2022: The year of the Hollow Heart

Say It With Garage Flowers chooses its favourite albums of 2022 and takes a closer look at the stories and influences behind some of the best Americana records released this year.

2022 was better for me personally than 2021, when I experienced some tough times following the death of my dad, but, on the socio-political side of things, it’s been a difficult 12 months, with chaos in government, a cost of living crisis and general uncertainty casting a long, dark shadow across the country.

Music is always there to get you through the bad times, as well as the good, and the album I kept coming back to in 2022 was Hollow Heart – the fourth offering by London’s cosmic country kings, The Hanging Stars, so I’ve chosen it as my favourite record of the year.

The Hanging Stars

It was uplifting musically, but lyrically it was often tinged with sadness, and it wasn’t afraid to comment on the state of the country – the ‘60s-garage-rock-meets-The-Byrds song, I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore, was written about being completely helpless at the hands of the Tory government, while the West Coast psych-pop of You’re So Free concerned itself with anti-vaxxers and how Brexit and Trump’s presidency created social divide.

Speaking in February 2022, when he gave me the first interview about Hollow Heart, ahead of its release, the band’s frontman, Richard Olson, said: “There was a lot of sadness. Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think the lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written.”

I think the new record is their best to date. It’s even better than its predecessor, 2020’s A New Kind of Sky, which was a mix of cinematic sounds, psych, jangle-pop, folk and country-rock. Released in the wake of Brexit, thematically that album dealt with the idea of escaping and getting away to a better place.

‘There was a lot of sadness. Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think the lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written’

To make the follow-up, the band and producer/musician, Sean Read (Soulsavers, Dexys Midnight Runners) decamped to Edwyn Collins’ Clashnarrow Studios in Helmsdale, in The Highlands of Scotland, which overlooks the North Sea.

Edwyn offered us the use of his studio – it felt like being anointed – and Sean is one of the two engineers who he lets work there – the stars aligned,” said Olson.

“That happened during the pandemic, so we had to find a window when we were allowed to do it. It was quite a project, transporting six people to Helmsdale, with a bunch of instruments.”

He added: “We drove in two cars and we set to work – we grafted and we were so focused. It was magical from start to finish. When you’re standing in the studio, and the sun’s setting over the bay, and you’re singing Weep & Whisper, that shit makes you think that you’ve made it! We got given this chance and we had to deliver the goods.”

And deliver the goods they did. Opener, the slow-building love song, Ava, is stunning – it creeps in with some gorgeous, haunting pedal steel and twangy guitar, then blossoms into magnificent, blissed-out and anthemic country rock.

Second single, Black Light Night, is irresistible – pairing a seriously dark and foreboding lyric with music that evokes vintage R.E.M – guitars are set to jangle and the harmonies wing their way down from (near wild) heaven.

The dreamy Weep & Whisper – “There’s a girl I used to know. She wore her hair long in an endless satin bow” – is much more subdued – a folky shuffle that Olson describes as a love song to youth. It sounds like it’s been hanging out at Scarborough Fair with Simon & Garfunkel.

The majestic and shimmering Ballad Of Whatever May Be could be The Stone Roses doing country rock, and first single, Radio On, melds the best of Big Star with The Velvet Underground.

Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart – one of the album’s heavier and darkest moments – is brooding psych-folk in the vein of Fairport Convention.

You’re So Free has Ethiopian jazz piano and echoes of ‘60s West Coast pop group The Turtles, while Edwyn Collins guests on the moving and filmic, Rainbows In Windows, providing spoken vocals inspired by The Velvet Underground’s The Gift.

Opening with a great, jangly guitar riff that Roger McGuinn would’ve killed for back in the day, the sprightly I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore nods to The See See – the band The Hanging Stars came from – but throws in a unexpected, baroque-space rock mid-section.

“This is probably the most traditional record we’ve ever done – in the sense that we had some songs, we went to the studio to finish them off and we had x amount of time to make the album,” said Olson.

“It was good for us and it was a joy to see everybody flourish in the studio in their own way. It brought out what we’re good at. We also wanted to think about the sonics – Sean came into his own and we had so much fun doing it. We threw the rulebook out of the window – we had to.”

And did Olson think it’s their best album? “Of course it is. You wouldn’t be making records otherwise,” he told me.  “With this album, we had to be The Hanging Stars and I think we did a pretty damned good job of it.”

It’s hard to argue with him.

One of my other favourite UK Americana albums of the year was Leo, the third solo record by former Case Hardin frontman, Pete Gow.

The trademark orchestral sound he debuted on 2019’s Here There’s No Sirens and its follow-up, The Fragile Line – from 2020 – was bolstered by some impressive, rich and soulful horn arrangements courtesy of his producer, multi-instrumentalist, Joe Bennett (The Dreaming Spires, Bennett Wilson Poole, Co-Pilgrim, Saint Etienne).

Leo felt like the natural successor to Gow’s previous two solo records, which were also created with Bennett (bass, piano, organ, vocals, strings, horns) and drummer, Fin Kenny, who, like Gow, are both workhorses of the UK Americana scene.

Photo of Pete Gow by David Cohen

Reviewing the album for Americana UK earlier this year – I gave it 9/10 – I said: ‘Leo is Gow’s most accomplished and ambitious album yet, with Bennett taking his collaborator’s wry story songs about barrooms, booze, rock ‘n’roll and record collections and turning them into widescreen epics, the orchestral and brass arrangements perfectly complement these lyrically deft tales and the lives of the characters that inhabit them.’

Leonard’s Bar, which is the centrepiece of the album and where the record takes its title from, reminds me of one of those Springsteen story songs, written about people and their small town lives, but with a hint of Nick Cave about it, too.

It’s about a former criminal who’s fallen on hard times and finds himself caught up in a difficult situation – one last job – thanks to his brother-in-law, Leo.

Telling me about the track, Gow said: “That song was written about my first trip to the States with my partner and my first trip back to her hometown, which is Baltimore, or thereabouts. I had a notebook with me the whole time and I was jotting stuff down. At the time, her brother was going through a divorce and living at his mum’s – that’s where I met him.”

He added: “The barman in the song with ‘This’ and ‘That’ tattooed on his knuckles was just a guy that served me, my partner and her cousin drinks one afternoon in a Baltimore bar. I saw it and wrote it down.”

Another UK Americana artist with a knack of writing great story songs is Michael Weston King – the record he released this year, The Struggle, was his first solo album in 10 years.

A stunning collection of moving, well-crafted and wonderfully arranged songs, recorded in rural Wales, with producer, engineer and musician, Clovis Phillips, the record saw Weston King stepping away from his day job, as one half of husband-and-wife country / Americana duo, My Darling Clementine (with Lou Dalgleish), and, instead, mining a rich seam of late ’60s/ early ’70s singer-songwriters, like Mickey Newbury, Dan Penn, Jesse Winchester, John Prine, Bobby Charles and early Van Morrison.

Michael Weston King

Mixed at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with Weston King’s long-time collaborator/producer, Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley / Jarvis Cocker), musically, it explores country-soul, Celtic folk and jazz, and lyrically it tackles subjects including the Trump presidency, mental health issues, loneliness, death and the tales of a wayfaring singer-songwriter.

Two of the songs were co-writes. Sugar was penned with US singer-songwriter, Peter Case, while Theory of Truthmakers sees Weston King putting music to unused lyrics by his friend, Scottish songwriter and musician, Jackie Leven, who died in 2011.

Telling me about the idea behind the album, Weston King said: “If I’d had the budget, I wanted it to sound like Mickey Newbury in 1970, but that would’ve meant an orchestra on every track.

‘I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record, but country-soul was always at the heart of it’

“One of the songs, Another Dying Day, was the starting point – it was the most Newburyesque song. We put strings on it and approached it in the same way that he’d recorded a lot of his stuff, with a lot of nylon-strung guitar. Some of the other songs happened organically and went off in other directions.”

He added: “I certainly wasn’t trying to make an Americana or country record, but country-soul was always at the heart of it –  a bit of a Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham vibe. We have some Wurlitzer on there.”

There were also some Americana moments on Breaking The Fall, the first solo album by singer-songwriter, Matt James, who was formerly the drummer with ’90s Britrockers Gene.

Although it’s a debut record, it sounds like a best of collection – 10 memorable, varied and, at times, very personal and emotional, songs that embrace folk, country, soul, indie-rock, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and ’60s pop.

Occasionally it recalls Gene –  the country-soul of A Simple Message and the anthemic ballad Different World – but most of the time, it’s the sound of someone experimenting with different styles and enjoying being in the studio again after a long time away. James left the music industry for several years.

Speaking to me about the record in August 2022, he said: “I’m sort of trying everything out – I have thrown it all in there. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction.”

Stepping out from behind the drum kit to put himself in the spotlight for the first time, he relied on some old friends to help him out.

Former Gene band mates Steve Mason (guitar) and Kevin Miles (bass) were along for the ride, as was keyboard player, Mick Talbot, (The Style Council, Dexys Midnight Runners), who played live with Gene and on radio sessions.

I’m sort of trying everything out – I have thrown it all in there. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction’

Production duties were taken care of by former Gene associate, Stephen Street, (The Smiths / Morrissey, Blur, The Cranberries) – sonically, the album is rich, colourful and diverse – and there was some guitar work by James’s friend, Peredur ap Gwynedd (Perry for short), from electronic rockers Pendulum.

Photo of Matt James by Embracing Unique: Laura Holme.

 

Low-key first song, From Now On, is a gorgeous, acoustic folk-country campfire ballad, with an accordion keyboard sound, but it’s followed by the powerful, extremely personal and upbeat Champione – a moody indie-rocker written about James’s father, who was blighted by mental health and addiction issues. Once again, there’s a slight country influence, thanks to the atmospheric slide guitar.

The emotional title track, which is another ballad and sounds quite like one of the more reflective moments by his old band, sees James contemplating his time away from music and creativity: “Don’t leave me in the dark – just take me straight back to the dancing.”

And, on that note, Sad is a big, infectious Northern Soul-style floor-filler, like late Jam or The Style Council, and, appropriately enough, it features Mick Talbot on organ.

The mighty Born To Rule has triumphant Spaghetti Western / mariachi horns on it, the twinkling Snowy Peaks is a festive-themed love song that scales dramatic heights – the choral middle eight sounds like The Beach Boys in church – and the dark, yet ultimately optimistic, High Time, recalls life-changing events, including a near-fatal car crash and a chance encounter that led to the formation of Gene.

From Americana to Canadiana… singer-songwriter, Jerry Leger, describes his latest album, Nothing Pressing, as his ‘deepest artistic statement yet’.

It’s also one of his strongest and darkest records. Largely written and recorded in the wake of a close friend’s death and with the shadow of Covid hanging over it, Leger said it’s an album about survival – mental, physical and artistic.

Some of the songs, like the stark, stripped-down and folky Underground Blues and Sinking In, were recorded in his Toronto apartment, using two SM58 microphones fed into his vintage 1981 Tascam four-track tape recorder.

“I spent a lot of the lockdown writing and demoing using the four-track,” he told me. “I wasn’t writing with the pandemic in mind – and some songs were written before it happened – but the album does have a feeling of isolation, reflection, longing and gratitude.”

He added: “It was spring of last year that I unexpectedly lost one of my best friends. I think it’s unavoidable that things like that seep in. It’s a surreal feeling losing someone close. I wasn’t consciously writing with him in mind, but I can now hear traces of me dealing with it in a few of the songs.”

The raw and punchy Kill It With Kindness,  upbeat rocker Have You Ever Been Happy?, the Neil Young-like Recluse Revisions, the classic country-sounding A Page You’ve Turned, and the Beatlesy love song With Only You were laid down in the studio with his long-time producer, Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), and Leger’s band, The Situation (Dan Mock (bass/vocals), Kyle Sullivan (drums/percussion). There are guest contributions on the album from Tim Bovaconti (pedal steel) and Angie Hilts (vocals).

‘I wasn’t writing with the pandemic in mind – and some songs were written before it happened – but the album does have a feeling of isolation, reflection, longing and gratitude’

The song, Nothing Pressing, which opens the record, and the tracks Protector and Still Patience are solo acoustic, recorded live in the studio with few embellishments, save for Mock’s overdubbed harmony vocals and, on the title track, Timmins’s ukulele.

The follow-up to his 2019 studio album, Time Out For Tomorrow, Nothing Pressing is a great collection of songs – and often painfully honest. On Still Patience, over a sparse backing of guitar and Wurlitzer, Leger sings: “I go drinking by myself, when I got nobody else, for misery is company.”

At times sad and reflective, it’s an album that doesn’t shy away from tackling personal issues, such as mental health, depression and seeking solace in alcohol, but it’s also a record that believes a problem shared is a problem halved.

“I really hope that this record is given the attention it needs. It’s not really an undertaking [to listen to], but it requires a little more work than Time Out For Tomorrow, which was very inviting,” he said,

“It could be very helpful for a lot of people – it’s one of those records that I would go to for a different type of comfort. I need to know that other people are going through all these crazy feelings too.”

It was certainly an album that helped me get through 2022 and, on that note, here’s the full list of records I’ve enjoyed over the past 12 months, with an accompanying Spotify playlist. I hope you can find room in your heart for some of these songs – hollow or otherwise…

Say It With Garage Flowers: Best Albums of 2022

  1. The Hanging Stars – Hollow Heart
  2. Arctic Monkeys – The Car
  3. Matt James – Breaking The Fall
  4. Pete Gow – Leo
  5. Michael Weston King – The Struggle
  6. Jerry Leger – Nothing Pressing
  7. Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Dear Scott
  8. Nev Cotttee – Madrid
  9. Johnny Marr – Fever Dreams, Pts 1-4.
  10. Beth Orton – Weather Alive
  11. PM Warson – Dig Deep Repeat
  12. Daisy Glaze – Daisy Glaze
  13. The Magic City TrioThe Magic City Trio
  14. The Delines – The Sea Drift
  15. Nick Gamer – Suburban Cowboy
  16. Duke Garwood – Rogues Gospel
  17. M. Lockwood Porter – Sisyphus Happy
  18. Thomas Dollbaum – Wellswood
  19. Vinny Peculiar Artists Only
  20. GA-20 – Crackdown
  21. Wilco – Cruel Country
  22. Andrew Weiss and Friends – Sunglass & Ash
  23. Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler – For All Our Days That Tear The Heart
  24. Morton Valence Morton Valence
  25. M Ross Perkins – E Pluribus M Ross
  26. The Lightning Seeds – See You In The Stars
  27. Monophonics – Sage Motel
  28. Andy Bell – Flicker
  29. Spiritualized – Everything Was Beautiful
  30. Leah Weller – Freedom
  31. Pixy Jones – Bits N Bobs
  32. The Boo Radleys – Keep On With Falling
  33. Gabriel’s DawnGabriel’s Dawn
  34. Alex Lipinski – Everything Under The Sun
  35. The Gabbard Brothers – The Gabbard Brothers
  36. Triptides – So Many Days
  37. Ian M BaileyYou Paint The Pictures
  38. Gold Star – Headlights USA
  39. The Chesterfields – New Modern Homes
  40. Kevin Robertson – Teaspoon of Time
  41. The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness – The Third Wave Of…
  42. Elvis Costello and The Imposters – The Boy Named If
  43. Nick Piunti and the Complicated Men – Heart Inside Your Head
  44. The Senior Service – A Little More Time With
  45. Bangs & Talbot – Back To Business
  46. Monks Road SocialRise Up Singing!
  47. Electribe 101 – Electribal Soul
  48. Ricky Ross – Short Stories Vol.2
  49. The Low Drift – The Low Drift
  50. The House of Love – A State of Grace
  51. Foxton and Hastings – The Butterfly Effect
  52. Graham Day – The Master of None
  53. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – Cold As Weiss
  54. Mark E Nevin – While The Kingdom Crumbles
  55. Paul Draper – Cult Leader Tactics
  56. Liam Gallagher – C’mon You Know
  57. Teddy and the Rough Riders – Teddy and the Rough Riders
  58. Brim – California Gold
  59. The Haven Green – To Whom It May Concern
  60. Steve Cradock – Soundtrack For An Imaginary Film

‘Drinking and listening to music is fairly consistent throughout a lot of my work’

Photo of Pete Gow by David Cohen

One of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite albums of 2022 is Leo – the third solo record by former Case Hardin frontman, Pete Gow.

The trademark orchestral sound he debuted on 2019’s Here There’s No Sirens and its follow-up, The Fragile Line – from 2020 – was bolstered by some impressive, rich and soulful horn arrangements courtesy of his producer, multi-instrumentalist, Joe Bennett (The Dreaming Spires, Bennett Wilson Poole, Co-Pilgrim, Saint Etienne).

Leo feels like the natural successor to Gow’s previous two solo records, which were also created with Bennett (bass, piano, organ, vocals, strings, horns) and drummer, Fin Kenny, who, like Gow, are both workhorses of the UK Americana scene.

Reviewing the album for Americana UK earlier this year – I gave it 9/10 – I said: ‘Leo is Gow’s most accomplished and ambitious album yet, with Bennett taking his collaborator’s wry story songs about barrooms, booze, rock ‘n’roll and record collections and turning them into widescreen epics – the orchestral and brass arrangements perfectly complement these lyrically deft tales and the lives of the characters that inhabit them.’

In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Pete to get the full story about the writing and recording of the album and, to tie-in with a lyric from Leo’s opening song, Where Else Would We Be Going, I asked him to choose some of his favourite albums from the year that he was born.

Q&A

You recorded the basics of the album in February 2020, just ahead of lockdown didn’t you?

Pete Gow: It was quite literally days before everything locked down. In the studio, Joe had these white sheets of paper up on the wall, that you write on with a Sharpie – song titles, album titles… Then he marks up what needs doing – backing vocals… then ticks them off.

When I went back and started doing other work on the album, we realised just how close to lockdown it was. In two days, myself, Fin and Joe worked through the songs – all the drums, the scratch guide vocals and guitar.

We had all sorts of plans for this record. We even talked about bringing in electric guitar – something that was different from the Here There’s No Sirens record – but then what happened happened… But it actually worked out in our favour, from the perspective that Joe’s studio is just down the road from his house, so he was able to work through lockdown and build the album up with nothing but the limits of his imagination.

You can hear that on songs like The City Is A Symphony – he went Brian Wilson nuts! I’m sure he was in a sandpit with a fireman’s helmet on when he did it.

It’s interesting that you said you had plans to do different stuff musically on this album, because the horns are more prominent this time around on some of the tracks, but there are still big string arrangements like on your first two solo albums. You’ve expanded the sound, but, apart from the guitar and drums, it’s Joe playing everything, isn’t it?

PG: Yes – everything.

It’s an even bigger sound on this album…

PG: Yes it is and that was a considered choice. We didn’t sit down before the album was recorded and say, ‘Let’s make this a horns record’, but we both knew we needed to do something different sonically.

The Fragile Line was a legitimate album, but it was never really intended as one, so, in my own mind, I don’t really count it as a proper record. It’s got a cover on it and a reworking of one of my own songs on it, so it’s kind of a companion piece to Here There’s No Sirens.

‘On The City Is A Symphony, Joe went Brian Wilson nuts! I’m sure he was in a sandpit with a fireman’s helmet on when he did it’

Horns were always part of the discussion – the tracks that I’d been writing just felt that they lent themselves to it.

Let’s Make War A Little Longer, off The Fragile Line, had some horns on it – Joe and I were thinking we could’ve really just done that as a horns track. Horns were definitely because of the necessity and there being no else to work on this record, so that took Joe down that road more firmly than we’ve previously discussed.

It’s a great sound, but I’ll avoid any ‘Pete Gow gets horny’ headlines…

PG: They’ve all been thrown around on various WhatsApp chats.

You’re a prolific songwriter, but were all the tracks on the record written for it, or do some date back from before your previous albums?

PG: It’s a mix.

‘I wrote Say It With Flowers specifically so I could get an interview with you’

There were a few songs written in the lead-up to making the album, but also included in that pile were Cheap and Shapeless Dress and Happy Hour At The Lobby Bar, which we decided to pluck from the pile and put out as a single during lockdown. That meant there were more songs needed writing, so the last two written for the project were the first two on the album, largely by coincidence – Where Else Would We Be Going and Say It With Flowers, which I wrote specifically so I could get an interview with you.

Thanks for that. Let’s talk about Where Else Would We Be Going, which was the first single from the album. It’s representative of the record – it’s a big song, with brass, strings and organ. It was a bold comeback statement…

PG: I know exactly what you mean. It was the last song written for the record and very quickly we knew it was the first song that we wanted everybody to hear, even before we’d finished putting it together.

‘Where Else Would We Be Going is reasonably joyous. It’s not often there’s that level of positivity in a Pete Gow lyric’

We’ve all gone through a lot of changes – there have been some fairly significant changes to my life, in what could be deemed as happening late in life, as I’m in my 50s now. Some of the song is about taking on those changes despite age, I guess – it’s a little Post-It Note of encouragement to my partner, and a note to self. It’s all of those things but I think it’s reasonably joyous. Where else would be going? What else have we got to do? We may as well do this. It’s not often there’s that level of positivity in a Pete Gow lyric.

That song is reprised at the end of the record, in a more sombre format, which is kind of the way it was written, then, before I got into the studio, it morphed into another version. We couldn’t decide between the two, but we’ve never bookended an album, so we thought we’d do that.

This record isn’t a concept album, but some of the songs share common themes, don’t they? You first solo album was very honest and personal, but this one has more character songs on it – albeit with your own personal touch. Leonard’s Bar, which is the centrepiece of the album and where the record takes its title from, reminds me of one of those Springsteen story songs, written about people and their small town lives, but with a hint of Nick Cave about it, too.

It’s about a former criminal who’s fallen on hard times and finds himself caught up in a difficult situation – one last job – thanks to his brother-in-law, Leo.

PG: That song was written about my first trip to the States with my partner and my first trip back to her hometown, which is Baltimore, or thereabouts. I had a notebook with me the whole time and I was jotting stuff down. At the time, her brother was going through a divorce and living at his mum’s – that’s where I met him.

The barman in the song with ‘This’ and ‘That’ tattooed on his knuckles was just a guy that served me, my partner and her cousin drinks one afternoon in a Baltimore bar. I saw it and wrote it down.

‘I can’t have too much positivity on my records – I need to bring it back down and appeal to base, with traumatised hitmen’

The narrative, the guy in the bar… it came together very organically and I just knew that it was going to be a reasonably big song. It took me a few weeks to pull it together – it’s quite long, but I think I edited it down. If I go through my notebook I’ll find verses that never quite made it – I wanted it to be expansive and to make a statement like Poets Corner, from previous albums, does. It has kind of movements to it – this one is telling a story, whereas Poets Corner doesn’t have a narrative. Leonard’s Bar has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Independent of each other, Joe and I realised it was a pivotal track. It’s the beginning of side two on the vinyl album, which is prime real estate for such a track.

There’s some great imagery in the song. I like the line: ‘I can still hear the screams and the smell of their fear, the piss in their pants and their hopeless tears.’  It has a dark twist, doesn’t it?

PG: Well, I can’t have too much positivity on my records – I need to bring it back down and appeal to base, with traumatised hitmen.

Know your audience…

PG: [laughs]

There are a lot of references to alcohol and music on the album. Say It With Flowers mentions getting drunk and playing the Derek and the Dominos song, Bell Bottom Blues, one of the tracks is called Side III of London Calling, and Where Else Would We Be Going references drinking while listening to your favourite albums that came out the year you were born. Was that a conscious thing?

PG: It wasn’t. It comes about because drinking and listening to music is fairly consistent throughout a lot of my work. These songs cover quite a long period of time, so without going in, editing and rewriting stuff, which I’m not really a huge fan of, that’s the consequence of that.

The second verse of Say It With Flowers is based on when Jim Maving and I got together to do some writing and, as what normally happens, we ended up drinking and pissing around on guitars. I sent my partner away for the weekend because I told her I needed some time with Jim to do some writing and then the two of just got drunk and ended up messing around with Clapton’s Bell Bottom Blues. It’s a true story.

And Side III of London Calling – where did that song come from? I need to refamiliarise myself with that album, as I can’t remember what’s on Side III…

PG: Death or Glory, Koka Kola… When I was a teenager and I bought that album a couple of years after it came out, they were the songs. I can’t remember where that line came from – I’d probably put the album on for the first time in 10 years and thought, ‘That’s a fucking great side of music’ – and it is. There are four songs that haven’t really been bettered with regards to a side of vinyl. So, I related that to finding the perfect woman – my partner. It probably happened after a load of gin one night. See, drinking and music…

Casino is one of my favourite songs on the record – it sounds like a classic Pete Gow, late-night ballad. The organ gives it a soul feel…

PG: It’s a good song to talk about because it’s definitely a transitional one between Here There’s No Sirens, The Fragile Line and the new album. It still has the strings on it and it could’ve easily fitted on either of those first two records. It dates back to the Case Hardin days, but it had a slightly more country feel then. When I realised that I wanted to use it for this project, I went back to it but it didn’t feel big enough.

Since I’ve been working with Joe, I write with him in mind. It needed a section where it could suck the air out of your chest. The middle bit used to be a verse, so I looked at how I could make it something that Joe could work with. I rewrote it specifically for the recording. Jim Maving came up with the riff.

As you said earlier, on The City Is A Symphony, Joe embraces his inner Brian Wilson. There’s a surprising Beach Boys-style mid-section. I guess Joe took that song in a completely different direction to what you would’ve done with it…

PG: Very much so. I found the original demo of it the other day. Every time I hear The City Is A Symphony, I’m surprised at what he did with it, but that was renewed when I heard what I had originally given him.

If you go back to the raw product, the thought that he saw potential in it and took it there was quite staggering, but that’s what he does.

In Case Hardin I was pretty controlling – band leader and producer of records. I knew what I wanted. I would listen to other people, but I kind of got things the way I wanted them. I knew that by going with Joe, I was going to have to surrender some of that control – and that’s what I wanted.

‘In Case Hardin I was pretty controlling – band leader and producer. I knew that by going with Joe, I was going to have to surrender some of that control’

I wanted someone else’s input. Over the course of the three records we’ve done together, there’s stuff where I thought, ‘Oh – I wouldn’t have done it like that,’ but, most of the time I’m blown away by what Joe brings to the project. That’s why you’ll always see his name, ‘Produced by Joe Bennett’ prominently on my records. He really does have as much input to the material and the albums as mine – his contribution is just as important. I always refer to them as ‘our albums,’ even though it’s my name above the door.

Photo of Pete Gow by David Cohen

 

And Fin Kenny played drums on the record, and Tony Poole (Starry Eyed and Laughing and Bennett, Wilson, Poole) mastered it…

PG: Yeah – Fin is the only other musician on it. The first voice anyone hears on the record is Fin’s – at the start of Where Else Would We Be Going. The amount of time in any one eight-hour period or in a rehearsal room where he goes ‘OK?’ – to hear it every time you put that record on was essential to us. We’re glad that everything fell together and it worked out nicely that we could have it to be the first thing on the album.

Tony Poole masters most of Joe’s productions – those two are very much in tune with each other. Mastering is a dark art and I wouldn’t profess to understanding it or knowing the science of it, but you can just hear when something has been mastered well. Tony takes care and works his way through the tracks. He works in passages and frequencies – he’s a master of that.

In Where Else Would We Be Going, you mention albums from the year you were born. You were born in 1970 – do you have some favourite records from that year?

PG: I’m obsessed with anything that was released that year. There are some fairly obvious ones – Bridge Over Troubled Water, Déjà Vu, Loaded –  there are some huge records from 1970. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis came out that year  – there’s a great double album of his sets from Fillmore West, when he was opening for The Band. It’s just called Miles Davis at Fillmore – I picked that up. I bought it just because it came out in 1970. I spent a few weeks with that – it’s the peak of his avant-garde, with that John McLaughlin guitar sound.

‘I’m obsessed with anything that was released in 1970’

I know Eric Clapton has almost talked himself into being cancelled, but Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos is a fantastic record.  If you can make a record like that, with alcohol and drug abuse… It’s less cool than it’s made out to be, but sometimes it just comes together and works.

From beginning to end, it’s a terrific record – and I reference Bell Bottom Blues in Casino because, despite everything Clapton’s done to completely damage and destroy his reputation, I can’t get away from the fact that it’s one of my favourite songs ever.

Leo by Pete Gow is out now on Clubhouse Records – vinyl, CD and digital.

https://www.petegow.com/

http://www.clubhouserecords.co.uk/

https://petegow.bandcamp.com/

Moseley Souls

Daniel Rachel and Simon Fowler, back in the day, at The Jug of Ale, Moseley, Birmingham

It’s that time of year, when websites and magazines publish their Best Of lists – ours is coming soon.

When it comes to music books, one of the best and most entertaining we’ve read in 2022 is One For The Road: The Life & Lyrics of Simon Fowler & Ocean Colour Scene.

Written as a series of conversations between Simon Fowler, the frontman and chief songwriter of ’90s Britrockers, Ocean Colour Scene, and the author, Daniel Rachel, Simon’s former flatmate and lifelong friend, the biography, which centres on his lyrics from 69 songs, but weaves them into Simon’s life story and the highs and lows of the band – by the way, there are a lot of highs, and that’s just the drugs and booze – is a fascinating read.

Often very funny and sometimes poignant, it’s a very honest book that doesn’t shy away from documenting the excesses of the ’90s Britpop scene, but also deals with some serious issues, including Simon’s outing at the hands of The Sun newspaper. 

It reveals the stories behind the songs, as well as the people and the places that inspired them, like the music scene in Moseley, Birmingham, where both of the authors lived.

There are also over 200 personal photographs, lyrics to 13 unreleased songs, memorabilia and handwritten song words, as well as an exclusive 7in single featuring two songs recorded by Simon in 1986, The American Way of Life and I, captured on a portable tape recorder.

To celebrate the launch of the book, Daniel and Simon invited Say It With Garage Flowers to The Hawley Arms pub, in Camden, North London, for an exclusive interview.

One for the road, anyone?

Simon Fowler, Sean Hannam and Daniel Rachel at The Hawley Arms, Camden – December 2022.

Q&A

Was the way you approached the book, with it being based on song lyrics and how they relate to your life story, inspired by the McCartney book, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present?

Simon Fowler: It was, because the idea of doing ‘In the beginning…’ – we wouldn’t have been able to collaborate on that, because of my memory… There’s a lot of memorabilia in the book, too…

[To Daniel]: You have a good memory and you’ve collected a lot of stuff from Simon and Ocean Colour Scene over the years, haven’t you?

Daniel Rachel: That’s how it’s turned out, but I don’t remember doing it as systemically as that. I can remember Paul Simon saying that he went round to Bob Dylan’s house and Bob was walking around while Paul was just picking everything up and saying to himself, ‘Maybe I’ll find out the answer…’

To be honest, I thought it was really amazing what Ocean Colour Scene were doing as a band, and seeing the process happen during all the different stages. I always loved the music. The memories were imprinted on my mind because it was incredible what was happening in-front of my eyes. When you have those moments, you get photographic memories of them.

We were living together, and I’d said to Simon: ‘Have you got any tunes?’ He’d pick up a guitar, play me Get Blown Away and say, ‘What do you think?’

Your friendship goes back a long way – pretty much 40 years…

DR: Simon knew me when I was five, but I didn’t really know him – I knew his dad.

SF: Their family lived about three doors down.

 

[To Daniel]: There’s a story in the book where you say you can remember Simon staying up until the early hours of the morning, getting stoned and writing songs…

DR: That’s what everybody did in Moseley – Simon was one of quite a lot of people.

Was there not much else to do in Moseley?

DR: That’s why you’re in Moseley – because you’re into music, going down the pub, taking drugs and going to clubs. All the people that liked those things congregated and then they’d come back to our flat and everybody would pass around the guitar and play tunes. It just so happened that Simon was the best of the lot.

‘The book isn’t just about me and my songs. It’s also about our friendship and all of our gang. It’s a story’

When did you start working on the book?

DR: Simon phoned me up this year and said, ‘Do you fancy doing a book? I’ve read Macca’s one – why don’t we do it like that?’

SF: I think it was February.

So, it’s come together really quickly?

DR: Amazingly quickly – in the publishing world, that’s unheard of. My original idea was for it to just be Simon’s words.

SF: But it developed. The book isn’t just about me and my songs – that wouldn’t be as interesting. It’s also about our friendship and all of our gang. It’s a story.

It’s turned about being an autobiography, but via the songs…

SF: It has.

Why did you choose 69 songs?

DF: That was completely coincidental.

SF: [To Daniel]: Was it? I thought you were giving me a hint.

[Everyone laughs]

DR: I chose all the songs that I thought should be in it, then Simon said, ‘What I think is my best lyric isn’t in there.’ I said: ‘Oh dear – what’s your best lyric?’

He said it was Men Of Such Opinion. So that was added to it, and I think we lost one or two songs and the fact that it ended at 69 was arbitrary – there wasn’t a plan as to how many songs we’d have. What dictated it more was that the book was always going to be 288 pages. Also, I was born in 1969… when The Beatles were still going.

‘I couldn’t be arsed to be a mod. I just used to dress like Neil Young – jeans,  a Millets shirt and a leather jacket’

SF: I was born while The Beatles were still going and before we won the World Cup.

In 1965?

SF: Yeah

Picture: Featureflash Photo Agency, via Shutterstock.

[To Simon]: Growing up, you liked Bowie, Neil Young, Dylan and The Beatles, and you were into folk music, but Ocean Colour Scene got tagged as mods…

SF: Yeah – we did have that influence… Are The Beatles or The Stones a mod band? The Who weren’t really a mod band – The Small Faces were. The Who’s management turned them into a mod band. My first incarnation as a lead singer was stolen directly from The Who video, where there’s a lad who looks like Jean Seberg – I fancied him. It’s one of those single like I Can’t Explain… He’s wearing a Breton top, white trousers and desert boots.

DR: It’s when The Who are at Shepherd’s Bush in ’65 and there’s a lad dancing. The funny thing is, neither of us have ever been mods.

SF: I couldn’t be arsed to be a mod. I just used to dress like Neil Young – jeans,  a Millets shirt and a leather jacket.

DR: Simon was into The Kinks and The Who and those kind of bands – he just wasn’t dressing like a mod. The mod thing was how Steve Cradock [Ocean Colour Scene guitarist] dressed.

SF: He got that from Paul Weller.

In the early days of performing on stage, you were quite camp, weren’t you?

SF: I got that from Bowie.

DR: And Jagger.

SF: I was looking for some kind of release. I think the definition of camp was defined by George Melly. He said something like, ‘It’s a lie that tells the truth.’ In fact it’s in one of my songs…

DR: That’s from My Brother Sarah.

How was it going back through your memories and putting the book together? Was it fun or cathartic?

SF: It was great. What we did was Daniel used to come and stay at my house, which is in a village just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, and we’d get up at 10ish, have a cup of coffee and then at 10:30 we’d do two or three hours, then say we’d had enough. We’d go to my local boozer, where I’ve got my own table, and we’d do another two or three hours.

Structurally, it’s like Craig Brown’s book, M’am Darling [biography of The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret], where you can just read one chapter a day. Read it in the morning, have a cup of tea and bore everyone for hours.

It’s a conversational book…

DR: The conversation isn’t strictly the way it appears – it was more just freewheeling, with our thoughts and memories. And then I crafted it afterwards to fit in certain themes.

[To Daniel:] There’s a nice moment in the book when you and Simon talk about a tape you’ve got of him, singing and playing some of his earliest songs in his bedroom, in 1986.

DR: I’m glad you picked up on that. There were about 20 songs on it. Inside the cassette, there’s a piece of paper that’s almost like tissue paper, and on it,  Simon has written a description of what he thinks each song is about, in blue Biro. The comments are in the book and you get a real insight into the way he was thinking. What’s really interesting is that I think his approach to songwriting and the subject matters are completely different to what he’s become known for as a songwriter.

‘I was aged at least nine when I wrote my first song, because that’s when I got a guitar’

When you listen to a lot of the songs, it sounds like he’s having a conversation with himself about what’s going on in his mind. It’s almost like a diary – an outlet for it. I don’t know whether he agrees, but that’s how I hear it.

It’s fascinating because if you’re into Ocean Colour Scene, or any band, you want to know the genesis of them. When you hear In Spite Of All The Danger [Paul McCartney – the first song recorded by The Quarrymen] it’s utterly joyous because you can hear the first manifestation of what they’re going to be like. As a fan of Ocean Colour Scene, to hear these songs with such formulated and intelligent ideas and lyrics is really amazing.

[To Simon]: What was the first song you wrote?

SF: The song I was the first significant song I wrote. It was from when I was about 20.

That became Foxy’s Folk Faced, by Ocean Colour Scene, didn’t it?

SF: Yeah. Steve named it that because it was a good description of me at the time. I was aged at least nine when I wrote my first song, because that’s when I got a guitar.

[To Simon]: I think you’re underrated as a lyricist. When people think of Ocean Colour Scene, they tend to remember the riffs, rather than the words…

SF: Yeah. It’s because the band is basically seen through The Riverboat Song and The Day We Caught The Train, but, for all of those, one of my favourite Ocean Colour Scene albums is B-sides, Seasides and Freerides. And, also, what a great title that is.

DR: It’s natural that an audience knows the band by their singles, but the B-sides and album tracks give you more scope.

SF: I think The Circle is one of my best songs, but it’s better as a ballad. [Recorded as Outside of a Circle on the compilation album, B-sides, Seasides and Freerides]

[To Simon]: You trained as a journalist, but, before that, you wanted to become a football commentator, didn’t you?

SF: That’s right. I wanted to be John Motson.

There’s a quote in the book where you say, ‘Wanting to be a pop star seemed a stretch too far. It seemed daft enough to want to be John Motson, let alone John Lennon…’

DR: I love that quote.

SF: I didn’t come from a highfalutin background. Match of the Day was my favourite programme and I was obsessed with football.

‘From the very first day I started hanging out with Simon, in ’85, it was an unwritten thing that he was going to be famous’

Did you want to be a pop star when you were growing up? 

SF: I think I did. It was probably Bowie, really – if you’re into Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, they’re not really stars… My favourite band were – and still are –  The Beatles. I remember The Beatles when I was four.

DR: From the very first day I started hanging out with Simon, in ’85, it was an unwritten thing that he was going to be famous. It was a given. He could sing and he could write songs and he had incredible charisma.

How did you feel when he got famous?

DR: I thought it was unbelievable and everything that I’d ever hoped for for Simon and for Steve and for Damon [Minchella – Ocean Colour Scene bassist]. I desperately wanted it to happen. I was joyous. Steve had an absolute drive that he was going to make it. It wasn’t like they were arrogant or going on about being famous – it was an assumed thing and they were trying to find the portal or the path that would get them to the next level. They knew it was going to happen – if they played that gig, got this review, or recorded that… They climbed the ladders and there was an inevitability about it. So, when it happened, it wasn’t a surprise, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s a set back and everyone else is wrong. I always believed in them being right.

SF [To Daniel]You knew Steve before I did.

DR: Yeah – we were mates at junior school.

Was it due to the use of The Riverboat Song as the soundtrack to Chris Evans’s TV show, TFI Friday, that Ocean Colour Scene really made it big?

DR: I think it was Radio 1 more than TFI – Chris Evans on the morning show. He used to play a promo version of You Got It Bad before Riverboat. Then Riverboat was released as a single and Chris really played it and made it Single of the Week…

SF: For two weeks in a row.

‘We started to learn how to deconstruct music and make records, instead of standing there, like a cross between the Velvet Underground and Buzzcocks’

After your debut album, Ocean Colour Scene, you reinvented yourself for the follow-up, Moseley Shoals, didn’t you?

SF: That was down to being at Bob’s [Lamb – record producer]. Steve and Damon started to learn how to use the [recording] desk, so suddenly we started to learn how to deconstruct music and make records, instead of standing there, like a cross between the Velvet Underground and Buzzcocks.

DR: What happened to Ocean Colour Scene isn’t dissimilar to what happened to Blur, but Blur had a nightmare tour of America and Ocean Colour Scene had an amazing one.

But Ocean Colour Scene didn’t crack America…

DR: No, it’s curious that.

SF: It’s because we were too English and we just said, ‘Thank you.’

[To Simon]: There’s one bit in the book where you reflect on playing TFI Friday on New Year’s Eve 1997 and doing three nights at Stirling Castle the year after – you acknowledge that Ocean Colour Scene have done it on your own merits. For a while, did it feel that you had made it thanks to the patronage of Chris Evans, Paul Weller and Oasis?

‘Paul Weller’s always been our fifth Beatle’

SF: Paul and Noel were great, but it was Chris who made us break through – quite frankly, it wouldn’t have happened [without him]. We did that first biggish Oasis tour – Leeds Town and Country Club, Newcastle Riverside… That wouldn’t have happened. When we became well-known, bands would use to say, ‘We’re backing Ocean Colour Scene.’ One of those bands were Coldplay…

Paul’s always been our fifth Beatle. We enjoyed our time with that lot enormously.

The music press always gave you a hard time, didn’t they? Why do you think that was?

DR: Because they changed so much and they became something that they weren’t originally.

And there was the whole dadrock thing…

DR: If I remember correctly, I’m sure dadrock happened after Moseley Shoals, in 1998 – it was retrospective…

Blur went from being a baggy band to listening to The Small Faces and The Kinks and changing their image, but they didn’t get the same flack as Ocean Colour Scene…

DR: That’s absolutely true.

Why do you think that was?

SF: If someone says, ‘What’s your band?’ I say, ‘We’re traditionalist.’

DR: I think that’s what more important is that Ocean Colour Scene became a people’s band – they had the record buyers, who decided their popularity, regardless of what the press said.

SF: We weren’t part of the zeitgeist, but the problem with the zeitgeist is that after a while it becomes like a new jumper in the shop – it becomes old hat. Being fashionable is maybe not  great, because how long does that last? Especially now.

You did well as a band, though…

SF: Yeah, but we were dreadful at making videos and doing photoshoots – basically we hated all of that.

DR: I was always baffled ultimately as to why Ocean Colour Scene were so severely slagged off. There were so many contradictions in the ’90s – contradictions are good, but you can never understand them. It’s like the Britpop battle. You had Blur, who were Britpop – Damon invented it – and Oasis, who weren’t Britpop. Then you get into semantics and it doesn’t add up. The sound of Blur was nothing like the sound of Oasis. It’s a strange one.

[To Simon]: One of the parts in the book that really struck me was when you talk about being outed by The Sun. That must’ve been awful for you. And you ended up meeting the journalist responsible for breaking the story… 

SF: It was horrendous – hideous. All my pals knew – the only people who didn’t know were my family.

But you then go on to say that it was the best thing that’s ever happened to you…

SF: It was. I went out on the town with the **** from The Sun, with Steve and Ian McCulloch, trying to score cocaine, and all we did was meet Bobby Charlton. We were in Lyon, because I’d done the World Cup song [ (How Does It Feel To Be) On Top of the World –  England United, 1998]. Ian told me that I sounded like Roy Orbison.

There’s a lot of drink and drugs in the book. At one stage, you tell a story about when you’re in a hotel, on tour, seven floors up, you’re all on coke and Steve jumps off the bed and bounces off the window. The next day, you have a meeting and agree that you might need to calm things down. Was that the peak of the craziness? You were really into coke, weren’t you? I always saw you as more of a drinking band. One For The Road and all that…

SF: We were big coke fans and a big smoking band. And acid – Steve and I were really into acid, well, it was more me, really.

Do you have regrets about any of the things you did in the ’90s?

SF: I regret the fact, perhaps not in the ’90s, that I didn’t carry on writing songs in the same volume. When I lived on Westfield Road, [in King’s Heath, Birmingham] I used to write songs in the evening so that Steve and I would have something to do the following morning.

You were a hardworking band, though…

SF: If we weren’t touring, we were on the radio, doing TV shows and interviews.

How was it when you became famous? Did you enjoy it?

SF: I did.

And how was it after you became less successful?

SF: After the Moseley Shoals and Marchin’ Already albums, One From The Modern didn’t do quite as well. Unless you’re U2 or Oasis… new bands come along, but I enjoyed every moment of it.

DR: Brendan Lynch [music producer] made a good observation at the time. When he came up to Birmingham, he said there was a scene around Ocean Colour Scene. And there was. It wasn’t just Moseley – it was a wider thing.

Everything they were and who was around them, doing drugs and writing and singing about your lifestyle, was there before the fame – they just carried it through into what they were doing. It was just magnified by the press.

The more pertinent thing was that when they eventually got the PRS and the money, they moved away from one another and Moseley, which had been an inspiration  – particularly Simon and Steve. Simon moved in with Robert, the man who he loved, and found happiness in being outside of the Birmingham scene.

SF: Steve and I used to live out of each other’s pockets.

[To Simon]: You were the main songwriter in the band, but there were some songs, like The Riverboat Song and 100 Mile High City, that you all came up with together, weren’t there?

SF: Yes – the more rock ‘n’ roll ones. About 75 percent of the songs on Ocean Colour Scene albums I wrote on my own.

The band shared the writing credits, though…

SF: I always thought that without Riverboat, we wouldn’t have gone anywhere, so that seemed fair enough. I joined the band because I wanted to be in a gang.

DR: What Simon’s saying is that because they were a gang, the music wouldn’t have been Ocean Colour Scene unless all four of them were on it. He made that decision right at the very beginning to share the money. There are very few bands that have done that – it speaks a lot about Simon’s personality. That comes out in the book – he’s a very generous person.

SF: Steve could work machines – I couldn’t have put those songs together myself. It was just me and an acoustic guitar.

[To Simon]: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you sit with an acoustic guitar and come up with something?

SF: I’ve got an old Sony tape player – like you’d get for Christmas in 1972. I have about four of them, but only one of them works. The problem is that if you leave them on at night, and don’t turn off the power, the motor fails and you can’t rewind the tape.

So, what’s next? Is there a new Ocean Colour Scene album on the way?

SF: Hopefully.

There’s a 15-CD retrospective boxset coming out too, Yesterday Today 1992-2018, with all the studio albums, plus bonus discs of B-sides, etc, and a 72-page hardback book, with notes by Daniel. And there are vinyl reissues of the first three studio albums being released, and you and Oscar [Harrison – drummer] are going out on tour as a duo. It’s a big year for Ocean Colour Scene in 2023…

SF: Me and Oscar are going out in May.

DR: And we’re doing an evening with Simon Fowler in Notting Hill, in March.

How does it feel…

SF: [sings] To be on top of the world.

[Everyone laughs].

How does it feel to be celebrating over 30 years of Ocean Colour Scene next year?

SF: I don’t know really.

It’s not the original line-up, but what’s kept the rest of the band together?

SF: I don’t know how to do anything else, to be quite honest. I’ve never used a computer in my life.

DF: He hasn’t even got one.

Do you still enjoy it?

SF: I do when we go out on tour – recording has never been my favourite thing.

DR: With the book, Simon is celebrating what he has done – he’s never done that before. It’s really important to recognise – there are so many songs… There are only 69 in the book, but there are hundreds that he could be celebrating. There’s great humour but also pathos – you get two sides of his personality. It’s an incredible thing to have done and to reveal in print. Over the last couple of hours, you’ve probably realised that one thing you can say about Simon is that he’s very honest. A lot of pop stars aren’t. He’ll invite you into his world and he should be admired for his openness.

SF: I don’t know what my parents will do when they get the book for Christmas.

One For The Road: The Life & Lyrics of Simon Fowler & Ocean Colour Scene by Simon Fowler and Daniel Rachel is out now. You can buy it here. It retails for £50.

The 15-CD retrospective boxset, Yesterday Today 1992-2018, is released on February 24 (Edsel/Demon Records) as part of a year-long campaign marking 30 years of Ocean Colour Scene. You can pre-order it here.

The band’s first three studio albums, Ocean Colour Scene, Moseley Shoals (2LP)and Marchin’ Already (2LP) are being reissued on coloured vinyl on the same day.

https://www.oceancolourscene.com/

http://danielrachel.com/

 

The Edwardian Era

Independent label Cherry Red Records has just released a three-CD anthology of the work of Edward Ball.

The 61-track collection, which is called It’s Kinda Lonely Where I Am – Anthology 1977-2010, spans his entire career, from the teenage DIY punk and power pop of ‘O’Level and Teenage Filmstars through the indie-mod of The Times, to Ball’s Britpop years on Alan McGee’s Creation label, where he recorded with Ride’s Andy Bell, Nick Heyward (Haircut 100), Swedish female singer-songwriter, Idha, and members of The Boo Radleys.

Also included are tracks from his dance and world music-influenced project Love Corporation, whose tunes were remixed by Andy Weatherall, Danny Rampling and Monkey Mafia.

There are plenty of highlights, like The Times’ quirky and infectious 1981 debut single, Red With Purple Flashes – Ball says it was their attempt to write the “saddest, most melancholic, contemplative mod pop record ever” – the sad-eyed, European-flavoured, Tears On A Rainy Sunday, which sounds like The Style Council doing Kraftwerk, and their 1982 fan favourite, I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape, inspired by cult TV series The Prisoner, and featuring some great, groovy ’60s-style organ and soul guitar.

 

Then there’s the irresistible and upbeat folky-pop of 1996 solo near-hit, The Mill Hill Self Hate Club, the pastoral Nick Drake-isms of the compilation’s title track, It’s Kinda Lonely Where I Am, the bold and brassy Trailblaze, the Motown-inspired gem, Controversial Girlfriend, and the introspective and rootsy ballad Docklands Blues, written with Tim Buckley’s The River as a starting point, according to Ball.

There’s also a previously unreleased track included, Song To The Lighthouse, which is an outtake from Ball’s soundtrack to the 2010 Carol Morley film The Edge, starring Maxine Peake. It’s short and sweet – a stripped-down, acoustic folk tune.

Moving away from the trad singer-songwriter material, there’s the epic full 10:35 version of Love Corporation’s Give Me Some Love, with production by Andy Weatherall from 1991.

Listening to many of these songs, you can’t help but think that they should’ve been massive hits, rather than simply condemned to obscurity. It’s great that Cherry Red has pulled all of these tracks together, and presented them in an attractive triple-CD package – here’s hoping a new audience will stumble across this eclectic, colourful and inventive collection of songs by an unsung indie hero.

Ball has approved the box set and contributed some insightful sleeve notes in collaboration with MOJO and Record Collector writer, Lois Wilson.

Here’s hoping a new audience will stumble across this eclectic, colourful and inventive collection of songs by an unsung indie hero’

To celebrate the release of the anthology, I revisited an interview I did with Ball back in the autumn of 1996, ahead of a gig supporting The Lightning Seeds at Portsmouth Guildhall. His new album, Catholic Guilt, was due out the following year, on Creation.

The original version of this article was published in South Coast listings magazine, Splash! in October 1996.

Edward Ball

“Don’t tell me you’re a Liverpool fan,” says Edward Ball. On the day that I’m interviewing the 36-year-old, bald tunesmith, he’s still reeling from his favourite football team Chelsea’s recent 5-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool.

“It’s part of being a Chelsea fan,” he says. “There was I thinking that this was the season things were going to change because of our star cast and then we get whacked by Liverpool…”

Anyone who’s suffering from the blues, for whatever reason, should give Ball’s last two singles, The Mill Hill Self Hate Club and Trailblaze, a listen. Despite their self-loathing lyrics, they are both killer pop tunes, described by Ball as “broad and brassy”.

The former has a great, wailing harmonica riff and horns, while the latter is based around a big, bold brass arrangement. Sadly, both missed out on entering the Top 40 – The Mill Hill Self Hate Club stalled at number 57, while Trailblaze fared worse, managing a chart position of 98.

‘The Beatles are like your first girlfriend. Every time you put them on, they make you feel happy’

He may not have hit the big time yet, but Ball owes a debt to classic, quality songwriting by the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. “The Beatles are like your first girlfriend,” he says. “Every time you put them on, they make you feel happy. They have great healing powers.”

Underneath Ball’s shiny pop veneer lurks a sad tale – a large amount of his songs have been inspired by one major breakup.

“They all stem from one particular relationship,” he says. “We all go through many different relationships, but I think we’re all answerable to one that grabs us by the throat. It was that one which I wrote nearly 50 songs about.”

So, does he have immense problems with relationships?

“I probably have no more problems than anyone else does. We’re all on the starting blocks and trying to make it to the other side with someone – it’s just that I look into relationships more. I don’t know what I expect from them,” he says.

‘We all go through many different relationships, but I think we’re all answerable to one that grabs us by the throat. It was that one which I wrote nearly 50 songs about’

Ball, who was born in 1959,  has been involved in music since 1977 and he’s recorded with ‘O’ Level, The Television Personalities, Teenage Filmstars, The Times and dance act Love Corporation.

Currently he’s settled into a singer-songwriter role, drawing on his own personal experiences. “It’s a lot easier now,” he says. “I spent so much time writing about stuff and getting into everything from food to drugs. You can do all this experimenting and messing about, but then you find the real self,  you write about it and everyone says, “Oh, I know what you mean.”

He composes a lot of his songs when he’s on the move. “Most of them are written in hotel rooms,” he says. “That’s where all the best songs come from – when you’re by yourself and in unfamiliar surroundings. It helps the cathartic side and brings out what needs to come out.”

Ball is scarily prolific – he never stops writing songs.

“I’m still writing one now,” he says. “I’ve got one in my head that I’m turning around and trying to make sense of. It’s called Controversial Girlfriend. I’ve got a guitar and an amp set up in my kitchen and I’ve been hammering away on it for the last couple of days.”

One of his recent inspirations was a train journey from Manchester to London. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was bloody early in the morning – about six o’clock. I set out from Manchester to London for an interview and when we came into Macclesfield the sun was coming up and it was utterly beautiful – a special moment. It was gorgeous. When you think of Macclesfield, you don’t expect that –  you expect smog.”

‘The need to make records ends up being the worst addiction of all. It’s the one you don’t expect. They’re always the worst, aren’t they?’

After all these years, is he frustrated that he still hasn’t had a hit record? “No,” he says. “I’d be more frustrated if I couldn’t actually make music at all. The need to make records ends up being the worst addiction of all. It’s the one you don’t expect. They’re always the worst, aren’t they?”

He adds: “I’m not looking for acceptance. There are only two of three people’s opinions I care about.”

Perhaps he’ll finally break through into the mainstream with his next single, which is highly likely to be a tune called Love Is Blue.

He shrugs it off as “just one of those songs,”, adding: “Maybe it will be the next one that does it. But if it gets into the Top 40, we still won’t have world peace, will we?”

Edward Ball’s It’s Kinda Lonely Where I AmAnthology 1977-2010 is out now on Cherry Red Records. You can order it here

Love Is Blue didn’t get into the Top 40 – it peaked at number 59.

 

‘I wanted to write some songs that would fit on a Chesterfields record – that was a good challenge’

The Chesterfields at The Black Sheep Bar, Ryde, Isle of Wight – Sept 2022. Andy Strickland is on the left.
Photo: Sean Hannam

 

I first met singer/guitarist Andy Strickland in 1987, on the Isle of Wight, at his family home in Ryde, when I was 13.

My dad, show business journalist, John Hannam, was interviewing him for a local newspaper article about his jangly indie-pop band The Caretaker Race, who’d just released their debut single, Somewhere On Sea. Prior to that, he’d been in Creation Records act The Loft.

I’d tagged along, because, like my dad, I loved the song, but I was also keen to meet Andy – as well as being in a band, he was a music journalist, which was my dream job.

This interview with The Caretaker Race, by John Hannam, originally appeared in the Isle of Wight Weekly Post, in 1987.

Now, on a late afternoon in July 2022 – 35 years after our first encounter – I’m interviewing Andy, and we’re somewhere on sea, in a Ryde hotel bar. But, rather than The Caretaker Race, who split in 1991, we’re actually here to talk about his latest project, playing guitar in Yeovil-based The Chesterfields – another indie-pop band who formed in the ‘80s, and who have just made a brand new album, New Modern Homes. Although this isn’t the first time Andy has been part of the group…

“I played with them a bit in the early days, after The Loft split,” he says, over a pint of Isle of Wight-brewed ale.

“I kind of knew them, because they’d come to a couple of gigs we’d done down in Bristol. I think they booked us for a gig, which was about a week after we’d split up. That was the first gig The Loft didn’t do – Simon [Barber – bass and vocals], who’s still in The Chesterfields, ran a little club in Sherborne, Dorset. It was by the railway station and was called The Electric Broom Cupboard.

“I’d also interviewed the band for Record Mirror. I’d started The Caretaker Race, but, in 1987, Simon rang me up and said, ‘This is a bit of a long shot, but we’ve just got rid of our guitarist – do you fancy standing in?’

‘We played on the second stage at Glastonbury in ’87. Halfway through the set, I realised my guitar lead wasn’t long enough – I’d never played on a stage that big’

“I didn’t know how it would work, as they were based a long way away from where I was, but then Simon said, ‘The first gig’s Glastonbury Festival and it’s in three weeks…’

“I said, ‘Oh – that’s interesting…’ He said the next night they were playing an Oxford ball with Desmond Dekker… so he kind of lured me in with the promise of decent gigs.”

And how were the shows? “They were great. We played on the second stage at Glastonbury in ’87. Halfway through the set, I realised my guitar lead wasn’t long enough – I’d never played on a stage that big. By the fourth song in, I was required to do some backing vocals and, as I marched to the microphone, I couldn’t get there – the roadie picked my amp up, charged towards me and plonked it down so I could do the final ‘bah-bah-bah’, or whatever it was.

“I did a little tour with them, but then they got Simon’s brother in, who was a really good guitar player. I didn’t play with them again until recent years.”

The Chesterfields

Q&A

So, how did you end up rejoining The Chesterfields?

Andy Strickland: Simon, Helen [Stickland – guitar and vocals] and Rob [Parry – drums] were playing in bands around the West Country and they started doing a couple of Chesterfields songs, which went down really well. I saw them and said to Simon, ‘If there’s an appetite for it, you should do it’.

‘We played with The Primitives at The Knitting Factory, in Brooklyn, New York – it was sold out, it was hot and the crowd loved it. It was fantastic’

He was always reluctant to do it, because Davey [Dave Goldsworthy], the original singer and frontman, died in 2003 – he was killed in a hit and run. Simon didn’t want to do anything that might upset anyone, but, eventually, he asked the family and we did a little UK tour in 2019, which went really well.

Before that, in 2016, we got asked to go and play in New York, at the New York Pop Fest – that was brilliant. We played with The Primitives at The Knitting Factory, in Brooklyn – it was sold out, it was hot and the crowd loved it. It was fantastic. The crowd was a young one, which was really odd.

Chesterfield band member Helen’s surname is Stickland. That must be a bit confusing…

AS: Yes – it’s not a typo and we’re not related. Although her husband did used to live on the Isle of Wight, which is even more confusing.

So, now there’s a new Chesterfields album – New Modern Homes…

AS: After the 2019 tour, we thought there might be an appetite for a new record, and then while we were talking about it, lockdown happened, which gave us an opportunity to write some songs.

John Parish (PJ Harvey) co-produced it…

AS: Yes – he produced the first Chesterfields album, back in the day, and he also produced some of my early Caretaker Race records, so we all knew him. We talked about what we were going to do with this record – we knew we were going to record it in Somerset.

There’s a studio next to Wookey Hole called Axe and Trap, which is run by a great guy called Ben Turner. We started recording there last summer and John came down for a couple of days.

We were so relaxed and we thought we were doing demos, but John said they sounded great and that he would mix them at his place, with a few little overdubs. We went to John’s studio in Bristol in November last year. We were lucky to get a really good studio and great engineers. John had a two-week gap and we fitted into it.

The first single, Our Songbird Has Gone, came out on 7in vinyl…

AS: The first batch that went up on Bandcamp sold out in 10 hours.

‘Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens heard the song and got in touch. She said, ‘I love this! Who are you guys?’

Part of the lyrics feature a list of bands and acts that influenced The Chesterfields, including The Go-Betweens, The Smiths, The Fall, Orange Juice, The House of Love, Aztec Camera, Gang of Four…

AS: It’s an actual list – a few years after Davy died, his widow sent Simon some bits and pieces. One of the things she sent him was a little book that’s mentioned in the song. It had lyrics and drawings in it and a list of Davy’s favourite bands.

Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens heard the song and got in touch. She said, ‘I love this! Who are you guys?’ They were one of Davy’s absolute favourites. A few of the other bands who are mentioned in the song, like The Darling Buds and The June Brides, have also been in touch.

You’ve written three of the songs on the album: You’re Ace From Space, Mary’s Got A Gun and Postpone The Revolution. Were they all written for the new record?

AS: They were. I’m writing bits and pieces all the time, but I wanted to write some songs that would fit on a Chesterfields record. That was a good challenge and, to some extent, I think it’s worked. Certainly John thought they fitted well – he would’ve said if they didn’t.  It also gave me a chance to sing. Helen also wrote a song, so there’s three different writers and singers on the album, which is quite unusual these days.

What inspired You’re Ace From Space?

AS: I think it came from craving some freedom during lockdown – imagine just being up there, in space, on your own for a bit. It was a bit of space – literally.

‘Postpone The Revolution is a song about young people not really giving a shit. Why aren’t they out there, getting rid of this Government?

Mary’s Got A Gun is a story song, about two characters – Mary and Vinny…

AS: Yeah – I just started playing the guitar riff one day and I came up with the idea of Mary having a gun and thought, ‘Why would she have a gun?’ So I came up with a story about her buying it, from a book dealer in Hay-on-Wye, and hooking up with this guy who had a van, and they’ve got a secret hiding place…

I’ve always wanted to go to Hay-on-Wye and visit the bookshops…

AS: I’ve never been, but now I know you can buy an illicit firearm there, I’m very keen to go…

What about Postpone The Revolution?

AS: It’s a song about young people not really giving a shit. Why aren’t they out there, getting rid of this Government? I occasionally say to my son, ‘When I was your age, I was marching for X, Y and Z…’

It’s another of your songs that mentions the sea. I was listening to The Caretaker Race album, Hangover Square, recently. That has quite a few songs on it that mention the sea and seaside towns. That record still stands up today… 

AS: That’s very kind of you to say so. Stephen Street did it and we were a good band.

That album reminds me of The Smiths at times. I’ve Seen A Thing Or Two sounds like Back To The Old House – the guitar on it is very Johnny Marr… And so is the guitar on You Always Hurt (The One You Kick)…

AS: Yeah – that’s very Johnny Marr. Stephen Street didn’t say we’d gone too far… but he did play the album to Morrissey. The other guitarist in The Caretaker Race, Andy Deevey, used an Echoplex. I’ve Seen A Thing Or Two was written about a church in Ryde that you come past on the train. There’s a reverse echo on it – Stephen played it to Morrissey and he was like, ‘Oh, what’s that? How did you do that?’

I remember Stephen telling me that Morrissey was very much taken with Andy’s Echoplex. It sounds like a ghostly buzzsaw thing going on in the background.

The Chesterfields

Let’s go back to The Chesterfields. So, you’re pleased with the new album?

AS: Yeah – really pleased. It’s the first thing I’ve recorded for so many years, so to have three songs on it and for it to sound so good… There’s some lovely guitar playing on it – not just mine. Helen’s great – she plays very punk-rock, but writes these really beautiful little lines. It’s great fun playing with her.

One of my favourite songs on the album is Mr Wilson Goes To Norway...

AS: We’ve got a great video for it. Purely by coincidence, the lad called James [Harvey],who did the video for Our Songbird Has Gone, was going to Norway a few weeks later, so we got him to do some travelogue stuff for it, while we just larked around in a deserted high street in Sherborne, Dorset.

‘I’m thinking about doing a solo EP next year, but I need a kick up the arse…’

A couple of years ago, we had an idea about playing Indiefjord in Norway. Simon came up with that song and we said, ‘Well, if they’re not going to invite us to play after this video and this song, then we’re never going to get invited…’

Earlier you said that you write a lot of songs, so do you think you might put a solo record out?

AS: I think I will. I’m thinking about doing a solo EP next year. Given that there’s all this Chesterfields stuff going on and there’s also some Loft stuff coming out… I need a kick up the arse to make me finish stuff. I was watching Get Back – George Harrison is going on about how John and Paul are always telling him to finish stuff… I’m a bad finisher, unless I’ve got a deadline.

I’ve got lots of stuff. I pick up the guitar every day, play something and stick it on my phone. My partner gets a bit annoyed – especially if we’ve just gone to bed and I say, ‘Hang on – I’ll be back in five minutes…’ I’m just lying there and a middle eight pops into my head.

You said there’s some Loft stuff coming out…

AS: Yeah – Ghost Trains & Country Lanes is coming out on vinyl in January. It came out last summer on CD, on Cherry Red.

It’s everything, basically – all the singles, all the Creation stuff, all the Radio 1 Janice Long sessions, the Marc Riley and Gideon Coe sessions, the single that we put out on Static Caravan about 15 years ago and a whole live gig from The Living Room, back in the day.

I think it’s 30 tracks – on triple vinyl.  When we heard it was going to be a triple, we said, ‘We can’t have that – we’re not Yes!’ But the guy who’s doing it, Ian [Allcock], who runs Optic Nerve, said, ‘Trust me – it will be great’. He managed to get all the stuff signed off by the BBC. It’s a mighty tome – on coloured vinyl with a booklet. It will be quite a package. You can preorder it now.

‘I did start writing a book. I’ve got the title. It’s called And Then I Punched Tom Jones’

Have you ever thought about writing a book on your time in the music industry, as a musician, but also a journalist?

AS: I did start writing one and I’ve got the title. It’s called And Then I Punched Tom Jones.

Did you punch him?

AS: I didn’t, actually, but I thought about it. I was interviewing him for about the third time. He’s one of those people who, when you turn the recorder on, they just talk and you barely have to ask them a question.

I was in a hotel suite – it was just me and him, and I started to lose concentration, because he was just talking, and talking and talking. My head started going and I was looking at him and I thought, ‘Tom Jones is sitting there, if I hit him now, really hard, he’ll probably go over the edge of that sofa’. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. My mind just started to wander.

A few years later, I was in the pub with a bunch of guys from Loaded magazine and I mentioned it. They said they’d had a similar thing – that it was quite common. I don’t know if it’s like a minor version of shooting John Lennon or something – having an impact on someone famous and leaving your imprint.

The Chesterfields at The Black Sheep Bar, Ryde, Isle of Wight – Sept 2022. Photo: Sean Hannam.

 

I don’t think I ever had it with anyone else – in my Record Mirror days, I sat down and interviewed some big stars.

‘The Loft were the first Creation band on TV. We did The Oxford Road Show with China Crisis, Ultravox, Thompson Twins and Bronski Beat’

Was being a music journalist and also in a band a help or a hindrance?

AS: I don’t think it was a help, particularly. When The Loft were taking off, we did get a bit of stick – some of the reviews said we were a band of journalists and people assumed we had some sort of inside track, but we didn’t. We didn’t have a manager, a roadie or a driver – it was just us four, plus our mate, Danny Kelly. We were the first Creation band on TV – The Oxford Road Show. We were Janice Long’s ‘band to watch’ and we were on with China Crisis, Ultravox and Thompson Twins and Bronski Beat.

You were the only act who didn’t have synths…

AS: Yeah – we were. When word got out that we were going to be on it, the manager of The June Brides, who had been on the cover of the NME, rang me up in my little studenty house and said, ‘I hear you’re going on the telly’. I said, ‘Yeah – it’s amazing.’ He said, ‘I’d love to get The June Brides on – who do I need to talk to?’ I said, ‘I dunno’. But he said, ‘Oh c’mon, Andy – we’re all in this together. Who did you tap up?’

I said, ‘They just rang us and asked if we could do it’. He couldn’t believe it could be that easy.

We were in the right place at the right time, and Janice loved the band. She was such a big deal and she was so lovely. She got overshadowed by John Peel, but she did huge amounts for so many bands – The Chesterfields did sessions for her. She wasn’t one of those DJs who just wanted to be famous – she was all about the music.

New Modern Homes by The Chesterfields is out now on Mr Mellow’s Music. https://thechesterfields.bandcamp.com/album/new-modern-homes-2

The triple vinyl version of The Loft’s Ghost Trains & Country Lanes is released on Optic Nerve Recordings on January 20 next year. You can preorder it here. 

‘This album kind of took care of itself…’

Picture credit: @davidgleavephoto

We talk to Say It With Garage Flowers favourite, Nev Cottee, about his new great album, Madrid, which, with its lush orchestration, cinematic atmosphere and groovy, psychedelic sounds, soaks up influences like ’60s Scott Walker, Ennio Morricone, Lee Hazlewood, Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg.

If that wasn’t enough, we also ask him if it’s true he’s relocating from Manchester to the Spanish city the record shares its name with, and get some top tips on where to get the best tapas, menú del día and olive oil.

Not only that, but he also kindly shares with us some cautionary advice on drinking wine in the afternoon…

 

It’s mid-October and Manchester-based singer-songwriter, Nev Cottee, is speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers from his allotment.

”It’s a glorious day – autumnal vibes,” he says. “It’s good to crack out the tweeds and the layers, isn’t it? A proper pair of shoes, socks… get the coat collection on the go after the summer – it’s a good time of year. Everything’s died off, so I’m just drinking a cup of tea and being English, in my allotment. Does it get any more English?”

Ironically though, we’re here to talk about all things Spanish – in particular, his superb new album, Madrid, but, rather fittingly, it does have some glorious autumnal vibes – largely thanks to its lush, Scott 4-like string arrangements and Cottee’s Lee Hazlewoodesque baritone croon.

‘It’s good to crack out the tweeds and the layers, isn’t it? A proper pair of shoes, socks… get the coat collection on the go after the summer’

More on that later, but before we get into the background on the record, we want to confirm if the rumours we’ve heard about him relocating from Manchester to Madrid are true…

“I’m trying, but Covid kind of got in the way – my girlfriend is in Madrid,” he explains. “The dream is to get over there. Madrid’s great, but I’m kind of over living in cities. I’m at that age where it’s too busy, there are too many people and it’s too noisy.

“I live in the centre of Manchester, but I’ve got a little sanctuary – my allotment. I don’t know how I’d balance that in Madrid.

“My girlfriend’s from Granada – a town called Jaén, which apparently has the best olive oil in Spain. That’s been confirmed by various Spanish people – there’s big competition there – but it’s supposed to be the best of the best. So, that’s where I want to go, and eat lots of food with lovely olive oil on it. Let’s see…. in the next couple of years…”

‘I’m kind of over living in cities. I’m at that age where it’s too busy, there are too many people and it’s too noisy’

Meanwhile, back to autumn 2022… Madrid, which is Cottee’s fifth album and out now on Wonderfulsound, could just be his best record yet.

Recorded at OO Studios in Spain and The Magic Lantern in Wales, it’s lush, dramatic and cinematic – first single, Renunciate, is haunted by the spectre of Leonard Cohen, Silver Screen and The Ring sound like long-lost Lee Hazlewood songs, Under The Skin is pure Scott 4, but with Bollywood strings, the instrumental title track is weird and groovy Serge Gainsbourg-style pysch-funk – think Histoire de Melody Nelson – whilst Johnny Ray is Ennio Morricone on horseback with Hazlewood, galloping off into the sunset, and A Million Years is upbeat orch-pop with a classic ’60s feel.

“This album kind of took care of itself. I had about three or four songs – the first single, Renunciate, and a few others, and I built on those themes to get a coherent album,” says Cottee. “I’m a bit of a one for trying to curate an album, so it’s a work that hangs together.”

Picture credit: @davidgleavephoto

Q&A

When we last spoke, in 2020, for the vinyl release of your debut record, Stations, I asked you about your plans for the next album. You said you were working on a record with the working title of Solitary Singer and that you were listening to a lot of Scott Walker again.

You planned to go to Prague to record with an orchestra, to make a record that sounded like Scott 4, but you said that you’d also written another album – for a Lee Hazlewood alter ego.

You told me you wanted to write 10 songs that could stand up in the Hazlewood oeuvre. So, now you’ve got a new album out, Madrid, that sounds like Scott 4 and Hazlewood, as well as Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg, but it was recorded in OO Studios, in Spain, and The Magic Lantern, in Wales… How and why did the plans change? 

Nev Cottee: I was hoping to get a live orchestra on it, but it was far too expensive – even in Prague. Someone said Prague is cheap, but it was still coming in at several thousand pounds, plus it was in Prague… It sounded interesting, but, in the end, I worked with the same producer, Mason Neely – we’ve done five albums now.

He scores all my songs – he’s classically-trained. He knows what he’s doing – unlike me. I provide melodies and hints and ideas. I send him stuff that’s on my phone – I hum along what I think the strings should do, and then he adapts it into actual real music.

He’s got a team of musicians – he did a couple of days down in Wales, at Magic Lantern, in Wales. He had a cellist and a viola player, and we got cracking with the strings.

There’s a definite Scott 4 feel to some of the songs…

NC: There are elements of Scott 4 – that’s always going to be the case with my albums (laughs).

I gave Mason references. For the song, Under The Skin, I wanted a repetitive string loop – real strings, but as if they were done on a machine. I was referencing The Flaming Lips and Scott 4 to get that weird, repetitive psych thing going on.

There’s a song called Angels of Ashes on Scott 4, which is phenomenal – it builds, but you don’t realise that you’re just listening to the same chord structure, again and again. It hits you about three minutes in – it’s amazing how he takes you on that journey. I started off with that in mind. I was attempting that, but it became something else.

The strings sound quite Bollywood…

NC: You’re right – it’s the repetition. We wanted a live take, but as if it was done on an edited repeat loop. It was an experiment. I wanted The Flaming Lips to do a remix of it. I did a bit of work with Nell Smith – she did an album of Nick Cave covers with them. She met Nick Cave and I think she’s going to do a song with him.

Under The Skin is a bit psych and a bit trippy. The lyrics go down that road – there’s a drug psychosis thing going on. A geezer who’s lost somewhere, losing his mind. Who knows?

Mason and I did some mad instrumentals too – we were just kicking some ideas around and jamming, with the idea of making some songs, but then decided they didn’t need vocals, as they were great instrumentals.

The instrumental title track is groovy, cinematic and psychedelic…

NC: Yeah – it’s straight out of the Serge Gainsbourg book. It’s very drum-heavy – Mason’s amazing on it. We said, ‘Don’t hold back on anything – if you can get a drum fill in anywhere, or a bass run, do it. Keep playing crazy stuff for as long as you can and see what comes out’.  Nothing stays the same. There was going to be a vocal, but it was too mad to fit one on.

Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted this album to sound like?

NC: You’re always aiming for something, but then it just becomes its own thing. Once you’ve got two or three key tracks that defines the rest of the album – ‘Right, that’s got a single vibe, that’s a standout track, so let’s build all the others so it all fits together’…

My mate, Al, always tells me off when we’re in the pub, because he’s into albums that are really disparate and mad, like The White Album or 666 by Aphrodite’s Child – that’s his touchstone album. He says, ‘Just have loads of mad stuff and eventually it will sound good together’… I’m a bit of a one for trying to curate an album, so it’s a work that hangs together.

‘Mason Neely scores all my songs – he’s classically-trained. He knows what he’s doing – unlike me’

Maybe the ‘kitchen sink’ philosophy might be a good idea somewhere down the line – have some songs that have nothing in common and put them on an album… It would always have something in common because it would have my voice spread all over it – that’s the glue that ties it together.

This album kind of took care of itself. I had about three or four songs – the first single, Renunciate, and a few others, and I built on those themes to get a coherent album.

Have you renunciated anything recently?

NC: (laughs). No. I did a year of being a veggie but I like meat too much, and being in Spain, you’ve got not chance – you’re just going miss out on so much. If go out for menú del día [menu of the day], you get three courses and a bottle of red wine for about 10 euros. They introduced it to Madrid in the ’60s, for people who worked there but who didn’t have time to return home to make dinner.

Picture credit: @davidgleavephoto

The state, under Franco, implemented measures for certain cafés to sell menú del día. It’s good, cheap food – not amazing – but the standards are high in Spain because the produce is great.

The problem is that if you get a bottle of wine at one or two in the afternoon, you really do have to watch yourself… It’s dangerous out there! I don’t like drinking early, but, when you’re in Spain, there’s no other way. But then the Spanish stop, you see, but the English carry on…

‘Everyone wants to renunciate, but if you really want to do it, you’ve got to get to India, go halfway up the Himalayas, sit there in a loin cloth, do nothing and don’t eat – don’t even eat the snow’

The song, Renunciate, is very tongue-in-cheek. It’s about ideals. You always see these articles – on fitness and what to eat – the Sunday supplements are full of them. ‘Don’t eat that, do this, do that…’ The whole song’s an extreme version of all those ideas.

Everyone wants to renunciate, but if you really want to do it, you’ve got to get to India, go halfway up the Himalayas, sit there in a loin cloth, do nothing and don’t eat – don’t even eat the snow. They’re the renunciators – they’re the real deal.

We’re all sliding around at the other end of the scale: ‘I’m not going to smoke anymore – oh, I might have a cigarette’, or ‘I’m giving up drink for a month – oh, me mate’s going for a pint, sod it, I’ll go’….

I don’t think any of us have mastered the art of renunciation, if you want to do that, which I don’t think I do. When I was young, I had this idea that you would do that if you’d committed to being a yogi, but then you realise that life isn’t like that… Moderation is the key.

The song Johnny Ray sounds like it was influenced by Ennio Morricone…

NC: Yeah – that’s a song I’ve been playing live for quite a while. On some of Scott Walker’s albums, he has these beautiful ballads but he also throws in some songs in with that driving beat… I wanted to do that – it’s like Morricone too. Western and filmic. The lyrics are about an existential loner – that’s Johnny Ray, ‘God’s lonely man – a modern day Lone Ranger.’

‘God’s lonely man‘ is from Taxi Driver – Paul Schrader. Me and me mate always used to say it. It’s when you can’t get a girlfriend, you’re on your own and you’re drinking too much…

There are some Leonard Cohen influences on this record too…

I’m really into the late-period Leonard Cohen stuff – the three albums he did before he died. You Want It Darker is a masterpiece – absolutely wonderful. I was influenced by some of the instrumentation on that – a bit more stripped-down. It doesn’t have to be full-on drums and bass – you can use congas and percussive elements.

Two of my favourite songs on the album, Silver Screen and The Ring, both have a Hazlewood vibe…

NC: Hazlewood is always there. Silver Screen came out of a jam with Mason – heavy Serge bass. Those wacky and crazy songs he did – he used a lot of jazz musicians. Those pretty groovy drums and that deep, clicking bass.

I did my vocals with Martin Coogan. The song had a few lyrics – we sculpted this idea of a love of film and the silver screen. He said, ‘What you need to do is put some dialogue from a film on it’. At the time I was watching Albert Finney films – I went through his back catalogue and pretty much watched everything. I was on a Finney fest. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is his pinnacle.

You get certain songs where they just arrive, fully-formed, in about two minutes. The Ring wrote itself – the words just tumbled out. It was the easiest thing in the world and was inspired by those duets Hazlewood did with Nancy Sinatra.

I did try to get a female vocalist on it – I asked Tess Parks, but she was dead busy and we couldn’t get into the studio. It was done remotely, but we just didn’t nail it. Maybe we’ll sort it for the next record.

‘I’m really into the late-period Leonard Cohen stuff – the three albums he did before he died. You Want It Darker is a masterpiece – absolutely wonderful’

So, what about that Lee Hazlewood alter ego album you wanted to make? What’s the plan for it?

NC: It’s demoed and it’s a thing in itself. It really does push the Lee Hazlewood button. I’m hoping to do some recording with Shawn Lee, but he’s just broken his leg, falling down the stairs – I saw that on Instagram. None of us are getting any younger.

When he’s better, I’m going to try and do the Hazlewood album with him. There are lots of duets on it. The Ring turned out really well for this album. I might have another go at it with a female singer.

‘I was speaking to the label about doing a Best Of. I want to call it Nevolution – the Best Of Nev Cottee’

There’s supposed to be a bit of a dialogue in the song, so that will probably end up on the Hazlewood album, but as a different entity. I really want to nail that Hazlewood sound, which is no mean feat.

The way I see it, I’ve done five albums now – that’s the end of that phase. I was speaking to Miles [Copeland] at the label [Wonderfulsound] about doing a Best Of – I want to call it Nevolution – the Best Of Nev Cottee. That will put a full stop on that phase and then we’re away…

Me and Mason have done what we set out to do with the albums – I think they’ve got better and better as we’ve progressed. We’ve tried lots of different things – we’ve done everything – it’s time to move on and try a different producer.

‘I remember George Harrison saying that he’d never listened to Revolver. I was like, ‘Bollocks – you’ve listened to it!’ But he was there – he doesn’t need to listen to it, does he?’

I’m not going to use Mason on the Hazlewood album – I want to move in a different direction and try other things. The Hazlewood one’s amazing – I think the songs are really good, if I say so myself.

I love this album [Madrid], but you’re always excited about the next thing… I’m sure you’ve heard many musicians say that – you’ve written it, you’ve demoed it, then you’ve recorded it, mixed it, mastered it, listened to it… By the time it’s out, you’re onto the next thing and you’re excited by that. I always used to think musicians and bands were being stuck up… ‘Oh, no – we didn’t listen to the album…’ I kind of get it now, ‘cos they were there when it was recorded.

I remember George Harrison saying that he’d never listened to Revolver. I was like, ‘Bollocks – you’ve listened to it!’ But he was there – he doesn’t need to listen to it, does he?

When you listen back to an album, all you hear are the mistakes – what you should’ve done and different ideas…

On that note, how were the sessions for Madrid

NC: It was the same drill – I’ve been working with Mason for a long time. I sent him the demos and he sent ideas back.  I went down there for a few weeks, back and forth… Once you know each other it’s good – you’ve got that shorthand with how you work – it’s fast – and you’re not afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Let’s talk about some of the playing on the record…

NC: I play guitar on it – a bit of acoustic and electric – and I did some basic keyboard strings that Mason then turned into stuff, and also some bass. Mason’s a drum man and he does a lot of keys and samples. We used Rod Smith, who is an old friend of mine, on backing vocals. I was glad to get Caroline Sheehan on this album – she’s an amazing vocalist who’s based in Manchester. If you follow her on Instagram, [you’ll see] she’s the busiest woman in the world. Jimmy Hanley played mandolin and a bit of guitar. He’s in a great band from Manchester called Small Black Arrows.

I was trying to get Little Barrie on the album, but I couldn’t get hold of him. He’s big mates with Shawn Lee. I’d love him to do some nice guitar work on the Hazlewood stuff – some ’60s vibes. So, pencil that one in.

Any live shows planned?

NC: Early next year – hopefully a UK tour. Six or seven dates. The band are all really busy – they’re all young, dead energetic and in other bands. They’re doing too much. What’s wrong with them? They’ll realise soon enough…. I’m doing some album playbacks and I might do a few acoustic shows.

‘I was trying to get Little Barrie on the album, but I couldn’t get hold of him. I’d love him to do some nice guitar work on the next record – some ’60s vibes’

You’ve done Madrid. Where next? Can we expect any more geographically-themed albums? Are you going to travel around the globe, stopping off at cities for musical inspiration? 

NC: [laughs]. I’ve love to do that. Imagine that – you just go to a country and call the album after wherever you are. That would be a good job. I’ve just been in Greece for three weeks. I was in Corfu and then I went island hopping.  I did it years ago and it was a dream to go back. I went to Poros, Spetses and Hydra, which is where Leonard Cohen lived in the ’60s. I went to his house – I did a pilgrimage. It was amazing.

Aerial view of Madrid La Latina district at sunset.  Photo: Eldar Nurkovic / Shutterstock.

I’ve never been to Madrid. Any recommendations?

NC: It’s all about knowing which bars serve the best free tapas and the best menú del día. The areas you need to go to are La Latina, Lavapiés and Conde Duque, which is great. Start off in Conde Duque – there are loads of bars there and there’s always live music. You can’t really fail – just wander around. It’s trial and error. The Spanish have sussed the eating and drinking part of life out, as well as the sun positioning – they’ve got that down as well – but I’m not sure about the political side of things.

 

Madrid by Nev Cottee is out now on Wonderfulsound. 

https://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/madrid

There are two album playback events in London and Manchester taking place this month: October 26 and 30, respectively.

Info on London here and Manchester here.

The Butterfly Effecters

Picture by Richard Bardsley

You could be forgiven for thinking that Foxton & Hastings is the name of an estate agent, but it’s actually the moniker for the side-project of Bruce Foxton, former bassist with The Jam and Stiff Little Fingers, and guitarist/vocalist Russell Hastings – both of whom can usually be found playing in mod revival band From the Jam.

This month (October 28), the duo release their third album, The Butterfly Effect – a solid and enjoyable collection of good, old-fashioned, ’60s-style guitar tunes with their roots in Revolver-era Beatles, The Small Faces, The Who, classic soul and, coughs, solo ‘90s Paul Weller.

This is the modern world, but Foxton & Hastings aren’t afraid to turn to the past for their musical influences. Listening to The Butterfly Effect is like digging into a great record collection that’s full of vintage pop, rock and soul  – the same kind of music that influenced The Jam, and, subsequently, most of the Britpop scene that emerged a few decades later.

“We all know what ‘The Butterfly Effect’ [the phrase] means, but, in basic terms, when I was listening to George Harrison or Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, in 1969, as a four-year old kid – I was born in 1965 – I was inspired by George’s 12-string guitar playing… or by hearing Stevie Marriott,” says Hastings – him and Foxton are talking to us over Zoom in late September.

‘We didn’t have any perception of ‘This track’s got to sound like The Who’, or whatever – it’s just what came out of the bag’

“Bruce and I have always been inspired by stuff over the years that’s had a knock-on effect [further] down the line, without us knowing it. It’s not a conscious decision – you end up playing a song in a certain style, so, when you record it, you have no idea what it sounds like at all to other people… and then they make their comments about it. The album could’ve been called Influences, really.

“It’s funny when you hear people’s interpretations of the songs – it’s not meant to be disrespectful, but you think, ‘Wow – I wonder where they got that from?” says Hastings.

Adds Foxton: “We didn’t have any perception of ‘This track’s got to sound like The Who’, or whatever – it’s just what came out of the bag.”

Produced by Al Scott, at Brighton’s Metway studio, which is owned by folk-rockers The Levellers, The Butterfly Effect features Big Country drummer, Mark Brzezicki, and Andy Fairclough (From The Jam) on keys. It came about as a result of lockdown.

“You sit at home and there’s only so much TV you can watch,” says Hastings. “It wasn’t a definitive ‘Oh, let’s make an album’ – it started with, ‘Here’s a good little tune – how about this?’”

Adds Foxton: “We had some ideas and then we’d just work on them, but it was difficult to get a band together, because of Covid. Thank God for technology.”

“There was a good mood in the studio. We were just glad to be alive!”  

The two musicians would send ideas to each other and then, over a year later, they finally got in a room to play as a band and work on the new songs.

“I remember it well – we all had Covid test kits, even the engineers, so we could get rid of our masks when we were in the studio,” says Hastings.

“Otherwise, we would’ve had muffled vocals,” jokes Foxton.

The Butterfly Effect is largely a positive and upbeat record: “We were just glad to be alive!” says Hastings. “There was a good mood in the studio. We’re pretty positive people.”

Talking about lockdown, he says: “When I look back at it, it seems so ridiculous – we couldn’t even go round each other’s houses and do what we are supposed to do.

“By the time we could physically all be in the same room, we had four of five great ideas. In our first three-day stint, we churned it out. It was a great experience to get into the studio and play.”

The album’s opener, Electronic Lover, is throbbing, bass-driven, heavy, psych-tinged, blues-rock, with backwards Rickenbacker, and first single, Lula, is infectious, ‘60s Californian-pop-meets-The-Beatles, with a superb sax solo by Tony ‘Rico’ Richardson (Bad Manners), that was apparently recorded in his wardrobe, as Covid prevented him coming to the studio.

Feet Off the Ground is a delicious helping of funky and psychedelic, late ‘70s soul-pop, with wah-wah guitar and some great Hammond organ – it could’ve easily come off Weller’s self-titled solo album, from 1992 – while The Fab Four are back on the jangly, harmony-drenched, mid- ‘60s sound of current single, She Said – even the title nods its mop top to a Beatles song.

There’s also a track called Rain, although, to be fair, it doesn’t sound like Lennon, Macca and co, it’s a moody, late-night, cinematic and Weller-like introspective ballad.

One of the standout moments is also a ballad – the reflective and nostalgic Too Old To Cry, Too Young To Die, with a pastoral feel and a stately string arrangement.

Circles and Two of Us are mighty, Who-like power pop – the latter also throws in some Small Faces ‘sha-la-la’ backing vocals – and Time On Your Side is pure, joyous ‘60s/’70s soul with horns that bring to mind Give Me Just A Little More Time by Chairmen of the Board.

There’s more brass on the anthemic closer, Anything You Want, which sounds like The Jam having a knees-up with The Small Faces and a Motown revue, but with George Martin on the control knobs, adding some far-out studio effects for the final section.

Q&A

Feet Off The Ground and Walking With Me have a jazzy-soulful feel – they’re quite acid jazz and pastoral, and they remind me of early solo Paul Weller or The Style Council. 

Russell Hastings: Right – that’s the end of the interview! [laughs] You’re right – they probably are. The instigator of all that stuff – Bruce and I often laugh about it – was Spirogyra, in the late ‘70s. Without trying to be too arty about it, they were just grooves that we sat on – we demoed them at Water Rat Studios [in Woking, Surrey].

I like it when someone says, ‘It sounds like that…’ – that’s fine by me. There was never any deliberate attempt to make the songs sound like anything.

Picture: Richard Bardsley

On that note, Two of Us, does have a touch of The Who about it, and some Small Faces-style ‘sha-la-la’ backing vocals… It has a ‘60s and ‘70s mod/power-pop feel, so it’s apt that you recorded it in Brighton…

RH: Unashamedly – yes! It’s got Brighton written all over it – we came up with the riff at Bruce’s house and did a demo version on a phone, while we were playing it live. It has that Who-esque / Mooney style – it’s a homage to Brighton, which is a place that we hold close to our hearts for many reasons. That whole historic thing.

‘I recorded the vocals for Time On Your Side in the morning, and then I tested positive for Covid in the afternoon, so, if they say it’s bad for your voice, it’s rubbish – my vocals sound really strong on it’

Time On Your Side is very Motown, with brass from Nicky Madern, and some great Hammond organ by Andy Fairclough…

RH: Nicky Madern plays brass on one of Liam Gallagher’s albums, and Andy’s our live player – he’s done a sterling job on the whole album. I recorded the vocals for that song in a morning, and then I didn’t feel very well in the afternoon. I tested positive for Covid, so, if they say it’s bad for your voice, it’s rubbish – my vocals sound really strong on it.

I think there’s a Revolver-era Beatles feel to some of the tracks on the album…

RH: I’ll take that.

‘There are no dour or negative messages. I’m not clever enough to write like that’

The last song, Anything You Want, has a Revolver-like psychedelic ending and Motown-style brass – like Got To Get You Into My Life, and She Said has a similar title to a Beatles song from the same album…

RH: Yeah. It’s only now you’re mentioning it… it’s funny and it makes me smile. One day, in the studio, Bruce was already there and I walked in. It was a nice, sunny, early spring morning, back in March, and I’d been listening to Across The Universe. I grabbed a guitar, and said, ‘Hold on – I can’t stop!’ I’d had an idea… Across The Universe blows my mind – it’s simple and so good.

Too Old To Cry, Too Young To Die is one of the album’s more introspective moments – a big ballad with strings – but it’s still quite a positive song, isn’t it? There’s a line in the lyrics which says: ‘Things are getting much better…’

RH: Yeah – there are no dour or negative messages. I’m not clever enough to write like that, to be honest. You get some people who are like, ‘Oh, I wrote this when, blah-blah-blah….’ Oh, fuck off – you wrote it ‘cos it ‘cos it came out like that! Unless you’re some kind of ultra-genius, like Bowie – people like that. I’ll take it from them, but not anybody else. Some people can get far too up their own arses about it.

Collectively it’s about a load of great pop songs… You walk away and you think ‘This is a great tune…’ That’s what it’s about it, innit, Bruce?

BF: Exactly.

The album almost sounds like a Best Of – it’s really varied…

RH: Yeah. I’m really excited for people to hear it. When you’ve reeled off those tracks… It’s been a while since I’ve heard it.

Credit: Kay Janet Photography

 

You’re always playing live, as From the Jam, but do you plan to play any of the songs from The Butterfly Effect in concert?

RH: We’re gonna do a couple – we’re always conscious never to bore the audience to death amongst a load of Jam songs! Possibly Lula and Feet Off The Ground, or She Said, which is a great, simple pop song, with a mandolin on it.

Bruce Foxton: Picture by Richard Bardsley

It’s 16/17 years since From the Jam formed, but, Bruce, it’s 48 years since you joined The Jam… 

BF: Forty eight! Which band was that? [Everyone laughs.]

It was in 1974, which was the year I was born…

BF: Wow!

How does that feel? You’ve been in From the Jam longer than you were in The Jam…

BF: I was in Stiff Little Fingers longer than I was in The Jam. It seems like another life – it doesn’t feel real, to be honest with you.

‘It was a shame that Paul and I fell out in the first place. We’re good friends again now, thankfully. Life is short – it really is. You should cherish it’

I saw you play in the band One Hundred Men, in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. My dad took me, in the ’80s…

BF: Wow – that’s going back. It was cowboy boots then…

RH: That’s enough of that! Only cowboys should wear cowboy boots.

BF: I just wanted to keep playing – it’s what I do and what I love doing. I also played with The Rhythm Sisters during that period, before I joined Stiff Little Fingers.

[To Bruce]: It’s been well documented how you reconciled with Paul Weller more than 10 years ago – the death of your wife and his dad brought you closer together. How did that feel to renew your friendship? Was it good to let bygones be bygones?

BF: Totally – we’re too old for all that malarkey. Life is short – it really is. You should cherish it. It was a shame that we ever fell out in the first place. We’re good friends again now, thankfully.

Russell Hastings: Picture by Richard Bardsley

After Covid stopped you touring, it must be good to be back on the road again with From the Jam.  You’ve got gigs lined up for this year and next…

RH: It’s great – we’ve sort of forgotten about the pandemic. We’ve both had a few health scares this year,  but we’ve got over that, which has put life into a little bit more perspective – what’s important and what’s not. What’s not important is sitting in traffic jams around the UK for days on end, to line the taxman’s pockets, so we’ve eased back a little bit as far as the workload’s confirmed. We were tending to say, ‘Yes, we’ll do that…’, and you end up chasing your own tail and you become ill.

We’re in good health now. I woke up this morning and thought,’Oh – the album comes out soon…’ I like to hear people’s opinions of it. To be honest, we’re doing this album because we liked the tunes that we came up with – we didn’t have any ulterior motives. We were free to say, ‘Fuck it – we’re going to write and whatever we want to do, we’re going to do it’. ‘If it sounds a bit country, great’ or, ‘If it’s got strings on it, great’. We weren’t afraid of anything.

‘We’ve both had a few health scares this year, which has put life into perspective – what’s important and what’s not. What’s not important is sitting in traffic jams around the UK for days on end, to line the taxman’s pockets’

Is it nice being able to do different stuff with Foxton & Hastings other than just being in From The Jam?

RH: Bruce was in The Jam, but I almost had to prove that I was a musician myself and not just a parrot-fashion one. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before. I don’t know where that came from, but it’s true. I wanted to say, ‘Go fuck yerself – I’ve cut my teeth and I can hold my own’.

Picture by Richard Bardsley

 

The Butterfly Effect by Foxton & Hastings is released on October 28 (Townsend Music).

https://foxtonandhastings.tmstor.es/

https://www.fromthejamofficial.com/

Halo Effect

Depeche Mode’s 1990 studio album, Violator, was an important record for 15/16-year-old me. As I wrote in a guest article for website, Eight Albums, a while back: I can remember being so excited ahead of its release. I’d loved the two singles that preceded it – the anthemic, bluesy stomp of Personal Jesus and the blissed-out, pulsing pop of Enjoy The Silence, so I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. I wasn’t disappointed.

‘I bought it the day it came out (March 19, 1990) – after school I walked to the local record shop to get it on tape and then listened to it on my Walkman on the bus home. I can still recall the effect hearing the opening, moody, techno-inspired synth line of the first song, the mysterious World In My Eyes, had on me.

‘I was in a short-lived band at high school – we were a trio and were called The Massive String Thing. I sang and my friends, Chris and Dave, played keyboards and drums, respectively. We only did two gigs – our first one was during a school lunch hour and we played three songs, opening with World In My Eyes. I wore a black denim jacket and did my best Dave Gahan impression.

‘I thought we were great, but looking back on it, I think most people who saw us would’ve rather enjoyed the silence.’

Thirty two years later, I was very excited to read about a new book coming out: Halo: The Story Behind Depeche Mode’s Classic Album Violator, by Kevin May and David McElroy (Grosvenor House Publishing).

So, I decided to, *coughs*, ‘reach out’ to the authors and ask if I could talk to them about their publication, which is a great read – a brilliantly researched and well-written piece of work that goes to painstaking lengths to talk to so many people who were involved with Violator, including the engineers and studio mixer, the guest slide guitarist, the sleeve’s graphic designer, the album’s marketing and PR representative, and even two of the girls, an actress and a dancer, who featured in promotional videos for the record.

Not only that, but there are also personal stories from some of the band’s fans from all over the world, who share how much the album means to them.

In an exclusive interview, Kevin and David tell me how the book came together, share some of their insights on Violator, and also talk about the future of the band, following the recent death of keyboardist, Andy ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, and the announcement that surviving members, Dave Gahan (vocals) and Martin Gore (guitar / keys), will continue as a duo and release a new album, Memento Mori, in spring 2023, followed by a tour.

Q&A

How did the idea for the book come about? Was it as a result of lockdown?

Kevin May: It was a little while before lockdown – it’s been a while in the making. In the age of streaming, I think it’s increasingly rare to listen to an album front to back – people pick up tracks on random playlists…

It just so happened that I was travelling home from a work event quite a few years ago and decided to put Violator on – it was the first time in a long while that I’d listened to the album. At the end of it, I thought; ‘It’s so terrific – such a wonderful album’.

I’d seen the DVD documentary that had been made about it, in 2000, which does a fairly decent job of going over some of the bits and pieces, but I thought that because the album defines an era for the band – and for others – that it was worth digging into it…

I had no concept at all about how to go about writing something more than an article, which is what I used to do for my day job – it needed to be much more than that – so I asked a few people, someone said they’d written a book and they knew a publisher who was great, and they introduced me…

It started from there and it took quite a long time for me to do the first run of interviews – I had to fit them around work, and I was an editor of a travel publication, so I was pretty busy.

Then, in early 2017, David entered the fray…

Left to right: David McElroy and Kevin May

How did you guys meet?

KM: I don’t recall our first conversation. David – did I approach you about writing a contribution as a fan?

David McElroy: That’s right – I’ve run a blog for the last 10 years. In the last five or six years, it’s become Depeche Mode-focused. Kevin asked me to do one of the fan contributions for the book and then the Global Spirit tour kicked off – Depeche Mode did a BBC 6 Music show at The Barrowland in Glasgow.

I met Kevin at that gig. I’d always hoped I could see them at The Barrowland.

One of the things that impressed me most about the book was that you managed to track down and speak to a whole host of people who were involved with the making of, and the subsequent release and promotion, of Violator. You even spoke to a dancer from the Halo video… How did you go about finding everyone? Was it a challenge?

KM: When I did the first run of interviews, the vast majority of people were fairly easy to track down, either through social media or LinkedIn. There were a couple that were a bit trickier – Richard Smith, who worked for Area, which was the design agency. He’d never spoken to anyone about Violator – that was a real coup. I particularly enjoyed talking to him.

In some respects, Anton Corbijn is the creative mastermind behind Depeche Mode’s look from, 1987 onwards, with the videos and the sleeves, but Richard and Area were pivotal to it and become more influential as Anton gave them more freedom to do things.

‘The band take a very consistent line on  requests – they don’t get involved with any biographers. That applies to current band members and also Alan Wilder’

For example, the cover of Personal Jesus was an Anton brain dump, but as the singles went on, he gave more control to Richard and Area – World In My Eyes was very much Richard’s work.

I didn’t know any of that and I don’t think many people do – he’s one of the unsung heroes… Rightly, so much of the credit goes to Anton, but Richard has done a lot of work and he was just a footnote: ‘Designed by Area’.

There are no new interviews with any of the band members in the book. Did you ask them to get involved and did they decline?

DM: The band take a very consistent line on any requests – they don’t get involved with any biographers. That applies to current band members and also Alan Wilder [who left Depeche Mode in 1995]. The management didn’t get involved, either – no one in the close circle. They politely said ‘no’.

‘You’d probably get more about the story of the making of the album from the people we’ve spoken to, rather than the band, who would just say, ‘I can’t remember what I was doing in Milan, in late 1989’

When we first gave our editor the book, he thought if Depeche Mode weren’t involved, how would it come across and how would the story be told? But he said he quickly forgot that the band weren’t involved with the book because of all the other people who contributed. His view was – and I think Kevin and I agreed with him – was that you’d probably get more about the story of the making of the album from the people we’ve spoken to, rather than the band, who would just say, ‘I can’t remember what I was doing in Milan, in late 1989’…

Drugs, probably, I’d imagine…

[Everyone laughs].

Flood, who produced the album, didn’t contribute to the book either, did he? Were there quite a few ones who got away?

KM: Certainly Flood was the one who got away. It was basically a timing thing – I approached him right at the beginning and his management company, 140dB, said it sounded like something he’d be interested in, however, at the time he was working on a PJ Harvey album, at Somerset House. After that, he took a break because it had been intense.

‘Flood famously doesn’t do many interviews, but everyone else who worked with him – all the engineers and François Kevorkian – did speak to us’

This dragged on for a couple of years and then they said it probably wasn’t going to happen – he was then working with Ed O’Brien [Radiohead]… Flood famously doesn’t do many interviews, but everyone else who worked with him – all the engineers and [studio mixer] François Kevorkian – did speak to us.

Getting the fans involved was a nice touch…

DM: Kevin had had this idea and I did a thing on my blog for the 30th anniversary of Violator, which was an article a day for the whole of March – it was the one of those ideas I had and then I realised I had to follow it through…

I got quite a few fans to contribute, so the articles they wrote for me feature in the book, because we felt they were a good fit. They’re not just saying ‘Violator is the greatest album I’ve ever heard and Depeche Mode are wonderful… ‘ It’s more about their story.

Which people were the most fun to chat to for the book, and, as fans, did you learn anything that really excited you?

KM: Richard Smith was probably the person I learned the most from and, in terms of fun, the experience of interviewing Steve Lyon [engineer] was great because I actually went to his recording studio, in West London – I’d never been to a proper one before and I was a little bit overawed by that experience. He’s just a generous and very funny bloke – he was great.

I met Bruce Kirkland, who was on the marketing and publicity side, in L.A. I happened to be there for a conference, so I asked him if he was around and I caught an Uber out to his office, which was in the hills, overlooking L.A. We spoke for a couple of hours. That was genuinely a really enjoyable period of doing the book – I was talking to people about something I love and am passionate about.

DM: The things I learned the most were from reading Kevin’s interviews. If you look at the book as two halves – Kevin had done all the work on the part up until the album is released, and, as a Depeche Mode fan who, perhaps, can be a bit boring about the band, I was reading things I’d never read before. I found that fascinating.

My interviews were more based on ideas I thought we could explore for the book – I chatted to Angela Shelton, who was the actress in the Clean video. I’ve seen that video a lot of times, so that was quite surreal.

Tracking down Nils Tuxen – the slide guitar player – was quite odd. I went through his Dutch fan club – and via his daughter. It was a brief interview, but it was quite fun and part of our attempt to delve into every corner of Violator.

‘Fletch was an integral part of the band. If he hadn’t have been there, I think the band would’ve finished long ago’

Andrew ‘Fletch’ Fletcher. Photo credit: Ivica Drusany / Shutterstock.com

Sadly, while you were in the final stages of proofing the book, band member Andrew ‘Fletch’ Fletcher died. You’ve dedicated it to him, which was a really nice gesture…

DM: Fletch was an integral part of the band. If he hadn’t have been there, I think the band would’ve finished long ago. He was a constant presence in the studio and saying, ‘I don’t think this works, you should try this’. He was very involved in the direction he thought the band should go – ultimately, he was the biggest Depeche Mode fan there is and he knew what we kind of liked. If he hadn’t have been there, I think the band would’ve finished long ago. His role was a bit like Bill Berry’s in R.E.M. He was the kind of ‘pop ear’ – when Bill left, R.E.M went more in Michael Stipe’s direction.

Martin Gore and Dave Gahan

And now, Depeche Mode’s remaining members, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore, have announced they’re continuing as a band and have a new album, Memento Mori, and a  world tour planned for next year. How do you feel about that?

DM: It’s strange to see them without Fletch, and you can certainly tell that both Dave and Martin are feeling his absence, but I’m not surprised they are carrying on, especially when they said how far along the album was before Fletch died. I’m glad they’ve carried on and finished the project off. It’s a nice way to pay tribute to Fletch and will allow fans to meet up and remember him.

Let’s go back to Violator – it’s an album that took the band’s sound – and status – to a whole new level. On the record, Depeche Mode embraced blues, country, techno, house and disco. I can remember where I was when I first heard it – it was on March 19, 1990, which was the day it was released. I was coming up to my sixteenth birthday, and living on the Isle of Wight. I bought the album after school, on cassette, from a local record shop, and played it on my Walkman on the bus home.

‘I listened to Violator on repeat so much that the sticker on the side of the cassette came off’

From the synth intro of the first song, World In My Eyes, it blew me away. What are your memories of hearing Violator for the first time? 

KM:I was at sixth form college, in Rochester, Kent, which is where I grew up. A friend of mine had a cassette version, we were walking to college one morning, he put his headphones on my head and said, ‘Listen to this’. That was the first song. By that time, we’d all heard Personal Jesus and Enjoy The Silence, but when I heard those first eight to 16 bars of World In My Eyes, I thought, ‘OK – this is really good’. By the end of the day, during breaks at college, I’d listened to the whole thing and when I got paid from my supermarket job later that week, I bought my own copy.

DM: I was 15 when it came out. Having fallen for Enjoy The Silence, which was the first time I properly got into Depeche Mode, I went to Woolworths, in Castle Douglas, in south west Scotland, where I’m from, and bought Violator on cassette. I took it home, and played it in my room. Like both of you, when World In My Eyes started, I thought, ‘This is something different’. I listened to the album on repeat so much that the sticker on the side of the cassette came off.

‘Depeche Mode have never received the critical acclaim they’re due. Violator is one of the most forward-thinking and innovative British albums ever released’

Violator is 32 years old and yet, if you listen to it now, it still sounds so fresh and modern. It was so ahead of its time, wasn’t it, but it doesn’t get talked about as one of the classic rock albums, does it? Why do you think that is?

DM: As far as I’m concerned, Depeche Mode have never received the critical acclaim they’re due – that’s across the piste from Speak and Spell [1981] onwards. Yeah, they made a few mistakes in the early days, like doing some daft TV appearances, but their work has always been experimental. From Speak and Spell to Violator, they’ve always moved on and done different things – they didn’t stand still. Violator crystallised all the work they’d done up until that point,

You’re right – when you read those ‘Best 500 Albums of All Time’ it’s always there, at 300 or 350, but it’s one of the most forward-thinking and innovative British albums that’s ever been released. Just because it was released by a band who was on Noel Edmonds’s Swap Shop, playing synthesisers and wearing suits eight years before that, it doesn’t mean it should be any less credible.

‘There were quite a few tracks on Violator that were a lot rockier before the final versions.You wonder if it would’ve been more like Songs of Faith and Devotion if François Kevorkian hadn’t been the overall mixer on it’

For a band who were part of an early ’80s scene where all the other bands had fallen away, split up or were releasing increasingly dull things, Depeche Mode kept on moving forward and were big all over the world.

KM: There were quite a few tracks on Violator that were a lot rockier before the final versions – you had Martin’s demos, which Flood and Alan Wilder predominantly worked on, and then François Kevorkian came along and made them a little bit more electronic in parts. One of the stories that comes out in the book is that Halo was a lot rockier than the final version, because François did his thing on it. You wonder if Violator would’ve been more like Songs of Faith and Devotion if François hadn’t been the overall mixer on it.

Violator is very contemporary – you can put it on now and if you play it to someone who doesn’t know the history of the band, or music, I contend that they would struggle to name the year it was recorded. Thirty two years later, it’s a very difficult album to pin down in terms of the genres it covers and the year it was made. That’s what makes it a unique album – it’s timelessness.

What are your favourite songs from Violator?

DM: Enjoy The Silence – it’s a fairly obvious one, but it’s the song that started off the whole Depeche Mode thing for me and, ultimately, led to me sat here, chatting to you. There’s not a bad note on Violator

KM: For me, it’s Halo and World In My Eyes. Contrary to Dave, I think there is one weak song – and we’ve discussed this before  – and it’s Sweetest Perfection.

I like that song, but, for some reason, I guessed that was the one you were going to say… I don’t know why.

KM: It just never got me in the same way as it gets people like David, I suppose.

Photo credit: Kraft74 – Shutterstock.com

Is Violator your favourite Depeche Mode album?

DM: For me, it’s number one – it’s what started it all off for me. Black Celebration follows a close second – it’s a manifesto for Depeche Mode fans laid out over 12 songs. I also think Songs of Faith and Devotion is superb, and I love Ultra.

KM: My other favourite Depeche Mode albums are Songs of Faith and Devotion and Black Celebration – I like Some Great Reward too, and I like Exciter and Ultra. I think Exciter is a really interesting and important album for Depeche Mode – it was the first time in a few years that they’d gone into a studio, and the first time they were going to do a big album tour after Dave had been ill, and there was another new producer [Mark Bell]. Dave was chomping at the bit to add some of his songs, but didn’t – he waited until Playing The Angel.

Photo credit: Avis De Miranda / Shutterstock.com

There was a lot going on at that time and they started to gain respect critically, as there had been a changing of the guard among the music critics who’d slated them. Fifteen years later, some people were saying: ‘Depeche Mode are quite cool, actually’. That period interests me in, dare I say it, doing a sequel book, which David and I have yet to discuss.

Finally, I’m having a night in tonight, without my family, should I enjoy the silence, or should I lift up the receiver, reach out and touch faith?

KM: It depends who’s on the other end of the phone…

DM: Take a chance to enjoy the silence, but stick Violator on loud in the background.

For more on Depeche Mode, visit David McElroy’s blog, here.

‘Strangeways… seems to be everybody in the band’s favourite album – it’s one of the very few things we all agree on nowadays’

Mike Joyce – picture by Paul Husband.

This week, Strangeways, Here We Come, the fourth and final studio album by influential ‘80s Manchester indie-rock band The Smiths – Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite group of all time – celebrates its 35th birthday.

By the time the record was released, on September 28, 1987, the band had split up, following the departure of guitarist, Johnny Marr.

Many people – the group included – view Strangeways, Here We Come as the band’s masterpiece, although, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, (whisper it) we think The Queen Is Dead, which was released the year before, deserves that accolade. But that’s for another time and place…

There’s no doubt about it, though – Strangeways, Here We Come is one of the greatest rock records of all time. The Smiths’ most ambitious and experimental album, it takes in ghostly piano-led pop (A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours), synth brass-assisted glam (I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish), eerie psychedelic atmospherics (Death of a Disco Dancer), witty black comedy set to a lilting acoustic guitar line (Girlfriend In A Coma), epic, orchestral melodrama (Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me) and macabre rockabilly (Death At One’s Elbow).

To coincide with Strangeways, Here We Come’s (unhappy) birthday, Smiths drummer, Mike Joyce, generously agreed to raffle off his silver disc of the album to raise money for Back on Track, a Manchester charity that he is a patron of.

Back on Track works with adults to help manage problematic drug/alcohol use, enable a crime-free life, improve mental health and wellbeing, or find a stable home.

To be in with a chance of winning Mike’s special copy of the classic album, enter the raffle here and make a donation.

In another kind gesture, Mike agreed to give Say It With Garage Flowers an interview, in which he shares his memories of recording Strangeways, Here We Come, talks about the brilliance of The Smiths, recalls some of his collaborations after the breakup of the band, and fills us in on his latest musical project, Love Tempo.

“Strangeways… is a great-sounding album – it’s very different from anything we had heard before, but then again I could say that about just about every Smiths album or track,” he tells us. We completely agree with him.

Q&A

So, let’s talk about Strangeways, Here We Come, which is celebrating its 35th birthday this month. It’s one of the greatest albums ever made…

Mike Joyce: Thank you.

You’re of the opinion it’s the best album The Smiths recorded – and you’re not the only member of the band to think that…

MJ: Collectively, it’s one of the very few things we all agree on nowadays [laughs]. From what I’ve heard, it seems to be everybody’s favourite. I can see why.

Why do you say that?

MJ: From a musician’s point of view and also what we’d experienced as a band prior to Strangeways…  The first album came out, expectations were high, then there was a difficult second album, and a third album where we were retaining the same threads, so we didn’t alienate all the fans we had. We had some very successful albums for a genuinely independent band and we didn’t know Strangeways… was going to be our last album. Well, I didn’t!

I think Johnny might’ve had an idea…

MJ: I don’t know – he certainly didn’t let on if that was the case.

It’s subjective – you speak to some people and they say the first album blows everything out of the water and that it’s miles better than Strangeways…but it’s like ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ ‘Orange is great, but what about blue, or purple? ‘Purple is superb – I’d forgotten about that one…’ It’s just whatever tickles your fancy.

Strangeways… is a great-sounding album – it’s very different from anything we had heard before, but then again I could say that about just about every Smiths album or track.

‘We had some very successful albums for a genuinely independent band and we didn’t know Strangeways… was going to be our last album. Well, I didn’t!’

Have you listened to Strangeways... recently?

MJ: I did listen to it not long ago, because Tim Burgess did a listening party for it. But I hadn’t listened to it in its entirety probably since the day it came out.

When I mentioned that during the listening party, people were very shocked. Do authors sit down and read their books? I don’t know…

I had a CD jukebox that held 200-300 CDs – when I was filling it up, I said to Tina [Christina – wife]: ‘Shall I put a Smiths album in it, or is that a bit tight?’ She said: ‘No – put one in.’ So, I said: ‘Which one?’ And she said, ‘Your favourite.’ So, I did. When we were playing it, Last Night I Dreamt… came on – of course it would, out of the thousands of tracks that are on there – and someone heard it.

They found it so moving that I think they were quite shocked – they didn’t really know that much about The Smiths, apart from Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, This Charming Man and How Soon Is Now? When they heard Last Night I Dreamt… they said: ‘Wow – is that you?’ I said: ‘Yes – it’s little ole me…’  It’s a big departure from anything…

I think if you listen to The Queen Is Dead, you can hear the direction The Smiths where heading in, which would eventually lead to Strangeways, like using the Emulator synth strings on the arrangement for There Is A Light…

MJ: Yeah, yeah – and on I Know It’s Over. 

But also on Strangeways… there’s rockabilly – Death At One’s Elbow – which is going back to some of The Smiths’ earlier stuff. And then there’s I Won’t Share You, which has a similar feel to Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.

Last Night I Dreamt… is my favourite song on Strangeways… and it’s one of my favourite Smiths songs. 

MJ: It’s one of mine, too.

I love the arrangement  – it’s like a pocket symphony. It reminds me of the Walker Brothers or a big ’50s orchestral ballad… 

MJ: It’s not the kind of tune you jam out –  it’s not just going with a riff and seeing what comes out of it, although we did do a bit of that. A lot of the time we ran through a lot in sound checks – we never sat down and said, ‘Right – let’s block book a rehearsal room or studio’. We just kind of jammed and blasted it out.

We had a great working relationship –  we could empathise with whatever the other guy was playing.

‘During Strangeways, Johnny was set up in the control room with an Emulator and he just started playing these incredible string and piano parts. I was taken aback –  I thought, ‘Hold on a minute –  where did he learn to do that?’

We never felt like we were struggling to get things done, further things or finish things when Johnny had come up with a riff. Sometimes, Johnny would come in the room and start playing and me and Andy [Rourke – bassist] would just start playing the drums and bass for it – that’s just what it was like. We knew what we thought was right for it, and, invariably, it was. I suppose it doesn’t happen that often for bands and songs because you’re working on a lot.

The Smiths (Left to right: Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and Johnny Marr)

In terms of the Emulator, and the way that Johnny was writing at the time, I can remember during Strangeways... [in the Wool Hall studio, near Bath, Somerset ], he was set up in the control room rather than the live room and he just started playing these incredible string and piano parts. I know he’d played those on tracks before, but I was taken aback – I thought, ‘Hold on a minute – where did he learn to do that?’

Watching Johnny writing those parts and working out where they would fit… People throw around the word ‘genius’… but he did that without sitting down or rehearsing with a string section. He’d never been classically trained.

He’s also a better piano player than Morrissey is on Death of a Disco Dancer…

MJ: Well, actually I really like that piano part…

It’s atonal and it suits the song…

MJ: It’s just odd, which kind of goes with the man.

When Strangeways… was released, The Smiths had disbanded, after Johnny left the group. Were you sad that you never got the chance to promote the album or play any songs from it live?

MJ: No – I pulled my sadness back a few notches. I was slightly miffed – the finished article sounded so great – but I was more shocked about the split than not being able to play the songs live. That usurped it. I don’t think we would’ve done a Strangeways… tour – we might’ve played a couple from it.

‘I really like Morrissey’s piano part on Death of a Disco Dancer. It’s just odd, which kind of goes with the man’

Last Night I Dreamt… would’ve been tricky to play live at the time, wouldn’t it? Although Johnny has played it at some of his solo gigs in the past few years…

MJ: Oh, has he? The vocals, the bass and the drums are pretty bog standard – well, not bog standard, I’m sure Morrissey would be delighted to hear me say that – but with the string parts, it would’ve been tough, and there’s some percussion on there. I wouldn’t have thought it would’ve been that difficult to emulate.

We never rehearsed those songs [from Strangeways…]. Death of a Disco Dancer was just a take that we thought sounded great – we were just jamming with a rough framework to work from. The only time when we had an issue technically [live] was with How Soon Is Now? and that was with this bit [he sings the slide guitar part]. We tried it with a trigger, but it didn’t work – sometimes it was not sensitive enough, or it was too sensitive…

Picture by Paul Husband

So, with Strangeways.… turning 35, you’ve generously decided to raffle off your silver disc of the album to raise money for Manchester’s Back on Track charity, which you’re a patron of. How did you get involved with the organisation?

MJ: They asked me to be a patron – I had absolutely no idea what it entailed or about Back on Track, so I went to one of their open days, had a look round and listened to some of the testimonies of the people the charity had helped. It just seemed like such a wonderful place – helping people with rehabilitation from alcohol or drugs or anything that is stopping them being a part of society. It’s quite difficult for some people to come back into society, because all they’ve known are some frighteningly bad environments and they need to keep away from them.

‘The silver disc of Strangeways, Here We Come is precious to me, but I’ve got the memories of playing on the album and that’s more precious than anything’

Back on Track is a start for them and, apart from the obvious psychological and emotional battles, some of these people don’t have any qualifications – Back on Track can help with that and organise interviews for jobs that are available. To actually see and hear someone’s story when you’re sat face-to-face with them, and it sounded like it was all over for them, but, because of Back on Track it wasn’t… it was a no-brainer.

I thought that maybe I could organise some finances for Back on Track by raffling a disc. Everybody’s struggling at the moment and charities are no exception, especially post-Covid.

The [silver] disc of Strangeways… is precious to me, but I’ve got the memories of playing on the album and that’s more precious  than anything. Getting the accolade and receiving something made of glass, metal and plastic is wonderful, but I still received it – even when it’s gone and it’s raised money for the charity –  so I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’

I’m sure you’ve got a few other discs at home…

MJ: Yes, I have…

Thank God you didn’t choose to raffle off The Queen Is Dead. Timing is everything, isn’t it?

MJ: I don’t know if that would’ve been the best or the worst thing…

‘When I play with any artist, I really do have to find out about them – that’s why I’ve never done any session work. I want to know what their dreams and aspirations are, and what they hate and love’

You’d certainly have got some PR coverage out of it… Let’s talk about some of the other music you’ve been involved with after The Smiths. After they disbanded, you and Andy Rourke played with Sinead O’Connor. You’ve played with quite a few controversial singers, including John Lydon, in PIL, haven’t you?

MJ: I love it! When I play with any artist, I really do have to find out about them – that’s why I’ve never done any session work. I can’t go into an environment where it’s like, ‘Hi – this is Tony, this is Dave, this is Emma – off you go’. I don’t want to do that and I never will.

I have to understand a bit about these people – know them and feel them. I want to know what their dreams and aspirations are, and what they hate and love. I what to know everything about them because when I’m playing drums with these people, we’re having a conversation musically. I want to be able to give them what they want. We play a little bit – I know where their head’s at and what they want. By going and having a few beers with somebody, you can find out a lot about them, without asking them questions directly.

All the people that I’ve worked with are very interesting, intense and different. They’re very driven and some of them are very fragile – strong but not. They’re interesting characters and it’s fascinating, because I get to see everything – the audience, the singer, the band… I’m in a really privileged position, literally.

You played with P.P. Arnold, didn’t you?

MJ: Yeah – it was just a small kind of thing. I was working with a guy called Grant Ainsworth, who’s a fantastic keyboard player and a good mate of mine. We got in touch with her through our management at the time, but we didn’t really have the songs for her level of expertise. We did a couple of things – they were alright, they weren’t ‘chuck it in the bin’, but with her legacy, I felt someone like Mark Ronson should’ve stepped in there and done something superb with a full-on band. She was one of the Ikettes and she toured with The Rolling Stones – the stories that she had…

Have you read her book, Soul Survivor, which came out this year?

MJ: No – I didn’t even know she had one out. I’ll get hold of that. She used to talk to me about her and Jimi, who had a thing. I was like Jimi who? And she’d say, ‘Hendrix’….  and I’d say ‘Oh!’ And she’d talk about Brian being upset. And I’m like, ‘Brian? Brian Moore?’ And she’d say, ‘Brian Jones.’ It was unbelievable. She’s one of the loveliest people – inside and outside of music. That was a lovely little period of my life. We tried but we didn’t succeed, but I didn’t mind that – we didn’t have the right armoury for her, or to bring out the best in her. It was a great experience because she was such a sweetheart.

You and I have a mutual friend, singer-songwriter, Vinny Peculiar. You and Andy – and Craig Gannon, who was also in The Smiths – played with him, didn’t you? He’s such a great artist – his lyrics are wonderful.

MJ: Aren’t they just? That’s why I wanted to play with him. I heard his music and I thought ‘This is great’. I said to Andy, ‘Have a listen to this – these are good songs’. And they were – and they are. We had a good time playing with him for a few years, but I felt my time working with Vinny had come to an end – it had reached fruition. He’s a good friend – we went for a curry about a month ago. He’s a lovely guy.

The Smiths – Photo by Pete Cronin/Redferns

Why did you and Andy work so well together as a rhythm section? What was the chemistry? Didn’t Morrissey, or was it Johnny, once say you could’ve played with Elvis you were that good?

MJ: I remember that quote. I’ve not revisited it since you’ve mentioned it – it was 25 years ago and it was Johnny. He said, ‘If Elvis had had me and Andy as a rhythm section, he would’ve been a bigger star’. It was tongue-in-cheek, obviously. I love Andy – we got very tight on tour and we were rooming together. The way that I played and the way that he played worked together and so did the parts we wrote.

Andy’s quite a busy bassist –  he’s not a pedaller, he’s on the note. You can take his bassline away and it’s a song in itself. If I was a busy drummer, it would sound shit – there would be too much going on. I think that helped in the way that we played together – when I heard him playing those really busy basslines for the first time, I’d go very simple, which is what I do anyway. I like to play a rhythm rather than try and stamp my authority on the whole track – and that works. Our friendship was a massive part of it – we saw each other every single day for five years. It wasn’t just, ‘I’ll see you for rehearsals on Friday’.

Does it upset you when people say the legacy of The Smiths has been tarnished by some of the things that have happened since the band broke up?

I interviewed Johnny 20 years ago, when he’d launched The Healers, and he told me that other people – not just the band themselves  – had tarnished the legacy of The Smiths, like Warner Bros, who messed up a Best Of compilation when it came to mastering it and doing the artwork and the credits, etc.

‘If somebody doesn’t want to listen to a Smiths record for whatever reason, then don’t listen to it – it’s okay, I don’t mind’

And then there was the court case, which you brought against Morrissey and Johnny, and, in more recent times, Morrissey has upset people with some of his controversial views, so some people have decided they can’t listen to The Smiths anymore. Do we have to separate the art from the artist?

MJ: I don’t find it upsetting. We’re talking about somebody that I don’t know. Just because someone has a different view to me… With social media at the moment, I feel like there’s a lot of ‘get the pitchforks out’ if someone says something very different from what you’ve said. Of course I care, but I don’t find it upsetting. If somebody doesn’t want to listen to a Smiths record for whatever reason, then don’t listen to it – it’s okay, I don’t mind.

‘I can isolate 1982-1987 really well – that’s where my dreams were made and everything shone for me. Nobody can ever take that away. Whatever happens afterwards – people whingeing about this, or what somebody said… I’m not really that bothered’

Going back to the other thing you said about Johnny, maybe I’m not as intense as he is about those kinds of things, to be brutally honest. I could say,’Yeah – it’s a travesty and they’ve not done this or that,’ but, do you know what? As far as I’m concerned, I can isolate 1982-1987 really well – that’s where my dreams were made and everything shone for me. In terms of my musical aspirations, I’d arrived at them and nobody can ever take that away. Whatever happens afterwards – people whingeing about this, or what somebody said… I’m not really that bothered.

So, what are you up to now, musically? Any new projects? 

MJ: I do a bit of DJing – it’s a good night and I really enjoy the music.

What’s in your set?

MJ: It’s classic indie – Primal Scream, The Undertones, The Clash, Blondie. It’s the music that I like to listen to and have a dance to. It’s very simple – there are no curveballs in there. I enjoy doing that.

A few years ago, a friend of mine called Rick Hornby, whom I’ve known for 30-odd years, was living in London, doing some session work. He moved back to Cheadle Hulme [in Cheshire], which is about five or six miles away from where I live now. I’ve got a soundproof basement and I asked him if he’d fancy doing a bit of playing and he said he’d love to. So, he came down and we just played – there was no agenda. His guitar sound is superb and I was inspired by it. He was playing some really good parts, but I was more inspired by the sound – it’s a bit like the B-52’s. I’ve not heard a lot of guitarists play like that – it’s bordering on rockabilly, but a bit more modern.

‘Rick Hornby and I have started doing a bit of writing together and we’ve been to see an artist in Manchester – I can’t say who it is – but we’re going do to some recording with him in the States next year. He’s a guy from San Francisco and the band’s called Love Tempo’

We started doing a bit of writing together and we’ve been to see an artist in Manchester who he knows – I can’t say who it is – but we’re going do to some recording with him in the States next year and see what happens. He’s a guy from San Francisco and the band’s called Love Tempo. We’re going to throw it against the wall and see what sticks. I’m really excited about it. I didn’t think that I was going to do much more playing to be honest with you, because nothing had come along that made we go ‘wow’. This did.

I wasn’t that bothered if I didn’t get on a stage again, but, every time I go to a gig, I’m like, ‘God, I wish I could get up and play…’ but then that’s gone by the next day.

‘Fontaines D.C. have completely satiated my need to listen to new music. I’ve seen them live a few times over the last couple of years and each time they get better and better. They’re my new favourite group. I’ve not been as affected by seeing a band since I saw Buzzcocks when I was 14’

Do you listen to a lot of new music or go to many gigs?

MJ: I pick up bits and bobs. Until a couple of years ago, I was doing a radio show, and that dictated that I was keeping my ear to the ground and going to gigs a lot.  I listen to 6 Music and have the radio on when I’m in the car, but it’s mainly Talk Sport.

Fontaines D.C. have completely satiated my need to listen to new music. I’ve seen them live a few times over the last couple of years and each time they get better and better. They’re my new favourite group. I’ve not been as affected by seeing a band since I saw Buzzcocks when I was 14.

You played with them too, didn’t you? 

MJ: [Laughs]: Yes – I did.

Going back to The Smiths. How many times a week do people ask if you The Smiths will ever reform, do you get annoyed by it and what do you tell them?

MJ: Well, what day are we now? It’s Friday and you’re the first person this week. That’s not unusual. I don’t get asked very often, but, it’s usually in an interview situation, not when I’m putting my sourdough in my basket and it goes ‘beep beep’. I don’t get asked then.

In a working environment, like when I’m DJing, people ask me if there’s any chance of it happening. I think Johnny and Morrissey get asked a lot more than I do – probably ‘cos Johnny does a lot more interviews than I do. Andy probably gets asked the least because he doesn’t seem to be doing any live work at all.

‘If The Smiths reformed now and went and played, you wouldn’t be seeing The Smiths.  I like the idea of us not reforming. And even if they did, they might do it, but minus me! I was surprised it didn’t happen earlier’

I don’t get pissed off by it – it’s a natural question and I probably would’ve asked it of a band if I’d seen one member… Actually, I wouldn’t! Every time I see Ian Brown, I don’t ask him ‘When are the Roses getting back together?’

I think it’s because The Smiths had a relatively short career – only five years. A lot of people, like me, got into them after they’d split up – they never got the chance to see the band play live.

MJ: I think you’re right. I’ll tell you what, if The Smiths reformed now and went and played, you wouldn’t be seeing The Smiths.  I like the idea of us not reforming. And even if they did, they might do it, but minus me! I was surprised it didn’t happen earlier. There’s a reason why bands split up. They don’t say, ‘I’ll see you right I’ve got your number and I’ll check in every couple of weeks to see how you’re doing’. It never happens it’s a massive fucking breakup. It’s a divorce. People don’t ask you if you’re gonna get back with your ex-wife again! ‘It’s been 35 years, come on! You did love her…’

The idea of doing it? We’re all four very different people than we were when we were rehearsing in Crazy Face. It’s a lifetime that’s gone by.

The Smiths – photo by Stephen Wright

I think there’s a quote that Morrissey said: ‘Why would I go on stage with people that I don’t even know?’ Well, that’s exactly how I feel. I don’t know Morrissey and Johnny – I know Andy, because I’ve seen him since The Smiths split and up to the present day, but I haven’t seen Morrissey or Johnny, or sat down or spoken to them for 30-odd years. Why would I want to do that?

The financial gain is something that everybody talks about they say everybody’s got a price. Well, I don’t think so. It depends on how much you want the money, doesn’t it? Maybe you haven’t got a price and someone says: ‘We’ll give you £1oo,000,000  each.’ And the answer is still ‘no.’ ‘We’ll give you £5oo,000,000’ the answer is still ‘no.’ Maybe they’d then just leave them alone because it’s not going to happen. The rumours do come out it seems to happen just before either a Morrissey or a Johnny tour. I don’t know [laughs]... It make sense put it in the news…

There have been a lot of books published about the The Smiths, and Morrissey and Johnny have both written their autobiographies. Would you ever write one?

MJ: No. It’s funny – after an interview, usually, someone says to me, ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ I have thought about it and then I think about not writing a book. It’s as simple as that. I have no desire, but a lot of people want to hear what I’ve got to say. Maybe it might happen, it might not happen… I just can’t be arsed. I know that’s not the most eloquent answer to your question.

There’s more to life than books you know…

MJ: But not much more.

To enter Mike Joyce’s charity raffle for Back on Track, please click here. 

https://www.mikejoyce.com/

https://www.backontrackmanchester.org.uk/

Mike Joyce – picture by Paul Husband

 

From heroes to Zeros

Brand New Zeros – Luke Dolan and Ronan MacManus.

Back To Zero, the second album by London-based Brand New Zeros – singer-songwriter Ronan MacManus and lead guitarist Luke Dolan – is steeped in classic rock ‘n’ roll, New Wave, dirty blues and classy pop ballads.

The album came out in 2021, but some of the socio-political songs on the record are even more relevant now than they were written – especially in the light of the cost of living crisis the UK is facing and the strange times we’re living in, when hate seems to the dominant force and emotion, rather than values like love and compassion.

There are moments on Back To Zero that recall the crunching power-rock of The Who – This Love – the soulful sound of Paul Carrack-era Squeeze – Human Kindness, and, at times, like on the angry and acerbic racket of Money Goes To Money – a diatribe on the wealth divide in the UK – the frantic and urgent, Hammond-organ fuelled Can’t Do It, which tackles extreme anxiety, and the grunge-tinged, Angels With Guns – a stinging comment on US kids carrying out school shootings – you’ll be reminded of vintage Elvis Costello. So, it’s no surprise to find that Ronan is actually his younger brother – Elvis’s real name is Declan MacManus.

Say It With Garage Flowers editor, Sean Hannam, with Ronan MacManus.

 

“Just so you know, I’m happy to talk about Dec,” says Ronan – he never calls him Elvis – sipping a non-alcoholic drink, outside the Mad Squirrel craft beer shop and bar, in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, on a hot July afternoon. More on that later, but, in the meantime, let’s get back to zero…

Q&A

So, how did you and Luke first meet?

Ronan MacManus: I met Luke at his barber’s shop, which was in Watford – we had a mutual friend. He was in a duo before and that kind of fell apart, so he was looking for something else before.

I was in a band, The BibleCode Sundays, and I needed a side-project. I’d done solo stuff before – I’d released an album back in 2010 and I’d finished a record with my younger brother, Rory, called Elephant In The Room.

Luke and I met at the barber’s shop and we started to write after hours and it really clicked – for the first time, I wasn’t playing guitar. Luke took care of that I was taking care of the lyrics and melodies.

There’s some great guitar on the new record…

RM: Luke’s a real blues head – his dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James [in London] for years. He’d worked every night for six months, but, famously, took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played. It’s one of those great rock ‘n’ roll stories.

Ronan MacManus and Luke Dolan

So, when you and Luke got together, things happened pretty quickly…

RM: Luke and I gelled – it was meant to be an acoustic duo at first, but we quickly realised it needed to be bigger than that, so I asked the bass player [Enda Mulloy] and the drummer [Carlton Hunt] from The BibleCode Sundays to come and join us. Carlton had played with Bad Manners and been in bands for years.

The four of us went to Ireland and recorded the first Brand New Zeros album, which was called Brand New Zeros. We recorded the whole of the album in three days – in-between drinking sessions. We arranged all the songs so we could play them drunk – there were no weird, fancy bits. We were emulating all the bands we listened to as kids, like grunge stuff, but we called it acoustic grunge.

Myself, Luke and Enda all had similar teenage musical upbringings – we all got into the grunge scene: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden…

Luke and I grew up in different parts of London – Harrow and Twickenham – and Enda had grown up in Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Carlton was a bit older than us, so he’d grown up on things like my brother’s music.

‘Luke’s dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James. He worked every night for six months, but took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played’

And now you have a second album out, Back To Zero, which, musically, is a step on from the first one…

RM: We started recording it at RYP, which is a studio in Rayners Lane [north west London], where [singer-songwriter] Alex Lipinski recorded his last album. Then [in 2017] our drummer, Carlton, died and everything was shelved. Fast forward to 2018/2019 and we started recording again.

This record has a bigger sound than the first one…

RM: The idea was that it was going to sound much more like a four-piece. One night, myself, Carlton and Luke met up in the studio – Enda couldn’t make it – and we did a song called This Love, which is on the record. The version you hear is the only time we ever played that song.

We jammed and recorded it, in the way that U2 used to do and probably still do – play some stuff together, record it and trawl back through it. There was the riff and then the drums came in. I came back in after being out of the room, and I started improvising lyrics – this thing happened.

After we’d listened to it, we thought ‘that’s done’. When Carlton died, we didn’t have any other way of recording it, so that’s how it ended up.

It’s got a dirty bluesy sound…

RM: Yeah – Luke came up with that riff. The song became the catalyst for the album.

So, after that you nailed that song, you carried on recording the rest of the tracks that ended up on the album?

RM: It was actually going to be a solo album – there was no band, but I got some friends to come to RYP to play bass, guitar and keys, with a new drummer, Joe.

We then went to another studio, with a producer called James Halliwell, who played keys with The Waterboys – I’d met him 20 years before, when he was Marti Pellow’s keyboard player. He has a studio in Richmond and we started to flesh things out – he played piano on Human Kindness. 

‘Money Goes To Money was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that’

We then did some recording and mixing with James Knight at his studio – he pulled it all together and then, when it was finished, we heard it, we thought ‘this is the Brand New Zeros album that we started doing four years previously’. That’s when I decided I wanted it to be a Brand New Zeros album.

Hence the title, Back To Zero

RM: Yeah – we’d come full circle.

Money Goes To Money is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? It’s an angry song about the wealth divide in the UK …

RM: It was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that.

I love the guitar solo…

RM: Luke played it – I wanted it to be almost like he was having an argument with himself. It was meant to be glitchy and come in and out.

He’s quite a chilled guy, but when we were recording it, I needed him to be angry, so I was shouting in his face, saying ‘C’mon! C’mon!’ I wanted the solo to be a bit like Radiohead – atonal and choppy at times.

Luke Dolan

It’s quite an angry album at times, isn’t it? When were all the songs written?

RM: They were written pre-lockdown – the album was finished and ready to go by the end of January 2020, but it didn’t make it out until 2021.  I’d gone through some mental health issues and some of that is addressed on the record. Luke went through a breakup and there were some rocky patches.

Talking of angry songs, Can’t Do It is a real rocker, and it has some great Hammond organ on it…

RM: It was written about a time when I sat outside a gig and I just couldn’t open the door – my anxiety was so bad. It’s all about self-doubt and depression – mental health issues. It’s about hating yourself.

The album veers from heavy, angry songs to ballads. There are some complete mood changes, like on the slow song, Free As A Bird, which shares its name with a Beatles song…

RM: That’s about me after I’d given up drinking. It was written about a moment, when I was sober, I was looking out of the window at the garden and the sun was coming in –  the clouds had cleared on some of the mental health issues I’d had. I felt happy for the first time and I wanted to capture it.

Let’s go back to ‘angry MacManus’ – Angels With Guns was written about shootings carried out by kids in US schools… 

RM: Yeah – you’d always hear the parents say, ‘He was such a nice kid – we didn’t see it coming…’

You sound very like Elvis on it…

RM: The verses are very Costello.

Human Kindness is one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s a song about compassion and how we treat each other. I think you sound like Paul Carrack on it. 

RM: I’ll take that.

You talked about being sober earlier. Cigarette, which has a Deep South, swamp-blues feel, deals with addiction – drugs and drink. It references cocaine in the lyrics…

RM: Yeah. I’ve been off the booze for over four years. I was trying to give up drink and a bit of drugs as well – I was never heavily into drugs, but I was led into them. I was trying to give up. I stopped drinking, but I was still going to pubs.

‘Being Elvis Costello’s brother has opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened – some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. I’ve embraced it more in recent years’

I had a friend and I could always tell when he was on coke, because his face always looked a certain way and he’d only ever smoke when he was on it. So, when I turned up, he’d be outside the pub with a cigarette and that look on his face. I needed to avoid him to try and keep myself on track. In my mind, I distilled it to just the light of his cigarette in his contorted face.

Finally, has being Elvis’s brother been a help or hindrance to your music career?

RM: A bit of both –  it’s opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened, and some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. It’s interesting and I’ve embraced it more in recent years. He’s such an extraordinary artist – the musical experiences he had growing up, his record collection, his exposure to music and literature… I don’t think he’ll ever be repeated. His are big shoes to fill.

Red shoes?

RM [laughs]:He’s been a big influence – most people don’t get to call up their heroes and ask them for advice.

Back To Zero by Brand New Zeros is out now on Fretsore Records – vinyl and digital.

https://www.fretsorerecords.com/

https://brandnewzeros.bandcamp.com/album/back-to-zero

Say It With Garage Flowers founder and editor, Sean Hannam, will be interviewing Ronan MacManus and Luke Dolan from Brand New Zeros live on stage, at Beverage Boutique, in Ruislip, West London, on the night of September 25, for the launch of Back To Zero on vinyl.

The duo will perform songs from the record on the night too and there will be a vinyl playback of some of the tracks.

Details / tickets here: free entry!