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.
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.