It’s been an amazing year for Bennett Wilson Poole, the UK Americana and jangle-pop supergroup formed by Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’).
Their self-titled debut album has received great reviews – it’s Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite record of 2018 – and the band has played a string of well-attended shows, been nominated twice in the UK Americana 2019 Awards – for UK Album of the Year and UK Artist of the Year – and played live on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC TV and Robert Elms’ BBC Radio London show.
In an exclusive interview, Danny Wilson reflects on the group’s success, chooses some of his favourite albums of 2018 and gives us a sneak preview of what Bennett Wilson Poole have planned for next year… Could there be a second album on the way?
Q & A
I’m delighted to tell you that your record, Bennett Wilson Poole, is my favourite album of the year… I’m going to publish the full list later this month, but I wanted to give you the heads-up…
Danny Wilson: What an honour! I didn’t think it would be your album of the year… I wouldn’t have dreamed of it! I loved making the album with the other guys and I think it’s a great record.
It’s been a great year for you, hasn’t it? There’s a lot of love for Bennett Wilson Poole out there…
DW: There is – it’s touching. It’s really lovely. I’m a bit surprised at how well it’s gone – not because the music isn’t good, but because you just never know… You can spend years in your main bands trying to push an elephant up the stairs and it’s tough… I think all of our combined histories have helped – they’ve made it more palatable and immediate for people to get into.
It’s not easy for anyone, but the shows have been selling – when the wheels are greased a little, it’s really nice. We’re not turning up to shows and wondering if anyone’s going to be there, which makes life a lot easier. Things have gathered a bit of steam.
You’ve been nominated for two UK Americana Awards – the winners will be announced in January 2019…
DW: I’m totally thrilled that we’ve been nominated – it’s amazing. I really hope that we win one – Danny and the Champs won a few and it does have a knock-on effect in terms of bums on seats – you can’t argue with that. We’re really honoured to have been nominated – if we get given the thumbs-up by people, that’s a lovely thing.
When you appeared on the Robert Elms radio show recently, you played a great new song called I Wanna Love You (But I Can’t Right Now). It has a very poignant lyric and an instantly addictive melody. It’s a song about falling out of love with America because of the current political situation, but it also celebrates some of the great things that America has brought us, including Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, De La Soul, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King…
DW: It’s a love song to America. – Robin and I wrote the song together. Weirdly, Bennett Wilson Poole is the only act I’ve ever been in that’s overtly political in any way. I like protest songs and political music – Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Billy Bragg; Paul Weller; Elvis Costello – even Simply Red – but I’ve never felt in a position to do it.
It’s fairly obvious that everyone involved in the Bennett Wilson Poole project are humanists – they want the best for people who aren’t getting the help they need, but that’s about as far as I’ve ever gone in terms of being overtly political – being a friendly person. I think everybody should be like that, regardless of their politics, but with Bennett Wilson Poole it’s the first time I’ve done political songs.
‘Bennett Wilson Poole is the only act I’ve ever been in that’s overtly political in any way. I like protest songs and political music, but I’ve never felt in a position to do it’
So can we expect a second Bennett Wilson Poole album next year?
DW: I think so – there’s lots of material. It’s been really easy – they are around 17 new songs we’ve written that are all tailor-made. There’s a really good feeling – we’re inspired by Tony and the reception that he’s getting at this stage in his career.
Will you be playing any new songs at your upcoming gigs in Oxford and London this month?
DW: Yes – It’s very Byrdsian and it’s lovely. Someone from outside of the band suggested that we do it. We have mooted the idea of a covers album – we’ve written a list of songs for it. I wrote an exhaustive list. I don’t know where to go with it – whether it should be like Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs’ wonderful covers albums, where every song is a classic, or to make it much more obscure, but that might be one nerdy step too far… I’m thinking of stuff by The Beau Brummels and some songs from Dion’s folk-rock period, but we’ll see.
What are your favourite albums of the year?
DW: Ryley Walker’s The Lillywhite Sessions is totally amazing – it’s a reimagining of a Dave Matthews Band album that was unreleased. Damien Jurado’s new album [The Horizon Just Laughed] is fantastic and there’s one particular record by Dios [Life Between The Tides] that’s like a shoegazing cross between Neil Young and The Beachboys – it’s a really great record, but no one has been banging on about it. I also liked the new J Mascis album [Elastic Days]. I bought a lot of records this year, as I own a record shop [Union Music Store in Lewes, East Sussex]. I like all the stuff on Loose too – they’re going from strength to strength. They’re my friends and I respect and admire them – they’re amazing.
Finally, any plans for a new album by Danny and the Champs?
DW: Yeah – I think so. We’ve got some gigs booked in Spain and I’ve been just putting together a playlist for the guys of stuff that is informing my thinking on the next Champs album and it’s really not what anyone would expect. It doesn’t mean the album will sound like that, but there will be elements of it.
If the next Champs album turns out like I think it will – although it never quite does – it will be trying to push the envelope in certain directions. I’m really excited about it. I don’t want to make another Champs record that sounds like any of the others – there’s no reason to.
I guess I’m getting my serious folk-country-rock fix from Bennett Wilson Poole at the moment, so I don’t need to add to that. At some point there will be a folk-rock-Americana logjam and I don’t want to contribute to that – I’d rather take a left turn. I’m also going to do a solo album at some point – I don’t what I’m going to do with it, but it will either be an acoustic singer-songwriter record, or I might do a jazz album!
•Bennett Wilson Poole’s self-titled debut album is out now on Aurora Records. The band are playing shows this month at The Bullingdon Arms in Oxford (December 7) and Kings Place, London (December 8).
There’s a song on Pieces, the latest album by Americana singer-songwriter Luke Tuchscherer, called Batten Down The Hatches. It sums up the record perfectly – this time around, on his third – and best – solo album, Luke, former drummer with Bedford alt-country band The Whybirds, isn’t pulling any punches – he’s made an angry, heavy, often political album that rocks like Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Batten down the hatches, indeed, for it’s like a hurricane out there… There’s even a nine-minute, epic rallying call (Requiem), which attacks social injustice in the UK and comes across like Luke’s very own Rockin’ In The Free World…
It’s not all big guitar anthems, though – there are some quieter moments in the eye of the storm, like the apologetic ballad Charing Cross and the gorgeous, Springsteen-like country-rock song Ghosts, which sees Luke revisiting his childhood haunts.
In an exclusive, in-depth interview, Luke, who now lives in New York, gives me the inside story on the making of Pieces and reveals that he’s already got his next five albums planned out…
Q & A
The last time we spoke was in the summer of 2017, for the release of your second solo album Always Be True.
You told me then that you’d already got the next four albums planned – track listings and all…. So I guess Pieces, which came out earlier this year, is the first of those albums. Is everything going to plan?
Luke Tuchscherer: Yeah – it’s going well. Pieces is the first of those albums. There’s another one, which will be called Widows & Orphans, that’s already been recorded. That just features Dave Banks and me on acoustic guitars, and is a really intimate, autumnal record and, as such, will be out in October 2019.
I have recorded my acoustic guitar and vocal parts for another record, provisionally titled Salvation Come, in Maplewood, New Jersey. We’re going to be adding some violin parts soon, with a Brooklyn musician I met called Steve May, then I’ll add the drums in the spring back home [in the UK], before adding the other parts as and when, including a baritone guitar player I met here [in New York] called Chris Tarrow. Widows & Orphans should buy us a bit of time before that one comes out, but I’d imagine it would be 2020.
So, the fourth of those records would actually be another full-band Penny Dreadfuls effort, akin to Pieces, which will have to wait until I’m back home [in the UK] again… But, on top of that, I’ll be recording a solo Neil Young Hitchhiker/early-Dylan type album in New Jersey early next year, and I’ve had a folky/bluegrass album planned for years, akin to Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’ or something, but I just need to find the players for it.
The first thing that strikes me about your latest album, Pieces, is that it’s a much heavier sound than your last two records – quite frankly, it rocks, in a Neil Young and Crazy Horse style. What was your intention with this album? It has a big sound!
LT: I’d already started moving things that way with the Shadows EP, which came out earlier this year and was mainly rockers. The reason is because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an acoustic artist. The first record was only that way because The Whybirds were still going, so my “electric” side was satisfied. You Get So Alone… [first solo album] was made up of songs that didn’t fit the band. But now the band is done, I wanted to get back to that rock sound.
‘I’ve actually written quite a few political songs, but they’ve never made it on to any albums before – I can see myself writing more about the wider world now, because my personal life is stable’
In 2017, you told me that classic ‘70s rock records like Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town and Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes informed your last album, Always Be True. What were you listening to when you made this album? A lot of Neil Young, I guess…
LT: Neil Young has always been an influence, and for sure, it comes out the most on this album compared with my others. But for anyone who heard The Whybirds’ Cold Blue Sky, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock.
I think there’s a bit of Pearl Jam on this album, too – and in fact the Neil Young/Pearl Jam album Mirror Ball was an influence in terms of how quickly they recorded it – and the Petty stuff is still there.
Your song Requiem is a Neil Young-like protest anthem that bemoans the current state of the UK – high taxes, the challenges faced by the NHS and how the rich are getting richer and the poor are worse off… It sounds like your very own Rockin’ In The Free World, crossed with Like A Hurricane…
It’s great to hear a modern protest song. Considering the dire situation the world’s in, doesn’t it surprise you that more artists don’t write protest songs? You’re not afraid to tackle issues head-on, are you?
LT: I’ve actually written quite a few political songs, but they’ve never made it on to any albums before. The thing about them is that they tend to date quite quickly. If the NHS goes tits up, then so does Requiem – ha ha! A truly great political song, like Masters of War [by Bob Dylan] is always relevant, sadly enough. Some other reactionary songs are redundant as soon as whatever event they’re responding to is over. Requiem was written after watching the Noam Chomsky film Requiem For The American Dream and applying it to the UK.
As for other people not writing them… I dunno. Maybe they’re wimps. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they just don’t like political music. Personally, I can see myself writing more about the wider world now – though not strictly protest songs – because my personal life is stable. It’s kind of weird singing old break-up songs when I’m happily married, whereas I can see myself still feeling the things in Sudden Getaway or Ain’t That What They Say? in the future.
The first four tracks on the album don’t mess around – they rock out. Things don’t calm down until we’re halfway through, with the song Charing Cross. It’s quite an angry album in places, too. What frame of mind where you in when you wrote the songs and recorded them?Requiem, The MF Blues and Company Girlare angry songs – the latter is very vicious. It’s a put-down song. What inspired it? It sounds like a dig at the music industry…
LT: The only songs that were written shortly before recording were Requiem and Ghosts, but, because I have such a big backlog of songs, I basically choose the best batch to make a cohesive album, along with any new stuff I’ve got that fits. It’ll probably take me to the mid-2020s to clear my backlog! The MF Blues was pretty old, probably 2007, but it fitted the theme of the record.
Company Girl was probably written in 2012 or so. And yeah, it’s angry. It’s about a lot of people, not just one, and they don’t have to be female at all… It’s just I was writing from the ‘company man’ perspective, so it made sense for the other part to be female, but it could’ve been Company Boy easily enough.
‘I have such a big backlog of songs – it will probably take me to the mid-2020s to clear it!’
I guess it’s a bit high horsey, but it’s a dig at the people who aren’t really artists – they’re just after fame. The kind of people who don’t love “Americana” or whatever, and would happily do an RnB album if they thought it would make them more successful. I won’t name names, but they’re not hard to spot. But they’re all doing better than me, so, what do I know?
Let’s talk about the recording sessions for Pieces… How was it making the album? You recorded the seven ‘rock’ songs live in one day, with a band – in June 2017, at The Music Centre, in Bedford. That must’ve been a long day? Talk me through it…
LT: I had limited time before I moved to New York to get the album done. We knew the move was coming, so I wanted to maximise my minutes, so to speak. Between April and September 2017, we recorded Pieces, Widows & Orphans and my hard rock side-project Herd Behaviour’s debut, which is called Animal Habitual, and I played drums on David Banks’ forthcoming solo debut. All were recorded by Chris Corney.
I don’t remember it being a long, or even particularly stressful, day. We’d rehearsed the songs in the weeks leading up to the date – with me on drums, Dave on guitar and Simon Wilson on bass. We set up the night before to get all that out of the way. Then we went in and did it.
Requiem was one take – we didn’t complete a second one. Sudden Getaway was like second take or something. It was all easy as I recall. I think Batten Down The Hatches was the only one that was a slight struggle, but even then it wasn’t too hard. Dave’s an amazing guitarist – every single note he plays on those seven rockers is live – Simon’s a great bassist, and I’m more comfortable behind the kit than anywhere, apart from singing, I suppose.
Then I added my guitars, vocals and percussion in a couple of additional sessions. Chris did almost all the harmonies and did a great job on the vocal arrangements, and Tom Collison added his keys from his home studio – I’d already moved by that time. Done!
When we last spoke, you were gearing up to move to New York. Does the opening song on the album, Sudden Getaway, reference that?
LT: Sudden Getaway was written in 2015, I think, maybe 2014, when NYC wasn’t even on the horizon. It’s really about an existential crisis, I guess. About struggling to be happy with your lot and wondering when that struggle might end.
Why did you move to New York and how is it working out?
LT: Essentially my day job got us to NYC, but I’d never have gone if the band was still going. But once the writing was on the wall with The Whybirds, I felt like I’d given up all of my twenties to the band and had nothing to show for it.
All my holidays were used up touring and recording, as were my weekends and a lot of my evenings. And I felt like I’d never really done anything for myself, or – since I was married by then – for my wife and I as a couple.
A lot of people asked if the New York thing was a music career move, but it was the complete opposite. It was to do something that wasn’t music-related, so I could feel like I’d actually done something with my life. That sounds pretty negative, but if you listen to Waiting For My Day to Come or Outside, Looking In on Always Be True, you can tell that I wasn’t very happy with music anyway! That said, See You When I See You is a fond look back at the ‘birds days, with just a tinge of regret that things didn’t turn out better.
‘A lot of people asked if the New York thing was a music career move, but it was the complete opposite. It was to do something that wasn’t music-related, so I could feel like I’d actually done something with my life’
I was basically working two full-time jobs and it was slowly eroding my passion for music. Since moving to New York, it’s been like starting at the bottom again, and the gigs have been half good and half soul suckers. But it’s made me miss playing music just for the fun of it, and that’s just about the most positive thing that could’ve happened. When I went back [to the UK] for the Pieces gigs in the summer, they were the best and most fun solo shows I’ve ever played. Bar none. I’m already massively excited about coming back next year and firing up the Penny Dreadfuls again.
Let’s talk about one of the ballads on the album – Charing Cross. It’s a sad song – an apology to a loved one. Demons and drink are involved. What’s the story behind it? Is it set in Charing Cross? Surely that must be a first for a song…
LT: Yeah, that was an old song – 2010. It was written after a night at The Borderline, which is obviously just off Charing Cross Road. Anyway… I’d had my wallet and phone stolen, I was in a terrible mood, I got very drunk and I was an arsehole. The song was the apology. I can’t actually remember what the original chorus line was, but it was more positive, as the relationship lasted a few months more. But since that particular relationship is long gone, I turned the lyric into “I know I’ve really blown it now”, to make the song make sense on its own, and give it some finality.
Ghosts is another quieter moment on the record – a gorgeous country-rock song about going back to where you grew up. What can you tell me about that song?
LT: That’s probably my favourite on the album and one of my best ever songs lyrically. It was inspired by something quite personal that I won’t go into, but, hopefully, it was written in a fairly universal way, so that people can get their own meanings from it.
What music are you currently listening to – new and old? Any recommendations?
LT: Even though I was a year late to it, I can’t get enough of Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps. It’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard, let alone recently. Again, I was late to the party, but I finally watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston and I find his stuff pretty addictive. The latest Mudhoney album, Digital Garbage, is really good, too. I discovered a band on Spotify called Arliss Nancy, who have broken up now, I think, but I thought they had some good stuff.
So, finally, what’s next for you? There are all those albums to get out…
LT: I’d expect something like this:
2019: Widows & Orphans – stripped back acoustic album akin to Time (The Revelator) [by Gillian Welch].
2020: Salvation Come (Country-ish Southern Gothic album, with fiddle as the lead instrument.
2022: Luke Tuchscherer & The Penny Dreadfuls – another rock effort.
2023: Carousel – completely solo “session” album.
20??: Untitled folk/bluegrass album.
But I’m back for a solo show at the Green Note in London on April 11, then I’ve got full-band shows in Leicester, Bedford and London on July 18, 19 and 20, respectively. There’s also a European festival, but I don’t know if I can announce that yet, but I’m super-excited about that!
Amerikana Arkana, the debut album by The Magic City Trio, is a haunting record, in more ways than one…
Its wonderful orchestral arrangements recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), the moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.
This band of London renegades comprises Frank Sweeney (guitar, vocals and fiddle), Annie Holder (guitar,vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Guesting on the album are Johnny Butten (banjo) and Eddy Dunlap (pedal steel).
In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Frank, who was a member of ’80s indie pop outfit The June Brides, and played on records by Primal Scream (Imperial) and Felt (Space Blues), to find out the full story behind this magnificent and, er, magical album…
Q & A
Amerikana Arkana is one of my favourite albums of the year. It’s a big-sounding record – I love the orchestrations…Musically, it often harks back to the lush ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. There’s also folk, country, hillbilly and murder ballads.
When I first heard it, it was like someone was going through my record collection and referencing some of my favourite artists… I guess that, like me, you’re big fans of Nancy & Lee and Morricone? Why do you love them so much?
Frank Sweeney: I think Lee Hazlewood was a genre all to himself. He ploughed his own particular furrow and didn’t really care if it was fashionable. He was a great songwriter and producer, but he never felt the need to be in step with current trends or the mainstream. And he still managed to make a lot of classic hit records. Although he always maintained that his main motivation was to make money, he still managed to make great art sometimes.
Ennio Morricone uses a very ‘pop’ sound in his orchestration with unusual instruments. A whistle and a twangy guitar and you immediately evoke his western soundtracks. And loads of his soundtracks have at least one great catchy and evocative tune. I also love Nino Rota, who, in my view, is the other great Italian soundtrack composer. His stuff with Fellini is just as evocative, but on a less epic scale.
‘The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways’
How did The Magic City Trio first come together?
FS: During the tail end of indie-dance and the dawn of Britpop, I was playing viola in a band which played Eastern European music, when there were only two bands doing it in London. Adi Staempfli played bass, and Annie joined after I had left. The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways. I met Annie a few years later, and we eventually married in Las Vegas.
We hadn’t done any music together for a good few years. I was (trying to) learn Blind Blake [blues and ragtime guitarist and singer] stuff to up my game on the guitar, and from there we got interested in other pre-war music, what became known as ‘the old weird America’. From there we did a set of pre-war music (Carter Family, Hawaiian, Emmett Miller) at the Easy Come, which is a well-established open mic night in South East London. But we didn’t take it any further than that. We began including our own songs – Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 was an early one. It was mainly so we could do stuff that other people did not have in their set. Adi returned from Switzerland and joined us in 2013.
We had a gig in Berlin – that was our first as The Magic City Trio. The name originated from a pre-war fiddle band called Dyke’s Magic City Trio. I had one of their records on a 78 rpm.
We thought that we would only use the name for the Berlin gig, as people were more likely to go and see a band, rather than just Frank and Annie. We didn’t intend to keep the name, since Dyke’s Magic City Trio are relatively famous, it would be like calling yourself The Kinks or The Who in about 2045, but the name stuck…
Let’s talk about your album in more depth.I admire your grand ambition and the fact that you’ve gone all out with the orchestral arrangements. How did you approach this album when you came to record it? What did you want it to sound like?
FS:Black Dog Following Me was completed before our 2015 EP [A Funnel Cloud In Albuquerque], but I didn’t like the orchestral sounds, so I scrapped it all, apart from the singing. Once it was redone, we decided to follow suit with the rest of it, instead of making it just an acoustic LP. The orchestral sounds are a mix of samples, live instruments and recordings of actual notes that are stitched together. Oliver Curtis Perry had the least amount of strings and things, as Johnny Butten playing banjo was an orchestra in itself.
‘I was looking for the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is stylistically unfashionable now’
The arrangements all began with a basic piano track with chords, and then we added everything else. I‘m a huge fan of baroque ‘60s pop, so a harpsichord nearly always got in there. Once all the orchestral stuff was done, we put on the live instruments, which is the opposite way it would be done with a live orchestra.
The other sound I was looking for was the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is kind of stylistically unfashionable now – the song 22 was my attempt at that.
Now you mention it, the album does have a lot of different styles of orchestration on there. Trav’ler is like the stuff David Angel did on Love’s Forever Changes, Down In The Willow Garden was looking for a Pearls Before Swine-type of sound, and Billy Strange and Jimmy Webb all are referenced on there somewhere.
With The June Brides and the other stuff I did for Creation Records, I was trying to do large string parts, but limited by budgets and my lack of skill on the viola. But on those records you can hear me trying to do something that I just can’t quite pull off. I nearly got there with This Town (June Brides), Space Blues (Felt) and So Out of Touch (Joe Foster).
The dramatic opening track, Black Dog Following Me, is pure Nancy & Lee. I’m guessing it’s about depression? ‘Black dog’ is a term that Winston Churchill used to describe his dark moods. What can you tell me about that song?
FS: Yes that’s it, more or less – a dialogue where one person can’t see a way through, but the other won’t let it get on top of them. The arrangement is pure Billy Strange with Nancy & Lee. I didn’t think they did enough stuff like Some Velvet Morning, so this was my addition. In the same way that Jeff Lynne didn’t think The Beatles did enough stuff like I Am The Walrus.
Cousins’ War has a definite Ennio Morricone feel, but with a country edge…
FS: Annie started that song, after reading a book about the Wars of the Roses Originally it sounded a lot more folky. I thought of it more like the Hatfield-McCoy type of scenario. I did the last verse after seeing a Twilight Zone episode where all the American Civil War dead are walking on a road. That’s why in the LP booklet, there is a picture from a Civil War bubblegum card called Painful Death. The line about the sowing the hydra’s teeth is from Jason and the Argonauts, which explains the fighting skeleton picture in the booklet.
The chorus is adapted from [folk song] Darlin’ Cory. The instrumental sections do give it that Morricone sound – it’s the low male vocals that do it I think, which are reminiscent of Story of a Soldier [from the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly].
I love the descending twangy riff that kicks off Dust of Mars – it sounds like a nod to Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots… and The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon…
FS: At the time, I didn’t think that sequence of notes was particularly unique to Sunny Afternoon – it must have been used in loads of other places. So I didn’t think I was taking anything from that song that hadn’t been used somewhere before. But as time has gone on, I have to conclude that the sequence is not particularly common in pop music, and is more or less unique to Sunny Afternoon. I’m glad I made it so obvious, but it’s a bit like using the opening riff from Day Tripper on a song…
Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 has a hillbilly vibe. Where did this outlaw song come from? What was the inspiration?
FS: Oliver Curtis Perry was the first person to rob a train single-handed, in New York in the 1890s. The song tells his story, with a little bit of artistic license. The words are on our website. I first read about him when I was 11 years old, in a book by James D Horan, a noted Western writer. There wasn’t much detail given. The – wonderfully named – writer Tamsin Spargo read the same book as a child, and years later published Wanted Man, which tells the whole story.
The song 22, which sounds like a Johnny Cash and June Carter country duet, also reminds me of Kirsty MacColl…
FS: I didn’t think of that – I’m only familiar with her hits. It’s probably the vocal harmony that gives it that. She was a great singer and writer, with a unique voice. This was our attempt at getting the Chet Atkins Nashville sound. The demo we did sounds like the Carter Family – we recorded it on a four-track cassette using pre-war Gibsons to sound as old as possible. The demos are interesting as they show how the song developed – each version is different. The plot is from a short story by Daniel Woodrell about someone who suspects his neighbours of murdering his child.
Talking of murders… Down In The Willow Garden is a classic, traditional murder ballad. I know it from The Everly Brothers album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Why did you decide to cover the song for your record?
FS: My grandmother’s name was Salley – I was looking for the origins. I came across a poem by Yeats called In the Salley Garden, which is adapted from Willow Garden, and I found the various versions. Most of which sounded a bit too jolly melodically.
The Everly Brothers recording sounded suitably bleak. So we worked on a minor key version. We had to change the harmonies as we were still smokers and couldn’t reach the notes – since we have now quit we can get there!
I wanted to do a Pearls Before Swine-type arrangement. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is a brilliant album. They recorded it to get out of their contract without giving away any hits, and they ended up with a masterpiece.
Where did the title of the album, Amerikana Arkana, come from?
FS: I always loved the album cover of Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, with a man holding Tarot cards. Though the real agents of fortune are the 52 standard pack of cards, the Tarot decks are called the lesser and greater arcana. The greater arcana features all the well-known picture cards. The songs were going to be very loosely based on the Tarot cards – death, confusion, fortune, justice, the sun, change etc, but they all didn’t quite fit with that… I like a rhyming title like Nilsson Schmilsson. The presence of the K always implies a slightly twisted ‘bizarro superman’ type version of the actual thing. The LP booklet also has all sorts of clues and images that link in some way with the songs.
Can you talk me through the songwriting process and the arranging and recording of the album?
FS: We had not got together as a band to do our own songs – we were doing pre-war country and other songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s. We didn’t want to write songs in that style, lest they sounded like a pastiche.
In 2011 I read a biography on Blind Willie McTell and in the book he revealed his method for writing and I followed it.
Cousins’ War was started by Annie, but discarded, as we couldn’t figure out a proper narrative, but we brought it back and worked on the chords.
Trav’ler was originally called Chinese Traveller – it had also been discarded, due to the lack of a decent tune, but Annie pushed on with that because it had a good story. But it’s usually one of us kicking off an idea and then discarding it. And if it’s halfway good, Annie will resurrect it and suggest improvements. We’re not the most prolific of writers, but work in fits and starts.
I write out the orchestrations on a music score writing [software] package, which plays samples of string and brass, and we put the real instruments on top of that.
Recording at home is cheap, but it gets slow – there is no clock ticking and no budget being eaten up. So you can spend all day recording a track and edit 10 versions of a guitar part into the best one. Dust of Mars ended up with 40 tracks, which produced its own set of problems trying to mix it. Recording is the easy part…
You recorded and mixed the album in London and Hove. What was that like?
FS: It was a long process. With a few exceptions, all the recording was done at home over a two-year period, which began after completing our first EP. But some recordings were started a lot earlier – Black Dog… and Oliver Curtis Perry were first demoed in 2012, with no plans to release them other than on Soundcloud.
The 2012 version of Black Dog... was stripped back to the vocals and all the other tracks replaced, and with Oliver Curtis Perry all we kept was the drums. The banjo, trumpet, pedal steel and washboard were recorded remotely and the tracks sent to me. The orchestral sounds are a mix of real players and sampled instruments, but the whole thing was written out on a score rather than played on a keyboard. Nearly all the recording was completed by the end of 2016.
I started mixing it early 2017, and gave up due to the complexity of the task. In Easter 2017, I took it to Bark Studios, in London (where Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was done), with Brian O’Shaugnessy mixing it.
So, it was mixed once, with a full set of backing tracks. Then most of it was mixed again. The mixes were much better than mine, but I wasn’t happy with the balance of some of the sounds. I thought if I went back to Bark Studios again we would end up playing whack-a-mole with the mix,
In-between that time we put the steel drum on Sun Comes Shining Through, and stuck the slow intro on Cousins’ War, so it could join up with the end of Black Dog...
So I started mixing it again myself, Having learned a thing or two from Brian, my mixes were OK, but lacked oomph. In summer 2017, I approached Paul Pascoe in Hove, for whom I had done some strings for, and asked him to master some of my mixes and the Bark mixes. Paul liked it enough to offer to mix and master it. This time I stayed away from the studio, which was a much better idea. We used the Bark version of Oliver Curtis Perry, but, other than that they are all Paul Pascoe’s mixes. Sonically there isn’t much difference. So, excluding my mixes, there are a couple of alternate mixes of the LP, plus the backing tracks and also Paul’s mix of Oliver Curtis Perry.
I admire your effort and dedication. The album is full of ambition and drama – it sounds great and it soars. Would you agree that so many modern pop records lack ambition? They just sound so bland and unadventurous when you compare them with some of the pop music of the ’60s…
FS: I think people are always going to write great songs, Pharrell Williams’ Happy is a great song, and the Curtis Mayfield sound makes it even better. But production-wise, most of the envelopes have been pushed, so commercial productions are going to end up sounding very homogenised.
It’s like the thing that Frank Zappa said, that in the ’60s, the record companies were still being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand, in the hope that they would sell some records. The profit motive was still the driving force, but you had more of a chance of producing art.
Nowadays companies are releasing music that is similar to stuff that was recently successful, so it can all start sounding the same. Particularly when you have producers, accountants, advertisers and product placers having a financial interest in the music sounding attractive and familiar to the masses. It’s the same sort of thing in the film industry, where films that can be turned into a brand seems to be where the money goes.
‘Record companies in the ’60s were being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand’
The common factor is that cinema audiences and music buyers have decreased dramatically over the years, so the studios are less prepared to take any risks.
In the golden age of cinema, you could release a film like The Best Years of Our Lives and it would be a blockbuster in terms of the people who saw it. Nowadays, a big studio would not put the money into a three-hour film about war veterans returning home. Cinema audiences were much bigger then, and were loyal to the stars in the film. Under the studio system everyone was on salary, so you could churn out loads of films, and sometimes they would produce art, And although the films were censored and bowdlerised, they showed a lot less but told a lot more. Look at films like Sunset Boulevard and In A Lonely Place – they were churned out under the studio system but are really dark and deep films.
American TV seems the place where you are seeing really original stuff, most of it does at least one season which is still around 13 hours of drama. If you pitched a 13-hour film called Freaks and Geeks (a much loved show that only did one season) you would not get very far. British mini-series seem to all be stuck trying to remake Prime Suspect. I digress…
So what are the band’s plans for the rest of 2018? Any thoughts on a follow-up album?
FS: We need to get more gigs, as a lot of our record sales are done in person. But a third of them have gone in a few months already, and they are still selling, so that’s encouraging. Our first EP has nearly sold out, I have to be careful to make sure I don’t sell my own copy!
As far as another LP is concerned, there were quite a few stage favourites left unrecorded. The original plan was to have a double LP, but it would have taken too long to record and we wouldn’t have a hope in selling it at gigs. We have another LP’s worth of songs, but it might be worth waiting to see if we come up with something better. Ive got to write a score without repeating myself, or other people. Ha ha ha.
Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?
FS: Old music: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, by The Small Faces, which I have recently discovered, after not being that interested in it up until now. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us – the Bear Family Records reissue – and Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night: Live at the Roxy.
New music: Boarding House Reach by Jack White and Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto.
Amerikana Arkana by The Magic City Trio is currently available on Kailua Recordings. For more information, go to http://themagiccitytrio.com/
After 23 years living in Manchester, singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar moved back to Worcestershire, where he grew up. His relocation inspired him to write a concept album, Return of the Native – a brilliant collection of witty, reflective and deeply personal songs, featuring a whole host of weird and wonderful characters, including a burnt-out rock star, the ghost of a Civil War re-enactment enthusiast, Eminem hopelessly lost in Droitwich, ’70s M.O.R. singer Clifford T.Ward, DJ Tony Blackburn and comedian Rik Mayall.
Musically, the album takes the listener on a journey through Worcestershire that’s soundtracked by glam-rock, jangle-pop, psych, Pet Shop Boys-style electro and New Order-esque, Northern melancholy.
In an exclusive interview, I ask Vinny to give me a track by track guide to the record. “It was a learning curve and cathartic,” he tells me. “I was putting some old demons to bed…”
Q & A
Hi Vinny. Let’s talk about your new album. The songs were inspired by you moving from Manchester back to Worcestershire, where you grew up. How and why did relocating inspire you when it came to writing songs and making this album, which is the follow-up to 2016’s Silver Meadows?
Vinny Peculiar: Hi Sean – good to speak with you. Moving back has been cathartic. Return of the Native was inspired by the changes, reflections and, up to a point, the memories I have of former times here. The ideas seemed to ebb and flow into songs soon after the move. I suppose, in some ways, I was writing to make sense of the changes, the end of a long-term relationship, the start of a new chapter…
How are you finding it living in Worcestershire? Is it good to be back?
VP:I’m settling in. It feels good, but it’s taken longer than I expected to connect. I still seem to spend a lot of time on the M6 – the lure of the North is never far away.
Is Return of the Native the first Worcestershire concept album? I can’t think of any others, can you?
VP:I’m not aware of any, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some obscure folk singer got there before me…
Picture of Vinny Peculiar by Trust A Fox Photography
Where did you make the record and who worked on it with you?
VP:The recording of the drums and bass and some of the noisier guitars was done in Whitby Studios, Ellesmere Port, with my Liverpool band Paul Tsanos [drums] , Bobby Kewley [bass, cello] and Rob Steadman [ex-Parlour Flames] on keys. The vocals were recorded and edited at home, as were the acoustic guitars, percussion and keyboards.
The serious sheen was added in UNIT 31, in Pershore, by co-producer Dave Draper, who turned a half- decent record into a great sounding one, I like to think.
Was it an easy album to make?
VP:It was something of a learning curve for me at times – the challenge of mic placements, street noise and the neighbours’ dog were all sent to test me – but it felt emotionally cathartic, like I was putting old demons to bed, especially in the more intimate, confessional songs.
I thought it would be fun to do a track-by-track guide to the new record. Let’s talk about each of the songs individually – I’ll throw in a few of my own thoughts and you can tell me more about the tracks and what inspired them. Here we go…
Track By Track Guide to Return of the Native
The Grove and The Ditch
This is a glam-rocking start to the record. We’re taken back to teenage street gangs of the ’70s. What was the inspiration? It’s quite possibly the only pop song to name check Tony Blackburn…
VP:When I was at school, my Bromsgrove friends and I were routinely terrorised by the Redditch Mob – they’d come over to Bromsgrove and pick a fight with us after school. We weren’t very hard and got regularly chased – it became the norm, they’d accuse us of being in the Bromsgrove Gang and we’d leg it! The song is set in 1974, when Tony Blackburn was dumped by his girlfriend and famously cried in public on Radio 1 – he really was in bits. Many of the other references in the song are from that time – The Rocky Horror Show, winters of discontent were everywhere. Glam rock was just about alive and kicking, but punk rock was about to confine it to history…
Malvern Winter Gardener
I think this is one of the best songs you’ve ever written. It’s beautiful, wistful jangle-pop and is about an eccentric local character – a once famous rock star, who’s reflecting on the gigs he played in the ’70s, at the Malvern Winter Gardens, and the bands he saw back in the day…
VP:Thanks, Sean. I used to go to the Winter Gardens in Malvern as a young teenager – the bands I mention in the song were some of the ones I saw. It was a magical place to me. The song’s narration is from the point of view of a burnt-out rock star who lives in Malvern, working as a gardener and lamenting the glory days.
The idea of using that voice came from conversations with older musicians in the local music shop and the pub. I understand Ted Turner, who played guitar in Wishbone Ash and gets mentioned in the song, used to live in Malvern. I was also informed the cover of Argus [by Wishbone Ash] was shot in the Malvern Hills, but my subsequent research suggests otherwise…still I’ve included it in the song, anyway.
The dangers of English Civil War battle re-enactment. Please discuss…
VP: There’s a Civil War re-enactment society just down the road from me – I walk past it when I go to town. I’m fascinated by people who a dress up to re-enact battles – time travellers, if you will. There’s a particular escapism – a kind of discipline that I admire. The song came from a ‘what if?’ scenario – ‘what if your re-enactment became real and someone got hurt?’ and it grew from there.
The hero of the song dies in battle and returns as a ghost to haunt his girlfriend, who marries the undertaker. I wrote it as a picky little folk song, but it morphed into quite an epic – a twanging, jangling affair. I think it’s one of my favourite songs on the record.
What’s the story behind this song? It sounds like it’s named after a Chinese restaurant…
VP:I’d drive past Golden City – and you’re right, it’s a Chinese restaurant here in Blackpole – routinely, when I was in the process of moving from Manchester to Worcester. It’s a rather striking, modern, detached roadside building and I was intrigued. It’s also the name given to San Francisco, which is one of my absolute favourite places to be. The song is about change, hope and moving on, as well as addressing doubt and uncertainty…
Return of the Native
This is the title track and it name checks Rik Mayall, alongside a whole host of other people and local characters who’ve come from Worcestershire…
VP: Yes – there are a lot of name checks in this song – they’re affectionate recollections. The song is derived from a ‘making a list’ approach, I’ve done this with a few songs before where there’s no linear story – a more random approach. Many of the characters are fabricated, but all have local reference points…and Rik Mayall was born just down the road from me, so that has to be worth celebrating. Many of the other landmarks were significant to me when I lived here, all those years ago. I suppose you could say it’s a spontaneous memory song, in the Kerouac tradition of bop prosody, or was it Ginsberg? I digress…
A Girl From Bromsgrove Town
More jangle-pop… This is a sad tale of a girl who left you for the girl next door! Care to shed any more light on this affair?
VP:After visiting my father in his Bromsgrove nursing home, I found myself loitering outside a former girlfriend’s house, waiting for my mother. It was a flashback-type moment, and it set me reminiscing. It’s a true story…
‘Clifford T. Ward taught me for a year – we spent a lot of time distracting him and he was happy to talk music’
The Singing Schoolteacher
This is a very poignant and reflective song, which is about your English teacher, who found brief fame as ’70s M.O.R. singer-songwriter, Clifford T. Ward. It talks about the influence he had on you and how pop music shaped your early life. I guess he was the first famous person you knew and he had a major impact on you… How did he inspire you?
VP:Clifford T. Ward taught me for just a year. He took a less than typical approach to teaching. If we didn’t fancy poetry, he gave us permission to opt out – nobody did – and he had long hair, very long hair, so he was immediately one of us. I don’t remember much about the actual lessons – we spent a lot of time distracting him and he was happy to talk music. He was on John Peel’s record label, Dandelion Records, and he wrote songs for Bronco. All of this was incredibly exciting. When I told him I had musical ambitions, he was the only teacher who took me seriously. I never got to know him as an adult. The song tracks my relationship at a distance, but it’s very much a tribute to his memory and his inspiration when I was young.
The first time I heard this song, I laughed out loud! Eminem ends up in Droitwich by mistake and mayhem ensues when the locals get their hands on him. There’s even a ‘Vinny Peculiar-doing-the-Pet-Shop-Boys’ West End Girls’ rap vocal! How the hell did you come up with this? It’s bonkers…
VP: I first heard the ‘Droitwich-meets-Detroit’ naming aggregation from my daughter. It amused me no end, setting off some flight of fancy, whereby Eminem, befuddled by endless touring, ends up in Detroitwich, where he’s abducted by the mob, before being rescued by P Diddy. I worked at a plastic mouldings factory in Droitwich when I knew no better – it was rather grim and I suspect its influence has crept into the song somehow. It is sort of bonkers, yes – I can’t really argue with that…
‘I worked at a plastic mouldings factory in Droitwich – it was rather grim and I suspect its influence has crept into the song’
On Rainbow Hill
We’re plunged back into more familiar Vinny Peculiar territory – this is another poignant, reflective, melancholy ballad of lost love. Can you elaborate?
VP:It’s a readjustment song – it’s all about moving on. End of a relationship stuff.
David Swan Riverman
Another song about a local, eccentric character… David Swan Riverman regularly feeds the local swans and ducks and looks out for them. Do you know him? Is there a nod to Nick Drake’s Riverman in the title? I like the haunting, psychedelic feel of this song….
VP: There are a lot of guitars on this song and cellos, too – beautifully played by Bobby Kewley. The haunting Nick Drake-ish-ness is kind of accidental, but I can see what you mean. It’s a droning, root note affair. I don’t actually know David Swan, but I’ve seen him at work and it’s kind of mesmerising and dazzling seeing so many swans assembled at feeding time on the river. Crowds gather around – it’s a beautiful spectacle.
This is one of my favourite songs on the album. It sounds like your years living in Manchester have influenced this elegiac song of lost love. I think it has a Joy Division / New Order feel and it references Ian Curtis lyrically…
VP:This was a cathartic song to write, too. Sometimes songs write themselves and you look at them and think ‘is that really me?’ This was such a song. It’s a final acknowledgement – a song that’s hopefully fit to end a record. I wasn’t that aware of the Manchester influence, but I can hear it now you’ve mentioned it. I suppose it’s hard to ignore it after living there for the best part of 23 years.
‘I’ve started making demos for a new album – it’s going to be a very noisy, dissonant wreck of a record’
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the songs, Vinny. Finally, what’s next for you? Any projects in the pipeline?
VP:I’m currently working on a collaboration with the poet Anna Saunders, writing music for poetry. We hope to perform live in the future.
I’ve also started making demos for a new album, which we plan to record and mix live in just five days – the very opposite in many ways to how I typically put records together. It’s not going to be a singer-songwriter album – it’s going to be a very noisy, dissonant wreck of a record. It’s a collaborative project with the musicians formerly known as Parlour Flames – the file sharing has commenced. I have no idea how long it will all take, nor under which name it will emerge, but it feels kind of exciting and new, which is a good sign, I think…
Return of the Native by Vinny Peculiar is released on June 1 (Shadrack & Duxbury Records).
British singer-songwriter Ian Webber, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee, has just released his most political album to date.
Op-Edstackles social issues including women’s rights, fake news, war-torn Syria and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy.
Musically, it’s very stripped-down – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle.
Opener Follow Me and its parent song, The Regime, are haunting tales inspired by reading news stories about families suffering in Syria, while Frontline is a protest song that has its roots in ’50s rockabilly.
First single, Radio Zero, is an ode to the healing power of great music – while the world is going crazy, sometimes you just need to switch off from all the doom and gloom and crank up some classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Ian sings the song in a Bowie-like croon that sounds like it’s been beamed in from outer space.
In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Ian to find out why he’s made such an overtly political record and what it was like recording it in Nashville…
Q & A
Your new album Op-Eds totally surprised me, as it’s a lot darker and much more political than I was expecting. Did you deliberately set out to make a political record? And if so, why? What was the starting point for this album?
Ian Webber: The starting point for this album, and pretty much all my projects, was the music I was listening to and absorbing before I began writing it. This time it was The Velvet Underground and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That’s a strange combination, but both were essentially using blues-based chord sequences, keeping it fairly simple, so the vocal melody could take the priority.
The first couple of song ideas were very New York Warhol/Reed inspired. ‘Late night, up on the corner’-type songs, so that’s where my head was to begin with.
I also had a really great hallway with excellent reverb, so that was a good place to stand and sing ideas in a low vocal key.
I had no idea that the record would turn political at all – that really only started when I took breaks from strumming to catch up on daily news. I was intrigued by articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. I discovered really compelling stories, which in turn inspired me to create mini stories as lyrics.
Lyrically and thematically, the album deals with social and political issues past and present, including protesters affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline, women’s rights, the plight of families in Syria, politics in Virginia and immigration issues… This is heavy stuff.
Was it difficult to write such political songs? How did you tackle the issues without sounding trite, or patronising? Was it a worry or a risk?
IW: The universal theme was a common bond that I felt with other humans – all of us moving through life.We all start out the same way, wanting the simplest things, and that gets lost as we grow up.
The world as a whole is a small place. I’ve travelled a lot and you find, whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and, in a small way, shed light on the bigger issues, too.
I don’t proclaim to be a learned scholar, but I really wanted to produce something that was a document of the times. This was the world through my eyes in 2017, living as a Brit in a very American, southern culture.
‘I’ve travelled a lot – whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and shed light on the bigger issues, too’
Musically, it’s a very stripped-down album – it’s mostly just you and your acoustic guitar. Was that how you wrote the songs?
IW: Yes – I certainly had this idea that I would try to do the whole record alone.
I always have voice memos lying around, and when I played them in the car, or through headphones, they sounded great to me. I guess that made me want to make the album in essentially the same way, but obviously, with a better mic than the one on my phone.
Where and how did you record the album and who did you work with?
IW: I recorded the record at Historic RCA Nashville Studio A, thanks to my ex-band mate Dave Cobb, who runs the place, and who helped make time between projects for me to go in and record
There is a huge tracking room that’s big enough for an orchestra. I basically set up in the middle and sang live and played guitar. The natural reverb in the room is insane, and there were minimal overdubs. It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and Gena Johnson, Dave’s engineer, who produced the record.
‘It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and the engineer’
One of my favourite songs on the album is The Regime – it’s very haunting…
IW: The Regime started as a chord sequence that was similar to the ideas on my last record [Year of the Horse, from 2015] – walk down progressions and minor chords, of course!
The lyrics were based on an interview that a family in Syria gave to the New York Times, about trying to survive war in the city.
When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart. That song is a kind of companion to Follow Me, which deals with leaving that kind of scenario behind and having to find a new home in a foreign land.
Another standout track for me is Frontline – it has a ’50s Sun Records feel. It’s an acoustic, rockabilly protest song…
IW: That’s a cool observation, Sean! The love of ‘50s rockabilly music seems to be a recurring theme on my records, but I can’t say I had it in mind when I was writing the song… I have been having a Lightnin’ Hopkins obsession lately, so certainly that was in my brain at the time…
The song Spirit of Houston comes from a similar place, doesn’t it? What’s the story behind it?
IW: That’s the only collaboration on the record. I started the year chatting, via email, to an old singer friend of mine, Sam Smithwick. I was inspired and jealous of his ability to write blues songs. We had been sending each other finished ideas, kind of like a pen pal would write letters. One song he sent had no vocal, just a guitar riff. I took the idea, added words, looped the riff, and sang to it live in RCA Studio.
Lyrically it’s about the 1977 National Women’s Conference for women’s rights. Last year, I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, and the signs I saw and the voices I heard made me want to become more educated.
‘When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart’
In the last couple of years, you’ve moved from L.A. to Nashville and you’ve become a father – congratulations! How much did relocating and having a son have an influence on this album?
IW: There were a few reasons for the move from L.A. to Nashville. I started out in Atlanta, playing music in the ‘90s, before moving to Seattle and then L.A. Coming back to the South was a way to reconnect with the culture and some amazing musicians I had played with. I got to do some touring for the last record with some former bandmates that still lived here, so it was kind of a homecoming of sorts.
My son, Wilder, was still inside his mum Meg’s belly when I was writing and recording, so his influence was there, but in little kicks. He did get to hear Fire on the Water being recorded, when Meg sang the backing vocals while pregnant!
You’re an English guy living in the U.S. What’s your take on Brexit and US politics at the moment? Is this album your chance to try and make sense of it all?
IW: I have my British passport, my Green Card, and am hanging on to my accent. Living abroad definitely makes you more nostalgic and somewhat patriotic.
One thing about living here is that the news is generally US-based, so Brexit is something I feel like a tourist talking about. From what I hear, it’s going to affect a lot of musicians from touring as freely in Europe. I would rather see a world without boundaries and barriers.One of the least political songs on the album is the first single, Radio Zero. It’s about escaping fake news and bad news and listening to classic rock ‘n’ roll instead. I think your vocal on the track has a slight Bowie feel to it…
IW: At the end of it all, I am a music lover, and so Radio Zero is a nostalgic look back at when I was lying on my bed as a teenager, late at night, scanning the radio for a good song. John Peel was still around, and also some AM pirate radio stations, so cracking rock ‘n’ roll was something I tuned in to and fell asleep to. David Bowie was one of my first musical loves, so maybe he was sending me messages through the wavelengths on that one. I hope so.
Finally, on that note, it seems apt to ask you what music – new and old – you’re currently enjoying?
IW: I like that you added the old and new line there… Currently in my mind – new:
My Sweet Movida, the new album from Staffordshire four-piece Alfa 9, is one of my favourite records of the year so far – I love its retro rock, cosmic-psych-country road trips, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and ’60s-inspired jangle-pop.
Produced, written and arranged by the band, it was recorded at Tremolo Studios, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and The Room, Stoke-on-Trent. I spoke to guitarist Leon Jones to find out why it’s taken five years to come out.
While we were chatting, the subjects of love, sex, betrayal, coincidence and chance also came up in conversation, which was nice…
Q & A
Hi Leon. Alfa 9 have been on my interview hit list for a while and now we’ve finally found the time to sit down and have a chat… How do you feel about it?
Leon Jones: I feel that you’re a perceptive man, Sean, and one of more than good taste. I know you’re a Byrds, Bond and Morricone fan. Do we need to get deeper?
LJ: It’s flattering to be talked about in the same circles as those bands. It’s got to be encouraging hearing others who are aiming at something similar and making it sound relevant. It does feel like there’s a momentum building. Our album’s out, The Hanging Stars and El Goodo have new records out… I really like The Carousels as well…We’re playing with The Hanging Stars in Leicester on June 30 [at The Firebug].
Your new album, My Sweet Movida, is one of my favourite records of the year so far. How does it feel to have it out there? Are you pleased with it?
LJ: It’s been a long process to write, record and do everything to release the album, but that’s kind of how we work…we like to let songs meld and develop, so it takes time. Maybe for our next record we’ll do the whole thing in one take…
It’s your third album – the follow-up to 2013’s Gone To Ground. Why has it taken five years to come out?
LJ: We were doing a lot of gigs following the release of Gone To Ground and then there were babies and cats and stuff like that happening…We’ve got 15 songs written already for the next album, so we’re aiming to be a bit quicker next time
How did you approach this album?
LJ: Well, I think we felt really comfortable with things – we’ve found a great mix in the band and really play off each other, plus we had moved on as songwriters, so it was exciting. After we got a couple of songs going, the album started to get a character of its own. We weren’t afraid of allowing our influences to come through, but we were also confident that it still sounds like us.
‘We’ve got 15 songs written already for the next album, so we’re aiming to be a bit quicker next time’
You wrote, produced and arranged the album yourselves. How was the experience of making this record? Was it an enjoyable one?
LJ: Yes – we love being in control of the process and we’ve always had our own recording set up, starting with a four-track Portastudio. Technology gives us a lot of flexibility that 20 years years ago would not have been possible.
We’re lucky that there’s a studio about a mile from my house with a great old 16-track tape machine. We’ve recorded there on and off for years, so it’s a very comfortable environment for us. We did the basic tracks there, then recorded guitars and other stuff at our place – The Room – then went back there and did vocals.
What can you tell me about the first single, Smile Dog? It’s very psychedelic…
LJ: That was kind of the start of the new album – a jam that took on a life of its own. Those kind of songs are the purest expressions of the band – they just happen.
What influences shaped the songwriting and the sound of the new album?
LJ: It’s pretty clear who we like – The Byrds, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Paisley Underground, Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, Nuggets, Pink Floyd, Stone Roses, Creation Records – that hasn’t really changed since we’ve been together. That stuff’s the bedrock. I think with this album, we felt confident with the songs and getting them to sound how we wanted them to.
The second single, Movida, continues Alfa 9’s penchant for Ennio Morricone-esque soundtracks, doesn’t it? It has a Spaghetti Western feel…
LJ: Yes – definitely. We love Morricone and that kind of melancholy there is in a lot of his work. I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree, particularly. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment
The song Darkest Sea has a country feel. How did that track come about?
LJ: I wrote an opening theme for an imaginary western soundtrack-type thing that we wrote ages ago and then we eventually added words. We tried a few different arrangements. I think we were listening to a lot of the Handsome Family at the time we recorded it.
I love the song Different Corner – it’s gorgeous jangle-pop and very Byrdsy. What can you tell me about that song?
LJ: It’s about love, sex, betrayal, coincidence and chance…the dark end of the street.
‘I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment’
Fly – the final track on the album – is an epic closer. Were you aiming for a ’70s Pink Floyd-style, psych anthem? It certainly sounds like it…
LJ: That was another song that wrote itself – we were aiming for nothing, but it just kind of appeared in the room. We’re massive Floyd fans, but I think there’s also a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young thing happening on it as well.
You have a few gigs coming up this year. What can we expect?
LJ: It sounds like a cliché, because it is, but I think we sound better now than we ever have done. We’ve got a lot of songs worked up – we could do about four hours!
What’s on the Alfa 9 hi-fi at the moment? Any musical recommendations – new and old?
LJ: Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, The Hanging Stars, Gene Clark, El Goodo, Cowboy, Rain Parade, The Gosdin Brothers, The Easybeats, Spindrift, New Riders of The Purple Sage…
Finally, will we have to wait another five years for your next album?
LJ: Nope – life’s starting to feel very short…
My Sweet Movida by Alpha 9 is out now on Blow Up. It’s available on heavyweight vinyl, CD and download.
The band play The Troubadour in London, 263-267 Old Brompton Road, SW5 9JA on April 7, supported by Usselman.
Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s brilliant Nonsense and Heartache – out now on Latent Recordings and produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies – is a double album, but, essentially it’s two distinct collections of songs.
The first half – Nonsense – is a raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll record, while the second instalment – Heartache – is a stripped-down, alt-country affair, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle.
Put them together and you have an album that reminds me of those classic early Ryan Adams long-players Heartbreaker and Gold – yep, it’s that good.
I spoke to Jerry, who with his band, The Situation, is on a tour of Europe and the UK, to find out why he decided to release a double album and to gauge if his current mood is nonsense, or heartache…
Nonsense and Heartache is a double album of 18 tracks, which is quite a brave move, isn’t it? You don’t hear of many double albums being released these days…
Jerry Leger: Yeah, it’s usually the artist who fights for a double LP, not the label, but, in this case, it was Mike Timmins and Latent who suggested it.
I dug that and I had more than enough songs and we had a bit of a concept behind it. I think it was a cool move, I mean why not? It seems these days a lot of people are gonna listen to it, or they’re not, whether there’s two or 200 songs. A lot gets lost – I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here.
How were the recording sessions for the album? Was it an easy or a difficult album to make? Did you have a lot of songs written before you went into the studio?
JL: They were easy – we all knew what we were there to do. Heartache was recorded first – that took about four or five days. Nonsense was recorded four or five months later – I think that took two days. I can’t quite remember how many songs I had lying around, but we recorded about 29 and chose 18.
‘I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here’
The album has a raw, live sound – Michael Timmins , who produced, recorded and mixed it, alsoworked on my favourite album of last year –John Murry’s A Short History of Decay, which is another raw, live-sounding record. How do Michael and you and your band manage to get that feel and sound in the studio? What’s your working relationship with Michael like?
JL: We just play live together in the studio. I also try to keep all the live vocals, but sometimes it’s not possible. There may be technical issues, or, if the band were cookin’ and I flubbed something that I really wanted to fix instead of leave in. Sometimes we just leave it in, though. Mike and I have a great working relationship – we like making the same kind of albums and we also like a lot of the same albums. He doesn’t get in my way creatively and when he makes a suggestion in the studio, it’s usually the right one. I respect what he does and what he has to say
One of my favourite songs on the Nonsense side of the album is Baby’s Got A Rare Gun – I think it channels ’65/’66 Dylan. Do you agree? It’s heavy, electric blues. What can you tell me about that track?
JL: Well, I love Chess Records – stuff like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. I think it came from that sort of place, but, of course, I love Dylan, too, and that period is ingrained. When we recorded it, I wanted to get that over-driven vocal and band sound that’s on those records and early Bobby Bland.
The Big Smoke Blues – another of my favourite tracks on Nonsense – has a bit of a New Wave feel to it. It reminds me of Ryan Adams fronting The Strokes. Is that a fair comment?
JL: That’s fair, but I’d say it’s more Lou Reed and The Velvets rock ‘n’ roll, just ‘cos I listen to and love those records. I did really like the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day! I never really followed their career after, though. TheBig Smoke Blues is a reference to Toronto, but it could be a lot of different places for the listener. It’s a tune for outsiders.
‘I really liked the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day!’
Let’s flip the record over and talk about the Heartache side. It kicks off with the first single, Things Are Changing Round Here, which sounds like a classic country-rock song. What inspired that track?
JL: The East End of Toronto, where I grew up, was the initial inspiration. I’m only 32 and the area I grew up in is a strange land to me now. A lot of the personality is being sucked out of it – they’re knocking down blocks of old homes to build up to the sky. The unique shops and bars that can’t make the inflated rent are being replaced by boring chains.
Another Dead Radio Star – I love that title – is one of my favourite songs on the album. What’s the story behind it? I’ve heard that it was inspired by the 1930s radio show The Shadow, which was voiced by Orson Welles…
JL: I was listening to a compilation of radio stars from the ‘30s. The song I’d Give A Million Tomorrows (For Just One Yesterday) was playing and it sparked the idea – it’s referenced in the song. I also had another record of old radio shows by The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks of Kansas City, so they got a plug.
Things come and go, but their shadows remain in one way or another, and I’m the kind of person that looks for them. My dad used to listen to The Shadow, The Creaking Door and others as a boy and that has always stayed with him. It’s theatre of the mind.
The last song on the album, Pawn Shop Piano, is a great way to close the record – a gorgeous piano ballad. Was it written and played on a pawn shop piano?
JL: Some of the lines and ideas I’d written down before, or had floating in my head just waiting to be used. The first time we toured in the States we stayed at a dingy motel called the Travel Lite Inn, or something like that… I just liked the way it sounded and we survived.
We played Johnson City in Tennessee a couple of times and I remember this pawn shop called Diamonds and Guns and it had this great hand-painted sign, too. I jotted that title down in a notebook and figured I’d use it for something some day. It’s one of my favourites on the record and it just has a lot of truth in it for me.
Who are your main musical influences?
JL: There’s a lot, but Hank Williams I’ve heard for as long as I can remember and I just don’t think it gets better than that. Bob Dylan changed the way I wanted to write, Lennon and The Beatles made me wanna start playing, and Lightnin’ Hopkins was the coolest. When I was 13, my grandparents’ neighbour was giving away blues records. I just thought Lightnin’ looked cool – I hadn’t heard of him. When I listened to it, it was just wild – so natural, no bullshit. Leonard Cohen was also an early influence – my dad came home one day and gave me the first Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man.
‘My dad came home one day and gave me the first Leonard Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man’
You’re heading out on a European and UK tour. What can we expect?
JL: I’m really looking forward to it – it’ll be my first time overseas in general. They’re all full-band shows and this line-up has been together for over 11 years, so it’s nice to do this together for the first time. What can you expect? I don’t know – I’ll just be singing my songs. I’m not ready to do anything flashy yet.
What music – new and old – are you currently digging?
JL: Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone; Ronnie Lane – See Me; Graham Nicholas – Dial Tones And Pretty Notes, and Ann Peebles – I Can’t Stand The Rain.
If I’m home I listen to a lot of music – the first thing I do when I wake up is put a record on. I don’t love silence.
So, what next? Can we expect a triple album?
JL: Why stop there?
Finally, what kind of mood are you currently in: Nonsense or Heartache?
JL: I’m in a Nonsense and Heartache selling mood.
Nonsense and Heartacheby Jerry Leger is out now on Latent Recordings. For a full list of European and UK tour dates, go to https://jerryleger.com/