“We all need a little more art in our life.”
I can’t speak for you lot, but Channel 4’s Grayson’s Art Club has proved a big draw, so to speak, at WriteWyattUK Towers since the first UK covid lockdowns. Sometimes sad, occasionally deep, most often inspirational.
And I could say similar of Vinny Peculiar’s latest long player, Artists Only, a concept album of sorts where Grayson Perry is one of six artists celebrated by this acclaimed Worcestershire singer-songwriter, born Alan Wilkes. What’s more, Grayson’s well-loved childhood furry friend by the surname of Measles also gets a namecheck.
‘’The potter’s wheel of fortune spins and you invite us in
To share in the delights of broken kilns and a teddy bear called Alan.”
Artists Only is the 14th Peculiar solo venture, and it’s another winner, carrying on where he left off with 2019’s While You Still Can and the previous year’s Return of the Native. But these aren’t glib portraits of the artists portrayed – from Francis Bacon to Jackson Pollock, Paul Rothko to Andy Warhol, and David Hockney to the afore-mentioned GP – as much as reflections of what their artwork means to our Alan, and how they’ve touched his life.
Long since back to his West Midlands roots after several years in Manchester, Vinny (it’ll get confusing if I keep referring to him as Alan) continues to revel in his outsider status, this scribe first experiencing him live as support to The Wedding Present in Blackpool in Summer 2019 (reviewed here), having previously – after a successful career in nursing – shared an indie label with Elbow, past collaborations including those with The Smiths’ Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, and alongside Oasis’ Bonehead in the splendid Parlour Flames. He also worked with KLF mastermind Bill Drummond and PIL’s Jah Wobble, Uncut describing him as ‘an under-sung national treasure’, while Q had him down as a ‘warm-hearted Morrissey’, and The Irish Times as ‘the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough’.
As for the dedicated artists’ album, I guess we could see this coming. I’ve probably missed a few, but there was ‘One Great Artist’ as far back as 2001’s Ironing the Soul, ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude’, ‘Artrockers’ and ‘Art Thief’ in 2011, ‘Antony Gormley’ in 2015, ‘Art and Poverty’ in 2019, and ‘Unhappy Painter’ on late 2020’s outtakes LP, Peculiarities.
In fact, let’s start with the latter, for this is the fella who wrote, ‘I am an unhappy painter and I can’t draw to save my life’, now giving us a record where all but four of its 10 songs are inspired in some form or other by established canvas fillers. You’d best explain yourself.
“That’s a rather beautiful opening gambit, Malcolm! I’ve always been an art fan and a fan of galleries really. I’m not much of a painter myself. I’ve had a go in the past but haven’t really stuck with it in any great shape or form.
“I think my inspiration started with Robert Hughes’ book, The Shock of the New, in the early ‘80s, the Australian art critic. There was a TV series on Channel 4 which I became addicted to. He enthused about art’s cultural significance and the way it reflects and directs changes in society, and I got quite fascinated by it and acquired any number of glossy arty books … that I left on the coffee table to impress my dates!
“There was that kind of vague interest, and trips to the Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool. If I’m ever in a city on holiday, I’ll go to a gallery. So that’s my general enthusiasm. But for the album I tried not to do a collection of songs based on artists’ lives. It’s more to do with the way they’ve touched my life in a small way. Like getting a migraine at a Mark Rothko exhibition, or sharing a poster of a David Hockney – where a poster bought on holiday, early in a relationship, stays on the wall then gets taken down, and how things change in a relationship. It’s a kind of reflection.
“And I still like ‘A Bigger Splash’. You can make a record and think, ‘Can I ever listen to that again?’, but I listened to that song the other day in the car and thought, ‘That’s not too bad’.
That was the lead single of this new LP, released in late October, setting the tone perfectly. In fact, it’s up there with the closing two numbers, ‘Fifteen Minutes’ and ‘Perfect Song’, my favourites. Meanwhile, the good (funereal) folk at Vinny’s label, Shadrack & Duxbury (you may well spot the reference, but if it’s nagging you, that’s the name of the funeral director for whom William Fisher, aka the titular Billy Liar, works in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 book, brought to the screen four years later, Tom Courtenay taking the lead role) suggest this is a ‘typically eclectic and forthright collection’ with ‘elements of hard rock, blue-eyed funk and pastoral chamber pop’. And that’s about right, Vinny – as ever – buzzing between genres.
“Yeah, I often write stuff, then work out the style of music that would possibly suit the words. I think if I was with a band, developing a one-band sound where everybody did things in a certain way, there would probably be a more unified sound. But I’ve always liked diversity in music. I can do different things. I don’t feel constrained by any kind of stylistic strait-jackets.”
At this point, Vinny self-consciously reflects on what he’s just said, in trademark apologetic form, adding …
“Stylistic strait-jackets? That may be too grandiose, Malcolm!”
Yeah, but what a band they were. At least for the first two albums.
“You know what I’m saying though.”
I do indeed, but I’ll spare us the next section of our conversation, where we got on to reviews, music critics, and dreaded marks out of 10 from print and online media. For the record though, he’s had several good ones for this and previous LPs. And soon we’re back to ‘A Bigger Splash’, me suggesting he lays himself somewhat bare regarding emotions and memories, as is the case here and there, setting up his easel, in a sense. Yes, it’s about a famous David Hockney painting, but much more – it’s how that painting relates to him, Vinny adding a biographical framework, so to speak. Is that in effect what he’s doing, telling his own tales inspired by art?
“Yeah, even the ‘Grayson’ tune is … it’s a load of arty statements, but it’s basically saying ‘get some art into your life’, because it can help. And the way he (Grayson Perry) does his programme, the feedback from ordinary people is lovely to see. It reminds me of how I do workshops for kids, usually in the mental health system but not always, just get a group of people together, usually in a club or somewhere where there’s a sound engineer and put on a gig. They come together in the day and write songs and all I do is help them do it, and at night all their mates and their family come along. It’s great, and fun for them, giving them a sense of purpose. And I think any kind of art helps you validate your place in the world … which is sometimes a hard thing to find – who we are and what we’re about.”
At this point, his words are cut out by my answerphone, but he tells me he’d returned to the ‘wittering stage’ anyway, and he wasn;t talking about the West Sussex coast. Instead, I mention the line on ‘A Bigger Splash’ where he sings, in contrast to Hockney’s subject matter,
“Mine’s a different kind of heaven; Football in the park, walking by the Severn.”
However, as he puts it, ‘there’s so much of San Francisco in that’ song too, where he bought the poster in the first place. And there’s no denying a languid feel of the artist as a ‘70s Brit in LA on that number, this scribe also reminded of Al Stewart’s ‘Year of the Cat’.
“Yeah, someone else said that to me the other day. I tried to get that kind of West Coast electric piano undulating feel. I recorded loads of piano, thinking I’ll change the sample to an old Fender Rhodes and put it through various effects. And all of a sudden you get a little ripple of that, and being a song driven like that, with acoustic guitars and twangs, is a little bit of that era.”
That leads us on to ‘Rothko’, the first example of Vinny rocking out a bit, channelling ‘Ohio’-era Neil Young or Jimi Hendrix taking on Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Is this him unleashing his inner guitar hero again?
“I think it is, that’s a really good way of putting it. I’m never going to be Jimmy Page, but that’s all I ever wanted to be, so every now and again … When I started playing in bands, I just wanted to be the guitar player, but always ended up at the front of them, writing the words, then became a singer.
“When you’re fronting bands or doing solo stuff, you tend to do less guitar dynamics and focus more on introductions and other elements, the way you put a song across. But there’s definitely a little Hendrix moment towards the end. And I quite liked that.
“Again, it’s a total cliché – those chords have been used by everyone. But you get to a certain point in life when you think, well, everyone’s used them, so I’ll use them as well. That really is the story of songwriting. There’s only so far you can take it, unless you want to get into the world of augmented fourths and triads and strange jazz tempos, and then it becomes almost impossible to relate to.”
So many great songwriters have taken that magpie approach. It’s just how you repackage something.
“It is. I mean, it’s the same chords as ‘All Along the Watchtower’, but they’re repackaged in a slightly different way! But we don’t want to go on too much about that, and interest Dylan’s publisher, as he’s just sold his entire back-catalogue. It could get us some good publicity though, Malcolm!”
A good point, leading me to bring up my interview last year with Du Kane, regarding Beautiful People’s If ‘60s were ‘90s LP in 1992, sampling Hendrix, one of those moments when you’d expect a pummelling from the publishers, but they ended up giving the project their blessing.
“In a similar way, Suzanne Vega ran with that British band that covered ‘Tom’s Diner’ (DNA, covering her 1987 Solitude Standing LP opener, giving an acapella track a breakbeat revamp). The guy that did that used to be the sound engineer at Moles in Bristol. He told me they were up in arms about it to start with, but suddenly realised it was a good thing, and it had a massive impact on their album sales.”
Talking of added drums, on this LP you have Joe Singh complementing six tracks, while Leah Walch provides backing vocals …
“Yes, that’s my daughter. She’s been roped in on many of them!”
Ah, there you go. Otherwise, it’s just Alan Wilkes. Was that chiefly because this turned out to be your lockdown LP?
“I suppose it was. Because I’ve been more isolated in the creation of this one, I’ve just done more things myself. Which is probably true of a lot of people making records. I would have preferred to rehearse a band and go in and do things live, and really want to do that for the next album. But that’s not really been very possible in the last couple of years.
“So this is essentially a studio album that I’ve had quite a long time to get ready. I recorded probably 23 songs. The others I’m currently tarting up a bit, seeing if they can fit on to something new.”
A few tracks don’t necessarily meet the concept theme but fit in well, the first of which, ‘Pathetic Lament’, carries shades of past Vinny Peculiar songs, but wouldn’t be out of place on a Ray Davies LP.
“Really? That’s very kind of. Ray Davies is the man! I love the way he’s just kept going. He just keeps working. I’ve had that song a while and just happened to re-do a vocal on it and thought, maybe I’ve about nailed the vocal on that now. Then my mate in Southport, who I worked with quite a bit, said, ‘Why don’t you just try and break it up a bit, and put that one on?’ So I did. It’s not really part of the art narrative though.”
No, but it works. And then we’re back into guitar overload territory on ‘Heavy Metal’, the spirit of Crazy Horse coming through, as well as a slight Mott the Hoople feel, something that hit me before hearing the lyrical reference to ‘Saturday Gigs’. Another autobiographical walk through the memories of early ‘70s Alan Wilkes, recanting, ‘teenage tales of heavy metal heartbreak’.
“Yeah, there is a slight Mott the Hoople reference there! I did play gigs on a Saturday, but realised when I did that line … but just left it in. That’s an older song as well. I did an album called Return of the Native, with loads of Midlands-based songs, but ran out of studio time and resources to finish it. But I always quite liked it.”
A song to prance about to on stage too, swishing his hair, early Teenage Fanclub style (although maybe Alex Chilton’s early ‘70s Memphis outfit Big Star could be more appropriate for a fella who wrote a song about them back in 2005.
“Yeah! We recorded a live video of that at (Worcester venue) The Marr’s Bar. One for that and for ‘Rothko’. Yeah, you can see me playing my teenage licks there!”.
Incidentally, when I suggested that song’s Thin Lizzy-like twin guitars, he retorted, ‘More like Wishbone Ash in my case!’.
As for side one closer, ‘Jack the Dripper’, about Jackson Pollock, that’s more reflective and ethereal, while when we turn over, ‘Francis Bacon’ takes us somewhere else again, maybe more Julian Cope meets David Bowie in this LP of many parts. Who’s responsible for the sleeve art and inserts, anyway?
“That’s Dave Hulston, a Manchester painter, a good friend of my arts collaborator Paul Cliff, who’s a Manchester photographer and also a great friend. Paul photographed elements from Dave’s work and used them to represent individual songs, so you’ve got an eclectic set of images to match an eclectic set of songs from a painter. And they work so well. I’m the kind of person who gets excited about artwork. And in a funny kind of way, the whole look of the sound is an interesting thing. So I was really pleased with that.”
I scribbled early on by ‘A Man and his Shadow’ the comment, ‘just on the right side of Pink Floyd’. I’m not sure if that’s how I still see it, but …
“Yeah! It’s a bit bleak!”
It’s another providing a bridge to the main theme, like ‘Pathetic Lament’. And I’m guessing that song is the story of your lockdowns, in a way.
“Yeah, I think the mood of our interactions kind of changed. You know, whether it become more cautious, more suspicious, or more respectful sometimes. It doesn’t have any answers. It’s kind of bleak, but sometimes bleak can be beautiful.”
Absolutely, and from there we reach ‘Grayson’, taking more positive aspects of all that over a Talking Heads-like feel …
“Yeah, or ‘Fashion’ by David Bowie, with those Robert Fripp kind of dirty honking guitars as well! I tried to get that same sound. I’m probably nowhere near it, but it’s an approximation!”
As you put it in that chorus, ‘We all need a little more art in our life’. Were you, like my family, rather glued to and inspired by Grayson’s Art Club during the lockdowns?
“I really enjoyed it. And I should really make an attempt to send the song to Grayson.”
You should, and get the opener to David Hockney. Both deserve a copy of the record for sure.
“Yeah, I need to try and work out how to do that. I did send an early version to Grayson’s film company. They said they really loved it, but I didn’t really hear any affirmation as to whether he heard it.”
The album’s peaks for me as ‘Grayson’ leads to ‘Fifteen Minutes’, a thing of beauty somewhere between Damon Albarn and Ray Davies again, the spirit of Morrissey and Marr in there too. I get the feeling this is you using Warhol as a way to reflect where we’re at right now with regard to creative art. And I’m not just talking art hung on walls.
“Yeah, and it’s a little more abstract. Some people would say it’s lazier. It’s doesn’t have a linear story to it. But sometimes songs just work with hopefully half-decent lines in them that aren’t always perfect. I kind of like that. I mention various things, like the factory closing down, everything getting copied … Warhol was a great copyist. He was such a copyist that he sent an actor around 30 American universities impersonating him, to give lectures. And all those lithographs of the Marilyns and … With all the classic Warhols, he’d oversee a couple, then say, ‘Just knock me up 500, I’m going to the cafe …’”
This to me reflects your own take on today’s music industry, something you go into in more explicit terms on finale, ‘Perfect Song’. There was a shop in my hometown, Guildford, Surrey, called ‘But Is It Art?’ It’s that kind of thinking for me – what is art? And musically, there’s a lovely Pulp-like rumble on that last song. I feel you’ve a potential hit on your hands there … although it might have fared far better on that front in 1995.
“Yeah, it’s the excitement and the disappointment, I suppose, of possibility. Everything’s about possibility, but then reality can take you both ways. That sounds a bit fuzzy, but I think you know what I mean!”
I do, and that brings me to my ultimate refelction on this LP. I see Artists Only as your take on conceptual art, in your case perhaps striving for or alluding to that perfect song and breakthrough success but finding so much more to savour along the way. When people like Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and so on broke through, you were there in the slipstream struggling to be heard. But now, I’d suggest, you’ve finally found your audience. I’m not sure how you got there, but you’ve now made 14 albums and you’re still at it!
“The other problem nowadays is you have to kind of get into this zone of maximum self-belief, maximum push, maximum publicity, social media, all that sort of stuff. Most musicians do their best with that, then kind of fade away, because we can’t spend every waking minute talking about how great we are, because that’s bad for the soul! We want a bit more balance and a bit more humanity in our lives, other than our own vanity!”
“Yeah, it’s quite a lot of work. I must have something in the dogged persistence gene that’s kept me going. Music can be quite a self-rewarding experience – performing can reward you and that same kind of completist experience of making a record is vaguely satisfying, even if the world doesn’t always embrace it to the extent you feel it may deserve.
True, and this week, for example, I get the feeling you’ve had to go against your more shy instincts to push the release of this LP, acting the reluctant PR guy.
“Well, I don’t mind doing that. I went on a course when I was still in Manchester, around 2014. Some guy was talking about how many tweets you needed to do and how to vary them, with a load of musicians sat there, thinking, ‘What, 10 times a day?’. But I suppose people like Bob Dylan have someone to do that for them.
“I do like Twitter sometimes, I’m not totally opposed to it. I’m just not engaged in it as much as some people.”
As for the next Vinny Peculiar record, will you move on again, away from the art concept? Could it be Never Mind the Pollocks?
“Ha! That’s sowing a great seed! I suppose I’m a quarter of the way into the next one. It’s probably not going to have a theme. It’s just going to be a collection of songs, because the last two or three albums have all had more of a concept album feel, so I’ll probably buck my own trend!”
For WriteWyattUK’s previous feature/interview with Vinny Peculiar, from late 2019, head here.
For information regarding tickets for Vinny Peculiar on Friday, March 11th at The Marr’s Bar, Worcester; Friday, March 18th at the Castle Hotel, Oldham Street, Manchester; and Saturday, March 26th at Thornton Hough, Birkenhead, head here. And to track down a copy of Artists Only and catch up with Vinny’s back-catalogue, head here. You can also keep tabs on him via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.