The esteemed guitarist/singer/songwriter will be at the Ribbleside hostelry to play songs from impressive solo LP, Leave alone the Empty Spaces, plus favourites from his days fronting I Am Kloot, and several new tracks ear-marked for release next year.
He might even bring nine-year-old rescue dog Henry along for the ride, to a venue he last visited in late October 2015, before news of I Am Kloot’s split filtered through. Yep, one man and his dog in a converted Mercedes Sprinter, on a day-trip from Crewe, his ‘central hub in the UK, enabling me to easily reach all corners of the country’. And that description got us on the subject of railway towns.
“It’s amazing really, I didn’t realise until I moved here and went to the museum. They built the trains here but also the track and the sleepers and made the gravel, they made stations, they made everything! All made in Crewe, in two huge buildings employing 40,000 people, and everything went out of here on rail.
“Yet it’s quaint York that has the National Railway Museum. But it’s quite beautiful here, and I’m surrounded by this great Cheshire countryside.”
Has that been your base since you quit Manchester?
“Eight years. I’ve converted the garage to a recording studio, and the lounge. I’ve come to an agreement with my girlfriend that during the hours of nine and three, weekdays, that’s also utilised now. I do podcasts and recording in there, and it’s a better sound for vocals than the garage.”
I’m looking forward to John’s latest Continental visit. And so’s he.
“It’s brilliant. I absolutely loved it last time. This is what is happening more and more in the country – people setting up venues, putting some nice food on. It’s by the river and it’s a lovely room, and the sound’s great.
“Last time I was completely solo, but this time I’m bringing a cello player and a pianist, and the support act – Dave Fidler – also joins me on stage, and he played on my solo album. We’re going to preview songs from my next album as well as a few from the first solo album.”
I’ve been listening to that last record a lot lately, and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s up there with the best of the sparkling output of his last band.
“Ah thanks. I just realised the other day it’s just nine songs. I thought it was 10! Once I’ve made an album, I try to move on in my head.”
I suppose it’s more about feel than numbers. Those nine songs work so well together. Why add another for the sake of it?
“Yeah. I had more songs, but it was about having an atmosphere on the album. That’s what I’ve really learned. With Kloot, the first album had a real feel to it, I wrote all the songs in one batch, but after that we got quite eclectic …”
At this point he lost his thread. His better half reckoned the neighbours might have been listening in to our conversation. So he got into his van. Was there a possibility that they’d finally sussed what he does for a living?
“Yeah! ‘I keep seeing him go out at teatime …’ No, the neighbours knew when I started making that album!”
Was it like in The Ladykillers, I suggested, John going out with a guitar case but no guitar, instead concealing the spoils of nefarious activities? That image rather tickled him, and he told me he would dig that classic Ealing comedy out and re-watch it that afternoon. A top choice, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d cost him a couple of hours’ songwriting.
“Do you know what? Well done, Malcolm! I’m waiting in for a parcel today, so I’m going to get that on. Brilliant! I’ve just been watching all the Cary Grant movies. So I’ll get that on the big screen next.”
I told him I last saw The Ladykillers as a live theatre production in the glorious setting of West Cornwall’s Atlantic-facing Minack Theatre.
“I played there about 15 years ago and would love to again. In fact, I’ll have a look at that. I’ve a film of my show at the Union Chapel in London out this Christmas, and that would be another that makes a great setting for a film.”
I mentioned how Citizen Smith star Robert Lindsay, as a young touring actor, once put on what he felt must have been a wondrous performance at that same venue with a touring company, his lines delivered to mighty gasps from the audience, only to then realise the awestruck theatre-goers were actually watching a spectacular sunset behind him.
“You’ve got to watch that, although I could time that and do an ambient instrumental. That’s a brilliant idea. We could make the gig into a sunset gig. That’s a plan for next summer. Well done, Malcolm!”
With an almost seamless segue, I asked about ‘From the Shore’, the first song to grab me on his solo album. Did he record the seabirds heard on that track?
“Yeah, I travel around in my camper van to gigs quite a lot, and that was at Freshwater East in Pembrokeshire. I spent a lovely afternoon recording gulls with a nice bottle of Chablis.”
Nice work if you can get it.
“Somebody’s gotta do it! I was sat in the dunes. That was a splendid day.”
Across the album, I had a feeling he was wearing his influences on his sleeves, and ‘Who is Anybody’ has a kind of Crosby Stills Nash and Young feel (as well as a Lilac Time riff). I suppose it’s the harmonies.
“That’s funny, because I was never a fan. They were never an influence, although Neil Young was. But Dave Fidler’s brother Andy put the high harmony on that, and he’s a big fan. I play classical guitar rather than folk guitar, so I guess it is the harmony. There’s a song I’m recording for the new album, a kind of folk-electronica thing, ‘The Sun King’, and that and much of this new album are really about harmonies.”
Harmonising with Dave, or just yourself?
“Me and myself. You always come in with a different harmony, depending on who you are, physically on what your voice will do, or mentally. The trick with the harmony is to play the song once to somebody, just the lead vocal, then have them improvise their own harmony straight away and record it.
“Some of it won’t work, but some will, and for me it’s what the brain or the spirit will naturally do that is most fascinating. What Dave and I will come up with will be different. And Dave plays most of my gigs with me, so we tend to do a lot of harmonies.
“I don’t drum and don’t play cello, but apart from that I do everything myself, and this album is mostly guitars, plus electronics, drums, and lots of harmonies, and the key thing is that I’m able to play it on stage. I don’t like to bring in the kitchen sink then be unable to do that. And I don’t so a song unless it works with just me and a guitar. It has to work at that level before I elaborate.”
Meanwhile, ‘Times Arrow’ and ‘Meet Me at the Station’ have something of a Bob Dylan vibe.
“Yeah, I suppose so. I started playing guitar 38 years ago, with my older sister’s and Mum and Dad’s record collections on in the background while I was learning to play. It wasn’t so much what I was listening to. I was listening to Hawkwind. I started when I was five but not properly until I was seven or eight. It was my sister’s guitar. She was having lessons but got bored, so I started playing it, miming in the mirror with it at first.
“And my finger-style came from ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Blackbird’ off the White Album, (The Beatles).”
I was going to mention John Lennon, and then told him – despite his Manchester roots (he was born in Hyde, and I Am Kloot took shape in Manchester) – I always saw him closer to a Liverpool sound than a Manchester one.
“Yeah, I’ve never believed in the ‘from Manchester’ or ‘from Liverpool’ thing. I can’t bear it. I think the whole Manchester thing is a self-fulfilling myth. (I Am Kloot bass player) Peter Jobson moved to Manchester from Newcastle in order to be in a band. It’s not like something in the water.
“The real reason? I think I know why. It’s the cotton mills. Before and after the war there was a thriving music scene in Manchester, and I believe that’s because jobs were so plentiful that for the first time, workers had their own say because the mills needed the workers. My Mum told me she’d be able to walk out of a job on a Friday night, her and her mates, and start again across the road.
“They had power, and so they invented the weekend in Manchester! That I think was the beginning of the Manchester music scene. It was the first place to have a Saturday off, and where the Friday night thing started happening, something that became synonymous with music. From then on, people have gravitated towards there. I see talent all over the country so I find that, ‘Oh, they’re from Manchester, let’s listen’ thing ridiculous.”
I mentioned a Liverpool sound, and for me ‘The Whipperwill’ wouldn’t have been out of place on recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Ian Broudie’s acoustic album, Tales Told, or something by The Coral perhaps.
”Wow. Now you see, I’ve worked with Ian and he’s a great producer, but I wouldn’t say he was an influence. With that song, I was literally between gigs in my camper van, camping by a wood, sitting in a glade. It’s about sitting with my guitar, the birds and the sunlight. It’s about songwriting and the inspiration of it.”
Then the wonderful ‘Sat Beneath the Lightning Tree’ for me is maybe a 21st century ‘Vincent’ rewrite. Is there a nod to Don McLean there, not least with those mentions of starry nights?
“Ha ha! With my songs from Kloot and this, people have said it should be called More Songs about Stars. I’m always interested in astronomy, and the Sky at Night album was about astronomy and astrology, the night and sleeplessness, but ‘Vincent’ is one of those songs that’s just in the background.
“When I started, I was playing pubs in South Wales, when my Dad moved there. I was about 12. There would be a singer each night, and I would do three or four songs in their break. Those were my first ever gigs. I’d be nervous about that all day … I still am, but think that’s all part of doing a good gig and I’m fine as soon as I go on. Songs like ‘Vincent’ were always in the background of these nights when I’d be playing, along with Dylan and stuff like that. I’d get up and do Simon and Garfunkel and Bowie, then two of my own songs -even then.”
Well, ‘Meet me at the Station’ has a bit of a ‘Homeward Bound’ feel to it too.
“It really has, now I think about it. I was sat at the station and Henry, my dog, beamed it to me! He looked up at me, and I was just sat waiting. I got the whole song in my head, singing it into my phone on the journey and recording it as soon as I got home. Sometimes the best songs really do just pop into your head without a guitar.”
Paul Simon famously wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ at Widnes station, so where you were when that came to you?
“We were heading to Crewe. I can’t remember where we were though.”
No commemorative plaque for John then, unless he remembers later. I suggested other possible influences too, wondering if Nick Drake was another ‘in the background’.
“Well, I play acoustic guitar and I’m not a strummer. And the real reason I’ve gone solo is because I started as a finger-style classical and folk guitarist. It was great to be in a band, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really work in that format. It needs to be exposed. Nick Drake wasn’t really important to me. Those are all people I’m aware of, obviously, but …”
OK, moving on, and ‘Wherever I Go, Wherever You Are’ takes me back to Paul Weller’s 22 Dreams (not least ‘Where’er Ye Go’), probably the closest he got – in places – to folk.
“I don’t know that album, although I think it was nominated for the Mercury Prize the same year as us (that was 2010, for I Am Kloot’s wondrous Sky at Night, but it was actually Weller’s Wake Up the Nation on the shortlist with them). I’ll have a good listen to that. But my biggest influence is films.”
That makes sense. There’s a very filmic feel to his material.
“I think so, although I never try to explain what a song is about. Sometimes it’s very impressionistic … or expressionistic. For instance, ‘The Whipperwill’ is really about relaying the experience of what was happening, which was sitting in a glade with a guitar as the sun changed and then the birds started singing. There’s no actual meaning as such. It’s about an atmosphere, conjuring up a feeling without a specific thought. And ‘Sat Beneath the Lightning Tree’ is about feeling the inspiration of life and finding the beauty in things, rather than wasting your time.”
I could mention other acts I hear in his work, not least The Go-Betweens’ revered, sadly-departed Grant McLennan, but don’t go into that, instead mentioning parallels between John and another performer from the outskirts of Manchester, past WriteWyattUK interviuewee Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy).
“I suppose so, although I don’t think either of us ever pledge inspiration from each other!”
Maybe not, but they have a similar heritage and timeline as performers, and I get the feeling they’ve both seen themselves as being somewhat out of step – not quite fitting in with the bigger indie names they broke through with.
”Well, I’ve always been an isolationist, and don’t really want to be part of anything. For instance, when we put our first album out and Damon had his first out, and the Kings of Convenience and Turin Brakes put out theirs, the NME came up with this thing called the New Acoustic Movement.
“They rang us, telling us they were going to do this big feature on all four of us. I said I wasn’t doing it – you can screw that. I’m not being part of a scene – you can fuck off! But they put us in anyway, saying if there’s such a thing as NAM, I Am Kloot are the VietCong.
“I’m against all that, and when people in bands hang out with each other it doesn’t really do much good. It’s a load of back-slapping and doesn’t help creatively if people think everything they do is marvellous. That’s why people make crap third albums. They start to believe whatever they do is great, because they are … y’know, cool.”
I can think of exceptions, like The Jam, whose rather lacking second album gave rise to a mighty third, All Mod Cons.
“Weller’s a good one – from that moment on he shunned being part of the new wave or punk thing and was actually despised for that – there was quite a lot of anti-Jam sentiment, because they weren’t fitting in with all this art-house London feel and the Soho set. He was an isolationist too. And that’s important. I moved out of Manchester eight years ago, and that’s one of the reasons. I found it claustrophobic.”
Am I right in thinking his Preston gig is something of a warm-up for your Portmeirion appearance at Festival No.6?
“Not really. Festivals are nice to do, but a gig is a gig. I do an hour and 20 minutes, and it’s a real journey, whereas the festival is more a showcase to people who haven’t seen what you do. Hopefully, they then say, ‘Right, we’ll go and see him do a proper gig’. The gig is more important. Things often get screwed up in this business as to what’s important.”
That said, it’s another spectacular setting for a show. Has he played there before?
“I did it two years back. It’s great, but this is the last one. I’m not sure why. I’m playing in the town, where The Prisoner was filmed. It should be a belter.”
So what’s the format at the Conti?
“I do about eight or nine songs from my time with Kloot, and I’m going to do some I’ve not done before. I’ve just done two and a half to three years with a really good mix of old stuff and some from this first album, so now have a pretty good set and I can debut four or five songs from the album coming out next year, provisionally called Organic Material. Folk/electronica, I suppose you’d call it, somewhere in that bracket. I’m trying to get a real blend of natural stuff with guitars, harp, piano and harmonies.“
Will it be Leave alone the Empty Spaces part two?
“No, I think the thread of it, because of my finger-style and the way I harmonise with Andy and Dave, makes it closer to ‘Who is Anybody’, in furtherance of that … although I’m not sure if that’s a good description actually.”
And will you be coming to Preston by campervan?
“Erm. We’ll look at the weather forecast, but it could be.”
Will we get to meet Henry?
“He’s getting to the point where … maybe not. When it gets to about eight o’clock, he’d just lie on the rug. … If I do come in the van, I’ll probably bring him, but it depends.”
Incidentally, John describes Henry as a cross-breed, adding, ‘He’s got these big feet of a Basset Hound, and a longish body, and a Jack Russell head (but a big Jack Russell head), and also – here’s one to look up – he could be a (Portuguese) podengo. He could have some of that in him, and we think he’s got some bearded collie.”
Soon we were revisiting his early days performing in the North West. Was he on the right road with The Mouth, or was that him just finding his feet?
“It’s difficult to know really.”
There were several early dabblings with bands and solo ventures, also including The Ignition, Five Go Off To Play Guitar, The Debuchias, and John Peel favourites Johnny Dangerously, the solo venture that led to 1989 mini-LP, You, Me and the Alarm Clock.
“As a solo acoustic singer-songwriter, Peel would play me occasionally, and I worked as a delivery driver most of the time, using that money to press my own vinyl. I’d get gigs and had a bit of a following in Manchester, playing places like the Green Room. But the problem I had was demonstrated by a support tour I did with The La’s when ‘There She Goes’ went top-40 and we played the Boardwalk in Manchester to 50 people.
“Nobody was coming out to see bands. It’s impossible to tell people today what it was like in the ’80s. If it wasn’t synth-pop or American garage-house, people weren’t going to see it. A few bands broke through, but not many. All we had was the NME and Peel, and there was this selected group of people who were in, a real clique. I was pressing my own stuff, but the gigs I were doing were with performance poets, doing gigs as part of some alternative cabaret scene.
“I did a tour with John Cooper-Clarke, which was great, but a lot of those so-called poets weren’t so talented at all. They were crap, and most still are. I then did gigs with Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan and John Thomson when they were starting out. As a musician and songwriter, it wasn’t ideal, but those were the only gigs going.
“The La’s had Go! Discs behind them, who were going to put stuff of mine out, but they had Billy Bragg so felt they already had a songwriter. Geoff (Travis) from Rough Trade came to a gig and said, ‘No, your songwriting’s too literal’. What on earth do you mean? I always felt it was more about their image than yours, something you’d more likely equate with major labels.”
There have been plenty of bad knocks en route. It’s hardly been a smooth ride.
“Oh, I fall out with everyone eventually!”
Cue maniacal laughter.
“To be honest, I think we’d have stayed with Wall of Sound forever, but they went into administration just as our album came out, and it wasn’t in the shops. We were about to get loads of press. This was pre-Internet, around 1999.”
That was when you recorded in a church on the Isle of Mull with Guy Garvey, wasn’t it?
“That’s right. That was a very organic, brilliant record. We then went to Chrysalis for publishing, but it was a case of having to rather than wanting to, the only way to continue really. For my mind, they started throwing too much money at it. We recorded in Metropolis Studios in London, at vast expense. I was like, ‘Please stop spending this money – it doesn’t make it any better!’
Did you learn more from your recording sessions for John Peel in 2001 and 2004.
“Yes, with the first one we’d just come back from Japan and the Fuji Rock Festival, and if you listen, we play the songs really slow. We were absolutely shattered.”
Looking back on 17 impressive years of I Am Kloot, with six studio albums along the way and rightful critical acclaim, including the odd prestigious award nomination, it was all quite something, yeah?
“It was, and someone told me the other day we’ve appeared at Glastonbury maybe more times than anyone. We’ve done seven, and I’m hoping to play there next year. I’m pitching for it, but I’m doing everything for myself. I’m not with an agent or anything like that.”
He always had that DIY element, as seen with I Am Kloot’s first vinyl venture in late ‘99, double A-side single ‘Titanic/To You’ for Ugly Man Records, borrowing £1,000 to release it, packing them in brown paper bags to save a few quid.
“Yeah. We were working at Night and Day in Manchester, putting gigs on, and from that got to know from all the other bands and labels where the pressing plants were, who puts the posters up, all that.”
You were ahead of the curve really, not reliant on a major label to help out when the industry inevitably scaled down soon after.
“Exactly. We knew what to do and sometimes you could sign to a label and some were just no good. We put a band on, David Devant & His Spirit Wife, who were brilliant, it went really well, so we put them on the following year, got them a piece in the (Manchester) Evening News, pre-internet, but struggled to get photographs. Could we get photos from their label? Could we, fuck! Things like that.”
His mention of cinematic influences prompted me to mention his link with multi-award-winning director Danny Boyle, who used ‘Avenue of Hope’ for the closing credits to 2007 sci-fi thriller, Sunshine.
“Yeah. It’s a shame. That was going to be the opening to that film, which would have been amazing, a space-ship drifting through space and the sun exploding. But the film was so complicated it was felt nobody could really understand it, so they needed a voiceover at the beginning to explain what the hell’s going on. So bang went the song, having it at the end instead.”
Have you worked with Danny since?
“No, again I think my isolationist approach doesn’t necessarily go down in showbiz circles. It would be nice to talk to him though.”
At that point, John hinted at another project currently in the early stages, something he promised to enlarge upon later. Then he quickly changed the subject.
“But the Minack Theatre … yeah, I’m going to get on to that! And get The Ladykillers on!”
John Bramwell plays The Continental, Preston, on Thursday, September 6th (doors 7.30pm), with support from Dave Fidler. Tickets are £17 in advance, online via SeeTickets, WeGotTickets and Skiddle, or in person from the venue (01772 499425) or Action Records (01772 884772), with more detail here. He then headlines the Central Piazza in Portmeirion Village at Festival No.6 the following evening, with details here.