Basement Instinct

 

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Michigan-based singer-songwriter Ryan Allen is back with this third solo album Basement Punk – an explosive collection of power pop songs about love, life and rock and roll that are influenced by Teenage Fanclub, The Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr, Sugar and early R.E.M.

I lured Ryan out of his basement for a chat about the new record and to find out what’s the most punk thing he’s ever done…

 

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about your brand new record – Basement Punk. It’s your third solo album. The title was inspired by the large amount of time you’ve spent in your basement. Should we be worried? What do you get up to down there?

Ryan Allen: Ha ha. Yeah, I guess the title does give the impression that I’m some kind of underground-dwelling troll or something.

In reality, I write songs in all sorts of places. My front porch, my living room, my wife’s home office…shit, sometimes melodies or even fully-formed compositions hit me when I’m out running, or in the shower. But once I bring a song down to the basement to start demoing, it’s really then that I get serious about making some commitments to all the elements that end up on the finished version.

I have my little corner in the basement with a little bit of recording gear, a drum kit, a few mics…it’s nothing special, but it gets the job done, and I feel like I’ve come up with some really good stuff down there.

What were you aiming for with this record? Did you approach it differently from its predecessor, 2015’s Heart String Soul? What sound did you want for the new album?

You’ve said you were listening to albums by Buffalo Tom, Slowdive, R.E.M and Sugar while you were making it…

RA: Ultimately I think this record is as much “me” as the last two. The big difference is that I didn’t have as many rules as the last one – like not using effects pedals, or recording the drums in a very “muted” style). This time, I really just cranked it all up and made the kind of album I’d want to hear in 1995 (and now pretty much, too).

The songs are still personal – about my life, my opinions, etc, but I wanted to tweak the sonic elements a little bit to pay homage to a certain sound that I really connected with growing up. That loud, jangly, melody-driven alternative rock sound that the aforementioned bands did really well.

 

 

One of the tracks on the record is called Chasing A Song. Did the songs for this album come easily to you?

RA: Yeah. For the most part, they really just started pouring out. I think once I figured out exactly what I wanted to do, a big chunk of the tunes seemed to appear almost out of thin air.

One reason why is that I was so encouraged and inspired after the positive reaction to my last solo record, that I wanted to really continue the streak.

It was so humbling to learn that there were actually people out there that were excited about what I was doing, and it really gave me that extra push to want to keep it going. So much love to all the power pop blogs and radio shows out there for giving a shit about this music that I’m making.

What was the songwriting and recording process like?

RA: Songwriting and demoing-wise, the biggest difference between this new one and Heart String Soul from last year is that I got a drum kit. So a lot of the songs I was writing, I would start working on a little riff and hear a drum part in my head; eventually I’d sit down on the drums and kind of bash out a part.

A lot of the faster, more aggressive songs were a result of thinking more about what the drums were going to be doing, and then sitting down and actually figuring it out.

I also didn’t really stop writing songs for the record once I hit 10 or 11 tunes. I kept going and ended up with 17 or so songs for the record. I demoed all of them, and then settled on 14 or so to go and record. From there I whittled it down to 11 (there are three or so tunes that didn’t make the record, that I might put out before the end of the year).

So that was kind of new for me, as opposed to just going in to record the album with the same amount of songs that end up on it. I wasn’t as precious about things this time around, and it gave me a chance to be more strategic about what I wanted on the album.

I recorded a chunk of the album – all the drums, most of the guitars and most of the vocals – at Big Sky in Ann Arbor with Geoff Michael and then took the rest to my dad’s [Brad Allen] studio and finished there.

Recording in a legit studio gave the songs a chance to be as big as I thought they should be in my head, and working with Geoff was wonderful. Then reconnecting with my dad and laying down bass, percussion and other bells and whistles was great because it’s just so easy and we get in there and get shit done.

Andy Reed mixed and mastered it, and he’s got such a great ear for things and already knows exactly where I was coming from, so, all in all, it was a perfect match each time.

 

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You played all the instruments yourself on this album. How challenging was that?

RA: I guess it would be challenging if I went into the studio and had no idea what I wanted to do. But my demo process is to basically make the entire record in my basement, and then go and make it again in a studio. That way I don’t waste time, money and energy trying to come up with stuff on the spot.

I’m pretty meticulous when I go in, and my plan is always to knock things out as quickly as possible. I don’t like to dick around.

The only thing that is maybe a bit of a challenge is the drums, as I think I’m a pretty good drummer, but nailing things in a full take can be tough sometimes when you don’t play drums as your main instrument. Thank goodness for Pro Tools.

You’ve said the songs on the new record are “deeply personal”. Can you elaborate on that? Can you tell us what inspired some of the songs?

RA: For songs to be considered for a solo album, there has to be some personal connection there.

Usually it’s either about somebody or something specific, or opinionated enough that I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing it into a band, for fear they might not feel the same way, which has never happened, but it’s just what goes through my head.

The songs on this one tend to either revolve around nostalgic things that happened in my past that sort of inform either who I am or who the people around me are (Basement Punks, Mal n’ Ange) or just ruminations on my perspective on certain things (Gimme Sum More, Without A Doubt). Love, life, and rock and roll. Those are the things I tend to write about, and there’s a lot of that going on here.

 

 

The track Alex Whiz sounds like it could be about someone you knew when you were growing up. Where did that song come from? Musically, it reminds me of the Manic Street Preachers – it sounds like it could’ve come from one of their late ’90s album. Do you agree?

RA: Yeah, it’s about a real person that I grew up knowing; he lived next-door to my best friend as a kid and was just a really unique person. He was eccentric before I really understood what that was, and I wanted to sort of pay homage to him as a person who was totally 100% himself from an early age.

Musically, it’s definitely indebted to Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and things like that, maybe with a little bit of early Radiohead and Superdrag thrown in. I never really got into the Manic Street Preachers, but now that you mention it, I’ll go back and check them out.

People Factory is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about that track?

RA: That was one of the first songs I wrote where I felt like, “OK, I’ve got something really good going here for album number three.”

Weirdly, it ended up being a little bit ‘out there’ on the album, as it’s more moody and vibey than some of the ‘bash it out’ punk songs.

At one point I considered maybe not putting it on the record, but I really love how it came out. I definitely wanted to do something in a sort of R.E.M. vein, and I think I achieved it…there’s a bit of a Spoon thing going on there as well.

Overall, I’m glad I put it on the record because I think it adds an extra dynamic to the thing that it really needed. I love albums that have left turns and weird moments; ones that divert from what might be seen as a clear path. Those are the most interesting to me and they continue to be the ones I come back to over and over again.

Lyrically, it’s a song about just being yourself. I feel like people are so afraid of embracing their inner weirdo, and instead would just rather blend in.

The idea that people would just be churned out factory-style is, of course, a bit absurd, but sometimes it really feels like that. Individuality needs to be embraced more in our society, and I feel like the song is kind of a commentary on that.

The final song on the album is called Everything (In Moderation). Is that advice that you agree with?

RA: Yeah, it’s advice I have had to pretty much begrudgingly agree with as I get older. I used to think I was invincible and could eat and drink whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it.

I thought I could just come and go as I pleased without any regard to anybody else’s feelings. I made some mistakes in that regard, and now take great joy in having a bit more regimented thing going on. I need it, as otherwise I’d probably lose my mind.

I run four times a week, I go to bed early and I eat healthier. I have a little bit of fun on the weekends, but don’t over do it during the week. It’s helped me get a clearer head and become a happier person, that’s for sure.

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

RA: I’m kinda always listening to the same stuff, really. Lots of R.E.M., Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Sugar, Husker Du, Superchunk, the Replacements, Slowdive, Sloan, Big Star, Buffalo Tom… I just bought an original copy of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation and man does that thing still kill.

Some newer stuff I’ve been digging is the new Beach Slang record, as well as a band called Smile from San Francisco that have a short EP I stumbled upon online that is really great, the new Teenage Fanclub and Bob Mould records…

I like this band from Philly called Hurry that are nice and jangly. The new Nada Surf album is excellent and I’ve recently rediscovered a band from Canada called Doughboys – I’ve been listening to their 1994 album Crush a lot.

I think the new Dinosaur Jr album is really good, as well as the new one from TUNS, which is like a ‘90s Canadian rock supergroup, featuring members of Sloan, Superfriendz and The Inbreds. I like a band from Minneapolis called Fury Things – they are another recent discovery that I’m happy to have found.

The new Lees of Memory album is great and I’ve been jamming that all year long. So yeah, lots of stuff.

What are your plans for the rest of 2016?  Will you be playing in the UK anytime soon?

RA: My plans are just to play shows when I can and keep getting the word out about the record. I would love to play the UK again – I have played there three or four times with an old band of mine – but don’t really have a means to make it happen. But if there are any promoters out there who want to pay for some plane tickets and help book some shows, well, I’m all ears!

Finally, what’s the most punk thing you’ve ever done?

RA: The most punk thing I’ve done is never stop making music and releasing albums. Some people just peter out at a certain point; they give up and check out. But that is something I will never do. I’m here to stay, man.

 

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Basement Punk by Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms is released on September 30 on Save Your Generation Records.

https://extraarms.bandcamp.com/

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

For more information: 

https://nickpiuntimusic.bandcamp.com/

http://www.nickpiunti.com/

http://www.jemrecordings.com/

http://www.sugarbushrecords.com/ 

 

 

 

Britta Pop

Britta

Picture of Britta by Luz Gallardo

Britta Phillips, who, with her husband Dean Wareham (Luna and Galaxie 500) makes up US duo Dean & Britta, has just released her first solo album – Luck or Magic – a great collection of curious cover versions and self-penned tracks, from haunting ‘60s pop to Euro synth sounds. I talk to her about Bond songs, making the new record, playing bass in Luna and which she prefers, luck or magic?

I am sitting with Britta Phillips in the Martini Bar of London’s Barbican and, rather fittingly, we are talking about James Bond songs.

Daydream, which is the opening track on her debut solo album, Luck or Magic, is dramatic, moody and cinematic and sounds like it was inspired by ‘60s spy film soundtracks.

“I wrote that song in 2000 – after I’d joined Luna. I was really into Dusty Springfield then – Dean had given me a mixtape with Dusty on it and I wanted to write a song where I could sing it a bit like her,” she says.

“The song sat there for a while – it didn’t make it on to the first Dean & Britta album – but I really liked it, so I re-recorded it and added a Bond feel to it. It sounds a little bit like Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice.”

I suggest to Britta that her and Dean would be ideal for writing a Bond song.

“I would love to – if they ever want a Bond song, Dean and I are available,” she says.

I tell her that I could imagine a Dean & Britta Bond song that was in the same vein as those wonderful, haunting, orchestral ‘60s Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood ballads Some Velvet Morning and Summer Wine.

Britta agrees, adding: “They’re pretty, but they’re dark…”

Pretty and dark would be a good description of Britta’s Luck or Magic album – a record that is half original songs and half cover versions.

There are gorgeous, haunting renditions of pop obscurities like Evie Sands’ One Fine Summer Morning from 1969 and Dennis Wilson’s 1970 b-side Fallin’ In Love, stripped-down, electronic takes on The Cars’ Drive and Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, as well as her own compositions, including the cold, Krautrock synth groove of Million Dollar Doll and the Velvets-like closer Ingrid Superstar, with its psychedelic guitars…

So, how does it feel to have released your first solo album?

Britta Phillips: It’s very exciting. I’m very happy with it. I knew I would do one someday, but time flies… My friend Scott Hardkiss [San Francisco DJ and producer], who I met about 10 years ago, invited me to lunch in 2012 and said, ‘you should do a solo album and I’m gonna produce it’. And I said,’oh, alright’…

Sadly, Scott died in 2013…

BP: Yes – a year after we’d started working together. We didn’t get that much done, [in that first year] because we were both so busy….

You’ve been writing solo songs throughout your whole career, haven’t you?

BP: Yes – the oldest song on the album [Daydream] was written in 2000, about six months after I’d joined Luna. One of the other songs [Million Dollar Doll] has music that was written for the Frances Ha film soundtrack.  The music for Ingrid Superstar was written for 13 Most Beautiful[Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Test] but I wrote the lyrics later.

You’re known for being one half of Dean & Britta and also the bassist in Luna, but what’s it like stepping out on your own and being a solo artist?

BP: It’s mostly very exciting, but I feel a bit naked…I’ve always been in bands.

Why did you decide to make an album that’s half original songs and half cover versions?

BP: Dean & Britta always did a couple of covers and so did Luna. I always knew I was going to do a couple of covers, but it didn’t know it would be half… When I started to talk to Scott about the record, he had about 10 or 15 ideas for covers, but, as it was my first solo album, I wanted it to be at least half original songs.

There were five covers that I really liked and there were some original songs that I didn’t put on it. I just picked the ones that went best together and that I liked best. I did a Dylan cover – Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright – which I love, but I felt the flavour of it didn’t sit quite as well with the rest of the record. It pulled it more into a retro, ’60s thing – there were already a couple of things like that on the album.

I love your version of the Dylan song – it has a gorgeous country feel. In the end, you put it out on a limited double A-side vinyl EP with Dean’s version of the ’60s song Hey Paula, by Paul & Paula. I managed to buy a copy, but, if you don’t mind me saying so, the cover artwork is a bit rude…

BP: Dean picked that – I had nothing to do with it. He thought it was very funny. My mum pleaded with me to take the cover art off my Pledge campaign….

Are there any other songs you covered that didn’t end up on the album?

BP: I did Bang Bang [Nancy Sinatra], Daniel Johnston’s Honey I Sure Miss You and Led Zeppelin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. I’ve also got some original songs that I want to finish.

You’ve covered a ‘60s song on your album – One Fine Summer Morning by Evie Sands, which comes from her 1969 debut album. I must admit, I don’t know much about Evie Sands…

BP: Oh – She’s amazing. I believe she was Dusty Springfield’s favourite singer. She lives in LA and I met her recently.

Has she heard your version of her song?

BP: I’ve Facebooked her about it, but I haven’t heard back. I don’t know if she got my message…

I’m sure she’ll like it…

BP: She’ll be happy… Her version is a little more country sounding.

You’ve also covered an obscure Dennis Wilson song –Fallin’ In Love – which was a b-side to his first solo single in 1970…

BP: I can imagine the Evie Sands and the Dennis Wilson songs being huge hits, but they never were. They’re amazing songs.

I really like the haunting strings and the twangy guitar on Fallin’ In Love…

BP: Thanks – Dean’s on guitar and the strings are just me noodling on the MIDI [synth]. My version is like a girl group doing it – it has bigger drums.

Let’s talk about your song Million Dollar Doll. To me, it sounds like it could’ve come from the soundtrack to the film Drive. It has an ’80s electronic Europop feel…

BP: I’m so glad you think so – I love that soundtrack. When I started making my record I was really into the Drive soundtrack and Chromatics and Glass Candy – anything Johnny Jewel produced – as well as LCD Soundsystem. I was yelling the lyrics like I thought he [James Murphy] might.

I like the trance-like, nighttime groove on Million Dollar Doll…

BP: It’s motorik…

Which leads us nicely on to the track Drive. This time, you’ve chosen to cover a song by The Cars…

BP: It was a huge song and not a cover I ever would’ve picked. It was Scott’s choice. He also chose Landslide and a bunch of other big covers for me to sing – I picked the obscure ones.

You’ve stripped it right back and made it more minimalist and electronic…

BP: Yeah – it’s the robotic ARP arpeggiator [synthesizer] – that’s what made it for me. I wasn’t sure about doing a big cover, but then I loved it…

And you’ve covered Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide – a well-known song – and made it your own, with some burbling synth sounds…

BP: It came out great – we stripped it down. You’ve got to do something different, or what’s the point? I’m not going to beat Stevie Nicks’ version – no way… I love Dean’s guitar solo on it.

Why did you choose to do a version of Wrap Your Arms Around Me – a 1983 solo song by former Abba member Agnetha Fältskog?

BP: It was obscure to me. I had never heard it, but I guess it was a hit somewhere. A friend, Chris Hollow from The Sand Pebbles, who are an Australian band, suggested it to me. He sent it and said, ‘Britta should cover this’.

I’m always fascinated when people really want to hear me sing a song. If somebody takes the time to tell me I should cover something, then I’ll try it.

Wrap Your Arms Around Me is a great Europop tune – it has a killer chorus…

BP: I cut out one line. Agnetha sings, ‘make love to me now like never before.’ It makes the song a little bit too silly or kitsch… Those words would not come out of my mouth.

Is the title track of your album, Luck or Magic, an old song of yours?

BP: No – it’s a new song. I was looking through my old diaries for inspiration. Back then, I was very emotionally distraught and I think that makes for better writing material.

So, lyrically, it harks back to the time when you first met Dean?

BP: Yes – we were having this torrid romance and I was feeling very vulnerable. The lyrics are trying to be tough about it – me saying, ‘I know it’s gonna last – I don’t give a shit – let’s go!’

The song has almost a funk groove…

BP: I never played anything funky on bass before this, but I was listening to slightly funkier and dancey things.

So, are you a secret funk bass player?

BP: Yeah (she laughs). Well, I love Sly Stone and Chic/Bernard Edwards and Tina Weymouth [Talking Heads]. I’ve been dabbling – getting my toes wet.

There’s also a funky feel to your song Do It Last. It sounds a bit like Daft Punk…

BP: That was the very last song I wrote. I had a piano sketch that was bouncy and very McCartney. I went through about eight different demos of that song and I just wanted to get away from that, so I rearranged it and I changed the chords.

I was listening to the Daft Punk song Something About Us and I thought I would try something like that, with the bass and the drums… It’s weird – I was hearing some kind of solo Lennon influence, but I don’t imagine anyone else hears it. It’s sort of ‘70s – a bit Hall & Oates and a little bit funky. It’s kind of light and sexy, but there’s a dark edge to it.

The closing track on the album is Ingrid Superstar – the title sounds like the best song Lou Reed never wrote… Musically, it has a very Velvet Underground sound to it and features Luna’s Sean Eden on ‘guitar swells’.

BP: It’s mostly me playing guitar, trying to play like Dean and Sean, who’s doing some trippy backwards bits on it. It’s a kind of T Rex groove.

Let’s talk about Luna – the band is coming to the UK in October and you’ll be playing the Penthouse album in full… On your gigs in the States, you’ve been opening for Luna, too. How is it being your own support act?

BP: It’s a little bit tiring, but Luna is my backing band, too, so it’s pretty good.

We’re going to play the whole of Penthouse and then do all the other songs that people usually want to hear.

 

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Luna

Are there any plans to make a new Luna record?

BP: We’re recording covers – we’ve been in the studio with Jason Quever. He produced Dean’s last solo record. We’ve recorded six covers and we’re probably going to record six more – I don’t know about originals at this point. It’s been a good way to ease us into the studio.

How is it being in Luna for the second time around – you split up in 2005, but reformed in 2015…

BP: We’re really enjoying it – there’s no pressure. We’re not trying to be the next new thing and get on the radio and sell a shitload of records. We’re just playing because it’s a great band and it’s fun to play with Luna and reconnect with the fans – Luna fans are amazing. There are some upsides to getting older – part of that is the history with the audience and a band. Rather than a band on stage performing and showing off, it’s much more of a communal thing, which sounds very hippie…

So, what about making another Britta solo album?

BP: I would like to do another one for sure, but I don’t know when. I haven’t thought about it. I feel like it will be a lot less confusing this time. It was so shocking when Scott passed away – I was slow to want to start on the record again.

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Pic of Britta by Shelby Duncan for The Standard Hotel

 

Did you feel like you owed it to Scott to get the record out there?

BP: I definitely did, but it was hard – I didn’t know when would be the right time to start working on it again. Then I heard from Scott’s widow, who sent me a mix of one of the songs that’s not on the album, and she really wanted me to finish it, so I thought, ok – it’s not too soon…

Who would be your dream musical collaborators?

BP: Oh, boy – there are so many… There are electronic and dance people like Johnny Jewel and also indie – the guy from Tame Impala [Kevin Parker] is great and I like Cate Le Bon, but I’d be afraid to work with her. I wouldn’t be able to speak to her because I have such respect and admiration for her. She’s one of my favourites.

What other music are you currently enjoying – old and new?

BP: I like Kamasi Washington, the jazz guy who plays with Kendrick Lamar. I’m always discovering old stuff. I’m enjoying James Last! Have you ever heard of him? He does great covers.

So, finally, if you had to choose, which would it be: ‘luck’ or ‘magic’?

BP: Magic. Growing up in the ‘70s and having really kooky parents, I did believe that magic was real for quite too long a time. My parents believed in UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and ESP – all that stuff. I had very magical thinking. Even though I don’t believe in it now, there’s a part of me that emotionally believes in it. To me, science is magic – you can explain it, but it’s still pretty magical…

Britta Phillips’ Luck or Magic is out now on Double Feature Records. Luna will play the O2 Academy in London on October 7.

http://brittaphillips.com/

 

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Welcome To The Institution

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Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution) –  the new record by singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a tragi-comic masterpiece that tackles the issues of mental health and care in the community.

A concept album that’s set in a ficticious long-stay institution called Silver Meadows, it’s an eclectic collection of songs that were inspired by working as a nurse and visiting his schizophrenic brother in hospitals during the 1980s and early ’90s.

It opens with the stately piano ballad The Institution and takes us on a journey through the corridors, offices and wards of the facility, introducing the characters who live and work in Silver Meadows.

There’s drug-dealing Gerald The Porter,  controversial new member of staff Andy, who’s ‘The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour’, and Albert – a troublesome inmate who causes all sorts of problems.

Musically, the record is richly rewarding, with New Wave pop, jangly, country-tinged guitar tunes, ’80s disco and psychedelic leanings.

I spoke to Vinny to get the full story behind the making of his new album…

 

Congratulations on Silver Meadows – it’s a wonderful record. Can you tell me about the background to it? Why did you choose to make a concept album about mental health issues?

Vinny Peculiar: Thanks for those nice comments – I’m so glad you enjoyed the album. The songs arrived out of nowhere in a two week spell at the start of 2014 – 20 in a three-week period, cut down to the 14 tracks on the record. I was on a bit of a roll. It was, of course, the last thing I expected to write about, after finally leaving the NHS after years of planning to. It’s set in a fictitious 1980s long stay institution – the kind of place I used to work in as a nurse.

The album opens with The Institution and the song addresses hospital gossip, nursing home parties, illicit band rehearsals, an abusive charge nurse, a drug-addled psychologist and women patients who were incarcerated just for getting pregnant. That’s a lot of issues for one song!  It was the first one I wrote for the album – it sets the scene and kick-started the rest of the writing.

So we also get new treatments and behaviour modification techniques  – Room Management and Self Help Skills Unit – and changes in practice – Community Care and Everyone Has Something to Say.

There are a couple of love stories – The Wednesday Club and Waiting Games – and in The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour, new staff polarise the workforce and challenge the old ways.

The song Hospital Wing was inspired by a young man I met when I started nursing. He was visiting his brother, who was dying on the hospital wing from a rare genetic condition. I can’t recall exactly which one, but, three years later, he was admitted to the same ward, where he too died, peacefully. He had so much dignity –  his story has never left me. I have made a video for Hospital Wing with a wonderful group of actors in Bream, in the Forest of Dean – they did a great job. It was fabulously directed by regular Vinny Peculiar collaborator Andy Squiff.

 

Considering the sensitive subject matter, was it difficult to write the songs? You don’t want to come across as patronising, or cruel, do you? How did you approach the record?

VP: It wasn’t a difficult subject to write about, but, on the other hand, it’s not an easy subject to explain in a succinct, press release kind of way. You’re right – the last thing you want to do is to patronise the people who actually lived through the era and experienced life in those places.

I’ve a lot of mixed memories – good and bad – from that period. I’ve tried to set out a balanced stall and stick to the plot, so when it’s sad, it’s sad and when it’s funny, it’s funny.

There are so many characters in the songs. Are they based on real people you knew? 

VP: The characters are stolen from memory, with requisite name changes, and they sort of wrote themselves. It’s a record of extremes, highs and lows, kindnesses and cruelties. I’ve changed names and switched a few details around to protect identities, but the essence of the songs are all true….

Your brother had mental health issues, didn’t he?

VP: My brother died in 2001 – he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I’ve written songs with mental health themes in the past.

Big Grey Hospital, which is on my album Whatever Happened to Vinny Peculiar? is about my brother’s admission to hospital and the powerlessness of families trying to make sense of it all.

Operation from Ironing the Soul has hospital overtones, as does Nurse of Year, so I have skated with mental health imagery in the past, but Silver Meadows is a more concentrated work.

What did you want to achieve musically with this record? It has a full-band sound and great arrangements. There are even some New Wave synths. Can you tell me about the recording process? 

VP: I’m really proud of the way it sounds – lots of experimental layers and instruments that I’ve not really used before. It was more of an experimental approach – even proggy in places – and it was crafted with love by David Marsden, in his Southport Studio.

I first met Dave when he managed Pearl Studios in Liverpool in the early ‘90s. Nowadays he has a successful career in film and TV music. We always said we’d do something together. It took us 20 years to get there, but here we are, and we’re exceedingly proud of the album.

Recording started with home demos, then band rehearsals with the rhythm section Bobby Kewley (bass) and Paul Tsanos (drums). They are both great friends of mine and are lovely players.

We recorded the rhythm section at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with Ian Lewis and Dave overseeing, and then I added most of the electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, and mandocello at Whitby, where I could crank up the volume. We did a few of the main vocals and took everything to Dave’s studio where the parts were edited and new vocals recorded. Dave added a few more guitars and other exotic bits and bobs, including the Moog parts. He’s a proper Moogaholic.

The title track is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a lovely country-tinged sound and I really like the twangy guitar licks and the gorgeous melody. Can you tell me more about the song, which sees a former patient from the institution returning to Silver Meadows, as he’s unable to cope with normal life?

VP: In the early days of community rehabilitation, it was typical for people to leave hospital and be left to fend for themselves in the outside world. However, without the right support, people would fail and return.

If someone has lived in an institution most of their lives, then they are going to need help to adjust, but they didn’t always get what they needed.

In the song Silver Meadows, a patient returns to what is familiar and where he feels safe – it offers some kind of counterbalance to the bad stuff that’s going on.

I’m glad you like the country twangs. Without wishing to go all Guitarist Magazine on you, that’s my Fender Telecaster Custom 1978 through a Silverface Fender Twin Reverb amp, circa 1976. Although, the star guitar on the record for me has to be my Rickenbacker 360 and what Dave christened the  ‘walls of jangle’. It gives it a psychedelic edge. Drummers, do please forgive my ramblings…

The song The Wednesday Club is a nod to ’80s disco, both musically and lyrically. I like the synths and the backing vocals. What were you aiming for with that track?

VP: The Wednesday Club is set in a learning disabilities hospital disco. It’s actually quite a sad song – in spite of its dance-ability. It’s a song about a couple that live in the institution. They do lots of jobs around the place and they’re really able, but no one is quite sure how they ended up there. They fall in love at The Wednesday Club – the hospital disco – but are ultimately separated when they are forced to move to different parts of the country in separate group homes, far away from each other. This happened in the early days of community care and the legislation that drove the hospital closure programme. When we recorded the backing vocals, it was like we’d joined The O’Jays….

There are some dark tracks on the album. The Back Wards is very menacing and disturbing… 

VP: In the old-style institutions there were always ‘back wards’, with the reputation of turning a blind eye to bad stuff.

By the time I was working in hospitals, these were much less prevalent, but cruelty and abuse is never far away when you have poorly trained and under-resourced staff with power over vulnerable people.

These things still go on today – look at Winterbourne .

I witnessed some abuse when I was a student nurse – there’s a reference to it in the song The Institution. It was an assault, but no one would sign witness statements, so the case was dropped and I was moved to another hospital to finish the module.

Are you planning to do a stage show / musical based on the album? How’s that project coming on?

VP: The stage play is, as they say, in development. We have characters and narrative and I’m working on the first draft with Liverpool writer Ian Salmon.

It’s very early days. We’ve had a couple of meetings and Ian is fleshing out the dialogue, so I’ve taken something of a back seat these past few weeks.

I’ve no idea how long it will take to finish the musical. We hope that by March 2017 things will have moved from concept to concert hall, but we’ll see…

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Will you be touring this album with a full band?

VP: Yes. I’m really looking forward to playing the album from start to finish with a full band. We have a couple of band shows in September, then, hopefully, more towards the winter. And the band will feature in the stage play musical too, if I can prize them away from their respective tribute bands…

Since the last time I interviewed you, sadly, David Bowie has passed away. You must have been very upset. He was a huge influence on you, wasn’t he?

VP: I was really saddened by his death. My generation is the Bowie generation – the alien on Top of The Pops generation. It was impossibly sad knowing his final album was a farewell gift – and that he was orchestrating his own finale, which was just so humble and so brave. He was a consummate artist – always exploring and reinventing – and I doubt we will see anyone else to compare him to in our lifetime.

And now Prince has gone, too… Were you a fan?

VP: I was a fan – not of everything he did, but there was so much to love, and he was such a prolific talent.

Sign of The Times and Sometimes It Snows in April… there are so many more songs. He was also an independent – his own person – and he stood up to the corporate music mogul world of exploitation and refused to play by Tickemaster’s rules. I loved him for all that, too.

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

VP: I like The National – Trouble in Mind is a beautiful record. I know they are not that new, but they are new compared to most of what I listen to. The new Coral album sounds interesting. The last album I bought was, rather predictably, Bowie’s Black Star on CD. I still buy CDs…

So what’s next for Vinny Peculiar? Would you like to make another concept album? Do you have any ideas for the next record?

VP: I hope to complete the recording project I started last year with Mancunian performance poet Tony Walsh – aka Longfella. I’m a big fan of his work.

I’ve also started writing songs based on local place names. I moved house last year and perhaps it’s my way of trying to make sense of it all…

 

Vinny Peculiar’s new album, Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution)  is released on June 6 on Shadrack & Duxbury Records.

For  more information, go to http://vinnypeculiar.com/

‘Think Johnny Marr channelling Simon & Garfunkel’

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LA-based, Brit singer-songwriter Ian Webber, former frontman with The Tender Idols and The Idyllists, has just released one of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite albums of 2015.

Year of the Horse is a nostalgic, reflective, melancholy record that’s influenced by The Smiths, Chet Baker, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Nick Drake, with stripped-back, gorgeous arrangements, strings, tinges of jazz and pretty, spiralling melodies.

I tracked Ian down to a snow-covered village in remote Idaho and asked him to tell me how his new record came about…

Hi Ian. How the hell are you?

Ian Webber: Hello – from a sub-zero ski village somewhere in deepest Idaho, quite possibly right out of a ‘60s Bond movie, where the villains are plotting their world domination.

The snow has settled, and I’m as far away from the no-season surroundings of Los Angeles as can be, but in a rather good way.

Your new album – Year of the Horse – is now out there in the world. How does that feel?

IW: Yes, my new record Year of the Horse is finally here – in the year of the goat! I think I’m allowed to call it horse, since it was technically written during the year of the horse [2014]. Either way, I think the horses and goats would approve. I’m very happy to have further evidence of my existence shoved out into the world.

It’s a very melancholy, nostalgic and wistful album in places. How did you approach this record? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?

IW: Melancholy and nostalgic would certainly be a good way to describe the overall theme of the record. I’d been living in Laurel Canyon [in LA] for six years before the inevitable, but welcome, influence of ‘60s Canyon music started to surround me. Not that I really wanted to – or aspired to – follow in those footsteps, but the songs all came out of me, like an exorcism one summer, during that sun-drenched year of the horse.

The opening track, An Unfinished Symphony, is one of my favourite songs on the record. It has a gorgeous, spiralling melody. Can you tell me more about it?

IW: An Unfinished Symphony was always going to be the pop song on the record.

I was used to writing band songs, with strumming chords, and I pictured this song in my head having a larger arrangement than just solo acoustic. That may have influenced the title, I suspect, with my grand dreams of an orchestra as willing participants.

The magic for me came when it was actually almost completely finished – when Danny Howes, who was playing electric guitar, came up with the entire melody line on the last day of tracking. The idea was to think Johnny Marr channelling Simon & Garfunkel, in some strange way.

I always love a song with no guitar solo – Girl Afraid by The Smiths is a prime example – and that’s the direction we headed in.

As for the words, I was living in a Chopin world that day, and images of libraries, grand pianos, large wooden desks and handwritten notes drifted through my head.

Ian webber

I think the song House On The Hill could be about your life in your home in Laurel Canyon. Is that right?

IW: House On The Hill was inspired in part by the Crosby, Stills & Nash song Our House and is also about the house where I live in Laurel Canyon. It’s where all of the record was written.

I’m lucky to live so close to Hollywood Boulevard – the grit and the grime and the Hollywood glamour is just a short stroll away, although nobody walks in LA…

In Laurel Canyon, I’m surrounded by nature, overgrown trees and trails and, at night-time, the sound of coyotes. Not having someone live underneath, beside, or on top of me, lent itself to the privacy of writing.

I’d say I had the majority of the songs written in bundles – two or three per day – not every day, but fairly quickly, over a period of a month and a half.

It’s odd, really, but it’s one of those things that stops you doing anything else in your regular life. When you’re on a mission, tunnel vision kind of takes over and suddenly you stop cleaning, you forget to go out for fresh air, you look up and morning has become night.

I had an idea that I wanted this album to be an acoustic record, and after a few songs were born, I typed them out – my way of making a composition final – and then transferred them to voice memos, so the melody ideas were intact.

The album has an almost jazzy, stripped-down feel at times. Is that your love of Chet Baker rearing its head?

IW: Ah, Chet Baker – my one true weakness. Yes, for sure he was on my turntable more often than not. I do have a love for a good, moody jazz-type song, and I would also include Robert Wyatt, early Everything But The Girl (Eden), Prefab Sprout (Swoon) Francoise Hardy and Sean Lennon’s first couple of records – jazz-infused loveliness.

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How did you record this album? Where was it made and which musicians did you use? 

IW: The record was demoed on voice memos – just voice and acoustic guitar at home in Laurel Canyon – and shared via dropbox to my former band The Tender Idols, who live in Atlanta, Georgia.

Danny Howes [guitarist] and myself worked out the rough arrangements, and shared track and ideas via Pro Tools/Logic software, leading up to a week of tracking at The Quarry, a fantastic large and airy studio, owned by Georgia band Third Day. TJ Elias, who was resplendent in his black cowboy boots and with a southern accent, recorded it…

The band that played on the record was Danny Howes, Guy Strauss on drums and percussion and anything else that would shake or rattle, Michael Lamond on upright bass, and Matthew Barge – from my LA band The Idyllists – on piano and organ.

I returned to the scene of the crime to mix in the same studio in Atlanta, and mastered it in Los Angeles, with my good friend Mark Chalecki.

Highwire Dancer is another of my favourite songs on the record – it’s beautiful. Can you tell me about that track?

IW: That’s a pretty personal song – a sort of autobiography of a singer, or in the case of the song, a dancer, who starts out living life to the full, only to have things stripped away, by no real fault of his own.

I would definitely say I had Idol, a song by Elton John about a ‘50s star in mind, and also I had just watched Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, so that was the high wire connection. Together, I thought it made for an interesting narrative.

The song Years is also very personal – and nostalgic. It looks back at your childhood and reflects on your life and it has a lovely string arrangement. It reminds me of Nick Drake…

IW: Years is a life story – I always felt the need to write something like it, but I never did because I was too shy… At some point you have to say, well here’s what I did in this world, how it came to be, how I turned out and how I experience life.

I’m lucky to have the support of my family – I was always a traveller, a loner and a dreamer. If you have a creative side, which I feel most people do, you have to just throw it out there, and let it out. I applaud anyone who can make something of their life – in book form, lyrics, words, or art, painting and fashion. It’s an expression of oneself.

You mentioned Nick Drake, and he is up there with the greatest – so sad, yet personal and soul-baring. One day someone will unearth an old Super 8 film of him playing live. Please let it be so!

You’ve played with bands including The Idyllists and rockabilly outfit The Hopelessly Devoted. Are they on hiatus?

IW: So here I sit, a songwriter alone. Sometimes I miss the gang-like mentality of The Idyllists and my ‘50s rockabilly guys in The Hopelessly Devoted. I never like breakups. We all still get along like twin sisters, so I’d like to say that we are together apart, until the next time…

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What are you plans for 2016? Can you play some gigs in the UK, please?

IW: Well, you know, come February, it’s the year of the monkey! To celebrate, in a mischievous way I’m getting ready to move once again.

I’m moving to Nashville – in February – in the heart of the winter. I’m going back to my southern American roots. I am from Devon in England, so that’s the south, right?

So, yes, I’m travelling again – trading Laurel Canyon for the land of Johnny Cash. I certainly would love to do a show in the UK – green card in hand, if you’ll let me back…

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

IW: I do have a few golden nuggets that I’m currently listening to. This goes out to Oscar Wilde who said: “Music makes one feel so romantic – at least it always gets on one’s nerves, which is the same thing nowadays.”

New:

Nils Frahm: re

Richard Hawley : Nothing Like A Friend

Ben Watt: Matthew Arnold’s Field

Old:

Sondre Lerche: Dead End Mystery

Kings of Convenience: Know How

Sean Lennon: On Again Off Again

Lovely

Robert Wyatt: Shipbuilding

Lou Reed: Berlin

Howling Wolf: My Troubles And Me

Billie Holiday : Willow Weep For Me

Year of the Horse – the second solo album by Ian Webber is out now.

For more information, visit: https://ianwebber.bandcamp.com/

http://www.ianwebbermusic.com/

Best Albums of 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

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

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

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

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

One for the road, anyone?

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

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

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

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

Nev Cottee

Nev Cottee

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

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

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

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

Steelism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say It With Garage Flowers will return in 2016…

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

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

‘I’m a Methodist atheist lesbian trapped in a man’s body!’

 

Vinny Peculiar

Vinny Peculiar

 

Down The Bright Stream – the new album from Manchester singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary. I asked him about growing up in an English village in the ’70s, catalogue trousers and poking fun at sculptor Antony Gormley.

The last time I interviewed you was in 2013, to promote your compilation record, The Root Mull Affect. At that time, you were also working on your new studio album – Down The Bright Stream. Now it’s finished and it’s out in March. How do you feel about the new record?

Vinny Peculiar: It feels really good to have finished it – a sense of relief even. I ended up using a few studios in the never-ending quest for sonic perfection…

It’s a fantastic album – wry, amusing and very moving at times. The record is steeped in nostalgia and memories – several of the songs deal with your childhood and growing up in the ’70s. The opening song English Village, which reminds me of  The Kinks, is all about the place where you spent your early years. Where did you grow up?

VP: I grew up in a little place called Catshill – an English village in north Worcestershire. Well, it was more of a village back then, but it’s acquired a new estate since and an Indian takeaway, so it’s expanding.

My early childhood was based around church life  – my family are Methodists – granddad was a lay preacher, dad a church organist and my cousins taught at Sunday School. I was in the Boys’ Brigade and I did Bible studies. Hymns were the first music I really heard and took part in – I still really enjoy singing hymns. I’m an atheist who enjoys the rituals of religion, if that makes sense. I’m a Methodist atheist lesbian trapped in a man’s body!

Where did the title of the album come from?

VP: It’s from a lovely little book by B.B  – the story of the last gnomes in England. We had it read to us at primary school – happy days. I name check the book in English Village, along with Stig of the Dump, another school days classic…

There’s so much detail in your songs… Do you keep diaries, or do you just have a great memory for recalling experiences, people and places?

VP: I kept diaries as a teenager, but they were nothing to write home about, mostly just day to day activities – ‘I went to school, had a bath’ – that kind of thing. I’m often writing from memory – my memory is fairly good, although not always as accurate as I imagine. Of course, I have a propensity towards exaggeration. Don’t all writers?

As an observational singer-songwriter, you’re up there with Ray Davies. Are you a fan?

VP: Sure – yes. He’s such a great observer – still writing, still working and still believing. He’s truly inspiring and his newer stuff is great too, not just the classics. Have you heard Working Man’s Cafe? It’s wonderful.

Your song The King of Pop is a tribute to Michael Jackson – were you a fan of him, too?

VP: I was a fan of sorts – yes. Not a massive, full-on, love is blind kind of a fan, but more an appreciative, at a distance, respectful outsider fan – especially Off The Wall and Thriller.

The song The King of Pop is really a comment on the freak show that his life became and how we were all party to it – the public and the media. We killed him…

Who were your musical heroes when you were growing up?  You’ve always been a big Bowie fan, haven’t you? Do you like his new stuff?

VP: My first love was Simon & Garfunkel, then came Bowie, Slade and T.Rex.  Then I got into harder rock – Wishbone Ash and Black Sabbath. I then got into The Kinks and Joni Mitchell – Joni was a revelation.

The new Bowie stuff is great, although I wish he’d ditch those huge ‘80s drum sounds – they really annoy me. I love writers, too – Charles Bukowski, Keith Waterhouse, Richard Brautigan, Rick Moody, Alan Bennett, Henry Rollins… There are so many.

Your song Catalogue Trousers celebrates the mail order catalogue and name checks pianist entertainer Bobby Crush. The Internet has killed off the mail order catalogue, hasn’t it? Discuss…

VP: I wrote Catalogue Trousers after reading a piece on the demise of the mail order catalogue industry and the relentless march of the Internet. It just set me thinking about how important the catalogue was to our family, and to young boys’ emergent sexuality. Clothes, records and cameras – you could get anything from the catalogue. My grandma really did say I looked like Bobby Crush – she was a big fan of the crimplene crooner.

What has been your worst fashion faux pas?

VP: A cravat in bright orange, with a curtain ring neckpiece, circa 1974.

Your song Antony Gormley is a tongue-in-cheek, Pythonesque dig at the sculptor and his nude male statues on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. Do you really hate his work? What do you think he’d make of the song?

VP: I think he’s an interesting artist. I don’t hate his work. I think the impact of the men on the beach is kind of spectacular. In the song, I’m just looking at it from a simplistic viewpoint, devoid of all artistry and cool. I’m sure he’d see the funny side…

Is Girl At The Bar – one of my favourite songs on the album – aimed at anyone in particular? Is it based on a real encounter?

VP: It’s loosely based on a night out I had a couple of years ago, when I met a girl with a lust for life – some way beyond by own limitations. I felt like Billy Fisher [from Billy Liar] loitering on the platform by the milk machine. I never saw her again…

Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted the new album to sound like and what its themes would be?

VP: I was unhappy with some of the initial recordings, so that impacted on newer songs being added. It started off as one collection of songs but morphed into another record over time – I think it’s stronger for that.

I Only Stole What I Needed, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and Antony Gormley were recorded some time after the rest of the album, in a different studio. Three songs from the initial sessions didn’t make the cut. I ended up doing the production myself in collaboration with various engineers, so it took longer than expected.

Special thanks should go out to The Gadget  – aka Jonathan Hurst  – who played a blinder in the patience and fortitude department. I very nearly drove him over the edge. David Marsden mastered the album  – his attention to sonic detail is something else.

How was the recording process? Can you tell me more about making the record? 

VP: The drums [Che Beresford] and bass [Ollie Collins] were recorded at Eve Studios, Stockport and then I took the files away and I added guitars, keys and vocals at home and in various studios. Rob Steadman also added keys and a couple of tracks were recorded using my Liverpool band Paul Tsanos [drums] and Bobby Kewley [bass, cello].

The recording process was a bit disparate and the majority of the mixes I settled on were completed at Gadgets Lab, Manchester – three tracks were recorded mixed at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with resident engineer Ian Lewis.

Jah Wobble [PIL] plays bass on the last track The Doo Kum Inn. How did that collaboration come about? 

VP: Neil McDonald [ex-Puressence] plays on three tracks. He was adding guitar parts to his Roland machine at South City Music in Altrincham, when Jah Wobble came in the shop. Jah liked the track and ended up playing bass on it. I need to thank him properly…

So, what are your plans for the rest of this year?

VP: We’re doing a festival headline show in June at Fylde [FRRfest – Lytham, Lancashire – June 18-21: www.frrfest.com]. I’m excited about that – an extended band show. There will also be more gigs and recording.

The next album is written – it’s called Silver Meadows – Fables from the Institution. It was inspired by me working in learning disability and psychiatric hospitals in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I start recording soon and it should be finished by the summer.

I’m hopeful Silver Meadows will also become a stage play. I’ve drafted some basic script ideas and I’m looking around for collaborators/backers. It’s early days, but I’m excited by what I have so far, so we’ll see what transpires.

In 2013 you released an album with ex-Oasis guitarist Bonehead [Paul Arthurs] under the name Parlour Flames. Can we expect another Parlour Flames record in the future?

VP: Unlikely in the short-term, but you can never say never for sure. I did write several songs with a new Parlour Flames record in mind. One of them, which is called The End, made it into my solo shows for a while and will emerge on future Vinny Peculiar recordings, I’m sure.

Finally, are there any artists that you’d like to write and record with?

VP: I’d love to collaborate with John Cooper Clarke. He’s a bit of a hero of mine and he only lives down the road. I quite fancy myself as a bit of an Invisible Girl, if you follow…

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Down The Bright Stream by Vinny Peculiar is released on March 30 (Shadrack & Duxbury Records).

www.vinnypeculiar.com

 

Forthcoming Vinny Peculiar UK shows

Feb 18 – RMA Tavern, Portsmouth

Feb 27 – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Mar 21 – The Crescent, Salford (album launch)

Mar 25 – Death 2 Disco, Silver Bullet, Finsbury Park, London

Apr 10 – The Cinnamon Club, Bowden

May 2 – John Peel Centre, Stowmarket

June 19 – Macbeth, London 

June 20 – Fylde Rock ‘n’ Roots Festival 2015, Fylde Borough