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 Andalusia, 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/

out there small

 

 

Songs of a Preacher Man

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Evangelist, by singer-songwriter Gavin Clark and Brighton-based duo Toydrum (Unkle musicians and production team James Griffith & Pablo Clements), was one of my favourite albums of last year, but it very nearly never saw the light of day…

Gavin, who was a member of the bands Sunhouse and Clayhill, and whose music featured in several Shane Meadows films, including This Is England, died in early 2015, before the record was completed. Owing it to their friend, James and Pablo finished the album and it was released late last year.

At times dark and unsettling, but also uplifting and spiritual in places, it’s a concept album that’s loosely based on Gavin’s life – he battled demons including anxiety, depression and alcoholism – and tells the tale of a preacher who loses his way.

His journey is soundtracked by brooding electronica, swirling synths, folk music, Krautrock rhythms, Beatles-like psychedelic grooves and heavy dub basslines.

I spoke to James Griffith to get the inside story on the making of the album – a record, which, he tells me, he couldn’t listen to for weeks after it was finished…

How did you and Pablo first come to work with Gavin?

James Griffith: Pablo started working with Gavin on the Unkle album War Stories. I first met Gavin and Pablo when I was hired as the touring bass player for Unkle in June 2007 – Gavin was touring with Unkle. They were such good times – we all hit it off immediately. Gavin sang on some of the first demos that I wrote for Unkle – it was always so easy to work together.

Sadly, Gavin died in early 2015. How far into the Evangelist project were you when that happened?

JG: We were really far into the project. We all started writing it together in 2011 and were chipping away at it slowly over the years.

Unfortunately there were setbacks along the way. We were taking on other projects to keep our studio – and ourselves – afloat.

Gavin was doing some of his own touring off the back of his Beautiful Skeletons record and as time went on, it got harder and harder to see the wood for the trees and to figure out, big or small, what the finishing touches were.

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Original photos by Lucio Cavallari/ Kenny Mcracken

 

How you did you manage to carry on with the project? Did you feel like you owed it to Gavin to get it completed and put it out there? 

JG: Right before Gavin died, we found out that Shane Meadows was using three of the demos for  This Is England ’90. We had been hitting walls with the album for a while and then this…. It was the perfect platform to release the album and we couldn’t miss the window. It was going to be finished no matter what.

Gavin had gone to see a couple of the episodes [of This Is England ’90] days before he died. So we just carried on with the plan to finish the album, as we had when Gavin was alive, but now it had also turned into the ultimate tribute.

Are you pleased with it? What do you think Gavin would think of it if he was here to hear it?

JG: Yes – we’re really pleased with it. There are always things that you wish you’d done different, or that you could’ve done better… Hindsight is 20/20. The main thing for us was whether Gavin would like it and I think he really would have. He’d be so proud.

The record is a concept album, loosely based on Gavin’s life. Can you elaborate on that? What was the original idea behind it?

JG: I think Gavin always wrote about things that were personal to him – whether it was his own life, or about people close to him. When Gavin came up with the idea of the preacher, it seemed to happen naturally. While he was writing lyrics, it was flowing so well. It wasn’t until later that Pablo and I realised all the similarities to Gavin’s real life. Let’s just say Gavin’s life was very complicated…

It’s a very dark, edgy and unsettling album at times and it’s also quite psychedelic. What kind of record were you setting out to make?

JG: At first we just started writing demos with Gavin that were very stripped-back. That was when the concept of the preacher first came about, with the lyrics and the story coming together. I think it was then that Pablo and I realised the direction that we wanted to give it musically. We just followed the narrative of the story.

What was the recording process like?

JG: After the demos, which we did in my flat, we had just finished building our studio. For the first time, we were in control of everything being recorded. We were recording drums on our own for the first time, as well as many other things. It was a big learning curve, but I think we got a very unique sound from it.

My favourite song on the record is the haunting Whirlwind of Rubbish. It’s one of the more stripped-down songs on the album. What can you tell me about that track?  

JG: It’s such a classic Gavin track. I think this was recorded with one mic – Gavin singing and playing live – and then we just added some textures.

In the story, the evangelist has attempted to come back to the church, but is shunned. It’s the last moment before his final downfall and near-death experience. Gavin could explain it a lot better than me.  Have a listen and it should speak for itself.

Know One Will Ever Know reminds of when The Chemical Brothers and Noel Gallagher collaborated. It sounds like The Beatles’  Tomorrow Never Knows, but with a modern edge. Is that a fair comment? What were you aiming for with that song?

JG: That is a very fair assessment of the track – I’d say the latter of the two more so. This was one of the last tracks written. We had a beat, I was playing a bassline and Gavin just stared singing these melodies and the next day, he wrote the song. It’s about the preacher’s illegitimate son – his struggle between hiding that and also the love and guilt he felt for his child. It had to be up and intense. Someone described it as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows on steroids.’

We never set out to write a song that had any reference to Tomorrow Never Knows – it just kind of happened. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s one of the best Beatles tracks, in my opinion.

 

 

How does it feel listening to the album now, after Gavin’s passing? Is it a difficult experience for you? 

JG: I couldn’t listen to it for weeks after we finished it. I was too close to it and couldn’t hear it with a fresh perspective. I only heard mistakes and what we could have done different.

You’re always hard on yourself after you finish something and especially with this – it was very emotional, as you can imagine. But slowly, after people started saying they loved the record, it took the pressure off.

I can now dip in and out and have a listen and enjoy it. I think of Gavin and smile. He would have loved the record.

So what are Toydrum’s plans for 2016?

JG: Keeping the Evangelist alive. We’ll start work on our own album, as well as producing some others. We’re working on a new film for Alice Lowe and we have a few more scores on the horizon. Hopefully it will be a busy year.

 

Evangelist by Gavin Clark and Toydrum is out now on Underscore Collective.

www.toydrum.co.uk

www.underscore-collective.com