‘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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘We want to make London swingin’ again!’

Steelism

With their twangy, spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, Nashville-based US/UK duo Steelism (Jeremy Fetzer – guitar and Spencer Cullum – pedal steel) hark back to the glory days of  ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also throw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic and cinematic soundtracks.

I spoke to Jeremy – the US half of the band – about danger, mystery, movie music and the making of their debut album, 615 To FAME, which was co-produced by Ben Tanner from Alabama Shakes.

How did the two of you first meet?

Jeremy Fetzer: Spencer and I first met in Nashville – Spencer attended an Andrew Combs gig where I was playing. We then met up again in London a short time later, when I was touring with Caitlin Rose about five years ago.

Spencer took us out for drinks and got us all inebriated at a pub called Garlic & Shots in Soho. This led to him sitting in on pedal steel with us at our gig the next night in London and then joining the whole tour. We’ve been playing together since then.

You’ve both played as backing artists for several acts, including Caitlin Rose and Wanda Jackson. What made you want to come together and write and record as Steelism? Did you get fed up just being the guys in the background?

JF: We both still love being sidemen and playing in backing bands for other artists. It’s also our job. We’ve learned a lot playing with artists like Caitlin Rose and Wanda Jackson. It’s a completely different role, though. With being a sideman, it’s all about supporting the artist’s vision and musically contributing to their lyrics and melody. With Steelism, it’s completely our own monster and our own material – and it’s a blast.

Spencer had joked for a while about a fictional pedal steel group called Steelism that had a record deal. I intended to make it a reality.

While we were touring in Europe with Caitlin Rose, we started to work up instrumentals during down time and sound checks and when we got back to Nashville, we booked some studio time and recorded them. We ended up releasing them as a 7in vinyl single and did our first show in Nashville to promote the record at a venue called The Basement. The show was a success and it made us realise it was something that we could pursue seriously.

Why did you go down the path of being an instrumental group? I’m a big fan of ’50s/ ’60s instrumental rock & roll, like Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, The Shadows, The Ventures and Link Wray. Have you always been massive fans of that genre? Do you feel that it has been neglected and forgotten about?

JF: I grew up listening to groups like Booker T. & The MG’s and The Ventures, while Spencer’s favourite steel player, Pete Drake, released many very successful instrumental albums in the 1960s as well.

Our musical interests are very diverse, though – from soul to krautrock to country to folk to reggae to jazz. This project allows us to explore all those different musical avenues. You obviously don’t hear any instrumental music on mainstream American radio anymore and, strangely, there’s very few indie groups doing it either. It seems that it really has become a forgotten genre in the 21st century. Despite the obscurity of the instrumental genre, we’ve been enjoying the positive feedback and warm response to the release of 615 To FAME and our live shows.

There’s an air of danger, excitement, mystery and fun about instrumental rock & roll, isn’t there? I love the titles of your tracks, like Cat’s Eye Ring and Cuban Missile. They’re very much in the spirit of tracks from the ’50s and ’60s…

JF: Thanks.  It’s true – there’s loads of danger and mystery in Steelism!  Coming up with titles for instrumentals definitely brings a laugh.

A lot of the titles have been inspired by our travels  – Marfa Lights was inspired by Spencer’s trip to Marfa, Texas, Cat’s Eye Ring is named after a ring we saw while visiting the Alamo in San Antonio on a tour, while The Blind Beggar is our attempt at an English, gangster-inspired composition. It’s named after the pub on Whitechapel Road where Ronnie Kray shot a rival gang member.

Who are your main musical influences and inspirations?

JF: Our LP collections are constantly growing and taking over our houses. I’d say we are always sonically and melodically inspired by The Beatles, while we’re rhythmically inspired by the great American session musician teams including Stax, Area Code 615, The Wrecking Crew and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. We are always referencing the great film composers like Ennio Morricone, John Barry and Lalo Schifrin. We also love taking our turntables to Germany, Brazil, and Jamaica with artists like Neu, Sergio Mendes and Jimmy Cliff.

Your debut album – 615 To FAME – is great. The tracks are very cinematic. Would you like to write music for films?  What are your favourite films and movie genres?

JF: We love making Steelism as musically dramatic as we can get away with. Film music is definitely a passion. Nothing beats the perfect piece of music paired with the perfect scene.

We obviously love a lot of ’60s film music, but there’s been some fantastic film scores recently – Jonny Greenwood has been doing amazing work with Paul Thomas Anderson films, and the same with Trent Reznor on recent David Fincher films. Quentin Tarantino is still the master of the perfect soundtrack. There will hopefully be many Steelism-produced soundtracks in the future.

On your album, there are nods to spaghetti westerns, surf-rock and ’60s spy film soundtracks – Cat’s Eye Ring, The Landlocked Surfer and The Spook – as well as blues, country and soul. What was your intention when you set out to make the record? What did you want to achieve?

JF: 615 To FAME is definitely an eclectic group of tracks that we recorded in both Nashville and Muscle Shoals [in Alabama]. We were inspired by the historical surroundings and also wanted to showcase all the different stylistic interests of the group with our first record. We plan to musically take Steelism to many strange places.

What was the album recording process like? What was it like working with Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and what other musicians did you work with on the recording?

JF: We recorded the first half of the record in Nashville at a couple of different studios and eventually met Ben Tanner who offered to help us finish the record in Muscle Shoals. We tracked the rest of the record at FAME [in Alabama] and completed it in Muscle Shoals, with the help of Single Lock Records, who released 615 To FAME in the US. Going to FAME Studios for us was like a group of three-year-olds going to Disneyland.

We are extremely spoilt with some of the best young musicians in the world in Nashville. All of the players here are extremely professional and play way beyond their age. We try to use this band to showcase all the young sessions musicians in town, but we have had the rhythmic force of Jon Radford and Michael Rinne on drums and bass from the beginning. They are the best in town and we are thrilled they will be playing with us in the UK on this tour as well.

What are your plans for 2015? 

JF: We just kicked off 2015 with a couple of great shows in Nashville and next up is the UK, which we are thrilled about. We really hope to visit the UK a few times in 2015. We have plans to do some recording collaborations with a couple of great singers in Nashville.

This summer we will be doing festivals and also plan to head to the West Coast in The States.  We are also always working up and recording new instrumental material at our home studio.

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Are you looking forward to playing in the UK? What can we expect from the live shows?

JF:  Yes – it might be my favourite place to tour. This will be my fifth or sixth time visiting the UK. English people are so receptive to American music and are such wonderful listeners. Sometimes English crowds are so polite and focused that it can make American performers nervous, but we love it. I love English radio, too. I hope that everyone who comes to the live shows is prepared to have a few pints and get down! We want to make London swingin’ again! We are bringing a fantastic rhythm section and are ready to have some fun.

So, what are your ambitions for Steelism?

JF:  For us to become a production team, session group, studio owning, film scoring and international, instrumental, touring live band machine!

Are there any musicians that you’d like to work with – either as Steelism, or as backing musicians?

JF: I think we should do a Steelism remix with Mark Ronson, or start on our ambient record with Brian Eno while we are in London this year. Perhaps we can see if Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley are around to put down some vocals.  We can dream…

Steelism’s debut album 615 To FAME  is released on Feb 9 – it’s on Names Records. The band will be playing UK dates in February:

London – The Windmill: Feb 19

Manchester – The Castle: Feb 22

London – The Social: Feb 23

http://steelismmusic.com