we see it, since the start of this century they have gone wrong. Austerity made things much worse for no conceivable gain, and we are here with (Boris) Johnson thinking he is an Enoch Powell Johnson. Maybe we did what we did as a group because we could see a Derek Randall that was unfortunately more right wing. There is nothing better than that to be perennially proud of.”

Chart Success: The third Cornershop album, from 1997, was the most commercially successful

It’s now been 21 years since Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ remix took you to the top of the charts. How did Norman get involved with you? Are you still in touch?

“No, we have never been in touch. He approached us. We love both versions, it’s strange to hear it all the time still. In its original form it represented the band most closely, being avid record collectors, praising the plastic 45, having disdain for governments that don’t work for us, and showing appreciation for a shopping list that does.”

What did you make of the BritPop movement? Was it good to be associated with, just a happy accident, or part of a true coming together of like-minded bands with a wide selection of influences?

“BritPop never existed, it was just what the papers and magazines put together to give the upturn in optimism a name – fake pop. The only movement that we were happy to be associated with was the Riot Grrrl movement.”

I could mention several more Cornershop tracks from down the years, but was always particularly taken with ‘Good to Be on the Road Back Home’ on your best-selling LP, When I Was Born for the 7th Time. Was that a further nod to the Velvet Underground? And what’s guest co-vocalist Paula Frazer up to these days?

“We didn’t intentionally nod to The Velvet Underground, and that song we saw more like country music or a Lee (Hazlewood) and Nancy (Sinatra) type duet. For me, all the old boys and girls at my local Irish pub still sit around the bar and sing and cry to it. It also has that Irish ‘away from home’ feeling about it, and has certainly brought me many a free drink.

“When Paula Frazer came to do vocals for it, she was perplexed by it. She doesn’t normally sing like that, but when she moved it more towards Nashville, it became clean as country water.”

According to the band’s website, Cornershop have been making a film about London’s independent music industry since 2003. Is that ready for release yet?

“That is true … no it’s not ready yet. The idea was to record as many things as we could about what we were about to lose of the music industry as possible. We got a Peel Session and interview filmed, footage of a record pressing plant, Rowetta singing ‘Wop The Groove’ at a time when she was much more reserved about being in front of a camera, Everett True talking about the demise of music magazines, and so on. It will be finished and come out one day – I hope so.”

Finally, will there be a tie-in tour for the album release? And might your past collaborators the Mike Flowers Pops be joining you for that?

“There may well be a tour when the next album comes out. Mike Flowers won’t be joining us though. Nor will Allen Ginsberg, Larry Cornell, Paula Frazer, Soko, Dan the Automator, Noel Gallagher … not even Preston’s own Bubbley Kaur.”

Double Diamonds: Tjinder and Ben, back at work on a new Cornershop album (Photo: Roger Sargent)

You can find the video for ‘Double Denim’ here, and for ‘Sugar Sugar’ here. For details of how to get hold of new single, ‘Double Denim’/‘Sugar Sugar’ (Ample Play) and all the latest from Cornershop, head to their website.

  • With extra thanks to Marcus Parnell for a little insider knowledge from those formative days on the Preston scene.
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Stepping back to gain perspective with The Proclaimers – the Charlie Reid interview

Gear Factor: Craig and Charlie Reid on location with The Proclaimers in Leith (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

This weekend, Cooking Vinyl release Angry Cyclist, the 11th studio album from The Proclaimers, with plenty of dates between now and the end of the year to celebrate on both sides of the Atlantic.

Their first LP since 2015’s Let’s Hear It For The Dogs finds twins Charlie and Craig Reid and their band in typically top form, at the peak of their songwriting prowess, with more of those catchy hooks and melodies, gorgeous close harmonies, and clever, subtle and often biting lyrics we’ve come to expect.

The new record opens with the title track and first single as its rather short and succinct statement of attempt, perfectly showcasing Charlie and Craig’s impassioned vocals in a lyrical metaphor about the reactionary and bigoted times we live in, from a band who were politically and socially aware from day one.

The sharp, dry and wry observations and added punch are there on songs such as ‘Looted’ and ‘Classy’ too, taking the British Empire and class system to task, while elsewhere the twins are at their romantic and anthemic best on songs such as ‘Streets Of Edinburgh’, a moving paean to their home city, and the joyful ‘You Make Me Happy’ and ‘Sometimes it’s the Fools’. And you can add to that the inspirational drive and poignancy of further stand-outs like ‘Then It Comes to Me’ and ‘The Hours Between’, the jaunty quirkiness of ‘A Way With Words’, and witty yet touching send-off, ‘I’d Ask the Questions’.

And as their publicists put it, ‘What is remarkable about their writing is, after 30 years, it would be so easy for them to be cynical, but Angry Cyclist is incredibly positive, hopeful and optimistic: a life-affirming listen. Its’ vitality and passion easily puts many artists half their age, or younger, in the shade.’ Yep. well said.

Their songs are often timeless, written with poignancy, emotional honesty, political fire and wit, and have been known to feature at weddings, funerals and everything between over these past three weekends, with a few known the world over, having become global anthems, the brothers even inspiring the successful play turned film Sunshine on Leith, its movie becoming the fifth highest-grossing independent UK release of 2013, while the musical had its fourth UK run earlier this year – its biggest production to date – and is now seemingly destined for London’s West End in 2019. But don’t imagine for one moment the fame has gone to their heads, judging by my recent conversation with Charlie Reid.

Charlie was at home when he called, ready for a date at Ayr Town Hall the next night, followed by weekend engagements in Dunoon and Oban, ruling out a trip to Greece to see his beloved Hibernian FC’s Europa League second qualifying round away leg. And having watched the first-leg highlights, I asked if he was a little worried when Ateras Tripoli scored a thumping second goal at Easter Road, making it 2-0 on the night (Hibs fought back to win 3-2).

“It certainly was, and I think the defence is – how shall we put it – being charitable at the moment. It’s the goalie they got on loan from Liverpool. Both of ours are crocked at the moment. Maybe he’s just not settled in yet.”

So Hungarian cap Adam Bogdan is unlikely to appear in a future Proclaimers lyric then, like a certain No.1 mentioned in ‘Cap in Hand’.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s in Andy Goram’s class.”

Are you saving yourself for Motherwell at home on Sunday, the afternoon after your Oban date?

“Well, being on the road, if we get a day off in the middle of the week and there’s a night game, maybe, but the voice gets really worn out, so if you know you’ve got a gig the next night you don’t tend to go. You’ve really got to watch it with all the verbals, y’know.”

You’re still showing plenty of passion on the terraces then, by the sound of it.

“I do. I go to the same place. I used to stand there when I was a kid and a teenager on the old terrace, the big wooden terrace. That was all knocked down, and eventually the whole thing was knocked down, and it’s now the one-tier East stand. I used to take the kids behind the goals. But they’re all grown up now, and don’t all live in Edinburgh anymore.”

Do you remember the first time they played ‘Sunshine on Leith’ at Easter Road  (if you’ve never seen footage of the Hibs fans singing it, you’re missing out)?

“We weren’t even there. It was for another European game against a Greek side, AEK Athens. We were in America at the time, and it was just after 9/11, with a lot of tension. My ex-wife and two of my sons were there, and it seemed to take off that night. They played it and the punters joined in. It just seemed to become one of the club songs from then on, so we’re very grateful of that.”

Plenty of adulation has come The Proclaimers’ way over the years, often in high circles. Actor David Tennant sees them as ‘my favourite band of all time’, adding, ‘They write the most spectacular songs, big-hearted, uncynical passionate songs’. Meanwhile, Dexys frontman Kevin Rowland talks about their, ‘Incredible passion. They inspired me. To me they were like a conscience … They were so honest, they were so genuine.’ And the latter quote in particular must really resonate, bearing in mind that Dexys were such an important influence on so many of us, not least the Reid brothers  themselves. That must give them a thrill.

“It does. He was always one of the top heroes for us when we were younger, and an inspiration and a guy who helped us out on several occasions with studio time. He couldn’t have been nicer to us. Yeah, we love him, And that’s a long-term relationship, that one.”

It seems an obvious thing to say, but singing in your own accents was a key part of your development. Even my recent interviewee Dave Peacock talked of that sudden lightbulb moment when Chas and Dave realised they were better off singing about their own manor in their own London accent. Then there were bands like Stiff Little Fingers hearing The Clash and realising they should write about their own lives in Northern Ireland rather than life on Californian highways. Has The Proclaimers’ story involve a similar journey?

Soul Brothers: The Reid twins, heading your way this autumn (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

“I think it has. I think it was part of the new wave thing, particularly with The Clash, Buzzcocks, and all those bands with all that energy around at that time. Even The Jam, and people like that. We’d go and see them every time they were up in Scotland. Then with Dexys, Kevin with his Irish heritage, beginning to talk about that when it was really unhip at the time, being Irish in England. I think he was the first who made us think, ‘This is what I am, and I’m not necessarily playing traditional Irish folk music but I am of Irish descent and I’m not going to lie about it’. And I thought that was inspirational.

“I think to be authentic you actually have to find your own voice, be that Chas and Dave, Ian Dury, or what The Clash did. You have to find your own voice and speak about what you know.”

The Clash were a major influence, weren’t they?

“A couple of years ago there was a charity record came off, and we went down to London and finally met Mick Jones. That was a big moment. It’s one of those things – you know he’s had all that stuff said to him a million times, but we meant it. We’d bought every record he ever made, and The Clash was probably the biggest influence of all.”

On to the new LP, Angry Cyclist, and I knew your producer, Dave Eringa, had come up in conversation recently, but had to look it up and saw not only all those Manic Street Preachers’ credits but also involvement with Roger Daltrey and Wilko Johnson’s Going Back Home (2014), remembering it was Wilko who mentioned him in my interview ahead of the release of this year’s Blow your Mind LP. Was Dave good to work with?

“Fantastic. This is the second record we’ve done with Dave, and funnily enough with that album, this is how things go in cycles. Steve Shaw, who played fiddle in Dexys, said you’ve got to hear this Daltrey and Wilko Johnson album. So I went out and bought it, and that’s how the thing with Dave started. So there you go! And he’s great. Again, we work with people we admire and like, and with Daltrey, like The Who, it was one of the great things ever. Just the sound he got … fuck it! We knew we were going to try someone new, his name came up, and we thought that should be the guy to go for. And this is the second record we’ve done with him now.”

In a sense, that takes me back to your roots and the 1987 debut album, This is the Story. Much as I appreciated the Gerry Rafferty single version of ‘Letter from America’, it was the raw sound of the original album track and the whole of that record that first convinced me about you. And I think it’s that more sparse version that really stands the test of time.

“I think so, yeah. As with most bands, it’s the songs you’ve written since your supposed adolescence. And it’s raw and sounded like who we were, because of that sound, and (producer) John Williams set us up and did a great job – just letting us play.”

I’m not sure if it was just a case of setting up the mics then letting fly, but This is the Story still sounds so fresh today. John Williams clearly knew what he was doing, and you had the songs, but I wonder if you took charge or were still green to the process.

“I think we were probably green to everything then, and very much the recording process. We’d only done demos before that and we’d had no money for years. And it was really through Kevin Rowland, then two of The Housemartins, then meeting Kenny (MacDonald), our manager – it was almost like emerging from a cave! A bunch of people we could identify with who could help in their own way. And that’s how we got started on that first record.”

Incidentally, a good mate’s brother, Danton Supple, who also attended my secondary school in Guildford, was credited as assistant engineer on that LP, and went on to a lot more success in his own right as a producer.

“That’s right, I remember his name came up a couple of years ago when we were talking about the record. Yeah, amazing, and all these people who had been either successful before or went on to be successful, and all those connections you make over the years.”

I seem to think I snapped up the first album either just before or just after I saw you – as a 19-year-old – perform on the Sunday at Glastonbury Festival in 1987.

“He he! What I remember is that we were first on, with so many people just getting up and scratching themselves! We were basically waking them up, y’know. We literally woke the PA system up. But you know, I remember doing it then driving to London and doing an interview, having a splitting headache after too much sun. That was with Stuart Cosgrove, so again there’s a connection with another guy who was successful then and is still doing well.”

I also remember my brother raving about catching you at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park a few days before that Glastonbury visit, one he trots out to this day as a classic ‘I was there’ moment.

“That was absolute Proclaimers in the raw!”

When I spoke to Charlie I’d not had chance to take in the new album (I certainly have now, and it’s a corker), but I already loved the title track. That set us up nicely. So is that fairly indicative of what we’re about to receive, I asked him.

“It’s probably one of the more political tracks on the record, but as soon as we started playing it – Craig and I standing in the room, mucking around with the songs until they feel comfortable – I thought, ‘Yeah!’ There was just something about it. I loved the chord progression, it was great with the guitar. And the sentiment – the confusion a lot of us are feeling about how things are going culturally and the air of violence and anger that seems to determine everything at the moment – all pretty unsettling.”

A couple of recurring Proclaimers’ themes come up on the album, not least on ‘British Empire’ and ‘Classy’. Has this farce of the last couple of years, politics-wise, made you the more determined to see your homeland break away from the UK?

“Do you know what, I don’t see it as breaking away, but – how can I put it – joining a more civilised world on our own terms. I’m not really big on the flags. It was never about that for me. It was about democracy, and is still about democracy, and I would hope it’s more about getting a more modern country. It’s always ironic when you find the old Tories or even the old Labour left harking back. It’s not about that. It’s about looking forward. And to me the Britain they hark back to – my father’s Britain as a child – has gone. That’s where I’m coming from really.”

Yet there are also new songs on there that prove you’ve not lost your touch for the heartfelt as well as the political. But I guess to do one so convincingly, you need the other. Otherwise, it’s just empty rhetoric. In a bid to explain myself, I mentioned how I’d just seen a documentary about Paul Simon making Graceland, and while I subscribed at the time to the NME view of him exploiting those musicians rather than rightfully boycotting apartheid, his actions were perhaps more politically worthwhile through just celebrating and turning people on to South African music in the long run. And with The Proclaimers, similarly, the message remains strong because it’s not delivered in some bitter whinge. They remain positive in their outlook, despite knocks at the worst aspects of 21st century Britain.

“I think you have to have an open mind, and when something’s clearly wrong, it’s clearly wrong. Playing Sun City was clearly wrong. But what Paul Simon did, I think, in retrospect, helped bring everybody out of that shite, although I too subscribed to that boycott at the time. So yes, he did a lot of good in the long term.”

For those who have only picked up on the band in recent times via 2014’s Sunshine on Leith film and the original 2007 stage musical, where should they go from there with your back-catalogue. Start with this album and work backwards? Or head from Hit the Highway onwards?

“I’m tempted to say go on the internet and listen – it’s all there anyway! It seems that as soon as the damn thing’s published now, it’s on the internet. I think David Bowie said years ago that music’s gonna become like water or electric – turn it on or press a switch. And that’s where we are.

“For us now the main thing is that the publishing helps. The ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ thing just goes on and on, and the song is so much bigger than the band ever were or ever will be! It keeps us on the road and there are a couple of songs that the public know, and everything else is there – I would hope for anyone who is interested – for them to then explore.”

On the related subject of material on your second album, the splendid Pete Wingfield-produced Sunshine on Leith from 1988, how old is your son Sean (as name-checked on side one track five) now?

“Sean is now 31 and he’s just come back from a holiday this morning with his fiancée and her family, after two and a half weeks in America and Mexico. He was living with me when he was at university and he’s now living with his fiancee, working in recruitment and loving life.”

There’s a verse in that song which rings true to me, and probably anyone else who’s had children of their own, which reads,

‘Though fear and hurt and care
Can lead me to despair
I saw why I’m here
The morning you appeared’

That for me sums up so much for anyone who’s been in that position of becoming a father. It’s about self-discovery and appreciating everything around you really. Yeah?

“Appreciating it and appreciating you’re a link in the chain, and you’re privileged to be so, and if there’s any reason to hang around, it’s family and loved ones, and I suppose it’s all part of that.”

That’s just one great example of many, not least on that album, and if the first LP was about your arrival and letting us know, ‘This is us’, that second album proved you were here to stay and were every bit as soulful as some of those artists you wore on your sleeves. You mentioned Dexys, and then there was Van Morrison and Al Green perhaps, to name just two more. And while I’m a big fan of Steve Earle, your ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ is the definitive version for me.

“Erm, it’s nice of you to say so. I’ve listened to him a lot recently, and like Kevin (Rowland) he’s as relevant to me now as ever he was. With some of his songs, like ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Christmas in Washington’, he’s just like, ‘Fucking hell!”

While I’m on, as well as spells living in Midlothian and Fife, I see there was a boyhood spell in my beloved Cornwall too. What was the story there?

“It’s funny – not many people ask about that. We were kids in the late ‘60s in Edinburgh when we went for a holiday in Cornwall, as people did, and my parents loved it. My Dad’s father died during the war, and his mother brought up the kids on her own from when they were quite young. She passed away in ‘68, so we had a holiday in ‘69 and then moved down in the summer/autumn of 1970 and were there until mid-to late-’72 when we moved to Fife.

Reid Riders: The Proclaimers’ studio shoot in Leith, 2018 (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

“We went to Gwinear Primary School, near Hayle, and lived on a little country road, with about three or four cottages at the bottom of it, about two miles from the school. We were then in Fife from about the age of 10. I’ve got very good memories, including how beautiful the weather was so much of the time. We had a palm tree outside the school, and people were so pleasant. And because we lived down there, my cousins and aunts and uncles would come down for holidays. Everybody loved it.

“Dad was a joiner on building sites, and Mum was a nurse who worked at a hospital in Edinburgh and became a district nurse when we went to Gwinear, and was then a district nurse in Fife when we went back.”

Were both of your parents musical?

“Yeah, my old man was a massive Ray Charles fan and into traditional jazz and old r’n’b. He’d pick up records from old second-hand record sales. They were everywhere in those days. We’d go into Hayle every weekend and he’d pick up old records. Mum liked Sinatra, and Dad liked opera and classical music as well. And being born in 1962 you were absorbing all that stuff from 1965 and certainly ‘66 onwards. I remember the radio clearly. It was always on – the (BBC’s) Light Programme and then Radio 1. And it was just … I’m a very lucky man!

“The other thing about my family and the way I was brought up, was also just being born at that time, when the schools still seemed to have enough books. Looking back, Dad grew up in the War, and then my kids were brought up in a very different world. And I think I was luckiest of the lot, to be honest.”

I have my own family links to nearby St Ives and spent many a holiday at the turn of this century with my own family just across the water from Hayle.

“It’s a lovely part of the world. I’ll never tire of it. I’ve only been back a couple of times since we left – a couple of times for gigs and once on holiday. We played the Hall for Cornwall and that place they used to have at St Austell.”

Cornwall Coliseum?

“Yeah, the one they had on the beach. But there’s a bad memory of that from the time we played it, as it was the night of Lockerbie. It was our last show of the tour before the end of the year, and Tom, the tour manager – who’s still with us – said, ‘It’s gonna be a bit slow – there’s a plane crash just on the other side of the border, so we’re gonna have to take a diversion.’ So all those memories come back.”

Twin Engines: Charlie, left, and Craig Reid, back with their 11th studio album (Photo: Murdo McLeod)

Where’s home now?

“Home is Edinburgh, Newington. The kids are all grown up and everybody’s living on their now or with partners. And I’ve just become a grandfather for the first time, a month ago.”

Boy or girl?

“A girl – thank God! Three sons and then … it’s amazing.”

We then started talking about children and I mentioned how my eldest daughter, now 18, was very impressed at me interviewing Charlie, as a fairly recent convert to the Sunshine on Leith film. So on that subject, I asked him about the day playwright and screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn came to him with the idea for the musical on behalf of Dundee Repertory Theatre. Could he see its potential?

“Erm … I checked the diary at first to see it wasn’t an April Fool. I’ve met the writer many times over the years, and he said he’d literally been on the whisky one night and jotted the idea down. It’s nuts! When he suggested it, I said, ‘Ah, come on!’ I thought they’d work up 20 or 30 minutes of material, then abandon the idea quietly. But it went on, and it’s just gone on and on.

“They did another run – some  dates in Leeds – earlier in the year and then brought it up to Scotland for a few days, and they’re talking about the West End now. So, I’ve been sceptical all the way down the line and I never thought any of it would work … and I’ve been proven totally wrong!”

I loved your cameo with Craig in the film, and wondered, seeing as Mamma Mia’s now had its cinematic follow-up, if there was scope for a second Sunshine on Leith movie.

“Hey look – the first idea wasn’t ours, so if another idea came along it wouldn’t be ours either! I’ll leave it at that. But if somebody’s got the determination to put it on, I’m not going to oppose it!”

The original stage musical and subsequent film must have inspired a new generation of Proclaimers fans.

“It really has. It’s rejuvenated everything we’ve been doing, because you come along and play songs, some of which are in the film, and people are getting it, and kids are getting it. From teenagers like your daughter to children with Shrek (which, like the Sunshine on Leith musical included the track, ‘I’m On My Way’) and stuff like that. It’s absolutely amazing. Yeah, it’s been nothing but good for us.”

Finally, the diary’s fairly full through to December, heading for a sell-out 47 UK shows, and in Scotland you sold out 30,000 tickets within 20 minutes of them going on sale. There’s also a 13-date coast-to-coast Canadian tour in September, their 2018 schedule finishing with December sell-outs in Belfast, Dublin, Motherwell, Stirling and Dundee. Not a bad job this, is itm Charlie?

“It’s a fantastic job! The other week when we got back from Scarborough, on the Monday I felt so tired, but it’s like, ‘I’ve got the best job you could ever had’. My old man worked on a building site all his life and he would have loved this, but never got the chance, being part of that generation. I know how lucky I am and how lucky we are. And I do appreciate it.”

Spokes Persons: The Reid twins put the finishing touches to their tour transport (Photo: Murdo McLeod)

Remaining 2018 UK live dates (sell-outs marked *, with the others selling fast): August – 11 Bournemouth Pavilion, 12 Lakefest Eastnor Castle Ledbury, 22 Isle Of Man Villa Marina Royal Hall, 24 Carfest South, 25  Towersey Festival Thame; October – 10  Cardiff St Davids Hall, 11 Norwich  Theatre Royal*, 13 Blackburn King George’s Hall,  14  Liverpool Empire, 16  Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, 17  York Barbican*,  18 Newcastle City Hall*,  20 Hull City Hall, 21 Sheffield City Hall,  23 Leicester De Montfort Hall, 24  Southend Cliffs Pavilion, 25 Portsmouth Guild Hall,  27 Bath Forum, 28 Brighton Dome, 29 Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31 Cambridge Corn Exchange*; November – 1 London  Palladium, 2 Coventry WAC, 4 Manchester Opera House, 9/10 Edinburgh Playhouse**,  5 Dunfermline Alhambra*,  16/17 Glasgow Academy**,  22 Perth Concert Hall*, 23  Inverness Leisure Centre*, 24  Aberdeen BHGE Arena*, 29 Ipswich Regents Theatre,  30 Basingstoke Anvil*; December – 1 Hastings White Rock, 7 Belfast Ulster Hall*, 8 Dublin  Vicar Street*, 13 Motherwell Town Hall*, 14 Stirling Albert Hall*, 15 Dundee Caird Hall*.

For ticket details, further information about the tour and how to get hold of the Angry Cyclist album, head to the official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

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