Murder ballads, magic and Morricone

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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?

 

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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…

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Frank Sweeney and Annie Holder

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.

our guitars

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/

 

 

 

 

‘I wanted to produce something that was a document of the times – the world through my eyes’

 

 

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British singer-songwriter Ian Webber, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee, has just released his most political album to date.

Op-Eds tackles social issues including women’s rights, fake news, war-torn Syria and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. 

Musically, it’s very stripped-down – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle. 

Opener Follow Me and its parent song, The Regime, are haunting tales inspired by reading news stories about families suffering in Syria, while Frontline is a protest song that has its roots in ’50s rockabilly.

First single, Radio Zero, is an ode to the healing power of great music – while the world is going crazy, sometimes you just need to switch off from all the doom and gloom and crank up some classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Ian sings the song in a Bowie-like croon that sounds like it’s been beamed in from outer space.

In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Ian to find out why he’s made such an overtly political record and what it was like recording it in Nashville…

Q & A

Your new album Op-Eds totally surprised me, as it’s a lot darker and much more political than I was expecting. Did you deliberately set out to make a political record? And if so, why? What was the starting point for this album?

Ian Webber: The starting point for this album, and pretty much all my projects, was the music I was listening to and absorbing before I began writing it. This time it was The Velvet Underground and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That’s a strange combination, but both were essentially using blues-based chord sequences, keeping it fairly simple, so the vocal melody could take the priority.

The first couple of song ideas were very New York Warhol/Reed inspired. ‘Late night, up on the corner’-type songs, so that’s where my head was to begin with.

I also had a really great hallway with excellent reverb, so that was a good place to stand and sing ideas in a low vocal key.

I had no idea that the record would turn political at all – that really only started when I took breaks from strumming to catch up on daily news. I was intrigued by articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. I discovered really compelling stories, which in turn inspired me to create mini stories as lyrics.

Lyrically and thematically, the album deals with social and political issues past and present, including protesters affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline, women’s rights, the plight of families in Syria, politics in Virginia and immigration issues… This is heavy stuff.

Was it difficult to write such political songs? How did you tackle the issues without sounding trite, or patronising? Was it a worry or a risk?

IW: The universal theme was a common bond that I felt with other humans – all of us moving through life.We all start out the same way, wanting the simplest things, and that gets lost as we grow up.

The world as a whole is a small place. I’ve travelled a lot and you find, whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and, in a small way, shed light on the bigger issues, too.

I don’t proclaim to be a learned scholar, but I really wanted to produce something that was a document of the times. This was the world through my eyes in 2017, living as a Brit in a very American, southern culture.

‘I’ve travelled a lot –  whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and shed light on the bigger issues, too’

Musically, it’s a very stripped-down album –  it’s mostly just you and your acoustic guitar. Was that how you wrote the songs?

IW: Yes – I certainly had this idea that I would try to do the whole record alone.

I always have voice memos lying around, and when I played them in the car, or through headphones, they sounded great to me. I guess that made me want to make the album in essentially the same way, but obviously, with a better mic than the one on my phone.

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Historic RCA Nashville Studio A

Where and how did you record the album and who did you work with?

IW: I recorded the record at Historic RCA Nashville Studio A, thanks to my ex-band mate Dave Cobb, who runs the place, and who helped make time between projects for me to go in and record

There is a huge tracking room that’s big enough for an orchestra. I basically set up in the middle and sang live and played guitar. The natural reverb in the room is insane, and there were minimal overdubs. It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and Gena Johnson, Dave’s engineer, who produced the record.

‘It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and the engineer’

One of my favourite songs on the album is The Regime – it’s very haunting…

IW: The Regime started as a chord sequence that was similar to the ideas on my last record [Year of the Horse, from 2015] – walk down progressions and minor chords, of course!

The lyrics were based on an interview that a family in Syria gave to the New York Times, about trying to survive war in the city.

When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart. That song is a kind of companion to Follow Me, which deals with leaving that kind of scenario behind and having to find a new home in a foreign land.IMG_1746

Another standout track for me is Frontline – it has a ’50s Sun Records feel.  It’s an acoustic, rockabilly protest song… 

IW: That’s a cool observation, Sean! The love of ‘50s rockabilly music seems to be a recurring theme on my records, but I can’t say I had it in mind when I was writing the song… I have been having a Lightnin’ Hopkins obsession lately, so certainly that was in my brain at the time…

The song Spirit of Houston comes from a similar place, doesn’t it? What’s the story behind it?

IW: That’s the only collaboration on the record. I started the year chatting, via email, to an old singer friend of mine, Sam Smithwick. I was inspired and jealous of his ability to write blues songs. We had been sending each other finished ideas, kind of like a pen pal would write letters. One song he sent had no vocal, just a guitar riff. I took the idea, added words, looped the riff, and sang to it live in RCA Studio.

Lyrically it’s about the 1977 National Women’s Conference for women’s rights. Last year, I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, and the signs I saw and the voices I heard made me want to become more educated.

‘When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart’

In the last couple of years, you’ve moved from L.A. to Nashville and you’ve become a father – congratulations! How much did relocating and having a son have an influence on this album?

IW: There were a few reasons for the move from L.A. to Nashville. I started out in Atlanta, playing music in the ‘90s, before moving to Seattle and then L.A. Coming back to the South was a way to reconnect with the culture and some amazing musicians I had played with. I got to do some touring for the last record with some former bandmates that still lived here, so it was kind of a homecoming of sorts.

My son, Wilder, was still inside his mum Meg’s belly when I was writing and recording, so his influence was there, but in little kicks. He did get to hear Fire on the Water being recorded, when Meg sang the backing vocals while pregnant!

You’re an English guy living in the U.S. What’s your take on Brexit and US politics at the moment? Is this album your chance to try and make sense of it all?

IW: I have my British passport, my Green Card, and am hanging on to my accent. Living abroad definitely makes you more nostalgic and somewhat patriotic.

One thing about living here is that the news is generally US-based, so Brexit is something I feel like a tourist talking about. From what I hear, it’s going to affect a lot of musicians from touring as freely in Europe. I would rather see a world without boundaries and barriers.IMG_2153 (1).jpgOne of the least political songs on the album is the first single, Radio Zero. It’s about escaping fake news and bad news and listening to classic rock ‘n’ roll instead. I think your vocal on the track has a slight Bowie feel to it…

IW: At the end of it all, I am a music lover, and so Radio Zero is a nostalgic look back at when I was lying on my bed as a teenager, late at night, scanning the radio for a good song. John Peel was still around, and also some AM pirate radio stations, so cracking rock ‘n’ roll was something I tuned in to and fell asleep to. David Bowie was one of my first musical loves, so maybe he was sending me messages through the wavelengths on that one. I hope so.

Finally, on that note, it seems apt to ask you what music – new and old – you’re currently enjoying?

IW: I like that you added the old and new line there… Currently in my mind – new:

Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest

Ryuichi Sakamoto – async

David Sylvian – A Victim of Stars

Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree

Devendra Banhart – Ape in Pink Marble

And some older – and loved…

R.E.M – Reckoning

Prefab Sprout – Swoon

The Smiths – The Smiths

 

Op-Eds by Ian Webber is out now.

For more info, visit: https://ianwebber.bandcamp.com/album/op-eds

http://www.ianwebbermusic.com/

 

‘We love Morricone and melancholy’

My Sweet Movida, the new album from Staffordshire four-piece Alfa 9, is one of my favourite records of the year so far – I love its retro rock, cosmic-psych-country road trips, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and ’60s-inspired jangle-pop. 

Produced, written and arranged by the band, it was recorded at Tremolo Studios, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and The Room, Stoke-on-Trent. I spoke to guitarist Leon Jones to find out why it’s taken five years to come out.

While we were chatting, the subjects of love, sex, betrayal, coincidence and chance also came up in conversation, which was nice…

Q & A

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Alfa 9

Hi Leon. Alfa 9 have been on my interview hit list for a while and now we’ve finally found the time to sit down and have a chat… How do you feel about it?

Leon Jones: I feel that you’re a perceptive man, Sean, and one of more than good taste. I know you’re a Byrds, Bond and Morricone fan. Do we need to get deeper?

Ha! Let’s see how things go… Do you feel that Alfa 9 are part of a UK scene? There are quite a few current bands doing the rounds whose influences include The Beatles, The Byrds, Big Star, ’60s psych and soundtracks, aren’t there? I’m thinking of  The Hanging Stars, Dreaming Spires, El Goodo, The Raving Beauties, Kontiki Suite, The Carousels... to name but a few.

LJ: It’s flattering to be talked about in the same circles as those bands. It’s got to be encouraging hearing others who are aiming at something similar and making it sound relevant. It does feel like there’s a momentum building. Our album’s out, The Hanging Stars and El Goodo have new records out… I really like The Carousels as well…We’re playing with The Hanging Stars in Leicester on June 30 [at The Firebug].

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Your new album, My Sweet Movida, is one of my favourite records of the year so far. How does it feel to have it out there? Are you pleased with it?

LJ: It’s been a long process to write, record and do everything to release the album, but that’s kind of how we work…we like to let songs meld and develop, so it takes time. Maybe for our next record we’ll do the whole thing in one take…

It’s your third album – the follow-up to 2013’s Gone To Ground. Why has it taken five years to come out? 

LJ: We were doing a lot of gigs following the release of Gone To Ground and then there were babies and cats and stuff like that happening…We’ve got 15 songs written already for the next album, so we’re aiming to be a bit quicker next time

How did you approach this album? 

LJ: Well, I think we felt really comfortable with things – we’ve found a great mix in the band and really play off each other, plus we had moved on as songwriters, so it was exciting. After we got a couple of songs going, the album started to get a character of its own. We weren’t afraid of allowing our influences to come through, but we were also confident that it still sounds like us.

We’ve got 15 songs written already for the next album, so we’re aiming to be a bit quicker next time’

You wrote, produced and arranged the album yourselves. How was the experience of making this record? Was it an enjoyable one?

LJ: Yes – we love being in control of the process and we’ve always had our own recording set up, starting with a four-track Portastudio. Technology gives us a lot of flexibility that 20 years years ago would not have been possible.

We’re lucky that there’s a studio about a mile from my house with a great old 16-track tape machine. We’ve recorded there on and off for years, so it’s a very comfortable environment for us. We did the basic tracks there, then recorded guitars and other stuff at our place – The Room – then went back there and did vocals.

What can you tell me about the first single, Smile Dog? It’s very psychedelic… 

LJ: That was kind of the start of the new album – a jam that took on a life of its own. Those kind of songs are the purest expressions of the band – they just happen.

What influences shaped the songwriting and the sound of the new album?

LJ: It’s pretty clear who we like – The Byrds, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Paisley Underground, Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, Nuggets, Pink Floyd, Stone Roses, Creation Records – that hasn’t really changed since we’ve been together. That stuff’s the bedrock. I think with this album, we felt confident with the songs and getting them to sound how we wanted them to.

The second single, Movida, continues Alfa 9’s penchant for Ennio Morricone-esque soundtracks, doesn’t it? It has a Spaghetti Western feel…

LJ: Yes – definitely. We love Morricone and that kind of melancholy there is in a lot of his work. I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree, particularly. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment

The song Darkest Sea has a country feel. How did that track come about?

LJ: I wrote an opening theme for an imaginary western soundtrack-type thing that we wrote ages ago and then we eventually added words. We tried a few different arrangements. I think we were listening to a lot of the Handsome Family at the time we recorded it.

I love the song Different Corner – it’s gorgeous jangle-pop and very Byrdsy. What can you tell me about that song?

LJ: It’s about love, sex, betrayal, coincidence and chance…the dark end of the street.

‘I’m fascinated by the Mojave desert in California and the Joshua Tree. For someone from the Midlands, it’s a very strange environment’

Fly – the final track on the album – is an epic closer. Were you aiming for a ’70s Pink Floyd-style, psych anthem? It certainly sounds like it… 

LJ: That was another song that wrote itself – we were aiming for nothing, but it just kind of appeared in the room. We’re massive Floyd fans, but I think there’s also a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young thing happening on it as well.

You have a few gigs coming up this year. What can we expect?

LJ: It sounds like a cliché, because it is, but I think we sound better now than we ever have done. We’ve got a lot of songs worked up – we could do about four hours!

What’s on the Alfa 9 hi-fi at the moment? Any musical recommendations – new and old?

LJ: Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, The Hanging Stars, Gene Clark, El Goodo, Cowboy, Rain Parade, The Gosdin Brothers, The Easybeats, Spindrift, New Riders of The Purple Sage…

Finally, will we have to wait another five years for your next album?

LJ: Nope – life’s starting to feel very short…

My Sweet Movida by Alpha 9 is out now on Blow Up. It’s available on heavyweight vinyl, CD and download.

The band play The Troubadour in London, 263-267 Old Brompton Road, SW5 9JA on April 7, supported by Usselman.

 

 

‘The first thing I do when I wake up is put a record on – I don’t love silence…’

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Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s brilliant Nonsense and Heartache – out now on Latent Recordings and produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies – is a double album, but, essentially it’s two distinct collections of songs.  

The first half  – Nonsense – is a raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll record, while the second instalment – Heartache – is a stripped-down, alt-country affair, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle.

Put them together and you have an album that reminds me of those classic early Ryan Adams long-players Heartbreaker and Gold – yep, it’s that good. 

I spoke to Jerry, who with his band, The Situation, is on a tour of Europe and the UK, to find out why he decided to release a double album and to gauge if his current mood is nonsense, or heartache…

 

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Jerry Leger: photo credit – LPPhotographs

Q &A

Nonsense and Heartache is a double album of 18 tracks, which is quite a brave move, isn’t it? You don’t hear of many double albums being released these days…

Jerry Leger: Yeah, it’s usually the artist who fights for a double LP, not the label, but, in this case, it was Mike Timmins and Latent who suggested it.

I dug that and I had more than enough songs and we had a bit of a concept behind it. I think it was a cool move, I mean why not? It seems these days a lot of people are gonna listen to it, or they’re not, whether there’s two or 200 songs. A lot gets lost – I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here.

How were the recording sessions for the album? Was it an easy or a difficult album to make? Did you have a lot of songs written before you went into the studio?

JL: They were easy – we all knew what we were there to do. Heartache was recorded first – that took about four or five days. Nonsense was recorded four or five months later – I think that took two days. I can’t quite remember how many songs I had lying around, but we recorded about 29 and chose 18.

‘I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here’

The album has a raw, live sound – Michael Timmins , who produced, recorded and mixed it, also worked on my favourite album of last year John Murry’s A Short History of Decay, which is another raw, live-sounding record. How do Michael and you and your band manage to get that feel and sound in the studio? What’s your working relationship with Michael like?

JL: We just play live together in the studio. I also try to keep all the live vocals, but sometimes it’s not possible. There may be technical issues, or, if the band were cookin’ and I flubbed something that I really wanted to fix instead of leave in. Sometimes we just leave it in, though. Mike and I have a great working relationship – we like making the same kind of albums and we also like a lot of the same albums. He doesn’t get in my way creatively and when he makes a suggestion in the studio, it’s usually the right one. I respect what he does and what he has to say

One of my favourite songs on the Nonsense side of the album is Baby’s Got A Rare Gun – I think it channels ’65/’66 Dylan. Do you agree? It’s heavy, electric blues. What can you tell me about that track?

JL: Well, I love Chess Records – stuff like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. I think it came from that sort of place, but, of course, I love Dylan, too, and that period is ingrained. When we recorded it, I wanted to get that over-driven vocal and band sound that’s on those records and early Bobby Bland.

The Big Smoke Blues – another of my favourite tracks on Nonsense – has a bit of a New Wave feel to it. It reminds me of Ryan Adams fronting The Strokes. Is that a fair comment?

JL: That’s fair, but I’d say it’s more Lou Reed and The Velvets rock ‘n’ roll, just ‘cos I listen to and love those records. I did really like the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day! I never really followed their career after, though. The Big Smoke Blues is a reference to Toronto, but it could be a lot of different places for the listener.  It’s a tune for outsiders.

‘I really liked the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day!’

Let’s flip the record over and talk about the Heartache side. It kicks off with the first single, Things Are Changing Round Here, which sounds like a classic country-rock song. What inspired that track?

JL: The East End of Toronto, where I grew up, was the initial inspiration. I’m only 32 and the area I grew up in is a strange land to me now. A lot of the personality is being sucked out of it – they’re knocking down blocks of old homes to build up to the sky. The unique shops and bars that can’t make the inflated rent are being replaced by boring chains.

Another Dead Radio Star – I love that title – is one of my favourite songs on the album. What’s the story behind it? I’ve heard that it was inspired by the 1930s radio show The Shadow, which was voiced by Orson Welles…

JL: I was listening to a compilation of radio stars from the ‘30s. The song I’d Give A Million Tomorrows (For Just One Yesterday) was playing and it sparked the idea – it’s referenced in the song. I also had another record of old radio shows by The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks of Kansas City, so they got a plug.

Things come and go, but their shadows remain in one way or another, and I’m the kind of person that looks for them. My dad used to listen to The Shadow, The Creaking Door and others as a boy and that has always stayed with him. It’s theatre of the mind.

The last song on the album, Pawn Shop Piano, is a great way to close the record – a gorgeous piano ballad. Was it written and played on a pawn shop piano?

JL: Some of the lines and ideas I’d written down before, or had floating in my head just waiting to be used. The first time we toured in the States we stayed at a dingy motel called the Travel Lite Inn, or something like that… I just liked the way it sounded and we survived.

We played Johnson City in Tennessee a couple of times and I remember this pawn shop called Diamonds and Guns and it had this great hand-painted sign, too. I jotted that title down in a notebook and figured I’d use it for something some day. It’s one of my favourites on the record and it just has a lot of truth in it for me.

Who are your main musical influences?

JL: There’s a lot, but Hank Williams I’ve heard for as long as I can remember and I just don’t think it gets better than that. Bob Dylan changed the way I wanted to write, Lennon and The Beatles made me wanna start playing, and Lightnin’ Hopkins was the coolest. When I was 13, my grandparents’ neighbour was giving away blues records. I just thought Lightnin’ looked cool – I hadn’t heard of him. When I listened to it, it was just wild – so natural, no bullshit. Leonard Cohen was also an early influence – my dad came home one day and gave me the first Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man.

‘My dad came home one day and gave me the first Leonard Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man’

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Jerry Leger & The Situation: photo credit – LPPhotographs

You’re heading out on a European and UK tour. What can we expect?

JL: I’m really looking forward to it – it’ll be my first time overseas in general. They’re all full-band shows and this line-up has been together for over 11 years, so it’s nice to do this together for the first time. What can you expect? I don’t know – I’ll just be singing my songs. I’m not ready to do anything flashy yet.

What music – new and old – are you currently digging?

JL: Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone; Ronnie Lane – See Me; Graham Nicholas – Dial Tones And Pretty Notes, and Ann Peebles – I Can’t Stand The Rain.

If I’m home I listen to a lot of music – the first thing I do when I wake up is put a record on. I don’t love silence.

So, what next? Can we expect a triple album?

JL: Why stop there?

Finally, what kind of mood are you currently in: Nonsense or Heartache?

JL: I’m in a Nonsense and Heartache selling mood.

Nonsense and Heartache by Jerry Leger is out now on Latent Recordings. For a full list of European and UK tour dates, go to https://jerryleger.com/

 

‘We haven’t got the budget for playing in full, late ‘60s West Coast regalia and Roger McGuinn wigs!’

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The Raving Beauties – photograph by John Morgan

Late last year, jangle-pop project The Raving Beauties, the brainchild of Belfast writer Brian Bell, who is now based in Brighton, teamed up with Oxford band The Dreaming Spires to release Raving For Bap, a 10in limited vinyl EP dedicated to singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy, who died in late 2016.

The record features five of Bap’s songs, which The Raving Beauties have made their own. The opening track, Walk In Love, is a joyous, chiming guitar anthem that’s befitting of The Byrds, while Moriarty’s Blues is a gorgeous, folky shuffle. The Way I Love Her is infectious, organ-driven power-pop, Hard Street is a down and out ballad with a country feel and Lonesome Lullaby is another Byrdsian belter – 12-string guitars, heavenly harmonies and a life-affirming chorus.

I spoke to Brian to find out more about the EP and to clear up some confusion over how the mysterious ‘fictitious’ band, The Raving Beauties, came into being…

Q & A

Let’s talk about your recent five-track EP, Raving For Bap, which was a tribute to Belfast singer-songwriter, Bap Kennedy (Energy Orchard), who died from cancer in 2016. Proceeds from the record are being donated to Belfast’s Marie Curie Hospice. How did the EP come about?

Brian Bell: I’d known Bap since the early Noughties, when a mutual friend, James Walbourne [The Rails, The Pretenders] introduced us on the basis that because we both came from Belfast, we’d probably get on, which we did, very much so. Aside from being such a talented guy, Bap was a very genuine, kind person and great company – his self-deprecating wit and killer one-liners were something to behold.

Before meeting him, I’d been aware of his music and really admired it. I really loved and connected with songs like Sailortown and Sweet Irish Rose, off the first Energy Orchard album, and I’d bought his Domestic Blues album when it first came out.

In the years that I was seeing Bap most regularly, I’ve fond memories of his legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, North London, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers. Everybody would be lapping it up and the craic was tremendous.

In more recent years, I’d kept in touch with Bap when he moved back to Holywood in Northern Ireland and always looked forward to meeting up with him whenever I was back home visiting family.

‘I’ve fond memories of Bap’s legendary Sunday gigs at the Boogaloo in Highgate, where he’d be mixing up his own stuff with Elvis and Hank Williams covers’

When we lost Bap to cancer, in November 2016, it was obviously a very upsetting and difficult time for everyone who knew and loved him. In the months after his passing, he was on my mind a lot and I guess my appreciation of his songs had deepened, which is probably when the idea for a tribute record started hatching. Bap’s widow Brenda has been doing an amazing job of looking after his legacy and continuing to share and celebrate his music, so I hope we can add to that in some way. It was also important from the outset that the record would be a fundraiser for the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast, as Bap’s family think the world of the staff there for the care they gave Bap towards the end of his life.

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The EP is a collaboration between The Raving Beauties and Oxford band The Dreaming Spires. What’s your relationship? How did you end up working together? 

BB: In 2016, The Dreaming Spires included The Raving Beauties track Arrows on the guest artist side of their Paisley Overground 12in mini album and we were on the same label – At The Helm – at the time. We did a launch gig for the record together in Brighton, which went really well.

My friendship with the guys started there and we ended up doing another gig together as The Raving Beauties at Truck Festival in 2016, which was a lot of fun. I’d chatted with Joe Bennett [from The Dreaming Spires] about recording some new songs together, but with Bap being on my mind so much, I felt a tribute EP was what we should do next.

Luckily, Joe and the rest of the guys – Robin Bennett, Tom Collison and Fin Kenny – were well up for it, so we all got together at Joe’s studio in Oxford last Spring to start working on it, with Joe producing. There was a great vibe and a lovely spirit of camaraderie, which I hope comes across on the record.

With the EP, you and The Dreaming Spires have put your own spin on Bap’s songs – there’s a US West Coast, ‘60s jangle-pop feel to some of the songs. How did you approach the tracks and how did you decide which ones to cover?

BB: Joe, wisely I think, didn’t want to get too swayed by listening to Bap’s originals – he just wanted me to turn up with the chords and lyrics, so we could try to put our own stamp on them. You’re right about the American West Coast influence, and I suppose the idea was broadly along the lines of imagining how Bap’s songs might have been interpreted by a Californian guitar band in the late ‘60s. I can’t be too coy about the likes of Spirit, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, Love and The Youngbloods all being an influence.

In terms of choosing songs, it was a case of picking songs I particularly loved that I imagined could also lend themselves to being done in a different way. There are other Bap songs that I love just as much, but I don’t feel would necessarily suit being re-worked in that style.

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I want to ask you about the origins of The Raving Beauties. I’ve heard a rumour that the band doesn’t really exist – it’s fictitious… Can you clear this up?

BB: In the last 10 years, I’ve got into writing fiction – I did a Creative Writing MA and had a pulp fiction novella – Die Hard Mod – published under the pen name Charlie McQuaker.

One of my short stories that I’d read at spoken word nights in Brighton was called The Unsung Classic, which was about an ill-fated retro band of the ‘90s called The Raving Beauties. I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967 – that scene inspired the story. I then had the idea to make an EP of what this fictitious band might have sounded like and managed to convince Gordon Grahame – an incredibly gifted Scottish singer-songwriter/producer – to collaborate with me on some recordings.

‘I remember a lot of ‘60s time warp guys hanging around Brighton, who’d based their whole image on Gene Clark circa 1967’

In 2015, The Raving Beauties released their debut album of ‘60s-inspired guitar pop….

BB: The original plan was to put a vinyl EP out as a ‘benign hoax’, purporting to be the lost recordings of some long-forgotten retro band called The Raving Beauties, but when I sent the tracks to Jim Walker, after his At The Helm label had just been launched, he said he loved the songs, but would only release something if we made a full album.

That gave myself and Gordon the impetus to go back into his home studio and, in a relatively short time, we came up with something that I’m still pretty proud of.

The finished album was a mix of my songs, Gordon’s songs and a few co-writes that came together really quickly. My abiding memory is of it being a huge buzz, like being a teenager again. We had this in-joke when something was going particularly well, when we’d just look at each other, do the double thumbs-up and say ”Brilliant!” in a comedy Scottish accent.

I knew at the time that Gordon was doing me a big favour by indulging me with this strange project and it was always pretty much with the understanding that it would be a one-off for him, but we’re still mates and it’s totally got his blessing that I’m keeping the project going. The plan is to make another album this year with the musicians from Raving For Bap and other collaborators.

The Raving Beauties have a gig coming up. You’re playing the Ramblin’ Roots Revue festival in April (6-8, Bucks Students Union, High Wycombe). What can we expect?

BB: The plan is to do the Raving For Bap EP, plus some songs from the first album – The ‘Spires boys have kindly signed up to be honorary Raving Beauties.

I wish I could say we’ll be doing the set in full, late ‘60s West Coast regalia and we’ll all be sporting Roger McGuinn wigs, but, unfortunately, we haven’t budgeted for that!

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The Raving Beauties – photograph by John Morgan

Any plans to hold a tribute gig for Bap?

BB: Yes – we’re hatching a plan and hopefully will be able to confirm something soon. Fundraising-wise, we’ve joined forces with Bap’s sister, Marian, who has already raised over £2,000 for the hospice, and we’ve set ourselves the target of raising a grand total of £5,600 by June 17,when Bap would have been 56

What does the rest of 2018 hold for The Raving Beauties?

BB: Some Girls from The Raving Beauties’ first album is getting another lease of life thanks to You Are The Cosmos including it on their next 12 String High vinyl compilation. which is due out in April/May. I always felt that song could make an impact if it reached the right ears, so fingers crossed, it will happen this time around… I’ll also soon be starting work with the guys on the new Raving Beauties album. We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too.

Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently digging?

BB: I tend to mainly listen to instrumental stuff, particularly ‘50s jazz, so the likes of John Coltrane, Oliver Nelson, Miles Davis and Chet Baker are on the stereo a lot. For anyone who likes that kind of thing, I’d recommend the soundtrack to Listen Up Philip by Keegan DeWitt.

‘We want to retain some of the jangle, but get a lot more adventurous, too’

Another soundtrack that I keep coming back to is The Hired Hand by Bruce Langhorne, which is such a sparse, haunting and beautiful piece of music.

I’m always hoping to hear a new killer pop song on the radio, but, to be honest, the last one that really jumped out at me was Mean Streets by Tennis from a few year back.

I think Fleet Foxes are probably the band that has impressed me most in recent years, closely followed by Temples. I’ve loved Nick Drake and John Martyn since I was a teenager and that’s something I’ve been coming back to a lot recently too.

Bap’s album The Sailor’s Revenge has been another constant. It’s his masterpiece and deserves to be in any ‘Top 10 Greatest Irish Albums of All Time’ list.

 

Raving For Bap by The Raving Beauties is out now on Farm Music – more info here.

The band’s self-titled debut album is currently available from At The Helm Records. 

The Raving Beauties will be playing at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8.

More information here:  https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/ 

 

 

‘Our tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface…’

 

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Bennett Wilson Poole

Some things are meant to happen.
The coming together of 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’) to form UK Americana supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole is one such thing…

Fate led to a meeting of minds and musical talent – and thank God it did, as it’s resulted in a wonderful, self-titled debut album that will undoubtedly find itself high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year list come late 2018.

Produced by 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.

I met up with Bennett Wilson Poole in a North London pub after their second ever gig – at Islington’s Union Chapel – to find out why this collaboration was always on the cards, how the record was made and why they love working – and playing – together…

Q & A

You’ve formed a supergroup. Are you the new Traveling Wilburys or Crosby, Stills and Nash?

Danny Wilson: Yes! The name Bennett Wilson Poole does kind of have a similar feel to Crosby, Stills & Nash. People have been mentioning the Traveling Wilburys quite a lot. The supergroup thing is mad…

Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s there was a trend for supergroups, but it seems to have died off…

Danny: Maybe we’ve brought it back. Howard [Mills – the band’s manager] said that us getting together was inevitable because of where we’re coming from – we all write the same kind of music and we’ve done stuff together before.

So how did you all meet each other?

Robin Bennett: When I had the band Goldrush, we opened for Grand Drive a couple of times and we were fans of theirs. That’s when I met Danny – I then played with Danny and the Champions of the World and on their first couple of albums.

Danny: I made a record with Tony – he produced Hearts and Arrows [by Danny and the Champions of the World].

Tony Poole: I know Danny through a guy called Peter O’Brien, who had a magazine called Omaha Rainbow and who was a fan of my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing. He was a teacher at Danny’s school. Starry Eyed and Laughing played at the school, in Wallington, but Danny probably wasn’t born then…

What year was that?

Tony: 1872! No – it was about 1974.

Danny: Rock photographer Tom Sheehan’s first ever professional photography job was taking pictures of Starry Eyed and Laughing at my school!

So, it was fate that brought you together – it was meant to be…

Tony: Yeah – it’s kind of weird. I was a fan of Danny’s and he asked me if I’d work on Hearts and Arrows. I couldn’t say no – at that point I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing. We did the Hearts and Arrows album really quickly and everything came together – it was easy. I loved doing it and I loved the music. It was a rediscovery for me.

‘I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing’

Robin: I was playing a Dreaming Spires gig in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, Tony was there and we got talking.

Tony: I went to their studio in Steventon to listen to some tracks and they put an electric 12-string Danelectro guitar in my hand… I ended up adding some stuff and mixing some of the tracks – it worked out really well.

So what prompted the move to form a supergroup and write and record your debut, self-titled album?

Tony: I got a call out the blue from either Robin or Danny to say they’d been writing songs together on FaceTime – that’s the modern world, isn’t it?

Danny: I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good. We’d written some songs and we both said that Tony would be perfect for them – we rang him and he was up for it.

Tony: How could I not be? Everything was so fast – they’d written most of the songs and when they came to my studio, I had some bits of songs that I’d started. All three of us finished them in the room in about 20 minutes – that had never happened to me before. It was unbelievable. We did two recording sessions and then one for overdubs – the spirit of it is the live thing that we did. It’s like Crosby, Stills & Nash – we were sitting around with three guitars and three voices and we recorded it. That’s the meat of it.

‘I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good’

The cover artwork of the album is a nod to the first record by Crosby, Stills & Nash, isn’t it? You’re all sat on a sofa, outside a saloon at Truck Festival, and, just like the Crosby, Stills & Nash cover, the names of the band members don’t match the order that you’re sat in the picture… 

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Tony: The Crosby, Stills & Nash photo is by Henry Diltz – the picture was taken before the band had decided on the order of the names. When they went back to reshoot the pictures, the house had been torn down.

Robin: What’s even more appropriate is that the structure in our photo also no longer exists…

Tony: The saloon at Truck has been destroyed…

There’s definitely a whole Crosby, Stills & Nash vibe to the record – in more ways than one..

Tony: We didn’t do it consciously, but it seemed natural. When we on our way to do a shoot with photographer John Morgan, we passed the saloon… He took four or five shots and that was it.

Maybe for the next album, you could recreate The Notorious Byrd Brothers cover and replace one of you with a horse?

Tony: It will be me!

Is it fun working together?

Robin: I kind of pinch myself – I just love these guys’ music.

Danny: The same here.

Tony: It’s so natural.

[To Tony]: You produced the album. How was that?

Tony: I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like –  mostly anyway.

Danny: We love working with Tony. Not only are we all good friends, but me and Robin are massive, massive fans of Starry Eyed and Laughing and Tony’s production is so brilliant. He kept sending us stuff when we were working on the album and asked us for comments. We said ‘it’s brilliant – we love it!’

Robin: That’s not how things usually work…

‘I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like –  mostly anyway’

 

 

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album. The first single, Soon Enough, came out in early February. It’s a classic jangle-pop tune, isn’t it? It’s very Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty and The Byrds. You filmed the video at the Didcot Railway Centre museum. How was that?

Danny: The video is a knowing nod to the Traveling Wilburys song End of the Line – we wanted it to be like that.

Robin: It’s also quite A Hard Day’s Night. Quite a lot of our songwriting reminds me of that mid-’60s thing.

The track Hide Behind A Smile is a gorgeous, soulful ballad, but, lyrically, it talks about coping with depression and anxiety… 

Danny: Me and Robin wrote that song. I think everyone will understand it – it’s something we all do. We all put on a brave face to mask things – a smile is obviously a facade at times.

The song Wilson General Store, which was written by Robin, was inspired by Danny’s family history. Danny’s grandparents had a shop in Melbourne, Australia called Wilsons Emporium…

Danny: That’s where my mum and dad met.

Robin: In the middle of our writing session, I went to bed and woke up with the idea – we’d been talking about the shop. By the time we started writing again the following morning, I’d already finished the song.

Danny: My folks are huge music fans. I gave my dad a copy of the album, but I forgot to mention Wilson General Store. When he heard it, he said, ‘Is this our song?’ He loved it – it’s his favourite on the album.

You’ve filmed a promo video for your PledgeMusic campaign in which you feature in a Two Ronnies-inspired comedy skit…

Danny: With that video and the one for Soon Enough, we’re quite happy to be humorous and have a laugh. I think it takes something to be removed from your ‘day job’ project and to give you the distance, so you can show your personality – there’s no trying to be cool. It just is what it is and it frees you up – it’s been a pleasure because it’s not too important. Sometimes the precious things that you hold on too tightly to can be crushed…

Hate Won’t Win is one of the songs on the album that has a darker edge. It’s a protest song and was written in response to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, in 2016. Musically, it’s a nod to Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s classic counterculture anthem about the Kent State University shootings in 1970, isn’t it?

Tony: Yes – when I heard the news about Jo Cox it was a Thursday [June 16, 2016]. I remember sitting in the garden with a guitar and I thought about the story behind Ohio. Neil Young had written the song, Crosby got them in the studio and the song was out a few days later.

My tune came from the same place – I wrote a verse that was kind of reportage and was quite vicious. I sent Danny and Robin a phone recording of it and when they turned up at mine on the Saturday, Robin had written another verse and we finished it off and recorded it – it was out on YouTube on the Monday [as Hate Won’t Win (Song For Jo Cox)]. It was an echo of the time of Ohio. What can you do? We can’t change the world, but we put it out there… On the album, we purposely haven’t used the subtitle (Song For Jo Cox), as it’s now universal, but it’s still a nod to her – she inspired the song.

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. But it’s not like ‘we’ve suffered for our art, now it’s your turn’ – we don’t do that.

Danny: Interestingly it’s the flip side of what I was saying about doing the videos. Working with these guys on a song like Hate Won’t Win is something that I wouldn’t approach in one of my normal projects – it gives me an extra dimension. It’s not a career move – it’s just something I really love doing. You can afford to be a bit more serious, or, like in the videos, a bit funny.

Robin: With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects.

The album closes with Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself) – another song that tackles a social issue. Tony, you started writing it after seeing a photo of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean adjacent to an article on selfies…

Tony: It was so vivid – the world we’re living in and the other world. I had the idea – picture yourself in that lifeboat. You can’t explain things too much – they just come out.

It’s a great song – with the heavy electric guitar, it’s very Neil Young-sounding. The lyric even mentions the phrase ‘on the beach’, which is the title of a 1974 Neil Young album…

Tony: We were sitting in the recording studio with a pad and it took five or 10 minutes.

Robin: I couldn’t tell what Tony was singing, so I just wrote down what I heard.

Tony: I was singing phonetic stuff and he turned it into words for the chorus.

‘With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects’

You’ve played a couple of gigs as Bennett Wilson Poole – one in Oxford and one in London, at the Union Chapel. What it’s like playing the album live?

Tony: It’s taken it to a new level – as we’re playing it, we grow into the songs. As we get further along, we’ll get right under the skin of them. It was quite a fast recording process, but it’s somehow like a record that was made by somebody else. I keep listening to it… Vanity, eh?

Robin: We are slightly distanced from it – it is like hearing someone else’s album. You’re not hearing your own voice all the time.

Danny: When I do a new album with the Champs, it’s so raw to me – I hate all of my vocals and the songs! It’s so difficult to listen to it, but with this album, I listen to it everyday! I don’t know what that says about me…

That you’re in the wrong band?

[Everyone laughs]

Tony: 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…

[To Robin]: I’d like to ask you about the song Find Your Own Truth, which you wrote. It’s not the first time one of your songs has dealt with the subject matter of looking for the truth. I’m thinking of the title track from the Dreaming Spires album Searching For The Supertruth

Robin: The evidence is piling up! I don’t know why… I wrote Find Your Own Truth in five minutes, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s one of my more cosmic songs.  I’ve been working on a solo album – I had a list of songs and that was one of them, but it really felt like it could be a Crosby, Stills & Nash thing.

Tony: Robin sent his home demo to me and we put some harmonies and electric guitar on it. The idea was for it to be a song like Helplessly Hoping [by Crosby, Stills & Nash] – that was my vision for it.

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Bennett Wilson Poole at the Union Chapel – their second ever gig

You’re launching the album with three gigs at the Betsey Trotwood in London – March 21-23. That’s a London residency…

Robin: When Danny suggested three nights at the Betsey, I thought he was insane, but they’re all sold out.

Can we expect a triple live album?

Danny: Good idea.

Robin: We are recording the shows – the Betsey is our spiritual home. We’ve all played there.

Tony: The lovely thing about doing three nights there is that even though we’re only playing to 30-40 people each night, it’s got the feeling of three nights at Wembley. Some people have bought tickets for every night, so we’re going to mix it up.

When you’re watching us, you can relax because we’re pals and you can see we’re all getting on. There are three times in my life I’ve had that happen – my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing; when I produced The Men They Couldn’t Hang in the ’80s; and with this band. Sometimes when you watch a band, you can see that they’re not getting on and it makes you feel bad…

So, can we expect a second album from Bennett Wilson Poole?

Robin:  I think we could do it.

Tony: Absolutely. We’ve got an extra track that’s not on the album – it’s really good. It’s like a rare Beatles track.

 

•Bennett Wilson Poole release their self-titled debut album on April 6 (Aurora Records).

For information on their PledgeMusic campaign, please click here. 

They will play three album launch shows at The Betsey Trotwood, in Clerkenwell, London – March 21-23. All three shows are sold out.

Bennett Wilson Poole will also appear at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8.

More information here:  https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/ 

 

‘This album was nearly half flute-based!’

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Songs For Somewhere Else, the new album by London cosmic-country-psych-folk five piece The Hanging Stars, is the follow-up to their brilliant 2016 debut, Over The Silvery Lake, which was Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite record of that year.

The band’s latest release is even better than its predecessor and is a much more varied and adventurous collection of songs – there’s 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.

I met singer-songwriter/ guitarist Richard Olson and bassist Sam Ferman in a basement bar in Soho to find out the stories behind these Songs For Somewhere Else. Topics for discussion included the joy of listening to The Byrds, importing Ennio Morricone-style whistling from Portland, Oregon and funereal horns from Majorca, and why the flute is nothing to be scared of…

Q & A

How does it feel to have the new record done and dusted and out there?

Sam Ferman: It’s great – it’s funny, really because people who hear it will think that there’s been a two-year gap, but we started recording it before Over The Silvery Lake came out. It’s had a long gestation, but it’s the first one we’ve done with both Patrick [Ralla – guitar, keys and vocals] and Joe [Harvey-Whyte – pedal steel, dobro], who are now full-time members of the band. It’s a reflection of that set-up, whereas with the first one, there was a lot more toing and froing with members.

Richard Olson: Those days of saying ‘we’re going to make a record, write some songs over six months and record them in two weeks’ just don’t happen anymore. In some ways, maybe that would be nice, but it’s an ongoing, growing thing – it’s painstaking. Trying to get five people to do the same thing at the same time is hard enough – Sam and me have got bloody heads from banging them against the wall and trying to get things going and sew up this tapestry that we try and do. There are so many threads that need to be right. It’s almost surreal when you know the record is going to come out – sometimes you think that we’re going to make such fools of ourselves.

Why do you say that?

Sam: It’s self-doubt.

Richard: That’s the whole process – it’s painful as hell, but then a week later you think, ‘fucking hell – we’re very talented people!’

You are… and you’re very prolific…

Richard: We’re already halfway through the third record!

Sam: When Rich and me came to sequencing this album – which songs would go on it and in which order – that really put into perspective the arc of history over that two-year period. We listened back to stuff and realised how we’d changed in that time. It’s interesting how certain songs were recorded in a certain style.

For example, Pick Up The Pieces, which is on the album, was a song that we recorded for the first album, but, for a number of reasons, we felt that it didn’t work on that record.

Richard: It didn’t fit.

Sam: There was something missing at a certain point on the new album – it needed some energy – and putting Pick Up The Pieces on it gave it some more life.

This album was all recorded in Bark Studio, in Walthamstow, wasn’t it?

Sam: Apart from Pick Up The Pieces, which was done in L.A.

Richard: It feels like we’re getting a really nice reception for this album, which is amazing.

The new album is richer and more eclectic than the first one. Was it a conscious decision to include a variety of musical styles this time around?

Richard: I tell you what was a conscious decision – we really wanted more of a collaborative effort and that’s one of the reasons… On A Sweet Summer’s Day – which is the first song on the record – is, musically, all Sam, but I put lyrics to it. I was like, ‘this is stunning – let me have a go at it.’ We’d never really worked like that before. I was really pleased with it. I was like, ‘that worked’.

‘It feels like we’re getting a really nice reception for this album, which is amazing’

I have shedloads of songs lying around – playing with Joe and Patrick, who are both younger guys than me, has opened things up – it’s so much fun playing with those dudes and we all felt that we wanted to step up. They’ve made us up our game. For You (My Blue Eyed Son) is an old song of Patrick’s from a band he was in called the New County Flyers, and Honeywater was a collaboration between Patrick and me.

Sam: Doing the recording session for Honeywater really sticks out for me – we did everything in a day and then we mixed it a week later. It was really satisfying – we’d all been in the zone and put something down and there’s nothing I’d change about that song.

It’s beautiful.

Sam: Thank you.

Richard: The gods were with us in the studio that day.

Sam: It was a ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ moment. We thought, ‘this one’s a real goer’.

Richard: It’s a cliché, but I felt like we’d won the Lottery, but trust me, we didn’t… It was like we’d been given a present – it was amazing.

Sam: One of the great things about this album is that you hear Patrick and Joe’s influence.

And it’s more of a representation of what you sound like live…

Sam: Exactly. They’re brilliant musicians and they’ve been involved in the writing process.

There are several other collaborations on the album – you’ve worked with guest musicians, including your US friends Collin Hegna (Federale, Brian Jonestown Massacre), Miranda Lee Richards – on the duet How I Got This Way – and Christof Certik (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Winter Flowers), as well as Alison Cotton on viola (Left Outsides, Eighteenth Day Of May), Luke Barlow (Nought) on flute and Thomas Wake on clarinet…

Richard: It’s so much fun – it’s lovely to play in a group and to play on bills with different people. One day, the Brian Jonestown dudes are in town and they’re staying at my house, or Miranda’s in town…. The fact that we can do that makes it great – it’s the sum of all the parts.

‘I love celebrating our own little scene. That’s what it’s all about. We embrace it’

You have the nucleus of the band, but it’s like an extended family – a collective…

Richard: Exactly – I love the idea of that and I’m proud of those people. I’ve known a lot of them for a long time. I love celebrating our own little scene. That’s what it’s all about. We embrace it.

Let’s talk about some of the songs. On A Sweet Summer’s Day has a hypnotic feel – it’s like early Spiritualized meets The Notorious Byrd Brothers…

Richard: Lazer Guided Melodies is one of my favourite records and there’s very much a Byrds thing going on, too.

Sam: When I first started playing with Rich, I was 24 – I’m 30 now – he said to me, ‘have you listened to The Notorious Byrd Brothers?’ I hadn’t – there were no famous hits on that record. I remember going out the next day and getting it on CD. It really made me think about how a lot of the music that I thought was quite left field was actually really middle of the road. It’s a really far-out record.

Richard: But it’s still so gentle on the ear – sonically and songwriting-wise, it’s so pleasing, When you discover it, it feels like one of those records that, wherever you are, whatever age you might be, it will make a mark on you – it’s like Love’s Forever Changes.

Moving on from The Byrds, what can you tell me about Mean Old Man, which is one of my favourite songs on the new album? It sounds like an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtrack – it has cool whistling on it…

Richard: Collin, who plays bass in the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has his own band called Federale – they’re pure Spaghetti Western – and he’s a proper, shit-hot whistler. He’s on that track – he sent us his whistling from Portland.

The Good, the Bad and the Oregon?

Richard: Oh my lord – I can tell you’re a journalist…

Sam: It also has some Soviet rock oohs and aahs in the middle eight.

Too Many Wired Hours – the second track on the album – is a 1920s, jazzy, bluesy stomp. It has a clarinet on it and it reminds me of The Kinks and The Coral.

Richard: Yeah – I don’t mind that. The clarinet was Sam’s idea. In my mind, it sounds like David Lindley’s Kaleidoscope.

Sam: It totally does, but that’s a pretty niche reference.

Richard: I’m a big fan of Kaleidoscope.

HSTARS-PURPLE-19The most country-sounding song on the album – and another of my favourites – is For You (My Blue Eyed Son). It’s like The Byrds, circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo, or The Flying Burrito Brothers…

Richard: It’s Patrick’s song, but I wrote quite a lot of the lyrics for it. It sits so comfortably on the album and with who we are – and it’s shitloads of fun to play!

Sam: It feels magical when we do it live.

Dig A Hole has a colliery brass band arrangement on it…

Richard: That was one of the songs that we worked the hardest on. It’s a story song… The brass was done by a friend of ours called Leon Beckenham, who was in the band Fanfarlo. He’s a fantastic horn player and he lives in Majorca – he did a great job.

So this album has whistling imported from Portland and horns from Majorca on it…

Richard: Yes!

Sam: I can remember Rich playing the song to me on acoustic guitar in the backroom of his old house in Tower Hamlets Road about three years ago. I thought it had such a beautiful transition from a very melancholic, plaintive, beautiful verse to a countrified chorus.

Richard: We call it shoegaze-country.

Sam: With the horns, it sounds like a cross between a Northern English brass band and a New Orleans funeral march. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album – I think it’s absolutely beautiful.

Richard: It’s a story about a failed relationship and trying to escape from it…

‘It sounds like a cross between a Northern English brass band and a New Orleans funeral march. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album’

A lot of the songs on the album have references to drinking in them…

Richard: There’s a lot of regret and excess on this record – and the day after the excess… I write most of the lyrics. I worked really hard at it and I’m pleased with a lot of them.

HSTARS-PURPLE-24

The final track on the album, Water Song, has a flute on it. It’s not the first time a flute has been heard on a Hanging Stars album, is it? You’re not afraid to use a flute, are you?

Richard: There’s no reason to be afraid of a flute.

Don’t fear the flute!

Sam: I get Love, or Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter vibes on that track.

Richard: I would say Genesis – Selling England by the Pound. I’m not afraid to say that. Water Song is a lullaby.

Was the flute played in Walthamstow?

Sam: It was.

So, there’s whistling from Portland, horns from Majorca and flute from Walthamstow…

Sam: This album was nearly half flute-based! There are five songs that didn’t make the record and they were all flute-based.

You could release a mini-album of flute songs…

Sam: The idea has been floated.

Or should that be fluted?

Richard: [laughs] Jesus Christ!

‘There’s no reason to be afraid of a flute’

Sam: In sequencing the album, we had 16 or 17 songs… some of which might make the next record. We can’t be sure at the moment. The great thing about being in this band is because we’re constantly working and recording, every time it comes round to doing an album, there are songs that didn’t make the previous one and there are songs on the next one that might not make it. We are building a body of work. It’s about having the albums speak to us rather than having to cram stuff in.

Richard: I like that! Let the album speak to you.

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The album title, Songs For Somewhere Else, sounds like you’re saying that this record is a means to escape from the troubled world we’re living in…

Sam: That makes sense – it is about escaping. The world is horrible and it always has been. Why do humans engage with music, art and literature? To rationalise the horror, or to escape it entirely. This record treads a line between coping and escaping. All the music that I really love is sadness viewed through a prism of beauty. Some people will say it’s a coping mechanism to deal with the horrors of life, but I think it’s a way of seeing stuff that’s happened to you – or that you think about – in a new way.

‘This record treads a line between coping and escaping. All the music that I really love is sadness viewed through a prism of beauty’

Where would you suggest that this album is best listened to?

Richard: On headphones, in the comfort of your own home. With any album that I’m involved in, all I want is for it to take you somewhere. I discover music all the time – it’s all about goosebumps and getting a present that you want to go back to. You just want to listen to it again – whether you’re at work, or at home, or wherever you are. That’s the stunning beauty of music – it’s magical.

You’ve achieved that with this record.

Richard: Thank you so much.

After the interview, Richard pulls out his phone and a pair of headphones and lets me listen to a rough demo of a new track that could be destined for the third Hanging Stars album. It’s another gorgeous, country-tinged gem, but it’s not for now – it’s a song for somewhere else…

• Songs For Somewhere Else by The Hanging Stars is released on February 16 on Crimson Crow.

The band play an album launch party in London, at The Victoria, Dalston, on February  22.

They will also appear at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8. More information here:  https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/ 

http://thehangingstars.com/