In the first in an occasional series of visiting – and writing about – record shops we love, Say It With Garage Flowers heads to Union Music Store in Lewes, East Sussex. We speak to co-owner Danny Wilson, who tells us why he won’t be stocking any Mariah Carey albums just yet…
Record Store Day is a chance for diehard music junkies to blow some serious cash on vinyl, but last year, Danny Wilson and Del Day took things one step further – they bought a record shop!
On RSD 2018, Danny, the frontman of alt-country, rock ‘n’ roll soulsters Danny & The Champions of the World, who is also one third of Americana janglers Bennett, Wilson, Poole, and music publicist and promoter Del, were announced as the new owners of Union Music Store, in the East Sussex market town of Lewes. They took it over from Stevie and Jamie Freeman, who opened the shop in 2010.
A short walk from the station, Union is small, but perfectly formed – new and secondhand vinyl albums are neatly filed in wooden boxes, band T-shirts are hung on the walls, alongside musical instruments, and there are a few CDs on shelves and a selection of rock ‘n’ roll biographies. Americana, folk, country, classic rock, jazz and alternative are the genres of choice – it’s a shop for music lovers, run by people who are passionate about what they do and really know their stuff…
The shop has a cosy, cabin-like feel – it’s very warm and inviting – and behind the counter there’s the ‘Wall of Sound’ – each week, Danny and Del fill it with records and then share the images on social networking.
On the morning Say It With Garage Flowers visits the shop, the wall is country rock and folk-flavoured, with LPs by Dillard & Clark, Nick Drake, Karen Dalton and Jackson C. Frank on display.
‘The Grease soundtrack is as good as any Americana record I’ve heard in the past 20 years, so why not sell it to people who want it? Grease is brilliant!’
Say It With Garage Flowers does a spot of crate digging and is very pleased to find a limited edition, signed vinyl copy of Matt Deighton’s ‘horror folk’ album, Wake Up The Moths, which we duly purchase.
As we approach the counter to pay, Danny has just taken delivery of a pile of new records, including, much to Del’s displeasure, the Grease soundtrack. It turns out that Danny is threatening to include a musical theatre section in the shop…
“I’m really serious about it,” he says later, over a coffee in a nearby café. “Del is completely unhappy – the whole order that came in this morning was generally a variety of thorns in his side! If I’m being entirely honest, the Grease soundtrack is as good as any Americana record I’ve heard in the past 20 years, so why not sell it to people who want it? Grease is brilliant!”
So now you’re running a record shop can you afford to be a music snob, or do you have to sell what you think people will buy?
“In truth, we’re a bit more High Fidelity than we are HMV – we’re curating,” says Danny. “We only have a certain amount of space and we don’t just stock everything. There’s no pop music in there. You won’t find any Mariah Carey – not because I’m a snob about it, but it’s not what we’re into. We’ll see… If you come back in a year’s time and there are Adele posters all over the shop, you’ll know which way it’s been going! We’d rather sell a Miles Davis album than a Miles Kane one!
“If someone comes into the shop and asks us, ‘what’s that record like?’ we’d like to be able to say with confidence that it’s great, or that it’s OK, but you should buy this one instead – at the moment, it’s got to be stuff we love…”
Q & A
How did you come to own Union Music Store?
Danny Wilson: Stevie Freeman, the head honcho of the Americana Music Association (AMA) UK , ran Union for about seven and half years – I first went in there during the first couple of years it was open. I was camping with my kids, went into Lewes, saw the shop and thought, ‘wow – that’s crazy’. It was a folk and Americana shop – I bought a CD by The Long Ryders.
I got to know Stevie. Del lives in Lewes and he’s been involved in PR and promoting Americana, so he knew Stevie really well. Del and I started a record label, Maiden Voyage. Stevie was getting really busy with the AMA stuff and she approached Del and I, as she knew we ran the label and had a love of records – she asked us if running the shop would interest us. We had a conversation for about two minutes…
Shopkeeping runs in your family, doesn’t it? There’s a song on the Bennett Wilson Poole album called Wilson General Store, which is about your grandparents’ shop in Melbourne, Australia. It was called Wilsons Emporium…
DW: Yes – it’s in my blood. My mum and dad met in that shop – my mum was the Saturday girl.
One of my uncles from Melbourne found out about Union and he tracked down some old doo-wop 78s from Wilsons Emporium – when my dad was a kid, one of his jobs was to fill the jukebox in the shop. My uncle sent me the records, so we’ve put them up in the shop. The Wilson family is very happy that I’m continuing the shopkeeping… I have two teenage daughters – they’re both really interested in coming to the shop and helping out, but that’s possibly more about getting 20 quid than a fulfilling, artistic, cultural, community experience… Having said that, they’re both really into music.
So is it a dream come true owning your own record shop?
DW: Yeah – totally. About 20 years ago, I used to work in Music & Video Exchange in Notting Hill and then I was in the Goldhawk Road shop in Shepherd’s Bush, which sold reggae and soul – it was brilliant. Del worked in the jazz section of HMV for 11 years – he loves all music and had a really serious knowledge of jazz.
How is it working in a shop with Del?
DW: It’s hilarious!
‘We have a few regulars who just come in for a cuppa. It’s quite an arty little hangout – there’s no pressure to buy anything’
On a more serious note, retail is tough, so how are you finding it running a shop?
DW: The idea behind the shop wasn’t to start a business that would one day become a chain. We have the label, Del’s doing his PR and booking stuff and I’ve got the band, but we wanted a hub to hang everything else on. That’s what it’s becoming – we have an office downstairs.
We’ve been putting on shows in the town – we had the Lewes Psychedelic Festival in February, with The Hanging Stars and Emma Tricca playing in the shop. We’ve done some in-store events. There’s loads going on and people are coming in and buying records – we have a few regulars who just come in for a cuppa. It’s quite an arty little hangout – that’s what we want it to be. There’s no pressure to buy anything.
Stevie and Jamie have been very kind to us – they worked really hard to build up a database of people who are happy to go to rootsy and Americana gigs, so they’ve handed us an audience and it’s down to us what we do with it. I have no experience in running a shop or my own business, but I love it – I’m as happy as Larry. I play a gig, get in at 3am, get up, then drive the kids to school and drive here – it’s exciting.
Finally, any new releases planned on Maiden Voyage?
DW: Our label has a new record out [Reaper] by a band from Cardiff called ¡Que Asco! They sound a bit like Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth, as well as Dinosaur Jr, with a bit of Fugazi – they’re really cool. We’ve put out 100 numbered LPs – it’s like a white label and it’s more DIY than the other stuff we usually do. We love the music!
For more information on Union Music Store and Maiden Voyage go to:
It’s been a year since Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger first came to the UK and Europe to promote his brilliant double album Nonsense and Heartache – a mix of raw, primal, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll and stripped-down, alt-country ballads.
Now he’s back on tour, has released a new retrospective compilation album called Too Broke To Die, and is gearing up for the release of his next studio album,Time Out For Tomorrow, later this year.
In an exclusive interview he gave Say It With Garage Flowers while he was on the road, he tells us about revisiting his back catalogue, the challenges he faces as a Canadian artist, why he loves coming to the UK and Europe, and how the sound of his forthcoming album was inspired by Nick Lowe and Lou Reed…
It’s been over 12 months since Toronto-based Jerry and his band, The Situation, who’ve been together for 12 years, first came to these shores, and now they’re back, to promote a new, limited edition, retrospective compilation album, called Too Broke To Die, which has been put together especially for the European market and is available to buy from his merch stall on tour.
It brings together 21 songs from the nine albums he’s made from 2005-2019 (eight studio albums and a live record), including some previously unreleased outtakes.
Highlights include the Dylan-esque rarity Beating The Storm; the gorgeous country shuffle of Wrong Kind of Girl; the moody and edgy Factory Made, which is an attack on the fake aspects of the music industry; the sad, reflective Nobody’s Angel; the cool, garage-rock strut of The Big Smoke Blues and the alt-country of Another Dead Radio Star, which was inspired by the 1930s radio show The Shadow, which was voiced by Orson Welles.
Off the back of last year’s successful tour, which introduced Jerry to a new audience outside of his native Canada, this return visit, coupled with Too Broke To Die, which serves as a handy introduction to his career, means 2019 could be the year that he breaks through in the UK and Europe.
One thing’s for sure – it’s certainly not for want of trying…. When Say It With Garage Flowers catches up with Jerry over a pint in a East London pub, in Leytonstone, ahead of a headline show at What’s Cookin’, it’s the fifth night of a gruelling, seven-week tour of almost 30 dates, including stints in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden.
The tour kicked off with a storming UK festival slot at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue in High Wycombe and two appearances on Record Store Day, at Music’s Not Dead in Bexhill-on-Sea and Union Music Store in Lewes. I ask Jerry if he thinks his profile over here is getting bigger.
“I’m glad I did Ramblin’ Roots – it was great to see a whole bunch of people, some of whom I hadn’t met before. I hope my profile is building – it’s what I want, but it’s hard for me to gauge because some things happen very quickly and other things happen very slowly – every day is the same for me, so I’m not very aware of how everything is going,” he says, sipping his beer.
I want to reassure him that things are changing round here… With a brand new studio album on the way later this year and hopefully more UK dates planned in the autumn/winter, by the end of 2019, you’ll definitely be hearing a lot more of Jerry Leger…
Q & A
Your new album, Too Broke To Die, is a retrospective compilation album of songs from 2005-2019. How did it come about and how did you choose which songs made the cut?
Jerry Leger: There are a lot of albums I’ve made that people are unaware of, so I put together a compilation with a few songs from each album and a couple of previously unreleased songs.
Initially, I thought about having some covers on it. We recorded a bunch of covers with Michael Timmins [producer – Cowboy Junkies] for a project that never came to fruition. We did Time by Tom Waits, Like A Hurricane by Neil Young and a medley of John Lennon songs – Well Well Well and his version of (Well) Baby Please Don’t Go from Some Time In New York City. It was a wide range of covers, but then I decided I didn’t want to have to deal with all the licensing issues – I had eight of my albums to dig from and a lot of outtakes, so there was already enough there… Each album had about five or six songs that didn’t make it onto the record.
You’re like Prince…
JL:[laughs]: Without the money and some other stuff that we won’t go into – and I’m still here…
Too Broke To Die is essentially a ‘Greatest Hits’ set but without any hits on it…
JL: Greatest Miss Hits!
Was it hard to choose which songs ended up on Too Broke To Die? How was it going through your back catalogue?
JL: It was a bit tricky and very strange – a lot of the albums I hadn’t heard for a long time, apart from revisiting them so I could bring some of the songs back into my live set and refresh my memory. Some of the songs I recorded when I was 20 or 21 – I’ve just turned 34. I remember being there and making the albums, but it’s strange…
The record takes the listener on a journey – from some of your earlier raw and folky stuff to more soulful sounds, and bluesy country and Americana from your last record, Nonsense and Heartache…
JL: It’s always however I was feeling at the time – and whatever record I wanted to make. I’m still like that.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the record. One of my favourites is Beating The Storm, which has a Dylan feel…
JL: Yeah – definitely.
Can you remember writing that song? What was the inspiration?
JL: I don’t remember the inspiration – I can remember writing it. I was living in a basement apartment and I wrote a few songs there, like Round Walls, for the album You, Me & The Horse. I’ve always loved Beating The Storm – I tried doing it for that album, but, for whatever reason, it didn’t make it. We tried it a few years later, for the album Some Folks Know, but it still didn’t make it. It stuck in my mind. When I was putting the new record together, it seemed like an obvious choice. It had never found a home…
What can you remember about Wrong Kind of Girl?
JL: That falls into that category of those songs that are a bit like magic – I don’t know where it came from or how it came here, but I happened to write it and I’m glad that I did, because I really like that song.
Is He Treating You Good? is a great song – it’s about a relationship gone wrong and it reminds me of something Elvis Costello could’ve written…
JL: I’m glad that you said that because I’m a big fan and he’s a big influence on me, but I never get that comparison. It’s one of my favourite songs I’ve written – it’s up there. It’s in my top three. The song speaks for itself.
Factory Made, from your album Early Riser, is one of my favourite songs on Too Broke To Die…
JL: I can remember writing that one. When Michael Timmins mixed it, it sounded like it came from a different world. We recorded it live and then he mixed it – his choices of which instruments came it and out, and his reverb and echo ideas… I wrote that song at home at 3 in the morning. I was really drunk and I was frustrated with everything – with how the music industry had gone and with some of the people around me who were full of shit. It was an attack on the real trend for making you think that things are legitimate when they’re not – I was frustrated by people getting sucked in by that. It’s a song about being a frustrated artist, but also a frustrated listener. Fortunately – and unfortunately – I think that song will be relevant for years to come.
‘Over a beer, I can talk all night about music I love. I can talk about Blood On The Tracks if you want me to…’
Nobody’s Angel feels like it’s one of your anthems…
JL: That was written when I’d started working in a hardware store in Toronto that my brother managed – I was a teenager in high school and I worked there for many years. You don’t want me to fix anything…
It was in an area where there were a lot of people who were suffering from different forms of abuse. I would see men and women – young people who’d had the life sucked out of them within a few years.
There was a coffee shop on the corner where there were drug dealers and pimps who were there all night… There wasn’t a lot of understanding – people’s lives got screwed up very easily for a variety of reasons, but they shouldn’t be looked down upon. The neighbourhood has now been gentrified – at the time, there was a lot of crack cocaine there.
Toronto features in quite a few of your songs, like Things Are Changing Round Here and The Big Smoke Blues – both of which are from Nonsense and Heartache and are also on the new compilation album…
JL: Yeah – I write about what’s around me. Obviously parts of me are in the songs, but there are also little conversations… Songs just come from anywhere – I don’t have a filter. Whatever I retain, I think could be a song…
Let’s talk about your next studio album, which is coming out later this year. What’s inspired some of your new songs?
JL: One song was written about a ghost town in Northern Ontario and the opening song is called Canvas of Gold – the first verse is: ‘Everything was almost decided when we were young. You stay poor like your family before and I’ll keep on hustling…’ I think I’ve become more aware recently of what a crazy life I’m living – it’s hard to survive as an artist in a big city, but it’s what I signed up for – it’s a hustle.
Is it hard trying to make it in the UK and Europe, outside of Canada?
JL: Hustling outside of Canada is more rewarding – Canada takes its own artists for granted – it’s always been that way. I want to keep working, so I have to build a profile here [in the UK and Europe]. I just want to keep reaching more people and I want to keep coming back here. We’ve had some of the most enthusiastic appreciation here – there’s more people here who are deeper music lovers than in North America. It’s been easier to get music listeners here. It became tiring in Canada – doing the same routes and travelling across the country. It didn’t feel like people were getting into it.
Canada’s really big and there’s not a huge population, so unless you’re playing the game according to somebody else, it’s very difficult to get anywhere. There’s a whole other world out there. I have my fans and supporters back home, but it’s really nice to be in a new market and have people dig what I’m doing. It’s a different appreciation – I’ve met way more people on the tours in the UK and Europe that listen to music in the way that I listen to it. When I get into a record, I dissect it – I listen very closely to it and it means something to me. Over a beer, I can talk all night about music I love. I can talk about Blood On The Tracks all night if you want me to…
‘It’s hard to survive as an artist in a big city, but it’s what I signed up for – it’s a hustle’
Earlier today, you told me that Canadian radio thought that your last album was too gritty…
JL: I thought that was great – it’s the best compliment they’ve ever given me.
Let’s talk more about your new studio album, which is out later this year. Like your two previous albums, you worked with producer Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) on it…
JL: What was different this time around was that we rehearsed a lot before going into the studio, trying out different arrangements, but there’s still spontaneity on this record… A lot of it was played live in the studio, but I had more of a clear idea about how it was going to be executed. I already had in my mind what the arrangements were going to be. It took about a week to make.
What does it sound like?
JL: It’s a nice, short and sweet, lean and mean record. Two records I really dug the sound of that I wanted to capture on this record were Nick Lowe’s TheImpossible Bird and one of my favourite Lou Reed albums, Coney Island Baby – I love that dry drum sound and the real directness of it. Some of the songs just coast along. I also like a lot of Nick Lowe’s older records with Rockpile, where he doubled the electric guitar solos. I doubled my vocals on some songs.
‘My next album is a nice, short and sweet, lean and mean record. I wanted to capture the sound of Nick Lowe’s The Impossible Bird and Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby’
Do you have a title for the new album?
JL: Time Out For Tomorrow, which I think really captures the whole album – I don’t know why, but the title feels right. I’m really excited about the new record – I’m very proud of it. I really think it’s the best record I’ve made so far. It’s a cross between Early Riser and Nonsense and Heartache sound-wise and it’s very concise – songwriting-wise, performance-wise, arrangement-wise and sequence-wise. We went in with 18 songs, focused on about 15, then cut it down to 12 and 10 made it. Some of the songs that didn’t make it are some of the best, but they didn’t fit. It was like putting together a puzzle. I like records that are rough around the edges, but with this one I took a little more care putting those puzzle pieces together.
I can’t wait to hear the new album and I’m looking forward to you coming back to the UK.
JL: I’ve got to keep coming here and that’s what I plan to do. I’m sure we’ll be back before the end of the year.
Jerry Leger & The Situation are currently touring Europe. For more information, please visit https://jerryleger.com/ .
The compilation album Too Broke To Die – a limited edition retrospective (2005-2019) is available to purchase at the gigs. It’s on Golden Rocket Records.
Case Hardin frontman Pete Gow’s first solo album, Here There’s No Sirens, is a brilliant collection of stripped-down, intimate and very personal songs, with acoustic guitar, orchestral arrangements, brass, piano, drums and organ.
For his first interview to promote the record, Say It With Garage Flowers met him for a pint. Subjects on the agenda included string sections, tattoos, relationships, Stormy Daniels and Shane MacGowan…
Pete Gow is sat in Trinity bar in Harrow, North West London, nursing a pint of lager. The last time he was here was in late 2017, when he played a solo acoustic We Shall Overcome anti-austerity charity show for Say It With Garage Flowers.
At that gig, one of the songs he aired was the folky Some Old Jacobite King, which now features on his first solo album, Here There’s No Sirens – albeit in a radically different version.
In fact the new record that we’re here to talk about is a surprising departure for Pete, who fronts UK Americana / alt-country band Case Hardin. Sure, lyrically it’s sometimes dark and often left of centre – like the songs we know him for – but this is a deeply personal and confessional record, and, musically, it explores new territory for Pete – gone are the big electric guitars, old fashioned rock and roll, Springsteen-like anthems and kicked-around country songs of Case Hardin’s 2015’s album Colours Simple. Instead, this is a record of stripped-down acoustic songs, with stirring string arrangements, fleshed out by piano, brass, organ and drums.
We’re reminded of when US Americana singer-songwriter Chris Mills – who just so happens to be a friend of Pete’s – made his 2005 album The Wall To Wall Sessions – a masterpiece that featured lush orchestration and horns.
Opener One Last One NightStand sets the tone for most of Here There’s No Sirens – it’s a big, honest, relationship ballad with a breathtaking cinematic backing, while the song Mikaela sounds like early Ryan Adams, but with mournful horns and sweeping violins.
There are also character songs – the majestic Some Old Jacobite King is steeped in the storytelling tradition and was inspired by a trip to the remote Isle of Skye, while Strip For Me centres on a guy who treats women in a thoroughly unpleasant way – and it name checks porn actress and stripper Stormy Daniels, who has been involved in a scandal with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Produced by multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett, (Dreaming Spires, Co-Pilgrim, Raving Beauties / Paul McClure) at Farm Music Studios in Oxfordshire and out in April on Clubhouse Records, Here There’s No Sirens is a stunning record that’s both beautiful and unsettling.
At times, it can be uncomfortable to listen to, as Pete shares raw emotions and intimate relationship details over dramatic orchestral backing. Does he think it will surprise people who are used to hearing Case Hardin?
“I hope it will,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, sipping his pint. “So often when you hear a solo record by people who front bands where the lead singer is the creative force behind them – like the manner in which I front Case Hardin – the differences are quite marginal and it’s just a little bit more acoustic. I really put a lot of thought into how I wanted this album to be different. Even if people don’t like it, nobody can say that it’s just a Case Hardin-lite record…”
Q & A
This is your first solo album. What prompted the move to make a record on your own?
Pete Gow: I was trying to get Case Hardin to make a record last year. It was written – it was even overwritten – I had 15 or 16 songs, but we just weren’t able to make it happen for a whole world of reasons. Sometimes five grown men just can’t get their shit together to make a record happen.
So I started about thinking what I should do – the concept of making a solo record had never occurred to me. I thought about us doing an EP – something that would tide Case Hardin over, as it had been two years since we released our Colours Simple album. Bands like us live or die on new products – not to mention the fact that I’d been writing for a long time and needed to find an outlet for it.
When I realised that the Case Hardin thing wasn’t going to happen, there were three or four songs in that pile that I’d always wondered what the hell Case Hardin would do with them anyway?
The whole thing just came about in almost 24 hours. I spoke to Joe and he was into it, and I spoke to Clubhouse Records, who were expecting a new Case Hardin record, and they said that if I could turn the three or four tracks into an album, they’d be interested in it. So then I wrote the rest of the album in a couple of weeks.
This record is a big departure from the Case Hardin sound – it’s stripped-down ballads, with acoustic guitar, orchestral arrangements, piano, trumpet, piano, organ and drums…
PG: I’m the main songwriter in Case Hardin and we have a sound that’s reasonably distinctive, so I had to find a way of making the album a proper solo project.
I went to Joe and said, ‘here’s what I want to do’ – I didn’t want any guitars on it, but I wanted strings and piano and drums, with everything else stripped-out. Joe was brilliant – he listened to the demos and said, ‘I’ll meet you halfway’.
‘I didn’t want people who came to my solo record to find that it was just like a Case Hardin album, but with different musicians playing on it… I didn’t want to make a Case Hardin record’
He wanted to keep the acoustic guitar, because that’s how the songs were written and it’s what drives them along, but there’s no lead guitar on the record.
I didn’t want to short-change anybody – I didn’t want people who came to my solo record to find that it was just like a Case Hardin album, but with different musicians playing on it… I didn’t want to make a Case Hardin record and I knew that Joe could do strings – he’s done some wonderful work on albums that I’m familiar with. I play all the acoustic guitars on the record, the drums are by Fin Kenny and Joe plays everything else.
Even the backing vocals? I thought they were female…
PG: I’ll tell him that!
You made the record last year. How was the recording process?
PG: There were two short sessions of four or five days each in the middle of last year. We did it slightly differently to the way in which records are usually made – I laid down the guitar and then I’d put a guide vocal over the top of it. Then we brought Fin in, who had two days to work through the tracks. Joe wrote melody parts on a violin and then recorded the strings – it was all real instruments. He also wrote the various harmony parts.
The whole experience was very different – when we make a Case Hardin record, it always sounds like a 100 per cent better version of what I knew it was going to sound like in my head – a beautiful, shining, brilliant and more fully realised version.
With this record, I handed the acoustic guitar, vocals and drum tracks over to Joe and he then built the string arrangements. There are a few songs – One Last One Night Stand and TV Reruns – which have big, long, instrumental sections. If I were writing those for a Case Hardin record, I wouldn’t have made them so repetitive and so long.
‘I told Joe that I wanted this record to sound like Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and most of Ryan Adams’ 29’
One Last One Night Stand was the first track Joe sent back to me and I knew then that it was going to be a great project. Joe has produced this album in the fullest and most traditional sense. He understood the content and took all of the songs to a place that was beyond my comprehension. That’s what he brought to this record. When Joe sent the tracks back to me, I was blindsided – they almost sounded like other people’s songs.
What were you listening to when you made this album? What were the musical influences?
PG: I told Joe that I wanted this record to sound like Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and most of Ryan Adams’ 29. He said, ‘I’ve heard neither of those records and I’m not going to listen to them!’ It sounds nothing like either of them.
Joe and I was a wonderful juxtaposition – I had these ideas of what I didn’t want it to sound like, and the influences I did want to draw on, but all he wanted to do was to make the best record possible. Sometimes that fell into line and sometimes it didn’t – sometimes I managed to persuade him to make changes and sometimes change for change’s sake wasn’t the right thing to do. It was a very fulfilling relationship.
It’s a very personal album – emotionally raw and confessional. It’s naked Pete Gow – often in more than one sense of the word, but we’ll come to that later…
Let’s talk about some of the songs. The opener, One Last One Night Stand, features the lines, ‘We don’t need to die here on this beach – we don’t need this sand to wipe blood off our hands…’ This is dark territory, isn’t it?
PG: It’s just my way into relationship songs. I’ve always tried to find that slightly left of centre way into any situation. If there’s anybody who likes the way I write, then I’m guessing it tends to be because of stuff like that.
One Last One Night Stand – like a lot of the album – shows that I’m in a relationship and a place that I never expected myself to be in. I’m certainly in a place that I never expected to be in so comfortably that it would reflect in the music that I’m making.
One Last One Night Stand is just a slightly left of centre way of realising that that’s where I am. It was one of the songs that I wrote for the record – it hadn’t been written previously and it was one of the last ones I wrote. I realised where the record was going and it sets the tone for the project, which I why I put it at the beginning. ‘Here’s where I am – now go and listen to the rest of the record and you’ll realise…’
‘A lot of the album shows that I’m in a relationship and a place that I never expected myself to be in’
It’s an album that’s very relationship-heavy, isn’t it? Some of your Case Hardin songs feature characters, and, although there are characters on this record, most of the songs are personal, aren’t they? They’re about you and the relationship you’re in…
PG: Yes. Apart from possibly Some Old Jacobite King, which is a story song, this album is self-contained and doesn’t really stray from its mandate or remit. Over the course of 40 minutes you need something like Some Old Jacobite King to pull you away… nobody wants to just sit and listen to me and my relationship! [he laughs].
The second song on the album, Mikaela, is my favourite track, largely for the great line: ‘Songs are like tattoos – you should think before you name one after a girl…’ That’s a rare moment of humour in one of your songs…
PG: It is – if you listen to my records, you’ll know that.
Have you got any tattoos of girls’ names?
PG: I haven’t, but it’s that famous thing, isn’t it? Get a tattoo of a girl’s name that been spelt wrong…
That song was never intended to be put on a record, but it suddenly became indicative of this whole album, which is relationship-based, more than anything else I’ve ever done. The song was written for her [Mikaela]. There are references in it that you might think shouldn’t be put on an album for people to hear…
The sexual stuff? Well, I did say it was a naked record…
PG: Literally and figuratively. That’s why that song sits so beautifully next to One Last One Night Stand… ‘Hold on, what’s he saying here? Oh – OK, this is why…’
That was a song that was written for the Case Hardin record, but when I sent it to the band I thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do with this?’ I just didn’t want to throw a load of guitars over the top of it and turn it into alt-country by numbers.
I really like the brass on it – it’s mournful, like a New Orleans funeral band…
PG: Yes, but slightly Mariachi as well – the trumpet was slightly buried in the string section originally, but it got pulled out and pushed front and centre in the final mix.
‘Nobody wants to just sit and listen to me and my relationship!’
From one sexual song to another… Next up we have Strip For Me, which could possibly be the first song to name check Stormy Daniels…
PG: It could well be. The song is nothing to do with her, but it’s about the underbelly of the male perspective of relationships – something I’ve written about at other points in my career.
It’s a character song, isn’t it?
The opening lines are very uncomfortable. There’s a fictional male protagonist who says to a woman: ‘Do you think you’re one of those girls too beautiful to hurt, too beautiful to cheat on? There’s no girl too beautiful for that’…
PG: That horrible guy would quite easily just see a porn star and remember her name – ‘Strip for me, like Stormy Daniels’ – without really realising who this woman is.
It’s a pop culture reference – it’s had an odd reception already. It’s one of the few songs I’ve played live – I did some acoustic shows with Jason McNiff and I road tested some songs. Whenever I played Strip For Me, people burst out laughing… I was like, ‘shit!’
I obviously don’t think through the consequences of these things when I’m writing, but it will be interesting to see if people can peel back the layers, rather than just hearing that woman’s name. I wouldn’t want it to turn into some kind of joke or parody song – it’s not. I used her name to underline the stupidity of the guy in the first verse.
‘I hope history will be a lot kinder to Stormy Daniels and realise that she’s quite a significant character in the theatre that is the Trump presidency’
I guess the reason I left the reference in is because I hope history will be a lot kinder to people like Stormy Daniels and realise that she’s quite a significant character in the theatre that is the Trump presidency. The second verse is supposed to be the woman talking about the guy…
Strip For Me is going to be the preview digital single from the album, so let’s really see what people make of it…
The title track, Here There’s No Sirens, contains a lyrical reference to the Pogues song, A Rainy Night In Soho, playing on the radio, and there’s also a snippet of the song in the outro…
PG: It’s a song about just finding yourself in the kitchen, with a radio playing your favourite song. I’ve given Shane MacGowan a co-writing credit – the song was originally intended for the Case Hardin record and I think they could’ve done something with it.
When I was finishing writing it and demoing it, I thought, ‘what key am I in? This is almost A Rainy Night In Soho’, so I slightly changed the guitar pattern and the style of the strum. I put a little bit of swing into it and changed the key.
The original demo was me playing it into my phone, with the last verse of A Rainy Night In Soho playing on my stereo. I’m a huge Pogues fan – that song is the one to slap people around the face with when they say the Pogues are just a bunch of drunks and that MacGowan is not a good writer…
Why is Here There’s No Sirens the title track?
PG: On this album I deliberately set out to do a few subtle things that I wouldn’t have done on a Case Hardin album – never titling a record after a song and never having our images on the front cover. I wanted to name the record after a song and the cover art is a picture of me by an artist from Edinburgh called Veronica Casey – she painted it many years ago. This album is a case of me unticking a lot of boxes for reasons only known to myself…
‘On this album I deliberately set out to do a few subtle things that I wouldn’t have done on a Case Hardin album’
You’re launching the album at a special London show in the Network Theatre, Waterloo on April 6, where you’ll be joined by The Siren Strinqs quartet…
PG: It’s a community theatre and it’s a beautiful space. Clubhouse Records and Joe wanted people to realise that this album is something different, so we have the Siren Strings – it’s not just me and a guitar. The show will be me, Joe, Tristan Tipping [Clubhouse Records and Paul McClure and The Local Heroes] on bass, Fin on drums, and the string quartet.
There are two supports – Lucy Kitt and Tony Poole [Starry Eyed and Laughing and Bennett Wilson Poole]. Tony mastered my record. We’re going to play the album and there will be one or two little surprises on the night.We’re also going to play at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue [April 12-14, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe].
Finally, let’s talk about Case Hardin. Any plans for a new album?
PG: It’s written – we’re going into the studio as soon as we can. I think we’re going to start recording it in June and then get it out by June the following year.
What can we expect it to sound like?
PG: Looking at the solo project and knowing that I didn’t want electric guitars on it – and looking at the songs I’ve taken away from Case Hardin for my record – you’re left with something that will quite organically be a collection of much shorter, punchier, louder songs.
There won’t be anything on there as expansive as Poets Corner [the eight-minute album opener from Colours Simple], and I also won’t feel the need to put on tracks like High Rollers and Cheap Streaks From A Bottle [also fromColours Simple].
I think the next Case Hardin album, will, by default, be louder and punchier, and we can zone in on what many people think Case Hardin do best.
Pete Gow’s Here There’s No Sirens will be released on April 5 on Clubhouse Records. There will be an album launch show with The Siren Strings quartet on April 6 at The Network Theatre, London Waterloo, with support from Lucy Kitt and Tony Poole. Tickets are available here.
Pete Gow and The Siren Strings will also be playing at the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival (April 12-14, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe).
It’s a hell of a ride, mixing Cash-like country with afistful of Spaghetti Western songs, Mariachi brass, haunting harmonica and Morricone moodiness.
Say It With Garage Flowers invited her to an Italian café in North London to talk retribution and revenge, women in cowboy films and her favourite Western soundtracks and movies, and to tell us how her and her gang of outlaws made the album.
We wanted to go to Nashville, Almeria or Cinecittà, but we couldn’t afford it – if only we’d had a few dollars more…
Over a cup of tea in an Italian café in North London – Mario’s in Camden – Sarah Vista is telling Say It With Garage Flowers where her love of Spaghetti Westerns and cowboy culture comes from. And, just to clarify, she hasn’t brought her guns to town…
“There are photos of me when I was three years old, sat on a rocking horse, in front of a Western film. I liked the music and I thought I was in the movies. That’s a strong memory for me. When I was a child, I used to think, ‘why is it always men in Westerns?’ It’s a little fantasy I had…” she says, smiling.
“The hero – the person who strides in and saves the day – is always male. It’s not a man’s world anymore, it’s a man’s and a woman’s world – there should be a fair amount of women taking their share of the gold…”
Q & A
Women are often portrayed as victims in Westerns, rather than heroines, aren’t they? Do you feel they’re misrepresented in cowboy films?
Sarah Vista: I do, but there are a couple of strong women, like Calamity Jane [Doris Day] and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, who’s incredible – I was heavily influenced by her when I was a kid. There are also some softer female characters, like Helen Ramirez, who is played by Katy Jurado in High Noon, and Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon A Time In The West, who comes across as having a hard time, but is actually a strong central character [Jill McBain].
‘My songs are delivered with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek – contrary to popular belief, I’ve never actually killed anyone!’
With that in mind, some of your songs, like Madame Moustache and Belle Starr, feature strong and violent women, who don’t suffer fools gladly and are out to get revenge on men who’ve wronged them. Should I be worried?
SV: [She laughs]. My songs are delivered with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek – contrary to popular belief, I’ve never actually killed anyone! Putting stuff in songs is a form of therapy for me. It’s nice to be able to express myself in a fantasy way – anyone who’s been wronged or treated badly probably has those feelings from time to time. The theme of the album is about retribution rather than revenge. I’m not bitter – I’m just holding people to account for their bullshit and putting it out there.
I’ve had so many women approach me about my songs and lyrics – they get it. I had a difficult past and upbringing and with the Sarah Vista character, I wanted to set some things straight.
When you’re performing on stage, you go into character, don’t you?
SV: Yeah – I guess so. When I was growing up, I struggled with confidence and I wanted to turn the tables on that. I’ve finally found a character that I’m comfortable with exploring and I’m going to stick with it.
When you were growing up, did your parents like music and films?
SV: My dad was a film buff and my mum was a massive music fan – she was obsessed with Elvis – and she has the most incredible voice I’ve ever heard. As a child, I used to sing with her.
Music’s always been there – when I was growing up I used to steal my mum’s guitar all the time and try and play it. I really wanted my own guitar. I started learning to play on her guitar when I was 12 – my mum bunged me a Bob Dylan album and said, ‘if you can work out how to play that, I’ll get you a guitar’. Four or five hours later, I’d worked out the chords by ear. She said, ‘four hours? I was hoping it would be four years – I haven’t got any money to buy you a guitar’. That went on for ages.
About a year later, after I’d worked out some Hendrix licks, she saw that I was serious about it and she bought me one – she saved up for a long time. I locked myself in my room for the rest of my childhood and started writing songs.
‘I had a difficult past and upbringing – with the Sarah Vista character, I wanted to set some things straight’
In the late ‘90s, I joined a band called Suck Baby Suck as a guitarist – I played with David Scinto, who wrote the scripts for the film Sexy Beast, Gangster No.1 and 44 Inch Chest.
I started writing songs with him – we were a great band. We had a good adventure together – it was garagey. I kind of outgrew it – I was young and naïve and I wanted to do more and move faster, so I walked away from it.
I tried a load of bits and pieces, but nothing came together, so I wrote my own album and I released it independently, but it fell on deaf ears – it was punk, but it had my stamp on it. We all have to start somewhere…
I also did a single with Paul Kaye called Live Sex On Stage – he did it as his character, Mike Strutter – we had a great laugh doing that.
When I first met you, five or six years ago, you were fronting a rockabilly band called Viva Le Pink…
SV: I set that up with the intention of having an all-female rhythm and blues / rockabilly band, with a horn section, but it didn’t quite pan out… I wasn’t feeling it, so I quit my own band. The Sarah Vista thing had been bubbling under for a long time.
Let’s talk about your debut album as Sarah Vista – Killing Fever…
SV: I decided I was going to make a Western soundtrack, in the style of my favourite records – the ultimate project.
Cleverly, the album is split into two different genres – Country and Western. One side is country songs, but the other is Spaghetti Western-flavoured…
SV: I didn’t set out to do that – I set out to make a Western record. I wrote about 26 songs in the space of four of five weeks! It was natural – the songs kept coming out. I was, like, hold your horses!
I see what you did there…
SV: My imagination ran away with me. The Western thing was natural, but the country thing… Someone once said, ‘you don’t choose country music, it chooses you’… I thought that was lovely. I definitely didn’t set out to make a country record, but there’s a lot of darkness in country music and that fits with me… Everyone was doing country, but no one was doing the Western side of it.
‘I definitely didn’t set out to make a country record, but there’s a lot of darkness in country music and that fits with me’
You rounded up a gang of outlaws to help you make the album, didn’t you?
SV: I worked with Adie Hardy, who produced it – he’s a friend and I’ve worked with him a lot. I also found a drummer who’s a country fan [Tom Meadows] – he’s actually Kylie Minogue’s drummer – and my friend, Philip Doyle, recommended a lapsteel player called Jeff Mead. Jeff and I have started writing together.
Emma Goss [double bass] was also recommended by Philip Doyle – she’s great. I also worked with Terry Edwards [trumpet and baritone sax], who’s played with Nick Cave and Tom Waits – he’s an incredible musician and he’s really added something to the record. Johnny Trouble [harmonica] recorded his parts in Germany, where he has his own studio.
Was it an enjoyable album to make?
SV: It was fantastic! It took two years to make. I had no money, so we did it in studio downtime at Unit 2 Studios in Acton, London.
You released the album on your own label, Gallow Romantic. Are you going to put out records by other artists?
SV: That’s my plan. There’s so much good stuff that goes under the radar because the industry is so up its own arse, it’s chasing its tail.
You’ve also been working on a soundtrack for a Spaghetti Western film, haven’t you?
SV: Yes, but you’d actually class it as a Paella Western, as the director’s Spanish. He’s a guy called Danny Garcia – he did the music documentaries The Rise and Fall of The Clash and Looking For Johnny – the Johnny Thunders biopic.
A friend of mine, Ray Gange, who was lead actor in Rudeboy, got a part in a Western film that Danny was doing. I was like, ‘what the fuck? Get me on the soundtrack!’
‘For me and my music, this year is going to be good, but for my naysayers it’s going to be very bad and, politically, it’s looking pretty ugly’
He said, ‘he’s already done the soundtrack’. I said, ‘no – he hasn’t!’ So I sent Danny some short clips of three songs and he said he wanted them in the movie and he’d make room for them. The film’s called The Price of Death and my song Killing Fever is the opening track. You can see the back of my head in the film… It’s due out soon.
I got to go to Almeria in Spain, where Sergio Leone shot his classic movies – the sets from the ‘70s are still there. It’s amazing! I’ve also been asked to do something else, but I’m keeping that firmly under my Stetson at the moment…
So, is the year ahead going to be good, bad or ugly?
SV: For me and my music, it’s going to be good, but for my naysayers it’s going to be very bad and, politically, it’s looking pretty ugly. You’ve got to hold on to what’s good in the world, do cool stuff, keep people entertained and stay close to the good folk.
Can I ask you to choose your top five favourite Spaghetti Western films and Top five Western soundtracks?
SV: I can’t put them in order, but my favourite films are A Fistful of Dollars– it has a revolutionary soundtrack and it created the Spaghetti Western sound; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – it’s a tense epic and if you don’t like it, you must have something missing; Django by Sergio Corbucci – it’s a classic – and Once Upon A Time In The West – another classic. The last film is The Great Silence from 1968 – Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a mute gunfighter and Klaus Kinski is the bad guy – a bounty killer. He’s so creepy. It’s an epic film and it’s set in the snow.
For my soundtracks, I’m going to choose A Fistful of Dollars; Once Upon A Time In The West – for the harmonica and Jill’s Theme, with the operatic female vocals; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for The Ecstasy of Gold; The Great Silence, which is an overlooked Morricone masterpiece – I think it’s one of his best works – and here’s a wild card, the Django soundtrack by Luis Enriquez Bacalov. It has Rocky Roberts vocals, electric guitar and a ’60s and ’70s feel to it. Tarantino used it in Django Unchained.
Do you think your next album will have a more expansive and experimental sound?
SV: For the first one, I had to rein it in a bit, but for the next album I might let it all hang out and disappear down a Spaghetti Western rabbit hole!
Sarah Vista’s Killing Fever is out now on Gallow Romantic. For more info, visit https://www.sarahvista.com . See the Spotify playlist below for some of her essential Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
From UK Americana, to Canadian country-blues, Staffordshire psych-pop, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and, er, a concept record about Worcestershire, Say It With Garage Flowers chooses its favourite albums of 2018…
Bennett Wilson Poole have had a great year.
The UK Americana and jangle-pop trio formed by Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’), released a critically-acclaimed debut album, played sell-out shows across the UK and were nominated twice in the UK Americana 2019 Awards – for UK Album of the Year and UK Artist of the Year. And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also scooped the prize for Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2018.
When we told Danny Wilson the news, he said: “What an honour! I didn’t think it would be your album of the year… I wouldn’t have dreamed of it! I loved making the album with the other guys and I think it’s a great record.”
It certainly is! When we first heard the record at the start of the year, we said it would undoubtedly find itself high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year list come late 2018…
‘High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues’
Produced by Tony Poole – the king of the 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar – in his home studio in rural Oxfordshire, it’s a totally cosmic trip that takes in Byrds-meets-Tom-Petty/ Traveling Wilburys jangle-pop (Soon Enough), gorgeous, soulful balladry, (Hide Behind A Smile), mystical country (Find Your Own Truth), sunny Americana (Wilson General Store), shimmering psychedelic sounds (That Thing That You Called Love) and moody, powerful protest rock in the vein of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Hate Won’t Win and Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself).
High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues.
Speaking to us earlier this year – we were the first publication to interview Bennett Wilson Poole – Tony said: “With our songs, like Hide Behind A Smile, the chords are quite simple and the tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface.”
He added: “A lot of people have said that you can keep listening to the album over and over again and you hear new things, which is great – that’s a good sign. If it makes you feel good, we’re adding to the sum of human happiness…”
Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we totally agree – Bennett Wilson Poole’s long-player has been on heavy rotation on our hi-fi and it’s been our feel-good soundtrack of 2018. And the good news is that there’s a follow-up planned for 2019. It can’t come soon enough…
Another Americana release that impressed us this year was Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s Nonsense and Heartache.
Produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, who worked on our favourite album of 2017, John Murry’s A Short History of Decay, it’s a double album, but, essentially it’s two distinct collections of songs.
The first half – Nonsense – is a raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll record, while the second instalment – Heartache – is a stripped-down, alt-country affair, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle.
Put them together and you have an album that reminds us of those classic early Ryan Adams long-players Heartbreaker and Gold – yep, it’s that good…
Jerry has a new album due in the autumn of 2019 and will be playing dates in Europe and the UK in the spring.
Pieces, Luke’s third solo album, is his best yet. An angry, heavy, often political album, it rocks like Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Batten down the hatches, it’s like a hurricane out there… There’s even a nine-minute, epic rallying call (Requiem), which attacks social injustice in the UK and comes across like Luke’s very own Rockin’ In The Free World…
It’s not all big guitar anthems, though – there are some quieter moments in the eye of the storm, like the apologetic ballad Charing Cross and the sublime, Springsteen-like country-rock song Ghosts, which sees Luke revisiting his childhood haunts.
Luke wasn’t the only US-based, UK singer-songwriter to make a political album this year – Nashville resident Ian Webber brought out Op-Eds, which tackled social issues including women’s rights, fake news, war-torn Syria and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy.
Musically, it’s a very stripped-down record – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle.
Opener Follow Me and its parent song, The Regime, are haunting tales inspired by reading news stories about families suffering in Syria, while Frontline is a protest song that has its roots in ’50s rockabilly.
Radio Zero is an ode to the healing power of great music – while the world is going crazy, sometimes you just need to switch off from all the doom and gloom and crank up some classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Ian sings the song in a Bowie-like croon that sounds like it’s been beamed in from outer space.
‘Musically, it’s a very stripped-down record – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle’
Fellow Bowie fan, UK singer-songwriter and Say It With Garage Flowers regular Vinny Peculiar released the latest in a long line of great albums in 2018. Return of the Native was a concept record inspired by moving back to Worcestershire after 23 years living in Manchester.
A brilliant collection of witty, reflective and deeply personal songs, it features a whole host of weird and wonderful characters, including a burnt-out rock star, the ghost of a Civil War re-enactment enthusiast, Eminem hopelessly lost in Droitwich, ’70s M.O.R. singer Clifford T.Ward, DJ Tony Blackburn and comedian Rik Mayall.
Musically, the album takes the listener on a journey through Worcestershire that’s soundtracked by glam-rock, jangle-pop, psych, Pet Shop Boys-style electro and New Order-esque, Northern melancholy.
Jangle-pop and psych sounds both featured heavily on the 2018 albums by London cosmic-country-folk five piece The Hanging Stars and Staffordshire band Alfa 9.
With Songs For Somewhere Else – the follow-up to their 2016 debut, Over The Silvery Lake, which was our favourite album of that year, The Hanging Stars made a record that was even better than its predecessor and was a much more varied and adventurous collection of songs – there was the beguiling and soporific Spiritualized-meets-Byrds groove of On A Sweet Summer’s Day, the heavenly, Big Star jangle-pop of Honeywater, menacing Spaghetti Western soundtrack Mean Old Man, the country-rock romp For You (My Blue Eyed Son) and the woozy and playful 1920s-style jazz-blues of Too Many Wired Hours.
Alfa 9 are also fans of Spaghetti Western soundtracks – their album My Sweet Movida was full of Ennio Morricone influences,retro rock, cosmic-psych-country road trips and ’60s-inspired jangle-pop.
Back in April, guitarist Leon Jones told us: “We love Morricone and that kind of melancholy there is in a lot of his work. I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree, particularly. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment…”
Another fan of Morricone is Frank Sweeney, whose band of London renegades The Magic City Trio turned in one of the best debut albums of 2018.
Amerikana Arkana has wonderful orchestral arrangements that recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), Morricone’s moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.
For more Spaghetti Western sounds and gun-slinging action, may we also recommend another great debut album from 2018 – Sarah Vista’s Killing Fever. Look out for an interview with London-based singer-songwriter Sarah on Say It With Garage Flowers soon…
Whether your year has been good, bad or ugly, we hope that you’ll take time to listen to some of the albums that were our soundtrack to 2018.
Here’s the full list of our 35 favourite albums of the last 12 months and a Spotify playlist to go with it*.
It’s been an amazing year for Bennett Wilson Poole, the UK Americana and jangle-pop supergroup formed by Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’).
Their self-titled debut album has received great reviews – it’s Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite record of 2018 – and the band has played a string of well-attended shows, been nominated twice in the UK Americana 2019 Awards – for UK Album of the Year and UK Artist of the Year – and played live on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC TV and Robert Elms’ BBC Radio London show.
In an exclusive interview, Danny Wilson reflects on the group’s success, chooses some of his favourite albums of 2018 and gives us a sneak preview of what Bennett Wilson Poole have planned for next year… Could there be a second album on the way?
Q & A
I’m delighted to tell you that your record, Bennett Wilson Poole, is my favourite album of the year… I’m going to publish the full list later this month, but I wanted to give you the heads-up…
Danny Wilson: What an honour! I didn’t think it would be your album of the year… I wouldn’t have dreamed of it! I loved making the album with the other guys and I think it’s a great record.
It’s been a great year for you, hasn’t it? There’s a lot of love for Bennett Wilson Poole out there…
DW: There is – it’s touching. It’s really lovely. I’m a bit surprised at how well it’s gone – not because the music isn’t good, but because you just never know… You can spend years in your main bands trying to push an elephant up the stairs and it’s tough… I think all of our combined histories have helped – they’ve made it more palatable and immediate for people to get into.
It’s not easy for anyone, but the shows have been selling – when the wheels are greased a little, it’s really nice. We’re not turning up to shows and wondering if anyone’s going to be there, which makes life a lot easier. Things have gathered a bit of steam.
You’ve been nominated for two UK Americana Awards – the winners will be announced in January 2019…
DW: I’m totally thrilled that we’ve been nominated – it’s amazing. I really hope that we win one – Danny and the Champs won a few and it does have a knock-on effect in terms of bums on seats – you can’t argue with that. We’re really honoured to have been nominated – if we get given the thumbs-up by people, that’s a lovely thing.
When you appeared on the Robert Elms radio show recently, you played a great new song called I Wanna Love You (But I Can’t Right Now). It has a very poignant lyric and an instantly addictive melody. It’s a song about falling out of love with America because of the current political situation, but it also celebrates some of the great things that America has brought us, including Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, De La Soul, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King…
DW: It’s a love song to America. – Robin and I wrote the song together. Weirdly, Bennett Wilson Poole is the only act I’ve ever been in that’s overtly political in any way. I like protest songs and political music – Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Billy Bragg; Paul Weller; Elvis Costello – even Simply Red – but I’ve never felt in a position to do it.
It’s fairly obvious that everyone involved in the Bennett Wilson Poole project are humanists – they want the best for people who aren’t getting the help they need, but that’s about as far as I’ve ever gone in terms of being overtly political – being a friendly person. I think everybody should be like that, regardless of their politics, but with Bennett Wilson Poole it’s the first time I’ve done political songs.
‘Bennett Wilson Poole is the only act I’ve ever been in that’s overtly political in any way. I like protest songs and political music, but I’ve never felt in a position to do it’
So can we expect a second Bennett Wilson Poole album next year?
DW: I think so – there’s lots of material. It’s been really easy – they are around 17 new songs we’ve written that are all tailor-made. There’s a really good feeling – we’re inspired by Tony and the reception that he’s getting at this stage in his career.
Will you be playing any new songs at your upcoming gigs in Oxford and London this month?
DW: Yes – It’s very Byrdsian and it’s lovely. Someone from outside of the band suggested that we do it. We have mooted the idea of a covers album – we’ve written a list of songs for it. I wrote an exhaustive list. I don’t know where to go with it – whether it should be like Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs’ wonderful covers albums, where every song is a classic, or to make it much more obscure, but that might be one nerdy step too far… I’m thinking of stuff by The Beau Brummels and some songs from Dion’s folk-rock period, but we’ll see.
What are your favourite albums of the year?
DW: Ryley Walker’s The Lillywhite Sessions is totally amazing – it’s a reimagining of a Dave Matthews Band album that was unreleased. Damien Jurado’s new album [The Horizon Just Laughed] is fantastic and there’s one particular record by Dios [Life Between The Tides] that’s like a shoegazing cross between Neil Young and The Beachboys – it’s a really great record, but no one has been banging on about it. I also liked the new J Mascis album [Elastic Days]. I bought a lot of records this year, as I own a record shop [Union Music Store in Lewes, East Sussex]. I like all the stuff on Loose too – they’re going from strength to strength. They’re my friends and I respect and admire them – they’re amazing.
Finally, any plans for a new album by Danny and the Champs?
DW: Yeah – I think so. We’ve got some gigs booked in Spain and I’ve been just putting together a playlist for the guys of stuff that is informing my thinking on the next Champs album and it’s really not what anyone would expect. It doesn’t mean the album will sound like that, but there will be elements of it.
If the next Champs album turns out like I think it will – although it never quite does – it will be trying to push the envelope in certain directions. I’m really excited about it. I don’t want to make another Champs record that sounds like any of the others – there’s no reason to.
I guess I’m getting my serious folk-country-rock fix from Bennett Wilson Poole at the moment, so I don’t need to add to that. At some point there will be a folk-rock-Americana logjam and I don’t want to contribute to that – I’d rather take a left turn. I’m also going to do a solo album at some point – I don’t what I’m going to do with it, but it will either be an acoustic singer-songwriter record, or I might do a jazz album!
•Bennett Wilson Poole’s self-titled debut album is out now on Aurora Records. The band are playing shows this month at The Bullingdon Arms in Oxford (December 7) and Kings Place, London (December 8).
Amerikana Arkana, the debut album by The Magic City Trio, is a haunting record, in more ways than one…
Its wonderful orchestral arrangements recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), the moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.
This band of London renegades comprises Frank Sweeney (guitar, vocals and fiddle), Annie Holder (guitar,vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Guesting on the album are Johnny Butten (banjo) and Eddy Dunlap (pedal steel).
In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Frank, who was a member of ’80s indie pop outfit The June Brides, and played on records by Primal Scream (Imperial) and Felt (Space Blues), to find out the full story behind this magnificent and, er, magical album…
Q & A
Amerikana Arkana is one of my favourite albums of the year. It’s a big-sounding record – I love the orchestrations…Musically, it often harks back to the lush ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. There’s also folk, country, hillbilly and murder ballads.
When I first heard it, it was like someone was going through my record collection and referencing some of my favourite artists… I guess that, like me, you’re big fans of Nancy & Lee and Morricone? Why do you love them so much?
Frank Sweeney: I think Lee Hazlewood was a genre all to himself. He ploughed his own particular furrow and didn’t really care if it was fashionable. He was a great songwriter and producer, but he never felt the need to be in step with current trends or the mainstream. And he still managed to make a lot of classic hit records. Although he always maintained that his main motivation was to make money, he still managed to make great art sometimes.
Ennio Morricone uses a very ‘pop’ sound in his orchestration with unusual instruments. A whistle and a twangy guitar and you immediately evoke his western soundtracks. And loads of his soundtracks have at least one great catchy and evocative tune. I also love Nino Rota, who, in my view, is the other great Italian soundtrack composer. His stuff with Fellini is just as evocative, but on a less epic scale.
‘The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways’
How did The Magic City Trio first come together?
FS: During the tail end of indie-dance and the dawn of Britpop, I was playing viola in a band which played Eastern European music, when there were only two bands doing it in London. Adi Staempfli played bass, and Annie joined after I had left. The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways. I met Annie a few years later, and we eventually married in Las Vegas.
We hadn’t done any music together for a good few years. I was (trying to) learn Blind Blake [blues and ragtime guitarist and singer] stuff to up my game on the guitar, and from there we got interested in other pre-war music, what became known as ‘the old weird America’. From there we did a set of pre-war music (Carter Family, Hawaiian, Emmett Miller) at the Easy Come, which is a well-established open mic night in South East London. But we didn’t take it any further than that. We began including our own songs – Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 was an early one. It was mainly so we could do stuff that other people did not have in their set. Adi returned from Switzerland and joined us in 2013.
We had a gig in Berlin – that was our first as The Magic City Trio. The name originated from a pre-war fiddle band called Dyke’s Magic City Trio. I had one of their records on a 78 rpm.
We thought that we would only use the name for the Berlin gig, as people were more likely to go and see a band, rather than just Frank and Annie. We didn’t intend to keep the name, since Dyke’s Magic City Trio are relatively famous, it would be like calling yourself The Kinks or The Who in about 2045, but the name stuck…
Let’s talk about your album in more depth.I admire your grand ambition and the fact that you’ve gone all out with the orchestral arrangements. How did you approach this album when you came to record it? What did you want it to sound like?
FS:Black Dog Following Me was completed before our 2015 EP [A Funnel Cloud In Albuquerque], but I didn’t like the orchestral sounds, so I scrapped it all, apart from the singing. Once it was redone, we decided to follow suit with the rest of it, instead of making it just an acoustic LP. The orchestral sounds are a mix of samples, live instruments and recordings of actual notes that are stitched together. Oliver Curtis Perry had the least amount of strings and things, as Johnny Butten playing banjo was an orchestra in itself.
‘I was looking for the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is stylistically unfashionable now’
The arrangements all began with a basic piano track with chords, and then we added everything else. I‘m a huge fan of baroque ‘60s pop, so a harpsichord nearly always got in there. Once all the orchestral stuff was done, we put on the live instruments, which is the opposite way it would be done with a live orchestra.
The other sound I was looking for was the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is kind of stylistically unfashionable now – the song 22 was my attempt at that.
Now you mention it, the album does have a lot of different styles of orchestration on there. Trav’ler is like the stuff David Angel did on Love’s Forever Changes, Down In The Willow Garden was looking for a Pearls Before Swine-type of sound, and Billy Strange and Jimmy Webb all are referenced on there somewhere.
With The June Brides and the other stuff I did for Creation Records, I was trying to do large string parts, but limited by budgets and my lack of skill on the viola. But on those records you can hear me trying to do something that I just can’t quite pull off. I nearly got there with This Town (June Brides), Space Blues (Felt) and So Out of Touch (Joe Foster).
The dramatic opening track, Black Dog Following Me, is pure Nancy & Lee. I’m guessing it’s about depression? ‘Black dog’ is a term that Winston Churchill used to describe his dark moods. What can you tell me about that song?
FS: Yes that’s it, more or less – a dialogue where one person can’t see a way through, but the other won’t let it get on top of them. The arrangement is pure Billy Strange with Nancy & Lee. I didn’t think they did enough stuff like Some Velvet Morning, so this was my addition. In the same way that Jeff Lynne didn’t think The Beatles did enough stuff like I Am The Walrus.
Cousins’ War has a definite Ennio Morricone feel, but with a country edge…
FS: Annie started that song, after reading a book about the Wars of the Roses Originally it sounded a lot more folky. I thought of it more like the Hatfield-McCoy type of scenario. I did the last verse after seeing a Twilight Zone episode where all the American Civil War dead are walking on a road. That’s why in the LP booklet, there is a picture from a Civil War bubblegum card called Painful Death. The line about the sowing the hydra’s teeth is from Jason and the Argonauts, which explains the fighting skeleton picture in the booklet.
The chorus is adapted from [folk song] Darlin’ Cory. The instrumental sections do give it that Morricone sound – it’s the low male vocals that do it I think, which are reminiscent of Story of a Soldier [from the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly].
I love the descending twangy riff that kicks off Dust of Mars – it sounds like a nod to Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots… and The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon…
FS: At the time, I didn’t think that sequence of notes was particularly unique to Sunny Afternoon – it must have been used in loads of other places. So I didn’t think I was taking anything from that song that hadn’t been used somewhere before. But as time has gone on, I have to conclude that the sequence is not particularly common in pop music, and is more or less unique to Sunny Afternoon. I’m glad I made it so obvious, but it’s a bit like using the opening riff from Day Tripper on a song…
Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 has a hillbilly vibe. Where did this outlaw song come from? What was the inspiration?
FS: Oliver Curtis Perry was the first person to rob a train single-handed, in New York in the 1890s. The song tells his story, with a little bit of artistic license. The words are on our website. I first read about him when I was 11 years old, in a book by James D Horan, a noted Western writer. There wasn’t much detail given. The – wonderfully named – writer Tamsin Spargo read the same book as a child, and years later published Wanted Man, which tells the whole story.
The song 22, which sounds like a Johnny Cash and June Carter country duet, also reminds me of Kirsty MacColl…
FS: I didn’t think of that – I’m only familiar with her hits. It’s probably the vocal harmony that gives it that. She was a great singer and writer, with a unique voice. This was our attempt at getting the Chet Atkins Nashville sound. The demo we did sounds like the Carter Family – we recorded it on a four-track cassette using pre-war Gibsons to sound as old as possible. The demos are interesting as they show how the song developed – each version is different. The plot is from a short story by Daniel Woodrell about someone who suspects his neighbours of murdering his child.
Talking of murders… Down In The Willow Garden is a classic, traditional murder ballad. I know it from The Everly Brothers album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Why did you decide to cover the song for your record?
FS: My grandmother’s name was Salley – I was looking for the origins. I came across a poem by Yeats called In the Salley Garden, which is adapted from Willow Garden, and I found the various versions. Most of which sounded a bit too jolly melodically.
The Everly Brothers recording sounded suitably bleak. So we worked on a minor key version. We had to change the harmonies as we were still smokers and couldn’t reach the notes – since we have now quit we can get there!
I wanted to do a Pearls Before Swine-type arrangement. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is a brilliant album. They recorded it to get out of their contract without giving away any hits, and they ended up with a masterpiece.
Where did the title of the album, Amerikana Arkana, come from?
FS: I always loved the album cover of Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, with a man holding Tarot cards. Though the real agents of fortune are the 52 standard pack of cards, the Tarot decks are called the lesser and greater arcana. The greater arcana features all the well-known picture cards. The songs were going to be very loosely based on the Tarot cards – death, confusion, fortune, justice, the sun, change etc, but they all didn’t quite fit with that… I like a rhyming title like Nilsson Schmilsson. The presence of the K always implies a slightly twisted ‘bizarro superman’ type version of the actual thing. The LP booklet also has all sorts of clues and images that link in some way with the songs.
Can you talk me through the songwriting process and the arranging and recording of the album?
FS: We had not got together as a band to do our own songs – we were doing pre-war country and other songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s. We didn’t want to write songs in that style, lest they sounded like a pastiche.
In 2011 I read a biography on Blind Willie McTell and in the book he revealed his method for writing and I followed it.
Cousins’ War was started by Annie, but discarded, as we couldn’t figure out a proper narrative, but we brought it back and worked on the chords.
Trav’ler was originally called Chinese Traveller – it had also been discarded, due to the lack of a decent tune, but Annie pushed on with that because it had a good story. But it’s usually one of us kicking off an idea and then discarding it. And if it’s halfway good, Annie will resurrect it and suggest improvements. We’re not the most prolific of writers, but work in fits and starts.
I write out the orchestrations on a music score writing [software] package, which plays samples of string and brass, and we put the real instruments on top of that.
Recording at home is cheap, but it gets slow – there is no clock ticking and no budget being eaten up. So you can spend all day recording a track and edit 10 versions of a guitar part into the best one. Dust of Mars ended up with 40 tracks, which produced its own set of problems trying to mix it. Recording is the easy part…
You recorded and mixed the album in London and Hove. What was that like?
FS: It was a long process. With a few exceptions, all the recording was done at home over a two-year period, which began after completing our first EP. But some recordings were started a lot earlier – Black Dog… and Oliver Curtis Perry were first demoed in 2012, with no plans to release them other than on Soundcloud.
The 2012 version of Black Dog... was stripped back to the vocals and all the other tracks replaced, and with Oliver Curtis Perry all we kept was the drums. The banjo, trumpet, pedal steel and washboard were recorded remotely and the tracks sent to me. The orchestral sounds are a mix of real players and sampled instruments, but the whole thing was written out on a score rather than played on a keyboard. Nearly all the recording was completed by the end of 2016.
I started mixing it early 2017, and gave up due to the complexity of the task. In Easter 2017, I took it to Bark Studios, in London (where Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was done), with Brian O’Shaugnessy mixing it.
So, it was mixed once, with a full set of backing tracks. Then most of it was mixed again. The mixes were much better than mine, but I wasn’t happy with the balance of some of the sounds. I thought if I went back to Bark Studios again we would end up playing whack-a-mole with the mix,
In-between that time we put the steel drum on Sun Comes Shining Through, and stuck the slow intro on Cousins’ War, so it could join up with the end of Black Dog...
So I started mixing it again myself, Having learned a thing or two from Brian, my mixes were OK, but lacked oomph. In summer 2017, I approached Paul Pascoe in Hove, for whom I had done some strings for, and asked him to master some of my mixes and the Bark mixes. Paul liked it enough to offer to mix and master it. This time I stayed away from the studio, which was a much better idea. We used the Bark version of Oliver Curtis Perry, but, other than that they are all Paul Pascoe’s mixes. Sonically there isn’t much difference. So, excluding my mixes, there are a couple of alternate mixes of the LP, plus the backing tracks and also Paul’s mix of Oliver Curtis Perry.
I admire your effort and dedication. The album is full of ambition and drama – it sounds great and it soars. Would you agree that so many modern pop records lack ambition? They just sound so bland and unadventurous when you compare them with some of the pop music of the ’60s…
FS: I think people are always going to write great songs, Pharrell Williams’ Happy is a great song, and the Curtis Mayfield sound makes it even better. But production-wise, most of the envelopes have been pushed, so commercial productions are going to end up sounding very homogenised.
It’s like the thing that Frank Zappa said, that in the ’60s, the record companies were still being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand, in the hope that they would sell some records. The profit motive was still the driving force, but you had more of a chance of producing art.
Nowadays companies are releasing music that is similar to stuff that was recently successful, so it can all start sounding the same. Particularly when you have producers, accountants, advertisers and product placers having a financial interest in the music sounding attractive and familiar to the masses. It’s the same sort of thing in the film industry, where films that can be turned into a brand seems to be where the money goes.
‘Record companies in the ’60s were being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand’
The common factor is that cinema audiences and music buyers have decreased dramatically over the years, so the studios are less prepared to take any risks.
In the golden age of cinema, you could release a film like The Best Years of Our Lives and it would be a blockbuster in terms of the people who saw it. Nowadays, a big studio would not put the money into a three-hour film about war veterans returning home. Cinema audiences were much bigger then, and were loyal to the stars in the film. Under the studio system everyone was on salary, so you could churn out loads of films, and sometimes they would produce art, And although the films were censored and bowdlerised, they showed a lot less but told a lot more. Look at films like Sunset Boulevard and In A Lonely Place – they were churned out under the studio system but are really dark and deep films.
American TV seems the place where you are seeing really original stuff, most of it does at least one season which is still around 13 hours of drama. If you pitched a 13-hour film called Freaks and Geeks (a much loved show that only did one season) you would not get very far. British mini-series seem to all be stuck trying to remake Prime Suspect. I digress…
So what are the band’s plans for the rest of 2018? Any thoughts on a follow-up album?
FS: We need to get more gigs, as a lot of our record sales are done in person. But a third of them have gone in a few months already, and they are still selling, so that’s encouraging. Our first EP has nearly sold out, I have to be careful to make sure I don’t sell my own copy!
As far as another LP is concerned, there were quite a few stage favourites left unrecorded. The original plan was to have a double LP, but it would have taken too long to record and we wouldn’t have a hope in selling it at gigs. We have another LP’s worth of songs, but it might be worth waiting to see if we come up with something better. Ive got to write a score without repeating myself, or other people. Ha ha ha.
Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?
FS: Old music: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, by The Small Faces, which I have recently discovered, after not being that interested in it up until now. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us – the Bear Family Records reissue – and Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night: Live at the Roxy.
New music: Boarding House Reach by Jack White and Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto.
Amerikana Arkana by The Magic City Trio is currently available on Kailua Recordings. For more information, go to http://themagiccitytrio.com/