‘Do people want to read books or watch films about Covid? I don’t know – time will tell…’

Mark Billingham

When Say It With Garage Flowers last spoke to one of our favourite authors, UK crime writer Mark Billingham, it was exactly a year ago, for the publication of his novel Cry Baby – the seventeenth entry in the Thorne series and his twentieth book, if you include his three stand-alone thrillers: In the DarkRush of Blood and Die of Shame.

During that interview, he told us he’d written the majority of his next novel during lockdown. That book is published this month. It’s called Rabbit Hole and it’s another stand-alone, but, in typical Billingham style, it’s a highly original take on the locked-room murder mystery genre, with a great twist. No spoilers here, but it’s one of his best.

Written in the first person, it centres on the character of Detective Constable Alice Armitage, the novel’s narrator, who finds herself on the trail of a killer who has murdered a patient on an acute psychiatric ward. The problem is that Armitage is a patient too… and could she actually be the murderer? 

Despite its sensitive and often disturbing subject matter – severe mental health problems – Rabbit Hole is also a very funny book, full of darkly comedic moments.

Billingham started writing the novel in February last year – just before lockdown – and he finished it in four months. 

“I wrote it really quickly, because I couldn’t do anything else – I had nothing to do but write,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, sat outside a north London pub on a warm early evening in July. 

So did being locked-down at home while writing the novel inspire the subject matter of the book in any way? 

“It may have done subconsciously, but the more conscious decision was that I’d had some recent experience of that world, which was not something I’d known about until recently,” he says.

“It’s a personal book in many ways, because a close family member and a very close friend both spent time on an acute psychiatric ward. I had a wealth of stories.

“Graham Greene said that writers have a chip of ice in their heart – maybe crime writers have a much bigger chip of ice… I was confronted with a situation that was deeply unpleasant, traumatic, sad and disturbing, but, at the same time, there was part of me going, ‘wow – this would be a brilliant setting for a locked-room mystery.’”

He adds: “For every couple of horrible stories I heard, there were also some that were just hilarious, but in a dark way. Some of the more bizarre things in the book are completely true.”

Q&A

Mental health is a difficult subject to write about – it’s a sensitive topic. How did you approach the book to make sure you didn’t come across as patronising or ill-informed?

Mark Billingham: I was aware of that all the time – but you should always be aware, whatever you’re writing, of treating the subject with sensitivity and nuance.

I did a lot of personal research and I got to know some mental health professionals who were working in a ward and were kind enough to speak to me away from the location, off the record, as it were. There was always a conscious decision of what should I talk about, or not talk about, but you make those decisions all the time – every five minutes.

‘Graham Greene said writers have a chip of ice in their heart – maybe crime writers have a much bigger chip of ice…’

Because I’d decided to write the book in the first person, which is something I’d never done before, and I knew I wanted to be with this character, that’s a big decision, because if you’re asking your reader to spend 400 pages inside the head of the same character, you need to make that person attractive and engaging, even though they’re infuriating, frustrating and sometimes unpleasant.

Alice Armitage is an interesting character. She’s an anti-hero, isn’t she?

MB: Yes – and right off the bat she says she’s unreliable because she’s medicated and paranoid. In a way, she’s the perfect narrator for the book.

Rabbit Hole references the Covid-19 pandemic, although not in a big way, and it’s dedicated to the doctors, mental health nurses and health care assistants who lost their lives to the virus. Was it important for you to mention Covid in the book, and, if so, why?

MB: It was a difficult choice or call to make because I knew roughly when the book would be coming out and, back then [when I was writing it], like everybody else, I had no idea what the situation would be like. Would Covid have gone completely? Obviously, we know now that it hasn’t, but you can’t predict the future.

With the majority of the book being set on a mental health ward, I had to reference it, but I didn’t want to make too much of it – I didn’t want to make it a ‘Covid book’. I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, or it wasn’t an issue, but I tried to make the references subtle. I didn’t want every other page to be about masks and hand sanitisers, but it’s obvious that it’s going on.

The reason I dedicated the book specifically to the medical professionals who’d lost their lives was because when I visited the ward, I got to know some of the mental health nurses – I spoke to one of them a lot outside the ward and she was very helpful.

She later told me that four of the nurses on that ward had died – nurses I’d met. What you extrapolate from that is, ‘Christ – if it’s four on one ward in North London, how many is it nationally?’ It felt like an appropriate thing to do.

‘It’s a personal book because a close family member and a very close friend both spent time on an acute psychiatric ward’

Have you read many new books by fiction authors that are referencing Covid?

MB: Yes – I have. Some have done it really well and some it’s obvious that they’ve had a last minute ‘Covid edit’. They’ve gone through it and just thrown in some references to masks, hand sanitisers and PPE to make it current, so it doesn’t appear dated. That’s kind of an odd thing to do – I think you need to do it, or not do it. You could set the book in 2021, so it’s not an issue, or in 2024, and hope Covid has gone by then, or you do what I did, and say, ‘I guess Covid is still going to be knocking around and I can’t pretend it hasn’t happened…’

I was talking to a comedian friend of mine and asked him whether comedians are doing any Covid material. He said they are, and audiences are loving it – it made me think that people want to go somewhere where they can laugh at it or about it – the experiences they’ve had. Laughing about it is one thing, but do they want to read books or watch films about it? I don’t know – time will tell.

Directly after the Second World War, people didn’t want to read about it – the golden age of crime fiction happened between the wars because people had had enough of grief and violence on a massive scale.

‘I was talking to a comedian friend of mine and asked him whether comedians are doing any Covid material. He said they are, and audiences are loving it’

Another good example is the huge explosion in recent years of Northern Irish crime fiction – while the Troubles were happening, there wasn’t any, because people were living it and they didn’t want to read about it. Now enough time has passed, and writers are looking at it and examining it – it’s really interesting. You need a little bit of distance.

Your last stand-alone novel, 2016’s Die of Shame, was also a ‘locked-room’ murder mystery, and it too dealt with people suffering from mental health issues –  a therapy group full of recovering addicts. Do you see Rabbit Hole as almost a companion book to it?

MB: Do you know what? I hadn’t until you mentioned it, but it kind of is, I suppose. They’re both takes on a locked-room mystery and they both have at their hearts the same premise.

When you have a traditional locked-room mystery, the characters are all guests in a stately home, or passengers on a cruise ship, but addiction or mental health affects anybody and everybody. That means you can have people from all sorts of different backgrounds.

In Die of Shame, I had an incredibly disparate group of people in terms of social demographics – where they’re from, and how much they earn, and what class they’re from. The same is true of people who end up sectioned.

But the mental health ward in Rabbit Hole is a ‘locked room’ which people can come in and out of…

MB: Yes – it’s an air-locked room… there are ways the patients can get out, for some periods of time, like short trips, but, essentially, you’ve got a group of half a dozen people with incredibly different stories. And I wanted to tell their stories too.

Like your other novels, there’s a lot of dark humour in Rabbit Hole. Was it an enjoyable book to write?

MB: I’m not sure I’d say it was enjoyable – it was a hard book to write, because of my personal connection to it. There were definitely moments when I had to stop and go, ‘should I be writing this?’ but I would always say, ‘yes, you should’.

The people I know who are close to this situation all told me I needed to write it. It was also time to write something different I’d written three Thorne novels on the bounce.

There are some cameo appearances by regular characters from the Thorne series in Rabbit Hole, including Thorne himself. You usually do this in your stand-alone books, don’t you? That must be fun – you’re expanding the Thorne universe…

MB: I’ve probably done it in this one more than any of the other stand-alones. I knew Thorne was going to make an appearance, and, because I was dealing with psychiatric issues, I knew Melita Perera would be in it. Hendricks gets a mention too, in a way in which readers of the series will go, ‘oh – I know who they’re talking about…’

It’s fun. You’re creating this fictional universe and characters drift in and out of it  – they come into the spotlight and then recede into the background.

It’s like the Marvel Universe…

MB: [laughs].

 

And your last book, Cry Baby, was an origins novel…

MB: Yes both me and [crime writer] John Connolly wrote origin stories at the same time – me with Thorne and him with Charlie Parker [The Dirty South] – without us knowing we were both doing it. You can them prequels, but it’s more trendy to call them origin stories.

Could you ever see any of the other characters from the Thorne universe, like Nicola Tanner, getting her own series of novels?

MB: YesI think that’s perfectly possible. Or maybe Hendricks will get his own book, or I might revisit a younger Thorne again. I don’t know it will be whatever idea suits the story that’s in my head.

Let’s talk about the next book after Rabbit Hole, which is another Thorne novel…

MB: The next book is done – it will be out this time next year. I’m ahead of the game because I wrote two books back-to-back very quickly.

Can you tell us anything about the next one?

MB: I can it’s not a big secret. It’s called The Murder Book. Thorne is back, but so is his worst nightmare. It couldn’t be a more different book to Rabbit Hole – it’s real pedal to the metal.

Finally, was the working title of Rabbit Hole ever Who The F*** Is Alice?

MB: I’ve had a few emails asking me that…

Rabbit Hole by Mark Billingham is out now and is published by Little, Brown.

www.markbillingham.com

 

‘I wanted to release something on my 50th birthday — these songs are a clear snapshot of where I’m at’

 

Jeff Caudill

In our first ever guest post for Say It With Garage Flowers, author Nick Quantrill talks to Californian singer-songwriter, Jeff Caudill, who has just released a brand new EP, Old Blood, to tie-in with his 50th birthday.

“This record does sort of feel like taking a breath before embarking on something new,” he tells us…

It’s been a tough 18 months for musicians, but for California’s Jeff Caudill, it’s still been a productive time.

With a cancelled UK tour and enforced downtime, he set to work exploring a back catalogue encompassing 30 years of work, firstly as the frontman of punk rockers, Gameface, and then through a series of solo releases to create Stay Home: The Quarantine Editions.

Premiering the tracks on social media and even releasing one on flexi disc via the Future Vampire Club label, looking backwards helped sow the seeds to move forward. His latest release, an EP called Old Blood, was released just ahead of his 50th birthday, which is on July 10 this year.

Old Blood is a small batch of intimate acoustic songs that I’ve written in recent years,” he says. “I wanted to release something on my 50th birthday and I feel these songs are a clear snapshot of where I’m at.”

It follows his Reset the Sun EP, from 2017, but it sounds nicely different and progressive, maybe sparser and more reliant on just voice and guitar, something Caudill agrees with.

“Of all the songs on Reset the Sun, the title track is the simplest, yet ultimately is the most immediately poignant. I spent a lot of time on arrangements for the other songs on that record, but the one that I just tracked live with an acoustic guitar hits just as hard.

‘This was a rough year for everyone and approaching 50 amidst all this puts a fine point on your mortality’

“I took this to heart while planning the recording of the new EP. It made sense in a lot of ways to keep the songs pure and simple. I keep a notebook with me and scribble thoughts and whatnot. I just keep musing until the right combination of words and music presents itself. The lyrics certainly reflect on my life up to the minute with some pretty heavy stuff. This was a rough year for everyone and approaching 50 amidst all this puts a fine point on your mortality.”

Jeff Caudill Old Blood

If you’ve followed Caudill’s work, you’ll hear that progression on Old Blood, but it retains the ready comfort of old favourites and familiar reference points. It’s the perfect jumping in point for new listeners.

“I had a few songs already written before I had the idea for this record: Irrational Anthem, I Know We’ll Never Know and Make Time Sleep are songs I had written for other projects. The two more recent songs, Waves and Old Blood, were written specifically for this project. I just wanted it to sound like a guy playing in a room. Just a guitar and a voice,” he says.

“I added some complementary instrumentation and some vocal harmonies, but it’s pretty minimal. I had spent almost a year in my home listening to a lot of the music I grew up on — Jackson Browne, Neil Young, CSNY, Poco, all that Laurel Canyon stuff.

“All the main tracks were done at home — some in my bedroom but mostly out in the garage, aka Ramshackle Studio. It’s astonishing what you can do with a decent microphone and a laptop these days. I sent all of the tracks to my long-time friend Jim Monroe to mix. We did one day at his studio to listen to everything and add some extra stuff, like the violin and some percussion. It was all quite simple, which is how I like it.”

‘I spent almost a year in my home listening to a lot of the music I grew up on — Jackson Browne, Neil Young, CSNY, Poco, all that Laurel Canyon stuff’

Monroe isn’t the only help Caudill received on the EP. On Make Time Sleep, the backing vocals and co-write comes from Career Woman, who also happens to be his daughter, Melody, a talented songwriter with her own burgeoning thing going on.

I’m sure I’ve learned a thing or two from her, plus we share a lot of music with each other. A record from last year that we both love is Better Oblivion Community Center. We listened to it a lot and noticed that in a lot of songs, Phoebe Bridgers and Connor Oberst aren’t singing harmony, they’re singing in unison but in different octaves. This was our attempt at that style. I wrote the guitar part and we both wrote lyrics for it. It’s loosely about time travel and video games. Our friend Kristi, from the band The Pollen Collective, played fiddle on the recording and she just knocks it out of the park. It’s one of my favourite moments on the EP.” 

Maybe new blood is the opposite of old blood in some way, but there’s a sense of energy it brings to the material and also points the way forward, something Caudill notes.

This record does sort of feel like taking a breath before embarking on something new, but I never really know what that is going to be. I just keep pushing on and doing what feels right in the moment. I’ve have a few projects up in the air over the past few year so it was nice to just sit down and make something happen in real time. Life is long and life is short. I’m happiest when I’m making stuff.”

One of these projects is the reissue of Gameface’s Three To Get Ready, the band’s blistering 1995 set, with added B-sides and outtakes.

“I look at the pictures and listen to that voice and it’s like I’m watching another person. I’m really proud of all of the music we made and I know this record means as much to some as it means to me and the band,” says Caudill.

“It’s wild to be able to enjoy a slightly-belated 25th anniversary of a punk rock record I made when I was 25. And at 50, I feel so very fortunate to have some of the folks who were with me way back then to still be with me now and want to hear what I have to say. None of this is lost on me.”

 

Old Blood by Jeff Caudill is out now: buy /stream/download/limited edition vinyl.

Free records? Only SMARTY has the answer…

New pop-up music store in London to give away records to customers.

Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we love vinyl records – especially when they’re free!

That’s why we were excited to hear about the launch of a new pop-up music shop with a difference, in London, to celebrate Record Store Day (July 17).

The SMARTY Disc-overy store is encouraging Brits to rediscover the joy of new music by giving away a free vinyl LP to each visitor, but here’s the, er, flip side – every album cover in the store will be covered up, so you won’t know what record you’ve been given.

Instead of picking albums and artists they already know and love, punters will choose a mystery record, with a sealed sleeve for the element of surprise.

It could be a rare, collectible album, a special edition, or a record by a new artist. Each record will be wrapped in a SMARTY Disc-overy store sleeve.

According to new research, restricted access to live music and record stores since the pandemic has meant the nation has fallen into a musical rut, listening to the same tracks over and over again.

In partnership with Record Store Day UK, the SMARTY Disc-overy store, which has been created by the SMARTY SIM-only mobile network, aims to ‘energise music lovers with new discoveries and serendipity’.

The store will also feature listening stations for customers, and a DJ whom visitors can request to play the vinyl they’ve been given.

The SMARTY Disc-overy store is free for the public to attend on Friday 16 July from 11am – 7pm, 19 Air Street, London, W1B 5AG (nearest tube is Piccadilly Circus).

Each visitor will receive a free vinyl LP.

For more information on Record Store Day, click here.

‘You hear how couples in the same band break up, but we don’t feel any need to write our The Winner Takes It All just yet’

New Morning Blues

 

New Morning Blues are husband and wife duo Ian de Sylva and Joanna Backovic.

The pair, who released their debut album, London, this summer, run a recording studio together in Soho, and are independent artists in their own right, but this is the first time they’ve collaborated musically.

“To be honest, we’ve always been pretty busy with our own music projects, and it never really occurred to us to work together,” says de Sylva, in an exclusive interview with Say It With Garage Flowers.

“I had a song called Polestar. It wasn’t something that really suited my voice, so I asked Joanna to sing it. It sounded great, so I just kept writing with two voices in mind rather than one. So far, I’ve written the songs and we’ve arranged the vocal parts together.”

Backovic is a composer and performance artist who creates scores for theatre and film – she also performs under the name ArHai – while de Sylva’s first band, Silver, released a single on Rough Trade Records.

Signed to Medicine/Warner Bros, Silver recorded their debut album with producer Craig Leon (The Ramones, Blondie). They toured with The Cranberries and Elastica, and de Sylva also recorded two solo albums.

London is an impressive and arresting debut, from the ‘take no prisoners’ opener, Fortune Teller Blues – primal, White Stripes-style, blues-rock with mean organ and dirty guitar – to the beautiful and spectral folk ballad The Mirror, with shades of Nick Drake;  the twangy, widescreen country-pop of The New Messiah; the cinematic psych soundtrack that is A Face In The Mirror, and the dramatic orchestration of On The Horizon.

There’s a haunting, atmospheric and autumnal quality to most of the record. “It’s pretty much autumn all year round in England, so that may have come through in the songs,” muses de Sylva.

Q&A

How are things? Have you got ‘new morning blues’?

Ian de Sylva: No – we’re both feeling pretty good today.

How did you find lockdown and are you getting back to some sense of normality?

IDS: We actually enjoyed lockdown up to a point, as it gave us both a lot more time to work on our music, which is what we love to do.

How has it been running a studio in Soho during the past year?

IDS: It’s been fine really, as we’ve been able to use the space for our own music more, so all good.

‘It’s pretty much autumn all year round in England, so that may have come through in the songs’

How did you approach the album musically? 

IDS: It developed very naturally, without a definite vision or plan sound-wise. I think it reflects music we both love, from psychedelia to country, folk and blues.

 

Can we talk about some of the songs? I’ll pick a few, give you some of my thoughts on them, and then can you give me yours.

Fortune Teller Blues: This is a raw, electric blues song – the heaviest track on the record. It has some great dirty guitar and organ on it…

IDS: It was written more as a kind of Dixieland jazz-type thing, but once I had the guitar riff, then it changed into something more bluesy. I wanted to write something upbeat and hopefully danceable.

The Mirror is one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s a haunting, folky ballad, with shades of Nick Drake…

IDS: We’re both fans of Nick Drake and love all his albums. Vashti Bunyan is also a big influence and I think that comes through on this one.

The New Messiah is another highlight for me. It’s jangly country-pop. It has a bit of a Nancy and Lee / mid-’90s Jesus and Mary Chain feel, circa Stoned & Dethroned. I love the twangy guitar solo.

IDS: We were watching a few of Tarantino’s movies and to me it sort of sounds like it could be in one of those films – definitely the guitar solo.

A Face In The Mirror is moody and cinematic, with a dramatic string arrangement…

IDS: This is more of a psychedelic influence. I think maybe it owes a lot to Arthur Lee.

What did you learn most from making a record together, and would you make another one?

IDS: We’re already recording a follow up-album, and working together on music has just been great so far. You hear a lot of stories of how being in the same band breaks couples up, but we don’t feel any need to write our The Winner Takes It All just yet.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

IDS: More recording over the next few months, then some gigs this autumn.

‘We actually enjoyed lockdown up to a point, as it gave us a lot more time to work on our music, which is what we love to do’

What music – new and old – are you enjoying? Any recommendations?

IDS: We’ve been listening to John Grant, The War on Drugs, a great Spanish band called Carino, Kilimanjaro by The Teardrop Explodes, Scott Walker and Sandy Denny.

Finally, why did you call the record London? 

IDS: It just seemed like an apt title. Having both lived in the city for a long time, it’s inevitably had a big influence on us, both as people, and our music.

London by New Morning Blues is out now on Berwick Music.

https://www.facebook.com/newmorningblues

‘Humour is a huge part of country music, but, in the past 15 or 20 years, it’s gotten really stupid and crass’

 

Bob Collum
Bob Collum

 

Exclusive interview with Bob Collum and the video premiere of his new single, Parachute – out today (July 2 – Fretsore Records).

On his latest album, This Heart Will Self Destruct, Olkahoma-born, but Essex-based Americana singer-songwriter, Bob Collum, covers lyrical themes including anxiety, hope, fear, humour, uncertainty, love, disappointment, redemption and faith.

Judging by the subjects he’s chosen to tackle, you won’t be surprised to find that the record was mostly written during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Collum says the album “began life on the cusp, before the insanity of 2020”, adding: “I think it captures the last year quite well.”

Impressively, on the opening track, and brand new single, Parachute – the video is premiering on Say It With Garage Flowers today –  he manages to cover off hope, fear, humour, uncertainty, love and faith in the one song.

It’s a mid-paced, rootsy, country rock shuffle, with violin, on which Collum tells a potential partner: “It’s a leap of faith, you know that much is true, but I’ll share my one and only parachute with you.”

Parachute is me writing a more positive type of song, but with an escape clause,” he says, in an exclusive interview with Say It With Garage Flowers.

“I wish I could write a really upbeat love song, but they’re very difficult. This is as close to a feel-good song as I’ve written. It’s about the uncertainty of life. Sometimes it helps to have somebody there to face it with you. It’s an universal theme, but I liked the image of a parachute.”

Surely the classic country song take on it would be to have a parachute that doesn’t open?

“Absolutely. The answer song would be Who Packed the ‘Chute?” he says, laughing.

‘Parachute is me writing a more positive type of song, but with an escape clause. I wish I could write a really upbeat love song, but they’re very difficult’

Recorded with his band, the Welfare Mothers – “although only one is a mother, and none are on welfare at the moment, they remain the tightest band this side of the Thames Delta” – the album was produced by Pat Collier at his Perry Vale Studios in South East London.

Most of the recordings were done intermittently, with safety taking priority.  “At our age, most of the band were in the danger zone,” muses Collum.

The Welfare Mothers comprise Mags Layton (violin and vocals), Martin Cutmore (bass) and Paul Quarry (drums and percussion). Honorary member, guitarist Martin Belmont (Graham Parker and the Rumour, Nick Lowe, My Darling Clementine) plays the Fender Stratocaster and Fender VI bass on the album, adding a mean, Duane Eddy-style, twangy solo to the jaunty Shake It Loose.

Belmont’s ‘70s pub rock influence comes across on Giving Up, which is an infectious power-pop song – kind of New Wave meets country.

Elsewhere, there’s tongue-in-cheek country (the title track);  echoes of early R.E.M (Second Fiddle); a sad and reflective country ballad inspired by the likes of Johnny Cash (From Birmingham) and a raucous, fiddle-fuelled rockabilly cover of Saved, which is an R&B-flavoured song written by Leiber and Stoller and first recorded by Lavern Baker in the early ‘60s. Elvis Presley and Joe Cocker have released versions of it.

Collum also dips into blues (Tall Glass of Muddy Water) and soul territory (Spare Me). On the latter, he’s joined by Peter Holsapple (The dB’s and R.E.M.), who plays a mean Hammond B3 organ and also sings backing vocals. The song was an intercontinental collaboration between him and Collum.

Say It With Garage Flowers got to spend some quality time talking with Collum before his heart self-destructed…

Q&A

How was lockdown for you and how has Covid affected your plans as a musician?

Bob Collum: Lockdown provided a focus – the new record was pretty much written during the first lockdown.

It was like being stuck in a weird alternate reality, which stripped everything back to basics. I missed rehearsing and playing gigs – that’s part of music. We do it because we like that aspect – the commonality of sharing a love of music. Maybe now we’ll appreciate every single gig even more than we did before – the chance to play music live is going to be really special and nobody will take it for granted again.

I started thinking about life and what I enjoyed doing. I was able to sit down and be focused in a way in which I haven’t been for years. I did home demos and there was a lot more space to be creative.

That was really interesting. I’ve also managed to write another new record – I have more than enough songs for another one.

When we signed to Fretsore [record label] we going to put out an EP before we did an album. We recorded three or four songs in December and then we were going to go back into the studio in January, but we had to reschedule for late February and then Covid hit.

So we held off until things were safe, but then I picked up my guitar and started to write – the songs started happening, and the band liked them, so we thought ‘let’s do a full album’.

We did a session in late summer, when things opened up a bit, and it went really well, so we did the whole album and finished it up – then things went crazy again. It’s interesting how this record came to fruition – it was a happy accident, I guess.

The album was produced and recorded by Pat Collier at his Perry Vale Studios in South East London…

BC: We’ve been working with Pat for years – he’s one of those classic producers. He did his apprenticeship in the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s at Decca – he was around when all the stuff that we love was being done, but he’s also fully up to date, with Pro Tools and everything. He’s not a slave to the old-fashioned way of doing it. His bag is that he wants to record a band playing together by using the technology that makes it easier to do so.

The record really captures the performances well – it almost feels like a live album… 

BC: I really appreciate that – when I started making records, back in the ‘80s, everything was done a track at a time… The performance is part of the recording. The most important part of the producer’s job is to make everyone feel comfortable and have fun – that’s what Pat’s really good at it.

To be a good producer and an engineer, you have to be good at psychology because, like any other conglomeration of human beings, in a band there are all sorts of things going on and you need to know how to keep things moving and how to appeal to the different egos. Pat manages to massage everyone into giving a great performance and he never gets flustered.

The title track is one of my favourite songs on the record…

BC: Thanks, man.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek country song, isn’t it?

BC: Yeah – I love the great soulful and emotional stuff, like George Jones, but he also wrote crazy, almost novelty, songs, like I’m A People, or Love Bug. Humour has always been a huge part of country music, but one of the problems is that in the past 15 or 20 years, the humour has gotten really stupid and crass. If you like all the great writers, like Shel Silverstein, their songs always have a wry side to them.

And they’re self-deprecating…

BC: Yeah – that’s the perfect word for them. If you have a sense of humour, you can get away with all sorts of stuff. Having that ability to wink at yourself is very important, because then, when you are being serious, people realise that you are serious.

I like the title, This Heart Will Self Destruct, which is a nod to Mission Impossible, isn’t it?

BC: My co-writer, Dave Bailey and I were sitting around and talking about the great country writers of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – a lot of the time you could tell that they started with the title and worked backwards. It’s a great way of writing – it’s like starting a puzzle with the outside edges.

We were talking about phrases… I’m a big Mission Impossible fan – the TV show with Martin Landau. I’ve not seen any of the movies.

I was thinking about a guy who wanted to warn someone that things were going to end badly –  ‘I’ll end it first before you have a chance to hurt me’. That kind of thing. The phrase ‘This heart will self-destruct’ just popped into my head. We wrote the chorus, then filled in the blanks.

There are some blues and soul influences on the album, particularly on the songs  Tall Glass of Muddy Water and Spare Me... On the latter, you sing the great line: “I’ve got work to do like The Isley Brothers. What makes you think you stand in front of all of the others?” And Peter Holsapple plays organ on it… How did you get to work with him?

BC: I was a huge dB’s fan back in the day. I met him in the ’90s, at SXSW. We swapped numbers and our friendship developed over time. We did a gig together the year before last, which turned out be really fantastic, and, out of the blue one day, he said to me: ‘I’ve got this song –  do you want to help me finish it?’ And he sent it to me. We did it and then he asked if me and guys wanted to record it, so I said, ‘of course!’ I like the groove it has – it’s not what you’d you expect from us, but it still sounds like us.

Holsapple played with R.E.M, and I think your song, Second Fiddle, has the feel of early R.E.M…

BC: Yeah –  you can’t be alive at our age and not be influenced by them. They were a band in the ’80s that were a touchstone. Peter Buck plays guitar like you want a guy to play guitar. He’s an influence. When I play arpeggios on guitar, it comes directly from Buck and Roger McGuinn [The Byrds.]

The Byrds are an important band – probably the most important American group of the ’60s. They were fearless when it came to their influences. They had no problem crossing the line.

They were the American Beatles…

BC: Exactly. They did something nobody else were doing and they influenced The Beatles. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a group of guys who were as perfect as The Beach Boys.

What’s your approach to songwriting? 

BC: I try to avoid it! [laughs]. There’s no real way of doing it. I’m not like Paul Simon, doing it 9 to 5, with a yellow pad in front of you, or like Peter Case, who calls it ‘skywriting’ – waiting for the inspiration and song to come.

‘The Byrds are probably the most important American group of the ’60s.They were fearless when it came to their influences

The way I’ve been doing it lately is by coming up with a melody and some key words and phrases, putting it down on GarageBand, doing the lyrics off the top of my head, and then editing them as I’m doing it, and recording a demo. It’s a similar process to the way you’d write in the studio, but the studio is in my phone.

I don’t think there’s a set way of writing a song. There comes a time when you say, ‘how the hell did I write that?’ That’s life –  when you get older, you don’t do anything the way you did when you were 20, 21 or 22…

As writers it’s difficult to maintain the same style. People say there’s a formula –  yeah, there is, but sometimes you forget the recipe. Elvis Costello couldn’t make a record now like he did in 1978 if he tried, but he could make one that sounds fantastic, which is what he’s doing. It doesn’t sound like he’s aping his past.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

BC: Lennon and McCartney, Costello, Dylan… I always find it weird when people don’t like Dylan. It’s like a writer saying they don’t like Shakespeare.

What music –  new and old – have you been enjoying recently? Did you have a lockdown soundtrack?

BC: Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways has been a hugely important record. I don’t think it could’ve been better timed – it did so much for so many people I know who listened to it. Dylan exists out of time and space – he just does what he wants to do.

You said earlier that you’d written another album. Are you hoping to record that this year?

BC: Yes, but realistically it will be autumn or winter, when things get back to normal.

What have you been writing about?

BC: Fewer love songs, but more ‘what the hell’s going on?’ songs. I should call the next record 12 Angry Songs. They’re not angry songs, but they’re more ‘what the heck?’ I’ve sent demos to everyone – Martin Belmont said it’s some of the most melodic stuff I’ve ever written, which is pretty cool.

Finally – this interview will self-destruct in 10 seconds. What’s the last thing you’re going to say to me?

BC: I just hope you like the record, man. During these crazy times, music has held me together more than I ever thought it would –  I think it’s done that for a lot of us. If just 10 people hear it, it’s important.

This Heart Will Self Destruct by Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers is out now on Fretsore Records.

http://www.bobcollum.com

https://fretsorerecords.bandcamp.com/track/this-heart-will-self-destruct

Tour Dates – Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers

June 19 – The Plough, Shepreth
July 6  – The Horns, Watford
August 1 – The Geese & Fountain, Croxton Kerrial (solo)
August 28 – Thornton Hough Village Club
September 5 – Southchurch Park Cafe, Southend
September 12 – The Flying Pig, Cambridge
September 18 – Queen St Brewhouse, Colchester
October 16 – The Grove Inn, Leeds
October 30 – The Smyth Arms, London
November 25 – The Betsey Trotwood, London

Follow Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers:
FACEBOOK INSTAGRAM TWITTER

 

‘Sometimes, when we have opposing opinions, it can get too close for comfort, but we always work it out…’

Starlight Cleaning Co.
Starlight Cleaning Co.

Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we aren’t fans of the summer. In fact, when we first started publishing, in 2009, our tagline was, and still is, ‘musical musings from the dark corner of a pub’…

We love autumn / winter, and during the summer months you’re likely to find us sat indoors in a boozer, not the beer garden, discussing music, or hiding away indoors, listening to new and old albums. We’re staying in for the summer…

However, we do like our summer soundtracks, and this month we’ve been enjoying the new, self-titled album from Mojave Desert duo – and couple – Starlight Cleaning Co., who are Rachel Dean and Tim Paul Gray.

It’s a wonderfully melodic record that’s in love with ’70s/’80s New Wave guitar music, glossy L.A. pop, country rock, Americana and soft rock.

Opener, Don’t Take It Away, is jangle-pop perfection, with harmonies ringing out high over the desert landscape; the chugging, organ-fuelled and anthemic Train Wreck is like Tom Petty doing Springsteen’s Atlantic CityThe Race is melancholy and reflective dream-pop, with a superb haunting guitar solo by the late Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams, Circles Around The Sun), and Joy Killer and The Current have the swagger and style of vintage Pretenders.

Dean fronted two bands prior to Starlight Cleaning Co – War Children and The Hot Fudge Sunday, while Gray was a member of Orange County-based groups The Delusions and Charles Mansion.

As a duo, Dean and Gray have toured with Tommy Stinson (The Replacements, Bash And Pop, Guns ‘n’ Roses) and on their own. Two years ago, they did something they had wanted to do for a while – they turned their solo act into a full band and recorded their debut album.

Dean has previously played under her own name, having released an album titled Indian Summer, produced by Rob Campanella (Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Casal, who plays guitar on two songs on the Starlight Cleaning Co. album. Sadly, he died last year.

“His death profoundly affected me,” Dean tells us, in an exclusive interview with the band. “It’s so hard to cope with the loss of a dear friend, especially when it’s sudden. That’s why it meant so much to us that he played on this record.”

Adds Gray: “Neal brought his unmistakable sound to a couple of the tracks. You know it’s him the second you hear it and I think that goes for everything he’s done. The fact that he left his stamp on it is something we are forever grateful for.”

‘Neal Casal’s death profoundly affected me personally. It’s so hard to cope with the loss of a dear friend, especially when it’s sudden. That’s why it meant so much to us that he played on this record’

Recorded at Dean and Gray’s home studio, Starlight Sound,  Starlight Cleaning Co. was produced by L.A./San Francisco blue-eyed-soul and soft rock troubadour, Bart Davenport, (The Bedazzled, The Loved Ones, The Kinetics) and engineered by L.A.’s “indie king” Joel Jerome (Dios, Cherry Glazerr, La Sera).

This record is a reflection of our life together as well as the individual paths that led us here: the struggles, uncertainty, the hopefulness and love,” says Dean.

“We hope that it resonates with others in their lives and brings us together as we all seem to deal with these common themes. We dedicate this album, in loving memory, to our dear friend Neal Casal.”

 

Q&A

How’s it going? Where are you and what’s it like?

Rachel: Hi there. We are currently at home in Yucca Valley, California – right next to Joshua Tree. It’s a beautiful day and we are sitting outside enjoying the weather.

Congratulations on your debut album –  it’s one of my favourite records of the year so far, and it’s my album of the summer. How do you feel about that?

Rachel: Thank you. That’s so nice to hear. We are excited you like it and hope that other people are connecting with it as well.

Tim: Very kind. Thank you.

How did you two first meet? You were both solo artists and this is your first full-band collaboration, as you were performing as a duo before, right?

Rachel: We first met when I booked Tim’s previous band at Ace Hotel in Palm Springs. I used to do all their music/cultural programming. We ended up talking more and he hopped on a show with me at Pappy and Harriet’s –  a now famous roadhouse out here – as well. The Pappy’s show happened first. I really loved his music and voice, and we started talking about playing music together. The following week, we were already on it… me joining Tim on a solo acoustic show.  The rest is history.

Tim: Even as a duo we knew that the kind of music we wanted to make would call for a full-band and the songs were written with that intention, so really the current situation is just an extension of those early duo days. We still enjoy a stripped-down show now and again.

What’s it like being in a band together, and also in a relationship with each other? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Rachel: It’s honestly a lot of fun. It can be stressful at times, but overall it’s really something special. We are able to share all these amazing experiences together. Also we both take very different roles. I’m way more the business side of things and the front person when performing, while Tim is the primary writer and the true creative. Sometimes, when we have opposing opinions, it can get too close for comfort, but we can always work it out.

‘We both take very different roles. I’m way more the business side of things and the front person when performing, while Tim is the primary writer and the true creative’ 

Do you write collaboratively? What’s your songwriting process?

Tim: The closest we have come to collaborative writing is Don’t Take It Away, where we tossed around lyrical content, took inspiration from our dog and surroundings, and had a good time making a song of it, but the truth is, it is very difficult for us to do. We’ve found making small suggestions for each other’s work is what works best for us.

Rachel: Yes, Tim is definitely the writer in this band.  He writes everyday and it’s part of who he is.  I just write when I have something in my head that I can’t escape.

Starlight Cleaning Co.

You’ve said that the album is dedicated to the late Neal Casal, who plays guitar on it. How did you get to know and work with him, and how has his death affected you? Was it hard to put the record out after his passing, or did it feel like the right thing to do? Is it difficult to listen to?

Rachel: Neal was one of my dearest friends. We met in 2006, through mutual friends. We became close and he was a big part of my life. When it came to music, he really guided me. He produced my last record, Indian Summer, and he helped me so much with it. He played on it, sang, arranged all the songs and even took the photograph for the album artwork.

His death profoundly affected me. It’s so hard to cope with the loss of a dear friend, especially when it’s sudden. That’s why it meant so much to us that he played on this record. He actually took time out of his tour schedule and rented a studio to do some guitar parts. Putting the record out with his parts on there was celebratory. It was a way to celebrate Neal and thank him. I actually love listening to his parts. It’s something we’re proud of, and it always makes me smile.

‘Putting the record out with Neal Casal’s parts on there was celebratory. It’s something we’re proud of, and it always makes me smile’

Let’s talk about the recording of the album. How were the sessions? When did you make it?

Tim: We recorded this album pretty quickly in October of 2018. With a lot of unexpected events that year and the next, we were slow to wrap the mixing process, but once [producer] Bart Davenport suggested [engineer] Bill Faler, it took shape pretty quickly. The sessions took place at our home – Bart, [engineer] Joel, Dan [Sandvick –  bass]  and Sal [Salvatore Romano – drums] came out to stay at our house for five days and we just got it done. We cooked every night. Bart had a birthday. It was fun and low-key and an honest representation of our sound at the time.

You recorded it at your home studio, Starlight Sound. What’s your set-up like?

Tim: We were inspired after watching Thom Monahan and Vetiver do a record in our living room for the album Up On High in April of 2018. Like Thom, Joel brought all the gear and we just holed up and tracked it in our living room and the adjoining studio/office. I have a very basic set-up that I use for demos.

You worked with Bart Davenport and Joel Jerome on the album, as well as Neal Casal. What did they all bring to the process and the sound and feel of the record?

Tim: We thought of Bart for the role of producer, because we love his records. In particular, [his album] Physical World  gave us the impression that he would be an excellent fit both creatively and for sonic and aesthetic reasons. He used a lot of similar tones on that record and shares the 1980s quality we were after. He’s also a great person and a calming voice of reason.

Joel brought the entire studio out to the desert. He is incredibly talented and has an amazing pop sensibility that made his input invaluable. He was also comic relief when we needed it most and an excellent DJ. Neal brought his unmistakable sound to a couple of the tracks. You know it’s him the second you hear it and I think that goes for everything he’s done. The fact that he left his stamp on it is something we are forever grateful for.

The desert moves me: the people, the weather, the music that has been part of this place, is all inspiring’

The record has an ’80s soft-rock and New Wave feel, as well as jangle-pop and Americana. What influenced it, musically and lyrically? Do you think being in the Mojave Desert rubs off on you musically? 

Tim: We love so much music. A jangly guitar says something an aggressive guitar can’t and vice-versa. It’s a very sensitive-sounding album and the lyrics reflect that, so more often than not, the jangle won the battle with the lyrics coming from such inward places.

The ’80s thing is just part of what we love and who we are. We listen to a lot of that decade –  The Replacements, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello and ’80s hits. It’s just stuff we like. And there is a lot under the Americana umbrella we love too: Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt… the list goes on.

Rachel: I moved to the desert back in 2007, after countless trips to Pappy and Harriet’s. I’ve been in love with Bakersfield country and California cosmic country like Buck Owens, The Byrds, and Linda Ronstadt, and have been inspired by those sounds almost as much as I am Chrissie Hynde or The Motels. So I guess the desert just moves me: the people, the weather, the music that has been part of this place, is all inspiring.

Although everyone seems to be catching on to it, back when I first moved here, this area felt very secret and special. Certain types of people were drawn to it. Weirdos, artists, and musicians mixed in with the sun-worn blue collar workers and it made for an interesting energy.

‘Don’t Take It Away is loosely based on our dog, Otis, who will lose his mind and get depressed if you take away his toys’

Can we talk about some of the songs on the record? What can you tell me about Don’t Take It Away? It’s one of my favourites –  I love the harmonies and the killer melody –  it’s perfect, jangly guitar pop. Where did that song come from?

Tim: Thank you. The uptempo songs always come about after too many cups of coffee early in the day. Just walking around the house, strumming the guitar. I like to imagine playing songs live and that sometimes helps them take shape.

Don’t Take It Away is loosely based on our dog, Otis, who will lose his mind and get depressed if you take away his toys. So that’s where the idea came from, and Rachel and I had a laugh making it.

 

What inspired The Race? It feels like it’s about your relationship… There’s a brilliant haunting guitar solo from Neal Casal on there too, isn’t there?

Rachel:  Yes. The Race is about our relationship and about the short time we spent in the south. Back in 2015, shortly after Tim and I started dating, my job moved us to New Orleans to open a new hotel and book the music venue on the property. It was a rough time. Although there is a sleepy, slow-paced feel to that place, there was a sort of ‘rat-race’ mentality in what I was dealing with there.

The song is about the hard time I was having fitting in, that both of us were having with each other, and still figuring out who we were together, and socially fitting in as well. It’s about struggle and overcoming it, when the going gets tough. We got through that life hurdle and it made us realise we were meant to be together and if we could get through that, we can probably get through anything. Once we started playing the song, we both agreed a Neal Casal guitar solo would be the icing on that cake.

I love the organ sound on Train Wreck – another of my favourite songs on the record. Ryan Adams would kill to have written it. I think it sounds like a classic Springsteen or Tom Petty tune…

Tim: That’s Bobby Furgo on organ. He played with Leonard Cohen throughout the ’90s and he’s an incredible musician living out here in the Joshua Tree area. He and Rachel both played together in the Pappy and Harriet’s Sunday band a while back.

Train Wreck definitely sounds like Atlantic City, but I realised that too late and there’s no going back now. Tom Petty’s writing style was more of an influence on that one than Springsteen though. There’s something really challenging and fun about trying to get something to resemble a ‘hit’. It’s like a different part of the brain and Tom Petty was a master at that.

I wrote the song in 2015. I had been living and travelling in an RV and broke down in Ozona, Texas. I was in a tow yard for three weeks and worrying and thinking a lot about the people in my life with substance abuse problems. Train Wreck came out of that experience.

I think Like A Shadow has the feel of The Smiths at times –  it’s the jangly, Johnny Marr-like guitars…

Tim: I am a fan of The Smiths Johnny Marr’s playing, in particular. That is probably Bart’s playing you’re hearing though, as I was strictly rhythm on that track. It is one of my personal favourites that I’ve written just due to its simplicity and how quickly it came to me. It was a little valentine for Rachel.

Sooner Than You Learn has an ’80s pop/ soft rock vibe –  a touch of Fleetwood Mac…

Tim: Fleetwood Mac definitely crossed my mind when writing that song. It was built around that opening guitar part and the realisation that not only myself, but so many others, are just kind of going too hard and drinking too much after the party’s over..

Joy Killer is one of the heavier songs on the record – it’s kind of ’80s indie-rock and it reminds me of The Pretenders. The Current feels like it’s coming from a similar place, too… 

Tim: Joy Killer was a song I had before I met Rachel that I never properly recorded. We just liked having a rocker in the set and so it became part of the album, although the lyrical content dwells on the relationship issues I was having before I met Ms Dean.

Rachel: The Current was another song from the past. I wrote it back in 2007 with my friend Rick Boston, who was sort of mentoring me at the time. It was one of the first real songs I ever wrote and it started out as a slow song.

Chrissie Hynde has always been a huge influence on me and I could always hear her in the song, so I guess it kind of shows up a bit.  It’s so funny to think that Tim and I were both writing these songs that would mesh so well together, years before we ever met.

What music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?

Rachel: Well, I’m a really nostalgic person, so I get lost in music memories from my past.  I’ve been listening to a lot of Burt Bacharach, Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, Divinyls, Richard Ashcroft, Travis, Jesse Ed Davis, Doug Sahm, and Marcos Valle for summer vibes.  And for newer stuff.. well I guess some of this isn’t exactly “new”, but I love so much of our friend’s music like Brian Whelan  he used to play with Dwight Yoakam, and he’s just an incredible songwriter and singer , Vetiver, The Tyde, Cass McCombs, Howlin’ Rain, Beachwood Sparks, as well as the Curation Records bands – GospelbeacH, Pacific Range, FD and the Wizards of the West, Trevor Beld Jimenez –  and so many others.

‘I’m a really nostalgic person, so I get lost in music memories from my past’

Tim: What she said… Also I’ve just recently doing a dive into Nick Lowe’s new(ish) stuff – Stoplight Roses from The Old Magic is an amazing song, as is pretty much anything he does.

The first record Rachel got me was his Labour of Lust, early in our relationship. A friend turned me on to Richard Hawley and I’ve been enjoying his music. I had a moment with Funkadelic,  Zappa and the like during the pandemic, which always lifted my spirits. I run the gamut with my musical taste. It’s all over the place. I love a lot of our friends’ records as well.

How has Covid affected your plans? Any live shows coming up? Will we get to see you play in the UK?

Rachel: Our plans for the rest of this year are to get out and play as much as possible. Out here on the West Coast, venues are opening slowly but surely and I hope that by the fall, we’ll be playing more regularly. As of right now, it’s a lot of unconventional outdoor shows, private parties and things like that. We’re really hoping to get to the UK next year, and we’ve actually been talking to a friend out there about setting up a tour, so fingers crossed. We really love the UK and can’t wait to get back.

The self-titled debut album by Starlight Cleaning Co. is out now on SofaBurn Records, on vinyl and digital.

http://www.starlightcleaningco.com

https://www.sofaburn.com

Nautical but nice

The Mariners: Paul Iliffe and Luke Williamson

During lockdown last year, Say It With Garage Flowers stumbled across ‘60s-obsessed, East Midlands psych-pop band The Mariners (Luke Williamson – vocals/rhythm guitar; Paul Iliffe – lead guitar; Luke Headland – bass/keys) and Richard Pine – drums) on Twitter and fell in love with their music.

Their debut album, The Tides of Time, was one of our favourite records of 2020. A collection of unashamedly retro and nostalgic songs about girls, drinking tea, staying in bed and watching quirky characters who live down the street, it was steeped in the sounds of The Kinks, The Zombies and The Beatles, but also tipped its, er, mariner’s cap to cosmic Scousers The Coral, The La’s, John Power and Shack.

Now, only 12 months later, they’ve released the follow-up, Tales From The Great Central Line Volume One, which is less psych and more pop than its predecessor, but is essentially a similar trip down Dead End Street and Penny Lane, but with some added country rock and folk influences.

It contains no less than five songs with girls’ names in their titles – one of which, the first single, Dear Genevieve, is an irresistibly jaunty strum that’s a love letter to Luke Williamson’s young daughter. The groovy, organ-led There Before Time is a close cousin of The Zombies’ She’s Not There, the gorgeous and reflective Catch My Breath is a stripped-down acoustic ballad, while Royston’s Lament is a yearning and melancholy tale of growing older by the day that laments the loss of community and showcases a slightly darker side to The Mariners.

‘Tales From The Great Central Line Volume One is less psych and more pop than its predecessor, but essentially it’s a similar trip down Dead End Street and Penny Lane, but with some added country rock and folk influences’

Luke Williamson, who is also the band’s main songwriter, and lead guitarist, Paul Iliffe, kindly offered to do their first ever face-to-face interview with us, so when Covid restrictions eased a few weeks ago, we met up with them in a pub in the Buckinghamshire town of Amersham, not far from Say It With Garage Flowers HQ.

The boozer just so happened to be opposite a record shop – the brilliantly named, er, The Record Shop. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

You’ll have to read all of the article to find out what records they bought…

Q&A

You’ve released two albums in a year. Did lockdown accelerate your plans?

Paul Iliffe: We didn’t have any plans! We needed to keep busy – what else was there to do?We had lots of songs from over several years that we thought were quite good, so we decided to release them. Initially it was just for us. We had a monkey on our back – all these recordings that we were doing nothing with. We didn’t think anyone was going to buy them!

LW: We released the first single [Cathy Come Home]  in January last year and the rhythm tracks for the new album were recorded before lockdown. If it had been normal times, there might have been pressure to start gigging and then that might have slowed us down.

It means you now have two albums’ worth of material to play live…

LW: Exactly.

The new album is less psych than the first one, isn’t it?

PI: It’s more poppy.

You told me that the group started out as a Beatles tribute band – three of you have been playing together since 2006. You grew up with Britpop, but you’re all big fans of ‘60s music, aren’t you?

LW: We’ve let go of a lot of things from our childhood and the late ‘90s, but the ‘60s thing has always been there. When I was growing up in Nottingham, my mum and dad had The Beatles’ ‘Red Album’ and ‘Blue Album’ on vinyl – they only had about six albums, including Motown’s Greatest Hits and some Irish folk music.

Luke Williamson

‘We’ve let go of a lot of things from our childhood and the late ‘90s, but the ‘60s thing has always been there’

I always remember listening to The Beatles. When I was 16, I started going out with a girl – I went back to her house, where she lived with her dad. He was a Beatles nut. He had a man cave before man caves were even a thing. In it, he had a projector screen on the wall and the film Yellow Submarine on loop. Not the audio – just the pictures. He also had all The Beatles albums on vinyl and CD, and he smoked weed constantly. It was really surreal.

Has he been immortalised in one of your songs yet?

LW: He hasn’t.

PI: He needs to be.

LW: My girlfriend had to do some college coursework, so I sat with her dad for a bit. He was lovely – a bit too chilled-out – but I started getting into The Beatles. Six months later, I asked my mum and dad for a Beatles album for Christmas. I expected to get the ‘Red Album’ and the ‘Blue Album’ on CD, but I got given Revolver. After nights out, I used to fall asleep listening to it.

Paul Iliffe

‘I was working at a supermarket that started stocking CDs – I nicked a few! I stole Rubber Soul and I really liked it’

PI: I got into Rubber Soul. My parents weren’t into music – there was never music in the house when I was growing up. I was an only child – I discovered music by myself when I was 13 or 14. I got into Britpop, and I knew of The Beatles.

When I started doing a part-time job aged 16, I bought Sgt. Pepper’s on CD from HMV – I hated it! I was working at a supermarket that started stocking CDs – I nicked a few! I stole Rubber Soul and I really liked it – then I went down a Beatles rabbit hole, and I got into Sgt. Pepper’s eventually.

Let’s go back to talking about your albums. How and where did you record them?

LW: It’s as DIY as you can get – we go into the practice room in Loughborough where we rehearse, we make sure we’re tight, and then we record a drum track and the bass in the studio. We take it away and then we do everything else [remotely].

I’ll do my vocals, but most of the mixing and production is done by Paul – I ask him to put his magic on it. I’ll add my rhythm guitar and Paul will add his electric – Luke [Headland] will put keys on it.

PI: I’m the one who’ll say ‘let’s add some glockenspiel or brass’ – the weird stuff.

Where did the title of the new record, Tales From The Great Central Line Volume One, come from? The Great Central Main Line was the last main line railway to be built in Britain during the Victorian period, wasn’t it? It ran from Sheffield, in the North of England, southwards through Nottingham and Leicester to Marylebone, in London…

LW: Where I was living, in Loughborough, there’s still the old Great Central Railway – it’s been kept as it was. It’s around the corner from where we practise, and I had my wedding photos taken there – it’s always been in our minds.

PI: I like the idea of tales, stories, and fables – a song is a story. We like nostalgia – we don’t want to be a pastiche of anything – but we are quite nostalgic as a band and about how things were and how things should be.

‘We do have a lot of songs in the vaults that are named after girls – we did think about having an album full of them. We have lots of weird ideas’

LW: A lot of songs on the new album are tales – at one point we were playing with the idea of them all being letters. We also toyed with the idea of having one side of the album made up of songs that were all girls’ names.

PW: We do have a lot of songs in the vaults that are named after girls – we did think about having an album full of them. We have lots of weird ideas.

Is there a Tales From The Great Central Line Volume Two planned?

LW: We called the album Volume One because The Kinks did Preservation Act 1, and it also leaves it open-ended. There might be a Volume Two. Who knows?

PI: We might be like McCartney and do different volumes spanned over several decades…

LW: Volume Three will be out in 50 years’ time!

Talking of McCartney, and girls’ names… the new album starts with the song (That Girl Called) Mary Jane. Is that a nod to The Beatles’ What’s The New Mary Jane?

PI: Hopefully ours is a better song than that. As much as I love The Beatles, it’s terrible.

LW: Mary Jane was a traditional girls’ name in the ‘60s – I write songs with traditional girls’ names. We’ve kept it nostalgic.

[To Luke] How does your wife feel about you writing lots of songs with other girls’ names in them?

LW: The first time I did it, she said, jokingly, ‘Who’s that then?’ I’ve churned loads of ‘em out now, so I get away with it. I’m not writing them all about one person.

What’s your wife’s name?

LW: Vanessa – her name’s not been used in a song.

PI: The syllables don’t play well…

The second single from the new record, There Before Time, is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a Zombies feel to it…

LW: That was intentional – we used the same chords as a Zombies song, but we don’t want to give everything away!

Dear Genevieve is another song with a girl’s name in it…

LW: But it’s different from the other songs because that’s my daughter’s name. It’s me talking to her when she was first born – I wrote it as an acoustic song a few years ago.

I’ve also written a song about my other daughter, Lola – she’s named after The Kinks song – and that should be on the third album. Genevieve is also named after a Kinks song – Sweet Lady Genevieve.

On that note, your song Ooh La La is a Kinks-style observational tale about family life and domestic struggles…

LW: Seventy-five per cent of the songs I write nowadays, from a lyrical point of view, are those sort of stories – most of them are based on people I’ve met or characters I’ve seen. Do you know when you see a man who lives 10 doors away from you on your street, but you don’t know his name, and just by looking at him, you picture his life, and you imagine what he does? It’s basically that.

My Maria has a great lead guitar sound – it’s raw and a bit country-rock and skiffle…

LW: Paul championed that one – it had to make the album because it sounded different.

PI: It’s just a good song – it only has four chords, and it goes round. It’s simple – sometimes when you’re writing songs you need to step back and say, ‘less is more’. It has a good melody and structure.

LW: It was written about someone who hurt me…

Early In The Morning is more country-rock, with some honky-tonk piano and a touch of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

[Paul laughs].

LW: Funnily enough, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da wasn’t the song we used as a reference point. Emmitt Rhodes had a song called Tame the Lion, which sounds a bit like Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Early In The Morning is us doing a version of Emmitt Rhodes doing a version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

‘I got away with writing songs featuring other girls’ names by asking my wife to sing on the album – I won her over’

Catch My Breath is a pretty, folky, stripped-down tune. It also has some female backing vocals on it…

LW: That’s my wife, Vanessa. I got away with writing songs featuring other girls’ names by asking her to sing on the album – I won her over.

I think the last three songs: Catch My Breath, Royston’s Lament and Hey Mister are all reflective – they feel like they’re linked thematically. Royston’s Lament is one of my favourites on the record – it’s darker than some of the other songs and it has the feel of Dead End Street by The Kinks, or something by The Coral, The La’s, or Shack. It’s a nostalgic and melancholy song, and it features the line ‘Whatever happened to the community?’

LW: Paul brought that song to the band – he had all the chords, but no words.

PI: I said to Luke, it’s about being old – off you go…

Hey Mister is a song about regret – it looks back on someone’s life after they’ve died…

LW: It’s a character song – I wrote it after I heard a story about a guy in Loughborough who’d died. No-one had gone to his funeral – it was a sad story. People then say, ‘oh – he was a nice bloke.’ Well, why did they wait until it was too late? When was alive, he was a bit of a loner and he sat on his own, in the corner of the bar.

To come and do this interview, you’ve rented a cottage in the countryside and you’re staying overnight. I know you’ve brought your guitars. Does that mean your next record is going to be a pastoral, psych-pop concept record?

LW: We’ve already got the plan – it will be a concept album.

PI: Hopefully it will be out this time next year. I think the songs we’re doing for the third album are a bit more psychedelic – we don’t want to be the same.

Your first album had a ship on the cover, the new one has a train. Will the third album have a plane on it?

LW: For the next one, we’re going into space…

 

Tales From The Great Central Line Volume One by The Mariners is out now on CD / digital platforms –  a vinyl version will be available later this year.

https://themariners.bandcamp.com/

• When The Mariners visited Buckinghamshire, Say It With Garage Flowers took them record shopping in The Record Shop, Amersham and Collector’s Paradise, in Chesham. Here’s what they bought:

Paul Iliffe’s purchases:

 

 Luke Williamson’s vinyl finds:

 

And finally, to say thanks to The Mariners for coming to see us, Say It With Garage Flowers bought them this record in the brilliant Chapter Two community bookshop, in Chesham. They were, ahem, chuffed to bits.

‘I wanted to make more of a solo record – it just happened to coincide with the pandemic’

Peter Bruntnell

 

When Say It With Garage Flowers last spoke to UK-based, Americana singer-songwriter, Peter Bruntnell, he’d just emerged from the basement studio in his Devon home, where he’d been making his 2016 album, Nos Da Comradewhich was one of our favourite records of that year.

Now, five years later, he’s been busy in his basement again, working on his latest album, Journey To The Sun, which is his twelfth, and the follow-up to last year’s sublime King Of Madrid. Written and recorded during lockdown, it’s a more sparse and stripped-down sounding set than his last few releases – gorgeous, haunting and folky, but with some vintage electronica sounds and even a couple of spacey sci-fi instrumentals. Yes  that’s right, Americana fans, don’t choke on your pale ale, but there’s a lot of synth on this record…

Opener, the stunning, Dandelion, is an atmospheric folk-horror song, like Matt Deighton, or Pink Moon-era Nick Drake being produced by Brian Eno; the lovely Lucifer Morning Star has warm, burbling synths and chiming 12-string guitar, while Heart of Straw is classic Bruntnell – an aching, acoustic, country-tinged ballad – and recent single, You’d Make A Great Widow, is laced with his trademark wry humour and melancholy, but wrapped up in one of the prettiest melodies you’re likely to hear all year.

Some of the songs were co-written with Bruntnell’s long-time collaborator, Bill Ritchie, while US musician and mastering engineer, Peter Linnane, lays down some Hammond and pump organ, concertina, Mellotron and piano, and Iain Sloan plays pedal steel guitar on the track Dharma Liar. 

‘Americana fans, don’t choke on your pale ale, but there’s a lot of synth on this record…’

“I felt like I wanted to make more of a solo record, which just so happened to coincide with the pandemic,” says Bruntnell. “That meant more acoustic guitar, and I bought a bouzouki in March last year, which really was a catalyst for quite a few songs being written in a very short timeframe. Oh, and I got a drum machine and a new synthesiser too.”

So is he going through an electro phase? We spoke to him to find out…

Q&A

How have you coped during the past year and a bit? Has it been tough making a living as a musician?

Peter Bruntnell: At first it was tough, but then I started doing a live stream every Thursday, which seemed to go quite well, so that was one gig to look forward to each week – once I got used to it. Oh, and then I started writing, and before I knew it, I’d written an album’s worth of stuff.

Did Covid affect your plans to make the new album?

PB: Well, it just meant that I had to record and produce it all myself, but that sort of suited the vibe of the songs.

Opener, the stunning, Dandelion, is an atmospheric folk-horror song, like Matt Deighton, or Pink Moon-era Nick Drake being produced by Brian Eno’

You recorded and self-produced the album at your home, in Devon, where you have a basement studio. Peter Linnane, who plays keyboards on the record, and is based in Boston, sent you his parts, didn’t he?

PB: Yeah – I sent the first song to Pete, to ask him if the light compression I had on the mix was okay for the mastering job. He came back to me saying it was fine, and he sent some pump organ and concertina parts, in case I might like to mix them in. I had a listen and liked all his parts, so I kept them, and that became the pattern for nearly every song thereafter.

Peter Bruntnell - Journey To The Sun

Let’s talk about the sound of the record – it’s more stripped-down than some of your last few albums, with acoustic guitar, bouzouki, keys – organ, synth, Mellotron – and a drum machine. Did you set out to make a ‘back to basics’ album? Was it a reaction to your last couple, which have had more jangly, electric guitar and a fuller band sound?

PB: I did feel like I wanted to make more of a solo record, which just so happened to coincide with the pandemic. That meant more acoustic guitar, and I bought a bouzouki in March last year, which really was a catalyst for quite a few songs being written in a very short timeframe. Oh, and I had bought a drum machine and a new synthesiser too.

What inspired the album, musically?

PB: Apart from a bit of Brian Eno, I’m not sure what other influences directly inspired the songs. Maybe some Brian Wilson…

What about the synth? Are you going through a Kraftwerk, or Bowie Low phase, or doing a Neil Young Trans?

PB: Sort of. I’d been listening to Another Green World by Eno and had been thinking about doing some more ‘electro’-style stuff for a while now, so it all just fell into place. And Low has been one of my favourite records for years.

Tell me about the bouzouki? Is there a story behind it?

PB: I bought it hoping it would inspire some songwriting, which it did. Because I don’t know how to play one, it forced me to be more experimental than when I write on a guitar.

What can you tell me about the first song on the album, Dandelion, which is one of my favourites on the record? I love the arrangement – it has a haunting, folky feel, but with some lap steel on it, too. It’s a very striking and atmospheric song…

PB: It was written on the bouzouki and was maybe the first one. It has atmosphere, with just vocals and bouzouki, so I didn’t have to think too hard about its production. I have a piano in the hall which I can’t play that well, but for sparse two or three finger chords it sounds great.

Lucifer Morning Star is another one of my favourites on the album. What can you tell me about that song? It’s a lovely track… 

PB: Thanks. It’s one of my favourites for some reason too. Bill Ritchie came up with most of those lyrics. It was the last song written – maybe the feel of the record was already established, so I kept it similar when arranging the parts for it.

‘I’d been listening to Another Green World by Eno and thinking about doing some ‘electro’-style stuff for a while, so it all just fell into place’

You’ve done a great cover of the traditional folk song Wild Mountain Thyme on the record. What prompted that and why did you include it?

PB: I recorded it about five years ago, because I love the song and wanted to keep busy recording. It seemed to fit among these new songs, so it made the album.

Your last album, King of Madrid, had a song called Widows Walk on it and this record has You’d Make A Great Widow. Are you now intending to have one widow-themed track on each record?

PB: Hah! No – that’s just a coincidence. My wife was talking one day about what would happen if I died and jokingly said, “I’d make a great widow”. That’s where the idea came from.

There’s a great video for the song, in which you get to play a zombie. How did that come about?

PB: I thought it would be fun to get loads of ‘widows’ in it, so I wrote a post on Facebook to see if people would film themselves miming to one of my songs, and I got a great response. And then the ghost and zombie idea just came to me.

Heart of Straw is a gorgeous track. Where did that one come from, and why did you decide to use a line from it as the title of the album?

PB: It’s another anti-government song – yawn. I just stumbled around until I found the right words. It could easily be Etonian rather than Utopian, and ‘Head of Straw’ rather than ‘Heart’. I was just looking for an album title that I liked the sound of and ‘journey to the sun’ seemed like a good idea at the time.

‘Lockdown meant that I focused on writing more than normal, as there wasn’t much else to do’

The album feels melancholy and reflective, with themes of loss, longing, regret and death. Do you think the Covid crisis affected the songwriting lyrically and also the mood of the record?

PB: Maybe – it’s difficult to say. Lockdown meant that I did focus on writing more than normal, as there wasn’t much else to do. I wasn’t really expecting to have an album written and recorded by the end of the year.

You’ve recorded some instrumentals for the album – the spacey The Antwerp Effect and Moon Committee. I think they sound like incidental music from a ‘70s sci-fi TV show, or a film soundtrack. Would you ever consider making an instrumental record, or writing and recording a soundtrack?

PB: Yes – I’d like to do more. I might go more ‘electro’ for the next album. I really don’t know yet…

‘I wasn’t really expecting to have an album written and recorded by the end of the year’

What was your lockdown soundtrack and what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

PB: Over lockdown I watched more TV than listening to music – all the usual stuff, like Netflix, etc. I have an Alex Chilton live in Baton Rouge album in my car at the moment, along with Jordan the Comeback by Prefab Sprout.

What are your plans for the rest of the year, now things are slowly returning to some kind of ‘normal?’

PB: To play live as much as I can and travel – even if it’s in the UK.

On that note, when all travel restrictions are lifted, and you’re allowed to take a ‘journey to the sun’, where would be your ideal destination – and why?

PB: Italy, Spain or France – anywhere in Europe would be great. I love Europe and hate Brexit!

Journey To The Sun is released on June 11 (Domestico Records). You can pre-order a signed copy here.

https://peterbruntnell.net

 

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading): ‘Interesting is too bland a word for someone like Dylan. He is off the scale’

Dylan books
Picture courtesy of Apostolis Giontzis / Shutterstock.com.

In the second half of a two-part article called It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, which is on May 24, Say It With Garage Flowers speaks to writer and broadcaster, Spencer Leigh, about his new book, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Bluesan impressive 450-page biography about the legendary singer-songwriter, which was published by McNidder & Grace in October last year.

For the book, Leigh, who has been broadcasting on BBC Radio Merseyside for over 40 years, and has written biographies on acts including The Beatles, Frank Sinatra,  Simon & Garfunkel and Elvis Presley, spoke to more than 300 musicians, friends and acquaintances of Dylan.

“Journalists are very fond of saying Bob Dylan is an enigma,” says Leigh, “but that word is flawed. It’s as good as saying you don’t know. I have determined that I will not call Bob Dylan an enigma at any point in the book and I’m trying to find an answer for everything.”

With that in mind, we asked him to tell us why, after all this time, people are still writing and reading books about Dylan, and if there is really anything new left to say?

The main reason for the fascination with Bob Dylan is that he has changed popular culture in a significant way for the better,” he says.  “He has rarely explained what he is doing, so there is an air of mystery about him, and this is one reason why he is studied at universities.

‘I hope there is something new on every page, but that’s for other people to say’

“What I think has been overlooked is that from time to time he has shown he can be a straight, down the line commercial songwriter, with If Not For You, Lay Lady Lay, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Make You Feel My Love. This has enabled him to have a significant role in the everyday commercial market. This is different from Zappa, Beefheart or Lou Reed. You couldn’t have got them to write commercial songs.”

He adds: “I never thought Bob Dylan was a hoarder and now he has sold his archive to the University of Tulsa. That could change our perception of things.”

Q&A

Why did you decide to write another hefty tome on Dylan and how did you ensure your book was different to what’s gone before?

Spencer Leigh: If people are good enough to spend time reading it, I don’t want to waste their time. I hope there is something new on every page, but that’s for other people to say. Over the years I have interviewed a lot of people for my BBC Radio Merseyside shows and so I had many quotes about Dylan, often from people who were there, like Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Hunter Davies says that when you move to a new chapter, you have to ask if the readers are still with you – it’s a good tip.

‘The most surprising thing is that I couldn’t find an interview with Dylan’s former wife, Sara’

Was it a difficult book to write and research? How long did it take from start to finish?

SL: I once asked Charles Aznavour how long it took to write a particular song and he said, “Twenty minutes and 20 years.”

What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learnt from writing and researching the book?

SL: The most surprising thing, I suppose, is that I couldn’t find an interview with Dylan’s former wife, Sara. Was that part of the divorce settlement? I would guess so, but then again Jane Asher never talks of her time with Paul McCartney. It’s an angle of the story that we may never have.

Interesting is too bland a word for someone like Dylan. He is a good example of someone who is off the scale. I was intrigued to discover his affection for Liverpool. All the bits and pieces added up to that. I had thought that he might feel the same way about Birmingham or Edinburgh, but no, every couple of years there is some little remark or action to show he loves the place.

Spencer Leigh
Spencer Leigh

‘I’ve spoken to quite a lot of Dylan authors and this may make my book unique’

You have spoken to an impressive amount of people for the book. Who were you most happy to have had access to, and why? And, apart from Dylan biographer, Robert Shelton, was there anyone you’d have liked to have spoken to, but couldn’t?

SL: I did have a long conversation with Robert Shelton about how he wanted £50 for an interview. That was around 1985. I should have paid and not said, “The BBC never pays for interviews.” I’ve spoken to quite a lot of Dylan authors and this may make my book unique.

Dylan turns 80 on May 24 this year. Any thoughts on him hitting that milestone? 

SL: Well, I’m surprised he’s got that far, but you could say that about any rock star. I like his artwork a lot, but I would like more songs.

In the book, you touch on his epic 2020 single, Murder Most Foul. What did you think of the album it came from, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which wasn’t out at the time you’d finished the book?

SL: At the time I did the book, three tracks had been released. I’ve put a review of the rest of the album on my website. Dylan has now found a way of half-speaking, half-narrating his songs, which works very well. Okay, his singing voice is shot, but his speech is fantastic.

Do you have a favourite Bob Dylan song?

SL: I went to Liverpool recently for the first time in a year and bought the [new] Bob Dylan-1970 CD set. Although I’ve got many of the tracks on bootlegs, I am looking forward to hearing these cleaned-up versions.

A favourite song would be Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, on the ‘Judas’ tour of 1966. I was there in Liverpool and it was just as rowdy as Manchester. I had never seen an artist alienate a lot of his audience before and I am convinced, now that I have researched the book, that he was loving every minute of it.

Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues by Spencer Leigh is out now. It’s published by McNidder & Grace. 

For more information, visit:

https://mcnidderandgrace.com/

http://www.spencerleigh.co.uk/

Read the first part of the article, here, which is an interview with K G Miles, co-author of the book Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales (McNidder & Grace).

 

 

 

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading): ‘Our book is a love letter to Dylan and London – a real project of passion’

 

Dylan books
Picture courtesy of Apostolis Giontzis / Shutterstock.com.

In the first of a two-part article called It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, which is on May 24, Say It With Garage Flowers speaks to writer K G Miles, co-author of the new book, Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales, a brilliantly researched and easily accessible guide to the history of Dylan in London and his impact on the city’s music scene.

“We wanted it to be the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long,” he tells us. “I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear.”

Great, as we’d have no interest in reading about it, whereas his book is right up our Positively 4th Street…

There’s a line in Bob Dylan’s 1964 song, My Back Pages, that says: “Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.”

It’s been interpreted as being about his growing disillusionment with the ‘60s folk protest movement that he was a part of, and his desire to move in a new musical direction, which he did, by ‘going electric’ a year after it was written. Dylan was in his early twenties when he wrote it – now, he really is so much older, as he turns 80 on May 24 this year.

The title, My Back Pages, also seems very fitting, as, in the run-up to Dylan’s milestone birthday, there’s been a glut of books published on him, as well as revised and updated versions of existing biographies. When it comes to rock’s back pages, no one – apart from The Beatles – has had so many tomes written about them.

Dylan continues to fascinate authors, academics and music fans alike – even more so in the wake of last year’s extraordinary 17-minute ‘comeback’ single, Murder Most Foul, released during lockdown, and its accompanying late-period masterpiece, Rough and Rowdy Ways – his 39th studio album.

‘Dylan continues to fascinate authors, academics and music fans. When it comes to rock’s back pages, no one – apart from The Beatles – has had so many tomes written about them’

One of the best recent books to join Dylan’s back pages is Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and K G Miles, which was published by McNidder & Grace in February of this year. For once, it’s a new Dylan publication that has a different story to tell – it’s a brilliantly researched and easily accessible guide to the history of Dylan in London and his impact on the city’s music scene.

As soon as you’ve read it, you’ll want to embark on a rock pilgrimage to explore the numerous London locations that are listed in the book, from The Troubadour Club in Old Brompton Road, where Dylan played in 1962, to the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Savoy Steps, where the iconic promo film for Subterranean Homesick Blues was shot, and the north London streets of Camden and Crouch End, where Dylan hung out in the ‘90s.

Rather handily, as Bob Dylan In London: Troudadour Tales is a paperback that’s only just over 100 pages long, it’s easy to carry when you’re on the move. In 1962, Dylan wrote the song Let Me Die In My Footsteps – thanks to the book’s compact size, it means you won’t die from sheer exhaustion if you’re following in his.

In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to one of the authors, K G Miles – aka Keith – who tells us: “There are thousands of books on Bob Dylan – it’s remarkable that we’ve found a gap in that huge market.”

Bob Dylan In London

Q&A

How did you come up with the idea for the book?

K G Miles: Jackie and I are both first-time authors – we’re just fans. We met at university in 1979 – on the cusp of Dylan’s ‘Christian’ era. We didn’t realise that we were both Dylan fans – it wasn’t until he won the Nobel Prize in Literature [in 2016] that we both came out of our closets, if you like, and decided to do a pilgrimage.

We knew there were stories about him playing London, but we didn’t know the whole truth. The project began as a pilgrimage to places like the Savoy Steps, where the world’s first music video was filmed – Subterranean Homesick Blues – and to the Troubadour Club, in Earls Court. We went into the Troubadour – Dylan played there in 1962, on his first trip to the UK, as did Jimi Hendrix and Paul Simon.

It’s a fantastic place and a wonderful piece of musical history, but there was nothing on the walls, so you wouldn’t know that. There were pictures of Arctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton – we thought that was wrong. We asked the owners if they would let us put a picture of Dylan up, but, to their credit, they gave us a whole room to kit out! Until lockdown, we were getting tourists visiting from all over – it’s a great venue for people to meet.

The Dylan Room, at The Troubadour
The Dylan Room, at The Troubadour Club. Picture by KG Miles.

We also looked at putting a blue plaque on the Savoy Steps and other things we could do.

We found out a lot of stuff along our journey and we had all these tales gathered together, so I said to Jackie, “Why don’t we put them out as a book, as people would be interested in them?”

It’s a love letter to Dylan and London – a real project of passion from two Londoners. There are thousands of books on Bob Dylan – it’s remarkable that we’ve found a gap in that huge market.

When I look back at the classic Dylan biographies by people like Robert Shelton and others, he has a tiny cursory paragraph about Dylan’s first ‘62/’63 trip to London. He writes that Dylan played at The Prospect of Whitby pub. I know that pub – there wasn’t a folk club there. I think he’s mistaken it for the Pindar of Wakefield. There’s a famous picture of Dylan playing the London Singers’ Club Christmas show, in which you can see the wallpaper behind him. If you compare that picture with one of the folk singer, Anne Briggs, which was taken at the Pindar of Wakefield, the wallpaper matches. Dylan’s first gig outside of America was at The King and Queen pub in London [Foley Street, Fitzrovia] – his first tentative steps out of the New York scene and onto the world’s stage. There’s a tiny picture there, but I’d love to have more.

Dylan playing the London Singers’ Club Christmas show, in 1962, at the Pindar of Wakefield.

That time was a critical one in Dylan’s career, but it’s been passed over. When Dylan came over for the Royal Festival Hall gig in 1964, it was so important, and in ’65 and ’66 you’ve got Don’t Look Back and that tour – rock ‘n’ roll Dylan. It’s still only a matter of weeks in Dylan’s history, but they’re disproportionately important to his development and musical history.

‘Dylan’s first gig outside of America was at The King and Queen pub in London – his first tentative steps out of the New York scene and onto the world’s stage’

In the book, you reference biographer Clinton Heylin’s point that Dylan’s month in London in the winter of ’62 was almost as influential as the previous two years he spent in New York. I think your book is brilliantly researched  – you’ve crammed so much into the 100 or so pages. How did you go about doing your homework?

KGM: When the Bob Dylan Archive was launched, in Tulsa, I was lucky enough to go there and talk at a conference about Dylan’s time with [poet and novelist] Robert Graves  – it’s a footnote in Dylan’s history, but it’s very important. Dylan puts a tiny quote about meeting Graves in London in his book, Chronicles: Volume One, but he gets it wrong – it’s the most beautiful autobiography, but it’s not to be trusted in any way. He talks about walking with Graves, after a party, in Paddington Square – if you look it up, there wasn’t a Paddington Square at that time, but there is now.

We’re doing musical archaeology – we’re putting two and two and two and two together. You can work out where the party, the house and the square were. We wanted to put right a lot of things that were incorrect. I loved doing the delving. Jackie and I are huge fans of London. In the book we also wanted to cover the buildings and the locations – the tourism side – so it could be a guide for people. We also always intended it to be fun. I would love to go to the back of the Savoy and see queues of Dylan fans with their cue cards, videoing and photographing each other. If I can persuade any number of tourists to go to the Savoy Steps, rather than Oxford Street, I would’ve done a wonderful job for London.

‘We wanted it to be the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long. I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear’

And you’ve included some social history too, haven’t you?

KGM: Exactly. We’re delighted that Dylan fans have enjoyed the book, but we’re also delighted that music fans have too, and people who have a passing interest, love London and love the stories. We wanted it to be very accessible and easy to read – the antithesis of the normal Dylan book, which can be very turgid and very long. I have no interest in relating the lyrics of Dylan to King Lear. Just go and enjoy the music – it’s wonderful.

You talked earlier about your passion for Dylan. You first saw him at the Isle of Wight Festival, in 1969, didn’t you?

KGM: Yes, but I was too young to appreciate it at the time – I was seven or eight. I was old enough to take it all in, but I wasn’t interested in the music.

‘Dylan’s first trip to London, in ’62/’63, was a critical time in his career, but it’s been passed over’

So when did you start getting into him?

KGM: I was that kid who, as a teenager, had posters of Dylan on the wall. I was too young for the ‘60s – I missed all that time – but, for a lot of my generation, the key album was the double one, More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits – it was such an important introduction to Dylan’s work and it had all different types of his music on it. It was a record that led you to explore other albums of his, but, also, it had tracks like Tomorrow Is A Long Time and songs from The Basement Tapes – songs we hadn’t heard. I’ve seen a picture of Marc Bolan with that album in his hand.

K G Miles

Have you seen Dylan play lots of times?

KGM: I haven’t seen him loads. In 1978, I queued overnight on the streets of Hammersmith to get tickets for his Earls Court gigs – that was a key moment for lots of people in this country. He hadn’t been over here on the mainland, if you like, for 12 years – we had a bit of Dylanmania at the time.

‘I’d like to write Dylan in Europe too, as I think there are so many wonderful tales that came out of his travels there’

Are you planning to write any more books on Dylan?

KGM: I’ve been asked by the publisher to do some further guides, like Dylan in New York and Dylan in Japan. I’d like to do Dylan in Europe too, as I think there are so many wonderful tales that came out of his travels there. I’m going to be keeping myself busy. There are still many stories to tell.

You could have a whole series of Dylan travel guides and call it Lonely Planet Waves...

KGM: That’s good – I might nick it!

Finally, Dylan turns 80 this month. Any thoughts on him hitting that milestone?

KGM: I think that 80 is a fabulous milestone for any human being, but for one that has lived life at such a breathtaking creative speed, and did so throughout the delicious excesses of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s a joy and a miracle.

 

Bob Dylan In London: Troubadour Tales by Jackie Lees and K G Miles, which is published by McNidder & Grace, is out now. For more information, visit https://mcnidderandgrace.com/.

You can follow KG Miles on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/barberville

Look out for the second part of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Reading), in which we speak to author and broadcaster, Spencer Leigh, about his new book, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues (McNidder & Grace). We’ll be posting the article soon, ahead of Dylan’s 80th birthday on May 24.