Here at Say It With Garage Flowers we’re massive power pop fans and we always get excited when we get to hear new releases by UK-based label Sugarbush Records, which specialises in rare and limited edition vinyl, including power pop, psych and cool ‘60s stuff.
Over the last few weeks, Sugarbush has really been spoiling us, so we thought we’d do a quick roundup of some of its latest records.
Detroit singer-songwriter Nick Piunti’s superb 2015 album, Beyond The Static, has been issued on vinyl for the first time – it’s limited to only 250 copies on blue vinyl.
We interviewed Nick when the record was first released last year and you can read all about the making of it here.
Beyond The Static was the follow-up to Nick’s critically acclaimed album 13 In My Head, which we described as ‘an instant power pop classic’.
Fans of 13 In My Head will definitely love Beyond The Static. As we said when it first came out, it’s more of the same – infectious power pop songs with big guitars, harmonies and strong melodies.
There’s also a country influence on the song Six Bands and some vintage New Wave synth on Heart Stops Beating. Nick’s been compared to singer-songwriters such as Matthew Sweet, Tom Petty and Paul Westerberg.
Don’t forget to check out Nick’s latest album, Trust Your Instincts, which is currently available on CD. We’re hoping for a vinyl release of it on Sugarbush sometime soon…
If you like Nick Piunti, you’ll also dig Dom Mariani’s Homespun Blues & Greens. Out on Sugarbush, this ‘lost’ album by the former frontman of Australian garage rock band The Stems is released on vinyl for the first time.
Limited to 300 ‘deep blue’ copies worldwide, it was recorded over a two-year period in the early noughties, but slipped under the radar when it came out in 2004.
Mixed by Mitch Easter (R.E.M and Velvet Crush) it’s top-notch power pop, with fuzzy riffs, crunching chords and some great hooks.
The title track has a brilliant soulful brass arrangement, gorgeous ballad Prove has cool ’60s-style backing vocals and tinges of country rock, thanks to its Faces-style guitar licks, while space-themed Yuri is, er, out of this world, and Bus Ride is power pop perfection.
Finally this month, Sugarbush has another vinyl first – Irish band Pugwash’s second album, Almanac. Originally released in 2002, it’s now available on orange or white vinyl – there are 250 copies of each.
Pugwash’s main man, Thomas Walsh, is clearly a man who’s in love with vintage pop music – even Almanac’s title is a nod to The Kinks.
For the most part, Walsh channels mid-to late ’60s Beatles and ELO – Everything We Need sounds like George Harrison meets Jeff Lynne, while the lovely acoustic ballad Sunrise Sunset could’ve come off The White Album.
Keep Movin’ On reminds us of The Hollies and Apples sounds like English eccentrics XTC – it’s no surprise that, in 2002, XTC’s Andy Partridge said it was the most exciting track he’d heard all year.
Almanac is a Fab album and Pugwash are plundering pop pirates. Ahoy there, me hearties…
London’s The Hanging Stars have made one of the best albums of this year.
Recorded in LA, Nashville and, er, Walthamstow, Over The Silvery Lake – their debut record – is a gorgeous psych-folk-pop-country-rock masterpiece that owes a debt to The Byrds and the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons, but also Fairport Convention’s pastoral ’60s English tune-smithery.
Willows weep, ships set sail on the sea and songs are laced with pedal steel guitar and shot through with blissed-out harmonies. There are hazy, lazy, shimmering summer sounds (I’m No Good Without You and Crippled Shining Blues), as well as brooding desert-rock (The House On The Hill], trippy mystical adventures (Golden Vanity) and, on the closing track, the beautiful Running Waters Wide, rippling piano is accompanied by bursts of groovy flute.
In an exclusive interview, I spoke to singer, guitarist and songwriter Richard Olson (The See See, Eighteenth Day of May) and bassist Sam Ferman (The See See and The Lightshines) about the making of Over The Silvery Lake and found out that its follow-up – due out next year – is almost done and dusted. Cosmic, eh?
Your debut album, Over The Silvery Lake, was released in March 2016. It’s one of my favourite records of the last 12 months. This year has been a bad one for the wider world, but how’s it been for The Hanging Stars?
Sam Ferman: We’re going to be a footnote to Trump…. It feels like 2016’s been a bit of a whirlwind. It doesn’t feel that long ago that Rich had an idea about taking the music that we were doing at the time somewhere different and creating a new band. From recording the album in LA, finishing it off, having it released and going round France and Spain and heading to Germany… We’ve packed a lot in.
Richard Olson: To be honest, I didn’t expect for us to get the kind of reception that we’ve been getting. There were so many bits that fell into place with the album. I’ve been in quite a few bands and projects and the best ones haven’t been too try-hard. Don’t get me wrong, we work very hard, but it’s a natural harmony.
Can you tell me about the songwriting process behind the album? Do you all write songs?
Sam: Most of the record was ideas that Rich brought to us. We had the benefit of spending quite a lot of time working out what we wanted to do with them. Rich was quite keen on taking it somewhere different, which is where the pedal steel, violin and flute got involved. We broadened our horizons and didn’t restrict it to just a three person, guitar pop band. We made it more pastoral, folky and country-infused, which was really exciting.
Are you guys into the classic country-rock bands?
Richard: Of course – I’ve always been obsessed with The Byrds and Gram Parsons. Our guitar player, Patrick [Ralla – banjo, guitar and assorted instruments] is a real country connoisseur – he really knows his shit.
Sam: It’s been exciting for me. As a kid, I was never that into country stuff – Rich got me into it. Me and Rich and Paulie [Cobra – drummer] – and, maybe to a lesser extent, Patrick and Joe [Harvey White – pedal steel] are interested in psychedelic music. It’s been really interesting trying to see what you can do with a psychedelic twist on the country thing. When I was playing music seven or eight years ago, there were no psych bands around, apart from my one and Rich’s one – now there are dozens. It’s interesting to see how far you can push it and mix it with prog-folk and the Fairport Convention thing.
Richard: As much as we like the Flying Burrito Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the English folk revival of the late ‘60s is just as important for us – Fairport Convention, Pentangle and John Renbourn.
Your album was made in LA, Nashville and Walthamstow. Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?
Richard: We went to LA and said, ‘let’s do some recording’.
Sam: A lot of it crystallised there. There was a lot of talking about what we wanted it to sound like – quite often, it’s very easy to stumble into recording a lot of stuff and then it comes together in a patchwork at the end. We had a coherent vision for the album right from the outset.
‘As much as we like the Flying Burrito Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the English folk revival of the late ‘60s is just as important for us – Fairport Convention, Pentangle and John Renbourn’
Did you write any of the album in LA?
Sam: We wrote a lot of the parts there. One of the songs – Ruby Red – is based on me and Rich having a jam on a porch in Hollywood. I came up with a riff – we thought it was going to be an acoustic instrumental, but we started messing around with it in rehearsals and it sounded good when it was heavy and electric. Rich went away and wrote the melody and the words.
The House On The Hill is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about that track? I love the twangy guitar riff and the Spaghetti Western vibe…
Richard: Our friend Christof [Certik], who is a bit of a LA/San Francisco legend, wrote that riff. The guys went out on the porch and drank beer and smoked weed, while I had to coach him for four hours. It was hard to get it out of him, but once he did it, it was incredible.
Sam: Like every brilliant guitarist, he’s a perfectionist, but we got there in the end.
Crippled Shining Blues is another highlight of the album. It was also featured on an EP with Oxford band The Dreaming Spires earlier this year…
Richard: I’m really pleased with the way that song came out – it was all done in Walthamstow.
Sam: Rich had the two-chord riff at the start and we just jammed over it and he came up with the guitar riff. There’s a lovely complementary pedal steel riff, too.
You’ve been recording your new album? How’s it going?
Richard: We’re almost done – we’re putting the finishing touches to it. We’ve got about 20 songs, we’ll whittle that down to about 11 and then we’ll see if it’s any good…
When do you hope to release it?
Richard: Only the gods know that. Everything is a bit up in the air regarding when the album’s coming out. It’s a weird time – everything takes absolutely ages, because of bloody Record Store Day. We need to have our stuff out on vinyl. The people who buy our records like vinyl and it’s how we survive on the road – not by eating vinyl, but by selling it.
Your next record will be quite a quick follow-up to your first one…
Sam: I think we started recording the new one before the last one was even out – we like to keep things ticking over. We’ve been busy this year.
What can we expect the new record to sound like?
Richard: I think we’ve found our feet to be honest. The first album was a bit of a stab in the dark and it was very much me, Paulie and Sam…
Sam: We were the genesis of it.
Not the Genesis?
Sam: There’s no Phil Collins…
Richard: Even though I do like Genesis… We’ve taken shape as a live band, with Patrick and Joe on pedal steel. They’ve been very involved with the new album – Patrick’s been co-writing. It’s been much more of a collaborative effort. I do think that the new album is very different, but it’s very much in the same vein musically, I suppose.
Sam: We’ve done all of it at Bark Studio in Walthamstow, which is where we did about a third of the first album. We’re working with Brian O’Shaughnessy – he’s fantastic. Me, Paulie and Rich live in Walthamstow.
It’s sounding really nice. We had the majority of the album – the core bits – done about nine months ago. We’ve spent the last few months sprinkling the fairy dust on it. It’s been really nice to see how it’s come together.
Richard: A lot of the recording for the first album was done in LA and we did some overdubs in Nashville. This album has been purely E17, which has been great. Due to the way of the world, it’s so hard to get a two-week chunk of time for recording, so we do a weekend of basics and then we drop in with some other ideas. I’m so chuffed with some of the stuff that we’ve done for the new record. I think it’s bloody good and I really hope that people will be blown away by it.
If you’ll pardon the pun, Christmas is a good time for hanging stars… What are your plans for the festive season?
Sam: Our drummer will be on the other side of the world, but for New Year’s Eve we’ll probably be at the What’s Cookin’ night in Leytonstone, sinking in a Yuletide country vibe.
Richard: We’ll probably be getting slightly off our nuts in some way or another – we don’t mind that at all.
Over The Silvery Lake by The Hanging Stars is out now on The Great Pop Supplement/Crimson Crow.
The sound of the 12-string guitar is celebrated on a great new compilation album – Twelve String High – which includes 23 jangle pop acts from all over the world, who share a love of Rickenbacker riffs and heavenly harmonies…
From The Byrds to Big Star and The Raspberries to REM, the 12-string guitar has always played an important part in rock and roll history.
The distinctive Rickenbacker jingle-jangle can be heard in folk rock, ‘60s beat, garage, power pop, the psychedelic Paisley Underground scene in ‘80s L.A and the British indie tunes of The Smiths.
There are also a huge number of current bands that owe a large debt to that classic 12-string guitar sound and the best of them are gathered together on an excellent new compilation album, Twelve String High, from Spanish label You Are The Cosmos.
Available on double vinyl, single CD and download, it rounds up 23 acts from all over the world that are known for their love of 12-string guitars and heavenly harmonies.
Things get off to a great start with the brilliant opening track by US singer-songwriter Erik Voeks – the entirely apt and wonderfully euphoric She Loved Her Jangle Pop.
And, if, like the female protagonist in Erik’s song, you love your jangle pop, then Twelve String High is an essential collection. In fact, we’d go as far to say that it’s one of the best compilation albums we’ve ever heard.
The UK is represented by Say It With Garage Flowers favourites The Dreaming Spires (If I Didn’t Know You), as well as Kontiki Suite, Dropkick, The Carousels, The Junipers, The Higher State and The Hanging Stars – whose debut album Over The Silvery Lake is one of the finest records of 2016.
Some of these bands were already on the Say It With Garage Flowers radar, but listening to Twelve String High has opened our ears to a whole lot more acts that we’d love to find out more about.
Who are US band The Parson Red Heads, whose gorgeous ballad It’s Hard For Me To Say is included on the album? And what about Australia’s Wade Jackson, who pitches in with Coming Back, Elvyn from Canada, whose Lotta Lies is one of the highlights, or Sweden’s Arvidson & Butterflies, with their marvellous, organ-heavy Tired of Running?
Before Richard Hawley found fame as a solo singer-songwiter, he was the guitarist in Sheffield indie rockers Longpigs. Back in October 1996, I spoke to him about the Sheffield music scene, the Longpigs’ debut album, The Sun Is Often Out, and touring America…
Imagine the clumsy and naughty fumblings of a young boy…
“My father said I couldn’t touch it, but I got it out one day and he came into the front room and I was playing with it – I was only six,” says Richard Hawley of Sheffield band Longpigs.
That was the day he first played his father’s guitar.
“He said, ‘do you like it, then?’, he showed me some chords and that was it,” says Richard. “When I opened the guitar case, it looked like a spaceship. I didn’t give a shit whether it caught rhinos, or made tea for me mum – it was what I wanted to do with my life. It was a good job it was a guitar and not something that you caught rhinos with, ‘cos I’d ‘ave had a bit of a job finding rhinos round ‘ere.”
Sheffield may not be known for its rhino population, but it has become a breeding ground for Britpop acts such as Pulp and Babybird.
“Sheffield’s never been famous for anything except steel and Joe Cocker,” says Richard. “The thing that’s beautiful about the city is that you can isolate yourself really easily – you don’t have to be part of a scene. There’s us, Pulp, Babybird, Blameless… That’s a pretty eclectic bunch, really. Just recently, Sheffield has kind of popped its head up again in popular culture. Pulp and Babybird have been knockin’ around for a long time and we’ve been going for three years. Sheffield seems to be a city that produces old men of rock.”
Longpigs have had a pretty tough few years, due to a string of unfortunate events and record company wrangles, but they now seem settled and comfortable and things are finally looking up for them.
‘There was a very dark period where we all nearly got killed in a car crash and we lost our record deal’
“We’re appallingly contented,” says Richard. “There was a very dark period in the past, where we all nearly got killed in a car crash and we lost our record deal. The company closed down in the UK after spending so much money on Police Academy 93 or whatever.
“In retrospect, all those things were quite cathartic. What was important to us was sticking together and making music. We believed that what were doing was good. I’m glad we did. I’d rather see us in the charts than Gina G.”
The band released their debut album, The Sun Is Often Out, earlier this year. The songs range from indie rock and pop to torch song ballads, folk and modern blues.
“Crispin [vocals/guitar and main songwriter] fancies himself as Cole Porter. He comes along with his nice songs and our job is ruin them. That’s it, really,” says Richard, who has also recently turned his hand to songwriting.
“Me and Crispin are co-writing stuff and that will probably flourish. It’s still mainly Crispin writing the songs. His twisted outlook on life is definitely something I couldn’t do.”
This December, Longpigs will be shutting themselves away to write new material for their second album.
“We’re looking forward to the next record,” enthuses Richard. “God knows what it’s going to sound like – it will just happen.”
Longpigs have recently returned from a tour of the US and also played in Canada with The Bluetones.
“We don’t hope to break America – we want to mend it,” says Richard. “The two main exports from the US are the beefburger and rock and roll. I definitely prefer rock and roll.”
The original version of this article first appeared in Splash! magazine in October 1996.
When I spoke to ex-Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward in 1997, he had just signed to Creation and was gearing up for his new album, World’s End, which was renamed The Apple Bed when it came out later that year. He told me a great story about a particularly weird night in Camden…
In 1982, at the height of his fame, Haircut 100 frontman Nick Heyward was found wandering around a car park in Camden, late at night, stoned and wearing only his underpants.
“That was one of the reasons that Haircut 100 split up,” says Nick. “It was a particularly mental night. We were in the studio doing some overdubbing and playing a game where you had to take an item of clothing off if you didn’t do it right.
“I smoked some Hawaiian grass and started freaking out. I thought that the Devil was in our recording studio, so I hid in the car park. I was paranoid about everything. I woke up like it the day after and the day after that…”
That night, Nick pre-empted the intoxicated Camden antics of ’90s pop stars by more than 10 years, but, ironically, now he’s part of the current Britpop scene, as he’s signed to Creation – the same label as Oasis.
“Being on Creation has given me a new lease of life,” says Nick, who’s now 36. “You can’t be that creative in a major label situation. I feel like I’m surrounded by proper pop writers. I hear Teenage Fanclub and it makes me melt.”
Nick was asked to join Creation by its head honcho Alan McGee, who was impressed when he saw him play live in London. After that meeting, Nick threw himself into recording his brand new album, World’s End.[It was renamed The Apple Bed when it was released in 1997].
The first single from the album was Today. Nick calls it ‘a heavy bastard’. It saw him exploring a new, rockier sound.
“World’s End is different from my last album, Tangled – I know that because I listened to it in the car the other day. I drove out of my way so that I could hear it all. I thought, ‘God, it is so different to the one that I’ve just done’,” he says.
“World’s End is more singer-songwriter/proper songs. There’s nothing throwaway. It’s more honest and musically more straight ahead.”
‘Being on Creation has given me a new lease of life. You can’t be that creative in a major label situation. I feel like I’m surrounded by proper pop writers. I hear Teenage Fanclub and it makes me melt’
Nick’s new album is an all-out pop record that oozes with melodies and combines the London-based, observational writing style of Ray Davies with the songcraft of The Beatles. There’s also more than a passing nod to Oasis. Highlights include the Penny Lane-isms of My Heavy Head, Nick’s very own Wonderwall – The Man You Used To Be – and the ode to summer that’s Reach Out For The Sun.
He says that World’s End moves away from his older material, like Rollerblade – his 1995 Top 40 hit, which was inspired by a visit he made to San Diego, when the bus he was on was obstructed by a horde of mad rollerbladers.
“I’ve never done rollerblading,” says Nick. “It’s one of those things that although you hate it, you could suddenly find yourself doing. I haven’t been skiing before, but everyone says I’ll be bitten by it and that will be it… But it’s the whole thing that comes with it. Skiers tend to talk about nothing but skiing, and rollerbladers tend to belong in a certain gang.”
Aren’t singer-songwriters the same, though?
“Yeah – they’re a weird bunch – don’t go near any of them. What about singer-songwriter rollerbladers? They’re really weird…
“I’m always striving to write that one ultimate song. Songwriters are always inspired by the current climate. That’s why The Beatles’ Revolver was so good. There were some particularly crap songs in ’88 and ’89, but there are some good tunes around now.
“I was talking to my girlfriend and she was saying that her upbringing was Billy Ocean. I’m so glad that I grew up with punk!”
‘I’m always striving to write that one ultimate song. Songwriters are always inspired by the current climate. That’s why The Beatles’ Revolver was so good’
Nick is confident that 1997 will be a good year for him. He’s tells me that he’s keen to record with other contemporary artists.
“I’ve got to push myself a bit more in that department. I’d like to work with lots of people. I did this radio thing the other day and Dubstar were on with me. Their singer Sarah is gorgeous. I wouldn’t mind collaborating with her – or even cohabiting!”
The original version of this article appeared in Splash! magazine in July 1997.
Back in February 1998, it looked like it could all be over for Britpop band Sleeper. Their last few singles had hardly set the world on fire and some of their gigs had been cancelled, due to a lack of interest. But despite all this, when I spoke to frontwoman Louise Wener, she was adamant they weren’t splitting up… In fact, they called it a day a month after this interview…
Are Sleeper well and truly down the dumper?
Last month, rumours about the band’s demise appeared on the internet, and in the NME, a representative from their US record label hinted that there was tension between frontwoman Louise Wener and drummer Andy MacLure, who is also Louise’s boyfriend.
The rumours come as no surprise, though – Sleeper’s last two singles, She’s A Good Girl and Romeo Me, barely dented the Top 40 and two of the dates on their current tour were cancelled due to poor ticket sales.
Despite this, Louise is adamant that Sleeper aren’t about to disintegrate…
“We haven’t got any plans to split up. The press are evil little shits – that’s my response to the rumours,” she says, talking to me on the phone from London.
“We’ve got various problems with our American record company, but it’s not as bad as some people would have you believe.
“Things appear on the internet all the time. The thing about me and Andy splitting up was utterly made up by the NME. I was angry about it for half an hour, but I’ve got used to things like that.”
‘We haven’t got any plans to split up. The press are evil little shits – that’s my response to the rumours’
So, there are no plans for a Louise Wener solo album, then?
“I’ve done 10 solo albums already,” she jokes. “No. I’d have to fight it out with the other pop star called Louise. I wouldn’t know what to call myself. Send your answers on a postcard…”
So is the current mood in Sleeper a healthy one, then?
“Yeah – it is. We’re making plans for the next thing we do, which will probably be quite radically different. We’re pretty up about it – we’re still relevant.”
I ask her if she’s disappointed by the poor performances of the band’s recent singles and the lack of interest in their gigs.
“It was kind of our turn,” she says. “Every band goes through up and down phases. It’s just life and you have to get on with it. We think that we made a really great album [Pleased To Meet You]. You have to go forward with your own belief in what you do. Things just go up and down – that’s the nature of most bands’ careers.”
Ironically, Sleeper’s latest album, Pleased To Meet You, is their best yet. Although by no means a classic – and it could hardly be described as a massive departure for the band – it’s more eclectic than their past offerings.
She’s A Good Girl touches on soul, Romeo Me is all-out, Pretenders-style guitar pop, Firecracker is Alvin Stardust-esque glam, and Breathe and Because of You are haunted by the ghost of trip-hop.
Does Louise think that Sleeper should’ve overhauled their sound more dramatically to fit into the current post-Britpop climate?
“Britpop’s dead – it’s a rotten corpse lying on the floor,” she says. “I think it’s good that it has gone and that everything’s changing. It’s really interesting to see what’s going to happen next. That’s why music’s exciting.
“Maybe we didn’t change enough to go with it. We kind of thought we’d come back and everything would be exactly the same. Maybe we lacked some foresight.”
Pleased To Meet You did see a big shift in Louise’s lyric writing. No longer was she penning observational songs about commuters and office workers – instead she addressed more personal issues.
“I couldn’t keep writing about other people, ” she says. “It [observational songwriting] was the essence of what Britpop was about, but that kind of life is alien to me now. It’s not something that belongs to me anymore.”
‘We might just get an Uzi and kill a few people’
This month, Sleeper are heading out on a national tour and, after that, there’s going to be some serious rethinking on the musical front.
“Me and Andy are planning to go and live in America for six months to write and do some other stuff,” says Louise.
“Whatever happens next, it will be quite different. It will be a good thing. We’ll be shaking ourselves up a bit.”
So what can we expect?
“We might just get an Uzi and kill a few people.”
The original version of this article first appeared in Splash! magazine in February 1998.
I revisit a 1997 encounter with pop duo Monaco, during which I upset Peter Hook by asking him if their debut long-player, Music For Pleasure, was simply the album New Order never got round to making…
There is dissension in Monaco.
The duo, who are Peter ‘Hooky’ Hook – the bassist from New Order – and guitarist David ‘Pottsy’ Potts, are in dispute over their debut album, the sublime, all-out pop record Music For Pleasure.
I am backstage with them at Portsmouth Guildhall, shortly before they are due on stage to support The Charlatans.
“I don’t think it is pop,” says Hooky. “I think to call it ‘pop’ demeans it.”
But Pottsy doesn’t agree: “I don’t think it does.”
Hooky replies: “I think of it more as AOR.”
“Is that Any Old Rubbish?” quips Pottsy.
“Any Old Iron,” says Hooky.
To my ears, Music For Pleasure is undoubtedly a great pop album. It veers from chart-bothering romps like the hugely infectious What Do You What From Me? and the E’d up, hands-in-the-air, cheesy, hedonistic house of Sweet Lips, to classy, heart-melting ballads like Blue and Tender, and even finds time to stop off at a rave (Junk) and take its place on a football terrace for the big Beatles/Oasis-style sing-along that is Buzz Gum.
But, despite the fact that I love the album dearly, at the back of mind there’s something that’s nagging me every time I listen to it…. Isn’t it simply the album that New Order never got round to making?
Let’s face it – sizeable chunks of Music For Pleasure do hark back to the glory days of the Manchester band. Hooky’s trademark bass sound is all over the new record and Pottsy’s vocals even recall those of New Order frontman Bernard Sumner…
“This is definitely the album that New Order never made ‘cos they weren’t fucking round when I was doing it – the lazy bastards!” booms Hooky.
He adds: “No – I think you might be looking for something a little too much. People might say that the music’s as good as New Order – and it does have slight leanings towards it – but I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s New Order again.
“A lot of the songs are nothing like bleedin’ New Order,” he says, grumpily.
“They’re good, but the only thing that makes them sound like New Order is the bass, really.”
I’m sorry I asked…
‘This is definitely the album that New Order never made ‘cos they weren’t fucking round when I was doing it – the lazy bastards!’
Monaco were formed from the ashes of Revenge – the band that Hooky started as a New Order side project. Pottsy joined Revenge to augment their live shows, but the group soon fell apart and him and Hooky were left on their own.
Says Hooky: “The two guys I was working with dropped off. Pottsy was the only one that showed any interest. We started writing together – it was quite easy for the two of us to do it.”
So, Monaco were born.
Pottsy explains: “I wasn’t playing my songs in Revenge, so I couldn’t put my heart and soul into something that wasn’t mine.”
Hooky says that with Revenge, he deliberately tried to shy away from the New Order sound and do something different.
“I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want it to sound like New Order.”
He adds that he left behind the thing he was good at in order to learn something new.
Revenge didn’t work out, though, so is that why, with Monaco, he decided to return to the thing that he does best?
“Well – yeah, with a lot of coaching from Pottsy,” he says. “He was more into it than I was. There’s always that bit of a paranoid thing that I get whenever anyone says to me, ‘as soon as you start playing, we always hear New Order’.
“Sometimes I just think ‘cheers’,” he adds, sarcastically.
‘Everybody says that Electronic sounds like New Order without the bass. I bet Bernard fucking hates that, ‘cos he hated the fucking bass playing towards the end of New Order. He was sick of me!’
But returning to what he does best has certainly been a good move for Hooky. Monaco’s debut album is a triumph and it’s a stronger record than Raise The Pressure – the difficult second album by Electronic, the duo his New Order bandmate, Bernard Sumner, formed with former Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr.
“Bernard’s always got a little problem,” says Hooky. “Everybody says that Electronic sounds like New Order without the bass. I bet he fucking hates that, ‘cos he hated the fucking bass playing towards the end of New Order. He was just sick of me!”
Both members of Monaco seem thoroughly content at the moment and the band looks like being a long-term project.
“At the moment, it feels very natural,” says Hooky. “I’m quite happy to go out there and watch the kids have a good time. I’m just doing it for the kids, but I’m actually enjoying it myself.”
He adds: “The album simply is ‘music for pleasure’ and even though some people say it’s quite melancholic, I always find there’s a certain pleasure in being melancholy – especially as you get older.”
The original version of this interview first appeared in Splash! magazine in June 1997.
A collaboration with musicians Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis,it was a wonderful album – full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.
This month, John releases his brand new long-player, Across The Door Sill, but it’s a very different beast from its predecessor.
His latest offering is a solo voice and piano record that comprises only five songs – three at which clock in at just under 10 minutes – and it was inspired by poetry and childhood dreams.
I spoke to him to find out how the record came about…
Hi John. The last time I interviewed you – summer 2015 – you were just about to release your album John Howard & The Night Mail, which went on to have some great reviews. I saw you and your band play the album launch show in London at the Phoenix Artist Club. It was lovely to meet you after the gig. How do you feel about that record a year on? Has it been a good 12 months for you?
John Howard: It was great to meet you too, Sean, though I always feel I never have enough time after a gig to chat properly to people, so apologies if I was whisking around all over the place and looking distracted. I am still very proud of The Night Mail album. It was a delightful project to be part of – Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis are so creative and responsive. Gigging with them earlier this year in Germany and Austria was a blast, but then, every time I appear on stage with them, I love it. The last 12 months have been mainly taken up with promoting The Night Mail album, but I’ve also been writing the Across The Door Sill album, too.
Your last album was very much a band record – collaborations with Andy Lewis, Ian Button, & Robert Rotifer – whereas your new album – Across The Door Sill – is a solo project. Why the decision to go it alone for this record?
JH: I’d started to write songs for Across The Door Sill before The Night Mail recording sessions in late 2014. I’d spent that year co-writing The Night Mail songs with Robert, Ian and Andy, but once they were finished, demoed and ready to record, new songs started coming through the ether. I knew as soon as the new songs started to come along they were going to be for a solo album, and of course The Night Mail songs were all co-writes with the other band members – save for our cover of Roddy Frame’s Small World.
I never plan anything really – projects tend to come to me, like The Night Mail did. It grew organically during months of conversations with Robert, initially. But all four of us do our own thing too, Robert has Rotifer, Ian has Papernut Cambridge, Andy has The Songwriters’ Collective and his solo material, plus his work with Paul Weller, so The Night Mail was never a band per se, in the way that touring bands are. We fancied writing some songs together, we were pleased with how they came out and decided to record them. It was a happy outcome that [the record label] Tapete liked them enough to sign the album. The Across The Door Sill songs came along out of the ether unbidden. Who Cares – the opening track on the album – was the first to ‘arrive’, and I knew immediately it wasn’t a ‘band song’.
Across The Door Sill is a brave album. There are only five songs – three of which are almost 10 minutes long – and it’s just your multi-layered vocals and pianos. It’s fair to say that you’re not aiming for the mass-market with this record, isn’t it?
JH: I never have the mass market in mind when I write anything. It became obvious 40 odd years ago, when I began recording, that one never puts the words ‘mass market’ in the same sentence as ‘John Howard’, unless the sentence reads ‘John Howard is never going to be a mass market artist.’
In the years since I returned to recording, since 2004, I have always written and recorded what I want to, with no regard for whether it will sell. I just want to write good songs. I believe I write at my best that way. This of course means my music will never make it to Radio One-derful Land…
How did you approach this record? What did you have in mind when you were writing and recording it?
JH: When the words for Who Cares started to come to me and I wrote them down, a long-form, stream of consciousness poem resulted, and I fancied the idea of seeing what happened when I sat at the piano and just wrote what came to me, as I sang the words. I recorded the eventual piano piece, which was inspired by the words, then tried out various ways of singing a melody to the track, recording several takes over many days, sung in different ways. Over a few weeks, I decided which parts of the different recorded vocals worked best and put them all together in a final mix, then built that up with more pianos and backing and harmony vocals. I lived with each mix for a few days before carrying on and building on what I’d done. All through the process I didn’t know if it would work out. It was an experiment, which could have ended up as tuneless nonsense. Some people may think it did!
I knew I’d come up with something different, and liked what I heard, so I carried on working that way, with no mind as to the lengths of the songs, or whether they had choruses, verses or hooks. I just wrote words, which came to me, and then put a melody and chords to them in a free-form, very relaxed way.
I was writing and recording the album right up to the spring of this year, though as I say, I actually began writing Who Cares towards the end of 2014. I’d never worked this way before, literally seeing what happened as I went along, blindly diving in and hoping a song, a track, would come out of it.
I usually write in a much more pop way, à la McCartney – I sit at the piano, see what starts to happen, chords arrive, sometimes sounds accompany them, which become words as the song develops, and a hook emerges, which is what the song hangs on. So, writing in such a free-form way for Across The Door Sill was an experiment from start to finish. I loved working this way though – it was very liberating
What became obvious early on in the process was how the poems were very much made up of images from dreams I’d had since childhood. The closing track, Stretching Out, is made up of many images from dreams I had as a kid, which recurred for years. I have a personal attachment to that track – it affects me each time I hear it. The images and the characters feel as real to me as real life in many ways. And the older I get, the more real they feel, like revisiting old friends.
The songs were also inspired by 13th century poet Rumi’s Quatrains. Can you tell me more about that? How did that influence manifest itself on the record? Is Across The Door Sill a concept album?
JH: I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album – the songs aren’t linked together in a story and there is no narrative linking each one chronologically, but there is a theme – dreams, my dreams, and how I put them into words, albeit words which together seem to make no sense, but as a whole song they do start to form a picture.
Scenarios unfold as you listen to each song. Rumi’s Quatrains was something I found on the internet. I was searching for a phrase which encapsulated what I was trying to do – that is to give myself a new challenge, not stick to methods I’d used before, and put myself out there in a new environment creatively. I found the phrase ‘Across The Door Sill’, which led me to Rumi’s poem, where that phrase basically sums up his poem. It seemed the perfect title for the album.
You’ve said it’s an album that will take a few listens for people to get into…
JH: Oh, several listens I would imagine. Be patient, folks. Stick in there.
Outward is my favourite track on the record – it’s stunning – very moody, nostalgic and reflective. What can you tell me about that song?
JH: Thanks, Sean. Outward was written around a dream I had of waiting for a train, then, as in all dreams, the situation changed without explanation and I was travelling by car into the hills, meeting various people along the way, turning a corner and landing on a beach, turning another corner and being in the midst of a fiesta in full swing, and then finally ending up at the station again, kind of asleep, hearing the platform porter blowing his whistle. It was a dream within a dream really. Again, the vocal was recorded very loosely. I was playing the backing track over and over again, trying different vocal approaches, recording them all, and then choosing what I considered the best bits of various takes and mixing them together into the final mix.
I could hear a kind of old film vibe to the track, and recorded the ‘spooky’ falsetto voice in the background, to add some film noir atmosphere. My old 1970s producer, Paul Phillips, said he thought it sounded like a theme to a ghost or mystery thriller film, so that was a result.
Can you talk me through the other songs? There are funny moments, there are wistful recollections and stories and some wry observations…
JH:Pigs ‘n’ Pies, the shortest song on the album, brought in imagery from my growing up into a teenager through the ‘60s, my hippie years of the early ‘70s, then into working in a music business in the ‘80s, which was a decade (and a business) full of confidence, money and arrogance, then seeing a kind of realisation that, by the 21st century, we’d lost something along the way.
I liked the idea of a chorus of voices coming back as each decade ended, singing ‘It’s a crazy mixed-up world!’ each time – the mantra of the human race down the decades. My dad used to say that, my grandmother used to say it, and now I hear my own generation saying it. The difference now is that, whereas my peers poo-pooed our parents moaning about the state of the world, we were all believing back then that we were entering a golden dawn, the Hunky Dory belief in the human race, and now we too sit aghast at things like Brexit, racism becoming once more a horrific norm in our daily papers, and on our streets, the ghastly and once unbelievable possibility of a Trump presidency. It seems utterly crazy, but the 1930s, and Nazism, were equally round the bend, and similarly came from giving a voice to people who felt ignored and who were looking for scapegoats for their situation, following utter nutcases pointing them the way to the scapegoat of their choice. The blame game has been the human balm for centuries.
Preservation, as soon as I’d written it, reminded me of late 1960s/early ‘70s folk songs – the kind I’d listen to in my bedroom on a record player. It’s very much a questioning of who we are, where we are, why we are, and positioning us as floating aimlessly through a space full of dangers and unsolved mysteries. If we are part of that unsolved mystery, then where are we headed? Is there a solution? Probably not, if I am honest. Fifty years ago I would’ve said, “Of course there is, and my generation will provide it!” Now I feel rather hopeless about things, but somewhere deep down I’m thinking we could possibly avoid the precipice staring at us. There have been times in recent years that I wonder if the human race is worth preserving. It seems to have gone out its way to destroy everything it comes into contact with. Name me one good thing human beings have done for the natural world, apart from a few good people trying to right the wrongs of generations’ destructiveness? Heavens – this is getting rather heavy!
Let’s lighten things up… You’ve worked with Ian Button again on this record – he mastered it. What did he bring to that process?
JH: Ian has great ears. I’d loved what he did when he mastered Live at the Servant Jazz Quarters for me in 2014 and then, of course, The Night Mail album last year. He gets a great warmth, while also giving things an oomph sonically. I wanted Across The Door Sill to sound very warm, wide and big, and he got that – especially his work on the piano sound. He worked hard at that and I literally cheered when I heard what he’d done.
The new album is released on Occultation – how did that deal come about? Wasn’t the album going to be released on your own label?
JH: Yes, originally I was going to put it out on my own kidinabigworld.co.ukimprint and I actually had some CDs manufactured with that in mind. When I sent out review copies to you, and several other reviewers and journalists, I also sent a copy to Nick Halliwell at Occultation, simply as a thank you for all the word-of-mouth spreading he did for The Night Mail last year. I was really surprised when he emailed me a few days later to say he would like to release the album. I hadn’t expected that. I love his label and many of his other acts on Occultation are superb, so to be part of that ‘family’ is truly special. I was very flattered too that he liked the album enough to want to release it.
The new album will be released on vinyl, won’t it?
JH: Yes it will, in fact one of the reasons Nick gave for wanting to put it out on Occultation was that he thought it should be released on vinyl.
“This is an album which should be available on LP,” was what he said to me. That in itself was pleasing, and I’ve seen the artwork for the LP and it’s fabulous. Christian Cook of thinctanc design has done it – the same chap who designed the CD for me earlier this year, when I was going to release the album myself. Christian also designed my 2014 album Hello, My Name Is. Nick asked him to design the LP artwork and it is beautiful.
What are your plans for the rest of 2016 and 2017? Can we expect any live shows and any more records?
JH: I rarely plan, and as regards live shows, that depends if I get invited to do any and whether it’s feasible to do any of them, as I live in Spain. I don’t like being away from home for long periods anymore, so any gig would have to be a one-off, rather than a series of shows.
Nick and I are currently discussing another album for Occultation next year and I’ve started writing songs for it in the last week or so. It will again be different from what I’ve done before, and some of it will be recorded in the UK. Hopefully I’ll start recording it next year, probably for a 2018 release.
What music are you currently listening to and enjoying – old and new?
JH: I recently got hold of Judee Sill’s double album set, featuring her first two LPs. I totally adored her in the early ‘70s but hadn’t listened to her for years. It was Nick Halliwell who reawakened my love for her work when he told me he could hear Judee Sill in Across The Door Sill. I hadn’t actually considered that when I was recording it, feeling it had touches of Roy Harper and Laura Nyro in there (I don’t get through a month without listening to Harper’s Stormcock album at least once), but I also knew there was another sound, another voice in there, at the back of my mind while I was recording, which I couldn’t quite grasp. When Nick mentioned Judee to me it was like a light went on in my head – “Yes! That’s who I could hear somewhere in my memory during the Across The Door Sill sessions!” She has hardly been off my hi-fi since I got the double album recently. Glorious glorious talent.
I’ve also been enjoying Dylan’s Cutting Edge ‘65/’66 outtakes CD too. I had many of those on bootleg vinyl. which I bought in the early ‘70s, but hadn’t listened to for years, and it’s great to have those amazing tracks again. She’s Your Lover Now, I Wanna be Your Lover, wow, genius. And unreleased at the time! Amazing.
Not so new, from last year, Ralegh Long’s Hoverance album is lovely, very pastoral and rather gorgeous, Robert Rotifer’s Not Your Door is excellent, some lovely songs on that, very emotional songs, and of course Ian’s Papernut Cambridge album Love The Things Your Lover Loves is fab. He writes songs you are sure you heard back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but they don’t sound like anybody else’s songs. Only Jeff Lynne is as good at that.
Nick has been playing me some of the new Distractions tracks, and they are lovely – some really great songs on there.
I recently acquired a record deck again – I hadn’t had one for years. An LP I have had since the mid-‘70s, Orchestra Luna, was one of the first I put on the turntable and it took me back to my days at CBS when a press lady there gave me the LP. I fell in love with it as soon as I heard it and have treasured it ever since. Their songs are full of Hollywood, Broadway, the Great American Dream, comedy, whimsy and theatrical camp, but with an air of wryness which overcomes the whimsy. It’s fun, but with a mild snarl, and it’s tremendous. As someone once said, it’s like watching a Hollywood musical you’ve never seen…