‘Lockdown is a great opportunity to reboot and sort out your priorities…’

Dr. Robert

If you’re looking for a new album to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown, then may we recommend the soulful, jazzy and folky Humanism, which is the third record in a trilogy by Monks Road Social, a collaborative project overseen by Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys. 

Recorded in Spain last summer, it’s a warm and colourful collection of songs, featuring an impressive list of guests, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Mick Talbot (The Style Council), Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies) and actor Peter Capaldi. It could be just what the doctor ordered…

Monks Road Social, the loose musical collective headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert, made two of the most diverse and richly rewarding albums of last year – Down The Willows and Out Of Bounds. 

Recorded over two 10-day sessions in the residential Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth, Wales, both records made our best of 2019 list and we described them as: ‘two of the most eclectic collections of songs we’ve ever heard – from jazzy comedown ballads to Balearic beats, to soul, psych-rock, folk, drum and bass, country, blues, indie-rock and funk, they’re a melting pot of musical ideas.’

When we interviewed Dr. Robert last year, he was working on a third Monks Road Social album, which was recorded in Spain, at the height of the Andalusian summer.

The good news is that it’s now done and dusted, is out this month, and, like its predecessors, it’s a stunning and diverse record. It’s called Humanism and, this time around, the Spanish sunshine has worked its magic, as there’s a distinctly Flamenco feel to some of the songs. In these worrying days of lockdown, it’s a perfect soundtrack to ease your mind and take you to a better place.

Special guests include Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies), who belts out the frenetic, jazz-funk of Said Too Much and duets with Dr. Robert on the smooth, orchestral soul of Step By Step, and actor Peter Capaldi, who sings and plays guitar on the anthemic Britrock of first single, If I Could Pray, which he also wrote.

Keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council and Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis, also made the trip to Spain. Deighton sings on the warm, folky and pastoral ballad Apricot Glow and shares vocals with Dr. Robert on the gorgeous, acoustic, string-laden Egyptian Magic – both tracks feature Talbot on organ. Deighton’s daughter, Romy, lends her vocals to two songs – Stolen Road and Running Blind.

Also on the album are drummer Crispin Taylor and bassist Ernie McKone – both of whom played with acid-jazzers Galliano; percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk; flautist and saxophonist Jacko Peake (Push) and Neil Jones of Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation.

We spoke to Dr. Robert, who was on lockdown at his home in Andalusia, Spain he lives in the mountains, south of Granada – to get the lowdown on how Humanism was written and recorded, and find out how he’s spending his time in the house…

Dr. Robert (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

Q&A

How are you coping with the lockdown and isolation?

Dr. Robert: We are doing fine. It’s pretty isolated up here in the mountains anyway, to be honest. We are more concerned about our kids in London, but, thankfully, they are doing okay.

Spain has been hit very badly, especially in the cities. People are used to interacting socially here in a profound way. To take that away from them has been very tough, but they have responded magnificently and, like in the UK, you just have to marvel at the bravery and selflessness of the health workers. We must never call them ‘low-skilled’ and they must not remain ‘low-paid.’ Our value system is all wrong and we can’t go back there now.

Any advice for staying sane? What have you been up to during lockdown?

DR: It’s a great opportunity to reboot. I’m sure everyone says that, but it really does sort out your priorities. It’s the simple things – the way the light bounces off a whitewashed wall, or the birdsong in the morning. It’s like a veil has been lifted. This has changed us – let’s hope we stay awake…

During the lockdown, you’ve been playing some acoustic tracks online, including covers of Fred Neil, Marc Bolan and Tim Hardin songs. Any plans to do some more performances?

DR: Yes, I’ll do more, but I don’t want to flood a crowded market.

Have you been writing any songs during lockdown?

DR: Yes. I was already working on a new Blow Monkeys album for early next year, to coincide with our 40th anniversary, so it’s afforded me more time to really figure out what it is I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album! And what do I have to say? “Love is all that remains of us,” to quote a poet from Hull.

Let’s talk about the new Monks Road Social album, Humanism – the third in a trilogy. What were the recording sessions in Spain like? 

DR: The album was recorded over about 10 days in the summer last year – August, to be precise. It was very hot – the wind blew in from Africa.

My friend, the producer Youth, has a studio out here, so we did it there. I produced the record, but with so many friends involved it’s never stressful – people like Crispin Taylor and Mick Talbot don’t really need producing. We communicate with a look these days.

The main task is organisation and preplanning. My wife, Michele, is amazing. She manages The Blow Monkeys too. We had a great engineer called Ivan Moreno, who I ended up mixing the whole album with, plus the label boss, Richard Clarke, [Monks Road Records] has a very good antennae and always pitches in with interesting ideas. I’m just the ringmaster.

‘I’ve been working on a new Blow Monkeys album. The lockdown has afforded me more time to figure out what I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album!’

How do you think this album compares with the other two? There are fewer folk, country, blues and rock/psychedelic songs on it. It has more of a soul and jazz feel, with some Flamenco influences too…

DR: Well, yes – the fact that it was super-hot and we were here in Granada obviously flowed into the music. Plus we had a few local musicians involved: David Heredia, the amazing gypsy Flamenco guitar player, and Juan Carlos Camacho on trumpet.

Also Ibrahim Diakité from Mali played the kamalengoni. Some of the best stuff was after the session, when we were just jamming. It was an unbelievable vibe.

Did you write new songs specifically for this album?

DR: I did – songs like Egyptian Magic and Step By Step – and there were others that I had from before that I thought would work with different singers, like Sulene Fleming doing Said Too Much. 

We are always on the lookout for people to add to the mix. A friend told me his daughter, Belle McNulty, could sing. I said I’d have a listen, but I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. She blew me away.

She did a fantastic job on On The Wings of the Morning and then she wrote the lyrics to a piece of music I had and we ended up with I Wish You Well, which is one of my favourite things we have ever done with Monks Road.

I just love working with great singers like Belle, Sulene, Romy, who is Matt Deighton’s daughter, Ximena and Angelina. It’s such a joy.

Were there any songs on this record that were left over from the previous sessions for the other Monks Road Social albums?

DR: Well, Step By Step emerged out of an remix of I Ain’t Running Anymore, and we had plenty left over from this session too – enough for another album to be honest.

Mick Talbot and Matt Deighton (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

Egyptian Magic is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it?

DR: Matt Deighton and I share a love of Tyrannosaurus Rex – the era when Steve Peregrin Took was still with Bolan, but just before he left. Songs like Once Upon The Seas Of Abyssinia and Blessed Wild Apple Girl – all that stuff.

Egyptian Magic was inspired by a tub of hair product that my wife ordered from duty free on a plane! The lyric is a true story, which is unusual for me. Matt is a great player and does amazing harmonies. It’s pretty effortless between us. We hope to do an album one day.

Another of my favourite songs on the record is On The Wings of the Morning. It has some cool, funky ‘70s flute on it…

DR: Jacko Peake played the flute. He’s amazing and was in Push with Crispin Taylor and Ernie McKone, so there was a natural bond there already. I knew Jacko from my time playing with Paul Weller too, so it’s an old friendship.

I’m happy that On The Wings of the Morning turned out that way. I don’t think anybody in the country could play that groove like Crispin and Ernie. They are the best.

The first single, If I Could Pray, was written by actor Peter Capaldi – he also sings vocals and plays acoustic guitar on it. How did that collaboration come about?

DR: I met Peter a few years ago, as he comes to the valley in the summer, with his family. We started to play acoustic together at a friend’s party and our friendship grew out of that.

He was hanging out at the studio and then one day his wife, Elaine, mentioned he had a song. I was thrilled and we did it really quickly, which is always a good sign. He’s a natural – very unaffected.

What was it like for Dr. Robert to work with Doctor Who? So many doctors in the house…

DR: Although he’s obviously well known as an actor,  Peter actually started out doing music, so there was nothing forced. He’s a delight to work with and very funny too.

Peter Capaldi and Dr. Robert (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

The song  Said Too Much is a great funk-soul-jazz track – the trumpet, which is played by Juan Carlos Camacho, is fantastic. Where did that song come from? What was the inspiration for it?

DR: Words that cut too deep – spoken out loud in drunken rages. Those days are behind me now – thank fuck! I love that trumpet too – it’s so Spanish. He gently seduces you.

Is Apricot Glow a Matt Deighton song? It’s gorgeous…

DR: Yes – that’s a lovely Matt Deighton composition. We double tracked his vocal and it really seems to suit the song. It’s a fragile beauty.

Any favourite tracks from the album? You mentioned I Wish You Well earlier…

DR: Well, it changes, but I love Sequiso, featuring Funk From Mali – it’s a proper groove. And, as I said, I Wish You Well is a personal fave. City Lights, too, with Neil Jones from Stone Foundation. I get to play bass on his tunes, which is one of my favourite things to do. That song has a great forward momentum and his girlfriend, Celia Carballo, sings really well on it too. Mick Talbot weaved his usual magic on it.

Mick Talbot (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

I managed to record a solo track with Mick when he was just warming up – New Arrivals. He was just sound checking my cheap car boot Casio and came up with this amazing piece. I asked him if it was okay to use it, as he wasn’t aware we had recorded it!

You said you had material left over from the sessions. Is there another Monks Road Social album planned?

DR: Yes.We have enough recorded material for a whole new album. It’s up to Richard how he wants to use it.

You were due to play the first Monks Road Social gig at the Jazz Café, in London, this May. Has it been rescheduled and what can we expect from the live show?

DR: It’s been rescheduled for August 25, but that may be optimistic – let’s see. If we have to delay it again, we will. It’s going to be fun – chaotic and possibly messy, but fun. There’s nothing else like it really.

The Blow Monkeys

There’s a new Blow Monkeys album due, too…

DR: Yes – it will be out early next year and will be crowdfunded, hopefully.

What music – new and old – are you listening to at the moment? What’s your lockdown soundtrack?

DR: I’ve been writing lots, so don’t tend to listen to too much, but that Nick Cave album, Ghosteen, is astonishing, and Paul Weller sent me his latest one, On Sunset, which is very special.

Other than that, just a drop of Fred Neil and a pinch of Van Morrison. Oh and the new Dylan single [Murder Most Foul] – all 17 minutes of it. Marvellous.

What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?

DR: Seeing my family.

 

Humanism by Monks Road Social is released on April 17 (Monks Road Records). 

http://monksroadsocial.com/

https://www.theblowmonkeys.com/

For more information on crowdfunding the new Blow Monkeys album, click here.

‘The gold dust is in the groove…’

Dr. Robert

Is there a doctor in the house? There is, actually – it’s Dr. Robert from pop-soulsters The Blow Monkeys, but, this time around, he’s here to tell us about his latest project, masterminding the loose, musical collective that’s Monks Road Social, who’ve made two of the most diverse and richly rewarding albums of 2019…

Down The Willows and Out Of Bounds, the two albums released this year by the Monks Road Social collective, headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert, have been on the Say It With Garage Flowers office hi-fi a hell of a lot over the past few weeks.

Recorded over two 10-day sessions in the residential Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth, Wales, the records are two of the most eclectic collections of songs we’ve ever heard – from jazzy comedown ballads to Balearic beats, to soul, psych-rock, folk, drum and bass, country, blues, indie-rock and funk, they’re a melting pot of musical ideas and feature a seriously impressive line-up of guests.

Over the two albums, Dr. Robert’s collaborators include – wait for it, take a deep breath… singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams; Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis; keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council; drummer Steve White (The Style Council and Paul Weller); UK blues singer Angelina; Dick Taylor of ‘60s rockers The Pretty Things; Northern Irish artist Pat Dam Smyth; Brand New Heavies vocalist Sulene Fleming; London-based singer Samantha Whates; Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation; Mancunian crooner Nev Cottee; orchestral arranger Ben Trigg (Richard Ashcroft and Dexys Midnight Runners) and percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk – to name but a few…

Dr. Robert oversaw the production of the albums and was also responsible for writing – and co-writing – many of the tracks, some of which are new versions of songs that have appeared on his solo albums, while others were penned especially for the project, or brought to the table by those involved.

Say It With Garage Flowers got an appointment with Dr. Robert, who lives in Spain, and asked him to tell us the inside story of the Monks Road Social sessions…

Q&A

How did the Monks Road Social project come about? Was it your idea?

Dr. Robert: It’s the brainchild of Richard Clarke, the owner of Monks Road Records. I am but a humble midwife. He asked me if I thought it would work. I said ‘no’, but, then, as usual, I slept on it and changed my mind.

I wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was, but, as we began to assemble the players, something else kicked in and we were drawn together by intrigue and a mutual love of playing music for its own sake. That bit was important – there has to be joy and a spark – the gold dust is in the groove…

Both of the albums are very eclectic – there’s folk, soul, blues-rock, psych, Balearic beats, pop, drum and bass… Was the idea to put everything into a melting pot and see what came out, or did you have a definite plan?

DR: No plan. Just let the music lead you. You can’t go wrong, as long as the intention is right. Music for its own sake – then let the universe decide.

Crispin Taylor [assistant producer and drummer – Galliano] plays a vital role in all this, too. He lays down a phenomenal groove, which is a great place to start, but he’s also more than that. I’m always bouncing ideas to and fro with him – he has great instincts.

Monks Road Social (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke)

You’ve worked with a lot of musicians on the project. How did you choose who to collaborate with?

DR: I had a core of friends in mind that I knew would work – people I knew I could get first takes from and who were prepared to wade in a little deeper than was comfortable: Crispin,  Mick Talbot, Ernie McKone [bass player Galliano] and Jacko Peake [saxophonist].

Steve Sidelnyk used to play with The Blow Monkeys, before going on to bigger things, and then there was the masterful Steve White, who I’ve known and worked with many times over the years, and the fabulous Matt Deighton, who I barely knew, but became great friends with.

They are all friends and brilliant musicians. And then I got to meet and work with so much exciting new talent, which I love the most. It shouldn’t work, but it does, as long as everyone buys into the collective idea and lets the music lead them.

How were the recording sessions for both of the albums?

DR: We recorded both albums in separate 10-day sessions in Monnow Valley Studios, down in Monmouth. They were pretty intense sessions, but since my only vice these days is coffee, I was up for it!

Matt Deighton in the studio (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke)

There was lots of laughter. Matt Deighton, in particular, is a hoot, and Mick Talbot is a master of the understatement and a fount of knowledge. My main concern was to keep things flowing – there were so many songs and artists in such a short period.

I did quite a bit of preparation beforehand, because I knew it would be crazy, and, if I didn’t have a plan, it could have all gone a bit Pete Tong…

‘They were pretty intense sessions, but since my only vice these days is coffee, I was up for it!’

There’s a mixture of new versions of old songs, including some written by you, as well as brand new material. How did you choose which songs made the final cut?

DR: Well, if I’m honest, one of the things that initially attracted me was the idea of having different singers try my songs, as well as other people’s.

I would talk through the selection with Richard and in the end it was about instinct. Matt brought some great material to the sessions and then people like Pat Dam Smyth and Angelina have their own distinctive writing styles.

Miles Copeland from [record label] Wonderfulsound got involved too, with his unique perspective and his trusty Omnichord.

Is it strange effectively masterminding new versions of your songs and having them reinvented and reinterpreted? Do you enjoy it?

DR: I love it. I always thought Stone Foundation would be perfect for The Coming Of Grace and it was a thrill to hear a song like This Is Nowhere come to life with the beautiful voice of Samantha Whates. It’s the same with Sycamore Tree – Angelina was born to sing that song!

As for OK! Have It Your Way, Sulene Fleming tore it up! Like some lost Northern Soul classic. She also did an amazing job on Bottomless Pit, which takes a certain sensitivity to sing. She has such a range.

Also, I’ve got to mention Kathryn Williams, who popped in for a couple of days. She’s such a genuine person and a great songwriter. It was lovely to sing with her on I Ain’t Running Anymore.

Mick Talbot in the studio (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke)

Do you have some favourite songs from the project?

DR: I was knocked out by the version of Lost In Rasa we did. Ben Trigg, who does the strings, is a genius and Matt’s lead guitar on that track is magical. Golden Day, too, with Angelina…what a voice.

From the new album [Out of Bounds], it’s If It Was All Down To Me from Hague & White – I love Joel’s voice. Also, Honey Rise by Romy Deighton – a neo-soul classic. Matt’s daughter is an amazing young talent. But, honestly, my favourite changes every day. The diversity on the albums is a strength, not a weakness.

Nev Cottee is someone I’ve written about a lot – he’s a great singer-songwriter and a brilliant vocalist. How was he to work with? Can you tell me more about the two songs he sings lead vocals on: Still Got A Lot To Learn and Nobody Knows Anything? They’re two of my favourites from the sessions…

DR: Nev is a bit of a mystery to me. He ghosted in one day to sing on Still Got A Lot To Learn and did an amazing job, so I wrote Nobody Knows Anything with his baritone voice in mind.

He sang it remotely from some distant island in the Indian Ocean, apparently… at least I like to think so… Again, he did a fantastic job. His voice is a wonder – people will make comparisons, but he’s unique and it’s from his heart.

Angelina is another great singer and songwriter…

DR: She was a real light around the place and she makes fantastic cakes, too! I just love her voice – it’s like an Appalachian blues-country singer, from China, via the Isle of Wight.

We bonded over a love of blues and we could sit and jam on two acoustic guitars all day. In fact, we plan to one day soon and record the results.

The Coming Of Grace is one of my favourite songs of yours? Can you tell me more about it? How was it to tackle it again, with Stone Foundation?

DR: I wrote it back in 1993, when Michele [my wife] and I and our two very young kids left London to live in a remote hamlet in Oxfordshire called Newbottle. It was an appropriate name, as I was drinking too much.

The song was originally called Dylan Thomas In Reverse, as I wanted to play with his ‘rage against the dying of the light’ line.

I was out of my depth, really, but somewhere in my subconscious I knew that the ego-driven destiny would lead me up the garden path. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn.

I love So Long Soho, from Down The Willows. It sounds like the best song Ray Davies never wrote…

DR: It was written by the wonderful and very talented Pat Dam Smyth and was a piano demo he had that we all added to.

Crispin did an amazing job playing drums over the original demo. Lyrically, it’s brilliant. You’re right about the Ray Davies influence, but it’s way beyond pastiche – it’s heartfelt and special.

Is there another Monks Road Social album in the offing? Volume Three?

DR: Yes – I’m just mixing it now and it’s a corker. It was recorded here in Spain at my friend Youth’s studio, at the height of the Andalusian summer. I can’t say too much yet, but there are some major surprises on it.

‘Brexit was an emotional response and I get it, although I disagree vehemently with it. The retreat to nationalism is depressing and we have to fight it’

As a producer, who else would you like to work with – and why? 

DR: Tom Waits. I’d just look and learn.

Dr. Robert (picture by Michele Siedner)

So what’s next for you? Have you got another solo record planned, or a new Blow Monkeys album?

DR: A Blow Monkeys album, I think. I’m in the mood and I still love playing live with the band – it’s the best thing about it all.

Earlier this year, you released the Cosmic Mayhem EP, which was made up of songs you’d written and played on a vintage Casiotone keyboard. Will you be firing up the instrument again anytime soon?

DR: I may sneak out a Casiotone part two EP, as I enjoyed it so much. I’m lucky – I can do whatever I like right now.

As someone who lives in Spain, and who’s written political songs, what’s your take on Brexit?

DR: Brexit was an emotional response and I get it, although I disagree vehemently with it. The real problem was years of neglect and austerity – not Europe or immigration. The retreat to nationalism is depressing and we have to fight it.

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

DR: Sons Of Kemet blow me away. I’m rather keen on Sarah Vaughan, too.

 

The Monks Road Social albums Down The Willows (Wonderfulsound) and Out Of Bounds (Monks Road Records) are out now.

For more information:

https://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/down-the-willows 

http://monksroadsocial.com/