London-based alt.country band Dead Flowers have made one of the best albums of 2013. Recorded late at night, in wintry conditions, Midnight At The Wheel Club is a collection of dark, intimate, haunting and confessional songs, inspired by gravel-voiced singer/songwriter Ian Williams’ travels through New York and Montreal. I spoke to Ian to find out more about the record, which he describes as ‘like a morbid, little dinner party – if you mess with the seating plan, it will all fall apart’.
Congratulations on Midnight At The Wheel Club. As I understand, it began to take shape in 2011, when you were travelling in America, during the winter. Can you tell me more about your travels and how your experiences inspired your songwriting?
Ian Williams: There were a few trips that have all blurred into one for me, but, to cut a long story short, the travels included time in Austin – for the SXSW festival, a few days in New York and lots of time spent in Montreal. In New York and Montreal, I was lucky to be able to stay in people’s apartments, rather than hotels, which really helped in terms of getting into a groove and feeling like you are living somewhere, rather than just passing through. Songs crept up in the most unexpected places, on the beach (Coney Island), in a Laundromat (Montreal) and on various rooftops. We visited Coney Island in early spring, so all the rides were shut down and it was pretty much deserted. There was a spooky, jarring beauty about seeing a funfair and the rickety old Wonder Wheel at that time of the year – it was a bit like a tree with no leaves. I started writing the song Wonderwheel right there on the beach and the name crept in. I guess I just liked the way it sounded.
What about The Wheel Club that the album takes its title from? Where is it? Are you obsessed by wheels?
IW: There’s no use in denying it. I am a wheel obsessive. The Wheel Club is an old time country club / working men’s club on the outskirts of Montreal. On a Monday night they have a hillbilly night, which has been running since 1966. It’s sort of an open mic arrangement, but with a house band and some pretty hardcore rules – you can only play songs written before 1966 and there are no drums and no electric instruments allowed. It’s a wild night, with lots of line dancing, big pitchers of beer and an amazing selection of snacks. On my second visit, I plucked up the courage to get up and sing a Hank Williams song with my good pal Ragged Dick . We were kind of lousy, but the old folks were very kind to us. If I could only recommend one place to visit in Montreal, The Wheel Club on a Monday night would win hands down.
So, is the new record a concept album? If so, how would you describe it?
IW: Most of the songs were born out of travelling, but it’s possible a couple of them came out of some dark corner back on dry land, too. I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album, but I definitely think the songs belong together. It’s like a morbid, little dinner party – if you mess with the seating plan, it will all fall apart. Actually we had to throw a few of them out fairly early on, as they just weren’t getting on.
There’s a dark beauty to the record. It’s very intimate and atmospheric. What were your intentions when you set out to make it?
IW: A lot of the records I admire have an immersive quality and I think a lot of that is down to the way they are sequenced and how things open up and ‘pay off’ as you travel through them. We aimed to make an album which flows naturally and will keep someone’s attention and maybe let them lose themselves a little for half an hour.
Although the album is largely melancholy in tone, a song like Fences is hopeful. I’m thinking of the line, ‘the songs that I write give me a chance to survive.’ Do you see music as your saviour?
IW: Your question made me think of the Wilco song Sunken Treasure: “Music is my saviour, I was maimed by rock and roll. I was maimed by rock and roll. I was tamed by rock and roll. I got my name from rock and roll.” I don’t think I can put it better than that, so I’m not going to try.
Supernova is one of the most moving and saddest songs I’ve heard all year. How did it come into being?
IW: If you watch a lot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos while going through a breakup, then these things can happen. It’s a pretty grandiose statement, so I have no choice but to stand by it completely.
Your song The Beach is like an Irish, funereal sea shanty. Although it deals with death, it has a spiritual, uplifting feel…
IW: It’s another song that was conceived on Coney Island. It found its way back to the UK, had a rest and then flew out to Montreal, where our friend Christopher Fox played the pump organ parts and then went on to mix the song. He brought it to life so much that we knew he was the man to help us finish this album. The string arrangement from Emily McGregor lifts it out of the doldrums and gives it a gleam of hope.
So, did you form Dead Flowers after your travels? How long have you been writing songs and were you in any bands before this one?
IW: Well this is my second ‘proper record’ – the first was an EP called Bible Black Heart, which I released under the name Ian Williams. It came out in 2009 and you can hear it here.
For a while after that, we played shows as Ian Williams and The Dead Flowers, but when it came to making this record, I wanted to steer things away from the whole singer/songwriter thing. There has been an ever-changing and revolving cast of players involved in the music over the years, all of whom I am massively indebted to. I think we are finally finding some stability though and the challenge of representing the album live is a rewarding experience.
What was the process of recording the new album like? How did you capture that late night, wintry sound? It’s the perfect record for this time of year…
IW: Well, we recorded an awful lot of the album late at night, often in pretty wintry conditions. Scott Fitzgerald, who played keys and bass on most of the record, and who was also involved in the engineering and production, is something of a night owl. The sessions in his studio in Bath often wouldn’t start until early evening and we would record through until the early hours. Pretty much all the vocal takes were done very late at night and the version of Pan which ended up on the album was recorded between about 3am and 6am.
We tracked the drums at a studio called The Pool, in South London. All the drum recordings were done in one day, which was a big challenge, but the sound engineer, Ben Thackeray, did an amazing job and our drummer Richie Harwood is a very patient man. All the strings, a lot of electric guitar and some of the vocals were recorded in my home studio in London. Fortunately, we have pretty deaf neighbours, so I think they were quite oblivious. Finally, we spent some time at Christopher Fox’s studio in Montreal, where we tracked vocals and did the pump organ and the mixing. We actually worked remotely with Christopher on the final mixes, sending files over to him via an FTP and then sending back notes and tweaks for his mixes. Given the number of different locations, engineers and players involved, Christopher did an amazing job in mixing it into such a fully-formed, complete sounding album.
Musically you’ve been compared to artists such as Mark Lanegan, Lee Hazlewood, Lambchop and Leonard Cohen. Are they all influences on you? Who are your musical heroes and influences?
IW: Let me get this out of the way first – I don’t really care for Lee Hazlewood. I just can’t quite get into him. Maybe one day I will realise how wrong I was. Lambchop are a huge influence – we got to open for them in Leeds earlier this year and it was one of the most magical nights of my life. Kurt Wagner [from Lambchop] sat and watched the whole of our set, which has encouraged me more than I can say. Scott and I are both big admirers of Leonard Cohen and especially like his later recordings. I think the Ten New Songs album he put out, which is almost entirely MIDI in terms of instrumentation, is a work of genius. Ethan Johns and Ryan Adams working together has resulted in a collection of albums I have found to be massively influential. I go back to albums by Sharon Van Etten, Justin Townes Earle, Devon Sproule and Yo La Tengo a lot at the moment. They’re all very different in terms of their sound, but they all make immersive, interesting albums.
By pure coincidence, Dead Flowers is the title of my favourite Rolling Stones song. Did that tune inspire your band name?
IW: Not in a massively conscious way, but we certainly wouldn’t be called Dead Flowers if the song didn’t exist, so I guess I’ll have to say yes.
What are your plans for Christmas? Are you a fan of the festive season?
IW: I’m looking forward to a trip back to Wales, to see my family, eat a lot of meat and have some epic nap time. I can’t wait.
So, how do you see 2014 shaping up for Dead Flowers?
IW: Hopefully some big, established band will dig our fresh new sound and take us out on a world tour. We will aim to get into a studio early in the New Year and knock out the next album pretty quickly. The last one took a year to make, so I am hoping we can speed things up a little this time around.
What are your ambitions for Dead Flowers?
IW: If I keep practising guitar at my current rate – around one hour a week – then I should be ready to play my first guitar solo in Dead Flowers in about five years’ time…