‘I’m trying to avoid writing songs about the lockdown’

Robin Bennett

In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Say It With Garage Flowers, singer-songwriter Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires and Bennett Wilson Poole)  reflects on lockdown, looks back at the making of his 2005 solo mini-album Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, which has just been made available online for the first time, and updates us on the eagerly-awaited second album from Bennett Wilson Poole.

One of the few positives to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis is that lockdown has given musicians more time to dig around in their vaults and release rare or unheard material online for their fans to enjoy while stuck indoors.

Oxford-based singer-songwriter Robin Bennett, who is one third of Americana and jangle-pop supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole and, with his brother Joe, is one of the main members of The Dreaming Spires, has made his hard to find 2005 solo mini-album, the eight-track Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror, available to stream or download from Bandcamp.

Released under the pseudonym Dusty Sound System, it was written and recorded over a week in Los Angeles, California, in January 2005, at the time of the Iraq War. The songs, which were laid down in a day, were composed with his friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power (The And/Ors).

Robin and Danny spent most mornings watching the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back before getting down to songwriting and it shows – album opener, the riotous, bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll  of The One And Only Lost Boy, sounds like a homage to mid-’60s electric Dylan, while Nation At War and I’m A Soldier are both folky protest songs.

Nothing I Can’t Do Without  is a lovely, fragile acoustic ballad, You Can’t Fool All The People (All The Time) is anthemic country rock, the sombre, piano-led ballad As I Lay Dying has a Lennon feel, and Don’t Sleep Alone is yet more raw, Dylanesque rock ‘n’roll.

The album was recorded in a studio owned by Rob Campanella ( Brian Jonestown Massacre) and features a cast of friends and local musicians, including Bobby Bones, Darren Rademaker (The Tyde) and Jason Anchondo (The Warlocks).

Mixed back in England with Rowland Prytherch, after the addition of harmony vocals by Piney Gir and Cat Martino, the album was mastered by Tim Turan in Oxford and originally released in 2005 on Truck Records.

Ironically, considering its title, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror sometimes sounds like it’s gone for a great night out on the town – one of the songs is called It Takes No Talent To Party – but, more often that not, it’s waking up the morning after, bleary-eyed and melancholic.

“There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California –  it must have been the sunshine,” says Robin.

Q&A

How are you and how have you been coping with lockdown?

Robin Bennett: I live in a somewhat isolated spot anyway, so, in some ways, not a lot has changed, although my children are at home. Thankfully the weather has mostly been good and we are lucky enough to have a garden. A lot of the meetings I have to attend due to my council work (Robin is a cabinet member for development and regeneration at South Oxfordshire District Council) have moved online, so I’m pretty busy. I’ve also got a small home recording set-up to keep my musical side occupied.

What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?

RB: I’ve definitely been drawn to listening to music, old and new. I bought a new record player from Danny Wilson’s [Bennett Wilson Poole, Danny and the Champions of the World] shop, Union Music Store, to help me make the most of my vinyl collection.

I’ve also joined in with a few of Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening parties – diverse selections from The Chemical Brothers to The Flaming Lips, which was stuff from when I was first getting into music and going out. My old band Goldrush supported The Flaming Lips in 2002 and went on to record with Dave Fridmann.

The other night I went back to some classics on vinyl that I haven’t listened to in a while, due to over-familiarity – like Neil Young’s After the Goldrush. I like the way the internet allows shared listening. I joined in with the Clubhouse Records crew, who were listening to The Band’s Stagefright last weekend. Opinion was divided on whether it’s a lost classic.

‘The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past’

We’ve also got a crappy Dansette in the shed, where we’ve been dancing to 7-inch singles with the kids, mostly The Beatles or stuff from the Britpop era, when I was buying 7-inches.

Although it’s a pain for artists – including Bennett Wilson Poole – that the release cycle has been disrupted, it’s created an interesting pause in the normal torrent of attention-grabbing. There has been space for things like the 17-minute Bob Dylan single, and also for plenty of looking back over one’s musical past. The lockdown seems to favour nostalgia.

Have you written any new songs during lockdown?

RB: Not really. I have demoed a whole pile of songs from my notebook though – some of them are going back years. I’m trying to avoid writing songs about the lockdown.

During lockdown, you’ve decided to make your 2005 Dusty Sound System mini-album, Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror available on Bandcamp. What was the thinking behind that?

RB: It was partly because of just having the time and space to do it. Although it was originally released in a pretty minimal way, it has a bit of a reputation in some circles, and I wanted people to be able to hear it – those who didn’t have one of the few original CD copies.

The album is 15 years old. How you do feel about it now? How old were you when you made it and what music were you into at the time?

RB: Um… I was 26! One thing I remember from the time is that Bright Eyes was just releasing his two albums on the same day, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. I was very impressed by that – the US press were calling him ‘the new Bob Dylan’ at the time.

Since first going to the US in 2003, to record and tour with Mark Gardener of Ride, my Goldrush bandmates and I had been introduced to a whole swathe of US independent acts, from Death Cab For Cutie to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and I met, or played with, many of them.

I was impressed how the scale of the US allowed these bands to have a viable career without signing to a major label, which was more or less impossible in the UK at the time.

There were also records that were more abundant in American record stores, like Songs for Beginners by Graham Nash, that I’d not really come across before. Big Star and Gram Parsons loomed large too. I also got into The Jayhawks around then –I’m not sure how I’d avoided them previously. We also listened to a lot of old Bob Dylan – especially The Bootleg Series Volume 2.

What’s the story behind the album? How did it come about? You went to L.A. and  you wrote the record in a week, with your friend Danny Black – aka Danny Power – and you recorded in it a day. That must have been a hell of a week!

RB: I’d always largely been the lyric writer in Goldrush – in the early days, songs used to come together in a somewhat miraculous way, without a lot of forethought, but, of course, that method can dry up. When we went to record with Dave Fridmann in 2003, I was still finishing lyrics in the studio, which stressed me out no end. I knew there had to be a more structured way of writing.

I worked with Mark Gardener on some of the songs for his solo album, and found that I could be useful as a co-writer. Then, with Danny, we found such a close rapport that extending into co-writing happened almost by default.

‘L.A. was a whole different world and very inspiring. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying doughnuts and coffee, and then trying to write’

Goldrush had US visas, so we took the opportunity to spend as much time there as we could, staying in Brooklyn, or at Danny’s house in L.A., even when not touring. I applied for a PRS grant, which gave me the chance to go over and do some writing with Danny in January 2005. He lived just off Sunset Boulevard, between Echo Park and Silverlake, in a shared house, with a few bohemian friends who were always welcoming.

It was a whole different world and very inspiring for me. Danny and I had a daily routine of watching bits of Don’t Look Back, listening to records, buying some doughnuts and coffee – vital – and then trying to write. I also had an obsession with Gatorade – the US version. I still do.

On previous visits we’d become good friends with Rob Campanella of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who had an excellent studio in his house. We’d written enough songs for an album, so we thought we should get them down for posterity and we invited some of the aforementioned people along for a day in the studio, setting up live and rattling through the whole lot in one day, pausing only for sandwiches from the deli and the odd beer. It was all so much fun and we knew that we had something.

Danny Power and Robin performing together at Pappy & Harriet’s, near Joshua Tree National Park, California. in 2008

Danny Power has been a big influence on you musically, hasn’t he? He’s inspired several Dreaming Spires songs and he got you into Big Star. How did you meet him?

RB: Danny Power was initially our West Coast tour manager, but he was – is – a musician too and we wound up becoming close friends. Mark Gardener had discovered Danny after his band, The And/Ors, opened for Mark’s solo tour, so when we came over as Mark’s backing band, he asked Danny to supply a van and equipment, which he did – rickety vintage gear you’d rarely see in the UK.

Danny worked printing art posters for the famous artist, Shepard Fairey, in a large warehouse in downtown L.A., so that’s where we rehearsed. It was an amazing scene to be part of. It was next to the American Apparel factory, in an eerie industrial district patrolled by homeless people pushing shopping trolleys, and there were also furtive porn movie shoots in warehouses – or so we heard. The Dreaming Spires song Singing Sin City describes meeting Danny and his van, which was named Darla.

You said that you were watching Don’t Look Back most mornings in L.A. The first song on Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror is The One And Only Lost Boy, which is a mid-’60s electric Dylan homage, isn’t it?

RB: Yes, certainly – though one of my earliest influences, like Dylan, was Chuck Berry, and it has a bit of that about it too.

The song is about your experiences as a Brit in L.A. What did you make of it?

RB: My experiences of L.A. were completely overwhelming – I’d been there once, aged 18, but not really found any of its secrets, but going there again in 2003, even after the thrill of touring the East Coast, was something else. It seemed like another planet and we were lucky enough to be introduced to some amazing places and people. We were probably as exotic to the Californians as they were to us.

Jason Anchondo, Danny Power and friends at a party

I can’t remember writing The One And Only Lost Boy, but all the people mentioned in it are real people we used to hang out with. Bobby (Bones), Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo and Dave ‘The Kid’ Koenig all play on the record so it’s very self-referential. Caroline and Abigail lived in Danny’s house. I really did get called Lindsay after [film director] Lindsay Anderson on account of my British accent, and on that writing trip it rained for several days, which was a real novelty in L.A. It caused many plants to bloom and gave me severe hay fever, enough to somewhat affect the sound of my voice on the record.

Nothing I Can’t Do Without is a lovely song. It sounds like a more stripped-down version of what you went on to do with The Dreaming Spires, but minus the jangly guitars. What can you tell me about it?

Nothing I Can’t Do Without was written on Danny’s porch, throwing phrases back and forth in a rapid fashion. The house was in sight of Sunset Boulevard, which, of course, is named after the amazing California sunsets, which are made more spectacular by a layer of smog.

I was definitely moving away from writing verse-chorus type songs, and getting more narrative in style. I was probably listening to Another Side…era Dylan, which seeped into the guitar style. It does sound a bit like the cover of Girl From The North Country that The Dreaming Spires started our career with. I basically used the same chords under the Dylan lyrics for that, as I didn’t know the correct chords.

As I Lay Dying is one of the darker songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? The piano sounds quite Lennonesque, and it’s a sad song…

RB: As I Lay Dying was written after a trip, so to speak, to Joshua Tree National Park, on one of our regular pilgrimages to the desert. It provided a very different perspective on life and the song was written down pretty much directly as we experienced it.

Robin at the piano, recording the album

‘When we mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe’

The title was from the William Faulkner novel. I was into trying to describe out-of-body or near-death experiences at the time, as also on the Goldrush album, The Heart Is The Place. The song There’s A World by Goldrush, on the Ozona album, is also based on being at Joshua Tree. It became one of our favourite places to go when in the US. We played at the famous Pappy & Harriet’s and stayed on Victoria Williams’ ranch and at number of other interesting spots. I seem to recall when Rowland Prytherch and I mixed the album back in England, we used plenty of WEM Copicat tape echo, which contributed to the Lennon-y vibe.

Where did the song It Takes No Talent To Party come from? Great title! I can imagine there was a lot of partying during your week in L.A… 

RB: The title was a saying from Dave Koenig, who, at the time, was the bass player in The Brian Jonestown Massacre, or he may have just left the band. He was kind enough to play bass on the album. He was a very funny guy and a master storyteller –  it was his phrase to describe some of the characters who populated the L.A. scene, which was to some extent surface over content. There certainly were a lot of parties, but I always found I could get by with very little sleep when in California –  it must have been the sunshine.

The record is one of highs and lows – there are musically upbeat songs, like The One And Only Lost Boy and Don’t Sleep Alone, but it’s often a melancholy, reflective record, isn’t it? What kind of frame of mind were you in when you made it? 

RB. My default song setting was melancholy, at least up to that point, so I’m glad I was able to produce some upbeat songs. It was a relatively carefree time if you could ignore all the wars and so on…

Let’s talk about that. The Iraq War was happening at the time you were making the album and it inspired some of the songs, like I’m A Soldier and Nation At War, which are folky protest songs. What was your take on the war at the time and what was it like being in the US while it was happening? 

RB: The TV was still filled with images of the post-9/11 Middle Eastern wars and Dubya was still President. The heavy post-9/11 security measures were very much in place and paranoia was in the air. We must have watched plenty of TV because the news filtered through into the songs. I remember sitting in a café and writing out the lyrics to Nation At War in a matter of minutes. I’m A Soldier covers the plight of returning veterans and is simple, but it holds up well, I think.

You Can’t Fool All The People (All The Time) is one of my favourite songs on the record. It has a country rock feel…

RB: Country rock loomed large in our lives, having recently got deep into Sweetheart of the Rodeo [The Byrds] and The Flying Burrito Brothers, etc. We loved going to thrift stores and Mexican markets to pick up quirky shirts –  they were hard to get hold of back then. It fascinated me to be in the same spot, making records as those individuals, as indeed it did no doubt for excellent local bands like Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde.

Darren from The Tyde and Bobby Bones play excellent guitar lines on the track, which makes the song. Rob Campanella’s brother Andy stepped in on drums, and his more languid style suited the song, with its unpredictable timings. As I recall, I played piano and sang live vocals on almost every song, apart from the acoustic picking numbers.

There are quite a few guests on the album…

RB: Jason ‘Plucky’ Anchondo was one of two drummers in The Warlocks, who were staples of the shoegazey revival scene, alongside The Brian Jonestown Massacre – we encountered numerous members of both bands. We’d met on our first trip when The Warlocks and Mark Gardener/Goldrush played in New York and we all jammed a version of Tomorrow Never Knows. I’d like to hear a recording of that!

Bobby Bones was a mysterious but delightful character, who looked like he could easily have been in The Rolling Stones. Darren Rademaker from The Tyde joined us too and contributed some wonderful guitar lines.

Back in England, I felt some female vocals would improve things – I was perhaps enjoying Emmylou Harris’ contributions to the Bright Eyes album –  and asked Piney Gir, who was a friend, and part of our Truck Records roster, to come and sing on a few tracks. Furthermore, Cat Martino, another US singer from Brooklyn, who became a great friend, sang on Nation At War, which was actually recorded in England that summer, when she visited.

What happened to the album at the time? Did it have a proper release and did you tour to support it?

RB: It didn’t have a major release – it came out on the label Truck Records, which I ran with friends. Most of the effort in 2005 went on tours to support the US and European releases of Goldrush’s Ozona album. I did play some really fun shows, however, and put together a great UK band including Loz Colbert from Ride on drums, Andrew Mitchell from Ralfe Band, Garo and Nick (Growler) from Goldrush and Rowland Prytherch on bass. We often joined by Piney as well, and sometimes later on by Danny Wilson – we’d just started becoming friends. There were plenty of others who jumped in on occasion –  almost too many to list!

The songs were simple enough to show people in a few minutes and usually it came off well. We played at The Social and The Borderline [in London], at a festival in Devon with Mojave 3, and quite a few other places. There were also a couple of gigs in L.A. with some of the original band, or perhaps just one – it’s shown in the video for The One And Only Lost Boy.

The album was credited to Dusty Sound System, rather than Robin Bennett. Where did the pseudonym come from?

RB: ‘Dusty’ was a nickname given to me be a friend from the village where I grew up – it was short for Dusty Bookworm, on account of how I liked to read and my dad was a bookseller.

By the time of the album, quite a lot of people called me Dusty, so it seemed a suitable pseudonym. I guess I wasn’t quite ready to perform under my given name. I really can’t remember how Sound System got added – it meant that there didn’t have to be a fixed band, or it could just be me. The pseudonym gave me freedom to have fun.

Bennett Wilson Poole – photo by John Morgan

Let’s leave 2005 behind and fast forward to 2020, to talk about Bennett Wilson Poole.

Last year, you had to postpone your headlining London show, at the Islington Assembly Hall, as Tony Poole was unwell, and, this year, you were due to appear at the Ramblin’ Roots festival, which had to be postponed due to Covid-19. Are you hoping to gig later this year – all being well – and how’s Tony doing?

RB: Tony seems well currently, which is great. I’ve spoken to him a few times during lockdown. The first thing we did when we heard about the virus, even pre-lockdown, was cancel a Bennett Wilson Poole rehearsal – we need to look after Tony, in particular.

‘The second Bennett Wilson Poole album is written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it’

I’m not very optimistic about indoor concerts taking place anywhere during 2020, so we may have to wait a little longer.

What’s the current state of play with Bennett Wilson Poole? Is your eagerly-awaited second album written and recorded?

RB: It’s written, recorded and mastered – we’re just waiting to work out how to release it in the present circumstances. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it.

One of the great things about Bennett Wilson Poole for me is the songwriting partnership Danny Wilson and I have developed. After it became impossible to write with Danny Power, I didn’t know if I’d find the same thing again, but we have struck up a similar ability to write songs and write them quickly. We both love the excitement of songwriting.

The Dreaming Spires: Robin and Joe Bennett

At this year’s Ramblin’ Roots, The Dreaming Spires were also due to play. Do you think there will be another Dreaming Spires record in the future?

RB: It’s hard to say. We are all still good friends and enjoying getting together to play now and then. We’re very proud of the albums we did. The songs all fit together as a set, so, if there was a new album, it would have to have some different subject matter.

As a professional musician and also a festival promoter what are you most worried about because of the Covid-19 crisis? Are you optimistic about the future? Will things get back to normal? What’s your take on it? What will have to happen in the ‘new normal?’

RB: I suppose, like most people, I am worried about my health and that of those close to me – and it’s clearly going to have a heavy impact on the live music business – indeed it already is. Looking for a positive, I think that connection and culture have grown in importance for us all as we’re stuck in our homes, and I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene. It’s hard to say exactly what that will look like, as we are still learning about how the virus operates.

‘Connection and culture have grown in importance as we’re stuck in our homes. I have realised how precious those things are. That gives me confidence that we will find a way to rebuild the music scene’

Clearly, some of the remote working and live streaming events will continue in the future, and we will be wary of cramped gatherings for a while. I’ve always been drawn to locally-oriented events, and perhaps there will be more of those as people resist long-distance travel. Also it’s opportunity to make sure all that back catalogue stuff is out there and available.

What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown is lifted?

RB: Going to play, or watching a band in a cramped pub, preferably The Betsey Trotwood. I might have to wait quite a while for that to happen, so in the meantime a socially-distanced cup of coffee in a café will do.

Days of Splendor, Nights of Horror by Dusty Sound System is available to stream or purchase at:  https://dustysoundsystem.bandcamp.com/

For more on Bennett Wilson Poole, visit: https://www.bennettwilsonpoole.com/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s