‘This album kind of took care of itself…’

Picture credit: @davidgleavephoto

We talk to Say It With Garage Flowers favourite, Nev Cottee, about his new great album, Madrid, which, with its lush orchestration, cinematic atmosphere and groovy, psychedelic sounds, soaks up influences like ’60s Scott Walker, Ennio Morricone, Lee Hazlewood, Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg.

If that wasn’t enough, we also ask him if it’s true he’s relocating from Manchester to the Spanish city the record shares its name with, and get some top tips on where to get the best tapas, menú del día and olive oil.

Not only that, but he also kindly shares with us some cautionary advice on drinking wine in the afternoon…

 

It’s mid-October and Manchester-based singer-songwriter, Nev Cottee, is speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers from his allotment.

”It’s a glorious day – autumnal vibes,” he says. “It’s good to crack out the tweeds and the layers, isn’t it? A proper pair of shoes, socks… get the coat collection on the go after the summer – it’s a good time of year. Everything’s died off, so I’m just drinking a cup of tea and being English, in my allotment. Does it get any more English?”

Ironically though, we’re here to talk about all things Spanish – in particular, his superb new album, Madrid, but, rather fittingly, it does have some glorious autumnal vibes – largely thanks to its lush, Scott 4-like string arrangements and Cottee’s Lee Hazlewoodesque baritone croon.

‘It’s good to crack out the tweeds and the layers, isn’t it? A proper pair of shoes, socks… get the coat collection on the go after the summer’

More on that later, but before we get into the background on the record, we want to confirm if the rumours we’ve heard about him relocating from Manchester to Madrid are true…

“I’m trying, but Covid kind of got in the way – my girlfriend is in Madrid,” he explains. “The dream is to get over there. Madrid’s great, but I’m kind of over living in cities. I’m at that age where it’s too busy, there are too many people and it’s too noisy.

“I live in the centre of Manchester, but I’ve got a little sanctuary – my allotment. I don’t know how I’d balance that in Madrid.

“My girlfriend’s from Granada – a town called Jaén, which apparently has the best olive oil in Spain. That’s been confirmed by various Spanish people – there’s big competition there – but it’s supposed to be the best of the best. So, that’s where I want to go, and eat lots of food with lovely olive oil on it. Let’s see…. in the next couple of years…”

‘I’m kind of over living in cities. I’m at that age where it’s too busy, there are too many people and it’s too noisy’

Meanwhile, back to autumn 2022… Madrid, which is Cottee’s fifth album and out now on Wonderfulsound, could just be his best record yet.

Recorded at OO Studios in Spain and The Magic Lantern in Wales, it’s lush, dramatic and cinematic – first single, Renunciate, is haunted by the spectre of Leonard Cohen, Silver Screen and The Ring sound like long-lost Lee Hazlewood songs, Under The Skin is pure Scott 4, but with Bollywood strings, the instrumental title track is weird and groovy Serge Gainsbourg-style pysch-funk – think Histoire de Melody Nelson – whilst Johnny Ray is Ennio Morricone on horseback with Hazlewood, galloping off into the sunset, and A Million Years is upbeat orch-pop with a classic ’60s feel.

“This album kind of took care of itself. I had about three or four songs – the first single, Renunciate, and a few others, and I built on those themes to get a coherent album,” says Cottee. “I’m a bit of a one for trying to curate an album, so it’s a work that hangs together.”

Picture credit: @davidgleavephoto

Q&A

When we last spoke, in 2020, for the vinyl release of your debut record, Stations, I asked you about your plans for the next album. You said you were working on a record with the working title of Solitary Singer and that you were listening to a lot of Scott Walker again.

You planned to go to Prague to record with an orchestra, to make a record that sounded like Scott 4, but you said that you’d also written another album – for a Lee Hazlewood alter ego.

You told me you wanted to write 10 songs that could stand up in the Hazlewood oeuvre. So, now you’ve got a new album out, Madrid, that sounds like Scott 4 and Hazlewood, as well as Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg, but it was recorded in OO Studios, in Spain, and The Magic Lantern, in Wales… How and why did the plans change? 

Nev Cottee: I was hoping to get a live orchestra on it, but it was far too expensive – even in Prague. Someone said Prague is cheap, but it was still coming in at several thousand pounds, plus it was in Prague… It sounded interesting, but, in the end, I worked with the same producer, Mason Neely – we’ve done five albums now.

He scores all my songs – he’s classically-trained. He knows what he’s doing – unlike me. I provide melodies and hints and ideas. I send him stuff that’s on my phone – I hum along what I think the strings should do, and then he adapts it into actual real music.

He’s got a team of musicians – he did a couple of days down in Wales, at Magic Lantern, in Wales. He had a cellist and a viola player, and we got cracking with the strings.

There’s a definite Scott 4 feel to some of the songs…

NC: There are elements of Scott 4 – that’s always going to be the case with my albums (laughs).

I gave Mason references. For the song, Under The Skin, I wanted a repetitive string loop – real strings, but as if they were done on a machine. I was referencing The Flaming Lips and Scott 4 to get that weird, repetitive psych thing going on.

There’s a song called Angels of Ashes on Scott 4, which is phenomenal – it builds, but you don’t realise that you’re just listening to the same chord structure, again and again. It hits you about three minutes in – it’s amazing how he takes you on that journey. I started off with that in mind. I was attempting that, but it became something else.

The strings sound quite Bollywood…

NC: You’re right – it’s the repetition. We wanted a live take, but as if it was done on an edited repeat loop. It was an experiment. I wanted The Flaming Lips to do a remix of it. I did a bit of work with Nell Smith – she did an album of Nick Cave covers with them. She met Nick Cave and I think she’s going to do a song with him.

Under The Skin is a bit psych and a bit trippy. The lyrics go down that road – there’s a drug psychosis thing going on. A geezer who’s lost somewhere, losing his mind. Who knows?

Mason and I did some mad instrumentals too – we were just kicking some ideas around and jamming, with the idea of making some songs, but then decided they didn’t need vocals, as they were great instrumentals.

The instrumental title track is groovy, cinematic and psychedelic…

NC: Yeah – it’s straight out of the Serge Gainsbourg book. It’s very drum-heavy – Mason’s amazing on it. We said, ‘Don’t hold back on anything – if you can get a drum fill in anywhere, or a bass run, do it. Keep playing crazy stuff for as long as you can and see what comes out’.  Nothing stays the same. There was going to be a vocal, but it was too mad to fit one on.

Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted this album to sound like?

NC: You’re always aiming for something, but then it just becomes its own thing. Once you’ve got two or three key tracks that defines the rest of the album – ‘Right, that’s got a single vibe, that’s a standout track, so let’s build all the others so it all fits together’…

My mate, Al, always tells me off when we’re in the pub, because he’s into albums that are really disparate and mad, like The White Album or 666 by Aphrodite’s Child – that’s his touchstone album. He says, ‘Just have loads of mad stuff and eventually it will sound good together’… I’m a bit of a one for trying to curate an album, so it’s a work that hangs together.

‘Mason Neely scores all my songs – he’s classically-trained. He knows what he’s doing – unlike me’

Maybe the ‘kitchen sink’ philosophy might be a good idea somewhere down the line – have some songs that have nothing in common and put them on an album… It would always have something in common because it would have my voice spread all over it – that’s the glue that ties it together.

This album kind of took care of itself. I had about three or four songs – the first single, Renunciate, and a few others, and I built on those themes to get a coherent album.

Have you renunciated anything recently?

NC: (laughs). No. I did a year of being a veggie but I like meat too much, and being in Spain, you’ve got not chance – you’re just going miss out on so much. If go out for menú del día [menu of the day], you get three courses and a bottle of red wine for about 10 euros. They introduced it to Madrid in the ’60s, for people who worked there but who didn’t have time to return home to make dinner.

Picture credit: @davidgleavephoto

The state, under Franco, implemented measures for certain cafés to sell menú del día. It’s good, cheap food – not amazing – but the standards are high in Spain because the produce is great.

The problem is that if you get a bottle of wine at one or two in the afternoon, you really do have to watch yourself… It’s dangerous out there! I don’t like drinking early, but, when you’re in Spain, there’s no other way. But then the Spanish stop, you see, but the English carry on…

‘Everyone wants to renunciate, but if you really want to do it, you’ve got to get to India, go halfway up the Himalayas, sit there in a loin cloth, do nothing and don’t eat – don’t even eat the snow’

The song, Renunciate, is very tongue-in-cheek. It’s about ideals. You always see these articles – on fitness and what to eat – the Sunday supplements are full of them. ‘Don’t eat that, do this, do that…’ The whole song’s an extreme version of all those ideas.

Everyone wants to renunciate, but if you really want to do it, you’ve got to get to India, go halfway up the Himalayas, sit there in a loin cloth, do nothing and don’t eat – don’t even eat the snow. They’re the renunciators – they’re the real deal.

We’re all sliding around at the other end of the scale: ‘I’m not going to smoke anymore – oh, I might have a cigarette’, or ‘I’m giving up drink for a month – oh, me mate’s going for a pint, sod it, I’ll go’….

I don’t think any of us have mastered the art of renunciation, if you want to do that, which I don’t think I do. When I was young, I had this idea that you would do that if you’d committed to being a yogi, but then you realise that life isn’t like that… Moderation is the key.

The song Johnny Ray sounds like it was influenced by Ennio Morricone…

NC: Yeah – that’s a song I’ve been playing live for quite a while. On some of Scott Walker’s albums, he has these beautiful ballads but he also throws in some songs in with that driving beat… I wanted to do that – it’s like Morricone too. Western and filmic. The lyrics are about an existential loner – that’s Johnny Ray, ‘God’s lonely man – a modern day Lone Ranger.’

‘God’s lonely man‘ is from Taxi Driver – Paul Schrader. Me and me mate always used to say it. It’s when you can’t get a girlfriend, you’re on your own and you’re drinking too much…

There are some Leonard Cohen influences on this record too…

I’m really into the late-period Leonard Cohen stuff – the three albums he did before he died. You Want It Darker is a masterpiece – absolutely wonderful. I was influenced by some of the instrumentation on that – a bit more stripped-down. It doesn’t have to be full-on drums and bass – you can use congas and percussive elements.

Two of my favourite songs on the album, Silver Screen and The Ring, both have a Hazlewood vibe…

NC: Hazlewood is always there. Silver Screen came out of a jam with Mason – heavy Serge bass. Those wacky and crazy songs he did – he used a lot of jazz musicians. Those pretty groovy drums and that deep, clicking bass.

I did my vocals with Martin Coogan. The song had a few lyrics – we sculpted this idea of a love of film and the silver screen. He said, ‘What you need to do is put some dialogue from a film on it’. At the time I was watching Albert Finney films – I went through his back catalogue and pretty much watched everything. I was on a Finney fest. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is his pinnacle.

You get certain songs where they just arrive, fully-formed, in about two minutes. The Ring wrote itself – the words just tumbled out. It was the easiest thing in the world and was inspired by those duets Hazlewood did with Nancy Sinatra.

I did try to get a female vocalist on it – I asked Tess Parks, but she was dead busy and we couldn’t get into the studio. It was done remotely, but we just didn’t nail it. Maybe we’ll sort it for the next record.

‘I’m really into the late-period Leonard Cohen stuff – the three albums he did before he died. You Want It Darker is a masterpiece – absolutely wonderful’

So, what about that Lee Hazlewood alter ego album you wanted to make? What’s the plan for it?

NC: It’s demoed and it’s a thing in itself. It really does push the Lee Hazlewood button. I’m hoping to do some recording with Shawn Lee, but he’s just broken his leg, falling down the stairs – I saw that on Instagram. None of us are getting any younger.

When he’s better, I’m going to try and do the Hazlewood album with him. There are lots of duets on it. The Ring turned out really well for this album. I might have another go at it with a female singer.

‘I was speaking to the label about doing a Best Of. I want to call it Nevolution – the Best Of Nev Cottee’

There’s supposed to be a bit of a dialogue in the song, so that will probably end up on the Hazlewood album, but as a different entity. I really want to nail that Hazlewood sound, which is no mean feat.

The way I see it, I’ve done five albums now – that’s the end of that phase. I was speaking to Miles [Copeland] at the label [Wonderfulsound] about doing a Best Of – I want to call it Nevolution – the Best Of Nev Cottee. That will put a full stop on that phase and then we’re away…

Me and Mason have done what we set out to do with the albums – I think they’ve got better and better as we’ve progressed. We’ve tried lots of different things – we’ve done everything – it’s time to move on and try a different producer.

‘I remember George Harrison saying that he’d never listened to Revolver. I was like, ‘Bollocks – you’ve listened to it!’ But he was there – he doesn’t need to listen to it, does he?’

I’m not going to use Mason on the Hazlewood album – I want to move in a different direction and try other things. The Hazlewood one’s amazing – I think the songs are really good, if I say so myself.

I love this album [Madrid], but you’re always excited about the next thing… I’m sure you’ve heard many musicians say that – you’ve written it, you’ve demoed it, then you’ve recorded it, mixed it, mastered it, listened to it… By the time it’s out, you’re onto the next thing and you’re excited by that. I always used to think musicians and bands were being stuck up… ‘Oh, no – we didn’t listen to the album…’ I kind of get it now, ‘cos they were there when it was recorded.

I remember George Harrison saying that he’d never listened to Revolver. I was like, ‘Bollocks – you’ve listened to it!’ But he was there – he doesn’t need to listen to it, does he?

When you listen back to an album, all you hear are the mistakes – what you should’ve done and different ideas…

On that note, how were the sessions for Madrid

NC: It was the same drill – I’ve been working with Mason for a long time. I sent him the demos and he sent ideas back.  I went down there for a few weeks, back and forth… Once you know each other it’s good – you’ve got that shorthand with how you work – it’s fast – and you’re not afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Let’s talk about some of the playing on the record…

NC: I play guitar on it – a bit of acoustic and electric – and I did some basic keyboard strings that Mason then turned into stuff, and also some bass. Mason’s a drum man and he does a lot of keys and samples. We used Rod Smith, who is an old friend of mine, on backing vocals. I was glad to get Caroline Sheehan on this album – she’s an amazing vocalist who’s based in Manchester. If you follow her on Instagram, [you’ll see] she’s the busiest woman in the world. Jimmy Hanley played mandolin and a bit of guitar. He’s in a great band from Manchester called Small Black Arrows.

I was trying to get Little Barrie on the album, but I couldn’t get hold of him. He’s big mates with Shawn Lee. I’d love him to do some nice guitar work on the Hazlewood stuff – some ’60s vibes. So, pencil that one in.

Any live shows planned?

NC: Early next year – hopefully a UK tour. Six or seven dates. The band are all really busy – they’re all young, dead energetic and in other bands. They’re doing too much. What’s wrong with them? They’ll realise soon enough…. I’m doing some album playbacks and I might do a few acoustic shows.

‘I was trying to get Little Barrie on the album, but I couldn’t get hold of him. I’d love him to do some nice guitar work on the next record – some ’60s vibes’

You’ve done Madrid. Where next? Can we expect any more geographically-themed albums? Are you going to travel around the globe, stopping off at cities for musical inspiration? 

NC: [laughs]. I’ve love to do that. Imagine that – you just go to a country and call the album after wherever you are. That would be a good job. I’ve just been in Greece for three weeks. I was in Corfu and then I went island hopping.  I did it years ago and it was a dream to go back. I went to Poros, Spetses and Hydra, which is where Leonard Cohen lived in the ’60s. I went to his house – I did a pilgrimage. It was amazing.

Aerial view of Madrid La Latina district at sunset.  Photo: Eldar Nurkovic / Shutterstock.

I’ve never been to Madrid. Any recommendations?

NC: It’s all about knowing which bars serve the best free tapas and the best menú del día. The areas you need to go to are La Latina, Lavapiés and Conde Duque, which is great. Start off in Conde Duque – there are loads of bars there and there’s always live music. You can’t really fail – just wander around. It’s trial and error. The Spanish have sussed the eating and drinking part of life out, as well as the sun positioning – they’ve got that down as well – but I’m not sure about the political side of things.

 

Madrid by Nev Cottee is out now on Wonderfulsound. 

https://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/madrid

There are two album playback events in London and Manchester taking place this month: October 26 and 30, respectively.

Info on London here and Manchester here.

‘I have no problem with being compared to Nancy and Lee’

Daisy Glaze: picture by Vincent Perini

 

Daisy Glaze’s self-titled debut album is one of our favourite records of the year so far.

The New York duo – Louis Epstein (HITS, Jump Into The Gospel) and Alix Brown (Angry Angles w/ Jay Reatard, Golden Triangle) – have created a moody, psych-pop-meets-drone-rock soundtrack that’s heavily in debt to the druggy, haunting cowboy country sounds of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, as well as the film scores of Jack Nitzsche and Ennio Morricone, and the narcotic-fuelled, art-rock weirdness of The Velvet Underground. There are also surf and electro influences at play – twangy guitar and spooky organ sit alongside synths, as well as strings.

Produced by the legendary Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3, Spectrum), the record was made in Sintra, in Portugal.

In an exclusive interview, we talk to the band about working with one of their heroes, their ambition to write film soundtracks and their new disco direction.

 

Q&A

You made the album in Portugal, with Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember). How did that come about?

Louis Epstein: Paul, who runs the label we put it out on [The Sound of Sinners] has a good friend I know, who is pretty good friends with Pete. I sent him some of the demos and I asked him if he’d reach out to his buddy – he said, ‘Sure – Pete is actually on a Lee Hazlewood kick right now, so it might be a really good match.’

Pete said: ‘Dude, this is great – let’s do something. Do you want to come to Portugal, or do you want me to come to New York?’

We both thought it made more sense to spend a concentrated amount of time on it, without all the distractions we would have if we were recording in New York. Pete knew a great studio [BlackSheep, in Sintra] and some great musicians out there, and we got to go to Portugal to do it.

How was that?

Alix Brown: It was fun. We were in a studio with nothing else around, so we got fully immersed in it. Next door there was a place to get chicken – we ate there every day and chilled. It was nice to be out of Lisbon.

We were in Sintra, near the castle [The Palacio Nacional da Pena]. We took acid and went there! It’s where they shot that Polanski film, The Ninth Gate.

How was Sonic Boom to work with? Was he a big hero of yours? There’s a big drone-rock influence in some of your songs…

AB: Yeah – I’ve always loved him. He worked with some friends of mine and did the MGMT album, Congratulations, which I was a big fan of. I used to live in Memphis and I love Jim Dickinson – he worked with him. There was so much of a connection, He was able to understand us and get our sound – he brings like a whole vibe. He’s like a shaman.

‘We were in Sintra, near the castle. We took acid and went there! It’s where they shot that Polanski film, The Ninth Gate’

You used some local musicians to play strings on the record, didn’t you?

LE: They were from a local conservatoire. We also brought our friends Erik [Tonnesen] and Rex [Detiger] to play keys and drums. We made the record in three weeks – Sonic Boom was going to mix it there in the last week, but that didn’t happen, as time got the better of us. I did the original mixes and would send them to him – he would send back notes. During Covid [lockdown], I remixed some of the tracks to help breath new life into them.

It’s a 10-track album – just over 30 minutes – and it starts with an instrumental and is broken up by another one halfway through. The vinyl version, which is coming out later this year, will have five songs on each side. It feels like a soundtrack album – it works as a whole piece, rather than just a disparate collection of songs. Do you agree?

AB: Definitely – that’s how I look at making a record. I see it as a record – Side A and Side B – not just 10 or 12 songs. The instrumentals that start each side set the tone.

LE: It’s not a concept album, but we thought of it as if it was a soundtrack – I’m glad you picked up on that, because that’s the point.

You sound like Nancy and Lee at times – there’s a contrasting darkness and sweetness to your sound –  and you also cite composers like Jack Nitzsche and Ennio Morricone as influences. I can definitely hear that in your music…

AB: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Italian library music and lots of soundtracks.

Do you have a favourite film or soundtrack?

AB: I like Danger: Diabolik.

LE: Jack Nitzsche’s The Lonely Surfer. I really wanted to emulate the guitar sound on that.

I don’t know if I quite got it, but that was definitely the guitar sound and style that was a big influence on me.

And Nancy and Lee? You’ve been compared to them…

LE: I  have no problem with that.

Ray of Light, which is the second song on the record, after the opening instrumental, Occasum, has a definite Nancy and Lee feel and a slight country vibe…

LE: That was the first song that was written when we decided to work together. We had played around with a few, but the sound wasn’t quite right – it was a little too punky.

After we did that song, I thought ‘this is the sound we’re going for.’ That’s why we put it towards the top of the album.

Strangers In The Dark has a great video, which highlights the dangers of hitchhiking at night…

AB: (laughs).

LE: When we wrote that song, it was also early on – there’s not much to say about it. It kinda speaks for itself.

AB: It’s definitely a rip-off of Nancy Sinatra’s Lightning’s Girl – I used to cover that song.

 

Your new single, The Ghost of Elvis Presley, is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a really cool video too…

AB: We shot it in Memphis – I used to work in the restaurant and bar we used. My friend, Karen Carrier, owns a few of the best bars there – she’s a Memphis legend and a culinary master. I had a lot of friends who came to help.

‘I wrote the opening riff for The Ghost of Elvis Presley when I was around 15 years old. The lyrics were driven by Alix wanting to capture that Memphis mystique’

Picture by Georgia Mitropoulos

That song has some great twangy guitar on it. In fact, there’s a lot of really good twangy guitar on the whole album, as well as some brilliant organ sounds…

LE: I wrote the opening riff for The Ghost of Elvis Presley when I was around 15 years old. We needed an intro for the song and I had this thing that could work, so we tweaked it to fit the song. The lyrics were driven by Alix wanting to capture that Memphis mystique, for want of a better word.

Mary Go Round is psych-pop. Did Sean Lennon co-write it? 

AB: Yeah – he helped with some of the lyrics.

I like the guitar solo on it…

LE: That was my little surf guitar.

Statues of Villains has almost an electro feel, but with strings too. I think it sounds Middle Eastern…

LE: I hear it as being more Russian…

That’s very topical…

AB: It’s a Russian war song!

The last song, How The City Was Lost, has a spoken word part and reminds me of The Gift by The Velvet Underground…

AB: Yeah.

Will there be another single from the album?

LE: I’d like to do another video in time for when the vinyl is released. I think we’re debating between Mary Go Round and Statues Of Villains – we’re leaning towards Mary Go Round. 

‘We could do the soundtrack for a psychological thriller – in the desert, with some aliens’

Picture by Vincent Perini.

 

Would you like to write a soundtrack?

AB: That would be the goal.

What sort of movie?

AB: A psychological thriller – in the desert, with some aliens.

Like Gram Parsons, outside of LA, hanging out with Keith Richards, looking for UFOs and taking Peyote?

AB: Yeah, but they already did a movie like that, with Johnny Knoxville.

It was called Grand Theft Parsons.

AB: It was a great idea, but… It’s a crazy story.

So, what’s next for you? Any live shows planned?

LE: We want to start playing again – hopefully in the spring – and we have a backlog of another record – well, maybe not a whole record, but a whole bunch of songs. The stuff that we have written is in the same vein, but I secretly want to do an Amanda Lear record. How do you feel about that, Alix?

AB: Let’s go disco!

LE: It would be great.

 

Daisy Glaze’s self-titled debut album is out now on The Sound of Sinners.

https://daisyglazenyc.bandcamp.com/

 

‘We’re too country for the indie scene and too indie for country – we’re ‘urban country’’

 

As 2020 draws to a close, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’re compiling our best albums of the year list. One of the late contenders is Black Angel Drifter, by Spain and London-based ‘urban country’ duo Morton Valence, who are songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett (ex-member of The Band of Holy Joy and Alabama 3) – and Anne Gilpin.

The record –  their seventh – which came out in November, is a dark, disturbing and dissonant collection of songs, inspired by the haunting cowboy psychedelia of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, murder ballads, country, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, as well as the strung-out, feedback-laced, narcotic blues of Spiritualized.

It also includes a stunning cover version of Bob Dylan’s dramatic The Man In The Long Black Coat, which is even more sinister than the original. In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Jessett about the band’s ‘gothic country’ sound, being outsiders and receiving death threats.

“I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, but I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never been much of a junkie,” he tells us…

Q&A

How did Morton Valence come together?

Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett: Blimey, how long have you got? OK, so Anne was a dancer in a quite well known contemporary dance company, where I was employed as a musician, after just having done a short stint playing with Alabama 3. We toured around all these small-town theatres, and up until this point I’d always thought that dancers were clean living – I was wrong. We developed this nightly ritual of boozy sing-alongs after the shows – Anne was clearly equally in her element singing as she was dancing.

We were both fans of what most people perceived as Okie country singers, like Iris Dement or George Jones, which was quite unusual at the time. Singing harmonies together seemed effortless. Our party piece was Iris Dement’s Our Town, and well, it kind of developed from there.

I think our first proper gig was at Come Down and Meet the Folks – [in London]. We collaborated with a guy called Chuck E Peru and before we knew it we’d morphed into a band. We played some interesting shows back then, touring in Germany with the late St. Thomas (Thomas Hansen), who had an influence on us. He was clearly a troubled soul, but there was honesty and beauty in his music that seemed unconcerned with reality, and he clearly wasn’t playing the game, like most people do when they start in the music biz.

Jeffery Lewis was another great songwriter we played with early on. Anyway, here we are seven albums later, with absolutely no plans for retirement, and hopefully album number eight coming in 2021.

You live in Spain and Anne is based in London. How does the band work? Does it make things difficult? 

RJ: I moved to Madrid in 2018, after just having recorded our previous album Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape. I did so for a variety of reasons that I don’t have time to go into here.

I’m now lucky enough to live in the beautiful province of Granada. I think the last thing we did in the UK was to play some shows with The Long Ryders, back in 2019, which seems like a lifetime ago. As for the practicalities of Anne and me living in different countries, it just gives us a good excuse to travel, and actually, when we get together, it’s always really productive, as there’s a finite amount of time to get things done, which kind of focuses the mind.

How has Covid affected you as a band? Did it thwart any plans you had? How’s 2020 been for you?

RJ: The two adjectives I’d use to describe 2020 would be ‘productive’ and ‘boring’. I think boredom is a great creative motivator and gets a bad rap. So, the great vacuum that is 2020 gave us time to write a new album and make a film, so creatively, 2020’s been good.

Tell us about the film…

RJ: We describe it as an autobiographical, DIY ‘punkumentary’. It started about 10 years ago on a tour of Germany, when these two American filmmakers, both called Mike, tagged along with us with the idea of making a live performance DVD – remember them?

The tour was pretty chaotic, as they usually are, and when the Mikes got the footage back to America, they dismissed it as being unusable, due to the low-quality production values of the film stock. Eventually, we inherited the footage, and yes, it was most certainly rough and ready, but, rather than making us wince, it had the opposite effect. Paradoxically, its graininess, gritty sound and anachronistic video format seemed to essentially capture a spirit of rock ‘n’ roll that we like, so we patchworked a narrative around the footage, archives from our own film experiments and moments from some of our favourite B movies.

Even though Anne and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing, out of the chaos, somehow, we were finally looking at a cohesive piece of work that we called This Is A Film About A Band – literally no other name seemed to suffice. We didn’t want to make another rockumentary of talking heads and tour bus anecdotes and the like – in fact there’s virtually no dialogue at all, but instead it’s captioned, a bit like Top of the Pops 2.

Even though I would describe the film’s protagonist as the music, it does tell our story, and probably the story of lots of bands. Our original idea was to just stick it up on YouTube or Vimeo for our fans, but on the advice of a friend who works in the movie biz, we entered it into a few film festivals where it started to gather a bit of momentum.

We had it premiered at the Doc’N Roll film festival, which is probably the most prestigious film festival of its type in the UK, and we’ve been awarded other laurels. The feedback we’ve had has been incredible, and we’re really looking forward to seeing it on the big screen in 2021.

Let’s talk about your latest album, your seventh, Black Angel Drifter. It was actually recorded in 2016. Why has it been reissued this year and can you tell us about the vinyl version, which is due out soon?

RJ: For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it – this is all documented in our film by the way.

We’d had some bad experiences, but hey, who hasn’t in the music biz, right? We sincerely believed we could circumvent the middleman, which we did to a point with our own label Bastard Recordings, but there’s only so far you can go with that, and you end up spending more time looking at Excel spreadsheets than you do creating music.

‘For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it’

Finally, a label called Cow Pie, run by BJ Cole, Hank Wangford and Patrick Hart, came to our rescue. They completely get us – we’re not an easy fit that’s for sure. We’re kind of too country for the indie scene and too indie for country – we call it ‘urban country’, mainly because we want to have an answer when people ask ‘what kind of music do you make?’

Cow Pie are clearly kindred spirits when it comes to some of our slightly more leftfield ideas – they even put out a track of ours that’s half an hour of crickets chirping, although there is a hidden song in the middle of that one. But of course, their main thing is vinyl, which we’re dead excited about.

The new record originally started life as something by your experimental side-project. How did it end up being a Morton Valence album?

RJ: Back in 2016, we had two bands going in parallel – I guess we’re sadomasochistic… Black Angel Drifter was the name of our other band. We played one gig and recorded an album. Our plan was to make something that not only sounded auto-destructive, but actually was auto-destructive, hence the sole gig.

Songwriting-wise it’s probably the most collaborative effort we’ve put out – we’re really proud of the songs and feel they deserve more of an airing, hence the fact that we’ve taken off the mask and re-released them as Morton Valence. In 2016, Morton Valence were working on a multilingual covers album called Europa, which was a visceral response to Brexit. OK, retrospectively it was very naive – we were trying to avoid being overtly political and simply add something positive to what was an extremely toxic narrative. But we ended up getting trolled with the most sickening death threats – and worse – imaginable, which is what partly prompted me to leave the UK.

So, with everything that was going on in 2016, Black Angel Drifter was put on a hiatus. Fast forward four years, and everything that seemed so terrible in 2016 has been completely eclipsed by 2020, so it just seemed like a perfect time to resurrect Black Angel Drifter.

‘If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning’

Let’s talk about the sound of the record. What were you aiming for and what were the sessions like? You produced it yourselves, didn’t you?

RJ: Much like our film, we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing, which maybe adds to its idiosyncratic nature. All our other albums have been with a producer of some description.

We recorded it partly down at [pedal steel guitarist] Alan Cook’s garage, my flat in south London and Bark Studio [in Walthamstow, London]. Our sole technical remit to ourselves was ‘does it sound shit? Or do we like it?’ If it was the latter, we just went with it. But if we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country, whether or not we hit the target, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Can we talk about a few of the songs? The opening track, Skylines Change/ Genders Blur, has a dark, menacing, twangy Morricone/Spaghetti Western-meets-country feel, but also reminds me of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, as well as The Jesus & Mary Chain…

RJ: It’s actually an old song that was co-written with Johny Brown of The Band of Holy Joy – a fantastic band that I was lucky enough to play with back in the day. Apart from me shamelessly lifting from Morricone, it definitely owes more than a passing debt of gratitude to Nancy and Lee.

‘If we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country’

If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning, so yes, you’re absolutely spot on about that. It being the opening gambit on the album, we wanted to go straight for the jugular – do something that would either make the listener baulk and go immediately for the eject button, or have the opposite effect. The logic being, if you live through this, you’ll make the whole album.

Black-Eyed Susan is a moody and sinister murder ballad. What inspired it? It’s a disturbing tale…

RJ: It’s another collaboration – this time with the Scottish poet David Cameron, someone who could not be more opposite than his unfortunate namesake. The plot comes from his novel The Ghost of Alice Fields, and he asked me to adapt his poem into a song. I’d never done anything like that before. I write 99 percent of our lyrics, so I guess technically that makes me a lyricist, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a poet. A storyteller, maybe?

I think only certain song lyrics can crossover as poetry, which to me is simply defined by whether something reads well without its given musical accompaniment. Anyway, I was really unsure at first, simply because most individuals have a particular timbre of their own.

I intonate words in a particular way that work their way around a melody, usually as I’m strumming a guitar, and it happens very naturally, so to try and shoehorn someone else’s words into that scenario felt a bit weird. But I was flattered to have been asked, so I gave it a go, and I guess my fears were unwarranted, as the resultant song works well in my humble opinion.

As far as its content goes, songs mean different things to different people. I’ve had people come up and say stuff like, ‘I love that song you wrote about such-and-such, we played it last week at me dad’s funeral’ or whatever, and I’m like, wow, I’m honoured. But I had no idea it was about such-and-such, but that’s the beauty of a song.

‘The Man In The Long Black Coat is a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell’

You’ve covered one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, The Man In The Long Black Coat, and you’ve made it sound even more menacing than the original. Good work!

RJ: As you rightly point out, it’s a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell, and it kind of set a ridiculously high standard for what we were trying to do on this album. Taking on something of such magnitude is living dangerously, not least as Mark Lanegan does a killer version of it too.

I guess when you cover a song, you want to leave your own mark on it, and hopefully we at least achieved that – most likely much to the horror of some Dylan purists. Having a male/female vocal takes it somewhere different, plus I spent a long time getting the discordant guitars the way we wanted them to sound.

Playing in tune is a doddle, but to get the sound I was after, the guitars needed to be out of tune, but not just any old ‘out of tune’, it was actually something very precise.

I knew how I wanted the note to sound, but finding something that doesn’t actually exist in any tangible way can be problematic. I suppose I was looking for an optimised sort of disharmony that would really suit the song. You might think that sounds pretentious, but when you listen to the song, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, we found the note we were looking for in the end, it was perfectly out of tune, and we’re very happy.

On If I Could Start Again, a man recounts his misspent life from a prison cell. It sounds like a classic, strung-out country ballad, but it also reminds me of Spiritualized at times. Where did that song come from? 

RJ: Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie. But when I look back, of course there are things I’d do differently, as would anyone, right? Of course, to look back in such a way is also an exercise in futility, which is a good place to start writing a song.

‘I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie’

I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, and yes, it’s definitely got a dose of Spiritualized, and maybe a touch of Tom T Hall. I create a character, and see where that character goes. This guy is a nice middle-class kid who gets it all wrong. He could’ve been an IT consultant or an operations research analyst, but he assumes there’s more to life, he’s a romantic, and the rest is self-explanatory. There’s certainly nothing cryptic in this song, and in terms of my life in music, I’ve made every mistake there is, and if I could start again, I really wonder what I’d do, and as for real life, well I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Sister Pain is one of the bluesier songs on the album. Any thoughts on it?

RJ: It’s actually a slowed-down version of Otis Redding’s Hard to Handle, set to a sludgy spiritual blues chant, backed by an imaginary version of The Stooges as the house band, so it’s kind of like a revue show in a song.

The album features Alan Cook on pedal steel. He’s become a regular member of the band, hasn’t he? How did you get together and what’s it like to work with him? I know Alan from his work with Quiet Loner (Matt Hill) and UK country duo My Darling Clementine...

RJ: Alan provides the backbone of our sound, in particular on Black Angel Drifter, where he’s pretty much ubiquitous throughout. His sound was perfectly described in one review as something that ‘fills the void like a guilty conscience’, and without him the atmosphere would change completely. I’m not sure how we met to be honest, through mutual musician friends I suppose, but he’s been with us for quite a few years now, and he’s obviously extremely tolerant to put up with me.

‘Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever’

Who or what are your main influences and inspirations?

RJ: Wow, that’s always a tough one. All sorts of people are inspiring to me, but very few of them are musicians or famous people. My sister and her colleagues for starters – she’s a nurse busting a gut at the NHS, which trumps everything in my opinion. And I suppose I’ve always admired people who don’t care about being popular or how others judge them.

Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever – a world where you put one foot wrong, you’re an instant pariah. No one gets through life without someone cutting us some slack from time to time, right? Yet we’re so quick to judge and condemn others, and shout about it as loudly as possible, usually on social media.

So, I’m inspired by people who pronounce schedule with a ‘k’ and don’t give a shit, that kind of thing, and far as a main musical influence, that would be my mum for turning me on to The Beatles before I could even walk. Thanks, Mum.

You’re currently planning your eighth album, which is pretty much written and demoed. You plan to record it in London, with pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole producing. What can we expect? Any idea what it will sound like?

RJ: Well nothing’s signed and sealed yet, but the songs are pretty much there, and the provisional plan is to release it on Cow Pie, and yes, we’ve had discussions with BJ. He’s an artist we are huge fans of and who I briefly crossed paths with years ago, when I was knocking around with Alabama 3. But it’s a bit premature to talk about it at this stage to be honest.

Black Angel Drifter is a very produced album, in the sense that a lot of how it sounds was created in the studio. I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact, it’s what The Beatles used to do, but it’s just one way of doing things, and it allows you more space to experiment.

With each album we’ve always tried something different – that’s one bonus of being independent – and with the next one we plan to get the songs as tight as we can first, then go in and record them pretty much live. One of my favourite albums ever is The Trinity Sessions by Cowboy Junkies, which was of course recorded completely live. But it’s early days still, so let’s wait and see.

What are your plans for Christmas? Will it be a dark one, rather than a white one?

RJ: It will be a sunny one actually, because I’ll be in Andalucía.

Finally, what music – new and old have you been enjoying recently?

RJ: My album of 2020 is definitely Distance is the Soul of Beauty by Michael J Sheehy – it really is an astounding piece of poetic beauty. Michael sent me a copy in the post when I was living in Madrid in the summer, and I haven’t stopped listening to it ever since. It’s one of those records where you feel like he’s having a conversation with you personally, rather than playing to an audience, which is a rare talent that very few singers are able to do.

I also love The Delines, and went to see them play just before the lockdown, Willy Vlautin is so talented, it’s ridiculous, and it was good to see Amy Boone in great form after that terrible accident. But my tastes are very catholic, I love the Fat White Family, maybe I’m biased because I’m from Brixton. They remind me a bit of The Country Teasers, who have a film on at Doc’N Roll that I can’t wait to see.

Anne and I have always been fans of John Prine, Tim Hardin and The Carpenters, as well as movie soundtrack composers like Roy Budd or Michel Legrand. These are just the first things that have popped into my head. On another day, it would be a completely different list.

Black Angel Drifter by Morton Valence is currently available to stream and download on digital platforms. A vinyl version will be released by Cow Pie in early 2021.

http://www.mortonvalence.com/

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