‘I knew the album had to be funky and soulful, but with elements of folk music’

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A chance encounter at a party led to Blow Monkeys frontman Dr Robert collaborating with ’60s soul legend PP Arnold on the 2007 album Five In The Afternoon, which has just been released on vinyl for Record Store Day.

It’s a great record – a ‘lost’ classic – from the rootsy opener, Nothing But Love, to the laid-back, jazzy-blues groove of the title track, the classy soul ballad Stay Now, the pop-funk-flavoured I Saw Something and What Am I To Do?  and the album closer – the groovy, ’60s folk-psych-gospel song Satellite.

I spoke to Robert, who lives in the mountains, in Andalusia, Spain, to find out the story behind the making of the album.

How did you meet – and come to work with – PP Arnold?

Dr Robert: I met her at a party up here in the mountains, which was thrown by a mutual friend. There were some musicians there, including a drummer called The Baron, who played on some of Donovan’s stuff that I loved, like Wear Your Love Like Heaven. That’s what drew me to the party – normally I’m not much of a party person.

PP Arnold was there and I was singing some Curtis Mayfield songs and some Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary, I believe. Suddenly she’s on stage and we’re singing The First Cut Is The Deepest. So I talked to her and found out that she lived nearby and it just seemed the natural thing to do – to write an album for us to do together.

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Dr Robert

So did you write the songs with her in mind, or were any of them ones you had kicking around?

DR: I wrote the songs quickly, in a 10-day period. I tend to do that. I like deadlines. Once we had decided to do an album, the pressure was on me to come up with the songs. It’s a pressure I enjoy.

What did you want the album to sound like?

DR: I knew it had to be funky and soulful, but I also wanted to bring in elements of folk music – nothing too rocky, but just a platform to try and enhance the voices. I found the sax player, Jose Luis, busking in Granada.

Where did you record the songs?

DR: There was a great little studio [Gizmo 7] in the seaside port of Motril, in Spain. It was run by a guy from Cologne [Paul Grau], who had some amazing analogue gear. He was also an experienced engineer, so it was a real find. I had the songs and then contacted some old friends – Marco Nelson from The Young Disciples, who played bass, and Crispin Taylor from Galliano on drums.

‘I wrote the songs quickly, in a 10-day period. I tend to do that. I enjoy the pressure of deadlines’

How was PP to work with?

DR: She was an education. I had to remix the whole album because she thought the vocals were too low. She was right. The way she heard things was that the song supports the singer. It was a valuable lesson. She is an incredible singer – a proper soul singer – and we sang most of the stuff together. It was an honour.

DR and PP

Listening to the album now, how do you feel about it? Do you have any favourite songs? 

DR: I’m still happy with it, which I can’t say of everything I’ve done. It sounds fresh because we didn’t try any gimmicks, or attempt to make anything particularly contemporary. We just tried to keep it sparse and natural. My favourite song is probably Shape It For Me.

Why did you decide to put the album out on vinyl, for Record Store Day 2017?

DR: The original label it was on, Curb Records, went bust shortly after the original release in 2007 and the album had largely been unavailable since then. Richard Clarke at Monks Road Records came along and wanted to put it out there again – Record Store Day was a perfect way to get the ball rolling. It will come out on CD and download too

You’ve just come off a UK tour, playing solo acoustic shows with Matt Deighton and Chris Difford. How was that? I saw the London show and thought it was superb…

DR: It was the first time I’d met Matt. He’s a lovely guy – very gentle and one hell of a guitar player. I love his song Villager.

Playing solo is a challenge, after doing so much with the band over the last five years or so. But I love the freedom of just being able to take it where I want, to try and feel the audience vibe and respond to it. I love improvising basically and being solo allows me the freedom.

‘The new Blow Monkeys album is the best thing we’ve ever done. I know I always say that, but this one is!’

You’re currently working on a new Blow Monkeys album. What’s it sound like and when can we expect to hear it? 

DR: It’s called The Wild River and it is the best thing we’ve ever done. I know I always say that, but this one is! It’s luck and fortune, but sometimes things just fall into place. I hope everyone feels the same way when they hear it.

Five In The Afternoon by Dr Robert and PP Arnold is available now on Monks Road Records.  For more information, go to http://monksroad.com/

Best albums of 2016

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Uneasy listening was the musical genre that defined 2016.

The spectre of death loomed large over several of the year’s best albums, namely David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – both artists died in 2016, shortly after releasing their records – and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, which, in places, dealt with the grief and sadness he felt following the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.

All three albums were masterpieces and highlights in their creators’ impressive back catalogues, but were difficult to listen to.

Songs such as Bowie’s vulnerable, jazzy Dollar Days – my favourite track on Blackstar – and Cohen’s twangy, twilight ballad, Leaving The Table, were undeniably beautiful, but eerily prescient.

I defy anyone not to shed a tear while hearing Bowie croon “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”, or Laughing Len intone, “I’m leaving the table – I’m out of the game.”

When Danish soprano Else Torp duets with Cave on Distant Sky, her beautiful vocals could break even the hardest of hearts.

On a personal note, I had a difficult 2016, having to cope with illness, anxiety and family bereavements, so these three albums often suited my mood, but, strangely, I haven’t chosen any of them as my favourite record of the year.

I so nearly opted for another dark album as my top choice – Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To – the final long-player from Willy Vlautin’s Portland-based, alt-country band who’ve now split up – but I didn’t.

Instead, I went for a record that always made me smile and cheered me up whenever I listened to it, thanks to its wonderful arrangements, sublime melodies and unashamedly retro vibe. 

My favourite album of 2016 is Over The Silvery Lake – the debut record from London’s The Hanging Stars. 

Released in March, Over The Silvery Lake was recorded in LA, Nashville and Walthamstow. It’s a gorgeous psych-folk-pop-country-rock record that owes a debt to The Byrds and the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons, but also Fairport Convention’s pastoral ’60s English tune-smithery.

It’s laced with pedal steel guitar and shot through with blissed-out harmonies. There are songs where willows weep and ships set sail on the sea, hazy, lazy, shimmering summer sounds  (I’m No Good Without You and Crippled Shining Blues), as well as brooding desert-rock (The House On The Hill], trippy mystical adventures (Golden Vanity) and, on the closing track, the beautiful Running Waters Wide, rippling piano is accompanied by bursts of groovy flute. 

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The Hanging Stars

Earlier this year, I interviewed The Hanging Stars about the writing and recording of the album – you can read the article here.

The band have just finished making the follow-up and it will be released next year. I’ve already reserved a place for it in my Best Albums of 2017 list… 

Here’s a list of my favourite 35 albums from this year and a Spotify playlist to accompany it, where possible – some of the albums aren’t available to stream.

This year, I interviewed several of the artists featured, so I’ve linked to the articles below. Happy Christmas – all the best for 2017 and I’ll see you on the other side…

  1. The Hanging Stars Over The Silvery Lake
  2. Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To
  3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Key
  4. Peter BruntnellNos Da Comrade
  5. Vinny PeculiarSilver Meadows
  6. David Bowie – Blackstar
  7. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  8. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
  9. Ben Watt – Fever Dream
  10. Quiet Loner – The Battle For The Ballot
  11. Britta Phillips Luck Or Magic
  12. Nick Piunti Trust Your Instincts 
  13. Cotton MatherDeath of The Cool
  14. Robert Rotifer Not Your Door
  15. Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves
  16. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  17. The Senior Service – The Girl In The Glass Case
  18. Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
  19. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust
  20. Teenage Fanclub – Here
  21. Wilco – Schmilco 
  22. Dr Robert Out There
  23. The Explorers Club – Together
  24. Cool Ghouls – Animal Races
  25. John HowardAcross The Door Sill
  26. The Junipers – Red Bouquet Fair
  27. 8 X 8 – Inflorescence 
  28. Ryan Allen & His Extra ArmsBasement Punk
  29. Primal Scream – Chaosmosis
  30. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
  31. Paul McClure Songs For Anyone 
  32. The Monkees Good Times!
  33. The Coral – Distance Inbetween
  34. Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [Japan only release]
  35. The Hosts – Moon

Doctor in the house

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[Photo by Michele Siedner]

 

Out There, the new solo album by Dr Robert, frontman of pop-soulsters The Blow Monkeys, is a stripped-down, acoustic affair that was recorded on an old eight-track Tascam tape machine at his home in deepest Andalusia, Spain. I had an appointment with the Dr to find out how this raw and rootsy record came about…

With the new album, you’ve said it’s all about the groove of the songs – there are no middle eights, key changes or bridges. Why did you take that approach to this record?

Dr Robert: It was because I used a lot of open tunings on the guitar, which deliberately restricted my options. I wanted to avoid my usual progressions. I might try an album of just middle eights next…

It’s a very rootsy and primal record in places. Tracks like All The Way Back Home and Rack and Ruin are down and dirty, bluesy grooves, and there are some jazzy vibes on the album, too. (Lost in Rasa). Were you influenced by artists like Tim Hardin and Fred Neil, whose work you’ve covered in the past?  

DR: Well, people like Hardin and Neil are part of my DNA now, so I tried not to edit myself. I just let it flow, like I was jamming in my kitchen.

 

One of my favourite tracks on the album is A Bottomless Pit. I think it sounds like Jacques Brel doing Johnny Cash. Can you tell me more about this song? Where did it come from?

DR: I don’t know where songs come from. That was an effortless one. Sometimes they come along fully formed. I was lucky.

For this record, you worked with drummer Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski, piano and accordion player Jos Hawken and saxophonist, Joe Degado. How did you hook up with those guys?

DR: They are friends. Richard goes way back. He’s a proper gent and an inspiration and he’s been in bands with both Strummer and Lydon, which is good enough for me! Jos is young and blessed with an innate calm and special talent. They both live nearby, so I always had them in mind.

What was the atmosphere like when you made this album? Was it loose and laid-back? From listening to the record, it certainly sounds like it…

DR: I tended to record the ‘takes’ in the morning. My voice works better then – especially on the low notes. I was alone most of the time. I was doing a take, then running to the tape machine to stop the tape unwinding!

How did writing and recording the album at home in Spain affect the sound of the record?

DR:I live in the mountains, south of Granada. Landscape and environment have always been a major inspiration. And smells. From the sugar beet on the Fens, to the orange blossom of the Lecrin Valley.

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[Photo by Michele Siedner]

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with acts including Paul Weller, Curtis Mayfield, PP Arnold, Beth Orton and Kym Mazelle.  Do you have any great memories from any of those collaborations? Is there anyone that you’d like to work with?

DR: They have all taught me something. Curtis was a humble soul. The best always are. I’d like to work with Tom Waits.

Out There is your tenth solo album. After more than 30 years in the business, do you feel like a prolific solo artist, or will you forever be a Blow Monkey? How does it feel now, looking back on your days as a ’80s pop star?

DR: I’m a prolific Blow Monkey. The ‘80s were the last great ‘pop’ decade. Things have changed. Mostly for the better.

How did it feel when you reformed The Blow Monkeys in 2007? Why did you decide to come back? Was it a case of unfinished business and how was it when you got back together to play and make new records? 

DR: I missed being in a band, but I wanted to make new band music. We are a strange mix. We all love different music, but we never argue. We’re a slightly dysfunctional family – like all the best bands.

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Any news on The Blow Monkeys? Do you have more new material or gigs planned?

DR: There are lots of gigs up on our website  and a new album proposed for spring 2017. I’m writing some punky soul anthems right now.

The Blow Monkeys were known for their left-wing political views. Does it seem strange to you that nowadays more mainstream artists don’t use their music to convey political views, or protest against wrongdoing or unjustness? 

DR: Some still do. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake was a masterpiece in my opinion and Beyoncé did a fine thing at the Super Bowl.

There’s a track on your new album called I Ain’t Running Anymore, yet, after more than 30 years in the business, you seem to be busier than ever. What’s your secret?  You had a health scare a while back and you quit drinking. What effect has that had on you? Are you in a good place?

DR: I don’t have a secret. Just keep your eyes open and your lips pursed. I try to remember how it felt to hear Ride a White Swan for the first time. My whole world opened up.

What music – new and old – are you currently listening to and enjoying?

DR: Old – Bukka White. New – Kendrick Lamarr.

Finally, how ‘out there’ are you?

DR: Not enough, yet. I’m working on it.

 

Out There by Dr Robert is released on May 2 (Fencat Records).

For more information, go to http://www.theblowmonkeys.com/

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