‘We didn’t want any fiddles or sailors on this album’

JF1_4934b (1)

Husband and wife folk-rock duo The Rails – James Walbourne and Kami Thompson – are back. Their much-anticipated second album, Other People, is out on September 1.

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ray Kennedy [Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams], it’s a darker, heavier and more electric record than their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Fair Warning. 

Moving away from the band’s traditional folk roots – it has ‘psychedelic’ tinges and groovy ’60s organ – it’s an album of 10 self-penned songs and isn’t afraid to speak its mind and deal with modern social issues.

The title track is a rallying call against those who are out for themselves, while Brick and Mortar is an angry protest song that laments the death of London – it’s part funeral march, part Kinks. 

The album feels like a record that’s about people who aren’t at ease with the world in which they live…

I took James [guitars, vocals, keyboards] and Kami [vocals and guitar] down the pub to find out more…

Rails-Packshot

Q & A

You recorded the new album in Nashville, at Room & Board Studio, with producer Ray Kennedy, who’s worked with acts including Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Why did you decide to make the new album in Nashville?

James: It was because Ray was there – I just wanted to work with Ray. Nashville had no bearing or influence on the record in any way.

You haven’t made a ‘Nashville country album,’ have you?

James: It honestly had nothing to do with country – it was cheaper to make the record with Ray in Nashville than to fly him over to the UK. We didn’t see any of Nashville. We got there, we drove to a house where we were staying and then to the studio – and that’s what we did for about a week. It was bloody hard work.

Kami: It was quite stressful – we had a small budget and very little time.

Why did you want to work with Ray Kennedy?

James: We were struggling with whom we were going to get to produce it, as we wanted to do something different, and then he came to mind. One morning, I thought, ‘It would be great if Ray could do it’…

Ray had worked on a 1998 album called Domestic Blues by my friend Bap Kennedy – I spoke to Bap about him – and then Ray Davies also said that I should work with Ray. It all came together. Ray Kennedy is a genius…

And so is Ray Davies…

James: He is! Ray Kennedy had also worked on some of my favourite records, like Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues, which sounds heavy. We wanted to do a heavier record that was less folky. We wanted this album to be more of a rock band approach – more of a psychedelic thing. Maybe ‘psychedelic’ is too much… we wanted a whittled-down approach, with two electric guitars, bass and keyboards. We didn’t want any fiddles on it…

Kami: Or sailors.

James: If you’re in Nashville, you’ve got to watch the fiddle because it then becomes a country fiddle…

There is a pedal steel guitar on the album…

James: Yes – Eric Heyward played on one track.

‘We wanted to do a heavier record that was less folky – more of a rock band approach’

Can you tell me about the musicians you worked with on the new album? They weren’t Nashville guys, were they?

James: It’s funny – I knew we were going to get asked about the Nashville thing, but everyone that was involved – apart from Ray – wasn’t from Nashville. Cody Dickinson was on our first record – he’s the drummer in the North Mississippi Allstars and he lives in Memphis – he’s an old friend, so it was a no-brainer.

Jim Boquist [on bass] is another old friend of mine and he was in the first incarnation of Son Volt – he’s from Minneapolis. He has a punk-rock edge, ‘cos he used to hang out with The Replacements – he’s a good friend of Paul Westerberg’s. We had a different mix of people – from Memphis to Minneapolis is a huge world away and then there was us with the English folk thing…. we wanted to see what it would sound like.

Your first album was recorded in London with Edwyn Collins as producer. How was it working with Ray on this album? How did it compare?

James: It was as bonkers – they’re both as bonkers as each other.

Kami: It was a whole different substrata of bonkers…

James: They’re both in analogue mode – everything’s old and analogue…. This time [in Nashville], there were compressors that were used at MGM for Hank Williams and there were thousands of guitars – it was amazing.

Kami: You couldn’t let your gaze rest on anything for too long, because Ray would say, ‘Are you looking at that compressor? That’s the compressor that The Beatles used…’

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album.

You’ve said that this record is a move away from the more traditional folk sound of your debut, but there’s still a folk feel to some of the tracks, particularly the opening song The Cally and the title track and first single, Other People…

JamesYes – that’s true.

Other People has a pretty, folk-pop melody, but, lyrically it’s quite an angry song, isn’t it?

James: (laughing) I keep hearing that from people – I didn’t mean it to be that angry!

The opening line is, ‘crazy people, money-grabbers, old religions and new regimes, back-stabbers, heart-breakers, psychopaths with evil schemes….’

It sounds to me like a comment on the state of the world – a rallying call against selfish people and those who are just using others to further their own means…

James: It started with me being pissed off about people who should get off their high horse. It’s when you walk down the street…

Kami: It’s that huge lack of social manners.

James: It seems to be everywhere now. It’s about the internet and all the other stuff – it’s this (he points to his mobile phone) all the time…

But the song feels like it’s about bigger issues…

James: It grew into that – it got angrier and angrier as we were writing it. It’s a selfish world… I get the feeling that everyone’s out for themselves – they should care about their fellow man a little more.

Kami: It’s a theme on which you can easily zoom in and out.

It’s got a gorgeous tune, though…

James: You’ve got to be able to whistle it – you can’t give it all away.

‘There’s more of ourselves in this album… It definitely feels darker, but it wasn’t intentional’

It’s lighter than some of the other songs on the album, which I think is a very dark record, lyrically…

James: I guess it is.

It’s darker than the first album…

James: There’s more of ourselves in this album… It definitely feels darker, but it wasn’t intentional.

Kami: I can’t remember the last time either of us wrote a particularly cheerful song.

JF1_4757 crop

I think there are recurring themes on the record – the title track, Late Surrender, Leaving The Land and Brick and Mortar all seem to be songs about people who aren’t at ease with the world in which they live…

Kami: That’s a good way of summing it up.

There’s a line in the song Other People that seems to sum up the whole record for me – ‘we’re all strangers in our own time.’ Have the songs been shaped by current political and social issues?

Kami: Yes – absolutely. A lot of the album was written at a time when we were going to have to move out of London because we couldn’t afford to buy somewhere to live, so that was playing on our minds. And also maybe it’s the age we are – I think that plays a part. The song Leaving The Land was written about thinking we would have to leave London.

The album’s opening song, The Cally, is one of the more folky songs on the record. It’s about the characters who lived and worked on Caledonian Road in North London and it also mentions Pentonville Prison.

You like a prison song, don’t you? You had two on your first album – Send Her To Holloway and Borstal…

James: We love a prison song!

What was the inspiration for The Cally?

James: It was all down to my granddad, whose flat we’re now living in. He died a couple of years ago – he was 92. One day, we were in the kitchen and he was talking to me about when he lived and grew up around ‘The Cally’ and Almeida Street in Islington.

He liked to talk about the old days – he was telling me about a woman called ‘Woodbine Nellie’ who used to ‘work’ on the street. She was a lady of the night and I thought, ‘that’s a good name’.

I was walking down Caledonian Road one day and I started humming a song and I wrote it when I got home – I did it really quickly.

After The Cally, the next song on the record is Late Surrender. James – musically, it reminds me of some of the tracks you’ve played on with Pete Bruntnell…  [James has been a guitarist for several acts, including UK singer-songwriter Pete Bruntnell, Ray Davies, Son Volt, The Pernice Brothers, The Pogues and The Pretenders – he’s in the current Pretenders line-up]

It has a kind of Americana feel and jangly guitars…

James: Yes – it’s more rock. I can’t stand the term ‘Americana’ – I’ve never liked it.

Kami: I’m fairly allergic to the term ‘Americana’. It’s just English people playing American music – and, most of the time, quite badly.

Drowned In Blue and Hanging On are both melancholy songs – the former has a country feel to it, which is down to the pedal steel guitar.Was that a little bit of Nashville rubbing off on you?

James: It was – we thought we’d better give it a nod and Eric [Heyward] was in town. He’d been up all night, drinking moonshine with Tony Joe White’s drummer and they both rolled in… but he played amazing. He’s one of the best – a pedal steel stylist. No one else sounds like that guy.

Drowned In Blue has some psychedelic moments on it, too…

James: Exactly. We wanted to do what Ray Kennedy had done on those Steve Earle records – suddenly go from country to a Beatles thing. It’s like ‘what the fuck?’ It’s different from the folk thing. I wanted him to do his thing and put his stamp on it.

Kami: With our first album, we set out to make a folk-rock record with a ‘70s vibe, but an updated version of it. The first record was more of a concept – we had an idea and we worked towards making that happen. We wrote a few songs for it that were in that vein and we arranged some traditional songs in that style. With the new album, we wanted to make a heavier record – it felt more natural to us and it’s more of a reflection of the things that we like to listen to. We don’t listen to any folk music.

‘I’m fairly allergic to the term ‘Americana’. It’s just English people playing American music – and, most of the time, quite badly’

So do you feel like you’ve been tarred with the folk brush?

James: Not now, because we’ve got the new album…

Is folk a dirty word?

Kami: Not at all… I just hate anything that hasn’t got balls – I like things to have a bit of grit.

James: That’s what it’s about. It doesn’t matter whether it’s folk, or rock… we just wanted to make some great songs that had some grit. We wanted to sound heavier and for it to be electrified.

Drowned In Blue and Hanging On both seem to share a common theme – they’re songs about people who are at the end of their tether… maybe even suicidal…

Kami: James is regularly at the end of his tether!

James: That’s how I feel constantly! It’s funny talking about the themes of the songs because I hadn’t given it that much thought – I didn’t think about how dark it was. You’re right.

Kami: James is more the homicidal side of our marriage – I’m more suicidal! We should get some-T shirts made…

rails pub new

We’re talking about how dark the album is – there’s actually a song on it called Dark Times. It’s about an abusive relationship…

James: Yes – it’s another abusive relationship song. It’s meant to be like one of those old ‘60s songs – a Dan Penn-type song. It’s Dann Penn-lite.

And it ends with some groovy ‘60s organ….

James: Organs are hip! It was meant to be like Cream doing a folk song.

Brick and Mortar is my favourite song on the album.

Kami: Mine, too.

It deals with how old London is being torn down by greedy property developers and it laments what’s happened to some of the old pubs, areas like Soho and famous places like Denmark Street – Tin Pan Alley…

Kami: It’s the rich taking over the world…

It’s a song about the death of London and, appropriately, it’s a kind of funeral march…

James: It really is – a very fast one.

And it reminds me of The Kinks….

James: It is a bit Kinks-y, but it started out as slow and acoustic – like something from Oliver.

Brick and Mortar is a protest song – in fact several of the songs on the album could be seen as ‘protest songs’, couldn’t they?

Kami: I think the whole album is a rant!

James: It does feel like more of a rant…

Let’s talk about your songwriting process? Do you write together or separately?

Kami: For the most part, we write separately, but James will finish a middle eight or a chorus for me and I’ll write some lyrics for him – or vice versa. We tend to each have written most of the song before the other person gets involved.

James: The songs are mostly written – it’s just tweaking.

Kami: There’s only one of my songs on the new album – Leaving The Land. James had written loads and by the time I went to put my songs into the ring, they weren’t really in the same vein.

James: I wrote furiously for a long time…

‘I think the whole album is a rant!’

What music are you listening to at the moment?

James: I like the new albums by Jason Isbell and Randy Newman. The Randy Newman album is called Dark Matter and it’s bonkers – I listened to it in the bath last night. It’s pushing the boundaries – it’s mental. I’ve been listening to the Elvis album A Boy From Tupelo – it’s his early recordings re-mastered.

Kami: I’m having a funny couple of weeks. Do you ever get those weeks when you’re allergic to music? Nothing’s right.

The other day I went through every record that I thought I might want to listen to and I ended up listening to Radio 4. Maybe it’s because we’re gearing up to tour and I’m learning songs. I think my brain’s full.

Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with?

James: That’s an interesting question. A lot of them are dead!

Kami: A palate cleanser for myself would be a non-collaboration – just to quietly do my own thing.

James: I think that’s true for both of us – I think I’m going to do it as well.

What are the pros and cons of being a married couple in a band? Is it hard?

James: Yes – you never want to do any work!

Kami: It’s very difficult to carve out time to work.

James: We have real arguments about it– we’ve got very different views on music and everything….

Kami: Music is all James does, but I go into a non-music mode between records – I sometimes have to switch that mode back on.

James: This year I haven’t stopped working – we’ve done the album, the rest of the year is solid and we’ve got stuff lined up for next year – we’re doing another Rails tour and there’s Pretenders stuff on the go. I’ve written a few songs with Chrissie Hynde and there’s a Pretenders live album coming out in a couple of months.

You’re heading out on a nine-day UK tour in September and then you’re supporting The Pretenders after that. What can we expect?

Kami: It’s stripped down – a four-piece band.

James: It’s two electric guitars, bass and drums.

James – you’ll be playing guitar in The Pretenders, too. How do you feel about supporting yourself on tour?

James: It’s not ideal… It will be a long time, but we needed to do it. Chrissie Hynde loves us – thank God – and she’s very vocal about us.

Kami: It will be like when A Mighty Wind opened up for Spinal Tap!

James: I might have a costume change…

So what’s a typical Rails tour like? Is it rock and roll?

James: Rock and roll? There aren’t many tours that are rock and roll anymore…

The-Rails back

Other People – the new album by The Rails – is released on September 1 on Sony / Red Essential.

The Rails are touring the UK in September:

September 11 – Glasgow, King Tuts Wah Wah Hut

Tues 12  – Leicester, The Musician
Tue 13 – Hull, The Adelphi
Thurs 14 – Hedben Bridge, The Trades Club
Fri 15 – Manchester, The Deaf Institute
Mon 18 – Cambridge, Junction 2
Tues 19 – Norwich, Arts Centre
Wed 20 – London,  The Borderline
Thurs 21 – Newbury, Arlington Arts Centre

http://www.therailsofficial.com/

 

 

‘Most of these songs either started, or finished, at my kitchen table’

smallIMG_0343.jpg

Nick Piunti has hit a power pop purple patch. Trust Your Instincts – the new album from the Detroit singer-songwriter – is his third long-player in just under four years and it doesn’t disappoint. 

It picks up where his last record, 2015’s Beyond The Staticleft off and it’s also a worthy companion piece to his 2013 classic – 13 In My Head – a firm favourite here at Say It With Garage Flowers.

I spoke to Nick to find out the story behind the writing and recording of Trust Your Instincts – an album that was made with the help of a kitchen table, coffee, wine, an iPhone and a trusty Fano JM6 guitar…

 

With the title track, which opens the album, we’re immediately plunged back into classic Piunti power pop territory. What can you tell us about that song and why did you decide to name the album after it?

Nick Piunti: The title track was written for my oldest daughter, who is 20 and was going through a tough time with her boyfriend – now ex-boyfriend.

Most of the songs on this album – if not all of them –  had the good fortune of the lyrics and the melodies coming at the same time. That’s not always the case. For me, if the lyrics come later, they sometimes never come at all.  I always end up with several unfinished songs because the lyrical inspiration wasn’t there in the first place.

When recording the song, Geoff Michael (producer) and I encouraged Donny Brown (drummer) to summon his inner Keith Moon. It took a little bit of prodding, but it paid off. The acoustic guitars also seem Who-like to me.The song really came together for me when Ryan Allen added his double tracked guitars. Ryan played guitar on five songs from the album. He came up with some great parts, as he always does, and it really propelled this song.

I had several working titles for the album, but Ryan suggested calling it Trust Your Instincts.  I initially didn’t want one of the song titles to also be the album title, for the reason of not wanting to bring too much attention to just one track, but the title definitely fits this album.

I pretty much do trust my instincts when making records and, as my wife would tell you (or is that I tell her?), I’m almost always right…

 

 

How did you approach this album from a writing and recording process? You used the same studio and core musicians as the last album, didn’t you?

NP: Yes – we used the same studio, Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, with Geoff Michael engineering and producing. Also Andy Reed recorded all of his bass parts at his studio, Reed Recording Company, and Donny Brown tracked his drums to Fade Out in his own studio.

We also did a few overdubs at both Andy’s and Donny’s. Ryan Allen recorded a few harmonies in his basement and David Feeny, who owns The Tempermill Studio, recorded the pedal steel parts on Dumb It Down at his great studio.

Rachael Davis, who sings the beautiful harmony vocal on Dumb It Down, recorded her part in Nashville. With today’s technology, it is so easy to just send tracks from one studio to another. It opens up some options and saves a lot of driving. But most of the sounds were recorded at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

As far as writing the album, most of the songs either started, or finished, at my kitchen table. There’s something about that setting that works really well for me. In the morning, it’s me, with my acoustic guitar, coffee, and my iPhone to capture the ideas.

In the evening, I substitute the coffee with wine. My house is hardly ever empty, so somehow my family puts up with my process. They would probably rather have me in the basement, but I like the sunlight and the acoustics and I like them close by.

What were you listening to while you made the record? Did any of those influences filter through into the sound of Trust Your Instincts? What sound were you aiming for with this album?

NP: I listened to a lot of guitar pop. I do remember listening to Paul Westerberg’s album Eventually, Mac McCaughan’s Non Believers, Love Axe’s South Dakota, Ryan Allen’s demos, Guided by Voices, Nada Surf, Weezer, Beach Slang and Nude Beach.  You wouldn’t believe how many bands have Beach in their name!

I don’t ever try to make an album that is directly influenced by one band or sound.  The song usually dictates the direction. I do remember telling Geoff, after the album was recorded, to make it sound like Nada Surf, but I changed my mind afterwards, so we settled on making it sound like a Nick Piunti record.

 

One Hit Wonder is one of my favourite songs on the album – it has a slight Beatles-esque feel. The intro is a bit Dear Prudence/ psych – and the melody is great – very infectious. I also love the killer guitar solo.What was the inspiration behind it?  

NP: Yeah – One Hit Wonder seemed like the obvious ‘single’ to me.  I originally wrote it with a simpler muted eighth note progression, but I thought it was too simple and obvious.  So I came up with the riff played through a pedal that emulates a Mellotron. That adds to The Beatles sound for sure.

The lyrics are about a relationship that was more about lust than love, but I used the musical reference of a one hit wonder to sum up the affair:  “We were a one hit wonder couldn’t follow it up”.  That kind of says it all.

And thanks, the guitar solo is one of mine. I usually hear the solo in my head then try to find the notes on the guitar. I used a Fano JM6 for a lot of the guitar parts on this album. It seems each album I make has one starring guitar. The verse melody evolved a bit and my phrasing reminded me of something that Mike Viola would do. I never intentionally try to write like one of my influences, but if it comes out that way innocently, then I’m fine with that.

smallTYI Back cover.jpg

 

Dumb It Down is another highlight for me. It’s a gorgeous pop song. Where did it come from? It has a slight country feel in the latter part of the song, with some pedal steel…

NP: That song was a tough one to write, in the sense that it was very personal. The first line, “another day without fiction, I keep it to myself,” came to me after leaving a friend who was slowly succumbing to cancer.

His name was Merle, he was our band’s manager, when we were a bunch of snotty 12-year-olds, and he was really instrumental in my musical journey.

Though the song changes perspective, I felt like the verse was from Merle’s point of view and the chorus was mine, or any of his many friends that would miss him when he wouldn’t be around any longer. The second verse was about how our band Dwarf didn’t make it. Merle wanted to know that I was ok with all those years we put into the band.  I assured him that it wasn’t a waste of time at all. And that I would do it all again…

I know you like pedal steel, so I threw that in for you. David Feeny happens to play great pedal steel. He sent several tracks played through the entire song and Geoff and I picked the parts we liked the best. David recorded a really nice solo, but Geoff thought I should try something as well. And Geoff suggested a female voice in the chorus. The song came out prettier than I expected it to be, which balances out some of the more rocking moments.

There’s a song on the album called This Ain’t The Movies. What’s your favourite movie and who would you like to play you in the Nick Piunti biopic?

NP: My favourite movie? The easy answer would be The Godfather, but these days most of my movies are of the animated variety that my youngest daughter wants to see.

Comedies are easier for me to watch over and over again: Me Myself and Irene, Caddy Shack, Blazing Saddles, Animal House.

Who would play me in a movie?  My wife says George Clooney, but I’m not sure how George sings… If the movie was about a younger me, then there’s an actor named Logan Lerman who my wife says would be a good fit.

The final song on the album, Stay Where You Are, takes things down a notch – it has a more of an acoustic, mid-paced feel. What can you tell us about that song?

NP: Stay Where You Are is loosely based on a past relationship, where it’s obvious to one that the best days are behind them. It’s a simple chord progression, I have probably written this type of song many times before, but it really seems to connect with quite a few people.

It seemed to be the perfect closing song for the album. And I kept the album to ten songs, because I feel that’s enough. I would like for people to listen to the album in one sitting and 36 minutes seems like enough time to ask.

How’s the rest of the year shaping up for you? Knowing you, you’re probably working on your next album already… Can you give us any clues?

NP: The album has just been released on September 9 on Jem Records and I’ve been getting several songs played on The Loft Sirius XM radio, as well as countless smaller stations. WDET in Detroit has always been a great promoter of my music.

There are so many internet radio stations that play my music, from The Ice Cream Man Power Pop Show in Sweden, Jeff Shelton’s Power Pop Show in California, Alan Haber’s Pure Pop, Jim Prell, Howard Byrne, Pop That Goes Crunch, Craig Leve, Dave the Boogieman… so many guys that pour their hearts into promoting power pop for those of us that have never outgrown it. I can’t thank them enough, or the reviewers out there that really make my day when they post their articles. So, getting the music out there is a priority.

Playing live is awesome. It’s hard to do a lot of that, but there’s nothing else like it. I’m always writing, so there are new songs in the works, but I’m not rushing back into the studio yet. Three albums in four years took a lot of work. I may take a bit of a breather before the next one. Of course, I’ve said that before…

 

 

Nick Piunti’s new album, Trust Your Instincts, is available now on Jem Records. Its predecessor, Beyond The Static, has just been reissued on limited edition coloured vinyl by Sugarbush Records.

 

For more information: 

https://nickpiuntimusic.bandcamp.com/

http://www.nickpiunti.com/

http://www.jemrecordings.com/

http://www.sugarbushrecords.com/ 

 

 

 

‘We jammed a version of The Ballad of El Goodo and I collapsed afterwards’

ATH197810

 

The sound of the summer is here! 

Oxford’s jangly-pop maestros The Dreaming Spires are back with a new eight-track EP/mini-album called Paisley Overground, which was partly recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, in Memphis, where Big Star made their seminal albums.

The record features four songs from The Dreaming Spires (Paisley Overground, Harberton Mead, Silverlake Sky and The Road Less Travelled), as well as four from other acts – Sid Griffin & Tony Poole, Co-Pilgrim, The Hanging Stars and The Raving Beauties.

I asked Robin Bennett – who, with his brother Joe – are the main members of The Dreaming Spires – about the new EP, recording in Memphis and the band’s plans for the rest of the year…

 

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were talking about your last album Searching For The Supertruth, which was nominated for this year’s UK Americana Awards.  Now you’re back with another new record – the Paisley Overground EP. You’re unstoppable. What’s the secret to being so prolific?

Robin Bennett: Thank you for calling us unstoppable. We’re more like a swan, paddling frantically under the water. There are a few factors – I try to write songs every day, even if I only have a few moments, or I’m on the bus, typing things into my phone.

I also have a well of songs written a few years ago with my friend Daniel Power from New Orleans. Silverlake Sky [from the new EP]  is one of those, but updated. Our drummer, Jamie, has emigrated to the US, so when he is over here, or if by some good fortune we are there, we try to get some recording done.

Joe and I have our own studio – Truck Studios – where we recorded overdubs for this EP, and we are very lucky to have Tony Poole and Rowland Prytherch on hand to mix our recordings to the amazing standard that they do – it’s really a team effort. That said, we are nowhere near as prolific as Co-Pilgrim, Joe’s other band.

ARDENT-CONTROLROOM.jpg

Three of the new songs were recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, in Memphis – the home of cult power-pop band Big Star. How was that experience?

RB: When we were in the US for AmericanaFest last September, we slightly extended our stay to fit in a visit to Memphis – our fans will know we had never been there before. It was viable to record for nearly a whole day at Ardent Studios, so we made sure we had rehearsed some material and cut it mostly live. When we got home, we added some overdubs to some of them, including Joe’s recently purchased pedal steel, finishing three tracks.

Big Star were a formative influence for The Dreaming Spires’ sound, undoubtedly. When our previous band Goldrush were in the US, we were introduced to Big Star via The Ballad of El Goodo, which I learned to play before I even knew who it was by. It became a really special song for us.

Soon enough we got into all the Big Star albums. For me, Memphis is the place where the music we love came together, whether it’s Chuck Berry, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Stax… All of that is hinted at in the music of Big Star, and their style is accessible for us because they were trying to emulate British groups.

Memphis has a very different style to Nashville – there’s more of an edge. It’s the melting pot of American music. All kinds of stuff has been recorded at Ardent, including REM’s Green, which was another formative album for us as teenagers. It’s a very well equipped studio, where you can set up and record live – which is what we did.

The room we used was actually designed for ZZ Top! Jody Stephens, the drummer and surviving original member of Big Star, is the studio manager. We thought perhaps he might drop by, and he did, even singing some backing vocals on a version of Dusty in Memphis, which we recorded the same day.

We kept teasing Jamie, our drummer, that Jody would have to step in if he didn’t play the songs right. Are we really that mean? Maybe that’s why he emigrated.

At the end, we jammed  a version of The Ballad of El Goodo with Jody and it was almost too much. I slightly collapsed afterwards.

Four of the songs on the EP are by The Dreaming Spires and four are by other artists. I’m confused… What’s the concept behind the new record?

RB: Paisley Overground was a throwaway phrase that almost demanded some kind of scene to be built around it. Much as the Paisley Underground was (mostly) LA bands reconstructing The Byrds’ sound with some modern attitudes, this is our British version in 2016.

We had also worked with Sid Griffin [The Long Ryders, Coal Porters ] on a gig showcasing the songs of David Crosby a couple of years ago, which was a really fun experience.

Tony Poole, who worked on our last album and mixed the first two tracks on this EP, had actually worked up a track with Sid called Tell Her All The Time, which is on side two. Rich from The Hanging Stars is an old friend, The Raving Beauties are on our manager’s label, and of course Co-Pilgrim is Joe’s excellent other band.

The proof of concept is that side two hangs together really well – it almost sounds like a Buffalo Springfield album, but with different singers.

The title track is an instant, chiming jangle-pop classic, with a touch of country. It’s a paean to your love of the Paisley Underground scene and the 12-string guitar sound. How did the song come about? Why do you love the Paisley Underground scene so much?

RB: Ever since I heard Turn! Turn! Turn! And A Hard Day’s Night as a kid, I’ve instinctively loved the sound. You can hear it on some songs from the Goldrush catalogue too.

I think there’s something about a 12-string, where you have two strings for each note, which creates an automatic, psychedelically-enhanced effect – you get a drone from the low strings in octaves, and the high E and B strings are the same pitch, but tuned slightly differently. A lot of music from different cultures uses drones and resonant strings, and a 12-string guitar has a bit of that.

Growing up, we also loved the jangle of early The Stone Roses, REM, and Ride. We backed Mark Gardener from Ride between 2003-2006, including several US tours, and I usually played his Rickenbacker 12-string, a custom John Lennon version I believe, so we weren’t the first Oxford band to like them.

The first I heard about the Paisley Underground scene was from Danny  [Daniel Power]. He was also the road manager on those early tours with Mark Gardener and he lived in LA. We stayed with him a lot and got a feel for it, without becoming an expert on any of the bands.

I just liked the phrase, and what it stood for – a kind of contemporary revival of classic sounds and songwriting, sometimes with an edge of psychedelic exploration.

I’m sure in reality it was a pretty small scene, but with a big influence. We’ve done shows with Sid Griffin and Chuck Prophet in recent years and heard a bit more about it.

It’s easy to feel like you miss out on scenes or moments in music, especially when you read too many music books and watch too many documentaries, but I hope the song and the EP as whole create our own shared moment.

The 12-string electrics I use now both belong to Joe – as the song suggests, I still don’t own one. One Danelectro and one Rickenbacker.

You are right in spotting a touch of country in the recording too – Joe made a purchase from Pedal Steels of Nashville when we were there, and this was his first attempt to play it on record.

LITTLEROCK.JPG

Let’s talk about the other Dreaming Spires songs on the EP. What inspired Harberton Mead and The Road Less Travelled? 

RB: Harberton Mead is a road in Oxford. I lived in Oxford for years and never knew the road – it’s full of gated mansions.

Some friends ended up living in a shared house there owned by the university, and the name stuck with me. It has a mystery to it, like Itchycoo Park or Penny Lane.

The Road Less Travelled was a song I had left over from the last album, but I wanted to record it at Ardent because it had a hint of The Ballad of El Goodo about it. The lyric is quite mysterious – even to me.

I think it’s almost a conclusion to the narrative on the first two albums, but not in any obvious way. It’s quite a trippy lyric.

I’ve read that the song Silverlake Sky was written on Sunset Strip, the heart of The Paisley Underground, and recorded in Oxfordshire using a ’60s Eko 12-string acoustic guitar. Can you tell me about how you wrote and recorded the track?

RB: Between 2004-2007 I wrote a lot of songs with Danny, my friend mentioned previously. He lived between Echo Park and Silverlake, at “the house on Elsinore”.

Our whole band would often stay at his house, with much drinking and many evening sing-alongs, but we also developed a songwriting partnership – both there and when he’d visit the UK.

I found the lyric in my notebook from those sessions but I couldn’t remember the original tune properly, so I approximated it and added the vocal part at the beginning.

When we wrote it we were envisaging a struggling Hollywood actor or musician with too much of a focus on the lifestyle. There were plenty of those around.

I can still recall the warm aromas of a Silverlake evening, and the glory of the Californian sunsets. Pretty exciting when you’re from Oxfordshire.

The allure was too much for our drummer, Jamie, who has moved to LA. He actually lived there before, when he was in another band.

We found a moment to record the song when he was here last summer, and the acoustic 12-string ties it in nicely with the other tunes. I actually bought it on impulse at one of Clubhouse’s Record Store Day events in Amersham a couple of years ago. A real bargain.

ARDENT-LIVEROOM

The new EP is coming out on 12in vinyl. Are The Dreaming Spires vinyl junkies?

RB: We’ve always loved it, whether playing our dad’s collection as kids, collecting singles in the ‘90s, or picking up $1 classic albums in American thrift stores.

Our music tastes would be completely different without vinyl – the way it has allowed us to stumble upon discoveries. It’s not that convenient, and I probably listen to CDs more, but there’s something that gives you an instant artistic feel from the object. You can pass it around. I don’t get that from streaming, convenient though it is, and I still find the choice overwhelming.

Twelve inch vinyl works so well as an art object – I love coloured vinyl, too. This EP is going to be translucent purple, I believe. It’s a really nice end point for a recording project to see it on vinyl. I don’t agree with those who say they love the crackle of vinyl, though. Modern pressings are usually much better.

How’s the rest of the year shaping up for you? Do you have any festival gigs planned and any shows gigs in the UK or elsewhere?

RB: We’re doing some Paisley Overground shows with the excellent bands from side two of the EP – Co-Pilgrim, The Hanging Stars and The Raving Beauties – in London, Brighton, Didcot and Winchester.There are more extensive tour plans for the autumn coming together.

As you’re so prolific, surely you must’ve written another album by now?

RB: I have, or perhaps two! It’s certainly a new chapter. I think this EP is my sign-off from jangle. But I’m probably wrong…

Finally, what music – old and new – are you currently listening to and enjoying?

RB: I’m enjoying lots of the current crop of US songwriters, like John Moreland, Austin Lucas, Jason Isbell and Sam Outlaw.

I’m also listening to the Simon and Garfunkel box set, The Everly Brothers. Jimmy Ruffin’s Greatest Hits – when I can get it not to skip). The Lovin’ Spoonful. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Byrds – Untitled.

I loved the music performed by all our fellow nominees at the UK Americana Awards – it was a special night.

And, of course, the new albums by The Hanging Stars, Co-Pilgrim and The Raving Beauties. There’s plenty of good music out there….

Paisley Overground is out on At The Helm Records on June 10 on coloured 12in vinyl and download.

For more info: http://www.thedreamingspires.co.uk/

 

‘Making this record was intense – I was down in the basement on my own for long periods’

peter_bruntnell22mar16

National newspaper The Guardian recently described Peter Bruntnell as a cult hero – ‘an alt-country genius from Surrey’.

His new album, Nos Da Comrade, is one of my favourite records of the year so far and it’s also picked up rave reviews from publications including The Sun, The Mirror and Mojo.

Described by Peter as his most upbeat collection of songs ever, it opens with Mr Sunshine – a killer blast of Elvis Costello-like power-pop that’s an attack on Donald Trump: “an Agent Orange tan and a shiny suit.”

Elsewhere on the record, there’s an awesome, nine-minute, moody rock epic with heavy, Neil Young-style guitar riffing (Yuri Gagarin), the jangly, Teenage Fanclub-esque sounds of Rainstars and Fishing the Flood Plain and the gorgeous, melancholy, acoustic ballad End of the World.

Could this be the album that takes Peter Bruntnell into the mainstream? I spoke to him to find out…

 

How are you?  The last time we saw each other, I bought you the last pint of Guinness in the venue when you played a solo show upstairs at The Railway in Winchester, at the SC4M festival in 2014. You’re playing there again this year, on September 11. It’s always a good gig, isn’t it?

Peter Bruntnell: I’m fine thanks, Sean. Thanks for the Guinness! Yes, the Winchester gig with Oliver Gray [promoter / organiser] is always a highlight of any tour, what with the cheese, wine and whisky post-show party…

 

Congratulations on the new album – it’s superb. Let’s talk about the first single and the opening track, Mr Sunshine, which I first saw you play with your band at the 2013 SC4M festival.

It’s an anti-Donald Trump song and it deals with the issue of him destroying a Scottish fishing community in order to build a luxury golf resort. Can you tell me how the song came about? When and how was it written?

PB: I had the descending riff and a general idea of the tune before [co-writer] Bill Ritchie and I came up with the lyrics. It had an ‘anti-somebody’ vibe about it and I had recently seen the documentary about Trump and the golf course, so it was an easy decision to make.

It reminds me of classic Elvis Costello/New Wave power-pop. Is that the sound you were going for?

PB: I’m really glad people think it’s like Elvis Costello. I had The Kinks in mind, but I suppose it’s a similar comparison. It was an attempt to move to a sound that is less Americana and more Sixties guitar pop.

One of my favourite songs on the album is Yuri Gagarin. It’s almost nine minutes long – an epic. It’s very moody and features lots of loud, dirty, Neil Young-style electric guitar. Is that you on lead guitar? It’s an awesome sound…

PB: Yes – that’s me on guitar. First take luck, I think. It was just myself, Mick Clews on drums and Peter Noone on bass in a village hall – our mock studio.

We played all the songs live, together in the room, with headphones on, and my amp screened off in a cupboard. We played it once, listened back and knew I would never play the guitar like that again, so that was it. The vocals were overdubbed later.

What’s the background to the song, which is named after the famous Russian cosmonaut?

PB: Again, with this, I had the guitar riff first and the lyrics just came – eventually. Bill came up with a lot of them for this song and once we were in space, I had to make it about Yuri. I remember hearing about it when I was a little boy. What an amazing thing – the first man in space.

The opening riff dictates the vibe immediately – it’s atmospheric and stoned I suppose, although we weren’t…

I used a Valvepower 18 watt cage amp, which was made in Surbiton by a friend of mine. They are amazing amps – all hand-wired. I built most of it myself, with his supervision.

How did you approach the making of Nos Da Comrade? Did you have a bunch of songs written before you went to record the album? What kind of record were you setting out to make?

PB: Yes, all the songs were written and routined with drums, bass and myself. I wanted a live feel for the album, so we just set up. I miked all the instruments and played through the songs – simple.

It was different from my albums Peter and the Murder of Crows and Black Mountain UFO – they were more studio-produced and took much longer to make.

peter-bruntnell

You recorded and mixed the new album at home. Why did you go down that route, rather than use a producer and a studio?

PB: We used the village hall for one week, to get all the drums, bass and some guitar down. Then I went into my basement studio to overdub vocals and more guitars and keyboards etc. I did that because I have my own studio, so it’s economical and I like producing.

You worked with guitarist James Walbourne (The Rails, The Pretenders, Son Volt, Pernice Brothers, The Pogues) on this album. He’s a regular collaborator, isn’t he?

PB: Yes. I used James and Dave Little on guitars. James came down for a few days and we went through the songs that I thought would suit him. He’s such a talent and a good friend – I had to use him. Similarly with Dave – I split the songs between the three of us, so I could have different flavours on different songs. Dave is a killer guitar player, too. I’m lucky to know them.

51nT1GMBAFL

So, are you pleased with the album?

PB: I was really excited about the songs I had for this album. I have never had a batch of songs that are so upbeat before.

Once I was making the record, it got a bit intense – being so immersed in it and being down in the basement on my own for long periods. I think I may have lost perspective a few times, but now that time has passed, I can listen to the record with fresh ears and it sounds really good to me.

The record has had lots of great press and reviews, including Mojo, The Sun, The Mirror & The Guardian. The latter called you a ‘cult hero – an alt-country genius from Surrey’. How does it feel to be called a cult hero and a genius?

PB: I know one thing – Brian Wilson is a genius, but I am not. It’s good to have people write positive things though, that’s for sure.

What are your plans for the rest of the year? 

PB: We’ve got a UK tour in July – the London show is at the 100 Club on the 20th, which I’m very excited about, as I love that place.

We’re going to Ireland in early June for a few shows – Kilkenny being one of, if not the best, towns in the world. In September, we’re off to Sweden. I can’t wait to get back there – it’s really beautiful – and in October, we’ll be in Spain. I think the places one gets to visit when touring is what makes doing what we do such a blast.

After years of playing gigs and making records in the UK alt-country scene, do you feel that your new album could be the one that takes you to a wider audience? Would you like more mainstream success, or are you happy doing what you do?

PB: I would love to reach a wider audience, but with zero marketing budget and mainstream radio being what it is, I can’t honestly see it changing that much. I’m doing my best though – I’ve got a lot of positives to work on and, as a band, we are on a high at the moment.

Peter Bruntnell’s new album, Nos Da Comrade, is out now on Domestico Records.

For more information and tour dates, please visit http://peterbruntnell.net/

 

 

“I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album”

markface

 

Crime writer Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, is released in May and is based on murderous goings-on in a therapy session. I spoke to him about addiction, country music and sitting around in his pyjamas all day…

 

The last time we spoke, you’d just released The Other Half – your spoken word album with country band My Darling Clementine – and your most recent Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, had come out.

Now your new stand-alone novel, Die of Shame, is about to hit the shelves. Without giving too much away, what we can expect?

Mark Billingham: It’s a stand-alone psychological thriller and in some ways it’s a very modern take on the classic locked-room mystery, but my locked-room is a therapy group for recovering addicts.

There are six people in a circle who meet every Monday evening to talk about shame, which their therapist is convinced is the key to their problems with addiction and crucial in aiding their recovery.

One person in that group will die at the hands of another. Writing about addiction – a subject I’m fascinated by – enabled me to create a cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds, which is always an enjoyable challenge.

My best friend is a recovering addict and his experience and advice was hugely helpful. It’s a very different sort of novel from those in the Thorne series, but the bottom line is that it’s still a murder mystery and one I’m enormously proud of.

 

51UCO0OC1XL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ 

Tom Thorne usually makes a cameo appearance in your stand-alone books. Will he crop up in Die of Shame?

MB: Yes, of course he will. And Phil Hendricks is in there as well…

Music is never far away from you and some of the characters in your books – particularly Tom Thorne. What were you listening to while you were writing Die of Shame? Have you heard any new albums that have blown you away? I’m loving Richmond Fontaine’s latest record and I know you’re a big fan of them…

MB: Well, like you, I’m hugely in love with the new Richmond Fontaine album [You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To].

It might even be their best yet, which is ironic considering that it’s almost certainly their last.

I’ve recently discovered Margo Price, who is just wonderful, and I’ve been really enjoying Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.

I’ve been playing a lot of M. Ward too, and when I really need to get into a dark place, I put on Gorecki’s Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs. That stuff makes Hank Williams sound like The Wombles!

There’s not too much music in Die Of Shame, because there isn’t much Tom Thorne, but like you say, it’s never very far away…

CS608050-01B-BIG 

I recently picked up the My Darling Clementine Record Store Day EP, which features As Precious As The Flame – a song you co-wrote with the band. It must be great to have a track you worked on out on vinyl?  

MB: Absolutely – it’s a real thrill. I’m very proud of that song, which I think is a wonderful ending to the album and the live show of The Other Half. It’s fantastic to see it on the My Darling Clementine EP.

You’ve been touring The Other Half with My Darling Clementine. How was it going out on the road?

MB: The tour was a lot of fun, but bloody exhausting. Whenever I complained about all the travelling, Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine would just say, “welcome to our world”.

I drove somewhere close to 7,000 miles doing the show, so now I’m appreciating the luxury of sitting at my desk all day in my pyjamas and not having to go further than the kitchen. I adored doing it, though. Michael and Lou remain a joy to work with and I’m very proud of the show we did.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

Do you have any plans for some more musical collaborations?

MB: Collaborating is something I would highly recommend for anyone who works on their own most of the time.

Aside from the artistic benefits, it’s great to have someone to go for a beer and a curry with at the end of the day. I’m certainly up for doing something similar in the future, should the chance come along. Obviously I’m still waiting for Elvis Costello to call…

It’s going to be a busy year for you, as you’ve got some more gigs with My Darling Clementine planned, you’re promoting your new book in the UK and US and your novels In The Dark and Time of Death are being filmed for TV by the BBC. Can you tell us more about the TV adaptations?

MB: They’ve been filming for a week now and everything’s going well. Danny Brocklehurst has written four brilliant scripts and the BBC have put a fantastic cast together, so it’s really exciting.

Fans of Peep Show will be familiar with Matt King, who plays Super Hans, and it’s brilliant that we’ve got him playing Phil Hendricks.

Obviously, I’m going to spoil everything in a couple of weeks when I rock up to do my cameo, but I’m sure it will be fun.

The stories have changed a bit, as they should when you move from page to screen, and there’s no Thorne at all. The series focuses on Helen Weeks, and MyAnna Buring, who is playing her, is fantastic.

I’m sure some readers will be up in arms because the TV show is not exactly the same as the books, but how can it be? They are different animals and should be judged differently. I’m closely involved with the scripts and as an executive producer, so there’s nothing going on that I don’t completely endorse. We’re just trying to make the best TV show we can.

I fully expect my cameo to wind up on the cutting room floor, especially as I plan to ham it up shamelessly…

3582977

 

Have you started writing the next Thorne novel yet? When can we expect it to be released and can you give us a teaser?

MB: Yes, I’m halfway through the next one. There’s a new detective in Die Of Shame called Nicola Tanner. In many ways she’s the ‘anti-Thorne’, so I’m having a lot of fun putting her and Tom together in the book I’m currently writing.

Fun is perhaps the wrong word, as I’m actually writing about a subject that is very dark. I don’t want to say too much at this stage – I don’t even have a title yet – but I’ve never felt angrier writing a book. I hope that turns out to be a good thing…

Following on from your appearances on TV quiz shows Pointless and Celebrity Mastermind, you’re going to appear on Eggheads, as a member of a team of crime writers. When can we see that? 

MB: I think it’s due to go out in September. I was part of a team of crime writers, alongside Val McDermid, Martyn Waites, Doug Johnstone and Chris Brookmyre. It was a lot of fun. I’m not allowed to say how we got on against the Eggheads, but I would urge people to watch!

Finally, can you recommend any good books, other than Die of Shame?

MB: Chris Brookmyre’s newest book Black Widow is fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed David Hepworth’s book about the music of 1971 – Never A Dull Moment.

Another non-fiction recommendation would be Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari. It’s a brilliant history and detailed dissection of the war on drugs and I guarantee it will change everything you ever believed about addiction.

It’s absolutely fascinating and a huge eye-opener.

I’m currently reading John Connolly’s new Charlie Parker novel, A Time Of Torment, which is as sickeningly brilliant as usual. If I didn’t like him as much, I’d hate him…

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame, will be published in the UK by Little, Brown on May 5 and in the US by Grove Atlantic on June 7.

For more information, visit http://www.markbillingham.com/

 

 

 

Best Albums of 2015

 

minesweeping

As we approach the end of the year and overindulge in festive celebrations, hangovers are a daily occurrence.

They also played a major part in the making of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2015 – Minesweeping by O’Connell & Love.

One of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of recent times, it’s a collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell.

As Larry told me when I interviewed him about the making of the record: “What was interesting with Minesweeping was the use of hangovers in the recording process. Brendan was financing the project and, basically, at the end of the night, we’d chuck some drunken ideas down, but the most important stuff was done in the morning after. I knew that unless I did some songs in the morning, Brendan wouldn’t buy me a pint in the afternoon.”

Reviewing it earlier this year, I described it as, ‘a hung-over road trip through the badlands, stopping to pick up some hitchhikers on the way – namely guest vocalists Rumer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, June Miles-Kingston, Tenor Fly and Pete Doherty.’

The record opens with the moody, Cash-like, acoustic death row ballad, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock, visits Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood territory for the drunken, playful duet Hangover Me (feat. Rumer), travels across Europe for the sublime, blissed-out, Stonesy country-soul of  It Was The Sweetest Thing,hangs out by the riverside for the gorgeous pastoral folk of Shake Off Your Shoes (feat.Rumer) and heads out to the ocean for the Celtic sea shanty-inspired Where Silence Meets The Sea.

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

It’s an album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt – it’s like rifling through a record collection of classic rock and roll, folk, blues, country and soul.

There are nods to late ‘70s Dylan (The Man Inside The Mask), Motown (Love Is Like A Rolling Stone – feat.Tenor Fly ), Leonard Cohen (Come On, Boy – feat. Junes Miles-Kingston) and The Band (If It’s Not Broken).

I’m really looking forward to seeing O’Connell & Love play this record live in 2016 – according to Larry, there are plans for a UK tour.

In the meantime, I’m going to pour myself a large glass of something dark and strong and lose myself in Minesweeping.

One for the road, anyone?

As albums of the year go, singer-songwriters, alt.country, power-pop and Americana dominate my list.

Richard Hawley turned in a classic with Hollow Meadows, which was less psychedelic than its predecessor, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and largely rooted in country, folk and the lush, late-night, ‘50s-tinged melancholy ballads that dominated his earlier albums. Although there was still room for some bluesy-garage rock (Which Way) and anthemic, widescreen guitar pop (Heart of Oak).

I was lucky enough to meet Richard after one of his gigs this year and when I told him that I preferred his new album to the one before, he simply said, ‘Well – you can’t please everyone, Sean…’

Other singer-songwriters who released great albums this year included Manchester’s Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk – and Vinny Peculiar, whose Down The Bright Stream was a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary.

Nev Cottee

Nev Cottee

John Howard’s new project – John Howard & The Night Mail – was a wonderful record, full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.

Detroit’s Nick Piunti – a Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – returned in a blaze of glory with Beyond The Static, which was the follow-up to his critically acclaimed power-pop record 13 In My Head, while Dublin-born singer-songwriter Marc Carroll’s latest album, Love Is All or Love Is Not At All, was his most political record yet.

Dead Flowers – who topped Say It With Garage Flowers’ album of the year list back in 2013 with their debut, Midnight At The Wheel Club, didn’t disappoint with their new record – Minor & Grand, which was often louder and much more electrified than their first album.

Manchester band Last Harbour made Caul – a brooding, cinematic masterpiece that recalled Bowie’s Berlin period, the industrial, electronic atmosphere of Joy Division and the gothic splendour of Scott Walker and Nick Cave.

Steelism

Instrumental duo Steelism, with their spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, came up with a record (615 To FAME) that harked back to the glory days of ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also threw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic soundtracks.

UK Americana label Clubhouse Records had a great year in 2015, releasing superb albums by alt.country band Case Hardin (Colours Simple), whose singer-songwriter Pete Gow played a solo show that I promoted back in October, and The Dreaming Spires (Searching For The Supertruth)– Oxford’s prime exponents of ‘60s-style jangle-pop.

I must declare a vested interest in one of my favourite records of 2015 – The Other Half, a collaboration between top UK crime writer Mark Billingham and country duo My Darling Clementine.

Mark discovered My Darling Clementine by first reading about them on my blog, so, I’d like to think that I set the wheels in motion that led them to record their story of love, loss and murder that’s told in words and music and set in a rundown Memphis bar.

Sadly, not everyone who released superb albums in 2015 lived to tell the tale. Gifted, but troubled, singer-songwriter Gavin Clark (Sunhouse, Clayhill) died in February, but he left behind Evangelist – a project that was completed by James Griffith and Pablo Clements, members of UNKLE/Toydrum and the owners of the Toy Room Studios in Brighton.

Loosely based on Gavin’s life, it was a dark, edgy, atmospheric and psychedelic-tinged trip that made for uneasy – yet essential – listening.

And finally, here are some nods to acts who didn’t release studio albums this year, but put out some records that I loved.

I’m not normally a huge fan of live albums, but Johnny Marr’s Adrenalin Baby was brilliant and really captured the feel and atmosphere of his gigs – it’s worth it just to hear his outstanding, europhic version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It.

And talking of live shows, UK folk duo The Rails gave away a seven-track acoustic EP called Australia at their gigs this year.

It served as a good stopgap until their next album and featured a killer, stripped-down cover of Edwyn Collins’ Low Expectations.

Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts followed up his 2013 concept record Cold Wars Part 1 EP with the five-track sequel – What Would You Die For? [Cold Wars Part Two].

The standout track This Is A Cold War was a stately, Beatlesesque piano-led ballad. Lennon and McCarthy?

And while we’re on the subject of spies, being a huge James Bond fan, I really enjoyed A Girl And A Guna 34-track tribute album of 007 songs and soundtracks by artists including Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge.

Say It With Garage Flowers will return in 2016…

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2015 and a Spotify playlist to accompany it:

  1. O’Connell & Love – Minesweeping
  2. Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows
  3. Vinny Peculiar – Down The Bright Stream
  4. John Howard & The Night Mail – John Howard & The Night Mail
  5. Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun
  6. The Dreaming Spires – Searching For The Supertruth
  7. Dead Flowers – Minor & Grand
  8. Evangelist [Gavin Clark & Toydrum] – Evangelist
  9. Duke Garwood – Heavy Love
  10. Mark Billingham & My Darling Clementine – The Other Half
  11. Nick Piunti – Beyond The Static
  12. Case Hardin – Colours Simple
  13. Last Harbour – Caul
  14. Steelism – 615 To FAME
  15. Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night
  16. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  17. Marc Carroll – Love Is All or Not At All
  18. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  19. Gaz Coombes – Matador
  20. Wilco – Star Wars
  21. The Sopranistas – Cutting Down The Bird Hotel
  22. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  23. New Order – Music Complete
  24. GospelBeacH – Pacific Surf Line
  25. Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite
  26. Kontiki Suite – The Greatest Show On Earth
  27. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
  28. Hurricane #1 – Find What You Love And Let It Kill You
  29. Jacob Golden – The Invisible Record
  30. Ian Webber – Year of the Horse
  31. Bill Fay – Who Is The Sender?

‘We love hangovers – they’re very inspiring’

I speak to songwriting duo O’Connell & Love to find out how a stormy winter week in Hastings, afternoon drinking, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and some serious hangovers all helped to create one of the best albums of the year…

 

Larry Love and Brendan O'Connell

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

 

Minesweeping – the new record by O’Connell & Love – is one of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of 2015.

A collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell, it’s a hung-over road trip through the badlands, stopping to pick up some hitchhikers on the way – namely guest vocalists Rumer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, June Miles-Kingston, Tenor Fly and Pete Doherty.

It opens with the moody, Cash-like, acoustic death row ballad, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock, visits Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood territory for the drunken, playful duet Hangover Me (feat. Rumer), travels across Europe for the sublime, blissed-out, Stonesy country-soul of  It Was The Sweetest Thing, hangs out by the riverside for the gorgeous pastoral folk of Shake Off Your Shoes (feat.Rumer) and heads out to the ocean for the Celtic sea shanty-inspired Where Silence Meets The Sea.

An album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt, there are nods to late ‘70s Dylan (The Man Inside The Mask), Motown (Love Is Like A Rolling Stone – feat.Tenor Fly ), Leonard Cohen (Come On, Boy – feat. Junes Miles-Kingston) and The Band (If It’s Not Broken).

MID cover

The essence of the album came together when you were holed up in the Sussex seaside town of Hastings, writing songs one stormy week in winter. Can you tell me more about that time? What was the writing and recording process for the record like?

Larry Love: What was interesting with Minesweeping was the use of hangovers in the recording process. Brendan was financing the project and, basically, at the end of the night, we’d chuck some drunken ideas down, but the most important stuff was done in the morning after. I knew that unless I did some songs in the morning, Brendan wouldn’t buy me a pint in the afternoon.

We’re pretty quick at getting ideas down. We’re too long in the tooth to fuck around, in terms of working out structures and the basic platforms of rock and roll.

We’re not meandering around like 17-year-olds, listening to fucking Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Ann Peebles records, trying to work out what the formula is. We have our formula very organised.

If anything, we had too many ideas – the challenge was to get them to coalesce. Hopefully that comes across on the record. It has a certain homogenous quality to it.

It does – it feels like a complete album, from start to finish. 

You’ve said that the album was seven years in the making, due to other commitments… Were all of the songs written during that week you spent in Hastings?

Brendan O’Connell: A couple came after that and some had been hanging around for years.

You might recycle an idea that you tried to write 25 years ago, but that never really came to anything. You leave it and then come back to it years later, use it with someone else’s idea and it suddenly gets finished.

You might have an idea where the verse is really good, but you can’t get the next bit together… Then one day it suddenly comes from somewhere and you know it’s right.

LL: It was a bit like a pit bull that gets impregnated by a breeder. Eight little puppies come out and you think all the litter has been delivered. Then another five arrive two weeks later, in the ectoplasm!

So, Brendan, do you bring your musical ideas to Larry?

BO’C: Yes – some chords and a melody.

LL: A lot of them he might find in a charity shop. Sometimes the clothes don’t fit on that particular day – especially as you get older…

Lyrically, the album has a recurring nautical theme running through it…

BO’C: That must’ve come from Hastings.

The record was produced by Greg Fleming – aka Wizard – who’s worked with the Chemical Brothers, Dizzee Rascal and Chase & Status.Why did you choose to use a dance music producer on a country, blues and folk album?

LL: I really liked Rick Rubin’s recordings with Johnny Cash.

What did Greg Fleming bring to the record?

LL: He brought cynicism, pessimism and downright depressiveness to it because he’s generally used to doing this: (Larry suddenly makes loud, squelching dance music noises with his mouth!)

Any good stories from the recording sessions?

LL: Far too many – they generally involved me having rows with Brendan, who said I was irresponsible for staying up all night drunk. But, over the years, he has accepted that me getting drunk does add to the joie de vivre.

There are quite a few special guests on the album, including Buffy Saint-Marie, Pete Doherty and Rumer. How did you come to work with them?

LL: Whatever technology has taken away from us as musicians in terms of revenue, it’s also opened up many doors for collaborations – it’s not like you have to have a long, drawn-out scenario where you have to have everyone together in the same studio.

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s new album – Power In The Blood – was named after a song I wrote. I went to see her when Morrissey was curating Meltdown at the South Bank [in 2004] and I got invited backstage. I asked her if she fancied doing a song.

I’ve known Pete Doherty for years – he used to come and see Alabama 3 gigs back in the day. I got hold of his manager and said, ‘He fucking owes us one, so Pete, get down here.’

B’OC: We knew Rumer from Brixton, but she disappeared off to America and became a big star. My brother bumped into her in the street – she was a fan of the album we did before this one [Ghost Flight – released in 2006, under the name Robert Love] and she was keen to come and sing on a few songs.

 

Let’s talk about some of the songs from the new record. The opener, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock sounds like Johnny Cash…

LL: I thought you said Clash! Yeah – what Rick Rubin did at the end of Johnny Cash’s career was very inspiring. It’s the same as when Bob Dylan worked with Daniel Lanois. Grizzled voices and ‘hip-hop’ production.

BO’C: To me, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock sounds Spanish, rather than country, but Larry’s voice sounds like Cash.

LL: It has a ‘you’re on death row’ kind of vibe – I used to know someone who was on death row and I got quite involved with the campaign to release Albert Woodfox, who was from the Angola Three. He was one of the longest incarcerated members of The Black Panthers. It was around that time that I wrote the song. He was waiting on death row for years, but he’s now been reprieved.

 

 

One of my favourite songs on the album is Hangover Me, featuring Rumer. It has a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood feel to it…

LL: Yeah – it ended up that way. We wrote it with Seggs Jennings (The Ruts DC), with hangovers. It nails our colours to the mast. We love hangovers – they’re very inspiring.

It was originally called The Ballad of Martin Lambert and was written about a friend of ours who died from a morphine overdose on Christmas Day at his mother’s. It was a tragic way to go. I sang at his funeral. We surround ourselves with people who are on the edge – they’re not living comfortable lives and selling houses to fucking yuppies.

 

 

The track It Was The Sweetest Thing has a great Stonesy country-soul swagger… It’s a good story song – a tale of lovers embarking on a European adventure…

LL: Lyrically, it’s about the inevitable nostalgia that comes from when you’ve lost something that you realise you should’ve held on to. I like to think that I’ve lost a lot of things I should never have lost and found things I should never have found…

BO’C: Or that you never deserved to have in the first place.

LL: Exactly. I had an Italian girlfriend, but things didn’t work out. I’d never been to Europe before – I flew to Bologna with a pocketful of Ecstasy! I didn’t know you couldn’t take it on the plane. It was inspired by that – as lovers, you can traverse continents.

In this day and age, with the refugee crisis, love does transcend boundaries. The nature of the song implies that we went everywhere, looking for love, but, ultimately, we found it nowhere.

The Man Inside The Mask, which started out as a very long poem, reminds me of late ‘70s Dylan…

BO’C: When I first played it on my own and sang some of the words from the poem, I thought it was going to end up sounding like Leonard Cohen, but it turned out quite Dylanish…

Let’s go back to your roots. How did you meet and start writing songs together?

LL: About 20 years ago, I was a recovering heroin addict. I haven’t done it since – touch wood. Brendan was in a band called Past Caring – I thought they were very innovative. If you’re familiar with narcotic withdrawal, it’s quite highly sensitised. I was in an Irish bar called Brady’s and I was really impressed by the strength and the quality of Brendan and the band’s performance. I used to sing Uncertain Harbour [the penultimate song on Minesweeping] as a guest vocalist. We were both habitués of South Londonwe knew the same pubs and the same problems.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

LL: We’re letting the album gestate in people’s minds. I’m busy – I’ve got an Alabama 3 tour in October/November. We’re looking at doing an O’Connell & Love tour in January/February – up and down the country, with some skirmishes in-between. We’re definitely taking the band out on the road.

BO’C: And we’re writing some more songs.

LL: We’re going to do the next album in seven days – like the Lord. Doing Minesweeping has given us more confidence for the next phase. I don’t think it will have a nautical theme – it will be rain and Northern towns.

So, finally, what’s the secret of writing a great country song?

LL: Get a bad woman and a good hangover.

MID o connell and love band

 

Minesweeping is out now on Mountmellick Music.

http://www.oconnellandlove.com