Blancmange – Darwen Library Theatre, November 7th, 2018

Platform Soul: Neil Arthur, Paddington, bare feet, waiting for his connection (Photo: Piers Allardyce)

If you’ve not yet caught up with Wanderlust, the latest album from Blancmange, you’re missing out.

After several weeks’ rotation around the house and in the car, I put it to one side for a couple of weeks. But now it’s back, and provided the soundtrack for my latest M65 and A666 (that’s Blanc Burn Road, rather than the trunk number of the beast, by the way) meanderings, as I headed back to the Far East (Lancashire, that is) for the return of Neil Arthur to his old stomping ground.

Don’t get me wrong. Darwen’s Library Theatre is a cracking venue, with friendly staff, and the sound was pretty much perfect all evening (not least thanks to the band’s own Adam Fuest). It’s just those seats that get in the way. You can’t fail to be moved by Blancmange’s pounding rhythms, yet – not least when you’re 6ft 4ins – you feel sheepish blocking the other punters’ view through your lesser-honed moves.

When perennial pop exclamation mark ‘Living on the Ceiling’ arrived three tracks from the end we were finally up, but really needed to be down the aisle to properly wig out to the ever-mighty ‘Feel Me’ and main set-closer ‘Blind Vision’, Neil and his bandmates taking a bow all too soon.

I hate to point it out, but the average Blancmange fan is getting a little long in the tooth. Yet there were plenty of next generation fans in Darwen (including my 16-year-old daughter), and thankfully the likes of Neil’s lad, going under the DJ handle, Kincaid, are helping turn on new audiences to these highly-influential masters of electronica.

Blancmange certainly deserve that ‘discovery’. Forget age. The music is timeless and pervades youthful energy, with a case in point the new LP’s lead track and Wednesday’s opener, ‘Distant Storm’, going down well with my afore-mentioned youngest.

Arthur’s Seat: Neil Arthur was back on old ground in Darwen. The Tower and bus stop at Woolie’s are out of shot.

While there was initial disappointment at bare-footed guitarist David Rhodes not being on board this time, Neil had quality service from long-time collaborator Oogoo Maia and electronic percussionist Liam Hutton. And while those two brought the average age down somewhat, I still reckon their effortlessly-dapper boss, who turned 60 back in the summer, has a painting in his attic that ensures he fits in perfectly.

As he was last October, the front-man was emotional at times, back in a town he left at 18 for a capital city paved with golden opportunities, truly ‘locked in’ beneath the shadow of Darwen Tower and familiar moorland surrounds, among a few old friends and neighbours.

There was plenty of banter between stalls and stage, one local asking if the returnee had visited his old school, letting on that he knew the keypad combination if need be. And the esteemed guest admitted he was wary of returning to the adjoining library, fearing colossal fines for any books that he never returned.

But Neil – like Blancmange co-founder and long-time creative partner Stephen Luscombe – was never about standing still too long, and selection-wise there was plenty of focus on the new record, the surging ‘In Your Room’ helping set the scene before a slip back through the years to Mange Tout’s brooding ‘Game Above My Head’, a perfect fit before new number ‘Not a Priority’, Oogoo stepping up commendably in album guest Hannah Peel’s absence.

Next up was a personal favourite from last year’s splendid Unfurnished Rooms, Neil showcasing his nifty footwear on the quirky, hypnotic ‘What’s the Time?’ Incidentally, I’m still listing all the things I’ve never owned and never said.

From the first album there was the intense ‘I Can’t Explain’,  the first Lydonesque moment on the night, before Wanderlust’s hymn to 21st century technology, ‘I Smashed Your Phone’, then another stroll back to a long, long, long, long, long, long time ago for Believe You Me’s ‘What’s Your Problem’.

The emotive ‘Wanderlust’ also impressed, another great example of how the album of the same name showcases this band’s continuing creative peak, while we were playing Happy Families again and returning to Neil’s roots for ‘I’ve Seen the Word’, in his old backyard, so to speak, before a sideways sweep to bring in his Fader project with Benge, ‘I Prefer Solitude’ a welcome set addition.

From there we stretched back through the decades, last year’s haunting ’Anna Dine’ followed by another of my personal highlights, an impassioned ‘Last Night (I Dreamt I Had A Job)’ from Commuter 23, then the afore-mentioned late flurry of hits.

They weren’t quite done, returning once more for an impassioned ‘Waves’, then goodbye. But I’m kind of taking it for granted they’ll be back, something Neil hinted at while mentioning David Rhodes’ absence. Besides, he’s still creating great albums year on year, and we’ll be there at short notice to see them honoured live. ‘Crack on, lad’, as they say in these parts.

Mange Two-Wheelers: Commuter 23 sporting David Rhodes’ footwear (Photo: Piers Allardyce)

For the most recent WriteWyattUK interview with Neil Arthur, head here.

Blancmange’s November tour continues with dates at Edinburgh Voodoo Rooms (8th); Glasgow Oran Mor (9th); Newcastle The Cluny (10th); Brighton The Old Market (15th); Southampton Brook (16th); Dover Booking Hall (17th); Wolverhampton Robin 2 (22nd); Gloucester Guild Hall (23rd);  Northampton Roadmender (24th); Leeds The Wardrobe (29th); and Derby Flowerpot (30th). For more details, head to www.blancmange.co.uk and keep in touch via FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

 

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Two Preston Nights to Remember, part two – Girls in Synthesis / Erskine Brown – Preston, The Ferret

Eye Contact: Girls in Synthesis’ Jim and John thrill The Ferret, so to speak (Copyright: Gary M Hough Photography)

You know you’re at an intimate gig when, stood by the bar with pint in hand, a manic bass player frantically threads his way past you, mid-song.

I’d have happily paid the £3 on the door (three quid, I tell you – there’s value for money writ large) solely to witness the bemused look on one punter’s face as he headed to the exit and had to step over that same band member, on his side on the floor yet somehow still not missing a note.

Welcome to the intense world of Girls in Synthesis, up from that there London village, dropping by in Lancashire for a night of extremely compelling noise terror, the band proving trademark raw, and surely on the precipice of big things.

Apologies if the words ‘frantic’ and ‘intense’ appear again here, but that’s how it is with this frenetic (another word likely repeated) three-piece. Keep music live? They wouldn’t know any other way.

Influences? They mention Crass, The Fall and Gang of Four, and there are hints of solo Graham Coxon. But for me that’s all overwritten by the spirit of early Wire, to a point where I felt at least a couple of songs were about to head into the short-sharp-shock treatment of ‘1-2-X-U’.

That never quite happened though, this three-piece very much their own animal, the chemistry between them clear to see, making it rather surprising they’ve only been around two years.

Close Quarters: Girls in Synthesis – Jim, Nicole and John – in step (Copyright: Gary M Hough Photography)

I mentioned extreme noise, but that belittles their integral understanding of melody, structure, barbs and hooks. For all their DIY thrash and self-styled ‘obtuse punk’ sensibilities, here’s a band as clever in parts as the afore-mentioned Wire or early XTC, and at times stoking the fire of a young Jam newly enthused by Dr Feelgood and The Who. In short, this is one switched-on, highly-attuned trio.

Visually, you might see the post-punk stylings – industrial-grade factory work-shirts and half-mast trousers – and expect them to sound more like Joy Division. But while there’s a nod to Ian Curtis’ catatonic dance patterns in their frenetic (there it is again) movement, there’s something far more stripped back, lean, mean, driven and dynamic.

At the back, Nicole Pinto (if you ever wondered how Patricia Arquette would have suited punk percussion duties …) put down the powerhouse beat somehow keeping this collective in line, her drums and John Linger’s guttural bass totally calling the shots, her focus barely leaving her bandmates.

That eye contact is integral between all three, guitarist Jim Cubitt – part-Ralf little, part-Kevin Rowland – with pupils fixed on co-vocalist Linger, while his co-songwriter threaded right back on to his fellow front-man.

When I mention front-men, we’re talking front-of-house. Promoter Marcus Parnell (of The Common Cold and Dandelion Adventure indie fame), asked us to come on in, get in their faces, feel the heat. But they were already one step ahead, getting in ours instead.

At times it’s as if Pinto had her attack dogs on a long lead. You were never more than a heartbeat from being taken out by a headstock. But they were totally in control, their intuitive choreography more than a match for the pumped-up energy.

Floorboards Up: John Linger answers the question, ‘Bass – how low can you go?’ (Photo copyright: Roland Jones)

As the set gathered space (not as if it was ever in lower gear) Cubitt and Linger (they sound like estate agents, but sure as hell ain’t) were ever more part of the crowd, the barrier between band and awed fans truly torn down.

I seem to recall all three were briefly on the low stage. Not for long though, soon carrying their mic. stands back and forth, Linger crouching to add lines as his slipped – yet still not missing a note – and even climbing the bottom stairs at one stage, never losing that eye contact.

The impassioned vocals are sometimes imploring, other times angry – neatly complemented by that searing guitar and feedback – but always spell-binding, and from the moment they launched into the title track of forthcoming ‘Fan the Flames’ EP we were caught in the headlights.

The despair-ridden incendiary charge of ‘Splinters and Rust’ from the first EP further gripped us, while the new release’s ‘Howling’ took us into performance poetry territory, and apocalyptic warning shot ‘We Might Not Make Tomorrow’ mesmerised, more than a little Devoto-era Buzzcocks represented.

Then we had the seething ‘Sentient’, its ‘no choice’ mantra suggesting something of a 21st century take on ‘Career Opportunities’, followed by the burbling bass-fired ‘The Mound’, the two front-men filling any gaps on the dancefloor, the engine room rhythm still pumping, the aural assault continuing.

Finally, ‘Internal Politics’ fired the last salvos in a mighty sound barrage, our guests leading the applause, a shell-shocked audience without the energy to convincingly shout ‘more’ themselves.

Television Personalities: John, Robert and Jack send smoke signals (Copyright: Gary M Hough Photography)

Soon enough, fellow three-piece Erskine Brown had the unenviable task of following that, and it was always going to be a near-impossible task. Yet this self-styled psychedelic industrial synth-punk combo gave it a good go in a commendable stage-turn.

Gremlins in the works made it that much harder, yet the debut live shift from Jack Harkins (vocals, bass, also with The Common Cold), Johnny Ligament (guitar, synths, sounds) and Robert Dunne (drums) ensured they played their part on an entertaining night.

Local lads Erskine Brown may be (with the name familiar to Rumpole of the Bailey fans, and yeah, I know what you’re thinking – typical rock’n’roll influence), but the influences are more global and all bely the vocalist’s age, and again there are signs here of something special.

There was a nod to Public Service Broadcasting with the nicely-spliced film clips on the big screen behind (and who could fail to be warmed by seeing footage of Bamber Bridge FC running out against the Czech Republic in 1996?), and that proved a welcome distraction when the dreaded ‘technical difficulties’ kicked in beyond promising opener ‘Cabin Fever’.

It was never going to be the longest set, but it was curtailed far too soon, the guitarist having a ‘mare with the electrics. They finally kicked back into gear for the mighty, Stranglers-esque ‘Don’t Want it’, and while the Dave Greenfield-like keyboard touches on the recorded version were missing, a pared-down version still impressed.

As it turned out, they were soon forced to give up the ghost, the gods seemingly against them on this occasion. But they’ll have learned from the experience and be back all the stronger, their next appearance already looking promising.

Knees Up; Girls in Synthesis nail the choreography (Photo copyright: Gary M Hough Photography)

For details of how to get hold of new Girls in Synthesis EP ‘Fan the Flames’ and catch the band live head to their Bandcamp page or keep in touch via FacebookAnd for th elatest from Erskine Brown head to https://www.facebook.com/erskinebrownband/

 

 

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Two Preston nights to remember: part one – The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Preston Guild Hall

Lining Up: The Men They Couldn't Hang, live at Preston Guild Hall. From left, out front, Tom Spencer, Paul Simmonds, Phil Odgers, Stefan Cush, Ricky McGuire, with Jon McLaren-Odgers on drums (Copyright: Michael Porter Photography)

Lining Up: The Men They Couldn’t Hang at Preston Guild Hall. From left, out front – Tom Spencer, Paul Simmonds, Phil Odgers, Stefan Cush, Ricky McGuire (Copyright: Michael Porter Photography)

It seems a little arse about face to start a review with the opening encore, but it was Eric Bogle’s ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land’) that sent shivers up the spine on Saturday night.

A song The Men They Couldn’t Hang introduced me to in 1984 can still silence a room. And that takes some doing when sections of the audience are wont to talk through the quieter moments.

‘Green Fields’ seemed all the more poignant when we’re about to mark the centenary of the Armistice, the song – and Stefan Cush’s interpretation of it – as powerful today in questioning why this never truly did become the war to end all wars, slaughter on both sides still difficult to get your head around, not least when we’re all too quick to forget the grim reality and plunge head-first into the next conflict.

If you know the original, you may recall its Scots-born Australian writer – now 74 and Adelaide-based – wrote it five years after 1971’s ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, a further harrowing expose of the cost of war I first heard in 1985, when it was delivered in similarly-stirring style by The Pogues.

And while Bogle made his point perfectly in a more understated way on both songs, it was Cush’s more emotional delivery on ‘Green Fields’ that made me sit up and take notice.

Quo Quota: TMTCH’s Cush and McGuire emulate Rossi and Parfitt (Copyright: Michael Porter Photography)

Written 60 years after ‘Willie McBride’ lost his life in France, here we are 42 further years on debating the merits of our European union, the far right growing stronger again, The Men They Couldn’t Hang still speaking out, their ‘80s alternative anthems as relevant today as when they were first voiced.

Take for instance ‘Ironmasters’, Paul Simmonds’ tale of the Chartists as powerful today, a true fanfare for the common man. Then there’s ‘The Ghosts of Cable Street’, afforded extra poignancy after the death of centenarian Max Levitas, the last of the protest leaders in that laudable East End battle.

On a similar front, we had further early TMTCH highlights ‘Going Back to Coventry’ and ‘Shirt of Blue’, on a night when they kicked in with ‘Gold Rush’, a fellow Simmonds How Green is the Valley favourite.

The first record was well represented too, Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers finding his voice on ‘A Night to Remember’ and soon tackling ‘Hush Little Baby’, both of which made me realise in ’85 there was far more to The Men than just polemic (great as that was). And we also got ‘Wishing Well’, a song I mistakenly thought was their own until its writer, Nick Lowe released his version. Yet, like ‘Green Fields’ it quickly became theirs.

From third LP, Waiting for Bonaparte there was ’Bounty Hunter’, ‘Smugglers’, and ‘The Colours’, crowd favourites all, while from Silver Town we had ‘Rosettes’. But this was no legacy act night out, and we had a brief taste of 2014’s The Defiant in barndance-storming ‘Raising Hell’, and five great cuts from the new album, the splendid Cock-a-Hoop.

Drum Major: The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s Jon McLaren-Odgers shows his support for the Grenfell Tower victims (Copyright: Michael Porter Photography)

When Cush barks out the earlier classics, you wonder how his voice has ever lasted, but he was perhaps at his best – with new-found vocal maturity – on the self-penned ‘Salutations’. For a moment it was as if Springsteen and the E-Street Band had ridden into town.

Similarly, ‘Sirens’ offered a perfect introduction to the strength of the new material, while Swill’s ‘Three Ships Sailing’ – with just Simmonds for company – deserved far better from those who took the opportunity to catch up with old mates mid-hall, on a night when the band struggled with the acoustics, the venue seemingly conspiring against them, the sound-man kept busy. A similar fate befell Cush as he tackled Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’, delivered in Billy Bragg-esque style on his Telecaster.

‘Arrow’ certainly hit the target, Swill in fine form (his voice ever richer) and the band truly dynamic, providing further proof that this six -piece – as they were on this occasion – have plenty more gallons in the creative tank.

Four songs later they were away, the solemn ’Green Fields’ – and I was amazed how many of us knew every line – followed by the wake, and a number that’s been there since day one, our visitors seeing us home in style on ‘Walkin, Talkin’’. And on the evidence of this outing, hopefully there will be several more nights to remember in their company.

Saturday Soul: The Men They Couldn’t Hang live at Preston Guild Hall (Copyright: Michael Porter Photography)

Several of the remaining tour dates are now sold out, but for remaining ticket details and more on new LP Cock-a-Hoop and other projects, try their website and keep in touch via FacebookInstagram, or TwitterAnd if you missed this site’s recent feature/interview with Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers, head here.

 

 

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From record shop pilgrimages to transatlantic discovery – talking The Decemberists with Colin Meloy

Band Substance: The Decemberists return to the UK and mainland Europe this month (Photo: Holly Andres)

This weekend, The Decemberists leave Portland, Oregon for their latest UK and mainland European tour. But don’t expect them to have worked on the set these last couple of weeks. As vocalist/guitarist and occasional children’s author Colin Meloy explained, “We’ve been touring this record since March, so no rehearsal is necessary!”

So are they shit-hot as a band at present?

“We’re definitely as shit-hot as we’re gonna get!”

The Decemberists formed in 2000, Colin quitting previous band Tarkio in Montana to move to the Pacific Northwest coast, meeting Nate Query (bass guitar), who in turn introduced him to Jenny Conlee (piano/keyboards), the trio initially scoring a silent film together.

Colin already knew Tarkio fan and fellow guitarist Chris Funk by then, and he added pedal steel on the first two Decemberists releases before officially joining in 2004, the current line-up together since John Moen became their third drummer in 2005.

The rather splendid I’ll Be Your Girl, released in Spring 2018, is their eighth album in 16 years, the band having first dipped their toes in the water with 2001 self-released EP ‘5 Songs’, playing a hotel gig the night before to raise enough to afford studio time, its tracks put down in under two hours.

And from dates with full orchestral accompaniment to live support for Barack Obama at a presidential rally, late night US TV appearances, work with REM’s Peter Buck, 2011’s Best Rock Song nomination for ‘Down by the Water’ at the Grammy Awards, sixth album The King Is Dead debuting at No.1 on the US Billboard 200 that same year, and ever onwards, it’s been a blast.

The band also contributed a song to 2012’s The Hunger Games soundtrack, made a cameo appearance on The Simpsons – presented as hip new music teachers of Springfield Elementary, the episode’s theme music performed in true Decemberists style – and performed on a 2014 series finale of hit NBC comedy series, Parks and Recreation. And while their song for the Hamilton soundtrack was squeezed out in the end, I’d recommend anyone to track down the mighty ‘Ben Franklin’s Song’. Written by the play’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in what he envisaged as a Decemberists style, it’s American history with attitude, you could say. Something The Decemberists have become experts at.

Colin was at home in Portland when we spoke, looking ahead to a tour opener at Vicar Street, Dublin, on November 4th, with six UK dates following, then two in the Netherlands before a Berlin finale at Astra Kulturhaus on November 16th. Does the travel get a little wearing these days?

“Erm, you know, I go back and forth. Sometimes it’s hard, certainly dealing with jetlag, especially after you’ve been doing it for a while. In the early days, your excitement at the novelty of what you’re doing would carry you through, but now … it’s another tour … but with the crowds, it always feels a little different.

“We always spend so much time in North America, and so little time over there that it’s always a little exciting to be playing to UK and European crowds.”

And this side of the pond was home to so many influences that have informed The Decemberists’ music, after all, a few of whom are apparent listening to the latest album, the John Congleton-produced I’ll Be Your Girl, which opens with the anthemic ‘Once in My Life’, its video directed by Autumn De Wilde, described as her ‘love letter’ to her 7ft 2ins tall, size 22-booted brother Jacob, who stars in it, has auditory processing disorder, ‘likes to dress up as Chewbacca, but ‘is not a basketball player’.

As Colin put it, “We were searching for a video idea that would somehow capture the spirit of the song. In my mind, the song is a meditation, a plea to the cosmos that I imagine everyone, at some point or another, has made. We asked our old friend and collaborator Autumn to pitch an idea and she came to us with a simple but powerful story: a depiction of her brother Jacob, a man who has lived with physical and intellectual differences his entire life, dancing in the streets of Los Angeles. The song, in this light, becomes more than just a celebration of sadness, but suddenly a longing holler to the universe against one’s perceived otherness.

“This idea is particularly close to me as I’ve witnessed how the world sees my son Hank, who is autistic. When I’m out in public with Hank, I’m acutely aware of the world’s attachment to social and behavioral norms; in these situations, Hank’s otherness can suddenly be put in stark relief. Through the lens of Jacob’s joyful and defiant movement in Autumn’s video, we see a man shrugging off the constraints of an unaccommodating and judgmental world and truly reveling in his body and mind.”

There’s a powerful message there, and while I’m no great fan of MTV-like promos that are so strong image-wise that you focus on the video’s story than self-interpret the message of the song, I concede that they created a powerful short film here.

“Well, it was really a challenge trying to find a video, getting submissions from people. If it’s taken too literally … one idea involved a woman in a casino who just wants to win. And while that interpretation’s universal, it becomes almost too trivial.

“Other versions had nothing to do with the song and felt like it did a disservice to the message. So we asked Autumn to come up with an idea, and it seemed to be this perfect bridge, where it wasn’t so literal yet it did convey and add a kind of extra dimension to the song.”

And it seems to have struck a nerve with the wider public.

“I think so. We’ve had a lot of nice comments from people.”

And the idea drew a few parallels with your own family experiences.

“There was that kind of a personal aspect to it, but I wasn’t thinking of Hank when I was writing the song and wasn’t really thinking of myself. But I played it to my wife, Carson, as I do most songs, and immediately she said, ‘Do I have a right?’ It only occurred to me at that point that it might be presumptuous given my privilege as a straight, white male in the United States to say, ‘For once in my life, could just something go right’.

“But it’s not really meant for me, it’s meant as some kind of universal plea.”

Don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s perhaps the album’s lighter-waving, stadium-filling Snow Patrol-like moment, as opposed to track two, ‘Cutting Stone’, where you seem more at home wearing your folk revival influences on the sleeve. And across this album we get to hear many sides of The Decemberists, perhaps more so than before.

“Erm, I feel that we’re just making the music we’re making, putting out the best record we can. It does jump around a bit, but …”

In a very good way.

“Yeah, I guess that’s probably true.”

I mention a folky feel, but the fretless bass and synth on ‘Cutting Stone’ take the song a different direction, suggesting something late ‘80s, and … whisper it, a reinvention for the band. And that’s kind of confirmed with the mighty Depeche Mode meet OMD and New Order ‘80s synth-rocky, power-pop of ‘Severed’, while next track ‘Starwatcher’ brings to mind a more mature, 21st Century James, something that’s also apparent on the deceptively-powerful yet still folk-driven ‘Tripping Along’, Colin’s vocal bringing to mind Tim Booth as much as Michael Stipe for me. And then there’s the ‘60s psychedelia of the equally-splendid ‘Your Ghost’, suggesting Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd alongside traces of ELO and Queen-like pop. Yep, on that side alone I think it’s fair to say there’s something for everyone.

“Yeah, we’ve always had a tendency to do that. We’ve been described as a record collectors’ band, often finding different things in our collections that we were obsessed with at the time.”

That continues on the other side, with a little of the quirkiness of past WriteWyattUK interviewees They Might Be Giants on opening cut ‘Everything is Awful’, an eminently-singable ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ like ditty celebrating the sheer shiteness of the world today, its more chirpy tone accompanied by … wait for it, a heavy ‘Anarchy in the UK’ guitar riff.

“Ha ha!”

Then there’s the ‘70s splendour of latest single, ‘Suckers’ Prayer’, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel springing to mind, perhaps tackling a more laidback California highway feel you’d more likely hear from Teenage Fanclub these days. In fact, come to think of it, there’s plenty of schizophrenic depth right across this fine album.

“Yeah. It is all kind of mish-mashed in there.”

There’s even a glam-rock vibe on dancefloor-packer ‘We All Die Young’, I venture, and Colin and co. – carried along on a Sweet tide, so to speak – seem to be having way too much fun singing about death and gloom, Jenny’s Suzi Quatro-like backing vocals and the Roxy-like mad sax proving infectious.

“Well, talking about making a glam record is what we were setting out to do when putting material together and trying to find what would be the true line. We ended up talking a lot about Roxy Music, early Brian Eno, things like that. So I think with a lot of the songs, if it’s not apparent, they are at least in practise shot through with early glam.”

And I suppose as a band you’re always likely to be a product of all your influences.

“Yeah. Sometimes I feel it would be blessed to be one of those people who only listened to one thing and then started a band. But we’ve been ravenous. I’ve certainly been ravenous in my consumption of all sorts of different kinds of music, and that invariably finds its way into all the songs.”

In a sense – and this might just be ignorance on my part – maybe I wouldn’t expect a lad from Montana to have such a wide range of influences. Were you listening to a lot of the music you now love from an early age?

“Yeah, I think when I was probably 12 I was introduced to the college and alternative rock of the day, in the late ‘80s, to R.E.M., The Smiths, Husker Du and The Replacements, and Robyn Hitchcock – people on both sides of the pond – and that was the moment music became really huge for me, discovering that music.

“I don’t think you’d necessarily say that was diverse, now I look back at it, even though at the time I thought it was, at the time I was listening to punk and rock, and it felt diverse. But considering today’s climate, it was not very diverse at all.”

I know there are many miles involved between these places, but I guess there was a sense of pride that quality bands like R.E.M. sprang out of middle-of-nowhere cities like Athens, Georgia (and yes, I realise that’s more than 2,000 miles from Colin’s Helena, Montana roots), not just across in the UK.

“Yeah, I think so, certainly hearing The Replacements sing about being in Minneapolis on ‘Stuck in the Middle’, but it was still a hard drive from Montana, while Athens was only an hour and a half from Atlanta. We were more isolated, and it was so much harder finding those records. Local record shops would have the major label releases, but finding anything on IRS or Twin/Tone or SST would involve these pilgrimages to closer college towns or – better yet – to Seattle or Portland, which were 10 or 12 hours away.”

And was that music more on tap when you upped and left for Portland?

“Absolutely. Walking into a record store in the late ‘80s for me in Seattle or Portland, I could spend all day if I had a little ready cash just to kind of thumb through and find all this stuff of legend.”

Was any money you had for studying soon gone?

“Oh yeah. Whatever money I would save was all spent on records, if there was a trip to Seattle or Portland involved.”

We mentioned R.E.M., and for me next track ‘Rusalka Rusalka’ seems to carry their air. Actually, it’s almost Bowiesque in essence. And while that could easily have been the end of it, they’re off again straight away, those folk roots poking through and ‘The Wild Rushes’ emerging, Colin and Jenny’s harmonies sublime, the band’s masterful storytelling again apparent.

I love those re-emergence moments, I tell Colin, and mention that I understand he’s a big XTC fan …

“Yeah … Well, I dabble!”

Well, I’m thinking of the moment where ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, the opening song on 1986’s  Skylarking heads into track two, ‘Grass’, a similarly-beautiful segue.

“Yeah, linking songs with sounds is something we’ve always messed around with a bit. But with that, I’d written ‘Rusalka Rusalka’ and then immediately it felt like rather than just end on that, it wanted to go into that kind of ‘dow, ba duddle de dow’ (at least I think that’s what he said there). In cases like that you have to kind of follow the lead, and a song is not done until it’s done. And then eight verses later, it was finished.”

Well, put it like that, arguably it owes as much to The Beatles and the Abbey Road way of linking parts of songs.

“Right, although I think that owes as much to Fairport Convention.”

Funny you should say that, listening to ‘The Wild Rushes’ I wrote part-way through, ‘Gabriel-era Genesis meets Fairport Convention’ … so perhaps I was at least half-way there.

“Yeah, you were getting there.”

And it’s a builder – by the end it’s as if we have Led Zeppelin guesting (albeit with more Lilac Time-like vocals). It’s a mighty number for sure.

“Yeah, there’s a bit of that, but there is some crossover between Fairport Convention and Led Zep. Those two are often linked.”

And then the album ends with the more simple, country-like beauty of the title track, ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’, those harmonies again to the fore and Jenny now your Emmylou Harris, in a track I see as something of an antidote to these troubled times, and a reminder that there’s so much more to America than the images we get over here right now of Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and so on.

“God, I would hope so. I’m worried that there’s not much more to us than that. I started out feeling, ‘This is not us!’ But now I feel more and more that this is us.”

But occasionally we’re reminded through music  about the better side of America, songs giving us hope. Someone like Gretchen Peters springs to mind.

“Well yeah, there is very vocal resistance, but I also think we as Americans have to own up to this very dark thing underlining our political ideology.”

We have little room to speak over here, judging by the last couple of years for the UK. At times, there seems to be a 50/50 split on all that.

“Yeah, maybe so.”

While Rough Trade handle your affairs on this side of the water, having started out with Olympia, Washington and Portland-based indie label Kill Rock Stars, this is your fifth album in 12 years with Capitol. Yet it seems to me that such belief and support in a band doesn’t seem to be something such established record labels tend to offer their artists these days.

“Right. Yeah, I’m a little surprised myself! Even though we’ve stuck with Rough Trade from the early days over there, Capitol have also been great. I don’t think they’re showering marketing money on us like they would Katy Perry, but I don’t think we’ve ever expected that. I think just having support, being able to see whatever projects or ideas we have and be true to them … yeah, I can’t complain. I think it is kind of a rarity in this day and age.”

Over the years, a band whose name refers to the 1825 Decembrist Revolt in Imperial Russia has built something of a reputation for live shows, past lyrics focused on historical incidents and folklore inspiring eclectic sets and lots of quirky crowd participation.

Take for example a 2009 date in Pittsburgh, PA where band members ran up and down the aisles recreating a fictitious battle at Fort Pitt, while the following year’s European tour’s set finale ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ saw audiences encouraged to scream as if being eaten by a whale while the band pretended to die on stage. Any historical reenactments lined up for this UK visit?

“Ha ha! No, but we’ve got a new and flashier whale, so that’s something people can look forward to. But no spoilers – you’ll have to come to the show.”

Touring Again: The Decemberists arrive in Boulder, Colorado (Photo: Holly Andres)

Just bringing to mind your solo recorded tributes to the likes of Sam Cooke, The Kinks, Shirley Collins, and Morrissey, you’re clearly a man of taste. But are you as big a band as you’re comfortable with? Because I can’t imagine you being much bigger.

“I never expected that we would be as big as we are. All the bands I grew up listening to never got to that size of venue or audience, so it’s always been a little shocking to me along the way.

“But it’s something you become used to, and it’s great to have big packed houses, but I’m very grateful for that and also recognise that we are an idiosyncratic band, so is there room for us in the world these days? And I guess that’s a question we’re still asking.”

Maybe it’s just that you retain your charm despite the fame. You seem to be keeping your feet on the ground. I won’t get on to Morrissey and his recent bizarre pronouncements and downright racist claptrap, but let;s just say that some people seem to struggle more with that sense of their own importance.

“Yeah … that’s true.”

Meanwhile, not only have the band made appearances on cult hit TV series like Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons, film soundtracks and so on, but there’s another side to their father-of-two frontman’s career too, this former English and theatre then creative writing student, who graduated from the University of Montana in 1998, having made his debut as a children’s writer in 2011 with Wildwood, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis (sequel Under Wildwood following a year later and a third in the series, Wildwood Imperium released in 2014, followed last October by The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid). And writing’s something that runs in the family, isn’t it?

“Yeah, my sister is a writer (Maile Meloy, a fiction writer often published in The New Yorker and The New York Times). She kind of started that off for the two of us. Yeah, that’s been a lot of fun, and something I’d like to get back to once this tour is wrapped up.”

Supper’s Ready: The Decemberists’ opt for well done, again (Photo: Holly Andres).

For ticket details of The Decemberists’ November dates across Europe, head here. For the latest from the band, head to their website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and TwitterAnd for all the latest from Colin Meloy, try his website and check out his Facebook and Twitter links.

 

 

 

 

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The Men They Couldn’t Hang, still on the loose, avoiding the noose – the Phil Odgers interview

Guitar Man: Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers in live action at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (Photo: Peter Stevens)

Listen to Cock-a-Hoop, the new record by The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and you get an album by a band sounding as fresh today as when their first album was released in 1985.

What’s more, the subject matter of their particular brand of indie-folk (call it what you like – the music press went for cowpunk in the early days) is just as relevant. As I put it to co-vocalist/guitarist/founder-member Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers, there’s been a resurgence of sorts in more political folk lately. Is the time ripe for a Men They Couldn’t Hang revival?

“Ha! I always think the time is ripe for a Men They Couldn’t Hang revival! But we’ve suddenly fallen into some kind of legacy band territory, seen as the Godfather of folk-punk and all that. Some of the American bands of that ilk have nodded towards us, and even the likes of Mumford and Sons and people like Frank Turner.”

There’s plenty to write about today too. Having overseen Thatcher, apartheid and all that, we have the neo-right (call them what you like – fascists will do) making strong ground again, the rich getting richer while the world obsesses on immigration and border controls.

“Well, as Paul said when he was writing for this album, all the stuff from before – ‘Ironmasters’, ‘Ghosts of Cable Street’, ‘Shirt of Blue’ – they’ all equally relevant and have lost none of that meaning. And while Cock-a-Hoop is maybe not as blatant, there’s a very strong current there of political content and comment.”

Similarly, your voices seem to have added maturity too, after all these years.

“Oh, I’m amazed our voices have held up at all, after all the shouting, smoking and drinking! But I think we’re growing old disgracefully, which is good, and I think the sort of thing we’re doing means that we are able to continue doing things that don’t make us a laughing stock and retain a little dignity as well.”

Swill’s based in West London, where he’s been for much of the time The Men They Couldn’t Hang have been around, shifting barely five miles from the band’s Shepherd’s Bush roots.

“That was pretty much the meeting place for all the band. We were driven towards London and all hooked up there in the early to mid-‘80s, pretty much around a squat scene there.”

While born in Scotland, he was brought up with his brother – the band’s drummer, Jon Odgers – around Southampton, as was the case for prime songwriter Paul Simmonds, who Swill knew from college days. In fact, they were initially together in South coast punk outfit Catch 22. Were they cruelly robbed of fame in their own right?

“Ha! Yeah, we were talking about wanting to be in a band in 1977. Paul said he could play guitar and I said I could sing, and both of us were lying. Anyone can pretend they can sing, but guitar? You have to brush up very quickly and learn three chords. But that was a really great time, and we supported The Clash in Bournemouth, doing two dates on the 16 Tons tour.

“We did Portsmouth first, with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones watching us from the side of the stage, then coming into the dressing room afterwards, asking if we’d like to do the next night. And they didn’t even have to ask! We certainly didn’t ask, ‘How much?’

“Then, a few years later, when I moved to London, I was in a pub in Westbourne Park with my Dad, who’d come up from Southampton to see me, when Joe Strummer happened to walk in, on his own. I went up and said hello, a little bit anxious, and he was so friendly and remembered those gigs.

“My Dad was even more impressed than I was. Even though he didn’t really know who he was, he could tell it was someone who meant a lot to me. And I was struck by how decent he was. That was a year or two before The Men They Couldn’t Hang started, around ’82 or ’83.

“And literally just before Joe passed away, our bass player, Ricky (McGuire, on board since Shanne Bradley left in 1986 following a short spell with The UK Subs), phoned and told me he’d had word that Joe (with The Mescaleros) was set to play Acton Town Hall, and Mick Jones might turn up. He said he had guest tickets and asked, ‘Did I want to come down?’ But I’d just become a Dad and felt I should stay in, go to the next one instead. Of course, there never was another one.”

Garage Band: Joe Strummer is behind the band as The Men They Couldn’t Hang play a special FBU benefit show in Notting Hill in 2012 (Photo: Peter Stevens)

The Men They Couldn’t Hang did get to headline a special memorial concert marking the 10th anniversary of that memorable Fire Brigades Union benefit show (Strummer’s last London gig) in November 2012 though, at Notting Hill’s Tabernacle. And when he sent me some pictures to go with this feature, Swill told me more about that night.

“Apart from The Men They Couldn’t Hang, also on the bill were Strummer’s friend and sometime-Mescalero, Tymon Dogg, Newtown Neurotics frontman, Steve Drewett and Clash tribute band, Take the 5th.

“Something amusing that stood out for me that night was that, for some reason, Paul, Cush and Tom’s guitars stopped working, and mine was the only one coming through the PA. I had to pass it around to whoever had the most important guitar part on each song.

“It struck me as ironic that this almost fitted in with a line from Joe’s lyrics to ‘Garageland’: “There’s five guitar players! But one guitar. Back in the garage…,” written by Strummer as a response to a review in the NME in 1976 by Charles Shaar Murray, who said The Clash were “the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately”. And we certainly sounded like a garage band that night!”

Garage band or not, it’ll be 35 years next year since the band’s own story truly began. So how was that first Easter ’84 festival performance in Camden at the Electric Ballroom? A fairly shambolic affair?

“Totally. Although, while you tend to think all those things in those days were, very occasionally a tape surfaces, you have a listen, and actually we weren’t too bad. But that one must have been. We didn’t even have a band as such. It was me and Cush, and I think there was Shanne, and we borrowed Andrew Ranken on drums and James Fearnley on accordion, from the Pogues.

“We really just pulled it together as more of a laugh than anything else, and it went so well. We did a set of just a few of our own songs, like ‘Walkin’, Talkin’’ and ‘A Night To Remember’, stuff like that, but also ‘Rawhide’, ‘High Noon’, ‘Just Like Eddie’ that we’d been doing busking.”

The latter track as in the 1963 Eddie Cochran tribute from Heinz?

“Yes, and funnily enough, I got mistaken for Heinz on the isle of Wight once, playing pool in a pub, way back!”

Early Days: The band as they were on the back of the Night of a Thousand Candles album in 1985, Swill sporting his Heinz Burt bleached look.

Funnily enough, looking at the band pic on the front of the debut LP, it’s Swill’s brother by that stage with the Heinz-like bleached hair. Incidentally, while I ended up selling a fair bit of my original vinyl, that album, along with follow-up How Green is the Valley and first single ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)’ I still proudly hold my copies of. Are they worth a bit now?

“Erm … I don’t know. They’re probably worth the cover price!”

Speaking of that first Phil Chevron-produced single for Elvis Costello’s Imp label (IMP003), the B-side was your title track of sorts, ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’. So what came first, the band or track name?

“Almost the same time, but probably the band. The track itself was just a bit of fun really. I was trying to imagine a story behind it. And the name sums up an image really, so I had this side of romanticising that image really.

“The name itself has been our blessing and our curse right from day one really. In fact, at one point when we still had a record company – we tended to be with one, make an album, then move on, there were a few times when a label would suggest we changed our name, and one suggestion was to The Men, to which we thought, ‘Bloody hell! The Men?’ And one label seriously suggested we changed it to anything, looking at the floor and saying, ‘Even ‘The Carpet Tiles’.’ Our manager also used to say it’s too long and how, for a poster, your name is always going to be too small.”

You say that, but you got around that nicely, coming up with that distinctive band logo pretty early on.

“Yes, and I’m proud to say that was me! I was working in Wandsworth as a paste-up artist. I cut up these letters, long before any kind of digital wizardry, just sort of stuck them all together on a piece of paper, photographed that, wanting to have the look of a something of a wanted poster thing. It’s been criticised in more recent years for not having the apostrophe in ‘Couldn’t’. But I can only say that it was deliberate! They didn’t have those apostrophes originally. Those posters were made out of woodcut in those days.”

There was that strong identity from the start with The Pogues, not least with Phil Chevron producing a lot of the early tracks. But your name and that of the other main band on at that first gig in Camden (also involving the Shillelagh Sisters and Hackney Five-0), The Boothill Foot Tappers, saw you categorised as part of some kind of skiffle-punk scene, if I remember right. What was the term the music press used?

“Oh God, there was skifflebilly and cowpunk. You almost had like two camps – with us and The Pogues more influenced by traditional music, while the Boothills and some of the others took more of a country inspiration.”

Men Only: From the WriteWyattUK personal vinyl archive (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Are you still in touch with members of either of those bands?

“Yes, Cush married Merill, one of the singers from the Boothills, and they have two children together, although they’re separated now, and I’m still in touch with James and Spider from The Pogues, and we’ve toyed with the idea of doing stuff together. I’ve just started a new Pledge campaign for a new album of my own, possibly with Spider involved next time he’s in London.”

Details of that Pledge campaign follow at the end of this feature, so we’ll get back to that. But carry on, Swill …

“It was difficult to remain friendly at some stages, with so much pressure put on us by others, almost creating a division. But we did a lot of gigs together and were very good friends in the early days,  borrowing equipment, until The Pogues got much bigger, going off travelling and playing bigger venues. But we’d still do occasional gigs together in Europe and come together at festivals.”

With this feature set to land on the 14th anniversary of John Peel’s passing, it seems apt to mention that I first heard ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)’ on his legendary BBC Radio 1 late-night show. I was still 16, and 17 by the time it reached No. 3 on 1984’s Festive 50. It struck a real nerve with me, and that must have been a proud moment for the band.

“Yeah, that was amazing to hear Peel playing our stuff. And as well as that, ‘Ironmasters‘ was in his Festive 50 the following year. He did us a world of good and I think we did three Peel sessions in the end. We never met him then, as they were recorded at Maida Vale, but we met on other occasions – gigs and so on.”

I’ll jump in there and confirm there were three Peel Sessions in 1984 and 1985, the first in July ’84 produced by Barry Andrews and featuring ‘Walkin’, Talkin’’, ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’, ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)’, and ‘A Boy Named Sue’. Meanwhile, the second was from February ’85, produced by future presenter Mark Radcliffe and featuring ’Ironmasters’, ‘A Night to Remember’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, and ‘Donald, Where’s Your Trousers’, and the third in July ’85, produced by John Owen Williams, featured ‘Shirt of Blue’, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, ‘Greenback Dollar’, and ‘Kingdom Come’. And all those sessions are fondly recalled by this here scribe. Anyway, keep going, Swill …

“I always felt as a kid, listening to John Peel – and I wrote a song about this recently, and I’d have to listen with the covers over my head with this little transistor radio, otherwise my Mum would be telling me to turn it off and go to sleep – I’d dream about doing a Peel session, thinking if I’d ever get to do that, that would be it – I’d have made it and nothing else would matter. Then, a few years later, we did that, then did it again and again. And as many bands do, we owe an eternal debt of gratitude to John.”

Lining Up: The Men They Couldn’t Hang in action at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in April 2017 (Photo: Peter Stevens)

On a similar front, even if you’d split after two albums, you’d already have secured a special place for me. And while perhaps the Eric Bogle cover and splendid Paul Simmonds-penned, Stefan Cush-delivered tracks like ‘Ironmasters’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, ‘Ghosts of Cable Street’ and ‘Shirt of Blue’ were arguably recognised more, you were a key songwriter from the start, offering – for want of a better description – a less ranty side to the band, initially through tracks like ‘The Day After’, ‘A Night to Remember’, and ‘Parted From You’, all making an impression on my teenage self.

“And I suppose that’s what we’re saying about Cock-a-Hoop having a variety of sounds. I think that’s something that’s separated The Men from others of our ilk … and God, I said ‘The Men’ there! … I think it’s the fact that it has these different flavours, different personalities, and we’re not one-trick ponies.

“Going back to the very beginning, we were signed up by Elvis Costello, introduced to him by Phil Chevron, meeting Elvis at this gig, supporting him on his A Month of Sundays run at Hammersmith Palais, and he came to one of our gigs at the Clarendon in Hammersmith.

“He said he wanted to do a single, put to put out ‘The Green Fields of France’. The obvious one to go for was ‘Walkin’ Talkin’’, but he said with that we’d have a hit record, but a novelty one, and we’d be forever branded as this kind of cowpunk band. That’s why we ended up putting out this seven-minute anti-war folk song! But it became an indie hit.”

Good advice, although perhaps unlikely, and the album, Night of a Thousand Candles also proved a hit, and was certainly an important album for me. But that relationship with Demon/Imp set a trend, lasting just one album, follow-up How Green is The Valley arriving via MCA, while next LP Waiting for Bonaparte was on Magnet, the next two were on Silvertone, and so on (and space and time stop me from concentrating on anything more than the first two albums and the latest in this feature).

So, after the first album came that switch to MCA, your biggest label really, I guess. Did that mean a bit of money was suddenly coming your way (he asks, knowingly)?

“Not really. It just meant a much bigger budget for recording. If you watch The Comic Strip Presents … Bad News Tour (Channel 4, 1983), where they’re eating free food from the stand while making a promo video and someone explains it’s not free but comes from their money. It never dawned on us either!”

Are you still paying that contract off now then?

“We’re not paying it off, but they withheld royalties and we never saw those album royalities. And that’s almost like part and parcel of the times, with dodgy contracts and all that. But what it did do was elevate us from busking and signing on to be able to become full-time musicians.”

Whereas at one stage you’d have been happy enough recording Peel sessions.

“We would, and every record we made – probably still now – we thought could be our last. We’d never ever have imagined back then that we’d still be making records now, rather than settling down and having grandchildren!”

So, seeing as we’re doing anniversaries, it’s 35 years next year since you started out, 30 years this year since Waiting for Bonaparte, even 15 since The Cherry Red Jukebox, and five years since your own The Godforsaken Voyage solo venture.

“How time flies when you’re enjoying yourselves!”

It’s the career that keeps on giving.

“Absolutely. It doesn’t give out any money though. That’s the only thing.”

A few of us have still got some catching up to do though. Cock-a-Hoop is your 10th studio album, alongside all the compilations and live recordings out there, as well as the side-projects yourself, Paul and Cush have also been involved in. So where should those who have missed out start – buy the new album and work backwards, or start at the beginning?

“Well, if you were starting out now, I’m not sure where you’d start. Actually, I had an email from a guy today who signed up to my Pledge project, who said he lost all his belongings in a fire. He had an insurance pay-out but lost all his records and so on, including three of our records that he couldn’t find now, that thankfully I can now put his way.”

There will inevitably be times over a 35-year career where fans won’t have the money to shell out and keep up to date, for whatever reason. Also, over that period the nature of the music industry has changed immeasurably, heading back towards that old punk DIY approach to putting records out there. And you seem to have mastered that method over the years.

“Yes, and knowing what I know now … Like yourself (this scribe was responsible for Captains Log) I was involved with a fanzine back in Southampton, and there were so many of those things that people built up themselves and learned how to do themselves – from fanzines to independent record labels.

“Now, that same do-it-yourself ethos can be backed up by the technology to make that very competitive towards anything that the industry can produce – from albums to books – and they can all be done at home, on a computer or via outlets where you can directly liaise.

“While a lot of people complain about digital technology, you can be profitable and survive by selling fewer things by doing it yourself. But although lots of people know The Men’s name now – and it’s inevitable after all that time – we’ve never made money, so to speak. Yet we’ve got by, and it’s all been very pleasurable.”

And part of that indie approach is seen in the way Swill remains at the heart of the band’s marketing, not least helping ship out CDs and vinyl, with a personal touch.

“Yeah, I’ve been enthused by all that. I’m a little bit of a control freak at times and do like to keep a hand on things, but also think it’s good to have that connection, and I’ll also put a note in.”

Admittedly, I lost touch for a while, perhaps after the Domino Club album in 1990, when I was off on my world travels. It took me a while to catch up again, but that period included The Men supporting David Bowie on his Sound & Vision show for two appearances at Milton Keynes Bowl. How was that experience?

“Well, I’ll go back a little further, to when we were in a tiny club, Gaz’s Rock & Blues, around Soho in the West End, and Cait from The Pogues was also there, along with their manager, Frank Murray. We used to hang out there and knew each other, and then David Bowie rolled in one night. I remember him dancing with Cait and being very chatty and friendly.

“Then, fast forward to the Milton Keynes shows, which just goes to show the difference between the person and the entourage and the people in charge of all that. He arrived in a helicopter that landed in a nearby field, and was then taken by limo to a backstage area, almost like a small town really, that had to be evacuated so he could come in on his own, and nobody could look at him or talk to him, apart from my sister-in-law – Jon having just become a Dad – who was breast-feeding at the time and refused to leave.

“Also, on stage at the gig, during the last song I was aware of these footsteps of his – ‘X’s painted on for where he would stand on certain songs, for the lighting man. And for that last song we did ‘The Laughing Gnome’, a song Bowie didn’t really acknowledge existed most of the time. His crew were not impressed with us, but the audience loved it, and we had a lot of people who followed us from there.”

Despite seeing The Men (yep, I’m doing it now too) four times in the late ’80s, I’m ashamed to say I’ve not managed to get along to one of their gigs since Reading Festival in August ‘89. The time is clearly ripe for my next date.

“That was a good one though. Was that where it poured down with rain?”

Well, I remember yourselves, The Pogues, Billy Bragg, The Wedding Present, John Peel MC’ing, Frank Sidebottom, Mary Coughlan, Attila the Stockbroker … and yeah, there must have been rain, surely.

“They’ve been trying to make a documentary film about that particular festival year, featuring all the bands on that year. We’ve already done our bit.”

That May I also saw you in my hometown at Guildford Civic Hall, on the Silvertown tour. And this has only just come back to me, but were you playing The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ at the time?

“Yes, occasionally we’d pick up on a song and cover it over a tour, and we definitely did that.”

Prior to that, in November ’87 there was a night at Egham’s Royal Holloway College, with The Cropdusters supporting, which must have been just before the Waiting for Bonaparte LP came out.

“Yeah, that would be right. I remember that night, and The Cropdusters were mates of ours from around Hampshire way, and were always pretty wild. There would be a bit of competition between us at gigs as well, but friendly, y’know. We’d share the same dressing room, and there’d be some mad times.”

I enjoyed all those gigs, but you had something of a laddish following at that time. I’m not sure if that’s something you picked up on.

“Yeah, we’ve always had a very loyal crowd, but around that time … yeah, I suppose it could be called laddish. We had a lot of people travelling across Europe with us as well, and I was surprised sometimes, talking to some of them … they were nice people but sometimes their political views might be somewhat off in a different direction, around the times of Thatcher and so on.

“But some of those people stuck with us. And we still have an incredibly loyal following. I’m really impressed by that … constantly. But also in the last few years, I’ve noticed young people at gigs – from around 17 to early 20s, and talking to some of them afterwards, it turns out that they’re the next generation – either Mum or Dad or both were fans, and they’ve grown up on it. And that’s really great.”

That takes me back to my own introduction to the band. You fell at the right time for me. Politicised at an early age, although part of a mere minority of young socialists in largely middle-class Guildford, I was turned on by the politics of The Clash and The Jam, and then we had the likes of Billy Bragg and yourselves. And as an A-level History student, Paul’s songs of the early Labour movement, the Chartists, the anti-fascist marches of the first half of the 20th century, the Miners’ Strike …

“We sounded like your ideal band!”

You were, and it all seemed to fall right for me … or should I say left, first catching you live at the University of Surrey in May ’86, on the How Green is the Valley tour. Remind me, was Shanne still on board then?

“Yeah, and that was an odd one. We were touring Europe and the UK pretty extensively, doing long, hard tours in the back of a Transit van, then all crowding into tiny dressing rooms in little venues in Vienna or somewhere. It was quite difficult to be the only woman among all those sweaty blokes. It was a bit like one big family in that way, but as with families we’d probably feud a little as well.”

Despite the stops and re-starts, the side-projects and so on – Liberty Cage, Swill and the Swaggerband, etc. – it’s been a fairly solid line-up over the decades. Shanne left after How Green is My Valley, with Ricky coming in at that stage. But other than that, you all seem to still come back after the odd break here and there.

“Yeah, we’re a six-piece now, sometimes a seven-piece, and Ricky came in more than 30 years ago but some people still refer to him as the new boy! But Cush, Paul, Ricky and myself have been there more or less all those years, and now Jon’s back on drums for half of the gigs, another original.”

What’s more, Tom Spencer’s been on board for around a decade now. Has that given you added inspiration?

“Yes, and there’s also Bobby Valentino (the violinist and guitarist who also featured for The Bluebells, the Fabulous Poodles and Hank Wangford), a kind of unofficial member. Actually, Tom’s a mate from Acton way who was playing for other bands and came along on tour with us originally as a roadie and support act, joining us for a couple of songs. He’s been involved for the last 15 years or so, doing more and more, playing amazing lead guitar, banjo and back-up vocals, adding another flavour and another ingredient in there and very important to the final mix … to further that baking analogy!”

And now we have this mighty 10th studio album, Cock-a-Hoop, which I aim to write more about in a separate piece shortly (the internet may break if I add any more words this time around). But I’ll let Swill tell you a bit more for now …

“Most of the tracks were recorded at Kirsty MacColl’s family house in Ealing. Steve Lillywhite had designed and built a studio for her. It’s fantastic and we worked very well with Jim Knight, who produced the album and had produced my previous solo album.  It’s steeped in musical history and rumour has it that Kirsty’s original vocal to ‘Fairy Tale Of New York’ is on a reel-to-reel there somewhere … maybe it’ll come to light when the studio is, sadly, torn out early next year.”

In short, it’s been a long and bumpy journey for The Men They Couldn’t Hang, but they’re still managing to avoid the scaffold, still going strong, and I’m loving the new songs.

“Yeah, it has been a bumpy ride, but with The Men there’s never a plan really, and in terms of having a rough path to follow we did The Defiant a couple of years ago, funded by a Pledge campaign, which was absolutely brilliant, for an album heralded as being up there with our best and a return in some respects to an older sound, and we were really pleased with that and the reception it got.

“But coming to make another album, we were thinking it’s no point doing the same thing again, just serving up another helping of that. So in that respect, we had a slightly different agenda, and were also working with a producer we’d never worked with before. Also, Cush, Paul and I split the songwriting a bit more across the board.”

Cush rarely wrote songs in the early days.

“No, in fact he came to the studio very enthused, with these ideas for songs, working with our producer, Jim Knight, also our horn player … and we have a lot more brass on here than on previous albums.”

I was just listening to the track ‘Pone’ before I called, and that’s a great example of that approach.

“Absolutely. Bang on, and the great thing about that song in particular, on the tour we’ve just started, we’ve done acoustic sections for years now, live, and in the middle of the set we’ll do two or three songs acoustically. But on the last few shows Cush has been doing ‘Pone’ acoustically and it works totally like that as well.”

Always the mark of a good song. Strip everything down, and it’s still got it. No chance of replicating the horns live then?

“I don’t think we can afford to. We might do though. Maybe at the Borderline or somewhere. That’s another thing though. Some bands are very precious about sounding the same on stage as they do on a record, even to the extent of using backing tracks. But we’ve also been conscious of the fact that our live sound is going to be different to our recordings. We’re still like we were the first time we went into a studio, still playing around and getting great delight in that. And we’ve got people who prefer us live and others who prefer us on record.”

Crowd Pleasers: The Men They Couldn’t Hang mesmerise their audience at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in April 2017 (Photo: Peter Stevens)

The band announced on October 24th that forthcoming dates in Derby, Newcastle, Glasgow and London’s The Borderline (‘Friday, with very few Saturday still available’) had already joined Bristol and sold out, while tickets for Preston Guild Hall (Saturday, November 3rd, 01772 80 44 44 or this link), Birmingham Academy, Lewes Con Club and Norwich’s Waterfront Studio were still available but selling fast. For full details and more on new LP Cock-a-Hoop and the band, head to their website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

And for details of Phil’s Uke Town Pledge Music campaign, try this link and keep in touch with him via his website, Bandcamp, Facebook and Twitter links.   

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The Proclaimers / Jack Lukeman – Sheffield City Hall

Caledonian Swing: The Proclaimers, Sheffield City Hall, October 2018 (Photo: Molly Wyatt)

There was a rather understated vibe as Craig and Charlie Reid first took to the stage on Sunday night alongside their bandmates in Sheffield. But with The Proclaimers it’s always been about the songs first and foremost.

I’m not sure if they still get nervous – nerves are a good thing in these situations anyway – but while Charlie can at least partially hide behind his acoustic guitar, Craig looked more unsettled initally, no smile to break the ice, just that ‘head held high’ stance, launching straight into new LP title track, ‘Angry Cyclist’.

It’s a cast-iron opener (made from girders, perhaps), packing a mighty punch, perfectly illustrating our 21st century woes, those opening lines biting, this era truly kissed by the aura of an angry cyclist.

I’m writing this after my cross-Pennine return from South Yorkshire, Tommy Robinson’s latest attention-seeking court appearance hogging the news, blinkered grass-roots support taking me back to the lines, “Watch bigotry advance, give ignorance a chance, with fascists we will dance by and by”. Yep, that “old prejudice hasn’t gone, new energy drives it on” observation says it all.

Yet if that opening statement illustrates current reality, our Fife-born twins offer hope, and over the following 90 minutes showed a way forward, 30-plus years on the road and the skill needed to hone their songcraft ensuring that while the early tracks still hold true, the latter say all the more with added wisdom.

Stage Set: Waiting for The Proclaimers, Sheffield City Hall, October 2018 (Photo: Molly Wyatt)

The deep timbre of Irish singer-songwriter Jack Lukeman set the ball rolling nicely at a sold-out City Hall, a grand venue where an appreciative Yorkshire crowd helped bring the best out of their cross-border raiders. And at a time when divisional talk of lines in the sand and exclusion seem to be the norm, it’s important to stress that The Proclaimers are about no such thing, seeing their own support of independence in their homeland as about ‘joining a more civilised world on our own terms’ rather than breaking away.

As Charlie put it to me in early August, ‘I’m not really big on flags. It was never about that for me. It was about democracy, and is still about democracy, and I would hope it’s more about getting a more modern country.’ And on the night, his twin Craig told us, “I am what I am,” heart on sleeve as he launched into a statement from 2015’s Let’s Hear it For the Dogs, the Reid brothers’ manifesto further expanded before our first sing-along, those glorious duelling vocals truly warmed up – the early nervousness seemingly gone – as we headed into ‘Over and Done With’ and ‘Letter From America’.

Those two songs and many more were introduced to a new generation of fans via the feelgood splendour of the Sunshine on Leith film, and brought plenty of smiles on the night, my daughter – now studying in Sheffield – among them, part of a new generation duly inspired by timeless songs written before she was born. It’s been 31 years since I first heard the band live for the first time at Glastonbury Festival, and on vinyl via This is the Story, and they remain as powerful today, the Reids having grown into their faces and yet, like their second number, ‘Forever Young’.

With the film and stage musical concentrating on the first two albums, it’s easy to bypass the rest of a bulging song catalogue, but many a case was made for filling in gaps in the collection at the City Hall, not least through airing the band airing ‘Should Have Been Loved’ from 2003’s Born Innocent, before we returned to today and the boys’ latest love letter to their home city, ‘Streets of Edinburgh’. And this is no rose-tinted portrait, but one conveying ‘an air of sordid passion’ and ‘a look of dirty grace’, our tour guides still living there rather than reminiscing from affair, where ‘along these broken pavements I let my mind run free’.

With solid support from the Reids’ regular band – Stevie Christie (keyboards), Clive Jenner (drums), Garry John Kane (bass) and Zac Ware (electric guitar, pedal steel, mandolin) – we were back to more familiar ground for the majority on next number ‘Let’s Get Married’. And while it’s another original, I like to think there’s a 1994 nod to Al Green’s proposal 21 years earlier, the siblings’ great blend of soul, country and post-punk passion bubbling up beneath the surface.

Another Angry Cyclist highlight, ‘A Way with Words’, and 2012’s ‘Spinning Around in the Air’ also show the songcraft and showcase wondrously-intuitive harmonies, those masterly touches of creative introspection followed by a withering take on denominational division in 2015’s ‘What School?’

‘Sometimes it’s the Fools’ offers a new inspirational high, not least its resolve that “the thing to do, just for its own sakes, is to build a world that’s much less rotten, ‘cos in good time we’re all forgotten”. And after the bitter love song approach is neatly nailed on 2003’s ‘Hate My Love’ and ‘94’s ’What Makes You Cry?’ I’m transported back to 1987 again with the glorious ‘Sky Takes the Soul’ before ‘A Long, Long, Long Time Ago’, somehow more than a quarter-century old in its own right, but still so fresh.

Of course, they could easily close each show with the amazing ‘Sunshine on Leith’, a true classic of our times, but instead moved on to the celebratory title track of 2007’s Life With You, a renewal of vows as it were, while ‘Rainbow and Happy Regrets’ is another powerful ditty, somewhat anthemic, like a James Bond theme that got away. Maybe we need Sean Connery out of retirement for Sunshine on Leith II. Working title From Rosyth with Love, anyone?

You could take a (Forth) bridge back from that to first encore ‘Cap in Hand’, admiring the band’s afore-mentioned maturity over the years as you go. But before we got to the latter, we had three more crowd-pleasing moments, ‘I’m on My Way’, ‘I Met You’ and ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, to bring this impressive house down. And as the line goes on the night’s finale, ‘I never seem to notice time’ when The Proclaimers are about, Sheffield singing along loud and clear as ‘Make My Heart Fly’ was followed by ‘Joyful Kilmarnock Blues’, the band sending us home on a high, the best view of all still where the land meets the sky.

Band Substance: The Proclaimers, live the previous weekend at Blackburn's King George's Hall (Photo: Lynda McIntyre)

Band Substance: The Proclaimers, live the previous weekend at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall (Photo: Lynda McIntyre)

For this site’s August 2018 feature/interview with Charlie Reid, head here.

Remaining 2018 dates: October – 23 Leicester De Montfort Hall, 24  Southend Cliffs Pavilion, 25 Portsmouth Guild Hall,  27 Bath Forum, 28 Brighton Dome, 29 Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31 Cambridge Corn Exchange; November – 1 London  Palladium, 2 Coventry WAC, 4 Manchester Opera House, 9/10 Edinburgh Playhouse,  5 Dunfermline Alhambra,  16/17 Glasgow Academy,  22 Perth Concert Hall, 23  Inverness Leisure Centre, 24  Aberdeen BHGE Arena, 29 Ipswich Regents Theatre,  30 Basingstoke Anvil; December – 1 Hastings White Rock, 7 Belfast Ulster Hall, 8 Dublin  Vicar Street, 13 Motherwell Town Hall, 14 Stirling Albert Hall, 15 Dundee Caird Hall. For further information, head to the official website or keep in touch with the band via Facebook and Twitter

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Open return to Guildford – Hugh Cornwell, back on the line

Monster Riffs: Hugh Cornwell at the Tivoli, Buckley, in 2016 (Photo copyright: Warren Meadows)

With a new LP out and an accompanying tour next month, Hugh Cornwell is commuting between his Somerset home and a few old Surrey haunts at present, getting his band truly match-fit.

And it turns out that the former Stranglers lead vocalist/guitarist has been back to his Guildford roots, from where the band that made his name first emerged 44 years ago.

“The band members I play with live and work in that area, and I’ve been rehearsing with them. We’ve still got the final polishing to be done.”

His current bandmates are tutors at the town’s acclaimed Academy of Contemporary Music, although –  as I pointed out – he was with Chris Bell (drums) and Caroline Campbell (bass) when I saw him at Preston‘s 53 Degrees back in 2013.

“Ah, yes. That’s absolutely right. Well now, I have Windsor McGilvray, an exceptionally-talented drummer with an exceptional work ethic, who I first found when he was 21 years old and had just graduated from that college. He played with me for around five or six years, then Chris came in, and now Windsor’s back.

“And the bass player is now Pat Hughes, again very good, And the thing is that both sing like birds, which means we can capture those three-part harmonies quite easily.”

Despite making his name in a four-piece, Hugh’s long been a fan of the classic trio, something going right back to his love of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

“You can do amazing things with it, and it leaves those bits of space, which I like. And voices – I think people under-estimate what you can do with backing vocals. The Who were fabulous with that, and I’m a fan of all that.

“And with the Stranglers songs we’re playing, we have to be a bit original, with creative arrangements … but no one’s complained yet.”

Three’s Company: Monster Riffs: Hugh Cornwell with Chris Bell and Caroline Campbell at the Tivoli, Buckley, in 2016 (Photo copyright: Warren Meadows)

When I saw him touring Totem & Taboo tour five years ago (with my review here), he followed each track off that fine album with a Stranglers oldie, and it proved to be a great fit. But he’s trying something different this time.

“Well, it made sense to have input to both catalogues. But this time around I’m being very brave. I’ve got two sets – the first is about half of the new LP plus selections from my other solo albums, and then we’re going to take a little break, then ram Stranglers down their throats!  We’re genning up on a lot of Stranglers stuff, so we’ll be able to give a good hour of Stranglers at the end.”

Including a few more obscure choices?

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s the first time I’ll ever have done a set with just my solo stuff in it. I’ve always done that mixing before. But because there’s a new album and we wanted to concentrate on that, that’s going to be the first thing.”

Last time he toured, earlier this year, was with another great three-piece, Wilko Johnson’s band. And Wilko’s an inspiration to us all, yeah?

“Absolutely. Incredible.”

And his band’s not so shabby either.

“Wonderful guys. Very talented.”

And before that Hugh joined forces for a tour and album alongside legendary punk poet/comic John Cooper Clarke.

“Absolutely fantastic. John’s a gent, and has quite a good voice. We were astounded how he went to it like a duck to water. He was so in his element, singing with us. It was great.”

The first track aired from the new album, impressive title track, ‘Monster’, has a bit of a rock’n’roll feel, I reckon. Was that a case of you still being in the zone after your collaboration with JCC on the This Time It’s Personal album project?

“Well, you get a bit of that when you don’t put keyboards on. Soon as you take them out of the equation, you’re back to the classic rock situation set-up. So it’s bound to do that, but it wasn’t intentional. If a song’s good though, it should stand up either very little done to it, and that’s something I’ve tried to stick to.”

Well, you proved that with the raw and rather stark feel you got on Totem & Taboo, through working with acclaimed engineer Steve Albini.

“Yeah, absolutely … with as little over-dubs as possible.”

Any other artists still on your ‘I’d like to work with them’ list?

“Oh … let me think. Yeah, loads of people. I won’t go into names, but you never know. Something might crop up.”

After 45 years playing music, does Hugh think he might have hacked life as a biochemist, as he studied?

“Mmm. I don’t know. I think I’d have got bored. I like travelling, it’s in my blood. That’s what this job entails, and it suits me, doing this.”

Monster Calls: The 1955 movie It Came From Beneath the Sea was another with technical effects by Ray Harryhausen

Monster Calls: The 1955 movie It Came From Beneath the Sea was another with technical effects by Ray Harryhausen

Touching on your studies, I can see you there in the lab in your white coat, which takes me (somehow) on to you creating Monster. The title track is about Ray Harryhausen, who you call ‘an inspiration for fantasy film-makers throughout the world’. He was responsible for so many memorable pre-CGI, painstaking stop-frame special effects on movies from the era of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) through to ’60s classics like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), First Men in the Moon (1964) and One Million Years BC (1966), right on to Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in the year of ‘No More Heroes’ (1977) and Clash of the Titans in the year you recorded ‘Golden Brown’ (1981). Was he … erm, a hero to you?

“Oh absolutely, and not just me. Something I like about him is that I found out that his father took him to see King Kong when he was about seven, and when he came out of the cinema, he said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up’. Just like that. And that’s what he did. That’s amazing, to be so convinced, know what you want to do with your life, and should be an inspiration to us all.”

Don’t take this the wrong way, but the title track of the album, particularly regarding your clipped kind of approach on the main vocal, makes me think Suggs and Madness could cover this track.

“Oh, I see. Well, that’s a good idea. Maybe they should cover it.”

That would pay for a few more recording sessions, maybe.

“Let’s hope so. Yeah, that’d be good. I’d never thought of it like that. Thanks for the idea!”

And, going back to the theme, cinema’s had a big effect on you, not least with a little acting in the past. Was that the dream as a child – a life in the movies? I’m wondering where else your ambitions might have taken you.

“I haven’t done it for a very long time, but I love films and getting involved in all that. Actually, I’m just getting involved in a feature at the moment. I doubt if I’ll be on that side of the screen, but I love all that, and for me, movies are the ultimate escape.”

Talking of your creative pursuits outside music, are there any more novels in the offing?

“Yeah, I’m on two at the moment, one’s almost there – it needs another rewrite – and with the other I’ve only just started. It’s just finding the time to do it all, fitting it around music.”

Any hints about the one that’s nearly done?

“It’s science fiction, set within the next 30 or 40 years. All sorts of things have happened. A bit of a noir thriller, set in the future.”

Meanwhile, although this tour is an electric affair, the Monster album is a record of two halves (or maybe four quarters). So what was the idea behind Restoration, the second LP included, featuring 10 acoustic Stranglers tracks recreated in the studio?

“I’ve been out doing acoustic tours regularly these last 10 years, every couple of years, and over that time I’ve found an amazing number of old Stranglers songs – some quite unusual ones – that fit really well with just acoustic guitar and voice.

“The record company said, ‘Why don’t you commit some of those to a record’. And although I’ve done acoustic albums live, I’d never recorded myself in a studio doing things acoustically. I like doing things I’ve never done before, so I thought it was a great idea.

“And I tell you what, I went in and it took me almost as much time to make it as it did to make Monster, but it was very enjoyable. I’m very pleased with it, and maybe some Stranglers people will find it interesting.”

Speaking of which, it’s now a staggering 28 years since he left that amazing outfit after 16 memorable years. That kind of puts it into perspective.

“It does indeed. Amazing.”

There’s 44 years for starters, and before that there were your days with Johnny Sox, your first as a bona fide live performer.

“Oh God, yeah, that was ‘73/’74, and those were all different phases and all part of my plank-playing* history that I’ve learned something from. I learned from playing with Johnny Sox and learned from playing with Stranglers.”

(* I think he says ‘plank-playing’ there. It certainly sounds like it. I may be wrong of course, as I have been with some of his lyrics over the decades)

I think we all did.

“Ha! Yeah, it’s interesting looking back at it all. It’s been a long and chequered past.”

And what an amazing legacy. That said, I wonder if while fielding these calls you start a stopwatch to see how long it is before there’s a mention of that band who made your name … and I don’t mean Johnny Sox.

“Ha ha! Well, you know … it’s to be expected.”

Any words with JJ Burnel, Dave Greenfield or Jet Black of late?

“I don’t keep in touch with them. They do their thing and I do mine, y’know.”

It’s sad to see Jet’s had his health problems of late.

“Well, he’s not playing, which is unfortunate and rather sad. Imagine being told you can’t do what you’ve been enjoying doing for the last 30 or 40 years. That must be a shock. So I hope he’s managing to fill his time.”

Perhaps for old time’s sake you could get back over to him, take one of his vans out, make a few quid selling ice creams to help top up his pension.

“Ha ha!”

Next year marks your 70th – is that an important one to you? Or is that too far ahead to think about?

“I’m not a big man for birthdays. They just come and … if you have too much time to think about them it means you’re not busy enough.”

Finally, I reminded Hugh how he was one of my very first interviews for this website, after leaving journalism and going it alone, back in the summer of 2013. And I told him how part of the way through our conversation, he told me to stop interrupting so he could answer the questions properly. He didn’t actually tell me to shut the fuck up, but as good as did. I was kind of shocked at the time, but he probably had a point.

This makes him laugh, and I share with him that maybe I was trying too hard to impress upon Hugh that I knew my stuff and had been a big fan of his work over the years.

“Yeah, probably … over-enthusiastic!”

I don’t doubt it. Well, hopefully it’s been better today then.

“Sure, it has. It’s been lovely!”

Live Presence: Hugh Cornwell in action at the Tivoli, Buckley, in 2016, with Caroline Campbell on bass (Photo copyright: Warren Meadows)

For this website’s November 2015 feature/interview with Hugh Cornwell, head here.  And for the July 2013 writewyattuk feature/interview with Hugh, head here. For a July 2014 writewyattuk interview with Jean-Jacques Burnel, head here. And for a March 2015 writewyattuk interview with Baz Warne, head here.

Hugh’s Monster Electric UK tour opens at Chinnerys in Southend (Thursday, November 1st) and runs through to Brighton’s Concorde 2 (Sunday, November 18th), including visits to my own patch at  Manchester’s Club Academy (Saturday, November 3rd, 7pm, £22) and Clitheroe Grand (Saturday, November 10th, 7.30pm, £20). For a full list of dates – including four shows in Ireland in late November – and ticket details try 08444 780 898 or this link

For more about Hugh Cornwell and his new album, Monster, head to his website. You can also keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter links. ​

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In off the Rebound – the Eleanor Friedberger feature

Rebound Sound: Eleanor Friedberger, heading back to Europe (Photograph: Chris Eckert)

Before I even ask Eleanor Friedberger a question, I’m being heckled by her Dad about cricket. I’d expect sledging from Australians, but not someone from Chicago, Illinois.

Turns out he’s originally from Northamptonshire, picking up on where I was calling from, alluding to Lancashire’s relegation from the County Championship top flight. Not as if Northants’ form was anything to write home about this season. As a Surrey boy, I might have countered with something about a 19th title and an already-bulging trophy cabinet. I’m not one to gloat though. Honest.

Closer to the subject, I’ve learned that Eleanor’s grandmother was a musician and choir director at a Greek Orthodox church, with at least three female generations showcasing musical talents.

“Mum’s American, but her family’s Greek, and I started going with her over 20 years ago, regularly for family holidays, then about eight or nine years ago started playing shows in Athens and developed a great network of friends there. And in early 2017 I stayed for a month, doing the same later that year, getting a group of guys together as a backing band, playing a bunch of shows.

“I went with the idea that I was going to write an album there, but ended up messing around a lot as well as taking Greek lessons and developing friendships, which was good for when I came back to write the album.”

That exhaustive groundwork – nice work if you can get it – eventually led to Eleanor’s acclaimed fourth solo LP, Rebound, following eight treasured albums with her brother Matthew, four years her senior, in indie outfit The Fiery Furnaces. Apparently though, she hadn’t written so much of the latest record before visiting a Greek club of the same name, described as ‘an ’80s goth disco where everyone does the chicken dance’, discovering therein what resembled a Mediterranean knock-off of  The Cure or Joy Division, which Jonah Bromwich, reviewing the record for Pitchfork, reckons ‘imbued the new record with that spooky, dancy vibe, lacing its gentle psychedelia with a dash of foreboding’, with the ‘bleached, hazy feel of a sun-damaged Polaroid with a blurred figure in the corner’. Well put.

Eleanor was born in Oak Park, Chicago, 42 years ago, and that was there I found her ahead of a show at The Empty Bottle. She resides in Ulster County, New York, these days, between travels with her music, but is very much a citizen of the world. No borders or phoney walls for this gifted performer, who was set to complete a 17-date North American run when I got in touch, a show the next day in Detroit followed by a flight to London.

“Yes, it’s kind of hard to believe we just drove across the country in two days. And before that there was rather a dramatic ending with a van I’d been driving for the last 15 years, hoping it would get me around the country one more time, but I ended up leaving it in Los Angeles. So I’m going to have to go back and most likely sell it in California.”

Hot Stuff: Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger in their formative Fiery Furnaces days (Photograph: Ken Hively)

So, next up is the European leg of her tour, with eight UK shows followed by 10 more in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Spain and, fittingly, Greece.

“I’m playing with yet another band, a few Welsh guys, rehearsing in Cardiff for a week. They’re in various bands, and I met one through Cate Le Bon. He plays in her band. I’ve been clued into this whole Welsh scene, I guess, since The Fiery Furnaces opened for Super Furry Animals quite some time ago. It’s a pretty small scene, but all incredibly talented musicians. I’m lucky to play with them.”

The first date is at Oslo in Hackney, getting on for two decades after Eleanor had a brief stint in London before moving to New York and co-founding The Fiery Furnaces.

“Dad’s English and I have dual-citizenship, with family living in West London. I went as a teenager and a cousin took me up to Camden when I was 16, and had it in my head that I wanted to try living there. I did, after college, wanting to work on a film or on a TV set as a PA or something. That never worked out, but I found a cheap place to live in Camden, went into a University of London student centre, saw a notice-board and got a room for £55 a week with a bunch of medical students.

“I then wandered down the street into a health food store and was hired on the spot, working there and making a bunch of good friends, seeing a lot of music but not playing music. That was in 1999. I wasn’t hanging around with musicians, but I did see a huge amount of music, and it was a great place to live, in the centre of town. I could walk anywhere, it was a really great time.

“Some of my best friends I made were Swedish, and one was very encouraging. In fact, first time I ever played music in front of anyone was when I went that following summer to visit them in Stockholm. He kind of forced me to play in front of people in a bar.”

Was that a nerve-racking moment, or fairly natural for you?

“A bit of both. I was really nervous but I did feel it was something I had to do. It’s pretty natural, although it’s good to have a few butterflies. I feel pretty comfortable on stage, and sometimes the more awkward the situation the more comfortable I feel!”

On this latest visit – not least seeing as I’m posting this during National Libraries Week – Eleanor’s UK dates include a Get It Loud in Libraries show in Lancaster, part of an initiative dating back to 2005 showcasing emerging acts, delivering more than 240 library shows in the North West of England since 2005, reaching 30,000 or so punters, some of the more high-profile names involved – in Lancaster alone – including Adele, Bat for Lashes, Camera Obscura, Ellie Goulding, Florence and the Machine, Jessie J, Plan B, Robert Forster, The Thrills, and past WriteWyattUK interviewees Ian Broudie and James Walsh. But has Eleanor ever played a public library before?

“That’s a good question. I wonder if … I definitely played somewhere in Princeton University, New Jersey, where I’m pretty sure we played a library there.”

Were public libraries important to you growing up?

“Oh my gosh, yeah, very much. I was lucky to grow up in a place that had a very good public library, and that was just part of regular life. A thing to do – just go in there and check out books. My Dad’s a historian, my Mum’s a big reader, and my brother has basically a bookstore’s worth of books.

“So there have always been lots of books around. And going to libraries, spending time with Dad, he’d be off going to different university libraries, and I’d spend a lot of time hanging out there.”

The UK leg includes two Scottish dates, my excuse to skate on thin ice and mention Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Eleanor Put Your Boots On’, written in her honour by Eleanor’s ex, Alex Kapranos. I guess she gets asked a lot about that song.

“Uh-huh.”

Is she still in touch with the band?

“Not so much, no.”

Is it nice to have songs written about you?

“Erm, of course it’s nice. But I’ve had several songs written about me. That’s just one, y’know.”

She laughs at this, but I get the feeling the matter’s closed so I move on, back to her student days. Before London there was Austin, studying film and American Studies at the University of Texas. Was she writing back then?

“I did very briefly, when I first started playing and I’d just got a four-track recorder, but I didn’t take it very seriously when I was in college. I was dating another musician. I don’t know if I was living vicariously by him or something. But it was really formative, being with somebody who was touring and making records on a real label.

“I got to see that first-hand, so maybe without knowing it I was learning about the other aspects of being in a band aside from the writing, and learned a lot from that experience.  And Austin was an amazing place to see live music. I could see bands four or five times a week.”

When you moved to New York City, was Matthew already established there?

“No, it was the other way around. I moved there first. He came maybe nine months later. I’d already started playing with a friend I’d gone to university with, and he joined us.”

Did the two of you already have the idea of the band?

“It’s hard now to really remember. When I came back from living in London, we started writing songs by me kind of telling him stories. I remember telling him one and he said, ‘That’ll make a good song’, and that was the first we wrote.

“I think he just saw me playing and … I don’t remember who asked who, but he was the best musician I knew, so it made sense to ask him to play with us. There was no scheming master-plan though. It was more like, ‘All these other people are doing this, we can do just as well as them.”

And the records you made together still sound so fresh listening back. You were fairly prolific too. Was that work ethic always there?

“Yeah, now it seems kind of shocking that I’ve been making records on my own for seven years, almost as long as The Fiery Furnaces, and we made eight albums or something.  I don’t know where that work ethic comes from. I’ve been lucky I haven’t had to have another job, and I’ve just plugged away at this.”

Was it an emotional finale at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona in 2011, or just a story put on hold? I think you’ve used the term ‘hiatus’.

“Yeah, we hadn’t played in a year when we did that show. It wasn’t something we discussed, but it was a festival we always wanted to play. But to be honest I was already on to my solo work. It wasn’t a sombre time. We had other things to do.”

Was it inevitable that you were always going to go it alone?

“I don’t know about that. It’s easy to say in hindsight.”

I’m guessing that decade or so together gave both of you confidence to move on, do your own thing.

“For sure. I don’t know if I gave him that, but he certainly gave me that.”

Four solo albums followed those eight studio LPs with her brother, the first of which was Last Summer in 2011 for Merge Records. Was that a case of hitting the ground running? And were those songs already fully-formed?

“Yes, that was slightly similar to the album I’ve just put out. I made all these demos first, and started using GarageBand on my computer for the first time. I hadn’t made home demos since using a four-track recorder.

“So for me that was re-learning how to do that, having fun and a few drinks at night, hitting ‘record’ and seeing what happens. It was a lot of fun and gave me the freedom to improvise lyrics and then decide to keep them.”

Three more critically-acclaimed albums have followed, namely Personal Record (2013), New View (2016), and this year’s fine offering, Rebound. Does she see each as a certain moment in time, telling her story, snapshots of her life along the way, or is she too close to the subject to tell?

“I do see them that way. I see them all far too clearly! I don’t know how much to give away in terms of explaining what it is, but I know exactly not only where each album comes from but each song and each line.”

After the more guitar-centric focus and band feel of the splendid New View, it took me a couple of listens to get to grips with the new long player, but it’s a winner all the same. And while opening tracks ‘My Jesus Phase’ and ‘The Letter’ suggest a seemingly-deeper, somewhat darker feel to Eleanor’s songcraft, the next three tracks appear to define the more airwave-friendly sound of this latest record – the catchy summer soundtrack of ‘Everything’, ‘In Between Stars’ and ‘Make Me a Song’ all good indicators of what Heather Phares of allmusic.com calls ‘literate electronic pop’. But if we can fill the charts with something classy, why not? Even then though, Eleanor can’t resist occasional gear changes into more complex structures.

On side two, the more reflective ‘Nice to be Nowhere’ takes us back where we were, guitar again breaking through a warm sea of synth, while further in another highlight, ‘Are We Good?’ further showcases an inventive approach and appreciation of a great hook. And while the influences aren’t overtly Club Med, this is the sound of an engaging singer-songwriter showing and telling what she did on her holiday, on a largely reflective set of songs.

On the subject of that progression from record to record, I suggest to Eleanor this is perhaps her most commercial record to date.

“Oh gosh, I have no idea.”

I’m guessing that’s not something you set out to achieve then.

“No, and to me it doesn’t sound that way. That’s cool, but I don’t even know what would make it that. So much of it was recorded by myself at home, and we used a lot of that. So to say it sounds commercial is so funny, because it was definitely lo-fi.”

Maybe it’s just that’s it’s more synth-led than guitar-oriented (and there’s that characterful rich vocal too, of course).

“Well, it’s funny that drum machines and synthesisers equate to what’s more commercial … but I guess that makes sense.”

I’ll put it another way. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I see a couple of those singles more on a par with a Sharleen Spiteri release because of your voice, straddling that pop world (perhaps even with ’70s hints of Carly Simon, I thought later), than maybe the more Aimee Mann-like craft of the records that came before (I say that with something like New View’s splendid ‘He Didn’t Mention His Mother’ in mind).

Athenian Ending: Eleanor finishes her tour with a special performance of Rebound in its entirety at Stavros Niarchos Hall in Athens on November 26th, accompanied by the Hellenic EFG and a string quartet.

“OK.”

She’s clearly not going to give me more on that, so I ask instead who she feels have been her biggest influences in recent times.

“You’d be surprised, I guess. I had this experience doing shows in conjunction with the Andy Warhol Museum, and we did a show at the Barbican in London a few years ago, so someone like Martin Rev from Suicide. It’s not Aimee Mann, but maybe someone more like him … and his attitude. I saw him sing the song ‘Kansas City’, like karaoke, and that to me was a big moment.”

Eleanor’s involvement in the Exposed arts project involved live-scoring previously unseen Warhol films. How did she end up getting on board?

“Dean Wareham, who was in Galaxie 500 and Luna, did a project scoring Andy Warhol’s screen-tests. That went well so he was asked to curate another project, and he chose four additional musicians – me, Tom Verlaine from Television, Martin from Suicide and Bradford Cox from Deerhunter. We were each assigned three films and made music for them.”

Well, that sounds like a super-group and a half to me.

“Yeah, it was pretty amazing.”

And she’s worked in various fields for quite some time – from that film-scoring and regular podcast guest appearances to house-band roles on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, advertising for Italian fashion label Miu Miu, and work with multi-media artist Doug Aitken’s experimental train project and subsequent film, Station to Station. Is this how to get by in this day and age, or just a case of variety making it all work for her?

“A little bit of both. It’s fun, and I wish I could be even more diverse in the things I could do. It’s fun to get to work with different people, because usually it’s a kind of solitary existence. I’d love to do more quirky projects if I could.”

Corner Shot: Eleanor Friedberger, all set for her next set of UK dates (Photograph: Chris Eckert)

Rather than just you and an acoustic guitar in the bedroom?

”Yeah, that’s pretty tiring.”

And when you do get home, that’s  in Ulster Country, New York. Tell me about that neck of the woods.

“It’s about 75 miles north of Manhattan, and a part of the world people from New York City have been moving to forever. There’s this famous beat-writer, Diane Di Prima, who lived in the town very briefly, and wrote even then – in the ’50s – that it was becoming over-populated. I live kind of close to Woodstock too, which is still seen as this creative hub. So I’m close to the city – about a two-hour drive – but it feels like a different world, and it’s a lot more affordable to live there.”

And what do you miss most about home when you’re out on the road?

“Erm … my bed! I don’t miss too much though. I don’t know what the characteristic is, but it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I try to be in the present and don’t think about that stuff too much.”

Four Sure: Eleanor Friedberger now has four solo albums behind her (Photograph: Chris Eckert)

For Lancaster Library tickets (Saturday, October 27) try this link and for other dates head here.  And for more on Eleanor, try her official website, or via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

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Happy families seek Wanderlust – Neil Arthur’s continuing Blancmange adventure

At a time when international debate and key government policies are focused on borders and freedom of movement, it’s clear to see where Neil Arthur stands and draws his lines.

High-ranking pop chart success may be behind the sole survivor of 1980s hit-makers Blancmange, but there’s still plenty of deserved acclaim, adulation and appreciation afforded this Gloucestershire-based Lancastrian’s stunning body of work. And new LP, Wanderlust, continues that creative discourse, 36 years after debut album, Happy Families.

If there’s an over-riding theme to his new record, a set of 10 songs composed by Neil and arranged, co-produced and mixed with Ben Edwards, aka Benge (Wrangler/Creep Show) at the latter’s Memetune Studios in Cornwall, it involves the title’s subject matter – that strong desire to travel, be that a personal or political journey. And believe you me (as we say in Blancmange circles), he’d much rather you interpret its meaning than himself.

But before we get to all that, how’s his adopted Gloucestershire today?

“It’s absolutely beautiful. I had a fantastic walk this morning, way out, walking the dog with the missus. I’m back in work now, in the studio. I’ve just cycled up a very steep hill, doing a few errands.”

As many of my conversations go these days, we soon got on to dogs, Neil telling me a Blancmange-related not-so-shaggy dog tale involving his Parson Russell Terrier, Audrey, a ‘feisty lady to say the least’.

“At another studio I had, I was working on one of the Blancmange albums, had done the main vocal and was adding backing vocals, layering them up, with headphones on, then I was listening back and hearing this weird noise. I isolated every track, working out what I’d picked up on there, going through the guitars, synths and then vocal tracks, and on every chorus the bloody dog’s joining in!

“I put about four tracks down, and she joined in … Audrey the dog, singing along. She still does. When we sing happy birthday to friends and relatives, she joins in. She’s got a better voice than me.”

Looking Up: Blancmange mastermind Neil Arthur (Photo: Piers Allardyce).

Did you leave her on the recording?

“No! It was too good. It was embarrassing. She was more in tune than I was. I had to sack her. I didn’t even know she was in the studio. They follow you around, and she snuck in there.”

While clearly loving life on the edge of the West Country, Neil headed further toward Land’s End to record again with Benge, as on last autumn’s wondrous Unfurnished Rooms and with the pair’s side-project Fader before that. What’s more, Wanderlust is his second album this year, after a collaboration with electronic solo artist Jez Bernholz on Near Future’s debut album Ideal Home in May. It’s also the fifth Blancmange LP since Neil’s musical partner Stephen Luscombe was forced by illness to stop touring and recording in 2011.

And the results certainly suggest that Neil and Benge had fun playing in the studio in Cornwall.

“Yeah, in all the darkness … It’s great, and I really enjoy working with Benge.”

Reading an Attack magazine interview with him, he said his studio there is kind of the complete opposite of the one he had before in East London.

“Yeah, and for me the opportunity to work with him is amazing. We get on really well. He’s an absolute expert on synths, engineering and mixing, and we understand each other and don’t step on each other’s toes but push each other to get the best out of one another and surprise each other. You don’t know what’s going to happen sometimes.”

Does David Rhodes, your touring guitarist, come in later?

“He only played on one track on this album, on ‘Leaves’.”

Well, there’s a beautiful big sound on that track. It’s a real builder.

Commuter 23: Neil Arthur, discovering yet another platform with Blancmange

“Yes, I wanted something quite dramatic for the choruses, and Benge got out not only electronic drums, but we ended up using real stuff as well, as a kind of overlay, and one of my reference points was a band called This Heat.

“I wanted something dramatic to empathise the simplicity of the vocal line and let it breathe a bit in the verses. That was one of the first tracks we recorded. And I ended up doing the other guitar – if you can call it guitar – as I’d written it. Benge said, ‘Let’s keep it. It works’. I’ve always written on guitar, but in terms of being a guitarist … maybe not. I’m nowhere near the standard Mr. Rhodes gets up to.”

That’s typical Neil – first denigrating himself as a singer, then as a guitarist too. Maybe it’s his Lancashire roots, not wanting to appear to be acting above his station. And talking of Lancashire, it appears that he couldn’t resist another return to his native Darwen and the Library Theatre on his forthcoming tour, on the back of a great night at the same venue around the same time last year.

“Absolutely. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m hoping I might get a wander up on the moors. Last time we had technical issues and I had interviews, and by the time we got through a soundcheck it was too dark … although I did venture forth to a local pub!”

This time he has a gap in the itinerary before his November 7th date there, heading straight on to Edinburgh, Glasgow, then Newcastle before another short break. In fact, he’s nudged his East Lancs show two weeks closer to the end of the year. It’s as if he wants to be snowed in for a couple of days, embracing a Northern winter.

“If that’s the case, I’ll definitely get myself up on the moors. I’ll have to dig out my Mum and Dad’s seat (up there) to sit on it amid a snowdrift.”

Switched On: Neil’s collaborator Benge gets to grips with his machinery.

He’s also tagged on six more dates next April and May, including further North-West dates in Liverpool and Manchester.

“Yes, taking in some of the areas we won’t be able to get to this time around, also including Birmingham, London, Sheffield, and a gig in Southend, a lovely one to do.”

I mention his Sheffield date, seeing as my eldest daughter is now there for university, Neil mentioning the ‘fantastic countryside surrounding it’, leading to me telling him that – like Rome – it’s a city surrounded by seven hills, something even mentioned in George Orwell’s classic 1937 sociological study of Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier.

“Ah, is it! Blimey, so we’ll be going to the Rome of the North and the Athens of the North (Edinburgh)! Yeah, there are a lot of dates, but it’ll be good fun.”

Seeing as we were talking about weather patterns back there, the LP’s lead single, ‘Distant Storm’, suggests to me a band maybe 30 years younger than the birth certificates suggest.  Think Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ given a Giorgio Moroder treatment. Come to think of it, throughout Wanderlust, Blancmange again prove that futuristic ’80s dance music remains relevant. In fact, good dance – from Fats Domino, Ray Charles and James Brown through – fails to age as long as you avoid recording fads and throwaway techniques that date songs, as ‘Distant Storm’ proves.

“Well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure. I thoroughly enjoy my work. It’s always been the case really, regardless of some of them ending up being hits in terms of pop music. Fortunately, we have an audience who are appreciative, and I hope it comes across. I try and be as honest as I can. I’m not trying to be anybody else.”

On the subject of that single, it’s not a wholly conventional Neil Arthur vocal, but mention of a car park (his East Lancashire tones coming through again) and ‘forensic detail’ prove to be a giveaway, Perhaps we have another incident, like on the last LP’s ‘We Are the Chemicals’, involving ‘a trading estate in Altrincham’.

“Ah, well, it might not be a million miles away. I’ve even name-checked Cheadle Hulme later! (on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’)”

The same goes for those shuddering bass-synth touches, which could neatly segue into old favourite, ‘Feel Me’ (not as if I’m looking to order his live set-list this time around).

“Yeah, there’s a bit of a groove on ‘Distant Storm’. When I started writing, before I went out to Benge, I got this idea in my head that the album was going to have quite a lot of dance tracks on it. I wrote a number of songs in that vein, and we ended up with a pool of material, then decided on which we’d work on. I wanted Benge to have a big input, and he chose the songs he wanted to work on.

“That effectively shaped what you hear – the 10 songs, although initially there were 17, which will all eventually arrive, some of which are already finished but ended up not being put on the album. ’Distant Storm’ was one of the very dance-y tracks, whereas others didn’t end up going on as we ended up taking a slightly different course.

“But with that, we ended up having a remix done by Kincaid, and that’s going down well, being played by DJs. Of course, the other thing about Kincaid is that he also happens to be my son, so it’s really nice to be working on a collaboration with my lad.”

Incidentally, Blancmange have reached new audiences of late via last year’s remix of ‘What’s the Time?’ (for Disco Halal) and a new collaboration with Kincaid, ‘Fat Head’, both tracks played by the likes of Ame (Innervisions Label) and Solomun. And talking of those dance music effects, we’re talking dreamy vocoder over moody Moogs on ‘Distant Storm’. I’ve always been suspicious of auto-tune type phasing, since Cher’s ‘Believe’ probably, something that winds me up about a lot of modern pop, but Neil’s quick to let me know that’s a whole different approach to his own.

“We’ve used vocoder on quite a few tracks before, and there’s quite a bit on this album. It just gives you a break from me really!”

If there’s a theme to this album, your press release suggests it’s where ‘wistfulness turns to anger; dislocation morphs into a powerful desire to be somewhere else, with a sense of someone fighting for forward motion, dreams, family and the joys of life while seeing … the pretence of a normal world being erased’. Is this Neil getting to grips with an uncaring, crumbling Government, this whole Brexit farce, and so on (not as if I’m leading him)?

“There’s certainly a lot of that, without a doubt. I wouldn’t even call this a Government. They’re careerists. They don’t give a shit about us. So yeah, there’s a lot of that, and I just absorb stuff going on around that you can maybe make stories from, make observations, including stuff I wish wasn’t happening.

“We should be concerned, without a doubt. I’m not standing on a bloody soapbox though. These are just songs – poetry with music over the top of it. And there’s other stuff on the album that has more to do with slightly more personal things, with an overview of a lack of empathy in the world.

“I was determined to get Rees-Mogg into one song, get the words in there and slowly unravel this thing. Instead of giving all the answers – which I’m still searching for – you leave a certain amount of ambiguity and people can make out of it what they want.

“But there are other songs, a lot about being a parent. You just talked about your daughter going to university, which is fantastic, but it also means she’s not at home, and you’ve got to let go. We’re not in a dissimilar position, and everybody goes through this in families. It’s the same the first day your child goes to school, or their first sleepover later, the first stages of letting go.

“You cannot control, and they have an absolute need to be a long way away from you in terms of the way a relationship changes. They must be their own person. And with the last track on the album, ‘Wanderlust’, that word’s the closest we can get to it, but another German word, ‘fernweh’, carries far more weight – about this absolute need to be away.”

That answers another question regarding that title track. The lady on the sample’s not saying, ‘Tenby wanderlust’ then? I felt for a moment it might be about escaping to South West Wales. It’s a lovely area after all.

“No, it’s not my place … well, it is. Each person has their own place they need to go. I used to go to Worm’s Head, not too far from there. Very beautiful. But I’m writing about my children and their need to be away, and I’m also in a situation where I’m observing it as myself – amid all the mayhem around me, with my own need to get away.

“But again, I’ll reiterate, I’m not on some bloody soapbox, and I don’t have any answers! It just seems that people in control are making a right pig’s ear of it, and this whole Brexit thing drives me absolute bonkers.”

Two Sides: 2015’s Semi Detached

It finally strikes me that the subject of ‘Leaves’ might be more political than I first envisaged, but Neil would rather we made our own interpretations of what that’s about. That said, he’s still on one.

“We’ve gone down a route where people are screaming because they don’t like something, But what’s coming our way is going to be a damned sight worse. I’d rather be at the table, talking, than locked out and no longer be able to.

“These are our neighbours! We’re all immigrants! We’ve got to come from somewhere. And after all the horror, all the difficulties, all the pain everybody’s been through in Ireland, for these people to talk so flippantly about it … it’s ignorance.”

Taking the album track by track beyond ‘Distant Storm’, there’s another nod to Blancmange’s pop past on the second number, ‘In Your Room’, to me the best Depeche Mode single I’ve heard in some years, somewhere between their own pop roots and later, darker material. A hit, in old money.

“Ha! Their dark minimal ways, yeah? Well, there’s no intention. I wrote that a number of years ago, and never found the right time to release it until now. Simply, (it’s about) when you’re with somebody and at one with them and at ease with them, the room is enough, not wanting to deal with what’s out there at that moment – out there, it’s all too much.”

I could say the same about track three, ‘I Smashed Your Phone’, which to carry on my earlier theme, could have been Ultravox’s finest ever single. Yet thematically it could be an alternative take on Gruff Rhys’ recent duet with Lily Cole on the gorgeous ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, a track I suggested Neil checked out after our conversation.

“The idea of that … well, you can’t even have a conversation these days without someone having a look at their bloody phone, like they’re umbilically attached to it … myself included at times. Also, it’s just that generational thing – the world changes and we like to think we understand it, but we don’t. You never know. I’m learning all the bloody time. The one thing I’m certain about is that I don’t know.”

And seeing out side one, you seem like you’re having a lot of fun in the studio with Benge on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’ and ‘Talking to Machines’.

“We had a fantastic time with those synths! We got a VCS3 out on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’. And on ‘Talking to Machines’ I put down drums, but because of the kind of stuff Benge has access to, we can go down so many different routes, so there’s loads of analogue drums and weird basses going on. And before that, on ‘I Smashed your Phone’ we referenced Ringo Starr’s drums on ‘Ticket to Ride’.

“For ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’, I got this idea for a story about social climbing at any cost, and the emptiness at its core to get where you want to be. I wanted this groove, having this reference in my head to ‘Love is the Drug’, doing it from memory rather than listening to that song.”

Debut LP: Blancmange’s Happy Families

Ah, now the gravel drive in the title makes sense.

“That’s why it came up, although it never appears in the lyric. With ‘Talking to Machines’, I love The Beatles but what I really liked as well was the Plastic Ono Band, so there’s a reference to that at times, in the type of production we went for.”

Neil’s wordplay and imagery hits another high on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’, not least that image of how, addressing his social climber, ‘Your record still stands for the longest scream of anyone falling off anything, anytime, anywhere’.  And musically that track strikes me as a theme tune to a timeslip movie set in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. There’s also a bit of Bowie in there for me, as is the case with ‘Talking to Machines’ and later, ‘TV Debate’. For me, all three could be out-takes from Blackstar. I put this to Neil, but he’s not going there.

“Blimey. I don’t think so. That’s very much a different world. He was an absolute genius.”

We briefly talk some more about Blackstar, Neil mentioning how its heart-searing final track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, references an earlier Bowie track, my interviewee going back to his online collection while I hang on the line, attempting to place it, despite the fact that his next caller is now due.

I soon hear Blackstar playing in the background, Neil crooning along, mentioning ‘the Midnight Cowboy mouth organ thing going on’, determined as he tells me, ‘I’m not going to let this go now. You’re going to have to bear with me. I will find it!’ He finally gets there, deciding on ‘Soul Love’ from 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, adding an emphatic, ‘Isn’t that fantastic, referencing one of your own songs! Unbelievable.

“As RCA put it for the launch of Heroes, ‘There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie.’ And that’s exactly how we saw it. He was out there on his own, and such a massive influence on all of us. And there would always be changes with Bowie! You didn’t have to stay the same – keep re-inventing and experimenting.”

Back to Wanderlust, and I meant to mention how the stabbing synth on ‘Talking to Machines’ reminds me of Soft Cell’s 12″ ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Where Did Your Love Go?’ mash-up, a dance tune within escaping. I was already way over my allotted time though, so moved on to mention our mutual friend Hannah Peel, who also worked with Benge in her days working with influential electronic pioneer John Foxx‘s band The Maths. She’s had another interesting year, I ventured, not least through her more recent work – along with her partner in The Magnetic North, Erland Cooper – with Paul Weller on True Meanings, her star continuing its rise.

And there’s certainly a pleasing vocal blend with Neil and Ms Peel on the chorus of side two opener, ‘Not a Priority’, a song about ‘people who are apparently not seen by others, who have a sense that you don’t count or are seen as not important.’ Again, there’s Blancmange’s balancing act between melancholy and hope for renewed self-belief, Hannah adding Star Trek-like ethereal chanting as well as harmonies. Or perhaps, with Neil painting a picture of ‘The sky at night glitching in the system’, it’s not so much Hannah as her alter-ego, the eponymous heroine of Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia.

“Oh! That was an absolute privilege. We asked Hannah if she’d sing on that song, and her contribution is huge. I’m very grateful, and she’s a really lovely person and an incredibly talented songwriter and musician.”

Next off, there’s the afore-mentioned Bowie-esque ‘TV Debate’, guitars finally breaking through on an often under-stated yet powerful number, featuring a series of channel-surfing images about contemporary politics and vacuous celebrity shows. And again the imagery is truly evocative. Then, beyond the beautiful build of ‘Leaves’, carrying on apace with where we left off on track seven – the end/leave line seemingly in sight – there’s ‘White Circle, Black Hole’, another track that really hit me from the first play, one I’m convinced I’ll be playing a lot more these coming weeks. A huge hit in any other decade, with a great hook, multi-layered yet truly accessible. And dare I mention it’s almost Vangelis-esque in parts? Somehow I’ll find my way home … from up there. With that in mind, not least after bringing in John Grant on the last LP, how about Neil enticing fellow East Lancastrian Jon Anderson out for an alternative version?

“Ha! We’ll have to have a chat!”

Mange Neuf: Neil Arthur is back with Blancmange’s ninth original studio album, Wanderlust.

Then, finally, there’s that electronically yet emotionally-charged finale, the spoken words and Neil’s poetic discourse evoking that longing to be elsewhere, craving new experiences, living for the moment. There’s sadness in what change can bring, but elation too at letting go and moving on. And musically, a nod to Kraftwerk, maybe?

“Not knowingly, but you know I like Kraftwerk. Probably more Neu if there’s a reference. Certainly German! But sometimes you don’t know in terms of referencing. It could be noises I’d heard in my sleep, which is where ‘Distant Storm’ came from. That’s something I heard in the night. It was actually my partner breathing. I couldn’t quite work out what it was. I was in that kind of in-between state.

“And ‘White Circle, Black Hole’, which is a bit like ‘I’ve Seen the Word’ in many respects, is actually about a repetitive nightmare I had when I was a child, but I try and sing it in a really nice way.”

So – with songs about the cycle of life, that craving to make sense of the modern world, and that continuing search for meaning – is this all aural therapy for you?

“Yeah, I suppose so, getting it out of my system!”

Ringing Endorsement: Neil Arthur, still waiting patiently for writewyattuk’s call

Malcolm Wyatt previously spoke to Neil Arthur for a March 2016 interview, with a link here, and in September 2017, with a link here. You can also check out a live review of Blancmange at Darwen’s Library Theatre from October 2017 here and the WriteWyattUK take on last year’s Unfurnished Rooms here

Wanderlust is out on October 19th on Blanc Check Records (BCR012), while Blancmange’s November tour calls at: Norwich Arts Centre (1st); Nottingham Rescue Rooms (2nd); Cardiff Acapela (3rd); Bristol The Fleece (4th); Darwen Library Theatre (7th); Edinburgh Voodoo Rooms (8th); Glasgow Oran Mor (9th); Newcastle The Cluny (10th); Brighton The Old Market (15th); Southampton Brook (16th); Dover Booking Hall (17th); Wolverhampton Robin 2 (22nd); Gloucester Guild Hall (23rd); Northampton Roadmender (24th); Leeds The Wardrobe (29th); Derby Flowerpot (30th). for more details, head to www.blancmange.co.uk You can also keep in touch with the band via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

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Everything’s coming up Rosy with Goat Girl

How high: Goat Girl, reaching up to the top right now. From left – Rosy Bones, Clottie Cream, L.E.D., Naima Jelly (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

After a delay while she was getting to New Cross on the train, Rosy Bones had reached the pub by the time I got hold of her late on Tuesday afternoon, visiting friends after a day of ‘admin’ and a visit to the Rough Trade offices with fellow Goat Girl bandmates Clottie Cream (vocals/guitar), L.E.D (guitar), and Naima Jelly (bass).

I’m not convinced those names will appear on the 2021 census, but it’s all I have for now.

Rosy, the band’s drummer, is based in Lewisham but grew up in South-West London, while her bandmates gravitate from East London, getting to know her via a happening South London music scene, ‘getting integrated into this thing’.

“We all went to the same gigs and like the same things. That’s how I met them, really.”

Which bands were they watching back then?

“Erm … Warmduscher, Meatraffle … Trashmouth Records’ nights every so often. There’s always a gig to go to.”

That takes me back to formative nights listening to John Peel in the ’80s, those not in the know always slightly amused or bemused by the odd names of bands we craved back then. Now, 30 or so years on, it seems that I’m the clueless one. Have I become that bloke?

The Windmill in Brixton was key to that whole scene, Rosy told me, and she’d soon joined the band that became Goat Girl, practising with them, with gigs around Peckham and New Cross too.

My excuse for speaking to her was an upcoming Manchester Gorilla date (Tuesday, October 23rd) on the band’s autumn UK tour. And it wasn’t so long ago, I pointed out,  that they were in nearby Salford for Sounds from the Other City.

”That was crazy. We had quite a fun day, although I’d twisted my ankle a couple of months before, then fell and re-twisted it. It was kind of mad. We didn’t expect the crowd we had. We were on really late, the only thing still on, and everyone seemed really drunk. It was a good crowd. Yeah, I really liked that festival.”

I’m not suggesting she’s accident prone, but the previous month Goat Girl had to postpone a date in Sheffield after an accident on a ferry from Dublin when Rosy had boiling water poured over the left side of my body. Ouch. Anyway, talking of festivals, how was Portmeirion and their No.6 appearance?

“Oh yeah, that was alright but a bit horrible with the weather, really rainy and muddy. It was all good, but we did a few gigs before that around the UK, and were a bit tired, with a lot of waiting around.”

What other festivals or other appearances stand out from this year?

“I think Green Man was probably the highlight. We didn’t play that well, but the crowd was really good. Loads of people were there, including friends. Another big moment was this festival in Zurich, with Kendrick Lamar playing. That was amazing. There was a storm as soon as he’d finished. The clouds opened, with massive thunder and lightning. We ran out into the heaviest rain ever, had a little rain-dance.”

I was reminding myself of your appearance on BBC 2’s Later with Jools Holland this summer too, sharing a bill with Niles Rodgers’ Chic, former Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes, and Chas and Dave, one of their very final appearances together.

“I was very excited to see Chic, and Chas & Dave … RIP Chas! Actually, I’m a bit worried we’re cursed, having also appeared on the same bill as Mark E Smith in some of his last shows.”

Those were at The Garage and the 100 Club in early May, Goat Girl chosen by the legendary front-man for what turned out to be The Fall’s final London gigs.

And it’s been a manic year for the girls, still in their early 20s, with lots going on, not least the release of their self-titled debut album, with lots of rightful acclaim following. Is it nice to be appreciated, or is there concern that the music press traditionally build bands up only to knock them down later? Everyone seems to be raving about you at the moment.

“Well, it’s nice that people are listening. We’re not going to sacrifice anything though. It will always be about the music we want to make, whether people like it or not. And we’re all pretty level-headed.”

Green Lights: Goat Girl, about to head off out again, this time for an autumn UK tour (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

Was there a lightbulb moment when you were out watching bands, realising you could do this? And was there a manifesto for success and where you could get to?

“No, we’ve never really had any sort of plan. For some, it works to have a manifesto. But for us, if it works … well, we try not to over-think it.”

The first single, Country Sleaze, seemed to light the way for you, waking people up to who you were and somewhat setting out your stall. Was there a good feeling putting those early songs together?

“I guess so. I kind of think we’ve only recently realised that we are kind of good! We never really thought of ourselves as that. We just thought, ‘Let’s enjoy it, y’know.’ If we hadn’t had the label around us, we’d still be making music, although I don’t know if we’d have released anything.”

That’s certainly seems to be one of their strengths. There’s a raw feel to the band, one that shows on their recorded product so far.

When I hear Goat Girl, I hear the likes of PJ Harvey, but also Nick Cave, and even Blur’s Graham Coxon’s solo material. You’ll see plenty of others touted as influences. But who were the bands Rosy heard that inspired her to have a crack at all this?

“I think we were all influenced by different music we were listening to when we were growing up, including female pop stars like Rihanna and Gwen Stefani.”

That’s more down the pop line than I expected. But in the week Wolf Alice secured the Mercury Prize, there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in critical circles for female-fronted guitar bands too.

“Maybe, but I always find that kind of thing rigged, and just think good music should be appreciated (regardless of awards).”

Monkey Do: Everybody has something to hide apart from Rosy and her monkey (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

Rosy started playing drums at the age of 12, having stalled with early piano and guitar lessons, while ‘the drums made sense’. She is learning and enjoying piano now though, and you’ll see her tinkering away for an filmed acoustic stroll through album track ‘Viper Fish’ for BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley show recently.

“That was a lot of fun! And it’s nice to be able to stretch out the songs.”

I’m reading Robert Forster’s Grant and I at the moment, a great read from a fellow performer with a Rough Trade past, in his days with The Go-Betweens. He talks about the band only starting to finally get a wage, and we’re talking £50 a week, after a few albums and perceived success in the late ‘80s. Is that how it is for you 30 years on?

“I think there’s still money in it for the big cheeses. We get money to live off, because we can’t really have jobs, but it’s kind of like fake money really. And I don’t think there’s much in it for bands anymore. There’s a threshold.”

Back to the LP, and it’s 19 tracks and 40 minutes altogether, certainly value for money. Do you think you’ve captured the true live Goat Girl experience on there?

“Yeah, definitely. We wanted it to have that live feel … and there’s a few mistakes in there as well!”

Well, that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I also love the feel of the A Hard Day’s Night-like promo video for ‘The Man’. Where was that filmed?

“In and around London, with some of it around Borough Market. We spent around two days filming that. Yeah, that was fun.”

What happens next, after this tour? Are you on with the next record? Or is it like with Joe Strummer’s shocked, ‘What do you mean, ‘second album’?’ when questioned after basking in the glory of The Clash’s self-titled debut LP?

“I think we’re going to go on a hiatus, focus on writing some new bangers! We haven’t really had the time, and I think we want to do some sort of charity work and get back to some sort of reality and be able to write songs. Because we’ve used them all up now!”

And if you weren’t doing all this now, or at least if no record company came calling, what would you be up to instead?

“It was always like a big passion, but we’re also really passionate about animals, so I think I’d want to be sort of helping turtles get into the sea or something, doing some sort of humanitarian thing … or travelling … working and saving money to go travelling.”

London Girls: Goat Girl, making a huge impact across the UK in 2018 (Photo: Holly Whitaker)

For Goat Girl’s autumn tour details, head here. You can also keep in touch with the band via their website, and Facebook and Instagram pages.

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