‘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 my favourite album 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Albums of 2014

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This year’s Say It With Garage Flowers number one album can be easily filed alongside Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker as one of the greatest breakup records of all time.

Broken Heart Surgery by singer-songwriter Pete Fijalkowski (Adorable and Polak) and guitarist Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) is intimate and stripped-down, with nods to Johnny Cash, Spiritualized, John Barry and The Velvet Underground. A raw, deeply personal, melancholy album, it documents the breakup of a relationship and the aftermath, but is shot through with plenty of gallows humour and deadpan wit. 

On the record, there are several lyrical references to material possessions – leaving them behind, or being saddled with someone’s else’s old stuff. There’s a lot of emotional baggage involved, but also a lot of physical baggage, too… There are some brilliant lyrics on the album – some of which made me laugh out loud when I first heard them. For example, “Hope – it’s more addictive than coke. Yeah – it’s cupid’s cruel joke…” (Betty Ford) and  “[she] just left me with cutlery and a whole pile of her duff CDs…” (Queen of Stuff).

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When I spoke to Pete earlier this year, he told me: “I wanted the album to reflect the various aspects of a breakup, so while some of the subject matters are taking place more in the head, there are others that have a very physical location and an obsession with small details – the division of objects between a couple (Breaking Up), the forgotten objects left behind in a now half-empty flat (Queen of Stuff) or the changing soundtrack to a couple’s life as their relationship deteriorates – from furtive whispers and kisses, to slamming doors and uneasy silences (Sound of Love).”

Asked what he wanted to achieve with the album, Pete said: “First and foremost, I wanted to make an album that I was proud of.”

Rest assured, he can hold his head up high – it’s a stone cold classic.

While we’re on the subject of masters in melancholy, Morrissey made a welcome return this year with World Peace Is None Of Your Business – his first album in five years. His best long-player since 1994’s Vauxhall & I, it was a glorious comeback record, with epic ballads (I’m Not A Man, Mountjoy), unabashed pop songs (Staircase At The University, Kiss Me A Lot, The Bullfighter Dies ) and lavish, exotic arrangements, including mariachi brass, strings and flamenco guitar.

Alas, due to a dispute with his record label, Harvest, the album is currently not available on Spotify or iTunes, so, instead, here’s a YouTube clip of the mighty Staircase At The University…

Other notable 2014 albums included Fair Warning by folk-rockers The Rails; Charade – the debut album from LA-based country singer Meg Olsen; A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye by San Fran garage-psychers Cool Ghouls ; Phantom Radio by the Mark Lanegan Band, which explored dark, electronic territory; The Breaks by former Boo Radley Martin Carr – gorgeous, lush guitar pop – and Alexandria by alt. country artist Chris Mills, which was his first album in five years and saw him team up with a new backing band – The Distant Stars.

Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt impressed with his solo album Hendra, which featured former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler on a poignant set of songs that, at times, recalled the legendary John Martyn, while Cherry Ghost’s latest record, Herd Runners, was a soundtrack for the lost and lonely, similar to Richard Hawley’s late night laments…

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Chris Mills

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention News From Nowhere – the ‘long-lost’ debut by ’90s Britpop band Speedy. Recorded in 1997, the album finally saw the light of day earlier this year and was well worth the wait. The band even reformed and played live for the occasion. 

I  played a small part in getting the album released – a 2009 blog I wrote about the record attracted some interest and one thing led to another…

Here’s a list of my favourite 30 albums of 2014 and a Spotify playlist to go with it. 

1) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers – Broken Heart Surgery

2) Morrissey – World Peace Is None of Your Business

3) The Rails – Fair Warning

4) Mark Lanegan Band – Phantom Radio

5) Martin Carr – The Breaks

6) The New Mendicants – Into The Lime

7) Chris Mills & The Distant Stars – Alexandria

8) Cherry Ghost – Herd Runners

9) Ben Watt – Hendra

10) Meg Olsen – Charade

11) Johnny Marr – Playland

12) Cool Ghouls – A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye

13) Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

14) The Delines – Colfax Avenue

15) Beck – Morning Phase

16) Speedy – News From Nowhere

17) Temples – Sun Structures

18) Cleaners From Venus – Return To Bohemia

19Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

20) Kings of The South Seas – Kings of The South Seas

21) Gallon Drunk – The Soul of the Hour

22) Len Price 3 – Nobody Knows

23) Little Barrie – Shadow

24) Tweedy – Sukirae

25) The Autumn Defense – Fifth

26) Neville Skelly – Carousel

27) Johnny Aries – Unbloomed

28) Pete Molinari – Theosophy

29) Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham

30) Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything