Here of their own free will – talking to Graham Firth about The True Deceivers

Studio Tan: The True Deceivers chill out between the tracks at Fairport Convention’s Woodworm Studios in Oxfordshire. From the left – Nick Bliss, Jamie Legg, Rupert Lewis, Dee Coley, Graham Firth (Photo: Rob Blackham)

I feel I need a disclaimer when writing about a few bands I love, not least when I’ve known them so long. And in the case of two members of folk roots stalwarts The True Deceivers, I even had a hand in (mis)managing one of their previous outfits.

I’m talking in this instance about today’s interviewee, Graham Firth (vocals, acoustic guitar) and bandmate Dee Coley (bass guitar), two-thirds of His Wooden Fish in the late ‘80s, a group I traversed the South-East pub circuit with, gate-crashing early rehearsals and even guesting with – my sole live band performance – in Harry’s Bar, Albufeira during a memorable Algarve tour in 1988, harmonising on The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’.

Over the years, several incarnations of outfits followed for Graham (including Plenty) and Dee (Blazing Homesteads and Eat the Sofa), and while we’re many miles apart these days (me in Lancashire, Graham on the edge of the New Forest, Dee in Wiltshire), it never takes long to get back in the swing of the banter on rare occasions we meet again.

The day I caught up with Graham to talk about The True Deceivers’ third LP, My Own Highway, he was in a hotel in Swindon, a regular stopover while working away from home (he’s a finance director for a Banbury-based internet service provider, if you must know). And despite the Wiltshire railway town’s link to XTC, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the touring life he envisaged three decades ago.

“I’ve been using the same hotel for over two years, and I’ve been through the menu so many times. When you start, you’re like, ‘This is alright’. You go down the bar, have a few beers, but soon realise that, actually, drinking Monday and Tuesday nights in your hotel isn’t really the best future.’

Do all the band have full-time jobs these days?

“Nick hasn’t. He’s full-time retired. That’s how he managed to write all the songs on the last album. He’s got more time on his hands … ha ha!”

Alt Country: Graham Firth (vocals/guitar) takes it easy between takes at Woodworm Studios. (Photo: Rob Blackham)

That’s Nick Bliss (electric/acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, vocals), who penned the nine band originals on My Own Highway. All quality contributions too. In fact, I suggest to Graham that Nick’s writing has got stronger down the years.

“I think so, and there’s maybe more variety this time than with some of the previous stuff. I also think me and Nick were more fussy this time. What tends to happen is that he’ll bring an idea to me, we’ll bat it around as a duo, knock off the rough edges then record it and send it to the rest of the band, take it from there. Some of them didn’t make it past the duo stage this time, while others took a bit more work. One song, ‘Drinking to Forget’, was completely different. We just couldn’t get it to work, but knew there was something in it. Nick took it away and pretty much completely rewrote it.”

That’s the track that finishes the album, the only one on which Nick provides lead vocals. And it’s a great choice to end on. So what’s his background? He was with Dee in the Blazing Homesteads, wasn’t he?

“Yeah, him and Mark (Mitchell) started that band, I think around the early ‘90s, with Chrissie (Franey) on vocals, Charlie May on drums, and Marcus Drewelus (guitar). Dee joined after Eat the Sofa split up, the bones of that band joining me in Plenty when Allan Broad went abroad.”

Ah, yes, Allan Broad. Abroad being apt given his name. Another quality songwriter, based in the Netherlands and on the list of potential WriteWyattUK interviewees longer than I’d care to imagine. It will happen though. Honest. Meanwhile, True Deceivers’ Jamie Legg (drums, percussion) was also part of the Broad-fronted (so to speak) Eat the Sofa, briefly featured with Plenty, and also rightly-feted indie rockers Mega City 4.

Anyway, sorry Graham. Where were you?

“I did a few solo support slots for the Blazing Homesteads, and when they split, we got together, with Dee joining us later.”

It’s fair to say The True Deceivers have been around the scene quite some time now. All in their 50s, Graham proudly told me he’s the youngest, adding, “I get them moaning a bit these days if I try and book too many gigs or make the sets too long. I’m notorious for bolting a few on the end. Recently we did two in one day, and they were moaning. They just need to get fitter!”

True Spirit: The inspirational Mark Mitchell (1957-2009) in live action with The True Deceivers at Weyfest in 2007

As good a place as any to tell those who don’t know so much about the band and their roots more about afore-mentioned co-founder Mark Mitchell. As with the last LP, there’s a dedication to Mark on My Own Highway, the multi-instrumentalist having died more than a decade ago, but still seen as a key component of the band. His spirit is certainly writ large all over this album, as it was on the first two.

A larger than life character in many ways, Mark died suddenly at the age of 51 on March 19th, 2009, his fiddle seen as the signature sound to The True Deceivers and predecessors the Blazing Homesteads. Based in Woodham, a Surrey village not far from Woking, he spent a lot of time in Ireland too, a loving husband and father of two having learned classical violin at an early age but giving that up to play guitar in various ska and punk bands in the early ‘80s.

It was with the Homesteads that he got to experience Cambridge Folk Festival and Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, his distinctive playing soon in demand, guest appearances including those on Bap Kennedy’s Hillbilly Shakespeare album.

Between engagements he spent a long time working on a second home in Ireland, described by Graham in his tribute at the time of Mark’s death as ‘a seemingly endless project that was going to be completed one day’. And between DIY sessions there were stints with the fiddle down the local pub, including many after-hours jams. As Graham put it, ‘A naturally talented musician with a fabulous ear for melody, Mark could pick up a tune within seconds and always added his own unique touch to lift it to another level’.

Now I’ve added that, it’s confession time. I set up this interview with Graham an age ago, but what with my current hand-to-mouth existence as a freelance writer – struggling to keep a roof over my head, chasing deadlines one by one and barely finding time to reflect on where I’m headed next – it’s taken me a shameful six months to get this review-come-feature-interview together.

When we were originally chatting – and it was a chat, two old mates catching up and talking music, just as they did the first time they met 32 years ago, when I was barely 20, Graham a year older – we were talking about remaining 2019 festivals and the best time to get this feature out there. I decided to aim for the run-up to their most recent appearance at Weyfest, in mid-August. But I seem to have missed that by six months.

As a result, I’ll instead plug a Leap Day engagement in our old hometown, the band playing The Star in Guildford, where The Stranglers played their debut gig in 1974 (there’s a plaque outside these days) and where His Wooden Fish played a sold-out 99-ticket charity gig in April ’88, raising the princely sum of £135, my diary tells me. Details of the latest date follow at the end, so stick with us, please. But first, Graham and I will talk us through My Own Highway, for which a digital release is now imminent, while physical copies can still be snapped up from the band during live engagements and from the shop on their website.

Just for one moment, can we drop the attitude? Everybody deserves a bit of latitude.’

Opening number ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know’ is my personal highpoint of the album, and kicks off with a great straight to the nub of the matter line, ’When I want your opinion, I’ll be sure to ask; your pearls of wisdom seem to come thick and fast.’ Nick’s lyrics throughout impress, as does the vocal blend between you. But there’s something else – Rupert Lewis’ fiddle is no add-on. It’s pretty much as important as the rhythm section, and takes me back to The Waterboys’ Spiddal era. What’s more, the song clocks in at bang on three minutes, pretty much perfect for single material. Our top-40 dreams may be behind us, but If those glorious 7” disc opportunities still existed …

“I’m not sure they do really – but I guess there is and there isn’t. There’s so much stuff out there that people only listen to one track instead of a whole album, but then you have people releasing an album and the first five tracks from it become the top-five singles on the chart. Which is nonsense.

Do Nick’s songs come to you pretty much complete?

“It varies. Sometimes it’ll be pretty much fully formed in as much as. There were times on the last album where I’d play along and change the melody a bit in the way I was singing it, because we’ve got different singing styles, and generally speaking he’s happy just to go with how I want to sing it. But this time there were a couple where he wanted me to phrase something a particular way. But all the guys will have an influence. We won’t have anything particular in mind for fiddle, bass and drum parts, although Nick’s probably got a time signature in mind.”

Again, you can hear that. Yes, all the new songs here end with Bliss in brackets, but you can tell there’s a band dynamic at play too. The same goes with your distinctive vocal blend.

“Yeah, he’s always been easy to sing with. He harmonises with me pretty well. And it’s always worked, even though I’m rubbish if it’s the other way around!”

Rupert’s fiddle is certainly integral to the sound, as was the case with that provided by the band’s co-founder, Mark.

“Well, Rupert did play fiddle on the last album too, although he wasn’t playing live with us very much then. He was filling in for Spud (Edwards) when he couldn’t make gigs. He was familiar with the songs but came into the studio when Spud couldn’t make it. We didn’t have a fiddle player for the first couple of years after Mark died, but Spud was with us for a good five or so years live.  But Rupert would dep. for him as Spud was in the Royal Marines’ band and got posted further down the West Country. He was also playing a lot with them, providing clarinet at venues like the Millennium Stadium and the Royal Albert Hall. But sometimes that clashed and took precedence over gigs with us, and he was unavailable to record last time. So Rupert turned up and pretty much wrote and played all the fiddle parts on the last album in a day. And this time he’s had much more of a chance to put his own stamp on the record. Without a doubt we worked a lot harder to integrate the fiddle on this album, and although there is a lot, we cut a lot of it out too!”

Strings Attached: Fiddle player Rupert Lewis is integral to the sound on My Own Highway (Photo: Rob Blackham)

Well, I reckon you’ve got it about right. At no stage do I find it superfluous.

“He wrote some great stuff, and on ‘Drinking to Forget’ he wrote three or four fiddle parts, with a cello part underneath. Everything apart from the lead fiddle part was written there and then in the studio, and they all sync together really nicely.”

‘I will cross my Rubicon and I if I meet you further on, I’ll shake your hand.’

Moving on to the title track, ‘My Own Highway’, it’s more on the country fringes, a thin line exposed between UK and Americana – there are no borders, but it’s just the right side of rootsy.

“Yeah, I think we felt this had a more Americana meets Cajun feel than the last album, and that’s pretty deliberate. It’s not out-and-out country, but I think people into country would want to listen to it. There’s certainly no pedal steel in there, but it certainly has tinges of it in places.”

That said, I’m not sure if the sort of venues in mid-America featured in The Blues Brothers, chicken-wire mesh protecting the bands, where they play both kinds of music – country and western – would have you.

“Well, why not? We were talking recently about Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts and his 70th birthday, how we’d played a Welsh international motorbike show with Dumpy at the National Showground in Builth Wells. A less likely match-up I can’t quite imagine, going out in front of 500 hairy Welsh bikers, thinking they were going to kill us! But they were a great crowd and it works if you’re playing good music that’s lively … especially if they’ve had a few beers.”

Beat Master: Jamie Legg, on fine form on drums for The True Deceivers’ My Own Highway (Photo: Rob Blackham)

On each True Deceivers LP the band include a couple of covers, from Green Day and Steve Earle on the first record to The Jayhawks and the Gin Blossoms on the last. And this is no exception, starting with ‘Sweet Mental Revenge’, a nod to The Long Ryders covering Mel Tillis. Did Graham know the mid-‘70s original, or was it solely down to hearing it on Native Sons in 1984?

“It was always a nod to The Long Ryders, to be honest. I don’t think when I first heard it played by them that it was by anyone other than The Long Ryders. But we’ve been playing that quite a few years – almost since we began – and on every album we tend to throw a couple of covers in … either because I’m too lazy to write songs or because we like to put something reasonably obscure on there. And we didn’t listen to any other version until we recorded it – we had our way of playing it, and while it’s probably similar to The Long Ryders’ version, after recording it I did listen back and while it’s closer to that than Mel Tillis’ version, we do sound quite a bit different. It’s probably more fiddle-driven than the guitar-driven Long Ryders’ version.”

Incidentally, I did pick him up on that ‘reasonably obscure’ cover line, disputing that seeing as they tackled ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ on the first album. But in Graham’s defence, it was a little less well known then, and a far way from Green Day’s 1997 original (which took a decade to go anywhere near our charts).

“Yeah, it’s almost a Cajun song, the way we did it.”

That first album also features Steve Earle’s ‘Galway Girl’, which also ‘wasn’t particularly obscure’, he admitted, but they get away with that, as it sounds like they’re playing it for all the right reasons. It’s a proper party song.

“Oh completely, and it’s one Mark sang and one we really wanted him to have on that album, as he had such a great voice. It felt natural to put it on there.”

No doubt they were pretty glad it was included too, bearing in mind that we lost him within a couple of years.

“Yeah, and those two songs are definitely our biggest earners in America. Not that we get thousands of dollars for them each month, but in royalty terms those two always come top when I get the monthly statement through.

Mister Songwriter: Nick Bliss wrote nine tracks on The True Deceivers’ My Own Highway (Photo: Rob Blackham)

“For us, it’s always more of a celebration of songs we love, as is also the case with the Tom Petty cover on this album. We’ve been playing that a long time, it’s not such a well-known song of his but it’s one we always enjoy playing, and when he passed away it felt more natural time to bring it in and release it as part of the album.”

Accordingly, I’d best fast-forward to track nine to mention that Tom Petty cover, having written in my notes that their stonking take on 1978 Heartbreakers’ powerhouse ‘Listen to Her Heart’ is to these ears a mere Rickenbacker 12-string away from The Searchers’ classic, ‘When You Walk in the Room’.

“Ha ha! Well, that’s nice. I really like playing that song. It’s punchy and really straight-forward. What is it? Three chords, I think. And it’s a song you can really attack. It’s great to play live as well. You can really give it some bollocks, without damaging the way it sounds.”

‘Take a good long look and tell me that I’m going wrong.’

Back to side one, and track four, ‘That Ship Has Sailed’, impresses with its fiddle lines. What’s more, for me it has the charm of Jim Lea’s electric violin with Slade, not least on the mighty ‘Coz I Luv U’.

“I see what you mean. I’d never really thought about that. That’s probably the oldest song of ours on the album. We’ve been playing that a while now. And as soon as we first played it live it went down really well, immediately. It really needed the fiddle line to lift it, but … It’s also a very long song – it’s over five minutes. I can’t think of any other song we’ve done that long.”

‘If I plan to keep my hands on all the things that I hold dear, there’s gonna be changes round here’.

Stage Presence: The True Deceivers get down to some live action at Weyfest in 2018 (Photo: Dave Pullinger)

While making notes, when it came to ‘Changes Round Here’ I scribbled down Hootie and the Blowfish, their ‘90s take on indie springing to mind. Them and Counting Crows from that same era. I get no response from Graham to that, but he does chip in.

“That’s probably my favourite track on the album. And again, it’s a really nice one to sing.”

‘We could leave them all for dead, if I could only think ahead.’

‘If I Could Only’ is perhaps the simplest song here to the untrained ear, yet it’s spot-on. And this time Nick switches to banjo to keep pace with Rupert’s fiddle.

“Yeah, it’s funny but sometimes the simplest ones prove the hardest to get down, partly in this case because Nick really wanted to play banjo, and we don’t often use that – we never use it live other than at this album launch. So yeah, it’s a simple song, but trying to get the right arrangement and right timing for it took quite a bit of work. You go into a studio thinking one’s gonna be easy and another’s gonna be hard, but sometimes you just knock out the latter. Not this one though!”

It’s a sweet lament, bringing to mind Steve Earle at his most poppy, and even carrying traces of Lindisfarne and McGuinness Flint.

“Yeah, again it’s a nice melody and very straight-forward – it doesn’t mess around with a middle-eight. You can get a bit hung up on that. The amount of times we’ve struggled to do that! But we’ve got to a point now where we don’t think that formulaic anymore.”

Vocal Blend: Graham Firth plays to the audience at Weyfest in 2018 with The True Deceivers (Photo: Dave Pullinger)

I’d have it up there with the opening track as another album highlight. It’s also perfect soundtrack music, to a film where you take your first jaunt across America perhaps.

“That sounds good to me … if we can sell the idea to anyone. Ha!”

Seeing as I mentioned Lindisfarne, this is a good place to include another snippet of our conversation, regarding The True Deceivers being booked alongside the veteran crossover folk act at Kenney Jones’ Secret Widget Festival at Hurtwood Park last summer. A big moment for the Firth clan, it seems.

“That’s the one my Mum and Dad are most proud of, playing with Lindisfarne there. My folks are from the North East – they left in their 20s – so as far as they’re concerned Lindisfarne are gods. I said, ‘I don’t think it’s all the original band,’ but my Mum said, “That doesn’t matter – we know you’ve made it now, if you’re playing with Lindisfarne!’

‘Everything’s as permanent as footprints in the sand.’

On ‘Somewhere Safe to Land’, I get the impression we have Nick’s most political moment on the LP – a song of hope among the shift towards the rise of the populist movement and frightening lurch to the right in these days of disinformation and open hatred.

“Well, I didn’t write the lyrics, and Nick’s notoriously cagey about what his songs mean! I think that’s fair comment though. It’s a mixture between an angry song and a hopeful song. Actually, angry’s maybe the wrong word. There’s a quite a bit of anger and angst on this album, not least on ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know’ and ‘Changes Round Here’. I don’t think we were quite sure that song was gonna quite work when we first started with it. For me, that’s also got a bit of a feel of a Steve Earle song, in its delivery as much as anything else. In some ways we weren’t sure if it would go on the album, but yeah, it’s got something to say.”

Mandolin Wind: Nick Bliss switches instruments at Weyfest with The True Deceivers in 2018 (Photo: Dave Pullinger)

I think it definitely has its place there, not least as it follows that ‘My Own Highway’ theme. Meanwhile, Nick’s harmonica adds Irish folk traces.

“Yeah, we started with a bit more fiddle on that, but while that starts it off, the harmonica takes over in the breaks, and Nick loves playing that live. It’s not easy to play that rhythm guitar and the harmonica at the same time!”

‘I have ideas above my station, they’re not so easy to attain. It’s more in hope than expectation, but it still works out the same’.

For me, ‘You’re My Reason’ is an out-and-out love song, and a tribute to belief and pulling together. It works on several levels, like all the best songs.

“Yeah, for me I’d say that’s pretty much a love song, in the same way as perhaps ‘Unsung Heroine’ on the first album. Yeah, that’s Nick at his soft best really, and a really nice song.”

And Dee’s trademark plodding bassline makes me think of The Waterboys again, this time on ‘A Bang on the Ear’, which I love.

“He’s great, but he’s still lying back on that bassline and it’s never forcing anything ahead. He’s an easy guy to play with.”

No Hiding: Dee Coley takes time out from his bass guitar duties during the recording process (Photo: Rob Blackham)

‘I’ve reached the point of no return, no more bridges left to burn.’

Dee’s also possibly the nicest bloke in music, but let’s not give him too much credit, and move on to ‘Bloody But Unbowed’, a perfect showstopper, the band cranking it all up for one last push, the guitars finally coming through in the mix, letting loose. I reckon you should end your sets with this from now on.

“Well, it is very late in the set. We do still tend to finish with a track from the last album, but it’s gone down well, and the funny thing is that we used to play that song a lot more gently. But then we were thinking about the lyrics, and it’s a song when I sing it live that I really have to get in character for – it’s about spitting the words out and it’s a case of, ‘It doesn’t really matter what you’ve done to me – I’m still here!’

“Nick was just messing about with heavy guitar on it and we thought it really worked, although it’s not the sound we’d normally go for. Originally, all the breaks had fiddle running through them, but because we added the heavy guitar, Nick started playing along with lead guitar lines, and we ended up sticking with that, which sort of book-ended with the fiddle. It goes down well live, and again it’s a song we’ve had a while.”

You all seem to raise your game here, with Jamie on fine form at the back, dependable as ever. Again, we see the melding of various styles, and – this will make you laugh – I wrote, ‘sort of Charlie Daniels meets The Levellers’.

“Ah, that’s fair enough! And you’re right about the drums. They’re spot-on for that song, with some really good fills. Jamie really went for it. A lot of the drums and Dee’s bass on this album were pretty much live. We wanted to get a less manufactured feel. You can get a bit tied on up on redoing all the drums and basslines. We pretty much recorded all that live and then – if anything – overdubbed on the vocals, guitar and fiddle. It was more about that being played live than Jamie sat in a room with a guide track, and that worked better for us, I think.”

True, and there’s a similar feel to what you achieved with one of your covers on the previous album, ‘Tailspin’.

‘Well, I don’t know how I got here, but I got here just the same.’

Lining Up: The True Deceivers nervously await the online verdict from WriteWyattUK (Photo: Rob Blackham)

And if ‘Bloody but Unbowed’ is a track to finish your main set on from now on, I guess closing number, ‘Drinking to Forget’ is first encore territory.

“Yeah, although we haven’t played that live much yet, to be honest. It’s difficult to know where you’d fit it into a set. And because we’re pretty much playing all festivals at the moment, when you’ve got 40 to 60 minutes you tend to go for something a bit more upbeat. But I’m sure when we get back into venues indoors in the autumn, it’ll come into its own in the set, I imagine.”

Ooh, that quote dates this interview, doesn’t it? Anyway, ‘Drinking to Forget’ for me is maybe George Jones done more reflective, more delicately delivered. Nick’s out front this time too, and rightly so. And as the man himself says, ‘If you hear self-pity, well it doesn’t come from me; I suppose I should be on my way, if I could only find my key’.

“Well, do you know – the one regret for me about that song is that I’m not singing it! That’s not to say Nick’s not singing it well – because he does – but it’s got such a nice melody that I’ve picked up the guitar at home and sung it. But we always wanted to get Nick singing one of the songs and we weren’t sure if it was going to be that or another. I’d loved to have sung that though! I’m not saying I’d have done it any more justice, it’s just that it’s a really nice song to sing.”

To be honest, with the emotions laid bare like that, I feel it’s important that it is him singing. His slightly less assured vocal approach makes it all the more raw.

“I think from the album point of view, definitely. It certainly wasn’t a difficult decision where to put it on the album either. It just felt like the end of the album.”

Reckon you’re right, although I stand by what I say about ‘Bloody but Unbowed’ providing the proper climax.

“Yeah, it almost felt like we should have that, then have a big gap, so it’s almost like a secret track.”

First Footing: The True Deceivers’ 2007 debut album, Lies We Have Told, including Mark Mitchell on fiddle

I agree. Bands like The Thrills did that to perfection not so long ago.

“But then we thought that might be a bit corny, and besides, secret tracks don’t really work these days, do they!”

True enough. And all in all, I’d say this is your most accomplished album to date. Your 2007 debut appeared to be more of a live recording, and there’s a maturity in your voice now that maybe you didn’t have then, or that the recording process you used couldn’t quite capture 12 years ago.

“Possibly, although in some ways we’ve probably gone for a more untouched vocal than in the past. We’ve never been a band for lots of reverb and all that, but with this record we were even more straight with it. I liked the first recording (Lies We Have Told, from 2007) more than the second (Hell or High Water, 2012), which had good songs on it and I’m not unhappy with, but I think we got a bit too involved in the process. It was almost over-produced, and too slick.

Lies We Have Told was a lot rawer and that had a lot to do with the guy who engineered and helped produce it, Nev (Dean), who got very involved in the process. Mark especially got on very well with him. He had a lot of ideas and input, and I think that came through. The second was slicker all round, but maybe too much at times.”

I think he’s being a little harsh on Hell or High Water there, but who am I to criticise – my own review here pulled no punches either, suggesting areas where it would have benefitted from being a little more raw. But the songcraft certainly comes through, and there are many corkers on that long player. This time around though, it was Stuart Jones recording, mixing and co-producing, at Woodworm Studios in Oxfordshire. And it’s a definite all-round winner. So how did that work – was Stuart fairly involved?

“He was, and he was great, very good at telling you when something wasn’t good enough, which is really necessary. Sometimes you need someone independent to say, ‘That was alright, but do you want to do it again?’ He asked at the start how much involvement we wanted, and we told him we had a good idea of how we wanted it to sound, but if he had any thoughts and ideas that might improve it, we’re open to it. He let us get on with it, but if there were areas where we could improve things …”

And you did this LP in two chunks of recording?

“Yeah, with the previous two albums it involved lots of weekends, so lots of two-day chunks, and that can get quite tiring. You don’t get a good run at it, and we weren’t always there at the same time. But this time we went residential at Woodworm, and it’s a fantastic studio. It’s Fairport Convention’s old studio and has a lot of history. I think it was Dave Pegg’s, and they still rehearse and record there. The woman in the B&B across the road where I stayed one night with my wife, said that before Cropredy, Fairport will rehearse in there with the doors open, so the whole village can hear them.

“Richard Thompson and Jethro Tull have recorded there too, and we were there for two five-day blocks, so took time off work and had another three days to mix it. That makes for a much more relaxed way of doing it, giving you time to work on stuff in the evenings and mornings before you start recording. And it gave us a chance to hang out with each other and swap ideas rather than record then just piss off home.”

Second Sitting: True Deceivers' follow-up album Hell or High Water, from 2012

Second Sitting: True Deceivers’ follow-up album Hell or High Water, from 2012, recorded in Guildford

All in all, while Lies We Have Told was the sound of a band finding their feet – and it sounds just as good now – and the second LP had its merits too, this third recording has captured something that arguably wasn’t there before. By rights it should be the album that pulls in new admirers, who can then go back and discover all that came before. But that’s my opinion, and as I said at the outset, it could be argued that I’ve got a vested interest. So why not get along and catch the band live, judge for yourselves.

All reproduced lyrics are from the pen of Nick Bliss and the copyright of Five String Music 2019.

The True Deceivers’ My Own Highway is available from the band at live shows and from their website. You can also follow them via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

2020 Vision: The True Deceivers, out and about this year, next up on my old Guildford patch (Photo: Rob Blackham)

The True Deceivers play The Star in Guildford, Surrey, on Saturday, February 29th, with support from The Nefarious Picaroons. For more detail, follow this link. And many more 2020 dates and festival appearances will follow, so keep in touch with the band to find out the details.

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Saints preserve us – talking Cornershop’s England is a Garden with Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres

Cornershop are back with a new album, England is a Garden, three decades after they left Preston bound for world domination (starting in Leicester), and 22 years since Norman Cook’s remix of ‘Brimful of Asha’ led them to their sole UK No.1.

Not as if this London-based cult outfit has ever really been away. In fact, they’re regularly back to their old recording studio in Lancashire. In keeping with the ironic name of this treasured UK-Indian indie crossover collective, it’s open all hours, I guess, although I got the impression last time I sought out surviving co-founders Ben Ayres (guitar, tamboura) and Tjinder Singh (guitar, vocals) it’s more a two afternoons a week enterprise these days.

But judging by their latest long player, out on March 6th via Ample Play Records, their first album of new material since 2012’s Urban Turban, they remain every bit as vital as when they pressed the debut The Days of Ford Cortina EP on ‘curry-coloured vinyl’ in 1993.

England is a Garden certainly delivers the ‘full listening experience’ promised. A joy to behold, it’s trademark Cornershop, these ‘songs of experience, empire, protest and humour’ worth their weight in double digits, recorded in sessions at Sassy P in Stoke Newington, North London and on their old patch at West Orange, North Preston.

The first sign of its worth came via lead single ‘No Rock: Save In Roll’ – ‘that is to say that there is not one without the other, that rock, for all its focus on death is the saviour of life’, explained Tjinder – and its dynamic Rolling Stones-like tongue‘n’groove, magnified by tell-tale backing vocals from Valerie Etienne and somewhat reminiscent of past glories like 2002’s ‘Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III’ and 2009’s ‘Who Fingered Rock’n’Roll’.

That first 45 is seen as a celebration of Tjinder’s Black Country roots,  the area that gave birth to heavy metal and arguably introduced us to the concept of dirty rock, today’s interviewee giving ‘two thumbs up to the feeling of hearing heavy metal from the back of a stage, as we all ride on and await the female backing vocals of our song to come in’.

Then we got to hear spring-like pop powerhouse ‘St Marie Under Canon’, the ‘garden gate to the album’, a breezy number that seems closer aligned to the bubblegum pop with attitude that saw the band tinker with ‘Sugar Sugar’ and their own ‘Double Denim’ last time we spoke in Summer 2018. Another corker, it praises its titular saint for ‘all of our battles that she has overseen and adjudicated, ending with the modern-day warfare of the public address sound system: amplifier, echo chamber, microphone and speaker. Music through the sound system is the weapon (or should be).’

While I was hoping to pull Ben into the conversation this time, he was soul deep in band admin, so I tackled Tjinder again, conveying my love for what could well be Cornershop’s 10th album (that’s open for discussion though, seeing as one of those was a remodelling of an earlier album and another was recorded under the name Clinton – 1999’s Disco and the Halfway to Discontent). Did it take a long time to pull the new LP all together?

“Shit-loads of time. But we’re very pleased with it, really happy to get it out, particularly in the climate we’re putting it out in – a few years ago wouldn’t have been very good, but now it’s quite right for that kind of stuff. We gauge it on other people who were out the same time as us, and compared to a lot of things we hear, we’re very happy. Ha!”

I detect a little nostalgia within, but not in a ‘wasn’t life great back then!’ sense. In the music and themes covered – not least on lead single ‘No Rock: Save in Roll’ – you’ve nailed a neat balance between looking back while looking forward. Then again, maybe you always have.

“Well, y’know, we try not to look back. We try to go forward. We do like lots of different kinds of music, so it has to be pinned down in some way and people say we’re looking back, but we haven’t looked back … ever!”

Maybe it’s just wearing your influences from way back on those denim sleeves, and it’s all the more apparent on this album.

“Erm … I don’t think it is. I think it’s a very brave album that tries to do something different. With a second track like that … I can’t see other people doing stuff like that. The interludes for instance … and ending with a local school choir. I don’t think we look back. I think we look forward, but people don’t see it as forward because it’s possibly too far forward for them! I don’t think people will look back in the future and think, ‘Wow, you can see the influences on this’.”

That second track being ‘Slingshot’, with a gorgeous rolling bass riff (from James Milne) and the feel of a glorious jam, distorted vocals, flute (Jim Collins), Hammond organ (chief engineer Alan Gregson, multi-tasking, clearly) … almost as if we’re waiting for Van the man to come in and add his own vocal noodlings. Splendid. But let’s not get distracted. I guess what I’m trying to say is something about those Stones-like moments and glam-rock sparkle here and there, as was the case in your own past.

“Well, there is that, but while you could say Stones, other people will say Velvets, while others will say it just sounds like Cornershop. And we’re hardly the same people either. But I think it’s our problem as a group that we’re not allowed to move on. It’s always like, ‘Where is this? Where can we place it?’ But they couldn’t place it when we first started out, and America couldn’t place it … which is why they liked it. It is a ball and chain. It’s just a ball really!”

I get the impression that all the reviews he’s seen so far have gone down that ‘don’t it sound like the Stones’ avenue, and he’s getting a bit pissed off with those inferences. So I try a different angle. When you listen back to very early Cornershop, I suggest, words like ramshackle and shambolic are used a fair bit, but a lot of the themes within were already there and you followed them through, politically or whatever. It’s as if you’ve just finely honed it all, carrying that same model on.

“I think so, and I think for a group that have done it as long as we’ve done it, it’s quite amicable. But I do think you’ve hit the nail on the head. In a way that’s why we went back to the first album and made it an easier listen. Because the melodies and stuff were there, but we weren’t able to put it over as eloquently as possibly we should have. But groups are allowed to develop, and I think we took that and moved quite quickly with it. And yeah, the templates were definitely there from the start.”

‘England’s Dreaming’ was one such example, and all the more relvant for this album title.

“People say to us, ‘What do you think about Brexit?’ And I say, ‘What do you think we think about Brexit? Have you not heard our songs?’ We were anti- all that as soon as we came out, and we were talking about that because of all the racist shit I got in your town, in fact!”

Hey, don’t drag me into this. I’m from Guildford, Tjinder.

“Ha! Oh, there you go.”

But I know what he means (and he laughs as he says it, I might add). Tjinder always said it was his experiences – being subjected to racism – while involved as an ents secretary with the Students’ Union in his Preston Polytechnic days (later the University of Central Lancashire) that inspired him to speak out against such attitudes through his music, the band taking a more defined political standpoint.

We spoke a little last time about how different Preston was when he first arrived, still carrying elements of the ‘50s in certain ways. That struck a chord with me, a fellow outsider. I got a similar feeling on early visits at the end of the ’80s.

“Yeah, and I don’t think you get that in a lot of places now. Everywhere’s so similar. Everyone’s dressed as if they’ve been to Sports Direct. Ha! And it’s a shame. Maybe that’s why music is where it is in terms of not having the value to it that it used to have. Because it wasn’t just music, it was the clothes, the attitude, the pubs … you lived your lifestyle through music. Nowadays you live your lifestyle through … bread … or cakes … or cafes. It’s different.”

Tjinder’s lived in Stoke Newington for just over 20 years, the band’s London HQ originally just south of The Clash’s old stomping ground, the Westway, around Notting Hill, setting up Wiiija Records from within the Rough Trade empire, the name taken from the W11 1JA postcode.

And while that label’s long gone – their output coming via Ample Play for the past decade – Cornershop are still very much an independent affair, built around regular Tuesday and Friday afternoon sessions between Ben and Tjinder. I dare say Heavy Duty, the band’s cartoon alter-ego, donned neck to flares in double denim, are practising in the house next door. But we didn’t get on to that.

Talking of headquarters, where would Tjinder say was Cornershop’s spiritual home? Was it Preston, where he met Ben and first got a band together; Leicester, where the initial band – completed by Tjinder’s brother Avtar (bass, vocals) and David Chambers (drums) – moved and started recording; or Wolverhampton, where the Singh brothers grew up?

“Well … Preston was definitely the start of it. A lot of groups just have one town where they say they’re from, but we’ve always said we’re from Preston, Wolverhampton and Leicester … even Devon. It’s good to keep it open.”

The latter link was through Ben, incidentally, who moved to the Paignton area then close to Totnes after formative years in Newfoundland, Canada, where his father was a university professor. He later took up combined geography with history and theory of art and design studies at Preston Poly, where he met Tjinder, the pair bonding over musical tastes, eyes meeting across a smoke-filled room to a Steppenwolf and Scientist soundtrack … or something like that.

David (who saw service up to 1995, and before that was with Cornershop prototype The General Havoc) has long since returned to Preston, and still occasionally plies his sticks trade with various outfits, including The Common Cold in recent times, while a later chat with Ben revealed that fellow original Avtar was back in the Leicester area, having taken a more practical trades direction, involving building and carpentry work.

Back to the new album, I saw a mention of a Bolanesque feel to the latest 45, the wondrous ‘St Marie Under Canon’. Yet – inspired by the video, with its Brighton-shot eye-catching inline-skating antics – I’m getting, imagery-wise, more of the feel of a Pan’s People dance routine on Top of the Pops. Was Tjinder, like many of our generation, mesmerised by early ’70s evenings in front of the box? And is this LP autobiographical in that sense? Well, he’s not to be drawn on that.

“Again, it’s like, ‘Is it the Stones or is it something else?’ There are elements of that, and we’ve listened to a hell of a lot of Marc Bolan in our time, so that’s going to rub off. But if you look at any group that’s tried to be anything like Bolan … they’ve failed. So, going back to what I said at the start, I don’t see it as a breakdown in those terms. I don’t know about nostalgia. We try to write about issues that are forward. But sometimes you need to go back, and that song goes back to Empire, talking about battles where someone like St Marie would come down and be able to assuage the problems those battles have created. A lot of shit has gone down and we look to St Marie for some benediction on that. And the end of that is fetching it up to date with modern technology, which is the new sort of warfare … or it could be.”

There’s no denying that. Recent elections on both sides of the Atlantic suggest technology has become a vital tool for those wanting to win over hearts and minds.

Double Diamonds: Tjinder and Ben take some time out, in a cubist style (Photo: Roger Sargent)

“With that technology and also with sound/audio technology. A lot of people don’t get that, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether they like it and can get on with elements of it. A song like ‘Staging (The Plaguing of the Raised Platform)’ talks about the presidents and precedence you are up against, and was written while the Bush thing was going on, and quite pertinent. But not many people seemed to get it. Maybe now though, they can get it a bit more.

“It’s about those things that are going to be hidden in there and will be there to be discovered for years to come. And in a way that’s another reason why it’s England is a Garden – there are lots of hidden things in the whole album. Because it took so long, like moving from one studio to another, or other people doing sessions …”

I butt in there, telling Tjinder that considering it took so long to put together, it works perfectly. Almost a concept album, I venture … if that’s not a bad word.

“It is a bad word! Ha! Next to prog. Come on! But we do see it unlocking a lot of what’s gone on in the past, and every album is a bit like that. The other albums are episodes, and this is another episode that makes previous episodes even clearer. Therefore, it’s part of the story where everything informs each other. There’s a lyric in ‘No Rock: Save in Roll’ that was also in ‘Born Disco, Died Heavy Metal’. There are lots of those little things.”

At the risk of over-analysing, when it comes to over-riding themes, is Cornershop’s philosophy of trying to look forward a way of maintaining positive energy? We’ve had some bad breaks and plenty of despair in recent times, but surely need to be optimistic about good coming out of all that, once people wake up to that. Because there are positive vibes coming through, not least where the younger generation are concerned, as seen in larger voting figures and all those turning out for marches on the lead-up to the General Election. And as in the sentiment behind ‘No Rock: Save in Roll’, you can’t have one thing without the other. It’s about taking the crunchy with the smooth, be that nostalgia or whatever. Not everything was rosy back in the day, just as that’s the case now. These are desperate times, but surely we have to remain optimistic about the future.

“Erm …very little green shoots, but yeah!”

I’m clearly trying to be more optimistic than you.

“Ha! I’m not optimistic about the future. Not in England anyway. I mean, for fuck’s sake! But that’s what the album title’s about. Is it about optimism or is it that there are Tesco fucking trolley carts in this garden? What sort of garden is it? I’m not that optimistic. Look what’s just happened with the reshuffle? A few choice ….”

We’ll leave the next bit out, but you know where Tjinder’s coming from. And he’s spot on.

“I don’t want to be negative about it, but that’s just how it is …”

At this point, I change direction, telling Tjinder I was on a Cornershopping spree that morning, listening to lots of tracks, wondered how old the children from Bolton’s Castle Hill Primary School who sang on 2011’s ‘What Did the Hippie Have In His Bag?’ were now, and if they were old enough to download his records yet.

“Yeah, if they were seven then … they’d be voting age.”

That was the opening track on Urban Turban, its title taken from a shelved cartoon series Tjinder was working on, later volunteering for an international festival in which the BBC invited artists to lead various projects, spending three days with Cornershop engineer Alan Gregson in that Lancashire school, exploring various topics through music and mediation, the children subsequently guesting on that track. And while I’m on the subject of that, I tell Tjinder that the line, ‘Now you carry on, ’cos I’ve just dropped a crayon’ is up there with Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’ and James Brown deciding to ‘Take it to the bridge’.

“Ha! Lovely.”

Moving back to this album though, ‘Everywhere That Wog Army Roam’ fits the themes  mentioned perfectly, that contentious word one they’ve used at least three times before. And I sense a little mischief in its use here (relating to the historical definition of ‘western oriental gentlemen’, Tjinder stresses), as if he’s willing us all to sing along with its rather infectious chorus, a little like Tom Robinson having us join in with the super-catchy ’Glad To Be Gay’.

“It probably is the catchiest track! And my nephew loves it. He’s got a friend he wanted to play it to, but his father sort of said, ‘Well, maybe not.’ He is about eight.”

I could hear The Wailers doing that song. It’s kind of disguised reggae.

“Oh, it’s very reggae. We’ve always done that. ‘Motion the 11’ (from 2002) was reggae, and with the backing vocal it’s even more towards reggae. That’s what we wanted.”

On the next song, ‘Highly Amplified’, there’s delicious irony in that being perhaps the most mellow track.

“Er, yes … one of them. ‘England is a Garden’ I think is quite mellow, but yeah … with the violins and flute and what-have-you.”

I’m reminded of a track a love, The Style Council’s ‘Come to Milton Keynes’, its rather barbed lyrics juxtaposed by a rather sweet, orchestral, easy feel …

“That’s really weird, someone did say that sounded like The Style Council, the backing vocal being part of that. I personally wouldn’t know.”

It’s also something The Beautiful South did well, an old school BBC Radio 2 feel luring in unsuspecting listeners before they take in the harder lyrics. And that flute and Hammond organ approach offers a springtime feel, something we all need right now. Also, it’s nice to have a false ending to catch out radio DJs, although you may have shot yourself in the foot, allowing them to talk inanely over the extended instrumental playout.

“That’s exactly what we were thinking. Ha! But it was nice and it was mellow, and in a way that led to that instrumental ending, thinking, ‘OK, let’s just carry it on’. We put so much effort into it, and it’s still only two and a half bloody minutes!”

‘England is a Garden’ itself certainly doesn’t hang around. I get the feeling it’s a taster for a track that may appear on the next album. I reckon you’ll go back to that.

“Well, probably not, because we just carried on working and working, went to 20 tracks, then just ring-fenced them, and that was that. There will be a lot of stuff we’ll just leave behind. But the birds on ‘England is a Garden’ are from Salwick, just a few miles away from the fracking (site) there. So that’s like the calm before the … corporate bastards.”

United Stand: A still from Cornershop's United Provinces of India promo video by Chris Curtis and Passion PicturesMotion

United Stand: A still from Cornershop’s United Provinces of India promo video by Chris Curtis and Passion Pictures

The birds were across the open fields close to West Orange Studios, where the band tend to start work on their albums, a link going back to the days of The General Havoc, when Tjinder, Ben, Avtar and David were joined by early bandmate and housemate Neil Milner, recording the ‘Fast Jaspal’ 7” single for Chapati Heat Records in 1991. Ben later told me, ‘We hadn’t even learned how to tune up at that point!’ But Neil also featured in Tjinder’s Punjab Rovers side-project, recording a self-titled 7” on Honey Bear Records in 1995. Described as more of a ‘roving influence’ on the band, he was working for the Civil Service back in Hampshire last time anyone heard.

Getting back to the title track, that short interlude conjures up glimpses of quintessential Englishness, or at least an England I like, with more of a cosmopolitan, open philosophy, plenty of Indian and maybe even Irish influence, incorporating a little ‘60s psychedelia. I’m getting Van Morrison’s band and Traffic, and it’s something you’d more likely hear between the tracks on a Paul Weller album. It’s certainly all in there, however short.

“That’s something else people have been saying. And someone said ‘St Marie Under Canon’ was every good song from 1965 put into one track! That I can live with. That’s great, when you can see affinity, but it’s not just that affinity, because it will change into something else. As difficult as it is to pinpoint what the sound is, I think we’ve won, because no one can really pinpoint it down. We can start this interview talking about various elements of the sound, then end by talking about other elements of the sound … and as long as we’re talking about the sound, we’re winning. Ha!”

From the title track we’re on to ‘The Cash Money’, taking the blues into the red perhaps, and again it sounds like something of a jam built around a rolling riff with real legs, James Milne’s  bass still going strong at the end. Talking of cash, I was going to ask how they survive as a unit these days. Are they still making money from records, or are they reliant on royalties from Norman Cook reinventions? Maybe we’ll get on to that next time.

Then there’s out-and-out rock’n’roller, ‘I’m a Wooden Soldier’. A nod to the Faces (Small and otherwise), I reckon, but decide not to go back down that road and mention to Tjinder any retro vibe. I could see Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood taking this on though.

I do ask more about ‘One Uncareful Lady Owner’, which I see as a road song in the way I saw 1997’s tremendous ‘It’s Good to be Back on the Road Again’, albeit a few years further down the track.

“Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah, after a few bumps down the road! Bumps being the operative word there. First, the lyric came, then everything else. I wanted to keep on that motorway. I didn’t want to move it away too much. I wanted to keep it quite streamlined, and rather than adding lots of lyrics, just changing the odd word to keep that same feeling.”

The Prototype: Before Cornershop, there was The General Havoc

The Prototype: Before Cornershop, there was The General Havoc

Keeping the traffic moving?

“Yep, keep motoring. But you do that, then some journalist says, ‘I imagine the one uncareful lady owner is Margaret Thatcher’. And in my mind, it isn’t. By the time this song had come out, Mrs May would have been putting her poison out as well. But that’s what songs are – you can’t control what other people think of them. They need to be let loose, then people make of them what they will. And while I don’t think of myself as a musician, in terms of making people think it certainly gives rise to that.”

There are plenty of trademark Cornershop touches on that track and elsewhere, like the manic percussion and whole Indian feel (from tamboura and sitar to the tabla and other percussive dashes). Then, ‘The Holy Name’ brings the album to a glorious conclusion, with a proper one-take live feel. The original, it turns out, was on a 1978 devotional LP by Hansadutta Swami, a prominent guru in the Hare Krishna movement. Something Tjinder had long been aware of?

“Yeah, I would have got it in the early ’90s in America. And we’ve always loved that song and we decided to do a cover version.”

I get the feeling you’re swept along by the band vibe there. You seem like you’re having lots of fun, lost in the moment.

“Ah, well that’s what we try to put over, that it’s not just a serious song. It’s anything but a serious song. It’s people fluffing lines and laughing, it’s babies playing on the floor, it’s a proper sort of … it was done in San Francisco in ’78 and has that sort of hippie, congregational feel, where people look at life a little differently, and join in a little differently. It’s supposed to be people getting swept away, seeing how that goes, and that’s why on our version we involved a school parents’ choir from just over the road (Betty Laywood Primary School). We wanted that feel rather than an operatic feel. And it was done in a canteen.”

On that finale, Tjinder’s vocal reminds me of Paul Simon, that marriage of vocals and band from his early solo years. When I put that to him, he was slightly stumped at first. I then heard a wheeze, followed by him responding, ‘I don’t know what to think of that’. I bet you’ve never had that levelled at you before, I suggested. “No, you’re absolutely right! And The Beautiful South thing too. I didn’t know what to think of that.”

I certainly think your voice has become more refined over the years. Perhaps we’re hearing the real you a few years down the line. More organic, maybe. It’s sounding good.

“Ah well, that’s great. It’s something I don’t think about, but Valerie (Etienne) – who did the backing vocals and who I know from my son’s school, added harmonies, understood the songs, and definitely got it right – loved my voice and the phrasing I use … which was embarrassing for me. I don’t think of it, which is great – that way it leaves any interpretation within a song open.”

And will there be live dates this time around (he asks, already knowing the answer)?

“No, there will not. Since Judy (Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, 2009) we’ve stopped doing live gigs. Everything we do, whether it’s a single or album, we have to re-prove ourselves, and I think that’s taken its toll over the years.”

So are these your Abbey Road years, the Shea Stadium long behind you?

“Well, we’ve had three or four albums out anyway. I don’t know about that, but it just had to be done, and I think some people understand it, but a lot of people don’t. Unfortunately, this is how it’s had to be and how it is from now on.”

Talking to David Chambers earlier, asking what I should quiz you on, he also wondered about the possibility of live dates. I think he was ready to step in, maybe on the basis of a Fall/Glitter Band/Adam and the Ants style two-drummer model. But while that seems unlikely, he did ask if – in the light of all these Brexit shenanigans – you felt your mutual friend Tolerant Molly would have remained tolerant all these years on, telling me you’d understand what he was on about.

“Oh yes … but I would doubt that Molly’s still with us. She was a next-door neighbour who ended up in one of our songs … one of Ben’s songs, I hasten to add! That was in Eldon Street, Preston. She was tolerant, but maybe only because she couldn’t hear anything. And when she could, it was a bonus. When we had parties, she told us it was nice to know we were enjoying ourselves. That’s how tolerant she was. In terms of Brexit though … who knows.

“But it’s always nice to hear from David, and that time was very vibrant, very upbeat, and anything went. We always look back at that time with David very enjoyably. They were great formative years and we all enjoyed ourselves.”

Tolerant Molly later came up in conversation with Ben too, who added, “Funnily enough, I was only thinking about her the other day. She was very elderly even then, and on occasion we had some pretty raucous parties. I remember one where the sofa ended up on the street and we were playing loud music. I spoke to her afterwards, apologising for it being noisy, and she said, ‘No, it’s lovely just to hear voices next door – you carry on, have a good time’. A lovely, lovely woman, she really was.”

Talking of saintly figures, is that St Marie on the LP sleeve, I asked Tjinder.

“Oh, it could be.”

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

Was she your spirit guide right through this listening experience.

“Well, with the cover, we have our friend and designer, Nick Edwards, we talked to him and allowed him to listen to tracks very quickly with headphones on, in a pub. He went away and normally takes a long time to do stuff, but when he came up with that, we thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ We left it there while we had a cup of tea, looked at the computer, didn’t say anything for about 10 minutes, then I said, ‘Right, yeah, I think it’s right’. It sort of works – the androgynous element of the face … or is it Mary from Stereolab? What about the colours? How are they seeping in? What’s the sword about? What are the fingers? Or is it a book?

“There’s a lot of psychedelia in that album, and there is even more when you open it up. There are also sleevenotes, and we’ve gone for this four-sided double colour vinyl, and the titles have their own individual graphics. We’re exceptionally happy about it, and it’s come out really, really well.”

A gatefold sleeve?

“Oh yes. Did I not mention that? Oh, and there’s a poster!”

Splendid. Maybe that will make up for the lack of live shows.

“I hope so.”

Pretty soon, I let him go, leaving the dynamic duo to order some stock and let Ben carry on with his ‘logarithms’, as Tjinder put it, although I get the feeling they wuold soon be putting on in-line skates and heading for Clissold Park in a bid to re-enact moves from the promo video for ‘St Marie Under Canon’. And with that in mind, I think I’ll go off and play that track again, willing on the spring.

Garden Gurus: Ben Ayres and Tjinder Singh, moving forward with Cornershop in 2020 (Photo: Chris Almeida)

England is a Garden is available for pre-orders in vinyl, CD, cassette and download formats (its vinyl version spread across four sides) via this link and all good record shops. And to keep up to date with all things Cornershop, follow the band via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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West on Colfax in search of Americana – the Scott Carey interview

As Scott Carey works on Watling Street Road, Preston, you could argue that his band might have taken a more Lancastrian name, perhaps linked to the Roman road leading towards Ribchester and beyond.

But West on Colfax prefer to wear their influences on their sleeves, the group name instead distilling some of the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s life On the Road; more Colfax Avenue than Cold Bath Street, more Denver than Darwen, more Colorado than Beatles.

Besides, their chosen moniker seems more apt for these rising exponents of Americana, their debut LP Barfly Flew By set for release this summer, barely two years after a public debut at Penwortham Live.

You can see for yourselves how far they’ve come later this month, when they top the bill at an alt-country night at The Continental on South Meadow Lane, Preston, championing ‘tales of love, life and hard-lived lives’ delivered ‘with hope’.

Bass player and lyricist Scott is based near Clitheroe – rehearsals seeing him head South West on A59, I guess – in a band fronted by the ‘road-worn voice’ of Alan Hay (vocals and guitar) and completed by Pete Barnes (guitar) and Mike Lambert (drums).

Scott, a graphic designer for the NHS by day, saw past indie success with ‘Madchester’ seven-piece Paris Angels, their 1990 indie single ‘Perfume’ an NME single of the week that still gets occasional national and international radio airplay.

And prior to that Ashton-under-Lyne outfit, he featured in an early line-up of Oldham’s big time-bound Inspiral Carpets. I found little trace of that online, but past WriteWyattUK interviewee Stephen Holt confirmed, ‘We had about 13 bassists in total over the years, and Scott was about No.11 I think.”

Early Days: Scott Carey with Inspiral Carpets at their first London gig, supporting The Bodines at Portlands, March 24th, 1987. From left, Graham Lambert, Clint Boon, Stephen Holt, Scott Carey, Craig Gill (Photo: Debbie Black)

Stephen also sent me part of a ‘Those Heady Days in Madchester’ chart for Pete Frame’s wondrous Rock Family Trees that further revealed a brief spell in St Jack for Scott, where bandmates included fellow bass-playing namesake Scott McLeod, of The Ya Yas and briefly Oasis fame.

It’s not so easy to get Scott C drawn on all that, but of his Paris Angels days, he told me, ‘Richard Branson sold Virgin to EMI just as we were finishing our second album, so he could fund his airline. And soon after EMI got rid of us, Public Image Ltd, Definition of Sound …”

That’s not where his music’s at right now though, his current group brought together by a mutual appreciation of Americana, starting out as covers band The Low Highway then taking on a fresh approach, Scott first introduced to the singer by original drummer Adrian Hawtin, from Penwortham.

“When I started at the hospital in Preston, I was talking to Adrian about music, and we got on to a love of Wilco, Richmond Fontaine, and all that. Next thing, he asked if I played, telling me he wanted to start a covers band. We did that for a bit, then someone mentioned it’d be good to do a few of our own songs.

“I was happy just playing other people’s music, as it’s often a nightmare trying to push your own stuff. But Alan said, ‘I’ve got quite a few melodies, but find it hard to write lyrics, asking if I had any. I said, ‘Not at the moment, but leave it with me.’

“The day after I sent him lyrics for the first song we did together, ‘The Line’, which is going to appear on the album. And he kind of unleashed something in me, and we’ve written about 50 songs, of which we’re keeping about 30. So we’ve got the first three albums covered really!”

The first two singles are certainly winners for these ears, debut ‘Choke Hold’ set to be followed – and available at their February 29 showcase at the Conti – by ‘Misty Morning Blue’, its sleeve featuring a photograph by Loose Records’ Gill Landry, previously with Old Crow Medicine Show. And as I pointed out to him, I’m hearing a little Teenage Fanclub in both tracks.

“Well, them, Big Star and The Byrds – who influenced both bands of course – are a big influence on us.”

In certain quarters, country music’s still a bit of a dirty word, conjuring up images of the Grand Ole Opry, line-dancing and Stetsons. But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it?

“I suppose it’s down to your perception of country. Cowboy boots, hillbillies … but I’d say bands like Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and even REM to an extent have been ploughing more of a guitar sound. And there’s bands like Green on Red …”

Ah, yes, that whole LA ‘Paisley Underground’ thing that made an impression in the mid-‘80s.

“Yeah, and over the last 15 or so years I think it’s started to grow a lot in this country too. We use the term Americana because it’s a handy clothes-peg to hang different sets of music on the same line. If you were to put band T-shirts on that line, you could have all kinds – from Waylon Jennings to The Byrds, Wilco, Gram Parsons, Courtney Marie Andrews … And there are so many great UK bands.”

Scott, who also featured with Chelsea-based indie outfit The Shave in the ‘90s and back in Manchester hosted radio shows on 96.2 The Revolution, praised Manchester radio presenter Mog for his Manchester-based 9-11am Saturday show on 96.9 allfm (Standing in the Shadows of Lev, described as ‘two hours of abject misery’, featuring alt-country, soul, Motown and ‘pale skinny boys with guitars, plus the big 6 bonanza’, past guests including Paul Heaton and John Bramwell, with an internet link via https://allfm.org/), helping spread the word about various alt-country acts, calling him ‘an underground legend who’s had all sorts on his show that have gone on to do good things’.

That’s just one of the radio shows that has featured West on Colfax so far, the first single playlisted not only in the UK but also in Germany, Norway, and a few US, Canadian and Australian stations. Meanwhile, Scott also talked about a thriving Americana social media scene.

While the band name is in homage to the street name-checked by Kerouac, it’s also a nod to another major influence, Portland, Oregon retro country soul outfit The Delines, whose 2014 debut LP was Colfax, and included a track called ‘Colfax Avenue’. But all that aside, there’s clearly a North West England influence at play with West on Colfax.

“We’re based in Preston, with a lock-up rehearsal space in the centre, and we recorded our album there too. Our drummer’s from Wales but lives just down the road, Alan’s from Blackpool, and Pete, our guitarist, lives in Westhoughton, so Preston’s kind of central for all of us really.

“Alan’s spent 25-plus years in Blackpool, but is originally from just outside Glasgow, and has that kind of Teenage Fanclub, Byrds and Big Star stuff in his veins. It’s what he grew up with.

“He shares that same love of music, we just got on, and there’s something authentic about him – the way he delivers the songs, you know he’s lived it.”

I have to ask though, is it obligatory to have a beard in this band?

“No … but it does help. They come and go. Mine went before Christmas, so did Alan’s, but we decided, ‘We don’t like the look of this’.”

Are you victims of geography? Should you really be out in Denver? Or do you carry plenty of Lancastrian flavour too?

“I think we’re products of our environment. I grew up in Manchester, of which Factory Records legend Tony Wilson was quoted as saying the kids of Manchester have the best record collections. There was a university of music through growing up there, and there’s a lot of kinship with Liverpool in that way too, with those shared influences.”

Beyond their Leap Day show at the Conti they hope to return to the waterside venue for an all-day event featuring around eight bands. But first there’s the album launch in mid-June.

“We’ve got about three tracks to finish, then there’s some mixing and mastering to do, and it’ll be available to download and stream. There will also be CDs available and we’ll look at pressing a few copies on vinyl, to sell at gigs with those CDs.”

That’s the other thing. Scott has set up his own label, Greenhorse Records (I was going to try and explain how he came up with that name, related to his colour blindness, but it’s probably best if he tells you), initially as a vehicle for West on Colfax.

“Ideally, I’d love to get funding to run a proper label. There’s so much talent out there in the North West playing Americana, and that’s something we’re also hoping to do through this night at the Continental. And at the end of the year I want to put out a compilation featuring all the bands that have played our Americana night and some I’m hoping to get along there.”

‘Choke Hold’, the first single from West on Colfax’s debut LP Barfly Flew By, is available to download via this link, and to stream through all major sites.

West on Colfax play a Leap Day Americana Special Showcase at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on Saturday, February 29th (8pm), also featuring WriteWyattUK favourites The Amber List, plus Manchester’s Cornelius Crane. Entry is £3 on the door. And that’s followed by the band’s Friday, March 6th date at The Lion’s Den, Manchester, joined by Dead Captain in a Jezebel Music promotion.

Bearded Theory: West on Colfax, caught on camera. From left – Pete Barnes, Alan Hay, Mike Lambert, Scott Carey.

To find out more, follow West on Colfax on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  You can also follow Greenhorse Records on Facebook and Instagram, and visit https://www.musicglue.com/west-on-colfax/.

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Talking harbour lights, wood chip and more with King Creosote – the Kenny Anderson interview

Kwaing Creasite: East Neuk’s prime beef export, aka King Creosote, back on the road in March. (Photo: Ross Trevail)

It’s been five years since King Creosote last treated us to a live accompaniment of his soundtrack to From Scotland With Love, receiving rightful acclaim at the Edinburgh International Festival last time around.

But now Fife-based Kenny Anderson – the singer/songwriter and composer behind that regal moniker, with more than 40 plus albums to his name since the mid-’90s – is taking his nine-piece band back out on the road to do just that, with dates in Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow, London and Manchester lined up next month.

I’m hoping you already know this, but From Scotland With Love is a 75-minute film by New Zealand-born, award-winning director Virginia Heath, released in 2014 and comprised entirely of archive film, a powerful ‘journey into our collective past’ that ‘explores universal themes of love, loss, resistance, migration, work and play,’ the silent individuals on camera given voice by King Creosote’s poetic music and lyrics, the man who wrote the score seeing it as something of an antidote to the ‘ongoing chaotic upheaval’ happening right now. He adds, ‘What better a tonic than to revisit the daily lives of our grand, great-grand, and great-great-grandparents’ generation as they go about their work and play’.

Kenny was in a house on Shore Street, Anstruther – the largest community on the Firth of Forth’s north shore, part of the East Neuk – when he answered my questions a couple of weeks back, pressing deadlines having ruled out publication before now. Yes, face to face is arguably more personal and over the phone works just fine for most of my interviews, yet while this one comes to you by the wonders of electronic mail it’s no less intimate for that. And I’m fairly certain you’ll agree soon enough, my interviewee setting the scene perfectly when he describes his surroundings, telling me, “It’s almost dark so the harbour lights are all on, as are the double red/flashing green lamps at the jaws of the harbour, the tide is out and the grey clouds are very low. Alas we had a family bereavement on Thursday night so I am in the midst of … well, you can imagine.”

Seems to be the month for it. January tends to carry that air of post-festive blues anyway, and I too have witnessed grief of late. But we’ll crack on all the same, keeping the mind occupied.

We were born the same year, Kenny and I, albeit a school year and approaching 500 miles apart, today’s interviewee one of three brothers who struck out as musicians, sons of renowned Fife ceilidh bandleader Billy Anderson.

On this occasion Kenny was in his girlfriend’s flat, some four miles west of his own house, which seems to fill up a lot of his spare time, it appears.

“Having bought bits of an old property and inherited others, I’ve been working on my place in earnest since 2013. It started with the roof, joining up attic spaces along the way and then having to knock out walls and what-not below in order to get access to the new attic above. Lots of wood chip, lath and plaster dust going out, insulation, plasterboard and new wood going in. Chuck in a dry rot treatment, replacement windows, doors, a bathroom …

“This Autumn I was able to at last rebuild my home studio in the attic, only to realise all my un-boxed recorders – two digital, one reel-to-reel, a four track – were in need of repair.”

Despite his world travels in pursuit of a life in music, it seems that my subject (or perhaps I’m his subject, given that royal title) hasn’t strayed so far from his roots, with his mum’s side of the family from Crail, his girlfriend’s family hailing from Anstruther, and Kenny growing up in St. Andrews. And in his own words, ‘I reckon that’s me settled now’.

At this point I confessed that I arrived at his front door via a roundabout route, a parallel love of archive film documentaries leading me to triple-word scorers like Public Service Broadcasting (via early promos for 2012’s The War Room EP) and British Sea Power (specifically 2013’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond: Britain’s Coast on Film), and later The Magnetic North (second LP, Prospect of Skelmersdale carrying on where they left off on 2012’s Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North). But while I was vaguely aware of King Creosote, it took a BBC4 airing of From Scotland With Love to properly make me sit up and take notice.

In fact, I only learned this week that Kenny’s troubadours were involved with friend of this website Jo Bartlett’s Green Man Festival in South Wales from the very start in 2003, him and his fellow Fence Collective musicians – he set up DIY indie label, Fence Records in 1997, a ‘collective of musicians, artists, craftsfolk, chancers and slackers based in the East Neuk of Fife’ – and kept returning for a fair few years. And I was only catching up today with old internet footage of them covering The Aliens’ ‘Happy Song’ in 2006, at which point the name on the tin read King Creosote and the Aliens (with both of his twin brothers involved, I think I’m right in saying).

But I digress. The link between King Creosote and those other acts mentioned? Well, they’re certainly all gifted composers with the creative vision to write such vivid musical soundscapes. Does Kenny see himself as part of a wider movement in that respect?

“When the offer of working with Virginia Heath came along in summer 2013, a few soundtrack projects were mentioned as reference points – British Sea Power being the one I recall – and I decided there and then to avoid them altogether. I am acutely aware of Jon Hopkins’ prowess when it comes to soundtracks, and that alone made it look likely that I’d be knocking back the offer. Once I finished working on From Scotland With Love, I was quickly drawn to the more ambient/classical soundtracks by the likes of Nils Frahm and Johan Johansson, and these guys, like Jon H, are well out of my league.

“I’ve long since said a resounding ‘no’ to the offers of working on soundtrack projects that came along in the wake of From Scotland With Love, for as you’ll learn the making of the music turned out to be quite similar to that of ‘merely’ recording a themed album and nothing like the penning of a soundtrack in the traditional sense.”

How did your relationship with Virginia Heath come about, and was it a fully-formed vision before you started on the music, or did it take you into areas you hadn’t expected?

“I’ve recorded most of my Domino albums (the label co-releasing several of his albums) with Paul Savage at Chem19 in Blantyre, and had met one of the studio engineers, David McAulay, a few times over the years. Virginia Heath and David had already worked on a film project, so when it came to From Scotland With Love, both David and Paul recommended me.

“The project was to be a collaboration between film-maker and songwriter rather than music put to a finished, edited film, meaning new songs written by me that were based on archive footage would influence the edited-down footage to be included in the film, and then this newly-found footage would further influence the tweaked songs. I wasn’t in a very good place at the time of the offer, and didn’t think any of my new songs would be much cop, so initially I refused! Part of the brief was that the film would debut outdoors at Glasgow Green with soundtrack performed live by us. Shudder!

“But David somehow made it all sound less far less daunting, and Virginia was already a fan of the Diamond Mine album (his 2011 collaboration with Jon Hopkins, nominate for the Mercury Prize and Scottish Album of the Year) and would happily use existing songs from my back-catalogue if I buckled, but by the time I accepted the mission I was keen to have a go at writing new, archive-inspired material.

“It took a few months for the researchers to even start to trawl through all the available archive footage, working towards finding scenes that suited various broad themes rather than portraying a geographic or historical/chronologically hqa tour of Scotland. No video footage was to be used either, so the start and end dates were fixed by the use of actual film. In Autumn I was shown a couple of half-hour BBC documentary type films but then told that a few seconds, if anything, might be used from each. I was already doubting my credentials for the job given my knowledge of history is patchy at best, so we didn’t get off to a flying start. In the meantime, I began sending Virginia CD-Rs full of what I considered to be soundtrack material (instrumental bits and bobs mainly) and assurances that I’d started writing when I hadn’t … the usual.

“To break the impasse, Virginia wrote out her ideas for the different themes she wanted to explore in the film, alongside a list of my songs she thought fitted the various moods. It slowly dawned on me that the people portrayed within these archive films had to be concerned with the same, universal day-to-day anxieties of love and loss, money earned and spent, consumed by age-old jokes and with their own feelings of nostalgia and inadequacy that come with changing times, and so on. I was able to identify with the characters lurking in the background of crowded scenes, for example shy types and worried onlookers, and soon forgot about the historical backdrop. In short, everyone I know today would have an ancestor cutting about in these films, and at the cutting edge of their own lives when filmed, I might add.

“With that flash of inspiration and Virginia’s chart I penned most of the new lyrics on a train journey to London and back, busked a few chords together, sent Virginia some acoustic demos and then set about building an all-acoustic band culled from the fence players I’d worked with over the years. Virginia is from New Zealand, and was in no way going to deliver a cliched Scottish ramble through heather, shortbread tins and golf courses, and that suited me fine – but I insisted the music come from a traditional, acoustic source, and that nostalgia would feature heavily in the song material. I simply put myself and the views of those around me into bygone days.

“The next couple of months were spent looking at any and all footage available that Virginia thought roughly suited my themed lyrics, with a band fleshing out music to fit that footage, me tweaking lyrics to sit better with the film footage, and so on back and forward right up to our January deadline. David (McAulay) kept both sides well away from each other and brought in some genius players from his circle of music pals.

“There were a couple of very last-minute song switches and inclusions, and as preparation and promo for the film launch with live performance Virginia made short, area-specific loops of additional footage, and the film went on a small tour of film theatres with the added attraction of a Q&A. Easy for me – all the questions were film-related – but Virginia’s genius is that her themes were universal, and she included 20th-century social change and industrial decline relevant to the whole of the Western Hemisphere, all set within Scottish countryside and towns. All age groups were turning up too. I just sat and played a couple of the rejected songs as folk filed out.

“The reaction to the film with full live band caught us all by surprise, as did the attempts to politicise the film during the 2014 referendum, and the timings could not have been better/worse. In a band of 13 players, the split was 10 ‘yesticles’ to three ‘nawbags’, with yours truly, spokesperson in interviews of course, soon outed on the side of the union. Ha!”

At this point there’s brief break in the answers (and that was a very detailed answer, you’ll agree), Kenny telling me, ‘Hold on … my haggis and neeps have arrived in front of me … I’m joking, it’s a spicy veggie pie and beans.’ But he’s soon back and straight in there again.

“On paper, ‘Scottish archive film footage with accompanying soundtrack by a band you’re unlikely to have heard of’ probably sounds a dull night out to most, so the full spectacle of big band plus film on the big screen caught a lot of folk off-guard, with grown men bursting into tears, the lot. The emotional punch at certain key moments is as powerful as any blockbuster attempts to do the same. We were very surprised because as a band we were basically counting beats and listening to metronomes for the entire 69 minutes, and not performing songs in the usual fashion. Most of those around me were following a score, FFS!”

He did actually write, ‘FFS’ there, which makes it sound more like the wondrous Caledonian/Californian supergroup collaboration when Franz Ferdinand joined forces with Sparks. Anyway, carry on, Kenny …

“And it’s that last point we’re attempting to address this time around. We’ll be using my regular live band of the past five years, the band that played on the Astronaut Meets Appleman album in fact, making use of our electronica side with a dose of modular synths to boot, with our cues all visual this time, meaning we’ll be playing those songs instead of just trying to keep up with a film edit. A few of the soundtrack songs have stayed with our live set, and evolved, and one song covered by Simple Minds at the end of last year.

“Any sound design will be worked into a musical setting and played live too. On machines.”

I guess inevitably there are traces of your Scottish heritage captured within that film soundtrack. Did your parents experience the album, film and live shows first time around?

“My folks haven’t seen the live show yet, and no doubt my Dad would fall asleep 10 minutes in if it airs on TV again, but I’d like to think they’d hear some familiar, family turns of phrase throughout. My gran for example has had a few of her choice phrases appropriated and poeticised.”

I mentioned The Magnetic North, for whom Erland Cooper continues to put Orkney back on the cultural map in certain circles, celebrating another proud part of your homeland through his own sonic journey. But did you ever wonder what it was about From Scotland With Love that resonated with so many of us? I mean, as a Surrey lad exiled in Lancashire for 25 years, with nothing more Scottish about me than my first name, it can’t be just some vague Caledonian calling, surely … however much those pipes on ‘Melin Wynt’ grab me. Did you get the impression your audience grew overnight through the film, the likes of me finally catching up with King Creosote?

“Yes, there is indeed a new awareness of King Creosote via DVD sales of From Scotland With Love, largely as gifts to relatives abroad I believe, and the screening of the film on BBC4, and this new audience arriving late to the party has in later years chosen to sit through some unexpected and largely unrecognisable song performances from us.”

As we were talking about family before, would you say you and your brothers were fairly competitive around each other with your ventures? Did that love of music chiefly come from your father and his ceilidh band success? And was it always a career for your Dad, or was he working outside music at some stage?

On Board: Kenny Anderson, 25 years and counting sailing under the King Creosote mast (Photo: Sean Dooley)

“We used to be very competitive, through our 20s and early 30s I’d say, and it was the decision to rescue my younger brother Iain (aka Pip Dylan) from a midge-infested Mull to then drag him round Europe behind a double bass that drove Gordon (aka Lone Pigeon), Iain’s twin, to do more with the fledgling Beta Band whilst in art school. Now, though, we don’t ever get near the subject of music, what with aliens and farming simulator to enthuse over, phones long switched off for at least two of us, dogs on leads for two of them, and who can read those tiny words anyway? Glasses, hearing aids, backaches, etc.”

Funny he should mention The Beta Band. I hadn’t put two and two together there until a conversation with Rob from Sonic PR namechecking that acclaimed 1996/2004 Fife outfit, for whom those singing their praises including Oasis and Radiohead. But let’s not spoil Kenny’s flow.

“The music life of my Dad rather than the music itself was probably the catalyst for me running off with a busking band aged 22 instead of applying for engineering jobs. I fought with an accordion from age seven, kept it quiet at school of course, Iain bred cockatiels and Gordon led a teenage pack of smalltown hoodlums. My sister Lynne played the records indoors, but for us three boys just a healthy dose of manhunt, skateboards, Starsky & Hutch, Scalextric and ZX81s.

“My Dad did have a job as an insurance man then as a bank teller, and I have a vague early memory of him coming home after teatime in a suit before flying out the door again, but being 20 years my senior I reckon he’s been full-time musician since falling out with my Mum over the authenticity of the moon landings.”

Brilliant. And how about the next generation – is your eldest daughter following in your footsteps, career-wise? And are there signs that your youngest children may be?

“My eldest is at Dundee Uni studying history, with no clue what to do next, Middle is singing all the pop songs from the shows and beyond copying her elder cousin’s dance steps, Youngest is still shouting and hooked on Baby Jake. I’m hoping one of them will go out as the KC tribute act Kid Creosote before too long and let me concentrate on my memoirs.”

How will the live shows work, and how will that differ from first time around?

“The original From Scotland With Love live outings were made possible funding-wise thanks to projects like the Scottish Year of Homecoming. The rest was accidental, and the reason it’s happening again is that one of our best performances in 2015 took place outdoors on a rare sunny evening in Kelvingrove Park for a promoter who, like most of us Scots, is in dire need of another such roaming in the gloaming.”

Looking back to the optimism and celebration at the heart of the 2012 Olympics in London and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, we seem to have fallen some way amid the uncomfortable reality of austerity policies in Brexit Britain. We certainly need cheering up in light of recent political happenings. Was that part of your reason to revive this soundtrack album?

“Partly true. I agreed to revisit From Scotland With Love because there are very few occasions now when I get to bring such a large band on board, and it just feels like five years on is as good a time as any. If we left it for 10 years, I could transport half of my lot, me included, for free using our bus passes, so even our rock’n’roll use-by date is on the near horizon.

“As I mentioned already we are approaching it in a different way, fully reclaiming the ‘live’ part of ‘live soundtrack’, and not so much as bringing it up to date as bringing it …”

Kenny tails off for a bit there.

“Sorry, that was a phonecall to set a funeral date.

“Ach, I’ve lost my train of thought. One moment.”

He’s back soon enough though, to the previous question.

“Line-up, that’s it. The core of the KC band has been Geeko on drums, Des Lawson on keys, Gogs Maclean on double/electric bass, the Young Team on fiddle and guitar, with PHA11 on cello. To this stellar line-up I’ve asked Mairearad Green to play accordion and pipes, onthefly to bring his MPC and drum machines, and finally Lomond Campbell to bring his modular genius to the mix. There are at least two listed above to cover my ass when it comes to acoustic guitar mishaps.”

Do you enjoy the challenge of working with a band, or are you more at ease as a one-man operation?

“Playing live I’m definitely more at ease with a band around me, although of late I baulk at the organisation of it all, and the logistics of bringing my lot together – from Ullapool, Fort William, Mull, Perth, Falkirk, Blantyre and Fife – is, um, interesting. Not to mention the expense. As for recording I prefer going it alone and at home for as far into the project as possible, bring in the professional players once the studio clock starts ticking. Having said that, I do really like the ease of playing smaller rooms with smaller audiences, so in future I might flip to playing more solo shows and release greatest hits compilations, live in concert with vocal overdubs type recordings.”

I wonder if there’s a part of you pinching yourself that you’re playing iconic venues such as the Barbican (again), Bridgewater Hall, and these wonderful big-name Scottish halls. Do you get nervous before shows? Does it all tend to click into place the moment you’re up and running?

“I’m no more or less fazed by a big stage than I am when having to walk through a tiny audience to reach no stage, and as a band we just tend to huddle up as though we were on a wee stage anyway. This From Scotland With Love project requires A LOT of concentration, so I doubt we’ll notice where we are or who we’re playing to until the lights go up at the end and we get to fully appreciate the majesty of our surroundings.

“Some venues seem to have jittery nerves built into their very fabric. On our Astronaut tour in early 2016 for example we were coasting along until Cambridge, many shows into the tour. Without anyone saying a word, we were all fidgety and restless, congregating in amongst the ventilation pipes and empty crates of the loading bay backstage when our support act Charlie Cunningham, en route to the stage, blurted out how nervous he was tonight. Vodka shots all round after that.

“But nobody keeps their nerves beyond the second or third song I’d say, unless something goes very awry for an individual, which rarely happens. I usually make a very obvious howler early on and that seems to put everyone at ease.”

You’ve certainly been prolific in the amount of material shared with the world so far. But it’s not a straight-forward path to negotiate for us catching up. Since Astronaut Meets Appleman alone we’ve had the Bound of the Red Deer collaboration with Michael Johnston, a re-release of The Queens of Brush County; Greetings from Hamilton, Canada; the Lino and Your Henchmen releases. You clearly remain a busy man. Is there a new record on its way?

“I took a year out when turning 50, and by year out I mean a year only doing as I like. I’d become very despondent over the dwindling sales of records and the knock-on effect of this on playing live shows, especially when Astronaut charted on such embarrassingly few sales and our biggest audiences to date were fully ignorant of there even being a new album. So I chose instead to forget all about albums, travel, tours, promotion, budgeting, blah de blah, and instead played 50 gigs in the pub up the road over the year, revisiting my back-catalogue, playing dozens of covers, playing my 23rd album 23 times and so on.

“I took a leaf out of Jon Hopkins’ book and agreed to play shows at a distance only if well paid, or incredibly good fun, and gave myself a break from songwriting altogether. To stave off the panics I normally aim for between 12 and 20 songs written and recorded each year.

“I took a leaf out of (East Neuk artist) Keny Drew’s book and followed my daftest musical ideas to their illogical conclusions.

“I worked on my house, tidied up decades of clutter, stopped fretting.

“There are plenty new home recordings, but not anything recognisable as the King Creosote of late, I’d say. Side-projects – Keny Drew’s ‘KY10’ being the most focused I suppose, with Mairearad Green’s ‘BuoyGull’ close behind – have allowed me to confidently explore music outside of songs. ‘KY10’ is a comic character written by Keny Drew, original pre-printed pages made of stained glass artworks, with the bulk of the story narrated by retired Anstruther fisherman Ronnie Hughes. I just add noises, tape loops, samples, and this satisfies my experimental and electronic music side. Mairearad Green lets me hear pibrochs and accordion tunes for which I delve into a book of discarded lyrics written before 1993, and this satisfies my folky music wanderings, keeps me on my musical toes.

“As for recordings, I seem to have lost all interest in what happens, or rather what doesn’t happen, after I’m happy with the final headphone mix. Never thought I’d say that, but the album’s dead is what I’ve been led to understand, and yet I’m an albums man is what I’m continually told. In short, streaming stats and songs as email attachments hold zero interest for me, and I’ve never been comfortable with my face in videos, so YouTubers opening up boxes of new tools and so on can relax. A song these days seems best when tarted up as a bit of timely radio promo, and on that score there is at least one track languishing right this minute on a protools system in the West of Scotland awaiting live drums. Wahey.

“Since my 2017 year out, and working in collaboration with visual artists, I’ve looped back to the beginning of my KC life to a time when I recorded purely for recording’s sake, no thought of a listening audience. Once again, I find I’m recording at home, freed from the anxieties of how my new music might sound to anyone else’s ears, and I’m certainly not thinking too hard on what happens with live shows beyond March. My tinnitus is verging on ferocious, so it’s probably just as well.”

Kenny seems to hardly ever stand still. After initial forays into live performance guesting in short slots with his Dad’s band – playing accordion while his sister danced – he studied at university in Edinburgh then busked his way around Europe for a couple of years before re-settling on his old patch.

In an interview with Nick Major for the Scottish Review of Books in 2016, he revealed, “My music taste varied. I was into old electro: Simple Minds around the era of ‘Love Song’ and ‘I Travel’. I dimly remember being warned to stay clear of the St. Andrews’ punks. They looked brutal. They shoved pins through their ears and wore bondage trousers. They were a real alien invasion. But I missed all of that era and got into Mod and Ska. I went to university in 1985 and was listening to Scottish bands like Win, who I think became Nectarine No.9, The Bluebells, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. Hearing Dexys Midnight Runners’ ‘Come On Eileen’ made me think I hadn’t been totally wasting my time learning the accordion, but still I rejected the instrument, and in university I bought sequencers, samplers and a 4-track to record on. My earliest endeavours in song-writing were drum-machine, sequencer-based. It wasn’t until my fourth year that I tried to learn the acoustic guitar.”

Kenny was barely in his mid-20s when he set up his label, and continued to work part-time at St. Andrews’ Woollen Mill up until its closure in 1999. Before King Creosote there was Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra and Khartoum Heroes, and from 2006 there was also eight-piece Scottish-Canadian folk supergroup project, The Burns Unit, borne out of a songwriting retreat, fellow contributors including Emma Pollock and Karine Polwart. How did that work, considering the miles between members? And are you set to work with Jon Hopkins again, or set out on other collaborative projects?

“The Burns Unit disbanded in 2012, I think. Musical indifferences? I kept working with Michael Johnston in Canada though, and our second foray into the studio has been somewhat thwarted by recent events and my refusal to board an airplane. No Jon Hopkins collaborations on the cards, no. That’d be a bit like the time my brother Gordon swam up behind a swan and grabbed its legs, except Jon would have the sense to twist his head and break my arm, or whatever it is a swan breaks.”

I think I’m right in saying this year marks a quarter of a century working under the King Creosote name. Has that crept up on you? And has it ever been in doubt that this was something you could make a living from, not least in these penny-pinching days of austerity?

“I’ve made a quiet fuss over the 25-year anniversary of KC and Fence. There’s already been an exhibition of KC and Fence art, and I’m planning to revisit my 2009 live album. It took until 2006 for King Creosote to become more or less a full-time concern, but in 2020 I’ve still no sense of security in the job and half expect a redundancy offer any month now. If only I was employable …”

You seem to have had run-ins with labels etc., having worked at cottage (or perhaps croft) industry level through to major concerns. You’ve clearly learned a lot along the way. Is there anything you know now that you wished you knew in the early days that might have saved a little stress?

“Yes, I tried everything, from saying ‘yes’ when every fibre of my being screamed ‘no’, to reigning in expectations and cutting costs, to describing the reality rather than running off with the dream, and so on. It’s taken me three years to shut all of it out. My one regret is that I couldn’t find another part-time job as good as I had with the St Andrews Woollen Mill until it closed in 1999.

“Domino have been very kind and are patiently awaiting some new songs.”

You’ve gone from CD-R to CD, digital and vinyl releases, and it seems that people have rediscovered the cassette tape again now. Are you a vinyl man yourself? And have you a large physical collection?

“Just before Christmas I moved my vinyl collection up a floor and was pleasantly surprised by the sheer weight of it, especially the number of 7” and 12” singles. I didn’t think I had much in the way of new vinyl, but in fact I have more records still in cellophane than I do second-hand from the ‘70s and ‘80s, so yes, a fair amount. I still play CDs in the car when Radio 4, 3 then 2 start to annoy me, but mainly tapes and vinyl played in the house now for other than a purge of my cassettes at a car boot sale in 1993, I’ve kept absolutely everything, and any new music I make goes onto cassette. I’ve no internet or TV at home.”

Hat’s Entertainment: Kenny Anderson, the artist performing and recording as King Creosote (Photo: Sean Dooley)

With so many King Creosote releases down the years, it’s rather inevitable if a few of us have missed out on some here and there. Where should we start? Heading back from the rather splendid Astronaut Meets Appleman, or start at the beginning and head forward?

“It being the 25th anniversary of Fence and KC I most recently dug out four-track cassette recordings from 1995 and added in my latest tape loops and noise samples, singing over my younger self too. Very weird. There are moments on 1999’s ‘round of balls’ that I’ve tried, and failed, to recapture many times, and there are moments on my latest efforts for KY10 that I was striving for in 1996. Not only are my albums made up of loops and samples, reworked songs and off-the-cuff experiments, as a collection they fall into a pattern of swirling eddies and spirals. You can hear the switch from analogue cassette tape to digital and back to tape, old mic to tube, valve to solid state to 8,16,48 bit and back to valve, but hopefully you can hear when emotions ran high and to the fore only to retreat to allow songs to stand proud before happy accidents loomed large and nonsense took over.

“I can do better. Holograms, that’s it. A section cut from any KC record ought to let you rebuild the entire catalogue.”

And what happens when you come off this tour? Will there be a holiday, or will you be straight back to work?

We hope to display our ‘KY10’ project as a moving exhibition, starting on Cambo Estate in April, my part being largely improvised samples, tape loops and accordion fluffs I’m afraid. JAMP nights with Keny Drew are ongoing and building, and we’ll plod on with some hi-fi new KC band material when I remind myself that I used to write songs!

“I’m working on a long boring speech as part of KC’s 25th that takes in some career highs and lows, but largely concerns itself with the records I’ve made and how it is possible to arrive at self-indulgent album no.60, something with no idea at all of what should happen next. I largely fret when on holiday, so what with recent events taking their sorry toll I’ve decided that this is the year to edit the diaries, start on the scrapbook, sketch away on paper and on tape.

“And scrape off more wood chip.”

Neuk Vision: Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, from Scotland with more love next month (Photo: Sean Dooley)

King Creosote provide live accompaniment to the film From Scotland With Love at Edinburgh Usher Hall (Saturday, March 7th); Inverness Eden Court Theatre (Sunday, March 8th); Aberdeen Music Hall (Monday, March 9th); Perth Concert Hall (Wednesday, March 11th); Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (Thursday, March 12th); London Barbican Centre (Saturday, March 14th); and Manchester Bridgewater Hall (Monday, March 16th, 0161 907 9000). For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.co.uk or the relevant venue box office. And for more about the film and the band, head to www.kingcreosote.com and www.fromscotlandwithlovethefilm.com

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The Resurrection of Giant Drag – in conversation with Annie Hardy

Gemstone Scanning: Annie Hardy is back, part-way through a UK and Netherlands tour with a resurrected Giant Drag

‘Is that the good doctor?’

There’s my opening question. Not to my interviewee though, but Dr Kiko, the London-based Italian tour-managing a quickfire UK and Dutch jaunt by cult US indie rock duo Giant Drag.

He very quickly hands over the phone, perhaps worried I might ask him to prescribe me something, like the GP at the heart of a certain Dr Feelgood number (‘Everyone needs a shot of R&B, so come on down to my surgery’). And soon enough, I’m on to Annie Hardy.

If you don’t know Annie’s story, you’ve some catching up to do, but you could do worse than check out a few online videos – try the promos for ‘Kevin is Gay’ (and the Jimmy Kimmel Live! Appearance), ‘Stuff To Live For’, ‘This Isn’t It’ and ‘Devil Inside’, plus the revealing 2009 Groupee sessions’ footage, not least ‘Swan Song’ and ‘YFLMD’ – and streamed tracks for her ‘nu grunge’ outfit, then pop along and see her while she’s in the country. Think PJ Harvey, or maybe Cyndi Lauper fronting Nirvana.

Is this quirky California girl enjoying a dismal and nippy British winter?

“It’s very cold – much colder than I’m used to, but …”

She’d not long arrived when we spoke, but was she steadily acclimatising?

“I’m trying to. It’s a lot wetter here than home too.”

I get the impression that some visitors from the Southern hemisphere and the west of America love to come to the UK in winter so they can get to wear more clothes. Is that the case with Annie?

“Not really. I’d rather wear less clothes. Don’t want to sound like a slut, but I like to be warm. I like to have that option. But then when I’ve played a show I’ll be sweating and I’m too hot, so I can’t win. But at the end of the day you end up adjusting.”

On the day we spoke, Annie was in Hackney, East London, all set for that evening’s tour opener at Oslo. Did she have a busy afternoon ahead?

“Yeah, we’ve got to pick up more gear from the music store, then have a very long soundcheck. We’ve never played like this – back home we were using electronic drumkits and practise amps, so this is a rather sizeable change of pace.”

‘We’ in this case is Annie (guitar, vocals) and co-rider Colin Deatherage (drums and synthesiser – and while that sounds an unlikely combination, it certainly works). Has she got plenty of merchandise to share with us?

“Oh yeah, I’ve a lot of handmade merchandise that I brought (over). Basically, that’s all I brought. I literally didn’t bring one pair of underwear with me. Instead, I brought handmade jewellery and other stuff I make.”

Maybe a tour of East London will throw up a few underwear options for a woman voted 50th Coolest Person in The World by the NME back in the day.

“I hope so.”

Or maybe they’ll come your way tonight, thrown on to the stage, as would be the case at Tom Jones concerts back in the day (and probably now, but I haven’t researched that).

“That’s never happened before … but I’ve had people throw tampons at me. Not like Carrie … I was on stage once and asked for one, and all these tampons came my way. I was like, ‘Shit! Does that work for money? I need a dollar!’ Then a bunch of money came my way, and I thought, ‘Fuck, yeah, I think I’m on to something here!”

I was going to say, after the oft-repeated 1967 Marianne Faithfull police raid yarn, the Rolling Stones would get Mars Bars thrown their way on stage, yet you got sanitary items. What does that tell us? I’m not sure.

“I think it tells the story that whatever you want in life, you’ve just gotta ask for it.”

Absolutely, and it seems that Annie’s got to know the UK and mainland Europe fairly well over the years, with plenty of mutual love between artiste and crowd this side of the Atlantic.

“Oh, totally. I feel more understood by the kind people of England and Europe in general.”

Ever try to put your finger on why that might be? What do we get that maybe you don’t back home?

“Well, you know … I think it’s my sense of humour. I have more of a dry sense of humour.”

She looks to dwell further on this, coming up with something about Stella Artois being an import back home that people will pay a lot of money for, while Budweiser is expensive to ‘you guys’, but at home ‘regarded as crap’. But I’m more of a real ale man, and I’m not sure I know anyone who craves a Bud, so that analogy’s a little lost on me.

Whisper Om: Ajay and Merinde plug the new Deutsche Ashram LP, in a brief break from their Giant Drag support role.

The Netherlands is definitely good for the amber nectar though, and discussion followed about Giant Drag’s Amsterdam-based support act, Deutsche Ashram, a gifted duo comprising Lancashire alternative and indie scene luminary Ajay Saggar and talented Dutch singer Merinde Verbeek, previously featured on this website, and brought into the frame by Dr Kiko, apparently.

While I recommend you all catch up with their two LPs so far (the new one, neo-pop opus Whisper Om, is just out, with details here), Annie suggested that while she doesn’t tend to listen to a lot of music these days, the bonus for her was that Ajay was helping out with sound on a tour for which ‘everyone’s multi-tasking’.

And Ajay and Merinde will no doubt be a positive factor in the organisation of three tour dates in the Netherlands on this jaunt, not least one at the Paradiso, where they both work.

“Yeah, it all worked out pretty well.”

Actually, in the Resurrection tour press release, she delves a little more into that mutual love with her UK and European fans and how the tour came together, stating, “The best part is that, like last tour, people are helping me out of the kindness of their hearts and because they think I’m a good person and believe in my talent. Quite a change of pace from the projections of the fallen people that surround me here in America.

“It’s life-affirming and validating and restorative to my spirit to be able to come back and take Giant Drag on another run around the only place that matters, Europe and the United Kingdom. This tour, which I’m calling Cum Back Tour for the time being, will be cast with people who mirror back to me my own positive traits. I’ve had fatal humility for the past few years. Fuck that shit.”

Any of these dates Annie’s particularly looking forward to? Any cities and towns she felt she owed it to herself to return to?

“I thought Bristol was really great, the best show of the last tour. And then someone was telling me last night that Stonehenge is on one of the major ley-line points and vortexes of the world. So that makes sense now.”

Something that can be said of the Glastonbury Festival site too.

“Yeah. and that’s so cool.”

I’m sure she would have enjoyed her visit to the good (cargo) ship Thekla this week then, on a return to Bristol. But has she got time to properly see places on this swift schedule, or is it a case of set up, play, wham bam, thank you mam?

“There’s no time whatsoever, although one of the shows I believe has gotten cancelled, so maybe we will have time. I’m hoping to at least get down to some freezing cold beach somewhen, looking for crystals and gemstones. You guys have a lot of Victorian mines out here. I keep watching YouTube videos of this girl and her Mum beachcombing, finding all these rubies and korite, all sorts of things. I’m into all that shit! I think that’s in Scotland.”

I subsequently followed a link and found a Northern Mudlarks video, filmed on the Fife coast. But by the time you read this, Annie will have returned south of the corner, possibly with a bag of new undies and sparkling garnets. heading for tonight’s visit to Yorkshire (details below), the Resurrection tour having wound its way from London to Bristol, then Newcastle and Nottingham before dates in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Meanwhile, debut Giant Drag LP, Hearts & Unicorns, from 2005, is finally about to be released on vinyl, through Yeah! Right Records, and there’s a new Annie Hardy solo EP, Saves, out too, released in digital format through Full Psycho Records, described by Annie as, ‘Flow state songs that came out finished from start to end, as if I was receiving a fax from the seventh dimension’.

But I guess the big question is ‘why now?’ Why go back out there as Giant Drag, way beyond the 2013 farewell tour, rather than as Annie Hardy?

“I don’t know. It just kind of worked out. I did a sixth anniversary post of the farewell tour, and (Dr) Kiko saw that on Instagram and suggested we did it again. I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s!’, one of these things you say and then nothing happens.”

Unbeknown to Annie though, the doc decided to look deeper into it, with her blessing, and ‘about five minutes later he’d produced a two-week tour that would usually take several weeks to do.’

But it won’t be easy for Annie, who, post-farewell tour, has suffered so much loss and tragedy. Her infant son and his father both died within the same year, while friend and bassist Alvin DeGuzman died of cancer, and even her cat was tragically killed.

However, through it all somehow, she transmuted that pain, 2017’s debut solo LP Rules following, my subject transforming ‘into Annie Hardy 3.0, a ballsy powerhouse of freestyling comedy mastery with the same vulnerability and tender heart that has always been her mainstay’.

When I listen back to an at-times heart-wrenching Rules, paying its own special tributes to lost loved ones, I think of Van Morrison’s life-affirming, ‘The Healing Has Begun’. Some three years on, it’s a stupid question maybe, but was that album a case of you trying to make sense of a lot of things?

“Yeah, that was a really profound healing experience. My son had died and I was in the studio recording Rules, when … actually, today’s the anniversary of when Robert, my baby’s father, died, while I was making it. And strangely he was due to go to the UK and the Netherlands, exactly where we’re going.

“He never made it, obviously, but it’s pretty crazy that the tour starts on the same day he passed away. And we’d never played the Netherlands that much. It was just once last time, so for it to be the same route that Robert was doing is super-bizarre.”

Will this tour set be exclusively Giant Drag songs, old and new, or with a smattering of solo tracks too?

“I do a small acoustic set in with it all, but I don’t know if it’s solo stuff. I’m not really playing anything off Rules, ‘cos it’s so fucking depressing as a record. It’s mostly – pretty much equally – old Giant Drag and newer Giant Drag. But with the solo stuff … there’s not a big difference, y’know.”

What’s going to be playing in the van this time? You suggest you’re not a big listener to other music.

“I prefer not to listen to anything. Usually it’s talking. We’ve not had any long drives yet though. I don’t know. My life’s become so much better for that – my creativity has become out of this world because of it, and I feel a lot less oppressed.

“When you’re writing music, you can’t help but regurgitate stuff and judge yourself against all the greats that you listen to. So I’m releasing a lot of the judgement, because I’m not hearing music.”

Do you tend to fill empty hours between soundchecks and so on with pen or guitar in hand? Or do you wait to get home for all that?

“I’m kind of writing all the time, although I go through dry spells. Because I get inspired by my life, mostly through upset, I’ll start recording music or writing as some last-ditch effort in the moment of trauma or serious upset – it’s the one thing I can do, turning all the negativity into something good.”

Do you recall where your first live performance this side of the Atlantic was, and how it went?

“That would have been … fuck! Somewhere … not London. I wanna say Norwich or Nottingham. It went all right. It was not too dissimilar to now. I had a new person playing with me, because Micah (Calabrese, her original musical partner, the pair working together from 2003) never wanted to be in a band. He has life skills, like building computers. But he helped me train that guy and we came over and I think it was good.

“To be honest, I don’t have a lot of memories of that (first) tour for one reason or another – whether it’s because it was over a decade ago, or because I was getting wasted, or whatever. But it must have been a good time.”

Who was the first act you saw live or on television, or heard on a radio or a stereo, and thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life’?

“That’s a good question. Probably Nirvana, back in the ’90s.”

Bear in mind that Annie was born in 1981 and hadn’t quite become a teenager when Kurt Cobain took his own life. He clearly had a big impact on her though.

Were there ever day-jobs to pay for her rock’n’roll lifestyle and dreams?

“I think the last job I had was in a coffee shop. But I was like, ‘You know what? This is fucking not it! I’m just going to fully commit, because I know this is what is meant to be mine. I’m going to live and adjust accordingly.’

“Then I think I got a DJ job, at some Hollywood bar every Saturday night for $200. And I moved into a closet under the stairs at my friend’s house, where I paid $200 a month, so one week of work covered my rent, and I was there … I got signed while I was living in that closet.”

It’s way too early to ask you this really, but what will you be missing most from back home in LA while touring?

“Ooh, my cat. Besides that, I can live without most of the rest of whatever’s going on in America behind … happily. But Goostine … he still makes my heart ache.”

We briefly got on to pet therapy there, and the trauma of losing a loved pet, before switching subjects again, this time to Giant Drag’s version of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ and how Annie regularly tells audiences the story of how she wrote that song as a little girl, and Stockton, California-born Chris stole it (from a girl who was only eight when it became a hit). Has he admitted his guilt and paid up her share of the royalties yet?

“Not yet, but I do think at some point somebody must have clued him into my pre-song monologue. I don’t learn from mistakes! I can’t stop. The joke’s been going too long to stop now.”

If you had to write a list this week of ‘Stuff to Live For’, as per another live favourite, what would be on there?

“Well, active creation I would say. That flow state, the point of … I think (Abraham) Maslow called it a peak moment when you achieve self-actualisation … which I think I did last time I was over here. I just had this feeling of oneness with the universe, having a place in the world … that was a timeless, spaceless place of being in the act of creation.”

There’s a bit more on Annie’s ‘flow state thinking’ in the tour press release, where she adds, “I operate in the flow state, that space of inspiration and creativity that exists outside of time and space, where all you require is freely given to you by the universe, completely effortlessly, merely because you’re allowing it to come in. Kiko is whirlwinding through booking his first tour with the greatest of ease operating through this principle.

“In life and with my music and professional career, the more I try, the worse something gets messed up. The less I try to exert control over things, the bigger, bolder and more beautiful life continues to get. I’m excited to hit the road with an all-sober touring party of angelic souls and be able to experience these beautiful countries with a clear mind and balanced spirit. Even though it’s going to be cold as balls.”

And if she could step into the time machine and head back to the dawn of 2000, four years before debut Giant Drag EP, ‘Lemona’, what advice might Annie Hardy 3.0 give her 18-year-old self … and do you think she would actually listen?

“She wouldn’t have listened … but I would have given her this advice – stay single, don’t date anyone, and never take that first pill … ’cos they’re too good.

“Although ultimately, I don’t regret anything, because it took all the bullshit I’d been through to get me to this place I’m at now. Although it’s an incredibly lonely place that most people aren’t able to go with me, one day that may not be the case. I could be wrong, but … ha!”

Drag Racer: Annie Hardy, back out there with Giant Drag, six years beyond the farewell tour, and passing your way.

Giant Drag Resurrection Tour 2020, remaining dates: Wednesday, January 29th – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds; Thursday, January 30th  – Deaf Institute, Manchester; Saturday, February 1st –Vessel 11, Rotterdam; Sunday, February 2nd – Paradiso, Amsterdam; Tuesday, February 4th – dB’s, Utrecht; Wednesday, February 5th – Het Bos, Antwerpen; Thursday, February 6th – Music Hall, Ramsgate. For more details head to the band’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter platforms. You can also keep in touch with Deutsche Ashram via their Facebook and Instagram homes.

 

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Wild Wood Wonders and Wanders, via Seattle and South London – catching up with Smoke Fairies

 

Hats Entertainment: Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, aka Smoke Fairies, under cover (Photo: Maria Mochnacz)

It’s bang on seven in the evening, and Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire are at their South London gaff, doing a little further prep work for a 10-date homeland tour.

Jessica: “We’re signing a huge pile of records … what looks like every single record we’re putting out. There’s stacks and stacks of them.”

There seem to be lots of impressive formats of the eagerly-awaited new Smoke Fairies album, Darkness Brings the Wonders Home, including a special edition, deluxe CD with lyric book in a hardback-bound, plus gold foil embossed sleeve, coloured vinyl, and so on.

Jessica: “Yeah, it’s a bit confusing.”

Katherine: “I think the most-rare copies are going to be the ones that are unsigned. If you get one of those you’ll be really lucky.”

It’s the girls’ first album in four years, released on  January 31st, recorded over four weeks in Seattle, Washington State, just over a year ago with producer Phil Ek, who started out assisting Jack Endino (Nirvana, Soundgarden), and is more recently known for work with The Black Angels, Fleet Foxes, and The Shins.

And Smoke Fairies’ latest subject matter? Ah, that’ll be ‘drawing inspiration from mysteries both real and imagined: sea monsters, flocks of crows taking flight in extravagant formation, and strange creatures dwelling in the mud’ near their new abode.

The girls are based in Borough, near the market close to the Thames and London Bridge, but last time we spoke – I reminded them – four and half years or so ago, they were wandering around a churchyard with their band in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire looking for Sylvia Plath’s grave.

Katherine: “Ah, that was me you were talking to. I remember that very clearly. It was a very nice day and I was chatting about what we were doing … probably one of the weirder days on that tour.”

Vision On: Jessica and Katherine wait with trepidation to see what WriteWyattUK’s written. (Photo: Annick Wolfers)

I seem to recall you played the Hebden Bridge Trades Club the night before.

Katherine: “Yeah, that place is really special, although we’re not going there on this part of the tour. We’re playing Manchester though.”

Indeed they are. After opening the tour in Margate, the girls are heading for the North West, playing the Soup Kitchen in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, not so far in the scheme of things from the last place I saw them, supporting Public Service Broadcasting at the Ritz in May 2015.

Jessica: “Ah yeah, that was a good show.”

Katherine: “That was probably the last tour we played with a full band. This time though we’re switching things up a bit. We’re one person down, a four-piece now, and because it’s been such a long time since our last record it almost felt like starting from scratch again, scrubbing everything out almost, thinking about what we really wanted to do from the beginning point.”

It’s been a long time since your last LP, Wild Winter was released. Any particular reason?

Jessica: “I guess there’s loads, finding what kind of songs we wanted to write. We’re always writing, but it was about taking the time to find out what we really want to do and finding the right sound, going back to being a two-piece, then finding the right opportunity to release stuff and make sure we write with the right people.

“In the end we ended up going out to Seattle, and that took a long time to sort out. Contracts and things take a lot longer to sort out than people think. So there was a bit of artistic stuff and a bit of boring admin that meant five years kind of slipped by.”

Did you decide on Seattle chiefly because of Phil Ek?

Jessica: “Yeah, primarily.”

I know Fleet Foxes came up in conversation last time as an influence, in respect of those gorgeous close harmonies of yours.

Jessica: “Did you say that, Kath?”

Katherine: “I guess we might have been listening to them in the back (of the van) or something!”

Note here that I thought Katherine said ‘bath’ at the time, but that was later picked up on by Jessica. Bet Fleet Foxes sound good in the bath, mind. Anyway, carry on.

Jessica: “Fleet Foxes are definitely a reason why we sought Phil out though, thinking, ‘If he knows how to record harmonies …’ He’d also worked on this album by The Black Angels (the Texas psych-rock outfit’s fifth studio album, 2017’s Death Song), which we’re really big fans of.

“This album is also way more kind of riff-driven and we wanted someone who record guitar riffs really clear, and having heard that last Black Angels album, we thought we should try and work with Phil.”

You do seem to be channeling your inner guitar heroes on new numbers like ‘Elevator’.

Jessica: “Yeah. I think that’s always been there, and we’ve always been fairly riff-driven, but I guess it might just have got a bit swamped with the backing and other band members on our last album. It took us a while to decide that it should just be about us and the guitars and the close harmonies.

Katherine: “In many ways the guitar playing’s got simpler. We’d often have different sections and lots of details, and now I think we’ve broken them down to their barest details, and more essential. I guess in a sense it’s a simpler sound, and sometimes those more simple sounds can sound bigger.”

I  guess that’s your more bluesy roots coming through. And while when you started you were perceived as being more folky, the blues were always kind of in there.

Jessica: “Yeah, there’s always been a kind of darkness and heaviness to our music, and it’s really good to explore that and I think we have on this record.”

Budding Friendship: Katherine and Jessica, coming to a town near you this next week or so (Photo: Maria Mochnacz)

Katherine: “Because there was so long between the records, we had quite a lot of time – while things were being sorted out – to decide which songs represented what we wanted to sound like. And there are songs that didn’t make it on there that had a different sound. It was about finding a family of songs that perfectly fitted together.”

Ah, so there could be another little family there waiting to see the light of day, another album likely to appear pretty soon after this one?

Katherine: “There’s definitely another family that was left behind!”

Jessica: “Ah, that sounds so sad!”

Early reviews I’ve seen of the new record tend to use those trigger words for more recent Smoke Fairies releases, like ‘dark’ and ‘stark’. In fact, Jessica said in their press release, reflecting on the LP title, “Times of darkness are when people are often the most imaginative. It helps you to see all the wonders of the world you hadn’t noticed before – the things you’ve been blind to because you’ve been on autopilot for so long.”

Looking back at my review of their set with Public Service Broadcasting at the Ritz, I alluded to the fact that the girls, while clearly beguiling and rather exquisite with their on-stage blend and chemistry, were a little ballsier than many might have expected. And that wasn’t meant to be patronising.

Jessica: “That’s good. I think we are.”

Katherine: (laughs) “We do always get a little frustrated, getting pigeon-holed from the start as some sort of folk act. And to us, there was only a short period where we were a folk act.”

Jessica: “And we were never really folk in the traditional sense anyway.”

Past Product: Your scribe proudly displays his signed Smoke Fairies CD, following a 2015 merch stand moment.

Katherine: “It wasn’t folk in the way that would allow the folk scene to think of us a folk artist. We were always intertwining with other styles, and always had quite a driven sound.”

Jessica: “Because of the name, I guess, and the fact that we are two women, journalists always tend to use words like ethereal and spell-binding …”

I best cross those words out now. Yep, carry on …

Jessica: “They’d expect us to put on some kind of dreamy live show, when in fact we really like playing guitars and cranking them up.”

Absolutely. Stomping down your space boots on the stage as you go?

Jessica: “Exactly!”

Katherine: “Even when we’re writing songs, the riff is the starting point. It’s really essential to what we’re doing.”

But in terms of lazy pigeon-holing, there were always shades of so much more – from electronica to a bit of pop, trip-hop, you name it …

Jessica: “Yeah, and I guess that’s why, maybe, people are a bit confused by it.”

Katherine: “I think with this album it was a case of, ‘How do we present who we are now in the clearest and most easy to understand way. We can veer off into lots of different directions, but chose to go down quite a specific path with this record, to make sure people understand who we were.”

Live Poise: Jessica, left, and Katherine in action in 2015 (Photo: Elliot McRae c/o Smoke Fairies on Facebook)

Incidentally, I reckon you should record, at least as B-sides or extra tracks on albums, some of the autotuned ditties you’ve featured on your entertaining podcast, detailing life on the road with Smoke Fairies.

Katherine: “Ha! Well, the one about farts I think has potential.”

Personally, I liked the ‘We’ve Seen Birds’ prototype too.

Jessica: “I guess when people think about us writing songs they think of toiling away with a quill pen into a leather-bound book. But sometimes you can just get a lot of fun and inspiration from joking around.”

Katherine: “The podcast has been such an enjoyable experience. It was a chance to not take us too seriously. You can really get quite intensed out by music. It’s hard and it’s tough, and you get a lot of knockbacks. Sometimes you just find the lightness really helps.”

And anyone who’s been on the road as a fully-functioning band or is just interested in a fly on the panel van interior sense about that whole dynamic of touring shenanigans will warm to all that.

Katherine: “Yeah, you get into this weird kind of touring pattern, with silly in-jokes, losing all sense of decorum. Me and Jess spend a lot of time together, and sometimes when we’re hanging out I think if people knew how ridiculously stupid our conversations were, they’d be quite surprised. Because our music delves into that darkness and bleakness, but …”

I suppose we more likely expect to see you trudging through woodland in the dead of night with mud on your palms.

Jessica: “I mean, we do a lot of the time, as well.”

Two’s Company: Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, aka Smoke Fairies. A little darkness goes a long, long way

There’s a cracking story on your latest podcast about you being stopped by a policeman  somewhere in America, asked to provide various details to ensure your bonafide driving credentials. I won’t spoil it here, but recommend readers check it out.

Jessica: “I think if we were American, we’d have been carted off and tasered, or something. Maybe we were saved by our British accents. A horrible thought, but we were in a privileged position, I think.”

Katherine: “That was a day that just got worse and worse, and more out of control.”

Jessica: “And you never are (in control) when you’re on tour.”

Katherine: “But I’m looking forward to going back out there again, having more ridiculous stories to tell.”

And we should get a few stories from this forthcoming domestic jaunt, which starts … erm, Elsewhere, I believe.

Jessica: “Yeah, Exactly. That’s down in Margate.”

Katherine: “We should be filming a video down there too, for the next track coming out, ‘Elevator’. We basically play ridiculous versions of ourselves on stage … and going up and down in an elevator as well.”

That’s called a lift where I come from. But I let that go. Too much Aerosmith in their diet, maybe.

Outdoor Chic: Smoke Fairies, supporting new LP, Darkness Brings the Wonders Home (Photo: Maria Mochnacz)

And isn’t it in Margate where they’ve reenergised the theme park, with a retro fairground feel?

Jessica: “Yeah, Dreamland, that’s really good.”

That’s the one, with creative input from the design company set up by past WriteWyattUK interviewee Wayne Hemingway, I seem to recall. And you thread your way right through to a sold-out show in Portsmouth for your tour finale, visiting the Square Tower. Is that as close as you get these days to a show in your old hometown, Chichester?

Katherine: “I guess so. I don’t remember playing Portsmouth, but we were always gigging around our hometown when we started out.”

Are you still in touch with any of the big-name acts you toured with in the past (an impressive list that includes Bryan Ferry, Richard Hawley, Laura Marling and The Handsome Family, as well as the afore-mentioned Public Service Broadcasting)?

Jessica: “Well, we were invited to Richard Hawley’s birthday party (last weekend), but we’ve been rehearsing so much with this new album release that we didn’t have time to go along. He’s always been really supportive though, and is so down to earth. We could definitely call him to ask anything about guitar amps or whatever.

“With regard to Bryan Ferry … maybe we’ll send him an album. We haven’t really spoken to him for about 10 years, but I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten us.”

And are there still day-jobs for you two? Last time we spoke you were temping between recording and tour commitments.

Jessica: “Yeah, in fact they’ve kind of got more serious as the years have gone on.”

Katherine: “When we were temping, it just got so depressing, so now we’ve found things that are more meaningful.”

Past Support: Richard Hawley has been a big help to Smoke Fairies’ cause in the past (Photo: Chris Saunders)

These days Jessica works within architectural circles while Katherine is involved with libraries, ‘so they’re still both in the culture sector, and it’s interesting’, as Jessica put it.

Accordingly though, the pair have to use up contracted holidays for tour, promotional and recording commitments, including their four-week stint in Seattle for the new LP, recorded in November 2018, the girls having then ‘sat on it for a year’, sussing out the best way to self-release, having previously been part of the Full Time Hobby label stable.

Apparently, Jessica and Katherine spent a fair bit of their time out in Seattle in a guitar shop near the studio, experimenting with countless guitars and amps to augment the album’s sonic palette. As Katherine put it, “It was like being in a sweet shop, getting to try all these guitars we’d normally never be able to afford. We ended up making friends with guitars we never thought to use before, like this weird vintage Kay that sounded great but was so hard to play—to the point where there were days when our fingers were bleeding, or we had blisters in places you didn’t even know you could get them.”

There’s already been one live show, Smoke Fairies performing at a special sold-out launch in mid-November at The Social in Little Portland Street, London, presented by Rough Trade, a limited edition 7” picture disc of the first single from the album, ‘Out Of The Woods’ / ‘Disconnect’, selling out on the night.

So what’s the A-side about? The girls say it’s sparked from Smoke Fairies’ study of the overgrown pond behind their house, Katherine revealing, “There’s something magical about all these weird things living out there in the mud. We started to project onto that, like the idea of something unexpected and good coming from the mud of your emotions.”

And their overall take on Darkness Brings The Wonders Home? That it ‘signals a strengthening of the inextricable bond they’ve forged through the years’, the pair finding ‘the courage essential for bringing such an emotionally-trying album to life’.

As Katherine put it, “So many of the songs are about these feelings of disconnection, but the irony is that Jessica and I have each other, and that means so much more than any of the other relationships that come and go. I think what we’re attempting to show is that, in all this chaos that’s so tumultuous and overwhelming, there are always ways to change your perspective.

“Making this album, we conquered so many worries and doubts and felt so much stronger at the end -we went right into the darkness, and somehow brought something incredibly positive out of it.”

Smoke Signals: Jessica and Katherine continue to make an impact on the UK indie scene … with added riffery

The new LP is on my listening pile right now, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard so far. What’s more, I’m hoping to get along to the Soup Kitchen on February 1st, a new venue for me.

Katherine: “It’s quite a good venue. Last time we played there everyone cried.”

Blimey. Is that a good thing?

Jessica: “We had this beer we were selling, called Wild Winter, it was very strong, and I think there was something about the concoction that made everyone quite teary. It was a Christmas album so I suppose people have a lot of emotion attached to that. Some songs touch on family and on religion, and I guess people just got a bit emotional.”

Katherine: “We should have a warning on our music that you shouldn’t drink anything over six per cent …”

Otherwise, I guess you might wake up in some dank and dark woodland, wondering what the hell happened.

Katherine: “Yeah, or you might need a lot of counselling.”

For this website’s 2015 interview with Katherine Blamire, head here. And for our review of Public Service Broadcasting and Smoke Fairies at the Ritz in Manchester around then, head here.

Woodland Tops: Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, Out of the Woods and back on tour (Photo: Maria Mochnacz)

Smoke Fairies’ new LP, Darkness Brings The Wonders Home is available to pre-order via www.smokefairies.com, where you can also snap up tickets for the remaining dates on the accompanying tour yet to sell out.

UK tour dates:  26th Jan – Margate, Elsewhere; 1st Feb – Manchester, Soup Kitchen (sold out); 2nd Feb – Leeds, Oporto; 3rd Feb – Norwich, Arts Centre; 4th Feb – London, Rough Trade East [instore]; 5th Feb – Oxford, Bullingdon; 6th Feb – London, Hoxton Hall (sold out); 7th Feb – Birmingham, Sunflower Lounge; 8th Feb – Bristol, Rough Trade; 9th Feb – Portsmouth, Square Tower (sold out). Meanwhile, Jessica and Katherine’s Smoke Signals podcast can be found here

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Taking the Continental approach to live entertainment – in conversation with Rob Talbot

Wünderbar Regulars: Rob Talbot hanging out with with Edward Tudor-Pole at the Conti in late 2019, while Pauline Murray silently questions whether he should get another half in. Swords of a Thousand Men just out of shot.

Rob Talbot reached his 10th anniversary as events organiser at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, in 2019, and clearly still retains his initial passion for that role, long after a second career switch.

“I was working as a teacher, thoroughly miserable, saw this come up and just went for it. I was teaching secondary school English in Blackburn, and was a supply teacher before that. But I’ve always been a music fan.

“When I got the job there weren’t really any gigs going on. It was more about promotion of the venue in general. But it sort of morphed into that, building up that side.”

It certainly has, a host of happening and cult acts, fairly big and not so big names featuring since. I was relatively slow to the party, based a few miles down the road, knowing the South Meadow Lane venue chiefly as a quirky watering hole on the banks of the River Ribble, handy for a bike ride into town via the Old Tram Bridge and taking in the wonders of the adjoining Avenham and Miller parks.

It wasn’t until influential post-punk outfit Wire visited in the summer of 2013 that I checked out the main concert hall. But many more visits soon followed.

My main link came through Rico La Rocca’s John Peel tribute shows, featuring various under-sung acts who featured at some stage or other in sessions commissioned by the legendary BBC Radio 1 presenter.

It wasn’t just about indie and post-punk, but the avant garde, psychedelia, folk and emerging pop too. And much more besides.

In 2019 alone I marvelled at acts as diverse as Penetration and The Rutles, and WriteWyattUK favourites The Wedding Present played memorable back-to-back nights there in 2017.

Cash Customer: Rob Talbot gets confrontational at the Conti with 999 frontman Nick Cash

Rob – you’ll spot him on the desk by the venue’s back room most nights, or nipping outside for a crafty cigarette – lived fairly close when he got the job, in Ashton-on-Ribble, and is these days not so far off in neighbouring Penwortham. And was quick to praise those he’s worked alongside over the past decade.

“It’s mostly me, although other people do feed in. It’s my nine-to-five and a bit more besides, with evenings.”

And that’s an understatement, I reckon.

According to his blog, he’s also a ‘bookworm and film addict’, as those who know him personally and follow his social media posts know well.

“Yeah, there’s not a lot of time for that, but I get as much as I can in.”

Rob is also a published non-fiction writer and is ‘heading towards’ publishing his debut novel at present, at the negotiating deals stage, writing in the horror genre. He also writes articles for Scream! The Horror magazine.

But back to the main day and night job – what were his 2019 Conti highlights?

“Probably Acid Mothers Temple, who I’ve wanted to have here for a while.  Also, the Damo Suzuki show, which marked 10 years of gigs at the Conti, with quite a few bands on, samba drummers and all sorts. It felt like quite an event and showed how far we’d come in those 10 years.”

Visible Girl: Pauline Murray, in action at The Continental in 2019 with the mighty Penetration (Photo: Gary M Hough)

Quite a coup. Have you been a Can fan for a long time?

“I’ve always been quite psychedelically-minded. The whole programme here – and it’s obviously not all for me! – is to try and do something for everyone … within reason, y’know.”

There’s certainly a broad church of tastes catered for, taking us on to the recent sad news that former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band creator and Monty Python musical member Neil Innes, who appeared at the Conti with his cult Beatles parody band, The Rutles in late May, had died. A real shock.

“It was, and there were plans for them to return this year. He seemed to be in fine form.”

Before retraining as a teacher, Rob was an office worker, the first of his ’life-changing’ moves following at the University of Central Lancashire, studying for a PGCE. I guess he was writing in his  spare time though.

“Pretty much. I’ve always been doing something like that. I used to do art and comic strips quite a while back, but writing’s taken over really.”

And that was following your parents’ lead, wasn’t it?

“Yeah, my Dad’s a writer/artist, and my Mum’s a writer, and recently they’ve been working on novels together.”

Colin Calls: Wire’s Colin Newman in action at The Continental in 2013 on a hot summer’s night (Photo: Richard Nixon)

His folks hail from Wigan but Rob grew up in Preston, with his parents based in Sunderland since the mid-1990s, his Mum working at the university there.

Married and with two teenage daughters, what would 47-year-old Rob see as most important about local venues in these penny-pinching days of austerity and changing social patterns, when so many pubs and clubs have closed or are under threat?

“It’s something for people in the community to go out and do, particularly at the weekend, and not something corporate. It’s not about going to some faceless venue, buying a can of Carling Black Label and just seeing a band from a distance.

“You’re just here, they ‘re right in front of you, and you can say hello afterwards. People love that.”

That’s certainly true when it comes to the CAMRA-award-winning Conti, which has a charm of its own. In a sense it’s not just one venue either – it boasts a snug bar too, also used for music and arts events, as well as inside and outside areas to socialise in a setting with a real community vibe. Blimey, best stop there. This is starting to sound like an advertorial. Help us out, Rob.

”There’s a different vibe completely in the snug, and it’s good that we can do proper gigs of a decent size and everyone can enjoy it. I talk to a lot of regulars who come to the gigs and it’s almost like they’ve got a stake in the place. They love it, and they’ll take a chance on some things that normally they probably wouldn’t, but they do because it’s here.”

And you continue to mix things up a bit, with regular open mic. and snug sofa sessions, classic album nights, and so on.

“Yeah, those are just things we try to push, and they’re free as well, which encourages people to get out and get involved.”

Bridge Spanned: Outside the Conti, Preston (Photo: http://www.newcontinental.net)

I seem to recall a writers’ group meets down there.

“There is – a creative writing group I wish I’d been to but never have. And a local poetry group, and a book club that meets once a month.”

I guess over the past decade you’ve seen a fair few big names pass through and smaller acts on their way to making a name for themselves?

“Yes, Rae Morris springs to mind, and quite a few others, and I’ve seen a lot who deserve to be bigger.”

I caught him on the hop there, but as well as Atlantic Records’ Rae there have been bookings for Ezra Furman, The Monochrome Set, Deaf School, The Magic Band, Fat White Family, Mike Peters, The Troggs, Evil Blizzard, The Lovely Eggs, The Loft, King Creosote, John Bramwell, A Certain Ratio’s Jez Kerr, Viv Albertine and Nick Harper.

A fair few of the above are on that ‘how the hell did I miss that?’ list. And you can add to that a few I did catch, like Rose McDowall, The Orchids, The Chesterfields, King Champion Sounds, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, The Membranes, The Common Cold, Datblygu, Eton Crop, The Nightingales, Deutsche Ashram, The Folk Devils, and The Wolfhounds, and a few more I – again – somehow missed, like Trembling Bells, The Mekons, The Three Johns, Lydia Lunch, Thurston Moore, Senser, Justin Sullivan … I’ll stop there. Which bookings have given Rob the biggest thrill?

“Probably a punk band like Discharge. They were my early 20s. Also, Nik Turner from Hawkwind. There was quite a geeky buzz from that. And he’s been back a few times.”

And what would you say remains your dream future booking?

“I’d love to put on The Damned. They’re a little too big for us, but who knows. I’m hoping word gets back to them via the punk circuit about how great a place this is to play.”

You have at least one classic late ‘70s punk bands coming this April, with WriteWyattUK faves The Members playing.

“I’m looking forward to that. And there are a few punk gigs I haven’t announced yet, including Anti-Pasti, plus TV Smith and The Vibrators on a double-bill, the UK Subs later in the year, Anti-Nowhere League coming back, Attila the Stockbroker coming back with a full band … quite a few things going on.”

Booking Now: Rob Talbot has a moment away from the day and night job, The Continental, Preston, Lancashire

For more about Rob’s writing, head to his website. And to find out what’s coming up at The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, try here.  

 

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Comedy & Theatre, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aspirations wrapped up in books – talking Get It Loud in Libraries with Stewart Parsons

Parsons Knows: Get It Loud in Libraries founder Stewart Parsons at Liverpool Central Library (Photo: Andy Von Pip)

It’ll be 15 years ago this coming May that a pilot show featuring Natascha Sohl lured the BBC’s North West Tonight cameras to Lancaster Central Library, for what turned out to be the debut event of the innovative Get It Loud in Libraries initiative.

But while that show attracted a three-figure crowd, project founder and company director Stewart Parsons sees the following year’s sell-out gig by Sheffield five-piece indie rock band The Long Blondes at the same city centre location as his true breakthrough. And as he put it to me, “Just signed to Rough Trade, playing a library: perfect.”

That booking – and the inevitable ‘shhh!’ headlines across the print and broadcast media – was followed by several more, and … well, I’ll let Stewart carry on the story.

“Lancashire County Council were brilliant supporting the first wave of activity. Then the popularity of the programme won us a few national awards and we scoped out the delivery, maximising local government funding to Burnley (Essex hip-hop duo Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip), Skelmersdale (Swedish indie pop outfit Miike Snow) and the Harris in Preston (American singer-songwriter Neko Case).”

Stewart, originally from my adopted hometown of Leyland, Lancashire, was a humble music librarian at the beginning, but soon realised he’d hit on a winning formula.

“I wanted to subvert perceptions for young people of what a library can look and feel like. Libraries are the original cultural venue and I wanted to turn up the decibels to make that better known.

“Also, I wanted to circumnavigate the BPI agreement, which at the time denoted that a CD could not be loaned in a library until three months after its commercial release date. That offer was rubbish for young people demanding the latest Franz Ferdinand or Interpol album.

“So I started asking bands to play live instead. Didn’t get Franz Ferdinand, though I still live in hope. And I once turned down Hot Chip before they broke through. I hate myself for that. They would have been ace in the library. But it is hugely important that all demographics of the community have welcome access to brand new, quality live music, and libraries are the perfect hub for that. I wanted to create doorstep gigs in welcoming cultural venues that were accessible for all.”

Vision 2020: Just a few of the Get it Loud in Libraries sonic treats lined up for the first few months of this year

In the early stages, Lancaster Library began staging comedy shows too, under the name Laugh Out Loud in Libraries, with Arthur Smith, Josie Long and Lucy Porter among the first guests. And five years into the venture, a £500,000 Lottery-funded refit was initiated to open up the space for larger shows, around the time the organisers started taking the scheme across the county.

Around then, Morecambe Library welcomed film star turned solo artist Juliette Lewis and Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle, and then came Brit Awards’ Critics Choice winner Ellie Goulding, Dum Dum Girls, and many more, involvement from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council – UK libraries’ governing body – helping initiate ambitious plans to roll out the idea nationwide for both music and comedy.

Speaking to the Lancashire Post five years ago, Stewart said, “I won’t be happy until every library across the globe is doing this. We’ve got interest from some European libraries, we’ve got interest from some American libraries. It’s one step at a time but it’s such a transferable concept. What a 14-year-old girl in Lancaster wants – to be able to see bands in a safe, high-quality environment – is exactly the same as what a 14-year-old girl in New York State wants, or the middle of Kansas, or Denmark or Sweden. It’s just a pleasure for libraries to be a part of it.”

So many names have followed, from Adele, Bat for Lashes, Blossoms, Cate Le Bon and Clean Bandit through to Florence and the Machine, Guillemots, Imelda May and Jessie J, on to Noah and the Whale, Plan B and The Wombats. And in 2019, those involved included established acts like Robyn Hitchcock right through to recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Erland Cooper and happening overseas indie outfits Fontaines D.C. and Pip Blom, playing at various venues. And Stewart’s highlights?

“Oh, so many! The whole Get It Loud in Libraries team has developed a huge crush on Bodega, who have now played three shows for us. They utterly get libraries and their part to play in pop culture. And IDLES were the first band to make me cry with sheer pleasure in a library, when they played Coventry Central Library.”

You seem to have another busy year ahead too. How many libraries are involved at present?

“We’re now funded by Arts Council England, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Youth Music so have an agreement to play a network of around 12 libraries across the UK, including Lancashire, Cumbria, the Wirral, Merseyside, Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Coventry. So, 2020 will be another thrilling year chasing targets that we’ve long wanted to play the library stage. We’re still looking to pin down some artists and certain shows are long in the planning but still might not come off! We’ll introduce a few new libraries and also be part of Independent Venue week again, at Birkenhead Library with our Sinead O’Brien gig.”

At what point did this become a full-time passion for you?

“I grew up loving the library (in Leyland, incidentally, where your scribe is based) and loving the chart show on the radio, fast developing a massive passion for pop music in all its glorious forms. So this job was sheer passion when I was 10 years old. I just had to wait another 20 years before I became a bone fide music librarian. I believe both libraries and music have huge transformative powers on the human self and that’s why I think it works, although it is quite a simple idea.”

Orcadian Transportation: WriteWyattUK interviewee Erland Cooper and support AVA, among 2019’s attractions

I have great memories of nights at Lancaster Library with Robert Forster, The Thrills, and also Ian Broudie on a festive bill with James Walsh, plus The Magnetic North in the amazing surrounds of Liverpool Central Library, introduced on the night by award-winning author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce. What have been the most memorable moments for you?

“Actually, The Thrills was a nightmare, because the PA and mixing desk broke down, the tour manager was beyond wicked, and I almost felt like giving up after that … for about 10 minutes!

“Adele is an obvious choice (she played Lancaster Library in 2007), but to hear that voice in my beloved music library brought shivers. IDLES at Coventry Central Library was immensely moving and felt so authentic and real. Young Fathers in Skelmersdale Library after just winning the Mercury Music Prize was incredibly exciting, too. Plus, the guys punched a hole in the library ceiling, so it felt super visceral.”

I’m sure you’ve probably told the tale a few times before, but tell us more about Adele’s Lancaster show, and where she was up to career-wise at that point.

“She was 16 or 17, cheeky, cool and irreverent. Drinking Beck’s whilst (support act) Mr Hudson was on stage and nipping out for fags. Looking back, it felt like they were all having a big laugh in a library, just waiting for world stardom. She only did four songs, but they were wow factor. Everyone just turned and looked at one another, whilst she played it dead cool. She loved Get It Loud in Libraries though. ‘Thanks for doing what you do,’ she told me on MySpace.”

I have this vivid image of The Thrills sneakily lining up relevant book titles behind each other, taking the mick out of their bandmates. And I gather British Sea Power, playing the library in Morecambe, used Ordnance Survey maps as skirts tied around waists.

“British Sea Power gave the librarian in Morecambe palpitations. They did another show for us in Westminster Reference Library on Trafalgar Square and people got thrown out for smoking dope in the library.

“Elsewhere, we had to wait until two in the morning while The Blackout went out for pizza after their show. They didn’t realise we had to lock up and go home. And Richard Hawley was in the audience in Sheffield when we did a library tour with The Crookes. So many stories! The artists generally relax because they get looked after and it’s a warm home-from-home so guards can come down….”

Busy Times: Just a few of the happening acts that graced Get It Loud in Libraries stages during the first half of 2019

Not all these acts will end up as million-sellers, but that’s not what it’s about, is it?

“It’s all about intimate boutique doorstep gigs that are simply about you and the music. It’s about showcasing the best new music acts in towns, less toured by the music industry, maximising the cultural capacity of the library, and offering people – especially young people and families – a reason to visit. Doorstep gigs with tomorrow’s BRIT and Grammy Winners! Plus, the Get It Loud in Libraries Academy offers talented young people a real opportunity to develop new skills in the creative industries through interviewing bands, film and photography. And it’s important that young people have a ‘rock school’ platform, as often schools and colleges don’t have the resources to provide that kind of training.”

What would the dream booking be for you from here?

“Hmm…I still dream of Franz Ferdinand. Belle and Sebastian. And let’s go Hot Chip too, after that disastrous early decision.”

Stewart is based these days in Standish, handy for the office he shares with his Get it Loud in Libraries team in Wigan, where he’s joined by, ‘Elizabeth, my operational director, two brilliant young events managers, and our wonderful marketing officer, Helen’, adding, ‘We have 25 gigs per year to deliver, so share them out better these days’. Did he always work in the library service?

“I’ve worked in libraries since 1986, at the Harris Library (in Preston), Lancaster Library and Get It Loud In Libraries. I was a slow developer in libraries but always ambitious to visualise my kind of library – cool, contemporary, buzzing, and relevant. Music libraries and a love of pop music led me here.”

Were you an avid library visitor in your youth?

“I was an utter library disciple! I learned everything in the library – from cricketing bowling techniques deployed at Leyland Cricket Club to guitar chords and recognising garden birds. This was pre-internet, and the library was my go-to refuge. I discovered so many authors and poets there. It got me though my dole years after college in 1985. I will never forget it.”

Liverpool Live: Self Esteem in action at Huddersfield Town Library in late October, 2019 (Photo: Get It Loud in Libraries)

What music were you into, growing up?

“Oh, I loved anything with a big chorus, a square 4/4 drum, a towering riff, an addictive pop melody. So in ‘73 it was all Mud and the Bay City Rollers and bubblegum glam. Then I fell for Quo and devoured their back catalogue. Then AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Motorhead. Then I was mad for The Pretenders, NIck Drake, Pink Floyd, Blondie and The Undertones. There’s only two kinds of music – good and bad.  I loved three-minute pop. The Dickies! I got all my music growing up through the radio and TDK tapes. And Hardman’s on Leyland Lane, where I spent all my pocket money the day I got it.”

I gather via a previous interview with The Skinny that your first gig was Whitesnake at Preston Guild Hall in 1981. How old were you then?

“I was 15 and had finally begged my Mum to let me go to a rock gig. She rang the Guild Hall on the morning to tell them to look after me when I got there. It all stank of patchouli. People shouted out ‘Wally!’ during the final soundchecks. Full grown women wandered around in denim and made me go a bit funny. Utterly pivotal times. I think my jaw was on the ground for the whole show.”

What are you favourite venues these days?

“I like Manchester Albert Hall, but it can get too crowded. I’ve only been to one show at the Royal Albert Hall, but it’s so glam. I know it’s a naff answer, but I have started to prefer our own library venues, so I’ll say Ashton-in-Makerfield Library, where Stealing Sheep were legendary last November.”

My final show of 2019 was not far from your old patch at The Venue, Penwortham, involving The Amber List (who’d be perfect for a library gig, incidentally). It’s a great set-up there, very welcoming, and I’ll definitely return, but I couldn’t help but think it was until very recently a fully-functioning library, so what a shame it had to close before being adopted for the wider community. I should point out that the local town council has opened a new library venture very close at the rebranded multi-use Priory Lane Community Centre, so hats off to all involved. That’s a positive outcome, but up and down the country a severe lack of Government funding and interest plus knock-on council cuts have hit libraries hard in recent years. Do you see the Get It Loud initiative as another way to tackle that, bringing on new generations of potential readers, perhaps in similar multi-use set-ups?

“Well, if libraries are not being used for their primary purpose and function, let’s at least retain their cultural roots and transform them like this. It’s a reviving and beautiful kiss of life to what can be amazing beautiful buildings.”

True, and In what ways can your events go on to inspire people?

“We’ve had very moving and beautiful statements from people telling us our events have restored their love of live music. Or that our events are the only gigs they attend, as they comfort their acute anxiety and invisible disability. We have also had young people tell us that they have gone on to university or employment in the arts or creative industries due to their work experience or digital training with Get It Loud in Libraries, and that is very gratifying. And if one young girl tells us they want to grow up to be a drummer after seeing one of our shows, that’s good enough for us.”

Library Love: Stewart Parsons, at Liverpool Central Library, awaiting his next special guests (Photo: Andy Von Pip)

For all the latest from Get It Loud In Libraries, head here.  You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. 

With thanks to Andy Von Pip for the photographs of Stewart Parsons. You can see much more of his splendid work here.

 

 

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In the footsteps of Morrissey and Marr – talking The Smiths with Richard Houghton

By day a manager for a regional housing association, Richard Houghton still sees himself as ‘a frustrated journalist/author’, something he first made assured moves towards remedying five years ago, collating fans’ first-hand memories of the Rolling Stones’ live shows for his first published book.

His resultant ‘part-musical memoir, part-social history’ was just the first of many ‘fanthology’ publications, subjects ranging from The Beatles, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd and The Who, while Richard’s also made considerable contributions to recent exhaustive co-written biographies of OMD and The Wedding Present.

Latest addition, The Smiths: The Day I Was There, is another labour of love from this Northamtonshire-born, Manchester-based music fan, celebrating a band who were recording material for barely four years yet packed so much into that period.

“They did. I think that was partly because both Morrissey and Johnny Marr were brimming with musical ideas, and once they came together their creative juices really started to flow. So what they produced in terms of recorded material but also live performances was the result of the two of them having been waiting for the right opportunity.

“And it was that immediate post-punk era, where The Jam had gone and The Clash were fizzling out and teenagers who liked guitar-based music, particularly in Britain, were looking for a new set of heroes.”

In that short spell, The Smiths managed some 200 shows, playing various countries. I’m guessing you had responses from all over for this latest title.

“Yes, there are memories of over 130 of the shows they played, so around two-thirds of all of their gigs. Whilst they did two North American tours, not counting the flying visit they made to New York early on, they didn’t play many European shows and never went to Asia or Down Under.”

You managed to collate more than 400 accounts, unearthing along the way a few seldom seen or in some cases previously unseen photographs and memorabilia. Are there specific stories that jumped out at you of all those submitted?

“What I was most struck by was the extent to which some fans would follow them around the country without tickets and sometimes with no money and no means of getting from A to B. Johnny Marr and Morrissey were both quite generous in terms of offering to put people on guest-lists, and where they couldn’t do that, they’d suggest to fans that they came in to watch the soundcheck and then hide in the toilets!

“There are also several tales of fans climbing in through lavatory windows to gain access to shows or photocopying tickets. This was in the days before bar codes and QR codes and the various security means that venues now have in place to make sure that only bona fide gig-goers can gain access.”

You spoke to a few people who were very close to the subject at one stage or other.

“Yes, a couple of promoters had interesting tales to tell, for example having to provide flowers for Morrissey to throw around on stage as part of the rider. Normally bands ask for food and booze, not flowers ‘with no thorns’!”

Then there was Simon Wolstencroft, the drummer best known for his long stint with The Fall (1986/97) and also worked with Ian Brown (and an early version of The Stone Roses) and Terry Hall’s The Colourfield. He appears quite early in the story.

“Simon drummed on the first rehearsal session that Johnny and Morrissey did together and was Johnny’s first-choice pick to be The Smiths’ drummer. But, in his own words, he ‘didn’t like the cut of Morrissey’s jib’. Simon and Johnny had previously been playing more Earth, Wind & Fire-type material and Simon wasn’t convinced that a shoe-gazing band was what he wanted to be in.

“I was also hoping to talk to both Craig Gannon, who played guitar on the Queen is Dead tour, and the band’s sound-man, Grant Showbiz, both of whom indicated that they were willing to chat, but problems with schedules meant that didn’t happen. But, other than asking the principals themselves to take part, which I didn’t do because I think I knew what the answer was going to be, I’m happy that I managed to capture a wide range of memories from different people.”

Club Scout: Richard Houghton on hallowed ground at the corner of Coronation Street and St Ignatius Walk, Salford

I was 17 when I first got to see The Smiths on the Meat is Murder tour, having picked up on them a lot earlier via John Peel, soon buying all the product I could. I loved Morrissey’s wordplay and enjoyed a few of those early music press interviews, but could never really relate to his more maudlin nature, much preferring Johnny’s songcraft and guitar hooks, and Andy Rourke’s basslines. Did you find fans who contributed fell into different camps on that front?

“That word ‘maudlin’ is a term that many Smiths fans reject. The idea that their music is only for manic depressives really winds them up, and I wonder if that’s because the song ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ is so firmly lodged in the public consciousness. A lot of people said to me that far from making them sad the lyrics of Smiths songs made them laugh.

“I wasn’t a huge fan when they were around. My best mate was though, and every time I went to his house or flat The Smiths were on the turntable. My tastes were more conservative – classic rock like the Stones, The Who and Black Sabbath. Unlike – it seems – everyone else, I wasn’t tuning in to John Peel every night to see what was cool. Probably because I wasn’t cool!

“But I remember when ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ came out because someone put it on the juke box in my local and loads of my mates started jumping around to it, knocking bar stools over in the process.

“I never got to see them live. I was relying on that best mate to get me a ticket to see them and of course they broke up rather unexpectedly, when he and I both thought there’s be another tour and more opportunities to go and see them.”

Reading all these accounts, what was the performance you wished you’d been there for?

“I’d have loved to have seen what proved to be their last show, at Brixton Academy in December 1986. They’d just toured with Craig Gannon but had gone back to being just the four of them again and apparently there was a real sense of camaraderie amongst the band.

Guild Exit: WriteWyattUK interviewee Marcus Parnell was among Richard Houghton’s contributors for his book

“I think the Queen is Dead tour had been quite challenging – Morrissey had been pulled off the stage in Newport and famously had a coin or a drumstick – no one seems quite sure – thrown at him just one song into their set at the Guild Hall in Preston – so there was a growing undercurrent of violence at their shows as they attracted more of a laddish element. But this was by all accounts quite a joyous show. Sadly, of course, it proved to be their last.”

You also helped put together an official biography of The Wedding Present, 2017’s rather splendid Sometimes These Words Just Don’t Have To Be Said, working alongside David Gedge, another important band in indie circles the world over, with strong links to Manchester, and a group with which we both have a major love. As an adopted Mancunian of sorts, which other acts associated with the city (two cities, if you count Salford separately) resonated with you?

“Well, I live in Chorlton in south Manchester now, which is where the Bee Gees grew up and put on their first public performance, so how does that sound as a nomination? I’ve become a fan of the ‘Manchester is as important as Liverpool’ argument over the years. You’ve got Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, The Hollies, 10cc, Buzzcocks, Joy Division and New Order, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Oasis.”

You say yourself that you live fairly close to Johnny Marr’s Stretford roots. Do you find yourself from time to time seeking out city landmarks with Smiths links?

“I live about 10 minutes from Morrissey’s childhood home, and he was in a Stretford pub just before Christmas that I walked past the day before and the day after. I don’t particularly have to seek the landmarks out. I walk my dog past Southern Cemetery, referenced by the song ‘Cemetry Gates’, every day.”

Some Smiths fans are known to be somewhat obsessive about the band, and in many cases a love for Morrissey too. But in view of his more recent drift towards endorsing dodgy, extreme right-wing political figures and movements, there’s been an increasing sense of discomfort and unease about professing a love for his past endeavours. That must have been an issue for you in putting this book together.

“A couple of people involved in the music business said they didn’t want to contribute stories because they ‘couldn’t separate the man from the music’, but most of the people who contributed memories of seeing The Smiths were quite clear that the Morrissey they knew then and in his immediate post-Smiths solo career wasn’t the Morrissey of today.

“Back then, he wrote from the point of view of the outsider and that’s why people who were unsure about relationships, gender identity, sexuality and their place in the world identified with his lyrics. No one who contributed a story of seeing The Smiths expressed any sympathy for the right-wing views Morrissey now seems to espouse. Rather there was sadness that a child of Irish immigrants should seem to want to stop anyone else from coming to this country to better themselves.”

In a sense, I’m with Billy Bragg on this, and can’t think of the band the same way now.

“I take the Nick Cave approach to this. Once the song is written and released it’s not the artist’s song anymore. It belongs to the fans, each of whom places their own meaning on it. So if a song reminds you of a particular time or place, that’s how you own it. Morrissey becoming a spokesperson for the right doesn’t devalue what ‘This Charming Man’ meant to somebody 35 years ago when they first fell in love, first had their heart broken, or whatever.

“Moz had acquired ‘national treasure’ status despite voicing a liking for the Kray twins and being rude about the Royal Family. But I’m afraid that even national treasures can go too far.”

You’ve seen him live a fair bit live since The Smiths’ days. Can you put your finger on what it is about him that resonates with those diehard fans?

“Yes, I’ve probably seen him a dozen times. Although he doesn’t play a lot of Smiths material, he does trade on that legacy, which is fair enough. And Morrissey still has a commanding stage presence, but I think it’s far to say that the once loyal fanbase of Smiths fans is smaller now than it was. More and more people want to preserve their memories and really don’t like what he’s become.”

Meanwhile, Johnny Marr’s sparkling career continues to go from strength to strength. I take it your love for his work goes way beyond the fact that he’s a fellow Manchester City fan.

“Johnny’s live set would be a lot weaker without the Smiths songs – hearing 4,000 people singing along to a Smiths classic at the Albert Hall in Manchester in September was quite something. What he is doing is giving fans an opportunity to hear those songs with the proper arrangements. But of course, he’s cursed by the fact that the work for which he is most famous and with which he’ll always be associated is what he did with Morrissey. It’s like Paul Simon. He may hate the fact but he was half of Simon and Garfunkel and in the great public consciousness ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ will always eclipse ‘You Can Call Me Al’.”

Word Smith: The boy with the book in his hand. Manchester-based Richard Houghton with his latest publication.

Do you think the other members of what was seen as the classic Smiths line-up – Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce – were badly treated by the Morrissey-Marr power base?

“The fall out from the court case is well documented (wherein a judge decided royalties should be split four ways and not 80% between Morrissey and Marr, with the other 20% going to Joyce and Rourke), and I think the band as a whole were badly served. They should have got proper management instead of muddling through, not sorting out contracts, and so on.

“I thought Johnny’s autobiography, Set The Boy Free, was actually a bit disingenuous in that respect and I still don’t understand why he didn’t put his foot down with Morrissey and insist on installing a manager who could deal with the day to day hassles. But a fan in the book claims that Johnny wanted to leave the band after the first album so perhaps things were in a state of virtual collapse from the beginning. Maybe there was no ‘Morrissey-Marr power base’ because the tension between those two, as well as creating great songs, meant that the band were dysfunctional on a human level. Who knows?”

I saw a recent tweet from Johnny that suggested without doubt there would be no second coming of the band. Do you think that position would ever change?

“Quite a few people I spoke to for the book had held out hope that Morrissey and Marr might do something together without Joyce or Rourke, but I think events over the last year or so, with Morrissey’s increasingly politically provocative statements, have ruled that out. Johnny doesn’t need the money, or the hassle.

“Lots of people who contributed memories said they hoped a full-blown Smiths reunion wouldn’t happen. But they also said that if it did, they’d definitely find a way of getting themselves a ticket.”

In a sense, you had to be around at the time, during that era, to understand the impact The Smiths had, weighing it all up against the political climate and so on. Is that how you see it?

“Yes, I think that’s true. Thatcher was Prime Minister, the miners’ strike was on, and there were benefit gigs for political causes that The Smiths contributed to. But of course, they were quite apolitical too and certainly not as obviously aligned as, say, Billy Bragg or Paul Weller.”

Hollow Inside: Richard’s favourite Smiths’ LP, from 1984

The Smiths created a major legacy, not least in indie circles. And three and half decades on, they seem to be as influential as ever. Did you find in putting this book together fans who love them despite not even being around to see live music in the ’80s?

“Not really, because I was seeking out people who had seen them live. But I did have a few people who said they wanted to contribute memories of seeing Morrissey live, either because they missed out on seeing The Smiths or because they’d followed the individual band members’ solo careers. So I included a few of those, including some stories about Moz cancelling gigs, which of course he is almost as infamous for as he is for his dodgy political views.”

I’ll put you on the spot now. If you had to decide on one Smiths album, a favourite album track, and maybe five singles, what would you go for?

“Well, Hatful of Hollow, which mostly collects the Peel sessions together, would be the album.”

Agreed. That’s this scribe’s favourite Smiths LP too, although The Queen is Dead will not be far behind for me.

“Then ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ would be the album track, and the singles … I guess ‘Hand in Glove’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, ‘Panic’ and ‘Shoplifters Of The World Unite’. Johnny knew how to write a good pop tune.”

He certainly did. Meanwhile, you now have a number of books to your name. What are you working on at present, and what’s the first to come our way in 2020?

“My next project is Queen – The Day I Was There. And unlike The Smiths, I did actually see Queen, four times in total. In fact, they played Lancashire several times between 1973 and 1975 before they became a global phenomenon on the back of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, with three appearances in Preston alone, two in Lancaster, and one in Blackburn. If anyone saw any of those shows, and anywhere else for that matter, I’d love to hear about them. Not as cool as The Smiths, but then I never pretended to be cool!”

Ask Me: Richard Houghton on camera for Granada TV at Salford Lads’ Club, denying all knowledge of previously breaking into the palace with a sponge and a rusty hammer and lifting lead off the roof of the Holy Name Church

If you saw any Queen shows and would like to contribute to Richard’s next publication, contact him via iwasatthatgig@gmail.com. You can also check out his Facebook page and head to his website.

Regular readers will know there have been previous WriteWyattUK feature/interviews with Richard Houghton, and you can check out via the followin glinks my chats with the man himself about his Rolling Stones book in 2015, The Beatles in 2016, and The Who in 2017.

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Another year over … a new one just begun – WriteWyattUK’s live story of 2019

Higher Ground: ‘God bless you, Pete’. Steve Diggle at Gorilla, on Buzzcocks’ Manc return (Photo: Gary M Hough)

As December 30th became December 31st, we slipped into Ramones Night apparently, the seminal NYC punk outfit’s ’20-20-24 hours to go’ from 1978’s ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ neatly reinterpreted. And that, subliminally – as is the case with a lot of stuff that ends up in my head – got me thinking about another classic track by Da Brudders.

Also released as a single in 1980 (although the two-year-old ‘Sedated’ was only a US 45 that year), the mighty ‘Do You Remember Rock’n’Roll Radio?’ channelled the spirit of Mott the Hoople and Wizzard as far as I’m concerned, mirroring their own tributes to so much great ‘50s and ‘60s rock’n’roll. Can it really be 40 years since that first burst out of the transistor radio under my pillow and my brother’s tape machine (not sure I was using the term ghetto-blaster then)?

“It’s the end, the end of the 70’s
It’s the end, the end of the century.”

It was shortly after that Stateside release, when I was 12, that I saw the first of my 450-plus live shows (and counting), catching Blank Expression (who later supported The Jam) a two-mile cycle ride away at Wonersh Youth Club, a precursor to seeing The Undertones at Guildford Civic Hall the following summer, my music life plan starting to fall into place. And as it happens, this coming February marks the 35th anniversary of my sole Ramones live show, a night to remember at the Lyceum Theatre, both of those tracks on the setlist, at a venue that’s solely hosted The Lion King‘s West End production since 1999.

I was aiming to get this end of 2019 live wrap-up online a day or so ago, but events overtook, a year starting with tributes to Buzzcocks’ frontman Pete Shelley, gone far too early at 63,  ending with those to another genius words and tunesmith, 75-year-old Monty Python music maestro and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band/Rutles supremo, Neil Innes.

I never got to interview Pete or Neil, just missing out in both cases in similar circumstances, but I got to see both perform, catching Shelley’s reformed Buzzcocks in 1991, 1993 and 2003, and finally witnessing Innes with The Rutles this May, a night at Preston’s Continental that will always stay with me, as will a post-gig chat with Neil and John ‘Barry Wom’ Halsey. Gentlemen, craftsmen and entertainers both.

Stage Stars: Bruce Watson, Richard Jobson and their Skids bandmates gave it their all (Photo: Michael Porter)

My 2019 live outings started in Preston, Richard Jobson’s emotional ‘What Do I Get?’ a highlight of a highly-charged Skids mid-January set at the Guild Hall (now closed, at least for now), on a night when father and son guitarists Bruce and Jamie Watson delivered for both the headliners and support act Big Country, the Spirit of Dunfermline ’77 still intact. And then came Pete Shelley’s long-time friend Pauline Murray, peerless on further ‘Cocks covers ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘I Don’t Mind’ on a cracking night with Penetration at the Conti – with support from the eye-catching Mardigras Bombers and storming Vukovar – as we reached February.

Complementary Therapy: Pauline Murray on form with Penetration at Preston’s Continental (Photo: Gary M Hough)

I alluded there to The Clash (who played with Skids in their Fife hometown back in those heady days of punk) and this was my first year touting my biography of the Westway’s finest, giving interviews for various print and online publications and radio stations on my love for Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon’s game-changers – from Radio Scotland and Radio Newcastle down to Radio Guernsey, Radio Jersey and Talk Radio Europe. There were even contributions to Pete Mitchell’s Virgin Radio documentary on the band. And there are still a few copies left, folks, either from me (send us a message) or via Action Records, Preston, or Ben’s Collectors’ Records, Guildford.

So it made sense on a mid-February jaunt to my Surrey hometown, Guildford, to catch tribute band London Calling at the Boileroom, playing the entire double-LP that gave this acclaimed Bristol outfit their name. I’ve said it before. I don’t do tribute bands, but in this case, why not. What’s more, as a bonus, I found myself the following night in the presence of ‘60s soul royalty, catching Geno Washington and the Ram-Jam Band supported by my pals The Sha La Las at the nearby Holroyd Arms. That’s entertainment, cats.

Watch Out!: The Wilko Johnson band in action, and on top form at Warrington Parr Hall in 2019

Talking of born entertainers, Wilko Johnson’s stunning trio – supported by Glenn Tilbrook – had Warrington’s Parr Hall rocking, and I caught the latter Squeeze legend again under his own steam  soon after at The Grand, Clitheroe, with the splendid Nine Below Zero contributor Charlie Austen, while making the first of two visits to the old railway station rebranded as The Platform, Morecambe to see beguiling North Cornish vocal group Fisherman’s Friends – with local shanty support from the Sunderland Crew – their story playing out at the flicks soon after, one of the year’s cinematic feelgood highlights. And success couldn’t come to a more down-to-earth group of fellas.

Another of my ‘70s heroes was next, Steve Harley’s leading his own trio on my Platform return, while in mid-April my youngest daughter and I saw a blistering short set from Dublin’s hot property Fontaines D.C., plugging a major contender for LP of the year in Dogrel for Action Records at Preston’s Blitz nightclub.

Back in the ‘70s legend stakes, I had the pleasure of seeing possibly one of the final outings for Mott the Hoople’s Class of ’74, Ian Hunter (and his Rant Band) joined by fellow old-stagers Ariel Bender and Morgan Fisher, the dynamic front-line trio’s combined age a staggering 223 by New Year’s Day, yet still able to run rings around many a younger performer. And their setlist? Solid gold.

A further Buzzcocks tribute arrived in late April on my first visit to Gorilla, Manchester, Nouvelle Vague on inspired form from the moment Melanie Pain and Phoebe Killdeer threaded their way through the audience by torchlight to Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’, our stylish French visitors topping up the emotion levels with ’Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve’) and Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Another hlghlight that night was their laidback take on ’Teenage Kicks’, and we got the real deal on my next Oxford Road visit, this time across the road at Ritz, The Undertones and Neville Staple Band wowing us on a joint 40th anniversary gig celebrating two classic debut LPs that helped define my musical taste – The Undertones and Specials.

Live Presence: Tender, Darek, Pip and Gini , proving a big hit on this side of the North Sea (Photo: Phil Smithies)

I missed out on seeing The Go-Betweens live, unfortunately, but in mid-May experienced my second Robert Forster show and my first at Manchester’s Band on the Wall, a venue I’d visit twice more before the year was out, my first Northern Quarter return a fortnight later – after that momentous Rutles outing in Preston – for another band who delivered a cracking debut LP in 2019, Dutch visitors Pip Blom a force to be reckoned with on this evidence – as were supports Talk Show and Jacob Slater – and judging by the truly water-tight Boat. Sail on, Pip and co.

While there were a fair few firsts, I’d caught my next act 24 times come November (and you can add four Cinerama shows to that tally, if we’re talking David Gedge gigs). The Wedding Present always impress, and I enjoyed support Vinny Peculiar at Blackpool’s Waterloo Bar (I should say ‘bowled over’, but can’t bring myself to it), belatedly catching up on his back-catalogue in the aftermath.

Location Helmsdale ; Edwyn Collins, outside his studio, shot by fellow Scots-based ex-punk warrior John Maher

Next up was Scottish national treasure Edwyn Collins and his band. And what presence. That was at Gorilla again, on another emotional night, with support from another happening outfit making her breakthrough this year, Gabi Garbutt and her band. And back in Manchester soon after, another of those outfits inspired by Edwyn’s Orange Juice popped by in mid-September, The Chesterfields on a national one-week jaunt, Sheffield shoegaze wonders The Suncharms supporting at the Night and Day Cafe.

Talking of Sheffield, conversations with Jon McClure of Reverend & the Makers are always a blast, and he was joined by guitarist Ed Cosens at Action Records’ shop for an intimate set in late September, plugging a ‘best of’, while your scribe returned to Clitheroe Grand a few days later for a stonking Icicle Works set. That McNabb fella knows how to entertain. And four days later, eardrums working again, there was a night out with my better half to Liverpool’s Guild of Students for a sold-out top-notch performance by Richard Hawley and his band, 2019 LP Further (and all his others of course) getting plenty of plays in the preceding weeks.

Green Light: Stone Foundation, full throttle, Phil Ford driving from the rear, between the Neils (Photo: Paul W Dixon)

Starting November in style, I  finally got to see the soulful Stone Foundation, back at Gorilla, before a further Guildford trip, helping celebrate a couple of monumental birthdays with mates, my first G-Live visit – 38 years after that first Undertones experience at the Civic Hall on the same site – involving evergreen ska legends The Selecter, co-founders Pauline and Gaps seemingly younger by the year. And that was followed by another Wedding Present corker at the Boileroom, the last for guitarist Danielle and drummer Charlie, set to embark on a new life adventure, a baby on the way.

From there, my eldest daughter hopped over the Pennines from uni for a second gig that month, Erland Cooper and band plus support AVA transporting us to a whole ‘nother country, bringing a taste of Orkney to Manchester’s Band on the Wall on another magical night. And one more November show followed, my youngest joining me on a road-trip to Leeds for the return of North London indie near-legends BOB, like The Chesterfields back for one week only, more than 25 years after I last caught their entertaining live show, this time at characterful Wharf Chambers.

Banwell Bluesbreakers: BOB in live action at Wharf Chambers in Leeds, night three of their six-date November farewell tour. From left – Richard, Simon (in front of Dean) and Arthurman. (Photo: The Dribbling Code)

There was still time to fit in two more Gorilla visits, Steve Diggle and his regrouped Buzzcocks with ultimate Manchester tribute to Pete Shelley, but also a statement of intent for the band’s future. And that was followed four nights later by the new breed, Beabadoobee leading a Dirty Hit Records showcase also starring No Rome and Oscar Lang, providing a night of pure grunge/pop crossover joy. It was almost as if that depressing election result a few days before never happened.

Amber Gamblers: The Amber List, coming to an ale house near you soon … probably (Photo: Catherine Caton)

This scribe and his beloved were back out one more time, gig-wise, a splendid year of gigs ending just up the road at a new location to us, a former library (and we need more of those of course) reborn as Penwortham’s community-run The Venue, the low-key setting spot on for WriteWyattUK favourites The Amber List, the support on the night – We Are Ben Newport – music students at college with my youngest. Yes, the future is bright, and good music is here to stay.

Farewell Neil: Ron Nasty’s alter-ego, genius songsmith Neil Innes of Bonzos, Python and Rutles fame, checked out

In fact I got to see 46 acts at 29 gigs playing 19 venues in 2019, my biggest haul in 30 years. Not quite as high as my late-‘80s spell, having caught 111 shows over the last two years of the ‘80s, when my Captains Log fanzine was going from strength to strength and I clearly had more money in my picket. But as I’ve now creaked into my early 50s, I’m fairly proud of that tally. It was also nice to have my girls join me for seven of those dates, not too embarrassed by being out on the town with their old man.

That all gives me the cue to say thanks for staying with us in 2019, as we move on into 2020. Cheers one and all, and as the line goes on the fade-out of that Phil Spector-produced Ramones hit mentioned at the top, ‘Stay tuned for more rock’n’roll’.

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