Christmas Wishing and Hoping for the Blessed – the Cerys Matthews interview

If the phone goes and it’s a private number, I’m often on the offensive, wondering what dodgy scheme or other someone’s out to try and sell to me. But there was really no need for Cerys Matthews to formally introduce herself.

It’s difficult to remember when I first grew accustomed to that luscious lilt from this Cardiff-born, Swansea-raised singer-songwriter, musician, author and broadcaster, but I reckon it was Catatonia’s 1996 single ‘You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For’ that first made me sit up and take notice. And these days it seems I can’t put on the radio or TV without hearing her, whether voicing documentaries or fronting numerous BBC radio shows.

Now there’s a new single, Cerys joining fellow South Walian and Games of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon on ‘A Christmas Wish’, the song that opens soon to be released rom-com A Christmas No. 1, in which her singing partner stars alongside Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) in a Sky Cinemafilm streaming from December 10th, that song among several Guy Chambers compositions in BAFTA-winning director Chris Cottam’s Sky/Genesius Pictures/Lupus Films/Space Age Films production, its ensemble cast also including West End / Broadway recording artist Alfie Boe, Helena Zengel (News of the World), Debi Mazar (Goodfellas, Entourage) and Richard Fleeshman(Call the Midwife, Four Weddings and a Funeral).

Cerys is West London-based these days, her home since the late ‘90s, give or take time in America, and we started out by swapping notes about the weather after the first proper ‘bloody freezin’, innit?’ day of winter in both the capital and Lancashire. And that gave me an excuse to segue straight into – almost seamlessly – how Slade recorded ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in the summer of ’73 at the Record Plant in heatwave-hit New York, midway through a US East Coast tour. Was it a similar case for Cerys’ latest festive offering with this lad from Carmarthen (who first popped up on our screens on Pobol y Cym)?

“Actually, it’s quite unusual, because you’re right, usually Christmas songs are recorded in summer, like ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ with Tom Jones, was in June. Tommy Danvers {aka TommyD}, produced that and did International Velvet and Equally Cursed and Blessed with us {Catatonia}. He always reckoned a cool environment made for a better record, so he’d dress the studio in lava lamps, fairy lights, and in this case Christmas trees, stuff like that … even in June, with all the live players in there.

“In terms of this though, it was recorded recently. They’ve been working on A Christmas No.1 throughout this year, Guy Chambers leading on the writing of all these original songs. I won’t tell you too much about the plot, but it’s a romantic comedy, two artists battling it out for a Christmas No.1. One’s a boy band and one’s a sort of goth-thrash metal band, its lead singer, the protagonist – played by Iwan – the writer of this song, written for his niece {played by Helena Zengel}, who has cancer. 

“It’s a brilliant plot, two very different music-makers battling it out with this one song. However, that isn’t the song I sing with Iwan. That’s a kind of lower tempo Christmas song, whereas the song I was involved with and had the pleasure of co-writing with Guy was because they wanted a more upbeat song for the opening credits.

“We’ve been in touch now several years, having worked together on the Prince Harry TV programme, with Goldie and Ms Dynamite {Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment, 2010} and this one, recorded in a studio in West London, turns out to be the one of the catchiest three-minute songs I think I’ve ever worked on. There were times where I literally couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Who knows, maybe 30 years down the line, they’ll be talking about this in the way we do now about all the Christmas classics, not least those heard on entering high street shops from October onwards.

“Well, I love this time of year, you know, and as we’re talking now it’s absolutely freezing, hovering around zero even in London. The loveliest thing of all is if you’re trudging your children to school or trudging to work and back in the rain and the wind and the cold weather, thinking there’s going to be an end to term and you can light the fire, the candles, sing silly songs, and eat a lot at Christmas.

“I’ve an album of carols, Baby It’s Cold Outside, I put out a few years ago, and it’s a territory I love to go back to. It feels very … it’s a happy place, a comfortable place for me, and I hope this song brings as much happiness as it has already to those of us involved in it.”

While Cerys never met Guy Chambers in World Party days, they’re both on the credits of Tom Jones’ Reload LP from 1999 – Guy behind Tom’s duet with Robbie on ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way?’ while Cerys duetted with the Pontypridd legend on the afore-mentioned hit, which surprisingly only reached the top-20.

“Yeah, that’s eagle-eyed of you! And I can’t talk highly enough of Guy and the songs he’s written for this film – for the thrash metal band and the boy band. And the boy band {5 Together, namely Ashley Margolis, Joshua Sinclair Evans, Darryl Mundoma, George Walker and Benji Colson} … I mean, it’s just, it’s ripe for spoofing, isn’t it, a boy band? They’ve a song called ‘Maximum Pleasure’ that gets turned down by Alfie Boe, who plays the baddie record industry boss. If you’ve ever read Kill Your Friends {2008, by John Niven}, he plays that sort of crooked character brilliantly, you’d think he was born to it. And there’s a spoof Christmas song he turns down called ‘Christmas Miracle’, but I actually love that song. And they’re all Guy’s songs. He’s done amazing.”

Regarding ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, remind me of the timeframe of that with the previous year’s duet with Tommy Scott on Space’s ‘The Ballad of Tom Jones’. Did you first hook up with Sir Tom as a result of that?

“In my memory, I’d done that with Space, it was riding pretty high in the charts, and it was kind of set up live on television. Was it a Welsh programme, The Pop Factory? Or CD-UK? I can’t remember. But in my memory, it was a TV show, we phoned Tom Jones, and that conversation was the first time I’d probably come into contact with him.

“Somebody said, ‘Would you do a duet?’ Or maybe I asked Tom, ‘Would you do a duet with me?’. Something like that. I was like, ‘Absolutely. I’d love to do a duet with you’, and he said the same. It was only a few weeks following that conversation where his son and manager Mark, got in touch, said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna do this album of duets. We want you to be involved, have a think about what you want to sing, here are some choices we were thinking of. What do you reckon?’. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want the Frank Loesser song!’. My voice kind of goes with that sort of character song.”

Was your ‘bloody freezin’, innit’ line a spur of the moment ad lib?

“Oh God, yeah, absolutely! The whole setup was recorded as if it was in the 1940s, with Ian Thomas on drums, a big band set-up, and I was sharing the same vocal booth as Tom, which is quite extraordinary because we’ve both got such different voices. Don’t know how the engineers managed that. And he kind of nudged me, elbowed me in the middle of the song, and you hear me go, ‘whoop!’. We had so much fun, and it was just three takes.”

It seems these last few years we hear you all over the radio and telly, from BBC 6 Music to Radio 2 and World Service …

“And Radio 4 now, a Friday show, Add to Playlist.”

Then there are your roving reports on BBC TV’s The One Show, all those voiceovers, and even walking the Scottish Borders with Gus Caseley-Hayford, talking JMW Turner for Tate Britain’s Great Art Walks for Sky Arts …

“Ah, that was great!”

I enjoyed that too. All that certainly keeps you busy, but it’s slowed down your recording career. I enjoyed Cock a Hoop, Never Said Goodbye, Don’t Look Down, Tir, and so on, but with everything else going on, that seems to have become more a part-time passion, what with bringing up a family and the broadcasting career.

“It was such a pleasure to go into the studio and write and record, produced by Steve Power, whose back-catalogue is astonishing as well. But I’m now 13 years married and between us we have five children. So if I’m being honest, coming off the road for this period of time – and now my children are getting older, my youngest just turned 12, so they’re 12, 16 and 18 – has kept me … if you’re a touring musician, there’s definitely a push and pull effect on day-to-day family life. And I was lucky enough to have options whereby I could continue being creative in music. And with all those programmes I’m involved with on the radio, I’m absolutely knee-deep in the production …”

You can tell that you’re really into everything you do, not least your radio shows.

“I’m having the world’s longest prep sessions for any future recorders just by being able to be so … I love it, and I’m instantly there for the emerging music-makers, and interviewing some of my heroes, some of the artists that make me most excited. Totally jammy! To be able to stay home with the kids as well ….”

I was invigilating a French exam at my local high school this morning, reminding me of your aptitude for languages – from English and Welsh to French, Spanish, Catalan. Any more to add?

“I read Italian, as it’s very close to Spanish. I just love sounds, full stop! Human sounds, which includes the world’s languages. I’m one of those annoying people finding it extremely interesting to try and talk and pick up a bit – it’s really annoying for my husband when I’ve asked people from that country something for the 10th time!”

The same goes for your love of traditional roots music, I guess. Maybe that was always there, right back to busking days.

“I’m just hungry, hungry for culture, and to work out how the world works. It’s the same pot as far as I’m concerned – of language, of folk music, recipes handed down, folk cookbooks, poetry, history, geography. It’s all the same pot of this amazing world!”

You’ve come up in conversation in at least a couple of my recent interviews …

“Uh-oh! Ha!”

All complimentary. First, when Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton talked about his Shack days and your support for that band at a key early stage, telling me how well he was looked after by you and Catatonia’s crew when they played the Royal Pavilion, Llangollen, in May ’99. I was there too, and loved those Home Internationals events.

“Oh wow!”

Then only a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Hue Williams about …

“The Pooh Sticks?”

Yes, and his current project, Swansea Sound, and the gap between, not least how he was involved in promoting you in the early days.

“He was the first to hear in public anything that Mark {Roberts} and myself and the other founding members of Catatonia were doing. I famously rejected the idea that he should work with us. That was the first time I’d ever stood on stage. It was an open mic night in Cardiff, very early ‘90s, and I think they were movers and shakers in Cardiff, and maybe we were thinking about … I remember being absolutely terrified of going up, having some brandy beforehand. Probably unwise. No, definitely unwise! I was just doing one or two songs and given that our songs were quite experimental, it was literally in the infancy of the band …”

‘Sweet Catatonia’ was one such early indicator (it’ll be 25 years since Catatonia’s debut LP Way Beyond Blue, but the For Tinkerbell EP from which that came was three years earlier), showing just how much potential the band had from the start.

“I was very lucky to work with one of the most brilliant lyricists and melody writers from the ‘90s – Mark. But, you know, Catatonia also had Owen Powell, another great songwriter. And Paul {Jones}, the bass player, is also a brilliant melody writer, string arranger and producer. Thinking back, you know, on my own terms I write melodies and produce and write lyrics, so there were quite a lot of writers in that band.”

It was clearly meant to be, the way you pulled together.

“Yeah, I think pull together but also influence each other, you know, vie for brilliance, and we were always wanting to do something slightly different from the usual sort of 1-2-3-4. That was the aim, anyway.”

By the way, it wasn’t long after Catatonia’s Llangollen shows that I found out I was to be a Dad, my eldest daughter born late January 2000. Perhaps there was something in the air that weekend.

“Oh! I don’t wanna ask what song you were getting into! Ha!”

Abiding memories, for sure, although I should ‘fess up that we had tickets for the first night, but then realised how many people were watching for free from the other side of the canal, so did the same the second night. I probably owe you a few quid.

“Ha! Do you know what, the Llangollen gig was a stand-out for me, of all the things I did in my youth.”

Such a good bill too (also involving Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Big Leaves and Richard Parfitt). I didn’t know Shack at the time, and only later discovered Big Leaves, following their path. Great times. But time marches on, and it’s now 20 years since final Catatonia LP, Paper, Scissors, Stone. Did it all end a bit flat for you, or was it a bit of a blur? It seems you were somewhat burnt out, personally and the band.

“Erm … do you know what, looking back on it, we’d only been together a few years. We could have gone a bit longer, I think. What we lacked was great guidance – to look after us as individuals, and as I mentioned earlier there were a lot of individuals in that band!

“Mark and myself had a relationship away from the band, then split, that didn’t make it at all easy. Without clear guidance, I think that made it an impossibility to carry on. And I regret that. I wish … but I’ve got a great manager now – he’s my husband!”

That’s Steve Abbott, who started the Big Cat label in 1990, early acts including 2021 WriteWyattUK interviewee Jim Bob Morrison’s Carter USM and Pavement, Abbott later instrumental at Richard Branson’s V2 label, associated acts during his time there including Moby, The Black Crowes, The Jungle Brothers, and The White Stripes.

“I’ve just been talking to Craig David and Guy Garvey today as part of a songwriting series for Radio 2. Both have had the same manager for 20-odd years, and we were paying tribute to the idea, because it really matters if you’ve got somebody on your side that has your best interests at heart, to make sense of the whole situation and inevitable ups and downs and rackets of the industry and the personal battles within bands – to have somebody you trust and love with your best interests at heart really is something you cannot underestimate its value. And we didn’t have that.”

Look at someone like Paul Weller, who had his dad, John Weller, looking after him.

“Yeah, and Tom Jones has his son! When you see an individual that has consistent success and quality material, it’s interesting when you see there’s often a strong guiding hand by their side. Because, you know, it’s an interesting ride. But yeah, with benefit of hindsight, it’s a shame in a way, because there were a lot of songwriters in that band, and I miss that part of it.”

Will there ever be another Catatonia album?

“At this point, I don’t think so. After 20 years, I still think it’s a bit too soon! And Malcolm, now I want to ask you something – do you like the Christmas single? Have you heard it?”

I have, and you’re right, it’s very catchy pop. It should do well. And back to you, if you had to choose a Christmas film that gets you every time, what would it be?

“There has to be two, and they’re two very different films. Every Christmas we watch White Christmas, with Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and the other lady I’ve forgotten.”

Vera-Ellen, I’m reminded later.

“I love that, and the other one I absolutely love, and it’s a pretty dodgy choice … the rest of the National Lampoon films I don’t like to watch, but the Christmas one – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, to me, is like, oh my God! If you’ve a member of your family that tries really hard to do things right but always gets things wrong and it ends in a mess, that’s the film for you. The Dad’s trying to get the Christmas lights up, but can’t work it out, and … I don’t know, you have to watch it! The kids have grown up with it. It’s a story of disaster that gets funnier every year, just so stupid.”

It’s became a Christmas tradition with my girls now to expect me to bring out It’s a Wonderful Life.

“Ah, that’s another we watch. And Elf, obviously. But The Grinch freaks me out.”

How about festive reads? It’s become a personal tradition in more recent years for me to read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Usually Christmas Eve, after everyone else has gone to bed. And that’s clearly an important one for you, too.

“I love it. I love Christmas stories. It Was the Night before Christmas too. And I’m doing a reading for The Samaritans this Thursday of A Child’s Christmas. Who else is reading with me? I was gonna say Simon Cowell, but it’s the actor …”

Simon Callow?

“That’s it! And I’ve recorded A Child’s Christmas and set it to music. That’s being put into a musical theatre production in Massachusetts, as we speak, to start in 2022. There’s a ballet too. But anyway, I’m boring you now!”

Not at all. But let’s get on to favourite Christmas songs … although I could probably find out by switching on some freeview TV channel or other these coming weeks.

“Well, you mentioned The Pogues, and I love ‘Fairytale of New York’ and had the pleasure of coming out of Nashville, back to Cardiff and sang that with Shane McGowan, one of my abiding memories. That was live {International Arena, 2005}. What was shocking to me was that I’d been in Hicksville, living in a shack with no water or electricity for years, coming back to duet with The Pogues at Christmas, people holding mobile phones aloft in the crowd, thinking, ‘Oh my God, things have changed!’. So funny!

“I’m a big fan of Kirsty MacColl, of course. Another great songwriter. And I love anything by Louis Armstrong this time of year, plonking along on the piano, doing really bad versions. And I know it’s not cool to say you love your own, but one of my favourites I’ve done is my Christmas album. It’s cute, with ‘Little Donkey’ on it, carols like ‘We Three Kings’ …”

I’m guessing you don’t need much persuasion to get on that piano around Christmas.

“It’s kind of a ritual, yeah – give me loads of Baileys and I’ll plonk along.”

Mint Baileys?

“No, never give me any fusion stuff! Never give me any pumpkin latte or caramel coffee. That’s my nemesis! But I will enjoy a pure Baileys with some ice in it.”

My mention of Mint Baileys was a nod to Rob Brydon character Uncle Bryn’s new-found love in Gavin and Stacey, but she either missed the reference or just wasn’t taking me up on it. Anyway, did I dream she performed ‘All Through the Night’, either in English or Welsh (‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’), on Later with Jools some years ago? Because I can’t seem to find a link now.

“Good God, I don’t remember.”

I know you did that on the Tir album.

“Yes, I love that song. We did a similar song called ‘Nothing Hurts’.”

I remember it well. Not sure that’s what I’m thinking of though.  

“But some bells are ringing in my mind, so you could very well be right. I love Jools Holland as well.”

I’m trying to recall if it was you solo on a night when maybe Tom Jones was on as well, or if it was with Catatonia.

“Or did I do it with John Cale? I can’t remember! You forget about all the things you’ve done, don’t you.”

I’ve since discovered Cerys playing with Cale on his gorgeous ‘I Keep a Close Watch’ with Catatonia for documentary Beautiful Mistake/Camgymeriad Gwych, filmed in 2000, the Garnant-born Velvets legend’s guests also including Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers, and afore-mentioned Gorky’s and Big Leaves, filmed at the Coal Exchange, Cardiff (a few extra background notes culled from David Owens, author of Cerys, Catatonia and the Rise of Welsh Pop (Ebury Press, 2000), as previously mentioned on these pages.

I’m also reminded from searching online that Catatonia played Later with Jools in November ’96, April ’98 and April ’99, plus Jools’ Hootenanny in December ’99, when Tom Jones was also on and they did ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’. ‘Nothing Hurts’ also featured that night, but I can’t find footage now. Maybe it was just a snatch of ‘All Through the Night’. Or perhaps the late-night Baileys had got to me as we lurched into a new millennium.

Anyway, I’ve since seen an interview with Cerys where she adds that was the first song she sang on television, post-Catatonia. And as I put it to her, it’s another that gives a warm feeling.

“Do you know, the best thing is whatever tradition and rituals have started in your family. Songs that come with memory and all of a sudden it doesn’t matter what songs they are, as long as they become part of your tradition, they have that lovely kind of fuzzy feeling.”

For me that would also Freddie King’s ‘Christmas Tears’, recalling John Peel playing that back in the day.

“Do you know, that should kick you off, asking people for their most wayward Christmas playlist! No holds barred! It would be such an eclectic collection.”

Good call. And where will Christmas 2021 be for you and the family? In London, or back to Wales?

“I’ve got such a tiny house in London that I can’t invite (all) my family, so I’ve actually rented a place just outside and for the first time I’ve been able to invite everyone, so I’m having a massive get-together … especially after these last couple of years.

“And I just want to wish everyone reading this a very merry Christmas!”

Consider it done, Cerys.

For all the latest from Cerys Matthews, including how to catch up on the back-catalogue, head to her website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Stone Foundation / Steve Brookes – Guildford Boileroom

We’ve clearly still got some way to go with this bastard virus, and I’m not likely to go easy on preventative measures as we look for a continued safe return to the joy of live music and all that. But if ever there was an upbeat example of what can be achieved against the odds, there it was last weekend in my hometown.

Having caught The Vapors on my old patch and theirs six weeks earlier, I felt reassured returning from Lancashire to Surrey to a venue clearly taking it seriously, doing what it can to help reduce risks, not least through its door policies.

Safely in, among the clientele this time were a couple of mates from way back who’d previously shared bills with the headliners, The Sha La La’s no doubt taking note of where they could also be if there’s any justice. Darron Robinson and John Piccirillo have been on my radar in various band incarnations since I first caught them play my secondary school 39 years ago, and certainly retain the songcraft, the fire and the inspirational belief that should have seen them make it long ago.

They kept the faith and are still hard at it all these years on, despite not receiving the breaks to reach that next level … yet. But here they were checking out a soulful collective that’s done just that, albeit themselves taking a few years to get there.

Stone Foundation know only too well how much hard graft as well as that modicum of luck is needed to build support to that level. In their case, backing from Paul Weller made an impact, but it’s about more than that, and there’s no doubting how committed these Midlands lads have been in a push for success.

Next year marks their 25th anniversary in this configuration, and they’re celebrating that milestone with a 10th LP, due out in February, another put together with Weller at his Black Barn studio, and from the new numbers teased our way seven miles away at the Boileroom, I’d suggest it’s another winner, this octet having set the bar high in recent years.

But before we got to Stone Foundation, we had a more pared back but no less full-on set first from Steve Brookes, this early days co-founder of The Jam not so far off his old territory, treating us to an array of crafted songs from an impressive back and current solo catalogue. And seeing as I hinted at that thin line between commercial and critical success, here’s an example of what you can achieve without making that big league jump, much of the clientele on this occasion no doubt surprised how many solo albums he was dipping into.

You probably know the tale, told so well in his 1996 memoir Keeping the Flame, taking us back to Steve’s 1972/75 spell alongside Buckler, Foxton and Weller in a four-piece version of Woking’s class heroes. But while there were occasional between-song mentions of influential friends in the music business, this is someone clearly not about namedropping. Camberley-based Steve was here on musical reputation, that impressive lived-in voice and classy guitar picking to the fore as he charmed us every bit as much with his songbook as his laidback, easy chat.

My highlights included the atmospheric ‘A Walk in London’, among the numbers featured from most recent arrival, Tread Gently, which it kicks off, and predecessors Vintage Troubadour and Hoodoo Zoo. If you need to catch up, you’ll find those three LPs and two earlier ones on Spotify. Then you can find him out on the road and shell out on the real deal.

There’s always a danger – as was the case on earlier dates of this tour apparently – that punters will talk all over semi-acoustic performers in support slots (singer-songwriter Pete Williams – whose role as the bass player on Dexys Midnight Runners’ stunning debut, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, secures his place in any hall of fame for me – also featured on this tour), but there were enough taking interest to make it work, the chatter not as jarring as on previous visits. And then the headliners took the spiral staircase down from that cramped dressing room to got to work.

I was among those raising an eyebrow as to how Stone Foundation – who I previously caught at Gorilla in Manchester in November 2019 (with my review here) might fit on this stage, let along have room to groove, but they soon showed how. True, we saw little of drummer Phil Ford and percussion player Rob Newton all night, but like those to the right of the stage who couldn’t spot keyboard player Ian Arnold, we were left in no doubt that they were there.

The same could be said of those closer to the bar who perhaps wondered where the SF brass trio – sax player Anthony Gaylard and trumpet players Dave Boraston and Steve Trigg – were. But I’ve been at this Stoke Fields local enough now to know the best place to get the full effect, and they were a joy to watch as well as hear. I didn’t catch friend of SF, Graham Parker with the Rumour 45 years ago, when it didn’t mean a thing if you didn’t have that swing, but this did the trick nicely. What’s more, even if I hadn’t had a commanding view, I reckon I’d have known they were wearing shades all night.

That leaves the two Neils, co-founders Jones and Sheasby in their element, celebrating the end of a successful tour with a sell-out show, far from home. I bought my ticket way back and must admit part of the compulsion to jump in so quick was in case that fella from Ripley put in an appearance. Needless to say, within a month or so it transpired he was playing Sheffield on the night, but I was more than happy seeing his old bandmate squeeze back on stage in his place, in what really must have been a Jam up there.

Yet while space was at a premium – with Brother Sheas almost rooted to the spot when the support act joined them, having to do his running with his fretboard – Jonesy was giving it plenty of shapes, the elation of getting so far into the tour unscathed apparent.

They came on to the Little Anthony and the Imperials heart-searing 1964 single that perhaps partly informed the title of their forthcoming long player, Outside Looking In, that record represented straight off by a take on Melba Moore-fronted recent single ‘Now That You Want Me Back’, Sheas’ deep bass laying it down for a band all the more polished for time back on the road.

From Street Rituals, the first of their albums to truly reach me, there was ‘Season of Change’, and from my favourite so far, Is Love Enough?, ‘Hold on to Love’ and ‘Freedom Starts!’, before a return to 2017’s ‘Open Your Heart to the World’ then the new LP’s splendid Talking Heads-esque title track, our guests firing on all cylinders.

Everybody, Anyone’s ‘Next Time Around’ certainly impressed, with 2020’s ‘The Light In Us’ keeping the groove going and ‘AF–RI–KA’ taking us even further, Steve Brookes soon back up for ‘Help Me’ from that same record.

‘The Limit of a Man’ couldn’t fail to get shoes shuffling, while ‘Carry the News’ then latest 45 ‘Stylin’ led us to 2015 floor-filler ‘Beverley’ and 2020’s sumptuous ‘Deeper Love’, before a stonking take on ‘Waterfalls’, at a time when we all need a little TLC in our lives.

The finish line in sight, July’s single ‘Echoes of Joy’ and Street Rituals closer ‘Simplify the Situation’ took us to the wire, and there was no way they were going back up that staircase yet, needing little encouragement to stay put and kick straight into the encore with Everyone, Anyone opener ‘Sweet Forgiveness’ and last year’s ‘Changes’. And then came the Saturday night party climax, with plenty of zip on Richie Havens’ ‘Going Back to my Roots’. Back down to earth? Not a chance.

Other highlights? How about when Sheas got all emotional about SF’s love for their in-crowd and its unstinting support, only for a yell of ‘Get on with it’. He took umbrage, asking rather curtly if someone out among us had to be somewhere, until t’other Neil stepped in and pointed out that it was actually his drummer who had spoken, those on-stage acoustics clearly confounding us all. That said, the sound was spot on all night where I was. And aother moment? How about that huge smile on the aforementioned bassist’s boat race late on, after gazing out at a sea of moving bodies stretching right back to where I was by the door, all feeling the love.

Perhaps this is what we’ve missed, being sat at home those previous 18 months. Here’s to far more of it in 2022, all being well. Keeping the flame burning.

For all the latest from Stone Foundation, you can follow them via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and their own website, with pre-order details for the new LP here, and details of upcoming live dates, including a trip to the refurbished Koko in Camden next November, here. And for more on Steve Brookes, you can follow him on Facebook and via his own website, with information about live shows here.

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Turning on, dropping by and tuning in for the Swansea Sound experience – off to the Vale of Glam with Hue Williams

With so many new records in recent months it’s often been a case of ‘out at last’, albums long delayed after 18 or so months of lockdowns and various restrictions. But not the delightful debut LP from the remotely assembled Swansea Sound.

This four-piece (five if we’re talking their live line-up) weren’t so much as a glint in the milkman’s eye back in March 2020, and hadn’t even all met in person before rehearsals for their Preston Pop Fest stage debut in Lancashire three months ago.

While we’re talking anomalies, only my interviewee, Hue Williams, hails from Swansea, and the South Welsh boozer alluded to in the title of Live at The Rum Puncheon was closed down decades ago. Oh, and it’s not a live recording. Apart from that though, pretty much spot on.

You may recall Hue – his stage name spelled ‘as in shade’ to differentiate from the real Huw, the Welsh way, for ‘reasons now lost in the mists of time’, but ‘almost in the indie tradition of people lying about their names because they were all signing on the dole’ – as frontman of John Peel indie-pop favourites The Pooh Sticks, this project starting out at least to some level a tribute of sorts to that West Glam outfit. There’s even a cracking song called ‘The Pooh Sticks’ on the album, Hue’s ‘apparently sincere tribute to one of the great lost indie bands of the 90s. No-one else was going to do it. We have all become own archivists these days. We’ve all become our own covers bands’.

Formed in 1987, around initially until 1995, The Pooh Sticks are seen on Wikipedia as ‘notable for their jangly melodiousness and lyrics gently mocking the indie scene of the time’. But a direction change was underway by the time they recorded their wonderful 1991 US breakthrough LP, The Great White Wonder, a notably guitar-driven classic, their next long player – 1993’s Million Seller – also a big favourite with this scribe.

By late ’87, Hue Pooh was joined – apparently – by old schoolmates Paul (guitar), Alison (bass), Trudi Tangerine (keyboards) and Stephanie (drums) for glorious debut single ‘On Tape’, released on ‘manager/svengali’ Steve Gregory’s Fierce Recordings label. In fact, it seems the latter was the mastermind, writing, arranging and producing their records, designing the cover art and, ahem,‘choreographing their live performances’.

Hue went on to manage The 60 Ft. Dolls, recommended The Stereophonics to the A&R team who signed the band to V2, and advised Catatonia in the early stages of their career, was in Swansea when I called. Did he ever move away?

“Yeah, but I was only up the road, in the Vale of Glamorgan, outside Cardiff. I lived in Cardiff for years, even though I’m a ‘Jack’. And I was in Holland quite a while with The Pooh Sticks. In fact, Steve (Gregory) never came back. He’s been out there 25/30 years.”

I should add that a new transcription system I was road-testing this week reckoned Hue said ‘Available Morgan’ there, a potential Swansea Sound song in the making. As it is though, Hue prefers the ‘Vale of Glam’, which conjures up an image which may well lead to a future guest appearance from Sweet’s North Walian guitarist Andy Scott. I look forward to that.

David Owens, in Cerys, Catatonia and the Rise of Welsh Pop (Ebury Press, 2000), described The Pooh Sticks as ‘a monumental yet affectionate prank on the very mythology of pop music itself, adding that Hue had ‘an encyclopedic knowledge of pop cool and his first-hand experiences of his dad’s successful rock’n’roll career made him hungry to sample the same giddy success’. He also describes my interviewee as ‘a lynchpin of the 90s Welsh music uprising’, more of which later.

The Pooh Sticks have returned in more recent years. Was that ever going to be anything more than a few one-off shows?

“We did quite a few. We got back initially to do one at the Indietracks Festival in 2010, but that was good fun and went really well, and we did quite a few then, the last in 2015, including playing New York and Berlin. There were six of us in that line-up, myself and Amelia the only constants from the old days. There were three different live line-ups for the original Pooh Sticks, Amy doing pretty much all the shows we did on reforming.”

That’s indie icon Amelia Fletcher, who along with partner Rob Pursey is now with Swansea Sound as well as their other musical outlet The Catenary Wires, her music CV going back to fellow indie-pop outfit Talulah Gosh, then Heavenly (also involving Rob) among others. What’s more, Catenary Wires drummer Ian Button is also on board, the four-piece augmented live by Canterbury-based Viennese whirling guitarist Robert Rotifer. That said, they’ve only actually played that one live show so far, 290 miles from their Kentish roots (as opposed to 240 from Swansea) at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire.

They took their name from a local radio station, even using its abandoned logo, telling us, ‘Something modern, acidic and angry has taken up residence in a familiar, borrowed frame, just as it has in these indie-punk pop songs’. They add, ‘You can throw yourself around to Swansea Sound like it’s 1986, but if you catch the lyrics, you’ll remember you’re in 2021. Sorry about that.’

Available space (as opposed to Available Morgan) on the internet challanges me in adding a full review here (your coffee breaks are only so long, after all), but the LP – its sleeve designed by Catrin Saran James – should brighten any day. From stonking starting point ‘Rock’n’Roll Void’ (‘a two-minute revision session to make sure you haven’t forgotten The Kinks, Ramones and the brief explosion of noise pollution that was C86 pop’) and the qirky punk of ‘I Sold My Soul on eBay’ (also two minutes long, it ‘savages the corporate piracy of our digital present, where anyone can earn plenty of ‘likes’, but no-one gets paid any money’, released as a one-off lathe cut 7” single that got auctioned on eBay, with a £400 winning bid), with its own in-built tribute to ‘Teenage Kicks’, I’m hooked, next offering ‘I’m OK When You’re Around’ a gloriously heartfelt love song with cross-continent fascist butt-kicking sentiments, dedicated ‘to all the people Swansea Sound would like to meet in the future – people they’ve fallen in love with in digital chatrooms: new allies all over the world who are standing up to the digital giants and the shit-stirring racist trolls everyone’s forced to share the internet with’).

Then comes ‘The Pooh Sticks’ (‘At Reading Festival, they were the best of all indie bands – no word of a lie’) and some sound advice in matters of love on ‘Let It Happen’, before ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ (‘pure pop throwaway fun. The other songs are catchy too, they just happen to express a sickness and a contempt for the state of things’) brings the first side to an edgily quirky, smile-inducing break.

Turning over, pensive, dreamy opener ‘Pasadena’ adds a little remote wanderlust for our border-closed times, while past single Indies Of The World (one of four tracks previously released as short-run singles,in this case a 7” single/cassette, briefly hitting the UK physical top-10 before selling out) has a chorus to marvel at and get a little dewy-eyed at, while cassette-only single, Corporate Indie Band tells a spot-on tale in fine style of ‘a group who mortgage their creativity to a major label and sell their identities to an online marketing team of public schoolboys’. The world needs more of this, and fast.

‘Freedom of Speech’ also impresses, backing vocals provided by queer indie punk band The Crystal Furs, from Portland, Oregon, on a Talking Heads-like look at three contemporary ‘alternative’ music stars, considering ‘how they’ve responded to Black Lives Matter, the pandemic and the rise of right-wing populism’, concluding ‘like self-serving arseholes’, the band adding, ‘you won’t struggle to work out who the three alternative stars are’. And then we have the Buzzcocksy ‘Angry Girl’, the song that marked the beginning of this winning project for our Hue, and another where the band ‘search for hope’.

Then comes the sign-off, all too soon, the band’s title song, ‘Swansea Sound’ (previously released as a limited-edition cassette/mini-CD on September 1st, a year to the day the radio station of the same name was re-branded by its new corporate owners and its old name became available), ‘a requiem for that lost radio station – a DJ describing his final day at work before his show is ‘rationalised’ – but it’s also a wider protest about the culturally stultifying effect of corporatisation’. A wondrous finale.

But let’s rewind that tape a bit, heading off to those Pooh Sticks days of yore again. I was going to say, ‘days of Yorath’, but as former Wales, Leeds, Coventry and Spurs star Terry is a Cardiff man, I best not.

“It was always me and Steve (Gregory), but in terms of the live thing, he never played live with us. The last shows we did first time around were in Japan, at the end of ’93, and I was still in my 20s. So I was quite young when we stopped and never really had any interest in doing it again. I worked in the music biz for a long time, leaving all that of my own accord around 2008. I did various things after that. The music business had become my job, which was horrible really. I literally couldn’t afford for music to be my hobby. But then I realised music was – and is – my hobby. At that point, I’d had offers to do Pooh Sticks shows, so looked into that and we ended up doing around a dozen or 15 shows.”

I saw the early Pooh Sticks as an indie rebirth of the TV Personalities’ late ’70s days – ‘On Tape’ kind of an ’80s take on ‘Part-Time Punks’ – but in time they became something else. By The Great White Wonder and Million Seller albums – including some of the greatest songs ever sung by anyone, you could say – they were somewhere between The Byrds, Camper Van Beethoven, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed, Teenage Fanclub and Weezer. You’d successfully reinvented yourselves, Hue.

“I think you’re right about the TV Personalities thing. When we did the first shows with The Pastels and The Vaselines, Steven Pastel was going on about The Television Personalities. It wasn’t a conscious thing though. There was also this thing of, you know, ‘the ironic Pooh Sticks’, but we liked that C86 scene as much as we were sneering about it. It was a slight love/hate thing, but we liked a lot of it. And without sounding pompous, the positive thing is that it was inclusive enough to let a pair of oiks like us kind of enter the territory. And it’s completely true that the whole idea at the beginning was that we never ever thought all these years later we’d still be talking about it.

“Again without sounding pompous, it was a project in the sense that we were never trying to fool anyone. We were never a band in that we wanted to do a few demo tapes and send them out to labels. We thought it would be fun and funny to make a record, which we did, then created quite quickly this fucking monster we couldn’t control!”

If there was a joke, it was a good one, and John Peel definitely got it. And I’m thinking you were laughing with the indie scene rather at it.

“I think so. John Peel was important to almost everyone who ever existed in the independent world. I think we would have sent it to Peel and he’d have played it anyway, but the first person to pick up on us and write about us very heavily was James Brown, this kid at the NME who’d literally just started there.

“I was 21 or something and he might have been even younger, this fanzine kid. We met him and he said, ‘I really want to write about you, because I’m bored of writing about The Housemartins’. He wrote a little review, one of those ‘On’ pieces, then a two-page feature, and it was totally daft really, but he picked up on some of my one-liners and general vibe and was very important in going along with our ridiculous ideas. And of course, Peel played us, we got a session early on, and all that.

“As for Million Seller and how it got to that, even with something as scratchy as ‘On Tape’, the song was there, and it’s a solid good song. We were always fans of pop music, and there was that transition between that and the Orgasm live album, which was obviously fun as well, Formula One Generation, which is not a bad record – that was the stepping-stone to wanting to do more song-based stuff. And Great White Wonder was the first we did with live drums, and it’s still quite a free-wheeling record but that’s the one that took us on to Million Seller, because we did that terrible thing of signing to a major label!”

I can listen to that now and think you weren’t a million miles from Super Furry Animals, but they would enjoy more success. Were you just victims of timing as the music industry went down the Brit Pop path?

“Well, people say we’re one of those sort of underachieving indie bands, and I completely disagree – we’re the most overachieving band you can imagine! We never thought we’d be around two minutes, let alone three decades, and apart from maybe the initial thing, we were always very wrong place at the wrong time.

“But everything we did, we knew what we were doing. With Great White Wonder, up until that point, we were still making records with our own money for ourselves, putting them out on Fierce Recordings, our label, through Rough Trade distribution. We then made Great White Wonder in Holland for more expense than we’d previously done and got test pressings, but then Rough Trade distribution went bust.”

The afore-mentioned David Owens called The Great White Wonder ‘their masterpiece, a collection of sunkissed bubblegum pop songs built in tightly around other people’s ideas’. What’s more, legendary animators Hanna-Barbera agreed to immortalise them as cartoon characters, the band playing live with their cardboard cutouts on stage. And need I add anything about the 15-minute TFC-dripping, guitar-soaked Neil Young-esque marvel that is ‘I’m in You’? And yet, as Owens put it, that album ‘stiffed as rigidly as those cardboard cutouts’. He added, ‘The UK was still suffering a hangover after the baggy excess of Madchester, and The Pooh Sticks’ American flavours were just not to the taste of the general public’.

On the subject of Million Seller, he added, ‘Despite it’s cheeky title it was anything but a unit shifter. It was though yet another wondrously iridescent album, brim full of giddy bubblegum pop and sunny psychedelia. It included the one-minute 48-second histrionic sugar rush of ‘The World is Turning On’, which, released as a single, propelled the band to the hitherto untold heights of daytime Radio 1 play. Its eventual chart placing typified much of The Pooh Sticks story – it stalled at 41′. As for final LP, 1995’s Optimistic Fool, on cult US label Seed, that ‘only heightened the band’s seeming ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time’.

“It’s kind of boring business stuff, but when I look back, it was quite important – there was massive fallout from all the big indie labels going through it, and a pecking order in terms of most labels getting sorted quicker than us. We didn’t get paid and were owed about £6,000, a lot of money. And we didn’t have money to then release or press the record or have a distribution deal. So instead of waiting around, we went to our mates, Nick (Allport) and Vinita at Cheree Records, who’d previously done a flexi with us, and did it with them. And even though it was an independent label, they had backers, pluggers and press people, whereas we would send one to Peel, then do fuck all with it!

“It was a good record, even if I say so myself. And because there was a little team around it, it did really well, we did some shows, and were offered a major deal. We’d been offered major deals before but never wanted to do it, but this time thought it’d be interesting. We wanted to make an expansive pop record, and that was the means to do it. I learned a lot too, because we signed with BMG in North America, so when it came out in England, we were literally part of RCA’s international department. And this was in the days when if you were in an indie band, when you signed to a major that was the end of it – you had to make that breakthrough or lose your audience … and that’s pretty much what happened.”

Was the band ever a full-time concern for you?

“It wasn’t up until we signed to a major, but I think Steve left his day-job, and he’s a few years older than me. I was a sports instructor, working in an athletic stadium as a tennis coach. I was in Swansea, then we made three records in Holland, and for the second, Million Seller, I’d left my job at that point. We made that record in Utrecht, doing bits in Haarlem, near Amsterdam, and finished it in New York in RPM Studio.

“We made another record after that, when we were signed to Atlantic Records, and I don’t regret making that, but we didn’t have the financial means to make it the way it probably needed to be made. It was very cheaply recorded, although some of it was good. And that was it. At that point, I didn’t have a proper job, I was working in music and managing groups and doing various things, and did that for a long, long time.”

Remind me who you were working with back then.

“The one everyone knows about was Catatonia, but I did various things, working as an A&R guy in publishing for Sony Music, involved with them all the way from the beginning. I also had my own music publishing company, Townhill, funded by Sony, with groups signed to that company like Murry the Hump on Too Pure Records, still around as The Keys, and a band called Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi. They were on V2, did an album with Don Fleming producing (who did Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque), a really good record. And there was a band called Big Leaves, really popular in Wales.”

Ah, yes, Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi, described by the NME as being ‘as eclectic as their name is confusing’. As for Big Leaves, they supported Catatonia at their Home Internationals show in Llangollen in May 1999, a cracking occasion for this scribe (also mentioned in this recent feature/interview with Iain Templeton). And a great band.

“Yes, I did lots of stuff with Catatonia, and Osian Gwynedd (from the band) played piano on International Velvet, Equally Cursed and Blessed and most of the Furrys records – he knew how to twiddle a knob and make a good noise. He’s in Gruff Rhys’ group now. Paul Adams, the main guy at Polydor, was all over them. I think on the surface they were seen as another Brit Pop group, but they were extremely talented. The guitar player was amazing – Meilir (Gwynedd), Osian’s brother – and they were tight, this bunch of kids from this little village in the foothills of Snowdon.”

I later caught up on their records and the band the brothers formed next, Sibrydion.

“Yeah, and pretty much most of the group is The Peth, the band Rhys Ifans was in … having originally been the singer in the Super Furrys, when Gruff was finishing his studies in Barcelona. I haven’t got it anymore, unfortunately, but had a Super Furry Animals demo tape, the first I heard of them, that he’s on. It almost sounds like the Spaceman 3 or The Teardrops. Now long gone unfortunately.”

That could have been your pension plan.

“Possibly, yeah.”

As for Big Leaves …

“I saw them do their own show in a marquee in North Wales somewhere with 1,000 kids in, going absolutely nuts. Like watching The Stone Roses. They then started doing English language stuff and a song called ‘Racing Birds’ was single of the week on Mark and Lard’s show on Radio 1. But it didn’t quite happen, they were the sort of band who probably did need a major label, and didn’t quite get there. And the other group I managed all the way through was 60 Ft. Dolls.

“Of all the things I was doing, that was probably more my day-job than anything. I managed them from around ’94 until just before they got dropped. They had a couple of proper hits and were signed to Geffen in the States.

“I then left about 2008, a casualty of that kind of being an old guy who couldn’t really make that transition into digital stuff. I took myself out of it and for a couple of years did a film and music festival in Cardiff, Soundtrack, curated with my friend Mark Cousins, a documentary filmmaker who presented Scene by Scene on BBC Two, and that show Alex Cox started (Videodrome). He’s still a filmmaker, and the brightest, brainiest guy I know.

“And from there I’ve morphed into working in regeneration, in Swansea. I work for a housing association, looking after knackered commercial properties, doing a lot with art galleries, theatre companies, tech spaces … cultural regeneration. Yeah, I’ve become a wage slave finally, in my 50s!”

But then came a call from old pal Rob Pursey, saying, ‘I’ve written a song, but it sounds a bit too much like The Pooh Sticks’, right?

“It was a bit like that. Yeah, a reconnect. I hadn’t seen Amelia for quite a while until I bumped into her in the Science Museum in London, 2009, kids all around us, then went to see her group, Tender Trap, a couple of times, thinking if Amelia agrees I could put a new line-up together for The Pooh Sticks. And that’s what happened.

“I knew Rob from back in the day with Heavenly, less so than Amelia but I’ve got to know him more in recent years, and he threatened me with this song right in the early weeks of the initial lockdown, which was of course extremely strange for everyone and I was living in a village on my own, pretty much. He sent me this song and I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? I haven’t got any recording stuff’. He said, ‘Just sing into your phone’.

“I did that one in the kitchen on my knee, barking into my phone thinking, ‘Fuck, this isn’t gonna work’. But I sent the files and it came back as ‘Angry Girl’ and Rob was like, ‘Okay, this is actually going to work’. Then I did most of the vocals in a cupboard in my son’s bedroom. And look, I’m no singer. Never been a singer. I’m a frontman. But pretty much all the vocals are one take.”

The fact that you chose a cupboard in your son’s bedroom (Hue’s children are now 21 and 15) suggests to me it wasn’t the first cupboard you tried.

“Well, it kind of was. And it was the best one. The airing cupboard would have been a bit too warm, I think.”

According to their press, Swansea Sound came into being during lockdown and decided ‘fast, loud, political indie-pop punk was the answer to being stuck indoors’, adding ‘who needs introspection?’. Is that how Hue sees this project?

“I think so. It started with ‘Angry Girl’ and ‘I Sold My Soul on eBay’, that kind of anti-corporate approach coming into focus quite quickly, and ‘Indies of the World’ might have been when I found the cupboard. As I said, I’m no singer, but I realised I was gonna have to work here to actually sing a decent vocal. And as with the best projects, if we want to call it that, we found our schtick of what it was gonna be.

“The name was important as well. For a while, maybe Amy and Rob thought it could or would be The Pooh Sticks, but I couldn’t see that. We were bandying names around, and at one point calling it Sympathy for The Pooh Sticks. We had lists of names, getting to the point where we really needed one, and Swansea Sound was this radio station here, the second-ever commercial station in the UK, after Capital Radio. But Bauer, the big German media corporation took it over in 2020, killed it and killed that brand, turned it into Greatest Hits Radio South Wales. So I suggested Swansea Sound. I think at first they didn’t quite understand it, but there’s that connection because it’s Swansea and Steve (Gregory) was the only decent DJ they ever had. He did this new music show, a very obscure Saturday night thing.

“And they soon bought into the fact that this was about the death of hyper-local stuff, like newspapers and all that. As Rob put it, when Swansea Sound was killed, we sort of took it over. We even have the retro logo, which we’ve kind of inhabited.”

All well and (very) good, but with that name you’re unlikely to build much of a groundswell of support in, for example, Cardiff?

“Frankly, I don’t care! I understand it can be a bit confusing. Even more confusing now I’ve moved back, as all my vocals were – as it says on the sleeve – recorded in the Vale of Glam. I think people might just think it’s some kind of stupid made-up name, but I lived in the Vale of Glamorgan. That said, the rest of the group are in Kent, the live band four-fifths Kent-based.”

I did suggest because of the band link to Rolvenden Layne in Kent that maybe you should be Swansea Layne, perfect if the band take a more psychedelic path from here.

“Yeah, I suppose it depends if Swansea Sound becomes a monster like The Pooh Sticks did, and we’re doing this for the next five or 10 years. Or maybe this is it, and it won’t work with me behind a microphone in a proper studio.

“It’s the same with when we then coming up with the album title, although it’s not a live record. The Rum Puncheon was this extremely dodgy pub on the council estate I grew up on, so by default it becomes this sort of conceptual thing. But when you come up with an album title, it needs to sound like an album title, and first time we heard Gideon Coe say, ‘live at the Rum Puncheon’, he said it with relish.

“And yeah, of course there’s (The Fall’s) Live at the Witch Trials, and Misty in Roots’ Live at the Counter-Eurovision is another album I really like and always thought was a cool title.”

In my Captains Log fanzine days, I wrote about this garage band – my band Captains Don’t Play Chess, named after a line from a Marx Brothers film – that rarely got out of the garage, and one of our guitarists, Stephe, always listed that Misty in Roots LP among his favourite albums. And talking of fanzines, one I once swapped copies with was a German publication that took its name from an early Pooh Sticks line, Anorak! Can I Just Say Sweatshirt?

“Ah, yeah, I think I’ve seen that.”

Which brings me on to your popularity overseas, and your healthy European fanbase.

“Yeah, although, weirdly, apart from that show we did in Berlin a few years ago, we never played in Europe first time around, although we played in the States and in Japan. I suppose one of the reasons was that until we signed to BMG, we hardly ever played any shows. But when we were on that major label treadmill hell, there was an obligation to play live more. We did play in the UK for quite a while though. And from an early point, putting our first records out, like a lot of groups we had a PO Box and people would send us handwritten letters, and got a lot in particular from Germany.”

Any memories jump out from the John Peel sessions you did in April ’88 and April ’89? The first at least must have marked a defining moment.

“Yeah, because going into the first Peel session, we’d recorded at home, put that on tape, the only thing we’d done, then John Walters called, asking, ‘Do you want to do a session?’. We’d also recorded ‘Alan McGee’ by then, but that must have been pretty much it, so we were like, ‘What the f*** are we going to do?’.

“We’d seen Tallulah Gosh play in December and they’d just split. We didn’t really know Amelia, but got her number from somewhere, and her first response was, ‘Are you the band who take the piss out of indie?’, and we were like, ‘Well, sort of …’. But she still turned up and sang with us.

“I’d never been in a studio, having probably only recorded two or three songs at that point, and that would have been in the basement of Fierce HQ in downtown Swansea. So to be in that environment where … it wasn’t intimidating but I would have been nervous, as I wasn’t that confident of my abilities. And Dale Griffin was the producer, from Mott the Hoople!

“At one point he asked me to double-track my vocal. I knew what double-tracking was, but Steve lent over to him and said, ‘There’s no point him doing that – that’s as good as it gets’. Which is not the concept of double-tracking, which is to make it sound meatier, but at this point Dale Griffin – he was in a dark suit and tie, and on reflection maybe he’d been to a funeral, his mood was funeral-like anyway – turned to Steve, and said, ‘I am aware of the parameters of perfection’. That was one of our Spinal Tap moments, one we refer to all the time. The Parameters of Perfection, there’s a group name for you!”

Bringing things back to Swansea Sound, drummer Ian Button not only plays with The Catenary Wires, but also former Loft and Weather Prophets frontman Pete Astor and veteran singer-songwriter Wreckless Eric. But is that right the build-up to Preston Pop Fest marked the first time you met?

“Yeah, but we did a rehearsal in July to see if this was going to work, and it was really good, then we did another day before Preston, then drove up. And for the live stuff we’ve also got Rob Rotifer. Rob Pursey plays all the guitars on the record, but live he plays bass, so we need a guitar player and Robert’s an Austrian based in the UK, making his own records, playing with Helen McCookerybook’s band and doing lots with Darren Hayman from Hefner. I think he’s done stuff with Robert Forster too.

“We’re not going to be the most well-rehearsed, well-oiled group, but that lot are so good, it’s just a case of how much mayhem I can cause by being under-rehearsed!”

It was badly timed on my part. I made it to all three evenings at that festival, but when I turned up to see you on Sunday – convinced the running order would be all to pot – I walked around the corner and saw you all carrying instruments out. And it’s barely seven miles from home.

“And we’d come all the way from Kent! In fact, I came from Wales to Kent, then all the way to Preston! But it was really good, and I think it worked. There were contemporary groups playing as well, but those things can be a bit of a nostalgia fest or you’re watching groups who haven’t done anything for a long time, whereas this was weird because even though some of it is Pooh Sticks-like, it was all new songs. And halfway through, I was thinking I’ve never ever been in a band playing new material before. Some people knew some of the songs, but we were pretty much playing new material to people who didn’t know it.

“The Pooh Sticks weren’t a traditional band in that the first show we ever did was with The Pastels and The Vaselines at ULU (University of London Union of Students) in London to around 800 people! So I’ve been spoiled. I’ve played shows where there haven’t been so many people there, but generally haven’t been in that position of most new bands.

“But I really enjoyed that first Swansea Sound show, and we’re looking forward to the next ones. We’re doing one at the Rough Trade East shop in Brick Lane, London, then this mini-tour in February and March, including one in Manchester on my birthday.”

Go on then, how old will you be then?

“Do you want my stage or real age? My stage birthday … well, I was born on the same day as Jamie (Roberts) from The Sea Urchins. He’ll be 54, I think. Actually, I’ll be 57, which is kind of amazing really – life accelerating and all that.”

Swansea Sound release debut album, Live at the Rum Puncheon, on Friday, November 19th, on vinyl LP, CD, cassette and digitally, via Skep Wax (vinyl, CD, and digitally via Bandcamp) and Lavender Sweep (cassette); in North America by HHBTM (vinyl, CD) and Austin Town Hall (cassette); and in Indonesia by Shiny Happy Records (cassette). The album is not available to stream. For more details, including details of 2022 shows at Zed Alley, Bristol (Friday, February 4th; Hope & Anchor, Islington (Saturday, February 19th); and The Tallyrand, Manchester (Friday, March 4th), check out Swansea Sound’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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Rage at the dying of the light – back into the world of David Lance Callahan, Dragon Welding, and The Wolfhounds

Of 22 acts on the NME’s celebrated C86 indie cassette compilation, The Wolfhounds, while uncompromising from day one, proved to be real slow-burners, given the benefit of 35 years’ hindsight.

While Primal Scream and The Wedding Present found commercial success (the latter still going strong), Half Man Half Biscuit managed both cult status and consistent output, and The Mighty Lemon Drops and The Soup Dragons enjoyed relatively brief flirtations with crossover fame, this innovative Essex outfit shone bright then split, then regrouped and went at it again, all the time retaining that initial passion for the cause.

And David Lance Callahan, frontman of The Wolfhounds as well as a prime mover behind ‘90s trailblazers Moonshake, continues his creative odyssey judging by long-awaited solo debut LP, English Primitive I, the first of two forays into ‘a concoction of apocalyptic British folk, Eastern psychedelia and stunning lyricism’.

The singer-songwriter/guitarist made use of the lockdowns to deliver a mélange of ‘mutant Eastern, West African, folk, blues and post-punk influences’. What’s more, his publicists have good reason to suggest he’s now taken his place ‘alongside cult heroes Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker and Cathal Coughlan as a prime example of seemingly limitless artistic expression’. 

His impressive full-length, seven-track LP – with English Primitive II, from the same sessions, next – arrives 40 years after David, whose CV also includes collaborations with members of Stereolab and PJ Harvey among others, set out on the (garage) rocky path from his band’s Romford roots.

I covered a fair bit of that ground in my last feature/interview with David five years ago (linked here), but I’ve since learned more via Neil Taylor’s excellent C86 & All That (Ink Monkey Editions, 2020), the Red Sleeping Beauties chapter great for background on The Wolfhounds and labelmates, friends and allies McCarthy.

In short(-ish), Dave Callahan and Paul Clark (guitar) were at school together, starting out in 1980, soon joining Purples Hearts’ singer Bob Manton and drummer Simon Stebbing – moving away from the Mod revival scene – to express a love of ‘60s garage rock, the four-piece initially playing 13th Floor Elevators, Seeds and Love covers. The Changelings – as they were – became regulars at The Garage, Mike Spenser’s Hammersmith’s Clarendon Hotel-based outlet. When Bob and Simon moved on, they became The Wolfhounds, moving up a gear in ’85 with the addition of Andy Golding on second guitar, Andy Bolton on bass and Simon’s 15-year-old brother Frank Stebbing on drums, dates following at the Rezz, Romford, its promoter Chris French soon helping them find gigs further afield in the capital, including The Marquee and lots of ‘squats, dingy bars, basements, colleges, and anywhere that would have them’, according to Neil Taylor. The influences were already diverse, from Rough Trade and Postcard post-punk to Julian Cope-touted garage obscurities, ‘50s and ‘60s jazz and pastoral singer-songwriters such as Nick Drake.

Slowly, support slots led to influential NME and Sounds reviews, the band finding kinship in The June Brides’ ‘off-key beat music’, a demo handed to The Pink Label’s Simon Down during one of their gigs ultimately leading to debut single, ‘Cut the Cake’, recorded in November ’85 in Bow along with no-holds-barred ‘LA Juice’, Birthday Party homage ‘Deadthink’ and the more languid ‘Another Hazy Day on the Lazy ‘A’’, the first Wolfhounds track that grabbed me (I’d clearly not heard ‘LA Juice’ then!).

Perceptively, Richard Boon wrote in The Catalogue that they were ‘full of big, reverbed, trebly guitars, swamp-blues vocals, repetitive riffs and heartfelt yearning’, but ‘a little too determined to put the rage into garage’. As it was, Sounds single of the week status followed, The Legend, Ron Rom, John Robb and Mick Mercer among their champions, the band on their way, second 45 ‘Anti Midas Touch’ raising the profile, that among the songs on the first of three John Peel sessions.

Debut LP Unseen Ripples from a Pebble then ensured cult status before they ploughed on in a more rampant style with 1989’s mini-LP Blown Away and the full-length Bright and Guilty, the latter being reissued as a deluxe edition double-LP by Preston label Optic Nerve next year. After one more record, 1990’s Attitude, they were gone, barely five years down the line, but reconvened for a 20th anniversary gig, and since 2014’s Middle Aged Freaks collected their comeback singles, they’ve delivered two more lauded LPs, 2016’s Untied Kingdom and 2020’s Electric Music.

I’ve been lucky enough to catch the bands at various key stages down the years, five times between February ’86 (supporting That Petrol Emotion and The Mighty Lemon Drops at the afore-mentioned Hammersmith Clarendon) and late January ’89 (at Euston Drummonds, with Lush third on the bill), then twice more at The Continental, Preston, in more recent times.   

As it turns out, they were back in live action last weekend at 229, Great Portland Street, in London’s West End. Not a venue I recall from my days out and about around the capital, I told him.

“Yeah, most of the ones I used to go to are closed now. They’ve got flats or shops on them.”

Sad, really. We’ve spoken before about venues like the Sir George Robey, Finsbury Park, long since gone, although in that case people’s memories of times and happening bands caught there seem to have made it far more attractive in the memory than the reality was.

“It was insalubrious! It had plenty of good times within its walls though, even if the scenario wasn’t so attractive.”

Last time I saw The Wolfhounds was at August’s Preston Pop Fest three-dayer, a Lancashire visit which unfortunately ended with double-jabbed David, despite daily tests, succumbing to the dreaded virus.

“Ah, yeah, me and the missus got stuck in Preston for a few days with Covid.”

It clearly hasn’t curtailed his love for the venue, though, with both band and solo engagements lined up at The Continental next weekend and in April 2022 (details of both events to follow further in). And so to the cracking new debut solo album – was English Primitive I your lockdown project?

“Partly, there were a few things already recorded, but yeah, once we weren’t allowed to leave the house I basically finished off more than a double-LP’s worth of material and got Tiny Global to agree to put them out, which is nice, so there’s more stuff from the same sessions in the process of being mixed now. So it all came together during lockdown, when there wasn’t a lot else to do other than catch up on my books, film and write songs really.”

Also a freelance nature writer, a permit from Natural England allowed him ‘some fresh air’, carrying out ecological surveys around East and North London. But the solo LP clearly kept him focused too, and opening track ‘Born of the Welfare State Was I’, seems rather apt after all that clapping on doorsteps and raging debates about the future of the NHS and related state provision in this ‘untied kingdom’ of ours. Fellow Essex lad Billy Bragg always talked about things with such passion, acknowledging it was the NHS and the Welfare State that gave so many of us who perhaps would have struggled otherwise to make an impact through education, good health, a benefits system, and so on. Was this your way of expressing similar sentiments?

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that, and about how I literally do think – like it says in the first line of the song – it’s the very peak of civilisation, the Welfare State, we’re one of the richest countries in the Western world there’s ever been, and can afford to support the people who are falling behind or who aren’t as able as others. The danger is, as heard in the song and the accompanying video, that under the surface we’re taking it too much for granted, and gradually – ever since Tony Blair got in – the Governments have been chipping away at the NHS and other parts of the Welfare State, farming them out to private companies, who certainly won’t be considering their clients with too much empathy.

“But as I discovered this morning, because I’ve got a friend who’s a doctor, it says in the song about – half-jokingly – how we don’t have scurvy and rickets anymore. But we do! They’re back. So we need it more than ever, at a time when the whole thing is being eroded by vested interests.”

That opening song includes lines from Bo Diddley’s ‘Pills’, that ‘rock’n’roll nurse going to his head’, and I confess that while maybe I should pretend I first knew that song from the New York Dolls’ 1973 version, going back from there to the original, in fact, that was a song I first got to enjoy via boozy Saturday afternoon affairs watching Wolfie Witcher and His Brew at The Clash’s old local, the Caernarvon Castle in Camden, in the mid-’80s.

“Well, at least it wasn’t the Lurkers’ version!”

Which version did you hear first?

“I can’t remember which, but it was around the same time in the ‘80s. I was a garage rock aficionado, so liked Bo Diddley and the New York Dolls. But the whole point of it is a folk music thing where the odd line is passed on down the generations, and it seemed amusingly, ironically appropriate to the song and popped into my head when I was writing it. I can’t even say why it’s there. It just happens sometimes. You have to justify them afterwards. You write lines that sound good, then sometimes, subconsciously, they fit, or you have to rip them out, write something else.”

Going briefly back to Preston Pop Fest, I pondered over how The Bluebells’ ‘Young at Heart’ should have been the anthem of the weekend, but maybe it was The Wolfhounds’ ‘Middle-Aged Freak’. And I mean that in a celebratory sense. Some of us aren’t quite as young as we think we are now, but still retain some of that old punk spirit. And I don’t see you among the contented pipe and slippers brigade.

“I’m enjoying that. We’ve started to get that. Sleaford Mods supported us early on, when they started, and when I went to see them after they got big, I was jealous of their audience, because there were people of all ages just letting rip, not giving a shit how they looked. And then we started to get that – mosh-pits of middle-aged people! I’m quite pleased that in some way our music sort of lowers people’s inhibitions like that … ignoring that it’s all bulky middle-aged men, which is a bit off-putting for everyone else – you don’t want to get crushed by this greying juggernaut!”

True. In fact, there was almost an invisible barrier between the uninhibited dancers and the next wave of fans at The Continental, if I remember right. Meanwhile, the other song that really grabbed me on this occasion – even more so than the previous time I saw you perform it – was the epic ‘Across the River of Death’. And in a sense, isn’t that almost your homage to ‘Caroline’ by Status Quo’, with that monster riff that builds and builds?

“Ha ha! Yeah, there’s possibly a subconscious element of that tune. I mean, the actual … it’s on a drone, so there’s only a certain amount of tunes you can do over a drone, really, but yeah, I mean, when I was nine or 10 years old, I liked ‘Caroline’, ‘Down Down’ and all that stuff. In a way it was kind of priming people for punk rock a couple of years later. But really, the big influence in the song is Jacques Brel and things like that. I don’t want to get all highfalutin, but it’s like Rabelais and things like that. It’s a broad sweep of like … everything in society and how it’s all going to die, you know. Ha!”

Well, I realised it was a bit deeper than ‘Caroline’, but …

“Is it really, though? Is that deeper than an attraction between a man and a woman?”

Good point. We’ll draw a skew-whiff line under that. And getting back to the album, who joins you on that opening track?

“That’s got Daren Garratt, who drummed in The Fall and The Nightingales. I’ve known him since he was in Pram. We were label-mates with them in Moonshake and loved the band. He’s always been a great drummer and this was an ideal opportunity. I couldn’t get all the guys in The Wolfhounds to play, otherwise it would have been a Wolfhounds record and would have spoiled the idea, and he’s a someone I always wanted to work with. And he said yes immediately.

And I got an old mate of mine, Terry Edwards, to play flute and trumpet, and he always changes things for the better. And I had a regular female voice in Katherine (Mountain) Whitaker, who I’ve known five or six years. I always thought she was an underrated singer, possibly because she was in a very obscure indie band – Evans the Death, a good band but I guess they never really got far. I think she’s got a very distinctive voice. I always thought it was a shame people couldn’t hear her a bit more. And she was ideal, because our voices blend very well.”

How far back does your link with Terry Edwards go?

“I’ve known him since I was 15 and he was 19.”

I always associate his arrival as the Norwich years, with The Higsons and so on. But you’ve clearly known him longer.

“I remember him going off to university. Basically, when I was 15, I was a little punk mascot around all the older punks. I had lots of older friends then.”

I’m seeing you as a bit of a Mick Jones character now, the young kid on the scene, in his case following the likes of Mott the Hoople up and down the country or hanging out at London venues, again something of a mascot to established faces on the scene.

“It wasn’t quite Mott the Hoople for me, but these were the days when well-known bands would turn up to play your youth club on 50/60-day tours, so you’d get to see Alternative TV and people like that down the road. I’d see (Terry) there in the crowd, and there were probably only 100 people at those gigs, so you’d end up knowing most of them. Some went on to be quite well known, like Mick Herbage, the guitarist in Department S, he was in the same crowd and playing in some of the bands. Purple Hearts were called The Sockets then, before they turned into a leading Mod revival band. And I would say the best one, along with The Chords.”

It’s a music community ethos that still survives, and you’ll find David among those taking part in a live tribute to Pat Fish, aka The Jazz Butcher, following his recent death, at an event at Camden’s Dublin Castle on November 27th. And Pat was among the artists who played Preston Pop Fest in late August. Did David get to know him well?

“We weren’t best mates, but one of our mates from Romford, Paul Mulreany, ended up drumming in The Jazz Butcher, and Martin Stebbing, who played bass on our second album, ended up driving and being their sound engineer in the States. Whenever they were on tour and did a London show, they’d sleep on our floors and sofas out in Forest Gate. So I knew that from that, then over the years we’d bump into each other. He was always a nice chap, and wrote very witty, catchy songs.”

Is there a clear demarcation in your mind as to what’s a David Lance Callahan song and what’s a Wolfhounds song, or is it just purely what you’ve done with them?

“There are grey areas and there are occasional solo songs by me and by Andy on Wolfhounds LPs, but I think it’s meant to be a band. It’s not like The Beatles (White Album) where everyone’s doing their own solo project. There are often songs I write that don’t seem to be appropriate, and either I want musicians on them but don’t think they would suit the band’s playing style or would stretch it to breaking point. Or they’re just things I want to perform on my own. I very rarely write personally, but the sound of them can be more intimate.”

Mention of Daren Garratt took us on to The Fall, but you’ll have to wait for that book project for all that. Needless to say, there was a band among many more than inspired his own path, although he was careful to share the love on that front.

“It was the whole scene at that time. It was amazing. There were hundreds of amazing punk and post-punk bands, and all these people contributed in some way, all blowing your mind every time a new record came out. Everyone from the Sex Pistols to The Slits to even tiny little bands like …And the Native Hipsters. Listening to the John Peel show between 1976 and 1982 was just a mind-blowing experience. It continued to be, but it was this one scene just producing all these …

“The first time I listened to Peel was probably February 1977, and he had sessions by The Damned and This Heat. And I still say to this day that I thought both bands were punk. I had no idea who wasn’t. To me, punk could be loud rock’n’roll and it could be just weird noise that sounded like nothing you’ve ever heard before. And I think that’s a good summary of what punk should really be.”

Rather than the established retrospective view today. It was about attitude and much more than safety pins, spiky hair and all that, yeah?

“Yeah, not what they seem to call punk nowadays, which appears to be trainee lawyers and publishers revelling in their ineptitude and lack of ambition really.”

So, there’s not going to be a booking for you down at Rebellion at some point?

“There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, Rebellion is largely old farts in punk bands, but a lot of them are good. I was sad I didn’t go a few years ago and see The Weirdos and people like that who’d never played here before. The kind of punk band I’m talking about is I guess those playing on the indie pop scene that just sound really unimaginative to me. They treat it like a hobby, and I don’t want to hear people doing it as a hobby. I want it to sound like it’s their whole life.

“I don’t have any problem with bands like The Undertones and The Specials playing their big hits. When I’ve seen those bands, they’re still putting everything they’ve got into it. And we still play some of our old stuff from time to time. I don’t really have a problem with that. I just have a problem with laziness and lack of attitude, really.”

Will English Primitive II follow pretty soon? You say you’re at the engineering/mixing stage at present.

“Well, you probably know there’s a big backlog in vinyl pressing. Ideally it would be out in the Spring, but quite possibly it’ll wait until October. I hope not, but the likelihood is that the backlog of pressing plants will mean there’s delays, but essentially by the end of December it will be ready.”

And in the same way I asked about a demarcation between this album and Wolfhounds products, is there a demarcation between parts one and two of the solo project?

“They’ll sound different just because the songs on them are different, but they’re all from the same sessions, so I have to say yes and no because, again, there’s going to be some more long-form things. It will sound less Eastern influenced, perhaps a bit more psychedelic, but only because of the songs that have made it onto each one. There are three or four that were left off the current LP because I didn’t think they would go as well as some of the others, and after discussions with the record label we said we’d use that as the basis for volume two, then I recorded a whole bunch of new stuff earlier this year.” 

There are hints of psychedelia, psych-rock or whatever you want to call it on English Primitive I. There’s a Velvet Underground feel on ‘Fox Boy’ for me, as if it’s a lesser-known Velvets song.

“I’d rather it sounded more like a better-known Velvet Underground song! But I guess so, maybe that’s what you get with a bit of fuzz guitar and some reverb. That’s what you end up sounding like, whether you like it or not! Yeah, I bought this cheap digital tanpura-tabla online from India, plugged it in, found the right settings, then jammed along with it.”

Well, it works. And because you mentioned that crossover into folk, maybe that’s something people haven’t previously spotted among The Wolfhounds’ catalogue, but it’s there on songs like ‘Goat Man’, something I could hear Nick Drake sing. You’ve gone somewhere else with that.

“I do like Nick Drake, but the idea behind this, if you strip everything off Wolfhounds songs, they kind of sound quite folky anyway. When we went up to Preston previously {for the UnPeeled Xmas show in 2016, another corker} and only two of us made it, we {David and Andy} were playing the songs semi-acoustically, and lots of people said it sounded like a weird folk band. So it’s not too big a stretch to go to that from this, but I’m just as much influenced by people like John Lee Hooker. I’m not a big acoustic fan, but someone like John Lee Hooker could sit there with his cheap amp and cheap guitar and play this distorted kind of solo stuff – that’s kind of the way I feel most comfortable doing it.”

I was going to mention ‘She Passes Through the Night’ had a Howling Wolf meets Revolver-era Beatles, but maybe John Lee Hooker would have been more accurate.

“Well, the fact that you can’t quite put your finger on all these things is pleasing to me!”

And there’s a real epic feel to the eight minutes-plus of ‘One Rainy September’, also involving the Iskra Strings (John Smart, violin; Emma Owens, viola; Verity Simmons, cello; James Underwood, violin), arranged by Dan Fordham). Was that something you envisaged, or did it just become that epic?

“There were probably a couple more verses! It was kind of pared down to as short as it would go, which is true of a lot of these things. I quite like the breathing space – being able to do seven or eight minute songs. And most people who like it say it doesn’t feel like seven or eight minutes, which is what you’re trying to achieve. The trad rock ideal is something like ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’ by Bob Dylan from Blonde on Blonde. And if you get a riff that’s good enough, you can just keep going round it for 10 minutes and no one cares, because it’s great. And that’s a brilliant example of that kind of thing. I don’t want to sound like that, but he kind of opened it up in pop music for having long songs and I don’t see why we should step back, as long as they’re good. And I felt these would be worth people’s time and effort in listening to them … and hopefully it wouldn’t be too much effort!”

As for ‘She’s the King of My Life’, I see that as an out-and-out love song, but with trademark Wolfhounds wonky guitars, yeah?

“Ha ha! It’s not really a love song. It’s kind of about the beginning of a relationship and feeling kind of insecure and unsure, but done in a kind of sado-masochistic kind of way!”

What came first – your solo project or bandmate Andy Golding’s Dragon Welding project?

“Both, because to varying degrees we weren’t in bands for a long time, particularly as we’re being parents, which doesn’t allow much time for that kind of thing. We were both writing in our spare time, wondering what the hell to do with it. We managed to use up a lot of stuff in The Wolfhounds, but a lot of the ideas weren’t appropriate for that. I had stuff perhaps more suited to Moonshake. So it was inevitable that we’d have to find outlets for stuff perhaps not so suited to the band.”

That’s something else I wanted to put to you. I know it was never properly a stable of artistes, but if you think of the C86 bands, there was always real diversity between you all, but when I think where you’ve gone with various projects, I’m struggling to think of others among that roster who covered so much ground, taking into consideration not just The Wolfhounds, but yours and Andy’s solo projects, Moonshake, involvement with Stereolab, and so on.

“Well, we’re reissuing Bright and Guilty via Optic Nerve next year, a deluxe edition double-album with B-sides, outtakes and so on. And there’s stuff there where one song sounds like hip-hop and has (The) Pop Group influences, then there’s weird sort of psychedelic ballads, and I’d forgotten about it, to be honest, in any depth, and was quite pleased how good it sounded so many years on. So yeah, even when we started out and could barely play, and people fingered us as a kind of garage indie band, we were listening to John Coltrane and hip-hop as well as the Nuggets and Pebbles albums. It was never limited. We were just limited by our abilities rather than our tastes, and ever since it’s been a way of incorporating wide taste. I’ve got very eclectic listening habits.”

There were kinships though, with McCarthy one such band that weaved in and out of your world.

“Yeah, and I still think Malcolm Eden’s one of the best lyric writers of his generation, yet no one seems to know him. He’s incredibly intelligent and witty and it’s kind of sad he didn’t get to continue after McCarthy much, although Stereolab of course were an excellent band.”

Talking of Stereolab, it would have been Mary Hansen’s 55th birthday recently, which really makes you think, seeing as we lost her so young (she died after being struck by a car while riding her bike in London in December 2002).

“Yeah, and I like all the Stereolab albums, but I think a little bit of their soul dropped out when she died. I think they’d probably say that themselves to a degree. But their recent reformation gigs have been triumphant.”

And because we were talking about that wide canvas of The Wolfhounds, could you have seen where Matt Deighton would head next after his spell in the band, with Mother Earth and beyond?  

“Matt was and remains to this day an excellent guitarist and played excellent stuff when he was in the band. He was only in the band for maybe six to nine months, but always really liked things like Humble Pie, stuff like that. He was always a bit of an early ‘70s hard rock and folk guy, so the fact that he joined a band that looked and sounded like that wasn’t too much of a surprise! And that was never really where we were heading.

“But listening back to Bright and Guilty, his playing on that is fantastic, and despite the relative straightforwardness of a lot of his stuff, he’s a big Beefheart fan and stuff like that as well, and you can hear that in his playing with us.”

And once English Primitive II is out, will you head back to The Wolfhounds and another band album?

“We haven’t really discussed that, and because it’s a group effort it was quite hard to do anything during the lockdown. But now we’re coming out of that, we’ll probably start writing new stuff, I suspect. I’ve probably got more band-oriented stuff lying around if I think about it. And I’m sure Andy has too.”

In the meantime, you return to Preston for Saturday, November 20th’s Garage Peel all-dayer, a ‘superlative edition featuring the cream of British garage rock acts championed by legendary DJ John Peel’, a ‘3.30pm until late’ event also involving Glasgow’s The Primevals and Inca Babies, among others, with The Wolfhounds playing a special set reflecting their own garage rock inspirations, I hear.

“Yeah, apparently so! We’re having the first rehearsal for that on Wednesday, so we’ll discuss what we’re going to do, but yeah, it might be a little more trashy. We shall see!”

David and bandmate Andy Golding – in his Dragon Welding guise – then return to The Continental the following afternoon, Sunday, November 21st, their sets to be drawn from their respective solo LPs (Andy’s 2019 Dragon Welding LP recently followed by Lights Behind the Eyes on the Dimple Discs label). And then there’s April 22/24’s Vernal Equinox, the pair again delivering solo spots and contributing to a full band performance.

“Yeah, and most excitingly, there’s also Martin Carthy, a career-long excellent artist, and Stick in the Wheel, probably one of my top-10 favourite current bands. We’re looking forward to that a great deal. And Alison Cotton, the viola player who performs on ‘She Passes Through the Night’ on my LP, is playing with her band, so that’ll be good too.”

You can catch up with all the latest news and releases from The Wolfhounds, David Lance Callahan and Dragon Welding via The Wolfhounds’ Bandcamp pages. And for full details of the above-mentioned November shows and April events at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, seek out Tuff Life Boogie’s Facebook events pages. Regarding the November events, tickets for Garage Peel are £12.50 via Skiddle, The Ferret and Action Records, with two-for-one deals at the latter outlets, and £5 on the door or via Skiddle for Sunday’s solo sessions.

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Truly making his mark – in conversation with Seth Lakeman

Seth Lakeman is back, and on the evidence of new LP, Make Your Mark, the last 18 months did nothing to blunt his creative prowess.

Emerging from the long days, weeks and months of lockdown, the celebrated indie-folk singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s latest album – out in a fortnight on CD and in digital format, and next month on vinyl – is his 11th studio offering since going solo in 2002.

Released on his Honour Oak Records label, the new record’s 14 songs were recorded at Middle Farm Studios – as namechecked in my recent Tim Keegan /Departure Lounge feature/interview – in his native Devon earlier this year as restrictions eased, 44-year-old Seth self-producing.

“The pandemic gave me a real determination to come out musically stronger, and I really dug deep into myself. Being able to record and play with the band again was really quite spiritual.”

Most associated with fiddle and tenor guitar, but also a dab hand with banjo and viola, as well as that distinctive voice, it’s now 16 years since Seth’s Mercury Music Prize nomination for second album Kitty Jay, his solo career following a spell alongside siblings Sam and Sean as the Lakeman Brothers.

Their debut LP landed in 1994, when he was 17, the trio then joining forces with Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts as Equation, while Seth also raised his profile guesting on sister-in-law Cara Dillon’s award-winning eponymous debut LP before going it alone.

Kitty Jay was his first record to make true headway, but 2006 follow-up Freedom Fields was the first certified gold, and as well as his new studio offering, he’s celebrating the latter’s 15th anniversary with a deluxe CD and vinyl reissue, with both records showcased at live dates this month.

First though, a quick story about serendipity, and how the day my eldest daughter headed down by train from Lancashire for a university open day and fact-finding mission around Plymouth, Seth happened to be launching his new album via a live web-stream from the pitchside at Home Park, home of his beloved Plymouth Argyle FC.

Seth, from the West Devon village of Buckland Monachorum, performed ‘The Giant’ and ‘Side by Side’ with bandmate Alex Hart, amid a little crowing about the Pilgrims being early League One leaders.

And one week on, I was through to the man himself, who was so wrapped up in pre-tour rehearsals that he’d forgotten I was calling. But he obligingly broke off so I was able to chat with an acclaimed crossover folk star on my radar since first taking a punt on Freedom Fields at Leyland Library not long after its release, clearly someone with discerning taste having ordered it in.

That third record helped build on his cult following and find a wider audience, Seth subsequently named Folk Singer of the Year and Freedom Fields awarded Album of the Year at 2007’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, that long player becoming one of the best-selling traditionally-based folk records in the UK.

Tours with The Levellers, Billy Bragg and Jools Holland helped spread the word, and in my case, I sought out Kitty Jay next, then headed back to 2002 solo debut The Punch Bowl before shelling out on 2008’s Poor Man’s Heaven, keeping close tabs ever since, the clincher perhaps May 2009’s band show at the wondrous Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall, albeit with this punter having to make do with the DVD experience.

My own love of his part of the world was a factor, admittedly, but it was Seth’s creative approach to song storytelling and his musicianship that truly struck the right chords. So, have the last 15 years since Freedom Fields – inspired by one of the turning point battles of the English Civil War, the people of Plymouth standing united against the Royalists – flown by?

“It has really. I’ve been pretty busy, and I’ve released a lot of material, but I’m still finding a source of inspiration. I’ve always loved writing songs and the whole process. And yeah, it does feel like it’s flown.”

We could go back even further to The Punch Bowl. Was that you finding your feet?

“Yes, finding my voice, really, working out if I could be a singer and was it something I could achieve. I knew, melodically, I was a violinist and was trying out guitars. But yes, it was an experiment really.”

Did you see Kitty Jay as your true arrival? Or was there an earlier point where you you’d written a song or a whole album that made you realise, ‘I can do this’, and accordingly carried an inner belief?

“I think that was the first time I really understood the process of making a whole album, where each song is like a chapter of a book. The full concept of an album also struck me, that’s where the Dartmoor legends and stories came from, and that’s the arrival of Kitty Jay.

“Lots of things were coming into play there, such as learning to sing with a violin, learning about the tenor guitar, things like that … experimenting with sound, really.”

Are you an avid reader? It seems – from the sheer breadth of subject matter for songs – that you’ve got this thirst for knowledge and want to share it. And I guess that’s what folk music was intended for, traditionally, being educational as well as entertaining.

“Exactly, sharing stories about real people and their efforts, and celebrating them in song. That’s something I’ve always loved. Singing about where you come from, making sure people are aware of that – you don’t want to lose sight of your roots. So many times we step over into Americana, which I have, and we love to do that, but it’s always good to find those stories right here, back at home.

“And, yeah, I used to be a big reader, but then I had kids, so it’s not so much as it used to be! But I’m always keen to find stories. I was a big reader for the Mayflower project I was part of. That involved lots of research.”

That research led to early 2020’s A Pilgrim’s Tale, telling the epic tale of the Pilgrim Fathers on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, a tie-in tour involving 10 towns and cities associated with the voyage, ending at Plymouth’s St Andrew’s Church – where the latest tour started this week – just before the first lockdown.

I mentioned my daughter’s Plymouth move, and it was only when we were looking to find rented rooms nearby that I spotted the location of Freedom Fields. But I guess I’m just one of many who’s learned more about Devonian – and Cornish – folklore and history through his songs.

“Ah, that’s good, and that’s all part of it, you know, trying to show people Dartmoor and the surrounding area, Plymouth, Cornwall … the full West Country tour!”

Some of that history is far more recent and still raw in certain cases. And as I mentioned Poor Man’s Heaven, that LP includes Solomon Browne, Seth’s tribute to the crew members of West Cornwall’s Penlee lifeboat, lost at sea 40 years ago next month. In fact, he told me about his pride at being part of events for the official opening of Solomon Browne Memorial Hall in Mousehole in 2017, recalling conversation there with the coxswain of the Penlee crew, who lost his father in the disaster.

As for the new record, from opener ‘Hollow’ – with shades of Gray for me in Seth’s vocal … David Gray, that is – through to closing number, ‘Constantly’, Make Your Mark grabs you from the off. Familiar yet fresh, we’re soon reeled in, early highlights including ‘Love Will Still Remain’, which kind of fires you out of the cannon, Seth’s fiddle to the fore, and the harmonising with Alex adding another dimension on next offering, ‘Bound to Someone’. Meanwhile, ‘The Higher We Aspire’ was a clear choice as the album’s lead single, Seth at his most subtly commercial, in another fine example of well-crafted indie-pop folk.  

Make Your Mark sees Seth tackles the environment, love, death, and self-belief, trademark Lakeman themes, and while I’d not had a proper chance to wallow within when we spoke, I soon had, and I’m suitably impressed. He’s clearly still making his mark.

Down the years, there have been songs about miners, ships’ crews, soldiers, artisans, craftsmen, and plenty more working-class heroes and villain, fair maidens and returning prodigal sons, his tales often timeless, not concerned with any specific periods of history or elements of traditional folk.

“You try and jump back and forth, in as much as I love history and I love language. I like writing in that traditional way too. But I also love Americana, West Coast, I love pop, I love rock. On Poor Man’s Heaven and Hearts and Minds, there’s lots of riffing and heavy drums. All sorts.”

While my tastes always varied, folk was something I struggled to take on board for a long time, until perhaps the influence of The Men They Couldn’t Hang and Celtic folk – The Pogues, The Waterboys, and so on – finally lured me. In more recent years I’ve grown far closer to that world, not least through finding the beauty in Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, right through to Americana, Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions providing another turning point. And Seth’s music stands up there with the best of all that in my mind.

Understanding the way all those influences play off each other was key to my appreciation, the BBC/RTE Transatlantic Sessions productions among the factors helping illuminate those links, and that’s where I caught Sam Lakeman and wife Cara Dillon among those featured. But I was also pleased to hear him say that his own influences were certainly not just drawn from the folk roots world.

“Oh, crumbs! I mean, I love Public Service Broadcasting. I love their new album (Bright Magic), and was rocking out to that, and I’ve just introduced my kids to AC/DC and all those heavy bands … and obviously Zeppelin. My son was in the car and I’m playing him ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Good Times Bad Times’. And I was playing some classical guitar music the other night. And jazz. I mean, Stephane Grappelli is one of my biggest heroes.”

Now he’s mentioned ‘Kashmir’, I’ve another image of him, blasting that out with his children as he drives deeper into that dramatic Dartmoor scenery.

“Ha!”

Seriously though, that makes me re-evaluate tracks like the brooding, powerful ‘The Lark’ on the new LP. I could hear a Gretchen Peters-like vibe before, and now hear the homegrown dark blues of Robert Plant too, with a similar feel on next track, ‘Side by Side’. Perhaps it was always there, yet never quite sinking in.

There is a link, a phone call from the Led Zep frontman on New Year’s Day 2017 leading to input on Plant’s Carry Fire LP that year and him joining his tour as part of the Sensational Space Shifters band and as tour support, further engagements together following in 2018 in the US and Australia.

And while domestic responsibilities (Seth and Cornish-born wife Hannah have twins aged eight and a five-year-old) may have come even more to the fore in recent years, he still managed to turn around his ‘lockdown album’, the latest released through Honour Oak Records, the label name inspired by a tree close to where he was based in Whitchurch around the time of 2012’s Tales From the Barrel House LP, marking the boundary of French prisoners on parole in Tavistock from Princetown on Dartmoor during the 1803/4 Napoleonic War, and also where money was deposited in exchange for food during an 1832 cholera outbreak.

And will his live band help him echo what he’s pulled off on the new record when it comes to the tour?

“Yeah, the same guys are on the road with me. That’s what we’re doing here (rehearsing – I think that’s him subtly saying he best put the phone down soon and get back to it), and I’m very excited at the prospect of being able to get back out there.”

As well as the afore-mentioned Alex Hart on added vocals, the band also comprises Benji Kirkpatrick (Bellowhead, Faustus), on bouzouki, banjo and mandolin; Toby Kearney, principal percussionist at Birmingham Conservatoire, on drums; and Ben Nicholls, on bass, the latter having worked with Seth for many moons.

“Yeah, 20 odd years now. A long, long time!”

Are you in regular touch with brothers Sam and Sean (the latter having produced his first four solo LPs)?

“Yeah, all the time. We did a Lakeman family gathering show not long ago, back in the summer. For Beautiful Days, and that was really successful.”

Thinking back to having that security of that band of brothers, so to speak, if you could go back 20 years to just before The Punch Bowl came out, is there a certain bit of advice you’d offer yourself, maybe making yourself a little less anxious about the solo career path ahead?

“Yeah, there’s always that point about not being too precious about music. I might have been a bit too worried about the ‘folk police’. That’s something I wouldn’t want to be so worried about now. I really wouldn’t!

“And I’d tell young musicians it’s all there to be used, the tradition. It’s all about creativity, you know, and pushing boundaries. I think that’s the key to all kinds of music.”

Going back to your roots – Seth began playing music with his parents and brothers at an early age – I’m guessing you grew up with folk. How do you think the state of the future of roots music as a proper music of the people is at this point in time?

“It feels like it’s at a bit of a turning point. Because, you know, we’ve come out of something that is so extreme, for human beings, at that point of socialising and connection. Music has a real opportunity now to unite and almost heal people, show them there’s a really positive way forward.

“I think that’s where music has a real opportunity. So yeah, the people’s music and music in general, I think, has that great opportunity.”

And with that, Seth was away, back to his rehearsals, those UK dates ever closer (with a link to a tour video here), this accomplished artiste having truly made his mark these past two decades, and showing no sign of letting up yet.

Make Your Mark is set for release on Friday, November 19th in CD and digital formats, and on Friday, December 17th on double vinyl. You can also order a signed Freedom Fields deluxe reissue now on CD and double vinyl – limited edition coloured and black – all with exclusive bonus content, including unreleased tracks and rare demos, with a signed art print from selected stores via this link. And for more information, head to Seth’s official website.

And while the tour is now underway – opening dates at Plymouth St Andrew’s Church and Exeter Cathedral behind him – he ventures further afield these next couple of weeks for shows at Carmarthen Lyric Theatre (Thursday, 4th November); Guildford G Live (Friday, 5th November); Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (Saturday, 6th November); Yeovil Westlands (Sunday, 7th November); Leeds City Varieties Music Hall (Monday, 8th November); Oxford SJE Arts (Tuesday, 9th November); Birmingham Town Hall (Wednesday, 10th November); Newark Palace Theatre (Thursday, 11th November); Bath Forum (Friday, 12th November); Cambridge Corn Exchange (Saturday, 13th November); Southend Palace Theatre (Sunday, 14th November); Milton Keynes The Stables (Monday, 15th November); London, Islington Union Chapel (Tuesday, 16th November); Manchester Stoller Hall (Wednesday, 17th November); and Buxton Opera House (Thursday, 18th November). For tickets, head to Seth’s website live dates link or this SeeTickets link.

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Up, up and away – a late introduction to Magic Roundabout

Once upon a long ago, there was a band – described by their modern-day label as ‘criminally-unheard Manchester noisemakers’ – that borrowed its name from a hit UK children’s TV show that itself started life in a very different form in France.

In the case of this particular ‘80s post-punk indie outfit – originally from neighbouring Bolton – though, fame was not forthcoming. But enough people appreciated them down the line for their memory to live on.

And now, three and a half decades after Magic Roundabout’s first live outings, The White Stripes’ Jack White’s US label Third Man Records has released their debut LP, Up.

According to their press, ‘Like so many other disenfranchised kids in the heady days of the mid-‘80s, Magic Roundabout came armed with leather jackets, charity shop instruments, singles by The Fall and Buzzcocks, good haircuts, a healthy Velvet Underground obsession and a little psychedelic inspiration.

‘Influenced into existence at early gigs by The Jesus and Mary Chain and Shop Assistants, The Roundies wanted to change the world, or at the very least make some noise, shake things up and be a part of the happening’.

Moving into a house in Nottingham in early 1986, they began rehearsing, recording and gigging, with memorable shows following as support to The Blue Aeroplanes, The Pastels, Spacemen 3, Loop, My Bloody Valentine and Inspiral Carpets. And rumour has it that Noel Gallagher roadied their final show.

Just one song was released though, ‘She’s a Waterfall (Pts. 1 and 2)’ appearing on Oozing Through the Ozone Layer, a compilation cassette put together by future Pulp guitarist Mark Webber in his fanzine days. There was also talk of a flexi-disc, but that never saw the light of day, and by the end of the ‘80s the band had all gone their separate ways, their recordings lost forever.

Or so it seemed, Magic Roundabout’s 1987 recordings recently unearthed by Pale Saints singer/bass player Ian Masters for Third Man Records and given the ‘treatment’ by Warren Defever, the resultant album heralded by a brushed-up version of that prior-mentioned track, ‘She’s a Waterfall’ (its accompanying video linked here). But is their resultant, much-delayed debut album 34 years too late or perfectly steeped and presented at just the right moment, as their label suggests?

With that and many more questions needing answers, I tracked down Magic Roundabout survivors Linda Jennings and Nick Davidson for an online video interview, and we were soon on to the subject of The Shop Assistants, the Edinburgh indie outfit they saw at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall and who proved a huge influence on them making that step up from imaginary to real band.

Nick: “When we saw them, we were like, ‘Whoah!’

Linda: “It was a case of, ‘We’re not worthy!’. They were great and had that quirky sort of pop thing.”

While The Shop Assistants were part of the C86 scene, named after the NME compilation that helped spread the word about so many emerging indie bands from that era, the mystery to me on hearing Magic Roundabout’s recordings now is that – for an outfit at times carrying a Girls at our Best joining forces with the Mary Chain feel – Alan McGee didn’t seek them out and sign them to Creation Records. Surely they’d have been right up his street. How did he miss them?

Linda: “We didn’t really have a quality recording. Just this demo, which was a bit naff on a cassette. We did get one to Tony Wilson, when he was watching a band at The Boardwalk, where we were rehearsing. But he was quite cold on the night. I didn’t get anything back off him. He was a bit smug and nonchalant.”

Nick: “We took turns giving out demos, usually me and Linda. But didn’t really send demos of anything on this album. We were recording really fast, and by summer ’87 we were so into what we were doing that we didn’t have so much time to think about where we were going.”

Linda: “We weren’t chasing anything. We were playing gigs, supporting people, thinking, ‘Wow, we’re playing with them!’.”

For so many bands I love, there was what some saw as a lack of ambition, but sometimes it was just about enough to feature alongside other bands you loved, get on John Peel’s show, and make a couple of singles, rather than landing five-album deals. Anything else was a bonus.

Also, I suggested to Linda and Nick, maybe when they approached Tony Wilson, he’d already found his new direction. Besides, that wasn’t what they were about, that whole Madchester scene. Creation would have made for a good fit though.

Linda: “Yeah, definitely.”

Nick: “There wasn’t really a scene in Manchester, at least not music of the same kind. There wasn’t really anyone else into the same stuff as us. We were friendly with Inspiral Carpets, they were really good to us. But we had more in common with King of the Slums and Dub Sex, that sort of band.”

I was on the London and South East scene at the time, and got the impression at the time that when the A&R men went to Manchester, they were more likely looking for another Stone Roses or another Happy Mondays.

Nick: “We were a little bit before that as well …”

Linda: “We split up at the wrong time! We should have stayed together.” 

I was very much into That Petrol Emotion at the time (I still am, of course), yet you could argue that they never got the kudos they deserved until it was too late, being touted as an influence by bands like My Bloody Valentine after they finally broke through.

Nick: “I saw them {My Bloody Valentine} on my 18th at The Boardwalk, with Dave Conway singing. I loved what they became, but I loved them then too. Great band. But a lot of the bands we liked were seen as a bit lame at the time, like Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine …”

Two examples of bands perhaps better appreciated further down the years.

Linda: “I think people were a bit behind that vibe. It’s now seen as cool, but back then in our second-hand clothes, we didn’t want to follow the mainstream at all, and were always trying to find another band to listen to. But our influences were also ‘60s bands like Love, and obviously the Velvets.”

I hear the latter on tracks like the lead single, not just the Nico-like vocals, but the way it’s put together, not least with those guitars.

Linda: “I just wish it had been in tune!”

Don’t get me wrong, but as a half-baked bass player of a garage band that never quite left the garage, I can listen to a couple of those tracks and think, ‘That could have been me!’. But rough and ready as it seems in places, there’s definitely plenty of spirit captured on those recordings. Do they sound different now Third Man Records have polished them up?

Nick: “Yes and no! It’s really good mastering, but Warren kept in touch with us and was keen to not mess with it, really. But a lot were second generation tapes anyway.”

Linda: “My cassette copy that got used for this, they tried to master it to get a good copy, but it still had some of the hiss on it, and it was so difficult. But he sent what he’d done to Third Man, and they managed to take away all the hiss. We were like, ‘How did they do that?’. But there are tiny fragments that you could never recreate on that original cassette.”

Nick: “And mastering is a dying art, as I understand it.”

So how did it come to this? Was it a case of a missing tape unearthed, or is that just record company spin and some romantic notion?

Linda: “A bit of a romantic notion.”

Nick: “We’re not sure where some of that came from, but we played in Leeds in this upstairs room at the Three Legs pub, one of the roughest then. It was around April/May ’87. We supported Loop that night. They lost their licence the next day, because it was so loud!

“There were only about 20 or so there, but Ian {Masters, his band Pale Saints hailing from Leeds} liked us, approached us after, and we swapped addresses. We’ve been friends since. He’s been a great supporter of the band.”

At this point, Linda disappears, and before I have a chance to work out how I’ve upset her, she returns to show me the original cassette, labelled catalogue number 18, apparently put her way by Nick after the band split. Why did they split?

“We were together for around two years, but for around nine or so months it was really intense. For some mad reason we decided we’d live in a band house, moving to Nottingham. We just thought that was what bands did … like The Monkees! We left Manchester, because we didn’t like the Happy Mondays and all that shite! But it was the death of us really.”

Linda: “Yeah. It was all, ‘Your turn to wash up!’, ‘No, you do it! I’m making tea!’. It was like The Young Ones.”

Nick: “We were 18 or 19. We had no social skills. We had rehearsals in the house, brought dustbins in and played them.”

Linda: “I missed all my friends as well. I was homesick for them … not my parents.”

Why did you choose Nottingham?

Linda: “I think Nick just stuck a pin in the map!”

Nick: “We did actually get quite a lot of material that we didn’t record. But living together put the mockers on it all, really. The last thing we did together was ’Song for Gerard Langley’, the B-side of the single. That was recorded there.”

Linda: “I think that’s of a better quality, the way we recorded it. Showed some promise. If we’d stuck in Manchester, maybe …”

I was intrigued by that Gerard Langley link, not least as the frontman of The Blue Aeroplanes – and past WriteWyattUK interviewee – also gets a mention on mammoth LP closer ‘Alice’s Paper Plane’. And it turns out, their first gig was with the cherished Bristol outfit, as depicted in Simon Beecroft’s splendid comic strip creation telling their story (far better than I can, probably) up to the time Karrie Price joined the band.

Nick: “That was our first gig, and it was a grand one. It went really well. They were lovely. We couldn’t have asked for a better gig. We didn’t know them. I hadn’t even heard of them. But they were brilliant.”

Linda: “Me and Paul, the bass player, went to Glastonbury that year, and saw them there.”

Ah, Glastonbury Festival ’87. I was there too. Amazing, weren’t they.

Linda: “Yeah, and I saw Stump there, and Julian Cope, with his weird mic. stand. We were sleeping in the car, and I had a Walkman to record on. I recorded Julian and quite a few others … until my batteries ran low.”

Stump were also great, though somehow I missed Julian Cope. Perhaps he was on that Friday evening, before New Order, while we were still waiting in Castle Cary for my mate Steve’s smashed windscreen to be replaced. Another abiding memory of mine though was Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction’s van getting stuck in the mud, left there and eventually torched.

Linda: “I’ve got a black and white photograph I took of that! An iconic shot.”

I wasn’t venturing too far beyond London back then, and assume most of your dates were north of Birmingham.

Nick: “We got down to Bristol. Rocker from The Flatmates put us on a couple of times, promoting gigs there and in Birmingham. But not London. That’s perhaps one of the reasons … I found a diary and we had some gigs set up that never happened, including one with Spacemen 3 in London.”

Linda: “We played with Ozric Tentacles in Birmingham …”

Nick: “That was a gig! A tough punk crowd. But we went down alright once we’d got through a couple of songs.”  

I imagine you were a rather intense outfit live. Did you tend to end – as on the LP – with ‘Alice’s Paper Plane’?

Nick: “Sometimes that was the only track we played! I don’t know why now, looking back. But when we supported The Darling Buds in Bristol, that went down like a lead balloon!”

I never leave gigs early if I can help, but half-way through that I would have been looking furtively at my watch, worried that I might miss the last bus or train.

Nick: “Yeah, we cleared a few places!”

Linda: “It does go on and on and on! I think that’s where we had differences … and split. I wanted to play tunes, while Nick wanted to be more experimental. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground between us.”

That approach works for me. Take the Velvets with Nico. A mixture of a couple of styles. Proper chemistry.

Nick: “Well, we never hid the fact that we were massive Velvets fans. I still love them.”

Linda: “Classic tunes. You don’t really get anything like that. And I love the Warhol thing.”

Nick: “We wouldn’t have dared say that then though. You’d just get slated … although it’s as obvious as anything.”

Linda: “And the title track on this record is about Andy Warhol’s death.”

Nick had just turned 19 when the band split, having been friends with bandmate and fellow co-founder Paul Chadwick since school. Meanwhile, Linda turned 20 in July ’87, the band’s oldest member along with later addition Karrie, who came in to play violin and extra guitar. And while it was Nick and Paul’s first band, Linda had played guitar from age 10 and seen service elsewhere.

Linda: “I ended up having classical guitar lessons at school and was singing in a choir, doing three-part harmonies. And me and a friend would play guitar in our bedroom, learning songs. I’d go up to Horwich Folk Club when I was 15 and 16. And Nick and Paul lived in Bolton.”

Nick: “We started in Bolton in ’86, but there was no real scene there, so we shifted over to Manchester, and The Boardwalk was key to us. I found in the back of the (Manchester) Evening News that there was rehearsal space there. And it was cheap. When we started rehearsing there, they gave us membership cards and we got in to see everything for free.”

Linda: “There were some great bands rehearsing there. Nico was supposed to be rehearsing there in ’87, James were there, and needed a bass player at the time. And if I were a bass player! And the Mondays rehearsed there.”

I think James co-founding bass player Jim Glennie, on board since 1982, might take issue with that. In fact, it may have been a guitarist they were looking to recruit. Either way, she missed out. How about The Fall (of whom Jim Glennie was a big fan)? They rehearsed there too.

Nick: “We never saw them. We’d be looking around for Mark E. Smith though. Paul later ran a newsagent’s in Reddish, and Mark would rehearse there. He’d come in asking for 20 Embassy No.1, every rehearsal!”

Were you Fall fans?

Nick “Oh, massive! That was the only band in Manchester for us. To me, I’d come to think they were better than The Velvet Underground as time went on, lyrically and … they seemed to fore-shadow so much to me.”

Linda: “Massive fans! It’s just that character of Mark E. Smith. And his accent. Manchester … with an arr! Just awesome. In a way, I didn’t think it was that Manc. It’s just how he intonated the lyrics.”

Nick: “And in my experience, Manchester was the sort of place where no one likes each other. It’s very competitive, but that’s maybe just typical Mancunian.”

Linda: “I think they’re a bit more hard-edged in how they sort of deal with people. Scousers are more friendly or comical.”

As for what happened next, Nick’s now in Shipley, bear Bradford, and Linda’s back in the North West, while it turns out that bandmates Paul and Karrie took another direction and went on to become breakbeat specialists.

Nick: “I trained as a nurse in Leeds and Wakefield, and that’s what I did for the next 30 years. That’s partly why the record’s coming out now. I retired a couple of years ago and had a bit more time, thinking surely we could license some of these tracks. That’s how the project started rolling. But I always kept involved in music, working with Ian and on underground stuff. And Linda’s certainly been active.”

Linda: “I joined another band who needed a singer. We were called Your Ticket Explained. We didn’t last long! I was going out with the guitarist, but then started going out with the bass player, and married him … so the guitarist split the band up! Just one of those things. But I stayed in music as much as I could.

“At one point I was going to a poetry group, doing paintings, singing at blues and folk nights, and got asked to sing with this jazz band on Sundays, a jazz breakfast at the Old Angel … mostly for people with big hangovers coming in for a big breakfast to drown their sorrows from the night before.

“I was also in this rock’n’roll band, playing guitar, while I had an 18-month-old (child). That got a bit too hard, but I carried on doing gigs on my own and found a popular music college course and ended up moving north to go to Salford Uni, ending up in bands up here.”

So you’ve now got the Pennines between you?

Nick: “Yeah, but we’ve worked together for the last 20 years. I got back in touch as I was doing some recording, asking Linda to do some vocals. And we’ve recorded on and off for years. For the past 10 years we’ve also had this project called The Objects, with a recent-ish album available on Bandcamp. And we like writing together.

“A bit like The Fall, if it’s me, Linda and your granny, it’s Magic Roundabout! And Paul and Karrie have been involved with dance music – once rave came along, then jungle – called Backdraft, with the label Botchit & Scarper. And we’ve all kept in touch, pretty much.

“We did lose touch with Nicola (Mckenzie) and Maria (Gomez Brown), who (both) played tambourine, but managed to get in touch again with the album coming out. And we’ve had people send us some songs we’d forgotten about, on tape … so yeah, things are started to come back to us!”

And will there be live dates to help promote the record?

Nick: “We’re looking at that at the moment. Depends if anyone will pay us, really. We’re a bit old to do it for nothing anymore! But yeah, hopefully.

“We’ve also been having a think about trying to finish off some of the things we didn’t manage to. By the end, we were listening to Love all the time, and Nuggets, stuff like that. And I’ve bought an organ in the last year.”

For more about Up and how to order a copy, head here. And for more about Magic Roundabout, check out their Bandcamp link and follow them on Facebook.

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Making a vinyl connection with the Bunnyman – back in touch with Will Sergeant

Last time I saw Will Sergeant, I was barely two feet away from him on a Sunday night in the snug bar of The Continental, Preston, Lancashire, thrilling to the garage/surf punk spectacle and hearing sensation that is Michael & the Angelos, the ‘60s cartoon-ish alter-egos of equally-mysterious Liverpool band The Kool Aiders.

That was at Tuff Life Boogie’s Preston Pop Fest in late August, with Echo & the Bunnymen’s guitar hero as enthralled as the rest of us – barely a couple of dozen as it turned out, the rest of the festival-goers back in the main room, waiting for The Bluebells to bring the curtain down on a happening indie pop weekend.

Word was that when the organiser told the band he’d head back through and drum up a few more punters, frontman Bob Parker (also ex-Walkingseeds) wasn’t so bothered about numbers, clearly preferring a low-key approach.  

“Ah! A good night that, and it’s a great place, The Continental.”

I reckon my ears were still recovering from chief Kool Aider Bob and his band a couple of weeks on. Do you two go back a long way?

“Me and Bob? Oh yeah, years. I played some stuff with (his previous band) The Mel-o-Tones and did lights for them once or twice. And I’m The Hawk.”

Tune into Michael & the Angelos’ website Radio Hour episodes and that’ll make more sense, if you’re not yet hip to that particular trip. Besides, any words I write won’t do justice to this amazing sonic happening. Highly recommended.

“It’s a great idea. I’m always saying he should get someone in like Matt Groening, referencing all the ‘60s, ‘70s and even the punk stuff.” 

You clearly still enjoy a bit of dirty rock’n’roll and garage rock alongside an appreciation of the likes of Love, early Genesis, and all that.

“I love all that stuff – that classic record period from the ‘50s through to the ‘80s. It’s kind of what I’m about really. And I love records, so I’m chuffed they’re putting all these LPs out on vinyl again. They’ve been going on about it for years, and everyone else seemed to have their records coming back out on vinyl.”

That’s our excuse for a chat, the re-release of the classic first four LPs by Echo & the Bunnymen, from the years 1980/84, available again on vinyl from this weekend.

Formed in Liverpool in 1978 with Will on lead guitar, Ian McCulloch on vocals and rhythm guitar, and Les Pattinson on bass, Echo & the Bunnymen were soon joined by Pete De Freitas on drums. The rest is history.

Debut 7” single ‘Pictures on My Wall’ c/w ‘Read It in Books’ was released via Zoo Records in 1979, the A-side then appearing on first album Crocodiles in 1980, cementing the band’s reputation amidst a growing wave of post-punk outfits, the NME describing it as ‘probably the best album this year by a British band’. Ultimately breaking into the top-20, it garnered much critical acclaim.

They followed that with the release of the Shine So Hard EP in 1981, recorded live at Pavilion Gardens, Buxton, then second studio album Heaven Up Here the same year, the band’s first UK top-10 album, going on to win the 1981 NME Best Album award. Considered slightly darker, Heaven Up Here was produced by Hugh Jones and was well received by critics and fans, highlights including ‘A Promise’, ‘Over the Wall’ and ‘Show of Strength’.

Then the Bunnymen’s cult status was transformed into mainstream success in 1983 with the release of third LP Porcupine, produced by future Lightning Seeds creator Ian Broudie, their best chart performances following, ‘The Cutter’ reaching No.8 in the singles charts and the LP No.2 in the album charts, soon certified gold.

And 1984 brought fourth studio album Ocean Rain, regarded by many as the band’s classic opus, recorded in Liverpool and Paris, incorporating a 35-piece orchestra, award-winning composer Adam Peters – still a close friend of Will – scoring the strings for an album best known for classic singles ‘Silver’, ‘Seven Seas’ and ‘The Killing Moon’.

Heading into Cornwall recently, dropping my youngest daughter off to start at university, I saw the sign from the A30 near Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor for Warleggan/St Neot/Mount, the way to Carnglaze Caverns, where the cover of Ocean Rain was shot,an extra copy back in the day giving me a chance to Blu Tack that iconic photographic image by Brian Griffin to my bedroom wall, Brian’s photos and Martyn Atkins’ design also featuring on the three previous LPs. Perhaps I should arrange a pilgrimage one day, take a boat out and stab a sorry heart in the water with my favourite finger, in a Mac style.

“Ah, I think we stayed in Fowey – tucked away in this little guest house – when we were doing that.”

Will’s been on the mind a fair bit this last couple of years, having raised his social media profile somewhat to mark the release and success of Bunnyman: A Memoir (Constable, 2021), retelling part one of his life story, from formative years growing up in Melling – an outlying Liverpool district back then classed as within Lancashire, not far from where he still resides – through to the early days of the band. Is he hard at work on part two now? 

“Yeah. I’m getting all my research together at the moment.”

Are you re-immersing yourself in that next era (with Pete de Freitas on board by that point)?

“Yeah, I find I can travel back in time in my mind, remembering what we were wearing, the sort of things we were influenced by, what we were into, how we recorded, all that. It’s amazing what can be dragged up.”

Is it a cathartic experience?

“It’s nice, like having a time machine. With the first one, a lot of it was about being a kid, and that was great, going back to then and what we used to get up to, all those scallywag things we used to do.”

You’re not so far from that patch now, around 10 miles from your Melling roots, right?

“Yeah, if that. I just like it round here. When we were bigger, in our heyday – I was going to say massive, but we were never massive – loads of bands moved to London, and it was like, ‘Why move to London?’. It was full of fakers.

“To me, London seemed to be too many people scrambling around. We were trying not to do that. We turned down more things than we did. Even if there was some band on down there we didn’t like the look of, or they had the wrong trousers on or something. ‘We’re not going on with them,’ y’know. ‘They’re shit!’. London felt a bit like that, everyone too desperately trying to impress the local A&R man and all that stuff.”

There was a lot more money being thrown at bands then, it seemed. Those of you still playing all these years on seem to have a far healthier attitude, playing for the right reasons – loving being in a band, playing live and making music, rather than chasing chart-topping status and vast sums of money. Competition doesn’t seem to be such an issue.

“Yeah, it’s not really like that anymore. It’s not a game, anyway. There was always a bit of rivalry between us and people like U2 … although I think they won that one! Ha.”

Speaking of whom, breakthrough Irish band Inhaler played an Action Records promotion in late summer at the afore-mentioned Continental, and catching footage of them at Reading Festival shortly after, I felt seeing frontman Elijah Hewson in action was like watching his dad in U2’s early days.

“We share a roadie with them, and we’ve met them a couple of times. They’re a really nice bunch. Dead cool, like. And it’s a difficult track to follow, isn’t it? I’ve seen them live, and they were good.”

From February onwards, Will should be back out on the road with the Bunnymen again, with 20 live dates lined up for a classic band who managed 20 top-20 UK singles. Which made me wonder, for all his cool demeanour, was he ever secretly thrilled about the prospect of chart hits, Top of the Pops appearances, and all that?

“Only once. I think it was for ‘The Cutter’. Rob Dickens at the record label had loads of stuff he’d been given in his office, like a Pee-wee Herman bike with flat tyres. Me and Les were disgusted that the tyres weren’t even pumped up. We loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

“He also had – just leaning against the wall – an Andy Warhol Electric Chair print. I said, ‘That’s great!’, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, someone gave me that’, or he bought it for buttons or something. He said, ‘I tell you what – if your single gets to No.5, you can have it’. So I really wanted to get to No.5 … and I think it got to No.7, so I hit the post on that one. And I think he would have given it me, he was a man of his word.” 

It actually reached No.8, the first of three Bunnymen top-10 hits. Not bad for a lad born on the Lancashire side of Liverpool. And going back to those roots, Odyssey style, I mention to Will how Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt would often return to his childhood address on my old patch in Woking, Surrey, gazing at the house where he lived from his car, re-igniting memories. Is that the case with Will and Melling, taking a walk or drive down Station Road, looking at his family home?

“Yeah, and the weird thing is, our house was the shittiest in the road – towards the end of Dad’s life, her and Dad’s life had fallen to bits – but someone’s bought it, done it up, and it’s now the poshest house in the street, extended and everything. It looks like it doesn’t belong there.”

No blue plaque to follow? No chance of the National Trust coming in, as they did with Forthlin Road and Menlove Avenue for Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s homes further into the city?

“No, it’s a completely different house now. You wouldn’t recognise it.”

If you had the chance to go back and be a fly on the wall for Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes sharing the bill at the legendary Eric’s in Liverpool, late ’78, what do you think you’d make of each band?

“Well, we weren’t the competent players we became. I think the Teardrops could play a lot better than us. Mick Finkler was great on the guitar and Julian (Cope) was obviously a really good bass player. I don’t know what I’d think, but …”

You clearly had something about you.

“Yeah, with Mac up front and everything. He’s sort of got it, hasn’t he, you can’t really deny it. He’s got something. As a frontman, if you can bottle that … like an arrogance … an assuredness, he exudes it.”

Thinking of the vinyl reissues of the early LPs, do you still have and play the originals? I recall Noddy Holder once saying he lent someone a copy of his first LP with Ambrose Slade and didn’t get it back, and he didn’t have one for years.

“Our records? There’s loads I haven’t got. Half the time, they put things out and don’t even send us them. There was one that came out not long ago with sunflowers on the cover. I never got that.”

The day I spoke to Will, I was hoping the postie would knock on the door with a copy of Will’s Bunnyman, but I was still waiting when we spoke.

“Well, Costco have got it cheap! The cheapest I’ve seen. No VAT.”

Recently, I read Steve Hanley’s entertaining, informative Fall memoir, The Big Midweek – Life Inside The Fall, and there’s a mention of a meet-up between your bands in Liverpool, around 40 years ago, Mac and his old pal Mark E. Smith trading insults and cutting repartee, while Steve made small talk with Les and new Radio 1 DJ Janice Long.

He also revealed how he got home and put on Heaven Up Here, suggesting he could play Les’ parts and join you. It seems he felt he might have had an easier life in your band. Do you think he would have?

“Yeah. I met him the other day, actually, when I did a book signing and talk with Dave Haslam in Manchester at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. We had a chat in the bog! I’m set to do another with John Robb at the Louder Than Words festival. I think with Marc Riley and Steve we’re all going to be out for a curry later. It’s gonna be a hoot, that night. Nice lads.”

That date with John Robb – on Saturday, November 13th, at Innside, First Street, Manchester, with ticket details here – sounds like a winner, judging by their conversation for John’s Louder Than War website in July (linked here). In fact, John has contributed to my forthcoming Fall appreciation, and Will too has good memories of seeing The Fall.

“I loved The Fall. They were just different, weren’t they, kind of like … they weren’t really punk, but they weren’t anything and didn’t want to be anything. They were their own thing. And I loved Mark E. Smith. He was funny as fuck!”

Was there a particular period you liked above all others?

“I bought all the records for maybe 10 years. They kind of drifted off from there. Live at the Witch Trials was great. I loved the cover – the pencil drawing. Pendle’s not so far from here, really, and it’s got that sort of weird, dark satanic mill kind of feel. Kind of odd, that, places like Saddleworth Moor and Holcombe Hill, spooky kind of areas. The Fall almost tapped into that with the area they were based, and it played into his lyrics.

“And I love the way he used to use people’s names. Like ‘Taxi for Mr Nelson!’. That was great. The only ones now doing something slightly similar are Sleaford Mods. Yeah, The Fall were great.”

When did you last play live, and where was that?

“Erm, 2019, I can’t remember where.”

Records suggest it was at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh with the Bunnymen on December 18th, 2019. Have you missed all that?

“Er, it’s a weird thing with playing live. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiety. After a few gigs you get into a flow though, and it becomes okay. You stop worrying. But it’s a lot of worry for me. Is it going to work, will I get all the parts right, will we get the sound correct, not too loud and not too quiet?

“And because I have loads of effects and things I play with, it’s not just playing the guitar. It’s pressing on loads of pedals, making sure you’re in the right place at the right time. And tuned up. It’s like Pressure Central. But once you’ve done a couple, it kind of eases and becomes natural. And I’m going to have to play soon, because all my fingers have gone soft.”

There has been a long gap … not as if I’m trying to add to your anxiety on that front.

“Well, I’m frightened anyway.”

Has the lockdown been a good time for your artwork too? Or was the writing all-consuming?

“I’ve done a bit. I got into doing collages for a while, just for the fun of it really. I started the writing before the lockdown. That sort of came initially from doing …. these records have been re-released before by a smaller label that licensed them, with these fancy booklets. And those liner notes kind of started me off on the writing thing.

“Around 2013, I think it was, I started a science fiction story. I got to about 17 chapters, and it was all about a world where instead of industrial technology, it was more bio-genetic. I got deeply into it, then that film Avatar came out, and I just thought, ‘Fucking hell, this is too similar!’. But I might revisit it. And I’d love to do short stories. I love John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, James Herbert, all that.”

As for the memoirs, part two will cover from Pete’s early days with the band. Up until when?”

“I might go up to the end of Heaven Up Here. That’s a couple of records, loads of touring, Europe for the first time, all that stuff. That was the first time I’d ever been abroad. To Belgium, a place called  Plan K, these sort of hipsters running these nights. Joy Division were on the week before.

A Certain Ratio, us and The Teardrops went over and did it, in this old sugar refinery. I’d never seen anything like that, thinking you could do anything you liked in Europe – get an old factory and turn it into a gig without much money or interference from authorities. It seemed to be a place that was open.”

Records suggest that was in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek on January 26th 1980, with William S. Burroughs, Buzzcocks, Cabaret Voltaire and Scritti Politti among the previous year’s guests there, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on 12 days earlier than the Bunnymen. And such happenings are something this up’n’coming generation of bands won’t be able to experience at this rate, post-Brexit. It would cost too much to get over and play, with too many new bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

“Yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen there.”

Last time we spoke, in early 2015, you told me you weren’t a big reader and you’d rather put a record on. You seem to have proved yourself wrong on that front.

“I’m not much of a reader. I’m better with an audio book in the car, driving around, or on dog walks with the headphones on. “I’m listening at the moment to Shantaram (by Gregory David Roberts), about an Australian who breaks out of jail, ending up in Bombay, embroiled in all sorts in these shanty towns. It’s brilliant, and my mate Adam Peters is doing the soundtrack music for a series. They’re in Thailand filming at the minute. He’s asked me to help with odd bits.”

As you mentioned Australia, how’s Bunnymen bass player Les doing? Is he still Down Under?

“He’s alright. I’m in touch with him most days, via WhatsApp or whatever. He’s always sending me jokes and pictures. It looks amazing, where he lives. In Mornington, Melbourne, on this big bay. They go sailing and all that. He does trials riding too.”

With that, our time slot is well and truly done, but Will tells me we should catch up at the Conti again soon – where he also caught Can’s Damo Suzuki and Gnod fairly recently – and revealed a few details about another musical project he has lined up.

“I’m toying with the idea of going out and doing ambient gigs on my own. I’ve got to plan it out, work out what I’m going to do, get some projections together. There’s a bloke round here with an organic farm and he built this baboon house in his back garden, made for Knowsley Safari Park. He’s made it into this groovy space. He’s a bit of a hippie. They do yoga in there and sound baths.

“I was saying you could put things on, like poetry readings or ambient nights. I was going to do something acoustic with our keyboard player, do some of his tunes and some of mine, then I was thinking of something more electronic, with a table-top set-up, something we used to do years ago, under the name Glide. But keep it minimal.”

By then, your fingers may be more hardened up again.

“I probably wouldn’t be playing the guitar. Last time I did the Glide stuff, I played guitar with a screwdriver and a metal rod. I’d thrash the shit out of it! Using the screwdriver like a slide, with open tuning … maybe a bit violent for a gentle ambient night.”

The first four Echo & the Bunnymen LPs (Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain) are available from today (Friday, October 22nd) on heavyweight black vinyl and limited-edition coloured vinyl, with further details via https://lnk.to/EchoandtheBunnymen_Vinyl.

Meanwhile, Mac, Will, and the current line-up will be playing a full UK and Irish tour in Spring 2022 to celebrate Echo & the Bunnymen’s 40-year careers. For ticket details head here. And for all the latest on the Bunnymen, head to their website or keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Celebrating BOB’s Berlin Independence Days 21/10/91

“Sink back into time, I’ve been hypnotised; and meanwhile my time’s not my own.”

Thirty years ago today, one of the bands that provided a key component of the soundtrack of my 20s stepped on stage at Berlin’s Quartier Latin as part of a cross-city live event celebrating the first anniversary of Germany’s reunification, for a show also starring LA alternative rock outfit Hole and cult London post-punk group The Monochrome Set.

Three decades later, BOB’s set – broadcast live on national radio in Germany that day, 21/10/91 – is commemorated by Berlin Independence Days, which was due to be out in June as a limited-edition 10-track vinyl-only LP before a backlog in vinyl manufacture saw the release date put back, the delay leading to a decision to reward those who pre-ordered with a subscriber-only exclusive CD version.

As co-frontman Richard Blackborow put it earlier this year, “We’re proud of this record. We were on great form and, luckily, we were professionally recorded on the night by clever German recording technicians who broadcast the show live on Berlin radio. No one has heard it since, and we were lucky enough to escape with the multi-track tape of the show. Simon (Armstrong) and I mixed it during lockdown last year and we’re chuffed to bits with the results.”

I spoke to BOB drummer Dean Leggett, who first appeared on these pages in late 2019, to ask for his memories of that Berlin show.

“We played in London, either the night before or the previous one. There’s bit of a disagreement, but we were at The Underworld in Camden, which received a fairly good review in the NME, and we played the same set in Berlin. I think ‘Nothing for Something’ was about to come out as a single.

“As I recall, we packed up the gear after the gig in Camden but couldn’t leave till late as there was a club at the venue and you had to load out through the back doors. You couldn’t load out while there was dancing. We were really knackered, but still had to load the van, drive to Dover, smoke all the weed we’d got before we got there, then get on the ferry and drive all the next day.

“We got to Berlin in the afternoon. I think we checked into the hotel, had a kip, then pretty much went straight there. That’s my recollection, but Simon thinks we left the following day. Either way, we more or less went straight there.”  

The North London based indie outfit’s visit came just four months after the Bundestag switched from Bonn to Berlin, honouring an earlier stipulation of the Unification Treaty to make this born-again city the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany.

“We’d already played in Berlin, on the East side, a castle on an island, and played a small club on the West side around six months earlier to about 60 people. We went through Checkpoint Charlie, even though the Wall had come down, either 1990 or earlier in 1991. The (previous) gig in East Berlin was absolutely packed, sold out, around 200 in. But this one was more a showcase.”

Dean met Courtney Love, playing with Hole, at an after-show party that night. In fact, he reckons he met Kurt Cobain too, although it seems the Nirvana frontman and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl were playing in Austin, Texas that day, on their Nevermind tour.

“Our agent, Rob, came with us. He had loads of bands, including Babes in Toyland, but was trying to get Hole as well. We were staying in the same hotel and had a party with them upstairs in their room, where Courtney was. She was snogging some guy with blond hair. I recall her being quite bossy. There were around 30 or 40 in this smoky room, and she was making him take boxes of beer around to give out. Henry (Hersom), our bass player, was with me. Simon was watching The Monochrome Set and Richard was struggling with a cold and didn’t come out. Me and Henry always said it was Kurt. We didn’t have a camera though.”

While I missed Nirvana, I did see BOB three months earlier at Reading’s After Dark Club – my seventh sighting since April ’88 – but that late night set is a little sketchy in my mind now, and as it turned out, I had to wait 28 years for my next live fix, at Leeds’ Wharf Chambers in late 2019. But this Berlin performance helps fill in a few gaps.   

“The reason we did the gig was to try and get a European agent, and we were looking for funding for the next album, which would have been You Can Stop That for a Start. When we came back, we started writing, then went on another tour of Europe, playing nearly all the songs on that record, to learn them. We’ve footage of us playing those songs in Germany, which we hope to put out at some point. When we recorded them, we did it all in five days in Harlow then in Bristol for a few days.”

The story of that and the subsequent 28-year wait for the LP to be released is told in my interview last year with Richard Blackborow. And, as I said to Dean, it seems a trademark BOB move that this live album – also including ‘Round’, which finally appeared on that delayed second long player – features a song called ‘You Can Stop That for a Start’, which – as it turned out – didn’t even make it on to the record of the same name.

“Yeah, exactly! Ha!”

It’s not the only song that missed out, this fan loving ‘Another Crow’ too, originally dubbed ‘Tour Song’, as included on 2014’s deluxe version of Leave the Straight Life Behind in pared-back but spot on demo form. But I certainly can’t argue with the final track listing on You Can Stop That for a Start, and the live record is also a winner.

“We had a very basic soundcheck, about three in the afternoon. There were other things happening around the city, all being recorded for German radio, and we had to be there at half four to go on at five or half five on the dot. We weren’t allowed to drink or swear or take too long talking between songs. Everything was mic’d up, it would go straight to a sound deck, mixed by our engineer, Chris, with a cable going out the back of the building to a van with a huge dish on top, fired to the radio tower on the front of the record sleeve (Berliner Fernsehturm, aka Berlin TV Tower).

“We were all on form, and played really well, so Richard said to Chris, ‘I want you to go out there and get the tape, and I don’t want you to come back until you’ve got it’. Ha! Two hours later, he came back with the reel-to-reel tape. The radio guy said, ‘You can have these, but we want them back’. I don’t know how he persuaded him. Then, 29 years later, Richard gets the tape, bakes it in an oven – as you have to – put it in his computer and up pop the tracks, tweaked a bit where necessary, and when I sent it to Ian (Allcock) at Optic Nerve, who initially wasn’t sure about putting out a live album, he listened and said, ‘Let’s put it out – it’s great!’ The quality’s that good.”

The band come on to Miles Davis’ ‘Milestones’, in a recording mixed from the original ½” digital multitrack tape in 2020. And from incendiary opener ‘Skylark III’ through to fellow Leave the Straight Life Behind prime cut Skylark II, it’s something of a time capsule treat, like the two records that preceded it.

We also get ‘Tired’, apt in the circumstances according to Dean’s back-story, released as a single the previous year, before a return to the prior album for ’95 Tears’, BOB stepping up through the gears again, the set continuing with the first two numbers from early 1990’s Stride Up EP, kicking off our shoes for the splendid ‘Flagpole’ (I’d love to have heard Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood cover this gem, not as bizarre a suggestion as you might think when you know the story behind it) and of its time Madchester/Screamadelic-tinged Bible Belt America mash-up, ‘My Blood is Drink’.

The title track of the LP that didn’t come our way for a near-eternity (the one that didn’t make the final XIII, as it turned out) starts side two in style, before ‘Nothing for Something’, which seemed destined to be BOB’s final single until their welcome return and the release of ‘Queen of Sheba’ last year. And listening back now, this should well have taken the band on again, bringing in the wider audience they deserved, as ‘Convenience’ should have before.

As for ‘Round’, here was a Teenage Fanclub-esque (maybe even Status Quo-like) guitar romp that suggested the power of what was coming our way next. Given a year or so, perhaps it could have been a nailed-on set opener, but on this occasion it instead leads to the big finish, the band back in Leave the Straight Life Behind territory, the Smiths-like collage of ‘Take Take Take’ – and the irony was just how long that stop was before they started again – followed by inevitable show-stopping finale ‘Skylark II’, in typically more live than live form.

Seconds and years, icebergs and tears; this time I’m not on my own.”

And all in all, this Berlin Independence Days set provides a timely reminder – if we should ever need one – of the live might of BOB, showcasing what a great outfit they were on their day, something only now truly realised in some circles. But enough hyperbole. I’m clearly tired and emotional as I write this, so I’ll stop that for a start. As Richard himself put it, ‘I’ve had a lovely evening, please close the door behind you’.

For all the latest from BOB, check out the Optic Nerve Recordings website link at https://www.opticnerverecordings.com/collections/bob and keep in touch with the band via social media, following these Facebook and Twitter links, Richard’s BOB account on Instagram, and heading to the BOB/House of Teeth web link.

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The Vapors / Chris Pope & Mic Stoner – Boileroom, Guildford

I waited a long time for this. How long? Take your pick – 54 years since my arrival, give or take a fortnight; 41 years since New Clear Days; 39 years since the original split; three years since my last Vapors sighting; 22 months since my last hometown visit; 19 months since the first lockdown, that dreaded virus putting paid to live shows for an eternity. But it was worth it in the end. A homecoming for The Vapors, and me. And, to paraphrase Dave Fenton, this one just had to be the best.  

The word intimate does a lot of legwork, but on this occasion it’s about right. The Civic Hall’s long gone and replacement G Live wouldn’t have the same pull, yet as Steve Smith suggested, here’s a venue just a few streets from the launderette above which the band rehearsed and kicked into shape many of the songs on the LP we were celebrating. Yep, it was an emotional night.

The price of its beer aside, I love the Boileroom. But you’ve got to get it right. Head to the bar when it’s packed, and chances are you won’t get that top spot back again. If you do though – even if the closeness of fellow punters after the last two years may give you palpitations – it’s a winner. Even then, there were times I couldn’t see Michael Bowes do his thing. But I bet he was smiling.

First up was Chris Pope and Mic Stoner, representing The Chords UK, 2021’s take on the cult late ‘70s/ early ‘80s outfit of whom Paul Weller’s professed admiration led to a Mod band label. But this was no Who copyist collective, having better tunes than many of the contemporaries lumped into that genre.

On this occasion, while just a two-piece they carried the on-stage energy of a far bigger unit, a description also befitting bass player Mic. And I say that respectfully. When he joked at one stage they were going down so well that they might just carry on for a couple more hours, I wasn’t going to argue. There were new-ish songs, including latest single ‘Hey Kids! Come the Revolution’ but also plenty of old school Chords classics, including ‘Maybe Tomorrow’, my highlight ‘Now It’s Gone’, and ‘The British Way of Life’. Probably So Far Away‘s title track and‘Something’s Missing’ too, but I’d played that LP recently, and often struggle to recall what’s in a set if I don’t write notes. Must be my age.

I had hoped to catch original Chords drummer Buddy Ascott and later arrival Kip Herring (I say later, but it was still four decades ago) elsewhere on this tour with The 79’ers, alongside Simon Stebbing (Purple Hearts) and Ian Jones (Long Tall Shorty). Reviews have been great, but it looks like I’ll have to wait until next time, some 42 years after the original band cringed across town at the Civic as soon-to-be ex-manager Jimmy Pursey led an ill-conceived stage invasion after a turned down request to jam with headliners The Undertones alongside fellow ‘Sham Pistols’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones the night both bands came to my hometown. All happens in Guildford, y’know.

Tonight’s headliners were also seen in some quarters as Mod revivalists early on, similar initial interest from The Jam a factor. To me though, both were more on the new wave fringes of punk, if we have to hand out labels. Whatever the tag, on this occasion Chris and Mic (also serving the Hot Rods these days) worked hard to win the assembled over, and succeeded. And there’s certainly no doubting their passion. A real sound from the street.

So it came to pass that The Vapors, 2021 style, wandered down from the dressing room at this Stoke Fields venue – The Elm Tree in my Guildford days – and on to the cramped stage (I’ve got tickets for Stone Foundation there next month, and I’m struggling to see how that octet will fit on there without a shoehorn and axle grease), warming up with debut 45 ‘Prisoners’ and Together’s title track then ‘King L’ before launching into side one of their wondrous first LP in this belated 40th anniversary tour show. And while I’d already caught the band a couple of times since their re-emergence, this was the best yet. Partly because it was a hometown gig and because of all we’ve been through (it fell 23 months after my last Guildford live shows, seeing The Selecter at G Live and The Wedding Present at the Boileroom in one brief return), and partly as it brought a rare chance to catch up with family and friends – my sister Jackie seeing them, while stalwart Al had his first sighting in 40 years – including members of an online faithful I’d not previously met. But also it was because of the way the band gelled on the night.

As mentioned here before, I was too young (sort of) to see the band first time, but loved the records, so 2016 at Liverpool Arts Club was something I never dared to dream happening. Then came Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in July 2018, both featuring the classic line-up’s Dave, Steve and Ed Bazalgette, plus ever-entertaining Michael on drums. But this topped those. I never got to see Howard Smith play, but it was great seeing Ed a couple of times back in situ. Yet this time, a four-piece involving Dave’s son Dan Fenton deputising on lead guitar pulled out all the stops. And while it never pays to over-analyse, evergreen Michael and Dan totally bring out the irrepressible youth in Steve and Dave.

From the moment they launched into ‘Spring Collection’ then ‘Turning Japanese’, I was sold, the latter inspiring a mad post-song verdict from an over-emotional fan down the front. He’s probably still telling people how ‘fucking brilliant’ it was a few days on. ‘Cold War’ and ‘America’ trod a similar path before the first of my major highlights, another Guildford-inspired song, ‘Trains’, as fresh today as ever, and ‘Bunkers’, as covered live by His Wooden Fish, the band I laughingly managed, their lead singer among the returning faithful tonight, up from the New Forest.

Before they metaphorically turned the vinyl over, we got soon-to-be released single, ‘One of My Dreams’, charged with emotion given that it was five years to the day of the official return at Dingwalls, Camden, a song held back from Together suggesting there’s still plenty in the tank all these years on. Again, I’ve said it before, this is no band content with past or near glory, but all about creating great music and re-interpreting what came before without losing the original spirit. And as Dave puts it on ‘Somehow’, I’d be obliged if they ‘don’t leave me now’.

Two tracks followed from 1981’s Magnets, another LP surely set for full play treatment soon – again a delayed 41 years on – ‘Jimmie Jones’ never sounding better to these ears and ‘Daylight Titans’ also delivered with plenty of verve. And then we got side two, Dan pointing at his old man during the timeless ‘News at Ten’, before further high-points (they all were) ‘Somehow’ (with plenty of audience participation), ‘Sixty Second Interval’, ‘Waiting for the Weekend’ (which never got the chart run it deserved, even if the album version was better), and always poignant LP finale ‘Letter from Hiro’.

There were times when the guitar got a bit lost, but there’s no doubting Dan’s abilities in Ed’s absence and I know every note anyway, so kind of heard what I missed in my head. What’s more, he does less heavy metal posturing these days, maturing into his role, and looked every bit an integral part of the band, at times seeming to be what Dave needed to get through, thus allowing Steve to do his own thing, in a left-handed legendary style.

The spot-on three-part harmonies also deserve a mention, and of course ‘Microwave’ Michael’s input, our sticksman spending a good part of the proceedings on his feet. I guess his view was obscured too. And that grin and the ability of his playing never fails to cheer even the miserable punters. Long may that continue.

There was still time for Together’s ‘In Babylon’, again proving the strength in depth and future promise, before curtain-closer ‘Here Comes the Judge’. On my last sighting in Manchester, travelling mate Steve C warned that we had to leg it somewhat to catch the last train from Piccadilly. It’s alright, this is definitely the last song, I assured him. But anyone who’s ever turned over ‘Turning Japanese’ or seen the band live knows I was tempting fate, the traditional finale never over-long yet certainly stretching the limits of endurance for those keen to avoid missing public transport down the years. But tonight, I was driving and in control of the situation, savouring every moment.

The next day it took six and a half hours to get home from Surrey, crawling through the West Midlands and Cheshire to Lancashire, but it was all worth it. Because I was there. And this one was different from the rest.

With thanks to Dan at Redd45Photos for use of the photographs copied here. For more of his splendid photographic images, head here.

The Chords play a full band set at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London, on Saturday 19th February 2022, a launch for their album, Big City Dreams. To find out more, check out this website link.

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Liam Ó Maonlaí, Jacquelyn Hynes and Clive Mellor / Hungry Bentley – Penwortham, The Venue

A night out with Liam Ó Maonlaí is a spiritual affair, and the intimate surroundings of this Lancashire arts centre proved perfect for our Dublin visitor, a sell-out crowd clearly there for a full-on music experience rather than casual chats with friends at the bar during the sets.

It’s not always the case that a performer, no matter how beguiling – and Liam certainly fits that description – can bring it right down at times and hear himself breathe and his keyboard hum, but this appreciative audience was happy to keep it buttoned until invited to join in, as befitting a live show in a former library.

An uplifting evening got off to a mellow start as local lad John Clayton, aka Hungry Bentley, shared all but one song from new platter, Exposition, his Nigel Stonier-produced long player reduced to sole voice and guitar, and going down a treat.

Openers ‘Don’t Frighten the Horses’ and ‘Loose Arrangement’ carried shades of Damon Gough, yet John’s not badly drawn on this evidence, and if next choice ‘Elodie’ was an exercise in writing a song about a girl and finding The Beautiful South have stolen many available names, he somehow got by, with hints of Lightning Seeds in places.

‘Alabama Chrome’ was a pared-back highlight, a pleasing chord sequence afforded Robert Forster-like quirk, and ‘Play Them as They Lay’ also impressed, John in namesake Lennon territory with a splash of Dylan thrown in.

While ‘Time is a Number’ also echoed Ian Broudie-esque melodic flair, closing number ‘Car in the Rain’ was more a pensive, precipitous nod to Justin Currie’s town where nothing ever happens, in what proved an apt precursor to the main guest’s opener.

It was the wet ride from Manchester that inspired Liam to treat us to ‘An Emotional Time’ on arrival, a brave decision given that the Songs from the Rain title track of sorts includes some taxing notes for a tonsil-warmer, the red wine yet to work its magic.

Soon the voice was soothed though, and so were we, next number ‘Sweet Marie’ transporting us to Home, Hothouse Flowers’ 1990 style, before the first of two borrowed love songs, Liam breezing from ’68 to ’78 through Bacharach and David’s ‘This Guy’s In Love with You’ (‘Probably gonna kill it,’ he warned, but it was never in doubt he’d deliver) to ‘a bit more vulnerable’ fellow classic, Dylan’s ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’ never more gorgeous, perfect for those wondrous vocals.

The day after Paddy Moloney’s passing, Liam talked of collective mourning at his loss, paying tribute to The Chieftains’ co-founder and ever-present as he was joined by special guest Jacquelyn Hynes for a fitting penny whistle (Liam) and flute (Jacquelyn) tribute, ‘Limerick’s Lamentation’.

From there we were back to 1993 and the Flowers’ third LP, the subtle power of ‘Your Nature’ providing an opening set finale that left hairs up on the back of necks before a call to replenish our glasses ahead of part two.

(As it turns out, 1993 was also the year – Jacquelyn later told me – ‘Limerick’s Lamentation’ featured on The Celtic Harp – A Tribute to Edward Bunting, The Chieftains (who previously featured the number on their 1977 Live! Album, although the first sound recording was by Sean O’Riada and Ceoltoiri Cualainn in the early ‘60s, including many Chieftains’ founding members, Paddy Moloney among them) joined by the Belfast Harp Orchestra (‘led by Janet Harbison, a great harpist’). But she added, “I learned it from Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill’s 1997 album, The Lonesome Touch”.)

If ever there was confirmation that neither the Flowers nor their frontman believe in the constraint of set-lists, here it was, a woman in the front row asking on Liam’s return the tale behind 2016 LP Let’s Do This Thing’s opener, ‘Three Sisters’, the main man happy to oblige, filling us in on a family story or two before playing the song, following that with another anecdote about one of those sisters and Liam and a brother, before taking us into – not related, I might add – a traditional number about ‘two brothers, and one of ‘em’s been poisoned’, ‘Amhrán na hEascainne’, or ‘The Song of the Eel’.

(Again, Jacquelyn filled me in later, telling me it was ‘recorded by Joe Heaney, a famous Sean nos singer from Connemara who recorded it in 1964 for On the Road to Connemara. The English version is ‘Lord Randall’, and there’s a version on Martin Carthy’s Anthems in Eden”.)

Liam described ‘Amhrán na hEascainne’ as a song of ‘collective pain’ and the blues in different form, and on this occasion it gave rise to a mighty bluesy romp, the Allman Brothers’ ‘Stormy Monday’ seeing a scene-stealing appearance from harmonica artisan Clive Mellor, miraculously appearing from the bar in another evening high, two years and four days after I last saw him work his magic on stage with Richard Hawley at Liverpool’s Mountford Hall. What that man can wring out of the humble mouth organ defies belief. He has true soul, and as he retreated back to his drink, a fella in front of me speculated out loud the chances of that unfolding in Penwortham on a Tuesday night. He had a point, but as Liam put it, there’s always that chance, underlining that by heading into ‘The Song of Possibilities’. At least I think so. I can’t seem to find mention of that out there. Someone’ll put me right, I’m sure.

I kind of lost my thread, notebook-wise, as we headed towards the finishing line, but Jacquelyn led the pair of them far away on her own composition, ‘Lost in Marrakesh’, on a night when we also got a snatch of Ian Dury’s ‘Clevor Trever’ from Liam, joking about his jealousy at actor brother Colm getting to meet the chief Blockhead on a film set back in the day.

And all along the way there was that amazing stage presence from the man at the electric piano, the slightest of facial expressions from our distinguished, hirsute visitor enough to raise a smile or garner attention, a cocked head to the cameraman and mere swish of that mane ensuring we ate from his hand. But time was soon against us, the volunteer staff looking anxiously at watches, a curfew almost upon us. Liam saw that and acknowledged he may need to finish on a hit, offering a sublime choice of ‘Don’t Go’, ‘Hallelujah Jordan’ or ‘This Is It’. A three-way split on that became four as a fella at the back with a Northern Irish accent chose ‘I Can See Clearly Now’. And so it came to pass that our visitor gave us something of a medley, a fresh take on the first Flowers’ hit including occasional tilts into Johnny Nash territory before ‘Hallelujah Jordan’ and a further visit to Nash-ville.

We sang along, then there were calls for more, but Liam drained his glass and pointed out the ‘anxious beautiful women behind the bar’ waiting to lock up. I was soon away, but not before a handshake with our esteemed visitor, 30 years after my last sighting in Sydney with the band who made his name. And how had I not realised he was barefoot before? To be fair, I’m not even sure he was touching the ground earlier. In fact, we were all floating at times on the power of song. Come again soon, Liam. And bring your friends back too.

For the recent WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Liam Ó Maonlaí and further links, head here. With thanks to Michael Porter for the photographs. You’ll find more examples of his work here. Thanks also to Jacquelyn Hynes for the extra information. Jacquelyn’s website is here. The same goes to John Clayton, aka Hungry Bentley, for his labours on the night. For more about Hungry Bentley and new LP, Exposition, head here.

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