Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’ve been fans of Wesley Fuller since we heard his debut EP Melvista, a killer collection of crunching power-pop, ’80s New Wave synth sounds and anthemic glam rock songs, when it was released in the summer of 2016.
The Melbourne-based singer-songwriter followed it up a year later with the album Inner City Dream , which was more of the same, but with some added ’60s psych and vintage electro pop.
On a cold, wet night in November last year, 28-year-old Wesley played his first ever show outside of Australia – in South London, at The Windmill in a Brixton backstreet. And we were there…
During an exclusive interview before the gig, he told us that he wasn’t sure what to expect, but he needn’t have worried, as he and his band played a storming set to an appreciative crowd. It was easily one of our favourite shows of last year.
We spoke to him about having great glam rock hair, growing up in Perth and moving to the ‘bright lights’ of Melbourne to pursue his inner city dream, and recording his debut album in his bedroom…
“I’ve never played a show outside of Australia – it’s very exciting and a little bit scary,” says Melbourne singer-songwriter Wesley Fuller, sat on a sofa in the tatty backstage area of The Windmill pub, in Brixton, South London, on a cold and wet night in late November. It’s a few hours before the first gig on his UK and European tour.
Say It With Garage Flowers apologises for the awful British weather, but, as Wesley points out: “Melbourne weather isn’t that much better to be honest – it’s quite like London. It’s interesting to get an experience of what a gig is like in a different country. A lot of music is the same, but the surroundings are different… I don’t really know what to expect…”
You were born in Perth, but you moved to Melbourne in 2013. The title of your debut album is Inner City Dream, from the song of the same name. Did the title come from the idea of you wanting to move from Perth to Melbourne to pursue your dream of becoming a successful musician?
Wesley Fuller: Spot on. The whole reason I wanted to leave Perth was to reach the bright lights of Melbourne. I left Perth at the start of 2013 – Perth is quite a small, isolated city and I lived out in the suburbs. I wanted to live in the entertainment area of Melbourne – the inner city – and move to a place where I didn’t know anyone.
What was the music scene like when you were growing up in Perth?
WF: There are a lot of great bands in Perth and a good music scene, but it’s on a small scale – the city is isolated, so you can’t really tour. I’ve always loved the idea of touring with a band – getting in a van and driving around to different places. You can’t do that in Perth – you have to fly across to the other side of the country.
So you moved to Melbourne…
WF: Yes. I lived in Fitzroy, which is an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, for a couple of years, but I realised that it was a little bit overrated. I was paying so much for my rent that I didn’t have any money to spend on going out to places…
The album is one where I’m at a crossroads – ‘what do I want to do? Do I want this inner city life, or is it just an illusion? Do I want a quieter life out in the suburbs?’
What’s the scene like in Melbourne? Do you feel a part of it, or are you out on your own?
WF: I’m definitely out on my own – I’ve never really felt part of a scene, but I’ve tried to create one. Melbourne is very much a trending city – trends come and go – but there are lots of different little scenes. I’ve found it a lot more promising than Perth because you can find an audience.
‘I got into ’60s music because no one else I knew was getting into it. Once I discovered it, I thought it was awesome!’
Let’s talk more about the album. Was it written in Perth or Melbourne?
WF: Most of the songs were written in Melbourne in my first year there – I was in a new environment, feeling and experiencing new things. I had a very creative period there.
Did the album come together quite naturally?
WF: Most of it came together how I wanted it to because I was doing it myself from my bedroom studio – I produced it myself. I was lucky enough to have quite a large bedroom and I set up all my instruments in there, so it was like a mini studio. I did everything, apart from a few lead guitar parts, and some backing vocals. I wanted to do it by myself and, luckily, my band were very understanding. I’m not a trained sound engineer but there was an element of experimentation – I did have a clear idea of the sound that I wanted to achieve.
Your influences include power-pop, psych, New Wave, electronic music, glam rock and ’60s pop, like The Zombies, The Beatles and The Beachboys. When you were growing up were you into ’60s and ’70s music? Did your parents get you into old stuff?
WF: I’ve gone through different phases, but it certainly hasn’t come from my parents – we never had The Beatles playing in the house. My parents are still quite young – they were more into ’80s stuff, but I wasn’t into that. I got into ’60s music because no one else I knew was getting into it. Once I discovered it, I thought it was awesome!
You’ve also added some vintage electro sounds to the ’60s and ’70s influences…
WF: I’ve always loved ’60s music, but once I started DJing, that opened me up to a lot of different eras and sounds, like funk and New Wave and glam, so I started listening to songs in a different way – from a dancing and production perspective. I used to listen to songs for melodies or harmonies – that pure ’60s vibe…
There’s quite a groove on some of your songs…
WF: Yeah. I DJ’d for clubs most weekends and I run a night in Melbourne called KICKS.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album. Someone To Walk Around With is a great rock ‘n’ roll tune, with big guitars and organ, but Skyways and Morality are more electro-pop, with retro synth sounds… This isn’t just a power-pop album, is it? There are different styles on it?
WF: The album is hard to classify or label under one genre or sound. I’ve always liked those albums that have different styles. They have an overbearing sound that ties them together, but they showcase different influences. As this was my first record, I wanted to lay everything out on the table: ‘this is my sound and this is what I can do’…
‘I went through a phase when I tried to be a mod, but it’s hard when you have curly hair’
Morality came from listening to a lot of early ’80s New Wave and so did Skyways, with the synth on it, but there’s also a Motown beat on Skyways. When I recorded the EP, [Melvista] I was mainly listening to glam.
You have great glam rock hair…
WF: I went through a phase when I tried to be a mod, but it’s hard when you have curly hair.
Marc Bolan, who had curly hair, started off as a mod…
WF: Marc Bolan could’ve pulled anything off..
One of my favourite songs on the album is Wish You Would. It has a ’60s psych-pop feel and reminds me of The Zombies and The Beachboys…
WF: I wanted to have one song on the album that was almost like a tribute to The Mamas and the Papas – I’ve always loved ’60s harmonies. I began writing that song when I was in Perth, in the summer of 2012. It was hot and the song has that kind of summery vibe.
This is your first tour of the UK and Europe. Have you built up a good following in Melbourne?
WF: Yeah, but you’ve got stay active to keep them interested. I haven’t reached cult status yet!
You’re only young – you’ve only had one album out…
WF: Yeah – exactly. Hopefully by the second one…
Have you made plans for the next record?
WF: Yeah – I’ve written the bulk of it and I’ve already recorded the drums for some of the songs. I start with the drums and then I build it up from there, bit by bit. I have six or seven full songs written that I want to have on the next album, but there are three or four that I’m a bit iffy about, so I’ll see how they turn out. I’m definitely hoping to have a new record out in 2019 – I’ve got to start dedicating more time to it. That’s the hardest thing, because I have a full-time job. I work for a law firm. I used up all my annual leave to record the first album. I’m aiming to have a record out in late 2019. Fingers crossed that will work out.
What do you think it will sound like?
WF: It will still have the same kind of influences, but I’d like to try a few different things production-wise. We’ll just see what happens…
Case Hardin frontman Pete Gow’s first solo album, Here There’s No Sirens, is a brilliant collection of stripped-down, intimate and very personal songs, with acoustic guitar, orchestral arrangements, brass, piano, drums and organ.
For his first interview to promote the record, Say It With Garage Flowers met him for a pint. Subjects on the agenda included string sections, tattoos, relationships, Stormy Daniels and Shane MacGowan…
Pete Gow is sat in Trinity bar in Harrow, North West London, nursing a pint of lager. The last time he was here was in late 2017, when he played a solo acoustic We Shall Overcome anti-austerity charity show for Say It With Garage Flowers.
At that gig, one of the songs he aired was the folky Some Old Jacobite King, which now features on his first solo album, Here There’s No Sirens – albeit in a radically different version.
In fact the new record that we’re here to talk about is a surprising departure for Pete, who fronts UK Americana / alt-country band Case Hardin. Sure, lyrically it’s sometimes dark and often left of centre – like the songs we know him for – but this is a deeply personal and confessional record, and, musically, it explores new territory for Pete – gone are the big electric guitars, old fashioned rock and roll, Springsteen-like anthems and kicked-around country songs of Case Hardin’s 2015’s album Colours Simple. Instead, this is a record of stripped-down acoustic songs, with stirring string arrangements, fleshed out by piano, brass, organ and drums.
We’re reminded of when US Americana singer-songwriter Chris Mills – who just so happens to be a friend of Pete’s – made his 2005 album The Wall To Wall Sessions – a masterpiece that featured lush orchestration and horns.
Opener One Last One NightStand sets the tone for most of Here There’s No Sirens – it’s a big, honest, relationship ballad with a breathtaking cinematic backing, while the song Mikaela sounds like early Ryan Adams, but with mournful horns and sweeping violins.
There are also character songs – the majestic Some Old Jacobite King is steeped in the storytelling tradition and was inspired by a trip to the remote Isle of Skye, while Strip For Me centres on a guy who treats women in a thoroughly unpleasant way – and it name checks porn actress and stripper Stormy Daniels, who has been involved in a scandal with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Produced by multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett, (Dreaming Spires, Co-Pilgrim, Raving Beauties / Paul McClure) at Farm Music Studios in Oxfordshire and out in April on Clubhouse Records, Here There’s No Sirens is a stunning record that’s both beautiful and unsettling.
At times, it can be uncomfortable to listen to, as Pete shares raw emotions and intimate relationship details over stirring orchestral backing. Does he think it will surprise people who are used to hearing Case Hardin?
“I hope it will,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, sipping his pint. “So often when you hear a solo record by people who front bands where the lead singer is the creative force behind them – like the manner in which I front Case Hardin – the differences are quite marginal and it’s just a little bit more acoustic. I really put a lot of thought into how I wanted this album to be different. Even if people don’t like it, nobody can say that it’s just a Case Hardin-lite record…”
Q & A
This is your first solo album. What prompted the move to make a record on your own?
Pete Gow: I was trying to get Case Hardin to make a record last year. It was written – it was even overwritten – I had 15 or 16 songs, but we just weren’t able to make it happen for a whole world of reasons. Sometimes five grown men just can’t get their shit together to make a record happen.
So I started about thinking what I should do – the concept of making a solo record had never occurred to me. I thought about us doing an EP – something that would tide Case Hardin over, as it had been two years since we released our Colours Simple album. Bands like us live or die on new products – not to mention the fact that I’d been writing for a long time and needed to find an outlet for it.
When I realised that the Case Hardin thing wasn’t going to happen, there were three or four songs in that pile that I’d always wondered what the hell Case Hardin would do with them anyway?
The whole thing just came about in almost 24 hours. I spoke to Joe and he was into it, and I spoke to Clubhouse Records, who were expecting a new Case Hardin record, and they said that if I could turn the three or four tracks into an album, they’d be interested in it. So then I wrote the rest of the album in a couple of weeks.
This record is a big departure from the Case Hardin sound – it’s stripped-down ballads, with acoustic guitar, orchestral arrangements, piano, trumpet, piano, organ and drums…
PG: I’m the main songwriter in Case Hardin and we have a sound that’s reasonably distinctive, so I had to find a way of making the album a proper solo project.
I went to Joe and said, ‘here’s what I want to do’ – I didn’t want any guitars on it, but I wanted strings and piano and drums, with everything else stripped-out. Joe was brilliant – he listened to the demos and said, ‘I’ll meet you halfway’.
‘I didn’t want people who came to my solo record to find that it was just like a Case Hardin album, but with different musicians playing on it… I didn’t want to make a Case Hardin record’
He wanted to keep the acoustic guitar, because that’s how the songs were written and it’s what drives them along, but there’s no lead guitar on the record.
I didn’t want to short-change anybody – I didn’t want people who came to my solo record to find that it was just like a Case Hardin album, but with different musicians playing on it… I didn’t want to make a Case Hardin record and I knew that Joe could do strings – he’s done some wonderful work on albums that I’m familiar with. I play all the acoustic guitars on the record, the drums are by Fin Kenny and Joe plays everything else.
Even the backing vocals? I thought they were female…
PG: I’ll tell him that!
You made the record last year. How was the recording process?
PG: There were two short sessions of four or five days each in the middle of last year. We did it slightly differently to the way in which records are usually made – I laid down the guitar and then I’d put a guide vocal over the top of it. Then we brought Fin in, who had two days to work through the tracks. Joe wrote melody parts on a violin and then recorded the strings – it was all real instruments. He also wrote the various harmony parts.
The whole experience was very different – when we make a Case Hardin record, it always sounds like a 100 per cent better version of what I knew it was going to sound like in my head – a beautiful, shining, brilliant and more fully realised version.
With this record, I handed the acoustic guitar, vocals and drum tracks over to Joe and he then built the string arrangements. There are a few songs – One Last One Night Stand and TV Reruns – which have big, long, instrumental sections. If I were writing those for a Case Hardin record, I wouldn’t have made them so repetitive and so long.
‘I told Joe that I wanted this record to sound like Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and most of Ryan Adams’ 29’
One Last One Night Stand was the first track Joe sent back to me and I knew then that it was going to be a great project. Joe has produced this album in the fullest and most traditional sense. He understood the content and took all of the songs to a place that was beyond my comprehension. That’s what he brought to this record. When Joe sent the tracks back to me, I was blindsided – they almost sounded like other people’s songs.
What were you listening to when you made this album? What were the musical influences?
PG: I told Joe that I wanted this record to sound like Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and most of Ryan Adams’ 29. He said, ‘I’ve heard neither of those records and I’m not going to listen to them!’ It sounds nothing like either of them.
Joe and I was a wonderful juxtaposition – I had these ideas of what I didn’t want it to sound like, and the influences I did want to draw on, but all he wanted to do was to make the best record possible. Sometimes that fell into line and sometimes it didn’t – sometimes I managed to persuade him to make changes and sometimes change for change’s sake wasn’t the right thing to do. It was a very fulfilling relationship.
It’s a very personal album – emotionally raw and confessional. It’s naked Pete Gow – often in more than one sense of the word, but we’ll come to that later…
Let’s talk about some of the songs. The opener, One Last One Night Stand, features the lines, ‘We don’t need to die here on this beach – we don’t need this sand to wipe blood off our hands…’ This is dark territory, isn’t it?
PG: It’s just my way into relationship songs. I’ve always tried to find that slightly left of centre way into any situation. If there’s anybody who likes the way I write, then I’m guessing it tends to be because of stuff like that.
One Last One Night Stand – like a lot of the album – shows that I’m in a relationship and a place that I never expected myself to be in. I’m certainly in a place that I never expected to be in so comfortably that it would reflect in the music that I’m making.
One Last One Night Stand is just a slightly left of centre way of realising that that’s where I am. It was one of the songs that I wrote for the record – it hadn’t been written previously and it was one of the last ones I wrote. I realised where the record was going and it sets the tone for the project, which I why I put it at the beginning. ‘Here’s where I am – now go and listen to the rest of the record and you’ll realise…’
‘A lot of the album shows that I’m in a relationship and a place that I never expected myself to be in’
It’s an album that’s very relationship-heavy, isn’t it? Some of your Case Hardin songs feature characters, and, although there are characters on this record, most of the songs are personal, aren’t they? They’re about you and the relationship you’re in…
PG: Yes. Apart from possibly Some Old Jacobite King, which is a story song, this album is self-contained and doesn’t really stray from its mandate or remit. Over the course of 40 minutes you need something like Some Old Jacobite King to pull you away… nobody wants to just sit and listen to me and my relationship! [he laughs].
The second song on the album, Mikaela, is my favourite track, largely for the great line: ‘Songs are like tattoos – you should think before you name one after a girl…’ That’s a rare moment of humour in one of your songs…
PG: It is – if you listen to my records, you’ll know that.
Have you got any tattoos of girls’ names?
PG: I haven’t, but it’s that famous thing, isn’t it? Get a tattoo of a girl’s name that been spelt wrong…
That song was never intended to be put on a record, but it suddenly became indicative of this whole album, which is relationship-based, more than anything else I’ve ever done. The song was written for her [Mikaela]. There are references in it that you might think shouldn’t be put on an album for people to hear…
The sexual stuff? Well, I did say it was a naked record…
PG: Literally and figuratively. That’s why that song sits so beautifully next to One Last One Night Stand… ‘Hold on, what’s he saying here? Oh – OK, this is why…’
That was a song that was written for the Case Hardin record, but when I sent it to the band I thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do with this?’ I just didn’t want to throw a load of guitars over the top of it and turn it into alt-country by numbers.
I really like the brass on it – it’s mournful, like a New Orleans funeral band…
PG: Yes, but slightly Mariachi as well – the trumpet was slightly buried in the string section originally, but it got pulled out and pushed front and centre in the final mix.
‘Nobody wants to just sit and listen to me and my relationship!’
From one sexual song to another… Next up we have Strip For Me, which could possibly be the first song to name check Stormy Daniels…
PG: It could well be. The song is nothing to do with her, but it’s about the underbelly of the male perspective of relationships – something I’ve written about at other points in my career.
It’s a character song, isn’t it?
The opening lines are very uncomfortable. There’s a fictional male protagonist who says to a woman: ‘Do you think you’re one of those girls too beautiful to hurt, too beautiful to cheat on? There’s no girl too beautiful for that’…
PG: That horrible guy would quite easily just see a porn star and remember her name – ‘Strip for me, like Stormy Daniels’ – without really realising who this woman is.
It’s a pop culture reference – it’s had an odd reception already. It’s one of the few songs I’ve played live – I did some acoustic shows with Jason McNiff and I road tested some songs. Whenever I played Strip For Me, people burst out laughing… I was like, ‘shit!’
I obviously don’t think through the consequences of these things when I’m writing, but it will be interesting to see if people can peel back the layers, rather than just hearing that woman’s name. I wouldn’t want it to turn into some kind of joke or parody song – it’s not. I used her name to underline the stupidity of the guy in the first verse.
‘I hope history will be a lot kinder to Stormy Daniels and realise that she’s quite a significant character in the theatre that is the Trump presidency’
I guess the reason I left the reference in is because I hope history will be a lot kinder to people like Stormy Daniels and realise that she’s quite a significant character in the theatre that is the Trump presidency. The second verse is supposed to be the woman talking about the guy…
Strip For Me is going to be the preview digital single from the album, so let’s really see what people make of it…
The title track, Here There’s No Sirens, contains a lyrical reference to the Pogues song, A Rainy Night In Soho, playing on the radio, and there’s also a snippet of the song in the outro…
PG: It’s a song about just finding yourself in the kitchen, with a radio playing your favourite song. I’ve given Shane MacGowan a co-writing credit – the song was originally intended for the Case Hardin record and I think they could’ve done something with it.
When I was finishing writing it and demoing it, I thought, ‘what key am I in? This is almost A Rainy Night In Soho’, so I slightly changed the guitar pattern and the style of the strum. I put a little bit of swing into it and changed the key.
The original demo was me playing it into my phone, with the last verse of A Rainy Night In Soho playing on my stereo. I’m a huge Pogues fan – that song is the one to slap people around the face with when they say the Pogues are just a bunch of drunks and that MacGowan is not a good writer…
Why is Here There’s No Sirens the title track?
PG: On this album I deliberately set out to do a few subtle things that I wouldn’t have done on a Case Hardin album – never titling a record after a song and never having our images on the front cover. I wanted to name the record after a song and the cover art is a picture of me by an artist from Edinburgh called Veronica Casey – she painted it many years ago. This album is a case of me unticking a lot of boxes for reasons only known to myself…
‘On this album I deliberately set out to do a few subtle things that I wouldn’t have done on a Case Hardin album’
You’re launching the album at a special London show in the Network Theatre, Waterloo on April 6, where you’ll be joined by The Siren Strinqs quartet…
PG: It’s a community theatre and it’s a beautiful space. Clubhouse Records and Joe wanted people to realise that this album is something different, so we have the Siren Strings – it’s not just me and a guitar. The show will be me, Joe, Tristan Tipping [Clubhouse Records and Paul McClure and The Local Heroes] on bass, Fin on drums, and the string quartet.
There are two supports – Lucy Kitt and Tony Poole [Starry Eyed and Laughing and Bennett Wilson Poole]. Tony mastered my record. We’re going to play the album and there will be one or two little surprises on the night.We’re also going to play at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue [April 12-14, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe].
Finally, let’s talk about Case Hardin. Any plans for a new album?
PG: It’s written – we’re going into the studio as soon as we can. I think we’re going to start recording it in June and then get it out by June the following year.
What can we expect it to sound like?
PG: Looking at the solo project and knowing that I didn’t want electric guitars on it – and looking at the songs I’ve taken away from Case Hardin for my record – you’re left with something that will quite organically be a collection of much shorter, punchier, louder songs.
There won’t be anything on there as expansive as Poets Corner [the eight-minute album opener from Colours Simple], and I also won’t feel the need to put on tracks like High Rollers and Cheap Streaks From A Bottle [also fromColours Simple].
I think the next Case Hardin album, will, by default, be louder and punchier, and we can zone in on what many people think Case Hardin do best.
Pete Gow’s Here There’s No Sirens will be released on April 5 on Clubhouse Records. There will be an album launch show with The Siren Strings quartet on April 6 at The Network Theatre, London Waterloo, with support from Lucy Kitt and Tony Poole. Tickets are available here.
Pete Gow and The Siren Strings will also be playing at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival (April 12-14, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe).
It’s a hell of a ride, mixing Cash-like country with afistful of Spaghetti Western songs, Mariachi brass, haunting harmonica and Morricone moodiness.
Say It With Garage Flowers invited her to an Italian café in North London to talk retribution and revenge, women in cowboy films and her favourite Western soundtracks and movies, and to tell us how her and her gang of outlaws made the album.
We wanted to go to Nashville, Almeria or Cinecittà, but we couldn’t afford it – if only we’d had a few dollars more…
Over a cup of tea in an Italian café in North London – Mario’s in Camden – Sarah Vista is telling Say It With Garage Flowers where her love of Spaghetti Westerns and cowboy culture comes from. And, just to clarify, she hasn’t brought her guns to town…
“There are photos of me when I was three years old, sat on a rocking horse, in front of a Western film. I liked the music and I thought I was in the movies. That’s a strong memory for me. When I was a child, I used to think, ‘why is it always men in Westerns?’ It’s a little fantasy I had…” she says, smiling.
“The hero – the person who strides in and saves the day – is always male. It’s not a man’s world anymore, it’s a man’s and a woman’s world – there should be a fair amount of women taking their share of the gold…”
Q & A
Women are often portrayed as victims in Westerns, rather than heroines, aren’t they? Do you feel they’re misrepresented in cowboy films?
Sarah Vista: I do, but there are a couple of strong women, like Calamity Jane [Doris Day] and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, who’s incredible – I was heavily influenced by her when I was a kid. There are also some softer female characters, like Helen Ramirez, who is played by Katy Jurado in High Noon, and Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon A Time In The West, who comes across as having a hard time, but is actually a strong central character [Jill McBain].
‘My songs are delivered with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek – contrary to popular belief, I’ve never actually killed anyone!’
With that in mind, some of your songs, like Madame Moustache and Belle Starr, feature strong and violent women, who don’t suffer fools gladly and are out to get revenge on men who’ve wronged them. Should I be worried?
SV: [She laughs]. My songs are delivered with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek – contrary to popular belief, I’ve never actually killed anyone! Putting stuff in songs is a form of therapy for me. It’s nice to be able to express myself in a fantasy way – anyone who’s been wronged or treated badly probably has those feelings from time to time. The theme of the album is about retribution rather than revenge. I’m not bitter – I’m just holding people to account for their bullshit and putting it out there.
I’ve had so many women approach me about my songs and lyrics – they get it. I had a difficult past and upbringing and with the Sarah Vista character, I wanted to set some things straight.
When you’re performing on stage, you go into character, don’t you?
SV: Yeah – I guess so. When I was growing up, I struggled with confidence and I wanted to turn the tables on that. I’ve finally found a character that I’m comfortable with exploring and I’m going to stick with it.
When you were growing up, did your parents like music and films?
SV: My dad was a film buff and my mum was a massive music fan – she was obsessed with Elvis – and she has the most incredible voice I’ve ever heard. As a child, I used to sing with her.
Music’s always been there – when I was growing up I used to steal my mum’s guitar all the time and try and play it. I really wanted my own guitar. I started learning to play on her guitar when I was 12 – my mum bunged me a Bob Dylan album and said, ‘if you can work out how to play that, I’ll get you a guitar’. Four or five hours later, I’d worked out the chords by ear. She said, ‘four hours? I was hoping it would be four years – I haven’t got any money to buy you a guitar’. That went on for ages.
About a year later, after I’d worked out some Hendrix licks, she saw that I was serious about it and she bought me one – she saved up for a long time. I locked myself in my room for the rest of my childhood and started writing songs.
‘I had a difficult past and upbringing – with the Sarah Vista character, I wanted to set some things straight’
In the late ‘90s, I joined a band called Suck Baby Suck as a guitarist – I played with David Scinto, who wrote the scripts for the film Sexy Beast, Gangster No.1 and 44 Inch Chest.
I started writing songs with him – we were a great band. We had a good adventure together – it was garagey. I kind of outgrew it – I was young and naïve and I wanted to do more and move faster, so I walked away from it.
I tried a load of bits and pieces, but nothing came together, so I wrote my own album and I released it independently, but it fell on deaf ears – it was punk, but it had my stamp on it. We all have to start somewhere…
I also did a single with Paul Kaye called Live Sex On Stage – he did it as his character, Mike Strutter – we had a great laugh doing that.
When I first met you, five or six years ago, you were fronting a rockabilly band called Viva Le Pink…
SV: I set that up with the intention of having an all-female rhythm and blues / rockabilly band, with a horn section, but it didn’t quite pan out… I wasn’t feeling it, so I quit my own band. The Sarah Vista thing had been bubbling under for a long time.
Let’s talk about your debut album as Sarah Vista – Killing Fever…
SV: I decided I was going to make a Western soundtrack, in the style of my favourite records – the ultimate project.
Cleverly, the album is split into two different genres – Country and Western. One side is country songs, but the other is Spaghetti Western-flavoured…
SV: I didn’t set out to do that – I set out to make a Western record. I wrote about 26 songs in the space of four of five weeks! It was natural – the songs kept coming out. I was, like, hold your horses!
I see what you did there…
SV: My imagination ran away with me. The Western thing was natural, but the country thing… Someone once said, ‘you don’t choose country music, it chooses you’… I thought that was lovely. I definitely didn’t set out to make a country record, but there’s a lot of darkness in country music and that fits with me… Everyone was doing country, but no one was doing the Western side of it.
‘I definitely didn’t set out to make a country record, but there’s a lot of darkness in country music and that fits with me’
You rounded up a gang of outlaws to help you make the album, didn’t you?
SV: I worked with Adie Hardy, who produced it – he’s a friend and I’ve worked with him a lot. I also found a drummer who’s a country fan [Tom Meadows] – he’s actually Kylie Minogue’s drummer – and my friend, Philip Doyle, recommended a lapsteel player called Jeff Mead. Jeff and I have started writing together.
Emma Goss [double bass] was also recommended by Philip Doyle – she’s great. I also worked with Terry Edwards [trumpet and baritone sax], who’s played with Nick Cave and Tom Waits – he’s an incredible musician and he’s really added something to the record. Johnny Trouble [harmonica] recorded his parts in Germany, where he has his own studio.
Was it an enjoyable album to make?
SV: It was fantastic! It took two years to make. I had no money, so we did it in studio downtime at Unit 2 Studios in Acton, London.
You released the album on your own label, Gallow Romantic. Are you going to put out records by other artists?
SV: That’s my plan. There’s so much good stuff that goes under the radar because the industry is so up its own arse, it’s chasing its tail.
You’ve also been working on a soundtrack for a Spaghetti Western film, haven’t you?
SV: Yes, but you’d actually class it as a Paella Western, as the director’s Spanish. He’s a guy called Danny Garcia – he did the music documentaries The Rise and Fall of The Clash and Looking For Johnny – the Johnny Thunders biopic.
A friend of mine, Ray Gange, who was lead actor in Rudeboy, got a part in a Western film that Danny was doing. I was like, ‘what the fuck? Get me on the soundtrack!’
‘For me and my music, this year is going to be good, but for my naysayers it’s going to be very bad and, politically, it’s looking pretty ugly’
He said, ‘he’s already done the soundtrack’. I said, ‘no – he hasn’t!’ So I sent Danny some short clips of three songs and he said he wanted them in the movie and he’d make room for them. The film’s called The Price of Death and my song Killing Fever is the opening track. You can see the back of my head in the film… It’s due out soon.
I got to go to Almeria in Spain, where Sergio Leone shot his classic movies – the sets from the ‘70s are still there. It’s amazing! I’ve also been asked to do something else, but I’m keeping that firmly under my Stetson at the moment…
So, is the year ahead going to be good, bad or ugly?
SV: For me and my music, it’s going to be good, but for my naysayers it’s going to be very bad and, politically, it’s looking pretty ugly. You’ve got to hold on to what’s good in the world, do cool stuff, keep people entertained and stay close to the good folk.
Can I ask you to choose your top five favourite Spaghetti Western films and Top five Western soundtracks?
SV: I can’t put them in order, but my favourite films are A Fistful of Dollars– it has a revolutionary soundtrack and it created the Spaghetti Western sound; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – it’s a tense epic and if you don’t like it, you must have something missing; Django by Sergio Corbucci – it’s a classic – and Once Upon A Time In The West – another classic. The last film is The Great Silence from 1968 – Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a mute gunfighter and Klaus Kinski is the bad guy – a bounty killer. He’s so creepy. It’s an epic film and it’s set in the snow.
For my soundtracks, I’m going to choose A Fistful of Dollars; Once Upon A Time In The West – for the harmonica and Jill’s Theme, with the operatic female vocals; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for The Ecstasy of Gold; The Great Silence, which is an overlooked Morricone masterpiece – I think it’s one of his best works – and here’s a wild card, the Django soundtrack by Luis Enriquez Bacalov. It has Rocky Roberts vocals, electric guitar and a ’60s and ’70s feel to it. Tarantino used it in Django Unchained.
Do you think your next album will have a more expansive and experimental sound?
SV: For the first one, I had to rein it in a bit, but for the next album I might let it all hang out and disappear down a Spaghetti Western rabbit hole!
Sarah Vista’s Killing Fever is out now on Gallow Romantic. For more info, visit https://www.sarahvista.com . See the Spotify playlist below for some of her essential Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
From UK Americana, to Canadian country-blues, Staffordshire psych-pop, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and, er, a concept record about Worcestershire, Say It With Garage Flowers chooses its favourite albums of 2018…
Bennett Wilson Poole have had a great year.
The UK Americana and jangle-pop trio formed by Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’), released a critically-acclaimed debut album, played sell-out shows across the UK and were nominated twice in the UK Americana 2019 Awards – for UK Album of the Year and UK Artist of the Year. And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also scooped the prize for Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2018.
When we told Danny Wilson the news, he said: “What an honour! I didn’t think it would be your album of the year… I wouldn’t have dreamed of it! I loved making the album with the other guys and I think it’s a great record.”
It certainly is! When we first heard the record at the start of the year, we said it would undoubtedly find itself high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year list come late 2018…
‘High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues’
Produced by Tony Poole – the king of the 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar – in his home studio in rural Oxfordshire, it’s a totally cosmic trip that takes in Byrds-meets-Tom-Petty/ Traveling Wilburys jangle-pop (Soon Enough), gorgeous, soulful balladry, (Hide Behind A Smile), mystical country (Find Your Own Truth), sunny Americana (Wilson General Store), shimmering psychedelic sounds (That Thing That You Called Love) and moody, powerful protest rock in the vein of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Hate Won’t Win and Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself).
High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues.
Speaking to us earlier this year – we were the first publication to interview Bennett Wilson Poole – Tony said: “With our songs, like Hide Behind A Smile, the chords are quite simple and the tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface.”
He added: “A lot of people have said that you can keep listening to the album over and over again and you hear new things, which is great – that’s a good sign. If it makes you feel good, we’re adding to the sum of human happiness…”
Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we totally agree – Bennett Wilson Poole’s long-player has been on heavy rotation on our hi-fi and it’s been our feel-good soundtrack of 2018. And the good news is that there’s a follow-up planned for 2019. It can’t come soon enough…
Another Americana release that impressed us this year was Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s Nonsense and Heartache.
Produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, who worked on our favourite album of 2017, John Murry’s A Short History of Decay, it’s a double album, but, essentially it’s two distinct collections of songs.
The first half – Nonsense – is a raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll record, while the second instalment – Heartache – is a stripped-down, alt-country affair, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle.
Put them together and you have an album that reminds us of those classic early Ryan Adams long-players Heartbreaker and Gold – yep, it’s that good…
Jerry has a new album due in the autumn of 2019 and will be playing dates in Europe and the UK in the spring.
Pieces, Luke’s third solo album, is his best yet. An angry, heavy, often political album, it rocks like Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Batten down the hatches, it’s like a hurricane out there… There’s even a nine-minute, epic rallying call (Requiem), which attacks social injustice in the UK and comes across like Luke’s very own Rockin’ In The Free World…
It’s not all big guitar anthems, though – there are some quieter moments in the eye of the storm, like the apologetic ballad Charing Cross and the sublime, Springsteen-like country-rock song Ghosts, which sees Luke revisiting his childhood haunts.
Luke wasn’t the only US-based, UK singer-songwriter to make a political album this year – Nashville resident Ian Webber brought out Op-Eds, which tackled social issues including women’s rights, fake news, war-torn Syria and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy.
Musically, it’s a very stripped-down record – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle.
Opener Follow Me and its parent song, The Regime, are haunting tales inspired by reading news stories about families suffering in Syria, while Frontline is a protest song that has its roots in ’50s rockabilly.
Radio Zero is an ode to the healing power of great music – while the world is going crazy, sometimes you just need to switch off from all the doom and gloom and crank up some classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Ian sings the song in a Bowie-like croon that sounds like it’s been beamed in from outer space.
‘Musically, it’s a very stripped-down record – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle’
Fellow Bowie fan, UK singer-songwriter and Say It With Garage Flowers regular Vinny Peculiar released the latest in a long line of great albums in 2018. Return of the Native was a concept record inspired by moving back to Worcestershire after 23 years living in Manchester.
A brilliant collection of witty, reflective and deeply personal songs, it features a whole host of weird and wonderful characters, including a burnt-out rock star, the ghost of a Civil War re-enactment enthusiast, Eminem hopelessly lost in Droitwich, ’70s M.O.R. singer Clifford T.Ward, DJ Tony Blackburn and comedian Rik Mayall.
Musically, the album takes the listener on a journey through Worcestershire that’s soundtracked by glam-rock, jangle-pop, psych, Pet Shop Boys-style electro and New Order-esque, Northern melancholy.
Jangle-pop and psych sounds both featured heavily on the 2018 albums by London cosmic-country-folk five piece The Hanging Stars and Staffordshire band Alfa 9.
With Songs For Somewhere Else – the follow-up to their 2016 debut, Over The Silvery Lake, which was our favourite album of that year, The Hanging Stars made a record that was even better than its predecessor and was a much more varied and adventurous collection of songs – there was the beguiling and soporific Spiritualized-meets-Byrds groove of On A Sweet Summer’s Day, the heavenly, Big Star jangle-pop of Honeywater, menacing Spaghetti Western soundtrack Mean Old Man, the country-rock romp For You (My Blue Eyed Son) and the woozy and playful 1920s-style jazz-blues of Too Many Wired Hours.
Alfa 9 are also fans of Spaghetti Western soundtracks – their album My Sweet Movida was full of Ennio Morricone influences,retro rock, cosmic-psych-country road trips and ’60s-inspired jangle-pop.
Back in April, guitarist Leon Jones told us: “We love Morricone and that kind of melancholy there is in a lot of his work. I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree, particularly. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment…”
Another fan of Morricone is Frank Sweeney, whose band of London renegades The Magic City Trio turned in one of the best debut albums of 2018.
Amerikana Arkana has wonderful orchestral arrangements that recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), Morricone’s moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.
For more Spaghetti Western sounds and gun-slinging action, may we also recommend another great debut album from 2018 – Sarah Vista’s Killing Fever. Look out for an interview with London-based singer-songwriter Sarah on Say It With Garage Flowers soon…
Whether your year has been good, bad or ugly, we hope that you’ll take time to listen to some of the albums that were our soundtrack to 2018.
Here’s the full list of our 35 favourite albums of the last 12 months and a Spotify playlist to go with it*.
It’s been an amazing year for Bennett Wilson Poole, the UK Americana and jangle-pop supergroup formed by Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’).
Their self-titled debut album has received great reviews – it’s Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite record of 2018 – and the band has played a string of well-attended shows, been nominated twice in the UK Americana 2019 Awards – for UK Album of the Year and UK Artist of the Year – and played live on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC TV and Robert Elms’ BBC Radio London show.
In an exclusive interview, Danny Wilson reflects on the group’s success, chooses some of his favourite albums of 2018 and gives us a sneak preview of what Bennett Wilson Poole have planned for next year… Could there be a second album on the way?
Q & A
I’m delighted to tell you that your record, Bennett Wilson Poole, is my favourite album of the year… I’m going to publish the full list later this month, but I wanted to give you the heads-up…
Danny Wilson: What an honour! I didn’t think it would be your album of the year… I wouldn’t have dreamed of it! I loved making the album with the other guys and I think it’s a great record.
It’s been a great year for you, hasn’t it? There’s a lot of love for Bennett Wilson Poole out there…
DW: There is – it’s touching. It’s really lovely. I’m a bit surprised at how well it’s gone – not because the music isn’t good, but because you just never know… You can spend years in your main bands trying to push an elephant up the stairs and it’s tough… I think all of our combined histories have helped – they’ve made it more palatable and immediate for people to get into.
It’s not easy for anyone, but the shows have been selling – when the wheels are greased a little, it’s really nice. We’re not turning up to shows and wondering if anyone’s going to be there, which makes life a lot easier. Things have gathered a bit of steam.
You’ve been nominated for two UK Americana Awards – the winners will be announced in January 2019…
DW: I’m totally thrilled that we’ve been nominated – it’s amazing. I really hope that we win one – Danny and the Champs won a few and it does have a knock-on effect in terms of bums on seats – you can’t argue with that. We’re really honoured to have been nominated – if we get given the thumbs-up by people, that’s a lovely thing.
When you appeared on the Robert Elms radio show recently, you played a great new song called I Wanna Love You (But I Can’t Right Now). It has a very poignant lyric and an instantly addictive melody. It’s a song about falling out of love with America because of the current political situation, but it also celebrates some of the great things that America has brought us, including Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, De La Soul, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King…
DW: It’s a love song to America. – Robin and I wrote the song together. Weirdly, Bennett Wilson Poole is the only act I’ve ever been in that’s overtly political in any way. I like protest songs and political music – Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Billy Bragg; Paul Weller; Elvis Costello – even Simply Red – but I’ve never felt in a position to do it.
It’s fairly obvious that everyone involved in the Bennett Wilson Poole project are humanists – they want the best for people who aren’t getting the help they need, but that’s about as far as I’ve ever gone in terms of being overtly political – being a friendly person. I think everybody should be like that, regardless of their politics, but with Bennett Wilson Poole it’s the first time I’ve done political songs.
‘Bennett Wilson Poole is the only act I’ve ever been in that’s overtly political in any way. I like protest songs and political music, but I’ve never felt in a position to do it’
So can we expect a second Bennett Wilson Poole album next year?
DW: I think so – there’s lots of material. It’s been really easy – they are around 17 new songs we’ve written that are all tailor-made. There’s a really good feeling – we’re inspired by Tony and the reception that he’s getting at this stage in his career.
Will you be playing any new songs at your upcoming gigs in Oxford and London this month?
DW: Yes – It’s very Byrdsian and it’s lovely. Someone from outside of the band suggested that we do it. We have mooted the idea of a covers album – we’ve written a list of songs for it. I wrote an exhaustive list. I don’t know where to go with it – whether it should be like Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs’ wonderful covers albums, where every song is a classic, or to make it much more obscure, but that might be one nerdy step too far… I’m thinking of stuff by The Beau Brummels and some songs from Dion’s folk-rock period, but we’ll see.
What are your favourite albums of the year?
DW: Ryley Walker’s The Lillywhite Sessions is totally amazing – it’s a reimagining of a Dave Matthews Band album that was unreleased. Damien Jurado’s new album [The Horizon Just Laughed] is fantastic and there’s one particular record by Dios [Life Between The Tides] that’s like a shoegazing cross between Neil Young and The Beachboys – it’s a really great record, but no one has been banging on about it. I also liked the new J Mascis album [Elastic Days]. I bought a lot of records this year, as I own a record shop [Union Music Store in Lewes, East Sussex]. I like all the stuff on Loose too – they’re going from strength to strength. They’re my friends and I respect and admire them – they’re amazing.
Finally, any plans for a new album by Danny and the Champs?
DW: Yeah – I think so. We’ve got some gigs booked in Spain and I’ve been just putting together a playlist for the guys of stuff that is informing my thinking on the next Champs album and it’s really not what anyone would expect. It doesn’t mean the album will sound like that, but there will be elements of it.
If the next Champs album turns out like I think it will – although it never quite does – it will be trying to push the envelope in certain directions. I’m really excited about it. I don’t want to make another Champs record that sounds like any of the others – there’s no reason to.
I guess I’m getting my serious folk-country-rock fix from Bennett Wilson Poole at the moment, so I don’t need to add to that. At some point there will be a folk-rock-Americana logjam and I don’t want to contribute to that – I’d rather take a left turn. I’m also going to do a solo album at some point – I don’t what I’m going to do with it, but it will either be an acoustic singer-songwriter record, or I might do a jazz album!
•Bennett Wilson Poole’s self-titled debut album is out now on Aurora Records. The band are playing shows this month at The Bullingdon Arms in Oxford (December 7) and Kings Place, London (December 8).
There’s a song on Pieces, the latest album by Americana singer-songwriter Luke Tuchscherer, called Batten Down The Hatches. It sums up the record perfectly – this time around, on his third – and best – solo album, Luke, former drummer with Bedford alt-country band The Whybirds, isn’t pulling any punches – he’s made an angry, heavy, often political album that rocks like Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Batten down the hatches, indeed, for it’s like a hurricane out there… There’s even a nine-minute, epic rallying call (Requiem), which attacks social injustice in the UK and comes across like Luke’s very own Rockin’ In The Free World…
It’s not all big guitar anthems, though – there are some quieter moments in the eye of the storm, like the apologetic ballad Charing Cross and the gorgeous, Springsteen-like country-rock song Ghosts, which sees Luke revisiting his childhood haunts.
In an exclusive, in-depth interview, Luke, who now lives in New York, gives me the inside story on the making of Pieces and reveals that he’s already got his next five albums planned out…
Q & A
The last time we spoke was in the summer of 2017, for the release of your second solo album Always Be True.
You told me then that you’d already got the next four albums planned – track listings and all…. So I guess Pieces, which came out earlier this year, is the first of those albums. Is everything going to plan?
Luke Tuchscherer: Yeah – it’s going well. Pieces is the first of those albums. There’s another one, which will be called Widows & Orphans, that’s already been recorded. That just features Dave Banks and me on acoustic guitars, and is a really intimate, autumnal record and, as such, will be out in October 2019.
I have recorded my acoustic guitar and vocal parts for another record, provisionally titled Salvation Come, in Maplewood, New Jersey. We’re going to be adding some violin parts soon, with a Brooklyn musician I met called Steve May, then I’ll add the drums in the spring back home [in the UK], before adding the other parts as and when, including a baritone guitar player I met here [in New York] called Chris Tarrow. Widows & Orphans should buy us a bit of time before that one comes out, but I’d imagine it would be 2020.
So, the fourth of those records would actually be another full-band Penny Dreadfuls effort, akin to Pieces, which will have to wait until I’m back home [in the UK] again… But, on top of that, I’ll be recording a solo Neil Young Hitchhiker/early-Dylan type album in New Jersey early next year, and I’ve had a folky/bluegrass album planned for years, akin to Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’ or something, but I just need to find the players for it.
The first thing that strikes me about your latest album, Pieces, is that it’s a much heavier sound than your last two records – quite frankly, it rocks, in a Neil Young and Crazy Horse style. What was your intention with this album? It has a big sound!
LT: I’d already started moving things that way with the Shadows EP, which came out earlier this year and was mainly rockers. The reason is because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an acoustic artist. The first record was only that way because The Whybirds were still going, so my “electric” side was satisfied. You Get So Alone… [first solo album] was made up of songs that didn’t fit the band. But now the band is done, I wanted to get back to that rock sound.
‘I’ve actually written quite a few political songs, but they’ve never made it on to any albums before – I can see myself writing more about the wider world now, because my personal life is stable’
In 2017, you told me that classic ‘70s rock records like Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town and Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes informed your last album, Always Be True. What were you listening to when you made this album? A lot of Neil Young, I guess…
LT: Neil Young has always been an influence, and for sure, it comes out the most on this album compared with my others. But for anyone who heard The Whybirds’ Cold Blue Sky, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock.
I think there’s a bit of Pearl Jam on this album, too – and in fact the Neil Young/Pearl Jam album Mirror Ball was an influence in terms of how quickly they recorded it – and the Petty stuff is still there.
Your song Requiem is a Neil Young-like protest anthem that bemoans the current state of the UK – high taxes, the challenges faced by the NHS and how the rich are getting richer and the poor are worse off… It sounds like your very own Rockin’ In The Free World, crossed with Like A Hurricane…
It’s great to hear a modern protest song. Considering the dire situation the world’s in, doesn’t it surprise you that more artists don’t write protest songs? You’re not afraid to tackle issues head-on, are you?
LT: I’ve actually written quite a few political songs, but they’ve never made it on to any albums before. The thing about them is that they tend to date quite quickly. If the NHS goes tits up, then so does Requiem – ha ha! A truly great political song, like Masters of War [by Bob Dylan] is always relevant, sadly enough. Some other reactionary songs are redundant as soon as whatever event they’re responding to is over. Requiem was written after watching the Noam Chomsky film Requiem For The American Dream and applying it to the UK.
As for other people not writing them… I dunno. Maybe they’re wimps. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they just don’t like political music. Personally, I can see myself writing more about the wider world now – though not strictly protest songs – because my personal life is stable. It’s kind of weird singing old break-up songs when I’m happily married, whereas I can see myself still feeling the things in Sudden Getaway or Ain’t That What They Say? in the future.
The first four tracks on the album don’t mess around – they rock out. Things don’t calm down until we’re halfway through, with the song Charing Cross. It’s quite an angry album in places, too. What frame of mind where you in when you wrote the songs and recorded them?Requiem, The MF Blues and Company Girlare angry songs – the latter is very vicious. It’s a put-down song. What inspired it? It sounds like a dig at the music industry…
LT: The only songs that were written shortly before recording were Requiem and Ghosts, but, because I have such a big backlog of songs, I basically choose the best batch to make a cohesive album, along with any new stuff I’ve got that fits. It’ll probably take me to the mid-2020s to clear my backlog! The MF Blues was pretty old, probably 2007, but it fitted the theme of the record.
Company Girl was probably written in 2012 or so. And yeah, it’s angry. It’s about a lot of people, not just one, and they don’t have to be female at all… It’s just I was writing from the ‘company man’ perspective, so it made sense for the other part to be female, but it could’ve been Company Boy easily enough.
‘I have such a big backlog of songs – it will probably take me to the mid-2020s to clear it!’
I guess it’s a bit high horsey, but it’s a dig at the people who aren’t really artists – they’re just after fame. The kind of people who don’t love “Americana” or whatever, and would happily do an RnB album if they thought it would make them more successful. I won’t name names, but they’re not hard to spot. But they’re all doing better than me, so, what do I know?
Let’s talk about the recording sessions for Pieces… How was it making the album? You recorded the seven ‘rock’ songs live in one day, with a band – in June 2017, at The Music Centre, in Bedford. That must’ve been a long day? Talk me through it…
LT: I had limited time before I moved to New York to get the album done. We knew the move was coming, so I wanted to maximise my minutes, so to speak. Between April and September 2017, we recorded Pieces, Widows & Orphans and my hard rock side-project Herd Behaviour’s debut, which is called Animal Habitual, and I played drums on David Banks’ forthcoming solo debut. All were recorded by Chris Corney.
I don’t remember it being a long, or even particularly stressful, day. We’d rehearsed the songs in the weeks leading up to the date – with me on drums, Dave on guitar and Simon Wilson on bass. We set up the night before to get all that out of the way. Then we went in and did it.
Requiem was one take – we didn’t complete a second one. Sudden Getaway was like second take or something. It was all easy as I recall. I think Batten Down The Hatches was the only one that was a slight struggle, but even then it wasn’t too hard. Dave’s an amazing guitarist – every single note he plays on those seven rockers is live – Simon’s a great bassist, and I’m more comfortable behind the kit than anywhere, apart from singing, I suppose.
Then I added my guitars, vocals and percussion in a couple of additional sessions. Chris did almost all the harmonies and did a great job on the vocal arrangements, and Tom Collison added his keys from his home studio – I’d already moved by that time. Done!
When we last spoke, you were gearing up to move to New York. Does the opening song on the album, Sudden Getaway, reference that?
LT: Sudden Getaway was written in 2015, I think, maybe 2014, when NYC wasn’t even on the horizon. It’s really about an existential crisis, I guess. About struggling to be happy with your lot and wondering when that struggle might end.
Why did you move to New York and how is it working out?
LT: Essentially my day job got us to NYC, but I’d never have gone if the band was still going. But once the writing was on the wall with The Whybirds, I felt like I’d given up all of my twenties to the band and had nothing to show for it.
All my holidays were used up touring and recording, as were my weekends and a lot of my evenings. And I felt like I’d never really done anything for myself, or – since I was married by then – for my wife and I as a couple.
A lot of people asked if the New York thing was a music career move, but it was the complete opposite. It was to do something that wasn’t music-related, so I could feel like I’d actually done something with my life. That sounds pretty negative, but if you listen to Waiting For My Day to Come or Outside, Looking In on Always Be True, you can tell that I wasn’t very happy with music anyway! That said, See You When I See You is a fond look back at the ‘birds days, with just a tinge of regret that things didn’t turn out better.
‘A lot of people asked if the New York thing was a music career move, but it was the complete opposite. It was to do something that wasn’t music-related, so I could feel like I’d actually done something with my life’
I was basically working two full-time jobs and it was slowly eroding my passion for music. Since moving to New York, it’s been like starting at the bottom again, and the gigs have been half good and half soul suckers. But it’s made me miss playing music just for the fun of it, and that’s just about the most positive thing that could’ve happened. When I went back [to the UK] for the Pieces gigs in the summer, they were the best and most fun solo shows I’ve ever played. Bar none. I’m already massively excited about coming back next year and firing up the Penny Dreadfuls again.
Let’s talk about one of the ballads on the album – Charing Cross. It’s a sad song – an apology to a loved one. Demons and drink are involved. What’s the story behind it? Is it set in Charing Cross? Surely that must be a first for a song…
LT: Yeah, that was an old song – 2010. It was written after a night at The Borderline, which is obviously just off Charing Cross Road. Anyway… I’d had my wallet and phone stolen, I was in a terrible mood, I got very drunk and I was an arsehole. The song was the apology. I can’t actually remember what the original chorus line was, but it was more positive, as the relationship lasted a few months more. But since that particular relationship is long gone, I turned the lyric into “I know I’ve really blown it now”, to make the song make sense on its own, and give it some finality.
Ghosts is another quieter moment on the record – a gorgeous country-rock song about going back to where you grew up. What can you tell me about that song?
LT: That’s probably my favourite on the album and one of my best ever songs lyrically. It was inspired by something quite personal that I won’t go into, but, hopefully, it was written in a fairly universal way, so that people can get their own meanings from it.
What music are you currently listening to – new and old? Any recommendations?
LT: Even though I was a year late to it, I can’t get enough of Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps. It’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard, let alone recently. Again, I was late to the party, but I finally watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston and I find his stuff pretty addictive. The latest Mudhoney album, Digital Garbage, is really good, too. I discovered a band on Spotify called Arliss Nancy, who have broken up now, I think, but I thought they had some good stuff.
So, finally, what’s next for you? There are all those albums to get out…
LT: I’d expect something like this:
2019: Widows & Orphans – stripped back acoustic album akin to Time (The Revelator) [by Gillian Welch].
2020: Salvation Come (Country-ish Southern Gothic album, with fiddle as the lead instrument.
2022: Luke Tuchscherer & The Penny Dreadfuls – another rock effort.
2023: Carousel – completely solo “session” album.
20??: Untitled folk/bluegrass album.
But I’m back for a solo show at the Green Note in London on April 11, then I’ve got full-band shows in Leicester, Bedford and London on July 18, 19 and 20, respectively. There’s also a European festival, but I don’t know if I can announce that yet, but I’m super-excited about that!
Amerikana Arkana, the debut album by The Magic City Trio, is a haunting record, in more ways than one…
Its wonderful orchestral arrangements recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), the moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.
This band of London renegades comprises Frank Sweeney (guitar, vocals and fiddle), Annie Holder (guitar,vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Guesting on the album are Johnny Butten (banjo) and Eddy Dunlap (pedal steel).
In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Frank, who was a member of ’80s indie pop outfit The June Brides, and played on records by Primal Scream (Imperial) and Felt (Space Blues), to find out the full story behind this magnificent and, er, magical album…
Q & A
Amerikana Arkana is one of my favourite albums of the year. It’s a big-sounding record – I love the orchestrations…Musically, it often harks back to the lush ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. There’s also folk, country, hillbilly and murder ballads.
When I first heard it, it was like someone was going through my record collection and referencing some of my favourite artists… I guess that, like me, you’re big fans of Nancy & Lee and Morricone? Why do you love them so much?
Frank Sweeney: I think Lee Hazlewood was a genre all to himself. He ploughed his own particular furrow and didn’t really care if it was fashionable. He was a great songwriter and producer, but he never felt the need to be in step with current trends or the mainstream. And he still managed to make a lot of classic hit records. Although he always maintained that his main motivation was to make money, he still managed to make great art sometimes.
Ennio Morricone uses a very ‘pop’ sound in his orchestration with unusual instruments. A whistle and a twangy guitar and you immediately evoke his western soundtracks. And loads of his soundtracks have at least one great catchy and evocative tune. I also love Nino Rota, who, in my view, is the other great Italian soundtrack composer. His stuff with Fellini is just as evocative, but on a less epic scale.
‘The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways’
How did The Magic City Trio first come together?
FS: During the tail end of indie-dance and the dawn of Britpop, I was playing viola in a band which played Eastern European music, when there were only two bands doing it in London. Adi Staempfli played bass, and Annie joined after I had left. The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways. I met Annie a few years later, and we eventually married in Las Vegas.
We hadn’t done any music together for a good few years. I was (trying to) learn Blind Blake [blues and ragtime guitarist and singer] stuff to up my game on the guitar, and from there we got interested in other pre-war music, what became known as ‘the old weird America’. From there we did a set of pre-war music (Carter Family, Hawaiian, Emmett Miller) at the Easy Come, which is a well-established open mic night in South East London. But we didn’t take it any further than that. We began including our own songs – Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 was an early one. It was mainly so we could do stuff that other people did not have in their set. Adi returned from Switzerland and joined us in 2013.
We had a gig in Berlin – that was our first as The Magic City Trio. The name originated from a pre-war fiddle band called Dyke’s Magic City Trio. I had one of their records on a 78 rpm.
We thought that we would only use the name for the Berlin gig, as people were more likely to go and see a band, rather than just Frank and Annie. We didn’t intend to keep the name, since Dyke’s Magic City Trio are relatively famous, it would be like calling yourself The Kinks or The Who in about 2045, but the name stuck…
Let’s talk about your album in more depth.I admire your grand ambition and the fact that you’ve gone all out with the orchestral arrangements. How did you approach this album when you came to record it? What did you want it to sound like?
FS:Black Dog Following Me was completed before our 2015 EP [A Funnel Cloud In Albuquerque], but I didn’t like the orchestral sounds, so I scrapped it all, apart from the singing. Once it was redone, we decided to follow suit with the rest of it, instead of making it just an acoustic LP. The orchestral sounds are a mix of samples, live instruments and recordings of actual notes that are stitched together. Oliver Curtis Perry had the least amount of strings and things, as Johnny Butten playing banjo was an orchestra in itself.
‘I was looking for the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is stylistically unfashionable now’
The arrangements all began with a basic piano track with chords, and then we added everything else. I‘m a huge fan of baroque ‘60s pop, so a harpsichord nearly always got in there. Once all the orchestral stuff was done, we put on the live instruments, which is the opposite way it would be done with a live orchestra.
The other sound I was looking for was the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is kind of stylistically unfashionable now – the song 22 was my attempt at that.
Now you mention it, the album does have a lot of different styles of orchestration on there. Trav’ler is like the stuff David Angel did on Love’s Forever Changes, Down In The Willow Garden was looking for a Pearls Before Swine-type of sound, and Billy Strange and Jimmy Webb all are referenced on there somewhere.
With The June Brides and the other stuff I did for Creation Records, I was trying to do large string parts, but limited by budgets and my lack of skill on the viola. But on those records you can hear me trying to do something that I just can’t quite pull off. I nearly got there with This Town (June Brides), Space Blues (Felt) and So Out of Touch (Joe Foster).
The dramatic opening track, Black Dog Following Me, is pure Nancy & Lee. I’m guessing it’s about depression? ‘Black dog’ is a term that Winston Churchill used to describe his dark moods. What can you tell me about that song?
FS: Yes that’s it, more or less – a dialogue where one person can’t see a way through, but the other won’t let it get on top of them. The arrangement is pure Billy Strange with Nancy & Lee. I didn’t think they did enough stuff like Some Velvet Morning, so this was my addition. In the same way that Jeff Lynne didn’t think The Beatles did enough stuff like I Am The Walrus.
Cousins’ War has a definite Ennio Morricone feel, but with a country edge…
FS: Annie started that song, after reading a book about the Wars of the Roses Originally it sounded a lot more folky. I thought of it more like the Hatfield-McCoy type of scenario. I did the last verse after seeing a Twilight Zone episode where all the American Civil War dead are walking on a road. That’s why in the LP booklet, there is a picture from a Civil War bubblegum card called Painful Death. The line about the sowing the hydra’s teeth is from Jason and the Argonauts, which explains the fighting skeleton picture in the booklet.
The chorus is adapted from [folk song] Darlin’ Cory. The instrumental sections do give it that Morricone sound – it’s the low male vocals that do it I think, which are reminiscent of Story of a Soldier [from the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly].
I love the descending twangy riff that kicks off Dust of Mars – it sounds like a nod to Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots… and The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon…
FS: At the time, I didn’t think that sequence of notes was particularly unique to Sunny Afternoon – it must have been used in loads of other places. So I didn’t think I was taking anything from that song that hadn’t been used somewhere before. But as time has gone on, I have to conclude that the sequence is not particularly common in pop music, and is more or less unique to Sunny Afternoon. I’m glad I made it so obvious, but it’s a bit like using the opening riff from Day Tripper on a song…
Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 has a hillbilly vibe. Where did this outlaw song come from? What was the inspiration?
FS: Oliver Curtis Perry was the first person to rob a train single-handed, in New York in the 1890s. The song tells his story, with a little bit of artistic license. The words are on our website. I first read about him when I was 11 years old, in a book by James D Horan, a noted Western writer. There wasn’t much detail given. The – wonderfully named – writer Tamsin Spargo read the same book as a child, and years later published Wanted Man, which tells the whole story.
The song 22, which sounds like a Johnny Cash and June Carter country duet, also reminds me of Kirsty MacColl…
FS: I didn’t think of that – I’m only familiar with her hits. It’s probably the vocal harmony that gives it that. She was a great singer and writer, with a unique voice. This was our attempt at getting the Chet Atkins Nashville sound. The demo we did sounds like the Carter Family – we recorded it on a four-track cassette using pre-war Gibsons to sound as old as possible. The demos are interesting as they show how the song developed – each version is different. The plot is from a short story by Daniel Woodrell about someone who suspects his neighbours of murdering his child.
Talking of murders… Down In The Willow Garden is a classic, traditional murder ballad. I know it from The Everly Brothers album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Why did you decide to cover the song for your record?
FS: My grandmother’s name was Salley – I was looking for the origins. I came across a poem by Yeats called In the Salley Garden, which is adapted from Willow Garden, and I found the various versions. Most of which sounded a bit too jolly melodically.
The Everly Brothers recording sounded suitably bleak. So we worked on a minor key version. We had to change the harmonies as we were still smokers and couldn’t reach the notes – since we have now quit we can get there!
I wanted to do a Pearls Before Swine-type arrangement. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is a brilliant album. They recorded it to get out of their contract without giving away any hits, and they ended up with a masterpiece.
Where did the title of the album, Amerikana Arkana, come from?
FS: I always loved the album cover of Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, with a man holding Tarot cards. Though the real agents of fortune are the 52 standard pack of cards, the Tarot decks are called the lesser and greater arcana. The greater arcana features all the well-known picture cards. The songs were going to be very loosely based on the Tarot cards – death, confusion, fortune, justice, the sun, change etc, but they all didn’t quite fit with that… I like a rhyming title like Nilsson Schmilsson. The presence of the K always implies a slightly twisted ‘bizarro superman’ type version of the actual thing. The LP booklet also has all sorts of clues and images that link in some way with the songs.
Can you talk me through the songwriting process and the arranging and recording of the album?
FS: We had not got together as a band to do our own songs – we were doing pre-war country and other songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s. We didn’t want to write songs in that style, lest they sounded like a pastiche.
In 2011 I read a biography on Blind Willie McTell and in the book he revealed his method for writing and I followed it.
Cousins’ War was started by Annie, but discarded, as we couldn’t figure out a proper narrative, but we brought it back and worked on the chords.
Trav’ler was originally called Chinese Traveller – it had also been discarded, due to the lack of a decent tune, but Annie pushed on with that because it had a good story. But it’s usually one of us kicking off an idea and then discarding it. And if it’s halfway good, Annie will resurrect it and suggest improvements. We’re not the most prolific of writers, but work in fits and starts.
I write out the orchestrations on a music score writing [software] package, which plays samples of string and brass, and we put the real instruments on top of that.
Recording at home is cheap, but it gets slow – there is no clock ticking and no budget being eaten up. So you can spend all day recording a track and edit 10 versions of a guitar part into the best one. Dust of Mars ended up with 40 tracks, which produced its own set of problems trying to mix it. Recording is the easy part…
You recorded and mixed the album in London and Hove. What was that like?
FS: It was a long process. With a few exceptions, all the recording was done at home over a two-year period, which began after completing our first EP. But some recordings were started a lot earlier – Black Dog… and Oliver Curtis Perry were first demoed in 2012, with no plans to release them other than on Soundcloud.
The 2012 version of Black Dog... was stripped back to the vocals and all the other tracks replaced, and with Oliver Curtis Perry all we kept was the drums. The banjo, trumpet, pedal steel and washboard were recorded remotely and the tracks sent to me. The orchestral sounds are a mix of real players and sampled instruments, but the whole thing was written out on a score rather than played on a keyboard. Nearly all the recording was completed by the end of 2016.
I started mixing it early 2017, and gave up due to the complexity of the task. In Easter 2017, I took it to Bark Studios, in London (where Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was done), with Brian O’Shaugnessy mixing it.
So, it was mixed once, with a full set of backing tracks. Then most of it was mixed again. The mixes were much better than mine, but I wasn’t happy with the balance of some of the sounds. I thought if I went back to Bark Studios again we would end up playing whack-a-mole with the mix,
In-between that time we put the steel drum on Sun Comes Shining Through, and stuck the slow intro on Cousins’ War, so it could join up with the end of Black Dog...
So I started mixing it again myself, Having learned a thing or two from Brian, my mixes were OK, but lacked oomph. In summer 2017, I approached Paul Pascoe in Hove, for whom I had done some strings for, and asked him to master some of my mixes and the Bark mixes. Paul liked it enough to offer to mix and master it. This time I stayed away from the studio, which was a much better idea. We used the Bark version of Oliver Curtis Perry, but, other than that they are all Paul Pascoe’s mixes. Sonically there isn’t much difference. So, excluding my mixes, there are a couple of alternate mixes of the LP, plus the backing tracks and also Paul’s mix of Oliver Curtis Perry.
I admire your effort and dedication. The album is full of ambition and drama – it sounds great and it soars. Would you agree that so many modern pop records lack ambition? They just sound so bland and unadventurous when you compare them with some of the pop music of the ’60s…
FS: I think people are always going to write great songs, Pharrell Williams’ Happy is a great song, and the Curtis Mayfield sound makes it even better. But production-wise, most of the envelopes have been pushed, so commercial productions are going to end up sounding very homogenised.
It’s like the thing that Frank Zappa said, that in the ’60s, the record companies were still being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand, in the hope that they would sell some records. The profit motive was still the driving force, but you had more of a chance of producing art.
Nowadays companies are releasing music that is similar to stuff that was recently successful, so it can all start sounding the same. Particularly when you have producers, accountants, advertisers and product placers having a financial interest in the music sounding attractive and familiar to the masses. It’s the same sort of thing in the film industry, where films that can be turned into a brand seems to be where the money goes.
‘Record companies in the ’60s were being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand’
The common factor is that cinema audiences and music buyers have decreased dramatically over the years, so the studios are less prepared to take any risks.
In the golden age of cinema, you could release a film like The Best Years of Our Lives and it would be a blockbuster in terms of the people who saw it. Nowadays, a big studio would not put the money into a three-hour film about war veterans returning home. Cinema audiences were much bigger then, and were loyal to the stars in the film. Under the studio system everyone was on salary, so you could churn out loads of films, and sometimes they would produce art, And although the films were censored and bowdlerised, they showed a lot less but told a lot more. Look at films like Sunset Boulevard and In A Lonely Place – they were churned out under the studio system but are really dark and deep films.
American TV seems the place where you are seeing really original stuff, most of it does at least one season which is still around 13 hours of drama. If you pitched a 13-hour film called Freaks and Geeks (a much loved show that only did one season) you would not get very far. British mini-series seem to all be stuck trying to remake Prime Suspect. I digress…
So what are the band’s plans for the rest of 2018? Any thoughts on a follow-up album?
FS: We need to get more gigs, as a lot of our record sales are done in person. But a third of them have gone in a few months already, and they are still selling, so that’s encouraging. Our first EP has nearly sold out, I have to be careful to make sure I don’t sell my own copy!
As far as another LP is concerned, there were quite a few stage favourites left unrecorded. The original plan was to have a double LP, but it would have taken too long to record and we wouldn’t have a hope in selling it at gigs. We have another LP’s worth of songs, but it might be worth waiting to see if we come up with something better. Ive got to write a score without repeating myself, or other people. Ha ha ha.
Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?
FS: Old music: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, by The Small Faces, which I have recently discovered, after not being that interested in it up until now. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us – the Bear Family Records reissue – and Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night: Live at the Roxy.
New music: Boarding House Reach by Jack White and Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto.
Amerikana Arkana by The Magic City Trio is currently available on Kailua Recordings. For more information, go to http://themagiccitytrio.com/