‘I’m not on a mission to be retro – I’m writing and recording songs in the way that I want to hear them’

Richard Warren lo res (1)

Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’ve been fans of singer-songwriter Richard Warren since we heard his 2011 album, The Wayfarer – his second solo record under his own name. In fact, it was our favourite album of that year.

In 2013, we raved about his album Rich Black Earth, calling it, ‘atmospheric, moody and nakedly emotional – evoking Nebraska-era Springsteen’.

His latest release, Disentangled, is certainly going to figure highly in our 2017 albums of the year list. It’s less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

We spoke to Richard, who’s played guitar for Spiritualized, Starsailor, Dave Gahan and Soulsavers (featuring Mark Lanegan), about the new album – his first in four years – and found out why he’s trying to simplify what he does, hone his craft and get back to basics in this crazy world we’re living in…

Q & A

Hi Richard. It’s good to chat to you again. I really love Disentangled – I have the limited edition green vinyl version of it…

Richard Warren: Fantastic.

This is your fourth solo album. It’s been four years since your last one – 2013’s Rich Black Earth. How did you approach this record?

RW: It was recorded over such a long time. After the last one, I just carried on recording – I never stop or take a break. I’ve got a studio at home, so the day after I finished the last album, I started on the next one.

Some of the tracks were done a couple of weeks before I finished this album and some were done the week after I did the album before. I think Only Always [the first song on the record] was the last thing I recorded – two weeks before this album had to be delivered. I was in the studio and I did the song in one day.

By the time it came to hand this album in, I’d recorded 50 to 60 tracks! I didn’t set out to do that. There’d been a year in-between each of my other albums. In 2014, I’d got an album’s worth of stuff together – I tried to find someone to put it out, but nobody seemed interested. Four or five of those tracks made it on to this album.

So you have a lot of unreleased material in your vaults?

RW: Yeah – I don’t know whether it will ever see the light of day. I tend to just move on to the next thing all the time.

You produced this album yourself and you played all the instruments on it…

RW: I did – I’ve done that on all my solo albums.

You made the record in your home studio. What’s your set-up like?

RW: It’s got more and more basic – I have Pro Tools and I have some tape machines. It’s a blend of digital and analogue. I like being in an analogue world, but it’s quite difficult…

The new album doesn’t sound as dark as some of your other records. It’s very stripped-down and some of the songs have a real ‘50s feel to them. Last Breath – which is one of my favourite tracks on the album – sounds like a lo-fi Elvis…

RW: Yeah – definitely. I like that three-part harmony, Jordanaires kind of thing. I generally kind of revert to that sound – I love those records. The Sun recordings are up there with my favourite records of all time – the Elvis and Cash stuff is mind-blowing.

‘By the time it came to hand this album in, I’d recorded 50 to 60 tracks! I didn’t set out to do that’

I’m simplifying my set-up and my recording equipment – if you listen to my first album, it’s quite complex. There were a lot of instruments. I’ve got into simplifying things – even the lyrics on this album are about simplifying. There’s a song called Simplify on the record – I’m singing about what I’m trying to do, which is quite odd. I didn’t plan it to be like that. I’m as into production as I am writing records and playing on them. I’m not on a mission to be retro or old-fashioned. All I’m doing is writing and recording songs in the way that I want to hear them – it’s a sound that I love. With this record, I’ve gone very mono – it’s not mono, it’s stereo, but it’s a lot more simplified. I just use Pro Tools almost like an 8-track tape machine – it’s just something to record into. I just try and write a good song.

Less is more… There are some other ‘50s-sounding songs on the album – the gorgeous, melancholy ballads No Way Back and Safekeeping. When we last spoke, in 2013, you said you were influenced by Nick Lowe – in particular, his albums The Convincer, At My Age and The Old Magic. It sounds like those records rubbed off on your new record, too…

RW: Those Nick Lowe records are fantastic – they’re perfect. They changed the way that I wrote songs. I’m trying to write songs that are easy to play – simple songs that just roll out. That’s the Nick Lowe thing for me. He’s a perfect songwriter – his records are a masterclass in songwriting. His songs hark back to Willie Nelson and Cash. Willie Nelson wrote Crazy, which I think is the perfect song – it sounds like the simplest song in the world, but it’s got everything. It has a story – a beginning, middle and an end – and it’s got a key change… it’s got every songwriting trick you can do, but when you listen to it, it sounds simple. That’s what I’m trying to learn how to do. All I’m interested in doing is to try and better my songwriting. With this album, I was a lot harder on myself – I kept rewriting and rewriting things. I’d like to write something faster now…

There are quite a few instrumentals on the album. Would you like to write and record a film soundtrack?

RW: I had quite a lot of instrumentals just lying around. At one point, I decided to make a whole album of instrumentals – I thought I couldn’t write songs anymore. I’m a bit like that – one day, I’ll get up and say, ‘this is rubbish – I’ll trash everything’. To be honest, I hit that point a lot this time…

I would like to score a film – I think it would be interesting, if it was done in the right way. I’ve done odd bits for film and TV before – it’s a really difficult and time-consuming thing to get into – and it has to be exactly what they [the directors] want. I loved the stuff Neil Young did for Jim Jarmusch. I like the idea of just playing along and coming up with stuff in the moment, but I suppose you have to be someone as important as Neil Young to do that… I’d like to try it – anything that stretches my musical horizons is great.

‘At one point, I decided to make a whole album of instrumentals – I thought I couldn’t write songs anymore’

The title track of your album – Disentangled – is an instrumental. Why did you name the record after it?

RW: An album title for me is always something that comes right at the end. Generally, I always find it a bit of a struggle. Some people have the album title at the beginning and they work to that. I do that with songs – I’ll have one line of a lyric, or a title… I’ll have all the songs and then I’ll say, ‘oh, what am I going to call the album?’ I go through all the lyrics and try and find something that sounds interesting. ‘Disentangled’ was a word I read and it also fits with the cover – the photo of a tree. I was inspired by that – as the songs are about simplifying things, it’s like I’m trying to disentangle myself from all that… I think people are trying to simplify things – hopefully it will resonate. It’s a crazy world – it’s so fast – and I want to make music that helps me to relax. I can easily play these songs – they’re laid-back and not too intense.

You’ll be wearing slippers on stage soon…

RW: Exactly. Artists like Nick Lowe are always at their best when they’ve just got an acoustic guitar, they’re on their own and you just hear them play. It’s so relaxed and easy to listen to. He has such control – Kris Kristofferson is another. He’s incredible – his songs are effortless. He is the song. Him and Nick Lowe are the people I’m always trying to emulate.

Let’s talk about your other project – Kings of the South Seas, with Ben Nicholls and Evan Jenkins. You’ve recorded your second album – Franklin – and recently played some preview shows. The record is out next year…

RW: It was supposed to be out now, but it will be out February 2018. It’s a good album – we worked with [producer] Ben Hillier. He’s great – the record sounds incredible. It’s a concept album about the explorer John Franklin.

‘When no one was interested in putting a record out, I lost confidence and I ended up making music for myself, but the songs came out of that’

Can we expect any solo Richard Warren shows?

RW: I’d love to do some, but I struggle to get any gigs. When no one was interested in putting a record out, I’ll be honest, I lost a bit of confidence and I ended up making music for myself, but the songs came out of that.

I’d love to see you play some shows…

RW: I’d like to go out and play this album solo, but the dream is to put a band together. I’d love to do that, but to do those kind of gigs and to get a great bunch of people, you’ve got to pay ‘em well and to pay ‘em well, you need good gigs – you can’t get one without the other. I’ll keep going – I’ll never give up. I started writing the next album the day after I handed the last one in and I’m really happy with how it’s coming on.

Richard Warren packshot.jpg

Disentangled by Richard Warren is out now on Hudson Records

 

‘We want to make London swingin’ again!’

Steelism

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

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

How did the two of you first meet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are your main musical influences and inspirations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your plans for 2015? 

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

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

Steelism

Steelism

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

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

So, what are your ambitions for Steelism?

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

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

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

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

London – The Windmill: Feb 19

Manchester – The Castle: Feb 22

London – The Social: Feb 23

http://steelismmusic.com