‘These stories needed to be told’

Picture of Robert Rotifer by Rosie Lovering

Picture of Robert Rotifer by Rosie Lovering

Austrian-born, Canterbury-based singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is his most personal and autobiographical record yet, with songs about growing up in Vienna and the death of his grandmother, a Jewish communist and resistance fighter in the Second World War. I speak to him to find out why he felt the time was right to tell these stories and how they’re more relevant than ever in the current European political climate…

I’ve been listening to the new album a lot – it’s a great record…

Robert Rotifer: I’m glad and I’m grateful that you like it because I sometimes find it pretty hard going to listen to because it’s very intimate. People have been telling me they like it, but it was really hard for me to let go of some of the stuff. It’s quite intense and there are just ten songs – I felt that if I put 12 songs on it, it would’ve been too much. Also, these days, you want it to sound good on vinyl and the truth is, the less you put on there, the better it sounds.

I think it works really well on vinyl because, thematically, there are two distinct sides to the record. The first half of the album deals with contemporary subjects, including immigration and the smartphone generation, while the second half is a song cycle about you and your family’s experiences of growing up and living in Vienna. 

RR: The songs on the first side give you the background to where the second side comes from. Side one should open your mind – ‘what is this guy talking about?’ – and on side two, you can see where I’m coming from. It has a dramatic curve.

I like the details in the lyrics and the stories that you tell in the songs…

RR: They’re compelling. I couldn’t take into account what people might make of it and I felt there were things that I just needed to write about, which should always be the case. I couldn’t edit myself accordingly to what was going to work with an audience, which was a real self-indulgence, but I’m aware of that.

It’s arguably your most personal and autobiographical record and it’s a Robert Rotifer album, rather than one by your band, Rotifer. Although the guys from Rotifer play on the record, was it always going to be a solo album?

RR: It just happened that all sorts of things conspired – Mike Stone, who plays bass, was very busy and Ian Button (drummer) was busy with Papernut Cambridge. I just felt that I had this personal stuff to get rid of and it seemed right to do the record by myself. Mike and Ian were absolutely fine with it – there was no animosity.

Some of the songs – the title track and Irma la Douce – are about your grandmother, Irma Schwager, who died last year. She was a Jewish communist who fled Austria to escape the Nazis during the Second World War and joined the French resistance. The title track sees you standing outside her old flat in Vienna…

RR: My grandmother died when she was 95. She met my grandfather during immigration, while they were part of the underground Austrian resistance in France – they were both Jewish – not religiously so – but by birth. My mum was born in France when she was in hiding during the Second World War.

My grandparents came back to Vienna in 1945 and moved into a flat that was right next to the Danube Canal – it’s the bit of the Danube that goes right into the city of Vienna. That was one of the last strongholds where the Nazis had hidden.

When my grandparents moved in to the flat, part of the outside wall had collapsed because the Russians had lobbed grenades into the building. Until the very end, you could see bullet scars in the doors and there was a hole in the wood panelling where they’d looked for hidden weapons. After my grandmother died, my mum found pictures of German soldiers in uniform having a jolly in the flat. It had belonged to a Jewish family and was taken over by a Nazi general.

When my grandparents came back, they were offered the flat. For me, it’s a symbolic place and has more to say than just my personal history. With the way politics is going in Central Europe at the moment, I think these stories need to be told – it’s essential to explain to people was it was actually like.

On my grandmother’s 90th birthday, there was a big do, because she was a little bit of a celebrity in leftie circles. I was invited to sing and I sang a song called The Frankfurt Kitchen, which is about a kitchen design from 1928 that was the daddy of all the Ikea kitchens. It was designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who was a friend of my grandmother’s.

I played it as a tribute to her friend, who had died, and as I was on stage and my grandmother was standing next to me, I said to her that I was glad that she came back to Vienna, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I asked her why she’d come back and, like a shot, she said that it was because they’d won. I thought that was the best reason ever.

When she died, it became obvious to me that that idea of her coming back had gone – I can’t rely on other generations having fought for me. It was really emotional for me and I felt all these songs about Vienna coming out. While they might be about me, they also say something about where Europe – and the world – is at the moment, from Trump all the way to Nigel Farage and Norbert Hofer [the far-right Austrian presidential candidate who was narrowly defeated earlier this year].

I don’t want to get too political about it because it’s emotional for me, but it’s about feeling safe.

One of my favourite songs on the album is the opening track, If We Hadn’t Had You. It’s a very personal song that’s about your daughter and mentions an anti-war demo in Hyde Park that you took her to. Can you tell me about the background to the song?

RR: My daughter said I always writing depressing and sad stuff – she asked me to write something nice and I thought that if she’s said that, then the most obvious thing to do is to write a nice song about her. But I wanted to write a song that wasn’t mawkish.

I’ve tried to explain that parental happiness is also withdrawal from what happens around you – you’ve got the luxury of something which is so much more important… But I also wanted to make it clear that because you have kids you don’t have a higher calling. My daughter absolutely loves the song.

You’ve recorded two versions of If We Hadn’t Had You – the one on the album has a guitar solo by you, but the version you released on a EP earlier this year features a saxello solo by 80-year-old Canterbury jazz legend Tony Coe, who played on John Martyn’s classic album Solid Air. How did you get him involved?

RR: Living in Canterbury, I was aware of Tony Coe – I’d seen him play at jazz gigs. He was around in the Ronnie Scott’s scene in the ‘50s.

He says that Solid Air was just a session for him – that it wasn’t a very exciting afternoon, but, for the rest of us, it’s good enough!

I got him to play on another album that I was co-producing with Andy Lewis and at the end of the session we still had some time, so I asked him to listen to If We Hadn’t Had You, which I thought could do with some saxophone on it. He really liked the song and I loved what he did.

When I’d mixed my album I knew that, thematically, If We Hadn’t Had You had to be the first song on it, but with the sound [of the saxello], you would expect the rest of the record to have that aspect to it, but it doesn’t – it’s like opening a door to a room that you then don’t use anymore. After thinking long and hard about it, I tried a guitar solo on it and, all of a sudden, it got a different flavour that fitted the rest of the album. I decided to do an EP with the Tony Coe version on it to give credit to it and not lose it.

Picture by Stephan Brueckler

Picture by Stephan Brueckler

 

Let’s talk about the sound of the album. It’s pretty stripped-down in places – there’s plenty of room for the songs to breathe, with acoustic guitar, organ and horn, but then there’s also some freewheeling electric guitar, heavier sounds and some psych-pop and jazzy touches. It’s a hard record to describe and nail down – it’s almost as if the songs are led by the lyrics, rather than the music…

RR: Yes – completely.

What were you aiming for with this record?

RR: I’m a big fan of French records from the ‘60s and ‘70s – what I like about them is the way the vocals are mixed right upfront, so you can hear what Jacques Dutronc or Serge Gainsbourg is telling you. That’s the opposite of what’s happened in the mastering wars of the zero years. This was the first time I’d ever mixed a record myself and I recorded almost all of it myself.

Writing-wise what I was aiming for with this record was that I wanted to get away from that guitarist’s thing of ‘here’s four chords and let’s sing over the top’. I wanted to write it more like a piano player would. I wrote some of the songs on piano.

I’d like to ask you more about your musical influences. You moved to England from Vienna just over 19 years ago, in early 1997, but you first visited England in 1982, as a 12-year old. What music were you into when you were young?

RR: My parents sent me to Canvey Island in 1982, when I was 12. Before then, I had been terribly Anglophile. It was a formative experience – in 1982 in Essex you saw second-generation mods running around and the look was magical to me. I was such a Beatles fan as a kid and I’d got into The Kinks and The Who.

So when you were growing up in Austria, you didn’t listen to local music?

RR: There was local rock music…. The case for Austrian indigenous pop music, whatever that means, because it’s a multicultural society, is quite important for me. I’ve been the co-founder and curator of the Vienna Popfest, which is a huge thing – it’s an annual festival where tens of thousands of people turn up. It’s anything that you could possibly describe as ‘pop’, but one of the great things about Vienna is that people are very schooled in the avant-garde – they keep an ear open for music that is odd. So at the Popfest you can have people playing something that in no other place in the world would be considered pop.

I like Austrian pop music, but when I lived there, there was this thing called Austropop, which was complacent, stolid and boring pop music. There were people with horrible hairdos and DX7 keyboards… As a teenager, I tried to get away from it as much as possible.

Then there was the Austrian version of Neue Deutsche Welle – the German New Wave thing. It was a mixture of what the Germans did and Austropop, which was even more fake to me.

I sang in English and I always played in very Anglophile bands – there was a mod and ‘60s culture going on. I became a music journalist in ‘91/’92 – I was studying, but I was offered a job because I wrote an article about Billy Bragg that people liked. I then went freelance and got into radio, which I still do today.

I ended up being the Britpop correspondent – I went to festivals like Reading and Glastonbury and hung around the hospitality area. If you were accredited, you could stick a microphone in Jarvis Cocker’s direction and he would talk to you.

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Your new album is being released on Gare du Nord Records – a label that you’re heavily involved with.  Any other new records and projects in the pipeline?

RR: This is an exclusive. There’s a new Papernut Cambridge album already finished. One afternoon, we decided to try and organise something like The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus – it’s called The Cambridge Circus! I’m really looking forward to that.

 

Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is released on July 1 on Gare du Nord Records – CD/LP and download.  For more information, go to http://www.robertrotifer.co.uk  & http://robertrotifer.bandcamp.com

The album launch party takes place on June 30 at Servant Jazz Quarters in London: tickets are available here.

Britta Pop

Britta

Picture of Britta by Luz Gallardo

Britta Phillips, who, with her husband Dean Wareham (Luna and Galaxie 500) makes up US duo Dean & Britta, has just released her first solo album – Luck or Magic – a great collection of curious cover versions and self-penned tracks, from haunting ‘60s pop to Euro synth sounds. I talk to her about Bond songs, making the new record, playing bass in Luna and which she prefers, luck or magic?

I am sitting with Britta Phillips in the Martini Bar of London’s Barbican and, rather fittingly, we are talking about James Bond songs.

Daydream, which is the opening track on her debut solo album, Luck or Magic, is dramatic, moody and cinematic and sounds like it was inspired by ‘60s spy film soundtracks.

“I wrote that song in 2000 – after I’d joined Luna. I was really into Dusty Springfield then – Dean had given me a mixtape with Dusty on it and I wanted to write a song where I could sing it a bit like her,” she says.

“The song sat there for a while – it didn’t make it on to the first Dean & Britta album – but I really liked it, so I re-recorded it and added a Bond feel to it. It sounds a little bit like Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice.”

I suggest to Britta that her and Dean would be ideal for writing a Bond song.

“I would love to – if they ever want a Bond song, Dean and I are available,” she says.

I tell her that I could imagine a Dean & Britta Bond song that was in the same vein as those wonderful, haunting, orchestral ‘60s Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood ballads Some Velvet Morning and Summer Wine.

Britta agrees, adding: “They’re pretty, but they’re dark…”

Pretty and dark would be a good description of Britta’s Luck or Magic album – a record that is half original songs and half cover versions.

There are gorgeous, haunting renditions of pop obscurities like Evie Sands’ One Fine Summer Morning from 1969 and Dennis Wilson’s 1970 b-side Fallin’ In Love, stripped-down, electronic takes on The Cars’ Drive and Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, as well as her own compositions, including the cold, Krautrock synth groove of Million Dollar Doll and the Velvets-like closer Ingrid Superstar, with its psychedelic guitars…

So, how does it feel to have released your first solo album?

Britta Phillips: It’s very exciting. I’m very happy with it. I knew I would do one someday, but time flies… My friend Scott Hardkiss [San Francisco DJ and producer], who I met about 10 years ago, invited me to lunch in 2012 and said, ‘you should do a solo album and I’m gonna produce it’. And I said,’oh, alright’…

Sadly, Scott died in 2013…

BP: Yes – a year after we’d started working together. We didn’t get that much done, [in that first year] because we were both so busy….

You’ve been writing solo songs throughout your whole career, haven’t you?

BP: Yes – the oldest song on the album [Daydream] was written in 2000, about six months after I’d joined Luna. One of the other songs [Million Dollar Doll] has music that was written for the Frances Ha film soundtrack.  The music for Ingrid Superstar was written for 13 Most Beautiful[Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Test] but I wrote the lyrics later.

You’re known for being one half of Dean & Britta and also the bassist in Luna, but what’s it like stepping out on your own and being a solo artist?

BP: It’s mostly very exciting, but I feel a bit naked…I’ve always been in bands.

Why did you decide to make an album that’s half original songs and half cover versions?

BP: Dean & Britta always did a couple of covers and so did Luna. I always knew I was going to do a couple of covers, but it didn’t know it would be half… When I started to talk to Scott about the record, he had about 10 or 15 ideas for covers, but, as it was my first solo album, I wanted it to be at least half original songs.

There were five covers that I really liked and there were some original songs that I didn’t put on it. I just picked the ones that went best together and that I liked best. I did a Dylan cover – Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright – which I love, but I felt the flavour of it didn’t sit quite as well with the rest of the record. It pulled it more into a retro, ’60s thing – there were already a couple of things like that on the album.

I love your version of the Dylan song – it has a gorgeous country feel. In the end, you put it out on a limited double A-side vinyl EP with Dean’s version of the ’60s song Hey Paula, by Paul & Paula. I managed to buy a copy, but, if you don’t mind me saying so, the cover artwork is a bit rude…

BP: Dean picked that – I had nothing to do with it. He thought it was very funny. My mum pleaded with me to take the cover art off my Pledge campaign….

Are there any other songs you covered that didn’t end up on the album?

BP: I did Bang Bang [Nancy Sinatra], Daniel Johnston’s Honey I Sure Miss You and Led Zeppelin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. I’ve also got some original songs that I want to finish.

You’ve covered a ‘60s song on your album – One Fine Summer Morning by Evie Sands, which comes from her 1969 debut album. I must admit, I don’t know much about Evie Sands…

BP: Oh – She’s amazing. I believe she was Dusty Springfield’s favourite singer. She lives in LA and I met her recently.

Has she heard your version of her song?

BP: I’ve Facebooked her about it, but I haven’t heard back. I don’t know if she got my message…

I’m sure she’ll like it…

BP: She’ll be happy… Her version is a little more country sounding.

You’ve also covered an obscure Dennis Wilson song –Fallin’ In Love – which was a b-side to his first solo single in 1970…

BP: I can imagine the Evie Sands and the Dennis Wilson songs being huge hits, but they never were. They’re amazing songs.

I really like the haunting strings and the twangy guitar on Fallin’ In Love…

BP: Thanks – Dean’s on guitar and the strings are just me noodling on the MIDI [synth]. My version is like a girl group doing it – it has bigger drums.

Let’s talk about your song Million Dollar Doll. To me, it sounds like it could’ve come from the soundtrack to the film Drive. It has an ’80s electronic Europop feel…

BP: I’m so glad you think so – I love that soundtrack. When I started making my record I was really into the Drive soundtrack and Chromatics and Glass Candy – anything Johnny Jewel produced – as well as LCD Soundsystem. I was yelling the lyrics like I thought he [James Murphy] might.

I like the trance-like, nighttime groove on Million Dollar Doll…

BP: It’s motorik…

Which leads us nicely on to the track Drive. This time, you’ve chosen to cover a song by The Cars…

BP: It was a huge song and not a cover I ever would’ve picked. It was Scott’s choice. He also chose Landslide and a bunch of other big covers for me to sing – I picked the obscure ones.

You’ve stripped it right back and made it more minimalist and electronic…

BP: Yeah – it’s the robotic ARP arpeggiator [synthesizer] – that’s what made it for me. I wasn’t sure about doing a big cover, but then I loved it…

And you’ve covered Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide – a well-known song – and made it your own, with some burbling synth sounds…

BP: It came out great – we stripped it down. You’ve got to do something different, or what’s the point? I’m not going to beat Stevie Nicks’ version – no way… I love Dean’s guitar solo on it.

Why did you choose to do a version of Wrap Your Arms Around Me – a 1983 solo song by former Abba member Agnetha Fältskog?

BP: It was obscure to me. I had never heard it, but I guess it was a hit somewhere. A friend, Chris Hollow from The Sand Pebbles, who are an Australian band, suggested it to me. He sent it and said, ‘Britta should cover this’.

I’m always fascinated when people really want to hear me sing a song. If somebody takes the time to tell me I should cover something, then I’ll try it.

Wrap Your Arms Around Me is a great Europop tune – it has a killer chorus…

BP: I cut out one line. Agnetha sings, ‘make love to me now like never before.’ It makes the song a little bit too silly or kitsch… Those words would not come out of my mouth.

Is the title track of your album, Luck or Magic, an old song of yours?

BP: No – it’s a new song. I was looking through my old diaries for inspiration. Back then, I was very emotionally distraught and I think that makes for better writing material.

So, lyrically, it harks back to the time when you first met Dean?

BP: Yes – we were having this torrid romance and I was feeling very vulnerable. The lyrics are trying to be tough about it – me saying, ‘I know it’s gonna last – I don’t give a shit – let’s go!’

The song has almost a funk groove…

BP: I never played anything funky on bass before this, but I was listening to slightly funkier and dancey things.

So, are you a secret funk bass player?

BP: Yeah (she laughs). Well, I love Sly Stone and Chic/Bernard Edwards and Tina Weymouth [Talking Heads]. I’ve been dabbling – getting my toes wet.

There’s also a funky feel to your song Do It Last. It sounds a bit like Daft Punk…

BP: That was the very last song I wrote. I had a piano sketch that was bouncy and very McCartney. I went through about eight different demos of that song and I just wanted to get away from that, so I rearranged it and I changed the chords.

I was listening to the Daft Punk song Something About Us and I thought I would try something like that, with the bass and the drums… It’s weird – I was hearing some kind of solo Lennon influence, but I don’t imagine anyone else hears it. It’s sort of ‘70s – a bit Hall & Oates and a little bit funky. It’s kind of light and sexy, but there’s a dark edge to it.

The closing track on the album is Ingrid Superstar – the title sounds like the best song Lou Reed never wrote… Musically, it has a very Velvet Underground sound to it and features Luna’s Sean Eden on ‘guitar swells’.

BP: It’s mostly me playing guitar, trying to play like Dean and Sean, who’s doing some trippy backwards bits on it. It’s a kind of T Rex groove.

Let’s talk about Luna – the band is coming to the UK in October and you’ll be playing the Penthouse album in full… On your gigs in the States, you’ve been opening for Luna, too. How is it being your own support act?

BP: It’s a little bit tiring, but Luna is my backing band, too, so it’s pretty good.

We’re going to play the whole of Penthouse and then do all the other songs that people usually want to hear.

 

Luna-640x480

Luna

Are there any plans to make a new Luna record?

BP: We’re recording covers – we’ve been in the studio with Jason Quever. He produced Dean’s last solo record. We’ve recorded six covers and we’re probably going to record six more – I don’t know about originals at this point. It’s been a good way to ease us into the studio.

How is it being in Luna for the second time around – you split up in 2005, but reformed in 2015…

BP: We’re really enjoying it – there’s no pressure. We’re not trying to be the next new thing and get on the radio and sell a shitload of records. We’re just playing because it’s a great band and it’s fun to play with Luna and reconnect with the fans – Luna fans are amazing. There are some upsides to getting older – part of that is the history with the audience and a band. Rather than a band on stage performing and showing off, it’s much more of a communal thing, which sounds very hippie…

So, what about making another Britta solo album?

BP: I would like to do another one for sure, but I don’t know when. I haven’t thought about it. I feel like it will be a lot less confusing this time. It was so shocking when Scott passed away – I was slow to want to start on the record again.

britta new

Pic of Britta by Shelby Duncan for The Standard Hotel

 

Did you feel like you owed it to Scott to get the record out there?

BP: I definitely did, but it was hard – I didn’t know when would be the right time to start working on it again. Then I heard from Scott’s widow, who sent me a mix of one of the songs that’s not on the album, and she really wanted me to finish it, so I thought, ok – it’s not too soon…

Who would be your dream musical collaborators?

BP: Oh, boy – there are so many… There are electronic and dance people like Johnny Jewel and also indie – the guy from Tame Impala [Kevin Parker] is great and I like Cate Le Bon, but I’d be afraid to work with her. I wouldn’t be able to speak to her because I have such respect and admiration for her. She’s one of my favourites.

What other music are you currently enjoying – old and new?

BP: I like Kamasi Washington, the jazz guy who plays with Kendrick Lamar. I’m always discovering old stuff. I’m enjoying James Last! Have you ever heard of him? He does great covers.

So, finally, if you had to choose, which would it be: ‘luck’ or ‘magic’?

BP: Magic. Growing up in the ‘70s and having really kooky parents, I did believe that magic was real for quite too long a time. My parents believed in UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and ESP – all that stuff. I had very magical thinking. Even though I don’t believe in it now, there’s a part of me that emotionally believes in it. To me, science is magic – you can explain it, but it’s still pretty magical…

Britta Phillips’ Luck or Magic is out now on Double Feature Records. Luna will play the O2 Academy in London on October 7.

http://brittaphillips.com/

 

britt cover

‘We jammed a version of The Ballad of El Goodo and I collapsed afterwards’

ATH197810

 

The sound of the summer is here! 

Oxford’s jangly-pop maestros The Dreaming Spires are back with a new eight-track EP/mini-album called Paisley Overground, which was partly recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, in Memphis, where Big Star made their seminal albums.

The record features four songs from The Dreaming Spires (Paisley Overground, Harberton Mead, Silverlake Sky and The Road Less Travelled), as well as four from other acts – Sid Griffin & Tony Poole, Co-Pilgrim, The Hanging Stars and The Raving Beauties.

I asked Robin Bennett – who, with his brother Joe – are the main members of The Dreaming Spires – about the new EP, recording in Memphis and the band’s plans for the rest of the year…

 

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were talking about your last album Searching For The Supertruth, which was nominated for this year’s UK Americana Awards.  Now you’re back with another new record – the Paisley Overground EP. You’re unstoppable. What’s the secret to being so prolific?

Robin Bennett: Thank you for calling us unstoppable. We’re more like a swan, paddling frantically under the water. There are a few factors – I try to write songs every day, even if I only have a few moments, or I’m on the bus, typing things into my phone.

I also have a well of songs written a few years ago with my friend Daniel Power from New Orleans. Silverlake Sky [from the new EP]  is one of those, but updated. Our drummer, Jamie, has emigrated to the US, so when he is over here, or if by some good fortune we are there, we try to get some recording done.

Joe and I have our own studio – Truck Studios – where we recorded overdubs for this EP, and we are very lucky to have Tony Poole and Rowland Prytherch on hand to mix our recordings to the amazing standard that they do – it’s really a team effort. That said, we are nowhere near as prolific as Co-Pilgrim, Joe’s other band.

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Three of the new songs were recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, in Memphis – the home of cult power-pop band Big Star. How was that experience?

RB: When we were in the US for AmericanaFest last September, we slightly extended our stay to fit in a visit to Memphis – our fans will know we had never been there before. It was viable to record for nearly a whole day at Ardent Studios, so we made sure we had rehearsed some material and cut it mostly live. When we got home, we added some overdubs to some of them, including Joe’s recently purchased pedal steel, finishing three tracks.

Big Star were a formative influence for The Dreaming Spires’ sound, undoubtedly. When our previous band Goldrush were in the US, we were introduced to Big Star via The Ballad of El Goodo, which I learned to play before I even knew who it was by. It became a really special song for us.

Soon enough we got into all the Big Star albums. For me, Memphis is the place where the music we love came together, whether it’s Chuck Berry, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Stax… All of that is hinted at in the music of Big Star, and their style is accessible for us because they were trying to emulate British groups.

Memphis has a very different style to Nashville – there’s more of an edge. It’s the melting pot of American music. All kinds of stuff has been recorded at Ardent, including REM’s Green, which was another formative album for us as teenagers. It’s a very well equipped studio, where you can set up and record live – which is what we did.

The room we used was actually designed for ZZ Top! Jody Stephens, the drummer and surviving original member of Big Star, is the studio manager. We thought perhaps he might drop by, and he did, even singing some backing vocals on a version of Dusty in Memphis, which we recorded the same day.

We kept teasing Jamie, our drummer, that Jody would have to step in if he didn’t play the songs right. Are we really that mean? Maybe that’s why he emigrated.

At the end, we jammed  a version of The Ballad of El Goodo with Jody and it was almost too much. I slightly collapsed afterwards.

Four of the songs on the EP are by The Dreaming Spires and four are by other artists. I’m confused… What’s the concept behind the new record?

RB: Paisley Overground was a throwaway phrase that almost demanded some kind of scene to be built around it. Much as the Paisley Underground was (mostly) LA bands reconstructing The Byrds’ sound with some modern attitudes, this is our British version in 2016.

We had also worked with Sid Griffin [The Long Ryders, Coal Porters ] on a gig showcasing the songs of David Crosby a couple of years ago, which was a really fun experience.

Tony Poole, who worked on our last album and mixed the first two tracks on this EP, had actually worked up a track with Sid called Tell Her All The Time, which is on side two. Rich from The Hanging Stars is an old friend, The Raving Beauties are on our manager’s label, and of course Co-Pilgrim is Joe’s excellent other band.

The proof of concept is that side two hangs together really well – it almost sounds like a Buffalo Springfield album, but with different singers.

The title track is an instant, chiming jangle-pop classic, with a touch of country. It’s a paean to your love of the Paisley Underground scene and the 12-string guitar sound. How did the song come about? Why do you love the Paisley Underground scene so much?

RB: Ever since I heard Turn! Turn! Turn! And A Hard Day’s Night as a kid, I’ve instinctively loved the sound. You can hear it on some songs from the Goldrush catalogue too.

I think there’s something about a 12-string, where you have two strings for each note, which creates an automatic, psychedelically-enhanced effect – you get a drone from the low strings in octaves, and the high E and B strings are the same pitch, but tuned slightly differently. A lot of music from different cultures uses drones and resonant strings, and a 12-string guitar has a bit of that.

Growing up, we also loved the jangle of early The Stone Roses, REM, and Ride. We backed Mark Gardener from Ride between 2003-2006, including several US tours, and I usually played his Rickenbacker 12-string, a custom John Lennon version I believe, so we weren’t the first Oxford band to like them.

The first I heard about the Paisley Underground scene was from Danny  [Daniel Power]. He was also the road manager on those early tours with Mark Gardener and he lived in LA. We stayed with him a lot and got a feel for it, without becoming an expert on any of the bands.

I just liked the phrase, and what it stood for – a kind of contemporary revival of classic sounds and songwriting, sometimes with an edge of psychedelic exploration.

I’m sure in reality it was a pretty small scene, but with a big influence. We’ve done shows with Sid Griffin and Chuck Prophet in recent years and heard a bit more about it.

It’s easy to feel like you miss out on scenes or moments in music, especially when you read too many music books and watch too many documentaries, but I hope the song and the EP as whole create our own shared moment.

The 12-string electrics I use now both belong to Joe – as the song suggests, I still don’t own one. One Danelectro and one Rickenbacker.

You are right in spotting a touch of country in the recording too – Joe made a purchase from Pedal Steels of Nashville when we were there, and this was his first attempt to play it on record.

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Let’s talk about the other Dreaming Spires songs on the EP. What inspired Harberton Mead and The Road Less Travelled? 

RB: Harberton Mead is a road in Oxford. I lived in Oxford for years and never knew the road – it’s full of gated mansions.

Some friends ended up living in a shared house there owned by the university, and the name stuck with me. It has a mystery to it, like Itchycoo Park or Penny Lane.

The Road Less Travelled was a song I had left over from the last album, but I wanted to record it at Ardent because it had a hint of The Ballad of El Goodo about it. The lyric is quite mysterious – even to me.

I think it’s almost a conclusion to the narrative on the first two albums, but not in any obvious way. It’s quite a trippy lyric.

I’ve read that the song Silverlake Sky was written on Sunset Strip, the heart of The Paisley Underground, and recorded in Oxfordshire using a ’60s Eko 12-string acoustic guitar. Can you tell me about how you wrote and recorded the track?

RB: Between 2004-2007 I wrote a lot of songs with Danny, my friend mentioned previously. He lived between Echo Park and Silverlake, at “the house on Elsinore”.

Our whole band would often stay at his house, with much drinking and many evening sing-alongs, but we also developed a songwriting partnership – both there and when he’d visit the UK.

I found the lyric in my notebook from those sessions but I couldn’t remember the original tune properly, so I approximated it and added the vocal part at the beginning.

When we wrote it we were envisaging a struggling Hollywood actor or musician with too much of a focus on the lifestyle. There were plenty of those around.

I can still recall the warm aromas of a Silverlake evening, and the glory of the Californian sunsets. Pretty exciting when you’re from Oxfordshire.

The allure was too much for our drummer, Jamie, who has moved to LA. He actually lived there before, when he was in another band.

We found a moment to record the song when he was here last summer, and the acoustic 12-string ties it in nicely with the other tunes. I actually bought it on impulse at one of Clubhouse’s Record Store Day events in Amersham a couple of years ago. A real bargain.

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The new EP is coming out on 12in vinyl. Are The Dreaming Spires vinyl junkies?

RB: We’ve always loved it, whether playing our dad’s collection as kids, collecting singles in the ‘90s, or picking up $1 classic albums in American thrift stores.

Our music tastes would be completely different without vinyl – the way it has allowed us to stumble upon discoveries. It’s not that convenient, and I probably listen to CDs more, but there’s something that gives you an instant artistic feel from the object. You can pass it around. I don’t get that from streaming, convenient though it is, and I still find the choice overwhelming.

Twelve inch vinyl works so well as an art object – I love coloured vinyl, too. This EP is going to be translucent purple, I believe. It’s a really nice end point for a recording project to see it on vinyl. I don’t agree with those who say they love the crackle of vinyl, though. Modern pressings are usually much better.

How’s the rest of the year shaping up for you? Do you have any festival gigs planned and any shows gigs in the UK or elsewhere?

RB: We’re doing some Paisley Overground shows with the excellent bands from side two of the EP – Co-Pilgrim, The Hanging Stars and The Raving Beauties – in London, Brighton, Didcot and Winchester.There are more extensive tour plans for the autumn coming together.

As you’re so prolific, surely you must’ve written another album by now?

RB: I have, or perhaps two! It’s certainly a new chapter. I think this EP is my sign-off from jangle. But I’m probably wrong…

Finally, what music – old and new – are you currently listening to and enjoying?

RB: I’m enjoying lots of the current crop of US songwriters, like John Moreland, Austin Lucas, Jason Isbell and Sam Outlaw.

I’m also listening to the Simon and Garfunkel box set, The Everly Brothers. Jimmy Ruffin’s Greatest Hits – when I can get it not to skip). The Lovin’ Spoonful. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Byrds – Untitled.

I loved the music performed by all our fellow nominees at the UK Americana Awards – it was a special night.

And, of course, the new albums by The Hanging Stars, Co-Pilgrim and The Raving Beauties. There’s plenty of good music out there….

Paisley Overground is out on At The Helm Records on June 10 on coloured 12in vinyl and download.

For more info: http://www.thedreamingspires.co.uk/

 

‘Making this record was intense – I was down in the basement on my own for long periods’

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National newspaper The Guardian recently described Peter Bruntnell as a cult hero – ‘an alt-country genius from Surrey’.

His new album, Nos Da Comrade, is one of my favourite records of the year so far and it’s also picked up rave reviews from publications including The Sun, The Mirror and Mojo.

Described by Peter as his most upbeat collection of songs ever, it opens with Mr Sunshine – a killer blast of Elvis Costello-like power-pop that’s an attack on Donald Trump: “an Agent Orange tan and a shiny suit.”

Elsewhere on the record, there’s an awesome, nine-minute, moody rock epic with heavy, Neil Young-style guitar riffing (Yuri Gagarin), the jangly, Teenage Fanclub-esque sounds of Rainstars and Fishing the Flood Plain and the gorgeous, melancholy, acoustic ballad End of the World.

Could this be the album that takes Peter Bruntnell into the mainstream? I spoke to him to find out…

 

How are you?  The last time we saw each other, I bought you the last pint of Guinness in the venue when you played a solo show upstairs at The Railway in Winchester, at the SC4M festival in 2014. You’re playing there again this year, on September 11. It’s always a good gig, isn’t it?

Peter Bruntnell: I’m fine thanks, Sean. Thanks for the Guinness! Yes, the Winchester gig with Oliver Gray [promoter / organiser] is always a highlight of any tour, what with the cheese, wine and whisky post-show party…

 

Congratulations on the new album – it’s superb. Let’s talk about the first single and the opening track, Mr Sunshine, which I first saw you play with your band at the 2013 SC4M festival.

It’s an anti-Donald Trump song and it deals with the issue of him destroying a Scottish fishing community in order to build a luxury golf resort. Can you tell me how the song came about? When and how was it written?

PB: I had the descending riff and a general idea of the tune before [co-writer] Bill Ritchie and I came up with the lyrics. It had an ‘anti-somebody’ vibe about it and I had recently seen the documentary about Trump and the golf course, so it was an easy decision to make.

It reminds me of classic Elvis Costello/New Wave power-pop. Is that the sound you were going for?

PB: I’m really glad people think it’s like Elvis Costello. I had The Kinks in mind, but I suppose it’s a similar comparison. It was an attempt to move to a sound that is less Americana and more Sixties guitar pop.

One of my favourite songs on the album is Yuri Gagarin. It’s almost nine minutes long – an epic. It’s very moody and features lots of loud, dirty, Neil Young-style electric guitar. Is that you on lead guitar? It’s an awesome sound…

PB: Yes – that’s me on guitar. First take luck, I think. It was just myself, Mick Clews on drums and Peter Noone on bass in a village hall – our mock studio.

We played all the songs live, together in the room, with headphones on, and my amp screened off in a cupboard. We played it once, listened back and knew I would never play the guitar like that again, so that was it. The vocals were overdubbed later.

What’s the background to the song, which is named after the famous Russian cosmonaut?

PB: Again, with this, I had the guitar riff first and the lyrics just came – eventually. Bill came up with a lot of them for this song and once we were in space, I had to make it about Yuri. I remember hearing about it when I was a little boy. What an amazing thing – the first man in space.

The opening riff dictates the vibe immediately – it’s atmospheric and stoned I suppose, although we weren’t…

I used a Valvepower 18 watt cage amp, which was made in Surbiton by a friend of mine. They are amazing amps – all hand-wired. I built most of it myself, with his supervision.

How did you approach the making of Nos Da Comrade? Did you have a bunch of songs written before you went to record the album? What kind of record were you setting out to make?

PB: Yes, all the songs were written and routined with drums, bass and myself. I wanted a live feel for the album, so we just set up. I miked all the instruments and played through the songs – simple.

It was different from my albums Peter and the Murder of Crows and Black Mountain UFO – they were more studio-produced and took much longer to make.

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You recorded and mixed the new album at home. Why did you go down that route, rather than use a producer and a studio?

PB: We used the village hall for one week, to get all the drums, bass and some guitar down. Then I went into my basement studio to overdub vocals and more guitars and keyboards etc. I did that because I have my own studio, so it’s economical and I like producing.

You worked with guitarist James Walbourne (The Rails, The Pretenders, Son Volt, Pernice Brothers, The Pogues) on this album. He’s a regular collaborator, isn’t he?

PB: Yes. I used James and Dave Little on guitars. James came down for a few days and we went through the songs that I thought would suit him. He’s such a talent and a good friend – I had to use him. Similarly with Dave – I split the songs between the three of us, so I could have different flavours on different songs. Dave is a killer guitar player, too. I’m lucky to know them.

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So, are you pleased with the album?

PB: I was really excited about the songs I had for this album. I have never had a batch of songs that are so upbeat before.

Once I was making the record, it got a bit intense – being so immersed in it and being down in the basement on my own for long periods. I think I may have lost perspective a few times, but now that time has passed, I can listen to the record with fresh ears and it sounds really good to me.

The record has had lots of great press and reviews, including Mojo, The Sun, The Mirror & The Guardian. The latter called you a ‘cult hero – an alt-country genius from Surrey’. How does it feel to be called a cult hero and a genius?

PB: I know one thing – Brian Wilson is a genius, but I am not. It’s good to have people write positive things though, that’s for sure.

What are your plans for the rest of the year? 

PB: We’ve got a UK tour in July – the London show is at the 100 Club on the 20th, which I’m very excited about, as I love that place.

We’re going to Ireland in early June for a few shows – Kilkenny being one of, if not the best, towns in the world. In September, we’re off to Sweden. I can’t wait to get back there – it’s really beautiful – and in October, we’ll be in Spain. I think the places one gets to visit when touring is what makes doing what we do such a blast.

After years of playing gigs and making records in the UK alt-country scene, do you feel that your new album could be the one that takes you to a wider audience? Would you like more mainstream success, or are you happy doing what you do?

PB: I would love to reach a wider audience, but with zero marketing budget and mainstream radio being what it is, I can’t honestly see it changing that much. I’m doing my best though – I’ve got a lot of positives to work on and, as a band, we are on a high at the moment.

Peter Bruntnell’s new album, Nos Da Comrade, is out now on Domestico Records.

For more information and tour dates, please visit http://peterbruntnell.net/

 

 

Welcome To The Institution

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Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution) –  the new record by singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a tragi-comic masterpiece that tackles the issues of mental health and care in the community.

A concept album that’s set in a ficticious long-stay institution called Silver Meadows, it’s an eclectic collection of songs that were inspired by working as a nurse and visiting his schizophrenic brother in hospitals during the 1980s and early ’90s.

It opens with the stately piano ballad The Institution and takes us on a journey through the corridors, offices and wards of the facility, introducing the characters who live and work in Silver Meadows.

There’s drug-dealing Gerald The Porter,  controversial new member of staff Andy, who’s ‘The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour’, and Albert – a troublesome inmate who causes all sorts of problems.

Musically, the record is richly rewarding, with New Wave pop, jangly, country-tinged guitar tunes, ’80s disco and psychedelic leanings.

I spoke to Vinny to get the full story behind the making of his new album…

 

Congratulations on Silver Meadows – it’s a wonderful record. Can you tell me about the background to it? Why did you choose to make a concept album about mental health issues?

Vinny Peculiar: Thanks for those nice comments – I’m so glad you enjoyed the album. The songs arrived out of nowhere in a two week spell at the start of 2014 – 20 in a three-week period, cut down to the 14 tracks on the record. I was on a bit of a roll. It was, of course, the last thing I expected to write about, after finally leaving the NHS after years of planning to. It’s set in a fictitious 1980s long stay institution – the kind of place I used to work in as a nurse.

The album opens with The Institution and the song addresses hospital gossip, nursing home parties, illicit band rehearsals, an abusive charge nurse, a drug-addled psychologist and women patients who were incarcerated just for getting pregnant. That’s a lot of issues for one song!  It was the first one I wrote for the album – it sets the scene and kick-started the rest of the writing.

So we also get new treatments and behaviour modification techniques  – Room Management and Self Help Skills Unit – and changes in practice – Community Care and Everyone Has Something to Say.

There are a couple of love stories – The Wednesday Club and Waiting Games – and in The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour, new staff polarise the workforce and challenge the old ways.

The song Hospital Wing was inspired by a young man I met when I started nursing. He was visiting his brother, who was dying on the hospital wing from a rare genetic condition. I can’t recall exactly which one, but, three years later, he was admitted to the same ward, where he too died, peacefully. He had so much dignity –  his story has never left me. I have made a video for Hospital Wing with a wonderful group of actors in Bream, in the Forest of Dean – they did a great job. It was fabulously directed by regular Vinny Peculiar collaborator Andy Squiff.

 

Considering the sensitive subject matter, was it difficult to write the songs? You don’t want to come across as patronising, or cruel, do you? How did you approach the record?

VP: It wasn’t a difficult subject to write about, but, on the other hand, it’s not an easy subject to explain in a succinct, press release kind of way. You’re right – the last thing you want to do is to patronise the people who actually lived through the era and experienced life in those places.

I’ve a lot of mixed memories – good and bad – from that period. I’ve tried to set out a balanced stall and stick to the plot, so when it’s sad, it’s sad and when it’s funny, it’s funny.

There are so many characters in the songs. Are they based on real people you knew? 

VP: The characters are stolen from memory, with requisite name changes, and they sort of wrote themselves. It’s a record of extremes, highs and lows, kindnesses and cruelties. I’ve changed names and switched a few details around to protect identities, but the essence of the songs are all true….

Your brother had mental health issues, didn’t he?

VP: My brother died in 2001 – he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I’ve written songs with mental health themes in the past.

Big Grey Hospital, which is on my album Whatever Happened to Vinny Peculiar? is about my brother’s admission to hospital and the powerlessness of families trying to make sense of it all.

Operation from Ironing the Soul has hospital overtones, as does Nurse of Year, so I have skated with mental health imagery in the past, but Silver Meadows is a more concentrated work.

What did you want to achieve musically with this record? It has a full-band sound and great arrangements. There are even some New Wave synths. Can you tell me about the recording process? 

VP: I’m really proud of the way it sounds – lots of experimental layers and instruments that I’ve not really used before. It was more of an experimental approach – even proggy in places – and it was crafted with love by David Marsden, in his Southport Studio.

I first met Dave when he managed Pearl Studios in Liverpool in the early ‘90s. Nowadays he has a successful career in film and TV music. We always said we’d do something together. It took us 20 years to get there, but here we are, and we’re exceedingly proud of the album.

Recording started with home demos, then band rehearsals with the rhythm section Bobby Kewley (bass) and Paul Tsanos (drums). They are both great friends of mine and are lovely players.

We recorded the rhythm section at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with Ian Lewis and Dave overseeing, and then I added most of the electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, and mandocello at Whitby, where I could crank up the volume. We did a few of the main vocals and took everything to Dave’s studio where the parts were edited and new vocals recorded. Dave added a few more guitars and other exotic bits and bobs, including the Moog parts. He’s a proper Moogaholic.

The title track is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a lovely country-tinged sound and I really like the twangy guitar licks and the gorgeous melody. Can you tell me more about the song, which sees a former patient from the institution returning to Silver Meadows, as he’s unable to cope with normal life?

VP: In the early days of community rehabilitation, it was typical for people to leave hospital and be left to fend for themselves in the outside world. However, without the right support, people would fail and return.

If someone has lived in an institution most of their lives, then they are going to need help to adjust, but they didn’t always get what they needed.

In the song Silver Meadows, a patient returns to what is familiar and where he feels safe – it offers some kind of counterbalance to the bad stuff that’s going on.

I’m glad you like the country twangs. Without wishing to go all Guitarist Magazine on you, that’s my Fender Telecaster Custom 1978 through a Silverface Fender Twin Reverb amp, circa 1976. Although, the star guitar on the record for me has to be my Rickenbacker 360 and what Dave christened the  ‘walls of jangle’. It gives it a psychedelic edge. Drummers, do please forgive my ramblings…

The song The Wednesday Club is a nod to ’80s disco, both musically and lyrically. I like the synths and the backing vocals. What were you aiming for with that track?

VP: The Wednesday Club is set in a learning disabilities hospital disco. It’s actually quite a sad song – in spite of its dance-ability. It’s a song about a couple that live in the institution. They do lots of jobs around the place and they’re really able, but no one is quite sure how they ended up there. They fall in love at The Wednesday Club – the hospital disco – but are ultimately separated when they are forced to move to different parts of the country in separate group homes, far away from each other. This happened in the early days of community care and the legislation that drove the hospital closure programme. When we recorded the backing vocals, it was like we’d joined The O’Jays….

There are some dark tracks on the album. The Back Wards is very menacing and disturbing… 

VP: In the old-style institutions there were always ‘back wards’, with the reputation of turning a blind eye to bad stuff.

By the time I was working in hospitals, these were much less prevalent, but cruelty and abuse is never far away when you have poorly trained and under-resourced staff with power over vulnerable people.

These things still go on today – look at Winterbourne .

I witnessed some abuse when I was a student nurse – there’s a reference to it in the song The Institution. It was an assault, but no one would sign witness statements, so the case was dropped and I was moved to another hospital to finish the module.

Are you planning to do a stage show / musical based on the album? How’s that project coming on?

VP: The stage play is, as they say, in development. We have characters and narrative and I’m working on the first draft with Liverpool writer Ian Salmon.

It’s very early days. We’ve had a couple of meetings and Ian is fleshing out the dialogue, so I’ve taken something of a back seat these past few weeks.

I’ve no idea how long it will take to finish the musical. We hope that by March 2017 things will have moved from concept to concert hall, but we’ll see…

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Will you be touring this album with a full band?

VP: Yes. I’m really looking forward to playing the album from start to finish with a full band. We have a couple of band shows in September, then, hopefully, more towards the winter. And the band will feature in the stage play musical too, if I can prize them away from their respective tribute bands…

Since the last time I interviewed you, sadly, David Bowie has passed away. You must have been very upset. He was a huge influence on you, wasn’t he?

VP: I was really saddened by his death. My generation is the Bowie generation – the alien on Top of The Pops generation. It was impossibly sad knowing his final album was a farewell gift – and that he was orchestrating his own finale, which was just so humble and so brave. He was a consummate artist – always exploring and reinventing – and I doubt we will see anyone else to compare him to in our lifetime.

And now Prince has gone, too… Were you a fan?

VP: I was a fan – not of everything he did, but there was so much to love, and he was such a prolific talent.

Sign of The Times and Sometimes It Snows in April… there are so many more songs. He was also an independent – his own person – and he stood up to the corporate music mogul world of exploitation and refused to play by Tickemaster’s rules. I loved him for all that, too.

What music  – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

VP: I like The National – Trouble in Mind is a beautiful record. I know they are not that new, but they are new compared to most of what I listen to. The new Coral album sounds interesting. The last album I bought was, rather predictably, Bowie’s Black Star on CD. I still buy CDs…

So what’s next for Vinny Peculiar? Would you like to make another concept album? Do you have any ideas for the next record?

VP: I hope to complete the recording project I started last year with Mancunian performance poet Tony Walsh – aka Longfella. I’m a big fan of his work.

I’ve also started writing songs based on local place names. I moved house last year and perhaps it’s my way of trying to make sense of it all…

 

Vinny Peculiar’s new album, Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution)  is released on June 6 on Shadrack & Duxbury Records.

For  more information, go to http://vinnypeculiar.com/

“I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album”

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Crime writer Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, is released in May and is based on murderous goings-on in a therapy session. I spoke to him about addiction, country music and sitting around in his pyjamas all day…

 

The last time we spoke, you’d just released The Other Half – your spoken word album with country band My Darling Clementine – and your most recent Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, had come out.

Now your new stand-alone novel, Die of Shame, is about to hit the shelves. Without giving too much away, what we can expect?

Mark Billingham: It’s a stand-alone psychological thriller and in some ways it’s a very modern take on the classic locked-room mystery, but my locked-room is a therapy group for recovering addicts.

There are six people in a circle who meet every Monday evening to talk about shame, which their therapist is convinced is the key to their problems with addiction and crucial in aiding their recovery.

One person in that group will die at the hands of another. Writing about addiction – a subject I’m fascinated by – enabled me to create a cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds, which is always an enjoyable challenge.

My best friend is a recovering addict and his experience and advice was hugely helpful. It’s a very different sort of novel from those in the Thorne series, but the bottom line is that it’s still a murder mystery and one I’m enormously proud of.

 

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Tom Thorne usually makes a cameo appearance in your stand-alone books. Will he crop up in Die of Shame?

MB: Yes, of course he will. And Phil Hendricks is in there as well…

Music is never far away from you and some of the characters in your books – particularly Tom Thorne. What were you listening to while you were writing Die of Shame? Have you heard any new albums that have blown you away? I’m loving Richmond Fontaine’s latest record and I know you’re a big fan of them…

MB: Well, like you, I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album [You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To].

It might even be their best yet, which is ironic considering that it’s almost certainly their last.

I’ve recently discovered Margo Price, who is just wonderful, and I’ve been really enjoying Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.

I’ve been playing a lot of M. Ward too, and when I really need to get into a dark place, I put on Gorecki’s Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs. That stuff makes Hank Williams sound like The Wombles!

There’s not too much music in Die Of Shame, because there isn’t much Tom Thorne, but like you say, it’s never very far away…

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I recently picked up the My Darling Clementine Record Store Day EP, which features As Precious As The Flame – a song you co-wrote with the band. It must be great to have a track you worked on out on vinyl?  

MB: Absolutely – it’s a real thrill. I’m very proud of that song, which I think is a wonderful ending to the album and the live show of The Other Half. It’s fantastic to see it on the My Darling Clementine EP.

You’ve been touring The Other Half with My Darling Clementine. How was it going out on the road?

MB: The tour was a lot of fun, but bloody exhausting. Whenever I complained about all the travelling, Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine would just say, “welcome to our world”.

I drove somewhere close to 7,000 miles doing the show, so now I’m appreciating the luxury of sitting at my desk all day in my pyjamas and not having to go further than the kitchen. I adored doing it, though. Michael and Lou remain a joy to work with and I’m very proud of the show we did.

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Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

Do you have any plans for some more musical collaborations?

MB: Collaborating is something I would highly recommend for anyone who works on their own most of the time.

Aside from the artistic benefits, it’s great to have someone to go for a beer and a curry with at the end of the day. I’m certainly up for doing something similar in the future, should the chance come along. Obviously I’m still waiting for Elvis Costello to call…

It’s going to be a busy year for you, as you’ve got some more gigs with My Darling Clementine planned, you’re promoting your new book in the UK and US and your novels In The Dark and Time of Death are being filmed for TV by the BBC. Can you tell us more about the TV adaptations?

MB: They’ve been filming for a week now and everything’s going well. Danny Brocklehurst has written four brilliant scripts and the BBC have put a fantastic cast together, so it’s really exciting.

Fans of Peep Show will be familiar with Matt King, who plays Super Hans, and it’s brilliant that we’ve got him playing Phil Hendricks.

Obviously, I’m going to spoil everything in a couple of weeks when I rock up to do my cameo, but I’m sure it will be fun.

The stories have changed a bit, as they should when you move from page to screen, and there’s no Thorne at all. The series focuses on Helen Weeks, and MyAnna Buring, who is playing her, is fantastic.

I’m sure some readers will be up in arms because the TV show is not exactly the same as the books, but how can it be? They are different animals and should be judged differently. I’m closely involved with the scripts and as an executive producer, so there’s nothing going on that I don’t completely endorse. We’re just trying to make the best TV show we can.

I fully expect my cameo to wind up on the cutting room floor, especially as I plan to ham it up shamelessly…

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Have you started writing the next Thorne novel yet? When can we expect it to be released and can you give us a teaser?

MB: Yes, I’m halfway through the next one. There’s a new detective in Die Of Shame called Nicola Tanner. In many ways she’s the ‘anti-Thorne’, so I’m having a lot of fun putting her and Tom together in the book I’m currently writing.

Fun is perhaps the wrong word, as I’m actually writing about a subject that is very dark. I don’t want to say too much at this stage – I don’t even have a title yet – but I’ve never felt angrier writing a book. I hope that turns out to be a good thing…

Following on from your appearances on TV quiz shows Pointless and Celebrity Mastermind, you’re going to appear on Eggheads, as a member of a team of crime writers. When can we see that? 

MB: I think it’s due to go out in September. I was part of a team of crime writers, alongside Val McDermid, Martyn Waites, Doug Johnstone and Chris Brookmyre. It was a lot of fun. I’m not allowed to say how we got on against the Eggheads, but I would urge people to watch!

Finally, can you recommend any good books, other than Die of Shame?

MB: Chris Brookmyre’s newest book Black Widow is fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed David Hepworth’s book about the music of 1971 – Never A Dull Moment.

Another non-fiction recommendation would be Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari. It’s a brilliant history and detailed dissection of the war on drugs and I guarantee it will change everything you ever believed about addiction.

It’s absolutely fascinating and a huge eye-opener.

I’m currently reading John Connolly’s new Charlie Parker novel, A Time Of Torment, which is as sickeningly brilliant as usual. If I didn’t like him as much, I’d hate him…

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, will be published in the UK by Little, Brown on May 5 and in the US by Grove Atlantic on June 7.

For more information, visit http://www.markbillingham.com/

 

 

 

Doctor in the house

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[Photo by Michele Siedner]

 

Out There, the new solo album by Dr Robert, frontman of pop-soulsters The Blow Monkeys, is a stripped-down, acoustic affair that was recorded on an old eight-track Tascam tape machine at his home in deepest Andalucia, Spain. I had an appointment with the Dr to find out how this raw and rootsy record came about…

With the new album, you’ve said it’s all about the groove of the songs – there are no middle eights, key changes or bridges. Why did you take that approach to this record?

Dr Robert: It was because I used a lot of open tunings on the guitar, which deliberately restricted my options. I wanted to avoid my usual progressions. I might try an album of just middle eights next…

It’s a very rootsy and primal record in places. Tracks like All The Way Back Home and Rack and Ruin are down and dirty, bluesy grooves, and there are some jazzy vibes on the album, too. (Lost in Rasa). Were you influenced by artists like Tim Hardin and Fred Neil, whose work you’ve covered in the past?  

DR: Well, people like Hardin and Neil are part of my DNA now, so I tried not to edit myself. I just let it flow, like I was jamming in my kitchen.

 

One of my favourite tracks on the album is A Bottomless Pit. I think it sounds like Jacques Brel doing Johnny Cash. Can you tell me more about this song? Where did it come from?

DR: I don’t know where songs come from. That was an effortless one. Sometimes they come along fully formed. I was lucky.

For this record, you worked with drummer Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski, piano and accordion player Jos Hawken and saxophonist, Joe Degado. How did you hook up with those guys?

DR: They are friends. Richard goes way back. He’s a proper gent and an inspiration and he’s been in bands with both Strummer and Lydon, which is good enough for me! Jos is young and blessed with an innate calm and special talent. They both live nearby, so I always had them in mind.

What was the atmosphere like when you made this album? Was it loose and laid-back? From listening to the record, it certainly sounds like it…

DR: I tended to record the ‘takes’ in the morning. My voice works better then – especially on the low notes. I was alone most of the time. I was doing a take, then running to the tape machine to stop the tape unwinding!

How did writing and recording the album at home in Spain affect the sound of the record?

DR:I live in the mountains, south of Granada. Landscape and environment have always been a major inspiration. And smells. From the sugar beet on the Fens, to the orange blossom of the Lecrin Valley.

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[Photo by Michele Siedner]

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with acts including Paul Weller, Curtis Mayfield, PP Arnold, Beth Orton and Kym Mazelle.  Do you have any great memories from any of those collaborations? Is there anyone that you’d like to work with?

DR: They have all taught me something. Curtis was a humble soul. The best always are. I’d like to work with Tom Waits.

Out There is your tenth solo album. After more than 30 years in the business, do you feel like a prolific solo artist, or will you forever be a Blow Monkey? How does it feel now, looking back on your days as a ’80s pop star?

DR: I’m a prolific Blow Monkey. The ‘80s were the last great ‘pop’ decade. Things have changed. Mostly for the better.

How did it feel when you reformed The Blow Monkeys in 2007? Why did you decide to come back? Was it a case of unfinished business and how was it when you got back together to play and make new records? 

DR: I missed being in a band, but I wanted to make new band music. We are a strange mix. We all love different music, but we never argue. We’re a slightly dysfunctional family – like all the best bands.

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Any news on The Blow Monkeys? Do you have more new material or gigs planned?

DR: There are lots of gigs up on our website  and a new album proposed for spring 2017. I’m writing some punky soul anthems right now.

The Blow Monkeys were known for their left-wing political views. Does it seem strange to you that nowadays more mainstream artists don’t use their music to convey political views, or protest against wrongdoing or unjustness? 

DR: Some still do. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake was a masterpiece in my opinion and Beyoncé did a fine thing at the Super Bowl.

There’s a track on your new album called I Ain’t Running Anymore, yet, after more than 30 years in the business, you seem to be busier than ever. What’s your secret?  You had a health scare a while back and you quit drinking. What effect has that had on you? Are you in a good place?

DR: I don’t have a secret. Just keep your eyes open and your lips pursed. I try to remember how it felt to hear Ride a White Swan for the first time. My whole world opened up.

What music – new and old – are you currently listening to and enjoying?

DR: Old – Bukka White. New – Kendrick Lamarr.

Finally, how ‘out there’ are you?

DR: Not enough, yet. I’m working on it.

 

Out There by Dr Robert is released on May 2 (Fencat Records).

For more information, go to http://www.theblowmonkeys.com/

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