Down The Bright Stream – the new album from Manchester singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary. I asked him about growing up in an English village in the ’70s, catalogue trousers and poking fun at sculptor Antony Gormley.
The last time I interviewed you was in 2013, to promote your compilation record, The Root Mull Affect. At that time, you were also working on your new studio album – Down The Bright Stream. Now it’s finished and it’s out in March. How do you feel about the new record?
Vinny Peculiar: It feels really good to have finished it – a sense of relief even. I ended up using a few studios in the never-ending quest for sonic perfection…
It’s a fantastic album – wry, amusing and very moving at times. The record is steeped in nostalgia and memories – several of the songs deal with your childhood and growing up in the ’70s. The opening song English Village, which reminds me of The Kinks, is all about the place where you spent your early years. Where did you grow up?
VP: I grew up in a little place called Catshill – an English village in north Worcestershire. Well, it was more of a village back then, but it’s acquired a new estate since and an Indian takeaway, so it’s expanding.
My early childhood was based around church life – my family are Methodists – granddad was a lay preacher, dad a church organist and my cousins taught at Sunday School. I was in the Boys’ Brigade and I did Bible studies. Hymns were the first music I really heard and took part in – I still really enjoy singing hymns. I’m an atheist who enjoys the rituals of religion, if that makes sense. I’m a Methodist atheist lesbian trapped in a man’s body!
Where did the title of the album come from?
VP: It’s from a lovely little book by B.B – the story of the last gnomes in England. We had it read to us at primary school – happy days. I name check the book in English Village, along with Stig of the Dump, another school days classic…
There’s so much detail in your songs… Do you keep diaries, or do you just have a great memory for recalling experiences, people and places?
VP: I kept diaries as a teenager, but they were nothing to write home about, mostly just day to day activities – ‘I went to school, had a bath’ – that kind of thing. I’m often writing from memory – my memory is fairly good, although not always as accurate as I imagine. Of course, I have a propensity towards exaggeration. Don’t all writers?
As an observational singer-songwriter, you’re up there with Ray Davies. Are you a fan?
VP: Sure – yes. He’s such a great observer – still writing, still working and still believing. He’s truly inspiring and his newer stuff is great too, not just the classics. Have you heard Working Man’s Cafe? It’s wonderful.
Your song The King of Pop is a tribute to Michael Jackson – were you a fan of him, too?
VP: I was a fan of sorts – yes. Not a massive, full-on, love is blind kind of a fan, but more an appreciative, at a distance, respectful outsider fan – especially Off The Wall and Thriller.
The song The King of Pop is really a comment on the freak show that his life became and how we were all party to it – the public and the media. We killed him…
Who were your musical heroes when you were growing up? You’ve always been a big Bowie fan, haven’t you? Do you like his new stuff?
VP: My first love was Simon & Garfunkel, then came Bowie, Slade and T.Rex. Then I got into harder rock – Wishbone Ash and Black Sabbath. I then got into The Kinks and Joni Mitchell – Joni was a revelation.
The new Bowie stuff is great, although I wish he’d ditch those huge ‘80s drum sounds – they really annoy me. I love writers, too – Charles Bukowski, Keith Waterhouse, Richard Brautigan, Rick Moody, Alan Bennett, Henry Rollins… There are so many.
Your song Catalogue Trousers celebrates the mail order catalogue and name checks pianist entertainer Bobby Crush. The Internet has killed off the mail order catalogue, hasn’t it? Discuss…
VP: I wrote Catalogue Trousers after reading a piece on the demise of the mail order catalogue industry and the relentless march of the Internet. It just set me thinking about how important the catalogue was to our family, and to young boys’ emergent sexuality. Clothes, records and cameras – you could get anything from the catalogue. My grandma really did say I looked like Bobby Crush – she was a big fan of the crimplene crooner.
What has been your worst fashion faux pas?
VP: A cravat in bright orange, with a curtain ring neckpiece, circa 1974.
Your song Antony Gormley is a tongue-in-cheek, Pythonesque dig at the sculptor and his nude male statues on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. Do you really hate his work? What do you think he’d make of the song?
VP: I think he’s an interesting artist. I don’t hate his work. I think the impact of the men on the beach is kind of spectacular. In the song, I’m just looking at it from a simplistic viewpoint, devoid of all artistry and cool. I’m sure he’d see the funny side…
Is Girl At The Bar – one of my favourite songs on the album – aimed at anyone in particular? Is it based on a real encounter?
VP: It’s loosely based on a night out I had a couple of years ago, when I met a girl with a lust for life – some way beyond by own limitations. I felt like Billy Fisher [from Billy Liar] loitering on the platform by the milk machine. I never saw her again…
Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted the new album to sound like and what its themes would be?
VP: I was unhappy with some of the initial recordings, so that impacted on newer songs being added. It started off as one collection of songs but morphed into another record over time – I think it’s stronger for that.
I Only Stole What I Needed, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and Antony Gormley were recorded some time after the rest of the album, in a different studio. Three songs from the initial sessions didn’t make the cut. I ended up doing the production myself in collaboration with various engineers, so it took longer than expected.
Special thanks should go out to The Gadget – aka Jonathan Hurst – who played a blinder in the patience and fortitude department. I very nearly drove him over the edge. David Marsden mastered the album – his attention to sonic detail is something else.
How was the recording process? Can you tell me more about making the record?
VP: The drums [Che Beresford] and bass [Ollie Collins] were recorded at Eve Studios, Stockport and then I took the files away and I added guitars, keys and vocals at home and in various studios. Rob Steadman also added keys and a couple of tracks were recorded using my Liverpool band Paul Tsanos [drums] and Bobby Kewley [bass, cello].
The recording process was a bit disparate and the majority of the mixes I settled on were completed at Gadgets Lab, Manchester – three tracks were recorded mixed at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with resident engineer Ian Lewis.
Jah Wobble [PIL] plays bass on the last track The Doo Kum Inn. How did that collaboration come about?
VP: Neil McDonald [ex-Puressence] plays on three tracks. He was adding guitar parts to his Roland machine at South City Music in Altrincham, when Jah Wobble came in the shop. Jah liked the track and ended up playing bass on it. I need to thank him properly…
So, what are your plans for the rest of this year?
VP: We’re doing a festival headline show in June at Fylde [FRRfest – Lytham, Lancashire – June 18-21: www.frrfest.com]. I’m excited about that – an extended band show. There will also be more gigs and recording.
The next album is written – it’s called Silver Meadows – Fables from the Institution. It was inspired by me working in learning disability and psychiatric hospitals in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I start recording soon and it should be finished by the summer.
I’m hopeful Silver Meadows will also become a stage play. I’ve drafted some basic script ideas and I’m looking around for collaborators/backers. It’s early days, but I’m excited by what I have so far, so we’ll see what transpires.
In 2013 you released an album with ex-Oasis guitarist Bonehead [Paul Arthurs] under the name Parlour Flames. Can we expect another Parlour Flames record in the future?
VP: Unlikely in the short-term, but you can never say never for sure. I did write several songs with a new Parlour Flames record in mind. One of them, which is called The End, made it into my solo shows for a while and will emerge on future Vinny Peculiar recordings, I’m sure.
Finally, are there any artists that you’d like to write and record with?
VP: I’d love to collaborate with John Cooper Clarke. He’s a bit of a hero of mine and he only lives down the road. I quite fancy myself as a bit of an Invisible Girl, if you follow…
Down The Bright Stream by Vinny Peculiar is released on March 30 (Shadrack & Duxbury Records).
Forthcoming Vinny Peculiar UK shows
Feb 18 – RMA Tavern, Portsmouth
Feb 27 – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Mar 21 – The Crescent, Salford (album launch)
Mar 25 – Death 2 Disco, Silver Bullet, Finsbury Park, London
Apr 10 – The Cinnamon Club, Bowden
May 2 – John Peel Centre, Stowmarket
June 19 – Macbeth, London
June 20 – Fylde Rock ‘n’ Roots Festival 2015, Fylde Borough