Soul from the Deep South of London

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Still Testifying, the new album from husband and wife country duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – sees the band building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record The Reconciliation.

More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.

I spoke to Michael to find out more about My Darling Clementine’s love of sweet soul music and get the low-down on the stories behind the songs on Still Testifying

Q & A

On your last album, The Reconciliation, which was the follow up to your 2011 debut, How Do You Plead? you added some soul to your country sound. With the new record, Still Testifying, you’ve taken that even further and also thrown in some gospel for good measure.

What was your approach to this record? Why have you headed further down the Southern soul road, rather than gone back to your country roots?

Michael Weston King: We had a clear remit with How Do You Plead? – to make an album that sounded like George and Tammy in 1967.

How Do You Plead? was made up of old songs that had been deemed “too country” for either my former band, or my solo albums, along with some new songs written specifically for that album.

We didn’t really think beyond album one, but here we are, on album three, and our remit has changed. We didn’t want to stay still and make the same sounding record again, only with different songs.

We have both always loved soul music, and I have been driving Lou mad with all the old country soul stuff I have been listening to over the years, so it just felt a natural progression for us when making this new album.

We hinted at it with the song Our Race Is Run on our second album, but have given that country soul feel – and style of writing – to more songs on this album

‘We didn’t want to stay still and make the same sounding record again, only with different songs’

There are some great arrangements on the album – it’s a rich and full-sounding record that’s very rewarding.

I love the brass on the opening song, The Embers and The Flame – particularly the ‘bah-bah-bah’ instrumental break halfway through…

MWK: That was originally a guitar solo that I came up with when writing the song, but once we had added the brass to the arrangement, it was only natural they [the horn players] took the solo, too – the melody is the same, though.

The horns on Just A Woman sound like you’ve been listening to some old Burt Bacharach tunes…

MWK: Yes – that was producer Neil Brockbank’s idea and it was brilliantly brought to fruition by horn player and brass arranger Matt Holland.

The original piano and voice demo did not conjure up Bacharach & David to us, but it clearly did to Neil. And once the French Horns and trumpets went on there, well that was it, and we just fully embraced Burt!

Can you talk me through the writing and recording process for the new album? Did you do basic demos and then work out the full arrangements?

MWK: All our songs are demoed very simply, with voice and guitar or voice and piano. We then get together with the main core of the band and work through them. Most of the songs do tend to work themselves out – it is pretty clear how they should go. Also, working with guys that we have worked with for years now, and fully understand what we are striving for musically – and who share the same musical tastes and influences – makes coming up with the right approach and arrangements a lot easier

Did you have definite ideas for arrangements in your head before you went into the studio?

MWK: Yes – certainly for some of them, and then, as I just mentioned, more ideas came from kicking the songs round in rehearsals.

After that, once in the studio, the more fine-tuned arrangement ideas, and what additional instrumentation we felt was needed, came from the producer, Neil Brockbank.

‘Sometimes there was the occasional flounce out and teacups hitting the wall, but, generally, it was a fun album to make’

Was it a fun album to make, or was it difficult? 

MWK: Like with all albums, you go through a roller coaster of emotions – “it’s the greatest record ever made”, or “it’s awful”, but as you get older and the more records you make, you know it will be like this and you just try and let those highs and lows pass you by. Sometimes there was the occasional flounce out and teacups hitting the wall, but, generally, yes, it was a fun album to make.

How do you feel listening back to it now? 

MWK: Very pleased with it – especially its diversity. There really is an eclectic mix of styles on the album, which I love, but it still sounds like the same artist. It is held together by our voices.

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It sounds like a record that could’ve been made in Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was recorded in Tooting Bec – it’s Southern soul from South London. How did you capture that authentic vibe in the studio? 

MWK: Like we have done with all our albums – getting the right producer and the right team and the most suitable players. We used British musicians, but ones with a real love and understanding of Stax, Fame, Hi and mid ‘60s- era Atlantic Records. They’re players who, between them, have worked with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Ben E. King, Van Morrison, Dr John and Doug Sahm.

I think too many UK artists want to run off to Nashville to record there – often out of vanity – just to say, “we made an album in Nashville”. I would have been guilty of that years ago.

Yes, there are some great studios and people there, but also lots of mediocrity – just churning out generic stuff. I like the fact we recorded here with the finest of British players and producers and still captured the spirit we wanted.

‘Too many UK artists want to run off to Nashville to record there – often out of vanity – just to say, “we made an album in Nashville”’

What were your main musical influences for this album?

MWK: Delaney & Bonnie, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Mickey Newbury, Jim Ford, Goffin & King, Elvis, Roy Orbison, and, if you listen closely to the middle eight of Since I Fell For You, The Searchers and Helen Shapiro!

Yours Is The Cross That I Still Bear is a gospel-tinged track. What can you tell me about that song?

MWK: It was originally written for the German label, Bear Family Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary with a triple album box set. They asked us to contribute a track – the caveat being all songs had to have the word ‘bear’ in the title. So I came up with that.

The version used on that album was just piano, guitar and vocals, but it did have a country soul / gospel groove to it, and I always planned to use it on this album. Lou took some convincing, but I think she really digs it now. The song has since been expanded and totally re-worked on our new album.

Lyrically, I had some old friends in mind when I wrote it. A shared history, a time when you did a lot together and then, as you get older, you drift apart and move on to other people and other places, but that bond you forged at an early age stays with you forever – even if you lose regular contact. Those shared times – both the good things and the bad things – are what bind you.

On your last album, there was a song called No Matter What Tammy Said – a retort to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man – and on this record there’s Jolene’s Story –  a sequel to Dolly Parton’s song Jolene. Your song is written from Jolene’s point of view and we find out that she did take Dolly’s man…

I sense a theme going on. Can you think of any other classic country songs that deserve a follow-up? I feel a My Darling Clementine concept album coming on… 

MWK: On our debut, we had Going Back To Memphis – which kind of picked up where the great Tom T. Hall song, That’s How I Got To Memphis, left off.

I think The Grand Tour by George Jones is rife for a follow-up song. Maybe about the people who bought and moved into the house. Or where the wife is now – the one who “left me without mercy”.

How about a sequel to Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe? Isn’t it about time we found out what was thrown off Tallahatchie Bridge?

MWK: Yes – that could be a good one. Lou has actually performed that song live, and does a rather fabulous version of it, I must say.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine performing The Other Half

When we last spoke, in 2015, you’d just released The Other Half album – your music and spoken word collaboration with crime writer Mark Billingham. A couple of songs from that piece of work have ended up on your new record, albeit in slightly different guises – The Embers and The Flame and Friday Night, Tulip Hotel…

MWK: All the songs recorded for The Other Half album, either the older ones re-recorded, or the two ones written for the project, were recorded sparsely and acoustically, just guitars, mandolins, a bit of percussion, piano on one or two, but simple and sparse – the same as we performed them in the live show.

Both the new songs were very well received when played live and we always felt they could be enhanced even more by a fuller arrangement. We didn’t want them to remain just as acoustic recordings.

I am so glad we did that now, as they are both very different to the versions on The Other Half and we have also slightly changed the titles of them too for this album.

The Embers and The Flame was formerly called As Precious As The Flame. The fire burning out is an often-used country music metaphor for a relationship that has lost its spark. We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning and After The Fire Is Gone are just two prime examples. We have somewhat inverted it here, suggesting that you don’t always need the spark, the flame or the fire. Sometimes the embers are just as important, perhaps even more so.  

Mark Billingham wrote most of the original lyrics for it. We needed a “happy song” to end the story of The Other Half. The reworked version is bigger and bolder and brassier.

And the secret to a long and happy marriage? According to Mark it is “sticking around, no matter how shitty it gets”.

Friday Night, Tulip Hotel – formerly Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel – was written in the car park of The Golden Tulip Hotel, Rotterdam, while watching a couple check out very early, as indeed we had, though for different reasons. They were trying to be discreet about being there, about being with each other, but it was clearly a case of “same time, same place, next week”. We watched them drive off in opposite directions and drew our own conclusion as to how it ended.

Would you like to do another project in the same vein as The Other Half?

MWK: Yes, absolutely –  we would love to do another, though maybe starting from nothing this time, with all new songs, as well as a brand new story. Oh, that suddenly now sounds like a musical!

There are the usual helpings of infidelity and heartache on Still Testifying that we’ve come to expect from My Darling Clementine songs, but Two Lane Texaco sticks out because it’s more of a political / issues-based song – it deals with the effect of the oil industry on small town America.

Can you tell me more about the background and inspiration for that song? It’s also one of the more ‘traditional’ country songs on the album. I can imagine Nick Cave doing a cover of it…. 

MWK: That would be nice, I must send it to him. The opening verse for it came to me while driving along a very unromantic, English motorway, crawling along, due to roadworks. They were widening the road. The song remained unfinished for quite a while until I was watching the Pixar movie Cars with our daughter Mabel. It was all there –  this small town being bypassed due to a newly built highway and the town just dying.

‘The lyric owes a debt to my love of John Ford films, reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, and my ongoing obsession with movies set in the ’50s’

The lyric also owes a debt to my love of John Ford films, reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, and my ongoing obsession with movies set in the ’50s, such as American Hot Wax and American Graffiti, featuring the iconic DJs Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack, respectively.

Overall, the song is a hymn to the demise of small town America. In fact, small towns anywhere – Megawatt Valley is actually in Yorkshire. Towns that have been affected by an industry that was once its heart and soul, making it a thriving community. And then, that industry abandons the town, leaving the people left behind without work and without hope. And with a faith severely tested… “We’ve sold the family silver but there’s gold still buried underground.”

You’ve just come back from touring the States. How was that and where did you go?

MWK: We go to the US every April, during the school holidays, so our daughter Mabel can be with us too. Which is just as well, as she is now very much part of the show. She even made her New York debut this time, playing with us at City Winery, when we opened up for Ray Benson and Dale Watson.

The tour this time was along the eastern seaboard, from Rhode Island down to New Jersey, with some shows a little further west in Chicago, Detroit and over the border to London, Ontario [Canada].

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You’re currently on a UK tour. What can we expect?

MWK: We are four days into an eight-date run of shows with the full band – they are going great. It’s always a joy, as they are such fine musicians, and for the London show [June 7 –  The Islington] we will have the horn section too. It will be spectacular. Then we’re doing a run of more acoustic shows.

What’s a typical My Darling Clementine tour like? How rock ‘n’ roll are you?

MWK: Not very these days. I have pretty much given up drinking and so has Lou, and touring with your daughter also curtails too many rock ‘n’ roll activities. In fact, she is the one that wants to order room service at 1am and stay up watching TV, while we want to sleep!

Finally, I’m giving you a chance to testify. What would you like to bear witness to?

MWK: Well, my testimony may have been very different had we done this interview a few weeks ago, but in the light of the tragic events in Manchester, a city I love (and I think you do, too), and where two of my children live, and the news a few days ago that Neil Brockbank, who produced this record and our debut album, died suddenly of lung cancer, it is simply this: to cherish as much time with your family, friends and loved ones as possible.

Still Testifying – the new album by My Darling Clementine – is out now on Continental Song City: http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/

The band’s UK tour dates are: 

June 7 –  The Islington, London 

June 9 –  The Met, Bury

June 10 – The Hut, Corby

June 11 –  The Old Stables, Crickslade

June 28 –  Catstrand, Dumfries

June 29 –  Clark’s On Lindsay, Dundee

July 1 –   Old Fire Station, Carlisle

July 2 –  Birnam Arts, Dunkeld

July 6 – Phoenix Arts, Exeter

July 15 – Americana Weekend, Bristol

 

 

‘I was furious writing this book’

 

51eMhWvs7HL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Best-selling crime fiction author Mark Billingham’s latest novel, Love Like Blood, deals with the controversial subject of honour killings.

It was a difficult book to write, he tells me, but has more twists and turns than any of his other thrillers…

Q & A

Your new book, Love Like Blood, is the fourteenth novel in the Tom Thorne series. It shares its title with a song by Killing Joke…

Mark Billingham: Yes – it does. I was sitting on a train with Martyn Waites [crime writer] and told him that I didn’t have a title for my book and that it was driving me crazy. We threw some titles back and forth – he knew what the book was about – and then he said, ‘what about the Killing Joke song, Love Like Blood?’ So, in the acknowledgements, I thank Killing Joke and Martyn Waites. It’s actually the first time I’ve named one of my books after a song title.

Your last book, Die of Shame, was a stand-alone novel. What was it like going back to Thorne and writing about him again, for the fourteenth time? Does he still excite you?

MB: Yes – he does. One of the reasons I write stand-alone books is that having taken a break from the series, I can come back to Thorne re-energised and keen to write about him again – that’s the theory. I was very excited to write about him again – especially putting him into this story, as it was one I was very fired-up to write about.

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Mark Billingham

This seems like an appropriate time to talk about the story in Love Like Blood. I’m not going to give anything away, so I’ll just refer to the promotional blurb that accompanies the novel…

‘As DI Nicola Tanner investigates what appears to be a series of organised killings, her partner Susan is brutally murdered.

‘Taken off the case, Tanner enlists the help of DI Tom Thorne to pursue a pair of ruthless killers and the broker who is handing out the deadly contracts.

‘As the killers target their latest victim, Thorne takes the biggest risk of his career and is drawn into a horrifying and disturbing world in which families will do anything to protect their honour…’

The central theme of the book is honour killings and it’s loosely based on a real-life crime – the killing of Banaz Mahmod – a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman, living in south-west London, who was raped, tortured and murdered by members of her family in 2006.

Banaz’s father and uncle were eventually sentenced to life in prison for ordering the killing, along with the three men who had been paid to carry out the act. Several other members of her family were also jailed for their involvement in the crime.

Banaz had been forced into an arranged marriage with a man who physically and sexually abused her, but she left him and fell in love with another man – Rahmat Sulemani. Her family killed her for doing so…

MB: They conspired to murder her and had already tried to kill her once before. She’d been to the police five times, but wasn’t taken seriously. There’s a heart-breaking clip, which you can watch on YouTube, of her being interviewed at the police station, describing her abusive marriage and how she was repeatedly raped, beaten and treated like a slave.

She tried to get away, because she’d met Rahmat Sulemani and fallen in love with him, but she was spotted kissing him outside Morden tube station. That was her death warrant.

She was lured to her grandmother’s house, where she was brutally raped, tortured, and murdered.

‘It’s the most brutal murder I’ve ever read about. I think it’s the only honour killing case in this country where people have been paid to carry it out’

There’s a brilliant documentary about the case, which is called Banaz: A Love Story. I remembered reading about the case and then I saw the documentary and started looking further into it it. It’s probably the most brutal murder I’ve ever read about. I think it’s the only honour killing case in this country where people have been paid to carry it out.

I then had this idea of writing a story about men who were paid to carry out such killings  – not just in the UK, but also overseas.

As Love Like Blood deals with such a controversial and sensitive subject matter, was it a difficult novel to write?

MB: Yes – it was. It was difficult in two ways. I was furious writing this book – very angry. It wasn’t just like making up a serial killer and trying to get inside their head – these are real and horrendous crimes. I also knew that it was something that needed to be treated with a degree of sensitivity. I was writing about cultures and religions that weren’t mine. I firmly believe that I have the right to do that – I’m writing about a multi-ethnic city [London] and not every book I write is about white, middle-aged men.

I was careful at every stage. The book was seen very early by a Muslim reader, a Sikh reader and a Hindu reader. I very much wanted to do that, because I didn’t want to make stupid mistakes and I also didn’t want to write anything that anyone might find offensive. At no point in this book am I attacking any religions or cultures. I’ve got nothing but respect for those religions, but I have no respect at all for people who murder in their names. It’s got nothing to do with religion – it’s just murder.

‘It wasn’t just like making up a serial killer and trying to get inside their head – these are real, horrendous crimes’

This isn’t the first time you’ve written about real-life, social issues in your books, is it?

MB: No – over the course of 17 books, I’ve occasionally written about things that are actually happening.

I’ve never done tub-thumping stuff, but Lifeless was about homelessness, Die of Shame dealt with addiction and In The Dark was about the pressure of joining gangs. It does feel different when I’m writing books like that, rather than the ones about serial killers or gangland slayings. I’m not saying I want to do it with every book – sometimes the story just doesn’t work like that. Don’t get me wrong – the story has to come first. Love Like Blood is still a thriller that has more twists and turns than anything I’ve ever written. I think it has two stonking twists in it, but I’m not going to give them away.

I hope it still works as a thriller, but obviously I want to draw attention to these atrocities, and the scale of them. There is a minimum of a dozen honour killings in the UK every year, but it is a massively under-reported crime.

Sadly, there was yet even more tragedy to come from Banaz Mahmod’s story. Her partner, Rahmat Sulemani, killed himself in May last year…

MB: Yeah, that happened while I was halfway through writing the book and fired me up even more. It’s odd – when you’re halfway through a book, you usually go into the doldrums and you worry about what you’re writing, whether it’s any good and if you’re doing the right thing.

Then Rahmat Sulemani hanged himself – 10 years after Banaz died – and I thought, ‘yeah – I really want to finish this book’. So I raced through the second half of it. It’s probably the quickest book I’ve ever written.

 

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine performing The Other Half

You’re a multi-talented man who always has plenty of projects on the go – including some music-related ones. In 2015, you collaborated with country duo My Darling Clementine on an album and live show called The Other Half. Any more musical collaborations in the offing?

MB: Well…I’m in a band called The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. It’s made up of a bunch of other crime writers – Doug Johnstone, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste and Val McDermid, with guest appearances from the likes of Christopher Brookmyre. We’re playing cover versions with a crime theme and we’ll be making our live debut in August.

I’m the only one in the band who isn’t a proper musician! I’ll be living out my rock star fantasies, playing guitar very badly and murdering Watching The Detectives.

On The Other Half album, you co-wrote a song with My Darling Clementine called As Precious As The Flame. A new version of it has also appeared on the latest My Darling Clementine album, Still Testifying. Would you like to do more songwriting?

MB: I’ve actually been doing a lot of songwriting. I’ve always enjoyed writing songs and playing guitar – however badly I sing and play. I’m keeping up with all my guitar lessons – as the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers’  expands, I have a new song to learn every week. Like any band though, we’re probably more interested in getting our photo done…

I’m also writing some songs with a musician and composer called Paul Joyce – he’s an old friend of mine.

I write the lyrics, with a few musical ideas, and then I work with Paul on them – he hammers a demo into shape and then we bring in session musicians. We’ve been working on six songs for about six months – we have half an album’s worth and now we’re going to put them out there and hopefully find someone who fancies recording them. I think we’ve written some good songs…

‘I’ll be living out my rock star fantasies, playing guitar very badly and murdering Watching The Detectives’

Would you like to work with My Darling Clementine again?

MB: We’re actually talking about taking The Other Half Back on the road – we’ve had some interest in doing some other dates at the end of this year and the beginning of 2018. Right now, we’re trying to work out when we can all be in the same place at the same time.

Like your fictional character, Thorne, you’re a huge country music fan and you’re currently working on a Radio 4 programme about Hank Williams. What can you tell me about that?

MB: It’s for a show called My Muse, in which people talk about someone that’s inspired them in one way or another. I picked Hank and I’m interviewing various people for it and talking about what his music means to me. I think it will be going out in August. Hank Williams was a mega-star in his time, with massive hits, but, at the same time, he was also putting out this weird, uncommercial gospel stuff under an alias – Luke The Drifter – that was completely different from Your Cheatin’ Heart or Jambalaya. For a long time, people didn’t even know Luke The Drifter was Hank Williams. Every so often, he just felt that he had to do these Luke The Drifter recordings. Maybe he felt guilty about the godless life he was living…

So when you write stand-alone novels, is that your Luke The Drifter period?

MB: Maybe (laughs) – no, that would be the equivalent of me telling my publisher I’m going to write a huge, erotic saga, or a romance novel. Even when Hank was writing hit songs like Cold, Cold Heart, they were really dark. How do you walk that line between being commercial and being very, very dark and edgy? That’s why I’ve always thought crime and country music go so well together.

Time of Death

The BBC has adapted two of your novels, In The Dark and Time of Death, for TV. When will the series – a four-part drama –  be shown?

MB: It’s all done – it was filmed in and around Manchester last year and I think it’s going to be on in the next couple of months.

You’re already working on the next Thorne book, aren’t you?

MB: Yes – I’m about three quarters of the way through it. One strand of the book deals with Spice abuse and the network behind smuggling drugs into prison. The other part of the story is based on a real-life, ongoing police investigation, which I can’t really talk about. So I’m writing about drugs and murder, and as usual there will be some country music thrown in. I’m not doing a Luke The Drifter change of direction just yet.

‘My next book will be about drugs and murder, with some country music thrown in’

Finally, will you be appearing on any more celebrity TV quiz shows? You’ve been seen on Mastermind, Pointless and Eggheads…

MB: I’m actually doing The Chase in a couple of weeks. I think I will have pretty much done all of them by then – unless there’s Celebrity Tipping Point. God, I am such a tart…

 

Love Like Blood – the new book by Mark Billingham – is out on June 1, published by Little, Brown. For more information, visit: https://uk.markbillingham.com/love-like-blood

 

 

‘I knew the album had to be funky and soulful, but with elements of folk music’

FITA

A chance encounter at a party led to Blow Monkeys frontman Dr Robert collaborating with ’60s soul legend PP Arnold on the 2007 album Five In The Afternoon, which has just been released on vinyl for Record Store Day.

It’s a great record – a ‘lost’ classic – from the rootsy opener, Nothing But Love, to the laid-back, jazzy-blues groove of the title track, the classy soul ballad Stay Now, the pop-funk-flavoured I Saw Something and What Am I To Do?  and the album closer – the groovy, ’60s folk-psych-gospel song Satellite.

I spoke to Robert, who lives in the mountains, in Andalusia, Spain, to find out the story behind the making of the album.

How did you meet – and come to work with – PP Arnold?

Dr Robert: I met her at a party up here in the mountains, which was thrown by a mutual friend. There were some musicians there, including a drummer called The Baron, who played on some of Donovan’s stuff that I loved, like Wear Your Love Like Heaven. That’s what drew me to the party – normally I’m not much of a party person.

PP Arnold was there and I was singing some Curtis Mayfield songs and some Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary, I believe. Suddenly she’s on stage and we’re singing The First Cut Is The Deepest. So I talked to her and found out that she lived nearby and it just seemed the natural thing to do – to write an album for us to do together.

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Dr Robert

So did you write the songs with her in mind, or were any of them ones you had kicking around?

DR: I wrote the songs quickly, in a 10-day period. I tend to do that. I like deadlines. Once we had decided to do an album, the pressure was on me to come up with the songs. It’s a pressure I enjoy.

What did you want the album to sound like?

DR: I knew it had to be funky and soulful, but I also wanted to bring in elements of folk music – nothing too rocky, but just a platform to try and enhance the voices. I found the sax player, Jose Luis, busking in Granada.

Where did you record the songs?

DR: There was a great little studio [Gizmo 7] in the seaside port of Motril, in Spain. It was run by a guy from Cologne [Paul Grau], who had some amazing analogue gear. He was also an experienced engineer, so it was a real find. I had the songs and then contacted some old friends – Marco Nelson from The Young Disciples, who played bass, and Crispin Taylor from Galliano on drums.

‘I wrote the songs quickly, in a 10-day period. I tend to do that. I enjoy the pressure of deadlines’

How was PP to work with?

DR: She was an education. I had to remix the whole album because she thought the vocals were too low. She was right. The way she heard things was that the song supports the singer. It was a valuable lesson. She is an incredible singer – a proper soul singer – and we sang most of the stuff together. It was an honour.

DR and PP

Listening to the album now, how do you feel about it? Do you have any favourite songs? 

DR: I’m still happy with it, which I can’t say of everything I’ve done. It sounds fresh because we didn’t try any gimmicks, or attempt to make anything particularly contemporary. We just tried to keep it sparse and natural. My favourite song is probably Shape It For Me.

Why did you decide to put the album out on vinyl, for Record Store Day 2017?

DR: The original label it was on, Curb Records, went bust shortly after the original release in 2007 and the album had largely been unavailable since then. Richard Clarke at Monks Road Records came along and wanted to put it out there again – Record Store Day was a perfect way to get the ball rolling. It will come out on CD and download too

You’ve just come off a UK tour, playing solo acoustic shows with Matt Deighton and Chris Difford. How was that? I saw the London show and thought it was superb…

DR: It was the first time I’d met Matt. He’s a lovely guy – very gentle and one hell of a guitar player. I love his song Villager.

Playing solo is a challenge, after doing so much with the band over the last five years or so. But I love the freedom of just being able to take it where I want, to try and feel the audience vibe and respond to it. I love improvising basically and being solo allows me the freedom.

‘The new Blow Monkeys album is the best thing we’ve ever done. I know I always say that, but this one is!’

You’re currently working on a new Blow Monkeys album. What’s it sound like and when can we expect to hear it? 

DR: It’s called The Wild River and it is the best thing we’ve ever done. I know I always say that, but this one is! It’s luck and fortune, but sometimes things just fall into place. I hope everyone feels the same way when they hear it.

Five In The Afternoon by Dr Robert and PP Arnold is available now on Monks Road Records.  For more information, go to http://monksroad.com/

‘I didn’t want this album to be an easy listen…’

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Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, Broken Flowers, is his best yet. His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship. 

Nev’s rich, baritone voice – think Lee Hazlewood and Scott Walker – is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves. 

I spoke to him about writing songs in India, ’70s drum sounds and descending into madness, and asked him if this album is his Blood On The Tracks

How the hell are you?

Nev Cottee: I’m good and I’m excited to get this album out, as the process seems to have taken a while. The record was finished in November last year and has been delayed due to record label stuff, artwork and admin. It was frustrating not to get it out earlier, but now it’s out, I’m completely happy. I’d rather do an album every year, because I seem to be able to write that many songs. Back in the day, bands would do it – The Beatles and The Stones and The Beachboys – put out an album every year and a few singles that weren’t on the album.

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I think Broken Flowers is your best album yet. Do you agree?

NC: Yes – I do. It’s a more consistent record. The album was intended to be a unified whole. It’s not a concept album, but it’s got themes. I wanted to take the listener on a journey. Where that journey begins and ends, I have no idea…

When you released your last album, Strange News From The Sun, two years ago, I said that the first single, If I Could Tell You, sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a space walk. This time around, I’m saying that your new single, Open Eyes, sounds like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar. This joke’s going to run and run, isn’t it?

NC: Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar? I’m always going to have the same voice – that can never change – so I’m always going to be coming at it from a Lee Hazlewood kind of angle. The sound of it does have a bit of modernity – that Cafè del Mar thing. Incidentally, I was on a Cafè del Mar compilation album, so I’m just awaiting my private jet to be sent over, so I can do a six-month residency in Cafè del Mar. I’m still waiting on that email…

Open Eyes is very chilled-out. It’s one of the lighter songs on the album and has a country feel…

NC: Open Eyes has got the wonderful Chris Hillman playing pedal steel on it – he’s a fantastic musician and a great lad. I was very lucky to have him play on one of my albums again. I’ve played with a lot of musicians and Chris is the best. He’s so intuitive and a born natural.

Initially, the song was influenced by Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. I was listening to some of the amazing songwriting on that album, which is very simple – some of the songs have two chords. Neil Young is fantastic at creating a mood with very little. Two chords, an acoustic guitar, a pedal steel, a light drum sound and his voice. He creates a whole world out of some very basic elements.

I wanted to keep it simple, but to evoke something – you don’t need a lot to make it sound special.

Open Eyes sets the tone for the album, without going too dark early on. It’s a twilight moment that lets you know that you’re going somewhere – the sun’s setting and you’re going to be in for a dark ride. There’s still an element of sanity that you can hold on to before you plunge into the next track, which is quite dark and foreboding and has a deeper meaning.

‘I wasn’t interested in writing verse, chorus pop songs. I wanted to delve into the songs a bit more, indulge myself and see where they went’

Let’s talk about the sound of the album. It’s a very dark record in places…

NC: I didn’t want it to be an easy listen – that was a conscious decision. I wanted to make the listener have to work – I wasn’t interested in writing verse, chorus pop songs. I wanted to delve into the songs a bit more, indulge myself and see where they went.

Me and Mason Neely, who produces my albums, made a very conscious decision for this album not to sound like a ’60s record, which my second album did – it was aping Lee Hazlewood, Scott Walker and a few other choice references.

For this album, we got a very, tight and clean ’70s drum sound. I’m not a big Fleetwood Mac fan, but it was that kind of drum sound – you hear it on modern recordings by Beck, who uses it quite a bit. It’s a cool sound and it was Mason who brought it to the table. We instantly felt that it would change the whole sound of the album. Saying that, there aren’t a lot of drums on the album, but the sound infused the feel of it.

I wanted to make a modern record.Yeah – it has elements of the ’60s and the ’70s, but there are also a lot of synthesiser sounds and strings. It’s not completely modern or completely retro – I wanted to leave it open. It’s sat in a weird place and I’ll let the listener decide where that place is.

What was the writing process for the record? How did the songs come about?

NC: I was out in India for four months. I set aside time to write and demo the songs. Looking back, it was an amazing time. I was able to get so much work done there. It was a beautiful place to be – there were no distractions. I was leading a nice life and the weather was good. It gave me the distance to reflect on things and some of the stuff that I wanted to write. I was coming out of a relationship with the person I thought I was going to be with for the rest of my life – the rug got pulled from under me. Everyone’s been there and it’s a bit of a clichè to write about it, but I felt I had to do something to get it off my chest. I wanted to explore what that meant. It was more lyrically-based than I’ve previously looked at things. I was spending a lot of time thinking about the lyrics.

When I came back from India, I went to Mason’s studio in Cardiff – I used a lot of the musicians I’ve used before, but they were supplemented with a lot of string work by friends of Mason’s. There were some amazing viola players and cellists. We made a decision to use real strings. You can get away with a lot on the computer, but these songs were too good to not use the real thing.

What were your musical influences for this album?

NC: I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits while I was away – I went through his entire back catalogue very slowly, which was an amazing journey. He’s a genius – all those different phases of his career, of which I think the latter period – like Dylan – stands up against – and even betters – some of his earlier work. The Waits album Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, which is a triple album, was a major influence – and also Blue Valentine.

He writes confessional songs with a great lyrical turn of phrase. I can only dream of getting near what he achieved.

Leonard Cohen’s last album was a revelation and I was also listening to Mark Lanegan’s covers album Imitations, which is brilliant.

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You mentioned Dylan earlier. Is Broken Flowers your Blood On The Tracks? Most of – if not all – the songs on the album are about the end of a relationship…

NC: I guess it is. Looking back, it was a long time ago and things move on, but I had to document it. it. You’ve got to write about what’s happened in your life and in the world and explore those themes, otherwise you’re just writing about nothing. I wanted to go deep and explore what it meant. Without sounding too pretentious, I was reading Baudelaire and I’ve quoted some of his poems on the back of the album cover – it’s about looking at the darker side of the human condition and what that means. When you’re truly alone and what you can do with what you have. Do you descend into madness? On some of the tracks, I’ve tried to mirror that anguish and inner turmoil that you go through. I hope that’s reflected in the songs that appear later on the album – it’s a descent into abstract madness, when everything’s turned upside down.

The track I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is stunning – a big, melancholy song, with sweeping, dramatic strings. Richard Ashcroft would kill to have written it.What’s the story behind it? It seems to deal with the death of a relationship and also finds you and the song’s other protagonist listening to Prince… 

NC: I wanted to write a song with a disjointed story – not a narrative – that was completely non-linear and confused. When you do split up with someone, you question everything and you lose your grip and all your bearings. Your take on reality seems to go out of the window, yet you still have moments of clarity when you remember conversations and situations.

Be On Your Way is another moody, orchestrally-aided song. It reminds me of Richard Hawley’s last few records. The big, bluesy electric guitar solo is awesome! Is that you playing it?

NC: It’s not me playing guitar – I wish I could play like that. It’s a guy called Alex Foote, who’s a friend of Mason’s.

What were you channelling with that song?

NC: It’s a straightforward melody – Hawley is a good reference and he will always be an inspiration, but I was looking more to Serge Gainsbourg and trying to tap into that Histoire de Melody Nelson vibe. We got into a groove where we wanted to take it musically into a bit of madness – so you can drift away. It builds and builds into a beautiful, confusing mess.

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Tired of Love is an epic – almost nine minutes. The wonderful, haunting arrangement reminds me of John Barry or Ennio Morricone – it has a cinematic feel. What can you tell me about that song? 

NC: For me, that was the big one for the album.The whole album was moving towards it – it’s the culmination of the journey. I said to Mason, ‘it’s a simple song, but we’ve got to make it go from nothing to everything’. It’s tapping into a hypnotic vibe that you get with some dance music – you lose where you are in the song. It’s a repetitive psych vibe – I wanted it to confuse people. You start hearing weird noises – maybe the noises are there, or maybe they’re just in your head. We spent a lot of time making that track – I’m really proud of it. Mason’s string arrangement is absolutely phenomenal.

You’ve also been moonlighting as a DJ on Soho Radio, with your own monthly show. I’m really enjoying it – you play some great, eclectic tunes, there are seasonal themes, gardening tips and also advice on birdwatching and flora and fauna. Is it fun to do?

NC: I love doing the radio show and the interaction – there’s nothing better than turning someone on to a record. It brings me a lot of joy. Soho Radio is a great station – they let me just get on with it and do what I want to do. I’ve got mates who do shows on it. Everyone should check it out.

Any live shows coming up?

NC: I’m playing in Liverpool on May 27 and then I’m DJing at Spiritland in London on May 28 – that’s an album playback. On June 9, I’ll be playing at The Deaf Institute in Manchester – that’s the album launch – and Lee Southall, who used to be in The Coral, will be supporting me. There will also be Aficionado DJs – it will be a great night. All are welcome.

Finally, what’s on your hi-fi at the moment?

NC: The new Mac DeMarco album – This Old Dog –  is superb – well worth checking out – and Mark Lanegan’s new album, Gargoyle, is great. I’m spinning that.

Nev Cottee’s Broken Flowers is released on May 26 on Wonderful Sound.

For more information visit : https://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/nev-cottee-broken-flowers

 

Sweethearts of the Rodeo

 

CarouselsWhat is it about Scottish guitar bands and their love of The Byrds?

From Teenage Fanclub to Primal Scream, Cosmic Rough Riders, BMX Bandits and Whiteout, there are plenty of acts – past and present – from north of the border that owe their existence to Roger McGuinn and co’s Rickenbacker-led jangle-pop.

To that list we can add The Carousels, who hail from the town of Keith in north east Scotland.

On the band’s gorgeous second album, Sail Me Home, St.Clair – out now on Sugarbush Records – it’s largely the sound of The Byrds in 1968 that The Carousels have, er, taken under their wing. It’s clear that they’ve been seduced by Sweetheart of the Rodeo – the seminal country-rock album that The Byrds released when Gram Parsons joined their line-up.

Lap steel and pedal steel are the order of the day – opening track, the jaunty Josephine sounds like The Beachboys’ Barbara Ann slowed down and reinvented as a rolling country blues song.

Lord Speed My Hurricane has echoes of vintage Neil Young (and not just in the title), but adds some fiddle, while Lake Eloise doffs its cowboy hat to The Flying Burrito Brothers.

There’s a ’60s folk-girl-pop feel to Little Darlin’ – it could easily have come from Nico’s Chelsea Girl – while New Morning (which shares its title with a 1970 Bob Dylan album) is cosmic Americana, and the travelogue lyric of By Your Side mentions the Nashville skyline – another Dylan reference.

Sail Me Home, St. Clair is a wondrous voyage – like taking a trip upon a magic swirling ship…kontiki suite.jpg

Also out on Sugarbush Records this month is another record that owes a large debt to The Byrds. Available on vinyl for the first time, On Sunset Lake is the 2013 debut by Kontiki Suite, who come from Carlisle.

Living on the outskirts of the Lake District has rubbed off on songwriter Benjamin Singh – the album’s first track, Down By The Lake, is shimmering and beautiful – a sunset soundtrack, with haunting lap steel guitar.

Watching Over Me is blissful jingle-jangle pop, while on the yearning Hollywood, Singh is [California] dreaming about being part of the LA scene.

See You in the Morning takes a trip into the psychedelic country-rock territory that The Byrds explored on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and In My Head has some great, acid-fried, electric guitar solos.

The album ends in a magnificently mystical fashion with the raga-rock epic Magic Carpet Ride.

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Fellow Byrds lovers GospelbeacH  – the US outfit formed by ex-Beachwood Sparks member Brent Rademaker – can also be found hanging out in the desert. In fact, the opening song on their second album, Another Summer Of Love (Alive Naturalsound Records) is actually called In The Desert, although, strangely,  it references The Jam’s In The City.

Another Summer Of Love is a record that’s in love with ’70s FM rock and it sounds like it was great fun to make. It’s full of killer power-pop tunes (Hangin’ On, (i wanna see u) All The Time and California Fantasy) – Rademaker is a huge fan of Cheap Trick and The Cars.

There’s also a Tom Petty sound-a-like song (Strange Days) and a glorious country-rock track called You’re Already Home, with some tasty, twangy guitar licks and groovy flute sounds.

The album features keyboardist Jonny Niemann playing a Mellotron that was used by rock band America on their ’70s recordings. You can clearly hear it on the big ballad I Don’t Wanna Lose You, which would sound great drifting out of a car stereo while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Another Summer Of Love is here – it’s time to soak up some California sunshine.

 

Sail Me Home, St.Clair by The Carousels and On Sunset Lake by Kontiki Suite are both available now on vinyl from Sugarbush Records.

For more information, please visit:

https://www.facebook.com/thecarouselsuk/

https://kontikisuite.bandcamp.com/

Another Summer Of Love by GospelbeacH is released on Alive Naturalsound Records on June 15 – vinyl/ CD and download

http://www.alive-records.com/artist/gospelbeach/

 

 

 

 

 

The power of good

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Things may be seriously amiss in the corridors of power, but, thankfully, all is well in the world of power pop. In fact, it’s in rude health.

If you need proof, look no further than some of the latest releases on UK vinyl-only label Sugarbush Records and Spain’s You Are The Cosmos.

If you’re unfamiliar with Sugarbush’s output, then a good place to start is the new compilation album, A Spoonful of Sugarbush – a 13-track sampler LP that brings together a whole bunch of tracks by various artists that are otherwise unavailable on vinyl.

Limited to only 300 copies – 150 on green vinyl and 150 on red – this is an essential collection of hook-laden, retro guitar pop.

There’s no messing about – things get off to a great start with the jangly Stormy Skies and Starry Nights by Caddy from Norway, which reminds me of classic Teenage Fanclub.

It’s hard to pick out highlights, but here are a few: Algernon by Detroit’s The Hangabouts – essentially, Fountains of Wayne doing psych-pop; Ticket With No Return, by English act The Orgone Box – think Revolver-era Beatles – and the irresistible Take It From Me by US singer-songwriter Chris Richards.

Sugarbush Records’ head honcho, Markus Holler, has even included one of his own tracks on the album – a perk of the job, eh? – and it’s a belter – the Cotton Mather-esque Little Pretender.

And all of those songs are only on side one… Flip it over and you get the swirling, psychedelic sounds of Maladantive Solution and Green Pajamas, and the Future Harmonies’ faithful rendition of the theme tune from ‘70s sitcom Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?

There’s no doubt about it – A Spoonful of Sugarbush is just the thing to help the medicine go down.

And as if that’s not [Matthew] sweet enough, Spanish label You Are The Cosmos has also recently served up some delicious power pop treats.

King Without A Throne by David Brookings is a 12-track Best Of collection on vinyl that includes material from all seven of the US singer-songwriter’s albums released between 2000-2016.

Opener Time To Go is hugely hummable and high on harmonies, the title track is a big, mid-paced, radio-friendly ballad about being dumped – it sounds like it should be on the soundtrack of a romcom or a teen angst movie – the country-tinged Tough Crowd is an ode to playing to unreceptive audiences, and The Greatest Songwriter No One Ever Heard is an anthem for frustrated, undiscovered musicians everywhere.

Funnily enough, Ronnie D’Addario – whose Best Of 1976-1983 LP is also out now on You Are The Cosmos – could be the greatest songwriter no one ever heard.

He’s the dad of brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, from New York hipsters The Lemon Twigs, and sublime Beachboys and Beatles-inspired pop is his specialty. And there’s plenty of it on offer on this classy 12-track compilation.

The piano-led I’m On To Something is pure McCartney and the gorgeous Falling For Love is a ballad that sounds like it was found buried in Brian Wilson’s sandbox.

Ronnie’s three studio albums – Take In A Show (1976), Falling For Love (1981) and Good For You (1983) are also available in a three CD box set on You Are The Cosmos.

Finally, also out in power-pop land this month – on Buchipluma Records – is Fear The Summer – the third album from one-man band Colman Gota, the former member of Madrid-based act Insanity Wave.

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Colman Gota

The record is co-engineered by Mitch Easter (R.E.M and Velvet Crush), and as someone who suffers from a fear of summer, I was particularly drawn to the superb title track, which kicks off the album with a howl of guitar, before letting loose with a chugging rhythm, spacey New Wave sounds and some serious organ, like Elvis Costello and The Attractions doing fuzz-pop. It’s going to be my anti-summer soundtrack.

Call It Quits, What You Want Me To Be and Make A Stand – which is driven by a cool bass groove – are gloriously defiant, power-pop anthems.

In the press release that accompanies the album, Colman says: “Should you still be rocking in your forties? Yes, you should.”

He adds: “These days you have the feeling, that society condemns you to solitary confinement if you are not young and beautiful and if you don’t comply with some unwritten rules. Well it’s time to rebel against all that…. or write a great song about it.”

With Fear The Summer, he’s written a whole bunch of ‘em. More power to him.

 

For more information on all of these records – which are out now – please visit:

http://www.sugarbushrecords.com/

http://www.youarethecosmos.com/

https://www.facebook.com/colmantheband/

 

 

 

‘I’ve always enjoyed revenge…’ [Martin Rossiter – February 1999]

Back in early 1999, Gene were about to release their third studio album, Revelations – their most political record yet.  When I spoke to frontman Martin Rossiter, he was feeling betrayed by Tony Blair and New Labour and out for revenge…

Gene’s thumping new single, As Good As It Gets, is a brutal attack on Tony’s Blair’s New Labour.

Over thundering piano, Hammond organ and in-yer-face guitar, frontman Martin Rossiter sings: “We’ve been bought, we’ve been sold, but at least we’re not old. When red became blue, hope denied – our dreams swept away with the tide.”

As the National Health Service fails to cope with the influx of OAPs suffering from flu and has to create makeshift mortuaries to deal with the ever-growing number of fatalities, the song is more relevant than ever.

It’s also the first single from Gene’s third studio album, Revelations –  a record which has far more of a political agenda than the group’s previous releases. Several of the lyrics deal with Blair’s failed promises and highlight that New Labour has well and truly sold us down the river…

“It’s a record that’s not afraid to speak its mind,” says Martin, adding: “but there’s more to it than that. The important thing to remember is that there are other songs on the record, but, certainly, politics is something we’ve never been afraid to talk about.”

Indeed. Last year, Martin cropped up on the BBC’s Newsnight, taking part in a political debate.

“Yes,” he says. “I’m just a media whore.”

‘I’m like Santa Claus armed with a machete’

Two of the songs on the latest album Mayday and The British Disease – are calls to arms that urge us to recognise the new enemy, rise up and storm the gates.

“Both of those songs are perhaps lyrically more optimistic than As Good As It Gets – they’re saying that change can be created,” says Martin. “I have my own little army of helpers. I’m like Santa Claus armed with a machete!”

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Revelations is an album which attempts to capture the dynamic, punchy sound of Gene playing live. It’s definitely more ballsy than its predecessor, Drawn To The Deep End, but it still veers between the band’s trademark, swaggering indie-rock anthems [Mayday and In Love With Love] and epic ballads [You’ll Never Walk Again and Angel]. 

On some songs, Martin seems to possess more vigour than ever before, such as the wonderfully-titled The Police Will Never Find You, in which he, shockingly, threatens to take a Stanley knife to someone’s face and smash their kneecaps with a hammer!

“Aren’t I awful?” he says, coming over all Kenneth Williams. “There’s always been a little bit of grit and gristle in my lyrics. I’ve always enjoyed revenge and I’ve always enjoyed imaginative uses of bicycle D-locks.”

One of the highlights of Revelations is Fill Her Up. It celebrates the joys of drinking and contains several bizarre musical influences, including rockabilly, Cossack chanting and El Mariachi brass.

“It’s a Polish-Mexican hybrid,” says Martin. “It’s a very geographically confused song – it doesn’t know where it fits in. If you get a map of the world and plot out the various influences, you actually end up in Slough.”

 

Revelations was recorded at Rockfield Studios, in Wales – the home of the piano that Queen’s Freddie Mercury played on Bohemian Rhapsody.

“It still has the stains to prove it, ” says Martin.

So did he use it on the new album?

“What? The stains or the piano? The piano is all over the album – all the piano that you hear has Freddie’s sweat on it.”

‘The piano you hear on the album has Freddie Mercury’s sweat on it’

Can we expect Martin to be sitting behind the old Joanna when Gene head out on tour later this month?

“No, because I don’t want to become Bruce Hornsby – that’s a frightening thought.”

Gene are a band who are in their element when they’re playing live…

“I’m always amazed why people are surprised by that,” says Martin. “They come along and they think, ‘oh my God, instead of whipping out poetry, you’re more likely to whip out your nob!”

It’s fair to say that Gene haven’t really achieved the critical acclaim and commercial success that they so richly deserve. How does Martin feel about that?

“We’re human and we want to be successful. Our drummer, Matt, has his little dream of being able to walk out at Walthamstow dog stadium.”

He adds: “We like the songs – we love them. After a while, they cease to become ours and they exist independently of us. We want them to do well.”

So will Gene be able to survive in this current, post-Britpop climate?

“I think there’s life in the old dog yet,” says Martin.

What does he ultimately want to achieve with the band?

“I’d like to lead them and make them realise that I’m far more important than they are. I’d like to rule them with a rod of iron.”

The original version of this article was first published in Splash! magazine in February 1999.