Murder ballads, magic and Morricone

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Amerikana Arkana, the debut album by The Magic City Trio, is a haunting record, in more ways than one…

Its wonderful orchestral arrangements recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), the moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.

This band of London renegades comprises Frank Sweeney (guitar, vocals and fiddle), Annie Holder (guitar,vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Guesting on the album are Johnny Butten (banjo) and Eddy Dunlap (pedal steel).

In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Frank, who was a member of ’80s indie pop outfit The June Brides, and played on records by Primal Scream (Imperial) and Felt (Space Blues), to find out the full story behind this magnificent and, er, magical album…

Q & A

Amerikana Arkana is one of my favourite albums of the year. It’s a big-sounding record – I love the orchestrations…Musically, it often harks back to the lush ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. There’s also folk, country, hillbilly and murder ballads.

When I first heard it, it was like someone was going through my record collection and referencing some of my favourite artists… I guess that, like me, you’re big fans of Nancy & Lee and Morricone? Why do you love them so much?

Frank Sweeney: I think Lee Hazlewood was a genre all to himself. He ploughed his own particular furrow and didn’t really care if it was fashionable. He was a great songwriter and producer, but he never felt the need to be in step with current trends or the mainstream. And he still managed to make a lot of classic hit records. Although he always maintained that his main motivation was to make money, he still managed to make great art sometimes.

Ennio Morricone uses a very ‘pop’ sound in his orchestration with unusual instruments. A whistle and a twangy guitar and you immediately evoke his western soundtracks. And loads of his soundtracks have at least one great catchy and evocative tune. I also love Nino Rota, who, in my view, is the other great Italian soundtrack composer. His stuff with Fellini is just as evocative, but on a less epic scale.

‘The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways’

How did The Magic City Trio first come together?

FS: During the tail end of indie-dance and the dawn of Britpop, I was playing viola in a band which played Eastern European music, when there were only two bands doing it in London. Adi Staempfli played bass, and Annie joined after I had left. The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways. I met Annie a few years later, and we eventually married in Las Vegas.

We hadn’t done any music together for a good few years. I was (trying to) learn Blind Blake [blues and ragtime guitarist and singer] stuff to up my game on the guitar, and from there we got interested in other pre-war music, what became known as ‘the old weird America’. From there we did a set of pre-war music (Carter Family, Hawaiian, Emmett Miller) at the Easy Come, which is a well-established open mic night in South East London. But we didn’t take it any further than that. We began including our own songs – Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 was an early one. It was mainly so we could do stuff that other people did not have in their set. Adi returned from Switzerland and joined us in 2013.

We had a gig in Berlin – that was our first as The Magic City Trio. The name originated from a pre-war fiddle band called Dyke’s Magic City Trio. I had one of their records on a 78 rpm.

We thought that we would only use the name for the Berlin gig, as people were more likely to go and see a band, rather than just Frank and Annie. We didn’t intend to keep the name, since Dyke’s Magic City Trio are relatively famous, it would be like calling yourself The Kinks or The Who in about 2045, but the name stuck…

Let’s talk about your album in more depth. I admire your grand ambition and the fact that you’ve gone all out with the orchestral arrangements. How did you approach this album when you came to record it? What did you want it to sound like? 

FS: Black Dog Following Me was completed before our 2015 EP [A Funnel Cloud In Albuquerque]but I didn’t like the orchestral sounds, so I scrapped it all, apart from the singing. Once it was redone, we decided to follow suit with the rest of it, instead of making it just an acoustic LP.  The orchestral sounds are a mix of samples, live instruments and recordings of actual notes that are stitched together. Oliver Curtis Perry had the least amount of strings and things, as Johnny Butten playing banjo was an orchestra in itself.

‘I was looking for the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is stylistically unfashionable now’

The arrangements all began with a basic piano track with chords, and then we added everything else. I‘m a huge fan of baroque ‘60s pop, so a harpsichord nearly always got in there. Once all the orchestral stuff was done, we put on the live instruments, which is the opposite way it would be done with a live orchestra.

The other sound I was looking for was the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is kind of stylistically unfashionable now – the song 22 was my attempt at that.

Now you mention it, the album does have a lot of different styles of orchestration on there. Trav’ler is like the stuff David Angel did on Love’s Forever Changes, Down In The Willow Garden was looking for a Pearls Before Swine-type of sound, and Billy Strange and Jimmy Webb all are referenced on there somewhere.

With The June Brides and the other stuff I did for Creation Records, I was trying to do large string parts, but limited by budgets and my lack of skill on the viola. But on those records you can hear me trying to do something that I just can’t quite pull off. I nearly got there with This Town (June Brides), Space Blues (Felt) and So Out of Touch (Joe Foster).

The dramatic opening track, Black Dog Following Me, is pure Nancy & Lee. I’m guessing it’s about depression? ‘Black dog’ is a term that Winston Churchill used to describe his dark moods. What can you tell me about that song?

FS: Yes that’s it, more or less – a dialogue where one person can’t see a way through, but the other won’t let it get on top of them. The arrangement is pure Billy Strange with Nancy & Lee. I didn’t think they did enough stuff like Some Velvet Morning, so this was my addition. In the same way that Jeff Lynne didn’t think The Beatles did enough stuff like I Am The Walrus.

Cousins’ War has a definite Ennio Morricone feel, but with a country edge…

FS: Annie started that song, after reading a book about the Wars of the Roses Originally it sounded a lot more folky. I thought of it more like the Hatfield-McCoy type of scenario. I did the last verse after seeing a Twilight Zone episode where all the American Civil War dead are walking on a road. That’s why in the LP booklet, there is a picture from a Civil War bubblegum card called Painful Death. The line about the sowing the hydra’s teeth is from Jason and the Argonauts, which explains the fighting skeleton picture in the booklet.

The chorus is adapted from [folk song] Darlin’ Cory. The instrumental sections do give it that Morricone sound – it’s the low male vocals that do it I think, which are reminiscent of Story of a Soldier [from the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly].

I love the descending twangy riff that kicks off Dust of Mars – it sounds like a nod to Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots… and The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon…

FS: At the time, I didn’t think that sequence of notes was particularly unique to Sunny Afternoon – it must have been used in loads of other places. So I didn’t think I was taking anything from that song that hadn’t been used somewhere before. But as time has gone on, I have to conclude that the sequence is not particularly common in pop music, and is more or less unique to Sunny Afternoon. I’m glad I made it so obvious, but it’s a bit like using the opening riff from Day Tripper on a song…

Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 has a hillbilly vibe. Where did this outlaw song come from? What was the inspiration?

FS: Oliver Curtis Perry was the first person to rob a train single-handed, in New York in the 1890s. The song tells his story, with a little bit of artistic license. The words are on our website. I first read about him when I was 11 years old, in a book by James D Horan, a noted Western writer. There wasn’t much detail given. The –  wonderfully named – writer Tamsin Spargo read the same book as a child, and years later published Wanted Man, which tells the whole story.

The song 22, which sounds like a Johnny Cash and June Carter country duet, also reminds me of Kirsty MacColl… 

FS: I didn’t think of that – I’m only familiar with her hits. It’s probably the vocal harmony that gives it that. She was a great singer and writer, with a unique voice.  This was our attempt at getting the Chet Atkins Nashville sound. The demo we did sounds like the Carter Family – we recorded it on a four-track cassette using pre-war Gibsons to sound as old as possible. The demos are interesting as they show how the song developed – each version is different. The plot is from a short story by Daniel Woodrell about someone who suspects his neighbours of murdering his child.

Talking of murders… Down In The Willow Garden is a classic, traditional murder ballad. I know it from The Everly Brothers album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Why did you decide to cover the song for your record?

FS: My grandmother’s name was Salley – I was looking for the origins. I came across a poem by Yeats called In the Salley Garden, which is adapted from Willow Garden, and I found the various versions. Most of which sounded a bit too jolly melodically.

The Everly Brothers recording sounded suitably bleak. So we worked on a minor key version. We had to change the harmonies as we were still smokers and couldn’t reach the notes – since we have now quit we can get there!

I wanted to do a Pearls Before Swine-type arrangement. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is a brilliant album. They recorded it to get out of their contract without giving away any hits, and they ended up with a masterpiece.

Where did the title of the album, Amerikana Arkana, come from?

 

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FS: I always loved the album cover of Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, with a man holding Tarot cards. Though the real agents of fortune are the 52 standard pack of cards, the Tarot decks are called the lesser and greater arcana. The greater arcana features all the well-known picture cards. The songs were going to be very loosely based on the Tarot cards – death, confusion, fortune, justice, the sun, change etc, but they all didn’t quite fit with that… I like a rhyming title like Nilsson Schmilsson. The presence of the K always implies a slightly twisted ‘bizarro superman’ type version of the actual thing. The LP booklet also has all sorts of clues and images that link in some way with the songs.

Can you talk me through the songwriting process and the arranging and recording of the album?

FS: We had not got together as a band to do our own songs – we were doing pre-war country and other songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s. We didn’t want to write songs in that style, lest they sounded like a pastiche.

In 2011 I read a biography on Blind Willie McTell and in the book he revealed his method for writing and I followed it.

Cousins’ War was started by Annie, but discarded, as we couldn’t figure out a proper narrative, but we brought it back and worked on the chords.

Trav’ler was originally called Chinese Traveller – it had also been discarded, due to the lack of a decent tune, but Annie pushed on with that because it had a good story. But it’s usually one of us kicking off an idea and then discarding it. And if it’s halfway good, Annie will resurrect it and suggest improvements. We’re not the most prolific of writers, but work in fits and starts.

I write out the orchestrations on a music score writing [software] package, which plays samples of string and brass, and we put the real instruments on top of that.

Recording at home is cheap, but it gets slow – there is no clock ticking and no budget being eaten up. So you can spend all day recording a track and edit 10 versions of a guitar part into the best one. Dust of Mars ended up with 40 tracks, which produced its own set of problems trying to mix it. Recording is the easy part…

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Frank Sweeney and Annie Holder

You recorded and mixed the album in London and Hove. What was that like?

FS: It was a long process. With a few exceptions, all the recording was done at home over a two-year period, which began after completing our first EP. But some recordings were started a lot earlier – Black Dog… and Oliver Curtis Perry were first demoed in 2012, with no plans to release them other than on Soundcloud.

The 2012 version of Black Dog... was stripped back to the vocals and all the other tracks replaced, and with Oliver Curtis Perry all we kept was the drums. The banjo, trumpet, pedal steel and washboard were recorded remotely and the tracks sent to me. The orchestral sounds are a mix of real players and sampled instruments, but the whole thing was written out on a score rather than played on a keyboard. Nearly all the recording was completed by the end of 2016.

I started mixing it early 2017, and gave up due to the complexity of the task. In Easter 2017, I took it to Bark Studios, in London (where Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was done), with Brian O’Shaugnessy mixing it.

So, it was mixed once, with a full set of backing tracks. Then most of it was mixed again. The mixes were much better than mine, but I wasn’t happy with the balance of some of the sounds. I thought if I went back to Bark Studios again we would end up playing whack-a-mole with the mix,

In-between that time we put the steel drum on Sun Comes Shining Through, and stuck the slow intro on Cousins’ War, so it could join up with the end of Black Dog...

So I started mixing it again myself, Having learned a thing or two from Brian, my mixes were OK, but lacked oomph. In summer 2017, I approached Paul Pascoe in Hove, for whom I had done some strings for, and asked him to master some of my mixes and the Bark mixes. Paul liked it enough to offer to mix and master it. This time I stayed away from the studio, which was a much better idea. We used the Bark version of Oliver Curtis Perry, but, other than that they are all Paul Pascoe’s mixes. Sonically there isn’t much difference. So, excluding my mixes, there are a couple of alternate mixes of the LP, plus the backing tracks and also Paul’s mix of Oliver Curtis Perry.

I admire your effort and dedication. The album is full of ambition and drama – it sounds great and it soars. Would you agree that so many modern pop records lack ambition? They just sound so bland and unadventurous when you compare them with some of the pop music of the ’60s…

FS: I think people are always going to write great songs, Pharrell Williams’ Happy is a great song, and the Curtis Mayfield sound makes it even better. But production-wise, most of the envelopes have been pushed, so commercial productions are going to end up sounding very homogenised.

It’s like the thing that Frank Zappa said, that in the ’60s, the record companies were still being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand, in the hope that they would sell some records. The profit motive was still the driving force, but you had more of a chance of producing art.

Nowadays companies are releasing music that is similar to stuff that was recently successful, so it can all start sounding the same. Particularly when you have producers, accountants, advertisers and product placers having a financial interest in the music sounding attractive and familiar to the masses. It’s the same sort of thing in the film industry, where films that can be turned into a brand seems to be where the money goes.

‘Record companies in the ’60s were being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand’

The common factor is that cinema audiences and music buyers have decreased dramatically over the years, so the studios are less prepared to take any risks.

In the golden age of cinema, you could release a film like The Best Years of Our Lives and it would be a blockbuster in terms of the people who saw it. Nowadays, a big studio would not put the money into a three-hour film about war veterans returning home. Cinema audiences were much bigger then, and were loyal to the stars in the film. Under the studio system everyone was on salary, so you could churn out loads of films, and sometimes they would produce art, And although the films were censored and bowdlerised, they showed a lot less but told a lot more. Look at films like Sunset Boulevard and In A Lonely Place – they were churned out under the studio system but are really dark and deep films.

American TV seems the place where you are seeing really original stuff, most of it does at least one season which is still around 13 hours of drama. If you pitched a 13-hour film called Freaks and Geeks (a much loved show that only did one season) you would not get very far. British mini-series seem to all be stuck trying to remake Prime Suspect. I digress…

So what are the band’s plans for the rest of 2018? Any thoughts on a follow-up album?

FS: We need to get more gigs, as a lot of our record sales are done in person. But a third of them have gone in a few months already, and they are still selling, so that’s encouraging. Our first EP has nearly sold out, I have to be careful to make sure I don’t sell my own copy!

As far as another LP is concerned, there were quite a few stage favourites left unrecorded. The original plan was to have a double LP, but it would have taken too long to record and we wouldn’t have a hope in selling it at gigs. We have another LP’s worth of songs, but it might be worth waiting to see if we come up with something better. Ive got to write a score without repeating myself, or other people. Ha ha ha.

our guitars

Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

FS:  Old music: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, by The Small Faces, which I have recently discovered, after not being that interested in it up until now. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us –  the Bear Family Records reissue – and Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night: Live at the Roxy.  

New music: Boarding House Reach by Jack White and Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto.

Amerikana Arkana by The Magic City Trio is currently available on Kailua Recordings. For more information, go to http://themagiccitytrio.com/

 

 

 

 

‘I’m not on a mission to be retro – I’m writing and recording songs in the way that I want to hear them’

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Here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’ve been fans of singer-songwriter Richard Warren since we heard his 2011 album, The Wayfarer – his second solo record under his own name. In fact, it was our favourite album of that year.

In 2013, we raved about his album Rich Black Earth, calling it, ‘atmospheric, moody and nakedly emotional – evoking Nebraska-era Springsteen’.

His latest release, Disentangled, is certainly going to figure highly in our 2017 albums of the year list. It’s less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

We spoke to Richard, who’s played guitar for Spiritualized, Starsailor, Dave Gahan and Soulsavers (featuring Mark Lanegan), about the new album – his first in four years – and found out why he’s trying to simplify what he does, hone his craft and get back to basics in this crazy world we’re living in…

Q & A

Hi Richard. It’s good to chat to you again. I really love Disentangled – I have the limited edition green vinyl version of it…

Richard Warren: Fantastic.

This is your fourth solo album. It’s been four years since your last one – 2013’s Rich Black Earth. How did you approach this record?

RW: It was recorded over such a long time. After the last one, I just carried on recording – I never stop or take a break. I’ve got a studio at home, so the day after I finished the last album, I started on the next one.

Some of the tracks were done a couple of weeks before I finished this album and some were done the week after I did the album before. I think Only Always [the first song on the record] was the last thing I recorded – two weeks before this album had to be delivered. I was in the studio and I did the song in one day.

By the time it came to hand this album in, I’d recorded 50 to 60 tracks! I didn’t set out to do that. There’d been a year in-between each of my other albums. In 2014, I’d got an album’s worth of stuff together – I tried to find someone to put it out, but nobody seemed interested. Four or five of those tracks made it on to this album.

So you have a lot of unreleased material in your vaults?

RW: Yeah – I don’t know whether it will ever see the light of day. I tend to just move on to the next thing all the time.

You produced this album yourself and you played all the instruments on it…

RW: I did – I’ve done that on all my solo albums.

You made the record in your home studio. What’s your set-up like?

RW: It’s got more and more basic – I have Pro Tools and I have some tape machines. It’s a blend of digital and analogue. I like being in an analogue world, but it’s quite difficult…

The new album doesn’t sound as dark as some of your other records. It’s very stripped-down and some of the songs have a real ‘50s feel to them. Last Breath – which is one of my favourite tracks on the album – sounds like a lo-fi Elvis…

RW: Yeah – definitely. I like that three-part harmony, Jordanaires kind of thing. I generally kind of revert to that sound – I love those records. The Sun recordings are up there with my favourite records of all time – the Elvis and Cash stuff is mind-blowing.

‘By the time it came to hand this album in, I’d recorded 50 to 60 tracks! I didn’t set out to do that’

I’m simplifying my set-up and my recording equipment – if you listen to my first album, it’s quite complex. There were a lot of instruments. I’ve got into simplifying things – even the lyrics on this album are about simplifying. There’s a song called Simplify on the record – I’m singing about what I’m trying to do, which is quite odd. I didn’t plan it to be like that. I’m as into production as I am writing records and playing on them. I’m not on a mission to be retro or old-fashioned. All I’m doing is writing and recording songs in the way that I want to hear them – it’s a sound that I love. With this record, I’ve gone very mono – it’s not mono, it’s stereo, but it’s a lot more simplified. I just use Pro Tools almost like an 8-track tape machine – it’s just something to record into. I just try and write a good song.

Less is more… There are some other ‘50s-sounding songs on the album – the gorgeous, melancholy ballads No Way Back and Safekeeping. When we last spoke, in 2013, you said you were influenced by Nick Lowe – in particular, his albums The Convincer, At My Age and The Old Magic. It sounds like those records rubbed off on your new record, too…

RW: Those Nick Lowe records are fantastic – they’re perfect. They changed the way that I wrote songs. I’m trying to write songs that are easy to play – simple songs that just roll out. That’s the Nick Lowe thing for me. He’s a perfect songwriter – his records are a masterclass in songwriting. His songs hark back to Willie Nelson and Cash. Willie Nelson wrote Crazy, which I think is the perfect song – it sounds like the simplest song in the world, but it’s got everything. It has a story – a beginning, middle and an end – and it’s got a key change… it’s got every songwriting trick you can do, but when you listen to it, it sounds simple. That’s what I’m trying to learn how to do. All I’m interested in doing is to try and better my songwriting. With this album, I was a lot harder on myself – I kept rewriting and rewriting things. I’d like to write something faster now…

There are quite a few instrumentals on the album. Would you like to write and record a film soundtrack?

RW: I had quite a lot of instrumentals just lying around. At one point, I decided to make a whole album of instrumentals – I thought I couldn’t write songs anymore. I’m a bit like that – one day, I’ll get up and say, ‘this is rubbish – I’ll trash everything’. To be honest, I hit that point a lot this time…

I would like to score a film – I think it would be interesting, if it was done in the right way. I’ve done odd bits for film and TV before – it’s a really difficult and time-consuming thing to get into – and it has to be exactly what they [the directors] want. I loved the stuff Neil Young did for Jim Jarmusch. I like the idea of just playing along and coming up with stuff in the moment, but I suppose you have to be someone as important as Neil Young to do that… I’d like to try it – anything that stretches my musical horizons is great.

‘At one point, I decided to make a whole album of instrumentals – I thought I couldn’t write songs anymore’

The title track of your album – Disentangled – is an instrumental. Why did you name the record after it?

RW: An album title for me is always something that comes right at the end. Generally, I always find it a bit of a struggle. Some people have the album title at the beginning and they work to that. I do that with songs – I’ll have one line of a lyric, or a title… I’ll have all the songs and then I’ll say, ‘oh, what am I going to call the album?’ I go through all the lyrics and try and find something that sounds interesting. ‘Disentangled’ was a word I read and it also fits with the cover – the photo of a tree. I was inspired by that – as the songs are about simplifying things, it’s like I’m trying to disentangle myself from all that… I think people are trying to simplify things – hopefully it will resonate. It’s a crazy world – it’s so fast – and I want to make music that helps me to relax. I can easily play these songs – they’re laid-back and not too intense.

You’ll be wearing slippers on stage soon…

RW: Exactly. Artists like Nick Lowe are always at their best when they’ve just got an acoustic guitar, they’re on their own and you just hear them play. It’s so relaxed and easy to listen to. He has such control – Kris Kristofferson is another. He’s incredible – his songs are effortless. He is the song. Him and Nick Lowe are the people I’m always trying to emulate.

Let’s talk about your other project – Kings of the South Seas, with Ben Nicholls and Evan Jenkins. You’ve recorded your second album – Franklin – and recently played some preview shows. The record is out next year…

RW: It was supposed to be out now, but it will be out February 2018. It’s a good album – we worked with [producer] Ben Hillier. He’s great – the record sounds incredible. It’s a concept album about the explorer John Franklin.

‘When no one was interested in putting a record out, I lost confidence and I ended up making music for myself, but the songs came out of that’

Can we expect any solo Richard Warren shows?

RW: I’d love to do some, but I struggle to get any gigs. When no one was interested in putting a record out, I’ll be honest, I lost a bit of confidence and I ended up making music for myself, but the songs came out of that.

I’d love to see you play some shows…

RW: I’d like to go out and play this album solo, but the dream is to put a band together. I’d love to do that, but to do those kind of gigs and to get a great bunch of people, you’ve got to pay ‘em well and to pay ‘em well, you need good gigs – you can’t get one without the other. I’ll keep going – I’ll never give up. I started writing the next album the day after I handed the last one in and I’m really happy with how it’s coming on.

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Disentangled by Richard Warren is out now on Hudson Records

 

‘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 one of my favourite albums 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.

Steelism

Steelism

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