When lockdown first kicked in, PM Warson, had only just finished recording his debut album, True Story.
Faced with no gigs to promote it, once restrictions allowed, the UK soul-R’n’B-garage rock singer-songwriter went straight back into the studio – a small room in an industrial storage unit, in Stoke Newington, North East London – to work on a new record. The result is his second album, Dig Deep Repeat, a brilliant collection of raw and soulful songs, albeit with a harder edge to them than those on his debut.
Warson, who is 32, is in thrall to the classic sounds of Ray Charles and Booker T. and the M.Gs, but this time around he’s also paid homage to his love of ’60s pop music, like Phil Spector, as well as vintage garage-rock and the surf instrumentals of Dick Dale, Link Wray and Duane Eddy.
First single, the high-octane Leaving Here is a reworking of an early Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown song that’s been known on the R ‘n’ B scene for years, and covered by The Who, among others, but Warson takes it back to its soul roots while still keeping its garage-rock credentials intact.
Game of Chance and Out of Mind are dramatic and haunting ’60s-pop-inspired songs, the ferocious surf-styled instrumental Dig Deep could grace the soundtrack of a Tarantino movie, and the stunning, organ-drenched soul ballad, Matter of Time, is so authentic that it sounds like a standard. You can’t believe it’s not an obscure track that vinyl-loving Warson hasn’t dug up while crate digging and taught his band to play.
His new album has been on the Say It With Garage Flowers turntable for the past couple of weeks and we’re loath to take it off. We just want to, er, dig deep and repeat…
“The title came from a remark that I made when it got to the point when I didn’t know what I was going to do next,” Warson tells us, in an exclusive interview.
“‘I guess I’ll have to dig deep and make another record – dig deep repeat.’ It was a working title, but when it came to it, I thought, ‘That’s the one – I’ll just go with it…”
Your first album, True Story, came out in 2021 – you finished it just before lockdown, didn’t you?
PM Warson: Yeah – the last session for the first album was almost the day before lockdown. I was really lucky, but it left me in a bit of a jam because it was recorded pretty old school, which is how I do my stuff… But I found a way to make it work and I managed to get the album out, which felt like a bit of an achievement to be honest.
You’d put out a few, self-financed 7in vinyl singles before then, hadn’t you?
PMW: Exactly – I did a run of singles and then Légère Recordings in Hamburg offered me the chance to work a full-length album, which I did just in the nick of time. I guess this one just follows on from that.
Did lockdown accelerate the process of making a second album? I guess if you hadn’t been locked down, you’d have been touring the first record, rather than making the follow-up…
PMW: Exactly. I lost a couple of great gigs – they disappeared – but then I pushed the first album through and that gave me a little bit more coverage than I was expecting for an unknown artist. I didn’t have any digital platform at all, apart from basic social media – I wasn’t on Spotify. I had an international following, but it was just guys who were into 45s.
The first album got quite a decent listenership – particularly in Europe – but I wasn’t able to capitalise on that. Things kept on getting cancelled, moved or not booked at all.
‘I didn’t have any digital platform at all, apart from basic social media – I wasn’t on Spotify. I had an international following, but it was just guys who were into 45s’
During that second lockdown, in January, when I could still go into the studio to work on stuff, I started playing around in a little room in Stoke Newington, which is where I had finished the first record. Initially, I didn’t have much of an idea of what to do, but when it became clear that I wasn’t able to tour, I was like, ‘I’m just going to make another record.’
I’m really pleased with the record, given the circumstances – it’s true to my ideal of what I think records should sound like, despite the fact it wasn’t an ideal time to try and do that kind of thing.
Did you have the songs for the second album already written?
PMW: This process was quite different. Before I put my first singles out, I was doing house band sets at Blues Kitchen and Old Street Records, playing for a couple of hours, doing R ‘n’ B covers with my band, and then I started slipping some of own tunes in – the songs developed and then I cut the 45s. They were written, performed and recorded.
This time, it was almost the other way round – the songs were developed in the studio. It was a completely different approach. There’s a lot of live recording on this album – guitar, bass and drums – but it built from there, rather than with more going on on the live track.
‘The first record had more of a late ‘50s approach, with more of the band in the room, but this one is more mid-‘60s, where you get the basic track down and add to it’
What’s your recording process like?
PMW: There are people who’ve made great records by layering things up, but that’s just not my thing… I’m a great believer in live tracking. I have a great rhythm section who’ve been with me since the beginning: Billy Stookes [drums] and Pete Thomas [bass]. Just the three of us recorded the basic tracks.
The first record had more of a late ‘50s approach, with more of the band in the room, but this one is more mid-‘60s, where you get the basic track down and add to it.
I think the new record sounds harder and edgier than the first one.Was that a conscious decision?
PMW: It kind of turned out like that, partly because of the situation – inevitably there was a bit of frustration. The other thing is that just the three of us were developing songs, so, just by the nature of it, is was a bit rockier. We were all in that small room in Stoke Newington, recording on an Atari 8-track, so it was a bit more guitar-driven.
Some of the songs, like the first single, Leaving Here, have a garage-rock feel whereas the first album is more soul, although, of course, this record is soulful too…
PMW: Yeah – the first record is more soul and swing, I guess. It’s a crossover between jazz and R ‘n’B. On this one, the jazz is still there, but it’s been slightly pushed out in favour of a more ‘60s rock kind of thing. That suited the material and we were jamming ideas – there’s a hint of jam band about it, but we’re not going in a My Morning Jacket direction. There are a few long outros, which is where we’re digging in on an idea.
What’s your fascination with ‘old school’ recording and using vintage gear?
PMW: I have that stuff, but I don’t know how to use it to its maximum potential. The main thing to take away from analogue equipment is that it gives you a certain sound, which some people argue could be emulated with software – maybe it can, maybe it can’t – but, the thing is, it just makes you play kind of differently. The directness of live tracking all together with no editing makes everyone a little bit more engaged. You’ve got to get it right and you don’t get precious – you’re serving the song and you’re not indulging. When you’re doing overdubs, you either play it and it’s right and you keep it, or you do it again.
Did you record the brass, backing vocals and keys in Stoke Newington, too?
PMW: Yes – it was all done in that room, apart from some of the Hammond organ, the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, which were played by Stephen ‘Lord’ Large, who has an amazing collection of vintage gear, and a young American guy, called Jack McGaughey, who I picked up along the way. Once the tracks were down, and lockdown was lifted, everyone came in.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the record. The opening track, Insider, starts off having a slightly sinister, menacing feel to it, with guitar and piano, but when the soulful girl group backing vocals come in, they lighten the mood…
PMW: Yeah – I think that was the first idea that we worked on in the room and I think I played a six-string Fender bass on it, working that riff with the drummer. It’s a play on the standard blues form – it has quite a dark atmosphere, but it opens up when we go to the major chord in the chorus.
Leaving Here, the first single, is a cover of an early Motown song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland song. I don’t know the original…
PMW: Eddie Holland had a singing career before he started writing. The original song was a Motown release, but they hadn’t dialed in the Motown sound at that point – it’s quite a ropey recording. It’s got the vibe of a demo that’s been recorded for another artist to sing. The version that’s more well known is by The Who – that’s how I know it. The Birds – that Ronnie Wood was in – also did it. It’s been in rock circles, but I wanted to take it back… I started playing the riff in the studio and embellished it in my own way.
Game of Chance (By Another Name) and Out of Mind both have a dramatic ’60s pop feel…
PMW: Alongside the Ray Charles R ‘n’ B, which is the first world that I’m from, I also like ’60s pop records – there’s a bit of Phil Spector in there, but it’s still guitar-oriented because of the arrangements we were doing.
You didn’t use strings on the songs…
PMW: Exactly. What I like about this album is that there’s something authentic about only using what’s available to you – it encapsulates a certain era. It’s a nice ethos. Maybe I could’ve waited to do the record at a bigger studio, but I sometimes think pressing ahead is the way forward.
Never In Doubt has a late-night, bluesy feel…
PMW: That one’s been following me around for a while – it’s a variation on a classic blues thing and you can hear a bit of Green Onions or Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson in it, but we slowed it down and made it a little bit more brooding.
PMW: I wrote that tune when I was a teenager – I’ve had it for a long time. On the first record there’s a song called You’ve Got To Tell Me – that and the title track, True Story, were written when I was at secondary school – I played in a garage-rock-indie band – and a few of the songs were around then, but I never really found a home for them. Dig Deep was a late insert – we needed a lift on the record and I remembered that I had a surf instrumental. I rejigged it – our drummer, Billy, is so good that we did the full Wipe Out on it.
One of my favourite songs on the album is Matter of Time – it’s a big soul ballad, with some great organ and piano…
PMW: Exactly – it’s a real change of pace for me. I’m pleased with that one. I got really into a vocal group called The Sapphires. They had one song called Gotta Have Your Love that’s well known in Northern Soul circles, but they did some great, dreamy dark pop as well – a bit like The Shangri-Las but not as obvious. They influenced the chorus of Matter of Time.
I think Matter of Time sounds like a standard – a classic soul song that’s been around for years…
PMW: Oh, great – that’s very flattering. That’s the world I really love and the fact that I’ve managed to capture a little bit of that is what I’m aiming to do.
So, with two albums out since 2021, you don’t feel any pressure to do a third record yet, then…
PMW: I’m not sure – I’ve got a session coming up, so I’m already looking. I don’t know what’s coming up, but I love producing records like this – I’ll always be inclined to come up with something. Maybe I’ll do some 45s, or another LP. We’ll see.
How did you first get into ’50s and ’60s music?
PMW: Through my folks. They’re not quite of that age – they didn’t grow up with The Beatles and The Kinks and all that stuff, but I got fed that. I can remember us having a Sounds of the Sixties compilation – it had some real naff stuff on it, but it also had Working in the Coal Mine, Barefootin’ and You Really Got Me on it. They’re great tracks and they really stuck in my mind. I’m not a big Beatles worshipper these days – I went through a phase when I was at school – but, when I was a kid, we had all their films recorded off the telly.
‘I love linking records together, and seeing who produced what. I’ve always done that’
When I was older, I had a friend called Andy whose mum was really into ’60s soul – when she heard I was into it, she’d say, ‘Try this’. It was the CD era – things like The Best of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Muddy Waters or the Spencer Davis Group, so I got into that, and my dad was into New Wave, so I got into Elvis Costello and all that stuff.
My mind has always made connections between those records – I love linking records together, and seeing who produced what. I’ve always done that. If, when I was 16, someone said, ‘We’re really influenced by The Byrds,’ I would buy The Best of The Byrds.
Who are your musical heroes?
PMW: Ray Charles is a big one and Steve Cropper has always been up there for me. I also love being absolutely floored by a track I’ve never heard before. You get that when you dig around – whether it’s records or just going by recommendations. I’ve found a tune by Jimmy “Preacher” Ellis called Since I Fell For You – it’s amazing.
Dig Deep Repeat is out now on Légère Recordings.
PM Warson is playing at The Night Owl, Finsbury Park, London on June 1 and The Red Rooster Festival, Thetford, on June 4.