‘The Other Half could be a really interesting TV drama – like a country Pennies From Heaven’

MDC MARK

Husband and wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – have collaborated with best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham on a new album and live show called The Other Half.

Described as “a story of love, loss and murder told in words and music”, The Other Half  is set in a rundown Memphis bar, and centres on waitress Marcia – a former Las Vegas showgirl – and the tragic tales she encounters through her customers, who drown their sorrows in her work place.

Mark Billingham’s story was inspired by the songs of  My Darling Clementine – a band he discovered via this very blog, and then two new tracks were written as the project progressed.

The album features appearances by actor David Morrissey and musicians Graham Parker and The Brodsky Quartet.

I spoke to Michael Weston King to find out how The Other Half came about and his future plans for My Darling Clementine…

Had you heard of Mark Billingham before you collaborated on The Other Half and were you a fan of crime fiction?

Michael Weston King: I had certainly heard of Mark, but not read any of his books. I hasten to add that this was no reflection on Mark, just that I am not really a reader of crime fiction.

I read a couple of Ian Rankin’s books a couple of years ago, but that was mainly because they referenced my dear old friend Jackie Leven.

I was also due to do a gig with Ian, so thought I had better swot up, but, apart from that, the last time I really read any crime was in my late teens and early twenties, when I was on a severe Elmore Leonard kick.

How did your collaboration with Mark come about?

MWK: Well, I actually suggested it to Mark. I can’t recall if it was Mark who told me about the playlist in the back of his book The Bones Beneath [which featured a song by My Darling Clementine], or whether it was a promoter and friend in Stoke, called Craig Pickering, but it was certainly Craig who asked me if we had any thoughts about collaborating in the same way that Jackie Leven and Ian Rankin had done a few years before.

Craig was also a huge fan of Jackie’s and often promoted me and him together in and around the Stoke area.  I forwarded that suggestion on to Mark and that got the ball rolling. He said yes and we pencilled in a few shows.

A few months later, Mark came back with this fabulous story. That was hugely exciting and also very interesting, as it breathed new life into the songs, giving them a location and names to some of the characters that frequented them.

How was the recording process for The Other Half album?

MWK: We cut the narration in London, everyone together around mics, reading and playing the parts. It was just like The Archers! 

It was recorded at RNIB, where Mark records all his audio books, and it was done very quickly indeed – pretty much in one take.

Mark narrated and Lou, David Morrissey and Graham Parker all played various parts. My daughter, the actress Florence King, was also involved. She played two parts and it was a thrill to see her acting opposite someone of the stature of David Morrissey…. and very much holding her own.

After we had that down, I took the tapes up to Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield, where we cut our second My Darling Clementine album The Reconciliation? – and worked with producer Colin Elliot and guitarist Shez Sheridan [from Richard Hawley’s band].

Given that the live show of The Other Half  is just Lou, Mark and I – so, consequently, the songs are performed in a stripped down way, we decided we would record them like that too for the album, and also, so as to offer different versions / arrangements of some of the older songs.

This approach made a greater focus on the lyrics too, as they are very much part of the story. Colin and I also worked on some sound effects for certain scenes, which was really enjoyable. Prog country? No, honestly, it’s not…

As a touring country band, how does it feel playing with Mark and being part of a show that involves spoken word, as well as music?

MWK: It takes a little adapting, as it is very different from the usual My Darling Clementine show. We are used to being the sole focus of the audience’s attention – we are the ones doing all the interaction with the crowd.

When we first started doing the show, Lou and I were to be found, sitting and listening to the narration, and then coming to the mic to perform the songs. We were not interacting verbally with the audience in the usual way, but now, we have adapted it into two 45-minute performances.

Mark sets the evening up, explains what is going to happen, and then introduces us. We come on and play three or four songs to get the party started, which allows plenty of time for Lou to bemoan that she is married to me, and then we go into The Other Half.

 

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half
Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine perform The Other Half

 

How would you describe The Other Half?

MWK: I don’t know if you are familiar with Terry Allen. He’s a great Texan renaissance man – a compadre of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark – and he’s a piano player, rather than a guitarist, but he’s right up there.

He is also a playwright, an artist and a sculptor, and has made some fabulous albums, a number of which are short stories set to music – check out Juarez. That is how I see The Other Half – as an album/concept in that vein.

We also had a quote after one show which described it as: “part gig / part play/part storytelling – albeit storytelling influenced by Jim Jarmusch”.

I rather liked that.

Do you have plans to collaborate with Mark on any other projects? How about writing some songs together? That would be great…

MWK: Well, we collaborated on a song for The Other Half, the closing track, As Precious As The Flame, which I am really delighted with. It may even make it on to the next My Darling Clementine album, with a full band arrangement.

We have got a lot of songs in our back catalogue, so if Mark feels inspired to write another story around a series of them, then we would be delighted. Also, as we write new songs, if we feel they could lend themselves to any other projects he is involved in, then all well and good.

When I wrote Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel [from The Other Half], I just wrote it as a new song – not even necessarily one for My Darling Clementine. But as soon as it was written, it felt like it could be right for this project, and Mark agreed, so in it went.

Lou and I feel there is more that could be done with The Other Half, in terms of a treatment for TV or film. I think it could be a really interesting TV drama, like a country Pennies From Heaven.

So, when we can expect a new My Darling Clementine album?

MWK: I think we have all the songs written for the next album. There’s a pretty good squad so far and we also have an idea of where, and with whom, we will record it. We’re just working on the finances right now.

We are quite prepared to wait until we have got what we need to do it, exactly how we want.

The next album is very important for My Darling Clementine – it’s almost make or break in a way, so it needs to be right and given every chance of being a game changer. Musically, it may well be a bit more soul than country, but it will still be very much a duets album.

Lou has written three or four fabulous songs for it so far, and I am very excited about hearing how they will turn out.

Finally, as we’re talking about music and fiction, what are you currently listening to and reading?

MWK: This is what I am listening to and reading right now:

Music

O.V. Wright – The Soul of O.V. Wright

Memphis Minnie – Hoodoo Lady 1933-1937

Charlie Rich – Rollin’ With The Flo – RCA and Epic Country Hits

Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace

The Oxford American Southern Music CD – Tennessee

MWK: I should also recommend something new: Pete Williams – Roughnecks and Roustabouts. I am also getting to grips with David Corley – Available Light. He’s an American singer songwriter in his late forties, who has just released his debut album.

Books

Here Comes The Night (The Dark Soul of Bert Berns) – Joel Shelvin

Lost Highway – Peter Guralnick

Rhythm and the Blue – Jerry Wexler

A Man In Love – Karl Ove Knausgaard

Seeds Of Man – Woody Guthrie

MWK: And a fabulous book that I simply cannot put down called Time Of Death – by Mark Billingham!

 

To read an interview with the other half of  The Other Half, Mark Billingham, please click here.

 

For more information on The Other Half, My Darling Clementine and Mark Billingham, please visit:

http://www.theotherhalfshow.com/content/ 

http://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk

http://www.markbillingham.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blood on the tracks

Crime writer Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, includes a 40-song playlist intended to soundtrack a road trip that occurs in the book. I spoke to him about his love of country music, Elvis Costello and Morrissey and what makes the perfect pop song…

Mark Billingham: ©Charlie Hopkinson
Mark Billingham: © Charlie Hopkinson

“Country music is perfect for crime fiction – the stories are so dark, but also beautiful and entertaining,” says Mark Billingham, sipping a pint of lager in his favourite North London pub, The Spread Eagle, in Camden.

I’ve lured one of the UK’s top crime writers here to talk about his brand new book, The Bones Beneath, which is the twelfth novel in the bestselling Tom Thorne series – but also to quiz him on his love of music.

And quiz him I will, because he’s no stranger to having his music knowledge tested. In the last few months he’s won TV’s Celebrity Mastermind – his specialist subject was Elvis Costello – and triumphed on the game show Pointless Celebrities. He scored a pointless answer thanks to his knowledge of 1970s Elton John album tracks. But more about that later…

Mark – like his fictional creation Tom Thorne – loves country music, both dark and cheesy, although, as he is quick to point out, he hates Garth Brooks. Their mutual taste in music has manifested itself in a 40-song playlist, which is included in the hardback version of The Bones Beneath – published by Little, Brown on May 22. The list also includes explanations as to why each particular song was chosen.

The Bones Beneath

The Bones Beneath sees Thorne coming up against his old nemesis, serial killer Stuart Nicklin, and is partly set on a remote, windswept Welsh island that harbours some dark secrets. The first section of the book is a long road trip, which involves a six-hour drive, as Mark explains: 

“At one point, early on, the character Holland says to Thorne, ‘what are we going to be listening to?’ They joke about it – Thorne says that he’s got a Hank Williams playlist that will last all the way there. However, ‘stuff ‘ happens and they never get to listen to anything. Thorne would’ve had the playlist ready – obviously – so I just put it in at the end of the book, as a bonus for people who buy the hardback. It gave me a chance to include some of my favourite music and to talk about it.

“There were certain artists that were always going to be on there  – Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams – but I also wanted to put a few newer people on it, who maybe Thorne doesn’t listen to yet. So, I had to have some Richmond Fontaine and My Darling Clementine on there.

“The playlist is Thorne’s, it’s not mine, but a lot of those songs would also be in my list of my 40 favourite songs – He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones and Galveston by Glen Campbell – but I’d also have God Only Knows by  The Beach Boys and any number of songs by Elvis Costello, The Smiths and The Beatles, who are bands I grew up with. I’m still inordinately fond of every piece of music that meant something to me from the age of 13. The stuff I listen to now tends to be country, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for Slade, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Morrissey.

“I went from glam rock – I was watching it on Top Of The Pops when I was 12 – to prog. I was probably the world’s biggest Genesis fan…and then I got into punk, although it wasn’t an overnight thing. It wasn’t like I threw away all my Yes albums when the first Clash album came out!

“I went to see Television, supported by Blondie, at the Birmingham Odeon. That was a massive moment for me. From then on, I was into the tail end of punk…by the time punk reached Birmingham [where I grew up], everyone was already into post-punk. When I heard the first Elvis Costello album, I left prog behind, but it wasn’t always easy. I once got beaten up in Birmingham by two blokes and their girlfriends for wearing skinny jeans…”

I’d like to ask you about My Darling Clementine – a contemporary country act that we both love. You first got into them by reading an interview with them on my blog, didn’t you?

Mark Billingham: Yeah – you turned me on to them. They [husband and wife duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish] are the modern George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They’re a married couple and they’re both fantastic singers and brilliant songwriters. They have an incredible chemistry and they put on a fantastic show. They’re just a kick-ass band – one of the best country acts I’ve ever seen. I’ve put 100,000 Words by My Darling Clementine on the playlist – it was the first song of theirs that I heard. I’ve always been a big fan of country duets.

One of  My Darling Clementine’s big influences is Elvis Costello. Wasn’t it Costello’s 1981 album Almost Blue – a record of country cover versions recorded in Nashville – that first got you into country music?

MB: Exactly – it completely opened my eyes. That album was massively important for me. I was vaguely aware of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, but when I first heard  Almost Blue, I became a true believer. I bought it because I was a Costello fan, but it completely turned me on to country music and I think I’m right in saying it did the same for Michael and Lou from My Darling Clementine.It’s the reason that the playlist in the book finishes with Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do?) which is the first track on Almost Blue.

 

 

You’re also a big fan of  The Smiths and Morrissey, aren’t you?

MB: I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard This Charming Man. I had some speakers rigged up in the bathroom of my student flat and I connected them to a radio. I used to listen to John Peel in the bath. It was me that was in the bath, rather than John Peel. I can remember having one foot in the bath and one foot out of it when he played This Charming Man – I thought, ‘what the fuck is this?’ I went out the next morning and bought the first Smiths album. It absolutely changed everything – I adored The Smiths and I always will. I’m still a massive Morrissey fan, though I don’t think I’d want to meet him – I’ve heard a few stories about him…well, it’s all there in his book. The world needs Morrissey – I think he’s unique. He’s as good a lyricist now as he’s ever been. I saw The Smiths at a GLC gig [Jobs For A Change festival – County Hall, London, 1984] and can remember it vividly. They were incredible…

Have great lyricists like Costello and Morrissey influenced you as a writer?

MB: I’ve actually written a short story about Costello and Morrissey, and maybe one day I’ll find a home for it. It’s about them meeting at Heathrow airport on the day that Thatcher dies. They’re trying to get out of the country because they’re being hounded by the press for quotes because they wrote Tramp The Dirt Down [Costello] and Margaret On The Guillotine [Morrissey]. They’re just sitting there in the airport lounge. Actually, I don’t refer to them by name, I just call them The Hat and The Quiff – and they’re having a slightly awkward conversation about anger and notoriety, with Morrissey complaining about the tea…

What is it about crime writers and music? Some of your contemporaries, like Ian Rankin, who writes the Rebus novels, and Peter Robinson, who created Inspector Banks, also fill their books with music references. Music is very important to the central characters in those books, as well as to the authors themselves…

MB: I think it’s a particularly male thing. There was a radio show called Music To Die For a few years back, which was about crime writers and music. Ian Rankin presented it and it featured the likes of me, John Harvey and American writers like George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly. It was really hard to find female crime writers who used music quite so much [as men do] in their books. There’s that kind of slightly tragic, sad, male thing going on. When male crime writers get together, they give each other compilation CDs! We don’t talk about books – we talk about music, almost exclusively. We can sit and talk for hours.

It’s a lot of fun hanging out with crime writers – it’s like being a member of a really cool gang. Somebody once described crime writers as being the smokers of the literary community – ever so slightly on the outside. They’re naughty, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves.

So many crime writers are basically frustrated musicians and the love of music that’s there in their books is not just a gimmick. Ian Rankin does genuinely adore Mogwai and The Rolling Stones and Peter Robinson loves the music he writes about. I’m equally passionate about country music. It’s great, because it means I can get characters to take the piss out of Thorne [for his country music taste]. I get the piss taken out of me too, but I’m not ashamed to say that I also really love the cheesy country stuff, too. He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones is consistently voted the best country song of all time and I’m not arguing. It’s got everything – a cheesy choir, a voiceover – Billy Sherrill [producer and arranger] basically threw the kitchen sink at it. It’s a fantastic story, with a brilliant twist. It breaks your heart…

 

 

Have you been on Desert Island Discs? 

MB: No, but I’ve been on several shows like it, and strangely, one of the songs I always pick is I Did What I Did For Maria  by  Tony Christie. It’s about someone who is about to be executed for killing the man who raped and murdered his wife. A nice, cheery pop song. It was actually the first single I ever bought – I must have been 12  or something like that. Maybe I liked it because of his voice or the horns, but the truth is it’s a really dark story. It’s weird that it was the first song that I wanted to go out and buy with my own money.

Maybe that’s what started off your interest in crime stories and dark tales….

MB: I’ve always loved story songs, like Ode To Billie Joe by Bobby Gentry. That’s another fantastic story hidden behind a gorgeous melody. I listen to music for pleasure – not necessarily to hear interesting chord progressions. Does the song do something to me?

He Stopped Loving Her Today makes me cry. Honey by Bobby Goldsboro –which is one of the cheesiest songs of all time – makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t explain it.

Books and films and plays have moved me, but nothing can affect me like the perfect three-minute pop song – like God Only Knows by The Beach Boys. They have the power that some literature or films simply don’t have. Whether it’s Wichita Lineman, I Want You or There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – they’re all twisted love songs and they’re all on my list [of favourite pop songs]. If you can write the perfect pop song… It’s like writing a wonderful short story. I think that a great short story is better than a good novel. If I had the choice of writing an opera that people would still be performing in 100 years’ time, or the greatest pop song ever written, I’d go for the pop song every time.

Would you like to write song lyrics?

MB: Oh god, yes. I’d love to. That’s the dream – Costello phones me up and says, ‘I’ve got this tune, but I can’t write any lyrics for it’.  Like that’s ever going to happen…

Elvis Costello and Mark Billingham (left to right).
Elvis Costello and Mark Billingham (left to right).

You’re a big Nick Lowe fan, aren’t you?

MB: Nick Lowe is awesome – he’s a master class in elegance – a quite brilliant songwriter. Lyrics like, ‘That untouched takeaway, I brought back the other day, has quite a lot to say’ – from his song Lately I’ve Let Things Slide. It’s just perfect.

What new music artists are you into? Have you bought any records by new bands recently?

MB: Well, I tend to wander round Fopp for an hour and just end up coming out with old stuff – some of which I’ve already got on cassette and vinyl. I must have every Costello album in six different versions…

What’s your favourite album of all time?

MB: If you made me pick one now it would probably be Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello. If I could only take one album out of a burning house it would be that. I think Costello is the finest singer-songwriter of his generation, bar none.

You like The Beatles, too, don’t you?

MB: I’m a massive Beatles fan. How can you not be? Whenever I meet people who say they hate The Beatles, I want to slap them! Even if you don’t like what they were doing in ’62 or ’63, you’ve got to like Rubber Soul and Revolver! There’s never been another band in history that has progressed quite so much in five years. They were incredible – they turned the world upside down, like no other band has ever done. I’m actually working with someone right now who professes not to like The Beatles at all. He knows who he is!

Are you a Bob Dylan fan?

MB: I’m a Dylan fan, but I’m not a Dylan obsessive. For me, I can do with four or five of his albums – Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, Desire.… There are a few other artists who I feel like that about – Tom Waits, Neil Young… Their back catalogues are so huge and too daunting. I’m much more excited about finding a band like My Darling Clementine [who’ve only had two albums out] – I’m in on the ground floor. And in five years’ time, when they’re massive, I can get quite cross about it. Tell people I was there at the beginning…

You’ve recently been showing off your superb music knowledge on the TV shows Celebrity Mastermind and Pointless Celebrities…. You won both of them.

MB: I’ve been a shameless whore. The sad truth is that I just love quizzes. Anything where there’s a buzzer involved, I go mental. On Pointless, it was a magical moment. Up came ‘Elton John albums’ and I leant across to my partner and I said, ‘I’ve got this’. I grew up with those albums and I had them all. I knew every track on them. I like doing music quizzes and I love setting them. If I’m on a long road trip with a friend, we’ll make huge playlists and play beat the intro. I have no life…

Maybe you could have incorporated a music quiz into The Bones Beneath?

MB: Actually, I would have loved to have made the playlist into a CD, but it’s a logistical nightmare. I’ve used song lyrics in my books a couple of times. In my first book, I used a lyric from Costello’s Radio Sweetheart – I had to pay for that. Like Elvis hasn’t had enough of my money over the years! Morrissey let me use lyrics from Bigmouth Strikes Again for free – good old Mozza. But most of the time it’s very tricky, so I try to avoid it where I can

So, what’s next for Mark Billingham?

MB: I’m doing a secret book, but I can’t say very much about it. I’ve written it with three other people – the crime writers Martyn Waites and Stav Sherez and the comedy writer and music journalist David Quantick. It’s a music book and there are some jokes in it. I can’t really say a lot more than that at the moment. I can say that we’ve all had enormous fun writing it…

Are you working on a new Thorne novel?

MB: I’m halfway through a new Thorne book – it will be out a year from now. I’ll finish that in September – hopefully – and it will come out in May 2015.

Do you think certain members of the literary community look down on crime writers?

MB: Well, there’s occasionally that slight element of literary snobbery, but sometimes it goes both ways and I think the lines between the two genres are becoming increasingly blurred. It’s fine by me – I’m very happy to be a crime writer. I don’t have pretensions to be anything else. I’m never going to deny that I’m a crime writer, in the way that some people do, even though their books are full of murder. The ones who claim to feel constrained by the conventions of crime fiction or say that they’re ‘transcending the genre’. We all want to push the boundaries, but it doesn’t need ‘transcending’. If you don’t want to write it, fuck off and do something else. No one’s putting a gun to your head…

Here’s a Mark Billingham inspired Spotify playlist

Mark Billingham’s latest novel, The Bones Beneath, is out on May 22. It’s published by Little, Brown.

http://www.markbillingham.com