King Creosote / Fence Collective – Manchester Bridgewater Hall

Writer’s note: It’s almost taken me a week to get this review together, but you’ll maybe understand why. Some things are far more important. It’s been a trying seven days, the situation changing from day to day. But this might have well been my last live outing for quite some time, so I came back to it. We’ll get through this, all being well. And hopefully we’ll be all the stronger for the experience, people realising what’s truly important in life. Live music is a key part of that equation for many of us. But not right now. In the meantime, if you have a guaranteed wage and can get by, perhaps do what you can to support those scraping a living. In fact, that goes for anyone feeling the pinch right now. Let’s all look out for each other, right?  

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

‘We’re happy to be here, for one night only’

I wouldn’t say the streets were deserted in central Manchester last Monday night, but it was as quiet as I’ve known it after 7pm, your reviewer and his youngest daughter not convinced we’d be headed straight back on arrival on Lower Mosley Street.

There was certainly plenty of over-thinking in approaching those sharing our space, extra care taken not to brush shoulders, cough, sneeze, blow noses, shake hands or inadvertently snog venue staff and fellow punters.

In a year which for one reason or another I’d only managed two live music outings – cracking nights in the company of recent WriteWyattUK interviewees The Amber List and West on Colfax at The Continental in Preston, then the ever-entertaining (and my August 2018 interviewee) John Bramwell at nearby Penwortham’s The Venue, I was certainly ready for my next fix. But concerns were there long before, and we sort of hoped an announcement of postponement was coming, taking any decision out of our hands.

It wasn’t to be though, and I understand why, with little in the way of leadership offered by Captain De Pfeffel, the Butlin’s Churchill (copyright Louder Than War’s John Robb, I believe) on his opening COVID-19 TV address that night, by which time we were on our way out of the door anyway. It was the venue staff getting it in the neck as a result, frustration also directed King Creosote main-man Kenny Anderson’s way, by accounts. He doesn’t do social media, but there was still plenty of online flak.

Jason Manford spoke in general terms on the subject as a musical he was appearing in continued to be staged, talking about ‘forceful‘ messages, theatre-goers patronising him about the seriousness of the pandemic. The bottom line, here as there, was that with contracts to honour, musicians and backroom staff to pay and others potentially adversely affected at the venue, any cancellation without the Government’s say-so would leave insurance terms null and void, with knock-on effects. Clearly not ultimately fatal, but certainly financially challenging.

So the show went on, and as it was the last date of the tour, that made sense. And King Creosote might as well show up and entertain us seeing as they were en route between London’s Barbican Centre and a return home, north of the border. As long as we didn’t have symptoms, acted responsibly, kept the right distances, and washed our hands like we’d unwittingly shaken them with Britain First, Brexit Party or UKIP candidates, perhaps we’d be okay.

It was oddly quiet in the main auditorium from the moment a friendly staff member held the door open to the left stalls and pointed us towards our seats. Back of fag packet maths calculations suggested about four-fifths of 1,350 tickets sold, yet only around a third of those who shelled out showed up in light of a fast-developing story. And I couldn’t argue with those figures judging by how many of us were around at the start of the opening set. Looking around at the end I noticed more though, so maybe a few hadn’t done their homework and sussed that support act Fence Collective was also Kenny’s band, the same ensemble appearing later.

The man himself, leading that nine-piece outfit, was quick to thank us for coming out, joking that we’d probably be safer here – self-isolation wise – bearing in mind chasm-like gaps between audience members, suggesting we were the ‘cool ones’ for turning up. And he introduced his band more or less straight away, as if half-expecting an edict to get off stage part-way in, with martial law imposed. Or maybe it was just pride at having this impressive set of multi-instrumentalists in tow, each playing a key part in an entertaining if tentative opening six-song set.

Either side of Kenny were accordion/pipes player Mairearad Green and violinist Hannah Fisher, both adding vocal contributions and leading here and there, the bandleader seemingly happy enough blending in, strumming guitar and enjoying the collaborative approach. In fact, several bandmates pitched in with vocals, Mairearad opening with ‘Pibrock’ before Hannah led on ‘This Town’, Kenny’s role more about directing operations, part-saving his own pipes for later.

‘By the Way, By the Way’ kept us enthralled, before guitarist Lomond Campbell took centre-stage on ‘The Lengths’, from his debut LP, Black River Promise. I say centre-stage, but he was nestling at the back really, another fine song choice perfectly delivered, as was the case for Sorren Maclean on ‘Watch’. All too soon, they were away, but not before a rather apt closing statement, Mairearad’s 2016 track ‘Star of Hope’ just the ticket in these trying times, looking to the future and better days to come.

After a week of self-imposed self-isolation – not for any detrimental health reasons, just that I work from home most days anyway – I risked all that by venturing towards the bar for a pint then grabbing a coffee for my daughter, sensing concern all around but a sense of calm all the same, bar and café staff pulling together, chipper despite any worries. We’re not talking supermarket sweeps for bog roll and chicken nuggets here, but community spirit, as soon accentuated by the band.

Soon enough, I was back in seat G16 and they were back, this punter quickly immersed in a very different visual and sonic landscape, courtesy of Kenny’s songs and one of the most engaging archive documentary films of recent times, skilfully put together by director Virginia Heath and producer Grant Keir.

While my closest Caledonian attribute probably involves my first name, something about From Scotland With Love truly resonates, and while I have no personal links to the majority of the people and landscapes featured, it’s a film touching on our collective pasts, and easy to identify with. What’s more, aren’t these moments always better on the big screen?

I missed out first time around, in 2014, so was determined to get along to savour a rare opportunity of witnessing Kenny and co. live-scoring. And again, as per the support set, there was no ‘look at me’ posturing – it was about playing a collaborative role rather than any notion of puffed-up importance. It’s the faces on the screens – unknown to the majority of us – that are the stars; everyday folk from across the 20th century going about their work and play, these priceless images respectfully retrieved from decades of preserved film.

Of the footage, I’m not familiar with many, the main exception – used to great effect – John Eldridge’s wonderful 1948 study of Edinburgh life, Waverley Steps.  In fact, I was gone within barely a minute and a half of the opening credits, the moment the A4 loco, Union of South Africa thunders towards its terminus and the piano and bass came in.

The soundtrack is sublime on its own, let alone when married to the accompanying images. And while there were surely artistic headaches a plenty in achieving the feat of the seamless fusing together of those elements, there were no outward signs of panic over potential glitches and mistakes, the job professionally executed from the opening bars of ‘Something to Believe In’ right through to its reprise, ‘A Prairie Tale’, some 70 minutes later.

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

‘Two to sing, two to pray, two to carry my soul away’

We were hooked long before ‘Bluebell Cockleshell 1-2-3’ and ‘6-7-8’, small details like the footage of the boys playing on the tenement stairs and the wee girl uneasily tottering in a grown-up’s high-heeled shoes truly evocative, while social history unfolded on screen via poignant slum clearance and workers’ parade footage.

By the time of ‘For One Night Only’ – with its Blue Aeroplanes meets Can vibe over further eye-catching sequences, the black and white footage occasionally complemented by splashes of colour – the viewer is heavily invested and truly mesmerised as the dancing, drinking and fairground riding provides true snapshots in time.

‘So who cares if nothing comes out of this morning
But an earful of sea and a neck-full of sun
And a deckchair always broken when sunbathed upon’

Throughout, scenes of love and loss rub shoulders with those of resistance, migration and heavy industry in pre-health and safety at work days, audience smiles building by the time we reach the beach scenes on ‘Largs’, generations hard at their labours and at play. And from there to the farming and fishing scenes, we’re left in no doubt as to how hard life was, but see how this nation made the most of its situation. It makes for difficult viewing at times, but the humour and loving spirit is never far below the surface, as expressed in Kenny’s line on ‘Cargill’, his character revealing, ‘I’m the finest catch that you’ll land’.

Stirring throughout, there’s a sense of swelling pride as we mentally join marches against inequality and poor conditions on ‘Pauper’s Dough’, Kenny leading from the front, proclaiming, ‘We’ll fight for what is right, and we’ll strive for what is rightfully ours’, the audience as one rising above the gutter with those standing up and striki8ng out for their futures on the screen. Yet Virginia and Grant’s skill – like Kenny’s – is in not preaching. This isn’t some vague exercise in rhetoric and polemic. The characters are richly drawn, as on ‘Favourite Girl’, where social history – not least telling scenes of women assembling guns their loved ones will fire in anger – is skilfully interspersed with human stories and traits.

Harrowing and harsh amid the humour and bonhomie, Virginia pulls no punches in her depiction of the evils of war, the scenes of returned one-legged Great War servicemen on remembrance parades just as powerful a century later, as in their own manner are those balletic ice skating and curling scenes amid glorious scenic backdrops, suggesting the freedom those men felt they were fighting to retain.

The peat-cutting and harvesting scenes also perfectly catch the mood of the music on ‘Leaf Piece’, Kenny arguably at his most personal, confessing, ‘Until the sun it melts on the horizon, that’s when I clap eyes upon my lass, and I find I’m singing like a lark’.

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

‘At the back of my mind I was always hoping I might just get back’

‘Miserable Strangers’ certainly tugs at the heart-strings, images of sad farewells – from the leaving of St Kilda to the mainland, to those heading for new lives in New York – begging plenty of questions and suggesting many a sad story, Kenny’s character professing a need to ‘try to raise a hearty cheer’. At a time when we’re being told, almost matter of fact, about the inevitably of losing many of our more senior generation, it’s hard not to replicate the tears in the eyes of the assembled on the quayside and on board those outgoing vessels.

Alternatively, ’One Floor Down’ offers a more optimistic vision of fresh opportunities in a modern Scotland, moods brightened by the smile of the young lass watching a Punch and Judy show and in following a female bus driver about her city route, before another memorable scene from Waverley Steps sees us closer to the finishing line.

And there I was, so wrapped up in what I was seeing that I’d forget myself now and again then look down from the big screen and catch the band right before me, realising what a treat and privilege it was to be there.

‘Dreaming without sleeping; It’s morning, are you leaving?
But our story it has only begun, and are you willing it to end?’

I checked the next day and the Bridgewater Hall, like many more venues up and down the country, had closed its doors. But what a way to go out … for now. And while we’re confined to home, if you’re not yet familiar with From Scotland With Love I’d highly recommend grabbing a copy on DVD, hunkering down and making the best of enforced self-isolation. Besides, we all need something to believe in right now.

For this website’s recent feature/interview with King Creosote’s Kenny Anderson, head hereWith thanks to Lomond Campbell for the opening setlist, and Rob Kerford for word back on King Creosote’s visit.

This review is dedicated to NHS and emergency workers up, down and across the UK, and artists and venue staff here and around the world struggling to make ends meet. Stay safe.

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Still alive and nearly famous – the Lee Mark Jones interview


Live Presence: Lee Mark Jones, eager to get back out there, pandemics willing, in the summer (Photo: Garry Cook)

As Lee Mark Jones delights in telling me, few stage performers manage to get an across-the-board mix of one, two, three, four and five-star reviews for their live shows. But that’s what the critics said at Edinburgh Fringe Festival when this self-proclaimed ‘nearly rock star’ trod the boards last year, A Rock’n’Roll Suicide described as ‘Marmite with crack on it’ and opinions well and truly split.

This in-your-face brutal telling of his life story includes entertaining anecdotes involving Lemmy, Slash, Axl Rose, Blondie, Joey Ramone, Joan Jett and many more scene luminaries, and is by turns glamorous, punky, anarchic and tragic, certainly pulling no punches.

The show was recently rewritten, redeveloped and reworked by Lee alongside award-winning playwright Chris Thorpe, with thanks to Arts Council England funding, and is produced by Lee’s Theatre of the Wild, Beautiful and Damned company, which specialises in chaotic and surreal contemporary theatre and performance, with dramaturgy by Dan Coleman (Dawn State Theatre).

His Still Alive 2020 leg was set to tour the UK from this month, taking in festivals, nightclubs, pubs, social clubs and community centres, but as the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the UK this week, dates were rescheduled for October. However, Lee is raring to go all the same, with an over-riding notion to ‘take things back to the real grass-roots, to real people who may not have the chance to see live theatre’.

A Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide sees Lee retrace his career journey against a backdrop of videos and scenes from his early life, while belting out songs from his punk, glam and rock career, from the council estates of Kidderminster to Beverley Hills and back. And it’s also the story of a man coming to terms with himself after a late diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), something he feels on reflection has clearly defined his life.

“There is deep soul-searching, self-questioning, recriminations, rage and confusion but also hope and clarity, and understanding unfolds. Triumph over tragedy? You decide!

“I intend to attract a new kind of audience which doesn’t usually go to the theatre; an audience craving strange journeys of darkness, horror, suspense, and wonder. All these thrills we provoke into life, in the flesh, breathing and bleeding on stage, right in your face.”

The afore-mentioned Chris Thorpe said of the man himself, ‘I love Lee, he’s dangerous and doesn’t give a fuck,’ and after 25 minutes on the phone to him, I get that. Born in Worcestershire in 1962, Lee began singing in local punk group Regular Wretches at the age of 15, leading to a wild and crazy career progression involving various bands on the hazy edgeS of the punk, indie, goth and hard rock scene.

Ziggy Pop: Lee Mark Jones in Bowie-esque garb, his guitar largely a prop, for his A Rock’n’Roll Suicide show

He’ll enthusiastically tell you he toured the world with the Ramones, Motorhead, U2, Black Sabbath, and many more, and as lead singer of The Gypsy Pistoleros released multiple albums and played sell-out international tours.

But these days it’s all about his new stage and screen career, and since 2014 his credits have included roles in Selene Kapsaski’s Spidarlings, five films by North Bank Entertainment, a Spaghetti Western TV series currently in pre-production, Miss Harper with Susan George, an ‘epic vampire trilogy’, and Mycho ‘slasher’ movie Pandamonium, which is newly out on DVD and ‘available in Asda and HMV’.

He’s certainly been busy since obtaining his Master’s degree in touring theatre at the University of Worcester, and remains a member of their award-winning Shenanigans theatre company. And what does he make of the reaction to A Rock’n’Roll Suicide so far?

“The reaction in Edinburgh was amazing. This was never made for your elitist theatregoers but loads of them loved it and loads hated it, and you don’t want people walking out saying, ‘Well, that was alright’. It’s the old Malcolm McLaren way – they’ve got to love it or hate it!”

‘Brilliantly shocking rock theatre’ – is that a fair description?

“I’d say so. I got a grant from the Arts Council, due to the reaction in Edinburgh, which meant I could bring Chris Thorpe on board, one of the biggest theatre-makers in Britain now. He honed it a bit but knows he can’t really change what I do. He tried to make it a bit more PC … which has sort of gone out of the window!

“It is what it is, and it’s all true. We’ve hidden a few names now, because at least one doesn’t come out of it very well, All of it happened, but I don’t want to destroy people. And Lemmy comes out of it a legend, which of course he was, so there’s nothing new in that.”

We’ll get on to the late Motorhead frontman, but let’s go back in time a bit first and his first band, Regular Wretches. How good were they?

“Ah mate, we were awful. We had five chords …”

Bare Essentials: Lee Mark Jones gets into the swing of it during his live show, tackling his almost-legendary life story

As many as that? That’s not very punk rock.

“Well, we grew up at our Irish club (in Kidderminster), where we were all members, under-age drinking, and all the punk bands came through, and we thought some were fricking awful. So we just got up and did it, and our first gig was supporting Neon Hearts, who were a great band. That was the only place we could get in. We also supported The Damned in Birmingham (at the Odeon), and (drummer) Rat Scabies was cool, inviting us to use his kit. That wouldn’t happen nowadays.”

You only have to see the trailer for Lee’s show to know there was another important figure in his musical awakening, that being David Bowie. In fact, there’s a cardboard cut-out of the Thin White Duke on stage with him each night. I’m guessing Bowie and glam rock was majorly important to you?

“Yeah, I was into The Sweet and even Showaddywaddy! It was rock’n’roll, so at least we were on the right way. I’d hate to be a kid nowadays. I was never a Bowie fan, but I was a Ziggy Stardust fan. That was the one that changed it all for me, that period. I was fascinated by all that. The ultimate rock star that went out at the top. I can’t believe it was only one and a half years, and I know lots of people who were at that final gig when he announced that was the last time. To do that then … what! Imagine the record label’s response.”

The fact that you were so affected by that suggests the theatrical side of rock was always important to you.

“Yeah, I never held with the idea of wanting to look exactly like the audience. I thought audiences wanted escapism, something to take them away from the shit of normal life for an hour or so, give them something different to watch. That’s what I always took from it, which punk did to an extent – dressing and looking different.”

We spoke a little at this point about some of the clubs in the Worcestershire he played in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, with ‘around 250 people crammed into them places’, Lee insisting that’s why he’s now ‘taking theatre back into the rock clubs’.

“They always told me it was great to get 25 people to a show at Edinburgh, but if you were in a band in that situation you’d seriously question what the hell you were doing if that was all you could attract. The great thing about the tour I’m going on now is that most of these places hold 200/300 people. These are the bastions of rock, and that’s where I wrote this show for. I’ve no idea about most of them, The Ferret in Preston is the only one I’ve played before, and even then I got loads of theatre-goers going along.”

Huge Influence: David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust LP

That previous work-in-progress style version of the show formed part of the Lancashire Fringe Festival last May, leading to Preston-based promoter Garry Cook getting on board. Meanwhile, Lee was more than happy to have been confirmed for a return to the Edinburgh Fringe.

“The weird thing is that Love/Hate are playing one of the dates, and Jizzy Pearl, who I know from our days supporting LA Guns, when he sang with them, is with them. It’s a small pond.”

And talking of ponds, how did he end up crossing the big one and hanging out in the Hollywood Hills of California?

“I was going out with Jane Dickinson, who was just divorcing Bruce (Dickinson). She was quite a player and set him up, getting him into Iron Maiden from Samson, and was part of Sanctuary. Actually, I tell some stories about all that too. We stayed for three months with Chris Squire, the bass player from Yes, a friend of Jayne, in Beverly Hills.

“There’s also a tale about a fight with (Guns’n’Roses guitarist) Slash at The Rainbow and a story about Axl Rose, but that’ll be in another show, how he called me into a listening pod before the release of the Use Your Illusion album.

“When he called me up, I wondered what I’d done, having only just arrived. But I was soon in a room with Axl, being asked to give my thoughts on that record. I told him it would make one brilliant album (rather than a double). He went berserk, and said, ‘I fucking knew it!’. The only reason he asked me was because he didn’t know me. I was outside of his bubble. He didn’t feel he could trust anyone to tell him the truth. When they become that big …”

The album was eventually released as two separate LPs on the same day in September 1991, going on to sell more than 11 million copies in the US alone within its first 20 years. Ah well. No accounting for taste. Anyway, Lee, where do the Ramones fit into all this?

“We supported them in 1993 on their Spanish tour (for Mondo Bizarro) and signed to their management company, Red Eye, who also managed Blondie and Talking Heads. But we fucked it up … most brilliantly. The guy who wore the gorilla mask and carried the ‘Gabba Gabba Hey!’ sign …”

I’ll miss the next bit out, but it’s fair to say Lee wasn’t a fan of tour manager and ‘fifth Ramone’ Monte A. Melnick.

“We were playing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ live, the Sex Pistols never played Spain, and it was going down amazingly. But he then asked, ‘Can you lose it? I don’t want you playing it tomorrow night.’ So we played ‘Pretty Vacant’ instead, throwing him vees on the stage as we did. He was their manager and was going to be ours …

“We got chucked off the rest of their European tour and the American tour and lost out on a deal with Sire Records.  And I really wanted that fricking deal. We recorded an album as well, with John Walls, an engineer who worked on Never Mind the Bollocks. But that was ditched and we couldn’t get it back, because they’d paid for it.”

Chairman Now: Nearly rock star Lee Mark Jones takes the seated approach to his autobiographical stagecraft

That was da brudders’ first tour with CJ Ramone on bass/co-lead vocals, replacing departed Dee Dee Ramone, Lee adding, ‘CJ, we loved, he played with us onstage for ‘Anarchy in the UK’.”

At the time, Lee was based in Zaragoza, Spain, with The Last Gang, who online sources suggest released a single in 1987 and an EP three years later. That led to Spanish engagements supporting not only the Ramones, but also Motorhead, Nazareth, The Cramps, UFO, Black Sabbath – with Dio singing – and Sepultura.

It’s rather confusing trying to piece together Lee’s band timeline, but I’ll give it a go, his initial spell in Regular Wretches followed by that singing with new wave/ goth rock outfit Cry of the Innocent (aka The Cry), managed by Chapter 22 label founder Craig Jennings (acts including The Mission, Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Pastels), their claim to fame including support slots with The Alarm, Big Country, Spear of Destiny, and U2, the latter at Kidderminster Town Hall. Release-wise, there was a 1982 single and the Susan’s Story EP the following year, and Lee tells me their support band, Luv from Eden, included future members of the afore-mentioned Pop will Eat Itself and The Wonder Stuff.

Then came The Ice Babies, a period which included a deal with Sony, after initial success with their Someday Remember EP (more on that shortly) for French label La Stillette Disques. Having listened back in retrospect, I’d say they were somewhere between Killing Joke, U2 and some dodgy soft metal outfit, with lots of hair products involved as per that era. Lee also told me that Adrian Mills from Beggars Banquet drank his pint while offering his band a £15,000 deal in 1983, adding, ‘The Cult took that deal’. And that’s not a spelling mistake.

White Trash Soho were next, more down the thrash/hard rock line, I gather, followed by the Gypsy Pistoleros. That’s not quite the lot though, a further spell in a rebranded White Trash UK – who issued a retrospective ’greatest hits’ record (it says here) in 2010 – before further time served with the Gypsy Pistoleros, their product including 2012’s The Good, The Mad and the Beautiful LP, Lee also releasing solo material under his GP moniker in more recent times. Away from the acting, is he still recording or playing live as Gypsy Lee Pistolero?

“No, I own the name, and release stuff now under that, but after a four-year Master’s in theatre – finished last year – and a few horror films that have gone down really well, there’s this show, which is also going to be filmed this July by Mycho and made into a film. We’re filming in Shell Island in Wales (Mochras, Gwynedd), with Lemmy my spirit guide as I trek through a desert while telling this whole biographical story, all these scenes played out.”

And what do we learn about Lemmy that we perhaps didn’t know already?

“Erm … there was one night after a show, on the tour bus, where he’d just done his interviews and a signing session, had sex with his lovely groupie, as every night, showered, then came in and immediately put on a recording of that night’s show, saying it was his pension plan. He must have had around 8,000 live albums! He then starts polishing his bass (not a euphemism), chops four lines of speed coke and pours two pints of this Fuzzy Navel, basically snakebite with eight shots of Bourbon, Wild Turkey, JD, whatever. He was great. You could chat to him about anything, and I found the real legends were really approachable. The twats were the wannabes and people who think they’re something or think they have to appear or act that way.

Laid Back: Lee Mark Jones is temporarily floored during a gruelling live performance with the Gypsy Pistoleros

“Anyway, I looked back and said, ‘Hey, Lems, is this all it is?’ And he looked straight back and went, ‘What else do you fucking want?’ So in the film I answer that in the end. At that time, we just wanted to be rock stars, and sometimes weren’t even bothered about that. We just wanted to get pissed for free and get free drugs.

“But it runs through the story that I’ve had ADHD and a borderline personality disorder all my life, only finding out a year or so ago.”

Was it important to get that diagnosis, put things into perspective and come to terms with all that?

“Yeah, thinking about some of the stupid things I did for no rhyme or reason, where there was no logic. But I wish I had known – I could have used that rather than it using me on occasions. That’s the regret, I suppose.”

You call this the Still Alive tour. Were there moments where you felt there might not be a tomorrow, with that lifestyle you were living on that scene?

“Oh yeah! There have been times when I’ve woken up and felt that. I woke up in a skip once. No idea how the frick I got there. That was just outside the old Astoria. Gods knows what I was doing.”

Is the show fairly settled now, or are you still changing things each night?

“It sort of changes every night, but it’s all linked to video clips and tracks I sing along to. It’s a real mix, and we finish with ‘Wild is the Wind’, which ties up with the Bowie stuff, because of my big stab at commerciality with The Ice Babies. We had this deal with Sony on the cards and were on the (BBC) Radio 1 rotation airplay list. But then they fricking banned it, due to a line about sex and drugs and meeting the pretty boys. Just one line!”

Past Tense: Lee Mark Jones, back in the day with the Gypsy Pistoleros. Another hair colour in a different setting.

Hence the term nearly rock star, I guess. Were you happier in retrospect being on the fringes of it all?

“I think if we’d made it and got a big deal, we’d be dead. Two of my first band are dead and a load of other people I know. Those days, you didn’t just pretend … apart from the clever ones like Bon Jovi. The idiots like us wanted to be Motley Crue or the Sex Pistols. That was a complete way of life, and not a healthy one.”

While he talked about his first band knowing five chords, it’s worth mentioning that Lee never played, and still doesn’t, classing himself as ‘just a singer’. Although he did recently have a guitar endorsement.

“That’s with JHS. I just put it on, play a few chords, then admit I can’t actually play. I just pose with it instead. They found out about that, and they’ve sent me a fricking bill. But they sent it to Gypsy Lee Pistolero, and they’re welcome to take him to court – he doesn’t actually exist.”

Finally, your CV also points out that your first acting tuition involved a drunken London weekend masterclass with a certain stage and screen acting legend. Is that right?

“Yes! My gran was Trudie Styler’s godmother, who was born next door to my Dad in Stoke Prior (near Bromsgrove), and when I first went down to London I didn’t have anywhere to stay, and she told me to come around. I did, and she left me with her friend Peter, who I just knew from Lawrence of Arabia. I wasn’t into acting then. He was doing Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, gave me his script and asked if we could go through some lines. I got completely wasted on a bottle of port with Peter O’Toole … which is cool as shit, now I’m into all that! So the first time I ever did lines was with Peter O’Toole.”

I asked him at that point who was the last person he did lines with, and although he did tell me, he added, ‘We won’t go there, ‘cos I fell out with him’, so I’ll leave that out.

”That remained my only acting claim to fame until around the age of 53. But seeing as I was such a fricking success as a rock star …”

Incidentally, Trudie met husband-to-be Sting while at  the Old Vic and dating Peter O’Toole, the pair marrying in 1992. But Lee’s not quite finished yet.

“I wanted to be a footballer before that, and got to the heights of playing for Kidderminster Harriers. I was in the reserves at 17, under the lights at Aggborough. I played a few games in the first team and in the FA Cup, but then they disbanded the youth and reserve team, and I was moving to London anyway, so that was that.

“Although I did play for Hendon for a bit. We were wasted on a Friday night though, and I had a few games on Saturdays where I didn’t even know I’d played.”

Who’s Masking: Lee Mark Jones, back in action on the live front this August, and again in October, as things stand

Lee Mark Jones is set to perform A Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide! from Saturday, August 8th through to Sunday, August 30th at Bannerman’s Rock Venue for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (12.15am onstage), then plays The Ferret in Preston on Thursday, October 1st, rescheduled from March 26th.

That’s followed by appearances at the Waterside Arts Centre, Sale (Friday, October 16th); the Subside Rock Bar, Birmingham (Sunday, October 18th); The Purple Turtle, Reading (Thursday, October 22nd); and Trillian’s Rock Venue, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (Wednesday, October 28th). For more about those dates, any others on his Still Alive tour, and information about his theatre company, try here. You can also follow Lee via Twitter. And for more about Garry Cook’s Enjoy the Show production company, head here.


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Pete Sounds and The Wah! Ahead – the Pete Wylie interview

All Mighty: Pete Wylie still believes in love, soul and rock’n’roll (Photo: Robert Farnan, enhanced by Ivan Sestan)

Pete Wylie’s heart may be as big as Liverpool, but he’s a right pain in the derriere when it comes to nailing down an interview. But in this case perseverance finally paid off, with no ‘Getting Out Of It’ for this ever-entertaining ‘part-time rock star, full-time legend’.

“Hello, unknown caller,’ came the voice at the other end of the line at Disgraceland, his home base, not so far from the Mersey (closer to that fabled river than Anfield and Goodison Park, for starters). A few traded excuses followed regarding recent and historical missed calls, Pete coughing up to forgetting his charger while away that weekend playing Bedford and Worthing, his moby dead after a busy few days, getting home to ‘a cavalcade of messages’. Not all from me, I should add.

This does seem to be the interview on my books the longest, I point out. I first looked to track him down not long after an entertaining chat with a fella he used to run around with called Julian Cope.

“I remember him … vaguely.”

That was five years ago, and granted, my timing wasn’t great. It was shortly after we lost Josie Jones, Pete’s former partner – professionally and personally – and that great voice behind ‘Come Back’, ‘Sinful!’, Big Hard Excellent Fish’s ‘Imperfect List’ (updated in 2013’s similarly-powerful ‘And the Question Remains’), and many more classic Wah!-related tracks. I was hoping at the time he might want to talk a little about her impact on his life and career. It was a little too soon though, perhaps.

“You know what, the trouble with timing … there’s always something like that. In the last two weeks I’ve lost Andrew Weatherall, one of my best mates, someone I was going to work with. I’ve been doing a tribute to him on tour. And I’m wearing an Andrew Weatherall t-shirt that I got made. Then the other big one was Pete Fulwell, my friend who ran Eric’s with Roger (Eagle) and then was my manager. He was the single person who was most responsible for what I do. He was the quiet one …”

I got the impression he was happier in the background at Eric’s, and with you.

“Yeah, he always was. He called himself an eminence gris, almost a ghost, and was happy with that. Anytime we did anything he kind of felt uncomfortable to be there in places when things were good. While we were all having a great time, he didn’t feel like he wanted to be there. But he was there all the time and was the person who said, ‘If you don’t record any new songs, I’m going to ban you from Eric’s’. And Eric’s was my whole life.

“Pete was the one who then paid for the demos I did, he put out ‘Better Scream’ and ‘Seven Minutes to Midnight’, my first two singles, and kind of automatically became my manager. And right through from there, ‘The Story of the Blues’, everything, it was Pete who helped make those records, y’know.”

Were you a difficult man to deal with back then?

“I think I’m less challenging now, probably, some ways, because I’ve learned to listen … but maybe I’ve learned to listen too much. I think I was great to be around a lot of the time, but the difficulty came not with Pete, but with record companies. He’d bridge the gap, because he knew what I felt, and knew I had principles and had ideas I wasn’t willing to compromise.

“Record companies don’t just expect compromise – they expect total domination, and Pete would have to find a way. They’d say, ‘This is a great record and we could make it a hit,’ but there would have to be conditions, and I realise in retrospect that Pete took the flak. They’d say, ‘If he doesn’t do this telly show, we’re not going to back you,’ almost like blackmail. I understand their thing now, but I’d have big rows with Pete, say, ‘I’m not doing this shit!’

“Only once did he actually cave in, and I remember it so clearly. He took the brunt of the blame, saying he agreed to it, when he’d kind of been forced to agree. It was the worst show ever, kids’ television, teatime, and genuinely, I’d stayed up all night crying. I did it with Josie, and for once never said a word. Josie had to do the interview because I was furious and so upset. I felt it was the end of the dream. I’ve still got everything I wrote at the time. It was for ‘Sinful!’ as well. I won’t go into the story of the show – it’s too cringeworthy.

“That was 1986, and it wasn’t long after that I stopped making records for a few years. I was working in the studio, but didn’t play live for five years. So whether I’m difficult or not, all the people who could tell you are dead, so I’m okay now – I can tell you anything.

“Pete was a friend as well, and when we parted company, just after my accident, basically because there was nothing for him to do. I took that badly and was very unhappy with him. But when we did see each other, walking down a street, we were back being mates again, and in the last six months he was really helpful to me with something going on.

“But it’s an odd thing – having to get used to so many of us disappearing – from Pete Burns to Josie and … y’know.”

The accident he mentions was his late 1991 near-fatal fall when a railing gave way in Upper Parliament Street, Liverpool, fracturing his spine and sternum, a long period of rehabilitation following. We’ll go further into that period later, but there’s something he touched on there, about that chance meeting with his namesake on the street, and it’s always struck me that while Liverpool’s a big city, it has a small-town feel in certain respects. That’s not meant to sound patronising either.

“Yeah, I’ve always said it’s a big city with a big heart, but a tiny centre. And one of the only good things about Pete Fulwell going is I’ve had really good talks with Henry Priestman from the Christians, who I’d not chatted to for ages, and a whole bunch of friends.”

The reason I brought that up was that I got that impression about scene icons around town from talking to Echo and the Bunnymen guitar hero Will Sergeant, also five years ago, saying he’d often bump into you and others.

“Yeah, for lots of reasons, the small nature of the creative bit and clubland at the centre, you can walk from one end of it to the other, and there aren’t other bits. In other cities, clubs are all over, but if you start at Hope Street, the south end, up to Dale Street, it’s a 10-minute walk at best. So if one club isn’t any good or none of your mates are in one place, you can easily go to another. And I still see Gaz (Gary Dwyer) from The Teardrop Explodes and people from all the bands.

“I played in Leeds last week, some people stayed behind to get things signed, and this fella said, ‘You won’t know me, but my band was called Dead Trout’. And I said, ‘I remember Dead Trout!’ I’d only looked at a poster of one of their gigs on an archive site the day before. So even Dead Trout are still around, y’know! Kind of weird, but I love that. I know some of the younger guys too.”

Talking of which, I was only born in 1967, so …


Ha! And it struck me in more recent times how short a gap it was between The Beatles’ split (irrespective of the fact they left so early) and the next wave of Merseyside success, be that through The Real Thing or that emerging Eric’s scene. Did you ever feel you might miss out on your city’s big moment, with Merseybeat a distant memory and similar opportunities unlikely to come along?

“God, no! Absolutely not. The opposite in fact. Much as I love music and I’ve always been interested in rock history … I’m reading about The Clash at the moment, re-learning … although I’m annoyed I’m not in it …”

Seeing as he’s already wandered off-topic, I butt in there, asking if he means my Clash book.

“I haven’t got it yet – I’m waiting for one through the post. I’ve heard good things though.”

Sound Vision: Pete Wylie among esteemed company in a collage from Martin Carr, of The Boo Radleys fame

OK. That’s on my to-do list this week. Actually, it’s Pat Gilbert’s splendid Passion is a Fashion he was reading, and we get on to the subject of how things Joe Strummer might have said may have been misconstrued, something Pete himself has fallen victim to. He uses the example of slagging someone off on tape while joking, and how any humour in a statement isn’t always conveyed in the cold light of print. And let’s face it, Pete knew and felt he understood Joe well.

We’re soon back on track though, Pete returning to my question, regarding past doubts about making it.

“I’ve had downers, I have anxiety at times, and depression, and wrote about it last year, how because I have my heart on my sleeve and I’m excitable – as Julian (Cope) said in Head On, I was the ‘most enthusiastic person’ he’d ever met – that’s me. As soon as any other person is there, I’m Wah! In a way. But when I come home, I’m just Pete, and that’s a more challenging thing for me.

“I’ve had doubts, and I’ve had challenges, but one of the things I’m loving at the moment – and I said this Saturday night – when I go and play now, it’s with a freedom and it’s all for me and the audience. I don’t owe anyone anything. It’s like a great night out with people who like me. I play my famous songs and a couple of new ones from Pete Sounds. Did I send you a copy?

He didn’t, but I pledged for it, bought myself a copy … and love it. Even the title’s great, right? It’s a life-affirming 65 golden minutes of classic Wah! 21st century style. From the slow-building, stirring ‘70s soul of six-plus-minute opener ‘Make Your Mind Up (Time For Love Today)’, with its modest guitar licks and subtly-layered instrumentation, to the glam-surfing Beach Boys covered by Roy Wood splendour of ‘People (The Rise of Dunning-Kruger)’ and fist-pumping Neil Young rocker ‘Is That What Love Is All About?’ – near-neighbour Ian McNabb and his band would love this, I reckon – onwards, several contenders carry the very essence of the finest Wylie and Wah! moments down the years.

This is, after all, the sailor-capped Elvis-esque alternative preacher who first dented the UK charts in early 1983 with ‘The Story of the Blues’, a No.3 hit, and returned four times: follow-up ‘Hope (I Wish You’d Believe Me)’ reaching No.37 in 1983 and ‘Come Back (The Story of the Reds)’ making No.20 in 1984, before ‘Sinful!’ rose to No.13 in 1986 then No.28 on the back of a revamp with The Farm in 1991. Yep, Pete knows a fair bit about pop craft, and there should have been more hits, not least his gorgeous ‘Heart as Big as Liverpool’ love letter to his home city in 1998. The fact that missed out says more about the butterfly minds and lack of taste among the greater record-buying public than it does about Peter James Wylie.

On those lines, ‘People (The Rise of Dunning-Kruger)’ conveys the very zeitgeist of where we’re at now, with Trump’s America and our own clowns this side of the pond, determined to make us ‘great again’ by ripping away so much of value about us. But it’s not all about finger-pointing politics, and ‘Hey Hey (It’s a Beautiful Day)’, with its slightly off-kilter vocal, takes a Mick Head-like melody and sweet after-the-storm sentiment into Billy Mackenzie and Bobby Gillespie territory, while ‘You + Me (And the Power of Love) is a straightforward love song, reflective yet empowering. And I like to think there’s a next-generation Wylie out there right now with trademark quiff and a badge boldly proclaiming the simple message expressed in that song.

Even though ‘Free Falling’ isn’t a cover, it serves as a respectful tribute to Tom Petty over a ‘My Sweet Lord’ meets ‘Fool (If You Think It’s Over)’ like ’70s summer melody, Aztec Camera reimagined in dreamy CSNY meets Harry Nilsson style. And talking of surefire parallel universe hits – at least 20-plus years ago, when that was still a possibility – the celebratory ‘Can’t Stop Loving You’ is another number I defy you not to sing along, its late-doors Teenage Fanclub-like searing guitar affording this power-pop belter a classily woven-in climax.

I’m in danger of over-using the ‘i’ word, but the piano-led ‘The Whole of My Heart’ offers up a further inspirational soundscape – and weighs in at another seven gorgeous minutes – before ‘Your Mother Must Be Very Proud’ sees Pete at his most bitter but channeled in providing a further state-of-the-nation proclamation amid building, epic orchestration, leading us neatly towards the climactic final pairing, the eight-and-a-half-minute wonder, ‘The Spell is Broken’ – his personal spin on ‘A Day in the Life’ perhaps – and majestic closer ‘I Still Believe (Love and Soul and Rock and Roll)’, with its air of Mott the Hoople and a Springsteen-esque climax, seeing us out on a maximum high, the spirit of Roddy Frame teamed up with Mick Jones also there. Hell, there’s even a little timpani as well as some good old punk rock guitar. And these are show tunes in the true sense of the term.

I mention the length of those songs, all bar three over the five-minute mark, yet nothing’s over-blown here, and all in all Pete Sounds is a cast-iron winner. Commendably, a percentage of sales aided the Hillsborough Justice Campaign too. But how did that crowd-funding campaign work out for its creator in the long run? A lot of artists had their fingers burned when Pledge Music went to the wall. Did Pete manage to avoid losses?

“I lost money on it, but at least I made a record, and probably one of the last records anyone will ever make. That’s how I treated it. I’ve always liked just doing one track at a time, and I’ve never thought about them as albums really, until Pete Sounds.”

It certainly carries the air of a proper, flowing album, and one that fits seamlessly together.

“Yes, and I just knew I might not make another. To be honest though, some people got way worse outcomes – losing lots of money. Six figures in some cases, in America and here. I was nowhere near that – I didn’t have that kind of following. My fans are mean … luckily!”

In light of what he said earlier, I should point out that he laughed as he said that. Just in case you take umbrage. If you dipped your hand in your pocket, he loves you, I reckon.

“I found it hard, because I was out of practise. I saw Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds one Saturday on the Kop, and he mentioned me making an album, saying, ‘It’s hard, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I hadn’t realised how hard’. And this is someone who’s never stopped making records and with – presumably – comparatively vast wealth. That helped, making me realise it wasn’t unusual to feel that way. I didn’t know any people who could do the stuff I wanted to do, but in the end I did it, and it helped me focus. It’s also given me reason to go and play live. In a coordinated way. People keep saying at shows, ‘Please don’t stop again’. I used to always do that, but… time is running out for all of us. The bottom of the egg timer, y’know.”

True. Before you know it, you’re going to far too many funerals.

“Yeah, that’s happened, and I’d rather do gigs than funerals … although they’re thin on catering, obviously.”

Having failed to get you for an interview five years ago, I tried again two years ago, using Pete Sounds and your 60th birthday as my excuse. But I failed again.

“For that birthday I got someone to drive me to the Wirral to get my buss pass, because their office closed half an hour later than Liverpool’s. And I’ve loved it – it’s changed me. I don’t drive, can’t drive, and don’t want to drive, so suddenly I’ve a degree of freedom I never had before. Sometimes I’ll get on the wrong bus deliberately, to see where I go. At one point I’d go to the hospital in Fazakerley in the north end of town – I’m in the south end these days – and my Dad used to live there, so I was familiar with it. I just jumped on a bus, knowing it wasn’t going to get me home directly or quickly, but it was like a tour of my life. It went past where my Dad lived, where Gary Dwyer lived and where I grew up, went past where I’d get a bus and where I bought my first record. And it was incredible, exciting!”

Did I read somewhere that you fancied the idea of running alternative home city tours, an alternative spin on Gerry Marsden’s Mersey ferry trips? I’d certainly be up for that magical mystery tour – sort of a Wah! Ahead tour of Liverpool.

“Y’know what? It’s something I’ve talked about, even this morning, I did a version for Pledge, but the day it came it was absolutely freezing, and a lot of the places I’d have shown have disappeared. Halfway round, one woman in particular was freezing cold, so I said, ‘Look, let’s just go to the pub’. So we did, and I was just telling stories. We never left the pub, and it gave more of an insight. Everyone was really happy with it, and I did a secret show for them upstairs in a bar in town, just for them, which was brilliant. I drank far too much, and it was fabulous.”

Now you’re about to hit 62, what’s the big difference between you now and when you were half your age, around the time of Big Hard Excellent Fish and your Justified Ancients of Mu Mu contribution, post-‘Sinful!’ and that whole difficult period you mentioned (later compounded by his November 1991 accident)?

“The difference is physical – like the pain in my back when I finish a show, although I’m now doing fitness things like stretching, and there’s no reason I can’t be as fit as I was again, to a point. It is strenuous though – I put a lot of energy in, and they’re still long shows.

“Mentally, I’m slightly more reasonable. Someone said after the show on Saturday, ‘How can you still be like a child?’ But it’s not something I try, although I have hinted about my arrested development! but the fact I’ve never actually matured is all part of being a creative person.”

I’d use the word infectious, but maybe that’s not a good one to use in public right now.

“No – ha! I was really ill before Christmas and had to cancel a few shows. I was told I was being sent to hospital. I said I wasn’t going to go, but I’d love to have a disease named after me. And he didn’t laugh. But Christmas morning I woke up and I was fine. So now the difference is that I can do things I want to when I want, there’s a backlog of things I haven’t done that have held me up, and my politics are maybe even more radical than they were.”

Well, we need that kind of fire at the moment.

“Sure. It feels like that. And live, I do talk about some aspects of politics. I also have a motto – ‘give a shit or be a shit’. I’ll never get it through a bar of rock, but it’s a way of saying, care about each other, as was the case with Hillsborough in this city – that sense of caring about each other and a sense of community and solidarity.”

I find it difficult even watching the news on telly at the moment.

“A friend was here last week and said, ‘You do know you’re shouting at the TV?’ But there’s more sense in one of my songs about Thatcher than there is sensible debate on Question Time right now.”

With no dodgy audience members either. Meanwhile, Pete’s back to my question about the difference between the 31 and 62-year-old Wylie.

“I’m heavier, and I’ve got slightly less hair. These are the things … if I could change anything, I’d have more hair. I don’t mind being chunky, but I miss my quiff.

“Politically, I’m at least along the same lines, my attitude to almost everything is the same, and I love a lot of the same music. But there are songs on Pete Sounds I probably wouldn’t have recorded before, because I was listening to different music then. And I wanted to be honest. I didn’t want to create a Wah! tribute band, y’know.”

On that front, the strand running throughout Pete’s music is that big sound. He won’t like me saying this, maybe, but last time I listened back to my Handy Wah! Whole CD, it grabbed me that it took a while to get there, the early material more like the Teardrops and that whole scene. But it quickly evolved. Was there a lightbulb moment en route when he found that anthemic, big sound, I wondered. There are certainly plenty of moments on the latest LP, not least on afore-mentioned rousing closing numbers, ‘The Spell is Broken’ and ‘I Still Believe (Love and Soul and Rock and Roll), where he exudes all manner of Mott the Hoople spirit, as he has in the past.

“Well, I always loved Mott the Hoople, and still do. I went to see them last year in Manchester…”

As did I (with my review here). Great night. Normally far too big a venue for me, but it really worked.

“Yeah, and I always loved them, back to hearing the Island singles ‘Midnight Lady’ and their cover of ‘Downtown’ (both 1971) on Radio Luxembourg. I was also a mad Bowie fan, and ‘All the young Dudes’ was the first record I ever bought without hearing it first. Because I knew it was a band I loved and someone else I loved. And I still play that a lot.

“I’ve tried to rationalise (about that sound), and people say it’s like (Phil) Spector, but it’s not. I understand the comparison, but it’s almost bigger than Spector!

Sometimes, that lack of confidence … when I hear myself sing, I can’t tell if I’m doing a good job and how it will affect your or anyone else. I just have to do what I can do. But what I try to do is make records that sound … let me get this right – I’ve never made this into a sentence before … make records that sound like my favourite records make me feel, when I hear ‘All the Young Dudes’ or Bowie or The Clash or Bob Dylan.

“The way they sound to me, sometimes I’m surprised when I then play those records. I wanna get every ounce of everything into those songs. That’s also my personality. It’s not a con. I’m loud and I’m over the top, and stupid, and funny, and clever, and a political beast. I don’t try to make those records sound like that. And of course, I’ve done a lot of acoustic gigs in the past with the same songs and they’re just as effective – which came as a surprise to me when I first did those things about 25 years ago.

“And songwriting was always important to me when I was a kid. I knew I was writing songs that were memorable for some reason. And I always loved big choruses. However, the way I work now is that I re-record songs like ‘The Story of the Blues’ at home, with Anders (Johnsen) who mixes for me, and I play guitar and sing them live, with the laptop as my band.

“I was fed of up of getting bands together and not being able to afford a band the size it would take to do the shows. Even when I did – when I did a tour three years ago – the guys were all really good, but didn’t have time to learn all the detail in the songs … like the ‘diddle-diddle-duh’ in ‘Come Back’ or whatever. And I thought, ‘I don’t want to do it that way and don’t have to do it that way.’ So I’ve re-recorded everything, and the only people you hear at the shows are me and Mersey, my daughter, who sings with me.”

Mersey’s got a lovely voice.

“She’s a killer, y’know! She’s such a goodie. And I’ve never enjoyed playing guitar as much as I do now. It’s almost like discovering it … like I’ve lost my guitar virginity!”

Similarly, because we mentioned The Clash (not least as Pete has said before now, ‘No Clash, no Wah!’), it was like with Mick Jones. He wasn’t consciously copying all his influences, it was like osmosis. It was all there within, finding an outlet via his playing.

“Yeah, exactly, and people would have a jibe at him, saying he was trying to be Keith Richards, but everyone sounds like someone, even if they don’t know it. I listen back to things I’ve done and go, ‘Fucking hell – that’s such a cop off something else!’ But at the time you don’t realise.

“And Mick (Jones) is the other person who significantly changed my life. He saw something in me before I was in bands. He said I was going to be famous, and gave me that guitar. And we need more Mick.”

Would you be able to drag Mick out again? I understand he does the odd quiet gig down the pub.

“I don’t think so, but when he did the Hillsborough tour with us, I did some Clash songs, and he was such a lovely man to be around. But touring’s really hard for people who aren’t young. It’s hard enough when you’re young … physically. I’m not as flexible as I was. And no matter how good the guy driving me is, I know this sounds petty and smug, but it’s not the shows that are tiring, it’s the travelling and having to live with whatever’s available. I’m not in a position to have big showbiz riders and roadies. Of the people who come on tour with me, none are professional, they all have other jobs. They’re not musicians. I have people I like around me. I don’t have a retinue or an entourage.”

It’s a whole different conversation, but my thoughts go out to new and old bands out there  trying to work out what’s happening now the barriers are coming down between the UK and Europe, shamefully.

“Yeah, that’s shocking – the fact that’s changed and it’s going to be so costly. I gave up a few years ago the idea of going back to America. For me to get a visa … last time I went a record company paid and it cost thousands of pounds. And it’s got to be even worse now.

“There’s another difference. I made a joke once which Paul Morley stole the week after on Channel 4, saying a kid goes to his Mum and says, ‘Mum, I want to be a lawyer’, and she says, ‘Listen, get in a band first so you’ve got something to fall back on.” And that’s how it feels to me – the exact opposite of the way it was growing up.

“Someone who works with Anders went to LIPA (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) and there’s a simple way for him and his friends to learn a living from music, whereas for me and my contemporaries, it was a risk, a gamble, all the way through. Some say, ‘What did you ever do? You don’t deserve it’. Some bands that never made it say that. But I took the risks, and we were happy to play in pubs for £50. I’ve never had a royalty cheque and money coming in, I’ve signed on … and do you know what? It doesn’t matter to me. Because of that’s what it takes, that’s what I do. If II want to do my music and not deal with lunatics and compromises … y’know.”

Last time I visited the Museum of Liverpool I was pleased to see you there .., if only in a display case.

“Oh yeah!”

Do things like that seem unreal at times – realising you’re part of history?

“It’s odd … and I like it. I just wish I was more a part of it. We were talking about people who were important to me, and (John) Peel was another who helped me, and we became mates, y’know. But I’m not in any of the biographies. I’ve got recordings and things he’s written about me, where he talks about how much he loves me – not just the band, me personally. Nobody’s ever asked me.

“Whereas, I’m in Pete Townshend’s autobiography, and he says how he loves my songs. And next to my bookcase, there’s a picture of me with my sailor cap on, ‘Story of the Blues’ era, a painting of me by Pete Townshend. I learned to play guitar by listening to Pete, and he was my guitar hero before punk … and still is. I still do things I kind of inherited from him. And I became friends with him. I’ve called him and met up a few times. And he’s great. So y’know, being part of history ain’t bad, but … I’ve had loads of luck, but some of it’s good and some of it’s bad. From breaking my back, or whatever, to all those fantastic things and the people I’ve met. And the fact I’m still here, y’know … I love it!”

There must be those great moments, like hearing ’Heart as Big as Liverpool’ ring out over the PA system at Anfield on matchdays.

“Oh, again that’s a part of being history which you can’t plan or buy. And I didn’t write the song with that thought. It’s one of the most amazing things. Last season, when Liverpool came back from 3-0 down to beat Barcelona 4-0, they were interviewing Pat Nevin on the radio, Big George at Anfield was playing that, and Pat went, ‘There’s Wylie, singing about heart – that’s how they did it!’. And recently, when the young lads won (the club’s youngest-ever side beating Shrewsbury Town in an FA Cup fourth-round replay in early February), ‘Heart’ was playing, and last year it was playing on the bus tour of Liverpool, and I’m really hopeful this year it happens again.”

And while his team had just slipped up for the first time this season when we spoke – losing at Watford in a game he watched on telly during his Worthing soundcheck – he remains positive, their Premier League title two wins away at time of going to press. That said, his schedule means he’s only seen them twice in person this season. But I told him that’s nothing, seeing as I face 500-mile round-trips to see my beloved Woking’s home games from my Lancashire base.

“Wow, that’s a big chunk … whereas here, it’s £500 to get a ticket!”

Discussion followed about his own recent trip to Woking, paying homage to Paul Weller and The Jam ahead of a show even closer to my old Surrey patch at Farncombe’s St John’s Church, ‘an amazing place where this guy Julian (Lewry) puts things on’, on a trip he also recalls buying himself ‘a good coat at a charity shop in Leatherhead’.

“That’s the side of things I like now. I don’t have to worry about anything. I love the soundcheck, know how to set up, and we have our own stage-set, my Disgraceland Wasteland, our little gang pulling it all together so it’s not the same venue it was the night before or the night after. We’re on a budget – no budget really – and just find stuff around the house, like these masks of me through the years.

Our mutual friend Raymond Gorman mentioned in our 2014 interview how you shared the same manager during his That Petrol Emotion days, and would often be ‘hanging around backstage’. He told me, ‘He was great fun. I was drinking quite a lot around then, so although I’ve had all these nights with him, I just remember laughing my head off but nothing about what actually happened’. Are you still that larger-than-life character?

“Well, I’m working with someone, Clare, who says she’s never laughed so much. Her and another mate have been known to pull up the car while driving, as we’re having such a laugh. It’s like comedy Tourette’s or something. I love all that.”

I mentioned Julian Cope, and in his Head On autobiography he describes with flair the night he met Pete and Ian McCulloch (on his 18th birthday) for the first time, at Eric’s for The Clash’s May 5th ’77 appearance on the ‘White Riot’ tour. Of fellow Crucial Three legend Pete, he recalls ‘a bit of a loudmouth’ he’d noticed in Probe Records, ‘so animated’, wearing ‘a black leather jacket and black combat pants’ with ‘a Clash t-shirt under the jacket which was zipped halfway,’ his hair ‘natural black and gelled into a boyish quiff’, the ‘most enthusiastic person I had ever seen’ … and on his leather was a homemade badge, it said ‘Rebel Without a Degree’.’ Does Pete still have that badge?

“Course I have! I’ve got all those badges, including a big three-inch badge from Eric’s from when Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers were supported by The Police, when they were a four-piece (March 1977, when Henry Padovani was lead guitarist, before Andy Summers stepped up and the band reverted to being a trio). And I’ve got all my Ramones and Clash things, because they still mean so much to me. There’s a plan hopefully for an archive, with photos of everything for people to see, like Bob Dylan’s autograph, my hat from ‘The Story of the Blues’. All kinds of mad stuff from over the years.”

Did you get along to the Cunard Building for the About the Young Idea exhibition featuring The Jam memorabilia? That was great.

“Yep, I did. It was good, yeah.”

By the sound of it, you could fill a room that size with your own artefacts.

“Probably … but I wouldn’t want to dust it. There’s just too much. Clare says it’s like one of those Channel 5 documentaries – she’s scared of coming round and I’ll be under a pile of comics. I said it depends who the comics are. But I’m fine with all that, and there’s a plan to properly organise it over the next couple of years, while I’ve still got some energy, y’know.”

On the back of a Wah!tobiography maybe?

“A memwah! That’s the future, and this is the way of kick-starting those memories. But every time I’ve sat down it takes too long, ‘cos I digress away all the time. I’m going to talk to Clare about it and she can transpose it. Is it transpose?”

Erm, transcribe … unless you’re writing it back to front.

“Well, that’s probably true … that’s the way I talk sometimes. But I’ve got plenty of adventures to mention, and talk about a few in the show. Some of the great things and the not so great.  That’s the nature of it.”

We’ve already been talking for an age by this point, but I ask one more question – does Pete still truly believe, as per his inspirational closing statement on Pete Sounds, in the power of song, the power of soul, the power of love, and does he still believe in rock’n’roll?

“I absolutely do. In fact, I believe in it all the more now. Because I’m living proof that those things work … there you go!”

Pete’s Point: The man himself, on the road and likely to be coming to a town near you soon (Photo: Brian Roberts)

The Pete Wylie Show heads next to Newcastle The Cluny (Friday, March 13th), Selby Town Hall (Saturday, March 14th), Edinburgh Bannerman’s (Thursday, March 26th), Stockton-on-Tees Georgian Theatre (Friday, March 27th), Wigan Old Courts (Friday, April 3rd), Ashton-under-Lyne The Witchwood (Saturday, April 4th), Blackpool The Waterloo (Thursday, April 9th), and Cardiff The Globe (Saturday, May 2nd). For further details and to track down Pete Sounds and the back-catalogue, head to his website.

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From Circular Quay to Monks Road and onwards – back in touch with Dr Robert about The Blow Monkeys

Scene Stealers: The Blow Monkeys have a handful of UK dates, with more set for their 40th anniversary in 2021

While sleet, high winds and plenty of rain battered my adopted Lancashire and Spanish intruder Storm Jorge followed in the wake of his pals Brendan, Ciara and Dennis, I found Robert Howard, aka Dr Robert, at home near Granada, enjoying ‘another boring sunny day’.

He’s not due back to the UK until April, but there are plans for a new Monks Road Social album, a third in 18 months (also due next month), in an ongoing project brought to life by Richard Clarke and curated by Robert, having already seen contributions from the likes of Mick Talbot and Steve White (The Style Council), Matt Deighton (Mother Earth) and Neil Jones (Stone Foundation), following its founder’s vision of creating an environment where musicians, poets and artisans can celebrate and be celebrated for their craft.

“At the start, when Richard asked me to put something together, I turned to a few people I know like Crispin (Taylor) and Ernie (McKone) from Galliano, and Mick Talbot, and it grew from there really. It started as a vehicle for my songs then expanded, with everyone bringing their songs in and getting involved. It’s just about doing something for the sake of music really. But you need somebody to oversee and organise it, and that fell to me, and I was happy to do that. Yeah, we’re pushing on, I’m really enjoying it and it feeds into everything else I do.”

That’s a point in itself, because listening to some of those recordings and back to the most recent Blow Monkeys LP, The Wild River – the band’s 10th album, and their fifth since returning in 2007 after a 17-year lay-off – you can tell you’re enjoying your music and you’ve rediscovered that early soulful fire you had back in the day.  There’s certainly a great vibe to both that and the side-project.

“Yeah, I guess so. It was the first album where I’ve fully gone back to our soul thing, and while these moves aren’t really calculated I’m really happy with that album – it seems to have done quite well and it’s translated well live. We’ve put quite a few of those songs into the set and enjoy doing them.

“And I’m currently writing the new one, which will hopefully be ready early next year, in what will be our 40th anniversary year … which is kind of mad! We plan to have a new album and do a proper tour then. But yes, I’ve been writing a lot, and I guess it’s from a good place.”

With Robert (guitar, vocals) still aided by fellow originals Mick Anker (bass guitar, him of the bowler hat back in the day) and Neville Henry (Saxophone) plus afore-mentioned more recent recruit Crispin Taylor (drums, percussion) there are a handful of dates in the coming months, including those on my patch in the North West. Will they involve a mix across the albums?

“Yeah, that’s kind of what we always do, but we are playing quite a lot of new stuff and we play the old stuff in a way that’s comfortable now. I haven’t put together a set-list yet, but it’s certainly not just about nostalgia.”

That doesn’t surprise me. I can’t see you going out as a tribute act to yourself.

“Well no … although we’d probably do better if we were – that’s how people seem to work these days. But I can’t seem to get the motivation to just go out there and do old stuff. There needs to be something new going on. We need to keep it fresh for ourselves.”

You’ve always looked to moving things on,  which reminds me how I was watching a BBC Four re-run of Top of the Pops the other night and saw you and Kym Mazelle performing ‘Wait’, in itself a big departure, reflecting your love at the time of house music and all that.

“Yeah, in some ways we were moving too fast for our audience, to be honest, just three years after ’Digging Your Scene’. People knew where we were then, but by the time we got to 1989 … and ‘Springtime for the World’ the following year was almost Balaeric. And that mind of ostracised a few people. But that’s what I was going through, living in London, sharing a flat for some of that time with a DJ and exposed to all sorts of things that were going on, and I wanted to reflect that in our music.”

Thinking of that collaboration with Kym, I was wondering how it must have been for you to get into the studio with one of your heroes, Curtis Mayfield, pinching yourself that you were really there with him.

“Yeah, I definitely thought that. When we sang that song, we did it together in the studio, I was facing him and doing my Curtis Mayfield impression, and there was the real man right there! But he made me feel really relaxed and was everything you expected someone like Curtis to be. He was a lovely man. You do get those ‘pinch me’ moments, but then you find out that they’re all just flawed human beings like everyone else, and usually the talented ones are the most modest.

“Curtis taught me a lot, and I’d grown up with his music, which was so informative to my life.”

It’s clearly an influence that stays with you. You only have to listen to the wonderful ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ on The Wild River to hear that, both Curtis and his previous band The Impressions springing to mind.

“Well, The Impressions was the one for me. I soaked up everything they ever did, buying all the singles and so on, retrospectively, as I was obviously too young at the time. I remember talking to Curtis backstage about the Impressions, getting out my guitar and playing rare B-sides to him, asking him about them. He’d forgotten half of them. He was just churning them out and was so busy at the time, producing albums and all sorts in Chicago. He was a one-man factory. Yeah, I love The Impressions, those three-part harmonies and the simplicity of the songs. Just the purity of it all. It’s lovely.”

As you mentioned that 40th anniversary not far around the corner, when you go back and listen to really early Blow Monkeys tracks like debut single ‘Live Today, Love Tomorrow’, what do you think now, with added perspective?

“I haven’t listened to that particular song for a long time, but I just hear someone who was very young and wanting to be heard, trying to break out and find his way. I wasn’t particularly schooled in songwriting and didn’t come from any tradition of that. I was learning on the job. I was keen. You’re not really sure what those songs are about at the time, but in retrospect I see a little bit more … without getting too deeply psychological. I was just trying things out, and still am really. I think the biggest fear for me would be the fear of just repeating myself. But I hope I would be honest enough to stop at that point.”

Backed Winners: The Blow Monkeys in 2020, from the left – Neville Henry, Dr Robert, Crispin Taylor, Mick Anker.

It’s good enough for many artists from that era.

“Sure, and that’s fine. I could stop writing and just play those songs, but I don’t want to do that. The biggest thrill is still starting off with a little pearl of an idea and seeing it evolve into a song, then listening back to it, and with other people hearing it if you’re lucky enough.”

What would you say was the first song you wrote of which you felt, ‘Bloody hell, this is good!’?

“One of the early songs we did was ‘Man From Russia’, a rare co-write between the bass player, Mick (Anker) and me. He had this little riff and I felt, ‘This is good’. And people started to react to that live, way before we were signed and way before we recorded a version of that on (debut LP) Limping for a Generation.

“And I guess for me I’d go way back to when I started busking, when I was a teenager and lived in Australia. I could never remember the words to people’s songs, so started ad-libbing my own songs. You’re standing there all day, and if just one person stops and listens to you for a while … that’s when I got hooked, I guess, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

That was in Sydney, I seem to recall … at Circular Quay, as reflected in the song of the same name on your splendid 1994 debut solo LP, Realms of Gold. I have great memories of that place myself from my own travels at the turn of the ’90s, but wasn’t there quite as long as you.

“Well, I was only there four years, but they were my teenage years and were four very informative years.”

Robert moved to Australia with his Mum after his father died, following his sister out there, having lived in King’s Lynn in Norfolk from around the age of six.

“King’s Lynn was where I went to school, where I grew up and where I first listened to music. Yeah, a funny old place, the Fenlands.”

Float On: The Blow Monkeys, a new album is on the cards for next year, four while decades after their arrival

Absolutely, and an area you paid tribute to on your Flatlands solo album in 1999 on the tour where I finally first caught you live. And you convey that feeling of landscape very well.

“Well, that was a challenge. I wanted to write about the landscape and the area and the place where I grew up. As a kid I wanted to get away, but when I went back in later life, I saw it for what it really was. That was the starting point. And I’m quite fond of that album. I really did it on my own on an eight-track, and it was the first time I’d not gone into a studio, not had a record company and not had any other musicians. And I think that gave it a certain something.”

I agree, and it’s an album I was thinking about again recently when fellow WriteWyattUK double-interviewee Neil Sheasby, a core partner of the afore-mentioned Neil Jones in Stone Foundation, wrote online about the importance to him of Realms of Gold.

“Ah, yeah, he does a great blog, and they’re doing really well and deserve that. They’re pushing on, aren’t they.”

True, and you’ve played a part in that story, one of many big-name contributors guesting with them live and in the studio.”

“Well, a little bit, but of course Paul Weller’s helped an awful lot. He’s been very generous, and they deserve it. And the two Neils are true believers, y’know.”

Agreed, and talking of Paul, have you done anything with Mr Weller of late?

“No, but I bumped into him at a Stone Foundation gig a couple of years ago, it was great to see him, and we WhatsApp a bit here and there. He’s been listening to the Monks Road and I always listen to whatever he does.”

I guess he’s the sort of fella who’ll keep you on your toes, musically, inspiring you to try out new material and push on, like you say.

“Sure, Paul’s always moving, and you’ve got to respect him for that. He doesn’t play it safe and never gives his audience what they think they want. He always goes where he wants to go, and I think that’s real integrity.”

Before we wrap up for now, I’ll return to Blow Monkeys territory, and your North London early days with Mick Anker (bass) and Neville Henry (sax). Remind me how you got to know each other.

“When I came back from Australia I answered an ad in the back of Melody Maker, then went up to Jacksons Lane Community Centre in Highgate, and there was Nev with a couple of others. And within a week we’d pretty much sacked off the rest of the band and decided that we wanted to form our own band. So we got Mick in, and there was a young kid hanging around playing drums, called Angus, who became our original drummer. And from that point on we just went for it.

“This was 1981 and we decided everyone was going to give up their jobs, we were going to rehearse five days a week, and it was full on. Those were the days when we were on the dole and you could live on the dole, it was like a safety net. A lot of bands couldn’t have existed without that, we didn’t get a deal for another four years and gigs were hard to get. We didn’t know anyone. It’s about starting right at the bottom, but we got a strong bond because of that.”

Well, we could quite easily get on from that to what this current generation of emerging bands face now, with changes afoot with regard to crossing borders following the dreaded B-word, throwing away our EU membership and the like. But we’ll save that for next time, right?

“Yeah, yeah, that’s another discussion!”

For the previous WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Dr Robert, from March 2016, head here.

Springtime Beckons: Crispin, Robert, Neville, Mick, aka The Blow Monkeys, on a creative, soulful high again right now

The Blow Monkeys play Altrincham’s Cinnamon Club on Friday, April 3rd, Lytham St Annes’ Lowther Pavilion on Sunday, April 12th (01253 794221), the Robin 2 in Bilston on Thursday, July 9th, Wigan The Old Courts on Saturday, July 11th, and The Atrium at Tower House, Douglas on the Isle of Man on Friday, July 24th. To keep up to date with the band’s plans, you can find out more via their website and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter platforms. And for more about Monks Road Social, including a Monday, May 11th live date at Camden’s Jazz Cafe in London, head here.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, sorry Graham. Where were you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you did this LP in two chunks of recording?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha! Oh, there you go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha! Lovely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prototype: Before Cornershop, there was The General Havoc

The Prototype: Before Cornershop, there was The General Havoc

Keeping the traffic moving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, it could be.”

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

Was she your spirit guide right through this listening experience.

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

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

A gatefold sleeve?

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To find out more, follow West on Colfax on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  You can also follow Greenhorse Records on Facebook and Instagram, and visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenny tails off for a bit there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And scrape off more wood chip.”

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

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

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The Resurrection of Giant Drag – in conversation with Annie Hardy

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

‘Is that the good doctor?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it all worked out pretty well.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. and that’s so cool.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you decide on Seattle chiefly because of Phil Ek?

Jessica: “Yeah, primarily.”

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

Jessica: “Did you say that, Kath?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica: “Ah, that sounds so sad!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica: “Exactly!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blimey. Is that a good thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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