If you’re looking for a new album to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown, then may we recommend the soulful, jazzy and folky Humanism, which is the third record in a trilogy by Monks Road Social, a collaborative project overseen by Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys.
Recorded in Spain last summer, it’s a warm and colourful collection of songs, featuring an impressive list of guests, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Mick Talbot (The Style Council), Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies) and actor Peter Capaldi. It could be just what the doctor ordered…
Monks Road Social, the loose musical collective headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert, made two of the most diverse and richly rewarding albums of last year – Down The Willows and Out Of Bounds.
Recorded over two 10-day sessions in the residential Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth, Wales, both records made our best of 2019 list and we described them as: ‘two of the most eclectic collections of songs we’ve ever heard – from jazzy comedown ballads to Balearic beats, to soul, psych-rock, folk, drum and bass, country, blues, indie-rock and funk, they’re a melting pot of musical ideas.’
When we interviewed Dr. Robert last year, he was working on a third Monks Road Social album, which was recorded in Spain, at the height of the Andalusian summer.
The good news is that it’s now done and dusted, is out this month, and, like its predecessors, it’s a stunning and diverse record. It’s called Humanism and, this time around, the Spanish sunshine has worked its magic, as there’s a distinctly Flamenco feel to some of the songs. In these worrying days of lockdown, it’s a perfect soundtrack to ease your mind and take you to a better place.
Special guests include Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies), who belts out the frenetic, jazz-funk of Said Too Much and duets with Dr. Robert on the smooth, orchestral soul of Step By Step, and actor Peter Capaldi, who sings and plays guitar on the anthemic Britrock of first single, If I Could Pray, which he also wrote.
Keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council and Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis, also made the trip to Spain. Deighton sings on the warm, folky and pastoral ballad Apricot Glow and shares vocals with Dr. Robert on the gorgeous, acoustic, string-laden Egyptian Magic – both tracks feature Talbot on organ. Deighton’s daughter, Romy, lends her vocals to two songs – Stolen Road and Running Blind.
Also on the album are drummer Crispin Taylor and bassist Ernie McKone – both of whom played with acid-jazzers Galliano; percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk; flautist and saxophonist Jacko Peake (Push) and Neil Jones of Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation.
We spoke to Dr. Robert, who was on lockdown at his home in Andalusia, Spain – he lives in the mountains, south of Granada – to get the lowdown on how Humanism was written and recorded, and find out how he’s spending his time in the house…
How are you coping with the lockdown and isolation?
Dr. Robert: We are doing fine. It’s pretty isolated up here in the mountains anyway, to be honest. We are more concerned about our kids in London, but, thankfully, they are doing okay.
Spain has been hit very badly, especially in the cities. People are used to interacting socially here in a profound way. To take that away from them has been very tough, but they have responded magnificently and, like in the UK, you just have to marvel at the bravery and selflessness of the health workers. We must never call them ‘low-skilled’ and they must not remain ‘low-paid.’ Our value system is all wrong and we can’t go back there now.
Any advice for staying sane? What have you been up to during lockdown?
DR: It’s a great opportunity to reboot. I’m sure everyone says that, but it really does sort out your priorities. It’s the simple things – the way the light bounces off a whitewashed wall, or the birdsong in the morning. It’s like a veil has been lifted. This has changed us – let’s hope we stay awake…
During the lockdown, you’ve been playing some acoustic tracks online, including covers of Fred Neil, Marc Bolan and Tim Hardin songs. Any plans to do some more performances?
DR: Yes, I’ll do more, but I don’t want to flood a crowded market.
Have you been writing any songs during lockdown?
DR: Yes. I was already working on a new Blow Monkeys album for early next year, to coincide with our 40th anniversary, so it’s afforded me more time to really figure out what it is I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album! And what do I have to say? “Love is all that remains of us,” to quote a poet from Hull.
Let’s talk about the new Monks Road Social album, Humanism – the third in a trilogy. What were the recording sessions in Spain like?
DR: The album was recorded over about 10 days in the summer last year – August, to be precise. It was very hot – the wind blew in from Africa.
My friend, the producer Youth, has a studio out here, so we did it there. I produced the record, but with so many friends involved it’s never stressful – people like Crispin Taylor and Mick Talbot don’t really need producing. We communicate with a look these days.
The main task is organisation and preplanning. My wife, Michele, is amazing. She manages The Blow Monkeys too. We had a great engineer called Ivan Moreno, who I ended up mixing the whole album with, plus the label boss, Richard Clarke, [Monks Road Records] has a very good antennae and always pitches in with interesting ideas. I’m just the ringmaster.
‘I’ve been working on a new Blow Monkeys album. The lockdown has afforded me more time to figure out what I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album!’
How do you think this album compares with the other two? There are fewer folk, country, blues and rock/psychedelic songs on it. It has more of a soul and jazz feel, with some Flamenco influences too…
DR: Well, yes – the fact that it was super-hot and we were here in Granada obviously flowed into the music. Plus we had a few local musicians involved: David Heredia, the amazing gypsy Flamenco guitar player, and Juan Carlos Camacho on trumpet.
Also Ibrahim Diakité from Mali played the kamalengoni. Some of the best stuff was after the session, when we were just jamming. It was an unbelievable vibe.
Did you write new songs specifically for this album?
DR: I did – songs like Egyptian Magic and Step By Step – and there were others that I had from before that I thought would work with different singers, like Sulene Fleming doing Said Too Much.
We are always on the lookout for people to add to the mix. A friend told me his daughter, Belle McNulty, could sing. I said I’d have a listen, but I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. She blew me away.
She did a fantastic job on On The Wings of the Morning and then she wrote the lyrics to a piece of music I had and we ended up with I Wish You Well, which is one of my favourite things we have ever done with Monks Road.
I just love working with great singers like Belle, Sulene, Romy, who is Matt Deighton’s daughter, Ximena and Angelina. It’s such a joy.
Were there any songs on this record that were left over from the previous sessions for the other Monks Road Social albums?
DR: Well, Step By Step emerged out of an remix of I Ain’t Running Anymore, and we had plenty left over from this session too – enough for another album to be honest.
Egyptian Magic is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it?
DR: Matt Deighton and I share a love of Tyrannosaurus Rex – the era when Steve Peregrin Took was still with Bolan, but just before he left. Songs like Once Upon The Seas Of Abyssinia and Blessed Wild Apple Girl – all that stuff.
Egyptian Magic was inspired by a tub of hair product that my wife ordered from duty free on a plane! The lyric is a true story, which is unusual for me. Matt is a great player and does amazing harmonies. It’s pretty effortless between us. We hope to do an album one day.
Another of my favourite songs on the record is On The Wings of the Morning. It has some cool, funky ‘70s flute on it…
DR: Jacko Peake played the flute. He’s amazing and was in Push with Crispin Taylor and Ernie McKone, so there was a natural bond there already. I knew Jacko from my time playing with Paul Weller too, so it’s an old friendship.
I’m happy that On The Wings of the Morning turned out that way. I don’t think anybody in the country could play that groove like Crispin and Ernie. They are the best.
The first single, If I Could Pray, was written by actor Peter Capaldi – he also sings vocals and plays acoustic guitar on it. How did that collaboration come about?
DR: I met Peter a few years ago, as he comes to the valley in the summer, with his family. We started to play acoustic together at a friend’s party and our friendship grew out of that.
He was hanging out at the studio and then one day his wife, Elaine, mentioned he had a song. I was thrilled and we did it really quickly, which is always a good sign. He’s a natural – very unaffected.
What was it like for Dr. Robert to work with Doctor Who? So many doctors in the house…
DR: Although he’s obviously well known as an actor, Peter actually started out doing music, so there was nothing forced. He’s a delight to work with and very funny too.
The song Said Too Much is a great funk-soul-jazz track – the trumpet, which is played by Juan Carlos Camacho, is fantastic. Where did that song come from? What was the inspiration for it?
DR: Words that cut too deep – spoken out loud in drunken rages. Those days are behind me now – thank fuck! I love that trumpet too – it’s so Spanish. He gently seduces you.
Is Apricot Glow a Matt Deighton song? It’s gorgeous…
DR: Yes – that’s a lovely Matt Deighton composition. We double tracked his vocal and it really seems to suit the song. It’s a fragile beauty.
Any favourite tracks from the album? You mentioned I Wish You Well earlier…
DR: Well, it changes, but I love Sequiso, featuring Funk From Mali – it’s a proper groove. And, as I said, I Wish You Well is a personal fave. City Lights, too, with Neil Jones from Stone Foundation. I get to play bass on his tunes, which is one of my favourite things to do. That song has a great forward momentum and his girlfriend, Celia Carballo, sings really well on it too. Mick Talbot weaved his usual magic on it.
I managed to record a solo track with Mick when he was just warming up – New Arrivals. He was just sound checking my cheap car boot Casio and came up with this amazing piece. I asked him if it was okay to use it, as he wasn’t aware we had recorded it!
You said you had material left over from the sessions. Is there another Monks Road Social album planned?
DR: Yes.We have enough recorded material for a whole new album. It’s up to Richard how he wants to use it.
You were due to play the first Monks Road Social gig at the Jazz Café, in London, this May. Has it been rescheduled and what can we expect from the live show?
DR: It’s been rescheduled for August 25, but that may be optimistic – let’s see. If we have to delay it again, we will. It’s going to be fun – chaotic and possibly messy, but fun. There’s nothing else like it really.
There’s a new Blow Monkeys album due, too…
DR: Yes – it will be out early next year and will be crowdfunded, hopefully.
What music – new and old – are you listening to at the moment? What’s your lockdown soundtrack?
DR: I’ve been writing lots, so don’t tend to listen to too much, but that Nick Cave album, Ghosteen, is astonishing, and Paul Weller sent me his latest one, On Sunset, which is very special.
Other than that, just a drop of Fred Neil and a pinch of Van Morrison. Oh and the new Dylan single [Murder Most Foul] – all 17 minutes of it. Marvellous.
What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?
DR: Seeing my family.
Humanism by Monks Road Social is released on April 17 (Monks Road Records).
For more information on crowdfunding the new Blow Monkeys album, click here.