Kingdom come, beyond Del Amitri – the Justin Currie interview

Justin Time: Del Amitri frontman Justin Currie is back on the road, this time with his band The Pallbearers.

Chances are that you probably still know Justin Currie best for Del Amitri, the Scottish alternative/crossover outfit who enjoyed a dozen top-40 hits over a decade in the wake of 1990’s classic breakthrough single, Nothing Ever Happens.

But this Glaswegian singer-songwriter went it alone in 2003, by his own admission spending the next four years ‘fannying about writing, drinking and doing any weird non-rock gig’ he was invited along to before releasing his first ‘masterpiece of maudlin’, What Is Love For.

Now, a few years on, he’s promoting his fourth LP, This Is My Kingdom Now, released on his own Endless Shipwreck Records, following 2010’s The Great War and 2013’s Lower Reaches, the songs of old replaced by a tone he describes as ‘suicide in a saucy shirt’, his output rightly continuing to strike a chord, the 52-year-old about to step out for a headline tour with his backing band, The Pallbearers to promote the new record. And from the tracks I’ve heard so far, it’s another winner.

So, I ask him down the line, was recording his latest record an enjoyable experience?

“More enjoyable than the last one, which was quite tough. I started recording at home the year before last, and my idea was to do it all myself, sat at a piano. But a couple of weeks in, the offices outside decided to renovate the building, so for six months I had to down tools because of the racket.”

A tad too much percussion, eh?

“Exactly.”

The new LP’s a self-release. Does that create more work, or is it worth that for creative control alone?

“Erm … this is my fourth solo record and I don’t ever recall feeling not having creative control. It’s more work to the extent that I’m now the marketing manager though. As well as making it, I’m selling it … and I’m a terrible salesman!”

You seem quite proficient with social media though, from what I’ve seen.

”Everybody’s supposed to be, but it’s something I’d rather not do. I find the whole thing deeply vulgar! The problem with ‘direct to the audience’ internet selling is that the artistes who end up the most successful are those who are best at selling themselves, not necessarily those who make the best music.

“When I was 15, me and my band were quite good at making little leaflets and posters, pasting them up on lampposts. But at 52 I find all that incredibly dull.”

While receiving plenty of praise for his last long player, 2013’s Lower Reaches, recorded in Austen, Texas, with Mike McCarthy, this one appears to be more of a homegrown entity.

“That was the only one where we hired a producer, with me handing all the songs to Mike and letting him choose the songs and arrange them as he saw fit. This album is more back to what I did on the first and second albums, playing a lot of the instruments myself and picking and choosing them myself. I feel more in touch with this and that it’s more my record than the last one.”

The first thing we heard from the new record was the delightful Failing to See, which I tell him serves as a fine advertisement for what he might have in store for us, and should by rights be all over the radio airwaves.

“Well, for that to happen you’d have to hire someone to take your records to those stations, which I can’t afford to do anymore.”

Spaced Out: Justin Currie's new LP, This is My Kingdom Now

Spaced Out: Justin Currie’s new LP, This is My Kingdom Now, has gravitational pulling power.

Is that track pretty much indicative of what we have coming our way?

“No, but I don’t think I could choose one song that would be indicative of the rest. I don’t think one song is like the next.”

Tell me about Sydney Harbour Bridge, for example.

“Erm … it’s a bridge that goes over Sydney Harbour.”

I asked for that, didn’t I. ‘Thanks,’ I respond, deadpan, and he laughs, I like to think guiltily. I try another way. It seems from the track-listing that there are quite a few songs about travel on this album.

“Yes, a lot mention or use the sea as a metaphor. That came about after I was offered a gig at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, coming up with a few songs that mentioned the sea or some maritime theme, a couple especially for that gig, realising I could have a thematic link. A couple didn’t quite make it, but there’s a vague theme echoing in the background.”

Incidentally, at time of going to press I’ve given Sydney Harbour Bridge a few spins, and like the new album’s title track it’s something of a brooding masterpiece. I can report good things about Crybabies and Hey Polly too, with Justin’s rich tones and inventive hooks all over this record from what I’ve heard so far. Again, as you might expect from this talented songsmith.

Anyway, on with the interview, and talking of travelling, when he’s on the road with The Pallbearers these days, does he properly take in his surroundings, rather than just turn up, set up, play, move on?

“I still really love touring, and part of the joy is it’s endlessly stimulating, looking out of a van or hotel room window on a completely different environment every day. I always assumed when we did a lot of touring in the ‘90s that it must have some kind of impact on what you wrote and how you wrote, but I don’t really do enough of that to be able to claim an impact. Nearly everything I write is written in Glasgow, where it’s the same view every day!”

Talk of his home city – according to his own press, ‘Currie lives and breathes in Glasgow, collects beer mats and makes his own cushions’ – leads to a discussion about other bands from the area, coming on to the subject of the early ‘80s Postcard Records scene, and one mutual influence in particular.

“I don’t think I would have formed a band without Orange Juice happening in Glasgow. That changed everything, and almost overnight Glasgow went from being this pub-rock backwater that no one in the music press or the record industry had any interest in, to being this place that was perceived as being incredibly cool. That was really just down to the four people in Orange Juice and Alan Horne of Postcard Records.”

And have you had a chance to get to know Edwyn Collins over the years?

“No. He quite rightly despised every other band in Glasgow, unless he took a particular shine to them, and I’m quite happy to know Del Amitri were despised by Edwyn! But I regard him as a great genius, and one of the greatest poets Scotland ever produced.”

How about the wondrous Teenage Fanclub? Ever on your radar?

“I adore them and buy all their records. They were more out of Belshill and its own special scene, which started a bit later than the postcard bands. Of course, Norman (Blake) was with a few other groups and conceptual projects before he put Teenage Fanclub together. I always thought he was a genius and was really pleased when he got together with Raymond and started making records with them. I was always worried he might just slip between the tracks.”

And what’s on Justin Currie’s turntable right now? What are you enjoying listening to?

“I’m a big fan of Sun Kil Moon, wading my way through his latest opus, which is pretty fascinating. I’m also wading my way through Kendrick Lamar’s latest records.”

Ever get fed up playing those old Del Amitri songs that part of the audience no doubt insist on hearing above all else? I mean, I love Nothing Ever Happens, but it’s a song I first heard in the depths of winter and I tend to equate that with short nights and commuter gloom. For that reason alone, I’m not sure I’d want to play it every night.

“That’s a fair question, but no, partly because there are enough of them that I can pick and choose. I don’t have to play particular songs every night. And there are songs I’ve played every night as a solo artist and with Del Amitri too. It doesn’t particularly bother me. I don’t have a massive problem with that. Maybe that’s sheer vanity.”

Three’s Company: Chris Difford, Boo Hewerdine and Justin Currie form the BBC’s Songwriters’ Circle (Photo: BBC)

I particularly enjoyed your BBC Songwriters Circle appearance in 2010. Have you worked with and kept in touch with your fellow artistes that night, Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine?

“Yeah, kind of vaguely. We send each other acerbic texts and emails every now and then – old bald men complaining about the state of the climate!”

What comes first writing songs these days – strumming your guitar or tinkling away at the piano?

“I’d say 75 per cent are worked out at the piano, although I try and discipline myself to writing more on guitar. But with the piano it’s a lot more productive, largely because a lot more of the notes are laid out in front of you. It feels like the world’s your oyster.

“I have to add though, I cannot play either! That’s kind of an advantage as you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you hear something in your head it’s quite hard to achieve it.

“Because I was a punk most of the music I was listening to was achievable on a four-string bass, the first thing I started playing. With punk rock you never felt the need to study. Just learning those songs, playing them with one finger on one string, was enough to get you to the point where you could form a band and play gigs.”

There were four top-10 albums with Iain Harvie and co. in Del Amitri, 1989’s Waking Hours alone selling more than a million UK copies. Does that all seem a lifetime away now?

“It should be. It’s that deep philosophical question – ‘at the age of 52 are you the same person you were when you were 22?’ And you obviously aren’t. I recognise that person and identify with them really strongly, so it feels like I’m on some kind of continuum … but I’m probably not.”

You insist you’re still a member of Del Amitri, but you’ve been a solo artist for a long time now. Any regrets about going it alone?

“Loads. I never wanted Del Amitri to stop, but it became fairly obvious we’d be on a rapid downhill spiral in terms of amount of people we’d play to, so we took a break. I was writing fairly frequently, and needed an outlet for those songs. Writing and not releasing songs is pretty painful, so it became pretty obvious that was the only way to go if I was writing songs and Del Amitri weren’t active.”

How about the prospect of a Waking Hours 30th anniversary tour in 2018 then?

“I’m sure we’ll do more gigs some stage in the future. Not this year, but maybe next year or the year after. We’d like to do more. It just depends on whether the gigs themselves are worth doing.”

Live Wire: Justin Currie, out on the road with The Pallbearers right now, and again in the autumn

Justin Currie’s tour with The Pallbearers – after an opening night at Perth’s Concert Hall on Friday, May 26th – continues at Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sunday, May 28th), Pocklington Arts Centre (Monday, May 29th), Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms (Tuesday, May 30th), Liverpool’s Hangar 34 (Wednesday, May 31st, 0844 8000 410 or via this link), Cambridge Junction (Wednesday, May 31st), Islington Assembly Hall (Saturday, June 3rd) and then back north of the border at the Northern Roots Festival, Bogbain Farm, Inverness (Saturday, June 24th). 

There are also a dozen live dates this autumn, running from Friday, October 13th at Manchester Academy 3 through to Tuesday, October 31st at Colchester Arts Centre, including one on my patch at Preston Guild Hall’s Live venue on Friday, October 27th (see link). For further information, including full tour details, head to his website. You can also follow Justin via Facebook and Twitter.

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Absolute game on – reconvening the Skids: the Richard Jobson interview

Anniversary Dates: The Skids, 2017. From left – Mike Baillie, Bill Simpson, Richard Jobson, Jamie & Bruce Watson (Photo: Stephen Gunn Photography)

While there’s inevitably a sombre undertone bearing in mind guitarist Stuart Adamson’s sad passing 15 years ago, it’s fair to say Richard Jobson is relishing the chance to relive his youth while charting new territory with a reborn Skids outfit.

Some 40 years after this influential Scottish punk and new wave combo formed in their hometown of Dunfermline, Jobson and fellow survivor Bill Simpson (bass) are back in tow in a five-piece version of the band, joined by drummer Mike Baillie, who joined in 1980, and father and son guitar duo Bruce and Jamie Watson, on loan from Big Country.

And not only are they hitting the road for a UK tour, but they’re also working on a brand new album, Burning Cities, their first since 1981, the lead singer determined the outfit should not be seen as just another ‘heritage band’.

But first, let’s go back a bit, success coming fairly fast for the original line-up, interest from legendary DJ John Peel leading to prestigious early support slots with The Clash and Buzzcocks, the band going on to sign to Virgin Records in 1978. While late ’78 singles Sweet Surburbia and The Saints are Coming helped them carve their niche, their first proper hit was Into the Valley, the second 45 from debut LP Scared to Dance and the first I heard. I still can’t resist its wonderful intro, that single followed into the top-40 by Masquerade, Charade and Working for the Yankee Dollar before 1979 was out.

While first time around I never owned a Skids record, I recall the excitement of borrowing the cassette version of the Bill Nelson-produced, Rockfield Studios-recorded second LP, Days in Europa (in its memorable first edition cover format, an Aryan-type image bringing to mind the 1936 Olympics, complete with Gothic-style, Germanic lettering) from a Surrey County Council travelling library van parked at the end of my road in Shalford, barely a three-minute walk from the scout hut previously used as a practise venue by The Stranglers, for whom the Skids opened on an  autumn ’78 tour, Bill Simpson even suggesting JJ Burnel wanted to produce their first album. Anyway, I digress. I was barely 12 at the time, but remember getting that in the tape deck back home, opening track Animation transporting me back to that moment.

In time it all came to an end, third album The Absolute Game in 1980 the last with Stuart Adamson, who went on to worldwide success with Big Country while Richard Jobson and a new-look band made one more, late 1981’s Joy, before he embarked on his next project, The Armoury Show. But the Skids have occasionally got back together since Adamson’s death in late 2001, most notably in 2007 to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary at Strathallan’s T in the Park and for two nights at the Glen Pavilion in Dunfermline (where they return in late June), leading – via 2009 and 2010 shows – to this current 40th anniversary tour, their biggest collection of dates since reforming.

Post-split, father-of-two Jobson made his name in other areas, ultimately as a film-maker but also as a poet, TV presenter and even a model. But he was back in Dunfermline when we spoke, rehearsing in the town where the story began. So is it good to be getting back out there?

“Yeah, first of all we were going to do a few gigs to mark this anniversary, but got offered an awful lot more, which slightly concerned me – I didn’t want to be like all those other old bands doing nostalgia trips and heritage trails.

“We started recording new material, with Youth, who’s worked with Pink Floyd, The Verve, the Jesus and Mary Chain and many more. He was a bit of a fan and had written some songs in our style. So we started writing together, making it all a bit more authentic.”

While some of the band remain in Fife, Richard lives in Bedfordshire these days, having been born in Kirkcaldy, grown up in Ballingry, Fife, this son of a miner and docker at Rosyth also spending time in Berlin.

Soon we were talking about his hometown football team, the Pars, and past visits to East End Park, my interviewee telling me how he’d gravitated towards German second division outfit St Pauli these days.

“It’s more for the atmosphere, but I approve of the social work they do in the community. Football here’s been separated from what it was borne out of and for. The way the English Premier League has gone, for example, is pretty disgraceful. And while St Pauli are actually trying to hang on in their division at the moment, they still get a full house, because it represents something.”

Will there be a pilgrimage to the Bellville Hotel in Pilmuir Street this August to mark 40 years since the Skids’ very first gig?

“I think so. We’ve be doing that every day as we’re rehearsing just around the corner. It’s a nightclub called Johnson’s now, known locally as Jiggy’s.”

Is there a blue plaque outside?

“No, there should be though! It’s an amazing venue.”

We talk briefly about other Dunfermline acts too. Wasn’t The Rezillos’ Fay Fife a local lass?

“She was. They were a great, fun pop band, more of a cartoon thing than us, but we came from the same area. It’s a bit more rural here, with a different mentality and attitude, not normally the sort of place bands would spring out of. But quite a few have, including Fay, us, Nazareth, Barbara Dickson …”

The Rezillos sprang from Edinburgh’s art scene. Were you also expected to cross the Forth Road Bridge to make your name?

“I think it was deemed surprising we came from here rather than an art-school background. We didn’t have that urban sound. Our influences were pretty different from a lot of other bands springing up. There was a pretty healthy folk scene and a bit of that’s in the blood, something heard in Stuart Adamson’s guitar sound.”

Now you mention it, we saw that particularly in his later days with Big Country, but I guess it was always there.

“I think so. It was a bit tougher with us, becoming a bit softer, more melodic later.”

Within a few months of forming, John Peel’s patronage led to the Skids scoring a prestigious support with The Clash in Dunfermline in late October ’77 at the Kinema Ballroom, the bill also including Richard Hell and the Voidoids and The Lou’s.

“An amazing night!”

Have you clear memories of that evening?

“Oh yeah! The Clash in Dunfermline? Come on!”

Living the dream, I guess. Their first landmark album had been out a few months by then.

“It was, yeah. I think The Clash were one of the few bands that came from the London scene that actually stood by some of the principles of punk and played places like Dunfermline. Others were a bit more aloof. I think we established a scene here, playing here a few times, with a cult following. All of those things together made it a viable place to come and play, and that was one of the great nights.”

I always got the impression Joe Strummer was good at talking to people, with no stand-offish nature.

“He was a good guy, and never changed. I saw him not long before he died, had a coffee. He was always very generous with his time, and always very supportive of what I was trying to do. He was a hero!”

“Yes, that was an amazing evening. And the idea that we managed to convince The Clash to come to Dunfermline, and we were their opening act … although we were on stage before the doors opened!”

Then that next month you supported the Buzzcocks in Edinburgh.

“Yes, that was in Cloud’s, with a band called The Dickies.”

And when did you last listen to the independent EP, Charles, that initially brought you to John Peel’s attention and ultimately led to that wider appeal?

“I haven’t since we made it. It’s the same with all the books and films I’ve made. I’ve never seen 16 Years of Alcohol since the premiere. People say very nice things but I’m not interested in watching it again. I just move on.

“But while this project is revisiting the songs, in a funny kind of way they’re sounding like they were supposed to in the beginning. In many ways what was lacking was that Stuart played rhythm and lead guitar on the recordings.

“Towards the end I was playing more guitar, which I didn’t really like doing. I felt quite restricted by it but had to fill the sound out a bit. I think if we’d got a second guitar in he probably would have been happier and The Skids might have existed to this day. Well, we do exist to this day, of course, but …”

In a sense you had to wait for Bruce Watson – the Skids fan who wen ton to play alongside Adamson in Big Country – to have a child before you could reconvene though.

“That’s it, you’re right! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yeah! And he’s great to work with. Such a great guy and incredibly generous, his son too. Bruce is the musical leader of the band, without doubt, and creates a dynamic quality to the music that should have been there before. We were always a very good live band, but I think we’re surpassing that now.”

Did you send that first single (on the No Bad label created by Dunfermline music shop owner turned manager Sandy Muir) to John Peel?

“I can’t actually remember who sent it. It might have been us. Of course, people were doing that every day, but it was an amazing thing. John Peel was our connection to what was going on in the rest of the country, introducing us to new music and wonderful things we might not have heard. To hear Television and the Banshees, then hear Charles played was extraordinary.

“We were very proud. I guess our generation didn’t measure success by finance but by getting to make things. That seems to have changed now. The creative process seems less important.

“Also, we were a genuine working class band from the mining villages of Fife and most bands coming through today seem to be from fairly privileged, exclusive backgrounds. The only way you can be in a band now is if it’s a hobby rather than something you truly love.”

I totted up five BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel (May and August ‘78, February and May ’79, and September ‘80). And listening back, tracks like ‘79’s Walk on the Wild Side remain so fresh 38 years later.

“We’d use those Peel sessions as an opportunity to be free, in a way. We’d never go in to play potential songs for albums, but be creative and experimental. I always loved that freedom. When we had a proper record company and Virgin were involved, they hated us being that way. They wanted us to be much more on the money. A lot we would write on the day at the Maida Vale studios, which was great fun.”

Will you play your cult Coronation Street tribute TV Stars while on Weatherfield’s doorstep at the 02 Ritz in Whitworth Street, Manchester (Friday, June 2nd, £22.50 advance, 0161 236 4355 or via here)?

“I think somehow we’ll get to that at some point in the evening! It was a kind of joke at the time, having a laugh in rehearsals. TV in that era was something that was watched by so many people, and we all grew up with Coronation Street.

“What’s more, we went to Manchester as The Skids when we were kids, before we went to London actually, not long after we formed, playing in a club called The Ranch, just off Piccadilly. It didn’t open until after midnight and we supported a Manchester punk band called Slaughter and the Dogs. A really strange place, a cult place, and earlier that day we played on the roof of the Virgin store.

“We came down because we loved the Buzzcocks and saw them with Howard Devoto as the singer at the Electric Circus, so were pretty tuned into the Manchester scene and remained so. It was always pretty vibrant … and still is.”

I’m a bit confused there. Richard suggested that date was in early ’77, but that would even pre-date the Pilmuir Street debut. In fact, on the band’s website their first technician, Clive Ford, seems to tell a different version, suggesting a plan to ambush a Rezillos gig in Rafters in Manchester, the band’s low billing meaning they played ‘to about eight people’. He adds, ‘The following day we tried to play a gig at the Virgin store, it nearly happened but the manager chickened out’, their entourage ending up ‘in a club getting drunk with one Rossi from Slaughter & the Dogs’.

It’s understandable if the memories are slightly mixed up. For one thing, Richard was barely 16 when he joined the band. And he’s been far from idle in the time since the Skids called it a day. In fact, he has two grown-up children, his son fresh from doing his masters at university, studying cyber-terrorism, while his daughter, just turned 24, went down the art school route, ‘doing a more creative thing’.

Stupid question, I know, but could he ever have imagined back in ’77 that the Skids would go on to have a 40th anniversary tour? I mean, rock’n’roll itself was barely in its 20s at that point.

“No. Obviously I gave it up quite early, despite a brief dalliance with The Armoury Show with John McGeoch and John Doyle from Magazine, and loved the album we made together. “I couldn’t be arsed with it anymore and went on to do other things, but occasionally would dip my toe into the water with The Skids, and when Stuart died we did a concert in his honour and for every anniversary did one gig from there. This too was only supposed to be a couple of gigs, having not toured for 35 years, but then word got out and people wanted us to come to other cities, so we’ll see what happens. It’s been amazing so far.”

Is everything else on hold for now then?

“It is. I’m coming to Manchester next year though, to make a film in late Spring, called Saddleworth, set in Gorton, so I’ll be based in Manchester for much of 2018, and really love the city.”

Thinking of this line-up with you on this tour, Bill Simpson was there from the start with Stuart, the pair having met in high school in Cowdenbeath. Did you hit it off with the two of them straightaway?

“Not really, I think it was just that they were looking for a front-man and I had all the accoutrements – the attitude and the hair! When I did the audition they had some guys who came along who were all a bit Bryan Ferry-esque, and then I came along and sang Raw Power by Iggy Pop, which seemed to do the trick. We became very close, but I didn’t know them at all at first.”

In fact, Bill said in an interview sourced on the Skids’ website, “Richard was somebody from Dunfermline who we saw walking around and thought, ‘Who the hell is that?’ He was a tall, imposing looking character in a big, long, black trench-coat, with black and white hair. He just had a look and a presence about him. I never spoke to him but what happened next was we were talking about putting a band together and thought we’d audition for a singer. Stuart must’ve bumped into Richard somewhere and invited him along to audition with some other singers, and that was that. As soon as we heard he could carry a tune, the confidence and presence he had, the overall look and the fact he was of the same mindset, that was it, we had found our singer.”

Did Richard stay in touch with Bill over the years?

“Not really. He wandered off, he’d had enough of it, but Stuart and I continued. I was always a bit of an itinerant while Stuart was a bit of a home-boy, loved coming back to his home in Scotland.”

And Mike Baillie came in for The Absolute Game, didn’t he?

“He did, and was a friend of ours anyway, a fan of the band, hanging around with us as a kid, and we kept in touch. It was a close-knit community and we kind of grew up together through music, which pulled us all together. Before punk happened there wasn’t a unifying sound.

Early Days: The Skids, way back. From left – Bill Simpson, Richard Jobson, Stuart Adamson, Thomas Kellichan.

“We knew what we didn’t like but didn’t quite know what we did like. There was nothing really for us. David Bowie and Lou Reed were always there, but there was nothing new and young of our own generation.”

When I interviewed Bruce Watson three years ago for this website (with a link here) he suggested the catalyst for the reunion was U2 and Green Day tackling The Saints Are Coming for a charity single in 2006 (to help tackle the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). Could that rebirth have happened even five years earlier?

“Well, with Bruce it made sense, a musical person I would get on with who could really deliver the goods, with no secondary issues. And it was mainly one-offs so wasn’t financially driven. We didn’t make any money. We did it for the sheer love if it.

“But we’ve taken all this very seriously and have rehearsed since January this time, we’re recording now, and we’re in good shape.”

You’ve always had that work ethic.What did your folks make of your move into the music business in the first place?

“I think they were quite shocked, coming from a pretty old-fashioned working-class family, with five boys. But my eldest brother was a unique guy. That helped. They tried to control him and it hadn’t worked. He became a bit of a rebel. Unfortunately he’s dead now, but was a big influence on me and was listening to music that he fed into my life, like MC5 and Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and crazy stuff like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa – music others weren’t listening to.

“He was also a bit of an artist and introduced me to great comic books. So when punk rock came along it made sense. But the only band in Scotland I paid any attention to was Alex Harvey. I didn’t really love the music that much, but loved Alex himself – an amazing front-man.”

Are you a prolific songwriter?

“I’d not written a song for 25 or 30 years, so it’s not been hard – there’s so much to write about.”

Charades Anyone? OK, maybe not. The Skids go for the moody look.

You kept your hand in with your poetry though, didn’t you?

“Yeah, I’ve been reflecting on what’s been going on around me, in a way, but these songs gave me an opportunity to do that with a bite.”

Back in the early days was it like a Difford and Tilbrook thing, with you handing over scribbled notes and Stuart adding the chords?

“I think that’s right. Originally, he wrote the words but then I had a go. I got into that whole William Burroughs and David Bowie ‘cut-ups’ thing, and he was quite generous about that. I wasn’t technically a musician, while he was a high-quality musician, but went with my fairly abstract stylised way of working and was very supportive.”

Was there animosity when Stuart went off and did his own thing?

“Not at all, and my ex-wife (journalist and fellow TV presenter Mariella Frostrup) was his press officer. There was no animosity. It was just a bit sad really. We went off and did our own thing. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Big Country and he wouldn’t have wanted to be in The Armoury Show.”

Did you get back in touch in later years?

“Yeah, when I came back I would drop in, kept in touch and would say hello to his kids. I didn’t really see him towards the end, and didn’t really know about all his problems. It was a bit of a shock to me. I didn’t know he was in such a bad place. It was a shock to everybody.”

Finally, I ask, which Skids album, track or single is Richard most proud of?

“I’ve a deep affection for Days in Europa. It was so ambitious. We tried to redesign our own wheel, if you know what I mean, going from being an interesting rock’n’roll band to something that had more of a nuance and a more subtle approach to songwriting. And from that album I still love Animation quite a lot. I love that album and love the sleeve as well.”

And that brings us full circle, this scribe telling his interviewee his own memories of the day he returned from the library with a copy of that very album. Sigh.

Street Party: The Skids in 2017: Bruce, Mike, Richard, Bill, Jamie Heading your way. (Photo: Gordon Smith)

The Skids’ 40th anniversary tour continues with dates at The Academy, Dublin (Friday, May 26th) and The Limelight, Belfast (Saturday, May 27th), then continues in June at: 

Thursday 1st – The Picturedrome, Holmfirth
Friday 2nd – The Ritz, Manchester
Saturday 3rd – O2 Academy, Leeds
Sunday 4th – Roadmenders, Northampton
Thursday 8th – The Bierkeller, Bristol
Friday 9th – The Academy, Oxford
Saturday 10th – The Academy, Sheffield
Thursday 15th – The Junction, Cambridge
Friday 16th – The Roundhouse, London
Saturday 17th – Concorde 2, Brighton
Wednesday 21st – 1865, Southampton
Thursday 22nd – The Robin 2, Bilston
Friday 23rd – The Academy, Newcastle
Saturday 24th – Stone Valley Festival, Stanhope County Durham
Thursday 29th – The Town Hall, Montrose
Friday 30th – Glen Pavilion, Dunfermline

There are also dates in August (Saturday 5th – Lagoon Arena, Charity Event, Paisley, Sunday 6th – The Rebellion Festival, Blackpool), September (Friday 1st – Rock City, Nottingham, Saturday 2nd – Midfest, Dalkeith), and October (Wednesday 4th – The Ironworks, Inverness, Thursday 5th – Beat Generator, Dundee, Friday 6th – Warehouse 23, Wakefield, Saturday 7th – The Great British Alternative Festival, Skegness).

For full details and all the latest from the band, head to their official website hereAnd to find out about the band’s Burning Cities album project via Pledge Music, how to pre-order a copy, and other exclusive Skids offers, try here

You can also follow this link to an appreciation of the band from Michael Martin for the rather splendid Toppermost music fans’ website. 

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Delivering the late bloomer’s last rider – the Ron Sexsmith interview

Big Dreams: Ron Sexsmith, back with his 14th solo offering, and heading your way.

The morning I spoke to Ron Sexsmith, he was in the pensive frame of mind I might have expected.

Despite leaving his adopted city of Toronto for a new base 90 miles away in Stratford, Ontario, barely a week before, Ron happened to be back on the street where he had lived the previous 15 years, across the road from his old place, house and dog-sitting for a former neighbour and their Pomeranian.

“We’ve only really been gone a week and a half and now we’re back on our old street again. It’s kind of sad actually. So much living was done in that place. Now it’s sitting there empty.”

Ron’s more reflective mode seemed in keeping with the public persona of a gifted singer-songwriter currently caught somewhere between urban and rural living and hovering between past and present, as heard on the three albums he’s made since 2011’s higher-profile Long Player Late Bloomer.

After 2013’s more low-key yet just as engaging offering, Forever Endeavour, Ron veered off into more solid Ray Davies and Paul McCartney territory on 2015’s wonderfully-wistful Carousel One, wearing his influences on his sleeves. And the 53-year-old’s 14th solo album, The Last Rider, takes that approach on again, its laid-back feel somewhat fitting bearing in mind the recording location, a studio on the banks of Lake Ontario belonging to homegrown Canadian success The Tragically Hip.

“It was a band album, so I wanted to find a studio where we could live and party and record, and there was this place, The Bathouse, in Kingston. I guess having the band around too is maybe why it has a laid-back feel. All my albums have been done with session musicians, but this time I’m in a room with my friends playing music, a lot more relaxing.”

Over the course of 15 new tracks – most clocking in around the three-minute mark – we get a neat snapshot of this Canadian treasure today, its songs ‘by turns happy, sad, romantic, bittersweet, uplifting, spiritual and witty’, as his press people put it. More to the point, we find Ron at one with his surroundings and his trusty band, all stress at the machinations of the music industry brushed aside.

While Carousel One was laid down in less than a week in Los Angeles with a host of the city’s top session stars – and to great effect – this time the pressure was off, the artist and his co-musicians closer to home for what turned out to be one of his more personal albums. As he rationalised, ‘I didn’t plan on it being that way, but as we were assembling the songs, this theme did start to emerge about leaving the city, and other big life changes.’

Before we got going, I told my esteemed interviewee I’d had a life-affirming Ron Sexsmith start to my day, having cranked up the volume first thing that day for the awesome Lebanon, Tennessee, a song that still pulls all the right strings for this scribe, as is the case for so many of his numbers.

“Oh thanks,” he replies, in that somewhat under-stated yet genuine manner I recall from past media interviews.

First though, a brief history lesson for the uninitiated, letting on how Ron started his own band when he was 14, and was playing local bars at 17, earning a reputation for being able to play plenty of inspired requests at the Lion’s Tavern in his hometown of St Catharines, Ontario.

He released recordings of his own material for the first time in 1985, aged 21, just after the birth of his son, and a year later moved with his family to his state capital, Toronto, where he worked as a courier and recorded in his spare hours, having befriended Bob Wiseman, who agreed to produce and arrange the next release.

Bob’s busy schedule meant that album’s completion was stretched out over several years, overlapping the birth of Ron’s daughter in 1989, Grand Opera Lane finally appearing two years later. And apparently every Canadian label the producer took it to rejected it, before that eventual independent release, credited to Ron Sexsmith and The Uncool.

On the strength of that release and the attention garnered by the song Speaking with the Angel, Ron finally earned a contract, leading to his self-titled album in 1995, one receiving wider attention when it was endorsed by Elvis Costello, for whom Ron later opened.

While I missed the very early years, I tell him how my friend Jim’s recommendation led to us catching him live in a crowded Adelphi pub in Preston, Lancashire, in the summer of 1999. I was subsequently hooked, feeling slightly possessive about his work ever since, starting with the glorious Ron Sexsmith, Other Songs and that year’s Whereabouts. Does he remember any of those early UK shows?

“I remember that vaguely, but just remember the time in general, because the UK the first place to take notice of me. My debut record had been out for a whole year in North America and was dying a slow death. To actually go somewhere where people seemed enthusiastic was just such a relief.”

Of course, interest generated by a certain Declan McManus helped.

“That totally helped, yeah. That saved my career. I was just about to be dropped when that happened. Also, this year is the 20th anniversary of my second album, Other Songs, which was very well received over there too. So we’ll probably have to play a few more of those songs on this tour.”

Since then, Ron has worked with some of music’s most celebrated producers, including Daniel Lanois, Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake, Ray Kennedy, Martin Terefe, Bob Rock and Jim Scott. But this time it’s a ‘Ron and Don’ production, in tandem with long-time collaborator Don Kerr, who just happened to have featured on drums with his band The Uncool on that 1991 debut recording too.

Rightly recognised as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation – as far back as his self-titled major-label debut LP in 1995 – it stands to reason he’s learned a thing or two over the years about making records. But only now has he decided to take matters into his own hands as a producer. And as he put it, he can’t blame anyone but himself this time.

He reckons en route he’s discovered a ‘wealth of knowledge about recording’ he hadn’t realised he had, taking his lead from Don’s studio craft, confidence in his abilities slowly growing after all these years.

“I’ve never produced anything before so that’s a new thing for me. But Don has done many records so I felt he had my back. It was good teamwork overall. Don and I go back to being couriers together, with my bass player Jason (Mercer) playing on and off with me since 1996, and I opened for my keyboard player Dave Matheson’s band, Moxy Früvous, in the ‘90s. We all go back quite a way.”

As well as the three band-mates already mentioned, there’s also some nice touches from Kevin Lacroix on guitar. So did it just feel the right time to do the band thing this time?

“It did, but it was also partly financial. This is where my career is at. Labels don’t have the money. I don’t know how anyone makes records anymore.”

I admit to Ron at this point a rather selfish assertion that I don’t mind so much that he’s not as big a name as he deserves to be. That way he at least retains an intimate touch, one I’d be scared of losing if the world and his wife got to know him better.

He laughs at that, while I continue to dig a hole, saying that as long as he’s getting by and can afford to record and tour, I’m happy enough. Besides, those occasional royalties from the likes of Rod Stewart (Secret Heart, 1998), Michael Buble (Whatever it Takes, 2009), Katie Melua (Gold in Them Hills, 2011) must help.

“Yeah, it’s almost a living. I just bought a house. I never owned anything like that in my life, so that’s pretty huge. I have a lot of financial stress, and some records have done better than others. But every now and then you get something like Buble doing a song. I hope to get a few more of those! In my situation I’m living off publishing advances, but haven’t got one in a few years. I’m ‘unrecouped’, you know. I’m ready for another Buble cover!”

On the opening track of the new album, It Won’t Last For Long, Ron sets the tone for what follows, reflecting that ‘Everything in life is passing through’. And at the other end there’s a similarly deep sentiment on Man at the Gate (1913), another poignant moment, one perhaps suggesting at its core a need to make the most of our relatively short spell on this planet, and a song borne out of the day Ron spotted a postcard of an old photo of his local park in Trinity-Bellwoods.

“In the photograph, there’s a man walking by the gates of the park, and you can barely see him, but that’s the kind of thing I easily get obsessed about. I couldn’t stop thinking that the guy could be me 100 years later, and really could be all of us. We’re here for a certain amount of time, and we leave behind these traces of who we were that have the potential to inspire people who come along after we’re gone. To me, that’s really beautiful.”

While the melancholic is as much a staple of Sexsmithery as the melodic touches, there’s plenty of upbeat sentiment on the new album. A few of the songs would have sat just as well coming out of a tinny radio on those long hot summer days of my mid-’70s youth. It’s just the right side of intelligent pop, I’d say. And – as with The Sun’s Coming Out on Carousel One – his more ‘guardedly-optimistic’ side is showcased nicely on tracks like Evergreen, Our Way and Worried Song this time around.

There’s certainly plenty of that supreme Ronald Eldon Sexsmith songcraft and no less sunshine on the lovely West Gwillimbury (‘a metaphor for heaven’) too. And while I don’t want this critique of the new album to drag on too long, it’s fair to say The Last Rider has much in common with Boo Hewerdine’s new LP Swimming in Mercury, both albums reflective affairs with a ’70s touch that have the power to pull me right back. Who We Are Right Now is another fine example of that, caught somewhere between The Carpenters and The Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight on that retro radio playlist.

While it’s a wireless-friendly album for sure, if I’ve one criticism, it’s just a little too mellow for me in places, and I’ll certainly be interested to experience the live versions instead when Ron and co. join us next week. But for me one of the exceptions to that rule is the inventive, Squeeze meets XTC-like Breakfast Ethereal, seen as a companion piece to Galbraith Street on his major label eponymous debut 22 years before.

In fact, the biographical nature of that song got me thinking back to 2004 and Ron commenting how Dandelion Wine on the splendid Retriever album was more personal than he’d usually choose to be in a song. So does writing personal pieces get any easier over the years for this admittedly shy performer?

“I think that song was a little harder than most in a way. I was more or less beating myself up about a lot of misbehaviour and this and that. There was Secret Heart as well, and I think that’s always been a part of my writing. Even if it’s not such a personal song you want to be able to get behind it and understand it.

“With Dandelion Wine, my publisher didn’t want that on the record. He thought it didn’t fit with the vibe of a mostly upbeat record. But I was really proud of that song and thought at that point in the record it needed some gravitas, or whatever. And this album is also very personal but more wistful, more nostalgic, I guess.”

There’s certainly a dreamy, ’70s feel across the tracks, and that’s why I wondered if it was less of a city record, offering a more rural slant on life.

“Possibly, yeah. I remember going into it thinking I wanted the album to sound less retro than my last one, Carousel One, when I worked with legendary engineer Jim Scott. That sounded very ‘70s to me. I wanted this to sound more updated or something. But the first track, It Won’t Last For Long, I wanted to sound like Daniel by Elton John. That’s sort of what we were going for. It’s a very different song from Daniel, but seemed kind of easy and didn’t bash you over the head. I don’t like albums that bash you over the head right away.”

I’d heard the lilting, easy-going Evergreen a few times, but one other track that quickly jumped out was Dead End Dream, its title alone reminding me of that ever-present Kinks influence – as also heard on the evocative Radio, with its shades of David Watts – and that iconic outfit’s own Dead End Street.

“I think Ray Davies runs pretty much through all my songs. It’s half Ray, half Gordon Lightfoot. Whatever my sound is, it’s in there somewhere. I grew up loving all that British invasion stuff and people like Nilsson.”

When he mentions that, I tell him I can hear post-Beatles’ era John, Paul and George in places on Ron’s more recent albums too – Upward Dog on this latest LP having a very Wings-like vibe, for example.

“Well, I love all those guys too, and it affects me in my writing. I’m not thinking about those people when I’m writing, but …”

Perhaps it’s inevitable, us being something of the sum of our influences, in the same way I can hear Ron’s Costello influence at times.

“Exactly, and with most of that you don’t realise that until you’re figuring how you’re going to record something, when you think you want it to have like a Badfinger feel or something. There are all those sort of vague pop references in my DNA. I definitely always loved George’s stuff, John Lennon … all those guys.”

Talking of influences, we lost a major one last year, fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, with whom Ron performed a live duet of So Long Marianne in Yorkville, Toronto, in 2006.

“Yeah, I got to sing once with him, and met him on a few occasions. He was always such a gentleman, and I was just honoured he knew my name. That was unbelievable to me. When he came into my life I was around 21, I had just started writing songs, and he had such an influence that it made me wonder if it was still okay to like Ray Davies and The Beatles.

“His stuff seemed so substantial and so heavy that I wondered if I could listen to Penny Lane anymore. But I realised afterwards it’s all great. I mean, I love Deep Purple too. Everyone’s doing their own thing and you gravitate towards people, whatever they’re doing, excelling in a certain genre.”

As Ron’s now recording and performing with his own band, I bring up the subject of the Love Shines documentary and a time when he was more reliant on session musicians. The Long Player Late Bloomer album it focused on was built up at the time to be his big breakthrough album. That film made for compelling viewing, and I’d say you come away loving Ron all the more, but the resultant LP – despite featuring so many great songs, not least the brilliant Believe It When I See It, No Help At All, and Love Shines itself – was a tad over-produced, I venture to add.

“Oh yeah … I totally agree, and I don’t like the film at all, to be honest, but I liked working with Bob Rock. I was looking for a producer to make me connect. I’m really proud of all the songs. All that sort of auto-tune you hear happened during the mixing process, which I wasn’t even there for. When I heard the finished record I was kind of horrified at the airbrushing that went on.

“At the same time that’s probably my most successful album. So on one hand, I’ve worked with Bob Rock and that’s kind of what he does. Most producers come with their own bag of tricks, and that’s kind of what he does. When you work with Bob Rock you don’t expect it to sound like Daniel Lanois, right? Yes, I’m very proud of that record, but if I could change one thing I’d get rid of all that.”

Perhaps we just need a raw version.

“Well, maybe down the road they’ll let me do what McCartney did with Let It Be Naked, remix it or something for a 20th anniversary edition!

Now there’s something to look for. Not the naked aspect, but …

“Ha! Well, with this album, because my last one didn’t do very well, I wanted The Last Rider to be somewhere between Long Player Late Bloomer and Carousel One, without the airbrushing, but slightly more slick than the last one, so we’d have more luck with radio and stuff like that.”

It’s not like he eschews all that box office stuff. Past collaborations have included those with Coldplay’s Chris Martin (another version of Gold in Them Hills), as well as less mainstream hook-ups with Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun, Dutch singer-songwriter Marike Jager, and Japanese pop punks Shonen Knife.

Meanwhile, famous admirers – as well as the afore-mentioned Costello, Elton John and Paul McCartney – include Steve Earle and Sheryl Crow, while Feist, Nick Lowe, Emmylou Harris – who even named her 2011 album after Ron’s Hard Bargain – and Edmonton-born K.D. Lang have also covered his songs.

Yet it’s not as simple as just colouring him as a shy guy hovering in the wings, happy playing second fiddle. As early as the turn of the century, Ron was telling journalists he didn’t want to be seen like Nick Drake and Tim Hardin, another critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter more likely to be lauded beyond the grave.

That said, he clearly finds it frustrating having to pitch his talents and play the publicity game, acknowledging that he called the new LP The Last Rider – ‘a pun on The Last Supper, as opposed to a jockey who can’t get out of the paddock’, says his press release – as it might be his last for a while, due to on-going frustrations about the music business.

“Well, it was definitely on my mind. It’s so hard to get it together, come up with the money and all that. I thought after this record, if possible, I’d like to step away for a while. It’s not very realistic that I won’t make others. I’m sure I’ll make more. I’d like to just try and resist the urge for a while. It can be so discouraging to put my head through that every time.

“It’s like Charlie Brown when he tries to kick the football all the time. That’s how I feel with most of my records. You get excited that this one’s going to be the one. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s close to being the one, but I just have to see how this album is received and how it does before I make any decisions.”

Personally, I’m hoping that rather than being a last hurrah, this album’s message is more about making the best of things while we can. And perhaps now is the time to take his own advice on the penultimate track, because ‘If your dreams are bigger than your worries, you won’t have to worry about your dreams’. And as it is, the results of those Bathouse recording sessions left him feeling fairly chipper anyway, ruminating on ‘the way everything played out’, adding, ‘It felt a lot more free, so I guess we’ll see what happens’.

Soon enough, it was time to let him go, not least on the eve of a 17-date Canadian tour then his European dates. But not before I asked if he was a good traveler and if it’s easier knowing his beloved Colleen is on the road with him, ‘helping with the merch.’

“I’m a good traveler when we’re on land. I’m not good with airports and I’m a nervous flyer. I’ll be flying to the UK from Vancouver too, the other side of the country so it’ll feel like we’re flying to Australia. Normally it’s like a seven or eight-hour flight, but now it’s going to be probably 14 hours. That’ll be a bit nerve-racking, but once I land in the UK and we’re travelling around in a splitter-bus, that’s fun, right!

“You’re with your band and laughing your heads off most of the time. We all get on really well, and have a great driver, Terry, a former Mod who used to work with Rod Stewart and Tom Petty. We just love him and he’s funny. We have a really good time, like Robin Hood and his merry band most of the time!”

Supper’s Ready: Ron and his band get stuck into the Last Rider

Ron Sexsmith and his band’s European tour starts this Sunday, May 21st, at Bristol St George’s Hall, carrying on to Wolverhampton The Robin 2 (May 22nd), Islington Assembly Rooms (May 23rd/24th), Chester Live Rooms (May 26th), Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (May 28th), Newcastle Wylam Brewery Palace of Arts (May 29th), Holmfirth Picturedrome (May 30th), Glasgow Oran Mor (May 31st), Dublin Academy (June 2nd), and further dates in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. For full details and all the latest from Ron Sexsmith, head to his official website or keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter accounts. 

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Exploring the enduring legacy of ABBA – the Carl Magnus Palm interview

The Author: Carl Magnus Palm, ‘the world’s foremost ABBA historian’, several titles under his belt

In the week Lucie Jones flies the flag for the UK in Kiev at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest finals, it seemed apt to feature a recent interview with a Swede whose early memories of the competition centred around his own nation’s first and most treasured victory in 1974.

You may struggle naming more than a few of the 50-plus overseas winners so far, but you’ll no doubt remember the year ABBA were triumphant with Waterloo in Brighton.

Carl Magnus Palm, my interviewee today, was still in short trousers when Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad recorded their first ABBA album, Ring Ring. Was there a copy of that LP around his house in the suburbs of Stockholm back then?

“No. I sort of liked ABBA in the very beginning though, and got the Ring Ring single for my eighth birthday. In fact, I was a pop music fan from two or three, loving The Beatles and everything about them. I think one of my sisters bought the third album, (1975’s ABBA, including SOS and second No.1 Mamma Mia). But that was about the only album we had until I started buying them … when they were about to break up!”

Do you remember the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest well? And was that a late night in the Palm household?

“I do, and it was! I remember being so happy Sweden had won. It was a really big thing for us. I liked Waterloo and liked ABBA, but didn’t need to own those records. They were played everywhere and my friends had them.”

Sweden clearly got behind the band very early, and they were already well-known at home by then, weren’t they?

“They were. All four were famous … although maybe Frida a little less so.”

Monochrome Set: Abba on parade, back in the day. From the left – Benny, Frida, Agnetha, Bjorn.

Four decades on, it just so happens that Carl Magnus has published the latest of a series of book about the band, having researched and written about ABBA for 25 years, including acclaimed biography Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story Of ABBA.

He’s also a long-time consultant for the band’s record company Polar Music International, helping compile CD and DVD releases, and has co-produced three TV documentaries about the band. Furthermore, Carl Magnus has helped out with research and captions at ABBA The Museum in Stockholm. But his latest publication is the perfect place to start this story, his updated, expanded version of the original 1994 book, ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions, featuring more details on exactly how the group wrote and recorded all those classic hits.

The first edition, published when ABBA were still some way off from being Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees, was based on original research and interviews with all four members as well as key personnel who worked with them in the recording studio. But since then, further information about the music has emerged, the author spending many more hours researching and recording memories of musicians and engineers, either never before interviewed or rarely quizzed on their part in the group’s journey.

The result is a weighty tome to say the least, ‘rewritten from the ground up’, as he puts it, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus having also authorised him to listen to a number of previously-unreleased tracks, now in digital format.

“When I first worked on this book all the archive tapes were still analogue, making the task more complicated. Today, they’ve all been transferred to a digital format, allowing for much easier access to unreleased recordings and alternate mixes of classic hits.

“Accordingly, this new edition reveals hitherto unknown insights into how ABBA worked and reworked their music, editing out large chunks of the recordings to make them more immediately captivating, changing lyrics and arrangements, removing entire verses, sometimes letting a melody fragment travel through a number of tunes until it finally found its natural home.”

The latest edition also tells how the four-piece approached their work and what they feel about the songs, along with the author’s in-depth essays about the process – from the writing of the tunes to the mixing and beyond.

Before quizzing Carl Magnus further, I felt I should explain to him my own complicated relationship with ABBA. Born a couple of years after my Skype interviewee, in 1967, I first equated the group with my little sister (five years older than me, but I am the youngest of five) and her more questionable taste in music (sorry, Tracy). As the early ’70s gave rise to the mid-’70s, the late ’70s and the early ’80s, I stood apart from all that. It seemed one of the least cool options available throughout that whole period, and accordingly I kept my distance. I was in denial, you could say.

Waterloo Sunshine: ABBA, as they were. Enough to make Napoleon surrender, it seemed.

It took a couple of factors to win me over and admit the band’s pull, one of those being Blancmange’s 1984 cover of The Day Before You Came, the other Elvis Costello playing Knowing Me Knowing You at Glastonbury Festival in 1987. Finally, I felt I could reappraise the band and admit – at least to myself – what a great band they were. There for starters were two great songs that deserved kudos. What’s more, the afore-mentioned Declan McManus had kind of half-inched elements of Dancing Queen for Oliver’s Army.

It wasn’t long before my singles collection included those singles and others such as Take A Chance On Me, Mamma Mia and SOS. And who could deny the pull of the more stirring, heart-tugging songs like One of Us and The Winner Takes It All? Besides, aside from the boys’ beards, who couldn’t love those girls? I even went back to that Arrival album I dismissed in my formative days, hearing the title track in a different light, feeling a little nostalgic for a different era.

By the mid-90s I was even experiencing the delights of Aussie tribute act Bjorn Again live, and recorded a telephone answering machine message over the top of Ring Ring, my questionable Swedish accent (more akin to the chef from The Muppets, probably) telling callers Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn, Frida, myself and my long-suffering better half couldn’t come to the phone but … Well, you get the idea. Call it my Abba Coming Out if you like.

But enough about me. Back to Carl Magnus. How did a lad only born in 1965 get to become recognised as an international authority on a band that broke through before he’d even hit double figures?

“Well, there’s a long story there. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s that I really started getting into them. Then in the early ‘90s I read Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, being a Beatles nut, and thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to write a book like that’. I wondered who I could write a book about and the obvious choice was ABBA, being Swedish. And because they were never cool, they weren’t the kind of group music journalists would take as their No.1 choice to write an in-depth study about.

“I thought, ‘Here’s the challenge’. Even those who didn’t like ABBA’s music feel you cannot fault the craftsmanship. That turned into the first edition of The Complete Recording Sessions, the result of me thinking something good might come out of all this. But I never expected to be in the position I am now – the world’s foremost ABBA historian.”

I read somewhere that Hunter Davies’ The Beatles: The Authorised Biography was also a big influence on your choice of career.

“That was very much my thing. At a young age I don’t think I had every album, but there was always that neighbour who had the Rubber Soul album, wondering if I could borrow that and tape it. As a child you don’t have unlimited resources.”

On his first visit to London in 1979, Carl Magnus even visited the Smash Hits offices, meeting the journalist Ian Cranna, who he says looked after him that day. Did he expect to see stars walking in and out of the building?

“Not really. I was with my Dad, who encouraged me to go there. He said, let’s go to their office and see if we can meet someone. He encouraged me to talk to someone in my limited English, which was okay for a 14-year-old but maybe not perfect.”

Carl Magnus was always something of an Anglophile as well as a pop fan, going on to study English and cinema studies at university in Stockholm. But writing wasn’t always the day-job.

“I was wondering what I was going to do with my life, working in a video rental store, then temping. Then this came along, thinking let’s try and do something I really want to, without considering whether it’s possible to do it. I was living on welfare for a while, with practically no writing experience professionally. But by the late ‘90s it had all started coming together, getting this and that ABBA assignment. I was also doing translation work and subtitling for TV, translating every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for instance, a claim to fame with sci-fi fans!”

While chiefly known for his work on ABBA, it was a book on Swedish singer and actress Monica Zetterlund that kick-started his writing career, in collaboration with his friend Thomas Winberg. I tell Carl Magnus how I sought out a couple of her appearances in preparation for this interview, and could understand the attraction, not least her stage presence and air of dynamism.

“Absolutely! A very compelling performer and a really great singer, really good at interpretation – thinking of the lyrics, not just blurting out the words.”

Between his 1994 first-edition ABBA book and its 2017 revised version, I make it seven more books on the same subject. And then there was Cadillac Madness – The Incredible Story of The Hep Stars, profiling Benny Andersson’s breakthrough band.

Having heard so much of the early catalogue of a certain Benny Andersson, do you think he shone out straight away? He seemed to be an innovative musician from day one.

“Yes, he was, and the amazing turning point in his life was only the second song he wrote, called Sunny Girl.”

That was the song that made me ask that question. It reminded me of the late ‘60s era Bee Gees.

Stage Dynamism: Monica Zetterlund, the subject of Carl Magnus’ first biographical work.

“Right. I know what you mean – that kind of baroque feel. Well, that song became a massive hit in this country, and was No.1 for five or six weeks. A big success and their biggest at that that point.

“Benny tells this story of sitting alone in this dressing room, before a Hep Stars concert, in some Swedish town, coming to terms with having this No.1 song. Apparently not only was he able to play the keyboards but he was actually able to write songs that communicate with people and go into people’s hearts.

“He was only 19 years old and decided then that if he could write one of those songs he could probably write more. That’s the moment he decided that whatever happens with The Hep Stars, however many years that goes on, he’s going to continue in music. That’s going to be his career.”

To date, Carl Magnus’ work has been published across Scandinavia and Europe, including Russia, plus the US, Australia, Japan and Brazil. Does he still get a thrill seeing those books on the shelves?

“I’m amazed when I count the languages some of these books have been published in.”

And what would his teenage self make of his consultancy position for Polar Music International/ Universal Music?

“It’s like a dream come true. I was always a pop music fan and that was always the biggest thing in my life. There was a dream to work with all that, but not really having the self-confidence to think I’d ever be able to do that. I’m not rich or anything … but I’m alive!”

You haven’t got your own Swedish island yet then?

“Not quite yet! But I’ve been able to make a living, pay the rent, eat food … So that’s great, and my teen incarnation would have been thrilled to bits.”

Talking of his love of pop, there’s also a passion for disco for a lad who helped compile liner notes for the multi-CD box sets Disco Fever (2006) and Hard & Heavy (2008).

“Yeah, absolutely. I’m a huge fan of vintage disco for the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I can’t get enough of it!”

And  as well as his early Monica Zetterlund project, Carl Magnus has co-written the memoirs of Swedish singer and actress Siw Malmkwist.

“That was great. She’s a huge star in this country and everyone knows her, famous for 60 years or so, having started out very young. She came to my apartment to do the interviews, which was very bizarre. I was asking myself, ‘what is this famous person doing sitting on my couch? How did she end up here?’”

He’s clearly made an impact over the past 20 years or so, but how well does he feel he’s really got to know the often-enigmatic Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Frida en route?

“Well, Bjorn and Benny more so, but I think I know the girls fairly well, although I wouldn’t say I’m not their personal friend. I tend to leave them alone. It would be unhealthy to try to be anything else.”

I guess you have to strike something of a balance. You have to get that bit deeper as a biographer and sometimes can’t get too close to your subject.

“Exactly! You have to keep your integrity as a writer. That said, I must say Bjorn and Benny have always been very nice to me. They say no to requests sometimes but say yes so many times, especially when I did the first edition of this book. They were absolutely wonderful, opened so many doors and said you can come back as many times as you want until you feel you’re done with the interviews. And that’s when we’re done. That was like a dream! As you know, usually it’s the other way round – you get 10  minutes if you’re lucky.”

As for potential future developments of the ABBA story, there was no official split announcement in 1982, and no big moment when it became clear they were no longer recording together. Yet there’s been talk of late about the group reuniting to work on a new ‘digital entertainment experience’. Any further word there yet?

“I don’t think so. There have been no further announcements, and I know no more than that’s already been in the media. I’m not even sure they know! It all seems very vague.”

Ever totted up the hours you put into this book (let alone all the other ABBA titles)?

“Oh, my! I don’t know. I wrote in the press release ‘hundreds of hours’, but I’m wondering if it was more! It must be well over a thousand. It’s just insane. working seven days a week for two years, more or less.”

Have you a long-suffering family around you?

“I don’t. I have long-suffering friends though, and I’m looking forward to properly hanging out with them now.”

Finally, I put Carl Magnus on the spot and asked him what his favourite ABBA track and album was.

“If I had to choose one favourite track and return to it, it’s The Winner Takes It All, which I think is the perfect pop song. It really only has two melody lines, repeated throughout, but with changes through lyrics and arrangements, and the way Agnetha sings it … That’s her proudest moment, I think. It’s very simple yet they keep you interested. In my book that may well be the definition of great pop. It’s not hard to listen to that song and remember the tune, yet it never gets boring.

“And my favourite album is Voulez-Vous, not many people’s favourite, I know. It does have I Have a Dream on it, which is not my favourite track! Apart from that it’s a bit Abba Go Disco, although it’s not all-out disco. There’s a lot of tension on it, a lot of desperation, about people looking for a one-night stand, and so on. It’s a very exciting album, with ABBA at a kind of crossroads there, keeping some of that youthful pop exuberance yet also starting to be more mature, all that coinciding in a very fruitful way.”

ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions is available via this link. And for more details about Carl Magnus Palm, head to his official website here

And for a further slice of Eurovision, writewyattuk style, there’s this website’s feature/interview with Katrina Leskanich (of Katrina and the Wales fame) from late March, with a link right here.

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Still touched by Blondie’s presence, past and future – the Chris Stein interview

Fun Police: Blondie 2017 - Matt Katz-Bohen, Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, Leigh Foxx, Tommy Kessler. Still out there.

Fun Police: Blondie 2017 – Matt Katz-Bohen, Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, Leigh Foxx, Tommy Kessler.

After more than 40 million albums worldwide, six UK and four US No.1 singles, Blondie are back with an 11th studio album and doing the rounds again this side of the Atlantic, their youthful energy belying the ages of their key personnel.

It’ll be 40 years this coming summer since these highly-influential New Yorkers recorded their self-titled debut LP at Plaza Sound Studios, yet they continue to seek out new ground, new offering Pollinator including songs co-written with the likes of Johnny Marr, The Strokes, Sia and Charli XCX to name but four acts who hold the band with major reverence.

That in itself was reason enough to track down founder member and guitarist Chris Stein when he first visited London to promote the LP, before returning a few weeks later with the rest of the band for a launch party at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, with shows to follow next month at Hyde Park and Dublin’s Lansdowne Road, and a full tour set to follow here this autumn.

And I started by asking 67-year-old Chris if he ever could have imagined still being out there with the band 35 years after the ill-fated The Hunter tour of ’82 … or even at the turn of 1999, just before the release of rebirth album No Exit.

“No, I probably think more about the future now than I have in the past. I’m not sure we gave it much consideration back then.”

It’s some feat though, this whole story.

“I guess, but it’s hard to be objective about it, as we’re so close.”

Perhaps I should remind us how tensions were high within the band in 1982 (‘The tide is high but I’m holding on’ you could say, as John Holt had before them) after something of a commercial decline and resultant money pressures. Constant press focus on Chris’ partner of the time, Debbie Harry, to the exclusion of the others in the band reaching breaking point when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. That, coupled with the drugs, mismanagement and slow ticket sales led to a major tour cancellation, the band breaking up, and lawsuits following.

But 17 years later they were back, Chris long since recovered and a resurgence of name-checking interest through acts such as Garbage and No Doubt leading to him, Debbie, Clem Burke (drums) and Jimmy Destri (keyboards) working on new material, and scoring fresh commercial success.

My Fun: Debbie Harry, out front, with Chris, left, and Clem, from the promo video for Blondie’s Fun.

And if No Exit suggested a rebirth, four albums on they’re still moving on and as fresh as ever, not least on a pumping piece of 1970s-fringed disco called Fun, co-written by Chris, Debbie and David Sitek. And that’s what the world needs right now, yeah, Chris?

“Yeah! It’s difficult seeing the way things are going. I’m seeing now this guy in the Netherlands stands a chance, which is pretty creepy.”

He’s talking about Geert Wilders there, thankfully denied power in mid-March in the Dutch general election. I couldn’t help but comment how the so-called Party for Freedom leader’s looks (and arguably his policies) suggested he may be a distant cousin of a certain recently-elected US president.

“Yeah, what with him and what’s his name, Boris Johnson … Man …”

Indeed. Which somehow brings me on to another high-profile track off the new album, the mighty My Monster, written by Johnny Marr. And from what I’d heard across the album at that point, I told him, it seemed to be a typically diverse bag, style-wise.

“It’s a little more rock’n’roll-based, with everyone in the band playing, giving it kind of a live feel.”

‘A modern take on the classic, vintage sound’, as their press release suggests. Is that inevitable when co-writing with various figures from different fields?

“Yeah, that was great and it’s very gratifying that those people are willing to donate material.”

You’re such icons, you see. Everyone wants a bit of you.

“Well, maybe … it’s great!”

Taking one prime example, he’s clearly a fan of yours, but how long has Johnny Marr been on your radar? Were you a Smiths fan?

“They were great, amazing, and we probably bumped into him a few times over the years. And Johnny told us he wrote that song specifically for us, which is nice. It was also the first song we got out of collecting material, and we got very enthusiastic about that.”

You have the album launch at London’s Roundhouse – a scene of past triumphs and something of a spiritual home for you, yeah?

“I kind of feel I’ve been here more than I’ve been to Los Angeles. And The Roundhouse is great. We remember it from the old days when the roof was leaking!”

Remember much about that big show there in 1978?

“Kind of, and I remember seeing other shows there over the years. There was always a good atmosphere. There still is, and it’s nice how they’ve fixed it up.”

First Flesh: 1977's debut album, Blondie

First Flesh: 1977’s debut album, Blondie

Will you be trying to sneak off with your camera while you’re here? Photography’s clearly a passion for you (as seen in print in 2014’s Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk).

“Yeah, I like the usual places, like up around Portobello.”

Any more photography books coming our way?

“Yeah, I’m trying to push one of my older street photography from the ’70s. That old stuff that looks like ancient history in retrospect!”

You’ve had a few trials with your health over the years. How are you doing right now?

“Oh, okay. I only had that one condition, and that was really stupid. A waste of time, but it was my own fault – too many drugs whacked my immune system.”

Married for 18 years to actress Barbara Sicuranza, the couple have two daughters. And I guess family life suits him well.

“Yeah, the kids are great, and I miss the wife and kids when we’re travelling.”

How old are your girls now?

“They’re 11 and 13.”

Any chance they might follow your lead into music?

“They dabble in it a little, kind of taking it for granted. I don’t know if they’re passionate about it yet.”

Auntie Debbie hasn’t warned them off then?

“No! They listen to music, and the older one likes Black Sabbath, that kind of stuff.”

Letters Prey: Blondie’s 1978 album Plastic Letters

We touched on it before, but are you a little surprised what’s going on down on both sides of the Atlantic right now, in fact all over Europe and America, with Trump, Farage, Le Pen and so on.

“Yeah, it’s hard not to upset people on that, and alienate people. But there’s just so much racism with the whole fucking thing. It’s annoying.”

I’m in an odd position here, talking to a fella whose high-profile ex- and bandmate for many moons was not only on my bedroom wall but countless others around the world. You were dating a genuine global pin-up. That couldn’t have been easy at times.

“I kind of identified through Debbie. I was never taken aback by any of that. It was always kind of amusing.”

As I was only born in ’67 I was too young to see you live in those days, but I was coming alive to the new wave scene and bands like Blondie, Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Jam, Ramones, The Undertones. And I have great memories of that run of singles from Denis in early 1978 onwards, like that year’s (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear, Picture This, Hanging on the Telephone, 1979’s Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl, and so on, right up there among the very finest singles from that golden era.

“Ah, thanks!”

What I’m saying is that even if you’d never returned after late 1980’s Autoamerican,  you’d have cemented your place in this heart.

“Yeah! That’s good … and we appreciate your support.”

And while I appreciated your more punk and new wave moments from the off, you never sat back on that, and were always open to wider experimentation in disco, pop and electronica. That’s carried on too.

“Yeah, sure, I like world music and have always been interested in roots music.”

On the paperwork with this release comes a description of you as ‘guitarist and conceptual mastermind’. How does that suit you?

Two Tone: Blondie’s 1979 big-seller Parallel Lines

“Okay … I don’t know! I just try to put in my two pence here and there?”

Do you think you knew where you were going with all this from day one, or were you just going with the flow?

“I was always very optimistic and always felt things were going to work out. There never was a grand plan, but I think people liked the do-it-yourself aspects of Blondie. That was part of the appeal.”

Us nostalgics tend to get rather dewy-eyed thinking about the likes of you, Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and so on at venues like CBGB. Can you see it that way too in retrospect, or were those just holes really? Backstage can’t have been too pretty.

“No, I can get caught up in nostalgia, but try not to get trapped by it. Still, we miss a lot of our friends who have gone. It’s shocking about the Ramones … all those guys.”

It’s been 44 years since Chris joined a band called The Stillettoes, featuring Debbie as a vocalist. Did he feel she had star quality straight from the start?

“Yeah, I was totally taken by her, right away, as soon as I saw her, even if it was pretty primitive. She always exuded something.”

They say you should never meet your heroes, yet in your case I get the impression it hasn’t done anyone any harm. Then again, in a conversation with The Stranglers’ bass player JJ Burnel in July 20124 he told me about a date in Brisbane when they were touring with you, when they came on in drag mid-song and put you off your stroke. Remember that?

“Ah, that was a nice moment, you know. “

He suggested you didn’t take to it too kindly at the time.

“Ah no, those guys are great! They were boisterous. I don’t know if they’d ever make up with Hugh though. It’s kind of like (fellow US early punks) the Misfits. Those guys also had a couple of dates but I’m not sure if they’ll ever mend those fences, as it were. But The Stranglers are great, and very entertaining to be on tour with.”

Atomic Energy: Blondie’s 1979 LP, Eat to the Beat

There’s no involvement these days from Gary Valentine (bass, 1975/77 and 1997), Jimmy Destri (keyboards, 1975/82 and 1997/2004) and Frank Infante (guitar, bass, 1977/82), nor English import Nigel Harrison (bass 1978/82, 1997) these days. But three key members remain. Is it easier for Chris working with Debbie and Clem (on board since 1975) after all these years? Have they learned to tolerate each other better with age, or was that never really an issue?

“I think everybody has their more defined roles, and we have younger guys in the band so it’s pretty well balanced. We’ve been working with our bass player, Leigh (Foxx), for more than 20 years.”

Do Leigh, Tommy Kessler (guitar, 2010 onwards) and Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards, 2008 onwards) keep you younger? Or is it the other way round?

“I think everybody just tries to keep it balanced. Tommy’s great with what he does, and Matt too – his writing’s really good.”

Lining Up: Blondie 2017. From the left - Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Leigh Foxx, Debbie Harry, Tommy Kessler, Matt Katz-Bowen. Set for a full UK tour this autumn.

Lining Up: Blondie 2017. From the left – Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Leigh Foxx, Debbie Harry, Tommy Kessler, Matt Katz-Bowen. Still out there, and all set for a full UK tour this autumn.

Blondie’s new album Pollinator is available now through BMG, the band following an album launch at the Roundhouse with late June’s Dublin and London appearances supporting Phil Collins. For details of those and all the latest on the band’s plans for a UK tour this autumn, head to their official website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

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Sounds from the Other City – Salford St Philip’s Church

Mill Poppers: Queuing outside Islington Mill, Salford, for Sounds From the Other City (Photo: Jody Hartley)

As someone who associates the festival circuit with camping fields, lush greenery, damp tents and mud-caked marquees, I struggled to get my head around Greater Manchester’s latest sell-out ‘celebration of new music, performance and art’.

But on the evidence of the 13th Sounds from the Other City over the May Day weekend, Salford’s a happening place, and hardly the Dirty Old Town referenced by Ewan MacColl all those decades ago. Take for instance Islington Mill, recently threatened with closure, a reminder of a bygone age yet a teeming hive of activity on the day, the event’s throbbing nerve centre.

With so much planned, time was against us sampling more than a handful of locations, so eldest daughter and I fixed on St Philip’s Church’s Hey! Manchester bill and the Angel Centre’s Family Tree happenings. And that turned out to be a top call.

While we missed a couple of early acts, Kent-based folk-rocker Tom Williams and his band offered a neat starting point, their half-hour set building towards the splendid Everyone Needs a Home and a rocking Little Bird. Like most of the acts, there are records out there to catch up on, Tom’s latest LP All Change out later this month and definitely worth seeking out on this evidence.

New Religion: Daisy Palmer, left, and Hannah Peel in action at St Philip’s Church (Photo: Molly Wyatt)

The delightful Hannah Peel was next, The Magnetic North’s chanteuse an electronica starlet in her own right, here showcasing her winning Awake But Always Dreaming album, one of my 2016 highlights.

As it turned out the organisers’ quick turnarounds were tested to the extreme, gremlins in the wiring leading to Hannah and drummer/backing vocalist Daisy Palmer spending as long tuning as performing, mountains of electronic gadgetry severely testing the over-worked techies. But finally they were up and running on the infectious All That Matters, an alternative congregation dancing in the aisle or at least tapping in the pews.

Hannah and Daisy hit their creative stride partway through the title track of the latest LP, and while a multi-instrumental approach led to continued mixing desk dilemmas, a sometimes-soupy sound worked. Our London guests had overcome earlier nerves in true spirit of the blitz style by the time they reached the euphoric Hope Lasts, the harmonies sublime, the playing flawless. And that epic vibe remained for the darkly-emotional Standing on the Roof of the World and a stirring Foreverest, although time was moving too fast and they were gone far too soon, the next act waiting.

Aisle Fillers: Fazerdaze at St Philip's Church, Salford, for SFTOC 2017 (Photo: Molly Wyatt)

Aisle Fillers: Fazerdaze at St Philip’s Church, Salford, for SFTOC 2017 (Photo: Molly Wyatt)

The backstage crew quickly clawed back time, to the point that a Chapel Street walkabout meant we missed the opening of New Zealand visitors Fazerdaze’s set, the awesome Lucky Girl greeting us as we re-approached this impressive 195-year-old place of worship. If you haven’t heard that yet, think Lush fronting New Order. But while Amelia Murray describes her act as ‘girl in bedroom on guitar’, it’s about much more. Check out most recent single Take it Slow for starters. Again, their set was over far too quickly, but hopefully there will be other chances to catch these Kiwi indie dream pop ambassadors soon.

We briefly fled to The Angel to catch Cornish export The Golden Dregs, smaller venue acoustics just right for a rich 60s’-tinged Americana vibe, Ben Woods’ laidback deep vocal and those jangly guitar runs a joy. All this and an album on the way. Meanwhile, back in church, The Proper Ornaments’ replacements Wedding were not standing on ceremony, their laidback vibe more intriguing than the choice of monicker. Incidentally, try net-browsing for that name, adding search terms like ‘band’, see how far you get.

Psyched Up: Wedding at St Phlip’s Church, Salford, for SFTOC 2017 (Photo: Molly Wyatt)

Part-way in, my daughter pointed out the Last Supper model beyond, and I wondered if The Disciples would be a better name considering this six-piece’s look, as much Sea of Galilee as West Coast US. There’s certainly an open road and beach culture filmic feel to the songs, falsetto vocals adding further quality to a psych-folk surf vibe.

On a day of winning contrasts, we popped back to Family Tree for Sheffield three-piece Katie Pham & The Moonbathers, carrying on where the Dregs left off with a pleasing late-night jazzy disco-surf swirl. And given more time, we’d have stepped into the Cathedral for Ex-Easter Island Head, Laura Cannell and the BBC Philharmonic Ensemble, but Our Father Time was against us day-trippers.

Instead we returned to St Philip’s for a rousing finale, once more greeted by the positively-bouncy non-bouncers on the door before taking in a celebrated underground duo along for the ride from Lancaster. Yep, you can’t accuse the organisers of anything but an eclectic mix, no two acts cut from the same cloth, a wholesome feast topped by a generous helping of The Lovely Eggs.

City Slickers: The Lovely Eggs lead the St Philip’s Church congregation (Photo: Andy Loynes)

Kind of where Manchester’s own Buzzcocks and The Fall meet Hole, husband and wife pair Holly (vocals/guitar, ex-Angelica) and David (drums/vocals) have a similar penchant for life-affirming anthemic ditties as Cork’s Sultans of Ping FC. That said, in an era when church leaders recognise a need to move with the times, what Salford’s parishioners might have made of a scarf-waving congregation singing along to F*ck It and People are Tw*ts is debatable.

But whether tackling Allergies, treating us to modern classics Don’t Look at Me (I Don’t Like It) and I Just Want Someone to Fall In Love With or an inspirational Ordinary People Unite, The Lovely Eggs put plenty of red wine and grapefruit beer smiles on faces. Having the time of their lives on a rare night away from their little ‘un, they came, they thrilled, they requested Do It To Me, and it was sausage roll thumbs-up all round. Here’s to the 14th such happening.

Totem Attraction: Sounds From the Other City 2017 (Photo: Jody Hartley)

With thanks to Ruth Allan and all at Sounds from the Other City, and to Jody Hartley, Andy Loynes and Molly Wyatt for the photographs. 

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Behold the Stone Foundation – the Neil Sheasby interview

Market Forces: The two Neils out front with Stone Foundation, namely Jones (left) and Sheasby.

US broadcaster David Brinkley is quoted as saying, ‘A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her’. And Neil Sheasby knows a fair bit about all that.

For all the accolades and attention coming the way of the band he co-founded with namesake Neil Jones a dozen or so years ago, he insists they’ve had plenty of false starts, trials and tribulations en route.

Right now though, Stone Foundation are on the crest of a wave, their fourth album Street Rituals making the top-30 (and debuting at No.2 in the indie version), with a little help from interest generated by the latest big name to help spread the word about a soulful combo who pride themselves on an ability to offer us ‘the sound of Memphis, via the Midlands’.

Following their recent flirtation with commercial success, I pass on congratulations to Mr Sheasby, who is currently enjoying the plaudits, the wider world finally catching on. In fact rumour has it that Ed Sheeran was a nervous wreck waiting for that following week’s chart to be revealed.

“Ha! I’m not sure about that! I’m not quite sure what our expectations were, but we’re not doing a great deal different to what we’ve always done, although Paul’s name’s brought a lot more attention to it. Ultimately I think we’ve made a good record, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see it gain some acknowledgement and respect.”

The ‘Paul’ he’s name-dropping there is former Jam and Style Council frontman Paul Weller, a major solo star for a quarter of a century now. And I throw my hat in the ring, admitting to Neil I’ve been among those catching up with the back-catalogue since hearing Your Balloon is Rising a couple of months ago, also featuring Weller.

The two Neils mention a ‘decade of trial, error and frequent returns to the drawing board before finding the right direction’. But listening back through the catalogue, they were never far off, were they?

“I don’t think so, no. We’ve always stuck to what we’ve believed in and what we wanted to do. There’s a certain path and vision, and no bandwagon. What afforded us the opportunity this time was not just working with Paul but having the luxury of doing it at his place.

Ritual Confrontation: Neil Sheasby, left, and co-founder Neil Jones get up close and personal, the band on hand

“We’ve always recorded very hand-to-mouth at our own rehearsal space, and that’s always been good, working within our boundaries and means, but this has taken us to a new level really. Songwriting-wise, I’m really proud of the last couple of albums and it’s nice we’re finally getting people drawn to what we’re doing.”

Impressed by Stone Foundation’s previous endeavours, word has it that Weller personally contacted the two Neils in early 2016 to propose working together, having heard that previous year’s LP A Life Unlimited, initially concentrating on one specific demo. But having enjoyed the process so much, the resulting 10 compositions on Street Rituals all have musical input from The Modfather, with two – The Limit of a Man and The Colour Of … – carrying Jones/Sheasby/Weller credits.

In fact, he pretty much joined the band for those recording sessions at Black Barn studio in Ripley, Surrey, playing guitar, piano and adding vocals to several songs as well as overseeing production.

As the man himself put it, “These are dark, dark times so I was glad to hear a positive voice and vibrations in the words and a joy in the music…what a pleasure and a privilege it was to work with these fellas. It’s their best songwriting to date, and I just hope people get to hear it. There are some great tunes and I like the message on the record. I like the social comment. You have so little of that these days.”

So – I put it to Neil S on the phone the day before they set off for two dates in Germany, their latest 10-date UK tour set to follow – what did Stone Foundation learn from the experience of having their hero at the controls and around and about the studio?

“It’s the first time me and Neil have ever had an outside producer, other than us and our in-house engineer Andy Codling spearheading everything before. And as me and Neil write together it’s lovely to have a different pair of ears and eyes on the project.

“A lot of the time the tracks we recorded came together very quickly and what you’re hearing a lot of it is probably two or three takes. The five of us played together and we added horns and strings after. Sometimes Neil and I look at each other, thinking, ‘Was that right? Maybe we should do it again, fix this bit or that bit’. But with Paul it was like, ‘If it sounds good, it probably is, you’ve probably got it there’.

“I think what we learned was to trust our instincts a little more, and it was akin to the old soul records we like. We had a couple of days a week with a session booked and we’d record the first batch of four tunes then go down again and do another two days, more or less live. So he brought that feel to the project.”

Rising Sons: A still from Your Balloon Is Rising, in which Stone Foundation are fronted by Paul Weller.

Were you nervous? Weller’s a big name. Or did he quickly put you at ease?

“He did actually. The first thing he did was volunteer to carry the gear in with us and made us a cup of tea. I think if you let yourself freak out too much you’ll intimidate yourself. We’re massive fans, me especially.

“He’s the reason I started a band. I was a Jam fan then subsequently a Style Council fan, never missing a tour. I’ve come from that fan perspective and his music’s always been in my life. But you have to leave that at the door. Immediately what we got from Paul was that you could tell it wasn’t a token gesture.

“It wasn’t about adding backing vocals to one of his tracks. It was a real collaboration. And there was a genuine sense and genuine excitement about the prospect of working with and playing with a live band. We didn’t know where we were going. He’d sent a rough demo to finish and we’d sent one back, recorded at our place, which he loved and said, ‘What else have you got? Shall we set a date and see what we can do?’

“So we prepared, got a few songs in the can and went down, played what we both knew, then said we’ve also got this. It all just clicked together. It was a real union. He said, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ at which point we had about four songs and didn’t know where we stood. We said we possibly had an EP there, to which he said, ‘Why don’t you go back, write a few more, we’ll do the process again and I think you’ve got an album’. And he’s been involved all the way, more or less joining the band!”

I get the impression from my own past interviews with the likes of From the Jam duo Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings that Paul’s very involved in what goes down at his studio when the mood takes him, and you obviously made a big impression on him.

“He is, and we’re very much of the same mindset. He’ll try anything. It may not work out but you’re only losing time. He’s very adventurous and his musical landscape’s very much that way. Whatever serves the song best. And it all happened very naturally.”

Of course, you’re not the first outfit with Midlands roots to get a helping hand from Weller. I’m thinking of a certain group from … erm, Moseley Shoals …

“Ocean Colour Scene? Yeah, I used to know those boys fairly well, and met Steve (Cradock, Weller’s long-time guitar-playing bandmate) for the first time in 20 years at a Royal Albert Hall gig we played the other week”.

I was going to ask about that – was that the date in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust?

“That’s right. It was nice to see him again and I’ve a lot of respect for him.”

The first three Stone Foundation albums were released on Turning Point. When and why did the switch come about to 100% Records?

“Turning Point was just a thing we made up. It wasn’t a real record label. It was our own imprint and we got distribution for it. It was just a monicker to put our records out with. Now with 100% it’s a blessing to have a label that takes the heavy lifting off me and Neil, having looked after all that for so long.”

Well, to paraphrase the sentiment of the recent single, you have to take into consideration The Limit of a Man.

“You do. Correct!”

And how does that Jones/Sheasby/Weller credit on the records look to you?

Third Album: Stone Foundation's A Life Unlimited (2015)

Third Helping: A Life Unlimited (2015)

“It’s the new Stock Aitken Waterman, mate! It’s incredible. I started out as a 14-year-old in youth clubs playing Jam covers, and I’m 50 this year. So what a journey!”

At this point we realise Neil is just 11 days older than me, having first suspected we must be around the same age when I saw an online piece he’d written for hmv.com, not least considering how Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and The Jam’s Sound Affects were major inspirations on him finding his path.

“That’s right, and that must put it in perspective for you too. What would it feel like if you’d made a record with Paul Weller? And that’s exactly how I feel.”

Just one last question about Paul, whose interest in your latest album suggests a more laid-back album coming up from him. Is that the case? Is Long Long Road a good indication of what’s coming our way? I know you’ve already heard A Kind Revolution.

“It’s great and I think it’s the best piece of work he’s done in many a year. It’s going to delight a lot of his long-standing fans. It’s one of those albums, a piece of work from start to finish. No filler. A proper record. You’ve a lot to look forward to there.”

Of course, Weller’s not the only big name on this album. Were you excited at the prospect of legendary soul singer William Bell, who lends his voice to Strange People, being involved?

“Of course! Absolutely!”

You’re a big Stax fan, I understand.

“I am, and that was down to interviews with The Jam really. They talked a lot about soul records and Tamla Motown, Stax, Northern Soul, and Curtis Mayfield. A whole lot opens up to you from that. I had this Stax compilation album, The Guys with Soul, and William Bell’s I Forgot to Be your Lover was one I played over and over. I was no more than 13 years old then, so to go from that to having him sing on one of your records …

“And just by chance. We were supporting him at Islington Chapel last July, and told him we had this track maybe he’d be interested in listening to, because we could hear his voice on it. And he said yes. That’s a testament to what we’re doing. It’s all about the music. If we’re not writing the songs we’re not going to be reaching these people. It was the same with Bettye LaVette. And to have people of that calibre involved … they’re legends!”

Soul Cookin': The Stax compilation that turned Neil Sheasby on to William Bell

Stax  Haven: A pivotal LP for Neil Sheasby

I was coming on to Bettye, who features on Season of Change. Her musical CV is something to marvel at, going right back to associations with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King and a young Otis Redding.

“Completely!”

In short, Street Rituals superbly showcases an outfit continuing to develop a unique style of soul, their subtle horn and string arrangements adding swathes of colour and light to their strongest songs to date. What’s more, the lyrics seem ripe for the times, reflecting issues of uncertainty and division, yet with a prevailing sense of hope and optimism for the future, in the tradition of so many classic soul artists they admire, not least Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Isley Brothers.

One prime example is new single Back in the Game, which reminds me of The Impressions. Then there’s a Staple Singers feel elsewhere, and so on. Even if I didn’t know Mr Sheasby’s route into all this I could clearly see an appreciation of classic ‘60s and ‘70s soul.

“Yes, The Isley Brothers too, and Marvin (Gaye). We listen to a lot of that, and the social commentary side was important to us. There’s so much happening there, and we wanted to hold a mirror up to that. There’s so much to say, it would be throwaway to just write simple love songs. And those records – the Curtis Mayfield records, the Isley Brothers, the William Bell records, are steeped in all that. These are troubled times and while we want to reflect on that, we also want to offer a bit of open optimism.”

Well, we could do with as positive message right now, the way this country and the rest of the world seems to be heading.

“I think we do, mate. Yeah.”

You’ve had influential fans from the early days, be it The Specials, The Proclaimers, Dr Robert and The Blow Monkeys and so on. Then I was listening to A Life Unlimited, thinking there’s a real Graham Parker feel to the vocals on a track there, The Night Teller, only realising why later.

“Ah, he’s great. A lovely fella. I met him at a book launch. I’m a fan and we got chatting, got on really well, swapped numbers, with no real idea we’d work together. Then we started working on A Life Unlimited, this song The Night Teller cropped up, we had a discussion, saying maybe we should send it to him, see what he thinks. He dug it and decided to do it. And he was everything we wanted him to be. Brilliant.”

Now you have four albums under your belt, do you think this latest one is the closest you’ve come to where you envisage yourself? Or is this just you at a particular point in your career?

“This is probably a more rounded record, with 10 tracks that really hang together from start to finish. That’s what I’m particularly pleased with, and lyrically as well as musically the album holds together better than anything we’ve done previously. Saying that, I was really very proud of the last record and we still play a lot of those songs live as they hold up so well. But this is more cohesive than anything else we’ve done.

“But when Weller’s knocking at your door and ringing you up, you’ve got to up your game, haven’t you? He inspired us.”

Shady Character: 2011's debut LP from Stone Foundation

Shady Character: Stone Foundation’s 2011 debut LP

While Neil S is from Atherstone and Neil J from nearby Tamworth, they first met in the late ‘90s on the London gig circuit, playing in different bands on the same bill at the Laurel Tree in Camden, Sheasby’s band Mandrake Roots (‘You’ll not find them on the internet – there’s nothing there!’) supported by Jones’ more indie outfit Walrus Gumboot (cool name, by the way).

“We were both in bands we were coming to the end of. I was getting disgruntled, looking for pastures new, and so was Neil. When I left my previous band the first thing I wanted to do was find a singer. And although we only lived a stone’s throw away from each other, his band just happened to have supported us in London.

“I went to check him out again and decided this is it, I should really work with this fella. approaching him about doing something. That’s how it began, but it took ages, some four or five years to find the right line-up. We knew we wanted this big sound but it took us ages to find the right players. It was trial and error, but all the time we were bonding, playing records to each other and writing songs.”

He was into hip-hop then, wasn’t he?

“He was, and first time I went around his house I discovered he was the only other bloke I knew who had the Third Bass album. I was impressed with that. Records and shoes impress me most … and he passed both tests!”

Stone Foundation UK tour dates: April 27th – Bristol, The Fleece; April 28th – Manchester, The Ruby Lounge; April 29th – Norwich, Arts Centre; May 5th – Coventry, The Empire; May 6th – Brighton, Concorde Club 2; May 12th – Leeds, The Wardrobe; May 13th – London, Islington Assembly Hall; May 18th – Newcastle, The Cluny; May 19th – Edinburgh, Voodoo Rooms; May 20th – Glasgow, Admiral Bar.

For full tour details, how to catch up on the back-catalogue, and all the latest from Stone Foundation, head here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

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