‘Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think these lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written’

The Hanging Stars

The last time I spoke to London’s kings of cosmic country, The Hanging Stars, it was late January 2020 – ahead of the release of their third album, A New Kind Of Sky, which was their best to date – a mix of cinematic sounds, psych, jangle-pop, folk and country rock.

We spent the evening in a pub in London’s East End, chatting about the record. While I was getting a round in, a man standing at the bar, who told me he worked for the NHS, said he and his colleagues were very worried about a new virus that had originated from China…

It’s now over two years later, in early February, and I’m back in a London pub, this time on the edge of the West End, in Denmark Street – Tin Pan Alley and guitar-shopping destination –  with The Hanging Stars… well, one of them, frontman, Richard Olson.

We have a brand new album to discuss, the brilliant Hollow Heart, and it’s the first interview he’s given about the record.

Hollow Heart is even better than its predecessor and sees The Hanging Stars pushing themselves harder from both a songwriting and sonic perspective. It’s also the band’s first record on independent label, Loose.

There’s a lot that’s happened since we last met. We could be here a while…


The last time we spoke was two years ago, just before Covid happened…

Richard Olson: And here we are again, when the clouds have passed.

In the wake of Brexit, several of the lyrics on your last album, A New Kind Of Sky, dealt with the idea of escaping and getting away to a better place. To make your new record, Hollow Heart, you did escape, decamping to Edwyn Collins’ Clashnarrow Studios in Helmsdale, in The Highlands of Scotland – it overlooks the North Sea – with producer and musician Sean Read (Soulsavers, Dexys Midnight Runners), whom you’ve worked with before. How did that come about?

RO: We’re not blessed financially – we do what we can when we can. Every record has been based on that. At the end of the day, we’re a grassroots band.

Edwyn offered us the use of his studio – it felt like being anointed – and Sean is one of the two engineers who he lets work there – the stars aligned. That happened during the pandemic, so we had to find a window when we were allowed to do it. It was quite a project, transporting six people to Helmsdale, with a bunch of instruments.

“Edwyn Collins offered us the use of his studio – it felt like being anointed”

We drove in two cars and we set to work – we grafted and we were so focused. It was magical from start to finish. When you’re standing in the studio, and the sun’s setting over the bay, and you’re singing Weep & Whisper, that shit makes you think that you’ve made it! We got given this chance and we had to deliver the goods.

It certainly shows – sonically, it’s rich and immersive, and I think it’s your most cohesive record. Hollow Heart feels like a complete album, from start to finish, and you can completely lose yourself in it. Did you have all the songs written before you went into the studio?

RO: I write constantly. With lockdown, I had more time than I ever had before and I also had the energy – I just wanted to do shit. That was a blessing – we sent demos to each other.

This is probably the most traditional record we’ve ever done – in the sense that we had some songs, we went to the studio to finish them off and we had x amount of time to make the record.

It was good for us and it was a joy to see everybody flourish in the studio in their own way. It brought out what we’re good at. We also wanted to think about the sonics – Sean came into his own and we had so much fun doing it. This is a cliché but we threw the rulebook out of the window – we had to. We had so much fun doing it – we just let go a little bit and we had to trust who we were as a band.

“This is probably the most traditional record we’ve ever done”

Hollow Heart feels like a more positive record than its predecessor, but there’s also a sadness to several of the songs…

RO: It was surreal – no one knew what was going to happen – and there was a lot of sadness. Our default setting is fairly optimistic, but I think the lyrics are the darkest I’ve ever written.

Halfway through recording, in early autumn, I got a phone call from my wife – I was standing on a balcony, looking out towards Scandinavia – and she told me her dad, David, was in a coma, after having a heart attack. I said I would pack a bag and take the first flight home tomorrow, but she said: ‘There’s nothing you can do…’

David has really been behind our music – he’s a huge music fan and we went to Nashville together. My wife said: ‘Do you think he would want you to come back? Stay there and make the best fucking record you possibly can!’

That must’ve been hard for you…

It was really hard and pretty emotional, but from then on, we just set to work – under quite a lot of distress.

How is your father-in-law now?

RO: He’s fine.

Has he heard the record?

RO: No, he hasn’t…

If Covid hadn’t happened, would you have made a completely different record?

RO: That’s a great question. Do you know what? I’m going to give you a boring answer – it would probably have been a similar record, but I don’t think it would’ve been as close to my heart as this record is.

Your hollow heart…

RO: [laughs]. There you go.

This is your first record for Loose. Did you sign to them after you’d made this record, or before?

RO: After. We came in well-prepared with a lovely little gift for them with a knot on top.

Did you consider any other labels?

RO: Tom [Bridgewater – owner of Loose] said, ‘Let’s stop dancing around our handbags…’ He’s the real deal and he’s been through it – he sees our grassroots.

Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new record. The first track, Ava, is a slow- building love song, but then it turns anthemic. It creeps up on you and we’re suddenly in big cosmic country territory…

RO: It’s all about the sonics – it’s nice to listen to. Your children would like it. It was one of those songs that just came… it needed to have a wistful, wanting, rejected feeling.

Some of the album reminds me of your old band The See See, around the time of the Fountayne Mountain album, which I once said was the record The Stone Roses should’ve followed up their debut with…

RO: One hundred per cent. We let our influences be our influences – we let our country love be our country love, we let our folk love be our folk love… We took our foot off the gas a bit, which we needed to do. That’s quite key to this record.

Ballad Of Whatever May Be sounds like The Stone Roses, if they’d gone country…

RO: I’ll take that, man. It came out different to how it was written –  it changed in the studio, for the better. It has a good riff. It’s just one of those ‘live your life like this’ sort of songs. I’m not standing with a megaphone, screaming, but, holy fuck, I am so angry!

Black Light Night has some great jangly guitars on it. Didn’t Patrick (Ralla – guitar / keys) write the music for it?

RO: Yeah – it’s an old song that’s been kicking around for ages.

I think it has a vintage R.E.M feel…

RO: Yeah.

Weep & Whisper is more melancholy and musically it’s a shuffle – you’ve described it as ‘a love song to youth.’ I like the harmonies and the backing vocals. It has a Simon & Garfunkel feel…

RO: I like that. Paulie [Cobra drummer], harmony-wise, had a newfound confidence and he stepped up to do it, beautifully. It was arranged by Joe [Harvey-Whyte – pedal steel] – it’s a stroke of genius.

Patrick and Joe did their guitars for it in one take – it wasn’t edited. Me and Sean were sat looking at them doing it and we were like, ‘Shit – this is what it’s all about.’ That was one of the finest moments in my musical career.

“Radio On is Big-Star-meets-The-Velvets. What the fuck can go wrong?”

The first single from the album was Radio On, and it’s radio-friendly…

RO: Not as much as I would like! It’s me trying to write a soul song and I think it has a bit of a Velvet Underground thing. It’s Big-Star-meets-The-Velvets. What the fuck can go wrong?

Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart is one of the heavier, more psych songs on the album…

RO: It’s us trying to be Fairport Convention, but it started out as me trying to write a krautrock song my demo had a drum machine on it. I was quite pleased with it – it was chugging along like a kraut-yacht-rock band, but Patrick had a different idea.

It’s a dark song…

RO: Yeah, but it’s also one of the most truthful ones. It’s about hiding things, whether that’s with alcohol or downers, or weed, or whatever. I think everyone in our scene is a little bit guilty of that. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but even before the pandemic, more people were struggling and in the abyss more than we’d like to acknowledge. I’m not the only one, but I did get a little glimpse of that shit, and, do you know what? I do not want to go there again and I’d do anything to avoid it.

“I’m really pleased with how I sing on this record. I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory”

You’re So Free is ’60s West Coast psych-pop: Love, The Doors, The Beach Boys, The Turtles…

RO: I always wanted to do You Showed Me – I guess that’s our version. It also has some piano on it that’s like Ethiopian jazz. Lyrically, it’s probably the song that I’m most pleased with. Because of the whole division thing, with Brexit and Trump, a lot of my good friends, who I love dearly, took a different route during the pandemic. It’s a little bit about that and it’s me trying to be funny: “Scroll your feed. You’re so free to believe in what you see…”

Your vocals sound really good on this album…

RO: I’m really pleased with how I sing on this record. I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory.

Edywn guests on Rainbows In Windows – he does a spoken word part…

RO: That’s Sam’s [Ferman – bass] song he wrote it.

It’s quite filmic…

RO: I’m really pleased with how it came out. I felt we could do it a Jackson C. Frank kind of way, but then, on the way up to the studio, I thought we could do it like The Gift by The Velvet Underground,  but it didn’t quite work out that way, but then Sean was mixing it in London and he came up with the other bit, and Edwyn was up for it. It’s playful.

“I am the natural heir to Jason Pierce, but I’m a country version”

I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore is ’60s-garage-meets-The-Byrds…

RO: We went all-out 12-string on it. It’s a bit Flying Burritos as well. It’s a song about being completely helpless in front of the Tory government someone who’s dead talking about what they really would’ve liked to have said: “Now I’m gone, I can tell you my thoughts on the queen and crown. Do take heed of your greed, as you choke on an appleseed.” 

The last song on the album, Red Autumn Leaf, is a sad one it’s about being discarded and tossed on the heap…

RO: Pretty much. It’s Spiritualized gone country. I am the natural heir to Jason Pierce, but I’m a country version. I pretty much based my whole career on Lazer Guided Melodies – it’s magical.

A lot of your new songs have a sad undercurrent, but the music is very uplifting…

RO: That makes me so happy to hear that.

Do you think Hollow Heart is your best record?

RO: Of course it is. You wouldn’t be making records otherwise… With this album, we had to be The Hanging Stars and I think we did a pretty damned good job of it.

Hollow Heart is released on March 25 (Loose).




Imposter Syndrome

Dave Gahan & Soulsavers. Photo: Spencer Ostrander

Say It With Garage Flowers has chosen our favourite album of 2021 , and, shock, horror, it’s a covers record: Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers.

Not only that, but we’ve also got an exclusive interview with Rich Machin  – aka Soulsavers  – on the making of the album. This isn’t fake news – Imposter is for real.

“It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original versions,” says Machin. “It was a good, fun excuse to dig through my record collection.”

For the first time since we started publishing, Say It With Garage Flowers has chosen a covers record as our favourite album of the year.

But it’s not just any old covers record – it’s one of the best we’ve ever heard: Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers.

For their third album together, the Depeche Mode frontman and his musical partner, producer / engineer/ musician, Rich Machin, decided to work their black magic on other people’s songs, rather than write their own. Both of them came up with a long list of contenders and then narrowed them down to the final 12 that make up the record.

As I said when I reviewed the album for consumer magazine, Hi-Fi+ earlier this year, it’s an eclectic selection, with Gene Clark sitting alongside Charlie Chaplin, Cat Power, Dylan, Neil Young and Mark Lanegan, whom Soulsavers first collaborated with in 2007.

There’s a pretty faithful rendition of the shadowy, infidelity-themed, country-soul classic The Dark End of the Street, albeit with some gospel stylings; a gorgeous, hymnal take on Gene Clark’s Where My Love Lies Asleep; a version of the jazz standard, Smile, as sung by Charlie Chaplin and Nat King Cole, among others; Cat Power’s Metal Heart; PJ Harvey’s The Desperate Kingdom of Love; the urgent, raw,  trad blues-rock of Elmore James’s I Held My Baby Last Night, with squalling electric guitar, and a stunning and dramatic reading of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, with the rich orchestration of the original replaced by atmospheric piano and unsettling, spacey sound effects.

One of the highlights is a dynamic take on Dylan’s Not Dark Yet. Gahan and Soulsavers turn a stately twilight ballad into an altogether heavier beast. In fact, the majority of the songs on the record have been reinvented, which, of course, is the trick to making a great covers album. You have to bring something new to the party.

Writing in Hi-Fi +, I said many of the choices, which are often dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing. Married three times, he is a former drug addict – he overdosed on a lethal cocktail of heroin and cocaine at the Hollywood Sunset Marquis hotel in 1996 and spent at least six minutes clinically dead. He’s a man who’s seen some harrowing sights – so much so that he doesn’t just sing these songs, he lives them and inhabits them.

The title of the album may be Imposter, but Gahan was born to perform many of these compositions. In fact, talking about the record, he says: “When I listen to other people’s voices and songs –  more importantly the way they sing them and interpret the words – I feel at home. I identify with it. It comforts me more than anything else. There’s not one performer on the record who I haven’t been moved by.”

‘Many of the songs, which are dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing – he lives them and inhabits them’

The album was recorded with a 10-piece band at Rick Rubin’s famous Shangri-La studio in Malibu, California.

Musicians along for the ride included guitarist James Walbourne (The Rails and The Pretenders), keyboard player Sean Read (Dexys Midnight Runners, Edwyn Collins, Manic Street Preachers) on Hammond and piano, and Pornos For Pyros and Jane’s Addiction bassist, Martyn LeNoble.

Gahan says: “I know we made something special, and I hope other people feel that and it takes them on a little kind of trip – especially people who love music and have for years.”

He’s spot on. Imposter is the real deal. To get the full story behind the making of the record, I spoke to Rich Machin of Soulsavers.

“When I walked into the studio for the first time, I knew things were going to work, because there was an ambience,” he says.

“There was a vibe in the live room – it was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I had a good feeling…”


Why did you choose to make a covers album this time around?

Rich Machin: To be fair, Dave floated the idea by me – he called me up and said, ‘Would you consider doing it?’ I said, ‘Well – I’ve done covers before, but never a covers record – let me think about it and I’ll come back to you.’

I thought about it – I had a long mental checklist of tracks that I could cover. Once I had several ideas bubbling away in my brain, we talked about it and then spent a while exchanging ideas of what could work. We formed a long list and then whittled it down. It was a good, fun excuse to dig through my record collection.

It’s a really varied collection of songs. There’s some stuff that maybe you would expect to hear on there, but also some surprises, which makes it an exciting record…

RM: Out of curiosity, which are the ones you would expect to hear?

The Mark Lanegan song, Strange Religion, and the PJ Harvey track, The Desperate Kingdom of Love – I know Dave’s a fan of both artists and you’ve worked with Lanegan… To be honest, I was expecting there to be a Nick Cave cover on there, but there is a song by Roland S. Howard, from The Birthday Party – Shut Me Down…

RM: We did talk about a couple of Nick Cave ideas, but Roland S. Howard and the whole Birthday Party / Bad Seeds crew were as equally influential on us.

Shut Me Down is such a great track and it was nice to give a nod to one of the lesser-known people from that group – it came from the Cave world and it’s one of my favourite tracks on the record.

It’s great to have a Mark Lanegan track on the album, as your collaborations with him were how many people became aware of Soulsavers. It feels like you’ve come full circle by including one of his songs on the album…

RM: Mark Lanegan is one of my best friends – we speak three or four times a week. His presence is still heavily felt in what we do. At some point we’ll pick up where we left off.

The Dark End of the Street was the second single from the album. I love that song – especially the James Carr version – but your take on it is great, too… Was that one of your choices?

RM: Yeah – that was one of mine. I sat on it for a while because, to me, the James Carr version is so definitive – you don’t fuck with it!

We had a couple of other tracks in the mix that I felt the same way about, but Dave was pushing them – Lilac Wine and Always On My Mind. Willie Nelson’s version of Always On My Mind is the one, but people always think of Elvis’s…

With The Dark End of the Street, I thought, ‘fuck it – let’s try it and see where we go…’ and I was pleasantly surprised how it came out. I was more than happy to leave it on the shelf if we hadn’t done it justice.

‘I sat on The Dark End of the Street for a while because the James Carr version is so definitive – you don’t fuck with it!’

The version of Always On My Mind is brilliant. It closes the album, but you’ve resisted the urge to make it a Vegas-style showstopper – it’s stripped-down and understated, with gospel backing vocals and country guitar. The recording is very intimate – you can hear what sounds like the creaks from someone sitting on a seat…

RM: The only way for it to work was for it not to be overblown – it needed to be an intimate moment. We recorded the song live in the studio, on a Sunday night. Most people had left – there were just a couple of us left, and it had gone dark. We only had a couple of lights on – we wanted to capture the ambience of the room as much as the performance.

Most of what you can hear is the room mics. It makes you feel like you’re in the room with everybody performing – you can pick up all the creaks…

Your version of Dylan’s Not Dark Yet is superb – you’ve made it heavier, bluesier and much more dynamic than the original…

RM: It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original version. Dylan did it his way, which is the definitive version, but I could hear it differently – I played around with it. Lyrically it’s a very dark song and I was going for more of a raw, ‘60s fuzzy psych guitar feel – there’s no bass on it. I felt it really worked.

You worked with a 10-piece band on the album. Some of the arrangements have a full band sound, but there are plenty of stripped-down moments, like your dramatic version of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, which is shorn of the original’s string arrangements, but, instead, has piano and strange spacey sounds. A lot of the songs have plenty of room to breathe…

RM: It’s just as important to know when not to use people – just because it’s there, you don’t have to wave it around. You have all the tools to be able to do what you want, but the key to making something work intimately isn’t just to fill the space with everything you’ve got.

The space and the room – the silence and the quiet – on a record is just as important as the music. I was very conscious of that with a lot of the songs – it was about giving Dave’s voice room to really be the draw to what you’re listening to. The music is there to support the vocal.

‘The space and the room – the silence and the quiet – on a record is just as important as the music. I was very conscious of that with a lot of the songs’

This album was recorded with a full band at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio, in Malibu. Didn’t you make the previous Dave Gahan & Soulsavers albums by working remotely?

RM: Kind of… That bit gets overstated – we did spend a lot of time together making those records. It wasn’t as disconnected as it sometimes gets portrayed. We wrote the songs for those albums remotely, but it wasn’t like this record, where we had 10 people in the studio.

When did you make the album?

RM: We recorded it before Covid, in November 2019. The first I knew of Covid was in January 2020, when I was in my hotel room, mixing the record. I was watching the news and saw something was happening in China. Our main concern at the time was the Malibu fires.

How were the recording sessions at Shangri-La?

RM: Terrible! [laughs]. I’m certainly not averse to a month of California sun in November.

It’s an incredible studio. When we were talking about places to record, Dave was very drawn to the idea of recording in Los Angeles. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of recording in L.A – I felt like I wanted us to be out of the city. I didn’t want us to have any distractions – Malibu is pretty much the city limits and it’s got a very different vibe.

‘Shangri-La is an incredible studio. It was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I could set everybody up, with no separation, and just let it bleed, so it sounded like a band’

Rich Machin

I’ve known Rick a long time, so I dropped him a text on the off chance that he wouldn’t be using the studio in November and he wasn’t, so it lined up perfectly. I floated the idea by Dave and he said yes. We got there and it was amazing.

When I walked in there for the first time, I knew things were going to work, because there was an ambience.

There was a vibe in the live room – it was perfect for the way I wanted to make this record. I had a good feeling – I could set everybody up, with no separation, and just let it bleed, so it sounded like a band.

After a few days, the history of the place gets to you. Dylan’s old tour bus is still outside – the inside of it has been turned into a recording studio. It’s a 30-second walk to Zuma Beach, so you can go there and clear your head in the morning, then stroll back, plug in and play, and make some music in the afternoon.

How did you first start working with Dave?

In 2o09, Soulsavers spent about three months on the road, opening for Depeche Mode – we became friends on that tour. When it finished, we stayed in touch and it blossomed from that.

‘It’s weird – Imposter is a covers album, but Dave said it feels more personal to him than anything he’s written himself’

Dave sounds like he’s lived some of these songs – often the lyrics are very apt for some of the experiences he’s had…

RM: It’s weird – it’s a covers album, but Dave said it feels more personal to him than anything he’s written himself. Because of the way he relates to the lyrics, it’s as if he’s telling a story.

Dave Gahan. Photo: Spencer Ostrander

Anyone else you’d like to collaborate with?

RM: I’m working on a couple of new things for next year, with some new and old faces. I’d love to do something with Patti Smith – she’s someone that I deeply admire as a person, a writer and a musician. She’s such an interesting and deep character – she’d be top of my list.

What music – new and old –  have you been enjoying recently?

RM: I’m just going to look at a stack of albums next to my record player…  that’s a good starting point. I’ve got piles here – Brian Eno… Every once in a while I get really into him –  that’s definitely been a regular thing. The Harmonia album [with Eno] is on the top of the pile – it’s possibly my most listened to album of the past however many years. It’s had quite a few outings recently.

I’ve also been listening to the Heliocentrics records a lot – they put out two albums last year that were just amazing.

I was really slow to hear Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. For whatever reason, when it came out I didn’t tune into it. Recently, I’ve gone, ‘Oh – this is good…’

‘I’d love to do something with Patti Smith – I deeply admire her as a person, writer and musician’

Do you stream music or buy CDs, or are you a vinyl-only guy?

RM: I’m pretty much all vinyl, but I do have a Spotify account. With new music – I like a lot of electronic stuff – rather than drop 25 quid on the vinyl, I will listen to it once or twice on Spotify to see if it’s worth the investment. I really only listen to anything on vinyl for enjoyment. I’ve got my set-up in the living room – that’s how I listen to music.

Finally, are you glad you made a covers album?

RM: Yeah – I’ve got a lot of friends who’ve made covers albums and they always say they’re the most enjoyable records to make. I’d never really figured that out for myself before, but they’re right – it was a lot of fun.

Imposter by Dave Gahan and Soulsavers is out now on Columbia Records.