Welcome To The Institution

hi res vin outdoorshootstevieo 058

Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution) –  the new record by singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a tragi-comic masterpiece that tackles the issues of mental health and care in the community.

A concept album that’s set in a ficticious long-stay institution called Silver Meadows, it’s an eclectic collection of songs that were inspired by working as a nurse and visiting his schizophrenic brother in hospitals during the 1980s and early ’90s.

It opens with the stately piano ballad The Institution and takes us on a journey through the corridors, offices and wards of the facility, introducing the characters who live and work in Silver Meadows.

There’s drug-dealing Gerald The Porter,  controversial new member of staff Andy, who’s ‘The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour’, and Albert – a troublesome inmate who causes all sorts of problems.

Musically, the record is richly rewarding, with New Wave pop, jangly, country-tinged guitar tunes, ’80s disco and psychedelic leanings.

I spoke to Vinny to get the full story behind the making of his new album…

 

Congratulations on Silver Meadows – it’s a wonderful record. Can you tell me about the background to it? Why did you choose to make a concept album about mental health issues?

Vinny Peculiar: Thanks for those nice comments – I’m so glad you enjoyed the album. The songs arrived out of nowhere in a two week spell at the start of 2014 – 20 in a three-week period, cut down to the 14 tracks on the record. I was on a bit of a roll. It was, of course, the last thing I expected to write about, after finally leaving the NHS after years of planning to. It’s set in a fictitious 1980s long stay institution – the kind of place I used to work in as a nurse.

The album opens with The Institution and the song addresses hospital gossip, nursing home parties, illicit band rehearsals, an abusive charge nurse, a drug-addled psychologist and women patients who were incarcerated just for getting pregnant. That’s a lot of issues for one song!  It was the first one I wrote for the album – it sets the scene and kick-started the rest of the writing.

So we also get new treatments and behaviour modification techniques  – Room Management and Self Help Skills Unit – and changes in practice – Community Care and Everyone Has Something to Say.

There are a couple of love stories – The Wednesday Club and Waiting Games – and in The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour, new staff polarise the workforce and challenge the old ways.

The song Hospital Wing was inspired by a young man I met when I started nursing. He was visiting his brother, who was dying on the hospital wing from a rare genetic condition. I can’t recall exactly which one, but, three years later, he was admitted to the same ward, where he too died, peacefully. He had so much dignity –  his story has never left me. I have made a video for Hospital Wing with a wonderful group of actors in Bream, in the Forest of Dean – they did a great job. It was fabulously directed by regular Vinny Peculiar collaborator Andy Squiff.

 

Considering the sensitive subject matter, was it difficult to write the songs? You don’t want to come across as patronising, or cruel, do you? How did you approach the record?

VP: It wasn’t a difficult subject to write about, but, on the other hand, it’s not an easy subject to explain in a succinct, press release kind of way. You’re right – the last thing you want to do is to patronise the people who actually lived through the era and experienced life in those places.

I’ve a lot of mixed memories – good and bad – from that period. I’ve tried to set out a balanced stall and stick to the plot, so when it’s sad, it’s sad and when it’s funny, it’s funny.

There are so many characters in the songs. Are they based on real people you knew? 

VP: The characters are stolen from memory, with requisite name changes, and they sort of wrote themselves. It’s a record of extremes, highs and lows, kindnesses and cruelties. I’ve changed names and switched a few details around to protect identities, but the essence of the songs are all true….

Your brother had mental health issues, didn’t he?

VP: My brother died in 2001 – he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I’ve written songs with mental health themes in the past.

Big Grey Hospital, which is on my album Whatever Happened to Vinny Peculiar? is about my brother’s admission to hospital and the powerlessness of families trying to make sense of it all.

Operation from Ironing the Soul has hospital overtones, as does Nurse of Year, so I have skated with mental health imagery in the past, but Silver Meadows is a more concentrated work.

What did you want to achieve musically with this record? It has a full-band sound and great arrangements. There are even some New Wave synths. Can you tell me about the recording process? 

VP: I’m really proud of the way it sounds – lots of experimental layers and instruments that I’ve not really used before. It was more of an experimental approach – even proggy in places – and it was crafted with love by David Marsden, in his Southport Studio.

I first met Dave when he managed Pearl Studios in Liverpool in the early ‘90s. Nowadays he has a successful career in film and TV music. We always said we’d do something together. It took us 20 years to get there, but here we are, and we’re exceedingly proud of the album.

Recording started with home demos, then band rehearsals with the rhythm section Bobby Kewley (bass) and Paul Tsanos (drums). They are both great friends of mine and are lovely players.

We recorded the rhythm section at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with Ian Lewis and Dave overseeing, and then I added most of the electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, and mandocello at Whitby, where I could crank up the volume. We did a few of the main vocals and took everything to Dave’s studio where the parts were edited and new vocals recorded. Dave added a few more guitars and other exotic bits and bobs, including the Moog parts. He’s a proper Moogaholic.

The title track is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a lovely country-tinged sound and I really like the twangy guitar licks and the gorgeous melody. Can you tell me more about the song, which sees a former patient from the institution returning to Silver Meadows, as he’s unable to cope with normal life?

VP: In the early days of community rehabilitation, it was typical for people to leave hospital and be left to fend for themselves in the outside world. However, without the right support, people would fail and return.

If someone has lived in an institution most of their lives, then they are going to need help to adjust, but they didn’t always get what they needed.

In the song Silver Meadows, a patient returns to what is familiar and where he feels safe – it offers some kind of counterbalance to the bad stuff that’s going on.

I’m glad you like the country twangs. Without wishing to go all Guitarist Magazine on you, that’s my Fender Telecaster Custom 1978 through a Silverface Fender Twin Reverb amp, circa 1976. Although, the star guitar on the record for me has to be my Rickenbacker 360 and what Dave christened the  ‘walls of jangle’. It gives it a psychedelic edge. Drummers, do please forgive my ramblings…

The song The Wednesday Club is a nod to ’80s disco, both musically and lyrically. I like the synths and the backing vocals. What were you aiming for with that track?

VP: The Wednesday Club is set in a learning disabilities hospital disco. It’s actually quite a sad song – in spite of its dance-ability. It’s a song about a couple that live in the institution. They do lots of jobs around the place and they’re really able, but no one is quite sure how they ended up there. They fall in love at The Wednesday Club – the hospital disco – but are ultimately separated when they are forced to move to different parts of the country in separate group homes, far away from each other. This happened in the early days of community care and the legislation that drove the hospital closure programme. When we recorded the backing vocals, it was like we’d joined The O’Jays….

There are some dark tracks on the album. The Back Wards is very menacing and disturbing… 

VP: In the old-style institutions there were always ‘back wards’, with the reputation of turning a blind eye to bad stuff.

By the time I was working in hospitals, these were much less prevalent, but cruelty and abuse is never far away when you have poorly trained and under-resourced staff with power over vulnerable people.

These things still go on today – look at Winterbourne .

I witnessed some abuse when I was a student nurse – there’s a reference to it in the song The Institution. It was an assault, but no one would sign witness statements, so the case was dropped and I was moved to another hospital to finish the module.

Are you planning to do a stage show / musical based on the album? How’s that project coming on?

VP: The stage play is, as they say, in development. We have characters and narrative and I’m working on the first draft with Liverpool writer Ian Salmon.

It’s very early days. We’ve had a couple of meetings and Ian is fleshing out the dialogue, so I’ve taken something of a back seat these past few weeks.

I’ve no idea how long it will take to finish the musical. We hope that by March 2017 things will have moved from concept to concert hall, but we’ll see…

VINNYWEBCOVER

Will you be touring this album with a full band?

VP: Yes. I’m really looking forward to playing the album from start to finish with a full band. We have a couple of band shows in September, then, hopefully, more towards the winter. And the band will feature in the stage play musical too, if I can prize them away from their respective tribute bands…

Since the last time I interviewed you, sadly, David Bowie has passed away. You must have been very upset. He was a huge influence on you, wasn’t he?

VP: I was really saddened by his death. My generation is the Bowie generation – the alien on Top of The Pops generation. It was impossibly sad knowing his final album was a farewell gift – and that he was orchestrating his own finale, which was just so humble and so brave. He was a consummate artist – always exploring and reinventing – and I doubt we will see anyone else to compare him to in our lifetime.

And now Prince has gone, too… Were you a fan?

VP: I was a fan – not of everything he did, but there was so much to love, and he was such a prolific talent.

Sign of The Times and Sometimes It Snows in April… there are so many more songs. He was also an independent – his own person – and he stood up to the corporate music mogul world of exploitation and refused to play by Tickemaster’s rules. I loved him for all that, too.

What music  – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

VP: I like The National – Trouble in Mind is a beautiful record. I know they are not that new, but they are new compared to most of what I listen to. The new Coral album sounds interesting. The last album I bought was, rather predictably, Bowie’s Black Star on CD. I still buy CDs…

So what’s next for Vinny Peculiar? Would you like to make another concept album? Do you have any ideas for the next record?

VP: I hope to complete the recording project I started last year with Mancunian performance poet Tony Walsh – aka Longfella. I’m a big fan of his work.

I’ve also started writing songs based on local place names. I moved house last year and perhaps it’s my way of trying to make sense of it all…

 

Vinny Peculiar’s new album, Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution)  is released on June 6 on Shadrack & Duxbury Records.

For  more information, go to http://vinnypeculiar.com/

“I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album”

markface

 

Crime writer Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, is released in May and is based on murderous goings-on in a therapy session. I spoke to him about addiction, country music and sitting around in his pyjamas all day…

 

The last time we spoke, you’d just released The Other Half – your spoken word album with country band My Darling Clementine – and your most recent Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, had come out.

Now your new stand-alone novel, Die of Shame, is about to hit the shelves. Without giving too much away, what we can expect?

Mark Billingham: It’s a stand-alone psychological thriller and in some ways it’s a very modern take on the classic locked-room mystery, but my locked-room is a therapy group for recovering addicts.

There are six people in a circle who meet every Monday evening to talk about shame, which their therapist is convinced is the key to their problems with addiction and crucial in aiding their recovery.

One person in that group will die at the hands of another. Writing about addiction – a subject I’m fascinated by – enabled me to create a cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds, which is always an enjoyable challenge.

My best friend is a recovering addict and his experience and advice was hugely helpful. It’s a very different sort of novel from those in the Thorne series, but the bottom line is that it’s still a murder mystery and one I’m enormously proud of.

 

51UCO0OC1XL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ 

Tom Thorne usually makes a cameo appearance in your stand-alone books. Will he crop up in Die of Shame?

MB: Yes, of course he will. And Phil Hendricks is in there as well…

Music is never far away from you and some of the characters in your books – particularly Tom Thorne. What were you listening to while you were writing Die of Shame? Have you heard any new albums that have blown you away? I’m loving Richmond Fontaine’s latest record and I know you’re a big fan of them…

MB: Well, like you, I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album [You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To].

It might even be their best yet, which is ironic considering that it’s almost certainly their last.

I’ve recently discovered Margo Price, who is just wonderful, and I’ve been really enjoying Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.

I’ve been playing a lot of M. Ward too, and when I really need to get into a dark place, I put on Gorecki’s Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs. That stuff makes Hank Williams sound like The Wombles!

There’s not too much music in Die Of Shame, because there isn’t much Tom Thorne, but like you say, it’s never very far away…

CS608050-01B-BIG 

I recently picked up the My Darling Clementine Record Store Day EP, which features As Precious As The Flame – a song you co-wrote with the band. It must be great to have a track you worked on out on vinyl?  

MB: Absolutely – it’s a real thrill. I’m very proud of that song, which I think is a wonderful ending to the album and the live show of The Other Half. It’s fantastic to see it on the My Darling Clementine EP.

You’ve been touring The Other Half with My Darling Clementine. How was it going out on the road?

MB: The tour was a lot of fun, but bloody exhausting. Whenever I complained about all the travelling, Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine would just say, “welcome to our world”.

I drove somewhere close to 7,000 miles doing the show, so now I’m appreciating the luxury of sitting at my desk all day in my pyjamas and not having to go further than the kitchen. I adored doing it, though. Michael and Lou remain a joy to work with and I’m very proud of the show we did.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

Do you have any plans for some more musical collaborations?

MB: Collaborating is something I would highly recommend for anyone who works on their own most of the time.

Aside from the artistic benefits, it’s great to have someone to go for a beer and a curry with at the end of the day. I’m certainly up for doing something similar in the future, should the chance come along. Obviously I’m still waiting for Elvis Costello to call…

It’s going to be a busy year for you, as you’ve got some more gigs with My Darling Clementine planned, you’re promoting your new book in the UK and US and your novels In The Dark and Time of Death are being filmed for TV by the BBC. Can you tell us more about the TV adaptations?

MB: They’ve been filming for a week now and everything’s going well. Danny Brocklehurst has written four brilliant scripts and the BBC have put a fantastic cast together, so it’s really exciting.

Fans of Peep Show will be familiar with Matt King, who plays Super Hans, and it’s brilliant that we’ve got him playing Phil Hendricks.

Obviously, I’m going to spoil everything in a couple of weeks when I rock up to do my cameo, but I’m sure it will be fun.

The stories have changed a bit, as they should when you move from page to screen, and there’s no Thorne at all. The series focuses on Helen Weeks, and MyAnna Buring, who is playing her, is fantastic.

I’m sure some readers will be up in arms because the TV show is not exactly the same as the books, but how can it be? They are different animals and should be judged differently. I’m closely involved with the scripts and as an executive producer, so there’s nothing going on that I don’t completely endorse. We’re just trying to make the best TV show we can.

I fully expect my cameo to wind up on the cutting room floor, especially as I plan to ham it up shamelessly…

3582977

 

Have you started writing the next Thorne novel yet? When can we expect it to be released and can you give us a teaser?

MB: Yes, I’m halfway through the next one. There’s a new detective in Die Of Shame called Nicola Tanner. In many ways she’s the ‘anti-Thorne’, so I’m having a lot of fun putting her and Tom together in the book I’m currently writing.

Fun is perhaps the wrong word, as I’m actually writing about a subject that is very dark. I don’t want to say too much at this stage – I don’t even have a title yet – but I’ve never felt angrier writing a book. I hope that turns out to be a good thing…

Following on from your appearances on TV quiz shows Pointless and Celebrity Mastermind, you’re going to appear on Eggheads, as a member of a team of crime writers. When can we see that? 

MB: I think it’s due to go out in September. I was part of a team of crime writers, alongside Val McDermid, Martyn Waites, Doug Johnstone and Chris Brookmyre. It was a lot of fun. I’m not allowed to say how we got on against the Eggheads, but I would urge people to watch!

Finally, can you recommend any good books, other than Die of Shame?

MB: Chris Brookmyre’s newest book Black Widow is fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed David Hepworth’s book about the music of 1971 – Never A Dull Moment.

Another non-fiction recommendation would be Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari. It’s a brilliant history and detailed dissection of the war on drugs and I guarantee it will change everything you ever believed about addiction.

It’s absolutely fascinating and a huge eye-opener.

I’m currently reading John Connolly’s new Charlie Parker novel, A Time Of Torment, which is as sickeningly brilliant as usual. If I didn’t like him as much, I’d hate him…

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, will be published in the UK by Little, Brown on May 5 and in the US by Grove Atlantic on June 7.

For more information, visit http://www.markbillingham.com/