Murder ballads, magic and Morricone

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Amerikana Arkana, the debut album by The Magic City Trio, is a haunting record, in more ways than one…

Its wonderful orchestral arrangements recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), the moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.

This band of London renegades comprises Frank Sweeney (guitar, vocals and fiddle), Annie Holder (guitar,vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Guesting on the album are Johnny Butten (banjo) and Eddy Dunlap (pedal steel).

In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Frank, who was a member of ’80s indie pop outfit The June Brides, and played on records by Primal Scream (Imperial) and Felt (Space Blues), to find out the full story behind this magnificent and, er, magical album…

Q & A

Amerikana Arkana is one of my favourite albums of the year. It’s a big-sounding record – I love the orchestrations…Musically, it often harks back to the lush ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. There’s also folk, country, hillbilly and murder ballads.

When I first heard it, it was like someone was going through my record collection and referencing some of my favourite artists… I guess that, like me, you’re big fans of Nancy & Lee and Morricone? Why do you love them so much?

Frank Sweeney: I think Lee Hazlewood was a genre all to himself. He ploughed his own particular furrow and didn’t really care if it was fashionable. He was a great songwriter and producer, but he never felt the need to be in step with current trends or the mainstream. And he still managed to make a lot of classic hit records. Although he always maintained that his main motivation was to make money, he still managed to make great art sometimes.

Ennio Morricone uses a very ‘pop’ sound in his orchestration with unusual instruments. A whistle and a twangy guitar and you immediately evoke his western soundtracks. And loads of his soundtracks have at least one great catchy and evocative tune. I also love Nino Rota, who, in my view, is the other great Italian soundtrack composer. His stuff with Fellini is just as evocative, but on a less epic scale.

‘The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways’

How did The Magic City Trio first come together?

FS: During the tail end of indie-dance and the dawn of Britpop, I was playing viola in a band which played Eastern European music, when there were only two bands doing it in London. Adi Staempfli played bass, and Annie joined after I had left. The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways. I met Annie a few years later, and we eventually married in Las Vegas.

We hadn’t done any music together for a good few years. I was (trying to) learn Blind Blake [blues and ragtime guitarist and singer] stuff to up my game on the guitar, and from there we got interested in other pre-war music, what became known as ‘the old weird America’. From there we did a set of pre-war music (Carter Family, Hawaiian, Emmett Miller) at the Easy Come, which is a well-established open mic night in South East London. But we didn’t take it any further than that. We began including our own songs – Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 was an early one. It was mainly so we could do stuff that other people did not have in their set. Adi returned from Switzerland and joined us in 2013.

We had a gig in Berlin – that was our first as The Magic City Trio. The name originated from a pre-war fiddle band called Dyke’s Magic City Trio. I had one of their records on a 78 rpm.

We thought that we would only use the name for the Berlin gig, as people were more likely to go and see a band, rather than just Frank and Annie. We didn’t intend to keep the name, since Dyke’s Magic City Trio are relatively famous, it would be like calling yourself The Kinks or The Who in about 2045, but the name stuck…

Let’s talk about your album in more depth. I admire your grand ambition and the fact that you’ve gone all out with the orchestral arrangements. How did you approach this album when you came to record it? What did you want it to sound like? 

FS: Black Dog Following Me was completed before our 2015 EP [A Funnel Cloud In Albuquerque]but I didn’t like the orchestral sounds, so I scrapped it all, apart from the singing. Once it was redone, we decided to follow suit with the rest of it, instead of making it just an acoustic LP.  The orchestral sounds are a mix of samples, live instruments and recordings of actual notes that are stitched together. Oliver Curtis Perry had the least amount of strings and things, as Johnny Butten playing banjo was an orchestra in itself.

‘I was looking for the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is stylistically unfashionable now’

The arrangements all began with a basic piano track with chords, and then we added everything else. I‘m a huge fan of baroque ‘60s pop, so a harpsichord nearly always got in there. Once all the orchestral stuff was done, we put on the live instruments, which is the opposite way it would be done with a live orchestra.

The other sound I was looking for was the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is kind of stylistically unfashionable now – the song 22 was my attempt at that.

Now you mention it, the album does have a lot of different styles of orchestration on there. Trav’ler is like the stuff David Angel did on Love’s Forever Changes, Down In The Willow Garden was looking for a Pearls Before Swine-type of sound, and Billy Strange and Jimmy Webb all are referenced on there somewhere.

With The June Brides and the other stuff I did for Creation Records, I was trying to do large string parts, but limited by budgets and my lack of skill on the viola. But on those records you can hear me trying to do something that I just can’t quite pull off. I nearly got there with This Town (June Brides), Space Blues (Felt) and So Out of Touch (Joe Foster).

The dramatic opening track, Black Dog Following Me, is pure Nancy & Lee. I’m guessing it’s about depression? ‘Black dog’ is a term that Winston Churchill used to describe his dark moods. What can you tell me about that song?

FS: Yes that’s it, more or less – a dialogue where one person can’t see a way through, but the other won’t let it get on top of them. The arrangement is pure Billy Strange with Nancy & Lee. I didn’t think they did enough stuff like Some Velvet Morning, so this was my addition. In the same way that Jeff Lynne didn’t think The Beatles did enough stuff like I Am The Walrus.

Cousins’ War has a definite Ennio Morricone feel, but with a country edge…

FS: Annie started that song, after reading a book about the Wars of the Roses Originally it sounded a lot more folky. I thought of it more like the Hatfield-McCoy type of scenario. I did the last verse after seeing a Twilight Zone episode where all the American Civil War dead are walking on a road. That’s why in the LP booklet, there is a picture from a Civil War bubblegum card called Painful Death. The line about the sowing the hydra’s teeth is from Jason and the Argonauts, which explains the fighting skeleton picture in the booklet.

The chorus is adapted from [folk song] Darlin’ Cory. The instrumental sections do give it that Morricone sound – it’s the low male vocals that do it I think, which are reminiscent of Story of a Soldier [from the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly].

I love the descending twangy riff that kicks off Dust of Mars – it sounds like a nod to Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots… and The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon…

FS: At the time, I didn’t think that sequence of notes was particularly unique to Sunny Afternoon – it must have been used in loads of other places. So I didn’t think I was taking anything from that song that hadn’t been used somewhere before. But as time has gone on, I have to conclude that the sequence is not particularly common in pop music, and is more or less unique to Sunny Afternoon. I’m glad I made it so obvious, but it’s a bit like using the opening riff from Day Tripper on a song…

Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 has a hillbilly vibe. Where did this outlaw song come from? What was the inspiration?

FS: Oliver Curtis Perry was the first person to rob a train single-handed, in New York in the 1890s. The song tells his story, with a little bit of artistic license. The words are on our website. I first read about him when I was 11 years old, in a book by James D Horan, a noted Western writer. There wasn’t much detail given. The –  wonderfully named – writer Tamsin Spargo read the same book as a child, and years later published Wanted Man, which tells the whole story.

The song 22, which sounds like a Johnny Cash and June Carter country duet, also reminds me of Kirsty MacColl… 

FS: I didn’t think of that – I’m only familiar with her hits. It’s probably the vocal harmony that gives it that. She was a great singer and writer, with a unique voice.  This was our attempt at getting the Chet Atkins Nashville sound. The demo we did sounds like the Carter Family – we recorded it on a four-track cassette using pre-war Gibsons to sound as old as possible. The demos are interesting as they show how the song developed – each version is different. The plot is from a short story by Daniel Woodrell about someone who suspects his neighbours of murdering his child.

Talking of murders… Down In The Willow Garden is a classic, traditional murder ballad. I know it from The Everly Brothers album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Why did you decide to cover the song for your record?

FS: My grandmother’s name was Salley – I was looking for the origins. I came across a poem by Yeats called In the Salley Garden, which is adapted from Willow Garden, and I found the various versions. Most of which sounded a bit too jolly melodically.

The Everly Brothers recording sounded suitably bleak. So we worked on a minor key version. We had to change the harmonies as we were still smokers and couldn’t reach the notes – since we have now quit we can get there!

I wanted to do a Pearls Before Swine-type arrangement. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is a brilliant album. They recorded it to get out of their contract without giving away any hits, and they ended up with a masterpiece.

Where did the title of the album, Amerikana Arkana, come from?

 

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FS: I always loved the album cover of Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, with a man holding Tarot cards. Though the real agents of fortune are the 52 standard pack of cards, the Tarot decks are called the lesser and greater arcana. The greater arcana features all the well-known picture cards. The songs were going to be very loosely based on the Tarot cards – death, confusion, fortune, justice, the sun, change etc, but they all didn’t quite fit with that… I like a rhyming title like Nilsson Schmilsson. The presence of the K always implies a slightly twisted ‘bizarro superman’ type version of the actual thing. The LP booklet also has all sorts of clues and images that link in some way with the songs.

Can you talk me through the songwriting process and the arranging and recording of the album?

FS: We had not got together as a band to do our own songs – we were doing pre-war country and other songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s. We didn’t want to write songs in that style, lest they sounded like a pastiche.

In 2011 I read a biography on Blind Willie McTell and in the book he revealed his method for writing and I followed it.

Cousins’ War was started by Annie, but discarded, as we couldn’t figure out a proper narrative, but we brought it back and worked on the chords.

Trav’ler was originally called Chinese Traveller – it had also been discarded, due to the lack of a decent tune, but Annie pushed on with that because it had a good story. But it’s usually one of us kicking off an idea and then discarding it. And if it’s halfway good, Annie will resurrect it and suggest improvements. We’re not the most prolific of writers, but work in fits and starts.

I write out the orchestrations on a music score writing [software] package, which plays samples of string and brass, and we put the real instruments on top of that.

Recording at home is cheap, but it gets slow – there is no clock ticking and no budget being eaten up. So you can spend all day recording a track and edit 10 versions of a guitar part into the best one. Dust of Mars ended up with 40 tracks, which produced its own set of problems trying to mix it. Recording is the easy part…

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Frank Sweeney and Annie Holder

You recorded and mixed the album in London and Hove. What was that like?

FS: It was a long process. With a few exceptions, all the recording was done at home over a two-year period, which began after completing our first EP. But some recordings were started a lot earlier – Black Dog… and Oliver Curtis Perry were first demoed in 2012, with no plans to release them other than on Soundcloud.

The 2012 version of Black Dog... was stripped back to the vocals and all the other tracks replaced, and with Oliver Curtis Perry all we kept was the drums. The banjo, trumpet, pedal steel and washboard were recorded remotely and the tracks sent to me. The orchestral sounds are a mix of real players and sampled instruments, but the whole thing was written out on a score rather than played on a keyboard. Nearly all the recording was completed by the end of 2016.

I started mixing it early 2017, and gave up due to the complexity of the task. In Easter 2017, I took it to Bark Studios, in London (where Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was done), with Brian O’Shaugnessy mixing it.

So, it was mixed once, with a full set of backing tracks. Then most of it was mixed again. The mixes were much better than mine, but I wasn’t happy with the balance of some of the sounds. I thought if I went back to Bark Studios again we would end up playing whack-a-mole with the mix,

In-between that time we put the steel drum on Sun Comes Shining Through, and stuck the slow intro on Cousins’ War, so it could join up with the end of Black Dog...

So I started mixing it again myself, Having learned a thing or two from Brian, my mixes were OK, but lacked oomph. In summer 2017, I approached Paul Pascoe in Hove, for whom I had done some strings for, and asked him to master some of my mixes and the Bark mixes. Paul liked it enough to offer to mix and master it. This time I stayed away from the studio, which was a much better idea. We used the Bark version of Oliver Curtis Perry, but, other than that they are all Paul Pascoe’s mixes. Sonically there isn’t much difference. So, excluding my mixes, there are a couple of alternate mixes of the LP, plus the backing tracks and also Paul’s mix of Oliver Curtis Perry.

I admire your effort and dedication. The album is full of ambition and drama – it sounds great and it soars. Would you agree that so many modern pop records lack ambition? They just sound so bland and unadventurous when you compare them with some of the pop music of the ’60s…

FS: I think people are always going to write great songs, Pharrell Williams’ Happy is a great song, and the Curtis Mayfield sound makes it even better. But production-wise, most of the envelopes have been pushed, so commercial productions are going to end up sounding very homogenised.

It’s like the thing that Frank Zappa said, that in the ’60s, the record companies were still being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand, in the hope that they would sell some records. The profit motive was still the driving force, but you had more of a chance of producing art.

Nowadays companies are releasing music that is similar to stuff that was recently successful, so it can all start sounding the same. Particularly when you have producers, accountants, advertisers and product placers having a financial interest in the music sounding attractive and familiar to the masses. It’s the same sort of thing in the film industry, where films that can be turned into a brand seems to be where the money goes.

‘Record companies in the ’60s were being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand’

The common factor is that cinema audiences and music buyers have decreased dramatically over the years, so the studios are less prepared to take any risks.

In the golden age of cinema, you could release a film like The Best Years of Our Lives and it would be a blockbuster in terms of the people who saw it. Nowadays, a big studio would not put the money into a three-hour film about war veterans returning home. Cinema audiences were much bigger then, and were loyal to the stars in the film. Under the studio system everyone was on salary, so you could churn out loads of films, and sometimes they would produce art, And although the films were censored and bowdlerised, they showed a lot less but told a lot more. Look at films like Sunset Boulevard and In A Lonely Place – they were churned out under the studio system but are really dark and deep films.

American TV seems the place where you are seeing really original stuff, most of it does at least one season which is still around 13 hours of drama. If you pitched a 13-hour film called Freaks and Geeks (a much loved show that only did one season) you would not get very far. British mini-series seem to all be stuck trying to remake Prime Suspect. I digress…

So what are the band’s plans for the rest of 2018? Any thoughts on a follow-up album?

FS: We need to get more gigs, as a lot of our record sales are done in person. But a third of them have gone in a few months already, and they are still selling, so that’s encouraging. Our first EP has nearly sold out, I have to be careful to make sure I don’t sell my own copy!

As far as another LP is concerned, there were quite a few stage favourites left unrecorded. The original plan was to have a double LP, but it would have taken too long to record and we wouldn’t have a hope in selling it at gigs. We have another LP’s worth of songs, but it might be worth waiting to see if we come up with something better. Ive got to write a score without repeating myself, or other people. Ha ha ha.

our guitars

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

FS:  Old music: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, by The Small Faces, which I have recently discovered, after not being that interested in it up until now. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us –  the Bear Family Records reissue – and Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night: Live at the Roxy.  

New music: Boarding House Reach by Jack White and Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto.

Amerikana Arkana by The Magic City Trio is currently available on Kailua Recordings. For more information, go to http://themagiccitytrio.com/

 

 

 

 

‘I’ve always had a thing about losers and the downtrodden…’

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Pete Fij and Terry Bickers

Miserablist indie duo Pete Fij (Adorable and Polak) and Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) are back with a new album – We Are Millionaires.

The follow-up to their 2014 melancholy masterpiece Broken Heart Surgery – which was Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of that year – it’s another brilliant collection of cinematic, late-night laments for the lost and the lonely.

Like its predecessor, it’s full of deadpan humour and dry wit. With influences including John Barry, The Velvet Underground and Lee Hazlewood, and lyrical nods to movies The Third Man and The Birds, it’s like a soundtrack to an imaginary, downbeat, British, black and white kitchen sink-drama-meets spy-film – part Hancock, part Hitchcock – but this time around, there’s even some optimism.

“I like to think of this album as sunshine with showers – the last album was pretty heavy drizzle,” says Pete…

Q & A

Congratulations on the new record. It’s one of my favourite albums of the year so far, and its predecessor, Broken Heart Surgery, was my favourite record of 2014 – I described it as one of the greatest breakup albums of all time. How do you keep making such brilliant albums? What’s the secret?

Pete Fij: I don’t have a formula or secret. Some of it is about finding a genuine voice that is truly yours. I’m getting better at self-censorship and confidence of trusting my judgement of realising when a song is of a quality that I’m happy with. I don’t tend to record any song I’m not sure about. As a result there’s very little wastage – we wrote and recorded nine songs, which is the album. There are no bonus tracks or discarded songs.

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The title track of the new album has a line that references the first album, doesn’t it?

PF: Yes – it is a reference to the first album. We Are Millionaires [the song] is a little about the journey me and Terry tried to make on this album – we made a conscious attempt to be a little more upbeat than Broken Heart Surgery, but it was hard to fight our natural default setting of melancholy…

One of the lyrics in the song We Are Millionaires refers to your love of downbeat movies and a beat-up hero who never gets the girl. Do you like to wallow in melancholy? Are you at your happiest when you’re unhappy? Do you feel like an anti-hero?

PF: I’ve always enjoyed films with a darker twist, with an undercurrent of sadness. My favourite James Bond film is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the ending where Bond cries as he holds his dead wife in his arms was always one of the strongest images in the entire canon of 007 for me. I’ve always had a thing about the losers and the downtrodden – it could be argued that by wallowing in the beauty of defeat, I perhaps haven’t helped my career, but we are who we are.

We made a conscious attempt to be a little more upbeat than Broken Heart Surgery, but it was hard to fight our natural default setting of melancholy’

As you sing on the title track, “If this melancholy that we share was common currency, we’d be millionaires…”

Please never cheer up – I don’t think I could bear it. It makes for great songwriting. Saying that, Waking Up, on the new album, is one of your cheerier numbers – it’s a positive song, isn’t it? It’s a beautiful track – the morning sunshine after a long winter. It reminds me of Spiritualized…

PF: Waking Up is an attempt at being upbeat, but the final refrain, “It’s been a long cold winter”, kind of harks back to darker times. Even when looking forward to brighter times, I don’t seem to be able to keep from looking back to darker moments. I like to think of this album as sunshine with showers. The last album was pretty heavy drizzle.

A recent magazine review called you and Terry, “the indie duo scripted by Galton and Simpson”. I’m saying you’re like Hancock-meets-Hitchcock. How do you feel about that description?

PF: It sounds like we’re being compared to a couple of cocks! Both Hancock and Hitchcock had a darkness and a humour running through their work, which is what gives it depth, and I’m glad that people pick up on the humour of my lyrics. I hope it takes the edge off it becoming relentlessly depressing.

How did you approach this record? Did you suffer from ‘difficult second album syndrome?’ What was the writing and recording process like?

PF: We experimented with a fuller band sound with a couple of tracks – we recorded Let’s Get Lost and Love’s Going To Get You with drums and a full band set-up, but it just didn’t quite work. It sounded very polished, and ‘adult’ but it kind of lacked a heart, so we reverted to our previous set-up.

Thereafter it was pretty straightforward, and quite similar to how we’d worked before. Basically, I’d write the songs and present them to Terry, who would add his parts, and we’d work on some of the arrangements together.

We tend to record in short bursts – four-hour sessions, in part due to time and budget constraints. We did maybe 30 sessions like that over a two-year period. We don’t believe in rushing things! Having extended time between sessions does give you the chance to reflect and it kind of avoids going down too many dead ends.

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Terry Bickers and Pete Fij

The new album feels like a close cousin of the first one. You haven’t gone all experimental on us – it’s a natural progression…

PF: Broken Heart Surgery was definitely more stripped-down and bare than We Are Millionaires. Some of the songs on this album have over 60 different layered tracks – there are loads of tiny textures on this record, even though it’s not ear-screechingly loud. It’s a more expansive sound than Broken Heart Surgery.

‘Hitchcock’s The Birds gets referenced on the album, and when I sing, “we both love black and white movies, inhabit a monochrome world, where the beat-up hero, never seems to get the girl,” I’m thinking of the fantastic last scene in The Third Man’

You often use film references in your lyrics, so I’m saying that this album is a sequel that’s easily the equal of the first one – it could arguably be better than its predecessor…

PF: Films are a massive part of my life and they always seem to crop up in my songs – Hitchcock’s The Birds gets referenced on the album, and when I sing, “we both love black and white movies, inhabit a monochrome world, where the beat-up hero, never seems to get the girl,” I’m thinking of the fantastic last scene in The Third Man.

That leads me nicely to my next question. One of my favourite songs on the album is If The World Is All We Have. Is it your attempt to write a Bond song? It has an exotic, dramatic and cinematic feel…

PF: I wrote it about 10 years ago, originally as a failed attempt to enter the Eurovision Song Contest. I recorded the song way more uptempo with a female vocalist – it sounded like a cross between Madonna and Depeche Mode, with a nod to John Barry, but then Andrew Lloyd Webber got fast-tracked as the writer for the UK entry that year, so the song got shelved. I always thought it was strong, so I dusted it off and we slowed it right down to make it more Bickers and Fij-esque and it worked pretty much straight out of the bag. Underneath our melancholic surface, a lot of our tracks are actually pop songs.

‘There are a few things on my musical bucket list that I realise are highly unlikely to ever happen – write or record a Bond song is one of them, appear on Top of the Pops is another’

Would you like to write a Bond song? The last few have been poor, haven’t they? I think you guys should do the next one…

PF: There are a few things on my musical bucket list that I realise are highly unlikely to ever happen – write or record a Bond song is one of them, appear on Top of the Pops is another – there are two good reasons why that’s not going to happen…Writing a song for Eurovision and appearing at The Royal Albert Hall are the two on my radar that while unlikely are not entirely impossible. On the subject of Bond themes, I’d argue that the Adele song for Skyfall was pretty good.

The first song on the new album – Let’s Get Lost Together – is about a relationship, as is the whole record, to be fair, but it strikes me that it could be about you and Terry and your working relationship. Is that a fair comment? Musically, it has a bit of a Velvet Underground – third album – feel…

PF: Yep – It’s a bromantic love song to Terry, and it’s about us. I wanted to channel the spirit of Nancy and Lee’s Jackson, where they bicker and wisecrack between themselves, though you know there’s still a spark underneath the barbed comments.

The first single, Love’s Going To Get You, is about being unable to escape from the inevitability of love, but would you say it’s more about the downside of love? I get the feeling that it’s more pessimistic than optimistic – or is that just me being cynical and knowing you and your penchant for melancholy? 

PF: It’s about being a passenger in love – how it takes over and you are powerless. It originally ended with the repeated refrain “Cupid’s a sniper”, but we thought that was just too dark – even by our standards.

You’ve got some gigs coming up later this year. What can we expect?

PF: Small attendances! Aargh – there I go again with this loser shit. Positive Pete, positive. Stadiums with laser shows.

Finally, if We Are Millionaires is the sequel to Broken Heart Surgery, can we expect the third in the trilogy? If so, what will it be like?

PF: I don’t know – I mentioned to Terry that I’ve never made more than two albums with any musical project – both Adorable and Polak made two albums before splitting, so making a third album with Terry would be uncharted territory. I’d love to do an album with proper orchestral backing…. and then play it live at The Albert Hall!

• We Are Millionaires – the second album by Pete Fij/Terry Bickers – is released on July 21. For more information, visit https://petefijterrybickers.bandcamp.com

Pete Fij and Terry Bickers are also playing a few UK gigs:

July 22 – St Paul’s Art Centre, Worthing

August 29 Backroom at The Star Inn, Guilford

August 30, Rialto Theatre, Brighton

August 31, Aces & Eights Saloon Bar, London

September 1, Aces & Eights Saloon Bar, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘We love hangovers – they’re very inspiring’

I speak to songwriting duo O’Connell & Love to find out how a stormy winter week in Hastings, afternoon drinking, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and some serious hangovers all helped to create one of the best albums of the year…

 

Larry Love and Brendan O'Connell

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

 

Minesweeping – the new record by O’Connell & Love – is one of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of 2015.

A collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell, it’s 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.

It 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.

An album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt, 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).

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The essence of the album came together when you were holed up in the Sussex seaside town of Hastings, writing songs one stormy week in winter. Can you tell me more about that time? What was the writing and recording process for the record like?

Larry Love: 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.

We’re pretty quick at getting ideas down. We’re too long in the tooth to fuck around, in terms of working out structures and the basic platforms of rock and roll.

We’re not meandering around like 17-year-olds, listening to fucking Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Ann Peebles records, trying to work out what the formula is. We have our formula very organised.

If anything, we had too many ideas – the challenge was to get them to coalesce. Hopefully that comes across on the record. It has a certain homogenous quality to it.

It does – it feels like a complete album, from start to finish. 

You’ve said that the album was seven years in the making, due to other commitments… Were all of the songs written during that week you spent in Hastings?

Brendan O’Connell: A couple came after that and some had been hanging around for years.

You might recycle an idea that you tried to write 25 years ago, but that never really came to anything. You leave it and then come back to it years later, use it with someone else’s idea and it suddenly gets finished.

You might have an idea where the verse is really good, but you can’t get the next bit together… Then one day it suddenly comes from somewhere and you know it’s right.

LL: It was a bit like a pit bull that gets impregnated by a breeder. Eight little puppies come out and you think all the litter has been delivered. Then another five arrive two weeks later, in the ectoplasm!

So, Brendan, do you bring your musical ideas to Larry?

BO’C: Yes – some chords and a melody.

LL: A lot of them he might find in a charity shop. Sometimes the clothes don’t fit on that particular day – especially as you get older…

Lyrically, the album has a recurring nautical theme running through it…

BO’C: That must’ve come from Hastings.

The record was produced by Greg Fleming – aka Wizard – who’s worked with the Chemical Brothers, Dizzee Rascal and Chase & Status.Why did you choose to use a dance music producer on a country, blues and folk album?

LL: I really liked Rick Rubin’s recordings with Johnny Cash.

What did Greg Fleming bring to the record?

LL: He brought cynicism, pessimism and downright depressiveness to it because he’s generally used to doing this: (Larry suddenly makes loud, squelching dance music noises with his mouth!)

Any good stories from the recording sessions?

LL: Far too many – they generally involved me having rows with Brendan, who said I was irresponsible for staying up all night drunk. But, over the years, he has accepted that me getting drunk does add to the joie de vivre.

There are quite a few special guests on the album, including Buffy Saint-Marie, Pete Doherty and Rumer. How did you come to work with them?

LL: Whatever technology has taken away from us as musicians in terms of revenue, it’s also opened up many doors for collaborations – it’s not like you have to have a long, drawn-out scenario where you have to have everyone together in the same studio.

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s new album – Power In The Blood – was named after a song I wrote. I went to see her when Morrissey was curating Meltdown at the South Bank [in 2004] and I got invited backstage. I asked her if she fancied doing a song.

I’ve known Pete Doherty for years – he used to come and see Alabama 3 gigs back in the day. I got hold of his manager and said, ‘He fucking owes us one, so Pete, get down here.’

B’OC: We knew Rumer from Brixton, but she disappeared off to America and became a big star. My brother bumped into her in the street – she was a fan of the album we did before this one [Ghost Flight – released in 2006, under the name Robert Love] and she was keen to come and sing on a few songs.

 

Let’s talk about some of the songs from the new record. The opener, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock sounds like Johnny Cash…

LL: I thought you said Clash! Yeah – what Rick Rubin did at the end of Johnny Cash’s career was very inspiring. It’s the same as when Bob Dylan worked with Daniel Lanois. Grizzled voices and ‘hip-hop’ production.

BO’C: To me, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock sounds Spanish, rather than country, but Larry’s voice sounds like Cash.

LL: It has a ‘you’re on death row’ kind of vibe – I used to know someone who was on death row and I got quite involved with the campaign to release Albert Woodfox, who was from the Angola Three. He was one of the longest incarcerated members of The Black Panthers. It was around that time that I wrote the song. He was waiting on death row for years, but he’s now been reprieved.

 

 

One of my favourite songs on the album is Hangover Me, featuring Rumer. It has a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood feel to it…

LL: Yeah – it ended up that way. We wrote it with Seggs Jennings (The Ruts DC), with hangovers. It nails our colours to the mast. We love hangovers – they’re very inspiring.

It was originally called The Ballad of Martin Lambert and was written about a friend of ours who died from a morphine overdose on Christmas Day at his mother’s. It was a tragic way to go. I sang at his funeral. We surround ourselves with people who are on the edge – they’re not living comfortable lives and selling houses to fucking yuppies.

 

 

The track It Was The Sweetest Thing has a great Stonesy country-soul swagger… It’s a good story song – a tale of lovers embarking on a European adventure…

LL: Lyrically, it’s about the inevitable nostalgia that comes from when you’ve lost something that you realise you should’ve held on to. I like to think that I’ve lost a lot of things I should never have lost and found things I should never have found…

BO’C: Or that you never deserved to have in the first place.

LL: Exactly. I had an Italian girlfriend, but things didn’t work out. I’d never been to Europe before – I flew to Bologna with a pocketful of Ecstasy! I didn’t know you couldn’t take it on the plane. It was inspired by that – as lovers, you can traverse continents.

In this day and age, with the refugee crisis, love does transcend boundaries. The nature of the song implies that we went everywhere, looking for love, but, ultimately, we found it nowhere.

The Man Inside The Mask, which started out as a very long poem, reminds me of late ‘70s Dylan…

BO’C: When I first played it on my own and sang some of the words from the poem, I thought it was going to end up sounding like Leonard Cohen, but it turned out quite Dylanish…

Let’s go back to your roots. How did you meet and start writing songs together?

LL: About 20 years ago, I was a recovering heroin addict. I haven’t done it since – touch wood. Brendan was in a band called Past Caring – I thought they were very innovative. If you’re familiar with narcotic withdrawal, it’s quite highly sensitised. I was in an Irish bar called Brady’s and I was really impressed by the strength and the quality of Brendan and the band’s performance. I used to sing Uncertain Harbour [the penultimate song on Minesweeping] as a guest vocalist. We were both habitués of South Londonwe knew the same pubs and the same problems.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

LL: We’re letting the album gestate in people’s minds. I’m busy – I’ve got an Alabama 3 tour in October/November. We’re looking at doing an O’Connell & Love tour in January/February – up and down the country, with some skirmishes in-between. We’re definitely taking the band out on the road.

BO’C: And we’re writing some more songs.

LL: We’re going to do the next album in seven days – like the Lord. Doing Minesweeping has given us more confidence for the next phase. I don’t think it will have a nautical theme – it will be rain and Northern towns.

So, finally, what’s the secret of writing a great country song?

LL: Get a bad woman and a good hangover.

MID o connell and love band

 

Minesweeping is out now on Mountmellick Music.

http://www.oconnellandlove.com

‘I’m open to alien communication’

Nev Cottee

Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk and also recalls the gorgeous country ballads of ‘60s Scott Walker and the Spaghetti Western themes of Ennio Morricone. 

I spoke to him about retro synths, otherworldly vibes and capturing the sound of sweet sadness…

How are you? It’s been a while since we last chatted

Nev Cottee: I’m good. Cold, but good. Just waiting for the Manchester Ice Age to pass and to feel the sun on my face again.

And talking about sun, you’re gearing up for the release of your new album Strange News From The Sun. Have you heard any strange news recently?

NC: It’s all strange, isn’t it? Doublespeak has won the day – truth is portrayed as fiction and vice versa. What’s strange is how people don’t seem to be that bothered.  Sorry, were you after something light-hearted?

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It’s a great album title. Can you explain it?

NC: The title is a reference to JG Ballard and his ability to find wonder in even the most banal circumstances. There’s no need to look anywhere else for inspiration – there’s all you need in your head. Although I am open to alien communication…

On my first album Stations, the lyrics were preoccupied with other things, but with this album they’re more earth bound and more about us lot down here.

You say that, but, musically, the new album does have an otherworldly quality to it. The first track I heard from it – the epic, psychedelic single If I Could Tell You – sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk…. Is that a fair description?

NC: I’ll use that one on the poster if that’s ok with you? So the lyrics are more earthbound, but the music is bigger this time around. More cinematic and more synths. I think anytime you use a synth it’s always going to sound like the future isn’t it? Even retro synth sounds – Moogs and the like… That’s why Kraftwerk still sound ‘modern’, no?

I think some of your songs have a Scott Walker feel to them. Annie reminds me of one of Scott’s ’60s country ballads, like Duchess, from Scott  4. Is he a big influence on you?

NC: Without a doubt – and that’s a good reading of that particular track. I wanted to write a song that had that classic Walker vibe – without it being a complete rip off, just a partial one…  If I can get anywhere near those classic Scott albums, I’d be a very happy man indeed.

There’s more of a country feel to this album than its predecessor. What was your intention with this record? What sounds were you after? At times, it has a more expansive sound than the first one, doesn’t it?

NC: I didn’t particularly want a country sound. I think a few of the tracks go that way because of the pedal steel – it’s the opposite of a synth, no? Put a pedal steel on a track and it instantly becomes a country song… The guy playing those wonderful parts by the way is Chris Hillman – not the Chris Hillman [from The Byrds], but a great musician coming out of Manchester. I’ve got him in the band as well, which I’m very happy about. They’re a rare breed – the ones who can actually play as well as he does.

Me and Mason Neely, who produced the album, decided pretty early on that this album was going to have a more expansive sound and have a lot more instrumentation going on. He’s done a great job on the album…

 

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Last year, you went to San Francisco for a while. Did that rub off on the new album? Did you write any songs while you were there?

NC: I wrote some of the lyrics out there, but, if anything, I wanted them to be more English than American – it can all get a bit clichéd if you’re looking to California for inspiration. Before you know it, you’re singing about highways and the like. Maybe it gave me a good contrast – writing about ‘cold English lanes’ [on the song Follow The Sun] while wandering around Big Sur. I love it out there, so maybe the freeway album is one for the future…

Musically it’s kind of inevitable that it seeps into the record, because I love all those classic west coast bands – The Byrds, Neil Young, Love etc.

Can you talk me through the recording & writing process for the new album?

NC: I had about five songs ready by the time Stations was released [in 2013], so I knuckled down to get five more finished. Just me at home with my acoustic guitar. Then last July I went to Cardiff where Mason has a small recording space. We got the main structures down to tape with Carwyn Ellis popping in to do some keyboard parts here and there. Then we had a period where Mason sat with the songs for a while and we started a back and forth process of adding and fine-tuning what we had.  It’s a collaborative way of working that I like – you just have to be open about something and not rush to a judgement. Sometimes it can take a while, but it’s worth it.

Who did you work with on this record – musicians, engineers,  producer?

NC: So, Mason is all of those things… As I’ve said Carwyn Ellis on keyboards, Chris on the pedal steel, plus Rod Smith, who is my right hand man in the band, on guitars and backing vocals.

Follow The Sun is my favourite track on the record – a gorgeous country-pop song that reminds me of Lee Hazlewood, The Velvet Underground and Glen Campbell. I love the twangy guitar solo, the gospel-tinged backing vocals and the pedal steel. Can you tell me more about this song?

NC: I guess it is the most traditional, straightforward song on the album – just a simple chord sequence – and I definitely had the likes of Glen Campbell in mind. Rod really brings a lot with his backing vocals. He’s way up there, which is the perfect counterpoint to my low tones…

Lyrically it’s got quite an uplifting sentiment. The girl is going but I’m just saying ok, good luck, go follow the sun. There are loads of Neil Young songs I like which have the same sentiment. Have you seen the film  Inherent Vice? There are lots of Neil Young on the soundtrack and I read that the director Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to make a film that felt like a Neil Young song – so it had that sweet sadness to it. That’s the vibe on Follow The Sun – sweet sadness.

Opening track When I Was Young is very dramatic and cinematic, with a nod to film soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. What was the inspiration for this song?

NC: Rod wrote this song and we used to play it with his band – completely differently. I had an idea to make it more cinematic, dramatic and, yes, Morricone it up. Morricone conducted at the O2 recently and I missed it. You can’t go wrong taking inspiration from all those wonderful compositions. I’m just trying to convince Rod to really go for it live with those shrieking vocals Morricone had on his records…

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

NC: We’re going to do an album launch – one in Manchester and one in London. Then there’s a few festivals later in the year. All to be confirmed…

What music – new and old – are you digging at the moment?

NC: Ryley Walker’s Tim Buckley vibe is good. I also like Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album. I saw him live and it was even better – JJ Cale southern rock and roll.  To be honest, though, I’ve been going through Tom Waits’ career, album by album – about a week on each one. It’s just unbelievable how good he is and how he always keeps moving forward.

Have you started thinking about your next record already? Any ideas?

NC: I’m stuck into it already. As soon as the last one is recorded, you have to move on and start writing again. I’ve actually got two on the go. One is acoustic, looking towards John Martyn, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, just with a guitar and double bass, and the other is more electronic with long repetitive loops. Maybe the two will come together. It’s early days…

Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, is out on June 1, on Wonderfulsound. 

http://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/strange-news-from-the-sun

http://www.nevcottee.com/

INTERVIEW – Nev Cottee: “My album took five years to write and a week to record”

 

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Manchester singer/songwriter and guitarist Nev Cottee has made one of the best debut albums of 2013. Describing his sound as ‘Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized’, his atmospheric, late night laments are steeped in Northern melancholy and laced with psychedelic effects and gorgeous string arrangements. 

I spoke to him about writing and recording the record, hanging out with Noel Gallagher at The Hacienda, supporting Neil Young, stealing a bottle of rum from Richard Hawley’s dressing room and why he’s a brown sauce man…

Congratulations on your great debut album Stations and the single, Oslo, which is one of my favourite songs of this year. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind Oslo?

Nev Cottee: Thanks for the kind words, Sean. Oslo was written about five years ago. I’d been out there in 2006 to visit a Norwegian girl I’d met while I was travelling in India. It was a disaster.

When we’d been in India, being on the beach and swimming in the sea every day, everything was easy, but reality hit when I landed in Oslo in January and it was  -17 degrees! We quickly discovered that we had little in common and so it was quite a sad time. I was just wandering around on my own for three days. I guess that’s the basis of it – being really down, melancholy and thinking ‘what am I doing here?’, yet, at the same time, being confronted with this weird, magical place, full of bizarre buildings and a frozen sea. Lyrically, I was trying to write something that was a bit more abstract and non-linear. I was trying to get away from the standard love song thing.

I’d love to go to Oslo – it’s on my list….

NC: You should definitely go, although it’s £9 for a beer. Everyone goes to the shop for some bottles, then sits at home and has these little gatherings. It’s cool, actually. Everyone I met was extremely friendly and helpful – even that girl. Cool people, beautiful place.

Your deep, rich singing voice reminds me of Lee Hazlewood and Leonard Cohen. Are they big influences on you? I can imagine Lee singing Oslo…

NC:  That’s a big compliment. Who doesn’t like Laughing Len? I saw him in Manchester a few weeks ago and it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. What a lyricist, what a songwriter and what a performer!

I couldn’t believe it – the guy’s almost 80 and he’s down on his knees giving it his all. He’s not belting it out, but he’s putting it all in there. There were about 20,000 people there and he was almost whispering. He is the man and he has an amazing voice, which is so low these days, you almost can’t hear it. It’s not as easy at it seems – the low singing thing – and Cohen and Hazlewood are two of the best.

I’m a huge fan of Lee Hazlewood and I’m looking forward to hearing the new deluxe box set that’s coming out later this year. What do you love about him?

NC: Hazlewood was just a freak and I mean that in the kindest way – his look, the moustache, and his whole vibe. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Something like Nancy & Me – it’s just really honest and poetic and all beautifully put together with the strings and the guitars. The guy was a musical genius and he passed it off with an air of panache. It’s all there in the voice. Listen to Some Velvet Morning – it’s totally unique.

Tell me about your album Stations? How was it written and recorded?

NC: It took five years to write and a week to record. I’m a slow writer. I’m working on it. The next one won’t be so long. It was recorded inside The Magic Lantern, which is a small space in [musician] Carwyn Ellis’s home in Cardiff. I think that comes across in the sound – the intimacy of it. Mason Neely [who produced the album] and Carwyn are very talented musicians – they can play pretty much anything and they both know when not to play too much. After I’d sent them my demos, they came up to Manchester and the first thing they said was ‘Why are you singing so high?’ I’d never even thought about it too much – I just sang as I thought I should. They said ‘just sing like you’re talking’ and that was really a breakthrough moment, because I found my voice, which is quite low.

I saw Carwyn the other day and I said to him: ‘thanks for introducing me to myself…’ I’m basically a vocalist, guitar player, and sometime bassist – Mason can put together a string arrangement to melt your heart, or pick out an instrument that defines the mood of a song. I owe those two a lot. They gave me my sound.

It’s a very atmospheric record – often melancholy in tone…

NC: You just have to follow your instinct and use everything you’ve soaked up. As the record was developing, I said to Mason, ‘this is pretty sad stuff,’ and he said, ‘Yeah – great!’

I’m not 21 anymore. Those days are over for me, you know. I’m not into fake rebellion anymore –  ‘I don’t need an attitude/Rebellion’s a platitude.’ I was just trying to make an honest record with no tricks. I wanted to make an album that might stand up with some of the people we’ve spoken about [Lee Hazlewood and Leonard Cohen].

The album has been described as sounding like ‘Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized’, which is a brilliant comparison. It also reminds me of Richard Hawley at times…

NC: Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized? Now, that would be worth hearing. That’s just an in to get people’s attention. Hawley’s ace. I’ve met him a few times and he’s hilarious – a proper comedian. I was in his dressing room and he caught me nicking a bottle of rum. He was just laughing, saying: ‘Go for it’. He’d just sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire and was driving home to Sheffield to take his kids to school in the morning. He’s a true gent. Everything he’s ever released is brilliant. The other time I met him he gave me a bottle of limited edition Richard Hawley Henderson’s Relish. Apparently it’s been made in Sheffield for over 100 years. It tasted awful. I’m a brown sauce man myself…

What other music are you into?

NC: Tom Waits, Scott Walker, Cohen and then people like Tony Joe White and Link Wray – old school, hard living dudes. That’s for vocals and songwriting. Musically, I love Jason Pierce and anything he’s ever done – i.e Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. I also like The Byrds, The Flaming Lips, John Barry, Bill Callahan… plus all the big guns…

Close Your Eyes is one of the album highlights for me. Can you tell me more about that song? I think it’s beautiful. It has a ‘60s Scott Walker vibe, with gorgeous strings and rain sound effects.

NC: Yeah – I can see the Walker influence. It’s just a simple riff that builds and builds. Mason did a great job arranging it, with the bells at the end and the Mellotron choir. Wonderful stuff. It’s this idea of sweet melancholy. I’ve got a love/hate thing with Manchester and it’s just saying… the rain – it’s just a state of mind, don’t let it get to you.

Hot Air and Devils have a folk feel to them….

NC: Hot Air started off as a John Martyn guitar echo thing that just developed as we went along. Devils is a tune that we used to do with my old band, which we completely reworked.

Some of the songs, like I Want You and Nothing Is Certain, are quite psychedelic….

NC: That’s the Spacemen 3 thing. I got really into the repetitive psyche/trance/call it what you want thing a few years ago. I saw a band called Black Mountain at The Green Man Festival in Wales and it was like a door opening. I was in the zone – completely sober and straight, of course… Then there was my mate Nolan who played with Spectrum (Pete Kember from Spacemen 3) for a few years. I used to go to see them and I really got into his whole aesthetic. He’s a genius. Then I started listening to Suicide, 808 State and loads of other stuff… It all goes back to Kraftwerk, of course. I think my brother must have played Trans-Europe Express for about two years continually, when I was growing up.

You were in Proud Mary, weren’t you? What was that like? They were a Noel Gallagher-endorsed, country rock band as I recall…

NC: Yeah – a country rock band from Oldham! Get on it! Everyone was going to crappy nightclubs and listening to bad dance music, but we were at home listening to The Band, Gram Parsons and Creedence. We used to go to the Hacienda and be stood with Noel in the bar, having a beer and talking about T-Rex and Crosby, Stills and Nash, while everyone else was gurning and dancing very badly to something or other. We were very set in our ways. We did ok, but we should have gone to America. We supported Neil Young and he came over, shook our hands and said he’d been listening to the album. That was enough for me! We went out with Crazy Horse after the gig and they were these gnarly old dudes in baseball caps saying: ‘You gotta keep the flame burning, man. We’re getting old…’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, we can do that…’ Noel was very supportive – another true gent – and it was great gigging all over the place, thinking we were in The Faces. We were a good band and Greg Griffin [from Proud Mary] was – and still is – an amazing front man. He’s a natural.

After playing in bands for so long, why have you decided to go solo?

NC: I’ve been in various bands over the years – Proud Mary, The Second Floor – that’s Nolan’s band, who I mentioned before – and Folks, whose guitarist and songwriter Michael Beasley directed the video for Oslo. He’s a good friend and a very talented songwriter. Their debut album I See Cathedrals is a classic. I only work with the best…

I did a solo record because it was time. The band thing is over for me. I’m on my own now and I’m just getting going. I’m in it for the long haul…

So, what’s next? Can we expect a tour and some live dates?

NC: Not a tour, but some choice dates for the album launch. I’ve got a couple of excellent musicians backing me up and I’ll hopefully be playing some festivals next year. Watch this space.

 What would you like to achieve with this record and in the future? Have you got big ambitions?

NC: Like I said before  – I just want to make some music that’s true, which has something to say and that sounds amazing. I’m under no illusions about the state of the music industry. So long as people like you are digging it and spreading the word, then let’s see where it goes…

Nev Cottee’s debut album Stations is released on October 28.

http://www.nevcottee.com

http://nevcottee.bandcamp.com/album/stations