“The Clash made me want to be in a band”

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Young, Liverpool guitar band Sugarmen are one of the most exciting, new live acts I’ve seen in ages. Think early Arctic Monkeys, but with a Scouse charm and the thrill of The Libertines. And if that isn’t sweet enough, they’ve got cocky songs about scene queens and eating dirty kebabs.  I spoke to their 19-year-old lead guitarist – and Roddy Frame/Edywn Collins look-a-like – Chay Heney to find out more…

It was great to see you play live at Alan McGee’s 359 Music show at the District club in Liverpool recently. You were the best band of the night – you blew me away…

Chay Heney:  It was great. We have been together for about nine months, but in the last few weeks we seem to have settled in to ourselves. When we started, we had so many ideas and they were all floating around, giving us a sort of identity crisis, but it’s all glued together into one thing now. As a band we’re surer of our sound and a lot tighter live. I’m sure our sound will continue to develop, but it’s a lot easier to take control of it now. At the 359 gig, it just all seemed to come together for us. We were all buzzing after it.

What was it like to play for Alan McGee [ex-Creation Records head honcho]? Is he someone you admire?

CH: Yeah, completely. I think out of all the bands he has been involved with – signing or managing – we all love a few each. I’m a big fan of Creation. For me, Primal Scream are a band that really changed what I thought you could do with music – and I’m not even of the same generation. Screamadelica is genius. I know our bassist Ali is a huge My Bloody Valentine fan. It was really nice [at the District gig] because I could see Alan nodding along to the songs when I was on stage and he came and said hello after we played.

Can you tell me how the band formed?

CH: We’re all from Liverpool, except our token Southern member, Ali, who is from Hammersmith. Before we formed Sugarmen, me and Luke, who was my dad’s friend’s son, had been hanging round for a while. We both had a bunch of songs, so we started recording them in my house and working on each other’s.

The guys who now run District [Milk] had these nights in the top floor of a building on Bold Street – it was packed and sweaty and it had a kind of anything goes vibe. It was brilliant. They would have bands on – they put Alt-J on long before anyone else did.

We started hanging round with Ali there and we would stay until the early morning and get on the instruments together, playing The Clash and The Stooges after everyone had left. I bumped into him in The Grapes one day  – not the one on Mathew Street – told him about starting a new band and he was in… A few weeks later at another Milk party, Luke introduced me to Sam, who he had met a few times at Milk, and then we had a band…

We found this really cheap, huge room above a computer shop and below a private kebab shop, where these guys would just sit around playing backgammon and occasionally rowing and breaking each other’s noses! But they were pretty good landlords overall… I nailed up loads of old sheets and fabric and then we had a place to practice and eat Pot Noodles.

When I saw you play live, I was struck by the amount of great songs that you already have. Dirt was a highlight for me – I think it would make a great single. It’s a killer pop tune. Can you tell me more about that song?

CH: I’d been humming a melody that I thought could be played on trumpets – maybe on another song – and then it just seemed to make its own song.  I guess you can take what you want from it, but it’s half about doing something you shouldn’t and getting in a bit of shit for it – or going in search of a bit of trouble maybe – and half about good and bad and things not being black and white.

Circuit Queen is another good tune. Is it about anyone in particular, or can’t you tell me?

CH: Ha ha! Aye. Well, you would have to ask Luke about that one. I’m not saying I know if it is or it isn’t … but if it is, you would have to ask him… There’s something a bit glam about it, I think.

Who writes the songs?

CH: Well, when we started, we had a set of songs that me and Luke had written, but, over time, we have started playing some of Ali’s songs and I know that Sam has a few, too. We all contribute our own thing to each other’s songs anyway. We’re in the middle of writing a load of new songs.

You’ve just been doing some recording, haven’t you? How did that go? Can we expect a single or an album soon?

CH: We have something on Soundcloud that we did when we hadn’t been together for too long and we did a demo in London, too. I think the session you’re talking about was for a single – yeah. We have just had a few days working with Steve Levine [The Beachboys, Culture Club]. That was great.

Who are your musical influence and heroes?

CH: We have thousands. Everything – The Clash, Dylan, My Bloody Valentine, Orange Juice, Bowie, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Phoenix, The Kinks, The Beatles, Arctic Monkeys, Aztec Camera, Mott The Hoople, Rodriguez, Foals, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Nirvana. My heroes are The Clash, man. I was lucky enough to get to play with Mick Jones and hang out with him a few times. The Clash made me want to be in a band.

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Looks-wise, Chay, you remind me of a young Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera) or Edwyn Collins (Orange Juice)…

CH: Well, they are two of my favourite bands, so maybe I’ve pinched something from then….  I love that whole look. The way Edwyn Collins came back after what happened to him was amazing [He had two strokes, which left him unable to walk, talk or sing].

What’s the music scene like in Liverpool at the moment? Is it a good city for new, young bands?

CH: It’s really good at the moment. It feels as if there is a bit of a scene building up. Liverpool has had quiet periods in its musical history, but every now and then we catch the attention of everyone. I can feel something bubbling up. It shows something that Alan McGee has decided to start a night here and with the development of the Baltic Triangle housing; there are plenty of creative, arty farty types, including ourselves. It’s all good news for Liverpool. All the bands seem to know each other and we’re all doing slightly different things, too. No one is treading on anyone’s toes. It’s a good time to be in a band here.

Sugarmen are:

Luke Fenlon – Lead vocals & guitar

Ali Horn – Bass & vocals 

Sam McVann – Drums

Chay Heney – Lead guitar & vocals

For more information, visit: https://soundcloud.com/sugarmenuk

Facebook page.

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INTERVIEW: “I’m not very rock and roll. I’ve been known to pass out after three pints of home brew”

Once described by Uncut magazine as the Tony Hancock of pop music, Manchester singer-songwriter and poet Vinny Peculiar has a new retrospective album – The Root Mull Affect –  out early next year. It comes hot on the heels of his recent project Parlour Flames, a collaboration with ex-Oasis guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs. I spoke to him about troubling issues including a phobia of hairdressers, the death of the mail order catalogue and which is more important – pop music, football or girls?

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Can you tell me more about your new album The Root Mull Affect, which is out on Cherry Red in February 2014? What can we expect?

Vinny Peculiar: It’s effectively a compilation record with remixes and a couple of unreleased tracks. It seemed like a good way to introduce people to the songs, as there’s quite a big back catalogue out there. Cherry Red also released the Parlour Flames album earlier this year. David Marsden mastered the album and did several of the remixes. It was a tough job picking the tracks to include. Ultimately it was determined by which songs we still had audio masters for, as these things tend to get lost in the vaults of studio time. I’m also mid-way through recording a new album proper, which I hope to have finished in time for a summer release. So, busy times ahead…

I’m intrigued by the title. Can you please shed some light on it?

VP: The title comes from a song of mine called Root Mull [from the album Growing Up with Vinny Peculiar ] – it’s a story song about a graffiti artist who sprayed havoc in the village I grew up in. Nobody knows his or her identity. It was my first ‘art can change the world’ – or at least upset your parents – moment – and it seemed appropriate. Of course, the track didn’t make the compilation…

Sometimes I Feel Like A King, from the new album, is a beautiful, acoustic song, which celebrates the simple, everyday pleasures of life. Can you tell me more about it?

VP: It’s the title track of an album I did at Analogue Catalogue Studios in 2009 – I just recorded the acoustic version for the new album. The verses are lists of things, simple pleasures celebrated in spite of everything: listening to music, taking the kids to the park, reading a book – little joys. The chorus is sing–a-long simplicity. It’s a celebration of life, in spite of the darkness that lurks within. The title came from the Bukowski poem Fire Station. I love his work.

The Hairdressers – also from the new record – is a sinister song about the perils of going for a haircut. Do you have a phobia of hairdressers?

VP: I did have a bit of a fear. Trichophobia – I think that’s the word for it. Now I have someone who’s comes to the house, but I still get all picky and paranoid. The hairstyle I really want never seems to materialise and the more I think about it, the less changes I make. I do the poem live at smaller gigs – it’s become something of a comedy ice breaker.

Your song A Vision also features a haircut reference – albeit copying Terry Hall’s style in ’84. Maybe you should do a concept album about haircuts/ hairdressers.?

VP: Yeah, perfect. I also have a poem called Grooming Products Divide the Generations. I like the concept album approach.

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So what can we expect from your new studio album that’s out next year? How’s the recording going?

VP: I recorded the bass and drums with Che and Ollie from Parlour Flames last month. I’ve just moved my studio gear, which has taken forever to set up again, but over the next few weeks I’ll be recording the vocals and guitars. Rob Steadman, who I’ve been doing solo shows, with, also plays on it. Lyrically the album seems to be harking back to the Growing Up with Vinny Peculiar days, with songs about the decline of the mail order catalogue (Catalogue Trousers) and coming from a little place in the middle of nowhere [English Village]. There’s a tribute to Michael Jackson and a piss take of Antony Gormley.

Earlier this year, you released the fantastic Parlour Flames debut album – one of my favourite records of 2013. Can you tell me more about how you and Paul Arthurs – Bonehead from Oasis – came to work together and form Parlour Flames? What’s it like being in a band with him?

VP: We were friends for a while before starting Parlour Flames. I met him through Mike Joyce [ex-The Smiths], who was drumming with me at the time. Bonehead joined my band for a European tour. Before that he managed the Vinny Peculiar band. Mostly it’s business as usual being in a band with him – recording, rehearsing, playing gigs and organising stuff – but every once in a while there are reminders of his previous band and how much they meant to people. I tend to forget just how huge they were…

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Pop Music, Football and Girls by Parlour Flames is a great pop song, outlining most men’s passions in life. I love pop music and girls, but I never got into football… Have you got any advice for me?

VP: I grew up being taken to Villa Park for all the home games and I was an OK footballer at school, so football culture came early…That said, I stopped going to games and I lost interest for a good 20 years, before finally getting back into it through a shared interest in Aston Villa football club with my daughter. Now I’m back in the supporters’ zone and I’m going to games when I can and sharing the highs and lows… If you didn’t grow up supporting a team I’d suggest you shop around and, even better, go local. I used to go and watch Bromsgrove Rovers years ago and that was a strangely rewarding time – they don’t come any more unknown than that!

Which is the most important: pop music, football or girls?

VP: Hmm, yes – the holy trinity of hurt. You can feel let down, thrilled, elated and abandoned by them all at any given time. If I had to prioritise I’d say girls, but only because my girl is likely to read this. Hah!

Is Lonely Girls and Horses – one of my favourite songs on the Parlour Flames album – based on anyone in particular? I think it could be the only pop song to mention ‘gilet’. The half-rhyme of ‘maggots and ‘foreign language’ is a stroke of genius and always makes me laugh…

VP: I’ve had that song for a while, and it’s funny you should mention gilet – it comes up as ‘gullet’ on the spell checker, which always tickles me. When I was playing the song a few years back with the English Crumpet [Amy Smith – before Parlour Flames] we laughed long and hard at that… It’s a song about teenage shyness and fear, lost in the mists of time. The shy girl in question is now happily married and living in Stourbridge, so my mother tells me. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be…

Too Soon The Darkness (from the Parlour Flames album) is one of the most poignant, affecting songs about death that I’ve ever heard…

VP: Again, I’d had this song for a while, I played it to Bonehead and he loved it. It was one of the first songs we recorded for the album. It’s a tribute to my late uncle, the jazz musician Jim Wilkes, who was a big influence on me – he died in 2006. He was always taking us on adventures as kids, and was really supportive of my musical endeavours. He was an inspiration, for sure.

Who are your main influences and songwriting heroes? At times, the Parlour Flames album reminds me of  The Go Betweens. Is that a fair comparison?

VP: Well, I have their Liberty Belle record [Liberty Belle & The Black Diamond Express] so I’m aware of them. I see what you mean – they are quite lyrical, they jangle pretty well and I used a Rickenbacker a lot on the Parlour Flames album. My songwriting heroes change from week to week – Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Ray Davies, Luke Haines, Bowie, Bolan and Slade. I love John Cooper Clarke, Leonard Cohen, Mark Linkous, Paddy McAloon, Tom Verlaine and The Velvet Underground.

Were you upset by the recent death of Lou Reed?

VP: I am a big fan of the Velvets. I love the almost childlike quality of the songs. Nico is kind of otherworldly – Sunday Morning and Femme Fatale. And Transformer, of course, is a classic. Some of the more latter day Lou stuff left me a bit cold, but I still enjoy the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal record – the live one. Those are proper rock guitar heroics on Sweet Jane. It’s one of the best things to cover if you ever find yourself in a rock covers band, as I have, intermittently, over the years.

Have you read Morrissey’s autobiography yet? Will you? Is it the talk of Manchester?

VP: I’m about 140 pages in – he’s up to The Smiths and carping about contracts. I’m enjoying it – no one should expect the truth and nothing but. It’s a creative process and he’s nothing if not entertaining. The start of the book might as well be set in the 1870s as the 1970s. He does a mean old line in Victorian melodrama and the hardships of his early life are presented as Dickensian melodrama. In short, I’m liking it, and, yes, almost everyone I know has bought it.

I first met you at The Luminaire, in Kilburn, a few years ago, supporting Luke Haines. It was a great night. Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon [from The Smiths] were in your band and Bonehead was managing you, if I recall correctly….

VP: Oh, yes – that was a great little gig. It seems a while since that band. I love Luke Haines’ work, I did a support tour with him a few years ago. He was very nice – the perfect gent.

You’ve worked with lots of people in your career – several of whom have been in big bands. Have you ever fancied being a famous rock star, or are you happy with being more of a cult artist? 

VP: I think most people in the writing/performing/recording industry fancy reaching wider audiences and I’m no different. As for rock stardom, well a few more record sales would be a start and we’ll take it from there…

What’s the most rock and roll thing you’ve ever done?

VP: I’m not very rock and roll. I’ve been known to pass out after three pints of home brew. Reefers – I love that word – give me a migraine! I’ve tried hard over the years to emulate the great writers, by drinking to excess and drugging like there’s no tomorrow, but all to no avail…

For more information, please visit www.vinnypeculiar.com

INTERVIEW: “I get compared to Rod Stewart. It’s a compliment if it’s Maggie May, but not if it’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

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Nick Piunti’s new album 13 In My Head is an instant power pop classic. High on harmonies, hooks and killer choruses, and with nods to The Beatles, Cheap Trick, Redd Kross, The Replacements, vintage Rod Stewart and  Fountains of Wayne, it’s guitar-heavy heaven. I spoke to Nick about the making of the album and why when a song just seems to fall out of the sky, you need to be there to catch it…

Congratulations on your latest album 13 In My Head, which is one of my favourite records of this year. I only stumbled across it recently, when I heard your song It All Comes Down on the Paul McCartney-inspired, power pop compilation CD, Songs In The Key of Paul, which came free with the November issue of Mojo magazine.  It made me want to track you down and find out more. And here we are…

Nick Piunti: Thanks so much. The CD received the reception I was hoping for. I definitely was pleasantly surprised when Mojo contacted me.

You’re in great company on the Mojo CD – Squeeze, Robyn Hitchcock, Cotton Mather, Redd Kross… Not bad, eh?

NP: Yes, great company indeed.  When we were making 13 In My Head, I would bring different CDs in for my producer Geoff Michael to listen to. Cotton Mather’s Kontiki and Redd Kross’s Researching the Blues were two I remembered. To be included on a compilation disc with both bands from albums that we listened to in the studio was pretty cool.

So, first things first, are you still 13 in your head? 

NP: Well, I would say anyone my age that still has the nerve to write and record a rock record probably still has some of his teenage years left in him. I’m a lot nicer and mellower than I was at 13, though. The title actually came from a comment from one of my friends on Facebook. I posted something about working on a song with my buddy Ryan Allen, in his basement, and my friend commented, “What? Are you 13?”  And my response was: “In my head”. Twenty minutes later, the song was born…

Can you tell me more about the background to the album?

NP: Well, The Respectables [Nick’s old band] called it a day and I went on a bit of a writing spree. A good friend of mine – Ryan Allen – and I got together at my place and I shared some songs with him, which led to some quick collaborations.

For a brief moment we toyed with the idea of having a band, rather than a recording project. We were going to be called Two Eugenes, but Ryan was rather busy with his other band and solo project and was soon to become a father for the first time. So I continued to map out the songs, but was successful in getting Ryan in the studio for half the songs on the record.

When were the songs, written, demoed and recorded?

NP: All of the songs were written between spring 2011 and early 2012, with the exception of the title track, which was written in early 2013.  I actually demoed the songs on Garageband, using my iPad. The same tempos were used for the final recordings, but instead of my crude drum loops, Donny Brown (The Verve Pipe) came in to play drums. I sent him my demos – there were no rehearsals – and he just nailed it.

I think we did six songs on the first day (in May 2012), then recorded another six in July of 2012. The song 13 In My Head was recorded in early 2013.  I felt like I needed one more rocker for the album.  As songwriters, we always think the latest song is the best one…

What’s your songwriting process like?

NP: Songwriting is something I’ve been doing since I was 13, or younger. I write everything with my acoustic guitar, at my kitchen table. I find that when I pick my guitar up, the first thing that I stumble across usually leads to the next song. And when a riff and melody is accompanied with a lyrical idea at the same time, well, those are usually the best and easiest songs to write. When the song just seems to fall out of the sky, you need to be there to catch it. Sitting down trying to force a song doesn’t usually work for me. What I would get is something ordinary and uninspired.

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Who are you main influences?

NP: Since I’ve been making music for so long, my influences change throughout the years. Of course, there’s some music that sticks with you forever, like The Beatles and The Stones, but I’ve also been knocked out by The Raspberries, Slade, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty – I used to sound way too much like him – Crowded House, The Plimsouls, The Replacements and Fountains of Wayne. The list goes on….

What are you into at the moment?

NP: I’m currently listening to the new Superchunk album, I Hate Music. Frank Turner’s new one is great, but I’ve got to watch out playing that one in front of my ten-year-old because of all the ‘f bombs’ he drops! I’m a big Mike Viola fan – he’s one of the best pop singer songwriters in my book. Redd Kross’s last record was great, but I would have liked to hear the vocals a touch louder in the mix.

Sometimes your singing voice sounds like Rod Stewart. Is that a compliment? I’m reminded of Paul Westerberg at times, too…

NP: I get the Rod Stewart comparison quite a bit. It’s a compliment if they’re thinking Maggie May, but not if they’re thinking Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? Paul Westerberg is one of my big influences for sure.  I also get Bryan and Ryan Adams – no relation – as comparisons. I like the latter. I’ve also heard Mike Viola and Ian Lloyd (The Stories, Brother Louie). So any comparison means they’ve listened to my music, which is the idea.

Where did you record the new album?

NP: Almost all of the recording was done at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Geoff Michael.  I did make a one-day excursion to Andy Reed’s studio in Bay City to do some harmonies with Donny Brown and Andy Reed in early 2013. I felt like a few of the songs could use some of their input.  The vocal harmonies for Good Thing Going and Farewell, Goodbye were recorded there, as well as some keys and a couple of guitar overdubs.

What was your approach to this record? What did you set out to achieve?

NP: Well, my approach was to record the best recent songs that I had at the time. I knew there was a small community of power pop music lovers that would get what I was trying to achieve. I had some success in that market with The Respectables and since I was heading into a bit more of a pop direction with the new record, I figured it would be well received.

Also, with The Respectables we landed a couple of song placements – one in a network television drama and another in the film Jeff Who Lives at Home. So the thought of future song placements was also one of the reasons to make another record.  Writing songs and recording them is what I do.  I was happy with how easy it was writing the songs for this album.  It doesn’t always come so easily. And I guess I felt like I wanted to prove that I could get better with age.  Being in a band is great, but sometimes it’s better to grab the wheel and take charge. Of course, I was smart enough to have some great musicians bring the songs to life.

There are so many records released these days, because the technology is available and because it can be relatively cheap, but to get any attention and actually sell music is another thing. So, realistically, I’m not going to quit my day job – we have a restaurant, so it’s a night job as well. Spreading the word about my music without a publicist is a challenge, but I’ve been lucky in that regard. Selling CDs around the world is awesome. With all the free music out there, for someone to pay for it is quite a compliment.

The new album has a great sound – instant killer melodies and big, bold production that grabs you straight away. Can you tell me more about the band, the playing and your guitar sound, etc?

NP: Hey, thanks. Yeah. I like melodies, lyrics that don’t embarrass, and for things to sound good. It’s a fine line on production. I still want it to sound real – not too slick and with a touch of rawness – but lo-fi recordings with vocals buried in the mix are hard to listen to over and over for me.

Geoff Michael was responsible for the sound of the album. Having a drummer like Donny makes certain that the drums are going to sound good. I definitely wanted the drums a bit more up in the mix than on The Respectables records. I feel we were a bit too guitar-heavy on those releases.

I used my Rickenbacker 360 and Les Paul Junior for the majority of the record. Ryan also used those guitars for his parts as well.  I used an old Matchless amp – it sounds like a Vox AC 30 on steroids.

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Sleeping On The Pavement is a big, snarling rock tune, with lots of attitude. It’s one of the heavier tracks on the album…

NP: It’s the hardest rocking tune for sure.  A real simple riff with a lot of overdrive double tracked. That song is kind of a knock to the whiners out there with their hands out, wondering when they’re going to get their due. Work for it, man. I sound like an old man now, don’t I? For a time I thought it was a bit too heavy for the album, but I’m glad I included it.

On The Way Out is pop perfection – one of my favourite songs on the album. I love the ‘bah-bah-bah backing vocals…

NP: I wanted to see how poppy I could get without being too over the top. The  ‘bah bah bahs’ make everything more pop.  The first line was about a friend who’s always on the cutting edge of what’s hip, but I changed the theme into a relationship thing. Hopefully everyone has a cool friend that can turn you on to new things, bands, etc. So, even though the song has a negative vibe, it started out as an observation about a friend.

You used to be in The Respectables. What can you tell us about those days? You split up in 2011…

NP: The Respectables began as a songwriting and demo project with Joey Gaydos and myself. Joey has been around the Detroit scene for years and played with Rob Tyner (MC5), Cub Koda (Brownsville Station) and had some success with his own bands. Joey played guitar on my solo album from 2002 and we became good friends. Some thought Joey and I were an unlikely match, as his previous bands were much heavier than mine, but his tastes are varied and with me he could bring out his pop chops.  So we recorded a couple of CDs. The second one, Sibley Gardens, was the one that caught the ear of the power pop geeks.

Our drummer Donn Deniston helped bring that record closer to power pop territory. It was also the first time I worked with Geoff Michael at Big Sky.  We did some overdubs there and he mixed it. The three of us would hash the songs out together and it was a fruitful, creative time.  We recorded a three-song EP in 2010, but it was obvious that we creatively peaked with Sibley Gardens and that we were probably better suited as being a recording project than to try to make a buzz playing live. There wasn’t anywhere to go by bashing out in the small clubs.  Been there, done that…

You started out by playing in Dwarf and The Take. Were they good times?

NP: Well, Dwarf was my first band. We started out as sixth graders at a talent show and ended up moving to California, as The Take. We were thinking we’d be the next Plimsouls, while the next big thing was actually Poison. We were disillusioned to say the least. We were the wrong band for the times. So, yeah, we starved in L.A, but we didn’t want to give up too early. After two years, I came back to Michigan. Michigan looked a lot better after two years in L.A, which is a great place if you’re rich, but not if you’re another struggling rock band. So, Dwarf was my youth and The Take was us becoming adults and getting a big dose of reality.

Dwarf started out playing Junior High school dances, with little girls screaming and love letters from fans – we were learning to play our instruments. It was a great time and I wouldn’t have missed it, but we were like so many other young bands that thought ‘no way would we not make it big one day’.

So what’s next for Nick Piunti? Are there any new songs on the horizon? Can we expect another solo album soon?

NP: Well I have a family – three girls and the most amazing, awesome, gorgeous, understanding and (did I mention gorgeous?) wife ever, who encourages me to keep doing what I love. So yeah, if the songs keep coming to me, I’ll keep making records. I have a few songs left over from the last album that will make a good start for the next.  And I have a lot of unfinished tunes that are a bit softer – more pop, less rock – which may see the light of day. Winter is usually my creative time  – it’s too cold in Michigan to play golf, so we’ll see what the winter brings…

13 In My Head by Nick Piunti is out now.

For more information, go to www.nickpiunti.com

INTERVIEW: Gun Club Cemetery

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Gun Club Cemetery are fronted by Alex Lowe, the gravel-voiced singer from ’90s indie rockers Hurricane #1.

Signed to Alan McGee‘s new label 359 Music, their self-titled debut album is out this month. From snarling, ’50s-inspired rock & roll, to heartfelt, piano-led ballads and country tunes, it’s a solid record, with Lowe in fine form.

The Hollow Face of A Shallow Man rides pillion with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Sunset Shadows is autumnal, psychedelic pop and Dead Inside is a widescreen road trip anthem, with warm Hammond organ and big, Neil Young-style guitars. 

I spoke to Alex Lowe to find out how it feels to be back in a band and what it’s like working with his old boss Alan McGee again…

Congratulations on the debut Gun Club Cemetery album. How does it feel to have made it and to have it out there? It’s the first record you’ve released in a while…

Alex Lowe: It feels great, Sean. It is the first record in a while, so I’m glad I made it. I think it turned out well. It only took ten days to record, but it doesn’t feel rushed. I think the songs sit well together and are very strong. It has something for everyone on it.

It’s co-produced by Steve Ransome, who also plays keyboards and bass on the album. He’s worked with you on your solo albums, hasn’t he?

AL: Yes. Steve is a genius piano and keyboard player – I’ve known him for almost 30 years.

There’s some great piano on the album – very rock & roll…

AL: Yes – some old time Jerry Lee Lewis stuff. I love the ‘50s era for music, so I dabbled a bit with that sound.

It’s a very varied album – good, old-fashioned rock and roll, big, melodic ballads and country-rock/pop…. What were your inspirations and what were you listening to while you wrote and recorded it?

AL: I was listening to Townes Van Zandt, John Denver, Johnny Cash, The Who, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Sunset Shadows is quite trippy and psychedelic, with its backwards guitar effects. What inspired that song?

AL: I think I was watching a lot of ‘60s cult movies when I wrote that.

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The Hollow Face of A Shallow Man and Needle Aside are great rock and roll tunes. Can you tell me more about them?

AL: Hollow Face… only took around 20 minutes to write – it came out of nowhere, really. Needle Aside is about a girl I know from LA. She lost her boyfriend to a gunshot and she became a junkie not long after…

There are some big ballads on the album, too. I like Before Sunrise – it’s gorgeous.

AL: It’s my favourite track on the album. Alan McGee told me to go and write another ballad and that’s what came out. I was listening to Otis Redding when I wrote it.

Dead Inside is my favourite song on the record. Can you tell me more about it? 

AL: Yeah – it’s about street life as a kid – growing up, the fights, the girls, the guns, being in a bad place and trying to escape.

After being solo for so long, what’s it like being in a band again? 

AL: It’s great. I love playing live and I think having a band is the best way to do Gun Club Cemetery.

So, is it fun to be working with Alan McGee again?

AL: He is the best. The guy hasn’t lost it one bit. In fact, I think he is more turned on by music now. It’s great.

Can we expect some live dates from Gun Club Cemetery soon?

AL: Yes – next year.

  

Gun Club Cemetery’s debut album is released on 359 Music – out on November 11. For more information, visit www.359music.co.uk

INTERVIEW: “I like clunky, odd records”

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Richard Warren’s new album Rich Black Earth – the third in a trilogy – is one of the most atmospheric, moody and nakedly emotional records of 2013, evoking Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen, with its stripped-down, dark, back to basics feel.

Drawing on raw blues, country, and eerie, echo-laden ’50s twangy guitar, it’s a perfect soundtrack for the wee small hours of the morning. I spoke to him about how he creates his ‘primitive soul’ music.

Congratulations on the new album, Rich Black Earth – it’s a brilliant record. Your last album, The Wayfarer, was my favourite long-player of 2011, so it’s great to be able to have a chat.

Can you tell me how you recorded the album and how you achieved such a raw, atmospheric sound?

Richard Warren: Thanks for the kind words on the album. I record all the songs in a small room at home. I’ve got a really primitive studio setup in there. I’ve been downsizing the equipment for years now. The less choice I have, the clearer and more focused the songs seem to be.

I’m down to just a two-track reel-to-reel tape machine, an old spring reverb and a tape echo. The tape recordings are pieced together in Pro Tools. It’s a very clunky, odd system, but I like clunky, odd records.

So, what was the recording process like? 

RW: It’s taken me about 20 years to fully realise that ‘the song’ is king. So I spend as much time writing and as little time recording as possible. I think the best producers understand that getting a record to ‘sound nice’ is not really that important. Essentially, we emotionally connect to words, melody and performance, not production values.

Like its predecessors Laments and The Wayfarer, it’s a very moody and dark record in places. How do you capture that vibe? 

RW: Thankfully it comes pretty naturally. I never dim the lights to ‘get the vibe going’ and all that kind of thing… There’s no science to getting the perfect take. You have to keep playing and listening until you hear something that makes one particular performance special.

In my experience that something special is usually a mistake – a crack in the voice, an out of time drum fill – anything that pulls your ear really. I tend to hang mixes on the string of errors in a performance.

There are some pretty out of tune guitars on old Stax records and that’s all part of the deal. Steve Cropper’s guitar solo on Green Onions [by Booker T and the M.G.s] comes in way too loud, for some, and you can hear the engineer whip the fader down. It would have taken another two minutes 55 seconds to fix, but I love that they left it on the final master. It’s the most exciting part of the song.

You get some extraordinary sounds from your guitar, such as on Ox and Rivington Street (eerie, ‘50s style, twangy instrumentals, which kick off the new album and its predecessor, The Wayfarer, respectively). What’s the trick to getting those effects and what inspired those tunes?

RW: The ‘surf’ instrumentals have become favourites with a lot of people, especially live, and, weirdly, they’ve been received well by radio. I initially included them to pull me away from being tagged as an acoustic folk-picker. There’s no real trick to the sound, though – an old guitar and amp, as much echo and wobble as you’ve got and crank it up!

This record is very stripped-down – more so than some of the songs on its predecessor. Was that your intention when you set out to make it? How did you approach this album?

RW: These days I record everything with the intention of it being a lone guitar and vocal performance. If they stand up on their own in that form I’ll leave them like that. It’s a tough discipline to crack – it’s much easier to throw the kitchen sink at everything.

My theory is that the stronger the composition and the better the basic root performance of the song, the more it will repel overdubbed instruments. They used to call it ‘sweetening’ a mix in the old days. Just give me the meat and potatoes…

There’s a soulful feel to this record. In places it reminds me of Bruce Springsteen, circa Nebraska – particularly on a track like Know.  Is that a valid comparison?

RW: Yes, primitive soul. I’m a big Springsteen fan and for me Nebraska is his masterpiece. There’s definitely a connection in the underlying blue-collar aspect of the songs. And I suppose in the fidelity of some of the recordings.

Is it true that the new album is intended to be the third in a trilogy? If so, please elaborate….

RW: I thought if I put that statement out there it might hold me to some sort of future musical shift. To me the first three albums are in black and white. I’d like to make a colour record.

Looking at some of the track titles on the new album – Flowers, Rot and Rust, Rich Black Earth, Ox, Weeping Tree, The Berry and The Thorn – I was wondering if this is your getting back to nature album?

RW: I’d not planned it that way, or, to be honest, even noticed the correlation. I like the idea though, and I have been downsizing recently, so maybe I am unconsciously getting back to the land…

Flowers is a gorgeous country shuffle and one of my favourite tracks on the album. Can you tell me more about that song?

RW: I got the opening lines, ‘I only tell of sunny hours, let others sing of storms and showers’ from an inscription on an old park sundial. It’s such an inspiring couplet. If you’re lucky enough to stumble across something as strong as that, the rest of the song will usually flow out really easily. It’s one of those songs that on a good night seems to plays itself.

What music are you currently into? What were you listening to when you were writing and recording Rich Black Earth?

RW: Nick Lowe’s The Convincer, At My Age and The Old Magic are top of the pile and always on constant repeat. I’m looking forward to his Christmas album. Also, Willie Nelson’s Teatro, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, Elvis Costello’s The Delivery Man, Tom Waits’ Bad As Me, Mark Lanegan’s Blues Funeral and Dylan – from Time Out Of Mind to Tempest.

My best album of 2013 would be Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood’s Black Pudding – a 21st century blues album with no retro edge. It’s incredible.

So, what’s next for Richard Warren? Any live dates this year or next? What would you like the next record to sound like? Have you got any ambitions to fulfil?

RW: Just to hang in there making music full time would be enough, to be honest. I’d love to get on the road, but I don’t have an agent, manager or label, so it’s almost impossible to get any good live work in.

And finally, if you were the Lonesome Singer In The Apocalypse Band (a song from Richard’s second album The Wayfarer), who else would you want to be in the band with you?

RW: Nick Lowe on bass and Jim White on drums. Job done.

Rich Black Earth by Richard Warren is out now. For more information, visit http://www.richardwarren.info