‘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

Acton baby

Showcasing a new full band sound, Case Hardin’s latest album Colours Simple is a collection of kicked around, country-rock songs populated by prostitutes, drinkers, lost souls and losers.

I invited the group’s singer-songwriter, Pete Gow, down the pub to tell me more…

CaseHardinPromo-20150608-0169

 

Colours Simple – the superb new album from West London alt-country act Case Hardin – is a record that sounds like it’s been on a late night drinking session in the heart of the city, hung out in some casinos and massage parlours, talking to the lost and lonely, and then staggered off home in the wee small hours, as the sun rises over Acton.

To find out more about the record, I met up with the band’s singer-songwriter and frontman Pete Gow in a North London boozer…

I want to talk about the stunning, eight-minute album opener Poets Corner, which sounds like something Springsteen would’ve written if he’d lived in Acton, rather then New Jersey…

Like a lot of this album, it has a big, full band sound – there’s some serious rock guitar from Jim Maving in places…

Pete Gow: As it was coming together in my head, I couldn’t get away from that backstreets feel. I wanted to write something in a longer form and I’d decided it was going to be more of a guitar-based record…

Poets Corner is old school Springsteen and I knew I wanted that Phil Spector ‘bom-bom-bom’.

The title Poets Corner comes from the name of a place near where you live in Acton, West London. There’s an area called the Poets Corner Community Garden, where one freezing cold January afternoon you sat on a bench and turned some of your songs into this album… Can you elaborate on that?

Poets Corner is also mentioned on another track on the album – High Rollers. What’s so special about that place?

PG: I write for an album. If we’re going to do a new record, I will go off and write for three months. I’ve usually also got one or two songs hanging around… I don’t write all the time, or carry a notebook around.

But on this occasion [after making the last Case Hardin album PM ] I just carried on writing – I’d just moved to West London and I was writing without consequence. I didn’t think I was writing for another record, as we’d just recorded one, but the songs just kept on coming.

Poets Corner – the place – is nothing and it’s everything. It’s tiny – it’s where two houses intersect. It’s jam-packed full of plants and there’s a mural that the local school kids painted. It’s a piece of communal ground and there’s something quite quaint about it…

So, is this album your Acton baby?

PG: I guess it is [he laughs].

CaseHardinPromo-20150608-0127

It sounds like a record that has been hanging out in bars, visited some gambling dens, stayed up all night talking to some lost and lonely characters and then walked home in the early hours of the morning…

PG: It feels like a city album, because I moved into one. I lived in Berkshire before. The writing of Colours Simple coincided with my move to London. I was absorbing stuff and hanging out in different places.

Before I moved to Acton, I lived in Brixton for six months. The song The Streets Are Where The Bars Are (The Bars Are Where The Girls Will Be) was written in Brixton, where I felt wide-eyed and touristy. It was a welcome to the jungle kind of thing.

That track is a good, old-fashioned rock and roll song, isn’t it?

PG: It’s just a good night out – I can’t remember how much of it is made up and how much of it actually happened.

Which is usually the sign of a good night out, to be fair…

There are lots of stories and characters in your lyrics. How many of them are based on real life and how many of them are fiction?

PG: Some of it is made up…. but for a song like Champeen [off the PM album] I had to take a journalistic approach and do some research, so there’s some kind of factual correctness.

High Rollers [on the new album] is an extension of the Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt story song, but with a Nick Cave twist to it – everything always goes wrong.

The album’s liner notes, which were written by journalist Mark Phillips (the senior foreign correspondent for CBS News), mention your day job as a TV news producer.

He writes that you keep your two lives separate, because you’re happier playing songs about imaginary bad women who’ve done your wrong, rather than bad people who caused actual death and destruction… But do any of the things that you see in your day job end up in your songs?

PG: I don’t travel as much as I used to, but some of the work I’ve done in the past would’ve been an easy route into political writing, but that’s not something that I’d ever wanted to do – I don’t have a huge amount of confidence in my own politics. I’ve used those experiences – it would’ve been negligent as a writer not to – but they come out in a more visual sense.

Cheap Streaks From A Bottle – the first single from the album – features The Reservoir Dogs brass section. It’s rollicking country-soul. What were you going for with that track?

PG: The record was recorded at [producer] Chris Clarke’s Reservoir Studios in North London. He’s the bass player in Danny & The Champions of the World and he’s been a record producer for many new years. He’s one of the cornerstones of the North London music circuit and he was in The Rockingbirds.

He came up with the idea of brass for that song. We knew there was something missing. If you like Case Hardin’s first three albums, then Cheap Streaks From A Bottle and Poets Corner are worth your ten pounds to see where we can take it… We try and branch out.

There are also some classic, ‘traditional’ stripped-down Case Hardin country songs on the new album – High Rollers, with Hana Piranha’s violin – and A Mention In Dispatches, which also features Hana…

PG: Both of those tracks could have sat on our PM record.

Fiction Writer is one of my favourite songs on the new album. It reminds me of some of those great early Ryan Adams tracks, circa Heartbreaker and Gold, when he was making his best solo stuff, rather than wasting his time doing soft rock or Taylor Swift covers…

PG: I’ll take that as a comparison – right up to – and including his album 29 – Ryan Adams was kind of the key figure that prompted me to go and write something, or, if I was in the process of writing, to try and write better.

Jesus Christ Tomorrow Morning has a real raw, ragged, country-rock sound. It sounds like a song that’s been lived-in and kicked around…

PG: It’s one of those songs that I’d had a hook for a long time ago, but I’d never liked the lyric. I found it in an old lyric book and I rewrote it. It comes in at just under two and a half minutes and if it didn’t have ‘Jesus Christ’ in it six times, it might even be a single…

There are some wonderful lines in Another Toytown Morning – the closing track on the album.

I particularly love the phrase, ‘open up these scars with pedal steel guitars – lost to the lonesome and high’. 

It’s as if you’ve summed up country music in a nutshell.

There’s some great imagery: ‘an airless room and a bottle of wine, a turntable and some old Patsy Cline….’

Tennessee Williams’ ghost puts in an appearance, too…

PG: That’s why we all do this – because we can be driven to tears by sticking on an old Patsy Cline record. I’m sure I picked Patsy Cline becomes it rhymes with wine. You try and find a drink that rhymes with Kristofferson…

 

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Colours Simple – the new album from Case Hardin – will be released on Clubhouse Records on September 18.

For more information: http://www.casehardin.com

 

spotify:track:3YRp1YMXKvAR6CmhTj0gdX

 

 

‘We’re talking about doing a country-prog spectacular, but we’re having trouble sourcing a Mellotron and getting Rick Wakeman to wear rhinestones’

My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham
My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham

Best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham first heard country duo My Darling Clementine (Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish) when he read about them on my blog back in 2013.

Since then he’s become a huge fan of the band – so much so that’s he’s recently collaborated with them on a new album and a touring live show called The Other Half.

A story of love, loss and murder told in words and music, The Other Half  is set in a rundown Memphis bar, and focuses on waitress Marcia – a former Las Vegas showgirl – who lives her life through her customers and their everyday, tragic tales of grief, heartbreak, lust, murder and domestic horror.

I talked to Mark to find out how My Darling Clementine’s songs inspired him to write a short story and why he’s a frustrated rock star…

So, what first attracted you to My Darling Clementine?

Mark Billingham: What’s not to love? The songs are wonderful and both Michael and Lou have voices to die for.

I’ve always loved country duets – Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash and June Carter – and My Darling Clementine are keeping that flame alive.

They honour that tradition, but bring it bang up to date with songs that reflect the modern world. And, above all, they are amazing storytellers.

We’ve talked before about the link between country music and crime fiction. You included a country music playlist, which featured My Darling Clementine, in your book, The Bones Beneath.

How easy was it to link the two genres in The Other Half? You used some My Darling Clementine songs as stepping stones to writing the narrative, didn’t you?

MB: Yes – the songs were very much the tent pegs around which I was able to construct the story.

There were some songs I knew I wanted to use straight away – By A Thread, which opens the show, No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) and, of course, The Other Half. This made it the easiest short story I’ve ever written.

I’ve always found short fiction much tougher to write than novels, but having the songs to work with made it so much easier.

 

How would you describe The Other Half?

MB: It’s a story told in words and songs. One of the real delights of this project is that people have come along to the shows not really knowing what to expect and have come away having loved it.

Both myself and My Darling Clementine are working outside our comfort zones and approaching our work in a new way and I think that excitement comes across.

It’s a gig, it’s a play, it’s a story – it’s all those things, but the mixture of the three makes it something entirely of its own, too.

 

 

Can you tell me about the writing process for The Other Half? How did you start it all off and come up with the concept of love, loss and murder in a Memphis bar and make it work with the My Darling Clementine songs?

MB: The songs suggested characters – falling in and out of love, dealing with loss and grief – and it was my job to figure out who they were, how they had come to the point that Michael and Lou were singing about, or what happened to them afterwards.

The bar seemed like the ideal setting for such a disparate bunch of characters and all I needed was someone through whose eyes we see them and that was where the character of Marcia the waitress came from.

She is someone whose life has not panned out the way she imagined – a faded Vegas showgirl who now lives her life vicariously through her customers.

A prime example of the process is No Matter What Tammy Said. It’s a hugely powerful song about a very dark subject and I was fired up to write about what happens to the people involved once the song has ended.

So, Marcia observes these people, talks to the woman involved and through Michael and Lou singing the song, we discover the truth. Then I’m able to move the story on and this was my chance to bring murder into the picture, which, as a crime writer, I am of course contractually obliged to do.

You’re a big fan of country music. What was it like working with My Darling Clementine in the studio and performing on stage? Did it take you back to your early days as a performer and doing comedy shows? 

Last year, I saw you sing and play guitar at The Other Half show in London, Islington. Are you a frustrated rock star?

MB: Oh, of course. At heart I’m a performer and though these days my performances take place on the page, I can’t resist any opportunity to show off.

I’m very comfortable on stage and it’s a real buzz sharing it with performers as great as Michael and Lou. It’s a huge pleasure hearing them sing every night and even though parts of the story are very dark, we have a lot of fun.

The piece, as a whole, is actually uplifting, I think. You can’t put together a show about grief and pain and death without a degree of redemption. And I love having a chance to sing and sometimes play guitar with My Darling Clementine at the end of the night.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half
Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

 

On the album The Other Half, you worked with actor David Morrissey, who played your fictional detective character Tom Thorne on TV, and musicians Graham Parker and The Brodsky Quartet. That must have been great…

MB: All those people were hugely generous with their time and very supportive of the project.

David came in as a favour to do some acting on the album, as did the phenomenal Graham Parker. I’ve loved Graham’s stuff since I was 15, so to work with him was a huge thrill.

He actually performed the show in its entirety – being me and reading the story – at a festival I couldn’t make in the Hague. So, when we were putting the album together, we asked him if he’d like to be involved and he said yes.

The Brodsky Quartet worked with Elvis Costello on his album The Juliet Letters. I know you’re a huge Costello fan, so that must’ve been very exciting for you to record with them…

MB: Michael and Lou had worked with the Brodsky Quartet before, and, yes, I do feel that their involvement brought me just a little closer to Elvis…

You co-wrote a song with My Darling Clementine for The Other Half. What was that like? Was it a dream come true and would you like to write more lyrics?

MB: Absolutely. I’m working on it. The idea was always to close the show with a new song that we had written together.

It’s a song called As Precious As the Flame, which reflects the redemption I talked about earlier, and I love hearing it. I wrote some lyrics, which Michael and Lou improved, and then Michael wrote a fantastic tune.

Seeing great actors play characters I’ve created is a buzz and hearing singers and players of Michael and Lou’s calibre singing my words is equally thrilling.

What’s it like being on tour with a band? Have you picked up any rock and roll habits?

MB: Of course. My rider is outrageous! It’s a very different life from that of the touring author. It involves a lot more preparation for a start. It’s not like rocking up at some bookshop or literary festival ten minutes before I’m due on stage and thinking I can busk it.

We normally start setting up three hours or more before showtime. Of course, there are sound and lights to get right, but the show is very theatrical too, so we have a stage to dress and some audio-visual material to get set up. Then obviously there are the drugs and the hookers…

So, what’s next for Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine? Are you going to be a new supergroup?

MB: Well, we’re talking doing about a country-prog spectacular, but we’re having trouble sourcing a Mellotron and getting Rick Wakeman to wear rhinestones…

 

Time of Death

 

Moving away from The Other Half, let’s talk about your new Tom Thorne novel, Time of Death, which came out recently. Without giving too much away, what’s it about?

MB: As with the previous novel – The Bones Beneath – I’ve taken Tom Thorne out of London.

This time, he and his girlfriend Helen Weeks have to travel back to the town where Helen grew up. Something bad has happened – of course – and for reasons Tom can’t quite understand, Helen feels compelled to return.

A man has been arrested for the abduction of two girls, but Tom is not convinced the police have the right man. Obviously, he can’t resist poking his nose in where it’s not wanted and soon his friend Phil Hendricks turns up.

The media has descended on the small town and Tom has to deal with them, as well as hostile cops, if he is to unearth the real killer and save a girl who may still be alive. And there’s some country music, but you’d probably guessed that. And pigs…

You’re currently working on a new standalone novel that will be published next year, aren’t you?

MB: Yes, I am. I’m giving Thorne a break, although, as with my previous standalone novels, he will make a cameo appearance. I’m about two thirds of the way through it, and I’m enjoying myself, but I have no idea if it’s any good or not.

Once that’s done, I’ll be getting involved with the TV adaptations of Time Of Death and In The Dark, which are very exciting. They will be broadcast next year and there will be another series, based on an altogether different book, coming in 2017.

I’m also very hopeful that we can adapt The Other Half  in some way. It’s a radio show waiting to happen. Or a movie. Or a theme park…

Finally, as we’re talking about music and fiction, what are you currently listening to and reading?

MB: I’m listening to a lot of old stuff, as always.

Aside from the two fabulous My Darling Clementine albums and a lot of Graham Parker, I’m on a real Everly Brothers kick at the moment, so Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is being played almost constantly. The two recent albums that I’ve enjoyed the most have been Jenny Lewis’s The Voyager and Colfax by The Delines.

Right now, I’m re-reading Peter Guralnick’s brilliant Last Train To Memphis (inspired by The Other Half, I think).

Actually, I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick recently and have loved So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Going Clear by Lawrence Wright and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh.

My favourite novel of the last six months, hands down, has been Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson. Gobsmackingly good.

In terms of crime fiction, the best novel I’ve read recently is A Song Of Shadows by John Connolly and I’m very much looking forward to the new one from Dennis Lehane.

 

The Other Half

 

The Other Half  is now available on CD and as an audio download from Little, Brown.

Recorded in January 2015, it contains brand new versions of eight My Darling Clementine songs, Mark Billingham’s narration, and features special guest performances from David Morrissey (who played Mark’s detective Tom Thorne on TV), singer-songwriter Graham Parker and the Brodsky Quartet. 

For more information on The Other Half, My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham, please visit:

http://www.theotherhalfshow.com/content/

http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

http://www.markbillingham.com

 

To read an interview with the other half of  The Other Half, My Darling Clementine, please click here. 

 

Michael Weston King, Sean Hannam and Mark Billingham at the launch of The Other Half
Michael Weston King, Sean Hannam and Mark Billingham at the launch of The Other Half

 

‘I’m open to alien communication’

Nev Cottee

Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk and also recalls the gorgeous country ballads of ‘60s Scott Walker and the Spaghetti Western themes of Ennio Morricone. 

I spoke to him about retro synths, otherworldly vibes and capturing the sound of sweet sadness…

How are you? It’s been a while since we last chatted

Nev Cottee: I’m good. Cold, but good. Just waiting for the Manchester Ice Age to pass and to feel the sun on my face again.

And talking about sun, you’re gearing up for the release of your new album Strange News From The Sun. Have you heard any strange news recently?

NC: It’s all strange, isn’t it? Doublespeak has won the day – truth is portrayed as fiction and vice versa. What’s strange is how people don’t seem to be that bothered.  Sorry, were you after something light-hearted?

NevCottee_SNFTS_CD_Cover_1400px

It’s a great album title. Can you explain it?

NC: The title is a reference to JG Ballard and his ability to find wonder in even the most banal circumstances. There’s no need to look anywhere else for inspiration – there’s all you need in your head. Although I am open to alien communication…

On my first album Stations, the lyrics were preoccupied with other things, but with this album they’re more earth bound and more about us lot down here.

You say that, but, musically, the new album does have an otherworldly quality to it. The first track I heard from it – the epic, psychedelic single If I Could Tell You – sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk…. Is that a fair description?

NC: I’ll use that one on the poster if that’s ok with you? So the lyrics are more earthbound, but the music is bigger this time around. More cinematic and more synths. I think anytime you use a synth it’s always going to sound like the future isn’t it? Even retro synth sounds – Moogs and the like… That’s why Kraftwerk still sound ‘modern’, no?

I think some of your songs have a Scott Walker feel to them. Annie reminds me of one of Scott’s ’60s country ballads, like Duchess, from Scott  4. Is he a big influence on you?

NC: Without a doubt – and that’s a good reading of that particular track. I wanted to write a song that had that classic Walker vibe – without it being a complete rip off, just a partial one…  If I can get anywhere near those classic Scott albums, I’d be a very happy man indeed.

There’s more of a country feel to this album than its predecessor. What was your intention with this record? What sounds were you after? At times, it has a more expansive sound than the first one, doesn’t it?

NC: I didn’t particularly want a country sound. I think a few of the tracks go that way because of the pedal steel – it’s the opposite of a synth, no? Put a pedal steel on a track and it instantly becomes a country song… The guy playing those wonderful parts by the way is Chris Hillman – not the Chris Hillman [from The Byrds], but a great musician coming out of Manchester. I’ve got him in the band as well, which I’m very happy about. They’re a rare breed – the ones who can actually play as well as he does.

Me and Mason Neely, who produced the album, decided pretty early on that this album was going to have a more expansive sound and have a lot more instrumentation going on. He’s done a great job on the album…

 

DSC_1761

 

Last year, you went to San Francisco for a while. Did that rub off on the new album? Did you write any songs while you were there?

NC: I wrote some of the lyrics out there, but, if anything, I wanted them to be more English than American – it can all get a bit clichéd if you’re looking to California for inspiration. Before you know it, you’re singing about highways and the like. Maybe it gave me a good contrast – writing about ‘cold English lanes’ [on the song Follow The Sun] while wandering around Big Sur. I love it out there, so maybe the freeway album is one for the future…

Musically it’s kind of inevitable that it seeps into the record, because I love all those classic west coast bands – The Byrds, Neil Young, Love etc.

Can you talk me through the recording & writing process for the new album?

NC: I had about five songs ready by the time Stations was released [in 2013], so I knuckled down to get five more finished. Just me at home with my acoustic guitar. Then last July I went to Cardiff where Mason has a small recording space. We got the main structures down to tape with Carwyn Ellis popping in to do some keyboard parts here and there. Then we had a period where Mason sat with the songs for a while and we started a back and forth process of adding and fine-tuning what we had.  It’s a collaborative way of working that I like – you just have to be open about something and not rush to a judgement. Sometimes it can take a while, but it’s worth it.

Who did you work with on this record – musicians, engineers,  producer?

NC: So, Mason is all of those things… As I’ve said Carwyn Ellis on keyboards, Chris on the pedal steel, plus Rod Smith, who is my right hand man in the band, on guitars and backing vocals.

Follow The Sun is my favourite track on the record – a gorgeous country-pop song that reminds me of Lee Hazlewood, The Velvet Underground and Glen Campbell. I love the twangy guitar solo, the gospel-tinged backing vocals and the pedal steel. Can you tell me more about this song?

NC: I guess it is the most traditional, straightforward song on the album – just a simple chord sequence – and I definitely had the likes of Glen Campbell in mind. Rod really brings a lot with his backing vocals. He’s way up there, which is the perfect counterpoint to my low tones…

Lyrically it’s got quite an uplifting sentiment. The girl is going but I’m just saying ok, good luck, go follow the sun. There are loads of Neil Young songs I like which have the same sentiment. Have you seen the film  Inherent Vice? There are lots of Neil Young on the soundtrack and I read that the director Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to make a film that felt like a Neil Young song – so it had that sweet sadness to it. That’s the vibe on Follow The Sun – sweet sadness.

Opening track When I Was Young is very dramatic and cinematic, with a nod to film soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. What was the inspiration for this song?

NC: Rod wrote this song and we used to play it with his band – completely differently. I had an idea to make it more cinematic, dramatic and, yes, Morricone it up. Morricone conducted at the O2 recently and I missed it. You can’t go wrong taking inspiration from all those wonderful compositions. I’m just trying to convince Rod to really go for it live with those shrieking vocals Morricone had on his records…

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

NC: We’re going to do an album launch – one in Manchester and one in London. Then there’s a few festivals later in the year. All to be confirmed…

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

NC: Ryley Walker’s Tim Buckley vibe is good. I also like Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album. I saw him live and it was even better – JJ Cale southern rock and roll.  To be honest, though, I’ve been going through Tom Waits’ career, album by album – about a week on each one. It’s just unbelievable how good he is and how he always keeps moving forward.

Have you started thinking about your next record already? Any ideas?

NC: I’m stuck into it already. As soon as the last one is recorded, you have to move on and start writing again. I’ve actually got two on the go. One is acoustic, looking towards John Martyn, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, just with a guitar and double bass, and the other is more electronic with long repetitive loops. Maybe the two will come together. It’s early days…

Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, is out on June 1, on Wonderfulsound. 

http://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/strange-news-from-the-sun

http://www.nevcottee.com/

‘We want to make London swingin’ again!’

Steelism

With their twangy, spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, Nashville-based US/UK duo Steelism (Jeremy Fetzer – guitar and Spencer Cullum – pedal steel) hark back to the glory days of  ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also throw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic and cinematic soundtracks.

I spoke to Jeremy – the US half of the band – about danger, mystery, movie music and the making of their debut album, 615 To FAME, which was co-produced by Ben Tanner from Alabama Shakes.

How did the two of you first meet?

Jeremy Fetzer: Spencer and I first met in Nashville – Spencer attended an Andrew Combs gig where I was playing. We then met up again in London a short time later, when I was touring with Caitlin Rose about five years ago.

Spencer took us out for drinks and got us all inebriated at a pub called Garlic & Shots in Soho. This led to him sitting in on pedal steel with us at our gig the next night in London and then joining the whole tour. We’ve been playing together since then.

You’ve both played as backing artists for several acts, including Caitlin Rose and Wanda Jackson. What made you want to come together and write and record as Steelism? Did you get fed up just being the guys in the background?

JF: We both still love being sidemen and playing in backing bands for other artists. It’s also our job. We’ve learned a lot playing with artists like Caitlin Rose and Wanda Jackson. It’s a completely different role, though. With being a sideman, it’s all about supporting the artist’s vision and musically contributing to their lyrics and melody. With Steelism, it’s completely our own monster and our own material – and it’s a blast.

Spencer had joked for a while about a fictional pedal steel group called Steelism that had a record deal. I intended to make it a reality.

While we were touring in Europe with Caitlin Rose, we started to work up instrumentals during down time and sound checks and when we got back to Nashville, we booked some studio time and recorded them. We ended up releasing them as a 7in vinyl single and did our first show in Nashville to promote the record at a venue called The Basement. The show was a success and it made us realise it was something that we could pursue seriously.

Why did you go down the path of being an instrumental group? I’m a big fan of ’50s/ ’60s instrumental rock & roll, like Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, The Shadows, The Ventures and Link Wray. Have you always been massive fans of that genre? Do you feel that it has been neglected and forgotten about?

JF: I grew up listening to groups like Booker T. & The MG’s and The Ventures, while Spencer’s favourite steel player, Pete Drake, released many very successful instrumental albums in the 1960s as well.

Our musical interests are very diverse, though – from soul to krautrock to country to folk to reggae to jazz. This project allows us to explore all those different musical avenues. You obviously don’t hear any instrumental music on mainstream American radio anymore and, strangely, there’s very few indie groups doing it either. It seems that it really has become a forgotten genre in the 21st century. Despite the obscurity of the instrumental genre, we’ve been enjoying the positive feedback and warm response to the release of 615 To FAME and our live shows.

There’s an air of danger, excitement, mystery and fun about instrumental rock & roll, isn’t there? I love the titles of your tracks, like Cat’s Eye Ring and Cuban Missile. They’re very much in the spirit of tracks from the ’50s and ’60s…

JF: Thanks.  It’s true – there’s loads of danger and mystery in Steelism!  Coming up with titles for instrumentals definitely brings a laugh.

A lot of the titles have been inspired by our travels  – Marfa Lights was inspired by Spencer’s trip to Marfa, Texas, Cat’s Eye Ring is named after a ring we saw while visiting the Alamo in San Antonio on a tour, while The Blind Beggar is our attempt at an English, gangster-inspired composition. It’s named after the pub on Whitechapel Road where Ronnie Kray shot a rival gang member.

Who are your main musical influences and inspirations?

JF: Our LP collections are constantly growing and taking over our houses. I’d say we are always sonically and melodically inspired by The Beatles, while we’re rhythmically inspired by the great American session musician teams including Stax, Area Code 615, The Wrecking Crew and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. We are always referencing the great film composers like Ennio Morricone, John Barry and Lalo Schifrin. We also love taking our turntables to Germany, Brazil, and Jamaica with artists like Neu, Sergio Mendes and Jimmy Cliff.

Your debut album – 615 To FAME – is great. The tracks are very cinematic. Would you like to write music for films?  What are your favourite films and movie genres?

JF: We love making Steelism as musically dramatic as we can get away with. Film music is definitely a passion. Nothing beats the perfect piece of music paired with the perfect scene.

We obviously love a lot of ’60s film music, but there’s been some fantastic film scores recently – Jonny Greenwood has been doing amazing work with Paul Thomas Anderson films, and the same with Trent Reznor on recent David Fincher films. Quentin Tarantino is still the master of the perfect soundtrack. There will hopefully be many Steelism-produced soundtracks in the future.

On your album, there are nods to spaghetti westerns, surf-rock and ’60s spy film soundtracks – Cat’s Eye Ring, The Landlocked Surfer and The Spook – as well as blues, country and soul. What was your intention when you set out to make the record? What did you want to achieve?

JF: 615 To FAME is definitely an eclectic group of tracks that we recorded in both Nashville and Muscle Shoals [in Alabama]. We were inspired by the historical surroundings and also wanted to showcase all the different stylistic interests of the group with our first record. We plan to musically take Steelism to many strange places.

What was the album recording process like? What was it like working with Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and what other musicians did you work with on the recording?

JF: We recorded the first half of the record in Nashville at a couple of different studios and eventually met Ben Tanner who offered to help us finish the record in Muscle Shoals. We tracked the rest of the record at FAME [in Alabama] and completed it in Muscle Shoals, with the help of Single Lock Records, who released 615 To FAME in the US. Going to FAME Studios for us was like a group of three-year-olds going to Disneyland.

We are extremely spoilt with some of the best young musicians in the world in Nashville. All of the players here are extremely professional and play way beyond their age. We try to use this band to showcase all the young sessions musicians in town, but we have had the rhythmic force of Jon Radford and Michael Rinne on drums and bass from the beginning. They are the best in town and we are thrilled they will be playing with us in the UK on this tour as well.

What are your plans for 2015? 

JF: We just kicked off 2015 with a couple of great shows in Nashville and next up is the UK, which we are thrilled about. We really hope to visit the UK a few times in 2015. We have plans to do some recording collaborations with a couple of great singers in Nashville.

This summer we will be doing festivals and also plan to head to the West Coast in The States.  We are also always working up and recording new instrumental material at our home studio.

Steelism
Steelism

Are you looking forward to playing in the UK? What can we expect from the live shows?

JF:  Yes – it might be my favourite place to tour. This will be my fifth or sixth time visiting the UK. English people are so receptive to American music and are such wonderful listeners. Sometimes English crowds are so polite and focused that it can make American performers nervous, but we love it. I love English radio, too. I hope that everyone who comes to the live shows is prepared to have a few pints and get down! We want to make London swingin’ again! We are bringing a fantastic rhythm section and are ready to have some fun.

So, what are your ambitions for Steelism?

JF:  For us to become a production team, session group, studio owning, film scoring and international, instrumental, touring live band machine!

Are there any musicians that you’d like to work with – either as Steelism, or as backing musicians?

JF: I think we should do a Steelism remix with Mark Ronson, or start on our ambient record with Brian Eno while we are in London this year. Perhaps we can see if Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley are around to put down some vocals.  We can dream…

Steelism’s debut album 615 To FAME  is released on Feb 9 – it’s on Names Records. The band will be playing UK dates in February:

London – The Windmill: Feb 19

Manchester – The Castle: Feb 22

London – The Social: Feb 23

http://steelismmusic.com

“I feel like we’ve been through some dark times and 2015 is going to be a big year”

Darkest Before Dawn EP - The Dreaming Spires - Robin & Joe Portrait-1

Fans of classic, jangly, guitar pop rejoice – Oxford band The Dreaming Spires are back with a gorgeous, brand new three-track EP, Darkest Before The Dawn, which is a taster for their second album, Searching For The Supertruth, due out next year.

Opening song  Hype Bands Parts I & II is a seven minute tour-de-force – a big blast of country-soul with horns, chugging rock & roll guitars and an irresistible, sunshine melody. Its wry, amusing lyric is about on-the-road antics in the USA and pokes fun at hipster indie bands who are more concerned about wearing the right clothes than writing great songs…

Second tune, House On Elsinore, is luscious. A hypnotic, hazy heat wave of a song, it’s set in LA’s dark underbelly and is soundtracked by chiming, psychedelic, Byrds-like guitars, while the title track is a positive, spiritual hymn that was written as a message of hope to a friend of the band, Danny, who went through some tough times, but, thankfully, came out the other side. It’s moving and very uplifting.

I spoke to Robin Bennett – who, with his brother Joe – forms the nucleus of  The Dreaming Spires, about Americana, hanging out in LA and how their new album has been influenced by shoegazing…

Let’s talk about your brand new EP, Darkest Before The Dawn, which is a great record. Musically, it feels like a step on from your debut album Brothers in Brooklyn. It has a richer, more expansive, widescreen sound. Musically, you’ve taken the jangle-pop feel of  The Byrds, Big Star and Teenage Fanclub, but also thrown in some Americana influences and themes…

Robin Bennett: Thanks. I’m excited to get some new material out after what feels like an age. We’ve always felt part of that lineage of bands, not so much by intention, but in how things seem to end up sounding.

I often think we’ve gone on a radical departure, only to be told it still sounds like The Byrds. Maybe a different Byrds album… We’ve always been bracketed in with Americana acts in England too, which has never made much sense to me, unless you’re going to include The Kinks and The Beatles, etc. I read Ray Davies’ book Americana this year, which helped put it all in perspective for me.

I definitely share those ‘60s bands’ excitement at the exotic nature of many aspects of American culture, which is shaped by Beat books, cowboy films, rock & roll music, neon signage, cup holders, and all the other ephemera. Bands from The Byrds to Tom Petty to Big Star refracted the British beat music back again – so I see it as back and forth across the Atlantic. It’s tough on us British acts playing in that style, because it’s assumed we are trying to be American. To be British, you have to sound like Duran Duran, it seems. As a child of the ‘80s mostly, I never heard any music I liked until I discovered ‘50s rock & roll and soul via The Beatles. These songs [on our new EP] are mostly triggered by events that happened during visits to the US. In this case, mostly California – between 2003-2008.

The Dreaming Spires - Darkest Before Dawn EP Cover

So, what was the starting point for the new EP – musically and thematically? 

RB: The song Darkest Before The Dawn was written by me and a friend, Cat Martino, in Brooklyn. We were trying to write a letter to our friend Danny in the form of a song. I’d had the tune and the chorus line for a while, since our first ever band practice before the first album, but when it was expressed as a direct message it seemed to come together. We wanted it to have a positive message while acknowledging how bad things had got. Although we were talking to Danny about his life, the theme of darkness and redemption feels applicable to all of us. We worked hard to create the contrast between light and shade in the title song, while House on Elsinore has a paranoid air from the many drones and so on…

The songs are on the new EP are all thematically linked – based on real life experiences you had with your friend Danny. He sounds like quite a character! You’ve certainly got some good tales from your antics with him – he has been referenced in several of your songs.

RB: Danny certainly is a character. In fact, it’s him I’m talking about in Singing Sin City from our first album, “smoking cigarettes like a cowboy movie character”. On our first visit to the West Coast with [previous band] Goldrush and Mark Gardener [ex-Ride], he was officially our tour manager and collected us from LAX airport. The whole experience made a big impression on me and we formed a close friendship. At the time he had his own band, The And/Ors, and was working as a screen printer for the artist Shepard Fairey. You could say the music we were listening to on cassettes in his tour van – mostly Teenage Fanclub and The Byrds – set me off on the direction that ended up with The Dreaming Spires. Given that he also introduced me to Big Star and reintroduced me to Tom Petty, you could credit Danny with our whole sound.

Aside from the bands and tours, we unexpectedly struck up a songwriting partnership. In only a few sessions in LA and also on his visits to Oxford, we contrived to write over 50 songs together at a rate of two or three a day. Until then I’d been writing mostly alone and struggling with it. He taught me how to put method in the madness and to create almost on demand, which was an amazing change for me.

We wrote songs for Goldrush for the album The Heart is the Place, and a kind of solo album called Dusty Sound System, which was written in a week and recorded in a day, as well as numerous unreleased songs. Strength of Strings and Just Can’t Keep This Feeling In eventually made it onto the Brothers in Brooklyn LP [The Dreaming Spires’ first album].

How does Danny feel about having songs written about him? He sounds like he went through a bad patch, but, thankfully, is now in a much happier place…

RB: He did indeed hit a bad patch and it was no longer possible for us to write together. It was also a turbulent and busy time in my own life, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write again on my own – and for a year or so, there wasn’t much coming out. It was seeing him at such a low point, when we visited California for a friend’s wedding, that got me writing again – with him as the subject, instead of the writing partner. I don’t know why, but the ideas just kept coming, spilling out into numerous lyrics that I wrote at great speed. Some were finished in time for the first LP, some took longer and some form part of this new EP and the new album. I kept thinking, ‘now I should write about something else’, but I kept having more ideas from the same topic and often the lyrics would go off on tangents from a similar starting point.

I read something by Jay-Z, talking about writing lyrics by going back to the same point in your past for inspiration, so perhaps that’s what was happening. We spent a year recording these new songs, but I knew if Danny wasn’t happy with them, then I wouldn’t be able to release them, so I sent them to him before anyone else. His reaction was what I hoped it would be – he understood the intention of the songs, of course. I also didn’t feel right putting these songs out until I knew he was in good shape again, which he very much is now.

I like the wry, witty lyrics on your song Hype Bands Parts I & II. Are the words aimed at any bands in particular? I also like the rocky guitar sound on the track and the big brass arrangement. It has a soulful feel…

RB: I think we’ve ended up with a contrast between the brittle sound of the intro, which is a warm parody of any number of ‘hype bands’, and the looser feel of the second half, where music helps you to let go – which is what ‘soul’ music usually does. Because we’ve been playing in bands since the late ‘90s, we’ve come across many bands that have shot to fame before disappearing, but, in a way, it’s more of a comment on how the music industry has treated bands in the last 15 years. There’s a wave of hype to get them going, before a rapid tail-off into obscurity. Of course, if you’re a writer or an artist, this bears no relation to your development. The attributes to being a good ‘hype band’ are different to being a good writer, as your window of opportunity is so short. You have to chime with the trend of the moment.

When we did have a major label push for our old band, Goldrush, we coincided with the appearance of The Strokes, who must be the ultimate hype band. We didn’t stand a chance! Shortly afterwards we left Virgin Records, who replaced us with The Thrills – who, I should add, were a good band with some excellent songs. They did a similar thing, but in a much more presentable way. We crossed paths with them a few times during our LA visits, including an incident where we found out that a friend of Danny’s was acting as their stylist. When he asked Conor, the singer, about it, he denied everything. We really did play them at pool, too. We won!

Will any of the songs from the new EP end up on your next album – Searching For The Supertruth – which is out next year?

RB: We recorded 13 tracks in all – three of which form this EP and the other 10 make up the album. We tried to make it work as a double album, but, ultimately, it worked better separating these three songs as an EP – it’s too much to process at once. All 13 tracks will be on the vinyl release across two discs.

Is the EP representative of the new album? 

RB: I think the EP is a good pointer towards the album. We’ve finished the album. It’s been mastered by Tony Poole, a great musician and producer who played in the cult ‘70s band Starry Eyed & Laughing. We worked with our long time associate Rowland Prytherch to create as much detail in the sound as we can, so that further listening is rewarded. Something we’ve picked up more on since the first LP is trying to create an atmospheric undercurrent to the tracks, often using lap steel washes and string pads through numerous FX pedals. You could call it our shoegaze influence. I think it sounds positive and transcendent, overall.

So, what we can expect from the new album. Can you give us a few teasers? 

RB: We’ve been playing some songs live already. The autobiographical song Dusty in Memphis is already a crowd favourite, complete with a sing-along. We’ve also played the title song, with a backwards guitar part by Tony Poole, and the ballad We Used to Have Parties, which has a backing vocal from Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne.

Is it a concept album and  part of a trilogy? Where did the title  –  Searching For The Supertruth – come from?

RB: It definitely feels like a concept album, without being overbearing. It is the final part of the trilogy, where the narrative resolves, at least for now. The title came from a scientist friend called Rich Blundell. It’s to do with cosmic evolution and the universe becoming conscious of itself.

What music are you currently into and what are your favourite new albums of 2014? 

RB: This year I have enjoyed new stuff from The War on Drugs, Sturgill Simpson, and Arcade Fire, as well some great music by friends including Common Prayer, Sugar Magnolia and Paul McClure. I’m enjoying The Flaming Lips and friends’ take on Sgt Pepper more than I expected too! I’ve also been listening to lots of soul compilations, dreaming of being in Booker T & The MG’s, plenty of Jackson Browne and new and old Tom Petty albums. Getting a car with a tape-only stereo has meant I’ve listened to cassette versions of Tunnel of Love [Bruce Springsteen] and Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner more times than I care to mention.

So, how you do feel as we head into 2015?

RB: I feel like we’ve been through some dark times and 2015 is going to be a big year

Darkest Before The Dawn – the new EP from The Dreaming Spires – is released on November 24. It’s on ClubHouse Records.

http://www.thedreamingspires.co.uk

http://www.clubhouserecords.co.uk

http://www.clubhouserecords.co.uk/artists/the-dreaming-spires

 

 

In the dead of winter

Dead Flowers 6 - Hi Res

London-based alt.country band Dead Flowers have made one of the best albums of 2013. Recorded late at night, in wintry conditions, Midnight At The Wheel Club is a collection of dark, intimate, haunting and confessional songs, inspired by gravel-voiced singer/songwriter Ian Williams’ travels through New York and Montreal. I spoke to Ian to find out more about the record, which he describes as ‘like a morbid, little dinner party – if you mess with the seating plan, it will all fall apart’.

Congratulations on Midnight At The Wheel Club. As I understand, it began to take shape in 2011, when you were travelling in America, during the winter. Can you tell me more about your travels and how your experiences inspired your songwriting?

Ian Williams: There were a few trips that have all blurred into one for me, but, to cut a long story short, the travels included time in Austin – for the SXSW festival, a few days in New York and lots of time spent in Montreal. In New York and Montreal, I was lucky to be able to stay in people’s apartments, rather than hotels, which really helped in terms of getting into a groove and feeling like you are living somewhere, rather than just passing through. Songs crept up in the most unexpected places, on the beach (Coney Island), in a Laundromat (Montreal) and on various rooftops. We visited Coney Island in early spring, so all the rides were shut down and it was pretty much deserted. There was a spooky, jarring beauty about seeing a funfair and the rickety old Wonder Wheel at that time of the year – it was a bit like a tree with no leaves. I started writing the song Wonderwheel right there on the beach and the name crept in. I guess I just liked the way it sounded.

What about The Wheel Club that the album takes its title from? Where is it? Are you obsessed by wheels?

IW: There’s no use in denying it. I am a wheel obsessive. The Wheel Club is an old time country club / working men’s club on the outskirts of Montreal. On a Monday night they have a hillbilly night, which has been running since 1966. It’s sort of an open mic arrangement, but with a house band and some pretty hardcore rules – you can only play songs written before 1966 and there are no drums and no electric instruments allowed. It’s a wild night, with lots of line dancing, big pitchers of beer and an amazing selection of snacks. On my second visit, I plucked up the courage to get up and sing a Hank Williams song with my good pal Ragged Dick . We were kind of lousy, but the old folks were very kind to us. If I could only recommend one place to visit in Montreal, The Wheel Club on a Monday night would win hands down.

So, is the new record a concept album?  If so, how would you describe it?

IW: Most of the songs were born out of travelling, but it’s possible a couple of them came out of some dark corner back on dry land, too. I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album, but I definitely think the songs belong together. It’s like a morbid, little dinner party – if you mess with the seating plan, it will all fall apart. Actually we had to throw a few of them out fairly early on, as they just weren’t getting on.

There’s a dark beauty to the record. It’s very intimate and atmospheric. What were your intentions when you set out to make it?

IW: A lot of the records I admire have an  immersive quality and I think a lot of that is down to the way they are sequenced and how things open up and ‘pay off’ as you travel through them. We aimed to make an album which flows naturally and will keep someone’s attention and maybe let them lose themselves a little for half an hour.

Although the album is largely melancholy in tone, a song like Fences is hopeful. I’m thinking of the line, ‘the songs that I write give me a chance to survive.’  Do you see music as your saviour?

IW: Your question made me think of the Wilco song Sunken Treasure:  “Music is my saviour, I was maimed by rock and roll. I was maimed by rock and roll. I was tamed by rock and roll. I got my name from rock and roll.”  I don’t think I can put it better than that, so I’m not going to try.

Supernova is one of the most moving and saddest songs I’ve heard all year. How did it come into being?

IW:  If you watch a lot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos while going through a breakup, then these things can happen. It’s a pretty grandiose statement, so I have no choice but to stand by it completely.

Your song The Beach is like an Irish, funereal sea shanty. Although it deals with death, it has a spiritual, uplifting feel…

IW: It’s another song that was conceived on Coney Island. It found its way back to the UK, had a rest and then flew out to Montreal, where our friend Christopher Fox played the pump organ parts and then went on to mix the song. He brought it to life so much that we knew he was the man to help us finish this album. The string arrangement from Emily McGregor lifts it out of the doldrums and gives it a gleam of hope.

So, did you form Dead Flowers after your travels? How long have you been writing songs and were you in any bands before this one?

IW: Well this is my second ‘proper record’ – the first was an EP called Bible Black Heart, which I released under the name Ian Williams. It came out in 2009 and you can hear it here.

For a while after that, we played shows as Ian Williams and The Dead Flowers, but when it came to making this record, I wanted to steer things away from the whole singer/songwriter thing. There has been an ever-changing and revolving cast of players involved in the music over the years, all of whom I am massively indebted to. I think we are finally finding some stability though and the challenge of representing the album live is a rewarding experience.

What was the process of recording the new album like? How did you capture that late night, wintry sound? It’s the perfect record for this time of year…

IW: Well, we recorded an awful lot of the album late at night, often in pretty wintry conditions. Scott Fitzgerald, who played keys and bass on most of the record, and who was also involved in the engineering and production, is something of a night owl. The sessions in his studio in Bath often wouldn’t start until early evening and we would record through until the early hours. Pretty much all the vocal takes were done very late at night and the version of Pan which ended up on the album was recorded between about 3am and 6am.

We tracked the drums at a studio called The Pool, in South London. All the drum recordings were done in one day, which was a big challenge, but the sound engineer, Ben Thackeray, did an amazing job and our drummer Richie Harwood is a very patient man. All the strings, a lot of electric guitar and some of the vocals were recorded in my home studio in London. Fortunately, we have pretty deaf neighbours, so I think they were quite oblivious. Finally, we spent some time at Christopher Fox’s studio in Montreal, where we tracked vocals and did the pump organ and the mixing. We actually worked remotely with Christopher on the final mixes, sending files over to him via an FTP and then sending back notes and tweaks for his mixes. Given the number of different locations, engineers and players involved, Christopher did an amazing job in mixing it into such a fully-formed, complete sounding album.

Midnight At The Wheel Club - Cover

Musically you’ve been compared to artists such as Mark Lanegan, Lee Hazlewood, Lambchop and Leonard Cohen. Are they all influences on you? Who are your musical heroes and influences?

IW: Let me get this out of the way first – I don’t really care for Lee Hazlewood. I just can’t quite get into him. Maybe one day I will realise how wrong I was. Lambchop are a huge influence – we got to open for them in Leeds earlier this year and it was one of the most magical nights of my life. Kurt Wagner [from Lambchop] sat and watched the whole of our set, which has encouraged me more than I can say. Scott and I are both big admirers of Leonard Cohen and especially like his later recordings. I think the Ten New Songs album he put out, which is almost entirely MIDI in terms of instrumentation, is a work of genius. Ethan Johns and Ryan Adams working together has resulted in a collection of albums I have found to be massively influential. I go back to albums by Sharon Van Etten, Justin Townes Earle, Devon Sproule and Yo La Tengo a lot at the moment. They’re all very different in terms of their sound, but they all make immersive, interesting albums.

By pure coincidence, Dead Flowers is the title of my favourite Rolling Stones song. Did that tune inspire your band name?

IW: Not in a massively conscious way, but we certainly wouldn’t be called Dead Flowers if the song didn’t exist, so I guess I’ll have to say yes.

What are your plans for Christmas? Are you a fan of the festive season?

IW: I’m looking forward to a trip back to Wales, to see my family, eat a lot of meat and have some epic nap time. I can’t wait.

So, how do you see 2014 shaping up for Dead Flowers?

IW: Hopefully some big, established band will dig our fresh new sound and take us out on a world tour. We will aim to get into a studio early in the New Year and knock out the next album pretty quickly. The last one took a year to make, so I am hoping we can speed things up a little this time around.

What are your ambitions for Dead Flowers?

IW: If I keep practicing guitar at my current rate – around one hour a week – then I should be ready to play my first guitar solo in Dead Flowers in about five years’ time…

http://wearedeadflowers.bandcamp.com