When lockdown first kicked in, PM Warson, had only just finished recording his debut album, True Story.
Faced with no gigs to promote it, once restrictions allowed, the UK soul-R’n’B-garage rock singer-songwriter went straight back into the studio – a small room in an industrial storage unit, in Stoke Newington, North East London – to work on a new record. The result is his second album, Dig Deep Repeat, a brilliant collection of raw and soulful songs, albeit with a harder edge to them than those on his debut.
Warson, who is 32, is in thrall to the classic sounds of Ray Charles and Booker T. and the M.Gs, but this time around he’s also paid homage to his love of ’60s pop music, like Phil Spector, as well as vintage garage-rock and the surf instrumentals of Dick Dale, Link Wray and Duane Eddy.
First single, the high-octane Leaving Here is a reworking of an early Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown song that’s been known on the R ‘n’ B scene for years, and covered by The Who, among others, but Warson takes it back to its soul roots while still keeping its garage-rock credentials intact.
Game of Chance and Out of Mind are dramatic and haunting ’60s-pop-inspired songs, the ferocious surf-styled instrumental Dig Deep could grace the soundtrack of a Tarantino movie, and the stunning, organ-drenched soul ballad, Matter of Time, is so authentic that it sounds like a standard. You can’t believe it’s not an obscure track that vinyl-loving Warson hasn’t dug up while crate digging and taught his band to play.
His new album has been on the Say It With Garage Flowers turntable for the past couple of weeks and we’re loath to take it off. We just want to, er, dig deep and repeat…
“The title came from a remark that I made when it got to the point when I didn’t know what I was going to do next,” Warson tells us, in an exclusive interview.
“‘I guess I’ll have to dig deep and make another record – dig deep repeat.’ It was a working title, but when it came to it, I thought, ‘That’s the one – I’ll just go with it…”
Your first album, True Story, came out in 2021 – you finished it just before lockdown, didn’t you?
PM Warson: Yeah – the last session for the first album was almost the day before lockdown. I was really lucky, but it left me in a bit of a jam because it was recorded pretty old school, which is how I do my stuff… But I found a way to make it work and I managed to get the album out, which felt like a bit of an achievement to be honest.
You’d put out a few, self-financed 7in vinyl singles before then, hadn’t you?
PMW: Exactly – I did a run of singles and then Légère Recordings in Hamburg offered me the chance to work a full-length album, which I did just in the nick of time. I guess this one just follows on from that.
Did lockdown accelerate the process of making a second album? I guess if you hadn’t been locked down, you’d have been touring the first record, rather than making the follow-up…
PMW: Exactly. I lost a couple of great gigs – they disappeared – but then I pushed the first album through and that gave me a little bit more coverage than I was expecting for an unknown artist. I didn’t have any digital platform at all, apart from basic social media – I wasn’t on Spotify. I had an international following, but it was just guys who were into 45s.
The first album got quite a decent listenership – particularly in Europe – but I wasn’t able to capitalise on that. Things kept on getting cancelled, moved or not booked at all.
‘I didn’t have any digital platform at all, apart from basic social media – I wasn’t on Spotify. I had an international following, but it was just guys who were into 45s’
During that second lockdown, in January, when I could still go into the studio to work on stuff, I started playing around in a little room in Stoke Newington, which is where I had finished the first record. Initially, I didn’t have much of an idea of what to do, but when it became clear that I wasn’t able to tour, I was like, ‘I’m just going to make another record.’
I’m really pleased with the record, given the circumstances – it’s true to my ideal of what I think records should sound like, despite the fact it wasn’t an ideal time to try and do that kind of thing.
Did you have the songs for the second album already written?
PMW: This process was quite different. Before I put my first singles out, I was doing house band sets at Blues Kitchen and Old Street Records, playing for a couple of hours, doing R ‘n’ B covers with my band, and then I started slipping some of own tunes in – the songs developed and then I cut the 45s. They were written, performed and recorded.
This time, it was almost the other way round – the songs were developed in the studio. It was a completely different approach. There’s a lot of live recording on this album – guitar, bass and drums – but it built from there, rather than with more going on on the live track.
‘The first record had more of a late ‘50s approach, with more of the band in the room, but this one is more mid-‘60s, where you get the basic track down and add to it’
What’s your recording process like?
PMW: There are people who’ve made great records by layering things up, but that’s just not my thing… I’m a great believer in live tracking. I have a great rhythm section who’ve been with me since the beginning: Billy Stookes [drums] and Pete Thomas [bass]. Just the three of us recorded the basic tracks.
The first record had more of a late ‘50s approach, with more of the band in the room, but this one is more mid-‘60s, where you get the basic track down and add to it.
I think the new record sounds harder and edgier than the first one.Was that a conscious decision?
PMW: It kind of turned out like that, partly because of the situation – inevitably there was a bit of frustration. The other thing is that just the three of us were developing songs, so, just by the nature of it, is was a bit rockier. We were all in that small room in Stoke Newington, recording on an Atari 8-track, so it was a bit more guitar-driven.
Some of the songs, like the first single, Leaving Here, have a garage-rock feel whereas the first album is more soul, although, of course, this record is soulful too…
PMW: Yeah – the first record is more soul and swing, I guess. It’s a crossover between jazz and R ‘n’B. On this one, the jazz is still there, but it’s been slightly pushed out in favour of a more ‘60s rock kind of thing. That suited the material and we were jamming ideas – there’s a hint of jam band about it, but we’re not going in a My Morning Jacket direction. There are a few long outros, which is where we’re digging in on an idea.
What’s your fascination with ‘old school’ recording and using vintage gear?
PMW: I have that stuff, but I don’t know how to use it to its maximum potential. The main thing to take away from analogue equipment is that it gives you a certain sound, which some people argue could be emulated with software – maybe it can, maybe it can’t – but, the thing is, it just makes you play kind of differently. The directness of live tracking all together with no editing makes everyone a little bit more engaged. You’ve got to get it right and you don’t get precious – you’re serving the song and you’re not indulging. When you’re doing overdubs, you either play it and it’s right and you keep it, or you do it again.
Did you record the brass, backing vocals and keys in Stoke Newington, too?
PMW: Yes – it was all done in that room, apart from some of the Hammond organ, the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, which were played by Stephen ‘Lord’ Large, who has an amazing collection of vintage gear, and a young American guy, called Jack McGaughey, who I picked up along the way. Once the tracks were down, and lockdown was lifted, everyone came in.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the record. The opening track, Insider, starts off having a slightly sinister, menacing feel to it, with guitar and piano, but when the soulful girl group backing vocals come in, they lighten the mood…
PMW: Yeah – I think that was the first idea that we worked on in the room and I think I played a six-string Fender bass on it, working that riff with the drummer. It’s a play on the standard blues form – it has quite a dark atmosphere, but it opens up when we go to the major chord in the chorus.
Leaving Here, the first single, is a cover of an early Motown song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland song. I don’t know the original…
PMW: Eddie Holland had a singing career before he started writing. The original song was a Motown release, but they hadn’t dialed in the Motown sound at that point – it’s quite a ropey recording. It’s got the vibe of a demo that’s been recorded for another artist to sing. The version that’s more well known is by The Who – that’s how I know it. The Birds – that Ronnie Wood was in – also did it. It’s been in rock circles, but I wanted to take it back… I started playing the riff in the studio and embellished it in my own way.
Game of Chance (By Another Name) and Out of Mind both have a dramatic ’60s pop feel…
PMW: Alongside the Ray Charles R ‘n’ B, which is the first world that I’m from, I also like ’60s pop records – there’s a bit of Phil Spector in there, but it’s still guitar-oriented because of the arrangements we were doing.
You didn’t use strings on the songs…
PMW: Exactly. What I like about this album is that there’s something authentic about only using what’s available to you – it encapsulates a certain era. It’s a nice ethos. Maybe I could’ve waited to do the record at a bigger studio, but I sometimes think pressing ahead is the way forward.
Never In Doubt has a late-night, bluesy feel…
PMW: That one’s been following me around for a while – it’s a variation on a classic blues thing and you can hear a bit of Green Onions or Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson in it, but we slowed it down and made it a little bit more brooding.
I love the instrumental, Dig Deep, as I’m a massive fan of twangy guitar and surf sounds, like Link Wray, Dick Dale and Duane Eddy. That track breaks up the record halfway through….
PMW: I wrote that tune when I was a teenager – I’ve had it for a long time. On the first record there’s a song called You’ve Got To Tell Me – that and the title track, True Story, were written when I was at secondary school – I played in a garage-rock-indie band – and a few of the songs were around then, but I never really found a home for them. Dig Deep was a late insert – we needed a lift on the record and I remembered that I had a surf instrumental. I rejigged it – our drummer, Billy, is so good that we did the full Wipe Out on it.
One of my favourite songs on the album is Matter of Time – it’s a big soul ballad, with some great organ and piano…
PMW: Exactly – it’s a real change of pace for me. I’m pleased with that one. I got really into a vocal group called The Sapphires. They had one song called Gotta Have Your Love that’s well known in Northern Soul circles, but they did some great, dreamy dark pop as well – a bit like The Shangri-Las but not as obvious. They influenced the chorus of Matter of Time.
I think Matter of Time sounds like a standard – a classic soul song that’s been around for years…
PMW: Oh, great – that’s very flattering. That’s the world I really love and the fact that I’ve managed to capture a little bit of that is what I’m aiming to do.
So, with two albums out since 2021, you don’t feel any pressure to do a third record yet, then…
PMW: I’m not sure – I’ve got a session coming up, so I’m already looking. I don’t know what’s coming up, but I love producing records like this – I’ll always be inclined to come up with something. Maybe I’ll do some 45s, or another LP. We’ll see.
How did you first get into ’50s and ’60s music?
PMW: Through my folks. They’re not quite of that age – they didn’t grow up with The Beatles and The Kinks and all that stuff, but I got fed that. I can remember us having a Sounds of the Sixties compilation – it had some real naff stuff on it, but it also had Working in the Coal Mine, Barefootin’ and You Really Got Me on it. They’re great tracks and they really stuck in my mind. I’m not a big Beatles worshipper these days – I went through a phase when I was at school – but, when I was a kid, we had all their films recorded off the telly.
‘I love linking records together, and seeing who produced what. I’ve always done that’
When I was older, I had a friend called Andy whose mum was really into ’60s soul – when she heard I was into it, she’d say, ‘Try this’. It was the CD era – things like The Best of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Muddy Waters or the Spencer Davis Group, so I got into that, and my dad was into New Wave, so I got into Elvis Costello and all that stuff.
My mind has always made connections between those records – I love linking records together, and seeing who produced what. I’ve always done that. If, when I was 16, someone said, ‘We’re really influenced by The Byrds,’ I would buy The Best of The Byrds.
Who are your musical heroes?
PMW: Ray Charles is a big one and Steve Cropper has always been up there for me. I also love being absolutely floored by a track I’ve never heard before. You get that when you dig around – whether it’s records or just going by recommendations. I’ve found a tune by Jimmy “Preacher” Ellis called Since I Fell For You – it’s amazing.
Dig Deep Repeat is out now on Légère Recordings.
PM Warson is playing at The Night Owl, Finsbury Park, London on June 1 and The Red Rooster Festival, Thetford, on June 4.
The Struggle, the new record by singer-songwriter, Michael Weston King, is his first solo album in 10 years.
It’s also one of the best albums of the year so far – a stunning collection of moving, well-crafted and wonderfully arranged songs, recorded in rural Wales, with producer, engineer and musician, Clovis Phillips.
The album sees Weston King stepping away from his day job, as one half of husband-and-wife country / Americana duo, My Darling Clementine (with Lou Dalgleish), and, instead, mining a rich seam of late ’60s/ early ’70s singer-songwriters, like Mickey Newbury, Dan Penn, Jesse Winchester, John Prine, Bobby Charles and early Van Morrison.
Mixed at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with Weston King’s long-time collaborator/producer, Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley / Jarvis Cocker), musically, it embraces country-soul, Celtic folk and jazz, and lyrically it tackles subjects including the Trump presidency, mental health issues, loneliness, death and the tales of a wayfaring singer-songwriter.
Two of the songs are co-writes. Sugar was penned with US singer-songwriter, Peter Case, while Theory of Truthmakers sees Weston King putting music to unused lyrics by his friend, Scottish songwriter and musician, Jackie Leven, who died in 2011.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Weston King on the phone – he was at his home in Manchester – and asked him to tell us the stories behind the writing and recording of the songs.
He also got to ask us an all-important question: “Have you ever been to Southport?”
The Struggle is your first solo album in 10 years and it was recorded in a remote Welsh studio – Add-A-Band, in Newtown. How did the record and the sessions come about?
Michael Weston King: My friend, Jeb Loy Nichols, told me about a small studio in Mid Wales and the guy who runs it – Clovis Phillips. The name alone was enough to entice me. Anybody called Clovis has got to have something going for him.
I went down there, fell in love with the place and got on well with him. It was very cathartic for me – it got me out of the house. It’s about a two-hour drive from Manchester and it was a much-needed change of scenery. It was also a creative outlet – I didn’t do it because I felt like I needed to make a record. It was to stop myself going mad. I wanted to do something constructive.
‘It’s been a long time since a label’s been screaming at me for a new record. I’m not like Adele, or anything…’
And you recorded it between winter 2020 and spring 2021…
MWK: Yeah – I had little trips down there, for two or three days. I rented a cabin nearby. I didn’t have all the songs ready to go, so I went away and wrote a couple more once I saw how the album was going.
After that, we mixed it in Yellow Arch, Sheffield, with Colin Elliot. There was no sort of deadline that it had to be done by, so I just did it as and when – I set my own deadlines, which is what I’ve done for the past 20 years. I’m a great prevaricator – if I don’t set deadlines, I’ll put things off. It’s been a long time since a label’s been screaming at me for a new record. I’m not like Adele, or anything…
How did you approach writing and recording this album? It’s very much in the vein of singer-songwriter records from the late ‘60s/ early ’70, rather than ‘Americana,’ isn’t it? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?
MWK: Yeah – if I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970, but that would’ve meant an orchestra on every track. One of the songs, Another Dying Day, was the starting point – it was the most Newburyesque song. We put strings on it and approached it in the same way that he’d recorded a lot of his stuff, with a lot of nylon-strung guitar. Some of the other songs happened organically and went off in other directions.
I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record, but country-soul was always at the heart of it – a bit of a Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham vibe. We have some Wurlitzer on there.
‘I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record. If I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970’
Weight of The World has a country-soul feel, and I love the guitar break on it… There are some lovely arrangements on the record.
MWK: Thanks, man. I did the arrangements, but Clovis did all the playing from, apart from specialist stuff, like trombone. I sang it and he played it, basically. I didn’t want any drums on the record, but there is one track with drums on – he played those, as well as the bass and pretty much all the guitars. He takes a lot of credit for what he contributed.
Let’s talk about Weight of the World, which was the first song you shared from the album.It’s written from the point of view of a Washington D.C. policeman who votes for Trump due to peer pressure but regrets his actions. It was inspired by Trump’s horrible PR stunt outside St. John’s Church in Washington, wasn’t it?
MWK: Absolutely – you’ve summed it up perfectly. There were many grotesque things that happened during Trump’s presidency but for some reason I found that more grotesque than anything – the way protesters were swept off the streets like they were rioters.
I didn’t feel I could write about it as if was there – I wasn’t – and I’m not American, so I put the song and the voice in the hands of someone who was there. That day, a lot of people who voted for Trump might’ve thought better of their actions – it was a turning point for a lot of people.
The song Sugar is a co-write with Peter Case…
MWK: I was out at a songwriting retreat in Lafayette [Louisiana] – Peter was there too. We’ve known each other for years and done stuff together before. He kicked it off – it’s more his song than mine. He had an idea that he wanted to write a song about sugar. For me, that could be anything – is it drugs, or is it a woman? It’s vague – anything that intoxicates you is what sugar represents in the song. It’s got Peter’s stamp on it and I liked it. I started playing it with Clovis and it came together nicely. It’s one of those songs that kind of just plays itself, and it was nice to have a collaboration with one of my favourite songwriters on the record.
There are some sad songs on the record. The Hardest Thing Of All deals with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. Those themes also crop up on Another Dying Day, and the title of the album reflects those issues too…
MWK: Yeah – the daily struggle. We’ve all been through that in the past couple of years, but, equally, regardless of the pandemic, life is a struggle a lot of the time for a lot of people – and the older you get, sometimes it seems harder.
I’ve had problems with my mental health over the past few years. The Hardest Thing Of All is about that feeling when you don’t want to get up or do anything – you just want to hide away. It kind of all fell out and tumbled into that song. It’s not a new message, but I think it’s a commonplace one. Quite a lot of people I know who’ve heard the album have related to it.
Even though The Hardest Thing Of All deals with a dark subject matter, it has a lovely warm arrangement, with some great Southern soul organ…
MWK: It’s a very melodic and kind of uplifting tune set against some pretty dark lyrics – I like that juxtaposition. Clovis played some fantastic organ on it. When I listen back to that song, and when we play it live, I can imagine it with a bigger arrangement – it would really lend itself to drums.
What can you tell us about Another Dying Day? It has some wonderful, subtle strings on it…
MWK: Thanks. That’s an older song – it was written when I was still living in Birmingham. I used to have a neighbour who was always very hale and hearty – everything was “top of the morning”. If you looked at his garden, everything was growing and blooming, but mine was overgrown and needed weeding. It was a metaphor for his life and how I was feeling at the time.
If you’re a ‘pub person’, you see so many people who, the minute the door’s open, are there for the rest of the day. At times, I’ve almost got to that point – the song is about that battle to try and kill the day and do something constructive. It’s something we could all easily fall into if we let it.
‘Regardless of the pandemic, life is a struggle a lot of the time and the older you get, sometimes it seems harder’
The Final Reel is a folk song, with a Celtic feel. It reminds me of early Van Morrison…
MWK: That was the idea – it was written about Jackie Leven. He was hugely influenced by Van – Jackie had one large foot in the folk/ Celtic world and, if you were describing him, you could call him a “Celtic soul singer.” I wanted to try and write a song that was in his style.
I wrote it a long time ago – the week before Jackie died. I was doing a concert in Perth [Scotland] – on the way there, I was driving past Loch Leven, so I stopped, walked along the shore and gave Jackie a ring to see how he was doing – he was already in hospital at that point and it was clear he wasn’t coming out.
I thought I’d give him a ring and tell him where I was – we had a chat and a laugh and when I hung up, that was the last time I spoke to him. The song is a reflection of that – it sets the scene of where I wrote it and it’s also about what he and I did, as wandering minstrels. We did hundreds of shows together – the tales of the wayfaring singer-songwriter. That’s what I tried to convey in the song.
This seems like a good moment to talk about the song Theory of Truthmakers, which is based on unpublished lyrics by Leven, which you’ve set music to…
MWK: Yeah – we had a mutual friend, called Allan Black, who is a great painter who lives in Glasgow – a lovely, unassuming guy. Jackie used his art on one of his albums. They were travelling together one day and Jackie wrote some lyrics – for some reason, he gave them to Allan, who kept them as a souvenir. He mentioned it to me and I said, ‘I’d love to see them,’ so he sent them to me and I thought I would try and put them to music. The idea was that the song would go on a Jackie tribute album that I curated last year, but it didn’t get finished in time, so it’s on this record.
It has a cinematic feel and is slightly jazzy…
MWK: Yes, and the song The Old Soft Shoe on the record has a bit of a jazz feel… The chord pattern on Theory of Truthmakers isn’t the sort of thing I usually write. For the chorus, I was trying to write something big, like Heroes, or a song I could imagine Scott Walker singing.
You mentioned The Old Soft Shoe – that’s another sad song, with mournful trombone on it. It’s about loneliness – a man is lamenting the loss of someone, and he’s dancing alone, practising steps…
MWK: Exactly – it’s the guy’s memories of his wife or partner, and dancing was their thing. He doesn’t having a dancing partner any more, but he still dances on his own at home. I wanted to write a song like Jesse Winchester’s Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding. It’s just the most beautiful song – a few years ago, he sang it it on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV show and it killed everybody. Any songwriter who saw it must’ve just thought ‘oh my God – let’s see if I can have a go at writing something like that.’ I was the only one stupid enough to try it.
‘I wanted to write a song like Jesse Winchester’s Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding. It’s just beautiful’
And so to another sad song… Valerie’s Coming Home. It’s really poignant and is about the end of someone’s life and sorting through their possessions…
MWK: Valerie was Lou’s mum – she died just before Covid hit. It was a blessing in a way, because we didn’t have to go through all the estrangement that would’ve happened with Covid. The song just sort of happened – I had quite a close relationship with Lou’s mum. There’s a line in it about me opening a window – like a classic old person, her room was always boiling hot. It also says, ‘Oh, close it Frank, you’ll let the heat out’ – for some reason, even though I knew her for 23 years, she always called me Frank. Apparently he was some kind of old family member who was a bit of a wide boy – a ladies’ man. So, why she associated him with me…. Anyway, I was “Frank” for many years.
Funnily enough, the next song on the album after that one is called Me & Frank…
Lyrically, it’s a bit Springsteenesque – a story song about the antics of two young boys, which includes stealing a horse…
MWK: Yeah – it’s my attempt at John Prine, rather than Springsteen, but I know what you mean – that Nebraska feel. It has an American folk song narrative.
When I was in my teens, I used to hang out with a guy called Anthony. We lived in Southport – he lived very near the sea – and he always had these schemes about making money. Have you ever been to Southport?
No, I haven’t…
MWK: The sea hardly ever comes in – it’s a bit of a running joke. There’s a lot of grass on the beach – we used to collect grass seeds, bag them up and sell them door-to-door to make money. His family were fishing people – his dad was a shrimper – and they used to give us mackerel, which we sold.
‘Some of the things in the song are true and some are fictional for the sake of the storyline. We didn’t actually steal a horse’
We were scallywags, selling what we could to make a bit of money. I wanted to write a song about that, but it needed to be a bit more interesting than that, so some of the things in the song are true and some are fictional for the sake of the storyline. We didn’t actually steal a horse, but there was a horse at the back of his garden.
The funny thing is that Anthony has gone one to become a millionaire landscape gardener – one of his clients is Dave Gilmour. From selling grass seeds, all these years later gardening has become his chosen profession.
MWK: One of the reasons I did the solo album was because the songs I was writing didn’t feel right for My Darling Clementine. When I write for My Darling Clementine, I’m writing for two voices – it’s a very different song. These songs were for one voice, hence that’s why it’s a solo record. We’ll see – hopefully Lou has been grafting away and coming up with some songs too.
If we do any recording this year, it will be for My Darling Clementine, but I’m not sure in what guise. It could be full-blown, or we might make an acoustic record. I don’t know – I’ve got one or two songs that would work.
Maybe you could do an album of songs themed around people called Frank?
To Be Perfectly Frank? Actually, that sounds like the title of one of those awful Robbie Williams swing albums.
MWK: Yes – it does…
The Struggle by Michael Weston King is out now on Cherry Red Records.
The last time I spoke to London’s kings of cosmic country, The Hanging Stars, it was late January 2020 – ahead of the release of their third album, A New Kind Of Sky, which was their best to date – a mix of cinematic sounds, psych, jangle-pop, folk and country rock.
We spent the evening in a pub in London’s East End, chatting about the record. While I was getting a round in, a man standing at the bar, who told me he worked for the NHS, said he and his colleagues were very worried about a new virus that had originated from China…
It’s now over two years later, in early February, and I’m back in a London pub, this time on the edge of the West End, in Denmark Street – Tin Pan Alley and guitar-shopping destination – with The Hanging Stars… well, one of them, frontman, Richard Olson.
We have a brand new album to discuss, the brilliant HollowHeart, and it’s the first interview he’s given about the record.
Hollow Heart is even better than its predecessor and sees The Hanging Stars pushing themselves harder from both a songwriting and sonic perspective. It’s also the band’s first record on independent label, Loose.
There’s a lot that’s happened since we last met. We could be here a while…
The last time we spoke was two years ago, just before Covid happened…
Richard Olson: And here we are again, when the clouds have passed.
In the wake of Brexit, several of the lyrics on your last album, A New Kind Of Sky, dealt with the idea of escaping and getting away to a better place. To make your new record, Hollow Heart, you did escape, decamping to Edwyn Collins’ Clashnarrow Studios in Helmsdale, in The Highlands of Scotland – it overlooks the North Sea – with producer and musician Sean Read (Soulsavers, Dexys Midnight Runners), whom you’ve worked with before. How did that come about?
RO: We’re not blessed financially – we do what we can when we can. Every record has been based on that. At the end of the day, we’re a grassroots band.
Edwyn offered us the use of his studio – it felt like being anointed – and Sean is one of the two engineers who he lets work there – the stars aligned. That happened during the pandemic, so we had to find a window when we were allowed to do it. It was quite a project, transporting six people to Helmsdale, with a bunch of instruments.
“Edwyn Collins offered us the use of his studio – it felt like being anointed”
We drove in two cars and we set to work – we grafted and we were so focused. It was magical from start to finish. When you’re standing in the studio, and the sun’s setting over the bay, and you’re singing Weep & Whisper, that shit makes you think that you’ve made it! We got given this chance and we had to deliver the goods.
It certainly shows – sonically, it’s rich and immersive, and I think it’s your most cohesive record. Hollow Heart feels like a complete album, from start to finish, and you can completely lose yourself in it. Did you have all the songs written before you went into the studio?
RO: I write constantly. With lockdown, I had more time than I ever had before and I also had the energy – I just wanted to do shit. That was a blessing – we sent demos to each other.
This is probably the most traditional record we’ve ever done – in the sense that we had some songs, we went to the studio to finish them off and we had x amount of time to make the record.
It was good for us and it was a joy to see everybody flourish in the studio in their own way. It brought out what we’re good at. We also wanted to think about the sonics – Sean came into his own and we had so much fun doing it. This is a cliché but we threw the rulebook out of the window – we had to. We had so much fun doing it – we just let go a little bit and we had to trust who we were as a band.
“This is probably the most traditional record we’ve ever done”
Hollow Heartfeels like a more positive record than its predecessor, but there’s also a sadness to several of the songs…
RO: It was surreal – no one knew what was going to happen – and there was a lot of sadness. Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think the lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written.
Halfway through recording, in early autumn, I got a phone call from my wife – I was standing on a balcony, looking out towards Scandinavia – and she told me her dad, David, was in a coma, after having a heart attack. I said I would pack a bag and take the first flight home tomorrow, but she said: ‘There’s nothing you can do…’
David has really been behind our music – he’s a huge music fan and we went to Nashville together. My wife said: ‘Do you think he would want you to come back? Stay there and make the best fucking record you possibly can!’
That must’ve been hard for you…
It was really hard and pretty emotional, but from then on, we just set to work – under quite a lot of distress.
How is your father-in-law now?
RO: He’s fine.
Has he heard the record?
RO: No, he hasn’t…
If Covid hadn’t happened, would you have made a completely different record?
RO: That’s a great question. Do you know what? I’m going to give you a boring answer – it would probably have been a similar record, but I don’t think it would’ve been as close to my heart as this record is.
Your hollow heart…
RO: [laughs]. There you go.
This is your first record for Loose. Did you sign to them after you’d made this record, or before?
RO: After. We came in well-prepared with a lovely little gift for them with a knot on top.
Did you consider any other labels?
RO: Tom [Bridgewater – owner of Loose] said, ‘Let’s stop dancing around our handbags…’ He’s the real deal and he’s been through it – he sees our grassroots.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new record. The first track, Ava, is a slow- building love song, but then it turns anthemic. It creeps up on you and we’re suddenly in big cosmic country territory…
RO: It’s all about the sonics – it’s nice to listen to. Your children would like it. It was one of those songs that just came… it needed to have a wistful, wanting, rejected feeling.
Some of the album reminds me of your old band The See See, around the time of the Fountayne Mountain album, which I once said was the record The Stone Roses should’ve followed up their debut with…
RO: One hundred per cent. We let our influences be our influences – we let our country love be our country love, we let our folk love be our folk love… We took our foot off the gas a bit, which we needed to do. That’s quite key to this record.
Ballad Of Whatever May Be sounds like The Stone Roses, if they’d gone country…
RO: I’ll take that, man. It came out different to how it was written – it changed in the studio, for the better. It has a good riff. It’s just one of those ‘live your life like this’ sort of songs. I’m not standing with a megaphone, screaming, but, holy fuck, I am so angry!
Black Light Night has some great jangly guitars on it. Didn’t Patrick (Ralla – guitar / keys) write the music for it?
RO: Yeah – it’s an old song that’s been kicking around for ages.
I think it has a vintage R.E.M feel…
Weep & Whisper is more melancholy and musically it’s a shuffle – you’ve described it as ‘a love song to youth.’ I like the harmonies and the backing vocals. It has a Simon & Garfunkel feel…
RO: I like that. Paulie [Cobra – drummer], harmony-wise, had a newfound confidence and he stepped up to do it, beautifully. It was arranged by Joe [Harvey-Whyte – pedal steel] – it’s a stroke of genius.
Patrick and Joe did their guitars for it in one take – it wasn’t edited. Me and Sean were sat looking at them doing it and we were like, ‘Shit – this is what it’s all about.’ That was one of the finest moments in my musical career.
“Radio On is Big-Star-meets-The-Velvets. What the fuck can go wrong?”
The first single from the album was Radio On, and it’s radio-friendly…
RO: Not as much as I would like! It’s me trying to write a soul song and I think it has a bit of a Velvet Underground thing. It’s Big-Star-meets-The-Velvets. What the fuck can go wrong?
Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart is one of the heavier, more psych songs on the album…
RO: It’s us trying to be Fairport Convention, but it started out as me trying to write a krautrock song – my demo had a drum machine on it. I was quite pleased with it – it was chugging along like a kraut-yacht-rock band, but Patrick had a different idea.
It’s a dark song…
RO: Yeah, but it’s also one of the most truthful ones. It’s about hiding things, whether that’s with alcohol or downers, or weed, or whatever. I think everyone in our scene is a little bit guilty of that. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but even before the pandemic, more people were struggling and in the abyss – more than we’d like to acknowledge. I’m not the only one, but I did get a little glimpse of that shit, and, do you know what? I do not want to go there again and I’d do anything to avoid it.
“I’m really pleased with how I sing on this record. I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory”
You’re So Free is ’60s West Coast psych-pop: Love, The Doors, The Beach Boys, The Turtles…
RO: I always wanted to do You Showed Me – I guess that’s our version. It also has some piano on it that’s like Ethiopian jazz. Lyrically, it’s probably the song that I’m most pleased with. Because of the whole division thing, with Brexit and Trump, a lot of my good friends, who I love dearly, took a different route during the pandemic. It’s a little bit about that and it’s me trying to be funny: “Scroll your feed. You’re so free to believe in what you see…”
Your vocals sound really good on this album…
RO: I’m really pleased with how I sing on this record. I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory.
Edywn guests on Rainbows In Windows – he does a spoken word part…
RO: That’s Sam’s [Ferman – bass] song – he wrote it.
It’s quite filmic…
RO: I’m really pleased with how it came out. I felt we could do it a Jackson C. Frank kind of way, but then, on the way up to the studio, I thought we could do it like The Gift by The Velvet Underground, but it didn’t quite work out that way, but then Sean was mixing it in London and he came up with the other bit, and Edwyn was up for it. It’s playful.
“I am the natural heir to Jason Pierce, but I’m a country version”
I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore is ’60s-garage-meets-The-Byrds…
RO: We went all-out 12-string on it. It’s a bit Flying Burritos as well. It’s a song about being completely helpless in front of the Tory government – someone who’s dead talking about what they really would’ve liked to have said: “Now I’m gone, I can tell you my thoughts on the queen and crown. Do take heed of your greed, as you choke on an appleseed.”
The last song on the album, Red Autumn Leaf, is a sad one – it’s about being discarded and tossed on the heap…
RO: Pretty much. It’s Spiritualized gone country. I am the natural heir to Jason Pierce, but I’m a country version. I pretty much based my whole career on Lazer Guided Melodies– it’s magical.
A lot of your new songs have a sad undercurrent, but the music is very uplifting…
RO: That makes me so happy to hear that.
Do you think Hollow Heart is your best record?
RO: Of course it is. You wouldn’t be making records otherwise… With this album, we had to be The Hanging Stars and I think we did a pretty damned good job of it.
Canadian singer-songwriter, Jerry Leger, has described his latest album, Nothing Pressing, as his ‘deepest artistic statement yet’.
It’s also one of his strongest and darkest records. Largely written and recorded in the wake of a close friend’s death and with the shadow of Covid hanging over it, Leger says it’s an album about survival – mental, physical and artistic.
Some of the songs, like the stark, stripped-down and folky Underground Bluesand Sinking In, were recorded in his Toronto apartment, using two SM58 microphones fed into his vintage 1981 Tascam four-track tape recorder.
“I spent a lot of the lockdown writing and demoing using the four-track,” he says. “I wasn’t writing with the pandemic in mind – and some songs were written before it happened – but the album does have a feeling of isolation, reflection, longing and gratitude.”
He adds: “It was spring of last year that I unexpectedly lost one of my best friends. I think it’s unavoidable that things like that seep in. It’s a surreal feeling losing someone close. I wasn’t consciously writing with him in mind, but I can now hear traces of me dealing with it in a few of the songs.”
New single, the raw and punchy Kill It With Kindness, anthemic rocker Have You Ever Been Happy?, the Neil Young-like Recluse Revisions, the classic country-sounding A Page You’ve Turned, and the Beatlesy love song With Only You were laid down in the studio with his long-time producer, Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), and Leger’s band, The Situation (Dan Mock (bass/vocals), Kyle Sullivan (drums/percussion). There are guest contributions on the album from Tim Bovaconti (pedal steel) and Angie Hilts (vocals).
“Other than my drummer and bassist/backing vocalist, I sang and played almost everything,” says Leger. “This gave the sound a certain flavour and character that hasn’t quite been captured on previous studio albums. There is very little outside involvement, to avoid diluting the sound we were after, creating a more personal statement.”
“I wasn’t writing with the pandemic in mind – and some songs were written before it happened – but the album does have a feeling of isolation, reflection, longing and gratitude”
The song, Nothing Pressing, which opens the record, and the tracks Protector and Still Patience are solo acoustic, recorded live in the studio with few embellishments, save for Mock’soverdubbed harmony vocals and, on the title track, Timmins’ ukulele.
The follow-up to his 2019 studio album, Time Out For Tomorrow, it’s a stunning collection of songs – and often painfully honest. On Still Patience, over a sparse backing of guitar and Wurlitzer, Leger sings: “I go drinking by myself, when I got nobody else, for misery is company.”
At times sad and reflective, it’s an album that doesn’t shy away from tackling personal issues, such as mental health, depression and seeking solace in alcohol, but it’s also a record that believes a problem shared is a problem halved.
“I really hope that this record is given the attention it needs. It’s not really an undertaking [to listen to], but it requires a little more work than Time Out For Tomorrow, which was very inviting,” says Leger, talking to Say It With Garage Flowers from his apartment, in an exclusive interview.
“It could be very helpful for a lot of people – it’s one of those records that I would go to for a different type of comfort. I need to know that other people are going through all these crazy feelings too.”
It’s good to chat again – it’s been a while. How are you doing?
Jerry Leger: I’m good. It’s been a busy year so far, what with getting the record together and the tour. It’s definitely been a bit stressful – putting a new studio album out in the current climate, where we’re still dealing with the pandemic and everything else.
And now there’s a war on…
JL: Yeah – it doesn’t seem to be getting that much better, but it’s exciting to have something new to focus on. Putting this record has been different.
The last time we spoke was in March 2020 – Covid had forced you to cancel your European and UK spring tour for your album, Time Out For Tomorrow, and you’d hastily put together a brand new, digital-only album, called Songs From The Apartment.
Available to buy from Bandcamp, it was made up of ‘lost’ songs from 2013- 2018 that you’d demoed and quickly forgotten about. Since then, it’s had a vinyl release.
You’ve also published a book of poetry, called Just The Night Birds, made a concert film, put out some non-album digital singles, and written and recorded the new record. You’ve been busy…
JL: I know – I do like staying busy in general. I guess the healthy thing about all those projects I did was that I wasn’t putting pressure on myself to create anything or put them out – it was helpful me to do that.
To make this album, we were trying to get into the studio as soon as possible because we knew that when we resumed touring and going overseas we couldn’t really tour Time Out For Tomorrow. It was definitely a smart idea to make a new record, but we had to work out how we could get into the studio.
“It felt great making the record, but it was a strange feeling at first. That soon disappeared once we were rocking and rolling and getting into it”
The four of us – (Dan Mock (bass/vocals), Kyle Sullivan (drums/percussion) and Michael Timmins (producer) – wanted to make sure we were comfortable and safe.
I went to the studio in the summer (2021) and recorded some stark, acoustic numbers. Then, once we got the green light, we got the band in. It felt great making the record, but it was a strange feeling at first. That soon disappeared once we were rocking and rolling and getting into it.
Was it a quick album to record?
JL: It was a lot faster to make than I thought it would be. I did the songs Nothing Pressing,Still Patience and Protector in one session – just me and my guitar. I added some Wurlitzer to one of the tracks, and then when the band came in, we booked a week – a Monday to Friday – to record.
We were so determined to do a good job and not rush it, but that determination allowed us to do the songs in two / two-and-a-half days. There’s also five songs I recorded with the band that didn’t go on the album. I was starting to change the vibe of the record as we were into the sessions and I listened to the rough mixes. I thought it should be just a full-band album, but Mike brought me back to the original plan – he said that wasn’t the concept we should be going for. That was helpful – that’s why I still like working with a producer. He’s someone who can make sure I’m staying on-task.
Mike wanted some stark acoustic songs, a couple of tracks that were me at home, and then the band. There’s a story – the album is bookended by Nothing Pressing and Protector. Both those songs are saying certain things and in the middle you get everything else.
“I was starting to change the vibe of the record as we were into the sessions. I thought it should be just a full-band album”
I was having so much fun playing with the band and with what we were recording that it made me want to change what we were going for. Who knows if that would’ve been better or worse? It wouldn’t be worse – it would still be a great record…
Look at Dylan. When he started screwing with his records sometimes it went in a good way – like Blood On The Tracks, which he rethought and recorded, but other records, like Infidels, suffered. It could’ve been a certain record, but he had second thoughts.
You’re a prolific songwriter. Did you have all the tracks written before you went into the studio, and were any of the songs old ones you hadn’t put out before?
JL: They were all brand new, except for Wait A Little Longer, which I’d recorded with my side-project, The Del Fi’s – it came out on their second record, in 2018. You’ve got to dig for those albums – not a lot of people heard that song and I thought we could do a really good job on it and give it a different spirit and a wider audience.
It’s a song I love and the band also love it. I originally gave it to The Del Fi’s because when I played it live I never really got much of a reaction to it. But after we played with The Del Fi’s, my band said: ‘Why did you give that song away?’ I thought I was the only one who liked it… There’s something jovial about it and I thought this album could benefit from it.
“I think this album has been the best way for me to cope with the loss of my buddy, Sean. I haven’t really dealt with it and the pandemic’s made it hard”
It’s a pretty dark record at times. Some of the songs are sad and deal with personal issues, like alcohol abuse, depression and wrestling with inner demons. You lost a good friend, called Sean, before you made the album, which influenced some of the songs and themes on it. You’ve described the record as your ‘deepest artistic statement yet’. There’s a shadow hanging over it, isn’t there?
JL: I think that’s a good description of it. There’s a shadow hanging over everything and I was trying to make an effort to not accept that or realise it. Everyone deals with it at various points – a resilience. What comes with that is trying to push certain thoughts away. I think this album has been the best way for me to cope with the loss of my buddy, Sean – I haven’t really dealt with it and the pandemic’s made it hard. I still haven’t seen a lot of my friends, or it’s been on a semi-regular basis. It’s a bit of a sad record – but it has moments that go off in other directions.
Did you have a feel for what this album should sound like? For Time Out For Tomorrow, you were influenced by Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby…
JL: I just wanted it to sound like me and us – for this one, I didn’t have a concept of how I wanted it to sound. I think that’s why some of the tracks vary from one another. I think the record sounds like who I am, but it’s a little deeper than some of the others. It’s more vulnerable in places. Still Patience is a song that I wasn’t sure I wanted to release.
That’s one of my favourite songs on the record…
JL: Oh, thanks. It’s a song that at the time I was writing it, I wasn’t exactly thinking about what I was writing about – it was quite emotional to record, as it was the first song I recorded being back in a studio, after so long wondering whether if I’d ever be doing it again.
A couple of the songs on the record are just you singing and playing into a four-track recorder…
JL: I particularly love the sound of the four-track, which I used to record Underground Blues and Sinking In. I love the sound of those machines. If we hadn’t made this studio album, I was going to put out an album of just songs recorded on the four-track, because I was really excited about the sounds I was getting out of it and the different arrangements I was coming up with. Mike liked that too – he was the one who mentioned I should include a couple of those recordings on the album.
“Underground Blues is just me at home on a Tascam four-track – Springsteen used the model before it to do Nebraska”
I’m not a great guitarist, but I played the electric guitar solo on Underground Blues – this was the first album where I played all the solos. Underground Blues is just me at home on a Tascam four-track – Springsteen used the model before it to do Nebraska.
Underground Blues is folky and has a mid-’60s Dylan feel…
JL: One of my buddies is a big Dylan fan and he also loves Bert Jansch – he thought it sounded like something he would do. That’s interesting because Bert Jansch is somebody I’ve listened to more and more over the years. I really dig him, but I could never play like that. There’s a certain feel in the acoustic playing that aligns itself to that kind of blues song that Bert would’ve played – there’s a bit of a folk element to it.
The album title, Nothing Pressing, is apt for a record that was written during lockdown…
JL: Yeah. Besides Wait A Little Longer, that was the only song that I wrote before 2020. It was written around the time of the release of Time Out For Tomorrow – in 2019. It’s just one of those songs that came to me – I was picturing somebody like John Prine or Butch Hancock.
I was going to call the album Recluse Revisions, but Nothing Pressing became the title track. Mike suggested Nothing Pressing because he felt it was a song that really set up the record well and that it was nice to start it off with an acoustic number and then, surprise, here’s the second song, Kill It With Kindness… It’s not the record you thought you were getting…
The phrase ‘Nothing Pressing’ could also be a comment on the current global vinyl shortage…
JL: That’s true – I actually received some surprising news that our vinyl has made it time for the album release date.
Well, Adele’s latest record is out now…
JL: Yeah – she gave us some room.
The first single you released from the album was Have You Ever Been Happy? I like the lyric ‘Something made me laugh, but the punchline was me…’
That song has a great chorus and melody, and I love the backing vocals by Angie Hilts…
JL: She’s from Toronto – she also sings on Wait A Little Longer. She had sung on the original recording of that by The Del Fi’s. She came up with the vocal harmony. I worked with her before, on my Nonsense and Heartache album – she sang on The Big Smoke Blues, Pawn Shop Piano and Lucy and Little Billy The Kid. She’s a great singer and artist – she can go in different directions, above or below me, and it just blends.
Recluse Revisions – another favourite of mine – has some great pedal steel on it and the harmonica gives it a classic Neil Young feel…
JL: I hear that.
I like the line in the song about musicians playing ‘cowboy songs we know by heart’ on cheap guitars…
JL: I had that line leading up to the song – I liked the idea of musicians listening to it. It’s about when you have a cheap guitar and the action / the strings are really high up from the neck, but you can usually still play those cowboy song chords, like G and C and E.
I like that imagery – of being with a comrade, playing songs and it still being harmonious. There’s another line in it: ‘We’re young now that we’re old.’ That could be about losing time, but not… In some ways, it feels like we’ve lost the last two years, but in other ways, all this stuff has happened – you and I kept doing things. We all did. Recluse Revisions is about trying to figure out how we reemerge and join the rest of society again. How to socialise and how to be comfortable going out again.
“I’ve always been somebody that’s suffered from a bit of social anxiety, so I have to push myself even more now to get out”
Here in Toronto, certain mandates have started to be lifted and I know that in the UK that’s already happened. I’ve always been somebody that’s suffered from a bit of social anxiety to begin with, so I have to push myself even more now to get out. I want to get out, get on the road and play shows because that’s always felt like a different dimension or a different world. I can accept that.
“I’m a survivor – I’ve had to deal with a lot of shit through the years”
You were getting a bit of a following in the UK, after playing gigs here and some decent press. Are you worried that you’ve lost some momentum due to the pandemic? How do you feel about coming back to play here? You’ve now got three albums’ worth of new material to play…
JL:I’m just excited to get back doing it. I’m a survivor – I’ve had to deal with a lot of shit through the years, with my career and things not working out how I thought they would. Spiritually, I’m unable to compromise. That’s made things a bit tougher for me, but it’s also made me tougher.
Time Out For Tomorrow had some good momentum and I was excited about touring it, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I just keep making albums and touring them, and, hopefully, people come out. We’ll be there and we hope that our audience feels comfortable about coming back out and supporting us.
I also really hope that this record is given the attention it needs. It’s not really an undertaking [to listen to], but it requires a little more work than Time Out For Tomorrow, which was very inviting. I can’t keep on making the same record every time – I’m not even capable of doing that.
“Spiritually, I’m unable to compromise. That’s made things a bit tougher for me, but it’s also made me tougher”
This record just happens to be what it is, but, song-wise, I think it’s a much stronger record than the last few. It could be very helpful for a lot of people – it’s one of those records that I would go to for a different type of comfort. There are records that are very great-sounding and bright – if I want to be in a better mood, I throw a Beatles record on – but then there are records for when I need a different type of comfort, like Blood On The Tracks. I need to know that other people are going through all these crazy feelings too.
Kill It With Kindness is a big-sounding song, with some raw guitar. Like some of the other songs on the record, it tackles alcohol use and depression – keeping demons at bay…
JL: Yeah – that’s true. It starts off with the enemy being in your mind – it’s about how you choose to react to certain things. If there are people and things around you that are having a negative effect, you have a choice – you can decide how you want to tackle that.
I agree with you – I think the record is about tackling that and trying to fight some demons. With the pandemic and everything stopping, there was a lot more time to self-reflect and look in the mirror. Thinking about things and how you want to be perceived and how you want to be moving forward.
Sure there are some things that we use as a crutch. There are elements of that – using different things to help you cope and get by. Sometimes that can end up making things a bit more overwhelming. The record is a man with a worried mind – stress and anxiety – and it acknowledges that. I think the next record will be about tackling those things, but through meditation and stuff like that…
You’ve got the George Harrison moustache to do it…
JL: (laughs): Yeah – I have. Exactly. I’m gearing up for that. The next record will be about taking care of myself – I knew that I had to do that in order to keep going on. It will be about finding that help to help myself.
Your song With Only You from the latest album has a very Beatlesy feel…
JL: Yeah – I really dig that one. It’s a love song – a break point on the album – but there’s an element of sadness to it, because you’re relying on someone else to help you through. You can’t make it without them, because you need more strength than you can create yourself. But there’s also a beauty to it.
That song is very much the Beatles influence that’s been there all my life. It shows on that song. I actually worked out and wrote the guitar solo for it – I normally just do it and feel it out. It sounds like a cross between George Harrison and Mick Jones from The Clash. Mick Jones didn’t always have finesse, but he had confidence. It’s nothing super-fancy – it’s light and it’s melodic. A little brother to George Harrison.
“The next record will be about taking care of myself – I knew that I had to do that in order to keep going on”
Your first live show for the new album will be in Toronto, at the Paradise Theatre, on March 31, which is my birthday…
JL: Yeah – I got you tickets to fly over for it. I wish!
It’s your big comeback show…
JL: I’m going to wear all leather.
Nothing Pressing is out now (digital) via Latent Recordings/Warner Music Canada/Proper Music. The physical release (CD and vinyl) is out on March 18.
03-05 Birkenhead, England – Future Yard
04-05 Winchester, England – The Railway Inn
05-05 London, England – The Green Note
06-05 Nottingham, England – The Chapel, Angel Microbrewery
07-05 Glasgow, Scotland – Broadcast
Daisy Glaze’s self-titled debut album is one of our favourite records of the year so far.
The New York duo – Louis Epstein (HITS, Jump Into The Gospel) and Alix Brown (Angry Angles w/ Jay Reatard, Golden Triangle) – have created a moody, psych-pop-meets-drone-rock soundtrack that’s heavily in debt to the druggy, haunting cowboy country sounds of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, as well as the film scores of Jack Nitzsche and Ennio Morricone, and the narcotic-fuelled, art-rock weirdness of The Velvet Underground. There are also surf and electro influences at play – twangy guitar and spooky organ sit alongside synths, as well as strings.
Produced by the legendary Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3, Spectrum), the record was made in Sintra, in Portugal.
In an exclusive interview, we talk to the band about working with one of their heroes, their ambition to write film soundtracks and their new disco direction.
You made the album in Portugal, with Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember). How did that come about?
Louis Epstein: Paul, who runs the label we put it out on [The Sound of Sinners] has a good friend I know, who is pretty good friends with Pete. I sent him some of the demos and I asked him if he’d reach out to his buddy – he said, ‘Sure – Pete is actually on a Lee Hazlewood kick right now, so it might be a really good match.’
Pete said: ‘Dude, this is great – let’s do something. Do you want to come to Portugal, or do you want me to come to New York?’
We both thought it made more sense to spend a concentrated amount of time on it, without all the distractions we would have if we were recording in New York. Pete knew a great studio [BlackSheep, in Sintra] and some great musicians out there, and we got to go to Portugal to do it.
How was that?
Alix Brown: It was fun. We were in a studio with nothing else around, so we got fully immersed in it. Next door there was a place to get chicken – we ate there every day and chilled. It was nice to be out of Lisbon.
We were in Sintra, near the castle [The Palacio Nacional da Pena]. We took acid and went there! It’s where they shot that Polanski film, The Ninth Gate.
How was Sonic Boom to work with? Was he a big hero of yours? There’s a big drone-rock influence in some of your songs…
AB: Yeah – I’ve always loved him. He worked with some friends of mine and did the MGMT album, Congratulations, which I was a big fan of. I used to live in Memphis and I love Jim Dickinson – he worked with him. There was so much of a connection, He was able to understand us and get our sound – he brings like a whole vibe. He’s like a shaman.
‘We were in Sintra, near the castle. We took acid and went there! It’s where they shot that Polanski film, The Ninth Gate’
You used some local musicians to play strings on the record, didn’t you?
LE: They were from a local conservatoire. We also brought our friends Erik [Tonnesen] and Rex [Detiger] to play keys and drums. We made the record in three weeks – Sonic Boom was going to mix it there in the last week, but that didn’t happen, as time got the better of us. I did the original mixes and would send them to him – he would send back notes. During Covid [lockdown], I remixed some of the tracks to help breath new life into them.
It’s a 10-track album – just over 30 minutes – and it starts with an instrumental and is broken up by another one halfway through. The vinyl version, which is coming out later this year, will have five songs on each side. It feels like a soundtrack album – it works as a whole piece, rather than just a disparate collection of songs. Do you agree?
AB: Definitely – that’s how I look at making a record. I see it as a record – Side A and Side B – not just 10 or 12 songs. The instrumentals that start each side set the tone.
LE: It’s not a concept album, but we thought of it as if it was a soundtrack – I’m glad you picked up on that, because that’s the point.
You sound like Nancy and Lee at times – there’s a contrasting darkness and sweetness to your sound – and you also cite composers like Jack Nitzsche and Ennio Morricone as influences. I can definitely hear that in your music…
AB: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Italian library music and lots of soundtracks.
Do you have a favourite film or soundtrack?
AB: I like Danger: Diabolik.
LE: Jack Nitzsche’s The Lonely Surfer. I really wanted to emulate the guitar sound on that.
I don’t know if I quite got it, but that was definitely the guitar sound and style that was a big influence on me.
And Nancy and Lee? You’ve been compared to them…
LE: I have no problem with that.
Ray of Light, which is the second song on the record, after the opening instrumental, Occasum, has a definite Nancy and Lee feel and a slight country vibe…
LE: That was the first song that was written when we decided to work together. We had played around with a few, but the sound wasn’t quite right – it was a little too punky.
After we did that song, I thought ‘this is the sound we’re going for.’ That’s why we put it towards the top of the album.
Strangers In The Dark has a great video, which highlights the dangers of hitchhiking at night…
LE: When we wrote that song, it was also early on – there’s not much to say about it. It kinda speaks for itself.
AB: It’s definitely a rip-off of Nancy Sinatra’s Lightning’s Girl – I used to cover that song.
Your new single, The Ghost of Elvis Presley, is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a really cool video too…
AB: We shot it in Memphis – I used to work in the restaurant and bar we used. My friend, Karen Carrier, owns a few of the best bars there – she’s a Memphis legend and a culinary master. I had a lot of friends who came to help.
‘I wrote the opening riff for The Ghost of Elvis Presley when I was around 15 years old. The lyrics were driven by Alix wanting to capture that Memphis mystique’
That song has some great twangy guitar on it. In fact, there’s a lot of really good twangy guitar on the whole album, as well as some brilliant organ sounds…
LE: I wrote the opening riff for TheGhost of Elvis Presley when I was around 15 years old. We needed an intro for the song and I had this thing that could work, so we tweaked it to fit the song. The lyrics were driven by Alix wanting to capture that Memphis mystique, for want of a better word.
Mary Go Round is psych-pop. Did Sean Lennon co-write it?
AB: Yeah – he helped with some of the lyrics.
I like the guitar solo on it…
LE: That was my little surf guitar.
Statues of Villains has almost an electro feel, but with strings too. I think it sounds Middle Eastern…
LE: I hear it as being more Russian…
That’s very topical…
AB: It’s a Russian war song!
The last song, How The City Was Lost, has a spoken word part and reminds me of The Gift by The Velvet Underground…
Will there be another single from the album?
LE: I’d like to do another video in time for when the vinyl is released. I think we’re debating between Mary Go Round and Statues Of Villains – we’re leaning towards Mary Go Round.
‘We could do the soundtrack for a psychological thriller – in the desert, with some aliens’
Would you like to write a soundtrack?
AB: That would be the goal.
What sort of movie?
AB: A psychological thriller – in the desert, with some aliens.
Like Gram Parsons, outside of LA, hanging out with Keith Richards, looking for UFOs and taking Peyote?
AB: Yeah, but they already did a movie like that, with Johnny Knoxville.
It was called Grand Theft Parsons.
AB: It was a great idea, but… It’s a crazy story.
So, what’s next for you? Any live shows planned?
LE: We want to start playing again – hopefully in the spring – and we have a backlog of another record – well, maybe not a whole record, but a whole bunch of songs. The stuff that we have written is in the same vein, but I secretly want to do an Amanda Lear record. How do you feel about that, Alix?
The event (February 6) saw Island and mainland musicians and performers coming together to celebrate John’s life and raise money for charity. John died in September last year, following a short illness.
Sean and his sister, Caroline, unveiled the plaque, which is situated in the main foyer and was funded by Isle of Wight Radio in collaboration with Shanklin Theatre, ahead of the show.
Sean said: “Dad was a great supporter of local entertainment, and the theatre played a huge part in his life, so it was really important to hold the event in Shanklin. I’d like to thank Isle of Wight Radio and the theatre for donating the plaque. Now, whenever there’s a show at the venue, dad will always be there and people can share their memories of him when they’re going to the theatre.”
The tribute concert, which was hosted by Sean, was a huge success, with at least £1500 raised for the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital, Newport.
The line-up also included several local musicians and performers who were friends of John’s and whom he’d supported, including Bobby I Can Fly, Amy Bird and Andy Strickland.
“Music is my passion, and it was so important to my dad – he liked a wide range of styles – so I felt the best way to pay tribute to him was to hold a celebratory night with an eclectic selection of sounds – from ‘60s ballads to Americana, pop and rock. While I was organising and compering the show, I kept thinking to myself, ‘dad would’ve loved this’”, said Sean.
The artists who appeared at the gig were: My Darling Clementine, Matt James, Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields), Brian Sharpe (The Cherokees) and Keith Roberts (Blue Moon), Bobby I Can Fly, Chris Clarke, Amy Bird and Bob and Bertie Everson.Singer-songwriter, Matt Hill, was unable to appear, due to ill health, but he recorded a video of himself singing a song by one of John’s favourite artists, Matt Monro. You can watch it here.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers talks to our new favourite band, Melbourne’s Best Western.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to review the self-titled, four-track debut EP by Australian alt-country band Best Western for Americana UK and I fell in love with it after the first listen.
Best Western is a collaboration between songwriter Zack Buchanan (The Outdoor Type) and fellow Melbourne musicians Kieran Ebert, Harry Cook and Georgia Knight.
The record opens with the wonderfully cinematic Home – as I said in my review, it’s ‘a sublime and atmospheric male/ female duet with great twangy guitar and tinges of electronica,’ which builds to a psychedelic climax.
It’s also a reflective, nostalgic and observational song, with a lyric that, like Richmond Fontaine or The Delines, recounts tales of people’s everyday lives in the suburbs: “Could you pick me up from my place? She’s out of town for her brother’s birthday – the car’s broken down again.” Musically, it’s very haunting, with echoes of Mazzy Star.
Second song, Peace of Mind, is similarly gorgeous, but more stripped-down – acoustic guitar and pedal steel – while the third, the mildly festive-themed Lemon Tree – “Christmas lights and drunken fights…” conjures up the same kind of mood as its predecessor, but adds some subtle orchestration.
Final track, the folky and pastoral Freedom Song, is set in the last days of autumn, as the low winter sun threatens to creep up and cast shadows on the landscape.
After listening to the EP, I contacted Buchanan and asked if he’d up for an interview. He said ‘yes’, so here’s our chat. When we spoke, he’d just come back from recording their new EP, which is due out later this year.
How’s it going?
Zack Buchanan: I’m good, thanks. I’ve just arrived home from a few days recording our second EP in the countryside. We worked with producer Josh Barber on his wonderful property in a converted church – bliss.
Great – I can’t wait to hear the results. How did Best Western come together?
ZB: I began writing the music that ended up becoming Best Western in mid-late 2019. At the time, The Outdoor Type was wrapping up and I was excited to explore some more story-based songs in a style that felt comfortable for me.
I had been making music with Harry and Kieran for a little while, so they were a natural fit for the band. Georgia on the other hand didn’t come along until we began recording the EP. We had decided that the song Home should be a duet and a friend sent me Georgia’s music. We were completely enamoured by her voice so invited her to sing on the track – she has sung on every song since.
‘Much of Best Western is informed by the characters and places of my youth’
Congratulations on your debut EP. I can’t stop playing it – it’s a great record. My favourite song on it is Home. What can you tell me about that track? How did you write it and what inspired it?
ZB: Thank you so much – that’s really lovely to hear. Home was sort of the genesis of Best Western. It was one of the first songs I wrote with a new project in mind. I would say that the song is inspired by my observations growing up in country Victoria. Much of Best Western is informed by the characters and places of my youth.
The song was originally going to be recorded with an acoustic guitar, strummed and a little more ’standard’. However, we found the more we stripped away from the song the better it sounded. The drum beat was inspired by some of Sharon Van Etten’s music – that gentle hypnotic pulse is something I keep coming back to.
Where did you record the EP?
ZB: The EP was recorded at Sound Park studios in Melbourne. We self-produced the EP with engineer Andrew ‘Idge’ Hehir. Aside from the core band, we had our good friends, Holly Thomas and Claire Cross, on drums and bass, respectively.
Toward the end of the sessions we brought in Madeline Jevons (violin) and Matt Dixon (pedal steel) to complete the sound. The EP was recorded in about four days, and as mentioned, Georgia was originally brought in as a session singer for Home, so we were really flying blind to a degree – Best Western became a sort of happy accident.
The EP is digital-only. Will it be coming out as a physical release? A vinyl copy would be most welcome…
ZB: We are hoping so for sure. The plan may be to put our forthcoming EP out with the self-titled EP on vinyl.
What can you tell me about the song Peace of Mind, which is more stripped-down, with acoustic guitar and pedal steel?
ZB: We played around with different ways of recording Peace of Mind – the arrangement was certainly more dense initially. As with many of the Best Western songs, we found that less was more.
Peace of Mind is the only track that is truly ‘live’ on the record – we all sat in a circle and played. It’s a restless song full of restless feelings. It’s about dealing with a lack of direction but an urge to act.
The song Lemon Tree is vaguely festive – I like the line about “Christmas lights and drunken fights…” Where did that track come from? It has some subtle orchestration on it….
ZB: The orchestration of that song – and on the rest of the EP – was written by Harry, who also plays keys. He is a bit of a musical force. This song in particular perhaps reflects the imagery of growing up in my home town. I wrote that song last, leading into the EP sessions around Christmas time, so, yes, I guess it has been imbued with that festive spirit.
‘Peace of Mind is a restless song full of restless feelings. It’s about dealing with a lack of direction but an urge to act’
The final track on the EP, Freedom Song, is folky and pastoral, and it starts with an organ drone and what sounds like a guitar being plugged in. It has an autumnal / wintry mood, doesn’t it? Any thoughts on it?
ZB: Yes, I suppose you’re right. I would say it’s another yearning, or searching, song. We loved layering the harmonies on that one.
The songs on the EP tell stories and are influenced by real life, aren’t they?
ZB: Yes – I would say that I am inspired by my life experiences. Nothing I write is directly taken from my life – some things are perhaps quite close, but everything is fiction. I guess I’m inspired by people and relationships, rural life and the inherent struggles that come with that, and by class.
Who are your musical influences?
ZB: Oh, there are too many to list. All the usual ones I guess. If I had to list a few: Paul Kelly, Dylan, Lou Reed, Billy Bragg, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, The Go-Betweens. More contemporary artists might be Waxahatchee, Sharon Van Etten and Big Thief. Harry and Kieran love Sufjan Stevens.
I think Best Western have echoes of Mazzy Star and The Delines? How do you feel about those comparisons?
ZB: I love Mazzy Star and am very humbled that you would make that comparison. I must confess, I wasn’t familiar with The Delines, but have just given them a listen. They’re a great band and I’ll definitely be coming back to them. That song The Oil Rigs At Night … what a tune!
So, what’s the plan for 2022? There’s a new EP on the way… Is there an album coming, or live shows?
ZB: Hopefully all of that. We are in the midst of recording another EP now, which may turn out to be an album – we will have to wait and see.
I would hope the first track from that will come out around April/May. We are certainly wanting to do live shows. Things are a little touch and go due to Covid, but we will be out on the road as soon as we are able and it is safe to do so.
Please can you come and play in the UK?
ZB: Hey, if you can hook us up with a few shows, we’ll be there!
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?
ZB: It’s a year or two old now, but I have not stopped listening to Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud album – beautiful. I’ve also been going way back lately and digging into some Hank Williams. Also, Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby and lots of Townes Van Zandt. Oh and one last one, Adrianne Lenker’s Songs album.
‘If you can hook us up with a few shows in the UK, we’ll be there!’
Have you ever stayed in a Best Western hotel? If so, where, and what was it like?
ZB: I must admit, I have never stayed in a Best Western hotel. But believe me, after 10 years of touring in various bands, I’ve stayed in my fair share of Best Western-style hotels. Maybe we can get some sort of sponsorship going, then I can report back to you.
The self-titled debut EP from Best Western is available now digitally.
Matt James, former drummer with ’90s anthemic indie-rockers Gene, has launched a solo career, and in February this year he will be playing his biggest show yet – a charity gig at Shanklin Theatre on the Isle of Wight, as part of a tribute night to my dad, show business journalist, John Hannam, who died in September last year.
In an exclusive interview, he tells me what it’s like to be starting out on his own, teases his debut solo album, which is due out in July and was produced by Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths, Morrissey, The Cranberries, The Pretenders, The Rails) and explains why he’s excited about visiting the Isle of Wight for the first time…
“I suppose that means there’ll be no returning hero moment with the Islanders lining the streets and waving palms,” he muses. “That’s what happens when I go to Guernsey and Sark…”
Hi Matt. How’s it going?
Matt James: It’s going great currently, thanks. I’ve been lucky enough to be pretty healthy the past couple of years, when so many people haven’t, or have been affected in other ways. I moved from London to the country in 2015, which may have had something to do with it…
Thanks for agreeing to play my dad’s tribute concert – it’s great to have you on the bill. It means a lot to me, as Gene were one of my favourite bands and my dad liked them, too – in fact, he actually interviewed you before a gig at the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth. I used to get him to talk to bands that I liked, and he enjoyed music by a lot of bands that I was into….
MJ: It’s a pleasure to do the show for you. My sincere condolences for your loss. I know what it’s like to lose your dad. Thanks for asking me. It’s great that John opened his ears to your taste. I’ll definitely be doing the same with my kids. These things should work both ways, no?
The gig is in Shanklin, on the Isle of Wight. The South Coast was good for Gene, wasn’t it? You played Portsmouth, Southampton and Brighton several times. I was at most of those gigs, but you never made it across the Solent to the Island, did you?
MJ: We always returned to towns that liked us. There are mini music businesses and communities in every town, and you have to keep being good and pleasing them to preserve their loyalty.
I’m not sure why we never went to the Isle of Wight…Maybe the community there wasn’t up for us, or more likely I would think that our agent felt that we were covering the south by doing Portsmouth and Southampton. Anyway I’m really very excited about coming to the Isle of Wight now.
Have you ever visited the Island before?
MJ: Nope – I’ve never been there, which is rather strange, as I’ve travelled the UK extensively. I suppose that means there’ll be no returning hero moment with the Islanders lining the streets and waving palms? That’s what happens when I go to Guernsey and Sark… ahem. Joking aside, it’s time to put the Isle of Wight in my treasured memory bank.
Maybe you could play the Isle of Wight Festival as a solo act? That would be great…
MJ: I would certainly love to play the festival if they would have me. It always looks amazing on the TV. I’ve just booked my ferry for your show and that gave me a tinge of excitement. If I was returning to play the festival, they’d need to tie me to the boat to stop me bouncing off…
Shanklin Theatre, which is the venue for the gig, is lovely. You should feel right at home there, as you like a bit of old school showbiz and glamour, don’t you? Gene always had a sense of drama to them…
MJ: Yes – we loved old theatres and treading hallowed boards. That’s why we featured the Royal Albert Hall on the artwork for our second LP [Drawn To The Deep End].
My mum was an amateur opera singer and I can remember being a small boy and hiding in huge curtain folds, looking out at her singing live. I internalised that very deeply. I’ve been lucky enough to play in some smashing places in my time, but it’s been a while. This will only be my fourth solo gig – and on the biggest stage I’ve done so far.
‘I have made a stand for creativity, and I also wanted to tackle some tricky subjects. It’s what my life was missing, and lockdown gave me an unexpected opportunity’
Let’s talk about you ‘going solo’. After Gene and your next band, Palace Fires, broke up, you started a career in the wine industry, but now you’ve become a singer-songwriter. How is it being a solo artist? To quote a Gene song, are you, ahem, fighting fit and able?
MJ: It’s been a long, long time since I was able to start a year and say: ‘I’ve got some new music coming out’.
I’m sure you can imagine that it feels very special. I have made a stand for creativity, and I also wanted to tackle some tricky subjects. It’s what my life was missing, and lockdown gave me an unexpected opportunity.
I’ve loved being a wine merchant and still do, but, if I’m honest, music is what I’m best at. Even when wine folk ask me about it, I always say: “I like wine almost as much as music!” I missed it so much, but I did need a long break.
You’ve released two great digital singles as a solo artist so far: A Simple Message and Snowy Peaks.Your debut song, A Simple Message, has a political message and a Gene-like sound – it’s down to the organ and the country-rock guitar – and the second, Snowy Peaks, is an anthemic love song. What can you tell us about those tracks? What inspired them?
MJ: I decided as I was starting from scratch as a solo artist that I would share quite a few tracks from the LP before releasing it, to give me a long build. There are three more songs to go before the LP is released in July and that feels right.
A Simple Message was the first one and, if I’m honest, it’s the one that’s most like Gene on the LP. For those people that know Gene, it has a Long Sleeves For The Summer-type jazzy drum shuffle and Steve Mason-esque guitar, although Steve [Gene guitarist] isn’t actually on that song – it’s me and Perry [Peredur ap Gwynedd] from Pendulum.
I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea making it the first release, but, in hindsight, it has worked out really well. It’s a decent song, in my opinion, with some understated charm, and I remembered that’s what worked for Gene with our first single, For The Dead.
The song is about how populist politicians rely so much on simple messages that are often completely inadequate instructions for people that need to determine quite complex and important issues. I think it was Joseph Goebbels that called it ‘the big lie…’
Snowy Peaks is a simple love song I wrote for my other half – it was the first song I wrote for the LP, but it’s been through quite a few versions. I like what I ended up with, but now I’m trying to work out how to play it live on my own, so I’m changing it yet again.
Steve Mason plays guitar on Snowy Peaks, doesn’t he?
MJ: That’s the fella! Steve was a fan of the song and he kept me on my toes by getting me to try and improve it. He sent me off to write more bits when I thought it was finished.
I love writing with Steve – we are obviously quite long in the tooth in that department. He plays on four songs on the LP and Kev [Miles – bassist] from Gene is on five, which feels good. I was very careful not to make the LP ‘Gene without Martin’ [Rossiter – singer], though, so there are other people on it, too.
You’ve also been recording with keyboardist Mick Talbot (Style Council, Dexys Midnight Runners), who played with Gene…
MJ: Yes – Mick plays on five or six songs, and I was very privileged to have him involved. What a legend he is and what a talent – not to mention he’s so nice and made us all chuckle with his quips and stories. Having him in the room with Kev, who is also a master of comedy, made the proceedings such a fun time.
‘Stephen Street has been advising me since I first started writing and learning to sing for the first time. He is someone who I trust implicitly not to bullshit me, but to also be nice enough to actually listen’
Mostly it was me and [producer] Stephen Street working, but when people showed up it changed the vibe and provided some injections of energy and goodness.
Stephen has been advising me since I first started writing and learning to sing for the first time. He is someone who I trust implicitly not to bullshit me, but to also be nice enough to actually listen. With so many people releasing music and vying for attention these days, it’s so hard to get anyone to listen or take you seriously – especially when you’ve been round the block like I have. That’s where I’m so lucky that I have a past and some music mates.
I’ve known Stephen for 30 years. He ended up producing the LP after initially aiming to do just a few tracks. We got some momentum though and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
I didn’t – and don’t – feel under any pressure at all to be successful. It really was just the pure joy of making music together. Hopefully that shows on the record. Now that it’s made, I’m chuffed if people want to check it out.
‘I don’t feel under any pressure to be successful. It’s really just the pure joy of making music together. Hopefully that shows on the record’
How and where did you make the album?
MJ: I wrote the record on my iPhone using GarageBand. I have a garden office and I worked in there.
I wrote 20 songs for it and 10 have made the LP. After it was written, we went to various places to do the drums and finally ended up at Stephen Street’s studio, The Bunker, which is a room he has at Damon Albarn’s studio in Latimer Road, London. It was nice to be in that kind of environment again. Damon came and said hello – he was nice.
We ended up using some of my original demos, as they just had a unique vibe that didn’t need to be recreated. It’s a nice mix and match of demos and new recordings, but Stephen is a master at mixing, so he polished it up very well.
There’s a new digital single, High Time, coming out on February 4 – just before the Isle of Wight gig. What can you tell me about that song?
MJ: Yes – February 4, which is just before your gig, so you can learn the lyrics and sing along. The song is about however much you try to control your life, it still throws dramatic unexpected events at you that can be good or bad, but have the power to swerve your life journey…
The song references a terrible road accident I was involved in 1991, with the lads from the band Spin, and also the random event of meeting Martin Rossiter a few months later in the Underworld [in Camden] completely by chance. That time it had a good outcome.
We were actually out with Stephen Street that night, so that’s another interesting link. There’s a mild religious element to the song too. I’m not an overly religious person, but I’m not an atheist either.
So, the album’s coming out in July…
MJ: Yes – July 2022 is my big moment. There are 10 songs – five on each side. I am making some vinyl…
It will be released on Costermonger Records, which is the old Gene – and one other band, Brassy-associated label, started by music journos Keith Cameron and Roy Wilkinson.
I always thought it was an amazing label name and I was sad when Gene stopped using it and changed to Polydor. They had signed us of course, so it wasn’t an option to use Costermonger anymore. Keith and Roy won’t be involved right now though, other than they are mates with trusted musical ears.
‘The album will be released on Costermonger Records, which is the old Gene label. I always thought it was an amazing name and I was sad when Gene stopped using it’
These days, with digital releases, a label doesn’t mean quite as much, unless you are in a stable of acts, but for the vinyl I wanted a label name with gravitas. I’m honoured that they’ve allowed me to resurrect it and start those catalogue numbers again. COST11 is coming soon – I’ll save the LP title for now… Who knows there may even be other acts on the label one day… it comes from a place of friendship but it’s mainly just me at the moment and Mrs James, who helps with the artwork.
I have had some help from the guys at Demon too, who did the Gene re-issues [in 2020], and some PR pals will be helping. It’s all very informal and fun – I’m loving it. I would say that eight of the 10 songs on the album could be singles – it’s that kind of record.
The fourth and fifth singles will have B-sides that are not on the LP. We consider those to be perhaps the best chance of piquing the interest of people who don’t know anything about me. Erm, so that’s nearly everybody!
Finally, we should raise a glass to my dad. Can you recommend a decent, affordable red wine?
MJ: Absolutely. I’ll bring one with me to the gig. If it’s a red, I love Bordeaux, something like Clos de L’Oratoire Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe. Chin-chin and all due respect to John for his great life achievements.
Matt James’s new single, High Time, will be released digitally on February 4. You can pre-save it here. His debut solo album is due out in July this year.
Matt will be appearing at Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – a tribute to John Hannam: Sunday February 6 2022: a night of live music in memory of legendary Isle of Wight journalist and broadcaster, John Hannam, who died in autumn 2021.
The gig will feature My Darling Clementine, Matt James (Gene), Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields), Matt Hill, Brian Sharpe, Bobby I Can Fly, Chris Clarke, Amy Bird, Bob and Bertie Everson.
Proceeds will go to the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital. Tickets are available here.
I was very close to my dad and owe so much to him – he always supported me and offered encouragement, and he was responsible for getting me into music in the first place – when I was a child, he was always playing LPs in our house.
I can remember enjoying albums by Duane Eddy, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, The Shadows, Nancy & Lee and Scott Walker. I inherited my dad’s love of ‘60s sounds, twangy guitars, spy film and Spaghetti Western soundtracks and rich baritone voices.
Shortly before my dad died, he spent some time in hospital and I went to visit him in an end-of-life care ward. He was conscious, but heavily sedated – thankfully, we managed to share some precious moments during the last few days of his life and listened to some music. There was a CD library in the ward, so I played him some albums that I knew we would both enjoy, including Paul Weller’s acoustic live record, Days of Speed, a ‘60s hits compilation and Best Of collections by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
‘When I was a child, my dad was always playing LPs in our house. I inherited his love of ‘60s sounds, twangy guitars, spy film and Spaghetti Western soundtracks and rich baritone voices’
One of the songs that I played several times while sitting with my dad was Dylan’s stately twilight ballad, Not Dark Yet, which is from his 1997 album, Time Out Of Mind.
It’s a hauntingly beautiful track and has been interpreted as Dylan contemplating his mortality: “Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. I was born here, and I’ll die here, against my will. I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still…”
It’s a song I’ve always loved, but this time around, it took on added meaning and poignancy.
The last thing my dad said to me was “lovely music.” After he died, I took a few days off work and then decided to keep busy. I’m always getting sent new music to review and I threw myself into listening to a bunch of records that were due to be released in autumn / winter 2021.
The one that I kept going back to wasImposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – a covers album by the Depeche Mode frontman and his collaborator, the producer / engineer/ musician, Rich Machin.
It’s a dark, intimate and moving record, which suited my mood, but, funnily enough, one of the 12 songs on it was a brilliant version of Not Dark Yet. Gahan and Soulsavers overhaul the track and make it more dynamic, much heavier and even moodier.
‘The one album I kept going back to was Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – a covers record by the Depeche Mode frontman and his collaborator, Rich Machin’
As Machin said when I interviewed him a few weeks ago: “It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original version. Dylan did it his way, which is the definitive version, but I could hear it differently – I played around with it. Lyrically it’s a very dark song and I was going for more of a raw, ‘60s fuzzy psych guitar feel – there’s no bass on it. I felt it really worked.”
It certainly did, as did the rest of the record – Imposter is my favourite album of 2021 and one of the best covers records you’ll ever hear.
As I said when I reviewed the album for consumer magazine, Hi-Fi+earlier this year, it’s an eclectic selection of songs, with Gene Clark sitting alongside Charlie Chaplin, Cat Power, Dylan, Neil Young and Mark Lanegan, whom Soulsavers first collaborated with in 2007.
There’s a pretty faithful rendition of the shadowy, infidelity-themed, country-soul classic The Dark End of the Street, albeit with some gospel stylings; a gorgeous, hymnal take on Gene Clark’s Where My Love Lies Asleep; a version of the jazz standard, Smile, as sung by Charlie Chaplin and Nat King Cole, among others; Cat Power’s Metal Heart; PJ Harvey’s The Desperate Kingdom of Love; the urgent, raw, trad blues-rock of Elmore James’s I Held My Baby Last Night, with squalling electric guitar, and a stunning and dramatic reading of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, with the rich orchestration of the original replaced by atmospheric piano and unsettling, spacey sound effects.
‘Imposter is my favourite album of 2021 and one of the best covers records you’ll ever hear’
The majority of the songs on the record have been reinvented, which, of course, is the trick to making a great covers album. You have to bring something new to the party.
Writing in Hi-Fi +, I said many of the choices, which are often dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing.
Married three times, he is a former drug addict – he overdosed on a lethal cocktail of heroin and cocaine at the Hollywood Sunset Marquis hotel in 1996 and spent at least six minutes clinically dead. He’s a man who’s seen some harrowing sights – so much so that he doesn’t just sing these songs, he lives them and inhabits them.
The title of the album may be Imposter, but Gahan was born to perform many of these compositions. In fact, talking about the record, he says: “When I listen to other people’s voices and songs – more importantly the way they sing them and interpret the words – I feel at home. I identify with it. It comforts me more than anything else. There’s not one performer on the record who I haven’t been moved by.”
Imposter moved me and it became my soundtrack to the last few weeks of 2021.
Following my dad’s death, my sister and I have inherited his extensive record collection – vinyl and CD. I’ve spent some time going through it and pulling out albums to listen to – so much so that, coupled with having to deal with my dad’s passing, I haven’t listened to as much new music as I perhaps should, however, there are still plenty of new records I’ve enjoyed, so here’s a rundown of some of them, plus a Spotify playlist to go with it.
Don’t worry – it’s not simply a list of intense, harrowing and miserable albums that I’ve liked during 2021. There’s still room for the odd power-pop song, jangly guitars, psych sounds and gorgeous harmonies. It’s not dark, but it’s getting there…
Like its two predecessors, The Graceless Age and A Short History of Decay, Murry’s The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes was a surprising, brilliant and inventive record – rough and raw, dark at times, but also not without its fair share of black humour.
It opened with the funky dub-meets-country groove of Oscar Wilde (Came Here To Make Fun Of You) – an infectious pop song subverted with a disturbing lyric that referenced the Oklahoma City bombing.
The startling and moody title track, which started with the lines “Of course I’d die for you. You’d watch me, wouldn’t you?” rode on a wave of heavy, fuzzed-up guitars, over which Murry told us he’d been made in God’s image: “Born to die – to take love songs and crucify ‘em.”
Di Kreutser Sonata was a sparse ballad with haunting pedal steel guitar, which found Murry “stuck somewhere between a memory and a dream,” and wrestling with issues from his adopted family upbringing.
I Refuse To Believe You Could Love Me had a New Wave / garage-rock feel, and the atmospheric Ones + Zeros was based on a pretty piano line and featured guest vocals from singer-songwriter, Nadine Khouri.
Murry also threw in an inspired, spacey and psychedelic cover version of Duran Duran’s ‘90s comeback single, Ordinary World, which was driven by a throbbing bassline and electric piano – both were played by Bristol-based John Parish (PJ Harvey, Eels, Sparklehorse), who produced the album.
Speaking about working with Parish, Murry said: “It was interesting – I’ve never made a record like that before. It was uncomfortable and nerve-wracking to begin with, because I didn’t know where we were going.
“It was like, ‘I don’t know what the fuck’s going on, or if this is even a record,’ but then suddenly, he played me stuff back and it worked – we did more and more stuff in an uninhibited way, without thinking about it.”
He added: “It was like we were both trying to figure each other out the whole time – that process created the record. I didn’t have a lot of the songs finished – I just wanted to bring them in and see what happened. John has an incredible ability to create a collaborative process and space.”
Peter Bruntell’s latest record, Journey To The Sun – his twelfth – was written and recorded during lockdown. It was more sparse and stripped-down than his last few releases – gorgeous, haunting and folky, but with some vintage electronica sounds and even a couple of spacey sci-fi instrumentals.
Opener, the stunning, Dandelion, was an atmospheric folk-horror song, like Matt Deighton, or Pink Moon-era Nick Drake being produced by Brian Eno; the lovely Lucifer Morning Star had warm, burbling synths and chiming 12-string guitar, while Heart of Straw was classic Bruntnell – an aching, acoustic, country-tinged ballad – and You’d Make A Great Widow was laced with his trademark wry humour and melancholy, but wrapped up in one of the prettiest melodies you were likely to hear all year.
Some of the songs were co-written with Bruntnell’s long-time collaborator, Bill Ritchie, while US musician and mastering engineer, Peter Linnane, laid down some Hammond and pump organ, concertina, Mellotron and piano, and Iain Sloan played pedal steel guitar on the track Dharma Liar.
Nine years after the release of his 2012 live album, Greedy Magicians, UK Americana / folk/ protest singer Matt Hill – the artist formerly known as Quiet Loner – recorded the follow-up, Greedy Magicians II – Return of the Idle Drones.
‘Greedy Magicians II was a brilliant record – stripped-down and intimate, angry, acerbic, funny and moving, with musical nods to genres including folk, country, blues and European balladry’
Released on CD and download via his Bandcamp site, it was a collection of ‘live in the studio’ modern protest songs. Recorded in two days by Hill, long-time associate, James Youngjohns (Last Harbour, Willard Grant Conspiracy), and engineer Adam Gorman of The Travelling Band, in a Victorian mill in the historic Ancoats district of Manchester, it was described as ‘the sound of two musicians sat two metres apart, as they rip through the songs as if they were playing a concert.’
It was a brilliant record – stripped-down and intimate, angry, acerbic, funny and moving, with musical nods to genres including folk, country, blues and European balladry.
“My original plan was to do this as a ‘10 years on’ project recorded in front of a live audience in the same venue, with the same musicians,” said Hill.
“Sadly, the pandemic scuppered that, so we did it as a ‘live in the studio’ album with just me and James. It allowed us a bit more freedom and I’ve tried to channel some broader musical influences here, such as Randy Newman, Scott Walker or Glen Campbell.”
The song Strike was about the matchgirls’ strike of 1888, while Talking It Out tackled billionaires, oligarchs and the super-rich.
Aside from social commentary, there were personal stories too – the middle-aged person struggling to work whilst chronically ill (Times Are Getting Tough), or the soldier and his wife trying to settle back to normality in post-war Britain (Making Sense of the War).
Aside from putting a stop to him playing live, lockdown was good for Paul Weller. In just under 12 months, the elder statesman of Britpop released two albums – the summery and soulful On Sunset and its follow-up, Fat Pop (Volume 1), which, like its predecessor, was one of the strongest records he’d ever made.
It was the latest in a purple patch that started with 2018’s True Meanings – his stripped-back and orchestrally-aided, introspective folk-rock album, which coincided with him turning 60. That was a career highlight and, along with his self-titled solo debut, from 1992, it’s easily one of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite Weller records.
Some of Fat Pop (Volume 1) was cut from the same [three-button mod suit] cloth as the album that came before it. There was a strong soul and funk feel to a few of the songs, but there was also plenty of, er, fat pop.
It was a rich-sounding and eclectic record – vibrant and colourful – and, considering the wide range of influences and styles, it hung together really well and felt like a complete piece of work, rather than just a collection of songs.
Fat Pop (Volume 1) saw Weller continuing his working relationship with producer Jan ‘Stan’ Kybert, who has been at the helm since 2012’s Sonik Kicks.
Sadly, the first single and opening song, the psychedelic, synth-pop-meets-Krautrock of Cosmic Fringes, wasn’t about lockdown haircuts, although Weller was sporting long locks in the accompanying video.
Lyrically, the song concerned itself with a keyboard warrior: “I’m a sleeping giant, waiting to awake/I stumble to the fridge/then back to bed”, but to be fair, that did sound a lot like lockdown…
The punky True featured an unexpected jazzy sax break, as well as guest vocals by Lia Metcalfe of Liverpool alt-rock band The Mysterines, while the dramatic, soaring and symphonic Shades of Blue was co-written by his daughter, Leah, who shared vocal duties on the song.
The title track, a paean to the power of music, had a heavy, dubby bassline – Weller described it as “Cypress Hill doing something that sounds like a DJ Muggs production.”
Glad Times was beautiful and melancholic – space-age soul with strings – while Testify, with guest vocals by Andy Fairweather Low of ‘60s Welsh pop band Amen Corner, was a great, ‘70s-style, funk-soul strut, with flute and sax supplied by acid jazz veteran, Jacko Peake.
Pastoral and acoustic guitar-led ballad, Cobwebs/Connections, which could’ve come off True Meanings, featured a lovely string arrangement by Hannah Peel, who worked on that album. She also scored the gorgeous closing song, Still Glides The Stream – another reflective moment that was written as a remote collaboration between Weller and long-term guitarist Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene).
If it was angry Weller you were after, you needn’t have worried, as he hadn’t completely mellowed with age. On the choppy, ska-tinged rallying call, That Pleasure, which was written as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter campaign and was swathed in lush, ‘70s Marvin Gaye-style strings, he urged us to “Lose your hypocrisy… lose your prejudice, lose this hatred,” adding, “It’s time to get involved.”
Weller’s orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, also worked on another of our favourite albums of 2021 – Dot Allison’s Heart-Shaped Scars.
On her fifth solo outing, the former vocalist in ‘90s Scottish electronic act One Dove, who, throughout her career, has collaborated with the likes of Massive Attack, Scott Walker, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty, went back to nature.
Several of the gorgeous, stripped-down, pastoral folk songs featured field recordings of birdsong, rivers, and the ambience of the Hebrides, where she has a cottage.
Musically, she cited Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake and Brian Wilson as influences. There was also a nod to the soundtrack of ‘70s cult folk-horror film The Wicker Man, which is set on a remote Scottish island.
Heart-Shaped Scars was a long time coming – her last record, Room 7 1/2, was released 12 years ago. After that, she took time out to start a family.
Recorded at Castlesound Studios, in Edinburgh, with arranger, Peel, Heart-Shaped Scars was a haunting record, musically and lyrically – quite literally, as one of the album’s prettiest moments was called The Haunting and opened with the lines “Slip inside this haunted house – tip toe silent, not a sound.”
There was also a track called Ghost Orchid – a stately piano ballad with mournful cello.
In the past, Allison has dabbled with genres including pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars was her most rootsy sounding album so far.
“I like to try and explore new sounds and styles, so as not to stagnate. I love the evolution of The Beatles – that’s a good model. I find it interesting to explore new areas,” she told Say It With Garage Flowers,in an exclusive interview.
Four of the songs featured a string quintet, and other instruments on the record included ukulele, keyboards / synth, piano, guitar, bass, drums, harmonium and Mellotron. The vocals and the ukulele were recorded together on a Neumann U 67 microphone – the album sounded hushed and intimate.
Allison usually writes songs on piano and guitar, but the first single from the album, the fragile, cinematic and dreamy ballad, Long Exposure – “Orchards of cherries lie bruised on the ground” – was one of the tracks she composed on ukulele, after picking up the instrument during lockdown.
‘Dot Allison has dabbled with pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars was her most rootsy sounding album so far’
Lyrically, Heart-Shaped Scars referenced several of Allison’s interests, including literature, science and nature. “I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature,” she said.
In fact, one of the songs was called Can You Hear Nature Sing? It was autumnal folk and co-written with Zoë Bestel, who provided guest vocals.
The record’s most brooding and dark moment was Love Died In Our Arms, with dramatic strings and moody synth – a flashback to her trip-hop and electronica roots.
Matt McManamon, the former frontman of noughties Scouse ska-punkers The Dead 60s, put out his debut solo album, Skally Folk this year, but don’t expect to be able to skank to it, though… His first release in 13 years, it was a strong collection of reflective and autobiographical songs that were steeped in the tradition of Irish folk music – Liverpool-born McManamon’s family are from County Mayo – as well as the jangly Scouse indie sound of The La’s, and the Wirral psych-pop of The Coral, who were former Deltasonic label mates of The Dead 60s.
Mulranny Smile was a haunting, folky ballad that was shrouded in Celtic sea mist, and if Lee Mavers had had tunes like What About You?, Out Of Time and Every Time I Close My Eyes up his sleeve, that second La’s album might’ve actually come out and been another classic.
For his latest record, Atoms and Energy, Daniel Wylie, the former frontman of late ’90s / early noughties, Alan McGee-endorsed jangle-poppers, Cosmic Rough Riders, reacted against his 2017 album, Scenery For Dreamers, which showcased his love of heavy Neil Young and Crazy Horse-like electric guitars and the chiming Rickenbacker sound of The Byrds.
The follow-up was much more stripped-down than its predecessor. Young was still an obvious influence, but it was the Young of After The Goldrush and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, rather than Cortez The Killer.
“I wanted to make a completely different album from [2015’s] Chrome Cassettes and Scenery For Dreamers. Both of those had a similar approach and vibe to them and I felt it was time for a change,” he told us.
“I wanted to write a classic ‘70s acoustic record, lyrically based around what was currently occupying my thoughts, and musically like my favourite ‘70s Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cat Stevens and James Taylor records. That was the plan and I think we pulled it off pretty well.”
He certainly did.
One of our favourite country records of the year was This Heart Will SelfDestruct, by Olkahoma-born, Essex-based Americana singer-songwriter, Bob Collum, and his backing band, The Welfare Mothers.
It covered lyrical themes including anxiety, hope, fear, humour, uncertainty, love, disappointment, redemption and faith.
Judging by the subjects he chose to tackle, you won’t be surprised to find that the record was mostly written during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Collum said the album “began life on the cusp, before the insanity of 2020”, and added: “I think it captures the last year quite well.”
The Welfare Mothers comprise Mags Layton (violin and vocals), Martin Cutmore (bass) and Paul Quarry (drums and percussion).
Honorary member, guitarist Martin Belmont (Graham Parker and the Rumour, Nick Lowe, My Darling Clementine) played the Fender Stratocaster and Fender VI bass on the album, adding a mean, Duane Eddy-style, twangy solo to the jaunty Shake It Loose.
Belmont’s ‘70s pub rock influence also came across on Giving Up, which was an infectious power-pop song – kind of New Wave meets country.
Elsewhere, there was tongue-in-cheek country (the title track); echoes of early R.E.M (Second Fiddle); a sad and reflective country ballad inspired by the likes of Johnny Cash (From Birmingham) and a raucous, fiddle-fuelled rockabilly cover of Saved, which is an R&B-flavoured song written by Leiber and Stoller and first recorded by Lavern Baker in the early ‘60s. Elvis Presley and Joe Cocker have released versions of it.
Collum also dipped into blues (Tall Glass of Muddy Water) and soul territory (Spare Me). On the latter, he was joined by Peter Holsapple (The dB’s and R.E.M.), who played a mean Hammond B3 organ and also sang backing vocals. The song was an intercontinental collaboration between him and Collum.
2021 wasn’t just all about singer-songwriters – Say It With Garage Flowers fell in love with plenty of offerings from bands too – some old favourites, as well as new acts.
San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls turned 10 this year and released their fourth album, At George’s Zoo. It was their best and most diverse record yet – a mix of Byrdsy psych, ’60s-style garage rock and gorgeous, Beach Boys/Jimmy Webb-inspired pop, with harmonies, piano, horns and lush strings.
The opening track, It’s Over, was wonderful, with a great horn arrangement, a Beach Boys-like intro and some lovely harmonies. There was also a bit of The Notorious Byrd Brothers about it, with some psych-soul going on…
Surfboard was the song of the summer and I Was Wrong had a definite Pet Sounds / Surf’s Up feel, while 26th St. Blues sounded more like the Cool Ghouls of old – very ’60s garage rock.
There was more cool, summery psych-pop, but mixed with some far-out space rock, from L.A-based trio Triptides, on their album, Alter Echoes.
It was recorded prior to the pandemic, in Hollywood’s Boulevard Recording studio, which was previously the legendary Producer’s Workshop, where Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and, er, Liberace made, or mixed, records.
Speaking to Say It With Garage Flowersabout the band’s sound, band’s frontman and multi-instrumentalist, Glenn Brigman, said: “There’s such a wide range of influences it can be hard to pin them all down – from Coltrane to Hawkwind. So many different groups. But I think being in L.A, working together as a band, touring together – it all influenced how the record came together. We knew each other’s strengths and made sure that we played to them.”
Meanwhile, back in the UK, ’60s-obsessed, East Midlands psych-pop band, The Mariners, released their second album, Tales From The Great Central Line Volume One, which was less psych and more pop than its predecessor, The Tides of Time, but was essentially a similar trip down Dead End Street and Penny Lane, but with some added country rock and folk influences.
It contained no less than five songs with girls’ names in their titles – one of which, the first single, Dear Genevieve, was an irresistibly jaunty strum that was a love letter to frontman Luke Williamson’s young daughter.
The groovy, organ-led There Before Time was a close cousin of The Zombies’ She’s Not There, the gorgeous and reflective Catch My Breath was a stripped-down acoustic ballad, while Royston’s Lament was a yearning and melancholy tale of growing older by the day that lamented the loss of community and showcased a slightly darker side to the band’s sound.
In a similar vein to The Mariners, cosmic Scousers The Coral’s latest record, Coral Island, was the best thing they’ve ever done – an inventive and adventurous, 24-track double concept album, with spoken word passages narrated by 85-year-old Ian Murray (also known as The Great Muriarty), who was the granddad of band members James and Ian Skelly.
Coral Island was inspired by faded British seaside glamour, childhood holidays to North Wales, end-of-the pier amusements, pre-Beatles rock and roll, ‘death discs’ and jukebox pop.
Musically, its list of influences included Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, Sun Records, Joe Meek, The Kinks, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Change Your Mind was Byrdsy jangly guitar pop with a great melody and harmonies, while Mist On The River was even more West Coast – it sounded like Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Autumn Has Come, which brought the first half of the record to a close, was very haunting and melancholy song. You could imagine Scott Walker or Richard Hawley singing it…
Golden Age had spooky organ and whistling on it, as well as a Johnny Cash ‘boom-chikka-boom’ rhythm, and sounded like the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western set in a haunted fairground…
In the age of streaming playlists or single songs, Coral Island was an album that needed to be sat down and listened to in its entirety, as a complete piece of work. It was available as a nice heavyweight, double vinyl package, with a book – truly an immersive experience.
A band who take the Spaghetti Western sound to a whole new level are guitar-slinging six-piece XIXA, from Tucson, Arizona.
Their second album, Genesis, was an extraordinary, exotic and often intense listen – an intoxicating mix of Ennio Morricone, Gothic horror, psych, rock, Latin, ’80s glossy pop, desert rock and electronica.
Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers, band member, Gabriel Sullivan, said: “The inspirations that go into XIXA are always evolving. We started as a covers band playing Peruvian chicha and that was definitely the foundation for the band. From there each members’ personal influences and identities began to seep into the music. We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music.”
The desert is also an influence on US duo Starlight Cleaning Co. (Rachel Dean and Tim Paul Gray) – hell, they actually live in the Mojave Desert!
Their self-titled album from this year was a wonderfully melodic record that was in love with ’70s/’80s New Wave guitar music, glossy L.A. pop, country rock, Americana and soft rock.
Opener, Don’t Take It Away, achieved jangle-pop perfection, with harmonies ringing out high over the desert landscape; the chugging, organ-fuelled and anthemic Train Wreck was like Tom Petty doing Springsteen’s Atlantic City; The Race was melancholy and reflective dream-pop, with a superb haunting guitar solo by the late Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams, Circles Around The Sun), and Joy Killer and The Current had the swagger and style of vintage Pretenders.
Hip, Reno-based recording collective Whatitdo Archive Group are also used to hanging out in the desert – in fact they recorded a promo video for their album, The Black Stone Affair, in one…
To describe an album as “the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist” has become a music journalism cliché, but in the case of The Black Stone Affair it was perfectly true.
They wanted to create a record that encompassed everything they love and admire about old Italian film soundtracks and scores and bring that energy back into the spotlight.
They certainly achieved it, as The Black Stone Affair was dramatic, atmospheric, exotic – even erotic at times – and very, very authentic.
As well as musicians and recording engineers, the members of Whatitdo Archive Group are voracious vinyl collectors.
They spent nine months of research, digging through their records and studying the works of composers including the legendary Ennio Morricone, as well as Piero Piccioni, Stefano Torossi, François de Roubaix and Alessandro Alessandroni, before composing their imaginary cinematic soundtrack and working with over 24 other musicians – there are some superb orchestral and brass arrangements on the album.
Recorded in December/ January 2010 at Deep Litter Studios, on a farm, in rural Devon, it’s a lost gem – a collection of 10 really strong and highly melodic songs, from the infectious and jangly, Beatles and Jam-like power-pop of opener Last Days Of The Old World, to the ’60s psych of The Pleasure Seekers, the pastoral cosmic pop of Kites Rise Up Against the Wind, the gorgeous and folky ballad Finally Found My Way Back Home – co-written with Weller associate Andy Crofts and ’60s soul singer P.P. Arnold, who Cradock produced a solo LP for in 2019 – and the country-tinged Lay Down Your Weary Burden.
After the original version of Peace City West came out, Cradock decided he wasn’t happy with the final mix of the album, or the psychedelic instrumental interludes that he’d put in-between the songs, so, 10 years later, he decided to do something about it.
“We mixed it badly on a laptop in January 2011 and then it was finished, but listening back it just sounded bad because of the mix,” he told us. “It was time to re-do that, get rid of the interludes, make it sound like it should’ve done and put it on vinyl – those were the three things that were missing for me.”
We missed out on this record the first time it came out, so we’re really grateful that Cradock decided to reissue it.
“The new version gives it more focus,” he said. ” I like the fact that it’s now simple – it’s just the songs. Hearing the vinyl test pressing made me smile, which was good.”
He added: “There was a lot of meandering nonsense on the old version, but, at the time, that was where my head was at – I thought it was interesting. There were bits of road music on it, from when I was in Egypt. I recorded a guy saying a prayer. I was enjoying that self-indulgence, but, in 2020, I wasn’t.”
At the risk of us being self-indulgent, here’s a playlist of songs from some of our favourite albums of 2021.
Please note: not all the albums are on Spotify, but if you want to hear them, you can support the artists by purchasing their music on Bandcamp etc. That would make their year.
Say It With Garage Flowers has chosen our favourite album of 2021 , and, shock, horror, it’s a covers record: Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers.
Not only that, but we’ve also got an exclusive interview with Rich Machin – aka Soulsavers – on the making of the album. This isn’t fake news – Imposter is for real.
“It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original versions,” says Machin. “It was a good, fun excuse to dig through my record collection.”
For the first time since we started publishing, Say It With Garage Flowers has chosen a covers record as our favourite album of the year.
But it’s not just any old covers record – it’s one of the best we’ve ever heard: Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers.
For their third album together, the Depeche Mode frontman and his musical partner, producer / engineer/ musician, Rich Machin, decided to work their black magic on other people’s songs, rather than write their own. Both of them came up with a long list of contenders and then narrowed them down to the final 12 that make up the record.
As I said when I reviewed the album for consumer magazine, Hi-Fi+earlier this year, it’s an eclectic selection, with Gene Clark sitting alongside Charlie Chaplin, Cat Power, Dylan, Neil Young and Mark Lanegan, whom Soulsavers first collaborated with in 2007.
There’s a pretty faithful rendition of the shadowy, infidelity-themed, country-soul classic The Dark End of the Street, albeit with some gospel stylings; a gorgeous, hymnal take on Gene Clark’s Where My Love Lies Asleep; a version of the jazz standard, Smile, as sung by Charlie Chaplin and Nat King Cole, among others; Cat Power’s Metal Heart; PJ Harvey’s The Desperate Kingdom of Love; the urgent, raw, trad blues-rock of Elmore James’s I Held My Baby Last Night, with squalling electric guitar, and a stunning and dramatic reading of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, with the rich orchestration of the original replaced by atmospheric piano and unsettling, spacey sound effects.
One of the highlights is a dynamic take on Dylan’s Not Dark Yet. Gahan and Soulsavers turn a stately twilight ballad into an altogether heavier beast. In fact, the majority of the songs on the record have been reinvented, which, of course, is the trick to making a great covers album. You have to bring something new to the party.
Writing in Hi-Fi +, I said many of the choices, which are often dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing. Married three times, he is a former drug addict – he overdosed on a lethal cocktail of heroin and cocaine at the Hollywood Sunset Marquis hotel in 1996 and spent at least six minutes clinically dead. He’s a man who’s seen some harrowing sights – so much so that he doesn’t just sing these songs, he lives them and inhabits them.
The title of the album may be Imposter, but Gahan was born to perform many of these compositions. In fact, talking about the record, he says: “When I listen to other people’s voices and songs – more importantly the way they sing them and interpret the words – I feel at home. I identify with it. It comforts me more than anything else. There’s not one performer on the record who I haven’t been moved by.”
‘Many of the songs, which are dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing – he lives them and inhabits them’
The album was recorded with a 10-piece band at Rick Rubin’s famous Shangri-La studio in Malibu, California.
Musicians along for the ride included guitarist James Walbourne (The Rails and The Pretenders), keyboard player Sean Read (Dexys Midnight Runners, Edwyn Collins, Manic Street Preachers) on Hammond and piano, and Pornos For Pyros and Jane’s Addiction bassist, Martyn LeNoble.
Gahan says: “I know we made something special, and I hope other people feel that and it takes them on a little kind of trip –especially people who love music and have for years.”
He’s spot on. Imposter is the real deal. To get the full story behind the making of the record, I spoke to Rich Machin of Soulsavers.
“When I walked into the studio for the first time, I knew things were going to work, because there was an ambience,” he says.
“There was a vibe in the live room – it was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I had a good feeling…”
Why did you choose to make a covers album this time around?
Rich Machin: To be fair, Dave floated the idea by me – he called me up and said, ‘Would you consider doing it?’ I said, ‘Well – I’ve done covers before, but never a covers record – let me think about it and I’ll come back to you.’
I thought about it – I had a long mental checklist of tracks that I could cover. Once I had several ideas bubbling away in my brain, we talked about it and then spent a while exchanging ideas of what could work. We formed a long list and then whittled it down. It was a good, fun excuse to dig through my record collection.
It’s a really varied collection of songs. There’s some stuff that maybe you would expect to hear on there, but also some surprises, which makes it an exciting record…
RM: Out of curiosity, which are the ones you would expect to hear?
The Mark Lanegan song, Strange Religion, and the PJ Harvey track, The DesperateKingdom of Love – I know Dave’s a fan of both artists and you’ve worked with Lanegan… To be honest, I was expecting there to be a Nick Cave cover on there, but there is a song by Roland S. Howard, from The Birthday Party – Shut Me Down…
RM: We did talk about a couple of Nick Cave ideas, but Roland S. Howard and the whole Birthday Party / Bad Seeds crew were as equally influential on us.
Shut Me Down is such a great track and it was nice to give a nod to one of the lesser-known people from that group – it came from the Cave world and it’s one of my favourite tracks on the record.
It’s great to have a Mark Lanegan track on the album, as your collaborations with him were how many people became aware of Soulsavers. It feels like you’ve come full circle by including one of his songs on the album…
RM: Mark Lanegan is one of my best friends – we speak three or four times a week. His presence is still heavily felt in what we do. At some point we’ll pick up where we left off.
The Dark End of the Street was the second single from the album. I love that song – especially the James Carr version – but your take on it is great, too… Was that one of your choices?
RM: Yeah – that was one of mine. I sat on it for a while because, to me, the James Carr version is so definitive – you don’t fuck with it!
We had a couple of other tracks in the mix that I felt the same way about, but Dave was pushing them – Lilac Wine and Always On My Mind. Willie Nelson’s version of Always On My Mind is the one, but people always think of Elvis’s…
With The Dark End of the Street, I thought, ‘fuck it – let’s try it and see where we go…’ and I was pleasantly surprised how it came out. I was more than happy to leave it on the shelf if we hadn’t done it justice.
‘I sat on The Dark End of the Street for a while because the James Carr version is so definitive – you don’t fuck with it!’
The version of Always On My Mind is brilliant. It closes the album, but you’ve resisted the urge to make it a Vegas-style showstopper – it’s stripped-down and understated, with gospel backing vocals and country guitar. The recording is very intimate – you can hear what sounds like the creaks from someone sitting on a seat…
RM: The only way for it to work was for it not to be overblown – it needed to be an intimate moment. We recorded the song live in the studio, on a Sunday night. Most people had left – there were just a couple of us left, and it had gone dark. We only had a couple of lights on – we wanted to capture the ambience of the room as much as the performance.
Most of what you can hear is the room mics. It makes you feel like you’re in the room with everybody performing – you can pick up all the creaks…
Your version of Dylan’s Not Dark Yet is superb – you’ve made it heavier, bluesier and much more dynamic than the original…
RM: It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original version. Dylan did it his way, which is the definitive version, but I could hear it differently – I played around with it. Lyrically it’s a very dark song and I was going for more of a raw, ‘60s fuzzy psych guitar feel – there’s no bass on it. I felt it really worked.
You worked with a 10-piece band on the album. Some of the arrangements have a full band sound, but there are plenty of stripped-down moments, like your dramatic version of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, which is shorn of the original’s string arrangements, but, instead, has piano and strange spacey sounds. A lot of the songs have plenty of room to breathe…
RM: It’s just as important to know when not to use people – just because it’s there, you don’t have to wave it around. You have all the tools to be able to do what you want, but the key to making something work intimately isn’t just to fill the space with everything you’ve got.
The space and the room – the silence and the quiet – on a record is just as important as the music. I was very conscious of that with a lot of the songs – it was about giving Dave’s voice room to really be the draw to what you’re listening to. The music is there to support the vocal.
‘The space and the room – the silence and the quiet – on a record is just as important as the music. I was very conscious of that with a lot of the songs’
This album was recorded with a full band at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio, in Malibu. Didn’t you make the previous Dave Gahan & Soulsavers albums by working remotely?
RM: Kind of… That bit gets overstated – we did spend a lot of time together making those records. It wasn’t as disconnected as it sometimes gets portrayed. We wrote the songs for those albums remotely, but it wasn’t like this record, where we had 10 people in the studio.
When did you make the album?
RM: We recorded it before Covid, in November 2019. The first I knew of Covid was in January 2020, when I was in my hotel room, mixing the record. I was watching the news and saw something was happening in China. Our main concern at the time was the Malibu fires.
How were the recording sessions at Shangri-La?
RM: Terrible! [laughs]. I’m certainly not averse to a month of California sun in November.
It’s an incredible studio. When we were talking about places to record, Dave was very drawn to the idea of recording in Los Angeles. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of recording in L.A – I felt like I wanted us to be out of the city. I didn’t want us to have any distractions – Malibu is pretty much the city limits and it’s got a very different vibe.
‘Shangri-La is an incredible studio. It was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I could set everybody up, with no separation, and just let it bleed, so it sounded like a band’
I’ve known Rick a long time, so I dropped him a text on the off chance that he wouldn’t be using the studio in November and he wasn’t, so it lined up perfectly. I floated the idea by Dave and he said yes. We got there and it was amazing.
When I walked in there for the first time, I knew things were going to work, because there was an ambience.
There was a vibe in the live room – it was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I had a good feeling – I could set everybody up, with no separation, and just let it bleed, so it sounded like a band.
After a few days, the history of the place gets to you. Dylan’s old tour bus is still outside – the inside of it has been turned into a recording studio. It’s a 30-second walk to Zuma Beach, so you can go there and clear your head in the morning, then stroll back, plug in and play, and make some music in the afternoon.
How did you first start working with Dave?
In 2o09, Soulsavers spent about three months on the road, opening for Depeche Mode – we became friends on that tour. When it finished, we stayed in touch and it blossomed from that.
‘It’s weird – Imposter is a covers album, but Dave said it feels more personal to him than anything he’s written himself’
Dave sounds like he’s lived some of these songs – often the lyrics are very apt for some of the experiences he’s had…
RM: It’s weird – it’s a covers album, but Dave said it feels more personal to him than anything he’s written himself. Because of the way he relates to the lyrics, it’s as if he’s telling a story.
Anyone else you’d like to collaborate with?
RM: I’m working on a couple of new things for next year, with some new and old faces. I’d love to do something with Patti Smith – she’s someone that I deeply admire as a person, a writer and a musician. She’s such an interesting and deep character – she’d be top of my list.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?
RM: I’m just going to look at a stack of albums next to my record player… that’s a good starting point. I’ve got piles here – Brian Eno… Every once in a while I get really into him – that’s definitely been a regular thing. The Harmonia album [with Eno] is on the top of the pile – it’s possibly my most listened to album of the past however many years. It’s had quite a few outings recently.
I’ve also been listening to the Heliocentrics records a lot – they put out two albums last year that were just amazing.
I was really slow to hear Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. For whatever reason, when it came out I didn’t tune into it. Recently, I’ve gone, ‘Oh – this is good…’
‘I’d love to do something with Patti Smith – I deeply admire her as a person, writer and musician’
Do you stream music or buy CDs, or are you a vinyl-only guy?
RM: I’m pretty much all vinyl, but I do have a Spotify account. With new music – I like a lot of electronic stuff – rather than drop 25 quid on the vinyl, I will listen to it once or twice on Spotify to see if it’s worth the investment. I really only listen to anything on vinyl for enjoyment. I’ve got my set-up in the living room – that’s how I listen to music.
Finally, are you glad you made a covers album?
RM: Yeah – I’ve got a lot of friends who’ve made covers albums and they always say they’re the most enjoyable records to make. I’d never really figured that out for myself before, but they’re right – it was a lot of fun.
Imposter by Dave Gahan and Soulsavers is out now on Columbia Records.